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The whisper, p.20
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       The Whisper, p.20

           Emma Clayton
 
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  “It’s the Green Man!” Ellie said. “I’ve seen this before on the cover of a book of poems.”

  “Oh yes, it’s the Green Man,” Helen said. “He’s interesting, isn’t he? There are Green Man carvings in many churches. Academics don’t know where he came from, but I have an idea. I think he comes from the time when people still remembered they were part of nature. To me he looks like the cycle of life. The atoms of his body becoming something new. He looks scary or wise, depending how you feel about death.”

  “Gorman’s terrified of death,” Ellie said. “Perhaps we should cover it up so Ralph can get some sleep.”

  “Good idea,” Helen said.

  The problem seemed solved.

  Ralph found a ladder and hung an old velvet curtain over the Green Man’s face. Then they set off back to the hut, hurrying along the path because they could feel time pressing. But halfway, Ellie paused and looked up at the trees. Puck clung to her neck. He was still suspiciously well behaved and she could feel something, as if a ghost were watching her.

  “What is it?” Helen asked.

  “I don’t know,” Ellie replied. “Are you OK about us leaving you here with all this going on?”

  “Yes,” Helen said. But the question made her worry. She’d never felt afraid of the forest before.

  “We could take you with us,” Ellie suggested.

  “No,” Helen replied. “I can’t leave Ralph on his own with Gorman. Poor man, he’s exhausted. I’ll be OK. Don’t worry about me.”

  27 Building the Bomb

  “Careful, Kobi,” his father said. “We have a serious amount of explosives here.”

  “I know,” Kobi replied.

  They were carrying the bomb parts up to the roof where the pod was waiting. It was an orange construction pod, the sort that maintenance crews used to fix traffic trunks. It was the only craft left in London. Soho John had managed to find it through his dedicated network of friends.

  They piled the boxes in carefully and strapped them down so they wouldn’t move during the flight. While they did this, they hoped John was a good pilot. Any hard jolts could make the pod explode, with them inside it.

  It was weird up there on the roof. The Shadows was silent. The only movement around them was a single, lonely boat, chugging down the river toward the estuary and France. Everyone was going to France, where they could get closer to The Wall.

  When the bomb parts were safely strapped down, they climbed in and sat on the curved seat. There were three adults in the back, including the man and the woman who’d taken them to look at the bolt borg.

  Kobi took a deep breath and closed his eyes as the pod rose and began to weave through the pillars, carrying its deadly cargo toward the river. Then they flew along its path and out of The Shadows.

  It was a hazy spring morning and the waves on the Channel glittered. It would have been an enchanting view if they didn’t have a heap of volatile explosives a few inches from their legs.

  “Where are we going to build the bomb?” Kobi asked.

  “In a city called Amiens in France,” his father replied. “We’ve got friends waiting there for us. We’ve secured a tower on the front row with a good view of The Wall. Everyone’s waiting.”

  Kobi remembered the name of the town so he could send it to Mika.

  Amiens.

  Amiens.

  They reached the coast of France and began to fly over land toward The Wall. Now they all gazed out the windows, astonished by the view. Even twenty miles away from The Wall, the streets between the towers were crammed with people trying to get closer to it.

  They reached Amiens. Here the streets were even more tightly packed. People stood shoulder to shoulder, with heavy bags piled between them. Everyone faced The Wall. It loomed in the distance like a giant gray screen, waiting for the action to begin.

  They flew over no-man’s-land. Here was the front of the crowd. Hundreds of thousands of people were gathered there, with the sun shining down on them. A heat haze hovered over The Wall. It looked more like the start of a music festival than a war.

  “How are we going to get them out of the way when we detonate the bomb?” Kobi asked.

  “We’ve got people on the ground,” his father told him. “We’ve cleared a large area to the north of the city so everyone can move back for the explosion.”

  “Good,” Kobi said. He was starting to feel hot. The pod felt like a pressure cooker with the sun beating down on it. He shook off his coat and sweater.

  The pod landed gently on a tower on the front row facing The Wall.

  They climbed out. The sky was blue and a warm wind whipped their clothes.

  “We’ve got a perfect view of The Wall,” Abe said, looking toward it. “And perfect weather. We’ll detonate the bomb up here. It’s going to be a sight you’ll never forget, Kobi. You’ll never forget seeing this.”

  “I need a drink,” Kobi said. “I’m really hot.”

  “I’ll get drinks,” Soho John replied. “You unpack the boxes and we’ll go down to the tower and tell everyone we’ve arrived.”

  The rest of the adults left. Abe climbed into the pod and began to undo the straps on the boxes.

  Kobi sent a message to Mika telling him where they were.

  “OK,” Mika said. “The bomb is in Amiens, in France. Kobi’s just arrived there with his dad.”

  “So they’ll start building the bomb now,” Audrey said.

  “Yeah,” Mika replied. “Which means we’ve only got a few hours to figure out what type of weapon these berserker borgs are.”

  They’d returned to Mainz in Germany, where they’d first landed after taking The Wall. The rest of the children were still waiting there, having slept the night in their Pod Fighters. The weather was good; a clear blue sky stretched north and south, so they could see for miles in all directions. News of the bomb had spread, so the crowd on no-man’s-land was moving slowly west, toward France and Amiens.

  They saw a blink in the sky and the Stealth Carrier appeared, delivering Ellie and the others. They talked for a few minutes, then gathered on the south side of The Wall and stared at the line of giant cubes. They were mirror bright in the sunshine. It was difficult to look at them for long. The forest stirred behind them in the warm wind, making its own rush of whispers.

  Beneath the surfaces of the cubes were many complex elements. Each cube was made up of 729 smaller cubes, ten feet square, that could engage or disengage using electromagnetism. These smaller cubes had a variety of components. Some were solid metal with only a dense core of power cells and magnets, others contained audio speakers. These perplexed them.

  What kind of weapon was this?

  “Interesting,” Santos said, perched on the barrier. “I don’t understand the audio element, but the solid cubes are very heavy and with those sharp corners, they’ll be deadly when they start moving. But I want a better look at the cubes in the center. It’s difficult to see through all those layers.”

  “We need to make one move,” Mika said.

  “We could try throwing something at it,” Audrey suggested. She began to search around a Ghengis borg plinth for a lump of broken concrete.

  “Not yet,” Mika said. “If we’re going to bait one, we need to clear all the children off this section of The Wall. Just in case it does something bonkers.”

  They waited twenty minutes while the others returned to their Pod Fighters and flew away, to land on it again, farther west. Then they looked down on the cubes, feeling as if they were about to prod a wasp nest.

  “OK,” Mika said. “Throw the concrete, Audrey.”

  Audrey hurled the lump of concrete at the nearest cube, giving it a bit of extra propulsion with her eyes. It hit the top with a metallic thud and skidded off.

  Nothing happened.

  “That was boring,” Audrey said.

  “Try again,” Santos said.

  She found a bigger lump and shot it at the cube with more force. It shattered to dust as it hi
t the hard surface, but still nothing happened.

  They paced for a while, thinking. They knew another way to make the cube move, but it was dangerous.

  “We don’t have a choice,” Mika said. “We’re going to have to put someone over The Wall to make it move. And it can’t be one of us, because we’re mutants.”

  “OK, then it will have to be one of the implanted children. Let’s ask for a volunteer.”

  Kobi helped his father carry the bomb parts down the tower on another hover trolley. The tower was full of adults, many with guns slung over their shoulders. They talked urgently into companions as if they knew what they were doing. This tower was now the hub of the North.

  “Where are all the children from the Future Communication Building?” Kobi asked.

  “In the tower next to us,” someone told him. “Out of the way.”

  Kobi imagined Oliver holding his screaming baby sister, and felt angry. Oliver would be scared, all the children would be scared, and they were right on the front row, with a spectacular view of The Wall and the start of a war.

  “Is the boy with them?” Kobi asked.

  “Yes.”

  Kobi began to panic. While he was talking to Mika and Audrey, this desperate plan had seemed like a good idea. Mika’s dark determination and Audrey’s bright enthusiasm had been enough to convince him to help start the war. He hadn’t allowed himself to think about what would happen if it all went wrong. He had to believe in this to make it happen. But now, knowing Oliver and the other children were so close, he was scared.

  Put it out of your head.

  Don’t think about it.

  You won’t be able to build a bomb if you think about that.

  They were met in the lobby by a large group of men who would help them carve a path through the crowd toward The Wall. They pushed the people back, telling them what was about to come through. Then Kobi and his father followed with the hover trolley. It was a hot and dangerous journey across no-man’s-land, but it was treated like a carnival procession. The people clapped and cheered as they passed, punching the air and yelling for freedom.

  You won’t be doing that in a few hours, Kobi thought.

  Mika sat on the south side barrier, waiting for the implanted volunteer to arrive. Audrey sat next to him, trying an army ration pack. The rest of the children on The Wall had been surviving on these since they left the fortress.

  “Yuck,” Audrey said. Each pack contained two brown squares that looked like compressed dung. She was hoping it would taste better than it looked, but it didn’t. Puck reached out from Ellie’s shoulder, prepared to pass monkey judgment. Audrey handed it to him. Puck looked at the brown square, nibbled one corner, then dropped it.

  “I told you,” Audrey said. “Yuck.”

  Mika watched them and smiled. He was with a fairy girl joking with a monkey. Then he watched Ellie gaze north toward the refugee towers. Ellie, his sister, whom he’d only just found. Leo smiled at Iman, Colette watched Santos, who was still perched on the barrier like a hawk. Awen lay at his feet and beyond him were thousands of children who now felt part of him. And on the other side of The Wall were their parents. He was surrounded by beings he loved.

  The sun was shining, the sky was blue, the forest shimmered. He closed his eyes and in his mind it all turned black.

  “Don’t do that,” Leo said.

  “Sorry,” Mika replied.

  A Pod Fighter arrived. They all jumped up, keen to see which implanted child had volunteered to act as bait for the cubes. The windshield slid back and Tom climbed out, still desperate to make amends for not listening to Mika. They could see this eagerness in his light as he ran toward them. Mika felt compassion. Tom had not yet accepted that the most important thing they had to do was forget the mistakes of the past, let them all go and start again. They would all have to do it.

  The children greeted Tom warmly and they prepared to lower him over The Wall. They adapted a Pod Fighter harness and attached a rope to it so they could drop him over the south side barrier and pull him back when the cubes reacted. When this was done, he climbed up. He looked very nervous. Below him were rolls of razor wire, and the cubes looked as if they were waiting.

  “Are you sure you want to do this?” Mika asked him.

  “Yes,” Tom replied.

  They had no idea what would happen. They might all get hurt, not just Tom. Mika and Leo gripped the rope and prepared to lower him, but it was a while before they did it. It took a lot of courage, even for them. Awen whined. Audrey watched through her fingers. Ellie’s pupils dilated until her eyes were almost black.

  “OK,” Mika said. “Let’s just do it.”

  They let the rope out a bit and Tom lowered his legs over The Wall. No sooner had his toes passed the line dividing North from South than the cube in front of them split with an electronic WHOMP.

  Tom froze.

  In a split second it formed an orb that was suspended in the air before them. Each ten-foot-square silver cube hung in perfect geometric form, completely still. Tom pulled his legs back. Immediately, the borg reversed and settled again as one large cube.

  “They’re sensitive,” he said shakily.

  “Yeah,” Mika replied. “That was good. Do it again.”

  For an hour Tom dropped his legs over The Wall, then pulled them back so the children could watch the cube expand and collapse. He had to be careful; if he dropped down too far, more cubes began to react and the orb in front of them flattened and made high-pitched electronic sounds as if it was charging up to attack.

  When Tom was shaking so hard he couldn’t do it anymore, they pulled him back and let him rest.

  “They’re very clever,” Santos said. “Most of the cubes are solid; others contain elements of the audio system. And there’s one control cube in the middle that tells the others what to do. This controls the electromagnetic field, and it also contains a randomizer that synchronizes shape and sound. ‘Berserker borg’ is a good name for them: They’re giant, morphing, sonic demolition machines. When they’re fully expanded and moving in the air, they’ll be able to smash down towers like toys.”

  “But we can deactivate them,” Ellie said. “All we have to do is look into the control cube and melt it, then the electromagnetic field will be broken and the whole thing will collapse.”

  “Yes,” Santos said. “The only tricky part will be fixing our eyes on the control cubes when they’re moving. That’s not going to be easy.”

  “But it is possible,” Ellie said.

  “Yes.”

  “Raphael Mose will be shocked,” Audrey said. “They’re coated in flex metal. If we weren’t able to see inside them, they’d be indestructible.”

  “Perhaps when they’ve fallen out of the sky like sugar cubes,” Mika said, “he’ll reconsider talking to us.”

  “OK,” Leo said. “Iman, Colette, you’re the best strategists. Let’s get the rest of the children here and you can make a battle plan.”

  In Amiens, Kobi and his father reached The Wall with the hover trolley. But the crowd was even denser there and they realized it would be impossible to build a bomb with all those people crushed around them.

  “You must move them back,” his father told the men. “Right off no-man’s-land. We can’t work like this; it’s too cramped and dangerous. You have to clear at least a half mile in all directions or people might get hurt. This bomb is going to be huge. If something goes wrong while we’re building it …”

  “And move the people in the towers too,” Kobi added, thinking of Oliver. “Move them back a whole block.”

  “Yes,” his father agreed. “Debris from the bomb may hit that front row. Clear at least ten rows of towers, just to be safe.”

  Calls were made and the mammoth task of moving the crowd and clearing the first block of towers began. It wasn’t easy. People didn’t want to lose their spot on no-man’s-land, right at the front of the queue, so they became angry again, this time with each other. Everyone was hot
, tired, paranoid, and impatient.

  Kobi sat on the ground and shared Helen’s cake with his father. Then he tied his hair back and they began to build a set of driller borgs, following the instructions on a tablet. The driller borgs would make holes in The Wall in which to pack the explosives. The Wall was thirty feet thick, so they needed to bury them deep. It was very fiddly work to be doing on a patch of dusty earth, but Kobi worked hard and his father was impressed by him. Every time they looked up, the crowd was farther away. After an hour, it was a line in the distance, and very quiet.

  The shadow of The Wall grew as the sun moved over it.

  The borgs began to drill the holes.

  Late afternoon, they saw a lone figure walking across no-man’s-land.

  “It’s John,” his father said. “Come to see how we’re getting on.”

  John brought water and food: a Middle Eastern rice dish one of the locals had cooked for them. It looked lovingly prepared.

  “Everyone’s keen to know how you’re getting on,” he told them, placing it on the ground.

  “We’re nearly finished,” Abe said. “If you wait ten minutes, you can eat with us and then we’ll walk back together.”

  “Excellent,” John replied.

  John sat on the ground and watched while they attached the detonator to the base of The Wall. When this was finished, Abe showed him the remote control he would use to detonate the bomb.

  Kobi couldn’t watch. He started to pack up their tools, with shaky hands. The bomb was built. His father held the remote control in his hand. This was really happening.

  After they’d eaten, they began the dusty walk across no-man’s-land toward the towers. Kobi dropped back, and while his father talked to John, he exchanged a quick sequence of messages with Mika. Then he put his companion away and walked on. The bomb was built and the world was waiting for war. The children in the fortress, the children on The Wall, the younger children, like Oliver, in a tower ten rows back; the deposed Northern Government, the World Conservation Club; the immense crowd of people gathered in the streets; and Mal Gorman, who sat in a heap of straw with his head in his hands. Everyone was waiting. A great silence fell over the world and Helen felt it, alone in her hut. Birds sat silently in trees. Wolf borgs listened in the forest. She put the kettle on, determined to carry on until the silence broke and their fate was decided. There were worse things to be doing than drinking a cup of tea when the world was about to end. But as she turned from the fire, she saw a boy through the window. A sharp-faced boy in black uniform. She felt instantly afraid. He was looking at her as if he hated her, and she knew enough about mutant children to realize what he was.

 
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