Shield of Winter (Psy-Changeling #13)(5) read online by Nalini Singh
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Shield of Winter (Psy-Changeling #13)(5)
Author: Nalini Singh

   “If we don’t find a way to halt the infection, such incidents will become all too common soon enough.” Even if Enforcement discovered the truth of what had happened here tonight, they’d only be ahead of the curve by weeks at most. News of the infection hadn’t yet made front-page news, but it was already being whispered of in hidden corners of the Net. “I’ll make sure the autopsy is done by one of my people.”

   Aden’s eyes connected with Kaleb’s at that instant, and he knew the leader of the Arrows understood why Kaleb had made this choice. Part of Kaleb, the part that was always coolly calculating with anyone but Sahara, saw in Aden’s understanding leverage to gain a stronger hold on the squad. However, the calculation was offset by the part of him that saw in the Arrows who he would’ve been but for Sahara, his life an endless darkness.

   He would still execute them without hesitation should they threaten him or Sahara, but until then, he’d do as Sahara had asked.

   Don’t they deserve lives, too? Her voice had been husky as she said that, her back against his chest and his arm curved around her shoulders where they lay on the lounger on the terrace, looking up at the starlit night sky.

   They’ve given up everything for their people. And maybe they believed in the wrong mandate once, did things for which there might be no forgiveness, but they’ve also protected the world from monsters for over a century. Her hands clenching on his forearm, voice passionate with emotion. Shouldn’t they have a chance to try and find redemption?

   “Focus on the E-Psy,” he said to the two men now. “That’s your highest priority.”

   Waiting until the Arrows left, Kaleb made the report to Enforcement before returning to Moscow.

   Sahara was waiting for him beside the internal koi pond that was her favorite spot in the house. “How bad was it?” she asked, walking into his arms.

   It was where she should’ve always been. Seven years she’d spent in hell. Seven years he’d been alone. Seven years he wanted to torture payment from those responsible. One was dead, torn apart by changeling claws and teeth, but one remained. He’d locked Tatiana Rika-Smythe in an underground hole she could never escape, but he could hurt the ex-Councilor in so many other ways, make her scream and scream.

   “Kaleb.” Sahara’s breath against his lips, her kiss in his mind. Don’t go there. Be here. With me.

   He’d never wanted to be anywhere else.

   Slamming the door shut on the evil that had sought to tear them apart, he told her about 8-91’s final minutes. “If I’m right,” he said afterward, “the empaths hold the answer to the Net’s survival.”

   Sahara tilted back her head to look at him with eyes that spoke of her piercing intelligence. “But?”

   He gloried in the sensation that was the possessive warmth of her hands at his waist, in the feel of her vibrant and alive and with him. “If I’m wrong or if the empaths are too damaged to function as they should”—a vicious possibility—“there’ll come a time when I’ll have to excise the rotten and unstable sections of the Net.”

   Bleak understanding dulled the light in Sahara’s expression. “Like slicing away gangrenous flesh so the healthy segment can survive.”

   “It’s a worst-case scenario.” Millions would die during the excision, but to allow the infection to advance unchecked would mean the collapse of the PsyNet and the death of every single person linked to it.

   Including Sahara.

   That, Kaleb would never accept, never permit. The world had taken seven years from them. It would get nothing else.

   Now she lay her cheek against his chest, her arms sliding around his torso. “How did this happen to our people, Kaleb?” A kiss pressed to the beat of his heart, as if she needed the reminder that they were alive, unbroken. “We created heartbreaking art once, discovered star systems and new species of butterflies with equal joy. We were explorers and musicians and writers of great works. Now . . . how did the Psy become such a ruin?”

   Kaleb knew the answer wasn’t as simple as Silence, and yet Silence was the core. “We attempted to become a race without flaws.”

 

 

Chapter 3


   E-Psy have never been rare, but not much is known about them, perhaps because we study that which we are afraid of. And no one is afraid of the empaths.

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

   IVY WENT CAREFULLY over the bark of the slumbering apple tree. She was on alert for any signs of the fungus that had appeared two weeks earlier, but found nothing. “The treatment worked,” she said to Rabbit. “The other trees are safe.”

   Involved in sniffing the snow at the roots of the tree, tail wagging like a metronome, Rabbit gave a small “woof.”

   “Glad to see you agree this is a good thing.” Noting down the result on her datapad, she continued on through the trees, Rabbit scampering after her a second later, his paws soft and soundless on the carpet of white.

   For such a small dog, she thought as his furry white form streaked past, he could certainly go fast when he put his mind to it. Shaking her head, she left him to his adventures and went to check another apple tree she’d been worried about . . . when Rabbit began to bark. Hairs rising on the back of her neck, she fought her instinctive revulsion and reached into a pants pocket to retrieve the tiny laser weapon that fit neatly into the palm of her hand. Rabbit never barked, not like that. As if he’d scented a predator.

   Ten seconds later, she broke out of the trees and knew her dog was right.

   There was a man standing on the path between the snow-kissed trees. No, not a man. A soldier. Over six feet tall with broad shoulders, his posture was unyielding, his stillness absolute, his eyes a chill gray, and his hair black.

   His uniform, too, was black, stark against the backdrop: rugged pants, a long-sleeved T-shirt of some high-tech and likely bulletproof material that hugged the muscle of his arms, a lightweight armored vest that covered his chest and back as well as the lower part of his neck, heavy combat boots, what appeared to be an electronic gauntlet strapped to his left arm.

   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.

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