from The Headflux Chronicles, Book 1, by Will Lorimer
Bundled as he was then in the bin-bag on the mantlepiece, even with his visual arrays at full capacity, Head was unable to read the facial markers of the presumptuous visitor rudely butting in on what should have been a private tête-à-tête with his good Master, just when things were getting nice and cozy. The profile he saw so poorly through layered thin plastic only approximated to matching identifiers on his database, meaning absolute verification was not possible. Of course, a pastori, it was reasonable to believe this was the Contessa of Belle Letters, who was expected, but supposition is never an acceptable basis on which to submit a report. Therefore, in the absence of positive visuals, and with only partial audio, he would have to seek the recourse of another network. True, he would still be transmitting blind, but at least that way he might provoke a reaction …
‘So what’s next?’ Seth said, into the long silence that had fallen between them.
‘You’ll find out soon enough. But for now, I want to know more about the book.’
‘Your book, Seth.’
‘Honour,’ he sighed, ‘why all this interest in what I’m writing?’
‘Because of the principal “as above so below”.’
‘Yes, I have heard that.’ He nodded sagely, understanding nothing.
‘Of course, like all Numpty precepts, you must reverse it to get at the germinal meaning.’
‘So below, so above?’
‘Just that,’ Honour agreed. ‘But a better way to put it is, as in the micro so in the macro.’
‘I see,’ Seth said, connecting the above to blow-back from the Neural-Net when his printer died. ‘So are you trying to tell me that my place of work is somehow significant in all of this?’
‘Auld Nippy is the Eternal City of the Navel. Cast a stone here, and change waves ripple through the mesh of the Natural.’
‘Mesh?’ he repeated. ‘What do you mean?’
‘It is the weave which underpins the Natural.’
‘Can’t you give a better explanation than that.’ My master complained.
‘Some things are beyond the understanding of mortal nanos, Seth, and the mesh is one of those. Suffice to say it appears to be an artificial construct,’ she said, tersely. ‘That raises any number of questions so I am sure you will understand me not wanting to discuss them right now.’
Rising from her chair, she joined my master by the window. ‘Look down there,’ she said, pointing through the window glass, at the aftermath of battle in the Gallowgate below, where a convoy of ambulances were taking away the injured, while police piled the last bedraggled demonstrators into vans and street-cleaning nanokins rolled inefficiently into action, trundling over the mess littering the road. ‘That riot could start a war somewhere else. Or maybe it already has.’ She shrugged, as if it was a matter of little import. ‘What I want you to take into consideration is Nippy’s critical role in shaping present-day Dumpty, Rumpty, and Tumpty.’
‘You mean since the Great Unbearding,’ Seth said, his interest piqued.
‘Of course! When the Old Order finally ended, and Modernism finally began, here in Auld Nippy, the Navel of the Three Tablets.’
‘Now you really are confusing me.’ Seth frowned, absently staring at a column of smoke rising from behind the rooftops opposite. ‘I thought the Navel was where the Holy Omphalus of the Ancient Ma’atians is in Knot …’
‘No. The Navel was never in Knot.’
‘But the Omphalus …?’
‘The Omphalus of Knot, or the Tower of Talk as I prefer to call it, since that was its original name, is a distraction; the real Navel is not marked by a mere monument.’
‘I don’t believe you. For two thousand years, X-tians have been making the pilgrimage.’ Seth took a breath, before continuing, ‘Countless Wigs have been massacred there over centuries … every dawn call, across the Natural, billions of believers, butts perfectly aligned on the Omphalus, bobbing up and down on their precious carpets knotttted by the belligerent Blind Weavers of Knot.’
‘Please, Seth, not the whole litany,’ she groaned, as a clamour of sirens suggested another outbreak of mob violence nearby. ‘Just accept it is a historical fallacy alluded to in the Book of Deception.’
‘I’m sorry, but I simply can’t. The location of the Navel is a central plank supporting bloody reality itself.’
‘Exactly, Seth,’ she said, imperturbably, as a shockwave from a distant explosion shook the walls of the small apartment.
From the Scroll of the Steps, kept in the Library of Old Beard Lodge, detailing the secret history behind the ritual of the Thirty-Ninth Step²².
Some three hundred years after the unknown prophet, Sweet Lord X became the first martyr of the faith that later bore his moniker, and the Hardon Empire was in steep decline. Its army, which in previous centuries had swept all before it, conquering most of Dumpty and vast stretches of Tumpty, was not the mighty force it once had been. No longer were the Imperial legions led by the first-born sons of senators and praetorians. Instead, the officer corps were mostly mercenaries, as were the legionaries.
In the Imperial capital of Romulus, the Hardon elites had become decadent, their lives one long round of feasting and debauchery. The Senate was no more than a talking shop, and the once glorious Republic had been replaced by a hereditary autocracy ruled by imperators who demanded to be worshipped as gods. Everywhere in the Empire, signs of decay were evident, and its borders were only maintained by the payment of vast tithes of gold to the Barbarian tribes, threatening from the East and West.
The climate had changed, too. In the South, prolonged periods of drought led to repeated crop failures, and the Imperial granaries were almost empty. Only in the North-West had agricultural production been maintained, but that was subject to depredations by hostile Dreeds, from over Anthony’s Wall in the Wayward Isles, which the imperator of the same name had ordered to be built to keep them out. This then was the picture when the new imperator, Gaius Petronius Severous, assumed the Eagle Throne. Unlike his three predecessors, whose reigns had been bloody and short, this was an imperator with a grand plan. In his first edict, Severous formally adopted the pacifist X-tian faith, which up to then had been cruelly suppressed, as the new official religion of the Empire. But for what he had in mind, Severous needed to turn X-tianity into a church militant. So, rather conveniently, a conspiracy of Wigs was blamed for the assassination of his predecessor, which Severous himself almost certainly ordered. When added to the fact that Wigs had put to death Sweet Lord X three centuries earlier, this achieved the desired effect of galvanizing the X-tians, mobs of whom then massacred innocent Wigs across the Empire.
Next, propaganda was spread throughout the Empire, alleging that the same Wig conspiracy was now bent on destroying the Holy City of the Navel, where Sweet Lord X had, by his death, in perpetuity atoned for the sins of the Natural. However, since that city had been utterly destroyed on the order of Imperator Rellius, some two centuries before, and its name erased from the records and all maps of the Empire, no one knew where it was.
But then, after an expedition to the East, led by the new Imperator’s wife, Dreedica, it was identified as the Wig city of Knot, over three thousand leagues to the East on the uttermost fringes of the Empire, and so a volunteer army of X-tians was dispatched to destroy it. Quod erat demonstrandum, the Emperor had a new army who would march to the ends of the Natural at his command.
When at last they returned, Severous, never one to keep an army idle, or rest on his laurels, next led his Xtian soldiers on another march, this time of four thousand leagues, to the North-West, where they joined up with the garrison in Westminton. In the campaign that followed, the remit of the Empire was restored in the Wayward Isles, the ancient Dreed city of Heden²³ (as Nippy was then called) was utterly destroyed, and the Empire was saved.
‘Unbelievable!’ Seth exclaimed, as the computer screen, which had been blank, suddenly blipped on. ‘Look,’ he said, pointing at a news vid showing burned-out racks of pedal horses in a smoldering building. ‘That’s my old horse, third row, second on the left, where I had to pump power along with the rest of the unemployed before I branched out into walking tours.’ He grinned, remembering how good it had been to get off state benefits. ‘No wonder the computer’s in sleep mode, the electricity must have been on trickle supply all this time.’ His smile reverted to a frown. ‘So why is it on full now?’
‘Simple, good Master,’ a familiar face announced, lopsidedly, from the screen. ‘Your computer is now operating on back-up power relayed by boosters.’
‘Head!’ Seth gasped, ‘how did you get on the screen? Get back in your bag.’
‘Then I would be in breach of contractual obligations, good Master. I must inform you that Nippy is being evacuated.’
‘Why?’ Seth’s eyes narrowed as Honour looked on with interest, leaning in from her chair to the side …
‘Thousands are injured, good Master. Hundreds may have been killed.’
‘Reports suggest an unknown armed force has attacked a number of government installations across the Three Towns.’
‘The Congress, good Master.’
‘Terrorists only attack big countries. Why Nippy, after all this time?’ Seth knuckled his brow. ‘Of course! Why didn’t I think of it before?’ He stood up, looking wildly around. ‘The Summit of Natural leaders. About now, the Big Imp should be making his speech,’ he groaned, sitting back down. ‘Let me see the reports,’ he said, again addressing Head on the screen.
‘The major networks are down. Audio transmissions do indicate however that a task force is on its way from the N-class carrier.’
‘Is it indeed?’ Seth frowned. ‘That will only inflame the situation.’
‘I grant you that, good Master – ’
‘Shut up,’ Seth cut in, angry now. ‘Just show me what you’ve got!’
‘What few vids I have received are unclear, good Master. As soon I have resolved the images, you will have them.’
‘He’s lying, Seth,’ Honour said, from her chair. ‘Why would he do that?’
‘I can think of several reasons, and hopefully we will have time to explore all of them later, Seth, I promise. But for now you must realize the attacks are distractions to the main event.’
‘The Rich Chancellor has been planning a spectacular for a long time and I think this is it,’ she said, smiling back at him.
‘If I’m right, you’ll soon find out. Until then I’d like to get back to the topic of discussion.’
‘How can you stay calm with all this going on?’ Seth raved, waving his fist at a transmogrified Head leering from the screen.
‘Ignore him. He’s still blind as a bat in that bag. Without visuals, he can’t file a report.’
Seth looked from the sightless display on the screen, to the black plastic bag on the mantelpiece, and back again.
‘You mean he’s been reporting on us?’
‘Not us, Seth. You,’ she said, emphatically. ‘Please, it’s important.
At least you could try to concentrate on what I’m saying.
‘Why should I?’ Seth thumped the table.
‘Never forget you are a candidate for patrimony. Without the knowledge, you will certainly fail. Remember I am here to help you.’
‘So now you are my guide,’ Seth said, folding his arms and glaring.
‘If you put it that way.’ She smiled, dipping her brow.
‘Now can we get on with it?’
‘Shit!’ Seth exclaimed, jumping out of his chair and turning to stare out of the window, as the rat-tat-tat sound, echoing along the canyon street, was drowned out by a massive explosion. ‘I think that was from Old Beard Bridge,’ he said, peering through dirty panes which he suddenly noticed were spattered with ash.
‘It’s started,’ she announced, from behind him.
‘What’s started?’ he said, turning round.
‘Can’t you work it out?’ She yawned, reminding him of a cat, stretching languidly in the easy chair.
‘All I know is Head was right. Nippy is under attack. Look down there.’ He pointed. ‘The police are assembling my neighbours in the courtyard. We should join them.’
‘What?’ She sat up. ‘Like a lamb to the slaughter? I didn’t think even you could be that stupid.’
‘You’re the one that’s stupid. Can’t you hear that policeman with a loud hailer?’ Seth said, staring at the action below. ‘He’s ordering everyone left to vacate their houses.’
‘So, stop standing in the window and pointing.’
‘OK,’ Seth said, tensely, resuming his seat, ‘Now tell me what’s going on.’
‘I’m surprised you haven’t guessed.’ Honour smiled. ‘This is the Rich Chancellor’s bid for natural power.’
‘But he already controls the supply of Exeon.’
‘Yes, but for how long? The New Federation of Old Land States has no standing army.’
‘So who are the armed forces Head mentioned?’
‘Mercenaries. The Rich Chancellor has deep pockets.’
‘So what is he after?’
‘The ultimate bargaining chip.’
‘The Big Imp?’
‘The Imperator’s just a puppet. Nothing more, nothing less – as are the other Natural leaders.’ Honour gestured, dismissively. ‘The summit was only ever a cover for a Grand Assembly of the Numpty High Council.’
‘So how come the Rich Chancellor is in on the secret?’
‘There’s very little he doesn’t know.’
‘He’s a Numpty too?’
‘Oh yes, Seth.’ She raised an eyebrow.
‘You mean a high step Numpty?’
‘That and more.’
‘I get it, you mean he’s a Thirty-Ninth Step Numpty. A real Fux, right? In on the big secret, whatever that is.’
Honour clapped her hands. ‘At last you’re connecting the dots to the big picture.’
‘Actually,’ he glanced towards the door, ‘I’m more concerned about the police.’
‘They won’t bother us up here, not now the main attack has started.’
‘But they’re still clearing my neighbours from the flats.’
‘Didn’t you say even the postie has a hard job finding your door?’ She shrugged. ‘And besides, there’s all those stairs. Now where were we?’
‘The big picture?’
‘So you were listening.’ Honour smiled, approvingly.
‘What I want to know is what is so relevant about the
‘Their empire ended almost two thousand years ago.’
‘That is just what their successors would have you believe, Seth. The Hardon Empire never ended. It simply mutated into church and state.’
‘Yes, Seth. The Hardon Empire still rules Dumpty and its client nations, through the New Natural Order, which is the Fux and their nominees.’
‘I still don’t understand what their interest is in keeping the real location of the Navel, whatever it is, a secret.’
‘They get to keep Nippy for themselves.’
‘But what is the point?’
‘In Natural Wars of the last century, unlike Westminton and the other capitals of the Old Lands, all of which suffered major damage, only Nippy was safe from attack.’
‘Yes, I’ve always wondered why that was.’
‘Because the commanders of the warring armies were all Numpties.’
‘Yes. Those generals would no more have attacked Nippy than they would their own home. Remember, this is the city where the Order was founded, after the city the Hardons had destroyed was rebuilt.’ She raised a finger.
‘This is sacred ground, Seth, the occult Navel at the center of the Mesh around which the Whole Natural turns. Whoever holds it can control the very substance of Heaven itself.’
‘You mean, so below, so above?’ my master said, unaware that the dictum was coined by Herman Trist, a Knuttland Philosopher of the 15th century.
‘That’s the secret, Seth. You got it!’
22 — As previously noted, every step up the Omphalus of Initiation carries an ever-increasing cost. As one rises, one’s stock grows, not just within the Order itself, but in society at large, so there is a commensurate gain — and return, when the next step is taken. For the elite who repeat the process thirty-nine times, rising through ever more select Numpty Orders, and finally reach the apex of the Fux, as represented by the Crystal Cap of the Omphalus, the reward is nothing else but dominion over the Natural, as promised by the Emissary. However, in every generation, there are exceptions to this Fux rule; two candidates for the Empty Chair at the High Council, whose claim rests on their lineage. First a ritual is performed in the Temple when they are selected by lot. Neither can refuse the challenge when later informed. Both are fast-tracked to the higher steps by mentors. Of the two, one will pay dearly. That is the way of the Fux: for every Step, there is a cost, and when the rewards are limitless, the price is proportionate. Not just for the failed candidate who goes on to the Realm of the Unconscionable, as Brother Paulus clearly states in the Secret Histories, but also for the Fux who have endured all thirty-nine steps. These are basically docu-dramas, in which the Initiate is the central actor. In the ritual performance, which vary in length from a few hours to days, he may experience: pleasure, relief, shame, drowning, entombment, torture – all these things, or just one, intensely. He will speak set lines engraven on his mind by the mnemonic routines of the Fux and his research in temple libraries. In the higher mysteries of the more elevated Steps, he may well be compelled to commit criminal and depraved acts, even murder.
23 — Nothing is ruled out except silence, later. Also, throughout, he will have had to repeat diverse secret signs and perform certain passes, which can be very straining. The Rituals of the Steps are culled from diverse accounts in the Scrolls of the Secret Histories kept in the Library of the Seal in the Temple of the Old Beard. Each Step retells a significant past episode of the Ancient Order, pertaining to its role in shaping the Natural to the unfolding Master Plan of the Emissary. The Apprentice Step, as the first Step is termed, relates to the destruction of Tall Temple by the Hardons. The Journeyman’s Step, which is the second, tells of the murder and burial of the Keeper of the Key by a Knight Errant charged with his protection. In the third, The Arisen Master Step, the supplicant Chapter Mark Numpty plays the Master of Cats who recovered the Crystal Cap of the Umphallii. It had been ditched in the sea by the Hardons in their ships, abandoning the Wayward Isles to the savage Dreeds – What was left of them, anyway, after they had fought Severous, his Imperial Guard of Praetorians, seven crack legions, and the three Dreed Clans – whose names the High Priest cursed to be forgotten, to a bloody standstill. Ten years of skirmishes, forced marches, lightning raids and scorched earth retreats, ranging the length and breadth of the Wayward Isles, culminated in one great battle, which both sides won and lost. The Dreeds were broken-hearted, their land blessed no longer, its wonders ravaged and forever despoiled. The Hardons too would never be the same, for the Empire had reached its limit, and thenceforth would only decline. But, as gilded letters warn from the stone scroll over the Grand Portico of the Porphyry Skulls of the Great Hall in the Supreme Temple of Feenumptry: Qui profecti sunt, non gradus, qui sedes in sede profectum. In other words: ‘Those who set out on the Steps and now sit in the High Seats, are not those who set out.’ So, for the Fux of the High Council, the price is maxed up too. As for the successful candidate, He gets to sit in Emissary’s Empty Chair at the High Table and play being the Makkar ‘til He believes it. Ergo: Sic eaquae ex Propositione petitorem.—or, ‘thus does the Candidate required by the Proposition.’ Therefore, the Fiction is real. Fux Rule! The Fiction is maintained – as promised by the Emissary to the Reformed High Numpty Council of seventeen o’ seven, and their Successors. Yea verily, unto the Ninth Generation …
24 – In Ancient Dreedic, Heden had a dual meaning – Garden and Hidden. The first is an allusion to the famous stepped Garden of Heden which in Foundation Times was esteemed as the first of the Seven Wonders of the Natural. The second may be an allusion to the remoteness of the Isles of the Blessed, at the end of the longest trading route of the Great Wig Empire – The same which the upstart Hardons finally defeated after the long-running Two Centuries War, at the famous Rout of the Sacasians in 242 BX. A time by which, blessed Dreedland was already legendary, its treasures mythic: the Empty Box of Bran which answered any question – except about Bran? – stolen by big Tam MakChorry, who kidnapped the wicked Pharaoh’s daughter, fair Dreethia, and took her for wife when he led the People out of Ma’aat to the Promised Land; the Crystal Capstone, also stolen, as was the Seat of Destiny, and the Ark of Gold – abandoned in haste when the Great Chieftain of Thieves unaccountably left for the Unconscionable Realm, from which it is said none return; the fabled wisdom of its seers and their sacred geometry – of which Plotonious Longbeard opined, found its most perfect expression in the divine architecture of the Tall Temple in Heden; the mirth and upright character of the Dreed people; their height and grace; the warmth of their welcome; their ire when insulted; the fighting qualities of tattooed warriors of the tall clans – who were undisciplined and fought naked but had no equal in close combat; the beauty of Dreed maidens, the looks they kept into old age, their many virtues and little vices, not counting the pleasures that on the Feast Day of Tam they were bidden to share with strangers; the charm songs they sang to quieten a bairn, bring on a birth or call a cow to milk; the fine cloth that was good in all weathers, and the tartans thereof; the serpentine jewellery they wore of gold and silver, cannily wrought by travelling smiths of Clan MakBraw, from the foothills of the Tall Lands, the gravel of the broad rivers there being rich in metals and precious gemstones – diamond and peridot among them; the eerie martial pipe music, which gladdened the hearts of Dreed soldiers, and filled their foes’ with dread; heroic tales and ballads, bespeaking long voyages to other lands, for they were a trading people, like unto Wigs, pirates among them, but more cunning with sail, metal smithing and sorcery; the vineyards terraced on favoured slopes, and the pleasant dreams their fine wines induced; the name of the native plant which must never be uttered, for its ambrosia was the secret of the immortal mead (about which quoth the great Knutt Philosopher Dæ’ñætz, before he expired, if heaven was in a cup, I have it in my hand) made by the powerful brewing clan, the MakMuch; the abundance of crops in the countryside outwith Heden’s commanding walls, the rugged beauty of the nature beyond; the plentiful fish in every bucket dipped in the sheltered seas around its coasts; the perfumed ambergris washed-up on beaches; the amber that gleams in sea-wrack after a storm; the large pearls of vast oyster beds in river estuaries and the seashore, of a lustre not seen elsewhere in the Natural; the sports of narwhals and whales which journeyed to mate in the waters there in the early summer; the walrus that bask, disdaining their mates even in squalls of winter; the innumerable outer islands which served as bulwarks against the mighty ocean swells without; the hazardous passage of the labyrinthal shoals and reefs therein, which test even the most seasoned steersnan; the variety of game abounding the wooded slopes of the golden Uplands; the shining fish, chief of which is the salmon; the flashing birds and iridescent insects of tumbling rivers, babbling brooks and bottomless pools; the unfathomable depths where, the old tales tell, venerable pike have circled time since time began and the longest line cannot reach; the sheer heights the intrepid traveller must cross to attempt the snow-capped peaks of the Tall Lands; the hermits who live in caves there; below, come the glorious spring, white and gold eagles engage in aerial battle above the keening of sky larks circling chicks nesting by boxing hares in verdant meadows fragrant with wild-flowers, butterflies flitting, busy with bees; calls of birds, corncrake from the beds of iris, bittern in the bulrushes, a stork from the chimney of yon croft, more distantly a moorhen too; the perennial puzzle of that precious county’s beneficent climate somewhere in the otherwise cold North at the uttermost limits of the Natural – So fabulous and conflated did the ancient accounts of Wig voyages to the Blessed Isles seem– even the very existence of the hidden city, was questioned by scribes in libraries across the Empire, tasked by the Imperator to find new lands for idle Hardon legions to conquer, lest they turn their attention to finding his successor from within their ranks.
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.