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       The Whisper, p.7

           Emma Clayton
 
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  They heard a crunch when the capsule hit the canopy. The scratch of small branches and leaves against it. Then it dropped again, hitting the ground with a soft thud. It rolled forward a short distance because it had landed on a slope, then it jerked to a halt as the lines of the parachute tangled in a tree.

  It was dark inside the capsule. They could see nothing through its wall. They’d landed in North America, five hours behind Europe. It was still the middle of the night.

  A voice spoke to them through their headsets.

  “Are you down?”

  “Yes,” Ellie replied.

  “Turn on your night vision.”

  They blinked at one of the icons on their visors and suddenly the trees beyond the capsule appeared as ghost-gray forms. They were different from those Mika had seen in northern France; these were Canadian redwoods, soft barked and colossal, their trunks rooted in the ground like mountains. As the children looked at the trees, they began to see their living light. Soon their new environment turned from gray to gold.

  “What can you see?” the voice asked.

  “Trees,” Mika replied. “Giant trees. And a cluster of red dots. I think there’s a pack of wolf borgs approaching us.”

  “They’re coming to check you out,” the voice replied. “Open the capsule so they can smell you or they might attack it.”

  They undid their harnesses, but as Mika reached toward the lock icon, he saw something move to their left. A huge body of gold light was shifting through the trees.

  “There’s something else here,” Ellie said.

  “What is it?” the voice asked.

  “A big animal,” Mika said. “Massive.”

  “I’ll log into your visual so I can see with you,” the voice told them.

  “It’s coming toward us,” Ellie said.

  A few seconds passed and they watched the red dots of the wolf borgs grow larger as they approached.

  “Ignore the wolves for the moment,” the voice said. “Look at the animal.”

  “We can’t see it now,” Mika replied. “It’s dis —”

  They heard a roar and a cracking thud as something hit the back of the capsule. It jerked forward, throwing them out of their seats.

  “It’s attacking us,” Ellie cried.

  “It must be a bear,” the voice replied. “It’s probably got cubs nearby.”

  “What should we do?” Mika asked. With the night vision and their special sight, they could see the bear standing on its back legs and throwing its full weight against the capsule as if it were trying to crack it like an egg. Its retinas glowed silver in a mass of angry, red-streaked light and its jaws yawned as it roared at them, its claws scraping down the wall of the capsule.

  “Kill it,” the voice said. “The wolf borgs have nearly reached you. You have to get out of there. If you don’t kill the bear, they’ll attack you as well and they’ll damage the capsule. You know how. Just open the door and look at it.”

  “No,” Ellie said.

  “That’s an order!” the voice shouted. “If you don’t kill the bear, the wolf borgs will kill you!”

  They looked to their right. They could see the giant silver wolves loping through the trees. They stood up, Mika hit the icon to open the door, and they both leaped out. The bear paused, startled by their sudden appearance.

  You deal with the wolves, I’ll deal with the bear, Mika thought.

  Ellie ran toward the wolves, and Mika turned to face the bear, then pressed the top of the invisibility shield so it whooshed out around him. With a shimmering blink, he vanished and began to run, leading the bear with his scent and sound, away from the capsule. It bounded in his wake, roaring and swiping with an immense, clawed paw. He thought the shield would offer some protection, because the bear could not see exactly where he was, but he felt a blow on his shoulder and was hurled forward to smack against a tree. His headset flew off and he landed on his back with the bear almost upon him.

  “Kill it!” the voice yelled. “What the frag are you doing?”

  Mika fumbled with the shield, trying to get rid of it again. The technology wasn’t helping. He heard a whoosh as it was sucked back in. He could smell sharp pine, hear the voice shouting through his headset, but it had rolled down the slope and was too far away to reach. He could see the giant silver wolves in his peripheral vision, running circles around Ellie. The bear rose on its back legs, ready to drop its weight on his chest, and Mika looked into its eyes, asserting his strength. It turned its head to the side as if Mika were leaning against its jaw, and after a few seconds, it dropped to all fours and lumbered away. Immediately the wolves ran in to inspect him, silver lips curling over daggered snarls and red borg eyes glowing in the darkness. He stood up and let them smell his face. They were immense, each one a ton of flex metal muscle, that towered over him.

  He waited while they decided what he was.

  Not human.

  Animal.

  Allowed.

  The snarls subsided. For a while they walked around him, looking into the dark forest, then they loped off, leaving him and Ellie alone among the giant redwood trees. He walked forward and picked up his headset, brushed the dead pine off of it, and put it on.

  “Hello,” he said.

  “Mika!” the voice yelled. “You fragging idiot! What happened?”

  “Nothing,” Mika replied. “The bear’s gone. I’m fine.”

  “You do what you’re told from now on!” the voice yelled. “Both of you. Do you hear me? If I tell you to kill an animal, you kill it. This is no time to be messing about.”

  “I didn’t mess about,” Mika replied calmly. “I didn’t need to kill it.”

  “Go and hide your capsule. Cut the lines of the parachute, pull it out of the tree, and roll it somewhere it can’t be seen.”

  “What are we waiting for?” Gorman asked angrily. “You said forty-five minutes an hour ago.”

  “They encountered a problem on landing,” the voice replied. “The capsule was attacked by a bear. But they’re approaching Raphael Mose’s estate now. You’ll be able to join them in about twenty minutes.”

  Ellie and Mika stood together while they looked at their maps. Raphael Mose’s mansion was a mile away in the bottom of a valley. The forest sloped down toward it. Their feet slipped and crunched through a carpet of pine needles as they began their approach. They noticed the cold and turned up the heat of their thermal suits. But the rest of the gadgets they’d been given, they felt they could do without. The voice nagged them constantly, telling them to hurry up and watch out for bears. They turned down the volume so they could only just hear it, and turned off the night vision completely. They preferred their own method of seeing the trees: focusing on their trunks until they glowed with warm gold light, which was infinitely more beautiful than the gray ghosts of army night vision. Awen trotted before them, enjoying the walk, and for a few minutes, they marveled at the sheer beauty of it. They felt right here in this forest, calm and whole, as if this was home. The living light flowed through the ground and into their feet in the way it never did in the concrete towers on the other side of The Wall. This forest was part of them. They could see it. Feel it. They were part of one great, complex organism.

  And our parents don’t know, Ellie thought. They don’t feel connected to each other or this. They’ve broken it somehow.

  But they could never see it like we do, Mika replied. It’s not really their fault. We’ll find a way to show them.

  “Can you hear me?” the voice asked impatiently.

  “Yes,” Mika replied.

  “Good,” the voice said. “For a minute I thought you weren’t listening to me. You should reach the perimeter fence of the grounds soon. Be careful you don’t walk into it, because it’s electric to keep out the bears.”

  They heard a bird clatter through the branches above and something scamper up a nearby tree. For a moment they wished they could sit down instead and watch the dawn arrive.

  They hear
d the fence before they saw it, buzzing like a swarm of bees.

  “We’re there,” Ellie said.

  “OK,” the voice replied. “Lift yourselves over it and wait. Mal Gorman wants to see everything from this point. I’ll let you know when he’s online.”

  They walked toward the fence and closed their eyes, focusing on their own inner light. Then they lifted themselves up and over it. Mika had never done this before. He was surprised how easy it was, but landed clumsily on the other side in the middle of a prickly bush. He stood up holding his shoulder, which still ached from the encounter with the bear.

  “You need to work on those landings, Mika,” the voice said. “Don’t let yourself drop like that: Someone might hear you.”

  Mika stood up and joined Ellie at the edge of a shrub border. Here was nature shaped by humans: the bushes pruned, the trees spaced, tilled earth and bark chips beneath their feet.

  “OK,” the voice said. “Mal Gorman is online now. Use your invisibility shields and walk toward the house.”

  They activated their shields and moved quietly forward onto mown grass. It was cushion soft and damp. Beyond that they saw nothing but an expanse of darkness. The map told them to head southwest. As they walked, they heard Mal Gorman complaining because he couldn’t see anything. Occasionally a tree loomed out of the darkness or a rabbit scarpered in front of them, but all they could really glean about the place was its vastness. The mown grass seemed to go on forever.

  “Does Raphael Mose own all of this?” Mika whispered.

  “Yes,” the voice replied.

  They saw a red and white pole sticking out of the ground, with a flag on the top of it. They walked forward and found themselves on a circle of closely cropped grass. It was flat and hard.

  “What’s this?” Mika asked.

  “A golf hole,” the voice replied. “Walk on.”

  The ground sloped suddenly and they found themselves in a copse of trees. Through the trunks they saw the faint glow of artificial light.

  “You should see the house soon,” the voice told them.

  Just on the other side of the trees, they did. They stopped to look at it. The mansion was nestled in the bottom of the valley with its front bathed in light. It was immense, a colonial-style mansion with scores of shuttered windows and a grand pillared entrance. At the base were plinths, on which sat a pair of lions. It had a wide driveway lined with neatly spaced trees, a cluster of outbuildings, a pool and tennis courts and another garden to the rear, with lawns and flower beds that backed onto the forest. It was quite astonishing to imagine that one man owned all this.

  It was quiet in their headsets.

  Mal Gorman was absorbing it all. “I like it,” he said.

  The twins began to walk forward, but stopped abruptly. The giant lions on the plinths had begun to move, as if the stone were enchanted.

  “They must be borgs,” the voice said. “Just stay where you are and see what they do.”

  The lions dropped heavily from their plinths onto the drive. They were so huge, their heads reached the tops of the pillars. They had the sickle markings of mountain lions inlaid in their silver hides. They began to lope slowly up the lawn toward Ellie and Mika. The children felt the great weight of the metallic beasts rocking through the ground.

  “Just stay there,” the voice said.

  The lions reached them and paced powerfully around them with their nostrils flaring, snorting hard. Patent flex metal muscles and titanium bones worked beneath silver skin. In the dense quiet, the children could hear all these mechanisms moving in complex coordination. The lions were the best that money could buy. They were a status symbol more potent than the mansion and its grounds.

  The borgs took a while to decide what the children were. Low growls began to thunder in their throats.

  “Stay calm,” the voice said. “Don’t move until they accept you. They’re just confused because they can’t see you.”

  At last the lions settled, but their immense size remained a threat. Mika moved just before one stood on his foot and it was a while before they left. They lay down on the grassy slope and gazed toward the house with their tails twitching. Long minutes passed, but eventually they rose and sauntered toward their plinths, their paws leaving a trail of deep dents in the lawn. The children followed at a safe distance and watched them settle.

  “OK, that’s them dealt with,” the voice said. “It looks as if they’re the only borgs inside the fence … not that they’d need any more. Walk past them toward the left side of the mansion. Mal Gorman wants to look at the outbuildings and the gardens. He’ll guide you through this area.”

  The cluster of outbuildings was about the size of a small village. As they entered the area, they walked past a row of dark cottages.

  “That must be the servant accommodation,” Gorman said. “How many are there?”

  “Eight,” Mika whispered.

  “What’s that building ahead of you?” Gorman said. “It looks like a stable block.”

  The children entered a dark yard surrounded on three sides by long, thin buildings. For the first time in their lives, they saw the golden glow of horses through the half doors on the stables. The horses stirred, sensing them approach, and a couple stamped their straw.

  “Show me them all,” Gorman said. “I want to see what kind of stock he’s got.”

  The children moved slowly around the yard, stopping by each door and stroking the long faces of the horses. Horse light was volatile. It warmed and softened as the children touched them, but as soon as they took their hands away, the horses jerked their heads back, their light jagged, fractious, as if they would run for miles if their stables were opened. The children showed Gorman every horse and he admired them as if he knew what he was talking about.

  They heard human footsteps. A pair of solid boots on the gritty path. Then a woman appeared in the entrance to the yard, dressed in a black uniform with a gun on her belt.

  “She’s one of Raphael Mose’s bodyguards,” the voice said. “Don’t move until she leaves.”

  She walked a few paces into the yard, then turned slowly and left. When they could no longer hear her, Mal Gorman made them walk on and show him the kitchen garden, full of fruit and vegetables. Then they looked at the pool, Plush Turf tennis courts, the terrace overlooking the rear garden, and a garage block. As well as several new pods, this contained some vintage gas-engine cars: a Rolls-Royce, a Porsche, and a Corvette Stingray. Gorman was quiet again while they walked around these, but they knew what he was thinking. His mind had already leapfrogged the war and he was imagining owning all this.

  He’s so stupid, Mika thought. This mansion will be a heap of cinders after the war. And so will he.

  Next, Gorman told them to break into the mansion.

  They saw another bodyguard as they left the garage, and had to wait several minutes before it was safe to approach the kitchen door. It was on the left side of the house, near the row of staff cottages. Ellie looked at the lock until it clicked, and they walked quietly into the kitchen. Then Mika looked at the alarm panel until a soft, green light appeared.

  Now the hunt for Everlife-9 would begin, while Raphael Mose and his family slept on the floor above them.

  8 The Goat Kid

  Mika and Ellie walked quietly across Raphael Mose’s kitchen.

  They could smell a pie that had been left to cool on the kitchen table. It was a real cheese and vegetable pie, made with milk from cows and vegetables grown in soil. Food was the last thing on their minds, but they were drawn to it anyway. Food like this didn’t exist on the other side of The Wall. The crust was glazed with butter and egg. They touched it curiously.

  Next to the pie was another miracle: a jam jar full of wildflowers that glowed gold in their water. The tiny petals were closed, sleeping, but their colors were lovely, even in the darkness. Ellie touched these too, very gently.

  Around the jam jar was a scatter of brightly colored pencils made from wood, and next
to these, a child’s drawing on real paper. Such ordinary things on this side of The Wall, but fascinating to children from the North. Ellie picked up the drawing. It was a bird in a tree, and the child had tried hard to capture the details under a warm, plump sun. It was a happy drawing.

  Now they felt guilty. They hadn’t realized there was a child in the house.

  Gorman was bored. He couldn’t smell the pie or care about flowers or drawings. He was more interested in looking at the size of the rooms and finding the Everlife-9.

  “What are you doing?” he said. “Put that down and get on with it.”

  Ellie returned the drawing to the table.

  They walked around the kitchen so Gorman could admire the massive cooking range and fridge. Then they explored the rest of the ground-floor rooms, showing Gorman the furniture and searching for Everlife-9. The rooms at the front of the house were large and the furnishings were a mixture of antique and modern. They smelled of polish and perfume. The children touched wood, stone, and silk and gazed into everything, even the walls, hunting for Everlife-9. They saw the smallest things normal eyes would never see, like the tiny gold lights of insects moving in the floorboards. But they did not find the drug.

  In a study at the back of the house, they did find something that interested them. Behind a horse painting above the fireplace was a brushed-metal control panel with three red buttons.

  What’s this? Mika thought.

  “I wish you would stop fiddling,” Gorman said impatiently. “Get a move on.”

  He made them open the drawers in Raphael Mose’s desk, then look at the holopics on the mantelpiece. He spent a long time looking at these, and the children wondered why.

  Do you think Gorman knows Raphael Mose? Ellie thought.

  Maybe, Mika replied. Or perhaps he’s just imagining himself doing those things.

  The holopics showed Raphael Mose’s family and friends living the high life. They lounged around on yachts, feasted in ski lodges, and gathered at weddings, wearing diamonds and silk. The man in the holopics appeared to be Raphael Mose. He looked young, strong, and healthy. He had a full head of dark hair and a muscular body, but he was not attractive. There was a hard edge to his smile and no emotion in his eyes. They decided it must be Raphael Mose. He looked exactly like the kind of man who could ruin billions of lives without feeling any remorse.

 
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