But that wasn’t his problem, and it wasn’t Claire’s. It wasn’t the little boy Nix’s or the little girl, Nix’s—and if this Nix had his say, it never would be. They’d never feel a large hand in the small of their backs, pushing them toward that first kill.
Terrifying. Horrifying. Addictive.
Nix ground his teeth. The Nulls of the world weren’t his problem anymore. They weren’t his responsibility, and if this Sensor wanted little Natalie, the ticking time bomb, he could have her. It took Nix less than a second to come to the decision that for Claire and the little ones, he’d gladly sell his soul. Go against everything he’d believed in once.
Not. My. Problem.
“Fine. The Null lives. The Society—this portion, at least—dies. Now tell us everything we need to know and get the hell out of here.”
Claire let out a breath that she hadn’t realized she was holding. She’d promised to save the Sensor’s Natalie before it had occurred to her that Nix might not agree to do it, and that realization had cut her nearly in two. Because Null or not, manipulative or not, born wrong or not, Natalie was just a little girl.
A little, little girl who couldn’t help what she was any more than little Claire had been able to help being left and forgotten and ignored.
Null drug. Black hole. Hurts. Wrong.
Claire thought of Evan Sykes’s miracle drug. Null-2—made with little Natalie’s blood—had turned Abigail’s father into a pod person. Uncaring. Manipulative. Cruel. For a moment, Claire was overcome with a still-frame daydream, chilling in its simplicity: Natalie smiling.
She’s just a little girl.
“The institute is extremely secure. You’re familiar with the upper level; it’s nearly identical to the sublevels. For both, Sensors are scanned by an entire team before being allowed into or out of the building, and only a handful of Normals have the kind of access necessary to travel past the first floor. Besides Ione and Dr. Milano, no Normals have access to the sublevel entrance at all. You’ll have to fade to get in unannounced, and with a subset of the security team on the serum, there is an increased chance that your presence will be detected.”
Claire focused on what their informant was saying. He sounded as if he’d practiced these words many times, as if he’d whispered them to Natalie as a bedtime story when he’d promised, again and again, to get her out.
“You weren’t able to see through our fades,” Nix cut in. “You didn’t stop taking the Nobody serum, correct? Just the Null one?”
Claire knew what Nix was really asking. They needed to know just how potent the serum was. Their informant hadn’t been able to see them in the fade. His partner had only been able to do so after his third dose. If this was the serum’s normal efficacy, it wasn’t much of a threat.
The Sensor cleared his throat, a gargling sound that reminded Claire that he was human. And old. “I’m still on the Nobody serum. It’s probably the only reason that I was able to integrate the information I’ve been able to gather about the two of you. I have a horrible attention span, and my senses and memory aren’t what they used to be—”
“What are the chances of someone at the institute pulling an Erikson?” Nix asked, cutting the man off and moving on to his next question without segue.
The Sensor was nonplussed. “Erikson was remarkably stupid. One does not obtain a position on the institute’s security force with that kind of stupidity. No one else will double up doses—not without Dr. Milano’s approval, and he won’t give it until the full effects of a single dose are documented. No one will be able to see through your fade, but they might be slightly more aware of your presence on an instinctual level, and once you stop fading, they will be more likely to explicitly register your existence and less likely to ignore you than they otherwise would be.”
For what seemed like the hundredth time, the Sensor shrugged. Claire felt Nix seething beside her, and she leaned into him, trying to intuit why.
He wants answers. He wants to be alone.
Nix couldn’t stand to feel emotions around other people. He’d been taught that he didn’t deserve them. Sensors were the ones who’d imparted that lesson. And right now Claire could see, in the lines of Nix’s body and the set of his jaw, that he was trying very hard not to feel anything.
Not to think of the little girl Nix and the little boy Nix being turned day by day into weapons.
Not to think of the things that little Natalie might do once they let her go.
“Thanks for the warning, but we don’t need it.” Claire was surprised to find her voice textured in complement to Nix’s. Lower. Darker. Even. “We want the real information. What’s The Society’s Achilles’ heel? How do we destroy the institute? Both levels, all of the drugs.”
The Sensor ran one of his knuckles up the bridge of his nose, like a person who’d worn glasses for many years before switching to contacts. “The Society has a fail-safe mechanism. An insurance policy against exposure. If any individual branch is threatened with imminent and widespread exposure—if the press break in, or the police start making arrests, or anyone infiltrates the security far enough to get ahold of classified files, the directive to meltdown is given.”
“Meltdown?” Claire found herself sickly fascinated with the idea.
“The entire institute is equipped to self-destruct within a five-minute window. Once activated, the self-destruct mechanism cannot be undone. Five minutes after activation, the building and anyone inside are dust.” He paused. “Both levels.”
“What’s the catch?” Nix asked the question before Claire could get to it. “Why would The Society make it that easy to take the institute down?”
“Who said that activating the self-destruct mechanism was easy?” The Sensor shook his head and clucked his tongue. “I assure you, it’s not a simple matter of pushing a red button. Were that the case, I would hardly have to enlist Nobodies as help.”
Claire didn’t respond to those words. Neither did Nix. Eventually, the Sensor elaborated.
“To activate self-destruction, you need two keys. The keys are in the possession of the two heads of the institute, who must agree that the breach of security is severe enough to merit meltdown.”
“Ione.” The muscles in Nix’s throat visibly tightened as he spoke the name, and Claire felt her own clenching in empathy.