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       The Whisper, p.6

           Emma Clayton
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  “Yes, sir,” she replied. “They think it’s beautiful.”

  “That’s nice,” Gorman said. “You’re very special, Iman. Your parents deserve a beautiful home. And how are you, Audrey? What’s it like living in your new enclosure?”

  “It’s nice, sir,” Audrey replied.

  “Excellent. So you’re all ready to start work?”

  They nodded and watched him take another Everlife pill. He put it in his mouth and crunched it with yellow teeth. So many tubes and wires punctured his skin, he looked like an accident in a spaghetti factory: swamped by his machines, frail, sitting among them. The golden light that radiated from his body ran weak into the blue of the machines. His mind was active, but the body that housed it was just barely alive.

  He’ll be dead within minutes if we take him without that life-support system, Mika thought.

  Yeah, Ellie replied. And he’ll need medical treatment too.

  Maybe we should just take it all, Leo thought. Life-support machine, doctors, and half a hospital unit.

  There has to be an easier way, Mika thought. How are we going to hide him with all that equipment and medical staff? And what if something goes wrong? We don’t want to risk killing him. The shock alone might do it. We have to keep him alive. He needs to know we’re not like him. That we don’t solve problems by killing things.

  “I expect you want to know what I plan to do with you,” Gorman continued, oblivious to the thought exchange. “You’ve got your crisp new uniforms now, and your new enclosure. You won’t be bored, I can assure you of that. You start your new training today. You’ll continue with exercises to develop your powers and you’ll learn how to use the new equipment that will help you survive on the other side of The Wall. And if you’re doing well next week, I’ll send you all on your first mission. To the factories where they build the animal borgs. We don’t understand the technology and we need more information about how they’re made. However, Mika, Ellie, I’m sending you over tomorrow. I have a special mission for you.”

  Mika and Ellie looked at him, startled. They weren’t expecting this. They’d hoped to escape before they were sent on one of Gorman’s death missions.

  “The rest of you can leave,” Gorman said.

  Mika and Ellie waited while Audrey, Leo, Iman, Santos, and Colette left the room, followed by most of the men with guns. Gorman told Ellie to shut the door behind them.

  When she turned around to face him again, he said, “I’m pleased with you, Ellie. You look much calmer. Do you feel better now that Mika’s here?”

  “Yes,” she replied cautiously.

  “Good,” Gorman said. He ate another Everlife pill.

  “The mission I have for you is quite special,” he began. “You could call it a warm-up, if you like. A special favor to me. And if you do well, I’ll give your parents ten thousand credits to spend on furniture. I believe they moved into their new apartment with only the gray sofa they brought with them from Barford North. Is that right, Mika?”

  “Yes,” he replied.

  “Do you think your parents would appreciate ten thousand credits?” Gorman prompted.

  “Yes, sir,” Mika answered.

  “Good,” Gorman said. “So I’ll tell you how you can get it. I’m going to send you over The Wall to the home of Raphael Mose. Raphael Mose is the leader of the World Conservation Club. He’s the most powerful man in the South and he lives in a mansion, a hundred miles from The Wall. When you get there, I want you to show it to me. I want you to walk around the grounds and the house so I can look at everything. You’ll have com equipment and headsets, so everything you look at, I’ll be able to see through my desk and we’ll be able to talk to each other.”

  The twins felt confused. Gorman wasn’t talking about killing anyone, which was good, but this didn’t sound like a war mission. It sounded personal.

  Ellie glanced at his desk and saw an open folder of … fabric samples?

  I know what he’s doing, she thought. He’s using us to go house hunting for him. We’re taking him on a guided tour of the mansion he wants to live in!

  Perp, Mika thought.

  At least we won’t have to kill anyone, Ellie reasoned.

  It was irritating. While they were off house hunting for Gorman on the other side of The Wall, the implanted army would be waiting. The twins had more important things to do. Like get rid of Mal Gorman and take his fortress away.

  But then Gorman added a detail that would make their mission worthwhile.

  “And when you’ve shown me the house,” he said, “I want you to search for something in it and bring it back to me.”

  He looked a bit wild now, his eyes hot and his tubes twisting.

  “What?” Mika asked bluntly.

  “This,” Gorman replied, picking up an Everlife pill. “But much, much better.” He crunched it and his light brightened for a moment. “Everlife was invented by the scientists on the other side of The Wall, but they won’t let us have the good stuff, only this, which is the first version, made forty years ago. It hardly does anything. I want you to find me Everlife-9. I know Raphael Mose will have some.”

  “What does it do?” Ellie asked.

  “It doesn’t just stop you from dying,” he replied excitedly. “It reverses the aging process. There are people living on the other side of The Wall who look twenty-five but are older than me. Raphael Mose is a hundred and three years old and I bet he looks thirty. Everlife-9 is amazing.”

  “So if you take Everlife-9,” Ellie continued, “you won’t need that life-support system anymore? Or the doctors or anything?”

  “Exactly,” he said. “If you bring back Everlife-9, I’ll never need this chair again. I’ll be young, fit, and strong. So … what do you think of your mission? Think you can do it?”

  “Yes,” Ellie replied.

  “You’re not scared?” Gorman asked. “Of going over The Wall? It could be dangerous.”

  “We want to go,” Mika said.

  Gorman was impressed by the twins’ resolve. “You’ll get all the training you need, just quicker than the others. You’ll spend the day learning how to use your new equipment and I’ll send you over first thing tomorrow morning. Good luck.”

  “Thank you,” Mika said.

  Gorman watched them leave, thinking what a nice, polite boy Mika Smith was.

  Mika followed Ellie into the elevator and they were taken by armed guards down the fortress to a training area, where they were left in a classroom. The men with guns settled at the back and leaned against the wall.

  Ellie sat down and put her feet up on one of the desks. This was a familiar environment to her — she’d worked in classrooms like this for over a year — but it was not familiar to Mika. He milled around the desks, remembering their old classroom in Barford North. The bitter cold in winter, the unpainted concrete walls, the Plague posters, and Mrs. Fowler, who sat at the front wearing a pom-pom hat and mittens. The contrast between old and new was stark: This classroom was warm and bright, and full of expensive equipment.

  And Ellie.

  He glanced at her.

  She smiled.

  The door opened and a woman entered. She was dressed in white, with short gray hair, and she had the familiar sharp look of all the instructors they’d met. Jabbing a tablet with one finger, she hurried past them toward the desk at the front of the room.

  “Find a place and sit down, Mika,” she said. “My name is Rona Strap. Hello, Ellie. Get your feet off the desk. Those screens cost several thousand credits.”

  Mika sat next to Ellie and they watched Rona Strap search for their lesson plan.

  “I thought I was going to get a week before your first mission,” she said, sounding flustered. “But we’ve only got one day, so we’re going to have to get through everything quickly. It’s going to be hard work.”

  Once she’d found their lesson plan, she looked at Ellie again. “Is there something wrong with your eyes?” she asked. “You look a bit … tired

  “I’m fine,” Ellie said.

  “OK,” the woman replied. “But you must concentrate, both of you. Welcome, Mika.”

  “Hi,” Mika said.

  “OK, let’s get on with it. Tomorrow, you’ll be dropped on the other side of The Wall with equipment you’ve never used before. While you explore the mansion and search for Everlife-9, you’ll be close to Raphael Mose and his family. You’ll be breaking into his home and encountering the security systems that protect it, including animal borgs you may not have interacted with before. Raphael Mose is a very dangerous man, and a very important one at that, so if you want to survive, you’re going to need to know your equipment well.”

  She paused. They were watching her steadily with those weird, mercurial eyes. She’d just told them they were facing danger and they hadn’t blinked. She still doubted they were fully concentrating. She had planned to show them the drop capsules first, but she decided to save that lesson until later and show them something more interesting; something that would wake them up.

  “Your biggest advantage on the other side of The Wall,” she said, “will be that the borgs believe you’re animal, not human. And we’ve designed something else that will offer protection from Mose’s bodyguards.”

  She turned. On the wall behind her desk was a safe. She punched a sequence of numbers into the control panel, and the door swung open. Inside was a white case. She removed it and opened it and walked toward their desks to show them what was inside. The case contained eight silver orbs. She removed one and held it up. It was about the size of a golf ball, with a thin chain hanging off it.

  “This,” she said, “is an invisibility shield.”

  That woke them up. Their eyes were suddenly intense and curious.

  “You wear it around your neck,” she said. “And when you need it, you press the top.”

  She put it on. A small hole appeared and a cloud of tiny fragments puffed out like a swarm of shiny flies. They surrounded her, shimmering like millions of mirror fragments. Then they linked, flashed, and vanished — and she vanished with them.

  “Each fragment of the shield is a tiny screen,” she said. “And each screen has an even smaller camera lens right in the middle of it. The fragments work in pairs, transmitting an image to its counterpart on the opposite side. So whatever angle you look at my body, you see only what’s behind it.”

  Her voice moved as she walked around their desks.

  “The only fault with the shield is its fragility. The linked surface is not very strong. So if you bump into something, it will break apart for a few seconds, and you might be exposed. You must make sure this does not happen.

  “Mika,” she continued, “move your hand in front of you.”

  Mika swept his fingers, and the air stirred like water. They caught a glimpse of the woman’s arm through the hole in the shield’s surface.

  “Do you want to try it?” she asked.

  “Yes,” he replied.

  There was a whooshing sound as the silver orb sucked up the tiny screens, and Rona Strap appeared again. Then she took the chain from around her neck and passed it to Mika, letting Ellie take another one from the case. The twins stood up, put them on, pressed the tops, and vanished.

  It happened so fast that Rona Strap felt a surge of panic, despite the presence of guards at every exit. As if guards could offer protection from mutants like these.

  “That’s enough, children,” she announced nervously, her eyes scanning the room. “Turn them off.”

  The twins reappeared. She held out the case, and they put the silver orbs back.

  “Right, that’s your first piece of equipment,” she said. “Now let’s look at your headsets. They’ve got a navigation system different from the one you’re accustomed to using in Pod Fighters.”

  Mika and Ellie watched her return the invisibility shields to the safe. She shut the heavy door and set the lock. Then her light pulsed with relief, as if she felt safer. As if such things as doors and codes offered protection from children like these.

  7 No Time to Be Messing About

  Audrey took Mika’s hand and looked into it, at the golden light, at the way he was made. Skin, bone, muscle, blood — she could look atom-deep into his body now.

  It was early morning. They were sitting on his bed again. In an hour he would be taken away and dropped over The Wall.

  “What can you see?” he asked.

  “The patterns in your veins,” she whispered. “I was just thinking they’re the same as those in leaves.”

  “And antlers,” he said.

  “Yes. Like leaves and antlers and branches and rivers.”

  She dropped his hand.

  “I wish you were coming with us,” he said.

  “So do I,” she replied, and he felt her try to suppress her thoughts, but she could not stop him from knowing them.

  The first time Mika had flown over The Wall, Audrey had been with him and they’d nearly died. The Ghengis borgs on The Wall had almost shot them down. Then they were attacked by an eagle borg and had fallen into a forest, where their Pod Fighter burned in the branches of a tree. It had been a very dangerous way to discover the truth about their world.

  And now Mika was going again, without her.

  And she was his game partner. She should be with him on the other side of The Wall. Audrey liked Ellie, but she couldn’t help feeling … jealous. This was not a nice feeling. She didn’t want to feel it and she tried hard to make it go away.

  Mika took her hand again. Her fairy fingers were milk pale against his darker ones.

  Ellie’s my sister, he thought. You don’t get to choose sisters. I love her, but I didn’t choose her. I chose you.

  Audrey, Leo, Iman, Colette, and Santos were taken away for a training session. Then the enclosure filled with adults who had come to help Mika and Ellie prepare for their mission. The children stood in the living area, feeling like dressmakers’ dolls while these people rushed around them. They were given thermal suits to wear under their uniforms, and armor to wear over them. The armor was made of a strong, white material. Chest and back plates, shoulder pads, elbow protectors, lower arm guards, and knee-length boots.

  Then they were given their headsets and equipment belts, and concentrated hard as the adults recapped the elements of their training. They wanted to survive and they wanted to find the Everlife-9 as much as Gorman wanted to take it. Everlife-9 would make him younger so he wouldn’t need all those machines. Without realizing it, Mal Gorman was helping them get rid of him.

  When they were dressed and checked, they were led out of the enclosure and down in an elevator to the hangar. Awen followed Mika with his nose glued to his leg.

  In the hangar, they walked through the lines of shiny Pod Fighters toward a new craft called a Stealth Carrier. It had been designed specifically to carry them safely over The Wall. It had slim wings and a pale, metallic surface. It was about ten times the size of a Pod Fighter, but it had been built for the same kind of speed and agility. It was designed to get them over The Wall and back again as quickly as possible. The engine was silent. The surface was covered in tiny cameras and screens just like the invisibility shields that Rona Strap had demonstrated. While the craft rested on its launchpad, they could see it. The moment they boarded, it blinked and disappeared.

  A drop capsule and several men joined them in the hold.

  The Stealth Carrier rose silently. The children watched the fortress shrink until it was a black ring on the coastline. As they rose, the sun peeked up to the east, icing the tips of waves and the refugee towers. Then they shot toward The Wall and it all blurred into one gray streak.

  They approached The Wall at high altitude. From this height it looked like a gray line drawn around the Earth just below the south coast of England and through the middle of France. The contrast between the landscapes was startling. Mika and Ellie pressed against the window, feeling rushes of anxiety and excitement.

  “Put on your he
adsets,” someone said. “We’ll be at the drop site in ten minutes.”

  The Stealth Carrier turned west, following the line of The Wall across the Atlantic toward Canada. The children stood up and the men checked them over for the last time. When this was done, they activated their navigation systems. Suddenly, their visors were filled with green mesh light. When they looked down, they saw a string of red dots along the top of The Wall, showing the location of the Ghengis borgs.

  They reached the east coast of Canada in just a few minutes.

  “Climb into your capsule.”

  The capsule looked like a mirror ball until the door opened. Inside were two seats. Mika and Ellie climbed in, sat down and fastened their harnesses.

  “Remember, the parachute will open automatically,” someone said, “so you don’t have to do anything until you land. Then make sure you roll the capsule out of sight, because you can’t get back without the micro wings stored under your seats. Do you understand?”

  They nodded.

  The door closed, sealing them in.

  “Have you dropped them yet?” Gorman asked.

  “In thirty seconds, sir.”

  “Good,” Gorman replied. “How long before they reach Raphael Mose’s mansion?”

  “Forty-five minutes, sir.”

  “OK,” Gorman said. “I’m waiting. Tell me as soon as they reach the grounds and I’ll join you.”

  Through the transparent wall of the drop capsule, Mika and Ellie watched the adults’ lights pulse with relief as they were sealed inside. They felt a tug as the Stealth Carrier sprinted over The Wall, they saw hands press against the capsule, then they were hurtling toward Earth like an asteroid. The capsule was weighted to prevent it from spinning, but the g-force made them feel as if their innards were about to eject. The noise was intense, as if they were falling through a firestorm, and they could see the ground rushing up toward them. They heard a click and felt a sudden, violent jerk as the parachute opened. For a few seconds it dragged them back up, then the wind noise faded and they were falling again, more gently this time, and they watched through the floor of the capsule as the trees reached up to greet them.

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