"Move it." It was a command from the doorway.
That raw new emotion flared so high, she had to fight to find her voice. "Are we going on the train?"
"No. I'll drive."
She walked to him, then with him down the corridor, aware he was keeping his stride short to accommodate hers, his big body moving with a grace that told her she'd never be able to move fast enough to escape him. Still, a pulse of excitement bubbled through her, lighting up her mind - the car, she thought, it had to do with the car. If she had the car, she could find -
Another black screen, her memory cutting out like a badly tuned comm panel.
Her nails dug into the soft flesh of her palms so hard she felt skin break. Relaxing her fingers with effort, she lifted her hand to look at one palm. It was hers, she knew that. Those life lines, they were hers. But there were other lines, thin white lines that crisscrossed skin unbroken except for the bloodred crescents she'd just created. How had she gotten those lines? Head beginning to pound in a dull, heavy beat, she stared, determined to divine the truth, no matter how ugly.
Warm male fingers gripped her hand. Startled, she jerked up her head - to meet Dev's scowl. "Don't force it," he ordered, squeezing her fingers. "Glen said the memories will return when it's time."
She didn't pull her hand from his, in spite of the violent chaos of her emotions. When he touched her, she felt real, a living being instead of a ghost. "I can't help it. I hate not knowing who I am."
"Hate - strong word." He led her through a pair of automatic glass doors. "Emotions come easily to you?"
"Yes." She swallowed as he paused in front of the elevator. "There's only so much the mind can take. After that, it splinters." Taking the lines of conditioning with it.
The elevator doors opened and Dev tugged her inside. She took one step across the threshold before freezing, her breath stuck in her throat, her spine so rigid she literally couldn't move.
Dev's hand flexed around hers and for an instant she was terrified he'd pull her inside. He was so much bigger, so much stronger, she'd never be able to stop him. Fear was a fist in her throat, blocking her airway.
Then he dropped her hand to wrap an arm around her waist, carrying her out and back into the corridor. "You don't have to go in there." One palm cupped the back of her head as he spoke in a voice as harsh as sandpaper. And yet his hold. . .
Her entire body began to shake, terror transmuting into a painful kind of relief. Not stopping to think, she buried her face in his chest, her arms locking around him. A rough word. The thud of the duffel hitting the floor. Then his own arms came around her with bruising strength. She wanted more, wanted to strip him to the skin and touch his heartbeat, convince herself that he existed, that she existed. Deep inside, she was so scared that this was all just another madness-induced fantasy, her mind trying to come up with something to fill the endless void.
"Shh." Spoken gently against her ear, the hot brush of his breath another tactile anchor.
Daring to move her hand, she placed her fingers against the side of his neck, feeling his pulse strong and steady against her fingertips. Real. So real. "I can't be in a box again." The last was a whisper as she caught a wisp of memory. "There was no light, no sound, no touch, no Net." How could there be so much pain in nothingness? But there was, excruciating, agonizing, relentless pain - pain that had turned her from a sentient being to something lower than an animal. "It was like I didn't exist."
Dev stood unmoving under Katya's hesitant touch. What she was describing was one of the cruelest forms of torture known to man, one that left no marks but destroyed the victim from within - sensory deprivation. Leave a thinking, living being without feedback long enough and the mind began to break, to turn inward, going so deep that many never came back out. And for a Psy to be cut off from the Net -
He blocked the wave of pity before it could rise. Because sensory deprivation wasn't only about hurting the victim until that person shattered. It could be used for a far more ominous purpose - to break down an individual and then build him or her back up again according to the torturer's requirements.
Katya might be precisely what she feared - Ming's creation.
The bruises, the scratches, the starvation, it had in all probability been nothing but the most calculated kind of window dressing, meant to make her appear weak, to arouse pity. . . and protectiveness.
Even understanding the bleak truth, he couldn't let her go, not when tremors still quaked through that unbearably slender frame. If he squeezed her too hard, he thought, he might break her. Psy bones were already more breakable than human, and she'd been starved on top of that - just because it was window dressing didn't mean she hadn't felt every blow, every kick, every hour of hunger.
He made a conscious effort to loosen his hold, but the instant he did, she began trembling so hard he thought she'd shatter from the inside out. Crushing her closer, he moved his hand until it lay underneath her braid, on the soft skin of her nape. That skin felt bruisingly delicate under his much rougher touch, but she calmed at the contact. So he held her that way, murmuring wordless reassurances as her fingers stroked over his pulse, as her body all but melted into his.
It took ten long minutes for her to stop shivering. The hand on his neck slid down to linger at the knot of his tie. He held his breath as her lashes lifted to reveal eyes filled not with the fear he'd expected, but with an almost impossible calm. "I survived that. I must be stronger than I think."
He knew it was a dangerous step into enemy territory, but he couldn't help the pride he felt in her - it was a swell of emotion, primitive in its ferocity. "Yes."