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The whisper, p.15
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       The Whisper, p.15

           Emma Clayton
 
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  She touched the screen gently with her fingertips and it woke up, casting her in light.

  “He’s still logged in,” she said. “Ha-ha. I wonder if he’s realized. I bet he’s regretting taking that Everlife-9 now.”

  “I bet he’s regretting lots of things now that he’s sitting on a pile of straw,” Mika said.

  They gathered around the desk and watched Ellie summon views from around the fortress and explore Gorman’s security clearance and software. She had access to everything: all the security systems, communication networks, and weapons. One chain of feeds even monitored the Queen of the North, the space station in orbit around Earth, where she’d once been imprisoned.

  For a while they just looked at areas of the fortress, figuring out where everything was stored and what the staff were doing. The men they’d locked in the gym were sitting on the floor, looking bored and anxious.

  Then they explored the control panels for the alarm systems and the fence. When this was done, they focused on the children. The implanted army was sleeping peacefully. The other mutants, like them, who’d not been chosen by Mal Gorman, were stored in another enclosure, halfway up the fortress. These mutants were not implanted, but they knew what was happening and they were waiting too. They paced their enclosure, looking quiet and thoughtful.

  “Good,” Ellie said. “We’re ready. Does everyone agree?”

  They nodded.

  “OK, let’s take over a fortress.”

  She opened the alarm and security systems. Then she summoned views from around the fortress, so they could watch Mal Gorman’s staff in some of the larger areas: the dormitories, offices, and refectories. Next she searched through the alarm panel for the loudest alarm she could find. It was labeled DEATH SIREN.

  “That’ll do,” she said.

  Then she wrote a security alert that would appear on every screen around the fortress.

  Tank Meat Surprise was on the menu that night. Gorman’s staff walked away from the serving machines with white trays that held a brown lump, a green heap, and a yellow blob. The staff looked half asleep. It was mid evening, almost the end of the second shift, and nothing interesting had happened for hours … at least not that they knew about. They walked through the rows of tables and sat down to eat. On the screens around them a game show played and they stared at this blankly, unaware that they were about to get more surprise than they were expecting with their meal.

  In Mal Gorman’s office, Ellie bit her lip and pressed SEND.

  Immediately, the Death Siren began to wail, the game show disappeared, and her message began to flash against a red background.

  INCOMING MEGABOMB

  FIRST-LEVEL ATTACK

  ALL STAFF EVACUATE

  The children held their breath and waited. They expected an immediate response, for this was a top-level alert. But for a good thirty seconds, all the staff did was look around and ask each other what was happening. The fortress was full of shrugging shoulders and raised eyebrows. Some even continued to eat, as if they were trying to finish their meal before they were forced to leave it.

  “What are they doing?” Audrey said. “We’ve just told them the fortress is about to be hit by a megabomb.”

  “Perhaps they think it’s a drill,” Ellie said. “Like the fire alarm drills we used to have in school. They probably don’t believe it’s real and they don’t want to go outside because it’s cold. We’ll have to scare them a bit.”

  She found the control panel for the light network and turned them off. For a moment the whole fortress was plunged into darkness. Then the emergency lighting system came on and every room was lit by a bloodred glow. This seemed to make a difference. The people in the refectories stood up and began to walk toward the doors. But it was still like trying to start a stampede of sleepy buffalo. In the dormitories the nurses lingered around the beds, looking at the rows of children as if they weren’t sure what to do about them.

  “Send the nurses a message,” Mika said. “Tell them to leave the children behind.”

  It took a while, but eventually panic ignited and Gorman’s staff began to pour down to ground level like water running out of a punctured vessel, leaving all the children behind.

  “Some officers are coming this way,” Leo said.

  “They’re his chief officers,” Ellie observed. “We have to get rid of them.”

  She moved her hands quickly over the desktop and added another alarm on the top floor. It was so piercing, it made them wince. Immediately, the officers turned and ran in the other direction.

  “Nice,” Leo said.

  Then Ellie summoned a view from above the fortress and they watched the staff pour out over the rocks and toward the electric fence. Thousands of soldiers, nurses, engineers, and maintenance staff, some still in their pajamas. The wind buffeted them. Their light was a mass of fear and panic.

  “Keep going, keep going,” Ellie whispered.

  She pressed an icon, and the giant electric fence began to sink into the ground. The staff ran over it, heading toward the town. They were really scared now and running for their lives.

  Eventually, the evacuation slowed down to a trickle. When Ellie was sure they were all gone, she made the fence rise again. The only adults left inside the perimeter were the seven men locked in the gym.

  “That was tense,” Mika said. “I thought we were going to have to go out there and prod them with sticks.”

  For a minute they watched the darkness on the other side of the fence, wondering if the staff would realize they’d been tricked and come back. But the darkness remained solid.

  “Good,” Ellie said. “Now let’s deal with the Queen of the North.”

  She set up a distress signal and sent it to the space station. Then they paced Gorman’s office while they waited for it to arrive.

  Kobi and his father followed the man and woman through the metal door and into the buffer zone. After undressing clumsily because their hands were so cold, they left them and walked up the stairs to their room. They opened the door to find Oliver sitting on Kobi’s bed.

  “Hello,” Oliver said. “Where have you been?”

  “Just out for a bit,” Kobi replied.

  The child fell quiet, sensing the strained atmosphere. He and Kobi watched Abe pack more tools in his bag, do it up, and sling it over his shoulder.

  “I’ll see you later,” Abe said.

  “OK, Dad,” Kobi replied. “Good luck.”

  When Abe had left, Kobi immediately turned to Oliver. “Is the boy awake?” he asked.

  “No!” Oliver whispered excitedly. “The medicine didn’t work! He’s still asleep! All the grown-ups are talking about it. I stood outside the kitchen and listened. They don’t understand why it didn’t work.”

  “They wouldn’t,” Kobi replied.

  “What do you mean?” Oliver asked. “I don’t understand either.”

  “Nothing,” Kobi said.

  He felt immense relief that he’d guessed right; that the boy would sleep until the others awoke, but he also felt the walls of the room closing in on him. He was trapped in a box in a building, with the weight of the Golden Turrets pressed down on his head and all these angry adults around him. And although he was glad the boy had not awoken, he knew he would awake, soon, in the wrong place. He needed help.

  If Oliver had been older, Kobi would have told him everything at that moment. But Oliver was too young to understand how precarious this situation was. Kobi could not expect a seven-year-old child to keep his mouth shut if he knew the children of the North were about to stage the biggest rebellion in human history. And that there were forests and rich people on the other side of The Wall.

  No, Oliver couldn’t be told that. But he looked upset. He knew Kobi was keeping something from him.

  “I’m hungry,” Kobi said. “I could really do with something to eat. Do you think you can help me?”

  “Yes,” Oliver said, immediately distracted. “I’ll show you where to make a sa
ndwich. You don’t have to ask, you can just go to the kitchens and make it yourself. That’s what I do.”

  He stood up and straightened his Pod Fighter T-shirt.

  “Thanks,” Kobi said. “I’m glad I’ve got you to show me around.”

  Then he followed the child down the stairs, with his head full of the sleeping boy.

  21 Someone Is Missing

  “Here it comes,” Ellie said.

  The Queen of the North descended slowly, its engines vibrating through the fortress, the coastline, the town, and the sea. Mal Gorman’s Chosen Ones stood at his window and watched the clouds part and a few megatons of metal and light fill the sky.

  “Frag!” Mika said. “It’s huge! Are you sure we can take control of that?”

  “Yeah,” Ellie replied. “Its weapons systems are rubbish compared to the fortress. It’s a research station, not a warship. But our main advantage will be surprise.”

  They heard a beep from the desk as a message arrived. It was from the Commander of the Queen of the North, asking Mal Gorman if the distress signal was a drill.

  Ellie replied:

  Yes, this is a drill.

  Testing evacuation procedure in advance of war.

  Follow guidelines.

  Evacuate the Queen of the North.

  The children watched the screen with their hearts thumping. A minute passed before the Commander replied.

  Requesting authorization code

  “Oh,” Ellie said. “I was hoping they wouldn’t ask for one of those.”

  “Search the desktop,” Audrey suggested, chewing her nails. “Perhaps Gorman keeps it in a file somewhere.”

  Ellie searched quickly, but all she found was a folder of wallpaper samples. She dragged it into the bin. “OK,” she said. “We don’t have an authorization code, so we’re going to have to invent one.”

  “Quickly,” Mika said. “We don’t want to give them time to start wondering what’s happening.”

  Awen paced the office with the whites of his eyes showing.

  Ellie summoned a side view of the fortress, so they could see the space station hanging above it. Then she opened the weapons panel.

  “I’ve heard Gorman boasting about his cannons,” she said. “They’re supposed to be huge. Perhaps they’ll work as an authorization code.”

  “Try it,” Mika said. “Quickly.”

  They watched Ellie sweep her hands over the desk. After a few seconds, they heard a great, grinding noise in the bones of the fortress. They leaned over the screen and watched as the cannons rose out of the top.

  “Frag!” Audrey said, grinning. “Gorman wasn’t exaggerating.”

  The cannons rose to form a ring, transforming the fortress into a huge weapon powerful enough to blow a hole in the moon. When they’d risen to their full height, Ellie sent another message to the Commander of the Queen of the North:

  Authorization Code:

  Look out the window.

  They waited several agonizing minutes. The Queen of the North hung above them, a dark silent hulk, and nothing appeared to happen for ages. Sometimes they watched it through the window, sometimes they watched it through the desktop, urgently wanting to see signs of movement. But when things started to happen, they happened quickly. Openings appeared on the undercarriage of the space station and bright yellow evacuation pods began to fly out. It started with twos and threes, but soon there were so many, it was like watching popcorn explode from the ship. The pods puffed out in yellow clouds, then swarmed away from the fortress. The children watched, feeling rushes of excitement, until it slowed down and stopped.

  “It’s ours,” Ellie said. “The Queen of the North is ours.”

  “Can we control it from here?” Audrey asked enthusiastically.

  “Yes,” Ellie replied.

  “Can you move it a bit?” Audrey said. “So it’s not hanging over our heads.”

  “I think so.”

  Ellie fiddled for a few minutes until the enormous space station began to rumble toward the sea. Ellie stopped it a mile away, where they could keep an eye on it.

  “You just parked a space station,” Audrey said mischievously.

  “I’m tempted to drop it in the sea,” Ellie said. “I was forced to live on that thing for a year and a half.”

  “Don’t do that,” Mika said immediately. “You’ll cause a giant wave.”

  “I know,” Ellie replied. “I’m not actually going to do it. I was just joking.”

  “Well, it wasn’t funny.”

  They looked at each other.

  “Why are you in such a crappy mood?” she said.

  “Because we haven’t got time for jokes,” Mika replied. “Now that we’ve taken the fortress and the Queen of the North, we have to move quickly. We’ve got to wake up the army, take control of The Wall, tell our government what we’ve done, and then negotiate with the South. And as fast as possible so our parents don’t realize what’s going on. I feel like there’s something happening we need to know about. I want Lilian’s charger. Now.”

  They watched as he searched the drawers in Gorman’s desk. Ellie scowled.

  “I don’t understand,” Audrey said. “What do we need to know about?”

  “Well, that’s it, I dunno,” Mika said. “I just feel it. I wish we could hear more in The Whisper. There’s something in it I want to hear louder. Frag! I can’t find my charger! Where did Gorman put it? I need it!”

  “Don’t worry,” Audrey said. “We’ll find one. Calm down, Mika. You know we won’t be able to do this if we get all stressed.”

  Seven children, a monkey, and a dream dog had taken control of a fortress and a space station. This was an auspicious act, but it was also a catalyst. Taking over from the Northern Government would be like tipping out a box of marbles and trying to catch them all again before they rolled off the table. They’d started something that couldn’t be stopped, they’d never done anything like it before, and they were aware that if even one marble fell, the consequences would be devastating. Their world could end up more of a mess than it had ever been before.

  For half an hour they remained in Mal Gorman’s office, trying to think of everything that could go wrong and securing the fortress through his desk. They turned off the security borgs that patrolled the passages. They deactivated the children’s implants, so they no longer had to fight the Northern Government commands. Then they spent a few minutes trying to figure out how to transport the Pod Fighters up to the hangar. There were thousands of them stored underground, but it was a complicated process. When this was done, they searched for clothing for the implanted army. They couldn’t fly out of that fortress in white gowns and bare feet. And they would need food, water, medical supplies. There was so much to think about, with marbles skidding across the table.

  While all this was going on, the communication network crashed under a sudden deluge of messages. The fortress staff were not completely stupid. As they ran through the streets of Sandwood Seven, they waited for the megabomb to fall, but instead, after several quiet minutes, they saw the Queen of the North arrive.

  Why would Mal Gorman summon the Queen of the North when a megabomb was just about to hit the fortress?

  This did not make sense.

  Gorman’s precious space station had no weapons to defend it against the might of a megabomb and now it was perched right above the fortress, where it would get hit.

  As evacuation pods began to fly out of it, the staff clicked that there was something fishy going on. They turned and began to run toward the fortress, sending messages, demanding to know what was happening.

  “Look at them,” Audrey said, as they began to appear on the other side of the fence. “They’re really angry.”

  “They can’t get back in,” Ellie said. “They’re the least of our worries. Try to ignore them.”

  She swiped them away, turned off the communication network, and stood up. “Right,” she said. “That’s everything we can do here. Let’s find Mik
a a charger and collect the army.”

  They quickly explored the rooms around Mal Gorman’s office. They found companion chargers in the drawer of another desk belonging to one of his commanders. Mika connected Lilian and left her in a heap with the rest, then they set off down the fortress toward the mutants’ enclosure.

  The fortress felt cavernous with the adults gone, like a lost ship drifting through space. Security borgs slept in the silent passages, and computers dozed in their desks. Now and then a cleaner borg droned past, looking a bit lost and lonely. The children hurried toward the mutants, knowing they’d feel more in control when they were all together again. They’d met many of these mutants during the game. They had competed against each other then, but now they were a team. The mutants were the elite, the best pilots and gunners. Working together, leading squadrons of Pod Fighters, they would be very useful.

  The mutants paced their enclosure, watching the door. As Ellie and Mika and the others walked through it, they came together in a rush of risk-fueled adrenaline. They wore a similar white uniform, without the black stripe down the side. Standing together, they looked exactly what they were: young, talented, and dangerous.

  When they’d talked for a few minutes and most of them had marveled and smooched over Puck, they prepared to move down the fortress again, to wake up the implanted army. But as Mika moved toward the door, he had a sudden, horrible thought. He’d forgotten about someone. Someone who ought to be there but wasn’t.

  “Audrey, stop,” he said. “Where’s Ruben? Where’s that nasty little perp, Ruben Snaith?”

  Audrey turned and scanned the crowd with her green eyes. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen him.”

  “Who’s Ruben?” Ellie asked.

  “You know him,” Mika said. “He was in our class in Barford North. That rat boy who bullied mutants.”

  “Yeah, I remember him,” she scowled. “That’s one person I didn’t miss when I was taken.”

 
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