BOOK 1 // TWENTY-THREE: Family Ties

Start from the beginning

Footsteps in a nearby aisle jolted me, and I remembered where we were. "We need to talk."

"Okay," he said quietly. "What about?"

More footsteps, closer now, and though they probably belonged to a totally innocent student, I couldn't shake the feeling that this was just an open range for being overheard. "Not here," I whispered. "Outside."

Jace glanced over his shoulder, suddenly making eye contact with a face that had appeared between a gap in the books. He quickly looked back toward me. "Good idea."

We stepped out of the library with me in the lead. It felt weird to walk ahead of Jace, to feel like the one in control, though I knew the roles were reversed in the grand scheme of things. His footsteps were not supposed to fall in the shadow of mine. And yet as I headed for one of the stairwells at the side of the building, which I knew opened up to side exits, this was how it happened.

Inside the stairwell was cold, but things got worse once I'd pulled open the door on the exterior wall of the building. It emerged on the edge of the car park, with the college gates in view, traffic crawling by on the adjacent road. Jace shivered.

"Everything okay?" he asked, but we'd both worked out the answer from the unspoken atmosphere between us.

"I found out something," I said, not knowing how else to begin. "From my friend Orla. You know her?"

He paused, mentally turning the name over for a couple of seconds. "As in Shields? The mayor's kid?"

"Yeah," I said. "She's my best friend. She came to me with something her mum mentioned, and, well... it's helpful, but it also seems like it could be a really, really bad sign."

"Okay." Jace sounded wary. "What is it?"

I took a deep breath, wondering how best to explain it. "We take sick days," I said eventually, waiting for the confusion to cross his face. And it did, after a couple of seconds. "To make sure the school records don't look suspicious, everybody has to do their part. A few days off, here and there."

"Hold on," he said, frowning, "you don't ever get sick?"

"No, but that's not the point," I interjected. "The thirtieth. All sick days have been retracted. Every student has to be there."

The realisation was creeping onto his face – slowly but surely. When he voiced his next thought, it sounded like he hardly dared to ask. "Why? What happens on that day?"

"Some kind of ceremony. A prize-giving assembly. Where every student of the academy will be sat in the same room at the same time."

I watched the colour drain from Jace's already pale face, knowing it had nothing to do with the cold. The mere implication of my words was enough to send an icy chill down both our spines.

"And here's the thing," I said, after the pause had stretched too long for me to bear. "It's not one hundred per cent fact-checked, but I think there's a real possibility. The government seem confident that those who have nothing to hide will be okay. I wish we didn't even have to consider this, but... I think it could be a biological weapon."

I expected Jace to take a while to mull it over, but the breathy word escaped him almost instantly. "No."

"No?" I echoed. "What do you mean?"

"It can't be..." he said. I could almost see him retreating, stepping back into his own head, inching further away from me. Then his gaze snapped back, and the newfound intensity I found myself under felt that much worse. "Do you realise what you're saying? Are you suggesting my dad would use a biological weapon to potentially wipe out hundreds of kids?"

Human ErrorRead this story for FREE!