"In the clear air, the stars drilled down out of the sky, reminding any thoughtful watcher that it is in the deserts and high places that religions are generated. When men see nothing but bottomless infinity over their heads they have always had a driving and desperate urge to find someone to put in the way."
~Terry Pratchett, Jingo
It seemed like it rained every damn day once I arrived in Sparkle City. The locals were used to it – I never saw them without one of their oiled, hooded greatcoats. Once night fell, everyone who walked the streets looked like a mysterious stranger, sheltered from the rain and the filthy light from the guttering street-lamps. I pitied the poor man who had to light them, whoever he was. I had my own rain clothes, which I wore after my first soaking. My business in town kept me outdoors in the evenings, and I felt quite happy on the second night, when the rain slid off of my nice latex windbreaker.
The third night, on top of everything else that had happened that day, it rained acid that melted right through said windbreaker. I yelped and started down the street for the inn where I was living. Another big droplet stung my neck. The clouds looked quite angry.
I'm melting, I'm melting! I had time enough to imagine myself as a hag, quickly becoming a long green stain on the gravel street. But a minor angel opened a door and shouted for me to come in out of the falling poison, blazing idiot that I was.
I shouldered my way through the door just before the bottom dropped out. "Wow," I breathed.
"Ayuh," said the smooth-pated messiah. "That right there would have melted the skin off'n your back. Woulda lived, though." He coughed. "For a while, at least."
"Jesus Christ," I muttered. I hadn't expected life-threatening weather out here. "Quite a town you have. I guess, by your relaxed attitude, that killer drizzles aren't unheard of out here?"
He shrugged, and gestured to the laden coat rack.
"What's this place?"
He turned and stomped through the narrow foyer. I followed, and before long it opened into a small tavern. Firelit, like everything else off of A-94. A-94 was the only paved road between Kilton City and Port Russel, a nearly seven hundred mile stretch. Civilization basically ended in Kilton, and things only got more lawless as one approached pirate-infested Port Russel. Anyways, the place was a tavern. It was dimly lit but very clean, with old furniture and a very polished bar. Big mirrors on the walls stretched the gloom into infinity. My savior stomped around behind the bar, his good deed done for the day. There were four of us that night: the good barman, myself, a young black man (he was humming to himself and playing bluesy piano chords essentially at random. In his own world, perhaps, but not unpleasant to listen to), and another old guy. He was shabbily-dressed and rather grizzled, but the eyes which peeked out from between his gnarly beard and colossal eyebrows sparkled. He was bent over a full bottle of some appealing-looking brown stuff.
"Howdy," he drawled. "Nice to see the stranger is smart enough to get outta the rain."
"The stranger," I replied. "I guess the whole town knows about me?"
"Well, you're the only one who doesn't have one of those slimy leather coats Boggy sells. But I imagine you'd like one now, heh heh."
I chuckled too, happy to laugh at my own expense. "I bet his is the one business in town that doesn't have to advertise."
"Ayuh, you got it." Then he asked me the question, the only question that, at the very end of the day, really mattered. "Are you going?"
I sighed. "Yeah, I am. Tried to convince someone to join me, but..."
He nodded sagely and poured me a shot from the bottle in front of him.
I appreciated his gentleness. "How about yourself?"
The man furrowed his brow, and the collision of hairs was audible. "Can't say. Figured the djinni in this phial could lend some wisdom. Do help me rush him along."
I needed no further encouragement, and before long the djinni had made noticeable progress.
The man's name was Evan Hansen, no relation to the notorious businessperson – at least as far as anyone knew. We stopped to breathe some pure air, and I slurred a question about why he couldn't make the big decision to go.
He gave me a sly grin. "Would you believe," he whispered, "That I know Sister Cat?"
"No sir, I would not! Hah, but I'd love to hear your tall tale about it. Please, regale me!"
Well, he told me.
I'm not sure when I decided I believed him. Truthfully, I never consciously made the decision.
His story, like so bloody many stories for the last few years, didn't start out being about Sister Cat. But when she finally took the stage, she took it over completely. Love her or hate her, you can't say that she hasn't turned the whole world upside-down. Evan gave me permission to share this story with the world, and I've reproduced it as faithfully as I can. I haven't spared any public figure. Not even Sister Cat, God forgive us both.
THE DIVIDE ~NUEVO JUDEA~
TIME OF SIN
The smell of leather is one of God's minor miracles. It's the smell of skin, and shit, and time. Normally both crap and skin smell worse over time. Somehow rubbing the excrement into the skin makes a special magic. It's rich and comforting. It even tastes good, or rather, less bad than you'd expect.
This special smell was thick inside a canvas tent. It came from the leather a small man in a dark robe was detailing. He was adding ornate swirls and decadent textures to a saddle. He'd recently purchased a horse from the out-land farmers. Such big beasts they were, and his was a prize: a retired warhorse. The little man felt like he came up to the animal's knee. In a week he and his family would begin the long trek across the hardpan, and he would be taller than his sons once again. It was an exciting prospect.
The canvas was glowing cherry-red. Sunset was bright out away from the mountains, and the light was pouring in between every woven fiber.
The old man licked his lips. Trading with the out-landers had been good this year. It felt strange, dealing with them. They wavered between obsessively private – the old man shivered, recalling the unfortunate incident with the young mother and the camel – and utterly shameless. They were heathens, of course. He'd known that going in, but that didn't lessen the impact of the licentious treats available to whosoever desired them. It was known that God forbade drunkenness, and with good reason. Alcohol could make you less, reduce you to your lowest animal self. But the Scriptures which forbade all drinking had recently fallen under academic scrutiny. Things in the empire were happier and more prosperous than ever.
The two cases of tequila – which would be officially black-market in about thirty miles – were certain to make the old man happier and more prosperous than ever.
The caravan got moving before down the following morning. It was cool and quiet, and the hardpan was easier to travel on than it looked. In the dark it looked like smooth stone. The big horse's iron shoes cracked the surface, making a dry snap with each step. His hoofprints were perfect.
"Cruel things, these horse-shoes," opined the old man from his perch. His eldest son grunted. This other man, becoming old himself, had an upset stomach, and was consequently grumpy. "No crueler than the way we clip dogs' ears, I suppose."
"We're at the border," the marginally younger man said.
This desert was an odd one. The Yocona People had built a line of fortresses, the only stone-work attributed to them. (Academic legend holds that the forts predate the Yocona, but there's no evidence for the theory besides the sour feeling archaeologists get when they look at the ruins and contemplate the underclass the Yocona were reduced to when the out-landers moved in.) The forts were now just ruins, piles of sandblasted stones. What was so odd was that the hardpan, right on the eastern side of the ruins, rapidly crumbled into fluffy dunes.
"Ah," rumbled the old man. He was in a sophistical mood. "We leave the out-lander lands. Rumor has it that they came from across a great ocean, you know."
"Yes father. I know."
"I cannot believe such rumors. Only a fool would try to cross an ocean. You have checked our water?"
"We have water for two weeks, father."
"Yes, because an ocean is too great a challenge for any man to survive. And you have checked our food supplies?"
"We have food for three weeks. Should God will we suffer, we have horses, camels and our trade goods."
The old man grinned down at his child. "You are a good son."
The first shot took the good son in the throat. The son's horse bolted out from under the body. The big stallion looked up and whickered. Finally, something interesting was happening. He old man stared slack-jawed until another shot shattered his hipbone. He spun, wrenching his leg in the stirrup. His big horse snorted his displeasure and began turning in a circle around him.
The old man heard other shots, but no screaming. No yelling. About a minute later, he heard a child sobbing. Then one more shot.
"What if you're wrong, Amaranth?"
"If I – if we – are wrong about God, then we must make ourselves right. We must do anything to find Him. Anything. But, Father, I am not wrong."
"Your zeal smacks of arrogance, Amaranth."
A dry chuckle. "Forgive my faith, Father. It has been a convicting day."
"I heard about how you tracked down the source of the poison trickling into our family. You were far too violent against our brethren."
"Those who leave to fold of God are no-"
"That is not your decision, Amaranth."
A long, teeth-grinding pause. "Forgive me, Father."
"God forgives all. Go make things right, but do not fail to be right yourself."
"Thank you. I will return soon."
Baqh'Medina is an amazing city. The white marble used to build the palatial High City was quarried on the other side of the Empire, while the Low City was built of local materials, adobe and sandalwood. From a distance it looked like a pile of sugar in a saucer of rich cream.
The people living there were not always so lovely. Individuals were known to the Administrators of the Yocona Territory to be bandits, thieves, and murderers of Confederate Citizens. The Confederacy and the Empire were only beginning diplomatic relations. Confederate Law (such as it was) prohibited all non-governmental contact until relations were 'normalized.' All this meant, really, was that the Yocona Territory had to hire mercenaries to spy on Baqh'Medina, rather than ordering soldiers to do it.
Two such mercenaries were peering out of a dugout roughly fifteen miles from the city. Their hideout was a square pit with a wooden roof covered with sand. A three-inch gap kept them supplied with air, light, and things to look at.
One was watching while the other dozed. The watcher tossed a clump of sand over his shoulder. It smacked the dozer on the nose. The dozer started. He grumbled and rolled over, rubbing dust deeper into his eyes. The dozer gave an interrogative grunt. The watcher pointed at the black-robed rider who left the city. He was alone, and not heavy-loaded. This wasn't unusual, except he was heading west. Toward the Territory, toward the Divide. A lone rider making his way west was unheard of. The dozer sighed melodramatically and scribbled a few words in a tiny notebook. After, he pointed at the rider. Should we follow him?
The watcher shook his head and shrugged. No. What's one man going to do?
The dozer nodded and went back to sleep.
MEASURE 1: FEDERÁLES
Evan Hansen felt precisely when his skin transitioned from hot to burned. An itch, a brief tingle ran through him. He murmured a curse. Life was going to be very painful for a while.
"You burned, Ev." His older brother Rowan tossed a linen shirt at him.
Evan was pale, like his mother. They didn't tan, they always burned. He was fifteen, midway through a growth spurt. He had been dirty blonde, but his hair was getting darker every day. Hansen men were strong, rangy folks with a reputation for vigor in all walks of life. Hansen boys were suave, sophisticated and intelligent (for frontier kids, anyway). Between the two was a period of madness, when bones stretched themselves so fast you could hear them creaking like bamboo, when the skin gushed oil and pus, and the brain marinated itself in bizarre chemicals.
Evan had a hazy, academic understanding of the temporality of his condition. To be specific: he was certain it would last forever, and knew he was wrong about that. He was, in short, utterly miserable.
Author's note: I discovered this story in some old files, and decided to publish this bit largely as-is. Since I've gone ahead and shown it to you, I obviously plan to return to this material, but it will most likely pick up in a very different style and go in a very different direction than the one I envisioned in mid-2013.