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‘Yes! It all adds together: what Aiden said, about the AGT removing Levos. The pills block the link between brain and Levo. They must.’ He catches my hands in his, his eyes search mine. ‘Think about it, Kyla: what it would be like to just be ourselves. Feeling what we want.’

He gathers me in, holds me. His closeness makes my heart beat faster, my skin tingle, my body want things it doesn’t even know. All the things I’m told to avoid because of my Levo. What would it be like without it? We could be whoever we want to be; stay together. No one could say we were destabilising our levels. We could be as happy or as sad as we like.

But this is a fairy tale. There would be no place for us, here, in this world.

I pull away. ‘What are you planning, Ben,’ I whisper.

‘I’m going to take a few of these pills, then cut off my Levo and destroy it.’

Fear twists inside. No Ben, no. ‘What? Are you insane?’

‘No. I have been insane; buying into what I was told. Now I’m saner than I’ve ever been. Aiden was right, though he didn’t go far enough. This is wrong, what they’ve done to us. Look at what happened yesterday. If Jazz and Amy hadn’t been there, then…’

And he doesn’t finish the sentence. My mind shies away, also. Last night I escorted that particular memory to a little door in my brain, kicked it in and locked it up, tight. I don’t want to think about it in case it finds a way out.

‘No Ben, you mustn’t!’

‘Aiden said the AGT have done it: it has worked.’

‘But he also said they had a lot of failures. You don’t know how they did it. And the pain, Ben: you still felt it when you twisted your Levo. I saw it on your face. Not all the links are cut.’

He shrugs. ‘I’ll get through it.’

‘If you get it wrong, you could die.’

‘What is the point in being alive like this?’

‘You don’t mean that. And you can’t just cut a Levo off with a pair of scissors: they are almost impossible to damage.’

‘Mum’s workshop has stuff that can cut through anything metal. I help her all the time, I know how to use it.’

My mind casts about, desperate for an argument he will hear. ‘Wait. What about after? If you can get it off, what then? You can’t stay with your family, or at school. Everyone would look at your wrist and know what you’ve done. The Lorders would come for you.’

‘I have a plan,’ he says, but when I question him, he says nothing.

He said Aiden’s way wasn’t far enough. He wants to join the terrorists.

‘You’re not thinking…no. You wouldn’t. Not the AGT.’

And there, in his beautiful eyes, is admission, confirmation. He wants to be a terrorist. My throat clenches. He doesn’t know the things they do, he couldn’t and still be thinking of this.

‘It’s the only way to make the government listen, to change things. Don’t you see?’

I shake my head, back away. Is this Ben, or is it the pills? Have they made him think like this?

‘Look at you,’ he says. ‘After yesterday, you didn’t even want to look at me. You didn’t want to talk to me, nothing. I was six feet of useless.’

‘That wasn’t your fault, and it’s not that!’

‘What is it, then?’

‘You’re just proving it all over again.’

‘What?’

‘You’d be better off if you never met me.’

‘How can you say that? Kyla, don’t you know how I feel about you?’

But I don’t want to hear. If how he feels makes him kill himself, what good is it? Nothing.

‘No. No! You mustn’t do this. Promise me you won’t.’

He shakes his head. ‘I have to think for myself; you can’t do it for me. As much as you might like to.’

And I stare back at Ben in shock. Smiling, uncomplicated Ben, who I thought needed my protection. He’s not smiling now, and he doesn’t want it. He doesn’t want to know what I think, or the impact his actions might have on me. Nothing.

What else is there to say?

I turn away and head back towards the school. My Levo vibrates: great. I glance down. 4.2.

Ben follows behind. ‘Here. Take one of these.’ He holds out his bottle of ‘headache tablets’.

‘No thanks. I’ve seen what they can do.’

Instead, I run.

The rest of the day passes in a blur. My levels hover around four; I wrap a jumper around my wrist so no one will hear it vibrate. All I can think about is Ben. I have to stop him, but how?

At the end of the day I get to the car before Amy, and ask Jazz to tell Mac I want to see him, hoping he’ll get Aiden along as well. I’d vowed I wouldn’t speak to Aiden again, but maybe he can help talk Ben out of something so crazy, or, at the very least, tell him how the AGT did it. If he isn’t there, maybe Mac can help me persuade Ben to wait until he tracks him down. It is the only thing I can think of to try and stop Ben.

Late that night, blank paper and pencil lie idle in my hands. Even my drawing has deserted me.

‘The question we are considering is how to deal with pain. Pain can kill, all on its own: the body goes into shock and shuts down. If it is severe enough.’

The boy smiles, even less idea what is coming than I have. He is nothing like me. He sits where he is told, speaks when spoken to, and smiles great dopey grins all the while. Even more so now with that drip in his arm, the empty whisky glass in his hand. His pupils are dilated and a thin sheen of sweat glistens on his skin, though the shop is so cold I can see my breath.

‘It doesn’t work under general anaesthetic: they must be conscious. I haven’t worked out why. Yet.’ Still the boy smiles, either not listening or not understanding. He is older than me: fifteen or sixteen, perhaps. ‘This time, in addition to the usual concoction, we’re trying co**ine: an oldie but a goody. Hard to source these days, but we tracked some down.’

‘Hold out your hand,’ he orders, and the boy complies. He straps his arm on to a table. That is when I see the saw: it is lined up with the boy’s wrist.

‘You’re not…’ I start to protest. I hate blood. Hate it. The metallic smell, the colour, the slippery feel of it, and I start to spin inside, holding on to the table with one hand, my stomach on its way up.

He shakes me, hard. ‘Who are you?’ he shouts. Abruptly the spinning is gone. I am calm, observant. ‘You have to work on your control. You don’t want to let her out, do you?’ he says, his voice dangerous.

‘No! Snivelling wimp.’ I stand straight.

‘Good girl. And no, I’m not cutting off his hand. Though that would be an interesting experiment on pain, in itself.’

He pulls up the boy’s sleeve, exposes a metal circle. Like a bracelet, with numbers like a clock, but it isn’t telling the time.

‘Is that…is he…’

‘This is a Levo, and he has been Slated.’ He twists the boy’s wrist and adjusts the straps so the Levo is lined up at right angles to a split in the metal table. In line with the saw. ‘This saw is diamond tipped, and is the only thing that will get through the metal they use in these devices; believe me, we’ve tried everything. Cold, heat, chemicals, all sorts of cutting devices. But an old-fashioned diamond-edged saw works best.’

He slips on goggles. ‘Stand back a little, there may be some spatter if I go too far.’ He flicks a switch, the saw spins, whines. He pushes it towards the boy’s hand. His Levo.

The boy watches, eyes wide, uncertain now. He looks at mine. The saw reaches the Levo, strikes against it and a loud grinding noise begins, sparks fly. And then he starts to scream…

Pain twists through my arm; I struggle, but soon realise it is just tangled blankets that hold me. The only thing glowing in the dark are Sebastian’s eyes.

I switch on the bedside light. Sebastian’s fur is on end, standing straight up his spine, down the length of his tail. A row of scratches trail down my arm: this is the pain that woke me. It wasn’t part of my dream, at all. The second time Sebastian has woken me in the middle of a nightmare.

‘Thanks for the wake up call, cat,’ I whisper. Soon he settles as I pet him, smooth his fur. He curls up to sleep but I leave the light on, unwilling to find darkness all around me, again.

Imagination, cruel and horrible, or traces of memory I should not have? Where do I go in my dreams?

Some instinct says it is both. My dream self didn’t know what Levos were, other than in an abstract way; she didn’t recognise that boy as Slated, either, though it was obvious. But there is one inescapable conclusion.

Ben must be stopped.

CHAPTER FORTY FOUR

* * *

‘Time to go!’ Mum hollers up the stairs.

But when I get to the bottom of them, instead of marching through the front door, she turns and leans on it.

‘Is everything all right?’

Everything is so far from all right that even if I could tell her, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Instead I glance at the clock by the door. ‘I’m going to be late for Group if we don’t go.’

She pauses a moment longer, then opens the door. ‘You know, Kyla, maybe I could help if you tell me what is wrong. The way you’ve been mooning about the last few days there is obviously something.’

There is a part of me that longs to tell her everything. She might see a way out of this box that I can’t.

Danger.

‘Is it Ben?’ she asks as we pull away from the house.

I nod. That much I can admit.

‘Did you two have some sort of fight?’

I scowl. ‘Did Amy tell you that?’

‘Don’t be angry with her. She was worried about you, and about Ben.’

I stare out the window. Amy’s good intentions are causing so much trouble.

‘Kyla, you do understand why your dad and I thought it best if you don’t go running with Ben alone?’

I look back at her. ‘Toeing the line,’ I snap before I can stop myself.

Mum half laughs. ‘I do remember what it is like, you know. To be young and want to be with somebody.’

‘Then why can’t I run to Group with Ben?’

‘Because you can’t. But just so you know, I don’t always agree with your dad. I went along because, officially, he is right, and we can’t do things that will get you in trouble, can we? But keep things as they are for a little while, and we’ll see if we can get Ben around now and then. Chaperoned, I’m afraid.’ She smiles and I know she is trying to help, thinks she is on my side. But it is so much more complicated than she can imagine. Ben might not be around long enough for a little while, or any other sort of while.

If only I could talk to Ben alone, make him see sense.

Wait a minute.

‘Maybe there is something you could do to help.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Could you maybe pick me up a little late tonight? Not long. Just so we can talk for a few minutes, sort things out.’

‘Your dad would have my head if he knew.’

‘I won’t tell him!’

She sighs. ‘All right; neither will I. I’ll give you twenty minutes. Good enough?’

‘Thanks,’ I say.

‘Oh good, a smile. Try to have one on later when I pick you up, all right?’

Group begins as usual. Penny has a bright jumper and is too cheerful to be normal; Ben runs in late. He doesn’t sit next to me, and I try to stuff down the hurt. Is he angry about the way I left him, walking off like that?

In Group everyone talks inanely about things that don’t really matter. I eye the clock, as each minute ticks down. We go a few minutes over and I almost have to bite my tongue to stop myself from objecting. When Penny finally says we can go, Ben stands and heads for the door.

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