Taking the taste of Dev into her lungs, into her heart, Katya retreated to the psychic plane and began to make her way through the jagged minefield of her mind - skirting the numb, dead spots, the distorted pathways, the epicenters of pain - to the very core, to the place where she was connected to the PsyNet itself. The last time she'd seen it, it had been a strong, vibrant column laced with a bright blue energy that seemed to surge with the bold purity of life itself.
Today, that column was pitted and dull, the energy a sluggish mud. If she didn't do this now, death would only be delayed, not halted. And when she died, she'd do so paralyzed and broken, locked within the hell of her own mind. At least today, she could still feel Dev's body around hers, still hear his murmurs of love and devotion, still understand that she'd touched something extraordinary when she'd fallen in love with this man.
Standing before the dying column, she took a deep breath. "Oh, how I love you, Dev." It was incredibly easy to cut through the weakened link. One psychic slice and it was gone, her bond to the Net, her final anchor.
She waited for the agony and it wasn't long in coming. Iron pokers tore through her insides, ripped open her flesh, splintered her bones. But she hardly noticed. Because Dev had been right. No kind of virus or created matter could travel outside the Net. As she fell, Ming's cage didn't fall with her.
Instead, the prison, the spiderweb, the talons, they all wrenched out of her mind with brutalizing force, ripping through her brain itself. The pain was so acute that she couldn't even hear her own screams. And then one too many of those sadistic spikes tore free, and her mind just stopped.
Dev had never before heard a sound of such sheer agony. Holding Katya as she convulsed, as her screams turned into ragged, gasping breaths, he prayed for the first time since the day he'd watched his mother's eyes go forever dull. "Please," he whispered. "Please." Asking for mercy, for deliverance.
Liquid spread over the front of his shirt, where she'd pressed her face, and he knew it was blood. But still her heart beat, still her fingers clawed. How much more would she suffer?
"Let me take it," he pleaded to the heavens.
Agony speared through him on the heels of that wish. He held on to Katya even as his knees hit the floor hard enough to send pain rocketing up his body. Gritting his teeth, he swallowed the pain, opened himself up for more. Against him, Katya had gone quiet, and for that mercy, he'd pay any price.
It felt as if his skin was being sliced from the inside out, a thousand knives cutting him open.
Then, as abruptly as it had begun, it ended. He found himself kneeling on the floor, Katya's unmoving body held to his own, his breath coming in jagged pants. There was blood everywhere. Some of it was his, he thought, realizing that whatever had happened had literally forced blood through his very pores, but that wasn't important.
Because Katya was breathing.
"Katya." He cupped her cheek. It was warm. But her eyes were closed. And when he reached for her with his mind, he found . . . almost nothing. Less than the barest echo of the vibrant woman she'd been.
Not brain-dead, but close to it.
Shoulders shaking with grief, he brought her limp body to his chest and collapsed against the wall.
Dev ignored the insistent beeping of his phone.
When it wouldn't stop, he threw it at the wall in front of him, the throw angry enough to snap the casing in half.
Two seconds later, someone began knocking at his mind, the knocks so hard they stole his concentration, his time with Katya. Baring his teeth, he opened his psychic eye and "punched" Tag.
It should have made him retreat. Instead, the telepath shook off the hit and began to speak using their ShadowNet link. "There's a new thread, Dev." The mix of frustration and wonder in the other man's tone finally got through Dev's grief. "Are you listening? There's a new - "
But Dev was already staring in anguish at the twisting silver thread that linked his mind to a fading star. It was so small, that star, the light within it the barest flicker. And the silver thread, it was so fragile, a single careless push might jar it loose. When his nani's love surrounded him, he didn't protest, didn't do anything, too broken inside his soul.
But part of him, the Shine director part, was able to think, to process. "I thought the ShadowNet couldn't take full-blooded Psy."
"We can't do it by choice - not like the PsyNet," Nani said. "We tried that with a would-be defector back in my day."
"But she's here."
"We made a critical mistake - we forgot to factor in the thing that sets this net apart from the PsyNet. Emotion, Devraj." Her voice held wonder interwoven with sorrow. "The Forgotten's bonds to the ShadowNet itself are of need, but the bonds between those inside our net are bonds of emotion."
Dev heard, but that dull silver thread, that barely-there connection, couldn't be his love for Katya. "I love her more than that." She'd become his reason for being.
"She's dying, beta, that's why the thread is so faded. You know that."
He knew, but he didn't want to. "She wanted to die on her terms, but I can't let her go. Not now." Not when she'd fallen into his arms.
"I don't think your Katya would begrudge you the time to say good-bye."
Rising from his collapsed position on the physical plane, Dev carried Katya to the bathroom and drew her a bath. He took the utmost care with her, washing her hair until it shone, drying her body with the softest of towels. Then, dressing her in her favorite T-shirt and the boxers she'd stolen from him two days before, he laid her down in their bed. She looked so peaceful, as if she was sleeping.