Saturday, March 30, 2024

Blood, Smog & Steel

"Gooood evening, and a fine First Shift to all you hard workers out there~! This is your nightly news and weather forecast. Let's start the shift off with some good news: productivity continues to trend upward, meaning that we are well on our way to achieving that 2.5% quarterly increase we've all been hoping for! Give yourselves a pat on the back on your way in- but not before casting your ballots! Mr. Bartos' careful deliberation is over, and he has sent down his list of nominees for the role of replacement foreman. May the victor honor the memory of Foreman Solt, who was taken from us too soon by a tragic linotype accident. Our hearts go out to Mr. Solt's family, and above all to Mr. Bartos, who has soldiered on despite the loss of so dutiful an employee. In his boundless magnanimity, Mr. Bartos has elected not to fine Mr. Solt's next of kin for ruining an entire batch of molten antimony. Instead, he has given the workers of Floor C an opportunity to show their commitment and team spirit by garnishing their wages to cover the lost profits and opportunity cost of new hires. Moving on! You also have an exciting walk home to look forward to tonight thanks to ash storms and a richer than usual smog bank, so do be sure to rent a premium respirator and stop by the company store for a fresh filter on your way out. Mr. Bartos would hate to lose another one of his beloved ducklings. Until next broadcast, goodnight and good work to you all! Bartos Type Industries; In Service Of Excellence™ ."

— Nightly loudspeaker announcement, Bartos Manorfactory

"Why didn't Orbiq show up for his first shift? Line 12-I is starting to back up!"

"You didn't hear? Couriers picked him up. They found wood splinters on his clothes."

"Really? Damn it. He's dead for sure... who's gonna cover his shift on such short notice!?"

— Stockyard Banter, Tilatosh Manorfactory

It has been a little over eighty years since anyone saw the sun in this land that has come to be known as the Burgravate.

A few old shells are still around who saw it, or claim to have seen it, but they're a dying breed. The ones who are left tend to keep quiet about it whenever management is within earshot- and management is always close, either out in the open or lurking in the shadows cast by the all-enveloping smog clouds.

Some folks think things should be different, but good luck getting them to admit that to anyone. Team players don't talk dissent, and dissenters don't stay alive for long. Everyone else just does their best to keep their heads down and do their own time; your shift's gotta end sometime, right?

The Burgravate

The new name for a very old land (or was it many lands?) that were quite different up until a few centuries ago. But those names and histories have been lost, their peoples and cultures flattened. Now it's all Burgravate in every direction you look.

This place is a sprawling city-state forever basking in a starless night of its own creation. Towering edifices combining factory and aristocratic manor work around the clock to spew a thick layer of smog, soot, and other particulates over the city, fueled by the unceasing toil of its workers. It lies at the unbeating heart of a vast wasteland made of dust, toxic waste, and scar tissue.

As the smog expands, so too does the waste, and the borders of the Burgravate follow soon after, creeping along like a slate grey glacier.

At the helm of this noctoforming project is a tenuous alliance of vampires and their servants. Theirs is a tangled web of rivalries and intrigue, but nothing brings them together quite like keeping the commoners in check. They keep the living busy, fed, and dependent, and in exchange they rule their respective district-fiefdoms with leisured impunity.

Time is a vexing and slippery thing in the Burgravate. With no sun to measure the days with, there are no days. The standard unit of measure is a 24-hour night divided into three 8-hour Shifts. The only timekeeping devices are the horns and claxons of the factories.

You are not to know how much time is left; only when that time has come.

The Vampires

The twitchy, undulating ruling class of the Burgravate, forever watching from their grey-litten manor house windows or strolling the streets in clothes so bright and fine that not even the ubiquitous ash of this land can touch them. They'd be notable for how pale they are, if everyone else wasn't suffering grievous vitamin D deficiency. They are the ones who penned the first contract that so many humans consigned themselves and their descendants to darkness for. Nowadays they call themselves barons, dukes, overseers, executives, and a number of other self-given titles.

They are enthusiastically unsubtle bloodsuckers who long ago murdered subtext.

Vampires possess many superhuman traits, if comparing them to humans at all can be considered appropriate. They possess supernatural speed, strength, grace, and intelligence, as well as magnetic personalities fueled by a terrifying charisma that seems to ensorcell their targets. They have been known to verbally berate people to death for minor infractions.

They also have an unnerving ability to be... present. By some unknown means, they seem to see and hear most of what transpires within their districts. They may appear out of a darkened corner or the blind spots of human vision at any moment, giving them the appearance of omniscience and omnipotence. And as the sun vanishes from collective memory, they appear ever more invincible for it.

The cause of vampiric sunlight allergy is not known; not even to them. Plenty have theorized about a mundane or magical origin for it, but little has come of it. Some vampires are terrified by this great unknown; others don't give a damn why and just worry about finding solutions, and so devise ever greater ways to protect themselves from the Lurid Enemy while expanding their influence.

Where or how vampires are created is not known. All that is known is that a new one will be introduced to the city every few generations to found a new district, and then in short order they will be treated as if they had always been there. The most popular theory in the Burgravate is that the process takes place somewhere deep down beneath the Yawn, where neither light nor living reach.

Vampirism is considered by a few deeply haunted scholars to be somewhere in between a magical enchantment and a set of dramatic mutations. While most vampires externally resemble humans, their internal biology is radically different, more closely resembling that of certain winged arthropods. Whether they were originally human or just resemble them by design or coincidence is unclear.

Famous allergies and weaknesses like garlic, silver, and wooden stakes are complete fabrications. They are lies propagated by vampires generations ago, as part of a broader disinformation campaign against their enemies. They went so far as to outlaw and heavily police the above substances once they rose to power, in order to keep up the appearance that they are dangerous. More than one would-be vampire hunter has gone to great lengths and expended enormous resources obtaining such contraband from Brighter Parts, only to realize too late that they are woefully ineffective.

In truth, any sufficiently grievous bodily harm can kill a vampire. Dismemberment is good. Explosions are better. Direct exposure to the sun is a guarantee. Some theorize that you could starve one to death by denying them blood, but none has ever seen a vampire become so much as famished within the Burgravate.

Vampires don't technically drink blood; their gastrointestinal tracts are completely nonfunctional and vestigial, just like their lungs, pancreas, and reproductive organs. Instead, they siphon their victim's blood up through ducts in their fangs and filter it through a specialized organ at the base of the skull. The blood is then stored in soft tissues all across the vampire's body for gradual absorption.

Vampires are not known for their temperance. They will drain an entire body dry in a single sitting before they stop feeding, and many will go for seconds or thirds if they have them within reach. This feeding frenzy typically leaves the vampire grossly swollen and tick-like, but also sluggish and vulnerable to attack.

Recently fed vampires will sleep off a meal in as secure a location as possible. This often takes the form of an armored enclosure deep within their manor that can only be opened from the inside. Wishful thinking on the part of some human rebels has led to these chambers being dubbed "coffins", but in reality they bear little resemblance to the funerary boxes of old. They're closer to sumptuously decorated panic rooms.

The Burgrave

The ur-vampire, retired founder of the first smog factories, and enigmatic ruler of the Burgravate and all its constituent manors. They are said to 'live' in the kingliest of all estates deep beneath the surface, accessible via the bottom of the Yawn; a spiraling former pit-mine at the heart of the Burgravate. They are 'said' to live there because no one knows for sure. The Burgrave has never been seen by any living shell, and the vampires keep tight-lipped about them.

Their activities as ruler of the city are opaque but far-reaching and of grave consequence. Messengers said to represent the Burgrave occasionally bring orders up to the surface in pursuit of some unknown agenda. These 'Couriers' are a task force of dhampirs charged with enacting the Burgrave's will. The Couriers answer to no other vampire but the Burgrave themself, and have been known to act against dissenting lords and ladies with surprising prejudice.

The Burgrave is rumored to...

  • ... Possess powers beyond those of regular vampires, including but not limited to invisibility, flight, mindreading, precognition, animal magnetism, and long-distance exsanguination.
  • ... Be preparing for a major military expansion of the Burgravate in the near future, with the end-goal of world domination.
  • ... Be so swollen from constant feeding that they are confined to a single grand chamber in their palace deep below the Yawn, naked and luxuriant upon a pile of desiccated corpses like a dragon on its hoard.
  • ... Not exist at all. The illusion of an all-powerful, far-reaching ruler operating from the shadows serves the other vampires perfectly well, both to keep their mortal charges in check and to justify any actions they take on the world-stage. If this Burgrave Conspiracy is true then there is no central government in the Burgravate, and the Couriers are just independent mercenaries playing their part and acting in the interests of the current highest bidder.

The Yawn

A massive, spiraling gyre at the center of the city. It was once the first pit-mine of the Burgravate, where thousands of tons of coal were carved out by countless miners over the first few centuries. It once fed the fires that darkened the sky enough for the first vampires to walk cautious and veiled during the day. Now it lies dead and silent like a festering wound in the land's flesh, its veins of useful minerals exhausted.

Dead and silent doesn't mean empty, however. Quite the opposite. Processions of dhampirs wind up and down its corkscrew pathways at all hours, sending out orders and bringing back reports, shipments of goods, and the occasional condemned shell.

So sterile and picked-clean of old mining equipment is this place that it looks eerily beautiful, like a work of land art devised by some mind possessed by manic genius. Perhaps it is for this reason that the manorfactories directly abutting the Yawn are considered the nicest, most scenic of all districts. The living are discouraged from staring for too long, though. The Yawn can be... captivating.

The Manorfactories

Massive agglomerations of factory space, warehouses, and stockyards watched over by towering industrial-gothic monstrosities that house each district's vampire and their personal estate and staff. They are imposing, impenetrable, and an awful pun besides.

As the home of its resident vampire and the center of industry, each manorfactory is essentially the capital of its given district. They stand arranged in a near-perfect grid pattern stretching for hundreds of kilomiles in every direction, interrupted only by the largest natural features and landforms too stubborn to be flattened or hollowed out by labor.

Each manorfactory consumes massive amounts of fuel in deliberately inefficient furnaces that belch forth the smog that sustains the Burgravate's rulers. Most of this fuel is coal hewn from local mines, each an upstart little imitation of the venerable Yawn. But so long as it burns, the hungry furnaces aren't picky: there are no landfills and no graveyards in the Burgravate.

Manorfactories tend to be dedicated to a single industry that complements its neighbors. A large minority of manorfactories are concerned with the production of luxury goods that keep the resident vampires comfortable and conspicuous. Slightly more than that are dedicated to producing the tools, engines, food, and other necessities that keep the living side of the district more-or-less alive.

The remainder of manorfactories in the Burgravatethe majority-serve no other purpose than to produce smog and keep living people preoccupied with labor. Many workers don't even know what their jobs accomplish, if anything- just that they create a whole lot of sparks and loud noises, and that they're being graded for how many they make per shift.

Residential areas for the living are built directly into their respective workplaces in the form of repeating honeycomb dormitories- not that anyone living inside them would know what in the world a honeybee is. It isn't much of an exaggeration to say that most people can roll out of their bunk and onto the factory floor. Easier to control them that way.

The palatial building at each manorfactory's heart, often referred to as "the offices", towers over the rest of the district like a panopticon of spires and stained glass windows. Within each is an opulent labyrinth populated by teams of dhampirs, highly-paid and higher-strung service workers, and of course the resident vampire, who is boss and baron all rolled up into one taut evening suit.

The Dhampirs

A dhampir is a formerly living mortal who has undergone the voluntary process of being partially fed upon by a vampire in order to induce... changes. They are emphatically not half-vampires, nor are they considered to be descended from or "sired" by their respective vampire patron in any way. Vampires, it is known, are entirely incapable of reproducing (or wanting to).

Dhampirs were once living humans until they paid exorbitant fees and indentured themselves for several lifetimes of servitude to a single vampire in exchange for a chance at dhampir status. Most prospective dhampirs never get that far, and most who do end up dying anyway because of their benefactors' unquenchable appetites.

They exhibit several vampire-like qualities such as extended lifespan, physical durability, improved strength and reflexes, etc. Dhampirs need not (and cannot) feed on blood, but some of them are known to drink a glass of the ol' Fresh Red every now and then in emulation of their "betters", just to feel fancy. It is believed that they are also more resistant to the sun than their creators, but to what degree is unclear.

How much a vampire feeds on the dhampir-to-be determines how humanlike they remain. Just a little bite keeps them essentially human but enhanced; a moderate feeding creates something superhuman, gaunt, and severe; being all but drained leaves them monstrous, desiccated husks of their former selves, listless and sullen but able to perform tasks single-mindedly, like a supernatural lobotomy patient. Calling the latter group "ghouls" is strongly discouraged, and may constitute a hate crime in some districts.

Contrary to popular perception, dhampirs are not actually charmed or glamored toward their benefactors in any way; they really are just that yuppy and sycophantic. Real go-getters, you could say.

Dhampirs comprise the majority of each vampire's personal staff and assistants. They are crucial to the nightly operation of just about every system and industry in the Burgravate, acting as a sort of middle-management caste between their employers and the ashen masses below. They are also the only people entrusted with operating the Sableways.

The Sableways

A network of coal-fueled locomotives that crisscross the Burgravate and beyond, delivering goods and personnel wherever the vampires decree. Smaller railways service individual districts, which are connected together by a larger, strictly regulated national rail that extends all the way out to Brighter Parts beyond the Burgravate. The trains are crewed and serviced entirely by dhampirs; the living are not trusted with such things.

Every Sable engine and car is as overengineered as the manorfactories, making them downright malevolent to behold and disquieting to ride inside of. Ominous interior lights, constant howling, noxious smoke that vents out from strategically-placed exhaust pipes to create a billowing "mantle" of darkness, etc. Most living folks run the other way when they hear one screaming down the rails, for fear of being told to board for a destination unknown and best unfathomed.

Other than that, the Sableways are genuinely some of the best public transit in the world. Engineers in Brighter Parts are working to devise a more human-friendly adaptation of them.

The Living

Someone has to keep the wheels of industry turning for the vampires. Unfortunately for the residents of the Burgravate who yet live, it's them. The majority of the human population is kept as docile workers and an occasional food source by their vampiric employers. They avoid using the word "cattle", usually.

Groups are kept divided with almost no travel or contact between districts, except at carefully controlled checkpoints. These rifts between communities are fostered and deepened by vampire propaganda, which seeks to undermine any sense of unity they might develop. Common is the occurrence that a vampire announces how "those shiftless ne'er-do-wells on the other side of the fence" have ruined another shipment, forcing the district to work even harder to catch up.

Humans here are usually pale in complexion regardless of race or ethnic background, thanks to generations under the smog. Having a light coating of ash on them at all times adds to this effect of depressing uniformity. Despite this, many communities have been isolated from one another for so long that they now possess different cultures, practices, and dialects, insofar as they are allowed to exercise them.

Leading causes of death in the Burgravate are respiratory illness and workplace injury. Direct predation by the upper class is a highly visible cause of death, but statistically not even in the top 10; more die from scurvy alone. Most deaths by vampires are judicial sentences carried out on lawbreakers, but failed dhampir transformation constitutes a sizeable (and growing) minority.

Clothing manufactured for use by the living tends to be drab, utilitarian, and concealing. Ornamentation is likely to get confiscated or caught in a machine. Therefore, personalization of masks and respirators is a common, if limited, means of self-expression. Most districts consider someone not to be dressed if they don't have a mask on hand.

Children have it rough. Average height is slowly decreasing with each generation, and rickets is common. Many parents feel bad bringing them into the world and workforce, but that is another dimension of life that is not up to the living to decide on. Well, technically it's a choice, but few people decline for the same reason they don't decline a second shift of unpaid overtime: you're better off seen as a team player.

The Resistance, As It Were

Despite what the local human resources office might tell you about employee satisfaction and productivity, not everyone has been ground down into compliance by the vampires. There are those who realize (or have been made to realize) that there is an alternative. There is another choicealbeit an equally painful one—that they can make instead: fight.

Some are true believers in the occultated sun, who want to see the land restored to the way it was before cruel avarice poisoned everything. Others consider it a fairytale, but don't care one way or another; they see a bad situation, and want to make it less bad. Still others have more personal or short-term goals in mind; revenge, escape, sheer unmitigated boredom, etc. All camps differ in their ends, but are united by the means: killing vampires. Or trying to, at any rate.

Rebels operate in small cells scattered across the outskirts of manorfactories. Their movement is nascent and vulnerable to being snuffed out early, so they chiefly concern themselves with staying alive and undetected while pursuing modest goals. Their activities include stockpiling supplies, minor acts of sabotage at strategic locations, and many discreet forms of passive resistance.

Perhaps their most important goal of all is fostering moments of fleeting communication and cooperation between people of different districts; a sort of living class solidarity.

Just getting people from one district to see one from another as equal is a daunting task by itself: all their lives, both have been raised to believe that any benefit enjoyed by the other is a detriment to themself, and that only one's own vampire is in any position to better them. That has to change before anything else can be accomplished. Even if by some miracle a single district liberated itself tonight, it would be their living, breathing neighbors who'd be sent in to break them with a ferocity born of desperate self-preservation.

It is the rebels' hope that someday they can unite the districts in a general uprising against their masters with the intent to overthrow the Burgrave and shut down the smog factories. It's a dim hope, but not as dim as the sun.

Perhaps it could be managed with support from sympathetic parties in Brighter Parts...

Brighter Parts

Simply put, Brighter Parts are the rest of the world beyond the Burgravate, where the sun is rumored to still shine. Officially, the sun is a spurious myth propagated by criminals, anarchists, and disgruntled employees- all of which are synonymous with one another. But the vampires are still a few mortal generations away from hammering that belief in as "fact". Until that time, workers are kept as ignorant of the outside world as possible, and incidentally the converse is true as well.

Parts closer to the Burgravate are none too happy to catch some of its pollution whenever the wind changes- nor are they eager to see the smoggy domain encroach on them bit by bit as new contracts are negotiated. But the vampires have excellent PR, and their manufacturing exports are important to the regional economy, so political will to do anything about it is low for the moment.

The only way to reach Brighter Parts is by crossing the miles of blighted, trackless wasteland surrounding the Burgravate. The fastest way to do this is by taking a Sableway, but to do so you'd either have to get the OK of the vampires, or enact a daring hijacking. You could also try hoofing it across the lightless wastes, but there is a multitude of starving, toothy reasons why the fences around the outermost districts are designed to keep things out as well as in.

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