Dorian grabbed the bag as she closed the last flap. "Come on - you can tell me the rest on the way." He headed downstairs and out to the car.
Nate and Tammy watched them drive off, the senior sentinel standing with his mate in the circle of his arms. I want that, Dorian thought. A family. His mate safe with him. His child sleeping within hearing distance.
But at this precise second, he was well beyond annoyed with said mate. "What was the trigger for the swap?" he said as he pulled out onto the main road.
"Don't. Growl. At. Me."
He hadn't even realized he was making the angry sound. "Talk."
Her back stiffened but she answered, speaking so fast he could barely separate out the words. "Amara used her own eggs and donor sperm to create an embryo, which she then infected with a disease. She intended to kill the fetus when it was born and dissect sections of its brain to study the progress of that infection."
The horror of it stunned Dorian. It took him several minutes to fight past the clawing protectiveness of the cat. "She intended to kill her own child?" Kill Keenan.
"I told you," Ashaya said, voice trembling with a mix of anger and anguish, "Amara doesn't really see people as people. The only person she's ever seen as human is me - and until Keenan, I was able to keep her from crossing the line into murder."
He tried to wrap his mind around the sheer weight of that responsibility and couldn't. How the hell had Ashaya survived? "Can't have been easy."
"Actually, it was," she said to his surprise. "She's a sociopath, but she has no desire to kill for the sake of it. She is, in fact, the perfect scientist in her capacity to be completely impartial, and science is her life. All I had to do was keep an eye out to make sure she was being given work that challenged her." A shaky breath. "But this time, the science was going to lead to death. I knew I'd kill her before I allowed her to harm the baby. Except..."
He shook his head. "I understand that it must be hell to even consider killing your twin, but women have a way of being feral about their cubs. You're no different. Why is Amara still alive?"
"Don't you see, Dorian?" A shattered whisper. "For better or worse, she is his biological mother." The words were like hidden grenades, blowing up in his face. "She's the reason he exists - how could I steal her child and then get rid of her? How could I go to my son with his mother's blood on my hands?"
The emotional knives kept twisting deeper, harder. "So you somehow convinced her to give up maternal rights? How?"
"I had to speak to her on her level." An unflinching answer, a leopardess fighting for her cub. "I had to pretend I understood and accepted what she'd done. I talked her into making it a long-term experiment. She said it would be far too much work, but I said I'd take care of the long-term part."
"The infection - oh, Jesus. Omega?" It was such a vile thought the cat refused to believe it could be the truth.
"In a sense." A calm tone, but her hands were trembling so hard he saw her grab hold of one with the other to immobilize it.
Dorian let out a slow breath. "Does the Council know?"
"They didn't when I left and I highly doubt they do now. Only Amara and I know everything. Keenan knows a little - just what he needs to protect himself. I hate that he has to know anything."
"Keenan's a smart kid," Dorian muttered, pride thickening his voice, "and Amara will never betray you." Yet she was a monster who'd planned to kill her own child. The discordance between the two was harsh, allowing for no easy answer. "Zie Zen?"
"A former associate of our mother's. I asked him to tell this one lie without asking me why, and he did." She met his eyes. "Do you understand now why I will get very angry with you if you treat him with anything less than respect?"
He bowed his head. Sometimes, even a leopard had to admit being in the wrong.
Apparently satisfied, she continued. "Technically, Keenan has no biological father - Amara spliced together genetic material from an incredible number of donors, most likely so no one else would have a claim on the embryo. I used that. I told everyone his DNA scan didn't line up with Zie Zen's because we experimented on it in vitro. They believed us - after all, we are the DNA specialists.
"That understanding both increased Keenan's value as a hostage and kept him safe from discovery - while the Council was certain he was important to me because I was using him as an experiment, they didn't think to go beyond the DNA."
For the first time in hours, Ashaya felt a hard push at her mind. It was a surprise, but she held Amara back, the task far easier than it should've been. Something had changed in her. She checked her PsyNet shields again, relaxing only when she saw that she continued to remain anonymous. "We all knew about the idea of Omega," she continued, "but Amara became obsessed with it. Except, she didn't see the point in making everyone infertile. It would still leave the insurgents alive and able to agitate."
Dorian blew out a disbelieving breath. "Why worry about procreation when you could have control over life and death itself?"
"Yes. She decided to create a lethal and easily transmissible bioagent."
The coldness of the equation chilled Dorian's beast. At the same time, he was struck by Amara's almost childlike lack of concern for others. It made a twisted kind of sense if the DarkMind was involved - the twin of the NetMind was a child in many ways, a stunted creature with no real sense of the world outside its cage. "What did she base her virus on?"