Home > Shield of Winter (Psy-Changeling #13)

Shield of Winter (Psy-Changeling #13)
Author: Nalini Singh

Splintered

THE SILENCE PROTOCOL has been the defining aspect of the Psy race for over a hundred years. Conditioned not to feel emotion from childhood, they are known for their icy practicality, acute mental abilities, and adherence to strict codes of behavior. It is all they know and all they’ve been since the inception of the Protocol . . . until now.

The twilight of 2081 will be forever remembered as the time when Silence fell in a crash of violence brutally leashed by the furious abilities of the most powerful Psy in the Net. With the fall comes a hush across the world, as the Psy race seeks to understand who they are in this new reality where emotion isn’t a crime punishable by a vicious psychic brainwipe, and the heart is no longer an organ simply used to pump blood. For though Silence was a deeply flawed construct, it existed for a reason.

Insanity, blood-soaked death, murderous aggression, this is who the Psy were before Silence. No other race, it is said, bred more vicious, more intelligent, or more sadistic serial killers. But worse was the clawing madness that destroyed so many of them, saints and sinners alike, until it became known as the flip side to their incredible psychic gifts.

Is the past their future?

Will the Psy race once more devolve into endless nightmare?

No one can answer that question. Not yet.

Chapter 1

To be an Arrow is to be an island, devoid of attachments that create vulnerability.

First Code of Arrows

THERE WAS NOTHING left of the man he’d been.

Vasic stared through the glass wall in front of him as the computronic gauntlet biologically fused to his left forearm hummed near silently in the diagnostic mode he’d initiated. Sleek black, the new invention remained relatively unstable, despite the constant and ongoing refinement by the medics and techs, but Vasic wasn’t concerned about his life.

He hadn’t been concerned about anything for a long time. At first it had been his conditioning under Silence that kept him cold, his emotions on ice. Now, as the world navigated the first days of a new year, he was beyond Silence and into a numbness so vast, it was an endless grayness.

The only reason he kept waking up in the morning was for the others, the ones in the squad who still had some hope of a normal life. It was far too late for him, his hands permanently stained with blood from the countless lives he’d taken in pursuit of a mandate that had proven false in a very ugly way.

“What is it?” he said to the man clad in a black combat uniform who’d just entered the common area of Arrow Central Command. None of them were sociable, yet they maintained this space, having learned through bitter experience that even an Arrow couldn’t always walk alone.

Today the room was empty except for the two of them.

“Krychek has a theory.” Aden came to stand beside Vasic, his dark eyes on the vista beyond the glass. It wasn’t of the outside world—the Arrows were creatures of shadow, and so they lived in the shadows, their headquarters buried deep underground in a location inaccessible to anyone who didn’t know the correct routes and codes.

Even a teleporter needed a visual lock, and there were no images of Arrow Central Command anywhere in the world, not in any database, not on the PsyNet, nowhere. Which made it all the more notable that Kaleb Krychek had demonstrated the ability to ’port into the HQ when the squad first contacted him. However, despite the subterranean nature of the squad’s base of operations, on the other side of the glass lay a sprawling green space full of trees, ferns, even a natural-seeming pool, the area bathed in simulated sunlight that would change to moonlight as the day turned.

It had been difficult to acquire that technology without tipping their hand—the SnowDancer wolves were very proprietary of their tech, usually installed it themselves. But the squad had managed, because that light was as necessary to their sanity and their physical health as the captured piece of the outside world on which it shone.

“Krychek’s theory—it’s about the disease in the Net,” Vasic guessed, aware that the broken remnants of fanatical Pure Psy and the sporadic new outbreaks of violence notwithstanding, that was the most dangerous threat facing their race.

“You’ve seen the reports.”

“Yes.” The disease, the infection, was spreading at a phenomenal pace no one could’ve predicted. Rooted in the psychic fabric that connected every Psy on the planet but for the renegades, it had the potential to devastate their race . . . because to be Psy was to need the biofeedback provided by a psychic network. Now that same link could well be pumping poison directly into their brains.

There were some who whispered that the fall of Silence a month prior was behind the acceleration, but Vasic didn’t believe that to be the truth—the decay was too deeply integrated in the PsyNet. It had had over a century to grow, feeding on the suppressed psychic energy of all the dark, twisted emotions their race sought to stifle. “Krychek’s theory?”

Aden, his hands clasped loosely behind his back, said, “He believes the empaths are the key.”

The empaths.

An unexpected idea from Kaleb Krychek, whom many considered the epitome of Silence . . . but that was a false truth, as the entire Net had learned when he had lowered the shield around the adamantine bond that linked him to Sahara Kyriakus. Of course, it was a false truth only when it came to Sahara Kyriakus. That was a fact Vasic didn’t think everyone understood, and it was a critical one.

Kaleb Krychek remained a lethal threat.

“Krychek,” Aden continued, “theorizes that the fact the empaths are so prevalent in the population speaks to their necessity in subtle ways we’ve never grasped. Stifling their abilities has thus had a dangerous flow-on effect.”

Vasic saw the logic—empaths might’ve been publicly erased from the Net, but every Arrow knew the E designation had never been rare. Except once. Their emotion-linked abilities contrary to the very foundations of the Protocol, the Es had been systematically eliminated from the gene pool in the years after Silence was first implemented, only for the ruling Council to realize almost too late that it was attempting to excise a vital organ.

No one truly understood why the Net needed the Es, but it was incontrovertible that it did. The Council that had first come face-to-face with that truth had named it the Correlation Concept—the lower the number of E-Psy in the population, the higher the incidents of psychopathy and insanity. However, while the current generation of Es might’ve been allowed to be born, they’d never been allowed to be, conditioned to suppress their abilities since birth. “Has Krychek considered the fact that it might not be a case of merely awakening the Es?”

“Yes. You see the critical problem.”

It was inescapable—if the empaths had to do something active to negate the infection, then the Psy race might well disintegrate to ash, because there was no one left to teach the Es what to do. By the time the ruling Council of the time had accepted their mistake in attempting to cull the Es from the gene pool, all the old ones were dead and information about their abilities had been erased from every known archive.

“How many?” Vasic asked, knowing they couldn’t simply begin to nudge the empaths awake on a wholesale level. Their deaths had almost collapsed the PsyNet. No one knew what would happen if they woke all at once, disoriented and unable to control their abilities.

“A test group of ten.” Aden telepathed him the list.

Scanning it, Vasic saw the short-listed Es were all high Gradient, from cardinal to 8.7. “No,” he said, before Aden could make the request. “I won’t retrieve them.”

“You don’t have to retrieve them all. Just one.”

“No,” Vasic said again. “If Krychek wishes to abduct empaths, he’s capable of doing so himself.” Vasic was no longer on anyone’s leash but his own.

Aden’s response was quiet. “Do you think I’d bring you such a request?”

Turning at last, Vasic met the eyes of the telepath who was the one individual in the world he considered a friend, their lives intertwined since childhood—when they’d been paired up to do exercises designed to turn Vasic into a stone-cold killer. To their trainers, Aden had simply been a useful telepathic sparring partner, a well-behaved complement to Vasic’s erratic temperament at the time, an Arrow trainee only because his parents were both Arrows who’d worked to hone his skills since the cradle.

As such, Aden had been put into classes that eventually qualified him as a field medic. He’d been given the same harsh training all inductees were given, but was never deemed worthy of any extra interest—except when it came to punishments designed to “harden” a boy who’d been small for his age. Always, the ones who would use the Arrows had underestimated Aden, and in so doing, they’d given the squad a leader who’d saved countless lives and who they would follow into any hell.

“No,” Vasic conceded. “You wouldn’t.” Aden knew exactly how close Vasic was to the edge, that the destruction of, or damage to one more innocent life could snap the razor-fine thread that bound him to the world.

“Krychek,” Aden continued into the quiet between them, “doesn’t think his proposed experiment as to the impact of the empaths on the infection will work if the Es are forced to participate.” A pause. “I’m not certain if that’s his personal view, or if it’s Sahara’s, but whatever the case, each of the Es must volunteer.”

Vasic agreed with Aden that the compassion was likely to emanate from the woman who had appeared out of nowhere to forge an unbreakable bond with the otherwise cold-blooded dual cardinal, and who, their investigations told them, was in no way Silent. “Where does Krychek intend to run his experiment?”

“SnowDancer-DarkRiver territory.”

Very few things had the capacity to surprise Vasic, on any level. This, however, was unexpected. “The SnowDancer wolves have a tendency to shoot intruders on sight”—“shoot first and ask questions of the corpses” was their rumored motto—“and the leopards aren’t much friendlier.”

“I’ve told Krychek the same, yet I can see his point as to the area’s suitability.”

“An isolated location, no other PsyNet connected minds for miles in any direction.” As a result, that part of the Net, too, would be quiet, giving Krychek a clean canvas on which to run his experiment.

However, that was a factor that could be replicated elsewhere.

Which left a single critical element that could only be found in the changeling-held territory. “Sascha Duncan.” Access to the only active E in the world no doubt played a crucial part in Krychek’s plans.

“There’s no infection in that section of the Net,” Aden said, instead of nodding to confirm what they both knew must be true. “However Krychek has the ability to shift the infection in that direction, or seed the area with it. He says he can’t control it beyond that, but I haven’t yet decided if he’s lying.” The other Arrow turned to acknowledge another member of the squad who’d just entered, walking over to her when she indicated she needed to speak to him.

Alone, Vasic considered the misleading simplicity of Krychek’s proposed experiment. An isolated group of empaths surrounded on the Net by the infection. If the experiment failed and the infection threatened to overwhelm them in a wave of murderous madness or more subtle mental degradation, it would be relatively easy to relocate all ten men and women at short notice. As well, the deterioration of an empty part of the Net would cause few ripples.

In that sense, it was a clean plan, with no threat of major losses.

Of course, no one could predict how the infection would move, what it would do to the empaths. “I can’t, Aden,” he said when the other man returned to his side, their fellow Arrow having left the room.

Aden waited.

“You know what happened when I had cause to pass near Sascha Duncan prior to her defection. It was a deeply . . . uncomfortable experience.” Councilor Nikita Duncan’s daughter had been pretending to be Silent at the time, but even then, there’d been something about her that had made his instincts bristle.

It was one of the few times he’d felt true pain as an adult—at first, he’d thought he was under attack, only to realize it was Sascha’s simple presence in a room separated from the one where he stood by a solid wall, that was sandpaper along the insides of his skin. As if some part of him knew she was the antithesis to everything he had ever been taught to be, the rejection primal.

It wasn’t until her defection and the resulting revelation of her empathy that he’d realized the reason behind the strange effect; the knowledge had made him recall the numerous other times he’d felt a faint irritation against his skin as he moved through the shadows in populated areas. Sleeping empaths, their conditioning not as badly degraded as Sascha’s must have been.

He also knew he was an anomaly in sensing them in such a way—according to Aden, no one else in the squad had ever reported the same. Vasic had a theory that the awareness was an undocumented adjunct of being a Tk-V, a born teleporter. Patton, the only other Tk-V Vasic had ever met, had often complained about an “itch” under his skin when he was in the outside world.

Regardless of whether that was true or not, the effect continued unchecked for Vasic, causing deeper and more frequent serrated scrapes over his skin as the conditioning of the Es in the Net fractured further with each passing day.

Aden took several minutes to reply. “Uncomfortable, not debilitating.” The words of a leader evaluating one of his men. “The empaths will need a protection squad—their designation has never been aggressive according to the historical records I’ve been able to unearth so far, and none of this group are, either.”

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