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       The Roar, p.10

           Emma Clayton
 

  ‘How did you do that?’ Kobi asked, looking with surprise at the new mapping system.

  ‘I hit this,’ Mika replied, pointing to a triangular icon.

  ‘Cool,’ Kobi said. ‘That was a lucky guess.’

  But it wasn’t a guess, Mika thought, feeling confused. I hit it automatically as if I was flicking on the light when I enter my room.

  But he didn’t say anything; he sensed Kobi would think he was being arrogant if he didn’t follow his instructions, despite the fact the mapping system was useful, and for the next couple of minutes he did only what he was told. As the engines began to roar and the Pod Fighter lifted from the deck of the ship he felt pure exhilaration, aware of the power he was controlling through the plethora of buttons under his fingertips and how sensitive the craft was to the slightest error.

  ‘You control it on every plane,’ Kobi said. ‘So be careful as you tilt the nose, I crashed it into the ship a couple of times; it can spin out really easily. Pull back gently, keeping it level with the ship, and no power yet or you’ll end up in the sea.’

  Mika did as he was told, tilting the nose of the Pod Fighter towards the sky, and as he gave it the first burst of power and it shot like a bullet towards the clouds, he felt like yelling his head off.

  ‘Careful,’ Kobi warned. ‘Not too much power or you’ll lose control of it.’

  But by this point, Mika had forgotten to listen. He decelerated for the briefest moment to appreciate the blanket of snow-white clouds glistening in the sunlight, before tilting up again, and bolting with gritted teeth through the turbulent planet atmosphere into space. The simple fact was, flying the craft made sense to him – the link between the subtle movements of his hands and those of the Pod Fighter seemed to have been made before he ever climbed in it. He didn’t know that wherever Ellie was and whatever she did, a little part of him was with her. It just felt like some kind of miracle.

  The crafts of the Red Star Fleet on the first level looked like pointed slivers of red glass – so shallow, they must have been crewed by aliens with bodies the width of tortilla chips. They flew in close formation, weaving through space as if they were plaiting their lines of flight together. This strange movement made them hard targets, but the newly discovered mapping system helped – the enemy appeared with lines of red mesh light all around them, and Kobi soon worked out how to control the guns so he could fire at them from every angle. He didn’t say much as they fought, but Mika knew what Kobi was thinking: how had Mika just climbed into the Pod Fighter and flown it without all the crashes and messing about everyone else had experienced? But it was at the end of the first level that Mika really surprised Kobi – they had wiped out at least a dozen Red Star Fleet fighters and were feeling in control and a bit smug, when all of a sudden this new thing came at them.

  ‘Whoah! What’s that?’ Kobi yelled through his headset. ‘It’s too fast for us!’

  It was the first Dragon Fighter they had seen, a beast of a craft in flame colours, with two rows of serrated teeth painted down the sides of its nose. It was twice the size of them, twice as fast, twice as loud, and it fired balls of flame that seemed to move at the speed of shooting stars. Mika felt his backside melt into the seat as he dodged the first.

  ‘We’re going to lose it!’ Kobi yelled, firing at it frantically, as if he was shooting peas at a Tyrannosaurus Rex. ‘We can’t fight this!’

  Mika looked at the control panel in front of him, and without even thinking about it jabbed three icons in fast sequence and immediately, as if they had the force of a hurricane on their tail, the Pod Fighter leaped forward, emitting a noise so loud, it sounded as if a volcano was erupting in their heads.

  ‘Whhooooo Hooooo!’ Mika yelled, the hairs on his head standing bolt upright underneath his headset. ‘Feel that!’

  ‘Jeez Chrise!’ Kobi yelled.

  Within moments the Dragon Fighter was kilometres behind them, and Mika felt elated, so buzzed up he felt like dancing. He rolled the Pod Fighter into a tight corkscrew then pulled up sharply and flew a few elegant loops like a metal dolphin playing in the sea of space, then, having an idea, he banked sharply round and back the way they had come and in seconds they were behind the Dragon Fighter and hard on its tail. Kobi fired a round of well-aimed shots and it exploded like a small star, bathing their faces in light.

  An icon appeared in their visors.

  ‘Level One Completed.’

  ‘How did you do that?’ Kobi asked.

  ‘I don’t know,’ Mika replied, grinning.

  ‘Really?’ Kobi said, incredulously.

  ‘Yeah, I just . . . knew what to do.’

  ‘You freaker,’ Kobi said.

  ‘Yep,’ Mika replied, happily, and for the first time in his life he was glad he was that little bit different to everyone else, but his happiness was short-lived; before he’d even climbed out of the simulator, news of his first flight had spread throughout the arcade and his name was flashing at the top of the leader board. As he walked through the mall with Kobi, everyone stared at him. He kept his head down and walked as quickly as he could, feeling suffocated by the attention, and he wasn’t able to breathe until they were out on the dark walkway alone, heading for home.

  * * *

  Awen, the dream dog, slept with him that night, stretched out down the side of the bed, and a couple of hours before dawn, Mika felt the fur across the dog’s shoulders bristle beneath his hand. He took his hand away slowly, as Awen began to growl, a low, throaty growl, his soft black lips curling back to reveal two rows of menacing white teeth. Awen’s head was right next to Mika’s on the pillow and with the glistening canines only inches from his eyes, he found himself unable to move and hardly daring to breathe, praying the dream dog would disappear before he made the full transformation into a nightmare.

  ‘What’s the matter,’ Mika whispered.

  Awen raised his head from the pillow and looked over his shoulder, the growl intensifying, and Mika became aware he was growling at something in the room, not at him. With a mixture of relief and trepidation, he lay still as Awen got up and trod uncomfortably on his foot before jumping over him on to the floor. The dog stood by Ellie’s cupboard, his ears pricked forward, the growl still rumbling in his throat and his tail rigid.

  Mika quietly pulled back the covers and sat up. Awen looked at him and his tail wagged once, then he turned to the cupboard again and continued to growl.

  ‘What is it?’ Mika asked, daring to put his hand on Awen’s back. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ He didn’t like the gentle dog behaving this way.

  ‘You want me to look in the cupboard, don’t you?’ He looked at the door, feeling sick and frightened, trying to hear if there was movement inside above the sound of Awen’s growling. ‘Shhh,’ he said. ‘Be quiet a minute.’ But Awen didn’t want to be quiet, and rumbled on like the engine of an old car until Mika got up. Mika stood looking at the door wondering what to do, knowing that whatever was in the cupboard, it was likely he wouldn’t want to see it. His fingers hovered trembling over the handle for thirty seconds, then he carefully pushed it down and peered in. The cupboard was usually crammed with Ellie’s possessions, showering soft toys and clothes all over the floor when the door was opened, which didn’t happen often any more, because it tore open the wounds that Mika’s parents were trying to heal. The door had remained locked and the contents untouched for months and it had become a hidden shrine. So the first thing Mika noticed as he opened the door was the lack of fallout, and as it opened wider, he discovered to his horror that the cupboard was completely empty, even the shelves and drawers were gone. He peered into the darkness with Awen snarling at his side, trying to make out the shadowy outline of something at the back. No, not a something, he realized, someone. Someone with a square head, his face dark, his body leaning forward slightly with his arms hanging at his sides as if he was turned off, as if he was a vacuumbot stored in a cleaner’s cupboard. Awen whined.

  ‘Bite it, then,’ Mika
whispered, trying to push Awen forward. ‘What am I supposed to do?’ But Awen backed away instead and sat down looking at Mika as if to say, ‘You bite it’. Mika was so frightened he could hardly move, but he also felt angry, he wanted to know where Ellie’s things were and what the Telly Head was doing in her cupboard. He stepped inside and pressed the button underneath its screen, and the Telly Head blinked on, raised its head and stared at him expressionlessly with cold, grey eyes. It was the Knife Sharpener, the old man who stood quietly at the end of the bed while the other Telly Heads argued about how to cook him. The old man raised one arm and Mika saw he held a cup in his hand, the same kind they drank their Fit Mix from in the mornings. But instead of slimy, pink Fit Mix, it was full to the brim with large, black spiders, and they crawled over his wrinkly old hand and dropped to the floor and scuttled towards Mika’s feet. He only just managed to shut the door before the first spider reached him.

  10

  WE HAVE EYES EVERYWHERE

  ‘You start,’ Gorman said, lifting a glass to his lips. He took a sip of blood-red wine and watched Ellie falter in the doorway of his office. Behind her, a man held the barrel of a gun millimetres from the back of her head. She looked cleaned up for the occasion in a new white uniform and sock shoes, and her black hair had been freshly cut in a sharp line at her jaw, but she had dark rings under her eyes and looked too thin – tiny compared to the man with the gun behind her.

  The Fit Mix will sort that out, Gorman thought. In a few weeks she won’t recognize herself.

  Ellie looked around suspiciously.

  ‘Start what?’ she asked.

  ‘Our game of chess,’ Gorman replied. ‘Look.’ He motioned towards a pair of sofas with a low table between them. A chessboard had been set up, with a carafe of wine on the black side and a bowl of sweets on the white. Ellie scowled as she walked across the room and sat down behind her pieces. The man with the gun followed and stood behind her.

  ‘Why are you giving me sweets?’ she asked.

  ‘I thought you might like to eat them,’ Gorman replied clemently, sitting down opposite her. He did this with difficulty; his knees were very painful. ‘But you don’t have to of course, if you consider yourself too grown-up.’ He drained his glass of wine and refilled it. ‘I could ask for some savoury treats if you prefer.’

  Ellie looked at the bowl of sweets and felt a lump form in her throat. They were just the kind she had liked once – colourful and chewy and shaped like shrimps and shells. But she couldn’t eat in front of Gorman. She could hardly breathe in front of Gorman. He looked particularly dead that night – his lips and mouth stained red by the wine and his papery face grey. He looked as if someone had just got him out of his coffin and plugged him in.

  ‘I’m not hungry,’ she said.

  ‘Suit yourself,’ he replied, smiling.

  Ellie shifted uncomfortably. She didn’t like it when Gorman was in a good mood; it made her feel afraid. If Gorman was happy, it meant something bad was happening in the world. Someone somewhere was in danger. She glanced over her shoulder at the gun pointed at her head.

  ‘Why am I here?’ she asked.

  ‘Because I wanted to see you,’ Gorman replied. ‘I thought it would be nice to polish our minds with a game of chess and I thought you might be able to help me with something.’

  ‘What?’ she asked, sullenly.

  ‘How’s your brother, Mika?’ he asked. He lifted his eyes to meet hers and she felt her corneas freeze under his glare.

  ‘How would I know?’ she asked, her lips trembling. ‘What do you mean?’

  Gorman sipped his wine.

  ‘Stop playing dumb,’ he said quietly. ‘What have you told him?’

  ‘Nothing,’ she said, confused. ‘How could I? I have no idea what you mean. Please, I don’t understand.’

  ‘There are two hundred and seventy thousand twelve- and thirteen-year-old children living behind The Wall on Earth,’ he said. ‘Two hundred and seventy thousand, Ellie. And last week every single one of them drank a cup of Fit Mix in their classroom except Mika Smith in Barford North. Now tell me, why is that? Why was your brother the only one to refuse it? It’s a bit of a coincidence, don’t you think?’

  Ellie lowered her eyes and felt a surge of love and pride.

  ‘He didn’t drink it because he’s not stupid,’ she said quietly. ‘It’s got nothing to do with me.’

  ‘Well, it had better not have anything to do with you,’ Gorman snarled. ‘The only reason he’s still alive is because you were locked in a room with bandages around your head when it happened, but if I find out you’ve tried sneaking messages to him to warn him about the Fit For Life project, I’ll kill him. I’m not having my project ruined by you. Do you understand?’

  Ellie nodded.

  ‘I will be watching him,’ he added. ‘We have eyes everywhere. Now, start the game.’

  Ellie picked up a white pawn and moved it forward to clear the path for her queen and bishop.

  ‘Not like that,’ Gorman snapped. ‘Use your head.’

  She sighed and moved the piece back to its starting place, then she stared at it until it began to glow.

  11

  DESERTED

  The next morning was blown in by howling winds that whipped around the towers of Barford North like joyriding banshees. Mika awoke before his alarm went off and lay with his hands behind his head thinking about the Pod Fighter. How had he flown like that? It had been like dream flying, as if he’d just jumped off the ground and flapped his arms. He got thrills of excitement remembering it and he couldn’t wait to go to the arcade that night and do it again.

  He was surprised to hear someone knock at the door and he strained to listen as his father opened it and a few words were mumbled. A few seconds later, David stuck his head in the bedroom.

  ‘We’ve got a letter from Helen,’ he said. ‘And it’s handwritten.’ He left Mika’s room, taking the rare object back to bed to read it.

  Helen? Mika sat up feeling uneasy. He was supposed to be seeing Helen the next day, why had she sent his parents a handwritten letter? In seconds he was at their bedside, watching them read it.

  ‘What does she say?’ he asked, impatiently. They didn’t reply for a few moments, then his father held out the letter and Mika took it. It was written on real paper that looked about a hundred years old.

  Dear Mr and Mrs Smith,

  I am writing to inform you that Mika has made such excellent progress with his counselling I feel he no longer needs to see me. I have enjoyed his company very much, and it has been a pleasure to work with him – he is an intelligent boy with a bright future.

  Since you paid me in advance for his treatment I am refunding one hundred and twenty credits on the enclosed credit card.

  Please pass on my fond regards to Mika.

  Best wishes,

  Helen Green

  Mika’s hands were shaking by the time he finished reading the letter and he felt as if his intestines were being yanked out through his belly button. He looked up at his parents. Asha was holding the credit card and her sleepy face was glowing as if she was looking at an angel.

  ‘Thank odd for that,’ David said, his shoulders sinking into the pillows with relief. ‘We can pay Mika’s school fine with twenty credits to spare! We should celebrate tonight! We could have pizza!’

  ‘Good idea,’ Asha replied, smiling. ‘Let’s have a big tikka pizza. Two slices each. Oh Mika, I’m really pleased! Well done!’

  Mika wasn’t pleased. His eyes were as black as a starless night. He threw the letter on the bed, his face twisted with disgust, and stumbled back to his room.

  ‘Mika!’ Asha called after him. ‘What’s wrong?’

  He threw himself down on the bed.

  She didn’t even tell me to my face, he thought bitterly. Helen’s the only person I can talk to and she’s deserted me!

  ‘Mika?’ Asha said uneasily, standing in the doorway. ‘Don’t be upset. It’s good news, isn’t
it? That you’re feeling better?’

  ‘But she knows I still need her!’ Mika shouted.

  ‘But she says you don’t,’ Asha said, ‘and you do seem better, Mika. You seemed really happy last night when you got back from the arcade: completely different from a week ago.’

  ‘You don’t understand,’ he said. ‘Leave me alone.’

  ‘She sent a packet of biscuits for you,’ Asha told him, hoping it might make him feel better.

  ‘I don’t care. I don’t want them.’

  He cried silently, his angry tears soaking into the cover, and Asha crept out of the room and shut the door. A few minutes later Mika appeared, fully dressed and scowling.

  ‘I’m going to see her,’ he said.

  ‘What? Now?’ Asha replied, watching him with exasperation as he put his coat on. ‘You can’t go now; it’s half past six in the morning! She won’t be awake and it’s pouring with rain!’

  But before she’d finished her sentence Mika was out of the door and running down the stairs.

  He arrived at Helen’s tower on the other side of town breathless and soaking wet. He hesitated by the door, realizing his mother was right and Helen was probably fast asleep. He ought to go home and return later, but he didn’t want to.

  What are you supposed to do, he thought, when the person who’s upset you is the person you want to talk to?

  Halfway up in the lift, he heard a familiar sound. Not sure if he’d imagined it, he stopped the lift and listened. He could hear the beat of his heart and his breath catching in his throat, the wind whistling up the lift shaft and the metal ropes creaking, but he thought he’d also heard Awen snarling as he had done when the Knife Sharpener was in Ellie’s cupboard, but now the noise was gone.

  I must have imagined it, he thought. Of course I imagined it, the dog doesn’t even exist, he’s just an invention of my crazy brain.

  Feeling stupid, he took a deep breath and pressed the button to start the lift again, but as soon as it began to rise, he heard the snarl for a second time, and although Mika couldn’t see him, he felt the warmth of Awen’s body pressed against his leg. When the lift door opened on Helen’s floor, the dream dog grabbed his sleeve with his teeth and tried to hold him back.

 
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