Beyond Workwear and Americana: Western Workwear .
To understand the context of this guide, you should first know a bit about workwear in general. u/Smilotron
wrote this excellent guide
, which I highly recommend you read. In the guide, he defines Americana as a subset of workwear. This guide defines western workwear as a subset of Americana, and focuses on the elements of Americana that have a Western vibe. Basically, it tries to thread the needle between rodeo dad
and basic workwear
. Still, the west is a big place. For this guide I don’t narrowly focus on one area of the west, but think more cowboy than park ranger. I’m also leaving out tailoring (something I don’t know much about) and SLP-esque stuff, although the latter does have several points of overlap. I added a couple inspo album to help show what I mean: Personal Inspo Album RRL Inspo Album
from u/ancient-alien Materials
One of the most important aspects of western workwear is wear. Clothing that is noticeably broken in and worn looks best, so pick materials carefully. Denim, leather (both top grain and suede), and waxed cotton show wear quite well. Wool and cotton are good materials as well. Polyester, rayon, and other synthetic materials are best avoided. I’m going to refer to both roughout and suede as “suede” because the difference isn’t very important. Also, I honestly don’t know the difference between different cotton weaves so if I say “cotton” I mean everything that’s not denim or waxed cotton. Fit
There’s a fair amount of leeway when it comes to fit. You want to stick to relatively slim (not skinny) clothing: you don’t want to be swimming in anything. Still, you can go a bit wider and a bit slimmer with no issues. History
A lot of Americana depends on history and heritage. I’m going to start off with a couple articles on the history of some of these items. Feel free to skip this, or read the rest of the guide and come back, it’s not essential. Bandanas Cowboy Boots Filson Levi's/Denim Mackinaw Jacket Wabash
(just mouse over the underlined word “wabash” in the details section) Western Patterns Woolrich
Common Items Jackets Leather Jackets
(Black Roughout Trucker
, Tan Racer
, Brown Suede Racer
, Brown Shearling
These are probably the most classic jackets for Western workwear. Any type of leather works, but suede and shearling look better than top grain. Stick to shades of brown and tan. Cafe racer, trucker, and button-up leather jackets are the best cuts.
Buy From: Taylor Stitch
($), Freenote Cloth
(Waxed Cotton Freenote Cloth Jacket
, Cotton Jacket
Brown chore coats are another classic element of western workwear. Waxed cotton is better, as it breaks in much more than standard cotton, but both work. Color is very important. Stick to a warm brown
for regular cotton chore coats. Waxed cotton coats have more leeway: nearly any shade of brown looks good.
Buy From: Carhartt
($), L.C. King
($$), Freenote Cloth
(Raw Denim Jacket
, Shearling Jacket
Denim jackets are a bit tricky. While they certainly go with the denim-heavy vibe of western workwear, wearing them with a denim shirt and jeans is difficult to pull off. For all those non-denim shirts, however, denim jackets are great. It’s best to stick to medium wash, dark wash, or black denim. Make sure that there is a noticeable difference in wash between the color of your jacket and your jeans. A shearling lining can also help to separate multiple levels of denim. If you’re curious, this
is a quick primer on the types, but they’re minor differences that don’t matter much in the end.
Buy From: Levi's
($), Taylor Stitch
, Patterned Overcoat
, Gray Mackinaw
, Red Mackinaw
Wool jackets are the heavy hitters that make this viable in truly cold conditions. These split into two main groups: patterned jackets and mackinaw jackets. Western patterned jackets are tough to find, as very few bands carry them. They can come in any form, from overcoats to overshirts. Of course, patterned jackets are possible in other fabrics, but the brands that sell these almost always make them in wool. Mackinaw jackets are much easier to find, but not all of them look Western. Stick to gray or red buffalo plaid.
Buy From: Filson Mackinaw
I’ve listed the main categories of jackets, but there are still a few other types that work, although they are a bit more niche. The first is Wabash. Wabash is a bit of a weird one- it’s denim adjacent, as it’s indigo dyed and fades like denim. It wears in very well. The other is the RRL knit cardigans. These are typically intricately patterned and very high quality. While there are certainly more jackets that I haven’t mentioned, this list covers the main ones.
Buy From: Ben Viapiana
Shirts Plain Denim Shirts
, Medium Wash
, Light Wash
Denim shirts are an absolute essential. While any denim shirt will do, a Western yoke helps to put it firmly in the category of Western. A Western yoke is the extra piece of fabric that comes over the shoulders, as you can see in this pic
. Check out this guide
for more info on shirt parts. Just like denim jackets, be sure there is a significant difference between the color of your pants and your shirt. Light and medium wash shirts are the most easily worn, but dark wash can work as well. Chambray shirts are so similar to denim shirts that I’m not going to differentiate between them, so they’re included in this as well. Embroidery and wear
can make these a lot more interesting.
Buy From: Levi's
($), Taylor Stitch
($$), Iron Heart
Patterned Denim Shirts
, TS Western
, Striped Denim
, RRL Jacquard
There are a few patterned denim shirts, although they are a bit rare. Wabash shirts are the most common, although they can still be tough to find.. There are also a few shirts that have a similar pattern to Wabash, but with a more intricate design instead of just dots. Striped denim shirts and shirts with jacquard patterns are two other good options.
Buy From: Ben Viapiana
($$$), Iron Heart
Other Cotton and Wool Shirts
(Red Iron Heart
, Freenote Cloth
, Faherty Patterned
, Pendleton Flannel
These shirts are difficult, but not for lack of options. Rather, the overwhelming amount of options makes it difficult to find shirts that really fit the Western vibe. It’s difficult to make any hard rules about which shirts work, but there are a few guidelines. First, a Western yoke goes a long way towards cementing that Western look. Second, pay attention to color: red, orange, and brown are generally the best colors. This is probably best seen with the Pendleton flannels. This flannel
has that dusty Western vibe, while this one
just looks really flat. You can also see this with the Iron Heart buffalo plaid flannels. This flannel
definitely looks more Western than this green one
. In addition, pay attention to patterns. Buffalo plaid is a safe bet, and you want to stay away from anything that’s too busy. While this shirt
is the same color as the Iron Heart one above, the addition of an extra color and all those lines makes it way too busy. Shirts with Western patterns, such as this shirt
look really good, but are tough to find.
Buy From: Taylor Stitch
($$), Iron Heart
, Indigo Henley
Henleys are an Americana staple. White/natural henleys are the most classic, and can work on their own or as undershirts. Indigo, black, and gray are also good options.
Buy From: J. Crew
($), Taylor Stitch
($$), Merz B. Schwanen
, White Indigo Stripe
, RRL Striped
There are a few other niche options that don’t really fit well into a category. White shirts work as a good basic, although they don’t have a strong Western vibe. There are some white patterned shirts that look good, many of which have a Mandarin collar. Suede shirts are also a fantastic option in almost any color but, again, are difficult to find.
Buy From: RRL
, Medium Wash
Jeans are absolutely the core of western workwear. In terms of fit, sticking with relatively slim (not skin tight) jeans are a safe option to avoid the rodeo dad look. Make sure to either cuff or crop your jeans so that there isn’t too much piling up on your boots. A variety of washes can work, including black, but washes that mimic natural fading are best. For example, these jeans
look a lot better than these jeans
primarily due to fit and how natural the fading looks.
Buy From: Levi's
($), Naked and Famous
, White Jeans
, Brown Pants
While jeans are really all you need, there are a few other options. Suede pants look good in almost every color. White jeans are a surprisingly good option, but it’s difficult to find the right cut and thickness. Brown pants, while not giving as strong of a Western vibe, can also work. For brown pants, stick to a warm brown (just like with the regular cotton chore coats).
Buy From: Rogue Territory
Shoes Cowboy Boots
(Dark Brown Suede
, Light Brown Suede
Cowboy boots are the most obvious option for footwear. There are, however, a couple ways you can go wrong with these. First, don’t tuck your pants into your boots. Next, let’s look at two pairs of boots: these work boots
versus these Lucchese boots
. They’re both brown cowboy boots with stitching on the toe, but the Lucchese boots look far better. This is due to a few things: the work boots have a thick lugged rubber sole, a square toe, and a much chunkier profile. The Lucchese leather is also shinier. From this example, you can see the importance of silhouette: cowboy boots should be relatively slim, have a thin leather sole, and not have a square toe. Suede and top grain both look great, and any shade of brown or tan is a good color.
Buy From: Tecovas
If you don’t want to go full cowboy, chelsea boots are a fantastic option. The same warnings of cowboy boots apply: make sure the sole and toe aren’t too large and chunky or you end up with Blundstones
. On the other side, you want to avoid streetwear chelsea boots with a crepe sole like these Common Projects
. Also steer clear of anything highly polished like these boots
: you want your boots to look like they can take a hit. Something like these Vibergs
are perfect. As with cowboy boots, suede and top grain both look great, and any shade of brown or tan is perfect.
Buy From: Astorflex
($), R.M. Williams
, Brown Lace-Up Boots
Engineer boots are an option with a strong Western vibe, but they’re a bit of an acquired taste. Of course, you can forgo all of these shoes altogether and simply wear a set of standard brown boots. Just like with the chelsea boots, you need to thread the needle between overly chunky work boots and sleek dress boots. Something like Iron Rangers
are a good example. Once again, stick to brown and tan.
Buy From: Red Wing
($), Oak Street
, Brown Hat
Hats are difficult to style without being over the top. Keep them relatively small and unstructured, and you should be good. Dark colors also help to avoid looking like these idiots
Buy From: Stetson
($$), Lone Hawk
Rings can look super dope, but show some restraint. Turquoise
, and band
rings look cool, but keep the size to a minimum. Something like this
is a little much. I haven’t seen many bracelets or necklaces, but go ahead and wear them. When it comes to turquoise jewelry, please try to buy from Native American artists. This helps to support the communities that originally created a lot of this art and are historically impoverished due to the actions of the US government. Please do your research, however, as this article
shows the devastating economic impact that fake Native American jewelry can make. I’ve listed a couple sites that are legit as far as I can tell.
Buy From: Etsy ($-$$$), Iron Heart
($$$), Pueblo Direct
Bandanas are heavily associated with the American West, and there are lots of cool bandanas with interesting patterns and prints. Stick it in your pocket, tie it around your neck, put it in your closet to look at every once in a while, or do whatever. These can be hard to style without looking costumey, but have fun with it.
Buy From: Etsy
($), Mister Freedom
A lot of people associate western clothing with huge belt buckles. These can be pretty hard to pull off, so it's best to stay away from these if you're unsure. u/CharmingCan7
pointed out to me that studded belts are a great addition that are more subtle and easy to style. u/FamousLastName
made this amazing post
about studded belts, everyone should totally read it.
Buy From: 706 Union
Other Guide and Inspo Albums u/ancient-alien
posts some pretty slammin Western fits, although he leans more SLP than workwear RRL Inspo Album
: a huge inspo album from u/ancient-alien Bandana Inspo Album
: an inspo album from u/jerichokilo Cowboy Inspo Album
: an inspo album from u/jerichokilo Mackinaw Jacket Inspo Album
: a bit of history and an inspo album from u/ayysic Westernish Inspo Album
: a super cool and creative album from u/criminal_pink Denim Shirt Inspo Album
: an inspo album from u/thisishirokisamerica Workwear Guide
: a guide from u/smilotron Cory Mahlke Instagram
: an Instagram that features a lot of Western fits Boot Brand List
: an overwhelming number of places to buy boots from, courtesy of goodyearwelt Raw Denim Buying Guide
: an overwhelming number of places to buy raw denim from, courtesy of rawdenim
Buying Aggregators AB Fits
- Lots of niche brands available Berkeley Supply
- Probably the coolest store I’ve been into, they offer a ton of staple brands Blue Owl
- Mainly Japanese workwear, but has some Western stuff as well Franklin and Poe
- Workwear shop in Philadelphia Huckberry
- Huge aggregator of a lot of brands, including some niche ones Lone Flag
- California brand that sells the standard brands Self-Edge
- Very high end workwear Snake Oil Provisions
- Super cool store that focuses on Western workwear Stag Provisions
- Texas brand that sells a lot of cool stuff, including RRL Standard and Strange
- Lots of cool vintage and repro brands Withered Fig
- Virginia based store that is more curated Brands
- Good budget footwear including chelseas Carhartt
- Heritage brand with great chore coats J. Crew
- Sell some staples such as denim shorts and jeans, but nothing exciting Levi’s
- Good budget denim Stetson
- Huge cowboy hat maker Taylor Stitch
- Relatively budget-friendly brand that sells some western shirts Woolrich
- Really old American brand, tons of stuff on eBay, don’t buy new
- Great denim and some jackets that work well with Western workwear Bradley Mountain
- MiUSA jackets, luggage, and leather goods Corridor
- Very rarely has Western clothing, but they make my one of my favorite shirts Filson
- Another OG American brand, they make a few good shirts and a lot of jackets Flint and Tinder
- Huckberry’s in-house brand, lots of cool MiUSA staples L.C. King
- MiUSA chore coats and denim Left Field NYC
- MiUSA denim and some shirts Lucchese Boots
- Heritage cowboy boot brand Naked and Famous
- Great entry-level raw denim Outclass
- Workwear brand that has some stuff with a Western vibe Pendleton
- An OG American brand, you can find a ton of their vintage stuff used on eBay and in thrift stores Rogue Territory
- MiUSA brand, whose highlight is their denim and waxed cotton jacket Tecovas
- Modern cowboy boots, definitely the best for the budget Thursday Boots
- Very budget-friendly boots
$$$ Ben Viapiana
- Fantastic custom stuff Freenote Cloth
- MiUSA brand that make a lot of Western workwear Ginew USA
- MiUSA native owned brand that sells all sorts of Western staples Gitman Vintage
- MiUSA brand (although that may change) that make some Western flannels Grease Point Workwear
- Very cool MiUSA workwear Harden Co.
- Vintage inspired MiUSA workwear Iron Heart
- Very substantial flannels and denim Lone Hawk
- Very interesting restored vintage hats Merz B. Schwanen
- Vintage-inspired henleys Railcare Fine Goods
- MiUSA denim and jackets RRL
- Some of the best Western clothing out there Tellason
- MiUSA denim, jackets, and shirts Viberg
- Some of the best side-zips and chelseas you can buy
The Commander stood straight with his hands clasped behind his back, carefully upright despite his age even with no one present to bear witness to it. His eyes had fixed on the sterile white drifts beyond the reinforced window of his office, now appearing black beneath the night above. Some might have called the view uninspiring, but not far beyond the window lay a grave. It was not a much-decorated grave considering the expense it had taken to bury its sole occupant there, beneath a shipping tag torn from a compressed-air container and pinned in place with a knife. submitted by
The Commander wished that it was the grave's occupant standing here now instead of him. He didn't know what the hell he was supposed to do now, but whatever it was, the grave's occupant would have done it better.
Failing that, being able to phone home for orders would have been nice. The first flash of bad weather that knocked out their radio hadn't perturbed the Commander. The second surge, that knocked out the repaired radio, had perturbed him more. After receiving their unexpected visitor they'd took a chance on activating their last set of spares, and a storm had knocked that out too. Now they were out of contact for days, at least, until the base technicians could improvise another solution.
It didn't seem likely the visitor could have caused all that. But he was also having a hard time believing that it had been sheer coincidence. Perhaps their visitor had known that they would be out of contact, at this particular time, and had chosen just then to arrive...
The communicator on his desk warbled out its mock-melody, and the Commander took a step over to press the button with only a glance at the ID. He'd been waiting on this call.
A young woman's voice said, "Sir."
There had been a time earlier in his career when he would have been nervous about handing over duties this important to a member of the fairer sex. He felt no such anxiety this day. Nobody got assigned to this Base unless they were damned good at their jobs.
The vidscreen flickered into action, displaying the upper half of - the Commander privately admitted and would certainly never say out loud - the prettiest sight on the Base, or at least, she'd been the prettiest sight as of one day earlier. If Major Jane Getherde was feeling any feminine jealousy about her suddenly materialized competition, she wasn't showing it.
"All right," the Commander said. "Tell me about our... guest."
"Do you want the most important parts first or should I take things in order?"
"Take it in order, if there's nothing of imminent urgency." He should have been woken again from his sleep if that had occurred. He wouldn't have been sleeping at all, in this situation, except he'd already stayed awake the previous 36 hours trying to fix the radio problem. He was no longer as young as he'd been.
Major Getherde's comportment betrayed no sign of fatigue from her own sleepless night. "All the noninvasive examination I could do with medical instrumentation I had on hand showed our guest as an ordinary human female in every respect. Zero scars, zero birthmarks, no evidence of significant surgeries. White, perfectly aligned teeth with no evidence of fillings or other dental work. Her feet do not have calluses."
The Commander raised a hand and massaged his temples. "Can you tell me whether we're looking at advanced medical care, genetic engineering, or something wearing a newly grown body?"
"I can't think of an easy way to tell. You could order me to inflict a small cut on her and observe how fast it heals."
The Commander grimaced. "Let's continue holding off on that for now. The items she had with her?"
"The earrings glow faintly in the dark. No alpha or beta, very low gamma, consistent with a properly shielded isotopic power source. The high heels seemed ordinary on a surface examination. I didn't want to try more destructive tests, such as X-Rays that could potentially destroy concealed microfilm, without waiting for orders."
Considering that the visitor had been wearing nothing except earrings and high heels on arrival, under circumstances where a visitor should have been wearing rather more, he would have bet a great deal of money that the heels were not ordinary either. "Agreed. Keep holding off on that."
"A full medical examination revealed that the subject had a small case hidden in her vagina. I, ah, took it out. It wasn't locked, and inside were two ampules that looked like they were intended for a hypodermic injector. The case is self-refrigerating."
The Commander grimaced, not liking to think of the required invasion. "Any notion of what it was doing up there?"
"No sir. Obvious thoughts are that she was hiding it, or that something about her transportation method made it easier to carry things inside her body. The XO decided that the equipment should be kept away from the subject for now."
The Commander nodded. "I concur. Continue."
"The two ampules inside the case appeared to be filled with a homogenous transparent liquid. Since there were two seemingly identical ampules, the XO agreed that it was reasonable to draw a small amount of the liquid for further examination. After optical microscopy failed, I had the electron microscope moved into the medical section. Electron microscopy showed virus particles in suspension."
The Commander didn't straighten, because he was already standing completely straight, but his expression sharpened. "A virus? Are you sure?"
"It was hard to be sure from electron microscopy alone. After some discussion with the XO I decided it was worth the risk to inoculate a live mouse with a tiny amount of the fluid - under highest biohazard conditions - in order to observe the results."
The Commander shook his head, frowning. "Not what I would have done," he understated.
"I wasn't sure how long the sample of liquid would survive. The XO thought it made more sense to use it before losing it, rather than needing to draw another sample later. It did seem like something we'd want to try at some point."
The Commander sighed. "So do we now have a shape-changing psionic supermouse destroying our base?"
"No sir?" Major Getherde sounded uncertain.
The trouble with youngsters nowadays was not just that they lacked history but that, lacking history, they lacked imagination. If you were a Native American and people in unfamiliar ships suddenly showed up on your shore, you would be mistaken to assume that your experience with arrows let you understand the destructive potential of the invaders' ammunition stores. Playing with the stranger's toys while she was asleep had not been the correct move.
"What did happen?" said the Commander.
"After a period of four hours consistent with rapid incubation of a disease, the mouse developed a fever. At four and a half hours it began to bleed from all orifices, then it... melted... and then what was left caught on fire."
The Commander scrutinized Major Getherde to see if she was joking, although that seemed unlikely under the circumstances. "A bioweapon?" he said, feeling chilled.
"I would be shocked if it were intended as a weapon, sir," Major Getherde replied, sounding more confident than her previous statements. "A bioweapon should have a long period of contagious incubation, and should only produce symptoms that contribute to its propagation or lethality. Nobody engineering a bioweapon would sit there thinking about how to make the corpse catch on fire after it finished melting."
The Commander nodded, feeling ashamed of himself for not seeing that earlier, and mentally upgrading his estimate of the girl's competence by another notch. "Do you have any idea what the virus is, if not a weapon?"
"Speculation only. I think we may be looking at a biological Swiss army knife, a multitool. A portable lab. I can't see much detail with our equipment, but the virus particles were huge, as large as a herpes virus, and those can carry hundreds of kilobases of DNA. In the hands of an expert, there might be specific settings that produce supermice. We didn't know how to use the portable laboratory, so it deployed random effects that melted the mouse and set it on fire."
That made a surprising amount of sense. The Commander turned the idea over in his mind, considering it. If he had been traveling far from his home civilization, unable to carry even the clothes on his back but still able to carry one kilo of material, his first thought would have been to bring with the Library of Congress on a hyperchip, plus a microfilm on how to construct a reader to retrieve the hyperchip's data. Taking an entire laboratory wouldn't have occurred to him... but that was because his civilization still thought in terms of machines and engines, rather than kilobases of DNA. His race had unlocked the secrets of the Atom; the mysteries held in Life were of a higher order. "Do you have any idea how to operate her... laboratory?"
"It could be a matter of exposing the ampule to a sequence of colored lights. Or feeding a subject the right mix of eye of toad and tongue of newt before infection, if the tool is meant to operate in more primitive settings. The key could be in the earrings, or the high heels, or something we haven't spotted. It seems likely to take considerable experimentation, if we can work it out at all."
The Commander grimaced. "Had the feeling it was a stupid question, but I was hoping you'd tell me otherwise."
"Sorry sir." Major Getherde looked genuinely apologetic.
"Not your fault, son," the Commander said before he could stop himself, then helplessly considered if he should correct himself to "daughter" which did not sound right to him, or apologize to her, or... it was probably better to just drop it. "Next steps?"
Major Jane Getherde spread her hands. "Wait for our guest to wake up."
As if timed to her words, beeping began to sound from off the vidscreen.
A couple of hours later, the Commander was sitting beside Lt. Commander Akio Nagasaki, his base second-in-command, one of Japan's contributions to NATO. Major Getherde had been the only person to have physical contact with the visitor, sealed away from the rest of the base in the medical quarantine unit - the most obvious and basic of precautions. The Commander had on further consideration taken the less obvious step of ordering that only Major Getherde was permitted to communicate directly with the visitor. The existence of psionics and mental superpowers still seemed unlikely, even under the circumstances. But the Commander couldn't be sure, that was the problem, he couldn't be sure of anything. The visitor could have a hyper-advanced organic computer buried in her brain, indetectable to X-Rays, augmenting her ability to read body language and manipulate lesser minds. God damn it, shouldn't his base have had detailed protocols on file for a Little Green Man scenario?
"Report," the Commander said to Major Getherde's image on the vidscreen.
Major Getherde had a distant look about her, as though she was operating on momentum while not really believing in what was happening. "Our visitor identified herself as 'Starry' and presents herself as being... well, sir, I know it sounds unbelievable, and I'm not asserting any such thing myself, but 'Starry' claims to be from an alternate branch of Earth's history."
Beside him, Nagasaki's eyebrows flew up, the Japanese man showing more open emotion than he usually did. The Commander's own mind was recalling dim memories of sci-fi stories he'd read when he was a good deal younger, in particular the Paratime stories by H. Beam Piper. In his mind's eye he stretched out a long timeline of Earth's history, ready to extrapolate possible changes. "Point of divergence?" the Commander said at once. He'd been prepared to stay calm in the face of stranger stories than that one.
The Major looked taken aback herself at her Commander's lack of shock. "Ah... I'm not sure. Taking everything she said at face value, 'Starry' said she was from the United States of her world, a town called Norville in central California. We don't seem to have a national street map on base, so I couldn't check her knowledge of local roads, but she had Interstate 5 right. Her belief about the current date and year matches ours, minus the day she spent unconscious. She confirmed George Washington as the first President and that Abraham Lincoln won the Civil War. She recognized Eisenhower's name, though she wasn't sure whether he'd been President. Mentioning Harry Truman's name made her say 'Dewey defeats Truman', so that part happened the same way. World War II ended with atom bombs being dropped on, ah..." The Major's eyes darted in the direction that would correspond to Akio Nagasaki on her own vidscreen - an unnecessary concern, but the Major evidently didn't know that. "The same two cities. No recognition of Adlai Stevenson's name, or any later Presidents from our world except Jimmy Carter. She named John F. Kennedy as a President in her own world, one she remembered because he'd been assassinated."
That put the divergence at 1960 or earlier. Part of the Commander's mind was trying out possible stories for what would have changed without Stevenson in power. More of his attention was focused on the further implications of her not knowing whether Eisenhower had been President in her America. "She didn't know her own world's history?" he said.
Major Getherde wore a look of faint disapproval. "She had to think hard to remember the current Speaker of the House - Nancy Pelosi, no idea who that is - and she had no idea at all who her Representative was."
"Amnesia?" Akio said.
"I don't think so, and she didn't seem otherwise stupid or scatterbrained. More like she'd played hooky on all her high school civics classes and her family didn't subscribe to any newspapers."
Akio snorted, mirroring the Major's disapproving look.
The Commander lifted a quelling hand. "Don't judge her when we don't know her circumstances," he stated. God knew there were still some kids, even in America, who legitimately had more urgent concerns than their future civic duties. "The larger implication is that our visitor is not an experienced... parallel-timeline traveler, let's call it, or 'paratimer' for short. I would expect a veteran paratimer to have a wide grasp of history."
"Our visitor seems reluctant to speak of how she got here," Major Getherde said. "But it did seem like her journey might have been... unintended."
Beside him, Akio was frowning. "She brought arong a biorogicar raboratory in her vagina," he said in his accented English. "I doubt she arways carries one in her vagina."
It was a good point. The Commander pondered it. "Her apparent age doesn't square with travel on diplomatic or military business," he said aloud. "A stowaway? A refugee of disaster?"
"Our visitor did seem somewhat in shock when she first woke up." The Major seemed slightly embarrassed. "My first priority was putting a blanket around her and telling her she was safe, which seemed to help."
Akio and the Commander traded glances.
"Continue with the report," the Commander said.
Major Getherde looked down and off-screen, probably at her notes. "Again taking all she says at face value, her timeline is advanced beyond our own in the biological and computational sciences, behind us in atomic energy and space travel. Specifically, her timeline doesn't seem to have developed liquid-phase fission reactors, with drastic consequences for all civilization. She had vague memories of learning about an 'oil crisis' that happened in the 1970s. Global warming is becoming a planet-threatening catastrophe. She didn't recognize the names or models of the first Nerva-series spaceships, and seemed genuinely shocked at the concept of using atomic energy for propulsion. Her first question was about radioactive waste contaminating the atmosphere, and she looked surprised and interested when I said a spaceship's atomic reactor only heated the propellant rather than spraying out fissionable materials." Major Getherde spread her hands to display her own puzzlement at the visitor's puzzlement. "Her world has one space station and that's it. She didn't know its tonnage, or whether it was in low orbit or higher. Her people visited the Moon in the 1960s a few times and then they never went back."
The Commander pursed his lips, loading this scenario in his mental timeline. "I hadn't thought liquid-phase atomics would represent a serious technological bottleneck," he said. "I certainly wouldn't expect the idea of using a reactor to heat inert propellant to be a difficult concept." He glanced at Akio, who might know more.
Akio seemed absorbed in thought. "Both riquid-phase reactors and inert-properrant rockets have great engineering difficuruties," he said eventually. "But I wourud not have expected it to be impossiburu in the face of effort. There is no brirriant invention at the core, only much work."
"It could be a cultural issue," said Major Getherde. "Our visitor seemed to show traces of a superstitious or religious dread about atomic energy."
"Hm," said the Commander. He was by far the oldest person on the Base, the token Experienced Officer appointed to ride herd over much healthier youngsters. Even he wasn't old enough to remember the initial introduction of A-bombs in 1945. Still, he knew that dread of atomic energy had been widespread immediately after. If that attitude had persisted and grown, producing a general retreat from material technology into the realm of the mental and biological... he could see it, the Commander supposed. Especially if their timeline had acquired stronger justifications for fear. "Any large-scale atomic exchanges in their history? Any use of atomic weapons above the deca-kiloton level?"
"I... I'm sorry, sir, I didn't think to ask explicitly. It hadn't occurred to me that she wouldn't have mentioned something like that, if it had happened."
The increased fear would have needed to begin early enough to avert research into liquid-phase atomics, which had begun in the 1960s according to his memory. Truman had still been elected in 1948, with events proceeding similarly enough to duplicate the famous headline... "Maybe ask her about the Korean Invasion in particular," said the Commander. "Truman played a damn tight game there. Using Mark-4s may have gotten the NKs to back off, but a lot of historians worry it could have gone the other way - normalized the general use of nukes in warfare, instead of showing that we were willing to use tac-nukes defensively."
Major Getherde nodded. "I'll ask. However things played out, their Cold War ended in the late 1980s with victory to the West -"
"How?" the Commander demanded, leaning forward at the vidscreen as if to press answers out of it. That could be the single most important item of knowledge their visitor had.
"She had only vague ideas. Her rough picture was that the Soviet Union ran out of resources to contend with us and gave up, dissolving into its constituent countries." Major Getherde spread her hands. "The Eastern economies have always been less efficient. As it stands, they're wringing their civilian populations dry to maintain a war footing. Take away everyone's atomic generators, and..."
"Christ," the Commander muttered. "Talk about the mother of all mixed blessings." What he wouldn't have given for a good look at the history shelves of a dozen timelines! If there was a real Paratimer civilization out there, their grasp of history would be chemistry to his Earth's alchemy. A true science that laid out cause and effect with surgical precision, relegating his own historical monographs to poetical essays for the fiction stacks of the library... with an effort, he focused again on the vidscreen. "Maybe I'm being sidetracked from more important issues, but curiosity is eating me alive. What happens after the end of the Cold War?"
Major Getherde hesitated. "Not... not what we'd hoped. My impression is that her United States is also on the verge of dissolution."
A shock of horror went through him. The Commander reminded himself that it wasn't his world... but if there were mistakes that could destroy the West, it was the type of lesson best learned in a single world, once. "What's happening to them? Running out of coal?"
"I..." Major Getherde looked at her notes, and shook her head. "I don't know how to - I don't understand - her attitude towards capitalism versus communism was one of utter despair in both systems. I don't know whether to write it off as teenage nihilism or if her world has been through experiences I can't imagine. I asked if they were having an economic depression. She said that official statistics said no, but it seemed to her like the economy in her city was feeling very sad. And though she didn't say it in so many words, it sounded to me like her America was heading for civil war. As if the only thing holding the USA together had been the Cold War, and once the common enemy was gone, internal divisions began tearing America apart. Political lines more than racial ones, 'reds' versus 'blues'. And it also sounded as if - as if the United States lost interest in its ideals once we didn't have the Soviet Union to contrast ourselves to. People being arrested and held without trial and, and worse. She didn't seem to think other Western countries were better off, and she didn't think the decay was being driven by environmental meltdown or resource exhaustion but by some type of - inward despair, madness, a mass psychological catastrophe of unknown origin. I halfway expected her to describe Martian telepaths launching a psychic assault on all of Terra's sanity like in War of the Worlds IV. Some of what she said sounded like a joke, or insane, the most extreme case being that Donald Trump was elected US President in 2016."
"I have not heard of him?" Akio said, glancing in the Commander's direction.
The Commander was trying desperately to keep a straight face. President Donald Trump. Christ, that wasn't funny, it wasn't funny at all, what was wrong with him, that had actually happened in some poor lost timeline out there. There were real people living in that para-Earth, American citizens, his officers would be rightly critical of him if he started laughing. He just hadn't been prepared to encounter those three words in that order.
"Imagine the most vulgar man in the world," the Commander said, once he felt confident in his ability to keep it together. "Donald Trump is twice as vulgar as that. The only reason the Dems would field him for the White House would be if they wanted to horrify Republicans as much as possible." He was tempted to crack a remark about having not thought even the Democratic Party could sink that low, but he restrained himself. It wasn't his world's Democratic Party, and political dialogue was vitriolic enough without mudraking for scandals from multiple timelines.
"Ah... sir, she said Donald Trump was elected on the Republican ticket."
For a second the Commander thought he'd misheard. "Say again."
"Donald Trump is a Republican President in their world."
"Is he a conservative in their timeline?" the Commander said blankly. "Family man, distinguished service record?"
"She had only vague ideas about his policies but said that the main one she remembered was building a giant wall between the United States and Mexico."
Akio and the Commander looked at each other, and both started to speak at the same time. Military protocol being what it was, that meant the Commander went first. "Can you imagine selective developments or non-developments in military technology that would make a new Maginot Line useful to the USA in the event of war on a Mexican front?" the Commander said.
Akio shook his head. "Extreme deemphasis of air power? I have nothing."
The Commander looked at Major Getherde.
"I - I don't think - I don't think we can understand - there's something very wrong with her world. I said that to her outright and she just nodded. The things she said - I can't summarize, it was a gestalt feeling - that was the largest single thing but there were little things too. She's from a timeline where that is what their lives are like."
"Something went wrong with their advanced biotechnorogy," Akio proposed.
The Commander felt the chill all the way to his ankles. His base's reactor needed a more powerful self-destruct.
Major Getherde glanced back down at her notes. "I had a similar thought," she said. "There could be some drug or supplement that everyone was taking, with undiscovered effects on the brain, like the lead-poisoning theory of the fall of Rome. They'd have no way of knowing that what was happening in their timeline wasn't normal."
The Commander thought that the woman might have an unexplored talent for writing psychological horror stories. Christ, what a terrifying thought.
Major Getherde was still talking. "Another possibility is that it has something to do with their more advanced hyperchip technology. 'Starry' said they'd recently developed the false-reality device that's always five years out according to Popular Science - completely surrounding a person with a binocular 3D vidscreen built into a helmet. That could be having an effect on their psychology, I suppose? People losing contact with reality? Or some broader psychiatric syndrome caused by too much contact with the inhuman logic of computers. An emotional reaction, people clinging to instinct and illogic as a form of protest..." Getherde let out a breath. "I keep wondering whether there's some way for our dimension to launch a rescue mission to their dimension, but I have no idea what we'd do once we got there."
"Let's not get that far ahead of ourselves," the Commander said. "Anything else to report?"
"Our guest seemed oddly interested in hearing about," the woman looked uncomfortable, "well, our sexual standards. I think she was surprised when I told her we were, ah, normal. As if she was expecting to arrive in a culture more... licentious." Major Getherde hesitated. "She seemed surprised that I, personally, was making no attempt to force myself on her. Despite the extreme inappropriateness given the age difference and the serious overall situation and my position as a medical doctor, on a military base where both of us were being recorded at all times, not to mention that she is effectively our prisoner and protected by international conventions!"
"She's a resbian?" Akio said.
The Commander gave the younger man a sideways glance, just to make sure he wasn't leering, but his comport looked as decorous as usual.
"More that she expected me to be homosexual, and - and she thought that's what homosexuals were like!" Major Getherde sounded even more uncomfortable than before.
An intuition tickled at the Commander, born of years of command and experience with subordinates being evasive. He thought again about sci-fi depictions of psionic powers, or implanted hyperchips for reading body language. He needed to ask Major Getherde, in strict confidence and with some urgency, whether the visitor had in fact been right about her - whether the Major had felt a desire to take advantage of their visitor, and properly repressed it. But not with Akio listening. The Japanese were less liberal than modern America about such matters.
"The two packages of virus?" said the Commander, giving the Major a chance to change the subject.
"She seemed surprised that I'd found them at all. Then she said she'd only discuss that with the base commander."
The Commander pursed his lips thoughtfully. It could be a trick to get into his presence. It could also be a legitimate request for any number of excellent reasons. Put Akio in temporary command? The man was as steady as any XO he'd known.
"That reminds me," Major Getherde said. "I'm not sure, but... I think the visitor might have recognized your name when I said it, Commander? She did ask for you by name, after I explained the radio outage and said you were at the top of the current chain of command."
"Ran for President in her timerine, on the Democratic ticket," said Akio, and the Commander shot him a glare.
The Major hesitated. "Actually... I'd have to review the recordings... but in retrospect, I think that mentioning your name was when she stopped acting like I was about to sexually assault her. It was shortly afterward that she first asked for clothing. It's - it's sad that the flag on my uniform wasn't enough. I would have hoped that the Stars and Stripes would mean more than that, even across timelines. Are individual people greater constants than countries? Do genes count for that much? Or fate?" She shook her head. "Sorry, sir, it's hard not to think about - to get distracted by - doctors usually don't have to deal with issues this deep during medical examinations."
"Hmmm..." the Commander hmmmed. Akio's crack there, born of long acquaintance between them and trust enough to jaw about politics, had triggered a thought.
Then the Commander chuckled, unable to help himself despite the severity of the situation.
He'd spotted the joke.
"All right," the Commander said, "I guess I'd better talk with the young lady. Akio, I'm relinquishing command to you pending our recontact with home."
"Sir," Akio said. He hesitated. "Are you certain this is wise?"
"If we trust appearances, this young lady knows one of my alternate selves quite well. Well enough to wind me up some while letting me know that she and I are acquainted. I doubt she made up the story of her dying world from whole cloth, but she did change one detail."
Akio raised his eyebrows again.
The commandant of Heinlein Base leaned back in his chair, an easy motion in the low gravity. Beyond him in the window behind, the searing darkness of the Lunar night stretched out above Mare Imbrium, the white dust blackened beneath it, save where a single spotlight imperishable shone upon the grave of the base's namesake. "Republican President, my ass," said Commander Marcus Adan.
Sector Sixteen is gross. And I’m not being affectionate here, like “Oh, Sixteen is so gross, haha”. It’s disgusting, both physically and otherwise. Seventeen takes the very idea of filth as an object of careful consideration and respect. Sixteen
seems to be sprinting headlong toward an early death by infection as quickly as humanly possible.
There have been a few times where Wellspring City has broken out in armed conflict, inside itself. The Intersectional Wars. Only two of them, in the span of about six hundred years, because even if you hate your neighbors with a blind passion, it’s still a city
and all the parts still fundamentally need one another. That and the Wellwardens tend to put a quick stop to any large-stale infighting with the flick of an indestructible wrist.
Both times, Sixteen was destroyed almost immediately, by joint assault led from either Three or Twenty. Why? Because Twenty is the city’s religious district, and Three is home to the prison, the courthouse, and
the headquarters of the Watch. Once the Sector Lords abandoned their duties in favor of bloodshed and a total dissolution of civil safety, Three and Twenty wasted no time in falling upon Sixteen like a shining hammer of crystalline justice. The sectors of Law and Purity finally had their chance to wipe their hated foe straight off the map - the sector of Abandon.
They’d tried education and rehabilitation for decades, and elected the time had come for the helping hand to form a fist instead.
And it worked
. Why wouldn’t it? Three had all the muscle, Twenty had the most stirring speeches - Sixteen had no allies and no chance. It burned to the ground, along with all its debasement and sin.
And Sixteen is still here.
There’s a lesson in this, kids, and it’s one that people like Three and Twenty have a hard time getting to grips with. You can kill sinners. It’s easy. Shoot them in the face, cut their heads off, hang them, tear the flesh from their bones, burn them at the stake. Not even a problem. You can do it all day if you’re motivated enough - all it takes is some earplugs, an apron, something sharp, and a can-do spirit.
, however, kill sin
. It is always going to be there. You can whip yourself, fast, pray, feed the hungry, heal the sick, read a thousand books and climb a hundred mountains, but there is always
going to be a part of you that wants something you know you’re not supposed to have. You might not act
on it, but you’re still going to want
it. Pretending otherwise is an exercise in puritanical foolishness that only results in self-loathing and insanity.
If you want to cauterize sin once and for all, the last person on the pyre is going to have to be you
They tried burning Sector Sixteen to the ground, but like a weed with deep roots, it just grew back, right out of the ashes. And the place shows all its scars, with a kind of devilish pride. There isn’t much order to the place. There’s still piles of charred rubble in some parts, left as a kind of lazy monument to the things the district’s been through. All the cheap neon lights and billboards shine on crumbling stone, rotten foundations, and the toothy grins of all the good ghouls who came here for a particular brand of fun.
here, sure, in a way. But it doesn’t have that homey, clannish charm that Thirteen has. There’s something oily about it - a grease released from all the curdled shame of the people losing themselves here.
This is where I found Tennima, a long time ago. I used to find a lot of kids here. As you can probably imagine, children do not
belong in Sector Sixteen. But that doesn’t stop them from showing up.
I’ve broken a lot of bones in these alleys. And only a few of them were mine.
My stride widens as I work my way through the sweaty multicolored lights and past many dark doorsteps. I don’t want to be here any longer than I have to. A lot of bad memories.
Hell, it’s half past noon
and I’m being solicited left and right. And that’s not really unusual. Slabs have a hard time finding companionship. They’re enormous and oftentimes mentally unstable - trying to find physical affection when you’re a frothing mountain of angry muscle is about as easy as finding an ice cube in a smelter. And of course, for a lot of them, that just makes them angrier. The uh… hardworking
men and women here charge slabs extra
, for liability purposes, but they will
take them as customers, unlike most everywhere else. And both parties know it. There are a lot of very big people in these crowds.
“Hey there, big boy. You look like you could use some company.”
“Why don’t you come this way and party with us, baby?”
“I’m reinforced. I can take a lot
A few of them approach me and take me by the elbow, trying to lead me off into one den or another. I don’t look any of them in the face, and keep walking. They don’t have a hope in the world of stopping me, either physically or mentally, and they realize that fast and break off to go hover around someone else.
It’s not that I’m disinterested in sex, specifically. Sex is a perfectly fine way to spend an afternoon, I guess. I’m just disinterested in most
things, and one of those things is copulating with… these fine people. One - I can’t afford it. Two - half these receptive
men and women are more augmented than I
am (they have a pretty rough job, after all), and I prefer a more organic
experience. Three… well. I like a bit of emotional involvement. Call me a romantic.
It takes me a bit to get to the far eastern sections of Sixteen, and every step feels like it’s sunk in sticky oil. The deadliest sector in the city is Three, bar none - that’s where they literally kill people, after all. But Sixteen is infinitely more dangerous. Three will at least run you through a paperwork mill and tell you
that they’re killing you before they do it. Sixteen doesn’t extend that kind of courtesy, and it won’t kill you all at once. You’ll die slow. You’ll die of desperation. Of loneliness. Of anhedonia, bankruptcy, and overdose. And by the time the serpent has coiled around you and sunk its fangs into your neck, you’ll be asking for it.
Seventeen does come after Sixteen, after all.
And speaking of pain and death… I see a familiar face off to the left of the street. A dumpy, pear-shaped body awkwardly mashed into a cheap purple plastic suit, with thinning hair and an amount of sweat that only comes with years of high-test doses of thump. He’s a businessman, after all. Got to stay awake.
He sees me back, over the tops of dozens of heads. Leaning against the side of a flesh shop like he owns it, his eyes go wide, for just a second. I don’t blame him, considering the things I said to him the last time we saw one another. He doesn’t move, though. Doesn’t run or try to hide behind anything. There are a few heavy men standing near him, the kind you pay to intimidate people like me. Ten years ago, he couldn’t afford this kind of muscle. If he had
, I wouldn’t have been able to do the things I did. I guess he learned some lessons and recouped from the loss.
Ten years is a long time, after all.
I stop walking, smack in the middle of the street. A few people crash into my back and mutter expletives at me. I can’t even hear them. There’s this rushing sound in my ears, like a waterfall, blocking everything out. My eyes won’t move from this old acquaintance of mine.
The instant I stop, staring at him, he comes off the building, leans on his shiny black cane, and beckons one of his goons. They exchange a few words. He doesn’t take his eyes off me the entire time. The four or five slab bodyguards come to a kind of pack animal attention, tipped off that there’s a threat nearby. They join their boss in trying to stare me down.
I carve a path directly through the crowd over to him, neon shadows and pedestrian bodies flowing all around me. It’s like walking through a bad dream. My heart won’t stay put. And my legs are acting with a will of their own. I’m a stray bolt being drawn in by a magnet.
Out of the crowd and in the mouth of the alley, I’m about twenty feet from him. If I get any closer, there’ll be a fight. And we wouldn’t want that.
It’s darker here, in the arms of the buildings. Tougher for anyone behind me to see what’s going on in the shadows.
He speaks first. He’s the kind of guy that’ll do that - head his competitors off as soon as possible. There’s a voice like chemical wind from under the door of a morgue.
“So. The Beast emerges from his hibernation and walks among us once more. You catch me by surprise, Featherlight. I didn’t think I’d see you around here anytime soon.”
His arms are folded over his flabby chest in a show of confidence, but his sweat and juddering vitae tell a different story. I don’t say anything for a moment. I shake my head and laugh quietly. I can’t help it. Some people are just naturally funny.
I reply, “I find myself confused, Strake.”
He smiles back at me. “Oh? And why’s that, pray tell?”
I scratch my head bemusedly. “Because the last
time we saw each other, I snapped both your femurs, traumatically confiscated your testicles, and explained in no uncertain terms that if I ever saw you in Sector Sixteen again, I’d not only break every other
bone in your body, but I’d also make you a fancy new necktie out of your own unraveled larynx. I was very clear. You were screaming very loudly at the time, but I was pretty sure you got the message. And yet, here you stand. Very impressive, by the way. I realize your knees were probably replaced a while ago, but has medical science progressed to the point that they make prosthetic balls
now too? I’m dying to know, Strake. Because we established a while ago that you’re not mature enough to use them responsibly, so, if that’s the case, I’m going to have to take the new pair as well. You naughty boy
I swear I hear one his henchmen stifle a snicker behind me. Strake’s smile evaporates. Bad memories will suck all the cheer right out of a guy, and for Strake, I’m eight hundred pounds of things he’d rather not remember.
He replies around his scowl, “Yeah, well, we all make promises we can’t keep sometimes, don’t we. I bought a cane. I get around just fine. ‘Cause some of us have persistence
, Featherlight. I pushed through it and now I’m bigger than I’ve ever been. I survived
you. I buy my own bullies now, see? And you’re just another sad gutter slab tryna wreck up hardworking businessmen for no reason other than sanctimonious pettiness. I pity you, frankly. A miserable animal unfit to live amongst us civilized folk.”
I grin down at him. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, Strake. I’m so goddamn glad to see you again, you adorable little goblin. Really, I couldn’t be happier. I fucking love
hurting you. Maybe that’s bad of me. You know what, no - it definitely is. But honestly?” My arms shrug wide, and my eyes gleam emerald and bright. “If being an animal means I get to feel your putrid fucking carcass give way under my hands all over again, then I’m just not cut out to be human.”
I’ll give the cretin a bit of credit - he’s still got a brave face on. But his vitae looks like it’s in the middle of a hurricane, and I see him grip his cane with both hands to stop them from shaking. He remembers what it felt like. He remembers every single second he and I spent together that night, and I’m overjoyed to see it.
Because I remember, too.
He takes a single step back. Just one. And for now, that’s all I need in order to be the happiest man in the world. His goons, however, all take a step forward.
“You can’t do shit, Featherlight. You live
on thin ice. I’m a citizen, and you’re a fucking mutant. Put a goddamn finger on me in a place like this and the Watch will be all over your ass like scumbirds on a dead cat. Why don’t you fuck off back into the sewer you crawled out of, huh? Leave the daylight to us normal folk.”
All I can do is smile and nod. “Hmm. I admit it, Strake, you’ve got me there. But I’ll say this much - you bet all your chips on the law’s protection last time, too. And as I recall, they found themselves very distracted while I made you into none of the man that you used to be. I wonder if you’re a valuable enough citizen
now to get them to come to your defense. I guess we’ll find out.”
I turn my back on him, grinning from ear to ear, and start back down the street.
Behind me, he calls, “I know where you live, you fucking freak!”
My hand waves back at him dismissively. “You’ve known the entire time, Strake. Come and visit for once. I’d save me the effort of having to track you down.”
I think he says something else, just so he can say he got the last word, but by then I’m far enough in the crowd that I can’t hear him.
You know, it occurs to me that it might be an incredibly poor judgment call to antagonize this many people
that all know my exact address. I’m stacking up potential enemies like firewood. Before long I’m not gonna be able to leave my house without getting painted with an entire rainbow of crosshairs.
And I don’t really fucking care. Once you’ve been shot a few dozen times it kind of loses its menace.
I’ve got way too much to do lately to make Strake a priority. Sadly, the Sector Sixteen Watch precinct probably feels the same way, and I’m not about to ping my only Watch contact to go across jurisdictional lines to harass some pervert they’ve never heard of.
I wonder whether I should tell Tennima that Strake is still kicking around. The only reason I know him at all is because of her, through no fault of her own. Ten years ago I tore his balls off and shattered his legs on her
behalf, but that was ten years ago. She’s an adult now, and smart enough to make toys that are way scarier than I could ever be.
She might want to kill him herself. She alone has the right. And she could do it without even lifting a finger.
Do I want to be a part of that? Do I want that for her? Is that even the decision she’d make, and is it even up to me to get involved? She knows what I did and why, but would it help anything to tell her that he’s still around?
Sigh. It doesn’t matter. She’s right, she isn’t a child anymore, even if it’s hard for me to see her as anything else. She’s a grown woman. And withholding this wouldn’t be respectful of me.
… But I’ll call her later. It’s not gonna hurt her to be in the dark a little while longer, and I’ve got shit to do.
I should probably make it clear, here, that I’ve never actually killed anyone before. Not as far as I’m aware, at least. I might have hinted
that I have, a couple of times throughout this ripping narrative, but that was just me being colorful. The truth is that the gods teamed up with dark science to give skull-squishing strength and body mass to a complete and utter softie. One time when I was a kid my mom stepped on a slug and I fucking cried. Before all of… this
happened to me, I thought I wanted to work my way out of Nineteen and become a doctor, of all things.
It’s amazing, the things you’ll think as a kid, before you realize you’re too poor to pay life’s protection money, and then it shows up on your front door and uses brass knuckles and a lead pipe to teach you that you’re not the one calling the shots around here. Dreams are for people with money. The rest of us get to spit out our teeth for sixty years.
… What was I saying? Oh yeah. Never killed anyone. It wouldn’t be hard or anything, people are super killable. I just don’t have it in me. I couldn’t even kill Strake, and believe me, I wanted to kill him even more than I wanted my mother to get better. And I fucking loved my mom.
I’ve hurt people, sure, no question. Hell, I’ve torn bits off
people. Important bits, too. I’ve punched, kicked, headbutted and bitten my way through more than a few scraps in my time, and I’d be lying to you if I said there wasn’t a small part of me that’s enjoyed it every time. But that’s not who I am. And it’s not who I want to be.
… That said, I really, really
want to kill Strake. I can’t just let him exist as he is. If that sack of shit is back to doing what he used to do, some kids are going to be hurt. In ways that don’t ever heal. I figure if I can prevent that by breaking him into teeny tiny pieces, it’ll be worth the permanent stain on my morality. I can’t be the only
one that wants him dead, right? Maybe I’ll see if anyone’s put a hit out on him. I’m not an assassin, because I’d be terrible at it and the risks aren’t worth it, but in this case, I’m sorely tempted to make the exception of a lifetime. Especially if the money’s good enough. I’m supposed to be some kind of mercenary or something, aren’t I? I’d give his evil little head to the first person that handed me a thousand-credit chip for it.
Or at least I might
. I should have gotten my conscience removed when I had the chance.
After more grimy blocks than I can count and avoiding several thousand suspicious-looking puddles, I come to the far end of the sector. The Wall, dark and impassive as it ever is, looms high above me and everything else, barely even reflecting sunlight. And lying in its shadow, just away from the edge of the sector platform, is the bar I’ve come to visit.
This is away from the high-energy bustle of Sixteen proper, so it’s quieter, and a little less… venereal. Even a place as hot and gross as Sixteen has its calm spots, because eventually the thump wears off and people have to take their antibiotics and sleep. The place doesn’t actually look that bad, on the outside. Relatively clean brick facade, some wrought iron fencing, nestled to one side of an open backstreet square that seems like it still hasn’t woken up even though it’s the early afternoon. I climb up the rusty plate steps and, yep, fancy filigree sign says The Scripted Serpent
. Door’s even made of wood - very classy. It doesn’t match it surroundings at all - if you told me this establishment got transplanted here from Ten or Twelve I’d be inclined to believe you. I walk in.
Inside, it’s somehow smaller than I expected it to be. Or maybe it just feels that way. There’s a ludicrously well-polished middle-length bar taking up the far wall, with a clean-looking mustachioed fellow in a white shirt at the helm, smoking a shiny pipe and making drinks. Dim and smoky, as befitting any den of booze and iniquity, but in a way that makes the room seem cozy rather than nefarious. High ceiling, vaulted with crossbeams. Everything’s done in expensive wood and stone rather than metal and plastic. Whoever built this place wasn’t afraid of shelling out. It’s quiet. And nice. Honestly, if I had money and didn’t have to walk through the entirety of Sector Sixteen to get here, I’d like to hang out in here sometime.
Not many people at this time of day. One or two with their bellies to the bar, a scattered few at the booths and tables, including a group of three old men smoking cigars and playing cards. But I see one guy over by the window. Only one in here wearing a hat. Dressed like one of those Hot Plains cattle ranchers.
The bartender and a couple of the less engaged patrons fix me with looks. This kind of seems like one of those places where every customer is a regular, and I’m highly irregular. Do I want a drink? Yeah fuck it, I want a drink. Who knows, I could be dead tomorrow. And I’ll feel like an idiot if I die with anything left in my bank account.
I approach the bar but don’t sit down. The drinks drone hovers toward me like an automech on a mission.
“What can I get for you, sir?”
I stifle a snort. Sir. What a weird thing to call me.
“I’m on the hunt for a beer, if there’s beer.”
beer.” He reaches over the bar to hand me - get this - a list
. “We just got in a few barrels of fresh north-Krathian frostbock, if you’re in the mood for something sturdy. So fresh we haven’t gotten it on the menu yet, actually. You’ll find the rest there. More than thirty options.”
I think I might be in the wrong kind of establishment. I just hold the menu back at him without looking at it. “Oh boy. Uh. As it happens, I’m poor as dirt, so I’ll just have to go with whatever sludge you’ve got left at the bottom of your vatbeer tank.”
He smirks, looking down at the glass he’s polishing. “The owner refuses to let vatbeer cross his doorstep. Check the prices, sir, you might be pleasantly surprised.”
I blink once, and open the menu. I have no idea what this guy’s driving at, there’s no way I’ll be able to afford anything other than the sextuple-filtered wheatpiss anyway-
I look back up at him, brow furrowed and deeply confused. “Is this entire list a typo?”
“Nope. No mistake. That’s what our beer costs.”
My eyes go back down to the menu, then back up at him again in total bewilderment. “How
? Unless this piece of paper is more full of fabricated bullshit than the average issue of the Herald
The guy just keeps smiling and cleaning contentedly. “You be the judge. Pick one and find out.”
Well now I’m just indignant. There’s no way they could be selling actual, real, unadulterated imported beer at these prices and still be in business. People like me aren’t allowed to afford drink this good, it’s the fourth law of econodynamics.
“Alright then, champ, you’re on. I’ll have a tank of the hollowhunter’s ale.”
He holds up the slab-sized tankard he’s been polishing, inspecting it for flaws. “Good choice, sir. Just a moment.”
He turns around to address a row of taps set into the back wall.
When fresh and properly made, hollowhunter’s ale is like the fun version of drinking razor blades and pine needles mixed with acetone. Because your average hollowhunter is about nine inches from death at any given moment and they don’t have time to waste on pathetic normal peoples’ beer. The stuff is known the world over, and selling it is how the hollowhunters are able to afford all their armored vehicles and explosives. The copycat imitation variety doesn’t taste like the relief of having survived one more day without having your spine and kidneys torn out with one pull of an undead hand - it just tastes like battery acid and sadness. You can taste
the suicidal bravery in the real stuff, and your average human coward just can’t replicate it.
The barkeep hands me the glass stein, with both hands. Strong arms. Guy doesn’t wobble, or spill a drop. I accept it from him and hold it up for inspection against the light. The brew is the color of a ruby sunset over a field of ripening wheat. Layer of fine white bubbles on top, like snow. Looks
like the stuff I’ve had before. Hard to forget a beer that looks like liquid jewelry.
I take a sip.
Have you ever been exhilarated? Actually, genuinely flush with the pure, unbridled and electric wonder of being alive
? The kind of seismic joy that only comes from giving Death himself a smooch on the cheek and scampering away before he can catch you? Have you walked through a living nightmare and emerged on the other side bleeding and broken, but suddenly aware of how beautiful grass can be when the sunlight strikes the dewdrops just
right? That’s what this stuff tastes like. It tastes like snatching your own life out of the claws of something that eats entire forests as an aperitif. This is the beverage equivalent of shedding a single gasping, breathless tear in utter disbelief at the fact that your heart is somehow still beating, even though the flesh all around it is nothing but bloody bruises.
Smiling like he just pulled the greatest trick of all time, the bartender plunks the chip reader down on the bar top. “That’ll be four hundred credits.”
I ignore him and take another luxurious pull, because life’s too short to do anything other than love what you have. A sigh leaves my lungs like misty wind fleeing the summer sun. Then I (carefully) set the glass of liquid art on the bar, pull out my wallet and pay, shaking my head.
“I don’t get it, man. This stuff costs three times what you’re charging. Is there a trick, here? Do you own my house now, or something?”
He just shrugs, and grabs another glass to polish. I think bartenders have a condition that causes their brainstem to liquefy if their hands aren’t in contact with glass and a rag at all times.
“I just pour ‘em, sir. Somehow the bossman gets away with it, but I’ll be damned if I know how. All I know is that I keep getting my paychecks and the lights haven’t ever gone out.”
I retrieve the holy vessel and take another precious taste. “Well… the next time you see him, tell him he’s got a new favorite customer. I’ll keep coming back as long as you keep giving this stuff away.”
He nods happily. “I’ll let him know. Enjoy.”
And the giver of mighty gifts flutters away on invisible wings, to bless another undeserving soul.
Alright. Fun’s over. Business time.
I turn about and cross the room over to the booth where my not-man is sitting. Nobody pays me any mind as I approach, and neither does he. It? I’m not sure what the designators are, here. I’ll go with “he” because he looks like one. He just keeps his eyes out the window, looking at… I dunno, the world, I guess.
He doesn’t even look at me when I sit down right across from him.
At a passing glance, there isn’t anything unusual about this guy. He just looks like an older fellow that’s worked under the sun his whole life. Bronzed skin, wrinkles. Wearing his rancher’s outfit. He could just be some cowboy in from delivering a shipment of beef for the Inner Circle to enjoy.
But now that I’m up close… there’s definitely something off. His skin seems unusually thin. The light is hitting it wrong - it looks like papier-mache, or plaster. With the sun at this angle, I should be able to see some hair, but his cheeks are completely smooth, in the way you see on a healed burn victim. And the eyes. They’re too… perfect. Too glossy. Can’t see a single spot, no striations in the iris, not a single vein. They look like doll’s eyes, not ones grown inside a real human skull.
There’s also the fact that he has no vitae at all. Nothing, not a single wisp or bubble or ray of color. In biomantic terms, this guy is indistinguishable from a toaster or a washing machine. That absence makes him look more and more like an unusually lifelike mannequin the longer my eyes are on him. My brain’s accustomed to the human form always being in the company of its swirling, colored vitae. It’s not here, and the contradiction is making my skin crawl.
He doesn’t move or say anything or react to me in any way. So I guess I’ll start.
“Do you know why I’m here?”
I predicted it. The logical, thinking part of my brain knew that it had to happen at some point. Otherwise, how could this thing have gotten here? But when it moves
, when it turns its head away from the window to look at me, I nearly jump out of my fucking skin. Things without vitae aren’t supposed to fucking move unless they also have an engine or an internal reactor. The sight of it, right in front of me, makes my spine want to slither away to a place where creepy shit like this doesn’t happen.
Its eyes are blue, and are not made of flesh. No water or salt or protein. Just glass.
“No. Why are you here?”
My skin is spiders.
Its voice is almost
perfect. Almost. Honestly, if I weren’t scrutinizing, I probably wouldn’t even notice. But the lip movements only mostly
match the words that came out of that hole. And there’s this tonal incorrectness - a lack of richness, of bass. It sounds very slightly like a lesser-quality recording
of a middle-aged man’s voice. Dry, papery, without any impact or lung behind it.
And the thing doesn’t move. Not even a little. A human person trying as hard as they can to be motionless still isn’t - you can’t help the barely-perceptible bob of the head as the heart pumps blood through the chest and neck, you can’t prevent the gradual rise and fall of the chest. Or not for very long, at least. This thing is genuinely, absolutely still, in the way that only an inanimate object can manage.
I want to get this over with. At least an automech has decency enough to look nothing like the humans they get their shape from. Every part of me is convinced this thing shouldn’t exist - my sympathetic nervous system is going into overdrive just from the sheer number of contradictory sensory inputs. I don’t know whether to tear its head off or run screaming out of the building.
A layer of mental concrete pours over my nerves before I reply, “I’m looking for the way to the Library.”
Its tilts its head to one side, face still neutral.
I frown. “Because I want to learn stuff. I’ve heard there’s a lot of good books in the Library. If your boss is okay with me paying a visit, that is.”
“What do you want to learn about?”
I had no idea I was signing up for an interview when I walked in here. But I guess if I was the Librarian I’d be pretty careful too. I pan my eyes around the room before saying a very dirty and controversial word.
The unusually large doll nods, very slightly. “You are an arcanist.”It says this without any kind of emotion at all. It’s not a question, or an accusation. Just the statement of a fact, with a machine’s confidence. I’m not sure if it guessed or if it somehow knows things from out of thin air. I don’t know. I’m just along for the fucking ride, here.
“... Yeah. Is that a… problem?”
“No. Not intrinsically. The arcanist seeks knowledge of magic. The river flows to the sea. This has happened for many thousands of years. What you seek is power
, as knowledge sublimates into power in the mage’s hand. And you seek it in full awareness of the risks. Plainly, the conflux of fate has made you incredibly strong of body, yet you wish for more. Why?”
I really cannot express in succinct words how goddamn unnerving it is to listen to this thing talk. It’s so, so close
to being human, but just
off the mark. And worse, now it’s trying to get personal with me.“Why do I want power?”“Yes.”“Is that something you need to know?”
It laces its fingers together on the table. The motion makes a sound like paper folders sliding over one another.
“Because to the Librarian and to many others, knowledge is also a currency
. Sharing it with you is akin to an investment. And within this dynamic, bad investments can become catastrophic. So explain yourself. Or leave.”
Heh. Not the first time I’ve ever had to defend my life. Thankfully, I don’t even have to lie.
“Some bad things might happen to some good people soon. Some people that I know. The stronger I am, the better I can help them. And the more likely it is that I can catch those bad people, to stop them from hurting anyone else.”
The homunculus doesn’t move. “You seek power for altruistic reasons only? To defend the weak from evil?”
I snort. “No. Those same people are also trying to kill me
, and I’d like to increase my chances of making it out of all this with my bones still connected to one another. Self-preservation motivates me just as much as anything else.”
“And once the danger has passed? What will you do with your power then?”
… Huh. There’s a cutting question. Frankly, I’m so used to living in this exact second that I hadn’t stopped to consider what life might be like once all this is said and done. If I don’t die, the things I learn could turn me into… something else. More
, than I ever had the impetus or inclination to become before. New abilities could be great. Or they could be a horrible curse, in the end.I don’t really care. It just has to happen. The future can show up at its own pace.
“I don’t know. I honestly hadn’t thought about it. But I’m probably not going to try to overturn the Reclamation or anything. Way too much work. And I just don’t care enough.”
The homunculus’s not-eyes stay on my not-eyes for a heavy second. I’m not sure what it’s trying to see. I don’t even know if it can
see anything. But honestly, I don’t know a goddamn thing. That’s why I showed up here in the first place.
It finally replies, “What have you brought?”
I swing my backpack around and lay the books on the table. Carefully. While looking around to make sure the law hasn’t walked through the door in the last few minutes.
The thing glances down for a split second, looks back at me, and says, “There are multiple copies of these volumes within the Library. The Librarian has no need of more.”
I rub my face with my hands exasperatedly. I knew it was a long shot. I was told as much. But the idea that I came all the way out here for nothing is really mashing my potatoes something fierce.
“Y’know… I’m betting you guys could save a lot of wasted time by just putting out a damn registry of what you do and don’t have.”
“The Librarian has infinite time. And a public listing would be traceable. You have nothing else to offer?”
I take a big slug of my beer and clunk the tankard down on the table, eyes looking directly at the core of the earth. I don’t have anything else to offer. I don’t have a goddamn thing. For the Librarian or Em or to anyone else. Maybe I should
leave the city. Just… fuck right off and go be a monster in the mountains. No need for money, no need for cars or property or paperwork. Fuck it, all of it. At least then I could punch bears to death and terrorize villages and feel like something. Win at least some animal
glory using nothing but the contents of my own-
Wait. The contents of my own body.
My lenses snap back up to the doll. “You’ll take media other than print, right?”
I reach into my coat and whip out a blank data drive and a transfer cable.
It’s a hell of a thing, being able to record literally everything you see. It makes it much more difficult
for other people to call you a liar when you can literally show them what you saw, right out of your own eyes. That’s why I keep these
on me. I don’t have to use them often, but in my lines of work it’s helpful to be able to prove my experiences to people with footage hot out of the brain boiler.
One end of the cable goes into the drive, and the other stabs directly into a port at the rear of my occipital lobe. For the record
, it is the peak
of stupid for anyone with a cerebral array to just shove connectors into their skull without sanitizing them first, unless they happen to be a huge fan of aggressive meningitis. For reasons already explained, however, I do not have to give a damp hoot. Microbes are idiots. I am the bastard fuckspawn of magic and technology and I will not be stopped.
I hit a little switch on the side of the drive and wait a second for it to boot up. Unstoppably.
The light turns green and there’s a spasm of connection errors and driver misfires across my vision. My automatic interface software shows up with a gun and calmly explains to them that nobody has to get hurt as long as I get access to this drive right the hell now. The warnings and errors hold up their hands and reply that everything’s good here man, no need to do anything drastic. They show me to the door.
The drive connects.
This sensation is very hard to describe for anyone that’s never used their brain to talk to machines before. This is just a blank drive. Empty space. A clean warehouse in a white void, just patiently waiting for someone to put something into it. And right now, it’s connected directly
to my brain. It has physically made the total volume of my brain larger
. Not more full, not better at processing data or anything, just bigger
Imagine you’re hanging out minding your own business in your living room, sipping coffee and reading a book or whatnot. Then, for no reason, a huge door appears in your wall and opens, revealing a colossal amount of empty space in a huge room that wasn’t there before. That weird sudden shift of air pressure and subtle echo of newfound hugeness is kind of what this feels like. It’s unsettling, because the brain was never meant to receive these kinds of inputs in this specific order.
This is right around where a lot of people puke, because the conflicting sensory data causes the brain to go completely haywire. It’s like motion sickness or vertigo - there’s a sense of something
physical that just happened, despite the fact that the information from my eyes and ears tells me that I’m very much still sitting in a booth at a bar across from a freaky golem. I close my eyes. Less incoming information to try and juggle.
I can’t upload literally everything, because that much video would take days to compress and upload. But I’ve got a different solution.
After about a minute, I have my autoconnect software let the poor drive management programs go, and take my leave. I yank the cord from my head. This causes a painfully loud SNAP
in my ear, makes my vision flash lightning-white for a moment, and puts a taste like liquid copper on my tongue. I bump my head with the palm of my hand once, and the static clears from my eyes.
I turn the drive off and push it across the table toward the human facsimile. Then I point at it for emphasis.
“That is an autotranscripted text log of every single conscious thought I’ve had since I was eighteen. That’s eleven years of a person’s life, straight from the source. The parts where I’m drunk are probably full of spelling errors. However,
the autotranscript program might have processed some of my dreams, if they were vivid enough. So that’s something.”
The homunculus just tilts its head at me, like a dog that’s heard a funny noise. “And why would the Librarian be interested in this?”
“I have no idea. But I can promise you he doesn’t already have a copy - I’m one of a kind. Tell him to read it and find out.”
The thing regards me silently for another long moment. Then it takes the drive and puts it in a coat pocket.
“... Very well, Mr. Featherlight. The Library thanks you for your contribution.”
It holds out a tiny business card. I try to take it, but its other hand whips up like a striking viper and clamps around my wrist. Its fingers can’t make it the whole way round (my wrists are as wide around as some people’s biceps), but the sheer force
of its fingers digging into the meat of my arm is enough to make me grunt in pain.
“But know this. Should you choose to disclose this information to another living soul, you will cease to exist. There are eyes everywhere. Be wise.”
There’s still nothing in its eyes. That’s the face of an accountant showing up to his 15,936th day of work.
Its hydraulic hand lets go of my arm, and I have to actually fight back tears from how fucking bad it hurts. If I’d been anyone else, that amount of pressure would have squeezed clean through the meat and bone of my innocent limb like a fat divorcee through ice cream. It gently places the rectangular card into my palm, gets up, and leaves the bar.
I’m just gonna finish my beer, and pretend for just a few precious moments that I’m a guy that was never cursed with an interesting life.
[this story has over 30 posts now, which you can find through my reddit profile. hundreds and hundreds of pages of ol' Featherlight. and i update pretty much every week, so you can look forward to more ♥] [you can read this story on Royal Road too, if that's the kind of thing you're into. reviews would be greatly helpful for a new guy on the scene ♥] [if you think this story is good enough to pay for, why not flip me a tip? i'd appreciate it ♥] [and thanks for reading ♥]
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