Nix raised his hands outward, his right hand—battered and broken—loosely gripping Sergei’s key, his left liberating Ione’s from its partner’s grasp.
Can’t let the keys fall.
Nix coaxed the muscles and the bones in his broken hand into holding tighter to the key. Looking at the mangled appendage was disconcerting, but Nix felt nothing. Pain didn’t exist here, and he had no time for it. No time for the fog growing thicker and thicker in the solid world around him.
With careful precision and a mind as blank as an unused chalkboard, Nix maneuvered the keys into place. In the fade, they couldn’t touch anything, but once they crossed over, they’d activate the meltdown sequence. Hands steady, keys in position, Nix began the process of disassociation. The only way he could turn the keys once they’d solidified was with hands that had done the same. Once he’d completed the action, he’d have to bring his hands back. Before, when he’d triggered the poison, he’d a second to think, to concentrate, but now a single second was a luxury he couldn’t afford, assuming he wanted to walk out of this with hands and not just useless scraps of skin on bones. The poisonous gas would eat through his hands, burn them, devour them whole.
Nix didn’t think that. He wouldn’t. Blank slate. No emotions. No hopes. No fears.
Nothing. Nix breathed in, and then he let go. These keys belong to those hands. Those hands are not mine. Those hands kill people. Those hands tried to kill me.
They. Are. Not. Mine.
Activation was instant. So was the pain. Though Nix couldn’t feel it, it was hard not to imagine. Skin bubbling. Acid ravaging. Sirens roaring.
Those are my hands. They took care of Claire. They’ve brushed her lips. They’ve spared people who deserved to die.
Nix welcomed his hands back into the fade and cradled them against his body, even though he couldn’t feel the searing agony they were owed.
Time to get out.
Nix turned and walked toward the far wall. The sooner he left this room, the safer he’d be. The room was airtight, the gas contained. Once he made his way into the east hallway, he’d be fine. He’d meet Claire, and they’d escape before the building self-destructed.
Down in the sublevels, she was faded. He could feel her, the way he always had. Her presence pulled at him, propelled him through fog that couldn’t touch him, through poison that wanted nothing more than to strike him dead.
He felt her power. Bathed in it. Drank it. Made it his own. With liquid fluidity, Nix strode toward the east hallway, closer and closer to the chamber’s edges. All around him, the air grew more opaque as the poison snaked out of the vents at steady speed, but Nix didn’t think about the airborne acid or what a much lower concentration of it had done to his hands. There was no pain in the fade, and Nix’s grip on it, his mind’s connection with Claire’s, was rock solid.
The wave of nausea was instantaneous. It was a thousand times worse than the sensation of watching Claire bring the Null drug into the fade. Not just a drug this time. A Null. Nix stumbled, and the word—snide and ugly and permanent—permeated every cell in his immaterial body. One foot shy of the chamber wall, he forced himself forward, tried not to dwell on what his senses were telling him.
Claire had succeeded. She’d brought the little Null into the fade, and the girl’s presence was every bit as toxic as the poisonous gas. Like a stone tossed into a lake, her energy rippled through the fade. Nix felt it—in every pore, in the air he was breathing, in the pit of his stomach.
Null. In the fade.
Nix couldn’t move. He couldn’t take that last step to the wall, through it, and in the moment he realized he’d lost his fade, the thick haze of acid in the air became—like his own body—all too solid, all too real.
Less than shadow. Less than air.
Nix had to think the words, had to fade before the poison ate clear through him like termites through wood.
Less than shadow—
Agony. Hands burning. Clothes dissolving. Can’t take a breath. Not a single breath. Skin melting. A thousand knives. A thousand knives for every square inch of skin.
LESS THAN SHADOW. LESS THAN AIR.
It hurt. And then the next second, it didn’t, and Nix, welcoming the relief like an old lover, stumbled through the wall of the fail-safe chamber, out into the east hallway, where it was safe. No more poison to eat its way through his skin. Still, Nix didn’t let himself think about the Null in the fade, or the angry, gaping redness of his wounds.
Fade. Fade. Fade.
Claire. Claire. Claire.
It was nice here. Peaceful.
And then he saw her, waiting for him in the east hallway. Not Claire.
Ione. She was standing there, waiting for him, like she somehow knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was the one responsible for the sirens now echoing through the hallways, the mechanical voice advising evacuation.
That was all he’d ever been to her. Killing targets or being eaten alive by poison, that was all he’d ever be. An afterthought. Less than human. A means to an end.
This time, Nix couldn’t fight it. Couldn’t conjure up Claire’s image, couldn’t even remember the searing, all-consuming pain that awaited his solid form. All he could see was Ione. His mother—and as Nix’s tortured limbs solidified and he collapsed on the ground at her feet, he realized in the screaming, bleeding, cavernous hallways of his mind that his mother was holding a gun.
Nix is gone.
The knowledge that Nix had left the fade weighed Claire down. It tore at her and picked at her seams, but she couldn’t let herself unravel, couldn’t let go of her grip on the fade.
On the twins.
The dark-haired little duo anchored her here: their similarities to Nix, their differences. Already, she knew them. Knew their solemn smiles. Knew that she wanted to rock them and push them on swings and read them stories. Bandage skinned knees, put training wheels on their bikes.
They were hers. And they were faded, and Claire clung to that, even as her other self, the girl she couldn’t be, stopped breathing, heart rate accelerating as the possibilities, horrible possibilities, wormed their way into—
A small hand wrapped itself around Claire’s. She looked down, and the little boy—like Nix, so like Nix—refused to meet her eyes, as if he expected, fully expected her to pull away.
“Thank you,” she whispered, refusing to remember how much Nix, her Nix, had always wanted to hear those words.