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       The Whisper, p.5

           Emma Clayton
 
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  “Are you sure you’re OK?” his father asked.

  “Yeah,” Kobi said. “What time is it?”

  “Just gone eight. We’ve still got fifteen minutes. Let’s move around a bit. I can’t feel my legs.”

  They waded down Little Compton Street, trying to stay in view of the pub, but as they passed a dark building, Kobi noticed a camera attached to the wall, following them down the street.

  “Dad,” he said. “That camera’s watching us.”

  His father glanced up. The camera was pointed right at them, and the rest of the street was deserted.

  “OK,” Abe whispered. “Let’s walk back to Greek Street. I don’t think we should worry too much, but let’s go where we can’t be seen by it.”

  They began to wade. This time they heard the mechanism of the camera move.

  “It’s following us,” Kobi whispered. “Is it a police camera? Do you think they can see how old I am?”

  “Maybe,” his father said. “It’s difficult to see much of you with all that hair over your face, but you’re tall. Don’t panic. John will be here soon. Just walk slowly.”

  It wasn’t hard to walk slowly through the heavy water. But now, instead of feeling numb with cold, Kobi was hot beneath his coat, his back prickling where he felt the camera’s eye on him.

  When they reached the end of Greek Street, they saw two people wading toward them from the direction of Soho Square. When they quickened their pace, it was clear one was John.

  “Good,” his father said. “They’re here. We can get out of here now.”

  They began to wade up the street, planning to meet them halfway, but when they were still fifty feet apart, a police pod flew around the pillar in Soho Square, heading directly toward them. Its engine whined. Its lights reflected off the slimy buildings and the dark water below.

  Then a mechanized voice filled the street: “Halt, civilians, put your hands in the air. Halt, civilians, put your hands in the air.”

  “Frag!” Kobi cursed. “They have come for me! What should we do?”

  “Just stick your hands in the air,” his father said quickly. “And do what they say. They’ve got guns, Kobi. I’d rather you were taken by the government than shot.”

  “I fragging wouldn’t,” Kobi said.

  “Just do it, Kobi! Please! For me! Put your hands up!”

  Kobi put his hands up and watched the police pod hover over John and his companion.

  A door opened in the side and one of the policemen leaned out to talk to John. Kobi watched John explain something and point toward the pub. After a brief exchange, the policeman nodded and the pod began to fly toward Kobi and his father. Then they felt like rabbits looking down the barrel of a gun.

  Suddenly, they heard a loud BANG.

  They were so startled they just stood and watched as the police pod veered and crashed through a cake shop window.

  Then John and his companion rushed toward them through the water. Kobi saw a gun in John’s hand and began to realize what had happened. John had shot the police pod; he’d made it crash. Now it was wedged in the shop with its siren wailing and smoke pouring from its engine. They could see the policemen struggling to get out, with their own, bigger guns.

  “Quick!” John shouted at them. “Go to that black door! Move!”

  The door was between the cake shop and a restaurant. They pushed through it, with John and his companion hard behind them. When they were all through, it was slammed shut and locked. Then they found themselves in a deeper darkness, still in water and wading again, down a narrow alley with strangers all around them.

  They were pulled into a building with rooms sloshing with water. Then out the back and into a watery yard. Then through a gate and along another alley, through another gate and into a building, up rotting stairs, and through a hole in a wall. Then down more stairs, and out again into deeper water, far from the smoke, siren, and guns.

  Now they were moving toward the river. The water was getting deeper. The people who surrounded them had faces covered with scarves. The buildings looked darker and more desperate, and soon they were wading through the old financial heart of the city toward one of many office blocks that hadn’t been used since the Golden Turrets were built. At the top was the company name:

  FUTURE COMMUNICATION

  The foyer of the building was flooded. A flight of moldy stairs rose out of the water. They began to climb.

  For ten flights, Kobi saw nothing but empty doorways leading into deserted offices. But when they reached the eleventh floor, the steps and walls looked almost dry and they found themselves facing a metal door and a security camera. The top twenty floors of this building had become home to several hundred people.

  Kobi felt people watching them through the camera, then the metal door clicked and opened. John waved them in with a kind smile and Kobi felt grateful. But it was a wary gratitude. There was an intensity to the strangers around him that made him feel uneasy. Only a few days before, The Shadows’ people had rioted because their children were taken. But they would not get their children back, or the sky or clean air or any of the things they wanted. They had plenty of reasons to be angry, and this did not make for a relaxing, homey environment. As John followed them through the door with the gun, Kobi wished he’d put it away.

  On the other side of the door was a large room: a buffer zone between the water outside and the homes within. It contained hundreds of damp boots and coats.

  A group of people had gathered to welcome them. His father was helped with his coat, but it was Kobi they were most interested in. Kobi was the only child born in The Shadows to avoid capture. He symbolized rebellion against a corrupt government. But Kobi was trying to get away from trouble, not closer to it, and he found the sudden attention difficult. Between the adults’ legs were scores of curious young children, who watched him with owl eyes.

  They took his coat, his long, black coat. He asked to keep it on, but they insisted he take it off because it was wet and would make him cold, so he handed it over and stood before them in a ragged white T-shirt and a black sweater with a big hole in the front. He felt practically naked without his coat, and was glad his face was covered by so much hair. But they were being kind to him, so he tried to be gracious about it.

  Next he and Abe were shown their new home.

  The eleventh floor, beyond the buffer zone, was fitted with communal living areas, meeting rooms, and kitchens. The other nineteen habitable floors of the office building had been divided into family sleeping units. Their walls were thinner than those of a fold-down apartment and they were only just big enough for beds and storage. But Kobi and his father were pleased when they were given a room with a desk between two beds. Abe dropped his bag onto it. They both had more tools than clothes with them.

  Then the people departed, closing the door quietly, leaving father and son alone.

  6 A Swarm of Shiny Flies

  The next morning in Cape Wrath was gray and still. Waves lapped against the cliffs, and the blanket of cloud threatened only drizzle.

  Mal Gorman had had a late night, but he was at his desk at dawn, flicking through the fortress cameras. The implanted army was still sleeping peacefully, and the nurses were treating its wounds. Some of the children had hypothermia and had been taken to the hospital unit, but most would be fighting fit again in a few days. It was mostly surface damage, cuts, bruises, and Creeper Net wounds, nothing worth worrying about.

  Seven children had fallen from the cliffs and been lost to the sea, but Gorman wasn’t worried about those, either. He decided their deaths were a weeding-out process. If those children weren’t able to survive the cliffs like the others, it was likely they’d make similar mistakes in war.

  Most of the bodies had been found. Gorman would tell the parents later. Like Ellie and Mika’s parents, they would never know what had really happened to their children.

  When Gorman bored of looking at the curved backs of nurses, he ordered breakfast. Ralph a
ppeared with a heavy tray.

  “Where would you like it, sir?” the butler asked.

  “In front of me,” Gorman said. “Where do you think?”

  “Very good, sir,” Ralph replied. He placed the tray in the middle of the screen, over the faces of the sleeping children, and left again.

  Then Gorman ate heartily.

  Mika awoke to find Awen’s nose an inch from his own. The dream dog had been watching him like a sentinel since he’d fallen asleep. Mika fiddled with his ears. They were soft and warm and smelled like butter cookies dipped in tea.

  “Funny dog,” he whispered.

  He got up and sat on the edge of the bed. The dog made room for his legs, then yawned and settled himself on his feet, looking up as Mika rubbed the sleep from his face. There had been a time when Awen only visited in his dreams. Then he began to appear during the day, whenever Mika was in danger.

  In the coming days, the dog would watch his every move.

  Mika’s room in the Chosen Ones’ enclosure was small and white, with not much more than a bed to fill it. Audrey joined him while he was still sitting in darkness.

  Audrey looked cute in her regulation white army pajamas. They were a bit too big for her. Her short red hair had been punked by her pillow, and her alien, fairy face was still sleepy. But her green borg eyes were wide awake and glowed with unnatural, nuclear light: partly because it was dark in the room, partly because she was so happy to see Mika.

  “I woke up at four,” she told him.

  “You should have gone back to sleep,” he said.

  “I tried,” she replied. “I couldn’t.”

  She sat next to him, and her legs jiggled against the base of the bed. Mika grinned. He knew she’d been sitting next door, waiting for him to wake up.

  “Sit still,” he said.

  “I can’t,” she replied. “I missed you yesterday, and after the army woke up, they made us stay in the enclosure watching TV.”

  She glanced at the camera over the door.

  We could feel them connecting and disconnecting, she thought, and it was really difficult being stuck in here, knowing what was happening outside. We wanted to do something.

  You will do something, Mika thought in response. Next time the army wakes up, it will fly out of here, and we’ll be with it.

  Her eyes became earnest. We’re actually going to do it, aren’t we? Like we talked about in the forest. We’re going to stop the war.

  Mika met her questioning gaze. We’re going to try. But it won’t be easy. Don’t get excited yet. It’s going to be difficult and dangerous.

  I know. She nodded. But I can’t wait to get out of here. I hate this enclosure. I can hardly breathe. Leo was pacing around last night. The TV was driving us nuts. We’re ready now.

  But everything has to be done the right way, Mika reminded her. We can’t rush it. Our main objective is to make adults listen to us, on both sides of The Wall, and consider negotiating for freedom instead of fighting for it. He scratched Awen behind the ears. But before the adults will listen to us, we have to make them respect us. We have to prove to them that we’re not just children and that we know what we’re talking about. So we’ll take control of the North — this fortress and all its weapons. Then we’ll take control of The Wall. Then, when we’ve proved how powerful we are, we’ll talk to the South on behalf of our people and tell them what we’ve done. Ask them for freedom without a war and explain to them why it makes sense.

  Now it was Mika who looked briefly at the camera before continuing. But the first thing we have to do is get rid of Mal Gorman. He’s our main problem at the moment. We won’t be able to take control of this fortress while he’s sitting at the top of it.

  Audrey’s eyes brightened mischievously. And how are we going to do that?

  That’s what we need to figure out, Mika thought. Today. It’s not going to be easy to move him while he’s attached to that life-support system. But we’ve got a meeting with him after breakfast. We can get a good look at him then. He’s going to get the shock of his life.

  Good, Audrey thought. He deserves a shock. While we were stuck there staring at the stupid telly, all we could hear was the children. It was horrible, Mika. I’m so glad you’re back.

  So am I. And I’ll introduce you to Ellie when she wakes up.

  Good. Then I’ll have two of you. Twice as much.

  Three times, even. My sister’s quite a character. I think you’re going to like her.

  Mika pulled her close and breathed in her hair. If Awen smelled of butter cookies dipped in tea, Audrey smelled of flowers in the forest. It was good to have them both so close. Awen was so much more than a dog; Audrey was so much more than a partner in a Pod Fighter game.

  After Gorman finished his breakfast, he considered his first lie of the morning. He usually sent the Northern Government a progress report at this time of day, but he didn’t want the other ministers to know the army had just climbed out of bed and, of their own free will, tried to run away. It made him look like an idiot.

  He summoned views from the new Houses of Parliament in the Golden Turrets. It was almost nine o’clock, but the ministers’ offices were quiet. Nothing moved but the hands on the old-fashioned clocks on their walls.

  I could get away with not telling anyone, Gorman thought, if I threaten the fortress staff so they don’t talk.

  For when this war was won, Mal Gorman didn’t want any old mansion on the other side of The Wall. He wanted the mansion of Raphael Mose, the leader of the World Conservation Club. It wasn’t the biggest or most expensive; it didn’t have ten swimming pools and hundreds of rooms like some of the others; but this was the mansion Mal Gorman wanted. And if the government found out he’d almost lost the army, he’d probably end up in some rotting shack next to a swamp. This did not appeal to him. So he swept the empty offices away and wrote his nine o’clock report without mentioning the children’s awakening.

  When this was done, he spent a few happy minutes looking at curtain and carpet samples for Raphael Mose’s mansion. Then he summoned his Chosen Ones for their meeting.

  While he waited for them to arrive, he felt a bit excited and nervous, like a lion tamer with a new crop of lions. Ralph had replaced his breakfast with a bowl of Everlife pills. He crunched them and watched the door.

  Men with guns arrived and formed a line against the wall. Mika and Ellie followed and stood before Gorman’s desk.

  This was the first time he’d seen them together in the flesh. For a moment they looked like part of the office, as still as the carpet, walls, and paintings. And their eyes had changed: Their black corneas had a mercurial gleam. In the light cast from his window, they looked very odd indeed. He’d never seen Ellie so quiet before, and the dark scowl that used to be a feature of her face had vanished. Mika looked put together in his new white uniform. Gorman decided, on balance, that he was pleased with them.

  “Good morning,” he said.

  “Good morning, sir,” Mika replied.

  Audrey entered next. Mika’s gunner, and what a gunner! Probably the best in the whole army. She’d been born without eyes, but the borg eyes that replaced them were better than any human’s. Grass green and nuclear bright. Audrey was a radium fairy made by Irish and Russian blood and technology: weird, beautiful, and deadly. But she was also an optimistic child. She had none of Mika and Ellie’s languor. Gorman liked her.

  Audrey took her place at Mika’s side and looked over her shoulder as the rest walked in.

  Next entered Leo, the Lion Boy. He was born with a skin-covered tail. His mix of Jamaican and Canadian bloods had bestowed on him gold skin, gold dreadlocks, and startling blue eyes. He walked toward Mal Gorman’s desk with a sinuous grace that communicated all his newly awoken power. He was a perfect mutant specimen, with incredible leadership potential.

  Leo wore a gold ring on one finger. Gorman looked at this. Leo had been told to take it off when he arrived at the fortress, but Gorman decided not to mentio
n it. Everything else about the boy was perfect. This rebellious ring could be removed later.

  “Good morning, Leo,” Gorman said.

  “Good morning, sir,” the boy replied.

  Next entered Iman, the ebony girl, with all the streamlined grace of a Pod Fighter. This child had been given up for adoption by her parents because she grew horns when she was four.

  Their loss, my gain, Gorman thought.

  This striking black girl was a brilliant strategist and another very good gunner.

  Santos entered next. Santos, the Hawk Boy, with spurs that curved from his wrists. His eyes moved quickly as he took in the details of the office, and for a split second, Gorman felt dissected by his pointed stare. This boy’s intelligence had a razor sharpness that made him an expert problem solver.

  Last to come was Colette, the French girl who’d been born without hands and feet. She was a good example of a child who’d once been persecuted for her mutation but was now celebrated for it. Her new hands and feet were silver, and mimicked the mechanics of real bone, sinew, and muscle. They were expertly made and eerily beautiful. Since arriving in the fortress, she’d worn them without skin gloves. Long hair skimmed cheekbones of peaches and cream and hid the analytical mind of a chess champion. Colette was a shy one, but she was one to watch. Chosen from thousands and about to get a lot of money and time invested in her development.

  Here were Mal Gorman’s Chosen Ones, the most talented and useful children in the army.

  “You look well,” Gorman said.

  He took an Everlife pill and crunched it contentedly. Then he looked at Iman. “Do your parents like their new home in the Golden Turrets?”

 
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