She felt the anger return in a scalding wave. "I don't need or want special favors. I'll earn my certification." Pity would destroy her dream, completing what Enrique had begun.
Dr. Shah laughed. "The same stubborn Brenna I remember. My dear, you should know I'd never disrespect your abilities in such a way. Shame on you for thinking I would."
She frowned, anger replaced by bewilderment. "Then how can I possibly be certified? I never completed the final tests."
"Your long-term project - FAST." He said the acronym as one word. "I know you did further work on it after you gave me the draft, but I was impressed enough by that draft to submit it for review by the Computronic and Tech Professional Association."
Brenna's heart stuttered. Review by the association was the single sanctioned way to shortcut the requirements of the training program. But the association was tough with a capital T. In her five years of study, she had heard of only one other trainee who had successfully passed review. "Why didn't you tell me about the submission?"
"Well, while I was certain of the caliber of your work, I didn't want to get your hopes up in case some association idiot didn't have the brains to understand your genius." Dr. Shah's weathered face beamed. "But they did. So you're now Level 1.
"Since the college is still listed as your professional point of contact, I've got a stack of offers for you from the big conglomerates and research facilities. Would you like me to forward them as well as your certification code?"
She nodded, numb. The FAST project was an extremely lateral interpretation of her area of specialization - communication. It was also something she'd been working on since age sixteen. Her goal was to build a system that allowed real-time place-to-place transfer. In simple terms, fast and safe teleportation for the masses.
It was pure theory at this stage, but she'd cracked a few of the initial problems. It would probably take her decades to turn theory into anything close to reality, but as a Level 1, she could get association grants as well as positions in companies that would fund her research. "Thank you," she said as the offers started downloading into her in-box.
"You're my prize pupil, but don't tell the others." He winked conspiratorially. "I expect you to keep me up-to-date with everything."
"Of course." Also a Level 1, he was her best technical sounding board. "Your views and opinions helped me get this far."
"We'll talk more later," he said. "Level 3 class to teach."
The first thing she did after the call ended was check her bank balance. Her eyes went huge. Before the abduction, she'd worked part-time at a SnowDancer lab - after Hawke had lured her back from a human competitor. Level 2 and 3 techs pulled great salaries, so her savings had been good. But now she saw that the college had refunded her course fees for the component she hadn't had to complete. She was flush and she was qualified at the top of her field.
The world was literally her oyster. And this den didn't have to be her prison.
It was two hours later - around nine at night - that she went looking for Judd "Damn" Lauren. She had things to say and he was going to listen. Ignoring the voice of reason, the one that said a Psy assassin was unlikely to be brought into line by her steaming temper, she stalked to his quarters. When that room proved empty, she made her way to the family apartment occupied by the rest of the Laurens.
She didn't get past the corridor outside the apartment. Little Marlee Lauren, her strawberry blonde hair in two pigtails and a smile on her lips, was bouncing a ball against the wall. Normal...if you overlooked the fact that she wasn't touching the ball.
Brenna's throat dried up at the same instant that the eight-year-old - a child whose calm bearing often had her being mistaken for older - realized she was being watched. Her ball fell out of rhythm, rolling to a stop at Brenna's feet. Heart thundering so hard she thought it might bruise against her ribs, Brenna went down to her haunches and picked it up, never taking her eyes off the little girl in denim overalls and a fluffy pink sweater. It was stupid, but she was scared of Marlee.
"Hi," she said, not rising. "This is a nice ball." She rolled the sparkly blue sphere back to Marlee, who grabbed it physically and held it to her chest.
"My uncle Judd gave it to me," the child volunteered, no Psy coldness in her face - Marlee and her cousin Toby had never finished the conditioning under Silence. To them, emotion was not an enemy but simply part of who they were. "He gave me a seesaw game, too, but that's really hard."
Both things to help train developing Tk powers, Brenna guessed. "Oh?" She tried to smile - Marlee was hardly capable of hurting her. But logic was no match for the nightmare of memory. "Actually, I was looking for your uncle. Have you seen him?"
Marlee shook her head, pigtails bouncing. "I could look in our secret Net but I'm not allowed. I could take a peek if you want." A soft whisper that asked for permission.
Something in Brenna tightened. "That's okay. I don't want to get you in trouble."
Marlee continued to stare at her with the pale green eyes she'd inherited from her father, Walker. "Why don't you like me?"
The guileless question knocked all the air out of Brenna. Collapsing into a cross-legged position on the floor, she felt her face pale. Had Judd been right? Was she really such a bigot? "I think you're very sweet, Marlee."
"Then how come you don't like me? How come?" The stubbornness of her jawline was achingly familiar, apparently a Lauren family trait.
Brenna couldn't lie, not with Marlee's face demanding honesty. "You know how you can move the ball without touching it?"