Yet Nico’s truths are not the same as other people’s all the time.
But then he smiles. ‘You, dear girl, after giving us yesterday’s prize may ask the question of your choice, and I will answer.’ He sits on the edge of his chair, alert. ‘Go on.’
I swallow. ‘Why was I Slated?’
‘You know why.’
‘Or, at least, you knew why. Think. See if you can work it out,’ he says. ‘We protected part of you from Slating, didn’t we? Your memories are coming back more and more.’
And another question slips into view in my mind, as if it had always been there: why prepare me for Slating unless I was always meant to be Slated? Was this Dr Lysander’s real why? My eyes widen with shock.
‘What is it?’ he asks.
‘I was always going to be Slated. It wasn’t just a risk, or bad luck I was caught, or any of those things.’
He inclines his head. ‘Bravo, Rain: you remember.’
I recoil, shock and horror overcoming fear enough that I don’t take them from my face.
‘We needed to show the Lorders that they can fail; that we can get around them. That anywhere, any time, when they least expect it, they are vulnerable.’
‘But how could you do that to me?’
‘Now, Rain: you agreed to this plan. As did your parents. They gave you to us for the cause, for this purpose.’
‘No,’ I whisper. ‘No. They wouldn’t.’
‘They did. Your real dad was in Free UK. He knew there was no future in a country led by Lorders for his child, or any other.’ His face is full of compassion. ‘It is the truth you asked for today, and there it is.’
I close my eyes, shut out Nico’s face and words, and hold onto last night’s dream. That man wouldn’t do such a thing. He wouldn’t hand his daughter over to Nico. Never.
I open them again, this time careful to hide disbelief.
Nico puts a hand on each shoulder. ‘You made this choice. It is the right choice. You know, first hand, that Lorders and their Slating must be stopped.’
‘They must be stopped,’ I whisper, and I don’t have to fake conviction. Truth is freedom; freedom is truth.
‘You won’t let me down.’ He leans down, kisses my forehead. ‘And don’t forget what they’ve done to Ben.’ A wave of fresh pain rolls through me with his name. So much has been crowding inside me that he has been pushed out a little.
‘Ben was on our side too, you know,’ Nico says. ‘He’d want you to fight this fight for him.’
Nico ushers me out of his office. His words only really sink in as I walk away, out the building and into a grey November day.
Ben was on the side of Free UK? Nico could only know this if he’d been recruiting Ben.
My hands turn to rigid fists at my sides. I’d always wondered another why. Why had Ben suddenly decided to cut off his Levo, and think about joining Free UK in the first place? There could only be one answer: Nico.
He’s recruited others from our school, but why Ben? A Slated isn’t an ideal recruit: they’re not good at keeping secrets, and, Tori aside, they’ve got definite issues with violence. Ben could only have been targeted because of me.
Late that night, there is no sleep. Not for me. Waves of rage pass through my body, a rush of molten metal pulsing through my heart, my veins, at all Nico has done to me. To Ben. A rage that has nowhere to go, and so it grows.
But at the end of it all is still the Lorders. They and their Slating are still the ultimate enemy: it is still them that led me to this moment. They Slated Ben, and took him away. They are still the target. Nico will keep.
I jump at a buzz at my wrist: Nico’s com, as if he is listening in to my thoughts and waiting for the right moment. I consider not answering, but press the button. ‘Yes?’ I say, voice low.
‘It’s Katran. Meet me by your bike in an hour.’ It clicks off.
* * *
I slip into the dark shadows behind our house, then up the footpath. Too many mysteries make the miles go fast, walking with a head full of questions and half-answers.
What is this meeting about? Maybe Nico decided I am too big a risk, and sent Katran to eliminate me along with it. My stomach twists to think what Katran did, and has done, and what it makes him: a spiller of blood. A casual murderer.
But years ago, it was Katran who held me in the night when dreams made me cry in terror. Katran, who believes with all he is that what he is doing is the way to overcome the Lorders, and make our world a better place.
I’m so lost in thought I almost walk straight into him.
‘Hi,’ I say.
‘Watch where you’re going,’ he hisses. ‘And try to be quiet, I heard you coming a mile off.’
‘Liar. What’s up?’
‘Nico sent me.’
At his name the anger flares up again, inside, and I clench my fists tight. ‘Why?’
‘He wants me to give you this, but I don’t want to give it to you.’ He reaches into his pocket and a small gun glistens in his hand in the moonlight. He’s going to kill me. I take a step back.
He laughs. ‘You should see your face. You idiot. It’s for Nico’s plan B: so you can kill your mother. But who are you kidding? You’ll never be able to do it. Give it up. Run while you still have the chance.’
I hold out my hand, willing it to stay steady.
He holds it up as if to pull the trigger. ‘See here, Rain? You pull this. Close range. Single shot. The damage this can do: destroying tissues, muscle. Blood, Rain: a shower of red, warm blood. It’ll spatter all over you.’
My stomach twisting, I fight to not imagine what he describes. To keep my hand steady.
He curses under his breath, and the anger on his face changes to something softer. ‘Rain, please. Think this through. If you manage to pull the trigger, what is going to happen to you? You’ll be dead in seconds.’
‘Give it to me. Do it now.’
He drops it into my hand. Shakes his head. Shows me how it works, properly this time – small, single barrel; a holder that straps around the arm to keep it hidden. Special plastic design that should pass general detectors. Close range only. No problem as I’ll be right next to Mum, ready if she doesn’t give her speech the way Nico wants.
‘Nico also wants me to check you are on side. What has him worried?’
‘I figured a few things out, and foolishly spoke to him about it.’
‘Oh? Like what?’
‘Can you answer a question first?’
‘You can ask. Can’t say that I’ll answer.’
‘How did the Lorders get me? What happened that ended with me being Slated.’
Katran goes still, and I start to think he won’t answer. Then he sighs, runs his fingers through his hair as he always does when troubled. How can I remember little things like that, and not the big things?
‘Honestly? I don’t know. There was a raid on a Lorder weapons storage site, but I wasn’t there. I was supposed to be, but at the last minute Nico sent me off on a stupid errand. I was so angry! Then, when I got back...’ He shakes his head. ‘I heard it was an ambush. Somehow they knew we were going to be there. Three killed. You and a few others who were underage taken, presumed Slated. I wasn’t there to protect you! Until I met you here, days ago, that was all I knew of what happened to you.’
I stare at him, shocked. So many lives wasted. ‘It wasn’t your fault. Besides, what could you have done if you had been there, but get killed?’
‘Maybe. I don’t know,’ he says. But Katran has always seemed invincible, like if he had been there things could have turned out different. Is that why he was sent someplace else?
‘It wasn’t your fault, but I know whose it was.’
‘They did the dirty work, but who set it up?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Listen. The thing I worked out today is that I was always meant to be Slated. It wasn’t some random act of bad luck that I got caught. I was prepared for it, and it was always in Nico’s plans.’
‘No. No way. Even if that could be true, not with all the others there. No!’
‘Well, he couldn’t just hand me over to the Lorders, and say “here you go, please Slate this girl we’ve been experimenting on”, could he?’
Katran’s fists curl. ‘If it’s true, I’ll kill him.’
‘It’s true. He told me so. But what about Free UK, and all you’ve fought for?’
His eyes are wild. ‘How can I just keep on as if I never knew this? How can I ever trust him again?’
‘Simple: don’t trust him. I don’t. But that doesn’t change what we’re working for: the same thing Nico wants. To overthrow the Lorders.’ I hear myself say the words, hating myself for defending Nico when what happened to me, what happened to Ben, lies at his feet. And to think I’d blamed Aiden when Nico was behind Ben’s actions all along. But it was still Lorders who Slated Ben; Lorders who did whatever has been done to him, now. ‘But when the Lorders are gone…’ I say, and shrug. After is another time. Nico won’t get away with it. Not now that Katran knows.
‘When they’re gone…’ Katran says, and in his eyes, I see Nico’s death.
‘Do you think it can really happen? Can we win against the Lorders?’
‘Yes. We’re going to do it this time. We’re organised like never before.’
‘There is so much in place. There will be coordinated attacks all over the country. Key assassinations, too, and all at the exact moment the treaty was signed that began the Central Coalition and their grip on this country. But we still need general support. Without it...’ He shrugs.
Without it we will ultimately fail.
‘We need Mum’s speech, for her to tell the truth. But if she doesn’t? What then?’
He spins me around, a hand on each shoulder. Eyes intent on mine. ‘Nico says, plan B. Cut the heart out of the Lorders by killing their hero’s daughter: show that no one is safe, that they are vulnerable everywhere. But don’t do it, Rain. Save yourself.’
I swallow. ‘I have to. The Lorders have to go. Remembering things, what Nico has done, doesn’t change that.’
Katran’s dark eyes plead with me to change my mind. Without thought my hand reaches up like it did before, to lightly touch the scar on his face. His why. This time he doesn’t pull away.
‘Katran, you were right, what you said the other day: I need to know what happened to me, and why. Everything.’
‘Do you really mean it?’
‘Yes. Nico said my parents gave me to him. That they and I agreed to have this done to me. I want to know. I need to know the truth.’
‘I’ve got something for you,’ he says. ‘But only if you are sure. Do you want to remember, no matter what?’
‘Yes. I’m sure.’
He reaches into his shirt, pulls on a bit of leather thong around his neck. When he pulls it out from under his clothes there is something hanging on it.
‘What is it?’
He pulls it over his neck and hands it to me. ‘This is something you gave me, years ago.’
The light is faint, and I feel it with my fingers: still warm from his skin, a carved piece of wood, a few centimetres long. A rook. My fingers remember it, and not just as any rook but the rook. My rook. Daddy’s. I gasp.
‘Do you remember it?’
‘I think so. Something from my childhood. I don’t understand. Why did I give it to you?’
‘Your nightmares were so bad. You said even though you didn’t want to lose any more pieces of yourself, you couldn’t take that one any more. You had to let it go, to forget it. Somehow it is tied up with this rook. You asked me to get rid of it for you because you couldn’t bear to do it. But I’ve always kept it, Rain. To keep part of who you were with me. Maybe it will help you remember.’