Hunter, Healer, Page 2Lilith Saintcrow
His arm itched, the creeping fire of Zed wearing off. They'd drugged him hard, always asking the same question.
Where is Rowan Price? Whoever she was, they wanted her badly.
That was enough to make Del hope they didn't find her.
"We've got jump-off in forty. Get your ass up, you're coming topside with me. We've got a snatch and grab to do."
"Fine.” Delgado coiled himself to his feet and noticed Andrews tense, his muscled shoulders rolling under a black T-shirt. “Who we grabbing?"
Andrews stepped back. He might look lazy, but he was ready. Del wondered if his shoulder was hurting from the old knife wound.
The blond man's lip curled as he looked over the inside of the concrete cube. Del didn't rate even a mattress pad yet; he might never. They were confusing his inability to remember with stubbornness. Del didn't blame them. If he'd had a choice, it would have been stubbornness.
"Some psion the freaks have been courting. We've got a shot to bring in a whole busload of them.
Including the golden girl who's been running me around the goddamn country."
Del let one corner of his mouth tilt up into a smile. He seemed to remember a time when a smile had started to feel natural. But he was back in Sigma now. Every expression, the most minute of facial tics, was a weapon or a betrayal now. You never knew who was watching, who would report what, or when the fist would come down hard.
I never really thought I'd escape, he realized, as he did every day. I was just waiting for them to scoop me back up. Deep down, I knew it. Knew this would happen.
"She's been putting you through your paces, huh?” The more I hear about this woman, the more I like her, you son of a bitch.
"Oh, yeah. It's almost like hunting you, you sarcastic fucker. Come on, we've got to kit you out.”
Andrews didn't sound happy.
Of course not. For three months this Price had been eluding him, slipping through his fingers like water.
Sigma couldn't exterminate the last few vestiges of the Society no matter how hard they tried—and Delgado's knowledge of the ragtag assortment of psions and their usual procedures hadn't helped as much as Colonel Anton had hoped. No, despite picking his brain for every scrap of information that could be gotten out while a cocktail of Zed and sodium pentothal was forcibly pumped into Del's veins, the Colonel was no closer to eradicating the persistent thorn in Sigma's side.
And the Society had even started, incredibly, to fight back. A whole Sigma snatch team had disappeared off the map a month after Del's recapture. Civilian psions Sigma had targeted for acquisition suddenly vanished, reappearing fitted out like Society members, recruiting new psions and damaging Sigma with a persistent guerilla war. Slowly, incredibly, and successfully, the Society had managed to stay together and fight the massive tentacles of a well-funded black-ops government agency.
Del kept his face a mask and silently cheered. He gave all the information he could—he had no choice, not if he wanted to end up anything other than a brainwiped Zed-shattered hulk. The beatings hadn't helped. Andrews was sadistic, and his trained bullyboys not much better. Del didn't want to give them any more reason to bark at him. He'd just barely gotten over the last goddamn thrashing they'd given him.
So Anton was letting Delgado out to play, was he?
I can use this. Maybe escape.
But if he escaped, how would he break the Zed habit? He wasn't sure he could do it again. Once was enough for that particular hell, thank you very much. The drug was meant to give you withdrawal so bad you'd do anything for another hit. Without a full detox unit to help him through the worst of the physiological effects he might find himself in an even worse place than he already was now. Strange as that sounded.
And if he escaped, where would he go? How the hell could he find the Society?
More importantly, would they trust him once he found them? Probably not.
He slid off the bed, his rig coming with him. He buckled it on, rolling his shoulders to make sure it fit right.
Slid the knife back into its sheath. Giving him a few weapons didn't matter. One man, no matter how gifted or well-trained, couldn't extricate himself from a full-size Sig installation. It would be insanity even to try. “Well, we'd better go, right?"
"We'd better. You think you can bring this girl in, Del?"
I'd rather firebomb this whole goddamn place and dance on your burning grave, you sadistic son of a bitch.
"If I trained her like you say, I should be able to.” But if I do find her, I'm not bringing her in. I'm going to help her get so far away you'll never find her.
"You better be careful,” Andrews said. The bastard was smirking, his blue eyes alive as if he was contemplating someone's pain. Probably Del's. “If she keeps this up the Colonel might decide she's better dead, even if she is a golden girl. Jilssen has a hard time convincing him to bring her in alive anyway."
Del shrugged. “If I cared, I wouldn't be here.” I escaped you once before. But he was past lying to himself, and the thought was merely reflexive. Empty bravado wouldn't help him.
What would help him was finding the genius who could outthink Sigma, hold the shattered Society together, and direct an organization like this back from the brink of disaster. A genius like that might have an idea or two Del could use.
A genius like that might be able to help Del figure out what he'd done to his own head—and what he couldn't remember.
Andrews laughed, sidling back out the door. “Yeah, sure you don't care. Come on, Breaker. For this assignment, your ass is mine."
"Color me excited,” Del mumbled, and followed him out the door into the blinding white-tiled corridor beyond. They were underground in the high security warrens, armed guards with personal dampers everywhere, and trackers in special cells on every level. Someone down the hall screamed—probably undergoing their first reeducation session. Zed and a beating, just the right way to wake up in the morning.
Sigma. Back home in the bad old cradle. They were going to send him out on an assignment for the first time since his recapture. And any assignment, however well-planned it was, might offer Del a chance to do something other than keep being a Sigma lapdog. Excitement rose, but training clamped down on his hindbrain, regulating his pulse back to a steady, even thudding. Even a heartbeat could give him away.
Escape was just a vanishing possibility, though. It was far more likely that Anton and Andrews were going to use Del like a ferret in a hole to smoke out any Society operatives possible. They had all the weight of the government behind them, and they had learned a few things since Del's last escape.
Whoever this Price girl was, she was still playing in a rigged game. Del's unwilling acquiescence to Sigma might be the thing that tipped the balance against her.
Whoever you are, Price, keep running, he thought. I hope I did train you, I really do. ‘Cause that's the only thing that's going to save you if they somehow make me hunt you down.
Rowan's head began to hurt as soon as they got within ten miles of the office building, navigating the van with no trouble through midmorning traffic. Skyscrapers rose up, the downtown of this city beating around her like a heart. She waited while Henderson drove, closing her eyes and stilling herself, reaching for that place of quiet calm that seemed to grow deeper each time she used it. It was the calm that allowed her to do some of her more showy tricks, like quick-healing a cut or a scrape. The training Miss Kate and Henderson—not to mention Justin—had given her had triggered a deepening of her talents, and it was like a muscle. The more you trained it and the more you used it, the better you got and the bigger the talent got. She'd reach her limit soon, probably; there was a ceiling to every psion's gifts. After that ceiling, you courted backlash, the body protesting once the mind was pushed past its limits.
Rowan hadn't found her ceiling yet. And the massive effort she'd used during the attack on Headquarters—shunting aside the collective force of massed Sigma psions and also
striking at the pilot of a helicopter that had been firing at Henderson's Brigade—seemed to have torn something inside her. A thin protective barrier that had kept her from going all wacky with the woo-woo.
You could incite riots, Justin had told her. You could start revolutions. He'd been utterly serious. She didn't think she was quite that powerful, but there were certain things she could do that seemed far above the norm. Norm . As if that word applied to any of this.
Rowan had never been normal, really. Finding lost articles, hearing people's most intimate thoughts shouted into her head, calming her ward of mental patients, sensing the moods of those around her—no, normal was not the word.
The massed attack, several Sig psions in a circle around a target site or funneling their talent through a single point, was an evolution in their tactics according to Henderson. Just like Rowan was an evolution in psionics, according to him.
And so, she had learned to trust her instincts. Especially when they were so painfully, exquisitely loud.
Is this just pre-job nerves, or is there a good reason for me being so edgy?
The deep calm inside her returned an answer Rowan didn't much like.
"Sigma's here,” she heard herself say in that queer, floaty voice that seemed all she could use when she did this trick. “I think they're planning on getting him."
"Good,” Cath said from the back seat. “I want a little payback."
"Bloodthirsty's not the way to go,” Henderson said severely, as he did every time.
Boomer, sitting next to Cath, made a rude snorting noise. Yoshi laughed. Rowan felt their jagged nerves and reached to soothe them, stroking away the rough edges of pre-operation jitters.
"Yeah, right.” Boomer's sideburns would be wagging side-to-side in disbelief. “When was the last time you let a Sig get away alive?"
"Focus, people,” Rowan said softly, returning to herself. “We aren't Sigma."
Silence filled the car, a silence that almost turned into words.
But Delgado was. Even Cath wouldn't say it to her, but she was suddenly sure they had said it to each other.
Sometimes being a psion was a bitch. Rowan kept breathing.
It had been cold the night Justin had come over for dinner and ended up carrying her to his car because Sigma burst in and shot her father and best friend. And afterward he'd always been there. They'd taken to calling him Rowan's shadow , because wherever she was you could find Justin Delgado—leaning against a wall and watching, drifting behind her, or buried in the shadows in the most defensible corner, his eyes on her.
But now he was gone, and Rowan didn't even know herself anymore. The mental hospital's nursing station she'd worked at seemed a million miles away, as well as her house with its green kitchen and her yellow bedroom and Dad's painting of Mom in the front hall. The person she had been was equally gone.
The funny thing was she still felt like herself. Except for one thing—the empty, nagging, raw place inside her head. Where Justin should be.
That, and the aching grief of her father's death, turned into a cold, clear anger that frightened her while it gave her the strength to go on. Anger should not feel this good .
The black van braked to a smooth stop, and Rowan's hands moved efficiently, checking her gear. She looked back over her shoulder at Yoshi, who sat in the middle seat with his laptop balanced on his knees. He smiled at her. “You ready?"
She nodded and reached back with her left hand.
Yoshi's fingers touched hers—but another meeting took place, a mental handholding. Rowan wasn't quite used to the ease with which she seeped into the borders of Yoshi's mind, but she let the connection sink below her conscious control. You can hear me. It wasn't a question.
Loud and clear. Yoshi's mental voice tasted, as always, of circuits and wires and the jittery dance of electricity, black coffee and a strange bittersweet incense smoke that made Rowan think of offerings in clean, pure pagoda-roofed temples. His calm steadied her. “Good luck, Ro."
"Thanks. If all goes well I won't need it.” But her head prickled with pain, and her stomach felt sour.
She always felt sick around them.
"Ro?” Henderson, now, sitting in the driver's seat, looking out the windshield at the street he'd chosen to park on. “Be careful. Don't take any chances."
She felt her lips stretch in what she supposed was a grin. “Don't worry, old man.” She reached for the doorhandle. “I'm a professional."
It was just the sort of thing Justin might have said.
* * * *
The building was tall and glittering, a spike of iron and glass throwing back the morning sun. Heat simmered up from the pavement. Rowan's lower back was soaked with sweat by the time she reached the glass door and swung in, her eyes moving in an arc over the lobby and taking everything in, just as Justin had taught her.
Exits—two. Elevators, a bank of six. Escalators, four. Fire escape stairs, there and there, mezzanine level above. Christ, what a security nightmare. The escalators flanked a wide central staircase made of faux white marble. The plants were all fake, and the people were all in end-of-week business chic. Lewis worked as an accountant for a huge company and the dress code was only relaxed on Fridays.
People — lots of them. An espresso stand tucked into one corner of the lobby. A tide of business-suited and khaki-and-short-sleeves deadhead people. The elevators dinged frequently, releasing more of them at regular intervals.
"Deadhead,” the term for those without psychic powers. Slightly disparaging, but she'd fallen into the habit of using it. It was apt; they noticed nothing. Then again, they were living normal lives without having to worry about guns, knives, targets, critical zones, and casualty percentages. Lucky them.
Sunlight speared through the glass, robbed of its power by air conditioning but still somehow reassuring.
There were two bored security guards near the elevators, one with his hand resting on a holstered gun.
They were both too pudgy to be of any real use. Even an idiot with a gun can be dangerous , Justin's voice reminded her, floating up from memory.
So many things to do — juggle the confusing wash of sensation from the ordinary people, sharp pinpricks of guilt or fear in the sea of boredom and frustration. Scan for any whisper, any breath of anything out of the normal. She had barely sensed a Sig coming the first time, now it was like an aching tooth or a fresh bruise each time they got close.
She was hunting for a particular mind, a mind she'd brushed before. She drifted with the crowd, peeling off to walk toward the doors that most likely led to the fire stairs.
I'm in. The channel to Yoshi was wide and smooth with the ease of long communication. They sometimes meditated together too, sitting face-to-face in the comm room, strengthening the bond so Rowan didn't have to use a comm-link to talk to him. Of all of them, Yoshi was the one who ... well, not comprehended, but understood what she was feeling. Where the hell is our precog, Yosh?
Yoshi's answer: Twenty-fifth floor. Clipped, he was typing, the feel of the keys against his fingers. Acrid undertone of worry—something was going on.
Get him down here. Rowan's mental voice was equally brusque. Her stomach flipped. Sigma was close.
Too close. Her stomach flipped again. They're onto us, Yoshi. Get moving.
Leave no man behind. Furious concentration. Rowan, they're closing in. I've got him on his cell. He's coming down the fire stairs.
No. Elevator. Have him take the elevator. A plan began to form, loose and haphazard as all Rowan's plans tended to be. She frequently ran on intuition instead of logic, something that often caused Henderson a bit of worry. Then again, trained intuition was as good as magic sometimes.
Sweat trickled down her back again, even though the air-conditioning was icy.
Yoshi didn't argue, even though it was against a primary rule—never take an elevator if you can help it. It was just too easy to get caught.
p; Elevator it is. On my mark, one ... two ... oh, goddammit, Rowan, get the hell out of there.
Tightly-controlled panic, tasting like smoke, colored his mental voice. Get the hell out of there. They have a net going, they're all over. They're serious this time.
What, like they ever play games? I'm not leaving without our precog. Steel in her mental voice, the bleak taste of determination. Her eyes moved over the crowd again, marking, evaluating as she leaned against the wall. Where is he, Yoshi?
Ro, Henderson says to get out. That's an order. Yoshi didn't sound happy. As a matter of fact, the wash of purple-red panic coming from him was distracting. She was too sensitive, and his fear scraped raw against her brain. Rowan's heart began to pound, she took a deep breath. It was almost second nature to blur the perceptions of the people around her. They wouldn't see the woman with the long ash-blond braid and the gun under her coat. Electromagnetic resonance meant that camera footage would be blurred and useless too.
Another trick Justin had taught her.
She'd managed a whole thirty seconds without thinking of him. It was a new world record.
Rowan eased the gun free of its holster. There was a time she would have been too afraid to hold a heavy, lethal piece of metal capable of killing someone. That time, that woman, had died on the floor of her father's kitchen as she heard the chilling little gurgle of Dad's last breath. She'd died there, hadn't known it—and been reborn months later, sitting on the bed in Justin's room when the fierce determination to make Sigma pay had surfaced, giving her a reason for living.
Yoshi? You're in the building's intranet?
I don't give a good goddamn what Henderson says. Trigger the fire alarms. Now.
Mercifully, he didn't argue anymore. Instead, there was a sense of frantic action from him as Rowan eased forward, cutting across the line of people heading for the escalators—businessmen, secretaries, flickers of almost-psions. Her palms felt slippery even though she knew they weren't. A trickle of sweat eased down the shallow channel of her spine, tickling like a sharp knife tip brushing her skin.