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But I am out of my seat and get there just as he does.

‘Wait,’ I say.

He turns, looks at my eyes for the first time of the evening. Says nothing, and it is like a dagger inside. I almost slink away. But I have to talk to him. I have to find the words that will put an end to his plans.

‘Ben, please. Can we talk? Mum is coming late. We’ve got a little time.’

He glances across the room; Penny is looking the other way, talking to the parents of one of the others.

‘Come on, then,’ he says, and I follow him outside, along the car park in the shadow of the hall.

‘Are you angry with me?’ I say, and then want to bite it back. There are so many things that need saying; that could wait.

He shakes his head. ‘Of course not. But I am trying to keep away from you. I don’t want you to associate with me in public, so when things go down…’ He pauses. ‘I don’t want you to get in trouble.’

I sigh. ‘Does this mean you haven’t come to your senses? Are you still planning to go through with it?’

‘You didn’t really think I’d change my mind, did you?’

‘I didn’t, I just hoped. But at least wait until we can see Aiden again. He can tell you how they did it, give you a better chance.’ Talk you out of it.

Ben shakes his head. ‘Listen to me: I’m not going to change my mind,’ he says in a quiet voice, determination threaded through it. ‘And I don’t think from what he said that Aiden really knows what they did, anyhow.’

‘Please, Ben. I don’t want anything to happen to you.’

His eyes soften. ‘What I’d really like to do now is drag you off into the woods and kiss you.’ But around us cars are pulling in, collecting children; there are eyes everywhere. He takes my hand and links our fingers. ‘This will do for now.’

‘Ben you have to listen to reason. Please.’

‘We’ve covered this ground, haven’t we?’

‘How exactly are you going to do it?’

‘I’ve started going through equipment in Mum’s workshop. I’ll sort something out this weekend.’

‘So soon?’

‘Yes. Mum is going away to Dad’s sister who had a baby; Dad is already there. I convinced them I could stay here on my own.’

I stare at him miserably. ‘Please, Ben…’

‘Kyla, listen. If this works, we can cut yours off, too. We can run away some place, together. Without our Levos no one could keep us apart.’

‘What about the AGT?’ I whisper, quietly as I can. ‘Have you given up that idea?’

He shakes his head.

‘So. Just you, me, and a major terrorist organisation. Sounds like heaven.’

‘Think about it. We could change the world.’

Mum pulls in, waves.

‘I have to go.’

‘No smiles, Kyla?’

I slump back in the seat.

‘I’m sorry,’ she says.

Once we get home I escape tea and sympathy as soon as I can, but I can’t escape my thoughts. Ben, cutting off his Levo: screaming in pain. If he somehow survives, Ben in the AGT.

I have to stop him.

Everything is misty, unclear. I straighten the goggles.

‘Here: this is the switch. You push the saw along this track. The diamond wheel should make quick work of his Levo. The key is to cut it off as quick as possible before the pain and shock cause death, but not so quick the hand goes as well. Where most attempts fail is in stopping when the pain hits instead of pushing through it. Understand?’

‘Yes.’ I am calm, observant. Interested in the experiment.

The subject is sweating, eyes dilated. His hand immobilised on the table. He reeks of whisky.

I flick the switch. The wheel spins, whining as it hits speed.

Pushing it closer and closer, I glance up and see the subject’s eyes. Blue, wide: not scared. Not yet.

‘Watch what you are doing!’

I look back to the saw as it touches the Levo. Sparks fly in an arc.

‘More pressure!’

The screaming begins.

I pull the saw back.

‘No! He’ll die now if you don’t cut it off and do it fast.’

But I’m spinning, faster than the saw. Screams of agony rip through my skull. I clench my eyes shut and with them shut I see more clearly. He changes: the screaming boy is gone. And in his place is Ben.

‘No! Ben, no!’ I lunge for the machine, to stop the saw before it reaches him, to release the straps, but arms grab tight around me and hold me firm.

‘You must stay in control. You know the rules.’

‘No!’

‘You’re next.’

I fight, kick. Struggle, scratch and scream. But it is no good. I’m strapped into a chair, my arm to the table.

The saw whines…

Bzzzz…

My eyes snap open, desperate to escape the horror. A dream, but I can still hear the saw?

Bzzzz…

I reach for the light, and when it happens again, I feel it, on my wrist: my Levo is vibrating, a dangerous 3.3. I’m nauseous and shaking. This time, to begin with at least, I was the one wielding the saw. Could I ever really have done something like that?

Slowly, so slowly, my heart stops racing, my levels come up, but I can’t let go of the images. They replay again and again in my mind. A diamond-edged blade. Whisky. A quick cut.

Was I really there, in that place, torturing that boy?

Somewhere inside there is a crack, a glint of light.

I don’t want to know, but I can’t escape it. In my dream, when I was put in place to have my Levo cut off, I was terrified: not of the pain, or that I might die. But of being without my Levo. I hate it, what it means and represents, what it does to my life. Yet for some reason I needed to keep it so much that the mere thought of losing it filled me with terror.

Why?

CHAPTER FORTY FIVE

* * *

Friday morning when I reach the back of the bus, Ben’s usual seat is empty. I half stand as the bus pulls away, and look at every head. No; he’s not sitting elsewhere. He’s simply not here.

I panic inside. He didn’t. No. He said his parents were away this weekend; that was when he was going to try to cut off his Levo. He wouldn’t have jumped ahead, would he?

Numb, I go through morning classes as if back in a nightmare. I even consider asking Mrs Ali for help. If I tell her what Ben is thinking, they’ll stop him. They won’t let him do it. But how long would he stay safe and well? What would the Lorders do to him?

If it’s not too late already.

I wander the grounds at lunch, alone. Can anyone help? Try Jazz.

The sixth form common room in the main building is where Amy says they usually have lunch, and I head there now. She is still on her work placement, so I won’t need to dodge her. Some instinct through all of this has said to tell her nothing. She thinks I shouldn’t see Ben any more; how would she react if she found out he is planning to cut off his Levo?

I stand, uncertain, in the door. Please be here, Jazz. The common room is crowded, full of students chatting in groups, on benches eating lunch, at tables and study carrels doing homework. I scan the room and can’t spot him anywhere. But I can’t quite see around the desks and shelves into the far corner; I crane my head around.

‘Out of the way, please,’ a voice says behind. I move to one side and two older girls walk in, look at me pointedly. ‘Get lost. Sixth formers only.’

‘Wait. I’m looking for Jazz MacKenzie?’

They ignore me and keep going.

‘Jazz?’ I say, louder. His familiar head peeks around the corner of a desk half across the room. He smiles, walks over.

‘Hi Kyla, how’re things?’

‘Can we talk a minute? I mean, away from everyone.’

‘Of course,’ he says. ‘Hang on a sec.’ He comes back with his jacket on. ‘Let’s go for a walk.’

We head down the hall and out the building. The sky is grey, and a light drizzle is falling. Enough for the benches and paths to be mostly deserted.

‘What’s up?’ he says when we clear the last of potential eavesdroppers.

‘I’m really worried about Ben. He wasn’t on the bus today.’

‘Well. He might have slept in, or have a cold, or be at the dentist. Any number of reasons why he wasn’t there.’

I don’t say anything else; he looks at my face. ‘But you don’t think it is any of those things.’

‘No,’ I whisper. I hesitate; better for Jazz if he doesn’t know details. ‘It’s just that Ben was thinking of doing something really stupid. Now I’m afraid he’s done it.’

‘I see.’

‘I don’t know what to do,’ I say, miserably. The drizzle increases to rain. My Levo vibrates, but I keep my hands buried deep in my pockets so Jazz won’t hear.

‘Amy thinks you shouldn’t see him any more. She agrees with your parents.’

‘What do you think?’

He shrugs. ‘I think Ben is all right. You’re really worried?’

I nod.

Jazz tilts his head to the side, thinking. ‘Tell you what. Let’s bunk off school for the afternoon, and swing by his, yeah? See if he is okay.’

I find myself agreeing; Jazz goes back for his bag, says he’ll meet me by his car in a few minutes. This is a bad idea.

I shrug off that thought as I cross the grounds to the student parking area, keeping a look out for teachers. True, skipping class this afternoon will be hard to explain, and Mrs Ali is already on my case. It’s not like no one will notice. A very bad idea.

Jazz is longer than a few minutes, and I start to worry. Did he change his mind? No. He would have told me.

But then he bursts around the corner, a big grin on his face. ‘Ben is on a class trip.’

‘Really?’

‘I checked: they post them up on a bulletin board by the office. His agriculture class is spending the day at a farm. I’m surprised he didn’t tell you.’

My knees go weak with relief, and I feel dizzy, almost like I’m going to throw up.

‘Heh, you all right?’ Jazz looks at me curiously.

‘I will be. I just really need to talk to Ben.’

‘Well, we could go to his place after school. Ditch the bus and I’ll take you, get you home before Amy or the Dragon know a thing about it.’

‘Really?’

‘Sure. Why not?’

‘Thanks.’

Jazz shrugs, grins. ‘No big drama,’ he says, winks. ‘Meet you here end of day, all right?’

‘Deal.’

I hug the relief to myself all afternoon. Why didn’t Ben tell me about his class trip? Though we had other things to talk about. More like argue about.

The sky clears through the afternoon. By the time I meet Jazz at his car, the clouds have gone. The sun is shining.

I sit in the front seat for the first time. Uneasy, suddenly, what Amy will make of this if she hears about it from anyone.

‘I’ll tell Amy someone was hassling you on the bus, so I gave you a lift home. All right?’ Jazz says, as if reading my mind.

‘Sure.’

I sit back in the car, late afternoon sun shining in my face, seat belt on. One hand holds tight to the door, but I’ve got used to Jazz’s driving a bit more now, and don’t really register when he slams on the brakes at a light, then takes off way too fast, and repeats the same at the next junction. He whistles along to the radio.

Last night’s dream runs through my mind, a replay on a loop with no end. My head is full of screaming; of the smell of salty fear, whisky and blood, all mingled together, so real I have to fight not to gag.

Ben must be stopped. He must, but what if he won’t listen?

Jazz pulls in to a house four doors down from Ben’s.

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