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The whisper, p.22
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       The Whisper, p.22

           Emma Clayton
 
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  He looked up and saw a silver swallow hovering above them. For a moment he admired its beauty. This was the kind of creature he aspired to build. Then he realized where the borg had come from and that Raphael Mose was looking down through those silver eyes. After thirty seconds, it dipped and dived down the side of the tower to fly over the crowd.

  Kobi tried to forget about it.

  Of course Raphael Mose was watching.

  They should expect it.

  And anyway, this lesson was as much for him as everyone else.

  At half past three, they heard a roar in the distance. Everyone looked west and shielded their eyes from the sun. It hung low over The Wall like a great gold orb.

  The heat haze shimmered over no-man’s-land, and its concrete rubble began to tremble. Then the crowd felt Pod Fighters through their feet. Kobi felt them vibrating through the tower. Then they saw them coming, like a great black swarm, a half-mile-wide strip in the sky. The sound seemed to well up through all the people, making them feel a great surge of awe. Then this great bank of pods was right overhead, flying in square formation. They came down so low over the towers, the adults around Kobi ducked and put their hands over their heads. But he stood erect, watching them fly, his hair whipping in their wind, feeling proud and wishing he was up there with them.

  The bank of Pod Fighters passed, and a second wave approached. These were acrobats who weaved and looped over no-man’s-land, giving a death-defying display of flying skill. It lasted over a minute, while the crowd gasped below, then with a blast, they were gone. Every head turned east as the roar faded. Then someone asked, “Who were they? Was that our children in those Pod Fighters?”

  “Surely not,” someone replied. “Twelve-year-old children couldn’t fly like that.”

  “But there were thousands of them. The old army didn’t have thousands of pilots, and our children have spent weeks in Pod Fighter simulators. It must be them. Our own children have just flown past us.”

  They were quiet for a few moments, all heads turned east as they struggled to absorb this fact.

  “It was our children,” someone said. “I know it.”

  The fly-past left them shaken, but they soon remembered why they were standing up there.

  “What time is it?” someone asked.

  “Twenty-five to four.”

  Everyone took a deep breath and all eyes turned to fix on The Wall.

  Kobi paced.

  The remote control trembled in his father’s hand.

  The children on The Wall in Mainz gathered to watch the fly-past. Audrey whooped and gripped Mika’s arm, jumping like a bean beside him. The roar of Pod Fighters was so intense, he didn’t hear Lilian yelling her head off, but she was wise to him now and began to vibrate violently in his pocket, trying to attract his attention.

  The acrobats had just arrived. They wove and looped not far in front of them. But Lilian’s tactic had worked. Mika turned and walked to the south side of The Wall and removed her from his pocket.

  He felt an instant douse of dread. There on the screen was a picture of Helen, bound up like a fly in ropes. He could see fury in her eyes.

  There was a single sentence with the picture:

  Come back immediately or I’ll kill Helen, then I’ll kill your parents, then I’ll kill everyone else. Lots of love, Ruben xxx

  Mika looked at the time.

  It was twenty minutes to four.

  “Frag!” he yelled. “Frag it!”

  He sprinted across The Wall and pulled Ellie away from the others.

  She had a backdrop of weaving Pod Fighters, and her eyes were as black as their skins.

  We have to go, he said. You know you said we’d deal with Ruben when he popped up again?

  Yes …

  Well, we have to do it now.

  Now?

  Yes, now.

  How long will it take?

  I don’t know. But we’ve only got twenty minutes, so let’s say that.

  OK. Let’s go.

  They began to run toward a Pod Fighter. The others turned and realized they were leaving.

  “Mika!” Audrey cried. “Where are you going?”

  “We’ll be back in a minute!” Mika yelled. “Don’t worry, I promise, we’ll be back soon!”

  He jumped into the gunner seat of the Pod Fighter, trying not to look at her, but as Ellie took off, he saw an alien fairy standing on The Wall with a borg kitten in her hand, looking as if she was about to burst into tears.

  I’ll be back in a minute, he thought. I promise.

  30 War

  Ruben lifted the Helen bundle with his eyes and opened the feeding room door. Through it Gorman saw wolves on the other side of the path, standing among the trees. They snarled and lowered their heads, their eyes bright with bloodlust. Ruben looked at them for a moment and, to Gorman’s astonishment, the light in their eyes faded and they collapsed in the bracken.

  “Mika and Ellie could have done that,” Ruben said. “But they didn’t want to. They thought the wolves had consciousness, so they treated them as if they were alive. They made things very difficult for themselves. Pathetic.”

  Ruben set off down the path, along the side of the enclosure, with Helen floating before him, her eyes twinkling with rage. She may have been trussed up like a fly, but she was determined Ruben would understand exactly what she thought of him.

  “I don’t care,” Ruben sneered.

  Gorman followed with his legs shaking, looking at the dead wolf borgs. Then he remembered Ralph and turned to look toward the mansion. He could see the butler lying facedown on the path, his hair and his suit dusted with dirt. He felt very troubled then. Ralph had betrayed him, but he’d also served him for years. Gorman didn’t feel compassion for the butler’s suffering, but he did feel the loss. He’d just lost something that had been part of his life for a long time. Like a leg or an arm. A part of him lay in the dirt, dead. This was a very troubling feeling.

  “Where are we going?” he called after Ruben.

  “To the chapel,” Ruben replied. “Hurry up, Gorman, quick, quick.”

  Now Gorman felt fear. Those eyes were attached to the back of the chapel. “Why the chapel?” he asked.

  “Because Ellie doesn’t like it,” Ruben replied.

  They walked through the dense, dark trees at the end of the enclosure. Gorman followed like a puppy on a bit of string, too awestruck by Ruben’s psychopathic mind to even consider running away.

  They saw the chapel through the trees, silent, foliate, and cold. Ruben dumped Helen on the ground by the porch and moved the gravestones piled against the door. They floated away like slices of toast and crashed down heavily among the trees, crushing the bracken and landing flat, on the wrong bodies.

  The door opened with a witchy creak. Nobody had opened it for twenty years. It was bitterly cold inside, the kind of cold that thick, damp stone, loss of faith, and darkness make. Ruben left Gorman shivering in the aisle while he searched for candles.

  Gorman watched them light, one by one, on a votive stand against the north wall. Old wax candles, pitted with dust and dirt. Now he could see he was standing on a tomb, surrounded by rotting pews. Behind him was a stone altar flanked by a curved, peeling wall and three ivy-choked stained-glass windows.

  He watched Ruben float Helen up the aisle and dump her heavily on the altar. It occurred to him then that he had made this happen. That he’d hunted for these children, shown them what they could do, and completely lost control of them. He was standing in a chapel, wearing a Pod Fighter T-shirt, with a boy determined to murder the world. He had less control of his future than he’d had before he started.

  These were sobering thoughts. He sat on the steps leading up to the altar. They were covered in rotten, red carpet and as wet as winter grass. Ruben rubbed his hands on his smart, black uniform and said, “Mika and Ellie are here.”

  The candles flickered.

  Gorman’s heart fell. Now he was stuck in the middle of a mutant
battle, and Mika and Ellie would believe he was on Ruben’s side.

  “Don’t look so glum,” Ruben said. “It will only take a moment to kill them. It will be like a gunfight. You know, the sort of gunfights they used to have in old Western movies when the cowboys walk away and turn to face each other. Only I already know I’ll win, because I want to kill and they don’t. Even if they manage to summon the courage to try, that split second of overriding their instinct will be enough. They’ll fall like the wolves. They’ll crumble like that smelly old butler of yours. I can’t wait.”

  He looked up. Ellie was perched on the roof of the chapel like a golden bird.

  He watched her through the tiles. “How sweet,” he said.

  Then he saw Mika walk around the back of the chapel. A bright gold light shone through The Wall.

  He was expecting them to come at him quickly. They would be in a hurry, with that bomb out there. He walked down the aisle, feeling impatient. Helen wriggled on the altar like a flowery maggot.

  Then Ruben noticed the silence. The chapel was silent, Gorman was silent, the birds in the forest were silent, but there was another silence cloaking theirs, a dense, focused silence that was The Roar turned inside out. The sound of pain, suffering, and anger forged into a new weapon that was polished, considered, and deadly accurate.

  Now Ruben felt just a little bit afraid. He didn’t know this feeling. He’d expected the twins to arrive furious. When he reached the end of the aisle, he tried to turn, to walk back to the altar and stand closer to his bait, but suddenly he found himself frozen, forced to look at the back wall and unable to move his head and legs. Now he saw their light through the stone. They were standing side by side at the back of the chapel. He felt their silent, focused power and realized he’d made a terrible mistake.

  In that silence, the chapel came apart. Tiles split and floated into the air, then the rafters, eaves, beams, stone, floated up into the sky as if they were tied to helium balloons. And Ruben found himself facing Mika and Ellie with the forest around them.

  A dog ran between their legs and loped quickly toward him. A gold ghost dog, an elegant greyhound with a wake of golden light. It gained momentum as it approached him, then leaped like a gazelle over his head. Then he saw a great slab of stone coming at him, carved, round stone, the face of the Green Man from the chapel wall. It spun once, and he saw its eyes bulging, its mouth vomiting vines. Then he felt himself laid down gently on the aisle and it dropped over his head like a lid. While he was still gasping with shock, he heard Mika tap on the Green Man’s nose and say, “Just because we don’t use it doesn’t mean we don’t have it, Ruben.”

  “Let me out!” Ruben yelled. “I can hardly breathe in here!”

  “In a minute,” Mika said. “We’ve got something else to do first.”

  Ruben was left to lay on the chapel floor with the feeling of a fly that had buzzed in their faces.

  The razor wire on the top of The Wall glinted in the golden afternoon sun.

  “Do you want to do it?” Kobi’s father asked, holding out the remote control. “You helped, I don’t mind.”

  “No, thanks,” Kobi replied. “You do it.”

  “OK,” Abe said. “Thirty seconds.”

  The crowd in the streets below fell silent.

  You will remember this time of day, Kobi thought. Every time you pass it, you will feel the shock scar. Every time the sun shines, every time you smell hot concrete dust, you will remember this moment.

  The crowd in the streets began to yell:

  TEN!

  NINE!

  EIGHT!

  SEVEN!

  SIX!

  FIVE!

  FOUR!

  THREE!

  TWO!

  ONE!

  Then Abe aimed the remote control at The Wall and pressed the button.

  The crowd began to roar.

  Kobi watched The Wall with his heart pumping like a bellow.

  First came little flashes of light and puffs of smoke as the detonation occurred. Then the explosion began and the sound hit them:

  BOOM!

  It was huge.

  All the towers in Amiens shook.

  Then hundreds of tons of concrete erupted from The Wall and flew across no-man’s-land. The heaviest boulders fell first, creating an instant lunar landscape. The smaller boulders flew farther, smashing into the first row of towers and lodging in fold-down apartments, crushing gray sofas, smashing tellies. The smallest fragments flew right up in the air and came down like a shower of hailstones on the crowd.

  The people on the roof threw themselves down, with their hands over their heads.

  Then the explosion was over, the hole was made, and all Kobi could hear was his father panting next to him.

  They slowly rose to their feet and looked across no-man’s-land toward The Wall. A mysterious cloud of dust lingered over it, tinted orange by the afternoon sun. Then a great cry rose from the crowd; a battle cry from ancient blood. Then hundreds of thousands of people began to run toward the hole in The Wall.

  Kobi’s father turned to look at him, his eyes victorious, the remote control still clutched in his hand. But Kobi missed this touching moment between father and son. His eyes were glued to that cloud of dust hanging over the hole.

  The crowd sprinted toward it.

  Everyone watched. The fastest runners broke away and poured like specks toward a heavenly hole. When they were swallowed by the orange-tinted cloud of dust, the adults around Kobi cheered again, but he held his breath, waiting.

  The cloud sagged suddenly, as if something large hit the back of it.

  “Dad,” Kobi said.

  “Come on, Kobi,” Abe cried. “It’s time to leave! Let’s get down there and go home!”

  “Dad,” Kobi repeated. “Look at that cloud of dust.”

  His father glanced at it for a second, but his head was full of freedom. He wanted to get through that hole in The Wall and claim a good piece of land before all the best bits were gone. All the adults on the roof had begun moving toward the stairs.

  “Come on, Kobi,” his father insisted. “We’re going to get left behind.”

  “No, Dad,” Kobi cried. “Look at the dust!”

  Abe looked again and this time his eyes stuck to it. Something huge was moving through that orange cloud. Something silver with sharp edges, as tall as The Wall. And people were running back out of it now, as if they’d seen the monster.

  “Hey!” Abe shouted after John and his friends. “Stop! Come back! Look at this!”

  They had only just turned when they heard a low, warping WHOMP followed by screams from the crowd.

  “Frag!” Abe said. “What is it?”

  A giant silver orb was floating out of the dust cloud. A silver orb made of 729 ten-foot-square flex metal cubes that spun and flashed in the sunlight.

  The noise increased as the cubes gained speed, until it was deafening.

  WHOMP.

  WHOMP.

  WHOMP.

  WHOMP.

  Then, as if they had finished warming up, the cubes began to make new shapes; to morph through a sequence of symmetrical forms that became increasingly complex and … frightening. They were like crystal formations, some organic, some geometric, and each new transmogrification was punctuated by electronic sounds: warps, thumps, punches, drills, booms, and earsplitting spikes. It was a chest-thumping display of brutal geometry.

  Then two more appeared behind the first and they lined up on no-man’s-land facing the towers, synchronized, morphing, and warping with increasing speed and volume.

  “OK,” Abe said. “I’m impressed, that’s enough. Let’s get everyone back.”

  They began to make calls, trying to talk to their contacts on the ground, but it was already chaos down there. The people at the front of the crowd were trying to run away from the morphing cubes, but there were thousands of people behind them. They began to scream. To push on each other, forcing the crowd to compress.

&nb
sp; Abe yelled, “They must move slowly! They must not panic or people will get hurt! There’s room for them all, but they must move back slowly!”

  The morphing cubes began to float toward the front line of the towers, throbbing and pulsing, as they prepared to attack.

  The crowd convulsed and screamed and scrambled.

  Kobi looked at the sky and thought this:

  Who survives in a world of chaos is decided by so many complex variables, it’s impossible to predict, no matter how hard you try.

  Especially when the sky is full of spinning cubes.

  And the Pod Fighters haven’t arrived.

  The berserker borgs contracted to form dense, spiked clumps and punched holes in the front row of towers.

  CRUNCH.

  CRUNCH.

  Like monster fists.

  The towers crumbled like sand.

  This was war.

  The sky was a soup of dust. The ground was a mass of screaming humans who’d forgotten about their lust for land and were trying to find the people they loved among the madness.

  Somewhere above them was a milky orange sun, and adults on the roof seemed to dance against it, flailing, panicking, throwing themselves down, all preparing to die. The berserker borgs would punch their way through those ten rows of empty towers, then punch their way through them.

  That a mistake had been made was a given, and at that moment even Kobi thought it. Mika hadn’t come and the berserker borgs had reached the fifth row. They were choking on dust. Their faces and clothes were ghost white with it. He looked for his father, realizing that he must stay close to the man he loved, and be ready to face death in his arms.

 
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