“It’s okay, sweetheart.” A kiss on her forehead, arms that held her close. “No matter what, you’re still my Sophie, still my J.”
Her heart settled, quiet, content. “I am a living, breathing extension of the Net, Max.” The tendrils snaked through her mind, fine threads, and not the dark alone. The light was there, too, simply less obvious to the casual eye. “I’m not just an anchor any longer—I’ve become some kind of a focus.”
Two hours later, she shared the truth about her shields with Sascha Duncan over a secure comm link. The empath’s face held no rejection, only concern. “But Sophie, the Net is going mad. If it’s inside you on that level . . .”
“There’s hope, Sascha.” A blinding, beautiful hope. “As the Net passes through my anchor point, the light and the dark come together if only for a fraction of a second.”
Comprehension dawned in a fracture of color in Sascha’s cardinal eyes. “And for that instant, they’re sane?”
“Yes.” Her throat locked. “I may be the sole anchor who can give them that peace. And that’s not right.” Because outside of the tiny oasis of her mind, the Net was going inexorably mad, a dark rot seeping through its very fabric—parts of the PsyNet were already dead, places where neither the DarkMind nor the NetMind could go.
Sascha’s own eyes shone wet. “No, they should’ve never been split in two, but their sentience is formed and shaped by the Net. They can’t, won’t merge until Silence falls.”
And that, they both knew, might take an eternity . . . and a war that could devastate their world. “Things are changing,” Sophia whispered, holding the empath’s gaze. The NetMind loved Sascha. The DarkMind knew the empath could give them something, but it didn’t know how to shape its request, how to even convey its painful need. “You’ve felt it.”
“Yes.” A solemn gaze, but it held hope, the determination of a Psy willing to fight for her people. “Are you sure you’re safe, Sophia?” So much care, the empath’s huge heart there in the timbre of her voice, in every part of her.
At that moment, Sophia understood some of what the crippled, voiceless DarkMind was trying to tell her, understood that the Es had to be reawakened if the Net was to survive.
“I understand why it does what it does,” Sascha continued, sorrow erasing the stars in her eyes, “but the Dark-Mind’s need for vengeance has pushed it to spawn terrible crimes.”
Sophia wrapped her arms around Max’s waist, laying her ear against the solid pulse of his heartbeat, the warmth of him her own personal anchor. “In my mind, they’re one.” They were whole. As she was finally whole.
“They balance each other.” Sascha’s voice turned soft, thoughtful. “Yes, of course.”
“And . . . I accept the DarkMind,” Sophia said, hiding nothing of who she was, the darkness that had shaped her. “It has no need to scream, no need to fight to be known, to be remembered.” She would never shut it away, never force it to be Silent.
Just like her cop had never asked her to be anything but what she was—a flawed, scarred J. Lifting her head, she reached up and pressed a kiss over that scar on his cheek, uncaring of their audience. Thanking him. Adoring him.
“I know,” he whispered, his arms holding her tight. “I know, baby.”
It was all she needed to hear.
I’m sorry, Max. Please don’t be mad. I just can’t be here anymore.
—Handwritten note from River Shannon to Max Shannon
Sophia had never felt more content than she did at that moment, lying in the loose circle of Max’s arms as they sat in bed watching the entertainment screen. The show wasn’t important—it was background. But the warmth of Max, the scent of him, the knowledge that no one could ever steal this from her now . . . it was an almost vicious happiness.
Max rubbed his chin on her hair. “I can tell when you’re thinking.”
“Are you sure you’re not Psy?” A kiss pressed to the golden-brown skin under her cheek. He was only wearing a pair of boxers, while she’d pulled on a tank top and a pair of pajama bottoms with dancing penguins on them.
Max’s fingers massaged the back of her neck in an absent caress. “One hundred percent primitive human.”
Tapping her fist against the hardness of his bare abdomen, she reached up to press a kiss against his jaw. “I like you primitive.”
He took her mouth, stole her breath. And when he released her, he said, “I knew you wanted me for my body.”
“That and your salary.” Smiling, she tumbled him onto the sheets until she straddled him, her elbows braced on either side of his head. “Are you going to take the job Nikita offered?”
“It gives me hives to think about working for a Councilor.” He scowled, his hands shaping over her hips. Lower. “But then I think about all the secrets I could learn, all the other cops I could help with the contacts I’d make, the access I’d have.”
Sophia shivered at the way he stroked her, decided she’d have to get him in front of a mirror today. The fantasy was driving her to delirium. “I’ve already sold my soul”—that got her a grin, and she had to kiss his dimple then—“so I have little credibility, but Nikita seems to be better than some.”
“Not saying much.”
“No.” She ran one hand down over his chest, loving the fact that she could adore him at her leisure, without worry, without fear. As long as nothing leaked out into the Net, no one would come hunting—not in Nikita’s territory. “Max, do you mind that we have to continue to be careful?” Whatever change was happening, it was a slow, secret thing.