Dev rubbed his thumb over her chin, a slow, intent stroke. "Or you could see it another way." Golden brown eyes watching her with the same absolute focus she'd seen in that tiger's gaze.
"What other way?" she whispered, realizing she was leaning toward him.
But she couldn't pull back, couldn't be the Psy her fractured memories told her she was. Every atom of her being was focused on the roughness of Dev's skin against hers, the angles and planes of his face in the sunlight, the shape of his mouth as he said, "That they gave you to me."
Nikita stared out at the patch of the Net that was simply "dead." "How long has this been here?" she asked the mind at her side.
Councilor Kaleb Krychek sent her a psychic image. "Threads have been running through the Net for some time now, but nothing like this."
"What's caused it?"
Kaleb paused, as if considering how much to reveal. As a cardinal telekinetic, perhaps the most powerful Tk in the Net, he wielded considerable control over the NetMind, the neo-sentient entity that was the Net given form. It provided Kaleb with a conduit of data no other Councilor could match. But all he said was "You have your own suspicions."
She decided there was nothing to be lost in sharing them. "The surge of violence in the past months - the compulsion killings - they left a mark. I think this is a psychic scar."
"But you don't agree?"
"I think the echo of that violence will ripple through the Net for some time, but this speaks of a deeper malaise."
"You think the Net itself is . . . sick," she said, for lack of a better word. "If that's true, it's going to start affecting the populace." All Psy were linked to the Net on the most basic level - there would be no way to avoid the insidious effect if these "dead" areas continued to grow.
"Maybe it already has - perhaps cause and effect are now locked in a feedback loop." Kaleb touched a psychic tendril to the edges of the darkness.
Nikita kept back. "You could become infected with whatever it is that's caused this."
"No," he murmured, almost absently. "I'm shielded."
She knew it was more than that. Could it be that Kaleb had some affinity to the spreading stain? "Where else is it this bad?" This patch was small and isolated - as if the disease was hiding. Nikita would've considered the anthropomor phization absurd in any other context, but in spawning the NetMind, the Net had clearly proven it was an organism of some kind.
"This is the worst," Kaleb responded, drawing back the psychic tendril he'd used to explore the darkness. "It's as if all the dead threads have been migrating here, collecting in a pool."
"That means it's going to keep growing."
"Unless we can find a way to negate those threads of darkness."
She felt a flicker of warning. "Why are you showing this to me rather than to the Council as a whole?" They were allies of a kind, but there had been something else in that statement.
"I thought it'd be obvious," he said. "Your daughter is a cardinal E-Psy."
"I see." And she did. The last time the Net had threatened to self-destruct, it had been because the E-Psy had been systematically eliminated. But the situation was completely different now. "There are millions of E-Psy present in the Net." The Council had stopped the deletion orders on all E-designation conceptions once it became apparent that their simple presence - no matter if their empathic powers were kept ruthlessly contained - helped keep the mental fragmentation at bay. "This is something else." The problem was, she had no idea what.
It was dark. So dark. Darker than the night, than the midnight sun. No, that didn't make sense. There was no such thing as a midnight sun. No . . . Alaska had a midnight sun. But that meant there was light all day long. Here there was no daylight, no sunlight, no hope.
She tried to curl her fingers and toes but couldn't feel them. It was as if they'd been eaten up by the darkness. It was tempting to scream, to hear sound even if she couldn't see, couldn't feel, but she held it inside, locked within the walls of her mind. The monster had taken everything else she had.
She wouldn't give him her screams.
But minutes, hours, days later, she lost the battle and her anguish poured out of her in a wave of sound.
Except . . . she heard only silence. The darkness absorbed even her scream.
And that was when she knew.
She truly was dead.
* * *
Life, electric in its fury. . .a kiss that demanded her participation.
Shuddering in surrender, she drowned in the scent of him. Wild and exotic. Dark and male.
A man who'd snarled at her, caged her. . . fed her.
"Dev." Spoken against his lips, she was so loath to break contact.
His mouth took hers again before she could say anything more, his teeth sinking into her lower lip. She jerked, dug her fingers into solid masculine shoulders. Never, she knew, had she experienced anything even remotely similar. He was so hot, she wanted to crawl into him. His skin burned her fingertips, and she wanted more, wanted to be naked, to have him crush her to the sheets, his weight a heavy, immovable blanket.
Gasping in a breath when he released her, she stared into his eyes, wondering if he could read the clawing depths of her need.
"You back?" His voice was harsh, his eyes glittering fever bright.
Her br**sts brushed against his chest with every breath, the tips so tight with need, it was almost pain. "Where did I go?"
"You were screaming your lungs out." He continued to hold her in an embrace she knew she'd never be able to break. "Wouldn't wake up no matter how much I shook you."