Mind Warriors #3: Battles
Chapter One

We weren't even given the chance to walk down the transfer slip's ramp before the New Dawn people showed up. New Dawn was the world we were supposed to leave the kids on to keep them safe until the Amalgamation was all squared away, but our people on New Dawn had a problem. One of the big generators keeping the trained Primes in stasis was giving them trouble, and if the generator went down we'd be knee deep in male Primes who expected to be better than everyone else - and who were ready to prove the contention.

"Matt, you have no idea how glad we are to see you and your team right now," one of the three men in our welcoming group said as he stepped out in front of the other two. "If that generator goes down we'll need every one of you."

"And we'll be glad to help out, Warner," Matt said as he led the way down the ramp, smiling at the man he obviously knew. Matt's friend Warner was average size with brown hair and mild brown eyes, but Mattlin Bodis didn't look the same. Matt had dark red hair and gray eyes, and was a lot bigger than just average.

"And we might even be able to do more than just back up your guards," Matt added as he stopped in front of his friend Warner. "Some of my team are really good with the kind of equipment you're having trouble with, so they're going to take a look - if you don't mind."

"Mind?" Warner echoed with the sound and look of ridicule, some of the worry in his dark eyes easing just a bit. "New pairs of eyes and minds could be just what we need. Which ones are they?"

Matt turned and gestured to one of the team and then turned back to Warner.

"This is Kestin Laros, Warner, and he's the one who will be taking the closest look," Matt said when Kestin stepped out of our crowd and over to the conversation. "Kestin, this is Warner Kates, an old friend of mine, so let's see if you can solve his problem for him."

"We'll give it our best shot," Kestin promised with a smile, then turned to gesture closer two others of the team. "Lorn and Voria have offered to help me, so why don't we get right to looking at the generator."

Warner thought that that was a great idea, and he had one of his two associates take Kestin and the others toward the building we'd landed in front of. Once those four were out of the way Warner turned back to Matt with an expression that said he was probably going to start talking about old times, but he never got the first word out. Matt had glanced at me where I stood only a few feet away from him, and my expression was one he understood at once.

"No, don't tell me," Matt said, the words almost a growl. "Not here too."

"It seems to be more a matter of 'here especially,'" I answered, hating what I'd found. "There are three conditioned slaves in this area alone, and I can detect two blank spots inside the building not very far away. But this time it's a safe bet we know what they're after."

"The Primes in stasis," Matt said with a grim nod, coming to the same conclusion I already had. "Which means Kestin and the others need to keep their eyes open and their shields closed. Hilman, run and catch up to them and give them the word."

"Right away, Matt," Hilman answered, then took off at a run after his three teammates. Everyone on the team knew what was involved, and also knew it would be worth lives if we got sloppy.

"Matt, what's going on?" Warner asked, his good mood gone again with worry back in place. "What did your team member mean about 'conditioned slaves?' And what are blank spots?"

"It seems we have a dedicated enemy, Warner," Matt said to his friend, the grimness still with him. "The enemy is really strong and intends to take over the Amalgamation alone, and toward that end he or she has been conditioning people to do certain jobs designed to wreck our efforts. Jilin here can detect that conditioning, but even she can't undo it. We've been … eliminating those slaves wherever we find them."

"Just killing them?" Warner gasped out, obviously so shocked that he forgot about his other question. "But if they're working unwillingly, killing them is cold-blooded murder! Rounding them up is a much better idea, to question them if for no other reason. After that we can just keep them locked up."

"Questioning them is a waste of time," I said before Matt could react to his friend's distress. "Most of them don't know anything that would help us, and even so they're primed to die automatically if they're caught. One touch to their minds and they're gone, something we learned back on Central with the first of them we found."

"And they may be slaves, but that doesn't make them the innocent victims you seem to be picturing," Matt said to Warner, drawing the painful gaze the man had fastened to me. "We don't have all the kids we were assigned to pick up because one of those slaves forced a group of crèche workers to attack the kids. More than half the kids were dead by the time we reached the crèche, their heads beaten in by - "

"Please, Matt, stop!" Warner protested with one hand raised, his face so pale it was a wonder the man hadn't fainted. "Isn't there anything anyone can do besides kill? Why do there always have to be so many dead bodies as a tribute to ambition?"

"One of the reasons there are so many bodies is people like you," I said, riding over Matt's attempt to soothe the other man. "You and those like you aren't capable of understanding that one death at the right time can save dozens if not hundreds of lives later, maybe even more. You abhor the idea of killing, apparently being too thick to understand that your enemy doesn't feel the same, so you try to be 'kind.' Kindness at the wrong time is often worse than armed attack, and - "

"All right, Jilin, that's enough," Matt said while his white-faced friend stared at me. "The human race needs people who abhor killing, just not at a time like this. I think Warner will understand why we're in charge of this effort rather than him, and because of that will help us all he can. Warner… We can't afford to let the conditioned slaves run around loose, and as Jilin said, locking them up will kill them just as certainly as shooting them in the head. We're going to do what we have to, and then we'll comb through the rest of your people to make sure we aren't missing anyone. Are you able to accept all that?"

"Accept it, no," Warner said, now looking drawn as well as pale. "I'm just sorry that you can accept it, but that doesn't mean I plan to stand in your way. We all do what we must."

Matt smiled without humor and put a hand on his friend's shoulder, then looked at me and nodded. When three people scattered around in the small crowd that had formed at our arrival suddenly fell over, the people around them cried out and tried to help the three. But those three were already dead, and it didn't take much effort to breach the protection of those inside the building. The two conditioned slaves went down as soundlessly as the first three, and for the moment that was that.

"The three out here had active minds, but the two inside didn't," I said, more for Warner's benefit than for Matt's. "Just exactly how many people do you have here, and when can you get them together for me to examine?"

"I'm … not exactly sure how many people we have here," Warner said, having turned to stare at one of the bodies I'd made. "Over a hundred, certainly, most with active minds, and that doesn't count the Primes we've been trying to work with. A number of the male Primes were eager to be freed from captivity, but the rest… Resentful is too mild a word for their attitude."

"I'm not surprised that they're resentful," Matt said, obviously joining Warner in changing a painful subject. "When the Amalgamation people ran this place the male Primes were treated as if they were more than special, but that ended once we took over. I take it you're having trouble getting them to accept their new reality."

"They think they ought to be in charge of things, and that despite the fact that our people are stronger than they are," Warner answered with a weary sigh. "They consider our greater strength a 'trick' of some kind, one we refuse to share with them. A number of them are slowly being brought around to a point of reason, but the core group flatly refuses to cooperate."

"We'll see if we can help out with them before we leave, but there's something else we need to consider right now," Matt said, having grown thoughtful. "Before we bring down the kids on our transport, I want to be certain that the area where they'll stay is free of puppets. Jilin, take half the team back into the slip and have it jump you over to the area where the kids are being kept. We need to have that area cleared before we worry about this one."

I nodded to show I agreed with him, so he lost no time in dividing the team. Hall, Reoli, and Tanial were among those assigned to me, but Vennias, of course, wasn't. Matt and I still didn't agree where the big Rimilian was concerned, but that was an argument we would continue at another time. Right now we had more important matters to take care of.

It was only a couple of minutes before our half of the team went back inside the transfer slip to find seats. The "jump" itself would take no longer, but Tanial still sat down next to me and put a hand to my arm.

"Jilin, I've been thinking about how you can detect the puppets and we can't," she began in a partially distracted way, Hall and Reoli starting to listen as soon as they heard her opening words. "Do you remember how you merged minds with us to show us how to hit that moving target we were having trouble with? Do you think we might learn to spot a puppet if you merged minds with us again?"

"The webwork in a puppet's mind might be too small for the rest of you to perceive, but there's no reason not to try," I answered slowly as I considered her suggestion. "If the tactic works we'll be in a much better position - and now that we're here we'll be able to give it a try."

The transfer slip had just hopped over to the group of buildings only a short distance from the first, and as the exit opened we could see the ramp already extending toward the ground. The rest of our half of the team was already standing up and heading for the exit, so we joined them. As we walked Tanial explained to the others what we were going to try to do, and a ripple of excitement ran through their minds. If I'd been in a better mood I would have appreciated their eagerness more, but as it was…

"Jilin, what's involved in this mind-merging business?" Hall asked from my right as we moved toward the exit. "Somehow I managed to miss it the first time."

I only glanced at him as we walked, remembering that Hall had been wrapped up in some personal problem - and in his cabin - the time I'd merged with the others.

"The procedure isn't very involved," I answered, moving out onto the ramp with him. "If you drop your shield or curtain, I can take your perceptions along with mine when I look at or do something. That makes you a part of my effort, so to speak, and lets you see more clearly what that effort ought to be. If this time works as well as the last, you and the others will be able to see the webwork in the minds of the puppets just the way I can."

He nodded in a thoughtful way, and then gave his attention to the woman leading the small group that was approaching the slip. The air around us was warm and pleasant, especially after our recent trip on the transport, but heavier clouds seemed to be moving into the area. There was a good chance it would be raining by dark, and -

"Welcome to New Dawn," the woman said as she stopped a few feet away, her smile as warm as those on the people behind her. "You're doubly welcome because of the … cargo, shall we say, that you bring? Why aren't the children coming out yet?"

She and the others were eagerly looking at the lock, some of them chuckling over the woman's comment about cargo, and if I hadn't been so angry I would have been sick to my stomach. The woman and one of the other four people behind her were both puppets, and the farther out my mind moved, the more of them I could detect.

Which left me only one thing to do. I dropped my curtain and reached for the minds of the team, all of whom were calmly waiting to be merged with me. Even Hall had dropped his curtain, and when I drew all those other minds to mine I showed them the two minds in front of us before reaching out to end them. I then spread out as far as I could go through the facility, touching the minds of other puppets and even breaching the protection of a headband here and there.

And strangely enough, spreading out was a lot easier than it had ever been before. This whole area of the facility was completely open to me, and the effort of touching all those minds was suddenly easier as well. I swept my perceptions through the area a second time, finding two more minds that I'd missed the first time, and then there were no puppets left.

"… going on here?" another woman was demanding wildly as she bent over one of the fallen in front of us. "Are you people doing this? I can feel you doing something, and you have to stop it right now! Stop it, I say!"

"It's all done," I told the woman even as I released the minds of the team. "You were infiltrated without knowing it, but I think we got them all. We have an enemy out there somewhere, and that enemy would rather see the kids dead than safely with us. I don't know what the puppets he or she sent among you would have done to or with the kids, but whatever they intended it won't be happening now. Is everyone all right?"

My last question was directed toward the team, most of whom seemed almost in shock. Tanial was still pulling herself together, so Hall got his comments in first.

"That was the most incredible thing I ever experienced," Hall said, one hand to his head. "The compulsions in their minds… Now I know why you call it webwork. It does look like the work of a spider, and I may even be able to see the web on my own from now on."

"I could see it too," Tanial put in, some of the others nodding their own agreement from behind and around her. "I even saw how you shorted out the circuit on those headbands, but I don't know if I could do the same even close up. You seemed to be doing something that's beyond me."

"Beyond you for right now," I corrected, reminding her that I'd had a lot more practice than she'd had. "You'll reach the point of being able to do the same, and when you can you'll already know how. Let's take a walk around this place and make sure we got them all."

People were running out and screaming for help from the various buildings around the landing area, adding to the turmoil that already roiled around out here. There were a couple of buildings that looked to be administrative, one that was apparently a comfortable barracks for guards, and one very large residence building. The kids had a few floors of the residence building, most of them grouped by age.

I went over the residence building floor by floor, and it turned out to be a good thing I did. There was someone hiding in a back closet who was holding himself so still that he'd all but stopped thinking. If he'd been shielding I would have noticed him sooner, but without a shield - or a headband - there had been nothing to make me suspicious. But even without anxiety on his part the webwork was clear, and it turned out that I wasn't the only one to spot him.

"There's a puppet somewhere around here," Hall said to me in a soft voice not long after I'd spotted the man in hiding. "Toward the back of this floor, but I can't pin him down to an exact location."

"He's in a closet at the very end of this corridor, over to the right," I supplied with a glance for Hall. "If you had my range you would have seen that for yourself, but you did spot him, which is the important part."

"Before that mind-merge I would have missed him completely," Hall said, more satisfied by the accomplishment than with my praise. "I must be more ready to grow than I'd thought. I also think I can touch him from here."

"Then give it a try," I offered, more than tired of putting down the helpless. "If it wasn't so dangerous to leave any of them in a position where they can make trouble…"

"I know," Hall said when I just let the words trail off, his big hand coming to my shoulder. There was also a look of compassion in his blue eyes, a sharing of weariness that I could almost feel through his curtain. "Executions aren't my style either, but until now you've been doing it all yourself. If I share the load when I can it might be a little easier for you."

I smiled to show that I appreciated the idea, but the smile wasn't the best I'd ever managed. Hall ignored the feebleness of my attempt, though, and turned his attention to the hidden enemy. He had to drop his curtain to reach the man in the closet, but a moment later the man was dead.

After that we looked around even more carefully, but there weren't any other puppets hiding out in the building. We spent a short while calming the kids, telling them that we weren't going to let anyone hurt them no matter what we had to do to keep them safe. Most of the kids seemed to feel safer in spite of the fact that some of the puppets had died not far from them, but some few of those kids would need help to get over the trauma.

"The ones most afraid are the very gentle ones," Tanial said as we left the residence building, heading for the barracks next. "I agree with Matt that the human race needs people who don't kill as easily as we do, but I can't help feeling that being so sensitive is very much counter-survival. Just the way killing at the drop of a hat is the same."

"Those are the two extremes," I agreed, glancing around as we walked. The bodies I'd made were being gathered up for disposal, and some of the people doing the gathering were crying. "Even if killing people doesn't bother you, you ought to have enough self control to keep from doing it just because you want to. Some people need to kill because of what was done to them as kids, but that's a different matter entirely."

"Yes, they don't have the self control to override the need," Tanial said with a distracted nod, then she changed the subject. "I didn't pick up what Hall did, and I think it's because Hall is stronger than I am. If we happen to find another puppet hiding in this building or the next, can we see how close the rest of us have to be in order to notice him or her? I think we all need to learn as quickly as possible how to spot those puppets."

"And I think you're right," I said, slowing as we reached the entrance to the barracks. "There is one hiding in here, so let's see how long it takes you guys to find him."

"Hold on, wait right there!" a deep voice ordered from behind us, making us all turn. A big man dressed like one of the guards - only slightly different - was striding toward us from the residence building, his broad face wearing a look of more than annoyance. His hair was a dark blond and his eyes were green. He also had about twenty armed men and women behind him, and none of them looked any happier than he did. He strode up to us where we stood, and his expression wasn't very friendly.

"I'm Riddian Forbes, head of security for this area," the big man stated, glaring around at our group. "I tried to catch up to you in the residence building, but you were moving too fast. Before I have you all arrested I want to know why I have all those bodies on the ground."

"You should have been filled in by the people we told," I said, drawing that very green stare almost immediately. "Your facility has been infiltrated by the puppets of an enemy, an enemy who's stronger than we are and who makes a practice of using compulsions to take over his or her dupes. The people taken over have no will of their own and will do whatever they've been ordered to do. We lost more than half of the kids in one crèche because one of the enemy's puppets compelled the staff to try killing all the little ones rather than letting us take the kids. I don't intend to let that happen a second time."

"We don't intend to let that happen a second time," Hall said, standing very close to me on my right. "We're sorry as hell that we can't save those puppets instead, but freeing them is beyond us right now."

"Then why didn't you ask me to arrest them?" the big man called Riddian Forbes pressed, a frown showing how unhappy he still was. "No matter how good a reason you think you have, you can't go around just killing people."

"Actually, we didn't kill them," I said, drawing that green gaze again. "The enemy doesn't want his or her dupes falling into our hands, so the smallest touch on a puppet's mind is set to make that puppet dead. If you want to be technical, all we did was touch their minds."

"Something I would have done myself during questioning," Forbes muttered, almost to himself, then he raised his voice. "Why wasn't I warned about this? Don't our people on Central know about it yet?"

"Central was where we first found out about these people," Hall said, taking his turn again. "If you haven't been warned, it could be that the information was received but kept from you. The enemy likes to put his or her people in key places."

"And now, if you don't mind, we'd like to get on with the job," I said, in no mood to just stand around chatting. "Once we get this part of the facility cleaned up, we have to go back to the other part and do the same thing there. I only took down five over there because we all decided it was more important to get this area cleared first."

"Because the kids are here," Forbes said with a distracted nod, obviously thinking about what he'd heard. "Yes, I can understand that, but this time we'll be going with you. And I want to know how you people spot the ones you call dupes or puppets."

"Jilin's the one who does the spotting, but she's able to show the rest of us how it's done," Tanial put in from my left. "If you and your people also want to learn you'll have to drop your shields."

"If this is Jilin, she isn't very strong," Forbes commented, studying me while speaking to Tanial. "Does that mean spotting the puppets takes more … ability of some kind than strength?"

Forbes had dropped his shield as he spoke, and now studied me with his mind as well as his eyes. The man's stare was very direct, an attitude that suggested he wasn't in the least shy.

"You're not perceiving Jilin's mind directly," Hall supplied with a very faint smile. "She's using a curtain just the way I am, since a curtain is easier to look out of than a shield. And you're not exactly a weakling yourself, Forbes."

The big blonde matched Hall's faint smile, acknowledging the observation rather than commenting. Riddian Forbes was a stronger Prime than Hall, which made him one of the strongest minds I'd come across. But his silence was also a waiting one, so I gave him what he was waiting for and dropped my curtain.

"Wow," Forbes stated rather than exclaimed, looking down at me with intensified interest. "No wonder Jilin can do what she does. And how did you get to be that strong, Jilin?"

"Practice," I counter-stated, for some reason feeling the urge to smile. "But we really don't have the time for this. If you'll tell your people to drop their shields we can get on with what we're here for."

"Taking care of business first is always a good idea," Forbes said, a gleam in those green eyes before he turned to the group behind him. "All right, all of you drop your shields right now."

All the shields came down by twos and threes - all of them but one. That individual was at the back of the group, in a position where leaving the group would be really easy. At first there was nothing to mark the man, but once the rest of the shields were down…

"I said all shields down," Forbes ordered, joining the rest of his people in staring at the lone exception. "And I don't recognize you. Drop that shield and give me your name."

"Grab him!" I barked when it became perfectly clear that the man would run rather than obey the orders he'd been given. One drawback of military-like training is that the people who have had the training will often take orders from those who don't really have the right to give orders. If you speak with enough authority you'll be obeyed, which is just what happened. Two of the people near the man grabbed his arms before he could take off, and when it became perfectly clear that escape was impossible the inevitable happened.

"Well, that's the end of him," Hall said as soon as the man sagged in the grip of the two guards holding onto him. "Arresting them doesn't trigger the death reflex, but knowing they won't be released again does. He's gone, Forbes, without anyone having touched him."

Forbes was busy cursing under his breath while one of the two who had stopped the man bent to check the downed man's pulse. When the one doing the checking looked up and shook his head, the cursing turned momentarily inaudible.

"… among my own people!" Forbes fumed after a moment, finally speaking aloud again. "So far there are almost a dozen dead, and you're not even through looking at everyone. If there are this many here, you must have been knee deep in them on Central."

"Person for person, there were a lot fewer of them on Central," Hall answered, looking away from the body with a shake of his head. "It's likely there are more here on New Dawn because both the kids and the Primes in stasis are being kept here. The enemy apparently wants both groups, and also doesn't want us to have them."

"Then, as Jilin said, we'd better get on with it," Forbes ground out, back to being extremely unhappy. "I want all of those puppets found and at the very least marked out. The safety of everyone at this facility in both locations is my responsibility, and I don't take responsibilities lightly. Are you ready, Jilin?"

"I was ready ten minutes ago," I couldn't help pointing out. "But first… "

Rather than walking into the barracks the way Forbes obviously expected me to do, I gathered up all those unshielded minds and merged with them, then showed them what a puppet's mind looked like. The more searchers who were prepared to really search the better…