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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Trial and Error Archives
Chapter 17

Run Down Like Waters

-Which way?- Callie lisped in Otter's mind.

Otter didn't answer. She'd been choosing their paths through the Labyrinth based on which sloped surfaceward more, but here the peculiar spongy tunnel forked, and both directions sloped further down. They might, she supposed, turn back up. She put her hand into one underwater passage, and then the other. Her naiad senses told her nothing. "I don't know," she said for Callie.

It didn't help that Otter didn't know where they were trying to go. They had to leave the Labyrinth, that was the obvious first move: there was nothing for either of them here, and Callie's Fallen Ones were vulnerable as long as Otter remained here. But once out of the Labyrinth--where? To the trenches of the Elder Ocean, to find Callie's ancestral relatives? To land, for Otter to find passage back to Ataniel? To the reefs, to make a new home? How could she choose a path, without knowing where she meant for it to lead?

The current to the left was stronger, the water purer. "This one," Otter said, without knowing why. Callie followed unhesitatingly. Till now the water had been fluid but slow, but here the pipes began rushing, and Otter had to grip Callie's tail to keep the small anomalocaris from being swept away. A few turns further, the current stronger, and Otter finally understood.

Holding Callie to her with both arms, she surrendered them both to the flow.


"Yes, I can see the problem." Robinson's grey eyes were distant with thought. The stars glittered in the firmaments overhead. They seemed very close. "It's a design flaw, in a way. In layman's terms, he's running out of fuel. Jack's matrix is finite. When I extrapolated this subset I only gave him about five years worth of data because I didn't want to take any more from Jack. I never expected him to die first." Robinson paused. "The equation itself is a constant. It should be possible to reboot it after the matrix empties, but all his memories would be lost."

"Not acceptable," said Khyrisse.

"The reincarnation of the soul into an infant's blank slate is a viable part of your people's theology, isn't it?" Astilla asked gently.

"Last resort," amended Khyrisse. "We're not ready to give up on the person we know yet."

"Believe me, I understand," Robinson said, "but mathematically..." He looked up at the stars, heavily. "What is finite is finite," he said. "It would be possible to copy more data into his matrix if the first Jack still existed, but I can't imagine where else you could find a compatible source."

"Well, it's information at least," sighed Khyrisse.

"I wish I could be more help," said the old mathematician. "The only other thing I can think of is if you could find a dimension where numbers divide finitely by zero, he could theoretically live there indefinitely. Whether such an exile would be preferable to death..." Robinson shrugged. "It's up to Jack, of course."

"Thank you, Robinson."


The Rat Pack Abroad

The good news was that between Pigsy's nose and Thermador's, the Vickie Extraction Force had successfully located a Nataale city. The bad news was that the group had rather belatedly realized that none of them spoke the language.

Rani was starting to get such a headache.

After several drinks and much trial and error, the group had finally located the Tobrinese embassy. This was only slightly better, though, because though everyone in Tobrinel spoke Dalen, it was a complete pain in the ass getting them to speak anything but Tobrinese when you wanted something from them. Garal spoke Tobrinese, but Rani was trying to stop him from blabbing their entire mission to strangers, not encourage it. Eventually Thermador managed to inundate the guy at the tourism desk with enough excruciatingly badly pronounced Tobrinese small talk that he gave up and switched to snotty Dalen. Things went a little better from there. Rani used her best innocent voice to ask if there was anyplace in Nataal that sightseers should be careful to stay away from. After a few pieces of useless information about "bad" parts of town--Rani refrained from telling him she'd walked through worse places unarmed at four in the morning--he finally offered the warning that the chaparral to the northeast, by the road to Arturian's tower, was a favored hideout for hover bandits, and no place for a lady. "Good thing we're not traveling with any, then," Rani said in Diari. The Tobrinese cultural attach´┐Ż nodded indulgently, pretending he'd understood it.

And now they were cutting through that very chaparral, trying to stay off the main road to avoid attracting attention. Rani hacked pissily at nettles with the machete Thermador had loaned her. Why Thermador carried a spare machete Rani didn't even want to know. She wished Val were here. "You know," said Garal, displacing a cholla plant out of their path, "in Ti'Ashentes, we have a saying. If you're always worrying about ants, you'll never get lunch."

"Deep," snorted Thermador.

"Oh, yes indeed!" said Pigsy, nodding enthusiastically.

Garal ignored both of them. "It's possible to be too paranoid," he said, pushing through the sagebrush. "You're never going to eliminate every possible information conduit anyway."

"Well, we might as well eliminate the obvious ones," said Rani. "Why advertise our presence any more than we have to? Staying off the fucking highway and not telling locals where we're going seem like no-brainers to me." The vegetation had opened out into a broad, dry riverbed. Water apparently flowed here at some times of the year, but now, there was nothing there but old silt and a couple of blowing tumbleweeds. "Can we follow this for a while?"

Thermador checked the compass on his metal wristband. "Not for long," he said. "Half a mile, maybe. We have to keep cutting east."

"Half a mile of clear travel is a good half a mile."

"Oh, dear," Pigsy suddenly spoke up, as she started off down the arroyo. "Rani, I think maybe you ought to--"

"Hmm?" She turned her head to look at him.

"--look out!" cringed the pig-man, as the tumbleweed sprang at Rani from behind.

"Oh, fuck me," she sighed, as it engulfed her leg and bit.

And The Ocean Waves Do Roll

Otter and Callie shot out of the pipe like a ball from a cannon, awkward churning curls of motion pushing from their bodies through the seawater. Sea it was, Otter realized. The same lightless, almost hallowed stillness of the great depths, the same quiet resilience of the ocean floor, the same soothing mineral feel against her skin. Otter was a saltwater nymph born and bred. But something was... different, not right somehow. Something prickled at the edges of her sixth sense, and Otter knew she was someplace very far from home.

-These must be the Elder Oceans,- thought Callie, her mental voice hushed with awe. -I... had thought they were only legend.-

"Your people came from here?" Otter asked.

-The legends say so. Many shifts ago. At least ten. Before the memory of even the Fallen Ones.-

The last shifting of the trenches had been more than twenty thousand years ago, Otter knew. Elder was not just a figurative description, then. "What do the legends say?" she asked. "What is there here? Are there people like me? Is there land?"

-The legends speak only of a great and ancient ocean with many creatures like me in it,- Callie answered. -No spirit beings. But it was very long ago. Things could have changed.-

Otter sighed. "Well," she said, "we can't go back the way we came. If we're going to get home, we're going to need some kind of planar travel, and that means we're going to need spirit beings."

Callie nodded her chitinous head dolorously. -Then,- she said, -we must learn where the spirit beings live... if there are any here.-

"All right," said Otter. "Stay close." The ocean was Otter's second skin, but it was also by its nature exposed. There was nowhere to hide in the sea. Even Otter's people lived in the shallows, where reefs and kelp could provide a bit of shelter. Down here there was nothing but miles of open water. Anyone who cared to would already know they were here. It was an unsettling feeling. Otter felt like an intruder in her own soul. "We don't know what we're going to find here," she said, "or how welcome we're going to be."

I'll Tumble For Ya

The other two tumbleweeds had joined their fellow in the attack, and the little group was finding itself unexpectedly beleaguered. As best as Rani could tell, they were the plant equivalent of undead things. The one on her leg was tearing through her denims and sucking the life force out of her, albeit in very small amounts, and there didn't seem to be much she could do about it. It was too sentient for her to be able to control psychometrically, even with the direct bodily contact. Judging from how little impact slashing at it with her machete was having, they weren't affected by non-magical weapons. They were dry as old bones, but setting something on fire while it had a death grip on her own leg was more desperate a move than Rani was ready to resort to yet. Amatsu's katana seemed to be working well on the tumbleweed that had Garal by the shoulder, but it was hard for him to get much force into the blow without damaging the halfling, and anyway there was no way Amatsu was going to be able to wield a sword against the tumbleweed stuck to his own back. Rani shook her leg in useless frustration. She wished Khyrisse and Mina were there; a grease spell would have been a godsend. Orlen's telekinetic powers would have been good, too. Even Jack might have been able to figure some physics thing to get the damn thing off her. Rani was surprised how used to the Rat Pack she'd gotten. She'd been a loner all her life, collaborating usefully with others for this stint or that and then returning to her solitude. How had she gotten so dependent on others? Rani had dealt with more bizarre creatures trying to suck the life-force out of her than she could count, and she'd always come out okay. Now she was standing here like a moron watching this tumbleweed eat her leg and wishing she had a mathematician around. What the fuck is wrong with me anymore?

Rani took a deep breath and tried to phase her leg through the brambly plant. It was like dragging a marble slab. Phasing herself through solid matter was one of her most taxing powers anyway, and her screwed-up interface and the tumbleweed's necromantic attachment were not helping matters. Rani closed her eyes and tried to shut out the background noise, focusing on the cold prickles of connection between the plant and her leg. What was Rani. What was not Rani. She peeled light from darkness, straining for purity.

And then Rani was free, gasping, the sparkling of light at the corners of her vision that told her she had overtaxed her Gift and really was on her own. The tumbleweed scrunched up for another leap onto her, but Rani was faster, flipped her lighter on and flung it into the tangle. It went up like paper, falling back with a dull and dusty cry. Amatsu had, she could see, hacked the tumbleweed on Garal's shoulder into quivering woody pieces, but he himself was starting to stagger as the one on his back sucked the animacy out of his magically constructed bodyform. Thermador had his taser gun out and was leaning over the shorter man, squinting and applying jolts of electricity to the evil plant. It shivered, and then, as one of the shocks apparently hit whatever an animate plant used for a nerve, let go. Thermador ripped it off and flung it across the scrub, whipping the weapon around and plugging the tumbleweed again and again till it blew away in the dry wind. "We're even," he grinned at the ashen-faced ninja.

Rani wobbled, then sat down in the arroyo, then she felt the baked silt on her cheek and then she didn't feel anything for a little while.


"I'm coming, I'm coming!" Skitch straightened his Diari collar uncomfortably as he jogged after the junior professor. Who could want a private meeting with an eleven-year-old schoolboy? Maybe it's priests of Rekzyr. Maybe they want to check something about my operation. The junior professor looked quickly up and down the hallway and then ushered Skitch in, drawing the curtain behind him and standing in the doorway. It took Skitch's no-longer-elven eyes a long several seconds to adjust to the room's dim light.

Seated at the far side, Ebreth Tor pulled back the cowl of his long Diarshi cloak.

Skitch barely suppressed a yell of surprise and fear. "What are you doing here?" he blurted out in automatic Dalen, though it occurred to some back alley of his brain that Ebreth probably spoke better Low Diari than he did. "Kiljhac aren't allowed in Irla!"

"I knew somebody who knew somebody," Ebreth dismissed it quietly. "Skitch, I'm not here to bring you back. We just wanted to see how you're doing."

Skitch stayed a good several feet away from him anyway, keeping the table between them. He knew how fast the big pirate could move. Panic was twisting at his stomach, and not only because he was afraid of being dragged away from the best life he'd ever had, either. Skitch had the awful feeling that he really ought to be turning his kiljhac friend in for violating one of the most sacred laws of Diaria and couldn't bring himself to. "You've got to go away," he said, struggling with his conscience. "You shouldn't be here."

"Kid," said Ebreth, "I had to pull a lot of strings just to find you here. You can give me a few minutes of conversation, can't you?"

Skitch bit his lip and thought about Ebreth saving him from that awful flood. I can't turn him in. He'd be executed. "Just this once," he whispered, feeling like a criminal. "I--is everyone ok? How's Khyrisse?"

"She'll be all right," he said quietly.

"Is she still mad at me?"

"Yes," said Ebreth, simply. Skitch had forgotten how direct he was. "You were the only one who knew where her father's magic was, Skitch. You know how sensitive she is about having trust like that betrayed."

Skitch's face burned. "I'm sorry," he mumbled. "I thought it was better than taking the Carriage or the Schism Tine stuff."

"That's--not saying very much, Skitch."

"I only gave it to the Church of Rekzyr! It's safer there than in her old Carriage anyway." Skitch folded his arms angrily. "Look, you're getting me in trouble just being here. If you're going to nag me--"

"I'm not here to nag you," he said. "I just want to know how things are going. You're happy here?"


"School going okay?"

"Well, okay," he sighed. "The real Diari kids are smarter than I am. I'm getting mostly B's and C's. But I'm working real hard, and I think I can improve. I've had a lot more real-life experience than the other kids." He paused and swung his left foot. "I'm writing a paper about you."

"About me?"

"Yeah, for my abnormal psych class."

Ebreth cracked up. "Thanks, kid."

Skitch gave him a wobbly grin. "Maybe if it gets a good grade, I'll send you a copy." His voice tapered off a little. "I'm sorry I took Khyrisse's artifact. If she didn't take my artifact and break it, I would have just given them that."

"And how right it would have served them," sighed Ebreth.

Skitch frowned. "The Church of Rekzyr's been real nice to me. They treat me just like a real Diari and everything."

"That's good," said Ebreth, raising his hands in surrender. "Really. That's good."

"Anyway, I'm sorry if I upset her. I wasn't trying to upset her. I just wanted to follow my dream." Skitch pulled out his pocket watch. "Look, I've got to go. I'm going to be late for class if I don't hurry." He hesitated, and then ducked inside kidnappability range to give the pirate a hug. "If you came out to see me again sometime," he said, very carelessly, "could you maybe meet me in Traki or Ekyarn or some other place that isn't holy so we wouldn't be breaking the law?"

"It's a date," grinned Ebreth, and mussed his hair up. "Hey," he added, as the boy headed for the door. "Skitch." Skitch looked over his shoulder. "If things get bad here," he said. "If things fall in on you. Find the guy who brought you here today and tell him to get a message to me."

Skitch looked at him in total confusion. "Why would things get bad here?"

Ebreth pulled his cowl up over his head. "I just want you to know it's an option," he said quietly. "One last thing, Skitch. Don't use my real name on that paper of yours."

"Of course not," Skitch scoffed. "That would be against standard DPA protocol!"

"It could also get you in big trouble," said Ebreth. "Watch your step, kid. It still matters."


"Well?" Khyrisse said, tightly.

Ebreth took the back of her neck gently in his hand and kneaded it until her eyes shut. "He's all right," he said. "He doesn't know you took the Sphere back. The priests must not have blamed him. He seemed glad to see me, and he asked about you a lot."

"Should I be touched?" she said bitterly, visibly hating her own relief that the boy was okay.

Ebreth brought his second hand up and massaged both of her shoulders. "He wasn't trying to hurt you," he said, "for what it's worth."

"Neither was Ariath. Not giving a shit isn't much better than wanting to hurt someone."

"He didn't know he was hurting you."

"Then he's stupid."

"Yes," said Ebreth. "Yes, he's stupid, Khyrisse. He's eleven years old, and he's stupid. Stupid is a lot better than cruel."

Khyrisse bowed her head a little, and Ebreth turned her around to get a better angle on her shoulder blades. "Did..." she whispered. "Did you get him some kind of safety net?"

"I found him a contact," he said. "He'd have to trust me enough to think of it in a panic. But if he does... I can probably get him out of there."

She nodded, her body language both grateful and hostile. "You didn't tell him I was involved, did you?" she said harshly.

"No," he sighed. "It would have helped. He trusts you a lot more."

"You could have fooled me."

"He doesn't understand the implications of racism," said Ebreth. "If you take that away all he did was take a dangerous magic item that didn't belong to him. That's no more than Kit did."

"If you take that away," said Khyrisse, folding her arms. "If you take away the Godmaker ring, all Eric did was lie to me!"

"Khyrisse," he said gently, "the kid's got issues too. He spent a lot of time on the street by himself, you're the one who told me that. If he thinks Diarians are better than elves are, maybe that's got more to do with him than with you."

"I'm aware of that." Khyrisse looked away, her eyes flashing darkly. "Poor self-esteem is still no excuse for racism. Don't try to make me forgive him, Ebreth."

"I'm not," he said. "I'm just trying to leave my own options open if the kid comes around, because I am in no position to throw stones. At least he hasn't decided other people are objects."

She made a ragged sigh, and he kneaded her back in silence for a few minutes. "I couldn't even instill basic respect for other sentient beings in him," she finally said, quietly. "I'm... very afraid of being a mother, Ebreth."

"We'll figure something out," he said. "You only knew Skitch for a year. He'd already grown up, and you weren't there. Whatever other mistakes we make, our child is going to grow up in our home, knowing there are people who love and value her, and she's not going to feel like she has to belittle anyone to make the world make sense to her. All right?"

Khyrisse was quiet another long moment. "Ebreth?" she said in a small voice. "The day before Skitch left. I... hit him. I didn't give him a spanking, I hauled off and whapped him one. I have such a bad temper. It makes me afraid."

"Oh, baby," he sighed, pulling her into his arms. "We'll find other ways of handling things. I have no idea how you're supposed to discipline eleven-year-old kids, but we must know someone who does. We don't have to do this alone. Lora can help us. Your father can help us. Rhynwa can help us. We'll take good care of this kid somehow, I promise."

"I hope so. I hope so."

Rising To The Occasion

Seeker of Places had always found the pulley to be the strangest of the simple machines (seeing as how it altered neither force nor distance, only direction). Still, it had served quite well, and the Pets' leader was soon atop the cliff. Before they knew it night had fallen again in the redrock desert, and rising groggily from his impromptu nest, the Rat squared his shoulders to travel on.

Of the five animals, the only one who was the least bit nocturnal was Melissa. Though rats sometimes foraged at night for practical reasons, just as Seeker was doing now, their small eyes were really better-suited for the light of the sun. And so though his natural adaptability and superior topological perceptiveness were helping him soldier through, the Rat was really not functioning at peak and he knew it.

Still, he didn't think he was completely vulnerable to being blindsided until the owl was already on him, talons outstretched.

*SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEAK!* screamed Seeker of Places, diverting his path too late to escape the bird's grasp. It had made not a sound on its soft wings. Another time, the Rat might have marvelled at the engineering feat of evolution that had made such quiet flight possible. Right now, the Rat was concentrating fulltime on panicking. He felt burning pain in his flanks where the owl's claws were grasping him, and his frantically scrabbling paws lost contact with the ground.

Then Melissa had pounced bravely onto the bird of prey's back, yowling. Some owls were huge, Seeker knew, but this one was a smallish cactus owl, and the cat's unexpected weight bore avian and rodent alike back to the dirt. It snapped its fearsome beak at her, and she hissed. Duck, anything but quiet in his half-hopping, half-flapping gait, caught up with the three of them and started pecking the owl mercilessly.

Realizing it was outnumbered, the owl released the wounded Rat and spiralled softly back into the night sky, hooting mournfully. Melissa lay panting in the moonlight. Babe shuffled over to them, making concerned coughing honks; Seeker of Places curled himself painfully into a ball, feeling the talon wounds burn in his sides, and wished with all his mathematical heart for a cleric.

For Each New Day

Ebreth jerked awake with a choking gasp, his exhaustion finally allayed enough for his subconscious to make its break for the clear light of day.

Khyrisse was already up and gone, though it couldn't have been much later than five-thirty. Ebreth groaned and reached his arms over his head to flex them against the bars of the headboard. Subsistence sleeping left him run down and aching--and, he suspected, more vulnerable to panic attacks during the day--but there wasn't much Ebreth could do about it. He'd rather be dependent on coffee than sleeping pills, all else being equal, and his conscious mind didn't really want to spend any more time in his nightmares of remembrance than his subconscious mind.

Ebreth rocked to a sitting position, rubbing the fading haze from tired eyes. A shower, a few cups of coffee, then maybe a new day. It beat any of the alternatives, anyway.

Khyrisse came in with a breakfast tray then, and that was a nice distraction too, because she was all dressed up. Ebreth privately didn't care much for the breeches she favored as everyday wear, much less the harsh black leather she tended to strap on when she was in her more Grendel frames of mind. This morning she had a red and gold silk dress on, the sash tied high above her rounded belly, and her skin was its natural shade of fair. "Well, you sure look nice today," said Ebreth. "Summit meeting?"

"No..." She pinked a little, putting the tray on the nightstand. "You, uh, probably don't remember, what with it only being seven or eight months of real time, flarking planar travel..." She swung her foot a little, self-consciously. "But it's June 24th," said Khyrisse. "And it's sort of our, uh, anniversary."

He looked at her for a moment, tapped his finger on his cheek a few times. "Anniversary of what?" he said, bemused.

Khyrisse blushed a lot more. "Well, we never exactly got a conventional date, Ebreth...!"

Ebreth laughed and put his arm around her. "That's fine," he said in her ear. "I think it's an excellent thing to commemorate."

Maybe We Should Have Gone To The IHOP After All

A night's sleep had done the battered Vickie Extraction Force good. Useless though Rani's low constitution was in most contexts, her psychometric powers did help her recover from damage more quickly than others, and her drained life-force had largely replenished itself. Amatsu wasn't doing quite as well. The ninja's back still had a sickly, mottled look to it, and he wasn't as steady on his feet as usual. Still, at least he was capable of physical exertion. It could have been a lot worse, especially considering they were traveling without any fucking clerics, something Rani thought most adventurers had learned not to do by second level.

"So who is this chick we're looking for?" asked Thermador, conversationally.

"A friend," Garal said curtly.

"I gathered that much, shorty. I mean is she a rival mage of ol' Artie's, a demon he's got imprisoned, did she steal an artifact from him, what?"

Garal said nothing.

"I think she's twenty-five years old," Pigsy offered helpfully. "Unless she's thirty-seven, that is... or unless time travel has made her older or younger than she should be, naturally. But she was most certainly born in the Year of the Monkey, oh yes."

"What useful information," sighed Thermador. "Why do you want her back?"

"Damned good question," muttered Rani.

"I told you," said Garal, louder. "She's a friend."

"And that's all there is to it? Sell me another one, planeblazer. I've seen more of your kind abandon their so-called friends than you've met in your life."

"You don't know anything about my kind," Garal retorted, stung. "You're not even from here."

"I've seen enough."

"Cut the piss fight, boys," Rani said abruptly. "We've got incoming."

Thermador drew his blaster and whirled on the mirage-like rippling in the air Rani had belatedly sensed as sentient. Amatsu's katana was already out. Garal, with a look on his face like he really wanted to curse but didn't have an adequate vocabulary for it, melted back into the planar shadows. "What did I tell you," Dave Thermador muttered, to nobody in particular.

The shimmering coalesced into a floating vehicle of some sort, and then a good dozen men in flowing grey robes tied off across the lower halves of their faces were leaping from its metal flanks, brandishing knobbed clubs and uttering impressively chilling war cries.


Four of Ataniel's villains sat in an office, having a meeting.

Mahoney reported on rising profits from the agreement with the police union. John Tucson was pleased. Life, he had discovered, was much more enjoyable when one had a soul. Stump sat in the comfiest armchair, smoking an expensive cigar. Mahoney had his boots up on the table. Nox, wearing sweat pants and a t-shirt reading My Pastor Touched Me, was scribbling notes on a big yellow pad. "How's the Cane selling?" the Scorpion asked.

"Excellent," said Stump. "Stuff's all over Rimbor, soon Lianth. The Alliejins are proceeding cautiously, and I've already talked to Rocco Paris about starting distribution in the islands, maybe New Trade. No drug laws there either."

Tucson nodded. "No word from the good Don yet?"

"None yet."

"And you're sure this stuff works the same on the twelve-toes?"

"Yup," said Stump. "Took long enough to get the formula right so it would. Whoda thunk an extra finger would matter so much?"

"Well, it does," Nox offered. "It means that Diarians are the best in the whole world when it comes to fisting... What's everyone looking at me like that for?"

"George," Tucson went on, once a brief mental struggle had allowed him to banish the image, "what's our vigilante situation?"

"Joker took the hint and relocated to New Trade," said Mahoney. "He's the Paris' problem now. Randall Thrayn, no trouble out of him since Stump's new business plan." The halfling touched two fingers to his forehead in a grinning salute. "Octavian, about the same. Polly nabbed one of his minions but he didn't know a damn thing. Also..." Mahoney hesitated. "We may have a new problem. Perrine Cabal, found dead down at the wharf--body mutilated pretty bad. No ´┐ŻOctavian' on the wall, not his usual MO. But there's nothing in the underground about who else might have hit him, either."

The Scorpion frowned. "Well, find out," he said. "Cabal was one of mine. Whoever took him out, pay them back with interest." Mahoney nodded.

Combat Is A Pain In Rani's Ass

Rani fell back from the onrushing hover bandits, jerking her head quickly back and forth to survey the scrub flat. Empty. No dinosaur skeletons sticking conveniently up out of the powdery earth, no magical constructs sitting around in the hazy yellowish air. Nothing to exploit at all. There was the floating craft the raiders had arrived on, but it was levitating a good five feet overhead and the psychometrist knew there was no way in Hell she was going to be able to jump high enough to make bodily contact with it.

Rani cursed and pulled a nearby piece of cholla off, melding her hand into it enough to keep the spines from lacerating her. "Combat," she muttered, throwing the bristly ball of cactus into the face of the nearest hover bandit. "How the fuck do I keep getting into combat?" Rani was a private eye, not a mercenary, and the truth was she made a crappy part of an assault force. With the full Rat Pack it didn't matter, because there were people like Val and Marty to stand behind and figure out clues for. Here the closest thing she had to a brick was Amatsu Mikaboshi, and he was really a thief with a sword, and he was badly wounded already.

Dave Thermador, though he was also standing behind Amatsu, was at least blasting away at hover bandits with his lightning gun. Rani needed a gun like that. She backed up some more as one of the bandits charged for her. "You are mine, woman!" he shouted in staticky Dalen.

"Bite me," Rani told him, and phased back into a big nest of cactus just in time for the bandit to run straight into it.

This wasn't causing much damage, but Rani did enjoy hearing him yell. Unfortunately, he didn't seem to have put his eyes out, and he had disentangled himself in a few seconds and was after her again. Where are the plants that eat people when you need them? The bandit grabbed her by the arm, and Rani took a deep breath, gathering her mental energies to shift the sand out from under his feet. She had the bad feeling that this was all delaying the inevitable, as these hover bandits had the V.E.F.'s asses whipped six ways to Sunday, but damned if Rani was going to be the one to surrender.

Then the bandit's head went flying off his shoulders and into the cholla bush.

"Whooooo!" cried Pigsy enthusiastically, waving his unlikely implement of decapitation, a big metal muckrake, around in the air. "That makes three! Oh, heavens, but combat is fun. If only Monkey were here..."

Rani stared at the pig-headed man as he waddled cheerfully over and smashed one of the hover bandits menacing Amatsu into the dust with one inordinately powerful blow from his rake.

"Don't feel bad," she said to the headless bandit, moving out of the way of his arterial spray. "I'd assumed he was just comic relief myself."

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