BOOK 1 // TWENTY: Aftershock

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            "Authorities continue their investigations into the biologically-motivated terrorist attack that shook central New London yesterday, with the current death toll of eleven expected to rise over the course of the day..."

The voice of the news broadcaster, grainy and barely audible, descended further into the background as the plate was set in front of me. I looked up, meeting Orla's gaze as she placed a mug on the arm of the chair, just inches away from me. The concern glistening in her dark eyes stared me right in the face.

"I said I wasn't hungry," I told her, as she moved back to perch on the opposite armchair. The seat was angled toward the flickering TV, and yet her attention couldn't have been further from the screen.

"I know," she said, "but I really think you should eat something."

I glanced down at the plate: two halves of a bagel leant against each other, streaked by even lines of the toaster. The nausea in the pit of my stomach twisted in protest at the sight. Eating was the last thing I wanted to do. Anything I tried to force into my empty stomach would surely come straight back up again.

And yet Orla was only trying to help. In fact, she'd done nothing but help since I'd stumbled up to her front door, somewhere amongst the late hours of yesterday afternoon. The thought of facing my parents had been too much to bear. No doubt they'd be worried sick upon realising I was gone, but I couldn't deal with the questions they'd throw at me. I wasn't supposed to have been anywhere near City Hall, or the rally, or anything with the potential to draw unnecessary attention. How could I even begin to form an explanation? The best words I could offer would be redundant, all while my own blood trickled down into my ear.

Orla's house had been the first place I thought of, and one I figured I had the strength to make it to. Her mother, of course, was nowhere to be seen – in fact, it was a pretty safe bet to assume she was still locked in the panic room of City Hall, contained within the same four walls as Max Snowdon. For the night, it was just the two of us.

Suddenly, I found myself overcome by a pang of guilt, and raised a slightly shaky hand to Orla's mug. I could at least make an attempt to be grateful. "You're probably right," I said. "Thanks."

"I'm just worried," she said. "I still think you should get your head checked out."

My fingers brushed against the wad of bandages pressed against one side of my face. She'd looked a little woozy, but Orla had done the best she could the night before, ruining every white flannel in the house to scrub the blood from my head. Then she'd taped every dressing and bandage she could find over the wound, which had at least stemmed the bleeding – but it still didn't rule out something more serious.

"I'm okay," I said, only half lying. "It doesn't even hurt anymore."

It seemed to be the cue to retreat – at least physically, because she turned her head away and back to the screen. I did the same, and the words of the news broadcast shifted back into focus. A sky-view shot panned over the City Walk, the criss-crossing tape forming a tangled web over the concrete. The colour contrasted sharply with remnants of green propaganda – discarded flyers, badges, items of clothing – like a sinister tartan pattern. People were no doubt holed up in the buildings lining the street, soaking in the aftermath from behind closed curtains, and yet the frozen scene looked as if the whole city had been evacuated.

"I can't believe it," I heard Orla say, barely louder than a whisper. "I can't believe they'd do this..."

I should've agreed with her. It was the obvious answer, of course – that we'd never suspected BioPlus were capable of such atrocity. This was supposed to be our side, and what we stood for. Watching the brutal tactics of BioNeutral had been almost easy; it only took words to distance ourselves from them.

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