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       The Whisper, p.2

           Emma Clayton
 
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  The green worm of Gorman’s heartbeat began to bolt across a screen.

  “Lock the doors,” he said. “Don’t let them back in. If we let them back in, they’ll go for their Pod Fighters. They’re going to try to get their Pod Fighters and escape.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Gorman watched the children swarm toward the fire doors.

  “How are they communicating?” he asked. “They look as if they’re communicating, but they can’t, spread out like that. It’s not possible.”

  The children reached the fortress and pressed hard against it.

  Now Gorman felt afraid. All at once he felt as if he were watching aliens instead of children. That he’d harvested a crop of aliens to fight his war. He’d felt this unsettling sensation in the past, in the company of the mutants like Mika and Ellie, but never with these normal children.

  “I don’t like it,” he said. “They’re being weird.”

  “The doors are locked, sir. They can’t get back in.”

  “That’s not the point,” Gorman said. “I’ve had enough of this now. I want these children under control. I told them to sleep until they were needed, and they’re trying to run away from me.”

  He continued to watch them. Suddenly he felt vicious, as if he wanted to slap them down in the hardest, cruelest way.

  “Release the Creeper Nets,” he said.

  The engineers looked shocked.

  “The Creeper Nets, sir?”

  “Yes, the Creeper Nets.”

  “But the Creeper Nets are weapons. The children will be injured.”

  “Good,” Gorman replied. “They need teaching a lesson. Perhaps when they’ve felt the stab of a Creeper Net, they’ll remember who’s in control. I want my army back in bed.”

  The children pressed against the fortress, tugging on the wet bars of the fire doors. Their connection was faltering again. They were killing it with panic.

  They’d left their Pod Fighters behind!

  How could they have made such a terrible mistake?

  It was difficult to accept they’d done it, and they continued to tug on the doors long after they realized they were locked.

  But after a few minutes, they heard the grunt and grind of heavy metal. Startled, they backed away, not sure where the noise was coming from. Then they saw holes appear in the walls of the fortress where it met the rock of Cape Wrath. For a moment they considered using these as another route back in, then they heard a metallic scuttling sound and realized there was something in them.

  They pulled back slowly, still reluctant to leave, but when they saw the Creeper Nets reach the mouths of the tunnels, they turned and ran in terror.

  The Creeper Nets erupted in a spindly black mass and spread up the wall of the fortress. Then they spilled over the rocks, scuttling madly on hard, spike-tipped feet. It was difficult to see them through the darkness and the rain, but they looked like something hatching. Something made of scorpions and bats and spiders with some of their legs pulled off.

  Each Creeper Net had five barbed legs with a black wire net stretched between them. When they reached the children, they rose and bloomed like black flowers ready to strike. They struck hard, with one leg that arched back and came down with the speed of a paintbrush stippling canvas. The attacks were so fast and brutal, the first children fell without even seeing them — jerking like starfish, collapsing like puppets, paralyzed by venom, and cocooned by a net and barbed legs before they ever hit the wet rock.

  This was child control of the severest kind.

  But as Gorman watched them fall, his fear subsided. He’d caught a glimpse of something he didn’t like, and he didn’t want to see it again.

  2 What Mutant Eyes Could See

  When Mika and Ellie touched, only one adult realized something strange had happened. The man with the gun, who was guarding them. He’d thought he’d seen them glow when they touched. As if all the energy they’d used missing each other now fused them together into something new, something even more powerful and strange. Now he was trapped in a pod with them, flying toward London.

  Something bad had happened when they touched, he was sure of it. The Northern Government knew these mutant children were different, but how different? What exactly were they? Mika was born with webbed feet. Ellie was born with webbed hands. And many other children had been born with animal mutations, but no one understood why.

  Mal Gorman had taken Ellie a year and a half before the others so he could explore her mutant power. But they were still a live experiment, and the man with the gun did not want to discover the outcome of that experiment while he was alone, up in the air, with them.

  Ellie moved suddenly, reaching across the seat for a bottle of water, and the man with the gun almost jumped out of his skin. But Ellie didn’t even look at him. She opened the bottle quickly and passed it to her brother, with her eyes still fixed out the window. Mika was thirsty, not her. The man wondered how she knew.

  “Thanks,” Mika said.

  The man watched them carefully. He understood why Mal Gorman found them fascinating. They were beautiful beyond their blend of Italian and Indian bloods, with their long limbs, black hair, and eyes as sullen as night flowers. Their beauty was startling and unfathomable. Looking at Mika and Ellie was like staring at a wormhole in space and trying to see what was in it. But mutant beauty was deadly beauty. These children could kill with their eyes. This seemed like a useful talent to a warmongering corpse machine like Mal Gorman, but it frightened this man with the gun.

  Please don’t kill me, he thought.

  Children don’t glow, he told himself. Glowworms glow, the sun and moon glow, but children do not glow, even mutant ones.

  We’re just flying to London to visit their parents.

  Nothing bad is going to happen.

  This trip home had been arranged by Mal Gorman to make Ellie safer to work with. She’d been difficult to handle because her parents believed she was dead, so this was a calculated act of weapon management. When she returned to the fortress, Gorman hoped, she’d be as calm and obedient as her brother.

  The man wiped his free hand on his trousers and tried to admire the view. The passing towns looked prettier when darkness hid the mold and the pylons.

  Surely, there was nothing to worry about.

  They were, after all, just children.

  The Golden Turrets appeared on the distant horizon. The air roads rose like ribbons attached to the glittering domes, and Mika and Ellie felt their hearts swell with happiness. This was the journey they’d longed for since the day Ellie was taken. Their parents were about to discover she was still alive.

  They watched the city, full of love. It was even more beautiful viewed through mutant eyes. Every pod that flew ahead of them on the air road toward London had a trail of light the man couldn’t see. Blue light streaming from the craft, gold light streaming from the people within, fluid as water, bright as sea and sun, a startling blue, a brilliant gold, buzzing and throbbing with meaning. And the traffic moved at such speed on its gentle curve toward London that all these streams wove together into a silk of inanimate and living light that was mesmerizing.

  As Mika and Ellie absorbed this beauty, with their hearts so full of happiness, it didn’t feel as if anything could go wrong.

  But as the pod reached the first glittering dome on the outskirts of the city, the man’s com began to glow.

  Immediately, Mika and Ellie turned and fixed their eyes on him.

  He listened and nodded.

  Red spots appeared on his cheeks.

  The call was brief, but by the time it ended, the golden light emanating from his body was darkened by streaks of dread.

  “What’s wrong?” Ellie asked.

  “Nothing,” the man replied. “Look, we’re nearly there.”

  They knew he was lying. Sometimes these adults forgot what mutant eyes could see. The emotions they tried to hide with false expressions and words pulsed through their light, clear and
true. It was pointless lying to a mutant child. And the pilot had begun to fly faster, nudging through the traffic on the air road. Something was clearly wrong.

  Mika and Ellie looked away, reaching. They stopped thinking about their parents and let their minds drift toward the fortress. The city and its streamers passed, forgotten.

  It was their turn to connect.

  They felt a tug and a split second of uneasiness as they fastened. Then, as if a pipe had burst with a million gallons of water behind it, their minds were flooded by the thoughts of twenty-seven thousand stricken children.

  Blood, fear, darkness, rain. The Creeper Nets bloomed like black flowers around them. All at once they were not in the pod, they were running on black rock, dressed in thin, white gowns, with lumps of metal in their heads. And all that fear, pain, and confusion was like a sudden, deafening onslaught that they could not control. The Roar rose up without a hope of suppressing it. And what remained of the sound of fierce emotions in the old human mind became a weapon in theirs.

  “MIKA!”

  Mika looked up and realized that the man with the gun was shouting at him. Then he looked down again and saw that the pod seat was on fire. He’d set it on fire. It caught the sleeve of his jacket and licked up his arm. Ellie grabbed him and yanked him away, slapping it hard with her hand.

  “What the frag are you doing?” the man yelled. “You just set the seat on fire!”

  The pod began to fill with smoke. Ellie dragged Mika’s jacket off and beat the flaming seat. The man with the gun shouted frantically at the pilot, telling him to land as quickly as possible. Then they heard a click and a shunt, and a rush of air filled the pod.

  “The pilot’s ejected!” the man with the gun yelled. “He’s left us! We’re going to crash!”

  Then the pod began to fall like a stone from the sky.

  It was quiet.

  The man with the gun thought he was dead.

  It occurred to him that it hadn’t hurt. Then he began to cough violently and he felt his eyes sting. When he opened them he saw Ellie and Mika through a haze of smoke. They were standing over him. Their white armored boots and trousers were smeared with soot from the fire, and Ellie had his gun in her hand. He panicked for a second, but all she did was hold it out so he could take it back again.

  “Thanks,” he said.

  “Mika landed the pod,” Ellie told him.

  “Did he?” the man replied. “Where are we?”

  “In the Golden Turrets, in New Hyde Park, in front of our parents’ turret.”

  “Oh,” he said, sitting up.

  He tried to gather his thoughts. Only seconds ago they’d been in free fall. Now the fire was extinguished, the pod had been landed, and Ellie and Mika were watching him steadily. As if it were an everyday occurrence to set fire to yourself, scare the pilot so much he ejected, then land a pod in exactly the right place, seconds before it crashed … and give him his gun back.

  The children looked different. Their black eyes now shone with a mercurial gleam. He didn’t like it.

  “We’re surrounded by soldiers,” Mika said. “Why are they here?”

  For a moment the man was confused. He’d forgotten the call he’d taken in the pod and the message he’d received from the fortress. Then through the window he saw black helmets and guns and remembered what was happening. For a moment he considered opening the door and running away so someone else would have to deliver Mal Gorman’s message.

  “Tell us,” Mika urged.

  They stood so still he could hear his heart beat.

  “There’s a problem in the fortress,” he began. “It’s nothing to do with me, I’m just following orders. I had no idea this would happen….”

  “What?” Mika asked. “Just tell us.”

  “Promise you won’t blame me.”

  “OK,” Mika said.

  “The implanted army is awake and trying to run away. Something’s wrong with the implants … and you know what Mal Gorman’s like when things go wrong. He gets angry and he changes his mind about things. He wants his army under control … and that means you as well. He wants you in the fortress while the implanted children are returned to their beds. I’m sorry, Ellie, but you can’t see your parents today. He’s sent these soldiers to escort you…. Please don’t blame me.”

  Ellie flinched and he saw a split-second spark of pain in her eyes. He waited for it to morph into anger and to feel that anger turn on him, but to his astonishment, she said, “OK.”

  “Wh-what?” he spluttered.

  “OK,” she repeated. “We’ll go back.”

  “Really?”

  “Yes,” she said.

  That was not what he’d expected her to say. She’d almost killed Mal Gorman the last time he tried to stop her from going home; she’d spent a year and a half crying for her parents, grieving and longing to end their suffering. But he didn’t want to waste time wondering why she was so willing to return to the fortress. He just wanted to get away from her as quickly as possible.

  He stood up and reached past them to open the door.

  It opened to reveal a landscape of helmets, guns, and gold. New Hyde Park was in the center of London, surrounded by a ring of turrets. An army freighter hung above the glittering fountain pools, and hundreds of soldiers stood around them. The man with the gun stepped down from the pod, but the children paused as they realized something within them had changed. Everything they focused on was brighter and more meaningful. As they stepped down from the pod, they watched the soldiers react and saw patterns of emotion spread through their light. Those closest to them felt hyperalert and anxious, those farther away wished they had a better view, and those in between felt a mixture of both. And they could see the people in the turrets too, standing on their balconies and looking down. Their lights shimmered with curiosity as they watched the scene in the park.

  Someone barked orders, and the children began to walk through the soldiers toward the army freighter. Ellie didn’t look back until they reached it, then she couldn’t resist one glance.

  There!

  Behind them on a balcony, she saw a pair of lights glowing brighter than all the rest. As her face tipped up, they expanded with a sudden pulse of shock.

  Mum!

  Dad!

  They were far above her, thirty floors above her, but she could see her mother’s sari flicking in the wind. Her father’s hand raised, as if to wave. They shone with a great, pure love that radiated into the park.

  They’ve seen you, Mika thought. At least they’ve seen you.

  The men moved forward, urging them toward the freighter. Ellie took one last look, her heart convulsing with longing, then she turned and followed Mika to the freighter.

  Their army needed them.

  3 Bloody Fingers and Black Rock

  “They’ve got guts, I’ll give them that,” Mal Gorman said.

  Now he watched the children through his office window with a set of digital binoculars.

  He enjoyed the moment a Creeper Net stuck. There was a slick brutality to their design that made them compulsive viewing. The children were struck, paralyzed, and cocooned before they hit the ground. Then they were no longer running around damaging themselves or thinking about Pod Fighters, they were laid out on the rocks in neat little packages waiting to be collected. Gorman thought this was beautiful until he noticed more weirdness: As the Creeper Nets had emerged from the tunnels, the children had scattered as if he’d dropped a stone in a puddle, but now they were coming together again, as if the water was settling. All around the fortress, they were starting to move toward the cliffs.

  Gorman watched anxiously as a boy sprinted toward the face of black rock with two Creeper Nets on his tail. The boy was fast. He didn’t look as if he was going to stop. Gorman held his breath, afraid the child would throw himself off the cliff in his panic to get away, but right on the edge, he lowered himself carefully and vanished.

  “Frag!” Gorman shouted. “They’re trying to
escape down the cliffs!”

  “They can’t escape down the cliffs,” an officer said. “The fence ends halfway down it, and the waves almost meet it.”

  “But they’ve been trained to do this!” Gorman yelled. “We’ve just spent weeks training these children how to deal with situations like this! They’ve been running assault courses with rucksacks full of concrete on their backs!”

  He turned his hover chair and returned to his desk. He shuffled views so he could see in closer detail what was happening.

  Yes, there they were. A few children had already climbed under the end of the fence and were running over the patch of dark wasteland between the fortress and the nearest town. It would take them less than ten minutes to reach it.

  “Send men out to clear the streets of the town,” Gorman shouted. “Make the people close their blinds so they can’t see out. Then release more Creeper Nets and shoot any child that hasn’t been caught before it reaches the refugee towers. Those children must not come in contact with normal people. If parents see them looking like this, it will cause another riot. And you”— he pointed at the group of engineers — “you’re all sacked! Get out!”

  Tom ran with a red-haired boy. A big lad, the sort he would have played Fastball with in school if they’d known each other then. They reached the cliffs with a Creeper Net at their heels. They turned to fight it off, but it struck a girl to their left, and they knew there was nothing they could do to help her. After the first attacks, they’d tried saving their friends, but the barbs on the Creeper Net legs sliced their hands like razor blades. It wasn’t long before they realized there was no way of helping. But they’d learned the hard way. They had blood dripping from their fingers.

  As they crouched to drop over the edge of the cliff, another Creeper Net appeared, scuttling toward them like a demented spider. In their haste, they slid down the edge too fast and, for a few awful seconds, thought they’d slip straight off it and fall into the sea. The waves crashed and boomed below them, the wet rock slipped like fish through their fingers, then their feet hit a ledge on the rock below and they were saved. They leaned against the cliff, their fingertips searching for cracks in the rock, but the red-haired boy’s hands were badly cut and Tom realized he was likely to fall. Children were climbing past them, down and away. He released a hand and placed it on the boy’s back, willing him to survive.

 
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