Nix stopped questioning, stopped thinking—and he shed his solid form like a snake wriggling out of its skin. He faded, and this time, he didn’t let himself remember. He didn’t think about why he was here or what he was doing. He just stepped through wall after wall, working his way to the center of the sprawling building.
To the lab.
The scientists and Sensors scurried around, from computer to computer, screen to screen. Nix didn’t know what they were doing. Faded, he didn’t care. He watched them like a child examining an ant farm. The man closest to him was young: a decade older than Nix, maybe less. There was sweat on his brow and scars on his arms: tiny, round pinpricks, up and down the flesh, from elbow to wrist.
“What’s our status?”
Nix recognized Ione’s voice. She rarely spoke to him directly, but her voice had always been the one in his head when he read a target’s name. She made the decisions. She was in charge. She was the one who’d sent him after—
No. Nix couldn’t let himself go there, couldn’t let himself think about anything the real world had to offer, least of all the girl he’d left behind on the forest floor.
“We’ve got facial recognition programs running on all sectors within a two-hundred-mile radius of the Nobody’s house,” one of the ants replied, scurrying to do his queen’s bidding. “Alarms are set to go off every three minutes, per protocol, to remind us what we’re looking for.”
What they were looking for. Not who. Never who.
“And our defense mechanism?”
At this, the ant bristled. Said something about testing and phases but all Nix could think was that Ione was looking for the Nobody. She was looking for Claire.
Nix felt his stomach turning itself inside out, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep hold of his fade for long. Thinking about Claire: the way he’d left her; the things they had done; the feel of her skin; the taste of cherries on her lips—
In his last instant of nothingness, Nix crossed the room. He stepped through the wall and came out on the other side.
In Ione’s office.
Flip-flops were not conducive to trekking one’s way through the wilderness, but Claire didn’t let that stop her. Her ankles and calves were splattered with mud. Welts rose on her arms, courtesy of branches and trees. She watched the sun travel across the sky. She marked her progress, notching trees in case she got turned around.
Her muscles were sore. Her feet were screaming, but Claire didn’t listen. She couldn’t listen, because she couldn’t stop. She couldn’t pause. She couldn’t let herself think about anything but making it out of this forest alive.
She wasn’t going to be the victim this time.
She wasn’t going to cry.
She wasn’t going to sit and wait. She was done waiting, because you could spend your whole life waiting for something to happen. Something big. You could wait and wait, and even if something big happened, even if it finally happened—it didn’t change anything.
Even if it changed everything.
The sound of traffic broke Claire out of her thoughts. Northwest, about a hundred yards out. She ran, ran with the knife in one hand, her feet bleeding, her heart pumping faster and faster. She broke through the edge of the woods. She stepped out onto the road. Wind whipped through her hair. A car whizzed by, close enough that she felt its motion.
The driver didn’t see her.
Claire stood there for five minutes, ten, watching the world pass her by. She was covered in mud, bleeding, holding a knife—and nobody noticed.
Claire felt something give inside of her. No matter what you do, you will never matter. No one will ever see you. No one but—
Claire walked across the highway. She walked and walked until she came to a town. She stepped onto a sidewalk, in front of a store. Someone bumped into her from behind. She dropped the knife, scrambled to pick it up, and from her spot on the ground, she realized something.
It didn’t matter what she did—and that meant that she could do anything. This was a brave new world, because even if she was alone, even if she would always be alone, the world had given her permission to stop trying.
Trying to be sweet.
To be nice.
To be good.
As Claire stared at the shops and the people and the thrum of life all around her, she realized that for once in her life, it might be nice to be bad.
The décor in Ione’s office was all metal and sharp corners, glass tabletops and see-through chairs. There was art on the walls, a splash of cool color: blue and silver against a palette of black and white.
Make it messy.
Ione had said those words to him here. He could still feel the knife in his palm, still hear the man’s screams—
Not a man. He was a Null.
But standing in Ione’s office, Claire’s face still fresh in his mind, Nix wasn’t so uncompromisingly sure. Everything he’d thought, everything he’d believed in—
He moved swiftly toward a filing cabinet behind Ione’s desk. Locked—but not so hard to open, given proper motivation. He bypassed file after file, searching for something he recognized—someone. And then he found it.
One file after another after another. Eleven of them in total. Neatly labeled with serial numbers that didn’t match up with the numbers in his mind.
One, Two, Three …
He slipped open the third file. Warren Wyler’s lifeless face stared back at him, swollen and puffy, eyes clouded with milky white death. Autopsy reports, biographical details, pictures—
Nix stopped. He closed the file and took another. And another.
Four. Five. Six. Seven.
“Make it messy,” Nix murmured. His fingers lingered on the file. He ran the tip of one gently along the edge, daring himself to open it.
The door to the office opened instead. Nix looked up from the file.
“Oh,” a familiar voice said. “It’s you.”
Ione. She looked exactly as he remembered: blue eyes, blond hair, eyebrows dark enough to call that color into question. The director of the institute wasn’t upset to see him. She wasn’t glad. Objectively, she probably knew that she’d been looking for him, knew that he was an asset she didn’t want to lose, but subjectively—
“You don’t care.” Nix wasn’t sure why he was saying the words. Clearly, neither was she.
“No, I suppose I don’t. It’s for the best, really, that you’ve returned—”
Nix stood, and she saw the file in his hands. Saw the others spread out on the floor. He couldn’t provoke emotion in her, but they could.