An icy wind whipped the loose ends of Maria’s hair as they landed in drifting snow.
She didn’t flinch at the sudden bite of the cold after the warmth of the training facility - her conditioning was too complete to react to the abrupt drop in temperature, but several of the children gasped. One whimpered – the youngest, Catherine – and Maria flung up a thin shield of air around them all to block out the worst of the cold. It would deplete her already-drained resources – teleporting nine people was an exhausting effort, even when a psychic link could be initiated – but her resources were less important than keeping them all alive.
Phil’s hand covered the girl’s hand with his own, even as his gaze met Maria’s and he telepathed her. They’ll be looking for survivors. We have to get out now.
Can we sustain a Net between the two of us?
I don’t know, he said and she felt his hesitation. But better to die trying than risk being caught and rehabilitated.
Maria agreed. She’d seen the men and women who came back from rehabilitation. They were still Psy – still present in the PsyNet, but their minds were dulled and empty, as though they had been purged of all the shades and nuances of thought that made them who they were.
She’d always known it was her fate, that someday that shambling, soulless creature would be her – used one too many times, broken beyond fixing. She’d accepted that end for herself someday. But for Phil and these children, whose crime was merely to challenge the Council’s preconceptions? No.
We need shelter first, she said, and turned, looking for the landmarks she’d noted when she’d first scouted this place as a possible location for their escape.
The rocks were west, which meant they were facing south and the fallen tree across the infrequently-used path – but there was something different about the way it lay—
The great black wolf leaped over the dark wood and landed, snarling.
“Stay back,” she told Phil and the others, stepping forward so she was between the wolf and the children. If he leaped, she would take him on, but not before he moved on them and only in self-defence. She wouldn’t last long – the meter of her internal energies was ticking down – but she’d give Phil and the children that much of a lead.
Although she had no idea where they would go.
A moment later, the black wolf lifted his head and howled, and suddenly the call was taken up by what seemed like dozens of voices, although Maria supposed it wasn’t more than seven or eight.
Catherine whimpered again, and the children drew closer to each other, their eyes widening subtly, their fledgeling minds quivering with terror.
Maria remembered that fear from the day they took her from her father, the day her name was wiped from the Psy registers, along with every legal record of her existence. The child she’d been was twenty years dead, but enough of her remained within the soldier that she reached out to soothe them, even as she watched the black wolf and waited for the first move.
This is what we wanted, Phil reminded her. Maria?
I know. Still, she held her ground – for all the good it would do. She could hear others coming – the patter of paws over snow, the rustle of bodies through brush and scrub. But they’re Changeling.
They’re not just any Changelings, though. And she felt his psychic touch soothe her, the careful gentleness that no amount of conditioning had been able to erase from him, and which made him such a good trainer for the children put into his care. They’re the Howling Commandos.
As a big blond wolf trotted out of the undergrowth, Maria’s thought that was all the more reason to be wary. Changeling packs were notorious for being close: close-lipped, close-living, closed. They dealt with intruders on their lands with a swift lethality that had earned them the reputation of beasts among the upper eschelons of Psy society.
The Howling Commandos in particular had a fearsome reputation in the North-East USA – a large and powerful Changeling pack, they’d grown to be the dominant pack in the last twelve years and were reputed to be swift and lethal to trespassers – although never ruthless.
Not like the Council.
More wolves surrounded them – six, seven, eight...
And then an unexpected sight – a man loping up along the track, barefooted, bareheaded, clad in only a button-down shirt and a pair of trousers that surely wouldn’t keep out the chill.
Maria had seen holos of him before – Steve Rogers, alpha of the Howling Commandos - the pack whose territory they now stood in. Somehow the holos failed to create the impact of his presence – big and steady, with a clean-cut, open face beneath dark gold hair and direct blue eyes that seemed calm on the surface but which looked over her and Phil with the calculation of a soldier.
He moved past the black wolf on the path and stopped.
“You’re trespassing on Howling Commando territory,” Rogers said without preamble. His voice was a clear tenor, and hard as the chilly air around them. “Psy aren’t welcome here. This is your first and last warning for you to leave - you won’t get another.”
“We can’t go back,” Phil said, the spokesperson for them both. “We’re wanted dead by the Council.”
A shower of sparks and mist and a flurry of colour, and one of the wolves changed into a naked man whose long blond hair pulled back from a face marked by belligerence. He took a step forward, threatening with his height and strength – easily the equal of Rogers. “Then that is a matter for Psy and none of our concern.”
Rogers put a hand up for silence, even as several others in the group shifted, taking on their human forms in rainbow shimmers. “As he says, that makes it an internal matter.”
“We’re asking for sanctuary,” Phil answered. “For the children, if nothing else. We’re unarmed, at your mercy.”
A reddish-gold wolf shifted into a lean and saturnine man, whose eyes held a glint of mockery as he said, “Unarmed Psy? Isn’t that an oxymoron?”
“Perhaps it’s a gesture of goodwill.” Maria held herself still as the Changeling gazes fell upon her. Phil might trust that these Changelings wouldn’t betray them back to the Council; Maria had fewer illusions. The only reason she trusted Phil’s judgement in this was because she had no other options – not if she wished for Phil and the children to survive.
“Or bait,” suggested Rogers. His eyes narrowed. “You’d really leave the children with us?”
“Yes,” Phil said, at the same time as Maria said, “No.”
The Changeling alpha seemed amused. “You know, you might want to discuss this first.”
“Phil and the children stay with you,” Maria told Rogers, ignoring Phil’s warning. “You take the children, you take him. I leave.”
“And bring Psy Council forces back with you?” But Rogers’ expression was curious rather than suspicious.
Maria didn’t look away. She’d read that the predatory Changelings preferred boldness and courage to meek submission. Just as well; no-one had ever accused her of submissiveness, even when following orders. And this man could tilt the balance on their survival.
Rogers was the alpha of the pack – the leader. While his word wasn’t law, his opinion would count for a lot in the matter of whether Phil and the children were allowed to stay and what she said in the next few minutes would make or break their chances. She chose her words carefully. “I’ve aided the escape of eight Psy against whom Termination Orders have been issued. If they find out what I’ve done, I’ll be executed.”
There was a snarl from the big blond. “Termination Orders? The Council would order the deaths of children?”
“The Council would do anything to ensure their own power,” said the dark-haired man. “Like all Psy. I say we send them back and let the Council deal with their own.”
Rogers shook his head. “We don’t kill children – or send them to their deaths.” He was still watching Maria, and although his expression was cold, something about the way he stood and spoke suggested he was curious about her answer. “You’re asking sanctuary for them but not for yourself?”
“For Phil and the children.”
“Just the children,” Phil interrupted, calmly. “Because if you take me, you take her, too.”
The children won’t survive without you.
And we do this together, Maria, or not at all.
Rogers’ eyes were narrowed. “I didn’t think Psy had personal connections.”
“I’m her trainer,” Phil added.
Maria knew Rogers didn’t believe it – it was in the way he looked from her to Phil and back to her – but there was no way to explain the nuances of Psy society to him – and no need right now.
The dark-haired man smirked as he eyed Maria up and down. “I think the question is what were you training her to do?”
Maria didn’t stiffen at the Changeling’s implication. He didn’t understand how things were for the Psy race. No emotion. No feelings. Minimal physical contact. Reproduction by contractual insemination and genetic screening. Constant monitoring, endless tests, and the rigorous conditioning that every Psy undertook to eliminate the emotion that had plagued their race before the inception of Silence – that had made them psychotic killers until the Saids had developed the Silence Protocols.
Now, most Psy were purged of emotion, cool and considered, rational and reasoned, with none of the passions that so drove the other races – no longer killers but conquerers of the world.
Rogers looked at her with an apology in his eyes. “I’m sorry about that, ma’am.”
“No offence taken.”
“What you’re talking about - that’s defection.”
“Then that’s what we’re talking about.” Phil glanced down as the big black wolf drew a little closer and Catherine drew back against his leg – just one step, not quite cringing away from the Changeling beast. His hand came down to rest on the girl’s head, and Maria saw Rogers take note of it.
A Changeling to watch, this one – emotional, yes, but he was thinking when most of the others were merely reacting to them as Psy. Dangerous for that reason – and yet she and Phil had looked at the evidence and seen in him their best hope of survival.
Whether they would have that chance was another matter.
“What do we get out of this if we take the children?”
“An insight into the Psy,” Phil said immediately. “New members to your pack, with skills that you can use.”
“And how, exactly, are we supposed to train these new members in their skills?” The Changeling whom Rogers had named Stark crossed his arms and tilted his head, skeptically.
“That’s why you need Phil.”
She met Phil’s gaze, about to point out that the reason these children had been put in his care was because he was the only one with the deftness of touch and the skill to develop them without destroying their young, fragile minds. Then she felt it – the whisper touch of a mind seeking hers in the PsyNet, the faintest brush against shields that hid her presence, that declared her not-here, not-here, not-here.
They’re looking for us. We have to get out.
I can guide the children out.
Then I’ll get out first and anchor us.
“What is it?” Rogers said, and Maria didn’t have time to wonder how he’d guessed that something was up. “Have they found you?”
“Not yet,” she said as the Changelings tensed, growls arising from human and wolf throats alike. “But they’re looking.” It would take a direct strike against her shields to reveal her - Maria might not be a cardinal – one of the powerful elite – but she’d been trained to avoid detection, to ‘ghost’ through the PsyNet unseen. Phil had learned to keep his own shields tight, but the children... “We need to get the children out of the PsyNet before they find us.”
“You have to choose,” Phil told Rogers. “And fast. If they find us in the PsyNet, they have teleporters who can find our physical location. We can cut our connection to the PsyNet – we were going to do that anyway. But what happens after that – kill us or keep us – is up to you. We’ll leave our fate in your hands.” He looked at Maria. “Ready?”
If she wasn’t, then it was too late to doubt.
Maria took a deep breath and slid down along the link that connected her to the PsyNet – the glittering construct of minds that and held the psychic awareness of every Psy on Earth. From the moment a Psy infant gained consciousness, it was linked into the Psy Net, into the feedback of thought that every Psy required to remain sane and stable.
Without that mental feedback, Psy withered and died, lost in a universe of emptiness.
Maria wasn’t sure if this had ever been tried before – if it had, there were no records left of the attempt.
But they had to try.
At the core of her psychic self, she found it – the gleaming, glowing link between her and the PsyNet, anchor to everything she knew. Cutting this would make the break irrevocable, permanent. She’d made her choice, though, the instant she’d seen that set of Termination Orders and realised what it meant.
No more grey areas. No turning back.
One deep breath. One swift thought.
She severed the link.
Brainfire, thoughtburn, blackstab…
It hurt. She’d been trained to withstand physical injury – and torture, but not this kind psychic agony.
Mind-drain, shattervoid, deadsoul…
And it went on and on, the brutal chill of nothing and no-one and never. She felt all her certainties seep away, like the stars going out one by one.
Maria shuddered and fell up into the nothing, sucked into the endless empty cold, utterly, completely alone.