Shield of Winter
Assassin. Soldier. Arrow. That is who Vasic is, who he will always be. His soul drenched in blood, his conscience heavy with the weight of all he’s done, he exists in the shadows, far from the hope his people can almost touch—if only they do not first drown in the murderous insanity of a lethal contagion. To stop the wave of death, Vasic must complete the simplest and most difficult mission of his life.
For if the Psy race is to survive, the empaths must wake…
Having rebuilt her life after medical “treatment” that violated her mind and sought to suffocate her abilities, Ivy should have run from the black-clad Arrow with eyes of winter frost. But Ivy Jane has never done what she should. Now, she’ll fight for her people, and for this Arrow who stands as her living shield, yet believes he is beyond redemption. But as the world turns to screaming crimson, even Ivy’s fierce will may not be enough to save Vasic from the cold darkness…
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.
— 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.
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?”
“Yes. You see the critical problem.”
It was inescapable—if the empaths had to do something active to negate the infection, then the Psy race might well disintegrate to ash, because there was no one left to teach the Es what to do. By the time the ruling Council of the time had accepted their mistake in attempting to cull the Es from the gene pool, all the old ones were dead and information about their abilities had been erased from every known archive.
“How many?” Vasic asked, knowing they couldn’t simply begin to nudge the empaths awake on a wholesale level. Their deaths had almost collapsed the PsyNet. No one knew what would happen if they woke all at once, disoriented and unable to control their abilities.
“A test group of ten.” Aden telepathed him the list.
Scanning it, Vasic saw the short-listed Es were all high Gradient, from cardinal to 8.7. “No,” he said, before Aden could make the request. “I won’t retrieve them.”
“You don’t have to retrieve them all. Just one.”
“No,” Vasic said again. “If Krychek wishes to abduct empaths, he’s capable of doing so himself.” Vasic was no longer on anyone’s leash but his own.
Aden’s response was quiet. “Do you think I’d bring you such a request?”
Turning at last, Vasic met the eyes of the telepath who was the one individual in the world he considered a friend, their lives intertwined since childhood—when they’d been paired up to do exercises designed to turn Vasic into a stone-cold killer. To their trainers, Aden had simply been a useful telepathic sparring partner, a well-behaved complement to Vasic’s erratic temperament at the time, an Arrow trainee only because his parents were both Arrows who’d worked to hone his skills since the cradle.
As such, Aden had been put into classes that eventually qualified him as a field medic. He’d been given the same harsh training all inductees were given, but was never deemed worthy of any extra interest—except when it came to punishments designed to “harden” a boy who’d been small for his age. Always, the ones who would use the Arrows had underestimated Aden, and in so doing, they’d given the squad a leader who’d saved countless lives and who they would follow into any hell.
“No,” Vasic conceded. “You wouldn’t.” Aden knew exactly how close Vasic was to the edge, that the destruction of, or damage to one more innocent life could snap the razor-fine thread that bound him to the world.
“Krychek,” Aden continued into the quiet between them, “doesn’t think his proposed experiment as to the impact of the empaths on the infection will work if the Es are forced to participate.” A pause. “I’m not certain if that’s his personal view, or if it’s Sahara’s, but whatever the case, each of the Es must volunteer.”
Vasic agreed with Aden that the compassion was likely to emanate from the woman who had appeared out of nowhere to forge an unbreakable bond with the otherwise cold-blooded dual cardinal, and who, their investigations told them, was in no way Silent. “Where does Krychek intend to run his experiment?”
Very few things had the capacity to surprise Vasic, on any level. This, however, was unexpected.
“The SnowDancer wolves have a tendency to shoot intruders on sight”—“shoot first and ask questions of the corpses” was their rumored motto—“and the leopards aren’t much friendlier.”
“I’ve told Krychek the same, yet I can see his point as to the area’s suitability.”
“An isolated location, no other PsyNet connected minds for miles in any direction.” As a result, that part of the Net, too, would be quiet, giving Krychek a clean canvas on which to run his experiment.
However, that was a factor that could be replicated elsewhere.
Which left a single critical element that could only be found in the changeling-held territory. “Sascha Duncan.” Access to the only active E in the world no doubt played a crucial part in Krychek’s plans.
“There’s no infection in that section of the Net,” Aden said, instead of nodding to confirm what they both knew must be true. “However Krychek has the ability to shift the infection in that direction, or seed the area with it. He says he can’t control it beyond that, but I haven’t yet decided if he’s lying.” The other Arrow turned to acknowledge another member of the squad who’d just entered, walking over to her when she indicated she needed to speak to him.
Alone, Vasic considered the misleading simplicity of Krychek’s proposed experiment. An isolated group of empaths surrounded on the Net by the infection. If the experiment failed and the infection threatened to overwhelm them in a wave of murderous madness or more subtle mental degradation, it would be relatively easy to relocate all ten men and women at short notice. As well, the deterioration of an empty part of the Net would cause few ripples.
In that sense, it was a clean plan, with no threat of major losses.
Of course, no one could predict how the infection would move, what it would do to the empaths. “I can’t, Aden,” he said when the other man returned to his side, their fellow Arrow having left the room.
“You know what happened when I had cause to pass near Sascha Duncan prior to her defection. It was a deeply . . . uncomfortable experience.” Councilor Nikita Duncan’s daughter had been pretending to be Silent at the time, but even then, there’d been something about her that had made his instincts bristle.
It was one of the few times he’d felt true pain as an adult—at first, he’d thought he was under attack, only to realize it was Sascha’s simple presence in a room separated from the one where he stood by a solid wall, that was sandpaper along the insides of his skin. As if some part of him knew she was the antithesis to everything he had ever been taught to be, the rejection primal.
It wasn’t until her defection and the resulting revelation of her empathy that he’d realized the reason behind the strange effect; the knowledge had made him recall the numerous other times he’d felt a faint irritation against his skin as he moved through the shadows in populated areas.
Sleeping empaths, their conditioning not as badly degraded as Sascha’s must have been.
He also knew he was an anomaly in sensing them in such a way—according to Aden, no one else in the squad had ever reported the same. Vasic had a theory that the awareness was an undocumented adjunct of being a Tk-V, a born teleporter. Patton, the only other Tk-V Vasic had ever met, had often complained about an “itch” under his skin when he was in the outside world.
Regardless of whether that was true or not, the effect continued unchecked for Vasic, causing deeper and more frequent serrated scrapes over his skin as the conditioning of the Es in the Net fractured further with each passing day.
Aden took several minutes to reply. “Uncomfortable, not debilitating.” The words of a leader evaluating one of his men. “The empaths will need a protection squad—their designation has never been aggressive according to the historical records I’ve been able to unearth so far, and none of this group are, either.”
The telepath’s tone remained even as he added, “I want you to run it. You’re the only man I trust to get them all out of danger if there’s a sudden spike in the infection, or if the pro-Silence elements in the Net seek to do them harm.”
Vasic knew that wasn’t quite the truth—the squad had other teleport-capable operatives in its ranks. No one as fast as Vasic, but fast enough. None of them, however, stood so close to an irrevocable and final descent into the abyss. “Are you trying to put me on soft duty?”
“Yes.” Eyes on the greenery outside, but his attention on Vasic, Aden continued to speak. “You don’t see it, but you’re one of the core members of the squad, the one we all rely on when things go to hell. Outside emergency situations, the younger Arrows turn to you for guidance; the older ones use you as a sounding board. Your loss would be a staggering blow to the group . . . to me.”
“I won’t snap.” Even though he knew the oblivion of death was the only peace he’d ever find. “I have things to do yet.” And it didn’t only have to do with helping to save those Arrows who might still have the chance to live some kind of a real life.
You don’t have the right to be tired. When you can write her name on a memorial, when you can honor her blood, then you’ll have earned the right.
A leopard changeling had said that to him over the broken body of a woman whose death Vasic had been sent to erase. The leopard couldn’t know how many names Vasic needed to write, how many deaths he’d covered up when he’d believed that what he was doing was for the good of his people . . . and later, when he’d known it was too early for any revolution to succeed. Each and every name had a claim on his soul.
“Nevertheless, I want you away from the violence, at least for a short period.” Again, Aden’s voice was that of the leader he was, and yet it was no order, their relationship far too old to need any such trappings. “There’s another reason I want you on this detail—and why I’m going to ask you to consider certain others for your team. Being near empaths may be uncomfortable for you, but it will likely be soothing for the Es.”
Because, Vasic realized, he and the others like him, were ice-cold, permanently cut off from their emotions. Unlike the fractured, they would leak neither fear nor pain, eliminating one source of stress on the newly awakened Es. “How does that tie in with being so close to the changelings?” The shapeshifting race was as rawly emotional as the Psy were not, their world painted in vivid shades of passion.
“If Krychek manages to negotiate access to part of their land, he intends to agree to full satellite and remote surveillance, while asking them to keep a physical distance the majority of the time.” Aden paused as a butterfly flew from the lush green of the trees to flutter its scarlet wings against the glass before returning to more hospitable climes. “It’ll take time for negotiations to be concluded, a location to be settled on, whether it’s in changeling territory or elsewhere. Take the invitation to your nominated E, gauge whether you could remain in her proximity for the duration.”
“You’ve already decided who I’m to approach.”
“According to Krychek, all the empaths on the list but one have already begun to wake to their abilities, even if they aren’t cognizant of it.”
Vasic didn’t ask how Krychek could’ve known that, aware the cardinal telekinetic had an intimate link with the NetMind, the vast neosentience that was the librarian and guardian of the Net. The NetMind had no doubt informed Krychek of the Es who were coming to an awareness of their true designation.
“Your retrieval, however, first broke conditioning at sixteen and was given aggressive reconditioning to wrench her abilities back under. Two months later, she and her parents quietly disappeared.”
It was the second surprise of the conversation. “The NetMind can’t locate the family unit?”
“Not that type of disappearance,” Aden clarified. “We know where they are geographically, but they’ve done an impeccable job of making themselves of no interest to anyone. Her mother was a systems analyst for a cutting edge computronic firm in Washington; her father held a senior position in a bank. Now they run a large but only moderately successful farm in North Dakota, in cooperation with a number of other Psy.”
Psy preferred to live in cities, near others of their kind, but that wasn’t to say none of their race ever chose outdoor occupations. Like humans and changelings, Psy needed to eat, to put a roof over their heads, and work was work. Such a massive career change, however, was an indication of a conscious decision. “Protecting their child?” It wasn’t impossible, the parental instinct a driving force even in many of the Silent, though Vasic had no personal experience of such.
“Possible but unconfirmed.”
Vasic knew there was more to come.
“What’s also unconfirmed is if she still has access to her abilities—or if they were terminally damaged by the reconditioning process.” Aden stared unblinking through the glass. “I watched the recording, and it was one of the most brutal sessions I’ve ever seen, a hairsbreadth from a rehabilitation.”
“Then why is she on the list?” The ugliness of rehabilitation erased the personality, left the individual a drooling vegetable, and if this E had come so close to it, she had to bear major mental scars.
“To be valid, the experiment needs not only Psy who have never been reconditioned, but those who’ve been through the process. She’s one of six in the group who have, but the others underwent only a minor reset.”
It made absolute sense . . . because the majority of empaths in the Net would’ve undergone reconditioning at some stage, the process designed to force their minds back into the accepted norm, in denial of the fact those minds had never been meant to be emotionless constructs. Which meant the PsyNet had to deal not only with Es who didn’t have any idea of how to utilize their abilities, but also ones damaged on a fundamental level.
“The flip side to their problematic conditioning,” Aden added, faultlessly following Vasic’s line of thought, “is that they’ll suffer no pain breaking it.”
“Of course.” The process known as dissonance was designed to reinforce Silence by punishing any unacceptable emotional deviation with pain, but clearly that approach wouldn’t work on an individual whose mental pathways were structured with emotion as the core. It would simply kill. “The details of the retrieval.”
Aden handed Vasic an envelope. “A letter to her directly from Krychek, setting out the parameters of her engagement, as well as the payment schedule.”
“He’s offering them jobs?” The Council had always just taken.
“We both know how intelligent he is. Why coerce when you can contract?” With that cool statement that perfectly described the way Krychek’s mind worked, Aden sent Vasic a telepathic image.
It was of a small female with black hair to her shoulders, the strands shaping themselves into soft natural curls, and eyes so unusual, he took a second look. The pupils were jet-black against irises of translucent copper ringed by a fine rim of gold. They stood out against the golden cream of her skin, somehow too old, too perceptive.
As if she saw beneath the skin.
Storing the photograph in a mental vault after imprinting a geographic location on his mind using her appearance as a lock, he looked down at the envelope. Her name was hand-written across it in black ink: Ivy Jane.
He wondered what Ivy Jane would think of the Arrow about to enter her life, a man who could never again feel anything. Even were it physiologically possible, Vasic had no intention of allowing his Silence to fragment . . . because behind it lay only a howling madness created of blood and death and endless horror.
I've been writing as long as I can remember and all of my stories always held a thread of romance (even when I was writing about a prince who could shoot lasers out of his eyes). I love creating unique characters, love giving them happy endings and I even love the voices in my head. There's no other job I would rather be doing. In September 2002, when I got the call that Silhouette Desire wanted to buy my first book, Desert Warrior, it was a dream come true. I hope to continue living the dream until I keel over of old age on my keyboard.
You can buy a copy of Shield of Winter from these bookstores
( June 3, 2014)