from The Headflux Chronicles, Book 1, by Will Lorimer
According to the early editions of the Metshatsur, the Natural was indivisible. Only later was it divided into three tablets, or continental landmasses, as recidivists call them. Whatever the truth of that, in modern times each tablet was an asylum, which teemed with inmates threatening to tear down the partition walls, where the bones came bigger for those who barked the loudest. Not that the unelected elite of the Natural saw their domicile that way. Dog house? Charnel house, more like. For, since the beginning, this was a world riven by war and religion. Three related, but internally divided, faiths, none of whose Blind Scholars had, in countless pronouncements, come near to scratching the covers of the Book that was in its umpteenth edition since it was first set down in Ancient Ma’at, when the Experiment began.
Umpteenth? Yes, for according to a doctrine common to the three religions, every nano-second, the book was reissued in a brand new edition, each of which had the potential to be utterly different, but never was, as far as anyone could judge.
Seth decided against a trip to the airport. McAvis and the hired Skeet could go hang. He couldn’t even be bothered to call the telephone number at the head of the leer to find out whether this dyslexic secretary had indeed made the booking. And just supposing there was a Contessa, with whom he could no longer recall a common past, presumably she would introduce herself by and by …
Disturbed by sudden knocking outside, Seth squeezed around the desk and pulled open the front door.
‘What do you mean, keeping me waiting? I found this on your doorstep. Here, take it!’ said a wonan, silhouetted against the city skyline, thrusting a heavy black bundle into Seth’s hands.
‘I don’t believe this!’ He frowned, holding open the ends of the black bin liner he’d been given and looking in. ‘The fuxing News Head. Not a scar more than he had already. Why?’ he declaimed, to no-one in particular.
‘Good Master, I am a Mark Two News Head, licensed into your service,’ Head gabbled.
‘A Mark Two, eh?’ Seth snarled, sensing he was missing something, but tying up the ends of the bag before the News Head could get another word in. ‘Do you think he’s lying?’ he said, at last addressing the mystery wonan who, he now noticed, was wearing a floppy old hat and a nondescript coat.
‘I really couldn’t say.’ She shrugged, looking him up and down with soft green eyes that somehow reminded him of moss in snow. ‘Aren’t you going to invite me in?’
‘Sure, but do I know you?’ Seth said, never one to refuse a prey face, stepping smartly aside.
‘Oh yes.’ Squeezing past, she flashed a shy smile, removing her hat and unbuttoning her coat, exposing an understated charcoal grey silk skirt and matching classic top, complimenting her bob cut auburn hair, as she took in the small cluered room in rapid glances. ‘This is a joke. Someone sent you, right?’ Seth said, with a frisson of excitement, wondering whether this was a strippergram sent by a pal.
‘Don’t give your mind a treat, Seth,’ she said, deadpan. ‘One way and another we’ve spent a lot of time together.’
‘We have?’ Seth shrugged, suspecting this was a put-up job. ‘Where?’
‘You could start at the House of Pleasure. Or don’t you remember?’ Honour said, handing him her coat.
‘But … that was something I imagined for my book.’
‘Which book was that?’ she said, coyly, setting her hat on the desk by the computer, pulling back her hair, fixing it with a clasp behind a long slender neck which lent her cat-among-the-pigeons-face poise and repose.
‘The one I’m writing,’ he said, flatly, wondering where to hang her coat.
‘Oh, that one.’ She smiled as if it was old news. ‘Still laboring away, eh?’ She winked, conspiratorially.
‘Yes, actually,’ he said, irritated at the intrusion but glad of the company, especially as she was so prey, despite having at least ten years on him. ‘As a matter of fact, I was busy writing when you knocked. But I still don’t see what that has to do with you.’
‘Everything, Seth,’ she said, smiling broadly as she clapped her hands. ‘Everything! Didn’t you just get my leer?’ She frowned, losing years with a girlish pout of cherry red lips. ‘I do hope my secretary didn’t get your address wrong.’
‘My name, actually. It’s Seth Tamson Stewart, at your service,’ he said, remembering his manners, ‘not this imaginary Tamson fellow, whoever he is.’ He chuckled.
‘I do apologize,’ she sighed. ‘Perhaps Morna’s getting a bit past it. However, she’s been in my service that long, I simply can’t contemplate giving her the push, even in my capacity as the Contessa of Belle Letters.’
‘But I wrote that letter,’ he said, laying the coat on the bed cover between piles of manuscript he could never quite sort out into coherent chunks.
‘Yes, you did, Seth,’ she said, meeting his eyes with a quizzical look as he turned back around, ‘even getting your own name wrong as is your privilege. It is your book, after all.’
‘So why are we having this conversation?’
‘Because I’ve stepped out of, let me see,’ she said, showing off her posterior to best advantage as she reached over the bed and selected a pile, ‘yes, there it is, Chapter Five,’ she said, standing up, flicking a strand of hair from her eyes and scrutinizing a page. ‘Not long before things start to get a bit sticky.’
‘They do?’ Seth said, wondering if other authors got door-stepped by their characters.
‘Oh, don’t worry,’ she said, slipping the page back into its pile. You survive, at least for the medium-term. But you have a lot to learn.’
‘About what?’ Seth cast back through the open curtains that divided the cluttered living area from the small kitchen recess.
‘All the books,’ she replied, watching him over at the sink, filling the kettle.
‘What books?’ He frowned, catching her eye in the small mirror above the taps, as he spooned ground coffee into the cafetiere.
‘The book within.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Seth said, looking round. ‘Haven’t you heard?’ she said, with a sigh, settling into the only easy chair. ‘Everyone has a book within!’
‘Yea, I know the expression,’ Seth said, guardedly. ‘But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it has to be true.’
‘Seth, the real question is whether you believe any of that,’ she said, with a cast of her hand redirecting his attention through the open window towards the canyon depths of the Gallowgate, between the lower gable ends of two tenements, which met over a steep flight of steps leading down to the dark city street crowded with attention-seekers from all over, seeking refuge in the one country which, at least thus far, had escaped a catalogue of disasters that had rendered large parts of the Natural uninhabitable. Behind the roadside barriers, activists lined the pavements, passing out penguin suits and the ubiquitous ‘S.O.O.N.’ placards of the Anti-Everything Movement (placards which depicted ice- boarding penguins on their floes, adrift in typhoons, floods, fire and other disaster scenarios under the caption ‘Save Our Only Natural’), to chanting protesters, as they climbed over the barriers and streamed through the slow-moving Skeets, Grunts, Hogs, and Blurs, which were bumper to bumper on the multitracks. The segregated public lanes, jammed by Velocipede cabs and buses, lined with the red faces of non-paying pedal passengers, pressed up against steamy windows, wondering what was going on and whether it would be quicker to hop off and continue on foot — a common dilemma in gridlocked Nippy.
They were all heading in the direction of the new Congress building, where Seth guessed the summit of leaders was already convened – of course, without the Rich Chancellor of the breakaway Federation of New Oldlands States.
‘What, reality?’ he shrugged, passing her a cup of coffee, as he turned his back to the window, noticing two lines of bobbing black helmets — riot police, stun-truncheons at the ready, creeping down the steep closes to either side of his tenement building, towards the protesters passing along the dark Gallowgate below. A doodle drone, with the familiar black and yellow stripes of TotalTV, the news channel in which the Rich Chancellor recently bought a major stake-holding, hovered between the tall buildings above, recording the scene for newscasts on the networks later …
‘What reality is right,’ she murmured, studying the stale biscuit in her saucer doubtfully, and deciding against. ‘Seeing is deceiving,’ she added, looking up. ‘Or didn’t you learn anything in your Metshatsur classes at Sunday Scriptorium?’
‘I was too busy breathing and believing,’ he replied, closing the window with a claer and perching on the sill with his back against the glass to shut out the clamor from below, the words tripping off his tongue before he’d realized he’d finished off the obscure couplet from
the Metshatsur with the formulaic response of a Foundationist on one of the popular new Q. and A. religious shows. He sighed eloquently, in the same breath both disowning and acknowledging his knowledge of the Metshatsur, inculcated at Sunday Scriptorium and, what was even worse, in the countless monologues by the professor on the subject. He had been able to skip school, but not avoid the professor, who was always banging away at every family meal time, horrendous harangues which often continued after supper in the professor’s study, and which effectively drove him out of the family home, only fifteen years old, never to return. ‘You know,’ he shrugged, ‘running messages for Mother Sin.’
‘So you do remember,’ she said, reading him like a book.
‘Maybe I’m getting my past mixed up with my writing.’ He frowned, wondering if he had been overworking, and perhaps needed to take some time off; otherwise he might stray right over the already blurred dividing line between his fictions and reality, never to find himself again. But then he brightened at the thought that this could all be a classic case of a parallel reality spun out of his decision not to go to the airport that morning – a reality that, with the sudden appearance of the Contessa on his doorstep, presumably now was folding back on itself and reintegrating, hopefully. ‘It happens to the best of Science Fiction and Fantasy authors,’ he grinned, proudly.
‘Yes, I’m sure.’ She blinked, unimpressed. ‘But I was referring to the Book of Deception.’
‘Oh, that.’ Seth nodded, portentously, a mannerism he had learned from the professor. ‘The famous forbidden book of the Metshatsur.’ He paused. ‘Banned on the order of Knocks, I seem to recall.’
‘No, that’s wrong, Seth. It was merely excluded from all editions after the Great Synod of seventeen seventeen.¹⁹’
‘Knocks took exception to the central message.’ ‘Which was?’
‘The Natural is a lie. You me, we all live and die in the Book of Deception. From infancy, each new thing comes pre-wrapped in descriptions, which have to be unlearned before any real perception of this fiction is possible.’
‘So, if I recall correctly from Sunday Scriptorium, the first description would be the opening sentence. “In the Beginning the Whole Natural was one.”’ He laughed. ‘So that’s wrong for a start.’
‘No, Seth.’ Honour smiled, shaking her head. ‘In the beginning, the world was one. The Intelligence Experiment is not a myth of some deluded Blind Scholars. Foundation really began with a bang in four thousand four hundred and twenty-four bx,²⁰ just as scripture tells us. But the fact that nowadays most people perceive it being divided into three tablets joined at Knot is just a mass delusion brought about by a new, supposedly more scientific translation.’
‘Of the Metshatsur?’
‘What else am I speaking of?’
‘OK, which edition and when?’ he grunted — before his increasing irritation at the subject matter was forgotten, as a loud bang sounded from the direction of the new Congress building.
‘The Kevinist Metshatsur,’ she said, ignoring the noise, ‘issued in seventeen seventeen here in Nippy, at the high point of the Unbearding, by Scotus and Dunshoddy, the publishers.’
‘I know the edition.’ He nodded, wondering if she had turned into a faux beard, one of the new intellectual breed of closet Foundationists that, ever since the Recession turned into the Great Flatline, got ahead in the media. ‘My father keeps a leather bound copy on the desk in his study.’
‘That’s not your father, Seth,’ she said, over a rising clamor of sirens.
‘I beg your pardon!’ he exclaimed, jumping from his perch and banging his right knee on the corner of the desk.
‘He is not your father.’
‘That’s ridiculous!’ Ignoring the pain, Seth baed away the notion with a hand, as if words could be unsaid. ‘I know he’s an idiot but he is my father; the only one I’ve got.’
‘Actually,’ she drawled, ‘the professor is your uncle.’
‘Let me get this straight: my mother is still my mother, right?’ Seth blinked.
‘Yesss!’ she hissed.
‘So who is my father then?’
‘Was, Seth.’ She smiled, sadly. ‘Was …’
‘Ok, who was he then?’ Doubt then, like a stalactite of
ice dripping down his spine, as he remembered, when he had been a child, fantasizing that the professor was an imposter, and his real father was a rich nobleman.
‘I’m surprised you haven’t worked it out already.’
‘Who, for heaven’s sake?’ Seth thumped the desk, just as a bang sounded outside somewhere in the Gallowgate.
‘The old Marquis.’
There was a pause. ‘No, that’s not possible,’ Seth said, flatly.
‘Madame Sin was in on the secret. She wouldn’t have taken you under her wing otherwise.’
‘She did that because I was big for my age and spoke with a nice accent.’
‘No, Seth.’ She shook her head, slowly. ‘It was a favor for the Marquis.’
‘I refuse to believe any of this!’
‘He had other illegitimate children, you know.’ This time, when she smiled, it was wryly. ‘Me, for instance!’
‘You’re my sister?’
‘Half-sister. Look, Seth, I wanted to break this to you gently, but there is no easy way.’
‘Oh no,’ Seth groaned, his face twisting at the thought of the old Marquis’s paws all over Honour. ‘How could you?’
‘Seth, it was only after he died I discovered he was my father; not before, I promise.’
‘Still, that’s disgusting,’ Seth muttered, but really more focused on the thought of all the fantasies he had entertained over the years about Honour.
‘Don’t imagine I haven’t had to struggle to come to terms with it.’
‘But how could he?’ he said, still in denial, despite what his gut feeling was telling him.
‘He was a Numpty,’ she said, as if that explained everything. ‘And a Numpty grandmaster at that, as his uncle was before him, and his uncle before that, all the way back to the exodus of Numpties from ancient Ma’at.’
‘What, you mean power passes through the uncle?’ ‘For high-born Numpties, yes.’
‘But that’s insane.’
‘Not at all, Seth. The practice encourages emotional detachment.’
‘How did it start?’
‘An over-zealous reading by the patriarchs of the eleventh commandment to go forth, procreate, and multiply,’ she said, measuring her words. ‘For those not of the Kraft, the bloodlines of high-born Numpties are occult in the original sense of the word and near impossible to trace. Invariably, the father is an uncle or close relative, and vice versa. Even with a settlement on the mother, as is customary, farming out progeny has a cost-saving implication, when one considers some of those old Dreed patriarchs had upwards of a hundred children.’
‘So for all their vaunted probity, prudence, and moral rectitude, the Kevinist Patriarchs of old Nippy were basically cuckoos.’
‘That’s a good analogy, though you’re not the first to make it. However, the practice, which still goes on, does confer evolutionary advantages in the nano race of life.’
‘I suppose so.’ Seth frowned, recalling a slip of the tongue of his childhood when, in all the excitement generated by a rare visit by his maternal uncle, he turned to say something to his father and instead called him ‘uncle’, which the professor seemed to feel demeaned his paternal status; and so he had accordingly docked Seth’s pocket money for an entire month.
‘But why would my father …’ he swallowed, scared of putting his thoughts into words, such was his growing dread of the subject matter, ‘the professor go along with it?’
‘As far as the professor is concerned, he is your father.’ ‘Surely after all this time he would have found out.’
‘Not at all. Like many a failed candidate before him, the professor had his mind altered. ‘Stitched’ is the appropriate Numpty term.’
‘Candidate for what?’
‘Patrimony?’ Seth repeated, blankly.
‘The Patrimony promised to the Elders of the Old Numpty High Council when they struck their deal with the Emissary.’
‘You’ve lost me. This ah … Patrimony, what is it exactly?’
‘In a nutshell, dominion over the Natural for their successors.’
‘Okay,’ he said, dubiously. ‘So please remind me, who was this um … Emissary?’
‘He was represented by the manikin missing from the thirteenth coffin,’ she laughed, ‘or the coffinette as you called them.’
‘I remember. So when was this promise made?’
‘In seventeen oh-six.’
‘The beardie dolls date from about then, yes?’
‘Well done, Seth.’ She smiled, indulgently. ‘The dolls represent the twelve Numpties who succeeded the Elders of the previous generation, and ritually shaved off their beards at the first session of the new High Council, the following year.’
‘Really Seth,’ she said, reprovingly. ‘You must try to pay more attention. The High Numpty Council was reformed in seventeen oh-seven.’
‘What about the empty coffin?’
‘That is reserved for the Emissary when he returns.’
‘Just who was he?’
‘Forget about him for the moment. What maers is the
power he vested in the new High Council Numpties and their descendants to the ninth generation.’
‘Which is when?’ my master said, dully. ‘Now, Seth.’
‘So?’ He looked up. ‘Just how does any of this relate to me?’
‘Yours is the ninth generation from the founding Fux.’
‘I still don’t understand,’ my master moaned, applying a hand to his perspiring brow. ‘You do; more than you know.’
‘Blood memories go with the territory, Seth. By the crooked vine and the secret seed.’ She cocked a finger. ‘You’re a candidate whether you like it or not.’
‘I am?’ he said. Then he swiveled in his chair, his aention at last drawn by the muffled din from behind his back. ‘Wow, things are geing heavy down in the Gallowgate!’ he exclaimed, pointing through the window to the street far below. ‘So much for the pacifist pretensions of penguins. They’re chucking everything they can get their flippers on: boles, cobble stones, beer crates. Now a police snatch squad are dragging a couple into the close. For entertainment value this even beats the bales between the necro-nasties and the WONTS during the Bank Holiday last summer. I guess the riot season will be really hot this year …’ He laughed manically, banging his knee once more, as he swiveled round to face her again.
‘That’s as nothing for what’s coming!’ she snapped. ‘As I said, things are about to get rather sticky. You have much to learn and so little time, so please concentrate. More than one of your half-lives may depend on it.’
19—Curiously, Dreed History is not an examination subject in the Dreed National curriculum and there is no Chair of Dreed History at Nippy University, or any other university in the country. Consequently, the majority of Dreeds know next to nothing of their history; a situation which does not pertain in Numpty Temples, where significant events of Ancient Dreed History are regularly re-enacted in the arcane rituals of the Thirty-Nine Steps.
This is a satirical SF novel in the tradition of Swift, with footnotes that give an alternative history of the world.
Will Lorimer is a multi-media artist and the author of a number of books.