"Self-preservation." She didn't look away. "The attack on the previous lab taught me that I am the sole person who can be trusted with my own safety."
"Are you sure you're not considering an escape?"
Ashaya hadn't made it this far in the cold machinery of the Psy world by being easily shaken. "You don't believe that to be a true threat - you've assured my compliance."
"True. And unless you've broken Silence, you aren't a woman prone to making foolish, emotional mistakes."
She knew the emphasis had been very deliberate. "I assure you, my conditioning is intact." Even more so than the day she had officially graduated from the Protocol. She felt nothing. There was ice where the emotional heart might have been in a human or changeling woman. "I've made my decisions and I intend to stick by them."
He nodded once, the light catching on the pure white of his hair. She had heard that he'd been born with that hair, that skin. The lack of pigmentation in his body probably accounted for his eyes, but Ming was not an albino in the true sense of the word. No, he straddled an odd line between colorless and too much color. His hair and skin were white but the left side of his face bore a spreading birthmark the color of fresh blood.
"My physical imperfection intrigues you," he said in that oddly accented voice that made it impossible to pin down his origins.
"From a purely scientific standpoint." A true statement. "Why haven't you had it corrected? It would be a simple procedure." Though Psy cared little for looks, serious imperfections were not acceptable. She knew that truth far too well. The single exception was for those born with high-Gradient powers of the mind. However, that dispensation only went so far. The Psy had no chronically ill children, no unfortunate victims of spontaneous mutations. Which made her wonder why Ming chose to flaunt his genetic flaws.
"It is about power," he answered, though she had expected silence. "The difference between what people perceive and reality."
Was that a threat? "I see."
"No, you don't." His tone didn't change. "But what I see is that you continue to argue against Protocol I."
"I've never hidden my views." The idea of drowning all individuality and turning many into one, a one controlled by a privileged few, was nothing she wanted to support. "I made my stance clear when I was asked to head this project."
"You were always the best M-Psy for the job."
So the Council had made sure she couldn't say no. "An interesting paradox, but it proves my point - escape is not an issue."
Ming's confidence was justified. After all, the Council held Keenan as insurance against her continued cooperation.
They held her son.
Talin was still glowing with the wonder of the night hours she'd spent with Clay when he told her to get in the Tank. "Where are we going?" she asked, putting away the last of the breakfast dishes. "I have to go through these files." Max had kept his promise. The Enforcement data had come through an hour ago.
"To see someone with medical training. They can look over the autopsy reports for you." He began to gather up the hard copies she'd printed out.
"You're right." She picked up the rest of her stuff. "That way, I can concentrate on finding the commonalities between the children." It would help, she told herself. She wasn't just spinning her wheels while Jon was being hurt. "Clay, I'm scared."
"Don't be. We'll find him." With that, he led her outside and to the vehicle, putting the files in the backseat. He was all business, no sign remaining of the man who'd shown her the magic of a moonlight-dappled clearing where a herd of deer slept, his voice a warm whisper against her ear. "Tamsyn's the pack healer, but she's got a medical degree as well."
She nodded, treading lightly. The forest run aside, last night had left them both with emotional bruises.
Clay shot her a sharp glance once they were on their way. "Stop biting your tongue, Talin. It doesn't suit you."
So she was back to Talin in the light of day? "I was trying to be considerate."
"Like I said, it doesn't suit you." He navigated the vehicle down a different forest track from the one they had used to arrive at his lair. "How're you feeling?"
"I thought you didn't like to talk about feelings."
He bared his teeth at her.
She smiled, happy now that she'd gotten under his skin. "I'm fine. I tend to bounce back pretty fast after an episode." It had been either that or give up on life. And though she might not have cherished her body as she should have, she cherished the life Clay had fought to give her. If he hadn't killed Orrin, the other man would have used her in the most brutal fashion, then buried her in the same graveyard as his other "brides."
She came back from the memories with a shiver. "Sorry, woolgathering. Thank you for taking me out last night. It really helped." She'd never known there was so much life in the night, so much beauty.
"That's not what you were thinking about before. It was the junkyard, wasn't it?"
She didn't have to ask how he knew. "It's our nightmare, isn't it?" No one else could hope to understand. "After they found the bodies, I used to think about how we played there. On top of their graves."
"Yeah." His voice was matter-of-fact. "But you brought something good into that junkyard. Maybe they felt it. Maybe it helped them rest in peace."
It was the last thing she would have expected him to say. "I never thought of it that way. Do you really think that?"