Home > The Girl with All the Gifts(10)

The Girl with All the Gifts(10)
M.R. Carey

Tales the Muses Told: Greek Myths, by Roger Lancelyn Green.

Melanie makes a strangled sound. She can’t help it, even though it might bring Sergeant’s people back into the cell to find out what she’s doing. A book! A book of her own! And this book! She runs her hands over the cover, riffles the pages, turns the book in her hands to look at it from every angle. She smells the book.

That turns out to be a mistake, because the book smells of Miss Justineau. On top, strongest, the chemical smell from her fingers, as bitter and horrible as always; but underneath, a little, and on the inside pages a lot, the warm and human smell of Miss Justineau herself.

The feeling – the bullying, screaming hunger – goes on for a long time. But it’s not nearly as strong as it was when Melanie was smelling Miss J herself, right up close, with no chemical spray at all. It’s still scary – a rebellion of her body against her mind, as though she’s Pandora wanting to open the box and it doesn’t matter how many times she’s been told not to, she’s just been built so she has to, and she can’t make herself stop. But finally Melanie gets used to the smell the way the children in the shower on Sunday get used to the smell of the chemicals. It doesn’t go away exactly, but it doesn’t torment her in quite the same way; it becomes kind of invisible, just because it doesn’t change. The hunger gets less and less, and when it’s all gone, Melanie is still there.

The book is still there too; Melanie reads it until daybreak, and even when she stumbles over the words or has to guess what they mean, she’s in another world.

She will think of that later – only a day later – after the world she knows has gone away.

14

Monday has come and gone, and the list that Dr Caldwell requested has not been forthcoming. Justineau has not spoken to her, or sent a memo. She has not explained the delay, or requested additional time.

Clearly, Caldwell thinks, her initial assessment was correct. Justineau’s emotional identification with the subjects is interfering with the proper performance of her duties. And since her duties are owed to Caldwell, are factored into Caldwell’s clinical plans, Caldwell has to take that dereliction seriously.

She calls up her own database on the test subjects. Where to start? She’s looking for reasons why Ophiocordyceps has shown such unlikely mercy in this tiny handful of cases. Most people infected with the pathogen experience its full effect almost instantaneously. Within minutes, or hours at most, sentience and self-awareness shut down permanently and irrevocably. This happens even before the threads of the fungus penetrate the tissue of the brain; its secretions, mimicking the brain’s own neurotransmitters, do most of the dirty work. Tiny chemical wrecking balls pounding away at the edifice of self until it cracks and crumbles, falls apart. What’s left is a clockwork toy, that only moves when Cordyceps turns the key.

These children were infected years ago, and they can still think and talk. Even learn. And their brains are mostly in a reasonably sound condition; mycelial threads are widely dispersed through the nerve tissue, but they don’t seem able to feed on it. There’s something in the children’s body chemistry which is retarding both the spread of the fungus and the virulence of its effects.

Partial immunity.

If she could find the reason why, Caldwell would be halfway – at least halfway – to a full cure.

When she thinks of it like that, the decision is made for her. She needs to start with the child who shows least impairment of all. The child who, despite having as high a concentration of fungal matter in her blood and tissue as any of the others, and more than most, somehow retains a genius-level IQ.

She needs to start with Melanie.

15

Sergeant Parks gets his orders, and he’s about to pass them down the line. But really, there’s no reason for him not to do this himself. He’s doubled perimeter sweeps since he heard Gallagher’s tale of woe, afraid that the junkers might have some incursion in mind, so his people are weary and wired. A bad combination.

There’s half an hour to go before the daily circus gets under way. As duty officer, he signs out the keys from the secure cupboard. Then he countersigns as base commander. He takes the thick ring off its hook and walks on over to the block.

Where his ears are assaulted by the hyperactive bombast of the 1812 Overture. He turns the rubbish off. It was Caldwell’s idea to play music to the abortions when they’re in their cells, out of a vaguely benign impulse – music soothing the savage breast, or some such bullshit. But they were limited to the music they could find, and a lot of it didn’t fall into the soothing category.

In the silence, made louder by contrast, Parks walks along the corridor to Melanie’s cell. She’s looking out through the grille. He waves her away from it.

“Transit,” he tells her. “Go sit in your chair. Now.”

She does as she’s told, and he unlocks the door. Standing orders call for at least two people to be present when the kids are strapped into their chairs or let out of them, but Parks is confident that he can do it by himself. His hand is on the stock of his pistol, but he doesn’t draw it. He’s assuming that the habit of countless mornings will kick in automatically.

The kid is staring at him with those big, almost lidless eyes – flecks of grey in the baby blue reminding him of what she is, in case he was ever disposed to let that slip his mind.

“Good morning, Sergeant,” she says.

“Keep your hands on those armrests,” he tells her. He doesn’t need to say it. She’s not moving. Except for her eyes, tracking him as he straps up her right hand, then her left.

“It’s early,” Melanie says. “And you’re on your own.”

“You’re going to the lab. Dr Caldwell wants to see you.”

The kid goes very quiet for a moment or two. He’s working on her legs now.

“Like Liam and Marcia,” she says at last.

“Yeah. Like them.”

“They didn’t come back.” There’s a tremor in the kid’s voice now. Parks finishes with the legs, doesn’t answer. It’s not the sort of thing that seems to need an answer. He straightens up again, and those big blue eyes fix him to the spot.

“Will I come back?” Melanie asks.

Parks shrugs. “Not my decision. Ask Dr Caldwell.”

He goes around behind the chair and finds the neck strap. This is the part where you’ve got to watch your step. Easy to get your hand in reach of those teeth, if you let your guard down. Parks doesn’t.

“I want to see Miss Justineau,” Melanie says.

“Tell Dr Caldwell that.”

“Please, Sergeant.” She twists her head, at the worst possible moment, and he’s forced to pull his hand away sharply, out of reach, dropping the strap, which is only half threaded through.

“Face front!” he raps. “Don’t move your head. You know not to do that!”

The kid faces front. “I’m sorry,” she says meekly.

“Well, don’t do it again.”

“Please, Sergeant,” she mumbles. “I want to see her before I go. So she knows where I am. Can we wait? Until she comes?”

“No,” Parks says, tightening the neck strap. “We can’t.” The kid’s secured now, and he’s able to relax. He turns the chair, aims it at the door.

“Please, Eddie,” Melanie says quickly.

Sheer surprise makes him stop. It’s like a door just slammed inside his chest. “What? What did you say?”

“Please, Eddie. Sergeant Parks. Let me talk to her.”

The little monster found out his name somehow. She’s sneaking up inside his guard, waving his name like a white flag. Mean you no harm. It’s like if one of those paintings that looks like a real door in a real wall opened right in front of you, and a bogeyman leered out of it. Or like you turn over a stone and see the things crawling there, and one of them waves at you and says “Hi, Eddie!”

He can’t help himself. He reaches down and grips her throat – which is just as big an offence against regulations as Justineau stroking her like a fu**ing pet. “Don’t ever do that,” he says, between his bared teeth. “Don’t ever use my name again.”

The kid doesn’t answer. He realises how hard he’s pressing on her windpipe. She probably can’t answer. He takes his hand away – it’s shaking badly – and puts it back where it belongs, on the handle of the wheelchair.

“We’re going to Dr Caldwell now,” Parks says. “You got any questions, you save them up for her. I don’t want to hear another peep out of you.”

And he doesn’t.

16

But that’s partly because the next thing he does is to wheel the chair out through the steel door and – backwards all the way, bump, bump, bump – up the stairs beyond.

For Melanie, this is like sailing over the edge of the world.

The steel door has marked the furthest horizon of her experience for as long as she can remember. She knows she must have come in through there, sometime in the distant past, but that feels like a story from a really old book, written in a language that nobody can speak any more.

This feels more like that passage in the Bible that Dr Selkirk read to them once, where God makes the world. Not Zeus, but the other god.

The steps. The vertical space they’re climbing through (like the corridor, but laid on its end so it points upwards). The smell of the space, as they get higher and higher and the chemical disinfectant smell of the cells starts to fade. The sounds from outside, coming from above them through a door that isn’t quite closed.

The air. And the light. As Sergeant pushes the door open with his backside and drags her out into the day.

Total overload.

Because the air is warm, and it’s breathing; moving against Melanie’s skin like something that’s alive. And the light is so intense it’s like someone dipped the world into a barrel of oil and set it alight.

She’s lived in Plato’s cave, staring at the shadows on the wall. Now she’s been turned around to face the fire.

A sound is forced out of Melanie. A painful exhalation from the centre of her chest – from a dark, damp place that tastes of bitter chemicals and the acetone tang of whiteboard markers.

She goes limp. The world pours in through her eyes and ears, her nose, her tongue, her skin. There’s too much of it, and it never stops coming. She’s like the drain in the corner of the shower room. She closes her eyes but the light still hits her eyelids, makes patterns of spangled colour dance inside her brain. She opens them again.

She endures, and collates, and begins to understand.

They pass buildings made of wood or shiny metal, set on concrete foundations. The buildings are all the same shape, rectangular and blocky, and mostly the same colour – dark green. Nobody’s tried to make them look nice. Their function is what matters.

The same is true of the chain-link fence that rises in the distance to a height of four metres, completely enclosing all the structures that Melanie can see. It’s topped with razor wire, held outwards from the main fence at an angle of about thirty degrees by elbowed concrete pylons.

They pass some of Sergeant’s people, who watch them go by and sometimes raise their hands to salute Sergeant. But they don’t speak to him, and they don’t move from where they’re standing. They carry rifles at the ready. They watch the fence, and the gates in the fence.

Melanie lets these facts run together in her mind. Their possible meanings form spontaneously at the points of confluence.

They come to another building, where two of Sergeant’s people are on guard. One of the two opens the door for them. The other – a man with red hair – salutes crisply. “You need a guard detail for that one, sir?” he asks.

“If I need anything, Gallagher, I’ll ask for it,” Sergeant growls.

“Yes, sir!”

They go inside, and immediately the sound of Sergeant’s footsteps changes, gets louder, with a hollow reverberation. They’re on tiles. Sergeant waits, and Melanie knows what he’s waiting for. This is a shower, like the one in the block. The chemical spray starts up, pouring down over the both of them.

It takes longer than the shower in the block. The shower heads actually move, sliding down the walls on metal tracks, angling as they descend to spray every inch of their bodies from every direction.

Sergeant endures this with his head down, eyes tight shut. Melanie, who’s used to the pain and knows her eyes will sting just as much whether they’re shut or open, keeps watching. She sees that there are steel shutters at the end of the shower area through which they’ve just entered. A simple ratchet-based mechanism allows them to be raised or lowered by the turning of a handle. This building can be sealed off from the base outside, can become a fortress. What goes on here must be very, very important.

All this time Melanie is trying hard not to think about Marcia and Liam. She’s scared about what might happen to her here. She’s scared of never being able to go back to her friends, and the classroom, and Miss Justineau. Perhaps it’s that fear, as much as the novelty, that makes her so acutely aware of her surroundings. She’s registering everything she sees. She’s also doing her best to memorise it all, especially the route they’ve taken. She wants to be able to find her way back, if she’s free at any point to do that.

The chemical spray dribbles and sputters to a stop. Sergeant wheels her forwards, through a double swing door, along a corridor, to another door over which a bare red light bulb shines. A sign on the door reads: NO ADMITTANCE TO UN-AUTHORISED PERSONNEL. Sergeant stops there, presses a buzzer and waits.

After a few seconds, the door is opened from the inside by Dr Selkirk. She’s in her usual white gown, but she’s also wearing green plastic gloves, and around her throat there’s a thing like a white cotton necklace. She raises this now with a tug of her index finger and thumb. It’s a mask, made of white gauze, that fits over the lower part of her face.

“Good morning, Dr Selkirk,” Melanie says.

Dr Selkirk looks at her for a moment as though she’s deciding whether or not to answer. In the end, she just nods. Then she laughs. It’s a hollow, unhappy sound, Melanie thinks. The laugh you’d make if you rubbed out a mistake in a sum you were doing and accidentally tore the paper.

“Postman,” Sergeant Parks says laconically. “Where do you want this?”

“Right,” Dr Selkirk says, her voice muffled by the mask. “Yes. You can bring her in. We’re ready for her.” She stands aside and pulls the door wide so Sergeant can wheel Melanie inside.

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