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       The Roar, p.23

           Emma Clayton
 

  ‘Of course not,’ Kobi scoffed. ‘It’s full of loons. Have you come here just to ask me that?’

  ‘I just wondered,’ Mika said.

  Kobi gazed at Mika as if he was trying to crack a code, then he rooted around under a pile of wires and found an ink pen and a scrap of plastic paper and wrote:

  ‘If you can’t say it, write it.’

  Mika stared at the words on the paper and felt tears well up inside him. Kobi watched him for a few seconds then wrote something else:

  ‘I know you know things. So do I.’

  Mika took the pen and wrote on the paper:

  ‘Something bad is going to happen in the arcades.’

  They looked at each other and Kobi nodded and ripped the paper to shreds.

  * * *

  Mika ran home and made it just in time; a man arrived at the door of the apartment at the same time as he did. While they were saying goodbye, Asha hugged him so hard she pulled his T-shirt out of shape and he had to prize her fingers off his neck so he could leave.

  ‘I’ll see you on Sunday,’ he said. He looked into her eyes hoping it was true and his heart swelled with pain as if he was never going to see her again.

  ‘Good luck,’ David said, his voice thick with emotion. ‘Knock ’em out.’

  ‘I’ll try,’ Mika replied, swallowing sharp tears.

  Perhaps next time I see you, he thought, I’ll have Ellie with me.

  He put his hand in his back pocket to check her lions were there. The holopic was beginning to look a bit battered – as well as fighting sharks with it in his pocket, he’d been sitting on it for weeks and some areas of the picture had faded.

  The door to the fold-down slid shut and the man walked towards the stairs up to the roof.

  ‘Where are you taking me?’ Mika asked.

  ‘Cape Wrath,’ the man replied. Then he walked on in silence, with Mika following nervously behind.

  34

  THE IMPLANTERS

  Mal Gorman caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the window of his chauffeured pod and his heart missed a beat. Since watching Mika’s memory recording, he couldn’t look at himself without imagining he had a television for a head. He rummaged for his Everlife pills and tried to take one but it missed his mouth and rattled to the floor.

  ‘Drat,’ he cursed, trying to bend down. It was too far away and his knees hurt, so he glared at it angrily while he found another one.

  He was on his way to one of the big arcades in Birmingham to watch the launch of the new event.

  ‘Looks like you’ve got a good turn out, sir,’ the chauffeur said as they descended to land on the roof of the arcade. ‘It looks like every twelve-year-old kid in the city is here and I’m sure all the other arcades will be the same.’

  ‘They’d better be,’ Gorman grunted.

  He looked out of the window. It had started to rain, but despite this, the area around the arcade was crowded with children. The blue light pulsing up the front of the arcade gave them a ghostly hue and their pale faces pointed skyward like wet pearls on a dirty plate.

  There was a group of people waiting on the roof to greet Gorman. The local headmasters, the mayor, the Arcade Managers and the Fit Camp Instructors huddled together, grimly holding on to their umbrellas to prevent them being carried off by the wind. Gorman ignored them all, climbed out of the pod, and walked to the edge of the roof to look down at the children below. He checked his watch. There was less than a minute to go before the arcade doors opened.

  ‘Good,’ he said, when at precisely seven o’clock, the crowd surged forward.

  ‘Excellent,’ Gorman added, as he watched a girl being pushed down into a puddle. ‘That’s the spirit.’

  He entered the arcade through a door on the roof and the huddle of local important people followed. They were to join him for a guided tour and afterwards, for a celebration supper. It was busy and hot inside the arcade and the staff were rushing to and fro making last-minute preparations as the children poured in. The tour was led by the Arcade Manager, who showed them everything from behind the secret windows. They looked down on the shopping mall from above the Ra Ra Shake Bar and watched the children enter the game room from a window over the doors. Gorman was soon bored; the other visitors were seeing an arcade for the first time but he knew every millimetre of them inside and out, so a guided tour was no use to him. The only place he wanted to visit was the Implanters’ room.

  ‘Why are you showing me this?’ he asked impatiently, as the Arcade Manager led them into the staff canteen. ‘Do you think I’m interested in where you eat your lunch? Stop wasting my time and take me to meet the Implanters.’

  ‘Yes, sir,’ the Arcade Manager replied, his face reddening. ‘This way, everyone.’

  The Implanters’ room looked cold and clinical. It had a long metal table down the middle, a row of metal sinks on one side and shelves for storage on the other. The Implanters were wearing long white gowns and they were unpacking boxes of equipment on the table. As Mal Gorman and the other visitors entered, they fell silent and turned to face them. Gorman studied their features, looking for signs of weakness. What they were about to do to the children was not going to be easy if they had an atom of compassion. He looked at their details on a tablet and noted with satisfaction that three were retired traffic wardens.

  ‘Do any of you have children or grandchildren who are old enough to come to the arcade?’ he asked, casting his grey eyes over them.

  They shook their heads.

  ‘Good,’ Gorman said, ‘I know you’ve been asked that already, but I wanted to be sure. You know how important it is that the implants are fitted correctly?’

  They nodded.

  ‘I hope so, because if any of these children die, you won’t be paid. I want to control them, not turn them into vegetables. Several were ruined while the tests were being done because of stupid mistakes that could have been avoided.’

  He continued to scrutinize the Implanters’ faces. His eyes fell on a woman at the back of the group whose features looked softer than the others. He looked at his tablet and discovered that she used to work in a children’s nursery.

  ‘You,’ he said, pointing at her. ‘Get out!’

  She jolted with shock. ‘Why?’ she cried. ‘What have I done?’

  ‘I don’t like the look of you,’ he replied. ‘Leave now.’

  ‘Please!’ she pleaded. ‘I need this job! I need the money!’

  ‘Tough,’ Gorman said, dismissing her with a wave of his hand. She ran from the room sobbing and he carried on assessing the remaining men and women. Then he nodded as if he was satisfied that they were as emotionless as they appeared.

  ‘Someone tell me what you will be doing on Sunday,’ he demanded.

  A woman Implanter stepped forward. She was a peculiar-looking creature, Gorman thought, with no eyelashes or eyebrows and small, childish teeth with big gaps between them.

  ‘All twelve- and thirteen-year-old children,’ she said, ‘except the mutants, will be fitted with an implant.’

  ‘Yes,’ Gorman said. He already knew this, but he wanted to hear her say it so he could be sure she understood her job. ‘Tell me exactly how.’

  ‘We’ve put a screen up in front of the arcade doors,’ she continued. ‘It looks like a big advertisement for the new event, but really it’s there so the children waiting outside can’t see what’s happening behind the doors. On Sunday, they’ll come in expecting to win lots of money and prizes and we’ll implant them then. It takes less than three seconds per child, so by the time they’ve realized something’s wrong, it will be too late. And afterwards of course, they won’t care. After they’re implanted, they won’t even remember their names, they’ll just do exactly what they’re told. Then they’ll be given a number and a polystyrene helmet and we’ll tell them to walk up the stairs to the roof. They should just follow each other like sheep. The freighters will take them a hundred at a time packed in crates to Cape Wrath and we should be
finished by eight o’clock.’

  ‘Good,’ Gorman said, contentedly. ‘Tell me what you have to do with the mutant children.’

  ‘The mutants can’t be implanted,’ the woman continued, ‘because their brains are different to a normal child’s so the implants don’t work.’

  ‘So what are you going to do with them?’ Gorman prompted.

  ‘When a mutant child comes through the doors, we have to inject them with a tranquilizer to make them fall asleep, then they can be transported to Cape Wrath on a stretcher and locked up.’

  ‘Good,’ Gorman said. ‘Be very careful not make any mistakes with the mutants, they are extremely valuable. Let me see an implant.’

  The woman held one out on the palm of her hand. It was a round, silver disc, about the size of an old-fashioned five pence coin, with six vicious-looking spikes sticking out if it. Underneath the disc was a tiny motherboard and a single wire, the width of a hair.

  ‘Once it’s embedded in the forehead of the child, it’s very neat and tidy,’ the woman said. ‘The spikes dig deep into the skull keeping it in place and the wire self-locates, so in less than two seconds it has found the right part of the brain and attached itself.’

  ‘The wonders of modern science,’ Gorman said, turning the implant over in his hand. ‘For the first time in history, children will do as they’re told. We should have invented these things years ago.’ Then his face clouded and he continued irritably, ‘But it’s a shame they don’t work on the mutants.’

  He gave the implant back to the woman with a sigh. ‘You seem to know what you’re doing,’ he said. Then he turned to the Arcade Manager. ‘How do I get out?’

  ‘Don’t you want to stay for the celebration supper, sir?’ the Arcade Manager asked, trying not to look relieved.

  ‘No,’ Gorman replied. ‘I’m moving my staff to Cape Wrath tomorrow morning, I have more important things to do.’

  ‘I’ll get someone to show you, sir,’ the Arcade Manager said.

  Alone again in his chauffeured pod, Gorman put his head back and closed his eyes. The pod began to rise into the night sky and he drifted with it towards sleep, but before he was completely there, he felt something strange in his mouth. Half asleep, he let the object fall on to his palm, where it sprang open, green and supple. It was a leaf, a large leaf, almost as big as his hand. For a few seconds he stared at it in astonishment, then he blinked and it was gone.

  35

  HELL

  Mika realized Cape Wrath was not going to be a holiday complex with wafting palm trees and golden sands, but he wasn’t expecting to feel as if he’d arrived in hell – Cape Wrath was a fist of land punching the sea on the northern coast of Scotland. It had cliff faces of jagged black rock and no beaches, so the waves and the boulders collided in a constant, booming assault. There was a hint of green to the narrow strip of land that rolled away from the cliff top, but it was only a hint, and it died out as it approached a monstrous, black fortress as if the roots of the new structure had poisoned the earth around it. It was Mal Gorman’s pride and joy; one of ten new gargantuan ring fortresses built across the north. A doughnut of black metal with a thousand eyes of yellow light pricking through its skin, the towers of Barford North looked like gingerbread houses compared to this behemoth on the cliff top. Its walls rose higher than the clouds and the tiny pod transporting Mika had to climb steeply to get over them. The pod dipped over the top and the inner wall curved all around them, circling a great hole in the ground where the rock had been hollowed out to create a giant underground hangar.

  Mika heard a noise loud enough to crack the sky and a pair of Pod Fighters rose from it like black wasps from a nest. He’d never seen a real Pod Fighter before and he felt the hit of adrenalin as it entered his veins. In a second the fighters were out of sight and carving through the clouds.

  ‘Wow,’ he whispered.

  The pod dropped into the hangar like a pebble into a well and they landed. The door opened and Mika stepped down into the dimly lit space. There were hundreds of Pod Fighters in neat rows all around him. They looked new, fresh out of the packet, as if they’d never been flown before, and their elegant curves gleamed in the low light.

  He could hear the boom of waves as they hit the cliffs only metres away from him, and the wind was briny and bitter, even though they were below ground. He shivered and thought he could not imagine a more hostile and unwelcoming place than this. A man in uniform stepped forward. He had three gold stripes on his shoulders.

  ‘Welcome to Cape Wrath,’ the man said, politely. ‘Please follow me.’

  ‘What about my bag?’ Mika asked, looking anxiously back at the pod.

  ‘Don’t worry,’ the man replied. ‘Someone will bring it for you.’

  They walked through the lines of Pod Fighters to a lift in the far rock wall. It was gloomy and functional inside and had a metal grille instead of a door. Mika stepped into it reluctantly and it seemed to go up for ever before it finally stopped, but he was happier when it opened again and he found himself in a warm, well-lit space. It was all white and had the feeling of a new house that nobody had moved into yet. The shiny white floor didn’t have a single scuff and he felt as if his feet were the first to touch it.

  They walked past lots of doors before entering a large area enclosed by a glass wall. Mika thought uncomfortably that it reminded him of an animal enclosure in the old zoos before the plague. There was even a guard on the door. He looked round for windows on the outside but there were none. In the centre of the area was a communal living space containing white, curvy tables and chairs and a few plastic sofas in front of a screen on a wall. Around this area were hygiene rooms and twelve other doors leading into smaller rooms. The man took him towards one of these and Mika felt a chill as he read his name in letters of red light and realized he had been part of Cape Wrath even before he’d arrived. The man opened the door and stood aside to let him in.

  ‘You can change into your uniform,’ the man said. ‘Then I’ll come and take your clothes.’

  ‘OK,’ Mika replied.

  Mika walked into the small room, and as the door shut behind him he felt overwhelmed by claustrophobia. There was a bed, a cupboard and a desk with a mirror over it and everything was white. There was no window and the air came through a vent over the door. On the bed, neatly laid out, were a tray of food and the uniform he had been told to put on. Awen appeared, sniffed the food and disappeared again and Mika wished he could do the same; the meal was some kind of curry but it looked like sick. He put it in the cupboard so he didn’t have to look at it.

  Even the uniform was white, with a black line down the arms and legs. It was made of a thin, stretchy fabric designed for ease of movement. There was also a pair of shoes that looked like socks with rubbery soles. They were the most ridiculous footwear Mika had ever seen, but holding them in his hands, he sensed Ellie. His pulse quickened and he looked round as if he would see her standing behind him, cheered by a wave of optimism. He changed quickly and the man came to take his clothes, leaving him with nothing of his own but the holopic of mountain lions.

  ‘Eat up and get an early night,’ the man said. ‘You’re going to be very busy tomorrow and we want you to sleep.’

  Mika didn’t feel like eating or sleeping. He lay on the bed; it was hard and the pillow was thin and had the Youth Development Foundation logo printed on it. He folded it in half and put it behind his head, then looked up and saw a camera on the wall watching him.

  There’s no pretence we’re on holiday now, he thought, grimly.

  A few minutes later, there was a gentle tap on the door. He opened it and was relieved to see Audrey.

  ‘Hey! Nice shoes!’ she said, grinning.

  ‘Great, aren’t they,’ he replied, raising one foot and looking at it. ‘I think I’ll ask to keep them and wear them at home.’

  She laughed. She looked different in her white uniform with the black stripe, older and more serious, but she soon ruined this
impression by taking off her sock shoes and jumping on the bed.

  ‘Not very bouncy,’ she said, with an impish glint in her eyes.

  He watched her jump up and down on the bed like a demented fairy and wished he could be like her, so untroubled and optimistic and defiant. But, he thought, she’s only behaving this way because she doesn’t know anything.

  ‘That camera’s watching you,’ he said, pointing at it. ‘You’d better behave yourself.’

  ‘I don’t care,’ she said, sticking her tongue out at it. ‘Wasn’t that food horrible? It looked like sick. I haven’t eaten it.’

  ‘Neither have I.’

  ‘Tell them in the kitchen,’ she said to the camera, ‘I liked the food we had on holiday. I want bread, soy cheese, apples and salad.’

  ‘You’re crazy,’ Mika said.

  ‘No, just relieved,’ said Audrey, her eyes bright with happiness. ‘I can’t believe how slowly last week went. I thought I was going to die of boredom. Do you think we’ll get to fly the Pod Fighters tomorrow?’

  Mika shrugged.

  ‘I hope so,’ she said, dreamily.

  She flopped down on the bed and stared at one of her sock shoes and it lifted into the air and drifted towards her hand.

  ‘It’s good being able to do this,’ Audrey said, putting it on. ‘I don’t have to move to pick stuff up any more.’

  * * *

  Audrey went to bed, but Mika felt too nervous to sleep. He wanted to have a shower, but he could hear Ruben and some other people messing around in the hygiene rooms. He waited for ages, then their shouts and laughter abruptly halted and he heard a stern voice rapping out commands and he figured they’d been told to stop mucking about and go back to their rooms. He waited a few minutes to be sure the coast was clear then walked quietly through the communal area with his towel and wash bag. He passed a couple of other competitors and they smiled.

  ‘Hey,’ Mika said.

  He heard water running in the boys’ shower and stuck his head round the door to see Leo, the golden boy with dreadlocks who’d helped when he was shot. He was tilting his face into the stream of hot water and it ran through his hair and down his gold back to his . . . tail. Leo had a tail – a short, skin-covered tail that twitched lazily as he rubbed shower gel over his face. Mika felt embarrassed, as if he’d seen something he shouldn’t have seen, and he wanted to go before Leo noticed him. He made to leave, holding his breath, but Leo sensed his presence and turned to halt Mika with his sea-blue eyes.

 
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