“Ione has one key,” the Sensor agreed. “And Sergei has the other.”
Claire arched an eyebrow at Nix, surprised that there was someone at the institute who he’d never met.
“Sergei is an All Sensor. The only one in North America. He’s a bit of a recluse, but his powers are unparalleled, so his position at The Society has never been in question. He lives in a penthouse on the top floor of the institute. If you explored it, you probably didn’t find it to your liking. Very plain, very severe. Sergei is a dangerous man, and he finds Nobodies rather … aversive.”
Claire thought of the four Sensors she’d seen since coming after Nix. “I’m guessing that by All Sensor, you mean that he—”
“Is gifted in all five senses? Yes, quite. He’s from an old Society family—the bloodline goes back to the old country and then some. He’s also remarkably lethal. He doesn’t leave the institute and he doesn’t enjoy being around people—sensory overload, you see. You’ll need to infiltrate his quarters and find his key. It will likely be on his person; Ione wears hers around her neck.”
Situation: What if your boyfriend’s evil mother was wearing the key to the kingdom around her neck, and you had to get it to save the world? What if you knew that he couldn’t do it, because seeing her would tear him apart and make him vulnerable?
What if you had the chance to kill her?
Claire shook her head. Actually, physically shook it. Because as much as she wanted to hurt The Society and the people who’d hurt Nix, she didn’t want to be the type of person who could think of murder and smile.
“So we get the keys,” Nix cut in. “What do we do with them?”
The Sensor started talking about the location of the self-destruct trigger, and Claire, with no frame of reference with which to ground the directions, found herself tuning out, picturing Nix’s mother. His little brother and sister.
“I know the location you’re describing.” Nix’s voice broke into Claire’s thoughts, and she forced herself to concentrate on the present. “Never knew what it was, but I know where it is. Getting to it won’t be a problem.”
The Sensor replied, addressing his comments to the space just over Nix’s left shoulder. “It’s not getting to the mechanism that’s the problem, although I assure you that no one besides a Nobody would have the ability to do so without the proper security clearance.” The Sensor paused, and Claire prepared herself. If getting to the mechanism wasn’t the problem that meant that there was a problem. And problems, when they involved The Society, tended to be deadly. Just ask Senator Wyler. Just ask Evan Sykes.
“The chamber in which the trigger is housed is rigged. The moment one of the keys is inserted, poisonous gas is emitted into the room. It reacts to flesh like acid, can eat through any protective materials you might wear in an attempt to circumvent your skin’s melting off your body, and a single breath is fatal. Death is instantaneous to anyone inside the fail-safe chamber when the key is inserted.”
After she got past the mental image of a skeleton leaking skin, Claire could not help but see the flaw in the logic of such a system. “Why would Sergei and Ione ever agree that a meltdown was necessary if it meant they had to die?”
The Sensor chuckled. Nervous laughter that Claire suspected had nothing to do with the fact that he was talking to people who mattered no more than the average ball of dust and everything to do with the fact that he was planning the destruction of all that had ever mattered to him. At the request of an eight-year-old girl. “Ione and Sergei are immune to the poison. They’ve been taking it in very, very small doses since they ascended to power. It takes two years to develop the immunity, and it’s part of the screening process for promotion. If you die because of the treatments, you’re fired.”
The Society doesn’t care who dies, Claire thought dully. It kills Nobodies. They kill Nulls. They kill their own without a second thought.
Claire was caught between wanting to shiver and wanting to growl. She was fifteen. Nix wasn’t much older. The Society had been around for thousands of years, and there was no one else to stop it. Stop them.
Nix and Claire had to do this.
They were going to do this.
“Gas can’t poison what’s not there.” Nix’s voice regained a bit of its edge, and Claire felt it on every inch of her skin. “The mechanism isn’t Nobody-proofed.”
The Sensor shrugged. “Design flaw, I suppose. Though, of course, one must solidify to insert the keys, and then fade again within an instant to avoid certain death.”
Clearly, the idea of putting a Nobody in danger wasn’t a problem for the Sensor. Shocking, Claire thought. Out loud, she said, “So we activate the mechanism. What next?”
Nix laid his hand on the back of her neck, and Claire felt his appreciation that she could be his voice when he didn’t have one and ask the questions on the tip of his tongue.
“While one of you initiates the self-destruct sequence, the other will need to go to B-4. The children’s quarters.”
I know what you’re hiding in the lower levels there. Those were the words that Sykes had used to threaten Ione. The ones with which he’d signed his own death warrant. The Society kept children in the lower levels of the institute, and Sykes had wanted a slice of the Nobody pie. A pet assassin of his very own.
The Sensor continued, “I’ve snuck a look at Milano’s files, and the math is straightforward enough. Three Nobodies should be strong enough to cover one Null for a very short period of time, if the Null is willing. Natalie has been practicing with X-17 and X-18. She’ll be ready.”
Taking the Null drug into the fade had sent a shock up Claire’s arm. It had stirred something in her stomach, made her nauseous. She wondered what taking a live Null with her would do.
“X-17 and X-18?” Nix hissed, enmity dripping from each syllable like blood from the tip of a blade. “They’re not numbers. They’re kids. And there’s no way I’m taking a Null to the fade. You said it yourself: Null blood and Nobody blood are powerful, tricky things. What do you think is going to happen if we take a body full of Null blood into the fade?”
Nix tried to calm the revulsion in his gut. He’d taken Claire into the fade, back when he’d thought she was a Null—but that was before he’d felt what it was like when Claire brought the Null drug with her. Nix couldn’t push down the surge of disgust he felt, just thinking about it now.