Nix barely had time to finish the thought before he realized that he’d dropped Claire’s hand. They were still faded, still invisible to the outside world—but the second they parted, time sped up.
“—rash and inadvisable.” The old man’s words picked up midsentence. Nix kept himself from reaching for Claire.
“Nix, what happened?” Claire asked. “Why—”
Nix held his index finger up to his lips, in part because he didn’t know the answer to Claire’s question, but also because he found himself wanting to hear what these Sensors had to say.
“Elena is out of commission. So are Margaret and Ryland. Either we find these Nobodies and we neutralize them, or they neutralize us.” The younger man was adamant—not because he was angry or scared.
Because he was titillated.
Because he wanted blood.
Nix concentrated on maintaining his fade. It was his fault they’d fallen back into the time line. He’d dropped Claire’s hand, and now that the Sensors were talking, he couldn’t bring himself to stop time again, not when eavesdropping might reveal something useful.
“If Ryland, Margaret, and Elena couldn’t neutralize the Nobodies, what makes you think you can?” The old man’s words were mild, as if his partner didn’t provoke any more emotion in him than their targets did.
“This!” The younger withdrew a small vial. At first, Nix thought it might be the poison The Society favored for inconspicuous kills, but one look at his adversary’s eyes corrected that assumption. A killer might romance their weapons, but they didn’t hunger for them, and the look in the younger Sensor’s eyes was akin to starvation.
Looks like tar. Feels like heaven. Nix thought of the drug Sykes had used. But this one looked different—lighter in color.
Back at the institute. Nix recalled what he’d seen in the laboratory the day he went back, his insides going ice-cold. Ione asking for a status update on Claire—and then demanding one on their “defense mechanism.” The needle tracks he’d seen on one of the Sensor’s arms.
“We’ve already taken the maximum dose of this particular drug, young man.” In the present, the older Sensor’s voice boomed. “Enough to partially inoculate us to our prey’s powers. Enough to tell me that our targets could be close, listening to every word we say.”
A breeze blew directly through Claire and Nix, and even though it didn’t affect them, when it reached the old man’s nose, he tilted his head back, just a bit.
“If they were listening to us, we’d be dead.” The young man, cocky, took a needle out of the inside pocket of his jacket, inserted it into the vial in his hand, and pulled back, filling the needle with a strange, nearly clear serum that glowed a light rose pink in the sunlight.
Not a poison.
A drug. And not the one Sykes had been taking. Not a Null drug.
Nix thought of the first Sensor he’d taken out. Ryland. His old trainer. The one he’d left, gasping for air on the pavement.
A man who never should have been able to get a lock on him, faded or not.
Maybe The Society’s current head of research wasn’t a complete waste of space. Maybe the Null drug wasn’t his only achievement.
“Erikson, don’t do this.” The older man stepped forward to grab the younger man’s arm, just before needle met skin. “You’re not approved for another dose for twenty-four hours. The side effects—you’re messing with forces you don’t understand. The drug doesn’t just protect you from their powers. It affects your own energy, alters the metaphysical building blocks of your entire—”
The old man’s words were lost as his partner shook him off. Needle slid into vein, and the younger man—Erikson—squeezed his eyes shut, the edges of his mouth pulling tight and tilting upward.
And then he opened his eyes, and they were red. Not the light, translucent pink of the serum. Dark and bloodshot.
I wonder what Sykes looked like when he took the Null drug. Nix shook off the thought. He had to stay faded. With Claire.
“They’re here,” Erikson whispered, his pupils pulsing with some kind of artificial high. “I can’t see them. I can’t hear them. But they’re near.”
“Yes, yes, they are, faded most likely, and I would wager to guess that if they wanted us dead, we’d be so already.” The older man looked upward—probably because he didn’t know where exactly they stood. “They didn’t kill Ryland or Margaret. Elena either.”
The blood-eyed Sensor was too far gone to listen to reason. “I think I’ll kill the girl first. Make it watch.”
It as in Nix.
The words had their expected effect on him, and Nix felt a rush of unwanted emotion.
—Protect Claire, save her, even if I have to kill him, it’s my choice, mine—
“I hear you,” the object of Nix’s hatred sing-songed. “You’re here. You’re close. You’re hiding.”
Nix reached for Claire, counting on her presence in the fade to ground his. She glanced at him, but stepped back from his touch, and Nix realized that she didn’t want to stop time. He wondered why.
Claire wrapped her left hand over the base of the gun she held in her right.
“Stop baiting them, Erikson.” The old man’s nose crinkled of its own volition as he spoke.
“Isn’t that what The Society teaches you?” Erikson sneered. “The best way to deal with a Nobody is to taunt them. Lure them. Pretend to care, and they’ll step right out into the open.” His hand went back into his jacket pocket, producing another vial of translucent liquid. “Ione and her ilk need to get with the times.”
Nix’s heart thudded in his ears. With another dose of the drug, would this Sensor be able to see through the fade? Would he become a Nobody, the way Senator Sykes had taken on the characteristics of a Null?
It was impossible, and it was wrong. But not as wrong or as impossible as the idea of Claire, her eyes locked on their target, lifting her arms. Lifting the gun. Steadying her aim.
Ready to fire, just in case.
From the moment the smirking, sneering man started talking, Claire felt herself losing it—not the fade, but the ability to think and see things clearly. Whenever Nix got upset, he started flickering between the real world and the fade, but in that moment, with Nix at her side, Claire’s grip on nothingness was so perfect, so complete that she faced the opposite danger.