* * *
It doesn’t look much from the outside. But what you get outside is often like that. People, especially, can be so different from what you can see that you’d never guess what goes on in their secret places. What they are capable of. In my case, what lurked within was so well hidden even I didn’t know about it.
Aiden pulls the car down the side of the rundown building. He glances at me. ‘Don’t look so scared, Kyla.’
‘I’m not,’ I start to object, but then I glance at the road, and all at once, I am. ‘Lorders,’ I hiss, and scrunch down in the seat. A black van pulls in behind, blocking us in. Leaden dread pools in my veins, holds me still and numb even as everything inside is screaming run. The fear takes me back: another time, another Lorder. Coulson. The gun in his hand, pointed at me, and then—
Katran’s blood. A sea of hot red that covered us both, and took my friend away, forever. So like my father’s death years ago that it wrenched up that most buried memory. Both dead. Both my fault.
Aiden puts a hand over mine, one worried eye on the mirror and the van, one on me. Doors open, someone steps out. Not dressed in Lorder black? A slight figure, a woman, hat pulled down low to shield her face. She walks to the door of the building. It opens from the inside, and she disappears through it.
‘Look at me, Kyla,’ Aiden says, his voice calm, reassuring, and I tear my eyes away from the van behind us. ‘There is nothing to worry about; just don’t draw their attention.’ He twists in the driver’s seat, slips his arms around me and tries to pull me close, but I’m rigid with fear. ‘Play along,’ he says, and I force my body to relax into his. He murmurs into my hair, ‘Just giving them a reason why we were lingering. In case they’re getting curious.’
I breathe in slow. They’re not after me. They’ll go away now. They’re not after me. And then I’m clinging to Aiden and his arms wrap around me even tighter. There are vehicle sounds behind; tyres crunch on gravel. And keep going.
‘They’re gone,’ Aiden says, but he doesn’t let go. And the relief is so strong that I sag against him, bury my face in his chest. His heart beats fast, drumming a thump-thump of safety, warmth, and something else.
But this is wrong. He’s not Ben.
My fear is replaced by embarrassment, then anger: anger at myself. I pull away. How could I be such a total wimp and let them get to me like that? How could I cling to Aiden just because I was scared? And I remember what he said on the way earlier: that Lorders come here. Lorders, government officials and their families. People with money and power who can make others look away and keep quiet. That woman is probably a Lorder’s wife. She is probably here for the same reason as me. I flush.
Aiden’s blue eyes are warm, concerned. ‘Are you sure you can pull this off, Kyla?’
‘Yes. Of course I can. And I thought you weren’t supposed to call me that any more?’
‘It’d be easier if you’d make up your mind what your new name is going to be.’
I don’t say anything, because I sort of have, but I don’t want to share it yet. I’m not sure he’ll like it.
‘Walk in like you own the place, and no one will look at you twice. It’s all anonymous.’
‘Best get going before anyone else comes.’
I open the car door, step out. It is cold, a grey January day. The chill is reason enough for the scarf wrapped around my head, obscuring an identity that will soon change. I square my shoulders, walk to the door. It opens, and I step inside.
My eyes widen; my feet almost falter until I remember: walk like I own the place. This shiny place, with enormous plush chairs, soft music and a smiling nurse? A discreet guard in the corner. The woman we saw come out of the Lorder van moments ago is ensconced in a chair with a wine glass in one hand.
The nurse approaches, smiles. ‘Welcome. Do you know your number?’
‘7162,’ I say, the number Aiden gave me earlier. Even though my name is best kept quiet, I wasn’t sure I liked being known by a number, not after being Slated. Not after having a Levo around my wrist with my number carved into it, classifying me as a criminal for all to see. It’s gone now: there are no visible marks left behind, but the scars remain.
She checks a handheld screen, smiles again. ‘Have a seat for a moment. Your IMET consultant will be with you very soon.’
I sit, startled when the chair moves, adjusts to my body. IMET: Image Enhancement Technology. Barely whispered about, hellishly expensive, and totally illegal. I’m here courtesy of favours owed to Aiden’s organisation, MIA. MIA may stand for Missing in Action, but it turns out they don’t just find missing people and campaign for the truth about the Lorders to be revealed. Turns out they also sneak people out of the UK who need to disappear, and others in at the same time: IMET consultants who know a good black market opportunity when they see one.
The woman in the other chair turns towards me. She is attractive, fifty or so. If the rumours are true she’ll look twenty years younger before she leaves this place. There is an inquisitive glint to her eyes, a what are you here for? look. I ignore her.
A door opens and footsteps approach. She starts to get up, but the steps continue past her, and a man stops in front of me. A doctor? But not like any doctor I’ve seen before: he is in scrubs, but they are a bright purple shimmery fabric. It matches his streaked hair and purple eyes to perfection, unnatural shimmer and all.
He holds out both hands, helps me up and air kisses my cheeks. ‘Hello, darling. I’m Doc de Jour, but you can call me DJ. This way.’ His words are a lilting drawl, an unfamiliar accent: Irish?
I follow him and suppress a smirk at the indignant look on the waiting woman’s face. She must wonder who I am, why I take precedence. If she only knew.
If she knew, she’d go straight to her Lorder husband.
Doc de Jour is disappointed in me. ‘Are you sure that is all you want doing? Hair. In brown.’ He says it like brown hair is the ultimate crime of mediocrity. But blending in is what I need.
He sighs. ‘Such lovely hair you have, and so hard to match. Like sunshine on early daffodils 12. With highlights 9.’ He runs fingers through it, a measuring look in his eyes, like he is copying it for his next patient. Then he studies my face. ‘How about eye colour?’
‘No. I like them green.’
‘They’re distinctive: it’s a risk,’ he says, and my eyes widen. What does he know?
He winks. ‘They are an interesting shade. Almost apple green 26, but more intense,’ he says, then spins the chair I’m sitting in around and looks me up and down. I squirm. ‘Wouldn’t you like to be taller?’
I raise an eyebrow. ‘You can do that?’
‘Of course. It’ll take a while, though.’
I bristle. ‘What is wrong with my height?’
‘Nothing. If you don’t mind jumping to see over things.’
‘Just the hair.’
‘Brown. You know IMET is accelerated gene-tech: it is permanent? Brown hair forever. It’ll grow that way; no more blondy ever again, unless you come back to see me.’
He hands me a mirror and I look in it. So weird to think next time I do this I won’t see the hair I’ve always had. The colour is okay I guess, but it is so fine – I always wanted thicker hair. Like Amy’s gorgeous dark hair, the first thing I’d noticed about my new sister when I was assigned to live with them as a new Slated, just months ago. ‘Wait a minute. I wonder if…’
He spins the chair back so he stares into my eyes with his purple ones. They’re hard not to look at. ‘Yes?’
‘Can you make it longer? And thicker. Maybe…some streaks in it. Not anything weird: natural-looking.’
He claps his hands. ‘Consider it done.’
Later I’m told to lie back on a table that is like the chairs in the waiting area: it moulds and grips my body. Flutters of panic fight to keep me awake. Is this how it was when I was Slated? Then, I had no choice – I saw the file photograph. I was tied to a table like any other criminal. The Lorders and their surgery stole my memories, put a chip in my brain that could’ve killed me before my Levo was taken off. This isn’t the same. This is just hair. And it is my choice: I don’t have to do this.
There is faint music. Everything is misty and vague, and my eyes start to close.
Just hair…but it is the hair Ben slipped his fingers through when he kissed me.
Since the Lorders took him away and erased his memory, he doesn’t know who I am any more. But what if he fights it, fights what the Lorders have done to him, and starts to remember? Starts to understand why I’m his dream girl. What then? He’ll never find me if I look different.
I swallow, struggle to form words, to tell them to stop, I changed my mind.
Faces blur in and out and vanish.
We run. Side by side in the night, but Ben’s long legs beat out a slower measure than mine. It is raining, but we don’t care. Up a dark hill now, he slips ahead; the narrow path cut into rock is running with water. Soon we’re soaked and covered in mud. He’s laughing when he reaches the top, and raises his hands to the sky as the rain pounds harder.
‘Ben!’ I reach up, slip my arms around him and pull him under a tree, then burrow into his warmth.
But something isn’t right.
‘Ben?’ I pull away a little, look into familiar eyes: brown like melted chocolate, shot through with warm glints. Puzzled eyes. ‘What is it?’
He shakes his head, pushes me away. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘I thought I knew you, but I don’t. Do I?’
‘It’s me! It’s…’ My voice trails away. I panic inside, casting about for a name, not just any name but MY name. Who am I, really?
He shakes his head, walks away. Runs up the path and is gone.
I sag against the tree. What now? Should I run after him, just so he can deny me again? Or go back the other way, alone.
The sky lights up: a blinding flash dazzles my eyes, shows the trees and pounding rain. Before darkness returns a tremendous crash shakes into my bones.
While the rest of me whirls with pain at Ben’s departure, some part of my brain processes: standing under a tree in a thunderstorm is dangerous.
But who am I, really? Until I can answer, I don’t know which way to go.
* * *
Days later, DJ hands me a mirror for the first time. I stare, then reach out gingerly with my fingers. The hair – my hair – even feels different, foreign. I don’t look like me any more. Of course, that is kind of the point. A rich brown it may be, but shimmering with golden highlights. They pick out the green of my eyes so much that I stare at them suspiciously, wondering if DJ had been unable to resist adding some enhancement to them as well, but decide they are still the eyes I was born with. My hair is not, not in any respect: it’s silky, thick, half down my back. I wince as I turn my head: my hair is heavy, so much so it hurts. It’ll take some getting used to.
‘Your scalp will be tender for a while.’ DJ holds up a small bottle. ‘Painkillers, no more than two a day for a week. So…?’
I tear my eyes away from the mirror, and look up at him. ‘So?’
‘Do you like what you see?’
I smile broadly. ‘I like.’
‘One final touch is needed, I think.’ DJ places a finger either side of my chin, tilts my face up and stares at my eyes. He stares long enough for it to be uncomfortable if it was anyone else, but somehow it isn’t with him. It is like he is measuring and assessing, what? The skin, the bone structure supporting it, the tissues, almost as if he stares long enough he can see the individual cells and the genes inside them. He nods to himself, then turns to a cabinet with many drawers; he opens one, then another, and draws something out, then holds it towards me. Something low-tech.