Unjust Deserts, part 26

Part 26, I hope

 

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One of the most potent powers of Signamancy was the art of Graphology. In the absence of body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, being able to read the intent of not just the words, but of the letter writer’s calligraphy, gave Signamancers a far deeper insight than what was outright stated. It let them understand, at a glance, who was writing a bald faced lie (or a well practiced one), or a sincere truth.

 

In short, it let them ‘read between the lies’.

 

Though, sometimes, the Signamancy of a writer’s calligraphy was so direct their intent, and honesty, was difficult to miss. Beck’s blocky script was heavier, slower than normal. As if drawing out the words to a difficult conversation via Magic Hat that he desperately wanted to avoid, but couldn’t.

 

Paula, this is Beck. I found the note on Tyr. I made a mistake.

 

I know.

 

I can’t do this any more. It’s like I’m losing another piece of myself with every battle.

 

You already were. Tyr, Kala, Lex and I tried; we tried to warn you. Now he’s croaked, as an indirect result of your actions.

 

I don’t blame you for that, but very soon, that will no longer matter as their shadow spreads.

 

Consarn it, why aren’t you angry with me?!

 

Tyr is gone! Flandon has fallen! I sent Rosa out on Kevin, to save her, but it’s just a matter of time before Madsense marches on Tapiopeka. I can’t convince them to stop. I need help.

 

There’s people in Madsense I care about, the note said you’d help me save them.

 

Yes. There is still a way to be good.

 

What, what is it?

 

Their Dittomancer, Kerri.

 

If you and he leave Madsense, they will be vulnerable. Can you convince him to turn?

 

I don’t think so, they’ve got him twisted around as bad as I was, thinking he’s helping the C-dub become peaceful. Saving lives.

 

Best not to chance it then. Get him through his side’s Magic Kingdom portal at a specific turn and time. I can arrange for a group of casters to be there, to convince him to turn, or, if he refuses, captured for his own well being, then released from Madsense.

 

You’d do this for him? … can you make sure it’s an airtight contract? Can you do it for his brother, the Changemancer too?

 

The Changemancer? Possibly. It adds further complications… but yes. We can remove them from this equation.

 

Afterwards, you need to remove yourself from Madsense. My sight is hazy on this point, but you must abandon their service. Avoid Similation or Turning. Either would leave them and you as dangers to the Capital Wasteland.

 

Thank you, Paula. I’ve been ordered to head back to the Capital, to escort Kerri out to a nearby city for another big push. I’ll keep you posted to coordinate the times.

 

Don’t.

 

What?

 

Thank me. I-- we-- could have told you all this before, but my Mathamancy and Predictamancy showed it would be unlikely to change your mind. So I didn’t. And that’s why I don’t blame you for Tyr’s croaking; it was easily as much our decisions, mistakes, as yours.

 

For a woman who can see the future, you may want to spare a glance into the past. It’s all I do these turns. You were right. I wouldn’t have agreed until I made these mistakes.

 

-- we’ll bandy out the blame later. I have to go, Turn’s about to start.



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Dawn had not yet broken, and the city of Flandon still slept, fitfully, within it’s broken borders.

 

Roe and Aimee Bott stood at the head of a long column of captured Puddings units, snaking its way around the outskirts of what was left of a the main garrison courtyard. The pikers, stabbers, archers, and a few stray knights, stood silent, like their city, dreading what was coming.

 

And for the first time, Roe was feeling something about it.

 

“U rd roe_?” asked Aimee, holding a clipboard and tapping a finger against it; despite her typically blank expression, she seemed impatient to get the Similating started.

 

“I… yes. I am simply contemplating.”

 

She craned her neck to get a better look at him. “??? wut ???”

 

Roe wasn’t used to lying, which had made last turn… taxing. So he opted to try being direct. “What do you think they feel, about being Similated?”

 

Shrugging, Aimee held the clipboard aloft. “wutevs donut fill ne thin l8r”

 

“No,” agreed Roe “they don’t, however--”

 

“call of do-T lolz noob” interrupted Aimee “got 2 doit 4 side”

 

Roe nodded, trying to put the stray emotions back inside their box. They’d been quietly growing, like moss. He didn’t think they yet impaired his duty, but was seriously considering resigning as Chief Warlord if they did. “Of course, you are correct. It is foolish to speculate.”

 

“u no n00b u a gud chief bro !!” boomed out Aimee. “ddnt send m3 2 waterworks raid & get me d3d & u gets lots f gud raids ”

 

Roe scrunched the corners of his eyes together, he hadn’t ever considered Aimee’s loyalty to be wavering, nor that she could see him postively, even affectionately. “Thank you, Aimee, I consider you a very capable warlady. I would hate to lose you.”

 

Her pep talk did not, however, make what he did next any easier. “Please begin taking notes. Seventh round of mass similations, total count, 114 infantry.”

 

Beside him, Aimee took note. Of much, much more than Similation success statistics. Like the fact her brother would ‘hate’ to lose her.

 

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Beck made his way through the palace of Flandon, down rubble strewn hallways with unnatural skylights.

 

He was absorbed in his thoughts, thinking of how best to get the brothers out of Madsense-- and how to get himself safely out. He had a few ideas to get them to the MK, like asking one or both to buy an item, or deliver something physically to a fellow barbarian caster, but the surest way involved breaking alliance and physically tossing one or both through.

 

Grimly, he realized he wasn’t giving much thought to getting himself out Madsense once he got them out. The preservation of his own life, full of mistakes and hurting those around him, wasn’t tallying terribly well against plans that’d ensure the pair’s escape.

 

“Hey Chief!”

 

Beck stopped in his tracks and turned at Graham’s voice, finally noticing the S’mores walking up from a side passage. ‘Chief’, right, for being the ‘Barbarian Chief.’

 

He nodded back as they came close, “Morning, S’mores.”

 

Graham coughed, looking sheepish as he said “Hi Chief, we, ah, wanted to give you the news.”

 

“News?”

 

“Yes… we, ah… well, you see, when Fate brings people together, sometimes… and the stars, they align but then...”

 

Hershey sighed and rolled her eyes, cutting in while Graham hemmed and hawed. “We wanted to tell you first, we’re really happy for you giving us a chance and fighting alongside you, but we’ve been talking, and this campaign for Madsense has been getting pretty sketchy. The conquering was one thing, but the creepy dittoing, creepier units, crushing all these sides, and then the absolutely bonkers Similating was the last straw. We’re going to tell Roe we’re ending the contract and taking our earnings, leaving the desert.”

 

“Oh.” Beck had to pretend that, instead of a deep seated sense of relief, he was disappointed.

 

“We’re really, really sorry Beck,” followed Marsha, actually frowning. “It just got a bit too personal, after yesterday.”

 

“Well, it can’t be helped. Sentimentality won’t pay your upkeep, out in the desert, but… I’m only now starting to learn your body isn’t the only thing that needs upkeep. Good luck out there. In fact… if you want a new gig, I think I know someone who could use your knowledge and skills.”

 

Beck gestured for them to lean in close, and whispered discreetly in their ears.

 

“You wha--?!” started yelling Hershey, only to get a hand clapped over her mouth by Graham of all people.

 

Grinning, Beck shook his head. “I-- just think about it, all right? I trust you three, you’ve been good friends, ignoring this…” he said, gesturing to his face, “and treating me like normal. I wanted to thank you.”

 

“No biggie,” answered Graham, Hershey finally prying his hand off her mouth. “You’ve got our backs, we’ve got yours.”

 

Hershey looked at him critically, worried. “Are you sure? Will you be okay?”

 

Graham couldn’t help but grin goofily and boast, “Come on, of course he is, he’s a S’more! And unlike buttered toast, we never land butter side down. We always land on our feet!”

 

Marsha’s optimistic smile came back. “You shouldn’t forget, you have friends too.”

 

Touched, Beck was about to finish his goodbye’s when the moment was interrupted by Graham yelling, “Group hug!” and a round of impromptu singing.

 

“On top of a mountain
With sore backs and feet
Is where Graham and Hershey
Chanced an unlikely meet

Then swung in Marsha
Rappelling whips aloft
She glued us together
So we wouldn’t fall off’t!

We got lost in the desert

Tyr found us with song

Beck lead us through danger

And helped us along


We put it together
As a clique, we impress! (Now onward we press)
When life squeezes too hard
We’ll make it out of this mess!

We’re ready to face it,
What life’s got in store
And if life gives seconds
Well just ask for some more!”

 

Caught in the hug beside him, Hershey groaned. “Dag nabbit Graham, if you make me cry I am going to punch you so hard.”

 

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To say Gray and Rosa were at the bottom of Parisserie was something of an understatement. The air in the sub-dungeons where the MK portal was located was thick, humid, and only kept this side of breathable thanks to a complex set of air shafts and mosses.

 

“Okay, how much d’you know about the Berliner heir, Prince Zell?” asked Gray as both walked down to the portal room.

 

“Only that he’s a Turnamancer and… ah…” In the interest of time, Rosa tossed out the overly polite way of saying it and went for bluntly direct. “You’ve been keeping him prisoner for ransom from Berliner and the former regent, Kaz Blintz.”

 

Gray nodded without turning and said, “Half true. There was a mess of promises and oaths between Brett’s dad, the old King, and mom. Brett surrendered himself to us so Kaz wouldn’t find some way to get him croaked. And Kaz has-- well, had been trying to get him back ever since… token efforts, mostly. Now that there’s no Berliner, mom let him go.”

 

“Oh,” was all Rosa could think to say at the equally bluntly laid out treachery of the former regent. This… certainly fit in with the pattern she’d seen, but it left one question. “Why did your mother agree to protect him?”

 

Gray grinned. “Insurance, collateral, and it made Kaz really angry. Just be mindful, guy’s got a tongue on him that will tie you up in knots.”

 

Gray breathed out and steadied himself, ordered open the doors, and began the introductions. “Queen Rosa of Puddings, may I present prince Brett Zell.”

 

Behind the doors, Brett stood waiting in the open area before the portal, seeming perfectly at ease admiring the various portraits of past Pariserie casters. He turned to Gray and bowed to the precisely correct degree for a Prince addressing an allied ignoble Chief Warlord and returned the greeting, “Always a pleasure Gray.”

 

Despite Royal protocol not requiring it, he extended his hand in greeting-- a greeting Gray fumbled because of the beer in his hand. It was impossible for Rosa to miss the elegantly crafted barb criticizing Gray’s early-turn drinking. While Rosa herself found his habit unseemly, calling attention to to it this way was still callous, if not rude.

 

Titans, had she really been like that?

 

Gray was uncouth, but he got the hint and glared back. He turned to a sullen, ashen faced infantryman beside him and pushed the half empty beer mug into his hands. “Get rid of this for me, will you? Yeah, nice to see you too, Brett.”

 

Brett gave a perfunctory smile and turned, with a tad more civility, to Rosa. “A pleasure to meet you, your highness. I am told you plan to save ze capital wasteland.”

 

“Yes, but to do that, we need time, and allies. Which is where you come in…”

 

“I have no love for Madsense, but my aid shall not come without proper recompense.”

 

“Name it.”

 

Brett drew himself straight and arched his head back. “I want what is duly mine; Berliner. I will lend you my aid only in exchange for assurances zhat I be given the city site to refound it.” even without the theatrics, Rosa could tell this was a carefully crafted proposal. Brett clearly wanted Berliner-- but he also wanted a big payout, no doubt suspecting it was an exceptionally expensive price that’d be whittled down.

 

Which made the twitch in his blond eyebrow when Rosa asked “Oh, is that all?” so very worth it.

 

And then his claws came out. “Perhaps your Majesty dispenses with cities frivolously -- one seems to have certainly left your grasp-- but I assure you, your majesty, I do not jest.”

 

“Neither do I. Your highness may have the rights to refound the city provided he duly aids us to the point of freeing it from Madsense. And more importantly, helps protect all currently free sides from falling.”

 

Brett shook his head incredulously. “Are you mad? With what army?”

 

“With an army of casters. There are currently seven free sides, with four casters between us  and two more roaming the wasteland as barbarians. What’s more, you and the casters from the fallen sides of Copenhagendaas and Havana Split would bring the number up to nine. Nine casters to Madsense’s two. We already have three, and among these casters is a Predictamancer, able to tell us with some accuracy where they will attack next. And beside that....”

 

Rosa turned, pointedly, from the prince and walked dangerously close to the Magic Kingdom portal, and gestured at it grandly. “As an alliance, we have an advantage Madsense never will. The ability to move all nine of you to any city they might attack to defend it.”

 

Brett blinked, stunned. While the free movement of casters through portals, and the MK, was possible, it was extremely rare to see between sides in the Capital Wasteland because of the level of treachery and distrust between all sides. It was unthinkable. But in these turns, what wasn’t?

 

“Your job, in part, will be to help us gain the services of these casters like you who’ve lost their side. In exchange, Overlady Goose and I will ensure your upkeep, and support that you and they gain rights in refounding your lost sides. What say you?”

 

“I zink…” Brett’s eyes darted, clearly intrigued but wary, before finally deciding, “that your highness has won my allegiance to this alliance.”

 

“Ha ha!” Gray clapped his hands merrily, no doubt happy at her success and seeing Brett get out talked. “I’ll drink to that! Stabber, drinks! Hand me my mug!”

 

The stabber came up to Gray and stood, somewhat awkwardly and a little ashamed to show the glass mug was now crystal clear, with only a thin film of froth at the bottom. He raised his pale, gray face with somewhat less severe thrombotic green veins and met Gray’s gaze. “Unit TH3X 8311 is sorry… would… I would like another beer.”

 

Brett just raised an eyebrow at the stabber’s out-of-place familiarity. Rosa, more familiar with the situation, balked. This was one of the captured ‘demonstration’ stabbers from Madsense, that had turned to Parisserie and other sides, Gray must have kept this one out of pity.

 

Thinking of whom, Gray slowly gaped.

 

After a moment, TH3X seemed to remember something, and repeated, “I would like another beer, please.”

 

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Beck walked the desert alone.

 

He’d taken an Upsunder to Berliner, hitched a ride on a Botnet to Coppenhagendaas, walking the final stretches of each on his own power. He was still a speedy warlord, with his 14 move. Even without Kevin, he was still sneaky, thanks to a borrowed Scout Veil.

 

He passed familiar scrublands, sandy dunes, rocky flats and silty shores. He hunted game, camped. Read.

 

It gave him time to think, plan, and learn what Rosa and the Rock Band were up to.

 

Something had changed.

 

Roe’s attack on Tapiopeka, what should have been a cakewalk in the desert, had been met with unusually clever opposition. The Florist who’d lived in Coppenhagendaas had reapered, and though only a novice, she’d been boosted by a Rhyme-o-mancer and a Thinkamancer. The resulting Flower Power spell stopped all attacks in the hex and saved the city.

 

An attack on the nearby side of Pariserie had been thwarted when a Turnamancer and Shockmancer had created a flash sandstorm with lightning, which almost downed the ‘Bord cubes sent to take the city.

 

What’s more, Madsense was being nibbled at the edges. Scout were apparently going missing, patrols croaked by roving bands of Natural Allies and mercenaries.

 

As the second highest level warlord in Madsense, he was now supposed to bring Kerri and several botnets closer to the southern front, so they could really hit the free cities there.

 

He’d said he was glad of the chance to walk, to see if he could spot and tame a new Baudseed to replace Kevin, or something else.

 

He’d been out in the desert most of his life. Kevin was the first and only Baudseed he’d run into, so he had no illusions about ever being able to replace her… but as long as they thought she was croaked, they wouldn’t suspect his real involvement.

 

He thought back to the fight in Flandon. The last thing he heard was Rosa’s voice, fading out with her image saying, “We didn’t save your life just for you to throw it away. Come back to us, safe.”

 

‘Safe.’

 

That was a nice thought. He looked up as the walls of Madsense loomed ahead. Just as he remembered them, but not feeling anything at all like he the times remembered them.

 

Pity he was now as far away from ‘Safe’ as it was possible to get in the Capital Wasteland.

 

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Rosa absently cleaned the shoulder of her coronation gown. Traveling these past turns via Kevin’s super speed while Veiled tended to leave her with a light coating of dust. But, it was worth it.

 

Assembled around her were a new, smaller batch of delegates.

 

Gray from Pariserie, of course. The ‘free caster contingent’ represented by Brett. A trio of Wiley Peyotes and Metro Gnomes. The Rock Band in full, as well as the S’mores and Grange Band, who’d all agreed to be hired for an absolute pittance with the looming threat of their mercenary businesses ending. New to the gathering was Havana Split, Manila Vanilla and New Delhicious; the Raj from New Delhicious was the only other Royal side to come.

 

Rosa cleared her throat and opened the proceedings, “Thank you all for coming, in these troubling times, it is important to--”

 

“Your majesty, please, my side does not have time for this!” the warlady from Manila Vanilla was being incredibly rude, but the real edge of desperation behind her words managed to echo out. “Our scouts have been reporting adbots for the past three turns, they’re bound to attack Manila Vanilla any turn now! We heard this cartel of yours saved Tapiopeka and Pariserie, what do we have to do to get your protection?”

 

“Lady Cherie Tart, I assure you we are not a cartel, we are a coalition, focused on protecting the Capital Wasteland’s sides against Madsense, taking the fight to them and reclaiming what they’ve stolen, restoring the sides they’ve ended. Not extorting our fellow free and sovereign sides.”

 

“Uh, huh.” The disbelief from the Havana Split warlady, Michelle Gross, was palpable. “However you want to dress it up is fine, we’re down with whatever political paintjob you want to apply, but we want in so we can carve out a piece of Madsense once this conquest machine gets going.

 

Overlady Gooose sighed from her seat, turning to Rosa and talking in a decidedly intentionally loud stage whisper. “Honestly, Rosa, we probably should charge them for our services. Retaining all these mercenaries and casters isn’t cheap.”

 

“What!?”

 

“That’s extortion!”

 

“We will not stand for this!”

 

The voices rose, demanding, angry, afraid, fighting. Even with her newly ‘flexible’ thoughts on decorum, the sheer volume was impossible for Rosa to overcome. But then, that’s why it sometimes pays to have loud and obnoxious friends.

 

“Will you all shut! Up!” bellowed Gray, loud enough to send the red and blue Parisserie pendants hanging from the rafters swaying.

 

“Will you all look at yourselves?! Begging for protection, only to hide from a fight! Paying lip service to cooperation while planning to turn this last, desperate-- and I do mean desperate-- alliance into a vehicle for conquest!”

 

Overlady Goose narrowed her eyes and stood, slamming her hand against the table. “Gray, sit down and--”

 

“No!” he shot back, well and truly riled up enough to stand up to his mother. “I will not sit down, and so help me Titans, I pinky promise right now not to drink another beer ever again if it means you all just sit and listen!”

 

There was an uncomfortable silence immediately after, and it looked like the warlady from Havana Split was about to speak when Brett put a hand on her arm, stopping her from interrupting… and looking meaningfully, daringly, at Gray.

 

Gray glared back but didn’t shrink back into his seat. Despite wanting to say something, Rosa found she couldn’t. Slowly, everyone realized something very, very real. The natural Signamancy implicit in Gray’s oath-- it hadn’t needed another Pinky to bind, it was leveraged against his own Signamancy. He meant to keep it.

 

Emboldened by a captive audience, or at least the lack of any immediate heckling, allowed Gray to make his case. “We can’t come into this alliance solely out of desperation or politics or greed. That attitude is part of the problem! ‘Enlightened self interest’ will fall apart against Madsense the second they offer one of us a slightly less demeaning form of vassalage!”

 

He stepped into the middle of the room, transforming from the tipsy fool into something resembling a ruler. “If we’re going to survive, if we’re going to win we will have to do the one thing we all hate most: stop bellyaching and help each other out! Manila Vanilla, you have the best scouts out there, I want you to report every Adbot you see. Havana Split, your side’s units can make and bait the best Twollbait traps, New Delhicious, you’ve got a Croakamancer. They steal our units? Lets hit ‘em with ones they can’t steal. Our Rocky Rodents are the only ones that can still move undetected in the CDub, we’ll ferry y’all.”

 

Around the table, looks were exchanged. Excited, hopeful, daring.

 

Gray pounded a fist into his palm and drove the point home. “Madsense thinks they can take over any of our cities in a turn, and eat breakfast in our capitals, our homes? We’ll they’ve got something else coming! We’ll show them we can have breakfast all day long, any time we want, safe knowing they can’t hurt us! How? We share, work together, protect each other and subscribe to the ideals of these-- this Indivisible Host of Powers, and we. Croak. These. Ads!”

 

“Here here, let’s join I.H.O.P!”

 

“Let’s subscribe to croak these ads!”

 

“We’ll show ‘em! We’ll eat breakfast whenever we want in I.H.O.P.!”

 

Across from him on the table, even Brett seemed to be clapping a bit more enthusiastically than strictly necessary.

 

With everyone jumping and cheering, it was easy to overlook Overlady Goldie as she  watched her son… and a very proud smile crossed her lips.

 

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“And how would you describe the sensation?” asked Riker.

 

“Like a red hot poker--” answered Jeri through clenched teeth, only to open her eyes and glare at him murderously. “--that I want to drive through your skull.”

 

“If you can still form coherent sentences and snark, I’ll put you down as ‘7 of 9’.”

 

Beck knocked on the out door of the prison laboratory, having managed to hear that last part of the conversation between Riker and a captive Archon.

 

“Come in! We’re about done anyway.”

 

Beck walked down the main way in the prison block turned laboratory. Always something new, and this time it seemed Riker was busy experimenting on Adbot blood, judging by the flasks and vials of greyish green liquid.

 

“Hey Riker. What’s the story?”

 

“Beck,” greeted Riker with a nod. “Experimenting. The flying Flipthee over here has managed to resist Similating with an alarmingly high rate. The best formula I’ve got can’t crack a 14%.”

 

“And the-- burning sensation?”

 

“New tack, weaken resistance and boost acceptance by manipulating emotional states. Kerri should be along soon to make a new batch of ditto’s to keep testing. Make yourself comfortable.”

 

Riker went off back to the freezer area of the lab to store or possibly retrieve some samples and ingredients.

 

While he waited, a sickly green glow seemed to fill the lab. Beck looked up, expecting to see a Powerball, only to find-- Jeri. Or what had been-- might become?-- Jeri. It was a Similated archon, hovering unevenly in the air, as if she wasn’t quite sure how to keep her Z axis properly aligned, and not particularly mindful of holding her limbs straight and letting them loll about as if disjointed.

 

The Similated archon opened her mouth, moved her lips, but somehow never quite managed to make motion match sound as she spoke, “Plea-a-a-ase hold hold hold for Ch-ch-Char-Chetbot.”

 

What few strands of blond hair still clung to her head started ‘standing on end’ as she flew upside down, like a marionette with too few strings.

 

“That’s going to be me, soon.”

 

Beck turned to see the archon… the original, anyway, who was working hard at keeping a pained grimace off her face, and instead looked past him at the corrupted floating ditto.

 

Beck cocked his head. “Are you the one that croaked overlord Bott?”

 

“Dish willing, I’ll do it again.”

 

Beck raised his right eyebrows. “Maybe you’ll even get the chance.”

 

“You’re the barbarian they hire, aren’t you? Beck Packer?”

 

“Some turns more than others.”

 

“Don’t get too comfortable, barbarian. Once they get that improved serum working, you’ll be next.”

 

Beck shook his head. “They’d never do that,” he managed to avoid sighing as he said, “I’m practically family.”

 

“Really? That one’s an old hand at this game. He’s been torturing real units and dittos ever since he and Kerri were in the old side of Canberry.”

 

It was funny. Not ‘ha ha’ funny, more curious, how a bound unit could take the wind out him more effectively than a punch to the gut. Beck managed to get his mouth working again and tried to argue the point, “No, you’re lying, how could you possibly know--”

 

“You’d be surprised what people say when they think they’re alone, don’t think you’re a person, don’t believe what they say will make its way to unintended ears. Like how Riker tortured your ditto to find out if they could trust you, even depopped it. Just like mine.”

 

Suddenly, a lot of things clicked in his head.

 

Kerri’s ill-hidden unease around Riker. The discomfort and guilt Kerri and Riker had been trying to hide around him after the battle to save Madsense-- it wasn’t over the botched healing, at least not in full, it was having croaked his ditto! That… that thing Riker’s ditto had said in Berliner, that he’d been ‘kinder to him than he deserved’... it was because the real Beck had been his friend, just after Riker’d tortured a ditto of him! None of that trust was genuine, he’d been broken by proxy to find out. Then broken for real and put back together wrong--

 

Rage has a weight, a thick, mighty density that drags you down and blocks out everything else.

 

Beck’s rage was so thick right now, he didn’t even notice Kerri come in until he heard his cheery voice beside him. “Oh hi Beck! You didn’t have to wait for me in this dreary place, you should take a rest in--”

 

“You’re right, let's get out of here.”

 

Beck grabbed Kerri firmly by the arm and lead him down the crowded prison corridors, leaving a smugly grinning Jeri behind. Kerri let himself be carried forward but was babbling in some confusion.

 

The plan had been to convince or trick both Kerri and Riker to take the short walk between the prison lab and the portal chamber, then if convincing failed, push them both through. But right now, he not only didn’t want to save Riker, he didn’t trust himself not to throttle Riker by the neck until his head popped off.

 

“Really Beck, why the rush, I understand if you’re hungry but--”

 

He’d managed to get to the door leading out, when Riker yelled, moving quickly between the workbenches and experiments to catch up. “What? Hold up! Where are you going?”

 

Beck seethed, but tried to control his temper. He didn’t want to break alliance now. Didn’t need two hostile casters resisting. “We’re just taking a stroll. Be right back.”

 

Kerri pulled out of Beck’s grip, forcing him to stop. “What’s wrong? Was it the Similated archon? I know she’s scarier than normal, but--”

 

“No,” Riker tensed up in his lab coat, seeming to feel the waves of barely contained rage emanating from Beck. “It was the normal one. Did she mouth off to you? I’ll--!”

 

Beck walked up to Riker, tears (of rage?) welling up in the corners of his eyes. “Do the same thing to her that you did to me?!”

 

Reeling from his tone, Riker was soon literally reeling when Beck pushed him back roughly. “I trusted you! I thought you wanted me! Was I just another one of your experiments, even then?!”

 

“What? No! Beck, I don’t know what you--”

 

Beck pushed him again, keeping him off balance. “It was, wasn’t it?! Make me a freak, scar me for life, then you have someone uglier than you for you to feel better over! Someone you can manipulate!”

 

“No! You have to understand, I never wanted--” Riker’s pet carameleon, usually resting on his shoulder peaceably, shifted colors rapidly in fear and vanished, crawling away inside his robes.

 

“Shut! Up!” Beck had meant to push Riker to the ground.

 

He’d meant for him to fall on the floor, and then he’d keep yelling at him as he lay there. Maybe punch him, or kick him.

 

But the lab was crowded, full of stations and equipment, experiments of every sort on every bench and corner. So when Beck pushed Riker, he tripped.

 

And fell.

 

He could have fallen into one of the vats of strange magical glowing liquids, or into one of the energy coils, the ones always zapping, … but it was far, far worse. It was simpler; crushingly real.

 

The back of his head hit the edge of one of the work benches. A sickening, wet crack filled the room, followed by a tensing body thudding to the floor.

 

Kerri screamed in terror. Beck yelled, but not in anger, like he’d been meaning to. He got down and lifted Riker’s convulsing form, tried to make eye contact only to find his eyes had rolled back into his skull. In another moment, the twitching stopped, and he was gone.

 

Literally.

 

Beck coughed as the mist from a depopped ditto cleared around him. The carameleon was laying on the floor where Riker had been, a bright red shiny spot that seemed frightened and out place there. He was confused, but a deep wave of relief washed over Beck.

 

A choking sound behind him reminded him he wasn’t alone, Kerri was there, and probably extremely traumatized-- Titans, he’d croaked the ditto, but he’d broken alliance with Madsense! He needed to take Kerri to--

 

The mist of the depopping Riker turned thick and sour, like rancid almonds. Beck tried to wave it away and stand, to tackle and knock Kerri out before his plan completely fell apart. But instead, Beck fell back onto his knees, clutching his throat and fighting for breath.

 

A face drew near in the acrid smoke, wearing some kind of see through breathing mask. “K-Kerri?”

 

The face was his, but not. It was Kerri, but with the ash gray pallor of Riker. The disheveled hair, and a ratty half grown beard-- even the clothes were off, Kerri’s usual brown onesie was now black with jail bars superimposed over the red heart on the stomach.

 

“Nooooo,” sing-sang the caster, switching between a deeper baritone and a higher cheerful voice. “Not Kerri, or Riker. I’m Erik R. For Roll. Yes.” he said, seeming like a man just now remembering an old song he used to love. “I’m Erik Roll.”

 

The light started fading out from the edge of his vision, everything was growing cloudy and he lost what little balance he had, but the strange figure of Erik smiled reassuringly and moved to catch him. “Shh! Shh! It’s okay, it’s okay Beck! Don’t worry, I’m going to fix you.”

 

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Part 25 << O >> Part 27

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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.

Comments

  • Free Radical

    Oh, wow! There was some weird Dittomancy or something going on with Kerri and Riker? Only now that the name Erik R has come up do I realise that all three names are anagrams...

    Can't wait to see what way you manage to fit "Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, Never gonna run around and desert you" into the story. There has to be a good pun to be made out of "desert you"...

    Anyway, I remember there was an episode of Star Trek where Riker was split into two different people, so presumably this is something like that? I'm guessing Erik Roll was once a Master Dittomancer with some skill in Changeamancy (since it's also Stuffamancy), who figured out a way to use Dittomancy to turn himself into two Casters - one for each discipline?

    That's pretty cool. No wonder Paula's note only mentioned Kerri and not Riker.

    Speaking of, I'm not totally sure what's going on in the exchange at the start of this chapter. Are Paula and Beck exchanging notes by hat? It's kind of glossed over how they're getting the messages.

  • Free Radical

    Uh... weird.

    Trying to tip you gives the message "Rob and Titans do not accept tips. Thank you though!"

    Have you recently become a Titan, Spicymancer? :)

  • Spicymancer

    Not that I know of. wink

    There's a glitch that is stopping me from typing Twofer's "Glass" with the same reason, so I think it's generalized. I'll update the big report I made. (So we should enjoy being Titans while we can and do something crazy!) tongue-out

    I made a tiny change in the intro to make it clearer that it is a back and forth by hat.

    No spoilers, but you will be quite pleasantly surprised in the next part. I'm honestly a little glad no one caught the anagrams early; this has been my big secret since part 5. Hopefully the side by side names wasn't too overt either, but I did want that relationship to be clear. One spoiler, we're about to see that Dittomancy can be Thinkamancy levels of broken. 0.0

  • Spicymancer

    Red fixed the tipping problem! laughing

  • falcore51

    I think spicy just has more smuckers then the system can handle because he is the best :-).

  • Spicymancer

    @falcore51: You're too kind, I'm just a spicy pepper rancher, I don't know what to do with all these Shmuckers! XD

  • SomeGuy411

    @spicymancer When life gives you Shmuckers, make toast (I'm sorry, I really couldn't resist)