Deep in a small room in the depths of the Dubhian Underworld a great and ancient wooden clock, swathed in swirling gun smoke and speckled with Postlethwaite blood, ticked on regardless of the terrible events which had taken place in its proximity ity. It was oblivious too of the hollow and perpetual hum from the Halls of Machines which permeated every level of the city of Dubh and which raised the dust of decay from its few dry places, painting a soothing backdrop to the chaotic lives of the city’s wretched denizens.
Here in this world hot iron and howling engines that was the Halls of Machines worked the man who had traded Jonathon’s Father for Tan favours; his name was Silus Flax, the Black Gaffer.
As a man born and raised in the Upper City, Flax found himself a member of the skilled caste, the Meks, by virtue of his parentage. He was ambitious and gifted and soon surpassed his Father’s position as mechanic and rising to the position of Line supervisor of Line Nine in the Primary Drive Hall.
In these huge Drive Halls, a thousand huge internal combustion engines were coupled together in lines of one thousand to transfer kinetic energy to the Generator Halls on the next level.
Flax’s post gave him the responsibility for the day to day management of mechanics and machines. His goal, through servicing and maintenance, was to produce optimum efficiency through almost continuous operation of the line. And his engines were rarely idle. Flax’s line was considered as an example of perfection. His ingenious maintenance schedules prevented, to large extent, the breakdowns that plagued other lines. This, combined with his savage man management, ensured that his line was by far the most efficient of all lines in all of the exalted Halls of Machine.
As a Line Supervisor Flax ruled over the men under him with a rod of iron. There was no excuse for failure; mistakes were not tolerated under any conditions. One lapse of concentration meant dismissal of the perpetrator from his post and expulsion to the Lower City -usually for a price. Not that any dismissed from Line Nine ever got to the Lower City.
Somehow the displaced mechanics found grateful Tans waiting to spirit them away from the gates Upper City to their harsh regime in the mines, farms and production plants beyond the Great Gate. Skilled mechanics were a rarity outside of the Upper City, belonging by blood to the caste of the skilled, the Meks, and protected by the laws of the Upper City Council.
But skilled workers were in great demand by the Tans who needed them to tend their machines in the lands beyond the Great Gate. Silus Flax was well aware of the Tans’ need. He had valuable skilled men at his disposal and he knew it. The Tans would pay generously for engineers and mechanics and Flax exploited this fact for his own personal gain.
Payments to Flax varied, the Tans ordered replacements when death or injury deleted their work force. For most in Dubh payment would have involved commodities of pleasure, drugs, and the free use of prostitutes of either sex or any age, or a night of acute perversion in a Tan brothel perhaps, but for Silus Flax these types of pleasure were never enough, never completely fulfilling.
His tastes were distinctly different, his sense of enjoyment came from inflicting pain and he was a sadist beyond compare, even in this foul city. A gift to Silus Flax would would die slowly in a dark place in acute agony, whilst he watched on, savouring the results of his handiwork, a slobbering, laughing, dark-eyed beast fuelled towards toward hi own ecstasy by the cries of pain and despair from his usually young victims.
His appetite for such pleasures was seemingly insatiable. Then one day his demands to the Tans for this type of payment ceased. During the course of a normal transaction, Flax’s Tan contact was surprised when he demanded information, maps of the city and the pressing of adult, healthy and able men into his service in exchange for providing skilled mechanics.
His contact obliged, a little confused, but willing to comply with the Line Supervisors new requirements. When Flax was asked why, he answered dryly that he was to become ‘an explorer’, the greatest explorer Dubh had ever known. As the Tan negotiator left, he laughed all the way to the Lower City, reporting to his superiors that Silus flax had gone mad, syphilis he suggested, which rotted the brains of so many of the inhabitants Dubh, was now chewing on Flax’s sanity.
But Flax was neither mad nor ill, he was a man obsessed with the pursuit of power and now had the means of achieving his goal. Consequently, when Flax was promoted to the position of Hall Engineer, his supply of skilled men increased and he traded them for healthy but unskilled workers, who were pressed into his service in the Lower City.
Flax organised these men and unobtrusively his organisation, dedicated towards his own personal goals, grew. They were known to the Tan’s as the `High Hats’ because of their distinctive and somewhat eccentric attire, of black, long tailed suits and top hats.
The High Hats were immune from any type of harassment from the Tans. Thanks to Flax’s usefulness to the Tan hierarchy in the supply of skilled men into their service. The High Hats activities did, to some degree impinge on the business ventures of the Tan’s, but never affected their revenues unduly. Flax made sure of that.
The High Hats, as far as the Tan’s were aware, ran a string of the usual, lucrative businesses in Dubh food shops and drug stores, whore-houses and drinking halls - all which brought in revenue to fuel Flax’s real venture.
Flax’s new pursuit was truly that of exploration, as he had told the Tans and been pronounced insane. But there was method in Flax’s ‘madness’. He explored Dubh for doorways to power, literally ‘doors’ to other worlds, which he knew existed in the wavering Field Walls which contained the realm of Dubh and its malignancies, and prevented its corruption from spreading into other dimensions.
If the Tallmen could open gates to other places and times, as they did when they needed to ‘vent’ Dubh’s persistently polluted atmosphere and as they had done with the Great Gate, then Flax realised there were ways out of Dubh. He had also heard tales of places of instability in the citys Fields Walls, where for a while, the retaining energy walls opened up worm holes to other realms. Such a dimension door would be found by exploring the Field Walls of this world, Flax rationally deduced and had actually dreamed.
His High Hats would, inch by inch, search for his precious dimension door. No level would be left undisturbed, no field wall anomaly left uninvestigated. This was Flax’s obsession, a door to another world and to the means to power Flax knew lay there. The Tans saw no part of the High Hats exploratory operations, they watched his legitimate businesses closely, but saw nothing to surprise or threaten. It was true that for a time the ranks of Flax’s High Hats swelled, but slowly their numbers and interests stabilised. Flax knew his value to the Tans was worth only so much and he would not exceed his usefulness. His organisation, therefore, grew no larger than needed to finance the search for his dimension door, the only other things he needed were time and luck.
Initially, the master of the High Hats was surprised at how unstable the Field Walls were. His explorers had found or heard stories about hundreds of rifts and places of instability. Holes, which opened invitingly only to snap shut like giant, energy jaws. Brief glances tantalised Flax and his minions and at these places.
They saw deserts and forests, mountains - cities even, which could be glimpsed before the doors closed before his men had the chance, or mustered the courage, to dash through.
At other places the instabilities were less tangible as dimension doors. From the maps supplied by the Tans, Flax’s High Hats were able to judge where the city ended and the Field Walls lay. In very few places were the Walls were actually visible and readily accessible.
Most of them had been physically blocked off, at a time when the inhabitants of Dubh had some degree of feeling for one another’s well being, with concrete and brick to prevent the unwary from straying into them. The normal appearance of the citys Field Walls, when unobstructed, resembled a hazy extension of the city which became less distinct as the view beyond receded, but, as an individual advanced toward it, a solid, yet invisible barrier was encountered.
At other points, usually where it had been hastily walled off, it was possible to walk into this mirage of an extension of the city. Flax’s servants, forever willing to please their tyrannical master, often took this trip, but none of them ever returned. In most instances, those who stayed behind and watched saw the men, who had entered these unstable areas, slowly disintegrate as the vibratory rates in the Field Wall and that of Dubh changed. The man’s body would shudder and sag or collapse as bones softened or as internal organs exploded, to leave only a thick red mist to disperse into the shifting currents of energy that made up the barrier. The unfortunate High Hats colleagues then would studiously mark down the position on their maps and make their observations before reporting back to an increasingly frustrated Suilus Flax, at other locations the dimension doors would collapse periodically into tunnels of multicoloured light which shifted across the colour spectrum the further in the explorers ventured in, but such ‘doors’, although promising, were rare and dangerously unpredictable.
On all occasions when the High Hats had ventured into such a portal, it had collapsed around them, adding their number to the increasing casualties the High Hat exploration teams19 suffered for the sake of Flax’s obession.
Progress towards the goal of finding a stable `dimension door’ was slow, frustrating and, it could be said, costly in terms of human lives, although, of course in Dubh human lives were cheap, especially to men such as Silus Flax.
The High Hats persevered and continued to record and explore every type of Field Wall anomaly, their positions and duration of opening, Flax’s disciples always eager to please him. Eager because Flax’s harsh and uncompromising management extended beyond the Halls of Machines to them. Eager because working for the High Hats meant special privileges, rewards, immunity from Tan laws and enslavement, privileged access to all the High Hats facilities offered by Flax’s business ventures and favourable terms for payment of services received such establishments.
Being a High Hat was a desirable alternative to everything else the city had to offer or the punishing work regime and danger beyond the Great Gate. Flax’s captains now recruited from those who had somehow escaped Tan conscription as well as by the direct exchange of skilled men for unskilled workers to make up for their losses during the exploration of the Field Wall irregularities.
Flax’s organisation worked tirelessly, but it was
over two years before they found a dimension door that was both stable and predictable. Silus Flax was overjoyed, his belief that such a door existed out of control of the Tallmen seemingly justified. He hoped that now that world beyond the ‘door’ was what he desired to further his plans for power. His joy was short-lived.
On their first excursion through this tunnel of light to the dimension beyond, his exploratory party had suffered a similar fate as others had before in different ‘doors’, despite this one’s supposed stability. It was no different from the rest in the initial effect it had on the first unfortunate High Hat explorers who ventured through it.
The transition through the gate had transformed the High Hat party into creatures almost unrecognisable as human beings. Some had lost limbs or whole parts of their bodies. For others their bodies intact were hideously deformed by the apparent loss of bone in limbs or facial structures. All were insane.
Flax slaughtered them all, partly out of frustration and partly to allay fears that all his expeditions into the ‘doors’ guaranteed a living death to his currently loyal High Hats. He did not need his organisation to decide that Tan employment was preferable to being turned into a vegetable. Why did this happen anyway thought Flax? He searched desperately for a solution to this macabre puzzle and was soon to find it.
After lengthy and subtle investigations into the transportation of work crews through the Tan controlled Great Gate, Flax discovered that when workers entered or returned through it their rate of passage was strictly regulated to ensure that the denser parts of the human anatomy adjusted gradually to the vibratory rate of the gate itself and the dimension beyond. The speed, he learned, at which human beings travelled through a dimension door was critical if they were to survive. Flax’s men had sprinted there and back fearing that the ‘door’ would collapse at any moment and consequently their bodies had not properly adjusted, leaving bones and limbs in suspension somewhere in between.
Whilst Flax’s recently discovered ‘door’ remained open, he frantically experimented. Firstly, he tried the same rate of travel as the Great Gate demanded. His volunteer High Hats never returned. Again and again ignorant and newly recruited volunteers, armed with stopwatches and plied with the promise of incentives, trooped eagerly into the undulating orifice never to be seen again.
Eventually, after much trial and error and a terrible drain on Flax’s human resources, one volunteer returned unharmed and still relatively sane. One pace every two seconds had allowed this man to pass through to the other side of the ‘door’ without any major ill effects.
Flax celebrated, hugging his bemused, but terrified High Hats and shrieking unintelligibly. Now all he required was an answer to what lay behind this ‘door’. The successful traveller held out his hands to an attentive Flax, displaying his blackened fingers.
“A great coldness lies beyond and a great blinding whiteness too, no man could ever live there for long.” the survivor informed Flax through black, frost bitten lips.
Flax was angered that he had been again foiled by circumstances. The `door’ opened into certain death! From his High Hats’ meticulous records Flax knew that this portal would remain open for perhaps another twenty hours before it gradually began to close until only a thin and inaccessible crescent remained.
Donning warm clothing and armed with a stopwatch, Flax decided to see for himself the inhospitable, white and cold world beyond this particular dimension door. Once inside the door, Silus found himself in a swirling, shifting, rainbow coloured tunnel of light that wormed its way through the fabric of space and time from one dimension to another.
Flax nervously paced and counted out the seconds. “One AND two AND one AND two AND....”
Flax felt his body tingle slightly as he moved slowly along the tunnel. After several nervous minutes, counting out the seconds with a loud and savage accuracy, the coloured light faded and he found himself in a tunnel of blue-white ice. His breath frosted and billowed out into the bright whiteness of the tunnel. It was indeed cold he thought. The High Hat leader moved cautiously forward to where the tunnel opened into the vast empty spaces ice and snow beyond, devoid of anything at all except the viscous wind sculpted and curious monuments to itself in the snowdrifts and on the ice mountains.
Flax stared out into the bleak and forbidding arctic wastes which seemed to stretch out to infinity. This was not it, there was nothing that he needed here. He knew what he was looking for – a city or maybe a town; a place to seek what he needed, a place to prepare his High Hats and then return to Dubh to lead them against the Tans and then the Tallmen themselves.
Silus Flax despised the Tans’ dominance of Dubh. Although he took from them it was never enough, he desired something which they could never give him. They had power and endured him, so long as he was useful. Eventually he would outgrow his usefulness to them, he knew, and then they would find someone else to fill their needs.
Flax was no fool. He had seen the signs already, the Tans no longer co-operated in the ways they had in the early days, now they questioned his requests and on the streets there was an ominous tension between his men and theirs.
If the Tans no longer needed him, he and his High Hats would become no more, become nothing, and he would die. Flax would not allow it to happen. He needed power, not just the power that the Tans had, but absolute power; that which the enigmatic Tallmen held in their blazing towers of light. He would take it from them and they would bow to Emperor Silus Flax, master of Dubh. He would have god like powers like they had now. All this was powered by the yearning of a corrupted and perverse soul that demanded that Flax the rational animal use his intellect to fulfil its needs by any means. No morality or dogma, only the breadth and dark depth of his imagination bound him; and it was deep and boundless.
He was a slave to part of himself, that part gave him the power when he demanded it and he did so by withdrawing from the pleasurable activities that it fed on. Then it screamed and gave Flax the power to act and think beyond himself and towards the unspeakable pleasures he consciously imagined. It had given him the premonition to search for the dimension doors and to see in dreams that beyond one lay what he would need to destroy the Tans and wrench power from the Tallmen.
But It, this internal yearning, was not just part of him, It was part of most of the unshackled hedonists of Dubh, It drove them all to consume pleasure in its vilest forms. It lived off them and It used Silus Flax. It, the malignant soul of the city which had its iniquitous tendrils in all of their souls, spoke to Flax now as he despaired at the uselessness of the desolate world in which this dimension door terminated.
“Patience, not this place, perhaps not now and not here, but soon, soon, you shall have what I have shown you in your dreams. Your crown still awaits you. Patience. You are close my beloved.” It hissed in unison with the arctic blizzard. Silus Flax laughed quietly to himself and questioned the voice that resonated within his soul.
“Soon Emperor Silus Flax will be rising, my dark soul becoming darker until all and everything becomes one with my desire, my being?”
“And I shall live in an eternity of pleasure? “he drooled.
“I already do, Silus. Do my bidding my beloved and you can join with me.”
Silus Flax had no gods, but he had a dark, dark faith that gave him the will and the power, to pursue his deepest desires and deify his black soul.