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The whisper, p.11
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       The Whisper, p.11

           Emma Clayton
 
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  “We don’t feel vengeful,” Ellie said. “Honestly, we don’t. We’re not going to hurt anyone. We’re just going to take over and sort out this mess our own way.”

  “Children …” he muttered. “Take over …”

  “Yeah. You look pale, Ralph. Are you OK?”

  “Yes,” he said. “I’m just getting used to the idea.”

  “We’re not just children,” she told him.

  “I know,” he said, looking at her. “I knew that the day I met you.”

  “Then please help us. Tell me where Gorman is.”

  Ellie watched him and waited. Fear, doubt, and guilt pulsed through his light. This was a difficult decision. But then something deep inside him rose, something that had been stifled for a long, long time: his own beliefs, his own sense of right and wrong, and a desperate craving to be on the good side, the truthful side, the kind side.

  He wanted to help them.

  He took a deep breath and spoke.

  “Actually, I don’t know where Gorman is,” he said. “He was supposed to be in meetings this morning, but he went out without telling me where he was going.”

  “Where could he be?” Ellie said. “What was he wearing when he left?”

  “Some of your clothes,” the butler said. “Jeans, sneakers, and a Pod Fighter T-shirt.”

  “A Pod Fighter T-shirt?” Ellie looked at him sharply.

  “Yes, miss, a Pod Fighter T-shirt. A green one with PLAY on the back.”

  She grinned.

  “I know where he is,” she said. “He’s playing the game.”

  She stood up quickly, holding Puck to her chest with one hand. “Thank you, Ralph. I always knew you were a good person.” She kissed him lightly on the cheek, startling him, and opened the bedroom door. Beyond it, Mika and Audrey were waiting by the dressing room fire. When they saw Ellie, they began to move.

  Ralph watched them walk toward the door, feeling vulnerable now. He was about to be left behind, after betraying his master.

  Ellie stopped and turned.

  “Do you want to come with us?” she asked.

  “Yes,” he replied immediately. “I do.”

  “Oh, good!” she cried. “You’ll be really helpful, Ralph! Really helpful!”

  “Thank you, miss.”

  “Do you know where our companions are?” Mika asked. “Gorman took them away from us.”

  “Yes, I do, sir,” Ralph said. “They’re in the bottom drawer of his desk.”

  13 Game Over

  An hour after Gorman climbed into the Pod Fighter simulator, he was still trying to take off without crashing. He’d seen the words Game Over so many times, they seemed permanently glued to his visor.

  But on his forty-seventh attempt, he succeeded. The Pod Fighter shot off the aircraft carrier, he pulled back with just the right amount of power, and the fighter shot up into the sky instead of diving into the sea. For a moment he could hardly believe he’d done it, and his hands were frozen to the controls because he was so scared of making it go wrong again. But the Pod Fighter continued to shoot up through clouds, which whooshed like smoke around him. Then he could enjoy the power in his hands. This game really was amazing. Like every child who’d played it before, he’d already forgotten it wasn’t real.

  On the other side of the clouds, the sun and the sky dissolved in inky space. Up, up, he flew until he hit the planet atmosphere.

  “Yeah!” he yelled.

  Then he remembered he was flying without a gunner and that the Red Star Fleet would attack him. He let the Pod Fighter drop until he skimmed the snowy landscape of the clouds. For a second he wished he’d made Ralph come with him as his gunner, then he laughed at the idea.

  A green dot appeared on his visor.

  He ignored it for a few seconds because he didn’t know what it meant. It was difficult enough keeping the Pod Fighter steady without trying to figure out all the other stuff. But soon the green dot grew larger and he began to realize it was something moving toward him. He pulled back, wanting more speed, but got too much and lost control. The Pod Fighter roared into a messy corkscrew and by the time he pulled out of it, he was gasping with fright and the pitted orb of the moon was looping around him like a ball on a length of elastic. He steadied the craft and managed to drop again until he was just above the clouds, but within seconds, the dot reappeared, closer this time and beginning to take the form of another Pod Fighter.

  It roared toward him.

  He cursed and tried to throw his Pod Fighter out of its path, but it anticipated this move and looped around him in a fluid weave.

  Then it turned and came back.

  Now he was very scared. He tried to outwit it by dropping, but it passed overhead, looped, and shot toward him like an arrow. His hands failed. The Pod Fighter stuttered like a shot bird, plunged into free fall through the clouds, and hurtled toward Earth. And the other Pod Fighter was still chasing him.

  Land rushed up to greet him, a poisoned wasteland of dust and skeletal trees. Somehow he managed to control his spin and pull up a few seconds before impact. But the other Pod Fighter was still there, harrying him like a hyena, and he couldn’t get up enough speed to outrun it.

  Over deserts and dead cities it chased him, until he crashed into the dust.

  He saw a flash of light as the Pod Fighter exploded, then the words Game Over.

  He removed his headset.

  He panted in the darkness.

  Wiped the sweat from his face.

  He’d had enough for one day.

  This game was really difficult and scary.

  He decided to go back to the fortress and have Ralph serve him a nice lunch. He opened the door, dropped out on shaky legs, and saw Ellie Smith standing in the darkness. Ellie Smith with no men with guns, and that monkey sitting on her shoulder.

  14 A Wistful Oliver

  Kobi leaned against the wall outside the boys’ room, waiting for the adults to leave. Every hour or so, the doctor came and made him wait outside.

  The passage had a distinctive smell of old office, cooking, and people. Sometimes they walked past him, going about their business. Some greeted him and others didn’t. He felt better if they ignored him.

  After a while he sensed someone watching him and glanced down the passage, to feel a pair of eyes vanish as his head turned. When this game had continued for a few minutes, the blond boy, Oliver, stepped out and stood where he could be seen.

  “Hi,” Kobi said.

  “Hello,” Oliver replied.

  The child walked toward him, swaying his arms. He was wearing a Pod Fighter T-shirt borrowed from an older child. It came down to his knees. Kobi grinned through his hair.

  “What are you doing?” Oliver asked, kicking the wall.

  “Waiting for the doctor to leave,” Kobi said. “So I can go back in and sit with the boy.”

  “Can I see him?”

  “You could ask,” Kobi replied.

  “OK,” Oliver said.

  He leaned against the wall next to Kobi, with his hands behind his back. They were quiet for a while, listening to the drone of adult voices talking inside the room. It took ages for them to leave.

  “What was the game like?” Oliver asked.

  “It wasn’t a game,” Kobi replied.

  “Yeah, I know. I didn’t mean it like that. I mean, what was it like when you thought it was a game?”

  “Amazing,” Kobi said. “I used to love flying.”

  “So you were a pilot?”

  “Yeah.”

  “I wanted to be a pilot,” the child said enviously. “But I wasn’t old enough.”

  “You’re lucky, then,” Kobi said.

  “I know,” Oliver said. “But I wish it had been a game. I don’t have anything to look forward to now.”

  “What else do you like doing?”

  “Drawing,” Oliver said.

  “Then do that instead,” Kobi replied. “Much safer. You won’t end up with a lump of metal in your head
, drawing pictures.”

  “I suppose so,” replied Oliver wistfully. “I could draw a Pod Fighter.”

  He stretched out his T-shirt and looked at the picture on the front.

  “Yes,” Kobi said. “Do that. Draw a Pod Fighter and show it to me.”

  “OK,” Oliver replied happily.

  The voices inside the room grew louder as the adults prepared to leave. Kobi and Oliver moved away as the door opened. The doctor left first.

  “Still here?” she said to Kobi, with raised eyebrows.

  “Yes,” Kobi said, feeling offended. Of course he was.

  “It’s OK,” she told him. “I just thought you might get bored sitting with him while he sleeps.”

  “No,” Kobi said.

  “Can I go in too?” Oliver asked.

  “No, not you,” the doctor said. “The boy’s sick. He’s got a lung infection and we need to be really careful that he doesn’t get The Shadows sickness. He doesn’t need small children messing about in his room.”

  Oliver’s face clouded with humiliation.

  “He won’t mess about,” Kobi said.

  “No, I won’t,” Oliver agreed moodily.

  The doctor looked at him, weighing him up. “OK,” she said at last. “But only you, Oliver. Not all your friends. And do what Kobi says. That boy needs peace and quiet.”

  “I will,” Oliver replied earnestly. “I’ll be really quiet.”

  15 Mika Offers Gorman a Biscuit

  Gorman’s eyes met Ellie’s and his young heart stopped as if she’d clamped his aorta. In that half-light, after dying so horribly in the game, he wasn’t even sure she was real. For a split second her eyes flooded black and it was a look of such distilled power, he felt as if she could blink and vaporize him. Then it passed and she looked almost normal again.

  “What are you doing here?” he asked. He looked beyond her for men with guns. But there were no men, no guns, just Ellie and that monkey. She didn’t move or reply. She held Puck firmly with one hand as a simulator dropped behind her.

  The door opened, and Mika and Audrey climbed out. Now nuclear eyes met his, and he began to understand.

  It had been them in the other Pod Fighter.

  They’d chased him down and killed him in the game!

  They walked toward him, slowly. This was their place, their arcade, and he’d just made a complete idiot of himself. He began to shake with fear. He knew what he’d do in their position.

  “Don’t kill me,” he begged, putting his hands up to protect his face. “Please don’t kill me.”

  They surrounded him. He sank to his knees and clung to the arcade floor like a baby.

  “Get up,” Mika said, nudging him with the toe of his white armored boot. “We’re not going to kill you.”

  Gorman looked up. “You’re not?”

  “No,” Mika said. “We’re not like you. We don’t believe killing solves problems.”

  “So what are you going to do to me?”

  “Take you away.”

  “What?”

  “We’re going to put you somewhere out of the way, and then we’re going to take your fortress. We don’t want to fight your war.”

  “No …” Gorman muttered, frozen by shock. “You can’t…. I’m the Minister for Youth Development! And that fortress is government property!”

  “Not for much longer,” Mika said. “As soon as you’re out of the way, it’s ours.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous,” Gorman spluttered. “Three children and a monkey can’t take over a fortress. Even ones like you …”

  “Watch us. And anyway, there are more than three of us. There are twenty-seven thousand of us. The implanted army came back to the fortress because we asked them to. Not to fight your war.”

  “But they’re obeying my order. They’re sleeping.”

  “No,” Mika said. “They’re waiting. They’re waiting for us to get rid of you. And I have a message from them. They say, ‘Thanks,’ for teaching them how to fly. They really appreciate it.

  “Stand up.”

  In a shocked stupor, Gorman rose and followed them to the door at the back of the game room. As they began to climb the stairs, he realized they were taking him to the roof and that they were going to fly him away. Then he began to panic. They were taking him away from his fortress! They were refusing to fight the war! What could he do? How could he stop this from happening? Raphael Mose’s mansion filled his mind. The house, the golf course, all those beautiful cars, the horses and terrace and pool … He loved those things. He already felt as if he owned them; he’d already picked out the curtains and the carpets and his favorite car. And to feel them slip through his fingers made him lose his mind for a moment. He stopped on the stairs and turned, determined to break free and run. But immediately, Mika’s eyes met his and he felt a sharp pain in his head. He gasped and fell back against the wall with his hands over his face. But it was just a warning. The pain lasted a moment, then it was gone.

  “You can’t escape,” Mika told him. “Just accept that we’re stronger than you and keep walking.”

  Gorman plodded up the stairs.

  When they reached the roof, he blinked in the bright light, then saw the Stealth Carrier perched on the pod strip. His Stealth Carrier. The craft he’d spent billions of credits developing to fly these children over The Wall. And worse than that, Ralph, his butler, was standing by the door.

  His light burned red with rage.

  “You!” he yelled at the butler. “What are you doing here?”

  “Helping, sir,” Ralph replied politely. “Mind your step as you climb aboard.”

  Gorman took a seat in the Stealth Carrier, and his Chosen Ones filled those around him.

  “You traitor,” Gorman snarled, picking on Ralph because he was the only one who couldn’t hurt him.

  “It’s for your own good, sir,” Ralph replied. “I still serve your best interest.”

  “Don’t get funny with me,” Gorman threatened. “You just wait —”

  “Leave him alone,” Ellie said. “I won’t let you bully Ralph anymore.”

  Gorman looked at Ellie and fell quiet.

  The Stealth Carrier rose.

  Leo and Iman were flying.

  Gorman watched through the window as his fortress shrank. He was still determined to get out of this somehow. He was young and powerful. This couldn’t be happening to him.

  “You can have mansions,” he told them tentatively. “Have you forgotten? If you fight the war, you can have first pick after mine.”

  “We don’t want mansions,” Ellie replied. “While people starve and suffer. We want just enough, like it ought to be. Enough food, space, light, and nature around us. There’s enough for everyone.”

  “Really?” he mocked. “I wonder if your parents will agree. They haven’t seen you for a year and a half. Do you plan to go home and tell them they were cheated out of their land but they can’t have it back because you like trees and flowers? I don’t think they’ll like that.”

  “We’re going to make them understand,” Ellie said.

  “Good luck,” he sneered. “You’ll need it.”

  Ellie looked away and blinked.

  “Leave her alone,” Ralph said.

  Ignore him, Mika told his sister. He’s just trying to upset you.

  I know, she replied. I’m OK.

  Gorman smiled nastily, knowing he’d scored a point, but his satisfaction didn’t last long. He suddenly realized that nobody knew where he was. That he’d gone out that morning having told his staff he’d be in the Golden Turrets until the next day. He’d taken Everlife-9, so only Ralph and these children recognized him. The Stealth Carrier had vanished, the children had vanished, and he had vanished with them.

  Then it occurred to him that they’d stolen a craft that was designed to fly over The Wall.

  “Where are you taking me?” he asked.

  “To a safe place,” Mika replied.

  “Over The Wall?”
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  “Yes.”

  “It’s not safe over The Wall!” he cried. “Not for me! I’m not like you! I’ll be ripped to pieces by the animal borgs!”

  “We’re going to protect you,” Mika said.

  “No! Please! I don’t want to go over The Wall! Please don’t take me over The Wall!”

  “I thought you couldn’t wait to go over The Wall,” Ellie said sharply.

  “Not yet,” Gorman said. “Not now, you stupid children. I don’t understand. Why over The Wall?”

  Mika leaned across the seat and picked up a packet of biscuits. Gorman recognized it immediately. It was the one he’d watched Mika remove from his mail pack.

  “What’s a packet of biscuits got to do with anything?” he said impatiently. “I don’t want a biscuit. Just tell me why you’re taking me over The Wall.”

  Mika opened the biscuits and pulled out a small piece of paper that had been slipped down the side. He gave it to Gorman, who squinted at it. There was a set of numbers scrawled across it in inky black handwriting, with a kiss at the end.

  “What’s this?” he said. “I don’t understand.”

  “Map coordinates,” Mika replied.

  “What?” Gorman said. “Where have they come from? How did you get them?”

  “They were sent to me by my friend Helen,” Mika said. “In the biscuits. First to our old apartment in Barford North, then to our new apartment in the Golden Turrets, then our parents put them in our mail pack. My friend Helen is on the other side of The Wall and we’re taking you there because we know you’ll never be found by your men.”

  Gorman’s face turned white with rage.

  “You’ll never get away with this,” he said, throwing the map coordinates onto the floor. “You children are mad.”

  “I disagree, sir,” Ralph said, picking them up again. “I think there’s a general consensus that you’re the mad one.”

  16 Helen’s Hat Falls Off

 
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