“Now you,” Vasic said, and pulled a box of nutrition bars from the kitchen cupboard. “That drink was just a stopgap measure.”

Ivy made a face but sat with him on the sofa and ate. “You know, now that some of us want taste,” she said as he finished a bar with quick efficiency, “there’s a business opportunity in making flavored bars.”

“I’ll tell the Arrow Consortium.”

She hesitated with the bar halfway to her mouth. “Is that a real thing or are you teasing me?”

“It’s a real thing, though it’s not called that officially,” he said to her surprise. “We knew we’d need money if we ever defected or went independent. Not all of us want to continue in this line of work.”

But they would, Ivy thought, heart twisting. As long as the Net needed them, the Arrows would surrender their lives to it. For that sacrifice, the men and women of the squad would be pushed to the margins of society and looked upon with fear. Hand tightening on the bar, she took another bite and made a vow that any member of the squad would always be welcome in her home, would be family.

However, all that had to wait. The first thing she had to do was share her empathic breakthrough with the others. It was as well that she’d discovered the key to soothing the infected when she did—the outbreaks continued unabated across the world in the next week.

Empaths—all Gradients, with a focus on those on the brink of natural emergence—were awakened on a wholesale level during the same period. Not all could accept the truth of their nature so quickly, but those able to open their minds to their new abilities after any existing blocks were removed, were given basic training, and sent out to join the fight. Yet despite the appearance of countless minds sparking with color, color that had slowly begun to infiltrate the formerly cold black fabric of the Net, the infection couldn’t be slowed, much less eradicated.

The infection might have hesitated to approach the concentration of Es at the compound back at the start, but it had grown more aggressive. While empaths remained immune, having even multiple Es in a limited area was no guarantee of safety for those around them. And the simple fact was, no matter if every E in the world was brought to active status, it would never equal the one-to-one ratio from the compound.

An entire section of the Net in Paris had to be evacuated when the infection surrounded it in a liquid black cage. Twenty-four hours later, that section collapsed, rotted through; the resulting shock wave left a thousand dead, many more injured. New York, too, hadn’t escaped injury—Ivy and Vasic had been responding to at least two outbreaks a day, even with the humans and changelings throwing their weight behind the containment effort and with all the active Es in the city working on a rotation.

The infection was winning, millions staring down the barrel of death.

Chapter 52

Interpersonal violence between Psy has dropped to rates so low, it eclipses that during Silence. And as we all now know, given the recent investigative reports, the Silence stats were manipulated by Council after Council and cannot be trusted.

The fact that it has taken the threat of near-certain annihilation to bring us to peace is a bittersweet irony.

Editorial, PsyNet Beacon

SAHARA HAD A genius level IQ. That’s what she’d been told as a child forced to struggle with math when she’d rather have been out dancing. Math and Sahara had never made their peace, but in other ways, her brain was a finely honed machine.

It had been worrying on a problem for a considerable period of time.

“Eben Kilabuk,” she said, and placed an image of the empath on Kaleb’s desk, having commandeered the space since he was at a meeting. “Phillip Kilabuk.” She laid the photo of Eben’s dead, infected father below the boy’s.

“Christiane Hall. Marchelline Hall.” Empathic mother and infant. “Miki Ling.” The caretaker cousin. A low-level M-Psy murdered by one of the infected. Her autopsy had shown no signs of the disease in her own brain.

“Miguel Ferrera.” Twenty-five-year-old male, Gradient 4.1, commercial telepath.

She took several more photos, laid them out. All of survivors. Then she removed the Es and rearranged the remaining survivors into two groups. On one side, she placed those like Miki Ling, people connected to an empath and thus assumed to be, or have been, protected by the empath’s immunity in some way.

On the other side, she placed the random outliers, such as Miguel Ferrera, who had no empaths in his family tree and had, in fact, had no contact with his biological family for over two years.

Then there was Phillip Kilabuk. His brain had been riddled with infection though he was the father and custodial guardian of an E. Proximity to an E, familial and genetic connections to an E, Phillip Kilabuk had had them all and it hadn’t saved him.

There was no pattern. And yet . . .

Eyes narrowed, she logged into Kaleb’s system using the password he’d given her—her beautiful, dangerous man had access to every database under the sun—and began to run down every scrap of data she could find on each one of the people represented by the photographs. Banking information, medical histories, university transcripts . . . that was just the start.

The work was tedious, might take days or even weeks, but she could sense something in the information she already had, akin to a tiny stone in the bottom of a shoe, an irritation that simply would not go away. She had to find that stone, because in the irritation might lie a critical answer.

Chapter 53

Heroes are often the quietest people in a room, the ones least willing to lay claim to the title. These men and women simply go about doing what needs to be done without any expectation of gratitude or fame. It is in their nature to protect and to shield and to fight against darkness, whatever form it may take.

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