Unlike Ming, Kaleb took nothing at face value, especially not a field medic who held the loyalty of the entire squad. “To be complacent in the presence of a cardinal Tk of opaque objectives and fluid allegiance,” Aden added, “would be stupid in the extreme.”
“That’s why I’d rather not kill you,” was Kaleb’s response. “It’s easy enough to find a trained assassin—an intelligent fighter capable of foresight, and flexible enough to alter his plans given the circumstances, is a far more rare thing.” Shifting on his heel, the cardinal began to walk down the dune. “There’s something your partner needs to see.”
Aden followed in silence, unable to predict what Kaleb would do next. When the cardinal asked both Aden and Vasic to meet him on the PsyNet, they did so without argument. Once there, the other man said, “I need you to step inside the first layer of my shields.”
Again, neither one of them hesitated; Krychek’s shields were byzantine, but Aden and Vasic were more than capable of breaking out of this layer without problems. Aden had actually broken into it when the squad had first begun to consider shifting their loyalty to Kaleb—in a strictly limited sense that made it clear the Arrows were no one’s lapdogs.
Then, he’d seen nothing, the outermost layer of Kaleb’s shielding nothing but a redundancy that acted as an alarm bell in case of incursion. Today, he saw a psychic bond that went from Kaleb’s mind to another one he didn’t recognize, the colors of the bond faceted obsidian and a radiant light gold.
Force, coercion, manipulation, indications of psychic fraud, he searched for any hint of that in the connection that broke every rule of Silence, and found nothing. It was an organic construct, growing from two minds that had reached out for one another across the void, the light embracing the dark, the dark protective around the light.
Almost before Aden understood what it was he was seeing, he and Vasic were shoved out by a wave of na**d power, shields of impenetrable obsidian slamming down over Kaleb’s mind and that of the unidentified other.
“You’re emotionally linked to someone,” Aden said back in the desert, thrown enough by what he’d seen that the words spilled out past his normally airtight guards.
Was it real? Vasic asked at the same time, as if distrustful of his own perception.
“My true allegiance,” Kaleb said on the heels of Aden’s telepathic answer, “has never been fluid.”
It was Vasic who next spoke, the desert wind so quiet around them that it disturbed not a single grain of sand. “That bond cannot exist in a Silent world.”
At last, Aden understood why Kaleb had come tonight, why the cardinal needed to know if he would have to drench the sands with their blood. “The Arrows,” Aden began, “were created at the dawn of Silence, our mandate to protect the Protocol at all costs.”
Kaleb said nothing, his face so remote, it was impossible to believe he had the capacity to bond with anyone.
“The first Arrow,” Aden continued, “was told that Silence was the Psy race’s only hope, that without it, we would fall into madness and insanity until our people were nothing but a terrible memory. Zaid believed. We all believed.”
“It wasn’t a total lie.” Kaleb’s gaze met Vasic’s. “Not all of us would have survived to adulthood, or maintained a kind of sanity at least, without some level of conditioning.”
“No,” Vasic said, “it wasn’t— isn’t—a total lie, but the core is rotten.”
“That’s why it must be excised.” A ruthless proclamation from a man who had always seemed the embodiment of the Protocol: cold, powerful, without ties of any kind. “Silence must fall. Will the Arrows fall with it?”
“The Arrow Squad,” Aden said, “must always exist.” For those like Vasic and Judd—and Kaleb.
The ones who were too dangerous to live in the ordinary world; the ones the rest of their people would fear if the outliers were not first trained to hide their lethal nature; the ones who would always be needed to protect their people. “It cannot fall.”
Kaleb’s answer was blunt. “Then it must adapt.”
It would be the most difficult journey any Arrow had ever taken, and Aden knew some would splinter before this was all over. But, his men and women were ready. The squad had known it might one day have to break from Silence, from the Net itself—though that Net was their lifeblood, a psychic home they had fought to protect for over a hundred years . . . even as it killed them.
Arrow after Arrow had been lost as a result of decisions made by those who saw them as disposable, perfect soldiers who were thrown out the instant they became too fractured to be of use.
The squad didn’t wish to abandon their people, but they had been willing to do so, to defect, to protect those of their number who weren’t yet fatally damaged.
Having seen the life Judd had made for himself, Aden had cautiously expected that, given the chance, the younger Arrows—the ones still on the right side of the abyss—might be able to build the same: a life that didn’t involve only death and isolation and an existence forever in the shadows. Yet if Kaleb Krychek had been able to bond with another living being . . . Perhaps Aden had sold his Arrows short. Perhaps salvation could come for even the most broken among them.
“We’ll adapt,” Aden said, the heavy moon standing sentinel above, “but one thing will never change—we’ll follow only those orders with which we agree.” The time for blind obedience, for faith in a leader who was not one of their own, had passed. “And should you ever become a threat to the squad, we’ll turn on you without hesitation.”