Unjust Deserts, part 20
Part 20, Ich Bin Ein Berliner
With thanks to Mook 91 for the latest addition to the family.
Just a short walk from the Hippiemancer’s glade in the Magic Kingdom there was a little clearing, affectionately called the Publisher’s Clearing. In the clearing stood a modest house where the free Signamancers would go to draft contracts and copy edit books meant to be published. The ‘price’ for the service was leaving rough drafts or a first copy of the book in residence, so younger Signamancers could learn and hone their craft.
One such book in the Publisher’s Clearing House was an illustrated Dictionary.
It was a curious book, meant to help units learn words they didn’t yet know. Erfworld being what it is, it was a silly notion and a sillier book for many reasons, but there it stood on its shelf.
Being only a rough draft it was full of copy mistakes and unused illustrations. But it just so happened that the entry for one of the words had a lovely illustration provided by none other than the city side of Berliner. The entry in question? “Impregnable.”
The Berliner Wall.
If told of this, Beck would have probably agreed with the choice wholeheartedly. For the city side of Berliner wasn’t so much ringed by a wall as married to it.
The level 5 city stood atop a mesa (itself already an incredibly good point of defense for any city) and on top of that (literally and figuratively) the outer walls rose up a third of the Mesa’s height again.
Within, the best their aerial scouts could report were a mass of tall, multi story buildings crammed together with narrow zigzagging streets and bridges between buildings. The inner and outer walls were pockmarked with a series of trebuchets, ballistas, and fire catapults. If that wasn’t enough, even the Mesa under it had several sconces for such emplacements!
Their newest ‘recruit’, ST00 D3L had helpfully informed them that the tunnels and winding road up to the city were also impressively heavily trapped, starting with Tanghauser gate blocking assent from the base. Beck had been… unsure how he felt about and how much to trust their unique ‘Turnamancy’ of the former Earl, but Roe assured him it was quite complete. ST00 was listless and compliant to a fault, no way he’d be able to fake that. It was unnerving and creepy, but it also meant good intel and a richly ironic punishment for the man.
Taken together though, it all made Beck incredibly skeptical of their march against Berliner’s capital. An opinion he was not shy about sharing with Roe and Overlord Adbert via hat.
He’d even argued the night before in Roe’s tent during their planning. “We don’t have the siege. The infantry. The flyers. Or any tricks able to sneak or break through those defenses. Just the Lead Zeppelins alone… there’s no way the S’mores and me can take out two, let alone three. Going by what ‘ST00’ was saying, Upsunders and Gold Phishes probably won’t be able to breach the dungeon zone without massive casualties. And even if they could, I don’t even want to imagine how grueling the tunnel fighting will be.”
Roe had, of course, looked at him politely and quietly through his entire tirade. The kind of polite silence that meant he was waiting for Beck to get it all out of his system and give him an alternative or two… but honestly, despite the reputation he’d built up as a Fooly-Cooly idea man, he really couldn't see a win here. “Look, no one wants to see them wiped off the map more than me, but we’ve already batted them around and downed one of their Lead Zeppelins. They’ll stay out of our hair for a half dozen ten turns at least; we’d be better off conquering other piddly level 1 or 2 city sides and building up to do this assault right.”
Finally, Roe nodded. “You are correct on all points, save one. I believe we do have ‘one more trick up our sleeve’, one we could not deploy until we had a level 4 city.”
Beck raised an eyebrow “You mean the botnets? Yeah, they’re interesting units, but I don’t see how anything short of a three or four hundred of them could overpower and occupy their airspace, they’re no good for aerial assaults.”
The botnets were certainly useful, no question. But the black skinned spiderweb shaped Heavy Flyers were much more suited for ambushing, capturing or disabling enemy forces thanks to their ability to blend in with their environment, entangle units in their gap filled and sticky body, and stun or even croak units they touched thanks to contact-Shockmancy. Yesterday’s save notwithstanding, Beck didn’t much like to ride on them; they weren’t actually mounts, but flyers with the Capture special.
Roe was far more convinced they could do it though, and pulled a sheaf of parchment out of a pile on the map table. “Individually, no. But this latest report I have received from Kerri should interest you. I apologize for not sharing it with you earlier, we could not risk you being captured and being forced to divulge their full capabilities.”
Taking it in hand and unrolling it, Beck started to read and-- he looked over at Roe, eyes wide. For his part, Roe nodded at the unspoken question and added. “Twenty four should be sufficient. More will be arriving tomorrow with Kerri, Riker and my youngest brother.”
And that was that.
Just after start of Turn the next morning and leaving Kevin in the care of Hershey, Beck could see the group of approaching botnets shimmered into view as their skin changed from sky blue to chitinous black. A storm of dark clouds on the horizon.
Madsense was fielding a massive force of some thirty five hundred infantry, a smattering of siege, several dozens of Upsunders and hundreds of Goldphises. All in neat, organized rectangular blocks of tents. Their four botnets rose… not merrily, exactly, but animatedly into the air to greet their fellow flyers.
Roe and Beck walked up to the trio of commanders as they landed in the middle of camp. Kerri’s botnet all but flopped onto the ground, Riker’s almost clattered down like a dropped coin, and the warlord’s actually skidded a bit and left a groove in the dirt.
Beck winced and turned to Roe “That was really sloppy, it might make today difficult.” It wasn’t an idle put down, but a concrete worry; Beck had now fought and seen enough air units and sides to know Madsense (and to be frank, himself) were still a long way to becoming a truly professional air power with skilled pilots.
Roe looked on clinically. “It will have to do. But do not worry; you will not be flying unaided.”
Still dubious, all that worry vanished from Beck’s mind when he saw the casters step onto the ground. Beck smiled, really smiled, with no self conscious reservations when he was within hugging distance of Riker and Kerri. “Keri, Riker! It’s so good to see you! I didn’t expect Overlord Bott would would let you deploy.”
Kerri winked. “Oh, he didn’t. All three of us are dittos! In fact, only four of the botnets we brought are originals.”
Riker squinted as he looked up into the sun, ash grey face sweating. “Not that it makes suffering in this blasted heat any easier.”
“Oh…” Was all Beck could manage in reply. It was hard to articulate why exactly he felt a little disappointed at the news. It made perfect sense that Overlord Bott wouldn’t risk them, and they were still them… but it also sort of robbed their reunion of a lot of its meaning.
Kerri wasn’t the least bit put out though. “It’s not like that matters. Feel free to use us however you want this turn! Suicidal charges, bait for traps, really risky maneuvers, you name it!”
At that, Beck raised both of his right eyebrows (by way of the scar bisecting his original one). “You’re not bothered by it?”
Riker glared and looked off at the city of Berliner in the distance, seeming an odd combination of sullen and offhandedly resigned. “We’re not really real. When you’re a Ditto, you live fast and depop young.”
And again, Beck had an odd, hard to place gut reaction that this was weird, or maybe wrong, but then again he’d never had a problem leading Dittos before, nor they a problem with being one. Then again, Admen rarely complained of anything (Dittos or not).
Before he could pursue the topic, Roe walked over with the new Warlord. “Beck, this is Chester Bott, my youngest brother. He recently popped in the city of Clickbot.”
Beck nodded and extended a hand to the ashen bald warlord, who had the trademark Bott uncanny resemblance with his brother, sisters and father. Despite himself, he was hoping he’d turned out like Aimee. Despite her speech she was remarkably easy to get along and work with. “Nice to meet you Chester, even if it is in Ditto form. Do you mind if I call you ‘Chet’?”
Chet looked at Beck, his hand, then his face again with the same emotionlessness as his older brother before breaking out into a rehearsed looking smile. “Of course, nicknames are a wonderful way to get to know people, and I’d just love a chance for us to get to know each other better.” Finally he clasped his hand tight… and wouldn’t let go. “Like, where are you from? I’m only fourteen turns old, but was wondering how old you were. Do you know any other barbarians in this area? I’m sure it would be nice to meet them, and--”
Beck shook back a bit, then opened and relaxed his hand, trying to hint for Chet to let go, but he just gripping and prattling on with questions and that same vapid smile.
Not one to be sassed by a rookie, even if he was from his client side, Beck tightened his grip and kept tightening it, but Chet just smiled a little wider each time.
After a good twenty or thirty seconds, their handshake-turned-armwrestling match was interrupted. “Chet, quit.” Roe’s order finally forced him to stop, leaving him looking just as emotionless as a drone.
Hoping to distract him from the weirdest Bott yet, Kerri tugged on Beck’s chainmail sleeve. “Are you sure you don’t want me to Ditto you? I have the juice and it’d be much safer.”
Beck shook his head. “No thanks. You’re probably low already, and we’ll need you doubling attacks. Besides, how else will I learn to fly these things?”
Riker, however, saw through the bravado. “Playing tough to hide you’re scared of being Ditto’d is not a good look.”
Titans, now was not the time to talk about this, and thankfully Roe seemed to agree when he weighed in. “The point is moot. Beck, for this assault you are given leave to retreat back to this hex if you deem your life to be in danger, with no risk of contract breach.” He turned to address all four. “Beck, Chet, Kerri, Riker, please board your botnets and prepare for the assault. I will lead the ground forces and S’mores in with Dance Fighting should you succeed.”
Beck nodded, and the four of them stepped gingerly onto the backs of their botnets.
Despite their sticky skin, it was a balancing act to get to the central nub without putting a foot through one of their gaps and ‘falling’. But once he had his feet firmly planted in the center of his botnet, it rose into the air like a flying wave.
Roe must have given a silent order to the riderless ones, because five other botnets rose with each of theirs and stacked. Then more than stacked.
His botnet folded the edges of its octagonal body inwards and up at 90 degree angles, so it looked like the cut off bottom of a crate. But then the other five did so too, and moved as if to box him in. And one by one all six came together, interlocking into a large black iridescent cube that seemed to shimmer purple green in the hot desert sun… and then it all went pitch black and cold. Now fully encased within the cube, the outside world disappeared from view as all the holes in the botnets got covered or dilated closed.
In the back of Beck’s awareness, a noise had been building up. A small, deep pitched sound just out of hearing range. Certainly nowhere near as interesting as the sight before him. But as each face of the cube joined, the sound grew shriller, and kept growing in volume until it turned into the pained scream of a nightmare croaking or… no. Of a nightmare popping into existence.
It got so intense Beck kneeled and put his hands over his ears… but he wasn’t in pain. His hands did nothing to muffle the sound and his ears weren’t ringing. He realized that this was similar to the Kooky Battews stunning Shockmancy cry, but as an allied unit it hadn’t harmed him. But how could he hear this shadow scream without… well, hearing it?
Around him, the obsidian black of the botnet thrummed and seemed to light up. A black and white image of the outside filtered through on the walls, roof and even floor. The illusion was so perfect he felt like he was flying on his own power.
He knew he wasn’t though, not because of the strange black and white vision of the world, but because of the other three massive, shimmering and chitinous cubes hanging around him in the air. Looking at them he instinctively knew who was piloting each, and they somehow, but didn’t quite, seem like a single unit. The statbox and hits of the botnets and cubes refused to resolve in his sight, making their small fleet doubly ominous. Fleet, yes, they were like sailing ships, with units contributing to the whole but-- somehow not. Like living ships.
The dread and confusion faded. He felt good. Better than good, he felt pumped, giddy, and with a full stack bonus of eight beside. He tested out moving and it came with a rush like he were riding on a flying Kevin. Like he was Kevin. It was disbandedly fun and easy, the cube practically flew itself.
His Con badge chirped and Roe came on. “Proceed to the city hex and commence with the operation.”
Beck nodded, more to himself than anyone else, and touched his Con badge. “Understood. All cubes on me, and prepare to engage.”
“Copy that!” Came Kerri’s voice.
“We’ll make it so.” Confirmed Riker.
“This is my second time flying and my first in a battle. I’m sure we can deliver quite a bit of croaking with just one easy--” Started Chet, before Beck sighed and interrupted. “Keep the chatter to a minimum, stay focused.” He was so glad Roe put him in command of this assault.
Unapologetic, unbridled, unrestrained...
Beck laughed and stretched out his right hand palm open, and the cube responded by carving another gouge into the north side of the mesa’s cliff face with its Cutter Beam. “Stiff me on my first contract, abandon me in a battlefield, try to croak me?! Throw tea at my friends!? Call me Blech Packer!? Well lets see how you like dealing with the Bleck Knight!”
Both gestures were gloriously pointless in every way. The cube followed all his silent orders flawlessly without need of gesturing or speaking; it just felt good to yell and point; plus the graffiti he was carving on the side of the mesa was just a creative interpretation of his orders. And so he kept on shining that crazy greenish purple light, the one thing whose colors he could see inside the grayscale inner faces of the cube-- the one thing that felt real-- to finish crossing the ‘T’ in ‘Bleck Knight’ he’d just written on the mountainside. He cackled. “That’s right, I’m giving you the Titan’s honest T!”
Happily, that finally got the Berliners riled up enough to start shooting at the strange invaders. Arrows, ballistae, catapulted rocks and flaming debris were rained down his way from hundreds of feet above. Beck stood on tiptoes to send the cube into a rapid rise, and again to dodge more of their ballista bolts, then crouched and crouched lower to avoid fire catapult shots, and shimmied left and right to keep them guessing. These quasi units, these smorgasbord cubes--- ‘Bord Cubes? As good a name as any!-- these ‘Bord Cubes had as much, if not more speed and mobility as their components; they even collectively harnessed their short range Shockmancy into these devastating long range C-beams.
Kerri’s chipper voice came in over the Con. “Good news everyone! Our attacks have revealed to me that the south face of the mesa is the least symmetric, I can sense it won’t hold much longer if we focus our attacks there!”
Almost reluctantly, Beck swung his cube in that direction and he stacked with A cube and then B cube to give them his Leadership bonus, and they just kept going to town on the southern base of the Mesa.
Riker over on C cube must have used Changemancy on his, because it turned solid steel and started just tanking hits from the fire catapults and ballistae for them.
Chet was doing something interesting, using short rapid bursts of his C-Beams to counter-spam the defender’s emplacements and screen out the bigger projectiles.
His efforts were made twice as effective thanks to Kerri doubling his own and Chet’s energy strikes, and their C-beams glittered as they struck over the gate at the base.
Before long the C-beams Kerri was dishing out lead to a loud, satisfying crunch reverberating through the mesa, and a wheeze of dust and smoke coming out from several of the defense sconces cut into the mountainside. And that must have finally made them decide to commit.
To either side of them, Beck saw the black and white image of two Lead Zeppelins careening for them from both flanks, escorted by two squadrons of Val Hallens a piece. This had to be the entirety of their air forces. Good.
Beck tapped his Con badge more from reflex than worry. “Break off attack on the mesa. Riker stack with me. Kerri with Chet, and both groups-- good hunting.”
Yeah, this was worth a new rule.
Wasteland Survival Rule #7: Every once in awhile, remember to have some fun and enjoy what you’re doing.
Both Beck and Riker spun and twirled their cubes to be beside and below the two incoming Lead Zeppelins; let them screen against their own sides’ wall defenses!
Beck’s cube got buzzed by the Zeppelin’s shockmancy Searchlights a couple of times, but he relished in the fact every face of his ‘Bord cube could fire C-Beams, so he rotated that struck face out and barraged anything and everything that moved between them. Absently, Beck noticed the right hand Lead Zeppelin was belching out a defiant Rock anthem. It just made you want to scream and shout along to hear it.
So they did. All eight of them in Beck’s ‘Bord cube screamed that haunting shadow scream of popping nightmares and misery and darkness that wakes you from your sleep and clings and never goes away. With that aural torture, the Lead Zeppelin shut up, looked around in panic with its enormous right eye as entire wings of Val Hallens skittered off course, retreated, or fell straight away with the pilot, beast or both fully incapacitated.
Unaffected by the scream, Riker didn’t even bother evading the remaining Val Hallens. He rammed his steel hard cube into the Val Hallens on purpose as he skewered the left hand Lead Zeppelin with an adapted C-Beam that now seemed to freeze it. Beck took his own cube up and lanced it straight through the brain with a full bore C-beam blast from his.
From there, mopping up the other Lead Zeppelin and the few flying Valhallens left was almost disappointing. In his carelessness a lucky Ballistae hit from below actually pierced the ‘floor’ of his cube dangerously close to him, so he took to rotating the faces and moving his own position inside, abusing the sticky walls to cling to them or the ceiling and protect himself. But really, he didn’t even need to dodge much, with Riker’s reinforced cube screening for him.
They circled around the mesa in time to help Kerri deal with the last of his Val Hallens, apparently Chet had tried ramming his own cube into their Lead Zeppelin with disastrous results for both. A small swarm of three surviving botnets now flew around their group, and actually merged into their cubes, seeming to add their own Hits to the ‘Bord cubes they joined.
Riker came in over the Con. “Should we check the crash site for Chet? He might have--”
Beck tapped his Con badge, relishing every second. “No. Now, gentlemen… now we finish this.”
And at his order, all three cubes fired doubled modified molten C-beams into the south side of the Berliner mesa… and just like a food laden table suddenly losing one of its legs, it started to tip.
The rest of the battle was a blur.
Roe waited for the dust to settle, literally, to reveal that nearly a quarter of the Berliner mesa and city had crumpled and slid off like fat melting off from a shank of meat over a fire, revealing some of the honeycomb of tunnels leading up to the city, itself messily sliced up to show a cross section of the Berliner wall on either side.
The damage had been extensive enough to knock the city down to a level 4, and the rubble gave their Gold Phishes and Upsunders an easy, trapless access to screen for their main infantry force as they tunneled/climbed/marched in, with Bott, the S’mores and ST00 leading the infantry.
And with the shadows of the three ‘Bord cubes hanging above them like dark Archons, blasting C-beams down upon the city’s defenders… they didn’t have a prayer. Beck had even leveled through the whole operation to a significant seven.
That didn’t stop one particular warlord from trying, though.
“Packer!” Yelled Guy Mudd at the top of his lungs, waving a sword from the back of a badly battered Val Hallen as he approached, somehow having survived his air group’s collapse on the outside of the city.
By now, the adrenaline and giddy power trip from piloting the ‘Bord cube had faded, to the point Beck was actually starting to feel tired, so he actually had the presence of mind to refrain from firing for a few seconds out of sheer curiosity and some small amount of admiration at his reckless perseverance. Why hadn’t he noticed him earlier?
Guy screamed, and the sound came into the ‘Bord cube as though through a membrane. “Blech Knight, you coward! This is how it ends! You, me, locked blades in a fight to the croaking if you’re brave enough to try!”
Riker came in over the Con “Who’s the suicidal bozo?”
Beck frowned. “An ‘old friend.’ You guys think you can handle the air cover for a minute while I deal with this?”
“Sure, enjoy your warlord class reunion.” Snarked Riker. “Have fun! Make good choices!” Tittered Kerri.
Beck inched his cube slowly forward towards Guy, and as expected, he charged his Val Hallen straight at Beck, a sad sight considering the beast only had one and a half functioning wings. Beck waited for the last second, saw the distorted expression of rage on Guy’s face gain crispness on the wall of the botnet until, at just the second before he’d have made contact, he shot a C-beam and took out the Val Hallen right out from under him.
Mount disintegrating beneath him, Guy kept screaming, knowing he was done for, but Beck wasn’t through with him yet. In one swift move, the cube sped forward and caught him on its sticky surface.
Like a bug trapped in amber, the cube slowly ‘absorbed’ Guy into its dark webbed depths.
Guy fell into the inside of the cube, all turned around, panting and disoriented.
It was like nothing he’d seen before, like being on the inside of a cage made of knotted tree roots, if the roots were also see through and showing his ruined home below him.
He’d thought he was a goner, by all accounts he should be croaked thrice over. The loss the turn before had led to the Regent putting him and his last surviving sister, Rasslin Mudd, on the front lines of the air corp, but now only he was left. No more Falin Mud. Never again, Slipin Mud. It was just Guy Mud now.
He’d avenge them though. He’d gambled high, but won. That Dirty Hairy Packer had taken the bait and given him a shot at one on one combat-- such as it was. With over half his hits gone when the Page, the Lead Zeppelin he was on, was croaked out from under him.
However, looking around, where in the Sam Hill was Packer? Maybe it was empty?
He walked unsteadily into the middle of the cube, with the knotted floor making it hard to balance and noting the crazy half encrusted ballista bolt into the side wall. That gave him an idea, if nothing else, maybe he could do enough damage from the inside to croak it? Just as he made it to the middle of the cube’s floor, a waterskin fell on the floor ahead of him… one he recognized.
Looking up, the red glow from Packer’s helmet glared down as he patiently, impossibly, stood on the ceiling with his arms folded. Without monologues or war cries or even warning, Packer fell towards him like a stalactite. Guy leapt back reflexively, it was all he could do to avoid getting trampled. But disband it, Packer hadn’t croaked from the fall!
Packer had flipped midair to land casually on his feet with a slight bounce from the strange devices on the heels and back of his boots. They were the ones he’d seen at the diplomatic conference, they must have absorbed the shock from the fall!
Packer drew his axe slowly, red-blue flickering light the only source of color inside this-- this cage match-- and gracefully took a ready posture.
Guy stood and readied his sword. A level 3 at half hits versus a level 7 who played dirty and had tricks. This was suicide, but what else did he have right now? Everything he loved was below him, croaked, burning, or both.
And with that thought and all the rage it let loose, he let himself loose and launched into a series of attacks aimed at Packer, praying the Titans had some sense of justice in their hearts.
Packer parried the overhead strike with the ice pick and stepped back, so Guy kept pressing his attack, attack, attack! Packer dodged, kept parrying with the ice pick to the point Guy’s right arm grew numb from the spreading cold. He finally had Packer up against the wall… only the wall started to get farther away. The cube was tilting upwards!
Packer put his off hand to the wall (now a ceiling) and held on easily, half cape draped at an angle as Guy did his best to avoid outright falling to the ground, scrambling to find hand and foothold along the floor (now a wall).
He dangled there, and that jink Packer started walking down the ceiling towards him. “Consarn you! Fight me fair!” Guy stabbed his sword up almost blindly to try and slice at his feet, managing to hit only air at first until he felt Packer grab it, actually grab it and then smash his fireaxe against the flat of the sword, shattering it into pieces!
Either the shock of the impact or the shower of metal surprised Guy enough to loosen his grip and send him tumbling down to the ‘floor.’ Thankfully it was tough but not stone hard, and he didn’t take any damage. Below him, the cube was showing the swarming masses of Admen streaming into the inner garrison, like so many purposeful and emotionless ants. Guy tried to get up, pick up the shattered sword, but found that the floor of the cube was now just as sticky as when it’d caught him mid fall from the Val Hallen.
Packer detached from the wall, landing with another ominous thud beside Guy.
Was this it? The end of this Guy? No! He’d-- he’d been willing to take a dirt nap at the farm, but disband it, Regent Kaz’ “gift” had given him hope that maybe he could save some of his stack, his family; even if he’d failed he couldn’t just give up!
Muscles straining, face twisting into a rictus of hate, pain and sheer determination… he started to rise from the prone position he was stuck in on the floor. His cape ripped off his armor, and small bits of the inner cube were being torn off the greater body rather than let go of his gauntlets!
Just as he was about to reach a sitting position, Packer stomped him straight in the chest and kept his boot there, pinning him to the floor. “Curse you, fight me fair!”
There was a chirp, followed by a voice suddenly snapping into existence and filling the air. He thought for a moment Packer might be gloating, but he recognized the bland monotone as the Admen Chief Warlord from the conference. “Be advised, we have located the Overlord’s chambers in the tower. Air group, prepare to bombard it.”
Shamefully, that didn’t stir a new wave of heroism to defend his ruler, redouble his will to save his side. Kaz Blintz deserved much worse than being blasted out of existence.
And oddly… it seemed Packer had noticed his hesitation.
Unable to so much as lean up on his elbows to spit at the man, Guy glared up at Packer. He refused to cry, to beg, to give him that satisfaction. But there was one thing he couldn’t keep on his chest before croaking. “None of this was fair.”
“No.” Agreed Packer, raising his pickaxe.
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.
Rule #6: Foolamancy isn’t just a special, but a state of mind.
Rule #7: Every once in awhile, remember to have some fun and enjoy what you’re doing.