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       The Whisper, p.9

           Emma Clayton
 
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  “Oh my odd,” Abe said through gritted teeth. “And you feel guilty, Kobi? Because you’re free? Because you didn’t let them do this to you?”

  Kobi dropped his head and hid in his hair, feeling as if he was about to vomit. Crouched next to the cocooned boy, he felt more guilty, not less.

  The lamps arrived and his father started to work. Kobi shook out his father’s bag of tools and laid them on the floor so he could take what he needed. Abe lay down, first on one side, then the other, so he could look at the Creeper Net from all angles, and when he found the processor unit connected to the legs, he began to burn a hole through it with a blowtorch. But the blood from his cut fingers made it slip in his hand.

  “I can’t do it,” he said. “You’re going to have to do it, Kobi.”

  Abe held out the blowtorch. Kobi tied back his hair, took the torch, wiped the blood off on his sweater, and began to work. The crowd loomed over him, watching. Spooked children pushing through the adults’ legs. It felt as if the whole building was crammed in that room. This would have freaked out Kobi on a normal day, but he didn’t even notice now: The only person who mattered was the boy. As he burned a hole through the hard, black case on the processor unit, he whispered, “I’m your friend. You’re going to be OK.”

  When there was a large hole in the case, he took smaller tools and began to disassemble the processor inside. Suddenly, the legs relaxed and the Creeper Net opened like a black flower. The boy in the filthy white gown looked like its crushed stamen inside. Immediately, everyone rushed forward and many gentle hands picked him up. He was carried away and the crowd followed, leaving Kobi and his father alone, still crouched by the broken Creeper Net.

  Kobi began to put the tools away.

  He felt his father’s hand press gently on his shoulder. “Well done. I’m really proud of you,” he said.

  “That could have been me,” Kobi replied.

  “Exactly. So don’t you dare feel guilty that it wasn’t.”

  10 A Strange Task

  Ellie and Mika didn’t talk to Mal Gorman until the mansion was far behind them. He’d told them to kill a young girl, and this made them so angry, The Roar crackled at the back of their heads, threatening to start more fires. It was not a good idea to talk to Mal Gorman while they felt this way.

  Gorman became frantic with worry. After a quarter of an hour, he was convinced he’d lost his two best mutants and the Everlife-9. He sat at his desk, grinding his teeth. When he heard their voices again, his relief was intense. They blamed the loss of contact on signal failure, but he wasn’t interested. He hurried them over the fence as quickly as possible. Mal Gorman was addicted to Everlife-9 before he’d even touched it.

  On the other side of the fence, the children climbed the slope in the forest and searched for their capsule. But when they found it, they discovered the bear had gotten there first and crushed it. It had found their ration packs inside and there was a scatter of food packaging through the trees. Gorman ranted at them while they picked this up, telling them they should have killed the bear when they landed.

  I hate him so much I could puke, Ellie thought.

  Ignore him, Mika replied. Just concentrate on getting back.

  They pulled the micro wings from underneath the seats and found they were damaged. But at least this meant Mal Gorman had to go so an engineer could talk to them. They sat at the base of a giant redwood tree and listened while they made their repairs. Ellie had to mend her engine. Mika had to fix one of his wings. Luckily, their tool kit had not been damaged.

  The forest was peaceful. Gold light coursed through roots and earth and through the leaves and into them. That magic calm, that feeling of being part of something beautiful made their work enjoyable. By the time their micro wings were fixed, they knew they could face Mal Gorman again.

  They placed the micro wings on the ground. They were sparse structures, just a skeletal frame with an engine attached. Just enough to get them over The Wall where the Stealth Carrier would be waiting for them. As the micro wings touched the ground, they sprang to life, standing up with their wings unfolding. Then the children backed into them and let the metal arms wrap around their bodies.

  The wolf borgs returned to watch them leave.

  The micro-wing engines were silent. The twins flew up through the trees as quietly as fish rising to the surface of a lake. As they cleared the forest canopy, they were spotted by a pair of eagle hawk borgs that rose up and followed them to The Wall. Great silver wings whomped the night air. Red eyes glowed in the darkness.

  The forest ended abruptly and they crossed no-man’s-land. This was a half-mile-wide strip of concrete scattered with dead leaves. The giant birds turned for home, and the children flew up and over The Wall. Then the Ghengis borgs watched them from their concrete plinths, with more pairs of red eyes. If the children had tried to cross from North to South, rather than South to North, they would have been shot down by their massive guns. The door over The Wall opened only one way.

  Then the children crossed another strip of no-man’s-land, this one scattered with concrete rubble and litter, and the North stretched out before them, concrete towers and people as far as their eyes could see. Plague sirens, factories, traffic trunks, and pylons that were denser than the forests on the other side of The Wall. Even so far above it, the children could smell the mold.

  Just as they passed the first rows of towers, the Stealth Carrier appeared, hovering in the air like a lump of molten silver.

  An hour later, they were standing in front of Mal Gorman with the bottles of Everlife-9.

  “Give it to me,” he said.

  They placed six bottles on his desktop and watched him pull them toward him with bony fingers.

  “Well done,” he said. “You can go now. There’s a mail pack for you by the door.”

  “From home?” Mika asked.

  “Yes,” Gorman replied.

  Mika and Ellie turned quickly. It was sitting on a shelf, a bulging, white mail pack full of gifts from home. They walked toward it and Mika picked it up.

  From Mum and Dad, Ellie thought.

  Yeah, and I bet there’s something in there for you.

  Mal Gorman felt happy.

  After Mika and Ellie left, he watched his fortress through his desktop, with a bottle of Everlife-9 in his hand.

  His implanted army was sleeping. His engineers were working on Pod Fighters in the hangar. His Chosen Ones were resting in their enclosure after a hard day of a mission and training. Gorman watched them for a few minutes, curious to know what mutant children did when they were alone. Not much, it seemed. They were slouched across the white sofas in their living area. Leo was reading. Iman was stretched out like a black cat with her head in Leo’s lap. Colette was oiling her silver hands. Santos was gazing at a screen that played a loop of old cartoons. Audrey leaned against Mika’s legs, watching him open his mail pack. At his side sat Ellie, with her hot, black eyes fixed on it.

  They looked so ordinary.

  Mika pulled things out of the mail pack — a letter, candy bars, and a handful of holopics — and handed them to Ellie to look at. The only gift he kept himself was a packet of biscuits, which he put to one side.

  Boring, Gorman thought. But good.

  Everything was just as he wanted it to be: quiet and uneventful.

  This was the perfect time to take Everlife-9.

  He swept the images of his children away and summoned Ralph to his dressing room.

  Ralph had been required to perform many strange tasks in the time he’d worked for Mal Gorman, but none as peculiar as filming his master while he took Everlife-9. Gorman sat before the fire in his dressing room, holding the small bottle in his hand. The butler felt as if he were about to make a horror movie.

  “Hurry up,” Gorman said.

  The butler felt confused by all the buttons on the camera. He’d never used one before.

  “Sorry, sir.”

  He found a child’s tutorial in the
menu and began to follow the instructions. Gorman waited, with a vision of his younger self walking through his mind.

  “I think I’m ready now,” Ralph said.

  Gorman pressed the Everlife-9 to his lips and drank.

  He felt something happen immediately.

  “I feel hot,” he muttered. A warmth built in his mouth that escalated rapidly to a blistering heat as if he were chewing a mouthful of Scotch bonnet chili peppers. His eyes began to water, he coughed violently, and the machines on the frame around his chair began to blink and beep. Ralph’s hands trembled on the camera as the veins on Gorman’s forehead began to throb.

  “Do you still want me to film this, sir?” Ralph asked. “Or do you want me to help you?”

  “Film!” Gorman rasped, clutching his throat. “Something’s happening!”

  Ralph had no doubt something was happening, but he wasn’t sure it was what Mal Gorman wanted to happen. The life-support system was now in full panic mode as if Gorman were about to explode. There was a quiet knock on the dressing room door as a doctor from the hospital unit arrived to find out what was happening.

  “Keep them out!” Gorman rasped. “I don’t want anyone to see me until I’m young!”

  Five awful minutes passed, and Ralph continued to film. But the spectacular event they were waiting for did not happen. The heat subsided in Gorman’s mouth, and the machines fell calm again. The old man sat rasping in his chair, looking frailer and freakier than ever, with his last few strands of parched gray hair standing up like lightning rods.

  “Give me the mirror,” he choked. “But don’t stop filming.”

  Ralph placed a mirror in his master’s hand, and Gorman raised it to look at his reflection.

  “I look worse!” Gorman yelled. “Look at me! Look at the state of my hair! I’m bright red! I look like a freak!”

  “Perhaps it needs more time, sir.”

  “For what? To make me redder and older?”

  “Do you want me to stop filming now, sir?” Ralph asked.

  “Of course I do, you idiot!” Gorman yelled. “Turn it off and get it out of here!”

  Ralph unlocked the door and hurried out with the camera, hearing the crack and smash of the mirror as Gorman hurled it into the fire.

  In sleep Gorman twisted, tangling in his tubes.

  At two o’clock in the morning, a shrill scream tossed Ralph out of bed. He pulled on his dressing gown and ran to Gorman’s room. In the darkness, his master looked hideous, eyes white and mouth wide in a horror-film howl. Ralph grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him.

  “Wake up, sir,” he urged. “You’re having a nightmare.”

  Gorman stopped howling and panted heavily, his eyes hazed with interlight.

  “The vines,” he muttered. “They won’t let me go….”

  He trailed off and pushed Ralph away. “Light!” he shouted. “Light!”

  The bedroom light blinked on, and Gorman looked up to see Ralph gazing at him strangely.

  “What?” he snapped. “Why are you staring at me?”

  “I’m going to get you another mirror, sir,” Ralph replied. “You need to look at your reflection.”

  Ralph hurried out of the room and returned a minute later to find Mal Gorman staring at his hands.

  “I can’t see the bones,” he whispered.

  “Look at your face,” Ralph said eagerly, handing him the mirror.

  Gorman gazed at his reflection and saw a … boy.

  He was quiet for a long time, touching his face and turning it from one side to the other.

  “I took too much,” he whispered. “I wanted to be thirty, like Raphael Mose. But I feel GREAT!”

  Gorman dropped the mirror on the bed and began to yank out the tubes and wires attached to his body.

  “Get the camera, Ralph!” he shouted. “Film me now! This is fragging brilliant!”

  “Is there anything else you’d like, sir?” Ralph asked, looking startled.

  “Yeah!” Gorman shouted enthusiastically. “Get me the biggest pizza you can find! A fragging enormous pizza! I’m starving!”

  11 A New Sound

  After rescuing Luc from the Creeper Net, Kobi slept the rest of the day and through the next night. He awoke to find his father leaning over him, looking worried.

  He was lying on his back with his companion in his hand.

  He hadn’t moved for twenty hours.

  “How’s the boy?” Kobi asked immediately.

  “Still the same,” Abe replied. “Asleep. I was beginning to wonder if you’d caught some kind of sleeping sickness off him.”

  Kobi sat up and looked at the screen of his companion, hoping he’d received a message from one of his friends. His companion was a girl called Anais; he’d won her in the game before he stopped playing. She had long black hair similar to his, but she washed and brushed hers. “Sorry,” she said. “No messages.”

  Kobi sighed and leaned his head against the wall.

  “You’re not still tired?” Abe asked.

  “A bit,” Kobi replied. “But I’ll get up in a minute.”

  “Come and have breakfast with us. Everyone’s looking forward to seeing you.”

  Kobi almost refused, then realized how hollow he felt. The last meal he’d eaten was cold noodles outside the pub in Greek Street. He got up and changed and followed his father downstairs.

  They entered the kitchen to find a dozen people sitting around the table, eating Fab egg and toast. They greeted them warmly and insisted father and son sit down while their breakfast was being prepared. Kobi sat between a woman and a young boy with blond hair who let his Fab egg go cold while he stared at him.

  “Eat your breakfast, Oliver,” the woman said.

  The child ate, but kept his eyes on Kobi.

  “My name’s Oliver,” he said. “I live here.”

  “Hi,” Kobi replied.

  Kobi was determined to eat and leave as quickly as possible. He felt self-conscious sitting there with so many people he didn’t know. He wondered which ones were SLF, but they all looked the same: pale and drawn, with faces lined by worry.

  When Kobi had a plate of food in front of him, they left him alone and began to talk.

  “The government has to tell us about this war soon. They promised days ago and still, nothing. We deserve to know who our children have been taken to fight!”

  “They won’t tell us. They don’t talk to us about anything else. I bet as far as they’re concerned, this war is none of our business.”

  A man slammed his fist on the table, making Kobi’s plate jump.

  “How can it be none of our business when our children have been taken to fight it? We have the right to know what this war is about! They have to tell us!”

  “Then we’ll make them tell us.”

  “The boy might know.”

  “That’s true.”

  “We ought to talk to him.”

  “He still hasn’t woken up. The doctor suspects he’s got a lung infection from breathing the fluid around the Tank Meat.”

  “But he’s not in a coma, we know that. He’s bound to wake up, even if he’s sick.”

  “But when? It could take days, and we need to know what’s happening now. Either that boy tells us what’s going on or we’ll have to make the government tell us.”

  This tension around the table was too much for Kobi. He couldn’t eat while the adults were stabbing their breakfasts. He pushed back his chair and stood up.

  Everyone looked at him.

  “Sorry,” he said. “I’m not very hungry.”

  “It’s OK, Kobi,” someone said. “This must be horrible for you.”

  “Yes,” Kobi replied. “It is. I miss my friends. Can I see the boy?”

  A man rose immediately.

  “Of course you can,” he said. “If it wasn’t for you, he might have died. I’ll show you where he is.”

  “Thanks.”

  “The doctor’s with him at the moment, but I’m
sure she won’t mind.”

  Kobi followed the man toward the buffer zone. The boy had been put in a small room quite close to where he’d lain on the floor inside the Creeper Net.

  The man tapped gently on a door and it opened. It was almost dark inside. The doctor was just rising, with her bag in one hand.

  It was a small room. Along one wall were bookshelves. Against the opposite wall was a bed, with a table and a lamp and two chairs for visitors nearby. The boy lay under piles of blankets with two tubes running into the back of his hand, one delivering saline, the other, antibiotics. A bandage covered the place where the needles entered his veins. The adults talked quietly for a moment, then the doctor left.

  “I’ll leave you with him,” the man said to Kobi. “Let us know if he wakes up.”

  “OK,” Kobi replied.

  He closed the door quietly and Kobi sat on the chair next to the bed and watched the boy’s face. The skin around his implant was angry and swollen, but his features were calm, almost content.

  Kobi wondered why.

  It was quiet. The boy breathed softly and Kobi gazed at him.

  After a few silent minutes, he heard a sound like a rush of wind, right inside his head. He was so startled, he panicked and it faded away. But for the next hour he sat there, wishing it would come back and learning how to hear it.

  12 Return to the Arcade

  Ralph took a deep breath before knocking on Mal Gorman’s dressing room door.

  “Come in,” Gorman yelled.

  The butler entered. The twelve-year-old Minister for Youth Development was lying on the rug before the fire, wearing a gold dressing gown, with pizza crusts and mirrors scattered around him. The hover chair, with its machines, tubes, and wires, had been pushed into the corner. He leaned up on one elbow and looked indolently at the pile of clothes hanging over the butler’s arm.

 
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