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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 36

Mission: Impossible

The imperial base was not very heavily guarded, but L’kar explained that was because it was shielded by fields of disintegration. The fields were technologically generated, not magically or psionically, so there wasn’t any easy way to dispel them. The rebels, with surprising cavalierness, said that storming one of the shields would usually cause it to short out after thirty or forty deaths. “Couldn’t we just throw some rocks through until it broke instead?” suggested Kit.

-Not unless you’ve got a good three tons of rock you can get through the field in less than a minute,- answered the githyanki warrior who had explained the tactic in the first place. -Enough tk’s working together can get it done, but we simply don’t have that kind of force available right now. We don’t mind dying if it’ll take those damn Iron Tyrants down with us.-

“I wonder,” said Shilree, tapping her fingernail on her teeth. “L’kar what sort of energy source do the disintegration fields use?”

“Standard fusion reactor,” said L’kar.

Shilree nodded. “Good,” she said. “I think I can save you thirty troops. Wait on my word.” She slipped a ring out of her trade pouch, put it on, and disappeared from sight.

***

Praxis frowned and opened a connection from the Mindnet to the missing Diarian. -Shilree, you’re not really planning on entering that field in hopes of absorbing its energy, are you?-

-Right the first time.-

-That’s too risky, Shilree,- sent Flicker. -You’re the only one who can detonate the gate, remember? We need your help.-

-You’ll have it. This is just fusion energy Flicker. I am sure I can absorb it.-

-Shilree!-

-Here I go.-

There was a flash of light from the field. “We’re down,” said L’kar.

The githyanki captain raised his rifle over his head and charged down the hill with an animal war cry. The rest of the rebel force followed in full voice.

-Shilree?- Flicker tried to send. -Shilree!-

“I’m not finding her,” said Praxis.

“If she’s gone,” said Inez, with her usual calming practicality, “we can still use the portal to return to Ataniel and find a way to destroy it from that si--”

Shilree suddenly winked into visibility down by the rebel assault, jumping up and down and waving her arms at them.

Flicker exhaled in relief and scrambled down the bluff towards the base.

***

“Are you alright?” said Flicker, catching the Diarian’s arm.

“I’m fine Flicker. I’m just out of PSPs so I couldn’t call you back.”

“Then why can’t I contact you?” Praxis frowned; something wasn’t making sense here. “And what are you doing out of PSPs? Absorbing energy should recharge you.”

“I--” Shilree shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m not out of PSPs then. Psionics is not my forte Praxis.”

“If you’re going to go, you’re going to have to go now,” L’kar interrupted, “before the Iron Tyrants think to seal off these port tubes. Follow me, quickly.”

***

“That smell,” frowned Silk, trying to place it. “Like...”

Silk turned suddenly to Purple. Purple was glowing with psionic energy. “What are you--”

Black turned, too, but it was too late.

“Checkmate,” commented Purple, stepping over Black’s unconscious body, littered with the shattered remains of Purple’s chains.

This was not going at all as Silk had hoped.

***

“This is the tube that will take you to the gate,” L’kar told Flicker, and gripped him by the arm. “Good luck.”

Flicker returned the half-embrace. “And to you,” he said, “my friend.”

Praxis opened the door to the tube. A slight wind was rushing through it. “Thank you for your help,” he said.

“The struggle is Life,” said L’kar, in Gilan, and smiled.

“Power to the people,” Praxis replied in Gaelic, returned the smile, and entered the tube. He was gone in the blink of an eye. The other Sidewinders followed him swiftly.

Except for Shilree, who turned wordlessly and opened a different port tube.

Flicker caught the motion from the corner of his eye just as he was about to teleport; he dived and rolled out of the technological transport before it could do more than pull at his edges, and flung himself at Shilree just seconds too late to keep her from phasing out.

Flicker did not hesitate as he leapt in after her.

Disintegration

“Okay,” Vickie said, sitting on the chairback so everyone could see her. “I know a lot of this is coming on because of me. But I also know that if we stop and consult and ruminate every time something comes up, we’re going to get run over, folks. I’m a trained professional. I do things fast, and I do ‘em well. If you need someone to poke along and ponder, that’s what Rani and Jacko are for. But you don’t want either of them--no offense, guys--running in to snag the Gem of Costello from a room filled with pit fiends. Khyrisse said she can’t be sure she trusts me because I don’t check in before I move. She shouldn’t trust me if I did. Instinct. Impulse. Action. It might not work for you, but it works for me.” Vickie snapped her gum. “You give me the trust to work like that, I’ll give you results. I don’t mind working in a team, but I’m not going to be good at waiting on directions. Just give me a goal, and let me go for it.”

Rani coughed. “Ah, Vickie?” she said. “Look, I’m really not trying to be a pain in the ass here, but can we make a distinction between ‘running in to snag the Gem of Costello from a room filled with pit fiends’ and ‘smashing through the ceiling onto someone else’s covert ops screaming bloody murder’? I don’t care if you act on impulse in combat or something. But you can’t go around randomly deciding to run away from the group, come back without telling anyone, and fuck up what I’m working on for no reason except that you think it’s cool at the moment. I like you and all, but I can’t fucking work under these conditions.”

Vickie rolled her eyes. “Let me field this one, Jim,” she said to no one in particular. “You guys were interrogating a Diari prisoner on the other side of a wall from a band of genetically enhanced killing machines. We drop in just in time to save your skinny butt from them and it’s our fault? No, I didn’t have time to explain what I was doing.”

“You had time to introduce every last one of the Price Girls,” Skitch muttered.

“If you could stop looking at the hand people shit with long enough to see the one they offer in friendship, Rainy, then you might have caught the clue that we weren’t doing it just because it was cool, but because you guys would have been kacked by those things in less than a minute.”

That made Khyrisse bristle. Vickie didn’t seem to notice.

“I know what I’m doing, and I do it well. You’re the detective, and I’m the daredevil. Trust. Me.”

Rani nodded, no hint of offense on her face. “And jumping on Octavian? Starting the bar fight in the cathouse? If you’ve got good reasons for all this stuff, could you maybe share them with me after the fact, if you don’t have time in advance? Because being cut out of the loop makes everything you do seem random and drives me up the fuckin’ wall.”

Vickie rolled her eyes. “Gee, mom, why don’t I just write you a 500-word paper on that?” She turned her back on the detective, signing Bite me, fingergirl back over her shoulder in Thieves’ Cant. Rani just snorted, but Orlen, on her other side, frowned deeply.

“Look,” Vickie addressed Khyrisse, “I’m not going to be accountable to every Monday-morning quarterback in the party. So I got in a bar fight. So? We closed the wormhole, we got out okay, no harm, no foul. And at least we know Octavian isn’t Duke St. A in disguise now. I don’t ask her how blowing morale to hell by screwing up relationships helps our goals, I don’t need her second-guessing me.”

Val clenched her fist like she was just about ready to get up and throw a punch herself. Vas put a hand on his sister’s arm in calming solidarity.

“This conversation is starting to bore me,” Vickie continued, oblivious to the melting away of her support structure. “Do I get the job done? Yes. Are we still on track and alive? Sure. Even her. Just tell me what you want done, and let me go do it. It’ll get done.” She sat back down, smiling triumphantly, for all the world like a prosecutor who’d just won a case.

Khyrisse sighed.

“I’m sorry, Vickie,” she said. “You’re not accountable to anyone but yourself, and half the time, I don’t think you’re even that. Everyone else has been willing to compromise and discuss things with us in order to be part of the group, even Rani. All I’ve heard from you is ultimatums: we’d get our ass kicked without you, you won’t change the way you do anything, and if we don’t like it, tough.” She nodded slightly. “I wish you well, Vickie. You’re a damn fine adventurer, and if what you need is total freedom, well, I think it’s best if you and the Price Girls go ‘get your job done’ on your own. The Rat Pack did just fine before you came along, and we’ll be just fine without you.”

There was a long pause, in which no one spoke up for Vickie Dare.

“I--” said Vickie, blinking, more in confusion than anything else. It was the last thing she’d been expecting; obviously she thought she’d just won an argument. Her eyes flicked quickly around the room; no one was meeting her eyes. “Well, I guess that’s how we listen to what members want as far as structure goes,” she said, standing up and jerking her pack up off the table. “We see if it matches what Khyrisse likes and if not, it’s bye, bye birdie. You won, kid,” she said at Rani, on her way to the door of the mansion. “Hope you enjoy it. Sieg heil y’all later, guys!”

With that, she pushed the door open and was gone.

What Falls

Flicker stepped out of the transport tube onto a floor made of some type of metal grating. It was very cold here, cool air jetting out of low vents all along the walls. By the shadowy light from above he could tell the room was huge. It wasn’t immediately obvious which way Shilree had gone, and Flicker didn’t dare to call her name aloud.

He looked around. Valved pipes crisscrossed the room, connecting various inscrutable pieces of machinery. He wasn’t going to be able to track anyone in this metallic, artificial-smelling place. Flicker strained for a sound from his errant friend over the low mechanical buzz. He didn’t hear any, but he did, after a minute, pick up the strains of an open mental conversation. L’kar’s rebels broadcasted most of their discussion this way, presumably for the benefit of their psi-castrated leader. This meant the illithid Flicker was overhearing was also speaking to non-psionics; and from the deferential tone in its voice, Flicker suspected an Iron Tyrant. He pressed into the shadows of the machines and tried to localize the conversation as best he could.

-...should not have been in New Gila,- one of the speakers was saying. -Your plan has failed, V’nos.-

Flicker frowned. V’nos was the illithid Shilree had told him about: the one who had tortured her last year. Had she peeled off from the party to take revenge on him?

-Not yet,- replied V’nos. -Our programming is still functioning, it just seems to have been... compromised.-

-Then you should have programmed her more effectively.- The second speaker’s voice was unmistakably angry.

-Perhaps if you hadn’t destroyed our template, I could have,- retorted V’nos.

-Watch your tone! You forget your station!-

Flicker finally found the source of the conversation, in a laboratory alcove opposite the tube he’d come in by. A beholder, as he’d guessed, was facing down a brown and gold illithid in some kind of formal dress. Shilree was standing off to one side, unmoving. -Forgive me, Lord Fisslakk. I am only... frustrated. I don’t know if we can control her any more. She was supposed to gain psi potential slowly over a period of years. Now it looks like she’s at 72% already. Something, someone, has been tampering with her conditioning.-

-Who?-

-I... don’t know yet, Lord. I’ve already ordered a full psi-scan. I’ll report when I know more.-

-See that you do. I have other business to attend to.-

The beholder blew out of the lab space and right past Flicker. Fortunately, the idea of a low-tech, non-magical, non-psi thief hiding in the shadows the old-fashioned way wasn’t one that seemed to occupy the Gilans’ minds much; the Iron Tyrant didn’t even notice him there, and none of the very evident security systems had reacted against his presence at all. He probably wasn’t registering as anything of more concern than a stray fly.

V’nos returned to Shilree and caressed her cheek with a tentacle. She didn’t even squirm. “What is going on with you,” he said, in passable Diari. “I wish that overblown gas spore hadn’t killed you so quickly last time. Making a new one would be such a bother.”

Lost in thought, the illithid, too, walked out right past Flicker. Shilree stayed where she was, unmoving. Flicker waited until V’nos had entered the teleport tube and made a beeline for her. “Shilree!” he whispered. She stood calmly looking straight ahead and did not respond. “Shilree, wake up, come on!” Flicker glanced quickly around the room for the source of her docility. The panel V’nos was standing at, maybe.

As he got to it he lost his train of thought entirely, though, and he felt his blood run cold. From this vantage point he could see the long hatch on the side of the metal cylinder suspended in midair beside the control panel, and the hatch was transparent, so he could see inside. Some kind of pale greenish liquid filled the tank, but that wasn’t all that was in it: floating in the liquid, rooted by a network of thin tubes and wires was the naked upper half of Shilree, a few of her internal organs hanging out below.

Flicker put his hand on the control panel for support. Everything now was starting to make sense. Shilree, the Shilree he had known as a friend for all those years, was dead, and from the looks of the corpse in the pod had been for a long time.

Not Quite What Anyone Wanted

Rani ran the tip of her tongue along her upper lip. “You know,” she said, to Val, “I’m--having the nagging feeling that I could probably have handled that a little better.”

“That... bitch!” said Valende through her teeth, livid.

“Oh, yeah, well, she could have handled it a lot better. Still.”

“I guess we should probably join her,” Fancy said. “We’ll be at the Three Etains if you, uh, want to contact Vickie,” she added.

“Which you really should!” Chipper said as she followed the others out.

“Don’t tell us what to do, you stupid NPC’s!” Skitch slammed the door behind them.

“I, uh, have to go take a leak,” said Schneider.

“Merde,” whispered Khyrisse, and buried her hands in her hair. “No, she’s right. I don’t own this group. I should probably have said that I didn’t want her here if that was how she was going to act, and we could all have hashed it out then. If you all want to go after her, go ahead.”

There was a beat. “No,” said Ebreth reluctantly, “no, I think you found the cylinder that wasn’t firing, Khyrisse. It’s too bad. I really think she helped us more than she hurt us. But when you try to have a discussion about teamwork and one member of the team gets pissy at the concept of anyone questioning why she does something in the first place, well...” He shrugged.

“Uh, I thought she was just trying to explain how we could best work with her,” Jack said, “not to, like, force us into anything.”

“You, my friend, could see the best in Ælwyn,” smiled Ebreth.

“Well, he dressed really well,” Jack admitted. “It just rubs me wrong to kick out someone who’s done a lot of good because we went through a rough period.”

“She is disruptive and a racist,” said Orlen, with unexpected force. “If she rejoins this group I’m leaving.”

“We’re not really discussing bringing her back now, are we?” said Skitch, aghast. “Is there some kind of law that we have to take anyone in the party no matter what they do? We don’t let Ariath come back! We didn’t take lying old Pieret out of Hell! What do we have to keep letting people who do crappy things keep hanging around here for!”

It was as much an attack on Khyrisse as a support of her current position, and she flinched from it. Schneider, on his way back from the “bathroom,” froze in the doorframe.

***

Schneider cleared his throat. “I, uh...” he mumbled, and then cleared his throat again and started louder and clearer. “I know things are looking kinda stressful, to, uh, say the least, and we’ve got some serious problems, and it may be feeling tough to pull together as a team. And I know,” he looked directly at Skitch, “that a big share of that is my fault. I’m really sorry. Look, I know things is rough. Getting your ass kicked will make it seem that way. But hey, everybody came out alive, and nobody wins ‘em all. We’ll get another shot. Geez, how many times did the Tour fight the Web before not getting creamed, Khyri?”

“Four, I think?”

“Felt like more at the time. But when things got really bad for us, I mean really really bad--and I’m talking dead friends and death threats and loco exes, here--do you remember what Tila said?”

“Let’s go kick Tres’ ass and we’ll all feel better?” said Khyrisse.

“Uh, well yeah, but before that. She said ‘There’s nothing wrong with us, we’re just under pressure.’”

“I liked ‘Let’s go kick Tres’ ass and we’ll all feel better’.”

“She’s a surprising fount of wisdom, that Tila. But you see what I’m getting at here. We’re stressed, we’re in bad moods, we’ve had a long day, and it’s making us all snappish. The longer we go on about this, the worse it’ll get. How ‘bout if we all just take a step back, stop taking stuff out on each other, and trust things to look better in the morning?” He hesitated, like he was wrestling with something. “Look, I know I’m one of the worst offenders on this. Mea culpa. I think we all, myself included, just need to take a deep breath and think about the whole team concept. I--I think everyone here’s down with each other. I think Vickie is too, but we can talk about that tomorrow. But what I’m saying is--oh, hell.” He sat down on the coffee table. “Look, I know we’re probably never gonna be hug-buddies,” he said slowly, clearly, “but I’m sorry things have gotten so out of control with us, and that it’s been stressing some mutual friends of ours. I’m telling ya here and now, you’ve got nothing to be afraid of from me. Bygones?”

He extended his hand, looking directly into the eyes of Ebreth Tor.

Ebreth looked weakly across the coffee table at Schneider the jester and wrestled down what would have been his second dissociative flashback of the evening with sheer force of will and a lucky saving throw. Dear God, not tonight. It was too late for that prayer, though; Schneider had already said it, and was standing now with hand extended, and whoever he was or was not, Ebreth Tor was going to have to respond.

He’s as frightened of you as you are of him, he reminded himself, looking into the fragile eyes of the masked jester. He’s as frightened of you as you are. Ebreth forced himself to take in air. How much this meant to Khyrisse aside, he had never been a man to reject an apology, not then, and not now.

The real dilemma was what in the hell to say to him. Ebreth couldn’t say “Bygones” back. It wasn’t that he couldn’t let go of the things Schneider had done to him, though he didn’t believe the jester really understood how cruel it had been and doubted he would ever forget it.

The real kicker was that he wasn’t sure anymore that the things Ebreth Tor had done were bygones or could ever be.

“It’s okay,” was what he finally whispered, as he took Schneider’s hand in his. “We’re all just doing the best we can, here. It’s all right.”

***

“Okay,” sighed Rani, her pencil hovering over her spiral notebook, “so in favor of Khyrisse’s decision we’ve got what so far, Ebreth, Orlen, Skitch, and Val? Who’s against? Garal?”

“Are you tallying votes?” said Val, surprised.

“Somebody should.”

“I’m still her friend.” Garal looked very unhappy. “I’m still going to help her if she needs it. But I--couldn’t vouch for her behavior if she stayed with the group. She doesn’t listen to me. I can’t in good faith push you to take her back, not after everything that’s happened today. I’m going to have to abstain.”

“Wait, so, like, what are we voting on?”

“Vickie, Marty,” said Rani half-patiently. “Vickie doesn’t want to tell anyone what she’s doing or why, Khyrisse said she had to or else leave, and she left. We’re deciding if Khyrisse did the right thing or not.”

“Uh, which way are you voting?”

“Marty, I’m not going to tell you how to vote. If you don’t care, I’ll put you down as ‘abstain’.”

“Cool! I’ll abstain too, then!”

“Good for you,” said Rani, looking at the young paladin very oddly. “Paris?”

“I guess so.” Jack sounded disappointed. “It just seems so--disruptive--to throw out a member of the group over one argument.”

“A lot less disruptive than keeping Vickie Dare around one minute longer,” sniped Valende, still stinging.

“Enough,” Ebreth told her. “This has been building for a long time, Jack. It wasn’t one argument, it was just the final straw.”

“I just hope it doesn’t become a precedent.”

“It won’t. The rest of us are willing to compromise to make things work.” He met Jack’s gaze wearily. “People at least have to try, Jack. If you can get her to try--to listen to us, to help us find a place for her that everyone can live with instead of bitching at people for not appreciating the role she wants to play--then I’ll change my mind. As long as she’s refusing to try, saying “Take me or leave me,” I’m going to leave her. None of us are perfect here, but at least we’re all trying.” He put his hand on Khyrisse’s shoulder. “Look, I--ah, I agree with Schneider.” That made the jester blink, all right. “It’s late, it’s been a long day for everyone, we’re all tired and cranky. We’re not going to get much more constructive done tonight. Let’s try again in the morning, when we’ve all had a chance to cool off.”

“I took notes,” offered Rani. “We can do the non-psychodrama stuff over breakfast tomorrow.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Ebreth leaned over the sofa back and lifted Khyrisse entirely into his arms. “There’s one more thing I’d like to add.”

“Oh, pain in my ass,” muttered Rani. “Now I have to start a new page.”

“This was right,” he said. “It wasn’t pleasant, but it was right. The team leader should be able to speak for the group, but if she--or he--” Jack winced. “--isn’t fairly representing everyone’s opinion, we should back up and talk it over. This time Khyrisse was right. The group doesn’t want Vickie under the conditions she’s demanding. But if we had, that would have taken precedence over what she said. This is stressful because ejecting a team member is stressful, not because we went about it wrong. It’s how we should be working. We’re a consensus model, not an autocratic one.”

“You sound like a lawyer,” said Rani, and laughed. “You sound like flarking Asinus.”

“I ran an international guild for nine years,” he said, flinching hard but pushing through the sentence. “Procedure matters. I like that we trust each other, I like that we try to cooperate, I like that we’re patient with each other’s mistakes. We’ve got a good thing going here, and I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater just because we got kneecapped by a conflict that would have been ugly regardless of our team style. We work by consensus, and it works. There are a lot of worse forms of group management, and I’ve seen most of them. Let’s not lose anything else.” He turned and carried Khyrisse up the stairs, half-amazed at himself for still standing.

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