"Exactly." Walker nodded. "It also made it impossible for anyone to get a lock on us. The second we dropped out, we linked our mind to another member of the family. The first to drop out had to be someone powerful enough to anchor the link, someone who could survive the initial separation and isolation."
"Sienna?" Sascha asked.
"No. She's cardinal but she didn't have enough control over her powers. Judd did it." Walker looked at his brother. "I was the last to drop out - I had to guide the kids out."
Sascha guessed that Judd had to be just below cardinal level to have taken on the job as anchor. "It worked?" Her heart was in her throat.
"Yes. We created a closed circle that constantly feeds upon the energy generated inside the loop."
Excitement and hope burst inside her. "Can..."
Walker started to speak before she could get the desperate question out. "No, Sascha. I'm sorry." The words were gentler than she'd expected from one of the Psy. "For the loop to function, we had to lock it shut. With three immature minds, it takes everything Judd and I have to keep it going. Until Sienna is old enough to help, we're the ones controlling Marlee's and Toby's instinctive attempts to rejoin the PsyNet."
"The second you open the loop," she whispered, "they're going to try to relink."
Walker nodded. "They can't help it. It's something we're born with - this need to be part of the Net. The two of us are old and powerful enough to control the instinct but even Sienna continues to have trouble. We can't take the risk of opening the loop to let you in and losing them."
Lucas shifted beside her. "Protecting your young comes first." There was no accusation in his voice and she knew he'd have made the same choice. But she could also feel his frustration, his need to protect her. If it ever came down to it, she understood that her mate would have no trouble sacrificing every single one of the Laurens to save her. It was almost terrifying to be adored that much. Almost.
The other two Psy looked at him. "Yes."
"But," Judd said, "we can provide the distraction you need. Sienna and I are both telepaths with a number of... unusual abilities. We've figured out a way to sneak back into the Net through the mind of a weak Psy.
"We intend to feed our powers through that individual's uplink and scramble a couple of the major lines of communication. It's going to be fairly rough - secondhand sabotage depends upon the Gradient of the mind being used, and our guy's scarcely 4.5."
Sascha knew they were talking about mind control, something that was both illegal and immoral. "If you do that, we're no better than them."
Judd looked across at Hawke and back to her. "We're only going to use the link to the Net. Neither of us has any interest in scanning the drug-addled mind of our volunteer. It's your choice."
Sascha struggled with the ethics of breaking one rule to uphold another; Brenna's life against the invasion of a mind. What decided her were the painful shadows she glimpsed around Hawke. He was dying each second his packmate was held in enemy hands, the alpha heart of him shredded by the twin talons of guilt and grief.
"Money talks. He doesn't even care what he's volunteering for." Hawke nodded at Judd to continue.
"The break will be minute - we can't risk anyone tracing us through the other's mind. It's the same reason none of us can play your role. The instant they even suspect we're alive, they'll hunt us down."
"A minute break should be enough. The flow-on effects will ripple through the Net for some time," Sascha said, frowning in thought. "The killer should detect the changeling nature of my psychic scent before everyone else calms down and starts to wonder what's wrong with me.
"Even then, they probably won't immediately understand - most Psy have never seen inside a changeling mind. There's no reason it shouldn't work." Unless everything went to hell and the first ones to become aware of her were the Councilors.
Her hand tightened on Lucas's, fear a tight knot in her stomach. She didn't want to die, didn't want to leave this man she'd discovered after twenty-six years of loneliness. But neither could she steal an extra few days to love him with Brenna's death weighing down her conscience. Her mother was part of the horror and she had to save at least one life.
Even if no one could save her own.
The unfairness of it threatened to make her shatter - how dare she be shown this glory only to have it snatched from her grasp? Except, of course, the glory had never been meant to be hers. Fed by the poison of Silence, her mind's collapse had begun long before she'd met her panther.
"Kitten." Lucas's voice was a purr against her ear. "Stop hurting." Before she could comment, he did something that mere days ago would've shocked her utterly. Pushing back his chair, he lifted her into his lap. The casual display of strength reminded her of the differences between them, the surprises, the things she'd never get a chance to fully explore.
Having no desire to fight the embrace, she put her head against his shoulder and breathed in his scent. Lucas might try to stop her but she knew she was going to go through with this. Death was certain - it was just a case of how she'd make her final exit. So for now she'd live her life to the emotional zenith. She'd touch and laugh and be publicly held.
"Though we're the wrong gender to appeal to the killer, Walker and I have both tried to think of a way we could implement your plan, since we're already out of the Net," Judd said, watching the way she lay trustingly in Lucas's arms. "Unfortunately, it'd involve letting them know that at least one of us is alive."