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The whisper, p.12
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       The Whisper, p.12

           Emma Clayton
 
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  Mika thought about Helen as they flew toward The Wall, and Helen thought about Mika. He was hoping she wouldn’t be too shocked when he turned up with six children, a monkey, a butler, and the Minister for Youth Development. She was hoping he was still alive. They’d both known there was something wrong with the game but that Mika had to play it to find Ellie, but Helen hadn’t spoken to him since he was taken. She’d known there was something special about him, though, long before anyone else had.

  She waited for him in a woodman’s hut buried deep in the forest of Brittany. It stood in a clearing of wildflowers. A winding path led up to its door. Its walls were made of whole polished trunks, and a pretty coil of smoke rose from its stone chimney. All it needed were a few sweets stuck to the roof and it would have looked good enough to eat.

  Inside were just three rooms: a large one downstairs with a kitchen, wooden table, fireplace, and armchairs; and two smaller rooms upstairs, a bedroom with a brass bed and a hygiene room containing an old-fashioned bath with claw feet. All technology — the cleaning borgs, air-conditioning, TVs, security systems — had been hidden so as not to spoil the hut’s rustic charm. It looked one thing, but it was quite another.

  A woodman had lived in the hut many years ago, but it was Helen’s home now. Her yellow Wellington rain boots stood by the door, her strawberry sunglasses lay on the kitchen table, and she could be seen through one of the crooked windows, washing up her breakfast dishes and frowning at the birds. She had just removed her rubber gloves and was walking to the door with a handful of crusts to feed them when her companion said, “You have a message from Mika.”

  Her heart leaped.

  She hobbled to the table, dumped the crusts, wiped her hands on her dress, and read it.

  I’m coming now and I’m bringing friends.

  Quickly, she sent one back:

  Land in the meadow near the hut, but don’t leave your craft until I arrive. It’s dangerous here.

  After so long waiting, she was in a state. Mika, with friends. Probably more children, to a forest riddled with wolf borgs.

  She dropped her companion and hobbled quickly to the kitchen. Her arthritis was better on this side of The Wall, where she had access to new drugs. In the cupboard under the sink, she found a box of borg tags. She put this in a flowery shopping bag, then hobbled to the fireplace, where she pressed an icon hidden among the stones.

  Several stones slid back to reveal a screen. On this she summoned a map of the forest and checked the location of the wolf borgs. There were two packs within running distance. Panic-stricken, she grabbed her sun hat and rammed her feet into her yellow wellies. Then she left the hut and walked as quickly as she could into the forest, with the bag of borg tags over her arm.

  It was a beautiful morning. A winding path carried her through the forest to a bridge. The stream below tumbled over smooth rocks. The shallow banks were covered in moss. She usually stopped there to watch, but today there was no time.

  On the other side of the bridge, she could see the meadow through the trees. It was a small meadow, once used to graze horses. But now the horses were gone and spring grass swooshed around her knees. As she dropped into the dip surrounding the meadow, she saw a flash in the sky. The Stealth Carrier appeared, hovering like an alien ornament. It descended slowly, causing a frenzy in the forest. Birds rose from the canopy, their wings cracking the morning air. Then several eagle hawk borgs appeared, their wings whomping over the trees.

  “Oh dear,” Helen muttered. The borgs were twice the size of the Stealth Carrier; their talons could crush it like a bean can. They circled above the craft, metallically screeching. Now Helen was limping so fast, her hat kept falling off.

  How she wished she had a remote control for moments like this.

  Then she saw Mika climbing out of a door on the side of the Stealth Carrier.

  “NO!” she yelled.

  He stood on the ledge and pulled himself up onto the roof.

  “Mika!” she bellowed. “Wait! I told you to stay inside! It’s dangerous!” She rushed on, waving her shopping bag in the air like a flag. Wolf borgs were slipping through the trees, snarling and running at the carrier. Then the first eagle dropped with its talons reaching down.

  Helen couldn’t bear to look.

  She closed her eyes.

  But the bloodcurdling scream she expected didn’t come. She opened her eyes to see the eagles rising and the wolves quietly gathering around the carrier. Mika slid down the wing and landed softly in the grass. He put out his hand, and the wolves sniffed his fingers. Then he looked at Helen with a big grin.

  “Are you trying to give me a heart attack?” she said, with her hands on her hips.

  He laughed. He was so pleased to see her and she looked as kooky as ever. Her gray hair had been cut short, but it still stuck out around her head as if she were a witch. She was wearing a flowery dress, mismatched earrings, and her old yellow rain boots from Barford North.

  “Sorry,” Mika said. “I should have said in my message, I’ve been here twice before.”

  “Really?” she said, astonished. “But why don’t the borgs attack you?”

  “They think I’m an animal.” His words came breathlessly. “Because I’m a mutant.” He had so many things to tell her, about the game, the war, and himself. So much had happened since they’d last met. Mika could see her own questions fluttering around her like butterflies. But the others were waiting.

  “So who have you brought with you?” Helen asked. “Are you all mutants? I have some borg tags with me.” She opened her shopping bag and showed him.

  “I’ve brought Ellie,” he told her.

  “Ellie!”

  “Yes.”

  “Oh, Mika,” she gasped. “I hoped you would. Well done!”

  “And my best friend, Audrey,” Mika told her enthusiastically. “You’ll like Audrey; she’s really cool. She’s got borg eyes. And I’ve brought the others who won the competition. There are seven of us, including Ellie, all mutants.”

  “Lovely,” Helen said. “I’ll make you all a nice cup of tea.”

  “And someone else …” Mika added nervously. “I’ve brought someone else. We need your help, Helen … to hide someone.”

  “Who?” she asked, her eyes sharpening.

  “The Minister for Youth Development.”

  “The Minister for Youth Development? The Northern Government Minister for Youth Development?”

  “Yes,” Mika replied. “Mal Gorman. The man who invented the game. We’ve sort of removed him. We let him take Everlife-9 and he’s made himself twelve. You’ll see. The government wants a war, Helen. The game was recruitment for an army. They want to use us to bomb the forests so they can live in the mansions, but we plan to take over, sort it out another way. So we’ve kidnapped him and we need to hide him somewhere. Actually, we need to lock him up, because we can’t trust him.”

  He looked at her anxiously. This had all come out in a mad gush and he hoped she understood. She was once the only person who understood him….

  “OK,” she replied, reaching into her shopping bag. “So you will need one of my borg tags.”

  “Two, actually,” Mika said. “We brought his butler as well.”

  “Ah, of course you did,” Helen said, rummaging. “Are we locking them both up, then?”

  “No, Ralph’s nice. He’s come to help.”

  When Mika slipped back into the carrier, the wolf borgs smelled Mal Gorman and Ralph and exploded in a frenzy of bloodlust. Gorman could see them through the windows, leaping, twisting, barking, and snarling, their claws dragging down the hull, leaving deep scars in the shiny metal. While the children fitted his borg tag, he froze like a shop mannequin. Puck hooted nervously on Ellie’s shoulder. Outside, Helen clutched her hat and watched from a safe distance.

  “Do it quickly,” Gorman said. “Make me safe!”

  The borg tags were made of thick gray plastic. They fit onto Ralph’s and Gorman’s wrists with a neat
click. Thirty seconds later, a band of green light blinked below the surface and immediately the wolves dropped back.

  Gorman panted with relief and clutched his tag with one hand as if he was afraid it might fall off. Ralph pulled down his sleeve to cover his.

  “OK,” Mika said. “Let’s go.”

  The door opened. The wolves gathered, licking their metal lips.

  “Make them go away,” Gorman said.

  “They’ll leave soon,” Mika told him. “They’re just curious. Let them sniff you and try to stay calm.”

  Mika jumped down into the meadow, and the wolves parted as if he were a member of the pack. But the children had to push Mal Gorman out of the carrier, and the wolves weren’t so sure about him. They ran at him, heads down and snarling as if preparing to attack. The children surrounded him to keep them back. It felt like a precarious situation.

  Helen looked at Gorman shrewdly from beneath the rim of her hat. “Mmmm,” she said, pursing her lips. “Follow me.”

  By the time they’d reached the trees, Gorman had peed his pants with fright, and only Ralph and Puck had a chance to absorb their beautiful surroundings. Puck gazed up at the trees and chattered in amazed monkey dialogue and tried to leap from Ellie’s shoulder onto a branch, but she held him firmly.

  “Yeah, I know,” she whispered. “You want to play in the trees. But let’s deal with Gorman first, before the wolf borgs try to eat him.”

  Helen marched ahead. Her yellow boots flashed like beacons through the trees. She led them over the stream and past the hut into deeper forest.

  It was dark and cool there, mysterious, quiet. Mal Gorman’s fear cranked up another level. The wolves slunk through the trees around him, their red eyes glowing in the deep forest light. They waded through bracken and brambles that slowed them down and snagged at their legs. Puck stopped trying to jump from Ellie’s shoulder, and Mika walked with Awen by his side. Leo, Iman, Colette, and Santos followed in a state of distracted shock. This was the first time they’d seen a forest.

  “Not long now!” Helen shouted, with the plastic fruit bobbing on her hat.

  Eventually, the path cleared.

  “Look,” Audrey said. “A house.”

  Helen marched on as if it were perfectly normal. The children, Ralph, and Gorman stopped at the edge of the lawn.

  The path that led up to the front door was lined with overgrown columns of topiary. The house was hundreds of years old … and silent. The quiet of it throbbed as the forest loomed over it. Three rows of windows peeked through a tangle of vines. Ivy had grown right up the walls and over the roof to poke pale fronds at the sky. Its great front door stood ajar, among a litter of leaves from past autumns.

  “Does this belong to Helen?” Ellie asked. The house was neglected and overgrown, but it was clearly worth billions of credits, and when they thought about all the land it was on, it became money they couldn’t imagine.

  “I don’t know,” Mika replied uncomfortably. “I don’t even know what’s she’s doing on this side of The Wall. When I met her, she was living in a fold-down, like us. She was my counselor. Mum and Dad paid her to make me forget you, but she helped me remember instead. She could hardly walk, her arthritis was so bad. I don’t understand.”

  Helen had vanished after their last conversation in Barford North. He’d gone to her apartment to find it full of Magpie Men picking through her things, knocking her precious books to the floor. But how had she ended up here, on the other side of The Wall, stomping through a forest as if it were all hers? If Helen belonged here, if she owned this mansion, she was one of the people who’d lied to their parents. That wasn’t a nice thought.

  Gorman hadn’t expected this either. The topiary needed trimming and the ivy cutting back, but he quite fancied staying here. It wasn’t as alluring as Raphael Mose’s mansion, but it was a mansion. He was first to set off up the path, and the children, wolf borgs, and butler followed.

  Helen was waiting at the front of the house. Before Gorman reached her, she began walking again, around the side of it. Mika ran ahead and caught up with her.

  “I see what you mean,” she muttered. “Gorman’s a sly one.”

  “Yeah,” Mika replied. “He’s the Knife Sharpener.”

  “Really?” Helen said with raised eyebrows. “That was a terrible nightmare. Is he as horrid in reality?”

  “Yes,” Mika replied. “He was the one who took Ellie. I didn’t see him while I was awake until the prize-giving dinner.”

  “I bet that killed your appetite,” she said. “Well, he won’t be able to scare anyone where I’m going to put him.”

  “He doesn’t scare me anymore,” Mika said. “I know what he is now.”

  “You do seem different,” Helen observed.

  “I am.”

  They were quiet for a moment. He was about to ask her how she came to be on this side of The Wall, when they reached a long concrete building. He decided to leave the questions until later. The building was right at the forest’s edge, surrounded by bushes and trees. It had a large, heavily fenced enclosure attached to it. Mika looked through the wire. He saw a landscaped area with smaller trees and a muddy hollow. Helen rooted around in her shopping bag for a key card, and Gorman and the others caught up with them.

  “Why are we here?” Gorman asked, looking back down the path toward the mansion.

  “Because this is where you’re staying,” Helen replied.

  “You’re joking,” he said. “It’s a concrete shed.”

  “It’s not a concrete shed,” she countered. “It’s an animal enclosure with an electric fence. You won’t be able to escape. After The Wall was built, we used enclosures like these to breed wild boar to repopulate the forest. The babies look like mint humbugs, you know. With their brown and cream stripes.”

  “I don’t care,” Gorman said furiously.

  “It’s warm and dry,” she continued. “All you’ll need is a sleeping bag and a porta-potty. I’ve got them in the house.”

  Gorman gave her his coldest, most evil look. “You’re not serious,” he said. “You’re not going to put me in a pig house.”

  “Why not?” Helen replied.

  “You wouldn’t dare!” Gorman ranted. “I’m the Minister for Youth Development! You can’t expect me to use a porta-potty!”

  His shouting aggravated the wolf borgs and one ran at him, snarling. He cowered against the wall while the children shooed it away, and as soon as Helen unlocked the door, he shoved rudely past her. Now he was in the building, but he didn’t want to be, so he cursed and stomped while the children closed the door against the wolves.

  Inside there was a long trestle table against one wall, and three doors to the right lead into spacious pigsties. The children looked through the windows of the sty doors. On the floors old straw glowed gold in natural light. At the far end of each sty was another, smaller door that led out to the grassy enclosure. The sties looked comfortable. The children could still smell the animals that had lived there.

  Helen unlocked one of the sties. “The only thing that won’t work,” she said, “is the water trough. I’ll just pop up to the house to fetch some bottled water. You might as well lock him in there now.”

  She left.

  The children faced Mal Gorman.

  “No,” Gorman said. “I’m not living in a pigsty.”

  “You shut me in a coffin,” Ellie said. “And Puck. You cut my hair. You made me spend weeks blind.”

  Gorman’s light withered, but he stomped into the sty and turned to glare at her. She shut the door and watched him through the window. Then he exploded, unleashing his fury in a frenzy of flailing arms and legs.

  The children realized this was an important moment. Ellie had locked up the man who’d done the same to her.

  She felt relieved. Not malicious or bitter or hateful. Just relieved she was free and Mal Gorman couldn’t hurt anyone.

  Mika put his arm around her.

  He looks like a total
perp, he thought. Flailing around like that.

  Ellie grinned. Yeah, he does.

  Then Mika started thinking about Helen again and considered following her up to the house.

  Go, Ellie thought. You need to talk to her. We’ll stay here and watch Gorman.

  Mika walked along the path alone.

  The mansion was silent.

  He felt nervous.

  He wanted to talk to Helen, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to know the answers to his questions.

  The stone steps up to the front door were covered in moss. As he entered, he called out to her, “Helen?”

  “Up here!” she bellowed from one of the bedrooms.

  He was in a wide, wood-paneled hall, and it surprised him. Although the house looked deserted from the outside, the inside was littered with dusty family things, as if the people had walked out one day and never returned. Near the door was a table covered in letters and keys. On the wall was a screen with a faded shopping list stuck to it. It was Helen’s writing. Mika would have recognized it anywhere. So she had lived here once.

  The floor was covered in leaves that had blown in through the door. As he walked toward the stairs, a rabbit hopped past. Mika stopped and watched it, entranced by its beauty, startled by its nonchalance.

  At the top of the stairs, Helen’s head poked out of a door. “There you are,” she said breathlessly. “Come up here and give me a hand.”

  He climbed the stairs and followed her into a dusty bedroom.

  There was a surfboard hanging over the bed. The floor was covered with heaps of sports gear and game consoles. Helen had emptied out all the closets. Awen sniffed at an old pair of sneakers while Mika lingered in the doorway.

  “I think the sleeping bag is on the top shelf,” Helen said. “I can’t reach.”

  Their eyes met.

  There was an awkward silence.

  “You’re wondering who I am,” she said quietly.

  He nodded.

  She took a deep breath and sat on the end of the bed. Mika sat next to her, hoping she’d be able to explain all this away. But he felt dread.

  “Who are you?” he asked.

 
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