Mind Warriors #4: Tactics
Chapter One

All right, I'll admit I was so completely off balance that I actually did nothing when Vennias picked me up and carried me back into the house. He'd just gotten through with knocking me around, so to speak, which actually didn't bother me all that much. His Rimilian brand of talent had let him find a way around my unarmed combat abilities and one of my mind tricks, which pretty much meant I'd never be able to hurt him again the way I'd done aboard the transport not long ago.

Not that I wanted to hurt him that way again. I felt bad enough about having done it once, egged on by lies told to me by someone with his own agenda. I'd hurt Vennias in spite of my own reservations over doing something so unfair, which meant I had no complaint coming about having been knocked down two or three times. That, however, didn't mean I had nothing to complain about.

"I don't care how many times you say it," I told him, only now noticing that he'd put me down on the bed furs and had gone to the side of the room for something. "I'm not your woman, I won't work on this world, and I'm leaving as soon as I can get to the transfer slip. The team is on its way back here, and as soon as they make it I'm rejoining them."

"The team has first to deliver the prisoners they and you captured, I have been told," he answered, his back turned as he messed with something. "When that chore is done they will indeed return to this world, and chances are excellent that you will then be able to rejoin their ranks. Do you mean to sit idle till then, when your assistance is so badly needed by those about you?"

He turned back to me then, a cloth in his hands that he'd wet in the basin and squeezed out. He brought the cloth over and took my right wrist, raising the arm to reach something underneath. The something turned out to be a scraped patch I hadn't noticed until the cloth touched it, and in spite of my trying to pull free he gently washed the scrape clean of dirt before releasing my arm.

"This minor wound will certainly soon be healed, therefore it need not concern either of us," he observed once the blood and dirt and grass had been washed off. "And, as I have matters which must be seen to before we will be able to leave the community, I shall now go and see to those matters."

He put the cloth down on my emptied breakfast tray, retrieved his swordbelt from the bed furs, then turned and simply left the room. I sat and stared at the open door for a minute, having trouble believing he'd just walked away, then reached for the boots I'd taken off only a few minutes ago. He'd said I wouldn't be free to leave this world unless I faced him, and I had faced him. The fact that I hadn't won the fight made no difference. He'd never said I had to win

Waiting another half minute wasn't hard, not when I used the time to look around and make sure I wasn't leaving anything of my own there, and I wasn't. The clothes and boots I already had on were the only possessions of mine in sight, the outfit I remembered wearing before the trouble with Kovrin, that insane ambassador. I couldn't help wondering where the rest of my things were, but a quick mental check of the rest of the house showed no trace of my clothes and equipment -

"Damn," I breathed, stopping still for a breath or two when I suddenly noticed what I'd done. I'd needed to know if I was abandoning my wardrobe and weapons, so I'd sent my mind around to make sure I wasn't. The fact that I shouldn't have been able to do that hadn't occurred to me until the deed was done, but the surprise wasn't something I could stand around and think about with my mouth open. I'd also noticed that Vennias was gone from the house, and that meant I needed to be gone as well.

I kept expecting someone to appear in front of me and either try to talk me into staying or use force for the same purpose, but no one did. I made it out the front door with no trouble at all, and my walk to the transfer slip was just as uneventful. This time no one seemed to notice me, which made me think that after all the good luck I was having I'd probably find the transfer slip gone. My thoughts at that point were too wild to describe, but the wildness disappeared when I saw the slip right where it was supposed to be. Sending my mind ahead of me showed that no one but the pilot was in the slip, so I climbed the ramp as soon as I reached it.

"Hi," I said with a smile when the pilot looked up at me. "I need to get to the transport in orbit, so I'm here to ask if you'd do me the favor of taking me."

"Your timing is incredibly good," the pilot answered with her own smile, a different pilot than the one Forbes had taken control of. "Since my shift is now over, I was just about to close the hatch and go up to the transport alone. Now that you're here, you can go up with me. Have a seat."

I chose a seat while the pilot retracted the ramp and closed the hatch, and then we were off the ground and on our way up to the transport. For a minute I wondered if I could be dreaming, but the seat under my rear and thighs was too firm and familiar. I'd actually made it off Rimilia with no trouble at all. If I'd had a chance to bet on things working out like this, I'd probably have lost whatever I put up to support the opposite.

When we reached the transport a different pilot took the place of the first, but by then I was out of the transfer slip and on my way to a cabin. Before we reached the transport I'd made sure to check everyone on board, and happily there wasn't a single puppet among the relatively small number of crew members. I think if I had found a puppet I probably would have turned even more violent than usual.

The steward who showed me to the cabin didn't even ask who I was or why I thought I had a right to be in the transport, he simply led the way when I said I needed somewhere to stay. We walked through a common area that was filled with a floor covering and lots of pillows instead of tables and chairs and couches, and when the steward opened the door to a cabin he turned to me with a smile.

"I think the possessions in this cabin are yours, ma'am," he said, gesturing with one arm. "When you were brought over from the other transport, one of the men in the group assured us that you would be back up here as soon as your wounds were seen to and that you would want your clothing and such. The man sounded so certain that I put the bags in this cabin, and now I'm glad I did."

"Thank you," I said as I glanced inside to see that the luggage really was mine. "It must have been Hall who told you that, which means I now owe him a very large favor. Would it be possible for me to get a meal of some kind? And kimla, definitely kimla."

"I'll bring the food and drink right away," the steward said with another smile. "Is there anything in particular that you'd like in the way of food?"

When I shook my head the man bowed, then he strode away and left me to walk into the cabin alone. I hadn't expected to be hungry again so soon after eating, but for some reason I felt almost hollow. For some reason… After the kind of healing my body had done, it obviously needed all the food it could get.

I'd pulled out clean clothes and was looking through my second case to make sure all the weapons were there and untouched when the steward came back with my food and drink. I opened the door to his signal and let him carry in the loaded tray, thanked him once he put the tray on the cabin's small table, then closed the door behind him when he left. The lovely smell of food had grabbed my attention, and before I got up from the table I'd finished just about everything I'd been given.

After pouring a second cup of kimla, I carried it into the bathroom and sipped while the tub was filling, then stripped and got into the hot water. The bath water felt wonderful, so I soaked a while before scrubbing my body and hair. There wasn't much left of the kimla by the time I was out of the tub and dry, so I carried the cup back into the cabin, dressed, then helped myself to the last of the kimla. I was sitting in a chair and simply enjoying the relief I felt at being off Rimilia when the steward signaled at my door again.

"There are a number of people here to see you, ma'am," the steward said when I opened the door. "They asked me to tell you that you agreed to speak to them if they came up here to the transport."

I felt tempted to say some things that weren't very nice, but I couldn't deny that I had told the Rimilians I'd talk to them on the transport. And I felt a good deal better now that I'd eaten and had a bath…

"All right, I'll see them," I grudged, nothing in the way of graceful acceptance in the words. "How about - "

I'd been about to ask if chairs could be brought into the cabin, but a glance past the steward's shoulder showed me the eight people waiting in the common area. Cramming eight more people into the cabin would have been stupid when the common area was available. So I simply shook my head to dismiss the start of that bad idea, went back for the cup of kimla, then left the cabin to join my … guests.

"Jilin, thank you for giving us your time," Reldis, the older woman and healer I'd met not long ago said with a smile as I walked up to them. "Since we've already met, the others asked me to come along and introduce them."

"I have no need of the intercession of others," a man said at once, a tall blonde who was obviously Rimilian but not a warrior. He wore nothing of a sword and had a robe on over his blue haddin, but the typical arrogance of the breed was very much in evidence. "I am Denrin, and those who seek greater knowledge in the matter of talents look to me for leadership."

"How nice," I commented, then smiled at the other men and women standing around. "I see that the steward is bringing more kimla, so why don't we all sit down and get comfortable."

Denrin had drawn himself up at the way I'd dismissed him, but when the others all returned my smile and began to sit down on the floor covering he decided against putting his heavy annoyance into words. He sat cross-legged the way the other men - and I - were doing, accepted a cup of kimla with a curt nod of thanks, then sent me a silent, blue-eyed glare while everyone else was being served.

"All right, now that we're fortified we can get started," Reldis said as soon as the steward finished up and began to walk away. "The others can't decide whose questions ought to be asked first, so why don't you just tell us when you first began to do … unexpected things and what those things were."

"Why not?" I agreed, then started the story about what had happened to me after I developed the small shield they called impervious. By the time I was through I had a large number of people sitting and staring at me with their mouths open, their minds matching their expressions perfectly. All of them were nearly in shock - with one exception.

"Much of this makes no sense to me," Denrin said with a shake of his head, as if his opinion was the deciding factor in whether or not what I'd said was true. "Mind pictures which even the shielded are able to see, touching with one's mind that which others are able to touch only with their fingers and hands, an inner vision clearer than that which most are capable of… Foolishness, much of that, no other thing than foolishness. What was the event which brought you to seek a stronger shield?"

"You don't need to know that," I answered, showing - and feeling - none of the anger some of the others seemed to be suddenly expecting. "And if you don't believe what I told you, that's just too bad. I'm not the one who asked for this meeting, I'm just the one wasting her time with it."

"No, Jilin, please," Reldis said quickly before I was able to get to my feet and go back to my cabin. "Denrin's job is to disbelieve everything until he's given proof he isn't able to dismiss, a necessary balance against our immediate belief of everything we hear. Can you tell us how you were able to do all these things, some of which even Terry can't accomplish?"

"All I have is a theory," I responded after silently conceding that having one absolute skeptic in a group of wide-eyed dreamers wasn't all that bad an idea. "I think we have to reach a certain mental strength before the extras start to kick in. Once we reach that point, what kind of abilities we develop depends on what happens to us and what we tend to need. Need is definitely the key to abilities we'd never even dreamed of, and there's no telling just how far we can go."

"Such a conclusion is foolishness," Denrin stated as the others exchanged low, excited comments, thick disapproval coating every one of his words. "All endeavors have limits, and to believe that we, ourselves, will have none of the same is the belief of a child who lives among dreams."

"I never said we had no limits," I responded, riding over Reldis's attempt to smooth things over again. "I said there's no knowing how far we can go before we do reach our limits, a different matter entirely. And since you and the others are, in effect, my guests here, I would advise you to moderate your tone. It's a poor host who jumps up and down on the head of a guest even if her guest never was taught proper manners."

"You dare to speak in such a way to me?" Denrin demanded in outrage, and this time he was the one who drowned out Reldis's effort. "You will show me the respect due me, wenda, else shall I show you the meaning of stern punishment."

"You and what army?" I countered, holding the glaring blue gaze locked to my face with my own stare. "And it's been unanimously agreed by just about every l'lenda I've come across that the proper term for me is w'wenda. It may not be entirely proper for a warrior to slap down a non-fighter, but continuing insult makes the effort proper. If that's what you want, just keep mouthing off to me."

"No, Denrin, the woman is correct," another of the men interrupted when Denrin opened his mouth with the clear intention of putting his foot in it up to the thigh. "You and we were clearly told that this woman is a warrior, and that, I believe is what disturbs you. You have known no others save l'lendaa before you joined our ranks, yet now must you acknowledge the truth before this w'wenda takes insult. As you are larger than she, she is unlikely to be as gentle with you as would a l'lenda in the same circumstance."

"The very concept of a female as warrior is more than foolishness, yet did the wenda speak correctly upon one facet of the matter," Denrin growled, still so stiff-necked that it was a wonder his spine hadn't snapped from the strain. "I am indeed a guest in these precincts, therefore shall I refrain from speaking in a manner which clearly distresses the female. Yet must I repeat that much of what we have been told is … less than creditable. To create visions indistinguishable from reality simply is not possible."

The others all began to discuss that point, some of them agreeing with Denrin and the others countering with the demand to know what I would gain by lying. The expression Denrin now wore was only faintly smug, but even without looking past his shield I knew he was smirking on the inside. He'd managed to call me a liar without actually speaking the words, and to say I was annoyed would be a vast understatement. So he didn't believe how real my illusions could be, did he…

No one but me seemed to notice the crewman who walked into the common area carrying a small can with a handle sticking up out of the can. The crewman, wearing work clothes, moved along briskly as though on the way to a job of work, and he circled around behind the people sitting in a circle with me.

But instead of continuing on to somewhere else, the crewman walked over to Denrin, crouched next to the man, and nodded with a friendly smile. Denrin was staring at the crewman, clearly wondering what the man could want; rather than waiting for the question, the crewman pulled a brush out of his can and showed what he wanted when he started to paint the Rimilian from the chest down.

"No, stop!" Denrin shouted, so shocked that he made no effort to grab the brush or scramble back out of reach. "What do you do? Cease this outrage, cease it at once!"

"If you make that request a bit more mannerly, you might actually have it granted," I commented while the rest of the group sat staring open-mouthed again. "Or would you rather be painted green from head to toe than be anything other than obnoxious?"

A concerted gasp sounded when the white paint the crewman was using suddenly turned green. I'd decided that green went better with Denrin's light tan robe, so I'd changed the color. It was amusing to realize that I'd never deliberately done anything with this ability other than the time when the team and I were under attack and outnumbered, so I hadn't realized how much fun I was missing.

"This is the kind of illusion you were talking about?" Reldis asked in a shaky voice, obviously watching with the rest of us as Denrin now tried to push the painting crewman away - without moving the man an inch. "I have never seen anything like this in my entire life! No wonder that assassin was caught in the giant spider web and died! But this crewman looks so real…"

Some of the others glanced at me then, showing they were all probably thinking the same thing. They only had my word for the fact that the crewman was an illusion, and that in spite of the color change of the paint. Denrin's legs had been painted green and now his robe-covered arms were getting the same treatment. The Rimilian's expression was so appalled that I didn't mind in the least ending the joke. After all, I'd made my point.

Letting the scene go was actually harder than starting it up had been, but not really hard. The crewman and his paint suddenly began to fade, and once the crewman was gone so was all the painting he'd done. Denrin sat as untouched as he'd been to begin with, but the open-mouthed way he stared at me said he'd lost his hold on the job of skeptic.

"Deciding in advance that there are limits to what we can learn to do is a really bad idea," I said to the man staring at me. "When you start with the idea of limits, you run the risk of mistaking where those limits actually are and thereby robbing yourself of what you otherwise might have found it possible to do. Concentrate on advancement instead, and when you reach what seems to be a limit you can worry about it then."

Ever since the crewman had faded away there had been dead silence, but suddenly everyone began speaking at once. Everyone, that is, but Denrin, who never said another word until the group finally left. The others made up for that by throwing questions at me almost non-stop, and the next couple of hours disappeared behind guesswork and explanations. That there was more guesswork than explaining didn't seem to bother my guests, and Reldis told me why.

"Those of us who are exercising our minds are growing stronger every day," she said with a big smile. "Once we reach that critical point of being strong enough, we'll be able to do all kinds of experiments to give us answers instead of guesswork. This is all so exciting that we only spend a few hours a day cursing the Amalgamation people for having kept us from it until now."

"These new abilities aren't exciting for everyone," I said, losing my amusement as I remembered a recent unpleasantness. "Some people start to be afraid that they won't be able to handle what comes, and then they do terrible things to avoid having to face failure. Our people are just that, people, and not all of them will be able to accept this new path we're taking. I'm afraid to think about how many of our own we'll lose along the way."

"Some of us will be lost, but a lot more will be saved," Reldis assured me, quickly putting an understanding hand to my arm. "When people move forward as a group there are always those who are left behind, but when you pay attention to what's going on you can help those who need it even as you all move forward. Riddian Forbes is now being given that help, and we have high hopes for his complete recovery. He is the one you were thinking about, isn't he?"

"One of them," I agreed. "I've been running into a lot of people lately who have been … twisted in some way by the Amalgamation and their own insecurities and defense mechanisms. Right now all they're accomplishing is messing up what others of us are trying to do, so our people can't just pay attention to what our enemies will try. They have to divide their attention to make sure their own people don't stab them in the foot - or the back - which makes the whole thing ten times harder."

"But I hear that you've been helping with the second part of that problem," she said, her smile filled with warm approval. "Murdock can't say enough about how lucky we are to have you, and most of the rest of us have started to agree with him. Personally, I consider you our greatest treasure, and I think we've pestered our treasure long enough. If we think up another group of questions and you're still here, will it be all right if we visit again?"

"Sure," I agreed, amused at the idea that I could be anyone's treasure. "If I'm still here. As soon as my team gets back I'll be rejoining them."

"And then you'll be out on the front lines again," Reldis said, having lost her amusement as she and the others began to get to their feet. "The things you've been doing are very necessary and probably couldn't have been done as well without you, but - The thought of losing you has been giving me nightmares."

"Just remember I'm not that easy to get rid of," I said as I also stood. "And if you do manage to get Forbes straightened out, you'll have someone who's almost as strong as I am. I'm not the only one going through these changes, Reldis, I'm just one of the first. The day will come, and I hope it's soon, that most of us are doing what only I can right now. When that time comes we won't be crippled by the loss of a single person."

"You know, I think we need to work some with you too," Reldis said, now studying me soberly. "If you really believe that the only thing worrying us is losing your abilities, you've got rocks in that black-haired head of yours. We all believe utterly in our cause, but how many of us do you think would have done everything you've been doing? Not only do you seem to spend your time thinking up different ways to help us, when it came to facing mutilation and horror you made sure that you were the one to do it. And don't try to tell me you did it because of your ability to heal. You could have helped to heal anyone else going through the horror, so that doesn't count. You did it because you consider our people more important than any single individual, and it's that kind of love we can't afford to lose - and that we honor you for."

Reldis's quiet tirade had gone on for quite some time, and long before she was through a very heavy silence had surrounded the others. It came to me then that they'd all dropped their curtains or shields, and the warmth of their feelings touched me in a way I'd never felt before. Even Denrin had joined the effort, the respect he felt for me grudging but on a par with what he felt toward l'lendaa. I was … cherished by them, which left me able to do nothing but stand and stare as they finally headed for the transfer slip to take them back down to their world.

I don't know just how long I stood staring with my mind completely blank of thoughts, but the time wasn't short. I finally came back to myself enough to return to my cabin, and worked very hard for the rest of the day to keep from thinking about what had happened.