Liz's brain activity spiked, her thought tentatively brushing against Claire's mind. Claire accepted the communication, opening the link between them.

"I was wondering if I could get a plant," Liz said. "For my room. I was wondering if you knew where I could get one."

"It will be confiscated," Claire responded.


"Because a plant requires nutrients, light, and water.

It will be tagged as inappropriate expenditure of resources."

The younger woman recoiled.

"I'm sorry," Claire told her aloud.

Liz ducked her head. "Thank you, Captain."

A vague feeling of alarm tugged on Claire. The other psychers sensed it as well and the five of them turned in unison toward the incoming threat.

Major Courtney Rome was making his way through the mess hal toward them. His psych-blocker implant was on, smudging his mind. Smudging but not obscuring. No psych blocker could lock out a psycher of her level completely.

Her team's minds dimmed around her, as her soldiers snapped their mental shields in place. Courtney couldn't read their minds: they simply reacted to a perceived threat on instinct.

Courtney halted a few feet from them. She liked cal ing him by his first name in her mind. If he ever found it, he would take it as an insult, which it was. Trim and middle-aged, Courtney wore a flat expression. She looked past the blocker into his brain and saw anxiety churning. He came to deliver unpleasant news. He never brought any other kind.

She rose and the rest of her team stood up.

"Captain Shannon, join me for a private consultation."

She fol owed him to one of the booths lining the wal .

They sat. A transparent disruptor wal slid from the slit in the wal , sealing the booth from the rest of the dining hal with a sound-proof translucent barrier.

"Your latest psychological evaluation showed abnormalities." Courtney said. "We are no longer confident that you are giving your all to the war effort."

"Has my performance been lacking?" she asked.

"No. Your performance is exemplary. That's why we're having this conversation."

Claire saw it in his mind: Courtney believed she should be decommissioned, but she was too valuable. Kinsmen like her, with psychic power, came along about one in every six mil ion, and the decision to keep her breathing was made above his pay grade. She could crush his mind like a bug, psych blocker or no.

Claire leaned back, putting one leg over another.

"When we're done here," she said, not sure what possessed her to continue speaking, "you will return to your office where you will read reports and push pseudo paper.

It's your job. I will go to my job, where I'll have to murder people."

Courtney studied her. "They are the enemy."

"These people I kil , they have children, loved ones, parents. Each of them exists within a network of human emotion. They love, they are loved, they worry. When I sear their minds, all of that ends. They have no choice about engaging in a fight with me, just as I have no choice in being here. For doing this, I am praised and rewarded."

"Your point?"

"There is something wrong with a system that glorifies a person for the kil ing of other human beings."

"They will kil you if you don't kil them first. They won't hesitate."

She sighed. "What are we fighting for, Major?"

"We're fighting for the control of the planet. The winner will get to keep Uley, of course."

"Have you looked outside, Major? I mean real y looked? Keeping Uley isn't a victory; it's a punishment."

Courtney leaned on the table. "I've been doing this a long time, Captain. You are not the first to crack - you won't be the last. Not everyone has the resolve to keep up the fight. But you can be sure that when your time comes, you won't simply be decommissioned. If I were you, I'd keep it together as long as possible, because I am always watching and when you stumble, I will be there."

She had gone too far to care about a threat. "I was taken from my mother when I was fourteen years old," she told him. "She was sick when I left. I wasn't all owed to look after her. The Building Association had to take care of her."

"That's what the Building Associations are for,"

Courtney said. "They're there to shoulder the responsibility for the residents of the building, so people like us can fight.

Everyone must do their part."

"My mother died when I was twenty-two. In those eight years I was permitted to see her three times. There is a child sitting at the psycher table now, Major. She was taken away from the family when she was twelve. It's getting worse. When will it end?"

"When Melko surrenders." He slid a datacard across the table. "Your mission for today, Captain. Penetrate the secure block of the Melko bionet, burn the data, and get out with your minds intact. Brodwyn expended too many resources on your training to lose you."

*** *** ***

Claire Shannon dashed through the woods. Tal trees thrust to the distant skies on both sides of her. Their dark limbs scratched at each other, their jagged branches thrusting out like talons ready for the kil . Behind her, the team sprinted, single-file. Lean, furry, they surged through the woods on all fours, their clawed paws digging into the forest floor as they ran. She saw them as beasts with glowing eyes. No doubt they saw themselves as something else.

Many years ago the need for faster data processing forced larger corporations and governments to implement biological computer systems that seamlessly integrated with the inorganic computers. It was discovered that only psychers could connect directly to the bionet and that the connection overwhelmed their minds. The human brain couldn't cope with the tremendous influx of information, and it deluded itself by turning code and synthetic neurosignals into a dream, interpreting the streaming data as a familiar environment, knitted from the individual psycher's memories and imagination.

Every psycher perceived the bionet differently. For Nicholas it was hel with molten lava and fire-belching dragons; for Liz it was a mountain pass strewn with snow, where avalanches and snow creatures waited on every turn.

Claire saw a forest. Code became trees, secure data turned into fortified castles, and enemy psychers turned into monsters. If it looked scary, it was a threat.

A hint of movement made her spin in mid-step. A large red-eyed bird with wicked dinosaur jaws instead of a beak raised its wings, preparing to dive at her from a tree branch.

Claire leaped.

The bird swooped down, talons out, teeth-studded jaws opened wide. Claire turned her head, throwing her body right. The jaws missed her by a fraction of an inch.

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kinsmen Science Fiction
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