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-Ne dis pas des choses pareilles, le mit-elle en garde.

Il continuait de soutenir le regard de Zaira et d'alimenter la pulsion possessive de la fureur, à tel point que la bride faillit céder.

-Pourquoi ?

-Parce que je pourrais décider de te prendre au sérieux. [...] Je pourrais décider de te garder.

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Zaira relâcha son souffle, et, après être sortie du lit, elle se mit à faire les cent pas. Puisqu’elle ne portait qu’une culotte noire, c’était un spectacle perturbant malgré le sérieux de leur discussion, mais Aden ne lui demanda pas de mettre des vêtements. Il était une Flèche, pas un idiot.

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— Ce n’est plus ce que nous sommes. Nous ne sommes pas que des assassins formés à mourir et à tuer. Nous n’abandonnons pas les faibles et les blessés. Et jamais de la vie nous n’abandonnons les nôtres.

Il décida à cet instant-là que ce serait la nouvelle devise des Flèches, et qu’elle serait enseignée à tous les novices. Aucune Flèche n’est remplaçable. Aucune Flèche ne doit être abandonnée.

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Au moins, elle pouvait mettre la veste en cuir par-dessus. Parce qu’elle n’avait pas l’intention de la rendre à Aden. Elle était à elle, à présent. Il la lui avait donnée. S’il voulait la récupérer… eh bien, pas question.

Elle consentirait peut-être à lui rendre certaines de ses affaires s’il les voulait vraiment, mais pas la veste. Elle était imprégnée de l’odeur d’Aden, et, quand elle la portait, elle ne se sentait pas seule.

- Je la garde, lui annonça-t-elle, au cas où il se serait imaginé le contraire.

Il baissa ses paupières bordées de longs cils épais et recourbés, puis la regarda de nouveau.

- Tu vas devoir raccourcir les manches.

- Je vais juste les remonter. (Ce fut précisément ce qu’elle entreprit de faire.) Si je les coupe, tu ne pourras plus la porter.

- Je croyais que tu la gardais.

- Je te la prêterai de temps en temps. (Comme ça, elle s’imprégnerait de nouveau de son odeur.) Mais elle est à moi.

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Aden toucha délicatement la flèche.

-Merci. On ne m'a jamais rien donné d'aussi beau et unique.

Le plaisir profond et tranquille d'Aden faillit de nouveau faire voler la cage en éclats.

-Ne la perds pas, ordonna-t-elle sur un ton brusque. C'est une pièce unique. Comme toi.

-Et comme toi, Zaira. (Aden ne referma pas les derniers centimètres qui les séparaient, mais c'était comme s'il la touchait et l'immobilisait par la simple force de sa présence.) Il n'y a personne comme toi.

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“Every white knight needed a deadly black sword at his back.”

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Aden savait ce qu’elle insinuait. Elle lui demandait de faire ce que les Flèches étaient formées à faire, de prendre la décision rationnelle qui s’imposait : l’abandonner.

Il lui saisit le menton.

- Ce n’est plus ce que nous sommes. Nous ne sommes pas que des assassins formés à mourir et à tuer. Nous n’abandonnons pas les faibles et les blessés. Et jamais de la vie nous n’abandonnons les nôtres.

Il décida à cet instant-là que ce serait la nouvelle devise des Flèches, et qu’elle serait enseignée à tous les novices. Aucune Flèche n’est remplaçable. Aucune Flèche ne doit être abandonnée.

Zaira soutint son regard un long moment. Ses cils épais jetaient des ombres sur ses yeux d’un noir intense.

- Tu as changé, dit-elle. Tu n’as jamais été Silencieux, mais maintenant tu es… différent.

Aden ne protesta pas : elle avait raison. Toucher le lien qui unissait Vasic et Ivy l’avait profondément ébranlé. Son ami veillait jalousement sur ce lien, mais Vasic avait autorisé Aden à passer derrière ses boucliers, à contempler la force scintillante des fils translucides et pourtant indestructibles qui rattachaient Vasic à son empathe. De plus, il avait permis à Aden de toucher l’un de ces fils, de ressentir la force des émotions qui les imbriquaient, lui et Ivy, dans une tapisserie complexe et intime.

Aden ignorait si c’était parce qu’il lui avait été permis de s’approcher aussi près, ou parce que Vasic était son frère de sang et Ivy une empathe, mais, lorsqu’il avait touché leur lien, il avait ressenti une émotion poignante, aussi douloureuse que belle. Une lame qui avait tranché dans ses muscles, ses os et son coeur, et l’avait fait saigner.

- Vasic m’a laissé franchir ses boucliers, dit-il à Zaira. Après son union.

Elle se figea.

- Comment était-ce ? chuchota-t-elle.

- Je n’ai pas de mots pour le décrire.

Une part assoupie de lui-même s’était réveillée à ce contact, et cette part aspirait au sentiment d’appartenance qu’il avait perçu chez Vasic. Comme si le monde pouvait s’effondrer, mais que Vasic savait qu’Ivy serait toujours là, quoi qu’il arrive. Aden désirait la même chose. Pas tout de suite, pas tant que ses Flèches seraient si nombreuses à avoir besoin qu’il reste leur meneur, seul et solide.

Mais, un jour futur, il établirait cette connexion intime et absolue avec un autre être.

- Même avant cette expérience, je ne t’aurais pas abandonnée. Tu le sais.

- Tu dois avancer, insista Zaira, plaquant la main sur la bouche d’Aden quand il voulut reprendre la parole. Écoute-moi. Si tu continues, il y a une chance que tu trouves de l’aide et que tu puisses revenir avec. On ira moitié moins loin avec moi qui te ralentis.

Il attendit qu’elle retire sa main, puis il lui entoura la taille d’un bras et se mit à marcher. Elle décida de le suivre plutôt que de le retenir.

- Aden.

- Penses-tu que je pourrais continuer comme si de rien n’était en sachant que je t’ai laissée mourir seule dans le froid et le noir ?

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ÉCRAN DE FUMÉE (Introduction)

En ce printemps de 2082, les arbres étaient en fleur.

Quatre mois s’étaient écoulés depuis la chute de Silence, le protocole qui enchaînait l’espèce Psi à une froide existence dénuée d’émotions. Télépathes ou télékinésistes, forts ou faibles, les Psis étaient devenus libres d’aimer et de haïr, libres de rire et de pleurer. Beaucoup se laissèrent griser par les émotions, mais, pour d’autres, celles-ci représentaient une menace mortelle.

Car ce n’était pas sans raison que le protocole Silence avait été instauré.

Ce n’était pas sans raison que les dix années de débat précédant l’instauration de Silence avaient été houleuses et déchirantes.

Ce n’était pas sans raison que des millions de Psis décidèrent d’éradiquer toute émotion chez leurs enfants.

Ce n’était pas sans raison que les Psis avaient renoncé aussi bien à la joie qu’à la tristesse.

Cette raison, c’était la violence et la folie endémiques au sein de leur espèce. Être Psi, c’était être bien plus disposé à la folie criminelle, bien plus susceptible de céder à un sursaut de colère incontrôlable et d’ôter la vie à un être cher. Être Psi, c’était être maudit.

En 1979, Silence était une lueur d’espoir. Pour un peuple désespéré que la violence avait poussé à la limite de l’extinction, c’était même leur seule chance. Ils ne prêtèrent pas attention aux ombres autour de cette lueur, aux ténèbres qui dansaient en son sein, aux murmures qui disaient que Silence n’était peut-être qu’un écran de fumée, le reflet trompeur d’un miroir. Poussés par leur amour pour ces mêmes enfants qu’ils condamnaient à une existence sans amour, les Psis acceptèrent les doctrines sévères du protocole et l’espoir que leur présentaient leurs meneurs.

Depuis, la fumée s’était dissipée, le miroir avait volé en éclats.

Et les ténèbres au cœur de l’espèce Psi redevinrent une cruelle vérité à laquelle nul ne pouvait se soustraire. Car qu’advenait-il des meurtriers et des déments dans ce nouveau monde ? Qu’advenait-il des êtres brisés ?

Ils continuaient d’exister.

Ils continuaient de tuer.

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Chapter 1

Aden woke on a cold, hard floor, his head throbbing. Another man might have hissed out a breath, might have groaned, but Aden’s training was so ingrained that his sole response was to lift his lashes a bare sliver, only fully opening his eyes once he realized he was surrounded by darkness. He wasn’t, however, alone. He could hear breathing—quiet but jagged. As if the other person was trying to maintain silence, was unable to do so for reasons Aden couldn’t yet identify.

Remaining exactly where he was, he scanned outward with his telepathic senses . . . and had to capture a scream before it traveled to his vocal cords. The pain was blinding, the agony leaving his vision white. Controlling his breathing and his body through sheer strength of will, he fisted his hand, gritted his teeth, and made a second attempt, this time to reach the PsyNet, the sprawling psychic network that connected all Psy in the world but for the renegades. A Net connection would give him a viable way to alert the squad about his capture.

The backlash of pain almost led to a blackout.

Quietly lifting his arm when he could function again, white spots burning in his vision, he reached to the back of his head and the center of the starburst of pain. He expected to find blood-matted hair that denoted a cracked skull. What he discovered instead was a raised bump close to the lowest part of his skull, near the area that housed the cerebellum and beyond it, the brain stem. No, it wasn’t a bump but a scar—it shouldn’t have been there and it still felt tender.

That wasn’t the only anomaly. From the dryness in his throat and the stiffness of his limbs, Aden calculated that he must’ve been unconscious for hours. Long enough for the squad to realize he was missing and to locate him. Vasic alone should’ve been able to accomplish that. Except it appeared even the best teleporter in the Net hadn’t been able to lock on to his face, using it as an anchor to get to him.

The only other times Vasic had failed to lock on to people was when those individuals had created complex shields designed specifically to thwart teleporters capable of locking on to people rather than simply places, or if the individual concerned didn’t know his or her own identity—such as those whose minds were broken.

Aden’s mind was whole, but whatever it was that had been done to his brain via the barely healed incision he’d discovered, it had screwed up his psychic wiring. Vasic’s absence told Aden his psychic signature must’ve also been affected on a deep level. He knew of no surgical technique—or technology—that could achieve that aim without a full psychic brainwipe, but he didn’t make the mistake of thinking he knew everything.

He ran a mental checklist of his body and the items on it. All his weapons were gone, as were his belt and his boots. Whoever was behind this had been thorough.

Having maintained an ear on the other person breathing in the room, he crawled silently toward the rasp of sound. His cellmate hadn’t moved the entire time, and there was something in the unsteady rhythm of the breathing that had him certain the individual was hurt. With his eyes having adapted to darkness ameliorated only by a thin edge of light that came in under what must be a door, he could see that his cellmate’s body lay in a corner of the windowless room—as if it had been thrown there. That body was small and with the wrong proportions to be a man. Either a child or a woman.

Close enough now to see the curve of her hip, the fine line of her jaw, he realized it was a woman. A woman who smelled of blood. He moved his hand to her face, brushed away the dark curls that were impossibly soft . . . and found his wrist gripped in a punishing hold. “Move and I’ll rip out your throat.”

“Zaira,” he said in the same low whisper she’d used. “It’s—”

“Aden.” She released his wrist. “I’m injured.”

“How bad?”

“I was shot.” Taking his hand, she placed it on the viscous stickiness above her stomach, her thin but should-have-been-bulletproof top soaked with blood and her lightweight body armor missing. “It passed through the left side of my abdomen.”

Aden might not have any equipment or supplies, but he was still a trained field medic. “Do you have any source of light on you?” It was possible their captors had overlooked something.

“Negative. No tools or weapons. They even took my boots.”

He shifted so close to Zaira that, under any normal circumstances, he would’ve been invading her personal space. When he pushed up the long-sleeved black top that hugged her body, she didn’t protest. Her skin was clammy under his touch, and though he felt the edges of a bandage, it had clearly been an inexpert job—blood had soaked through, was continuing to do so. “I need to touch your skull.”

“No need. I’ve been cut, something done to my brain. I’m psychically blind. Any attempt to use those abilities results in extreme pain.” She took a shallow breath. “Since rescue hasn’t arrived, I’m assuming you’re in the same position.”

“Yes.” He checked her head wound to make certain it wasn’t bleeding, too, discovered a roughly sealed incision identical to his own. Their unknown captors had the technology to do brain surgery advanced enough to block psychic abilities, yet they’d left Zaira badly hurt and in pain? “They want you weak.”

“Yes.” Her next words were so quiet he heard them only because he was close enough to feel the soft warmth of her exhale. “I didn’t know it was you, but now that I do, I think our captors plan to use me to break you. One entered the room earlier, said, ‘He’ll talk or we hurt her,’ to another individual.”

“Arrows aren’t so easy to break.”

“And you aren’t fully Silent, Aden. You never have been.” Another strained breath. “Everyone in the squad knows that—now someone outside the squad has figured it out.”

Aden decided he would correct her about his Silence later. “Conserve your strength. I need to be able to count on you when we escape.” There was no “if.” They would escape.

“If you can get me a weapon,” Zaira said, “I’ll cover you as you go. I’m weak, will slow you down. You’ll do better on your own.” She said that as if it was a simple fact, as if she wasn’t talking about the end of her own life.

Leaning in until their noses almost touched, until she could see his eyes as he could see the jet-black darkness of hers, he said, “I don’t leave my people behind.” He knew what it was to be left behind, and though it had been done for the best of reasons it had marked him on a primal level. “We’ll go together.”

“You’re being irrational.”

It was a complaint he’d heard multiple times from her. And not because her own Silence was flawless.

The truth was that Zaira had never needed Silence. What had been done to her in childhood had caused her to retreat deep into her psyche, shoving her emotions into a dark hole in a bid to survive. In their place had grown an iron will and a harshly practical mind. Silence had only ever been a tool she used to create a civilized shell.

Without it, she was close to feral but no less ruthless, her brain having learned long ago to put survival above all else.

It made her the perfect soldier.

Some would say it also made her a psychopath, but they didn’t understand—unlike a psychopath, Zaira had the capacity to feel the full range of emotions. That capacity was in permanent cold storage, but it gave her a conscience regardless. It also gave her the capacity for unflinching loyalty: because Zaira’s violent survival instincts didn’t always equal her own survival. She’d already walked into the path of a hail of bullets aimed at him during an operation three years before, had barely survived her injuries. He wasn’t about to allow her to sacrifice herself for him again.

“You should’ve toppled me from the leadership years ago,” he said as he moved to lift up the bandage, see what he could make out of the wound. “My irrationality where my people are concerned is apt to continue.”

“I thought about it, but I don’t have the patience for politics.”

He knew that despite her icy words, Zaira would take down anyone who challenged his right to lead the squad. For him to lose her loyalty, he’d have to do something so horrific, he couldn’t even imagine what it might be. “How were you shot?” he asked, wiping away the memories of how close to death she’d come the last time. “How many hits?”

“One,” Zaira replied. “They came for me while I was some distance from the Venice compound. Five men. I blasted a telepathic request for assistance but no one made it to me in time.”

“How many did you kill?”

“Three. Fourth injured. Fifth would be dead, too, if he hadn’t made the shot.”

Five men against a very small woman and she’d nearly defeated them. Deadly and smart, she was one of Aden’s top people for a reason. Now her breathing grew harsher as he checked the edges of her wound by touch. “Must be a new bullet designed to penetrate our armor,” she said through what sounded like gritted teeth.

“Is this top made of the new material developed by Krychek’s company?” The thin and fabriclike innovation was meant to be as effective as much heavier body armor.

“No. I put myself low on the priority list—others on the frontline needed it more.”

Pressing the pads of his fingers on different parts of her abdomen, he asked her to tell him what hurt and what didn’t, and stumbled upon an unbandaged wound on her side. “I’m fairly certain the abdomen wound is the exit site,” he said after investigating it as carefully as he could, “but there are signs the bullet ricocheted inside you before it left your body.” Causing internal damage he couldn’t determine without a scanner. “Are you coughing up blood?”

“No.”

“That’s good.” Her abdomen was also not swollen or tense. “If there is internal bleeding, it’s not severe yet.” Pressing the bandage back into place, he pulled down her top, then shrugged off the leather jacket he was still wearing and got her into it. It was too big on her, and he rolled up the sleeves before she could ask him—Zaira would not want her hands hindered in case of a fight.

That done, he stripped off his T-shirt and, tearing it using brute force, managed to make wadding for the entry wound on her side. If he’d been wearing his uniform top, this would’ve been impossible, that material designed not to tear. It was as well he’d been in civilian dress except for his combat pants. Knotting together strips of fabric, he got it around her waist and tied the wadding into place. It’d provide some pressure at least, help stem the bleeding. “Too tight?”

A shake of her head.

“I’m going to try to stop the bleeding.” He had minor M abilities that meant he could seal some wounds, though he had no capacity to see inside a body to gauge injury.

“No,” Zaira said when he would’ve touched his hands to her skin. “That sucks energy. Save it. We’ll need it to get out of here.”

He didn’t like leaving her hurting and in pain, but she was right: he was a trained field surgeon and medic because his ability was so limited. It was useful when he had healthy backup, but it became a liability in a combat situation. Far better for him to rely on his skills. “Warn me if you’re about to lose consciousness,” he said before he realized a grim truth. “I need to test if my M abilities even work.” No matter if it was about healing the body, not the mind, it still required a psychic energy burn.

Pain was a hot poker down his spine, his vision blurred for over a half minute.

“No?” Zaira said softly.

“No,” he confirmed. All their psychic abilities were out of reach.

Tugging her top back down again over the makeshift bandage he’d created, he put his lips right against her ear, one of her curls brushing his nose. “How long will you last?” He was well aware that though her injury was bad, she wasn’t as frail as she’d made herself appear.

“Seven minutes at full capacity, but that capacity has been halved by the wound and the shock from the blood loss.”

That still made her a hundred times deadlier than most people on the planet. “We wait for a chance. My signal.”

“Agreed,” she said, just as there was a rattling sound.

Leaving Zaira on the floor in her guise of a small, weak, wounded creature, he rose to his feet. The light that poured into the room was dim, but it told him multiple things.

This room had no other exits and was created of hard plascrete.

There was a corridor outside, but no sounds of machinery—even the hum of background technology or traffic—invaded the room.

Either they were far from civilization or the plascrete was well insulated.

The heavily muscled man in the doorway was dressed in camouflage pants, a jacket of the same mottled shade, and black combat boots. He stood like a special ops soldier . . . stood like an Arrow.

Aden ignored the male’s masked face and took in his height, his body weight, his musculature, ran it against his mental database of Arrows. No match. He and Zaira hadn’t been betrayed from the inside, but this man was a high-level soldier. Black ops most likely.

He carried a weapon.

That was his weakness. He thought the weapon made him invulnerable.

Pointing that weapon at Aden, the male said, “Sit.”

Aden had noted the dented metal chair in the center of the cell at the same time that he noted the plascrete; he’d also weighed up its value as a weapon. Still calculating his options, he walked to the chair, took the seat. “If you’re intending to interrogate me,” he said, confirming the presence of another guard outside when that guard’s shadow hit the opposite wall, “you should know Arrows are trained to die rather than break.”

“Oh, you’ll talk. I have plenty of time and everyone has a breaking point.” Cold words. “From what I hear, Arrows are nothing if not loyal. This one—she means something to you.” Having walked into the room, he kicked Zaira’s body.

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