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The whisper, p.17
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       The Whisper, p.17

           Emma Clayton
 
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  The Ghengis borgs felt the vibrations as the Pod Fighters fell out of the clouds, but they were programmed to attack northward, not south, so they did not know what to do. The Pod Fighters pulled up from their dive, and the air filled with streams of laser fire. Then tons of concrete exploded beneath the Ghengis borgs’ feet. Over the roar of engines, the children heard the crack and boom of heavy metal hitting The Wall. Some borgs fell headfirst, red eyes following their guns into the sea. Others fell back, their guns hitting their chests as they cracked against The Wall. But in that first strike, almost half the Ghengis borgs were left hanging from their broken plinths with the warped roots of their guns still attached to The Wall.

  The moment the children pulled up on the other side, the Ghengis borgs began to fire. The air filled with cannon balls of laser light that shot toward them like lumps of sun. And this fire was quicker than the Pod Fighters could fly, so the pilots had to dodge it without crashing into their friends. When they all made it through the clouds alive, they felt horribly shaken.

  “We’re going to have to do better than that,” Ellie said. “That was awful. We need to aim for the base of the plinths so it completely blows out the roots of the guns.”

  They gathered for a second strike and dropped. This time they blew out the last twisted roots and pulled up safe.

  “That’s better,” Ellie said. “Let’s do them like that.”

  Kobi now hated the stairs up to the eleventh floor of the Future Communication Building. As he climbed them once more, with his clothes dripping, he wished he could do what the boy had done and try to run away. But his father was here, in a difficult situation, and the boy was back in this building. It was time to accept that this is where he belonged. That by trying to avoid conscription into the army, he’d landed the worst job in it: trying to stop The Secret from getting out before the army was ready.

  He collected his coat on the way up. This was also wet. It had been trampled by the adults carrying the boy up the stairs. When he reached the buffer zone, he didn’t bother to take his wet things off. There didn’t seem any point, but he was stopped immediately by a woman walking past him.

  “You’re soaked, Kobi! Look at you. Go and change or you’ll get ill.”

  “Where have they taken the boy?” Kobi asked.

  “Into the big meeting room. He’s semi-conscious now, and talking, and there’s more space in there for people to listen. But forget about the boy. You’re soaked. Go and get changed. If your father saw you like that, he’d be horrified.”

  “OK,” Kobi said, but the moment the woman was out of sight, he walked in the opposite direction, searching for the meeting room. When he found it, the door was shut. When he tried the handle, he discovered it was locked. He knocked hard, determined to get in. The man who opened it didn’t look pleased to see him.

  “You’re going to have to come back later, Kobi.”

  “What’s the boy saying?” Kobi asked.

  “It’s difficult to tell; he’s delirious. He thought he was in a forest a minute ago. It’s not a good time for you to come in.”

  Kobi tried to see past the man. The boy was lying on a bed in the middle of the room, reattached to his drip and wrapped in silver thermal blankets. He writhed against them as if he was trying to fight them off and he was surrounded by a large crowd of adults, some asking him questions, others listening. More adults arrived and the man let them in, then he moved to block Kobi’s view and began to close the door. “Come back later,” he said. “Don’t worry, if he says anything important, we’ll let you know.”

  “Is my father in there?” Kobi asked.

  “Yes.”

  “Please let me in, I won’t get in the way,” Kobi said, feeling as if he was being forced to beg, like Oliver. “I’ll stand at the back.”

  “No, sorry, Kobi, come back later.”

  The door shut in his face.

  “Frag!” Kobi cursed. He turned and ran up to his room to find his companion.

  If he didn’t get hold of Mika soon, he felt like he would explode.

  The Pod Fighters followed the night around the world, shooting out the plinths beneath the Ghengis borgs. The more the children felled, the better they got at doing it. Most went down the first time. But there were always a few left clinging to the twisted roots of their guns, pumping balls of light. After an hour, thirty Pod Fighters had been hit. Most landed their damaged crafts on cleared sections of The Wall, but as the others flew on for the next strike, they never knew quite what horrors they left behind.

  Borg sharks wove below the waves on the south side of The Wall.

  “This isn’t fun!” Audrey cried.

  “Only you could hope it’d be fun,” Mika said. “Hang in there. We’ve halfway there.”

  The second hour was worse. Each time they dropped to strike, it took more effort to concentrate; more willpower to stay alive; to drop, to level, to shoot, to pull up. On and on they fought until they were welded by sweat to their Pod Fighters. Eyes blinded by laser fire.

  It was in this state Mika realized Lilian was yelling at him from his pocket.

  “I’m busy!” he shouted, pulling up from a strike. “I can’t talk to you now.”

  “But it’s really, really important,” she yelled. “Kobi’s trying to call you! He says he has to talk to you! He won’t stop bugging me! He’s insisting it’s really important!”

  “Did you say Kobi?” Mika shouted. “Kobi Nenko?” It was difficult to hear her over the roar of the Pod Fighter, and she wasn’t connected to its com system.

  “Yes!” Lilian yelled. “Kobi Nenko!”

  They were now above the clouds, and the rest of the squadron was forming to drop for another strike. Mika felt a shot of happiness that his friend Kobi was trying to call him, but he’d only heard half of what Lilian said.

  “Tell him I’ll call him back as soon as I can!” he shouted. “Tell him I can’t wait to speak to him!”

  “OK,” Lilian yelled. “But he’s not going to like it.”

  Mika didn’t hear that last bit. They were dropping out of the sky, engines roaring, ready for the next strike.

  The children felt numb when The Wall was theirs. They’d been flying for over two hours, facing death with every strike. They’d felt so many intense emotions, they were too exhausted to feel anything else.

  They landed on The Wall in Germany. Mika helped Audrey climb out of the Pod Fighter. Her legs were trembling. She couldn’t do it on her own.

  It was dark. The wind blew drizzle in their faces. For a few minutes, Mika sat on the wing of the Pod Fighter with Audrey in his arms, shuddering against him. The wing was hot, almost too hot, but at least it was still attached.

  “I thought we were going to die,” Audrey said. “I didn’t realize how difficult it would be.”

  “But we didn’t,” he replied. “And you were amazing.”

  “Imagine how our parents would feel if they knew we were doing that.”

  “Best not think about our parents at the moment,” he advised. “Look where we are.”

  He stood up and led her away from the Pod Fighter. The top of The Wall was as wide as a traffic trunk — the air-roads that networked above the cramped cities of the North. They were high above their world, with towers on one side and forests on the other. They could smell wet earth on the wind. On each side were waist-height concrete barriers and rolls of razor wire. When they looked south, they could see the light of the forests as a great gold mass. When they looked north, they could see more lights, the lights of millions of people sleeping in their beds or moving around their fold-down apartments.

  “It’s beautiful,” Audrey said.

  “We’re on The Wall,” Mika said. “We’re standing on The Wall.”

  The other children were gathering, leaving their Pod Fighters and climbing over the broken Ghengis borg plinths to form small groups. Nearly fifty Pod Fighters had been shot down and they needed to find the lost pilots and gunners.

&nb
sp; Ellie, Puck, and Tom arrived, then Leo and Iman, Colette and Santos. They made calls to the children in the fortress, and the Stealth Carrier was sent out to fly along The Wall and collect the stranded pilots and gunners. While this was happening, they heard stories of Pod Fighters hanging by the twisted guns that had shot them down. Children in the sea, glowing gold, as mutants hunted for them. Nobody talked about death, but they all worried about it. The Whisper was full of it. And when the last child was found, The Whisper was full of this too, a huge rush of relief coursed through it.

  Then Awen mooched around Mika and his friends with his tail wagging.

  24 Regards from the Army of Children

  Now the children felt time pressing on them again. The seven Chosen Ones stood together with the windswept monkey and looked north toward the German city Mainz. The mile-wide strip of no-man’s-land was covered in concrete rubble and litter that had blown there from the streets. Across this they could see the lights of the people, moving. Crowds were beginning to gather in the streets. Curiosity pulsed through their light. They’d heard the Pod Fighters. They could see heaps of Ghengis borgs and concrete lying at the base of The Wall.

  Ellie explained what she could see to Tom, who saw only darkness on both sides, then this coursed through The Whisper too, so all the implanted children knew what she could see. Then it was agreed it was time to tell the Northern Government that they had taken over.

  “Who’s going to do it?” Ellie asked. “Mika? Do you want to do it?”

  “No,” Mika said immediately. “I’m too nervous and it has to be done right. Leo should do it.”

  Everyone turned to Leo, who was leaning against the north side barrier. He hadn’t broken a sweat in the past few hours.

  “I will if you want me to,” he said.

  “Yeah, you do it,” Audrey enthused. “You’ll do it best.”

  “OK,” Leo said.

  He got out his companion. They’d found the numbers for their own government ministers stored in Mal Gorman’s desk. They waited for a few minutes as more children walked along The Wall to watch. When they had a group of several hundred around them, Leo took a deep breath and wrote a message:

  We are the army of children.

  We don’t want to fight your war.

  In the past few hours we’ve deposed the Minister for Youth Development, Mal Gorman, and taken control of the fortress at Cape Wrath, the Queen of the North, and The Wall. We now control all weapons in the North and we assert our control over you.

  We are about to negotiate with the South for freedom for everyone, not just you, because we want our parents to be happy and we want to live in a world with trees and animals in it.

  We want a future.

  And as you told us during the game:

  We are the future.

  Regards from the army of children

  “That’s good,” Ellie said, reading over Leo’s shoulder.

  “Send it!” Audrey said, biting her lip.

  “Do you like it, Mika?” Leo asked.

  “Yeah,” Mika said. “It’s good.”

  “OK,” Leo said. “I’ll send it to all the government ministers and I’ll forward it to the fortress so it can be sent out to all the staff who’ve been asking what’s going on. Then everyone will know.”

  For a few moments after he sent it, the children looked at each other, imagining the mayhem this message would cause. Then Audrey grinned with glee, then they were all grinning.

  “I wonder what sort of messages you’ll get back,” Audrey said.

  “We don’t have to read them,” Leo replied stoically. “We’re not asking for permission to take control; we’ve just done it and there’s nothing they can do. We have all the weapons and we’re standing on The Wall. It’s the South we need to worry about now. We do have to negotiate with them. It’s time to call Raphael Mose.”

  Helen had given them Raphael Mose’s private number. Leo searched for it and their mood changed. The children stopped grinning and stood in the rainy darkness, watching anxiously.

  It was a long time since Raphael Mose had thought about the people in the North. Forty-three years had passed and that was plenty of time to forget what he’d done. Sometimes when he was out on his golf course, playing a few holes with his friends, the wind changed and he thought he could smell concrete and a kind of stuffy sadness. But it was easy to ignore this with acres of freshly mown grass and forests around him. And sometimes the sudden jolt of anxiety improved his game. He didn’t care what was happening on the other side of The Wall. He didn’t even want to look over it to see if all those people were still alive. Out of sight, out of mind. That was his philosophy.

  He did wonder sometimes how his daughter, Grace, had been born so weird. Her goat legs had frightened him in the first few days after her birth and he didn’t want to hold her. How could this have happened, when everything else in his life was perfect? But he quickly learned to look at the top half of his daughter and ignore the bottom bit he didn’t understand. It had taken his wife many years to fall pregnant, so the top half of Grace was very precious to him.

  It was morning in Oregon. A beautiful spring morning. Raphael Mose was in the kitchen making breakfast for Grace, who sat at the table drawing a picture of a cat. Although he had hundreds of staff at his disposal, including a chef and a nanny, who were among the lucky few given jobs in the South, he made breakfast for Grace every day before he started work. He enjoyed it. The top half of his child was very beautiful.

  Sun poured through the kitchen windows. His wife rode past on one of her horses. He tipped porridge from a pan into two bowls and drizzled honey over it. He looked perfectly ordinary from a distance. A good father spending time with his child, but the eyes that watched the honey drizzle were cold and disconnected from the beauty around him.

  The first time his companion called, he ignored it because he was just sitting down at the table with Grace to eat his porridge. The second time, he removed it from his pocket, but he didn’t recognize the number, so he put it away again. But the third time it called, he felt annoyed and put down his spoon and stood up.

  “Who is this?” he asked angrily.

  For a while he heard nothing, as if the person on the other end was thinking, then they said, “We know what you did to us.”

  Mose was silent for a few seconds. It was so long since he’d thought about the North, he didn’t know what this person was talking about.

  “What?” he said at last. “Who is this? What do you mean?”

  “I’m standing on The Wall,” Leo said. “Looking at forests.”

  It still took Mose a while to understand. But when he did, the shock was so intense, he felt plunged into freezing darkness, as if he’d been thrown into the river in The Shadows.

  “You’re standing on The Wall?” he whispered.

  Grace stopped eating her porridge and looked at him.

  “Hang on a minute,” Mose said. “I’m going to take this call in my study. Grace, I’m sorry, darling, but I’ve got to talk to a man about work. I’ll be back in a minute.” Then he ran from the kitchen to his study and slammed the door.

  “Tell me who you are,” he demanded.

  “My name is Leo. I’m calling on behalf of the North. We know what you did to us, and our people are dying. We want to negotiate with you. We want you to let us out without fighting a war.”

  “No,” Mose replied instantly. “You can’t come out. Listen, what do you want? Let’s strike a deal. What about a new telly for every fold-down apartment? A new telly and a sofa? And medicine. If your people are sick, we’ll let you have better medicine.”

  “No, thanks,” Leo said. “Our people need sunlight and nature, not tellies and sofas. You have to let us out. This is the starting point and we want to negotiate how it can be done. It’s not as bad as you think. We won’t let our people damage the forests like they did in the past. We know what we’re doing.”

  “And who are you exactly?” Mose said. “
You sound very young. How old are you?”

  “Thirteen,” Leo replied.

  “Thirteen!” Mose laughed.

  It was a crazy, relieved laugh. “Are you serious! This is a joke, isn’t it? You’re thirteen years old and you want to negotiate for freedom on behalf of the North?” Then his face set and his eyes chilled until he looked more evil than Mal Gorman had ever done. “Listen to me, Leo,” he said. “Take the tellies and the sofas and medicine while the offer is open, because if your people take one step beyond The Wall, we’ll destroy them. You stupid boy. Stop wasting my time.”

  Mose slammed his companion down.

  “OK,” Leo said. “So he tried to bribe us and then he threatened us. It’s what we expected. Now we wait a few minutes until he calms down and then we try again. He’ll realize soon he can’t ignore us.”

  The children spent this time looking north. The people of Mainz were now venturing onto no-man’s-land and there were thousands in the streets between the towers, looking toward The Wall. It was the middle of the night, and drizzle soaked through their clothes, but nearly everyone was out.

  “They worry me more than Raphael Mose,” Mika said. “If they find out what’s going on before we’ve negotiated a deal, we’re in big trouble.”

  “They won’t,” Ellie said. “They’ve no idea what’s going on. They’re just curious. They can see us up here and they’re wondering what’s happening.”

  “Call Mose again,” Mika told Leo.

  “In a minute,” Leo replied. “It’s too soon yet.”

  Mika paced around him, knowing this was true and glad he was not the one holding the companion.

 
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