“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?”
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.
“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.