They’d come for her again.
A trickle of icy sweat ran down her spine. She’d always known this day was inevitable. Her emotions were too volatile, had no doubt leaked past the tightly woven network of interlinked shields that protected those who called this remote location home. All she could hope for was that she’d betrayed herself alone.
Mother, Father, she telepathed, we have a situation. Tell the others to keep their heads down and ensure their shields are airtight. I’ll handle this.
Fear squeezed frozen fingers around her lungs as she sent an image of the soldier to her parents, but she was no longer a scared sixteen-year-old girl who thought she was going insane; she was a twenty-three-year-old adult who understood that while she was defective and unstable, she didn’t deserve to be violated and tortured. No one would ever again strap her down and attempt to break her. Not even this deadly stranger.
Datapad held to the side of her body with one ice-cold hand, her heavy jacket and thin thermal gloves suddenly useless, she slid away the weapon in the guise of putting her datapen into her pocket. It seemed a counterintuitive act, but her every instinct screamed she’d be dead before she ever got off a shot. She couldn’t win this battle by force, and it was probable she couldn’t win it at all, but she’d fight to give the others as much time as possible to prepare.
Breath tight, she closed the distance between her and the soldier whose uniform bore a silver star on one shoulder. Councilor Kaleb Krychek’s emblem, though he no longer laid claim to the title, the Council in pieces. Simple semantics, however, couldn’t change the fact that as of just over a month ago, Kaleb Krychek effectively ruled the Net.
“Rabbit.” She tapped her thigh, curling her fingers inward to hide the slight trembling she couldn’t seem to control.
Still quivering with outrage, but no longer barking now that she was here, Rabbit ran back to her side and once again pinned his eyes on the intruder.
The man glanced at her dog. “He clearly isn’t of the Leporidae family.”
It was the last thing she’d expected to hear. “It’s because he’s so energetic,” she found herself saying. “It seemed appropriate at the time.” When she’d been half-destroyed, a zombie sleepwalking through life.
“He’s protective but not dangerous. You should get a bigger dog.” Eyes of winter frost met her own, the gray so cold, her skin pebbled with a bone-deep chill.
“He’s perfect,” she said, reaching down to stroke her pet’s stiff form once before rising back to her full height. “You didn’t come here to talk to me about my dog.”
“You’re an Arrow.” Part of the squad of assassins long thought of as myth but who were now aligned with Kaleb Krychek—though they remained shadows, nameless and faceless for the majority of the population. No one wanted to meet one in the flesh.
A slight nod that confirmed the unnerving truth. “I am Vasic.”
“Silence has fallen,” she said, holding her ground because this was her place, her home. “You have no right to take me in.” No right to strap her down in a reconditioning chair and stab psychic fingers into her mind, ripping and tearing.
“No,” he said again, so emotionless that she couldn’t see a single element of the person behind the soldier. “I’ve been charged to deliver an employment proposal.”
Ivy just stared at him for several long seconds. “An employment proposal?” she said at last, wondering if she had gone insane after all and was now having a very realistic delusion.
She shivered. He was too hard, too lethal to be a delusion. Testing him by taking a step back toward the trees, Rabbit growling beside her, she said, “Can we walk and talk? I need to finish checking the trees.”
The Arrow—Vasic—watched in silence as she completed her examination of the apple tree she’d been heading toward before Rabbit’s warning bark. When he did speak, his voice was as deep as the ocean. He didn’t raise his volume or change his pitch in spite of Rabbit’s continued growling, and yet she heard every word with crystal clarity.
“You’ve been identified as having an ability that could be useful in stabilizing the Net.”
“Me? I’m a Gradient 3.2 telepath.” No matter if she sometimes felt a huge stretching inside her mind, as if there was power there, if she could only find a way to touch it, hold it. The mirage had led to her near destruction as a teen.
“Are you aware of rumors of a hidden designation? Designation E?”
Her fingers halted in the act of tapping information into the datapad, her blood cells coated in ice, fine and crystalline. “E?”
The word resonated in a keening note inside her, as if it spoke to a deep-rooted knowledge of which she was unaware. “What does an empath do?” she said through a throat lined with grit and gravel.
“I’m not certain,” he answered, “but it has to do with emotion.”
Staggering inside, she thought of the chaos of wrenching emotions—pain, loathing, anger, sadness, loss, such tearing loss—that had threatened to crush her mind in the minutes before the cruel agony of the reconditioning. Her nose had bled, the fine blood vessels in her eyes bursting to leave the whites swimming in red, her head pounding and pounding and pounding as her stomach revolted.
It had been the worst episode she’d ever suffered.
“Emotions almost killed me once.” Terrified, she’d been happy to submit to the medical tech at the local center, never realizing the hell that awaited.