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The whisper, p.21
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       The Whisper, p.21

           Emma Clayton
 
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  Then he was gone. Their eyes met for a few moments, then he turned and walked in the direction of the mansion path.

  Helen was left shaking. The kettle began to whistle, but she ignored it and stood in the middle of the hut, wondering what to do.

  Should she tell Mika she’d seen this boy?

  No.

  She couldn’t tell him, not now.

  The kettle was still whistling alone in the silence. She grabbed it and plonked it on the hearth. Then she snatched up her sun hat, rammed on her rain boots, and followed Ruben Snaith down the path toward the mansion.

  28 The Meeting of Murderers

  The sun beat down on The Wall.

  As the children talked, they passed bottles of water. It was difficult to stay hydrated in this heat and there was no shade up there, only lines of black Pod Fighters soaking up the sun. But they drank to stay calm, not because they were thirsty. It was something to do with their hands and mouths while they prepared for the start of this war. Iman and Colette talked strategy while the rest listened. Both girls had been chosen by Mal Gorman for their brilliance in this field and it showed now. Iman spoke assertively, Colette softly, but they knew what they were talking about, and soon a flight plan was agreed upon.

  It rushed through the army like adrenaline.

  Before the bomb was detonated, the implanted children would stage a fly-past along The Wall so the people of the North, including their parents, would see them. Already squadrons were leaving the fortress and taking formation over the Atlantic. It made sense to show themselves before the war started, so in the chaos that followed, their parents would know who’d stopped it.

  Then, as the bomb was detonated, six squadrons of mutants would arrive at the scene to bring down the berserker borgs coming through The Wall. The mutants would wait until their parents had seen them and realized what was about to happen, then they would fly through their midst, find the control cubes, and make them fall dead from the air.

  Mutant pilots would fly through a field of spinning cubes. Mutant gunners would use their eyes instead of laser fire. This was the last level of the game, beyond Creeper Nets and snipers and rumbling freighters. Way beyond the imaginary Red Star Fleet they’d sent reeling through space like dying suns. But with all those broken humans down there, shuffling slowly toward Amiens, they faced this deadly level with a sense of inevitability.

  They were born to do this. They’d been trained to do this. They’d developed the game and made it their own. They’d invented this last, deadly level.

  “Are we ready?” Mika asked.

  Yes.

  “OK. I’ll ask Kobi what time his father will detonate the bomb. Then let’s fly to Amiens and have a look at the bomb site.”

  Kobi followed Abe and John past the first row of towers. The crowd had also moved back a block, so he could see the front line, far down the street, at an intersection. A hard shadow fell over them, cast by the towers and the mid-afternoon sun. Thousands and thousands of people were crammed wall to wall as far as he could see. As they approached the front line, they began to cheer and wave guns in the air. Kobi looked at them and realized how very fragile these humans were, driven mad by anger and suffering, but so small and vulnerable. They believed they could run through the hole in The Wall and that a few guns and their number would protect them; that they would take the South with a wave of righteousness. Kobi doubted that many would even reach the hole in The Wall. If this war was left to proceed, half of them would be dead before they’d crossed no-man’s-land.

  He received another message from Mika.

  We’re ready. Tell us what time the bomb will detonate.

  John was leading them toward a tower eleven rows back from no-man’s-land, by the front line of the crowd. Kobi caught up with his father.

  “Dad?” he said.

  “What do you want, Kobi?” His father looked a bit scared now, with the crowd roaring and the remote control in his hand. His voice was kind.

  “When are you going to do it?” Kobi asked. “Have you set a time to detonate the bomb?”

  “Yes,” his father replied. “John suggested four o’clock, so the crowd will be prepared. We’ve got nearly an hour. Are you OK? How do you feel?”

  “Fine,” Kobi said.

  “I’m proud of you. You’ve worked so hard and I know you’re sorry. I just wanted say that before —”

  “Thanks, Dad,” Kobi said. He felt his heart convulse with pain and wished there was some way to warn his father about the consequences of what he was about to do. For the rest of his life, he would be the man who detonated the bomb. Kobi could see this future in his eyes and it was a remorseful, sad future. It was hard to follow him into the tower, knowing this.

  But he knew what time the bomb would go off. He sent another message to Mika, then followed his father up the stairs. He now felt as if he wanted to vomit; his whole body was poisoned by fear. In less than an hour, he would watch his father detonate a bomb and their world go mad.

  When they were halfway up, they heard the roar of Pod Fighters for the first time. Mika, Ellie, and the other Chosen Ones were flying low over no-man’s-land, inspecting the bomb site. Kobi rushed to a window and tried to get a glimpse of them; towers blocked his view.

  But they were here, in Pod Fighters.

  This was real.

  Mal Gorman sat in a heap of straw. His camp cot was uncomfortable; the metal edges pressed into his legs, so he’d been on the floor for several hours, staring at a patch of wall. A patch of wall pigs had scratched their rumps on. It still had bits of mud and hair attached to it. Gorman wished he felt brave enough to go outside and enjoy the afternoon sun, but he still hadn’t recovered from seeing those eyes. And there were bugs outside. The grass was full of them. After forty-three years in the North, he’d forgotten that beauty came with bugs attached.

  Ralph’s face appeared at the door. Gorman stood up, desperate for news.

  “I’m preparing tea, sir,” the butler said. “What would you like?”

  “Tell me what’s happening,” Gorman said.

  “I don’t know, sorry.”

  “Then bring me more Everlife-9,” Gorman said. “I’m getting old.”

  “I’m sorry,” Ralph replied. “But I don’t have any. You’ll have to wait for Helen. She’s going to find out how much you ought to take, so you don’t accidentally vanish.”

  “Then go away if you can’t be useful,” Gorman sneered.

  “I’ll bring you some cake,” Ralph said. “Helen brought some up. It’s rather good.”

  The butler left and Gorman kicked the wall, then slid down it and sat in the straw again. He looked at his feet and realized what a ridiculous spectacle he made wearing kid’s sneakers and a Pod Fighter T-shirt. He was now about forty years old. His skin was beginning to wrinkle. He wanted to be perfect forever … never face death … get out of there. He began to fume with frustration.

  But what would happen to him when he got out?

  Would he ever get out?

  If the war started and he was stuck in that pigsty with the forest burning around him …

  He tried not to think about it.

  A few minutes later, he heard wolf borgs snarling. Then he heard the feeding room door open and close. He got up and looked through the glass.

  “Ralph?” he said.

  But the room was empty. He wondered if he’d been mistaken, but he was sure he’d heard the door open and close. He felt cold suddenly and moved away from the glass and leaned against the wall, where he couldn’t be seen.

  It was horribly quiet. Now he could hear the bass note of the forest. No birdsong, no animals, not even the wolves, just this low hum that seemed to come from the ground.

  Then he heard movement in the feeding room. There was someone in there, now he was sure. He didn’t want to look but felt compelled to, and saw a pale, sharp face framed by the glass in the door.

  “Ruben,” Gorman whispered.

  Ruben’s fac
e was milk white. The sort of milk white made by months of confinement.

  “I brought your tea,” he said.

  Ruben unlocked the door and entered. Gorman stood still while the boy walked around him, frozen like a puppy meeting a big, nasty dog. Ruben was wearing his black uniform and he had Ralph’s tray in his hands.

  “Where’s Ralph?” Gorman asked.

  “I think I killed him,” Ruben replied nonchalantly. “He’s lying on the path outside. But that’s OK, isn’t it? He betrayed you. He deserved to die.”

  Gorman began to tremble.

  “Are you scared?” Ruben asked. He furrowed his brow as if he was confused, but Gorman knew he didn’t need to ask that question. The boy could see exactly how he was feeling and knew the reason why.

  Ruben hadn’t been chosen.

  He was rejected in the last round of the game.

  But Gorman had tried to keep him happy. He’d given Ruben those luxurious rooms in the fortress because he understood that such a deadly boy might be useful one day, if he could figure out how to control him without getting killed. But while Ruben had been hidden like this, Gorman had never watched him in the way he watched the others. He didn’t want to watch him; he felt sick just looking at him, and Ruben probably knew this. Keeping him at all had been a mistake. Now he’d turned up here and killed Ralph. What else was he going to do?

  “Don’t be scared,” Ruben said. “I’ve come to rescue you. You just don’t get me, I understand that now, but we’re very similar, you and I, and we need to stick together. Here, sit down and enjoy your tea and cake while I tell you my plan. It’s really good. You’re going to love it.”

  Gorman sat down on the camp cot, but only because he was too scared not to. Ruben placed the tray on his knee, and the teacup trembled on its saucer.

  “Mika and Ellie are doing well,” Ruben said, pacing around the sty. “Really well. You’d be so proud of them. They’ve taken over your fortress, the Queen of the North, and The Wall, and they’ve been chatting to Raphael Mose.”

  “Really?” Gorman said.

  “Yes,” Ruben replied. “They’ve been talking to the leader of the World Conservation Club. You chose well. They’re very bright. Shame they’re so wet.”

  “How do you know all this if you’re not with them?” Gorman asked.

  “Oh, I have been with them,” Ruben said.

  He held out his hand and showed Gorman a silver orb, the last invisibility shield. “And my light seems to have gone out. I’m not sure why, but they can’t see me. It’s like I don’t exist. But then, I suppose, I stopped existing at the end of the game.”

  Gorman ignored this last comment. It was dangerous territory.

  “What are they doing now?” he asked.

  “Well, they’ve hit a bit of a snag,” Ruben said. “The Secret got out.”

  “What?” Gorman snarled.

  “Yes,” Ruben said. “The Secret got out and everyone’s gone mental. At this very moment, there are billions of people pressed against The Wall, with their bags packed, ready for the smash and grab. But Mika and Ellie are still trying to help them. They believe they can fix their parents, negotiate a deal with Raphael Mose, and that everyone will come skipping over here through meadows of butterflies, for a lovely new life. Your Chosen Ones are so wet I’m surprised they can stand up. And they control your army. What a waste of all your effort.”

  “Yes,” Gorman replied, agreeing heartily with this. Now Ruben was speaking his language.

  “You’ve spent nearly two years working with those children and they’ve ruined it all for you and ruined it for themselves. Luckily, I have a plan that will really sort this mess out. Do you want to hear it?”

  “Yes,” Gorman replied, pouring himself a cup of tea.

  “Well, first I kill Mika and Ellie,” Ruben told him enthusiastically.

  Gorman’s hand slipped and he poured milk all over the tray.

  “Mika and Ellie are the clasp holding the army together,” Ruben continued. “And they haven’t realized it yet. The children communicate through them like a hub. If I kill Mika and Ellie, the rest will fall apart. Then that’s the do-gooders out of the way. That’s your army punished. What do you think? Mika and Ellie deserve to die, don’t they?”

  Ruben turned on Gorman and fixed him with pale eyes. Gorman nodded, but had difficulty tipping sugar into his cup. This boy was hard-core. He was talking about killing Mika and Ellie as if it would be easy.

  “Then,” Ruben said, “after I kill the twins, I end the war. But not in the same way. Not with nice chats and happy trees. I go to Raphael Mose’s mansion, and I press the third button in his study and poison all the people in the North.”

  “Poison them all?” Gorman repeated.

  “Yes,” Ruben said. “Poison them. Shut them up. Leave them behind The Wall. Forget about them. Raphael Mose has had that poison button for years, but he’s never used it.”

  Gorman felt a chill. Ruben was talking about genocide as if he had an ant problem in his kitchen. A list of names began to trail through his mind, Ghengis Khan, Vlad the Impaler, William the Conquerer … Hitler.

  They were both murderers. This was a meeting of murderers, but Ruben was way up there, way out of Gorman’s league. Ruben was a full-blown psychopath with mutant power.

  But, with all those people in the North gone, the planet would be owned by a few thousand rich people. All that space, all that fresh air … and he wouldn’t press the button, Ruben would. Suddenly, greed smothered the single atoms of kindness and morality in Gorman’s brain and he was considering Ruben’s genocide as a viable option.

  “And then,” Ruben continued enthusiastically, “when the people in the North are dead, I’ll kill all the people in the South. I’ll go into their homes and kill them while they’re sleeping in their beds.”

  “Really?” Gorman said.

  Now he began to feel a little bit sick. This was a lot of killing talk and it was also sounding crazy. Surely, Ruben didn’t need to kill everyone.

  “And then,” Ruben said, “you and I will own Earth. The whole fragging planet.”

  He stopped pacing and faced Gorman and smiled. “It’s a good plan, isn’t it?” he said. “No one can touch me. I’m the best.”

  Gorman looked up at him, stunned, with his hands clutching the tray, and tried to imagine living on Earth with only a mutant psychopath for company. It didn’t sound like much fun.

  “We’re the same, you and I,” Ruben said. “Exactly the same. Now let’s start. I’ve got some bait to bring Mika and Ellie back. I want them to come here, because they’re just about to stop the war and I know it will really annoy them to have to leave The Wall now. Really annoy them.”

  Dumbstruck, Gorman watched him open the stable door. He didn’t want to get stuck on Earth with Ruben. And Ruben knew this. He would have seen this in his light as loud as if Gorman had yelled it. Gorman wondered if the boy was making a point and that he didn’t intend to help him at all. That this mutant psychopath would force him to watch while he killed everyone, just to prove how powerful he was … then kill him too. He couldn’t imagine why Ruben would want to keep him alive when he was the one who’d cast him out from the Chosen Ones. Gorman would die with everyone else.

  He put the tea tray down and stood up. Ruben was crouched over a large bundle laid out by the feeding room door. Gorman walked closer so he could see what it was, and recognized the old woman, Helen, bound up like a fly in ropes. Her mouth was covered so she couldn’t speak, but her eyes were wide and bright with fury.

  “Smile for the camera,” Ruben said, and took a picture of her. “But I won’t send it to Mika just yet.”

  29 I’ll Be Back in a Minute

  Four Pod Fighters landed on The Wall in Mainz. Children in blue uniforms ran toward them. Windshields slid back. Seven pairs of hands removed headsets. A monkey slid down a wing and scampered across The Wall. He found Tom and climbed up his leg and perched on his shoulder.

&nbs
p; The Chosen Ones had returned from their trip to the bomb site.

  It was twenty-five past three on the day the world would change, and they were ready. This coursed through The Whisper.

  We’re ready.

  Thousands of Pod Fighters turned south to fly along The Wall to perform their fly-past.

  Abe stood on the roof of the tower with the remote control in his hand. He looked dignified from a distance, but Kobi could see the fear in his eyes. They were surrounded by the large crowd who’d helped organize this event. The atmosphere was intense. There was still a lot of talking going on as people communicated with their contacts on the ground, trying to control the crowd. It was pushing forward now, nudging past the intersection and into the first block. It now looked like the starting line of a race. Everyone wanted to be the first person to run through the hole in The Wall.

  “Make them keep back!” adults shouted around Kobi. “Tell them not to move until the bomb has gone off!”

  Kobi hid behind his hair, worrying desperately. The younger children had moved back a block, but they were still on the front line of this war, just across the street. Kobi could see their faces pressed at the windows, trying to see what was going on. He wished he’d been able to visit Oliver and tell him to stay away from the windows. Tell him not to look until this was over. To hide under something heavy and strong just in case something dreadful happened. But he didn’t feel able to leave his father now that he held that remote control in his hand. The crowd was impatient and he was worried that someone would decide to detonate the bomb early. He needed to stay at his father’s side so he could warn Mika if this happened.

 
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