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The whisper, p.14
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       The Whisper, p.14

           Emma Clayton
 
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  Now he wished The Whisper was a more precise form of communication, that he could connect with individuals, like through a com network, but it didn’t work like that. All those thoughts and feelings were woven together with no names or places attached. He sensed he and Ellie had the strongest threads, but all the rest were as fine as gossamer. And he was stuck with the unsettling feeling that something was happening they needed to know about. He heard it in The Whisper, but he couldn’t grasp it and didn’t know where it was coming from.

  It was dark now.

  They’d left Ralph at the mansion to keep an eye on Mal Gorman and returned to Helen’s hut to eat before they left.

  Their mood had changed. Their thoughts had shifted. Now that Gorman was out of the way, they had to take over the fortress. Helen busied around them, lighting a fire and making tea, but the children were quiet. They would eat one meal together and then … they wouldn’t see Helen again unless they succeeded. And if anything went wrong, they might return to find a wasteland of blackened bones and trees. Or never return …

  After pacing the cabin for a few minutes, Colette and Santos went out to check on the Stealth Carrier. Leo and Iman sat by the fire and stared into the flames as if they were making them. Ellie, Mika, and Audrey sat at the table with Puck clambering between them. The monkey was behaving badly, grabbing things and running around the hut.

  “It’s like having a toddler around again,” Helen said, as Puck stuck his fingers in the sugar bowl.

  “Sorry,” Ellie said. “He senses my mood.”

  “I’m not complaining,” Helen replied, placing it out of reach. “I feel sorry for him. It’s not surprising he wants to stretch his legs and fiddle with things after being locked up for most of his life. What do you fancy eating? You could do with packing a feast if you’re going to take over a fortress tonight.”

  “What have you got?” Mika asked, putting Lilian down.

  “Not much in the hut,” she replied. “But you can order anything and it’ll arrive in ten minutes. It’s good like that over here.”

  When Colette and Santos returned, she opened a cupboard in the kitchen. There was a screen on the inside of the door. The children told her what they wanted and she ordered it.

  While they waited for the food to arrive, Audrey helped set the table. Helen noticed how she looked at the plates, as if she’d never seen them before. They were different, of course, from those used by people in the North. They were bone china with a gold rim and had been in Helen’s family for a hundred years. But Audrey’s fascination seemed to go beyond that. When she’d laid the plates on the table, she stared at them.

  “What can you see?” Helen asked.

  They were decorated with a leaf pattern.

  “I was just noticing,” Audrey replied, “that when humans copy nature, they get the pattern wrong. Real leaves don’t look like this. Every leaf on a tree is different, but these are all the same.”

  Helen looked at the plates. Audrey was right. All the leaves were the same size and shape and placed at regular intervals. “I see what you mean,” she said.

  “I think humans want nature’s pattern to be the same,” Audrey said. “So they can understand it.”

  “That sounds about right,” Helen replied. “Humans spent a long time trying to survive nature and it wasn’t easy.”

  “And now they’ve forgotten they’re part of a pattern.”

  “Yes.” Helen looked at Audrey shrewdly. “Gosh,” she said. “I can’t remember what I was doing when I was twelve, but it wasn’t observing chaos theory on dinner plates.”

  “What’s chaos theory?” Audrey asked.

  “Never mind,” Helen replied. “Don’t worry about it now. You’ve got enough to think about.”

  “Tell me another day,” Audrey said. “I want to know.”

  “OK,” Helen agreed. “I get the feeling you do already, but I will tell you.”

  The food arrived in a small, unmanned pod. It settled on the porch like a wingless bee and beeped to announce its arrival. The children had asked for bread, cheese, grapes, and apples. They helped set it out and ate quietly. It was a necessary meal. They’d eaten ones like this before. Puck walked on all fours across the table, pinching food from their plates, but they hardly noticed.

  “Do your parents know where you are?” Helen asked.

  “No,” Mika replied. “We can’t tell them the truth yet or they’ll start the war themselves.”

  “Oh yes,” Helen said. “Of course. I must admit I am a bit worried about you. This is all very precarious.”

  “I know,” Mika said. “But don’t worry.”

  When they’d eaten as much as they could, they cut more bread and cheese to take with them. As they left, Mika promised to call Helen soon. She watched him walk down the path into the forest, with a tight feeling in her heart, and closed the door with a sigh.

  The hut was not so warm without them. She sat in her chair by the fire, put a blanket over her knees, and called Ralph to make sure he was comfortable in the mansion, and that Gorman had settled in the boar house. Then she began the long, worrying wait for the children’s return. She’d read about wars and she’d read about stopping wars. Stopping a war could be like trying to stop a boulder rolling down a mountain. However smart or strong these children were, they still ran the risk of being flattened by it.

  Kobi returned to the sick room and sat with Oliver. He now felt as if he was guarding the boy, rather than watching him. Oliver left for a few minutes and returned with coloring pens and paper. They were not like Grace Mose’s. The paper was gray and rough because it was made of recycled food packing. The pens were the cheapest kind and he had to scrub to make a mark. Kobi listened to this sound and to The Whisper. Oliver drew a Pod Fighter. It was good, Kobi thought, and told him so.

  They spent an hour like this. The child focused on impressing Kobi, and Kobi focused on learning more. He picked quietly through the threads of The Whisper, listening as hard as he could. The more he learned, the more afraid he became that this boy would wake up. No amount of strategy or skill would stop the war if their parents found out.

  When the door opened, both boys startled. Suddenly, the small room was full of adults and noise. A woman waved Oliver off his chair.

  “Come on, Oliver, your mum wants you to go back to your room and do your homework.”

  “But I’ve done all my homework,” Oliver told her. “I want to stay here.”

  “No, that’s enough now. The doctor’s going to give the boy a drug to wake him up. He’s not going to want a crowd of strangers around him when he opens his eyes.”

  “I’m not a stranger,” Oliver argued. “I’m his friend.”

  “Don’t be silly, Oliver,” she said. “You can’t make friends with someone who’s fast asleep.”

  “Well, I did,” Oliver argued.

  “Out,” the woman said, pushing him toward the door. “And no more of that sass or I’ll tell your mum.”

  When Oliver had bumped furiously past the adults, the woman turned to Kobi.

  He was sitting at the end of the bed, panicking.

  They were trying to wake the boy up.

  He tried to think of a way to stop this happening, but couldn’t.

  “Hi, Kobi,” she said in a more respectful tone. “You’d better go as well. We’ve got a job for you and your father that will utilize your engineering skills. He’ll explain.”

  “What’s the drug you’re giving the boy?” Kobi asked.

  “It’s a drug used in hospitals to bring people out of comas,” the woman replied.

  “But he’s not in a coma,” Kobi said.

  “We know. Don’t worry. The doctor knows what she’s doing. You go and find your dad. Go on.”

  She waved him out. For a moment, Kobi considered refusing to leave. Then he looked at the boy in the bed and remembered he was sleeping because he wanted to; that he wouldn’t wake up until his friends in the fortress did. And, if he was strong e
nough to defy a government implant, that coma drug wouldn’t touch him.

  Kobi clung to this hope and left, determined to get back in that room as soon as possible.

  19 Bolt Borgs

  Kobi returned to his own room to find Abe sitting on his bed with his head in his hands. Nevermore was perched on the edge of the desk, watching him.

  “What’s up?” Kobi asked.

  Nevermore craarked and his feet clicked as he walked across the desk.

  “They want us to do something strange,” his father replied.

  “What? Some woman downstairs said they have a job for us.”

  “They want to take us to the underside of the platform to fix some bolt borgs. Apparently, they were used during the construction of the Golden Turrets. They tightened the bolts that hold them onto the platform.”

  “Why do they want us to fix bolt borgs?” Kobi asked.

  “Well, that’s it,” his father replied. “They didn’t say. But I’m worried that the SLF are involved and that they’re planning to undo the bolts. If the bolts are undone, the turrets will fall over. When I was in the bar earlier, they were talking again about threatening the government and forcing it to tell us what this war’s about. They’re coming to collect us in a few minutes.”

  “Oh no,” Kobi said. “I told you the SLF were dangerous! You don’t want to get involved with that, Dad; there are thousands of people living in the Golden Turrets, not just the government.”

  “I know,” Abe said.

  “If you don’t want to do it,” Kobi said, “tell them. You’re not a terrorist.”

  “How can I?” he replied desperately. “They’re helping us. They’re hiding you. They’re providing us with a home and food, and every time I go to the bar, one of them buys me a drink. They haven’t let me buy a drink since we got here, and they talk about you all the time. You’re a hero twice over for escaping from the game and saving the boy. We’ve got to at least go up there with them and find out what they want. Perhaps I’m wrong.”

  “I don’t think you are,” Kobi said. “From the way you describe it, there are only two things bolt borgs do: tighten bolts and undo bolts.”

  “Let’s just go and see, Kobi. Please, don’t make this more difficult. I’ll find a way to get out of it if necessary. We can’t fall out with these people. We have nowhere else to go.”

  “OK,” Kobi said. “But I’m only going to look. I’m not fixing anything. They’re also trying to wake up the boy by giving him a coma drug. But he’s not in a coma.”

  “They’re angry. They’ve run out of patience.”

  “I know and I don’t like it.”

  Kobi lay on his bed and waited. A few minutes later, a man and a woman arrived, and Kobi and Abe followed them down to the eleventh floor. In the buffer zone, they were given wading suits that covered the lower halves of their bodies. Outside the door, a cold wind gusted up the stairs, carrying the stench of slime. In the foyer, they found the tide rising and the water waist-deep. It would have made sense to fly from such a place, but civilian pods were banned in The Shadows because of all the pillars holding up the Golden Turrets. So Kobi waded after his father, feeling uncomfortable and annoyed and hoping to get this over with as quickly as possible.

  They waded through deserted, flooded streets, east along the river through the old financial heart of the city. The water rushed around them, tugging with the tide. It coiled through the doors of the buildings as if searching for things to wash away. Sometimes it was difficult to stand up and they had to stop, swaying unsteadily, as the water wound around their legs.

  Then they saw a pillar in the road ahead. When they reached it, they waded around it until they found steps leading up to a damp, black door. Through this they found themselves in a cold, dark space facing another door, to an elevator that was bubbled with rust. It opened creakily and they squashed inside. The walls were streaked with black mold.

  “Don’t worry, it’s safe,” the man said. “These elevators were built for the engineers working on the Golden Turrets. They haven’t been used for years, but we’ve fixed this one.”

  Kobi did not feel reassured by this statement. As they rose in that old, dark elevator, he could hear the chains creaking and the wind beyond the pillar wall. He had to close his eyes and tell himself that he would be out of it soon; that he was doing this for his father.

  The elevator stopped and the door opened again. Now they were right at the top of the pillar, just beneath the huge, black metal platform supporting the Golden Turrets. Kobi followed the strangers and his father onto a steel mesh walkway that was suspended only a few feet below it. Kobi looked down and felt a surge of vertigo. He could see through the mesh as if it weren’t there. The River Thames twisted below them, dark and deadly.

  “Don’t look down,” the woman said.

  They began walking. The mesh creaked and Kobi began to wonder if he could do this at all. The walkway didn’t feel safe and here he was with his father, when neither of them even wanted to come. Eventually, they paused and the man and woman pointed toward a shadowy hulk above them. It clung to the underside of the platform like a giant cockroach.

  “That’s one,” the man said. “They left several hundred bolt borgs behind when construction of the turrets ended. I suppose it was easier than getting rid of them. They have rotating jaws inside their heads, but because they haven’t been used for so long, they’ve seized up.”

  “Why do you want us to fix them?” Abe asked. “I don’t understand.”

  The man moved closer and his eyes filled with hatred. “The government took our children,” he said. “And put lumps of metal in their heads. The days go by and they still haven’t told us what this war is about. Do you know what the government ministers are doing while we wait for them to talk to us?”

  “No,” Abe replied uncomfortably.

  “They party,” said the man. “Every night, while we worry about our children, they gorge themselves on fine food and wine. Our people wait at their tables; we’ve seen it with our own eyes. Now it’s time for the party to end. We want to know why our children were taken. We’re going to undo the bolts on one of the Golden Turrets so it falls over, and then, if they still refuse to talk to us, we’ll undo the bolts on them all.”

  It was several seconds before Abe was able to speak.

  “Let me have a look at it,” he said quietly. “Then I’ll need to go back to our room and get the right tools.”

  “I thought you brought tools,” the woman said. “We were hoping you could start now.”

  “I brought some,” Abe replied. “But I won’t know exactly what I need until I’ve looked at the bolt borg. I’ve never worked on one before.”

  Kobi watched his father climb a metal ladder. In the dark space beneath the platform, he watched the beam of the flashlight dance as Abe removed a section of the bolt borg’s shell and looked inside it. After several minutes, he replaced it again and climbed down.

  “We have to go back,” he said. “There are several tools I need.”

  “OK,” the man replied, and they began the tiresome journey back to the Future Communication Building.

  “You should have told them you don’t want to do it,” Kobi whispered furiously, as they waded away from the pillar.

  “I didn’t know what to say to them,” Abe replied. “They looked so angry. I’m trying to buy us more time. We can go back for tools, pretend to try and fix it, then say that we can’t, that it’s broken beyond repair.”

  “Great,” Kobi said irritably. “That will take hours.”

  “I can’t just tell them,” his father said. “They’re scary.”

  “I know,” Kobi said. “But I’m not coming back. I want to stay with the boy.”

  “What has the boy got to do with this?” his father whispered. “I need you more than he does.”

  “I’m not coming back,” Kobi insisted. “I don’t want anything to do with terrorists.”

  His father looked sad.
“This is crazy,” he said. “How did we end up living like this?”

  20 Tank Meat Surprise

  The fortress looked quiet as the invisible Stealth Carrier approached Cape Wrath. Leo and Iman paused the craft over Sandwood Seven and they waited for a few minutes while a freighter dropped in and left again, having delivered a load of supplies. When they were sure the path was clear, they followed, dropping down into the hole through the middle of the fortress.

  They landed the carrier in the hangar on its launchpad, then the children waited for another few minutes, observing the activity there. Delivery borgs droned around, moving palettes of supplies. The only human they saw was a woman with a battered tablet who sauntered past, yawning with boredom. She would not be doing that if anyone had realized Mal Gorman and his Chosen Ones were missing.

  “Good,” Mika said, tugging Awen’s ears. “Let’s go.”

  The children activated their invisibility shields.

  The carrier door opened and Awen blazed a trail to the elevator.

  When they reached the top of the fortress, they had a difficult moment when the door opened again. Two of Mal Gorman’s officers were waiting to get in it, and the children had to creep around their sides. Shaken by this close encounter, the children walked quickly away, with their blood rushing.

  They reached Mal Gorman’s office to find the door locked. They stood against the wall as more staff meandered past, then Ellie opened it and they crept in. When it was locked again, she appeared with a flash, leaning against it. Then the others appeared, dotted around the office.

  “That was close,” she said.

  Puck dropped from her shoulder and scampered across the floor. The children worked quickly, looking into the walls for hidden cameras and melting the lenses with their eyes. Soon Mal Gorman’s office was theirs.

  It was quite different without him in it, seething and glaring at everyone. Ellie pulled a chair up to the desk. Mika watched. He’d never imagined seeing his sister do this. It pleased him.

 
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