Monday, November 30, 2020

The City on the Steppe

Untitled engraving by Gérard Trignac
for Jorges Luis Borges' "El Inmortal"

There is a City here, out on the steppe.

It is here now, but it wasn't last month.

Nothing was here, except grass, and herds, and blue sky.

But all those are gone now. Now there's only the City.

The City, and the people who are drawn to it.

The City presently covers an area of approximately 100km² upon the inner steppe. Sandwiched between taigas to the north, mountains to the south, deserts to the east, and spiderwebbing river valleys to the west, the steppe has been thought of as a central heartland by many, and as an empty wasteland by many more. This is beginning to change, as news of the City spreads farther.

The City appears to grow at a rate of about 5 meters per day, with the expansion occurring at random intervals between 00:00 and 04:00 every night. This always coincides with particularly heavy cloud cover blocking out the light of the moon and stars, making the event very difficult to observe. The outskirts of the City expand outward when this happens, pushing up mounds of earth and even causing small tremors. It is speculated that 'new' City appears near its center like lava rising up out of a divergent boundary between deep sea plates, but this hypothesis has not been confirmed.

The City is staggering. It is extremely dense, its buildings exceeding the size and scale of those in any other urban center in the world. It is the place where urban planning has come to die, possessing almost no rhyme or reason to its layout and construction. Nor could it be said to have evolved 'naturally' like older cities. It is somehow far older feeling. Buildings shoot up for dozens or even hundreds of stories at random, making the City's skyline a jagged assortment of teeth.

The City is an inturning jumble of structures in disparate, anachronistic architectural styles; a roiling chaos that seems to be frozen in stasis for the moment. Some buildings are immensely tall and fully fleshed out, while others stand half-built, crumbling, and skeletal, like the remains of trees who lost the battle for sunlight in a climax forest. All are built from the same materials: basalt, marble, plaster, and something flammable yet not quite organic which has been conveniently dubbed 'City-wood'.

The City is a place of alienating familiarity, and elegant dysfunction. Vaulted domes sit freestanding and inverted like immense bowls. Bridges span the gaps between doorless and windowless buildings with no access points. Colonnades that lead nowhere stand apart from everything else, perched upon yet more columns like legs or stilts. Buildings can lack doors entirely, or have them placed meters above the street level. Houses can intersect at the edges as if they are superimposed, or fitted together like puzzle pieces.

The City is almost deserted. The herds of horses and sheep, as well as the people minding them on the night of the City's arrival at that site vanished without a trace. Despite rumors of figures spotted on the streets and in windows in unsanctioned areas or during curfew hours, the City does not appear to have any native residents, or any local animal life for that matter. Animals are loathe to come near the outskirts, with the exception of some birds who have begun roosting in high places. Rare gardens boasting exotic plant life have been discovered, but the most vegetation anyone is likely to find are weeds or lichens chipping away at the cracks in streets and foundations.

The City offers sparring hospitality to those who venture deep enough. A flying aqueduct may spill potable water down an alleyway to create a small river. A bazaar might have market stalls stocked with random items and passably fresh food. A sealed room, once broken into, could have a cozy little hearth readied with oil and a stack of dried City-wood.

The City has drawn many people to its outskirts, and a small handful to its interior. A series of camps ring the City, set about half a kilometer out from its creeping limits, where the folds in the earth stop, and horses can tolerate staying. Tensions are already running high across the camps as competing factions arrive to stake claims or assess risks amid a growing sea of settlers, refugees, and curious onlookers.

(The City should have a certain timeless or time-lost quality to it, but the world it has appeared in can be more grounded and defined. Anything from an Iron Age to an Early Modern Period inspired setting could work- too much earlier than that and it becomes unrecognizable for lack of what we consider 'normal' cities, but any later and technological advances can begin to cut into the mystery of it all.

On a whim I plugged Central Asian and late Imperial Russian influences into my host-world for the City, so I'll roll with that for the rest of this post.)

Agents of the Czar and His army are eager to know first if the City is a threat to the Empire, and second if it can be exploited to its benefit.

Clandestine revolutionaries seeking a glorious people's uprising see the City as a new frontier for their cause, if the Empire can be beaten to it first.

Dispossessed nomads and impoverished Sarts struggle to make the best of the bad situation their homeland has fallen into, with agitations for independence quietly starting again.

Natural philosophers and other men and women of knowledge have come from far lesser cities to marvel at the City and all its mysteries.

Fortune-seekers and ne'er-do-wells of all classes and backgrounds have come to plumb the depths of the City for unknown riches, or simply to rob those who already have done so.

People who might be found in the camps around the City include, but should not be limited to:




Imperial Official


Enterprising Merchant


Roving Cossack


People's Revolutionary


Venturesome Boyar


Aspiring Homesteader


Bereaved Herder


Secessionist Sart


Moonstruck Philosopher


Very Drunk Burlak

1) Imperial Official: You serve Crown and Country, and you will not let a little otherworldly apparition get in the way of business as usual. You will analyze the situation in full and send word back to the Ministry, or the Czar's secret police will want to have a word with you.
  • Possessions: badge & seal of office (authentic), warm uniform, pistol, bureaucratic I.O.U. for pistol shot, unfinished report on the City, list of local suspects.
  • Quirk: At the cost of burning what little goodwill the Empire has left in the area, you may requisition a service from a camp at no cost.
2) Enterprising Merchant: The world is changing, and you know it. Titles and oaths are on the wane. Money is power now, and money comes with opportunity. Something that defies all expectation and explanation like the City is a source of potentially infinite opportunities.
  • Possessions: merchant's scales, chest full of paper money, prybar, certificate of merchant guild membership.
  • Quirk: You have already established trade contacts throughout the camps. There is a decent chance you can buy or barter for common items at a small discount.
3) Roving Cossack: Things got a little crazy while you were pacifying that village. You were separated from the rest of your host, and worse yet, from all of the loot. This strange new City seems like a place where you could find a bit of either.
  • Possessions: skittish mare, weathered old papakha, broken shashka, fistful of coins (rubles or tankas).
  • Quirk: You have seen and done things. Committing deeds of ruthless pragmatism are less draining on your psyche than others... for the moment.
4) People's Revolutionary: The flash flood of revolution is already on its way, or so you are convinced. You need only add cracks to the dam of autocratic iniquity, and give it a vessel to surge into. The City could serve both purposes, in the right hands.
  • Possessions: badge & seal of office (counterfeit), contraband pamphlets, your own manifesto (very rough draft), list of local sympathizers.
  • Quirk: You are a bit of a firebrand. Whatever your usual charm and charisma, you can deliver an impassioned speech about your cause that can win common people over to the movement- enough to aid your party, not so much.
5) Venturesome Boyar: Your highborn parents don't exactly approve of you going off on another adventure when you should be at home looking for a spouse to hold onto what little the family has left, but they can't exactly stop you, either. The novelty and adventure of the City call to you.
  • Possessions: legally mandated shaving kit, bird gun & pellets (3 shots), signet ring, beleaguered servant.
  • Quirk: You may send a letter back home asking for help in solving one problem you face at the city. The letter takes a week to deliver, and your parents refuse to help for a month afterward.
6) Aspiring Homesteader: It took such haggling, and you may have sold one of your relatives to do it, but your feudal landlord finally allowed you a temporary reprieve from serfdom. Now you must race against the clock to claim a home- and what cheaper real estate is there than allegedly haunted land?
  • Possessions: shovel, axe, old burlap clothing, contract for free movement from your feudal lord (deadline fast-approaching), sack of buckwheat cereal.
  • Quirk: Food is a luxury for you. Lean years and ruined harvests have shrunken your stomach. You can go longer than others without eating.
7) Bereaved Herder: Your forebears suffered much when the Empire abolished the old khaganate. Your family suffered when its pastures were repossessed. Now, you have suffered the loss of kin and kine to the City. But unlike those past grievances, you have the power to change this one.
  • Possessions: resigned nag, itchy wool deel, prayer box (real wood), tiny (but vicious) sheepdog.
  • Quirk: You are hardy. You've endured wind and winter out on the steppe a number of times. Exposure hurts you less than it does others.
8) Secessionist Sart: Your oasis town was once a grand city- a flower of the wastes. Now it is just a stop for thirsty vagabonds destined for greater places. You know where the fault lies for this. The village elders and you agree that the City can be a catalyst to destabilize the Empire elsewhere.
  • Possessions: sumptuous silk kaftan, ancestral tamgha banner, aqsaqal correspondence, dried peaches, heirloom saber.
  • Quirk: Being from the arid, desert parts of the steppe, you are better at locating water than most. Somehow this applies even within the City limits.
9) Moonstruck Philosopher: While most have come to gawk at the City, you have come to study it. Something about it has enchanted you and lured you to it, and you will be damned if you don't learn why- or perhaps even then.
  • Possessions: voluminous notes (any discipline), stack of books & journals, unnecessarily sharp letter opener.
  • Quirk: Choose one or two of the sciences and/or humanities. If you choose one, you have expert knowledge to offer in situations involving that subject. If you choose two, you have moderate knowledge.
10) Very Drunk Burlak: Where did the river go? Where is the barge, and the artel, and your pulling crew? Were you transplanted here by the same strangeness as the City, or did you simply wander here on another bender? Your head hurts.
  • Possessions: leather yoke, coil of rope (15m), bottle of alcohol (vodka or kumis), a bad case of kyphosis.
  • Quirk: You've seen stranger things while sober. The weirdness of the City doesn't hurt your psyche as much as it does others, so long as you possess alcohol.

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