Branded by Fire (Psy-Changeling 6) - Page 47

Don't ask me any questions tonight, Mercy.

And for all her brashness, that was one line she would not cross - if he wanted to invite her in, he'd have to do so of his own free will. She wasn't so arrogant as to rip the scab off hidden emotional wounds without thought to how it might hurt him.

Riley, she thought with a fierce burst of protectiveness, had been hurt quite enough - first with the loss of his parents, and later, with the horror of Brenna's abduction. She had no intention of adding to his scars. If the memories were shared in trust . . . that would be a different matter.

Trying to make up for raising an obviously painful topic, she dipped her head and kissed him with delicate promise. "I'll run down with you."

The Psy Council met in the closed vault of the Council chambers, deep in the heart of the PsyNet. They were scattered around the world - Tatiana in Australia, Kaleb in Moscow, Shoshanna in London, with Henry on route to that city, Anthony and Nikita in California, and Ming in France - but that mattered little. The PsyNet allowed them to navigate vast distances in split seconds, their minds going where their bodies couldn't.

Now Kaleb watched the vault close and the seven minds within it spark bright. The Psy Council was in session. Nobody was in any doubt as to why they were there.

"The spurts of public violence," Nikita began, "do we have further confirmation that someone is driving it?"

"No, only the shooter from the fast-food restaurant," Anthony said. "The others either died during the acts, or committed suicide afterward."

"But," Ming said, "given the similarity in incidents, especially the compulsion to commit suicide, I'd say we're looking at a planned series of events."

"Agreed." Anthony's distinctive mental voice. "Henry, what's the possibility it could be Pure Psy?"

"I've heard nothing from them on any such plan," the other Councilor replied. "And what would be the point? Their aim is to ensure Silence doesn't fall. These incidents are throwing the Protocol into question."

"On the contrary." Shoshanna entered the conversation. "I'm beginning to hear whispers in the Net that say the incidents are a result of the breakdown of Silence."

"Surely that's to our advantage?" Tatiana, the second-youngest member of the Council and the most unknown.

Kaleb had spent considerable time and effort trying to track down Tatiana's history, but the other Councilor was smart. She'd covered her tracks from the beginning. Everyone knew she'd killed the Councilor whose place she'd taken, but she'd done it with such calculated coldness that no one would ever be able to prove anything. Kaleb didn't care about proving the charge. What mattered was knowing her weaknesses. Currently, she had none.

"No," he said now. "It may seem that way, but this individual is acting outside Council authority. He's challenging our control of the Net."

"Kaleb is right," Nikita said, backing him as per their agreement. That agreement was fluid, but for the time being, their aims coincided.

"We can, however," Tatiana pointed out, "take the idea and utilize it on a much larger scale."

"That's an option," Ming said, "but I'd vote against it."

"Your reasoning?" Shoshanna.

"Such open degradation may cause the populace to cling to Silence, but it will also have a flow-on effect. The more violence, the more ripples in the Net."

"A continuous feedback loop," Kaleb said, seeing the truth of it. The PsyNet was a closed system - what went in didn't dissipate except into the Net itself. The more violence done by Psy, the more the Net would echo with violence. "Using such methods to maintain Silence will, in the end, fragment the pillars of it even further. It's already happening - we've had a fifteen percent rise in acts of interpersonal violence in the last week alone."

"Correct." Ming said nothing further.

Tatiana was the next to speak. "I see your point, Ming. But it seems to me that we've lost considerable control over the past five years. Perhaps we should reconsider Henry's suggestion of mass rehabilitations."

"We've been over this," Nikita said. "We come down too hard, and the rebels might succeed in turning the populace."

"Working in the shadows is our specialty," Tatiana responded. "Surely we can eliminate the troublemakers faster than we've been doing to date."

"There is an alternative." Nikita.

Everyone waited.

"We open the Center for voluntary reconditioning." She paused, as if to ensure they were paying attention. "Silence suppresses all emotion, but everyone in this vault knows that some primal instincts are difficult to completely eliminate. Such as the instinct to survive."

No one argued with her.

"Right now, there are millions in the Net who're starting to feel the pressure of recent events. These individuals will cling to Silence, to that which is known, if given the choice. We offer them that choice."

"And plant compulsions when they come in?" Henry asked.

"Not necessary." Ming evidently saw where Nikita was going. "The more people who get themselves reconditioned, the calmer the Net. And the calmer the Net, the less the rebels have to work with."

"We won't get that many," Shoshanna said. "People try to avoid the Center."

"You'd be surprised." Tatiana's voice. "Deep down, past Silence, past every line of conditioning, every barrier, our race fears the monsters within. They'll come."

And Kaleb knew she was right.

Mercy had surprised him, Riley thought as he exited his room the next morning. He'd expected an inquisition, and gotten a caress. "Cat," he whispered under his breath.