Unjust Deserts, part 10
Part 10: Too many chefs
It hums, moving through the air like deep, percussive music. Thrumming through rocks, earth, even water like a song that can’t be ignored.
Despite its many instruments, mediums and songs, most units didn’t much care for the molten melody of the desert's heat (and truthfully, there were Turns Beck wished he lived in a cool grassy forest hex). But out of necessity and some masochistic pride, he had become well acquainted with its repertoire.
Which is a long winded way of saying Beck was deeply out of his element in the prison turned laboratory. It was cold, even damp. But heat lurked there, whistling shrilly at him if he walked too close to the boilers, or singeing him if he was unlucky enough to skirt too close to a boiling cauldron. It all felt unnatural.
Much like the ash-skinned caster who made it his home.
“Don’t. Touch. Anything. Half the things here will croak you, and the other will make you wish they had.”
Beck followed closely behind Riker, weaving and ducking between closely packed tables and lab equipment as they made their way. “I can see why you work alone.”
“Not entirely, unfortunately.” And here Riker pointed toward the far wall on the left, where a huge cylinder big enough to be a siege engine’s wheel spun thanks to two stabbers jogging on the inside.
Passing by, he could see the pair were moving in perfect sync and with matching blank expressions. “Why do you have them running?”
Riker didn’t turn to answer, but Beck could practically hear the sneer in his voice. “Don’t waste our time asking something you wouldn’t understand the answer to. You're here for enchantments, and the sooner I get you out of here the faster I can get back to my real work.”
Considering Beck had only met and spoken with, oh, twelve people during his short life, he was starting to think the thirteenth might be some unlucky Mathamancy.
“Do you treat all your guests like this, or only the ones that help save your side from being destroyed?”
Riker chuckled as he took a left deeper into his lab, past a wall lined with a series of shelves for raw materials and various mundane items, like hats, carpets, spoons, even bassinets. “So you have at least a half-a-wit, that puts you half a head above most units here.”
Finally at the far left corner, Riker motioned towards a doorless entryway to what looked like a cell designed for solitary confinement. The insides were chock-a-block full of magical items, armor, and a few odder things Beck couldn’t identify. He was about to walk in, when he noticed the floor…. and how there was the back half of a croaked rat just laying there.
He stopped and pointedly turned to look at Riker.
“Well?” asked Beck. “Aren’t you going to open the door?”
“Hmpf. Observant. I was wondering which foot you’d lose.” Riker reached to the side of the wall and pushed a stone, causing a brief flash of blue and a sizzle of ozone to fill the air.
Beck folded his arms in front of him and decided to give Riker a heads up in case he kept being ‘forgetful’. “Careful with your pranks, Riker. The deal I made with Roe covers your side and me not attacking each other, so me running into traps’d cost you a mess of Shmuckers.”
Riker walked in casually, shrugging his nonchalance. Once both were inside, Riker gestured at the weapon and armor racks. “This is our current stock. It’s my work from when I was a Novice; each is enchanted to function as +1 weapon and armor, hitting that much more often and harder, or avoiding and soaking attacks that much more often. So, which will it be?”
There were several types of weapon in the rack, but Beck gravitated to a lone decorative two headed axe with curls and swirls that added several hooks to its edge. The balance was… not off, but odd because of the decorative curves, and though he intuitively felt the +1… it was somehow… not for him. He moved over to the sets of armor, Riker watching him like a hawk the entire time.
One was a gladiator class knight set and the other a heavy plated Warlord’s armor set. He lifted the chest piece for each, and they both felt too heavy and impractical for long use in desert exploring or fighting, let alone the whole sets. He could probably stand wearing them for a full battle, but he was worried their weight plus whatever else he carried might encumber Kevin in and out of action. “These are… I don’t mean to be rude, but I can’t use these. Don’t you have anything else?”
Riker’s reply was instantaneous and bitter. “Be as rude as you want. You’re right, they’re all mediocre experiments made by a novice without a clue about his craft.”
Beck breathed in and thought. ‘Okay, temperamental is the order of the day with this guy.’
So he tried steering the moody magician into what he’d been hoping for. “Well, what about enchanting my current axe? Maybe create a pair of boots with rockets like this one pair I saw--”
“Let me stop you right there. I don’t do clothes.”
“What? But the armor…”
“Is not clothes.” Snapped Riker acidly. “It’s interlocking pieces of metal, which I’ve hardened and enhanced. Stuff, Erf. Things like gloves, jackets, shoes are made of cloth, leather --sometimes even glass-- they’re meant to move with the wearer and can take Motion. They’re Dollamancy, I’m a Changemancer. I don’t do clothes.”
“Slow down; Stuff, Erf, Motion? What’s Dollamancy?”
“I told you before, don’t ask me--”
“ ‘Things I wouldn’t understand the answer to’, yes, I remember.” Snapped back Beck, trying to get through to Riker. “Honestly, the distinction seems completely arbitrary. What do Changemancer do then, what’s your magic about?”
A device behind Riker let out a high pitched whistle and steam, and thanks to where he was standing he seemed to be blowing that steam straight out of his ears.
“Fine.” He growled out, leading him to a large bubbling cauldron.
“I’ll keep it simple. Tell me, what do you see?”
Beck looked the cauldron and fire over, and tried peering into the thick, murky liquid. “A bubbling cauldron.”
“Good. Now, what about the fire, why is it burning?”
“Because it's burning the logs.”
“Yes, and no. The fire is burning the logs… or are the burning logs making the fire?”
Beck couldn’t quite understand what the point of the distinction was, but if it meant he’d get better gear out of it, he thought it over, and decided on an answer. “Both, I guess.”
“No, not ‘I guess’, definitely. Fire requires something to burn, and making something hot enough will make it burst into flame all on its own. The events are linked in a cycle of Change. They form a small system, logs turning into smoke and heat, by way of the fire. And what about the cauldron here? Is it a part of this little system? Is it changing in any way?”
Beck’s first thought was that no, it wasn’t. The fire wasn’t hot enough to melt the cauldron, and the fire and logs would still be burning with or without it over them. But then he remembered the liquid inside. “Nnn… yes. It’s getting heated by the fire, boiling the… ah... liquid.”
Riker nodded, speaking more passionately... and calmly. “Yes, and if it boils over it might put out the fire. Change. The logs might burn away to ash, croaking the fire. Change. And anything I put in the cauldron will change thanks to the boiling water, cooking meat and vegetables into a basic broth.”
“Oh, so… cooking is Changemancy?”
“Natural Changemancy, yes. With Moneymancy applications in how it reduces Upkeep. Well cooked meals double the ingredients value, and masterfully prepared meals with exotic spices triple that, even paying for multiple unit's upkeep.”
That made Riker stop. “What’s so funny?”
“No, it’s just… this is something I was actually hoping to learn; how to cook.”
“... really?” Riker’s defensive tone changed as he spoke, into a curious, hopeful one.
“Yeah. I’m level 3, and so far all I’ve ever eaten is raw or cooked over an open flame. I’m not going to be able to make my upkeep for much longer scavenging like this. Actually cooking my forage is probably going to save my life. Can you teach me to cook?”
Riker was silent for a long moment, looking him over as if making sure it wasn’t some kind of prank. Finally, he nodded, a remarkably charming smile growing across his face. “You’re lucky… I’m probably the best chef in the Capital Wasteland. How about instead of one of the enchantments, I teach you how to cook, set you up with some cooking ware and special ingredients?”
Despite getting off on the wrong foot, and the general unpleasantness and instability of the caster, Beck found himself smiling back. “That sounds good. I’ve never actually eaten a prepared meal.”
“Well you are in for a treat. Popped meals are fine, but lack that certain flare a cooked one has, making each meal a culinary experiment.” Riker turned to a cabinet behind him, pulling out two long white sleeved aprons, gloves, and eye goggles, then handing Beck a set. “Now, like with all experiments, safety equipment and proper hygiene are vital.”
“No, tenderize, not croakerize the meat!”
“Well it’s really tough!”
The cooking lesson had its ups and downs, but Beck had managed to go from the basics of boiling eggs in water to some of the intermediate stuff, like frying, grilling, and sautéing.
Mood considerably improved, Riker motioned for Beck to put down the wooden hammer he’d been using. “Well consider the battle won. Now, for some black pepper… disband it, out again.”
To Beck, this was easily the best part of learning to cook.
Riker held out his hand, and blue vertical beams of light shimmered and danced on it, with the clear chiming of shooting stars. In a scant second a small pepper mill was in his hand and he was crushing some onto the soon to be steak.
Then another chirp interrupted the lesson. This time, coming from the strange metal badge Riker wore… and it spoke. “Hellooo Riker! It’s me, Kerri!”
Riker sighed audibly, and gave Beck a long suffering look. He tapped the badge. “I know who you are, Kerri. What do you want?”
The badge kept speaking in a remarkably faithful (if cloyingly sweet) human voice. “Oh, well, Overlord Bott is still debriefing the Chief, and it’d be good to offer our guest a chance to freshen up before we all meet for a nice conversation.”
The annoyed look on Riker’s face vanished in about the same time it took him to summon up the pepper mill. “And what exactly do you want me to do about it?”
“Would you be a peach and take him to the Prestige hallway? I’ll send a pair of drones to show him to one of the guest rooms.”
Riker looked down and shut his eyes tight, before clearing his expression and speaking again. “Understood.” He tapped the badge and it chirped again, probably meaning Kerri wasn’t listening any more. He turned to Beck, untying his apron. “Come on, it’s this way. We can… finish the cooking lessons later.”
Beck was still new to reading people, their emotions, but it was hard to miss Riker’s unease. Was it just natural moodiness, or should he be worried? He followed behind Riker, deciding to try and get him to talk.
“Kerri… who is he? He sounded kinda-- sweet-- for a warlord.”
“That’s because he’s not. He’s our Chief Dittomancer, and my insufferable brother.” Riker’s terse answer went to a terse silence, so Beck tried again, with something hopefully less touchy.
“That thing on your chest, it lets you two talk?”
“Yes, they’re our Con Badges. I invented them some time ago, they allow intra-hex communication. Hold on.” They had left the prison, and Riker now locked the way behind them before leading him down the hallway again.
“No, Con Badge. For ‘conversation’. I was toying with calling them Anime Con Badges, for ‘Animated Conversation’, but the extra word was… redundant.”
Passing by dimly lit, cold stone hallways, it seemed Riker had reverted to the same moody, angry man he’d first met. Beck had to wonder if it was some kind of cosmic Signamancy or Rhyme-o-mancy that a Changemancer could be so quick to change moods.
Riker pushed open a pair of doors and gestured ahead. “The stairwell is at the end of this bridge, past the other set of doors. Make sure to watch your step.” He stepped aside for Beck to walk through, revealing a long mesh metal bridge over…
Beck’s heart skipped a beat. “What… what is this place?”
It was a huge, underground oasis of some kind, but artificial. Like most of the dungeon zone it was made out of rock, with a vaulted stone roof not too far above. But the water underneath… there was easily four or five times as much as in the oasis! His eyes were captivated by the golden, glowing fish swimming underwater in a lazy circle.
Riker’s voice came slowly. “It’s... the city’s cistern. Those are Elseedee fish.”
Beck moved cautiously onto the bridge, mindful of not getting too close to the sides after his near-drowning at the oasis. But with the mesh metal bridge, he didn't have to, he could see straight down, and noticed the fish had changed their lazy gold spiral into a rainbow hued circle around him. It seemed they were reacting to his presence… And mood.
He was amazed to see so much water all around him, and it was so still, too. It was like a huge mirror, he could even seem himself and the ceiling reflecting in the pale light of the fish swimming underneath.
Riker coughed behind him, and Beck saw his scowl had given way to a small, wincing frown. And underneath Riker, he could see bright violet and yellow fish darting around in the water.
“Beck, you really should g-- get moving.” The frown deepened into a sneer. “Go on! Don’t waste their time! They're going to be waiting!” Riker turned and walked out, slamming the doors behind him so hard the water’s surface rippled, and scattered the fish deeper underwater.
Shaking his head, he turned to move forward--
A long snakelike gasp left Beck’s lips as he struggled for breath, trying desperately to breathe.
“H--help! I c-- can’t swim!”
A yellow, “O” shaped rubber bag of some kind fell in front of him with a sharp whistle, and some innate Signamancy told him to grab on, and he did. He coughed out and gasped for breath, looking around frantically.
“Th-thank you! Please, help me back on land, I--”
“Shut up! shut-up-shut-up-up!” Riker’s echo bounced across the cistern like a chittering Cooky Battew.
Looking around, Beck found Riker standing on the bridge with a glowing Powerball hovering over him, casually sitting on the edge with one foot casually off of the side. “You want to live, you talk. Tell me everything I want to know.”
Beck shivered in the ice cold water, but found enough fury in his heart to warm up. “Y-- you can’t be serious! This is an attack, a trap! Get me out of here now, or I’ll make a contract claim!”
Riker laughed acidly, pelting him with more disorienting echoes. “And claim what? You fell into the cistern on your own. It’s not a trap or emplacement, it’s a normal city improvement. And no one is stopping you from swimming over to that ladder by the far side to get out.”
‘Ladder?’ Beck focused through the dark, but was having trouble in the dim light, it looked like Riker had the only powerball, and the glowing Elseedee fish had retreated to the bottom of the cistern, glowing a fearful red and yellow. Still, he tried to sound tough. “Fine! I’ll make my own way out, you lily-white cracker!”
All at once, his head fell beneath the water. The faint whistle he’d been hearing, he now realized the inflatable device had some kind of air leak!
Moving his grip on the inflatable bag, Beck managed to hear Riker yell down casually. “That life saver I made… not my finest work. It’s a bit weak-y-leak-y. You’ll drown before you find that ladder unless you answer all of my questions.”
Rule #1, don’t panic… his courage hadn’t deflated yet, but he needed time to find the ladder, so he’d play along. “Fine, I’ll talk! But throw another one in first!”
Riker materialized another with a flash of blue light, and moved to toss it to Beck-- only to hold it back and ask. “Answers first, barbarian. Our Chief Warlord, Roe, why did you recapture him?”
Beck was now grabbing the life saver like an upside down bag, it was only a quarter full of air. “He didn’t-- ack!-- didn’t seem trustworthy!”
Riker folded his arms ahead of him, clearly unconvinced. “The man doesn’t have a dishonest bone in his body, you on the other hand can drown with your lies!”
Beck could feel his axe by his side, dragging him down. Even his rucksack, still split open from Vannabe’s attack, was starting to weigh him down. “I was betrayed before, by another Chief Warlord!”
A whistle, splash and flash of yellow next to him was all Beck needed to spring on the life saver like a-- well, as a drowning man.
“Who, who betrayed you? How, why?!”
Beck finally saw it, on the wall to his right and not too far. The ladder. “B-- Berliner, they left me to croak in a hex, boxed me in with a non-engagement clause!” Beck tried as best he could to paddle towards it, hiding it as the desperate flailing of a drowning man. It wasn’t a hard thing to sell.
Riker cocked his head to the side, glaring down at Beck. “... I don’t buy it. You had Roe on a leash, he needed you to get back, and it must have doubled your upkeep to take him prisoner. There’s another reason you didn’t trust him.”
‘Almost halfway there, gotta keep him throwing the life savers… but I need to lose the croaked weight to make it.’ It felt like cutting off a limb, but Beck let one of the straps of his rucksack slip off his shoulder. “Fine! I wanted to keep control! I didn’t -ack!- didn’t didn’t want to be vulnerable again!”
He felt the weight slip off of his shoulders and back as the rucksack, one of the few things he’d popped with, fell to the bottom of the cistern.
Riker tossed in another life saver. “Hmpf. Trust issues. So what, you thought you’d win back his trust by setting him free in the last hex? Then worm some more money out of us?”
Beck would have glared if he hadn’t been desperately trying to keep the ladder in sight. “No! I didn’t think I’d ever deal with you crack-heads ever again!”
‘And when I get out of here, I’ll be happy to see your capital razed’ Beck thought, as he made his way closer to the wall. Still, he couldn’t help giving Riker the stink eye at least once as he kept going “I thought maybe you-- you and this side-- were weird, but different! That you’d help me save the Swiss Mississippi River! Ha! Serves me right for thinking anything good can live in this desert!”
Riker’s sneer softened, and he looked away into the cistern’s depths. At the dim, scattered points of light far beneath, now showing streaks of purple. This distraction of his was just what Beck needed, he was close enough to grab the lowest rung on the ladder. In a desperate gambit, he let go of the life saver and lunged to grab it.
Cold and stiff, his left hand slipped on the lowest rung. But miraculously, he managed to heave his right arm out of the water and grab it, pulling his chin above the water! Air was his victory, his prize, but it was short lived. Just as he put his left hand on the next rung up, an overwhelming weight pulled him down by the belt.
His grip failed, and desperation made him waste breath as he yelled a mute “No!” into the water. He looked down, only to see his Pickaxe finish glowing blue, becoming a +1 heavy Titanium two headed axe.
The other enchantment…
In the depths beneath him, the yellow lights of the glowfish came closer. As his lungs expelled the last of his air, he realized there would be no lavender haired Mewmaid to save him this time.
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.
I know it was probably a bluff/lack of knowledge on his part, but given what we know about intent in signamancy, this would actually count as a violation wouldn't it?
The cooking makes me think of Log Horizon. Everything the computer makes is bland and tasteless but things done personally by the players is flavourful (assuming they cook it properly).
Regarding intent, yes, if Riker had pushed Beck in, or thrown an anvil tied to a rope over his neck, it would count as intentional harm. But there's a couple of layers of subterfuge going on that either sidestep the intent clause, and/or make any accrued contract penalties irrelevant. By maybe chapter 15-18 it should be obvious what happened, and if you and others still feel that way then I'll probably have to do some Retconjuring.
With cooking, I was doing something similar to Horizon Log. Commander Riker in ST:TNG literally has a line that Replicated food lacks the flair of an actual chef, which in Erfworld means less actual nutrition, not jus the psychological effects. That his experiment using a weird blue egg they got on a space station tasted awful to everyone except Worf was the unhappy side effect of the same thing, it also allows for errors.
@Falcore: I thought the titanirony was too good to pass up.
@Xellos: You know I hadn't actually considered Riker's intent in this, which will be an interesting wrinkle going forward.
I can't really argue the point without giving away major spoilers, but I look forward to hearing again if you think I did write myself out of this corner.
@Xellos, I agree on the "scare" point. I think Riker got orders to deliver him in for some nasty surprises, and is taking the "long" way to get there, and is determining the mettle of Beck himself to see if he's worth helping...and I bet next chapter, he'll help him, too, to not be double crossed by his own side.
Probably wrong, but that's part of the fun!
I vaguely remember a British story that included a character named Cyril, who was nicknamed Squirrel by his younger sister. I think it sticks in my mind because I'd never really sounded out the name and the pronunciation in my head didn't make the rhyme fit.
However, now that the two are linked in my mind, I will believe, until proven otherwise, that at least one of the stabbers running in the wheel is named Cyril. Dittomancy is at play, but maybe the other one could be Gerald William, who goes by Ger Bill.