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       The Roar, p.18

           Emma Clayton
 

  ‘What’s that?’ Mika asked.

  ‘I’m going to give you an injection,’ the man said. ‘You’ll feel a slight prick from the needle, but don’t be afraid, nothing bad is going to happen to you.’

  Before he had the chance to speak, Mika felt the needle pierce the skin on his arm and the contents of the syringe enter his vein with a sickening cold sensation as if it was ice. He felt it move up his arm towards his shoulder and bit back the tears, feeling absolutely terrified.

  ‘How do you feel?’ the man asked.

  ‘Fine,’ Mika lied.

  ‘Are you ready for the film?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘OK, I’m going to leave you now. The film will start in a few moments.’

  Mika heard the door click gently and the screen above his head lit up and the film began. At the beginning, it was like watching someone’s memories speeded up, fragmented like snapshots and film clips. He saw a birthday party with lots of small children with balloons, a herd of antelope on a grassy plain, a man and a woman cutting a wedding cake, a baby in a hover buggy with the rain cover down, a concrete wall covered in graffiti and a woman in a kitchen slicing tank meat. The images came faster and faster and they began to mix up and distort: he saw the birthday party again, but in the centre of the room amongst the children was a snarling plague dog. A hand peeled the skin off an orange, and the fruit was full of maggots. He saw a boat sailing on the sea with the sun setting behind it, then he realized there were dead fish floating on the water. A small child fell over on the walkway and when he got up, he was holding a gun and waving it around as if it was a toy. The images were horrible, sinister, and they began to flash past so quickly his brain screamed with the effort of trying to keep up with them. He tried to close his eyes to shut them out, but found he couldn’t, and even when the pictures moved so fast he was no longer able to make sense of one image before it was replaced by another, he knew he was seeing things he didn’t want to see, bad things. His breathing got faster, he pushed against the straps trying to break out of them, but there was no escape, he was stuck there until the film ended. Eventually the screen turned blank and the man came back into the room and leaned over him.

  ‘Well done,’ he said.

  ‘Let me out,’ Mika replied, flatly.

  ‘OK,’ the man said, smiling as he loosened the straps.

  ‘Can I go now?’ Mika asked. ‘Back to the beach?’

  ‘Yes,’ the man replied. ‘You’ll be just in time for the barbeque.’

  ‘What time is it?’ Mika asked.

  ‘Six o’clock,’ the man replied.

  ‘How long have I been here?’ Mika asked.

  ‘A few hours,’ the man replied, vaguely. ‘It didn’t feel that long, did it?’

  ‘No,’ Mika said, feeling a surge of panic as he realized what they’d just done to him. They’d given him a drug, then, while he was semi-conscious, they’d been inside his mind while he had no control over his thoughts. What had they seen? Did they know how suspicious he was? As he climbed out of the chair he felt weak with fear.

  ‘Are you all right?’

  The man was watching him.

  ‘I feel tired,’ Mika replied, trying not to meet his gaze.

  ‘You’ll feel better in a few minutes,’ the man said reassuringly. ‘Don’t worry. A man will take you to the hut to meet your friend, then to the beach so you can join your families. But first I want you to make me a promise.’

  ‘What?’ Mika asked, nervously.

  ‘I want you to tell your parents you’ve been playing puzzle games today. Do you understand?’

  ‘Yes,’ Mika said.

  ‘There will be another test tomorrow morning,’ the man continued. ‘We’ll send someone to collect you after breakfast. Make sure you’re dressed and ready, and again, you’ll need to tell your parents you’re doing puzzles. Don’t forget.’

  ‘OK,’ Mika replied.

  ‘Have a nice holiday,’ the man said.

  As Mika walked back to the hut, he was half expecting men in white coats to come running after him because they’d found all the suspicious thoughts in his mind. It was a horrible feeling, especially with the sun shining and the sound of the sea in the distance, and he was immensely relieved to reach the hut and Audrey.

  She was drinking fruit juice from a glass full of plastic tropical fish, which swam around frantically as she sucked through the straw. They exchanged a look that communicated the horror of the past few hours, but they couldn’t speak because there were men everywhere, watching them, and one insisted on walking with them to the beach, even though there was a signpost outside the hut with a big, red arrow on it.

  The path was wide and sandy and the sunlight filtering through the palm trees was as warm as the embers of a dying fire. They took off their sneakers when they reached the sand, so they could feel it on their skin, and Audrey saw Mika’s webbed feet for the first time.

  ‘You’re a mutant,’ she remarked, smiling.

  ‘Yeah, a web-toed freak,’ he said. ‘At least, that’s what Ruben calls me.’

  ‘Charming,’ Audrey said. ‘I wonder what he calls me.’

  ‘Wolf eyes,’ Mika replied, his face darkening at the mention of Ruben’s name.

  Audrey’s eyes flashed as she decided whether she approved of this nickname, then she shrugged and smiled. ‘I quite like it,’ she said.

  ‘So do I,’ Mika admitted. ‘It suits you.’

  They walked along the beach looking for their families. It was perfect: the curve of clean white sand, the gentle sapphire sea, the rustic huts, so neatly spaced, and the shrubs and palm trees behind them. There were cocktail waiters walking along the beach, filling up empty glasses, and Mika found his mother lying on a sun lounger having her nails painted. He hadn’t seen his parents look so happy since Ellie disappeared.

  ‘You’re just in time for the barbeque,’ David said cheerfully, with a glass of champagne in his hand. ‘And I’m Head Chef.’ He had no shoes on and he was wearing shorts and a baseball cap. ‘What have you been doing?’ he asked.

  ‘Puzzles,’ Mika said, avoiding eye contact.

  ‘You look tired,’ Asha commented.

  ‘I am,’ he replied. ‘They were difficult.’

  ‘Never mind,’ David said, kindly. ‘You can relax now. You can help with the barbeque if you like.’

  ‘OK,’ Mika replied, guiltily. He hated lying to his parents, especially when they were being so nice to him.

  The manicurist finished Asha’s nails and left.

  ‘Look!’ Asha said, holding up her hand. She had tiny palm trees painted on the nails.

  ‘Lovely,’ Mika said, grinning.

  ‘They’re awful, aren’t they?’ she said. ‘I did want something a little more dignified, but the manicurist said all she could do was palm trees, parrots or coconuts and I felt sorry for her. But it was nice to be fussed over.’ She closed her eyes and lay back on the sun lounger, her white beach sari rippling in the breeze. ‘I can’t believe you won a holiday to a place like this,’ she sighed. ‘It’s heaven.’

  * * *

  Later, Asha showed Mika around their hut, which was large and comfortable, and as the fake sun set and his father cooked, he swam in the sea, punishing his lungs with dive after brutal dive. Below the surface was the only place he felt safe. He’d seen cameras in the palm trees above their hut and he was still worrying about what the YDF had discovered about him that day. Audrey had been lingering around as if she wanted to talk to him, but he avoided her. What was happening to them was too weird for words – what could he say?

  When it was dark he returned to the huts and ate with everyone. It was a beautiful night; all along the beach, barbeques glowed and the sound of laughter carried on the breeze. The trees were hung with thousands of fairy lights and the sky above twinkled with stars. It all looked so perfect, but over the aroma of cooking food, Mika could smell danger as if it was rotting around the back of the hut.

  23
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  YOU ARE NOT TO TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU DID

  The next morning, Mika awoke to the sound of his mother singing. He got up and padded barefoot on the warm wooden floor to find her flitting around the kitchen, her hair tied loosely so it swung as she moved with her light trails dancing behind her. Just the kitchen in the hut was bigger than their whole fold-down apartment at home and there were so many cupboards, Asha said she was breathless by the time she’d looked in them all. On the worktop was another basket of food and he could smell fresh bread and coffee.

  ‘I wanted to make sure you ate breakfast before you left,’ she said. ‘There are bananas in the basket, why don’t you try one?’

  Mika had never eaten a banana before. He pulled one off the bunch and bit into the top of it.

  ‘Yuck,’ he said. It was bitter and rubbery.

  ‘You’re supposed to peel it first, silly!’ laughed Asha. ‘Here. Let me do it. Eat half and I’ll put the rest in a pancake. No, on second thoughts, you may as well eat the whole thing, there are loads! I keep forgetting we’re not at home! All this real food! We’ll have to take some back with us for the neighbours. Go and sit at the table outside and I’ll cook your pancakes.’

  Audrey was already there with her mother and aunt. She seemed happier than the day before and she crunched an apple with her toes buried in the sand and gazed at the sea.

  ‘Isn’t it beautiful, Mika?’ she said, lifting her pointy chin into the breeze. ‘Look at it.’

  ‘Yeah,’ Mika nodded, watching the morning sunshine glitter on the gentle, lapping waves.

  ‘Just think,’ she went on. ‘How lucky people used to be. They had all this beauty for free and it was real.’

  Before they’d finished eating, a man arrived to take them away. They all looked the same, the men: bald and grumpy, with their stomachs hanging over the waistbands of their dark blue YDF uniforms – they could have swapped lives for a weekend and their wives wouldn’t have noticed. This man looked uncomfortably hot in his shirt and tie and he was sinking as he struggled across the sand towards them in his smart black shoes. Audrey stifled a giggle.

  ‘They could have let the poor things wear shorts and flipflops,’ Una said, watching him nearly fall over as she munched on a bread roll.

  Mika and Audrey found their shoes and said goodbye, then followed the man away from the beach, through the razor wire gates and into the low white building. Seeing the place again, they shuddered, remembering the black chair and the needle.

  Inside, they were split up and taken to different rooms, and this time Mika found himself in a small, white room containing a table, two chairs and a man in a white coat.

  ‘Hello, Mika,’ the man said. He looked intelligent, Mika thought, his hair burned off by intense brain activity and his eyes bright and penetrating. ‘Please sit down.’

  Mika sat.

  On the table in front of the man was a marble. Mika wondered what it was for.

  ‘Have you been taking the capsules we gave you?’ the man asked.

  ‘Yes,’ Mika replied. The man wrote something on his tablet. Mika tried to see what, but he was too far away.

  ‘Have you noticed anything different about your vision since you’ve been taking them?’

  ‘Yes,’ Mika said. ‘I see light trails on things when they move. Gold trails on people and blue trails on objects.’

  ‘Good,’ the man said, making another note.

  Mika felt himself bubble up like a volcano of questions. He was aware he ought to be careful what he said, but his hunger for knowledge overwhelmed him.

  ‘Don’t other people see them?’ he asked.

  ‘Not many,’ the man replied.

  ‘Why not?’ Mika asked.

  ‘They just can’t,’ the man said. ‘But we’re here to talk about you, not other people.’

  ‘Sorry,’ Mika said. ‘What is the light?’

  ‘Energy,’ the doctor replied. ‘It was always there, you just couldn’t see it before.’

  ‘I thought so,’ Mika said.

  The man picked up the marble and waved it in front of Mika’s face.

  ‘What do you see?’ he asked.

  ‘I see a gold trail on your hand and a blue trail on the marble,’ Mika replied.

  ‘Good.’ The man wrote on the tablet again. ‘OK. Now I want you to try something else.’ He put the marble on the table between them. ‘Now look at it closely and tell me what you see.’

  Mika stared at the marble until his eyes were blurred and he could no longer focus properly. After a minute the man asked him if he saw anything.

  ‘No,’ Mika replied, feeling disappointed. ‘My eyes blurred and I couldn’t look at it properly.’

  ‘OK,’ the man said, patiently. ‘Try again. This time relax. Look at the marble but don’t stare at it. You’re straining your eyes. Take a deep breath and relax. OK?’

  Mika nodded and looked at the marble again, trying not to care what happened so he didn’t mess up, and this time he saw a faint blue light in the centre of the marble. It was the first time he’d seen the light while he was awake when something wasn’t moving.

  ‘I can see it!’ he said.

  ‘What can you see?’

  ‘I see a blue light in the centre of the marble.’

  ‘Brilliant, Mika, that’s what we want.’ The man wrote vigorously on the tablet and Mika watched him, feeling excited.

  ‘Now I want you to try something else,’ the man said with his eyes intent. ‘I want you to look at the marble until you see the light, then I want you to try to move it with your eyes as if you are pushing it across the table with your finger. Do you understand?’

  ‘You want me to move the marble with my eyes?’ Mika repeated, incredulously.

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘But that’s impossible.’

  ‘It’s not impossible, Mika,’ the man said. ‘But it is very difficult. The drugs we’ve given you in the capsules will help, but even so, only very few people can do it. I believe that you may be one of them. I want you to stay relaxed, but focus. Try not to worry about failing or think about anything else, OK?’

  ‘OK.’

  ‘Give it a go then.’

  Mika looked at the marble. For the first few seconds his head was spinning with all the questions he wanted to ask and he had to force them all out so he could concentrate. After thirty long seconds he saw the light in the marble again. He was so pleased he lost his concentration and it faded.

  ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I lost the light.’

  ‘Try again.’

  The man sat back in his chair so he was further away from Mika and this helped. Mika tried to pretend he wasn’t there – that this wasn’t a test and he was on his own. The light appeared and he gently tried to drag it to the left. He felt a pain at the back of his eyes as he did this and he nearly lost it again, the light began to fade, but he focused and built it up until it was glowing. For over a minute he tried until suddenly he felt a tug between his eyes and the marble as if they were connected and it slowly rolled a couple of centimetres to the left. Mika jolted and gasped, shocked by what he had done. He looked up at the man and the spell was broken.

  ‘Well done!’ the man said, beaming at him. Mika watched him scrawl a big tick on the tablet.

  ‘How do you feel about the competition, Mika?’ he asked, serious again.

  Mika thought for a moment, not wanting to say the wrong thing.

  ‘It scares me,’ he replied.

  ‘Why does it scare you?’ the man asked. ‘Are you scared of what you have just done?’

  ‘No,’ Mika said. ‘I’m scared I won’t win.’

  ‘What do you want to win more?’ the man asked. ‘The home in the Golden Turrets or the chance to fly a real Pod Fighter?’

  ‘I want both,’ Mika said. ‘The home for my family and to fly a Pod Fighter for me.’

  ‘Good,’ the man said, writing on the tablet again. ‘Now listen carefully, Mika. You are not to talk about what you did
in this room with your parents or anyone else. Do you understand?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Did you tell anyone about the light trails before you came here?’

  ‘No. Well, yes, but only a YDF woman when I fainted.’

  ‘OK,’ he said, nodding. ‘That’s fine. But you mustn’t tell anyone else. When you go back to your parents I want you to say you’ve been doing puzzles again. Do you understand?’

  ‘Yes,’ Mika said.

  ‘Good,’ the man said. ‘Because this test is a very important part of the competition, so if you want to win the prizes, you have to keep it a secret. Sign here.’

  He pushed the tablet towards Mika.

  ‘What’s this?’ Mika asked, seeing a document and a space at the bottom for his signature.

  ‘The Official Secrets Act,’ the man replied. ‘Just so we’re clear about our agreement.’

  Mika signed, feeling as if he was writing his name in blood. The man took the tablet back and looked at his signature.

  ‘Excellent,’ he said, scribbling without looking up. ‘Right, that’s the hard bit over. For the rest of the week you’ll be learning how to play a new game in the sea, and on Saturday there’ll be a contest. Relax and enjoy yourself; it’s going to be fun. And well done, Mika, very well done.’

  Mika stumbled back to the beach, hardly looking where he was going, dumped his clothes on the sand in front of the hut and ran into the sea, feeling as if he would explode if he stayed above the surface a second longer.

  What had just happened in that room? Had he really moved something just by looking at it? It seemed too incredible to be true, it was a miracle, and yet he remembered how hard it had been to do it, how it hurt his eyes and tugged at his mind. He felt astounded and terrified in equal measures. As if another person was waking up inside him and although they shared the same body, they were strangers.

  When he resurfaced for the tenth time, he found Audrey treading water beside him. They swam further out. Her eyes were dark and scared.

 
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