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The whisper, p.23
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       The Whisper, p.23

           Emma Clayton
 
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  Then he heard Pod Fighters.

  He stood looking east, listening, but did not dare hope they’d come, until he saw them slip through the dusty sky like dolphin birds.

  Then it was brutal, beautiful chaos. The milky orb of the sun, the giant spinning cubes, the Pod Fighters weaving with their engines roaring.

  “Get down!” his father yelled. He pulled on Kobi’s leg, trying to force him to lie down with the others. But Kobi stayed where he was because he was beginning to feel something he’d never felt before. As the mutants wove around him through the spinning, glinting cubes, he felt as if he was standing in an oasis of their silence; an oasis of The Roar turned inside out. And suddenly, for the first time in his life, he could see!

  Suddenly, everything around him was a giant tapestry of gold and blue light. A beautiful tapestry of infinite detail, a living and inanimate weave of chaos.

  Then he felt heavy thuds.

  The mutants were finding the control cubes and the rest of the borgs were falling from the sky.

  But the battle was right on top of them.

  A Pod Fighter arced mere feet from his face. Kobi saw the pilot’s shoulders. He looked up. There were cubes right above them, spinning, glinting. Then they all stopped spinning and began to fall.

  CRUNCH!

  One came down to his left, biting the corner off the tower. Everyone screamed in shock and horror. Then another fell to his right, missing the tower but bouncing against it and falling to the street below. Then a third came down directly above them.

  Through the tapestry of light, Kobi felt his mind lock on it. The Roar was in his head and it formed black rods in his eyes. He felt his pupils expand as he let them out. He felt the weight of falling metal dragging in his brain, as if it would rip his head from his shoulders. But the cube swerved, missed the adults, and clipped the edge of the tower.

  Then it was quiet. All the cubes had fallen and the Pod Fighters were flying away.

  The adults rose to their feet and stared at Kobi. They knew what he’d done. They didn’t know how he’d done it, but they’d just watched him stand in their midst and swerve the path of a falling cube. Kobi was equally astonished: He’d left the game early; he was never shown his mutant power. He’d been born with black wings that were cut away, but inside he remained a mutant, with a latent mutant power. He faced the shocked adults and felt a tingling in his shoulder blades. A sense of growth and fulfillment, a warmth and new light, as if his body was preparing to regenerate his mutation, his natural-born wings, and the days of hiding in a coat were over. But there was no time to dwell on that now. They could hear people crying all around them, and the dust was beginning to settle. Gradually, they began to see the devastation. All ten rows of towers before them were gone. The streets were piled with cubes and rubble, and the top of the children’s tower had been punched away.

  “The children!” someone screamed.

  “Oliver,” Kobi whispered.

  Then all the adults were weeping and running down the stairs.

  31 Poison

  The war lasted three minutes and fourteen seconds.

  Kobi followed the adults down to the lobby.

  He was distraught.

  Their plan had made sense before the bomb. He’d helped build it, believing their parents needed this short, sharp shock. That it was the only way they’d understand how terrible the war would be: open their eyes and ears to the army of children. But if Oliver and the younger children had died as part of this lesson, Kobi knew he’d never forgive himself.

  That little boy, so young, so scared, in a Pod Fighter T-shirt ten sizes too big for him …

  Kobi bit back tears.

  They couldn’t get out of the lobby. The street was piled high with rubble, so the doors were blocked. They ran up to the first floor and climbed out of a window onto the remains of the fallen towers. Among the rubble was a litter of homely things that had fallen out of apartments: smashed plates, packets of food, clothes, bedding, children’s toys all twisted and broken and covered in dust. It took them ten minutes to cross a street they could have walked in seconds an hour ago, and by the time they got to the other side, they felt even more sick and sad. The crowd beyond the intersection was in turmoil. Some people were hurt, others had lost their families. The sky was full of ambulance pods carrying the injured away. It was a dreadful scene.

  They reached the children’s tower and climbed in through a broken window. Then they began the grim procession up the stairs, dreading what they’d see when they reached the top.

  Halfway up the building, they felt a hot, dusty wind on their faces and there was rubble on the stairs, which made their progress slow and dangerous. It became lighter as they climbed, but this was because the top of the building now lay in the street below. Eventually, they reached the new top, sculpted by the berserker borgs. Trembling with horror and fear, they began to search through the rubble for their children.

  They searched cautiously. They did not want to see them. They found shoes and toys among the rubble and pulled them out carefully, reverently, relieved when they didn’t recognize them.

  But soon they began to wonder….

  They gathered around the broken edges of the building and looked down to the street below, wondering if the children had fallen down there and were buried in the rubble.

  Kobi stood alone, facing The Wall. He couldn’t bear to watch any longer. His father joined him, wiping dusty tears from his face.

  “Where are they?” he whispered. “If I’ve …”

  He trailed off.

  “Look,” Kobi said.

  He pointed down toward the rubble of the broken towers. There was a small group climbing over it, heading in the direction of no-man’s-land.

  “John!” Abe shouted immediately. “Has anyone got digital binoculars? Come and look at this!”

  A pair of digital binoculars was found and Abe took them. Everyone watched intently while he found the group and studied it.

  “It’s them!” he cried. “It’s the children! And the boy’s with them! The implanted boy! He’s leading them onto no-man’s-land!”

  They passed the digital binoculars so everyone could see. Luc was holding a baby and leading Oliver by the hand. His implant flashed as his head turned, reflecting the light of the sun. The rest of the children were following, climbing carefully, determinedly, over the rubble. The boy was talking to them, guiding them, encouraging them to help the little ones scramble over the concrete.

  “Where are they going?” someone asked. “I don’t understand. Why would they go to no-man’s-land when we’re here?”

  When all the adults had taken a look, Kobi was given a turn with the digital binoculars.

  “There are Pod Fighters down there,” he told them. “Look. In a line in front of the hole. Four Pod Fighters. That’s where your children are going.”

  “Why?”

  Kobi turned to face them. “Because,” he replied quietly, “they don’t trust you anymore. They’ve gone where they feel safe. They’ve joined the army of children.”

  Kobi walked across no-man’s-land for the third time that day. Now his feet made clouds in the settled dust and he walked around the giant boulders that had been made by the bomb.

  He followed the adults. The adults followed their children. Their shoulders slumped with exhaustion and remorse.

  It was not a happy journey.

  The sun had dipped behind The Wall, ready to set on the south side. The north face was cold and gray, but through the hole, sunlight poured, warm and bright. It made the path they followed.

  When they reached halfway, they could smell the forest and see the children gathered around the wings of the Pod Fighters. They could pick out eight taller children, the red-haired boy, the rest in white uniform. The little ones were gathered around them. The babies were playing in the dust.

  The adults gained pace until they were almost running.

  The children noticed them and turned to wat
ch them approach.

  When adults and children faced each other, Oliver stepped forward. “We’re not coming back,” he said with a scowl. “Don’t try to make us.”

  Oliver’s mother crouched down and took his hand.

  “We haven’t come to take you back, Oliver,” she said quietly. “We’ve come to say sorry. We’re so very, very sorry. We want to talk to you.”

  “Really?” His face softened. “You’re not going to tell us off?”

  “No.”

  “You want to talk to us?”

  “Yes. Now let us meet your new friends. We want to meet the children in those Pod Fighters. And then, we’ll all sit down and talk.”

  The Chosen Ones walked forward. Mika, Ellie, Audrey, Leo, Iman, Colette, and Santos.

  The adults looked at them, speechless.

  These were children?

  The same children who’d gone to the arcades?

  “Hi,” Leo said. “We’re pleased to meet you.”

  A silver swallow hovered over The Wall. Mika and Kobi watched it and imagined Raphael Mose pacing around his study, wondering what to do.

  Mose had seen everything. The crowd gathering, Kobi and his father building the bomb, the fly-past, the detonation, the berserker borgs biting chunks out of the towers, and children in Pod Fighters bringing them down with no weapons. The war that lasted three minutes and fourteen seconds had shocked the South as much as it had shocked the North. But Raphael Mose didn’t consider it over yet.

  His study was full of members of the World Conservation Club. This was the first time they’d met for many years. They’d flown from all over the South to watch their berserker borgs teach the North a lesson. And instead they’d been taught a lesson.

  “Those children were telling the truth,” Mose said. “Even though The Secret got out, they’ve taken control of the North. And I suspect this whole event was controlled by them. The bomb, the attack, everything. That boy down there, with the long black hair, helped build the bomb, and look at those adults groveling in the dust, begging for forgiveness.

  “What are they?

  “How did they destroy the berserker borgs? I don’t get it. I don’t like it. It’s weird. And they’re going to want to talk to me again soon.”

  “But we don’t want them over here,” someone said. “Even if they can control their parents. There are billions of them. We don’t want them.”

  “No, we don’t,” Raphael Mose said. “I want to press the second button. Does everyone agree?”

  Heads nodded.

  Raphael Mose swung open the horse painting and pressed the second button.

  “This is our land now,” he said. “And what I said before, stands. If those people take one step beyond The Wall, we’ll poison them all like rats.”

  He swung the painting back and the World Conservation Club began to rise. The meeting was over. But as they moved toward the door, Mose heard a click on the wooden floor beyond. A hoof.

  “Grace?”

  He opened the door and looked out. The goat child wasn’t there, but he was sure he’d heard her. He hurried through the house, searching for her, and found her in her bedroom.

  “What are you doing?” he asked.

  “Nothing,” she replied. She was sitting on her bed, hugging her bear, but she looked at him with hot mutant eyes.

  “Were you downstairs a minute ago?” he asked.

  “No,” she lied.

  “OK, darling, my meeting’s finished. Do you want to eat lunch with me? We missed breakfast together, but I could make lunch. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”

  “I’m not hungry,” Grace said. “Chef made me a sandwich.”

  “OK,” he replied, feeling unsettled. The child looked different; there was a new darkness in her eyes. He closed the door and walked away.

  In the North the dust settled and adults and children talked. They sat around the Pod Fighters with the setting sun pouring through the hole in The Wall. Then they heard a noise to the south that the mutant children recognized. A rumbling sound from below no-man’s-land.

  “We need to leave for a while,” Mika said. “We’ll be back soon. Kobi, do you want to come with us? We’ve got a spare seat.”

  “Yes,” Kobi said.

  The children climbed into their Pod Fighters, and those left behind watched them take off. The Pod Fighters rose in a line, pointed their noses at the sky, then shot up and vanished. For a while, the remaining adults and children stood around, watching the hole in The Wall and wondering what was happening. Then over the line of it they saw something come: a grid of black squares that was moving slowly toward them like a great black net cast over the sky. It passed overhead and spread toward the towers. Soon it covered the whole town of Amiens and was still moving north.

  They knew enough to realize what it was.

  “Poison!” Oliver cried. “The South has sent the poison!”

  His mother took his hand. “It’s OK, Oliver,” she said. “Your friends will know what to do.”

  32 A Birthday Present for Grace

  Grace Mose opened her eyes. Sunlight filtered through her pretty white curtains. As they stirred in the spring breeze, she smelled apple blossom.

  It was her seventh birthday. She felt happy when she remembered, then she felt sick. She did not want to have a birthday while poison hung over the North. She could feel the people watching that grid, she could hear it in The Whisper. It cast a shadow darker than the second level of London.

  She grabbed her bear and jumped out of bed and peeked through the curtains at the garden. It looked glorious. The lawn was lush and green from spring rain followed by a week of sun. The fruit trees were heavy with blossom, cherry pink and apple white. The birds nesting in the surrounding forest were singing their hearts out and there were already people on the lawn, building the marquee for her party.

  But …

  … somewhere out there, the children with black eyes were thinking about her.

  Her curtains swayed. She stood between them, listening.

  They were coming.

  “Grace?”

  She turned to see her mother standing in the doorway. Her beautiful young mother who knew all the lies.

  “What’s wrong?” she asked cheerfully. “Why so serious! It’s your birthday! Come and open your presents! Daddy’s in the kitchen making pancakes!”

  She held out Grace’s dressing gown. The goat child sat her bear on the bed and slid her arms into the robe.

  The children with black eyes were coming.

  She followed her mother down to the kitchen.

  One end of the table was piled high with gifts wrapped in pretty paper. The other was laid for her birthday breakfast, with her favorite china and a vase of flowers. Her father was making a special effort to amuse her. He wore a flowery apron and tossed the pancakes as if there were a brass band playing in the background. Grace watched him and wished he’d stop pretending. His light was ragged with anger and fear, and his eyes were stone cold.

  He slid a pancake onto her plate and she drizzled it with syrup.

  Everything around her looked stolen. The flowers, the gifts, even the sunlight that gilded her mother’s hair.

  If she hadn’t known the children with black eyes were coming, she would have burst into tears at that moment.

  “I bet you can’t wait to open your gifts!” her mother said.

  Grace nodded and looked at them. “What time is my party?” she asked.

  “One o’clock,” her mother replied. “And it’s going to be the best party you’ve ever had. Everyone’s coming.”

  “I know,” Grace said.

  After she’d opened her gifts and shown enough interest to satisfy her parents, she dressed herself and went out with her bear. The marquee was up and the people were setting out the rest of the things for her party. They inflated balloons, tied ribbons to chairs, and unpacked boxes of china and glass. A freighter arrived and delivered a dozen giant rabbits made of white flow
ers. These were moved around the lawn on hover trollies until someone decided they were in the right place.

  Nobody looked at her. She knew why. Her goat legs frightened strangers, but she didn’t care. After a while, she wandered around to the front of the house and sat on the steps between the lions. Three borgs and a mutant child gazed down the drive.

  “Grace?”

  Grace turned to see her mother walking toward her.

  “There you are!” her mother said. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”

  “I’m waiting for my friends,” Grace replied.

  “Out here? Alone? I don’t like you so close to the lions.” She took Grace’s hand and pulled her up. “And anyway, people will arrive at the back of the house, not the front. Why don’t you come inside and put your party dress on?”

  “OK.”

  As her mother helped her change, she heard the first pods come down in the garden. The party dress was very beautiful. It was made of white silk with hand-stitched white rabbits around the hem. As her mother buttoned it up at the back, Grace fidgeted impatiently.

  “Hold still,” her mother said. “Just two more … There. Beautiful.” She turned Grace around and smoothed the front of the dress. Then Grace ran off to see who’d arrived.

  Adults. Lots of adults with angry, scared light, who didn’t realize she could see how they were feeling. They wished her happy birthday, then sloped off toward her father’s study. She considered following them and looking through the door, but she was dragged away by her mother up the garden.

  It was beautiful. Her parents had made such an effort to please her. There were twenty round tables set out on the lawn and each had a three-tiered cake stand piled with rabbit-shaped cakes, sandwiches, and biscuits. Hundreds of balloons with rabbit ears bobbed on the back of the chairs, and around the legs of the tables, real rabbits, white baby rabbits with ribbons around their necks, nibbled the grass. Even the waiters were dressed as rabbits. One wandered past and tripped over his feet.

  “You do still like rabbits?” her mother asked.

  “Yes,” Grace replied.

 
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