This one's for my Mum, Usha,
the most extraordinary woman I know.
The number one cause of death for F-Psy before Silence.
Death by insanity? For the F-Psy, it was very much a harsh reality. They became lost in the visions of the future their minds created—so lost that they forgot to eat, forgot to drink, and, in extreme cases, forgot to make their hearts beat. The Psy are their minds, and once those minds are lost, their bodies can no longer function.
But the dead were the fortunate ones. Those who broke under the pressure of the visions and yet survived were no longer sentient, no longer anything close to sentient, their minds locked in a world where the past, present, and future clashed and splintered over and over. As time fractured, so did they.
Surprisingly, the F-Psy were divided about the implementation of the Silence Protocol. Some thought it would be a precious gift to feel no emotion, for then they'd be safe from the threat of insanity, safe from the hideous illusions of their minds ... safe. But there were others who saw Silence as an act of betrayal against their very gifts. The F-Psy had stopped countless massacres, saved countless lives, done endless good, but they had done it all with emotion. Without emotion, their abilities would be controllable, but crippled.
It took ten years, but the proponents of Silence won the mental battle raged across the millions of minds in the PsyNet. As a result, the F-Psy stopped foreseeing the human darkness of the future and withdrew into the sheltered walls of the business world. Instead of the saviors of innocents, they became the most powerful tools of many a Psy enterprise. The Psy Council declared their services too valuable to share with the other races and gradually, the F-Psy disappeared from public view.
It is said they prefer to remain out of the limelight.
What very few know, what the Council has hidden for over a century, is that though they are wealthy and cosseted, the once-resilient F-Psy have become the most fragile of beings. Something about their ability to foresee the tangled threads of what could be leaves them unable to function fully in the real world, necessitating constant surveillance and care.
The F-Psy rarely travel, rarely mingle, rarely function on any level aside from the mental. Some of them are close to mute, able to communicate their visions and only their visions, by scattered bursts of sound or, in severe cases, through diagram and gesture. The rest of the time, they remain locked in their Silent world.
Yet the Council says this is what they were meant to be.
Faith Ngihtstar of the PsyClan NightStar was aware she was considered the most powerful F-Psy of her generation. At only twenty-four years of age, she'd already made more money than most Psy did in their entire lifetimes. But then again, she'd been working since she was three years old, since she'd found her voice. It had taken her longer than most children, but that was to be expected—she was a cardinal F-Psy of extraordinary ability.
It would have surprised no one if she'd never spoken.
That was why the F-Psy belonged to PsyClans, which took care of everything the foreseers couldn't, from investing their millions to checking their medical status to ensuring they didn't starve. The F-Psy weren't very good at practical things like that. They forgot. Even after more than a century of forecasting business trends rather than murders and accidents, disasters and wars, they forgot.
Faith had been forgetting a lot of things lately. For example, she'd forgotten to eat three days in a row. That was when NightStar employees had intervened, alerted by the sophisticated Tec 3 computer that ran the house. Three days was the allowable window – sometimes F-Psy went into trances. If that had been the case, they would've put her on a drip and left her to it. "Thank you," she said, directing her words to the head M-Psy. "I'll be fine now."
Xi Yun nodded. "Finish the entire meal. It contains the exact number of calories you need."
"Of course." She watched him leave, preceded by his staff. In his hand was a small medical kit that she knew contained both chemicals designed to shock her awake out of a catatonic trance and ones to knock her down from a manic state. Neither had been required today. She'd simply forgotten to eat. After consuming the nutritional bars and energy drinks he'd left behind, she sat down in the large reclining chair where she usually spent the majority of her time. Designed to double as a bed, it was uplinked to the Tec 3 and fed it a constant stream of data about her vital functions. An M-Psy stood on alert should she need medical attention any time of day or night. That wasn't normal procedure even for the F designation, but Faith was no ordinary F-Psy.
She was the best.
Every prediction Faith ever made, if not purposefully circumvented, came true. That was why she was worth untold millions. Possibly even billions. NightStar considered her its most prized asset. Like any asset, she was kept in the best condition for optimum functionality. And like any asset, should she prove defective, she'd be overhauled and used for parts.
Faith's eyes blinked open at that furtive thought. She stared up at the pale green of the ceiling and fought to bring her heart rate down. If she didn't, the M-Psy might decide to pay her a return visit and she didn't want anyone to see her right now. She wasn't sure what her eyes would reveal. Sometimes, even the night-sky eyes of a cardinal Psy told secrets that were better kept within.
"Parts," she whispered out loud. Her statement was being recorded, of course. The F-Psy occasionally made predictions during trance states. No one wanted to miss a word. Perhaps that was why those of her designation preferred to keep their silence when they could.
Used for parts.
It seemed an illogical statement, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized that once again her abilities had told her of a future she could never have imagined. Most defective Psy were rehabilitated, their minds swept clean by a psychic brainwipe that left them functioning on the level of menial laborers, but not the F-Psy. They were too rare, too valuable, too unique.
If she went insane beyond acceptable levels, the levels where she could still make predictions, the M-Psy would see to it that she met with an accident that left her brain unharmed. And then they'd use that flawed brain for scientific experimentation, subject it to analysis. Everyone wanted to know what made the F-Psy tick. Of all the Psy designations, they were the least explored, the most shadowed—it was difficult to find experimental subjects when their occurrence in the population was barely above one percent.
Faith dug her hands into the thick red fabric of the chair, hyperaware of her breath beginning to grow jagged. The reaction hadn't yet proceeded to a point where M-Psy intervention would be deemed necessary, as F-Psy displayed some unusual behavior during visions, but she couldn't chance her overload turning into a mental cascade.
Even as she attempted to temper her physical body, her mind flashed with images of her brain on a set of scientific scales while cold Psy eyes examined it from every angle. She knew the images were nonsensical. Nothing like that would ever happen in a lab. Her consciousness was simply trying to make sense of something that made no sense. Just like the dreams that had been plaguing her sleep for the past two weeks.
At first, it had been nothing more than a vague foreshadowing, a darkness that pushed at her mind. She'd thought it might herald an oncoming vision—a market crash or a sudden business failure—but day after day, that darkness had grown to crushing proportions without showing her anything concrete. And she'd felt. Though she'd never before felt anything, in those dreams she'd been drenched in fear, suffocated by the weight of terror.
It was as well that she'd long ago demanded her bedroom be free of any and all monitoring devices. Something in her had known what was coming. Something in her always knew. But this time, she hadn't been able to make sense of the raw ugliness of a rage that had almost cut off her breath. The first dreams had felt like someone was choking her, choking her until terror was all she was.
Last night had been different. Last night, she hadn't woken as the hands closed about her throat. No matter how hard she'd tried, she hadn't been able to break free of the horror, hadn't been able to anchor herself in reality.
Last night, she had died.
Vaughn D'Angelo jumped down from the branch he'd been padding along and landed gracefully on the forest floor. In the silvery light that had turned darkness into twilight, his orange-black coat should've shone like a spotlight, but he was invisible, a jaguar who knew how to use the shadows of the night to hide and conceal. No one ever saw Vaughn when he didn't want to be seen.
Above him the moon hung, a bright disk in the sky, visible even through the thick canopy. For long moments, he stood and watched it through the dark filigree of reaching branches. Both man and beast were drawn to the glimmering beauty, though neither could've said why. It didn't matter.
Tonight the jaguar was in charge and it simply accepted what the man would have been tempted to think about.
A whisper of scent in the breeze had him lifting his nose into the air. Pack. A second later, he identified the scent as that of Clay, one of the other sentinels. Then it was gone, as if the leopard male had realized Vaughn's prior claim to this range. Opening his mouth, Vaughn let out a soft growl and stretched his powerful feline body. His lethally sharp canines gleamed in the moonlight, but tonight he wasn't out to hunt and capture prey, to deliver merciful death with a single crushing bite.
Tonight, he wanted to run.
His loping gait could cover vast distances, and usually he preferred to run deep into the forests that sprawled over most of California. But today he found himself heading toward the populated lake city of Tahoe. It wasn't hard to walk among the humans and Psy even in his cat form. He wasn't a sentinel for show—he could infiltrate even the most well-guarded of citadels without giving himself away.
However, this time he didn't actually enter the city proper, drawn to something unexpected on the fringe of it. Set back only a few meters from the dark green spread of the forest, the small compound was protected by electrified fences and motion-sensor cameras, among other things. The house within was hidden behind several layers of vegetation and possibly another fence, but he knew it lay inside. What surprised him was that he smelled the metallic stink of the Psy around the entire compound.
The Psy preferred to live surrounded by skyscrapers and city, each adult in his or her own personal box. Yet deep within that compound was a Psy, and whoever that person was, he or she was being protected by others of their kind. Rarely did a non-Council Psy qualify for such a privilege.
Curiosity aroused, he prowled around the entire perimeter, out of range of the monitoring devices. It took him less than ten minutes to discover a way in—the Psy race's sense of arrogance had led them, once again, to disregard the animals with whom they shared the Earth.
Or perhaps, the man thought within the beast, the Psy just didn't understand the capabilities of the other races. To them, changelings and humans were nothing because they couldn't do the things the Psy could with their minds. They'd forgotten that it was the mind that moved the body, and animals were very, very good at using their bodies.
Climbing onto a tree branch that would lead him over the first fence and into the compound, the cat's heart beat in anticipation. But even the jaguar knew he couldn't do this. He had no reason to go in there and put himself in danger. Danger didn't bother either man or beast, but the cat's curiosity was held back by a deeper emotion—loyalty.
Vaughn was a DarkRiver sentinel and that duty overcame every other emotion, every other need. Later tonight, he was supposed to be guarding Sascha Duncan, his alpha's mate, while Lucas attended a meeting at the SnowDancer den. Vaughn knew Sascha had agreed to stay behind reluctantly and only because she'd known Lucas could travel faster without her. And Lucas had only gone because he trusted his. sentinels to keep her safe.
With a last lingering look into the guarded compound, Vaughn backed down the branch, leaped to the ground, and started to head toward Lucas's lair. He hadn't forgotten and he hadn't given up. The mystery of a Psy living so close to changeling territory would be solved. No one escaped the jaguar once he was on their trail.
Faith stared out the kitchen window, and though only darkness looked back at her, she couldn't shake the feeling of being stalked. Something very dangerous circled the fences that kept her isolated from the outside world. Shivering, she wrapped her arms around herself. And froze. She was Psy—why was she reacting like this? Was it the dark visions? Were they affecting her mental shields? Dropping her arms through sheer strength of will, she went to turn from the window.
And found she couldn't.
Instead, she pressed forward, lifting one hand to press against the glass, as if to reach outside. Outside. It was a world she hardly knew. She'd always lived inside walls, had had to live inside them. On the outside, the threat of psychic disintegration was a continuous drumbeat in her head, a pounding echo she couldn't block. On the outside, emotions hit at her from every angle and she saw things that were inhuman and vicious and painful. On the outside, she was breakable. It was far safer to live behind walls.
But now the walls were cracking. Now things were getting in and she couldn't escape them. She knew that as certainly as she knew she couldn't escape whatever it was that prowled the edges of her property. The predator hunting her wouldn't rest until he had her in his claws. She should've been afraid. But she was Psy—she felt no fear. Except when she slept. That was when she felt so much, she worried that her PsyNet shields would crack, revealing her to the Council. It had gotten to the point where she didn't want to fall asleep. What if she died again, and this time it was for real?
The communication console chimed into the endless silence that was her life. This late at night, it was an unexpected interruption—the M-Psy had prescribed certain hours of sleep for her.
She looked away from the window at last. As she walked, a sense of impending disaster seemed to cloak her, a sinister knowing that lay somewhere in the shadowlands between a true foretelling and the merest inkling of what might be.
This, too, was new, this heavy awareness of something hovering maliciously in the wings, just waiting for her guard to slip.