Termed merciless by some, and a robotic sociopath by others, Payal Rao is the perfect Psy: cardinal telekinetic, CEO of a major conglomerate, beautiful—and emotionless.
For Canto Mercant, family and loyalty are everything. A cardinal telepath deemed “imperfect” by his race due to a spinal injury, Canto cares for the opinions of very few—and ruthlessly protects those he claims as his own. Head of intel for the influential Mercant family, he prefers to remain a shadow in the Net, unknown and unseen. But Canto is also an anchor, part of a secretive designation whose task it is to stabilize the PsyNet. Now that critical psychic network is dying, threatening to collapse and kill the entire Psy race with it.
To save those he loves, Canto needs the help of a woman bound to him by a dark past neither has been able to forget. A woman who is the most powerful anchor of them all: Payal Rao. Neither is ready for the violent inferno about to ignite in the PsyNet . . . or the passionate madness that threatens to destroy them both.
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While I am yet close to my Silence and may remain so for the rest of my life, I do not come close to the robotic coldness of Payal Rao. There is something fundamentally defective about her, something that puts her in the same category as those we term psychopaths, and I have no compunction in saying that openly.
-Excerpt from the April 2083 edition of the
Singapore Business Quarterly: "Interview with Gia Khan"
Payal had risen to her position as CEO of the Rao Conglomerate by being ready for anything. Surprise was an enemy to be conquered-because unlike what seemed to be the majority of her race, she wasn't sanguine about the utopia of a world beyond the emotionless regime of Silence.
A century the Psy had spent shackled to the pitiless ice of the Protocol. Payal didn't have enough data to say whether Silence had been a failure, but she knew that emotion brought with it countless problems, exposed endless vectors of weakness.
She had felt once. It had caused her visceral pain-and nearly led to an order of psychic rehabilitation. Had she not been a cardinal telekinetic, valued and not exactly plentiful on the ground, the medics would've wiped her brain and left her a shuffling creature without a mind.
Far better to be thought a psychopathic robot-as she'd so memorably been described by Gia Khan earlier that year-than drop her Silent shield and give her enemies a soft, quivering target. Payal had no intention of ending up dead and forgotten like her grandfather, uncle, and eldest sibling, Varun.
So it was noteworthy that the missive currently displayed on her private organizer had caught her unprepared. It wasn't only the contents, either. No, what was even more unexpected was the address to which the message had been directed: an e-mail address she'd set up after she watched her father execute his firstborn for the crime of conspiring against him.
Pranath Rao was not a man to forgive disloyalty.
Older than Payal by fifteen years, Varun had been caught because-in an act of arrogant stupidity-he'd used official channels to make his seditious plans. He must've believed their father wouldn't bother to check up on the child being groomed to one day take over the Rao empire.
He'd been wrong.
In punishment, Pranath had held his son down using telekinesis, then ordered a combat telepath to crush Varun's brain, crush it so hard that blood had leaked out of his eyes and brain matter out of his ears. Varun's screams had gone on and on until they were nothing but a whistling gurgle.
Payal knew because both she and her next eldest sibling, Lalit, had been forced to stand witness.
The medic who'd certified Varun's death as natural was in their father's pocket.
Even as nine-year-old Payal watched her brother's casket head to the crematorium after a "respectful" funeral service in accordance with the rules of Silence, she'd been thinking. Strategizing. Learning. She didn't intend to be fed into the fire. Pranath Rao had still had two living heirs at that time, and he was young enough to father and raise more.
Which he'd done twelve years later, adding Karishma to his list of heirs. The long gap had been very much on purpose-Pranath waiting until his living children were adults to show them that their lives were in no way invaluable to him.
He could write them off and start again at any moment.
Payal's secret e-mail account had been just one prong in her plan for survival.
Even now that she held a certain degree of power, she still only accessed it through an encrypted organizer she'd set up with its own IP address-one that bounced off so many servers around the world that there was no straight line to Payal Rao, CEO of the Rao Conglomerate.
So for this individual to have identified her displayed a deadly level of skill and knowledge.
But in the text . . . there lay the real danger.
Payal, we've never met, but we have something critical in common.
Put bluntly, I know that you're a hub-anchor-and the reason Delhi's section of the PsyNet has suffered so few fractures and failures. That it's suffered any at all is because you shouldn't be anchoring the Net on your own with the limited assistance of secondary anchors and fail-safes.
I'm in no way denigrating the role they play, because we both know we'd be dead without them, but the fact is that you should have at least three other hub-anchors around you whose zones of control overlap yours. That was how it was when you first initialized.
I'm a hub-anchor in the same position, strained to the limit, with no room for error. And the situation is deteriorating by the day. I believe it's time we stopped relying on the rulers of the PsyNet to watch over our designation. The Ruling Coalition has barely been born and they might turn out to be better than the Psy Council when it comes to Designation A-but we don't have the luxury of waiting.
Anchors are critical to the PsyNet.
But we're ghosts.
Protected. Shielded. Coddled.
Trapped. Suffocated. Controlled.
We-Designation A as a whole-are as much at fault here as Psy Councils recent and past. You and I both know that most As are barely functional outside of their anchor duties, and prefer to remain insulated from the rest of the world.
You don't fall into that group. You are the CEO of a major and influential family corporation. You're well beyond functional-to the point that no one who doesn't already know would ever guess you to be an anchor.
That makes you the perfect person to speak for Designation A at every meeting of the Ruling Coalition-because the PsyNet is dying and no one knows the PsyNet like those of us who are integrated into its fabric.
There will be no Rao family if the PsyNet collapses.
There will be no anchors. No Psy.
This could be the twilight of our race.
Unless we stop it.
Rising from her desk, Payal walked to the large arched doors to the right of her office. They'd been made of warped and weathered wood when she took over this space, but though she'd kept the wooden frame, she'd had the center sections of both doors changed to clear glass, so that she could look down into the apparent chaos of Old Delhi even when the doors were closed.
The Rao family's central home and executive offices were located inside what had once been a mahal-a palace full of ancient art, its floor plan quixotic, and its walls studded with odd-sized windows that glowed with stained glass, such as the mosaic of color behind Payal's desk. It even had a name: Vara.
A name given long ago, before Silence, and before the slow creep of darkness into Vara's aged walls.
Beyond its limited but well-maintained grounds, Vara was surrounded by smaller buildings of a similar vintage, and looked out over a mishmash of more ancient structures and rickety new buildings that appeared held together by not much more than hope and the odd nail.
Gleaming Psy skyscrapers rose in the distance in stark contrast.
Yet even that clinical intrusion into the heart of this ancient city hadn't been able to tame the controlled disorder of Delhi. Her city had its own soul and wasn't about to bow to the whims of any civilization.
Every now and then, she still spotted monkeys scrambling up into the fruit trees on the grounds, and the pigeons had no respect for any of the bird deterrents trialed by the maintenance staff.
Through it all, Vara stood, solid and enduring.
Her father had once considered bulldozing it and rebuilding out of steel and glass, then decided the mahal was an important symbol of their long-term power. "The Raos were here long before others who might think to defeat our hold on this city," he'd said as they stood at Vara's highest viewpoint, the rooftop garden hidden from below by decorative crenellations. "And we'll be here long after they're dead and buried."
It was silent and cool in her third-floor office, but she knew that should she step out onto the stone balcony, she'd be hit with a tumult of horns and cries and scorching heat-the monsoon winds hadn't yet arrived, bringing with them a humidity that was a wet pressure on the skin.
Payal would then wait for the rains to come wash away the muggy air.
Her office was situated at the front of Vara, only meters from the street. She could see motorcycles zipping through traffic with apparent insouciance, while multiple auto rickshaws stood lined up in front of Vara, hoping for a passenger.
A Psy in San Francisco or Monaco might turn up their nose at that mode of transport, but Psy in Delhi knew that the small and nimble vehicles were far more adept at navigating the city's heavy traffic than bigger town cars. The more intrepid drivers even dared take on Old Delhi's narrow lanes-but it was far smarter to travel via motorcycle in those mixed pedestrian/vehicle zones.
The traffic chaos was an accident of history. Delhi had grown too fast at a time when it had more pressing issues to address, and now there was simply no room to expand the roading or underground rail. The rickshaws were here to stay.
Even Payal was known to hail one on occasion despite the fact she was a teleport-capable telekinetic. It helped her keep a finger on the pulse of the city. She'd seen too many powerful Psy fall because they had no idea what was happening beyond their insulated bubble.
Nikita Duncan was the perfect example-the ex-Councilor held considerable financial and political sway, but she'd lost her once-tight grip on her home base. The DarkRiver leopard pack had grown exponentially in power right under her nose. San Francisco would never again be Nikita's city.
Payal kept an eye on multiple small groups like DarkRiver that wielded more power than they should-she watched and she learned. Always.
After spending several minutes focused on the patterns of movement out on the street, she glanced down at the signature at the bottom of the unexpected e-mail: Canto Mercant, Mercant Corp.
Talk about a small group that held an excessive amount of power. Though the rumored scion of the family was now one of the most famous faces in the world, the Mercants didn't generally seek fame or overt political power. Rather, they were the primary shadow players in the PsyNet, with a network of spies so skilled they were said to have something on everyone.
Payal knew the latter to be an overstatement for the simple reason that they had nothing on her. The fact she was an anchor wasn't any kind of a smoking gun or threat. No doubt she was on a list of As somewhere in the Ruling Coalition's archives. But she didn't exactly advertise her status. Not when the most well-known telekinetic anchor of recent years had ended up a serial killer.
So how had Canto Mercant worked out her root designation?
Anchor minds weren't visibly different on the PsyNet, couldn't be pinpointed that way. And because A was an "inert" designation during early childhood, when Psy were sorted into various designations for the necessary specialized training, it would've appeared nowhere on her early records.
In point of fact, all her public-facing records listed her as a Tk.
Canto Mercant shouldn't have the data on her true status. She certainly hadn't known the Mercants had an anchor in their midst. Not only an anchor but a hub, born to merge into the fabric of the PsyNet. Chances were Canto Mercant was a cardinal.
Non-cardinal hub-anchors were rare inside an already rare designation.
Setting aside her organizer on her desk, she used her intercom to contact her assistant: Ruhi, bring me our files on the Mercants.
Severe behavioral and psychic problems that manifest in physical disobedience. No medical issues found to explain sudden bouts of uncoordinated motion, loss of balance, and apparent migraines that lead to blackouts.
Full re-education authorized by legal guardian.
-Intake Report: 7J
The boy fought against the psychic walls that blocked him in, made him helpless. His brain burned, a bruise hot and aching, but he couldn't get through, couldn't shatter the chains that caged his child's mind.
"Stand!" It was a harsh order.
He'd long ago stopped trying to resist the orders-better to save his energy for more useful rebellion-but he couldn't follow this one. No matter how hard he tried, his legs wouldn't move, wouldn't even twitch anymore.
He'd been able to drag himself through the corridors earlier that day, even though pain had been a hot poker up his spine, and his legs had felt as numb and as heavy as dead logs. Now he couldn't even feel them. But he kept on trying, his brain struggling to understand the truth.
Nothing. No movement. No sensation.
Each failure brought with it a fresh wave of terror that had nothing to do with his tormentor.
"You think this is a game? You were warned what would happen if you kept up this charade!"
A telekinetic hand around his small neck, lifting him up off the schoolroom floor and slamming him to the wall. The teacher then walked close to him and used an object he couldn't see to physically smash his tibia in two.
He should've felt incredible pain.
He felt nothing.
Terror might've eaten his brain had he not become aware that the man who'd hurt him was stumbling back, clutching at his neck, while children screamed and small feet thundered out the door. Thick dark red fluid gushed between the teacher's fingers, dripped down his uniform.
As the man stumbled away, the child crumpled to the ground, the trainer's telekinesis no longer holding him up.
No pain, even now.
He should've been scared, should've worried. But his entire attention was on the wild-haired little girl who'd jumped up onto a desk to thrust a sharpened toothbrush into the teacher's jugular. "Run!" he cried. "Run!"
"The boy has encompassed the newborn in his shields."
"Is the infant under threat?"
-Ena Mercant to Magdalene Mercant (February 2054)
Canto had no way to confirm if Payal Rao had read-or even received-his message. He'd embedded a subtle tracker in the e-mail so he'd know when it was opened, but it had been neutralized at some point in the process. It had been a long shot regardless-Payal wasn't the head of the biggest energy conglomerate in Southeast Asia and India because she was anything less than icily intelligent.