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 Vasic had 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, causing 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’s 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 teleport-capable operatives 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 want you on this detail—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. The NetMind 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 cutting-edge computronic firm in Washington; her father held 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 an indication 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.