The Girl With All the Gifts

by M. R. Carey

Hardcover, 407 pages, Little Brown & Co, List Price: $25 | purchase

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The Girl With All the Gifts
Author
M. R. Carey

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NPR Summary

A little girl who is detained by the military, restrained in a wheelchair, and goes to school while heavily guarded doesn't truly understand why she is special until it is up to her to save the world.

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Also by M. R. Carey

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Excerpt: The Girl With All The Gifts

The Girl with All the Gifts


Orbit

Copyright © 2014 M. R. Carey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-27815-7


Her name is Melanie. It means "the black girl", from an ancient Greek word, buther skin is actually very fair so she thinks maybe it's not such a good name forher. She likes the name Pandora a whole lot, but you don't get to choose. MissJustineau assigns names from a big list; new children get the top name on theboys' list or the top name on the girls' list, and that, Miss Justineau says, isthat.

There haven't been any new children for a long time now. Melanie doesn't knowwhy that is. There used to be lots; every week, or every couple of weeks, voicesin the night. Muttered orders, complaints, the occasional curse. A cell doorslamming. Then, after a while, usually a month or two, a new face in theclassroom–a new boy or girl who hadn't even learned to talk yet. But theygot it fast.

Melanie was new herself, once, but that's hard to remember because it was a longtime ago. It was before there were any words; there were just things withoutnames, and things without names don't stay in your mind. They fall out, and thenthey're gone.

Now she's ten years old, and she has skin like a princess in a fairy tale; skinas white as snow. So she knows that when she grows up she'll be beautiful, withprinces 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 showerroom.

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 rainforestand a smaller one of a pussycat drinking from a saucer of milk. SometimesSergeant and his people move the children around, so Melanie knows that some ofthe cells have different pictures in them. She used to have a horse in a meadowand 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 stackof old magazines in the classroom, and she sticks them up with bits of bluesticky stuff at the corners. She hoards the blue sticky stuff like a miser in astory. Whenever she takes a picture down, or puts a new one up, she scrapes upevery last bit that's stuck to the wall and puts it back on the little roundball 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 theright-hand side. Also it has a door at either end. One door is painted red, andit leads to the classroom–so Melanie thinks of that as the classroom endof 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 wasbeing taken back to her cell, the door was off its hinges, with some men workingon it, and she could see how it had all these bolts and sticking-out bits aroundthe edges of it, so when it's closed it would be really hard to open. Past thedoor, there was a long flight of concrete steps going up and up. She wasn'tsupposed to see any of that stuff, and Sergeant said, "Little bitch has got waytoo many eyes on her" as he shoved her chair into her cell and slammed the doorshut. But she saw, and she remembers.

She listens, too, and from overheard conversations she has a sense of this placein 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 region6, with London thirty miles to the south and then Beacon another forty-fourmiles further–and nothing else beyond Beacon except the sea. Most ofregion 6 is clear, but the only thing that keeps it that way is the burnpatrols, with their frags and fireballs. This is what the base is for, Melanieis 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 hungriesstill 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 theblock, behind that big steel door, where she's safe.

Beacon is very different from the base. It's a whole great big city full ofpeople, with buildings that go up into the sky. It's got the sea on one side ofit 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 sobig 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, andwhen (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 ofa book, and then ... something else. Something else outside, into which they'llall go.

It will be scary. But so amazing!

Through the grey steel door each morning Sergeant comes and Sergeant's peoplecome and finally the teacher comes. They walk down the corridor, past Melanie'sdoor, bringing with them the strong, bitter chemical smell that they always haveon them; it's not a nice smell, but it's exciting because it means the start ofanother day's lessons.

At the sound of the bolts sliding and the footsteps, Melanie runs to the door ofher cell and stands on tiptoe to peep through the little mesh-screen window inthe 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 hispeople never do, and neither do Dr Caldwell or Mr Whitaker. And Dr Selkirk goesby really fast and never looks the right way, so Melanie can't see her face. Butsometimes Melanie will get a wave from Miss Justineau or a quick, furtive smilefrom Miss Mailer.

Whoever is going to be the teacher for the day goes straight through into theclassroom, while Sergeant's people start to unlock the cell doors. Their job isto 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 itmust be the same for all the children, but of course she doesn't know that forsure because it always happens inside the cells and the only cell that Melaniesees the inside of is her own.

To start with, Sergeant bangs on all the doors and shouts at the children to getready. What he usually shouts is "Transit!" but sometimes he adds more words tothat. "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 sureyou're out of bed and moving.

And one time, Melanie remembers, he made a speech–not to the children butto his people. "Some of you are new. You don't know what the hell you've signedup for, and you don't know where the hell you are. You're scared of thesefrigging 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 thetransit shout or not.

After Sergeant says "Transit", Melanie gets dressed, quickly, in the white shiftthat hangs on the hook next to her door, a pair of white trousers from thereceptacle in the wall, and the white pumps lined up under her bed. Then shesits down in the wheelchair at the foot of her bed, like she's been taught todo. 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'sever had to count is two thousand five hundred and twenty-six; the lowest is onethousand nine hundred and one.

When the key turns in the door, she stops counting and opens her eyes. Sergeantcomes in with his gun and points it at her. Then two of Sergeant's people comein and tighten and buckle the straps of the chair around Melanie's wrists andankles. 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 frombehind. The strap is designed so they never have to put their hands in front ofMelanie'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 saidit, but it was a nasty laugh. And then he said, "Like we'd ever give you thechance, sugar plum."

When Melanie is all strapped into the chair, and she can't move her hands or herfeet or her head, they wheel her into the classroom and put her at her desk. Theteacher might be talking to some of the other children, or writing something onthe blackboard, but she (or he, if it's Mr Whitaker, the only teacher who's ahe) will usually stop and say, "Good morning, Melanie." That way the childrenwho sit way up at the front of the class will know that Melanie has come intothe room and they can say good morning too. Most of them can't see her when shecomes in, of course, because they're all in their own chairs with their neckstraps fastened up, so they can't turn their heads around that far.

This procedure–the wheeling in, and the teacher saying good morning andthen the chorus of greetings from the other kids–happens nine more times,because there are nine children who come into the classroom after Melanie. Oneof them is Anne, who used to be Melanie's best friend in the class and maybestill 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 bebest friends with someone you can't talk to. Another is Kenny, who Melaniedoesn't like because he calls her Melon Brain or M-M-M-Melanie to remind herthat she used to stammer sometimes in class.

When all the children are in the classroom, the lessons start. Every day hassums and spelling, and every day has retention tests, but there doesn't seem tobe a plan for the rest of the lessons. Some teachers like to read aloud frombooks and then ask questions about what they just read. Others make the childrenlearn facts and dates and tables and equations, which is something that Melanieis very good at. She knows all the kings and queens of England and when theyreigned, and all the cities in the United Kingdom with their areas andpopulations and the rivers that run through them (if they have rivers) and theirmottoes (if they have mottoes). She also knows the capitals of Europe and theirpopulations and the years when they were at war with Britain, which most of themwere at one time or another.

She doesn't find it hard to remember this stuff; she does it to keep from beingbored, because being bored is worse than almost anything. If she knows surfacearea and total population, she can work out mean population density in her headand 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 thecities of the United Kingdom from Mr Whitaker's lessons, and she's not sure ifshe's got all the details right. Because one day, when Mr Whitaker was actingkind of funny and his voice was all slippery and fuzzy, he said something thatworried Melanie. She was asking him whether 1,036,900 was the population of thewhole 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 toyou because all the textbooks we've got are thirty years old."

Melanie persisted, because she knew that Birmingham is the biggest city inEngland after London, and she wanted to be sure she had the numbers exactlyright. "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 ofBirmingham is zero."

So it's possible, even quite likely, that some of Melanie's lists need to beupdated in some respects.

The children have lessons on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. OnSaturday, they stay locked in their rooms all day and music plays over the PAsystem. 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 ofwords, so the children could talk to each other through their little meshwindows, and she went ahead and made the language up, which was fun to do, butwhen she asked Miss Justineau if she could teach it to the class, Miss Justineautold her no, really loud and sharp. She made Melanie promise not to mention hersign 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 behindhis 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 herselfaloud some of the stories that the children have been told in class, or singsmathematical proofs like the proof for the infinity of prime numbers, in time tothe 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 Saturdaywhen Ronnie hit her hand against the mesh window of her cell until it bled andgot all mashed up, Sergeant came in. He brought two of his people, and all threeof them were dressed in the big suits that hide their faces, and they went intoRonnie's cell and Melanie guessed from the sounds that they were trying to tieRonnie into her chair. She also guessed from the sounds that Ronnie wasstruggling 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 onand on while one of Sergeant's people shouted, "Christ Jesus, don't—" andthen other people were shouting too, and someone said, "Grab her other arm! Holdher!" and then it all went quiet again.

Melanie couldn't tell what happened after that. The people who work for Sergeantwent around and locked all the little screens over the mesh windows, so thechildren couldn't see out. They stayed locked all day. The next Monday, Ronniewasn't in the class any more, and nobody seemed to know what had happened toher. Melanie likes to think there's another classroom somewhere else on thebase, and Ronnie went there, so she might come back one day when Sergeantshuffles the deck again. But what she really believes, when she can't stopherself from thinking about it, is that Sergeant took Ronnie away to punish herfor 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 ofthe day the children are put in their chairs as though it's a regular schoolday, but with just their right hands and forearms unstrapped. They're wheeledinto the shower room, which is the last door on the right, just before the baresteel door.

In the shower room, which is white-tiled and empty, the children sit and waituntil everybody has been wheeled in. Then Sergeant's people bring chow bowls andspoons. 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 overeach other.

The children eat.

In the stories that they read, children sometimes eat other things–cakesand chocolate and bangers and mash and crisps and sweets and spaghetti andmeatballs. The children only eat grubs, and only once a week, because–asDr Selkirk explains one time when Melanie asks–their bodies arespectacularly efficient at metabolising proteins. They don't have to have any ofthose other things, not even water to drink. The grubs give them everything theyneed.


(Continues...)