“Originally,” he said. “I later wrote in an algorithm to spare those under the age of sixteen.” He’d never had a childhood; Sahara had come to womanhood in a cage. It seemed fitting to spare the children they had never had a chance to be.
Sahara shook her head in a mute refusal to accept what he would’ve done.
“It was intended as a last option.” To be initiated only if they had stolen her from him forever.
“Seizing control of the Net will be intensely more satisfying.”
“You’re the wrong person to be in charge of so many lives,” Sahara said, her arms still locked around his body. “You have no allegiance to the Net.”
Kaleb was in no way insulted by her judgment. He knew what he was, knew that his experience at Enrique’s hand had permanently warped the fabric of his personality. But— “My allegiance is yours, and you need the Net to thrive.”
Huge, dark eyes, one of her hands coming around to lie on his heart again. “What are you doing to me, Kaleb?”
“Someone,” he said, closing his hand over her own, “has to make the ruthless decisions or the Net will die anyway.” He showed her images of the rotting places where nothing could survive, reminded her of the infection that had taken hold in the psychic fabric that connected every Psy on the planet but for the renegades. “Our race is on the verge of extinction.”
Sahara’s fingers flexed, her expression somber. “Our people have voluntarily crippled themselves.
Of course that damage will be reflected in the Net. The only thing that might reverse the—” Her eyes widened. “You’re planning the fall of Silence.”
“It can’t fall for all, but for the majority it must.” If it didn’t and the rot continued to grow, the poisonous biofeedback would equal a slow death for millions upon millions.
“A sudden fall will cause massive psychic shock,” Sahara argued. “Thousands upon thousands could die.”
“Acceptable collateral damage.” Kaleb had no problem with losing a quarter or even half of the population. “Those who remain will be the strongest, most resilient.”
Sahara shook her head. “You can’t mean that.”
“It’s a practical solution. Slicing off the diseased and the weak will mean our race has a stronger foundation on which to grow.”
“I fall into that category.” A fierce response that spoke to the steel that ran through her body. “I’m weak yet, still broken in so many ways.”
He knew what she was trying to do, but—“I don’t have empathy, Sahara. I can’t feel for those who are going to die. It would be akin to asking a falcon to take flight when his wings had long been hacked off.”
He remembered the bone-shaking fear he’d felt as a three-year-old thrown into the hell that was Santano Enrique’s “training.” He also remembered the day he’d embraced the full weight of the conditioning. Better to feel nothing, he had thought with a calm unnatural for the boy he’d been, than to scream in horror every minute of his existence.
“You,” he said, “are the single exception to that rule.” The oldest, deepest, most beautiful flaw in his Silence. “Without you, I would be a monster.”
* * *
SAHARA lay in bed hours after Kaleb left her to meet with the Arrows, the calm way he’d told her of his lack of empathy colliding with her fears about his possible collusion with Pure Psy to leave her scared in a way that went so deep, it was in her very cells. Not of him. For him. For her Kaleb, who had never, ever let her down.
It didn’t matter that she didn’t have the memories to support that truth—she knew it the same way she knew the sky was blue and the rain wet, a fact so absolute it was beyond question.
“I will fight for you.”
With that determined vow, she sat up and pushed the window open to look out into the night- cloaked forest, the heavy darkness as impenetrable as Kaleb’s eyes when he wanted them to be. Was he right? Had his capacity for empathy been destroyed during the nightmare of his childhood? She wanted to disbelieve him, to assume it was simply buried deep, but then she thought of the damage done to her by Tatiana, and, heart hurting, considered the choices a vulnerable boy may have made to survive . . . and accepted he might be telling the absolute truth.
Even as she struggled with that realization, part of her mind continued to tug strands of memory free from the vault . . . and suddenly an entire chunk of her past came loose without warning.
She was cutting through the park again, her school satchel banging lightly against her hip.
There were two younger students ahead of her, both on bicycles, but they disappeared around the corner a second later. Sahara twisted to fiddle with the strap of her satchel, her aim to confirm there was no one behind her, either.
The pathway was empty.
Picking up her pace, she waited until she was in the single surveillance blind spot along this route, then slipped off the path and into the bushes. It took her half a minute of rapid walking to reach the grove of trees to the right of the path. No one would call it a forest, but the small wood was thick enough to provide cover. More important, it was out of range of the security cameras.
Sahara didn’t think anyone watched the cameras twenty-four/seven. Their main purpose was to act as a deterrent against antisocial behavior. If, however, someone ever became suspicious of her actions to the extent of tracking her movements, that individual would find exactly nothing. She’d arrive home via another route, making it appear as if she’d decided to walk off the approved route. A fact that would get her a stern lecture about safety but carry no other consequences.