He hated Nulls, and the fade was sacred, and The Sensor had called his little sister X-17.
I can’t even look at Null-2. Claire had to hold the vial. I have a sister.
The thoughts blurred together in Nix’s mind. Claire pressed her body lightly to the side of Nix’s, and all up and down the left half of his body, Nix felt the gentle reassurance of her presence. The fury simmering beneath his surface calmed, still ready, still hot, but contained enough that he could put it into words, feel it without putting his body into motion.
All the Sensor cared about was the little Null. Demented by the girl’s powers, he was willing to sell out the principles for which Nix and his siblings had been bought, trained, tortured, and enslaved.
I believe their trainers call them Nix.
X-17. X-18. Nix and Nix. Nothing. Nobody.
Nix hated this. Hated that The Society could still hurt him. Hated that he wanted to scream. Hated that he couldn’t get the children’s cherubic faces, distorted by the dunk tanks, out of his mind.
Nix had never had a family before. And now he had one, and all this man cared about was the Null. The Null who’d been practicing God knows what with his little brother and sister. Nix couldn’t think about the fact that the children were probably as Null-struck as this pathetic excuse for a man beside him.
Saving Natalie might be a necessary evil—but that didn’t mean Nix wanted to think about it. About what Natalie could do. About what she might do, if she grew up into a bright-eyed, red-haired woman.
Necessary evil or not, Nix couldn’t swallow the idea of bringing that thing to the fade. The one place that Nobodies mattered. The only place where the real world couldn’t touch them or hurt them or mess with their minds. Sanctuary. Paradise.
“Covering Natalie with your collective powers is the only way to get her away from the scientists. Do you know what they do to her? They make her bleed. They hurt her. They make her hurt things. She doesn’t like it. She wants out.”
For a moment, the Sensor’s face changed, and his tone and words became someone else’s. Nix could almost picture the girl from the photograph saying these things.
They’re hurting me. They make me hurt things. I don’t like it.
And then the Sensor snapped out of it, and his words became his own again. “You need me if you want to destroy the institute.”
“Why?” Nix kept his voice even. “We know about the keys. We know where the children are. We know about the self-destruct mechanism. Why do we need you?”
Beside him, Claire’s mouth dropped open slightly, and Nix realized that the idealistic part of her wanted to save Natalie. Wanted to believe that she was just a little girl. And that was exactly why Nix couldn’t let Claire anywhere near the Null. Tender hearts were child’s play for Nulls, and Claire was an open book.
The Sensor clearly didn’t—couldn’t—feel betrayed that Nix was already reneging on his promise. Instead, he continued speaking in the same calm, neutral tone. “You need me to destroy the institute, because I can make your files disappear from the mainframe. The computer systems are set to automatically upload all content to off-site backup hard drives the moment the self-destruct sequence is initiated. Milano’s possessive enough of his research that he hasn’t uploaded it to the mainframe yet, so destroying the institute will destroy the formulas for the serums. Your files, on the other hand, are in the computer, and Ione has activated certain security protocols to remind us of your existence and the threat you represent. After the institute is destroyed, there will inevitably be some kind of investigation, most likely spearheaded by the European office. They’ll go through everything, talk to everyone. The people involved will likely forget about you and almost certainly won’t be able to provide any kind of details, but unless I destroy the electronic trail, you’ll have the whole of The Society nipping at your heels.”
With great effort, the Sensor flicked his eyes to Nix’s face and then to Claire’s, and Nix got the message loud and clear.
“Tonight, when I go back to the institute, I’ll remove your files from the computers and upload them on to an external hard drive. If you bring me Natalie, I’ll give you the disk. Ione and Sergei will go down with the blast, and in the chaos of reorganization, the two of you and X-17 and X-18 will almost certainly be forgotten in the aftermath.”
Unless, of course, the Sensor saved the files and gave them to the remaining branches of The Society, which he would gladly do if Nix didn’t give him Natalie in return.
“We give you Natalie. You give us—all of us—our freedom.” Claire put the terms of the agreement into words.
“Yes. Save Natalie. You must.” The Sensor’s eyes took on that fevered look again. “And the only way you can save her is to make her fade. She’s bright, so bright, so beautiful, that she’ll be hard to hide. The world won’t want to let her go. But there are four of you. Unprecedented. Absolutely unprecedented. You’re strong. You can save her. I know you can.”
Nix’s lip curled upward, and his fingers curled down, driving his nails into the skin of his palm. Fading was power. Energy. Release. It was his. The one thing that no one could take away. The only thing the universe had given him to make up for all it had taken away when he’d been born terminally unimportant.
To Nix, it was blasphemy. Like sleeping with a dead animal. Like rolling over and exposing your soft underbelly to a beast that wanted to tear out your entrails. It was stupid, and it was wrong.
Nix gritted his teeth and clamped down on the roar of emotions circling each other in his gut.
It’s not my job to kill Nulls. Not anymore. It’s not my responsibility to turn myself into a monster so the rest of humanity can live free and clear.
Numbly, dispassionate, Nix nodded his assent. If this was the cost of freedom, so be it. Nix met the Sensor’s eyes, even though the old man didn’t quite reciprocate the gaze. And then he said the one word that set things fully and irrevocably in motion. “Tonight.”
The Sensor nodded. “Tonight. The information I gave you says where. And remember: no Natalie, no files.”
Null. Null. Null.
Refusing to look at the Sensor or at Claire, Nix turned and slipped into nothingness, feeling like he’d left a chunk of himself behind.
Claire nibbled on her bottom lip, trying to find the right thing to say—like there was a right thing to say in a situation like this. Nix hadn’t uttered so much as a single word to her since they’d let the Sensor go.