Sascha hadn't figured out any other way. But she had discovered how to mask her presence, how to move within the Net without alerting the NetMind. As a child she'd played the mental game instinctively - perhaps she'd already known that one day she'd need to hide or lose her life. Back then she'd gone nowhere a child wouldn't go, so even if she'd been caught, no one would've thought to punish her. They would've simply put it down to a developing cardinal's somewhat erratic powers.
The older she'd grown, the better she'd become at "ghosting." The trick involved shadowing another mind, thereby gaining entrance to the mental rooms of information the shadowed mind had clearance for. No hacking of the shadowed mind was required.
Ever since she'd realized she was close to the edge, she'd been shadowing people who might have access to the sealed records of the Center. It had been an attempt to fight the nightmare she'd glimpsed in her childhood. She'd wanted to prove to herself that her child's mind had exaggerated the awfulness of the place. What she'd discovered had so horrified her, she'd started to look for minds who might know how to escape the Net and survive.
And had found nothing.
Tonight she was going to try to ghost a Council member. If she was found out, it would mean an automatic death sentence. The trick wasn't going to be easy, notwithstanding the fact that not all of the Councilors were cardinals.
Cardinals were often so cerebral, they cared nothing for politics. Conversely, some non-cardinal Psy had extraordinary defensive and attacking qualities that made them as dangerous as the most highly trained cardinals. Every one of the Councillors fell into the lethal category.
Taking a deep breath, she put her communication console on mute and sat down cross-legged on her bed. Loneliness enclosed her in silence. After spending so much time with changelings, she felt lost at the absence of touch, of laughter, of contact.
She missed Lucas Hunter most of all.
Something flickered in her mind and she felt the brush of fur against her cheek, the whisper of trees in her mind, the scent of the wind in her nostrils. A second later, the moment was gone. Had it been a sensory memory or...?
She shook her head. She couldn't afford to be distracted. Her panther was relying on her. They all were. A woman's life hung in the balance... and she was no longer so sure about the innate goodness of her people.
Closing her eyes, she went into her mind. The first thing she did was slip around her own firewall, leaving a vague ghost of her presence inside to fool the NetMind as to the current location of her consciousness. It was a simple ruse that had taken years to perfect.
She stood hidden in the shadow of her own mind. Lights stretched endlessly in every direction that she could see. Some were barely visible, marking the presence of lesser Psy, while others blazed so brightly they were miniature suns. The cardinals. She looked at her own light and wondered at its difference.
The variation had developed around puberty and she'd been good enough at multilayered shielding by then to hide it under a false shell. To the PsyNet, her star blazed the same as the other cardinals'. She alone knew what it really looked like - a rainbow of sparks that shot joyfully in every direction and then coalesced back into her mind. If she'd allowed it to spark without barriers, it would've infected the entire Net by now.
Turning away from the hidden beauty of her mind, she looked for her targets.
Nikita's star was easy to find, bound as she was to Sascha by lines of energy that told the story of their familial ties. Sascha had no intention of ghosting her mother. Not only was Nikita's mind too attuned to hers, she didn't think she could handle finding out that her mother was in league with those protecting a killer.
It was something no child should have to bear.
There were six other Councilors. An odd number to ensure that there would never be a hung vote. Marshall Hyde was the most cold-blooded man she'd ever met, his PsyNet star a pinwheel of cutting blades. He was a cardinal and had had over sixty years to refine his talent.
Tatiana Rika-Smythe's star was the softest light. She tested at 8.7 on the Gradient but that was deceptive. No one took a seat on the Council at such a young age without being ruthless in the way the Psy had patented.
Then there was Enrique. Deep in her soul, she shivered. There had been a personal touch to his recent interactions with her that couldn't be explained away by what she suspected him of being engaged in with Nikita. She wouldn't put it past him to lay a trap for her. His was one mind she wasn't going near.
Ming LeBon was another cardinal. Though less experienced than Marshall, he, too, had had almost thirty years over Sascha to hone his skills. It was rumored that Ming's particular specialty was mental combat.
Shoshanna and Henry Scott were both around 9.5 on the Gradient. The elegant and graceful Shoshanna was the public face of the Council, the one who appeared on broadcasts to the media and in newspaper articles. She looked fragile and harmless but could be as lethal as a viper.
Henry was her husband. They'd decided on a human-style marriage rather than a Psy reproduction contract in order to make themselves seem more sympathetic to the non-Psy news media. This wasn't common knowledge.
Nikita had told Sascha back when she'd still been grooming her child for a position in the Council networks, before they'd both accepted that Sascha's flaw was never going to fix itself.
Henry was her target. Though extremely powerful in his own right, he was clearly the beta member of the Shoshanna-Henry pairing. As such, he was the only Councilor who showed any submissive qualities. He was also easy to find on the Net, even if you'd never come into contact with him and had no idea of his mental signature.
It was part of the Councilors' jobs to be accessible to the populace they represented. In truth, the path to them was a minefield of assistants and guards. This would take work. Sascha began step-shadowing.