KALEB had known from the start that Aden wasn’t simply a low-level telepath and field medic, but the kind of power he’d seen from the Arrow today should have been impossible given Aden’s noncardinal status.

“Factoring in that Sunshine Station was site zero,” he said to the other man as they stood out of sight at the end of the affected street in Anchorage, “the majority of the Net is safe from collapse for the present.” The fact the Sunshine collapse and this outbreak had occurred near-simultaneously was a grim coincidence; one hadn’t initiated the other.

“The collapse does give us a timeline of decay,” Aden said.

Yes, and that decay was far more virulent than anyone had guessed. A chunk of the Net had simply crumbled to nothing today, akin to fabric eaten away by insects until it was too fragile to bear any pressure. If they didn’t find a way to ameliorate the damage, cure the infection, Kaleb would have to slice away the infected sections in order to save the pieces he could.

“The infection, however,” Aden said, his eyes on the carnage on the street, “is going active in the victims faster than it’s eroding the Net. Anchorage was clean as of two weeks ago.”

“Most of it still is.” Kaleb had called in reports from his men and women in the area. “This was concentrated on a single street.”

“A subtle thread of infection we didn’t spot and that could have been here for months.” Aden nodded. “Makes it more dangerous than the larger, visible tendrils.”

“We’ll need a rapid response team that can liaise with the local authorities. They’ll end up being first responders if we have multiple outbreaks in a single day.”

“Agreed.” Aden glanced at Kaleb, his dark eyes displaying such acute intelligence that Kaleb couldn’t believe Ming hadn’t regarded the male a threat. “An Arrow unit?”

“No, this has to be a unit that can deal with civilians of all races.” The Arrows terrified most people. “We need a manager skilled at handling people and logistics.”

Kaleb? Sahara’s voice. You realize you have that person working for you?

He’d asked the woman who held his soul to sit in telepathically on this meeting and his earlier discussion with Aden, her insights invaluable when it came to the squad. Silver is too useful to second. His aide had a brilliant mind.

I think she’d enjoy the challenge.

Kaleb considered it. If he gave Silver this position, she’d understand it was one that indicated a deep level of trust. It would also increase her status—not in a way that would pose a threat to him, but that her family would appreciate. It would further cement their loyalty to him.

“Silver Mercant,” he said to Aden. “Can you work with her to ensure Arrows are sent to the most critical incidents?”

“Mercants tend to be efficient, so I don’t foresee a problem.” Aden was silent for a minute, and when he did speak, it was on another topic. “The empaths. They’re being asked to do the impossible—how can a designation that’s been stifled and crushed for over a century hope to save our entire race?”

• • •

WHEN Kaleb repeated Aden’s question to Sahara after returning home to Moscow, she frowned. Seated in bed with a datapad on her lap, the world draped in the darkness of very early morning on this side of the world, she was watching him undress. They both needed to catch some sleep. Before her, he would’ve stripped, showered, and slept in silence.

Now hers was the last voice he heard before he closed his eyes.

“The first public defection was an empath,” she reminded him. “Then there’s the fact that there are thousands and thousands of older Es in the Net—no one ever considers how strong they must be to have survived psychic imprisonment for decades.” Setting aside the datapad, she shoved aside the blanket and got out. “I think the empaths are far more resilient and resourceful than anyone knows.”

He let her remove his cuff links, unbutton his shirt. She was dressed only in the T-shirt he’d been wearing earlier. She always did that, always wore him close to her skin when he was apart from her. It was as much a caress as her fingers on him as she pushed off his shirt. “You’ll have to make a statement.”

Shrugging the shirt to the floor, he undid his belt and dropped it on top of the fabric. “I’ll consider it. At this point, I can’t promise a cure—the populace should get used to fear, if only for self-preservation.”

“Silent Voices has already sent out a press release.”

Kaleb ignored her.

Sahara laughed, well aware that was a response. Guilt threatened nearly at once as she remembered the losses of the day, but she refused to succumb to it. The world would never be a perfect place, and she and Kaleb had already spent too many years in the dark. Never would she willfully turn her back on happiness.

Wrapping her arms around his bare chest, she rose on tiptoe to kiss his jaw, his skin a little rough by this time of day. It made her nerve endings flare, the sensation exquisite. Smooth or rough, she loved the line of his jaw, loved too that she was the only woman who ever got to see him stripped of his obsidian control. There were no masks between her and Kaleb.

He pushed one hand into her hair. “Do you feel forced into assisting me with the political situation so I don’t cross ethical lines?”

Startled at the question, she settled back flat on her feet. “No.” He used her as his sounding board, so it wasn’t as if she were ever in the dark about any of his decisions.

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