Relaxed by the byplay, Max leaned back in his seat—after checking to ensure a still silent Morpheus was okay—and thought about the e-mail he’d received while waiting to board the airjet. It had come via the commander’s office.
Sophia Russo will meet you in San Francisco.
Anticipation thrummed through him—his body didn’t seem to want to accept the fact that the woman was more likely to freeze his balls off in the night than consent to tangle with him in the male/female sense.
But Max had stopped being ruled by his hormones around the age of sixteen, no matter that this J with her night-violet eyes full of secrets tugged at him in the most visceral of ways. Using the time he had before his flight boarded, he’d made a few phone calls, including one to Bart Reuben to get an update on Bonner. The prosecutor had had nothing new to report on that front, but when Max mentioned he was going to be working with Sophia, he’d said, “I got curious about her, did some digging.”
Max had been startled by a sudden—and forceful—surge of possessiveness. “Why?”
“Those gloves,” Bart had replied. “I realized I’d seen them before, on a J I worked with a long time ago. I know they mean something, but I haven’t figured out what yet. However, I did find out something else very interesting.”
Fighting off his unexpectedly strong response to the idea of Bart investigating Sophia, Max had forced his tone to lighten. “You going to make me beat it out of you?”
“No, a bottle of single malt whiskey will do.” He’d been able to hear the laugh in his friend’s voice. “Seems like over the past year, our Ms. Russo has developed a curious little habit of being in close proximity to some very nasty people who decided to mutilate themselves in creative ways.”
“That’s not surprising, given how long she’s been a J.” A cop would have to be willfully blind to miss that occasionally homicidal “quirk” of J psychology. It was always impossible to prove anything, of course, even if a cop felt so inclined given the nature of the individuals the Js invariably targeted, but the Corps policed itself very effectively—it wasn’t good for their image to have their people start going nuts in public.
Even as the thought passed through his head, Max had found himself disturbed by the idea that Sophia Russo might be going slowly insane. “Why hasn’t she been yanked from active duty?” It had come out harsher than it should have.
Bart, thankfully, hadn’t noticed. “She’s very, very good at her job,” he’d replied. “But she’s reaching her use-by-date. One of these days, she’s going to disappear just like every other J I’ve worked with over the years.”
Now, as the car entered the hilly streets of San Francisco proper, Max thought of the last words Sophia had spoken to him, and he felt a low burn of anger in his gut at the idea of her having a “use-by-date.”
Sophia took a seat across from the exotic-looking woman who might well sign the order for her rehabilitation once she was deemed obsolete. It should have concerned her, if only on an intellectual level, but Sophia wasn’t affected by much at present.
So soon after a reconditioning, with her mind piercing in its clarity, the facts were undeniable: her shields against the PsyNet were rock solid—for the simple reason that all Js were drilled remorselessly until they mastered that skill—but the shields that protected her on a day-to-day basis, her telepathic protections, were paper-thin. Any number of occurrences could incite a devastating mental wave.
Results could range from shock and psychic disintegration to death.
Councilor Nikita Duncan raised her head from the file on her desk as Sophia was thinking she’d prefer a sudden and total death over a psychic collapse. Far better that it all end in a sudden, bright burst of agony, than to find herself weakened and at the mercy of those who had none. She’d been helpless once in her life—never again would she allow herself to be in that position.
“Ms. Russo”—Councilor Duncan’s voice was precise—“I believe you had a court appearance this morning?”
“It was at nine,” Sophia said without pause. “I was finished and on my way here by ten thirty.”
“So you’ve had a chance to read the file I e-mailed to you?”
“Yes, I went through it on the airjet.” What she didn’t add was that she’d spent the majority of the time looking at the small digital image of the man she’d be working with, a man she’d never expected to see again in the course of what remained of her lifetime.
The photo had been taken earlier this year, and there’d been something in it that said he’d been laughing just before the photographer pressed the shutter, those uptilted eyes lit from within. She’d found herself fascinated by the difference between that image and the grim-faced man she’d met outside the interrogation room in Wyoming.
“Do you have any questions?” Nikita asked.
“Not at this stage—the assignment appears straightforward.” Other than the fact that she’d been paired with a human who made her think thoughts that weren’t only impossible, but so outrageously impossible that she wondered if she was already walking the cracked and twisted road to irrevocable insanity.
Nikita’s eyes turned into pieces of jet, hard, cutting. “Before we continue, I want to make one thing explicit—I don’t want any ‘incidents’ while you’re in my employ.”
“I don’t know what you’re referring to, Councilor.” Sophia kept her face expressionless—it was a fiction, but it was a fiction that would keep her alive a little longer. Long enough to speak to Max Shannon again, to find out what it was about him that made the last forgotten slivers of her soul, her personality, shimmer with unexpected fragments of light. At the same time, the otherness whispered that he was smart, that he’d discover everything about her and turn away once he knew. It would hurt. And the broken girl inside of her, the secret hidden beyond Silence, was tired, so tired of hurting.