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‘Come on. Let’s get to Group,’ I say.

As we walk back to the road, I ask Ben what he thought of Hatten saying I was a biological anomaly, and about handedness and brain surgery. But Ben brushes it off, doesn’t seem to want to talk about him.

We run the rest of the way, and as we do my mind spins around. Before, being with Ben had made me feel safe, but I see I had it wrong. I need to keep him safe. I need to look out for both of us.

Why can I think for myself in ways that Ben can’t? I don’t understand, at all.

CHAPTER FORTY ONE

* * *

Mum is grim, concentrating, hands so tight on the wheel her knuckles are white. But nothing is happening; the traffic is crawling. We go up a slight rise on the road, and when we reach the top we can see the endless queue that leads to the hospital. We were notified yesterday that we are to use a different entrance today. Was the usual one damaged in the bombing last week? Soon we reach the queue and come to a stop.

‘Are you all right?’ I ask.

She jumps. Half smiles. ‘Shouldn’t I be asking you that?’

‘I asked you first.’

‘Fair enough. I’m just feeling tense about going back to the hospital after last week. Aren’t you?’

Strangely, no; at least, not the way she means. No doubt the Lorders will have everything so locked down now that terrorists won’t stand a chance of getting within a mile. But Mum looks like she wants to jump in the opposite lane and race away as fast as she can.

‘I think they won’t let anything happen after last week, so it is safer than it ever has been.’

Mum tilts her head to one side. ‘You’re probably right. I still don’t want to go there.’

Me either, though for different reasons. I’m not sure my poker face is ready for Dr Lysander today. It is one thing to decide to go along and do as expected and be the perfect little Slated; it is another thing to do it.

‘I know. Let’s dash off and go out for lunch, instead,’ I say.

Mum laughs. ‘Funny girl. Wouldn’t it be great if we could?’

‘Well, you could: dump me, and go off for the day. You must be sick of spending every Saturday taking me to hospital.’

‘Too true. But I can’t just go wherever I like. You see up the pole at each corner? Like to your left, there.’ I look out the window. There is a traffic light and a pole next to it. Up the top of it is a small black box; a device of some sort. A camera.

‘They monitor the identity and position of every car in London. If I start wandering around beyond expectation, who knows what might happen? Though maybe I’d get away with it.’

‘Is that because of who your dad was?’

‘And my mum. She was important, too.’

‘So even adults can’t go where they want.’

‘No. Not these days.’

‘Could they before?’

‘Things have changed, Kyla. When I was your age it was very different.’

‘Was that when everything kicked off, in the twenties?’

She winces. ‘Do I look that old? I was sixteen in 2031.’

‘But you’d remember the twenties, then. When there were all the riots, and gangs, and everyone cowered in their homes in fear and never went out.’

She laughs again. ‘That is one version of events. That was also when mobile phones were banned for under-21s. They used them to organise demonstrations, you see? But it wasn’t as bad as all that. Not to start with. Though it was different to today: you had to be careful where you went at night, that sort of thing.’ Her eyes track to the side, to Lorders at the corner. In black with machine guns.

‘Now you just have to watch out for them.’

She nods slightly, and I’m surprised.

‘You said it wasn’t so bad to start with. What about later on?’

‘Don’t you take history in school? After the crash – you know, from the credit crunch and economic collapse throughout Europe – when the UK withdrew from the EU and closed borders, there was a period when things did go pretty crazy.’

‘I’ve seen films of the riots.’

‘They show the worst of it. Most of the student demonstrations were peaceful, in the early days. But frustration and anger grew.’

In history lessons it is all out of control mobs, wildeyed teenagers destroying property and killing people. Stunned that Mum would tell me this, I say nothing. She is talking, maybe, to distract herself from where we are going, and what happened there last week.

‘Mum and Dad used to fight about it late at night: I’d creep down the stairs, and listen in.’

‘Your dad was the PM. So he won the argument.’

‘Not to start with. Early on he was just another candidate; there was an election on the way. Mum was a lawyer, big on civil liberty.’

‘What is that?’

She shakes her head. ‘To think you need to ask that question. What do you think it means?’

‘Liberty means something like freedom, doesn’t it?’

She nods. ‘Freedom of speech; freedom of action; freedom of assembly. So Mum had very different ideas from Dad about how things should be sorted out. She ended up campaigning for a new political party, Freedom UK.

‘So they were on opposite sides?’

‘Yes.’

‘But your dad won.’

‘Not exactly. It wasn’t a clear result. The two parties had to form a coalition, though Dad’s party had the stronger position. It made for interesting breakfast times, believe me. So the thing is, Kyla, neither of them won. They compromised. And that gave us you.’

‘I don’t understand.’

She turns the radio up slightly, and faces me. Speaks in a low voice. ‘You have to keep secrets for me to talk about this any more. You told me once that you can’t; I think you probably can. But do you want me to go on?’

The good little Slated should say no, and avoid dangerous knowledge. But she isn’t in control just now. ‘Tell me.’

‘Well, on the one side you had my dad and the beginning of the Law and Order movement, that gave us Lorders. Zero tolerance on violence and civil disobedience; harsh punishments for law breakers. On the other side was the view that the young – the student demonstrators, the gangs – should be rehabilitated. That often what they have done isn’t their fault. It is where they came from, how they were raised – they might have been mistreated. They deserve consideration and respect as human beings; help, not punishment.’

‘How does this lead to me?’

‘There were these discoveries. I don’t understand the science much. About memories in the brain. They were trying to help people with autism and so on. But they found a bit by accident that a certain procedure took a person’s memories away.’

‘Slating.’

‘Exactly. So it was the perfect solution for the Coalition government. Instead of harshly punishing criminals, they could be given a clean slate – that is where the popular term, Slating, came from – and start over. A second chance.’

I think about what she said. ‘So both sides could say they got what they wanted. Is that what compromise is?’

Mum laughs, but it isn’t the sort of laugh at anything funny, and her face isn’t amused. ‘More like neither got what they wanted, and both blamed the other for anything and everything. They did it then, and they still do it now in the Central Coalition we have today. And that is also where Levos came from.’

I look at the circle around my wrist that runs my life; 5.2 just now. I give it a twist and pain stabs through my temples. I know it will do this, yet can’t stop myself now and then from pulling at the chain of my prison. ‘How does them compromising give me a Levo?’

‘Well, Freedom UK said we must make sure the poor Slateds are happy; the Lorders said we must make sure they don’t slip back to their evil ways. Answer? A Levo. You have to stay happy; you can’t do anything wrong. Both sides are pleased as they got what they said they wanted.’

‘Huh. Obviously, they’ve never had to wear one.’

Mum laughs again. ‘Just so.’

‘Did you take sides? Between your mum and dad.’

‘Mostly I tried to keep peace at home, and sat on the fence. Then.’

‘Then?’

She doesn’t answer for so long, that I think she won’t. Then turns to me, her eyes, glistening. ‘You could say when they died, I got off the fence.’

We are nearly at the search point. Neither of us says anything else. Her parents died when a terrorist bomb hit their car. Whatever she might have thought before that, there is no doubt in my mind which side of the fence she ran to: the Lorders. She must have, after terrorists killed her parents. How could she not?

Yet, while our car is searched, I watch Mum’s face. There are things going on inside her that go beyond her words. As before, the Lorders acknowledge who she is; there is some deference in them around her that I don’t see in their interactions with other people. She accepts it. But she doesn’t like it.

I wonder what she left unsaid.

Dr Lysander taps at her screen, then looks up.

‘I see that during the attack last week, you went to the tenth floor. Then your levels dropped so much, you had to be sedated. Tell me about it.’

Straight to the chase.

‘I tried to go to the nurses’ station like you said. The lights went out. The nurse…’

And I stop. I don’t want to think about that.

‘I know about the nurse,’ Dr Lysander says. ‘That must have been shocking for you to deal with. But you didn’t black out then.’

‘No. I went to the stairs, to the tenth floor. I’m not sure why.’

‘It was your place here, the one you knew best: it makes perfect sense for you to go there. But why do you think you got through it all, and then, just when things were safe, your levels dropped?’

Because of Phoebe. But I can’t say that.

I shrug. ‘Maybe once I stopped running, it all crowded in on me.’

She tilts her head to one side, considering. ‘Perhaps.’ She doesn’t look convinced, like she knows something else is behind it.

‘Were you all right?’ I ask. ‘I was worried about you.’ And the words are true as I say them. There is no doubt that she would have been a target for the terrorists.

Her eyes open a little wider, her face softens. ‘Thank you Kyla; I appreciate that. I was fine. They took me to a safe place with some other people to look after us.’

‘Why didn’t they take that nurse, as well. Did you know her?’

‘I did: Angela was her name.’ She looks sad. ‘But sometimes choices have to be made.’

‘But—’

‘Enough, Kyla. I have something to ask you. Did you find out everything?’

‘What?’

‘Did you learn what you wanted to know.’

My stomach twists. She knows; somehow she knows. That I looked at her computer. I stay silent, guts twisting in fear. Imagine what the Lorders will make of that.

‘Yes, Kyla, I’m afraid I saw what you did. There is a little camera, you see? In my office; one that I monitor. Also the computer tracks what files are opened and shut again. So I saw just what you did.’ She sits back in her chair, calmly. ‘But I’ve turned the camera off now, and deleted that sequence. No one else knows. Come on. Pull your chair around, and we will look together.’

My jaw drops.

‘Now, Kyla,’ she says.

I pull my chair to the other side of the desk next to hers. And she goes through the files I looked at, one by one, and explains: the admissions process; my brain scans; the surgery. Then to the ‘Recommendations’ section that I couldn’t get out of my mind.

‘This bit, here: “board recommends termination; Dr Lysander overrules.” What does it mean?’ I ask.

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