"How many dead?"
"One hundred and twenty." The speaker could've been talking about stocks and bonds, so calm was his tone of voice. "The population numbered one hundred and fifty. Three were seriously injured, while six managed to find hiding places."
"That leaves twenty-one."
"Yes, sir. It appears various members of the team broke Silence at approximately the same time, though not in a central location. They attacked each other and the nonfragmented members of the expedition. Of the twenty-one who survived the initial incident, ten died attempting to attack the Tk team, while eleven were neutralized and put into involuntary comas."
"An isolated outpost. We can send in a team to clean up the immediate mess, but we'd have to take a significant number of Tks off higher-priority tasks in order to fully erase the settlement."
"Viability of the work without telekinetics?"
"There's always a risk of detection with flying in - the op may attract unwanted attention."
A long silence. "Were all the staff members at Sunshine Psy?"
"Have EarthTwo log that the encampment was abandoned after the outbreak of a lethal airborne virus. That should keep anyone else from wanting to go in for the time being."
"Katya!" Dev shook the woman in his arms, having carried her outside to the cold when she refused to respond to him in the dormitory.
Her eyes fluttered. "Dev?"
"It's me, baby. Come on, come back."
"I remembered," she whispered, her voice husky.
"Tell me in the car." Only when he'd settled her in the backseat and crawled in to take her into his arms did he breathe again. "Your eyes . . ." It was like she'd ceased to exist, or gone so deep that he couldn't see her anymore. He'd thought no terror could come close to what he'd experienced as a child. He'd been wrong.
She hugged him, pressing kisses to his jaw. "I'm sorry - I think I must've slipped into some type of a trance state."
He let her soothe him, needing the caresses, needing to know that she was alright. "Tell me." Stroking his hand up her spine, he closed his hand over her nape.
Horror spread its fingers through his chest as she began to speak, the invasion hard and pitiless. "Over twenty people went insane at once?"
"More than that - some would've been killed when they first turned on each other."
"How is that even possible?" He pulled her into his lap, needing to feel the living warmth of her weight. "I've heard that Psy are breaking in higher numbers, but we're talking about a case of mass insanity."
"I didn't believe the rumors," she said. "Not until I heard that."
"A number of our - mine and Ashaya's - contacts reported that there were stories of certain parts of the Net going 'dark,' like something was collecting there, something that ate up or buried the fabric of the Net."
"The influence of the DarkMind?"
"Yes, that's a possibility. I just don't know." She shook her head. "No one could ever actually point to an example, so we didn't pay it that much attention. We couldn't - we had to focus on what we could actually see and change."
"You know what it means to be in a neural network - it's like swimming in the sea. There's no way to avoid coming into contact with any pollutants."
Dev pulled off his knit cap with an impatient hand. "You think this 'rot,' " he said, for want of a better word, "seeped into all those minds?"
"The Net isn't locked to any one location," she said, "but your location in the Net is determined partly by where you are in the world. This group would've been in Sunshine, and that means they would've occupied an isolated section of the Net. If they all arrived together, the rot would've started to work on them at the same time."
"Some of the ones who were killed," Dev said, barely able to wrap his mind around the sheer magnitude of the slaughter, "chances are they would've broken, too - if they'd lived a little longer."
"Yes." Katya wrapped her arms around his neck. "If this has happened once, Dev . . ."
"We need to record this. We need proof."
"The Council will deny it. No one is ready to believe." A tight kind of anger filled every syllable. "I know - we tried so hard to tell people the truth, but it's like they can only take so much at a time. They'll say you're simply trying to create political - "
"I know." He broke off the flow of frustrated words with a kiss. "I need the records for my people."
Understanding lit those pretty eyes from within. "Oh. I see. Did you bring a recording device?"
"My cell phone has a high-enough resolution and plenty of memory."
Neither of them said anything for several minutes - though they both knew they had to get out of the car to document what they'd found. Katya listened to the steady beat of Dev's heart and in that, somehow found courage. "We can do this."
He dropped a kiss to the top of her head. "Do you know what I see when I look at the blood?"
"The possible future of the Forgotten." He thrust a hand through his hair. "Why couldn't we have left the madness behind when we left the Net? Why do our abilities always have to come bundled with darkness?"
Katya had spent many hours considering the same. "If they didn't, the Psy truly would rule the world - that flaw, that built-in Achilles' heel, is the only thing that makes us breakable, the only thing that stems our arrogance."