Home > Shards of Hope (Psy-Changeling #14)

Shards of Hope (Psy-Changeling #14)
Author: Nalini Singh

Chapter 1


ADEN WOKE ON a cold, hard floor, his head throbbing. Another man might have hissed out a breath, might have groaned, but Aden’s training was so ingrained that his sole response was to lift his lashes a bare sliver, only fully opening his eyes once he realized he was surrounded by darkness. He wasn’t, however, alone. He could hear breathing—quiet but jagged. As if the other person was trying to maintain silence, was unable to do so for reasons Aden couldn’t yet identify.

Remaining exactly where he was, he scanned outward with his telepathic senses . . . and had to capture a scream before it traveled to his vocal cords. The pain was blinding, the agony leaving his vision white. Controlling his breathing and his body through sheer strength of will, he fisted his hand, gritted his teeth, and made a second attempt, this time to reach the PsyNet, the sprawling psychic network that connected all Psy in the world but for the renegades. A Net connection would give him a viable way to alert the squad about his capture.

The backlash of pain almost led to a blackout.

Quietly lifting his arm when he could function again, white spots burning in his vision, he reached to the back of his head and the center of the starburst of pain. He expected to find blood-matted hair that denoted a cracked skull. What he discovered instead was a raised bump close to the lowest part of his skull, near the area that housed the cerebellum and beyond it, the brain stem. No, it wasn’t a bump but a scar—it shouldn’t have been there and it still felt tender.

That wasn’t the only anomaly. From the dryness in his throat and the stiffness of his limbs, Aden calculated that he must’ve been unconscious for hours. Long enough for the squad to realize he was missing and to locate him. Vasic alone should’ve been able to accomplish that. Except it appeared even the best teleporter in the Net hadn’t been able to lock on to his face, using it as an anchor to get to him.

The only other times Vasic had failed to lock on to people was when those individuals had created complex shields designed specifically to thwart teleporters capable of locking on to people rather than simply places, or if the individual concerned didn’t know his or her own identity—such as those whose minds were broken.

Aden’s mind was whole, but whatever it was that had been done to his brain via the barely healed incision he’d discovered, it had screwed up his psychic wiring. Vasic’s absence told Aden his psychic signature must’ve also been affected on a deep level. He knew of no surgical technique—or technology—that could achieve that aim without a full psychic brainwipe, but he didn’t make the mistake of thinking he knew everything.

He ran a mental checklist of his body and the items on it. All his weapons were gone, as were his belt and his boots. Whoever was behind this had been thorough.

Having maintained an ear on the other person breathing in the room, he crawled silently toward the rasp of sound. His cellmate hadn’t moved the entire time, and there was something in the unsteady rhythm of the breathing that had him certain the individual was hurt. With his eyes having adapted to darkness ameliorated only by a thin edge of light that came in under what must be a door, he could see that his cellmate’s body lay in a corner of the windowless room—as if it had been thrown there. That body was small and with the wrong proportions to be a man. Either a child or a woman.

Close enough now to see the curve of her hip, the fine line of her jaw, he realized it was a woman. A woman who smelled of blood. He moved his hand to her face, brushed away the dark curls that were impossibly soft . . . and found his wrist gripped in a punishing hold. “Move and I’ll rip out your throat.”

“Zaira,” he said in the same low whisper she’d used. “It’s—”

“Aden.” She released his wrist. “I’m injured.”

“How bad?”

“I was shot.” Taking his hand, she placed it on the viscous stickiness above her stomach, her thin but should-have-been-bulletproof top soaked with blood and her lightweight body armor missing. “It passed through the left side of my abdomen.”

Aden might not have any equipment or supplies, but he was still a trained field medic. “Do you have any source of light on you?” It was possible their captors had overlooked something.

“Negative. No tools or weapons. They even took my boots.”

He shifted so close to Zaira that, under any normal circumstances, he would’ve been invading her personal space. When he pushed up the long-sleeved black top that hugged her body, she didn’t protest. Her skin was clammy under his touch, and though he felt the edges of a bandage, it had clearly been an inexpert job—blood had soaked through, was continuing to do so. “I need to touch your skull.”

“No need. I’ve been cut, something done to my brain. I’m psychically blind. Any attempt to use those abilities results in extreme pain.” She took a shallow breath. “Since rescue hasn’t arrived, I’m assuming you’re in the same position.”

“Yes.” He checked her head wound to make certain it wasn’t bleeding, too, discovered a roughly sealed incision identical to his own. Their unknown captors had the technology to do brain surgery advanced enough to block psychic abilities, yet they’d left Zaira badly hurt and in pain? “They want you weak.”

“Yes.” Her next words were so quiet he heard them only because he was close enough to feel the soft warmth of her exhale. “I didn’t know it was you, but now that I do, I think our captors plan to use me to break you. One entered the room earlier, said, ‘He’ll talk or we hurt her,’ to another individual.”

“Arrows aren’t so easy to break.”

“And you aren’t fully Silent, Aden. You never have been.” Another strained breath. “Everyone in the squad knows that—now someone outside the squad has figured it out.”

Aden decided he would correct her about his Silence later. “Conserve your strength. I need to be able to count on you when we escape.” There was no “if.” They would escape.

“If you can get me a weapon,” Zaira said, “I’ll cover you as you go. I’m weak, will slow you down. You’ll do better on your own.” She said that as if it was a simple fact, as if she wasn’t talking about the end of her own life.

Leaning in until their noses almost touched, until she could see his eyes as he could see the jet-black darkness of hers, he said, “I don’t leave my people behind.” He knew what it was to be left behind, and though it had been done for the best of reasons it had marked him on a primal level. “We’ll go together.”

“You’re being irrational.”

It was a complaint he’d heard multiple times from her. And not because her own Silence was flawless.

The truth was that Zaira had never needed Silence. What had been done to her in childhood had caused her to retreat deep into her psyche, shoving her emotions into a dark hole in a bid to survive. In their place had grown an iron will and a harshly practical mind. Silence had only ever been a tool she used to create a civilized shell.

Without it, she was close to feral but no less ruthless, her brain having learned long ago to put survival above all else.

It made her the perfect soldier.

Some would say it also made her a psychopath, but they didn’t understand—unlike a psychopath, Zaira had the capacity to feel the full range of emotions. That capacity was in permanent cold storage, but it gave her a conscience regardless. It also gave her the capacity for unflinching loyalty: because Zaira’s violent survival instincts didn’t always equal her own survival. She’d already walked into the path of a hail of bullets aimed at him during an operation three years before, had barely survived her injuries. He wasn’t about to allow her to sacrifice herself for him again.

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