Now, the elderly man looked up from the book he had open on his blanket-covered lap as he sat on the partially glassed-in deck of his home beside Lake Tahoe. The small reading light he’d clipped to the arm of his chair bathed the pages in a warm yellow light, the world beyond draped in night. “Vasic,” he said, and though there was no smile, no hint of emotion, the word held welcome.

Going down on one knee on the wood of the deck, Vasic bowed his head. “Hello, Grandfather.” Many people called Zie Zen “Grandfather,” using it as an honorific, for in his lifetime, he’d helped an unknown number of people across the world. However, for Vasic it was a biological truth—one generation removed.

Zie Zen was not his grandfather, but his great-grandfather.

No one could’ve guessed at the relationship from their physical appearance, a fact the two of them had used to their advantage. Zie Zen’s looks inclined strongly toward his Chinese father, his eyes dark brown and slanted, his bone structure sharp, elegant. By the time the genes reached Vasic, the genetic drift had come to full fruition.

He had the gray eyes of his great-grandmother, his features echoing his own mother’s half-Croatian heritage. His six-feet-four-inch height, muscular build, even the softer texture of his black hair, was courtesy of the Caucasian American male who had provided sperm for his conception. That was where the relationship began and ended.

None of it mattered. Regardless of the fact his legal last name was Duvnjak rather than Zen, Vasic acknowledged only one being on the planet as family, and it was the man who now touched his hand to Vasic’s shoulder in a silent request that he rise. Getting up, he took a seat on the edge of the deck that overlooked the vast quiet of the lake, his feet on the winter-hard and snowy ground, his forearms braced on his thighs, the rippling dark water his focus.

Zie Zen understood the value of quiet, of peace, and he said nothing, turning a page in a rasping whisper of sound that merged seamlessly into the night. This land, Vasic thought, kissed the edge of DarkRiver territory. It was possible a leopard changeling, its lashes lowered to conceal the night-glow brilliance of its eyes, watched him from the edge of the lake even now. Vasic couldn’t imagine what it must be like to be a being of two forms, to have such primal wildness within. The “half-feral child” he’d once been, as noted in his training log, was long gone.

“We are to wake the empaths,” he said to Zie Zen much later, the moon high over the lake, a spotlight on a world draped in pure white.

“Ah.” The sound of skin rustling against paper. “I had wondered if that might be the next step.”

Vasic told the older man everything he knew of the project. Aden would’ve done the same had he been here—Zie Zen had earned their loyalty long ago, while Kaleb Krychek remained an unknown. Then Vasic waited for his great-grandfather to speak, knowing the other man had far more knowledge inside him than most; at a sharp hundred and twenty, Zie Zen was one of the rare few individuals in the Net who had been old enough at the dawn of Silence to remember the past with adult clarity.

“I was eight years old when the debate first began.” It was a murmur as soft as the night. “A child, uncaring of the worries of my elders, happy in my play.” Coughing into his hand, he cleared his throat. “We played then, as freely as the changelings and the humans.”

To Vasic, the idea was so wholly foreign that it took him several seconds to process it.

“The decision was made to embrace the Protocol the day I turned eighteen. My parents’ generation and those just a few years older than me . . . they were too old to adapt to Silence, though they tried. Most died at obscenely young ages.”

“I didn’t know that.” Vasic had, however, often wondered why the Net didn’t have more elders like Zie Zen, the ones from before Silence.

“Some say the men and women of this lost generation were murdered for being too disruptive to the new regime, but I think the truth is much more simple. They died because their hearts were broken.” Zie Zen’s breathing was harsh, choppy, but nothing to comment on, given his age.

“Those long-ago Psy had to learn to live in a world where the children for whom they’d embraced an emotionless existence looked at mother and father both with cold eyes, and where their grandchildren were creatures they could not understand.” Another cough, paper rustling again. “It was too alien an environment, one that stole the breath from the lungs of those who should’ve been my peers in this twilight.”

Vasic watched the water ripple in to shore, the moon whispering over each silken undulation, and he listened.

“The empaths . . . the empaths died the fastest.” A long silence pierced with the echoes of a past that to Vasic may as well have been a fever dream, and yet that Zie Zen had lived. “A small number did defect with those we now call the Forgotten, but the vast majority stayed, believing they could help their people. Instead, Silence eventually crushed the life out of the Es, until many simply didn’t wake up one morning.”

Vasic didn’t feel, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t comprehend the nuances in another’s voice. That skill was part of what made him such a good assassin, such a good soldier. “You speak from experience, Grandfather?”

Chapter 6

Dear Z2,

Yes I am mad at you, thank you very much. I can’t believe you didn’t wake me. I’m fine. Don’t worry.



p.s. Love you (still mad though).

p.p.s. I know we’re not supposed to acknowledge emotions now, so burn this after you read it. Copyright 2016 - 2023