Home > Last Guard (Psy-Changeling Trinity #5)

Last Guard (Psy-Changeling Trinity #5)
Author: Nalini Singh

 


Chapter 1

 

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.

Blessings.

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.

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