Faith felt as if she were being stalked. An irrational reaction - she was alone in the forest. But if all went well, it wouldn't be for long. She didn't know the location of Sascha Duncan's home; however, she'd reasoned that if she ventured deep enough into leopard territory, one of them would find her and take her where she needed to go. A tenuous plan, but based on what she'd researched about the territorial nature of predatory changelings, it had a good chance of success. Heading to DarkRiver's business headquarters in San Francisco would've been far easier but she couldn't chance exposure.
After dropping out of the Net, Sascha Duncan had been labeled off-limits to all Psy. Going near her without Council authorization equaled automatic rehabilitation - a euphemistic label for the complete psychic brainwipe that destroyed the punished Psy's personality and higher mental skills. Faith knew enough of her own worth to understand she'd escape that fate, but she didn't want anyone becoming aware of her actions. The same part of her that knew this had to be kept a secret also knew she'd find an unlocked car on a nearby forest road.
And there it was. The car. She opened the door and slid in. Bending forward, she pulled open the control panel in order to bypass the computronic security. This wasn't something her ability had told her she'd need - it was a hobby, something that kept her mind occupied in the hours she spent alone. As a result, she could bypass most computronic hardware in seconds.
This time it took five and then the car was hers. Taking her mind back to the driving lessons she'd received in case of emergency, she turned it in the direction she wanted to go and pushed the accelerator. She had less than three days to find her answers. If she wasn't back in the compound before that deadline, they'd launch a full-scale manhunt. They might even use the excuse to try to smash through her PsyNet shields.
After all, she was a billion-dollar asset.
The man in Vaughn wanted to swear, but the animal simply acted, racing parallel to the car for almost a hundred meters before taking off in another direction. Lucas's lair was still over an hour away by car, but Vaughn wasn't taking any chances. Why the hell would one of the Psy venture this far into DarkRiver territory if she wasn't out to reach Sascha? And he knew the redhead was Psy - he'd seen her eyes.
Night-sky. Pinpricks of white against a pure black background.
His powerful heart was thumping hard by the time he made it to where he needed to be. Walking out to the center of the road, he stood in wait. Not only was he way too quick to be run over, most Psy would be so rattled at seeing a live jaguar that they wouldn't be able to do anything other than stop. They might have tried to kill their emotions, but some reactions came from the most primal core and those could not be controlled. No matter what the Psy believed.
She turned the corner, lights on low beam. They had little effect on his night vision. He watched her. Watched and waited.
Predatory eyes glowed out of the darkness. With no time to think, Faith slammed on the brakes and brought the car to a rocking halt. The huge hunting cat in front of her didn't move, didn't react like an animal should have. Unprepared, despite all her planning, for the dangerous reality of coming face-to-face with a live leopard, she sat in the car, hands clenched around the steering wheel.
The leopard seemed to get impatient when she didn't make any further moves. Prowling up to the car, it jumped onto the hood and she had to force herself not to react. It was big. And heavy. The hood of the car was slowly buckling under those powerful claws. Then it snapped its teeth at her through the windscreen.
It wanted her to get out.
Faith knew without a doubt that there was no way it was going to let her go any farther down the road. Though she'd never before met a changeling, every part of her said she was in the very real presence of one. And if she was wrong?
Not seeing any other logical course of action, she turned off the engine, picked up her backpack, and opened the door. The cat landed in front of her as she stood frozen beside the vehicle, belatedly conscious of her ignorance about the protocol governing interspecies contact. Nobody had ever taught her how to speak to the changelings. She didn't even know if they communicated like other sentient races.
"Hello?" she tried.
The cat pressed against her leg, nudging her away from the car until she stood alone in the pitch black of the road, a very large, very dangerous creature padding around her.
Hello, she tried again. It was a cautious and extremely polite mental page, something considered acceptable in exigent circumstances.
He lifted his head and growled at her, teeth gleaming even in the heavy darkness that cloaked the world. She withdrew immediately. The cat didn't like her mind attempting to touch his, recognized what she'd been doing. Someone had taught him shielding beyond natural barriers. And there was only one person who could've done that.
"Do you know Sascha?"
This time the teeth that were bared at her made her want to take a step backward but she stopped herself. She was Psy - she felt no fear. But all sentient beings had a survival instinct and hers was now asking what she'd do if the cats didn't want anyone near their personal Psy. The answer was that she had no real choice but to continue.
"I need to speak to Sascha," she said. "I have very little time. Please take me to her."
The cat growled again and the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood up in a reaction her body would usually have controlled. There was something very territorial, very aggressive about the sound. Then it walked away a short distance and looked back at her. Surprised at the easy acquiescence, she followed. Instead of heading up the road, it led her into the forest, deep enough that they were hidden from the road. Then it marked a tree with its claw.