When Dal slept, sometimes he remembered. The memories came as dreams; too tangible to be mere fancies, and yet not tangible enough for his own peace of mind. They were like the hallucinations caused sometimes through hunger; pictures dancing out of reach, like people running ahead of him just that bit too fast to catch. He knew that he mumbled in his sleep then, when he saw the images that tantalised him so. He knew that his talking and restless movements sometimes awakened Amber. Neither of them said anything. There was certainly no need for Dal to apologise, particularly since Amber had the same dreams, and sometimes awoke him in the same way. There was no point in either of them offering much comfort, save that of their mutual company. Words were useless by now. The platitudes had all run out long before the last adult had died, and there was nothing left to say; to each other, or to anybody else. There was little enough pity to go around, and little enough contact through which to spread it. There were just the dreams, shared by so many of those who were left. Memories. Snapshots seen only in darkness.

Tonight Dal was dreaming of Christmas. He didn't know why. So far as he knew it wasn't Christmas time - it couldn't be, for not nearly enough time had passed since the last one; not that that had been much of an occasion for celebration. So many of the adults had already succumbed to the Virus by then that there had been few of them left. Dal's own mother and father, recently dead and at the bottom of the waiting list for burial, had gone more or less together, and their small son had spent that final proper Christmas sitting in his dormitory at the orphanage, trying to get some peace and quiet in a room shared with thirty other boys. There hadn't been any decorations, for obvious reasons. There hadn't been any special food, or any crackers or party hats. There certainly hadn't been any presents. There had just been extra religious broadcasts on what little remained of normal television schedules, as millions of dying adults world-wide tried to make their peace with a God or gods that many of them had never bothered believing in before. Dal had been raised to follow a different religion anyway, but in a predominately Christian country his family had always celebrated a Christmas of sorts; for him, they had said, although he had always suspected that they enjoyed the excuse for a little harmless fun. And then the Virus had killed them, and his final official Christmas had been turned into twenty-four hours of sad reflection. Twenty-four hours spent wandering dingy corridors long overdue for a coat of paint, or standing at the fence watching the rest of the world dying slowly in the city outside. Twenty-four hours watching the other boys in his dormitory crying themselves to sleep, or arguing over the day's meagre food rations; cut once again by the government because of problems with the supply. That had been the day he had met Amber.

She had been his friend for as long as he could remember - the proverbial girl next door throughout his childhood. She was some three years older than him, but she had always been happy to spend time with him; at least when they had been very young. They had drifted apart as they had grown older, when she had started to spend more time with other girls - but they had still remained friends. He hadn't seen her since her parents had become ill, and he had always wondered what had happened to her. And then there she had been, standing in the window of the girl's dormitory; looking just as he remembered her. Tall for her age, as always, and with dark blonde hair drawn back into a ponytail. She looked older than before; but then they all did. He had noticed that when the chaos had first begun.

Dal wasn't sure when he had first become aware of eyes focussed upon him. He had been wandering back to the building after half an hour spent watching the birds arguing in the scrawny, overgrown garden. He liked the garden, for it showed such clear indications of the way that it had used to look, when the gardener had still been alive to sculpt the hedges and weed the flowerbeds. If that particular individual hadn't already been dead, the shock of what his beloved garden had been reduced to would probably have killed him, and Dal sympathised entirely. He had been entertaining thoughts of returning to the orphanage and looking for gardening tools - perhaps making a start on the long job of returning order to one brand of chaos at least; and had been almost at the door when something had made him look up. She had been watching him, eyes narrowed in faint puzzlement, perhaps surprised by his prowling restlessness. When she had realised that he had seen her, she had smiled at him, and without quite knowing why he had gone immediately to join her. She had hugged him, he had returned the gesture, and they had been together ever since. When the death rate had rocketed even further above crisis point, and the government had decreed that everybody in the orphanages should join the Scouts and the Guides and the military cadets and all the others, and go to the boot camps in the hills, Amber and Dal had run away together. Somehow life on the streets had seemed a better deal than survival training in some bleak camp in the wilderness, learning how to fight each other, and how to take orders from tough drill sergeants living on borrowed time. It was supposed to help them learn how to defend the city from attackers; but there was nobody left to attack. Only the street kids were a threat to anybody, but the kids in the training camps were too far away to fight them. In the end the adults had all died before any order had been given to mobilise the young troops, and the battle had remained unfought. The kids in the camps had wandered home eventually, save those who had chosen to make a go of it in the woods or the fields. Instead of defending the city from the looters, the young cadets had joined them, turning their regimented skills to new uses, throwing in with the gangs running riot in the urban jungle. Dal and Amber had thought about joining one of the gangs; donning the identifying war paint and improvised tattoos of tribe life. They had decided against it in the end. Too much violence; too many battles. Too much danger from rival gangs and older, more established tribes. Some of them had been going since the earliest days of the Virus, building their strength whilst the adults had still been searching for a cure. They ran roughshod over everybody else, enslaving those without tribes of their own, and even those who did. Tribal life had its compensations, but Dal and Amber preferred just to be together, looking after each other, and keeping to themselves. It was better than the alternative, somehow.

And so there they were, sleeping huddled together in the burnt out ruin of a tiny drugstore, in what had once been a clean street in the cheap and cheerful part of town. They slept next to each other under two knitted red blankets that Amber had taken from the orphanage the day they had left. Amber slept with her back to Dal, mumbling softly about food stores and Demon Dogs as she tried to get comfortable. Dal lay on his back, his head on a rolled up raincoat with a furry hood, his eyes shut tight as he dreamed about Christmas. His mouth twitched into a smile as he dreamt, recalling his mother trying to fix streamers to the ceiling, and making decreasingly subtle attempts to coax her husband under the mistletoe. Dal's unconscious smile became a soft giggle of amusement as he watched his father wait until his wife's back was turned, before pulling her under his own large bunch of mistletoe whilst she squeaked her joking protests. Amber reacted to her companion's sudden mirth, but she didn't awake. Her own dreams changed in response to the humour though, as disturbing images of her dying parents faded from her mind, to be replaced by a family picnic. She was seven again, sharing a packet of crisps with her sister, and helping her father to fly a brightly-coloured stunt kite on the top of a hill outside town. She heard herself laughing as the kite dipped and rose in the air, and heard her father's laughter mixing with her own. She and her sister chatted excitedly, watching the kite rise higher, their voices growing louder and louder in her mind. Louder and louder until they were very loud indeed, and she knew that the noise could not be a dream.

"Dal?" She awoke with a jolt, still hearing the laughter as it echoed around the blackened building, resolving itself into somebody's disjointed conversation. "Dal, wake up."

"Huh?" He sat up rather abruptly, the blankets falling from his chest and tangling in his legs. "What?"

"Somebody's here." She rose to her feet, collecting up the blankets and grabbing the bag that had been on the ground nearby. It was made of black canvas, and she had once used it to carry her school books. Now she used it for food, when she had any.

"This is no man's land." Dal knew that that small fact didn't really mean anything, but it was at least better than being in one of the sectors belonging to the Demon Dogs, or to the Locusts. Ever since the city's two biggest and most violent tribes had declared war on each other some weeks before, nowhere had really been safe. The pair had thought that a burnt out building would be secure enough for one night. Maybe they had been wrong.

"No man's land doesn't mean a whole lot anymore. Come on." She led the way to the door; an empty hole now, leading into a covered walkway painted in pebble-dashed pastel shades. The floor was stone-flagging, but the soft shoes of the two young refugees made almost no noise. Amber took the lead, moving swiftly ahead on her longer legs, her spiky blonde head making a strange silhouette in the pre-dawn grey grimness of the sky. Smaller, stockier, with a fur-lined cap over his tightly curled black hair, Dal cast a much more bulky shadow, less exotic than the girl with the knotted hair. His old rucksack leant him a faint stoop, and the roller-skates in his left hand rattled softly as he walked, suggesting that he was carefree and playful; a kid sneaking out for a few hours of fun before school. The streak of red paint across his face - a tribal design of Amber's making, and identical to her own - emphasised the notion of play, even though it was anything but. It was an attempt to claim some notion of belonging; a statement that neither of the duo was a Stray, and in that way hopefully avoid being rounded up by the slave-gathering tribes in search of profit. It was smudged now, anyway; faded and spread across one cheekbone by a rough night of restless dreaming.

"Who do you suppose it was?" Stumbling over some of the debris left on the ground, Dal followed Amber out of the walkway and onto the street. She shrugged at him, not bothering to look back at the building, and perhaps find out the answer to his question.

"Does it matter?" They sat down together to pull on their roller-skates, hidden from the windows of the building they had just left, their movements swift and anxious in case there should be any chance of pursuit.

"It might do. They might have been friends." He almost glanced back, but avoided it in the end. There really was no point. Who would it be holed up in the building now, save for more enemies in war paint? More tribal troublemakers with more weapons than sense? The whole city was like that now, and there was nobody left to offer the hand of friendship.

"We should hurry. It'll be light soon, and I want to find tonight's sleeping place before everybody is awake." Standing up, Amber slung her bag over her shoulder, and forced the two red blankets down inside it. Dal also stood, standing rock steady now on his roller-skates, easily hiding the fact that until three weeks ago he had never worn a pair in his life. They had become extra limbs to him; extensions of his own body, and vital in the world as it now was. Only the Locos moved faster, with their modified police car that sped through the streets.

"Somewhere to sleep tonight?" Dal sounded disappointed. "I thought we were supposed to be getting out of the city, Amber? Finding somewhere where we can live off the land. It's the way forward now. We agreed."

"I know, and nobody wants it more than I do." She put her hand on his shoulder, playing her favoured rôle of older sister to full effect. "But it's just not safe right now. You know what it's like at the edge of the city. Nobody makes it out. If we try it, we'll end up on somebody's chain gang, and I don't plan to let that happen."

"I suppose you're right." He stared dolefully down the empty street, imaging what it would be like to make it out of the city, and to live somewhere where he wouldn't have to be scared all the time. Somewhere where he wouldn't have to keep looking both ways before taking a step. Where he could sleep an unbroken night without somebody interrupting him, and forcing him to move on somewhere else. He was tired of living like this. He wanted to get away.

"You know I'm right." Amber's attempts to jolly him along no longer seemed quite as confident; quite as cheerful as they once had done. Now it seemed as though she was trying to jolly herself along at the same time; as if she was losing her own faith in their chances of finally making their dream a reality. The wide open countryside, with its green spaces and vastly decreased threats, were a wonderful idea that they had decided upon together; but it was an idea that was showing no signs of bearing fruit. They couldn't get out of the city, and they couldn't shake off the deepening threats. They couldn't do anything, except find somewhere else to hide. There was no other course to follow.

"Of course." He smiled at her, glad of her presence, and even more glad of her unerring ability to see things so clearly. She was the one person left that he trusted, and the one person that he knew would help him to survive. He wasn't sure where he would be if he had never met her, but he certainly wouldn't have been as healthy as he was now. He trusted her paranoia, just as he trusted her confidence. There was no point in trying to get out of the city, just as there was no point in trying to find out who their early morning guest had been. United in their shared certainties, the pair skated off. They had plans to make, before the war made the streets unsafe yet again.

Back in the burnt out shop, Bray threw down his bag and his skateboard, and sat down on an upturned crate. Trudy sat down beside him, leaning against him for warmth and support. She was tired and pale, and her hair hung lankly around her face. He was worried about her, for their life was hard and tense, and she was now several months pregnant.

"Bray?" She was trying not to yawn; trying not to show how tired she really was. He put an arm around her.

"Yes?" He was just as tired as she was; probably more so, for he stood guard far too often whilst she slept. He missed out on too many meals in his attempts to keep her and her baby properly fed.

"Can we rest here? Just for a bit?"

"Of course." He didn't want to stay in such a structurally unsound building when there was likely to be fighting going on outside, but it was better than nothing. He wondered who the people had been; the people he had heard in or near the building just as he had entered. He didn't know anybody in this section of town. Even most of the tribes were strangers to him, which was a definite blessing. "Do you want anything to eat?"

"Not now. I'd rather sleep." She slid from their improvised seat, and settled down on the floor. They had no luxuries such as blankets; just the floor and their clothing. Bray watched her trying to get comfortable, and offered her his striped woollen coat as a covering. She snuggled into it, resting her head on a rolled up raincoat that somebody had left lying on the ground. She didn't look very comfortable, but then she was still getting used to a life on the streets. Trudy had spent far too long living in relative luxury with the Locos, and hard floors with insubstantial protection from the cold were hard for her to take. He had felt the same way himself once, all those months ago when he had first taken to living rough. He took a swallow from their precious water supply as he watched her sleep, then sat down next to her with his chin resting on his knees. Sleep would come, he knew; in stops and starts punctuated by fitful dreams, perhaps; but at least it would come. He closed his eyes.

"Bray?" Trudy's voice dragged him back before he had a chance to drift off. He looked down at her, but her eyes were closed and she was not looking at him.

"What is it?"

"Hold me. Please." She rolled sideways into his arms, and he obeyed her mumbled wish. Alarm bells were ringing in his head, but he ignored them. He knew that she was falling for him, and he knew equally well that he could not let that happen. There didn't seem to be anything that he could do about it though, when he was supposed to be her protector. He couldn't leave her until the baby was born, and that was months away yet.

"Did I hear people leave just as we arrived?" Through a jaw-cracking yawn she was speaking to him again, and he reacted slowly to her words.

"Yeah. You did. Two of them I think." He glanced down at the raincoat beneath her head, thinking of how it had probably belonged to one of the two in question. It was a dusky brown in colour, quite new but already well worn. It didn't look as if there was anything in the pockets, but he would check before they left.

"Who do you suppose they were?"

"I don't know." They hadn't been Locos or Demon Dogs, that much was sure. If they had been, they wouldn't have run away. Nothing else really mattered, for there were no other tribes that he was afraid of; just ones of which he was wary, by varying degrees. The Orphans, the Jackals and the Mariners, the other violent gangs, rarely travelled so far from their home territory, so there was little reason to suppose that the building's previous tenants had belonged to one of those undesirable gangs. With that in mind he was rather inclined to dismiss the matter. There were no friends in the city these days, after all - just known enemies and undefined threats. Whoever had been there before him, there was no chance that they might have been possible allies. Bray had no allies, save for himself. Even Trudy was not really a friend; just a responsibility that he could not escape.

"Do you think one of them might know where we can stay? Somewhere safe, where I can wait for the baby to be born?" She sounded increasingly faint, as she gradually began to fall asleep. Bray held her a little more tightly.

"I'll go and ask them later," he told her, not meaning it at all. She nodded.

"Thanks. One of them might be a doctor."

"Yeah. Maybe." He felt his heart sink further, wondering just how far she was lost in delusions. It didn't bode well. She snuggled close against him.

"Do you want a boy or a girl, Bray?"

"I don't know." He wondered how she would cope with a baby to look after, when she was so incapable of looking after herself. He had to leave her though, once the child had arrived. He couldn't look after both of them. He needed to be free.

"I think I want a girl." She frowned. "Or a boy. Maybe it'll look like you."

"Maybe." He wondered what sort of a future it would have, whatever gender it turned out to be. Nothing terribly inspiring came to mind.

"Do you think the Locos are after us yet?" She was drifting further away, almost asleep and yet still somehow able to communicate. He shrugged, even though he knew the answer.

"We're miles away from Loco HQ."

"That doesn't mean anything." Both of them had heard the telltale police siren during the night, and both of them were still jumpy as a result.

"Maybe not. But we're safe here." He pulled his coat around her, trying to keep her warm. He found himself wondering if her baby was cold too, deep inside her. Maybe it was warm inside there. He hoped so, for the baby's sake, for it was pretty grim and unpleasant on the outside. He was cold enough for his fingertips to be going numb, and there was no sign of things getting any warmer yet. He couldn't seem to turn his mind away from the two people who had fled at his approach. Were they cold? Where were they going to go now? He didn't go after them though. He didn't trust anybody enough for that.

"Hold me, Bray." She was trying to get even closer to him, although there was already no space between them. He held her as tight as he dared, and tried to relax his tired, aching body. There was a thumping pain inside his head, and it was showing no signs of fading. Beside him the pattern of Trudy's breathing changed, and he knew that she was asleep. Her lips continued to move restlessly, and he heard occasional whispers; disjointed and meaningless. He closed his eyes. Outside he heard rain falling, and hoped that the smoke-blackened roof was still waterproof. The last thing that he wanted was to be wet on top of everything else.

"Goodnight Trudy." He whispered the words to the top of her head, before finally letting sleep take him. Outside, the wind was getting up, lashing the increasing rain against the much-abused walls. He shut the noise out. For a short while at least he wanted there to be nothing for him to worry about. If nothing else, the world at least owed him that.

Trudy didn't think much about breakfast anymore. She had always considered it the best part of the day, when her father would eat kippers and toast at the head of the table, whilst her mother ate boiled eggs and buttered fingers of bread at the other end, smiling indulgently at her husband over the marmalade and the milk. Trudy had been seated roughly halfway between the pair, usually eating the supposedly healthy yoghurt combinations that had been all the rage at the time, and trying to remember if she had done all of the homework that had been set. They had all talked together around the breakfast table, with the radio going in the corner of the room, trilling out cheesy pop tunes on the early morning show. It had been something of a tradition. Now there was rarely any food, so there simply wasn't any breakfast. There certainly wasn't any amusing table talk, to a soundtrack of pop songs.

"Are you awake?" Lying beside her, staring up at the ceiling, Bray had not moved. She had thought that he was still asleep, and was surprised by the sound of his voice. She smiled, for his presence was enough to make all of the saddest moments disperse for her. Stretching lazily, she tried to move closer to him. He edged away, his movements almost imperceptible, and she scowled. She'd make him interested in her if it killed her.

"Yes, I'm awake. I suppose that means it's time to get moving again."

"We've overslept." He rose to his feet, moving cautiously to the crumbling edge of the building. The front, although destroyed, was now more solid that it had been when the construction was still recent, for there were piles of rubble blocking light and sound from the world outside. He peered out of a collapsed window frame, now no bigger than the width of his hand. "I can't see anybody, but we should probably wait here for a while. I don't know this part of town, so I don't know how safe it is for us out there."

"Yeah, I know." She had heard it all before, so many times. Had there really been a period in her life when she had thought that it would be romantic to live on the road? She remembered reading something, in the days before the Virus; seeing a film perhaps; where two young lovers had run away together, and had wandered footloose and penniless through towns and cities across America. It had seemed exciting; the perfect thing to do with the one you loved. Going on the run with Bray had seemed the most wonderful notion; a chance to win him over, and a chance to be alone with him. She seemed to have overlooked the starvation, the hardship, the worry - and the boredom. No matter how exciting it might have seemed once, to be hiding from enemies and possible pursuit, the excitement was soon outweighed by the boredom of long hours spent hiding from the world. It was enough to make her wish for something to happen.

"I'll try to find us some food." Bray was moving towards the door before his words had really sunk in, and she glanced up in shock.

"But I thought you said--"

"I said that it was probably too dangerous for us to go out. Not for me. I can move quickly, you know that. I'm quiet too, and I know a lot of tricks. I've been doing this for a long time now."

"But we agreed, after the last time. That tribe nearly caught you Bray, and if they had..."

"Yeah, but they didn't." He picked up his bag and his skateboard, and slung them both around his neck. "And they won't."

"But what happens if they do? Am I supposed to sit here waiting for you? What happens if you don't come back? I don't think that I can look after myself."

"So I'm supposed to just sit here with you? Trudy, if we go together we really will be caught. There's no getting around the fact that you can't move as fast as I can. You're getting slower all of the time, the closer you come to giving birth, and you're not exactly in the peak of physical fitness, are you.`

"Maybe I would be, if I was allowed to do a little more than hide in empty buildings while you go out looking for food."

"Maybe you would be, yes. Or maybe we'd both be dead. We don't know who's out there, Trudy. We don't know what the local tribes are like. All we know is that the Demon Dogs and the Locos are spreading further and further afield with this little war of theirs. It's not going to be long before there's nowhere in this whole city where we can go and be sure of keeping out of their way. The Locos are probably after us. We haven't heard anything from them since I took you away, but for all we know they could still be hoping to get you back. Whether they are or not, the Demon Dogs definitely are after us. You heard what that trader said the other day."

"I know." She stared at the ground. "I'm sorry. I just - I just thought it was going to be different, you know? A new part of town... Maybe some tribes that didn't want to kill us or capture us... I hoped that we'd find somewhere here where I could rest. Properly rest. I'm so tired."

"I know. And maybe this is that place. Truth is that we won't know until I find out; and I'm not going to let you come with me to share those risks. Not with that baby inside you. You need to look after it, and you need to look after yourself. I'm not doing this because I don't think you're up to the task. I know that you can be pretty tough when you need to be. It's just..."

"I know." She nodded at him, already regretting her outburst. After all, having him caring for her was what she wanted, so why object when he tried to do just that? "Just be careful, Bray. Please. I really can't do anything without you."

"I'll come back." He smiled at her, and she felt her heart melt. Damn him for getting past her once again. With heavy feet she followed him into the covered walkway that led from the exit, and then stood back to watch as he skated out of sight. The streets looked empty, and seemed safe enough to her. She didn't follow him though, no matter how safe things appeared. She had learned the hard way that appearances could be deceiving, and she had no wish to fall into the hands of whatever tribes called these sorry streets their home. Turning around, she wandered back to her makeshift bed, sitting down once again to wrap herself in Bray's striped woollen coat. It was warm and comfortable, and it made her think of him. Closing her eyes, she wrapped her arms around her knees and wondered who her strangely reluctant protector might run into on those cruel and unknown streets. He could tell her as often as he liked that most of the kids were as scared and as harmless as they were, but she would never quite be able to believe that. She wouldn't really be surprised if he ran into a tribe of cannibals. Nobody in this city was harmless. Nobody at all.

Dal and Amber skated until the first signs of life began to appear behind the many dirty windows, indicating that the city was starting to wake. They hadn't got very far, for the layout of the streets did not allow easy travel by the minor roads, and neither of the pair dared use the main roads. They were broad, empty thoroughfares ideal for the speeding police cars of the Locos, and the mad, skating tag-teams of the Demon Dogs. The only other person who used them regularly was Bray, although Amber and Dal were not to know that. They didn't know anybody save each other.

"Any chance of some food?" Slowing to a halt as they reached a likely looking resting spot, Dal lifted the rucksack from his back and weighed it in his hand. There was a tin of spaghetti in there, and he thought that he remembered seeing a packet of savoury biscuits. Amber nodded.

"Definitely time for some food." She sat down on the lid of an overflowing dustbin, immune by now to the smell of rotten refuse. Dal sat on the ground nearby, already rummaging through his bag. He held up the spaghetti, giving it a triumphant shake, and presented it to his companion as though he were the maitre d' at some exclusive restaurant.

"A very good year," he told her, in his best French accent. "Perhaps Madame would like to sample it?"

"You're nuts." She took the tin and glanced at the label, noting absently that it was her favourite brand. "Shame we don't have any way of warming it up."

"But we do have cheese crackers and fish paste." He held up two further items dragged from the depths of his rucksack. "Sardine flavour."

"Joy of joys." She checked her own bag, finding nothing but a bottle of twice boiled water. "Here. It's not exactly champagne..."

"We can't drink champagne every day, Amber. Think of our teeth." He took the bottle, swapping it for a penknife with which his companion began to attack the lid of the spaghetti tin. She shared the contents out carefully into a pair of plastic bowls, watching as Dal crumbled the crackers over the top of both servings. It was hardly a gourmet meal, but she consoled herself yet again with thoughts of how low it was in fat, and how relatively high it was in fibre. It didn't taste bad either, after a fashion.

"Great stuff." Dal was trying to cheer her up, recognising that the meagre meal had brought her spirits down. She smiled gratefully at him.

"Yes, it is. I don't know how I got along in the old days, with so much hot food to choose from."

"Yeah." He summoned another broad grin, his round face lighting up, and making her smile as well. "When we get the world back in working order, we're going to have to make sure that we still get a good supply of cold spaghetti and fish paste."

"Sardine flavour." She glanced down at the jar of paste, and tried to ignore the fact that it was two months out of date. Maybe that sort of thing didn't count, before the jar was opened for the first time. She remembered her father making excuses like that, when he dug things out of the furthest recesses of the kitchen cupboards, and realised how many things should have been eaten a long time before. Amber's mother had always glared at him in such moments, and muttered about waste.

"My mother hated sardines." His words complimenting her thoughts to a startling degree, Dal finished the last mouthful of his day's rations, and leaned against the damp stone wall behind him. Rats scratched in the gutter near to his feet, but he ignored them. He was used to their presence by now, for they had made the whole city their own. "She hated the way that the taste repeats. My dad liked them though. He ate them on toast on Saturday afternoons."

"My dad liked them too." Amber finished her own food, and washed it down with a sparing mouthful of water. "He liked the ones in tomato sauce best. He ate them in sandwiches with cucumber and lettuce."

"Lettuce." Dal sighed at some pleasant memory. Fresh fruit and vegetables were impossible to come by these days, for the city dwellers at least. That was part of the reason why he longed to find a way out of the city, and set himself up somewhere in the countryside. That way he could grow his own food, using the skills that his father had taught him when working on the large vegetable garden behind their house. He knew that he could grow enough to survive on, and perhaps enough extra to enable him to trade with others. He imagined grinding his own grain to make flour for bread, and harvesting plants that he had tended from seeds. He was sure that he could make it work, especially with Amber's help. She seemed able to inspire him to anything, just like the older sister he had always dreamed of, but had never had. "Remember getting fresh tomatoes, Amber? Big red ones."

"Squashy red ones." She nodded hard. "And bananas. And peaches and pears and plums..."

"Mangoes." He sighed. Thinking that way never did anybody any good. "Still, we'd only be bored if we had to eat that sort of thing all the time."

"Yeah." Amber sounded doubtful, but nodded nonetheless. She dragged her thoughts back from daydreams of her mother's vegetable casserole, and the chocolate sundaes that had been her father's speciality. Rich layers of sauce and... She groaned. That way lay madness. Beside her Dal was thinking along very similar lines, and also dragged himself back to reality. Home-made curry and plates of seafood weren't everything, after all. There was a lot to be said for peanut butter and stale breakfast cereal, or the cold tinned soups and stews that had become their staple diet - or at least, so he tried to tell himself. Not that it worked.

"We need to get some more food." Drinking a little more water, Amber reached across to pass the bottle to Dal, startling him back from his thoughts. He was grateful for the interruption. "Any ideas?"

"Yeah." He sipped a little of the precious liquid, trying to convince himself that he didn't want more. "We get out of the city and grow some food. It's got to be better than trying to scavenge for it in the gutters."

"You're determined to find your piece of land, aren't you." She threw an affectionate swat at his head, and he ducked easily. "I only hope that you like all these vegetables you're so desperate to grow."

"Food always tastes better when you've grown it yourself. I remember when my dad let me have part of the garden, and I grew some carrots in it. I'd always hated carrots before then, but those ones were wonderful."

"I remember your carrot patch." Amber laughed aloud, remembering the extraordinary profusion of growth in the little piece of earth. Dal's family had been trying to give carrots away to anybody who had strayed within a hundred yards of the house. Dal blushed.

"You like carrots," he told her, trying to frown. She laughed again.

"I did until then. I haven't touched one since. We were eating carrot stew and carrot soup every day for a month."

"Don't exaggerate." He grinned. "Well, okay. Maybe we won't grow carrots. Just other things, like lettuces and beans at first. Things that are easy to grow practically anywhere. Then we can move on to other things."

"You've got it all worked out, haven't you."

"Everything." He shrugged. "Not that that's going to help us get food today."

"Somebody's got to have some." She stretched, looking about at their little alleyway. It was flanked on one side by a house, and on the other by a pair of shops. One had been a post office by the look of things, and the sign still hung above a tattered-looking back door, its paint not even chipped. The other shop appeared to have been a small scale video rental place, with several posters visible even in the dingy back windows leading into the alley, announcing VCR repairs, and a newly arrived, limited stock of top name DVDs. Most of them were among the last batch to have been released, before the Virus had spiralled out of control. They weren't names that she especially recognised. Movies had hardly seemed important when so many of her neighbours had been so ill.

"I don't think there's going to be any food around here." Dal tried the back door of the post office, and found it locked. "Nothing in there but stamps."

"Post offices sometimes sell other things."

"Yeah. Chocolate bars and sweets maybe. Do you really think that there are any left in there? Even the store room will have been raided, if there is one. There might be something in the video place. Crisps, peanuts, ready-made popcorn. The place near our old school used to sell stuff like that, remember?"

"Yeah." She gave one of the windows an experimental shake, but it proved to be quite firm. "Think there's any point?"

"We have to look somewhere. I'd prefer to try a place where there's a small chance than go looking on one of the main streets, where we're likely to get caught by one of the big tribes." He gestured at the video store. "It's hardly an obvious place to look for food, is it. If you look through the window you can see that the post office has been done over already, but this place looks like it's still in one piece."

"Probably because there's nothing worth taking."

"Probably." He bent to pick up a stone from the ground, hefting it in his hand. "Want to give it a try?"

"Yeah." She stepped back, allowing him better freedom of movement. "I never thought I'd be telling you to break into a store."

"I never thought I'd be wanting to." He raised the stone above his head. "Here's hoping for something edible."

"You can say that again." She watched, wincing slightly as he brought the stone down. Glass fountained into the shop, scattering in wide streaks across the floor. Dal seemed uninjured however, and merely shook a few smaller pieces from the brim of his fur-lined cap.

"I think I missed my calling." He grinned at her, his small, round face lit up in delight at the novelty of his actions. Neither he nor Amber had done much in the way of looting, and so far had always entered shops and buildings which had already been turned over. Somehow it still seemed illegal to do the actual breaking and entering, despite there being nobody left to steal from. It was too deeply ingrained in both of their minds to be easily altered, even by dire necessity.

"Well let's see if you've picked a good place to begin your career in crime." Knocking aside some of the jagged pieces of glass still clinging to the window frame, Amber climbed uncertainly inside. The floor echoed dully beneath her feet, and she adjusted her steps to ensure silence. There was probably no need for such caution, but she preferred no noise at all to the dead, empty echoes that emphasised the loneliness of the place. Dal climbed in beside her, and she jumped.

"It's not like you didn't know I was here, Amber." He smiled at her nervousness, and walked further into the shop. There was dust everywhere, and a liberal sprinkling of spiders' webs. A flight of stairs rose up to somewhere, the stairs themselves dusty through lack of use. Rows of shelves displayed video cassette boxes, and further shelves showed off the DVD collection advertised in the window. There were not many of them, and their gaudy wrappings seemed dull and unattractive beneath the layers of dirt. The pair ignored them all, interested only in the food that might lie behind the counter, or in the storeroom that was sure to be alongside the shop itself.

"Why leave this place, but do the one next door?" Rummaging in a box behind the counter, Amber threw aside some useless bits and pieces and scowled at her lack of success. Dal shrugged.

"Like I said; the post office is an obvious target. There's bound to be useful things in there, even if it's just matches and batteries. A video store is less obvious. Nobody wants to watch videos right now."

"I do." She finished with the box she had been searching through, and turned her attention to another one. "I'd like to curl up in front of Mary Poppins, or something like that, and eat a big bar of chocolate."

"With a huge mug of coffee to go with it. White, no sugar."

"I prefer tea." She smiled. "But definitely white, no sugar."

"Just maybe not Mary Poppins to go with it." He pushed aside his box, and shook his head. "There's nothing in here. Maybe we should try that back room now."

"We don't even know that there is a back room." She stood up, trying the handle of the door behind the counter. "For all we know this leads out onto the street, or into somebody's house."

"Or into a storeroom full of food." He waved a hand towards a sheet of paper pinned to the countertop. In shaky block capitals it read Peanuts; Chocolate Covered Raisins; Twixes; Lion Bars; Snickers. There was a price list as well, alongside a list of nuts and other snacks once available. Amber grinned.

"It's not exactly health food, is it."

"Certainly isn't home-grown organic vegetables, that's for sure." Dal shrugged. "We'll just have to find a chemist's to break in to as well, so we can get hold of some toothpaste."

"You can say that again." She gave the door another shake. "I still can't believe that we're the first to figure out that this place might have something in it worth taking."

"Put it down to superior intelligence."

"Maybe." She gave the door a hard kick, and let it swing wide open. Beyond was a dirty little room lined with cardboard boxes. Six or seven teenagers sat there, surrounded by the empty foil boxes of an array of instant meals, and a pile of crushed cans once filled with beer. "Or maybe there's another reason."

"Huh?" Dal peered over her shoulder, looking into the room. He saw the group of teenagers, all dressed in shimmering black satin, bedecked with sequins in silver, purple and gold. His mouth fell open.

"Those guys aren't the store staff, are they."

"I don't think so, no." She offered the group a shaky grin. "Hi. We're... just passing through."

"Really?" One of the group, a tall, well-built boy of about seventeen, rose to his feet. In his right hand he gripped a can of beer, and in his left a hefty chunk of wood. He stared at Amber and Dal through alcohol-blurred blue eyes, half-hidden by the wide brim of a pristine black fedora with a scarlet band. A single, long earring dangled from his left ear, reaching almost to his shoulder in a cascade of silver and crystal. "Where are you passing through to?"

"Somewhere a long, long way away from here." Dal's nervous eyes had scanned as far as the club before freezing. He watched it carefully, certain that it was only drunkenness that so far had prevented the little gang from attacking the two new arrivals. "We took a wrong turning, that's all."

"We're the Artists." Fedora took a sip from his beer, eyes flashing all the while. "You're welcome to come in. Sit down, have a beer." He smiled lasciviously at Amber. "You at least get to stay. The kid has to leave."

"Thanks, but we're both going." Amber took a step back. "It's, er... it's been really nice to meet you, but we've got to be on our way."

"Scared to be out during the day?" Fedora moved closer to her, using his long, muscular body to produce a curiously slinking movement. It brought to mind a snake with legs. "Then stay here with me. I'm Claws - and it's so good to meet you."

"It's... nice to meet you too... Claws." Her eyes strayed unwillingly to his hands, searching for the talons that supposedly gave him his name. They had been invisible before, hidden by his clenching fists, but noticing her interest he unfurled his fingers from the beer can in his right hand. Silver claws, each one almost an inch in length, curved from the tips of his fingers. They were beautifully made, all fixed by some invisible means to his real nails; and all razor sharp. He waggled his fingers at her. "I heard you coming, you know. I heard you trying to get in here to speak to me."

"I wasn't trying--" She gave up, taking another step back until she collided with Dal. "Listen, we really have to be going now."

"Nobody leaves until we say so." Claws raised his right hand to his fedora, running a sharp fingernail along the brim in a smooth gesture that somehow managed to be extremely sinister. "You came here. We didn't invite you. Now we're inviting you to stay."

"And we're declining." Dal looked faintly ridiculous making a stand against the tall young man in the hat, for he himself was only a small boy not yet eleven. Amber felt proud of him nonetheless.

"Come on, Dal." She pushed him through the door, wishing that she hadn't broken the lock in her determined attempts to gain entry. There might have been a chance of locking this unpleasant little gang inside their own headquarters. As it was, the door frame was splintered and the door itself seemed unlikely to close properly again. Given the position of the window through which they had climbed into the shop in the first place, escape was not likely to be easy at all. Claws was still smirking at her.

"You don't want to walk away from me, Beautiful."

"The name's Amber." She glanced back briefly, trying to tell Dal, by look alone, that he should be ready to make a break for it. "And I'm afraid that I'm the anti-social kind. I'm not staying."

"Maybe I can change your mind." Claws took another step towards her, carefully skirting the puddle of beer he had created when he had dropped his can to display his metal fingernails. One of the other Artists stretched lazily, showing an interest in the conversation for the first time.

"Stop talking about it, won't you? Just get them." He unfolded a pair of improbably long legs, wrapped in skin-tight black satin that shimmered in the limited light. Black and white tap shoes encased his feet, clicking softly against the hard floor as he rose to stand on them. "We can sell a pair like this for a month's food supply if we go to the Locos."

"The Locos?" Dal's eyes opened wide. "What happened to inviting us in? Who said anything about selling us?"

"Oh we'll invite you in first." Claws was suddenly all oily smiles and fluttering eyelashes. "You come in, we have a party, you give me some time alone with your beautiful friend here... and then we go to see the Locos. It's all very simple."

"Very simple." His long-legged associate began to advance from a different direction, his sequin-festooned clothing flashing like Christmas lights with every step. Dal dug his hands into his pockets. The penknife that Amber had used to open the spaghetti tin was not much of a weapon, but it was better than none at all. He opened the blade, wishing that his hands were not shaking so much, then stepped forward to stand alongside his companion.

"We're leaving." He kept his voice as level as he could make it, holding the knife out before him as though it were some mighty sword. "You're not going to stop us."

"Or alternatively..." Claws reached into his own pocket, and produced a wicked looking flick-knife. The blade popped out, easily beating the length of Dal's own shaky weapon. "You could stay here, and do as we tell you."

"Careful with that knife." Long Legs pushed it aside, forcing the blade so that it pointed at the ground. "The Locos won't pay us anything for two slaves full of holes. We've got--" He broke off. "Did you hear something?"

"Outside." Dal's voice had dropped to a whisper, meant for Amber's ears alone. "In the alley."

"Great." She pushed him back, making it through the door back into the shop without any of the Artists showing signs of anger. Presumably they considered escape to be impossible. "Do we stay here with this bunch, or take our chances outside?"

"I can only hear one person at the moment." Striding forward, Claws popped the blade of his flick-knife back inside the hilt, and raised up his club instead. "Tribe Circus have been sticking their noses into our buildings just recently. It might be one of them."

"Or it might be somebody come after these two." Long Legs jerked a thumb at Amber and Dal before joining Claws by the window. "Can you see anyone?"

"Just about. He's checking out the post office from what I can see. One guy with a skateboard. Brown hair. I can't see any tribal markings."

"A Stray." Long Legs smiled, then whirled on the heel of one highly polished tap shoe, turning back to face his assorted audience. All of the Artists had risen to their feet by now, and had assembled behind the counter at the other side of the room. Their slicked back hair, heavily coated with gel, sparkled nearly as much as their sequins; and yet still they seemed capable of exuding menace. Amber and Dal backed into the wall, standing side by side in indecision. Nobody appeared to be watching them, but with their route to the broken window cut off, there seemed little chance of their being able to take advantage of such a marvellous opportunity. They heard the scrape of wheels on the tarmac outside, followed by sudden footsteps as the skater abandoned his board. Wheels rattled, and Dal and Amber guessed that the new arrival was examining their roller-skates and other possessions, all left out in the alley. Dal scowled.

"If he takes anything..."

"You'll what? Look very cross?" Amber smiled at him. "There's nothing all that irreplaceable. Anyway, we have more important things to worry about." Keeping her eyes fixed on the preoccupied Artists, she took a step towards the shop's main door. Now that she could see it properly, the local tribe's countermeasures were apparent. Heavy chains and home-made bolts prevented entry or access from the door, and the windows at the front were boarded up. Only the back of the shop allowed any kind of access, and presumably the locals knew better than to try anything from that quarter. There was little wonder that nobody had bothered to turn over the video store. She scowled to herself. Keeping to the back streets had its disadvantages as well as its advantages. Had she seen the front of the shop first, she would have guessed that there was somebody in residence.

"There's no way out but the window we came in by." Dal had obviously been doing just as much thinking. His dark eyes were fixed upon the broken pane, beyond which the splintered shadow of a person could now be seen. It was not possible to tell who he was, or what he looked like, but he seemed to be dressed entirely in black. Amber considered shouting a warning, but had to conclude that Dal was her first priority. It was a nice idea to perhaps save the life of a stranger, but she could not attempt to do so when that very action might risk the life of her best friend, as well as herself. She tried to think of something else instead.

"We could try to break out of one of the other windows." Dal's eyes were scanning the debris around the counter, searching for something that they could use to break the glass and aid their escape. Amber let her own eyes drift in the same direction, spotting empty cassette boxes, some assorted video manuals and a number of sets of keys. Nothing seemed likely for use as a battering ram or a weapon, and it was painfully obvious that Dal's little penknife would not get them far. She shook her head.

"It's hopeless. Don't try anything stupid."

"Stupid? Amber, they're planning to sell us to the Locos. You heard what they said. If there's a chance we can get out, no matter how small, we have to take it."

"Maybe." She glanced up, but the figure outside the window had passed on. Two of the Artists were peering out through the hole, evidently preparing to climb out, in the hope of capturing the prowling Stray. Nobody seemed to be watching the two already trapped. "If I make a move, you make sure that you're ready."

"What are you planning to do?" Dal looked dubious, as though unwilling to let his friend carry all the risks. Amber smiled at him.

"I have absolutely no idea. Just be ready." She tensed suddenly. "I can hear that guy coming back this way. As soon as he looks in through one of the windows, he's going to see that lot. If they don't want to lose him, they'll have to make a move straight away."

"Upstairs." Dal was staring towards the staircase now, his roving eyes spotting the only obvious escape route left. Amber glanced down at him.

"Are you kidding? What's the point in going up? We can't jump out of an upstairs window."

"Maybe we won't need to. All the buildings along this row are connected. That was obvious from the outside. We could get up onto the roof and run straight across the block. There has to be somewhere where we can get back down to street level. All that we have to do is run fast enough to stay ahead of the Artists."

"They'll probably already be waiting for us on the ground." She smiled at him, seeing the resolution in his dark eyes. "But you've got a point. It could well be our only chance."

"When they go after that Stray then." A slight sign of guilt floated across Dal's face, but he purposefully cut it short. Amber sympathised entirely. The last thing that she wanted was to leave some innocent stranger to suffer the fate for which they themselves had been destined - but if doing so was the only way by which they could escape, it was something that they had to do. There was no space for chivalry at a time like this.

"If that guy is coming in here, we've got to grab him." The spite in the voice of the Artist now speaking made Amber momentarily flinch. What kind of a tribe had they come across? She had never heard of these people before, and yet it seemed that they were every bit as much of a threat as the Demon Dogs or the Jackals. She cursed herself for having entered the shop in the first place. Surely looting could never lead to anything good? Except that it wasn't looting, and it wasn't theft, and she had as much right to be here as these sequinned madmen, and... The thought trailed away, and she let it go. No point in letting the anger boil. She nudged Dal. Not long to go now. Everybody was staring at the window, and at the indistinct shape given bizarre form by the dusty pane and the cracks in the glass. Male, quite tall. Lean frame. Dark hair. Amber closed her eyes, trying not to give the figure any human characteristics. If she thought about him any more, she would find it impossible to leave him behind. There would be no escape for her or for Dal, if she allowed that to happen. One by one the Artists were converging on the window. It seemed impossible now that the figure had not seen them, but presumably his attention was on something else. Dal's hand sought Amber's, tapping gently on the back of her fingers. Now? his gesture clearly asked. She frowned, gauging time and distance. There was almost the length of the room now between her and the nearest of the Artists. The figure beyond the window was within striking distance. There could be no better time. Slowly she nodded her head and drew in an involuntary gasp. The Artists moved forward. One of them grabbed hold of the window frame.

At the last moment, mere micro-seconds before Claws' giant club splintered the window frame, Amber let out a mighty yell. One of the Artists shouted back, in reply or in anger, she could not be sure. In that instant the glass shattered, drowning out all other noise, and she gave Dal a forceful, encouraging shove towards the stairs. There was time, perhaps, for one brief glance back before she followed him, but she did not dare take the risk. She merely ran. A beaded curtain hung across the doorway that led to the steps; a frozen waterfall of tiny, multi-faceted crystals, such as she had once longed to have across her own bedroom door. They blew apart at her contact, crashing against the walls in a wild crescendo of tinkling metal and plastic. Claws added his own noise to the cacophony, yelling an indecipherable threat that was lost in the hammering echoes of Amber's feet as they clattered up the stairs. She heard Dal just behind her, and groped back for his hand. He caught hers, clinging grimly on, and she heard him gasp something in a strangled yelp. She suspected that it had been a question about the likely fate of the stranger on the street, but she couldn't be sure. She ignored the words anyway, unwilling to waste breath on answering them.

"Get back here!" The rage in the voice of Claws was all too obvious. Dal felt his heart give a leap. He almost fell when the stairs came to an end, and they reached level ground - a corridor, where open doorways led to empty rooms. None of them looked as though they had roof access, and there was certainly no time to look. They ran on, skidding to a halt in the end before a stout-looking wooden door. He glanced back then, just as he and Amber reached it. Pursuit was close behind, in the shape of two sequinned Artists, one of whom was Claws. His long metal fingernails were outstretched in menacing impatience, and his eyes gleamed with fury. Amber fumbled with the door knob.

"Get a move on Amber!" Dal's voice almost cracked with worry. They were cut off from the other rooms now, and the roof, if that was indeed where this final door led, was the only escape route remaining open to them.

"I'm trying!" There was a rusted key in the lock, and she twisted it with all her might, struggling to break it free from the lock that gripped it so tightly. It seemed as though the key would break before it would turn, but turn it did in the end. Exhausted, she gave the door a final shove and it swung open, sending her stumbling forwards and out into moist, cold air. She yanked Dal through after her, and together they slammed the door shut. Claws crashed against it barely a second later, setting the wooden frame jostling and jolting in a mad rush to be free. Amber forced the key back into the lock, and Dal helped her to turn it, barring the way.

"That won't hold them forever." Dal turned away from the door, looking about at the balcony on which they now stood. It was empty, save for a single plant pot, where a gathering of ornamental cactuses grew on without need of human assistance. A flight of plain stone steps led upwards to the roof, and they hurried up them quickly.

"So far so good." Amber looked left and right as they reached the roof, trying to size the space up. It was roughly square in shape, edged with a raised wall; and just as they had assumed, it was joined to the roof of the next building in the row. Together they ran, jumping over the low wall, racing over the next roof and the next. Only when they had travelled some way did they slow to a halt. Amber went cautiously to the edge of the roof and peered over. She could see nobody in the street below.

"They're not following us." Dal was staring back the way they had come, but could see no sign of the Artists. "I wonder what happened."

"Are you complaining?" Amber sat down on the wall running around the edge of the rooftop. "Maybe they went after that other guy instead?"

"Maybe." Dal frowned, clearly feeling guilty. "Do you think we should--"

"No." Amber turned her back on him, obviously feeling just as guilty herself. "He's on his own, just like we all are. I'm sorry Dal. Really."

"I know." He joined her on the wall, gazing down at the drab streets below. Despite the apparent peace and silence, neither of the pair felt in any way relieved or relaxed. They were far from safe yet. Pursuit, as they well knew from experience, could return again at any moment. "Do you think it's safe to go down yet?"

"Probably." She shrugged, offering him a typically blithe smile. "Or probably not. Maybe we should stay up here for a bit."

"We should try to get our stuff back." Dal headed towards a door that seemed to lead into whatever building they now stood upon. Amber shook her head.

"They could be waiting for us down there, Dal. It's obvious where we were heading, and they didn't look like the kind of people just to let us go. It's not safe."

"It's no safer sitting up here waiting for them to come and get us. They might have given up, and we won't know until we get down there and look." He gave the doorknob a quick rattle, and was surprised to find that the door opened easily. Amber sighed.

"I hate to admit it, but you're probably right. We should at least try to make a getaway. Sitting up here isn't going to do us a whole lot of good."

"Come on then." He set the cap more firmly upon his head, and offered her one of his charmingly innocent grins. "If we run into trouble, I'll protect you."

"I never doubted it for a moment." She joined him in the doorway, and looked down a long, dark flight of stairs. "I just hope there are no more weird tribes hiding away down there."

"They can't be weirder than the Artists." He took her hand. "Come on. We still have some food to find."

"Just point me at the nearest gourmet restaurant." She began to lead the way down the stairs, wishing that she could shake off the feeling of foreboding already beginning to take over her mind. The disappearance of their Artist pursuers was worrying her deeply, and the knowledge that anything could be waiting for her at the foot of the stairs did nothing at all to lessen her unease. Dal was right though, and they couldn't stay on the roof any longer. There was no point. If something was waiting for them down on the ground, it was far better to go to face it. She tried not to think of the furious expression on the face of Claws as he had chased them up the stairs. He had acted like a maniac, and she did not doubt for a moment that that was exactly what he was. With each step down the flight of stairs, she gave thanks that she had escaped him - and hoped and prayed that her thanks were not premature.

Bray was not feeling particularly hopeful as he approached the post office. He could see from the front of the building that looters had already taken anything of use from the little store. There might be stamps left, and probably money in the tills - but none of that was of use anymore. He smiled to himself, recalling the early days of almost irresistible temptation at the sight of so much money just begging to be taken. There was nobody to give it to, though, and nothing to make it worth the paper it was printed on. It was just another relic without value, like the old foreign currencies his grandfather had used to collect.

He spotted the security measures on the door of the video shop right away, and headed immediately for the quieter back street, where he could attempt to watch the place in secrecy. Unknown tribes were always a risk, but far fewer of them were as dangerous as most people thought. He had things with him that he could use for trade, and was already beginning to make new acquaintances in this new sector of the city. People would trade food or tools or batteries; and thanks to his recent discovery of a large box of batteries in the cellar of an empty warehouse, he was now a very rich man. Such a stash should last him a month or two, if he used them carefully. He eyed the secured video store with a calculating eye. Why so many security measures if the gang was not dangerous? If they were a threat, surely they would not need to keep themselves so safe? It suggested that they were younger children, or merely unskilled as fighters. Perhaps they were badly equipped for battle, or had suffered in previous skirmishes. There were many possible reasons, for there were many different tribes - pacifists, those who were deeply religious, philosophers, scholars, craftsmen, engineers, scientists and electricians - all who tended to avoid conflict. The people in the video store could quite easily belong to any of those groups, and therefore be the likely type to engage in some harmless trade. He would even quite enjoy it, he decided, for he had spoken to nobody save Trudy that day, and wanted to find out more about the local area. As much as anything, he wanted to find out exactly to what degree the sector had been affected by the war between the Locusts and the Demon Dogs. He needed to know how safe he and his companion were likely to be, as they travelled on across this section of the city.

He decided quickly, for in the end there was nothing really to decide at all. Skirting the useless post office, with its discouraging cobwebs and depressing lack of contents, he headed towards the video store. Posters hung in the windows, and adverts told him, in full colour, of the delights of a string of films that he had never heard of. He smiled to himself, thinking of evenings spent watching films, usually with Martin sitting beside him. Evenings staying up late when their parents were out, with him placed in nominal charge, arguing over which cassettes to rent out. He tried to see through the window closest to him, but it was too dusty, and there were too many spidering cracks that spread their way across the glass. Everything was split up and distorted, and he turned aside.

There was plenty else to look at, besides the elusive contents of the store. He stared up at the gabled roof, looking towards the dead and rotting flowers in their hanging baskets, and the overflowing drainpipes that were likely filled to brimming with birds' nests. Certainly there was nothing there to suggest that the inhabitants of the store were carpenters or plumbers. Admittedly such people were rare amongst the city's youthful inhabitants, but they did exist. He abandoned any thoughts that they might belong to one of the religious tribes as well, for such people tended to believe very strongly in cleanliness. There was certainly no evidence of that here.

There were two pairs of roller-skates lying near to the store. He bent to glance at them, conscious all the time of a strange feeling that he was being watched. There were no tribal markings on the skates, and none of the modifications used by the Demon Dogs - no scratches on the wheels, either, which meant that they couldn't belong to any Locos. Locos marked off the number of battles they had fought by way of tiny scratch marks; and there were no Locos without any such scratches. That was one potential threat ruled out at least. There were plenty of others that remained, however, and he was acutely aware of the most obvious. Somebody must have left these bits and pieces by the side of the road, and if so, who were they? More to the point, where were they now, and what had happened to make them leave such priceless items behind?

At a loss as to what else to do, he tossed the by now thoroughly inspected roller-skate to one side, gave the remaining three a cursory glance, and turned his attention instead to the bags that were lying nearby. There were two of them - a rucksack, such as might be used by a schoolchild carrying books to and from school, and a more adult looking canvas affair, roughly similar in style and shape to his own bag. It had a long, adjustable strap, and a series of badges pinned to one side. His eyes trailed across them, unbidden, but driven by a curiosity that was vaguely morbid. There was one for a school debating society - he didn't recognise the name of the school - another for an after school gymnastics club, and a third for a youth championship ice-skating win. There was a fourth, too; more obscure than the others, and marked with an odd looking coat-of-arms. A House, apparently, as he saw when he looked a little closer. Probably the sort of internal school affair, such as there had been at his own school. He had a quick glance through the contents of the bag, but the two blankets did not interest him, and there did not appear to be anything else of value. Nothing that he needed at any rate; and he had a distinct aversion to stealing when the owners of an object might very well still be alive. It would have been a different matter had they been Locos, or Demon Dogs, or members of the bizarre Tribe Circus. These few possessions did not suggest any such allegiances, and he couldn't help feeling that the owners might return soon. He stood up.

The video store drew his attention as he turned his back on Dal and Amber's few waiting possessions. Perhaps there had been a movement inside, beyond the glass? Anxious to see closer, he wandered back towards the building. There was a broken window not far ahead, but he rather balked at the idea of peering inside a possibly inhabited building in such brazen fashion. There were too many risks; too many possible outcomes. He didn't think much of being hit with a barrage of weaponry from some well-defended enclave. Instinctively he glanced up, his mind drawn inescapably by thoughts of boiling oil and stones raining from high-up guard posts. He could see nothing, but he kept to the shadows nonetheless, ready to leap aside at a second's notice. He chose the least dirty and cracked of the windows this time, and tried to peer through. Indistinct shapes swirled on the other side, and he froze. There was somebody inside - more than one somebody by the look of things - and all, he was quite sure, were watching him. He took a step back.

He heard the yell from inside quite distinctly, although he was never entirely sure what had caused it. It had sounded female, but not like the females that he was later to discover as members of the Artist tribe. He recognised the alarm in the call - the warning inherent in it - and dodged aside just as the window beside him exploded outward in a rush of glass and wood. A mighty club swung through the air bare inches from the top of his head, and he crashed to the ground in a heap. Several dustbin lids flew up as he landed amongst them, and they rained down upon him with a sound like raging thunder. He was on his feet again in an instant.

"They're getting away!" The shout from inside the building was one of pure rage, and he heard what sounded like feet pounding on some hard surface. He hesitated, his mind working things out - prisoners, seeking to escape; his own arrival the perfect distraction. Since it had undoubtedly been the actions of those very prisoners who had given him the warning he needed to avoid that deadly club, he felt rather sympathetic towards them. Given the heavy locks on the front door of the building, not to mention the boarded up windows, only the roof could offer any kind of escape route, and they would be trapped there like rats now. Trapped unless he did something about it. He told himself not to be so foolish, and to make his own getaway while he still could - and yet something kept him riveted to the spot. He glanced up again, almost as if he could see the prisoners dashing up endless flights of stairs in a mad rush for safety before they were recaptured. He knew that feeling too well himself - of running desperately, with no apparent chance of salvation; of making a last ditch bid for freedom in the face of overwhelming odds. He had been the rat in too many traps; but by now he also knew just how many of those traps had secret, hidden doors, that only needed to be found.

"Hey!" Putting as much force as he could into the yell, he went back to the broken window, using his skateboard to break off the sharp stalactites of glass that threatened him from above. There were people clearly visible inside the store now - five that he could see; four male and one female, and all dressed in black. They turned to look at him, caught in apparent indecision between the window and a flight of stairs. Bray scrambled through the window, trying to avoid catching himself on the few bits of glass that remained. Should have worn my coat, he berated himself as he climbed. He had no real regrets, though, in having left it behind for Trudy. She needed all of the comfort she could get - particularly if this latest venture meant that he wouldn't be returning to her in a hurry.

"Who are you?" One of the black-clad group; a tall, thin young man in his late teens, with shoulder length cascades of silky black hair, stepped forward. Sequins flashed and shone on his clothes as he moved. Bray blinked.

"My name is Bray." He threw aside his skateboard and bag. "I'm second-in-command of the Locos, and I want to know what's going on here. Don't you know that this whole section has been commandeered by Zoot? He gave orders that all of these buildings be evacuated, and left empty for the use of his own troops. Why are you still here?"

"The Locos?" The tall boy with all of the hair looked him up and down with clear suspicion. "You don't look much like a Loco."

"Neither would you if the streets were full of Demon Dogs and their sympathisers. They're always looking for a lone Locust to tear apart." Bray let his calm, dark eyes linger across the little group. "Now who are you, and where are the rest of you? I heard somebody go up those steps."

"Just two of our number." The only female member of the group present sounded defiant, but with just enough respect to keep from burning her bridges if it turned out that he really was a Loco. "They went after a couple of prisoners."

"Two of them? Came here a little while ago?"

"A boy and a girl." The boy with the long hair was frowning. "Why?"

"They're allies of mine. Guides, since I'm unfamiliar with this area. If anything happens to them, your entire tribe will pay for it, so I'd suggest that you get your friends back down here now. I'm going to need to talk to all of you."

"Now listen here--" Another of the group started forward, but his long-haired associate held him back.

"Not now, Jacob." His words were calm but his eyes were not, and Bray knew that this one was trouble. "If he is who he says he is, we want him on our side. The Locos could be handy against Tribe Circus, and the others who have been causing trouble lately. If he's lying, we'll deal with him later, but for now just stand down."

"Thank you." The long-haired and sequinned youth was not the most frightful-looking opponent that Bray had ever faced, but it did seem that he might be one of the more dangerous ones. Bray smiled at him politely, trying to look self-assured and powerful, whilst also maintaining some level of courtesy and respect. The Locos were not above flattery when they encountered strong tribes, and even though it was doubtful that they would extend such courtesy to this clearly limited enclave, he was politician enough to pretend otherwise right now. Flattery cost nothing, and anything that helped him to stay alive was definitely worth all the bother. It seemed to be working, for the tall boy with the long hair preened visibly.

"I'm Jet." He moved like a man who fancied himself; a real Narcissus, to Bray's way of thinking. Certainly his clothing seemed to be designed and arranged in the manner best suited to show off his body - what there was of it to show. He was the skinny sort, with little muscle, and did not look like the kind most likely to attract women. He appeared to be parading himself before his guest, though, so maybe it was men that he was after. Maybe he just wasn't fussy. Bray met his smile and firm handshake, and tried to look like the military man he was now supposed to be.

"I'm pleased to meet you. I'm sure that I've heard of you actually. Didn't you fight Tribe Circus just a little while ago?" It was a shot in the dark, based on nothing more than a mention already made of the odd tribe. Clearly he had struck a nerve, however, for Jet's preening increased.

"We did have a skirmish of sorts, yes. I'm surprised that you heard about it, but then I suppose it did have some quite far reaching effects..."

Yes, Bray thought, with more than a touch of irony. It's obviously the reason why you have so few people left in your tribe. Somehow he got the feeling, from the size of the building if nothing else, that there were supposed to be more people about. The others had undoubtedly been carried off by Tribe Circus. He didn't like to think about what might have happened to them, for the Circus were not known for their mercy. Instead of letting his feelings show, he brightened his smile.

"Any fight against Tribe Circus is a strike in favour of the Locos. Tribe Circus might not be as great a threat as the Demon Dogs, but they're trying to build up a power base. We plan to deal with them before that happens."

"And we'd be happy to help the Locos achieve that." Jet put a slight emphasis on the word 'Locos', as though hinting that he still suspected Bray himself to be unconnected with that particular tribe. Bray could hardly blame him. It was almost a relief to know that he didn't look all that much like a mad marauder of suspiciously psychotic bent.

"Good." Ignoring the heavy threats that still filled the air, he turned his back on the group, and looked instead towards the stairs. Somebody had passed up the message, and the two members of the tribe who had chased the erstwhile prisoners up onto the roof were now returning down the filthy staircase. Bray raised questioning eyebrows, and the lone female present waved an arm towards the pair.

"These are Claws and Slicer." She indicated each one with a particular wave. Bray nodded, trying not to show any sign of the disheartening effect of the names. Any tribe containing people who had chosen names like that did not suggest itself to be the more enlightened and friendly sort. He began to wish that he had just made a run for it, instead of lingering to help the escape of two people he would probably never meet.

"I'm Bray." He stepped forwards, but made no offer to shake hands. Clearly no such offer had been expected. "I'm second-in-command of the Locos, and as I've been saying to your comrades here, we're moving in. If you can demonstrate your loyalty to my tribe, you'll be allowed to remain here, in your home, at least for the time being. Zoot is planning to move a head of operations unit into the vicinity though, so you'll be expected to co-operate at all times."

"If we can fight Tribe Circus, and if you'll help us to do that, we'll consider meeting your terms." Jet folded his arms, looking increasingly threatening now that his two companions had returned. Bray got the impression that they made up quite a trio together, and worked very effectively as a unit. He decided that he didn't want to see their skills demonstrated.

"Of course you can fight Tribe Circus. In fact we insist on it. Now let's see..." He made a show of racking his brains. "You're... what tribe exactly?"

"We're the Artists." Claws sounded vaguely affronted, and Bray moved quickly to ease his damaged pride.

"Yes of course. Silly of me, but I'm terrible with names. Fighting is more my line, as I'm sure you'll understand." There were a few agreeable nods, and he began to breathe a little more easily. "The Artists, of course. You're down for a contribution to the Locos' food supplies. Not much, since you're not the largest of tribes. Shall we say... six food tins, and three bottles of water?"

"We can supply more than that, if it's to the Locos." Jet clicked his fingers, and a second female figure melted out of the shadows behind the till counter. She was small and blonde, her clothing festooned in sequins of the same shade of green as her eyes. On red stiletto heels at least six inches high she sashayed over towards Jet, and draped an arm clad in black material that was almost see-through across the shoulders of her commander in chief. Jet smiled at her.

"Twelve cans from the food stores, Honey." Somehow he made it sound more like a name than a term of endearment. "And six bottles of water. Bring out some of those cans of beer too. We have a deal to cement."

"We do?" Bray made no comment about the increase on his food demands, and merely concentrated on trying to think of a way to walk out of this without getting himself in too deep. So far it was looking as though his brave gamble was going to more than pay off. If he could only keep up the pretence then his wild stab at helping out a pair of strangers would see both himself and Trudy well fed for quite some time. Long enough, hopefully, to get them across this sector and away from the likely repercussions once the Artists found out that he was anything but the Locos' second-in-command.

"Sure we do." Jet was leading the way to the counter, heading through the door that stood behind it. Honey was still draped around his neck, her sparkling red stilettos making hard, sharp clicking sounds on the uncarpeted floor. The shoes were the only coloured item in the whole Artist wardrobe, at least as far as Bray could tell, and they stood out brightly against the sequinned black of the rest of Honey's clothing, drawing attention to the diamond studded anklet that she wore around her left leg. He had no doubt that the diamonds were real. They all were these days, when nobody needed money anymore in order to obtain them. All that you needed was to be the first to find somebody's jewellery box, in one of the many abandoned houses all over the city.

"This way." There was something insistent in Slicer's voice, emphasised by a slight pressure on Bray's arm. He went along with the little group, allowing them to herd him into the back room. He didn't really have much choice.

"Nice place you have here." It was dimly lit, and the only furniture besides a large wooden desk and a filing cabinet appeared to be boxes of food stores. Honey was already rummaging for the food that had been ordered, and she made a small pile of it in the middle of the floor. Bray saw tins of potatoes, tins of carrots; tins of beans - a veritable feast in a world of scraps and scavengings. He hid his hungry look however, for a Loco would not be expected to look impressed by such a hoard. The Locos had more food than anybody, and were amongst the few left in the vicinity of the city who had the labour force to grow more of it, to increase their supply. Jet was smiling again.

"Think you can carry it all?" His eyes were on Bray's bag, lingering, clearly inquisitive. Bray smiled back.

"I'll find a way. Zoot will be pleased to see this. It's a good sign of your support."

"I hope to show him my support personally some day. Is there any chance that I'll get to meet him?"

"If you stay around here I'd say that it's inevitable." Bray managed to keep the bitterness from his voice. Certainly it seemed likely enough that his brother would come here eventually, bringing his troops to spread his code of power and chaos, enslaving the locals and taking everything that they could steal. The Artists would find out soon enough that Tribe Circus, for all their mad and ruthless ways, were not the greatest threat to face the city. There were any number of others more serious. Jet, however, was smiling even more broadly than before.

"Excellent!" He sounded like a kid, being told that he could have his favourite toy for Christmas. "Honey - the beer."

"Sure." Her voice was soft and breathy, and almost certainly put on. She couldn't have been any older than fourteen - probably even younger than Trudy. Much of her youth was disguised by layers of make-up, arranged to look like a cross between the familiar tribal markings, and the painted look of a lady of the night. It couldn't disguise the hopeless lost innocence in her green eyes, though; or the still childish shape of her body. She vanished behind a tower of piled wooden crates, most stencilled with tempting suggestions of their contents - spaghetti, cheese and plum tomatoes; chocolate, corned beef and powdered milk. When she emerged it was not food that she carried, but a crate of beer bottles. She put it on the floor, then wandered off into a corner of the room. Bray followed her with his eyes. There was something wrong with her, he was sure. She looked like one of the many who could not cope with life in the new world; and her face, beneath the thick make-up, had the familiar marks of a drug addict. He suspected that it was alcohol that she was addicted to, rather than anything illegal; but the effects were the same. Now that she was sitting down, and was no longer trying to keep up a façade for Jet's benefit, he could see that her hands were shaking. It was faint, but nonetheless still noticeable.

"Here." Opening one of the bottles with the blade of a worryingly long knife, Jet handed it across. Bray accepted it, wondering how much of the stuff the Artists got through. If beer was in such a plentiful supply for them, it was no surprise that alcoholism was a problem for at least one of their number. It was hard to feel much sympathy for this strange bunch, though, with their violent talk and their demonstrative names. He raised the beer in a kind of salute.

"Cheers." It tasted warm and creamy, and he felt it fizzing lightly against his tongue. There was a vaguely bitter aftertaste, but he decided that he could grow to like it quite a lot. He had not often drunk beer in the old days, although he had had wine occasionally. Neither of his parents had drunk very much, and there had never been much in that line in the house. He wondered what had happened to the contents of all the pubs and the off-licences - how many kids had wound up with alcohol poisoning or worse. Just another thing to think about - just another thought that he didn't need. He drank more beer, and decided that he could grow to like that warm feeling; that sensation of relaxation and lightening burdens. He glanced at the label, and wondered if nine percent was strong. It sounded as if it probably was, but he didn't want to show that he was feeling the effects.

"So." Leaning back against a crate that, according to its fading stencilled label, contained tins of orange Seville marmalade, Jet folded his arms and swung the beer bottle by its neck between his fingertips. "The Locos."

"What about them?" Bray could feel himself relaxing even more, and wondered for the first time if accepting a drink had really been such a good idea. It struck him that innocent little Honey, with her big eyes and shaking hands, might not really be innocent at all. She had had the opportunity to slip anything into the beer whilst she had been out of sight behind the stacks of crates. He had had no chance, after all, to see if the lid had been tampered with.

"Are they as powerful as we keep hearing? Word is they have at least two sectors of the city under their command, and they're fighting with the Demon Dogs for control of another two."

"Strong enough to take the city one day." Bray thought about Martin, and his mad desire to build a new world for himself in the looted and burnt out ruins of the old city. How long would one city contain his young brother, before he decided to strike out further afield? How long before the next city fell, and the next? Before the whole country began to worship power and chaos under the watchful eye of young Zoot? Somehow he seemed to care a good deal less than he had before, and he stole another glance at the beer. It really was rather strong. He smiled. "Have you heard about the way that they handled the Bears?"

"Bears?" Jet looked politely interested. Bray found himself warming to his subject, and wondered if, somewhere deep inside, he might actually be proud of his younger brother's achievements. He nodded.

"The Bears. One of the older, bigger tribes. They tried to challenge the Locos back in the early days, at the beginning of the Lonely Time. A few got away, probably joined with other tribes." He glanced up, distracted momentarily as somebody took away his empty bottle and replaced it with a full one. "The rest wound up dead or on the Locos' work force. Zoot has a lot of slaves working for him." It was a struggle to remember to keep the distaste from his voice. Proud. He had to concentrate on being proud. The Locos were supposed to be his tribe, after all. Jet was still smiling.

"Then we'll have to make sure that we don't go the same way as the Bears." He reached out, taking the bag that Bray had put down on the floor. Bray found himself frowning at the movement, but he made no attempt to stop it. Instead he drank some more beer, and wondered if this bottle was even stronger still. The slightly bitter aftertaste was more apparent, certainly. It was hard to keep his eyes concentrated on Jet, as the taller boy began to rummage through his bag.

"I expected more weapons on a Loco." Jet held up the Swiss Army knife. Bray shrugged.

"I told you. I was travelling..." He broke off, not sure that he could get his tongue around 'incognito'. He settled instead for 'under cover'. "I didn't want anybody to know that I'm a Loco. Not when I'm alone, and there are so many Demon Dogs around." In actual fact he had seen none in some days, and even then they had been heading in the opposite direction - but he was not about to tell that to Jet.

"Of course." Jet was still smiling, almost hypnotically. "And you're alone?"

"No... I mean..." He frowned, and shook his head. It didn't help to clear it, but it did seem to focus his mind more. He stared at the bottle in his hand. Imagination made him certain that he could see a cloudy substance inside it, mingling with the beer. A bitter substance that clouded his mind and stole his concentration. He looked back up at Jet.

"What is this stuff?" He gave the bottle a demonstrative shake. Jet shrugged.

"Beer, man. Just beer. You were saying? About being alone?"

"I was saying that I'm alone. All except for the Locos of course. They're not far away, and their leader is a close friend of mine."

"Then we won't hurt you." Jet rose to his feet, then nodded to Claws and Slicer. They rose to their feet as one, muscles rippling beneath tight black satin. Claws flashed the metal talons that gave him his name, spreading his fingers out wide so that each sharp tip was displayed to its best advantage. Jet gave his head a sharp jerk, indicating towards the main shop floor. Bray's eyes narrowed as the two departed, but he made no comment. It was rather obvious that the unpleasant duo had been sent in search of the two escaped prisoners of earlier. He hoped that his distractions had given them long enough to get away, and wondered why he still cared. It didn't do to care too much for strangers these days.

"What happens now?" He put the beer bottle down, not intending to drink any more of it now that he had realised what was going on. Jet was still smiling at him, his eyes shining almost as much as his sequins.

"We have a contact with the Locos. He's called Spike, and he's part of an advance group making inroads into this area." His smile twitched. "Of course you'd know about all of that already."

"Of course." Bray smiled through his confusion. He knew Spike well enough - but unfortunately Spike knew him as well. The gangling Loco was one of Ebony's band; a unit within the main tribe who specialised in particularly heavy-handed bully boy tactics. "He was sent in advance to persuade the locals to support our side in the war, instead of the Demon Dogs. I was sent out to do much the same job, but from a different angle."

"Then you'll be happy to see him when he comes tomorrow." Jet rose to his feet, beginning to pack the promised stores into Bray's bag. "When he confirms your story you can take this lot and go. If he doesn't confirm it... things will be a little less friendly."

"I see." Bray thought back to his triumphant feeling of earlier, when he had been so sure of his own success. So much for gallantry. Maybe next time he would think twice before stopping to help someone. Better still, he wouldn't even do that much. "You do realise that, when he does confirm my story, you'll have lost any chance to support the Locusts? You'll be treated as enemies, and incorporated into our workforce."

"Maybe." Jet snapped his fingers, and the rest of his tribe climbed to their feet and headed for the door. Bray rose to follow them, but found his legs unwilling to co-operate. He sank back against the nearest pile of crates. "And maybe we'd rather work with the Demon Dogs anyway. We have our contacts with them too, and their side of things is just as interesting as that of the Locos. There's no telling who's going to win this little war."

"Little war?" Bray leant back against the crates, wishing that his sight was not quite so blurred. It hadn't been so bad before, when he was still sitting on the ground. He slid back down again, in an attempt to recapture that tenuous equilibrium. "You don't understand. You can't play off the Locos against the Demon Dogs. It doesn't work that way. If one of them doesn't destroy you the other will. You think that you're smart, and I guess you are - but you can't beat the Locos."

"Maybe." Jet paused in the doorway, waiting for his companions to leave the room. "We'll talk it all through later, with your colleague Spike. Maybe then we can come to some sort of arrangement."

"Yeah." Bray relaxed back on the floor, trying to force his head to stop spinning. "Great." Jet smiled again; an expression that had long since ceased to be welcoming, and was now merely tiresome.

"You'd better rest." He stepped through the doorway, and paused on the other side. "You'll need it, whether or not you're telling the truth. I'll speak to you again in the morning."

"No - wait--" Bray half rose again, but the door slammed shut before the sentence could really begin. He slid back down onto the ground, closing his eyes. Great. Just great. So much for hurrying back to Trudy. He wondered how long she would wait for him in that half-burnt building, and hoped that she did not have to wait for long. Next time, he told himself, with cold resolution; next time I'll just walk on by. Right now though, as he knew only too well, he had to face up to the fact that there might never be a next time. Once Spike laid eyes on him, it could very well be the end of everything.

Amber and Dal returned to the alleyway slowly, anxious to recover their belongings, but not at all anxious for another meeting with Claws. There was no sign of him, nor of his sparkling associates, and the video store appeared to be empty. It was impossible to tell whether there was anybody in the back room behind the counter, and Amber noticed Dal's eyes lingering upon the more recently broken window. It looked as if he was trying to see inside the back room, and she could well imagine why.

"Dal..." She handed him his rucksack and roller-skates, forcibly pressing him towards the main road. "We can't afford to stand here and wonder."

"I know." He did not remove his eyes from their current fixed point, and she had to shove him hard to finally cause him to move.

"He's not our problem, Dal. We can't let him be."

"I know." The soft repetition of his previous answer stung her ears. "But what if he's in there, and we've got away and he hasn't? What if they kill him, or sell him, like they were going to sell us?"

"I know." This time it was her turn to repeat the sad little phrase. She turned away from him though, refusing to be dragged into the situation, and headed for the end of the alleyway. She didn't look back. Dal hesitated for a few moments, then ran to catch her up.

"Do you think you'll be able to sleep tonight, Amber?" His voice wasn't accusing, for the soft spoken, gentle Dal could never sound that way, and she knew that nothing could cause him to think badly of her. She stared at the ground, swinging her roller-skates over her shoulder and trying to find forgiveness in the cracked tarmac beneath her feet.

"No." The word burst out of her as though a dam in her mouth had suddenly broken, breaking across her lips like a hopeless, bitter torrent. "No, I don't think that I'm going to be able to sleep tonight - and maybe not tomorrow night either. But eventually, when I'm too tired to carry on walking, and to carry on sitting up awake every night - then I will be able to sleep. And then - then it'll all be alright again, won't it. It's not the first time that I've had to turn my back on somebody that I should have helped, Dal. It's not the first time for either of us. Sometimes you just have to survive."

"Yeah." He spoke even more softly than before, as though he didn't want to hear his own acceptance. Slowly he slipped into his backpack, and settled it across his shoulders. Amber smiled at him.

"I'm sorry Dal. I'm sorry that I can't get you out of the city, to somewhere when you don't have to see all of this every day."

"We'll get there." His faith was touching, and as usual it spurred her on.

"Yeah. We'll get there. A nice place in the countryside, with lots of space to grow vegetables." She smiled. "But not carrots."

"You and your carrots." He took the lead, striding ahead of her on his much shorter legs. She hurried after him.

"We still need to find some food."

"And somewhere to spend tonight." He looked about, still expecting to see the Artists coming for them. There was no sign of anyone.

"We'll find somewhere."

"Yeah." He glanced back over his shoulder, the direction of his thoughts very clear. "I suppose we will." He sighed. "Come on. Race you to the end of the street."

"Yeah, sure." She sounded scathing, but she broke into a run nonetheless, easily taking the lead. He protested loudly, quickening his own step, racing after her in a stumbling run that nearly caused him to overbalance. She laughed, turning around to watch him, easily keeping up her own pace as she ran backwards. Dal laughed at her, convinced that she was about to fall over - but she didn't. She kept her lead too, even pulling ahead.

"It's not fair!" Dal was falling further back, still unable to catch her. "You've got longer legs!"

"It's not my fault you're so small." She saw his expression change, and wondered for a moment if she might have offended him - only to see that his face now registered, not upset, but sudden horror. Premonitions raced through her mind and she whirled around - only to run headlong into the waiting arms of Claws. His metal-tipped fingers encircled her arms, and his strong muscles gripped her too tightly for her to resist.

"Dal! Run!" Her words, bravely shouted, were stolen by the heavy hand that was thrown across her mouth. She could hardly breathe, and it seemed as if some heavy weight had been thrown about her shoulders and chest. She felt her feet leave the ground.

"Amber!" Instead of running away; instead of escaping as he should have done - as she had known that he would not do - he ran towards her. She saw the Artists converging on him before he did; saw two of them rushing in to the attack before he had any chance of dodging aside. They caught him in mid-stride, nearly going down into a heap, but managing to stay upright only by chance. Dal fought furiously, but even one assailant would have been too much for him, and two of them easily bore him to the ground. Amber saw him as he was viciously restrained, watching helplessly as his attackers tore away the rucksack and tied his arms behind him. Claws laughed in her ear.

"Still planning on getting away?" He threw her up against the nearest wall, and she struck it with violent force. Before she could recover he had hurled her bag aside, sending her roller-skates clattering into the street. She felt him force her hands behind her back, but she was not strong enough to resist him. His sharp claws grazed her wrists, and the sudden bite of rope drew blood from the already damaged skin. The sharp pain subsided in a second, but her fear and anger did not. Her breath shook in her lungs.

"Come on." He pushed her ahead of him, gesturing to one of Dal's two attackers to collect up the fallen bags and skates. He did so, loading himself down with their possessions. All three Artists were grinning widely, and Amber felt her stomach lurch.

"Are you alright Dal?" She knew that he would answer in the affirmative anyway, but she wanted to hear him say it. At least if he could speak, he was still in reasonably good condition. He gave her no verbal answer, though, and instead merely smiled a wan smile; a curve of tired lips from within an unnaturally pale face. Claws shoved him hard.

"Get moving." Dal stumbled, but did not fall. Amber drew alongside him, determined that they were going to stay together. It struck her that she was probably about to find out what had happened to the stranger that she had failed to assist. Perhaps this was poetic justice. Her shoulders slumped. It wasn't fair. All that she wanted was to make it out of the city, but the city, it seemed, was not prepared to let her go. Up ahead the video store loomed, its barred and bolted front door open wide. The rest of the Artists stood in the doorway, watching the approaching procession with obvious relish. Doom seemed heavy in the air, and her legs felt unpleasantly heavy. Aware of Dal's growing fear, she felt herself beginning to founder. She no longer seemed to have the strength to fight back. As they grew nearer and nearer to the ominous crowd at the store, the full weight of her helplessness began to descend. The whole of the world blurred into disjointed colours, and she felt herself beginning to shake. Something inside her gave way - and for the first time since the death of her parents, she knew that she wanted to cry.

They could hear somebody being interrogated in the room next door. The voices were not clear enough to discern any words, but they could recognise the angry sounds of Claws, and the simple, steady voice of whoever was his victim. It seemed fairly likely that it was the stranger outside the window - as they had come to think of him - being questioned; although the reason why seemed unfathomable. The sound of heavy blows came clearly through the thick walls, echoing faintly in the stone corridors that lay beneath the video store. The complex had surprised them at first with its size, but they had soon ceased to care. It was the perfect place for a hideout, secure enough under the ground, conveniently hard to escape from, and large enough for a sizeable tribe. There were fifteen Artists in all, they had discovered; eleven boys and four girls; all ranging from around thirteen to eighteen, and all dressed in sequinned black. Aside from facial make-up, the only splash of colour in the whole tribe came from the stiletto heels of a young blonde girl. Amber had not heard the girl's name, but she seemed to be an item with the tribe leader.

"Just tell us where she is!" The sentence, shouted more loudly than the rest of the conversation on the other side of the wall, came clearly through the stone barriers. There was clearly no satisfactory answer, for the question was followed by the sound of another thump. This time there was no follow up question. A horrible silence reigned, worse than the sounds of the interrogation, with all that it suggested. Dal's eyes widened, and Amber could see his thoughts written clearly on his face - That might be us next. She didn't want to think about. After all, what could they possibly know that the Artists would want them to tell? But then, for that matter, what was it that they suspected their other prisoner to know? Footsteps echoed in the corridor, and she braced herself, but nobody came to open the door of their cell. Dal slumped back against the wall in relief, but she could tell that he was not relaxed yet. There was still a chance that something else might happen.

"What do you think?" Now in the corridor right outside their cell, the voices of the Artists were very easy to discern. There was a pause.

"What do you mean?" A loud voice, forceful and unfriendly, came in answer. "I told you, he's no Loco. That guy's been causing us trouble for ages, but for some reason Zoot won't have him killed. There have been plenty of opportunities, but he won't take them. It's like he knows the guy or something. Likes him maybe. Hates him too, though."

"So do you want him killed?"

"No, not yet. I ought to check." Whoever was speaking, Amber got the feeling that they were not the type to act on their own initiative. There was the distinct hint of somebody out of their depth, but struggling to hide the fact. "Maybe Zoot's saving him for something. At the very least we ought to find out where the girl is before we kill him."

"Do you think that Zoot would pay us if we found her for him?" Amber thought that she recognised the voice as that of Jet, the Artists' narcissistic leader. A grunt answered him.

"I reckon he'll pay you for both of them. Got to be worth some extra food. Maybe even some weapons."


"Maybe - for both of them perhaps. You think you can get him to talk?"

"Maybe." Jet was obviously hedging his bets. "If he's not with you though, does that mean that he's with the Demon Dogs?"

"Are you kidding?" The voice that came in response was derogatory, and filled with sarcasm. "They hate him just as much as we do. He'd no more join them than they'd join the Christian Cadets in the west sector."

"Demon Dogs?" In the little stone cell, Dal's voice was a delicate whisper. He and Amber had had a run-in with the feared Dogs several weeks before, and it had not been an enjoyable experience. Most of the city knew about the Dogs now - them and the equally famed Locos. Neither Amber nor Dal had met with the latter tribe yet, but the stories they had heard left them in no doubt as to the strength and mercilessness of the people that their leader had gathered around him. "Are we caught up in the middle of the war?"

"I don't think so. I don't think that the Artists are involved in it." Keeping her voice to a quiet hush, she crept closer to the door, hoping that she would be able to hear more of the conversation going on outside. "They want to be though. It sounds like they're trying to decide which side to come in on."

"And that guy that Jet is talking to right now is a Loco?" Dal followed her to the door, leaning near it. From the expression on his face, Amber surmised that he had no real wish to overhear what was being said, but understood that it was very likely something important. "Who do you suppose it is that they were interrogating?"

"Probably the person we saw through the window when we were in the video store earlier." Amber frowned, unable to catch the few lines of conversation currently underway. It sounded like something about a baby, and a girl who was somebody important, but she wasn't sure. Somehow it didn't seem at all likely that the Locos would be looking for a baby. They were certainly not the maternal sort.

"They got lucky then. I thought he was just another kid." Dal was frowning in concentration, clearly able to hear rather more than she could. "Why do you suppose they're looking for a baby?"

"Maybe they're not. Maybe it's the parents they're really after. They just figure a baby is the kind of thing that people are likely to have noticed."

"I suppose." He grinned, giving up on the tenuous vigil and turning away from the door. "Imagine the Locos trying to look after a baby."

"Just think about what the poor kid would grow up like." She almost shivered. Outside the door the voices had faded to an indistinguishable buzz, so she joined her companion back against the far wall. "To be honest, I don't really care about what they want the baby for. I just want to get out of here."

"Me too." He shrugged. "But how? We're tied up, and that door isn't going to be easy to get through. Plus we're underground."

"Maybe something will happen." She didn't sound as though she believed it. He smiled.

"Gee, thanks. You always know how to put me at my ease."

"I could walk out of here and leave you behind you know." She smiled back, rather amused by his sarcastic response to her hopeless platitude. "If they come in to interrogate us..."

"We won't have a chance." He finished the sentence before she could. "But if they're still planning to sell us, they'll have to feed us, right? I mean, I know slaves probably don't qualify for three course meals and room service, but they've got to give us something."

"And if they do, they'll have to untie us." She nodded. "Good point. Maybe then we can make a move."

"Any ideas what kind?"

"I'm working on it." She sat down on the floor, for once glad of the bare stone beneath her. She had spent many nights on such cold beds, but in the past they had always seemed uncomfortable. This one was underground, and was therefore at least protected from the cold wind that the skies had suggested was on its way. Maybe it was better to be locked up tonight than to be out on the street, with unseasonably bad weather fast approaching. She didn't envy anyone who was without good shelter tonight. Neither, however, did she much envy herself.

"Maybe we can make a deal." Dal sounded sleepy, which didn't surprise her. There was not much that seemed to bother her young friend; or, at the very least, he was fairly good at keeping his fears to himself. They certainly never bothered his sleep, for even on the most unnerving of nights he seemed to lie silent and undisturbed. She thought that she remembered his mother once saying that he could likely sleep through a full scale war. She smiled at that. If things carried on the way that they were going between the Locos and the Demon Dogs, they might just get a chance to test that theory. Dal noticed the smile.

"Do you have an idea?"

"Not yet, no." In truth, however, his words had planted the seeds of a plan in her head. She needed to think about it some more, to see if the seeds could be grown into something further. "Give me some time, and I'll see what I can come up with."

"We might not have much time." He was eyeing the door nervously, obviously afraid that the voices in the corridor might come closer again, and that this time their owners might come into the room. She smiled at him.

"They've got no reason to interrogate us, Dal. We don't know anything."

"We don't know that that other kid does either, do we."

"We know that the Locos and the Demon Dogs hate him, and they certainly don't hate us. They don't even know that we exist."

"I suppose." He relaxed a little, and settled down beside her. She could see that she had put his mind at ease, and was glad of that. Funny how just a few well chosen words could lighten the air. Now the only thing to worry about was whether those words were true, or were just the hopeless wishes of a girl far out of her depth. As further footsteps echoed in the corridor outside, she couldn't help thinking that she knew which would prove to be the case.

Bray stirred, wishing that he could have stayed unconscious a little longer. He didn't need to open his eyes, or to think, or to try especially hard to remember where he was or what had happened; he knew that only too well. He remembered drifting off into inescapable slumber after drinking Jet's merrily proffered beer. He had vague recollections of being carried down some steps and dumped in a cold room. After that the next thing that he remembered with any real certainty was opening his eyes to the distinctly unwelcoming vista of Spike, one of Ebony's favourites, grinning down at him from on high. As wakefulness had joltingly returned, Bray had seen the unpleasant Loco in greater and even more disagreeable detail. The black goggles around the staring eyes; the streaks of bright red face paint; the black PVC jacket and torn jeans, all topped with a greasy tumble of dark blond hair streaked with more paint. A broad, triumphant grin had pressed itself across the harsh face; and Spike, in tones so smug and gleeful that they had turned Bray's empty stomach, had quickly told Jet exactly who his 'Loco emissary' truly was. His words had been blurred to Bray's drug-addled ears, but he had distinctly heard Trudy's name mentioned, along with tales of how much he was hated by the Locos. It was almost a triumph to know that they disliked him so much. Jet, as he recalled, had been less than impressed by how close he had come to being taken in by an impostor. When Spike had suggested interrogation, the Artist leader had been only too happy to comply. His guards had come in, bearing ropes and a single, metal chair. It was to this chair that Bray was now tied, all but immobile in the tightly knotted grip of enfolding hemp. If there was a part of him that didn't hurt, he hadn't found it yet; and he didn't know how long he could go on insisting that he and Trudy had parted company. Clearly Spike didn't believe the claim; or just didn't care whether or not it was true. He didn't seem to care at all about the answers that his victim gave. It wasn't really the interrogation in itself that he was interested in.

Giving up on a useless attempt to stretch, Bray opened his eyes and looked around the room. It was not much bigger than a store cupboard, really; probably six feet square, and roughly the same in height. There was mould on the walls, and moisture trickling down the stones, and the flagging of the floor was discoloured by the marks of too much water that was not supposed to be there. A store room that had been abandoned, then, by reason of its being too damp. There were no windows or air vents; nothing save a gap beneath the ill-fitting door. He could feel a faint draught through the gap; air that was cool bordering on warm, but which did little to chase away the lingering cold within the cell. It served only to prevent the musty, mouldy smell of the too-wet walls from becoming overpowering.

He moved awkwardly, eventually discovering that he could rotate his shoulders slightly, if he leaned back a short way in his chair. His back muscles screamed in relief at this slight lessening of tension, but it was not a position that he could maintain for any length of time. He slipped back into place, his bound wrists once again taking up the strain. His arms protested, but that, he had to conclude, was just hard luck.

As time passed, he wondered whether night had come yet. What was Trudy doing? Was she still in the half-destroyed shop? He hoped not, for he knew that bad weather was coming, and he doubted that she would be adequately protected in such a shelter. She needed four walls and a more substantial roof, and she also needed food. There were better buildings to hide in; and yet if she did go to find one, how could he then hope to find her? He smiled bitterly at that. It didn't much look as though he was going to be finding anyone, for whatever the Artists and their Loco go-between had planned for him, he doubted that release was high on their list of options. He thought back to Zoot's offer, the last time that he had fallen into Loco hands. Either he could agree to leave the city and never come back, or he could join the imprisoned workforce, and spend the rest of his days as a slave. He doubted that there would be any such choice now, especially given his apparent elopement with Zoot's wife. Even though he doubted that his own brother would sentence him to death, it was hard to believe that Spike would be anywhere near so lenient. Spike didn't know of the relationship between Zoot and Bray. All that he knew about was Bray's unpopularity amongst the more violent tribes of the city. He knew that Bray had stolen off into the night with Zoot's wife. He probably wouldn't even bother reporting the capture of such an enemy before he carried out the execution, or sold Bray off to somebody who could be certain to ensure there was no chance of escape. Either way, things did not look encouraging.

He found his resolve returning slowly at first. Escape seemed unlikely, but as life returned to his stiff body, and the initial pain of waking faded into a dull ache, he found that his depression and sense of hopelessness lifted. He moved carefully, ignoring the constraints of the rope, trying to discover if there was any way to work himself loose. There did not appear to be much chance, and so he directed himself to scraping his bonds against the back of the chair instead, trying to wear the rope away, or fray the edges enough to try breaking through. It seemed a hopeless task, for the chair was smooth and had no sharp edges. He worked hard at it nonetheless, burning his wrists as the friction between rope and skin became intense. He thought about a book that he had once read, discussing the talents and tactics of Harry Houdini, but didn't seem able to make anything work. It wasn't a surprise. He was hardly an escapologist after all. He was just a kid stuck in yet another in a long line of sticky situations, floundering out of his depth and somehow managing to appear as if he knew what he was doing. And to think that the Locos considered him a threat. He smiled faintly. Quite a transformation, from something of a school joke to potential saviour of a war-bound city. That was how Zoot saw him; the one person who might be about to stop the rule of the Locos from becoming absolute. Maybe they wouldn't think that if they saw him now, tied to a chair and unable to break free. Even the manner of his capture had been embarrassingly easy. He sighed, and redoubled his efforts to wear through the rope. The Locos could think whatever they wanted of him, and so could the many kids out on the streets that he well knew were expecting great things of him. All that he wanted was to get out of this little room, and away to somewhere safe and warm. He had never asked to be a thorn in anyone's side.

His wrists were feeling the effects of too much friction long before he was finally able to detect some loosening in the ropes. He struggled a little harder, feeling one of the knots beginning to slide. Excited, he rubbed the rope harder against the back of the chair, imagining that he could smell the hemp beginning to heat up through the continuous friction. He was no longer cold at least, the hard work warming him past any comfortable level, making drops of sweat bead up on his forehead and tickle his dampened face. He couldn't wipe them away, which frustrated him. Trying to ignore the irritation, he worked harder still, convinced now that he was close to success. Around his wrists, something unravelled. He summoned up a breathless grin, and silently congratulated himself. Soon now. Very soon.

"Still here?" The voice came from the door even before it was opened. Bray jumped violently, startled by the sound of a person nearby, when he had not heard anyone approach. Quickly he slid back into his former position, straightening his shoulders and trying to regain control of his breathing. He could do nothing about the sweat that ran down his face, sticking bits of hair to his forehead, and giving his skin an odd, hot flush. Maybe they would simply think that it was fear giving him such an appearance. The door swung wide.

It was Honey who stood there - the pale-faced girl with blonde hair whom he had taken to be Jet's wife of sorts. She swayed slightly on her too-high stilettos, staring at him through wide green eyes.

"Hello." There was a smile pasted across her face, showing teeth bearing a dull silver brace. It looked as though it was in need of dental attention. Bray frowned.

"What do you want?"

"Just came by for a chat." She was drunk, that much was clear - but it was the sort of intoxication he had seen in seasoned adult drinkers in the days before the Virus. Her brain was used to the alcohol, and allowed her a strange kind of lucidity beneath the drifting confusion. He wondered if she had taken something else, besides the drink. There were suggestions of further substances in the glassiness of her wide eyes.

"Was there anything that you wanted to chat about?" He thanked the heavens that it had only been her at the door, for in her current state she was unlikely to notice the sweat on his face, or the increased temperature in the room caused by his hard work. She seemed unlikely to notice anything, save perhaps for his presence.

"Spike." She spoke the name almost sulkily; like a child speaking of an enemy or rival. "I want him to go away. It's no fun since he came here. Jet just talks about wars, and what he can get out of the Locos and the Demon Dogs. We don't go for walks anymore."

"It's not safe to go for walks anymore." He kept his voice low, trying to maintain the apparently light atmosphere. He had the feeling that this was the sort of person who could very easily be offended, and might storm off in a petulant rage, never to return again. He didn't want that. She might just be useful.

"The war." She wandered further into the room and leant against the wall, arms folded. Her sequins were dull in the limited light, and the shadows in the cell played across her pale face. Only her makeup seemed on display now - swathes of red and orange across her rounded face, and a streak of astonishingly pink lipstick that matched the striped eye shadow stretching almost up to her hairline. "It's a big war, isn't it."

"The biggest this city has ever seen." He frowned, disturbed by the childish nature of her question. She had to be at least thirteen, and yet she sounded much younger. It suggested that she was another of the many kids who had found the Virus too much to cope with, and had begun to shut the real world out. Somehow they all seemed to regress to their early childhoods when such things happened; taking refuge, or so he presumed, from the difficult present, by returning to a time in their lives when they had been happier. "Do you like going for walks, Honey?"

"I love it." She brightened immediately, her sulks forgotten. "We go for long walks. Nobody bothers us here. There aren't many tribes, and most of the Strays got taken by Tribe Circus. They're the only ones who give us any trouble - or at least they were, until Spike came. He was sent by the Locos, to get us to support them in their war. But I don't like the war."

"Neither do I." He smiled at her, holding her eyes with his own, trying to convey some sense of comfort and understanding. "I like going for walks. Before the Virus I walked everywhere. I didn't like cars."

"Me neither." She took a step closer, as though eager to settle into a proper conversation, then stopped short. Clearly part of her addled mind was aware that she should not get too close to a prisoner. He smiled again, anxious to continue putting her at her ease, and she returned the expression with a fluttering, uncertain smile of her own. "Cars were smelly and noisy. My dad had a car with a catalytic converter, but our neighbours had a horrible old thing with an exhaust pipe that kept exploding." She shuddered. "My dad was in Greenpeace. He said walking was best."

"Yeah." Bray remembered the old days, with the Greenpeace poster on his bedroom wall, and the sticker he had persuaded his father to stick in the back windscreen of the family car. Odd that he was now in the very factory-free, emissions-free world he had always campaigned for; and all that he wanted was to go back to how things had been before. Clearly Honey felt much the same way. "I used to go for a walk every Sunday morning, just as the sun was coming up. I was still doing it right up until my parents got sick, but after the Virus struck it wasn't so easy to walk anywhere."

"They didn't like letting us out at the orphanage." Honey's eyes had lost some of their already tenuous focus. "We weren't allowed to go for walks alone. They were always worried about the kids that lived rough. The early tribes, when things started to get a little crazy."

"I didn't go to one of the orphanages." Bray found it easy to remember, once he let the ball start rolling. Thoughts that he had avoided for so long came quickly to the forefront of his mind, and he saw that his words and soft voice were making Honey relax. That seemed to make it all a little easier to carry on speaking. "I was from the part of the city where the Locos first began. There were a lot of localised cases of the Virus before it seemed to get a real hold anywhere else. The Locos grew out of the confusion and the loneliness. The streets weren't safe anymore, even when kids were still going to school in other parts of the city. We had this big house; not a fancy one, just big. It had low eaves, and two chimneys. Quite a big garden, with a swing still in it from back when my younger brother was still small. The Locos burned it down. The government had boarded it up, to try to stop looters, but you remember what it was like. Nothing could stop the looters. The streets weren't safe."

"No more walks by the shops." Honey sat down on the floor beside him, hugging her knees with hands bearing heavily painted nails. Each nail was a different colour, ranging from a sickly yellow to a virulent scarlet. Orange clashed with purple, and blue merged into green as her fingers clenched. She was staring at him with an adoring expression plastered across her vacant, but beautiful, face. "No more strolls hand in hand across the park." Her eyes narrowed. "It's all Spike's fault. It was okay before he came here. We were happy then. Even Tribe Circus weren't anything we couldn't handle. There were fights, but it was okay so long as I always had Jet with me. Then Spike came, and suddenly there were people fighting again, and people with silver face paint setting up barbed wire in the empty houses, and driving motorbikes up and down the road late at night, like knights jousting on horse back. The fun stopped."

"The Demon Dogs are here?" He slumped back into his chair, thinking terrible thoughts about Trudy, alone in a sector filled with their enemies' advance guard. "Are you sure?"

"They came right after Spike did. They wanted us to join them on their side in the war. They got Tribe Circus to join them. They trade now - the Demon Dogs and the Circus, swapping food supplies and power and slaves and things. Tribe Circus got louder and more dangerous. We couldn't walk anywhere anymore. Then Spike's friends came, and they all fought in the streets, and Jet said we had to choose a side. Tribe Circus tried to take over, but we managed to hold out. It wasn't fun anymore though. None of it was fun anymore."

"I know." He moved his arms cautiously, feeling the bonds at his wrists loosening once again. He thought that it might be possible to pull one arm free now, but he wasn't sure that he dared try it just yet. Not until he was certain that she was more than merely an attentive audience. It would be easy enough to overpower her - but maybe there was something else that she could do for him. "It was the same in my sector of the city. After the Lonely Time was over, when the fighting had calmed, things got a little better. We even had fun, sometimes. Then the Locos..." He rephrased it all in his mind, allowing for her insecurities. "Then Spike started his war. Everyone had to hide all of the time, and there wasn't any more fun." He didn't really remember there having been any fun before that, if he was honest. Even before the war there had been nothing but hardship and struggle; but if Jet had somehow kept Honey protected from all of that, hidden in their rooms around the video store, presumably she had never had to face the cold nights on the street, and the hunger and illnesses. She had obviously not experienced any of the fighting and the chaos.

"Did you have parties?" She was leaning closer to him, as though about to grip hold of his arm. He forced himself to remain still, even though it was doubtful that he would ever get a better chance to overpower her. "We did. We had parties that lasted for days. Jet didn't have any parents, so he didn't have anyone to lose. Not like me. I lived in a big house with my parents and my grandparents and two aunts. They all died in the same week, and I was alone in the house for ages with them, before Jet came. He came with Claws and Jacob..." She frowned, her voice trailing off as her mind drifted back to that other time. "We cleared away all of the bodies, and we threw a huge party in the house. Everybody came. More people than that even. We played the music loud, but there was nobody to tell us to turn it down, and we raided my father's wine cellar, and took all of the food out of the kitchen. There was roast turkey and smoked salmon and caviar, and salmon mousse and quails' eggs; everything you can think of. We had lots of parties there, even after all of the food and drink had run out. Then we came here. That was before Tribe Circus came." She sat up straight, her rounded eyes locked onto his. "Do you know Tribe Circus? Have you met them? Do you know the Ringmaster and the Lion Tamer?"

"I've met them." Tribe Circus were one of the few tribes who had no interest in territorial boundaries, and instead went wherever they felt like going. They were led by the Ringmaster, a tall, gangling boy of sixteen, large for his age, and of a very unpredictable disposition. Bray remembered him from the days before the Virus as a particularly nasty bully, who had delighted in tormenting smaller children. It would be polite to say that he had a screw loose; more accurate to say that he was almost completely insane. Even before the days of tribes and conflict he had wandered around in the city after dark, threatening anybody who came too close with a flick-knife and a replica hand gun. There had been talk that his rich and influential father had kept him out of prison, and certainly it was hard to imagine how anything short of bribery and corruption could have prevented his timely incarceration. An all round nice guy. The last time Bray had seen him had been two or three months previously, when Tribe Circus had been persecuting the pacifist Feather Tribe in another sector of the city. With a few sympathetic Strays like himself, Bray had tried to help the Feather Tribe withstand the onslaught; but with hindsight they hadn't stood a chance. It had been a miracle that any of them had survived, given the Ringmaster's violent return offensive. His equally psychotic lieutenant, the pale and spindly Top Hat, had led a team armed with flame-guns, improvised from bits of pipe, and gas cartridges cannibalised from camping stoves.

"You know then." Honey sat back, sinking down into a huddle that made her seem terribly small and vulnerable. "You know what it's like here." She brightened again. "But Spike hates you, doesn't he."

"I guess he does, yes." He smiled at her. "He's not the only one. The Demon Dogs don't think much of me, either. That's why I have to get away. I have a friend that I have to get back to. She needs me. She's going to have a baby."

"She is?" Honey looked delighted. "That would be good. I'd like that. I like babies. My aunt was going to have a baby once." Her delight faded as soon as it had appeared. "But you can't go and look after her yet. Not until you've got rid of Spike. Will you help me do that, so that I can have my parties again? It's my birthday soon. I wanted to have a party then, to celebrate. I'll be fourteen."

"When's your birthday?" He asked it for small talk as much as anything. She beamed at him, delighted by his interest.

"The third of March. You're invited."

"March?" He didn't think it was anywhere near that time of year, although admittedly he had no way to be sure. It had been far too long since he had last had any reason to keep track of the days. "That's nice. My mother's birthday was in March." Actually it had been in September, but Honey wasn't to know that. Just as he had expected, this small piece of news made her brighten once again.

"Then we can have a double celebration. Do you think she'll come to the party? We'll have cake. Cake with cherries in, I think. Maybe with chocolate on top. Do you like chocolate?"

"Yeah." He hesitated, knowing that he had reached the natural point in the conversation when the approaching question had to be asked, but cautious about asking it nonetheless. There would be only one chance, for she would either give in, or run off to report his request to Jet. There wouldn't be any more opportunities like this again. "Honey... I want to get rid of Spike. We're enemies, he and I. I'd like to send him back to the sector he came from, so that we can have as many parties as we like. You can help when the baby comes, and Jet can take you for long walks. Maybe you can take my friend's baby for walks too."

"Yeah." She sounded far away; lost in some alcohol-fed dream that grew out of his words. "I'd like that. When can you get rid of Spike? Can you do it now? Today?"

"I can certainly try. Thing is, Honey, I can't do it when I'm locked up in here. I need to get out of this room, and out of this building. I have to go to Spike's hideout, and make a stand against him there. Do you understand?"

"Yes." She dropped her voice, speaking now like a child playing a game of stealth and secrecy. "I can help you to get out. It's easy. Everybody is above ground at the moment. Jet is speaking to one of the emissaries of the Demon Dogs. They say that they want us to join them, but they're just working with Tribe Circus. We can't trust anyone."

"Except me." He slid his hand free, reaching out to touch hers. She jumped, clearly aware, even through her oddness, that he should not be able to move his arms. She showed no sign of alarm, however, and did not snatch her own hand away. Instead she put her other hand on top of his.

"I trust you. You're not a friend of Spike's. You don't like Tribe Circus. We will be able to have parties again, won't we?"

"Lots of parties. With jelly and ice cream if you like. And salmon mousse and quails' eggs, like you had before." He gestured at the ropes around his chest and legs. "Can you help me to get rid of these? I should be going."

"Of course." She stood, smoothing imaginary wrinkles from her velvet and satin costume. "Here." Delving into her clothing, she produced a knife from a glittering holster; a weapon bearing a blade some nine inches long and at least two inches wide near to the hilt. He blinked, amazed at the presence of such a lethal weapon in the accoutrements of a child with so addled a mind. He wouldn't have trusted her with something half the size. She smiled at him as she held the knife up, her enthusiastic eyes reflected in the silver blade.

"Careful with that." She giggled at his words of warning, and paid no attention to them, leaning close to cut him free. The ropes fell away, and he stretched his painful limbs. It was hard to stand at first, but he ignored the hardship and pushed himself away from the chair. Honey held the knife out to him, hilt first.

"For Spike," she told him, her eyes glittering with something rather less than their usual blank innocence. He shook his head.

"I don't need that. Keep it."

"But you have to skewer Spike." She grinned at him, and he wondered how many people she had seen dispatched in such a fashion. She looked so blank and detached; as though nothing that had any reality meant anything to her. Certainly it was easy to believe that she had lived her recent life in the midst of terrible carnage. He wondered if any of the parties that she had spoken of had really happened, or whether she had just made it up. Perhaps Jet had implanted the idea into her fractured mind, in order to give her something to focus on besides the misery.

"If I skewer Spike I'll do it with one of my own weapons. I have hundreds." It was a bare-faced lie, but he could see how much it had impressed Honey. "It's always easier with a weapon that you're familiar with."

"I know. I always find that." She nodded hard, then backed away from him. "Where are your weapons?"

"With my things. My bag and my skateboard. Do you remember them?"

"Jet took them." She frowned, struggling to make her blurred brain search back through its recent memories for any reference to Bray's things. "They're in his room. I'll get them. Are you going to let your friends out while I'm gone?"

"My friends?" He followed her to the door, wondering if it was safe to wait for her to come back, or whether it mightn't be a better idea just to leave straight away. He wanted his things, but he could see how easily her mind might flit away to other subjects, and she might tell anyone of what had happened. She nodded hard in response to his question, until it seemed that her neck might break under the strain.

"The ones we had, before you came. They escaped right before we captured you, but you said that you were a Loco, and you wouldn't let Claws chase after them. He caught them again later."

"And they're here? Now?" Inwardly he groaned. More people to look after. Didn't he already have his hands full trying to get back to Trudy? How could he justify taking risks by getting strangers free as well? On his own he had more than a passing chance to make a bid for freedom, but held back by others he would probably have no chance at all.

"They're in the cell next door." She gestured, as though he were able to see them through some non-existent window set into the wall. "Two of them. A boy and a girl. The boy is younger than me I think, but the girl looks older. I think they're still alive. I'm sure Jet would have said something if he had skewered them. He usually does."

"I'm so glad." He sighed, thinking fast. This was something that he hadn't counted on. "Okay, listen. I'm going to take a look down the corridor, and make sure that everything is clear. You let these two kids out, and then get my stuff. I'll meet you in the street outside."

"All of us?" For some reason she didn't seem to like the idea of rescuing two others besides himself. He took her hand again.

"All of you. Tell the other two to head west. If they can keep out of the clutches of Tribe Circus they should be okay. You and I have to get back to my friend."

"The one with the baby?"

"The one with the baby. She'll... she'll help us to skewer Spike."

"Alright." Honey nodded once again, and her mass of blonde hair danced. "What do I tell your friends?"

"Only to keep running. Don't talk to anyone. Keep away from anywhere where it looks as though the Demon Dogs might be, and to be especially careful of Tribe Circus and any of the Locos that might be nearby. Things are going to be tense out there. From the sound of it, both sides are building up their defences in this sector. The war is about to hit here, and it won't be safe to be out on the streets when that happens." He gripped her suddenly, wondering if there was anything inside that confused and regressed brain that might respond to his urgency. "Listen, Honey. The Locos and the Demon Dogs don't need you. They don't really even need Tribe Circus, but the Demon Dogs have made a deal with them because they know that the Locos are winning this war. They'll destroy this place, because there's always a chance that the Artists could become a threat at some other time. If they consider you to be worth contacting, that means they consider you to be potential trouble for the future. I've seen it happen before - heard of it happening, as the war spreads. This place will be overrun. I don't know if there will be any survivors."

"There won't be any war here." She pushed past him, heading for the door. "Now come on. We had a deal. You have to kill Spike for me."

"Yeah." He stepped out through the doorway, into the corridor beyond, hoping that it would be easy to find his way out of whatever complex he was lost in. "We'll talk about this later though, okay? I'll see you outside."

"I'll bring your weapons." Her excitement had returned. "See you soon."

"I hope so." He gave her shoulder a brief, impulsive squeeze, and tried not to feel too sorry for her. Trudy was responsibility enough. He couldn't look after Honey as well, especially after the baby came. All the same, he was sure that he was right. The Artists were not heading for some glorious future at the right hand of whoever eventually won the war. Neither the Locos nor the Demon Dogs could possibly have any use for them. They would be nothing more than cannon fodder, no matter how big they spoke, or how tall they stood. He was surprised to discover that he was saddened by the realisation that Honey's days were numbered - unless he could persuade her to look to him now for protection; him, who found it burden enough caring for one person besides himself. He hated the idea of leaving the alcohol-dependant child behind, where anything might happen to her, either at the hands of his brother's supporters or those of his enemies. Despite his misgivings, despite his yearning to be free even of his responsibilities to Trudy, he resolved to do what he could for Honey. He had to help her. That was what one did when one cared for everybody - and yet didn't want to care for anybody at all.

Amber and Dal were instantly alert at the sound of a key in the lock. They looked up, glancing quickly at each other as they prepared for whoever might be about to enter their cell. They had talked together during their time alone, discussing all that might happen as the hours had ticked by. It had been a long time now since the interrogation they had overheard had finally come to its end, and they had spent that time gently encouraging each other, and searching for reasons to remain cheerful in the face of such obvious woes. The opening of the door was something that they had been awaiting now for several hours; and it was almost a relief to think that the waiting might now be over. Amber wondered if they would be interrogated together, or if they were to be separated. She hoped to remain with Dal, but if they were to be sold, there was no certainty that she would ever see him again. It seemed that he was thinking the same thing, for he moved closer to her as the door creaked open. She wished that she could hold his hand, but the ropes around their wrists made such contact impossible. Dal drew in a sharp intake of breath, and the door swung open a little more widely.

"Hello?" It was the pale girl that they had seen before; little more than a child in many ways, and quite preposterous on her sparkling stilettos. Her lipstick-smothered mouth was opened in an inquisitive circle, halfway between a question and a permanent state of confusion. Amber frowned. Of all the things that she had been expecting, this was the last that she would have considered. This girl had none of the attributes - either physical or mental - that might make her a likely interrogator. On the contrary - she looked as if she might fall over at the slightest breeze, or collapse under the gentlest pressure - and yet she was quite weighed down under a pile of equipment. Dal recognised the roller-skates slung over one of her shoulders, but not the skateboard that was hanging down her back.

"What do you want?" Standing up as quickly as her bound wrists would allow, Amber glared at the girl. She received no glare in reply; no answer to her challenge, and no threats to prevent further defiance. Instead the younger girl merely smiled at her, her expression one of amiable vacancy. She looked as if she had been drinking, and as she moved closer to them, the smell became obvious. Strong alcohol, probably homebrewed; and certainly not under ration.

"I've come to get you out." She hung in the doorway like a shy kid at a birthday party, as though she were waiting to be invited in. "I'm supposed to take you up above ground, and then you have to go somewhere safe. There's no telling what's going to happen here. He wants me to leave too."

"Who wants you to leave?" Dal had also risen to his feet, apparently not considering this strange girl to be any real threat. He had even moved a little closer to her, his body language changing to that which he might have used to calm an agitated animal, or a frightened toddler. The girl seemed to respond to it, and her wide eyes ceased their restless roaming.

"He does." She jerked her head at the wall, from which gesture Amber assumed that she meant the person in the next cell along; the person who had been interrogated earlier in the day. The news that he was still alive made her feel better, for reasons that she did not fully understand. It was an oddly pleasant feeling to care so much for the fate of a faceless stranger. "He thinks that the war is coming here." She frowned, and then added, "The war between the Locos and the Demon Dogs," as if there were many such wars going on, and it was necessary to clarify exactly which one she meant. "He's helping me, and we're going to stop the Locos, and that's why he sent me to rescue you. He said that you were friends of his, and that he needed you."

"Yeah." Ignoring Dal's incredulous stare, Amber nodded. "We're a team, the three of us. We'll need to be out on the streets if we're to make this work." She had no idea what plan she was supposed to be pretending to be a part of; but she was more than able to keep up a competent performance. If it would help her to get out of the clutches of this mad little group of people any sooner, she would happily claim complicity in anything. "Did he say anything else?"

"Just about going to sort out Spike for me." She looked joyous at this rather vague claim, but did not elaborate. Amber tried to look as though she knew exactly what the girl meant, despite having no idea. She nodded in a fair approximation of understanding.

"Good. Spike's been asking for that for a long time now."

"You think so?" The girl's eyes shone. "I'm glad you understand." She leaned closer. "Do you hate him too? The guy next door didn't seem to want to deal with him at first, but he doesn't know what it was like here before Spike came along. You remember, don't you. Did you come to any of our parties? With the salmon mousse and the chicken vol-au-vents? All those little crackers with cream cheese and parsley?"

"Sure." Dal shot Amber a confused glance, but was clearly happy to play along. "We remember."

"I thought you looked familiar." As if this was reason enough to trust them, she fumbled through the equipment that she carried, somehow managing not to disturb the precarious balance. A knife glittered in her hand for a second, and Amber almost flinched away, but rather than do them any harm, the girl merely sliced away their bonds. The act seemed to please her greatly, for as soon as it was completed she seized Dal's hand and shook it hard, almost shaking his shoulder loose in the process. "I'm Honey. You're Patterson, aren't you? Didn't we used to go bicycling together in the summer before the adults ran away?"

"Yeah." This time when his eyes met with Amber's, his old friend saw a look of great sadness pass across his round face. She sympathised. Listening to the disjointed ramblings of this confused girl was quite affecting, for it was obvious that she was one of those who had been unable to cope with all that had happened. It seemed almost cruel to speak in support of the girl's fantasies, but there was clearly little point in contradicting them. She seemed delighted at her apparent reunion with an old friend, and as she led them towards the stairs heading back up to the ground floor, she chatted merrily with Dal, still convinced that he was the mysterious Patterson. The volume of her voice bore no relation to the secrecy of their flight, but she paid no attention to Amber's urgent attempts to silence her, and merely talked on as before. By some unexpected miracle nobody heard them, and nobody came to challenge them as they hurried through the building and out through the main door. It hung open, the bolts removed for whatever reason, the streets beyond standing clear and silent. A cold wind had risen, and they felt the chill as they stood in the doorway.

"I want to get a long, long way away from here." Dal took a deep breath of the icy air, sucking it into his lungs as though he had not tasted it for many years. Amber nodded her agreement.

"A long, long way away. Somewhere where they don't have Artists and Demon Dogs." She looked about, rather nervously. "And speaking of which, I wonder where everybody is."

"Jet has gone to speak with Spike and the other Locos in the area. The Demon Dogs haven't been around for a day or two, but they'll be in the Methodist Church due west of here." For once Honey sounded as though she knew what she was talking about. "It should be safe enough hereabouts, for a while at least. Most of the other Artists will be asleep. There was a lot of drinking last night, to celebrate... to celebrate something. I don't remember what." She shrugged. "We have lots of celebrations here."

"I can believe that." Amber smiled at her. "Look, thanks for your help. We'll be seeing you."

"Yeah. Yeah, keep in touch." It seemed that she had already forgotten who they were. Dal gesticulated meaningfully at the roller-skates that she carried, and after much frowning and miscomprehension, she handed them over. The straps caught around her arms, depositing much of her load onto the tarmac, but despite her evident irritation at this mishap, it served to make things a lot easier for Amber and Dal. They recovered their bags from the heap, smiling their thanks in the midst of her confusion. Dal tried to help her to recover her own bits and pieces, but she fought him off as though convinced that he posed some terrible threat. He left her to it, backing away to a safe distance, and watching as she regained the mutinous skateboard. By the time that she had done so it seemed she had forgotten the existence of her two former companions, for she paid them not the slightest attention as she headed on her way. With Bray's bag firmly on her shoulder, she struck off to the left of the building. A shadowy shape awaited her in the mouth of an alleyway, and Amber and Dal watched her as she stopped to speak to him, handing over the bag and the skateboard that she had retrieved from the cellar. Dal gestured towards them.

"Think that's the guy we're supposed to be helping?"

"I'd imagine so." She frowned, wondering if she should go over to them, and offer her thanks for the part that the unknown boy had played in their deliverance. Even as she thought about it, however, the distant duo turned about and were gone. She stared after them.

"Amber?" Dal's voice called to her, bringing her back to their immediate situation. She smiled down at him, faintly distracted.

"Yeah, I know. We have to get out of here." She pointed towards the alley mouth where her unknown saviour and the strange Artist girl had been just a moment before. "I was just wondering. You know - who he is, why he helped us."

"Does it matter? We'll never see him again." Dal shrugged. "I'd guess he's just some guy who found out he wasn't alone in that cellar, and thought he'd have a go at getting us out at the same time as himself. Don't worry about it."

"But this guy Spike that he's supposedly going to--"

"Amber..." He put his hand on her shoulder. "Come on, don't worry about it. Let's just get out of here before somebody back in that place realises that we're all missing."

"Yeah." She smiled at him and turned around, looking in the opposite direction to that taken by Honey and Bray. "Come on. Just keep an eye open for anything that looks like a Methodist Church, okay? The crowning glory of this marvellous day would be if we ran into a Demon Dog war party."

"Yeah. And from the sounds of it, if we miss the Dogs, we're likely to run into the Locos instead." They started off, walking quickly and carefully, glad of the chill wind for the cover that it provided. Few enough people were likely to be out on the main street when the weather was promising to turn so bad. "You think that the war is coming here?" She didn't answer, and he glanced up at her. "Amber?"

"Up ahead." She nodded, but did not point. Dal slowed to a halt. Far up ahead of them, standing in the shadows at the edge of the road, two tall shapes daubed in silver seemed to glow in the light of the rising moon. One of them held a long club, the other a sizeable claw hammer. Dal gasped.

"We've got to get out of here." He took a step back, but Amber grabbed his arm.

"Quiet. They haven't seen us." Her eyes, slow and uncertain, drifted across the road to the two other shapes just visible there. They stood opposite the silver-painted Demon Dogs, carrying evil-looking weapons of their own. One of them, dressed in a bright blue crash helmet with red ribbons sprouting from the top, took a threatening step forward. The single stride carried him into the street, where the deepening moonlight plainly showed the manic sprawl of red paint across the right hand side of his face. It was clear that he was a Locust; and just as clear that the long, thin weapon in his hand was a cavalry sabre. The sharp edge glittered, seemingly snow white in the moon's cold glow.

"What do we do?" Dal could not take his eyes off the sight before him, as the Locos and the Demon Dogs began to advance on one another. In the distance, a police siren wailed, and a shiver ran down Amber's spine. An answering shout; more like the sound of a baying wolf than that of anything remotely human, mingled with the dying notes of the siren, and from somewhere nearby came the clatter of running feet and small, fast moving wheels.

"Quick!" Amber grabbed Dal by the shoulder, pulling him into the shelter of a tiny side street. They tripped over a long row of rusting dustbins, sending well-rotted rubbish rolling onto the ground. "We have to keep out of sight."

"The war?" Beneath its usual darkness, Dal's face was suddenly pale. His companion nodded, although the gesture went unseen.

"The war." She sat down, leaning back against the cold wall of the street that was their refuge. "And we're right in the middle of it." Her eyes, the only part of her that was clearly visible in the gloom of the narrow roadway, stared urgently at her terrified friend. "Pretty soon this whole place will be overrun."

"Maybe we should give ourselves up to the Artists." He didn't sound as if he meant it, but for a moment Amber almost considered it as an option. It mightn't be such a bad idea, all things considered. She stopped the thought, though, and turned her mind instead to finding a way to safety. Their little alley was a dead-end, but the wall that sealed it did not appear to be unscalable.

"Here." She hurried him back, away from the main street. "Let me give you a leg up."

"But where will we go? If we get away from here, where next? This is crazy, Amber."

"No crazier than hanging around out here." From the world beyond their hiding place came the roar of a car engine, and the yells of converging warriors. Somebody screamed, although it seemed to be more a sound of anger than of pain. "If there was ever a time to get out of the city, this is it."

"You really think it's that bad?" Another scream tore through the air, and this time it was definitely not one of anger. Dal's question no longer required an answer.

"By this time tomorrow, this whole sector will be in the control of one or the other of those gangs. The Artists will be destroyed or assimilated, or out on the run, risking capture as Strays. Believe me, Dal, we do not want to be here then." She made her hands into a stirrup, ready to help him in his climb up the wall. "Now get a move on. We're in trouble." Her face conveyed her urgency just as much as did her words, and Dal made no further protest. Instead he began to climb. Just a few feet away from him, he knew that people were dying, and he tried not to think about them. It was impossible. Behind him were children no older than himself, fighting a territorial war over a clutter of houses and looted shops that had not been worth the struggle even before the Virus. They were worth even less now. He smiled bitterly to himself. There wasn't anything in the world that he wouldn't give, if an adult were only to walk down that street now - a single, uniformed policeman, or a parent come to break up the scrum. But there were no adults, and the war in the street was no childish playground clash. People were dying - kids were dying - and yet the only thing that he could afford to worry about was making sure that he and Amber were not next in line. It should have made him feel sick; maybe it would have done once. Now he didn't feel anything at all.

It did not take Bray long to realise that the war was upon them. He had covered perhaps as much as six hundred yards when he heard the first scream; a loud, intense wailing that could only have come from someone seriously injured. For a second he contemplated running to assist; or at the very least, going to see if it was safe to assist. Almost immediately, even before his brain could tell his legs to change course, a second scream caught the dying echoes of the first. This time the yell was different; an ululating cry of war; the enraged whooping of a warrior going in for the kill. Honey froze.

"Spike," she said, her voice tremulous with hate. Bray shook his head.

"I don't think so." It hadn't sounded like Spike; the voice had been too high-pitched, like a boy whose voice had not entirely broken, and was still given to leaping from one key to another. Spike's voice had broken long before Bray had met him, and he had always spoken in the same gruff tones.

"Spike." Honey spoke the name again with a firm certainty. Either she was not willing to be contradicted, or she knew something that Bray did not. He frowned.

"You mean Locos?"

"Spike." This time she sounded almost as though she might be about to relent, and he took this as the closest to an affirmative that he would be able to get from her on the subject. Apparently all Locos were 'Spike'. Whatever the bully had done to her to create such an effect must have been very telling. "Are you going to skewer him now?"

"Maybe later." He pushed onwards, heading towards the sounds of yelling. The cries were more numerous now; louder and more frequent; harsh and filled with rage. Honey caught hold of his arm.

"Fighting," she told him. He scowled, faintly irritated by her sudden descent into single word sentences.

"I know. It's the Locos and the Demon Dogs. A few of them must have run into each other on the street."

"And you want to get closer?" She sounded excited, and he shook his head.

"I want to see how many people are involved. If it's just a small skirmish we can probably get past them, and carry on without too much of a diversion. If it's more serious we might have to think things out again." He sighed. "Damn it. Why did I leave Trudy behind?"

"Demon Dogs." Honey moved away from him, apparently unconcerned with his problems. "I wonder if Jet is there?"

"Jet?" Bray caught her by the shoulders. "You're not going back to him if he is. I need your help."

"But if Spike is with Jet you can skewer him easily enough. You won't need me to help you. Then Jet and I can have a party to celebrate. Maybe he'll take me for walk. This part of town used to be my favourite, with the waterfall and the swings and the wishing well. There's a coin in there somewhere that my father threw in, just a few days before he got ill. If I can find it I can bring him back."

"Not today, Honey." He gave her a gentle shake, trying to make her focus. "Listen, I have to get closer to the fighting, and I have to know that you're not going to make a noise. If Jet isn't there, and we're seen, they'll kill us. Do you understand?"

"Yes." She sounded sulky. "Do you have anything to drink?"

"I don't know. A bottle of water perhaps. Old stuff."

"Jet said to put beer in your bag. I know he did." She sounded petulant now, like a clinging child seeking to have its wishes granted. "Can I have some beer?"

"There's no beer in my bag." He wished that he could break through the film that seemed to cover her eyes as well as her mind. Maybe then he could talk to her so that she would understand. "Look, Honey; I need you to concentrate for a few minutes, okay? Listen to me. Focus."

"I need a drink." She sounded very small and sulky; as though she had lost hope of having her request granted, but was determined to argue for it all the same, just on principle. He sighed. One of these days he was going to follow his instincts, and just head out all on his own. He definitely didn't need anybody else to look after.

"No drinks, okay? Not unless it's water. Now stay here."

"I could go to find Jet."

"No you couldn't." They had not travelled a long way, but he imagined that it was a good deal further than poor little Honey had been in quite some while. He doubted that she would be able to find her way back to the Artists' headquarters, and very much doubted that she would be able to find her silky-haired boyfriend on her own. "Just stay here. I'll be back soon." He contemplated giving her his bag to look after, but realised that it was probably not a sensible thing to do. Whether or not the beer was actually in the bag, she would undoubtedly go searching for it. The last thing that he needed, if he had to return this way in a hurry, was to find Honey rummaging through the bag, with all of his most vital possessions spread out across the road. There would hardly be time to pick them up if a combined army of Locos and Demon Dogs was after him. Instead he unslung the skateboard from its strap, and dropped it to the ground, stepping onto it without looking back.

"Stay here, Honey," he told her again, this time trying to make his voice sound as grown up and authoritative as possible. With any luck she would think that he was her father, or one of her teachers - anything, just as long as she did as she was told. He kicked off.

It was easy going down the deserted road. Occasionally he caught sight of a cowering figure in a window, or the tail end of a small child vanishing through a doorway; all signs that whatever was up ahead was something that he very definitely did not want to get involved in. He cruised on a little faster, taking the corners at a steady, even speed. The screaming voices grew louder; but not until they were almost upon him did he skid to a halt. He stepped off the board, kicking it up into his hands, and returned it to its strap across his shoulders. He felt bulky and awkward under its weight, especially combined with that of his bag, but he knew that he could move easily enough despite the load. He had done it often enough before. Making sure that there was nothing about his person to knock or jangle, or otherwise make a noise, he edged forward to the wall that separated him from the carnage. Moving ever more carefully then, he pulled himself up a little way so that he could see over it.

He was looking on to a park; a large, green, broad expanse of grass and overgrown flowerbeds. A neatly walled well stood roughly in the centre, its white painted bricks daubed in several places with sketchy, brightly-coloured graffiti. There were several sets of swings as well, all different colours. One swing was missing its seat, and another had been torn apart by vandals. If there had been any other play equipment in the park, it was there no longer; but there were one or two bare patches of earth suggesting at where such equipment might have once stood. Bray didn't think on it for long. His attention was caught up with watching the people that swarmed over the sorry piece of ground. There were at least seventy of them - probably more - the greatest collection of people that he had seen together in one place since the latter days of the Virus. He remembered them then, gathering in their droves; the sick and the dying, and those few who had not yet fallen ill; demanding answers from politicians who were already all dead. Since then there had been no gatherings; not on such a scale as this. The largest tribes might have had nearly that number of members, but they lived and worked in shifts and cycles, and never went out into the streets all at once. The sheer number of people was overwhelming, and it took several seconds for everything to sink into his numbed brain. So many people; so much noise. No small scale conflict.

They swarmed everywhere, fighting in pairs or in groups of three and four. In some places five or six people grappled together, the mud and confusion and the growing darkness making it hard to tell who was who. He recognised the silver paint of the Demon Dogs, but already there were streaks of it spread across the grass, where it had been wiped off by the dampness of the ground. It plastered itself across the Locos as well, confusing the issue still further - not that the Locos themselves seemed at all confused. Chaos was their natural state of course; the latter half of their battle cry; their mantra; the massed shout that they sent echoing across the city whenever they moved into a new area. He could hear it now, every time the screams and yells of battle dampened sufficiently to let other noises rise above the clatter. "Power and chaos! Power and chaos!" A police siren wailed. Somebody screamed. Metal clashed on metal, and blood mingled with the silver paint spread on the grass. Bray sucked in a deep breath through his teeth, and fell back onto the ground. Cold tarmac and deep puddles soaked through his shirt and trousers, but he didn't notice. His head was ringing. A war - a real war, not just the posturing of power hungry street kids. A real war with people dying, and being horribly injured. Noise and carnage and blood - and where was his brother? Was Zoot somewhere in the middle of all that? Was he already dead? Was he one of the shapeless lumps lying on the grass, serving no further purpose save to trip up unsuspecting warriors of either side? He felt the bile rising in his throat, and fought his way to his feet. Better to be far away from here. Better to be a long, long way away.

"Bray?" Honey's voice floated towards him, somehow borne above the screams of the battle. His head jerked up, his eyes looking towards the sound, seeing her wandering towards him. She looked unearthly; ethereal; far removed from the madness behind him. She didn't seem to have noticed the battle, but there was no way that she could have missed it. She would not be able to see over the wall, but the sounds were unmistakable.

"Honey, get back!" He shouted the words louder than he had meant to, and then froze in expectation of attack. None came, and he hurried to intercept her. She came flying towards him at the same moment, dancing around him in an excited circle.

"It's a battle, isn't it. A real one." She sounded enraptured. He nodded, anxious to pull her away.

"It's a battle. Come on now. We should leave."

"But I want to see the battle!" She clambered up onto one of the interminable overflowing trash cans, peering over the wall without a thought for her own safety. Exasperated, Bray called up to her, as loudly as he dared. Honey had frozen, however, standing still on her perch, her eyes fixed on something in the middle distance. Bray caught hold of her arms.

"Hey!" He shook her, but she showed no sign of having realised that he was speaking to her. Instead she smiled; widely and beautifically; her face flushing in sudden pleasure.

"There!" She spoke like a child; a far smaller child than she actually was. Bray saw reality fold in her eyes; saw something collapse. "I used to play there. The wishing well!"

"No!" He pulled her back, but she struggled against him. Whatever consciousness he had been appealing to all of this time; whatever shred of normalcy had allowed her to converse with him up until now; all of it was gone. Something had snapped, and he could see it as clearly as he saw the mass of smeared paint across her face.

"Yes." She spoke coldly, pulling away from him as though his strength was nothing. "This is my place. I can come here if I want to."

"Honey!" He reached up once again to grab her, but she threw herself onto the wall like an acrobat in a circus, the slippery wetness of it not slowing her at all. He tried to catch at her again, but came up with only empty air.

"I can bring him back." She was standing on top of the wall, her feet level with the top of his head, staring intently at the wishing well. It was clear that she did not see the battle, and if she heard it she gave no outward sign.

"Honey, listen to me." Weighed down by his bag and his skateboard, he scrambled up alongside her. "Get down, please? You can have all the beer you want. You can mix whatever you want in with it. Tranquillisers? Medication? Do you smoke something? Just get down."

"No." She sounded imperious, and he was reminded of her talk of smoked salmon and caviar. Clearly she had come from a rich family, and now she was reverting to type. A kid with servants; a kid with money. Utter security, gone in the time it took for a virus to take hold. No wonder she had flipped. She must have been sheltered all of her life. He reached out for her.

"Honey, I know you don't understand this, but you can't go to that wishing well. Listen. Open your eyes and look. Please."

"I can hear..." A frown creased her brow, just as a particularly ear-splitting shriek broke the air. Bray looked down. Beneath him, falling to the ground under the weight of two Demon Dogs, was a single Loco - a boy of about fourteen whom Bray had often seen skating through the streets. His black hair was streaked with green and gold; his face was painted in perfectly even stripes of black and blue. Wide black eyes stared up, seeing Bray for the first time. Bray looked back at him, seeing a knife, bright and clean, in the hand of the nearest Demon Dog. Honey gave a delighted laugh.

"I can hear birds singing." She stepped forward, almost falling headlong from the wall. Bray caught hold of her, almost losing his own balance. Beneath him the fallen Loco was struggling against the upraised knife, battling to withstand the rain of blows from his second opponent. He had a name - a name that Bray knew. Not a real name; just a new one.

"Over there!" Somebody was shouting. Whether or not it was a Demon Dog was impossible to tell, but why he was shouting was much clearer. Bray's head snapped up, turning towards the origin of the shout. A wall of Demon Dogs was facing him, staring at him and his companion. He heard the clash of their knives as they headed towards him.

"Come on, Bray." Suddenly aware of him again; aware of him as a person rather than just as a presence, Honey crouched suddenly, ready to leap from the wall. Bray's eyes widened.

"No!" He reached out for her, panic-stricken, grasping only at empty air as she slid to the ground. Already she was running, moving without fear directly towards the advancing line of Demon Dogs. Bray groaned. He should run, he told himself. He should ignore the kid in Loco livery, about to die just a few feet away. He should ignore the poor mad girl in sequins and unsuitable stilettos, running now towards a likely execution. He should just leave. Shaking his head, wishing now that he had been telling the truth when he had claimed to Honey that his bag was full of weapons, he jumped to the ground. Wet grass squelched beneath his feet, and the two Demon Dogs preparing to dispatch the familiar Loco glanced up in surprise. Their victim, taking advantage of their distraction, rolled out of the way with startling speed, grabbing hold of the knife that still wavered close to his head. With a twisting wrench that elicited a cry of pain from the young warrior that it belonged to, he swung his body around, thrusting up with the weapon even as it still rested in the hand of his enemy. The Demon Dog's eyes opened wide, and blood rushed down his chest. The knife had struck deep, just below his collar bone, and with a wail of hopeless pain he curled up into a foetal ball. Bray choked.

"Thanks mate." The Loco had full control of the knife now, and he made a wild sweep with it at Bray. The second Demon Dog blocked the blow, incorrectly assuming that it was meant for him, and the pair rolled over and over together across the grass. Bray stumbled away from them, eyes seeing blood even where there was none.

"Honey!" He shouted her name as loudly as he could, but he could no longer see her through the throngs of battling tribesmen. A girl screamed, and he thought that it was her; but by the time that he had managed to fight his way through the ceaseless scrum, all that he could see was a band of girls, dressed in their respective quasi-uniforms, fighting it out amongst themselves. If he had expected any less brutality on their part; any less viciousness and violence than that displayed by their male comrades, he saw no sign of it. He also saw no sign of Honey.

"The wishing well!" The voice of his charge; crystal clear above the volume of the battle sounds, rang out quite suddenly across the park. He spun around, throwing aside the two Demon Dogs rushing towards him; knocking aside the club-wielding Loco coming in to the attack. Hands caught in his clothing, but there was enough confusion, enough life-threatening battles going on around him, to cover his progress in the main. Up ahead he caught a glimpse of the wishing well, the graffiti-strewn white bricks now splashed with a few wet tendrils of blood. A figure with blonde hair, shoulders flashing in sequinned moonlight, hove into view up ahead. He shouted, not really expecting her to hear him. If she did she showed no sign of it. He put on an extra burst of speed, but his feet slipped on the wet ground. Somebody rushed at him with a knife outstretched, and a blow between the shoulder-blades staggered him. Thanking heaven that it had been merely a blow with a fist, and not with a weapon of any sort, he regained his balance, threw off the gaggle of Locos trying to drag him back, and broke suddenly into an open, empty space. The lack of chaos surprised him, and he came to an uncertain halt. It was like being in the eye of a storm; caught in a few moments of unsteady silence, waiting for the noise and confusion to close in once again. He saw Honey, and took a step towards her.

"This is a war zone." A Demon Dog, drenched from head to foot in shining silver paint, stepped into his path as if from nowhere. "If you're not a Demon Dog or a Loco, you shouldn't be here." His large dark eyes surveyed Bray from head to foot, taking in the lack of tribal markings. "If you're a Stray then you definitely shouldn't be here."

"Let me pass." Bray tried to push him away, eager to reach Honey and try to get her out of this maelstrom. A heavy hand descended upon his shoulder.

"Not so fast. Like I said, this is a war zone. If you want to fight your way out, that's different; but until I know which side you're on, you're not going anywhere."

"Get out of my way!" Up ahead, Honey had been intercepted by a group of Demon Dogs. She breezed past the first few, entirely unaffected by their presence, but another of their number caught her by the arm. She struggled in his grip, although not with any sign of alarm. She looked as though she was merely fighting off some peculiar obstacle; something inanimate and faintly annoying, but nothing of any real importance.

"Make me." A silver face loomed close to his own. Exasperated, Bray tried to force his way past once again.

"I don't want to fight you." He searched again for Honey, losing her momentarily in the pressing ranks of Demon Dogs. A flash of sequinned black showed for an instant in the seething mass of silver paint and torn leather and denim. There seemed little point in calling to the girl, for it was doubtful that she would hear even if she was prepared to listen. She was focussed on her goal; intent upon reaching the wishing well. He cursed himself for allowing her to come here, where her life was so evidently on the line.

"If you don't want to fight, Stray, what are you doing in a war zone? Word's been on the street for days. This sector belongs to us."

"You think that of the whole damn city." Bray shook the heavy hand from his shoulder. "I'm not here to fight."

"Then why did you help out that Loco?" Fierce eyes zoomed in close to his once again, and he felt the heat shining from the Demon Dog's luridly painted face.

"I didn't help anyone." He didn't feel it to be true, and he couldn't help but feel guilty about the boy who had been stabbed as a direct result of his interference. "I'm just here to get my friend, and then we're going away from here." His eyes trailed to the knife waving just inches from his torso. "Far away. I don't want to fight you, but if I have to, I will."

"I'm not scared of some Stray." The Demon Dog's eyes were so pale as to be all but colourless, and they were easy to lose in the swathes of shining silver paint - and yet still the snide insults within them burned bright. "Especially an unarmed Stray."

"I don't have time for this!" Bray was still scanning the maelstrom, anxious to catch another glimpse of his former companion. He heard her voice faintly, singing in stops and starts about the wishing well. He thought that he recognised the song, or the tune at least. It came from far away in his childhood, and seemed to make Honey sound even younger than before. The crowds shifted again, and once more he was able to see her - a fleeting glimpse of a sparkling image standing on the scarred wall of the wishing well. Several Demon Dogs were trying to catch hold of her, intending to pull her down, but like some ethereal nymph she flitted in and out of their reach. She was laughing at them; giggling merrily as she danced and sang. It was clearly only a matter of time before they caught her.

"I don't care what you have time for. I think that I recognise you, and I only memorise the faces of our enemies. You're staying here, Stray, and you're coming with us when this is over." Steely fingers dug into Bray's shoulder, and he felt rather as though he was being placed under arrest. He knocked the hand aside, using a judo move he had learned long ago, in the days of after school clubs and weekend camps. It was easy to dodge; easy to fall into a crouch; easy to call his hands and arms into position. He knew how to fight, and could do a fair job of it, when really called upon to do so. His opponent seemed to recognise this, for he backed off slightly. There was no sign in his face of an intention to give in, however, and it seemed far more likely that he was just looking for a better opening; considering his options before going back in for the kill. Nearby someone stumbled, knocking Bray off balance, and making him slip on the damp grass. He went down on one knee, and his opponent, reacting instantly, leapt towards him. Bray threw up his arms, crossing his wrists to absorb the force of a blow that never came. A Loco, arms and legs flailing in some bizarre imitation of one of the Martial Arts, came out of nowhere, connecting with the belligerent Demon Dog and bearing him down to the ground. Bray had a brief glimpse of blood bursting from a broken nose, turning the silver paint red, before he was off and running, dodging between the ranks of battling teenagers, trying not to see those combatants that were even younger still. He could no longer hear Honey's trilling voice, and neither could he see her through the shifting masses. Blows sent him staggering; some he returned. He hadn't thought that it was such a long way to the well; but no matter how fast he ran, he did not seem to be getting any closer to it. It was just too hard to run; too hard to force his way through the raging torrent of the battle. He was all but ready to give up when a scream rent the air, and the tide of the battle seemed to ebb for just a moment in response. He pushed through the crowd, taking advantage of their distraction even for that tiny second. Figures stepped aside for him, reacting perhaps to his urgency or his determination, or even just to the brute force that he was now using to get past. Somebody elbowed him in the ribs; somewhere a voice called his name. He knew that he had been recognised by too many people, and he knew that if anybody who knew him was able to catch him, it would all be over. He pushed on past, wiping aside a trail of blood that threatened to reduce his vision, knocking away the lashing hands and stabbing knives that were already beginning to hamper his progress once again. He knew the voice behind the scream; knew with every ounce of certainty within him that it had been Honey behind the heartrending sound. Up ahead he saw the edge of the crowd; saw a short patch of grass and a familiar white wall. He stumbled on through, ignoring the deafening sounds of the fighting; ignoring the virtual impossibilities of his ongoing struggle. A gust of fresh air caught him unawares, cutting through the heat and the mind-fog that came from the churning crowd. Somebody lashed out at him with a foot and he tripped, falling headlong to the ground and landing with a jolt on his hands and knees. The crowd was behind him. Staggering back to his feet, spitting blood from his mouth, he made it into the open air. The wishing well stood before him, a line of Demon Dogs standing on the far side of it, arranged like some kind of demented honour guard. They stared at him, eyes cold, weapons ready, clothing torn and body paint smeared. He stared back, recognising too many of their faces.

"Honey?" He stepped forward, searching for her, unable to see her even though the way ahead was clear. One of the line of Demon Dogs shouted his name, but he ignored them all. They would do what they wanted, whether he defied them or not. He was all too aware that there was very little chance of him being able to force his way back out through the massed throng. The line took a few steps towards him, separating to go around the well. He ignored them, moving forward himself, focussed now on finding Honey. Nothing else mattered. If there was no way out of this mess, the least that he could do was to finish what he had come here for. He felt no animosity towards the girl for leading him into the middle of the battle. She had saved his life; helped him to escape from the Artists and their Loco ally, Spike. If it hadn't been for her there would have been no way out of that underground room. He owed her, and he had decided that he was going to look after her. Shouting her name he moved closer to the wishing well, intending to climb up onto the low wall, hoping that that small amount of height would allow him to see over a few heads. Honey had to be somewhere nearby. He knew that she had been the cause of the scream, and it had not come from far away.

His step faltered as he neared the well. He saw the bloody handprint that coloured the uppermost ridge of the wall - saw the streak where a hand had been dragged across, smearing the print and striping the white stones with red lines. He quickened his pace, moved with greater urgency, almost broke into a run as he came closer and closer to the well. Somebody caught at his arms, but still he managed to move forward, dragging his would-be captor along with him. The wall seemed to shrink as he drew nearer to it, and he found himself suddenly able to see over it; to see into the pool beyond the white barrier, where the clear water with its flooring of glittering coins had been a scenic centre point to the park for so many years. The water was pink now; tinged an unnatural colour by the blood floating on the surface. Honey lay face down, floating on the surface, her body bent in order to fit in the cramped space. She had lost her shoes, and he didn't have to look far to see them on the feet of one of the nearest Dogs; an incongruous set of spangled red high heels supporting a six foot youth of seventeen; a boy with a fountain of blond hair, and a complex tangle of golden threads criss-crossing over his silver face. Blood red lips matched the red of his newly-acquired footwear, flashing in tandem with the red contact lenses that made his eyes blocks of the impenetrable, unnatural colour. He looked possessed; an image that was in no way dispelled by the smears of blood that covered his hands, and the material of his bone white shirt and trousers. Bray took a step back from the well. Flashing images of refracted coins danced before his eyes, and the mass of Honey's sodden hair chased through his mind, teasing him with glimpses of her smile; her green eyes; her pale skin with its smears and smudges of make-up. Her last scream echoed in his memory, torn apart by the sounds of her laughing voice.

"You." He turned to face the blond boy, shaking off the last clinging grip of whichever unseen person had grabbed his arms. The blond Demon Dog stared back at him, the red eyes unreadable, the painted face impassive. Bray's mind churned back through the years, tearing aside the layers of paint; discounting the untamed layers of yellow hair. He was seeing the face beneath. A tall, thin, pale child, hiding in the changing rooms to avoid football lessons at school; a scared boy trying to avoid the bullies, looking for help from the one kid in all of the school who had never turned his back; who had never joined in with the chorus of bellowed insults. Now the red eyes blinked, and a single drop of thickening blood fell from the fingertips of the pale left hand. Bray stared back at him, no longer hearing the screams and roars of a battle that was at last beginning to wane.

"Eric?" He moved forward, conscious that the other Demon Dogs were moving aside now to let him pass. The red eyes showed no reaction to the name, but Bray no longer saw them. His mind was filling in more detail; sketching in the pale grey eyes, the neatness of the short blond hair, the shy smile of an only child unsure how to relate to the other boys in his class. Bray had been the only one to give him a chance; the only one to speak to him; the only one to stand up for him when the bullies had moved in for the kill. Now that same shy kid who had cried rivers of tears as he hid from his classmates behind the science labs, was covered in the blood of a young girl, standing in the middle of a war in the middle of a city where he was now one of the worst bullies of all. He smiled a lop-sided smile, and his strange, sharp teeth shone whitely against his vivid red lipstick.

"Bray." The voice was a harsh whisper, as though roughened by the smoke of a thousand cigarettes. "I'd heard you were out on your own. It's not safe, you know. Not these days."

"You killed her." His voice cracked, bringing the New Zealand twang to the forefront, obliterating the American that was his usual sound nowadays. Eric shrugged.

"She killed herself. I had the knife, and she leapt onto it. She was crazy."

"And you killed her." He took another step forward, but this time the Demon Dogs moved to intercept him. He felt their arms intertwining with his own, pulling him back, holding him firm. There seemed little point in struggling, and he hardly had the strength for it anyway. He slumped against the steady pressure of their grip, making them support the greater part of his weight. His head was swimming. "Damn you, Eric." It was a painfully impotent thing to say, but there was nothing else to say instead. Words were altogether too pointless. His enemy cocked his head on one side.

"The name's not Eric anymore, Bray. They call me Leo now. I think it's the mane." He tossed his head, making the swirling masses of blond hair dance and leap. "Name's are important. They give us identity. They give us a place. They stop us being Strays."

"You didn't have to kill her!" Bray hardly recognised his own voice. The volume of it, and the rage behind it, made it something that he had not heard coming from his own mouth in years. Even Zoot had not faced the full wrath of his brother in recent times, for Bray had long since learned how to control such things. Or so he had thought. With a bellow that he scarcely heard above the turmoil of his own mind, he hurled himself forward. His arms were dragged back, caught irretrievably in the grip of so many others. He felt his shoulders scream and his wrists threaten to break. Eric - Leo - folded his arms, his red eyes still showing no emotion.

"Get him out of here." His voice carried no threats; no anger or emotion of any sort. It was empty and still, just like his eyes. Bray glared at him with as much hatred as he could muster.

"You'll never win this." He had never before wanted the Locos to win anything, but he wanted it now; wanted it with a tearing, desperate fever that he had never felt before. "You'll never win this battle or this war."

"That's not your problem." Eric snapped his fingers, and his confederates began to drag their violently resisting prisoner back into the churning, roiling crowd. Bray cast one last look over his shoulder, back towards the quiet little well. Already the fight was closing in, filling the empty spaces where before he and his captors had stopped to talk. A club smashed the white wall, breaking apart the only barrier between the water and its freedom. In a red-tinged river the contents of the well burst forth upon the grass, and Honey's lifeless form slid gently after it, borne upon a raft of shining wet coins. He wondered which of them was her father's, and wondered if she truly had known that herself. It was too late to wonder now; far too late to ask. The crowds moved together, and the wishing well was gone from his sight. He closed his eyes, trusting in his guards to lead him. Better to see nothing at all than to look at all the chaos around him. Better to try to avoid the reality of it all. No matter what the ultimate intentions of this blood-crazed pack, he knew that Honey's was not the only body in the park - and he knew very clearly that he didn't want to see any more.

It was impossible to run from the war. It raged in every street; at every crossroads. Overgrown gardens, once neatly tended, were awash with struggling bodies; shouting forms that punched and bit and kicked, or stabbed and slashed and cut, at every other being around them. The youngest children screamed; the eldest children roared and ranted. Terrified, Amber and Dal raced together through the carnage, dodging the worst of the battles, and trying to keep to the places where the fighting was less intense. They didn't know where they were going; they only knew that they had to run, and keep running. Their matching face paint; simple designs, for ease of use, might help them to avoid the dangers of being named as Strays, but would be of little use if they were dragged into the fight itself. There was no use in pretending to be a part of a proper tribe when you were dead.

"Which way now?" Dal's voice was high with panic, and his eyes were wide. Amber looked about. They had run into a cul-de-sac; the sort of place where a pleasant neighbourhood had once looked after itself in the shadow of meaner streets. Neat, castellated walls framed gardens of uniform shape and size; overgrown lawns covered with rambling weeds slowly mashed into mud and churned up greenery under the onslaught of so many stampeding feet. Everywhere there was fighting. Silver paint wrestled with black leather and goggles. The flying helmets of so many Locos lay in the mud on the ground, joined by the staves and the shining plastic skull caps of the Demon Dogs. It looked like a scene from some further glimpse of hell in the mind of Dante.

"I don't know." The confused girl leaned against the nearest wall, trying not to listen to the mad cacophony around her. "Back the way we came maybe."

"Back to that fight at the big crossroads?" He shook his head, and his tight black curls bounced, oddly merry in the face of all the anguish. "No. We can't go that way. We have to keep going forward."

"Then that's what we'll do." She seized his hand, terrified of being separated from him. "Just stick close by me, and don't look at anyone. We'll be alright if we make it clear that we're not on either side."

"Who do you suppose is winning?" It was impossible to tell for certain, and he had been wondering for some time. Was the plan to look for no immediate winner, and merely to carry on until no one was capable of fighting any longer? Certainly that seemed to be the current strategy. Amber shrugged.

"I'm not even sure who's fighting. These people can't all be Demon Dogs and Locos, surely?"

"The Artists were asked to join in. Who says other tribes weren't asked the same thing? There could be a hundred tribes taking part here, on one side or the other." He frowned at the seething mass of bodies, no longer able to distinguish the different tribes. Even Loco and Demon Dog seemed to have become one.

"What's in it for them?" Pressing onward again, walking steadily through those places where the fighting was less frantic, Amber kept her head down. "Why join either side? The risk is too great. Just imagine throwing in with the losers? You'd lose everything."

"Probably lose just as much if you refuse to join." Dal thought about the interrogation that they had overheard, and the violence apparently being used by the one called Spike. He was a Loco by reputation; another thug in a thuggish world. There was no telling what further violence might be brought to play against those who refused to join Spike and his tribe in their battle for supremacy.

"Well I'm not joining either side, no matter what they do to me." They had reached the end of the line of uniform gardens, and together they scrambled over the wall onto a neatly gravelled footpath that lay beyond. It stretched away in two directions at once; north, into an alley of red brick and tarmac, where a hand-written sign pasted to the wall read Walter's finest fish and chips - only one hundred yards! ; and south, into a archway of spreading trees, where moss-covered trunks and close knit branches shut out the best of the light. That way was dark and dank; but it was also quiet. Nobody seemed to be fighting there, and although it promised to be cold and wet, so too it promised to be safe. Still holding hands, Amber and Dal raced together down the green avenue. Soon the sounds of battle were swamped by thick vegetation, and the city seemed to fade away into the past. Gradually the duo slackened their frantic pace, and began to relax. It was only a temporary haven, that much was clear - but haven it truly was. It felt as though nothing in all of the world could reach them there. Amber let her body slow to a halt.

"This place is wonderful." She sat down on the mossy ground, leaning against the nearest tree trunk. Dal stood beside her, unable to relax enough to sit down.

"We're not very far from the battle we've just left." He looked back, fully expecting the skirmish to overflow onto the pathway at any moment. "This is just a sort of park, I think. A nature trail for the people who used to live in those fancy houses back there. We're still in the middle of the city."

"I know." She frowned, staring up at the trees. There were more birds than she remembered from the pre-Virus days; crowds of them roosting in the treetops, singing their final chorus of the day as the last fingers of sunlight illuminated their green-washed world. Somehow even that frantic music managed not to disturb the peace. "It's like that place near our old school, remember? My class used it a lot for special projects, a year or two before the Virus."

"I remember. Something to do with ecology." He laughed. "I remember watching through the window when you went off on one of your field trips. You had that useless teacher... Mr Marchant. He wore plus fours and green wellingtons, and tried to look like he was made for a life outdoors."

"Yes." Amber laughed too. "I used to quite like him, even though he was a total wet blanket." She sighed, rather pleased by the memory. "Come on. We should get moving."

"I know. It feels almost safe here, but..."

"Exactly." She forced herself to stand, even though she would have rather stayed where she was. "With luck we can be in the next sector before dawn. That way, if we listen to the grapevine and time things right, maybe we can keep one step ahead of this war."

"Great. From plague survivors to war refugees in one easy step." Dal looked around, still wondering even after all the intervening months, how a place could seem so familiar and yet so alien, all at the same time. "We won't be the only ones. If this goes on, everybody is going to try joining either the Locos or the Demon Dogs, or trying to stay one step ahead of them. There could be even more displacement than there was during the Lonely Times."

"Maybe we'll meet some people who'll travel with us. There's safety in numbers."

"And added danger. How do we know who to trust?"

"We don't." She bent to slip on her roller-skates, strapping them tightly across her feet. "But I don't know that we're doing ourselves any favours staying away from the rest of the people in this city. There have got to be some people who are on our side. That guy back at the Artists' headquarters for one. He got us out of there. Don't forget that."

"Yeah, maybe. But we'll never see him again." Dal fastened his own roller-skates, settling his rucksack more comfortably across his shoulders. He was very grateful to have got his bag back from the clutches of the Artists, but he couldn't help wishing that it was rather heavier - even if it was already chafing his shoulders. The thought made him smile somewhat ruefully, for it had been an attempt to find a few more stores which had led to all of their recent problems. Food-finding missions were growing more dangerous every day.

"I realise that this is rather taking us back to square one..." As usual it seemed that Amber's mind had been straying along paths similar to his own. "But we need some more food. What we've got won't last us more than a day - and that's being sparing." She fished out her water bottle, now less than a third full. "We need some more of this, too. We've got a lot of walking to do, and that's thirsty work, even in weather like this."

"It's going to rain. Maybe we can rig something up." Dal's inventive mind welcomed the challenge, which surprised him. He had thought that the hardship of recent months had all but stripped him of his old love for scientific problems. "If we can catch the rainwater, we can separate it from the salt. There's far less pollution in the rain these days - almost none at all. I could probably design some kind of distillation system..." He scowled. "I never was all that good at designing though. I was always more of a builder than a thinker."

"You're great at thinking things up." She thought things over for a moment. "I don't think we can stay still long enough for it to work though. Distillation and all the rest of it will take space and time. Think of the equipment we'd have to carry."

"I suppose." He shrugged. "It was only an idea."

"Sometimes I think you were made for a life like this." She made a swipe at him, playfully cuffing him over the head. "Now come on. Like you said, we're not that far from the battle. It's time we were moving."

"I wish we knew where this path leads." Pushing off, he skated a short distance down the green trail. She followed, moving at just the right speed to stay abreast of him. The skates had become natural extensions of her feet in recent months, and these days she hardly gave them a thought when she was wearing them.

"If we're careful, hopefully it won't matter." The question was soon answered, however, for there were small signs standing between several of the trees, directing them towards a Naval Museum. She smiled at the thought, having once been very much a fan of museums. "Maybe we should pay a visit," she said, only half joking. "See the exhibits."

"Geek," he told her affectionately. She laughed.

"Pot meet kettle. Anyway, we should probably go there. Museums tend to be old buildings, and old buildings are usually quite strong. If nobody's claimed it, it could make a good place to hide out for a few days."

"If necessary." He seemed to be searching her face, looking for whatever it was that she was thinking. "I can move fast, you know. I may be smaller than you, and I know that I'm not as strong - but I can keep up. You said that we had to get out of this sector, and I'm behind you one hundred percent."

"It won't be easy, Dal. The war is--"

"There's fighting on every street corner. I know that. We've been through some of it, and we haven't been caught up in any of it yet. I know that was luck rather than judgement - but there's no reason why we should be in any real danger. There are other people in this sector - people who have nothing to do with what's going on. People who couldn't tell a Loco from a Demon Dog if their lives depended on it. If they can survive, so can we. I don't plan on hiding, Amber. Not yet."

"Good." She smiled at him. "Although hiding might well become necessary before much longer. The wars is being fought sector by sector, and each sector falls under the sphere of influence of the winners. You've heard the rumours. The Dogs practically own the west of the city now. They leave the other gangs in place, but it's not safe to walk the streets if you're not a known supporter of them. Strays don't have a chance, and no matter how hard we pretend, there are just the two of us. Being a tribe of our own won't save us in a situation like that. I hear that the Locos are even worse."

"We'll be out of the city altogether before things get that bad." He increased his speed, skating ahead of her. "We're going far away, remember? We're going to grow our own food out in the countryside."

"It might be dangerous there too." She caught up with him again, amused by his enthusiasm, but concerned by it as well. Dal was so caught up in his dreams of an idyllic rural future that he sometimes forgot what the truth of that future might be. "Just because there are no Demon Dogs doesn't mean--"

"That there aren't any number of other gangs ready to cause trouble. I know." He shrugged. "But its a big country, Amber. In the city we're all crammed in together. Out in the countryside it would be different. We could keep ourselves to ourselves if needs be. All that we have to do is get out of the city. Then we can forget all about the war here, and about hiding from anybody who looks at all unfriendly. We'll be safe."

"You should be aiming to become a politician, not a farmer." She sighed. "Okay, forget the museum."

"We need provisions, though."

"And lots of them. I'd prefer to keep moving as much as possible from now on. We can't afford to stop to go on food-gathering expeditions every day."

"Fine." He nodded, as though getting food was the simplest thing - as though he was intending to go to the nearest supermarket and buy himself some loaves of bread. She smiled.

"Oh yeah? You have a plan then?"

"Of course I do." He looked so resolute that she had to share his enthusiasm, even though she had no idea where it was coming from.

"So what is it?" She didn't really expect an answer; much less a sensible one, but he had one ready all the same.

"Simple. The Demon Dogs and the Locos are here, in this sector. That means they must have some kind of local headquarters. And if they're all here, fighting each other in the streets..."

"Who's back at their headquarters looking after their food stores?" She whistled. "It's crazy Dal. We don't even know where their headquarters are."

"I think we do." His voice was very steady; very level; and she was reminded of how clever he had always been. Even as a very small child his intelligence had always been a point that adults had remarked upon. He had worked with the year ahead of his class for much of his time at school.

"Where?" She was intrigued, although her faith was not very strong. He came to a halt, folding his arms and staring up at her out of his serious, dark eyes. She saw his father looking back at her for a moment, with his calm confidence and self-certainty.

"The museum of course. It's perfect. It's a bit isolated out here, isn't it. Away from the other buildings. That's bound to make it easier to defend. And if you're right about it being one of those strong old buildings then it would be even better." He nodded, clearly liking his theory. "Plus it's Naval, remember. That means military exhibits. Maybe it even means workable weaponry. I can't see the looters having taken that sort of thing already, but the Locos and the Demon Dogs really could make use of it. Cannons, maybe. Old deck guns. They're usually made inoperable before being put out on display, but all that it takes is somebody with a little mechanical knowledge to put them right. I could do it myself, if I really thought about it. It's the perfect place, you know it is."

"The museum." She thought about how willing she had been to walk straight in without a moment's thought. She would have been looking for a refuge in the heart of a snake's lair. Dal was right; it made perfect sense. Of course it did.

"Shall we go?" He looked young again; like a small boy excited about a family trip. She sighed.

"We just walk in, do we?"

"Why not? Who's going to suspect anything? I can go in there as one of the free engineers and mechanics. There are plenty of them, and we know that they deal with all of the big tribes. We can go right in there and get whatever we need. I know we can."

"You do, huh." She glanced back the way that they had come, torn between wishing to believe his convictions, and wanting to err on the side of caution. In the end, though, she could think of no alternatives. Sometimes, especially these days, risks became a necessity. With a sigh she gave a nod, and pushed off once again on her skates before she could change her mind. "Then we'd better get going, hadn't we."

"Right behind you." He came after her, still acting like an excitable little boy. In many ways it was a pleasure to see. Everybody had been forced to grow up far too quickly in recent months - herself included. Maybe he was right. Maybe getting out of the city was the best thing. Maybe then they could both act like kids again. "You won't regret this, Amber."

"I hope that I don't." She had to laugh, no matter what the risks. She also knew that she had to get this latest exploit over with, before she changed her mind. Speeding up, she left her companion behind her, heading down the path. Up ahead she could already see the museum showing through the gaps in the trees. She spared a moment's thought for the staff; the people who would have shown her around once upon a time, and explained the various exhibits. They would all be dead by now. Dead and gone and quite likely forgotten, with her the only person bothering to spare them a thought. She did not think of them for very long, however. She had herself to worry about; herself and Dal and everything that could and probably would go wrong. No time to think of ghosts. No time for anything but the present.

His captors left him with a group of resting Demon Dogs; those recovering from minor wounds, and those who had not yet joined in the fighting. They were the younger members for the most part, and those who clearly were not built for combat. The kind recruited for their mental rather than their physical strength; a small minority within the tribe. They made no real attempt to secure him, or to be sure that he could'nt get away, for they seemed to trust that he would make no such attempt. He didn't. There was little point, trapped as he was by his position. Behind him was a wall, some twenty feet high, which according to the plentiful, graffiti-abused signs, backed onto a cinema. To the right and the left were the sprawling, casual guards, and in front of him was the battle. There was no chance of fighting his way through that, especially now that he had been recognised. One or two of the guards had pointed him out, correctly identifying him as a known enemy. They even knew his name, and he knew that the message of his capture would already have been passed on to those higher up the chain of command. The Locos had recognised him too. Five or six of them had pointed, or shouted, spreading word around their troops. He wondered if the message would get back to Zoot. He had seen no sign of his brother as yet, but he knew that he could not be far away. Once or twice the eerie wail of the police siren had risen above the sounds of the battle, and that could only mean one thing. Zoot was patrolling the perimeter of the fighting, and its many minor off-shoots. He was probably in the company of some of his best and most trusted men, ready to pick off those child soldiers who were fighting for the enemy on the riot's periphery.

They left him alone, now that they had him. It was almost amusing. For months they had been after him, trying all manner of tricks to corner or kill him; and now that they had finally succeeded, they didn't seem to know what to do next. For the most part they were still busy, fighting a battle that was gradually coming to its natural end. The Demon Dogs were retreating, gathering themselves up into a jumble at one end of the park, no longer spread out across its entire length and breadth. The Locos were aware of their victory, and were growing louder and more violent in their defence of the land that they had already won. Bray caught sight of Spike at the forefront of the assault, and winced at the look of furious abandon on the boy's pale face. Spike was one of those that Bray had not known in the days before the Virus, and seeing him now made him wonder just what sort of a life the wanton Loco had led in the before times. Would his parents ever have countenanced such behaviour? There was no reason to suppose anything either way, for Zoot had had a respectable upbringing, and had turned into one of the worst of all the present offenders. Spike, however, had the look about him of a boy raised on a diet of violence, and the thought almost made Bray shiver. It was kids like that, it seemed, who were to inherit the world as it now stood. So much for the meek being first in line for rule. The way things were at the moment, the only thing that the meek were first in line for was slavery. Either that or annihilation.

He tried to talk to his companions; the wounded and the few with medical knowledge who hung by waiting to help where they could. They didn't answer him when he spoke to them, or even bother to look in his direction. He could see an apathy seeping in, for he knew that, at any other time, they would have responded in one way at least to his attempts at conversation. If they no longer had the motivation for physical violence, then their defeat could surely not be far off. He tried appealing to their better natures; tried persuading them to surrender before too many more of their number were killed. He tried to reason with the more intellectual amongst them, but all with the same effect. Their steady and silent indifference to his presence began to annoy him, and he felt his patience beginning to fray. Why would they not speak to him at least? He had been aware that they hated him, but he hadn't thought that they would hold him in this low regard. It stung, almost as a physical pain. There seemed no way to change the state of affairs, however; and just as his unpleasant predicament continued, so too did the fighting remain underway. The savagery of it disturbed him, for he hadn't seen such violence before in any of the battles he had witnessed on the streets. Usually the opposing sides did not aim to kill, but to disable temporarily. They wanted survivors to capture and enslave, or to interrogate and torment. This time, though, so many of them seemed to be playing it all for real. Under the steady assault of the advancing Locos, more and more Demon Dogs were falling to the ground. Some would never rise again. Bray wondered how long it would be before the Locos reached his own protected enclave, and the Locos that found him dispatched him to join his parents and the rest of the adults.

The end of the fighting was inevitable of course. What Bray had not been expecting was the suddenness of it all; the total and complete cessation of violence in such a brief, remarkable moment. He could hear distant sounds, suggesting to him that other fights - smaller off-shoots of the main one, being fought in different areas about the sector - were still continuing. Presumably they would not do so for long. In the park around him the silence came by some unspoken mutual agreement - a wail of the approaching police siren; a shout from somewhere near the wishing well - and then nothing. As one the Demon Dogs threw down their weapons, and gathered together around their wounded friends. The leader of them; a very tall, incredibly lanky youth of almost nineteen; a shining silver beanpole streaked in sweat, stepped forward out of the ranks, as the Locos ranged themselves opposite. It was all over almost before Bray had realised that they had moved on to a new stage; a meeting of minds that seemed familiar to those taking part. He scrambled to his feet.

"Stay down." One of the nearest of the Dogs, speaking to him for the first time, tried to knock him back to the ground. Bray resisted him, pushing his way through the strangely unresisting Demon Dogs to reach the front of the crowd. The tall, shaven-headed leader of the tribe turned to look at him, but did not speak.

"Bray?" He turned his head at the voice, seeing past the silver lines around him, to the familiar faces ranged up in opposition. Three Locos stood apart from the rest - Spike and two companions that Bray knew equally well. The first was Zebra, an unimaginatively named boy who had chosen to paint both sides of his face in opposing stripes of black and white. His clothing was of similar colouring, and his hair, long and black, rose in a spiked mane on top of his head, falling down to the middle of his back. He wore white shoes that he had somehow managed to keep in pristine condition, so that they were not discoloured in the slightest by the mud and blood of the battlefield. They seemed to glow against the dirtied grass that lay under his feet. Next to him, a little behind the glowering Spike, was Orion, a spindly, iridescent girl with lemon-yellow hair, who sported copious amounts of glitter eye shadow, and lipstick that looked startlingly like ultra-violet light beams. Her fingernails were several inches long, each one either red or purple, and shining brightly with the slightest movement. Her shirt, covered in stars of silver and blue, reached down to her knees, and she wore skin-tight leggings in horizontal stripes of purple and red so thin that they played tricks on any eye that strayed across them for too long. She was smiling, and her long-nailed fingers toyed balefully with her long, yellow hair.

"Why Bray. Fancy meeting you here." She walked towards him as though her legs were made out of treacle, each step a sway that suggested her legs were unable to hold her own slight weight. Her ultra-violet lips cranked up into a smile that lingered strangely between malevolence and flirtation. "I never expected you to join the Demon Dogs."

"He's not one of us." Rich, the tall, bald leader of the Dogs, dropped a silver hand into Bray's shoulder. "He's our prisoner. Let us walk out of here alive and we'll turn him over to you. We all know that you lot want him as much as we do."

"If we want him, sugar, we'll take him whatever deals you think you can make." Orion sashayed closer, fluttering her iridescent eyelids. Bray would have sworn that beneath his inch-thick greasepaint Rich had turned several shades paler. His grip on his prisoner's shoulder did not relax, however, and instead he took a step forward.

"You might think that you can take him, but if you try it he's dead. Maybe you think he's worth as much to you that way as he would be alive, but I think you'll find out that he isn't. Don't tell me you haven't figured out that there's something strange between him and Zoot. There are all kinds of weird tales on the streets, and I don't think your boss will thank you for bringing home a body." He tried to give Bray a demonstrative shake, but found the figure in his grip unresponsive. Bray twisted free. He didn't particularly want to go with either side of this unattractive stand-off, but the occasional wail of the police siren reminded him that there was a possible ally on the Locos' side. Someone that might be called upon not to put him to instant death. He wondered if, after his departure with Trudy, Zoot would still be prepared to spare him, and had to conclude that that slim chance was the best on offer.

"Just make your lousy deal." Straightening his dirty black T-shirt, sodden by the earlier rain, he knew that he cut an unimpressive figure amongst so many tribal figures in all their war-like finery. Instead of coloured leathers and silk he had merely his old battered bag and grime-encrusted skateboard; and yet somehow now every pair of eyes had turned to look at him. From the triumphant Locos to the cowed Demon Dogs, everybody seemed to be looking to him for something. He ran a hand through his hair, feeling the bedraggled remains of the sky-blue feather that he had woven into the single long plait who knew how many days before. It was ruined now, and unrecognisable, staining his fingers with the last dregs of the clothing dye that had once given it its unnatural colour. "Get out of here, Rich. All of you. There's no question about who's won this sector. Get going before Spike here makes this battle decide the whole war. He could order all of you killed, and there'd be nothing any of us could do to stop it."

"Now wait a minute." Stepping forward, his favourite long knife glittering in his hand, Spike made a move as though to stop the departure of Rich. A murmur of menace wound its way through the Demon Dog ranks, threatening to begin the hostilities all over again. Zebra also stepped forward.

"Leave it, Spike. Our orders were to mop up the outsiders, not to do anything with the main group. We've got no facilities to keep this many prisoners, and there's still too many Demon Dogs out on the streets. If we do anything to this lot we'll be asking for trouble."

"Don't order me around, Zee." Spike looked from Rich to Bray and back again, then scowled as he admitted defeat. "Alright, we've got a deal." He pointed the knife blade at Bray. "He stays, and the rest of you can go. Take anybody who can still walk. The rest can stay and take their chances with our medics." He smiled, as though this was some wonderful joke. "We might even send the survivors back to you in a day or so."

"Great." Rich gave Bray a hard shove, sending him stumbling over to the other side of the gathering. None of the Locos laid a hand on him, which was something of a relief even if it was unexpected. He turned back to watch as the Demon Dogs prepared to depart, wondering as he did so just how much of a triumph his change of sides had been. To have been captured by the Demon Dogs had been a terrible blow, and he would have chosen almost any fate above remaining in their clutches. But to swap their evil intentions for those of the Locos? He didn't think that he was really any better off now than he had been before. Orion reached out for his hand.

"Come on, Bray." Her voice was soft and lilting, like that of a girl speaking to her first love. Bray knew that there was nothing real in it. She spoke to everybody that way, male and female alike; and nobody seemed to know if there was any gender she preferred, or even if she felt anything for anyone at all. Certainly she did not seem to be aware of the flirtatiousness that was at the very core of everything she did. If anything her intentions were the complete opposite of anything loving, for at the drop of a hat she could change her tone and her bearing, and become an evil whirlwind armed with silver hair pins that doubled as daggers. She could aim them with deadly accuracy, and despite their short length they were rumoured to be long enough to stab through to the heart of any victim. Bray held back.

"Where do you want me to go?" He was unwilling to leave the park just yet, for he still hoped to get the chance to bury Honey. He had lost sight of her, although he was sure that she must still be near the wishing well. Not until the battle was long over would the dead be moved about by looters. He imagined her stripped of anything useful, her sorry body lying amongst the glittering coins in all that icy cold water. It didn't bear thinking about.

"Where do you think, honey? Back home." She couldn't have known how it made him feel to hear that term of endearment, but she seemed to notice his wince. She made no comment about it. "We have standing orders to take you straight home to Ebony. Although why she should have all the fun is something of a sore point. Seems even Zoot's not allowed to play."

"Ebony?" Bray wondered what she could possibly have planned for him, as always unsure what her motives might be. The girl was unpredictable at best, as her insistence on helping him to escape the Locos' clutches once before had so clearly testified. He had always assumed that she had wanted both him and Trudy out of the picture, in order to further her own interests as Zoot's right-hand woman, but he knew that he could not count on her to save him a second time. Orion laughed a throaty laugh that sounded like the most insinuating, sexy giggle ever to escape a teenaged throat. She spread her arms wide, making her shirt billow, and filling the air with the scent of bottled roses.

"Of course Ebony. Bray dear, if you don't know how she feels about you, then you really are as dim-witted as your reputation would have us believe." She spun about to watch the procession of the Demon Dogs; a silver parade that she had obviously witnessed before. Presumably she had been part of one or two defeated processions herself, for the Demon Dogs had won just as often as they had lost. As she moved her head, the deadly hair pins gripping her copious locks came into view, their jewelled heads sticking up from within the piled mess of dyed curls. Bray wondered if she could throw them with as much accuracy as she was supposed to be able to use them for stabbing; for if so, there was little point in trying to run away. Not that there was anywhere to run to.

"I know exactly how she feels about me." He remembered the long-ago days of their awkward romance, and how it had all fallen apart when his parents had become ill. Ebony had never forgiven him for ending their relationship, and through a bizarre mix of threats, violence and cajoling, she had been trying ever since to make him fall for her again. Needless to say, he had no intention of allowing it to happen. "Listen, Orion..."

"Shut up, Bray." Once again he had been fooled by her easy manner, for it was clear now that she was just as much of a jailer to him as the raven-haired Jet had been, with his ropes and his cellar room, and his stout metal chair; and just because she kept her weapons secreted away inside her lemon yellow tresses did not make her any the less deadly than the Demon Dog warrior who had murdered Honey. He sighed.

"I'm not going back with you. I can't. I have other places I have to be going to."

"Trudy." This time the enmity in her eyes was unmistakable, as all the illusions of playfulness fell away. "You stole her. Zoot may be prepared to let it pass, but the rest of us aren't. She was one of us. You took her away." She leaned closer, and the bottled roses grew stronger and stronger until they seemed to saturate the air. "You'll pay for that."

"Can you see Trudy?" He almost shouted it at her, gesturing about the park as he did so. "Have you seen her here at all? I came here with somebody else today. I've been travelling with her for--" He hesitated, uncertain how many of the local tribes the other Locos had conversed with. Might anybody besides Spike have met the glitter-spangled Artists? "For some time now. She's dead. The Demon Dogs killed her. I'm not with Trudy."

"Which makes all of us best friends, of course." Sarcasm dripped from Orion's poisonous tongue. "You're coming back to Loco Headquarters, and you're meeting with Ebony. Maybe with Zoot. Whatever it is that's been keeping him from killing you all this time won't save you once he finds out that we've got you back." Her purple and red nails flashed as she stroked the front of his T-shirt. "Now tell us where Trudy is, and we might let you stay alive."

"I haven't seen her since the day we left the rail yard back in our home sector. She walked out on me because she was jealous of the kid I've been with." His eyes trailed away towards the wishing well. It felt dirty somehow, drawing Honey into tales spun in the hope of gaining his freedom, or at the very least of saving his life. Orion seemed about to reply, but the wailing of the police siren stole her words from her mouth, and instead she turned away. The car rolled into the park, bumping over fallen weaponry and bits of broken play equipment. The light on top was flashing, its spinning blue beam casting rolling shadows across the goggled face of the boy standing on the back seat. Bray stared at the pale skin with its mad cobwebs of red war paint, trying to see through the impenetrable fighting goggles to the equally impenetrable contact lenses beneath. The car jolted to a halt.

"Orion." Zoot sounded almost polite, and for a second Bray could almost imagine that he heard his father's voice coming from the leather-wrapped figure before him. He felt Orion tense, and her shining face lifted up to stare towards her redoubtable leader.

"Yes, Zoot." There was a fawning air to her voice, although she was hardly the kind to offer undue flattery. "What do you want me to do with the prisoner?"

"Prisoner?" The goggled eyes wandered lazily across to Bray, as though seeing him for the first time. They remained in place for several moments, staring and examining, secure in the certainty that they themselves could not be seen. Bray stared back at the empty lenses, trying to read the expression on what little he could see of his brother's face. "Oh. Him."

"We were under orders to deliver him to Ebony." Orion looked uncertain, but Zoot merely gestured rather vaguely in the air.

"Forget it. I think that any orders of mine countermand whatever she's told you." He jumped up, swinging himself out of the hole in the roof of the police car, leaping lightly down to the ground. "You can leave us. All of you. Start to head back to base."

"You want to be left alone with him?" Spike sounded angry, for he had been hoping to conduct an execution ever since discovering Bray in the hands of the Artists. Zoot lowered his goggles, staring back at his underling with an expression designed to intimidate.

"I believe that's what I said, Spike." He jerked his head back towards the entrance to the park. "Get going. Finish the little fights; make sure everybody knows we won. With the fighting over, the locals will start to come out again. Grab anybody who looks like they're on their own. We might as well get whatever we can out of this."

"Whatever you say, Zoot." The promise of violence that this new assignment offered had the desired effect upon Spike's state of mind, for he immediately cheered up. "We'll get right onto it." He waved a gloved arm, calling the rest of the Locos towards him. "Move out!"

"They'll probably double our workforce by the end of the day. The end of a battle always gets us a good number of slaves." Zoot's tone of voice was conversational and light. Bray glowered.

"Don't go trying to wind me up, Zoot. I've had a tough day, and I'm not in the mood for your little games."

"Good." Zoot folded his arms, staring up at his brother. "Then there'll be no more games. Where is she, Bray?"

"Who?" He kept his own voice light, matching Zoot as closely as possible. The lifeless contact lenses stared back at him.

"You know who. We let you get away because we figured that the war with the Demon Dogs took precedence. But don't get me wrong, man. I want her back. Her place isn't with some highbrow loser who belongs in the old world. She should be with me."

"Maybe she has other ideas." He sighed, rubbing his face with grimy hands, hoping to make himself feel a little more awake, and a little less drained. "Listen, Zoot--"

"Forget it." His brother turned away, hands now sunk deeply into his pockets. "I'm fighting a war, Bray. It could go on for a long time. I've lost a lot of people already. By the time it's over it's going to have decided who owns squatters' rights on every sector of this city. And that means that I don't have time to worry about what you're up to. I want Trudy back, and I'll do whatever it takes to get her; but I'll get this war over and done with first if that's what has to be done."

"So what's your point?" He was fairly sure what was coming; the demands, backed with violence, for some information about Trudy's whereabouts. Zoot had a right, perhaps, to know that his wife was at least okay. His brother shrugged.

"No point. I just want you to understand what your importance is to me. Be under no illusions, Bray. You can do what you like - take what you like - but you're nothing compared to what I'm doing now. I have my city to shape and build. I have power and chaos to create and spread. You... you're nothing but some minor irritant that got in the way. You thought that I'd come after you if you took Trudy, didn't you. You thought that you'd have to run forever, or we'd catch up with you. Truth is that I don't give a damn what you do. My first priority is fighting the Demon Dogs. That's how much you mean to me, Bray. Nothing. Nothing at all."

"Zoot..." He took a step forward, but an upraised hand froze him in his tracks. There was nobody else nearby now. He was sure that he could overpower his brother if he only tried it - and yet something kept him still, and prevented him from taking another step. Zoot glared at him.

"Forget it, Bray. When all of this is over, I'll come after you. When I'm ready, and this city is mine, I'll get Trudy back, and I'll get you, and anybody who's chosen to stand with you. You can't get out of the city, and you know it. You're trapped here. You can watch each sector fall, to whichever tribe, and all the time know that some day, sooner or later, the last one is going to choose its side. And then, dear brother, know that I'll be coming for you."

"That's it? I can leave?" It seemed like a stroke of luck, but he knew that it wasn't. It was no victory, and it certainly was no escape. "Just walk out of here?"

"What do I want you for? I can kill you or I can stick you on the chain gang. Some revenge that would be. I want you out there, protecting my wife, until the time comes when I can come to take what's mine. When I can spare the time to deal with you the way you deserve to be dealt with. You're nothing, Bray. The Demon Dogs are more important to me than you are. I'm letting you go because I couldn't be bothered to do anything else with you right now, not because I've decided to show a little compassion."

"The war takes up that much of your time? You're so busy you can't spare five minutes to dream up some unpleasant fate for your own brother?" Bray shook his head. "You're always trying to play the menacing leader of men, aren't you Martin. Always trying to act tough. Well you can say what you like, but you don't intimidate me. So I'm supposed to wait for my fate, to make it seem all the worse, is that it? I don't give a damn what you do to me. You think anything can be as bad as all the things I've seen these last few months? If you planning on killing me, little brother, do it right now. You're not going to get to me with your big talk."

"Finished?" Zoot cocked an amused eyebrow. "Then get out of here, Bray. When are you going to learn that you don't mean anything anymore? You used to be a big guy around town, sure. People thought you were something special, with all your long words and your great school grades, and all that 'Save The Earth' stuff. Well news flash, man - none of that means anything anymore. It's not big words that get you respect in my city. It's big knives, and big gangs, and big cars. Nobody cares about school grades, because nobody goes to school. And as for saving the Earth... saving it from what exactly? There's no more pollution, no more factory smoke, no more poaching or whaling or ivory hunting. The world's won. There's nothing left to save. You can't even make the old ladies happy by playing all that classical crap on the piano anymore, because there are no more old ladies for you to impress." He began to smile. "I'm the big guy in this town, Bray. You're just a has-been. A guy who should have died when all the other has-beens got sick. I'm not letting you go now because I want to intimidate you, or make you worry about the future. I'm not even letting you go so I can have somebody follow you to wherever you've stashed Trudy. I'm letting you go because you're no threat. Because I have survivors to mop up, and a new sector to break in, and you're nothing compared to that. It's a big city, Bray. Bigger than ever, now there's so few of us left in it. A big city filled with power and chaos, and you all on your own in the middle of it. So very, very small. And there's nowhere you can go, and nobody who'll help you. Now get out of here."

"I'm going." He found that his brother's words had hurt more than the blows and rough handling that was his usual fate at the hands of the Locos. It was not pleasant to hear such stories of his worthlessness from the mouth of somebody who was supposed to mean so much to him. It was not pleasant to be aware - fully, hotly aware - that everything Zoot had said had been true. Bray was an anachronism. He was a nothing in a city that was turning in an unfamiliar direction. Even his enemies couldn't be bothered to kill him.

"Goodbye, Bray." Mockery filled his brother's voice, making him sound like a snide kid in a schoolyard, suddenly possessed by a middle-aged cynic that hated the world. Bray didn't look back at him. So he was nothing was he? A foe that wasn't even worth taking out of commission? Trudy didn't think so. Trudy needed him. Bray had not wanted her company, and yet right now he knew that he needed her perhaps more than she could ever need him. He didn't want to be a nothing, dismissed by the world. For once he didn't even want to be alone. As he reached the edge of the park he threw down his skateboard and jumped onto it. He had to find his way back to the place where he had left Trudy. He had already been away too long.

When he had gone, Zoot lifted his flying goggles back up to cover his eyes, then turned about to head back to the police car, waiting for him at a respectful distance. Ebony was sprawled on the back seat, and she moved aside to make room for him as he entered through the door.

"Why'd you let him go?" She sounded almost reproachful. Zoot shrugged.

"I have Demon Dogs to play with. I don't have time for him as well."

"You could have given him to me." This time it was petulance that filled her voice, but he didn't rise to the bait.

"You have more important things to concentrate on as well." He sat down beside her, and gestured for the car's young driver to take them back to the road. "Besides, I have a feeling that Bray's going to be coming back to us before very much longer."

"Oh? You know something that I don't?" Her interest had been piqued, which was exactly what he had wanted. He chose not to answer her, however, but to leave her in suspense. It amused him. She scowled at him.


"Leave it, Ebony." He turned to look out of his window, to where the small, impossibly lonely figure of his brother was skating away. "But he'll be back. You'll see soon enough. And having him come to me works better than having to capture and hold him. It's a much more telling victory. I've won more from letting him go than I ever could by keeping him. He'll see that for himself pretty soon."

"Have you done something?" She sounded annoyed at him, and excited as well. He shook his head,

"I haven't done anything. It's the city. The city's done it all." He leaned back in the seat, linking his hands behind his head, and staring up at the flashing blue light that shone through the hole in the roof. "I want Bray to come to me, asking me for my help; and I'm going to get that, sooner than you think. The big hero of the old world turns to the guy everybody thought was just another kid. Destroying the old way. That's the birth of true chaos. And chaos is the birth of true power."

"You can be pretty weird at times, you know that?" She raised an eyebrow, smiling slyly at him. He shrugged.

"Life is weird. These streets are weird. There's nothing wrong with being that way too." He pointed at her, his finger jabbing home with a determination that bordered on feverish. "You'll see that I'm right, when everybody in this city bows down at the mention of my name. That day will come, and it'll come in the middle of such chaos that even you can't imagine it. It is coming though. I can feel it."

"And this is all because Bray's going to ask for your help?" She didn't believe any of it, but Zoot did not seem to mind. He shrugged, leaning forward to drop a CD into the car's complex, hand-made sound system.

"Wait and see," was all that he would tell her, smiling all the while at her glare of frustrated annoyance. "See what blows in with the morning. You might just be surprised." He rested his feet on the back of the front passenger seat, and closed his hidden eyes, smiling at dreams of chaotic horizons. "But not half as surprised as Bray's going to be, once the streets are through with him."

In the event, there was nobody inside the museum at all. The doors were closed, but unbarred, and the banners that hung in the windows, proclaiming the place to be under the command of the Locusts, were presumably deterrent enough for any would-be thieves - save two. Dal and Amber entered through the huge front doors, passing the simple turnstile where once the steady strings of visitors had offered their tickets to members of staff. Amber smiled at the sight of it, for it was familiar enough even though she had never seen it before. She had spent a good deal of time in such places in the past, and somehow they were all the same. Her mind drifted back over some of the museums of her earlier life, and she wondered briefly what had happened to them. All ransacked by now, no doubt - from the old farming museum beloved of her history teacher, to the crumbling old place filled with six centuries of household items that she had loved to wander through at the weekends. Maybe somebody was making use of all of that stuff now; all the old things that had no need of electricity to power them. She rather hoped so. Beside her, far less concerned with history, Dal stared around.

"It's so quiet," he said, his voice greatly hushed. She nodded.

"It probably always was." It seemed likely, even in the days when the place had been filled with visitors. The walls were thick enough to block out all sounds from the outside world - save, perhaps, for the very loudest - and such was the air of venerability that somehow pervaded its exposed wooden beams and grand sweeps of white-washed stone, that any members of the public wandering through its interior had undoubtedly been at great pains to whisper. The thought made her smile again. Quiet places so often left her tempted to giggle. Dal saw her amusement, and smiled as well.

"Want to shout, and see if it echoes?"

"I bet it would." She looked up at the high ceiling. "It feels like a church in here. This silence is almost stifling."

"I doubt it's very quiet when the Locos are at home." He tipped back his head, staring up at the beams high above them. "I know what you mean, though. Seems unnatural."

"It does rather." It bothered her, toying with her senses. "I never was very good with quiet places."

"Yeah, I know. Remember your aunt's wedding? You kept laughing when we were supposed to be quiet." Dal smiled at the memory. It had been his first Christian wedding, a more solemn affair than he was used to, and Amber's helpless giggling had made the day go by much faster. She nodded.

"I can't help it. Still, we shouldn't even be thinking about giggling. We need to concentrate, Dal."

"Yeah, I know." He began to wander ahead, apparently drawn to some of the exhibits still remaining intact. "Makes me think, though. About the museums that we used to visit." His eyes brightened suddenly. "Remember the science museum? I used to love going there. That was always too quiet as well, though. It was like visiting a Victorian painting. All stiffness and starch."

"That's just because they of disapproved of you, after you corrected one of their tour guides once. You were about six, and--"

"I remember." He sounded embarrassed. "Something about the atomic weight of hydrogen. My mother looked mortified."

"So did the guy you corrected." They shared one of their all too rare laughs. "We really should get a move on."

"Yeah." He was still looking about, half-tempted to forget about searching for food in favour of exploring the museum. "Where shall we start?" Amber shrugged.

"How about the canteen? The facilities for food storage would still be there. They might even have been able to get some of the fridges and microwaves working again if they have enough batteries. The Locos have their pick of most of the city's resources, so it would make sense."

"The canteen." He nodded. "Lead on."

"It's this way." Looking at the signs that still decorated the walls, she chose the arrow that pointed towards the canteen. Their skates made faint whirring noises on the floor as they went, although it did little to dispel the silence. A thought occurred to Dal as they went along, and he smiled.

"Think there's any chocolate left in the vending machines?"

"I very much doubt it." She smiled back. "Why? Do you have some money?"

"Like that's going to work." He shook his head. "But no. I left it all behind in the orphanage before we left. Everybody was still saying that things would sort themselves out, but I guess I knew that they wouldn't. And after all that... well it was pretty obvious that we wouldn't be needing money anymore."

"Yeah. I left my own behind that day too." She remembered it painfully clearly - a black wallet, with her initials embossed on the cover. Five paper notes tucked neatly in the back pocket, and six coins in the compartment at the side. Her library card in another pocket; a telephone card slipped in behind it; her school ID card just behind that. It had taken more strength than she could ever have thought it would, to put it down on a table and walk out of the building forever. So much of her past... and all with so little value. "Here. Down this way."

They hurried, without quite realising that that was what they were doing. Despite the silence and emptiness of the place, it was painfully clear that the residents would not be gone for long. Even if they lost their battle with the Demon Dogs, they would still return to the museum, ready to lick their wounds and begin all over again. If they returned in a triumph it would be even more dangerous for the two uninvited guests; for then there would be partying and carousing, and very probably a great deal of violence. It was often said that the only thing more dangerous than an angry Loco was a happy one - but fortunately neither Amber nor Dal had ever had cause to put the theory to the test. Amber had no intention of allowing today to be the day that that changed.

"Through here." Their conversation had fallen to a minimum. Neither of them was exactly sorry. It was too hard to be cheerful in a place as determinedly silent as the museum; a place where every little sound seemed to be absorbed by the thick walls and glowering ceiling. Dal did not answer her as she gave the final direction of their wander, and merely stepped forward to help her push open the heavy swinging door that led to the canteen. Inside, if it were possible, the silence was even more oppressive than in the corridors and rooms beyond. The pervading gloom didn't help, a darkness emphasised by the total lack of lighting.

It was a big room, obviously more modern than the rest of the museum. The floor was a mass of black and white ceramic tiles, covered in dust and mud, and scuffed and scarred both by stamping, booted feet and by the wheels of too many roller-skates. For the most part the tables remained where the room's original designers had placed them, although the chairs had been hurled all over the place. They were plastic; a blaze of bright and gaudy colours that seemed to spread themselves around like the massed scribblings of a large packet of crayons. The table tops were coloured too, but all in black and white, matching the floor tiles shade for shade and scuff for scuff. Obviously the Locos liked to dance on their tables.

"Here." Leading the way through the jumbled furniture, Amber indicated the counter, behind which the giant metal fridges, freezers and cooking appliances were easily visible. Dal pulled off his roller-skates and scrambled over. Beyond, the black and white tiles turned into more practical stone flagging, worn by years of hard cleaning. There was a new chain around the nearest of the fridges, and he smiled in merry satisfaction.

"I think we struck gold."

"Yeah?" She couldn't see from where she was standing, but experience leant her some degree of foresight. "Let me guess. It's all locked up."

"Heavy duty chain. The padlock is nothing special though." He shrugged. "Not that it does me any good. I'm no locksmith."

"Maybe you won't have to be." She ran her hands over the shelves alongside the counter, and Dal, catching the direction of her thoughts, began his own, similar search. It did not take long before he came up with a key, lying camouflaged with dust in the corner of a windowsill. He glanced at it, comparing its shape with the approximate shape of all the padlocks that he could see, on all of the cupboards and fridges. It seemed that the one key fitted all of the locks.

"Get a move on Dal. I don't know if it's ghosts, or my imagination, but I'm sure I keep hearing things."

"I hope it's just your imagination." Dal stuck the key into the nearest lock, turning it without difficulty. The chain rattled its way to the floor, and with a sharp click he pulled open the door. Inside, the space beyond was a veritable army of tins; row upon row of them, lined up neatly like the massed ranks of an army poised to march. Dal whistled.

"I hope you've got a lot of room in your bag, Amber."

"Oh, I think we can manage." She threw the bag at him, and he caught it in one hand, using the other to lift his own bag down to the ground.

"Any preferences?"

"What choice do we have?" She had meant it as a joke, for the last thing on her mind had been a search for the best from what was on offer. He ran his eyes over the tins.

"Carrots, potatoes, ham, peas, kidney beans, butter beans, marmalade, sardines, peaches, tongue, soup - about six flavours from what I can see..." He turned his attention to the lower shelves. "Plus chicken in sweet and sour sauce, chicken in white sauce, chicken in curry sauce, chicken in chilli sauce..." He frowned. "You do like chicken, don't you?"

"Shut up and get a move on." She shook her head in amused exasperation. "I don't care if I have to eat uncooked spaghetti. Just as long as it's food."

"I'll hold you to that." He began to load up the bags, putting the tins in carefully, to be sure that he could fit as many as possible into the space available. Amber did not hurry him, although she very much wanted to. Whilst he was busy she began to collect up a few of the bottles of water that were lying around in the canteen. She recognised brand names; still and carbonated spring water, bottled, so the labels said, at the source of springs valued for centuries for their wondrous properties. She selected four of them; those that seemed easiest to carry, and busied herself attaching them to some lengths of cord hanging, amongst other items, just inside the door. She considered taking some of the other equipment too - there were several things that might have been of use. She decided in the end not to risk it. There was always a chance that the thefts she and Dal had so far committed would remain unnoticed for a while; but if she took anything too obvious, the Locos might well come after them before they had had a chance to get clean away. She did not fancy their chances at the hands of an enraged bunch of warriors anxious to regain their stores.

"Are you ready?" Dal was climbing back over the counter before she was aware that the sounds of his tin-stacking had ceased. She hurried to meet him, swapping her bag for two of the bottles of water. With their rope straps, it was easy to sling the bottles over their shoulders, and the bags helped to keep them secure. Dal slipped back into his roller-skates.

"Might I suggest a very quick getaway?" He was looking increasingly nervous, as though echoes of an unnecessary conscience were catching up with him. She nodded.

"Definitely. I vote we go out at the back. There's bound to be windows we can use, and we don't know who we might meet by the front door."

"Right behind you." In immediate contradiction to his words, he preceded her to the door, stepping out into the corridor. It was still disturbingly silent. Amber followed close behind, having to stop sharply when he didn't keep moving.

"Dal..." She put a hand on his shoulder, and he jumped violently. "Now is not the time for reflection."

"Sorry. I just thought I heard something." He allowed her to push him forward, gathering speed as they went. Their wheels still clattered on the tiles, but somehow it was just not enough noise. There had been so much silence, and Dal wanted sound now. He wanted voices yelling, and feet stampeding on the floor. He wanted roars of rage and indignation; the sound of doors slamming; even the ghastly wail of the Locos' appropriated police siren. Anything save the silence. It was making his head ring, and his stomach lurch.

"Hurry it up now." Amber seemed unaffected by the lack of sound, worried only that somebody might find them. Dal himself had not even realised that his thoughts had caused him to slow down. He tried to shake some sense of urgency into himself, but all that he could think of was the silence. It strangled him. He had always been claustrophobic, and the museum was beginning to bring on an attack.

"Amber..." He slowed to a halt despite her urgings, incapable of ignoring the crushing emptiness of the place. He had come here expecting to sneak past guards and waiting tribe members; to have to slip out unseen and unheard whilst Locusts watched for intruders. There had been no one to sneak past; no one to overhear anything - and in the end, of course, there had been almost nothing to overhear. He was sure that he should have been able to hear his own heart beating, but even that frantic sound was stolen by the walls.

"I know." She didn't relent, no matter what his distress; couldn't relent, for it just wasn't safe. Instead she pulled him onwards, making his wheels skid. "It's the ghosts. They've probably always been here, even before the Virus. All those military things. All those wars."

"I suppose so." He gave up his attempts at resistance, and skated onwards at her heels. Ahead of them there were a number of windows, one large enough to be perfect as an exit. The glass was partly broken, and wooden slats had been forced into the gap. They didn't look terribly strong. Amber loosened several, moving quickly, just as glad as Dal when her actions made loud creaking noises erupt around them. The sound exploded into the silence. They both cringed then, expecting shouts of rage even though there was nobody there but themselves. Dal helped to pull the last few boards away, and was glad when Amber made him climb through first. Outside, one or two night birds were singing, the gentle cacophony coming from the trees in the nearby nature trail. It was like moving from one world into another; a silent world into a place where there was sound at every turn. Amber jumped down beside him, easily making the landing despite the wheels attached to her feet. Together they pulled most of the boards back into place to cover the break in the window pane.

"I never thought I'd be so glad to get away from a place." Leaning against the wall, Amber closed her eyes. "I was terrified that somebody would come in and find us."

"I was almost wishing they would." He shuddered, and reached out to take her hand. "Let's get far away from here."

"Good idea." She pulled him along behind her, gathering speed as they hit a piece of road that sloped slightly downwards. Faintly, in the far distance, they could hear the sounds of battles still continuing. The return of the Locos, which they had so feared, seemed to be far from happening yet. Dal shivered. He had almost longed to be caught, just to escape that oppressive atmosphere. The thought bothered him, but not as much as the realisation that his fears had been so unfounded. How could anybody have heard him, when so many of the city's inhabitants were merely ghosts? When so many others were busy killing each other, just out of sight of the place where he now stood? The thought sent chills down his spine, but he knew that there was no point in dwelling on it. He had to get used to the silence, for he knew that the more he travelled, and the more he saw of his hard new world, the more he would know of such quiet. It was a world of emptiness. A world of ghosts. A world where he could go anywhere, and do anything, without being seen or discovered by anyone.

And no matter how much it might make his skin crawl, or his heart pound, or his reckless mind long for something to happen to dispel the stillness, he knew that there was no escaping it. It was what the world was about, nowadays.

The half-burnt shop was empty. Bray stood by the door, at the end of the stone corridor that he had used to make his departure, staring into the emptiness of the room beyond. His striped coat was gone, suggesting that Trudy had not left in any particular hurry, and had probably not been taken against her will. There was no note, however; no letters left to tell Bray where she had gone. He wandered about, looking into nooks and crannies, searching for any clue as to her whereabouts. There was none. It was as though she had vanished from the face of the Earth.

"Damn it." He kicked a piece of fallen masonry, watching as it shattered on contact with the far wall. He hadn't really expected her to wait for him. He had said that he would be only a short while, and instead he had been gone for nearly two days. All the same, somehow he had assumed that, when he came back, she would still be there. He had expected anger or tears - possibly both. He hadn't really expected silence and solitude.

"Oh Trudy." He sat down heavily on the ground, thinking about her all on her own out on the streets. Trudy had never been the most practical of girls; not the most capable or self-sufficient. She had always leaned on somebody, be it her parents or Zoot, or latterly Bray himself. He couldn't imagine her coping, alone and pregnant, with the weather turning so unseasonably bad. Feeling unnaturally tired, he forced himself back to his feet. He had to find her. He had promised to look after her - to find her and her baby somewhere safe. Wherever she was, it was his duty now to track her down, and make sure that she was alright. He owed it to her. He owed it to his brother, and to his parents, for it was a little bit of them that she was carrying, and he wanted to be sure that the child at least had the best chance in life. That was something that everybody was supposed to be entitled to.

It was raining when he stepped out into the street. Cold, fast, hard rain, that fell in huge drops. They stung his face and soaked his clothes, sinking deep inside his boots almost immediately. He wondered if Trudy had managed to find shelter, or if she was sitting in some cell, having been captured by the Locos or the Demon Dogs. She was just a Stray now, like him - vulnerable to all of the possible fates that threatened their kind every day. He dashed the rain from his eyes, and tried not to think about how cold he was now; how wet; and how horribly tired. Unhooking his skateboard, he threw it to the ground and stepped on. The familiar sound of grinding wheels met his ears, rising above the pounding of the violent rain. It was the sound that accompanied him wherever he went. The only sound that filled his daily silence. It was strange, but no matter how much he had resented Trudy's presence, he had become used to it. He missed her, and the silence he had once been so accustomed to now rang hollowly in his ears. He missed Trudy's pointless chatter; her constant moanings; her hopes for all that was to happen in their future. He missed the fact that, with her at his side, for the first time in so many months he had not been alone.

And now he was alone all over again, and it seemed to have lost its appeal. He skated a little faster. It was a big city, and there were lots of places to search. He knew that he had to keep on looking, no matter how long it took. He made the promise to himself, in the soaking wet silence, and he made it to Trudy, wherever she was. He would find her, before Zoot and Ebony did, or before some other tribe sent her the way of other Strays. He would find her, and her baby.

In the meantime, he just kept on skating, as the rain continued to fall.