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The whisper, p.10
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       The Whisper, p.10

           Emma Clayton
 
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“Where have you been?” he asked. “You took ages.”

  “I’m sorry, sir,” Ralph replied, picking his way through the rubble. “I had to go all the way down to the storerooms near the implanted children’s dormitories, and most of the clothes I found there were full of holes.” He placed the pile on Gorman’s gold chair. “But I selected the best, sir,” he said. “I think these will fit.”

  “Show me,” Gorman said.

  The butler held up a freshly ironed blue T-shirt.

  “Boring,” Gorman said.

  Ralph held up a white T-shirt with a small hole on the hem.

  “Yuck,” Gorman said.

  Ralph held up a green T-shirt with a picture of a Pod Fighter on the front and the word PLAY on the back.

  Gorman reached up and snatched it from his hand.

  Then they went through the same process with jeans and sneakers. A few minutes later, Gorman was admiring his reflection in the full-length mirror on his bedroom wardrobe. The only old garments he wore were his brown socks and his gray underpants.

  “Do you want me to call the doctors, sir?” Ralph asked. “So you can tell them what you’ve done? Perhaps the Prime Minister would like to know about Everlife-9.”

  Gorman jerked around and glared at him. “No,” he said. “You’re not to tell anyone. I want a few hours of fun before I have to think about work. I’m going out for a bit. Order me a pod.”

  “But you have meetings all morning, sir,” Ralph replied. “There are people waiting in your office.”

  “Tell them to come back tomorrow,” Gorman said.

  “But where are you going, sir?”

  “Out,” Gorman said. “What is this? You’re not my dad. If anyone asks, just tell them I’m at a meeting in the Golden Turrets and I’ll be back tomorrow.”

  “Yes, sir,” Ralph replied. “I’ll do it now.”

  Audrey lay on her stomach on Mika’s bed. Her feet kicked against the wall and she held her chin in her hands. Mika was pulling on his white armored boots. Awen was sitting by the door, chewing at his tail as if he had a flea.

  How can we be sure Gorman’s taken the Everlife-9? Audrey thought. If we go for him and he’s still attached to those machines, it will be a nightmare trying to move him. It might go wrong. He might die.

  He will have taken it, Mika replied. You should have seen his face when we gave him the bottles. I bet he took it the first chance he got.

  So he’s above us now, a young man again.

  I think so.

  She rolled onto her back, stared at the ceiling, and tried to imagine what Gorman looked like.

  I bet he’s still creepy, she thought.

  Yeah, Mika agreed. I bet he is.

  He looked in the mirror above his desk, rubbed his hair, and turned to face her.

  “Ready?” she said, grinning.

  “Yes.”

  She jumped up as if the bed were full of springs rather than rock hard. Awen got to his feet and wagged his tail. In the dormitories far below them, the children stirred as if the wind had picked up.

  It was time to get rid of Mal Gorman.

  Gorman’s pod sat waiting for him on his private landing strip at the top of the fortress. For a moment he stood next to it and watched the sea pound against the rocks of Cape Wrath. The wind buffeted him, almost blowing him off his feet, but he liked it. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths of sea air. His body was buzzing with an energy he hadn’t felt for a hundred years.

  When he’d had enough, he jumped into the pilot seat of the pod and looked over the controls. He hadn’t flown one for such a long time, he wasn’t quite sure what to do, but he felt invincible with all that young blood pumping through his veins, so he took off clumsily and flew with reasonable skill toward Sandwood Seven.

  When he reached the town, he dropped the pod, messily, in the town square. A crowd of shoppers flapped about in a panic. It was illegal to park there, but Gorman knew he was above the law, and anyway, he had only one thing on his mind. He climbed out of the pod and walked purposefully toward the arcade. Once there he slid a key card by the glass doors and they swung open.

  It was dark inside the arcade. The entrance mall with its rows of shops was veiled in shadows and as silent as a crypt. But Gorman could still smell the excitement, the shakes, the kebabs, and the perfume. He walked around the empty shops, imagining the thrill of coming there while the game was still a game. That he had ended it and turned dreams into nightmares did not make him feel any guilt. After admiring his twelve-year-old reflection in one of the shop mirrors, he headed toward the game room.

  The game room was darker and oppressively quiet. As he walked down the red carpet, the simulators loomed around him and he felt the first pang of nerves since taking the Everlife-9. He walked quickly toward the back, where there was a hidden door leading into the control room. Then he used the key card again and it slid open.

  In the control room, he turned on the lights so he could see the simulators through the secret window. There were hundreds of them in long, straight lines, illuminated by soft red light. Each had four feet attached to the ceiling and four feet attached to the floor, with a round black body suspended in the middle. Gorman ran his hands over the control panels, entering key codes and touching icons to wake them up. Then he returned to the game room and chose a simulator near the back, where the cool kids used to play.

  “Bet you’re not feeling so cool now that you’ve got lumps of metal in your heads,” he said.

  Seven children and an invisible dog left the Chosen Ones’ enclosure. They traveled down the fortress in the elevator, surrounded by men with guns. The men were beginning to relax in their company because they were being so quiet and obedient. These were strange children, but there was something likable about them, particularly Audrey, with her contagious enthusiasm, and Colette, with her shy smiles. The men leaned against the wall of the elevator, thinking about other things.

  When they reached the training area, the children were left in a changing room. It was lined with metal lockers and had a long bench down the middle. There were seven piles of armor laid out on the bench. The men watched through the door cam as Ellie helped the others put it on. They’d been told to dress carefully. They were about to play a game called Swerve Ball to help develop control of their power, and it was dangerous.

  When they were dressed and their armor had been checked, they were taken to an armor-plated gym with cage grilles over the lights. Two trainers were waiting for them, also dressed in armor with cage grilles on their helmets to protect their faces.

  The children were told to stand in a line against the wall and put their helmets on. The men with guns retreated to the observation room. They would watch the game on a screen, out of range of the swerve balls. They put their guns on the floor and gathered to watch. Ellie was about to give the others a demonstration, and they were eager to see it.

  Ellie walked to the corner of the gym and crouched down. When she stood up again, she had a silver ball in her hands about the size of a fastball and the weight of a bowling ball. Everyone watched her carry it to the middle of the gym and place it with a clunk on the armor-plated floor. Then she waited, watching the trainers through the bars on the front of her helmet.

  One nodded.

  Ellie pressed two icons, one on the top of the ball and the other in the middle of her chest plate. Then with quick, light steps she retreated from the ball until she was standing ten feet away from it. For a few moments it did nothing, and everyone watched in anticipation. Then it began to rise into the air until it was hovering level with her chest. Suddenly, it clicked and spikes shot out of it, covering the surface like the spines of a puffer fish. It began to roll in the air, as if it was charging up.

  The men watched, entranced.

  Ellie sidestepped, slowly, facing the ball as she would an angry bull. There was a flash of movement when the ball shot toward her, and the men almost gasped before she stopped it dead, an arm’s length from her ribs. It
vibrated in the air as if fighting against her control and determined to smash her to pieces.

  “Break,” the trainer shouted.

  Ellie broke eye contact and the ball shot toward her chest. With a quick, practiced movement, she ducked, spun, and punched toward it, forcing it away without touching it. It looped quickly to come back, aiming for her head. She fixed it with her eyes again, then jumped and kicked powerfully, sending it away. Then the trainer activated another ball and threw it into the game. It spiked midair, and hurtled toward her head. She was now fighting two. The men in the room next door watched, captivated.

  Then something happened they didn’t understand.

  They heard a loud bang, and the gym vanished from the screen.

  For a few seconds, they were so startled, they stared at it. Then one tapped it, hoping the image would reappear. It did, slowly, but it was not the image they were expecting to see. Out of a gray cloud of litter fragments they saw the gym, but no children and no trainers.

  “Get in there!” one yelled.

  They fumbled around on the floor for their guns and ran as fast as they could to the gym. They swung the door open and blustered in to find the gym silent and empty. Their feet crunched over fragments of swerve balls. For a moment they thought there’d been a horrible accident and were prepared to see blood on the walls. But there was no blood and no children, only a huge, ragged hole in the armor-plated wall at the back of the gym. They raced to it and peered through.

  On the other side was the classroom Ellie and Mika had used to prepare for their mission.

  The men still didn’t understand. They climbed through the hole, and on the other side they found the trainers lying on the floor and the door to the safe open. They ran to it and looked in. The white case was open, and seven of the invisibility shields were missing. Only one remained.

  “NO! They’ve taken their invisibility shields!”

  “We have to find them, quickly.”

  They tugged on the classroom door but found it had been melted into its frame. They climbed back through the hole into the gym and ran to the other door, only to find this melted too. They waved at the security cameras, to find them blind. Soon they realized even their guns had been deactivated, their innards melted by mutant eyes while they were traveling down in the elevator. The children had outwitted them and escaped.

  Mal Gorman stood by the legs of the simulator, trying to remember how to bring the body down. He had known, once, but he’d forgotten, and this game had been designed so the children had to solve problems like this. For ten minutes he walked around it, racking his brain, then he lost his temper and kicked it.

  “Stupid fragging machine!” he yelled, twisting his young face so it looked like his old one. “Drop down and let me in!”

  While he was having his tantrum, he accidentally stood on the floor plate. Immediately the lower legs contracted and the body of the simulator dropped.

  Now he had to figure out how to open the door. This took another ten minutes. By the time he climbed into the pilot seat, he was wondering why he was bothering. But when the seat gripped the sides of his body and the door slid shut, he felt a rush of excitement.

  Now he remembered. For weeks he’d watched the children have all the fun while he was trapped in that parched old body at his desk. Now it was his turn.

  Five minutes later, he’d figured out how to activate the control panels. Suddenly, he was surrounded by brightly lit icons that covered every surface of the cockpit.

  Then he put on the headset and fiddled again until he could see through the Pod Fighter windshield. Now he was ready to take off.

  His Pod Fighter sat on the deck of a virtual aircraft carrier with its nose pointed at the sea.

  He gripped the hand controls and pulled back.

  The powerful engines began to roar.

  He felt another rush of excitement that made his new hair stand on end, and he pulled back again. The Pod Fighter shot forward.

  The sudden drag in his gut was electrifying and he felt the urge to whoop for joy, but instead of flying up, the Pod Fighter flew down and crashed into the sea. It plunged with bubbles running up the windshield, and two words appeared in his visor.

  Game Over.

  “Frag!” Gorman yelled. “Fragging stupid game!”

  While Ralph tidied up the pizza crusts and mirrors, he wondered what to do. The Everlife-9 had transformed Mal Gorman into an obnoxious twelve-year-old boy who was still in control of a fortress full of weapons. He knew he ought to tell someone about this, but he was too scared. He’d spent forty years ironing Gorman’s underpants, tolerating his abuse, and telling him he was right about everything. These were not easy habits to break.

  Was Mal Gorman mad? Ralph wondered.

  His master slept with a carving knife clutched to his chest.

  Only a few days ago he’d awoken, screaming, with his arms cut to pieces.

  But maybe this was normal behavior for men in positions of power.

  They all lived in a broken world.

  Ralph made Gorman’s bed and polished the mirrors on the front of the wardrobe. They were covered in fingerprints where Gorman had been touching his new reflection. When this was done, Ralph dusted the bedside cabinets. As he stood back to admire his work, something moved.

  He jumped so hard, he bounced back against the wardrobe. Then he clutched his duster to his chest while he tried to determine what he’d just seen.

  Gorman’s bedspread was the antiquated sort: thick, gold, and quilted. Four small dents, each about the size of an old-fashioned coin, were running across the surface. For a moment they paused, then they changed direction and headed toward the pillows; then a larger dent appeared. Ralph heard a weird whooshing noise … saw a metallic flash … and a monkey materialized on the pillow. The butler was so startled, he bounced back again and almost broke the mirror. But the monkey didn’t notice. Puck was far more interested in the silver ball he held in his hands. With a whoosh he vanished, then reappeared and disappeared several times.

  Then Ellie appeared next to the bed.

  Ellie Smith with no men or guns!

  Ralph wouldn’t have been more astonished if a puffin and a unicorn had appeared in Gorman’s bedroom.

  He watched, aghast, as she leaned across the bed and grabbed the monkey, who continued to flash on and off in her hands. “Puck, stop it,” she said. “Or I’ll take it away.”

  “Where are the men?” Ralph stammered. “Why are you here?”

  “I’m looking for Gorman,” Ellie replied. “He’s not in his office.”

  The butler began to tremble.

  “Don’t be scared, Ralph,” Ellie said. “I’m not going to hurt you. We’ve always got along OK, haven’t we?”

  “Yes, miss,” Ralph replied. “But I’m not sure Mal Gorman would like you in his bedroom, with Puck … and no men.”

  “Do you really care what Mal Gorman thinks?” Ellie asked. “He’s horrible to you, Ralph. He was horrible to both of us.”

  She looked at him with penetrating directness and he remembered she could see what he was feeling. He would have felt uncomfortable if this were anyone else. He would have felt ashamed and vulnerable. After all, he was a grown man, Mal Gorman’s butler, and he wasn’t supposed to fear his master or question his judgment. But no one understood what it felt like to be bullied by Mal Gorman better than Ellie did. Ralph had watched Ellie suffer Gorman’s abuse and she’d watched him suffer it. Perhaps he didn’t mind that she knew how he felt. Their shared experience had bound them together a long time ago.

  He closed the bedroom door.

  The time for truth had begun.

  “Why are you here?” he whispered.

  “Because he’s mad,” Ellie said. “And he’s about to turn our planet into a heap of orbiting ash. You know this, don’t you? Better than anyone.”

  The butler looked at his duster for a moment, then put it down. “Yes, miss,” he said. “I do.”

  “H
as he taken the Everlife-9?” Ellie asked.

  “Yes.”

  “So how old is he now?”

  “The same age as you, miss. He took too much.”

  Ellie raised her eyebrows. “Really?” She tried to imagine a twelve-year-old Mal Gorman. It wasn’t a pretty picture. But a boy would be a lot easier to remove than a corpse attached to a machine. “So where is he?” she asked.

  Now the butler felt uneasy. He’d felt empathy for Ellie’s suffering since the day she was taken, but she was still a mutant, a very powerful mutant, and she was hunting for Gorman. Ralph knew his master was power-mad and about to start a terrible war, but he did not want to be responsible for his death.

  “We’re not going to hurt him,” Ellie said. “We just want to stop him. Please help us.”

  “You promise you’re not going to hurt him.”

  “I promise. Gorman doesn’t understand us. Just because we can kill doesn’t mean we want to. It’s like a side effect of what we can do. Do you understand? We want to stop the killing. We want to make people happier, not sadder. And we’ve got a plan. First we’re going to remove Mal Gorman, then we’re going to take control of the North and The Wall, and then we’re going to negotiate with the South and try to sort out this mess without fighting a war. We want our parents to see the forests, Ralph. You should see them. It makes you happy just looking at them. I want you to see them.”

  “But who’s helping you?” Ralph asked, confused.

  “Nobody,” Ellie replied. “It’s just us, the children.”

  “You and the Chosen Ones?”

  “And the implanted army,” Ellie said. “There are twenty-seven thousand of us.”

  “But Gorman controls the implanted army.”

  “No, he doesn’t. We’ve discovered a new trick, Ralph. We’ve been talking to it. Those children look as if they’re sleeping, but they’re not — they’re waiting for us to get rid of Mal Gorman and take control of the fortress. The implants don’t work. Those children came back to the fortress to help us.”

  Ralph was quiet while he absorbed this information. That the children had returned because they wanted to, not because the implants had started working again, frightened him. He looked at the floor, imagining the army waiting to wake up and wreak vengeance on the government that had lied to it.

 
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