Part 25: Faux funeral fun
Thanks to Caprice for making the proper arrangements.
Though sparse, the boulders standing amid the trees and cacti of the Secret Garden, even the pebbles, had been chosen and placed very carefully so as to create harmonious Signamancy that evoked the desert outside the city. So despite being a mostly empty place, a garden of pebbles, boulders and hearty desert plants, it was easy to tell when some of those rocks didn’t belong in the Secret Garden.
Specifically, the large chunks of a blue tower dome, jutting out like so many half buried pieces of a broken eggshell from the garden floor.
Next to them, the man ordering an Upsunder to finish covering a mound seemed absolutely mundane by comparison.
With the end of the battle, there was even a calm, reassuring quality to the action. The shuffling and shoveling sounds of the Upsunder’s large, spadelike snout as it shoveled small stones carried the even tempo of a metronome.
The visitor walked in even, measured steps up the rubble strewn garden path subconsciously matching the Upsunder’s tempo and stopping beside the warlord. “I do not believe gardeners typically plant pebbles and expect boulders to grow from them.”
“If I didn’t know you better, I’d say that was a joke,” Beck managed a weak smile, half turning to greet Roe.
“Today has been a-- difficult day. I thought perhaps a joke might lighten the mood.” Roe’s face was just as calm and emotionless as always, but a certain rapidity to his eye movements made him seem oddly… agitated.
Beck nodded, then turned back to the Upsunder as it finished shovelling. “You too, huh? Yeah, I… I lost-- I lost Kevin, Roe.”
It was a sin to cry in the desert, even if you were in a city, with a cistern, wells and river nearby. But just saying the words brought a fresh batch of them up to his eyes. He knelt by mound of rocks, and let his tears fall over it. “I thought… she’s made of seeds, you know? Maybe something c-- could grow…”
Beck sniffled shamelessly and gestured loosely towards the palace. “Th-- the princess got her, before escaping. Nothing I could do...”
“I... I regret not understanding your loss,” said Roe, standing with practiced stillness.
Momentarily distracted from his own grief, Beck turned and asked, “Roe?”
“It is nothing.”
“It’s okay,” Beck got up and put his arms around Roe, hugging his friend for the very first time. “I’m sorry.”
Lying was new to Beck. He wanted to say ‘for betraying you,’ but instead managed to say, “... for not understanding what it must be like to lose a father. I guess we have that in common. I’ll… I’ll feel it for both of us.”
Slowly, awkwardly, Roe reciprocated the hug.
They stood there in the stone garden for a quiet moment, interrupted by the shadow of a ‘Bord Cube overhead. Looking up at it, Roe stated flatly, “Come, I have heard reports that some Pariserie units are underground just outside the dungeon zone. It is not safe to be at ground level.”
Beck let go, feeling naked and alone without Kevin, and followed behind Roe.
For his part, Roe was wrestling with an entirely different, and new, problem.
There wasn’t much poetry in Roe’s soul… but he felt like he’d gained something, only to now realize he had nothing.
Far, far outside the city of Flandon, above a nameless sand dune lay two lonely shadows in the shape of a woman and a baudseed.
An odd truth of Veiling is it does not make one truly transparent, hence the need to ‘white out’ shadows to avoid any chance of being spotted.
It was a lucky thing then, that Lady Finger’s tears were also translucent.
Lady Fingers… no. Queen Fingers watched the smoke rising from Flandon. The silent, ominous cubes floating above it and flashing words like ‘Obey’, ‘Turn’, and most hatefully, ‘lolo’.
She squeezed her eyes shut and turned away.
Next to her, the forlorn bird sang out a single, melancholy “Beep.”
Opening them again, she saw the baudseed, Kevin, looking towards Flandon with an unmistakeable sense of loss and anxiety.
Beck’s last order to her had been to sneak Rosa out of the city, and Turn to Puddings as soon as Madsense’s turn ended. In short, to abandon Beck.
She replaying their last conversation in her mind, in that shaft of blue light at the bottom of the broken tunnel.
“Come on we have to leave!” pleaded Rosa, pulling Beck up to his feet. “Beep!” Beeped Kevin in agreement.
Beck shook his head, the scars on his face catching his tears like rivers. “No, Kevin can only carry one person. Besides, I can do more good if I stay. In Flandon, I’m just another warlord. If I stay in Madsense, I can give you reports on troop movements, throw off their trail, maybe even--”
Rosa tightened her grip on his hand. “I left you once before at the oasis, I do not mean to repeat that mistake. She can veil you and she can carry me out, then you break alliance.”
“That’s just it,” he looked at them both, pleading “Madsense’s casters, they’re being tricked like I was, fooled with all these promises of peace and-- now it’s my turn. My turn to jump into the water, to try and rescue someone who's drowning, only they don’t even know it.”
“But what if they catch you?” Rosa was trying, really trying to ignore her instincts for propriety and emotionally muting her responses. Now was not the time. “They’ll Similate you, and--” she cut off her train of thought abruptly, as her raiment changed to a full glorious suit of Queenly traveling suit, and her mind filled with newly minted Ruler senses. She still had the city, for the moment, but no casters, no...
Beck seemed to realize what had happened, and the look on his face was one of dawning, growing guilt at his part in it. “That's… that’s a ruler’s traveling gear. I think the Titans are giving you a pretty big hint what to do. Please, go. Both of you.”
In the present, atop the nameless sand dune, Rosa breathed out, calming herself.
United in loss, Rosa put a hand to the back of Kevin’s neck, then gently bumped their heads together. “We’ll get through this. Find a way to save him, Puddings, everyone. Come on, Parisserie is this way.”
It was hard, putting her back to the city that popped her, but they had an entire desert to save.
Guy Mudd shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
Oh, the floor cushion wasn’t uncomfortable or anything, far from it. Rather, what was uncomfortable was all the heated arguing inside the Rock Band’s main tent.
“You knew-- you knew he would croak if he went to Flandon!” Kala seemed closer to punching than tears as she yelled at Paula.
Paula’s glowing blue gaze was focused down, unblinking into the firepit, “What of it? It was an old prophecy, and it was always his choice to make.”
Beside her, Lex harrumphed before adding, “We had a right to know! To try and dissuade the-- the idiot from doing something so suicidally heroic!”
At that, the three of them turned to look at an empty pillow between them.
Guy had walked in unannounced, and Lex had distractedly greeted him and bade him sit while they talked about an important letter they’d just received. Something about a friend who’d run off to Flandon without telling two of them and then got his fool self croaked. That had been twenty minutes ago.
“It was Predicted,” Paula intoned with helpless finality, “we should take heart in his being able to give his croaking meaning, rather than pointlessly--”
Kala shook her head, “But Flandon fell! Tyr croaked, the queen croaked, the princess is missing and we’re no closer to stopping Madsense or saving Beck!”
Conversation finally turned to a topic he could latch on to, Guy asked, “Beck? You mean that cowpie Beck Packer? Why would you want to save him?!”
“I’m sorry, and who are you?” Somehow, the ladylike Kala seemed to loom larger in her seat, suddenly seeming like all of her Level 7 attention was dangerously trained his way.
Swallowing, he answered, “Guy, Guy Mudd.”
Paula spared him a glance and said, “You have no idea the depth of danger and complexity we face. Be silent as we deliberate, and--”
“No!” Guy yelled back, his feet were sore, he was hungry, and thirsty from walking, but most of all, he was annoyed. “I am not a bit player in the story of my life!”
Guy stood up in the tent, standing a solid five foot nothing yet somehow towering over the seated trio.
“So it’s complicated, big deal! I just got a second-- third chance at life and for the first time, the freedom to do something with it! On my terms!” He poked his chest for emphasis. “And if I’m going to do anything with that freedom, I need answers first. If you won’t tell me, then that means finding Packer and getting them from him! After that, maybe I croak him, maybe I don’t; Fate will take care of that. Right now, I just need you to point me to whatever side Madsense will attack next, if I’m going to live like a mercenary, I might as well do it helping fight them!”
Kala leaned forward in her seat, placing her chin on her arm. “Such passion… you remind me of... Hm. You want answers, to fight Madsense? Well, there is an opening in the Rock Band right now.”
Lex nodded, puffing out a little cloud of smoke from his pipe with his answer, “Hmm, yes, the lad does seem a good fit. Hopefully he can keep up. If not, ehhh...” he trailed off, the insinuation left hanging was far more alarmingly than if he’d finish the sentence.
Even Paula seemed to reassess him. “Yes, the Mathamancy and Predictamancy around you does portend well.”
“Wait, what are you guys saying? Are you...?”
Lex smiled, “Oh it’s far too late for doubts, lad. You’ve impressed our gang so much, you’re being impress-ganged.”
The city of Parisserie would have been considered an oddity anywhere.
Above ground there was only a vast, flat stony desert. No garrison, outer walls, houses, barracks, or tower.
Only a single plate glass pyramid poked its head out, like a Titan sized jewel half buried in the ground.
The oddities intensified.
Parisserie was a dungeon city, but like no other. She was a city of light.
The glass pyramid above serving as the tower ‘apex’ and as a giant skylight, sending down sunlight which was caught and refracted by the Eyefull Tower. An ‘upside down’ metal tower that clung to the ceiling like a spider with four legs, and tapered to a point at the bottom like a champagne flute. The long staircase built into the tower made it the only way in or out for units who couldn’t Dig or tunnel.
All around the cavernous space were the accoutrements of a normal city, embedded into the cave wall. White sandstone houses, barracks, upgrade buildings, glowing mushroom and fungus gardens, and the palace of Versighche, a legacy building of Pariserie’s once Royal heritage.
It was at the bottom of the Eyefull Tower that Queen Rosa braced herself for the welcoming committee. Gray Goose, with one or another variety of the local lager in hand and several knights.
“Y’majesty,” bowed Gray Goose, to more or less the correct degree required for an ignoble non-allied unit addressing a countess. “I’m happy to see you made it out all right, but why’d you come here? Th’ plan was for our Rocky Rodents to take you to Tapiopeka, how’d you make it out without them?”
Rosa patted Kevin before dismounting, “A change of heart, on two counts. ”
Gray cocked his head and squinted, but knew when a woman was being evasive for good reason. “I take it you want to speak with my mother, the Overlady? And, uh, speaking of mothers… yours… I’m gonna miss her, she was a great lady.”
“She was. But yes, I wish to speak with--”
“You can do it right now, and keep it short,” came a voice from behind the greeting delegation, as a tall, blond woman with commanding blue eyes parted the soldiers in front of her like a crashing wave.
“Don’t ‘Overlady’ me, I know why you’re here, and we’re not allying!”
“Goldie, then,” nodded Rosa, standing her ground and earning her a raised eyebrow from the overlady, not expecting her switch to informality. “We need to do more than ally, we need to actually fight back, rally the other sides--”
Overlady Goldie Goose crossed her arms in front of her. “After that fiasco with Charlie and our treasuries? I don’t think so.”
Gray cut in, using a placating tone to try and calm the situation. “Mother, please, she’s just lost her own mother, and--”
“Quiet! Letting you convince me to try and bail her sorry royal keister out was all the charity that I was willing to spare.” Goldie turned to glare at Rosa, “You’re out of luck if you think I’ll give you one red rupee of our spare change!”
A quip ran through Rosa’s mind, something about Moneymancer’s being allergic to charity. Long, long conversations with her mother had prepared her for the stubborn, irrespectful overlady only so much, but she knew engaging in a tit-for-tat play of indignation and wit would get her booted out, so she tried something else: speaking plainly. “I’m not here for your spare change. Just the change.”
Thatcaught Goldie off guard, enough that she managed to pick up steam, “I know you want to run, but I’m proposing something else. Better. That the free and sovereign sides of Parisserie and Puddings--”
“Stop. Stop right there.”
Patience reaching its limit, Rosa was half ready to yell out her case, when Goldie put a hand to her face and looked down. “Say that again.”
“... the free and sovereign sides of Parisserie and Puddings?”
The Overlady looked up with a critical look, searching Rosa’s face. “Do you mean that?”
Rosa stood her ground, a bit confused but certain. “Yes. Every word.”
A private smile slowly spread across Goldie’s face as she reminisced, “You know, your mother, that old battleaxe, would never have said that?” She walked closer to Rosa, past the line of guards separating them. “Always found a nice, ‘royalist’ way of phrasing her letters and contracts, making it obvious who she thought was free and sovereign and who wasn’t. Us. The overlady who replaced her fellow royal to lead Parisserie. You have our Alliance.”
“But…” now Rosa was off guard, “you haven’t even heard my proposal.”
Goldie waved a hand in the air as if to swat away a fly and said, “Take it from a Moneymancer; there’s some things money can’t buy. Respect from your neighbors, trust in them… which you haven’t quite yet got, by the way, but we’ll see… come on, we can talk about your plan in the palace, Rosa. You’re lucky to’ve come when you did, we hadn’t yet loaded up our gem hoard onto the Rodents.”
The Overlady turned smartly and led the way back, behind her, she left a dumbstruck Gray, who was sort of opening and closing his mouth rapidly. He met Rosa’s gaze and shared a look just as confused as his.
“Keep up, you two!”
Gray and Rosa hurried to walk beside the Overlady, Kevin keeping an easy pace behind her. ‘Well’, thought Rosa ‘this is still technically going better than expected.’
Flandon was quiet that night, still. Dark.
The ‘Bord cubes flew overheard, and the remaining dittoed Similated Archon flew like a sickly green star above the night sky of the city.
Inside the remains of the throne room, five people picked up the pieces.
“Are these all right? We couldn’t tell if they were--” started Beck, not sure how to finish the sentence.
Marsha looked over the blue and white air cavalry banners he and Graham were carrying; Beck’s one was slightly torn, and Graham’s was singed around the sides.
“Yeah, sorry they’re kinda messed up,” pouted Graham, seeming frustrated with their finds. “Every banner around is in Madsense matte Black, we only found these by pure luck on fallen knights near their Carryons.”
“They’ll do fine,” smiled Marsha.
Roe nodded to Marsha and them by way of thanks. “I appreciate your help in this matter; it is not something I expected any of you would have experience with.”
“Oh,” blushed Marsha, “thank you! It comes with the territory, all the traveling around and meeting different sides.”
Hershey swept debris off the floor and down the massive hole in the throne room, seeming grumpy to use her hammer as a makeshift broom. “You all know this is a ridiculous waste of time, right?”
Roe was silent for a moment before answering, “Learning about other sides and their customs, inefficient though they are, may prove valuable.”
It was, thought Beck, altogether plausible and Roe-like reasoning… though the pause in his reply made him wonder if it was the real reason.
Marsha laid out the banners like blankets on the cleared patches, by two neatly arranged bodies. She smoothed down one of the banners, seeming far more composed than her usual scatter brained self. “They are a silly set of customs, but kind of romantic. They’re said to be ‘indisposed’, as if they’ve drunk too much wine, and need to sleep it off. Traditionally, they're placed on one of their side’s pennants and then each of the four corners is lifted by a knight, taking them up to their chambers, or a guest room suitable to their station.”
She wiggled her nose and put a finger to her chin. “Tents do just fine when in the field, I think. To avoid any beasties ‘disturbing’ them as they rest.”
Roe helped lift the queen, and placed her gently in the middle of one of the banners, as though she truly was asleep. “It seems odd to refer to them as if they were merely sleeping.”
“In a way, they are,” answered Marsha, cheer somehow still high. “This is just a messy bit of Erf, their souls will be dining in the Hall of Heroes presently. Royals see the depopping of ‘indisposed’ as just an… embarrassing detail to await cleaning, not something to fuss over.”
“And yet,” snarked Hershey, “here we are.”
Graham 'hmmd' noncommittally and added, "Well, it's still better than what they do in the United Airlanes flying circus."
"And that was?" asked Hershey, more out inertia than curiosity.
"Toss us off our mount's seats if we did poorly in battle. Called it a 'mid-flight-checkout'. It's how I finally got away."
Hershey looked at him aghast, at his story and his matter-of-fact telling. "Talk about a lucky landing."
Beck knelt by the upper half of the ‘indisposed’ Tyr’s body. Roe hadn’t croaked him directly, but it was his Order that had gotten the ‘Bord cube to disintegrate his lower half and croak him.
Seeing him kneel, Roe came up next to him. “Beck. I wanted to thank you for advising of Tyr’s likely presence. And...”
Beck was only barely listening. He had thought he could keep a lid on his emotions, or direct them in a way that allowed him to lie, like he had to protect Kevin and Rosa, but this time was different. Tyr was the first person to offer him words of encouragement, wisdom, even friendship in the desert… croaked. By Roe. Or was it his own stubborn blindness?
Slowly, his focus came back to Roe, who finally finished his train of thought. “...and offer apologies. As expected, he refused to retreat.”
Breathing out, Beck started talking, not really able to hold it in, “This didn’t have to happen. Yeah, I was furious at him, but even so I don’t think I would have to-- could have faced him in battle, in any sense of the word, and come out unscathed.” This time the fury turned inwards, at himself for not taking Tyr’s advice, and started splashing out at Roe despite his trying to rationalize it. “It’s just such a-- such a pointless--!”
Unexpectedly, Roe knelt down next to him, and looked him in the eye levelly. “If it were possible for me to allow you to strike me, without breaking alliance, I would.”
Beck looked into his eyes, and something there was different. He felt some of that rage and loss he was feeling, unable to stop from sending out-- hit something, for lack of a better term. This battle must have done a number on Roe; he knew Roe was thoughtful, but being considerate was new.
And that took some of the anger out of his rage-balloon, keeping it from flying away. It was hard to forget Roe was the first real friend he’d earned in the C-dub -- but could he save him from Madsense? He wanted to, like with Kerri and Riker, but there was no way he would ever agree to defect; his Duty and Loyalty were too high. His bravado in the tunnel to convince Rosa and Kevin to leave hid the fact he had only a vague idea of how to--
Beck cut off his derailing train of thought and managed a weak smile, then waved away the offer. “Thanks, Roe. But nah, I’ll… I’ll deal with this. You guys take the queen up. I’ll wait here and say my goodbyes.”
Roe and the S’mores exchanged a few looks, but decided to give him some space. Believing he’d lost two units who’d been extremely close to him on the same turn, they probably thought he needed it.
Alone in the throne room, admiring the starlight through yet another artificial skylight Madsense seemed so good at making, he turned back to Tyr. Yeah, his goodbyes… maybe if he avoided looking in the eyes… or where the legs should be. Crack this. Beck cleared his throat.
“You were right, of course.” He said to Tyr’s corpse, when no reply came, he kept on talking, “but at least you got it easy now. The… the new duds look nice. Very regal. And... oh crack it, if you’re gonna depop, you might as well have your jacket on right.”
Beck fussed over Tyr’s jacket, trying to avoid crying for a third time on the same day. Going button by button, eventually he felt something thick in one of the pockets. Curiosity and a looter’s instincts are hard to deny, so he poked in a hand and drew out a neatly folded square piece of parchment from an inside pocket. Unfolding it took longer than he’d expected, but what was written there, quite plainly and in Tyr’s own hand, shook him to the bones.
“Beck, write to Paula if you want to save Kerri.”
Two turns before the battle of Flandon, Jeri squirmed in her restraints.
She was face down and bound by chains onto an elevated flat table of some type, made of thick glass. Above her, like some demented combination of guillotine and tortilla press, was a huge flat white canvass stretched out on a frame.
She was gagged and bound onto the glass table, thus deprived of her two best weapons in this situation: seduction and psi-ops.
She kept her cool. She was an Archon. She was better than the temptation to collapse into a panicked, sobbing heap. Now, she’d do it in a heartbeat and on command if she thought it’d twist the heartstrings of her captors, but so far the Changemancer looked to have a heart of stone and a huge chip on his shoulder, and the Dittomancer had beef with her personally, so she doubted she could get sympathy from either.
“You’re sure it will work? Really work?” Asked the Dittomancer, standing underneath her and preparing to cast.
The Changemancer stood by a glowing pedestal and adjusted some of the controls on it, immersed in his work. “We’re about to find out.”
Slowly, the canvass lid lowered towards her, smushing her face against the glass and pinning her still.
Beneath her, a line of blazing white powerballs lit up, then slid from top to bottom, bombarding her with blinding light and magic.
“Yes, yes! I see her pattern so clearly!” cried the Dittomancer excitedly.
Jeri knew the light show ended because the heat from the powerballs abated, but she was left nearly blind by the experience.
The sound of whirring gears filled the air, and the loud scratching of a needle writing on paper powered by humming of steam driven machinery of some kind. Finally, the sound of the piece of paper falling to the ground. The canvas holding her in place lifted, and Jeri had recovered enough of her sight that when she looked up, she could see a ghastly drawing of herself on a huge sheet of paper, made by the pivoting mechanical arm.
Kerri walked up to the paper and clipped it down onto a platform, then knelt down and touched the giant sheet of paper. Tiny sparks of juice jumped between them like a static shock. Slowly, a head poked out of the drawing, where hers should be, then a back, arms and legs. It was a ditto of herself, just as surprised to see her as she was.
Riker smirked. “Well, the pattern buffer and mimeograph seem to work. How much juice did you end up using?”
“Barely half of normal!” gushed Kerri.
Riker nodded, “Expect it to probably take only a third, as long we keep using the same copy paper of her. Am I finally in your good graces again after that ‘incident’ with Beck?”
Kerri put a finger theatrically to his chin. “Well, let's say you’re at least a third of the way there.”
Just like that, Jeri’s mind focused through the confusion and helplessness.
Charlie’s rule #54. Even rocks will talk if you make ‘em feel they’re the most interesting, important rock on Erf. And whatever they say, listen.
Corollary to Charlie’s rule #54:When a ship sinks at sea, it’s buried under salt water, so take loose talk with a grain of salt.
This was intraside drama. The second time she heard some involving these two and that other guy. A romantic triangle on top of sibling rivalry? Too early to tell, and too early to see if she could leverage this somehow, but she filed it away for safekeeping. For the first time in this fiasco, she felt empowered. Active.
Riker picked up some hand held magic device, an accessory that looked like a ray gun, only with an empty cartridge chamber and a needle tip. He placed a vial inside the chamber and walked closer to the ditto. “Now for the tedious part. This is control trial #1, using stored samples of Chief Roe Bott’s unChanged blood.”
He moved over to her ditto, almost comically bound by chains to the piece of blue paper the same way she was to the frame around the glass table. Her ditto struggled, tried to pull back, to trip Riker, but could barely move.
He put the device’s nozzle to her ditto’s neck and pulled the trigger. She shuddered, spasmed, only to grow limp and--
It was funny.
Not, ‘haha’ funny, more ‘odd’ funny.
Jeri had croaked several dozen units in action. She could usually tell when they’d croaked, but a rare few had been able to surprise her by playing possum.
With her ditto though, she knew exactly when she’d croaked because she dissolved into a cloud of mist, with a tiny, horrid whisp of greenish-gray vapor of that substance she had once been injected with, ‘blood’, rising into the air with her.
Riker scribbled on a clipboard. “Moving on to control trial #2. You doing okay, Kerri?”
“Sure, I can keep this up for another two or three dozen this turn, before I have to go ditto the botnets and rations.”
It was funny.
Not, ‘haha’ funny, more ‘tragically poetic’ funny.
Jeri had never thought she’d see herself croak. And funnier still, she hated herself for wishing all her ditto’s met that fate… because the other thing she’d overheard? As soon as enough of them didn’t depop, it meant she was getting Similated next. For really real.
Part 24 << O >> Part 26
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.