Page 25

I sigh. ‘If you must know, those Lorders give me the creeps.’

‘I’ll tell you a secret, Kyla. They give me the creeps, too.’

My eyes widen. ‘Really?’

‘Really. But I just ignore them, pretend they are not there. If I don’t acknowledge them, then they don’t exist.’

She says that calm and certain, as if her lack of attention can make entire people disappear. Go missing.

I shudder involuntarily, then glance up quickly to see if she noticed, but she is busy tapping at her screen. She looks up again.

‘Last week you decided to focus on your art. How is that going?’

‘Not very well.’

‘Oh? And why is that?’

‘Art lessons have been cancelled. The teacher got taken by Lorders in front of the entire school.’

Shock travels across her face so quick it would have been easy to miss – eyes that widen, an intake of breath – then her face is back to detached, neutral.

‘How do you feel about that?’

‘I’ve been drawing at home, but it isn’t the same.’

‘You misconstrue. How do you feel about your teacher?’

This is interesting. I know from everyone’s reactions that it is taboo to talk about what Lorders have done, and to whom. Yet here she is: asking me straight out what I think. Be careful, Kyla: they are just in the hall. Who knows what they can hear, or how?

‘I’m sure they had their reasons.’

‘Now, Kyla: it is obvious you have strong feelings on this subject.’

‘It is?’

‘Your eyes are the window to your soul.’

How annoying. I’ve been practising at home, in front of a mirror: to keep a ‘poker face’, like Mum said I needed. But as soon as I thought of anything I had feelings about, good or bad, I could see it reflected in the mirror. Think about Sebastian. That seemed to help.

‘Do I have a soul?’

‘You are getting too good at trying to deflect me. It is merely an old saying, a proverb.’

‘But can someone who has been Slated have a soul?’

She sits back in her chair, an amused half smile on her face. ‘Well, if one believes in the existence of souls, I cannot see any relevance of the Slating procedure to the presence or absence of one.’

‘Do you believe in them?’

She half shakes her head. ‘You forget who asks the questions here, Kyla. Answer mine,’ she says with a warning note in her voice.

So I try to come up with something I can say about Gianelli that isn’t dangerous, but then think: no. He deserves better. He deserves the truth.

‘He was a good person. He cared about us, and now he’s gone. How do you think I feel?’

She frowns. ‘Answering a question with a question? You know better than—’

BANG!

A wave of sound ripples through the office. The building shakes, a shudder rumbles through the floor under my feet as fear rips through my body. Screams, distant and faint but not distant enough.

Terrorists?

The door springs open behind me, and I spin round in my chair: the Lorders from the hall. For the first time I am happy to see them. One talks into a headphone linked to his ear. ‘Come with us, now,’ the other says, looking at Dr Lysander, but she doesn’t move, seems frozen, face blank, behind her desk. ‘Now!’ he yells, and she starts, gets up and they flank her, start marching her to the door. Do I follow?

She half turns. ‘Kyla, go to the nurses’ station. Don’t worry, you’ll be—’

Then the Lorder grabs her shoulder and pushes her through the door.

The look of shock returns. She can’t make them disappear any more.

There are distant bangs, screams, rat-a-tat-tat noises like guns in old movies. Guns: where? I tilt my head: somewhere below, or outside. I cross Dr Lysander’s office to the window.

It doesn’t have bars; it overlooks an internal courtyard, several floors down. With plants and trees, benches. There are nurses huddled there; no signs of guns or who may be wielding them.

Dr Lysander said go to the nurses’ station. I start for the door, then stop. Her computer is on her desk. Still open.

BANG!

The whole building shakes; that was closer, this time.

I pause: panic says run but is doing battle with curiosity: when will you get another chance like this?

And I’m trembling, my stomach twists like breakfast might be on its way up. What do I do? I stare at the door, my feet take one step towards it, one back again. Who says it is any safer out there than it is in here?

I drop into her chair.

My photo is to the right of the screen: Kyla 19418. That is the number on my Levo. Left of the photograph are Dr Lysander’s notes: a very brief account of today’s interrupted conversation, though no mention of Gianelli. A list of dates runs down the side: last week is at the top. I hesitate, than click on it. And there it is: all we discussed that day. Her observations.

There is a menu bar across the top under my name, with headings: Admission; Surgical; Follow up; Recommendations.

I click on Admission. And there I am, in full colour. Me, but not me. On a hospital bed but it is different, there are straps on the sides of it. My hands are tied, my feet. My hair is longer, a tangled mess. I’m thinner than I am now. My face is blank, my eyes, vacant: not windows to my soul or to anything else.

And while I stare at the computer screen, some part of me still hears: shouts, gunshots; a scream that chokes off. But I am mesmerised. I scan quickly through my admission and surgical notes. Searching for any clue as to why I am here, but find nothing. Just mumbo jumbo about scans, complete with visuals of my brain.

Footsteps, shouts. They are closer now.

But what is this? I clink on the link marked Recommendations.

And louder. I look up at the door.

Move, hide, now! A voice in my head again. Where? I look around the room, glance down at the computer to close the windows I opened, but then the last link I clicked comes up on the screen: Recommendations. A table with actions and dates.

Board recommends termination. Dr Lysander overrules. Re-treatment undertaken. Monitor for signs of regression after re-treatment. Extra Watchers recommended. Board recommends termination if recur. The last is dated the week before I left the hospital.

Move, hide, now!

The door springs open.

Too late.

A man stares at me. He isn’t a Lorder: his hair is straggly, his eyes wild and his black clothes are meant to look like their operations gear, perhaps, but fall short close up. Some part of me still gathers these details while the rest focuses clearly on just one thing. A gun, in his hand, which he raises and points at me.

Another face appears over his shoulder.

‘Leave her! She’s got a Levo. She’s been Slated.’

Still he points the gun at me. ‘It would be kinder, wouldn’t it,’ he says.

I shake my head, backing up against the wall. Trying to speak, no, please no, but the words just form in my mind, get stuck in my throat and don’t come out.

‘Don’t waste the bullet!’ the other one yells, and yanks his arm. They take off down the hall.

I slip to the floor, shaking violently. My Levo says 5.1. Explain that one.

I can’t.

Before long, self-preservation takes over, goads me to get up. I shut all the computer windows I opened; leave the computer on the desk as it was, and peer out the door. The hall is empty; there are screams to the right where those men ran. I run the other way.

The lights flicker several times, then go out. It is pitch black. My eyes open wide and wider but can see nothing in the windowless hall. A scream starts trembling deep in my gut, trying to work its way out. Get a grip; you know the way: remember! I breathe in slow and deep, force the grid of the hospital into my mind. Eighth floor. Go to the nurses’ station, Dr Lysander had said.

One hand on the wall, light on my feet, trembling but careful to make no sound I walk to the end of the hall. Double doors, turn left: you have reached your destination.

All is silence. I walk forward, hands out to find the edge of the desk, but slip on something on the floor, and sprawl on the ground.

The floor is wet. Sticky. There is a funny metallic smell that catches at the back of my throat, and makes me gag. Blood.

I back up blindly, on hands and knees and smack into something – no, someone – on the floor: a hand, an arm. A whole person, a woman, in a nurse’s dress. No sound, no movement, a great sticky pool… I force myself to follow her arm up to her neck. She is still warm, just, but quite clearly dead. That last scream I heard, before those two men came. With the gun. They shot her; they must have.

Dead.

I scramble back to my feet and run blind, back down the dark hall.

Stop; too much noise! Hide.

Some instinct forces me to slow down, take careful steps. Quiet ones. I try to think if I noticed the nurse at the desk earlier, when I got off the lift. I walked right past her on my way in, but I can’t think what she looked like. If I knew her, I would have noticed, wouldn’t I? But I was distracted, saying goodbye to Mum, and then…

Mum! She went to have tea with her friend like she always does. Where do they go? I don’t know! Mum, where are you?

Take control. Calm down, NOW.

I breathe in and out until my heart rate slows and the wave of panic is retreating, walled in. Contained. Stand still and listen. But I can’t hear anything, not a sound. The hospital is eerily quiet like it never has been before.

Without consultation my feet take me to the emergency exit stairs, automatically heading for the place they know best: the tenth floor. My old room. Careful and quiet, one hand on the wall, I climb, one step at a time. Stopping to listen now and then but hearing nothing. Finally I reach for the door to the tenth, suddenly afraid it will be locked. It opens: perhaps because of the power failure? I step through the door and into the hall: there are dim emergency lights on this floor. Voices and people moving about; calm voices, no shouts or screams. I step forward.

Then a light shines in my face.

‘Is that Kyla? Oh, it is.’ The light is lowered, and it is Nurse Sally, one of the tenth floor nurses who was on my wing when I stayed here. I’m absurdly happy to see a face, a living face, one I know. I smile and she clasps my shoulder. ‘It is you. Oh darling, here for a check up, were you? Come on. We must all go to the cafeteria. Help us, will you, with some of the newbies. They’re confused.’

And she has me take the hands of two Slateds. New ones. Unsteady on their feet, but smiling great beatific grins as if this is the most wonderful day of their lives.

She pushes a wheelchair: a very new one. Not trusted to walk.

Down the hall we go; soon it is crowded with nurses and patients.

‘Hurry!’ An impatient voice at the back. One of several Lorders, herding us along.

We shuffle to the tenth floor cafeteria – the only place big enough to get everyone in. They push the last of us in and barricade the door.

There is natural light here from high barred windows, bright after the dim emergency lights, and I blink.

‘Kyla, you’re hurt! What happened?’ And Nurse Sally is pushing me into a chair, checking my arm, my shoulder.

‘Hurt? I’m not… Oh. I see. This isn’t my blood. I tripped on someone, who…’ And I can’t think about that, or even finish the sentence, so switch to another. ‘What’s happening?’

‘Don’t worry. I’m sure everything will be fine.’

‘They’re shooting people; killing them. They’re not fine.’

Her mouth drops open. She shakes her head. ‘I forgot how direct you can be. There was an AGT attack. It’s over. They’re just tracking the last few down, so they’re keeping everyone under wraps until they do.’

‘Are you okay, honey?’ Another nurse beams at me, with a handful of syringes of Happy Juice. Making the rounds of the room.

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