“He was a true sociopath.” Icy rage in every word.
She held it close, used it as a weapon against the past. “The summer I turned eight, he took four of us—four trainee Js—to another, even more remote location for intensive drills. Before we left, he requested and received permission to enclose us in his shields so that we could drop ours without consequences should we have trouble during the drills.” Her fingers dug into Max’s chest, and she wanted to tear through the fabric, press her skin to his, bury the past under an agony of sensation.
“Sophie.” A voice scraped raw. “I can wait, baby. I’m sorry for—”
She shook her head. “No.” She wanted him to know, needed him to know. “Once our instructor”—she couldn’t say his name, her terror too deep—“had us alone and in the cage of his shield . . . he hurt us.” Sophia could still remember their shock, their inability to understand. “Carrie died the first day. She was the smallest, the weakest.” And the monster had broken her in his eagerness.
“He was more careful after that. Bilar died on the third day.” He’d convulsed in front of her and Lin, and they could do nothing to help, their hands and feet tied behind their backs, their mouths taped shut. Sophia had dared the monster’s anger and reached out with her telepathy, refusing to let Bilar die alone. His screams had echoed inside her mind for hours.
Max’s hands tightened on hers. “Why didn’t your parents, the watchers in your PsyNet, sense his deviancy?”
“Don’t you see, Max?” Her voice shook. “He was the perfect Psy.” Silence didn’t differentiate between those who had been conditioned and those who simply did not feel.
“Is he dead?”A quiet question asked in a voice that made the other half of her, the scared broken child, go motionless, wondering . . .
“Yes.” When he didn’t say anything else, she continued. “Lin and I, we were the last two left. He was nine, I was eight.” She felt her heart begin to speed up, her spine to knot. “The monster didn’t want to break us too fast, so he was careful. But one day he did something to me, and I didn’t respond like he wanted. I didn’t scream. So he threw me headfirst through the large glass window at the front of the cabin.” Pain, blood, the glitter of glass in the sun, she’d never forget any part of it.
“Enough, Sophie.” Max’s entire body was so hard, so unmoving, she’d have thought him stone but for the furious beat of his heart.
“I want you to know. Please.”
“You never have to beg me for anything.” A harsh order.
“Lin saved me,” she said, clasping his words to her soul. “While the monster was outside, checking to see if I’d survived, he somehow managed to get to the comm panel, input the emergency code.” And then Lin, the sweet, talented telepath who might’ve been her friend in another life, had died, his internal injuries too massive. “Everyone’s forgotten them. Carrie, Bilar, and Lin, but I remember. Someone should remember.”
This time, Max did move. Pulling away, he turned. She went into his arms, ready for the heat, the almost violent pleasure-pain. “People talk about how the Psy are starting to break,” he said in a fierce whisper, “but nobody ever speaks about the victims.”
He understood, she thought, he understood. “We’re as dirty a secret as the monsters. Those of us who survive are damaged goods, never quite the same. My parents wrote me off, turned me over to the state. I heard them in the hospital. . . . talking about whether it would be better to just put me down.”
Your request to have Sophia Russo, minor, age 8, removed from your official family history has been granted. The state will pay the costs of her care and education until she reaches her majority. You are no longer considered bound to her or responsible for her in any way.
—Final decision of the Council Subcommittee on
Genetic Inheritance, November 2060
Max’s embrace tightened until it almost hurt. But she needed it, craved it. The lost, indelibly fractured half of her clung to him, realizing it was being accepted, no matter the extent of its flaws. “The anchor thing,” he said. “That’s what saved you. Because it’s a rare ability.”
She nodded. “When the monster threw me through the window, he didn’t just scar my face. He also broke my mind.” She’d been a terrified child who’d finally realized that no help would come, that she’d soon be buried in an unmarked grave beside Carrie and Bilar. “But my brain didn’t give up. It ‘rerouted’ itself directly into the fabric of the Net, the only thing big enough to hold together what remained of my psyche.”
“I am so damn proud of you,” he said, his voice low and husky.
She wanted to grab onto the commitment, the promise, implicit in his words. “I’m really broken, Max.” It was the final secret, the final truth. “I can pretend to be normal, but I’m not. I never will be.”
“You survived—how you’ve done it doesn’t matter. The fact that you have? It’s better revenge on that bastard and the ones that allowed him to do what he did than anything else.”
Shuddering at the unflinching acceptance in his tone, she moved one hand lightly over his back. His muscles shifted beneath her touch, as if in response. Growing bolder, she pressed harder, felt his abdomen grow taut against her. It was instinct to spread out her hand, run her fingernails over the fabric in sensual exploration.