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The whisper, p.16
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       The Whisper, p.16

           Emma Clayton
 
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  “And he’s a mutant,” Mika said. “Can you believe it? He made our lives hell during the game and he didn’t get chosen because he’s such a psycho. We have to find him. Does anyone know where he is?”

  The question traveled, but nobody knew. Ruben had wanted Audrey as his gunner when the game first began, but she’d chosen Mika instead. Ruben had never forgiven him for this and made a dangerous game miserable too. Ruben wasn’t like them; he used his power to cause pain. He fed his jealousy and hatred instead of trying to control bad feelings. No one had seen him since the prize-giving dinner when he’d transformed the table into a whirlwind of knives and broken glass. He’d been shot by Gorman’s men and dragged away….

  But to where?

  “We have to look for him,” Mika said. “We can’t leave here until we know where he is.”

  They began searching the rooms around the enclosure. After a few minutes, a boy came running to find them and they were taken to an area just along the passage on the same floor. They walked through a pair of two-feet-thick security doors into a suite of rooms.

  “Oh no,” Mika said, looking around.

  Despite the heavy security, it looked like a luxury hotel suite, fitted with everything a psycho boy like Ruben could wish for. A king-size bed; a sea view; a fridge full of real food; a cinema-size screen on one wall; a large, illuminated mirror to preen himself in. Most of the furnishings looked as if they’d come from Mal Gorman’s private apartment. There was even one of his oil paintings hanging over the bed. Soft towels, silk curtains, an antique vase, and hanging in the wardrobe, a row of uniforms similar to theirs … but black …

  “Gorman’s been treating him like a prince,” Audrey said. “He must be crazy!”

  “We already knew that,” Mika said. “Frag it! Where is that rat boy? We let him escape when we opened the doors.”

  “He’ll be long gone,” Audrey said, closing the wardrobe. “He’s not going to hang around to help us stop a war. He’s not one of us.”

  “We have to go,” Ellie said urgently. “We could spend hours searching for him when we’re supposed to be waking up the army and flying out of here. We need to concentrate on what we’re doing.”

  She began to walk toward the door.

  “But I want to know where he is,” Mika said.

  “We haven’t got time,” Ellie said. “Come on, we have to go. Please. If he follows us, we’ll deal with him then. Forget him for now. Come on.”

  They moved down the fortress toward the implanted army, and Ruben was shelved. There really were more important things to worry about. They all knew this. They were about to fly again, most of them for the first time in reality. Now they’d taken the fortress and the Queen of the North, they would have to take control of The Wall. They would stand on The Wall that divided their world and talk to the adults who’d broken it.

  The mutants stood among the implanted army, watching them sleep in their beds.

  It was thrilling to be among them like this. There were so very many, and the second awakening would not be like the first. There would be no pain or confusion or anger, just haste to climb into their Pod Fighters.

  Ellie, Mika, and Audrey stood among the rows of beds. They waited in the silence until they sensed everyone was ready, then they took a deep breath.

  Wake up.

  Wake up.

  It’s time to fly.

  22 The Second Awakening

  Kobi sat at the desk between the beds, working on the borg kittens. They were nearly finished. He was attaching their silver whiskers and the tiny pads on each paw. Nevermore watched him intently, with beady silver eyes. He watched the kittens glint in the light of the lamp as if he understood how precious they were and as if he’d quite like to thieve them before they were finished. Kobi knew this was an illusion and that Nevermore didn’t really know what he was doing. But it made him feel a bit better. His father was still out, pretending to fix the bolt borg. Kobi was working on the kittens because the boy’s room was still out of bounds, and he was sure he’d go crazy if he didn’t force himself to think about something else.

  The Whisper had been quiet for a while. It was pensive, as if it was waiting for a coin to land, heads up or down…. Kobi realized something was happening.

  He couldn’t concentrate on the kittens. He got up and paced. Then he felt a bit better and sat down again and managed to focus for ten minutes. Then he started feeling something else, a feeling he recognized from his days in the arcade: the anticipation of flight; the nervous excitement and the lust for speed as he slid into the pilot seat and put his headset on.

  Was the army waking up?

  His put down his tools and stared at the wall behind the desk, listening carefully.

  Nevermore pecked at the kittens.

  Then he heard it.

  Wake up.

  Wake up.

  It’s time to fly.

  His heart began to pound.

  He burst out of the room and ran down the stairs, determined to be with that boy even if he had to kick the door down and wrestle the adults out of the way.

  But when he reached the boy’s room, he found the door open and the bed empty. For a moment he stood and stared at it, confused. Then he noticed the thin plastic tubes that had been attached to the boy’s arm were dripping drugs and saline on the floor. And there were patches of blood on the sheets where the needles had been yanked out. The boy must have done this himself. He’d awoken already … and run….

  Kobi turned, panic-stricken, wondering which way he’d gone. It could only have happened moments ago. He found his path blocked by a startled woman.

  “Where is he?” she cried, pushing past him. “I only left him alone for a minute and he was fast asleep. What happened?”

  “I don’t know,” Kobi replied. “I’ve only just got here.”

  The woman began to shout for help, and suddenly, adults were running in from every direction.

  Kobi thought fast.

  Which way would he go if he’d awoken in the wrong place?

  Out, he decided. Out of that building and away, to find the army.

  But beyond that building was a stinking, broken river and it was high tide. And the boy was sick. He wasn’t well enough to be out of bed; he’d never survive The Shadows. Kobi pushed through the adults and hurried toward the buffer zone, hoping they wouldn’t notice him leave. But within moments, they were following and he had a mob on his tail. He half fell down eleven flights of stairs, throwing his coat off, taking three, four steps at a time, desperate that the boy would either drown or the adults would reach him first.

  In the foyer he found the tide higher than he’d ever seen it before. It was almost up to his chest and it heaved around the stricken walls. He leaped into it and gasped as the cold hit his chest. Then he half swam, half waded to the doors. Just beyond them he saw the boy about a hundred feet away, struggling west through the water. His pale arms flailed as it dragged him toward the corner of a building. Kobi swam with all his might, using every bit of strength Fit Camp had given him and reached the boy as he slammed against the wall and turned facedown.

  The pull of the water was so strong, it was difficult to turn him over. Kobi pushed him against the wall, gripped him under the arms, and yanked him up. He could hear the adults behind him, shouting. He cut them out, refusing to listen to them.

  “What’s your name?” he asked the boy frantically. “I’m one of you, talk to me.”

  But the boy lolled in Kobi’s arms, his red hair plastered to his head, and his skin tinged blue by the cold. He wasn’t asleep, he was unconscious.

  “You mustn’t tell,” Kobi whispered urgently. “Can you hear me? Please don’t talk. Don’t tell these people anything.”

  Then Kobi was surrounded by adults grabbing at the boy’s arms. He would not let go.

  “Let me do it!” he shouted. “He needs to be with me!”

  The adults looked at him with a mixture of surprise and pity.

&nb
sp; “It’s all right, Kobi,” someone said. “We know this is upsetting for you, but the boy needs medical care. Let go of him.”

  It became a tug of war. The adults pulling one way and Kobi pulling the other, with the boy limp between them, and the black water rushing all around.

  “What are you doing?” someone said. “Let go!”

  Now they were angry. Kobi wanted to yell at them. He wanted to tell them exactly what he thought of them, but he knew if he pushed this too far, he might never be allowed near the boy again. He let go of his arms and they pulled him away as if he were a sack of gold. Then Kobi followed them back into the building.

  The second awakening happened quickly. The children opened their eyes and gathered momentum. They visited the uniform stores and collected clothes — underwear, trousers, shirts, and boots — searching the metal shelves for their sizes and sitting on the floor to dress in a concentrated silence. They left their long white gowns behind, in heaps on the floor.

  Then they collected water bottles and ration packs and returned to the dormitories to form the squadrons that would fly to The Wall.

  “I need a gunner,” Ellie said.

  “I know a good one,” Mika replied. “Find one of the nurses’ tablets and we’ll search for him.”

  Ellie found one under a bed, where a nurse had flung it as he ran from the megabomb. Stored in its memory were the locations of every child in the dormitories.

  “What’s his name?” Ellie asked.

  “Frazer,” Mika replied. “Tom Frazer. He was Kobi’s gunner in the game. He’s not a mutant, but he’s still really good.”

  Ellie entered Tom’s name, and a dormitory and bed number appeared. “He’s in dormitory nineteen,” she said.

  “Let’s go and find him.”

  Mika felt better now that the army was awake. They were moving quickly, proving how much they’d learned through the game, and he liked the idea of Ellie flying with Tom. Tom had been completely beguiled by Pod Fighter and refused to listen to Kobi’s and Mika’s warnings, but that wasn’t his fault, and any gunner good enough to fly with Kobi Nenko was good enough to fly with his sister. It felt right and safe that Ellie flew with Tom. No mutant would try harder for her.

  But when they found him, Tom started with shock. He hadn’t seen anyone from Barford North since he lost Ana, and Mika reminded him what a fool he’d been.

  “Mika,” he said. “Audrey.” Immediately, his face reddened with embarrassment. “You tried to warn me…. I’m really sorry.”

  “I know,” Mika said. “Forget about that now. We’ve been looking for you. I have a special favor to ask.”

  “Anything,” Tom said.

  “I want you to gun for my sister. Meet Ellie … and Puck.”

  Tom blushed again, moved by Ellie’s dark charisma and startled by her monkey friend. Then he felt a glow of gratitude and pride that they had searched for him, despite what had happened before. Pilot and gunner relationships were special. They chose each other carefully. “I’d love to,” he said.

  “Yaaay!” Audrey cried. “I’m excited now! We’ve got Tom back!”

  “I wonder where Kobi is,” Tom said.

  “I dunno,” Mika replied. “But I wish he was with us.”

  Each dormitory formed a squadron of a hundred pairs of pilots and gunners, with at least four mutants in each. The structures that Mal Gorman made, the children adapted and made their own. This was still Pod Fighter and this is what they were born to do. They’d known it in their hearts since the day the arcades opened. And the addiction they’d felt to this dangerous game, that had landed them in this mess, now seemed to have a reason instead of just being stupid. They would use the same skills to stop a war that their government would have used to start one.

  When the squadrons were formed, they divided into two teams, one that would stay to protect the fortress, and one that would fly to The Wall. It was difficult to do this. They’d never craved to fly this much. But they had learned through the game that strategy was everything. That those who didn’t fight were as important as those who did.

  They were almost ready.

  As the squadrons prepared to leave, Mika left Ellie with Tom and traveled up the fortress with Audrey to collect their companions. Once they’d taken The Wall, they would have to make two calls. One to the Northern Government and another to Raphael Mose.

  In the elevator, Mika leaned against the wall, worrying about this.

  “That’s going to be the most dangerous time,” he said. “When we’re standing on The Wall and we’ve told both sides what we’ve done. They’re going to be very angry.”

  “I know,” Audrey replied. “It’ll be a while before they calm down and listen to us. But we’ll be standing on The Wall. We’ll control all the weapons in the North. It doesn’t matter how angry the Northern Government gets; they won’t be able to do anything. They can’t threaten us with sorting beads and detention collars anymore. And the South will be scared. When they calm down, they’ll realize they have to take us seriously.”

  “Yeah,” Mika said.

  “And we’re being reasonable,” Audrey said. “We don’t want to hurt anyone, we just want to talk.”

  She leaned against him and he put his arm around her, soothed by her simple optimism. Sometimes it seemed as if Audrey was “happiness,” that all he had to do was talk to this girl and the way he felt changed.

  The elevator reached Gorman’s floor and stopped.

  I love you, he thought, as the door opened.

  And I love you. And we’re going to fly!

  He grinned in her hair.

  That’s all you care about, isn’t it? Getting in a Pod Fighter again.

  No, she thought. But since I was thinking about things I love, I thought about that as well.

  He laughed and followed her out of the elevator. He was still feeling happy when they were traveling down in it again, with their charged companions in their pockets.

  23 Doing It for Real

  Mika and Audrey found Ellie in the hangar, watching the first squadron prepare to leave. Leo and Iman were flying with it. Mika watched Leo tie his dreadlocks at the nape of his neck, just as he’d done during the game. The gold ring glinted on his finger. He looked as calm as ever. Watching Leo like this, with Audrey and Ellie, made Mika feel that anything was possible. Anticipation ran through The Whisper like a fast, bright stream.

  “See you on The Wall,” Leo said, then Mika watched him follow Iman through the rows of Pod Fighters. They looked magnificent; their smooth black lines gleamed in the hangar light. Polished windshields slid back, and hundreds of children in blue and white uniforms jumped lightly onto the wings and dropped into the cockpits. Pilots at the front. Gunners at the back. As they slid down, their seats gripped the sides of their bodies. Then hands worked over headsets and controls. Harnesses clicked, icons blinked on, and blood pumped hard as they prepared for takeoff.

  The hangar roof opened like a giant retina and their engines began to roar. Leo and Iman’s Pod Fighter was the first to rise. For a moment it hung above them, roaring like a thousand tigers, then it shot up like a black dart and vanished, pulling the first squadron after it as if they were all connected by string.

  Ellie gripped Puck tightly as the noise made him convulse with panic.

  “Our turn next,” Audrey said.

  The departed squadron left the hangar bare. Only the Stealth Carrier and a freighter remained. But the fortress was equipped with enough Pod Fighters to have the whole army in the air together. Immediately, hundreds more arrived, with loader borgs attached to their wheels. Then the second squadron gathered. When the hangar was filled with Pod Fighters, and all the loader borgs had scurried away, Ellie, Mika, Audrey, and Tom walked out with the others.

  Ellie had to grip Puck with both hands. The last time he’d flown in a Pod Fighter, they’d almost drowned in the River Thames.

  “It’s OK,” Ellie whispered. “Trust me and hold on tight.” She dropped
into the pilot seat and the animal clung to her chest. Then Tom dropped in the back and they put their headsets on.

  Mika and Audrey took the Pod Fighter next to them. As they fastened their harnesses, Mika felt their minds synch. He was with Ellie, Tom, and Audrey, and he was with all the others. The windshield clicked down. Hundreds of colorful icons blinked on. Audrey felt over her gun controls and took a deep breath.

  Are you ready?

  Yeah.

  Mika took off. The roar of the Pod Fighter shattered the air and he felt Audrey’s adrenaline fuel it. He rose up through the fortress slowly, then when they were above it, they formed a cyclone around it, as the squadron gathered and prepared to fly south. Then, like a swarm of black flies, they unwound and shot toward The Wall.

  It was a cloudy night, but the wind was moderate and there was only the odd spat of rain. They would have preferred moonlight, but these conditions were safe enough.

  When they reached The Wall, they turned west and followed its line across the Atlantic. They flew in single file, high above the clouds, balanced on the knife edge between the two worlds.

  When all the squadrons had arrived, they prepared for the first strike. They had 3,150 Pod Fighters, but they would need to destroy four hundred thousand Ghengis borgs. That meant 126 strikes, one strike per minute for over two hours. It would be the most dangerous game they’d ever played.

  “My hands are sweaty,” Audrey said.

  “Wipe them,” Mika replied.

  Ellie was now a few miles ahead, leading the squadron with them at the rear. It was the farthest they’d been apart since they were reunited, and Mika felt that tug again, that need to be closer to her.

  I’m OK, she thought.

  Please stay alive, he replied.

  I’ve been flying Pod Fighters for a year and a half. How long have you been doing it?

  Eight weeks. OK, fair point.

  See you on The Wall.

  Each Pod Fighter indicated when it was ready to attack. A line of amber lights appeared above The Wall. They heard three beeps, then dove through the clouds, falling out of them in a dark shower. They came down five hundred yards south of The Wall because their laser fire was useless against the flex metal coating on the Ghengis borgs. They’d decided to use cunning rather than might; to sneak up behind them and blow out the concrete plinths on which they stood.

 
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