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       The Roar, p.12

           Emma Clayton
 

  ‘You’ll pay for that,’ Ruben snarled, and everyone around watched pensively, shocked by the odd way Mika and Ruben were behaving over the new girl. Nobody confronted Ruben that way, ever.

  The group broke up and started walking towards their simulators, leaving Mika and Audrey alone.

  ‘We should get ready,’ he said, gruffly.

  ‘OK,’ she replied.

  He walked ahead of her to an empty simulator with his heart banging, feeling a mixture of joy and foreboding. Ruben didn’t make idle threats and Mika realized he would pay for what he’d said, but did he care? Not much. He watched Audrey climb into the gunner seat, her eyes glowing and her delicate hands adeptly checking over her controls, and as he climbed into his seat, it was as much as he could do to stop himself laughing out loud.

  He had to show off his flying skills, of course, because he couldn’t let her believe what Ruben had said about him. He shot off the launch pad seconds after he heard the click of her harness, and they were pirouetting above Earth a full minute before the others caught them up. The control panels lining the walls of the pod shone soft as fairy lights, the stars above glittered, the clouds below were white as heaven, and it was all so quiet. They waited until the others were arranged in formation around them, then tilted again and roared into space ready for the first assault.

  ‘Watch out to the left,’ Mika warned.

  ‘I know,’ she laughed.

  She was good, really good. She shot down the first three Red Star Fleet fighters before anyone else in the battalion had fired a shot, and the longer they fought, the more exhilarated Mika felt, until he was laughing out loud, he couldn’t help himself, and so was she; whooping with delight every time she hit something. She was a brilliant gunner, and Mika felt that with her, he flew as he never had with anyone else. What an amazing find she was.

  They were fighting for over an hour, long after everyone else had been shot down. When they’d taken out all the Dragon Fighters on level three, instead of going to the next level, Mika flew into orbit and they hung to the left of the moon. He wanted to talk to her. They talked about the game first and then about her new school and her move from Plymouth. He loved the way she expressed herself; everything she said was suffused with an energy and enthusiasm that dissolved the concrete of Barford North, silenced the wind and dried up the rain. She made him feel happy.

  ‘So what about you?’ she asked.

  ‘What about me?’ he replied, warily. He didn’t want to blow this new friendship by letting her know he was a ‘freaker’, as Kobi had so eloquently described him, who slept at night with an imaginary dog on his bed and a Telly Head holding a cup of spiders in the cupboard.

  ‘You look as though you think a lot,’ she said.

  ‘Doesn’t everyone?’ he replied evasively.

  ‘No,’ she answered flatly. ‘What were you thinking when we met earlier?’

  He squirmed in his seat. He didn’t want to tell her that she stirred him with her strange beauty and that he felt drawn to her like a moth to a light.

  ‘That you looked like a good gunner,’ he replied.

  ‘Oh,’ she said, grinning beneath her headset. ‘Thanks.’

  ‘We should fly down and have a look at Earth,’ Mika suggested, wanting to change the subject.

  ‘Good idea,’ Audrey replied. ‘We could look over The Wall and see what it’s like on the other side.’

  They spent the next hour flying over South America. Where people had once lived the streets of the towns and cities were littered with bones, and everything was covered in yellow dust, which clouded the dark windows and piled in drifts in unused doorways. In the Amazon rainforest, nothing remained but the carcasses of trees standing like black skeletons in a desert. Everything was dead.

  ‘They say it’s going to be hundreds of years before its safe to come back here.’ Mika said, bitterly. ‘How could they have let this happen?’

  ‘I wish we hadn’t come,’ said Audrey, sadly. ‘Let’s go back, I can’t look at it any more.’

  Neither could Mika. It made him feel so sad and angry he was struggling not to cry and he didn’t want to cry in front of Audrey, even with his headset on.

  ‘It’s almost time to go home anyway,’ he said. ‘Let’s finish.’

  Audrey took her headset off and her green eyes were the colour of newly unfurled leaves. She said goodbye and he watched her walk away into the darkness, feeling as if she was taking a little piece of his soul with her. A piece he would never want back.

  14

  THE MADNESS OF THE QUEST

  Awen opened his eyes and lifted his head and Mika stroked him, sensing the dog was sleepily aware of something, but not alarmed. There was no moonlight that night, so the warmth and the feel of the creature was everything.

  ‘What can you hear?’ Mika whispered.

  The dog rested his head on his paws and with a sigh his body relaxed, but his ears remained half-cocked, so Mika listened. Something was happening in Ellie’s cupboard.

  I don’t want this tonight, he thought. Please go away.

  He lay back and pulled the cover over his head and tried to make the dream change, but Awen found a gap in it with his nose and snuffled in his ear.

  ‘Get off,’ Mika whispered. ‘I don’t want to look in the cupboard.’

  But the more he tried not to think about what was happening inside it, the more curious he became, until he realized that the dream would not end until he played his part.

  ‘All right then,’ he grumped.

  Awen stayed on the bed and watched Mika get up. Mika pressed his ear against the cupboard door and listened. The noise didn’t sound like a Telly Head. It was gentle and purposeful, as if something was being made. Feeling reassured, he carefully opened the door and his lungs filled with air that was so cold and fresh, he felt as if he had eaten a whole packet of mints in one go. The cupboard was filled, floor to ceiling with a plant that was growing before his eyes. It reached out, waving soft green tips, leaves unfurling and arching back like moth wings. Awen jumped down from the bed and walked into its midst, and as Mika tried to follow, something amazing happened – as he took a step forward, his body folded over and suddenly he was walking on his hands as well as his feet, and when he looked down, he saw in the dim light that they had transformed into paws just like Awen’s. He had become a dog. Awen’s head reappeared amongst the foliage and he yapped playfully, as if this was a ‘chase me’ game, and then he disappeared again. Laughing, Mika made to follow but woke up instead.

  He gasped.

  Dammit! Now he didn’t want the dream to end. He wanted to play like a dog with Awen.

  In reality it was dawn on Saturday morning and the light through the window was grey. He was still in bed and there was no dream dog or plant, just a heap of his dirty underwear against Ellie’s cupboard. His heart started to thump as he remembered what he was doing that day; in a couple of hours he would be competing in the first round of the competition. He dressed quickly and crept round the end of his parents’ fold-down bed and made himself a sandwich without waking them. Then he lay on Ellie’s bed and looked at her pictures while he ate it. He wanted to take something of hers with him for luck, so he took down her favourite holopic: a picture of a mountain lioness playing with her cubs over rocks, in the shelter of a low-limbed tree. He stared at the picture for a while, hardly able to believe that such beauty had once existed, then he slid it into his back pocket, taking care to choose the one without the hole. Before leaving, he tried calling Helen. This had become a daily ritual, though he’d given up hope that she’d ever answer. He just liked to hear her voice on the recorded message.

  They had to go to Reading to compete because the competition was taking place in the big city arcades, which had several game rooms. The arcades were staying open all weekend, so they could have gone later in the day, or on Sunday, but they decided to get up early and beat the crowds.

  They arranged to meet outside the train station at
half past seven and Mika was there a few minutes early. But he was disappointed to discover they hadn’t beaten the crowds at all – there were hundreds of kids in Pod Fighter T-shirts already pouring into the station and every one of them had an expression of hungry determination. He stood back, watching them pass, and the madness of his quest suddenly hit him – he was trying to find his sister by competing in an arcade game against two hundred and seventy thousand desperate children. Anxiously, he looked for his friends and saw Audrey first, her red hair and green eyes beacon bright in the crowd, with Tom and Kobi close behind her. Mika felt better being with them, Audrey was so excited, her eyes kept lighting up as if they were getting power surges from the national grid, and everyone seemed to have made an effort for the day: Audrey was wearing her favourite padded top, which was as green as her eyes, Tom looked as if he had ironed his hair and Kobi had parcel-taped his sneakers so the soles didn’t flap.

  The crowd stopped moving outside the station because there were too many people trying to squeeze through the doors and they had to shove their way through with kids swearing at them and pushing them back and jabbing them with their elbows. All six platforms were packed solid with people waiting for the trains and Mika started to feel anxious again and began to consider the possibility that they might not even reach the arcade and his search for Ellie could end here in a stupid train station.

  ‘What are we going to do?’ Tom said.

  ‘Perhaps we should come back later,’ Kobi suggested. ‘I’m not bothered when we go.’

  ‘No,’ Tom said, anxiously. ‘It might be worse later. I want to go now.’

  ‘Me too,’ Mika said, feeling a wave of panic at the prospect of leaving the station. He felt as though he’d waited for ever for this day. ‘What about you, Audrey?’

  ‘I don’t mind,’ she said, shrugging. ‘As long as we get to play, I don’t care.’

  ‘Let’s go now then,’ Mika said. ‘We’ll have to push our way through. Stick out your elbows and hang on to each other so we don’t lose anyone.’

  Mika took the lead and pushed forward with Audrey holding on to his coat. They hit solid knots in the crowd and had to work their way round them, and by the time they reached the edge of the platform, the overcrowding was so dangerous, Mika had to hang on to Audrey to stop her being pushed on to the track. A Silver Bullet hissed to a halt on the platform like a glass-eyed snake and the crowd surged forward, crushing them against the train. The doors opened and everyone pushed at once. Mika felt someone grab him from behind and yank him back and suddenly his grip on Audrey was gone and he was drowning in a sea of fists and elbows.

  The others managed to force their way on to the train.

  ‘Where’s Mika?’ Audrey shouted, looking back for him. ‘Oh no! Look! He can’t get on!’

  Tom leaned out of the train and grabbed Mika’s hand. He was hit hard in the face by someone’s bag and the doors were trying to close on his arms. Mika heard a ripping sound as the sleeve on his coat tore, but still Tom didn’t let go of his hand and with brute force he dragged Mika on board the train.

  ‘Thanks,’ Mika said, so grateful that the word sounded pathetically inadequate. ‘That must have hurt.’

  ‘Doesn’t matter,’ Tom replied. ‘You almost got left behind.’

  ‘I wish I’d stayed in bed,’ Kobi said, inspecting a new rip in his black coat.

  ‘That was scary,’ Audrey said. ‘I thought we’d lost you, and they almost pushed me off the platform.’

  Mika put his arm behind her to stop a group of boys pushing into her, then he closed his eyes and sighed with relief.

  ‘I hope the competition is easier than getting there,’ Tom said, looking worried. ‘That was awful.’

  * * *

  It was raining hard in Reading as they left the station. They ran all the way to the arcade, trying to get ahead of the people on the train, but when they arrived, they discovered the queue was already right down the block and round the corner, and they had no choice but to take their place at the end of it and wait. The rain pelted them until they were soaked to the skin and shivering. Audrey wrapped her arms around Mika’s back and buried her fingers in his pockets. She smelled sweet; of the stuff she used to spike her hair and of herself. He held her cold fingers tight and closed his eyes, feeling as if he was standing in a queue of lemmings about to jump off a cliff.

  It was two hours before they reached the arcade doors, and Mika watched, sick with apprehension, as Kobi and Tom had their retinas scanned by black armoured security borgs. Mika felt the hard red light in his eyes, then they were in, waved through by men in YDF uniforms, and walking towards one of the game rooms.

  15

  LET THEM HAVE IT

  The Reading arcade had four game rooms, each containing hundreds of simulators. Mika and Audrey were directed to the second. Just inside the door they were given a number by a man in a dark blue YDF uniform. They searched for their simulator in the darkness with hundreds of the spider-like forms gyrating around them. It was strangely quiet. The place had the atmosphere of an exam hall, with no music playing or the sound of excited voices like in the arcade at home. More men in uniforms wandered through the rows of simulators and their feet squeaked on the hard floor.

  ‘There’s ours,’ Audrey whispered, spotting it.

  She pressed the footplate and the simulator dropped down.

  A man walked towards them. ‘Mika Smith and Audrey Hudson?’ he said, without smiling.

  They nodded and he made a tick on the tablet in his hand. ‘The object of the game is to complete as many levels as possible,’ he said. ‘When you’re shot down, you must leave your simulator and have your score verified. It is not a timed exercise, so you can begin when you are ready. Do not try to cheat, we will know.’

  ‘As if we would,’ Audrey whispered, watching the man walk away.

  There was another team starting nearby and they panicked, desperate to wrestle open the door of their simulator. Mika was just about to do the same when Audrey grabbed his arm, ‘Remember the game’s not timed, let’s take it easy and explore the controls.’

  ‘Yeah, sorry,’ Mika said.

  They climbed into the cockpit, lit up the control panel and put their headsets on, adjusting them to fit comfortably. Mika relaxed a little as his seat wrapped around him. He checked over the control panel and Audrey explored her gun.

  ‘There are a few icons I don’t recognize,’ Mika said.

  ‘Me too,’ Audrey replied. ‘But we won’t know what they do until we start flying.’

  They turned on their headsets and a familiar green grid appeared in their visors. Then Mika pressed the windshield icon and it blinked on, but instead of the familiar battleship at sea, they found themselves in a huge dark hangar that domed high overhead and was open at one end. The Pod Fighter was facing out into space towards a sea of stars.

  ‘I think we’re on a space freighter,’ Audrey said. ‘This is going to be fun!’

  An engineer in yellow overalls walked past them. He nodded and gave them the thumbs up, then a green light flashed in their visors.

  ‘Right, I think this is it,’ Mika said. ‘Are you ready?’

  ‘Yes,’ Audrey replied, gritting her teeth. ‘Let’s go for it!’

  He pulled back the controls and the engine roared like thunder as they shot out of the hangar. A rush of air filled the headsets and Mika breathed deeply as he was glued to his seat by G-force. There didn’t seem to be anything around to attack them, so Mika turned the Pod Fighter so they could have a look at the freighter they had launched from. It was enormous, as big as a city, the kind designed to travel deep into space. Nothing happened for a few seconds, Earth glowed in the distance and they waited. Then they saw another craft about half the size of the planet slowly move out of its shadow.

  ‘Frag,’ Mika said. ‘Look at that!’

  The craft was ruby red, a disc-shaped mega city speckled with millions of pus-coloured lights. Across the front edge was a ga
ping mouth a thousand kilometres long.

  ‘I think we’d better test the gun,’ Audrey said nervously, firing off a few rounds.

  From the mouth of the ruby red mega city, a few hundred dots appeared.

  ‘Here they come,’ Mika muttered, his heart pounding.

  The crafts flew so fast, the first were in firing range within seconds. They were similar to those they’d fought before on level one of the normal game: red slivers, like arrow heads, but these crafts had narrow yellow eyes and left trails of flame in their wake. They looked evil.

  ‘OK,’ Mika said, ‘let them have it.’ He dropped the Pod Fighter into a corkscrew spin right into the midst of the attack and his hands began to sweat on the controls as flame bolts flashed past them. They’d never taken on so many enemy crafts at the same time, but they were expecting it to be harder than the normal game and within a few seconds, instinct had taken over and they weren’t even aware of the thought processes as they made decisions – they were so lightning quick they just happened. Within ten minutes they were alone again in a sea of silence and floating debris. They’d blasted every one of the Red Star Fleet to smithereens.

  ‘Wow,’ Audrey said. ‘We’re good! There were loads of them!’

  ‘That was only level one, Audrey.’

  ‘I know,’ she grumped.

  A green light flashed in their visors.

  ‘Frag,’ Mika said. ‘Here we go again.’

  They watched the mouth of the mega city with their fingers trembling on the controls as their next opponents emerged and flew towards them.

  ‘They’re weird,’ Mika said, with a furrowed brow. They were larger than the flaming arrow heads and there were fewer of them – only twelve. They lined up to face them about a kilometre away.

  ‘They’re like origami,’ Audrey said. ‘They’re folding themselves like pieces of paper!’

  They were not like any craft they’d seen before, they were a collection of triangular shapes, ruby red and shiny, which folded and unfolded as if nimble fingers were playing with them. Sometimes they resembled dogs or cats, sometimes snowflakes or people. They seemed to be waiting for something.

 
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