I’m here for a reason.
Her brain was slow in catching up to her body, but somehow, that thought made its way to her like breath bubbling at the top of a pool.
Thinking about the real world would have forced her to return to it. But thinking, in the abstract, about the kinds of things that she might have thought about if she were real—
Why? Why would I want to? Why are we here?
“Library,” Nix reminded her.
It was one of those words. The real words. The heavy ones. The ones that made her think about things on the other side of the veil. Books. And people. And asking over and over again to find out where the closest library was.
No. I don’t want to lose it. I don’t want to let go. Can’t.
But she could and she did, and when Nix joined her a moment later, she recognized a glint in his eye as something akin to laughter.
“You did that on purpose.”
“If you want to stay faded, you can’t think about anything else,” he said. “And if you’re going to use this so-called internet, you can’t do it with hands that pass through solid objects.”
Claire nodded—but she had to ask. “Didn’t you want to stay there? Even just a little?”
Nix didn’t miss a beat. “Every time.”
One second, they were all-powerful, immaterial, and too good for the real world, and the next, they were two kids in the library after hours. Claire glanced out the window at the street below. People were moving. Lights were flickering.
“Internet?” Nix put the emphasis on the last syllable instead of the first, like it wasn’t a word he was used to saying. Trying not to think about the life he’d lived—eight by eight room, no windows, trained to kill—Claire sat down in front of one of the computers and tested her fingers out against the keys. Solid, she could type.
Senator Evan Sykes
Within five minutes of hitting search, Claire had added three more terms to her search list.
Iowa. The good senator’s home state.
Congressional Subcommittee on Domestic Defense. His most recent appointment.
Proposition 42. His claim to fame.
Nix read over her shoulder, looming like a shadow. But for once, Claire didn’t find her counterpart’s presence distracting. She was too entrenched in Evan Sykes’s story, which was becoming clearer and clearer, the more she read.
Lucked his way into a state senate seat at the age of twenty-five. Never brought a single motion to the floor. Tried and failed three times to make the House of Representatives.
And then, almost overnight, the senator’s luck had changed.
The previous junior senator from Iowa, dead of a heart attack.
The governor called upon to name a replacement.
Likelier candidates defamed. Scandals.
And suddenly, Evan Sykes was the golden boy. He’d inherited an almost full term. Claire couldn’t make any sense of his voting patterns, couldn’t see anything nefarious about his pet projects. He was bland. Uninteresting.
And on the Congressional Subcommittee on Domestic Defense, advising Homeland Security.
Exactly where someone wanted him.
“You’re going too fast.”
Claire barely heard Nix’s complaint. If he’d been anyone else, his words would have been consumed by the vortex of information bounding and rebounding around in her head. But since he was Nix, she heard him.
“I. Can’t. Read. That. Fast.” The words cost him—enough that Claire thought to wonder how he’d learned to read at all, living in one room, raised by people who saw him only as a weapon.
“You know what? It doesn’t matter. Just go ahead. Do whatever. It doesn’t matter.”
Claire was smart enough to know that the only time anyone said something didn’t matter twice was when it really, really did. So she slowed down. Took a step back. And let him read.
And her mind kept going at thirty thousand miles an hour: making connections, drawing conclusions, and coming back to the same question, over and over again.
“He lost three elections.” Nix said the words slowly, like saying them fast would make them less true. “He lost three elections?”
The second time, it was a question, and she answered it.
“Yes. And then he got lucky. He couldn’t have engineered things better if he tried.”
“That’s because he didn’t engineer it.”
Claire took Nix’s words as confirmation that he had reached the same conclusion she had. Sykes didn’t engineer his appointment to the Senate. The Society did.
“Sykes didn’t make this happen. I did.”
It took Claire a moment to realize what Nix was really saying, to look for the name of the junior senator whose heart attack had opened up a seat in the Senate for Sykes.
Claire thought of the folders, the pictures. Nix hunched, his body shuddering. Claire tentatively ran her hand up his back, letting it come to rest on the nape of his neck.
He didn’t tell her to stop.
She wasn’t even sure he felt it.
“I thought Wyler was a Null. Ione said, the Sensors said—”
Nix cut off, and Claire couldn’t think of a single thing that she could say that wouldn’t make things worse. What were the chances that two Nulls had filled the exact same Senate seat? Not nearly as good as the chances that The Society had put Evan Sykes in the Senate—and two years later, taken him out.
Somebody had discredited all of Sykes’s opponents. Somebody had seen to it that a seat had opened up in the Senate. Somebody was the special interest group that funded large portions of Sykes’s campaign.
“But Sykes—he was a Null. I know he was. I saw him. I saw him, with the girls. And I heard him. I watched tapes, and when he talked, you had to listen. That’s not natural. It’s—” Nix broke off, and for the first time, Claire wondered how old he was.
Right now he looked heartbroken and twelve.
“Why would The Society have me kill Wyler to put a Null in the Senate? It doesn’t make any sense. We protect the Normals from the Nulls. That’s what The Society does. It’s what I do.”
“You didn’t know.” Claire brought her free hand up to his good shoulder, running it down and over his arm even as she kept the other cool and steady on the back of his neck. “It’s okay, Nix.”
That should have felt like a lie, but it didn’t, because when Claire needed to, she could make herself believe anything. She could believe that things were going to get better. She could believe that if she just tried harder, people would notice. She could believe that Nix would be okay, because she wouldn’t let him not.