Unjust Deserts, part 3
Part 3: Just dive right in
The view of the desert from atop the hill was spectacular. In the distance, rust colored mesas dotted the horizon, with tall white clouds blowing majestically in a dazzlingly blue sky.
Nearer, boulders and rocky hills rolled along the landscape in waves, casting low shadows in an abstract pattern that mirrored the sky above. Even the shrubbery, that eternal dusting of greenish grayish brown and yellow all, filled the desert with another splash of colors.
All the rust red, blue, dark green, gold and brown… the desert wasn’t drab, but full of bright, clashing colors.
Though, they weren’t clashing quite as literally as the colors on display in the battlefield below. From his vantage point, Beck could see down through the dust of war, how the last vestiges of black and yellow Berliners were being trod underfoot by the red and blue Patissiers and their Rocky Rodents of unusual size.
Beck adjusted his hat, and kept going west, back towards the ruins.
Today would be tricky. He didn’t have enough move to reach the ruins, and would have to end turn out in the open.
‘Earl’ Del must have either seen him leave the hex, or been paranoid Beck was still alive, because he had broken off their alliance shortly after he fled the battle. Angry as he’d been, he hadn’t broken alliance on the faint hope he might be able to milk the contract for a few turns before they figured out he was still alive. They must have been real cracking Shmucker squeezers to be so thorough about it.
He’d have to eat the Prickly Pears to make up for not having water rations, but at least he wouldn’t depop.
The real worry though, was going to be finding a hex where he could hide well enough to avoid the Patissiers and Berliners.
Beck hiked slowly through the hex, examining the landscape thoroughly. With only two move left, he had to be exceedingly careful about where he ended turn. Luckily at least, the hill he was on had plenty of folds and creases; he might be able to hide in a crevasse or wedge himself between a boulder or two.
After a half hour of looking, he thought he’d found a good place to do just that. A crevasse near the top of a hill, carved by rainwater and with plenty of boulders strewn about. He took off his rucksack and lay against one of the rocks. He wouldn’t end turn just yet. The battle and hiking had left him parched, this’d be as good a time as any to eat and hydrate some.
He held the prickly pear carefully in the cloth wrapping, so he didn’t get a hand full of tiny needles, then he took out a boning knife and started cutting away the outer skin. He tossed the skin onto the ground a bit aways to his right, and once he started tucking into the pear itself, he’d spit out the pebble sized seeds on the same spot.
Halfway through eating the pear, he heard a faint rustle of loose dirt falling. He looked to the left, then right, but no one was in sight. Except… he looked to the ground, where there should have been a pile of seeds and peels, there were now only peels… and three-toed tracks.
He paused mid chew, then started up again as if nothing were odd. He casually spit out another seed into the same spot, then another. By the fifth, another rustle of wind and dirt caught his attention. And the seeds were gone.
With a clue about who this mysterious (and hungry) visitor could be, an idea started forming in his mind. Instead of spitting them onto the ground, he collected the rest into his right hand, and then… held it out, and pointedly looked away to his left.
He waited a few moments in silence. With no sound or movement, he finished off the last quarter of the pear, and spit out a good twenty seeds into his hand. This time, the hungry visitor didn’t seem so afraid, or maybe hunger got the better of them? A dust devil swept through the little ravine, but when he finished coughing, his hand was completely clean.
Smiling, Beck went through the same routine for the second Prickly Pear. Peeling, chewing, spitting, and offering with his hand. And this time, the hungry visitor sped in and out for only ten seeds, seemingly becoming more comfortable with eating out of his hand.
By the fourth handful he looked to his right, in the direction he thought the visitor would come, keeping his hand in plain view.
Instead of a gust of wind and dust, he saw a tall, long necked shadow emerge from behind one of the boulders framing the ravine. It was the Baudseed.
It must have been smelling the Prickly Pears in his pack, and been following cautiously even when he joined (and ditched) the Berliners, waiting for him to spit out the parts she really wanted. The seeds.
She stuck her head out from behind the boulder, peering cautiously at him. Then the Baudseed took a careful step into the ravine, then another. She alternated peering at him and the seeds with curious black eyes. With a third, enormous step of her reverse jointed legs she was halfway to him.
Beck breathed evenly, didn’t speak, kept his left hand far away from his pickaxe, and waited, holding his right seed-bearing hand steady.
The bird took a fourth step, and locked eyes with him for a long moment before lowering her head and eating the seeds straight from his palm.
“Pipipipip!” And they were gone in a flurry of ten little pecks. He marveled inwardly, he’d barely felt a thing!
She looked at him expectantly, and he picked up the rest of the Prickly Pear, chewed slowly, and offered her another handful of the seeds. It took ten, slow, painstaking minutes, but he could feel the Baudseed start to trust him. And… oddly… he was starting to trust her back.
After one last handful, and three Prickly Pears worth of seeds (honestly, Beck felt he’d overeaten, just to get enough seeds for the Baudseed) the Baudseed folded her long legs elegantly beneath her body and curled up to sit beside him.
When she started rubbing her head against his palm, something unspeakably raw, warm and tender threatened to well up within him and come out through his tear ducts and throat. He quashed the feeling. The desert was hard, and he had to be, too. Tears would be a waste of water.
But still… he ran his palm over the smooth, shiny seeds going from the head and down the neck of the first feral he’d ever tamed-- no. She had allowed herself to be tamed. She could very well have run off like earlier. She might not realize it, but he could harvest her with a flick of a finger and probably get three turns worth of rations.
He scratched the base of her neck, where it joined her body, and she flapped her stubby wings appreciatively. She had trusted him, made herself vulnerable, and he hadn’t taken advantage. This felt so at odds with his experience with Stu… but then again, it somehow seemed to fit.
Yeah, this was worth a rule.
Wasteland survival guide Rule #3: Trust is built when someone is vulnerable and not taken advantage of.
Looking her over, he saw her stats
Move: 52 (20 remaining)
Special: Superspeed (Foolamancy)
Gawking, Beck blurted out “You are one fast bird!” The Baudseed preened, somehow recognizing the compliment and letting out an appreciative “Beep beep beep!”
Her defense of twelve was also immense. Even with his light leather vest Beck only had a Defense of four. Thinking about it, Beck remembered that Defense was a combination of being able to take -- and dodge-- attacks, so it didn’t seem like such a glaring contradiction that this fragile-looking bird was somehow tougher than a Hard Rock Golem.
Still, Combat zero? Did she not fight at all? Looking her over and thinking about her personality, he realized that no, she probably didn’t. She was some kind of purely defensive, high mobility mount. She probably used her incredible move and the Superspeed special to zip around the Capital Wasteland unseen, looking for forage and avoiding attacks.
But just like today, she probably had to give up forage more often than not if a predator (unit or feral) got there first.
But this changed things. He now had a +1 stack bonus, and a mount that could run circles around most attackers. Yeah, with 52 move, not having water skins might not be a problem any more. Both of them working together, they ought to be able to forage enough for their daily upkeep, no problem!
Beck got up. The most immediate benefit though, was he now had a means to get back to the ruins, and out of harm's way, this same turn.
But first, one last formality. “You need a name, little tweety birdy. Lets see… what can I name you…”
The Baudseed chirped a curious “Beep beep?”
This would be tough. He only knew four proper names, counting his own. And he didn’t want to reuse any of them, for various reasons. Thinking, there was one other name he could use. When he’d popped, he automagically knew about the Titans, and had a few scattered bits of Scripture tattooed on his soul; lessons they wanted him to learn. One stuck out to him now:
An end unto itself.
A source of power.
Generosity is its own form of power.”
-- Book of Kevin
It seemed apt. He’d given the Baudseed food, and now she gave back her loyalty; and he had to give that loyalty back. They would be more powerful together than alone. Well. That settled it.
“Come on Kevin, we’re going home.”
The giant she-bird, Kevin, “Beep beep beeped” happily and gave a short jump.
The Capital Wasteland had a few other, more conventional types of flying wildlife. Flipthees, for example.
Today, one particular Flipthee was flying along, minding its own business (that being: cawing incessantly, stealing food, and pooping over unwary units and their belongings, in roughly that order) when it was nearly blasted out of the air by a sonic boom of dust and wind.
After righting itself, the Flipthee bird cawed indignantly and did several aggressive air-flips, wishing it knew language so it could curse out the rude Baudseed tearing a path across the desert.
It would have been happy to know (if it’s little bird brain were big enough to process the thought, that is) that someone very close to the Baudseed was doing just that.
“Kevin, sto-oh-op, you cra-a-acking birdbra-a-ain! I’m go-oh-oing to fall o-oh-ohfff!”
Sadly for Beck, the sound of his cries seemed to be having a hard time reaching Kevin’s ears. He’d made the mistake of ordering Kevin to “show him” what her Superspeed could do, and the six of them were now tearing a path across the desert.
Beck tried desperately to keep his thigh-hold on her torso to avoid falling off; watching as Foolamancy doubles of Kevin and himself ran beside them, deepening the nausea. He kept his right hand holding on to the crook of her right wing, and his left on her neck… but his desperate grip was confusing her to what hexes he wanted them to go.
He finally managed to get through a silent order, and Kevin somehow, magically, managed to go from a full sprint to a dead stop in less than ten feet by digging her heels into the dusty desert floor and creating a Foolamancy shroud out of the dust she’d kicked up around them. All without sending bird and passenger flying off from inertia.
Despite this magical feat, Beck’s stomach didn’t quite take to the sudden stop.
Disbandedly dizzy, he managed to roll off of Kevin’s back and land on jiggly legs. He wobbled over to an Ironwood tree, held onto the trunk for dear life and dry heaved a couple of times. Beside him, the Foolamancy doubles faded out of view as they tried to spew their illusionary gust out. He closed his eyes and soon, the act of regular breathing managed to mediate a truce between Beck and his stomach.
Kevin ambled over, she craned her head low and looked up with a kind of confused concern in her eyes. Beck held out his hand, and Kevin somehow intuited he wanted space. ‘Titan’s, why couldn’t she be this clever five minutes ago?’
With no more horking on the horizon, he let go of the Ironwood and gave Kevin a long, serious look. “Okay, how about for now, we stick to a trotting pace?”
Riding without a saddle was tough, he hadn’t really considered what Kevin’s smooth, seed coated body would actually mean when it came to riding and holding on, especially considering her ability to travel at ludicrous speed.
But ‘taking it slow’, he was starting to figure out how to sit, hold on, and steer her. Kevin was clever, she could sense his intent, but only when he was properly sending it. Not quite constantly issuing silent orders, but using the proper intent and framing.
Regardless, riding on a five foot tall Baudseed across the Capital Wasteland was something else. The subtle elevation was giving him a better view, the speed and range, it was a completely different way to experience the desert’s vastness.
They were trotting across an open valley, with only a scattering of chopped down cacti for company, silent reminders of the destructive foraging the capital sides were constantly partaking in. All these greedy capital sides; Beck imagined them as Titan sized, spoiled Royals seated around a Mesa, fighting over the last slices of the desert to gobble it up.
Just thinking about it made his blood boil.
Feeling more confidence in his riding ability, Beck closed his eyes and let the silence of the desert wash over and calm him. Just the quiet rustle of the wind blowing through nearby brambles, with the faint scent of a flowering Blue Palo Verde and of…
‘No. It couldn’t be.’
Kevin stopped, sensing Beck’s intent.
The scent opened a door in his mind, and he knew what a Blue Palo Verde was. Palo Verde’s were leafy trees, not cacti. The Blue variety needed more water than regular Greens, especially if it was to flower, and while he couldn’t be sure, the breeze had felt faintly moist.
He licked a finger and held it up, to make sure he was getting a good read on the wind’s direction. North West.
He leaned forward and stroked her neck. “What do you think Kevin? We’ve got enough move to check it out.”
“Beep? Beep beep!” Kevin’s cheerful chirping at the thought of a fresh source of water was enough for Beck.
The way was hard, it was significantly rockier in this direction. Not quite a Mountain Hex, but close enough to make navigating and maneuvering difficult, even mounted.
Two hexes out, over hills and under them, they finally found it.
Nestled at the bottom of a rocky hill was a small pond in a sort of collapsed, water carved basin. Four Blue Palo Verdes with tiny yellow blossoms shaded the watering hole, and the high hill gave it shade throughout the hot afternoon, probably hiding the reflective pool from view.
Even though his throat ached, Beck and Kevin approached cautiously. He kept his pickaxe in hand, and constantly scanned the hills and pool. If he could find it, there were good odds that some wildlife and a Feral or two might be nearby.
But still, this was huge. The watering hole might double the number of hexes he could explore, and give him another place to find ferals he might tame.
Once they reached the rocky shore, they waited. He could feel Kevin getting impatient for something to drink, but another moment or two wouldn’t croak them.
Satisfied, he dismounted and knelt by the pool. Leaning over the edge of the shore, he could see the sky blue water went down deep.
He leaned down to take a handful of water. Kevin had needed no such prompting, and was merrily leaning her long neck into the pool to drink, washing her head while she was at it.
Lifting a handful to his lips, Beck tasted cold, pristine water. Drinking it felt like croaking and going straight to the Barber Shop in the sky!
Beck laughed, realizing it was the first time he’d done so since he’d popped, and lowered his hand into the pond again.
The splash of water on his face was indescribable, he wanted to feel it all across his body-- and then he did.
Cold water wrapped around his body like a suffocating Yule-log’s pinning attack. He’d gotten careless, he leaned too far and the rocky edge crumbled, tossing him into the pond!
Panic and disorientation threatened to take hold; he had no idea which way was up, and he abstractly realized the water must have been distorting the view, because the bottom was deeper than he could stand in.
Remembering Rule #1, he did his best to turn himself head up in the water by looking for the sun, and finally managed to see the light overhead. Above him he could see Kevin’s head and long neck poking into the water, trying to find him.
He was close to the pond wall, and made to grab onto Kevin, coming close a couple of times and managing to brush against her slick seeds once. But it was no use, he wasn’t a Seafarer or Water-capable!
He pumped his legs, but the pickaxe got in the way, and the weight of it and Rucksack dragged him down.
He fought, felt his lungs close to bursting, until he had to scream in desperation and tried to breathe in, only to get lungfuls of water instead of air.
He tried to reach up…
... so hard to... move...
... vision going blurry? ...
... or the water? ...
...or was that really a hand?
Consciousness hit Beck across the belly like a charging Rocky Rodent. He could feel Kevin push down on his stomach with a heavy clawed foot, triggering a spasm and helping him throw up a lungful of water. He coughed for breath, and some unknown instinct made him twist and flop face down on the ground, just in time to wretch a second lung full of water onto the blessedly dry land.
He felt Kevin’s head nudge him, beeping plaintively out of worry. He tried to stand, only to fall and cough out another mouthful of water. He fell onto his side, and struggled to breathe regularly. Slowly, the blind spots from nearly asphyxiating faded and the small oasis resolved in his vision, and he saw Kevin stretch her head low and nuzzle his face.
This time, he managed to put a hand to her head and stroke reassuringly. Though who the gesture was meant to reassure, he couldn’t say.
“Y-you saved me, you beautiful bird!” He smiled, finishing with a weaker cough.
“Beep beep! Beep?”
Sopping wet and unsteady, Beck managed to sit up and look around. “Don’t be modest, Kevin… I didn’t know you were that strong, pulling me out by the beak.”
She plopped down next to him, serving as a makeshift boulder for him to lean on. Nevertheless, she cocked her head and beeped questioningly again, twisting her head to look around the oasis.
“What’s the matter, do you hear something?”
Being a bird, Kevin only blinked, beeped, and looked to the southern hex boundary, seemingly forgetting the entire line of conversation.
Beck managed a small laugh, only to feel his sides ache from all the violent coughing.
His eyes struggled to adjust to all the light, but the oasis was just as empty as when they got there. Thank the Titans for small mercies, now would have been the worst possible time to be ambushed.
Finally steady, he got up and checked to make sure his axe and rucksack were still on him and hadn’t fallen off during the near drowning experience. With everything where it should be, and having had more than enough water for one turn, he silently ordered Kevin to help him stand.
The big bird rose gracefully and slowly, apparently still worried enough to give him an easier time of getting up.
It really was amazing how much a few feet of height could change your perspective.
Those five extra feet let him see what he’d been ignoring in his near-drowning haze from ground level: a series of human sized tracks that weren’t his own, and a long arrow carved into the dirt, pointing south.
He lifted his gaze up, and up… to an ominous mesa in the distance, so tall the top was shrouded in clouds.
This week’s rule is a quote from Bob Vanourek, author of Triple Crown Leadership