Aunt Miranda would be furious. He knew that as he pushed up the latch of the gate and went on up the path. He had had to get away, though; even if just for a bit. Out of the house, out of its suffocating atmosphere, away from the recent past. She wouldn't understand, because she never did - she was hardly an understanding woman. Bray didn't blame her. She had always loved her life out in the countryside, far from the city. Then out of the blue her brother and his wife had fallen ill and died, and she had had to come back to the city to look after a pair of nephews that she hadn't seen in thirteen years. Martin had been little more than a new-born baby, that last time that the family had all got together, and Bray himself had been barely two years old. He remembered Miranda as a distant, vocal woman, swathed in red silk. Now she was quiet and sad, just like all of the adults. The strange disease that had killed Bray's parents was spreading, and more and more adults had it. More and more of them were dying all the time, and no doubt Miranda was cursing the day that she had left her home in the countryside to come to this place of death and disaster. Not that staying away would have done any good. The news was filled with images of people dying the world over. Experts were saying that it might mean the end of the human race, although they were being shouted down by others among their colleagues. Bray didn't know what to believe, and wasn't altogether sure that he cared. His parents were dead, and he felt numb from their loss. His brother; sweet, gentle Martin; had gone off the rails, and it was all that Bray could do to keep the younger boy from doing something stupid. There were funerals every day; friends of his parents; people that he had seen almost every day of his short life; carted away with increasingly little ceremony to the increasingly full cemeteries. He hadn't begun to work out how he felt about it all, and sometimes he just had to get away. Hence last night, curled up in a tree in the park where he had spent so many hours running laps, in the days before his life had changed forever. Just him and a battered copy of Plato's Republic. Something to distract him completely from the more disturbing of the wanderings of his mind. He had fallen asleep there in the end, to an accompaniment of police sirens and distant yelling. There was so much fighting going on in the streets nowadays. Fighting and looting, as the deaths mounted up, and the children, so weirdly untouched by disease, started to react to their changing circumstances. The world was going crazy, and they all had to deal with it in their own ways. Aunt Miranda would be furious. That was just too bad.
"Miranda?" He pushed open the door, ready to feel the full force of her impressive glower. Miranda was not a woman to do anything by halves. She didn't swoop down upon him with both barrels blazing, though, so hanging up his jacket, and tossing his book onto the shelf by the door, he headed for the kitchen. Maybe Martin was in there eating breakfast. It was unlikely, but nothing was impossible. He wasn't there, though. Bray had a nasty suspicion that he hadn't come back last night either. Martin had quite a gang following him around now; a jumble of children whose parents were sick or dying, getting together in old abandoned buildings to tell each other tales and pretend that they were braver than they were. There had been fights with other gangs, and skirmishes with the police, all of which Bray tried to keep from Miranda. He didn't want Martin getting into trouble. Their aunt's fury was not the kind of thing that was going to help him now. Bray wasn't sure just what would help his brother, save the fantastical resurrection of their parents. He just knew that yelling at the boy, and punishing him, was not going to stop him from going crazy. His world was falling apart, and it made sense if he fell apart a little himself.
The kitchen was empty. Miranda wasn't in evidence any more than was Martin. There were no stray crumbs on the counter, no recently used crockery, no coffee mug draining beside the sink. Bray poured himself a glass of orange juice, and wondered what to do. Martin hadn't been to school more than once or twice since their parents had died, and Bray had mostly stayed away too. It made more sense to him to stay out on the streets and try to keep an eye on his brother. His father had made him promise to look after the younger boy, and it was something that Bray had always done anyway. Poor little Martin, small and insecure, always needing somebody to look out for him. Bray had no idea where he was right now, but that didn't absolve him of the responsibility. No school again today, then. He had better head back out onto the streets and see if he could find his wayward brother. A thirteen year old boy could get into any amount of trouble out on the street, with just a noisy gang of similarly young children for company. If he got arrested they would both be in trouble. Miranda would find out about the missed school, and about the fights, and about the gangs; and then who knew what would happen. Martin wouldn't take punishment from his aunt, certainly not in his current state of mind. The chances were that he would run away for good. Bray didn't want to let that happen. He had to cover for his brother, then. He had to stop him from making things worse for both of them. He had to hunt the mutinous child down.
He wrote a brief note for Miranda, saying that he and Martin had gone to school early - not a lie, he told himself; just a necessary fabrication - then headed back outside. He felt like a thief sneaking away, but there was no helping that. If Miranda saw him she would only ask awkward questions. She always did. Bray didn't resent her presence, and he was grateful to her for coming, but at times it might have been better had she left them alone. The law might not allow two minors to take care of themselves, but the law didn't know what was best for Martin. And besides, what was the law nowadays anyway? They were drafting in the army to replenish the dwindling police force. There was talk of a curfew to curb the rampages of the gangs. It wasn't the old law that governed them all now - it was a new law, and not a good one. It came from fear and desperation, and it suggested at worse yet to come.
"Hey Bray." The voice came from the garden wall, startling him with its suddenness. He almost jumped. It showed him how tense he was, and he told himself off for being so on edge. "You look like you've got a guilty secret. Sneaking off without permission again?"
"Shut up, Ebony." He wasn't in the mood for her jokes just now. She never seemed to understand that he didn't share her predilection for teasing and humour at times such as these. Sometimes he wondered if Ebony understood feelings at all. She never seemed to empathise when he was mourning the loss of his parents.
"Oh, don't be so moody." She jumped down off the wall, lithe as a cat, undeniably beautiful. She had dyed her hair again, he saw - streaks of red and purple this time, amongst the tight, beaded plaits. Not the sort of thing that would ever have been allowed in school; but then she had stopped attending at the same time as Martin. Ebony had never seen the need for school anyway, and with half of the teachers dead, and many of the parents well on their way to joining them, she wasn't going to bother attending now. She slid an arm through his, pressing herself against him in a way that he had never been entirely comfortable with, but had at least enjoyed once upon a time. It just felt wrong, now. He tried to push her away, but Ebony, as usual, would not be pushed. Somehow she always managed to be stronger than he thought.
"No school bag," she observed. He shrugged, glowering.
"So Bray the model student is missing school? Again? You're going to have the truant officer coming out. Aunt Miranda will ground you for the rest of your education."
"You really think that the truant officer cares anymore? Half the kids in this part of town haven't been to school in a month. They're closing St Edwards."
"I heard. Good thing too. Rubbish school." She finally let go of him, although she didn't move very far away. "So where are you going? I fancy a swim, myself. What do you say?"
"I have other things on my mind, Ebony."
"You always have other things on your mind. Your mind is so full of things it's a wonder it doesn't give in under the strain."
"If you don't like it..."
"I didn't say that, now, did I." She ruffled his hair playfully. "I like you and your mind just fine. All the brooding and the mystery, all the secrets. But if we're not going swimming, what are we going to do?"
"We aren't going to do anything. I have to find Martin. I don't think he came home last night."
"So? You didn't either." She grinned at him. "I saw you, asleep up in that tree. You want to be more careful, Bray. There are gangs nowadays, you know that. Big, strong gangs, that'll go for anybody they see alone at night. They're like wolves. You wouldn't stand a chance."
"I can take care of myself."
"Sure you can. But you don't exactly love fighting, do you. They do, and they have you outnumbered ten to one or more. Even I wouldn't take on odds like that. What were you doing up there anyway?"
"I didn't intend to fall asleep. I just needed to be on my own for a while. I hate it back home. Everywhere reminds me of..." He shrugged. Telling Ebony how he felt rarely served any purpose. He couldn't describe how it hurt that the house no longer smelt of his mother's perfume; how the sight of his father's study made his chest hurt; how even Martin's bedroom was a painful relic of another time. Ebony would probably just shrug and tell him to stop thinking of the past. To his surprise, though, she flashed him an oddly gentle smile.
"Poor Bray. You always did feel everything so deeply."
"I won't apologise for my feelings, Ebony."
"I wouldn't ask you to. But sometimes they're more of a hindrance than an asset, aren't they."
"Maybe." He quickened his step, suddenly anxious to be away from the familiar street; out of sight of his mother's little flower garden. "It doesn't matter. I have to find Martin."
"That's not difficult." She didn't elaborate, and after a moment he glared at her.
"Do you know something?"
"All you have to do is ask." She caught hold of his hand, tightening her grip when he tried to pull free. "Look, do you want to find him or don't you?"
"Of course I want to find him." He sighed. "Ebony, please..."
"That's all I wanted, lover." She released her hold, and put on a sudden turn of speed. "Come on. This way."
"Can't you just tell me?"
"Anybody would think you didn't appreciate my company. It's not good for you to be alone so much, seriously. I know you've always liked it that way, but lately your mind is going to a lot of places it shouldn't go to. You've got to stop dwelling on things."
"You might not think I'm right, but I know that I am. All those long walks on your own, all that time you spend sitting on your windowsill, staring out into the street. Oh, I've seen you. Brooding Bray, staring into the past, or into I don't know what. It's not healthy."
"You're my psychiatrist now, is that it?"
"Somebody has to be. Bray, wake up. The world is dying. The way things are, every adult is going to be dead within a year. Probably a lot less. The whole of the world is going to belong to a bunch of grieving kids who don't know how to look after themselves. And don't try to say that it's not going that way. You're far too intelligent to believe all the official bull."
He shook his head slowly. "I don't want to listen to this. Every day you tell me that--"
"I'm trying to help! You know what's happening. The adults are all dying. All of them. The world is going to be a place for survivors, and survivors aren't the ones who spend their lives staring into the past and feeling sorry for themselves, or hiding from the truth. Survivors get on with living."
"You have a pretty gruesome outlook on life, you know that? Who fills your head with this stuff?"
"I don't need people 'filling my head'. I have eyes, and I have a brain. So do you. You've got the best mind I've ever known. It's nearly as good as mine." She grinned then, although the smile didn't quite reach her eyes. "I'm not painting a picture of the world I want. Believe it or not, I'd rather things had stayed how they were. It was an easy life, but it's all falling apart now, and you might as well face it."
"You think? You act like I'm walking around with my eyes closed. Like I don't see the same things you do. Truth is, I just see them a bit differently, and I'm not ready to write the world off just yet. I certainly don't want to get ready for it, the way that you seem to want to do. We don't even know if they're all going to die."
"Don't we? Really?" Her gaze was so piercing, so unsettling, that he looked away. "Do you really not see what's coming? I can't believe that. Every time I try to have this conversation with you, you tell me that I'm making mountains out of mole hills. That it's not as bad as it looks. Don't tell me you haven't realised what things are going to be like in another few months?"
"Maybe." They walked on for a few hundred yards, both thinking on different things, before Bray broke the silence again. "The truth is... the truth is I guess I've tried not to think about it. I've heard the news reports. I just wasn't sure that I cared, after my parents died. But it seems like everybody's parents are dying now."
"So you do see it."
"I don't know. Every other day you tell me that it's the end of the world, and that I have to start facing up to that. Well pardon me for being more optimistic. Gangs of kids fighting in the streets, and throwing bricks and bottles at policemen, doesn't usually mean the end of civilisation."
"True. But it's just a little different this time, don't you think?" She eyed him thoughtfully for a moment, and he got the impression that she was debating whether or not to tell him something else. "You know... Martin sees it. You should listen to him. I heard him speaking to a group of kids yesterday, and he's like a prophet. It's incredible."
"Martin?" He came to a sudden halt, blinking at her with a complete lack of comprehension. "Wait... Martin? He told you all of this?"
"No. I listened to him because he was saying things I'd already worked out for myself. When everybody else is saying that it's all going to be okay, and that things will sort themselves out in a month or two, me and Martin can see the truth. This isn't going to blow over. Martin's a visionary."
"Martin's a scared little kid! He doesn't know what the future holds any more than the rest of us do. All the experts in the world can't agree on what's going to happen, and you think some screwed up little boy has all the answers?"
"He's not a little boy anymore. He's nearly fourteen. And besides, pretty soon there's not going to be any more kids, Bray. Anybody who stays a kid isn't going to make it through alive."
"You make it sound like a war. If the adults do all die--"
"If the adults all die, it will be a war. It's beginning now, on the streets. What do you think the gangs are about? Fun and games? They don't get together to play tiddlywinks, Bray. You've seen them. We've both been out there when it gets dark. We've both seen the fights, and been caught up in one of two of them as well; but we're seeing it all differently, aren't we. It's a battle for power."
"It's confusion. Anger and confusion. Nobody knows what's happening; everybody is scared. Do you think Martin would even be out there if mum and dad were still alive? That's what's made him like he is, not what's happening to the rest of the world. It's the same for the other kids, too. They're lashing out, that's all."
"Now who's playing psychiatrist. Okay, sure. So they're angry and afraid and they're lashing out. But you think that's going to stop when all the adults are gone? It's going to get worse. And let's not forget that some of those kids were troublemakers to begin with. We saw them at the weekends, in the old days, getting drunk and starting fights long before the Virus came along. You think they're just scared and confused? The gangs are growing bigger, Bray, and they're going to keep getting bigger. You must know that. You've seen it, and you can't really be hiding from that much truth. When the adults are gone - before they've gone, probably - there's going to be a gang war like nobody's ever imagined. You wait and see."
"You sound like you're looking forward to it." He was disgusted with her, but when he turned away she caught hold of his arm, and pulled him back to face her.
"Looking forward to it? No. Ready for it? Damned right I am. It's going to happen, Bray. I don't know when, but I know that it's coming; and when it does, I'm going to be ready. I didn't choose to be here when the world changed, but if it's going to change, I'm going to make the most of it. I'm going to get what I can out of it, and so should you. Power, Bray. It's all about power. Power and chaos. It's the future, and it's coming sooner than you think."
"Power and chaos?" He felt his heart sink. "That's written on Martin's bedroom walls. He's written it everywhere, and I don't know how much longer I can keep Aunt Miranda from going in there and seeing the mess he's made. You put all that in his head, didn't you."
"Not me. Power and chaos is Martin's line, not mine. He's got the makings of a great leader, you know, and it's time you saw it, instead of thinking of him as some helpless little boy who needs his big brother to hold his hand. When the gangs take over, Martin is going to be right at the forefront. It's going to be his war."
"Not if I have anything to say about it." He pulled free of her, rather more forcefully than he might have intended. "Where is he? Tell me."
"You might know where he is if you listened to him, instead of going off being Solitary Boy all the time."
"You think I've let him wander the streets on purpose? When he's out there alone it's because I can't find him, not because I've turned my back. Either that or I thought he was safe at home."
"You were always off alone somewhere. Why would he stay at home?"
"Because he always does! Because he's Martin! For as long as I can remember, he's been the good little boy, who sits at home and never stays out when it's dark. Me, I go out for long walks on my own. I sit out in the park and read long after everybody else has gone home. I go down to the beach and swim when mum and dad think I'm in bed. But Martin? He's scared to be out after dark."
"He was, sure. Times change, Bray. The world's changing. Stop clinging to the past."
"Change the record, Ebony. I just want to find my brother. Whatever you think, he's just a messed up little kid, and I'm responsible for him. I promised my parents I'd look after him, and I'm going to do just that. So get out of my way so I can find him myself, or tell me where he is!"
"Okay. If you won't listen to me, fine. Maybe you'll listen to him. He'll be at the diner opposite the roller-disco." She paused briefly. "You know that Richard's dead?"
"Richard?" Richard had run the roller-disco, the weekend destination of choice for most of the kids Bray knew. He had spent many a night there himself, his one concession to sociability, usually with Ebony by his side. And now Richard was dead, just like so many of the other adults. It was impossible to take it all in, nowadays. Another death, another name on the list. Another plague victim. He hadn't even mourned his parents properly yet. He shook his head sadly, and wished that he felt more than just emptiness. "Poor Richard."
"They took his body away in the night. There's more and more of them that are going out that way, especially with the shortage of medical staff. They were the first ones to get badly hit by this, I guess. Probably exposed to the Virus more."
"Yeah... enough, okay? I've had enough doom and gloom for one morning. I just want to find Martin, and..." He trailed off. Find Martin and what? They had no real home to go to, and no real reason to go there. What exactly were they going to do? Leave the city, and look for somewhere a little less depressing? He had been so wrapped up in his own sadnesses these last few weeks that he hadn't stopped to think about just how miserable the city had become. The rubbish wasn't being collected. The buses were barely running. The theatres were closing, and the cinemas had halved their daily screenings. Most of the houses had their curtains closed even during the day, and every curtain closed usually meant that somebody inside was dying, or had recently passed away. That or somebody on the other side was trying to hide from the world, and the reality of what was happening. Looking around now, his mind filled with thoughts of Saturday nights at the roller-disco, he found himself beginning to believe what Ebony had said. A dying world. A world with no adults in it. A world of children fighting each other in the streets. The thought of it seemed to hurt his very soul.
"You okay?" Ebony sounded genuinely concerned. Maybe she was. Frankly, right now he didn't care. He couldn't care about Richard, he couldn't care about rubbish piling up in the streets, or about drawn curtains and terrified adults. He had to think about Martin, and he had to make sure that his brother was safe. He had to find a way out of this for them both. Turning his back on the girl beside him, he broke into a run.
The roller-disco was some way away, but Bray was in good shape. Being captain of the school basketball and swimming teams had its bonuses, and stamina was one of them. He slowed to a halt only when he saw the big sign above the door of Richard's place, bright pink against the dark colour of the bricks. It was morning, so the lights of the sign were off, and from what he had just heard it was likely that they would never be turned back on. He stared at the building for several moments, letting his eyes be drawn to the upstairs windows that he knew belonged to the rooms Richard had lived in. What must it be like, dying alone in a bedroom? Was it better or worse to know that you were one of so, so many? He cut the thought off, turned his back on the roller-disco, and headed instead for the diner. Find Martin, a little voice inside him was screaming. Find Martin, and to hell with everything else.
It was a nice little building, and one that he knew well. Everybody had gone there once the roller-disco had closed its doors for the night, heading for a meal and some music to wind down to; boys squabbling over the jukebox, girls trying to look as though all of that was beneath them. Bray had had a regular table near the door, where most people had left him in peace. Him - and, later, Ebony - watching the others from a distance, never a part of it all but somehow never all that separate, either. A good place to go to, a good cook, a vegetarian menu that had even almost tempted Ebony. The cook was dead now; Bray remembered somebody talking about it, the last day that he had bothered going in to school.
He went in through the door, his hackles up without him quite knowing why. It was different. The whole feel of the place was different. Somebody had scrawled Power And Chaos! along the back wall, in shaky lines from an aerosol. He recognised the handiwork, and didn't have to wonder who the somebody had been. The tables had been dragged into the centre of the room, and the chairs arranged in a rough circle around them; somebody had torn open the vending machine in the corner of the room, and sweet wrappers were strewn around all over the place. There were two boys sprawled on the lunch counter, dressed in school uniform. They looked drunk. Bray headed straight for the nearer of the two, and hauled him to his feet.
"Huh?" It was Martin, peering at him blearily through what seemed to be weirdly opaque contact lenses. His short blond hair was sticking up all over the place, and he was wearing a bicycle chain around his neck. Bray shook his head.
"You stupid idiot. You look a mess. Are the taps still working in here?"
"Probably. Nobody's disconnected the electricity yet, so the water's probably still on too." Martin blinked up at him. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you. You didn't come home last night. What the hell is going on, Martin? Ebony was painting a picture of you as some kind of prophet, but either she's been drinking the same stuff as you, or she's just making things up again. Because I'm not seeing a prophet, little brother. I'm seeing a hungover idiot who's got a lot of explaining to do."
"Get off of me." Martin tried to tug free, but his strength was no match for his brother's, especially in his current state. "You're not my boss. Nobody's my boss, not anymore. You want to be careful, man. You start acting like you're one of the adults, and you'll end up dead just like the rest of them."
"They're not all dead. Not yet, and maybe not ever. Now you're coming home before Aunt Miranda realises that you're gone, and gets us both into trouble."
"She'll just think we're at school. It's nothing to worry about. Anyway, who cares what she thinks. Who the hell is she, to go lording it over us?"
"She's your aunt, and she came a long way to stay with us in that house. Or would you rather we'd been sent to an orphanage? There's a lot of kids in this city who are being looked after by the state right now, and I bet they'd rather they had some aunt to come look after them instead."
"Then they can have her." This time Martin did manage to pull free. "Nobody's sending me to an orphanage. I'd like to see them try. All that's over, man. Being looked after by adults. Schools, orphanages, aunts - it's all pointless. You wait and see. Another six months, this is going to be a whole different city, and people will be playing it my way then."
"In another six months there could be a cure, and you're going to be looking pretty stupid." Bray shook his head, exasperated. "You're already looking pretty stupid. What's with the contact lenses?"
"It's a new look. A new me. My eyes are changed, because I've seen the future." For a second Martin's face seemed different - older, more intense - then suddenly he was just a thirteen year old boy again, annoyed by his older brother. "Now get lost, Bray. I've got people coming. They want to hear me speak, and I've got a lot to tell them. We've got a future to shape."
"You can't do that. You know they've banned public meetings. It's too easy for the Virus to spread if everybody's all together in one place."
"The Virus isn't interested in us, and we're not interested in what's being banned. The law is for the old world, and the old people. The dying people. We've got our own rules now."
"Oh, you think? And you think your contact lenses will keep the police from busting in here to break your little meeting up? Or the army? There's a lot of soldiers around these days. Real soldiers, brought in to help out the police. Seems there's been a lot of looting, not that I need to tell you that by the look of things."
"That's the sort of thing that happens when half of the police are dead." Martin didn't look remotely repentant. Somehow Bray hadn't expected him to be. "More than half. The police are a joke, now."
"They're not a joke when they've got emergency rules to enforce, and when they've got the army to back them up. This isn't a game, Martin."
"You think I don't know that?" This time there was no mistaking the change in the boy's face, and the heat that flared up even through the blank white and yellow of the contact lenses. "Everybody's dying, and I'm supposed to think that's a game? You walk the streets at night, Bray. You always did. That's when the government people come, dressed up like something from Star Wars, and take the dead people out of their houses. Seen them? They cart bodies away in special vans, like they're doing something secret. Like maybe they don't want anybody to know just how many dead people there are. The official figures, the ones on the news, they come from medical records and funeral records. But what about all the people who never see a doctor? The ones who don't go through the system? The official death toll is a lie."
"That doesn't make any sense. Why would anybody lie about something like that? It's not like the official figures are reassuring."
"True. But maybe the real figures are really bad. I've seen the vans, Bray. Men in boiler suits with headgear, so they won't get exposed to anything. You're not telling me that they're taking people to hospital? They carry out corpses, and they cart them away. Mass cremations outside of the city, that's what I heard. And I believe it. There are far too many people now for the cemeteries to cope. Far too many."
"You think that the government is lying?"
"Sure the government is lying." There was almost a fever behind the boy's words; the alcohol in his system giving him a weird kind of energy, so that the words tumbled out in a rush. "They tell the truth, there'll be panic everywhere. Far worse than now. It's over, man. Their safe little world, with all their laws and establishments - it's all over. It's time for a new way."
"It's time to go home."
"Home? I don't have a home. Haven't you heard anything I've been saying? The adults are dying. All of them."
"Yeah, I heard you." He believed it, too, more or less. Maybe the adults were all going to die. With each passing day, as the fog of his own grief lifted a little more, he saw things a little more clearly. Saw more truths behind the official stories. None of that stopped Martin from being his first responsibility, though, and catching hold of the younger boy's shoulders, he turned him towards the door. "We're going home, Martin. You think mum and dad want you out here, with all the fighting that goes on? They want you safe."
"There is no safe. Nothing is safe. How long before the houses get raided too? At the moment it's just shops being looted, but soon enough it's going to be the houses. The abandoned ones first, sure. And then the ones that still have people living in them. Nothing is safe, Bray. We have to be ready for that."
"Ready for it? Or ready to make it happen?" The words were tumbling out of Bray too now, in a rush of anger that he couldn't hold back. How could his brother have changed so much, so soon? How could he be thinking these thoughts, spreading these ideas, acting this way, when he had used to be so very, very different? Bray hated himself for not seeing it sooner; for not doing something to stop this change from taking place. It was his fault, it had to be. Ebony was right; he had been off on his own, like always, not seeing what was going on with his own little brother. "You keep talking about the world not being safe, but there's no reason for it to be that way. The adults dying doesn't mean that everything has to go crazy. You're not getting ready for the trouble, you're getting ready to cause the trouble. Maybe the rest of the city would like their future to be a little different."
"Listen to you." Martin pulled free, his expression one of growing disgust. Behind him, the boy still on the lunch counter raised his head and began to show an interest. "Peace, love and understanding, that's always the way it was with you. Save the whales, save the Earth, save the rainforests, be nice to your neighbours, so long as they stay at arm's length. Good old Bray, sure, but always one step out of sync with everybody else. Well you don't get to make the rules, Bray. I do. You're not the one that the kids are going to listen to, because you're not one of them and you never will be. You never were."
"That's what this is about? Some city-wide popularity contest? You've got to be kidding. Yeah, okay. Sure. You always were the one with people skills. But you think the kids are going to listen to you preaching 'power and chaos', just because you're the one who's on their level? They're not going to listen to all of that. Why would they want to tear their own city apart?"
"Not going to listen? They're already listening, and they're not going to stop. They're listening everywhere I go, and more than that; they're going to follow me. And we are not going to be preaching peace and flowers. Power and chaos - that's how the world is going to be, Bray. My world. My rules."
"Poor little Martin. So angry he's going to make the whole world suffer?" He hadn't meant to speak so harshly, but the words tumbled out even more haphazardly than before. There was no sense relenting now, even though he felt guilty for the outburst. "I know they meant the world to you, Martin. I know the three of you had something special. You were always together, you always leant on them. I know that. I know losing them was hard. That doesn't give you the right to behave like this now. You're like some kid throwing all his toys out of the pram. Some spoilt little kid having a temper tantrum, and not caring about anybody around him. You think if you shout loud enough, mum and dad are going to come back?"
"Spoilt." Martin's voice was cold, and he had gone quite, quite pale. Bray wanted to apologise, to reach out to the boy, but he didn't move. Martin would just push him away now, the way he always did when he was angry. "You always thought that, didn't you. Spoilt little Martin."
"Not really." Martin had been spoilt, there was no denying that. He had been his parents' pride and joy; their little blond angel to show off to the world. Bray had never resented that, and it wasn't as though the special treatment had ever made his younger brother unbearable; not like a lot of favoured children. Now though - now it was as though all those years of spoiling had suddenly spawned a monster. He understood the anger and the bitterness, in a way. That didn't mean that he intended to put up with it. "Listen, Martin..."
"Martin?" A girl's voice, about Bray's age. She cut into their conversation with all the blunt nonchalance of somebody who had no care for social convention. Bray didn't turn around.
"Can you give us a moment?" he asked. Martin merely smiled.
"I don't think we have a moment. Care to meet my friends, Bray?"
"Your friends?" For a second he didn't move, then slowly he turned. He hadn't heard the diner's door open, although that was hardly a surprise. He had been thinking only of his family. At some point the girl had arrived, and with her other children. Eight, nine, ten of them - all choking the doorway, and spilling out into the street. The youngest looked to be about twelve, the oldest perhaps seventeen; some in school uniform, others just in normal street clothes. The girl who had spoken already looked as though she was ready for a confrontation.
"Trouble?" she asked. Her question was clearly directed at Martin, and she spoke like someone ready to help out a friend. Martin smiled.
"I don't think so. Bray here was just leaving."
"Not without you. Martin--"
"These people are here to listen to me talk. If you want to listen too that's fine, but I'm not leaving until I'm done. If you try to cause trouble, they'll stop you. We'll stop you. And I know you're bigger and stronger than me, and I know you're a big school sports hero. But there are a lot more of us, and some of these people have weapons. You wouldn't stand a chance."
"You're threatening me?" He couldn't believe it. Sweet little Martin, who had held his mother's hand at every opportunity; who had looked to his brother to protect him at school. Sweet little Martin. The blond angel had become a blond devil. "This is crazy. Look, I know--"
"Know? All you know is books. Old books and long words, and poems written in languages nobody speaks anymore. Ancient history, Greenpeace and pacifism. Now there's a useful combination for what's coming." Martin's expression had become a deeply unpleasant sneer. "Leave, Bray. You don't belong here. I'm building an army, of kids that'll follow me, and help me build our new world when the adults are gone. I've got no place for a peacenik with his head in the clouds. You've always been off somewhere on your own. You'd better get back there."
"I'm not leaving without you." It had started off as a wish to find his brother. It seemed to have turned into a desperate need. If he could just get Martin to come with him; if he could just get the boy to turn his back on all of this; then perhaps everything else would work out too. Perhaps the other madnesses would cease, and the world would begin to set itself to rights. It made no logical sense, but what was logic when your kid brother was trying to lead a children's revolution? Martin just laughed.
"Then we'll throw you out." He didn't move himself, as though perhaps that was yet a step too far; but his companions didn't hesitate. Even the half-drunk boy lounging on the lunch counter was on his feet in a flash, snatching up a chair as though to use it as a weapon. Bray was too stunned to move.
"This is crazy." He barely heard his own words; all that he seemed to hear was footsteps, as though the handful of children were a huge army descending upon him. One of the older kids grabbed his arm, twisting it up behind him. Bray didn't even struggle. This was madness. It was a joke, it had to be. But Martin wasn't calling a halt to it, he wasn't telling anybody to stand down; the look on his face wasn't one of good humour. With the contact lenses hiding his eyes, he didn't even look sane.
"I'm not going home, Bray. That's not my home anymore, understand? All of that is over." Managing to look far taller than before, Martin looked upon his brother now with an expression of haughty disapproval. "You'll figure that out for yourself soon enough, I suppose. If the street gangs don't get you first." He nodded to his companions. "Throw him out."
"Forget that." It was Ebony, standing in the doorway, her body language as casually provocative as always. Martin glared.
"I give the orders," he told her, sounding rather more petulant than he might have liked. She nodded.
"Sure. Fine by me. But the police are on their way. They must have seen everybody coming in this direction, and you know what they're like about gatherings nowadays. Fun though all of this looks, we'd better break it up."
"Damn it." Martin looked disgusted. "Yeah, alright. Get out of here everybody. We'll meet again later. I'll send out the word about where and when." A police siren sounded out, answered by another one, and Bray felt the grip on his arm loosen. In a rush the other children were gone.
"Don't hang around in here, Bray." Still looking almost insufferably nonchalant, Ebony took a few sauntering steps towards him. "The police are coming. This place has been broken into, and they'll arrest anybody they see here."
"You don't look too fussed."
"Yeah, well I'm confident that I can get away. You I'm not so sure about." She grabbed his hand, and pulled him towards the door. "You might be able to run fast, but unless you start doing it, you're going to be in a cell before you can say 'Aunt Miranda'. And you know what she'll say."
"So this is what we do now? We run away from the police?"
"Yes." She pushed him towards the door, none too gently. "They don't stop to ask questions anymore, and from what I hear, nobody is worrying all that much about trials anymore either. So you run, Bray. Now." She pushed him out of the door, just as a police car came around the corner of the street, screeching to a halt with a huge, protracted skid. Several of Martin's acolytes were still running away, and they swerved off down an alley when the car came into view. Ebony swore. "Come on."
"We haven't done anything."
"You're breaking half a dozen laws just by being here. Half a dozen new laws. Are your eyes really shut that tight, Bray? Watch." She spun him around, to where the police car had stopped. Two officers wearing body armour jumped out, and dashed down one of the alleys. It was not long before they were back, a boy held tightly between them. They were not being gentle, and they clearly were not being considerate of his age. Bray thought that he recognised him. The boy was thirteen at the most.
"What will they do to him?" he asked, instinctively deferring to Ebony. She merely shrugged.
"Who knows? Depends on whether his parents are still alive, I guess. Now come on. There was more than one car, and I don't aim on getting picked up by another."
"Which way did Martin go?" He followed her up the street, copying her casual, unhurried pace. They didn't want to attract any attention. She shook her head.
"His gang have a few places they hang out in. He might have gone for any one of them. We'll make for the closest, but we'll have to hope he's there. The police will be all over the area looking for kids who look like they're running away. They'll want everybody who was at that meeting. Once we've gone to ground we'll have to stay that way at least until it's dark. Probably until the morning."
"I can't stay out all night again. Miranda will--"
"Bray, Miranda will either sound the alarm or she won't. Probably she won't. She knows you're upset. She'll just figure you need some time to work things out."
"I wasn't worried about her sounding the alarm. That's going to happen eventually anyway, if I can't make Martin go home. I'm worried about her, that's all. She's all on her own, and imagine what she's going to be thinking. She gave up everything to come here for us."
"I know." She reached out and took his hand, but what he had thought was another of her flirtatious gestures turned out to be something else, for with sudden force she propelled him around a sharp bend and into an alleyway. "But you have to stop thinking about your aunt, and start thinking about yourself. Now run."
"Ebony..." A police siren wailed, barely drowning out the noise of a screaming, speeding engine, and he felt his pulse quicken. It was an instinctive reaction; a fear of the sound, that came from somewhere deep inside him. Quite suddenly the police were the enemy. He didn't need her, with her stories and her warnings, to tell him that. His hand still in hers, they both ran.
They ran everywhere, or so it seemed. Heading north at first, then east when they heard another police siren; cancelling it all out by going south west for what seemed like ages, until a police car appeared out of nowhere and they had to change direction again. A pair of policemen chased them on foot across a park, and Bray caught sight of several pairs of eyes watching from a patch of bushes. Kids who had already taken to the streets; kids who had already learned that the police were no longer their friends. The world changed quickly, once you took that first step outside the cradle of society - or what remained of it. Could this really be the life that Martin wanted to live?
They lost the policemen in an ornamental garden, dodging between neatly sculpted bushes, and crawling under shining, white-painted benches. It was almost fun, like a game of chase played out in one of the city's most beautiful locations. It was a hot day, and water from the fountains sparkled in the air, and clouds of fanciful fishes basked in the sunlight. Bray was almost tempted to join them in their ponds, but always there was the sudden howl of a police siren to return his thoughts to reality. They must have been seen at the diner. People were looking for them. The authorities wanted to know what the gangs of children were up to, he supposed. In times likes these, they were probably anxious to hold onto what control they still had. Otherwise the looting would soon be out of control, and the gangs would get bigger. He might have sympathised with them, had he not seen that small boy being dragged away by the police; if he hadn't himself been chased over half the sector just because he happened to have been seen with a group of other kids. This didn't feel like law, it felt like persecution. It felt like desperation. The panic of a government that was out of its depth.
"So where are we going?" he asked at last, when they began to feel that they could take a more leisurely pace again.
"Drysdales. The private school."
"Drysdales? It closed didn't it? About a fortnight ago?"
"Yeah. All the city rich dashing off to their country estates to try to avoid the Virus." She smiled sardonically. "Not that it's going to do them any good."
"Nice building." Knowing the way well, Bray turned to head north west.
"For the time being, yeah. There's a caretaker still there. The place is alarmed, so I suppose it must all be locked up tight. Won't take long for all that to change, though. If there's one thing the gangs hate, it's school buildings."
"Yeah. I saw a school burning yesterday." Bray, who had spent so much of his life immersed in books and learning, didn't really see the sense in burning schools; but he had seen the look in Martin's eyes, and wondered just how much sense of any kind there was around these days. Only Ebony was really showing any now. She had spoken of his brother as a great leader, but she didn't look as though she was following his lead. Ebony was still Ebony - still cool, still calm. Still indisputably self-serving. Power, she had said - power was the way forward. She was using Martin to get that power, just as she was using the current situation. Should he hate her for that, he wondered? Oddly he found it reassuring. The world might be falling apart, but Ebony was still Ebony. She would always survive - and as long as she still had a use for him, so too should Martin. That was one thing at least to cling to.
"Penny for them?" They had turned down into a broader street, one that they both knew well. The more familiar the landmarks, the more strange the day felt. Bray didn't mention that though. Instead he just shrugged.
"I guess I'm doing a lot of thinking. Feels like I've had my head in the sand."
"Your parents died. You're entitled."
"Maybe. And shutting the world out seems like a better option than what Martin's doing to deal with all of this.
"You're different people."
"Yeah. But how did I not notice how different? I knew we weren't all that alike, sure. He always wanted to be around other people, and I always wanted to be alone. He was never all that academic, I guess... actually, there wasn't all that much he was interested in, except cars maybe. Cars and cricket. But how do we suddenly get to be on two different sides of something like this? He wants a war. He wants gangs of kids fighting each other in the street. He wants power and chaos, and he was ready to fight me for it. Why didn't I ever notice that there was all of that inside him? I just thought... I guess I didn't think all that much. Not about what he was really like underneath."
"Who does, Bray? Nobody ever really knows somebody else." A distant police siren made them both speed up, reacting to the sound as though they had been doing so all their lives. They cut down another side street, and kept instinctively to the shadows. "We're nearly there. You'd better let me go in first. Martin might be inside, and he might still want to have you sliced and diced."
"It's not funny, Ebony."
"No, maybe not." She reached out, giving his hand a brief squeeze. "Look, none of this is your fault, okay? However you feel, whatever you think you should have seen, or done, it's not your fault. He's just who he is, same as you are."
"Yeah." It was scant comfort. Ebony offered him the briefest of smiles, then pulled away and took the lead, slipping out of the side street and into the road beyond. Opposite was Drysdales, an exclusive school for the rich, surrounded by white walls and a wrought iron gate. Ebony climbed over the gate with all the ease of a gymnast, and he followed her without enthusiasm. Hiding out didn't appeal to him, even if there was a chance that Martin would be waiting somewhere here. He wasn't altogether sure that he wanted to see the boy again just yet. He needed a plan, first. Some way of persuading his brother that street fighting and power were not the answer to whatever was coming. But he knew in his heart of hearts that it would be no use. He had seen things in his brother that day that he had never seen before, but that seemed to have been there all along. Deep inside, he wondered if perhaps Martin was already lost.
"Here." They were running along the side of the school building, beside a well-tended flower bed reminiscent of the ones in the gardens that they had run through earlier. Ebony was gesturing to a place up ahead where the rubbish bins stood, waiting for collectors who were probably never coming. A faintly rotten smell drifted from them now, showing how long it had been since they had been emptied. Too long in this heat. Ebony went past them, to where a stone flight of stairs led to some kind of cellar.
"Down there?" asked Bray. She nodded, but didn't go down the steps. The door at their foot was padlocked, he saw now. Somehow he didn't think that that would be much of a barrier to Ebony, but presumably unlocked doors were too much of an advert to the presence of intruders. Instead she led him to where a small window stood half open, just below the level of the ground. She slipped through with her usual grace, and a moment later he heard her voice calling softly to him. Carefully, he followed her down inside.
He found himself in a large stone room, with a few wooden boxes scattered about on the floor, and a crate half full of beer bottles standing on a plain metal table by one wall. There was nobody else in the room, but the place looked inhabited somehow. A pair of blankets were screwed up in a corner, and there was a tin opener and an empty tin of pineapple pieces beside the beer crate. Ebony sat down on one of the wooden boxes.
"Make yourself at home," she told him. He stared around.
"Is this where Martin spent last night?" he asked. She shrugged.
"I don't know. I was in the park last night, or some of it anyway. Saw you there, remember? It's early days for him yet, you know. He's spent most nights at home."
"Yeah. Up until now." Bray sat down on another of the boxes, looking around at the bare stone walls without enthusiasm. "If he's right... if you're right... this is how it could be soon, isn't it. Hiding out in places like this. Hiding from people like him."
"Not necessarily." She shrugged, then reached out for a couple of bottles of beer, throwing one to him. "Join us."
"And have people hiding from me? No."
"I knew you'd say that." She smiled at him fondly. "But you know, there's a time and a place for idealism, Bray. A time and place for altruism and all the rest of that stuff. If the adults all die, the world is going to get very hard, very quickly. You can see that."
"Yeah. Kids are going crazy. It's probably only going to get worse." He shook his head sadly, still sure that there had to be a better way. "But that doesn't mean that it's okay to get like that too."
"Even if the alternative is starving? Living like a rat, hiding from the gangs? I know you like solitude, Bray, but that kind of solitude is just plain crazy."
"Maybe." He pulled out his penknife and opened up the bottle-opener, tossing it to her. "But wanting the city torn to pieces by warring gangs seems pretty damn crazy too." She flipped off the lid of her beer, and threw the knife back.
"There's nothing crazy about surviving," she told him. He had opened his beer, and she raised hers in salute. He followed suit, though slowly. "To survival."
"Yeah. The survival of the adults." He took a slow sip, watching her drink too. "What? Not your kind of toast?"
"Hey, like I said before, I didn't ask for any of this. I'd like things to go back to normal, and I'm happy to live an easy life. But it's not going to happen, is it."
"No." This time he took a longer sip, wishing suddenly for something stronger than simple beer. He had never been a drinker, but perhaps alcohol was sometimes the best option. "I think the adults are realising it too. I'd have thought they'd have figured it out first."
"Some of them probably have. Not the kind of thing you want to face up to though, is it. Not if you're one of them. Not if you're one of us too, maybe. There'll be a lot of people hiding from the truth, right up until the end."
"I almost envy them."
"No you don't." She left her seat, sliding over to sit next to him instead. The boxes were not big, and it was cramped with the two of them sharing. Gently she clinked her bottle against his. "What good does it do, hiding from the truth? Gotta be prepared, Bray. Be ready. Don't let the world catch you by surprise."
"I know." He smiled at her somewhat absently, his mind elsewhere. "Forewarned is forearmed. Martin has got that much right at least." He glanced briefly around the room. "I wonder where he is."
"It looked like he ran off with Jake Black. Tall kid with the ethnic necklaces? He's been sleeping rough since his step-father threw him out eighteen months ago, and he knows this sector better than anyone. There's no way the police will catch him. Martin will be safe enough."
"Yeah, I know Jake." Jake Black was trouble, and always had been; but Ebony was right. The police would never catch him. He could probably teach Martin a thing or two; and whereas Bray would have balked at that once upon a time - even just a day ago - he could see now that it might be a good thing. Martin had said that he wasn't going home. If Bray couldn't change his mind - and right now he couldn't see where to even begin trying - that meant that there were a lot of new things he had to learn. They both did. Bray wasn't about to walk away and leave the boy on the streets. "Maybe we should try to find them," he suggested, although the idea of spending the rest of the day dodging police patrols didn't exactly delight him. She shrugged.
"They'll have got a look at us. Must have done, to have kept after us the way they did. They might even have checked the CCTV footage for the area, and got pictures of us too. I'm not going back up there again just now. They won't give up until it gets dark."
"Aunt Miranda said that the increased patrols were comforting." He remembered watching them go past - the police, the army, a few civilian volunteers to bolster the numbers - and not really thinking about them at all. They had been no comfort to him, but neither had they been a danger. He hadn't stopped to think about what they might be doing, criss-crossing the city the way that they did. The new laws hadn't seemed to concern him before. Now he knew that he would have to find out more about them. "I never thought of them as the enemy before."
"Good boy like you? You never had to. They're the enemy now, though. The gangs are scaring people, the looting is big news, and that's bad for a government that knows it can't keep control forever."
"Yeah. They'll have to get tougher and tougher. They'll probably try to round the kids up. Ship them off to orphanages. Last thing any government wants right now is gangs of kids on the street."
"I hadn't thought of that." For a moment she looked young - she was young, he thought; younger than him - young in the way that she had always managed to hide. "We'll always be running then, won't we. It won't just be about hiding from the police when we break a few laws. We'll he hiding all the time."
"Doesn't have to be like that for you," he told her. "That's not your brother going crazy out there."
"True. But whether we like it or not, we've both got choices to make now. You heard Martin; he's not going home. So either we go back and try to live our old lives - which, let's face it, is just postponing the inevitable - or we stay out here and try to find new lives. Back there it's safe for the time being. Out here is where Martin is. It's where he's staying."
"So he says. Wait until things start getting difficult. He'll soon change his mind."
"He believes that civilisation is falling apart, Bray. He's expecting things to get difficult."
"I might be able to change his mind. Or I could force him. I could--"
"Keep him locked up in his bedroom forever? Hardly. Martin sees things the same way I do. The future is being built out here, and being a part of it now guarantees greater power later, when the new order starts for real. The ones who are hiding at home now, or who are still letting the adults run their lives - they're missing out. They're losing their chance to be here at the start of it all, and it'll cost them later. No, I'm not going anywhere, whatever the police and the army try to do - and believe me, Martin thinks the same. Hell, you don't get anywhere without taking some risks."
"Can't you forget power, just for a moment?" He sounded upset. She would have pressed more closely against him, had it been physically possible.
"The future is coming. We might as well be ready for it."
"Yeah, but we have very different ideas of how to be ready. And what to be ready for."
"True, lover." She chinked her beer bottle against his again, very, very gently this time. "But we both know that when the kids take over, it's not going to be your kind of world. I'm a realist Bray, not a dreamer. I'm going to be ready for what's coming."
"You and Martin, ruling the city together?"
"He's not exactly the one I'd choose as my consort. But with his vision I'd be a fool to turn him down." She laughed lightly, the sound, though brief, filled with music. For a moment she looked almost light-hearted. "Enough about the future. We've got a lot of time to kill before we can be sure it's safe to go back up there, and I'd rather not spend the time arguing with you."
"What else do we do?" It was hardly the most inspiring of rooms, with hardly the most inspiring of contents. She smirked, and he rolled his eyes. "No."
"As if I'd suggest such a thing. Especially when we don't know where that caretaker is. Do you have a book on you?"
"I don't think so. I did have one, but I left it at home before I came out again."
"Bray, out and about with nothing to read? I don't believe it. Check your pockets, lover boy. I'll get us another beer."
"I'm not getting drunk."
"Hey, I never get drunk. It's too dangerous. There's nothing wrong with a couple of drinks, though, right?" She fetched another pair of bottles, and sat back down beside him. "So what you got?"
"Gulliver's Travels." He had found it in one of his pockets, and vaguely remembered putting it there. He would never have thought of it had it not been for Ebony. Odd that she knew him so well.
"Do you ever read anything that was written in living memory?" She laughed, gently mocking him the way that she so often did. "Never mind. Read it to me."
"Read it to you?" It hardly seemed like the kind of thing that she would like. Ebony rarely read. She had always been more one for action - always off doing things, preferring to be anywhere but reading or studying. She leant against him, evidently settling in place for the long haul.
"I prefer music to books. That doesn't make me a cultural moron, you know." She took the book from him, opened it at the first page, and handed it back. "I even know that it's a satire. See? I've been to lessons. I've even paid attention in some of them."
"I'm suitably impressed." He shouldn't be surprised, he thought. She was smarter almost than anyone he had ever met. It was just that, with Ebony, nothing was ever that simple. She seemed genuine now though, and he allowed himself the slightest of smiles. Her weight against him was annoyingly familiar; annoyingly right; and he was already beginning to relax far more than he would have thought possible. "Okay, I'll read. For a bit. But no tricks."
"No tricks." She finished off her first bottle of beer, and smiled at him over its rim. "You're safe with me, Bray. Always."
But the thought lingered in his mind that he would be a fool if ever he believed that.
They found half a loaf of stale bread in one of the wooden boxes, and a tin of spaghetti shapes in tomato sauce. It wasn't much of a meal, but as Ebony pointed out in her usual half-humorous way, it could well be the shape of things to come. Bray smiled bleakly, eating without great enthusiasm. He wasn't especially hungry, but ate with a sense of necessity. If he couldn't get Martin to go home, then all meals might be like this from now on. Small, unappetising and scrounged whenever possible. It wasn't something that he wanted to believe, but he knew that he had to consider it. Such thoughts didn't make for an enjoyable meal.
"It's late." Sitting now on the floor, Ebony sprawled back against the wall. She always seemed able to be comfortable; always looked relaxed, refreshed and ready for action. Bray glanced at his watch.
"Nearly five. We must have been running from those policemen for hours."
"It was longer than I'd have liked, that's for sure." Ebony's eyes glittered with a dangerous light. "I'd like to turn the tables. Let them know what it feels like."
"You think they don't know already? There's a virus chasing them, remember. Sooner or later it's going to get them, too. Hiding out in cellars isn't going to do them any good."
"Yeah." She smiled at that, almost as though she appreciated the notion. "Serves them right, too. What have we done wrong?"
"Broken the law." He stood up, clambering onto a crate in order to look out of the window. "And in your case, probably done your share of looting."
"Not really. There's been nothing I've needed, not yet. The looting is what the angry kids do. They just want to destroy everything, and half the time they don't even want what they steal. That's not my scene. It's all about destruction."
"And you're telling me you don't want to destroy things? Sounds to me like your plans are all pretty damned destructive."
"True." She sounded matter-of-fact, as always. "But the time isn't right yet. Why risk bringing out the police and the army, increasing the patrols, making all our lives harder? Plenty of time yet for running riot and tearing the old world down."
"I suppose there's a certain twisted logic to that." He jumped down from his vantage point, and sat on the crate he had been standing on. "Do we really have to wait until the morning before we go back out there?"
"Not if you don't want to. We are waiting until it's dark though. The patrols will have changed then."
"You're that sure there are people out there still looking for us?"
"No. I don't know." She shrugged. "Bray, I hang out on street corners with kids sometimes. That doesn't make me some kind of expert. I've been going home every night, eating breakfast every morning, just like always. All I know is what I see, and what I see is a lot of police officers chasing a lot of kids. You'd see it too, if you spent more time around other people, and less off on your own somewhere."
"I know." He wandered over to sit beside her. "I like to walk on the beach. I keep thinking about how I should be looking for Martin, and seeing that he's not getting into trouble, but it's so difficult to speak to him. We had a big fight a few days ago, and I've been trying to work out where the hell everything went wrong."
"Always thinking." She shook her head. "I swear, you're your own worst enemy."
"Yeah." He drew up his legs, resting his arms on his knees. "Weird, isn't it. Feels like... I don't know. Feels like I should feel different. Like everything should feel different. Life is never going to be the same again, is it. You, me, Martin - out here somewhere, hiding from the police, waiting for the end of the world. And I just feel the same. Just empty, like I have been ever since mum and dad died."
"What are you expecting to feel? It's not as if there's any precedent for this." She reached out for the book, lying where it had fallen when Bray had tired of reading before. "Read some more of this. Take your mind off things."
"You think that's such a great idea? You're the one who told me off for not facing up to things before." He looked away. "Besides, I have to think about Martin."
"About getting through to him, and finding the sweet little boy he used to be? Getting him to hold your hand and go on home?"
He glared. "There's no need to sound so sarcastic. If you don't want to--"
"It's not that, Bray. I didn't mean to sound sarcastic. But think about it. You want to take him home. Okay, right. Keep him safe for a few more months, if you can get him to listen to you - which you won't. But then what? Are you really doing him any favours making him go back to a home you know isn't going to last? Leave him be, and he'll learn every day about standing on his own two feet. He won't survive if you mollycoddle him."
"I can't just abandon him. And maybe it will only be for a few months, but it'll be better than nothing."
"No it won't. Out here he's got friends and supporters. People who'll do what he says. They'll keep him safe, or help to. More than you can. You take him home and he'll have a few square meals every day, before your aunt goes the same way as the rest of the adults; and then you'll both be back on the streets. Only he'll have lost his supporters, and his friends, and you'll just be two little minnows in a very big river. Think about it."
"Yeah." He looked deflated, as though the argument had suddenly gone from him. "Maybe."
"I can't turn my back on him, Ebony." He shook his head, slowly and listlessly. "This morning everything seemed okay. I was going to find him, and say sorry for our fight the other day. Bring him home, make him breakfast like mum used to do. And in the space of a few hours I've been attacked by my own brother's army, chased by the police, and now I'm sitting in a cellar thinking about never going home again. This isn't supposed to happen."
"It's not what I wanted, either." She rested her head on his shoulder, holding one of his hands gently in both of hers. "I was going to marry somebody really rich, then divorce them and take half of everything."
He laughed softly, in spite of himself. "Sounds like you."
"Then I was going to buy a big house by the beach, and sunbathe all day."
"I thought you wanted to be powerful?"
"Money is power, Bray." She sighed. "Or it was. Soon it's going to be food. Food and medical supplies. I can still be rich, I guess, but not the easy way. Not anymore. I'm going to have to fight to get it all, and that's exactly what I'm going to do. Maybe I can still find myself a big house by the beach, once all their owners have died."
He winced. "Don't you care about any of them?"
"You think they care about me? Everybody with sense is thinking about themselves right now. And that's exactly what you've got to do. Maybe you can mend some bridges with Martin, and be all friendly again, but I'll bet you anything you want that you won't be able to make him go home. So you have to start thinking about food and shelter. Where are you going to sleep, if you're not going home? What are you going to eat? Me, I'm happy to join in with the looting. There's a lot of shops that aren't bothering to open these days. Why let all those stores go to waste?"
"Looting is wrong."
"Why? Because the shopkeepers are losing money? What do they need it for, exactly?"
"They're not dead yet, Ebony. It's still stealing."
"No it's not. Not really. We have to think in practical terms, Bray. You've got a brain - use it. Live on the streets, live by different rules. Like I said, food is power. Soon enough it's going to be the best kind of currency there is. We need to get it, any way we can."
"If food becomes currency, the weaker kids are going to starve."
"Probably." She would have said it as though she cared nothing at all, but she knew him, and tempered her response. "It's not a fairytale world we're headed for. No food, no electricity, no nothing. Or do you think those half-crazy gangs out there are going to agree to you standing on street corners, distributing everything equally? However crazy it looks out there, with what little looting and fighting there's been so far, it's all going to get a lot worse. The sooner you accept that, the easier you're going to make things for yourself. Or are you planning on going home every morning to get Miranda to make you a packed lunch?"
"Don't be stupid." He was glowering fiercely, but she could see that it was not really because of her. Right now he was angry for a thousand reasons, and she was probably some way down on the list. She handed him the book, and he sighed, exasperated. "This isn't exactly a good time for reading."
"I thought it's always a good time for reading? That's what you said a few months ago, when I was trying to get you to come swimming with me."
"I was doing my homework." A few months ago? Was that really when they had had that conversation? Not quite even three months, if he remembered correctly. It felt like years. His mother had been passing his bedroom door, and had taken his book away, telling him to go on out and have some fun. The thought of it was like a knife in his side. Ebony slid an arm across his shoulders.
"I want to know what happens to Gulliver. Come on. It's more interesting than arguing about food."
"Yeah. Maybe." She knew how to get through to him, but he was still too annoyed to be grateful. Restless, he glanced at his watch again, then flicked through the pages in search of where they had left off. "If we've got to wait until dark, I guess I'd rather spend the time reading. You comfortable?"
"Pretty much." She settled against him, clearly more than happy with where she was sitting. "Go ahead."
"Yes ma'am." He read well, as though reading aloud were something he had always done, rather than avoided. From time to time she heard the New Zealand inflection creeping into his voice, though, and knew that he was under far more stress than she could see. Ebony had no younger brothers to worry about - and even if she had, she would like as not have been considerably less concerned for them than Bray was for Martin. She just didn't work that way. She didn't feel for the adults the way that he did; she didn't worry for the safety of the younger children, and the weaker children; all the ones who were going to find it hard to stay alive once the adults were gone. Bray cared for everybody; one of the things that she liked about him most; but it was one of the things that so clearly marked them out as opposites. One day, she reasoned, he might find somebody more like himself. Somebody who shared his concerns and his ideals, and turned his head away from her. She had never had to worry about that in the old days, when he had kept to himself so much, and never bothered to mix with others. In a new world, though, who knew what might have to change? And unconsciously she clung to him, more tightly as he read, and tried not to think about what might happen. Bray was hers. She wasn't letting him go for anything.
He stopped reading when the light grew too bad to see the words properly, since they didn't dare risk turning on a light. It wasn't yet dark enough outside for Ebony's liking, so they stayed where they were a while longer, talking about nothing in particular. Somehow they had reached an unspoken agreement not to speak of the Virus any more just yet, or of the dying adults, or the way that the world might be soon enough. They talked about music instead, and school, and the Martial Arts class that they had both joined several months before. They would have been on their way to a lesson, had things been different - and now the chances were that the lessons had been cancelled, or would be before much longer. Neither of them spoke of that, but the idea of it hung between them. It seemed that even when they were avoiding the subject, they couldn't help but come back to it in the end. The Virus was a part of everything now.
"This is getting us nowhere." Frustrated by the small talk, a skill he had never made much attempt to master, Bray clambered to his feet. The cellar was growing oppressive, and he was restless and eager to be off. Ebony nodded slowly.
"Okay." She stood up, rather less eager to leave, and eyed the darkening world beyond the window. It was easy to play at being brave in the daylight, when the world was easily visible, and the gangs of unruly children were off somewhere making a play at living ordinary lives again. It was easy to pretend that she was au fait with it all; that she had become accustomed to the new way of things. In the dark everything was different. Bray didn't seem fazed by it though; and so, she told herself, neither must she. Dismissing her unease, she linked her hands into a stirrup and offered Bray a leg up.
"Thanks." He swung up easily, out of the window, and leaned back in to give her a hand. "Seems pretty quiet."
"Does, doesn't it." They both knew that appearances meant nothing. One street could easily be quiet whilst a fight raged in another. "It won't stay quiet around here for long, though. This is one of the richer areas, and you know what the news has been like. Places like this have got some of the worst of the looting. Some of the shops we passed on the way here did look pretty banged up."
"I noticed." Bray led the way back to the gates, and began to climb up. "If we see gangs out to cause trouble, we'll avoid them. Something tells me we're going to need the practice."
"You're going to need the practice, lover boy." She swung up after him, her movements so graceful and easy that for a moment he paused just to watch her. "I plan on being part of a nice big gang of my own, with no reason to want to hide from anybody."
"Yeah." He jumped down to the ground, and avoided looking at her. "I was forgetting. Come on."
"Where to?" She followed him without complaint, quite content to go along with him now that he seemed to be taking the lead. He shrugged.
"I'm not sure. Martin might have been getting up to stuff that I don't know about, but I can say for sure that whatever he's been doing, he hasn't been doing much of it at night."
"So if you're right about him finding himself a gang, it's still early days. If he had a big gang, like some of the others, he wouldn't have still been spending his nights in his bedroom, painting all that nonsense about power and chaos all over the place. He'd have been out here, with the rest of the troublemakers."
"True." She fell into step alongside him, but for once didn't reach out for his hand. "So you think he's recruiting?"
"Recruiting would have to be for the daytime, when there's more kids about. We know that most of them are still at home at night. The night is for people who have already got their armies." He stopped suddenly, and looked over at Ebony. "Martin wants to make a name for himself, though, right? Best way to do that is without an army."
"Tell me I'm panicking." The hint of New Zealand was back in his voice, plainly showing his fears. "Martin is far too sensible to do anything stupid, right?"
"Depends on what you mean by stupid." She saw the real concern in his eyes, and sighed. "If it was me - and I've got to admit, he does seem to think kind of like I do - then yeah. I'd be looking for a way to get myself noticed. But he ran off with Jake, and they probably had the sense to lay low. Jake would know all the best places to hide, and probably a lot of people to hole up with, too. People that Martin might have on his side by now."
"Or he might be alone."
"If you want to play the might be game, Bray, then he might be in a police cell by now, facing charges for being at a public meeting earlier today. Don't go thinking like that."
"I shouldn't have let you talk me into staying in that damn cellar all day."
"No, maybe not." She took his arm, a little more forcefully than usual. "Listen. Your mind is going in all kinds of directions just now. You're thinking all kinds of bad things, because you're out here in the dark, and it's a whole different world. Right? Just get that head of yours back into Sensible Mode, and see what it comes up with then. I know he's your kid brother, but getting into a panic isn't going to help any of us. And what if you had left the cellar earlier? What would you have done? It's a big city, and you're not going to find one little boy in it when you don't know where to look."
"I know." He drew in a deep, long breath, and nodded slowly. "Okay. He wants to get noticed. Some of the newspapers have been talking about a lot of gangs causing trouble in Memorial Square. Have you been there recently?"
"Only in daylight. It looks a mess."
"I know. I was there yesterday. Graffiti and litter all over the place. Nobody is bothering to clear up the mess anymore. I say we head there."
"You think that's safe?"
"Probably not, no. You want to stay behind?"
"No." She smiled at him, provocative and sly. "You need me to watch your back."
"For some reason, that idea scares me." He turned away from her, once more heading off along the road. "Not got any knives, have you?"
"Oh, I wouldn't go knifing you in the back, Bray." There seemed the slightest hint of an emphasis on the 'you'. Bray wasn't sure if his stride faltered briefly, but it felt as though it did. She was so casual, so blasť about everything, as though the prospect of a lawless world was no great nightmare for her. He should be rid of her, he told himself, as he had told himself before more than once. He should end the relationship now and walk away. Her confidence, though - her easy way with people, and her quick, quick wits - he needed that, or thought that he did. If he was going to stay out here, and never return to the house where he had grown up, wasn't he going to need somebody who looked as though she could cope? She scared him, though; he realised that now. She had never scared him before, in the old days. The days of sprawling on his bed together, of going for long walks, or spending whole days on the beach with no one else in sight. The two of them, just enjoying each other's company, and never speaking of the future at all. How could he not have noticed then that there was a gleam of pure steel in her eyes? How could he not have realised that her smile could be so razor-sharp? When exactly had she come to care so little about her fellow man that she could talk of the deaths of all the adults in such matter-of-fact, uncaring tones? But then, for that matter, when had Martin changed into someone who lusted after power, sought out gangs and confrontations, and roamed the streets at night? The changing times were changing all of them, and he wondered how exactly he himself had been altered by events. Events already passed, and events yet to come. He decided that he didn't really want to know.
"What's the plan?" Unaware of his thoughts, although presumably she wouldn't have been interested in them anyway, Ebony spoke up from behind him. Her voice dragged his mind back to the present, and jolted his sense of reality.
"Plan? I don't know. Look for him. Find him."
"I don't know, Ebony." He sounded irritable again, and once again she knew that his anger was not really directed at her. "I just have to find him. I don't care about the rest. Now come on if you're coming."
"You think I'd leave you alone right now?" She followed him onwards, down the little alley that served as a shortcut to Memorial Square. What the square was a memorial to, nobody seemed to know. It had been there for as long as anybody could remember, and if there was a reason behind its name, it was either lost to time, or remembered only by clerks and historians. It had been in decline for some years, favoured by drunks on a Saturday night, but there had always been an air of respectability about it the rest of the week. Somebody had kept the flowers neatly weeded, and cleared away the debris of the drunken gatherings at the weekends. Somebody had given the benches a fresh coat of paint every so often, and diligently scrubbed away the extremely rude word that Ebony distinctly remembered being painted on one wall when she had been about five years old. Now, though, perhaps that somebody was dead, or had just given up. Certainly there was nobody looking after the place now. The last time she had been there, the ground had been a mess of abandoned shopping trolleys and old furniture, some of it still smoking gently from the bonfires that had been lit by the gangs. Most of the benches were gone, torn up and broken up and probably reinvented as weapons. It was more than a fortnight since the police had given up on the place. It belonged to the gangs of angry teenagers now.
"I can hear shouting," commented Bray, after a while. Ebony nodded.
"The usual, probably. Another shop has just been turned over I should think."
"I guess." Bray had seen a shop being looted a few nights before, when he had been walking back from one of his late-night trips to the beach. Six kids had smashed the front of the building using cricket bats, then set fire to the place after stealing only one or two things. He wanted to dismiss it all as mindless vandalism, but couldn't. There was so much more going on here. Too much more.
"Keep an ear open for police sirens." The shouting sounded louder now, and Ebony couldn't help listening for other sounds behind it. They hadn't reached Memorial Square yet, with its relative safety as a place where the police didn't bother to go. Here there were still patrols that lurked, and anybody was fair game if they were caught nearby when there was looting going on. So said the rumours she had heard - and after a morning spent dodging men in uniform, she was ready to believe anything.
"You worry about the police." Bray was frowning, and his step had slowed. "Can you hear that?"
"The yelling? You'd have to be dead not to hear that." She cocked her head on one side, ever alert, as another sound seemed to rise up briefly from the ether. "You mean that?"
"That's fear. That's not gangs having fun." The noise rose up again, and this time Ebony heard it clearly, and was sure.
"Sounds like a woman. An adult." Her breath caught briefly. "You don't suppose they've raided a place that still has people in it?"
"They wouldn't..." Bray had gone pale and, suddenly afraid, she reached out for his hand. Gangs raiding empty shops was almost fun. It was a statement - a way of showing the city that the kids were taking possession of their new world. It was something that she would be willing to be a part of herself. But if there were still people inside? It would come, she knew that. She might even be happy to join in with it herself when the End came nearer, and they were all closer to the time of lawlessness that she was sure was coming. Now, though - now she wasn't ready, even if she wanted to be. When her fingers sought to close around Bray's, though, his hand was suddenly no longer there.
"Come on." He was running, before she was entirely aware of it, running towards the sounds of the yelling. Ebony's heart gave a lurch. She had never been afraid of danger. She had been closer than most would have dared, to the fights that raged at night. Somehow this felt different. She realised, with a sick, cold feeling, that she was scared of what they might see. She wouldn't let Bray go alone, though. She wouldn't be left behind. Breaking into a run, she followed after him, and hoped that her imagination was wrong. They weren't animals yet, were they? Not yet.
They rounded the corner up ahead, where the alley of their shortcut met a wider road. It had been a busy place once, until the bypasses and developments of recent years had left it largely obsolete. Older, respectable shops lined the streets here; none of the high street chains and supermarkets that were a mark of the more populated areas. Bray vaguely remembered going with his grandfather to buy some old boys' tie in one of the shops, in the days when Martin could barely walk, and a virus had been something that was usually gone in twenty-four hours. The street didn't look respectable now, though, for all its old stores and antiquated appearance. It looked like the heart of a riot.
The screams came from further down the road, where a minibus lay on its side, its engine in flames. Several people had scrambled out, clutching suitcases and boxes, and clustering together for protection from the teenagers that were circling nearby. An hysterical woman was the cause of the screaming. She was wearing a facemask, as though to protect herself from germs, and she was holding onto a gargantuan wheeled suitcase. She was too close to the flames that licked at the minibus, but she was making no effort to save herself. She looked too far gone in her hysteria to realise the danger that she might be in. Ebony swore.
"They were trying to get out of the city," she muttered, not entirely without sympathy. "Stupid way to come. This is gangland territory now."
"They probably didn't know that." Bray started forward, but she caught hold of his arm to pull him back. "What? We can't just--"
"You let yourself get seen, and you'll get torn to pieces. And I almost mean that literally. Gangland territory, remember? Look at that lot. They're looking for a fight."
"Exactly. Those people need help."
"No they don't. The police will be here soon. Look, that bus coming along probably interrupted some looters, so maybe things got a bit nasty; but those people being adults is enough to keep anything really bad from happening. We're different, though. We're fair game to that gang."
"We can't just walk away."
"Yes we can! If those kids were going to attack, they'd have done it already. It's not going to get any worse now."
"Not going to get any worse? That minibus could explode." He shook off her hold, and started forward again. "They're just trying to keep from getting sick, Ebony. They don't deserve this."
"Who does." She watched him go, her own sense of self-preservation too great to allow herself to follow after, at least yet. Bray seemed to have no awareness of the danger, though - or possibly just didn't care. She suspected that it was something of both. He ran over towards the minibus without so much as a sideways glance at the lurking teens nearby, heading straight for the hysterical woman. Ebony would have rolled her eyes in exasperation, had she not been so worried for him. Idealists, she mused - even cute ones - were a curse. She had absolutely no doubt that this was going to end badly. She didn't have to wait long to be proved right.
"Ma'am?" Trying to sound calming, Bray slowed as he approached the woman. Eyes wild, she watched him come, but when he tried out a gentle smile, she backed suddenly away. "No! Ma'am, please. You have to keep away from the fire." She seemed to be getting closer to the minibus all the time, completely unaware of the flames that were licking along its length. "Ma'am!"
"Leave her alone." One of the other adults strode forward, a walking stick in one hand like a weapon. It had never occurred to Bray that he might be mistaken for one of the troublemakers. He shook his head.
"No. Look, you've got the wrong idea. I just want to--"
"We know what you want!" The woman he had intended to help seemed suddenly to snap back to consciousness, if not exactly to sanity, her eyes bright and wild. "What you all want! You think it's your world. You think that we're all dying, and that there's no law anymore. Well there is! We're not dead yet, and you and all your gang-mates are going to have to get used to that idea. Maybe we won't die." She took a step forward suddenly, peering at Bray through eyes that were unhealthily bright. She already had the Virus - he realised that with a sick, heavy feeling that seemed to fill his stomach.
"Ha." She leaned closer. "Hadn't thought of that, had you. We might not die. Hey boy? Where will that leave you and all the rest of your troublemaker friends? In prison, that's where. In prison like you all deserve!" She cackled, breaking off after a moment to cough. All that Bray could do was shake his head.
"You've got the wrong idea..." he repeated, not sure what else to say. "Listen, I--"
"Get out of here." The man with the walking stick swung it at him, only narrowly missing. Bray wasn't sure if the miss had been intentional or just by accident. He jerked back out of the way, all the while trying to convince the adults that he had meant them no harm.
"Grab him someone. We'll turn him over to the police when they come." One of the others came forward, this one holding an umbrella. He shook it as though to illustrate his point, though it made a woeful weapon. Bray backed away slightly.
"I just came to help. Your bus is on fire. It could explode."
"Which is just what you want." The woman coughed again, glaring at him as though her illness were his fault. "I know your kind. Seen you looting the shops, and painting your slogans all over the city."
"Not me." The words came out more forcefully than he had intended; indignation making the New Zealand twang rise up in his voice. The man with the umbrella made a swipe at him, and Bray backed away still further. Somewhere nearby, somebody shouted, and he remembered Ebony's words of warning. The gangs might not dare to attack the adults, but he was a perfectly legitimate target. They hadn't seen him before, when he had been watching from the sidelines. Now they could see him, and their blood was already up. The noise became a rhythm, and he stole a glance back over his shoulder to see what it was. Somebody was beating on a metal trashcan lid with a baseball bat.
"Getting read to rush us, aren't they." The man with the walking stick lunged suddenly for Bray, catching him by the wrist whilst the boy was still looking towards the source of the noise. "You're the advance guard, is that it?"
"No! Look, I just came to help!" Bray tried to pull free, but the man had the advantage of size and strength, as well as anger. "Let me go!"
"Not until the police come, you little hood." The man with the umbrella came forward to help with the arrest. Nearby the flames licked higher around the minibus, but nobody save Bray seemed to remember it now. He struggled more furiously.
"The bus is going to explode! We have to get away from here."
"Not so brave now, are you. Or your friends. Why don't they attack?" The woman was rubbing her hands together, grinning with satisfaction between bouts of coughing. "We'll show them."
"Show them what? They have you outnumbered. They have weapons. And they're not ill." A siren echoed somewhere in the distance, and Bray ceased his struggles in an instant. How far away was the siren? Was it coming nearer? How soon would the police car arrive? He couldn't be arrested - not when he had no idea what would happen. He couldn't be sent away, and leave Martin to fend for himself out on the streets. The man holding him laughed.
"That scared you, didn't it. We'll see how you like being locked up for a bit. You and your friends over there."
"They're not my friends." He thought that he could see a blue light now, flashing in the gaps between buildings. At any moment the car could sweep around the corner, and he couldn't be here then. He couldn't be. Setting his jaw, eyes frantic, he kicked hard at his captor's leg. There was a grunt of pain, an exclamation that all-but made Bray's ears burn, and the hand around his arm relaxed its hold. He pulled free, and with the woman's shouts and coughs echoing behind him, he ran for the nearest cover. A broken bottle hit the ground near his feet, and he stumbled. Ebony had been right. The mob of teenagers saw in him a target that as yet the adults could not be. He started to turn then, desperate not to risk leading anyone to Ebony, but he had gone no more than a few paces when the engine of the minibus finally caught fire. There was brief instant of head-splitting noise, and a confused jumble of broken moments that followed in quick succession. Tarmac biting his palms; echoes making dull pains in his head; bright lights rolling and flashing behind his eyes. When the police siren blared again, this time close by, the sound of it was impossibly loud and painful to his protesting skull.
"Shut up," he growled, his voice thick and distant, his ears too filled with strange roaring sounds to make sense of much else. Hands took his arms, pulling him upwards, but he fought them off. The police - he had to get away from the police. He had to find Martin, and the police would stop him from doing that. He had to--
"Bray!" It was Ebony's voice, which confused him. Surely she of all people wasn't working with the police? The tugging on his arms continued, more insistent this time, and a few things began to make sense to him again. It was Ebony pulling at him. Ebony trying to get him to his feet, and out of the way, before one of the arriving police officers saw them and came over. He allowed her to haul him upward, and tried to keep his balance once he was up.
"The minibus." He hadn't been sure for a moment, but he remembered now what had happened. The minibus had exploded. "Those people..."
"Chasing after you. They weren't next to it when it went up." The answer didn't quite add up, but he was still too confused to argue. Instead he allowed her to lead him away, through what seemed to him to be a tunnel of blurred images and distant, distant sounds. Lights were flashing everywhere, red and orange and blue, and the sudden smell of smoke made him cough. The coughing made him think of the woman, standing so close to the minibus, not caring about the dangers he had tried to bring to her attention.
"Those people..." he began again. Ebony pulled him into the nearest alley, and pushed him against the wall.
"Never mind those people. The explosion is going to have the authorities up in arms - what's left of them. I don't think the police got a good look at us this time. They were too busy with the minibus. But there's no way this is going to go unpunished. There's going to be extra patrols at the very least. We've got to get organised, Bray. And you have to walk out of here, because I sure as hell can't carry you."
"I can walk." His vision was clearing again, and he could see her properly now. She looked concerned - scared almost - although somehow she didn't seem as young as she had looked before. "I want to know, though, Ebony. Were you telling the truth? Did those people back there really get far enough away from the minibus before it went up?"
"Honestly? I don't know." She didn't sound much as though she cared. "I was looking at you, making sure that you were okay. A bunch of adults are the least of my concerns. Adult civilians, anyway."
He bridled at that. "They could be--"
"They could be dead, yes. Some of them. That woman had the Virus. You must have realised that. That means that all the people with her have got it too; and if those police officers back there hadn't got it before, they soon will have. They're dead, Bray, whether or not that explosion got them. Each and every one of them is a walking corpse. You're so desperate to help, that's fine. Go on back there now and try to help. Use your first aid skills and help the police, then go off with them to the station like a good little boy, and never get seen again. Never see Martin again."
"You've made your point." He pushed her away and tried to stand on his own, without her or the wall for support. For a moment the world swayed alarmingly, but he managed to stay upright, and after a moment began to take increasingly confident steps away down the alley. Ebony scowled at his retreating back.
"Where are you going?" she asked him. He didn't look back.
"The square, remember? Memorial Square. It's where we were heading. We can circle around all of this and still get there."
"You're in no shape to walk anywhere." She hurried after him, thinking all the time that she was a fool for doing so. "I'll go. We'll find you somewhere to hole up, and I'll go find Martin."
"No." He shook his head, though rather slowly and carefully. "Has to be me. How does it look if I send somebody else to do something like that? I want him to see that I care about him. Maybe if he sees that..."
"He'll go home with you, and you can ride out the Apocalypse in a cosy little house by the beach? Yeah." She managed to control her scorn, but he heard it anyway, and felt it sting at his heart. Martin was not lost. Martin could not be lost. He was still the sweet kid that he had always been. The Virus couldn't change that completely, could it? He looked away.
"I'm going." He walked on, knowing that she would follow, though not at all sure why she did. She said that she loved him, but she claimed to be looking out only for herself. He couldn't bring himself to trust her entirely, and yet she was beside him now, and was the only familiar thing on which he could lean. Perhaps she felt the same about him, and that was why she followed him? He doubted it. Ebony wasn't the type to look for reassurances. More the kind to demolish everybody else's.
"I don't think I've ever come this way before." It was some time before she spoke again, and several moments before her words penetrated his thoughts. He frowned slightly, recognising the attempt at conversation for what it was. She was trying to make things alright again. Maybe she really did need him after all.
"It's a short cut. Sort of." He didn't look at her, though he was already feeling his hostility beginning to thaw. She said such things, seemed so heartless - and yet he could never be angry with her for long. She got inside him, the way that nobody else had ever done, save Martin.
"Sort of?" Encouraged by his answer, she seemed brighter now, more sure of herself. He nodded.
"When I was at lower school we used to dare each other to cut through here on the way to swimming class on Friday afternoons. There's this guy... there was this guy... who lived in a skip just down here. He was half crazy, always ranting about how he liked to eat kids." Bray shrugged, looking faintly embarrassed. "Poor guy. People used to shout things at him. Anyway, he's dead now."
"The Virus?" She actually sounded interested, which made a change. He shook his head.
"They found him dead last winter. Before the Virus appeared. I don't know what it was. Anyway, we should be able to get to the square a bit faster this way."
"If you want to get there faster, move faster. We don't know how much those policemen are going to look around. And if they see us, you're in no state to run."
"I'm okay." He didn't feel it, but he said it anyway. What else was there to say? His ears still rang a little, but his vision had cleared. Save for the feel of a little blood running down his legs, from what had to have been skinned knees, everything seemed more or less normal. His palms were grazed and stung slightly, but nothing that it wasn't possible to ignore. For now he would rather go on ignoring, no matter the discomfort. Nothing was going to slow him down tonight.
Memorial Square was a mess. Even compared to some of the dingy places that Bray had seen that day, it was a mess. Rubbish-strewn, graffiti-daubed and stripped of its one time grandeur, it looked like an outdoor whore house, with teenagers draped about the place, less than artfully, half-hidden by clouds of smoke and piles of beer bottles. It was like a Friday night gone wrong; the after-party air taken far too far by people who no longer cared for anything. Bray counted about forty-five kids in all, mostly more or less his own age. It wasn't many, given the local population, but then most kids were still tucked up in bed at this time of night. Most kids hadn't bought into the sense of doom yet. Bray thought about the crowd he had left not long ago; the ones that had thrown bottles at him when he had stopped by the stricken minibus. Factor in the ones that he had seen at earlier points of the day, and was it really most kids who were still at home? Common sense told him that this was a tiny fraction of the city's under-eighteens, but still he wasn't too sure. How many kids were there who still had both parents? How many were still untouched by the Virus? Whatever the number, it was falling all the time.
"Looks like we've missed a great party," commented Ebony. He didn't bother shooting her the annoyed look she was expecting. "Come on, Bray. Look around you. People are having a great time. It's a celebration."
"This is what your great new regime is going to be about? Drunk kids smoking weed? People sleeping together because nothing matters anymore?"
"Sounds like fun to me."
"Yeah, great. Until the babies start arriving. How are you going to look after babies in a world where nobody can look after themselves?" He quickened his pace, striding through the mess of windswept litter and empty bottles, looking all the time for Martin. A few people threw faintly hostile looks his way, but nobody seemed anxious to start anything. One or two even offered words of welcome, and one tried to hand Bray a joint. He shook his head.
"Forget it. I'm looking for someone."
"We've got someones." The kid with the joint looked like he had been sleeping in the same set of clothes for a week, and he spoke as though he had eaten nothing but cannabis smoke for at least that long. "Someones everywhere, take your pick. You wanna girl?" He peered at Bray, as though looking for something. "Or a boy? No problem. It'll cost you, though."
"Money?" asked Ebony. The boy shook his head.
"No way. Another few months and money will be gone. It's already going out of fashion around here. Food, man. Food or beer. It's the only stuff anybody wants."
"Told you," Ebony muttered. Bray glared at her.
"Money still matters. So do a lot of other things. Anyway, it's not that that I'm after. I want to find my brother."
"Oh, right." The kid nodded, his manner changing slightly. "If your brother's here, you're welcome enough. What's his name?"
"Martin. He's small, with very light hair, and - and he's taken to wearing these contact lenses that make his eyes look weird."
"He's your brother?" Apparently that earned extra credit. Bray wasn't sure that he liked that. "Turned up here earlier. He's been saying some interesting stuff. Smart kid." A slightly wobbly arm pointed the way towards a rather weary-looking statue of Pan. Somebody had written James 4 Rachel across its back in what seemed to be black marker pen.
"Thanks." Rather distracted, Bray turned away. So these people had been impressed by Martin? He wasn't sure whether to feel proud of his brother or just to be shocked. Lost kids, in search of an apocalypse, eager for the end of civilisation that they were so sure was coming - and they liked what Martin had to say? He didn't bother to see if Ebony was following him. He just walked towards the statue, and hoped that his brother would be on the other side of it.
"Where are you going?" It wasn't asked as a question - more a statement to the effect that, whatever he had been intending, he wasn't going any further. He blinked. Two boys had come from nowhere, and stood before him with their arms folded. Both had shaven heads, and both were dressed in garish, skin-tight T-shirts bedecked with bicycle chains. The troublemakers of the old world, trying to run what they hoped would be the new one. It made him sick.
"Get out of my way." He wasn't in the mood for more trouble. He was tired and irritable, and his head was starting to ache. The left-hand boy smiled unpleasantly.
"Got the password?"
"Password?" This was insane. "There's a password to walk past a statue?"
"You got a problem with that?" The right-hand boy took a step forward, but his threatening posture had the opposite effect to that intended. Suddenly gripped by the absurdity of the situation, Bray couldn't help but laugh. His head protested, but he ignored its annoyed throbs. Let it complain.
"You've got to be kidding." He couldn't help himself now, even though he had thought that he was in no mood at all for laughing. "This is some weird joke. What the hell do you two think you look like?"
"You wanna watch who you're laughing at." The left-hand boy reached swiftly for something in his pocket, but no sooner had he retrieved it when a metal dustbin lid, flung like a frisbee, struck his arm a powerful blow. He yelled out, and dropped a small knife onto the ground. Bray didn't need to look around to know that it was Ebony who had thrown the lid. Inwardly he thanked her. Outwardly he wasn't sure that it was safe to do so just now. Instead he merely kicked the knife out of the way, and glared the pair down.
"I'm looking for a blond boy called Martin. Weird contact lenses. Likes to talk a lot." It wasn't hard to sound impatient. The right-hand boy shifted slightly, clearly trying to keep one eye on Bray and one on Ebony. Bray couldn't see her, but he guessed that she had positioned herself carefully, so as to make it harder for the two boys to do just that.
"He's that way." He pointed with his thumb, on past the statue to where several people were sitting together on a bench. Two of them seemed to be painting the third's nails. No longer caring a jot about the two boys who had tried to bar his way, Bray pushed past and hurried towards the bench. It would all be okay now; it had to be. He just had to persuade Martin to come home.
"Martin?" He called the name as he ran forward, jerking almost to a halt as soon as the word was out of his mouth. What if the boy was still angry with him; what if Bray was the last person he wanted to see; what if he was still determined never to go home? The blond head turned, and Bray saw those weird, yellowed eyes looking back at him. Surprise registered in the young face first - then all of a sudden Martin was extracting his hands from the two girls beside him, and was standing up to face his brother. He didn't look angry. He just looked surprised.
"Bray? What are you doing here?" There was no obvious animosity in his voice, at least that Bray could detect. The older boy shrugged, feeling a bit awkward. After all that had happened that morning, it was difficult to know what to say now.
"I could ask the same of you. Martin, I--"
"I'm glad you came." The boy put his arms around the shoulders of the two girls, taking obvious care not to smudge their decoration of his fingernails. "Lisa, Casey - this is my brother Bray. And that's Ebony. I think she's his bodyguard."
"It's a body worth guarding." Back to full swagger, her manner once again switched to full-on flirt mode, Ebony came closer, as though to make it clear to Lisa and Casey that they should keep their attentions for Martin. Bray barely noticed.
"You're okay?" he asked, his focus reserved almost solely for the white-blond boy before him. Martin shrugged.
"Of course I'm okay. You know I can run fast. The police didn't stand a chance."
"It's not about running fast. You can play at being streetwise all you like, but we both know different." Bray saw the boy's hands tighten slightly, and fought back the exasperation. "Look, can we talk? Alone?"
"If we have to." Martin said something to the two girls, and they went away together, although they didn't go very far. "I'm happy to bury the hatchet, but if you're here to baby me again, Bray--"
"I'm not going to baby you. I was worried. Like I said, you're not exactly an expert at avoiding the authorities. I just wanted to know that you were okay."
"And I am." Martin shrugged, then sighed and sat down on the arm of the bench. "I don't want to keep arguing with you, Bray. Believe it or not, I didn't want to see you get hurt earlier. But you have to understand something about me. I've found a new path, and I'm following it whatever you say. The old world is over. The old Martin is ending with it."
"Maybe." Bray was thinking of an exploding minibus, of terrified and desperate adults, and of a gang of kids throwing bottles in the street. If the old world wasn't over, it was certainly facing the fight of its life. "I don't want to keep arguing with you either. But your safety is my responsibility. I promised mum and dad."
"Mum and dad are dead." Martin spoke the words so flatly that it was almost as though he had switched off his emotions. Bray could see differently though, even if the eyes were now hidden. "I'm doing what I want now. I'm getting a place to live, I'm working on my own supply of food, and I've already got people who are ready to join me. I've got a gang. That's the way forward. I know you don't think so, and that's your right; but this is the way for me. There are eight of us already, and soon there'll be more. That's the way it's going to be now, and unless your eyes are shut so tight that--"
"My eyes aren't shut." How could they be, with all that he had seen that day? With all that he had seen in the days before it, but had tried so hard to ignore? "Gangs and stuff... it's not for me, Martin. Look, forget this. Come with me, and we'll leave the city. You and me. There's clean air there, and--"
"You think the air here won't be clean enough once the factories stop working? And they'll stop. Some of them already have."
"I didn't mean the factories." Bray met the weird eyes with a hard stare of his own. "If you're right, and all the adults die, then what's going to happen to the bodies? There are burial details now, but there won't always be. The city will be a death trap. Forget the Virus - what happens when the houses are full of rotting bodies? And not just of adults, either. There'll be kids, too. Not everybody will be able to cope in your new world."
"Then we'll burn the houses. We'll build funeral pyres. Let the old world burn away." Martin shrugged so lightly that for a second Bray felt a burst of fear. It was almost as if his young brother was mad. A second later, though, the smile was back on the boy's face, and he looked as he had always looked - save for the contact lenses. "I'm not leaving the city, Bray. This is my home. I was born here. I'll always live here, just like I would have done if..." He shrugged. "Well, that doesn't matter. This is my home, and I'm staying. Say goodbye to Aunt Miranda for me, maybe."
"Hardly. You think I'm going home if you're not?" Bray closed the distance between them in an instant, sitting down on the opposite arm of the bench. "We're in this together, like it or not. I'm not walking away from you, and I'm not leaving you to face this alone. If the adults die, we're going to need to stick together. I don't think you've realised just how hard life could be."
"I think I have." The boy flashed him a slight smile, that suggested he was looking forward to all that he believed was coming. "There was a radio broadcast earlier; about half an hour ago. The government is thinking about evacuating all the kids out to the countryside. They were talking about it on the news. It's the first step, you know. The city will be more empty then. It'll be easier for us. There'll be more empty buildings for the taking. More shops will shut, so there'll be more stores to loot. They didn't say when they were going to do it, but it won't be long I shouldn't think."
"Evacuate all the kids?" Ebony was still there of course, although both boys had more or less forgotten her. She stood now beside them, leaning on the back of the bench. "You think they'll really do that, Bray?"
"I don't know. On the one hand it makes sense. Why make the kids stay here to watch their parents die? We're pretty sure now that we're immune, so long as the Virus doesn't mutate. There are places outside the city where it hasn't spread to so much yet, too. Places where the kids could be looked after. But on the other hand... it's like admitting defeat, isn't it. I don't think they'd be ready to do that yet. It's like saying once and for all that it's over."
"It is over," opined Martin. Ebony nodded slowly. Bray merely gritted his teeth and said nothing. Martin seemed to take pity on him in the end, leaning over to give his arm a friendly punch. "We could change the subject," he offered. Bray looked away for a moment, staring at a spider spinning its web on the back of the bench.
"Change it to what?" he asked in the end. "What else is there to talk about? When have the three of us ever really had anything in common?"
"Strikes me that we've got a lot in common right now." Ebony gestured around them. "Look at this lot. I know I said it looks like they're having fun, and I'm not saying I wouldn't like to try a little of it myself. But at least I can see past the fun. The greatest opportunity of their lives, and they're all wasting it on alcohol and partying. It's like I said before, Bray. The kids who stay at home, or in the orphanages - the ones who get evacuated, if it comes to that - they're going to be at one hell of a disadvantage once the new world gets going. Those of us who are getting ready now, though - we can be the leaders. We can take the first steps; form the first gangs, get the best headquarters, and start stockpiling food. We should start now. And this lot? All they care about is stealing crates of beer and getting drunk. They're the sheep."
"And we're the shepherds," finished Martin, apparently happy to forget that he had been drunk himself just that morning. Ebony nodded, and for a second both seemed to be smiling the same smile. Bray shook his head.
"No. That's not me."
"Are you kidding? Bray, you're the smartest guy I know. With your brains, with Martin's gift for rallying the people, with me... being me... we could own the city. Somebody's got to."
"Not me." He turned away, looking around at the sprawled, drunken teenagers; at the rowdy groups painting graffiti on the walls; at the piles of litter and debris. There were too many people here. He couldn't think. He needed solitude and silence, and then maybe the thumping in his head would go away. "People won't let you rule them, you know. There'll be fights - and other people must be thinking the way that you are. There'll be other gangs forming; other kids wanting to be the ones on top. What do you two know about fighting?"
"Plenty," Ebony told him. Somehow he didn't find that hard to believe. Martin just shrugged.
"I'll learn. We'll all need to learn anyway, and why not? School's out, for us now at least. We can use the time for another kind of lesson. We'll learn how to fight, we'll learn how to hide, we'll learn how to scavenge. You wait and see. I won't just have a gang - I'll have an army."
"What's wrong?" Suddenly the hostility was back. "You jealous?"
"Jealous of what? I've just said that this isn't what I want. You know me, Martin. I don't like fighting. I don't like gangs."
"Maybe. Always been the one on top, though, haven't you. The one that everybody looks to. If I'm top man in the city, with an army to follow me, you won't be that anymore. You won't even be close."
"You think I want to be 'top man'?" Bray was incredulous. "If people look up to me, it's not something I've ever asked for. I made a name for myself at school, sure, but it wasn't recognition I wanted. All I've ever wanted is to be left alone."
"The girls will want me then too." Martin was smirking now. Bray shook his head.
"Not this again."
"Yeah, I know. You don't want the girls either. But they want you, don't they. Maybe you won't like it so much when you're not the one they're looking at anymore."
"Girls look at you. They always liked you. At school they think you're cute. And Trudy--"
"Trudy likes you best." This time there was real venom in the boy's voice. Bray could have kicked himself. He should have known that this was the issue that Martin was heading towards; the real problem at the heart of their relationship. He shook his head again.
"Trudy doesn't like me best." In point of fact he had no idea if that were true, as she had certainly expressed an interest in both brothers from time to time. Bray, however, had no intention of getting himself involved with the girl that his brother loved. "Look, why don't I get us something to drink. We can--"
"I saw you, you know." The anger seemed to have drained away again - when had Martin become so mercurial? Could he always have been this way, and just never before let it show? - and once again the younger boy seemed almost placid. "The day before yesterday, I saw you both near the school. You were kissing."
"You kissed Trudy?" There was a trace of something very like disgust in Ebony's voice. Not hurt or jealousy - more a sense of disappointment that, of all the girls in the city he should choose to kiss Trudy. Bray sighed. As if his brother's anger wasn't enough to deal with.
"It wasn't like that." He rubbed his head, wishing that the aching would subside a little. "She was saying goodbye. She was looking for you, Martin, but you've not exactly been easy to track down these last few days, have you. I meant to pass the message along, but... I don't know. The time never seemed right."
"Goodbye?" Martin's voice sounded strangely insecure. "She's going away?"
"Sort of. You know that her parents are still okay? I guess with them living just outside the city, they feel they've got a chance of staying clear. They've decided to seal themselves up in their house, and see if they can sit the Virus out."
"They haven't got a chance." Ebony sounded scathing, and Bray almost snapped at her. They were good people, Trudy's parents. He liked them a lot. If there was any chance that they might survive, and that Trudy would be spared the heartache that he and Martin had experienced, then he wanted to believe in it, for as long as he could. Instead of getting angry, he kept his voice level.
"That's as may be. They want to try, and I don't blame them. There's only the three of them. They don't have anybody else. So they've stocked up on food and things, and they're going to stay up there on the hill and see what happens. I guess if there's an evacuation they'll send Trudy away. At any rate, I don't know when we'll see her again." He shrugged. "She wanted to say goodbye, and yeah, she kissed me. It was hardly passionate, Martin. Maybe if you'd come a little closer you could have seen that for yourself."
"Maybe." The boy didn't quite meet his eyes. Eventually, with a weary, half-exasperated smile, Bray reached over and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Look at us. Arguing, like the only thing we have to worry about is some girl. The whole damn world could be falling apart, and we should be looking after each other. Not fighting about Trudy."
"Looking after each other?" queried Martin. Bray shrugged, once again looking around at the others in the square.
"Yeah, well. I don't pretend to know what's going to happen. We've got different ideas, you and I, that much is clear. At the end of the day, though, we've both got something the other needs, haven't we. I'm not going to throw a bag over your head and drag you home, so I figure that for better or for worse, we're stuck in the middle of... of all of this. And Ebony's got a point. I don't want to lead gangs, or marshal forces, but the three of us do have different strengths. If we can avoid tearing each other's heads off, I think we can work together pretty well. Keep each other alive, at least. You sound like you think it's going to be a party, Martin, but believe me, it's not. Three or four days from now, you might be begging to go back home."
"I won't." His brother smiled at him, looking oddly shy. "Thanks Bray."
"For not throwing a bag over my head and dragging me home." His smile broadened slightly. "Though you might be surprised at the fight I'd put up."
"Maybe I wouldn't be. Not anymore." He sighed. "Anyway, what good would it do. I can't keep you locked in your bedroom for the next six months, until all of this..."
"Blows over?" asked Ebony, with only a trace of mockery in her voice. He shook his head. Maybe it was being around these two, with their nihilistic vision, but it was getting harder all the time to believe that this was all going to end well for the adults.
"No," he said in the end, his mind once more back on his parents. "Whatever. Whatever's going to happen, I can't try to hide you from it. But I can't stop trying to look after you, either. I never will."
"Fair enough, I guess." The boy met his eyes, with a stare that was sharp and direct. "But I'm not the little kid you think I am. That kid died, the same day mum and dad did. Never forget that."
"If you say so." Bray closed his eyes briefly, still wishing for silence and solitude. It was too noisy here. Too much background noise, too much muttering of human voices. Somewhere in the distance a police siren sounded out, and he was surprised at how his pulse quickened in response. He was on the other side, now. Old securities no longer meant a thing.
"So we're agreed, then?" asked Ebony, breaking into his thoughts with a voice that came as a hammer blow. Hers wasn't a harsh voice; far from it; and yet it resounded against his skull as though it were some physical blow. He rubbed his head.
"Agreed?" he repeated, not sure quite what she meant. Even his own voice sounded odd to him now. He wondered if he had been hurt more than he had thought when the minibus had exploded. It was too hard to tell. So many people, and he had never been good with crowds. Too much noise, and him in the middle of it all. He needed to get away from here. The police siren came again, sounding louder this time. It was weirdly disorientating. Somewhere, behind the first siren, he thought that he heard a second.
"Yes. Agreed. The three of us, together, trying to make something worthwhile out of all of this? I know what you think of gangs, Bray, but there's strength in numbers. We're going to need to fight sooner or later." She frowned suddenly. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah. It's just a bit noisy here, that's all." The police sirens didn't help. There seemed to be so many of them. Martin was frowning as well now, though.
"Noisy? We're pretty much the only ones talking. Everybody else is mostly drunk. Are you sure you're okay?"
"He got hurt on the way here." Ebony was looming close, and Bray pulled back. The last thing he wanted was to be mothered by her. He shook his head.
"Didn't get hurt. Look, is it just me, or are there are a lot of police sirens?"
"There are always policemen around at night, aren't there?" Martin was listening as well now. "There are a few, though, yeah."
"Clearing up from earlier," suggested Ebony. "It was crazy, Martin. A gang of kids attacked a minibus. Bray got a little too close to it when it exploded, which is probably why he's starting to look like death warmed up."
"It exploded?" Martin leaned over, concerned. "Bray, are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah." He couldn't understand why they had said that it was quiet here, though. It wasn't quiet. Not in the slightest. "Those sirens are getting closer, I'm sure of it. I think it's time to leave."
"The police never come here. I've been talking to some of the kids." Martin sounded almost territorial. "Memorial Square is for the street kids now. It's our place."
"But people were attacked. A bus blew up. You think that the authorities are going to let that one go?" Bray shook his head, and immediately wished that he hadn't. Okay, maybe Ebony was right. Maybe he had been hurt more than he had thought. He stood up, determined to carry on regardless. "We need to get away from here."
"This place is easily defended," pointed out Ebony. He shot her a sharp look.
"You seriously want to get into a fight with the police? And sure, it's easily defended. It's also very easy to get trapped in. They just need to come at us from two directions, and we're stuck. Boxed in. If you're the police right now, and you've just seen a minibus explode thanks to some gang, what are you going to do? Strike back at a known stronghold. Here."
"Makes sense." Martin stood up, suddenly looking very young once again. There was no denying now that the sirens were getting louder. Even some of the drunken teens sprawled nearby were starting to take notice. There was another sound, too. A rhythmical sound, like the beating of drums. For a moment Bray thought that it was inside his head, until Ebony was suddenly grabbing hold of his arm, and pulling him away from the bench.
" What-?" He looked around, realising then that the rhythmic sound was no symptom of his growing headache. They were marching into view now - police officers, in neat orderly rows, and dressed in full riot gear. The drumming sound was the sound of their night sticks beating against their plastic shields. All over the Square, people were stumbling to their feet, looking around in fear. Bray felt his heart give a lurch.
"Martin--" He was reaching for his brother, but around them the others were rising up, stumbling on drunken legs for the nearest exit from the Square. Suddenly jostled by six or seven crowding figures, Bray almost lost his footing. Only Ebony's hand on his arm kept him upright. She was pulling him, he realised; trying to drag him somewhere. He fought back.
"Martin!" But there were others in the way now. The two girls who had been painting his nails, pulling the boy away. Another two or three others, Martin's fledgling gang, no doubt, pulling at Bray's brother to encourage him in his escape. Martin put out a hand, reaching out, but he was too far away to catch on to.
"We have to get out of here, Bray!" Ebony's voice was oddly shrill, the hammering of the riot shields making it impossible to think; not that it had been easy anyway. Bray's head was thumping, and the pain was growing worse.
"Martin!" He was fighting Ebony even as she was trying to help him, his only concern for his brother. There were too many people between them now, though. Too many kids, too many armoured police officers. Everywhere there was the thunder of stick on shield; the thump of stick on flesh. There was no gentility here; this was an enraged attempt to regain control in a city on the edge of madness. Bray saw it even in his confused state. There was violence here, and anger. No small amount of fear.
"Come on, Bray!" Ebony was pulling at him, and he let her lead him at last, stumbling now, head lost in a maelstrom. Something hit his arm. He wasn't sure if it was a night stick or a fist; couldn't tell if it had been intentional. Ebony stumbled, and somehow he held her up, helping her to safety even as she was helping him. They didn't know where they were going; it was too hard to see the way ahead; too hard to make any sort of plan. Sirens screamed. People yelled. Sticks hammered against shields. It was utter insanity. Only Ebony was real, somehow. Her hand on his arm, his hand gripping her hand, both of them holding on too tight. Only her voice made any sense, yelling at him to run, yelling that Martin would be alright, telling him to just keep on going. Somehow he did, even though everything else seemed in such a twist. Somehow, head whirling like debris in a tornado, he managed to keep on going. It was the only chance that either of them had.
And inch by battered inch, they struggled on.