It was a math textbook.
Such physical books, she remembered, were no longer part of the education system, but this one had been well used. Employing black ink, someone had written in concise explanations of the equations and corrected the frustrated mistakes—lines crossed out, rewritten—made by a writer who used blue ink.
It hurt her to touch the black writing, made her throat thicken, so she shut the book.
The texture of the cover, the tear on one corner, the stamp that denoted the book had come from a used-goods dealer, each was so familiar it was like hearing music just far enough away that it was impossible to identify the tune. Touching her fingers to the faded stamp, she imagined what she might see were she a Ps-Psy, born with the ability to sense memories left behind on physical objects.
* * *
HANDS in the pockets of his pants, Kaleb stood at the glass doors to the terrace, looking through them to the woman who sat on the lounger, her feet bared to the still-warm sun of early fall and her fingers stroking the cover of the textbook he’d originally found in a junk store that sold dubious “antiques.” As evidenced by her tart reply a few minutes ago, there was no fear in her, no sense of panic at being in his control.
He knew that lack was a momentary lull—this woman who spoke to him without concern and who seemed to be shocked or unsettled by nothing was not the real Sahara Kyriakus. No, she was a sleepwalker whose task it was to ready Sahara’s body and mind for the true waking.
She wouldn’t be calm once that happened, wouldn’t look at him with dark blue eyes untainted by fear. Then, she’d either use her ability against him—or she’d run, terror in her every jagged breath.
Which was why he’d retrieved the dirty smock she’d thrown in the laundry and vacuum sealed it to preserve her scent. He would never use his mind to leash hers, but he would track her through rain, hail, fire itself. Never again was anyone, even Sahara herself, taking her from him.
He threw up his strongest shields at the wordless warning from the NetMind and DarkMind both, connecting with the twin neosentience at the same time. What has occurred? This wasn’t another anchor collapse, not with the roaring force of the shock wave that had just passed—as if it had gathered momentum across the entire breadth of the Net.
Images of crumbling houses, ripped walls, a torn dress fell into his mind, at a speed that told him the twin neosentience that was born of the Net was confused and in pain. Grabbing hold of each image, he separated them, found the common denominator. All of the damage had been caused by rot, fungus, mildew.
Entering the psychic network that was as familiar to him as the streets of Moscow, he cloaked himself and shot to the location they’d pinpointed . . . except it was no longer there.
The region was black, but that was the only similarity it had to the rest of the PsyNet. This blackness not only held no stars, it effectively repelled light. Though he was immune to the rot that was crawling through parts of the network that connected millions of Psy around the world, seeping insidiously into the minds of the population, he took care approaching the pulsing emptiness.
Halting at the very edge, he sent an exploratory tendril of psychic energy into the blackness. The nothingness sucked it in, and if Kaleb hadn’t already cut the tendril loose, it would’ve continued sucking until it stole every drop of energy from his mind and body both. Death would’ve been an excruciatingly painful process.
Can you go there? he asked the NetMind.
A sense of desolation, of terrible pain from the half of the twin neosentience that was recognized by the populace and considered the librarian and guardian of the PsyNet. It only communicated, however, with a very, very short list of people. And it communicated with no one like it did with Kaleb.
His connection with the ancient, yet childlike neosentience, and its twisted, broken twin, had been formed in a chill, isolated childhood composed of physical pain and mental torture that had shaped him into the man he’d become. For a long time, the NetMind and the DarkMind had been his only friends.
He no longer thought of them in that way, hadn’t done so since he was a boy of nine or ten. Though chronologically far older than Kaleb, having come into being at the dawn of the PsyNet, they were yet young, children to his adult.
Where the NetMind was an innocent, the DarkMind was akin to an ignored, abused child who sought only to bully and abuse others, knowing no other way in which to interact. In Kaleb, it had found acceptance, a darkness that welcomed the malignant violence and anger at the core of its being.
And you? he asked that dark twin.
It slid sinuously into the blackness, rolling in it like a cat.
Initiate a barricade, he ordered the NetMind as the DarkMind slid back to twine affectionately around him, its touch cold as the death Kaleb had meted out more than once. Ensure a wide buffer zone. I don’t want anyone coming in contact with this.
Images of building blocks cascaded into his mind and he realized the NetMind was already working on the barricade. Good, he said, giving it the praise it needed.
Shifting position once the twin neosentience turned toward its task, the DarkMind choosing to assist the NetMind for reasons of its own, Kaleb located the mind of Subject 8-91. The male was infected with the same disease that had just devoured a chunk of the Net and, thus, was meant to act as Kaleb’s control as to the progression of that disease, his “canary in a coal mine.”
Some would term that a cruelty, but 8-91 was too far gone to be helped—and he was expendable, his contribution to the world negligible. He was contributing far more, helping his fellow citizens, by acting as a barometer for this disease without a name.