BOOK 1 // TWENTY-FOUR: Voice of the Nation

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            It didn't look like me.

The reflection was a lie, though I knew by all laws of physics it couldn't deceive me. My self-perception had been eighteen years in the making, and that wasn't a simple thing to alter. And yet the girl who stared back at me had to be something else... something other than Astrid Oxford.

Curls had disappeared. Blonde hair had been ironed into submission, dragged back into a knot that tugged at my scalp – though all this remained invisible under the black scarf draped over my head. Porcelain skin was no longer perfect, now dotted by a smattering of freckles that would run off with a splash of rain. Blue eyes had turned dull brown under coloured lenses, the change taken out of the spotlight by fake thick-framed glasses perched on my nose.

It wasn't a foolproof disguise – I didn't think those existed. But all I needed was to make it in the door, and that was the first hurdle cleared.

Alone in my bedroom, I shivered, despite the closed window and heating on full blast. The house had always seemed too big for one person, and emptiness swelled in the presence of a single heartbeat. Tonight was even worse. Mum and Dad had left twenty minutes ago, their goodbye a peek round my bedroom door as I sat cross-legged on the bed. They said they'd be back by eleven. They hadn't dreamt that, a short while later, I'd be pulling on an outfit of my own and following them right out of the door.

I hadn't been refused permission. I'd never asked to go with them, to walk through the campus gates under my mother's authority, to unknowingly rope both parents into what Jace and I were planning. They'd simply assumed it was better for me to stay home, and I hadn't disagreed.

It was easier to go alone. Having less people involved was always better. The more I tried to squeeze into the bullet hole Jace and I had created, the more likely the glass was to shatter.

Jace.

Where was he now? On campus, maybe – pacing nervously backstage? Considering jumping ship altogether? My hands itched for digital contact, wishing we could at least connect phones. Things would be much easier with the exchange of numbers, plans so much more easily aligned. And yet the bugging threat lingered in the air like a noxious gas. The consequences of somebody listening in were unthinkable, and a phone conversation wasn't worth the risk. For now, at least, we'd have to keep muddling through – hoping that our paths had now become so intertwined that they'd cross again soon enough.

One last look in the mirror, and I reached for the bag on my dresser. I couldn't risk taking a car, so public transport was the only option. This wasn't a total inconvenience. The UNL campus was on at least six different bus routes, and it'd be much easier to keep my head down there than in a cab. And yet as I slipped out of the front door, and the biting wind chill hit bare legs, it didn't seem so appealing. Making it to campus without freezing would be a miracle in itself.

The bus was almost empty, like it usually was at this time of day. I had to be grateful – it at least meant I could slip to the back, ducking my covered head while still keeping tabs on each person that boarded. Only several stops into the journey did I realise I didn't actually know what I was looking for. An off-duty police officer? A die-hard BioNeutral supporter dressed head-to-toe in green? Max Snowdon himself? The truth was any one of the New Londoners around me could be a threat, and I probably wouldn't realise until far too late. Perhaps, in this case, ignorance was bliss.

We came to a stop outside campus thirty minutes later, once we'd idled in inner city traffic for at least half the journey. The wind caught me as I stepped off the bus, and I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck, praying it'd hold. Outside the gates was the last place I needed an identity reveal. The place was crawling with security, and the heavy police presence made it harder to breathe than ever. Even outside, it felt like every guard and officer used up twice as much oxygen as normal, leaving the rest of us to fight for what little remained.

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