His vehicle - separate from those owned by the SnowDancers - was hidden near one of the rutted tracks leading out of wolf territory. When he reached it, he found it undisturbed and in perfect condition. The engine started with an almost soundless purr.
A second later, he thought he saw a shadow in the forest. He sent his Tp senses in an outward scan, aware that his body and mind were both functioning at less than optimal levels. Someone could have followed him in the wake of his distraction with Brenna. However, the scan touched nothing but the open minds of forest creatures. Satisfied, he maneuvered the vehicle through the thick darkness of a cloudy night and onto the track.
The telepathic "knock" came when he'd almost reached his destination. I'm here. He eased the car into a single-level street parking slot and got out. What's important enough to call a meeting in person?
I wanted to talk to both of you, and the comm channels aren't secure at present - I'm working on getting some new encryption software to block any covert monitoring, the Ghost responded. The Council's already begun eliminating the most vocal of the agitators.
Judd smelled the biting freshness of oncoming rain as he cut through a children's park. They knew the risk. Crossing the road, he walked around the church and into the unlit backyard, home to a small graveyard for those who had chosen to lie under the sun rather than be interred in the crypts.
Father Perez sat on the back steps of the church and Judd located the Ghost's dark shadow against a facing tree. "What did you find out?"
"I didn't see you arrive," the Ghost said. "Being out of the PsyNet hasn't had any appreciable impact on you and your abilities."
Wrong, but it was an untruth that had tactical value. "I have to get back." Distance was simply turning up the notch on his need to be with Brenna, to keep her safe. There was a threat to her. His brain was fixated on the idea. But what he didn't know was whether the threat came from the outside...or from his own killing abilities.
The Ghost took the hint. "This data hasn't been confirmed yet, but it appears Ashaya Aleine may be forced to start her work from scratch."
"Why? The lab had to have backup files hidden away," Perez said.
"The recent loss of several of their top scientists negates the value of any such backups - they alone knew what their notes meant. Unfortunately Aleine's too well protected."
Perez sighed. "I was hoping you hadn't taken that route." His voice held sorrow. "You kill too easily."
The Ghost shifted in the darkness. "If I hadn't removed the scientists from the equation, all our work would have meant nothing. They would've begun implanting test subjects within the year. In a decade, we would have become a single hive mind."
"Not single," Judd said. "Psy wouldn't all be equal under Protocol I. There will be puppets and puppet masters." As an Arrow programmed to kill, Judd knew the truth of what happened when some were given absolute control over others. Power was the most rapacious of drugs.
"And so we spill more blood?" Perez asked. "Is that right?"
"I have no right to judge anyone else, Father." No matter what the Ghost had done, Judd knew he'd done worse. "Tell me what else you have - quickly."
By the time Judd left, the chill winter rain was coming down in a steady beat. He let it fall on him, let it wash away the death-soaked taste of this latest meeting. The dehumanizing cruelty that was the Implant Protocol was evil, but in fighting it, Judd knew that they, too, could become evil. The understanding came from some buried part of him, a part inextricably linked to what he felt for Brenna.
The thought further heightened his urgency to return to her. Speeding up his pace, he breathed in the scent of ozone and city. The street was deserted, the glow of the laz-lamps muted by the rain. Walking across, he stepped into the darkness of the park. As a child, he'd never once played in a place like this. His training runs had been supervised, his exercises regimented. Shaping him. Making him.
Pushing aside the memories, he traversed the park with long steady strides, heading for the car he'd left on the other side. He could run the new data crystal the Ghost had passed him in the car's system, but preferred to wait and do it on his personal organizer, which was double-firewalled against interference.
Movement! The warning shot through his head before he consciously realized what he was seeing. He twisted his body to lessen the damage as the large wolf slammed him to the ground. Air smashed out of his lungs and he had barely enough time to get up his arm before the wolf's fangs snapped down, going through skin and muscle to hit bone.
Cauterizing the pain, he shoved with enough Tk that the wolf released him, giving him a chance to get back on his feet. His arm hung by his side, useless until he could knit the nerve and muscle together. Bleeding from the arm and from deep gashes in his chest, he arrowed his abilities and forced power into his right fist. When the wolf launched himself a second time, he smashed his fist into the animal's windpipe. It went down but only for a second before slamming into his chest and bringing him to the ground once again.
Wolf jaws neared, their lethal intent clear - to crush his neck.
Judd had been trying not to kill, certain this was a SnowDancer - and which one. He hadn't forgotten Riley's calculating calm at the meeting today. But now he had no choice. He was bleeding too badly. Gathering everything he had, he prepared to punch into the changeling's mind. The wolf would be dead in about one second flat.
"Judd!" The scream was so unexpected, he froze. So did the wolf. A second later, it jumped off his body and streaked off into the darkness. He could have reached out and destroyed it at that distance, but he held back. If that wolf was one of Brenna's brothers...