Shield of WinterBy: Nalini Singh
To be an Arrow is to be an island, devoid of attachments that create vulnerability.
First Code of Arrows
THERE WAS NOTHING left of the man he’d been.
Vasic stared through the glass wall in front of him as the computronic gauntlet biologically fused to his left forearm hummed near silently in the diagnostic mode he’d initiated. Sleek black, the new invention remained relatively unstable, despite the constant and ongoing refinement by the medics and techs, but Vasic wasn’t concerned about his life.
He hadn’t been concerned about anything for a long time. At first it had been his conditioning under Silence that kept him cold, his emotions on ice. Now, as the world navigated the first days of a new year, he was beyond Silence and into a numbness so vast, it was an endless grayness.
The only reason he kept waking up in the morning was for the others, the ones in the squad who still had some hope of a normal life. It was far too late for him, his hands permanently stained with blood from the countless lives he’d taken in pursuit of a mandate that had proven false in a very ugly way.
“What is it?” he said to the man clad in a black combat uniform who’d just entered the common area of Arrow Central Command. None of them were sociable, yet they maintained this space, having learned through bitter experience that even an Arrow couldn’t always walk alone.
Today the room was empty except for the two of them.
“Krychek has a theory.” Aden came to stand beside Vasic, his dark eyes on the vista beyond the glass. It wasn’t of the outside world—the Arrows were creatures of shadow, and so they lived in the shadows, their headquarters buried deep underground in a location inaccessible to anyone who didn’t know the correct routes and codes.
Even a teleporter needed a visual lock, and there were no images of Arrow Central Command anywhere in the world, not in any database, not on the PsyNet, nowhere. Which made it all the more notable that Kaleb Krychek had demonstrated the ability to ’port into the HQ when the squad first contacted him. However, despite the subterranean nature of the squad’s base of operations, on the other side of the glass lay a sprawling green space full of trees, ferns, even a natural-seeming pool, the area bathed in simulated sunlight that would change to moonlight as the day turned.
It had been difficult to acquire that technology without tipping their hand—the SnowDancer wolves were very proprietary of their tech, usually installed it themselves. But the squad had managed, because that light was as necessary to their sanity and their physical health as the captured piece of the outside world on which it shone.
“Krychek’s theory—it’s about the disease in the Net,” Vasic guessed, aware that the broken remnants of fanatical Pure Psy and the sporadic new outbreaks of violence notwithstanding, that was the most dangerous threat facing their race.
“You’ve seen the reports.”
“Yes.” The disease, the infection, was spreading at a phenomenal pace no one could’ve predicted. Rooted in the psychic fabric that connected every Psy on the planet but for the renegades, it had the potential to devastate their race . . . because to be Psy was to need the biofeedback provided by a psychic network. Now that same link could well be pumping poison directly into their brains.
There were some who whispered that the fall of Silence a month prior was behind the acceleration, but Vasic didn’t believe that to be the truth—the decay was too deeply integrated in the PsyNet. It had had over a century to grow, feeding on the suppressed psychic energy of all the dark, twisted emotions their race sought to stifle. “Krychek’s theory?”
Aden, his hands clasped loosely behind his back, said, “He believes the empaths are the key.”
An unexpected idea from Kaleb Krychek, whom many considered the epitome of Silence . . . but that was a false truth, as the entire Net had learned when he had lowered the shield around the adamantine bond that linked him to Sahara Kyriakus. Of course, it was a false truth only when it came to Sahara Kyriakus. That was a fact Vasic didn’t think everyone understood, and it was a critical one.
Kaleb Krychek remained a lethal threat.
“Krychek,” Aden continued, “theorizes that the fact the empaths are so prevalent in the population speaks to their necessity in subtle ways we’ve never grasped. Stifling their abilities has thus had a dangerous flow-on effect.”
Vasic saw the logic—empaths might’ve been publicly erased from the Net, but every Arrow knew the E designation had never been rare. Except once. Their emotion-linked abilities contrary to the very foundations of the Protocol, the Es had been systematically eliminated from the gene pool in the years after Silence was first implemented, only for the ruling Council to realize almost too late that it was attempting to excise a vital organ.
No one truly understood why the Net needed the Es, but it was incontrovertible that it did. The Council that had first come face-to-face with that truth had named it the Correlation Concept—the lower the number of E-Psy in the population, the higher the incidents of psychopathy and insanity. However, while the current generation of Es might’ve been allowed to be born, they’d never been allowed to be, conditioned to suppress their abilities since birth. “Has Krychek considered the fact that it might not be a case of merely awakening the Es?”