Voyage of the (Air)spacemen! Part 3 (Ending)

Julia put down her hat and looked outside. This wasn't rainy hex, but a sunny, beach one; they should be just fine. Somehow, it reminded her of Faranco's beaches; the difference was, while Faranco's beach hexes were well walked and swam at, this hex was almost untouched by the race of Man. Feral danger was not a stranger here. She croaked all the ferals she could, she gave Random one of Zanna's hats, food supplies, tent and modified signaller. She did her best to make it easier for Random to survive on the island but still... sometimes, you just have to let the Fate decide and Julia reluctantly made that choice.  There was nothing more Julia could do for Random and Zeph... or so she tried to convince herself.

Well, it was a good hat, one of the best Zanna was able to salvage and modify to their needs, some turns ago. Those were both interesting and terrifying turns, at least until Julia discovered a system hidden in madness. Blue ribbons on hats with gold edges and writing - bad, unless the hat itself was blue. Any other colour, don't touch it. Green ribbons - good, unless the hat was blue, then it was incapacitation. There were other combinations... so many, in fact, that king Rodge thought it was a good way to test Fate and get rid of Julia Avernes for good. And it almost worked... Julia got blinded for a turn, got numb, went insane for two turns... but she also temporarily got thinkamancy special, could see veiled units and could, once, even move things just by thinking hard at them, for the whole two turns until the hat ran out and crumbled.

She never met the man who made those hats; from stories she heard about him, Jarvis Teach was a genius hat magician before that fateful turn when he withdrew himself to his spacious quarters and never got out. He went frantic, making hats one after another. Vaterheim and Maury preferred the word "inspired" although Julia judged the description of Teach's behaviour as compulsive and slightly mad. His hats got him disbanded in the end, because he made sort of turnamancy hats: every unit that put them on got directly under hat magician's control and was loyal only to him. They walked and fought as if in a daze and could not be disbanded; only once Jarvis Teach himself was disbanded, those units returned to normal.

By the time that happened, Jarvis had made three hundred and fifty four finished hats and twenty six duds. After a few mishaps, his quarters were sealed, until that one fateful turn when king Rodge decided to sell those hats just laying around and get rid of one dittomancy dupe that won't decay in the hat testing process as an added bonus. There were no buyers for those "hats in the bags"; no one would buy a hat that they didn't know what exactly it does.
In the end, they tried to find expert Hat Magician to buy them. That failed too. Nobody wanted those hats for turns and turns, the testing continued, until one day, Zanna "Raz" Tara, a novice Hat Magician, just walked through Albatross portal and got herself captured. According to her, she just wanted to sell them some hats as a part of trading campaign for some far away side called Healaid, which paid her to make hats so they could sell healomancy scrolls from far away.

"Yeah right." said King Rodge, after long, long torture session. "And my crown is made of cheese. Wanna slice?" Yet, Zanna remained adamant that selling hats was exactly what she wanted to do and to please test the hat she walked in with. Her request was denied, of course.
Yet Julia, who was sewing in the cell nearby, got curious. Nothing much happened in the dungeons anyway, having a cosufferer to talk with was no small thing, even if that person was a barely level two barbarian hat magician. They talked for the rest of the turn and a good chunk of the next turn and, long story short, after many hijinks next evening, Zanna ended up locked in Teach's quarters with Julia, with no way out or in. Well, not really. The guards broke the door eventually, to get them out and back into the dungeons, but Raz and Julia found the hat sorting system by then. After that, it was easy.

This turn, Raz was one of the "well off" hat magicians, selling modified surplus hats for both Albatross and Healaid, as a free caster. After that stand off in the hat room, not surprising. 'I should probably send her a message, it is a long time since we last hatted.' Julia thought. Then she remembered more about that far off turn when she gained a friend.

Julia got punished, of course. Back to the dungeon, of course, not to see the light of the day until Chief Caster Vaterheim let her out; the escape was at night, so she didn't see the sun then. She shivered upon memory and turned away from the window. There was lot of work to be done before hatting, some batteries to fill, some plans to make.

***

 "Saber's Rangers, Charlie will now take direct navigational control." Haru said.

"Acknowledged, Haru." they replied, as one.
"Navigational control, mine. Challenge formation one. Head on up, move on out. Power levels fly, get ready to fry the unfriendly sky." they heard Charlie's voice. They got +1 of his leadership, but the leadership wasn't the main advantage of direct navigational control. No... it was something else. When Charlie took it, they were coordinated (and felt) like the fingers of an angry Titan, smiting left and right. And it was glorious!

By the end of that hour, the skies were not unfriendly any more and Charlie's archons were completely drained of their juice. He worked them hard and they all felt almost too tired to fly; it came as a huge relief when Charlie finally removed his direct control and was silent. Instead, Delta took over once again, her voice as calm and professional as always.

"Prepare to bivouac in open field. Follow regular procedures, set up camp in the next hex over, careful use of supplies. No extra usage as a reward for mission completion; you'll need them to last five turns from now. Briefing tomorrow at dawn." they heard her say.

"Acknowledged." Haru said.
"Good luck. Over and out." Delta replied.

As tired as they were, setting up the camp was hard work for Saber's Rangers. If it weren't rainy hex it wouldn't have been wet work; by the time they finally finished they were drenched to their underwear and beyond. They were too tired to consume any supplies or play games for watch duty; instead, Haru Ka-tet set up her etsy to act as a guard (an extremely rare occurrence in itself) and they all went to sleep together, using their bodies for shared warmth, which was even rarer.  They were tired, cold and hungry, but it was worth it for they were the best and Charlie loved them the most of all archons in Charlescomm. More than Fox Force Five, sometimes, because this team was the one Fox Forcers were traditionally taken from. In the fullness of time, one of them was going to become Fox Forcer and whether it was Haru, Michi, Tenou or Rukia, it didn't matter. What mattered was that they all did their best and were excellent to each other.

***
It was hard and wet work setting up the camp and tent and by the time they were finished, Zeph was drenched to the core. And once they finally finished, they couldn't stay; they had to go out again and claim all the supplies of ferals the ship had croaked. By the time THAT was over, they were both wet to the core,  Random was too tired to walk and Zeph had to help her get her wet uniform off, because she was unfamiliar with design. Even with  Dollamancer's improvements, the poncho was never meant for such a heavy rainfall.

Half naked, wet and shivering, Random started the fire in the middle of the tent, under the chimney hole. Zeph watched her work, fascinated, as little courtier put the kettle on and made tea, before serving her a cuppa, with almost stale raisin cookies.

"You kept your promise." Zeph said, feeling wet, hungry and miserable but grateful for the cup of tea in her hands.
"I try to keep all my promises." Random said and her eyes sparkled oddly. "Thank you for helping me out! I thought you were going to escape for a few seconds"

"Don't say that." Zeph said then covered her mouth with her right hand. It just got out.

"Ok then. Wanna hunker down for a night? I have sleeping bags! And nightie and jammies and other clothes and all sorts of items in this bag. " Random said, excitedly. She took the ghastly nightie Zeph was forced to wear on the ship and shown it to her. Zeph dismissively waved it away, so Random put it on; it fit perfectly and revealed almost everything under, because Random's underwear was still wet from that horrible rain.

"Why do you wear... that?" Zeph asked, aghast.

"Because it's mine and I like it, of course." Random replied. "But I think these are more your style." She said and passed her pyjamas of Charlescomm blue colour but designed for male unit. And some fresh dry underwear.

"You are correct. But I'm surprised you would let some prisoner wear your clothes." Zeph said then unselfconsciously removed her own uniform and the rest of the wet underwear. She put the replacement on more slowly, though, after Random said:

"Some archon, not just your average prisoner! Now the clothes have some of your smell too. And were your clothes for three turns. The thought of it makes my heart warm."

"You're such a creeper weirdo. You know that?" Zeph said with a smile, intentionally putting the undershirt which didn't cover half of her bottom and top of the pyjamas first then panties and lower part of pj second, which was definitely not the way she normally put her clothes on. "Romantic creeper, maybe, but still a creeper. And you have advantage over me there. You saw me naked. I didn't see you naked." Random gave her a happy little smile in return and looked like she might wink at her any second.

Zeph took Random's fake Charlescomm uniform and her own real one and underwear and strategically hung them around the fire to dry.

"Payback time. Get that underwear off, it needs to dry. Then put some thicker one on, I don't want you catching cold at this miserable island." Zeph said then crossed her arms, giving Random stern look.

"Uuuh, creepy authoritative look. I like it." Random smiled again and did as she was told, slower than was strictly necessary and clumsily fumbling with panties, making her turn around and giving Zeph a good look all over, which WAS completely unnecessary. That nightie she was soon wearing again left very little to imagination.

"So, what do you want to do now?" Random asked after she sat down by the fire, opposite her again, her voice dreamy. It was mostly fake, though, teasing.

"Find out what else you have in that bag before leaving you alone on this island, forever, of course." Zeph said, then sat by the fire herself, next to Random as opposed to on the other side of it, as were their starting positions. "Starting with that map you've shown me when we landed and used while we claimed rations. What is it and how does it work?"

Random gave her a sigh. Then upended the sack and sorted items. Food, clothes, signaller ammo, 2 signallers, rations... a map and a wooden chest.

"It's called Maury-Vater's map." She said as she took the map and unrolled it. "With the help of watchlufts in place above islands, it shows every creature worth more than 10 schmuckers on the island. This is how you use it. You press this drawn circle that says 'ping' and it shows you current positions. It's Lookamancy /changemancy item or something. It shows sapient units better, their full stats sometimes, but ferals are only dots. You have 10 pings per turn, then it needs to recharge. One ping records movement for a minute. "

Zeph watched as Dent took the map and pressed "Ping". The hexes of the island glowed in blue and green and red colors, before showing the units and rations and rivers and streams, even whether the hex was rainy or not. There was a lot of claimed rations and rain in this hex and hexes around it, but some of the other hexes were sunny. No enemy units, one prisoner and one courtier, their full hp points showing and even their juice levels. And two live ferals, one hex to the left and one hex to the right. One was munching on some unclaimed rations, diminishing them. The other was either sneaking or sleeping, because it didn't move during that minute.

"We will need to take down those ferals tomorrow. We won't be safe otherwise." Dent said, zooming on the one munching on the rations by choosing the hex and moving her hands in thinkagraming motion on the map. It had shown details of the hex but not much of the feral.

"I could take them both down if only you would set me free." Zeph joked. Random gave her a nervous laugh.

"Can't do that. I live as long as the sack lasts. I'm well aware of that." she replied solemnly.

"Really?" Zeph said, suddenly serious. "Your sack of wonders, buying you turn after turn as you show me items? Is that it? You think that I would croak you when I break free?"

"Doesn't matter if you do it or not. My king has no need for units in the middle of nowhere. Especially not for a courtier far away from people, so far away from nobles to curtsy to, just wasting their upkeep, useless. The moment you leave, my usefulness ends." Random said. The tone was so at odds with her usual cheeriness that it made Zeph pause. Even her anger would have been better, there was fire in it. This current voice was deep and dark and flat. "I can imagine it. You leave, you escape without taking the items or not taking them all... Then I receive a thinkagram and an order, to put the rest of the items in the hat and send them home. I do it, starting with the map and tea set and clothes then finally tent. He orders me to get naked and send my clothes home, for why waste good clothes on the unit you will disband? Then I'm gone. Poof."

"You watched it happen before?" Zeph said, quietly, frost creeping on her spine. Tent seemed darker all of a sudden.

"Yes. King Rodge is not a merciful man. He is not prone to weakness of heart or lapses of judgement. Not when it comes to schmuckers." Random said, tears welling in her eyes."Seven more turns, with rations. That's how long I can keep you here, at most, before the cost becomes too high and I get disbanded. Seven magical items in a bag to show you then... Then you're free, one way or another. You either turn or escape, but it won't matter. We're too far from home."

"Julia promised she will return for you. She promised!" Zeph said, suddenly angry.

"She is on a very dangerous mission. Even if she could return after finishing it, we're too far away. Too many dangerous things in the way. I am not worth enough for the return trip. Seven turns is not long enough." Random said and it sounded bitter, with bitter tears flowing down her face openly now. "So I might as well show you how to use the things in the sack. In the long run, it doesn't matter."

"You were her lover." Zeph said, with certain clarity. "You shared bed with Julia. And she is cruel to strand you here."

"I was her lady-in-waiting. I was her handmaiden. It was my job to please her, to make her happy in any way she needed it, to make sure she finished the job in front of her." Random replied.  "And this is not her cruelty. This is Julia Avernes being kind."

"How?! How can this be kindness? Being stranded in the middle of nowhere and left to be disbanded?!" Zeph said, her anger boiling over. Random gave her a brave little smile, even more precious because it came through tears.

"Because I'm stranded here with you." Random said. "I've risked everything to save you from croaking. I spoke for capture of all three archons in the council, even though I have no voice in there and got a severe reprimand for interrupting the important people. I shot the web instead of shockamancy bolt at you, despite direct order from Captain Partupass... Do you know what would have been cruel, real cruelty, Zephyr? If they executed you on the ship while I watched then disbanded me as a punishment."

"Wow. Albatross sounds like a really messed up side. No way am I turning to it." Zeph said after couple dozen seconds of silence, more honestly than she intended. The talk made her deeply uncomfortable and made her shiver, despite sitting close to the fire. Zeph rubbed her forearms to warm them then changed the subject. "May I have the map for a few minutes?"

"Sure, why not? You might as well start planning your escape now." Random said, giving it to her then went to mess around the tent, putting the sleeping bags on the ground, cleaning the cup and kettle in the rain and other little things which are needed to keep the camp tidy.
Zeph ignored her, focusing on the map. There was "Ping" circle. It made map current. But there was also a "List" circle. Zeph touched it. It opened 4 further circles: Watchlufts, Back, Records and Connections. She touched records. It had shown a list of six items with only "Back" circle remaining. She touched the first item on the list, because there was nothing else to do and they were the different colour. The pinging repeated; it was remembered ping of 5 minutes ago. The back circle made her return to the list. The other items were records of previous pings of the island. She backed more and tried Watchlufts this time.