‘Shall we get on with this, then?’ she says.
‘First, I have a question.’
‘I have some fragments of memories from before I was taken by the AGT. But I don’t remember anything of my home before, my mother: nothing. Can I get these memories back?’
‘There are a few possibilities. Memories you have consciously suppressed as part of Rain’s life may be accessible: but to find them, you need the right triggers. This personality fracture they induced? I don’t know how deep, how far it went. If the other half was Slated, it should be gone, yet…’ And her voice trails off, her eyes inward looking, thinking, and I force myself to stay quiet, not interrupt.
‘There may be a way to get those back also,’ she says, finally. ‘Surgically reconnect the severed paths to make them accessible once again. It is theoretically possible, but has never been attempted to my knowledge.’
‘What? I thought Slated means gone forever.’ My mind is spinning. ‘What about Ben? Could you reconnect stuff in his brain?’
‘Ben? I told you, Kyla, that we have no record of his location. As hard as it is to accept, even if he lives, he is lost to you.’
Should I tell her? Even though so many in my life have proven they aren’t what they seem, after everything, and against all logic, she is one I trust.
‘He isn’t what?’
‘Dead, or lost. I know where he is.’
Dr Lysander’s shock is strong when I explain Ben’s whereabouts, and how he is: no idea who I am, but not like a new Slated.
‘This is very disturbing,’ she finally says. ‘Anything they do there is unsanctioned by the Medical Council. Unethical.’
‘Slating is ethical?’
She looks up, sharp. ‘It is,’ she says, but on her face are traces of doubt. ‘Would you rather have faced a death sentence? Like my friend, all those years ago.’
‘How can I know? I don’t remember!’ The words are bitter. But I’m fixed on what she said before. ‘So you could change Ben back.’
She shakes her head. ‘No. I don’t know what has been done to him. It would be far too risky to even consider.’
‘Risky, but possible?’
‘Theoretically, maybe. Now. We’ve been in here too long. Come along: let’s get that Levo off.’
Minutes later, it is gone: my wrist an empty expanse of skin that is somehow wrong. Naked. Hospital removal was a simple matter of a machine, pushing some buttons and watching it spring apart, undone.
I feel conspicuous, different.
As if a big flashing sign floats over my head: see the Lorder spy!
Back in her office, Dr Lysander opens her computer, motions me over to look, but keeps talking about nothing and everything at the same time.
She goes into my records. My Levo number: 19418.
She pauses, consults a list onscreen that says ‘inactive numbers’. Changes my number to 18736.
I shake my head, not understanding.
On a slip of paper she writes a single word: untraceable.
It is only when I am halfway home in the Lorder van that I realise. If I’m untraceable now, that implies I was not, before. All she did was change my number on the computer, the same number that was on my Levo. How could I have been traceable with that number without my Levo?
But there is something else. Something inside me: the chip in my brain that worked with my Levo. That is still there.
I feel sick inside when it hits me: Coulson, tapping on his head when I asked how Cam tracked me. The chip in my head. Put in when I was Slated: they must be tracker chips. Like they use in dogs.
Now that Dr Lysander has altered my records, changed my number, they can’t use mine to find me any more.
CHAPTER FORTY EIGHT
* * *
‘You can’t hide in the house forever,’ Mum says.
She kisses my forehead, then marches out into the drizzle and cold to her car for work. Amy has already left for school with Jazz, and Mum’s patience is wearing thin on my refusal to join them.
I retreat back to bed with a cup of tea, a place I’ve been spending a lot of time lately. I know she’s right, but it is as if I’m in suspended animation. My stitches are out, wounds nearly healed, but inside, I’m processing things that happened; learning to live with loss, pain. Memories. A new experience for someone who was forced to forget.
And questions are niggling away inside. I used to think getting caught when I was with Free UK, getting Slated, was just bad luck. I found I was wrong. Nico engineered it. I’ve lost the ability to accept coincidences; there are too many of them in my life. I just happened to be placed after Slating with Sandra Davis, the daughter of the Lorder hero? I just happened to be a Jane Doe, someone who miraculously has no DNA records that can be traced? They just happened to make a mistake on cell tests with my date of birth, so Slated me even though I was over sixteen? The Lorders never noticed a girl who looked just like me on the MIA website, and worked out who I was?
And all that happened on Armstrong Memorial Day. It isn’t like Nico to have left so much to chance. And Coulson just overlooked having me monitored, searched, on that day of all days?
Behind all my unanswered questions, vague ideas and plans are forming in the background, and one Ben-shaped necessity. But it is almost as if I am gathering my strength, waiting for something. For what, I don’t know.
Then it happens.
A slight noise, more a vibration, and, without thought, I automatically reach for my wrist to where my Levo used to be.
My eyes fly open wide with shock. Nico’s com: it mimics the buzz of a Levo. I stashed it in my room, tossed it in a drawer before dashing off to rescue Dr Lysander. In case it was a tracker.
What do I do? I swallow. Better to know…
I fish it out of the bottom of the drawer where it lay hidden and forgotten all this time, and push the button.
‘Hello, Rain,’ a voice says, one I can never forget: Nico.
‘That isn’t my name. Not any more.’
‘A rose by any name would smell as sweet…’
‘Cut the bull. I remember you killed my father.’
‘Ah. Was that the reason for the treachery, Rain?’ His voice is cold. ‘No matter. We can begin again! All will be forgotten.’
‘Never. Anyhow, the Lorders had my Levo removed, so I’m of no use to you now, Nico. Come up with another plan.’
I switch it off before he can reply, trembling. Will he accept my word, move on? Just let it go?
Not the Nico I know and hate.
And then I can’t stand having anything of him, here, in my room, in this house, for even a second longer. I rush to the open window and chuck the com out as far as I can. Once it leaves my hand I realise I’ll have to find and destroy it another time. Stupid. I watch as it glints in the early light, arcs partway across the lawn. Rests near the oak tree.
I shut the window, turn back to bed, and—
A wave of sound and something else pushes me across the room. I fall on the floor. Winded. Pain. I groan. Pull myself up, realise I’m covered in glass. Broken glass from the window. Stunned, confused. Smoke billows in, and I cough. What is happening?
I stagger to the window. The tree is on fire. What is left of it.
The same tree Nico’s com rested near seconds earlier.
I stare, disbelieving. The com didn’t double as a tracker, but as a bomb?
The shock of realisation nearly knocks me from my feet. Nico insisting I couldn’t let him down, then his anger that I wasn’t at the second ceremony at Chequers. An outdoor ceremony, so no signal block like there would have been in the house. A ceremony where I would have been standing next to my family, and the current Lorder Prime Minister. The great and the good all around, as Cam called them. Nico didn’t just have a plan B; he had a plan C, too. Unknowingly, I was to be his suicide bomber. When they sifted through the rubble and found what was left of me to be the carrier of the bomb, with an AGT gun strapped to my arm, they’d have no doubt: a Slated who was beyond just violent. It would strike at all the Lorders do. Made all the Slateds a risk the Lorders couldn’t tolerate.
Nico was going to kill all of us at that ceremony, but I ruined it by running off to rescue Dr Lysander. No wonder he was so angry!
And now Nico has remote detonated it to kill me. Either he believed me when I said my Levo was gone, or he decided revenge was more use to him than anything else he could do with me.
Or maybe he just called first, to make sure I had it on me.
A giggle starts working its way up my throat.
But I can’t help it, and soon I’m crouched on the floor, laughing, wincing at the pain the movement gives my cut back.
Nico thinks I’m dead. And I laugh harder.
And I’m untraceable by the Lorders. Thanks to Dr Lysander.
Before the thought is fully formed I’m on my feet, stuffing a few things in a bag. Hastily checking my back in the mirror: just minor cuts. Some blood, but that has lost the power to unnerve me it used to hold. I throw clothes on and clench my teeth when pulling a jumper over my head. Physical pain I can ignore. Quick, now.
Sebastian appears at the bedroom door, fur and tail completely fluffed out. That is one seriously freaked cat. There is a pang inside as I pick him up, give him a quick cuddle. ‘I wish I could take you with me, but I can’t. Look after Mum and Amy.’
Another pang: a note for Mum? No. I can’t. Someone else might find it. I’ll get word to her, somehow.
Sirens are starting up the road by the time I push through the back hedge and disappear up the canal path.
All those half-formed plans in my mind, the ones I might do one day…?
One day, is now.
CHAPTER FORTY NINE
* * *
It is a long trip in the dark without one of Katran’s trail bikes. On an ancient bicycle instead, bouncing around the canal and footpaths in the middle of the night. I’d allowed loads of time so it is still dark when I arrive.
Guilt, I’d felt, sneaking out without a word to Mac, after everything he’s done for me, letting me hide out at his house while I work out what to do. Guilt, likewise, at borrowing his rickety bicycle without asking. But the thing I realised more and more was this: I couldn’t make any steps forward, without taking one step back.
I stash the bicycle in the woods.
This time, it will be different. I will be different, having thought it through with care.
What if he doesn’t come?
He will come. He has to. I can’t accept any other possibility, even as the fear of it gnaws inside.
I stash the dark camo gear I wore over my clothes for the trip. Hat off; brush hair until it shines. A pale green running top, warm yet fitted, that Ben once said brings out the colour of my eyes.
The sky is barely beginning to lighten as I warm up. A distant figure appears at the brow of the hill: Ben! I almost melt with relief. Shaking with so many emotions I can barely work out what they are, I run up the path. Fast. So that as he comes over the hill I am in full view.
He won’t be able to resist overtaking. Will he?
But he won’t be able to.
I hear him closing in behind, and bit by bit increase my pace so he can almost, but not quite, catch up. Feeling the strain, the effort. The joy of speed. I slip back slightly, and then, it happens. We run side by side. That familiar skittering music of feet: his thud-thud and my shorter-legged beats in between. I glance up at his face just as he looks down at mine. He grins, wide, and is so much the Ben I knew, that my feet falter, and he pulls ahead. But then he drops pace so I can keep up.
Finally we both slow, dropping to a walk.
He is laughing. ‘Brilliant run!’ he says, and I smile. It feels as though I am lit up inside, and all I am is there to see, plain on my face. Like I used to be. It is so easy to forget, to pretend that nothing happened. That we are just Ben, and Kyla. Friends, and then more, with uncomplicated lives, families. A possible future together. I ache to reach out, clasp his hand. Stop and pull him close, and—