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       The Whisper, p.4

           Emma Clayton
 
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  It was strange being in the center of a deserted town. All the shops were familiar, but there were no people, and every window was dark. There were no pods or hover cars zipping through the streets.

  On the outskirts of the shopping zone, they saw a reflection move across the window of Sneaker World. They dropped back and listened as a pod whined past, and they felt a pang of hope. Perhaps there were some people here after all. When they emerged again, they ran past the shop and found themselves in the town square, facing Sandwood Seven’s arcade. It was dark now, the blue fountain of light turned off and the great glass doors shut. They walked toward the arcade, drawn to the place even though it had gotten them into this mess.

  A heap of litter had settled against the doors, cups from the Ra Ra Shake Bar and wrappers from Tank Meat Express. Tom crouched down to pick one up, then two things happened in quick succession: They heard the whine of another pod and they were grabbed by the arms and dragged into the alley between the arcade and a shop. They struggled, not understanding what was happening, then realized they had been dragged away by children and allowed themselves to be pushed down into the litter. They listened to the whine of the pod as it flew slowly around the square.

  “They’ve sent out snipers,” one of the children whispered. “They’ve started shooting at us. We think they’re trying to kill us before we get too close to the towers.”

  They were quiet while they absorbed this news. When they were sure the snipers had left, they stood up and waded through the litter toward the back of the arcade. They now formed a group of eleven: six girls and five boys in tattered, bloody gowns that clung to their skin in the rain.

  There was a small yard behind the arcade, full of air-conditioning units and refuse containers. They felt like rats skulking in the debris of their old world.

  The arcade was on the top of a hill. When they looked south, they could see the refugee towers, spread out in the distance like rows of concrete crops. In these towers were normal people, like their parents; refugees of The Animal Plague. If they could reach these people, they would help them, but above the towers hung more freighters and between them was a maze of streets filled with Creeper Nets and snipers.

  They had progressed to a new level of the game. One they would be lucky to survive.

  They leaned against the arcade and wiped the rain from their faces.

  “I was happy two weeks ago. Really happy.”

  “Me too.”

  “I loved Pod Fighter.”

  “It was like a wish, wasn’t it? As if we’d wished for something exciting to happen to us, then the arcades appeared as if by magic.”

  “I loved the lights. I used to get home from school and run to the arcade to see the blue fountain.”

  “I liked the strawberry shakes in the Ra Ra Shake Bar.”

  “Yeah, they were good.”

  “Better than the Fit Mix.”

  “My parents were happy too. They said it was about time the Northern Government took an interest in us. They were hoping I’d win an apartment in the Golden Turrets.”

  “But we didn’t, did we?”

  “No.”

  “We won a lump of metal in our heads.”

  “I wonder what our parents will think when they see us like this.”

  “They must be really upset. We went out on Sunday and never came home.”

  “The government must have told them something.”

  “But not the truth.”

  “I reckon our parents know we’ve been taken for an army. But they haven’t been told whom we’re fighting. The government wants the land on the other side of The Wall, but if they intended to share it with our parents, they would have told them the truth before now. They would have had a willing army to fight this war if our parents knew the truth. They wouldn’t have taken us like this.”

  “Our parents are too old to fight, anyway.”

  “I wonder if they tried to get us back.”

  “I bet they did.”

  “I hope they weren’t hurt.”

  They tried to imagine what had happened in the hours after they were taken. They didn’t know about the riot in The Shadows after Mal Gorman sent out his message, but they suspected something had happened. Their parents wouldn’t have given up on them easily. This idea made them anxious.

  “I don’t want my parents to see me like this.”

  “They’ll have to see us like this.”

  “But if we turn up at home with lumps of metal in our heads, they’ll go nuts. They’ll expect us to tell them everything. But if we tell our parents what’s on the other side of The Wall, they’ll start the war themselves.”

  “We can’t go home if that will happen. We’re trying to stop the war, not make it ten times worse.”

  “We could go home and tell them some things but not others.”

  “But then we’ll be lying to them. We’ll be just as bad as the government. And my mum knows when I’m lying. I wouldn’t get away with it.”

  “No, neither would I. I can’t look my father in the eye if I try to lie to him. And he knows.”

  “I don’t want to lie to them, anyway. I’m sick of all these lies.”

  “Then we can’t go home.”

  They were quiet again.

  “But if we can’t go home, what are we going to do?”

  “Sort out this mess, then go home.”

  “How? Look at us! We ran away from our Pod Fighters and most of us have been caught by Creeper Nets.”

  “I hate this. I just want to be normal again.”

  “I want to go home and be normal.”

  “What we thought was normal was a lie. There is no normal. The Animal Plague never happened. There are forests and rich people on the other side of The Wall. Our government’s corrupt and even our teachers lied to us. This is real. Our government trying to use us to bomb forests full of animals. That if our parents find out, they’ll start the war themselves. This is real.”

  “What are we going to do?”

  All across Sandwood Seven, children gazed at the distant towers and The Whisper carried their thoughts in a stream through them all.

  The darkness seemed darker. The towers looked like a threat instead of a sanctuary. They shivered in their thin white gowns, realizing they were surrounded by adults they couldn’t ask for help.

  Behind them, in the fortress, Mika and Ellie sat facing each other with a monkey crouched between them. He watched them intently, waiting for the game to begin. Then a letter passed from their minds to his and he set off searching for it among the tiles on the floor.

  C

  he found first, then …

  O

  M

  E

  B

  A

  C

  K

  In The Whisper, this mutant message was like a gold thread running through a silk rope. As Puck laid the letters down, black against white, its meaning was bright and strong. The children saw glimpses of the hands of the monkey, black eyes, white boots, glass, and guns.

  COME BACK.

  COME BACK TO THE FORTRESS AND SLEEP UNTIL YOU’RE NEEDED.

  COME BACK TO YOUR POD FIGHTERS AND YOUR FRIENDS,

  AND THEN WE’LL FIGHT OUR WAR — A WAR AGAINST WAR.

  The children looked at each other. They would never have considered going back to the fortress, but it made total sense and their decision was made instantly. In the fortress they’d be close to their Pod Fighters and their friends. The medical staff would treat their wounds. They wouldn’t be shot by snipers, or hunted by Creeper Nets, or have to face their parents’ questions.

  They would sleep in those dormitories again, but this time because they wanted to sleep in them, and when they awoke for the second time, they would know what to do.

  Without speaking a word, they began to wade through the litter down the side of the dark arcade. When they reached the town square, they lay down on the ground a few footsteps from the great glass doors. And then they ob
eyed the call of their implants and fell into a deep sleep.

  Their gowns soaked up the puddles. The girls’ hair whipped in the wind. But for the first time since their implants were fitted, their pained expressions melted away and they looked as if they were sleeping in their own warm beds. Like on a Friday night with no school in the morning. As if when they woke up, they’d be doing something they wanted to do, rather than something they’d been told to do.

  In the moment before Tom closed his eyes, he remembered Luc and wondered what had happened to him. Now he hoped he’d been caught by the Creeper Net and taken back to the fortress.

  “The implants have started working again.”

  The engineers gathered around Gorman’s desk while he shuffled views of Sandwood Seven. For almost an hour, he’d been staring at a deserted town with Creeper Nets crawling all over it. Now there were gowned bodies lying in the streets, where they could be seen easily from the air.

  “Excellent,” Gorman said. “Get the freighters down quickly and collect them before they get too cold. Are they all asleep? Are the children in the fortress sleeping too?”

  “Yes, sir. They all dropped within seconds of each other.”

  “Good. Very good. Well done.”

  The engineers left the office, knowing this turn of events had nothing to do with them. But they weren’t going to tell Mal Gorman that.

  Awen lay at Mika’s side, snoozing on his paws. Puck sat on Mika’s shoulder, poking an inquisitive finger in his ear. Mika hunched; it felt horrible, but this new monkey friendship was important to him, so he tolerated it.

  “Just tell him,” Ellie said, grinning. Or think it.

  If he can read my thoughts, he would have stopped by now. I feel like I’ve got a maggot in my ear.

  He’s taking advantage of you because you’re trying to please him. He’s smart. Tell him again. Be firm with him. He knows who you are now, so don’t worry about upsetting him.

  OK.

  “That’s enough now,” Mika said. “Get your finger out of my ear.”

  Puck dropped into Mika’s lap and opened the pocket where he had kept the holopic.

  “You’ve already found it,” Mika said. “There’s nothing in there now.”

  “He’s an optimist.” Ellie grinned.

  He needs to be, Mika thought.

  Then Puck dropped from Mika’s lap, scattering the letter tiles. The words COME and BACK hurtled like asteroids across the shiny floor.

  “Help me put them away,” Ellie said, holding up the bag. Then the monkey scampered back and forth, picking up the letter tiles and placing them in her hand. When they were all tidied up, she pulled the drawstring tight. The game was over.

  The men stood by the glass, waiting.

  “This is the difficult bit,” Ellie said. “I hate leaving him.”

  As they walked through the door and closed it, Puck retreated to the white plastic tree and watched them with sad eyes.

  We’ll be back soon, Ellie thought. And in a few days’ time, if we get this right, you’ll never see a plastic tree again.

  5 Return to The Shadows

  Kobi Nenko and his father waded quietly through the dark water in old Soho. This was river water, cold, filthy, restless water, that had burst from the banks of the Thames and drowned the old heart of the city. It reached their knees and tugged at their legs; a mess of litter rolled through it, and their feet were grabbed with each sodden step by inches of slime. All they could hear as they waded was lapping. All they could see was broken buildings, covered in mold. This was The Shadows. The dark city that used to be known as London. Old Soho had been its creative soul, the home of artists, actors, thinkers, dreamers. But there was no evidence of their buzz now; it had been carried away by the water long ago.

  Kobi Nenko had been born in The Shadows and he looked part of it. Under his long, ragged black coat and his long, ragged black hair, he was pale, gaunt, tall, and thin, like a plant that had sprouted from a seed in darkness and grown reaching for light. But there was no light to reach in The Shadows, for the Golden Turrets had been built on top of it. As Kobi followed his father through old Soho Square, they waded around one of the giant black pillars that held up the enormous platform on which the new city was built. When they looked up, they did not see the sky, they saw a solid sheet of black metal where it used to be. The Shadows was a dying place for the poor who couldn’t afford to move. Kobi’s mother had died there. It was the last place on Earth Kobi and his father wanted to be. But they had no choice. Kobi had stayed away from the arcades on the day Mal Gorman took his friends. Now he was running from the Northern Government, and The Shadows was the best place to hide.

  But as they waded into Greek Street, Kobi did not feel lucky that he had gotten away, he felt despondent. He’d been one of Mika’s best friends in Barford North, and like him, he’d sensed there was something wrong with the game. But while Mika had allowed himself to be drawn further into it, Kobi had stopped playing and avoided it. Now he was wondering if this was a good idea. He’d sensed the change as Mika and Ellie touched. He’d seen a ripple in the water … felt the first stir of shifting matter. Now he wondered if he was avoiding something important. He felt as if he was in the wrong place. As he waded after his father down Greek Street, he worried about this behind his hair.

  His father paused and waited for him to catch up. “Are you OK?” he asked.

  “Yes,” Kobi replied. He didn’t want to explain how he felt to his father. Abe was taking a huge risk to help him hide, and he was proud of his son for realizing there was something wrong with the game. Abe hated the Northern Government. He blamed it for his wife’s death. Government ministers lived in the Golden Turrets that had stolen the sky above them, and the moment Kobi told him why he wanted to run, Abe had given up everything. His job, his hard-earned home in Barford North, everything. He’d already lost his wife; there was no way he’d let his son be taken by the Northern Government.

  “All we have to do is find John,” Abe said. “As soon as we find John, we’ll have a place to stay. Then if the Northern Government searches for you here, you’ll have The Shadows on your side. John knows everyone. There’s no safer place in The Shadows than with Soho John.”

  They were heading toward a pub at the end of Greek Street. It was a pub where the people of Soho had sat and talked and drank beer for several hundred years. John was Abe’s best friend in The Shadows and had lived in the pub since he was born. He was one of the few people who’d not come to London as a refugee.

  But as they waded down Greek Street, they noticed how much worse it looked. The last time they were there, some of the buildings were still occupied. Lights shone in windows, and people waded past them in the street. Now the old shops and restaurants looked empty and the water around them was deserted.

  “John will still be here,” Abe said. “Soho John would never leave.”

  But when they reached the pub, they looked through the window and saw water lapping against a dark bar. All the brightly colored bottles, glinting glasses, and chatting people were gone. They stepped back and looked up, hoping to see a light in the first-floor window and saw that the roof had fallen in.

  “Oh no,” Abe said. “I can’t believe it. John’s gone.”

  “I bet he didn’t leave until the roof fell in,” Kobi said.

  “I bet he didn’t,” Abe replied bitterly. “He would have stuck it out ’til the end. I hope he wasn’t upstairs when it happened. I don’t know what to do now.”

  Abe pulled his companion from his pocket and searched through his address book. His hands were so cold, he almost dropped it in the water. “I don’t know where else he could be,” he said. “He’s always been here.”

  “Try calling him,” Kobi suggested. “His number will be the same.”

  “Oh yes, of course. I’m so cold, I’m stupid. We have to get out of this water.”

  Kobi sat on the slimy windowsill while his father called John. It was very cold. He shrank
down in his coat, buried his hands in his pockets, and awoke the borg kittens that were sleeping there. This made him think of Audrey. He’d been building these kittens for her before he left Barford North. As they squirmed against his fingers, he felt a pang of loss.

  Why? he wondered.

  He’d always been a loner. When he moved to Barford North, it was weeks before he spoke to Mika. He’d been a brilliant pilot in the game, Tom’s game partner, but it hadn’t hurt him to stay away from the arcade after he realized something was wrong. Because he was one of those rare, lucky people who discover at an early age what they’re good at. He was a talented industrial robotic engineer, like his father. Kobi could transform scraps of metal into beautiful animals. But now his friends seemed more important.

  He watched his father wade back and forth across the street, talking to his friend John, and felt cast out and alone.

  Abe ended his call looking relieved and happy.

  “John’s moved to an old office block along the river,” he said. “He’s going to come and meet us. He said to wait for him here. He’ll be about an hour.”

  “OK,” Kobi replied.

  This was good news. Now they had somewhere to stay, but an hour was a long time to stand knee-deep in freezing water.

  His father sat next to him and hugged his coat.

  Nevermore craarked.

  The borg raven was in Kobi’s rucksack, squashed between his back and the pub window.

  Kobi took off his rucksack. The bird was sticking its head out of it. A beady silver eye met his. He pushed the raven down and refastened the zip. He’d built this creature with his own hands and he didn’t want to lose it to the water.

  While father and son waited for John, they shared a box of cold noodles. But when the noodles were gone, the cold began to get to them. Kobi tried to doze to make the time pass faster, but every time he closed his eyes and drifted, he began to feel bad and he didn’t know why. At that moment, the implanted army was trying to escape from the fortress, and he was feeling it faintly, but he was not connected.

 
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