Under the cathedral like domes of Machine Hall Nine, Flax’s domain, the monstrous internal combustion engines thundered on relentlessly and continued to prove to be the most productive in output to the Generator Halls of all the Machine Halls.
Flax’s promotion to Hall Engineer and its increased responsibilities, in terms of numbers of men and machines, had done nothing to dent his impeccable production record.
So there was little to threaten Silus Flax’s position or his activities in the city. Only the Grand Council of the Upper City could dictate to him, but never did, because they all regarded him with the utmost fear.
Fear, because his High Hats had demonstrated on more than one occasion that to oppose Flax was to sign one’s own death warrant. But this was normally a last resort, dead men could do him no favours, bribery and blackmail were the Hall Engineer’s usual course of action when voices were raised against him.
Flax’s position in the Upper City was one from which he could dominate and manipulate all but the Tans and the Tallmen themselves.
The Tallmen asked for little but the energy the city provided them. Rarely were they seen outside of their blazing towers of light and when they did emerge it was to instruct the Council in very short, and normally one way, communications.
Messages were brief:- “We will vent the city at mid-day tomorrow ” “More consistency on Hall Five’s output ”
“We you will rectify the output fluctuations of Hall Seven’s immediately.”
Flax had never had more than a fleeting glimpse of the Tallman messengers as they returned home across the great paved concourse between the Halls of Machines and their towers. Yet he despised them with an intensity which made him growl and snarl obscenities to himself.
He wanted and had sworn to usurp the power they possessed. He perceived that they held the ultimate power in the city, that of life or death for all. With one flick of some innocuous switch, or so he paradoxically presumed despite his own technical knowledge, they could collapse the Field Walls and destroy it all. In reality it required technically more than the flick of a switch and practically such an act was impossible for the Tallmen to exercise this absolute power as Silus Flax saw it.
Under ideal circumstances the Tallmen could have collapsed the Field Walls of Dubh at will and moved on to another point in space and time. The reality of their situation here was that they depended exclusively upon the city and the energy from the Halls of Machines to survive.
The Tallmen had arrived where they were today in a desperate hurry, as renegades fleeing from their own Mother race, making an attempt to hide from their almost omniscient power in between the warp and weft of space and time.
Finally with their power reserves almost depleted the Tallmen of Dubh had been forced to inflate an artificial space-time continuum at random; and it had proved to be a disaster. They had calculated that they would annex the matter from some small uninhabited land mass within this bubble-like dimension and, once this had been achieved, renew their energy reserves. Their hasty calculations wrong. Instead they found themselves resting in the midst of some primitive human city, snatched from some other time and place, which completely filled the confines of their manufactured dimension.
So they had improvised.
Under their coercion, and with limited resources, the massive Halls of Machines had been constructed, employing the primitive technology of the inferior race that had been inadvertently and irreversibility ensnared in this dimension. The Halls of Machines and their huge internal combustion engines would supply the massive amounts of energy needed to sustain Dubh in space and time.
Soon they found it necessary to find a new source of raw materials and food to support the machines and the feed the burgeoning human population which, in turn, fed their own vital technology. Thus a huge dimension door was opened at random into various areas the Tallman guessed to be free of habitation and rich in raw materials and food reserves.
Eventually they found an era in Earth history prior to the evolution of modern man, which would supply all they needed. The opening of the Great Gate, as it was known to the inhabitants of Dubh, was an enormous risk. Those who sought the Tallmen had the ability to detect such an event, but did not. The Tallmen had been lucky.
So the Tallmen had no such god-like powers as Flax envisaged, they were stranded in space and time with nowhere to go. The inflation of Dubh’s energy field and the opening and sustaining of the Great Gate, the umbilical cord of Dubh, took all the energy the Machine Halls could produce, the Tallmen were hanging on by the skin of their long teeth to existence, as was the realm of Dubh itself. The creators of this womb of human corruption, could barely keep it sustained and any more drain on the energy supply would herald its demise.
Silus Flax knew little of this and cared even less. He only envisaged himself in their position of total god-like power, himself in their shoes, running the it in its entirety and using Dubh as a stepping stone to other worlds, other cities. His ambition had no limits, but to swing the balance here in his favour he needed the means to overpower the Tans first, and then the Tallmen. In his vivid and prophetic dreams he saw such a means . Flax had seen weapons of terrible destruction, weapons which far surpassed the archaic musketry of the Tans. Automatic rifles, machine guns, grenades and mortars, in his dreams he saw them all being used and the terrible effect they had on the human form of the enemies of those who possessed them. His High Hats would have them too and sweep aside the Tans bearing these terrible talismans of real power. Cutting down all his enemies before him, he Emperor Silus Flax would lead them to bloody victory after bloody victory, first here in Dubh and then in a thousand other worlds. He dreamed and marked these dreams, they were his future. Even during the day visions came to him, vivid glimpses of a place where his talismans of power lay - a society of order, its technologies warped towards weaponry, but still far in advance of the human technology of Dubh. But this place was special, because it too had begun to bend to the forces greed and corruption. They had what he wanted and he was an expert in the art of corruption.
Once he had taken Dubh then he would return to this fertile bed and sow his seed there too. Dubh was a stepping stone and the world he dreamed of was the next.
Silus Flax’s prophetic dreams and visions and paranoid schizophrenia drove him remorselessly in pursuit of his goals. His search for a ‘door ’ into the world he had seen continued twenty-four hours a day, the cost in life and materials never to high, for he knew that somewhere in this city the gateway to his dreams opened and closed with a rhythm that he could feel deep in his dark soul.
He stood high on the observation platform and control room of Hall Nine and watched his workers scurrying around the dim workshop floor like ants around the engines which squatted rumbling, demanding attention to their every need. Flax smiled to himself. Yes! it was only a matter of time before he was crowned Emperor of this insignificant realm; then onwards! He would find this ‘door’, and nothing and no-one would, or could, stand in his way.
Flax turned to the control panels in the halls control room and congratulated himself on another days work in the Hall well done, as the massive banks of dials and gauges in front of him indicated that all lines were performing at maximum output.
The control room door swung open and he turned to watch his night deputy, Amadeus Bolster, waddling into the Hall Nine’s nerve centre and humming some unintelligible tune. Flax’s nostrils flared. With Bolster came the stale odours of whore houses and beer halls. The smell of smoke and scent women’s bodies hung around him like an exquisitely embroidered veil, at least it appeared so to Flax, the result of the unusual olfactory attributes he possessed.
Bolster had actually bathed twice before coming on duty, scrubbing between the numerous folds of flesh on his body in a vain and useless effort to hide his days activities from his superior. Flax grinned at him.
“I’m surprised that whores would have even you my fat friend, despite the high prices you are said to pay. Is blindness and stupidity a new disease sweeping the whore houses of our city? “he sneered raising an eyebrow quizzically.
Bolster giggled nervously, his small beady eyes meeting Flax’s briefly, but enough to confirm to him that he was as terrified of his master as the smell of fear, which oozed from every pore of his sweaty body, suggested. And so you should be, thought Flax amusedly. He strolled to the door, turning before he left to brief his obese deputy.
“All lines are running at maximum Bolster. I expect that there will have been no changes when I return at six. Do you understand?” he growled, holding his terrified underling with a hard and threatening stare for a moment, then left with no word of departure, closing the door quietly behind him.
Flax laughed noiselessly to himself as he made his way down to the workshop floor. Sometime tonight number five engine on line six would breakdown temporarily, Flax had arranged it. A simple loosening of a main bearing cap would ensure that engine would seize slowly, but could quickly be remedied.
This would give him the opportunity to supply another mechanic to the Tans and shake again the precarious sanity of his deputy who had cursed his luck every night since he had been appointed to the position. Bolster would not be dismissed though, Flax would discipline him personally, this would suffice to punish the fat incompetent and fulfil part of Flax’s daily desire to inflict pain. No, he would never dismiss Bolster since the taste of his terror was unusually sweet. Silus Flax may have stopped demanding new victims from the Tans, but it did not mean his desires remained unsatisfied, Silus had found a new and exciting game to play and Bolster was a mere aperitif.
Approaching the East Gate of the Upper City, the off-duty Hall Engineer, dressed in the dark clothes in fitting with his intentions amongst the hovels and slums of the Lower City, waved to the guard on the gate. The guard, recognising him as a regular excursionist, let Flax through without a word. No one challenged the Black Gaffer.
As the gates closed behind him he turned quickly across the wide paved area that gave the gate-guards a wide field of view between the Upper City’s walls and the black, silent river which effectively cut off the two distinctive classes of Upper and Lower Dubh.
When Flax neared the bridge, which would allow him to cross the river, a shout rang out and two uniformed men stepped out from the concealment of the shadows. He turned tentatively toward them, his fingers closing tightly around the knife and wickedly sharp hatchet secreted beneath his cloak.
Dressed in ankle length, brown leather overcoats and breeches, eyes hidden by wide-brimmed pigskin hats which fended off the City’s almost perpetual rain, the two Tans approached Flax levelling muskets. The Tan Captain raised an oily torch that fumed thickly and smiled as Flax’s features became visible in the greasy light. He shrugged and shouldered his weapon and winked.
“Sport, pleasure or business tonight Mr.Flax?” he queried. Flax strode by without glancing at the two Tans.
“None of your business Captain, and please address me, at least, as Sir.” he spat and turned away from them with a dismissive shrug.
As the Tan Captain watched Flax’s back disappearing toward the bridge and the obscurity of the Lower City across it, he longingly fingered the trigger of his musket and muttered to himself. But could do nothing. At least not today, but he knew the Flax’s days were rumoured numbered and perhaps he would soon have the pleasure of dropping the arrogant bastard himself when the order came her thought to himself.
Silus Flax moved across the crumbling, algae streaked stone bridge toward the Lower City. He felt strangely vulnerable out here in the openas he gazed down at the black stagnant river that had been adopted as the waste disposal area and mortuary by the inhabitants of the Lower and Upper cities.
The stench from the river, even to the average sense of smell, was appalling, but for a man of Flax’s nasal sensitivity it was almost unbearable. The scented rag he held to his nose barely kept out the smells of death, raw sewerage and decaying flesh.
As he looked down a pale, bloated corpse drifted into view. Her wide eye-less sockets searching for hope in a heaven full of stars, but found only the smoggy brown imitation of the night sky produced by the Tallmen to give some measure of time to the world of their construction.
The girl’s body was bruised, battered and bloodily mutilated, the victim of some insane mind’s pursuit of perverted pleasure, now just another putrefying piece of flotsam, a value-less life washed out of existence by the tide of corruption that fed its corporeal leftovers to the not too discerning, and always flourishing, rat population. Flax left the bridge, to his relief, because the stench impaired his scent of what lay ahead and slid stealthily into the dizzy maze of city streets and dark, warren-like dwellings.
Here he felt confident, and as the adrenalin began to flow he felt vibrant as he stepped out onto the shining, oily cobbles washed by the misty rain, the venue for his new game. The alleyways in this part of the Lower City were relatively deserted at this hour of the night, only a few drunken souls staggered from the crowded main thoroughfares, toward their lodgings. Tomorrow the shift-bells would ring, summoning them back to the whip-labour beyond the Great Gate.
Failure to return to work would result in hideous punishments. When, and if, tracked down by the Tans, absentees being subjected to public torture, branding, castration, amputation of limbs, anything but death, everything of pain, but no merciful escape from T3a7ns conscription.
Most of those in the city tonight would sleep where they had collapsed, in the morning to be collected, collared and loaded onto wagons and shipped, still unconscious, back to the Great Gate.
Others though, returned to homes with children and wives. After all the Tans would always need future new blood and thus invested in some social stability for the rearing of new generations. So childbearing women and children under ten years received some degree of protection.
Although the great bulk of the population laboured for the Tans, there were a few who offered valuable services to the working population. Shopkeepers selling all manner of goods were considered vital to the city, small engineering workshops proliferated, manufacturing and supplying simple tools and equipment essential to the Tans operations beyond the Great Gate. The freedoms of such entrepreneurs were tolerated.
There were other groups who managed to avoid the Tan conscription. Those who were so physically unfit, diseased or disabled and were of no use to their Tan overlords, so scraped a living as beggars and petty thieves. Deep in the lower levels, the monstrous excuses for humanity Jonathon had seen on his journey to the surface were never bothered by the Tan press gangs, rather the Tans themselves, when they dared to venture into the seething pits of darkness and corruption in the bowels of Dubh, became victims of the beasts that lurked there.
Almost as bad as the underworld were the mazes of dark alleyways and shadowy streets on the periphery of the city, where pursuit of those who escaped conscription was impracticable and unprofitable for those who were not familiar with the area’s labyrinth like geography.
It was these streets and these alleyways that Silus Flax now stalked, seeking a victim for his blood lust. These places excited him, for here was a challenge. In these grim thoroughfares he himself was at risk from attack, vulnerable to the highly alert and cunning beings who had adapted to survival here. A thrill of excitement rushed through Flax as he padded deeper into danger, causing his body to tingle with anticipation.
It was too easy taking his victims from straight from the Tans. It was too easy choosing his victims from the doped and drunken hordes from the crowds of the city centre - they were too easily caught and the killing was of little pleasure. No, Silus had found the thrill of the hunt here, the sense of threat to his own existence, exhilarated him. Pitting his wits against the those beings who lurked in the darkness here and slid from shadow to shadow was a new pleasure he had discovered.
As he climbed up into the maze of cobbled streets toward the outskirts of the city he sniffed the air like a hungry wolf. Keeping to the deep pools of shadow, his whole body alert to his surroundings, Flax the hunter tasted the air for the scent of potential prey. Then, from out of sight and ahead of him, the mingling scent of two people exploded upon his nose’s sensitive receptors.
One was a young boy, the unusual and somewhat unique sweet scent of innocence and fear about him, the other was an older female, although not much older, confident and determined, herself seeking to satisfy her own animal pleasures, the strength of her sexual odours arousing Flax even from this distance. He crept stealthily through the darkness until he had them both in his sight.
The boy was flattened against a wall; the older woman pressed herself hard against him. Naked from the waist upwards she massaged her rain lacquered torso tantalisingly against the boy’s body. Her breasts, small and firm, were thrust into his face as she caressed him with her long, lean and claw-like fingers, which moved inside his clothing with a practised skill. Yet the youth resisted. She whispered in a soft, strained voice, her rising animal passions shaping her vowels.
“Come on boy, don’t you want me? You’ll soon be taken by the Tans and then you’ll have to pay the whores of the city to have you” she purred, as pleasure surged through her body in anticipation of the thought that she would have to force herself upon him.
She pushed him roughly to the hard cobbles and leapt astride him, throwing back her filthy mane of long, lank and matted hair, her large almost black eyes thanking the night for this precious gift she would defile.
“Mine all mine. I never thought I would find one such as you.” she groaned. She leaned down towards him, her sore riddled mouth seeking his, her foul breath suffocating him as her gritty nails bruised and tore his soft skin.
Jonathon Postlethwaite struggled to avoid her scabby lips, shock and fear had almost petrified him yet he still struggled avoid her touch.
He screamed, yet knew that the few that heard his cries would probably ignore them. Yet what scared him most was that something inside of him yearned for this woman, it burned deep and furiously screaming for her, but he refused to submit to it. He struggled with it and with this wild woman.
In the darkness behind Jonathon’s assailant something moved. Jonathon saw it, but she did not, intent on as she was on her prize. The shadow of a man loomed up and hung like a spectre over her, his large, powerful shoulders and pock-marked mien all too real the struggling boy. Jonathan knew him instantly…
The shadow man smiled and his nostrils flared wide as a sharp, shining blade flashed and crunched into the unwary woman’s spine. Her eyes blazed in pain and fear, anger even, yet no sound left her lips as a large hand clamped itself around her lower face and jaw.
She the predator was now the prey. She struggled as violently as she could, but her assailant lifted her effortlessly from Jonathon and hurled her like a rag doll to the floor beside him. She struggled into a sitting position, her legs paralysed by the initial knife wound in the spinal cord just as her attacker had calculated.
The beast stooped and his inky eyes, hanging astride an enormous beaklike nose, burned darkly. The dim light glinted on his saliva coated teeth as the knife flashed down again into her stomach, a warm spray of blood covering her intended victim. She slumped back subdued and the man bore down on her tearing at her hair for a hand hold, a knee across her hips to hold her still.
He produced a hatchet and began to hack at her form, each bone chipping blow calculated to inflict the maximum pain, but avoid killing her. Flax would drag out the assault as long as possible, prolonging her agony as long as her body could take it. She screamed and moaned with each blow and he fed on her pain, consumed her agony. But she was not strong and quickly expired, too soon for Flax, he was still hungry, still unsatisfied. His searing eyes turned now to the boy who had raised himself against the wall. The axe- man smiled. Here was the main course. Yes, this innocent young creature, this beautiful boy was his, he would satisfy him.
Flax inched closer to him, the aroma of acute fear hung around Jonathon. Flax drooled. He moved closer. Bringing his face so close he was almost touching his petrified prisoner.
Jonathon could not move, could not even focus his eyes, his warm, shallow, panting breath drying the saliva and blood on Flax’s lips. Flax chuckled softly. He could kill this beautiful creature here and now, but he knew that he could extract greater satisfaction if he dragged him away to some safe spot and tortured him at leisure. What a feast it would be, it would last for days, a long feast on this delicious whelp’s sweet pain and fear. Jonathon was now a mere spectator, his body no longer his to command, the shock of the past minutes had numbed his senses. The violence and suddenness of both attacks was too much for him to comprehend. His mind was recoiling and, as much as he willed his arms and legs to move, they refused to respond. He could only sit and watch distantly detached into the eyes of the shadow of a man who now had him in his grasp, at his mercy, except knew nothing of the word.
Jonathon felt his consciousness drawn into the Flax’s, sick mind. It was a bottomless seething pit of corruption. He was repelled from it as he had been before and vomited involuntarily into beast’s face which withdrew.
Flax swore as the acidic vomit tore at the lining of his nose and drew back his arm preparing to strike his prize into unconsciousness and facilitate a convenient journey to his Upper City lair. But the blow never came.
The helpless Postlethwaite watched dumbly as a house brick sailed, as if in slow motion, out of the darkness above him and struck the back of assailant’s head with a sickening crack. Flax keeled over backwards, his eyes rolling upwards as he plummeted into a senseless oblivion.
A strong, hand reached down from above Jonathon and, grabbing him by the collar, lifted him upwards toward the top of the wall under which he had found himself at Silus Flax’s mercy. As he rose upwards towards safety he heard a voice speak,
“Erm, sorry we were late young ’un, but better late than never they say, eh?”