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A Whisper Of Sin Part 10

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"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 they 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 stifle 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 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," he 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, "but 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, the infection threatening 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 . . . and it 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 he'd 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, 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."

The telepath's tone remained even as he added, "I want you to run it. You're the only man I trust to get them all out of danger if there is a sudden spike in the infection, or if the pro-Silence elements in the Net seek to do them harm."

Vasic knew that wasn't quite the truth; the squad had other teleporters in its ranks. No one as fast as Vasic, but fast enough. None of them, however, stood so close to an irrevocable and final descent into the abyss. "Are you trying to put me on soft duty?"

"Yes." Eyes on the greenery outside, but his attention on Vasic, Aden continued to speak. "You don't see it, but you're one of the core members of the squad, the one we all rely on when things go to hell. Outside emergency situations, the younger Arrows turn to you for guidance; the older ones use you as a sounding board. Your loss would be a staggering blow to the group . . . to me."

"I won't snap." Even though he knew the oblivion of death was the only peace he'd ever find. "I have things to do yet." And it didn't only have to do with helping to save those Arrows who might still have the chance to live some kind of a real life.

You don't have the right to be tired. When you can write her name on a memorial, when you can honor her blood, then you'll have earned the right.

A leopard changeling had said that to him, over the broken body of a woman whose death Vasic had been sent to erase. The leopard couldn't know how many names Vasic needed to write, how many deaths he'd covered up when he'd believed that what he was doing was for the good of his people . . . and later, when he'd known it was too early for any revolution to succeed. Each and every name had a claim on his soul.

"Nevertheless, I want you away from the violence, at least for a short period." Again, Aden's voice was that of the leader he was, and yet it was no order, their relationship far too old to need any such trappings. "There's another reason I'm tapping you-and why I'm going to ask you to consider certain others for your team. Being near empaths may be uncomfortable for you, but it will likely be soothing for the Es."

Because, Vasic realized, he and the others like him were ice cold, permanently cut off from their emotions. Unlike the fractured, they would leak neither fear nor pain, eliminating one source of stress on the newly awakened Es. "How does that tie in with being so close to the changelings?" The shapeshifting race was as rawly emotional as the Psy were not, their world painted in vivid shades of passion.

"If Krychek manages to negotiate access to part of their land, he intends to agree to full satellite and remote surveillance, while asking them to keep a physical distance the majority of the time." Aden paused as a butterfly flew from the lush green of the trees to flutter its scarlet wings against the glass before returning to more hospitable climes. "It'll take time for negotiations to be concluded, a location to be settled on, whether it's in changeling territory or elsewhere. Take the invitation to your nominated E, gauge whether you could remain in her proximity for the duration."

"You've already decided who I'm to approach."

"According to Krychek, all the empaths on the list but one have already begun to wake to their abilities, even if they aren't cognizant of it."

Vasic didn't ask how Krychek could've known that, aware the cardinal telekinetic had an intimate link with the NetMind, the vast neosentience that was the librarian and guardian of the Net. It had no doubt informed Krychek of the Es who were coming to an awareness of their true designation.

"Your retrieval, however, first broke conditioning at sixteen and was given aggressive reconditioning to wrench her abilities back under. Two months later, she and her parents quietly disappeared."

It was the second surprise of the conversation. "The NetMind can't locate the family unit?"

"Not that type of disappearance," Aden clarified. "We know where they are geographically, but they've done an impeccable job of making themselves of no interest to anyone. Her mother was a systems analyst for a large computronic firm in Washington, her father holding a senior position in a bank. Now they run a large but only moderately successful farm in North Dakota, in cooperation with a number of other Psy."

Psy preferred to live in cities, near others of their kind, but that wasn't to say none of their race ever chose outdoor occupations. Like humans and changelings, Psy needed to eat, to put a roof over their heads, and work was work. Such a massive career change, however, was the hallmark of a conscious decision. "Protecting their child?" It wasn't impossible, the parental instinct a driving force even in many of the Silent, though Vasic had no personal experience of such.

"Possible but unconfirmed."

Vasic knew there was more to come.

"What's also unconfirmed is if she still has access to her abilities-or if they were terminally damaged by the reconditioning process." Aden stared unblinking through the glass. "I watched the recording and it was one of the most brutal sessions I've seen, a hairsbreadth from a rehabilitation."

"Then why is she on the list?" The ugliness of rehabilitation erased the personality, left the individual a drooling vegetable, and if this E had come so close to it, she had to bear major mental scars.

"To be valid, the experiment needs not only Psy who have never been reconditioned, but those who've been through the process. She's one of six in the group who have, but the others underwent only a minor reset."

It made absolute sense . . . because the majority of empaths in the Net would've undergone reconditioning at some stage, the process designed to force their minds back into the accepted norm, in denial of the fact those minds had never been meant to be emotionless constructs. Which meant the PsyNet had to deal not only with Es who didn't have any idea of how to utilize their abilities, but also ones damaged on a fundamental level.

"The flip side to their problematic conditioning," Aden added, faultlessly following Vasic's line of thought, "is that they'll suffer no pain breaking it."

"Of course." The process known as dissonance was designed to reinforce Silence by punishing any unacceptable emotional deviation with pain, but clearly that approach wouldn't work on an individual whose mental pathways were structured with emotion as the core. It would simply kill them. "The details of the retrieval."

Aden handed him an envelope. "A letter to her directly from Krychek, setting out the parameters of her engagement, as well as the payment schedule."

"He's offering them jobs?" The Council had always simply taken.

"We both know how intelligent he is. Why coerce when you can contract?" With that cool statement that perfectly described the way Krychek's mind worked, Aden sent him a telepathic image.

It was of a small female with black hair to her shoulders, the strands shaping themselves into soft natural curls, and eyes so unusual, he took a second look. The pupil was jet black against irises of translucent copper ringed by a fine rim of gold. They stood out against the golden cream of her skin, somehow too old, too perceptive . . . as if she saw beneath the skin.

Storing the photograph in a mental vault after imprinting a geographic location on his mind using her appearance as a lock, he looked down at the envelope. Her name was handwritten across it in black ink: Ivy Jane.

He wondered what Ivy Jane would think of the Arrow about to enter her life, a man who could never again feel anything. Even were it physiologically possible, Vasic had no intention of allowing his Silence to fragment . . . because behind it lay only a howling madness created of blood and death and endless horror.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR.

Nalini Singh is passionate about writing. Though she's traveled as far afield as the deserts of China, the Highlands of Scotland, and the temples of Japan, it is the journey of the imagination that fascinates her most. She's beyond delighted to be able to follow her dream as a writer.

Nalini lives and works in beautiful New Zealand. Visit the author online at nalinisingh.com, facebook.com/AuthorNaliniSingh, and twitter.com/NaliniSingh. Nalini also invites you to join her newsletter for up-to-date news about future books, as well as free short stories set in the Psy-Changeling and Guild Hunter worlds.

Berkley titles by Nalini Singh.

Psy-Changeling Series.

SLAVE TO SENSATION.

VISIONS OF HEAT.

CARESSED BY ICE.

MINE TO POSSESS.

HOSTAGE TO PLEASURE.

BRANDED BY FIRE.

BLAZE OF MEMORY.

BONDS OF JUSTICE.

PLAY OF PASSION.

KISS OF SNOW.

TANGLE OF NEED.

HEART OF OBSIDIAN.

Guild Hunter Series.

ANGELS' BLOOD ARCHANGEL'S KISS ARCHANGEL'S CONSORT ARCHANGEL'S BLADE ARCHANGEL'S STORM ARCHANGEL'S LEGION Anthologies.

AN ENCHANTED SEASON.

(with Maggie Shayne, Erin McCarthy, and Jean Johnson).

THE MAGICAL CHRISTMAS CAT.

(with Lora Leigh, Erin McCarthy, and Linda Winstead Jones).

MUST LOVE HELLHOUNDS.

(with Charlaine Harris, Ilona Andrews, and Meljean Brook).

BURNING UP.

(with Angela Knight, Virginia Kantra, and Meljean Brook).

ANGELS OF DARKNESS.

(with Ilona Andrews, Meljean Brook, and Sharon Shinn).

ANGELS' FLIGHT.

WILD INVITATION.

Specials.

ANGELS' PAWN.

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