BOOK 1 // TWENTY-TWO: Sinister Threat

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            It was the first time in days that I could recall getting some real sleep.

It may have just been the exhaustion, the final breach of my physical limit. There was, of course, no gene modification that could bypass the need for sleep completely – or if there was, they hadn't tried to force it into my DNA. I must've drifted off without realising, because the only point at which it occurred to me I wasn't conscious was when the noise had already pulled me from the haze.

At first, I wondered where it was coming from. It seemed I'd been so deep in slumber that I failed to even recognise my own phone. It lay under my pillow, vibrating with such furious insistency that it seemed to drill right through my skull. Bleary-eyed, I fumbled for the device, blinking several times in confusion when the name flashed onscreen.

"Orla?"

"Astrid!" The word came out in a single rushed exhale, one she'd clearly been hanging onto for a long time.

"What time is it?" I mumbled, slowly rising into a sitting position and squinting at the time illuminated on my bedside table. "What's wrong?"

"I need to talk to you."

"Okay," I said slowly, wondering if I was missing something. "I'm here."

"I can't do it over the phone. I need to talk to you."

"Why? Is something wrong?"

"I don't know, but I can't take the chance if somebody's listening to this conversation," she said. I wished I was imagining the note of panic in her tone, that it was a construct of my half-asleep brain, but something told me it was all too real. "Bugs are everywhere. None of us would have any idea."

"Okay, okay." It seemed like I had to make at least some attempt to calm her, even if perhaps there was no reason to be. "Where do you want me to meet you?"

"I'm outside your gate," she said. "You just need to come and let me in."

***

Five minutes later, I'd pulled on a jacket and boots over my pyjamas, and I was hurrying up the gravel driveway – wishing my footsteps wouldn't sound quite so loud. Nova had always made sneaking out so easy, never once waking Mum or Dad, but only upon trying for myself did I realise exactly how many obstacles she'd had to deal with on a nightly basis. Boots were all wrong for silent footsteps, and even on the opposite side of the house my parents' room seemed far too close for comfort. It was clearly an art that my older sister had once mastered.

Orla came into view the same time the gate did: a dark-haired figure, bundled into layers of a coat, whose silhouette was sliced into pieces by the iron bars. I expected her to smile on my approach, but the real expression I encountered turned out to be just a visual projection of the voice on the phone.

"Are you okay?" I asked, reaching for the keypad at the side of the gate and entering my parents' usual security code. It worked, and I stepped back as the gates began to move apart.

"Not really." She moved inside once the gap was big enough. "It couldn't wait."

"Do you want to come inside?"

A definite hesitation. Then, "Will we be overheard?"

"I mean..." I glanced back at the house, the centrepiece of what people had once called the Oxford Estate. Every window sat darkened, but of course with the introduction of new voices there was no guarantee they'd stay that way. "My parents are asleep. But I know somewhere quieter."

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