The first book in the Psy-Changelings series, 2006
This one is for my wonderful editor, Cindy Hwang, and my awesome agent, Nephele Tempest, for being so enthusiastic about this book from the start, and as always for my family, for being there no matter what.
In an effort to reduce the overwhelming incidence of insanity and serial killing in the Psy population, the Psy Council decided, in the year 1969, to instigate a rigorous program called Silence. The aim of Silence was to condition young Psy from birth. The aim of the conditioning was to teach them not to feel rage.
However, the Council soon discovered that it was impossible to isolate that one emotion. In 1979, after a ten-year debate over the millions of minds in the PsyNet, it was decided to change the aim of Silence. Its new mission was to condition young Psy to feel nothing. Not rage, not jealousy, not envy, not happiness, and certainly not love.
Silence was a resounding success.
By the year 2079, when the fifth or sixth generation of Psy are being conditioned, everyone has forgotten that they had ever been any other way. The Psy are known to be icily controlled, inhumanly practical, and impossible to push to violence.
They are the leaders of government and business, eclipsing both humans and changelings, races that allow their animal natures to rule them. With mental capabilities running from telepathy to foresight, telekinesis to psychometry, the Psy consider themselves a step up the evolutionary ladder.
In keeping with their nature, they base all their decisions on logic and efficiency. According to the PsyNet, their mistake rate is close to nil.
The Psy are perfect in their Silence.
Sascha Duncan couldn’t read a single line of the report flickering across the screen of her handheld organizer. A haze of fear clouded her vision, insulating her from the cold efficiency of her mother’s office. Even the sound of Nikita wrapping up a call barely penetrated her numbed mind.
She was terrified.
This morning, she’d woken to find herself curled up in bed, whimpering. Normal Psy did not whimper, did not show any emotion, did not feel. But Sascha had known since childhood that she wasn’t normal. She’d successfully hidden her flaw for twenty-six years but now things were going wrong. Very, very wrong.
Her mind was deteriorating at such an accelerating rate that she’d begun experiencing physical side effects—muscle spasms, tremors, an abnormal heart rhythm, and those ragged tears after dreams she never recalled. It would soon become impossible to conceal her fractured psyche.
The result of exposure would be incarceration at the Center. Of course no one called it a prison. Termed a “rehabilitation facility,” it provided a brutally efficient way for the Psy to cull the weak from the herd.
After they were through with her, if she was lucky she’d end up a drooling mess with no mind to speak of. If she wasn’t so fortunate, she’d retain enough of her thinking processes to become a drone in the vast business networks of the Psy, a robot with just enough neurons functioning to file the mail or sweep the floors.
The feel of her hand tightening on the organizer jolted her back to reality. If there was one place she couldn’t break down, it was here, sitting across from her mother. Nikita Duncan might be her blood but she was also a member of the Psy Council. Sascha wasn’t sure that if it came down to it, Nikita wouldn’t sacrifice her daughter to keep her place on the most powerful body in the world.
With grim determination, she began to reinforce the psychic shields that protected the secret corridors of her mind. It was the one thing she excelled at and by the time her mother finished her call, Sascha exhibited as much emotion as a sculpture carved from arctic ice.
“We have a meeting with Lucas Hunter in ten minutes. Are you ready?” Nikita’s almond-shaped eyes held nothing but cool interest.
“Of course, Mother.” She forced herself to meet that direct gaze without flinching, trying not to wonder if her own was as unrevealing. It helped that, unlike Nikita, she had the night-sky eyes of a cardinal Psy—an endless field of black scattered with pinpricks of cold white fire.
“Hunter is an alpha changeling so don’t underestimate him. He thinks like a Psy.” Nikita turned to bring up her computer screen, a flat panel that slid up and out from the surface of her desk.
Sascha called up the relevant data on her organizer. The miniature computer held all the notes she could possibly need for the meeting and was compact enough to slip into her pocket. If Lucas Hunter stuck true to type, he’d turn up with paper hard copies of everything.
According to her information, Hunter had become the only ruling alpha in the DarkRiver leopard pack at twenty-three years of age. In the ten years since, DarkRiver had consolidated its hold over San Francisco and surrounding regions to the extent that they were now the dominant predators in the area. Outside changelings who wanted to work, live, or play in DarkRiver territory had to receive their permission. If they didn’t, changeling territorial law went into force and the outcome was savage.
What had made Sascha’s eyes open wide in her first reading of this material was that DarkRiver had negotiated a mutual nonaggression pact with the SnowDancers, the wolf pack that controlled the rest of California. Since the SnowDancers were known to be vicious and unforgiving to anyone who dared rise to power in their territory, it made her wonder at DarkRiver’s civilized image. No one survived the wolves by playing nice.
A soft chime sounded.
“Shall we go, Mother?” Nothing about Nikita’s relationship to Sascha was, or had ever been, maternal, but protocol stated she was to be addressed by her family designation.
Nikita nodded and stood to her full height, a graceful five eight. Dressed in a black pantsuit teamed with a white shirt, she looked every inch the successful woman she was, her hair cut to just below her ears in a blunt style that suited her. She was beautiful. And she was lethal.
Sascha knew that when they walked side by side as they were doing now, no one would place them for mother and daughter. They were the same height but the resemblance ended there. Nikita had inherited her Asiatic eyes, arrow-straight hair, and porcelain skin from her half-Japanese mother. By the time the genes had been passed on to Sascha, all that had survived was the slightest tilt to the eyes.
Instead of Nikita’s sheet of shimmering blue-black, she had rich ebony hair that absorbed light like ink and curled so wildly she was forced to pull it back into a severe plait every morning. Her skin was a dark honey rather than ivory, evidence of her unknown father’s genes. Sascha’s birth records had listed him as being of Anglo-Indian descent.
She dropped back a little as the door to the meeting room drew closer. She hated encounters with changelings and not because of the general Psy revulsion to their open emotionalism. It seemed to her that they knew. Somehow they could sense that she wasn’t like the others, that she was flawed.
She looked up at the sound of her mother’s voice. And found herself within touching distance of the most dangerous male she’d ever seen. There was no other word to describe him. Well over six feet tall, he was built like the fighting machine he was in the wild, pure lean muscle and tensile strength.
His black hair brushed his shoulders but there was nothing soft about it. Instead, it hinted at unrestrained passion and the dark hunger of the leopard below the skin. She had no doubt she was in the presence of a predator.
Then he turned his head and she saw the right side of his face. Four jagged lines, reminiscent of the claw marks of some great beast, scored the muted gold of his skin. His eyes were a hypnotic green but it was those slashing markings that grabbed her attention. She’d never been this close to one of the changeling Hunters before.
“Ms. Duncan.” His voice was low and a little rough, as if caught on the edge of a growl.
“This is my daughter, Sascha. She’ll be the liaison for this project.”
“A pleasure, Sascha.” He tipped his head toward her, eyes lingering for a second longer than necessary.
“Likewise.” Could he hear the jagged beat of her pulse? Was it true that changeling senses were far superior to those of any other race?
“Please.” He gestured for them to take seats at the glass-topped table and remained standing until they’d done so. Then he chose a chair exactly opposite Sascha.
She forced herself to return his gaze, not fooled by the chivalry into dropping her guard. Hunters were trained to sniff out vulnerable prey. “We’ve looked at your offer,” she began.
“What do you think?” His eyes were remarkably clear, as calm as the deepest ocean. But there was nothing cold or practical about him, nothing that belied her first impression of him as something wild barely leashed.
“You must know that Psy-changeling business alliances rarely work. Competing priorities.” Nikita’s voice sounded utterly toneless in comparison to Lucas’s.
His responsive smile was so wicked, Sascha couldn’t look away. “In this case, I think we have the same ones. You need help to plan and execute housing that’ll appeal to changelings. I want an inside track on new Psy projects.”
Sascha knew that that couldn’t be all of it. They needed him but he didn’t need them, not when DarkRiver’s business interests were extensive enough to rival their own. The world was changing under the noses of the Psy, the human and changeling races no longer content to be second best. It was a measure of their arrogance that most of her people continued to ignore the slow shift in power.
Sitting so close to the contained fury that was Lucas Hunter, she wondered at the blindness of her brethren. “If we deal with you, we’ll expect the same level of reliability that we’d get if we went with a Psy construction and design firm.”
Lucas looked across at the icy perfection of Sascha Duncan and wished he knew what it was about her that was bugging the hell out of him. His beast was snarling and pacing the cage of his mind, ready to pounce out and sniff at her sedate dark gray pantsuit. “Of course,” he said, fascinated by the tiny flickers of white light that came and went in the darkness of her eyes.
He’d seldom been this close to a cardinal Psy. They were rare enough that they didn’t mingle with the masses, being given high posts in the Psy Council as soon as they reached any kind of mature age. Sascha was young but there was nothing untried about her. She looked as ruthless as the rest of her race, as unfeeling and as cold.
She could be abetting killer.
Any one of them could be. It was why DarkRiver had been stalking high-level Psy for months, looking for a way to penetrate their defenses. The Duncan project was an unbelievable chance. Not only was Nikita powerful in her own right, she was a member of the innermost circle—the Psy Council. Once Lucas was in, it would be his job to find out the identity of the sadistic Psy who’d stolen the life of one of DarkRiver’s women… and execute him.
No mercy. No forgiveness.
In front of him, Sascha glanced at the slim organizer she held. “We’re willing to offer seven million.”
He’d take a penny if it would get him inside the secretive corridors of the Psy world but he couldn’t afford to make them suspicious. “Ladies.” He filled the single word with the sensuality that was as much a part of him as his beast.
Most changelings and humans would’ve reacted to the promise of pleasure implicit in his tones, but these two remained unmoved. “We both know the contract is worth nothing less than ten million. Let’s not waste time.” He could’ve sworn a light sparked in Sascha’s night-sky eyes, a light that spoke of a challenge accepted. The panther inside him growled softly in response.
“Eight. And we want rights to approve each stage of the work from concept to construction.”
“Ten.” He kept his tone silky smooth. “Your request will cause considerable delay. I can’t work efficiently if I have to traipse up here every time I want to make a minor change.” Perhaps multiple visits might allow him to glean some information on the murderer’s cold trail, but it was doubtful. Nikita was hardly likely to leave sensitive Council documents lying around.
“Give us a moment.” The older woman looked at the younger.
The tiny hairs on the back of his neck rose. They always did that in the presence of Psy who were actively using their powers. Telepathy was just one of their many talents and one that he admitted came in very handy during business negotiations. But their abilities also blinded them. Changelings had long ago learned to take advantage of the Psy sense of superiority.
Almost a minute later, Sascha spoke to him. “It’s important for us to have control at every stage.”
“Your money, your time.” He put his hands on the table and steepled his fingers, noting how her eyes went to them. Interesting. In his experience, the Psy never displayed any awareness of body language. It was as if they were completely cerebral, shut into the world of their minds. “But if you insist on that much involvement, I can’t promise we’ll hold to the timetable. In fact I’ll guarantee we won’t.”
“We have a proposal to counter that.” Night-sky eyes met his.
He raised a brow. “I’m listening.” And so was the panther inside him. Both man and beast found Sascha Duncan captivating in a way that neither could understand. Part of him wanted to stroke her… and part of him wanted to bite.
“We’d like to work side by side with DarkRiver. To facilitate this, I request that you provide me with an office at your building.”
Every nerve he had went taut. He’d just been granted access to a cardinal Psy almost twenty-four seven. “You want to be joined at the hip with me, darling? That’s fine.” His senses picked up a change in the atmosphere, but it was so subtle that it was gone before he could identify it. “Do you have authority to sign off on changes?”
“Yes. Even if I have to consult with Mother, I won’t need to leave the site.” It was a reminder that she was Psy, a member of a race that had sacrificed its humanity long ago.
“How far can a cardinal send?”
“Far enough.” She pressed at something on her tiny screen. “So we’ll settle at eight?”
He grinned at her attempt to catch him unawares, amused at the almost feline cunning. “Ten, or I walk out and you get something lower quality.”
“You’re not the only expert on changeling likes and dislikes out there.” She leaned forward a fraction.
“Yes.” Intrigued by this Psy who appeared to use her body as much as her mind, he deliberately echoed the movement. “But I’m the best.”