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‘Why’d you do that?’ I yell.

‘Didn’t want to have to get an ambulance out here. Think of Mac,’ he says.

I cough again, still almost choking on a pill painfully stuck part way down.

‘Drink this: it’ll help,’ he says, and holds out the glass. I take it and swallow the water, but before the pill has even gone down properly my levels are coming back up. Nothing to do with a small white tablet; all to do with the anger coursing through my veins.

‘What is it? What did you make me take?’

Aiden looks at me curiously: I can see his brain trying to connect the dots. Girl is Slated; levels were dropping; now she is angry, which should make levels drop further. Why isn’t she unconscious?

Kyla is different.

‘What did you give her?’ Ben asks.

‘It’s just a Happy Pill,’ Aiden says. ‘Similar to the injections they use at hospital. The AGT have been developing them in pill form.’

And I fill in the rest in my mind: developing them for their experiments on kidnapped Slateds. They’re just as bad as the government. And despite what Aiden says, that he isn’t with the terrorists, has nothing to do with them and their wicked ways, there he has their tablets in his possession.

‘Keep these. In case you need them,’ Aiden says, and holds out a bottle of pills.

‘I don’t want them,’ I say. ‘And I don’t want anything to do with you.’

Aiden sighs. ‘Listen, Kyla – if that is who you want to be – I can’t make you help us if you don’t want to. I think, for now, you just need to think about things some more. All right? Mac can always get in touch if you want to see me again.’

He turns to go.

‘Wait a minute,’ Ben says. ‘Maybe I can help. Am I on this website of yours?’

‘Want to find out?’ Aiden asks.

And as I stare at Ben, he nods.

‘Are you sure?’ I ask. ‘I thought you said you—’

He catches my hand in his. ‘Yes,’ he says, though he doesn’t look sure.

Aiden sits back down at the keyboard. Enters male – seventeen – brown hair – brown eyes. They scan pages and pages of hits that come up: none match. Not even close.

‘Shame,’ Aiden says. Ben’s eyes are a mix of relief and disappointment: because he can’t help MIA? Or, maybe, because nobody is missing him.

Aiden turns to go; Ben follows him out to say goodbye.

I stare at the screen; hit the back button until Lucy’s face returns, fills the screen with a toothy grin. All it would take is one click on ‘found’ to change everything, forever.

But there are so many things tied up with no. There is fear strong and certain that this can only lead to the Lorders throwing me in the back of one of their black vans; disappearing in a way that will make being Slated seem kind. Fear, also, that whoever is looking for Lucy will find me wanting, or I won’t want to know them, or both.

But under all these reasonable things is something dark, something buried. Deep in the pit of my stomach is a cold conviction: I don’t know why I was reported missing, because I’m pretty sure the government was right to Slate me. There is something wrong with me, deep inside, and I don’t want to know what it is.

Hush.

Things I can’t know seem just out of reach, just past my understanding. This must be what they are watching me for at the hospital: regression. Dr Lysander saved me once; but this time, if anyone notices, it will be termination.

Be still. Be patient.

If Aiden is looking for someone who wants to jump up and down and be noticed, he couldn’t be more wrong than to consider me a candidate.

Stay silent as the grave.

Later, before we say goodbye, Ben holds my hands in his. Looks at me with eyes I always want to agree with; that I never want to show disappointment in me or my actions. Just now they are trying to persuade. ‘I know this is scary, Kyla. But we could really do something, make a difference. Think of Tori, and Phoebe. Gianelli, too. Promise me you’ll think about it?’

And I make the promise, because, after all, it’s not like I’ll be able to think about anything else. He hugs me, holds me close, and I wish so many things. That we could stay this way. That we could be alone some place in a world with no Lorders, no Slating, no Levos. Or at the very least that I could say yes and do what he wants.

But I just can’t.

CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT

* * *

And think about things, I do: late that night. All through school the next day, wandering to classes, unaware of my surroundings.

The thing Aiden said that stuck the most is that whoever reported me to MIA may be missing me, right now. A mum, a dad, brothers and sisters? Even that grey kitten.

But unlike Lucy, this imaginary family is faceless. They are unreal; their feelings, abstract and removed. Yet, just the same, I can imagine the agony of not knowing what happened to someone you care about. Even with Tori and Phoebe, who I barely knew and, in the latter’s case, didn’t particularly like, I feel this way: it is the uncertainty, the not knowing. Or with Phoebe I did feel that way, before: because now I know what happened to her.

Maybe that is one place I can do something.

‘I’m going running,’ I announce in the car on the way home from school.

‘But we’re doing homework together,’ Amy protests, looks at Jazz.

‘So what? Do it. I’ll be home before Mum,’ I say. And they soon agree: though it is against ‘the rules’ for them to be in the house alone. Though Jazz asks where I am going, and says to stay off the back ways on my own. And I almost tell him the truth when I say I will stick to main roads, as I will: until I get to the lane that leads to Phoebe’s house.

Earlier today, our English teacher gave back our marked books. They were taken in when Phoebe was still here, and I spotted hers in the pile and slipped it inside mine. Written on the inside front cover was all I needed to know: Phoebe Best, Old Mill Farm. A library map has it just a few miles from our house.

Thump, thump. My feet on the road lull me along, though not at my usual breakneck speed: I need time to think what to say. ‘Hello, your daughter has been Slated’ seems harsh. Be careful. Last thing I want is for them to storm the hospital and demand her back; bet it wouldn’t take long for the Lorders to pin the problem on me. And then there is her creepy uncle, Wayne: I haven’t run into him since that day on the footpath. I shudder. If his van is parked out front, the whole thing is off.

I almost run past the turn, without seeing the faded sign. ‘Old Mill Farm’ points to a narrow lane, more an overgrown rutted track than a road. Walking now, I set out along it. Trees soon lean and reach above making it closed in, a green tunnel. Nowhere to hide. Unease rises inside my gut. I slip off the track and push into the dense woods alongside.

According to the map it is half a mile to their house, but picking my way with no path through undergrowth and trees, it soon seems longer. Branches pull at my hair, brambles catch my clothes, and I look longingly at the lane.

Just as I stand, one foot forward and one back in indecision, engine sounds come from the direction of the house. A vehicle, coming fast: I duck in shadows next to a tree. Wheels spin on the lane as a white van goes past. I catch a glimpse of the driver as it rattles along: Wayne Best.

My heart sounds thump-thump in my ears. That was close. What would he have done if I’d been on the lane, and he’d spotted me scrambling out of the way? I must be mad. Just be careful.

Another bend, and buildings are in sight. Though they look more like a collection of sprawling barns and outbuildings than a house, some of them half falling down. A fence and gate surrounds the lot. Out front is a metal graveyard, littered with shells and bits of rusted out cars, tractors and other machinery I cannot identify. None of the cars look operational: maybe no one is home? I consider turning around. You’re here now.

One building to the right of the cluster looks to be falling down less than the others. There are a few straggly bushes in front of it, and an actual door rather than a hinged bit of wood.

I hesitate, then cross to the lane and open the gate. The lane becomes a track that leads off to the left behind the buildings; fields slope up beyond. Uneven chunks of concrete are spaced through mud at even intervals to lead a path through bits of machinery to the door. Listen, first. There are rustlings in the trees, behind; no voices, no radio.

I step out on to the first concrete step, and hop along to the next. They are soon so far apart I almost have to jump between them. The house is just a few steps away when there is a small noise, a movement, to my left. I turn.

Two eyes. Teeth, sharp teeth. A low rumbling growl. A big dog, maybe a mix of Alsatian and something else, and he doesn’t look happy.

I start to shake. Do I back up slowly, do I run, what? I eye the distance between me and the gate. Somehow I think if I run, he will chase. I’m fast, but not that fast: the gate is too far. I’m closer to the house. Hold your ground.

He takes a few steps closer, growling still, then starts to bark.

I tremble with the effort not to run, and my stomach starts heaving. Sure, barf on the dog. That will improve his mood. I swallow and back up slowly, one step at a time, towards the house. Maybe, someone is home. Maybe the door is open, either way.

He growls deep in his throat, stalks towards me.

Run.

I bolt for the house. Jump at the step and scrabble at the handle. But it won’t turn: it is locked.

Maybe this is it.

He launches at me, so big a paw hits each shoulder and knocks me off the step and on my back in the dirt. My head thunks hard against the ground, my eyes fill with tears. Pinned down. Struggle – don’t struggle – no decision: frozen in fear I stare up at bared, sharp teeth; waves of hot, rank breath on my face; his eyes on mine. He growls.

‘Hold!’ A man’s voice.

The teeth go back inside the dog’s mouth but he doesn’t move, still heavy on my chest, growling rumbling through his paws into my shoulders.

Footsteps.

‘Well now Brute, what have you caught there? UP! So I can take a look.’

The dog – Brute, huh – jumps back. I sit up, start to stand.

‘Stay put,’ he says, scowling.

I sit back in the muck, and stare up at his face: close set eyes and greasy hair, so like Wayne he must be his brother. Phoebe’s dad?

‘Who the hell are you?’

‘I’m Kyla. A f-f-f-friend of Phoebe’s,’ I manage to get out. Brute’s ears perk up when I say her name.

‘That worthless brat didn’t have any friends without four legs.’

‘We were in school together.’

‘So? You must know she ain’t here, then. What do you want?’

‘To see her mum.’

‘She ain’t here, either. Get lost.’

I stare back at him, and at Brute.

‘Go! Get up, and get out of here before I change my mind.’

I scramble up, and Brute growls louder. Hoping he’ll hold him, I dash for the gate. I’m nearly there when I hear thumping sounds, running, behind. Without turning I run the last few steps, rip the gate open and slam it shut. The latch clicks to just as Brute slams against it; it shudders, but holds. Phoebe’s dad is laughing by the house. ‘Don’t come back!’ he yells.

No chance. See what happens when you try to do the right thing? That is enough of that. Phoebe is a closed book to me from now on.

My Levo says 4.8: how? Just like when I was at the hospital, scared and running. Both times you’d expect my levels to plummet. I walk up the lane, too shaky to go through the woods this time, or to run. All at once it is too much; I stop and lunch heaves up out of my stomach.

Lovely. As if mud or worse all over me and a powerful headache aren’t enough.

Headache? I touch my hand to the back of my head, and wince. My fingers come away red: must have hit the ground harder than I realised. Since I was distracted by a snarling monster with bad breath and big teeth at the time.

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