“Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!”
Was he dreaming? Was he dead? There was music playing – but the worst possible music: the last line of ‘Let it Snow’ on endless repeat.
Behind the music, came the humming, mixed in with another sound: beeping, clicking and tapping of keys, as if someone somewhere nearby was using a versatelly or a laptop. And then there was another strange rasping noise even closer at hand, which he suddenly realised was his own breathing.
The next thing Sham became aware of was the pain. It came from somewhere near the top of his skull, and it was increasing as he tried to move. It was a pain that somehow dulled his memory, and he struggled to remember how he came to be here and what had happened before.
Clearly, he needed to open his eyes. So he tried, but he found them completely covered by some thick cloth. His arms and legs seemed to be bound, but he was sitting, rather than lying, on a chair of some kind.
The music continued, as hypnotically as snow falling. It was the kind of music that he felt would drive him mad if he listened to it for too long. He had to focus. Think, Sham, think. Gran – he remembered rescuing Gran. He saw her dear face, the creases around her eyes, her smile as she listened to him. Looking at blackness, he realised that she must feel this way all the time, but just focusing on Gran and her courage made him think more clearly. Like pieces of his old penguin jigsaw puzzle, the memories started slotting into place: Mr Noel destroying the plans; Red arguing; Amaryllis crying; Holly running; the ice-melter and the avalanche of snow and icicles. He had thrown the ice-melter! For once in his life, he had not been merely an observer – he had actually done something. And yet…now he asked himself why he had not thrown the ice-melter at Mr Noel? He knew the answer: the idea of killing someone himself was just beyond his comprehension, beyond his imagination and clearly beyond his actions as well. He had no idea whether Red or Holly had survived, so maybe what he had done was not so heroic after all…
Sham coughed to try and clear his rasping breath and the tapping nearby stopped. Then he heard footsteps rapidly approaching and someone else’s breathing close to his ear.
“Sham,” a voice whispered. “I’ll bring you a drink of water.”
He recognised the voice but couldn’t place it. The pain in his head was too great to concentrate. When the glass was put to his lips, he suddenly found that he was desperately thirsty. He drank greedily, spilling much of it down his chin.
“I’m going to put some pills in your mouth now,” whispered the voice. “They will ease the pain – I promise that is all they will do.”
It was a man’s voice. Where had he heard it before? Not Mr Noel or one of the other Suits. The voice was too – warm, that was the word. He tried not to gag over the pills and swallowed them down.
“Where am I?” he asked, and his voice came out as a croak.
“Underground control centre,” whispered back the voice.
“Who are you?”
“Mr Raj – Priya’s father.”
Another shock. Sham just felt too tired to process this. He knew it made sense somehow, but he wasn’t sure how.
“I’m going to remove your blindfold now,” whispered Mr Raj nervously. As the blindfold came off, the pain increased tenfold. Sham winced and shut his eyes against the glare. Opening one eye a crack, he took in first the worried face of Priya’s father, but it looked quite different to the last time Sham had seen him, working in his home. The glasses were still there, but now there was a scruffy beard and his hair was all over the place. And something was wrong with his eyes, apart from looking tired: there was a strange vagueness about them, as if he wasn’t quite focused on Sham at all.
When his own eyes had adjusted to the brightness of the room, Sham could hardly take it in. Surrounding them was a control room so large that Sham felt as if he was in an arena: but instead of seats rising on all sides, there were seemingly endless screens, many depicting a different view of cities and countryside, all covered in snow and ice, many more showing nothing but a snowstorm. These must be the views from inside each Cloud Assembler. And still the music went on.
However it had happened, he was inside the control centre. This was where he was meant to be.
“Can you untie me – please?”
Priya’s father started.
“Of course, my boy, of course. What am I thinking?”
He fumbled with the ropes around Sham’s ankles and wrists.
“How long have I been here?” Sham asked, rubbing his wrists. He put his hand up to his head and found the bump covered by a hastily-wrapped bandage, which was already coming loose.
“Not long,” said Mr Raj. “Wait a minute…”
He broke off to stumble quickly across the room, his feet tapping on the metal floor. He clicked some buttons on a keyboard near a screen that was showing a gap through the clouds and the unmistakable view of the London Eye. A few seconds later the snow obscured the screen again.
“Must keep that one going – all sorts going on in London,” Mr Raj muttered to himself, as he tripped his way back across the room. Sham wondered if perhaps Priya’s father was losing his mind. He forced himself to try to stand, but he was too dizzy and sat down again immediately.
“No, Mr Raj, don’t you see?” he said desperately. “We need to stop this.”
He looked round nervously as there was a noise at the door. With a beep and a hiss, the heavy metal door opened, and the last person Sham expected to see peered round it; it was Priya, her eyes wide and scared. Her father gave an exclamation and Sham staggered to his feet again, stunned.
“How are you here? When -?”
“Rudy got through to me! And Miss Bell was with us too. We got here as quickly as we could,” said Priya breathlessly, rushing over to hug her father, who was staring at her but who barely responded to her embrace. Priya quickly turned to Sham. “Are you all right, Sham? Your head! What happened?”
“I’m all right,“ said Sham quickly, even though his head was throbbing as he talked. “Tell me how you got in here.”
“Oh, it was easy. There weren’t any Suits guarding the place, because they’re all out on the streets, fighting! Oh Sham, it’s all gone mad up there! Before Red was taken, he was at the elf-mail centre, and he managed to send a message to all the Resisters to tell them that Gran was set free! Of course, Mr Noel heard the message and caught him. But it is as if suddenly everyone on the Naughty List, everyone who was in hiding, has just come out to help. There are so many Resisters already here, and more on their way here now.”
She turned her attention to the control room, and seemed to be rendered speechless for a moment as she took in all the screens, the music, the realisation of how many Cloud Assemblers were up in the sky. Hurriedly, she turned to her father. “Dad, you have to disconnect everything – please do it now, before The Suits find us here.”
At that moment, the door hissed open and two more people rushed in. Both looked exhausted and dishevelled, and one had blood on his arm and face.
“Holly! Red!” cried Sham. “You’re all right.”
“So are you. Good,” said Red briskly. “Grateful, Sham, for what you did.”
Holly was taking deep breaths and staring around the control room. “So this is the vixin’ place you’ve been trying to find all this time, Red,” she panted, nodding.
“What are you doing?” shouted Red to Mr Raj, who was still hovering nervously by the control panel. “Destroy it – or I will.” He raised his ice-melter threateningly over the machines.
“No, you cannot do it that way!” cried Priya’s father, putting up a hand to stop him. “The Cloud Assemblers will drop out of the sky like bombs – there are 160 of them above the UKK! If I have to do this, I will do it, but let me do it safely. It is a simple thing…” But he still stood uncertainly, not moving.
“If it’s so simple,” growled Holly, “Then why didn’t you do it weeks ago?”
Mr Raj’s face looked pained and confused. Priya put a reassuring hand on his arm.
“He didn’t have a choice, Holly,” she said. “Mr Noel could have killed us at any time – at least that is what he told my father. What would you have done?”
Holly didn’t answer. But Red said immediately, “I would have turned the machines off anyway.”
The awkward silence was broken only by the music, which continued, mockingly, all around them.
“Why are they vixin’ well playing just the two lines of that elfin’ song?” muttered Holly.
“What song?” said Mr Raj. He looked genuinely bewildered.
Instead of answering, Red looked around the room until he spotted a large speaker above a versatelly screen. In one swift movement, he lifted the metal chair Sham had been sitting on, and smashed it into the speaker. The music stuttered and stopped. The relief was enormous. Red put down the chair and turned to Mr Raj.
“The snow must stop,” he said firmly. “The Cloud Assemblers must return to their bases. Your job is done here.”
Priya’s father looked as if he was just waking up from a bad dream. “What happened to me? I feel like someone has pulled a thorn out of me.”
Red nodded. “Brainwashing,” he said. “The music. It’s kept you working; kept you focused. I’ve seen this before.”
Mr Raj sighed and Priya hugged him, but he pulled away and turned to the control panel.
“Wait – I know what to do. I must disconnect them here -” he tapped wildly on the keyboard – “…and then here,” he reached over and pressed several switches, “and then re-programme them here.” He typed in a series of numbers on the keyboard and then sighed. “They’re heading back to the bases – to the mines.”
Everyone was staring at the screens. There was little change to be seen.
“Does anyone else know how to do what you’ve done?” asked Red, his face sceptical. “It looks too simple.”
“Only myself and Mr Noel. He wanted to keep it that way – it meant that no other Suit could take power from him.”
“And ‘e’s still alive!” said Holly. “We couldn’t get to ‘im. There’s too many Suits protecting ‘im.”
Red nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I have a plan. We need to draw him away. Let’s go.” He turned and opened the door. Before he went out, he turned to Priya. “Get your dad out of here before they have a chance to find him.” And then he was gone.
Holly, after one fiercely sympathetic look at Sham, rushed out after him. The remaining three looked at each other.
“Come with us, Sham,” said Priya. “I came to get you as well as my father.” She looked so worried for him, and Sham nearly gave in. He felt exhausted to his very bones – and the pain in his head, though less now, was considerable. He put up one hand and felt the lump under his hair. How could he go on?
“Keep your courage alive. Be strong.”
His grandfather’s words rang in his hand. And what had Gran said? “Red may need him…It’s what his grandfather would have wanted.” He’d already helped Red once, but somehow he felt he still had another job to do. He shook his head.
“I can’t go with you.” As Priya opened her mouth to protest, he continued, “Mr Raj – if you know where my grandfather’s original plans for the Cloud Assembler are, please make sure you take them with you. He made this machine for good. Maybe it can be used for good again.” Mr Raj nodded.
“Get back safely,” he said and then he was pressing a button to open the door. It hissed and opened, and he raced through and up the steep metal stairs, with the image of Priya’s worried face the last thing he saw.
“The ‘let it snow’ on repeat on the sound track is awesome, it completely makes the chapter. Creepy, sinister, crackly old vinyl sounding, and endlessly looping. Genius.”by James’s Mum!