Read The Supernaturalist Online
Authors: Eoin Colfer
Cosmo’s chance at freedom came the very next day during a routine transfer. Forty no-sponsors, Cosmo among them, had just spent the day at a music company watching proposed TV spots for computer-generated pop groups, followed by a sixty-kilobyte questionnaire. Which sim-singer did you prefer? Which sim-performer was cool? Cool? Even the company’s computers were out of touch. Kids rarely said ‘cool’ any more. Cosmo barely read the questions before ticking a box with his dig pen. He preferred music made by real people to pixel-generated pop. But nobody complained. A day watching music videos was infinitely preferable to more chemical tests.
Frayne marshals loaded the no-sponsors into a truck after the session. The vehicle must have been a hundred years old, with actual rubber tyres instead of plastic
treads. Cosmo was paired with Ziplock Murphy as a cuff partner. Ziplock was OK, except that he talked too much. This was how he had earned his orphanage name. Once the Irish boy had
talked too much
to the wrong person and got the ziplock from a food baggie super-glued over his mouth. It took weeks for the blisters to heal. Not only did Ziplock not learn his lesson, but now he had something else to talk about.
‘They don’t call it superglue for nothing,’ Ziplock said animatedly, as one of the marshals threaded the cuffs through the restraining ring on the seat. ‘Medics use that stuff in war zones to seal up the wounded. They pour it straight on to the wounds.’
Cosmo nodded without much enthusiasm. Ziplock seemed to forget that he had told this story about a million times, maybe because Cosmo was the only one who even pretended to listen while he talked.
‘They had to use boiling water to get the bag off my face,’ continued Ziplock. ‘I didn’t feel anything, in case you’re worried. One of the marshals shot my entire head full of anaesthetic first. They could have been banging six-inch nails into my skull and I wouldn’t have minded.’
Cosmo rubbed the flesh beneath the cuffs. All the no-sponsors had a ring of red flesh around their wrists. A mark of shame.
‘You ever try breathing
through your nose for an entire day? I panicked a few times, I’ll admit it.’
In the cab, the pilot was uplinking the truck to the navigation section of the Satellite. But there had been trouble with the Satellite lately. Too many add-ons the TV brainers said. Myishi 9 was simply getting too heavy for its engines to support such a low orbit. There was even talk of some companies’ aerials snapping off and burning up.
‘What’s the delay?’ shouted Marshal Redwood. The bulky redhead had bad breath today and a worse attitude. Too many beers the night before. His pendulous belly spoke of too many beers almost every night.
‘If I’m late again tonight, Agnes swears she’s moving to her sister’s.’
‘It’s the Satellite,’ shouted the pilot. ‘I can’t get a line.’
‘Well make a line, or my boot is going to make a line to your butt.’
Ziplock sniggered just loud enough for Redwood to hear.
‘You think I’m joking, Francis,’ shouted the man, cuffing Ziplock on the ear. ‘You think I wouldn’t do it?’
‘No, sir. You’d do it OK. You’ve got that look in your eyes. It isn’t smart to mess with a man who’s got that look.’
Redwood lifted Ziplock’s chin until their eyes met.
‘You know something, Francis? That’s the first clever thing I’ve ever heard you say. It isn’t smart to mess
with me, because I do whatever I please. The only reason I don’t get rid of a dozen of you freaks every day is the paperwork. I hate paperwork.’
Ziplock should have left it there, but he couldn’t. His big mouth wouldn’t let him.
‘I heard that about you, sir.’
Redwood tugged harder on the chin, cranking it up a few more notches.
‘What’s that, Francis? What did you hear?’
Cosmo tugged on the cuff chain. A warning. Redwood was not a man to push over the edge. Even the psycho kids were afraid of Redwood. There were stories about him. No-sponsors had gone missing.
But Ziplock couldn’t stop. The words were spewing out of him like agitated bees from a hive.
‘I heard you don’t like the paperwork, on account of some of the words have more than three letters.’
The sentence was followed by a high-pitched giggle. More hysteria than humour. Cosmo realized that Ziplock was headed for the psycho ward, if he lived that long.
Redwood transferred his fingers to Ziplock’s throat, squeezing casually. ‘Morons like you never get it. Being a smart mouth doesn’t win you any prizes in this city, it just gets you hurt, or worse.’
The Satellite saved Ziplock’s neck, beaming down a transportation plan before Redwood could tighten his fingers another notch. The truck lurched from its spot
in the parking bay, rolling on to the main highway. A guiding rod extended from below the chassis, slotting into a corresponding groove in the highway.
‘We’re locked in,’ called the pilot. ‘Ten minutes to the Institute.’
Redwood released Ziplock’s neck.
‘You’ve got the luck of the Irish, Francis. I’m too happy to inflict pain on you now. But later, when I’m in a foul mood, you can count on it.’
Ziplock drew a greedy breath. He knew from experience that soon his windpipe would shrink to the diameter of a straw and he would whistle when he spoke.
‘Keep a lid on it, Ziplock,’ hissed Cosmo, watching the marshal continue down the aisle. ‘Redwood is crazy. We’re not real people to him.’
Ziplock nodded, rubbing his tender throat.
‘I can’t help it,’ he rasped, tears in his eyes. ‘The junk just comes out of my mouth. This life just drives me crazy.’
Cosmo knew that feeling well. It visited him most nights as he lay in his pipe listening to the cries around him.
‘You must feel it too, Cosmo? You think anybody is going to adopt a borderline psycho kid, or a moody teenager like yourself?’
Cosmo looked away. He knew that neither of them fitted the likely adoptee profile, but Ziplock had always managed to pretend that today was the day his new
parents would show up. Denying that dream meant that Ziplock was teetering on the brink of crack-up.
Cosmo rested his forehead against the window, watching the city beyond the glass. They were in the projects now, flashing past grey apartment blocks. Pig-iron buildings, which was why the locals referred to Satellite City as the Big Pig. Not that the material was actually pig iron. It was a super-strong, steel-based polymer that was supposed to stay cool in summer and warm in winter, but managed to do exactly the opposite.
The truck shuddered violently. Something had rear-ended them.
Redwood was thrown to the floor’s plastic planks.
‘Hey, what’s going on up there?’
Cosmo raised himself to the cuff’s limits, straining to see. The pilot was on his feet, repeatedly punching his code into the uplink unit.
‘The Satellite. We lost our link!’
No link! That meant they were out here on an overcrowded highway with no pattern to follow. Minnows in a sea of hammerheads. They were struck again, sideswiped this time. Cosmo glimpsed a delivery minivan careering off the highway, bumper mangled.
Redwood struggled to his feet.
‘Go to manual, you cretin. Use the steering wheel.’
The pilot paled. Steering wheels were only used in rural zones or for illegal drag racing in the Booshka region. More than likely he had never wrestled with a steering
wheel in his life. The choice was taken away from the unfortunate man when a revolving advertisement drone hit them head-on, crushing the cab like a concertina. The pilot was lost in a haze of glass and wiring.
The impact was tremendous, lifting the truck from its groove, flipping it on to its side. Cosmo and Ziplock dangled from their chairs, saved by the restraining cuffs. Redwood and the other marshals were scattered like so many leaves in a storm.
Cosmo could not tell how many times other vehicles collided with the truck. After a time the impacts blended together like the final notes of a frenetic drum solo. Huge dents appeared in the panelling accompanied by resonating thunderclaps. Every window smashed, raining crystal rainbows.
Cosmo hung on; what else could he do? Beside him, Ziplock’s hysterical laughter was almost as piercing as the shards of glass.
‘Oh man, this is it!’ shouted the Irish boy.
The truck revolved a half-turn, slewing off the highway in a cascade of sparks. Chunks of tarmacadam collapsed beneath the onslaught, leaving a thirty-metre trench in the vehicle’s wake. They eventually came to rest after smashing through the window of The Dragon’s Beard Chinese Restaurant. The spicy odours of ginger and soya sauce mingled with the smells of machine oil and blood.
Cosmo put one foot on a window sill, taking the strain off his arms.
‘Ziplock! Francis, are you OK?’
‘Yeah, still here.’ The boy sounded disappointed.
Throughout the bus, no-sponsors were groaning and yelling for help. Some were injured, a few were worse. The marshals were generally out for the count. Either that or staring at whichever limb was pointing the wrong way. Redwood gingerly touched a swelling nose.
‘I think it’s broken,’ he moaned. ‘Agnes is gonna love this.’
‘Oh well,’ said Ziplock, dangling above Redwood’s frame. ‘Every cloud has a silver lining.’
Redwood froze, crouching on all fours like a pit bull. A fat drop of blood slipped from one nostril, falling through an empty window frame.
‘What did you say?’ The marshal spoke slowly, making sure every word came out right.
Cosmo swung his foot across, catching his cuff partner in the ribs.
‘Shut up, Ziplock. What happens to you, happens to me!’
‘OΚ! OK! I didn’t say anything, Marshal. Nothing at all.’
But it was too late. An invisible line had been crossed. In the midst of all the chaos, Redwood retreated into himself. When he came back out, he was an altogether more dangerous individual.
‘The way I see it…’ he said, standing slowly to face the dangling boys. He ran a pocket comb through his
precious red locks. ‘… is that your cuff ring snapped, and you tried to escape.’
In spite of his quick mouth, Ziplock was a bit slow to catch on. ‘What are you talking about, Mr Redwood? There’s nothing wrong with our cuff ring. Look!’ He tugged the cuff to demonstrate.
‘I ordered you to stop, but you wouldn’t listen.’ Redwood sighed dramatically, his nose whistling slightly. ‘I had no choice but to shrink-wrap you.’
was security-speak for the cellophane virus slugs that the marshals loaded their gas-powered rods with. Once the slug impacted on a solid object, the virus was released and coated the target with a restrictive coat of cellophane. The cellophane was porous enough to allow shallow breathing, but had been known to squeeze so tightly that it cracked ribs. Cosmo had been shrink-wrapped once before. He had spent a week in a body-cast as a result.
Cosmo elbowed Ziplock aside.
‘Marshal Redwood, sir. Francis didn’t mean anything. He’s just an idiot. I’ll teach him, sir. Let me take care of it. You get that nose fixed up.’
Redwood patted Cosmo’s cheek. ‘It’s a pity, Hill, because I always liked you. You don’t stand up for yourself. But unfortunately, all wars have collateral damage.’
The marshal reached over, inserting his swipe card into the cuff ring. The boys dropped two metres, crumpling on to the carpet of glass.
Redwood drew his rod, checking the chamber.
‘I’m a reasonable man,’ he said. ‘You’ve got twenty seconds.’
Cosmo shook the glass from his clothes, dragging Ziplock to his feet. This was it. His chance had come. Live or die.
‘Why don’t you give us thirty seconds?’
Redwood laughed. ‘Now why would I do that?’
Cosmo grabbed the marshal’s nose, twisting almost ninety degrees.
Redwood’s eyes filled with tears and he collapsed, writhing in the broken glass.
‘Let’s go,’ said Cosmo, grabbing Ziplock by the elbow. ‘We have thirty seconds.’
Ziplock stood his ground. ‘I want to spend my half a minute watching Redwood squirm.’
Cosmo ran towards the rear window, dragging the Irish boy behind him.
‘Use your imagination. I prefer to live.’
They climbed through the broken window, into the restaurant. Diners were hugging the walls, in case the truck decided to lurch another metre. In a few more seconds the city police would arrive and all avenues of escape would be shut off. The searchlights from TV birds were already poking through the decimated front wall.
Ziplock grabbed a couple of duck pancakes from
a stunned diner’s plate. The no-sponsors had heard of freshly prepared food, but never actually tasted any before.
Ziplock stuffed one into his own mouth, offering the other to his cuff partner. Cosmo was not stupid enough to refuse food, no matter what the circumstances. Who knew when they would get to eat again, if indeed they ever did. This could be the condemned boys’ last meal.
He bit into the pancake and the tangy sauce saturated his tongue. For a boy raised on pre-packaged developmental food, it was an almost religious experience. But he could not pause to enjoy it. Sirens were already cutting through the engine hiss.
Cosmo ran towards the rear of the restaurant, dragging Ziplock behind him. A waiter blocked their path. He wore a striped jumpsuit, and his hair was exceptionally shiny even by product-tester standards.
‘Hey,’ he said vaguely, not sure if he wanted to get involved. The boys skipped around the man before he could make up his mind.
A back door led to a narrow stairway, winding out of sight. Possibly to freedom, possibly to a single-room dead end. There was no time for conscious decision. Redwood would be coming soon. If he was not already on his way. They took the stairs, squeezed together shoulder to shoulder.
‘We’re never going to make it,’ panted Ziplock, plum
sauce dribbling down his chin. ‘I hope he doesn’t get us before I finish this pancake.’
Cosmo increased the pace, the cuff digging into his wrist.
‘We will make it. We will.’
The boys rounded a corner straight into a luxurious studio apartment. A man’s face peered out from beneath a large double bed.
‘The earthquake?’ the man squeaked. ‘Is it over?’
‘Not yet,’ replied Ziplock. ‘The big shock is on the way.’
‘Heaven help us all,’ said the man, retreating behind the fringe of a chintz bedcover.
Ziplock giggled. ‘Let’s go before he realizes that his reporters are runaway no-sponsors.’
The apartment was decorated in the opulent style of ancient China. Suits of battle armour stood in each corner and jade dragons lined the shelving. The main room had several windows, but most were decorative plasma; only one led to Satellite City. Cosmo popped the clip, pulling open the triple-glazed, react-to-light pane.