Author Topic: Mercy  (Read 239 times)

The Corsair

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« on: December 06, 2021, 11:14:58 am »
   Everyone has a name, but the one other people give us is the one that counts. I’ve always had trouble with that since my business is in taking away people’s names. Luckily for them they’re not losing much. By the time I’ve gone after them their name isn’t worth much anymore. At least not to them.

   There was one I’ll never forget. He was a young one, younger than most. He got into it for no other reason than he liked the work. He’s wiped out a whole camp of trappers when I find him. He goes after me, loses, then I wipe his memory and fill it with another life. He walks away a good man. Some call that mercy.

   Funny that, because some call this town Mercy too.

   It used to have a different name, probably, but then all the water dries up as the frontier booms and suddenly this here is the only town still with water. So they do the honest thing and start sending shipments to the other towns. The water dried up because of the greedy, so everyone calls it an act of mercy.

   And that’s exactly why I’m here; the water. Mercy comes to Mercy.

   The town’s mayor eyes me up and asks me what I want to know. I tell him their shipments have stopped. He tells me they haven’t.

   Of course they haven’t.

   Well they sure as hell ain’t arriving anywhere, I say. He tells me they’re definitely leaving from here. So we go for a walk and watch a wagon train get loaded up and sent on its way. Alright, so they are still sending shipments. They even send ‘em out with security aboard, which eats in to profits I’m sure. I’m also sure the mayor ain’t so happy about that. His pants are looking a little loose, now that I think about it. But he doesn’t complain, just tells me something must be going wrong somewhere else, and am I sure the town I came from hasn’t just been lying to me? I say no, of course they haven’t, do I strike him as a man who doesn’t check the obvious?

   No, no I do not, he assures me. I guess I better check the obvious then. These shipments are being hijacked and re-routed somehow. Question is where to, and by who? The question is also could they have picked a more obvious crime? Maybe they just don’t care. Water means money, and when your town is thirsty I guess you don’t care who you’re buying from when you’re mayor. I also guess this mayor doesn’t know much about what that’s like. At least he had the sense to hire security. He might not be worldly, but he ain’t naive.

   So I thank him, and he doesn’t thank me just yet, and I head for the next place that knows a thing or two about water. See if you’d taken the time to look around you might have noticed the riverbanks by Mercy are as dry as everywhere else. Mercy ain’t drawing the water, they’re buying it same as every other town. Only they buy from the source. I wouldn’t call this town Mercy, I’d call it Monopoly. Or maybe I would use the more direct term; Greed.

   Hard to accuse anyone out here of greed though. Ain’t that why we all came?

   Off to the source I go, then.

   The Alchemist’s Guild is just out of town, up a long path that coils up the blade-edge of a bluff. You can see it all the way from Mercy, which I suppose is why they get first dibs on the supply. Mercy needs water, but the Alchemists ain’t exactly farmers so they need someone to buy food from. Clever mayor makes a deal. I don’t blame him.

   The Guild hall sits there like a wheel-less wagonbed all overgrown with stone. Just a flat rocky rectangle, no style or flair. For folk who had the good eye to pick this striking spot they sure squandered it with a bland building. But then that’s the point of Alchemy I suppose, take something bland and make it amazing; Take something amazing and make it bland in equal measure.

   I knock on the door and one of the juniors opens it for me. Lucky kid has the best job in the Shine, opening doors for strangers. Doesn’t have to worry about going thirsty, probably has a good bed somewhere in this place’s dorm, and the door happens to be the safest door in the Shine to open.

   I ask him if there’s someone around I can talk to about the water. He motions me in and shuts the door.

   And the art of Alchemy is applied again to the interior. Bland outside, amazing in. The ceiling is taller than any other in the Shine, made of stone all polished a milky white, and all I can think of is how long it’s been since I saw milk. The amazing becomes bland again.

   But there is something amazing about it: the lack of dust. Every home, every tavern, every mayor’s office all across the Shine, all of them are covered in dust these days. It blows in like a bad omen, and it ain’t never gonna leave.

   So the boy walks me through the no-dirt-here, milk-you-ain’t-seen-in-years stone hall and through a wooden door that, by my days, is the cleanest door I’ve ever seen. Then after that door is a spiral of stairs. The bricks are grey-like-the-rainclouds-you-ain’t-seen-in-years grey. White and grey, amazing what colours you lose when times get hard.

   At the top is another damn-clean door, and through that is a corridor filled with damn-clean doors.

   Damn, this place is clean, I say. The boy doesn’t say a thing. He takes me to one of the doors, one a long way apart from the ones either side. Big room, I suppose. Then the door opens, and yes, the room is big. It’s also full of people, all rank-and-file at identical desks. They’re all fussing about a dozen arrays of glass bowls and tubes, one for each desk. Boy goes and taps one on the shoulder. Fella looks up, boy points at me. Fella comes over, boy leaves room. Smart boy, that one.

   Fella tells me he’s called Persie. I ask if it’s short for Persival. He tells me it is, and how can he help me today? I ask him if he can tell me everything there is to know about the water. He tells me to be more specific. I tell him to show me how they make it, how they store it and how they get it to Mercy.

         He can do that for me, he supposes.

    So he walks me down the desks with the Alchemists bent at them all focused on their glassware. Some of them are sweating, so I ask if that’s how they make the water. Persie doesn’t laugh.

   They transmute it, like they would anything. Sand to water, that takes rare minerals. Luckily the whole Shine came about from finding said rare minerals. Perfect economy I guess. Need water to keep the miners alive, need miners to extract the minerals, need minerals to make the water. It’s just a shame so many came here to mine and sell the minerals. If they’d known they’d get paid in water instead of coin how many would have stayed home?

   So where does the water go once it’s transmuted, I ask. He shows me one woman about to finish her work. The runes form in the air before her outstretched hand, and the pool of dry sand in one of the glass bowls bubbles into action like boiling tar. It becomes a black smoke, then a white smoke, then it starts to move down one of the pipes to another closed-off bowl with flakes of Dassalite in the bottom. Rarest mineral in the world, and here it is turning into a pool of thick blue liquid. The liquid meets the smoke and starts to go runny, then the blue gets lighter, and suddenly it’s just plain old water.

   Changing the Fundamentals of a substance is dangerous, says Persie, they have to keep the reaction contained. I tell him I know how Alchemy works. I bet he doesn’t believe me.

   So that’s a flask of water, then. They carry it to a metal barrel and pour the water in. After enough flasks, Persie tells me, they seal off the barrel. Ten at a time they ship them out to Mercy and the mayor pays in a little bit of money and a lot of Dassalite, the very Dassalite they use to make the next batch of water. What’s the bet the mayor sells the water on to the other towns for that very Dassalite, I wonder. Probably for a little bit of money too. Sometimes we still gotta buy things that ain’t water and rocks.

   Show me how it gets to Mercy, I say. He leads me from the room back out into that damn-clean corridor. The cleanest door of all is at the very far end, and he takes me through that door into a room of barrels. It’s got a great big window at the far end that swings outward at the hinges. The barrels get lowered down on a winch, says Persie, and then at the bottom they stack ‘em on to a cart and wheel ‘em down the mesa. Cart can’t carry more than ten at a time, so tens are what they ship. I think of the wagon train in Mercy with near two hundred barrels on it. So how often do they send carts, I ask. Five a day, he answers.

    Five carts, ten barrels per, two hundred barrels to a wagon train. That’s two good wagon trains a week. Or four small ones. Not every town is as big as Mercy.

         I thank Persie for his time, and he doesn’t say it but he’s thankful to me for being on my way. Back to Mercy I go, and first thing I do is find that damn mayor. Sun’s getting low, and when I get there I’m told he’s at supper. Well, I tell his girl, he’ll be having a thirsty supper if I don’t find out what’s happening to the water. She goes and gets him, even though Mercy will never run out of water so long as the Alchemists are alive.

   I ask the mayor when the next wagon train leaves, and to where. He tells me two days, and it’s a small shipment to a town called Sanro. About fifty barrels, he tells me when I ask. He knows full well it ain’t ‘about fifty’ or ‘about’ anything. He knows exactly how many barrels will be on that wagon train and exactly how much Sanro’s mayor can do if he gets less than he paid for. But I suppose I can count them myself while I’m with them on the road and if it turns out Sanro’s mayor is getting less than he paid for then I guess he’ll tell me so. All I’d have to do then is head back to Mercy and arrest this here mayor for deceitful practice, with his loose pants and his cold supper, then find the missing water.

   Damn do I hope it’s that simple. Better a crooked mayor than trouble on the road.

   But in two days I’m on the wagon train to Sanro and as it turns out it’s trouble on the road. The bandits stop us with the oldest trick in the book: upturned wagon on the road. The Wagonmaster knows better than to stop, but we’re in a gorge so we damn well can’t go around the downed wagon. He gives the order to turn around, and the wagon crews work fast. But the bandits are faster. They’ve been waiting for this, the Wagonmaster is behind the game.

   They descend on us all and the guards only take out two before they get taken out themselves. Bad job to have to die for I reckon. They probably only did it for the pay, and probably only wanted the pay so they could be the one in a thousand that gets out of the Shine. Turns out they all get out of the Shine, but not in the way you’d want.

   The rest of us put our hands up. We know how this works. They load off the water and roll it away. If you try stop them, you die. If you follow them, you die. If you don’t drink any water, you die. You’re gonna die anyway, might as well pick the slow way. We give them no trouble and the last barrel gets rolled away in peace.

   So I tell the Wagonmaster this is my stop. I jump down to the dusty earth and skulk after the bandits. My six-shot rests in my hand like an old lover, comfortable and caring. Any trouble and she’ll look after me well. Always has.

   Used to be the grip didn’t feel so easy in my hand. Used to be there were no sweat-stained grooves where my fingers wrap around it. Used to be I had to worry about keeping my flashsand dry in the rain.

   The bandits are loading the water on to their own wagons when I approach. First one spots me, but I’m ready. He opens his mouth to raise the alarm, but my empty hand is raised first and my fingers are spread. The runes spin around my wrist, then stream toward him through the air and wrap around his head. For a moment they dance past his eyes, then they fade like water stains. Glad you finally showed up Ander, he says. I tell him I got held up. I help him load up a barrel and every so often someone comes over and I give them the same batch of memories and next thing they’re pleased as punch Ander is on this job with them. Remember when Ander found that sheriff snooping around their last robbery? Thank goodness Ander was there with us, right boys?

   So Ander’s on the bandit train when shots ring out from the south. First one clocks a bandit right in the eye. He falls off a wagon down to the dust and starts slowly joining it. Then they get their wits together and start firing back. But they don’t know what they’re shooting at just yet so three more go down before they spot the shooters on a hillside. By then the shooters are charging the bandits’ wagons, and the bandits don’t last much longer.

   Then one finds me, hiding in the back of a canvas-covered wagon by the barrels of water. My hand extends and the runes flash before his eyes. Nice work, Gerry, he says to me. No trouble, I say.

   So these bandits take the stolen water and load it up on their own wagons, which they’re hiding just past the hill they were shooting from. They all thank Gerry for being their Inside Man and tracking the group of bandits.

   So this is what’s happening to the water then. It ain’t just one group of bandits, it’s dozens. Only trouble is the mayors still ain’t getting any water. I would’ve thought at least one of these bandit groups would be selling it on, but obviously they ain’t. So where’s it going then?

   Only one way to find out, and that way is down another dusty road with this crop of bandits. It stretches out across the plains like a wake on water, disappearing if you tried to follow it more than a few metres down. Ain’t even a road, really. Any markers are long covered by the dust, and if it weren’t for the old ruts of wagon wheels in the dirt it’d just be a memory of a trail between towns.

   Probably ain’t heading to Sanro anymore I figure. I guess Sanro’s going thirsty this week. But I also don’t ask where we are heading, and I don’t ever get a chance to. We’re halfway through a gorge just like the one where the first ambush happened and wouldn’t you know it there’s a downed wagon on the road. The call goes out to stop and turn around but the gang’s leader knows full well what’s coming. Men pour flashsand into breaches, slip bullets into chambers, click hammers back and ready. A breath hangs. Then a shot flies out at us from behind a rock. It goes wide, but the fight starts anyway.

   Smoke and noise claim us all as thief fights thief. Bandanas are tugged up over mouths, and in the same motion that free hand will fan a hammer or chamber a new round. These boys ain’t like those wagon guards; everyone here knows what they’re doing. Heads are kept low, shots are steady and calm. Woodchips explode out where stray bullets meet wagonbeds. The shards and splinters claim more men than the bullets themselves.

   In the end, the thieves win. The only real losers are our eardrums. Even my six-shot throws a few into the mix. Probably didn’t hit anyone though.

   The victors descend on the wagons and this time my name is Loagen. There ain’t so much of them left after the gunfight and I already know what’ll happen next. Some other pack of thieves will find this one and that fight won’t last half as long as the one just been. I think next time my name could be Jerimiah. I also think what town I might end up in after all this. Will any mayor ever buy this water?

   Well we don’t reach any towns before sundown, so we park the wagons in a circle and light a fire. The wagon canvases don’t do much to stop the wind so the fire burns low. They set watch shifts and turn in, but they’re already under-manned and the shifts are leaner than is safe. The wind hides the sound of it all starting. By the time the rest of the gang is up and fighting the boys on watch are already growing cold on the dirt. The rest don’t last much longer and I ready up Jerimiah’s backstory.

   But by now I’ve worked it out. This water’s never going anywhere, and neither are these bandits. Think about it, I was only hired because the water trains hadn’t turned up at any towns for weeks. Let’s say you live in that town and need water. Only one way to get it: rob the train. But the train isn’t traders, it’s bandits who robbed the train, or it’s the bandits who robbed the bandits, and then you rob those bandits and you ain’t so different to a bandit yourself now.

   Soon it’ll be that the only way to get water ain’t to wait for your mayor to buy some from bandits, you’ll have to go get it for yourself. So what happens when everyone’s a bandit? Well, case in point, I suppose. Jerimiah lasts a day, then I’m Wayne for a little while, then I’m Ander since I figure that name is safe to use again, and I start to wonder when I’ll make it out. The whole cycle of bandits becomes like the Shine itself. They’re raiding so they can get the water and get out to a town, back to their normal lives. But the raiding’s what makes it impossible to get back. Like how everyone came to the Shine to make a fortune, and now they’re all too poor to move back home. Greed led us here and it made sure we’d never get out.

   Guess it’s a fitting way for this place to die.

   Except Mercy, I suppose. So long as those Alchemists are alive there’ll always be Mercy.
Still here, just quieter