Bowen and his team left San Francisco two days later, heading for Venice. Bowen had been recalled by the remaining members of the security team. "I can't believe you're taking over the chairman's job," one of his men said, shaking his head in disbelief.
"I'll be making it my own," Bowen said, his mind full of the images of death. So many of his friends gone, all so the chairman and his cronies could rule supreme. "I will not send my people out like cannon fodder, and I'm through with picking fights just to prove I can beat the big boys. From now on, we do it like the changelings - become so strong within ourselves that no one dares pick fights with us."
"The temptation, though, Bo," Lily said. "It's gonna be a kicker. And you're not a politician."
"Yeah?" He grinned. "Then how come I have the beginnings of a business agreement - maybe more - with the two strongest changeling packs in the United States?"
Lily's mouth dropped open. "How? I thought you were persona non grata."
"I f**ked up," Bo said, still angry at himself for his part in terrorizing a child. "But I owned up to it, too. Honesty matters with changelings. When I got recalled, I set up a meet with the alphas and said maybe we could turn a bad start into something good."
"And they listened?"
"It's a work in progress. They've agreed not to boycott Alliance businesses - it's a temporary deal, but it's a deal." DarkRiver and SnowDancer hadn't reached where they were without being highly intelligent operators. They were fully capable of slicing away all contact with the Human Alliance - as you would a diseased limb - if Bowen didn't manage to clean up an organization that had gone from hope to violence on the back of one man.
The chairman had fouled something humans had created after the Territorial Wars as a way to rebuild their lives. Now that powerful business/education network was under fire around the world, with innocent men and women being accused of masterminding violence. Bowen had to prove the Alliance was more than that - first to their members, then to the world. "We've broken, Lily," he said, thinking of Claude. "I want to bring the pieces back together."
"Do you think you can?"
"Yes." It wasn't too late. The chairman's evil hadn't yet taken root. "The 'leadership' might've tried to find glory through war, but we can give our people something concrete - used correctly, the chips could level the playing field once and for all."
Her nod was slow, her glossy hair reflecting the light. "No one would be able to strip our shields, steal our secrets." There was old pain in those words, memories of terror.
"Yes." Bowen squeezed her hand. "I want humans to become integral to the fabric of the world. To do that, we have to be willing to step out of the shadows and take our place on the negotiating table. No more blood."
His adoptive sister looked at him, a strange clarity in her large gray eyes. "You're not going to stay security chief for long. You'll lead."
On the other side of the world, Tatiana Rika-Smythe rose from a chair and drank two glasses of a protein mix. Her body was close to skeletal. She'd paid a high price for this gamble, but if it had all gone according to plan, she'd now be the sole surviving member of the Council, and no one would've considered her a factor in the deaths of her peers. As there were no aspirants strong enough to become Council, she would've effectively owned the Net.
At the time, the cost-benefit ratio had seemed satisfactory. That was no longer the case.
I believe you have served your purpose.
She waited as the chairman paused and considered if his chip was faulty.
Your chip is defective. I made sure of it the night I found you - your mental shield makes you careless about more physical means of attack. Such a human failing.
Trembling, the man slid a hand under his hair.
Mind control takes large amounts of energy, and I really can't spare any more.
The chairman drew himself a bath with no prescience of danger. He was dead five minutes later.
Tatiana sighed in exhaustion as she retook her seat. She would've preferred not to lose him - as a tool, he'd been perfect. When she'd found him three weeks ago, his mind had already been full of both hatred toward the Psy, and a willingness to use violence to achieve his aims. All she'd had to do was nudge him until he'd set out to destroy the Council itself.
Every other action, from pushing the kill switch on his men, to going after the changelings, he'd taken on his own. Tatiana had no interest in anything unconnected to the murders of her fellow Councilors. But that very independence of thought had made the chairman too dangerous to leave alive.
It would, of course, have been better if she'd been able to control the Alliance as a whole, but even one mind-control link was draining. She'd been forced to watch the continued development of the chip and the drug, but that, she decided, was a minor issue, one she could deal with when she was stronger.
Right now, she had to recover . . . and reassess the other Councilors' weaknesses. Perhaps, she thought as she walked haltingly to her bed, she might eventually program the next leader of the Alliance. Humans made such perfect stalking horses.
Mercy woke in a spacious but unfamiliar room. No. She remembered seeing it before, but the images were hazy. Most likely, she'd woken earlier, then slipped back into sleep. Her side ached, and when she reached down to investigate, she found bandages wrapped around her middle. Still, she thought, it didn't feel too bad - not like when that piece of tin had sliced into her.
Yawning, she snuggled deeper against the familiar male body beside her. "Riley?"