Unjust Deserts, part 8
Part 8: Funnel Cloud Cake
There’s a big difference between being alone and lonely.
Beck had popped alone, fought alone, travelled alone, and never felt lonely. His thoughts kept him company, and the whispering sounds of the desert spoke to him like a friend.
But now? He had people near him (yes, he counted Kevin as people), who dependent on him… and he felt alone. Titans, he’d never thought it possible to feel alone in a crowd, but here he was. Awake from fitful sleep and awful dreams, kept awake by aching wounds and an anxiousness over what Roe would do when he woke.
The only thing to break the stillness in the pre-dawn twilight was the regular drip-drop of water from a small stalactite into Roe’s upturned helmet.
He was alone… with his thoughts.
Roe’s moans distracted him in time to see him carefully put a manacled hand to the back of his aching head. And Beck knew that while the physical wound would heal at dawn, the other one he was feeling would probably stick around.
“You… you broke Alliance, recaptured me. This is treachery.” It was hard to read his expression in the dim twilight, but Roe’s eyes seemed to shine with an intensity Beck hadn’t seen before.
“No.” Answered Beck slowly, tipping his hat up slightly and going into a rehearsed little spiel. “Our deal is still on. There’s just nothing in it about whether you’re a prisoner or free when I deliver you. But trust me, I have just as much incentive to deliver you as yesterday.”
“ ‘Trust’... your actions show a regrettable lack of it. I should croak you for this betrayal.” Roe reached to his belt reflexively, and Beck was immediately grateful he’d disarmed him in the night.
“You can try.” Cautioned Beck casually. “But even if you croaked me, or escaped, you have six Move and aren’t Desert Capable. You’d be lucky to reach your capital in four turns and avoid being croaked or captured again. You don’t have to like it, but I’m still your best-- and only bet to get home in time.”
Roe sat up straight and went stony silent, no doubt thinking his options over. Beck’d been expecting shouting, angry threats, possibly even a fight, but Roe’s minutes long silence was somehow worse.
Beck resisted the urge to start explaining, justifying himself or threatening Roe not to try anything. It was all about keeping cool and in control, even if it meant-- even if it meant breaking Rule #3. Breaking Roe’s trust to keep that control.
Finally, Roe spoke, managing to sound both neutral and disappointed. “Given the current options, I must comply. However, it goes without saying that once I am repatriated I will ensure my side offers you no more work.”
Beck just shook his head, replaying Tyr’s words in his mind. Madsense would probably fall in a few ten turns, no matter if Beck returned Roe or not. Keeping him prisoner to avoid getting cheated out of this contract, at the cost of actually losing all future work with a doomed side… didn’t seem like such a bad trade.
And yet, much like he still felt justified in the action at the Berliner farms, this choice had left him with a sour aftertaste. “Fine, Roe. Whatever. Since I’m paying for your upkeep, why don’t you make yourself useful and store the Kooky brittle into Kevin’s saddle bag? Get your breakfast from there while you’re at it.”
Roe got up wordlessly and walked over to the remains of the Kooky Battew. His expression was still completely neutral. Beck was getting more and more exhasperated, Roe just seemed to refuse to tip his hand that he was angry over being cold cocked and back-whacked.
For her part, Kevin was still sleeping off her disorientation, head tucked under one of her wings.
Anxious for start of turn, Beck stood and walked over to the cave entrance. He scanned the lightening horizon until his gaze fell on the city a half dozen or so hexes away. The one that Havana Split had just captured, ending the side of Brussels Sprouts. It was hard to tell in the faint morning light… but there was definitely...
Beck gestured towards the city that had just yesterday flown cheerful pink and yellow banners after Havana Split conquered it.
They were now bright green and white.
“What do you make of that? Did another side somehow… I don’t know, attack at night?”
Roe hesitated, and seemed to give Beck a critical look. “I do not find it useful to speculate with little information, or share intelligence with unreliable ‘allies’.”
“Come one, that is tactically significant. The Battlespace on our journey -- and for your side -- just changed. Understanding how and why could be the difference between getting there in one piece or not at all. Can you maybe… think of possibilities, how it could happen?”
Roe looked as close to uncomfortable as Beck had ever seen him, which was saying something considering he’d weathered a tent full of corpses and last night’s betrayal. So Beck ventured, trying to start a conversation. “Like, maybe Havana Split invaded the city as part of an alliance, and the other side broke it? Or maybe… I don’t know, Brussels Sprouts had units outside the city that snuck back in during the night, like the Wily Peyote ambush.”
Here, Roe actually answered more confidently. “From where we’ve camped, we’ve only seen units from those two sides in today’s battle. And Brussels Sprouts retaking the city would not explain why it is flying different colors.”
“Okay, what about magic? Maybe a barbarian caster?”
“Magic is mostly outside of my expertise. An enemy caster either within the hex or attacking from the city’s portal to the Magic Kingdom would be unlikely to succeed.”
Beck put a hand to his brow to get a clearer look. He could faintly make out flyers that looked an awful lot like the ones Havana Split had brought yesterday, and there were several dozen units patrolling along the city’s walls, all of them looked like they were wearing green and white. So he kept spitballing. “Looks like the city’s got a decent contingent guarding it. I think I recognize some of the same Havana Split flyers among them. Maybe they all turned?”
“That would… be consistent with similar events I have seen.”
Beck turned his full attention to Roe. “What do you mean? Is there some caster doing all the turning… a Barbarian Turnamancer, I guess?”
“I do not believe so. While fighting for Madsense, I have seen or heard from scouts reporting five similar changes in city ownership happening off turn or soon after being captured. It seems common to find cities breaking away from their side, especially if recently conqured, and becoming an independent side.”
Beck looked back at the city in wonder. “That particular warlord must have abysmally low Loyalty and Duty, but it still feels odd that it’s common...” And then he remembered rule #4. This wasn’t even the weirdest thing he’d seen in the desert so far.
“ ‘Low Loyalty and Duty’, topics you seem well qualified to speak on.” The flatness in Roe’s voice failed to hide the critical edge to his barb. Without waiting for Beck to take the bait, he went on. “Speaking only for myself, I feel no desire to take a captured city and found my own side. I am fulfilled serving as a Chief Warlord, and the soldiers under me in serving.”
Beck raised an eyebrow at that, but Roe was still wearing the same poker face. He chose to ignore the barb, figuring it was less important than what they were looking at.
And thinking it over, the city side switch started to make sense to Beck. “The troops following that warlord probably didn’t feel that way, they probably had more Loyalty to their Chief Warlord than Ruler. Making it easy to turn them once he’s founded a new side, giving it enough starting troops to defend itself.”
Forgetting the passive aggressive attitude, Roe nodded. “That would seem reasonable to conclude.”
Dawn picked that moment to break, and a flash of insight lit up in Beck’s mind. Tyr had said that sides came and went quickly in the desert, that it might just be a matter of a few hundred turns before an entire slew of sides came and went, and shown him that map of changing city ownership. And given what he was seeing, and now learning from Roe…
Any side making even a smidgen of progress towards conquering the Capital Wasteland would be undone from within, by sudden and impulsive seeming bursts of greed and treachery from their ‘most trusted’ warlords.
He shook his head and made his way into the cave, to start packing up. “Titan’s, this desert is cursed.”
“You doin’ okay Kevin? This guy and all our gear not too heavy?” Beck was walking for the first half of today’s trek across the desert dunes. He realized it was a waste of good moisture and breath, but after four hexes of silent trudging (and suspecting Roe was giving him the silent treatment), he felt like gabbing a bit.
“Beep beep beep!” Kevin was cheerful, and seemed to be dealing much better with the load from their rations and stolen booty than she had last turn.
“Oh yeah you big silly bird? What, did you go up a level and get stronger when I wasn’t looking, or did you eat all the hairy little Rambutan fruits?”
He patted her flank, and she seemed to preen indignantly at the accusation, arching her head and beak up.
Roe gave him an even look from atop Kevin’s back. “Beck, why do you talk to your Baudseed, ask it questions? You must know she can’t answer.”
“Not today, she can’t.” Beck shot back with a slight smile, remembering one of the few fond memories from the Wily Peyote’s poison induced visions.
The joke must have gone over Roe’s head, because he answered seriously. “To answer your question, I do believe she is carrying a lighter load.”
Beck blinked up at that. “What, are you serious?”
“I always am. Her tread feels less strained than last turn.”
Beck put a hand to Kevin and issued a silent order for her to stop. “Hold up, let me check our supplies.”
He unstrapped the improvised saddlebags off of Kevin and rummaged through the insides. He found the rations of Rambutan, Kooky brittle, water skins… but couldn’t find any of the loot. “What? Where are they!? The spring shoes, the net shooter, the anvil gun?”
Frustrated and a little panicky, he went through the bags hurriedly and a litte more carelessly than was warranted given Peyote needless were in there . “Titan’s, it’s all gone except for the hat!”
This, at least, seemed to get Roe’s attention. “What? How? There could not have been a second intruder in the cavern.”
Beck looked up at Roe, fleeting thoughts that he might have stolen it going through his mind had been growing steadily . “Roe, did you do something to them? Steal them?”
“No, I did not.” Unhelpfully, Roe’s expression was just as calm as always, as if nothing were wrong. And this time it really got under his skin.
An echo of the anger he’d felt when Terry robbed him bubbled up. Thoughts that he’d been counter-played by this stonefaced warlord were just too much.
Spitballing, Beck narrowed his eyes and accused Roe of the first thing that came to mind. “Roe, did you stuff the magic items in the hat, to send them to your side?”
“No, I did not.”
Beck could only think ‘Disband it, and not a single muscle on his face betrayed him!’
But the facts did. He’d had access to the hat, and the saddlebags when he loaded up the Kooky brittle. He had motive. Beck’d just done him a wrong turn and his side would be out a pretty Shmucker given their losses. More if Beck got him back, making these items incredibly valuable to his side. Worse, he’d shown a perfect poker face since they’d met. He could be playing innocent, making his whole honest-to-a-fault act earlier up to throw him off.
Anger sped his thoughts, helping make up his mind. Beck silently ordered Kevin to forcibly dismount Roe. She bucked him off her side, and he fell on his back in the sand; Beck put a boot to his chest before he could get up and pressed down, hard.
“Crack it, Roe, give it to me straight! Did you do it!?”
“No. Beck, please let me up.” Other than blinking away the sand that fell on his face he still wore that same blank expression. Beside him, he heard Kevin warble worriedly, clearly uncomfortable with his anger.
Ignoring them both, he put more of his weight on his boot, prompting Roe to grab onto it clumsily with his manacled hands to try and push him back. Gasping, Roe tried to reason with Beck “I am confused… I do not know what you want me to give you ‘straight’.”
“Disband your poker face! I want to read you!” Beck yelled, frustrated at Roe’s blase expression even in the face of his anger. “I can’t tell if you’re angry, afraid, if you’re telling the truth or lying!”
From the corner of his eye Beck saw Kevin start nervously running in place and kicking up sand, then she stopped warbling only to start useing her head to nudge him in the back pleadingly, as if wanting him to stop.
Underfoot, he saw Roe’s pale gray skin was actually starting to flush red with the effort of holding Beck’s boot off his chest so he could breathe. He tried answering but had to pause frequently to gasp for breath. “This is… how I am. I deal in… reason. Facts. Stealing from you… would reduce our weapons... antagonize you… and only hurts our chances. … please… please--”
A sudden feeling of deja vu, of feeling he’d been in Roe’s position not at all long ago, made Beck let up the pressure enough that Roe could breathe easy.
He sighed, and spoke in a tight, strained voice. “Okay Roe, I know you don’t care to speculate… but help me out here. Because I don’t see any reasonable alternatives to it being you who robbed me, and I am seriously reevaluating this deal of ours.”
Roe shifted under Beck’s boot, getting back some of his lost breath.
“Like I said, most things magical are outside my experience, but our side has a Dittomancer. So, if I had to speculate… I believe… the items may have depopped.”
“Depopped?” Asked Beck dryly.
“Yes. Dittos are perfect copies of a person or item, and they de-pop at the start of the next turn. As it is one turn after you rescued me, it seems… at least possible. It would also explain how Beirutcake could purchase so much magical gear for the Wily Peyotes. They could all have been cheap dittos.”
Magic was a world unknown to Beck, so he wasn’t sure if he believed Roe. But he remembered rule #4. The items just vanishing -- depopping -- would explain why Roe wasn’t hallucinating from stuffing the items through the magic hat, which was still studded with Peyote needles.
Noticing Beck was actually considering his theory, Roe tried to offer up some more evidence. “I am sure that if you look inside the saddle bags, loose Peyote needles from the depopped items will still be inside.”
Without taking his boot off of Roe, Beck used his pickaxe to open the saddle bag, and actually looking inside carefully, he could see Roe’d been right. There were dozens of loose needles at the bottom.
Looking back at his prisoner, all Beck could think was that Roe was weird, but it at least seemed a consistent kind of weirdness. He probably did mean it when he said earlier stealing or hiding the magic items hurt him as much-- or more-- than it did Beck.
Finally, he took his boot off of Roe’s chest. “Okay, that seems… at least plausible enough. I’d like to get a look at one of your Dittomancer’s ditto’s depopping once we get to your side, though.”
Kevin stopped fidgeting then, with a relieved “Beep beep beeeep.” He finally let himself reach up with a hand to pat her reassuringly, he’d had no idea she could get this upset at what he did.
Meanwhile, Roe got up and dusted himself off, picking up the conversation where they left off. “I think that can be arranged.”
He gave Beck an evaluating look, but was otherwise calm and unemotional, just like nothing had happened.
The rest of their journey through the sandy hexes went by in sullen silence. Beck was feeling somewhere between annoyed, confused, and still angry over the loss of the items, and his own reaction over finding out.
It was half way through the thirteenth hex of their trek that they ran into a complication.
Well, three of them.
“My goodness, but it certainly is a good day, don’t you think so lady Vannabe Van Pyre?” The white haired warlord with the far too heavy black vinyl coat and ridiculously long katana asked his fellow warlady, all while carefully examining his hair through a flip-open mirror compact.
The flying warlady in the tight black vinyl catsuit tittered in a close approximation of a flirty courtesan, twirling about in the air with an unfolded black parasword to protect her pale gray skin from the harsh sun. “Indeed, Selfie Roth. How could a day where our bounty is delivered right to our feet not be wonderful? Tee-hee-hee-hee!”
“I dohn’t kno, Vannabe.” added the third member of the group in a thick accent. The long haired and hairy brute was wearing only tight black vinyl pants with “X” shaped metal studded suspenders, and slapping a two headed axe easily twice the size of Beck’s against his palm. “We dohn’t have oua bounty yet.” Growled the enormous barbarian warlord with a pointed glare aimed at Beck.
“True, true, Visigoth the Metal. But that doesn’t mean we have to fight now, does it, stranger?”
Rule #1 in mind, Beck controlled his emotions and fought showing any fear, staring down the warlady levelly. Weakness could get them all croaked in this mess.
And what a mess it was. Beck, Roe and Kevin had been walking between a pair of dunes, Beck confident no one was in the hex thanks to scouting ahead. He’d been blindsided when the trio entered the hex just a little after they did, courtesy of sharing turn as Barbarians.
Titans, the mere idea of fighting and moving through hexes at the same time as an enemy force boggled the mind, but he had to consider it.
Foolamancy would be tricky. Three pairs of enemy warlord eyes and three of them meant nine chances for any veil Kevin cast to get pierced.
Fighting would be dicey. The warlady looked like some kind of different race of men, with pale, bluish skin and pointy ears, the Flying special and who knew what else. The other two warlords were level 5 and 6, this’d be a nigh impossible battle.
Running would be their best bet, but dangerous too. He only had one Move left, but Roe was still full and Kevin still had thirty nine. Escape was possible, but outrunning them might not be. As a group they could only get perhaps seven hexes far, and in practical terms Vannabe could fly and probably catch Beck or Roe as they ran on foot.
But still, maybe he should try talking his way out of this.
So he narrowed his eyes, kept his hand near his pickaxe and asked. “What do you propose?”
“Well.” Began the warlady sweetly, flying lazy circles around Beck, Kevin and Roe. “We already have a contract from Beirutcake to capture that package you have there.” She folded her parasword and playfully gestured at Roe with it. “It’s a sweet deal, four thousand Shmuckers. Enough to share, even.”
Her orbit slowed and lost altitude, until she was almost within axe reach of Beck and showing off her low cut dress. Beck barely managed to avoid ogling her talents as she spoke. “The three of us are the Rubber Band, and we’ve been doing quite well for ourselves. But I think we could really reach our potential if we stretch and expand, all of us, you included… by becoming a quartet.”
Briefly, Tyr’s rejection of Beck’s request to join the Rock Band replayed in his mind. Was she being serious, or was this a ploy?
“And you’re saying I could join if I hand over Roe?”
“You wouldn’t be handing him over, darling.” Vannabe oozed charm with a wink and a wide smile, showing off her fangs. “As part of the Rubber Band, we’d all be sharing. You share him, and we share the reward. It’s win-win! Why, I’m sure you’d fit right into the Rubber Band… and look absolutely delicious once I get you out of those clothes and squeeze you into a black vinyl trenchcoat...”
Beck’s left eyebrow twitched at that disturbing mental image, though the thick hint of potential nookie from Vannabe’s sultry tone was having a very different effect on him. Crack it, that last part was tempting. Roe’d basically popped in a dry spell. Whatever she was doing was really confusing him, but he was saved from having to respond when Roe spoke up.
“I have a counter offer.”
Both turned to look at Roe, who’d been silent and impassive through most of the encounter. But on a close look, Beck could see his eyes darting between the four barbarians. Was he… worried? Finally?
“My current contract with this Barbarian has proven less than satisfactory. My side will pay Upkpeep for the three of you for… ten turns a piece, if you help deliver me.”
Beck suppressed a groan but couldn’t help glaring. Crack it, of course Roe would look to throw him under the bus now, but what was he thinking? The Rubber Band were all mid level, there was no way ten turns upkeep would be tempting compared to four big ones up front.
And apparently Visi agreed, snickering. “Ten tuhns? Really? That’s the best you cahn doo? Ha!”
“My sides finances are--”
“Eee-materia-elle to this discussion.” Cut in Selfie Roth dismissively after loudly snapping shut his mirror compact, finally paying full attention to the conversation. “We’ve seen enough of the Battlespace to know Beirutcake is going to topple your side in less than five turns. Better to work for a safe bet that’ll keep giving us work than a dark horse.”
Beck looked up at Roe, expecting to finally see a crack in his facade after being slapped down by these guys and burning his bridge with Beck. Eyes meeting, Roe was instead clearly trying to gauge Beck’s thoughts.
In front of them, Visi laughed mockingly and gestured at Beck crudely with his axe. “Ha ha! Yeah, laik you couhld ahfoahd us, when that is the best you cahn scraunge uhp--”
Selfie half turned where he stood and pushed down on his sword’s hilt, lifting the end and whapping Visi in the back of the head with his katana’s eight foot long scabbard. “Visi, do remember there’s a reason Vannabe negotiates for the Rubber Band. Hmm?”
Visi the Metal glared dangerously back at Selfie, but Vannabe covered their internal friction with a playful giggle and twirl of her parasword to draw Beck’s attention back. “So how about it, stranger? Why risk your life for a poor loser, when you could join the winning team? Haven’t you always wanted to be part of a Band?”
Honestly, it did sound tempting, for a lot of reasons. But something about their group dynamic didn’t sit well with him. He’d seen similar friction in the Rock Band, but it wasn’t quite this flavor... and he hadn’t forgotten the other things he’d learned from the Rock Band. Chiefly, that with few exceptions everyone out in the desert was out for themselves.
So he looked Vannabe closely as she circled, and noticed something odd. There were smudges on her skin where it met her vinyl catsuit, showing pink underneath. Glancing behind her at Selfie, he could see the man sweating profusely from wearing that massive black vinyl coat and trying to hide it. Visi, for his part, was badly sunburnt across the face, shoulders and arms.
And then it clicked for him. These were all foreign barbarians. Tourists. None of them really knew the desert… or how to fight in it.
Beck looked at Vannabe happily. “No need to call me stranger, ‘friend’, my name is Beck Packer. And…” He turned to look at Roe with what he hoped was a meaningful smile. “...it looks like I’m sticking with you.”
Kevin and Beck about-faced and sprinted away, back in the direction they’d come in, with the enemy trio giving chase.
Behind them, Beck heard the warlady laugh gleefully, followed by a quick swooshing of air.
Fighting aerial opponents was quickly becoming an unpleasantly common experience for Beck, so he dodged to the left and and Kevin broke to the right… but not fast enough to avoid a slice through his rucksack by her parasword. He saw Vannabe fly off and circle back, and he could hear the approaching footsteps of Selfie and Visi behind them, trudging along and kicking up sand as they went.
He kept running and restacked with Kevin. Roe was holding on tightly to Kevin; since he wasn’t able to give her orders he was completely along for the ride. “Beck, what is your plan?”
There was no way they could all of them outrun the barbarians, and they had to know they could either capture Beck or Roe if they ran on foot.
So he made sure to yell with the kind of panicky recklessness of the truly terrified. “We have to avoid engaging! Kevin, put up a dust screen! Then Veil us all!”
Understanding his different set of Silent Orders, Kevin beep beeped purposefully and started running a rapid circuit around Beck, making him the eye of a localized sand tornado as they all ran to the southern hex border.
Beck saw Vannabe try to fly through only to get comically dragged away when her parasword suddenly unfurled in the gale force winds, leading to her shrieking as she was dragged off. Selfie and Visi tried their best to muddle through the dust, but Selfie was getting hair tangled in his face and Visi was actually yelling and swinging his axe madly from all the sand scratching against his eyes, face and upper body’s bare skin.
But then the dust storm stopped as Kevin left the hex, and restarted in the one over.
“After them, you idiots! Don’t let them get away!”
“But I saw the buhd as she left, she wahs alohne!”
“Over-muscled oaf, the bird has Foolamancy! She must’ve tried veiling them all, but you blew her Veil!”
“Yes, yes! She’s running as slow as a normal unit! I can’t wait for you two Tardy Elves. I’ll fly after them, hurry up!”
“You ahn’t the boss of me Lady!”
“Can it! Our meal ticket’s escaping!”
The testy trio ran and flew after the escaping form of Kevin, leaving the hex… And after another few seconds of silence, with his lungs burning, Beck risked peeking his head out of the sand for a big gulp of air, craning his neck to get a good look through the thin bush they’d been buried near...
‘Yes! They took the bait!’
He clambered out of the sand and dug beside him at the root of the dried bush, freeing Roe and pulling him out. He’d been doing an amazing job holding his breath, but let it all out once he was topside.
When Kevin gave those yutzes the slip, he’d have to treat her extra special, managing to bury them in a coating of sand and projecting Foolamancy images of Roe and himself, who wasn’t even physically connected to her, only to drop them as she left the hex to simulate a blown Veil. He was more and more amazed at what she could do.
Pulling Roe along, Beck spoke hurriedly. “Come on, we have to get one hex north. I gave Kevin Orders to meet up there once she ditches them and circles back, hurry!”
Roe stumbled at first but quickly picked up speed beside him, chancing a single look back.
“It seems your ruse worked. They gave up two warlords in the bush to chase after a bird just out of hand.”
Wasteland survival guide
Rule #1: don’t panic! Panic makes you do stupid crack.
Rule #2: It’s dangerous to go alone; tame a friend.
Rule #3: Trust is built when someone is vulnerable and not taken advantage of.
Rule #4: The desert is weird; roll with it.
Rule #5: That’s the way the Kooky crumbles.