Discovering a stash of frozen meals he must’ve stocked for use after a high-calorie burn, she put several in the thermal device in the corner. The flavors would be bland by the standards outside the PsyNet, but right now, she could eat a small mammal. Stomach fluttering at the reminder of exactly how she’d used up the kilojoules, she was pouring piping hot pasta into a dish when Kaleb walked in, the fingers of his right hand slotting in his left cuff link.
Hair combed and tie knotted, no trace of passion in his expression, he was Kaleb Krychek, cardinal Tk and former Councilor, once more. The transformation was so complete that it shook her, making her conscious of the level at which he could compartmentalize—and leaving her with the troubling question of exactly how much of himself he ever showed her.
Then he touched his finger to the arch of her cheekbone, and the fear splintered, because only her Kaleb touched her in that way.
Sitting down to eat, neither one of them spoke until they’d almost completed the meal.
“My father just came out of isolation,” she said, having received the update while she was heating up the meals, relief a shuddering emotion inside her. “Anthony called.”
“I can take you to him.”
A slight pause. “My aide is rescheduling it now.”
Sahara wasn’t the least surprised that Kaleb had put her first. He always did. “Thank you,” she said through the painful burn of a tenderness she wasn’t certain he’d ever accept. “But”—she met those incredible night-sky eyes—“I need to ask you a question first.”
Kaleb dosed her water with a vitamin and mineral tablet. “Ask.”
“How could you possibly not have been wiped out by what you did at the university?” Cardinals might be gifted, but their abilities were still finite. “You had enough energy left over to ’port us both to the other side of the world.”
Waiting until she’d drunk half her fortified water, he said, “Do you know about the Amplification Effect?”
She shook her head and, because she didn’t like the distance in his expression, reached out to tangle her fingers with his.
“Per the effect,” he said, not repudiating the touch, “an individual with two midlevel abilities, for example 4.7 in telepathy and 3.9 in psychometry, can sometimes use one to amplify the strength of the other, pushing themselves into the 8 or higher range.” He paused to finish a high-energy nutrient bar.
“No one has ever considered if the effect would hold true if an individual had two cardinal- level abilities.”
Sahara couldn’t imagine the storm of his power. To be a cardinal was to be off the scale. To be a dual cardinal was incomprehensible. “What happens if you amplify?”
“My dual-cardinal status already makes me stronger than other cardinals, by an unknown factor.”
No arrogance, only cold fact. “I believe there must be a low level of unconscious amplification taking place at all times. That’s why my abilities didn’t flatline at the university, and have, in fact, never flatlined.”
Teleporting away the wrapper of the nutrient bar, he said, “As a very young child, I once lifted the wreckage of a bullet train off a trapped survivor—even a cardinal child shouldn’t have been capable of that.”
Sahara struggled to understand what he was saying. “Have you ever consciously amplified your abilities?”
“As a test, yes. Amplification impacts my telekinesis, not my telepathy. I could conceivably reach the earth’s core with the resulting power, destroy the planet from the inside out.”
She had no words, not for a long time, her fingers twined with those of a man who held the fate of the world in his grasp. “Kaleb?”
He didn’t answer, but she knew she held his attention.
“Promise me something.”
“That you won’t destroy the Net.” If he struck out, she knew it wouldn’t be against the humans or the changelings, but against his own kind; against the ones who had taken her—and almost broken him.
“I told you,” he responded in the same coolly pragmatic tone he’d used for the entirety of their conversation. “I’ve decided against it.”
“That’s not what I asked.” She held the obsidian of his gaze. “I want you to promise to never destroy the Net.” No matter what happened or didn’t happen to her.
A pause filled with a thousand unspoken words . . . and the words he did speak, they made the tiny hairs on the back of her neck rise. “Some things need to be broken to become stronger.”
“DO YOU THINK,” she whispered, “that holds true for me?”
He went very, very still. “No. You should’ve never been hurt.”
Something in those words, in the dead rage of his tone, made her mind open the doorway to a second vault hidden inside the first. She entered and flinched, a sea of viscous red spreading across her irises. Her breath caught in her throat, dots swam in front of her eyes . . . and Sahara realized she’d stopped breathing, her heart losing its rhythm.
A hand on the back of her neck, a man with eyes of obsidian on his haunches in front of her chair.
“It’s gone, done. He’s dead.”
Her lungs expanded in a rush of air, her subconscious understanding— reveling in—his words, even if her conscious mind did not. Her chest still hurt, shards of glass in her veins as she reached out to touch the hard line of his jaw. “Something bad happened to me, didn’t it?” Worse than the captivity, worse than the torture after she created the labyrinth.