Which, Kaleb thought, would drive those prices right back up. “It’ll work as a stopgap solution.”

“We need to come up with a strong long-term financial strategy.” The lights of San Francisco glittered behind Anthony as he continued to speak. “I assume you were responsible for the turnaround earlier today by a conglomerate that sought to gouge profits?”

“An Arrow,” Kaleb told them and it was a deliberate reminder of the fourth part of this Ruling Coalition. “As for a long-term economic solution, I think Nikita’s the most capable of drafting something workable. Nikita?”

A cool nod. “It’ll involve one-to-one discussions with the mostinfluential businessmen and women in the Net. Where they go, others will follow.”

Sheep, Kaleb thought again, but admitted silently that that dangerous lack of independence was changing. Irritants or not, Silent Voices was also a sign of a society that was reclaiming itself. “I’ll put the share buys in operation now.”

It was as well that all three of them acted at once on their stopgap plan. When a lower Manhattan street erupted into an insane bloodbath five hours later, the share market wobbled, but didn’t dive.

The casualties were minor in the scheme of things—forty-five dead with twenty in comas. It appeared another insidiously fine tendril of infection had just brushed one small section of the street, taking everyone in its path with it. The good news was that Kaleb and Aden’s hypothesis about the infection being slower to eat away at the fabric of the Net—in comparison to the speed with which it moved in the brain—was proven correct. As with Anchorage, there’d been no Net rupture.

“We have to start thinking of containment,” Kaleb said to Sahara an hour later, as the two of them went over every detail of both outbreaks in his study. “It’s time to prepare for the worst-case scenario.” The empaths had been awakened too late, were too raw and untrained, and Kaleb couldn’t wait for them to find their feet.

Sahara sucked in a breath where she sat on the other side of his desk, dark blue eyes shadowed. “Cutting away the infected tissue to stop the gangrene from killing the entire Net.” She hugged her knees to her chest. “The gossamer filaments of infection—we can’t know how deep they’ve burrowed. Outwardly healthy sections could be petri jars of infection.”

“That’s the biggest problem.” Before he started to make the surgical cuts that would rend the Net into an unknown number of segments, he needed to know how to identify the enemy.

“The DarkMind,” Sahara began.

Kaleb shook his head. “It’s having trouble distinguishing those fine tendrils from its own self-image.” Born from the same self-hate that had driven an entire race to abandon its emotions, the infection and the DarkMind were kin. “But I’ll keep trying to get it to focus.”

Kaleb met the gaze of the woman Judd called Kaleb’s mate. The humans called her his lover. Kaleb simply called her his. And he needed to know that she understood, that she was with him. “If the empaths find a solution before I figure out how to pinpoint the tendrils of infection, I’ll back them every inch of the way.” Because this wasn’t about power or politics but the people Sahara had asked him to save.

Rising from her chair, she came to wrap her arms around his neck from behind, her cheek pressed to his. “How long can we give the empaths?”

“At this rate, maybe a month.” After which, the PsyNet would cease to exist except as fragments scattered across the world. A few would survive, and possibly merge back into a larger unit at some stage, but the infected sections would eventually all erode and collapse, snuffing out the lives of millions.

The problem was, Kaleb was beginning to see signs that the majority of the Net was infected.

Chapter 31

The E designation has no official subdesignations. That doesn’t mean those subdesignations don’t exist.

Excerpted from The Mysterious E Designation: Empathic Gifts & Shadows by Alice Eldridge

MUCH AS IVY wished she could keep Eben with her, she was in no position to offer him a home. For now, the boy was better off with the paternal uncle who was his new legal guardian. “Once we’ve beaten this,” she told him as they walked out of the cabin the next morning, “I want you to come back, undertake specialized training.”

The lanky teenager’s return gaze held a new maturity. “What shall I do for now?”

“Shield yourself as deeply as you can.” According to Kaleb Krychek, the NetMind was protecting empathic minds from discovery—except for those such as Ivy who’d gone fully active—but no one knew if and when the neosentience’s ability to do so might be compromised by the infection. “If you feel any kind of a threat, psychic or physical, contact me or Vasic, and we’ll come get you.”

“I will.” Hugging her, he bent to pet Rabbit. “I hope you figure this out, Ivy.”

“Me, too,” she whispered.

Abbot waited until the teen had waved good-bye before teleporting him to his new home. Hoping he’d be safe, Ivy crossed the snow to the gathered knot of Es in the clearing in front of the cabins. She’d already told them her decision and the reason why, as well as the fact she could very well be wrong.

Now, Brigitte turned to her, a thick yellow scarf wrapped around her neck. “Our Arrows will go with us if we decide to follow your path?”

“Yes.” As Vasic had pointed out, the threats they’d face wouldn’t only come from the crawling rot of the infection.

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