FICTION: "All Gods Are Bastards" Prologue -- 20 May 2016

Something I thought up the other day. Heading in a weird noirish direction with pulp-fantasy trappings. Any feedback is, of course, appreciated.

This world was not made for us.

Well, not specifically for us. I'm sure there was a line item or two in the Grand Design, earmarked for "humankind," some tiny fraction of the cosmic budget allotted on our behalf.

Sure, we've done alright for ourselves in those intervening millennia. But every day―every fucking day―we're reminded that there are more philosophies in heaven than ever dreamed of us.

Because the gods are real. Some of them are even ours. But most aren't. And all of them don't seem to give two divine shits about us.

"Shit." Definitely one drink too many. No other explanation for my black anti-theistic mood. Well, last call was I-don't-know-how-many minutes ago anyway. Three fingers waggled to the bartender and I sent him back to the cashbox with exact change, as usual.

"See you later, Val," he called over his shoulder. "Same time tomorrow?" Bastard had long ago stopped adding "night," since we both knew that'd be a lie. Sometimes I'm the only reason he bothers to get up in the morning.

I mumbled what I hoped was a subtle blend of go-fuck-yourself and sure-thing-buddy.

I avoided tripping over the door-frame, landed somewhat gracefully on the slightly uneven pavement, and headed up the lane, towards... somewhere west of here, maybe even home.

The streets and buildings were all smeared across my field of vision for a while. This city, especially in the early morning or late evening, develops a certain hateful self-similarity in these districts. In my more paranoid moments (and that would include this one) I wonder if it's not some Higher Power at work, and make an effort not to look to the east.

But what the hell. For posterity's sake, I might as well not dance around it:

This city is old. Lots of cities claim to be old, of course. And maybe some of those claims sit better than others, but this city doesn't need to claim anything. It just is old. It's something near to the physical embodiment of the word "ancient." I think in some languages they turned its name into an adjective meaning "old," and in doing so every geriatric elder suddenly became, in a metaphorical sense, a newborn. I think that linguistic shake-up may have caused a few societal collapses.

This city is old, but the Thing is older. It has other names, of course. Some more clinically descriptive, others more nakedly reverential. Still more hushed and fearful.

That's me being cryptic again. Sorry. Professional habit.

Older than the city are the mountains to the east. Oldest of all is the central peak, ten kilometers tall.  Long after the mountains rose, long before the city spread, some divinity chopped that central peak in half and used the western face like clay, molding a ten-kilometer-tall statue of... something. Humankind tells itself that the statue is of a man.

I try not to actively deceive myself.

The Thing can look like a man, if you squint, and the sun hits it just right, and maybe if you're a bit drunk. But, like most Things in this world, it was not meant for us. The power that carved it... lingers. You can tell by the way the detail jumps out at you, standing on the ramparts of the wall that divides the Upper District from the veldt, at least a hundred kilometers from the western foothills of the mountains. It pulls the vision. It's like staring into the sun, except your vision becomes better, not worse, as you stare―and the sun never felt like it was grabbing my eyeballs and trying to pull them closer.

There was a sect, once, that worshiped the Thing. Stupid bastards. They all headed east on a pilgrimage in a fit of fervor. People back in the city heard a shriek on the wind, barely clinging to a semblance of the human, followed by the eyeless corpses the pilgrims smacking wetly into buildings, towers, streets, straight down as if dropped from a distant star.

I don't know why anyone decided to stay in this fucking place. I don't know why anyone would choose to actually come here from somewhere else.

Well, I can think of a few reasons. They're still stupid.

The clay one-story boxes of the Upper Districts gave way slowly, grudgingly, as the funicular crawled down the precipitous slope. I squinted, forced down a hiccup, and looked down at the Lower Districts, jumbled, almost beautifully chaotic. The history of the Upper Districts was dead, fossilized. It's only because whoever built those dwellings―the proportions are a dead giveaway that they weren't human, or at least weren't in their right minds―were engineering geniuses that anyone now lives up there: any box that crumbles is simply abandoned. It also helps that the rent is low, courtesy of the ineffable, irrational gaze of the Thing across a hundred kilometers of veldt. Perfect for scum, and the slightly-better-than-scum who hunt them for bounty. Most days I'm the latter.

Meanwhile, the Lower Districts are where history actually happened. Where history still happens, at least in this sorry corner of the world. At this point the funicular cleared the last of the lateral growth of trees that demarcate the slope's midpoint, and I caught a full-tilt view of the city proper. Two years living here and mostly hating it, but damn if that view can't still take my breath away.

The domes, balustrades and minarets of the Colonial District, not the first beachhead for humankind but certainly the most regal, were lurid in the tacky neon glow of the Vice District. Voluptuous and garish in equal measure, Vice nestled obscenely against the Theater and Waterfront Districts, for more than obvious historical reasons. Such was the early history of the city as it is most recently remembered by humankind. Then the sweep of the grand canal neatly quarantines the open degeneracy of this section, while the lights of the Financial District (a more closeted kind of degeneracy) glitter cold blue-green on its waters. Then the ridiculous affectation of the Chancellery; the Quay, a great sweep of residential districts south along the bay...

My eyes flicked, in spite of what I wanted to believe was a great effort of will, to the last place I wanted them to look.

The District of the Gods.

A pompous misnomer if there ever was one: how arrogant, to think that mere humankind could confine gods to a single district! Yet so easy to believe, once enough people congregate there and anoint kings and ministers and presidents there, throng in worship there, make pilgrimage and sacrifice there, offer prayer and song and burnt offerings and pageants and high ceremony in the name of their gods.

Eventually, with time and the slow coagulation of will, the gods will come.

I could even see a few icons hovering over their houses of worship, neon figments all done up in tubing and electrified gas in the imagined likeness of someone's favorite divinity. That's a ballsy move. It takes a lot of effort to become a true sectarian in this world, and not even focused attention attracts the gods' interest half as quickly as focused inattention.

The gods tend to look poorly on those who actively turn away.

After what seemed like hours to my besotted brain, the funicular creaked to a stop at its Vice District station. "Shit," I mumbled to myself. Picked the wrong train again; now it would be an extra half-hour of walking back to my lodging, with grifters and hookers to dodge on top of the bargain. Cursing the maze of the Upper District, I headed southwest.

Several blocks and a dozen slurred refusals of "service" later, I was startled almost to total sobriety as I became aware of a rising pressure in my torso and head. Spots of color bloomed in my vision. Four distinct tones shrilled in my ears.

No. Not now.

I collapsed to my knees, barely managing to support myself by grabbing the ceramic lip of a curbside plant pot.

A dizzying rush of thoughts. No; just one thought. Which one of Those-In-Heaven did I manage to piss off?

Then, I knew. I knew and remembered. And cold horror leaked into the remaining free spaces of my chest and abdomen.

And then I threw up into the potted bush. With each heave, the unbearable feeling subsided tremendously. Relieved, I promptly passed out.

An infuriatingly cheery bird-song, and a stab of early sunlight, woke me some time later. Over the hours of my oblivion, I had somehow managed to earn a small amount of money from passers-by mistaking me for a beggar.

"Hm, small miracles," I said, rasping-croaking. My tongue was thick in my mouth, felt like a slab of debris. I gathered up the notes and coins, pointedly ignoring the predatory disinterest of a shell-game grifter across the street, and resumed my journey home.