"We wouldn't want your aberrant mental state affecting the Net." A small pause as he took a seat. "Your personal shields are under your control - you'd be useless otherwise. Telepathy appears to be your only offensive capability."
So, she thought, ignoring his deliberately belittling words, she could still do that much at least. But it wasn't the same - she'd never been so alone, her mind surgically excised from the herd.
"Why does it hurt?"
"An incentive to complete your mission within a particular time frame. The longer it takes, the less chance you have of actually obtaining any useful information before the Forgotten realize what you are."
"If you complete your primary task and return to me by the date imprinted in your mind, I'll consider removing the controls that are effectively starving parts of your brain into cell death."
"Those parts won't regenerate, no matter what. That's no incentive."
"On the contrary - all the parts that'll fail before the deadline are nonessential. After that point, your motor skills and ability to reason will go, followed quickly by the involuntary controls."
She sucked in air, savoring something that was going to be lost to her soon enough. "If I come back, if I complete the primary task, you'll allow me to access the Net again?"
"I might even decide to retain you as one of my operatives." Coal black eyes with the rarest specks of white stared into hers. "You'd be a most effective assassin - after all, you don't exist."
Katya spread her fingers over the steady pulse of Dev's heartbeat as the pain of the headache dissipated, leaving only a dull bruise. More pain would come soon, but it didn't matter. She'd never complete the primary task. Not consciously. But she knew damn well that Ming wouldn't have left that to chance. How could she guard against a threat she couldn't see, couldn't even guess at?
If she were truly selfless, she'd slit her own throat.
Dev's eyes snapped open, startling her into a little gasp. "Dev?"
"What were you thinking?" Gold glittered in the depths of the rich brown that had come to mean everything to her.
"A nightmare," she said, and it wasn't a lie. "That's all."
He tugged her until she was almost under him. "I've got you. Sleep."
Heart thudding in reaction, she put her hand on his shoulder, let him tuck her close, and tried to find sleep. The thoughts that had somehow awakened him, she shoved to the back of her mind. Suicide, she realized belatedly, would destroy Dev. He'd blame himself. That was simply the man he was - protective to the core. She'd have to find some other way to save him from the loaded gun that was her mind.
Because killing Devraj Santos was simply not on the agenda.
Judd Lauren walked into the church that Father Xavier Perez called home and took a seat in the last pew, beside the guerrilla fighter turned man of God. After a moment of silence, the other man sent him a slow glance. "No questions today, my friend?"
"I thought I might give you a break."
"And yet I see a question in your eyes."
"The Psy won," Judd said quietly. "In your corner of the world, the Psy won."
They'd first met in a bar in a no-name town in Paraguay. Judd had been there to liaise with a contact who never showed. Xavier had been sitting on the bar stool next to his and, tongue loosened by tequila, had begun to talk. Back before he became a no-good drunk, the priest had said, he'd been a man with simple needs - but one who believed in fairness. And there had been nothing fair in the way the Psy had effectively shut out the humans in his region from any kind of trade with the neighboring sectors.
First, it had been a political protest. But things had quickly escalated. . . until the Psy had crushed the human rebellion so thoroughly that not even an echo remained.
Xavier gave a slow nod, his skin gleaming ebony beneath the soft church lights. "Yes."
"And yet you believe in God."
Xavier took several minutes to answer. "There was a girl in my village," he said, his tone a caress. "Her name was Nina. She was . . . a bright light."
Before, Judd wouldn't have understood. Now he'd held Brenna, now he knew what it would do to him to lose her. "Did she die in the fight against the Psy?" The assassins had whispered into the village in the depths of the night, death their only agenda.
"We thought they might come," Xavier told him. "We never imagined they'd be as brutal as they were, but we got our vulnerable out."
Judd waited, knowing the story wasn't over.
"Nina wouldn't go. She was a nurse - she knew she'd be needed. She, like all of us, thought they'd rough us up some, leave us to lick our wounds."
"That must've put you in one hell of a mood."
Xavier's lips curved. "I threatened to tie her up and throw her on the back of a donkey if that was what it took."
"Of course. Nina was pure steel beneath that sweet surface - I figured that out when we were six." The smile faded. "Then the Psy came, and I saw man after man fall, blood pouring out of their ears, their noses, their eyes."
A huge burst of psychic power, Judd knew, could do that. "If they'd had a full Squad, they could've done the whole village at once."
"Yes. But I suppose our little rebellion only merited two or three men. The ones who did come were powerful - ten men died in the first three minutes." Soft words, Xavier's hands remaining flat on his knees. "I managed to run Nina out through the jungle. . . and then I told her to jump in the river."