Dawn broke, once again, on a degenerating city. Even to anybody sheltering indoors, far from the less secure places where sunlight could easily be seen, it was impossible to think that night was still lingering. Just as in other, less urban places, where a chorus of animal noises signalled the start of a new day, so too in the city did uncountable sounds join together to herald the return of the sun. It began with the sound of a police siren; a loud, lingering wail more sinister than any other sound in the city. Rising and falling and wavering, it was joined at its height by the roar of engines, by the scratching of countless pairs of roller-skates breaking trails through the litter-strewn streets. After that came the shouting; the screams and yells and sounds of battle; of people fleeing in desperation; of young children crying for food, and older children fighting for it; of bicycle chains clashing with dustbin lids, and stones crashing into buildings, and all the other noises that spoke of the war between the Locos and the Demon Dogs. It filtered through every wall, every barrier and every ransacked building, and it meant Get up! Staying in bed once the day had started simply wasn't safe.
Jack awoke unwillingly, just as he had done in the old world, when his mother had tried to coax him out of bed with promises of eggs and bacon and home-baked bread. Now there was nothing for breakfast but whatever he dared take from his precious food store, and there was certainly no sweet awakening from an exasperated mother anxious that he not be late for school. He opened his eyes, and listened to the sounds of morning. They weren't terribly inspiring, and he considered closing his eyes and trying for another half hour's sleep no matter how inadvisable - until he suddenly remembered what day it was. He sat up, sleepiness gone from his mind, and stared across the little shop that he had turned into his bedroom. It had sold CDs once, and some of them still adorned the walls in uneven displays. It wasn't them that he was looking at though - it was the second bed, pushed against the far wall; a bed draped with thin cotton blankets, tie-dyed and hand-decorated, and once destined for retail at an astronomical price. They were jumbled up now into a pile that was momentarily reassuring. Jack began to relax, realising only after a moment that the domed shape of the bedclothes was due to the careless way in which the blankets had been deposited, and not because there was a sleeping figure underneath. Jack leapt to his feet.
He ran out of the room as fast as he could, his bare feet slapping on the cold, tiled floor. The corridor outside his room was deserted, and so were the other rooms that he could see. He could not hear a single sound from anywhere within the giant Mall. Furious, he ran up the stairs onto the third floor faster than he had ever run up a flight of stairs before, bursting into the open-plan restaurant like some hopeful diner who was half-starved and desperate for food. There were no waiter to take his order of course. Just a boy of his own age, sitting at a small table with a bowl of dry cereal before him, and a newspaper at least six months old lying next to it.
"Jack." He looked up in surprise, eyes torn away from the front page of a paper that he had already read countless times before. He knew most of it by heart, and frequently dreamt about the world in the story on the front page. It was about the evacuation of the city, a last ditch attempt to save the lives of the last remaining adults; a brave feat that had failed before it had really begun. Some had made it, most hadn't; and the city, inevitably, had fallen into the hands of the many already half-wild children who had been waiting for just that day.
"You-- How could you get up like that without waking me?" Jack was furious, the colour in his face rising to a hot red flush that matched the lurid red of his hair. "I thought you'd gone!"
"I wouldn't leave without saying goodbye." His companion folded up his newspaper very neatly and precisely, and put it back down on the table. "You know I wouldn't. Now come and have some breakfast. There's very little water again, but the cereal's okay dry. You can always imagine that you're eating it with milk."
"Huh. I can't even remember what milk tastes like." Sitting down opposite the other boy, Jack poured a cautious serving of breakfast cereal into the bowl already waiting for him. There was silence for a moment, as he reached for a spoon and contemplated the fairly unappetising meal; then at last he looked up at his friend. "You're still going then."
"Yes." The other boy, Adam, nodded his head. "I'm sorry Jack, but there's nothing here any more. There's no point in hanging around in this old Mall, waiting for - for what exactly? You still think that the adults are going to come back, don't you. That there are still some of them left out there, in other countries maybe. There aren't."
"I know." He did know - but still didn't believe. That was unimportant now though; far less important than trying to persuade his greatest friend that life out on the streets could not be more fruitful than life in the Mall. "All the same though - even if the adults have all gone - what good is it going to do going out there, rather than staying here?"
"Jack..." Adam shook his head, amused and exasperated all at once. His red hair, dyed to the same shade as Jack's own manically red locks, waved to-and-fro to the full extent of its shaggy length, contrasting handsomely with the smooth, almost charcoal blackness of his skin. "We've been through all this before. Lots of times. I know you feel safe in the Mall, to a degree - and so do I. I just don't think that there's any future here. It's getting harder to find food, and we never know if we're about to be invaded... We can't really defend ourselves here, and it's so... so enclosed. I want to be somewhere where I can just step outside when I feel like it, instead of having to spend the whole day shut up in here. We might as well be three miles underground."
"It's not safe outside." Jack tried to eat a mouthful of his cereal, but couldn't seem to summon up any enthusiasm for it. "You know it isn't. Even if you could make it out of the city, there's no way of knowing if it's any safer there. There must be other tribes in the countryside."
"There probably are, but they won't be all packed into one space like they are here. There have to be big spaces where there's nobody at all, just like there were before the Virus. Remember all those wide open areas, all trees and rivers and fields and the like? I could fish, and grow stuff. Eat fruit, catch rabbits - anything like that. It's got to be better than hiding in some old building waiting to be found by the Locos."
"They won't come here. They've already ransacked the place. That's why we moved in." Jack sighed, aware that his arguments were no more likely to have an effect on Adam now than they had on any of the occasions that he had tried them out. "I just think that you're taking a big gamble, and it's not necessarily going to get you anything better than what you've got now."
"But I won't know that unless I try it, will I." Adam ate the last of his dry cereal, and put the spoon down carefully. It looked almost as if he wanted to savour even that small part of his morning ritual, now that he would not be doing it again, in this place at least. "It doesn't have to be goodbye, you know. You could come with me."
"No I couldn't." Almost more than anything Jack wanted to do just that - wanted to stay with Adam, his last link to his old life, for as long as possible. He couldn't do it though, and that knowledge held him back as surely as ropes. He wasn't a coward, and neither was he a weakling, but the life that Adam yearned after didn't attract him. Neither did the uncertainty of it - of never knowing if he would get to his rural paradise, or be captured or killed along the way. In his view it was better to stay where he knew that he was probably safe, even if there were obvious shortcomings to his ramshackle 'fortress'.
"Then there's nothing more to be said, is there." Adam was smiling at him in a curiously sad fashion as he rose to his feet. Beside him, lying on the floor, was something that Jack had not previously noticed - a bag, obviously filled with provisions, with Adam's favourite coat thrown on top of it. It was a thick black coat that had hung down to his knees when it had first been given to him, but which now reached down only just past his waist. It seemed a miracle that he could still fit into it, and yet not only did it fit him as well as ever, but it kept him just as warm, and just as waterproof, as it always had. It still had his name sewn into it as well; Adam Maynard, embroidered by his oldest sister, who had raised him since his youngest years. He slung it on as Jack watched him, arranging the lapels carefully, so that the badges depicting favourite pop groups could properly be seen.
"So that's that then." Jack was staring at the floor now, trying to imagine life on his own in the Mall; and trying to make himself believe that things really could be better if he chose to leave it behind, and go with Adam.
"You know it is. I have to leave now, when things are only just getting going out there. Dawn is the best time to start out."
"Midnight would be the best time. There are even less people around then."
"Exactly. I'd stick out a mile if there was anybody watching. At dawn lots of people start moving about, and the streets are often busier than they are at the height of the day. I've got to go, Jack."
"I know." Jack managed a shaky smile. "Are you sure you've got enough food?"
"For the next day or so, yeah. I should be able to find something else by then, and I don't want to run down your stores here. The way things are going out on the streets, you're going to need as much as you can get. It's not going to be safe to go scavenging soon."
"Things will settle down. They're bound to." Jack was trying to eke out the conversation, putting off that inevitable moment when they would have to say goodbye. Adam was stronger though, or perhaps just a little bit more practical. He smiled, and reached out his hand.
"Things are sure to settle down, eventually. Maybe when they do I'll come back and visit. You can show me what you've done to this place, and maybe come and visit me on my farm. Now shake hands, Jack."
"Yeah. Okay." They shook hands slowly, both smiling awkwardly all the while. "Good luck, I guess."
"Yeah, You too." They stayed like that for a moment, still holding hands, then released each other in a fit of sudden embarrassment. "I'll see you."
"Yeah." Jack tried to believe that they really would see each other again; but when you had already lost everybody that you cared about, it was all too easy to imagine the worst. "I - I guess I'll walk you to the door."
"No." Adam had run this parting scene through his head a hundred times since deciding that he had to move on, yet somehow it didn't seem to be going at all the way that he had planned. Now he just wanted to leave, as quietly and as quickly as possible. "No, don't do that. There's no point in stringing this out. Finish your breakfast. I'll... I'll just go." He slung the bag onto his shoulder. "Goodbye, Jack."
"Goodbye." The small boy with the electric red hair stood mutely at the top of the stairs, watching his best friend vanish, trying all the while to think of something striking; something meaningful; anything at all that he could say in a last farewell. All that he could think of was a whispered, heartfelt exhortation that the tears he wanted to shed should stay bottled up. No point in crying now, when he had already been through so much. No point in smudging the two white lines that were painted across his face; the twins of the markings on Adam's face. Tribal design; signs of tribal membership; the pictorial representation of the all important adage of strength in numbers. Except now there was only Jack.
He thought at first that he could be strong, and not go to watch as his friend left the home that they had shared for the past two months. He thought that he could manage just to stay where he was and finish his breakfast, and maybe read that well-worn newspaper that Adam had left behind. It seemed to him that long minutes passed, and that he was showing great restraint in waiting; in standing; in not moving a single muscle. When at last he gave in though, and dashed for the nearest window, it was to see Adam only just emerging from the Mall. Clearly those long minutes of - as he had thought - admirable restraint, had not really been so very long at all. Just a few seconds maybe; a few, short moments that had seemed to last forever. He wondered about shouting; throwing open the window and trying one last time to persuade Adam to stay; but in the end he watched in silence as his last friend - his last link with anything that had ever mattered to him - walked away forever. Soon he had vanished amongst the many buildings, and there was not a trace of him left anywhere. Jack closed his eyes very tight, and tried to think of something positive. He couldn't. Whatever other problems and hardships occupied his active mind, right now only one seemed of any importance. It was so quiet in the Mall; so empty. In all of his life Jack didn't think he had ever been so alone.
Bray hadn't been to this part of the city in a long while; not since before the Virus. He remembered a family trip into the countryside, stopping off on the way back somewhere near here, at a little teashop that his father had remembered from his childhood; lots of jokes about whether or not his father had ever really been young, and how he couldn't possibly remember that far back anyway. Martin had been terribly shy when the waitress had come to ask for their order, and had turned a brighter shade of red than the twisting flames of war-paint that now swirled their way across his face. Such an occurrence seemed entirely impossible now, for that sweet, shy boy was long gone, just like the world he had lived in.
The teashop was still there, nestled in between a library and a tiny little supermarket. All three buildings had been ransacked of course; the windows of the teashop were nothing but empty frames, all trace of glass gone. The sign still hung above the door, faded, just as it had been when Bray had last been there. He remembered the little old lady behind the counter, who had poured tea out of a huge, cast iron kettle that had looked as though it should require several weightlifters just in order to tilt it. He refrained from looking in through the window as he went by, deciding that he could live without seeing any more of his past turned to rubble and graffiti-ised junk.
There were new tribes in this part of the city; people that he didn't know. It had been a long time since he had been in a place where he knew nobody, for even when he was far away from the place that he laughingly thought of as home, still there were people that he knew. Locos mostly, travelling far and wide in their on-going hope to take over the city. Here though there did not seem to be a sign of the Locos, and no matter how city-wide Bray had thought that his brother's reputation had spread, there still seemed to be people in this sector of the sprawling metropolis who had never heard the renowned name of Zoot. He had heard whispers of another tribe, as feared in this neighbourhood as the Locos and the Demon Dogs were in so many other places, but as yet he had managed to avoid them. They called themselves Primitives, and wore vast amounts of feathers woven into their hair. If hearsay were truth then they also carried long knives, and wooden staves as long as they were tall. Bray wasn't sorry that he hadn't encountered them, for they didn't sound as though they would be any more friendly towards Strays than his brother's deadly band.
The only other tribe whose name he knew was one that had welcomed him, unexpectedly, when he had wandered into their territory some days before. He had been attacked on a street corner by a gang of boys his own age, who had knocked him for six without even bothering to steal anything. He had wandered through the streets, barely conscious and thinking of nothing save the missing Trudy; unaware of the dangers inherent in a region where the Primitives were kings; when suddenly the Street Owls had appeared out of the dawn mist. He had hardly been aware of them taking his arms and leading him to their hideout; of them cleaning him up and giving him something that could only have been home-made vegetable soup. There had been a little campfire, built from broken pieces of furniture, in a little cellar with a hole in the roof, leading up into a many-screened cinema above. Several of the red plush chairs had been dragged down for the tribe to use as seats, and the walls of the little cellar were hung with posters advertising films of all genres and times. There were rugs on the stone-flagged floor, and a popcorn maker, pointless and useless in a world without electricity, sitting gleaming and grand at one end of the room. Somebody had filled it with cut flowers in an attempt to make it more decorative; a bright and unexpected display of the kind that Bray hadn't seen in very long time indeed.
"Bray!" Jeanie, the almost impossibly tall redhead who seemed to be the deputy leader of the Street Owls, looked up with warm welcome in her eyes as he entered the cellar. He had been out scouring the streets, searching for food and looking for news of Trudy. Nobody seemed to have seen a pregnant teenager, but then very few people really cared. One or two sounded sympathetic, but most didn't want to be approached by strangers. They just wanted to be left alone.
"Hi Jeanie." He threw himself down near to her, stretching out his legs to the fire, and wondering if Trudy had anywhere this warm and sheltered to return to. The world had been a place of cold greyness and drizzle these last few days, and the sun had not bothered to put in an appearance. Trudy shouldn't be alone and lost in weather like this. Nobody should.
"Any luck?" She sounded sympathetic, as she had from the moment when he had first told her of his search. She didn't want him to find Trudy though. He had realised almost immediately that she wanted him to stay with the Owls, whereas his own plans called for a rather different outcome. As soon as he found Trudy he would leave, heading back off on his search to find somewhere truly safe for her to raise her baby. This underground cellar wasn't that place, no matter how many cut flowers they filled the room with, nor how warm they made things with their well-built fire.
"If you mean did I hear anything about Trudy, no." He was beginning to feel the warmth of the fire sinking into him at last, and watched in satisfaction as clouds of steam rose from the damp material of his trousers. "I'm starting to think that she's gone for good."
"Maybe that's for the best." She had an expression on her face that was two parts sympathy to one part fiendish manoeuvring. "You're not exactly the 'settling down with a family' type, are you. You don't need that kind of responsibility."
"That's what I keep telling myself." He shrugged, and shook some droplets of water from his lengthening hair. "And then I realise that I miss her, and that I really do want to find her. Truth is, I owe that baby. It's my brother's kid, and that's got to mean something."
"What's a brother nowadays?" She really didn't seem to see his problem. "I don't even know where my brother is, and as far as I know my sister was captured months ago by the Primitives. Family isn't important any more, Bray. Tribes are. You have to have a tribe. Somewhere to belong. That's something that's stronger than any family unit used to be."
"Your family maybe." He imagined his mother, and how she would have cared for Trudy and the baby. There were no tribal ties that could ever be stronger than his family, were there? But then try telling that to Martin, he thought to himself. Irrationally angry, he lay back on the stone floor and stared up through the hole in the ceiling. Jeanie obviously realised that he was upset, for she moved closer and put a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"I'm sorry." Her voice sounded so apologetic, and so hopelessly mature, that he had to smile.
"It's okay. I'm just a little touchy, I guess. It's going for so long without a word..."
"I know. And that's why I should be apologising. It was insensitive of me to act like you should be glad Trudy's gone. How about if I come out with you tomorrow? Maybe if we both look we'll find something."
"Maybe." He let out a long sigh, trying to begin the conversation all over again. "I did have some luck today though. I found some more food." He dug around in his bag, and produced a pack of four tins of peaches, as well as a number of sachets of powdered soup. There was a tub of milk powder as well, increasingly sought after now that the fresh stuff was almost unheard of in the city. Jeanie's face split into a huge grin.
"Bray you're wonderful! Every tribe should have one of you. Where did you get this stuff?"
"Hidden near the old storm drain." He shrugged. "It had been there a long time if the dust was anything to go by, so I figured if nobody else wanted it, we might as well have it."
"I'm not going to argue." She took the milk and began mixing some of it straight away, adding it to a large pan of water simmering over the fire. "You know, the others weren't sure at first, about letting you stay I mean. You being an Outsider and all. They can't argue now though, can they. You find more stores than anybody else."
"I guess I'm good at it." Once upon a time he had thought no more about fetching food than the journey to the refrigerator to find it - that and the occasional trip to the supermarket to help his mother. Now every excursion was fraught with danger, and the food had to be rescued almost literally from the jaws of hell. Funny that he should be so good at it, coming as he did from so sheltered and gentle a background. The most he had ever done in terms of foraging, before the Virus, was digging the odd carrot out of his father's vegetable patch.
"You're more than good at it." She was adding other ingredients to the pan now, but he couldn't see what. Powders mostly, like the old instant hot drink powders that his parents had kept in the kitchen cupboard: Malted drinks, for when Martin couldn't sleep; hot chocolate for the winter evenings; instant tea in case they ever ran out of teabags. Whatever it was that Jeanie was making, it smelt good; warm and reassuring the way that warm drinks should smell, when you were cold and wet and the weather was bad outside. So relaxed was he that he almost didn't hear the girl's voice, asking him to fetch her a few more things before the others came back. He stirred himself regretfully, laying out the row of battered metal plates, and the ranks of plastic cutlery. Now that he was here there were sixteen places to lay; fifteen Street Owls, of whom twelve were under the age of fourteen. There were at least three that were practically still infants - or what he would class as such. They were barely six years-old, but they still hurtled about the back alleys on their roller-skates, dodging enemies and fighting for food. What went through a mother's mind as she died, knowing that she was leaving a child as young as that - younger - to fend for himself in the world? Bray's parents had died at the beginning of the Crisis, when nobody had known what was coming. They had still tried to believe that it was a virulent strain of something known; that there was a cure, or soon would be; that all kinds of people would prove immune, or that it couldn't really be as bad as all that. Other parents had died knowing that it was the end for their way of life; that all adults would soon be dead, and the world left to the children. The worry and fear had probably killed them just as surely as the Virus itself.
It was always those smallest children that returned first; five of them this evening, in a soggy bundle of black clothes, smudged tribal paint and suspicious, darting eyes. The three youngest were squabbling over something, and their two companions, who were all of eight years-old, were doing their best to appear grown up and uninvolved. Jeanie sent them all to wash in a tub of lukewarm water near the popcorn maker, and all trace of would-be maturity vanished from their faces. They went in the end though, muttering and scowling and shooting angry, jealous glares at Bray. It seemed that, to them, no matter how friendly he was with Jeanie, he would always be a focus for suspicion. He didn't blame them really. These children had seen enough for any lifetime, and had been warped enough by the experience to make them almost incapable of trusting anybody they didn't know. Worse than the old days, when a stranger might be a danger to a child; in the new world all strangers were almost guaranteed to be a threat.
The rest of the tribe came back in ones and two; lanky adolescents, pale from lack of food to support their growing bodies; girls whose developing interest in their appearance had been taken to sometimes outlandish degrees by the fetish for tribal paint and wild styles. The youngest of these older children was ten, the oldest perhaps seventeen; the leader of the gang by virtue of maturity rather than talent. He was a short and stocky boy who called himself Raven, although the name didn't particularly suit him. His hair was jet-black, and his nose long and sharp, but he was too quiet to be a raven; too unobtrusive and finicky. He was often morose as well, worn down by the worries of leadership, always dreaming of an end to the current hardships of life in the city. Bray might have sympathised with him, had he not been such an awkward person to get along with. Raven resented the stranger's presence with the inevitable, illogical jealousy of the young in love. Bray, who had no interest in Jeanie in romantic terms, had no patience for a boy who was obviously convinced that he was about to steal her away.
"We didn't do very well. There's no food anywhere anymore." Throwing himself down as close to Jeanie as he could feasibly be without actually landing in the fire, Raven peeled off his heavy leather biker's jacket, and flung it to one side. Droplets of water cascaded off it as it flew through the air. "I didn't find anything."
"I got a couple of tins of beans." One of the girls held up a damp and sorry looking carrier bag, with the name of some supermarket or other emblazoned on the side. "They're a bit rusty, but they should be alright inside. They won't go far though."
"I got this." One of the taller boys laid a bottle of mineral water down on the floor - a litre-capacity bottle with the plastic seal still intact, and the label still striking by the neatness of its condition. "I found it in a burnt out building. There were some feathers lying around. I reckon whoever was living in there got run off by the Primitives, or captured by them or something. Figured there was no point letting the water go to waste."
"Good work." Raven didn't sound terribly enthusiastic about this limited success, but his tribe had become used to that a long time ago. "That'll last us a while at any rate." Pure water such as was contained within that bottle was, as they all knew, the most precious of commodities.
"Bray found us some stuff." Jeanie didn't bother to keep the pride from her voice. Bray, not the most avid of attention seekers by any means, made as though to object to her announcement, but she did not seem to notice his unease. Instead she waved his discoveries in the air like beacons, showing the tinned peaches to the excited children, and throwing the tub of milk powder to one of her older companions. One of the boys slapped Bray on the back, showing his appreciation in the best way that he could. Bray nodded graciously, avoiding Raven's angry eyes.
"Great. So we eat peaches tonight I suppose." Pulling off his heavy boots, Raven threw another piece of wood onto the fire, and tried to look as though he wasn't rather envious. "Did you find us anything else Bray? A pork roast perhaps?"
"No pigs, no." It wasn't hard to be amused when Raven was trying to make jokes, even though the jokes themselves were rarely funny. Bray almost had to struggle to keep himself from smiling too much, and perhaps underlining the leader's inadequacies more than was entirely fair. There was no sense in adding insult to injury after all. "Just some powdered soup. Not much choice about the flavour, but there should be enough to go quite a long way."
"And with some of the milk powder added to that hot chocolate that Louisa found last week, we should have something that will help us all to sleep tonight." Jeanie began to ladle the drink out as she spoke, pouring it into the khaki-coloured metal mugs that were lined up before the fire. "There's enough here for everybody to have two cups, and with the last of the biscuits and some of that soft cheese, we should have plenty."
"That sounds fantastic." Jez, a girl of obvious refinement, clearly meant what she said. She had obviously come from a very different world to that of her fellow tribe members, and her hair and nails still showed something of the expensive care that they had once received. In past years she probably wouldn't have considered eating a meal of old cheese and stale biscuits, but now it was more than welcome. A statuesque girl of sixteen, she had impossibly long lashes and skin the colour of seasoned beech wood, with eyes like the sky just as dusk turned to night. Something about her reminded Bray of Ebony, but he didn't think that the reason for that lay in her character. She seemed pleasant enough, and gentle too; but the indigo swirls across her forehead and chin were inescapably reminiscent of the stylised red flames with which Ebony had chosen to decorate herself.
They drank slowly, all feeling the benefit of the small luxury that the hot chocolate provided. Bray felt almost guilty as he drank, certain as he was that Trudy was probably alone in the cold and the rain right now. His more rational side told him that there was nothing he could do about that right now, and that it was important to look after himself in the meantime. It wasn't easy, though, to combat the guilt at a time of such rare pleasure.
The meal was a stilted affair, such as Bray had grown used to during his time with the tribe. The Street Owls seemed a cheerful, friendly lot, but the younger members were still wary around him, which made all moments in his presence uneasy for them. The older Owls, although determined to be good hosts, were still a little anxious nonetheless; suspicious of him perhaps, or a little jealous like their leader; uncomfortable whilst in the company of an stranger no matter their desire to be otherwise. Bray was from another sector of the city and knew nothing of life here; of the way that this place had adapted in its own unique way to the new situation. Every sector of the city was different in its own ways, but this one, being so far from Bray's home, was almost like a foreign country. Not knowing the dangerous tribes, not recognising the enemy faces, he was a liability, and might therefore be a threat. Unconcerned with the faint discomfort of those around him, Raven used the time to try to chat to Jeanie, but she wasn't interested, and concentrated only on her meal.
It was only as Bray was drinking his second cup of hot chocolate that he began to realise how very tired he was. He hadn't noticed it earlier, being keyed up still from his fruitless search through the unfamiliar streets. He had not eaten much, having planned to take one last tour of the immediate locality before the darkness became too complete. Raven, however, had insisted on everyone having their fair share, playing his rôle of responsible leader on one of the rare occasions that he felt that way inclined, and had served out the rest of the malted chocolate himself. Bray hadn't wanted his, but it had seemed to be the right thing to do to take it. These people were his hosts after all, and he didn't want to cause offence. Now he regretted it thoroughly. He could hardly hold up his head, and knew that he would not get very far if he tried to go back out tonight.
"Is it just me, or is everybody tired right now?" Jez was rubbing her eyes, much of her second mug of chocolate still untouched. The younger children were already asleep, curled up together in a pile like small cubs. Their older cohorts were still sitting upright, although only just.
"It's the hot chocolate." Jeanie could only speak in snatches between yawns, which was something that everybody could sympathise with. "My parents used to... to drink it before bed. They said... said that it helped them to sleep. It's just having a stronger e-ef-effect on us because we're so tired."
"I guess." Jez stretched her long body, and lay down on her side on the hard floor. It was warm from the fire, the flagstones having transmitted the heat almost to the edges of the room. Bray felt like curling up too, and he wondered at that. He hadn't slept so readily in weeks; why would a little hot chocolate and milk powder have such an effect on him now? There were suspicions in his mind, but tired as he was the thoughts didn't want to come. Something inside him wanted to ask why Raven wasn't looking tired; why he was still sitting there, legs crossed, bright and alert in the middle of the room.
"Everybody finish up." His voice, only recently broken, was filled with a certain sullen determination to be obeyed. Some of his younger underlings reached immediately for their mugs, drinking down the last of their ration even though they seemed barely awake. Bray, at the time sipping slowly on what remained of the contents of his own mug, came suddenly to a sour realisation. Drugged. Again. He threw down the mug.
"Bray, don't waste it!" Jeanie was trying to sound scolding, but didn't seem able to achieve the right volume. Bray fixed his eyes on her, needing the point of reference as he struggled to rise.
"Jeanie... we have to get out of here." He made it halfway to his feet before his legs began to give way. Somebody behind him laughed, presumably at his inability to stand; but seconds later, when one of the Street Owls also tried to get up, he too found himself unable to do so. This time there was no laughing. Sounds of consternation began to permeate the room, and Jeanie turned questioningly to Bray.
"Bray? The milk powder - you didn't--"
"Of course I didn't." He tried again to finish rising, but once again couldn't make it. It was with some surprise that he found a pair of hands apparently trying to help him.
"Don't start exchanging accusations." Raven's voice was hard and determined, and was edged with something that sounded familiar; zeal, perhaps, or too much self-belief. "Just relax. Everything will be okay."
"What makes you think that?" Bray raised his voice, trying to address the room as a whole. "We have to get out of here. Can't you see what's happening? He's sold you out to the--"
"Shut up Bray. It's not like that." A hard blow, dealt more through petulance than maliciousness, caught him between the shoulder-blades, and sent him slumping to the floor. He smelt the clean, warm flagstones, and stared into his empty mug, lying nearby and facing him with its wide open mouth. He fancied that he could see himself in the bottom; a faint, smudged reflection in the chocolate-stained metal.
"No. No, we have to get out of here." He wanted to get up, but something was pressing him back down into the floor. It was a foot, heavy and large, being pushed into the middle of his back. To him it felt more like a young elephant.
"Raven, what's going on?" Jez's voice was slurred by sleep. Bray couldn't see her, although it was clear that she was barely conscious.
"It's... obvious." Fighting to stay awake, Bray tried to turn his head to catch a glimpse of the girl, but could see nothing save another abandoned mug, and a set of sprawled feet that he thought belonged to Cash, Jez's semi-official husband. "He's drugged us."
"Just a precaution. It's just to make sure that nobody gets hurt." Raven's voice, oily and slick, sank into Bray's diminishing conscious. "I'm not betraying anybody. I'm helping you all, and you'll see that soon enough. You don't have to worry. We're all Locals. It's only him that needs to worry."
"Bray?" Jeanie's voice was filled with confusion, and Bray knew that she wanted him to do something. But what exactly? Even if there had been anything, he was too sleepy now; too angry, too frustrated, too incensed. There were new footsteps coming closer, and he could hear them in the cinema auditorium above. Consciousness ebbed fast, and he knew that he could not stay awake for much longer. He tried to gather his thoughts; tried to make one last challenge; one last stand. He couldn't even open his eyes. Far in the distance Jeanie was still calling him, still pleading with Raven, her voice accusing, hurt, betrayed. He wanted to do something for her, but he couldn't. Angry, weak and utterly helpless, he had no choice but to give in to the need for sleep. The voices of the betrayed echoed in his head for a while, but before long he was disturbed by nothing save the contents of his dreams.
Jack tried to sleep. After that he tried to eat. When he had finally realised that his stomach was not in the mood to hold anything even approaching food, he gave up and decided to go for a walk. There weren't many places to walk to, though, when the streets outside were ravaged by gang warfare, and everybody was an enemy. Even friends were likely to stab you in the back these days, and Jack was not best placed to defend himself. He wasn't exactly helpless, but he was small for his age, and his muscles were hardly well-developed. He was a thinker, and he always had been. Fighting definitely wasn't his style - which was why, in the end, he restricted himself to walking about in the corridors of the Mall.
He got the lift working first. He had been meaning to do it for ages, fixing the pulley system so that the little service lift cage could be pulled up and down by somebody turning a large iron wheel on the ground floor. He had no use for it, but it was something to do. It seemed a shame that there was nobody to enjoy it now; nobody to ride in it, or to give him rides, for it couldn't be worked from the inside. Perhaps that was a modification for a future date, but his mind wasn't on it now. He decided to go back to his wanderings again, and found his way onto the top floor. Up there he cleared away some of the messes made months ago by gangs looting the place, long before Jack had moved in. Long before Adam had moved in either. He winced. Brilliant. His plan to avoid thinking of Adam had worked for approximately twenty minutes. He scowled to himself, kicked an empty can of some fizzy drink that was undoubtedly no longer available (and which he therefore, naturally enough, found himself craving desperately), and stormed off to look for something else to do. He couldn't find anything, and spent the next half an hour trying to enjoy sliding down the cold metal banisters of the large staircase between the first two floors. After that he gave up and tried to go to sleep again. His second attempt was no more successful than his first.
It was bright daylight, although he had hung a few pieces of material over his room's small window. The room had no door though, so there was nothing to stop the light finding its way to his eyes. Not that even darkness could have brought sleep to his agitated mind. He tossed and turned, lying for a long time on his back, staring up at the ceiling, then sat up and put his head in his hands. It just wasn't fair. None of this was fair. He didn't want to be here on his own.
Jack had always been a loner. When he had still lived at home, back in the days when things had been normal, his mother had always tried to make him go out more; to meet more people his own age, and to have a little fun. He had been more interested in his computer, and in his electrical toys, and in dismembering the television that an aunt had given him one birthday. He hadn't wanted company all that much, and had even gone to lengths to avoid it, particularly when he was working on a project that had really captured his imagination.
He had been fascinated by the Virus at first, and had spent even longer on his own then, reading up about chemistry and biology and medicine, wondering in his childishly arrogant way whether he might be able to spot something that the scientists hadn't. He hadn't discovered anything of course, for nobody had; not that he had realised that at first. It had been Adam who had drawn his attention to how bad things were getting; Adam who had pointed out just how many of their schoolmates were no longer attending classes; pointed out just how many people had died. They weren't burying the bodies anymore - they were burning them. Ferrying them out to the edges of the city, and setting fire to them as they lay in huge pits dug by men in white boiler suits. There were pictures on the television sometimes. That had been when Jack had first realised that being alone wasn't really all that great after all. He had started spending more time in the living room with his parents; watching television with them, talking to them instead of hiding himself away with his books and his experiments. He had enjoyed it, and it had lasted for a while. His parents had been amongst the last to die, and there had been a few months yet. Months of hoping, and then of worrying, and then of realising that the one thing that he really, really wanted was never to be alone – and then he had been more alone than ever. Shortly after that he had thrown in with Adam.
And now he was alone again. He had forgotten how quiet solitude was; how heavily silence settled around him, and sank into his consciousness. He had used to love it; loved how it helped him to relax and to concentrate, and made his reading and his learning so much easier. He remembered being annoyed when his parents made a noise that disturbed him from his experiments on his computer, or if they came in to talk to him when he was trying to do something delicate with a pile of electrical bits and pieces, or a scattering of modified meccano. That same silence that he had loved so much weighed on him now. It bowed his shoulders, and made him crave the company he had lost. He thought about Adam's plans for a life outside of the city, and about his own fears that it would never work. Were they really such serious fears? Wouldn't it be better to be with Adam, no matter how dangerous it was?
He sat on the edge of the bed for a long time, his head still resting in his hands. Finally, his fingers moving almost independently of his brain, he reached into the pocket of his garish black and red shirt and drew out a small black case. It was made of plastic, designed to look like leather, and it contained two photographs behind clear covers that showed marks where dust had begun to ingrain itself within the corners. On one side was a picture of a young couple on their wedding day; a thin man of average height, with black hair and a shy smile; and a lighter-haired young woman with green eyes and a dress that was decorated to match. On the other side of the case the young couple were again pictured, several years older now, less formally dressed, and accompanied by a small boy. The boy was Jack, on his ninth birthday, his dark hair cut short and spiky, his red-striped T-shirt showing echoes of the livid colour that was later to become the over-riding theme of his tribal decoration. The picture had been taken on a trip to the science museum, he remembered. Adam had come too, with his older sister, more parent-like than any true parent. Adam had given Jack a book about famous scientists for his birthday, and they had talked about Michael Faraday and Benjamin Franklin all the way home. It took Jack a long time to realise that he was smiling at the memory, and for some reason the realisation warmed him. Putting the photographs carefully back into his pocket, he rose to his feet and crossed to the door. There was no point in staying behind at the Mall; he could see that now. Why stay behind here on his own, where he was theoretically safe? More than anything he wanted to be with Adam, even if it was dangerous to be out in the streets. Better to be with his friend than to be here alone.
He was smiling broadly by the time that he reached the Mall's back entrance. He had stopped to grab a rucksack, which he had filled with a few tins and a bottle of water. It wasn't much, but he could forage if he needed to - and besides, soon he and Adam would be out in the countryside, growing what they needed. That could work, couldn't it? He didn't even care that he knew nothing about agriculture.
The sun was at its zenith when Jack followed Adam out of the Mall, saying a final goodbye to the silent white building that he had lived in for the last few months. He felt strangely excited, even though he was terribly afraid. Finding Adam would be hard, he knew that - but it was better to try than to stay behind and wonder for the rest of his life. Shouldering his pack, he ran at a crouch across the short stretch of grass that led towards the nearest of the many grimy alleys criss-crossing the city. Nobody saw him, just had nobody had seen Adam before. He quickened his pace and ran on. He would not be coming back to this place, and he wanted to be free of it as soon as possible. He wanted to get to his new life as fast as he could.
Bray was vaguely aware of daylight, although he had no idea what time it was. He felt confused, and his head was aching in the dull, persistent way of heads feeling especially tender. He wanted to sit up and look around, but didn't really feel capable.
Why was there daylight in the room? He couldn't understand at first why he should even be asking that question. Daylight was a natural by-product of the daytime, and the light had obviously entered whatever building he had found himself in. It was only after this logical conclusion that he remembered it had been dusk just a few moments before, and that he had been in a cellar where daylight rarely filtered even on the sunniest of afternoons. He blinked, and tried to clear his thoughts. What had happened? And where the hell was he?
He began to remember in a fluttering succession of still images that flashed at great speed through his brain. Disjointed images, like a slideshow with half of the slides missing. Raven. Jeanie. Hot chocolate. Milk powder. Thoughts of treachery. Tinned peaches and stale biscuits. A popcorn maker with flowers in it. Warmth.
Warmth. That was what was wrong. He had been warm before, and yet now he was cold. Not slightly cold, and not bitterly cold; not the sort of cold he had experienced when sleeping rough in alleyways, huddled behind a rubbish bin in a vague hope of sheltering from the wind. Not the sort of faintly irritating cold that came when the sun went behind a cloud, and it almost seemed cool enough to want to go in search of warmer clothes. This was that persistent sort of cold that came from a cold building; cold that hung around, no matter what you tried to do about it. Cold that was everywhere, and was relentless. The cold that made joints begin to hurt, whilst still being not quite cold enough for real pain. It was uncomfortable, and he wanted to be somewhere else.
He sat up slowly, feeling his body respond far more feebly than he had grown to expect. Months of hard living had made his reaction times short, but today, on this unexpected morning which had appeared from nowhere in the middle of the dark cellar, he found that nothing was working quite as it should. It seemed to take a very long time to sit up straight. He didn't bother standing right away, but sat where he was and looked around. He wasn't terribly surprised when he found that he was no longer in the cellar after all.
He was surrounded by grey; a single shade of a smooth lightness that was almost white; large concrete blocks stacked with an almost mathematical precision, hung with cobwebs loaded down with dust and long dead flies; all reached up to a roof full of holes through which a grey-white sky, indistinguishable from the clouds that filled it, looked down at the world with a chilly stare. There was a tiled floor underfoot; chipped, cold tiles in a checkerboard design of grey and white. Water pooled here and there, where rain had come through the holes in the ceiling. It was dirty and grey, and cold. Some of it had soaked through Bray's shirt, and he felt chilled by the growing wind blowing through the damp cloth.
It was several moments before it sank in that he was alone. He recalled being drugged, which made him feel like a fool. It was only a matter of weeks since that other tribe... the Artists, his sluggish brain informed him... had pulled the same trick. He remembered everybody in the cellar drinking the doctored hot chocolate. It had been Raven who had drugged it of course, insisting that it was all for the common good. He remembered everyone in the throes of collapse, and Raven saying that everything was going to be alright. Well that much at least had almost certainly been a lie.
There was a doorway in one wall of the building; a space where a door had once been, with bits of wood and metal hanging unevenly at the sides. A double door most likely, ripped away by brute force. Bray rose to his feet and headed towards the hole, eager to see outside the building, and perhaps regain his bearings. He had little real hope of that, for he knew this sector of the city hardly at all, and was not yet terribly adept at recognising the various landmarks. Still, it was something to do. He could hardly just stay where he was.
Beyond the door there were people, sitting together on the ground with apparent disregard for the unpleasant weather. Six of them, all more or less his own age, dressed in black leather and festooned with colourful feathers. The feathers were everywhere - hanging from their clothing, woven into their hair, worn as jewellery. The faces of all six were marked with an identical design - a large purple ‘V' that began on either side of the eyes, and slunk down to a point in the middle of the chin. There was something peculiar about their faces, he thought, beyond the paint and the frame of feathers, but he realised what it was only as one of the group looked straight at him. Not one of them had eyebrows, for they had been carefully shaved away. In their place there was only smooth skin, leaving faces strangely limited in expression.
"What's going on here?" Doing his best to sound wide-awake despite the lingering effects of the drug, Bray stared at the boy who had looked at him. Rising to his feet, the boy stared back, his bleached white hair a jaggedly cut mishmash of brightly dyed feathers contrasting sharply with the bone white of the hair itself. Silver rings around his neck jangled and rattled as he moved, building to a virtual symphony of tiny jingles and clatters as he walked over to stand before Bray. "Where is everybody?"
"Everybody?" The boy standing before him didn't seem to know what he was talking about. Bray frowned, trying to shake off the nasty suspicion that he had been set up very neatly indeed.
"Everybody. The Street Owls. Where are they?" His irritation was making the New Zealand tang behind the American accent come back out of hiding again, although nobody within his audience would have known about that sign, or what it meant. "Was I alone when I was brought here?"
"You're always alone." The boy folded his arms, drawing himself up to a height that was suddenly impressive. His shoulders looked a lot broader than they had done before. Bray didn't think a whole lot of his chances if it came to a fight. "Strays are more alone than anybody, and Outsiders are the most alone of the whole damn sorry bunch. Sure the Street Owls were brought in with you, but we don't keep them here. Locals get special treatment."
"What have you done with them?" Suddenly angry, Bray tried to push forward. The boy pushed back, and the pair struggled for a few seconds, testing strength against strength. Another of the feathered guards stepped forward in clear warning, and Bray backed off a little. Things were not looking pleasant.
"I want to know what's happened to my friends. Jez, Cash and the others. Jeanie. They looked after me and I'd like to know that they're okay."
"Aw, ain't that sweet." The second guard turned back to his four friends, still sitting around on the damp, cold ground. "He wants to know that his friends are okay."
"Well he'd better forget it then, hadn't he." The first boy was still glaring daggers, still spoiling for the fight he had been so prepared for just a second ago. "You don't have any friends, Outsider. And pretty soon you're going to realise just how friendless you are. Now get back inside the warehouse, and sit down and shut up. Somebody will be along to collect you soon enough."
"Now listen." Suddenly angry even though his best instincts were warning him not to push things, Bray took a firm step forward. He was met by the two closest guards like a post being met with a pair of sledgehammers. He felt his feet lose contact with the ground in a second of blinding force - then abruptly he was stumbling backwards through the destroyed remains of the big double doorway. Winded, he didn't bother trying to retaliate when the two guards turned and walked off. Instead he merely leant against the wall and struggled to regain his breath. What the hell was going on here? Was this some mad set up like in the camp of the Locos, where Strays were rounded up as routine? It was clear to him that these were the Primitives that he was dealing with; he had heard enough about them since arriving in this sector to be more than sure of that. What bothered him now was all this talk of Outsiders. Who was the Outsider? They were all natives of the same city, after all. He scowled, and began to pace in short, irritated strides. His footsteps echoed in the big, empty building, and he heard desolate, miserable answers in the shriekings of the raucous birds that flew overhead. In his gloom he found himself wondering if those far-flying birds had ever seen Trudy, and if one of them had any idea where she was right now; for it didn't look as though he was going to be continuing his search any time soon. He only hoped that she was somewhere nice. At least then one of them would be having some luck.
Trudy stretched her legs, and tried to convince herself that she wasn't cold. The rain had leaked in through the roof again, and most of the drips seemed to have trickled down the back of her neck. Nobody else wanted to sit in this place though, and as the weakest of them all, she was unable to fight back and win herself a better place. Somewhere warmer, where there was less of a draught, where there was something better to sit on than the cold, bare ground - but most of all, somewhere where the rain wouldn't run down the back of her neck. She thought about her baby, and wondered miserably about its future; stuck in a place where the rain soaked it almost daily, and where it would be chilled to the bone from day one. Didn't the sun ever shine in this sector of the city? She pulled her thin arms tightly about herself, and wondered if she would ever be warm again. What had she done to deserve being in a place like this? She had been hopeful once - what, five, six weeks ago? There had been a faint chance that she would be kept safe, protected, fed however infrequently. Bray had said that he would look after her and the baby. And what had happened? He had taken the first opportunity to slip off and not come back. He had probably gone home by now, back to that little lean-to on the roof of an old building, near to the school where they had spent so much of their childhood. Home. Oh but how that word seemed to chew up her insides. She would do anything to be home now. Not even home in the real sense of the word, with her parents waiting for her, and the world back to rights. Even if it was just the lonely shell of the house she had grown up in; even if it was just the tatty railway carriages where the Locos lived. That would be a home of sorts, and she would be safe and warm there. It would have to be better than this.
"Oh where are you Bray?" She had asked the question a hundred times - a thousand times - since he had left her. She had been convinced at first that he would come back, but he never had. She had waited in that little building where he had left her, listening to the sounds of approaching and receding danger; listening to the noises of the battles going on outside. Demon Dogs fighting Locos; others caught up in the middle. The fighting and the screaming and the crashing. The burning and the looting. Looting what, she didn't know; didn't care. There was certainly nothing left that was worth stealing, but the Locos and the Demon Dogs and their hangers-on had stolen it anyway; and finally had come for her – or so she had thought. She had seen their mad, painted faces staring through the broken windows; had heard their manic shouts and imagined that they had seen her cowering inside. She hadn't bothered waiting around to see if they really had caught sight of her, or had recognised her sorry form in the darkness. She had just gathered up the few scant belongings she had arrived with, and had run blindly, crying for Bray.
And he hadn't come. She had looked for him far and wide, wondering if he had been hurt, or captured, or killed. Wondering if he was sitting in some miserable little prison somewhere, worrying about her, or if he was lying in the road, injured during the fighting. Had the Locos got him, or the Demon Dogs? Or had he, as she had gradually come to believe, simply run away and left her to her own devices, deciding that he had had enough of her problems, and those of her still unborn child? Wherever he was, he had to be better off than her.
"Where's the food?" The boy crouching beside her, a sorry collection of too prominent bone, and pale, sagging skin, raised his head in a vain attempt to see towards the door of their cramped enclosure. "It's got to be time for food. Hasn't it?"
"Keep dreaming Benny. It's less than three hours since the last time we were fed." A tall boy, thin just like the rest of them, but still with some of his one time stature, was standing up in the middle of the room, trying to look out through the leaking skylight that was their only window to the world. "We'll be lucky to see any more food before tomorrow."
"But I'm hungry." Benny's voice was a whine, but nobody told him to shut up. Either they were too tired to bother, or too afraid that their own speech would come out in just such a desperate whine.
"Is there anything going on out there, Toby?" A girl, nearly as tall as the boy watching through the skylight, was also standing up. She was Chinese, from a family who had left Hong Kong mere weeks before the Virus had reared its ugly head. Trudy had heard her name once or twice, but wasn't really sure what it was. She thought that it sounded beautiful and exotic, and suggested warm and faraway places where cold rain didn't drip down people's necks. The girl's accent spoke of such places as well, although Trudy had long since ceased to notice that.
"I think there are some more prisoners." He was squinting, trying to make out as much as he could through the tiny crack in the skylight. "A group of people, but I couldn't see how many. I think they were unconscious."
"Locals or Outsiders?" It had become a common question for those of them in the know; something that they had come to learn from the long weeks and months of their own incarceration. Locals, picked up in routine sweeps or sneak attacks, were imprisoned in one side of the Primitives' sizeable compound. They were slaves, but they were reasonably well fed. For some of them there was a chance to rise through the ranks, and to become trustees, foremen or even guards. Some, if they showed the right mettle and character, would even be recruited into the ranks of the Primitives themselves. For Outsiders, however, there was no such special treatment. Outsiders ranked as second class citizens even to the slaves; prisoners winkled out after every round-up; locked up in crowded sheds with little light or room to move around. They were fed less and worked harder; treated worse and given no assistance when, as often happened, they fell ill. Trudy had been amongst this group of unfortunates for three weeks now, and she was already beginning to feel the draining effects of the experience. Her energy, sapped by the pregnancy and a life on the run, had faded still further; her naturally pale skin had lost whatever colour had still remained within it. She was afraid for her baby, for herself and for the future, and she had no hope that she would ever escape. The only bright thought within her tired and miserable mind was that the Primitives might designate her baby as a Local, were it ever to survive until its birth. Then her child at least might have a better chance.
"I wonder who they are?" Trudy didn't see who had spoken. The flat, lifeless tones might have belonged to anybody. It was a question that had fluttered at her own mind too, albeit only briefly. Whoever they were, the new people meant more mouths between which to share the food rations; less space in which to attempt to lie down and sleep. Whatever they had been before, now they were only prisoners. Maybe Locals, maybe Outsiders, maybe a mixture of both. She wondered where they had come from; whether they knew her world of Locos and Demon Dogs battling for supremacy; of streets filled with the wail of a police siren which had long since lost all association with peace-keeping and security. Maybe there might even be somebody that she knew; somebody that had a name she recognised, and who would know her as something other than just another unnamed Outsider. She almost laughed at the thought. She didn't know anybody. Not anymore.
They were dragged out of their cell on the dot of noon; or, at least, when the giant clock nearby clanged out its twelve mighty strokes. In the hands of the city's youngsters it no longer had the care that it needed, however, and even though they wound it faithfully, the Primitives had no idea how to look after its delicate mechanisms. Twelve o'clock the clock might strike then; but the real time was closer to eleven.
Bray watched the ragamuffin troop as it was led, hassled and cajoled across the compound. He saw a sea of pale, pale faces; a group of weak and underfed people that he was almost certain he was soon to join. It did not look as though they had much opportunity for escape, and he did not like what that promised for his own future. He had no intention of wasting away amongst a group of forlorn prisoners in some godforsaken section of the city. At the same time, he could see very little alternative. As though to impress upon him the hopelessness of his situation, the six guards outside his prison chose that moment to loom menacingly in the doorway.
They had been nearby all along, sprawled on the ground just as they had been when he had first seen them, and he had ignored them since the scuffle earlier. He ignored them now. If they had come to talk to him, or to make further threats, then he was not interested. They shouted at him for a while, but they didn't make any attempt to enter the building. Instead they merely pushed another figure inside; a boy several years younger than Bray, who stumbled and almost fell as he was sent staggering across the broken, grey-tiled floor. Bray caught him, although not through any particular act of charity. He saw lurid red hair, skin about as black as it got, and a pair of thin white stripes that marked a neat, horizontal path across a young, surprised face. Twelve, decided Bray, probably being rather generous in his estimate. Certainly no older.
"Thanks." The boy righted himself, throwing a glance back at the doorway through which he had been so suddenly propelled. The guards had gone, vanished back to whatever important business they had been doing, in their sprawled gathering on the grass outside. "I'm Adam."
"Bray." They didn't shake hands. People didn't really. Not anymore. "You just get picked up?"
"I got caught trying to get supplies." The boy sounded disgusted with himself. "I've been out of the game too long. I had a place; a sort of a safe place; and I kind of got out of the way of foraging. In daylight anyway. Wasn't careful enough, I guess."
"You know this area?"
"No. I'm from another sector, some way away from here." The boy looked morose. "What is all this stuff, about Outsiders and Locals? Do you know?"
"I don't know anything. Not really. I got here a few days ago, looking for a friend of mine. I noticed that people seem a little jumpy; unfriendly when it comes to strangers. They just don't like people who aren't local, I guess."
"So what happens to us? They don't put strangers on the menu, do they?"
"I doubt it." Bray thought about the gang of kids looking like zombies who had been marched past just a few minutes before. That's what they do with Outsiders, his senses screamed, but he didn't say anything. There was no point until he was sure. "Chances are this was one of the enclaves; where cases of the Virus were at a minimum. They didn't let anybody into places like that; kept them shut up pretty tight. I guess when the adults died, the kids kept up the tradition. Maybe this place is some kid's crazy idea of keeping us in quarantine."
"Great." Adam kicked at a loose piece of tiling. "Six months in here?"
"I doubt it works like that. More likely they'll keep us here another day or so, and that'll be it. The Virus is gone now anyway, and they must know that."
"Maybe they just don't care." Adam sighed, and sat down on the floor. He looked very small with his knees drawn up under his chin. Bray almost winced. Not another person to look after... But this boy at least looked reasonably able to care for himself. "Jack told me that I shouldn't leave our hideout, but I had to be the dreamer, and look for somewhere better." His self-disgust was evident, but there seemed little point in saying anything. "He always was the clever one. Always knows things. I'm supposed to be the practical one, but I didn't turn out to be very good at that either, did I."
"I got caught too." Bray thought again of the drugged hot chocolate, and wondered briefly about the rest of the Street Owls. He quelled the thought immediately. Since it seemed unlikely that he would ever see the Owls again, it seemed pointless to worry about their fate.
"Yeah." Adam sounded far away, and very sad. "I guess everybody makes mistakes." He glanced up suddenly, eyes bright with the need to make conversation, and hopefully to keep his mind off likely fates. "So if you're not from around here, any chance you're from the beach end of town?"
"Yeah." Bray thought about the grey breakers and the cold sea wind; about the blue of the sea and the warmth of the sun in better weather; about the storms that blew in with the approach of winter. If he ever found Trudy, the first thing that he was going to do was to head back there. At least it was familiar; at least he knew where he was in a place like that. Time enough for finding a better place when times were a little quieter; when the city had settled down again, and Trudy's baby had been born. He had been a fool to try to take her somewhere else, no matter how dangerous it had been for them to stay there.
"Me too." Adam's eyes were also filled with memories; with thoughts and sights and dreams of the places he had come from. Of the little house he had grown up in, of the beach he had played on as a child, and of the school he had gone to, with Jack, in the days before the Virus. Most of all he was thinking of the shopping mall, the unlikely place where he and Jack had lived alone amongst the graffiti and detritus. A mad kind of home in a mad kind of world. "You know St Martin's School?"
"Know it. Didn't go there, though." Bray remembered the old building well, with its white stone fountain and blue slate roof. Some of the less savoury elements within his own school had waged a long standing war with the kids of St Martin's. In their grey shirts and berets, with their bar-coded arms, the gangs at Bray's school had had a definite military air about them, and had almost always come out on top in their dealings with the more genteel lot from their blue-slated, white fountained world. St Martin's was a private school of course, for the richer kids.
"How about Richard's place - the roller-disco?" Adam was full into reverie mode now, staring into the distance with wistful eyes. Bray nodded. He remembered Richard's place well, for it was where he had first learnt to skate. That had been long ago, before the days of skateboarding in the park, and ice-skating on the ponds during the winter. Richard Loesca had taught hundreds of kids to skate, leading them all in long lines across the floor. At exactly five feet in height, with hair long turned from brown to white, and a very bad toupee filling the gap on top, Loesca had been a circus performer once upon a time, but had turned to a different way of life long before Bray had gone to him for lessons. All elbows and knees ordinarily, Loesca turned into something extraordinarily lithe and fluid as soon as his roller-skates were strapped to his feet, and on Friday and Saturday nights, when his vast auditorium was turned over to flashing lights and loud music, his was always the figure that the other skaters gravitated towards. Word was that he had died alone, in his little room above the roller-disco, and had been taken away in the middle of the night by the government employees in their tight white boiler suits. Ignominious ends had become a matter of rote, though, and there was no reason why Loesca's death should have been anything special.
"Sure. I remember Richard's place." He lay back, folding one arm behind his head, and staring up at the broken ceiling. Birds wheeled and the rain began to fall again. He and Martin had often gone to the roller-disco together, especially during the school holidays, followed by something to eat at the diner across the road. Everybody had gone on there after Loesca had called it a night. It had been where he and Ebony had shared their first kiss, and where the Locos had done so much of their early recruiting.
"It was fun there, wasn't it." Adam's enthusiasm for the conversation was trailing off, as if he was growing increasingly aware that Bray was not in the mood to talk. His answer was a wordless nod, slow and vague. "You think you'll ever go back?"
"Back?" Bray watched the birds wheeling and shrieking, and felt the cold rain beginning to wet his face. Would he ever get the chance to go back there? See the sea again, and run from the Locos again, and share another bitter fight with his brother? He didn't know, but he answered in the affirmative anyway, because he knew that that was what Adam wanted to hear - and because it was what he wanted himself. "Sure I'll go back there. You will too, if you want to."
"Sure." Adam didn't sound convinced, but he did sound grateful. He didn't bother speaking after that, and Bray didn't either. There was no point. Instead they both stretched out on the cold, tiled floor, and shared the grey vista overhead. The rain continued to fall, and the birds continued to shriek. Nothing changed. It still hadn't six hours later, when the gang of pale, pale Outsiders, more tired and hungry than ever before, were marched back once again to their cell.
Jack stopped at every place he could think of, even though he knew that he was taking his life into his hands. Nobody was prepared to tell him whether or not they had seen Adam. Some snarled insults at him, others threw stones. One gang of boys in identical yellow clothing chased him for at least half a mile, throwing pebbles and mud and foul language. Others just turned away. He heard the wail of the police siren that told him there were Locos on the prowl, but he didn't run and hide. He saw Demon Dogs in the distance, skating back and forth and wailing their wild war whoops at each other, but he didn't try to get out of their way. They made mock passes at him as they skated past, pretending that they were trying to capture him, but in the main they let him alone. He wound up bruised and shaking, but he had made good time. No hiding, no running in panic, no holing up until dark - it all meant that he had made excellent progress in his search for his old friend. He couldn't have known that Adam was already far ahead of him. Anxious to reach the countryside, scared of being waylaid by one of the bigger tribes, Adam had hitched a lift on the only large motor vehicle still driven regularly within the city limits, save of course for the bashed about police vehicles of the Locos. It was a black van, with windows painted blood red, driven by the weirdest tribe for miles; the Spinnakers, sixteen boys and girls painted from head to toe in metallic grey, and dressed in old bathing costumes of an identical shade. They never spoke and rarely mixed with others, but they would often give lifts to lone travellers, in exchange for food, or more often a song.
Jack might have wandered for days, for he had no clear notion of where to look for his lost friend. It was one thing to know that Adam was heading for the countryside, but another to know which bit of the countryside he was aiming for. The city was surrounded by it, on all sides save that which faced onto the ocean, and there was far too much land for one small boy to check alone and on foot. He had known that before he had started out, but it hadn't stopped him. He had to try.
So it was that, on the third day of looking, Jack came to an old night-club in what had once been the rich side of town, far from the place where the Primitives reigned supreme. He wandered in off the street, startled by the sudden descent into opulence that he found hidden inside. Scarlet walls hung with rugs and hangings, velvet sofas set on plush carpets, oak tables and chairs and a vast bar polished to a mirror finish - none of it bore any resemblance to the world outside. Kids from a hundred different tribes sat around together, alone or in small groups, all drinking bright cocktails of every imaginable colour. None of them paid any attention to the new arrival wandering dazedly through their midst.
The barman was an albino, with hair painted blue. He looked down at Jack from a height that seemed obscene, and smiled until his teeth shone in the ruby red light from the chandeliers.
"What can I do for you, Red?" His voice was English; high class and cultured. Jack couldn't tell if it was real or put on.
"I'm looking for someone." He tried to sound older than he was, as though he had some real business in a bar. It was a gesture out of keeping with the new world, and he realised that as soon as he tried it. Nobody minded anymore if you were in a bar underage. Everybody was underage now.
"We don't do Find-A-Friend in here." The bartender waggled a glass in the air, smiling through his shiny teeth. "But I might agree to a chat over a drink. If you get my meaning."
"I don't have any money." Jack saw the laugh that began in the bartender's eyes long before he heard it erupting from between those glowing teeth.
"Money? You see anybody with any money around here? Even if you had all the cash in the world it'd still be useless. What else have you got?"
"A... a tin of ham?" He held it up, watching the weird patterns that the round top threw on the dark and glassy surface of the bar. Another grin welcomed the offer, just before a large hand rose up and seized the tin.
"That'll do nicely. Now what do you want to drink?"
"Um..." Jack stared up at the rows of bottles on the wall, and wondered what they all were. He didn't like alcohol much. His father had let him try beer and wine once or twice, but he hadn't thought much of either of them. The beer had tasted funny, and the wine had hurt his throat. "Maybe the orange one?" He never knew his luck; it might turn out to be fruit juice.
"The orange one?" The bartender turned his head and looked back at the bottles, spying the garish orange liquid between a bottle of something bright green and something else that was the pure white colour of milk. "Coming right up." He took the bottle down, and poured a generous measure of the lurid liquid into a glass. "Here you go."
"Thanks." Jack took the glass and peered suspiciously at the contents. Whatever it was, it didn't smell much like fruit juice. It didn't smell much like his father's beer or wine either though. He took a very tentative sip.
"Like it?" The bartender was leaning on the bar, casting a weird upside down reflection that glowed like something from a cheap horror movie. Jack shook his head, and listened to the laughter ringing out around him. He managed another sip, and wondered how it was possible that such a small amount of anything could make his head spin quite so much.
"You said you'd talk to me." His throat felt strange from the alcohol, but he didn't have any real difficulty getting the words out. For some reason that he couldn't quite fathom he kept sipping at the bright orange cocktail as he spoke. The bartender nodded.
"Sure. You said you were looking for somebody." Folding his arms on the counter, the bartender fixed Jack with an attentive stare. "Anybody in particular?"
"My friend." Jack was suddenly aware of large silences around him, as lots of other people began to listen in. It made him feel very self-conscious, but he persevered. "His name is Adam. He's... from my tribe. Red hair like mine, and the same paint. He was wearing a black jacket. He might have come through here a few days ago. I've been a bit slow following him, because of all the places I had to stop in."
"Nobody like that's been through here." The bartender was very quick with his answer, but Jack believed him. He didn't have the sort of face or voice of somebody who was lying.
"Oh." He felt his shoulders slump a little, even though he didn't want anybody to see his disappointment. Another false start to his trip. It was beginning to sink in just how difficult a task he had chosen for himself. How was he to know, out of all the possible directions that there were to choose from, which was the one that Adam had decided to take? He had been just a few hours behind his friend, but he had been searching fruitlessly for so long now that Adam could be days worth of travel ahead. Perhaps they would never meet.
"Don't look so downcast, Red." A heavy hand clapped him on the shoulder, and he looked up into the laughing eyes of a boy of about fifteen. Whoever he was, he was dressed from head to toe in blue, and his hair was coloured the same shade. Great swathes of blue eye-shadow marked huge curves across the top part of his face, and his mouth was outlined in blue lipstick. He was very evidently drunk; extremely so. "Your friend, huh? Hey, everybody! Anybody seen Little Red's friend?"
"I don't want to--" Before Jack could protest that he did not want any fuss made, he found himself hoisted aloft. Without being entirely sure what had happened, he felt the shiny, slippery surface of the bar beneath his feet, and realised that he was staring down at the world from a surprisingly great height. He tried not to look too panicked.
"Let the kid down, Alex." The bartender was moving to intervene, but the boy dressed in blue pushed him away.
"Kid's got a question he wants answering. Might as well get it answered." He waved his hands at the people in the room, all now staring at Jack. Many of them were drunk, many too much so to be aware of what was going on. Others looked uncomfortable, or downright hostile. "Come on now. Somebody's got to have seen another little red kid."
"Lots of kids have got red hair." A tall boy who, had Jack been more familiar with the local tribes, he could not have failed to identify as a member of Tribe Circus, rose to his feet. "Lots of kids have white marks on their faces. Just shut up and let us get back to our fun."
"He's got a point, Alex." Reaching out, the bartender offered Jack a hand, but the smaller boy ignored it and climbed down on his own. He felt a little embarrassed by what had happened, and almost gave in and ran - but struggling to maintain some dignity he stayed where he was until the bright orange drink was all gone. After that he walked slowly to the door.
It was cold outside, and the rain had started again. He pulled the collar of his jacket up to protect his neck, and wished that he had a hat. Better still a roof, with a nice fire under it, and a pair of thick woollen socks warming by the hearth. The idea made him smile, although he didn't know why. Usually unattainable desires only made him depressed.
"Hey!" The voice was low and female, and came from the door of the bar. He glanced back, even though he was fairly sure that whoever was calling was calling somebody else. Nobody around here could have any business with him.
"Hey!" The voice came again, and this time he identified its source; a girl a little above his own age, with blonde plaits, and flowers painted on her cheeks. She was gesturing, and since there was nobody else around, the signals could only have been meant for him. He headed her way, cautious and a little afraid.
"Hello?" He tried to sound confident, something that invariably made him sound nervous, and about half his age. "Can I do something for you?"
"No." She stared down at him, having that annoying height advantage that girls usually did at that stage of their development. "You were looking for your friend. Adam?"
"Yeah." He was surprised, wondering if she was really on the level. "Do you know where he is?"
"Not exactly, no." She glanced about, apparently worried that somebody might see her. That was nothing new. At school people had often looked like that, as though they were scared that they would be seen talking to the class geek. "But I know which way he went. He was nice to me. Polite. Helped me pick up some food I dropped, and he didn't try to steal any of it. I liked that."
"Sounds like Adam." Even as a small child Adam had been the perfect gentleman. Polite, helpful and friendly, always willing to lend a hand. The girl shrugged.
"That's what he said his name was. Anyway, I saw him getting on the bus."
"Bus?" Surely there were no buses operating around here? He had heard no engines, at any rate.
"S'what people call it. The Spinnakers, they have this big van. Drive about in it sometimes, when they're moving about in search of more stores. Don't always take passengers, but sometimes they do. They headed towards the end of town furthest away from the mountains."
"Are they peaceful?" He had visions of Adam dragged aboard this 'bus', and later sold. Even eaten. The girl smiled.
"They're peaceful. Very peaceful. Like, 'peace man', you know? Don't often mix with other tribes, but they're okay when they do. Introverts, I guess you'd call them. He went with them willingly enough, though."
"Thanks." This simple piece of news sent his heart leaping. Adam was not only safe and well, but he had apparently fallen in with a tribe who were trustworthy, and had offered him a lift. Soon, surely, he would be leaving the city, ready to strike out on his own. Jack would have to be quick to catch him, especially since he was stuck travelling on foot - but at least he now knew which way to go. That was a better start than he had had before. "Thanks so much. Can I... give you anything?" He had nothing to give, but he knew that things were sometimes expected in return for information. The girl smiled down at him, lips curling, flowers all bent out of shape by her suddenly altered cheeks.
"No. Call it repayment for him helping me out the other day. And tell him that, if he wants to come back this way, I'd be happy to renew our acquaintance."
"Er... right." Jack blushed until he clashed with his hair. "Okay. I'll tell him that."
"Thanks." She turned away from him then, almost before he had realised that she was doing so, and started to wander back into the bar. He called out a hasty farewell, but had no way of knowing if she had heard it. She had already gone.
He stood where he was for a few moments, thinking about what he had heard, and wondering how best to make use of this new information. Should he try to find out about the Spinnakers, and perhaps attempt to contact any of them that might still be in the area? In the end he decided not to bother. There was no time to waste, and he knew where to make for now, more or less. Time to make up for lost days. Turning his back on the mountains that loomed beyond the far distant city limits, he headed off to the other end of town. He had never been there before, even before the Virus, and he had no idea what to expect. If Fortune was kind, maybe so would be the people who lived there. Maybe Adam would be amongst them now, safe and well. Maybe there were friends there, and food, and shelter. Smiling to himself, he broke into a run. It would be good to see Adam again, and the thought of it helped him to run all the faster. They would be starting their new life together soon.
Adam awoke to the unpleasant realisation that his head was in a puddle. He lifted it groggily, and felt the water run down the back of his neck. Cold water; rain water; almost certainly grey water. Everything here was grey, and it was beginning to get him down.
"Sorry." Bray's voice made him jump, even though he had not forgotten the older boy's presence. "I was going to warn you if the rain started up again, but I fell asleep. Woke up in a puddle myself."
"Great, isn't it." Adam stood up, but found no real improvement to his situation then. He was still cold, his head and neck were still wet, and he could still feel the cold water making his bright red hair stick unpleasantly to the back of his skull. "Why don't they do something with us? If they want us for something, they could at least tell us what it is. And surely they're not going to just leave us here?"
"I doubt it." Bray was still sticking to his quarantine theory, which seemed as good as any other. There were plenty of people who were still afraid of the Virus, even though there had never been any reason to think that it might start to affect those who were left. It had never bothered the children before. "They'll come."
"Yeah, and then we'll wish they hadn't." Adam started to pace, but that only made him feel colder, so he sat down on the hard tiles and hugged his knees. "When did you last eat?"
"Don't know. Yesterday evening I think." There was no reason to think that he had been unconscious any longer than the one night. "I had something last night, which is how I got here. Second time recently that somebody has drugged me. I never knew that the kids in this city were so sneaky."
"And now it's nearly night again." They had had nothing to eat all day, which didn't help disperse either the worry or the cold. "They are going to feed us aren't they?"
"Probably." Bray leaned to one side slightly, to get a better view through the hole that had once been a door. He could see a few people sitting outside on the grass, but couldn't tell if they were the same guards as earlier, or if they were a different shift.
"Depends why they want us I suppose." Adam had never been a pessimist, and had always had a rather cheerful personality in the past, but somehow, here and now, it was impossible to be anything other than depressed. It was a depressing place, a depressing situation. Everything was depressing. The increasing volume of rain was really just the icing on the cake.
They came just as the sun went down. Three teenagers who obviously held some authority in this alien tribe, accompanied by the six guards who had been sitting outside for most of the day. The guards hung back at a respectful distance, indicating that the Primitives rivalled the Locos for their discipline. The higher ranking threesome moved further into the room though, standing in a little line as though to emphasise the force of their presence.
"We're the Primitives." It sounded like a strange thing to be proud of, but clearly the speaker felt that the name carried a great amount of celebrity. As an announcement, however, it lacked a lot of punch, for both of the prisoners were already well aware of the identity of their captors. Bray and Adam, who had moved together to a part of the room that was less heavily affected by the leaky roof, rose rather stiffly to their feet.
"Why are we here?" Adam had thought of a hundred questions that he wanted to ask, but at the first appearance of his gaolers he forgot every one of them. All that he could think about was his relief that he was not here alone.
"You're Outsiders. This part of the city was closed off to your kind before the adults left." The spokesman, who stood at the centre of the trio, squared his broad shoulders and stood up straight, as though preparing himself to recite a familiar speech. "You're not welcome here."
"Then we'll leave." Bray was not usually the type for acts of showy defiance, except perhaps where the Locos were concerned, but Adam's fear was pushing him into a position of responsibility towards the younger boy, and he felt that he had to make some kind of stand. The only response that his words inspired was laughter, which rippled in little quivers through the Primitive ranks. The guards joined in too, even though they were barely within earshot.
"You're not going anywhere." The sun had sunk now, and the last of its deepening red rays seemed to be exactly on a level with the door. This peculiar spotlight framed the looming trio, adding a power to their presence that might otherwise have been lacking. Bray was reminded inescapably of scenes from schlocky horror films; of sinister figures given dramatic back-lighting by directors looking for cheap thrills. The kind of thing the kids at his school had all been into, before life had brought them a real life horror of their own, and removed any need for fictional ones. It might have been laughable, and yet strangely it wasn't; and as the sun dipped still further, and the haggard building grew more dark, the purple paint that marked each Primitive's face showed its true nature, and began to glow, fiercely luminescent. It was genuinely off-putting.
"What do you want with us?" Adam was having to resist the temptation to press closer to Bray, who seemed to be a remarkably comforting presence. Bray himself, who would have been horrified by the suggestion that anybody thought of him that way, responded to the boy's fear with his usual feeling of heightening pressure. More responsibility; another person who was relying on him. Great.
"What do you think." The pretence at grandeur was gone, and the threesome now seemed to want to get the interview finished with. "You'll join the others, and you'll do as you're told. Behave, and there won't be any need for things to turn nasty."
"You can't keep us here." Adam was terrified, which was becoming increasingly evident. He had always thought himself to be brave in the past, but standing here now, facing this band of feathered maniacs with their disturbing, glowing paint, he felt his courage leave him completely. He wanted to run, and only his fear of what might happen prevented him from trying it.
"We don't plan to keep you here." The spokesman, so far the only member of the trio who had done anything save glare at the prisoners, took a lazy step forward. "We have another place for people like you."
"But--" Adam's protests were cut short by one glare from the broad-shouldered spokesman, and he wished there were somewhere to hide. Somehow backing away behind Bray seemed just a little unsportsmanlike, but it was tempting nonetheless. Bray reached out towards the younger boy, trying to reassure him whilst still maintaining his all-important distance.
"We'll be alright Adam." He knew that his words were empty, but he felt obliged to say something. Adam didn't look especially heartened.
"Sure." Watching nervously as the six guards came closer, Adam thought back to his safe home at the Mall, and the confident manner in which he had left it. He felt like such a fool now. He should have listened to Jack. If he managed to escape now, he told himself, he would go straight back there, and never again think of leaving what was possibly the only safe place in this whole screwed-up madhouse of a world; but he didn't believe that he would ever be able to escape. Not from these people. Beside him Bray was trying to look bigger than he actually was; trying to look as though he were capable of putting up some kind of resistance, but he wasn't fooling anybody. The guards took hold of him as easily as they took hold of Adam.
"Time for you to join the others." The spokesman was taking the lead now, striding ahead of the group as they walked out of the dilapidated building and into the rain-speckled world outside. There were other Primitives dotted about; dark shapes discernible by the glowing purple symbols upon their faces. They broke into a chant as the two prisoners were brought on by; a malevolent whisper that became a rhythmical pounding of words.
"Outsiders." It was a word evidently meant as an insult, and also as an accusation. "Outsiders." It came from all around, growing in volume until it seemed as though everybody in the tribe was standing around, their faces glowing in the dark, their voices rising into a molten jumble like a single voice. The malice of it made Adam flinch, and caused Bray's step to falter. He didn't recall ever having encountered so much hate.
"Here." The guard who had confronted him earlier, when he had first awoken from his drugged sleep, was now looming at his elbow. "You should fit right in here." Bray couldn't see what he was talking about, but he heard the sound of a lock opening. Adam yelped in alarm, apparently seeing something that was invisible to Bray himself; a glimpse of the end of their journey perhaps. Whatever it was made the boy struggle fiercely, inspiring a last desperate bid for freedom that was over before it had begun. Bray saw the dark shape of the smaller boy as he was lifted almost bodily from the ground, and heard scuffling feet and the sounds of further struggles. He strained his eyes to get a better look at what was happening, but a blow between the shoulder blades put all thought of vision from his mind. He stumbled forward. A step hit his ankles, and he stumbled upwards. A musty smell met him, and the sounds of a large group of people shifting about in the darkness. He couldn't see Adam anymore. A second later the world was darker still, and a door behind him closed. Shadows moved around him, and he felt the close presence of many other people.
"Hello?" His voice was nervous. "Who's there?"
"Nobody." His answer came from one of the many people that he could sense but not see. Somebody of his own age, he guessed; a voice that had been broken for some time. "We're nobody at all."
The Street Owls had been very bored during their time in quarantine. They had awoken at more or less the same time, shared their indignation over their abduction, and argued over whose fault it might have been. Both Raven and Bray were missing from their number, but since Raven was the leader of the group his absence wasn't necessarily cause for concern. Despite the obvious evidence, soon enough the spindly Lonnie, Raven's younger brother, had begun convincing almost everybody bar Jeanie that it had been Bray who had betrayed them. Their willingness to believe that petered out more quickly than their patience, and even Lonnie's belief in his brother soon seemed non-existent. In time the conversation died, along with their faith in their absent leader, and an atmosphere of gloom settled over them all. Jez and Cash sprawled together on the floor of their cell, arms wrapped around each other, Jez's shaven head all but hidden by the truly stupendous locks of her young husband. The smaller children scattered themselves around, mostly co-operating in attempts to see out of the tiny windows. It was a stout construction that housed them; a prefabricated building that might once have been a supposedly mobile office of some ilk, built a foot above the ground. The aluminium ceiling had a gentle slope from left to right, and the inside was painted one of the interminable shades of off-white that had been so popular in the now departed adult world. A few posters hung from the walls, the corners still rigidly stuck as though freshly fixed by a passing caretaker. One shouted about the importance of inoculating children against measles, mumps and rubella, and another blared out the familiar old message about litter. A third, rather newer and with brighter colours, proclaimed that this area was 'Free from the Virus', and would remain so as long as the local people did not attempt to mix with others from 'Outside the Zone'. The fact that it was only the children of those local people who were now left was testament to the fact that this desperate attempt at quarantine had been a failure, but the poster had a certain triumphalism about it all the same. The face of some minor celebrity, obviously himself a Local, was pictured in the centre of the poster, and there were smiling children gathered around. The message was printed in block capitals, in a number of bright colours designed to stand out and catch the eye. There was something rather gruesome about it though, or so Jeanie thought. It seemed to be a celebration of a victory that had never occurred.
They were kept waiting in their stuffy little room until after Bray and Adam had been taken to their new quarters, the crammed and horrible place where the Outsiders slept. From where the old mobile office was positioned it was impossible to see anything of the Outsiders; either the marching group being led off to work, or the two new arrivals being thrown in with the others. There was only a blank, empty stretch of land; broken concrete and straggly grass, plus a small children's playground that had been kept surprisingly bright and clean. Jeanie had looked out at it all once, reflecting unhappily on how unlikely she was ever to see a different view, then had shut herself away in her own little world whilst the others did whatever it was that they did to pass the time. She was thinking about Bray, and about where he might be. She wondered about Raven as well, although with little concern for his health. Why had he betrayed them? She wondered if she would ever get the chance to find out.
By the time the Primitives came for them it had been dark for a long while. A gang of some five or six guards, dressed in the uniform that was so painfully familiar to any Local, stood in a semi-circle by the door, eyes glaring, expressions unpleasant. They gestured rather than spoke, and without difficulty herded the entire group across the broken concrete towards a large stone building nearby. It looked old; a hundred years old at least; with high, domed windows and a large double door. Inside the floor was tiled, or seemed to be. Jeanie recognised the type as the sort of hard wearing linoleum designed to look like tiles, which had prevailed on the floors of so many schools and offices. She stared about at the old, officious posters on the walls, and at the row of pegs evidently intended for the coats of now departed workers. Part of her mind was wondering why she hadn't attempted to escape when they had all been outside, but she knew that she had never believed such a plan to have any chance of success. Besides, she had been curious. Why take certain death over the unknown, when there was still no way of knowing just what that unknown might be?
There were large tables in the middle of the room, with several Primitives lined up behind them. One table held jugs of water, with assorted glasses of all different styles and sizes arranged around them. Another held sandwiches - actual, cut sandwiches, pre-prepared like in the old days of garden parties and picnics. Another held bowls of fruit and a fourth, the biggest and longest of them all, held simply a man, or rather a boy, seated cross-legged in the very middle of the surface. His body was almost invisible beneath the masses of feathers that burst from every inch of his clothing, but the purple 'V' sign of his tribe shone out from the colourful decorations, as did the bright circles of his eyes. He had surrounded each with a thin corona of white paint, emphasising the depth and the darkness of them, and increasing the image of his presence as that of some giant hunting bird, staring down at all around him as though all that were present were merely food to be devoured. Jeanie couldn't tell how old he was, or even how large, for the curtains of feathers hid every physical detail save the colour of his skin; a deep, rich brown that matched the floor, and the surface of the table, and the piece of wood that he held in his hands, which was evidently intended as a weapon.
"Are these them?" His voice sounded British; the sort of voice that had been on the BBC World Service back in the old days - but then many kids had changed their voices along with their names, as just another way of dealing with the new way of things. An accent no longer narrowed down your place of origin, but instead was just a badge, like the paint you wore or the clothes you had chosen as part of your image. It was all about being somebody new, rather than about telling strangers where you had come from.
"Yeah." One of the guards who had led the Street Owls to this place stepped forward, head bowed as though he were addressing some ancient sovereign, even though his voice showed no particular measure of deference. "The Street Owls. They've just been brought from quarantine."
"Good." The leader of the Primitives turned his head from side to side, sizing up the new arrivals with what appeared to be an expression of revulsion on what little was visible of his face. "Got to make sure. Can't have them bringing the Virus in here."
"The Virus is gone." Jeanie wondered whether this feathery dictator was mad, and decided that he very probably was. There was a strong smell of disinfectant in the air, increasingly noticeable now that she was closer to the big central table; and the floor around this curious throne gleamed and sparkled as though washed on a very regular basis. She could see that it was still wet from the last dousing. A curious chortle of bitter laughter followed her words.
"Oh, you think it's gone. You think that you know it. But it knows you." The feathered head bowed in what appeared to be a conspiratorial nod. "It's just waiting, you know. Waiting for another chance. It wants to come back and get us next time."
"But it doesn't hurt kids." Jez, recovering a little of her usual poise, regarded this leader of men with an expression of mild curiosity. It seemed a harmless enough glint that touched her eyes, but Jeanie knew her well enough to know that there was no sincerity in her voice. She had clearly come to the same conclusion as Jeanie herself, and had labelled their host a madman. The trick now would be to work out how dangerous he might be.
"It didn't hurt kids before." The feathery figure leaned closer, as though trying to check that none of them had the Virus hidden about them. "But that doesn't mean that it won't. Why else do you think that nobody's come to help us? Why else do you think that we've been left here all on our own? All the other people in the world are afraid, you see. They know that the Virus is still here, and they don't dare come out to help us."
"Other people in the world?" Cash was frowning as he moved up to slip his arm through that of Jez. "You mean the people in other countries? But they're all dead, surely."
"Dead?" Their host sat bolt upright, staring at him through wide eyes that suddenly narrowed into suspicious slits. "Who told you that?"
"Well... nobody. I just... assumed." A little taken aback, Cash lowered his voice. It was common knowledge that the Virus had affected the whole world. Everybody knew it. They had seen the newsreels, back when there had still been such things. The Virus had spread itself world-wide, and it was doubtful that, even if there were a few adults left alive somewhere, they were in any position to be of help to the millions of struggling children. Admittedly, though, if there were a few of them left, it was true that they probably were hiding from the Virus.
"Never assume anything, except that the Virus is watching. Waiting." The feathered frame gave a powerful shake, before the accentuated eyes snapped back to look once again at the group of prisoners. "I am Zeus. I rule here. Soon, when the rest of the country has fallen to the Virus, I will rule everywhere." He cocked his largely hidden head on one side. "You have a choice of whether to help me, or to stand against me. If you choose the former there will be food, and reasonable working conditions. If you choose the latter I will forget that you have any rights as Locals. You'll be declared Outsiders, and if you don't know what that means, you soon will. Outsiders bring disease, and spread it about the city. They're a threat to the rest of us, and they don't deserve decent treatment. You do see that?"
"We see it." Cash had moved forwards, his look warning the others that this act of apparent co-operation might be their only hope. "And we agree, I suppose. Outsiders probably are dangerous, and I guess they have to be discouraged from coming here. It does make a certain kind of sense."
"Yeah, if your IQ's fighting to get out of single digits." Jeanie's voice was no more than a tiny whisper, and she knew that nobody had heard it. Nobody that mattered, anyway. Cash threw her a warning glance, but kept his attention upon Zeus.
"What is it that you want us to do?" His voice was as polite as he could make it, and was filled with false cheer. Everybody knew what Zeus wanted, and it certainly wasn't to welcome the Owls as new members of his tribe. Zeus, however, merely waved one magnanimous arm.
"Eat." He said it as though it were the gravest of orders, and as if he suspected that they might have refused had he not made it a demand. "Afterwards you can go to your new residence. There's no need for further talk." He leaned towards them again, eyes hot and bright. "But you must remember the rules."
"Rules?" Jez sounded as though she were honestly interested, but Jeanie could still see the incredulity and amusement that was hidden from almost everybody else. Cash noticed it, and it made him nervous, but the rest of the gathering was oblivious. Zeus eyed her for a second, as though himself suspecting her lack of sincerity, but he answered her anyway, using the same tone of voice as before.
"Obedience. Obedience to me and my followers. Obedience to the laws of cleanliness. Obedience to the laws of quarantine. Vigilance. Care. Defence." He smiled. "But eat now. It will all be explained to you in due course, when you're rested and properly fed. In the morning you'll see it all."
"All?" Jeanie felt a surge of apprehension rush through her, and hoped that she didn't show it. Zeus blinked at her for a moment.
"Yes of course. All. Our defences, our preparations to combat the Virus, and those who would try to infect us with it. All." He smiled, or she thought that he did. "In the morning you'll see. And you'll help. All of you." He clicked his fingers, and four large guards stepped forward, each one of them taking up one of the stout legs of his table, hoisting their deluded leader to a perch at shoulder height. Jeanie wondered if he was too scared of infection even to touch the floor, but she buried her suspicions and her reservations and bowed along with everybody else. There was nothing else to do. Nothing except be grateful that she was not an Outsider; nothing except feel guilty that she had not even thought to ask about Bray.
When the sun rose it found Jack asleep in the attic of an old house, safe enough from the weather despite the several holes in the roof. He had found the place two days before, when he had been chased by a gang chanting slogans about the need for quarantine. He had been badly scared by the experience, for the gang had been particularly vicious in their attacks, flushed from screaming their bitter slogans, and hoarse-voiced from their own fury. It wasn't often, even in this modern world, that there was such an open demonstration of the pack instinct; of a group worked up into a mutual frenzy; but these feather-strewn marauders had behaved in just such a fashion, screeching until they had made Jack's head ache from the verbal assault. He had run blindly, lost in a momentary panic that was quite alien to him, and had eventually lost his pursuers through the mad randomness of his own actions. Soon enough he had found himself in a part-ruined house, and had made his way to the attic by sheer instinct. It had become his refuge now; a place where he could be alone. He had cowered there for a long time at first, terrified to go back out into the open, where those mad, feathered people might be waiting for him. He had thought of excuses aplenty, but in the end had managed to convince his leaden limbs to take him back out onto the streets, searching for information about Adam. Nobody had seen him, but a few people offered him help of other kinds. A girl of about fourteen offered to sell him some milk in exchange for some biscuits, and a boy of no more than eight or nine offered his own services as a guide. Soon the three of them had formed an uneasy coalition, of uncertain purpose so far as Jack could see, and they spent their days together, trying to find news of Adam's whereabouts. Nobody had seen the van that belonged to the Spinnakers; nobody had heard of the strange, grey-clad tribe who sold their services in exchange for songs. Certainly they didn't seem to have seen the boy who had supposedly obtained a lift from them, and had allegedly come in this direction. Jack might have despaired, had it not been for his own certainty that Adam was somewhere nearby. He felt it from the tips of his spiked red hair to the toes of his battered trainers, and told his two companions as much. Neither of them ever argued, but then neither of them ever really semed to care about much at all. He had no idea why they had latched onto him in quite such a determined fashion, but they were Locals, and that seemed to help him with his cause. Before he had joined up with them, everybody had been suspicious of him and his questions, but now nobody seemed to care that they hadn't seen him before. It became clear to him very soon that Outsiders were unpopular in these parts, but as long as he travelled with Locals, and adapted his appearance somewhat to suit theirs, he was accepted as another Local. The enmity ceased, but in its place was a general lack of interest. They no longer glared at him, and instead just ignored him completely. Since neither instance was likely to get him any closer to finding Adam, he lived in a state of almost constant frustration. It was broken by whispers that seemed at first to be useful to him, but soon proved to be as fruitless as all of his exertions had so far proved to be. He kept trying though, for until he got further word, he had no idea of which direction to take next.
On the same morning that Adam was awakening for the first time in the crowded quarters of the Outsiders within the Primitives' compound, Jack awakened to the smell of coffee. He lay still for several moments, staring up at the roof above him, and only turned his head when it became clear that the coffee was not merely an extent of some dream. He saw Tua, the girl who had sold him the milk, crouched beside a tiny, one ring, battery-powered stove that bore a small saucepan. Inside the pan, water was simmering gently, dyed a rich, dark brown by the coffee that she was adding little by little. It was freeze-dried coffee, from a jar with a familiar label, but all that she had for a spoon was a piece of plastic litter cut to an approximation of the right shape and size. There was nothing with which to stir the concoction satisfactorily, and she poured it out of the pan with a shaky hand, into three enamel mugs that were stained and chipped. Jack fell on his as though he were half dead from thirst, marvelling that a smell he had once considered so ordinary could now seem so wondrously exotic. He felt as if he were being given a prize richer than any other he could name.
Jack had always drunk coffee for breakfast, stretching back as far as he could remember. It was as much a part of his childhood as school, and computer games, and science magazines. His mother had made it first thing in the morning, and he had come downstairs to the fresh, hot smell, needing it to close the process of waking up just as opening his eyes had begun it. He hadn't had any in months, and was almost surprised when it scalded his mouth.
"Liam found it. I don't know where. I didn't ask." Taking a few sips of her own drink, Tua wrinkled up her nose in distaste. "I never really did like coffee, but it's so rare that we have anything really hot these days. Especially to drink."
"Tell me about it." Jack could still see, in his mind's eye, the last hot meal that he had eaten. It had been about two months ago by his reckoning, when Adam had found a tin of spaghetti and meatballs, and they had cooked it in a makeshift saucepan over a flame made by sixteen scented candles taken from one of the shops in the Mall. Usually they didn't dare light fires, and they had no fuel anyway, save bits of old furniture. Somehow it had always seemed barbaric to burn that. "Where is Liam anyway?"
"I don't know." Tua drank some more coffee, apparently growing more used to the unwelcome taste. Hardship brought pleasure from unimagined things, after all. "Throwing stones at the Primitives perhaps. He's a street brat."
"He's just a little kid." Not so long back, Jack thought, I'd have thought the same about us. There was nothing little about Tua though. She was taller than him, and noticeably stronger, and it was beginning to confuse him. He didn't know whether or not he was attracted to her. That was a decision that he had as yet managed to keep only in the back of his mind. He couldn't remember if the girls of her age had been so mature before the Virus, or whether such things were a mark of how fast they had been forced to grow up. Maybe he was just a little bit more grown up now, and more inclined to notice such things. He didn't know.
"There isn't any room in the world for little kids, Jack. If Liam is going to stay alive, and free, then he's going to have to start acting a little bit more responsibly, and stop throwing stones at the local troublemakers. Last night he slipped off somewhere and he came back with half the clothes torn off his back. Goodness only knows what he was doing. He's nine years-old for goodness sakes."
"Practically an adult." Jack couldn't resist a smile. He could see her point, and even sympathise with it - but at the end of the day he was not so very much older than Liam himself, and if the boy wanted to play and mess around he understood completely. If he had had a more carefree personality himself, rather than being the kind more fond of books and computers, he might have joined Liam in his games. As it was he would rather sit indoors where it was safe.
"You don't take me seriously." Refilling Jack's mug, Tua rose to her feet and started bustling about the place. Even though she couldn't have looked - or acted, most of the time - less like a housewife, there were times when that was very much what she appeared to be. She put out the campus stove, tidied up bits and pieces of their bedding, and scattered some dust about the place, so that it looked as though nobody had slept in the loft for ages. That done she picked up the cooling stove and thrust it into a canvas bag.
"Are you ready to go?"
"Yeah, I guess so." He couldn't decide if she was hurt, and decided that she probably wasn't, very. "And I do take you seriously. I just--"
"Want to play." She smiled briefly, and he saw the prettiness of her face, and the sweet slant of her almond eyes, and wondered how many hearts she might have been destined to break, if she had been able to stay at school for a little bit longer. "We all want to play, Jack. Deep down there's hardly a kid in this city that doesn't wish we could all just go back to playing games. Maybe some of the smaller ones can, if they belong to tribes strong enough to protect them. But we don't. Staying alive isn't a game."
"Yeah." He thought about the streets that they were going to have to negotiate today, on this next step of his protracted search for Adam. Who would have thought that it could have taken so long to search through one city? But when every direction that you took was a false one, and every lead in the end led nowhere, everything took longer than it should have done. Today though, he told himself. Today he would find Adam, or someone who knew him. Today he would choose the right trail for once.
They set off just as the sun was becoming visible over the buildings on the eastern horizon, flooding some of the roads and alleys whilst sinking others into deeper shadow. Liam joined them as they reached the end of the road in which their house stood; a small boy with angelic features, and wide, chocolate-coloured eyes beneath a fringe of golden hair. He looked as though butter wouldn't melt, but the ragged cut of his clothes, and the hard soles of his bare feet, were testimony to the less than angelic nature of his life. He wore a belt like a bandoleer, with a canteen of water dangling from it at his hip, and the handle of a knife almost as long as his forearm showed slightly beneath the material of his shirt. The first time Jack had seen him he had thought of a cabin boy from some tale of eighteenth century adventure on the high seas. Something by RL Stevenson perhaps, or by Leon Garfield. It was an image that it was not easy to dispel.
"I thought you two were going to sleep forever." He looked at the enamel mug that Tua had brought for him, and frowned at the coffee inside it. "Is that the stuff I found?"
"No, this is some that I bought at the store first thing." She pushed the mug at him, and glared when he seemed about to protest. "Drink it. It won't be a warm day today, and you'll probably be glad of it later."
"Doubt it." He took it anyway, taking a far too large swig, and wincing when it proved to have retained a great deal of its heat. "Ow, damn it. This stuff is dangerous."
"Don't swear." Tua's riposte was so swift that Jack was left thinking that she must have had younger brothers or sisters once; but as usual this was not the time to ask. "And it'll be good for you. It'll warm you up, and it'll give you plenty of energy. You'll need that with so little food about."
"I've got plenty of energy." He sounded mutinous, but he drank the coffee without further complaint, and stowed the mug away in the small bag he carried slung over one shoulder. It was made of soft leather, and looked like the kind of thing that would have cost a fortune in the old world. There was certainly a trademark label on it, dangling from one strap like a tiny flag.
"We should get moving." Happy to wait until Liam had finished his meagre breakfast, Jack was already restless. "It feels a little exposed here."
"It's safe enough." Liam, despite his young age, was something of an authority on these parts, and both Jack and Tua were willing to defer to his greater knowledge. "The Primitives are mostly quiet at the moment. They just made a big catch a couple of days ago, so they won't be going on the warpath again just yet."
"A big catch?" Jack had heard enough stories about the Primitives since coming to this part of town to know that he had no desire to hear of Adam falling into their hands. Liam's thin shoulders shrugged.
"They grabbed another tribe. The Street Owls they were called. Lived in an old cinema nearby. Word is they got handed over by one of their own." He shook his head. "Have to be daft, to go and do something like that. Everybody knows you can't trust the Primitives,"
"Maybe they panicked, or just didn't care anymore." There were plenty of rumours in Jack's own part of the city, about kids selling out their own tribes to the Locusts or the Demon Dogs. They did it through sheer despair.
"Maybe." Liam's tone of voice showed that he disapproved of such behaviour. "They're slaves now, anyway. Nobody ever gets a fair deal, or special treatment, from the Primitives. They're crazy, see. The guy who leads them is supposed to be mad as anything. Never touches anything or anybody, and he won't even stand on the ground. Scared of the Virus. Some people say he's so mad his eyes glow."
"That's not actually possible." Jack thought of some of the stories about Zoot, and quickly revised his opinion. There were many things that you could do to your facial features if you really wanted to make an impression on scared young kids. For all his usual big talk, Liam looked unsure of himself when he spoke of this legendary leader of the Primitives, and his voice had dropped to an almost reverential hush. These Primitives obviously knew what they were doing.
"We're never going to meet him anyway." Looking determined and grown up again, Tua drew herself up to her full height, which naturally enough made her considerably taller than her companions. "Now come on. We have to find food, and we have to find Jack's friend."
"You should forget him." Skipping into the lead as they began to walk along the road, Liam began an exaggerated search for the elusive Adam, peering over walls and into fallen dustbins. "Better to just stay here, rather than getting your friend, and going off growing things in the country. Who wants to eat vegetables?"
"I don't care about the vegetables especially." In all honesty the only thing that grew which Jack had ever had any interest in was cocoa beans. Now if he could find a way to cultivate them, and turn them into chocolate... that had possibilities. "I just want to find Adam. Wouldn't you like to go somewhere with people you trusted, and have a home outside of all this mess?" His gesture took in the graffiti and gutted ruins, the litter and the overflowing drains. Tua nodded in understanding, but Liam screwed up his face.
"This is home, this is." He looked fierce, his angelic countenance lost in the unexpected belligerence of his expression. It was almost as if he suspected that Jack and Tua and the unknown Adam were going to forcibly remove him from his city, and take him far away into the countryside he had never seen. Jack smiled at him, albeit in a distant way. There were going to be more and more kids like Liam in the future. Kids who had grown so used to the city the way it was now that they had no interest in finding anything better. They would lose sight of what 'better' was, in relation to what they now had. Soon enough there would be kids who didn't even remember the way things had been before. He wondered if he would ever forget, and if the time would ever come when he would look at a city like this one, and not remember that there had ever been a time when the buildings had been clean, and the streets had not been full of rubbish. So long as he could recall the small things, like the scent of coffee or the sound of his mother's voice - it would all still be clear to him, wouldn't it?
"Where are we searching today?" He asked the question in a tone as close to his normal one as possible, and hoped that his eyes didn't show how much he was disturbed by Liam's acceptance of their new world. Tua pointed ahead, to the north west. The Primitives' home lay that way by all accounts, but they should be able to avoid it. If the tales were true it wasn't easy to approach anyway. There were stories of something like a broad No Man's Land that lay around it in every direction; clearly embellished tales of bright lights that searched the area by night, making sure that nobody could sneak in even then. Jack couldn't imagine anybody wanting to, if the Primitives were anything like their reputation.
"Are there any tribes that way that we can trust? People that I can speak to?" He had become used to relying on Tua and Liam to find people who would answer his questions, and would listen to his pleas for information about Adam without trying to slit his throat or sell him to the Primitives. Tua's insistence that he copy her face markings, adding little flecks of blue around his eyes to go with his usual horizontal white stripes, meant that the Locals were beginning to talk to him as though he were one of them, but there were still few enough people who were willing to talk at all. It had something to do with the supposed risk of infection and an alleged need for quarantine, which left hardly anybody really wanting to talk even to their fellow Locals. If in doubt, he had learnt, avoid asking questions altogether. Ask about Adam, but say as little as possible about yourself. Never ask something that a Local should have known anyway. It made him miss the Mall more than ever, with its familiar walls, and lack of suspicious faces.
"There are the Minnows." Tua was striding ahead, the way that she so often did. "They get about. They see things."
"And they'll speak to me?"
"I think so." She glanced back at him, apparently taking pity on his small, oft-discouraged frame. "They'll have seen him, Jack. We know that he came this way, remember? You said that the Spinnakers brought him somewhere by here. Somebody will have seen something, and the Minnows are as good a bet as any. I would have said the same of the Street Owls, but if Liam's right and they're gone now..."
"They're gone." Liam scowled. "I liked them. Jeanie used to give me some food sometimes, and Cash showed me how to sharpen my knife. I was going to join them for a while, but I decided it was better on my own."
"They helped Outsiders?" Jack experienced a moment of alarm, imagining Adam being taken in by a well-meaning tribe who were then themselves captured by the Primitives. It was a horrible thought that his friend might even now be in the clutches of this mad gang about which he had heard such terrible things.
"Sometimes." Tua led the way onwards down a narrow alley, where stone paving and open drains showed a brief glimpse of the earliest history of the city. "Don't worry about it. If your friend was just passing through on his way out of the city, he's not going to have stopped for any length of time with any one particular gang, is he. It'll be alright."
"I suppose so." It was beginning to rain, and Jack felt his sinking spirits sink even further. For some reason, now that he had heard of the fate of the Street Owls, he found it impossible not to imagine Adam befalling the same fate as that band of unknown children. He wiped some of the persistent drizzle away from the back of his neck, and wished that he had had a chance to get his shoes dry before this new soaking. He was permanently cold these days, and the warmth of the unexpected coffee had already worn away. He felt ill, the city hammering away at him just the same way as the rain. Why did it seem so long ago that he had last laughed?
"Anyway, if you don't find your friend you can always stay here with us." Liam didn't seem to understand just how much his words might hurt, and as always his voice was careless and vaguely jaunty. Jack tried not to react, but felt his heart sinking all the same. These days sometimes even his natural good cheer wasn't enough to keep the dark thoughts away.
"Thanks, Liam." He tried to keep the bitterness out of voice, but didn't quite succeed. Liam didn't seem to have noticed, but Jack's own mind did. His spirits reacted to this new depressive mind set, and dragged him down still further. No matter what he thought now, it was impossible not to picture Adam, alone and imprisoned in the Primitives' camp. He felt it so strongly in his mind that he could almost begin to believe it to be the truth.
It was wonderful to be in Bray's arms again, even though there was scarcely enough room to sit beside him. The crush in the dingy little hut had been severe even before the two new arrivals had been locked inside, and now there seemed hardly enough room to breathe. It was no longer possible for everybody to sit down, and only those who were tall enough to rise above the masses had any room in which to stretch and relieve their cramped muscles. Trudy barely noticed. From the moment that the door had opened and Bray had been thrust inside, her universe had narrowed down to just a few square inches of space. Bray was back. He had come to find her, despite all her imaginings to the contrary. He had come to save her. Everything was going to be alright.
He didn't act as though he was going to save her. She realised that with a distant part of her mind that held no sway over the lion's share of her consciousness. He didn't seem in any position to get her out of this place, and he didn't look as if he had known that she was in here at all. All the same, he had definitely come to get her out. That was what Bray did - looked after her, protected her, saved her. Her and her baby. He would save them this time too.
In point of fact Bray did have a plan of sorts, although he had no idea how he was going to put it into action. In Adam he had found a comrade of remarkable intelligence, with a mind so obviously practical that it was positively encouraging. Encouraging, however, did not equal success; and in a cramped, packed room where there was no chance of speaking without being heard, it was almost impossible to guard against the wrong ears hearing what was being said. Any number of people, kept in these conditions, might be prepared to try anything for a chance of respite, even if that meant betraying their fellow prisoners. Bray didn't really blame them, for who knew how long some of them had been locked in this place? To judge by the wasted, skeletal condition of some of the prisoners, they might have been there almost since the first days of the adult-less world.
"Bray?" Trudy had been pressed against him since his arrival, speaking to him in that same tone of relief and delight, calling his name with irritating regularity. It disturbed his concentration and frustrated him greatly, but he sympathised with her, and was glad to see her. He tried not to be too annoyed.
"What is it Trudy?" There was no point in asking what she wanted; it was obvious enough. She had asked him several times already, and showed no signs of being discouraged. She wanted to know when they were leaving, and if he had found a safe place yet for her and her child. He forced the thinnest of smiles onto his face, and tried to meet her question with the courtesy and optimism that it probably, on some level at least, deserved.
"Where will we go, after here?" It was a variation on a theme at least; not the same words this time; not the same question repeated yet again. "When we escape, I mean? Is there somewhere we can go?"
"There's sure to be." He gave her shoulders a quick squeeze; the best that he could do to encourage her. "Even if it's just somewhere warm and dry, it'll be better than this place, right? And I'll find you some food, too."
"Shut up." A flat voice, dulled by too long without hope, echoed somewhere above him. "It isn't right, talking like that. Can't you see that there isn't any way out of here? Some of us have been here long enough to know that, and you can't come in here and sow false hope. We're all going to die, and the sooner you get used to that, the better it'll be."
"It's that sort of attitude that's kept you in here for so long." Adam's voice sounded terribly young, for even though there were one or two people in the building who were younger than he was, they had all been prematurely aged. Only he was left with that ring of innocence that came from having spent the last few difficult months hidden in the safety of the Mall. "You can't tell us that we've got no right to be hopeful."
"We can if you start getting everybody's hopes up." The first flat voice had been joined by another, also coming from somewhere indeterminate. There was such a crush of people in the prison that all sounds became deadened and distorted, and it was next to impossible to pinpoint the direction that any voice came from, unless it was the voice of somebody extremely close by. "There have been escape attempts here in the past, and not one of them has succeeded. Whoever's tried has just ended up back in here again, and we've all missed meals as punishment. We don't try it anymore. It just makes us all go hungry, and we don't take kindly to missing what little food we do get. Understand?"
"We understand." Bray felt a little angry, but as ever he was willing to see the other point of view. Who knew how bitter he would be, after months spent in here? He was hungry, yes - but not so much so that it had caused him to take on the haggard appearance of so many of these others. He wouldn't hate them for being exhausted and miserable. To do so just wouldn't be fair. In a place like this, where the people were so desperate for food, he could imagine that the consequence of making a failed escape attempt would be fatal; for the anger of these people, if they were forced to go without, would probably lead to extreme violence. He didn't much fancy the idea of being torn apart by a mob of angry children, and as he caught Adam's eye, and frowned in silence communication, he saw that much the same idea had occurred to the smaller boy as well. Whatever they were going to do, they were going to have to do it carefully.
"Bray?" Trudy sounded sleepy now, as if she was so very comfortable and safe in his arms that she felt she could drift off into happily relaxed slumber. That scared him. When had he become a figure of such meaning to her? When had he been transformed into the figure at the centre of her universe? Even if he didn't have such a difficult escape to plot, such dogged devotion would have stifled him. Much more and she would smother him completely.
"What is it?" Again he had to concentrate to avoid losing his patience. He had been so glad to find Trudy again; had missed her so much and been so concerned, that he had come to forget just how annoying she had always been, with her heavy reliance upon him, and her constant need for reassurance.
"When are we leaving?" She sounded much younger than she should have done, and he felt sure that this place had done her some terrible damage. He wondered how long she had been there, and what things she might have seen. Whatever had happened, it had clearly taken its toll. The always immature Trudy, always slightly helpless, always requiring some amount of assistance from others, had turned into somebody desperate, somebody incapable of functioning without him. He could see it before his eyes, like some terrifying vision of the future; her needing him, her relying on him more and more; her emotional dependence growing all the time. Perhaps it was the pregnancy. Was it true what people - men, usually - sometimes said, about pregnancy and hormones, and the effects it could all have? He didn't remember his mother being pregnant with Martin, so he wasn't sure. There had to be another explanation anyway, didn't there? Something else that was to blame for Trudy's constant tears, her continual lack of hope, her never ending desperation and her dependence on him? He gripped her hand, trying to keep his own desperation out of his voice, and struggling to convince himself that he didn't want to abandon her at the next available opportunity. He wished that he didn't have her to worry about, but he could never leave her behind. Even if he had been the type to abandon others, that was still his brother's child that she was carrying. He wouldn't leave, no matter what the cost to himself.
"Soon, Trudy." He kept his voice low, hoping that he wouldn't attract the wrath of the other Outsiders. "I'll get you both out of here, and find you somewhere safe. I promise. I know I keep saying it, and I know I haven't found you anywhere yet, but I will. Soon."
"It'll have to be soon." She cupped an arm around her growing stomach, where the bump had become so much bigger in his absence. Even despite the dreadful diet she had apparently been on, the baby was still growing, still developing, still getting closer and closer to the day of its birth. He had lost track completely, and he doubted that Trudy had ever been keeping a count of the weeks. There was no telling when the child - oh how he hoped and prayed that it was child, singular - would be due. There was no telling whether or not it would arrive on time or prematurely, whether it would be ill or safe, whether it would require special help to be delivered - whether it or its mother would contract one of the many infections which had been the bane of childbirth in the days before modern medicines. There was so much to think about, so much to remember, so much to be responsible for. It was dragging him down again, even more so than it had done before.
"When's it due?" Not noticing the helplessness of the girl, perhaps, or maybe just overestimating Bray's knowledge of her pregnancy, Adam asked the question in a voice that suggested he was interested; excited even. Maybe the idea of a baby sounded good to him. Maybe he was the kind of person who always looked forward to births, the way some people did.
"Sooner than before." Trudy stroked her stomach, apparently whispering sweet nothings to the child as she did so. "A few months I suppose."
"Probably less than two." Bray glanced up at the younger boy, trying not to look as tired as he felt. Somehow everything about his relationship with Trudy seemed to be about hiding how he really felt, for fear of hurting her, or frightening her, or upsetting the increasingly dangerous balance of her sanity. "We're not sure how far along she was when she realised."
"Hard to be sure, without a doctor to tell you." Adam eyed the sizeable bulge with an eye that looked strangely professional. "Does it move around a lot? Before the Virus my next door neighbour used to have at least one baby a year. I got quite good at guessing when they'd be born."
"You can do that?" Bray was amazed, but Adam merely shrugged.
"It's not that difficult, although I can't do it with any precision. It's hard with Trudy of course, because she hasn't been eating properly. That means the baby is probably smaller than it should be."
"I've been trying to eat right." Trudy's eyes were wide and tearful, and her face was ghostly pale. "There just isn't enough food here."
"We know that." Bray pulled her into a brief hug. "Nobody's blaming you."
"The baby's going to be alright, though. Isn't it?" She looked scared now, as though she had just been given something else to worry about; something that she hadn't considered up until now. "It won't be too ill, or missing some fingers or anything, will it?"
"I doubt it." Adam suddenly looked rather older than he had before, although that ring of unfamiliar innocence still somehow coloured his voice. "Your body will protect the baby first. It's what bodies do, when they have babies inside them. Anything you eat will go to the baby before it goes to you, so the most immediate risk is to you. It's pretty impressive what a baby can withstand. They're tougher than you'd think." He grinned at them, looking ever so much younger as the merriment filled his eyes. "I remember seeing some of the pictures that my neighbour had. Scans, you know? Little tiny babies, with proper legs and arms, even when they're still so tiny that you can hardly see them." He blushed slightly. "Sorry. I used to think it would pretty great to be a doctor. A paediatrician or something. I used to baby-sit sometimes, although I guess I wasn't really old enough, legally."
"You know about babies and stuff." It seemed incredible that this undersized boy, so young and almost immature, might possibly be the answer to all their dreams. Bray's mind flashed through all his nightmares; huddling tired and afraid in some leaking, icy cold shelter, trying to deliver a baby that didn't want to be born, with nothing and no one to assist save blind hope. Now at last there was a possibility of something else. "You - you haven't actually seen one being born, have you?"
"Only in films." The thin shoulders shrugged. "But I don't see that it can really be that difficult. You just have to make sure that everything's clean, and that you know more or less what to expect. The real problems are pretty rare."
"And the boiling water? And the towels?" There were all kinds of things that people on television had considered necessary for births, most of which seemed unfathomable. It all added to the confusion, and bothered Bray no end. Adam laughed, the sound ringing out in the dead atmosphere of the cold little room; an alien noise somehow, that made everybody look their way.
"The boiling water could be useful I guess. You'd have to sterilise some things. Something to cut the umbilical cord with, and maybe a sharp knife if things were getting really bad. You'd need something to clean the baby with too, and get rid of all the blood." He grinned. "Not boiling water for that, though, obviously. I suppose you'd need the towels then too, for drying it afterwards. A blanket too. And something to clear up the afterbirth."
"There's a lot to think about." Bray tried to get it all straight in his mind; all that, plus the food runs, the raids and the scouting. What if he was out doing that when the baby started to come? He would need to go out on more scavenging trips by then, for Trudy would need more food, especially when she was soon to begin producing milk. It would have to be a better quality of food than was usually available to Strays. He would have to find some way of boiling the water; perhaps find some medical supplies. Disinfectant, that kind of thing. All things that he had been trying not to think about before now.
"It's alright." Pushing himself into an almost non-existence space beside Trudy, Adam took her other hand in what he hoped was an encouraging way. "I can't exactly claim to be qualified, but I guess I do know quite a lot about this kind of thing. My mother died in labour, when I was born. Maybe that's why I always read about it. I know how rare that kind of birth problem is, and I know abut some of the other things to watch out for too. If you want, I'll be there when the time comes. I'm not in that much of a hurry to get anywhere else. As it happens I know of a place where it ought to be safe for you to give birth. A friend and I have been living there for some time now, and it's secure enough. At least I think it is. Warm too, or out of the wind at least. There's no heating of course, but the walls and the ceiling are sound, and we've got a lot of blankets and stuff like that. Cushions too. Some good stocks of food, and even some batteries. We were hoping to get a radio working, and see if we could find some adults out there somewhere, but we decided in the end that there were probably better things to use the batteries for. Maybe we could figure out a way to heat the place, or to make some proper baby food." He seemed excited by the prospect, and Bray had to smile. It seemed odd to sit here, feeling so warmed by another's cheerfulness and optimism, when the air of desolation and despair around about them was so very deep and oppressive.
"We'd appreciate some help, I guess." It was such an understatement that it felt as though he had to laugh out loud. Trudy nodded as well, although as ever she seemed too wrapped up in Bray to have really noticed what was being said. Adam looked delighted, apparently already excited by the prospect of assisting with the birth of somebody else's child.
"Then it's settled." He glanced around then, apparently only just remembering the dismal truth of their current predicament. "We just have to find a way out of here."
"Leave that to me." Now that he had finally found a way of lessening one of the burdens upon his shoulders, Bray felt infinitely more capable of taking care of another. "Just stay alert."
"Sure." Adam looked up at the figures around them; the miserable, the angry, the hopeless and the sick. Many of them seemed to loom threateningly, not liking what they had heard, and not pleased to listen to talk of escape. He felt almost more threatened by these people, his fellow prisoners, than he had by the Primitives themselves. "Have you got a plan?"
"Sort of." Somebody nearby made a disparaging noise, and somebody stamped a foot, loudly. A warning, clearly, but also a threat. There was a growing air of unpleasantness now, and the restless shifting of so many of the prisoners, the unease and the unrest, had moved past mere oppression into something almost frightening. Somebody jostled Bray's arm, and he wondered just how far these people were willing to go to avoid further punishment from their captors.
"We'd better talk about it later." The atmosphere clearly had not gone unnoticed by Adam, and Bray nodded in agreement. The silence was awkward to maintain, though, after so much urgent conversation.
"Does that mean we can sleep now?" Trudy was exhausted, a fact that was evident by the pallor of her skin, as well as by the dark circles around her eyes. She seemed incapable of doing anything other than flopping, and her voice had dropped to an almost indistinct murmur. Bray shifted his position so that he could take more of her weight.
"You'd better sleep for a while, yes." He thought about whatever work it had been that he had watched this pitiful group being led off to earlier in the day, and wondered how much more of it a pregnant girl could take. She rested her head on his shoulder, and he wondered if perhaps it had already been too much for her. She felt different. She had always been a little bit helpless, but now she seemed so much more so. So desperate. So... pathetic almost. She nestled closer. Around him the air of somnambulism was growing, replacing the anger and enmity with something far more miserable and tired. Somebody coughed, a hollow noise, echoed by another person, quickly dulled by the sheer weight of numbers. Somewhere it sounded as though somebody was crying, but Bray couldn't even begin to see who. A drop of rain hit him squarely in the middle of the head, and he felt the chill of it throughout his body. Maybe that was why the unseen person was crying. Another drop followed the first, and he glanced up to see what little of the world was visible through the dirty, dusty skylight above. The sky was dark, the bleak grey that had so bothered him before now having descended into an equally bleak black. Beside him Trudy muttered something, and somebody nearby began coughing again. The sobbing faded. More rain began to fall. Slowly, gradually, Bray felt his confidence ebb away. Soon enough it was only the thought of Martin's child that kept him from falling into hopelessness himself.
Jack and his companions spent much of the day asking questions; or, rather, trying to persuade scared and unfriendly tribes to tell them whatever they happened to know. Nobody was terribly forthcoming. It was frustrating, if not entirely unexpected, and Jack had had just about enough by the time they reached the little church where Tua had suggested that they might find a reasonable welcome. Sure enough, in the darkened nave, they were greeted by a quietly spoken young man who promised to do his best to answer their questions. Jack was rather taken aback, and with the gentlest of smiles the young man told him that here, at least, there would be no hostility.
"We are all friends here," he said, his voice so like that of an English country parson that Jack almost smiled. "Here everybody is welcome, so long as they agree not to argue and not to fight."
"We should have come here first." Looking up at the stained glass windows, remarkably intact, even though windows had proved to be the first casualties almost everywhere else, Jack allowed himself to relax a little for the first time in a long while. Tua nodded.
"I wasn't sure how to get here. Everybody in this sector of the city has heard of this place, but I've never been here myself. Before I met you I hadn't gone more than half a mile or so since the last of the adults died. It never seemed worth the risk."
"Well you're here now." The young man, one of the oldest that Jack had seen since the Virus had done its work, pointed to the nearest pew. "Sit down. Would you like something to drink? We mostly have water, but if you're in need of the strength we do have some wine. Strong and red. Just the thing for a long journey, especially now that it's so cold."
"No thanks. No wine." Jack felt suddenly embarrassed, finding it strangely difficult to talk to this quiet individual. He had such an air of peace about him; such an aura of almost unbelievable gentility that he was practically alien. "We, er... we're looking for a friend of mine. He sort of passed through this way a while ago. Probably. We were hoping you'd seen him."
"Ah." The young man nodded, then headed towards the little wooden door that led to the vestry. "If you'll wait here for just a second I'll call the rest of my company. It's quite possible that one of them will be able to tell you what you want." He called something, his lilting voice carrying in the quiet of the building. It sounded odd to the others, floating about as it did amongst all the bare stone and wood. It was the perfect voice for such surroundings though; the voice of the priesthood, somehow.
"You called, Brother Simon?" Appearing in the vestry doorway, a young girl moved forward into the nave. She had long, flowing brown hair, and was dressed in a simple brown robe. Behind her were six or seven others, a fairly even split of the sexes, all dressed in identical clothing. The girls all had long hair, the boys wore their own hair almost completely shaven away. The only exception was Simon himself, who had a neat head of perfectly clipped black hair, with a clean-shaven tonsure in the middle. He was dressed in black; black shirt, black trousers, with a belt that caught what little light there was in the building. Jack got a closer look at it as the little band came back towards him. It bore several little medallions, all made from some kind of metal; a star of David, a cross, a half moon; all the religious symbols that he was familiar with, and more besides.
"Friends." Simon smiled around at his guests with a look of almost rapturous bliss upon his face. "These are my companions. We seek shelter in here from the fighting that goes on outside, and we guide each other with the words and the wisdom of all the world's great religions. You can be sure that anything I tell you, and anything that my companions tell you, is absolutely the truth. No one lies here."
"Great." Now that it had come time to ask the familiar question Jack felt rather self-conscious. It seemed to him that everybody was looking in his direction, and this latest company of children were far more intense in their scrutiny than the others had been. The other tribes had glared and threatened, or just stared blankly at him. This bunch seemed to be hanging on his every word, their desire to help so obvious that it was almost a craving. "I have this friend. Adam. He supposedly came this way maybe a few days ago, and I'm trying to find him. He was wearing paint like mine, and his hair is the same colour mine is. He's about my age. He was probably alone, but for a while he might have been with a group called the Spinnakers. They have a van of some kind." The words had come out in an unexpected rush in the end, his lisp somehow adding to the excited nature of his speech. The little group of robed church-dwellers stared back at him, then looked about at each other in obvious interest. Nobody spoke up though, and Jack felt his heart sinking. Somehow he was certain that these people were his last hope, for even though there were plenty of people left that he hadn't spoken to, he knew that nobody else would be this willing to talk. He wondered if Simon would let him get very drunk on that 'strong red wine' that he had mentioned earlier. He had never been drunk before, but somehow it seemed like the best thing to do right now.
"Adam you say?" It was the smallest of the group who spoke; a boy of probably about ten years. His robe was too long for him, and his almost shaven head emphasised the size of his eyes until he had the appearance of a little bush-baby, bizarrely crossed with an impossibly angelic choirboy. "I think I've seen him. Red hair, yeah?"
"Yeah. Like mine." Jack pointed, as though that might make the point more clear. "Very red."
"Yeah." The little boy nodded. "Adam's what he said he was called, and I remembered see, because we'd just been talking about Adam and Eve. Simon was giving us lessons."
"That's right, Paul." Simon spoke to the boy with a patience that suggested great encouragement; a far more ready acknowledgement of the boy's young age than was common nowadays. It suggested that Paul was even younger than he really was, and indeed there was something about him that implied he was not quite as mature as might be expected. Now that his eyes were adjusting to the gloom, and he was better able to see those around him, Jack could see the same look in the eyes of all of them bar Stephen. All of them probably had learning difficulties of one sort or another, and from what he could see it was Down's Syndrome that prevailed. His opinion of Stephen rose, for there were not many people in the city that were prepared to take on such responsibilities. Most of those kids with the more severe problems had been abandoned when the adults left, or had been gathered up by the Locos and the Demon Dogs for use as slaves.
"He spoke to me." Paul was frowning, trying to remember the exchange. "He said he was trying to get out of the city. Looking for the best route so he wouldn't run into any trouble. I said he should stay here for a night, but he said he had somewhere. I told him to watch out for the Primitives, but he said he could probably get by them okay." He suddenly looked very much younger. "But I don't think he did."
"What makes you say that?" Jack hoped that he hadn't been too harsh in spitting out this sudden question, but whether he had or he hadn't, Paul didn't seem too bothered. He gave a little shrug.
"He was getting some food from Polly on the corner, and he said he'd see her for more tomorrow, but I was there again the next day, and he wasn't there. Polly asked me if I'd seen him, 'cause she thought maybe he'd spent the night here after all, like lots of them do as don't come from round here. But I hadn't seem him and I said so." His big round eyes blinked up at Jack. "So I think the Primitives got him. They get most of them. The ones that don't come here."
"I'm afraid that's true." Simon was looking thoughtful, and when he turned back to Jack his eyes were filled with compassion. "I try to find as many Outsiders and Strays as I can, but many of them get by me, and most of them wind up in the hands of the Primitives. A few get lucky, and there are other friendly tribes in the area. Most though..." He let the sentence trail off, and muttered a faint apology. Jack nodded.
"Thanks. I suppose you're going to say that there's no point in me looking for him anymore."
"Not at all." Simon laid a hand on his shoulder, still looking the very image of love and compassion. "He may well be safe, or safe enough for the time being. On the other hand he may not. Either way he needs your help, but whether or not you give it to him is for you to decide. The chances are that you will end up in the hands of the Primitives yourself, but perhaps you consider that an acceptable risk."
"Not really." Liam obviously hadn't intended the words to come out as loudly as they did, and he flushed slightly. Jack tried to ignore him.
"What are these other friendly tribes?" He was trying to imagine some nice, happy bunch of people like some of those rumoured to live in his own part of the city; people who had a little food put by, and somewhere safe to sleep at night, and who had enough supporters to be able to defend themselves if they ever needed to fight. Somehow he couldn't picture it in this place, where nobody seemed prepared to welcome anyone.
"There are two that might take in Outsiders." Simon steepled his fingers, obviously thinking hard. "One of them, the Ferrets, are a bunch of scavengers. They get in and out of everywhere, even steal stores from the Primitives. They'll take in anybody they find, just because they couldn't care less." He frowned slightly, looking a little bit disapproving. Perhaps, thought Jack, with more than a touch of unexpected humour, he didn't approve of stealing. "The other group are the Street Owls. There aren't that many of them, compared to some of the local tribes, but they have a lot of friends. They live in an old cinema. They're a nice enough bunch, and I've known them to take in Strays and the like in the past."
"Then it's possible that Adam met with somebody like them?" Jack saw the lifeline and clung to it, but Simon gave his head a mournful shake.
"Doubtful. And even if he did it wouldn't have done him any good. The Street Owls were taken a day or two back. I don't know quite when to be honest. The Primitives have them now, and if anybody was with them when it happened, they'll be a prisoner too by now. Paul?"
"Yeah?" The small boy looked delighted to have been brought into the conversation again, and bounced forwards as though there were springs in his shoes. Simon offered him an indulgent smile.
"Where was this boy when you saw him?"
"Near Polly's place, like I said." He glanced towards Jack. "That's near the cinema where the Owls hang out. I saw in their place once, and they have a big fire down there, and lots of pretty little kids. Raven chased me away, though."
"And do you think that Adam might have joined up with them?" Tua spoke in a tone of voice so perfectly attuned to Paul's youth that she might have been a fully trained children's nurse. The small boy shook his head.
"Don't think so. He wasn't planning to stick around. Didn't want any help from anyone. Didn't want directions or anything. He was on his own."
"Then maybe he still is." Simon didn't look terribly certain. "Jack... I don't want to hurt you, or worry you too much, but one thing I can say, with a fair bit of certainty. Any Outsider who tries to make it alone in this part of town doesn't have much of a chance. Everyone around here hates Outsiders. It's a mind set that began with the adults and has spread everywhere. The Virus didn't come to this part of town for a long time, and we were quarantined for months. You probably can't imagine what that was like, and how it made everybody feel about strangers." His eyes travelled towards Tua and Liam. "Unless perhaps your friends have told you something about it. The chances of him meeting with your kind of luck, and getting the assistance of Locals, are almost non-existent."
"You think that the Primitives have got him, don't you." Climbing slowly to his feet, Jack paced down the aisle, past the shelves with their well-dusted hymn books, past a large display of huge, leather-bound Holy books - again it seemed that every major faith was represented - and up to the large marble font before the altar. There was some water still in the bowl, and somebody had covered it over with a sheet of ill-cut glass, presumably as protection against its loss. In a world without adults there were naturally no more ordained priests, and therefore no way in which to bless any new supplies of Holy water. No doubt that was a worry for somebody like Simon.
"I'm not saying that your friend is definitely a prisoner of the Primitives, Jack." Simon had come up behind him without him noticing it, and the older boy laid a gentle hand on the shoulder of the younger. "But I think you'd be making a mistake to hope too much that he hasn't. If you really want to find him, the best move that you can make is to try to get close to the Primitives' camp. I can't take you there, and I won't ask any of my companions here to lead you either, but I can give you some basic directions. Go there, keep an eye on the place. Maybe you'll see him. At least then you'll know one way or the other. As for getting him free..." He shrugged, and the light from one of the overhead stained glass windows caught the smooth skin of his tonsure in a pattern that was strangely ethereal. "I'm not helping to make you feel any better, am I."
"No." Jack couldn't help being honest. Maybe it was something to do with the almost painfully honest Simon, spreading his trustworthiness and straight-speaking dependability to all. "But I suppose there's no point hiding from it. Where do I find these Primitives?"
"You can't go there, Jack." Tua was standing nearby, her body language dripping nervousness. "It would be mad. You're an Outsider, and they'd know that. You don't know what they do to Outsiders."
"I don't especially want to find out, either." Jack had gone very pale, his eyes showing the strain of the decision that he had to make. He knew that he was no hero, and he never had been. Somehow running away or hiding had always seemed the better option if danger showed its face. He knew that he couldn't abandon Adam though, especially if there was any chance that he had been captured by this supposedly all-powerful gang.
"It'll be alright Jack." Liam, looking and sounding typically young, had apparently warmed to the challenge. "We'll find Adam even if the Primitives have got him. We just need to sneak in there without being seen. It's been done before."
"Not by you." Tua's voice was harsh, but Liam, as usual, was irrepressible.
"Don't be such a spoilsport. I can get in there. I know I can."
"Related to the Ferrets, are you?" Tua was clearly not impressed, but Jack, whatever his better instincts, found himself starting to listen. Something about Liam's certainty was infectious, despite the obvious overconfidence that filled everything he did.
"You don't have to be a Ferret to get in and out of the Primitives' place. My brother did it." Swelling up to at least an inch above his normal height, Liam sank his hands deeply into his pockets, and succeeded in looking genuinely convinced; if not entirely convincing. "We can do this, I know we can."
"I wouldn't attempt it." Simon smiled beatifically, like some monk in a picture of medieval piety. The glow from the stained glass windows went some of the way to giving him an aura, like the glowing halos painted onto artistically rendered saints. "But then I have responsibilities."
"Adam's my responsibility." Even as he said it Jack knew that it was true, and knew also that there could be no running away now. He had no other leads, he had heard no other news about Adam. If these people thought it more than likely that he was in the clutches of the Primitives, then it was to the Primitives that Jack must now go. His heart was hammering against his ribs, and a cold sweat had broken out upon his forehead. He was sure that it must be visible to everybody in the room, and tried to wipe it away with the back of his hand. Oh how he longed for the Mall right now.
"Jack, this is crazy." Tua was looking more worried than she felt sure he had ever been before. He smiled up at her though, managing to look a little more certain than he was. He knew all too well that her concern was entirely justified. He was one small, scrawny boy who was far more at home playing with computers and trying to invent things than he was forming rescue parties and mounting raids. He didn't have a clue what his next move should be. All he knew was that he couldn't run away.
"I know it's crazy." He couldn't quite meet her eyes. "It's more than crazy. But I have to try this. He's my friend."
"We'll probably all end up dead. You do know that?" She was glaring from him to Liam and back again, eyes flaming, and with furrowed brow. Jack nodded. After a moment, so did Liam. Simon laid a hand on the red-headed boy's tense and nervous shoulder.
"If you ever prayed to a god, Jack, I'm sure he'll help you now."
"Yeah. Sure." A little embarrassed, and not a little uneasy, Jack smiled awkwardly. "Thanks."
"And I'm sorry I can't give you any help." The hand gave his shoulder a squeeze that might have been encouraging, had the person doing it been a real grown-up, instead of just a very mature-looking boy. "My friends here need me."
"Of course." Jack managed another smile, then glanced towards the large door that led out of this dark, quiet place of security, and back out onto the ever more dangerous streets. He was nuts, he decided. There was no other explanation. If he really was as intelligent as the world had always supposed him to be, he would never have left the Mall. He certainly wouldn't be planning on going out onto the streets right now, chasing suspicions into the heart of the lion's den.
But then, when all was said and done, how could he possibly do anything less?
Jeanie pushed aside the remains of her meal, and wondered whether she would ever again enjoy eating something that she had chosen and prepared for herself. The food had been nice enough; not terribly tasty, but then nothing really was these days. The best foods had long ago been eaten, or had perished, and they were mostly left now with packets and tins. Not that that really bothered her. She had hardly been a gourmet to begin with. All that she really objected to was to being fed like some animal in a cage at a zoo; handed food on a tin tray by somebody who refused to speak to her, and who was always accompanied by a guard armed with a heavy stave. There was no element of choice anywhere; even less than normal, when she had had such a limited number of foods to choose from out of the little store beneath the cinema.
"Well that was... edible I suppose." Rising to his feet, Cash began a frustrated pacing that had already irritated the rest of the tribe during most of the first half of the day. Nobody bothered telling him to sit down, for most of them wished that they were also pacing. They didn't because they lacked the energy, and also the impetus. Pacing required some level of nervous energy, but most of the tribe had begun to sink into a sort of unresponsive state, wits dulled by their lack of hope or plans. Jeanie didn't know what to do to change that state of affairs, but she was sure that if she didn't do something soon the whole bunch of them would vegetate.
"Where do you suppose Raven is?" She asked the question as loudly as she could without shouting, determined that it should filter into all their minds. One or two of them looked up at her, and she saw that her words had registered. One or two frowns gave her a little hope that they were all still alive behind their unresponsive eyes, and she tried another tack, hoping to inspire them back into something approaching a normal level of consciousness. If they were this empty after so short a time in captivity, what hope was there for tomorrow, or the day after? She had to keep them operating, even if it was only on the most basic of levels.
"Do you think he's still alive? Maybe in a cell near to us? Or do you think that he's with Zeus?" She looked around at them all, waiting for one of them to manage an answer. Jez offered her a gentle smile of encouragement, being one of the few others to still remain clear-headed.
"What has he gained by handing us over?" Cash, she knew, was less likely than the others to give up. He was still ready to talk, to remain alert and ready for possible action, and that fact sang out behind his words. His motives for trying to spur on the others were different to Jeanie, for his sights lay on fighting; on forcing their way out of this place no matter who tried to stand in their way, and in taking down as many of the Primitives as possible. Jeanie was more interested in the escape itself than in seeking retribution, no matter how angry she was at the Primitives, and at Raven. Her only other goal was to find Bray.
"Do you really think he let us get caught?" One of the smaller members of the tribe, large eyes gazing at her from a face marked with smudged and smeared paint, blinked sorrowfully. "Why would he do that?"
"Food?" She shrugged, feeling a bit like a cad. These kids had counted on Raven for support for so long that they saw him as some kind of surrogate father. "Maybe they let him join them."
"They never let anybody join. Not just like that." A slightly older girl, one who had always carried a torch for Raven, shook her head hard in denial. "Couldn't it have been Bray that betrayed us instead?"
"An Outsider?" Cash shook his head. "You've got to be kidding. What would an Outsider possibly have to gain from handing us over? You know the way that the Primitives are. They would never have agreed to a deal with him."
"They might have done." The girl, Tara, was glaring at him, eyes dark with the look of somebody who knew that they were fighting a losing battle. Jeanie smiled at her in gentle understanding, and she turned away in mute anger. Jez sighed.
"This is getting us nowhere. Raven betrayed us, and however many of you want to deny that, deep down we all know it's the truth. I wanted to believe in him too at first, despite what I heard him say before I passed out. When I first woke up here, I wanted to think that it might have been Bray who had turned us in. But you know that's crazy, right? Bray couldn't possibly stand to gain anything from handing us over. The Primitives would never even pretend to do a deal with him, just to get hold of us. What are we worth?"
"Not a great deal to a guy like Zeus." Cash finally ceased his pacing, and sat down next to his wife. "But what's Raven worth to him?"
"Maybe Raven is a Primitive." Jeanie's voice was very quiet, for even she, with her absolute belief in Bray's innocence, felt it almost impossible to accept that Raven had helped the Primitives to capture them all. "Maybe he was just pretending to be one of us."
"Er... why?" Tara didn't need to have a crush on Raven to come up with a question like that, but Jeanie couldn't really answer her. She shrugged.
"How the hell should I know? I'm not inside his head, am I."
"Be good if one of us was." Holding Cash's hand tightly in her own, Jez smiled rather wanly around at the others. "At least then we'd know if he really did this, and why."
"The why doesn't matter. If we see him, we deal with him." Cash was not usually the violent type, and it was a surprise to see him behaving in such a fashion now; but Jeanie could see how terribly he had been affected by this. Of course - Cash had known Raven before the Virus, and probably still thought of him as a friend from the old days. It was always hardest to lose somebody from before, for it felt like losing yet another bit of the world that the adults had built.
"You'd kill him, wouldn't you." Jez was eyeing him with a disturbed look in her eyes, and for a second Cash couldn't look at her. In the end he smiled, and gave her a little shrug that spoke volumes.
"Yeah. I guess I would. Wouldn't you?"
"He was our friend, Cash. He was one of us." She looked towards Jeanie, searching for support, and encountered only cold uncertainty. "Cash..."
"He was my friend, yeah." Cash shrugged his shoulders again, both of them almost hidden beneath the mounds of impressive hair that fell around him. "He taught me how to drive, when we were both fifteen. He introduced me to my first girlfriend the same year. I thought that meant something, but if it doesn't mean anything to him, it's not going to mean anything to me either. Not any more. So I say, if we're going to be stuck here as prisoners or slaves for the rest of our lives, we might just as well make a noise about it. If we see Raven, we kill him."
"And get killed ourselves." Tara sat down heavily beside him, resting her chin on her knees and shaking her head. "Do you really hate him that much?"
"Yeah, I do. He set us up, Tara. There's no excusing that." He looked up, glancing around at the others. "Who's with me? Who says it's better to do this than spend the rest of our lives as prisoners, watching him hanging out with our enemies - our captors?"
"Cash..." Jeanie didn't exactly sound disapproving, but he knew that she wanted him to think differently. He also knew from the light in her eyes that she would take his side if the moment arose. So would Jez, despite the fear on her face.
"Are you with me?" It was the others who needed to answer the question for his piece of mind. Tara, who had always had a crush on Raven; the kids who had always looked up to their leader, and before now had followed him without question. If they weren't behind him then he didn't have a chance.
"I'm with you." Steve was no more than ten years-old, a stocky little boy with a shaven head, and bright silver earrings that shone. He was good in a fight, despite his small size, and had the determination of a terrier. All the same, he was still a very small boy. Once Cash might have turned him down for just that reason, but nowadays there was no such thing as being too young. He nodded his acceptance of the younger boy's offer.
"Good. Thanks Steve."
"I'm with you too." Nobody knew how old Staze was, or where she had come from, but she had the cold hard eyes of someone who knew how to fight, and had done it more than once in the past. Again Cash nodded. Deep inside he knew that he should feel sad, that his friends were willing to follow him to an almost certain death, just to get their revenge on one of their own; but he didn't feel sad. Sadness was something he had felt too much of since the Virus had first become known to him. He didn't feel that way anymore, whatever the situation.
"Anybody else?" He asked it with the sure knowledge that he was opening the flood gates; knowing that they were all going to answer in the affirmative. Every one of his friends, from the youngest upwards, were agreeing to help him if the chance arose. Even Lonnie in the end, despite the brotherly love that was still in his eyes. Maybe that gave him an even greater reason for wanting Raven dead.
"This is crazy, you do realise that." Jeanie, always so sensible, so gentle, seemed to be trying to pretend that she was not as desperate for this as all the others, even though the desire for revenge was clear on her face. "We haven't got a chance, and it's quite likely that we're never going to see him anyway. Do you really think he'd be stupid enough to come anywhere near us?"
"Yeah, maybe. Maybe he is." Staze sounded horribly young, and horribly cold. "Does it matter? We might just as well have something that we can look forward to. Even if there's no other way to escape from this place, this is a kind of escape, isn't it. It's the best chance we've got. The Primitives are never going to let us go."
"Thanks to Raven." Jez didn't sound very sure, but her face was. The doubts had crumbled as she had watched the others come forwards to pledge their support to the plan. "Nobody has ever got free before, have they. We won't get worked to death like the Outsiders, either, so there's not even a way out by that route. Better death than an eternity here."
"There's always a chance." Jeanie looked around at them all, one after the other. "We've been here just a few days, and you're already prepared to give up everything. Don't you think we ought to at least see if we can't escape? Nowhere is escape-proof. It couldn't be."
"Did you ever hear of anybody escaping? Anybody, in all the months since the Primitives took over?" Cash shook his head, and his hair bounced endearingly. "It just doesn't happen. It never has. Nobody gets away, whether they're a Local or an Outsider. You know that, Jeanie. I've heard you say it."
"I know." She lowered her eyes. "I suppose I just don't feel ready to give up that quickly, that's all. We've only just got here, and you're talking about virtual suicide. You want to kill Raven, and you want to die doing it, don't you."
"Yeah, I do. Like Jez said, it's better than the alternative." He smiled, the extra years of the last few months falling away from his face. "I'm not scared, Jeanie. None of us is. Not anymore. So why act like we are?"
"Yes." She was smiling now, rueful and sad and hurt. "I suppose that does make a stupid kind of sense."
"Exactly." He nodded, once, hard and fast. "Then we're all decided. The next time we see Raven, he dies. Even if it means that we all die as well."
Time passed slowly for the Outsiders. That was probably the first thing that Bray noticed. There was nothing to do in the grim prison room save stand, or sit and try to sleep. When the dawn came it was only a shift of scenery, not a release; a herald of the approaching march, at a slow, lagging pace, to a stretch of wasteland, where followed endless hours of toil. They were building a wall, out of blocks of white concrete brought from dismembered factories nearby, ferried in by captured Locals, who carried them on the backs of bicycles and motor-scooters. The Outsiders took them, carrying them by hand to the growing walls, heaving them higher and higher as they struggled to complete Zeus's great vision; a barrier to shut out the rest of the world, and seal him and his followers into a place where they would be safe. A place that other people would not be able to get into, with their germs and their viruses, and the risk that they would bring the feared Virus itself. Struggling along with the other Outsiders, Bray was struck by the insanity of it all, although there seemed no point in drawing attention to it. What would happen to them all if they did successfully seal themselves in? How would they get out to find food or water? Nobody seemed to care about that.
And so he spent his day carrying blocks, lifting blocks, handling them up to others, manhandling them into position, or helping to mix the cement that was passed up to the workers on little wooden trays. There were no mechanical mixers, just buckets and stirring rods, and dusty children pouring sand from large bags taken from abandoned building sites. They used water from the old river that had once run through this part of the city, but which had long ago been diverted underground. The water was brackish and dirty, filled with greasy scum from who knew what sources of pollution beneath the city, but it seemed to do its job well enough, dribbled into the mixing cement from any containers capable of carrying it. It gave the cement a certain greyness that it would not otherwise have had; a grimness that spoke volumes. Adam worked for much of the day pouring the water into the cement containers, hefting the large, heavy jugs and cans backwards and forwards from the place where the river's flow had been diverted back up to the surface. It was unpleasant to the extreme, working so hard and suffering so much from thirst, whilst all the time handling water that was so obviously undrinkable.
They returned to their uncomfortable barracks only when the light began to fail, and it no longer became possible to be sure that the cement was being mixed to the right consistency. There was a meal waiting for them on their return; some kind of soup made from tinned vegetables and stock cubes, and a few biscuits of the kind once served in restaurants with cheese. They were stale, unsurprisingly. Bray watched Trudy break hers up into pieces and sprinkle them over the soup, her manner underlining just how long she had spent in this place.
"Tastes like school dinners." Trying to bring a little lightness to the atmosphere, Adam took a few mouthfuls of soup before grimacing theatrically. Bray smiled.
"I thought you went to St Martin's? Surely they have proper cooks there?"
"It might be an exclusive school, but that doesn't mean they feed you better than any other place." Adam fell silent for a few moments, obviously struck by his usage of the present tense. "Bray, were you serious about coming up with a plan for getting out of here?"
"Of course I was." The change of subject had been a sudden one, but was not unexpected. "I don't want to stay here. We won't survive if we do."
"Everybody gets so pale and tired." Trudy was huddled up into a tiny space, staring listlessly at the contents of her bowl. "I want to see the sea again, and I want to still be alive when the sun starts shining again, and the flowers come out. Is it spring yet?"
"It's not even winter yet." Bray took her hand, failing to notice the way that her pulse rocketed at his touch. "Don't worry, there'll be plenty of flowers when the times comes."
"Not here there won't be." She stirred at the thin soup, and watched the bits of broken biscuit move about amongst the sorry floating vegetables. "Once we've finished building that wall there won't be anything."
"Not once the food runs out there won't be." Adam finished his ration and immediately wished there was more of it, even though he had hated every mouthful. "These people are nuts. They want to hide themselves away from the rest of the world, as though that's going to save their lives. Save it from what? The Virus has gone."
"Maybe." Bray shrugged. "But they've got this idea, haven't they. It comes from the adults, quarantining themselves when the Virus first came to the city. This bunch just can't let that way of thinking go."
"They need a few of those suits the health officials used to wear, with all the clear plastic over their heads." Adam smiled at the thought of the Primitives all dressed up that way. It wasn't easy to find something about their permanently angry captors that was amusing, but that image did the trick for a while at least.
"We're not going to stay here until the wall is finished though, are we Bray?" Half asleep, Trudy was leaning against him, all slumped and miserable. He put his arm around her to help her stay a little way upright.
"I told you, we're getting out." He lowered his voice, looking meaningfully at Adam to warn him that they had to keep their plans a secret. "When they take us to work on the wall, that's probably our best chance."
"I can't run, Bray." Trudy's voice was quiet and heavy, the tears not far away. "Not anymore. Not very well anyway." She cradled one worryingly thin arm around her stomach. It was not huge yet, but its growing size was obviously going to be a problem. With that added weight and bulk she could not, particularly in her weakened state, do much that required speed and agility.
"You don't have to run. We'll grab one of the motor-scooters they use for transporting the stones for the wall. You get on that, and go as fast as you can. Better head south. Adam and I will try to slow the Primitives down, and then make a break for it as well. We'll probably have to go on foot, so we'll have to talk about where we can meet up."
"That'll be fun, since Trudy and I don't know the area." Adam tossed his empty bowl aside, and managed a light-hearted shrug. "Unless you happen to have a map?"
"You don't need to know the area. There's a storm drain that supposedly leads down to the tunnel that the river runs through. It's not far from here, and it should be pretty easy to get into. We could hide down there, and we should be able to make our way along the tunnel for quite a distance under the city. Surely that's got to be the safest way to travel?"
"Can we get back to our sector that way?" Suddenly interested, Adam was impressed with this talk of underground passageways. Bray shook his head.
"We'll only just make it out of this one. The tribe I was staying with before I was captured had explored the tunnels, and they told me what they found. After a while the river gets too big for the tunnel, and the whole volume of water gets forced at high pressure through the pipe. Bad planning I guess. Anyway, it's not possible to walk through the tunnel anymore once you get that far."
"Better than nothing I guess."
"Precisely." He shifted his position slightly, redistributing Trudy's weight. The girl was asleep now, her breathing shallow. "Anyway, I have to get Trudy out of here, and if that tunnel is the best hope we have, I have to take it. I just hope we can find the entrance. I've never been there myself, but I know it can't be more than a mile away."
"So we're looking for something you've never seen before, which might help us to escape, but might just as easily lead us into a dead end where the Primitives can pick us off one by one." Adam made a face. "You've got to work on this 'inspiring your followers' thing, Bray. At the moment you're lousy at it."
"It's not something I've ever had to do before." Bray tried out a threatening glare when somebody tried to move Trudy aside to make more space for himself. "And it's not something I plan to do again. I'm no leader."
"Well you are for the next few days." Adam looked around at the other Outsiders, all starting to drift off to sleep now, or to gather together in tight-knit little groups to talk. He wondered how many of them had once planned their own escapes, or if the threats of the others had discouraged them from making any such attempts. He had heard one or two particularly discouraging stories during the course of the day, about the few people who actually had tried to escape in the past. None of them had made it, and none of them had been given the opportunity to try a second time.
"You don't need me to lead you, Adam. Even Trudy doesn't really need me." Bray rested his head on that of the sleeping girl, making a conscious effort to get some sleep himself. "I look after myself best. Nobody else."
"Maybe." Adam wrapped his arms around his drawn up knees, choosing it as the best position in which to try to sleep. "But I'll take my chances with you for the time being."
"Then I hope I don't let you down." Bray closed his eyes. "Do you think we're going to make it?"
"Yeah." Adam also closed his eyes, picturing his bed back at the Mall. "We'll get back."
"Good." Bray smiled, trying to think positively about the immediate future. "I'd like to get back home soon."
"Yeah. Weird, but I never thought of it that way before. As home I mean. It was just a building before. Home was where I lived with my sister."
"I used to feel the same. I thought it couldn't be home without my parents and my brother. Now it just means being back near the sea, and being somewhere where there's no immediate danger. Somewhere where Trudy can have the baby and not have to worry all the time."
"Sounds good to me." Adam yawned. "Somewhere with a roof that doesn't leak."
"And somewhere with windows."
"And enough room to lie down."
"Yeah." Wishing that he could stretch his legs, Bray nodded in agreement. "Tomorrow then?"
"Why wait any longer?" There was no point putting it off, when any day was bound to bring the same chances of either failure or success. The longer they stayed, the weaker and less able to escape they would become.
"Right." Bray forced himself to relax, glad of Trudy's warmth beside him. "Tomorrow it is."
"We're nuts for being here, you do realise that." Sitting on a broken wall that overlooked the Primitives' depressingly grey complex, Liam chewed reflectively on a dry biscuit that he had found within one of his many, dust-filled pockets. By the look of it, it would have been less than appetising even before who knew how many months stuffed inside his grimy clothes. Now it looked like little more than a ball of fluff.
"Yeah, we've already heard your opinion, Liam." Leaning over the wall beside the younger boy, and wishing that he would at least show some sense and stop sitting out in the open, Jack frowned down at the ramshackle collection of half-decayed buildings that he was planning on breaking into. It seemed impossible; the whole lot so open from most angles that it was unlikely he could approach unseen, even if he had known what he was doing. And he didn't. He was a thinker, he kept telling himself. An academic, the old term was. Somebody who read about things, and learned about things, and maybe taught others about them too. He'd be good at that, he reasoned, if they ever got back into a situation when there were little kids needing - and wanting - to be taught. But this? He couldn't creep into a guarded base and break a prisoner out; more than one prisoner, perhaps, since if Adam really was there, there was every likelihood that others were too. It very likely wouldn't be possible to get one person out alone, even if it had been an acceptable notion - and knowing Adam he would refuse to leave without rescuing everybody else as well. Adam was like that. He had always been a doer, much more than a thinker. He was the one who so often put Jack's mere plans into action, turning his thoughts into something practical and workable. Adam could have broken into the base to free people; Jack was sure of that. Not that it helped any of them now. He could hardly take part in his own rescue party, after all.
"What is the plan?" Appearing at Jack's elbow with an expression of vaguely detached interest, Tua also looked down on the camp. "I can't see any way in."
"Me neither." Jack felt the hopelessness rise up within him again, and slipped back behind the wall. He wished that Liam would do the same.
"We could pretend to be prisoners." The younger boy's voice came down from above them, sounding cheerful and unconcerned. "Go in like that work crew we just saw being moved out."
"And then what? Spend the rest of the day working as a slave? Or spend the night locked up in one of those buildings?" Jack shook his head. "What exactly will that do to help?"
"Well we'd find your friend then." Liam sounded faintly abashed, but only very faintly. Jack smiled.
"I'd prefer to find him in a better way than that." That much he did know; what he didn't know was what exactly that better way was going to be. Tua sighed.
"You're hopeless, you know that? We come here to rescue your friend, and when we get here it turns out that you don't have a clue what to do next. You're supposed to make your plans before you start putting them into action."
"Who's putting anything into action?" Looking, sounding and feeling helpless, Jack flashed her the smallest and most rueful of smiles. "I'm not doing anything."
"So are we just going to leave?" She sounded concerned, worried for him. "There's no certainty that your friend is in there. He might be miles away. We could assume that."
"And run away? Then what happens if he is in there?" Jack shook his head. "I can't leave."
"Then we have to go in."
"Yeah, I know." He sighed, wondering what strange reserve of courage had brought him this far. He would never have imagined that he had it in him to stand on the borders of a place such as this. The mere sight of it was enough to put his nerves on edge, and make his heart feel like it was ready to stop. He was no hero.
"There's got to be something we can do." Scrambling down at last, Liam stood beside Jack, arms folded, still chewing on the last of his months-old biscuit. "Maybe if we could sneak down there... set a few of the buildings on fire? If there was lots of confusion we could at least get close to those prisoners." He turned back, clambering a little way back up the wall so that he could peer over it, and try to spot the prisoners in question. They had been marched out of sight, but he could see where they had been taken, more or less. Some of them came into view every so often, taking stones from the crowds of what appeared to be trustees driving motor scooters. They were building a wall, as near as he could judge. Being a Local he could understand that, even though he didn't agree with it. They were trying to shut out the world, and keep themselves in their quarantined little area, just as their parents had once tried to do, in their own way, before the Virus had taken them all. This sector of the city had always been about quarantine, and the Primitives were carrying that on now, by means of slave labour. The slave bit didn't bother him, for he was a pragmatic sort, but he didn't think much of the idea of the wall. How could the Primitives want to shut themselves off to that great a degree? It was almost scary.
"Fires?" Jack shook his head. "How would that help?"
"It might do." Tua was clearly interested by the idea, although she had, Jack noticed, made no attempt to address the question of how exactly such fires could be started. "If we could get close enough without being seen, and get the fires started, there'd be sure to be some kind of panic. They'd have to put the fires out, anyway. We might be able to get close to the prisoners. Maybe if we could talk to some of them we could get their help?"
"Cause a riot?" Jack didn't like the idea, for it sounded distinctly foolhardy. It also, however, sounded distinctly like their only chance. "I don't know. We came here to try to find Adam, not to liberate half the city."
"We wouldn't be liberating half the city, Jack. We'd be helping a few slaves." Tua sounded as though she was warming to the idea. "It'll work. All we need is surprise on our side."
"And matches, and something that'll burn."
"Oh." She looked crestfallen, and immediately turned her back on the wall and what lay beyond it. "I didn't think of that."
"I guessed." He smiled at her, sorry for her sudden despondency. He had been feeling that way for a long time now, and didn't like seeing others suffer with it. "Still, I suppose we could make the diversion idea work."
"How? Running up and shouting 'Boo' won't have the same effect as a good fire." She scowled, kicking at the broken concrete beneath her feet. There was a lot of grass growing up through it, even though it was less than a year since there had last been people employed to prevent such things. It didn't take long for the world to forget how things had used to be. Just long enough for things like matches to become more valuable than gold dust had once been to the adults.
"Then we'll have to be more imaginative, won't we." Liam was smirking at them both, looking inordinately cheerful for somebody who seemed to be talking in impossibilities. "You find me something that'll burn. Some rags or something made of wood. Something that I can set alight and use to torch one of those buildings down there."
"And how are you planning on setting it alight? Jack was beginning to get used to the despondency, and didn't appreciate the younger boy's attempts to drag him out of it so needlessly. Liam shrugged, holding up a hand with the fingers closed into a fist.
"It's a secret." He sounded so much like a kid in a playground that Jack was momentarily stumped. He stared at the fist, imagining what might be inside it. Not matches, surely? He hadn't seen any in he didn't know how long. Half of the city was already reduced to rubbing sticks together, or bashing flints to capture the sparks.
"Matches?" He asked the question anyway, no matter how little he hoped for a positive answer. "Real matches?"
"No." Liam's words were entirely expected, but Jack's shoulders still slumped. Liam's grin had not abated however, and in the depths of Jack's desperate heart, hope began faintly to stir. The smaller boy's smile widened, and in a burst of sudden frustration Jack made a grab for the fist. It was twitched away out of his reach, but Liam was already laughing. Before the older boy could protest, he opened his fingers, revealing a small, translucent blue object, half-filled with some kind of colourless liquid. Jack gaped.
"Where did you get that?" He didn't think he had ever seen anything so wonderful; anything so simple and yet so unexpected. A cigarette lighter. An ordinary, disposable cigarette lighter. They'd sold them everywhere once; in garages, in post offices, in supermarkets; rows upon rows of them, all different colours. His father had used them a lot, when Jack was very small, before he had given up smoking. For some reason the sight of the little object brought back memories; the smell of the menthol in the cigarettes, the aimlessly floating smoke. Stuff that had meant 'Dad' once, in the earliest of Jack's memories.
"Where do you think I got it? I traded it." Liam seemed very happy, although it must had been a difficult trade for a boy of his scant means to make. "So do we have a plan or don't we?"
"Yeah." Jack thought about that bleak compound, with who knew how many hidden guards, and wondered if perhaps he shouldn't just turn his back, and hope that Adam wasn't really there. The trouble was, of course, that he knew in his heart that that would be the worst kind of lie. Adam was there. He had never been more sure of anything in his life.
"Great." Liam was nodding, happy to have something to do, and apparently unconcerned about the danger. "Then find me something flammable. What's the plan?"
"Just what you said." There was nothing else to do. Nothing else that could be planned for. They could spend all day studying the place, and still not know which was the best building to go for, or who was likely to see them. They could never know enough to avoid capture, certainly, and they didn't have long enough to rehearse together, in an attempt to perform like a unit. That could take weeks, and if they were going to do something for Adam, it was going to be now. He took a deep breath.
"Liam, you light the fire. You'll have to go in first, but I doubt they'll see you. You're fast. Once it's going well, I'll make a run for where the prisoners seem to have been taken. Tua, you come with me some of the way, but hang back. I want you to be my look out, in case anybody comes my way. You'll have to think of some kind of signal. Something I'll know."
"Okay." She looked nervous, and rather shaky. "Jack, listen. I just want to say--"
"Don't say anything too positive." He smiled, feeling very strange; like the fearful days before school plays, only multiplied a thousand-fold. "It might be bad luck." She smiled back.
"I wasn't going to be positive. I was just going to say that, if something goes wrong, I've really enjoyed the last few days. It's been so long since I've had people to talk to, and it's been great being with you and Liam. It's been fun almost, like before. And I just want you to know that I appreciate it. You, I mean. Coming here, and making me do something at last. About being alone, and about the Primitives. We might not be able to do anything to them, but it's long past time that somebody tried."
"I haven't done anything." He felt a strange desire to hug her, and wondered what that meant. Was he growing up, or did he just want the reassurance? "I only wound up here because I got lost trying to follow Adam, and I can't claim any responsibility for helping you make a stand against the Primitives. Believe me, there are people just as bad as them in my part of the city, and I've never even thought about standing up to them. I'm not sure anybody has. It's me that should be thanking you. I have to be here. You two don't." He blushed, conscious of the fact that he had just made his longest speech in years. "Um... Shall we get going?"
"Yes." She was still smiling at him, and the warm look in her eyes made him feel a bit odd. Only Liam seemed normal; still just a kid.
"Right." He stepped up to the building beside them; the still fairly sturdy-looking shell of a small business, and tugged loose the pieces of one broken window frame. The glass was gone, so there was no danger of cutting his hand. Sheltered by the side of the building from the worst of the weather, the wooden frame was almost completely dry, and he handed it, in its broken, uneven entirety, to Liam. The boy looked down at the pieces of wood; four of them, quite thick, although rather light. "Will that do?"
"Yeah." He held them up, apparently already imagining them lit up and flaming. "Perfect."
"Good." Jack took a deep breath, and tried to convince himself that this wasn't the stupidest day of his life. He was going to get Adam back. He was going to go home again. It was all going to be just fine.
All he had to do was survive the next few hours.
Raven was bored. Surely it wasn't supposed to be as dull as this, being a member of one of the most feared gangs in the city? He had imagined so much, and hoped so much, and in the event all he was doing was sitting. Sitting and reading, sitting and thinking, sitting and eating... That was the bonus of course; no matter how bored he was, he at least had plenty to eat. He had even had some fruit juice to drink; some of the old, long-life stuff, in a gaudy carton. He hadn't drunk anything so good in a long time, and it went some of the way to making him feel better. Some, but not all.
It had seemed so simple at first. It had made sense, and had seemed perfectly acceptable. After all, if they had been captured during one of the Primitives' increasingly competent swoops, there would have been no chance for any of them. They would have been thrown in with the rest of the slaves, with little distinction made between them and the much mistreated Outsiders. As it was they had been given good jobs, with little physical strain, as well as reasonably comfortable quarters and decent rations. So why did he feel so bad? Was it because he had been treated differently? Not put to work at all, given more food than he could eat, given a comfortable room that didn't even have a lock on the door? He hadn't expected that, and it made him feel uneasy. What must the others think of him? He had tried to do something that he thought would help them all, but in the event he seemed to have just caused trouble. His friends were slaves, no matter how much better they were treated than their fellows. He was responsible for that. It had seemed so clear cut before, when he had thought of the plan; when the lone Primitive he had met in an alleyway had told him all about how things could be. It had seemed so obvious. Turning himself and his friends in, avoiding the unpleasantries that would result were they to be captured in a more conventional fashion. Getting them a fresh chance in a place where they wouldn't have to fight for every mouthful of food. He kicked disconsolately at the floor. Who the hell was he trying to kid? He'd screwed things up, for all of them. They must hate him, he realised. All of them. His old friend Cash, little Steve, who had once followed him around like a shadow; Tara, who had always fancied him; and Jeanie, who he had always hoped to have a chance with one day. They would all hate him now, and he probably deserved it. The thought made him sick, and he felt sure that there was only one way to put it right.
It felt good to be doing something, after all the hours of wondering, and thinking, and blaming himself for the tribe's current predicament. He had been running it through his mind again and again; what he had hoped would happen, and what actually had. What he had done, and what he should have done. What a fool he had been. There was probably no fixing it now; no way of helping his friends back to the freedom they had had before. But he could at least apologise, and that, even if nothing else, was what he was going to do. So grabbing a carton of the precious fruit juice, the only peace offering he could think of, he left his little room and went outside.
Bray tired very rapidly of being a slave. It was boring, it was hard, it was demeaning; it was painful too, for the large blocks they were using to build the wall had sharp edges and rough sides, that grazed the skin and cut unwary fingers to ribbons. It was also hot work, despite the uniform greyness and chill of the day, for hard work was always hot. Without anything to drink the discomfort increased, and with so little on offer to eat there was added hardship. Watching Trudy struggle made things worse, for it reminded him of his responsibility to her, and to her unborn child. His niece or nephew, wasting away in front of him. It made his stomach twist and turn, and the bile rise in his throat. Even Adam was no help, toiling away beside him, his previously cheerful chatter now dried up, his eyes fixed solely on his work. He had been a good companion, but now his younger years were beginning to show. Adam belonged here even less than did Bray. He was just a little kid, and he should never have been brought to this place. Bray's anger increased, but he had no outlet for it save the concrete blocks, and handling them roughly only hurt his hands all the more.
It was long past the middle of the day before they were allowed a break; a few minutes to rest and draw breath, a hasty fumble around the meagre water supplies that were wheeled out for them. In a fit of ill-advised compassion, Bray offered his water to Trudy, but she was too tired to accept. He watched her wander away, face empty and grey, movements listless, and tried to convince himself that he would get her away from this place; and that his plan, when the moment was right, would work just fine. He couldn't make the confidence come, though, no matter how hard he tried.
They went back to work quickly, soon picking up the rhythm again. Somebody nearby hummed tunelessly; an annoying, simple piece of music that might have belonged to a nursery rhyme. Somebody threw a useless threat at him, telling him to be quiet, but the humming continued on and off nonetheless. It was just another irritation; just another reminder of how miserable they all were, and how powerless they were to change that.
The afternoon was growing old when Bray first smelt smoke. He had heard shouting but had ignored it, understanding that it had nothing to do with him whatever the cause. Now, though, it was harder not to think about it, and along with most of the others he turned to look about him. Back in the direction of the Primitives' horribly grey and forbidding domain, two of the bedraggled buildings were ablaze, thick smoke rising in clouds, flames raging in crazy fury, leaping about like acrobats. Somebody was trying to organise a group of bystanders, but the place where the foul water of the poisoned river rose out of the ground was too far away for immediate use. A couple of more enterprising Primitives ran towards it, but it was obvious that their efforts alone would be of no use.
"What's going on?" A neighbour was looking about, as though expecting imminent attack. "Do you think somebody's fighting them?"
"I don't know." Bray thought about the Demon Dogs and the Locusts, fighting their brutal little war amongst themselves. Was it likely that they would come here to carry it on? It would be just like Zoot, to recognise a potential rival in the Primitives, and decide to remove them from what he still considered to be his city. Firing the buildings suggested a sneak attack, though, and that was not a likely move for either the Dogs or the Locos. With luck, however, whoever or whatever had caused the fires would not be something he needed to worry about. Instead it might just be the distraction he needed to make his escape.
Nearby Jack was approaching with all of the speed he could muster, whilst still doing his best to remain out of sight. There seemed to him to be a good number of guards between him and the ragged main group of slaves, but it looked to be easy enough to reach the smaller one, those that were gathered around the battered looking collection of motor-scooters and other such vehicles. They had been the ones transporting blocks to the unfortunates building the wall, and he had got the impression that they were treated rather better than the others. Locals, he decided, remembering all that he had heard about prejudices hereabouts towards so-called Outsiders; and shuddered to think what would happen to him if he was captured. He was clearly an Outsider, for nobody here would or could vouch for him save Adam. If he wasn't killed he would probably be put straight to work alongside the very person he was hoping to free - assuming that Adam was here of course. If he was, then he was certainly keeping himself well hidden.
Raven spotted Jack first, as he headed towards the tiered workforce. He saw a small boy, lurid red head standing out against the grey surroundings, crouched low behind a rain barrel full of squawking frogs. Why they were squawking he didn't know, and nor did he care - but he was interested in the boy. He couldn't be one of the slaves, and clearly he was also not a Primitive - so why was he here? The idea of somebody breaking into the compound was bizarre - why would anybody do such a thing? Then Raven remembered that he himself had done virtually that; turned himself and his friends over to the Primitives in the hope of getting a better deal that way. He decided that perhaps the little red-headed boy was not quite so mad after all, but found himself wanting to have a word with him; to persuade him to get away quickly whilst he still could. His sharp eyes, searching for the route the boy must have used in order to get this far - wondering if it might be possible to tell his fellow Street Owls to use the same route in reverse in order to escape - caught sight of another boy, very likely smaller still, running away from one of the buildings that was now in flames. His quick mind told him that these boys were together, and that the fires had been a distraction enabling Red Head to get into his current position. Was he here to rescue the slaves, or some of them at least?
Jeanie noticed Jack as well, although several moments after Raven. The latter she did not see, for he was keeping to the shadows even more effectively than the younger boy, nervous and awkward now that he was so close to his friends. He wondered what they thought of him; whether they were aware of his part in their capture; and, if they knew of it, how they might react when he arrived. He was scared, and had every right to be. Had he known what they thought of him, he might very well never have left his room; or he might have left it sooner, in the hope of persuading them to reaccept him.
"Cash?" Nudging the tall, shock-headed boy beside her, Jeanie drew his attention to the intruder. Cash frowned.
"Pretty small for a rescue party."
"That might just be the vanguard." She didn't sound especially hopeful, and he smiled.
"Even if it is, it's not for us. He'll be here for somebody else. I've never seen him before, have you?"
"No. Do you suppose he's an Outsider?"
"It seems likely." They broke off their conversation as a Primitive walked past them, and then had to listen to a tirade about how burning buildings were no excuse for a pause in their work. As soon as the guard had gone, Jeanie told the rest of the Owls about Jack; who now was headed unmistakably in their direction. That fact had not escaped Raven's notice either, and he wondered what the younger boy was hoping to achieve. If he was going to try to get help from this less heavily guarded group he would be greatly disappointed. Those slaves who were Locals were all hoping to one day be promoted out of servitude, and would do nothing to jeopardise that. Many of them wouldn't have helped an Outsider anyway. Jack, who had not paused to consider this eventuality, increased his speed when the patrolling guard had passed by, encouraged by the fact that several of the other guards had left to help fight the fires. He was almost on all fours as he approached his goal, pausing only to pull his dark-coloured coat over his head, in an attempt to hide his glaringly red hair. One of the slaves near to Jez, who seemed about to raise the alarm about the presence of the intruder, was thumped into a mutinous silence by Cash, who used one of the blocks he had brought for use on the wall to hit the other prisoner so hard between the shoulder blades that he was knocked off his feet. Jack blinked.
"Er..." It was wasn't the best of starts to the conversation, but he was rather at a loss as to what else to say. The sulky prisoner who had been hit by Cash glared mutely up at the new arrival, and Jack was somewhat unnerved.
"Have you come here with friends? A tribe who can fight the Primitives?" Desperately excited, Jeanie tried to keep her voice down, but found it very hard to do so. One of the remaining guards began to take an obvious interest, and Jez quickly pulled Jack into the middle of their group, hissing at him to look as though he belonged. Somebody pushed a large white block of concrete into his hands, and he struggled to look as though he were used to carrying such things. The guard passed by without comment, but it was clear that they could not talk for much longer. Some of the others began to disperse, anxious to get back to fetching further blocks from the dilapidated factory buildings nearby. Jack began to panic.
"Is it safe here?" He had no idea who he was talking to, and was rather disturbed by the obvious unpleasantness that prevailed in the atmosphere. Jeanie gestured for him to deliver his burden into the hands of an approaching slave from the group of Outsiders.
"It's not safe anywhere near here. Why did you come?" Her voice was strained and somewhat high-pitched. Jack was not at all put at ease by her manner, and wondered if perhaps he had made a mistake in not going towards the other group of slaves first.
"I'm looking for a friend of mine." He scrutinised those ragged Outsiders who were even now lugging their newly acquired stones over towards the growing wall, but was unable to see Adam amongst them. So many of them were so covered with mud, so bedraggled and faded into grey, that it was next to impossible to tell one from another. He doubted that he could have identified Adam even if there had been just a few feet between them; not if he was now as haggard as the others.
"A friend? Here?" Cash whistled, obviously impressed. "It must be quite some friend for you to come here hoping to find him. Most people would just cut their losses and run."
"Er... yeah." Not at all inspired by this, since he had been battling the desire to run away since before he had even arrived, Jack tried and failed to raise a smile. "He's a good friend." As well as being a good friend, however, he was also proving to be an invisible one. "I was hoping--"
"There's probably something we can do to help you." Tara made a show of passing on a few bricks, looking as diligent as she could for the benefit of the guards. There were fewer of them now, since the fires were beginning to rage out of control; but there were still enough for the situation to be extremely dangerous. Jack wondered what had happened to Liam, and whether he had made his escape safely, or had stayed to light more fires. Certainly he had had admirable success in his ventures so far.
"But you have to help us as well." Jez gave him what was supposed to be an encouraging pat on the back, but felt to Jack more like a threatening slap. It caused him to stumble, and he cast worried glances at the group around him.
"I don't know how to do that." He was beginning to feel extremely inadequate. "We were just going to make a run for it. You could do the same..." He glanced towards the burning buildings. "But it'll have to be soon. They'll get those fires under control before long, and then the rest of the guards will come back."
"There are still more here than I'd like." Cash looked around at them all; gathered in truncheon-wielding groups near to the Outsiders, one or two others standing closer to the Locals. "But if you help us, Red - we'll help you."
"What do you mean?" Jack just wanted to go - to get away from these people so that he could find Adam; to seize him away whatever the dangers from watching guards. He didn't want to have to stay here with these demanding others, being roped into helping them with their own little wishes and wants. For some reason they scared him, not that that realisation surprised him much. Everything seemed to scare him about this place. He wished that he was more brave, but felt sure that he never would be.
"You want to find your friend." Jez smiled, rather wolfishly. "We want to find one of ours." Nearby, a listening Raven pricked up his ears. "So in return for our help, you have to cause a disturbance that will give us the chance to find Raven."
"A disturbance?" Jack couldn't believe his ears. "You're joking! I wouldn't have a chance!"
"You made it in here more by luck than design, and that sort of luck doesn't last for long. You won't get out of here without anybody seeing you even with those fires taking up everybody's attention, so you might just as well make a show of things." Jez was moving closer to him, her body language a mix of fun and encouragement and obvious threats. "Don't you think?"
"Leave him alone, Jez." Coming forward, Jeanie positioned herself close to Jack, looking somewhat defensive. "And stop standing around together in a group. We're going to get split up any minute. Listen, Red--"
"Jack," corrected Jack, who was beginning to dislike being called after his hair colour. She smiled.
"Jack. We do need each other, you know. You need our help, and it's not really so much to ask that we get a little help in return, right? There'd be no danger, honestly. No more than there is right now."
"I don't have much choice, do I." Suddenly afraid that they were going to hand him over to the guards if he refused them, Jack fought down the urge to panic. Nobody said anything to confirm or deny his suspicions, which didn't help to allay them. Jeanie tried to smile reassuringly, but the others gave no such encouragement.
"The guards will be here soon. They come round every few minutes." Cash spoke quietly and firmly, sounding reasonable, but not looking it at all. "There are fewer of them thanks to your little diversion, but there are still enough to make it impossible for you to get back out of here if you're planning to take one of their prisoners with you. I've got to congratulate you for setting this up to get in here, but unless we help you, this is as far as you'll get. You're just going to have to accept that." His bright eyes turned away, looking towards the crowds of returning motor-scooters - the gangs that he and his friends should have been with, bringing more blocks for the growing wall. Jack didn't need further argument to know that those other people could not be counted upon to keep his presence a secret. He had seen enough before to begin to panic at the prospect of their return.
"What do you want me to do?" Fear was filling him, and he wished that he could force it down. Why couldn't he be one of the brave ones, like the other kids he saw in the streets? Like Liam and Tua, who had joined up with him, and agreed to help him for no other reason than that they wanted to? He had always been the kind to hide from trouble rather than to face it.
"Tell us who your friend is. We can get to him easily just by carrying the bricks over, like we're supposed to." Jez was talking fast, certain that this lull in the presence of the guards could not last long. "You can't do that, no matter how many people you have lighting fires. They'll know you don't belong here, and with that hair you don't exactly blend in with the rest of us."
"And you'll get Adam?" It was beginning to sound like too much to hope for; the sudden nearness of the friend he had been searching for for so long. Jeanie nodded.
"We'll bring him back here. In the meantime you get back to your friend with the matches, and get him to help you make a real distraction. Something that won't just make the guards look away, or make them busy for a few minutes - something real. Use your imagination. That'll be our chance to make a run for it, and when we go, we'll take your friend with us. All you need to do is tell us where to meet you once we've got away."
"It won't be as easy as that." Jack looked from determined face to determined face, and knew that he didn't have any choice. What else could he do? He sighed, and nodded a slow, sorry head. "Yeah, alright. I suppose."
"Very sensible." Cash, perhaps in deference to the younger boy's considerably smaller size, attempted to lessen his own height by altering his commanding stance. As a thought it was a nice one, but it did nothing to make Jack feel any better. "Now where do we meet?"
"Back that way." Jack pointed to the place where, horribly far away now, he could see the wall that Liam had sat on so prominently before they had made their move. Tua should be back there by now, waiting for him. The hulk of a an old dairy was visible nearby, clearly marking the spot; a large, red brick building with a Victorian look to it; lots of identical windows, and old stencilled letters declaring the building's purpose in faded, though clear, white. Cash nodded.
"Fine. We'll see you there. Now go, before somebody sees you and we all lose out."
"I - I'm going I guess." He stole one last look over at the masses of toiling Outsiders, none of which looked anything like Adam at this distance. "He's... he's about my age and height. With hair the same colour as mine. If - if he's still got his markings, they'll be pretty much the same as mine, and he's black. Almost literally. He can't have changed much, I - I don't think he can have been here very long."
"We'll find him." Jez smiled down at him with so much sudden warmth that he was almost thrown. "Now go."
"Yeah." He couldn't help feeling that this wasn't going to work, and wished that things had turned out differently. Why couldn't he have found Adam himself? Got him away quietly and secretly? Sure there were still a lot of guards around, but there weren't that many. They could have got away together, couldn't they? Inside, he knew that the answer was very probably no, they wouldn't. Getting in and getting out were two very different things, especially now that the Primitives would be on the lookout for their arsonist. Concentrating on thoughts of approaching reunions; of success and joy and returning to the Mall; he took a deep breath and headed back the way he had come. His mind was already working on the problem of what to do next to cause a distraction, turning over idea after idea. It wouldn't be easy, but his mind was one of the best left in the city, and he knew that he could come up with something if he had to. Thinking was the one thing that he knew he did well. If this was the only chance he had, then for Adam and for himself, he had to make it count.
The first Adam knew of the plot to win his freedom came when a pretty girl struggling with an inconveniently sized concrete block bypassed the people she was supposed to be offloading it onto, and handed it to him instead. Confused, he had done nothing save blink at her, even when she was smiling sweetly at him, and telling him to be ready. He didn't have a clue what she meant, and found himself imagining all kinds of things. Perhaps he was about to be moved to a new section of the work gang? Perhaps there was some kind of inspection about to begin? He tried to get close to Bray to ask his opinion, but the older boy was one of those working on the actual building of the wall, and consequently was far out of reach; too far away even for them to get together to discuss their escape plan, in this convenient time of less security. Adam was forced to do nothing more constructive about the problem than hand his newly acquired chunk of concrete over to the next person in their human chain. His mind roved restlessly over the girl and the things she had said to him; and in the end he found himself looking out for her, amongst the to-ing and fro-ing children that made up the local workforce. She returned two or three times, always with more stones, always smiling at him in a strangely confidential manner. She didn't speak to him further though; not until the guard who watched them from nearby had moved on to another place, where he stood staring at other unfortunates. Only then did the girl come closer to Adam, and allow her smile to become something other than merely confidential.
"You're Adam." She spoke with assurance, and without expecting an answer. He nodded.
"How do you know? Nobody here has bothered to ask my name."
"Well perhaps we have a friend in common." She took his arm, pulling him out of the crowd of milling others, over towards Cash and Jez. As before they were managing to stand around doing very little, without attracting too much attention from the guards. Jeanie, for it was her who had contacted Adam, nodded a greeting to them, and affected introductions of a sort.
"I don't understand what you want." Feeling a little helpless, Adam wished that these three strangers were not so much older than himself. They seemed so tall, the way Bray had - but without the immediate friendliness that he had sensed in Bray. His neck felt stiff from looking up at them, but he felt no confidence that might otherwise have been engendered by the presence of people so much larger and stronger than himself. Were they really on his side, or were they just more of the enemy, following some hidden agenda?
"Jack has been looking for you." Cash was speaking like somebody from a bad thriller; his body language typically macho, his eyes fixed elsewhere. Somehow it wasn't funny though, even if it was faintly ludicrous. Adam's eyes widened.
"Jack? Here? Really?!"
"He's not here now. He's doing something to make it easier for us to get away." Jez inadvertently looked towards the dairy that was their landmark; the place to aim for in their flight. "At least I hope he is."
"I don't understand." Trying to look busy as one of the few remaining guards patrolled past, Adam glanced about. He could see no sign of Jack. No telltale glint of red hair; no pale-faced boy with streaks of white paint across his cheeks. Just a tall, older boy, who seemed to be trying to hide behind a rusty skip. He was watching the discussion with such disturbingly rapt attention that Adam almost drew Jeanie's attention to him - but was stopped before he could do so by an impatient Cash.
"Well what's it going to be? Are you with us?"
"I still don't understand what you want from me. Not really." He looked around at them all, suddenly beginning to suspect something that seemed rather terrible. "Did you set those buildings on fire?"
"No, that was your friend Jack." Jez took him by the arm, somehow managing to make the gesture friendly, whilst still making him feel as though he were being placed under arrest. "Now any minute now, your little fellow tribesman is going to cause an even better diversion - and when that happens, we're going to make a run for it. Understand?"
"But my friends, Trudy and--"
"Just you. There isn't going to be time for anybody else." She smiled down at him. "Is that clear?"
"I - I suppose so." He tried to look towards Bray, hoping that he would able to catch the other boy's attention, but couldn't even see him. Wherever he was, he was clearly far out of sight, beyond the milling crowds receiving stones from the workers on their motor-scooters. It had become quite a lax group since the majority of guards had left to fight the fires, and now almost everybody just seemed to be milling around talking, and steadfastly refusing to work very hard. It might have made a welcome break, but the result was a large crowd that it was impossible to see through. "Then what happens?"
"Just follow us. We'll lead the way." Jeanie was smiling at him in the sort of fashion that suggested he was being lulled into a false sense of security. He wondered if he had any right to be genuinely suspicious, or if he was just reacting to months of a life where suspicion was a life-saver. He didn't know, and realised that he probably wasn't going to have the chance to think about it. How on Earth had Jack found himself embroiled in the affairs of these people, and what had he got himself involved in? The Jack he knew would never have come here, setting buildings on fire, and forming alliances with strangers. And what was he doing so far from the Mall?
At that moment in time almost exactly the same thought was going through Jack's mind, as he crouched perilously close to one of the burning buildings, Liam lying sprawled at his side. The younger boy was still hugely excited by the success of his earlier mission, and the flames that were reflected in his eyes looked entirely at home there. So far the plan for creating a distraction had got precisely nowhere, and they had no more ideas to discuss. Liam, whose own plan had been more and bigger fires, was still sulking at Jack's assertion that yet more fires weren't necessarily going to help - whilst Jack's idea had been discarded almost before he had finished explaining it, given that it was typically complex. Without Adam's practical skills it would probably never have risen from the drawing board anyway, since Jack's designs had a tendency to remain just that - until somebody forcibly removed his thinking cap and made him get some work done. They were silent now, each struggling with their own thoughts whilst conscious of the passing time.
"I think they're getting those fires under control." Liam sounded sad, although for entirely the wrong reasons. "Can you see your friends?"
"They're not exactly my friends." Jack tried to spot one of the Street Owls, or to catch a glimpse of Adam. He could see nothing save shifting groups of people.
"Whether they're your friends or not, they're waiting for you to do something." Liam let a smug smile take over his face. "So hadn't you better let me start lighting a few more fires?"
"Fires won't work twice. They'll be on the look out for people lighting them." Jack let his eyes run over the compound, taking in the buildings and the people; the secluded nature of the place. It all spoke of one thing; the reason for the seclusion; the paranoia that he had heard so much about. The fear of the Virus that was behind the very existence of the Primitives. It seemed like lunacy, but he might just have hit upon the best distraction that there could ever be in this place. He started to rise to his feet.
"Where are you going?" Liam's voice suggested that he didn't like the idea of being left behind, which had less to do with a dislike of solitude, and more to do with a desire to be in the middle of everything, all of the time. Jack tried to square his shoulders, and make himself look bigger and stronger than he really was.
"Causing a diversion, I hope."
"You hope?" Liam scuttled after him, eyebrows raised in the manner that he had when he was excited about something. "Sounds interesting."
"Were you ever scared of anything?" Incredulous, Jack turned back to look at the smaller boy, and wondered if he was wishing that he was as fearless himself. Could it really be a good thing to be like Liam? Possibly it would be. Possibly it wouldn't.
"So what's the plan?" Ignoring Jack's question, Liam asked one of his own.
"It's not exactly subtle." Using his sleeve, Jack wiped the paint from his face, then used some dirt from the ground to try to disguise the colour of his hair. It wasn't enough to make him look like he belonged in the compound, but at least it meant that he wouldn't be so obviously an Outsider. "Can you shout loud? Really loud?"
"Are you kidding?" Liam, who had rarely done anything quietly since he had first mastered the skills of speech some eight years before, grinned up at him. "Just tell me what to say."
"Follow my lead." Jack wished that he wasn't trembling quite so much, then decided to use that involuntary quake to add spice to his coming performance. "Stick close, and don't let anybody ask you too many questions. Are you ready?"
"I guess." Liam looked excited. Too excited perhaps, not that there was anything Jack could do about that. He nodded.
"Then let's go."
Jeannie and her fellows were beginning to think that Jack had run out on them, even though he had expressed such fondness for his captive friend. As the last fires began to dim down into little more than plumes of black smoke, and as the guards who had been fighting the flames began to return to the work gangs, so things began to return to normal. Slowly the Locals went back to their stone collecting, and the Outsiders carried on struggling with their own share of the work. Only Jeannie and Cash remained motionless, hiding Adam, avoiding the hostile stares of the guards, and wondering what on earth was going on. Where was Jack? Why didn't he hurry up? They were in serious risk of imminent repercussions when they noticed a disturbance going on some distance away, a little closer to the main body of the camp. It was hard to make out what was being said; what the two strangers were screaming; what the people who heard them were shouting at each other. The only unmistakable fact was the fear that was so suddenly apparent. It was building in waves.
Word spread quickly in the camp. At first it was just a rumour; an echo of the manic shouting. Then the two terrified boys running through the compound began to shout louder; to spread their message further afield. Others began to panic, taking up the message; shouting it louder and louder, and carrying it to more and more distant ears. Raven heard it from a gibbering guard near to his hiding place. Jez heard it from a fellow slave, confused and afraid and disbelieving. She understood, even as the message was finally reaching Jeannie and Cash; and throwing a hefty stone aside she leapt onto her assigned motor-scooter, and shot away in search of the rest of her friends. The other Street Owls didn't take much time to follow her; a ragged, dirty bunch on a jumbled assortment of battered vehicles, all with spluttering engines. Jack's voice, buoyed up by Liam's, and added to by the rest of the camp, echoed in their ears.
"The Virus! The Virus is back! There are people infected. It's coming! It's coming!"
"Quickly!" Cash didn't need to look twice to see that the rest of his tribe were coming, and he didn't need to confer with Jeanie to know what was next to be done. "We have to get away from here, in case somebody stops to ask questions."
"What if somebody stops Jack?" In no doubt as to the identity of the taller of the two screaming messengers, despite the attempts Jack had made to disguise himself, Adam was worried. Cash shook his head.
"He'll be alright. By the time the initial panic wears off enough for anybody to think about this, he'll be out of it. It's us that need to get moving now. Come on."
"Where to?" Glancing around, worried about Bray and Trudy, Adam let the bigger boy lead him away from the work gangs. The slaves, in particular the Outsiders, were looking less concerned than the guards, but a certain sense of panic was beginning to spread through their ranks. It was like a disease, almost like the Virus itself; a sense of hysteria, caught from those nearby; something passed on from person to person with alarming swiftness. Jack and Liam saw it as they raced through the camp, and heard it echoing in their ears. Just a few well chosen words from them, and so many people were now in uproar. Jack felt proud, or would have done, if he hadn't been quite so panicked himself. He wondered where Adam was now, and if he had already made a break for it. Maybe even now he was heading towards that old dairy, where they could have their reunion soon.
"Where to?" Stumbling as Cash pushed him a little too hard, Adam tried to hang back. He could still see no sign of Bray, and he felt guilty for leaving his new friend in the lurch. Cash was insistent though, and so were the other Street Owls. They were heading towards the buildings that made up the main living quarters of the compound, or so it appeared. Adam didn't really think that he wanted to go there, but he let them hurry him along. They were helping him to escape, weren't they? So if they wanted to make a detour first he guessed that would be okay. All the same, he felt decidedly unprotected when a single, dark figure stepped out from the shadows just ahead, and he found himself standing before a total stranger. Even the noticeable lack of Primitive attire didn't stop him gasping in involuntary shock, and trying to take a step back. Cash's presence prevented that, and he considered sinking into the ground instead.
"Hi." The stranger seemed to be friendly, although there was such a measure of hope in his voice that it sounded more as though he wanted to be friends, than as if he already was. He wasn't looking at Adam at all, and instead his eyes seemed to be fixed rather rigidly upon Cash. "I... I heard you saying that you were going to come looking for me, and I... well I thought perhaps I should come to you instead. I don't mean... I... I don't mean to be presumptuous or anything, but I thought maybe there was a chance we could talk."
"Talk." Adam didn't think that he had ever before heard a voice as cold as Cash's was now. "Talk? About what?"
"About how sorry I am." There was a quiver behind the stranger's voice now, and Adam began to feel sorry for him. He was terrified of Cash too. He was realising that now, as it became clear that there was something nasty about the boy, beneath the ready smile he had been trying to use earlier on. "Honestly Cash, I never meant for things to get nasty. I thought I was doing the right thing."
"You wanted to help us?" Tara, small and pale in the midst of the rest of the Owls; looking even smaller than the increasingly uncomfortable Adam, pushed her way to the front. Adam hadn't a clue who she was, but he felt her confusion and misery. "You turned us over to the Primitives, and you expected it to be nice? All comfortable beds and nice food, is that it? These people are insane, Raven. They want to seal themselves into this little place, and shut the rest of the world out. They don't care if that means that they starve to death, or die of thirst before that. All they care about is shutting germs out, and they'll kill all of us if that's what it takes to get that wall built. Have you seen the slaves over there? What they look like?"
"Shut up, Tara." Cash's voice was hot and brutal. Jeanie was starting to feel as uneasy as Adam, no longer recognising her friend in the unpleasantness that was filling him now. Raven looked worried as well, backing off a little, his eyes beginning to show signs of pleading.
"Hey, come on guys. I wasn't expecting outright forgiveness, but you've got to listen to me at least. We've been through too much for you to shut me out now. I was an idiot, but I thought I was doing it for the good of us all. I--"
"I said, shut up." Moving forwards, knocking Adam and Tara aside as though he had not even seen them, Cash grabbed Raven by the throat. Adam looked back at the others, fully expecting one of them to stop the belligerent boy; to help this person who was so obviously a friend of theirs. None of them moved, and he saw nothing in their faces save emptiness and a disturbing chill. He wondered if it was too late now to run.
"Cash, you're choking me." Raven was struggling, trying to break the iron hold on his throat. Cash wasn't letting up, if anything increasing his grip by the second. Raven's face began to turn an unhealthy colour, and his words broke up and failed him. Adam stepped forwards, numb from head to toe.
"Er... come on. Let him go. We should be getting out of here." Around him he was aware of the immediate sense of panic beginning to fade away. It wasn't anything that he was certain of, for most of his consciousness was focused on this small piece of the universe, where a boy seemed to be pleading for his life - but he was aware of it all the same. Sense was returning to the Primitives. Jack and Liam had gone out of sight, running away beyond the compound. The panicked people were beginning to ask each other questions. Surely there couldn't be much time now before the guards began to round up the straying slaves? Surely there couldn't be long before this distraction had faded away as quickly as had the fires, and another opportunity for escape had been wasted?
"Shut up." Cash didn't even look at Adam, and when the smaller boy took a step forward, uncertain what he was planning to do, he found his way blocked by Jez. The shaven-headed girl wasn't looking at him, but her hand on his shoulder was immovable. He didn't struggle, for he knew that it would be pointless.
"We have to escape." He put as much feeling into the words as he could, desperate to get something to sink in. Raven's eyes were bulging now, lines deepening on his face. He was fighting back, a little, although he had left it far too late. His strength was ebbing, and there seemed little energy left in him now. Adam wondered whether he would die before the Primitives captured them all. Would they bother to save Raven? He doubted it. What would be in it for them?
"Hey! Look over there!" It was a girl's voice, excited and high-pitched. Adam wondered who she was. She was shrieking about what she could see; about the group gathered around Raven, and the boy who was slowly dying. Apparently she couldn't see the victim properly, and couldn't tell that he wasn't one of the Primitives; or perhaps she didn't care. Either way she was growing more excited with every moment, and Adam heard her, screeching almost in a falsetto as her voice rose in volume.
"They've got one of them! Over there! Come on!" There were feet pounding now; heavy boots hammering on the tatty concrete ground. Adam caught a glimpse of a straggle of people, Outsiders all, running towards the buildings. They were shouting to each other, and it was obvious that Cash's little act of vigilante justice was their driving force. Adam opened his mouth to shout out to them as they passed, but Jez silenced him with a heavy hand. Somebody screamed. A Primitive sentry howled in fear, and Adam saw him, briefly, as he was dragged to the ground by his former slaves. The fear of being touched by an unclean Outsider must have been almost as terrible to him as any fear he might have had regarding their plans for him. His cry choked off into silence, and, for a second, that silence reigned supreme.
Then all hell let loose. Adam didn't really see Raven fall, and didn't know whether he was alive or dead. He heard the rising, welling roar from the slaves; one from the Outsiders and another from the Locals; saw the two forces rushing away from the place of their enforced labour; saw them joining into one large, mad, violent mob. Somewhere at the back, buffeted and resisting, was Bray. Adam saw him briefly, struggling to help Trudy away from the mad onrush of their former fellows. He didn't seem to have seen Adam, but there was a great distance between them, and confusion was everywhere.
"We have to get out of here." Terrified by the crowd, Adam didn't know whether to stare at the fallen Raven, or to try to shut him out of his mind completely. He had no idea if the boy was dead, or if he was just unconscious - but he was afraid that if he looked too closely he might find out. "Come on. It isn't safe."
"It's perfectly safe." Cash looked delighted, and for the first time Adam saw the bright sparks of broken sanity in his eyes. He got the impression that Cash was one of the casualties of all of this - the obvious casualties, rather than the more subtle ones. One of the gentle ones, who had been twisted by the new world. He had probably been a good kid once. Adam had seen his kind before; always the ones who looked like this now; vengeful and violent, shaken and hard. The smaller boy knew then that Cash was lost; sucked in by the unfolding violence around him. If he knew that his own actions had begun it all he probably felt nothing but pride for the fact.
"There's no danger." The tall boy was staring about him, looking at the crowds of maddened slaves, all attacking their dispersing captors. The shouts and screams of earlier had faded to silence, and now the furious mob was quiet, fighting with each other and with the Primitives, tearing, punching, slashing, like a violent film with the sound turned off, and all the colours and contrasts turned up to full. Adam wasn't sure that he was really seeing it, and certainly knew that he didn't want to. Jez wasn't holding him anymore, and with nothing else to do, and nowhere else to go, he headed for where he had last seen Bray. It was hard to get there, for the slaves were everywhere. One or two of them recognised him as one of them, and moved aside to let him through. Far more didn't see him, or didn't know him. One or two of them lashed out, and often he stumbled. It felt like a long, long time later before he saw Bray and Trudy, and tried to get towards them.
Bray saw the red-headed boy at the same moment that Adam saw him, and he heard the plaintive cry for assistance. Struggling forwards he tried to reach his new friend, dodging and ducking blows aimed half-heartedly for him. People were everywhere, and he thought once or twice that he was stepping on them; on former guards dragged to the ground, battered beyond recognition. Everywhere was strewn with broken feathers.
"Adam!" He almost reached the other boy; stretched out his hand to grab at him; felt his fingers brush the material of the boy's coat. Adam reached out as well, and for a second they were almost joined, already smiling at each other in relief as they began to greet each other, and congratulate each other on making it through. The relief was very real, until a sudden, mad yell shattered everything.
"It's him! It's Zeus!" It was a female yell, and Adam might have recognised it as Tara's, if he had thought about it. Zeus. Did he know that name? He didn't think so, but apparently he was alone in that. As one, with a mighty bay of rage and triumph, the crowd surged forwards at speed. Adam was knocked to one side, and saw Bray dragged away in the torrent of people, even as he himself was pulled in the other direction. The crowd closed over his head. He shouted his friend's name one last time, then started to fall. Soon all that he could see were feet.
Thrown aside by the crowd, knocked out of their midst in a bruised heap, Bray stumbled eventually back to Trudy's side. She was shaken and afraid, and he could see by her face and her eyes that it was not healthy for her to be in such a condition. It was probably bad for the baby too, and he knew that he had to get her somewhere safe. They didn't seem to be in any immediate danger, but it wasn't good for anybody to be here now, with such insanity around them. People seemed to be dying everywhere, and he knew that it was not going well for the Primitives. Everywhere they were being winkled out by their former prisoners, dragged about by the bloodthirsty crowds. It was terrible to watch, but there was nothing that he could do.
"Where's Adam?" Trudy sounded terribly tired, and Bray was afraid for her and the baby. He remembered the promises that the red-headed boy had made to help with the birth, and he knew that he had to find the kid quickly. He might be needed, although goodness knew that the baby wouldn't have much chance if it was born now. Not without an incubator and an army of nurses. There was no chance of either of those things now, and it would be very, very many years before there would be such things again.
"I don't know." He looked back in the direction that the crowd had taken, remembering his own helpless ride in their midst. Adam had probably been likewise swept away, and there was no telling where he had wound up. "Do you want me to find him?"
"No, not yet." She managed a weak smile. "Stay here for a bit."
"Are you going to be alright?" He wasn't happy about the paleness of her skin, or her clammy appearance, but she managed another shaky smile.
"I'll be alright. It's okay, the baby's not coming. I don't think it can be."
"Yes. Yes, I'm sure." Her eyes widened. "Bray, what's going on?"
"Revolution." He stared back towards the melee. "It's chaos. Whatever triggered it, it's all gone crazy now."
"Are they killing the Primitives?"
"Yes." He felt bad about it himself, and didn't particularly want to listen to her expressing happiness about it all. She didn't though, and he was greatly relieved. Too soft, Bray, he chastised himself; but he couldn't help it. There was too much violence in their world now, and they weren't going to rebuild anything if they all shared a desire to kill each other in this way. Instead of showing any real feelings about what was happening, Trudy merely sagged against him.
"Let's just stay here for a while. Wait until it gets a little quieter. I don't want to leave here without Adam."
"Okay." He led her into the shelter of the wall he had been helping to build, and helped her to sit down on a particularly large stone. It was white, and the edges were crumbling, and a row of faded, stencilled letters on the side read Police. He almost stroked the letters, wishing now for the presence of that comforting, and so often overlooked, bastion of his past. Oh for the sound of a police siren now - a real one, not Zoot's. A police siren, and a line of cars, and a few men and women dressed in blue, come to break up the fighting and take everybody home. A few broad shoulders, to take all of this responsibility. A few older and more experienced heads, ready to stop all of this madness. None came of course, for all of those older and more experienced people were dead, and there was nobody left to break up the fight. Instead it went on, long after the best of the afternoon had passed, and long after Trudy had fallen asleep in his arms. Bray left her wrapped in his coat and went alone to look for Adam, and was glad that he had done so when he found him. Crumpled and pale, Adam had not travelled far after he had been separated from Bray, for he had apparently fallen beneath the feet of the stampeding crowd. They had undoubtedly been oblivious to his plight beneath them, although it was unlikely that they would have been capable of caring even if they had known about him. They had been past all of that by then; oblivious to anything in the world that wasn't dressed in feathers. Bray would have hated them, if he had had any energy left.
There were a few ex-slaves still milling about when he lifted Adam's silent form up into his arms. One or two of them looked his way, and he saw the emptiness of their faces. They were spent; everything had gone. They had worked out every anger, every frustration, every ounce of grief and hatred, and now it had all gone. Some of them would probably never leave this place; he could see that clearly enough. Whatever they had been running on since the Virus, whatever their nervous energies or stored desperations, it had all dissipated into the blue, and left them as empty shells. Some would pull themselves together again, probably, in time. Right now they weren't even capable of understanding what they saw, as they watched the tired and shaken boy carrying his burden past their own weakened and slumped bodies. Bray ignored them all, not meeting a single pair of eyes. He had no interest in them anymore.
He buried Adam in a place where the hard concrete ground broke up into crumbled earth and heavy clay. He used anything he could find to dig the hole, and roughly fashioned a cross from a couple of pieces of wood and a length of blue twine. He wanted to write Adam's name on the wood, but couldn't find a way to do it - so in the end, defeated, he tore the name tag from Adam's jacket, visible now that the boy's clothes were so crumpled and tattered. It was a work of only a few moments to fill the grave in with earth, and then to fix the small piece of material to the cross; and when he had finished he slumped in exhaustion at the foot of the rickety marker. He wanted to stay there forever, where he could sleep, and perhaps try to forget about the rest of the world; but instead he forced himself to his feet. He had to get back to Trudy, and get her moving again. This place wasn't safe, even if the Primitives were gone now. There would be others to take their place.
"Is Adam coming?" Trudy didn't want to be woken up, but she stood anyway, leaning heavily against her young protector. He shook his head.
"He left?" She sounded disappointed, but not entirely surprised. "I don't blame him. I'd leave too, if it was me. Will you leave, Bray?"
"No." He held her close to him, wishing that he could leave, and knowing that he wouldn't. "I won't leave. I promise."
"Thanks." Her weight was almost too much, but he didn't push her away. She needed his support. "Where are we going?"
"There's a cellar, beneath an old cinema. My stuff is there. My skateboard, and one or two other things. We need to fetch them."
"Back home." He smiled at the top of her drooping head. "Do you think I'm crazy?"
"For going back? To where the Locos are? To where everybody wants to catch us or kill us?" He thought he heard her laughing. "No, not really. It does feel like home, doesn't it."
"Yeah." His little lean-to on the roof of a deserted house; the hundred and one burnt buildings and ramshackle shelters they had slept in; the alleyways filled with danger, and every corner that threatened to have a Locust or a Demon Dog waiting around it. It seemed a curious place to think of as home, but he knew that that was what it was. It would be the place where Trudy's baby was born, no matter how dangerous it was, and no matter what perils were waiting for it there. For reasons that he couldn't imagine, Bray couldn't wait to get back.
It was nearly dark before Jack returned to the Primitives' ruined encampment. He had seen from afar how the situation had deteriorated, and had known that only a fool would return there in the middle of all of that. Even so, there had been a temptation. He had wanted to go back, to find Adam; to make sure that he was alright. It had taken Tua and Liam to persuade him not to go; but now, as he picked his way through the broken buildings and fallen Primitives; the collapsed Outsiders and Locals; the spattered blood and torn head-dresses; he wondered if perhaps there hadn't been something he could have done. He knew that he was being a fool for wondering such things, and knew that there had never been anything that anybody could have done; but he wondered it nonetheless, and carried on wondering, right up until the moment that he found the grave.
He didn't doubt for a minute that it really was Adam who was buried beneath that lop-sided cross. He didn't question it, didn't even consider making sure. He was aware of Liam beside him, but he didn't speak. He didn't say anything at all.
"You could stay here with us." It was Tua who spoke in the end, standing beside him without him really being aware of it, saying the only thing that she could think of, even though it wasn't particularly comforting. "You'd be welcome. I mean that."
"No." He would miss them both, and he knew it, but even though he was hardly in the right frame of mind for making big decisions, he knew that he wouldn't be staying. "No, I'm going home."
"Home?" Liam was incredulous. "What's home? Stay with us, Jack. You came here looking for him, and now you've found him. There's no reason to go anywhere else now. There's no such thing as home anymore."
"I guess not." Jack was thinking about a big building; a shop, not a house; a deserted and desolate place that echoed with silence, and smelt of dust and decay. "But maybe there will be again, one day."
"Then make it here." Tua didn't want him to leave, but he didn't spend even a moment thinking about her plea. Instead he laid his hand on the pitiful cross, saying a goodbye that even he couldn't hear. He was fairly sure that Adam had heard it anyway, wherever he was now.
"No. I don't feel right here." He turned away, not looking at her or at Liam. "I have to go back. I'll - I'll remember you, though. You were great. Both of you. I wouldn't have made it this far without you."
"Will you make it back?" Liam didn't sound too sure, but Jack was. He nodded.
"Yeah, I will. And maybe I'll visit one day." He wouldn't, and they knew it as well as he did, but he said it anyway. Why not?
"Are you going now?" He thought that Tua sounded on the brink of tears, and he nodded, not trusting himself to look at her.
"Yeah. No time like the present, hey?"
"Oh." She sounded crestfallen, as though she would have liked the chance to work on him; to persuade him to change his mind. "Well... take care then, I guess."
"You too. Both of you. Thanks for everything, and - and goodbye." He turned around. It was dark now, and that was always the time when he felt safest travelling. He didn't know how long it would take him to get back, but he hoped that it wouldn't be long. A shopping mall might be a weird place to be heading for, hut he didn't even think about going somewhere else instead. After all, where else was there that was safe? Where else, in all this big city, in all this big country, in the whole of the wide, lonely world, was there anywhere else that felt even remotely secure? Nowhere at all. Not any more.
It was a tired and heavy-footed Jack who clambered down through the manhole that was the backdoor of the Mall six days later. The place felt quieter than it had done before, but he didn't hate it for that. He didn't hate the emptiness of the corridors, or the emptiness of Adam's bed, so near to his own. He didn't hate himself, for failing to find his friend in time; and he didn't hate the city, for taking him away. He didn't feel anything at all at first - and when at last, three days later, he finally let himself cry for Adam, he found that through the misery and the emptiness and the grief, there was a new feeling that was stirring inside. It was a surprise, but he welcomed it, for he couldn't help thinking that it might just be the start of something new.
For it was a strange, unfamiliar feeling of satisfaction and security; a feeling that once upon a time, in his distant, early childhood, he had known well. This was a lonely, broken Mall in the middle of a lonely, broken city - but it was home. It was a warm feeling; a positive moment - and, perhaps, it was an echo of the future.
He just wished that he wasn't so alone.