The second I step up in front of her it's like an electric shock… no, not like that. Shocks make you jump away, make you flinch and fall back and feel pain and this… this is like opposite poles being dragged toward each other. Like radio signals bouncing through the atmosphere and catching on an antenna. Connection.

Somewhere off in the distance, the bed crashes to the ground. I barely register the vibration, the sound that'll probably have a crowd of guards rushing in, guns blazing at any second. I should probably step back, move to the door, tell them it's ok, and for a second my body actually tenses like it wants to follow the command but I can't… can't move away. Don't want to move away. Her eyes are wide and searching and terrified and I don't just see it, I feel it. Feel it like I haven't felt anything in months.

"What… what's happening?"

Connection. It's like coming home… some sort of sick, horrible Skitter version of family bonding and I hate how much I've missed it since coming back. The forced bond. The bond of the Harness. The sense of companionship, camaraderie that went beyond words, that made hour after hour, month after month of menial labor bearable, even pleasant. Sure, we weren't really able to think while we were harnessed, not like I do now. I'd have flickers of memory, flickers of a longing that I couldn't quite identify – for freedom, I guess, and for Matt, Dad, Mom, and even Hal – but almost before I felt it my groupmates would reach out for me, soothe away the bad feelings better than any hug, any shallow, comforting words ever could.

I've tried to forget it. I've done a pretty good job, too, and most days I can tease Matt, chat with Dad, argue with Hal, and convince myself that it feels as real to me as the Skitters' lies did. I've been making my way back to reality piece by piece, burying any bit of longing for my old group, for the connection with another human being (the Skitters did connect with us, comfort us, but not nearly the same way we did with each other). Burying the remnants beneath my little personal war of vengeance.

But now everything's cracking apart. The connection's open, tugging me in, away from the cardboard-cutout world around us… and I see the denial in my eyes and feel it echoing in her pounding heart as I struggle to want to close it off, make it disappear.

"I don't know…"

I wish I didn't know. Wish I could forget. Wish I could go back to being innocent and carefree like the rest of my stupid groupmates… as innocent and carefree as a bunch of former alien slaves living in a post-apocalyptic warzone can be, anyway. Sometimes I see them – the rest of the ones Hal and Dad saved when they got me. They'd all been captured way less time than I was, and their spikes have fallen out. They don't have super strength, can't see or hear like Superman as far as I know… and they don't remember the connection, not the way I do. Not a single one of them has talked to me since we've been back. I'm pretty sure they all avoid each other, too. One time I caught Sara looking at me from across the dining hall, with sort of a searching expression like she was trying to recapture part of a dream she'd lost. Not that it matters; she's free of it now. None of them fall down, screaming at radio signals. None of them have been recruited by a rogue Skitter to help in a Rebellion apart from the human resistance. And none of them will ever feel this again.

Wildly, irrationally, I feel a jolt of pity for them, and Karen sort of stumbles toward me, her body and her feelings reaching out instinctively to ease away the feeling, to ease away my panic, and suddenly I realize I've started sending out signals to soothe her as well.

I need to stop. This needs to… shhh… The red-eyed Skitter warned me about the connection, how the Skitters' masters use it to keep people from… it's ok, it's safe… keep them in line…

"I can… feel what you're feeling."

Her body's so close, a harsh breath brushing across my cheek and my lips and her feelings… or are they my feelings?... are starting to lose their irrational, panicked edge. This is good, better than good. We're stronger united, we can protect each other, the pair of outcasts against the world. She senses my thought and I can feel her gratitude, her happiness, how lonely and scared she's been until this moment…

"I can feel it too."

Then her lips brush against mine and the quavering, half-panicked pleasure (mine? Hers? Does it matter?) is suddenly drowning out that one last little stubborn part of me that's whispering that this isn't good, definitely not safe, that the connection isn't healthy… it's ok, it's amazing. It's home. You're finally home, Ben. The kisses continue: just bare, soft, searching things that manage to set my nerves on fire and soothe them at the same time. But it's nothing, just a physical echo of the way her feelings are sliding across mine, seeking out every wound, every emotional scar – brushing tenderly across the raw agony of Jimmy's death, sympathizing with my twisting, consuming rage against the Skitters… But it's not all bad. This isn't bad. The humans-the rest of the humans-can't understand. They think they're whole when they're alone. They've never just been a piece of something much greater. You're a piece of something amazing. The Resistance. The Skitter Resistance. Red Eye's told me how important I am, how I need to help him make the humans-the rest of the humans-understand. He also told me how the connection's dangerous, how you can lose yourself in it if the wrong people are in charg…shh… We'll protect each other. You're safe here… Us against the world. And my body is just starting to listen, to un-tense from its painfully rigid stance, to accept that-

The door slams open and the world falls away. The connection snaps, the faint blue glow I belatedly realize was lighting her hair is gone, and for a second I feel sick, abandoned, frightened. Like I'm four years old again and I've lost sight of Dad on the crowded boardwalk, and I'm afraid I'll have to build a house out of sand and live there all by myself forever. The connection's gone. Karen's gone. And I should feel relieved, should feel free. But all I feel is lost. Then my head finishes its instinctive whip toward the door and I see my brother standing there (of course. Who else, right?) And the sickness just about triples as I take in his horrified expression.

"What the hell?"

Karen collapses. And I run.