She filed away the data - DarkRiver would appreciate knowing that Sascha's defection hadn't cut off the possibility of future trade. On the contrary, it seemed as if the changelings' negotiating power had actually risen. Psy might not be allowed to talk to the Duncan renegade, but doing business with her pack was a different matter entirely. Something the Council had been smart enough not to attempt to stop.
When the talk progressed to other matters, she listened for a few more minutes before leaving. Two hours later, she was starting to think that the knowing had been a mirage bought on by her own need to assuage her guilt. But in the next split second, she caught the edge of a conversation in a small room half-hidden behind another. Given its location, it was clear that those inside had come seeking the room.
" - lost two members in the past three months. That's not statistically explicable."
"I thought both were ruled accidental."
"The bodies were never recovered. We have only Enforcement's word that they were accidents."
"We all know who holds Enforcement's strings."
More than interested, Faith remained on the farthest edge, trying not to draw attention to herself.
"I heard the Sharma-Loeb family group lost a female two years ago in similarly unexplained circumstances."
"Since we last discussed this, I've been tracking other disappearances. There's too many to be rationalized away, no matter how you look at it."
"Any suggestions as to what it could be?"
"There are rumors that certain components of the training aren't functioning."
Clever, Faith thought. The Psy had deliberately not used the words Silence or Protocol, both of which would likely have alerted the NetMind to the potentially rebellious talk. However, the very fact that this conversation was taking place in the public space of the Net was a sign in itself. Either the Council had become lax in its policing or the populace was getting more confident.
Several of the leading minds in the conversation suddenly winked out, probably heading to a safer location. But whether they'd ever be safe from the NetMind was another question altogether - a sentience that was the Net, trying to hide from it was like trying to hide from air.
But then, her mind asked again, why did the Council not seem up to date with the level of dissent? It certainly wasn't huge but neither was it safe to ignore. Or... ! A revolutionary idea exploded into her mind. Deciding she had nothing to lose, she shot back out into the Net and continued her seemingly aimless stroll, coming across another whisper of rebellion in the process.
But those stirrings of disaffection were no longer enough to hold her attention. Even the futile search for information on Marine's killer had taken a backseat to a new compulsion born out of a knowing that veered on the edge of being a vision.
She wanted to talk to the NetMind.
However, she had no idea how to achieve contact. It wasn't sentience as they knew it. It was something other, something unique, the only one of its kind. It might not speak, might not think, might not do anything as she did. She didn't even know how to find it. It was everywhere and it was nowhere.
Since it had already brushed past her several times since she'd entered me Net, she decided to head out to a quiet area, near the least interesting data flows, and wait for its next pass. In doing so, she was ignoring the voices of logic and reason - a certain jaguar had taught her that logic wasn't always right. Sometimes, you had to go with instinct, even long-buried and rusty instinct.
The brush when it came was so subtle and familiar that she almost missed it. Catching the trailing edge of the pass, she sent out a narrow thought aimed at a restricted area around her entire consciousness. Hello?
Can you hear me?
She had no idea if it was even present or whether she was talking to herself. She assumed it was visible on some psychic level or had a permanent core the Council could access, but if that was so, it was a well-guarded secret. Seemingly alone in this particular sector, she decided to take a wild chance. If the NetMind was young and unformed, it might be normal. And if it wasn't, then the Council would come for her.
I am not weak, she told herself.
No, you're not, Red. Vaughn's voice was a husky whisper in her ear.
If they come for me, I'll fight and I'll get out. I have a jaguar to tame.
With that thought in mind, with Vaughn in her heart, she laid her life on the line.
Please. A single word, but one that shimmered with persuasion, joy, and hope. The emotions were awkward from lack of use. But in this barren place, they were the solitary hints of gentleness.
Something swept across her mind a microsecond later. She tasted the texture and found it unlike anything she'd ever before touched... or was it? Vaughn's image blazed into her mind and she felt the wildness in his eyes, the teasing in his voice, the pleasure in his touch. He was alive as this sentience was alive.
She almost stopped breathing. Very carefully, she narrowed the already constricted ring of thought. My name is Faith. What's yours?
It didn't seem to understand speech, but had reacted to emotion. Biting her lip in the physical world, she took a deep breath and sent out an image of her as she was, dark red hair, less than average height, eyes of a cardinal. She was nothing extraordinary, but she was unique and so was the NetMind. Would it understand her message?
A long silence and she thought she'd lost it, but then she was hit by an avalanche of images, an endless fury that threatened to crush her mind. She staggered against the overload on the psychic plane, and on the physical, her hands clutched at a head that threatened to explode.
Stop! Images of endings, feelings of pain.