There were no blurred boundaries, no threads tying one consciousness to another. It hadn't always been that way - according to the hidden records she'd unearthed in her student days, the PsyNet had once reflected the emotional entanglements of the people involved. Silence had severed those bonds - of affection, of blood - until isolation was all they were... or that was the accepted view. Ashaya had always known it for a lie.
Because of Amara.
And now, because of Keenan.
Keenan and Amara. Her twin flaws, the double-edged sword that hung over her every second of every day. One mistake, just one, was all it would take to bring that sword crashing down.
A door opened at her back. "Yes?" she said calmly, though her mind was overflowing with memories usually contained behind impenetrable walls.
"Councilor LeBon has called through."
Ashaya glanced at the slender blonde who'd spoken. "Thank you."
With a nod, Ekaterina left. They knew not to speak treasonous words within these walls. Too many eyes. Too many ears. Switching the clear screen of her computer to communications mode, she accepted the call. She no longer had the ability to call out. The lockdown of the lab had been ordered after the children's escape, though officially, Jonquil Duchslaya and Noor Hassan were listed as deceased - by Ashaya's hand.
However, she knew Ming was suspicious. In lieu of torture, he'd shut her inside this plascrete tomb, tons of earth above her head, knowing that she had a psychological defect, that she reacted negatively to the thought of being buried. "Councilor," she said as Ming's face appeared on-screen, his eyes the night-sky of a cardinal, "what can I do for you?"
"You're meant to be having a visitation with your son this week."
She focused on regulating her pulse - an aftereffect of the sudden disconnection from Keenan. To carry this plan through to its completion, she had to remain cold as ice, more Silent than the Council itself. "It's part of the agreement."
"That visitation will be delayed."
"Why?" She had very little power here, but she wasn't completely under Ming's thumb - they both knew she was the only M-Psy capable of completing the work on Protocol I.
"The child's biological father has asked to offer him specialized training. The request has been granted."
Ashaya knew with absolute certainty that Zie Zen would never have taken that step without consulting her. But knowing that didn't tell her whether Keenan was dead or alive. "The delay will complicate the training I'm giving him."
"The decision has been made." Ming's eyes turned obsidian, the few white stars drowning in black. "You should focus on your research. You've made no significant progress in the past two months."
Two months. Eight weeks. Fifty-six days. The period of time since the children's escape... and her effective burial in the Implant lab.
"I've conclusively solved the problem of Static," she reminded him, dangerously aware of the growing tightness around her rib cage - a stress reaction, another indicator of the chinks Keenan's sudden disappearance had made in her psychological armor. "No implant would work if we were constantly bombarded with the thoughts of others." That was what the Council intended for the PsyNet - that it become a huge hive mind, interconnected and seamless. No renegades, nothing but conformity.
However, pure conformity was a nonviable goal. In simple terms, a hive could not survive without a queen. Which was why Ashaya had been instructed to devise several different grades of implants. Those implanted with the highest grade would possess the ability to exercise total control over every other individual in the hive, to the point of being able to enter their minds at will, direct them with the ease of puppet masters. No thought would be private, no disagreement possible.
Ming gave a slight nod. "Your breakthrough with Static was impressive, but it doesn't compensate for your lack of progress since."
"With respect," Ashaya said, "I disagree. No one else even came close to eliminating Static. The theorists all stated it to be an impossible task." She thought fast and took another precarious step along the tightrope. Too far and Ming wouldn't hesitate to kill her. Too little and it would paint her as weak, open to exploitation. "If you want me to rush the process, I'll do so. But if the implants then malfunction, do not look to place the blame on me. I want that in writing."
"Are you sure you want to make an enemy out of me, Ashaya?" A quiet question devoid of any emphasis and yet the threat was a sinister shadow pressing at her mind. Ming flexing his telepathic muscles? Probably, given that he was a cardinal telepath with a facility for mental combat. He could turn her brain into mush with a glancing thought.
Ashaya supposed that if she'd been human or changeling, she'd have felt fear. But she was Psy, conditioned since birth to feel nothing. Hard and inflexible, that conditioning not only allowed her to play politics with Ming, it acted as a shield, hiding the secrets she could never reveal. "It is not a case of enemies, sir," she said, and - making another rapid decision - let her shoulders slump a fraction. When she next spoke, it was in a quick-fire stream. "I'm trying my hardest, but I've hit what appears to be a major obstacle, and I'm the only one with the skill to solve it so I've been working around the clock and I've been buried underground for two months with no access to the PsyNet and - "
"You need to have a medical checkup." Ming's stance had changed, become hyperalert. "When was the last time you slept?"
Ashaya pressed the pads of her fingers over her eyelids. "I don't recall. Being underground makes it difficult for me to keep track." A debilitating condition such as claustrophobia would have gotten most Psy "rehabilitated," their memories wiped, their personalities destroyed. Ashaya had been left alone only because her brain was more valuable undamaged. For now.