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by micah epstein

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“Excuse me sir/ma’am, but what is the name of this square?” 

 

“Just passing through, sorry” 

 

“We live around here so we just call it ‘the plaza’ ” 

 

“Yrros, on emit ot tahc-” 

 

“One of the many Theaters of Justice under the watchful gaze of the Mighty Legion!” 

 

“I ain’t no ma’am, if you don’t move I’ll make you!” 

 

There is no evident agreement on the name of this place. A confluence of two major roads and innumerable alleys, a substrate fountain surrounded with steps almost but not quite at its center. Procrastinating students sunned their chemical-stained skin, heavy-lidded eyes looking with no interest at shambling pack animals pulling precarious wagons to and from the day markets. The cartographer looked down on his recent trace of the Diagram, already packed with revisions. The ink and paper he had with him wouldn’t last even the full district at this pace. Well, at least his last invoice had been filled by the Lady. His pockets were satisfyingly full. Warm bed and a glass of wine full. An exceedingly rare delight for the cartographer.  

 

“Ask someone else, twerp.” 

 

“Bleruay tleilaxu narunta?”  

 

“The Plaza of the Afternoon Sun! because the sun always sets perfectly between those two spires. It’s what gives that fountain such a sparkle, even until the last minutes of the day.” 

 

“Wow, uh, thank you! That’s a great name!” 

 

“Excuse me, this is the Plaza of the Afternoon Sun, right?” 

 

“Huh? Oh...sorry, no, I’m having a really bad day...” 

 

“No way buddy, the Plaza of the Afternoon Sun is tucked away at the end of that alley with the archway, two streets down from the Promenade. Got a sundial that only works in the afternoon and everything.” 

 

The cartographer followed the alley, which resulted in an altogether pleasant afternoon and much-needed change of scenery from that troublesome square. He sat amongst the shade palms on the plinth that served as the 1 o’clock marker at the (now very clearly) Plaza of the Afternoon Sun, half-napping as he admired the shadow’s reliable path in the latter half of the day - a concise truth registered in this substrate sundial, plucked from a complexity of bouncing particles and waves flung from the roaring sun, millions of miles away. Deeper in the daydream, his feet sucked down by soft ground, somehow...not substrate? His vision was clouded, blurry, where was he supposed to go?  

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At his desk, ink well, blotter, cap, and solvent meticulously placed as always, he scratched out “Sundial Park(?)”, satisfied to be replacing it with the much more aptly named Plaza of the Afternoon Sun. This hope was quickly overshadowed as his pen caught at the end of the strikethrough, and a great unholy bead of ink spat from the nib and landed in the center of the still-unnamed square, riddling the surrounding area with erroneous dots and splashes. He sighed. Another trace of the Diagram was in order. Blotting, then pinning up the ruined draft, he mechanically unlocked the only drawer on his desk fitted with a lock, and drew out the original. The Diagram. Not a sheet of paper, but an ovoid stone, cast in high-grade substrate with a unique luster and translucence. He turned it on, flipping a switch deep within himself. How did he know how to do that? There it was all about him - an understanding of the immutable substrate, twirling about his head and deep in his bones. He began to trace.  

 

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“Excuse me, but what do you call this square we are in?” 

 

“Who wants to know? I’m busy.” 

 

“me and my buddies call this Stabby Park ‘cuz onetime Gark and his pack…” 

 

“Excuse me, but are you the cartographer currently under the employ of the Steelworker’s Union? You, sir, are a hard man to find.  I bear good tidings from the Union!” 

 

The memetic messenger squared his shoulders, cleared his throat, and recounted those good tidings in a new voice, clipped and silken: the voice of the Lady of Steel. A request for a full district map by the end of the week. With good money - security deposit and a cask of wine kind of money - promised upon delivery. For the rigorous cartographer, the ill-fated square they both stood in made this request less of a windfall, and more of an impossibility. On his master copy, it was still a glaring, empty hole among the neat orderly script of the rest of his labels. Simply not up to snuff. He sent the messenger back with a plea for more time. 

 

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“Excuse me, what is the name of this square?” 

 

“Victory Square, of course. Because Winner’s Way runs right through it from the Coliseum.” 

 

“By Winner’s Way, do you perhaps mean Sinner’s Way? I’ve heard  

from a couple people that’s what they’ve grown up calling it.” 

 

“Of course not, it’s written right into the substrate. Can’t argue with that. Check the center line right before it runs into the square. You’ll see."  

 

And the cartographer did see, after he had brushed aside some street dust and detritus in a couple of likely places that could be the center line right before it ran into the square, there, embossed into the very substrate of the street: 

 

 ⤜ Way To Winning$ ↝ 

 

Godamnit. Even his master copy had Sinner’s Way on it. But…that’s what made sense - the structure at the end of that street had to be a place of worship of some sort. He pondered this as he walked the length of Winner’s / Sinner’s Way, jostled steadily by broad shoulders and bare elbows. He arrived at the steps leading up to the structure in question. What else was the purpose of those giggling gargoyles and flying buttresses, if not to inspire piety? A waft of acrid smoke crossed his path - a troll smoking roll-ups with some trodden-on looking humans. He pushed his way past them and wearily trudged up the steps to the neck-stretching tall doors of the substrate building. Thick inches of posters and flyers consumed them, advertising giant centipede fights, slimepunk shows, hitmen, calls for attention thinning towards scrawled tags that competed for height until it was blank, reaching ever higher into a arched fresco of an angel, pouring a vessel of some sort, flowing water rendered in substrate with immaculate detail. Scanning down the posters, slightly curious at different address notation used, He saw it then, immediately noticed a similar emboss on the flagstone at the door’s base, on axis with column and structure and the Way to Winnings (Winner’s Way?), all too obvious to him now: 

 

Oa$i$ of Opportunity

Dice, Card$, and $o Much More  

 

He looked back up at the casino. It was certainly ostentatious enough. He berated himself for not noticing these embossed signs before. If these were an original schema, left behind by the Sculptors, it could save him hours, days, months even. He fell to his knees in the dust among the crowd, intent on the words. No. no. He quickly realized this embossing had been chipped away, piece by piece, the curved head of some tool evident in the scalloped texture. The cartographer weighed his reaction to this in unequal measures. Certainly, he was relieved that these markings were not a part of the substrate, which by his definition was smooth, seamless and unmarked. His previous work had not been undone. Some hand had done this sometime, sometime after the first laying of the substrate. But that was impossible? Since as far back as the city could remember, people did not alter the bones of this city. They could not. Substrate chipped the highest-grade tools of heretics. For all the creative differences of this city, this was agreed upon. 

 

He absently practiced a couple styles to denote the markings, how small could he write them, how could he make it disappear? No. This isn’t why he was making this map. He was making a map of the present city, not some past version of it. Whatever those engravings were, it mattered not to him - they were a non-essential detail. His job was concerned with the now, not the then. To bring those bones to life, make them dance with the breath and blood of the city’s people.  

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When he had first started, he thought the best way to do that was by conducting a census. He knew how an understanding of the demographics and population patterns of this city was a map of its own. He would pass from warren to hollow to spire, clipboard in hand. 

 

“Excuse me, how many of you are in this...den?” 

 

“How would you describe your race and/or species?” 

 

“Do you have a concept of gender? what do you identify as? and your other housemates?” 

 

The language barrier was insurmountable, hard as substrate, a wall infinitely high in the stress dreams he began having. It was better now, with the mapping, the answers and labels always had a way of resolving themselves. The city was demure but somehow ultimately consistent. It had given up just enough of itself for him to create quite the working relationship with the Lady. Her demand was incessant, she couldn’t get enough of his maps, so neatly written with the faint impression of substrate indicated beneath the streets and galleries, landmarks, trees shaded with green wax pencils, and the names! the names that seemed to fit each place so well. Those were his specialty.  

 

“Excuse me, could you tell me the name of this plaza?” 

 

Oh no, not today, sorry.” 

 

“Another, um....holy theater for the Mighty Legion…” 

 

Seizing an opportunity, the cartographer asked, 

 

“You seem new to the Legion…is there anything you knew it as before?” 

 

But the new recruit froze up, totally still, for several noticeable moments, until, slowly, her brows knit and the characteristic fiery zeal returned to her face. She fiercely turned and strided away. This is why the cartographer neglected to use the Mighty Legion diocese designations. Certainly they were tacky, more baroque tribute than place, but the case could be made for using them as a placeholder, as they were more or less consistent -  depending on the Legions influence in the area. But the cartographer, his trace of the Diagram in hand, knew how a placeholder could influence the final. They are not the authority. No one really was, not yet at least. Amidst the construction dust and cigarette smoke, chaos reigned supreme. A seething mass of guilds and unions and competing truths. And he had to do something about it. 

 

“Excuse me, but what is the name of the square we are standing in?” 

 

“Look mister, that’s the second time you’ve asked me that question this week - Why the hell do you need to know?” 

 

“My apologies, uh, mister. Sorry to bother you” 

 

“Sir cartographer! Good to see you again. I bring a response from the Lady herself. She says…  

 

And the messenger squared his shoulders, cleared his throat, and recounted in her voice:  

 

“It’s cute that you think you can say no to me. Perhaps my reputation doesn’t quite precede me in the more... rural... districts. We are willing to pay dearly for the map. I will send a courier for it at dusk tomorrow.”  

 

The cartographer did not notice the clear discomfort in the messenger’s face as he mimicked this last point. Instead, the cartographer got stressed. And greedy. A regretfully agreeable combination.  

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Out of a necessity to at least approach completion that day, the Cartographer filled in the areas surrounding the square. The city welcomed him back with a wealth of agreed upon labels and his pace quickened. In a truly astounding afternoon of research, he followed the entire length of the Boulevard of Dust, the huge winding market that cut through the Merchant District. Each response was more affirmative and uniquely informing than the last. He was scratching down - for once not scratching out - notes as fast as people could talk. He double-confirmed The Horse Bazaar, a huge stinking dust-clouded bowl with every mount or steed you could ever desire for sale. At its center was the Sink: the most unholy drain one could imagine, a prison for those who cheated on the exhibition races that went round and round the perimeter. He marked down The Port Canal, a substrate aqueduct from the Port District that brought groaning ships right to market to unload huge shining fish and chests with locks that could bite. He noted a garden enclosed in glass, the Perfumed Palace, where a whole host of mind opening vendors sold advice, predictions, and consultations disseminated via psychic vaporizers. He had better things to do. With that swath of chaos complete the district map was almost done. Almost.  

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Spires pricked the great yolk of the sun and dusk began to leak across the city. Shopkeepers swept their stoops, sailors casted off towards home, and the cartographer sat at his desk, his eyes beneath closed lids restlessly searching the Diagram. He gimbaled around the immaterial square, from above, from below, traced its off-center fountain, counted its alleys and storefronts, surveying it for a glimmer of a name. Something tapped cold and hard at the glass, startling him from his reverie. Before the cartographer could secret away the Diagram, the window was open and a jackal-headed figure slipped in, stinking of smoke. 

 

“Do you know why I’m here?”  

 

The jackals' leathers were black, matte, almost dusty. The cartographer widened his eyes slightly. He couldn’t believe the Steelworkers would be so heavy-handed as to send a sootblack for this task. He told the assassin it wasn’t finished, he wasn’t ready, there was one thing he needed to change. Making excuses, panicking as his eyes kept landing on different instruments hanging off the jackal's person, each one implying a unique, painful death. 

 

“Than change it. I have other business to attend to this evening.” 

 

At that, the cartographer was not surprised. The sootblacks were efficient, too professional for comfort. He said he had to add one more label, it would take no more than a minute. He took a seat again, and tried, as nonchalantly as possible, to place the unassuming diagram stone on the desk. Weak, tepid light spilled in interrupted pieces over his desk, glimmering momentarily off of it’s ovoid surface. He was reminded of how the light might be catching the spray of the fountain in that aggravating square at this very moment. It’s too bad that lead didn’t work out, it would be a fitting name. The Plaza of the Afternoon Sun. And his mind didn’t work fast enough for him to think why not, and it was too easy to simply extend the arrow, pointing it from the little pocket park with the sundial to the place where two roads and many alleys met, terraced steps and the fountain that caught the golden light. A simple omission, easy to overlook. The jackal materialized at his shoulder, stinking.  

 

“I know when a job is done. Let me take that from you.”  

Spires pricked the great yolk of the sun and dusk began to leak across the city. Shopkeepers swept their stoops, sailors casted off towards home, and the cartographer sat at his desk, his eyes beneath closed lids restlessly searching the Diagram. He gimbaled around the immaterial square, from above, from below, traced its off-center fountain, counted its alleys and storefronts, surveying it for a glimmer of a name. Something tapped cold and hard at the glass, startling him from his reverie. Before the cartographer could secret away the Diagram, the window was open and a jackal-headed figure slipped in, stinking of smoke. 

 

“Do you know why I’m here?”  

 

The jackals' leathers were black, matte, almost dusty. The cartographer widened his eyes slightly. He couldn’t believe the Steelworkers would be so heavy-handed as to send a sootblack for this task. He told the assassin it wasn’t finished, he wasn’t ready, there was one thing he needed to change. Making excuses, panicking as his eyes kept landing on different instruments hanging off the jackal's person, each one implying a unique, painful death. 

 

“Than change it. I have other business to attend to this evening.” 

 

At that, the cartographer was not surprised. The sootblacks were efficient, too professional for comfort. He said he had to add one more label, it would take no more than a minute. He took a seat again, and tried, as nonchalantly as possible, to place the unassuming diagram stone on the desk. Weak, tepid light spilled in interrupted pieces over his desk, glimmering momentarily off of it’s ovoid surface. He was reminded of how the light might be catching the spray of the fountain in that aggravating square at this very moment. It’s too bad that lead didn’t work out, it would be a fitting name. The Plaza of the Afternoon Sun. And his mind didn’t work fast enough for him to think why not, and it was too easy to simply extend the arrow, pointing it from the little pocket park with the sundial to the place where two roads and many alleys met, terraced steps and the fountain that caught the golden light. A simple omission, easy to overlook. The jackal materialized at his shoulder, stinking.  

 

“I know when a job is done. Let me take that from you.”  

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Years later, the cartographer, older, well-dressed and all the hungrier, wandered. He rested a moment on the wide steps of the newly refurbished Exchange Hall. Well dressed brokers rushed in and out, and a roar of commerce, ownership and futures and chance spilled out over the steps. It was an odd sort of structure, overlarge, dripping in gargoyles and held up by flying buttresses. A fresco adorned the top of neck-stretching doors, an angel overfilling a vessel, all immaculately rendered in substrate. Just gaudy enough for a stock exchange, the cartographer smirked to himself. Hauling himself upright again, he continued down Sinner’s Way, as the shining steel signpost indicated, and a flicker of recognition raised one of his eyebrows. He arrived at what he remembered as a particularly trying portion of his initial survey, a square with an off-center fountain where students sunbathed their chemical-stained skin. Now they studiously ignored the steel-skinned Steelworkers cargo trolleys that stained the air with soot on their way to the Boulevard of Dust (which was much less dusty now). The Plaza of the Afternoon Sun, noted another steel signpost. He refused to remember the markings that would have sat directly beneath the signpost.  

 

He was curious, wondering what had happened to that quaint back-alley sundial, how the Lady and her clerks would have dealt with his hasty omission. Let’s see, the backstreet that led there was the second way over from the Promenade. But...that wasn’t right. Where he remembered an archway between two buildings, was now a smooth substrate wall. A ponderous dead-end.

 

That way way was closed to him now.

micah epstein (they/them) is a Panorama web editor and first years Master’s in City Planning student concentrating in Housing, Community, and Economic Development. They are a storyteller and systems meddler raised on vast swathes of fantasy and science fiction, which taught them the power of stories to change hearts, minds, and systems. As a designer, they’ve designed web experiences for the ACLU of Washington, the MIT Media Lab, the coveillance collective, and many others. When not pushing pixels, you can find them headbanging in grimy basements or racing (and beating) c*rs on their rusty fixed gear.

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