It was Aden who next spoke, his gaze focused in the direction of the house. “The boy’s one of us.”
Vasic’s next words were quiet. “I’ll keep an eye on him while you’re in Venice.”
Judd had expected nothing less. If there was one thing that held true for every Arrow he’d ever known—except Ming LeBon, and he’d never truly been one of them—it was that they were loyal. Sometimes that loyalty was misdirected, given to those who did not deserve it, but it was never false, and never for sale. “Did you track me down for a reason?”
“We always have a reason, Judd.” Aden picked up an acorn, examined it with care. “Do you know about the others? In Venice?”
“No.” He’d never heard a hint about other rogue Arrows.
“Good. That means we succeeded.” The Arrow medic placed the acorn back on the ground.
“Size of the group?”
“A small percentage of those who officially died during missions over the past decade.”
“How?” All Arrow bodies were retrieved, death confirmed by a pathologist who wasn’t part of the squad.
“First the squad liberated certain corpses from mortuaries after they’d been processed for burial. Of the right size and height to fit an Arrow about to defect. Then the corpses were substituted in place of the Arrows in planned incidents where the bodies would be so damaged, the DNA so degraded, it wouldn’t be difficult to fool the scans. Explosions and fires.”
“Risky.” The whole thing would’ve unraveled if a conscientious scientist decided to double-check his findings before the “Arrow” body was cremated.
“Yes, but possible with the previous generation of DNA scanners,” Aden said, giving Judd another indication of the long-term nature of the plan. “The same procedure wouldn’t work now. That’s why we currently channel the majority of defectors through a facility in the Dinarides.”
The Ghost, Judd recalled, had mentioned the Dinarides facility in connection with Arrows who had been taken off Jax.
Vasic spoke on the heels of that thought. “Ming told Aden to wean the Arrows at Dinarides off Jax to see if they could be restabilized—and a few weeks later, he told his medical staff to ensure none of them ever made it out alive.”
Because Ming LeBon only wanted perfect soldiers. Fractures that couldn’t be mended or that might leave a vulnerability made a man useless to him.
“He staffed the place with non-Arrows as a check on me,” Aden added, “but he forgot I’m not just a field medic.”
Judd wondered if Aden had used the telepathic skills he’d learned from Walker to subtly influence the minds of the medical staff who may as well have been lambs led to slaughter. “No reason then for Ming to question the eventual death certificates that came out of the facility.”
Aden’s expression didn’t change as he said, “Especially when their bodies had already been cremated, the cremations verified by Keisha Bale herself.”
“The head M-Psy,” Vasic said when Judd glanced up in question.
“Do I know the renegades?” Judd asked, impressed by the scale of the deception.
“The first four defections occurred in the generation before ours—the initial two remained heavily shielded in the Net for almost two years after their ‘deaths,’ until a third defection could be successfully navigated,” Aden said. “Three is the smallest group they wanted to chance in terms of a stand-alone network.”
“A smart decision.” The LaurenNet had initially had two adults, one teenager, and two children, and it had taken everything they had to maintain the fabric of the psychic network.
“After the third defection, followed quickly by a fourth, the program went into hibernation to ease any suspicion. It was reinitialized when I took over the field medic position.”
That was when Judd made the connection. “Your parents both died after the small stealth boat they were on exploded while at sea.” Aden had been a boy … but old enough to have become Silent, old enough to have learned to protect the secrets inside his mind.
The other man didn’t confirm his supposition, but neither did he deny it. “I watched you after you got yourself taken off Jax,” Aden said instead, “considered bringing you in, but you were such a perfect Arrow. I could find no way to prove that the Jax hadn’t already done what it was intended to do, that you weren’t one of Ming’s reprogrammed puppets.”
Ironic, Judd thought, that he’d done such a good job of hiding his intentions even his fellow Arrows had never suspected him of seditious leanings. “Krychek?”
“Better than Ming,” was the short answer. “As for the rest … We will make decisions that benefit the squad and the Net. That is the single operative factor.”
Never before, Judd thought, had the Arrows threatened to break so completely from the ruling powers of the PsyNet. For now, Aden and the others followed Kaleb Krychek, but only until he betrayed them. That had been Ming’s fatal mistake. “Do you intend to eliminate Ming?”
“It’s a possibility.” Aden stared out into the forest. “The Net is already destabilizing. A number of the squad believe the impact of his death won’t be as significant when the overall fabric is rippling, but I’m of the opinion it could be the tipping point that leads to a deadly rupture.”
“Agreed,” Judd said, having had an update from the Ghost as to the current situation. “The Council might be fractured, but the majority of the populace doesn’t believe that yet.” Though the rumors were going viral. “Ming’s death would be a profound psychic shock.”