This is the backstory of a character I am playing in a role-playing game, for a campaign called “Right of Rule,” based in a world by our game master Dru Pagliassotti. The basic scenario is “post-apocalyptic Tibetan diesel-punk,” and add to that a heavy Yakuza vibe, some dinosaurs-among-us, and physics-based magic called “chirate” and you have a good sense of the world. The other characters tend to be socialites and educated, so I decided to go after an illiterate kung-fu wizard. The problem with magic in this world is that it is chaotic and tends to damage the mage as much as his target, so I felt that to explore that part of the world I needed someone who had little to live for but an incredible passion to pursue.
This is written mostly for the other players, and so the description world is deliberately left a little sparse. I hope it still makes sense.
As was the custom among the Taanxiu, Tan Souchart was given his name two months before birth. “Born to a good life” his father Tan Bei explained. “A name that will give guidance to the architect of his machine.” Tan Bei’s wife, Xieh, chided him for assuming that she was to bear a third son for him, but a month later after a harrowing premature labor, Tan Bei’s expectations were proved right. Souchart was born.
The midwife pretended not to notice when Tan Bei left the birthing room and hid under a tree for an hour while his exhausted wife fluttered between consciousness and delirium. The babe that emerged was indeed male, small, but well shaped, with all limbs, fingers and toes accounted for. His spirit engineers saw fit to set his machine in motion, and his heart began ticking out the billion cycles we are each alloted. The bellows of his lungs powered a cry that bespoke of health, but that single pronouncement of terror at being exposed to the world outside the womb was the only sound Souchart made for five days. Though his silence was unusual, the babe was healthy.
What made Tan Bei run was not Souchart’s form, but his countenance.
Souchart’s skin appeared half-made. All babes emerge from the darkness of the womb unprotected, unshielded from harsh light by dark skin and dark eyes. But the paleness of this boy was mottled between patches that looked perfectly normal and wide blotches of nearly transparent whiteness. This whiteness covered parts of his left arm, both hands, patches of his thighs and feet, and the right side of his face and ear. Through this skin, you could watch the red and blue blood pulse. Tan Bei ran when the boy opened his eyes briefly, and though they seemed designed to be the deep blue of a newborn, half of his right eye was red like raw muscle.
His interface to the world is corrupt, Tan Bei thought, under the tree. He shook his head and tears welled up. A man is defined by how he interacts with the world. How can my baby live?
But Souchart and his mother survived the Proving Days, and a fortnight later the dimple where his collarbones meet was lightly tattooed with the image of an axle and pinion, the Mark of one born the Taanxiu tribe. The law was clear on this — his Maker had designed a machine with a purpose, he had been Proven, and the tribe cannot disrupt the Machinery.
He was brought in, but he was not welcomed.
“It’s a death sentence,” the woman inside the yurt whispered. “Not for my only son.”
Souchart was outside, supposed to be sleeping exposed to the cleansing moonlight. He had watched the priest doctor enter his home, the yurt he and his family lived in each of his eight Summers. It was the same doctor who had prescribed the Light of the Waxing Moon treatment. Souchart hoped it worked, but he didn’t feel anything. Just a little cold.
“His touch has made you barren, Xieh,” his father replied. “This family would be full of sons, if it weren’t–” A sudden sudden, desperate shush came from Souchart’s mother. His father continued more quietly. “We’ve lost two sons who had already reached their Marking Day, and three who were born still.”
“One born still. Two were un-Proven.”
“The Law sees no difference,” the doctor inserted in the same low voice as the others. “A child who cannot live a fortnight was never really born. And as for the boy being the cause…”
“His brothers (their names be recorded) were accidents. Boys and men die in the Dunes all the ti–”
“He was with them!”
There was silence, aside from a subtle clinking sound when the doctor moved and the gadgets he kept in his deep pockets rubbed past one another.
“His treatments,” Souchart’s mother seemed to plead with the doctor.
Outside, Souchart raised his arms, and in the dim pale light he could make out the intricate web tattooed there, a flowing, writhing wire starting as a single strand at his shoulder and wriggling downward along what they called the chirate channels. He had seen the charts of these lines, flowing from the head, heart, and spine radially outward like the nerve lines traced by the fire rash from the desert ghali bite. But unlike those charts, as the tattooed wire passed his discolored biceps, it deviated from its course, twisting and looping back upon itself, knotting over triangular gaskets and turning around ratcheted spools, until it piled in a mess on his forearms, never making it to his hands. Every day, he was to trace this line, and follow all the curves to their destination — difficult to see on his dark skin, and painfully apparent where his skin was splotched white. Every day, he was to attempt to discover where it goes. For a hundred and eighty days he traced it and each time he discovered that it looped back to its start. His chirate channel was a river that turned and flowed uphill. Every day he saw it loop back on itself, and now, six months later, the planet would help him by looping back in its orbit, taking its energies back to where they started.
“The treatments are drawings,” the doctor sighed, “mere drawings. If he does not pull them in, make them part of his machine, they are just ink.”
I will try harder, Souchart thought. He began tracing the lines. Maybe doing it by moonlight would make it difficult enough to work.
“There is no cure for the Afflicted,” the doctor said, as if it would soothe Xieh’s fears.
“Those in the cities, in Yltar, they call it a Gift. To control the chirate flow is something they respect, they… cherish.”
The doctor sighed, and he adopted his priest’s voice. “Those in the cities are simple people, concerned with themselves and not the world. They have misapplied the Lesson of Fire. Fire is a destructive force that, when applied to a boiler or a smelter, can be a powerful tool of creation for the Machine. But it does not follow that all destructive forces can be creative as well. The chirate does not create. It corrupts, disrupts, and corrodes. The boy is Afflicted, and there is no cure.”
Souchart’s mother could be heard softly sobbing her resignation. His father moved close and whispered so low Souchart could barely hear.
“Tonight would have been the Proving Day for a new son, if the boy hadn’t touched him, if he hadn’t… stopped. The Law says that it can’t be murder before Proven, but that’s the Law — you know the danger to our family. Yesterday was his Marking Day; let the tribe have him. He must be sidecast.”
Souchart lost track of the wire, wiped away a tear and started tracing it again.
So the ink on his Taanxiu Mark was barely set when it was adjusted. The axle and pinion of a Proven babe is placed where the collarbones meet. At seven and a half years of age, the image of a gear is set on the axle and the collarbones become pawls to ratchet its movement. In this way, we Taanxiu are reminded that we may be machines of astounding complexity, but we are but a single cog in the Mechanism far greater than any of us. Men and women alike, once Marked are considered to be on the path to adulthood within the tribe.
The new ink was subtle. A crack in the gear, and a careful adjustment of colors left the appearance of one gear tooth missing. Tan Souchart became just Souchart, as he had no family now but the tribe.
He was sidecast.
None would take him in, but no one could refuse his needs. He was able to keep fed enough, and warm enough, but he did not thrive.
The Tan’s were never able to recover, and they abandoned their summer yurt and winter dwelling in the south-facing cliffs, and just left. Souchart has heard they are with a neighboring tribe now; or they crossed the Wastes to be rid of him; or they became lost in the cities and disappeared. He dreamed they had five sons, who jeered, taunted, and sometimes invited him to sit or hunt with them. In this dream, he spoke to them by name, and the newborn sons possessed the souls of his dead brothers.
Side-brothers. He was not a Tan.
It was not a good dream. During his tenth Summer, Souchart abandoned a flock he was to be watching, and hopped on the open bed of the last car in a passing train. He did not know where it went.