Her name is Melanie. It means “the black girl”, from an ancient Greek word, but her skin is actually very fair so she thinks maybe it’s not such a good name for her. She likes the name Pandora a whole lot, but you don’t get to choose. Miss Justineau assigns names from a big list; new children get the top name on the boys’ list or the top name on the girls’ list, and that, Miss Justineau says, is that.
There haven’t been any new children for a long time now. Melanie doesn’t know why that is. There used to be lots; every week, or every couple of weeks, voices in the night. Muttered orders, complaints, the occasional curse. A cell door slamming. Then, after a while, usually a month or two, a new face in the classroom–a new boy or girl who hadn’t even learned to talk yet. But they got it fast.
Melanie was new herself, once, but that’s hard to remember because it was a long time ago. It was before there were any words; there were just things without names, and things without names don’t stay in your mind. They fall out, and then they’re gone.
Now she’s ten years old, and she has skin like a princess in a fairy tale; skin as white as snow. So she knows that when she grows up she’ll be beautiful, with princes falling over themselves to climb her tower and rescue her.
Assuming, of course, that she has a tower.
In the meantime, she has the cell, the corridor, the classroom and the shower room.
The cell is small and square. It has a bed, a chair and a table. On the walls, which are painted grey, there are pictures; a big one of the Amazon rainforest and a smaller one of a pussycat drinking from a saucer of milk. Sometimes Sergeant and his people move the children around, so Melanie knows that some of the cells have different pictures in them. She used to have a horse in a meadow and a mountain with snow on the top, which she liked better.
It’s Miss Justineau who puts the pictures up. She cuts them out from the stack of old magazines in the classroom, and she sticks them up with bits of blue sticky stuff at the corners. She hoards the blue sticky stuff like a miser in a story. Whenever she takes a picture down, or puts a new one up, she scrapes up every last bit that’s stuck to the wall and puts it back on the little round ball of the stuff that she keeps in her desk.
When it’s gone, it’s gone, Miss Justineau says.
The corridor has twenty doors on the left-hand side and eighteen doors on the right-hand side. Also it has a door at either end. One door is painted red, and it leads to the classroom–so Melanie thinks of that as the classroom end of the corridor. The door at the other end is bare grey steel and it’s really, really thick. Where it leads to is a bit harder to say. Once when Melanie was being taken back to her cell, the door was off its hinges, with some men working on it, and she could see how it had all these bolts and sticking-out bits around the edges of it, so when it’s closed it would be really hard to open. Past the door, there was a long flight of concrete steps going up and up. She wasn’t supposed to see any of that stuff, and Sergeant said, “Little bitch has got way too many eyes on her” as he shoved her chair into her cell and slammed the door shut. But she saw, and she remembers.
She listens, too, and from overheard conversations she has a sense of this place in relation to other places she hasn’t ever seen. This place is the block. Outside the block is the base, which is Hotel Echo. Outside the base is region 6, with London thirty miles to the south and then Beacon another forty-four miles further–and nothing else beyond Beacon except the sea. Most of region 6 is clear, but the only thing that keeps it that way is the burn patrols, with their frags and fireballs. This is what the base is for, Melanie is pretty sure. It sends out burn patrols, to clear away the hungries.
The burn patrols have to be really careful, because there are lots of hungries still out there. If they get your scent, they’ll follow you for a hundred miles, and when they catch you they’ll eat you. Melanie is glad that she lives in the block, behind that big steel door, where she’s safe.
Beacon is very different from the base. It’s a whole great big city full of people, with buildings that go up into the sky. It’s got the sea on one side of it and moats and minefields on the other three, so the hungries can’t get close. In Beacon you can live your whole life without ever seeing a hungry. And it’s so big there are probably a hundred billion people there, all living together.
Melanie hopes she’ll go to Beacon some day. When the mission is complete, and when (Dr Caldwell said this once) everything gets folded up and put away. Melanie tries to imagine that day; the steel walls closing up like the pages of a book, and then… something else. Something else outside, into which they’ll all go.
It will be scary. But so amazing!
Through the grey steel door each morning Sergeant comes and Sergeant’s people come and finally the teacher comes. They walk down the corridor, past Melanie’s door, bringing with them the strong, bitter chemical smell that they always have on them; it’s not a nice smell, but it’s exciting because it means the start of another day’s lessons.
At the sound of the bolts sliding and the footsteps, Melanie runs to the door of her cell and stands on tiptoe to peep through the little mesh-screen window in the door and see the people when they go by. She calls out good morning to them, but they’re not supposed to answer and usually they don’t. Sergeant and his people never do, and neither do Dr Caldwell or Mr Whitaker. And Dr Selkirk goes by really fast and never looks the right way, so Melanie can’t see her face. But sometimes Melanie will get a wave from Miss Justineau or a quick, furtive smile from Miss Mailer.
Whoever is going to be the teacher for the day goes straight through into the classroom, while Sergeant’s people start to unlock the cell doors. Their job is to take the children to the classroom, and after that they go away again. There’s a procedure that they follow, which takes a long time. Melanie thinks it must be the same for all the children, but of course she doesn’t know that for sure because it always happens inside the cells and the only cell that Melanie sees the inside of is her own.
To start with, Sergeant bangs on all the doors and shouts at the children to get ready. What he usually shouts is “Transit!” but sometimes he adds more words to that. “Transit, you little bastards!” or “Transit! Let’s see you!” His big, scarred face looms up at the mesh window and he glares in at you, making sure you’re out of bed and moving.
And one time, Melanie remembers, he made a speech–not to the children but to his people. “Some of you are new. You don’t know what the hell you’ve signed up for, and you don’t know where the hell you are. You’re scared of these frigging little abortions, right? Well, good. Hug that fear to your mortal soul. The more scared you are, the less chance you’ll screw up.” Then he shouted, “Transit!” which was lucky because Melanie wasn’t sure by then if this was the transit shout or not.
After Sergeant says “Transit”, Melanie gets dressed, quickly, in the white shift that hangs on the hook next to her door, a pair of white trousers from the receptacle in the wall, and the white pumps lined up under her bed. Then she sits down in the wheelchair at the foot of her bed, like she’s been taught to do. She puts her hands on the arms of the chair and her feet on the footrests. She closes her eyes and waits. She counts while she waits. The highest she’s ever had to count is two thousand five hundred and twenty-six; the lowest is one thousand nine hundred and one.
When the key turns in the door, she stops counting and opens her eyes. Sergeant comes in with his gun and points it at her. Then two of Sergeant’s people come in and tighten and buckle the straps of the chair around Melanie’s wrists and ankles. There’s also a strap for her neck; they tighten that one last of all, when her hands and feet are fastened up all the way, and they always do it from behind. The strap is designed so they never have to put their hands in front of Melanie’s face. Melanie sometimes says, “I won’t bite.” She says it as a joke, but Sergeant’s people never laugh. Sergeant did once, the first time she said it, but it was a nasty laugh. And then he said, “Like we’d ever give you the chance, sugar plum.”
When Melanie is all strapped into the chair, and she can’t move her hands or her feet or her head, they wheel her into the classroom and put her at her desk. The teacher might be talking to some of the other children, or writing something on the blackboard, but she (or he, if it’s Mr Whitaker, the only teacher who’s a he) will usually stop and say, “Good morning, Melanie.” That way the children who sit way up at the front of the class will know that Melanie has come into the room and they can say good morning too. Most of them can’t see her when she comes in, of course, because they’re all in their own chairs with their neck straps fastened up, so they can’t turn their heads around that far.
This procedure–the wheeling in, and the teacher saying good morning and then the chorus of greetings from the other kids–happens nine more times, because there are nine children who come into the classroom after Melanie. One of them is Anne, who used to be Melanie’s best friend in the class and maybe still is except that the last time they moved the kids around (Sergeant calls it “shuffling the deck”) they ended up sitting a long way apart and it’s hard to be best friends with someone you can’t talk to. Another is Kenny, who Melanie doesn’t like because he calls her Melon Brain or M-M-M-Melanie to remind her that she used to stammer sometimes in class.
When all the children are in the classroom, the lessons start. Every day has sums and spelling, and every day has retention tests, but there doesn’t seem to be a plan for the rest of the lessons. Some teachers like to read aloud from books and then ask questions about what they just read. Others make the children learn facts and dates and tables and equations, which is something that Melanie is very good at. She knows all the kings and queens of England and when they reigned, and all the cities in the United Kingdom with their areas and populations and the rivers that run through them (if they have rivers) and their mottoes (if they have mottoes). She also knows the capitals of Europe and their populations and the years when they were at war with Britain, which most of them were at one time or another.
She doesn’t find it hard to remember this stuff; she does it to keep from being bored, because being bored is worse than almost anything. If she knows surface area and total population, she can work out mean population density in her head and then do regression analyses to guess how many people there might be in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time.
But there’s sort of a problem with that. Melanie learned the stuff about the cities of the United Kingdom from Mr Whitaker’s lessons, and she’s not sure if she’s got all the details right. Because one day, when Mr Whitaker was acting kind of funny and his voice was all slippery and fuzzy, he said something that worried Melanie. She was asking him whether 1,036,900 was the population of the whole of Birmingham with all its suburbs or just the central metropolitan area, and he said, “Who cares? None of this stuff matters any more. I just gave it to you because all the textbooks we’ve got are thirty years old.”
Melanie persisted, because she knew that Birmingham is the biggest city in England after London, and she wanted to be sure she had the numbers exactly right. “But the census figures from—” she said.
Mr Whitaker cut her off. “Jesus, Melanie, it’s irrelevant. It’s ancient history! There’s nothing out there any more. Not a damn thing. The population of Birmingham is zero.”
So it’s possible, even quite likely, that some of Melanie’s lists need to be updated in some respects.
The children have lessons on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. On Saturday, they stay locked in their rooms all day and music plays over the PA system. Nobody comes, not even Sergeant, and the music is too loud to talk over. Melanie had the idea long ago of making up a language that used signs instead of words, so the children could talk to each other through their little mesh windows, and she went ahead and made the language up, which was fun to do, but when she asked Miss Justineau if she could teach it to the class, Miss Justineau told her no, really loud and sharp. She made Melanie promise not to mention her sign language to any of the other teachers, and especially not to Sergeant. “He’s paranoid enough already,” she said. “If he thinks you’re talking behind his back, he’ll lose what’s left of his mind.”
So Melanie never got to teach the other children how to talk in sign language.
Saturdays are long and dull, and hard to get through. Melanie tells herself aloud some of the stories that the children have been told in class, or sings mathematical proofs like the proof for the infinity of prime numbers, in time to the music. It’s okay to do this out loud because the music hides her voice. Otherwise Sergeant would come in and tell her to stop.
Melanie knows that Sergeant is still there on Saturdays, because one Saturday when Ronnie hit her hand against the mesh window of her cell until it bled and got all mashed up, Sergeant came in. He brought two of his people, and all three of them were dressed in the big suits that hide their faces, and they went into Ronnie’s cell and Melanie guessed from the sounds that they were trying to tie Ronnie into her chair. She also guessed from the sounds that Ronnie was struggling and making it hard for them, because she kept shouting and saying, “Leave me alone! Leave me alone!” Then there was a banging sound that went on and on while one of Sergeant’s people shouted, “Christ Jesus, don’t—” and then other people were shouting too, and someone said, “Grab her other arm! Hold her!” and then it all went quiet again.
Melanie couldn’t tell what happened after that. The people who work for Sergeant went around and locked all the little screens over the mesh windows, so the children couldn’t see out. They stayed locked all day. The next Monday, Ronnie wasn’t in the class any more, and nobody seemed to know what had happened to her. Melanie likes to think there’s another classroom somewhere else on the base, and Ronnie went there, so she might come back one day when Sergeant shuffles the deck again. But what she really believes, when she can’t stop herself from thinking about it, is that Sergeant took Ronnie away to punish her for being bad, and he won’t let her see any of the other children ever again.
Sundays are like Saturdays except for chow time and the shower. At the start of the day the children are put in their chairs as though it’s a regular school day, but with just their right hands and forearms unstrapped. They’re wheeled into the shower room, which is the last door on the right, just before the bare steel door.
In the shower room, which is white-tiled and empty, the children sit and wait until everybody has been wheeled in. Then Sergeant’s people bring chow bowls and spoons. They put a bowl on each child’s lap, the spoon already sticking into it.
In the bowl there are about a million grubs, all squirming and wriggling over each other.
The children eat.
In the stories that they read, children sometimes eat other things–cakes and chocolate and bangers and mash and crisps and sweets and spaghetti and meatballs. The children only eat grubs, and only once a week, because–as Dr Selkirk explains one time when Melanie asks–their bodies are spectacularly efficient at metabolising proteins. They don’t have to have any of those other things, not even water to drink. The grubs give them everything they need.
When they’ve finished eating, and the bowls have been taken away again, Sergeant’s people go out, close the doors and cycle the door seals. The shower room is completely dark now, because there aren’t any lights in there. Pipes behind the walls start to make a sound like someone trying not to laugh, and a chemical spray falls from the ceiling.
It’s the same chemical that’s on the teachers and Sergeant and Sergeant’s people, or at least it smells the same, but it’s a lot stronger. It stings a little, at first. Then it stings a lot. It leaves Melanie’s eyes puffy, reddened and half blind. But it evaporates quickly from clothes and skin, so after half an hour more of sitting in the still, dark room, there’s nothing left of it but the smell, and then finally the smell fades too, or at least they get used to it so it’s not so bad any more, and they just wait in silence for the door to be unlocked and Sergeant’s people to come and get them. This is how the children are washed, and for that reason, if for no other, Sunday is probably the worst day of the week.
The best day of the week is whichever day Miss Justineau teaches. It isn’t always the same day, and some weeks she doesn’t come at all, but whenever Melanie is wheeled into the classroom and sees Miss Justineau there, she feels a surge of pure happiness, like her heart flying up out of her into the sky.
Nobody gets bored on Miss Justineau days. It’s a thrill for Melanie even to look at her. She likes to guess what Miss Justineau will be wearing, and whether her hair will be up or down. It’s usually down, and it’s long and black and really crinkly so it looks like a waterfall. But sometimes she ties it up in a knot on the back of her head, really tight, and that’s good too, because it makes her face sort of stand out more, almost like she’s a statue on the side of a temple, holding up the ceiling. A caryatid. Although Miss Justineau’s face stands out anyway because it’s such a wonderful, wonderful colour. It’s dark brown, like the wood of the trees in Melanie’s rainforest picture whose seeds only grow out of the ashes of a bushfire, or like the coffee that Miss Justineau pours out of her flask into her cup at break time. Except it’s darker and richer than either of those things, with lots of other colours mixed in, so there isn’t anything you can really compare it to. All you can say is that it’s as dark as Melanie’s skin is light.
And sometimes Miss Justineau wears a scarf or something over her shirt, tied around her neck and shoulders. On those days Melanie thinks she looks either like a pirate or like one of the women of Hamelin when the Pied Piper came. But the women of Hamelin in the picture in Miss Justineau’s book were mostly old and bent over, and Miss Justineau is young and not bent over at all and very tall and very beautiful. So she’s more like a pirate really, except not with long boots and not with a sword.
When Miss Justineau teaches, the day is full of amazing things. Sometimes she’ll read poems aloud, or bring her flute and play it, or show the children pictures out of a book and tell them stories about the people in the pictures. That was how Melanie got to find out about Pandora and Epimetheus and the box full of all the evils of the world, because one day Miss J showed them a picture in the book. It was a picture of a woman opening a box and lots of really scary things coming out of it. “Who is that?” Anne asked Miss Justineau.
“That’s Pandora,” Miss Justineau said. “She was a really amazing woman. All the gods had blessed her and given her gifts. That’s what her name means–‘the girl with all the gifts’. So she was clever, and brave, and beautiful, and funny, and everything else you’d want to be. But she just had the one tiny fault, which was that she was very–and I mean very–curious.”
She had the kids hooked by this point, and they were loving it and so was she, and in the end they got the whole story, which started with the war between the gods and the Titans and ended with Pandora opening up the box and letting all the terrible things out.
Melanie said she didn’t think it was right to blame Pandora for what happened, because it was a trap that Zeus had set for mortals and he made her be the way she was on purpose, just so the trap would get sprung.
“Say it loud, sister,” Miss Justineau said. “Men get the pleasure, women get the rap.” And she laughed. Melanie made Miss Justineau laugh! That was a really good day, even if she doesn’t know what she said that was funny.
The only problem with the days when Miss Justineau teaches is that the time goes by too quickly. Every second is so precious to Melanie that she doesn’t even blink; she just sits there wide-eyed, drinking in everything that Miss Justineau says, and memorising it so that she can play it back to herself later, in her cell. And whenever she can manage it, she asks Miss Justineau questions, because what she most likes to hear, and to remember, is Miss Justineau’s voice saying her name, Melanie, in that way that makes her feel like the most important person in the world.
One time, Sergeant comes into the classroom on a Miss Justineau day. Melanie doesn’t know he’s there until he speaks, because he’s standing right at the back of the class. When Miss Justineau says, “… and this time, Pooh and Piglet counted three sets of footprints in the snow,” Sergeant’s voice breaks in with, “What the hell is this?”
Miss Justineau stops and looks round. “I’m reading the children a story, Sergeant Parks,” she says.
“I can see that,” Sergeant’s voice says. “I thought the idea was to put them through their paces, not give them a cabaret.”
Miss Justineau tenses. If you didn’t know her as well as Melanie knows her, and if you didn’t watch her as closely as Melanie watches her, you’d most likely miss it. It’s gone again really quickly, and her voice when she speaks sounds just the same as it always does, not angry at all. “That’s exactly what we’re doing,” she says. “It’s important to see how they process information. But there has to be input, so there can be output.”
“Input?” Sergeant repeats. “You mean facts?”
“No. Not just facts. Ideas.”
“Oh yeah, plenty of world-class ideas in Winnie-the-Pooh.” Sergeant is using sarcasm. Melanie knows how sarcasm works; you say the opposite of what you really mean. “Seriously, you’re wasting your time. You want to tell them stories, tell them about Jack the Ripper and John Wayne Gacy.”
“They’re children,” Miss Justineau points out.
“Psychologically speaking, yes. They’re children.”
“Well, then fuck psychology,” Sergeant says, sounding kind of angry now. “That, what you said right there, that’s why you don’t want to read them Winnie-the-Pooh. You carry on that way, you’ll start thinking of them as real kids. And then you’ll slip up. And maybe you’ll untie one of them because he needs a cuddle or something. I don’t need to tell you what happens after that.”
Sergeant comes out to the front of the class then, and he does something really horrible. He rolls up his sleeve, all the way to the elbow, and he holds his bare forearm in front of Kenny’s face; right in front of Kenny, just an inch or so away from him. Nothing happens at first, but then Sergeant spits on his hand and rubs at his forearm, like he’s wiping something away.
“Don’t,” says Miss Justineau. “Don’t do that to him.” But Sergeant doesn’t answer her or look at her.
Melanie sits two rows behind Kenny, and two rows over, so she can see the whole thing. Kenny goes really stiff, and then his mouth gapes wide and he starts to snap at Sergeant’s arm, which of course he can’t reach. And drool starts to drip down from the corner of his mouth, but not much of it because nobody ever gives the children anything to drink, so it’s thick, half solid, and it hangs there on the end of Kenny’s chin, wobbling, while Kenny grunts and snaps at Sergeant’s arm, and makes kind of moaning, whimpering sounds.
And bad as that is, it gets worse–because the kids on either side of Kenny start doing it too, as though it’s something they’ve caught from Kenny, and the kids right behind twitch and shake as though someone is poking them really hard in the stomach.
“You see?” Sergeant says, and he turns to look at Miss Justineau’s face to make sure she gets his point. And then he blinks, all surprised, and maybe he wishes he hadn’t looked at her, because Miss Justineau is glaring at him like she wants to smack him in the face, and Sergeant lets his arm fall to his side and shrugs like none of this was ever important to him anyway.
“Not everyone who looks human is human,” he says.
“No,” Miss Justineau agrees. “I’m with you on that one.” Kenny’s head sags a little sideways, which is as far as it can move because of the strap, and he makes a clicking sound in his throat.
“It’s all right, Kenny,” Miss Justineau says. “It will pass soon. Let’s go on with the story. Would you like that? Would you like to hear what happened to Pooh and Piglet? Sergeant Parks, if you’ll excuse us? Please?”
Sergeant looks at her, and shakes his head really hard. “You don’t want to get attached to them,” he says. “You know what they’re here for. Hell, you know better than—”
But Miss Justineau starts to read again, like she can’t hear him, like he’s not even there, and in the end he leaves. Or maybe he’s still standing at the back of the classroom, not speaking, but Melanie doesn’t think so because after a while Miss Justineau gets up and shuts the door, and Melanie thinks that she’d only do that right then if Sergeant was on the other side of it.
Melanie barely sleeps at all that night. She keeps thinking about what Sergeant said, that the children aren’t real children, and about how Miss Justineau looked at him when he was being so nasty to Kenny.
And she thinks about Kenny snarling and snapping at Sergeant’s arm like a dog. She wonders why he did it, and she thinks maybe she knows the answer because when Sergeant wiped his arm with spit and waved it under Kenny’s nose, it was as though under the bitter chemical smell Sergeant had a different smell altogether. And even though the smell was very faint where Melanie was, it made her head swim and her jaw muscles start to work by themselves. She can’t even figure out what it was she was feeling, because it’s not like anything that ever happened to her before or anything she heard about in a story, but it was like there was something she was supposed to do and it was so urgent, so important that her body was trying to take over her mind and do it without her.
But along with these scary thoughts, she also thinks: Sergeant has a name. The same way the teachers do. The same way the children do. Up until now, Sergeant has been more like a god or a Titan to Melanie; now she knows that he’s just like everyone else, even if he is scary. He’s not just Sergeant, he’s Sergeant Parks. The enormity of that change, more than anything else, is what keeps her awake until the doors unlock in the morning and the teachers come.
In a way, Melanie’s feelings about Miss Justineau have changed too, after that day. Or rather, they haven’t changed at all, but they’ve become about a hundred times stronger. There can’t be anyone better or kinder or lovelier than Miss Justineau anywhere in the world; Melanie wishes she was a god or a Titan or a Trojan warrior, so she could fight for Miss Justineau and save her from Heffalumps and Woozles. She knows that Heffalumps and Woozles are in Winnie-the-Pooh, not in a Greek myth, but she likes the words, and she likes the idea of saving Miss Justineau so much that it becomes her favourite thought. She thinks about it whenever she’s not thinking about anything else. It makes even Sundays bearable.
So one day when Miss Mailer unstraps everybody’s right arms from the elbow down, slots the tray tables on to their chairs and tells them to write a story, that’s the story that Melanie writes. Miss Mailer is only interested in their vocabulary, of course, and doesn’t care much at all what their stories are about. This is really obvious because she gives out a word list alongside the assignment and tells the class that every word from the word list they use correctly gets them an extra point in the assessment.
Melanie ignores the word list and cuts loose.
When Miss Mailer asks who would like to read their story aloud, she’s the first to wave–as far as you can wave with just your forearm free–and say “Me, Miss Mailer! Pick me!”
So she gets to read her story. Which goes like this.
Once upon a time there was a very beautiful woman. The most beautiful and kind and clever and amazing woman in all the world. She was tall and not bent over, with skin so dark she was like her own shadow, and long black hair that curled around so much it made you dizzy to look at her. And she lived in ancient Greece, after the war between the gods and the Titans, when the gods had already won.
And one day, as she was walking in a forest, she was attacked by a monster. It was a frigging abortion, and it wanted to kill her and eat her. The woman was really brave, and she fought and fought, but the monster was very big and very fierce and it didn’t matter how many times she wounded it, it just kept on coming.
The woman was afraid. She hugged her fear to her mortal soul.
The monster broke her sword, and her spear, and it was about to eat her.
But then a little girl came along. She was a special little girl, made by all the gods, like Pandora. And she was like Achilles too, because her mother (the beautiful, amazing woman) had dipped her in the water of the River Styx, so she was all invulnerable except for one little part of her (but it wasn’t her heel because that’s obvious; it was a place that she kept secret so the monster couldn’t find it).
And the little girl fought the monster and killed it and cut off its head and its arms and legs and all the other bits of it. And the beautiful woman hugged her to her mortal soul, and said, “You are my special girl. You will always be with me, and I will never let you go.”
And they lived together, for ever after, in great peace and prosperity.
The last sentence is stolen word for word from a story by the Brothers Grimm that Miss Justineau read to the class once, and some of the other bits are sort of borrowed from Miss Justineau’s Greek myths book, which is called Tales the Muses Told, or just from cool things she’s heard people say. But it’s still Melanie’s story, and she’s very happy when the other kids all say how good it is. Even Kenny, in the end, says he liked the part where the monster got chopped up.
Miss Mailer seems happy too. The whole time Melanie was reading the story out, she was scribbling in her notebook. And she recorded the reading on her little hand recorder machine. Melanie hopes she’ll play it back to Miss Justineau, so Miss Justineau will get to hear it too.
“That was really interesting, Melanie,” Miss Mailer says. She puts the recorder down on Melanie’s tray table, right in front of her, and asks her a lot of questions about the story. What did the monster look like? How did the girl feel about the monster when it was alive? How did she feel about it after it was dead? How did she feel about the woman? And lots of stuff like that, which is kind of fun because it feels almost like the people in the story are real somewhere.
Like she saved Miss Justineau from a monster, and Miss Justineau hugged her.
Which is better than a million Greek myths.
One day Miss Justineau talks to them about death. It’s because most of the men in the Light Brigade have just died, in a poem that Miss Justineau read to the class. The children want to know what it means to die, and what it’s like. Miss Justineau says it’s like all the lights going out, and everything going really quiet, the way it does at night–but for ever. No morning. The lights never come back on again.
“That sounds terrible,” says Lizzie in a voice like she’s about to cry. It sounds terrible to Melanie too; like sitting in the shower room on Sunday with the chemical smell in the air, and then even the smell goes away and there’s nothing at all for ever and ever.
Miss Justineau can see that she’s upset them, and she tries to make it okay again by talking about it more. “But maybe it’s not like that at all,” she says quickly. “Nobody really knows, because when you’re dead, you can’t come back to talk about it. And anyway, it would be different for you than it would be for most people because you’re—”
And then she stops herself, with the next word sort of frozen halfway out of her lips.
“We’re what?” Melanie asks.
It’s a moment or two before Miss Justineau says anything. It looks to Melanie like she’s thinking of something to say that won’t make them feel any worse than they do already. “You’re children. You can’t really imagine what death might be like, because for children it seems like everything has to go on for ever.”
That isn’t what she was going to say, Melanie is pretty sure. But it’s really interesting, just the same. There’s a silence while they think about it. It’s true, Melanie decides. She can’t remember a time when her life was any different than this, and she can’t imagine any other way that people could live. But there’s something that doesn’t make sense to her in the whole equation, and so she has to ask the question.
“Whose children are we, Miss Justineau?”
In most stories she knows, children have a mother and a father, like Iphigenia had Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, and Helen had Leda and Zeus. Sometimes they have teachers too, but not always, and they never seem to have sergeants. So this is a question that gets to the very roots of the world, and Melanie asks it with some trepidation.
Again Miss Justineau thinks about it for a long time, until Melanie is sure she won’t answer. Then she says, “Your mother is dead, Melanie. She died when you were very little. Probably your daddy’s dead too, although there isn’t really any way of knowing. So the army is looking after you now.”
“Is that just Melanie?” John asks. “Or is it all of us?”
Miss Justineau nods slowly. “All of you.”
“We’re in an orphanage,” Anne guesses. (The class heard the story of Oliver Twist once, on another Miss Justineau day.)
“No. You’re on an army base.”
“Is that what happens to kids whose mum and dad die?” This is Steven now.
Melanie is thinking hard and putting all these facts together inside her head, like they’re pieces of a puzzle. “How old was I,” she asks, “when my mother died?” Because she must have been very young if she can’t remember her mother at all.
“It’s not easy to explain,” Miss Justineau says, and they can see from her face that she’s really not comfortable talking about this stuff.
“Was I still a baby?” Melanie asks.
“Not really. But almost. You were very young.”
“And did my mother give me to the army?”
Another long silence.
“No,” Miss Justineau says at last. “The army pretty much helped itself.”
It comes out quick and low and almost hard. Miss Justineau changes the subject then, and the children are happy to let her do it because nobody is very enthusiastic about death by this point.
So they do the periodic table of the elements, which is easy and fun. Starting with Miles in the front row at the very end, everyone takes turns to name an element. First time around they do it in straight number order. Then they reverse it. Then Miss Justineau shouts out challenges like “Has to start with the letter N!” or “Actinides only!”
Nobody drops out until the challenges get really hard, like “Can’t follow in group or period, and has to start with a letter that’s in your name!” Zoe complains that that means people with long names have more chances, and she’s right, obviously, but still she’s got zinc, zirconium, oxygen, osmium, einsteinium, erbium and europium to choose from, so she’s not doing too badly.
By the time Xanthi wins (with xenon), everyone is laughing and it looks as though all the death stuff is forgotten. It isn’t, of course. Melanie knows her classmates well enough to be sure that they’re turning Miss Justineau’s words over and over in their minds, the same way she is–shaking them and worrying at them, to see what insights might fall out. Because the one thing they never learn about, really, is themselves.
And by this time, Melanie has thought of the big exception to that rule about kids having mothers and fathers–Pandora, who didn’t have a mother or a father because Zeus just made her out of gloopy clay. Melanie thinks that would be better, in some ways, than having a mother and a father who you never even got to meet. The ghost of her parents’ absence hovers around her, makes her uneasy.
But she wants to know one more thing, and she wants it badly enough that she even takes the chance of upsetting Miss Justineau some more. At the end of the lesson, she waits until Miss Justineau is close to her and she asks her question really quietly.
“Miss Justineau, what will happen when we’re grown up? Will the army still want to keep us, or will we go home to Beacon? And if we go there, will all the teachers come with us?”
All the teachers! Yeah, right. Like she cares if she ever sees Mr Slippery-Voice-Whitaker again. Or boring Dr Selkirk, who looks at the ground the whole time like she’s scared of even seeing the class. She means you, Miss Justineau, you, you, you, and she wants to say it, but at the same time she’s scared to, like saying the wish out loud will make it not happen.
And she knows, again extrapolating from the stories she’s read or heard, that children don’t stay in school for ever. They don’t set up home with their teachers and live there and be there with them when school is finished. And although she doesn’t really know what those words mean, what school being finished could possibly be like, she accepts that it will someday happen and therefore that something else will start.
So she’s ready for Miss Justineau to say no. She’s hardened herself to let nothing show in her face, if that’s the answer. She really just wants the facts, so she can prepare herself for the grief of separation.
But Miss Justineau doesn’t answer at all. Unless the quick movement of her hand is an answer. She puts it up in front of her own face as though Melanie has thrown something at her (which Melanie never, ever would do in a million years!).
Then the siren whoops three times to signal the end of the day. And Miss Justineau ducks her head, pulling herself together after that imaginary blow. And it’s sort of a strange thing, but for the first time Melanie realises that Miss Justineau always wears red, somewhere on her. Her T-shirt, or her hairband, or her trousers, or her scarf. All the other teachers and Dr Caldwell and Dr Selkirk wear white, and Sergeant and Sergeant’s people wear green and brown and greeny-brown. Miss Justineau is red.
Like something about her is wounded, and not healing, and hurting her all the time.
That’s a stupid idea, Melanie thinks, because Miss Justineau always smiles and laughs and her voice is like a song. If something was hurting her, she wouldn’t be able to smile so much. But right then, Miss Justineau isn’t smiling at all. She’s staring down at the ground, and her face is all twisted up like she’s angry, sad, sick–like something bad is going to come out of her anyway, and it might be tears or words or vomit or all three.
“I’ll stay,” Melanie blurts. She’s desperate to make Miss Justineau feel okay again. “If you have to stay here, I’ll stay with you. I wouldn’t want to be in Beacon without you there.”
Miss Justineau lifts her head and looks at Melanie again. Her eyes are very shiny, and her mouth is like the line on Dr Caldwell’s EEG machine, changing all the time.
“I’m sorry,” Melanie says quickly. “Please don’t be sad, Miss Justineau. You can do whatever you want to do, of course you can. You can go or stay or…”
She doesn’t get another word out. She crashes into total, tongue-tied silence, because something completely unexpected and absolutely wonderful happens.
Miss Justineau puts out her hand and strokes Melanie’s hair.
She strokes Melanie’s hair with her hand, like it was just the most natural and normal thing in the world.
And lights are dancing behind Melanie’s eyes, and she can’t get her breath, and she can’t speak or hear or think about anything because apart from Sergeant’s people, maybe two or three times and always by accident, nobody has ever touched her before and this is Miss Justineau touching her and it’s almost too nice to be in the world at all.
Everybody in the class who can see is watching. Everybody’s eyes and mouths are big and wide. It’s so quiet, you can hear Miss Justineau draw a breath, with a little tremor at the end of it, as though she’s shivering from cold.
“Oh God!” she whispers.
“Here endeth the lesson,” says Sergeant.
Melanie can’t turn her head to look at him, because of the neck strap on her chair. Nobody else seems to have seen Sergeant come into the room either. They’re all just as surprised and scared as she is. Even Miss Justineau looks scared, which is another one of those things (like Sergeant having a name) that changes the architecture of the whole world.
Sergeant walks into Melanie’s line of sight, right behind Miss Justineau. Miss Justineau has already snatched her hand away from Melanie’s hair, as soon as Sergeant spoke. She ducks her head again, so Melanie can’t see her face.
“They go back now,” Sergeant says.
“Right.” Miss Justineau’s voice is very small.
“And you go on a charge.”
“And maybe you lose your job. Because every rule we got, you just broke.”
Miss Justineau brings her head up again. Both her eyes are wet with tears now. “Fuck you, Eddie,” she says, as quietly and calmly as if she was saying good morning.
She walks out of Melanie’s line of sight, very quickly. Melanie wants to call her back, wants to say something to make her stay: I love you, Miss Justineau. I’ll be a god or a Titan for you, and save you. But she can’t say anything, and then Sergeant’s people come and start to wheel the kids away one by one.
Why? Why did she do that?
Helen Justineau has no good answer, so she just keeps on asking herself the question. Stands forlorn in her room in the luxuriously appointed civilian block, a foot on every side bigger than a regular soldier’s room, and with an en suite chemical toilet. Leaning against the mirror on the wall, avoiding her own sick, accusing gaze.
She scrubbed her hands until they were raw, but she can still feel that cold flesh. So cold, as though blood never ran in it. As though she was touching something that had just been dredged up from the bottom of the sea.
Why did she do it? What happened in that laying on of hands?
Nice cop is just a role she plays–observing and measuring the children’s emotional responses to her so she can write mealy-mouthed reports for Caroline Caldwell about their capacity for normal affect.
Normal affect. That’s what Justineau is feeling now, presumably.
It’s like she dug a pit trap, nice and deep, squared off the edges, wiped her hands. Then walked right into it.
Except that it was test subject number one, really, who dug the pit. Melanie. It was her desperate, obvious, hero-worshipping crush that tripped Justineau up, or at least threw her far enough off balance that tripping became inevitable. Those big, trusting eyes, in that bone-white face. Death and the maiden, all wrapped up in one tiny package.
She didn’t turn the compassion off in time. She didn’t remind herself, the way she does at the start of every day, that when the programme wraps up, Beacon will airlift her out of here the same way they airlifted her in. Quick and easy, taking all her things with her, leaving no footprint. This isn’t life. It’s something that’s playing out in its own self-contained sub routine. She can walk out as clean as when she came in, if she just doesn’t let anything touch her.
That horse, however, may already have bolted.
Every once in a while in the block, there’s a day that doesn’t start right. A day when all the repeating patterns that Melanie uses as measuring sticks for her life fail to occur, one after another, and she feels like she’s bobbing around helplessly in the air–a Melanie-shaped balloon. The week after Miss Justineau told the class that their mothers were dead, there’s a day like that.
It’s a Friday, but when Sergeant and his people arrive they don’t bring a teacher with them and they don’t open the cell doors. Melanie already knows what’s going to happen next, but she still feels a prickle of unease when she hears the clacking of Dr Caldwell’s high-heeled shoes on the concrete floor. And then a moment or two later she hears the sound of Dr Caldwell’s pen, which Dr Caldwell will sometimes keep clicking on and off and on and off even when she doesn’t want to write anything.
Melanie doesn’t get up off the bed. She just sits there and waits. She doesn’t like Dr Caldwell very much. That’s partly because the rhythms of the day get disrupted whenever Dr Caldwell shows up, but it’s mostly because she doesn’t know what Dr Caldwell is for. The teachers teach, and Sergeant’s people take the kids back and forth between the classroom and the cells, and feed them and shower them on Sundays. Dr Caldwell just appears, at unforeseeable times (Melanie tried to work out once if there was a pattern, but she couldn’t find one), and everyone stops doing what they were doing, or what they’re meant to do, until she’s gone again.
The clacking of the shoes and the clicking of the pen get louder and louder and then stop.
“Good morning, Doctor,” Sergeant says, out in the corridor. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”
“Sergeant,” Dr Caldwell answers. Her voice is almost as soft and warm as Miss Justineau’s, which makes Melanie feel a little bit guilty about not liking her. She’s probably really nice if you get to know her. “I’m starting a new test series, and I need one of each.”
“One of each?” Sergeant repeats. “You mean, a boy and a girl?”
“A what and a what?” Dr Caldwell laughs musically. “No, I don’t mean that at all. The gender is completely irrelevant. We’ve established that much. I meant high and low end of the bell curve.”
“Well, you just tell me which ones you want. I’ll pack them up and bring them over.”
There’s a rustling of papers. “Sixteen should do fine for the lower end,” Dr Caldwell says. Her heel taps on the floor of the corridor a few times, but she’s not walking because the sound doesn’t get louder or softer. Her pen clicks.
“You want this one?” Sergeant asks. His voice sounds really close.
Melanie looks up. Dr Caldwell is looking in through the grille in her cell door. Her eyes meet Melanie’s, for a long time, and neither of them blinks.
“Our little genius?” Dr Caldwell says. “Wash your mouth out, Sergeant. I’m not going to waste number one on a simple stratum comp. When I come for Melanie, there’ll be angels and trumpets.”
Sergeant mutters something Melanie can’t hear, and Dr Caldwell laughs. “Well, I’m sure you can supply some trumpets at least.” She turns away, and the click-clack-click of her heels recedes along the corridor.
“Two little ducks,” she calls. “Twenty-two.”
Melanie doesn’t know the cell numbers for all the kids, but she remembers most of them from when a teacher has called someone in the class by their number instead of their name. Marcia is number sixteen and Liam is number twenty-two. She wonders what Dr Caldwell wants them for, and what she’ll say to them.
She goes to the grille and watches Sergeant’s people go into cell 16 and cell 22. They wheel Liam and Marcia out, and down the corridor–not towards the classroom, but the other way, towards the big steel door.
Melanie watches them as far as she can, but they go further than that. She thinks they have to have gone through the door, because what else is down at that end of the corridor? They’re seeing with their own eyes what’s outside the door!
Melanie hopes it’s a Miss Justineau day, because Miss Justineau lets the kids talk to each other about stuff that’s not in the lesson, so when Liam and Marcia come back she’ll be able to ask them what Dr Caldwell talked to them about, and what they did, and what’s on the far side of the door.
Of course, she hopes it will be a Miss Justineau day for a lot of other reasons too.
And it turns out it is. The children make up songs for Miss Justineau to play on her flute, with complicated rules for how long the words are and how they rhyme. They have great fun, but the day goes on and Liam and Marcia don’t come back. So Melanie can’t ask, and she goes back to her cell that night with her curiosity, if anything, burning even brighter.
Then it’s the weekend, with no lessons and no talking. All through Saturday Melanie listens, but the steel door doesn’t open and nobody comes or goes.
Liam and Marcia aren’t in the shower on Sunday.
And Monday is Miss Mailer, and Tuesday is Mr Whitaker, and somehow after that Melanie feels afraid to ask because the possibility has opened up in her mind, like a crack in a wall, that Liam and Marcia might not come back at all, the same way Ronnie didn’t come back after she shouted and screamed that time. And maybe asking the question will change what happens. Maybe if they all pretend not to notice, Liam and Marcia will be wheeled in one day and it will be like they never went away. But if anyone asks, “Where did they go to?” then they’ll really be gone and she’ll never see them again.
“Okay,” Miss Justineau says. “Does anyone know what today is?”
It’s Tuesday, obviously, and more important than that, it’s a Miss Justineau day, but everyone tries to guess what else it might be. “Your birthday?” “The king’s birthday?” “The day when something important happened, years ago?” “A day with a palindromic date?” “A day when someone new is coming?”
They’re all excited, because they know it’s got something to do with the big canvas bag that Miss Justineau brought in with her, and they can see that she’s just as excited to show them what’s inside. It’s going to be a good day–one of the best days, probably.
But it’s Siobhan, in the end, who gets it. “It’s the first day of spring!” she shouts from behind Melanie.
“Good for you, Siobhan,” Miss Justineau says. “Absolutely right. It’s the twenty-first of March and, for the part of the world where we live, that’s… what? What’s the big deal about the twenty-first?”
“The first day of spring,” Tom repeats, but Melanie, who’s kicking herself for not seeing this sooner, knows that Miss Justineau is looking for more than that. “It’s the vernal equinox!” she says quickly before anyone else can.
“Exactly,” Miss Justineau agrees. “Give the lady a big hand. It’s the vernal equinox. Now, what does that mean?”
The kids all clamour to answer. Usually nobody bothers to tell them what date it is, and of course they never get to see the sky, but they’re familiar with the theory. Ever since the solstice, way back in December, the nights have been getting shorter and the days have been getting longer (not that the kids ever see night and day, because the rooms in the block don’t have any windows). Today is the day when the two finally balance. The night and the day are both exactly twelve hours long.
“And that makes it kind of a magical day,” Miss Justineau says. “In olden times, it meant the long dark of winter was finally over, and things would start growing again and the world would be renewed. The solstice was the promise–that the days wouldn’t just keep on getting shorter until they disappeared altogether. The equinox was the day when the promise was fulfilled.”
Miss Justineau picks up the big bag and puts it on the table. “And I was thinking about this,” she says slowly, knowing they’re all watching, knowing that they’re aching to see what’s in the bag. “And it occurred to me that nobody ever showed you, really, what spring is all about. So I climbed over the perimeter fence…”
Gasps from the children. Region 6 may be mostly cleared, but outside the fence still belongs to the hungries. As soon as you’re out there, they can see you and smell you–and once they get your scent, they’re never going to stop following you until they’ve eaten you.
Miss Justineau laughs at the horrified expressions on their faces. “Only kidding,” she says. “There’s actually a part of the camp where the soldiers didn’t bother to finish clearing when they set up this base. There’s lots of wild flowers there, and even a few trees. So…”–and she pulls the mouth of the bag wide open–“I went over there, and I just grabbed what I could find. Would have felt like vandalism, before the Breakdown, but the wild flowers are doing okay for themselves these days, so I just thought what the hell.”
She reaches into the bag and takes something out. It’s a sort of stick, long and twisted, with smaller sticks coming off it in all directions. And the smaller sticks have smaller sticks, and so on, so it’s a really crazy, complicated shape. And all over it there are these little green dots–but as Miss Justineau turns the stick in her hand, Melanie can see that they’re not dots. They bulge right out from the stick, as though they’re being forced up from inside it. And some of them are broken; they’ve split in the middle and they’re sort of peeling into ever-so-slender green lips and brackets.
“Anyone know what this is?” Miss Justineau asks.
Nobody speaks. Melanie is thinking about it hard, trying to match it up with something she’s already seen, or maybe been told about in class. She’s just about to get it, because the word means what it says–the way the big stick breaks into smaller sticks, and again and again, so there’s more and more of them, like breaking down a great big number into the long list of its prime factors.
“It’s a branch,” Joanne says.
Dummy, dummy, dummy, Melanie scolds herself. Her rainforest picture is just full of branches. But the real branch looks different somehow. Its shape is more complicated and broken up, its textures rougher.
“You’re damn right it’s a branch,” Miss Justineau agrees. “I think it’s an alder. A couple of thousand years ago, the people who lived around here would have called this time of year the alder month. They used the bark of the tree for medicine, because it’s really rich in something called salicin. It’s kind of a natural pain relief drug.”
She goes around the class, unstrapping the children’s right arms from their chairs so that they can hold the branch and look at it right up close. It’s kind of ugly, Melanie thinks, but absolutely fascinating. Especially when Miss Justineau explains that the little green balls are buds–and they’ll turn into leaves and cover the whole tree in green, as though it’s put a summer dress on.
But there’s a lot more stuff in the bag, and when Miss Justineau starts to unpack it, the whole class stares in awe. Because the bag is full of colours–starbursts and wheels and whorls of dazzling brightness that are as fine and complex in their structures as the branch is, only much more symmetrical. Flowers.
“Red campion,” Miss Justineau says, holding up a spray that’s not red at all but sort of purple, each petal forked into two like the footprint of an animal in a tracking chart Melanie saw once.
“Rosemary.” White fingers and green fingers, all laced together like your hands clasped together in your lap when you’re nervous and you don’t want to fidget.
“Daffodils.” Yellow tubes like the trumpets angels blow in the old pictures in Miss Justineau’s books, but with fringed lips so delicate they move when Miss Justineau breathes on them.
“Medlar.” White spheres in dense clusters, each one made out of overlapping petals that are curved and nested on themselves, and open at one end to show something inside that looks like a tiny model of more flowers.
The children are hypnotised. It’s spring in the classroom. It’s equinox, with the world balanced between winter and summer, life and death, like a spinning ball balanced on the tip of someone’s finger.
When everyone has looked at the flowers, and held them, Miss Justineau puts them in bottles and jars all around the classroom, wherever there’s a shelf or a table or a clear surface, so the whole room becomes a meadow.
She reads the class some poems about flowers, starting with one by Walt Whitman about lilacs and how spring always comes back again, but Walt Whitman hasn’t got very far at all before he’s talking about death and offering to give his lilacs to a coffin that he’s seen, so Miss Justineau says let’s quit while we’re ahead and reads Thomas Campion instead. He even has the same name as a flower, Melanie thinks, and she likes his poem a whole lot better.
But maybe the most important thing that comes out of this day is that Melanie now knows what date it is. She doesn’t want to stop knowing again, so she decides to keep count.
She clears a place in her mind, just for the date, and every day she goes to that place and adds one. She makes sure to ask Miss Justineau if this is a leap year, which it is. Once she knows that, she’s good.
Knowing the date is reassuring in some way she can’t quite figure out. It’s like it gives her a secret power–like she’s in control of a little piece of the world.
It’s not until then that she realises she’s never had that feeling before.
Caroline Caldwell is very skilled at separating brains from skulls. She does it quickly and methodically, and she gets the brain out in one piece, with minimal tissue damage. She’s reached the point now where she could almost do it in her sleep.
In fact, it’s been three nights since she slept, and there’s an itchiness behind her eyes that isn’t eased by rubbing them. But her mind is clear, with only the very slightest sense of a hallucinatory edge to that clarity. She knows what she’s doing. She watches herself do it, approving the virtuosity of her own technique.
The first cut is to the rear of the occipital bone–easing her slimmest bone-saw into the gap that Selkirk has opened up for her, through the peeled-back layers of flesh and between the nubs and buds of exposed muscle.
She extends that first cut out to either side, taking care to maintain a straight horizontal line corresponding to the widest part of the skull. It’s important to have enough room to work in, so she doesn’t squash the brain or leave part of it behind when she takes it out. She journeys on, the bone-saw flicking lightly back and forth like the bow of a violin, through the parietal and temporal bones, keeping the same straight line, until she comes at last to the superciliary ridges.
At that point, the straight line ceases to matter. Instead, X marks the spot; Dr Caldwell draws the saw down from top left to bottom right, then up again from bottom left to top right, making two slightly deeper incisions that cross at the midpoint between the subject’s eyes.
Which flicker in rapid saccades, focus and defocus in restless busy-work.
The subject is dead, but the pathogen that controls his nervous system isn’t even slightly deterred by the loss of a steering consciousness. It still knows what it wants, and it’s still the captain of this sinking ship.
Dr Caldwell deepens the intersecting cuts at the front of the skull, because the subject’s sinuses in effect create a double thickness of bone there.
Then she puts down the bone-saw and picks up a screwdriver–part of a set that her father received as a free gift from the Reader’s Digest publishing company when he subscribed to some of their products more than thirty years previously.
The next part is delicate, and difficult. She probes the cuts with the tip of the screwdriver, levering them further open where she can, but making sure that she never inserts the screwdriver’s business end deep enough to damage the brain beneath.
The subject sighs, although he has no need for oxygen any more. “Soon be done,” Dr Caldwell says, and feels foolish a half-second later. This is not a conversation, or a shared ex perience of any kind.
She sees Selkirk watching her, with a slightly guarded expression. Piqued, she snaps her fingers and points, making Selkirk pick up the bone-saw and hand it back to her.
Now she’s engaged in a ballet of infinitesimal increments–testing the skull with the tip of the screwdriver to see where it moves, going in with the saw again where there’s resistance, and gradually levering the whole top of the skull loose in one piece.
Which is the hardest part, now done.
Lifting the front of the calvarium, Caldwell snips loose cranial nerves and blood vessels with a number ten pencil-grip scalpel, lifting the brain gently from the front as it comes free. Once the spinal cord is exposed, she cuts that too.
But she doesn’t try to lift the brain all the way out. Now that it’s free, she hands the scalpel back to Selkirk and accepts a pair of snub-nosed pliers, with which she removes, very carefully, the few jagged edges of bone that stand proud from the rim of the hole she’s made in the skull. It’s all too easy to gouge troughs in the brain as you lift it through that makeshift trapdoor, and then it’s of such limited use you might as well throw it away.
Now she lifts it; with both hands, from underneath, teasing it up with the tips of her fingers through the opening in the skull without ever letting it touch the edge.
And sets it down, with great care, on the cutting board.
Subject number twenty-two, whose name was Liam if you accept the idea of giving these things a name, continues to stare at her, his eyes tracking her movements. It doesn’t mean he’s alive. Dr Caldwell takes the view that the moment of death is the moment when the pathogen crosses the blood–brain barrier. What’s left, though its heart may beat (some ten or twelve times per minute), and though it speaks and can even be christened with a boy’s name or a girl’s name, is not the host. It’s the parasite.
And the parasite, whose needs and tropisms are very different from human needs and human instincts, is a diligent steward. It continues to run a wide range of bodily systems and networks without reference to the brain, which is just as well seeing as the brain is about to be cut into thin slices and set between glass plates.
“Shall I take the rest of the spinal cord out?” Selkirk asks. She has that tentative, pleading tone in her voice that Caldwell despises. She’s like a beggar on a street corner, asking not for money or food but for mercy. Don’t make me do anything nasty or difficult.
Dr Caldwell, who is prepping the razor, doesn’t even look around. “Sure,” she says. “Go ahead.”
She’s brusque in her manner, even surly, because this part of the procedure, more than any other, hurts her professional pride. If anything were ever to make her shake her fist at the untenanted heavens, it would be this. She’s read about how brains were sliced and mounted in the good old days, before the Breakdown. There was a device called an ATLUM–an automated lathe ultramicrotome–which with its diamond blade could be calibrated to slice brains into perfect cross-sections of single-neuron thickness. Thirty thousand slices per millimetre, give or take.
The best that Dr Caldwell’s guillotine can manage, without smearing and crushing the fragile structures she wants to look at, is about ten slices per millimetre.
Mention Robert Edwards to Dr Caldwell. Mention Elizabeth Blackburn, Günter Blobel or Carol Greider, or any cellular biologist who ever got the Nobel prize, and see what she says.
More often than not she’ll say: I bet he (or she) had an automated lathe ultramicrotome. And a TEAM 0.5 transmission electron microscope, and a live-cell imaging system, and an army of grad students, interns and lab assistants to handle the dull routine of processing so the Nobel laureate would be free to waltz in the moonlight with his frigging muse.
Dr Caldwell is trying to save the world, and she feels like she’s wearing oven mitts instead of surgical gloves. She had her chance once to do it in style. But nothing came of it, and here she is. Alone, but complete unto herself. Still fighting.
Selkirk gives a bleat of dismay, jolting Caldwell out of her profitless reverie. “Spinal cord is severed, Doctor. Level with the twelfth vertebra.”
“Toss it,” Dr Caldwell mutters. She doesn’t even try to hide her contempt.
One hundred and seventeen days have passed since the day when Liam and Marcia were taken away and didn’t come back.
Melanie continues to think about it and worry at it, but she still hasn’t asked Miss Justineau–or anyone else–what happened to them. The closest she’s come is to ask Mr Whitaker what two little ducks means. She remembers Dr Caldwell saying those words on the day when it all happened.
Mr Whitaker is having one of those up-and-down days when he brings his bottle into class–the bottle full to the brim with the medicine that makes him first better and then worse. Melanie has watched this strange and mildly disturbing progress enough times that she can predict its course. Mr Whitaker comes into class nervous and irritable, determined to find fault with everything the children say or do.
Then he drinks the medicine, and it spreads through him like ink through water (it was Miss Justineau who showed them what that looks like). His body relaxes, losing its tics and twitches. His mind relaxes too, and for a little while he’s gentle and patient with everyone. If he could only stop at that point, it would be wonderful, but he keeps drinking and the miracle is reversed. It’s not that Mr Whitaker gets grumpy again. What he gets is something worse, something quite awful, that Melanie doesn’t have a name for. He seems to sink in on himself in total misery, and at the same time try to shrink away from himself as though there’s something inside him that’s too nasty to touch. Sometimes he cries, and says he’s sorry–not to the children, but to someone else who isn’t really there, and whose name keeps changing.
Knowing this cycle well, Melanie times her question to coincide with the expansive phase. What might those two little ducks be, she asks Mr Whitaker, that Dr Caldwell mentioned? Why did she mention them right then, on the day when she took Marcia and Liam away?
“It’s from a game called bingo,” Mr Whitaker tells her, his voice only a little blurred around the edges. “In the game, each player gets a card full of numbers from one to a hundred. The caller calls out numbers at random, and the first player to have all their numbers called wins a prize.”
“Are the two little ducks one of the prizes?” Melanie asks him.
“No, Melanie, they’re one of the numbers. It’s sort of a code. Every number has a special phrase or group of words attached to it. Two little ducks is twenty-two, because of the shapes the numbers make on the page. Look.” He draws them on the whiteboard. “They look just like ducks swimming along, you see?”
Melanie thinks they look more like swans actually, but the game of bingo doesn’t interest her very much. So all Dr Caldwell was doing was saying twenty-two twice, once in ordinary numbers and once in this code. Saying two times over that she was choosing Liam instead of someone else.
Choosing him for what?
Melanie thinks about numbers. Her secret language uses numbers–different numbers of fingers held up with your right hand and your left hand, or your right hand twice, if your left hand is still tied to the chair. That makes six times six different combinations (because holding up no fingers is a signal too)–enough for all the letters of the alphabet and special signs for all the teachers and Dr Caldwell and Sergeant, plus a question mark and a sign that means “I’m joking”.
A hundred and seventeen days means that it’s summer now. Maybe Miss Justineau will bring the world into the classroom again–will show them what summer looks like, the way she did with spring. But Miss Justineau is different these days, when she’s with the class. She sometimes forgets what she’s saying, breaks off mid-sentence and goes quiet for a long time before she starts up again, usually with something completely different.
She reads from books a lot more, and organises games and sing-songs a lot less.
Maybe Miss Justineau is sad for some reason. That thought makes Melanie both desperate and angry. She wants to protect Miss Justineau, and she wants to know who’d be so horrible as to make her sad. If she could find out who it was, she doesn’t know what she’d do to them, but it would make them very sorry.
And when she starts to think about who it might be, there’s really only one name that comes into her mind.
And here he is walking into the classroom now, at the head of half a dozen of his people, his scowling face half crossed out by the wobbly diagonal of his scar. He puts his hands on the handles of Melanie’s chair, swivels it around and pushes it out of the classroom. He does it really fast and jerky, the way he does most things. He wheels the chair right past the door of Melanie’s cell, then he backs in, pushing the door open with his bottom, and spins the chair around so sharply and suddenly it makes Melanie dizzy.
Two of Sergeant’s people come in behind him, but they don’t go anywhere near the chair. They stand to attention and wait until Sergeant nods permission. One of them covers Melanie with his handgun while the other starts to undo the straps, the neck strap first and from behind.
Melanie meets Sergeant’s gaze, feeling something inside her clench like a fist. It’s Sergeant’s fault that Miss Justineau is sad. It has to be, because she only started to be sad after Sergeant got mad with her and told her she’d broken the rules.
“Look at you,” he says to Melanie now. “Face all screwed up like a tragedy mask. Like you’ve got feelings. Jesus Christ!”
Melanie scowls at him, as fierce as she can get. “If I had a box full of all the evils of the world,” she tells him, “I’d open it just a little way and push you inside. Then I’d close it again for always.”
Sergeant laughs, and there’s surprise in the laugh–like he can’t believe what he just heard. “Well, shit,” he says, “I’d better make sure you never get hold of a box.”
Melanie is outraged that he took the biggest insult she could think of and laughed it off. She casts around desperately for a way to raise the stakes. “She loves me!” she blurts. “That’s why she stroked my hair! Because she loves me and wants to be with me! And all you do is make her sad, so she hates you! She hates you as bad as if you were a hungry!”
Sergeant stares at her, and something happens in his face. It’s like he’s surprised, and then he’s scared, and then he’s angry. The fingers of his big hands pull back slowly into fists.
He puts his hands on the arms of the chair and slams it back against the wall. His face is very close to Melanie’s, and it’s all red and twisty.
“I will fucking dismantle you, you little roach!” he says in a choking voice.
Sergeant’s people are watching all this with anxious looks on their faces. They look like they think there’s something they should be doing but they’re not sure what it is. One of them says, “Sergeant Parks…” but then doesn’t say anything else.
Sergeant straightens up and steps back, makes a gesture that’s halfway to being a shrug. “We’re done here,” he says.
“She’s still strapped in,” says the other one of Sergeant’s people.
“Too bad,” says Sergeant. He throws the door open and waits for them to move, looking at one of them and then the other until they give up and leave Melanie where she is and go out through the door.
“Sweet dreams, kid,” Sergeant says. He slams the door shut behind him, and she hears the bolts shoot home.
“I’m concerned about your objectivity,” Dr Caldwell tells Helen Justineau.
Justineau doesn’t answer, but her face probably says excuse me? all by itself.
“We’re examining these subjects for a reason,” Caldwell goes on. “You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the level of support we get, but our research programme is incalculably important.”
Justineau still says nothing, and Caldwell seems to feel a need to fill the vacuum. Maybe to overfill it. “It’s no exaggeration to say that our survival as a race might depend on our figuring out why the infection has taken a different course in these children–as opposed to its normal progression in the other ninety-nine point nine nine nine per cent of subjects. Our survival, Helen. That’s what we’re playing for. Some hope of a future. Some way out of this mess.”
They’re in the lab, Caldwell’s workshop of filthy creation, which Justineau doesn’t often visit. She’s only here now because Caldwell summoned her. This base and this mission may both be under military jurisdiction, but Caldwell is still her boss, and when that call comes, she has to answer. Has to leave the classroom and visit the torture chamber.
Brains in jars. Tissue cultures in which recognisably human limbs and organs spawn lumpy cloudscapes of grey fungal matter. A hand and forearm–child-sized, of course–flayed and opened, the flesh pinned back and slivers of yellow plastic inserted to prise apart muscle and leave interior structures open to examination. The room is cluttered and claustrophobic, the blinds always drawn down to keep the outside world at a clinically optimum distance. The light–pure white, unforgivingly intense–comes from fluorescent tubes that lie flush with the ceiling.
Caldwell is preparing microscope slides, using a razor blade to take slivers of tissue from what looks like a tongue.
Justineau doesn’t flinch. She takes care to look at everything that’s there, because she’s a part of this process. Pretending not to see would, she believes, take her past some point of no return, past the event horizon of hypocrisy into a black hole of solipsism.
Christ, she might turn into Caroline Caldwell.
Who almost got to be part of the great big save-the-humanrace think tank, back in the early days of what came to be called the Breakdown. A couple of dozen scientists, secret mission, secret government training–the biggest deal in a rapidly shrinking world. Many were called, and few were chosen. Caldwell was one of the ones at the front of the line when the doors closed in her face. Does that still sting, all these years later? Is that what drove her crazy?
It was so long ago now that Justineau has forgotten most of the details. Three years after the first wave of infections, when the freefalling societies of the developed world hit what they mistakenly thought was bottom. In the UK the numbers of infected appeared briefly to have stabilised, and a hundred initiatives were discussed. Beacon was going to find the cure, reclaim the cities, and restore a much-longed-for status quo.
In that strange false dawn, two mobile labs were commissioned. They weren’t built from scratch–there wasn’t time enough for that. Instead they were jury-rigged quickly and elegantly by refitting two vehicles already owned by the London Natural History Museum.
Intended to house travelling exhibitions, Charles Darwin and Rosalind Franklin–Charlie and Rosie–now became huge roving research stations. Each was the length of an articulated truck, and almost twice as wide. Each was fitted with state-of-the-art biology and organic chemistry labs, together with berths for a crew of six researchers, four guards and two drivers. They also benefited from a range of refurbishments approved by the Department of Defence, including the fitting of caterpillar treads, inch-thick external armour and both forward- and rear-mounted field guns and flame-throwers.
The great green hopes, as they were called, were unveiled with as much fanfare as could be mustered. Politicians hoping to be the heroes of the coming human renaissance made speeches over them and broke champagne bottles off their bows. They were launched with tears and prayers and poems and exordiums.
Things fell apart really quickly after that–the respite was just a chaos artefact, created by powerful forces momentarily cancelling each other out. The infection was still spreading, and global capitalism was still tearing itself apart–like the two giants eating each other in the Dalí painting called Autumn Cannibalism. No amount of expertly choreographed PR could prevail, in the end, against Armageddon. It strolled over the barricades and took its pleasure.
Nobody ever saw those hand-picked geniuses again. They’re left with the second division, the substitutes’ bench, the runners-up. Only Caroline Caldwell can save us now! God fucking help us.
“You didn’t bring me here to be objective,” Justineau reminds her superior, and she’s surprised that her voice sounds almost level. “You brought me in because you wanted psychological evaluations to supplement the raw physical data you get from your own research. If I’m objective, I’m worthless to you. I thought my engaging with the children’s thought processes was the whole point.”
Caldwell makes a non-committal gesture, purses her lips. She wears lipstick every day, despite its scarcity, and she wears it to good effect; puts up an optimal front to the world. In an age of rust, she comes up stainless steel.
“Engaging?” she says. “Engaging is fine, Helen. I’m talking about something beyond that.” She nods towards a stack of papers on one of the work surfaces, in among the Petri dishes and stacked slide boxes. “That top sheet, there. That’s a routine file copy of a request you made to Beacon. You wanted them to impose a moratorium on physical testing of the subjects.”
Justineau has no answer, apart from the obvious one. “I asked you to send me home,” she says. “On seven separate occasions. You refused.”
“You were brought here to do a job. The job still remains to be done. I choose to hold you to your contract.”
“Well, then you get the whole deal,” Justineau says. “If I was back in Beacon, maybe I could look the other way. If you keep me here, you have to put up with minor inconveniences like me having a conscience.”
Caldwell’s lips narrow down to a single ruled line. She reaches out and touches the handle of her razor, moves it so that it’s parallel with the edge of the table. “No,” she says. “I really don’t. I define the programme, and your part in it. And that part is still a necessary one, which is why I’m taking the time to talk to you now. I’m concerned, Helen. You seem to have made a fundamental error of judgement, and unless you can step away from it, it will taint all your observations of the subjects. You’ll be worse than useless.”
An error of judgement. Justineau considers a remark about the reliability of Caldwell’s own judgement, but trading insults isn’t going to win this. “Isn’t it apparent to you by now,” she says instead, “that the children’s responses are all within the normal human range? And mostly displaced towards the top end of that range?”
“You’re talking cognitively?”
“No, Caroline. I’m talking across the board. Cognitively. Emotionally. Associatively. The works.”
Caldwell shrugs. “Well, ‘the works’ would have to include their hard-wired reflexes. Anyone who experiences a feeding frenzy when they smell human flesh isn’t testing entirely within normal parameters, wouldn’t you agree?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes. And you know that you’re wrong.” Caldwell hasn’t raised her voice, shows no sign of being angry or impatient or frustrated. She might be a teacher, exposing a pupil’s sophomoric lapse of logic so that they can correct and improve. “The subjects aren’t human; they’re hungries. High-functioning hungries. The fact that they can talk may make them easier to empathise with, but it also makes them very much more dangerous than the animalistic variety we usually encounter. It’s a risk just having them here, inside the perimeter–which is why we were told to set up so very far from Beacon. But the information that we’re hoping to gain justifies that risk. It justifies anything.”
Justineau laughs–a harsh and ugly spasming of breath that hurts her coming out. It’s got to be said. There’s no way around it. “You carved up two children, Caroline. And you did it without anaesthetic.”
“They don’t respond to anaesthetic. Their brain cells have a lipid fraction so small that alveolar concentrations never cross the action threshold. Which in itself ought to tell you that the subjects’ ontological status is to some extent in doubt.”
“You’re dissecting kids!” Justineau repeats. “My God, you’re like the wicked witch in a fairy tale! I know you’ve got form. You cut up seven of them, didn’t you? Back before I got here. Before you requisitioned me. You stopped because there were no surprises. You weren’t finding anything you didn’t already know. But now, for some reason, you’re ignoring that fact and starting up again. So yeah, I went over your head because I was hoping there might be somebody sane up there.”
Justineau registers her own voice, realises that she’s too loud and too shrill. She falters into silence, waits to be told that she’s cashiered. It will be a relief. It will all be over. She’ll have taken it as far as she can, and she’ll have lost, and they’ll send her away. It will become somebody else’s problem. Of course she’d save the kids if she could, if there was any way, but you can’t save people from the world. There’s nowhere else to take them.
“I’d like you to see something,” Caldwell says.
Justineau doesn’t have any answer. She watches with an eerie sense of dislocation as Caldwell crosses to another part of the lab, comes back with a glass fish tank in which she’s set up one of her tissue cultures. It’s an older one, with several years of growth. The tank is about eighteen inches by twelve by ten inches high, and its interior is completely filled with a dense mass of fine, dark grey strands. Like plague-flavoured candy floss, Justineau thinks. It’s impossible even to tell what the original substrate was; it’s just lost in the toxic froth that has sprouted from it.
“This is all one organism,” Caldwell says, with pride and perhaps even a perverse kind of affection in her voice. She points. “And we know now what kind of organism it is. We finally figured it out.”
“I thought it was pretty obvious,” Justineau says.
If Caldwell hears the sarcasm, she doesn’t appear to be troubled by it. “Oh, we knew it was a fungus,” she agrees. “There was an assumption at first that the hungry pathogen had to be a virus or a bacterium. The swift onset, and the multiple vectors of infection, seemed to point in that direction. But there was plenty of evidence to support the fungal hypothesis. If the Breakdown hadn’t come so quickly, the organism would have been isolated within a matter of days.
“As it was… we had to wait a little while. In the chaos of those first few weeks, a great many things were lost. Any testing that was being done on the first victims was curtailed when those victims attacked, overpowered and fed on the physicians and scientists who were examining them. The exponential spread of the plague ensured that the same scenario was played out again and again. And of course the men and women who could have told us the most were always, by the nature of their work, the most exposed to infection.”
Caldwell speaks in the dry, inflectionless tone of a lecturer, but her expression hardens as she stares down at the thing that is both her nemesis and the focal point of her waking life.
“If you grow the pathogen in a dry, sterile medium,” she says, “it will eventually reveal its true nature. But its growth cycle is slow. Quite astonishingly slow. In the hungries themselves, it takes several years for the mycelial threads to appear on the surface of the skin–where they look like dark grey veins, or fine mottling. In agar, the process is slower still. This specimen is twelve years old, and it’s still immature. The sexual or germinating structures–sporangia or hymenia–have yet to form. That’s why it’s only possible to catch the infection from the bite of a hungry or direct exposure to its bodily fluids. After two decades, the pathogen still hasn’t spored. It can only bud asexually, in a nutrient solution. Ideally, human blood.”
“Why are you showing me this?” Justineau demands. “I’ve read the literature.”
“Yes, Helen,” Caldwell agrees. “But I wrote it. And I’m still writing it. Through the cultures I took from badly decayed hungries–cultures like this one–I was able to establish that the hungry pathogen is an old friend in a new suit. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.
“We encountered it first as a parasite on ants. And its behaviour in that context made it notorious. Nature documentaries dwelled on every lurid detail.”
Caldwell proceeds to dwell on every lurid detail, but she really doesn’t need to. Back when she first identified the hungry pathogen as a mutant Cordyceps, she was so happy that she just had to share. She persuaded Beacon to approve an educational programme for all base personnel. They filed into the canteen in groups of twenty, and Caldwell started the show by playing a short extract from a David Attenborough documentary, dateline twenty years or so before Breakdown.
Attenborough’s perfectly pitched voice, honey from an English country garden, described with incongruous gentleness how Ophiocordyceps spores lie dormant on the forest floor in humid environments such as the South American rainforest. Foraging ants pick them up, without noticing, because the spores are sticky. They adhere to the underside of the ant’s thorax or abdomen. Once attached, they sprout mycelial threads which penetrate the ant’s body and attack its nervous system.
The fungus hot-wires the ant.
Images on the screen of ants convulsing, trying in vain to scrape the sticky spores off their body armour with quick, spasmodic sweeps of their legs. Doesn’t help. The spores have commenced digging in, and the ant’s nervous system is starting to flood with foreign chemicals–expert forgeries of its own neurotransmitters.
The fungus gets into the driving seat, puts its foot on the accelerator and drives the ant away. Makes it climb to the highest place it can reach–to a leaf fifty feet or more above the forest floor, where it digs in with its mandibles, locks itself immovably to the leaf’s spinal ridge.
The fungus spreads through the ant’s body and explodes out of its head–a phallic sporangium skull-fucking the dying insect from the inside. The sporangium sheds thousands of spores, and falling from that great height they spread for miles. Which of course is the point of the exercise.
Thousands of species of Cordyceps, each one a specialist, bonded uniquely with a particular species of ant.
But at some point a Cordyceps came along that was a lot less finicky. It jumped the species barrier, then the genus, family, order and class. It clawed its way to the top of the evolutionary tree, assuming for a moment that evolution is a tree and has a top. Of course, the fungus might have had a helping hand. It might have been grown in a lab, for any number of reasons; coaxed along with gene-splicing and injected RNA. Those were very big jumps.
“This,” Caldwell is saying, tapping the sealed lid of the fish tank, “is what’s inside the subjects’ heads. Inside their brains. When you walk into that classroom, you think you’re talking to children. But you’re not, Helen. You’re talking to the thing that killed the children.”
Justineau shakes her head. “I don’t believe that,” she says.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t matter what you believe.”
“They exhibit behavioural responses that have no bearing on the fungus’s survival.”
Caldwell shrugs off-handedly. “Yes, of course they do. For the moment. Waste not, want not. Ophiocordyceps doesn’t devour the entire nervous system all in one go. But if one of those things you think of as your pupils smells human flesh, human pheromones, it’s the fungus that you’ll be dealing with. The first thing it does is to consolidate its control of the motor cortex and the feeding reflex. That’s how it propagates itself–in saliva, mainly. The bite gives nourishment to the host and spreads the infection at the same time. Hence the extreme caution we take in the handling of the test subjects. And hence”–she sighed–“the need for this lecture.”
Justineau feels an intense desire to assert herself against a judgement that’s already been made. She takes hold of the lid of the fish tank and wrenches it open.
Caldwell gives a wordless yell as she recoils, hand clasped to her mouth.
Then she thinks about what she’s doing, and lowers her hand. She glares at Justineau, her cool detachment holed below the waterline.
“That was very stupid,” she says.
“But not dangerous,” Justineau points out. “You said it yourself, Caroline. No sex organs yet. No spores. No way for the fungus to spread in air. It needs blood and sweat and spit and tears. You see? You’re just as likely as anyone to make a false assessment–to see a risk where there really isn’t any.”
“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?
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.”
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.
“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.
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 fucking 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.
“You have to go,” she says. She thinks she says. She can’t be sure, because of the heart sounds and breath sounds and blood sounds that are crashing in her ears. She makes a gesture. Go! But Miss Justineau is just standing there, trapped between wanting to run and wanting to help.
Melanie scrambles up and lunges, arms stretched out. And it’s almost like that other gesture, a moment ago, when she asked to be picked up, but now she presses her hands against Miss Justineau’s stomach
touching touching touching her
and pushes her violently away. She’s stronger than she ever guessed. Miss Justineau staggers back, almost trips. If she trips, she’ll be dead. Be bread.
Melanie’s muscles are tensing, knotting, coiling inside her. Gathering themselves for some massive effort.
She diverts them into a bellowing roar.
Miss Justineau scrambles, stumbles, is out through the door and wrenching it closed.
Melanie is moving forward and pulling backward at the same time. A man with a big dog on a leash and she’s both of them, straining against the tether of her own will.
The first bolt slides home exactly as she hits the door. The smell, the need, fill her from toe to crown, but Miss Justineau is safe on the other side of the door. Melanie claws at it, wondering at her own stupid, hopeful fingers. The door won’t open now, but some animal inside her still thinks it might.
It’s a long time before the animal gives up. And then, exhausted, the little girl sinks to her knees next to the door, rests her forehead against cold, unyielding concrete.
From above her, Miss Justineau’s voice. “I’m sorry, Melanie. I’m so sorry.”
She looks up groggily, sees Miss J’s face at the mesh window.
“It’s all right,” she says, weakly. “I won’t bite.”
It’s meant to be a joke. On the other side of the door, Miss Justineau starts to cry.
NOT EVERY GIFT IS A BLESSING. Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her "our little genius." Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite, but they don't laugh. The Girl With All the Gifts is a groundbreaking thriller, emotionally charged and gripping from beginning to end.