In the shadow of our apple tree, looking out across a river at a city full of glass and whispers, I take my dad’s hand and watch our enemy fly towards us.
The black dot of an enemy which is getting closer all the time, leaving Premium far behind as it slices over the water, the blades whirring whup-whup in the air above. The sun is setting beyond the dark towers, and the sky has gone the colour tangerines used to be, the last rays of orange light bouncing off the flying dot.
The dot that is now no longer a dot, but a large flying metal machine.
A helicopter. A purple helicopter with a large F painted on the side. And that’s all you need to know for now.
(Although I should tell you where we are as well.) The apple tree we stand under is in Dad’s garden, behind our house in the Culdee Sack. No one’s been out here for six years, and everything is overgrown and tangled. Dad grips my hand tight, which is his way of telling me not to worry. Like that’s an easy thing to do when there’s nowhere to run.
On my other side is a girl holding a large toad in her arms. The girl from the deserted house in the north, who cured me when I was ill, who saved my life once already. She turns her tousled head up at the sky, twigs trapped in her hair, shivering in her T-shirt.
Polly. My best ever friend.
And standing behind us, my other friends, the ones I can talk to. The great stag, his ears trembling. A wolf- cub, his side still all bandaged up, and a harvest mouse on his back doing her special Dance of The Flying Metal Machine. (It involves a lot of spinning.)
Last but never least, on my scarf, the General of all the cockroaches, his massive orange shell shining like it has just been polished, his antennae flicking like crazy.
All around us, in the dusk, are nearly a hundred other animals of all kinds. An otter, polecats, pine martens, rabbits and a very jumpy red squirrel. Birds in the trees, bees on the bushes, and – under our feet in the grass – too many bugs and insects to count.
‘Hide them,’ says Dad, not taking his gaze off the helicopter.
I look at him for a moment, not understanding –
He turns to me and Polly, eyes blazing. ‘If you want your animals to stay alive, hide them now. Go!’
And we do, me yelling orders to my wild as they dive under bushes, disappear behind trees, some even burrowing into the soil of the flower beds, Polly grabbing armfuls of fallen branches to cover them. Even the brave General leaps off my shoulder and into my shirt pocket, folding his antennae away out of sight.
None of the animals says anything. They’re too used to running, too used to making themselves invisible, and all we can hear is WHUP-WHUP –
Now there’s no time to even think any more, we just have to hope they can’t be seen in the dusk, camouflaged behind overgrown plants and creepers. The last to find a hiding place is the red squirrel, running round and round in a panic, until at the final moment he shoots under a withered rose bush.
Then twigs and leaves are swept up into the air, swirling around us, clouds of grit choking my throat and making it hard to breathe.
Cold spotlights beam down, blinding us. The rush of air forces us back. It flattens a circle in the grass, and Dad is ducking, pulling Polly and me out of the way –
The helicopter sways lower and lower, and I can just hear the wolf-cub growling at the back of his throat, and we can no longer smell the garden or the river, only oily fuel, the hot rotors making my eyes water as they grind past each other. The rivets in each panel look close enough to touch now . . .
I am a Wildness, a leader of animals. I wait, facing up to the light and the roar and the wind.
The helicopter lands. Slowly the spinning blades judder to a halt.
Polly clutches my hand.
For a moment the helicopter is silent and then –
A door is dragged open on rails. Folding steps tumble down on to the grass. In the dusk behind us, Polly’s toad gives a little croak.
We peer into the shadows of the cabin, shrinking back as men thunder down the steps and into our garden. Cullers, clanking in helmets, padded uniforms and boots. Without a word, they raise their long dart guns and point them. At Dad. At Polly. And at me.
Nervously glancing at each other, we raise our arms in the air.
Then, in the darkness of the night, comes another man. A small man in a grey suit, skipping down from the helicopter light and fast.
A man whose picture I have seen once before, in the Doctor’s room at Spectrum Hall.
The man looks down at his feet and rubs his hands together for a moment. He adjusts his cuffs and smoothes his fine hair down over his head. Then, his eyes hidden behind a pair of shiny glasses, he clears his throat and smiles. ‘I’m sorry to drop in unannounced like this, Professor Jaynes,’ he says to Dad, who doesn’t say anything.
In fact, I think Dad is shaking. I’ve never seen Dad shake before, but his hands are definitely trembling. It only makes me want not to shake at all. Which, it turns out, is much harder than it sounds.
The man turns to me instead. He takes off his glasses and pulls out a handkerchief to rub away a grease spot. ‘Do you know who I am?’ he asks.
He smiles again and puts his glasses back on. ‘Good. Do you know what I do?’
Where to begin. Spreading viruses that kill the world’s animals so you can make us all eat your fake replacement food, culling the creatures who survived, lying to everyone that humans could get the virus when they couldn’t, locking my dad up just because he invented a cure . . .
‘You may think differently,’ says Selwyn Stone, his voice all quiet and controlled, like a wire that could snap at any moment, only it won’t because it’s made of steel, ‘but what I do is keep order. I make difficult, unpleasant decisions on behalf of all of us. I prevent starvation, I keep the money going round and round and I protect every single one of us from a hostile planet.’ Mr Stone clasps his hands in front of him like a priest. ‘The only thing I ask from you in return is a little bit of help.’ Then he steps forward, his polished shoes sinking into the grass. Polly and I shrink back.
‘For example,’ he continues, ‘I might ask you not to waste time designing a cure for a virus that we are eradicating from the face of this earth. Or I might ask you not to illegally bring infected animals right into the centre of our capital city. Things like that.’
I’m shaking now too, my legs wobbling, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. Polly has gone super-quiet, like she hardly even dare breathe.
In the night sky, the moon is full and high behind us, showing the shadows of the skull under the man’s skin. Mr Stone sticks a hand into his jacket and pulls out a small object.
A pistol version of the culler’s dart rifle.
‘And if you were still protecting those animals, I would expect you to tell me. Is that so very much to ask?’
*No one move a muscle,* I order the creatures behind us in the dark.
Stone turns towards me with the pistol. I swallow hard, hoping he couldn’t tell I was talking to them. ‘So. Kester. Tell me. Are you concealing any animals in this garden?’
‘No,’ I say. It’s the only word I can say out loud to other people.
He nods, and places his free hand on my shoulder. His voice is friendly. ‘I understand that you might not want to tell me. I know you’ve been through so much. You
probably think you’ve been very brave – escaping from Spectrum Hall, rescuing your young friend here after we took her parents in, finding all those animals and bringing them all this way, setting your father free . . . I know I’d be exhausted!’
He smiles like it’s a joke, except no one laughs.
‘But don’t worry, because you don’t need to tell me straight away. There’s no rush. We can just wait. Because even the best-trained animals in the world can’t stay still forever.’
I want to punch his stupid smiling glasses face and tell him that they’re not trained, they’re wild animals, and it’s just that we understand one another, something he will never ever be able to do, but I don’t, and instead – we wait.
Mr Stone’s one hand lying on my shoulder, no heavier than a leaf, another holding a gun. Polly next to me, trying not to cry, only sniffing a bit. Dad a bit further along, his head bowed.
We wait . . .
The cullers with their guns raised around us in a circle of helmeted silhouettes, looking like giant plastic soldiers.
We wait . . .
The helicopter, the big metal bird that dropped on to our lawn, just sitting there dull and lifeless. Beyond it the sun has now totally disappeared behind the towers of the city. Reflected on the river, I see the moonlit sky above filling with clouds faster than I can count them.
Still there is silence in the garden. We wait . . .
And then – with a squeal of panic, the red squirrel streaks out from under the rose bush, quivering with fear.
*What’s happening?* he yells at me. *Are we . . . ?* His voice falters as he sees the cullers and Mr Stone.
He freezes on the spot with terror.
*Run –* I start, but it’s too late.
Without taking his eyes off me, Mr Stone points his gun and fires. A dart speeds through the air, and the squirrel falls without another sound, only the thump of his body hitting the ground. The cullers move forward and bundle him into a net, clambering back into the helicopter.
The lights fire up, the blades begin to whirl round again.
Dad lowers his arms slowly. Mr Stone puts his gun back in his pocket. ‘We can come back for the rest later,’ he says calmly. ‘And we will.’
He moves, like he is about to walk back to the helicopter, and then stops. My heart nearly stops too.
‘Oh, I nearly forgot,’ he says. ‘There is another option. I might be persuaded to let you keep your animals. On one condition.’
And the helicopter’s big light turns on to the garden, like a giant eye searching something out. It hovers over Dad, who buries his face in his hands. It seeks out the stag behind the tree and the wolf-cub in the bush. It blinds me for a moment, making me turn away, feeling the General burrow as deep into my pocket as he can.
Then it moves on. To the girl next to me, her hair beginning to blow around her as the blades whirl faster and faster, ready for take-off. Like her hair is burning in the light.
Mr Stone walks over to Polly. He reaches into his jacket once more, and this time I prepare to go for him. I don’t care how rich and powerful he is, or how many armed cullers are in his stupid helicopter. If he touches one hair on her head . . .
And he pulls out some flowers. Like a magic trick.
A big bouquet of black flowers, which he forces into her hands, raising his voice for the first time to be heard over the machine. ‘Polly Goodacre. Your parents have told me everything. If you really want to save the animals, give it to me. Give me what you have.’
He waits for a moment, but she just stares at him. ‘Give me what you have,’ he repeats. ‘You have forty- eight hours – or I will return, and I will kill all of these animals.’
Then without another word he turns and climbs back into the helicopter, slamming the door shut behind him. The craft’s engines shudder and roar as it begins to accelerate up into the velvet sky, the white belly lifting further and further away, the spotlights fading to a dull orange glow, until – as if it had never even meant to come near us – the Facto bird is swooping out across the river and back upstream.
Which is when, clutching her black flowers tight – My best friend begins to cry.
Excerpted from The Dark Wild by Piers Torday. Copyright © 2014 by Piers Torday.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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