Unjust Deserts, part 28
Part 28, I'm no good at love stories
Aboveground, the night in the city of Madsense was a cacophony of neon lights. ‘Bord cubes flew, advertising and flashing crawling text. No two streets had streetlights of the same color or intensity. Everything flashed, sometimes, shrill whistles or alert trumpets would blare, the guards and sentries not so much jumpy from the recent assassination of the old Overlord, but from poorly worded orders making them react to every errant Flipthee bird.
Deep, deep below, though. It was quiet. And cold.
Muffled sobbing could be heard in the cistern as Riker cried into Beck’s shoulder. The amber light from the powerballs would occasionally get drowned out with blue, as the Elseedee fish would occasionally pulse in overwhelming blue waves as one or two of Riker’s tears fell through the catwalk’s grated floor and hit the water.
It took a while for Riker to calm down, and once he was sure he could actually hold together enough to talk, Beck asked, “What-- what happens to you now? Are you going to be the new…?”
“No,” sniffled Riker, regaining some of his composure and pushing away. “I’m still a ditto, but I think-- I think I’m going to stay myself. Erik and Kerri were the ones who knew how to reintegrate. I was always just a trash bin, a spare.”
Beck started to stand, trying to pull Riker up with him. “Come on, I’m… I’m going to take you to the portal, send you into the Magic Kingdom, maybe someone there can help you.”
“No one can help me, Beck,” answered Riker, refusing to budge and looking desolately at Erik’s body. “What Erik was doing is beyond any other Dittomancer in the MK. When we went, Dittomancers who knew Erik didn’t even recognize Kerri or me as based on him. And even if there were, I don’t have the Shmuckers, Rands, or time; I’m a ditto. I’m going to depop in another couple of hours. Just-- just leave me here.”
Riker turned and refocused his gaze on Beck, and pleaded “But you, you need to get out of here. The Overlord will wake up soon and notice Kerri is croaked; then send the entire city after you.”
Beck picked up and holstered both copies of Icy-Hot, not sure which was the original. “Even if it’s just a minute, I’m not leaving you here alone. Come on!”
He lifted Riker by the armpits, stood him up, then he finally noticed how weak he’d gotten. “What’s wrong, can’t you stand?”
Arm around Beck’s shoulder, Riker seemed unable to find his footing, gaze going in and out of focus. “I don’t know, so many feelings-- memories and thoughts… just floating in and out, it feels like I’m unraveling.”
“Stay with me! You, you stay with me!” Tears started welling up at the corners of Beck’s eyes, and he started marching towards the lab.
Once there, a familiar pair of running stabbers whirred in a corner, running in a wheel. Catching sight of an enemy unit, they finally abandoned their standing order and hopped out of the wheel to engage.
Beck drew Icy-hot, but Riker stopped the combat from starting by ordering, “Jerry, Bill, stop! Go… go get drunk on the secret stash. Don’t engage any enemies!”
The pair stopped, blinked, and holstered their weapons. They answered “Ye-as sir,” before marching off into one of the prison cells turned store rooms.
“Secret stash?” asked Beck.
A pale, ghostly silver light shone from the corner of the lab as the stabbers opened a cupboard. Riker nodded in their direction, “It’s distilled moonlight-- I call it Moonshine. I’d been saving it up.”
Sitting Riker down on a chair, Beck noticed another glow, this one blue, and made a snap decision. He walked over and next to the captured Archon. Jeri looked at him with intense curiosity, but said nothing. Easy to understand, given she was once again gagged. Erik must have ordered it as he rolled Beck out.
He pulled the gag off, and she blinked a few times in surprise but managed a practiced, professional smile. “Thank you, sir Packer. It’s good to see you took my complimentary advice and managed to survive Similation--”
Ignoring what sounded like a prepared speech on her part, Beck reached out and touched her, claiming her as a prisoner and ‘stealing’ her from Madsense, and that seemed to worry her and shift her into a different script entirely from what she’d been saying, “-- I can’t apologize enough for my unprofessional remarks while under the effects of Riker’s pain inducing ex--”
She trailed off, confused that instead of taking her as a bound prisoner, Beck had gone straight to unstrapping her and seemed to be ignoring her spiel. “--periments, but there’s still a great opportunity for coalignment of interests! Charlescomm offers a reward of--”
Beck undid the final strap around her waist, and once she was out of her bounds, he immediately released her as a prisoner and back into Charlescomm, saying. “... and I don’t care about any apologies or reward. You did what you had to do to try and get out; now, so am I. You came here to croak the Overlord, right?”
“Yes,” answered Jeri, cautiously.
“Is that still something you want to do?”
Jeri took a breath… and floated into the air, a professional-- and dangerous smile crossing her lips. “Yes.”
Beck nodded. “I’m heading out, stealing an Upsunder and taking Riker for however long he’s got left-- without my Baudseed Kevin we can’t sneak out, so I’ll probably be noisy. Make a big distraction you can use.”
Crossing her arms in front of her chest, she seemed to regard Beck skeptically. “Just like that? You don’t want anything?”
“ ‘Wasteland survival guide rule #3: trust is built when someone is vulnerable and not taken advantage of.’ I don’t have any reason to want you hurt. We both have our missions. No strings attached, no obligations. No other way to trust each other.”
Jeri narrowed her eyes, but a slim smile crossed her lips. “That’s rather naive… but crudely similar to some of Charlescomm’s business intelligence.”
A quiet moment passed, and Riker coughed, pointing out the not-so-obvious, “If you’re both done planning your suicide runs, I just wanted to point out I finished the tower’s new Occupant Transport Inter-floor System last turn, but it hasn’t been inaugurated yet.”
They both looked at Riker with the kind of blank stares a rank and file Madsense unit would have been proud of… if they could be proud of anything.
Riker sighed, even in his last hours, capable of being offended at his unappreciated genius. “The O.T.I.S. system is a sort of automated scaffolding or scaled up dumbwaiter, it’ll take you to whatever floor you want through a vertical hole in the tower, and since I haven’t given the go-ahead for regular use there’ll be no guards in the way. Instead of sneaking or fighting your way through the tower, you” he pointed at Jeri “could reach the Overlord’s bedchambers with minimal interference, and we all could leave veiled through the airspace. There’s spare flying carpets and improved scouting veils hidden on the top floor.” He grinned wickedly, voice now dripping with irony. “Meant for Chester, to escape another assassination attempt.”
“Oh.” said Beck. “Well, that’s… ah, that’s certainly a better plan than I had in mind.”
Jeri narrowed her eyes at the sight of Riker.
Beck took a step to stand between them. “Easy, he’s on our side. I know, everyone here’s been hurt at the other’s hand. You don’t have to like him-- but we have to trust each other to get out of here.”
The polished, professional visage came over her again, and Beck had the sudden notion she’d been forced into similar situations of fighting beside people she hated before. Her tone, however, was neutral and businesslike, “You have to take him prisoner, or Turn him. If the overlord wakes up, if there’s another heir, or in the unlikely event I fail, he could get remotely ordered to attack.”
He was about to agree, when implications of that hit Beck. He would have argued, but Riker put a hand to his arm. “She’s right. Whatever advantage I could give ordering away units goes away if Spamela spots us, or the Overlord wakes up, or the heir finds you through knowing my location.”
Unable to hold in a frown, Beck said “But if you do, you depop when my turn starts! You’d have barely an hour--”
“--To live, I know.” Sneered Riker, some of his usual archness coming back. “Quit bellyaching. She’s right, and I’m a ditto. I’ve known what it means to put other people’s lives before my own my entire existence. So let me spend what’s left of my time the way I want to-- making sure you’re a little likelier to get out alive. Safe.”
Beck squeezed back, wanting to fight them on this, but ultimately nodded and said softly, “Right, grab what you need, then let's get moving.”
“Riker?” Asked Beck, desperately holding back anxiety that only got worse by every foot they rose.
“Why did you put a glass floor and ceiling in this thing?”
“I thought it would give a nice view. Why?”
“No reason.” Beck forced himself to stop looking down, he had the sneaking suspicion that Riker had made this contraption for the express purpose of inducing the rare combination of claustrophobia and vertigo in occupants.
“I rather like it, almost like flying,” shared Jeri absently, standing instead of floating and smiling faintly, eyes closed and rubbing her temple. She’d said she’d finally managed to get a Thinkagram back to her side.
Beck looked up. It would be another hour before the sun rose and his turn as a Barbarian started. Up above, he could just make out the moon shining down at them.
Really, the view up wasn’t as bad. Almost like looking down a tunnel, and seeing a light at the end of it.
The elevator reached the third highest floor; the Overlord’s suite. Riker pointed at a lever by the wall, which Beck pulled, opening the metallic fencing keeping them inside.
Beck looked to Jeri, not sure whether he was interrupting her call, saying “This is your stop, may the desert spirits guide--”
Jeri opened her eyes and resumed hovering, wearing a very businesslike smile that barely concealed her glee. “Charlescomm would like to offer you a business proposition.”
Overlord Chester Bott’s sleeping chambers were lit by a sickly, green glow.
Above his bed silently floated a Similated Archon, J3R1. She was one of many dittos made of Jeri, and one of the very few that had been successfully Similated.
The reason for her nightlong vigil was simple. Fear.
Not her’s, she was far, far beyond such emotions. It was the Overlord’s fear, at the possibility of becoming victim to another attack like his father had. The voices of the [SPONSORS] seemed to be warning him, in their way, against rebelling like his father had, attempting to block out the holy [WORDS FROM OUR SPONSORS].
They’d bombarded him with visions of croaking and loss, of ‘home invasions’ and horrible tiny Natual Allies called ‘termites’, followed by offers of security and protection and ‘Home Alert Bracelets’. The message was clear, he should remain faithful.
And personally, Chester Bott feared Archons. So much, that having his own as a Similated plaything gave him the first peaceful night’s sleep in tenturns, allowing him the ‘normal’ sleep filled with dreams of something called ‘best assignment help for students’ and teasing dreams telling he may have just won a fortune if he forwarded a letter seven times.
So there floated J3R1, above his bed, watching. A trophy of Madsense’s conquest.
Of Charlescomm’s, the first coalition’s, failure.
She floated sentry, she served as a nightlight.
That resistance was futile.
J3R1 felt nothing for this. Only a hollow obligation to obey. Which was why, when a soft noise of cloth falling to the floor in the next room reached her, she lolled her head that way and floated to the door.
It was a chamber maiddrone; hatless. J3R1 noticed the hat had fallen on the floor behind her, and the maiddrone had dropped the fresh linens, turned around to pick it up from the floor.
The maid was slow and clumsy, but J3R1 felt no urge to go to help her, or chastise her clumsiness. It wasn’t her duty, and she hadn't been ordered to.
But something about that hat seemed…
The softly mumbling maiddrone picked up and put on the hat. Walked back to clumsily pick up the linens, and ambled towards the overlord’s chamber.
Had J3R1 been herself, her true self, Jeri, she might have noticed it was the same hat she'd pilfered not long ago. That the maiddrones usually only came in pairs, after the Overlord had woken for the turn and left his chambers. Or that the maiddrone was, tellingly, mumbling softly, even soothingly rather than brainlessly chattering.
Tragically, even if she had-- she no longer cared. No longer made the critical connections all that was warning of.
J3R1 turned after the maiddrone and floated in after her.
The maiddrone walked up to Overlord Bott’s bed, and for a moment, it seemed as though she was going about her duties. But something unusual did happen when she walked to the head of the bed and touched the pillow. The overlord’s head sank into the pillow beneath it like a ladle into a bowl of soup, only for the pillow to shrink around his head and turn airtight as it constricted like a drawstring bag.
*Threadt count: over 9000!*
The overlord spasmed in his sleep, tearing furiously at the thickly threaded sackcloth in a desperate attempt to breathe.
Successfully finishing her spell, the disguise Veil fell away from Jeri, the real Jeri, who still wore the Maidrone hat.
J3R1 twisted her torso in the air, lolling her limbs around herself like a disjointed puppet. She was readying to fire a Shockmancy burst at Jeri, whom she only clinically understood to have been herself, when the Overlord’s silent Orders came: ‘save him, remove the thick sackcloth around his head keeping him from breathing.’
A normal unit, even a stabber, would have hesitated. Realizing that an active attacker was a more immediate threat to their Ruler than an eventual suffocation. A strong willed, or sufficiently clever unit would have been able to act on their own intuition and ignore the order without having to spend precious seconds rationalizing their action.
J3R1 was no longer any of these. She floated, obediently, over to the Overlord to assist him; unable to carry out the most basic of Charlescomm competencies: prioritizing.
Jeri had not been idle in the tenturns since being captured; she’d observed her corrupted copies, and keenly understood this. She’d thought it darkly ironic, everyone wanted Archon’s for their Specials or pretty bodies, but everyone ignored what made them truly dangerous: their training, which Similation had robbed this ditto of.
Taking to the air, Jeri maneuver above both and with a single Shockmancy blast lit the bedchamber in orange and red, piercing straight through J3R1 and the Overlord’s heads and croaking both in a single blast.
She’d wanted to boast, give a clever one-liner before firing, but that would have been-- unprofessional.
Besides, that wasn’t the important part. She’d done it, for Charlie. Finished the mission for Ryan, and carried out the maneuver Annika had croaked before being able to finish.
She landed and re-veiled as a maiddrone. But before she left the bedchamber, there was one thing she’d do... for herself.
It was surprisingly easy for her to make her way out and up to the roof of the tower disguised as a maiddrone. Despite the many running guards and confusing hallways she’d already memorized.
The hardest part was keeping the grin off her face, as she rubbed a finger against the old Overlord’s coronet, hidden under the pile of linens she was carrying.
She’d send it in to be cashed for Shmuckers… just as soon as she had a good ‘gram of herself wearing it. She could be professional and still have her quirks.
The sky over Flandon, former capital of Puddings, was clearing.
Roe and Aimee walked the rubble strewn courtyard, marshaling the most recent, and so far the meagerest, batch of captured soldiers for Similation.
The pair walked before the head of the line, a stack of Puddings knights that’d been captured while protecting an I.H.O.P. convoy.
Holding a clipboard with all the enthusiasm of a Twoll asked to count to ten, Aimee asked, “ redy 2 go ? ”
Roe refocused his gaze from staring at the ground, having been distracted by his thoughts. “Yes, Aimee, I am ready to proceed. I was just wondering… if they had managed to successfully turn Beck.”
Beside him, Aimee remained just as neutral and toneless as always, but cocked her head a bit to the side before answering. “hpe so gr8 4 raids gud agro ctrl”
He nodded back, finding he also hoped Kerri and Riker had been successful. The letter he’d gotten was maddeningly vague, speaking only of a massive breach of contract. The thought of him being croaked or Similated would of course be a tragedy-- for the side-- but he found himself increasingly bogged down in moments of distraction of what it would mean for him, personally. Losing a friend.
His moments of distraction had been growing alarmingly frequent, lately. He’d started to grow worried the Queen’s spell might have resulted in a middling decrease in his cognitive efficiency.
‘Enough foolishness’, he thought. Roe put on the FLOOD gauntlet onto his arm, and inserted the needle into a vein. “Prepare your stencil to take notes, Aimee, we begin with a level 5 Puddings Kni--”
[--IT SLICES IT DICES AND MAKES A MEAN JULIENNE -- help son please i cant leave -- OFFERS VOID IN NEBRASKA -- dont fight it brother it just hurts more -- LOOKING FOR SINGLES IN YOUR AREA?]
Roe fell to the ground, clutching his head in a pain he’d never imagined, as his eyes flooded with text and images and ears with annoying chirping and insipid jingles that. Would. Not. STOP.
“wtf u overlord now??”
Distantly, Roe realized his raiment had been replaced with an impressive, upscale all silver getup. One befitting an Overlord. How hilarious! It was--
Roe stopped himself. This wasn’t funny. It meant Chester had been croaked. He, the side, might still be in danger. But then, why did he feel like grinning?
He tried to stand, leaning on Aimee’s offered arm and shoulder. “Yyyes-- our old Host-- overlord-- Chet must have croaked-- as I am no longer Chief Warlord, I name you Marching Band Chief-- I mean, Chief Warlady!”
It was just like his father said, the noise was searing, unending, but he could work through it, but why were his words coming out different? This was a joke, a sick joke.
He grinned. “Tiiime for a new round of--”
It was impressive, Chief Warlady Aimee was bombarding him now, too, with silent orders-- but they were completely different than what he’d ever heard from her. A constant stream of ‘stop’, over and over and fast enough to almost-- but not quite-- drown out the [MESSAGES FROM OUR SPONSORS].
“ovlrd clss totes broken u nerfed just like dad n chet they grind but d34d n0w--” Aimee seemed to be struggling with something. Forcing herself to say the words she wanted to say. “Not u2. Dont change plz.”
The [MESSAGES FROM OUR SPONSORS] intensified, breaking through whatever Thinkamancy screen Aimee had been trying to put up. “I can’t stop it, contestant--Aimee! The show must go on, we have so many prizes-- objectives to win! Achieve! I, we--”
“No.” There was a clatter in the courtyard as the clipboard and stencil hit the ground. She grabbed onto his shoulder with one hand and held his face steady with the other, looking up into his eyes from his growing grin with a look of actual anguish fighting through her naturally blank expression. “rage quit” she intoned flatly. “Rage quit” she said again, actually inflecting her voice with concern “Rage quit!” She finally ordered, edges of anger and fear in her voice.
“You-- you really want what’s behind door number 3? We don’t have enough Shmuckers for another heir. Do you understand what that means?”
Roe looked up into the lightening sky. And saw it filled with a seething, infinite mass of translucent rectangles filtering in and out of visibility, offering everything from discount airfare, lucky Samatcha gambling, to something called Brazilian bikini waxing. He pushed through them to another, imaginary box. One every Ruler knew existed, but all feared thinking of, much less activating.
Mentally, he reached out to the ‘Abdicate’ function, and a clean, blue box with the words ‘Are you sure you want to Abdicate Rulerships? Tap Y / N’
Roe screamed-- he laughed-- the [SPONSORS] weren’t playing around. Despite what his father had said about them being remote and aloof-- some things did trigger their attention. And now they were filling his mind to the breaking point it made him--
“Rage. Quit.” repeated Aimee.
--it made him angry!
For the first time in his life, Roe felt, and allowed himself to feel angry at him and his family being manipulated, hurt. He thought ‘Why am I being forced to do this?! I didn’t want to feel this way! This responsibility! This pain! I didn’t ask for it, I just wanted-- was to be himself! Calm, logical!’
In the plaza, he roared, eyes going bloodshot from the intensity and making all the prisoners take a step back. “Crack you, [SPONSORS!], NO DEAL!”
Roe used the rage to push his mental hand through the [SPONSORS] words, feeling them cut into his mind like swords through flesh, felt the ghostly presences of his father and brother, trapped like the afterimages from looking at the sun-- and pushed the Abdicate button. There was no relief though, only confusion as his mind was alerted to something new. The abdicate function now read ‘This choice can not be undone! Please Tap again to confirm Y / N’
Then the [SPONSORS] adapted.
Instead of beaming an incessant, absurd urge to grin and laugh into his mind he felt fear, fear of croaking, disbanding, that he wasn’t angry enough to reach for it a second time-- rage and willpower fading, a small, feminine hand with royal blue and white nail polish appeared in his mind’s eye. It felt warm, and kind, as it wrapped around his, and he felt something else he’d never allowed himself to. Love, and sadness for his lost father, brother, and the protective urge to shield Aimee and Spamela from ever being subjected to this. The small, feminine hand helped give one, last, little push.
Love doesn’t croak, it transforms.
Wind swept by the top of Server Tower minutes before the assassination. It was a full fifteen stories taller than when Madsense was first founded, and now afforded a respectable view of the surrounding desert in twilight.
The musical ‘ding’ of a bell announced the OTIS had arrived at the top floor, though no one was around to notice it. The Botnets were finally roosting, ‘sleeping’ anchored like sea stars to the side of the tower, blanketing it in chitinous black webbing.
Beck lead Riker out, the latter leaning on him so much he could barely stand, and sat him near one of the service closets that Aimee and some of the carpet riding archers used to store their gear.
“Looks clear, now we just wait for Jeri. How are you feeling?”
“Truthfully?” Riker looked up at him, an unusually charming smile crossing his lips.
Riker stood up, only a little bit wobbly from where he’d been leaning against the locke. "Not bad, it was mostly just shock earlier. And I just wanted to be-- to be held.”
Riker laughed softly to himself, and held out his hand for Beck. “Touch isn’t overrated.”
Smiling back with a hint of confusion, Beck took his hand, and Veils and magic carpet in tow, the pair walked to the edge of the building.
“Jeri better hurry, the sun’s about to rise. We should get ready, mount the carpet and--”
“Can we wait a moment, please?”
Beck stopped what he was doing, from the tactical thinking, hearing something deep inside Riker’s voice looking for comfort.
“Yeah, that’s… that’s fine,” answered Beck, both moving to sit near the edge of the building.
Slowly, the horizon started lightening, first to dark purples, then to blues.
“Do you think,” asked Riker, leaning his head against Beck’s shoulder, “that maybe… maybe we could have been something?”
Beck held Riker's hand, it was a little cold. “Maybe we already are.”
Riker laughed, only for it to turn into a sob. “I don’t know… I don’t know what happens next.”
“But, haven’t you depopped before?”
He took a breath, “So did you. Do you remember?”
‘Oh, right,’ Beck thought. He remembered most of his time as Black Beck and White Beck-- with surprising clarity, in fact, even understanding the sheer emotions of Black Beck and the self assured calm reasoning of White Beck. But the depopping itself?
“I just… remember feeling the pain of the shot. Gasping one last time… and then I was me again.”
Nodding, Riker shivered in Beck’s arms. “I never remembered those times either-- just the before. I’ve never even dreamed, and I’m not even r-real, just a copy and I croaked my old ruler and myself and Kerri and Erik are probably going to Hellabad, and that means I--”
In the best use of timing Beck had ever employed on or off the battlefield, he leaned over and kissed Riker. The city filled with trumpets and sirens, signaling Jeri’s success, but neither was hearing it as they shared a kiss full of surprise, sadness, and a perfect mix of tenderness and desperation.
When they parted lips, Beck looked at him through tear stained eyes and fought to keep his voice together, breaking back into that strange echo. “If that happened, I’p qɹǝɐʞ ʎon onʇ ɯʎsǝlɟ˙”
The horizon grew a shade brighter, turning from blues to burgeoning green.
“You idiot,” said Riker, with none of the usual venom. “Promise me. Promise me I’m not going to be your ‘Percy Bishy-onen’, and you aren’t going to be my ‘Shelley,’ forever stuck on me.”
Beck could only smile self-pityingly. “I don’t know that that’ll happen. Who’d ever want to--”
Riker laughed. “I do.” And kept laughing, as the warming wind swept by, as the sirens blaring faded away far below.
Laughing in the wind. “Yeah” thought Beck out loud, starting to laugh now too. “You really did. And so do I. I love you.”
As the sun crested the horizon a small wisp of vapor was carried away by the wind, a tiny cloud in a breathtakingly clear sky.
Jeri arrived floating up the OTIS shaft, putting on her standard Archon cap, to find Beck, hugging empty air and slowly, slowly lowering his arms and winding down a laugh.
She floated over to Beck, she’d let her face go from professionally neutral into a slight, compassionate frown. Not because of her training, ironically, but because her common sense and decency told her a professional smile... wouldn’t be professional. “It’s time.”
Beck swallowed, wiped away a few tears and nodded. He stood, and walked with her away from the ledge, standing on the flying carpet. “I know, when will...?”
He never got to finish the question. Jeri raised a hand to his face and pressed down on the top button of the MACE canister for three seconds.
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?
Poor Riker. Dittomancy is some pretty screwed up magic.
Really liked Roe and Aimee's scene. The Queen's Hippiemancy worked pretty well!
I wonder what will actually happen to their cities now though - does the usual "side falls, cities turn neutral" apply when the cities are all capitals? Is it possible for a commander unit in those cities to claim it for themselves?
If they do turn neutral, and the city is left ignored for thousands of turns by sides who don't want the similating hordes released, Roe could tell the first people who enter the city, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe..."
Also... did Jeri just MACE herself? If Barbarian turn just started, she'd need him to carry her out of the hex, wouldn't she? Probably better for her if it's because she's unconscious than because she's his prisoner. Or, would her turn start if she used it on Beck, and he was the one who was unconscious?
@Free Radical: I didn't want to editorialize in the story itself, but vanilla Dittomancy is pretty horrific if you think about it. You are creating someone that thinks, feels, lives just like the original... and he or she dies at the end of a day (At least Croakamancy has the decency of making unthinking units) . Less, more often. Sure, no one so far has batted an eye, and the dittoes we've seen in canon seem happy to serve, but that still implies everyone involved doesn't think they're people, or thinks their lives aren't worth as much as the original just because they will depop at the end of the turn, and there's an "original". That's basically what Galactus says before eating a planet "What do these brief, meaningless lives matter? Trillions of beings across the universe are similar enough!"
There's a lot of doublethink involved. Ditto!Slately waved off the fact his ditto died, literally, waved it off, until he was told he was the ditto did the reality sink in.
On the cities: yes, but I'm taking a page from Omnimancer's Blast from the Past in terms of there having to be non-aligned units present for "time" to pass and them not being frozen. There's enough Madsense commanders in other cities that this may (have) happened, and if not, means any attack on a neutral capital risks it turning into a brand new side like a deadly germ.
And on the MACE issue, I added some language to clarify: Jeri maced Beck. I didn't mention it earlier (might add that in an edit) but he had "allied" with Charlescomm so all could take turn at once and leave together, though in a pinch Jeri can veil the two and wait, then leave once Madsense loses turn from the abdication and/or Charlescomm turns starts.
@Salvage: Thanks! Sort of. I sometimes cry when killing off my characters. This was one of those times.
Hey, even people / sides who should know better get tricked by Charlie. It hurt to write, but Beck doesn't have enough experience with them to know better.