Unjust Deserts, part 27
Part 27, Ditto-duet-o
Consciousness came to Beck like a slowly rising tide. Hearing first, with the clattering of metal and the sound of voices.
“Breaking the rules will get contestants disqualified!” cried a commanding yet high pitched voice.
“Of course your grace, of course.” Answered a second. “But how about a penalty round? One last try to get him to actually join our side? The recent loss of Berliner has been a great blow.”
“Hmm…” The first voice seemed to consider. “All contestants who lose the penalty round don’t go home empty handed! They take a lifetime supply of Similation treatment!”
“Thank you, overlord, you know I’m never going to let you down.”
The sound of retreating footsteps followed. Then feeling came back to Beck, as leather straps tightened around him. Finally sight, as he opened up his eyes to see...
“And I’m never going to give you up!” Beck gasped and recoiled from the face of the ash gray, scraggly bearded caster smiling reassuringly just inches in front of his face, occupying an eerie uncanny valley in Beck’s mind, seeming tantalizingly familiar while still dangerously new.
Kerri-- or was it Riker?… no. The caster was now tightening the straps holding him down, all cheerful energy. Beck swallowed and addressed him, “Erik.”
“Ah, you remember! Good, I was worried the chloroform might have affected your short term memory.” Erik finished with the last leather strap and moved behind Beck, only to unhitch something and turn the torture rack he was strapped to into a rolling gurney. “Now, I’m just going to give you a quick runaround the lab, but don’t think I’ll desert you!”
Just before he was wheeled out of the prison block a feminine voice cried out, Jeri’s, yelling “Whatever he does, however many times he dittoes you, don’t let him break you!”
Fear gripped him, but he reverted to rule #1; don’t panic. First things first, find out who his jailer was. This guy had replaced Kerri somehow-- after he’d croaked the ditto of Riker-- or maybe this was the real Riker? He seemed oddly friendly, regardless, so he seized on it and asked, “Who--- what are you? What do you want with me?”
Erik laughed, and from his position strapped down on the Gurney, Beck could see his disheveled half grown beard, pale face, and cheerful eyes and smile that seemed so at odds with the black bricks of the ceiling. Erik took a left into a refurbished storage chamber Riker must have been using for one of his larger experiments. “Let’s start with the easy one. My name is Erik Roll. And as to what I am… well, that’s a little more complicated.”
He rolled Beck into the room and absently ordered several powerballs lit, revealing various supplies, boxes, and most intriguingly, a huge platform with two large rectangles suspended above it by chains, each covered in a tarp.
Erik rolled Beck midway into the room next to a control console of some kind, covered in glass and knobs and dials, then turned the gurney back into a leaning position, allowing Beck to look around as he went to work preparing something, not really bothering to look at Beck as he worked. “The units you know as Kerri and Riker, they’re both me. Or, well, parts of me.”
A realization dawned on Beck, reminding him of some of the talk he’d heard about different kinds of magic. “I’ve heard about magic like this-- you’re a caster fusion, aren’t you?”
Erik whipped his head to give Beck a look of distilled scorn straight out of Riker’s repertoire. “All those Thinkamancers think they’re so smart; every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the Magic Kingdom is head over heels in fear and awe of the power to join casters together.”
Erik rolled his eyes and put on a mocking tone. “‘Hey Harry, let’s fuse!’ they enthuse. ‘Come on Dick, we should Link!’ they think. Feh. Small minded IDIOTS!”
It took a moment for the echoes from his yell to quiet, but Erik was no less angry. “No, I am not a caster link or fusion or Carnymancy or anything so pedestrian. What I am is Truth. Destructive Truth. The kind that doesn’t come from putting the heads of Dick and Harry together… but from the splitting of a Tom.”
Anger out of his system, he started casting on the huge rectangles, fusing them together. “You see, caster fusions break, cause damage most of the time and always leave you remembering so very little after they end. What I do? -- Ohhohoho! I remember everything! Well, not so much when I’m split, but right now? I am this close to master class Changemancy thanks to Riker; I was barely a novice before, but Riker’s just been zooming along thanks to the improved focus! Even Kerri’s Dittomancy has been growing! And who knows? Once I master it, maybe I’ll make Riker a Dirtamancer, or split into one of the other disciplines. Hmm, though I could try for triplets...”
Erik laughed good naturedly and twirled in place. “Just listen to me rambling! Oh Titans, I’d forgotten how nice it is to talk to other people as myself. Than myself!”
Listening to him, watching him whip his demeanor so rapidly from one extreme to another… there was no way this was some kind of trick or Foolamancy or just plain expert Stagemancy. Beck swallowed, tentatively, and asked, “You really are them… Kerri, Riker. Are they real? And why? Why did you do this to yourself?”
Erik gave out a bitter laugh, another of Riker’s hallmarks (or was it the other way around?), “Ditto’s aren’t real people, Beck; only Kerri is real. Riker’s just the trash, the refuse. You want my sob story? You’re asking in a good time, usually I’m not around to remember all of it. Get it?” He laughed, all lightness and joy at his own joke.
“I’ve lived in this city for most of my three lives, but it still amazes me how much changes and stays the same. This Copy Center was originally a wine cellar before Madsense took over, for example. That’s rather the beauty of the duality, isn’t it? Between Dittomancy and Changemancy. One is all about sameness, the other never stays the same. But I’m rambling, probably because I don’t get out much anymore.” He finished by giggling again, only a few notches below the contralto Kerri usually spoke in.
“Did you know it was Adbert who ordered Riker to torture your ditto? He did it to see if we could trust you. Oh, but don’t think too poorly of our dearly departed Adbert; you had just cold cocked Roe and recaptured him after all, and after you risked your life to save him, he really did grow fond of you. Regardless, he was head and shoulders above my last ruler, King Hal Lopecia. You’d think having inherited a kingdom with an Adept Dittomancer and a healthy treasury would make him happy, but no. He squandered it, and me. Instead of dittoing rations, units, bonuses, or even sending me out to battle, he did-- he made me...”
Erik stopped tightening a pair of bolts, took a breath, and suddenly seemed all jagged edges and intensity. “He made me ditto captives. Interrogate the ditto's, torture them to find their weaknesses. Then torture the original. Sometimes, he’d order the original to watch as I tortured the ditto, until neither was sure which was real.”
Erik turned away for a moment and quietly, shamefully, admitted. “And I was good at it, Beck. I even started to enjoy it, grow proud of what I could do. In the dark. In the dungeons. Do you understand that feeling?! Hating yourself for daring to find some small solace in your living Hellabad? I-- can’t. Couldn’t keep doing it. Torturing and croaking all those people...”
He turned back to whatever work he was doing, pouring himself into it to finish the strange magical device. “I screamed in the dark corners of the dungeon. Fantasized with telling off King Hal in court to be disbanded, or even jumping off the tower. I even smashed my head against my room’s mirror, until it was all a jumbled spiderweb.”
In a terrifying display of Stagemancy, Erik moved up to the center of the room and lowered the huge rectangle next to him. With the thin, long rectangular object there, he pulled away the tarp and revealed a massive mirror that spun along its axis. One half polished silver, but the other side revealing an intriguing obsidian black surface. It spun, reflecting off the powerballs and alternating dazzling lights with dark, distorted reflections.
Erik stood before the mirror, seemingly doubling the size of the room and giving Beck a sinking feeling, as if it might swallow him whole. “Then came the revelation. Ditto’s… don’t have to be identical to their original. I know, magic theory goes over most warlord’s heads, but I know you can get it. You get so much, like Foolamancy, and Changemancy. It’s part of why I love you. Just think of a mirror. The reflection is identical, right?” Erik held up both hands, palm to palm so one was hidden behind the other.
“Right…” Beck stopped himself, the mirror behind Riker spun, doubling him, then turning the room upside down, then dark with its strange Foolamancy, and Beck suddenly realized, “No, it’s not, because it’s inverted.”
Erik opened his hands, revealing both palms side by side as identical, symmetric opposites.
“Exactly! Exactly!” He spread open his arms in a grand encompassing gesture and went on, “So I realized, all the Natural Dittomancy in our bodies, in mirrors, it’s also Changemancy! All the 'perfect' Dittos a Dittomancer makes have been subconsciously corrected, Changed, to make them not invert. Then I expanded on that. I could ditto myself, and not correct the inversion, but even go further with it. Have the ditto be my equal and opposite! My hidden dark side, exposed! And that’s how I earned Master Class; that’s how Kerri and Riker were ‘popped’!” Erik walked over and behind Beck in his gurney, then rolled it towards the mirror.
“The first split wasn’t perfect. As I dittoed myself, I put my hatred, self loathing, disloyalty, and desire to change myself into Riker. And it worked! Riker was all those things and more, a Changemancer! Leaving the real me, the good me, free at last, as Kerri, and then...”
Erik whipped out from behind the gurney in a heartbeat; his face was hovering inches before Beck’s, eyes wide and intense with rage. “Riker went to the king’s chamber, as he slept, and Changed the air in his lungs to chlorine gas. It was easy. ‘Poof’ He had the rage to do it, the disloyalty, and crucially… all my desire to croak myself over what he had changed me into. Was pushing me into doing to him. Right. Then.”
And just like that, Erik pushed away from the gurney and was all smiles, leaving Beck fighting back panic once again as he faced his polished reflection in the mirror. “Then… well, then the story gets easy. The side went neutral, the then Barbarian Adbert found our city and saved me. He told me about his holy mission, and I promised to keep his secret if he kept mine, and to help him as long as he made one small adjustment to his plan. It’s one I think you’ll like: it’s that barbarians not be wholesale exterminated or Similated. It’s a silly romantic notion, but after realizing sides are the ones involved in all the warring on Erfworld, just think how much better it would be to replace all those nasty sided units with obedient, hateless Adbots, and allow the only truly free units to blossom!”
Making his way to the magical glass console, Erik’s tone went breezy and offhand again. “Oh, look at me, rambling again. I haven’t even gotten to your last and most important question!”
Erik laughed, only for it grow louder and unhinged until he was honestly cackling. The peppiness of Kerri mixed with the manic tendencies of Riker into the terrifying howl.
“‘What do I want?’ that’s to help you, Beck. The best way I know how.” And with that, Erik put both hands onto the glass console, bringing the magic machine humming to life as he recited, “Mirror universe, goatee Spock, Kurlan Naiscos, enemy within, second chances-- transporter accident!”
Space seemed to crumble as the perception of himself suddenly switched to being in two places at once. As the reflection he was looking at stopped being a thing, and started looking back at him.
And with it, came the split.
Beck screamed, unable to hold the sheer cascade of emotions in check.
All the pain, regret, shame, rage and loss at every mistake and choice he’d made engulfed him like a sandstorm, shredding away slowly at his skin while it blew around him and hid all but one of his thoughts. He’d failed. He hadn’t saved Kerri, or even himself.
Ahead of him, Erik rolled his eyes at the screaming and snarked, “Hold your hippogriffs, let me adjust--” And in what seemed a well practiced spell, Erik duplicated himself, morphing into Kerri and manifesting a grumpy Riker out of thin air.
Riker gestured, and the mirror was raised again into the air by the chains, then the straps on his gurney unbound themselves. As the huge mirror lifted into the air, it revealed--
“This is… unusual,” said Beck contemplatively as he looked at his clean, smooth hands while simultaneously screaming and clutching at his scarred face while on his knees.
The reason, was that there were now two Becks; one in black and yellow crusader armor, and another in white and blue armor.
“It worked, it worked!” gushed Kerri.
“Not yet,” sniped back Riker, with a resigned and bitter note. “They still haven’t established their hierarchy. Picked names to solidify their new personas.”
“You!” screamed Black Beck at Kerri. “You did this! Put me back together! It hurts too much, I can’t-- this is...”
”What do you mean?” asked White Beck of his duplicate. “I feel fine. Better than fine, I haven’t felt this good since I first popped!”
When Black Beck looked over to his twin, he knew why-- he was the Beck from before, when he’d first popped. Unscarred, the faint weathering of the desert, gone. Not a trace of the heavy burdens weighing on his heart showed on his face or shoulders.
Black Beck put a hand to his face, felt the scars, then he truly understood. “You… it’s just like with them: they put all of my pain, my scars, in me, everything else--”
“Is me. What’s good about you. Us. Me.” The other Beck, White Beck shook his head and looked to Kerri and Riker with growing curiosity. “How long did it take you to straighten out your pronouns? And how did you pick out your names?”
Before Riker could make a snippy remark, Black Beck moved up to stack with his ditto and smacked the back of his head, growling out “Who cares? We need to get Kerri to put us back together, then get him out of here!”
“Do you?” asked Kerri in a sing song voice. “I’m exactly where I want to be, and you two-- could be, too. Think about it: life without all the pain of your mistakes. Helping build a world without the oppression of rulers and sides! A giant playground for Barbarians of all types! And with the Photo Negative device complete, we could help everyone who's been hurt, be their best self!”
Black Beck couldn’t believe his ears, wondering how Kerri had gotten so fully tricked into this apocalyptic utopia. He started to plan out the attack; it’d be tricky to knock Kerri out while depopping Riker, but making a ditto of him would prove to be their mistake it would--
”Maybe…” started White Beck, interrupting Black Beck’s thoughts. “Maybe we should hear him out. This is so much better than Shelley’s deal, and if they could do this for--”
White Beck never got to finish his thought, as he went reeling back from Black Beck’s rapid punch square to the jaw.
Erik had had long practice splitting himself. But never on other units, much less an unwilling warlord, and using an untested device for the first time, even if it was a product of his Master class Dittomancy and near master Changemancy. And on one as emotionally conflicted as Beck, the splitting had been more of an uneven sorting and tearing than a directed, self-conscious division. So it really should come as no surprise that idealism, caution and restraint were put in White!Beck, while his anger, temper, and sensitivity to being betrayed went in…
Black Beck yelled, angry beyond even his own ability to understand, “No! No more tricks and lies making me hurt the people I love! I’d rather croak myself!” And, in fact, he set out to do just. That.
Drawing and swinging in the same motion, Black Beck attacked White Beck with his Icy-Hot’s fireaxe. The latter had recovered from the shock and surprise attack, and dodged artfully with a backflip away from Black Beck-- and both Kerri and Riker, towards the door.
“No! No!” yelled Kerri, clutching his hands to his chest helplessly. “You’re not supposed to fight! You’re supposed to decide White Beck is the alpha! Turn to Madsense!”
Beside him, Riker snorted and rolled his eyes, sneering as he said, “They’re Warlords, idiot. We knew there was a chance his self-destructive impulse to fight would resurface post split.”
Kerri didn’t strike his brother, his ditto. He didn’t need to. He looked at Riker, and the latter was overwhelmed with Kerri’s fear of Beck croaking himself, leaving him gasping and clasping at his heart. Much calmer now that he’d offloaded some of his worry, Kerri said, “Remember your oath. Now make yourself useful and stop snarking, we need to follow them!”
The Becks ignored their dittoed forebears, with White Beck jumping, blocking, dodging gracefully if a bit lazily against Black Beck’s instinctual, savage and rapid attacks.
Countering a swipe with his ice pick, White Beck ducked and countered with a rising swing, “Your temper is why we’re in this mess, stand down.”
Black Beck roared back inarticulately, he swung wildly at White Beck, making up for his lack of coordination with ferocity and a hail of fiery swings. White Beck parried, dodged, and walked back, sometimes taking glancing hits and occasionally even blocking with a gauntlet-- a point he drove home with an icy parry and counter. “Our armor is boosted against fire, you twit. Just like my angry half to ignore details.”
“I hate you so much!” screamed Black Beck while pressing the attack with an overhead lunge, “Your idiot dreams are the reason we keep croaking everyone we care about!”
“Really?” asked White Beck, as he adjusted his defense into a series of precise strikes. “If I recall, we pushed Terry out the window and almost croaked because you wanted revenge.”
That seemed to pierce Black Beck’s defenses. “What? But I didn’t exist back then--” but somehow, Black Beck intuited White Beck was telling the truth. Taking advantage of the confusion, White Beck finished off with a kick that sent Black Beck tumbling into the waters of the cistern.
The waters rushed up to meet Black Beck, only to grow white and opaque as they froze beneath him into an icy surface, giving Black Beck a chance to land boot first onto a slippery iceberg, and allowing the spring boots a chance to save him from the fall damage.
“Why did you do that?" cried Kerri from the entrance of the cistern’s catwalk. "He’s not the original!”
Riker glared at his brother, icy mist still trailing his fingers. “They haven’t finished sorting themselves out. White Beck needs to cow Black Beck into submission now, or we’ll be back here again tomorrow.”
Beneath them, Black Beck had only just gotten his bearings on the iceberg, disoriented by the mass of glowing red and orange Elseedee Fish swimming around him just as agitated as he felt, when White Beck dropped on him like a ton of bricks, smashing his ice pick clean into his left shoulder.
White Beck pulled out the ice pick with a wet squelching sound, ordering “Give up. We both know I’m our better half, on and off the battlefield.”
The cistern filled with a prismatic mess of light as the Elseedee fish beneath reacted to White Beck’s arrival, filling the space with every color imaginable as half the red and orange fish suddenly turned blue and green, only to slowly divide themselves up into warring halves.
Black Beck seethed, put a hand to his shoulder and choked out, “You’re right-- but you’re also the part of me that doesn’t understand why someone would risk their life for someone else. The part that can’t accept-- I’m willing to croak myself if it means no one else has to suffer for my mistakes!”
He rushed forward with a yell, thinking even if White Beck parried, the impact from the momentum and slippery ice underneath would send them both over the edge-- but White Beck was his grace, his foresight.
White Beck dodged.
Black Beck felt the cold water surround him, saw the red orange fish swimming around him in a chaotic mass.
So this was it. He couldn't even stop himself. He couldn’t--
He felt a sharp tug on his back as someone grabbed his cape, felt himself get pulled up, and up, until he could taste air again!
It wasn’t easy, but he managed to put a hand to the edge of the iceberg and then swing the icepick into it, then pull himself up. Beside him, White Beck did the same.
All around them, the Elseedee fish swam quickly as two distinct schools, no longer warring, one red orange and the other blue green, but pushing at each other like tectonic plates. Black Beck could only ask, “Why?”
“Because she wouldn’t have let us drown-- and I don’t--” the look on White Beck’s smooth, perfect face turned to one of dawning terror. “I want to be good, I hate you for what you’ve done-- but I don’t understand why anymore! It makes perfect sense to let you drown, but I know I’m not supposed to, why?”
Behind ‘enemy lines’, in the middle of the school of blue and green Elseedee fish, a fearful glimmer of red and orange burst.
Black Beck shivered. “I do. It’s all I can think, feel. Every decision I’ve regretted… it’s because I thought I was doing something good, I ignored the doubts-- the costs, how it might hurt other people! Everything I do just makes the c-dub worse, hurts me, hurts the people who’ve helped me! I don’t deserve to live, I have to end it, we--”
“We didn’t destroy it all.” White Beck’s frown was genuine, unusually compassionate toward his ‘lesser half.’ “Terry, Shelley, Berliner, Puddings… but not Kevin, Roe, Guy, Rosa, or the river. If we didn’t regret our mistakes, we wouldn’t be trying to save Kerri and Riker.”
In the teeming mass of seething red and orange, a small school of rebel fish flickered a hopeful green and blue.
“All I... we ever wanted--” started Black Beck.
“-- was to explore the desert.” finished White Beck.
Cold and sopping wet, both stood unsteadily on the iceberg, and all around them, the chaotic, swirling schools of fish calmed down, stopped butting against each other and started swimming clockwise until they formed two cohesive, harmonious circles that left trails around each other, themselves seeming like two enormous fishes, bound to each other and each with an opposite colored ‘eye’ at their centers.
“We can still make this right.”
“No more regrets.”
“Because if you can’t love yourself--” started Black Beck as he took off a gauntlet and put out his right hand, palm out.
White Beck did the same, putting his left hand against it, finishing with “--how the Hellabad are you gonna love somebody else?”
All around them, the cistern glowed to life as much, much more than verbal understanding flowed between-- within-- Becks.
Touch is so not overrated.
“I don’t like it. I don’t,” fretted Kerri as he looked at the two Becks below, finally no longer fighting and seeming to talk. “They’ve been down there too long.”
Riker folded his arms in front of him and frowned down at the pair he’d just saved. “At least they’re not trying to croak each other, maybe White Beck is finally whipping him into submission? Don’t worry, we’re safe up here until I conjure up a rope ladder for them. it’s not like--”
Kerri and Riker took a step back as both Becks landed hand-in-hand before them, boots thumping on the catwalk and metal springs coiling. Growing a shade paler, Riker could only say “Oh, right, their spring boots.”
“Are you okay now?” asked Kerri, equal parts hopeful and worried. “Are you ready to join?”
White Beck looked coolly at the pair, and pointed with his free hand at them. “Prepare for trouble.”
“You’ve made it double,” echoed Black Beck, striking a pose and filling the cistern with triumphantly sounding trumpets.
Riker clutched at Kerri’s shoulder, yelling out “Ditto pikers, we need a screen now!”
“To protect the wasteland from devastation!” sang White Beck, drawing his pickaxe and pointing it up.
Black Beck followed by drawing his own pickaxe and putting it against his chest, singing from the heart “To unite all barbarians within our nation!”
“No, don’t do this, we can still be friends! I love you, all of me loves you!” cried Kerri, nonetheless putting his arms forward and preparing to cast.
As one, Black and White Beck started strutting towards them with an unmistakeable dance-ish gait.
White Beck shook his head as he sang back his answer, “To denounce the evils of your ‘truth’ and ‘love’!”
Four neat rows of Madsense pikers formed ahead of them on the bridge, only to snap their lances forward in a phalanx.
Black Beck seemed to snicker out his next verse, both of them suddenly sprinting and leaping into the air over the pikers. “To extend our reach to the stars above!”
White Beck actually swung his twin down at the Pikers, smashing into the middle row and knocking two off the bridge outright. White Beck landed in time to block the nearest from striking Black Beck, then, the dance fighting really got started.
Kerri dittoed a new set of Pikers before the last was done and started his own dance fighting beat, to the lyrics “Why can’t we be friends, why can’t we be friends?”
The leadership was in the Beck’s favor, but the narrow bridge in Kerri’s and the Pikers, until Black Beck and White Beck pulled closer together, cheek to cheek, aiming both Icy-Hots forward.
Then both sang together “Team Beck blasts off at the speed of flight!”
Tango duet complete, they spun in whirlwind formation and mowed through the defending Pikers like spinning scythes through a wheat field.
Pikers flew left and right into the cistern below, splashing into the water only to create strange ‘blorps’ as they depopped beneath the surface. Fleeting witnesses to the Elseedee fish lighting up in the image of a rocket smashing into a rapidly breaking mirror.
Both Becks slowed and stopped before the now defenseless Kerri, holding him at pickaxe point. It was White Beck who sang, “Surrender now or prepare to fight!”
The force of the phaser blast shot into Black Beck’s chest was strong enough to throw him backwards off his feet, and White Beck with him.
Riker stepped out from behind Kerri, lamenting, “My oath. That’s right.”
Ahead of them on the bridge, White Beck leaned over Black Beck, clutching at his hand. “Stay with me! Don’t go!”
Despite the new hole in his lungs, Black Beck struggled to breathe, to form a single word.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine! He’s only a ditto and you’re the alpha. We’ll just try this again later!” Kerri’s cheerful reply rang hollow twice over, the second from echoing off the cistern’s vaulted roof and curved walls.
“He’s me,” snapped back White Beck, sparing them only a glance as they kept their distance.
Beneath him, Black Beck managed a gasp and half a laugh. His eyes had grown misty from fear, but now for another reason.
White Beck leaned in, bringing Black Beck’s hand to his chest. “He’s the best parts of me,” he finally whispered.
They locked eyes, Black Beck’s breath rattled… and he was gone in a puff of mist.
White Beck breathed in some of the mist before it all vanished, and all at once the enormity of his pain-- and a new understanding of himself, how to deal with it-- flooded back into Beck. No longer White, or Black, just himself.
Steps rang behind him, dozens of them. Kerri wasn’t taking any chances and had dittoed up two new stacks of Pikers to hide behind.
Kerri pleaded over the heads of the soldiers. “Please, please reconsider. You’re outnumbered, alone, and if you don’t surrender, join, you know it’s Similation.”
Beck tightened his grip around Icy-hot… then picked up Black Beck’s dittoed pickaxe, which had survived his depopping. He stood up slowly, disoriented and feeling clammy from the reintegration, but more certain than he ever had in his life. He crossed his arms in front of him, creating a crescent above out of the aligned pickaxes. “I’m not alone."
Deep inside, from the place that usually felt like an aching void, Beck felt an outpouring of strength. And with it, a strange echo replaced his voice. "⅄on,ɹǝ ɟıɓɥʇıuɓ ɐll oɟ ɯǝ˙"
A pickaxe in each hand, Beck roared, charged forward, the fighting became a blur as he struck, kicked, used the inside curve of the pickaxe to knock pikers off the bridge, struck, dodged with twice his focus, twice his ferocity, twice his conviction. This wasn’t a playful dance fight anymore. It was fighting at his finest, it was fighting for himself and everyone he cared about, it was taking his love, and instead of croaking for it, transforming.
Bruised, stabbed, but triumphant, when he got within striking distance of Kerri he was breathless-- not at his victory, but at Riker stepping in to save his brother a second time, turning the air around Beck into more chloroform.
Beck shut his mouth, but he’d already breathed in a lungful and fell to his knees. Kerri and Riker walked up, the latter pointing the ray gun at him.
Beside himself with grief, Kerri spread out his arms consolingly. “I’m so, so sorry Beck. It’s-- it’s better this way than seeing you Similated. I’ll tell Chet there was an accident.” He nodded to Riker, who took aim with his ray gun.
Beck grunted, tried to stand but fell to his side, still unable to breathe or escape the cloud. He reached vainly for his dropped pickaxe, to choke out something more to say, but there was no way to reach it in time, catch his breath... or stop the bright ruby ray gun flash.
A sharp, clear note rang and echoed in the cistern after the ray gun fired.
Below the catwalk, the Elseedee fishes’ glow wavered, dimmed, until only the powerballs lit the cistern.
“Not everything needs a reason, Beck. But if you need one... it’s because… because you were kind to him. Your dark half. Kind like-- like he deserved it. Like he was real!”
Riker sat before him on the ground, crying.
Beside them lay Kerri’s body. It didn’t fade away, or evaporate into mist like a ditto. His complexion changed to ash grey, and the corpse slowly morphed back into Erik, eyes pinched shut, mouth open with a question that would never be asked, or answered.
The sheer enormity of what Riker had just done sank slowly into Beck’s mind.
He moved to sit up, got close to Riker and tried to hug him, only to be pushed away. He tried again, and Riker pushed away again-- only for Riker to grab his chest and sob into it on the third try.
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.
Rule #8: If you can't love yourself, how the Hellabad are you going to love somebody else?
Really great chapter. I can't remember if you made a pun on it when it first showed up, but was that phaser of Riker's designed by his old friend Pavel Chekov? Because it definitely turned out to be a Chekhov's/Chekov's Gun! :)
Ha! I knew it!
"Prepare for trouble!"
This whole bit was hilarious. All the set-up for that gag really paid off.
@Salvage: & Jatopian: Thanks, and I'm glad I could surprise you guys, even if it was... well, yeah, kinda messed up. Even casters "safe" inside of a city might get hurt and broken and warped, just like field units, all of them trying to survive the harsh desert.
It felt good to finally publish this chapter. It was literally one of the two seed ideas for the entire story, and in a kind of fanfic/RL Dittomancy, keeping the secret/twist and then revealing it felt like such a relief.
@Free Radical: Darn, nope, no Checkov's Puns when the Ray Gun was first used. XD
Also, boop man, but you got a lot right on your guesses last chapter. I'm impressed! Hopefully this chapter itself didn't seem predictable because of it. For the record, the full spell is all Star Trek references, of the episodes where Kirk got split into good and evil halves, and where Riker got a more standard "dittoing". And Kurlan Naiscos, the duck shaped archeological figure Picard got that represents all the "mind people" inside of someone.
An LSD yin yang. Very nice.
I was rather desperately trying to read in a pokeball reference at the point when one center blossomed(or bellossomed, amirite?), but blue and green makes for an overall better image even if it would have been cool to be white at that point. I'm using my reader's license to pretend the color scheme of White Beck appears white while Black Beck's color scheme is mostly red, and the circling fish are in hemispheres right then.
And now I need to check for a "beck and call" reference somewhere in this excellent story.
@Highjumper: Darn it, that's actually pretty cool. If it helps, the next scene with the fish while they jump up could totally be a Pokeball, given there's an iceberg in the middle where the release button would be.
@falcore51: Well, it solved some things, but made a big mess in the process. Can't really say more without spoiling the next part, but it was very much the culmination of Riker's character arc.