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       The Whisper, p.3

           Emma Clayton
 
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  “I can’t hold on,” the boy said. “My fingers are too bloody.”

  “Wipe them on your gown,” Tom replied. “I’ve got my hand on your back. Quickly.”

  The boy still found it hard. They stepped sideways along the ledge, gasping with fear and willing their hands to remember what to do. They’d climbed every day in Fit Camp, but not over jagged rocks and monstrous waves. Already their fingers were numbed by cold, and each shift of their weight felt like an imminent fall into that dark, cold mass of water below them. They moved down slowly, closer and closer to the waves. Above, they could see more children coming, cold feet searching for the ledges on the rock. But just as they reached the ball of razor wire that marked the end of the fence, a monstrous wave crashed in. Freezing, salty water ran over them, making them gasp with shock, and for a moment the cliff face looked like a black waterfall and they were almost dragged down with it. They watched the surf tug through their fingers, and by the time the wave dropped back, they were so scared, it was impossible not to succumb to panic. Their climb beneath the end of the fence was dark and dangerous, and they took risks they would remember later and wonder how they’d survived. But they were all doing it, hundreds at a time — it was the only way to escape.

  They reached the other side before they heard the roar of the next big wave and scrambled up as if their feet would be bitten off by it. The wave hit like thunder. They looked down as it dropped back, and saw a Creeper Net emerge from the spray.

  They slipped and scrabbled, desperate to get to the top of the cliff before it reached them. But the boy’s fingers were covered in blood again. He began to fall behind and as Tom gained on the overhang, the boy was still well below it.

  The Creeper Net picked its way up the rock toward him. Tom dropped back as it bloomed. He grabbed the black metal leg between the joints as it came down to strike him between the shoulder blades, and he yanked hard, trying to pull it free from the rock. The boy hauled himself up out of range and then the leg attacked Tom, stabbing at his cheek. He ducked and heard a sharp tang as it hit the rock behind him. He yanked again and managed to pull one leg out of a crevice, but it replaced its grip within seconds. In desperation he grabbed for the processor hub where the five legs met and smashed it against the cliff.

  Nothing.

  He did it again.

  For a split second its legs contracted as its electronic brain faltered, and that was enough. With one frantic yank, Tom pulled it off the cliff and hurled it to the sea. He watched it fall, almost following it. Then the two boys hauled themselves over the cliff edge and began to run toward the town.

  4 Monkey Maggot

  Mika held Ellie’s hand as the freighter rose.

  In the years before she was taken, they’d had a difficult relationship. They’d fought every day about stupid little things. Living in a fold-down apartment had made their parents more careful with each other. But this was not the case with Mika and Ellie. They’d never known the life their parents lived before The Wall was built, and their latent power made them frustrated and bored. Their world felt wrong. They were animals in the wrong type of cage.

  Most of the time when Mika and Ellie fought, they yelled at each other and threw stuff. But they also had another state, the one they entered when they were deeply hurt. This made them quiet. When Mika felt like this, he’d go to bed with a book or a game. He’d turn his back on Ellie and refuse to talk to her. Ellie would sit very still and blink, her breath catching in her throat. She was doing it now, as the freighter rose.

  Mika gazed out the window and watched the city shrink until it looked like a hot, gold coin, but Ellie gazed at the seat in front of them.

  She was ten when Mika last saw her. Now she was taller and her face had lost its baby softness. She was pretty now, in a dark sort of way, and she wore her white uniform with grace. But while Mika held her hand, he saw the old Ellie. For all their frustration and anger, they were taught to love well by their parents. And they could have seen them if they’d chosen to, despite Mal Gorman’s order. They could have melted every gun in the park. They could have sent those soldiers running for their lives.

  But their army needed them. Ellie blinked black lashes. Her fingers felt soft in Mika’s hand.

  Being born a spectacular upgrade on the human design did not make them feel like one.

  Awen the dream dog leaned against their legs, squashed against the seat in front. Mika’s invisible friend had watched over him in the lonely days after Ellie was taken by Mal Gorman; now he would watch over them both. He lay his head in Ellie’s lap and sighed a big doggy sigh. Mika wondered then how he’d ever argued with his sensitive, loving sister.

  The passenger hold was hot. Soldiers filled the seats around them. They yanked off their helmets to show red faces and sprigs of sweaty hair. Ill ease swelled through their light. They’d heard about the fire in the pod and they would not relax until these mutant children were out of their hands in Cape Wrath. It would be a difficult journey for them all.

  But as London was left behind, Ellie began to recover. She rubbed her eyes and gazed out the window with a new, sharper look. She’d left her parents, but Mika was still with her and they had an important job to do. For their planet was soaked in human tears as volatile as gasoline, and if the match struck, it would burn bright, but just for a few moments, before it crumbled to dust.

  Many children had been born during wars before, but never had a whole generation of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds been snatched from their homes to fight one.

  But they would not fight it. They would solve the problem of The Wall a more intelligent way, a way that helped their parents understand that those forests were as much a part of them as their arms and legs.

  They thought about this as they flew toward the fortress.

  They were no threat to the men around them.

  It was Mal Gorman who had something to worry about.

  Tom ran with the red-haired boy and a few other children across the dark wasteland between the fortress and the town. They ran from black rock onto concrete and glass that cut and bruised their feet, but they were now so numbed by the cold, they didn’t feel it.

  They could see more children running ahead and even more behind, but they were spread out over a greater distance now. It was quieter. They could still hear the boom of waves against the cliffs, but mostly they ran to the sound of their own hard breath and the howl of wind. They were beginning to feel grateful for all that training in Fit Camp. They would never have been able to survive those cliffs or run like this before.

  The nearest town, Sandwood Seven, looked achingly familiar. It was a sprawl of refugee towers, factories, and waste plants just like the towns they’d grown up in. Now their thoughts turned to home and their parents, who were slowly fading like cut flowers in this concrete cage. Tom began to wonder how his mother was coping without him. She had the lung disease people caught in The Shadows.

  “I have to get home,” the boy managed between breaths. “I help my gran look after my baby brother.”

  “What’s your name?” Tom asked.

  “Luc,” he gasped.

  “I’m Tom,” Tom replied. “We’ll stick together. Don’t worry, we’ll get home somehow.”

  They began to run faster. But as they reached the first buildings on the outskirts of the town, they heard the rumble of freighters and turned to see several rise from the fortress and fly slowly toward them.

  Panic-stricken, they ran down a road flanked by factories and warehouses. Then they spread out and banged on doors, hoping to find people who could help them. But it was late evening. Most of these buildings were serviced by borgs in the hours between dinner and dawn. All the children saw through these windows were the blinking lights of security cameras.

  The freighters had almost reached them.

  They’d run out of time.

  They gave up on the doors and began to look for places to hide.

  Tom sprinted with Luc and a few othe
rs farther up the road, then down the side of a Tank Meat factory. They squeezed behind a line of refuse containers and stood in a foul, stinking slime. The freighters came down. They felt shadows fall on their heads. Then they crouched farther, trying to make themselves as small as possible, with the stinking slime squelching through their toes. They felt as if they’d waited an hour, when they heard a heavy clunk. A container had been dropped at the front of the Tank Meat factory. For a while it was quiet again, then they heard the familiar tap of spike-tipped feet.

  Creeper Nets.

  They pressed their bodies hard against the factory wall, hoping that if they stayed still, the Creeper Nets wouldn’t find them. But Creeper Nets didn’t hunt by sight, they tracked by scent. For a few moments the wind blew in the children’s favor, rushing hard down the alley and carrying their scent away. Then it changed and came back at them, whipping through their hair and blasting around the front of the factory. The Creeper Nets reacted instantly, moving en masse toward them.

  The children blundered out and ran as fast as they could toward the other end of the alley. But when they reached it, they found it blocked by the tall fence that enclosed the storage lot behind the factory.

  They began to climb.

  The thin links of the fence hurt their hands and feet, and the structure swayed with their weight. When they reached the top, they found it covered in rolls of razor wire. They couldn’t get over it.

  The Creeper Nets were scuttling down the alley, up the walls, and over the refuse containers. Tom and Luc clung to the fence, below the others. They watched a girl lunge for the guttering on the Tank Meat factory and dangle from her hands, trying to haul herself up. They watched her feet scramble against the wall. The moment she was on the roof, the rest followed quickly, almost losing their minds to panic, but by the time it was Tom and Luc’s turn, three Creeper Nets were just below them. Tom lunged for the gutter and missed. He lunged again and caught it. Then Luc was beside him, climbing at the same time, up and over before Tom made it. Luc shot off, blind. Tom heard a girl scream, “Watch out!” and hauled himself up just in time to see Luc run straight onto a skylight in the factory roof.

  They heard a splintering crack, the ground dissolved beneath Luc’s feet, and he began to fall.

  The Creeper Nets were coming. They ran toward the skylight and looked down through the broken glass. The light in the factory was soft and orange, cast from long lines of tanks. Luc had fallen into one of these and they could see him thrashing on the surface, his white gown billowing in the orange fluid. He’d fallen into a tank of growing meat. They felt lots of things then, in just a few seconds: relief that he’d survived, disgust that he’d landed in such a horrible place, then panic again. He was fifty feet below them and the Creeper Nets were coming.

  A girl gasped.

  They all turned and saw the flash of surprise on her face as a Creeper Net struck the side of her neck. There was nothing they could do, and more were coming. They ran, leaping over skylights toward the other side of the roof. They found a service ladder leading down into the yard at the back of the factory. But there were seven of them. They could not climb down fast enough. They looked around for weapons and found rusting scaffold poles on the wet, dirty felt. Then they stood at the top of the ladder and fought back the Creeper Nets as they came. They broke the Nets’ legs, smashed their hubs, and battered them down until they lay in twitching heaps.

  It made a lot of difference facing a Creeper Net with weapons in their hands.

  But as Tom climbed last down the ladder, he saw a Creeper Net drop through the hole in the broken skylight. Luc had not been so lucky.

  “The twins have landed, sir.”

  Gorman looked up, alert.

  He swept away Sandwood Seven and summoned a view of the hangar in the fortress. The twins’ freighter had just set down.

  “They agreed to come back with no fuss?” Gorman asked.

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Really?” Gorman said.

  “Yes, they behaved perfectly, sir. We haven’t heard a peep out of them all the way home.”

  “Excellent,” Gorman said. “At least some of my children are doing what they’re told. I thought Mika would be a good influence on Ellie. I’m glad I’ve put them together again.”

  During the game, he’d hunted for these mutant children and selected the six best to join Ellie. He called them his Chosen Ones, and while the implanted army slept in cold, concrete dormitories, his Chosen Ones were stored at the top of the fortress in a secure white enclosure. Mika, Audrey, Leo, Iman, Colette, and Santos. Gorman’s jewels. He did not know that Mika had allowed himself to be chosen only in order to be with Ellie again….

  Gorman waited for the freighter door to open. The soldiers had given Mika and Ellie clean uniforms so they wouldn’t have to tell Gorman about the fire and get blamed for it.

  Gorman watched the twins walk through the Pod Fighters.

  “Ellie does look calmer,” he mused. “Even though I canceled her trip home. That’s good, really good.”

  He watched Ellie talk to a man by the elevator.

  “She’s asking if she can take Mika to meet the monkey.”

  “Yes,” Gorman replied. “Let them go. But only for an hour, and then put them in their enclosure. And send four men with them.”

  He watched Ellie’s face light up as she was told the good news, then he swept the twins away, unaware that control of his army was about to pass into their hands.

  Ellie sensed Puck waiting for her.

  Because she’d been with Mika for the past few hours, the monkey had been left alone. Like them, he was stored in a maximum-security enclosure, with white floors and walls and bulletproof glass. Gorman had given the monkey to her as a pet, as one of his calculated acts of weapon management, but Puck was more than a pet: He was a Northern Government secret; he was proof that The Animal Plague never happened. Puck would never see daylight as long as Mal Gorman sat at the top of that fortress.

  As the elevator began to rise, with Mika and Ellie in it, Puck stood up on the branch of his white plastic tree. Then he dropped to the floor and scampered toward the glass so he could watch the door beyond his enclosure.

  He would have to wait longer than usual for her to arrive. Mika and Ellie were being escorted via a long route to avoid the dormitory levels. Implanted children were being carried to their beds, cocooned in their Creeper Nets. Mal Gorman wouldn’t want his precious Chosen Ones to see this. Mika and Ellie didn’t want to see it, but they saw it anyway, in their minds and through the concrete walls.

  When the guard opened that last, heavy door, they saw Puck at the glass, with his small, brown hands pressed against it.

  “Hello!” Ellie cried.

  She ran forward and crouched down, placing her hands on the other side, but when Mika joined her, Puck startled and scampered away.

  “He’s difficult with strangers,” Ellie said. “He bites. But he’ll be fine with you when he realizes who you are.”

  “He’s so beautiful,” Mika whispered.

  The monkey watched him with hurt, suspicious eyes. Mika wanted to smile and cry. To see a live Black-capped Capuchin monkey was astonishing to a boy born behind The Wall. But to see it in a white box, feeling trapped, lonely, and confused, was heartbreaking too.

  I know, Ellie thought. We have a lot in common.

  “Stay here with him. I need to get something.”

  Ellie left for a moment and Mika crouched down and placed his right hand on the glass. Puck scampered farther away and sat in the corner, next to the trunk of his tree. But by the time Ellie returned, Puck was sitting on a branch close to the glass, with his eyebrows fidgeting.

  “I told you,” Ellie said. “He’s beginning to realize who you are.”

  She held up a bag of letter tiles so the monkey could see it.

  Puck leaped excitedly through the branches of the tree. She opened the door and they joined him in his cage.

  It took a w
hile for the monkey to calm down. After he’d greeted Ellie, he spent a few minutes pulling Mika’s hair and eyelashes and searching through his pockets for things to fiddle with. But Mika carried only one object — a holopic of mountain lions that had belonged to Ellie before she was taken. The corners were curled and the image was cracked. When Puck grew bored with it, Mika handed it to his sister. She looked at it and blinked, then put it in her pocket.

  Then the game began.

  At least it looked like a game.

  The children sat on the floor with their legs crossed, and Ellie shook out the bag of letter tiles. Then Puck helped turn them over so they were all the right way up.

  The four men with guns watched through the glass, yawned with boredom, then retreated to lean against the wall by the door.

  The town Sandwood Seven was now part of a war it knew nothing about. Dozens of soldiers dropped into the streets and herded people back to their homes. The residents peeked through their blinds, trying to see what was happening, but all they saw was litter blowing down the streets, and the black slabs of freighters against the sky. They would wake up in the morning and wonder what they’d missed.

  Meanwhile, thousands of children were trying to reach them. Thousands of children in dirty wet gowns, with bleeding hands and feet and implants. Some of Sandwood Seven’s own children were among this ghastly flight, and their parents would never know.

  The rain fell hard, pelting their skin. Tom ran with the rusting bar slipping through his hands. It was heavy and awkward, but he would not put it down. The Creeper Nets were everywhere, lurking in shadows and swarming over the buildings. Sometimes they dropped from the rooftops and almost landed on their heads. It would have been safer to run in the middle of the road, but because the freighters were above them, they were forced to cling to darkness, and wherever there was darkness, the Creeper Nets were waiting. By the time they reached the center of town, three of his friends had been caught, and the remaining three knew it was more luck than anything that had kept them running.

 
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