BOOK 1 // FOURTEEN: Fair Trade

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            "Astrid Oxford."

Instinctively, I looked up at the sound of the voice, catching the eye of the woman in the doorway. She was middle-aged, greying early, and looked far too cheery for the circumstances – I had to wonder if I was misreading the bright expression plastered all over her face.

"We're ready for you now. If you'd like to follow me through."

I rose slowly from the sofa. I'd been here for no longer than twenty minutes, but it was already obvious that Old Stratford University College was as different from the academy as if they sat at opposite poles of the globe. Maybe having their own end of New London was kind of the same thing. Instead of a campus, the entire college was contained within one four-storey building, stretching half the length of the street. The windows weren't quite thick enough to block out a permanent soundtrack of traffic, and the buzz of all three floors above us seemed to radiate right through the ceiling. All of a sudden, the silent soundproofing of KHA seemed worlds away.

Every hallway I followed her through had the same white painted brickwork, though I got the impression this was an authentic old feature rather than any deceiving architecture. She led me to a door at the end of the corridor and punched a code into a keypad to let me inside.

The place could only be described as a makeshift lab; it was like BioPlus had been given thirty minutes' notice to set up a test room, except much less impressive. It didn't take a scientist to realise the huge piece of machinery whirring in the corner was years outdated. I couldn't help noticing the green sticker on the side, on which strands of DNA curled themselves into a leaf.

BioNeutral. They really were everywhere.

"Now, this is nothing to worry about," the woman said, taking a seat at the screen and tapping her nails across the keyboard to enter her login. "It's just a formality. You know, with everything going on right now, we just have to be sure."

"Yeah," I said, wondering how I was supposed to keep the guilt out of my voice. I only hoped the noise of traffic would mask it well enough. "I understand."

"A lot of the applicants didn't even show up to their test," she said conversationally. The whirring of the machine grew louder, accompanied by a new set of beeps. "It seems like that speaks for itself, don't you think?"

I didn't want to keep talking; every word out of my mouth seemed like it ran the risk of giving me away. The second dose of Dysintax had been injected two days ago, and I wasn't sure how much brain control I'd given away on that fact alone. Here didn't seem like the best place to find out.

"I guess," I said. "The new rules are a little intense."

"Seems like that's BioNeutral for you." She glanced over her shoulder, giving me a small smile. "But you have to appreciate what they're doing. I'm still shocked that this has been going on for so long under everybody's noses."

"Yeah." I swallowed. "I think it was a surprise for all of us."

Thankfully, she didn't seem to be thinking too hard about whether my responses were convincing – she was already setting up the machine, pulling out a small device with a finger-shaped imprint curved into it. As her nails tapped across the keyboard again, I could only be thankful she wasn't about to monitor my pounding heart.

It worked for me once. Surely, there was no reason for it not to happen again.

At least I hoped.

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