from The Headflux Chronicles, Book 1, by Will Lorimer
THE NEW NATURAL ORDER
Extract from an account by Brother Anthony of the two hundred and fifteenth session of the New Natural Order. Inlaid in variegated marble in the stone table, around which we have always forgathered, is the Great Seal, the same as pictured on Bigger dollar bills. An Omphalus inscribed with the year the High Council was reformed under a new constitution, topped by a capstone with a flaming Eye, above which is written, ‘Annuit Coeptus’ – dog Latin alluding to our devotion to the Mother of Night. On a curving banner below, ‘Nuvus Naturalis Ordo Seclorum’, as if anyone needed present reminding this is the New Natural Order in seclusion. Not for us the conveniences of the new virtual conferencing methods. As one Brother, the Venerable Oxus of the Dravidian Chapter, was minuted at the previous session, and I quote, since his words capture something of the rhetorical brilliance that so characterizes High Council proceedings, ‘We, the devotees of an all-seeing Eye, maintain a continuing requirement for mutual eyeballing. Our bond is a physical one. For, notwithstanding different physiognomy, skin colour, and pedigrees apparently rooted in far-flung tablets, we are all changelings, descended from the foundling fathers of the Auld Natural Order in Nippy.’
Quite so. What would those whiskered patriarchs think of us now, shaven-faced wagless wonders of the Temple of the Old Beard of the Ancient Dreed Rite, without crop or mane to stroke? – as the Venerable Elder brother Anthony always says from behind his false beard when drawing a veil over our proceedings.
Trying to get his thoughts in order to frame a question, Seth recalled tuning by chance into a late night radio talk show that ended in uproar, a not infrequent occurrence when Blind Scholars of the three faiths were brought together. Unusually, however, the argument was not about the theological split hairs; instead the Blind Scholars were united in their opposition to the presenter, who doubted whether modern Knot occupied the ancient site of the Holy City.
‘Honour,’ he said, looking up, ‘am I to take to take from all this that Ancient Knot was really Nippy?’
‘No,’ Honour said, ‘Knot was always Knot, but you are right in the sense the Holy City of the three faiths is really Nippy.’
‘So,’ he sighed, more weighted than ever by the troubles of the Natural, ‘where in Nippy is the Navel?
‘Below Old Beard Bridge.’
‘But that’s where the explosion was.’ His head jerked up, weights forgotten.
‘Yes, Seth,’ she nodded indulgently. ‘I expected it.’ ‘Why?’
‘Because that’s where the Grand Assembly will be gathering any time now …’
‘Below the bridge?’
‘No, Seth, not in the road,’ she chuckled, ‘in the Temple of the Old Beard.’
‘You mean that old temple by the pub on the corner of Lodge Close?’
‘At last!’ Honour raised her eyes to the ceiling. ‘But the entrance was bricked-up years ago.’
‘Yes, Seth, but there’s another way in.’
‘The museum. A long tunnel leading down from the basement in the new wing of the building connects the two. It’s actually quite neat, considerably enlarged in recent years from the original, with air conditioning and escalators taking the Fux down past the old stairs to their temple in the lower levels.’
‘Really, then why haven’t I heard of it?’ Seth leaned closer, ‘Not even the Numpties could have kept that information out of public circulation.’
‘I can’t count how many receptions I have declined at the museum. Do you know they had fifteen conferences, any number of junkets and celebrations, in the first three months of this year alone. Don’t you think, with all the commotion, a few Fux, however well-kempt and distinguished, could slip in unobserved for the occasional meeting. It’s the perfect cover.’
‘I grant you that,’ Seth said, thinking of all the times at night he had seen lurid coloured lights playing on passing clouds as they scudded over the glass roof of the museum. ‘But how the hell do you know?’
‘Because I’m one.’
‘A renegade Fux actually,’ she beamed.
‘Not a roving reporter for FUX Media Corp.’
‘No, Seth.’ She shook her head. ‘Not a FUX pack bitch, if that’s what you mean,’ she said, using the slang term for female correspondents in war zones.
‘The other Fux are a kind of Numpty, right?’
‘Yes, Seth.’ She nodded, condescendingly. ‘But not just any Numpty; a New Natural Numpty.’
‘You mean a High Council Numpty?’ Again Honour nodded.
‘But those Numpties are high born.’
‘A Tamson’s bairn out-trumps the best of the rest,’ she said, dryly, quoting an age old Dreed expression, meaning a person of the royal blood. ‘There is no lineage longer than ours.’
‘I suppose so,’ Seth said, doubtfully, ‘but you’re not exactly cut from the same cloth as other Numpties.’ He rolled his eyes to the heavens. ‘I mean, a wonan!’
‘So?’ She shrugged, with a look that brought to mind the “Smile”, a famous painting hung in the Dreed National Gallery, showing a siren luring a ship onto the Rocks at Blasket Head.
‘But I thought Numptydom was exclusively a nan preserve?’ ‘That didn’t bother the Marquis who had had me initiated as an honorary nan and fitted with a false beard like the rest of the Old Beards after they found me hiding behind the temple’s antependium.’
‘What’s an antependium?’
‘An altar curtain. That one was embroidered with a picture of Japhet’s Vision of the Golly Fish, rendered in scratchy sequins.’ She laughed at the memory. ‘So, yes, for what it’s worth, I do have a seat at the High Table, wherever the High Council convenes a Grand Assembly and Fux foregather from across the Natural …’
‘What does Fux stand for?’
‘F.U.X. is an acronym meaning ‘For Us X.” It’s the battle cry of all X-fearing Numpties.’
‘Is this connected with the X-ades?’
‘What do you think?’ she snorted, one nostril furling like a palomino he saw once at a horse fair in the Wayward Archipelago, as what remained of Mingland was now known, where subsistence farming had become the way of life in the ten years since the Great Flood.
‘But if the Navel of Knot is really in Nippy …’ Seth cast about with a hand. ‘Why all those X-ades to the Chord over the millennia?’ He shook his head. ‘It doesn’t make any sense.’
‘You forget that ever since the supposed fall of the Hardon Empire, their successors, planted in corporations, criminal organizations, kirk, temple, and state, have shaped events to suit their ends. Always this is best achieved by acts of mass deception on a tablet-wide scale. And I don’t just mean terrorist outrages on the news. No area of nano-endeavor is sacrosanct, whether science, literature, history, the media, whatever. It is a conspiracy in which we are all complicit.’
‘All of us?’
‘Because reality is a mass construct.’
‘Yes, the collective delusion began in the Severous Era.’
‘When the Navel was reassigned to the Chord?’
‘That’s what allowed the first d’buk in.’
‘D’buk?’ Seth repeated, blankly. ‘I don’t understand…’
‘You do, more than you know, Seth. You’re of the blood. The Marquis was your father. The royal blood of the ancient house of Tamson runs in your veins. You and I, we’re family,’ she insisted, reminding him of the advert for the Oldlands Lotto as she jabbed the air between them with crossed fingers. ‘Think, brother, think!’
‘I still don’t understand, honestly I don’t.’
‘I’ll spell it out then. For every wrong or mistranslated word in the Book, another d’buk gets in.’
‘But what are d’buks?’
‘Predators populating our worst nightmares, always there when friends quarrel, spooking us out in graveyards, sending us to sleep when politicians talk, boring the pants off us in ridiculous situations too many to mention.’ She laughed, perhaps thinking of clients she had serviced over the years.
‘Depressing us at the doctor’s, there at the bedside when we lie dying, for all I know flying out the turkey in Bigger at Thanksgiving.’ She drew a breath, studying the minutia of his face.
‘Their favourite hiding places?’ she went on, clearly enjoying his discomfort as he squirmed on his seat, dreading another onslaught of words. ‘Libraries, where they curl up in book spines and dust jackets, waiting to hook readers …’
‘But what is the bait?’ he wailed.
‘The hook, Seth, the hook!’
‘I still don’t understand,’ he pleaded, desperate to get the guessing game over.
‘Yes you do, Seth, otherwise you wouldn’t have asked the question.’ She paused, waiting for him to catch on. ‘No?’ she said, after a moment. ‘The hook is what draws the predator to the reader.’
‘But what is the hook?’
‘Have you ever had an itching down your back where you can’t reach?’
‘Sure.’ Seth nodded. ‘Funnily enough, twice today. This morning, after I dropped Head off,’ he mumbled.
‘You know where we dumped poor Nancy, on the Red Castle all those years ago? Or maybe I dreamt that.’
Frowning, he scratched his forehead, wondering if he had also imagined revisiting the scene en-route to the airport. ‘And strangely, just then, when you brought the subject up.’
‘Now, why doesn’t that surprise me?’ she said, leaning back in her chair and regarding him obliquely.
‘Search me.’ Seth shrugged, wishing he had something long and pronged to hand, the subtlety of her body language lost on him.
‘Because that’s where the d’buk latches on.’
‘It does?’ he said, distractedly, as the itch between his shoulder blades was replaced by a nibbling sensation.
‘Oh, and it feeds you too.’
‘What with?’ he said, dismissing as paranoia the sensation a rat was scuttling up his back.
‘Short attention span, racing thoughts, petty dislikes, self-importance, delusions of immortality, fear of death –’
‘Stop,’ he shouted. ‘Not another list, please. Just tell me why.’
‘Because it needs your gleam: the gloss only your energy body can provide.’
‘That damned hook again?’ he growled.
‘Yes. Think of it as what connects your energy body to Reality Central.’
‘You’re telling me the hook sustains life.’
‘The illusion of life.’
‘So you’re saying life is fiction.’
‘The fiction that kills us, or the fictions that kill us. Take your pick.’ She shrugged. ‘In the end, everything boils down to energy, and the hook gives us the boost without which we could not survive the boundless possibilities of the Book.’
‘Not the Book again, please,’ he moaned. ‘Why don’t you tell me what these things look like so I can protect myself,’ he croaked, his mouth dry. ‘I don’t want to be prey.’
‘Generally, they are best perceived out of the corners of the eyes …’
‘Have you ever seen one?’
‘Yes, as I am sure you have, if you think about it, Seth.’
‘No.’ He hesitated. ‘No, definitely not.’
‘Are you certain about that?’ she murmured, sotto voce, shifting her gaze to a point over his left shoulder.
‘Who?’ he said, fearing to look round, lest he’d left the front door open and the man in black was back to serve him with a summons to appear at the municipal court for a deliberate act of ‘Wanton and Willful Endangerment’ at the Red Castle – the usual charge applying to reckless acts of damage to protected nanokin products like the News Head.
‘Stay perfectly still.’ Slowly, she pointed a pinkie. ‘Now, slide your eyes to the left.’
It was a heeby jeeby, Seth decided. The same as had patrolled the long, curtained silences of the late summer evenings of his childhood, as he lay alone in the old nursery, tucked up on his hard bed in the corner of the room with the sheets pulled up to his ears.
‘Not good, not good at all,’ he blurted, pent-up fear propelling him to his feet. ‘What the fux was that?’ he shouted, whirling around as it flew back round his shoulder. ‘A little d’buk.’
‘A little d’buk,’ he repeated, slowly. ‘Yes, Seth. They also come a lot bigger.’
‘They do?’ he wailed.
‘Yes, some are big as cities.’
‘What sort of nightmare fiction is this?’ he asked, reeling, clapping hands to his ears, clearly not wishing to hear any more, screwing his eyes shut but still seeing the charred scrap of manuscript paper floating away in the draft. Only there was no draft, or anything else to make the smoldering cinder vanish as it did into thin air. He was left with the impression of thunderous cumulus stacked on a fuzzy black head set on a shady square, inscribed with faint metallic symbols that might have been Ma’atian hieroglyphics, Numpty secret signs, or some other archaic code. The genii had fixed him with a malevolent red stare, before kicking back with its only apparent leg and gesturing forwards with an out-flung black hand, holding what could have been a hook or a scimitar, a star twinkling at the tip; which was the point, or portal, he supposed, for through it the d’buk shot into another space that might have been the same room, he thought, sitting down in the only easy chair.
While Seth tore his hair out, behind the curtain over in the kitchen recess, Honour freshened-up in preparation for going out.
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.