HIS GREAT-GRANDFATHER DIDN’T immediately answer Vasic’s question, the quiet broken only by the faraway echo of a wolf’s howl, as if a SnowDancer ran tonight in the territory of its leopard allies. If Krychek managed to obtain the approval of the two packs, Vasic knew he’d hear wolf song at far closer range.

“My growing up years,” Zie Zen said long after the howl had faded, “were consumed with the discussion on Silence. You cannot imagine the world as it was then, the chaos and terror of it, our race on the brink of cannibalizing itself. We debated the Protocol at school, at the dinner table, in every corner of the PsyNet, on television, in newspapers . . .

“Trillions of words were spoken, written, thought, until Silence was the defining memory of youth for many of my generation. But . . . it is not mine.” A rasping breath. “My youth can be encompassed in a single word: Sunny.” This quiet was deeper, heavier, not to be interrupted. “Her legal name was Samantha, but no one called her that. She was my neighbor, and my friend, and when we were sixteen, she became my lover.”

Vasic turned at last, bracing his back against one of the posts that bracketed the steps to his left. “A true lover?” he asked, looking into his grandfather’s dark eyes. “Skin contact?” Rather than the financial and scientific dance that was the current mating ritual of his race, genetic and psychic profiles compared before an egg was fertilized at the point of a needle.

Zie Zen’s expression was distant, his mind clearly in that strange long-ago world. “Yes, skin to skin.” He touched his fingers to his jaw in an action Vasic had never previously seen him make, before dropping that hand back on the open pages of his book.

“I wanted to defect at the dawn of Silence,” he said, and it was an unexpected admission, “but Sunny was an E, a powerful one. She wouldn’t leave, said there was so much stress and panic in the Net that it would be the same as a doctor walking out of an ER bursting at the seams with trauma victims. So we stayed.”

Vasic didn’t know too much about the beginnings of Silence, but he did know that established couples hadn’t been forcibly separated—instead each couple had been directed to live a chaste, distant life in order to set the correct example for any offspring. That left only one reason why Zie Zen had not had a child with his Sunny, Vasic’s genetic history including no one named Samantha. “When did she die?”

“Five years after the inception of the Protocol,” was the stark answer. “Only twenty-three and worn-out, worn-down. So many needed the help of an E after Silence, hundreds of thousands in agony because they had to sever ties of love and replace them with everything that was frigidly rational. Worse was the unrelenting pressure on the Es to stop being.”

A quiet shake of Zie Zen’s head, but his hand clamped down so hard on the arm of his chair that Vasic could count his great-grandfather’s bones. “It would be akin to my asking you to stop breathing, for empaths then weren’t the smothered, broken shells of today. Sunny was joyous, vibrant in her ability, her heart open to the world . . . and that world kicked her until she bled in ways I couldn’t stem, couldn’t fix.”

The older man fell quiet for so long that Vasic was certain Zie Zen’s time of talking was done for this night, but then he said, “Watch over your Sunny as I wasn’t able to watch over mine.”

The Silent answer would’ve been to say that Ivy wasn’t his, was just another task. However on this moonlit night when his great-grandfather had told him of a woman named Sunny who Vasic would never meet—but who he now realized had shaped Zie Zen’s entire existence, there was only one correct answer. “I will, Grandfather.”

Zie Zen closed his book, his hands steady and his jaw a firm line. “You must make certain the Es aren’t sacrificed as they were then, aren’t broken under the weight of the burden that is this new world.” His gaze locked with Vasic’s. “They will walk into any hell; with very few exceptions, it’s how they’re made. Of stubborn courage and little to no ability to be selfish. This new chaos will annihilate them unless there is a stronger force that will put the Es first.”

Vasic had made a vow to protect, and he would do it until his dying breath, but—“That is a task for a better man, a man like Aden.” Strong and intelligent and without fractures in every corner of his being. Vasic’s self was held together by countless jagged stitches that tore him bloody night and day.

“I’m a brute weapon and an expendable shield,” he said as the night wind cut across his exposed face, “my task to stand in the way of any violence directed toward the Es.” He’d do so without flinching. “I’m not strong enough to last the time the empaths will need their protector to last.” Into untold decades to come.

Zie Zen shook his head again. “No, Vasic. This isn’t your choice. It is a matter of honor—mine and yours.” Another shaky breath. “You are the son of my heart, my truest descendent. You may have lost faith, but you will never give up, regardless of what you believe at this instant. You will do what must be done.”

Vasic said nothing. Zie Zen’s word was law as far as he was concerned, but there was no doubt in his mind that he would disappoint his great-grandfather this one time. Zie Zen was right—Vasic would never give up, but there would come a time when he’d simply stop working, his body and mind shutting down as a malfunctioning machine might do.

After all, that was what he was: a machine trained to mete out death.

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