Page 27 of Slated (Slated #1)

‘Listen. Come with me after school, tomorrow,’ I say. ‘Come see the websites I told you about. People are telling about stuff, there.’

He grins.

CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN

* * *

Jazz looks seriously annoyed.

‘Which part of tell no one didn’t you get?’ he says, and scowls.

‘Ben is all right.’

He shrugs. ‘He probably is, but that isn’t the point.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Now I’m not sure whether to take you to Mac’s, or not.’

I shrug. For my part, I don’t really want to go. Once I’d started thinking things through more carefully, anything he wants to talk to me about over his illegal computer I can do without. Despite practising, my poker face still isn’t up to scratch if anyone asks questions, and who knows if Ben even has one?

Amy appears in one direction, Ben in another. I’d run full tilt to get here first, and asked Ben to take his time so I’d have a chance to explain.

‘Well, you decide,’ I say.

Jazz sighs. ‘All right. He can come. Mac can always choose not to talk to you about whatever the hell it is, or not.’

I wave at Ben to let him know he can come over; he gets there as Amy does.

She raises an eyebrow. ‘Well, if it isn’t Ben.’

He grins, she grins back and I wonder if I see the real reason Jazz didn’t want Ben to come along. Now that they stand next to each other, I see that Ben is taller, and while Jazz is all right in a big brother kind of way, Ben’s smile and everything that is Ben wins hands down. Jazz slips an arm around Amy and kisses her cheek.

‘All in!’ he says, opens the door and pushes Ben towards the back seat. He clambers in and I after him. I get the side with the seat belt.

‘Hang on tight,’ I say, as I do it up. ‘There’s only the one.’

When we get to Mac’s and out of the car, Mac raises an eyebrow at Ben, but once he spots his Levo seems less bothered by him being there than Jazz was.

Jazz introduces them, looks at me and shrugs: universal male language?

‘Shall we go for a walk, Amy?’ Jazz says, and holds out his hand. Looks at Ben, then Mac. More unspoken words: the question on his face says do we have to take him with us?

Mac shakes his head. ‘Go on you two luvvy-duvs. Enjoy the sunshine. Won’t be many more nice days like this until spring.’

They disappear down the footpath.

‘Come on in. Drinks?’ Mac says.

I shake my head, as does Ben.

‘So, to what do I owe the pleasure?’ Mac says.

‘I thought you wanted me to come,’ I say, confused.

He raises an eyebrow and I realise he means Ben.

‘Oh.’ I colour. ‘Ben’s all right. You won’t tell anyone, will you?’

‘Of course not,’ Ben says. ‘We’re both worried about people who’ve gone missing, and—’

Mac holds up a hand. ‘Not my problem. In fact, I don’t know a thing about it.’

Ben and I exchange a look.

‘How about you two watch TV, or do whatever takes your fancy on the sofa. I’ve got a car to work on.’ And he goes out the back door; it swings, and slams shut with a bang.

I look at Ben and shrug, about to say some variation of I have no idea what is going on, when the door to the hall opens behind us.

We both spin around. In the door stands some guy: twenty or so, red hair, freckles; a serious face. One I’ve never seen before.

‘Hello, Lucy,’ he says, and smiles.

He walks towards us.

‘I’m Aiden,’ he says, then looks at Ben, one eyebrow raised.

‘This is Ben. But don’t call me Lucy: I’m Kyla.’

‘You are Lucy. I’ve seen the photos, and now that I see you in person, Mac is definitely right. You are she; she is you.’

‘Maybe I was. But I’m not any more. And what has it got to do with you?’

‘Yeah, who the hell are you?’ Ben says.

Exactly what I was thinking, but my eyes widen in surprise when Ben says it.

Aiden laughs. ‘Ben, I can see you are someone I need to talk to. Glad you came.’

We both still look at Aiden, not speaking.

‘Ah, sorry. Who am I, or who am I supposed to be?’ He laughs. ‘Officially, a telephone technician by day; but I also work for MIA.’

‘MIA?’ Ben asks, puzzlement on his face, but the letters mean something to me.

‘M – I – A: Missing in Action, right?’ I say. ‘Like on the website. Trying to find out what has happened to people like…like me,’ I say, finding the nerve to say the words out loud.

‘That’s it,’ he says, and grins. ‘Come on; let’s show Ben.’

We go down the hall to Mac’s spare room, where the computer is already out from its hiding place and turned on.

‘Show me Lucy,’ Ben says. Aiden searches her name, and there she is. I can see Ben assessing the happy face on the screen: Lucy Connor, age ten. Then looking back and forth between the two of us. ‘Yes, it is definitely you,’ he finally says. My heart sinks. It’s not like I wasn’t already pretty sure, but if somebody I know as well as Ben is convinced it is so, there can be no arguing with the conclusion. It changes from ‘maybe’ to fact.

Aiden grins. ‘So. What is next for Lucy?’ He spins my chair around, a hand on each arm and stares straight in my eyes. His are blue, deep blue, and unwavering. ‘The question I have for you, Lucy, or Kyla – whatever you want to be called – is this. What are you going to do about it?’

‘What do you mean?’

He takes the computer mouse, and moves the cursor over a button marked ‘found’ on the screen, underneath Lucy’s photograph. ‘Should I press it?’

‘I don’t understand. What does it mean?’

‘Simple: it will tell whoever reported you as missing that you are okay. Then you enter information to get in contact.’

‘No,’ I say.

Aiden’s eyes are back to mine. Disappointment reflected in his.

‘Think of them, always worrying, wondering what happened to you. Maybe it is your mum, or your dad, who has never been able to get over losing you. Maybe you’ve got sisters and brothers who miss you, too. Maybe that kitten you are holding is now a cat, sitting on the doorstep of your house right now, waiting for you to walk up the street.’

‘NO. This is crazy. I don’t know anything about Lucy, or where she comes from. I’m not her any more.’

Aiden’s hand is poised over the mouse still, and I yank it away from him.

He sighs. ‘Think about this, Lucy.’

I start to protest the name again; he interrupts.

‘I will call you Lucy. No matter what you think now because of what was done to you, it is who you are,’ he says, and leans back against the desk, a thoughtful look behind his careful smile. ‘What do you think MIA is about?’

‘Trying to find out what happened to people, I guess.’

‘That is important, but it is just a small part of what we are trying to achieve. We are finding people who were taken illegally, so we can hold the government to account for it: expose them to the world. Without anyone standing up and saying “this is wrong”, nothing will ever be done to stop it. It is happening more and more all the time. They must be stopped.’

I gasp. ‘You’re with the terrorists, aren’t you.’

‘No.’

‘It sounds like it to me.’

He shakes his head. ‘No, I’m not. We’re not with the government; we’re not with the terrorists. We’re trying to find a better way. Without violence.’

Ben takes my hand. ‘Kyla, listen. This sounds just like what we were talking about yesterday. Maybe there is something we can do?’

I am starting to tremble, my Levo is dropping. It vibrates: 4.3.

‘Leave us alone a minute,’ Ben says. Aiden goes, shuts the door behind him.

‘You know he is right, don’t you?’ he says. I shake my head, feeling sick with a certain fear that the more we find out the worse everything will be; that nothing will be right from now on. Ben wraps his arms around me tight, rocks me back and forth, until eventually I stop shaking. My Levo starts a slow climb up to 5, and Ben calls Aiden back in.

His face is concerned. ‘Are your levels all right now?’

‘I think so.’

‘It’s a bitch, isn’t it. Being hooked up to one of those. But there may be a way to get rid of your Levos, before you are twenty-one.’

‘How?’ Ben says.

‘One of the things we found out when we started to look into missing people is that some of the ones who go missing are Slateds.’

‘Like Tori,’ Ben says, and then explains. ‘She was a friend of ours; seventeen years old. We think she was taken by Lorders.’

‘Sometimes they are taken by Lorders. Now and then there are problems with the Slating process that aren’t picked up before you leave hospital, some memory traces that aren’t eliminated.’ Regression my mind whispers. ‘They are taken back to hospital, retreated, or…’ He hesitates.

‘Terminated,’ I say, then realise I said it out loud, not just in my head, and wish I hadn’t.

Aiden looks startled. ‘Yes, just so.’

These words were on my records on Dr Lysander’s computer. He looks about to ask why I know, but no matter how far from their side Aiden appears to be, I’m not saying.

‘You said that sometimes, they are taken by Lorders,’ I say, quickly, before he can ask. ‘What about the others?’

‘Some are taken by terrorists.’

‘Why? What would AGT want with them?’ Ben asks.

‘They’ve been working on how to disable or remove Levos. We don’t know all the details, but they have had some success.’

‘Really?’ Ben says, eager curiosity all over his face.

But any damage or interference with a Levo results in seizures and death to the wearer: we’re warned of this again and again before we leave hospital. What happened to the Slateds while they were working it out? ‘Some success?’ I say. ‘Probably more failure.’

Aiden looks grim. ‘True. They’ve tried different types of painkillers and physical removal; induced comas; Happy Juice and related medications.’ He drones on about analgesics, endorphins and synthetic brain chemicals, and I tune out.

I look at my Levo. Even slight pressure on it causes an extreme headache, makes my levels drop. It isn’t tight, but because of the pain I can barely turn it: the grip it has on my life is absolute.

‘The pain…the deaths they would have caused,’ I whisper.

Aiden doesn’t deny what I say and I know I’m right.

‘But think of the possibility of being free of it,’ Ben says, his voice excited. ‘It’s worth taking a risk.’

‘Not if those taking it aren’t given the choice!’ I snap. ‘And you just wait until you’re twenty-one. Not long to go to be sure of living, is it?’

But Ben looks enthralled. My stomach twists, my Levo vibrates: 3.9 this time.

‘Dammit,’ Aiden says. Ben hugs me, rocks me back and forth.

3.7.

‘Kyla, it’s all right; everything will be fine,’ Ben whispers in my ear, strokes my hair, but all I can think of is the pain…

3.4.

Vaguely I’m aware of Aiden leaving, returning seconds later.

‘Take one of these,’ he says, and holds out a pill, a glass of water. I shake my head no as my Levo buzzes again, loud; levels still dropping, my head is spinning, vision going funny…

He grabs my face between his hands, and before Ben or I can react, tilts it back with one hand and chucks the pill to the back of my throat with the other. I choke and cough, but it starts to go down.

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