“Brenna doesn’t like it,” he said as they headed out into the early evening light, Riaz on her left and Judd on her right. “She’s already bought the neutralizer to get rid of the color once I’m back home.”
If Adria had met him on the street, she’d have thought Judd sophisticated and aloof, but there was no missing the love in his tone when he spoke of his mate. “I have to admit,” she murmured, “if I had a choice of you with chocolate brown hair or blond, I’d go with the brown every time.”
“Chocolate brown?” Riaz muttered. “Why don’t you just go ahead and call him a stud?”
Adria blinked at the edgy comment, belatedly realizing the lone wolf by her side was irritated by the attention she was paying Judd. She’d never been a woman who got off on making a man jealous, and that hadn’t changed. Which was why she said, “Because I’m partial to pretty gold eyes.”
Color streaked his cheekbones. “Judd, you’re not listening.”
“Listening to what?” The other male shot them a quietly amused look. “We have a tail.”
“Alliance,” Riaz said. “I think it’s more of an escort.”
Adria had picked up the three men as well. “Bo,” she explained to Judd, “is acutely paranoid, but in his shoes, I would be, too.” She explained his abduction, as well as the brainwashing of the comm technician, the suspected fate of the former chairman.
Judd didn’t sound surprised. “Rumor is, Tatiana reached her position on the Council by killing her mentor. I know for a fact that she used psychic coercion to get certain contracts—she’s one of the most dangerous and unscrupulous women in the Net. Bowen is right to be paranoid.”
Further conversation stopped as they reached the Alliance building and were ushered inside to where a scowling Bo was waiting by the elevators. “We had all the routes into Venice tagged,” he said, eyes on Judd, “full surveillance with facial recognition software, and yet you got through.”
Judd’s response was pragmatic. “There’s not much you can do to stop someone with my training coming into your city.”
Expression still dark, Bowen led them down to the same room they’d used yesterday. This time, the water was an invisible, inky blackness beyond the glass—it created the unsettling illusion of being cocooned in nothingness. Hiding her shiver, Adria glanced at the four people who sat waiting for them around the conference table: a slender woman Bo introduced as his sister, Lily, along with three other males ranging in age from midtwenties to early forties.
“I figured five test subjects,” Bo said to Judd after they’d all settled in, “would give you enough of a range to cross natural shields off the list.”
Not necessarily, Judd thought, not given the breadth of the Alliance. If the conglomerate that represented human interests was playing some kind of a high-stakes game, it had enough of a membership that it could have gathered five individuals with the rare type of shield. However, all he said to Bo was, “Ready?”
The male nodded.
The instant he touched Bowen’s mind—or attempted to—he knew without a doubt that what stopped his intrusion was no natural shield. Such shields had always felt like solid walls to his psychic senses, but a wall that could bounce things back, repelling any psychic probe. This was a storm of electricity. His probes got through … but were destroyed before ever reaching their destination.
Riveted, he tried the most subtle telepathic tricks he knew, including ones Walker had taught him during his clandestine ’ports to his brother when Judd was a half-broken teenager in an Arrow training facility. They failed, all of them. The shield was a masterpiece, powered by the electrical charge of the brain itself, and calibrated to provide maximum protection.
As with a changeling, the only way to disrupt it without having long-term access to the victim would be to blast in with brute power, which would likely result in severe brain damage. Futile if data extraction was the target. The solitary other option was the surgical removal of the chip. Unless—“Is the chip fused to your brain stem?”
BOWEN GAVE A short nod. “Any attempt to remove it once it’s fully integrated will cause death.”
Which meant extraction would be as pointless as violent force.
Considering other ways to get through the electricity, Judd turned to Lily. She went white, clearly less certain of the efficacy of the shield than Bowen, but nodded when he asked for permission to attempt to breach the shield. Hers, he found, was different from Bowen’s—less “active” in some ways, the currents smoother, but it was just as efficient in degrading his probes.
“The test is complete,” he said, retreating from the mind of the final subject.
Bowen indicated that it was alright for Lily and the others to leave, but they hesitated. The security chief looked at Judd. “They want to know if you were able to get in.”
It was a desire Judd could appreciate. “No. Infiltration proved impossible.”
Bowen continued to grin after the doors closed on the four volunteers, lines creasing the pale brown hue of his skin. “Do you have any doubts about the origin of the shield?”
“It’s unequivocally mechanical,” Judd said, speaking to Riaz and Adria as well as Bowen. “An extremely beautiful piece of biocompatible engineering.” His admiration was genuine—as was his concern. “Is it safe?”
“We’ve done extensive tests.” Despite the confident words, Bowen’s smile faded into a look of grim resolve. “Now that we’ve authorized a general rollout, requests are far outstripping supply, even though we’ve been blunt about the risks. The fact is”—the Alliance security chief’s jet-black eyes locked with Judd’s—“even if it does blow up our brains in a few months or a few years, we’d still have had that time knowing that no one could come in and take what he or she wanted. Knowing our thoughts were private.”