Home > The Girl with All the Gifts(7)

The Girl with All the Gifts(7)
M.R. Carey

“It’s a poor analogy,” Caldwell says. There’s an edge in her voice you could part a hair on. “And overestimating risk isn’t even an issue here. The danger – all the danger – lies in ignoring it.”

“Caroline.” Justineau tries one last time. “I’m not arguing that we should stop the programme. Just that we should switch to other methods.”

Caldwell smiles, brittle, precise. “I’m open to other methods,” she tells Justineau. “That’s why I asked for a developmental psychologist to join the team in the first place.” The smile fades out, an inevitable ebb tide. “My team. Your methods are adjuncts to mine, called on when I need them. You don’t dictate our approach, and you don’t talk to Beacon over my head. Has it occurred to you, Helen, that we’re here under military rather than civilian jurisdiction? Do you ever think about that?”

“Not much,” Justineau admits.

“Well, you should. It makes a difference. If I do decide that you’re compromising my programme, and if I inform Sergeant Parks of that fact, you won’t be sent home.”

She fixes Justineau with a stare that’s incongruously gentle and concerned.

“You’ll be shot.”

Silence falls between them.

“I am interested in what’s going on inside their heads,” Caldwell says at last. “Mostly I find I can determine that by examining physical structures under a microscope. When I can’t, I look at your reports. And what I expect to find there is clear, rational assessment building to an occasional well-justified conjecture. Do you understand that?”

A long pause. “Yes,” Justineau says.

“Good. In that case, and as a starting point, I’d like you to list the subjects in order of their importance to your assessments – as of now. Tell me which ones you still need to observe, and how much you need them. I’ll try to take your priorities into account when I’m choosing the next subjects to be brought over here and dissected. We need masses of comparative measurements. We’re stonewalled, and the only thing I can think of that might bring us any new insights is bulk data. I want to process half the cohort in the next three weeks.”

Justineau can’t take that blow without flinching. “Half the class?” she repeats faintly. “But that’s … Caroline! Jesus…!”

“Half the cohort,” Caldwell insists. “Half of our remaining supply of test subjects. The class is a maze you’ve built for them to run through. Don’t reify it into something that merits consideration on its own account. I need the list by Sunday, but earlier is better. We’ll begin processing on Monday morning. Thanks for your time, Helen. If there’s anything that I or Dr Selkirk can do to help, just let us know. But the final decision is yours, of course. We won’t encroach on that.”

Justineau finds herself in the open air, walking in some random direction. Sunlight hits her face, and she swerves away from it. Her face is hot enough already.

Half of our remaining…

Her mind collides with the words, sends them careening out of reach.

Another time she might admire Caldwell’s brutal honesty about her own failings. We’re stonewalled. She identifies with the project so completely that vanity on her own account is impossible.

On the other hand: the final decision is yours. That’s pure sadism. Serve at my altar, Helen. You even get to choose the sacrifices, so how cool is that?

Half of…

Things will fall apart, and the centre won’t hold. Perforated with fears and insecurities, the class will tear along every fold. They’ll finally ask the questions Justineau can’t answer. She’ll have to choose between confession and evasion, and either one will probably kick her right over the edge of the catastrophe curve.

Which is maybe where she deserves to be. Child-killer. Facilitator of mass murder, smiling a Judas smile as she ticks the boxes. The thought of Parks putting a gun to her head has its own peculiar appeal at that moment.

Then she walks right into him, hard enough that they both stagger. He recovers first, grips her shoulders lightly to steady her.

“Hey,” he says. “You all right, Miss Justineau?”

His broad, flat face, made asymmetrical and inconceivably ugly by the scar, radiates friendly solicitude.

Justineau pulls out of his grasp, her own face twisting as her anger finds its level. Parks blinks, seeing the visceral emotion, uncertain where it came from or where it might be going.

“I’m fine,” Justineau says. “Get out of my way, please.”

The sergeant gestures over his shoulder, towards the fence at his back. “Sentry clocked some movement in the woods over there,” he says. “We don’t know if it’s hungries or what it is. Either way, perimeter’s off-limits for now. Sorry. That was why I tried to head you off.”

Movement in the middle distance, in the direction where he’s pointing, distracts her for a second so that she has to wrench her attention back.

She faces him, trying to take a breath that’s long and level, trying to pull all the slopping emotions back inside so he won’t see them in her face. She doesn’t want to be understood by this man, even on such a superficial level.

And thinking about what he’s already seen, what he might know or think he knows of her, makes her suddenly see the timing of her humiliation in a new perspective. When Parks saw her breaking the no-contact rule, he threatened to put her on a charge. But then nothing happened. Until now.

Parks went and told tales about her to Caroline Caldwell. She’s sure of it. The four-month gap between the Melanie incident and this dressing-down doesn’t dent that conviction. Things percolate slowly through bureaucracies, take their own sweet time.

She has to fight the urge to punch Parks full in his ruin of a face. Maybe find the flaw, the pressure point that will make him crumble into pieces and be gone out of her life.

“I’m still here, Sergeant,” she tells him, stung into defiance. “You took your best shot, and all she did was smack my hand and set me extra homework.”

Parks’ forehead creases, in the areas where it still can – where the scar tissue doesn’t render it permanently creased. “Sorry?” he says.

“Don’t be.” She starts to walk around him, remembers that she can’t keep going in this direction and turns, so she’s broadside on to him for a moment.

“I didn’t take any shot at all,” the sergeant says quickly. “I don’t report to Dr Caldwell, if that’s what you think.”

He sounds like he means it. He sounds like he really wants her to believe him.

“Well you should,” Justineau says. “It’s an excellent way of pissing me off. Don’t mess up your perfect score, Sergeant.”

Something like distress shows in Parks’ face now. “Look,” he says, “I’m trying to help you. Seriously.”

“To help me?”

“Exactly. I’ve clocked up a lot of years in the field. And I’ve survived more grab-bagger sweeps than almost anyone. I mean hard-core shit. Inner city.”

“So?”

Parks shrugs massively, is silent for a second as though he’s hit the limits of his vocabulary – which doesn’t strike her as too unlikely. “So I know what I’m talking about,” he says at last. “I know the hungries. You don’t live that long outside the fence unless you work out the moves. What you can get away with, and what’s going to get you killed.”

Justineau lets her utter indifference show in her face. She knows somehow that it will get deeper into him than any show of anger could. His agitation shows her the way to a high ground of cold disdain. “I’m not outside the fence.”

“But you’re handling them. You’re dealing with them every day. And you’re not keeping your guard up. Shit, you had your hands on that thing. You touched it.” He falters on the words.

“Yes,” Justineau agrees. “I did. Shocking, isn’t it?”

“It’s stupid.” Parks shakes his head as if to dislodge a fly that’s landed on him. “Miss Justineau … Helen … the regs are there for a reason. If you take them seriously, they’ll save you. From your own instincts, as much as anything.”

She doesn’t bother to answer. She just stares him down.

“Okay,” Parks says. “Then I’ll have to take this into my own hands.”

“You’ll have to what?”

“It’s my responsibility.”

“Into your own hands?”

“This base’s security is my—”

“You want to lay hands on me, Sergeant?”

“I won’t touch a hair on your head,” he says, exasperated. “I can keep order in my own damn house.” And she reads it, suddenly, in his face. She can see that he’s talking around something. Something that’s fresh in his mind.

“What have you done?” she demands.

“Nothing.”

“What have you done?”

“Nothing that concerns you.”

He’s still talking when she walks away, but it’s not hard to shut the words out. They’re just words.

By the time she gets to the classroom block, she’s running.

10

When there’s nothing to do, and you can’t even move, time goes a lot more slowly.

Melanie’s legs and her left arm, still strapped into the chair, have cramped agonisingly, but that happened a long time ago and now the pain of the cramp has faded and it’s like her body has stopped bothering to tell her how it feels, so she doesn’t even have the pain to distract her.

She sits and thinks about Sergeant’s anger and what it means. It could mean a lot of things, but the starting point is the same in every case. It was only when she talked about Miss Justineau that Sergeant got angry – when she said that Miss Justineau loved her.

Melanie understands jealousy. She’s jealous, a little bit, every time Miss Justineau talks to another boy or girl in class. She wants Miss Justineau’s time to belong to her, and the reminders that it doesn’t sting a little, make her heart do a gentle drop and thud in her chest.

But the idea of Sergeant being jealous is dizzying. If Sergeant can be jealous, there are limits to his power – and she herself stands at one of those limits, looking back at him.

That thought sustains her, for a while. But nobody comes, and the hours drag on – and though she’s good at waiting, at doing nothing, the time is hanging heavy on her. She tries to tell herself stories, but they fall apart in her mind. She sets herself simultaneous equation puzzles and solves them, but it’s too easy when you’ve made the problems up yourself. You’re halfway to the answer before you’ve started to think about it properly. She’s tired now, but her enforced position in the chair doesn’t allow her to rest.

Then, after a long, long time, she hears the key turning in the lock, the bolts drawn back. Heavy steel door clanging. Footsteps running on concrete, raising a whisper farm of echoes. Is it Sergeant? Has he come back to dismantle her?

Someone unlocks Melanie’s door and pushes it open.

Miss Justineau stands in the doorway. “It’s okay,” she says. “I’m here, Melanie. I’m here for you.”

Miss Justineau steps forward. She wrestles with the chair, like Hercules wrestling with a lion or a snake. The arm strap is partway undone, and it opens up really easily. Then Miss J goes down on her knees and she’s working on the leg straps. Right. Then left. She mutters and curses as she works. “He’s frigging insane! Why? Why would anyone do this?” Melanie feels the constriction lessen, and sensation returns to her legs in a tingling rush.

She surges to her feet, her heart almost bursting with happiness and relief. Miss Justineau has saved her! She raises her arms in an instinct too strong to resist. She wants Miss Justineau to lift her up. She wants to hold her and be held by her and be touching her not just with her hair but with her hands and her face and her whole body.

Then she freezes like a statue. Her jaw muscles stiffen, and a moan comes out of her mouth.

Miss Justineau is alarmed. “Melanie?” She stands, and her hand reaches out.

“Don’t!” Melanie screams. “Don’t touch me!”

Miss Justineau stops moving, but she’s so close! So close! Melanie whimpers. Her whole mind is exploding. She staggers back, but her stiff legs don’t work properly and she falls full length on the floor. The smell, the wonderful, terrible smell, fills the room and her mind and her thoughts, and all she wants to do is…

“Go away!” she moans. “Go away go away go away!”

Miss Justineau doesn’t move.

“Go away, or I’ll fu**ing dismantle you!” Melanie wails. She’s desperate. Her mouth is filled with thick saliva like mud from a mudslide. Her jaws start to churn of their own accord. Her head feels light, and the room sort of goes away and then comes back again without moving.

Melanie is dangling on the end of the thinnest, thinnest piece of string. She’s going to fall and there’s only one direction to fall in.

“Oh God!” Miss Justineau sobs. She gets it at last. She takes a step back. “I’m sorry, Melanie. I didn’t even think!”

About the showers. Among the sounds that Melanie heard, one big absence: no hiss of chemical spray falling from the ceiling to settle on Miss Justineau and layer on its own smell to hide the Miss Justineau smell underneath.

What Melanie feels right then is what Kenny felt when Sergeant wiped the chemicals off his arm and put it right up close to Kenny’s face. But she only just caught the edge of it that time, and she didn’t really understand it.

Something opens inside her, like a mouth opening wider and wider and wider and screaming all the time – not from fear, but from need. Melanie thinks she has a word for it now, although it still isn’t anything she’s felt before. It’s hunger. When the children eat, hunger doesn’t factor into it. The grubs are poured into your bowl, and you shovel them into your mouth. But in stories that she’s heard, it’s different. The people in the stories want and need to eat, and then when they do eat they feel themselves fill up with something. It gives them a satisfaction nothing else can give them. Melanie thinks of a song the children learned and sang one time: You’re my bread when I’m hungry. Hunger is bending Melanie’s spine like Achilles bending his bow. And Miss Justineau will be her bread.

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