When it had become clear that civilisation was falling, the dwindling number of healthy adults had begun to take steps to protect themselves. Certain that they would find a cure eventually; that there would soon be an end to their nightmare; they had decided that their homes and their cities had to be protected from the likely dangers of rioters and looters, and had hit upon the idea of a specially trained army. It couldn't be an adult army, that much was clear from the outset. The adults were dying, falling in their droves, and only the children had proved immune to the deadly Virus - so it would have to be an army of children. In every city, in every country across the world, the children were recruited. At first it was the existing organisations that were plundered - the scouts and the guides, the boys and girls brigades, the army cadets - but later it was anybody who would volunteer, or who could be volunteered. The recruitment officers toured the orphanages and the schools, offering a new life to anybody who was prepared to leave their homes for a new life in the improvised military. They gathered at hastily built barracks in the mountains, or former training camps for the real soldiers, where a few marines living in fear for their lives ran courses in fire arms and self defence, and tried to teach kids who had never been away from home before how to survive in the great outdoors. How to defend their homes from looters; fight off marauding gangs of the lawless majority; maintain the old ways in a world that was falling apart. Most of them were orphans already, others had only one sickly parent left behind at home. Very few had both parents left, and all had begun to grow accustomed to death. They didn't object to the training, for the most part, even though any one of them could easily have realised that it was futile. They were learning to fight a battle that was already lost, to defend a world that was already collapsing. Some of them found it funny, some of them found it depressing. Others were clever enough to realise that it might save their lives.
Lex had been one of the first to volunteer for the camps, although he had never been much of one for volunteering in the old days. One of the lucky ones, or so people told him, he had lost few family members to the Virus. He had seen others dying though, and saw what was coming before many others did. It seemed a good idea to him, going off to the mountains to learn how to fight and survive. In the event he hadn't enjoyed it much at all, for he wasn't the type to take kindly to being ordered about, or having his life run for him. The soldiers in charge at the camp had been worse than the teachers at his school - people who thought that they knew best because they were older, who tried to make him do things that he didn't want to do, and tried to punish him when he refused. At least at the camp they didn't try to make him read all those pointless books, or work out sums and equations that weren't of any use to anybody. At the camp they just wanted him to fight, and that was something that he had always been good at. They taught him how to find food where there was none, how to find his way about without a map or a compass, how to build shelters that wouldn't let in the rain or the snow, and how to make others do as he told them. For the first time in his life he excelled, even when he was still rebelling against it all. Unable to read, he couldn't make head nor tail of the official notification that told him his father had died. There were no radios or televisions up in the mountains, so he didn't know about the last ditch attempts to save lives, and the mass evacuations of children from the major cities. There were no newspapers, so the isolated camps never heard about the growing gangs of children running wild in the streets, or about the dwindling governments and breakdown of communications between countries. Lex wouldn't have cared anyway. The adult world had never given him much to speak of, and he wasn't interested in its fate. Not really. All that he cared about was surviving.
He stayed in the camp for three months, one of the best recruits of the bunch even if he couldn't often be counted upon to behave. He learnt everything that they cared to teach him, and ruled the roost with his quick fists. Everybody knew his temper and his wildness, nobody argued with his supremacy. Only the camp commander ever challenged him, and then only at first. When she began to show the first signs of the Virus, Lex decided that he had learnt enough.
He left the camp one morning, to the angry shouts of the few remaining uninfected adults, none of whom could really be bothered to try to stop him. Maybe they didn't dare try - they all avoided physical contact now for fear of contracting the Virus. Lex had waved a last goodbye to his former fellow cadets, and looked his last on the only school in all his sixteen years which had ever managed to teach him anything. The only group of adults who had ever come close to earning his respect, and the only place that had ever really felt like home. Then he had turned his back and walked away, and hadn't given any of it another thought. A month later the last of the adults there had died, and the last of the cadets had wandered away, just as he had done. They were supposed to be the defenders, the leaders of the children left to rule the world, but few of them managed it. The lessons they had been taught mattered little to the gangs of kids who had turned to living rough months before. Lex was one of the few who had realised that early enough to avoid being crushed beneath the weight of the old, powerful gangs, and although he had no intention of becoming a Stray, he didn't try to gather too large a gang. That caused trouble and unrest, and arguments about command, and he didn't want to worry about things like that when it was more important just to worry about food. Time enough to try his hand at great leadership when things had become more stable.
When Lex left the camp in the mountains he wasn't alone, although it wasn't with the greatest enthusiasm that he took his best friend with him. Ryan was a large boy, of impressive strength, who had latched on to Lex in the early days of their time at the camp. Lex had never had a close friend before, preferring to keep to himself, but Ryan had been fun. Somebody to joke with, somebody to play jokes on; somebody who made him look good. Ryan's mind did not work as fast as Lex's, and even though he had paid more attention in school, and had managed to learn rather more there than Lex had ever managed, he still appeared less capable. He was loyal though, and his strength was always useful - and Lex had agreed to let him come along on the search for a life elsewhere. They hadn't known where they were heading or what they were going to do, but they had been anxious to get back to the world that they had left. It was going on without them, and Lex didn't like the idea that other people were winning whatever glories were there to be found.
So they had gone to the city, and had found a place that was falling apart; a place of burnt houses and emptied shops; of starving people and wrecked vehicles. There were no longer any adults left there, no longer any order. Everywhere there were tribes; gangs of children organised along family or feudal lines, fighting each other for the best shelters, the best food stores, the best chances of survival. The two biggest tribes, the Demon Dogs and the Locusts, were fighting each other for supremacy over not only their own sector, but the whole of the rest of the city. Everybody was afraid, but Lex was arrogant enough to believe that everything would be fine for him - so it was a shock, the first time that he went hungry, the first time that somebody tried to kill him. He hadn't really believed that things were truly that bad until then.
He and Ryan had set themselves up in an old underground car park, living in what had once been the caretaker's office. It was dingy and cramped, and reminded Lex strangely of his family home, although without his mother's cooking to hearten the atmosphere. Ryan furnished the place with cushions made from sacks, and threadbare old car rugs found lying about in the car park. They found an old store of food in a locked cupboard; peanuts and chocolate for the most part, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of beer cans. They had lived the way they had both dreamt of living in the old days, when they had had parents to stop them; eating things that were bad for them, drinking alcohol far too often, and staying up late into the night talking about the kinds of things that teenaged boys liked to talk about. They had laughed a lot, got deliriously drunk, and spent the rest of the time avoiding each other, when reality came crashing back. Lex had never experienced real depression before. He had always thought that it was just another way of saying 'miserable'. Now, sprawled in his dingy office home, with too much beer and too much chocolate, and not a whole lot else, he was starting to find out what depression really meant.
They started roaming the streets looking for danger, just because it was something to do. Ryan wasn't as eager for trouble as Lex, but he was happy to tag along. Lex was his friend, and that meant a lot to Ryan, so whatever Lex did was alright with him. They got into a few fights with small tribes; a few larger scale battles with bigger tribes, and several major skirmishes, when half a dozen tribes all fighting for the same store of food threatened to turn the whole city into a free-for-all. Once or twice the pair barely escaped with their lives, but Lex didn't seem to see that as a sign to slow down. If anything he was happier when the fists and home-made missiles were flying. Only when he barely made it out of one fight alive, and then only because Ryan had saved him, did he consider being a little more careful; but it was a resolution that didn't last for long. Ryan despaired of his friend's chances of survival, and his own along with them. Nothing seemed to keep Lex's attention except fighting, and nothing seemed to lift his spirits like danger. It was a slippery slope to nowhere, and Ryan, no matter his sometimes slow thinking, saw it even if Lex didn't. The way things were going, neither of them was going to live to find out whether the world would recover.
It was Zandra who changed everything. She was fourteen, which might have been young once. Too young to be trying to look after herself, anyway, when she hardly knew enough to keep herself warm. She had been with a boy of about Ryan's age, maybe as much as a year younger than Lex, a boy who wanted to be smart and fast, but could barely keep himself alive, let along Zandra as well. Ryan had expected Lex to tell them to get lost, but he hadn't. To what seemed to be his own surprise as well as Ryan's, he had invited the tired and tattered pair back to the underground office, given them the best stores that they had - half a tin of corned beef with only a little bit of mould in places, and some cream crackers that were only slightly soggy - and had wound up, half a dozen cans of beer later, inviting them to stay. Zandra's would-be white knight protector, Glenn, had looked decidedly doubtful, which Ryan didn't exactly blame him for. He wouldn't have been too cheerful about the prospect of staying in a dingy little room with no ventilation, along with a pair of no-hopers whose only claim to glory lay in their apparently endless store of beer. They had stayed though, in the end; and now, who knew how many weeks later, when the beer had finally run out, they were still there. Lex had fallen in love with Zandra, and so, helplessly, had Ryan. Glenn had been in love with her anyway. Between them they made lame attempts to win her affections in return, and tried to ignore the fact that she was spoilt, self-centred and certainly incapable of surviving for long in a world like this one. Ryan gave her things that he found in the streets, hoping to impress her with his gifts, whilst she moped about how much she missed the old way of life. Lex and Glenn risked everything every day in order to find her food and clothes and jewellery, and she lay alone in the underground office, painting her nails, staring at her accumulated treasures through eyes stained red from crying. Zandra had had too much done for her for too long, and all three of her companions were blind to it. Had they not been, it might have been no surprise to them when their underground lair was over-run one night, when Zandra had supposedly been on watch. The manic Jackal tribe, frenzied and hyperactive, had been scouting the region for days, and Lex awoke in the dead of night to the sound of their wild calls, and the scratching of their knives on the doors and the walls. He had gathered his little group around him, made a valiant attempt to defend their home, and then finally backed off and left the intruders to it.
Full circle. Ryan couldn't help thinking about how they had started out this way, he and Lex, as they trudged the streets now. They had been homeless and helpless, defenceless in a city full of dangers; but they had clawed their way out of that, and had found themselves something better. Now they were back on the streets again. He had looked towards Lex, expecting to see the same signs of dejection on the face of his mercurial friend. Instead he saw a strange kind of rapture, for Zandra, wandering along at Lex's side, had suddenly put her arm around his shoulders. Ryan scowled, but kept silent. So that was the way it was. Zandra had made her choice at last, obviously.
"We should find somewhere to hole up for the rest of the night." There was a new resolution in Lex's voice which almost certainly owed much to Zandra's possessive arm. Ryan supposed he should be glad; he might have lost all hope of getting the girl, but at least Lex was showing good signs of having shaken off his months long lethargy. Glenn nodded, but there wasn't much co-operation in his eyes. Neither Lex nor Zandra seemed to have noticed the jealousy that he couldn't keep from showing on his face.
"I'll find us somewhere." It was supposed to be a boast that would make Zandra look at him the way she sometimes had in the days before they had met Lex and Ryan. Instead she showed no reaction at all. Lex nodded absently.
"Sure. Cheers Glenn. I'll get Zandra somewhere safe in the meantime. Ryan, you couldn't look for some food, could you mate? We're going to need some soon, and I didn't get the chance to bring any with me."
"Sure, Lex." Ryan's voice, oddly soft for so large and powerful a person, was well suited to the quiet and dark section of street in which they were now standing. Zandra smiled at him, and he felt his heart flutter - then felt a pang of guilt when he saw the fury in Glenn's eyes. Ryan didn't know much about girls, and had never tried to have a relationship with one before, so he had no idea how Glenn was feeling; but he did know that there was trouble sowing itself here. He wondered if he should say anything, but as usual wasn't sure that he trusted himself enough to think of the right words. Instead, confused and anxious, he hurried away on his errand, and tried to tell himself that everything would be alright. As alright as it ever was these days.
Maybe it was just the danger that was making Zandra lean on Lex. Maybe it was just a reaction to their narrow escape from the Jackals. Maybe tomorrow she would be distant again, favouring no single one of them with her attentions. Maybe then Glenn wouldn't have to look so sullen and cross anymore. Maybe Ryan wouldn't feel so forlorn.
For all his hopes, though, he wasn't surprised when he came back from his food-finding expedition to find Lex and Zandra fast asleep, wrapped in each others arms. He also wasn't surprised, some time later when Glenn returned, to see a look of mute anguish on the other boy's face. Apparently that was the way that it was always going to be from now on.
Not very far away, another young couple also lay asleep together, although with less of the burgeoning romance. Bray and Trudy had wandered much of the city together during the past few months; a fruitless search for somewhere safe for Trudy to deliver her baby. Now it was almost due, and they had returned to where their journey had started; a dirty alleyway near to the rail yard where the Locos lived. It was cold in the alley, and uncomfortable, but neither noticed that. Immune by now to such hardships, they would have been sleeping almost peacefully, had it not been for the troubles that still bothered them. Trudy's baby was restless, kicking at her as she tried to sleep, testing her patience to the limits. Run down from too many days with too little food, she needed her sleep - but the baby was determined not to let her have it. Perhaps it wanted to remind her that it was still there; still alive and still waiting to be born, no matter how much she wished that the whole of her pregnancy had been just a dreadful dream. Beside her Bray dozed even more fitfully, even less relaxed than she was. The responsibility had been dreadful, these past weeks, and now it was reaching a climax. The baby would be born before very many days had passed, and what then? With things as they were, he couldn't even be sure that Trudy would survive the delivery, and what would he do on his own with a baby? How would he deliver the baby if he couldn't find anybody else to help before then? How could he hope to find somewhere clean and dry enough, so that he could stave off infection during the crucial time? So many mothers had died in the old days, before modern medicine had helped to take some of the risks out of childbirth; and now they were back in that world again. He knew that Trudy was terrified, but he didn't know how to reassure her. How could he, when he couldn't yet reassure himself? He rolled over, eyes flickering as he found himself fully awake yet again, and blinked up at the rosy pink dawn sky. It was growing bright behind the rain clouds, and soon it would be time to stop pretending that he was asleep. It would be time to move on again.
"Bray?" Trudy was aware that he was awake, and obviously wanted to talk for a bit. She always wanted to talk, and it was starting to get to him. She always needed to hear his voice telling her that everything was going to be alright; telling her that they would find somewhere safe soon, and that the birth would go smoothly. It had started to get him down several months before, and now he was reaching breaking point. Couldn't she just stop talking for a few minutes? Stop demanding his help, his concentration, his energy, his help, even for a moment? He rubbed his eyes and sat up, stretching muscles that were angry at having had to go without sufficient rest for yet another night.
"What?" He didn't look at Trudy, not wanting to see the smeared relics of her Loco tribal paint, that for some reason she had been constantly repairing. Why didn't she just wash it off? She was a Stray now, just like him, but she didn't seem able to accept that. It was just another in a long list of things about her that had come to annoy him greatly. The tear stains that augmented the paint didn't help, and nor did her wide, brimming, helpless eyes. She leant against him, and he felt her weight in more ways than one. All those plans to leave the city, and find somewhere peaceful and clean; all thrown aside because of his need to look after Trudy, and his unborn nephew or niece. It hurt. It drained him of everything he had.
"I'm hungry." She was always hungry. So was he. So was practically everyone. Very few people had enough to eat these days, and a lot of them probably moaned about that a fair amount of the time; but the crucial point was that they didn't moan about it to him. Trudy did. Constantly.
"Yeah, I know." As always Bray sounded patient. Patient with Trudy, patient with their shared predicament, patient with her fears and troubles and never-ending whining. "Here." He handed her a bottle of water that he had managed to scrounge the previous day, and which at present constituted probably fifty percent of their stores. She took a long drink, then handed the bottle back looking mutinous.
"I need food, Bray. The baby needs food."
"I know." He stood up, stowing the bottle away in the battered bag he always carried with him. He needed a drink himself, but he didn't want to lose any more of the water until he was desperate; there just wasn't enough of it to drink solely because he was thirsty. Trudy was the important one, because she was keeping the baby alive. She was the one who had to drink. Had to eat. "I'd better go and take a look around. The city'll be waking up again soon."
"You're leaving?" Her face was so pale these days, the paint so dark, that she lived a permanent panda impersonation. It had made him smile once, but now he found it wearying. Her pale, pale skin was just another reminder of how much he had to do to keep her going. All the cajoling, all the encouraging, all the hunting for food to make sure that the baby at least remained healthy. Of the three of them it had to be strong, because in a few weeks it was going to have to perform probably the hardest feat of its life.
"I can't find food if I stay here with you, can I." He summoned up a gentle smile, a familiar expression to him once, but one that had grown increasingly alien just lately. "I've left you alone before haven't I? You should be used to it by now."
"But it's different now." She trailed a hand across her stomach, eyes never leaving his. "It could happen any time, Bray. What happens to me if you're off somewhere when the baby is born? I'd be all on my own, and I wouldn't know what to do."
And I would? He shook his head. "You'll know, Trudy. It's instinct, or... something. Babies have always been born, and if they managed to do it hundreds of thousands of years ago, before people had even learnt to give the whole thing a name, I think we can manage now. It'll be okay."
"You're getting pretty good at saying that, aren't you." There was a trace of bitterness in her tone that he was getting used to. The last few months had been extremely hard on Trudy, and he had seen her change so much. Now she lived in an almost constant haze of bitterness and fear, and it had made her weak and dissatisfied with everything. Clingy and pathetic, helpless and afraid. He tried telling himself that the poor kid was only fourteen, and shouldn't be going through any of this, but couldn't quite take that as an excuse. There were plenty of other fourteen year-old kids in the world right now, and not all of them were dissolving into uselessness. Admittedly not all of them were pregnant, but he was getting too sick of the whole thing to give her that much as an excuse. Trudy saw the change of expression that ghosted across his face, and immediately looked contrite.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude. I'm just so--"
"Scared. I know." He summoned up a smile, and brushed some of the hair out of her face. "Look, it'll be okay, Trude. I'll be back soon, and I'll bring some food with me, and then we'll both feel better. You'll be alright here on your own. Just keep out of sight in case somebody comes." She nodded, and he felt a moment's guilt for his impatience. It was just that there was so much to do, and so much to think about, and he had wanted for so long to be free of it all. He was just a kid too, and Trudy always seemed to be forgetting that.
"Be quick." For a second she was like the old Trudy, sweet and thoughtful and just a little spoilt. Her parents had always done too much for her. Now that was his job. He nodded.
"Sure." He slung the bag more securely onto his shoulder, threw down his skateboard, and kicked off. Trudy watched him speed out of sight, then with a slow, painful stiffness to her movements, gathered up her few belongings and crawled out of sight. She was used to hiding in piles of rubbish by now; crouching under cardboard boxes, or dustbins filled with things well past the rotting stage. They provided good cover, and hiding was always better than being found, especially now that they were back in Loco territory. She curled her hands protectively around her stomach at the thought of her former tribe, and tried to tell herself that her baby would not grow up that way. It wouldn't be taken by the Locos. Then she tried to tell herself that she didn't secretly hope for just that. If Zoot and Ebony took it, at least then she wouldn't have to look after it. At least then the responsibility would be somebody else's. She closed her eyes, and turned her mind to more positive thoughts instead. Everything would be fine. She loved Bray. Given time, and the baby, he would come to love her as well. She had come to believe that with a fervent passion, and she couldn't lose sight of it now. No, the baby would be born, and she and Bray would raise it together. Everything would be alright. Everything was going to be perfectly alright. Inside her the baby kicked out, hard, but she didn't let it dampen her spirits; didn't let the pain get to her. Everything was going to be okay. Concentrate on that thought. Everything was going to be okay. Bray and the baby. Her. They would be happy. Safe. Everything was going to be okay.
Ryan was miserable. So was Glenn. Zandra was playing hard to get, although whether she realised that herself, or was just answering some inner instinct, Ryan didn't know. She was just a kid, and even if she was more grown up - or thought she was more grown up - than most kids of her age had been before the Virus, still she was just a child. Flirting wasn't supposed to come naturally at that age, was it? It didn't come naturally to Ryan, at any rate, and he wasn't sure how it was for other people. He hadn't exactly been in with the in-crowd at school anyway, so he didn't really know how these things were supposed to happen. All he knew was that Zandra knew full well that all three of her male companions were in love with her, and she was enjoying getting as much mileage out of that as possible. Ryan considered it a form of torture, but since he loved her, and was prepared to forgive her anything, he dismissed the feeling of hurt and betrayal, and just concentrated on the idea that there was, maybe, still hope for him.
To an onlooker it was obvious that she fancied Lex. Her eyes sparkled more when she looked at him, and her smile was warmer. When she had awoken in his arms, and seen the look of jealousy on Glenn's face, she had been delighted by such attention, and had been denying Lex's advances ever since. He might have objected, but for the fact that it did nice things to his insides; fired him up, gave him greater determination. He could see that the same thing happened to Glenn, too, and that had to be good. So they were rivals in love; so they were living with constant conflict; well at least it kept them on their toes. As they looked for a new place to live, hunting for food and hiding from rival tribes, they had a new energy about them. It was, thought Lex, probably rather like living in a pride of lions at about the time when the young males started to fight each other over the females, and seniority, and other things like that. He wondered where he had heard about that, for he was certain that he had never been taught anything even nearly as interesting in school, and decided in the end that he had probably seen it on television. Good old TV, that flickering light in the back of his childhood memories, gone now like everything else. Maybe they would restore television one day, when they restored order, and government, and all those other adult things that had been such a regular part of life once. Lex didn't care. He owed nothing to the adult world, the way of things before. Just because his life was constantly in danger nowadays didn't mean that his life had been any better before the Virus. If anything he liked it more now.
"I'm hungry." It was three days since they had lost their underground office to the Jackals, and Zandra was beginning to act as though she had expected to be presented with a new palace long before now. Zandra, he had quickly realised, was hopeless; completely incapable of living alone, completely incapable of providing for herself. She lived in a half-world most of the time; a place of nostalgia for the old ways, convincing herself that it would all come back some day. That she could watch all of her favourite soap operas again, and read all of the old glossy magazines; go back to school and discuss boys and make-up with the other girls at the back of the classroom. Much of the reality of their new life escaped her completely. In anybody else such an attitude would have driven Lex to distraction, but in Zandra he found it strangely attractive. Sweet, almost. It made him want to look after her, and protect her from a world that would kill her in an instant, if she had to face it alone.
"We're out of stores." Glenn had been foraging almost constantly, bringing back an endless supply of bits and pieces that wouldn't have kept a budgie happy. It was the best that he could do, but it wasn't enough for Zandra. She was remembering roast Sunday lunches, and tea and chocolate biscuits in the afternoons after school. A tin of pineapple rings in juice and a packet of slightly soggy crisps wasn't going to keep those memories at bay. Ryan rose to his feet.
"I'll find something." It was dawn, or thereabouts, the pink light in the sky above the city's buildings heralding another new day of shouting, fighting and running away. Lex nodded.
"Okay. But don't go too far."
"I can look after myself, Lex." Lex didn't usually worry about where Ryan went, or for how long, but Ryan suspected that he had hit upon the idea that Zandra would like him to be more caring. Caring and Lex weren't two words that went together particularly well, but he seemed to be making a good effort. Glenn also stood up.
"Yeah. I'll look as well."
"You're not all going?" Zandra had her helpless look on again. Ryan decided that maybe he didn't want to leave after all, but it was too late now. Lex shook his head.
"Not likely, babe. I'll stay here with you."
"Yeah. Maybe I will too." Glenn was looking fierce, determined not to let Lex get any more points ahead of him in the contest. Lex curled his arms protectively around Zandra's waist, and grinned mockingly at Glenn over the top of her head.
"I can look after Zandra on my own. It's probably a good idea to have two of you out looking for food." His voice was as innocent as could be, but Glenn glared daggers. He had no choice, though, for to refuse would seem cowardly at best. He nodded.
"Alright, I'll go. At least two of us can be useful, instead of sitting here all day playing happy families."
"We don't play happy families." Zandra's smile was flirtatious and suggestive. "Do we, Lex."
"Hardly." Lex eased her back more fully into his embrace, and tried to look as satisfied as possible. "Run along then, you two. We'll keep your places warm."
"Okay Lex." Ryan was always ready to oblige, if only because it was always better to try to keep everybody happy. Glenn sneered at him, clearly thinking that he should have been defending his own rights more. It was obvious to Glenn that Ryan was just as interested in Zandra as he was, but the bigger boy never did anything about it. Glenn wasn't sure if that was reason enough on its own to be disparaging, but it felt like it. After all, Ryan had to be at least fifteen. That was old enough to know how to make at least a few moves, or it had been in Glenn's old neighbourhood. As ever though, Ryan was oblivious to the other boy's disapproval, and without another word to anybody he struck off into the lightening city. Glenn followed, and unable to think of a suitably dashing parting line for Zandra, settled for saying nothing at all.
"Do you think it was unfair to make them go out?" Zandra pulled away from Lex now that the others were gone, turning instead to critically survey her reflection in a puddle. She wasn't entirely happy with her hair, and started trying to drag her fingers through it. Oh for a proper brush and comb.
"Out there? No, course not." Lex stretched out, enjoying the relaxation and the private time with Zandra. "They like it out there. It's a challenge. And anyway, we need the food."
"Yeah, but we could have gone too." Zandra started to work on her unruly locks, attempting to plait them into a new style. She loved to play with her hair, making newer and more outrageous shapes with it. That was the beauty of this mad world in which they now lived; no style was too ostentatious; nobody would ever tell anybody that they looked a fool with their hair done wild and new. Lex shook his head.
"Four of us? We'd be seen. Best to go out in small groups. Besides, how do you expect to go looking for food? You wouldn't know where to begin. It's crazy out there."
"I know." She looked older for a second, but it didn't last long. If Lex had spent more time in school, or had ever learnt to read, he might have realised the psychology behind her behaviour; the fact that the age she often acted bore little relation to the age she actually was. He might have seen the likelihood that she had cultivated her childish persona - a character who was helpless and immature and weak - as a barrier to protect herself from something that she wasn't quite capable of dealing with. "There isn't any food, but everybody is fighting over it anyway. The three of you hardly ever bring anything back. I miss our stores in the office."
"The stores were all used up. We've been foraging for a while now. You know that." He wondered about putting his arms around her, but decided that she wouldn't want to be disturbed whilst she was doing her hair. He had made that mistake once before, and even though her fury had amused him, he didn't feel like unleashing it again now. She nodded.
"I know. I guess there's an art to it though, isn't there."
"I guess there is." He wasn't about to admit that it was an art he didn't really possess, even if, in his eyes, there was no real dishonour in that. He was a warrior, not a hunter-gatherer, and those were the sort of lines along which mankind had been split for millennia. How did he know that? He smiled to himself. Yet another lesson that school had failed to teach him, and which he had had to pick up somewhere else - and yet again it was something that was of far more relevance than any of those stupid lessons that the teachers had tried to cram into him. Zandra was plaiting her hair with renewed vigour, settling into a rhythm that showed off her practised skill. He wished that he could find her some beads or feathers to make the creation a little more spectacular.
"If we could find lots of food," she mused thoughtfully, "then we could sell it, couldn't we. Trade it, I mean. With other tribes."
"Other tribes?" He hadn't really thought of them as a tribe of their own, but in a way he supposed that was exactly what they were. A group of people, all dependant upon each other even if they didn't want to be, all bringing something different to the overall equation. Maybe it was time to look for some united image, in that case. Something that presented a united front to the world, to announce their presence, and declaim without question that they weren't Strays. Zandra had missed the subtle meaning of her words, and merely nodded enthusiastically.
"Yeah. Be good, wouldn't it. My dad was pretty rich. I'd like to feel like that again. Like I've got something other people haven't. Stronger, or better equipped. You know?"
"Yeah." He watched her play with her hair for a bit longer, then slid close and tried to put his arms around her. She resisted, and slipped easily out of his grasp.
"Not now Lex. I don't want to think about... things like that. I just want to do my hair."
"Yeah, sure. Whatever." He hid his scowl, and tried not to think about how some things never changed, Virus or no Virus. "But it's me you want though, right? Not Glenn."
"Glenn's sweet. He looked after me before I met you." She smiled teasingly at him. "Maybe I'll abandon you all. Leave here and take up with one of the Demon Dogs. I bet they have better hair-care than I do living on the streets with you three."
"Hey!" He knew - thought - hoped - that she was only joking, but he played up to the spirit of the moment by acting insulted anyway. "The Demon Dogs don't even have hair, most of them anyway. They shave it all off. Haven't you noticed? Skinheads, with everything painted silver. Nuts, if you ask me."
"It's all about style." She held her hands up to her head, as though trying to guess what she would look like with all of her hair shaved off. "About which style suits you best; suits any of us best. Did you always have your hair like that Lex?"
"Huh?" He glanced at his reflection self-consciously, wondering what she was getting at. He had never paid much attention to his personal appearance, and wasn't sure that he could remember how exactly he was wearing his hair. It was almost shoulder length, a little straggly, longer than he remembered it. "Oh. No, I used to have it cut pretty short in the old days. Military style, you know? Thought it looked good."
"I like it now." She leaned close. "Look good with another colour in it though, I reckon. Blue maybe, or red. A bit in the front perhaps."
"I don't go in for messing with my hair." He thought back to the old days, when the kinds of people who had dyed their hair like that hadn't been the type that he had ever wanted to mix with. They were the kind that he had laughed at, or fought with on Friday and Saturday nights. Zandra pouted.
"It's not the old days any more, Lex. It's not about being like you used to be. It's about being somebody new, making a new identity. Making a statement."
"You reckon?" This was new, coming from her. Usually the most positive comment that she made about their new way of life was the hope that it would soon sort itself out, and begin to go back to the way it had been before. Now she was actually starting to talk as though she was comfortable with the new ways of things. She shrugged.
"I like hair and stuff. Painting my face, wearing lots of make-up. It's like art. It tells people things. We have to tell people things now, right? Tell them that we're not people to mess around with. We have to choose a style that says we mean business."
"Yeah. Yeah, I guess we do." He frowned at his reflection, trying to think how best to make himself look like a man who meant business. How best to heighten the gleam in his dark eyes, or emphasise the notion of strength and resolution? Tribal identity did mean something, whether it was the shaven silver heads of the Demon Dogs, inspiring fear and admiration in those who saw them, or the mad jumble of intricate, chaotic colour blazes that was the paint of the Locos. It all showed identity and strength, and it all put a point across. Zandra took his hand.
"Let me show you. I've got some bits and pieces. Old stuff. Some make up, some hair dye maybe. You're our leader, Lex. You should be wearing something that shows it."
"I should?" He couldn't believe that he was listening to her, but she was talking a kind of sense. It was all very well dressing the way he always had, but things were rather different now. His masculinity rebelled slightly, telling him that he really shouldn't be agreeing. What would they say, in the hang outs of his early youth? But then half of them were probably looking decidedly different these days. He smiled at her.
"Alright." He couldn't help looking at her bag with trepidation, wondering what exactly she was planning to pull from it. His hair hadn't even seen a comb in some ten years, let alone hair dye or gel. Zandra flashed him a smile that made his heart skip a beat.
"You won't regret this, Lex. When we're the biggest and best tribe in the city, everybody will want to look like you. And you'll still look the coolest of the lot of them."
"You think we're going to be the biggest, huh?" How the hell she hoped to make that happen he couldn't imagine, but it was something nice to think about. Nicer than sleeping under newspapers in an alleyway, drinking rainwater and eating food that even the rats had discarded. Zandra started to run her hands through his hair, and he relaxed into her touch. If the Demon Dogs managed to look cool in skin tight lycra and silver leggings, and the Locos managed to strike fear into the hearts of the populace whilst wearing bicycle helmets and workman's overalls, he figured that a snappy image might just do the same for him too.
And besides, he thought, with more than a trace of a gleam in his eye - he would enjoy it very much if Glenn got back before Zandra had finished, and found her running her hands through Lex's hair, getting necessarily close and talking about the future. That should put Glenn in his place. He smiled to himself. Even when the world was falling apart, there was still room to bask his ego. Maybe, when all was said and done, his ego was the only thing of any importance that remained.
The Demon Dogs had reached a turning point.
They had been fighting the Locos for supremacy in the city for some time, and it was starting to look as though they couldn't win. They weren't likely to lose, for they were strong and resourceful, and were as ruthless as their enemy - but neither were they able to win. It was causing strife in the ranks; encouraging a split along doctrinal lines. If the conflict was to have any kind of decisive conclusion, reasoned the leader of the Dogs, it would come eventually, through hard work and harder fighting; but there were others within the camp who thought differently. They believed that victory would have to come about through intelligence; through cunning and guile, and necessary sacrifice. Far from being the mad, chaotic sort of tribe that the Locos prided themselves on being, the Dogs were an all altogether more organised kind of hooligan; and cunning came as easily to them as did mob violence. It was with good reason that the dissenters had faith in their ability to find an answer.
Out and about on the streets, Bray knew nothing of the discord amongst the Dogs, and was merely doing all that he could to avoid any of them. It was something at which he was usually quite adept, a skill that he had picked up during the long days and nights of his time in sector ten. Things had changed, though, since he and Trudy had moved away. The Dogs, like the Locos, had expanded their spheres of influence.
They were everywhere. He realised that when he tried the first building that he came to, and the second and the third. All of them were coated with the Demon Dogs' special, stylised graffiti, and all had guards asleep at the doors. He wondered what sort of stores were inside, but had to conclude that wondering was all he could do. He could probably get past the guards once, but there was no way he could sneak both in and out of the buildings without being seen. Annoyed, he skated on, looking through windows, checking even the burnt out hulks of old houses. You never knew where there was something to be found, whether it was a packet of biscuits, or a tin of milk powder, or even just a tube of toothpaste. It was amazing how quickly one came to miss things like that.
The streets were largely empty, something which was not entirely new. Nobody had ventured out much; not since the last days of adult control. Bray remembered those days with a feeling of distinct queasiness; the last few remaining authority figures, going around the houses collecting the last few children that hadn't yet gone out onto the streets, sending them off to evacuation camps out of the city under a constant barrage of missiles hurled by the already growing tribes. Then the adults had retreated inside, and the streets had fallen quiet, and kids just like Zoot had become the new kings. Standing at an empty cross-roads, trying to imagine it once again busy with traffic and pedestrians, Bray remembered the first time that he had stepped out into the newly dead world, and tried not to shudder. It was quiet now for a different reason; the evacuated children might have returned, and the adults were no longer cowering in their homes, but still there was nobody prepared to make themselves into too plain a target. The stronger the Demon Dogs and the Locusts became, the quieter grew the streets.
From the cross-roads he moved on down a side road, and thence to an old block of offices. He had been over them more than one in the past, and knew not to waste his time, so cutting through the car park he went on past an old newsagents; past an expensive bistro once patronised by bright young executives in matching suits and ties; past an old fire station now the home of the intensely acquisitive Manics; and further on to a big white building that he had once known quite well. It had been a sports hall; full of athletic equipment, and squash and basketball courts, with an Olympic-sized swimming pool housed on an underground floor. Bray had spent a lot of time there in the old days, shooting endless baskets, or practising for the school swimming team. He had preferred the sports hall, for the others on the team had practised in the school gym, and he had always liked to be alone. Now of course, when he had no idea how many members of the old basketball or swimming teams were even alive, he would have given anything for the chance to practice with them, even just for five minutes. He smiled to himself as he looked upon the big white building. He was used to such thoughts, now; the notion of wanting something only when it was long out of reach, and he had long grown accustomed to telling that part of his psyche to shut the hell up.
It was easy to gain access to the sports hall. Such buildings had been the last to be looted, and then only by gangs intent more on causing trouble than on stealing things. The slot machines near the entrance had been smashed and emptied, but another one further on yielded several bars of chocolate. Bray stuffed them into his bag, along with a rather dented carton of orange juice that he hoped was of the long-life sort, and a torn packet of peppermints. Further on he found a cigarette machine, again smashed and emptied, the floor round about strewn with half-smoked butts. He paused to check that none were still warm, then pressed on. Time was necessarily short, for he did not want to leave Trudy for long.
The basement was empty, and he did not spend long checking it out. The swimming pool was still full, although the water was dirty from the rubbish that had been thrown into it. The pumps, of course, had long stopped working, and the oily surface of the once blue water was motionless. Bray watched it for a while, wondering if any of the floating junk might be worth salvaging, then decided in the end that it would not. There was nothing that would be edible, and nothing that looked useful enough to make it worth carrying the extra weight. Turning his back, he headed towards the stairs.
Upstairs there was more junk; empty tins, more smashed slot machines; broken bits of keep-fit equipment that had been dismantled and hurled about. Bray found a basketball lying in the corridor, and seriously thought about heading for the courts to see if he could still sink five out of five; but in the end left the ball where it was. The decision probably saved his life. Rounding a few corners, and coming to the staff changing rooms, he heard the unmistakable sound of voices. He froze.
"It'll be easy." The voice was too faint to be recognisable, although there was no reason why he should have recognised it anyway. There were a lot of people, even in this sector of the city, that he had never met. Slowing his step and pressing close to the wall, he edged along the corridor. A second voice came to him in snatches, but he couldn't be sure of what it said.
"We wait our moment, and then we grab him. Catch him or kill him, it doesn't make much difference. Why should it? If we kill him we can display him where everybody can see him. It'll show everybody how powerful we are. Catch him and we can still display him; in a cage for the whole city to see." Bray heard a short burst of sardonic laughter. "With the great Zoot, chained and in a cage, this war will be over in days or less, and the sector will be ours to do what we want with. Without the Locos to get in our way, who's to stop us from taking over everywhere?"
"Yeah." The second voice was tinged with amusement. Bray, now halted in shock, strained his ears to be sure of catching every word. Demon Dogs; they had to be. Who else would speak of the war with the Locos in such terms? Wanting to be sure; wanting to know exactly who it was that was plotting against his brother; he edged closer still. He could hear both voices clearly now; the deep, North Island tones of the first, and the higher, South Island accent of the second. That voice at least he knew; for he had had more than one run in with its owner. Geoffrey, he had been called, in the days before the Virus. Now he preferred to use no name at all. He was one of the oldest survivors, on the verge of nineteen, a boy who lived in fear of adulthood and the death it might bring if the Virus was still around. Such fears had led him to an attitude of forced carelessness; a constant pretence that life meant nothing to him, since he might be about to lose his own. At well over six feet he was almost ridiculously thin, with huge hands and feet, and a lengthening goatee beard that he had dyed bright blue. Privately the citizens of the city had christened him Flagpole, but nobody had ever yet dared to call him that to his face. Bray's blood ran cold at the sound of his voice. Flagpole might have been given an irreverent name by a city full of terrified kids, but there was nothing irreverent or amusing about him. He was cold-blooded and ruthless, and rumour had it that he would kill anybody he could, reasoning that if he was going to die of the Virus soon, so too should everybody else in the city die, just to make things more fair.
"So what do you think? Do we call a truce, and get him when he comes to talk terms, or do we just try for an ambush? He doesn't always have his guards with him, and our spies say that he's often alone at the rail yard. He sends his people out on sweeps, and he stays behind and... does whatever he does. Makes plans, mopes over the old days, I don't know."
"An ambush is best, if you want to make an impression." Flagpole dropped his voice slightly, and Bray moved closer. He could see the pair now, through the heavily scratched window set into the door of the room where they were. Flagpole was sitting on a desk awash with papers, his back to a wall shelf loaded with sporting trophies; and opposite him, reclining in a leather swivel chair like a king seated on his throne, was Lonn, the skin-headed, silver-painted deputy leader of the Dogs. Bray closed his eyes briefly. With these two plotting against him, it looked as though Zoot's days were numbered. He asked himself, briefly, if he really cared - thinking of the people he seen captured by the Locos over the past months; people enslaved or sold, locked up, tied up, beaten up - everybody from the oldest to the youngest, the weakest to the strongest, treated without the slightest bit of decency. Zoot was the cause of all of that; the instigation of the worst disorder that the city - the country - had ever seen. Bray shook his head. How could he even think such things? Zoot was his brother, and that mattered more than anything else. Turning his back, edging quietly away, he moved back the way he had come.
He had made it to the stairs before he realised that he had been seen. Several voices, raised into angry shouts, echoed at his back and told him that he had slipped up. He doubled his speed. There were people coming after him, and he knew it. Could somebody have heard him? It seemed more likely that other Demon Dogs, in one of the rooms he had passed, had seen him through the cracked and dirty windows; guards, perhaps, that he had entirely failed to spot. He cursed himself for his lack of vigilance, and quickened his pace still further. Doors banged behind him, and footsteps echoed in the corridor.
He almost hurled himself down the stairs, leaping down five or six of them in one go, his heavy landings reverberating noisily. Behind him others clattered. He chose another corridor at random, had to change direction quickly when he realised that he had been seen. Another stairwell loomed up, and he dashed into it, hearing the voices in pursuit more clearly now. How the hell had he got himself into this so quickly? How had he not managed to notice that there were so many people in the building? Warning shouts told him to stop, but he ignored them. The last thing that he wanted was to fall into the hands of the Demon Dogs. They would kill him, or worse, and he would never get the chance to return to Trudy. Focusing his mind on the resolution that he was going to - had to - get away, he leapt down the last few stairs and burst out of the stairwell into the ground floor corridor. A motley bunch of Demon Dogs stood before him, ranged in their silver painted ferocity like an army facing its foe. Bray froze, thought hard, then raced in the other direction. He was moving away from the main door now, but his mind was on the fire exit that he knew was not far away. They had all been kept bolted at one time, with little glass bolts easily smashed in time of necessity. There wouldn't be time for him to stop and smash one now, and he hoped and prayed that somebody else had done so already. Some mindless vandal or looter, serving a purpose for the first time. After all, they had smashed almost everything else.
"Stop!" He recognised the voice, but for now couldn't put a name to it. Somebody that he had been to school with perhaps, or somebody that he had come to know since. One of his intermittent sparring partners, in the never-ending battle he seemed to have found himself in, against several of the city's growing tribes. Even now, breathless and terrified, there was time to smile at that bellowed command. Did they really expect him to stop?! Hurtling around a corner, almost losing his footing, he came upon the fire exit sooner than he had expected. His feet skidded helplessly, and without slowing down he crashed straight into the horizontal bar that held the door closed. Tense as a board he expected the bar to stick; waited to hear the clunk that would tell him that the glass bolt was still in place, and that the door wouldn't open. It didn't happen. With a loud, hollow thump, the release bar slammed home, and the door swung open. He heard it, distantly, crash into the wall alongside; was aware that the window, with its black letters screaming Fire Exit, had shattered into a million pieces. Beyond that he was aware only of the need to run. He almost lost his footing on the rubbish-strewn ground, but regained it in time to maintain his lead. Shutting out the sounds of pursuit, he took off into the streets. He was exhausted, and his heart was hammering in his chest, but he knew that he was good for a while longer yet. If he could stay ahead for another few minutes, then with luck he would be home free.
Lex was angry. He was angry because he was hungry, and he was angry because he was thirsty; but most of all he was angry because he was so bloody helpless. He couldn't find food, he couldn't find water, and after long days of searching, the best shelter he had been able to find was an old generator room; a small place, made from uniform concrete blocks, the cramped space filled with pipes and wires that no longer served any useful purpose. There was little warmth in the room, which seemed to let in draughts as often as it let in the rain, and since none of them could be bothered to clear up the rubbish on the floor, there was not even an inkling of homely feeling. They had tried to light a fire, but without matches or cigarette lighters had had to resort to sticks. It had worked during training, up in the hills, when there hadn't been lives and comfort resting on success. Here in the city, when it was all for real, it wouldn't work at all. In the end Lex had hurled the sticks away in a fury, terrifying Zandra and infuriating Glenn, and calling an immediate cease to any attempt at making the place more comfortable for any of them. Now Zandra huddled in one corner, miserable and cold; Glenn glowered from another corner; and Ryan hovered uncertainly in the middle, unhappy at the tension and unpleasantness in the air. Lex just fumed, white with rage at his own inability to make things better. He was supposed to be the leader; the strongest and toughest kid on the block. He always had been before. Now he couldn't even start a fire.
"I'm hungry." As usual his frustrations were manifesting themselves in sulky displays of bad attitude. He kicked some pieces of rubbish aside, and looked as though he wanted to punch somebody. Ryan offered him a well-meaning smile, deciding that if anybody was going to be punched, it had probably better be him.
"That's okay, Lex. I think there are still some biscuits left." He made a move towards the lonely looking rucksack lying by the door. Lex glared daggers at him.
"Leave it alone. If I want biscuits I'll ask for them. They're old and they're broken, and most of them are soggy; and I never really liked the damn things anyway. I want proper food. Real food."
"We'll find some." Still smiling as pleasantly as he could, Ryan kept a note of gentle encouragement in his voice. "It's alright, Lex. There's still food out there."
"Shut up." Lex pushed him aside, then began to pace restlessly. Empty drinks cans clattered at his feet, and broken cardboard boxes bounced aside as he kicked them. Zandra looked away, eyes wide and sorrowful.
"Lex, do you have to--"
"I said shut up!" Interrupting her with real fury in his voice, Lex swung around to face her, then just as suddenly turned away. He considered punching the wall, but decided against it in time to save his knuckles some serious damage. Ryan looked uncomfortable.
"Come on, Lex. We're just as hungry as you are. It'll be okay though, you'll see." Trying to lighten the atmosphere with a few inspiring words, he smiled around at the others. "We've just been a bit unlucky recently, that's all."
"When I want your opinion I'll ask for it." Lex turned his back on the others and stared in mute fury at the door. Ryan was right; there was plenty of food still out there. So why couldn't he get hold of any of it? This wasn't what he had been trained for, at that damned camp up in the hills. There he had been made to believe that it would be so much easier than this. His life prior to the camp had certainly hinted at his ability to be self sufficient. He had ruled the streets, hidden from nobody, taken what he wanted and needed nothing from the adults in his life. Why couldn't he do the same now? But it had all become so difficult, and he couldn't compete in this new world of strong tribes.
"Lex..." Ryan was still pleading for harmony, but Lex didn't care about that anymore. He was making plans. "Lex?"
"Shut up, Ryan." Striding over to the door, Lex pulled it open. Beyond their chilly little room was a grey day, dry but promising not to stay that way for long. He could see nobody, but he knew that they were out there. The Locos and the Demon Dogs, the Jackals and the Raiders, the Bush Babies and the Manics and the Pirates. He didn't know them, and had never met any of them, but he heard the names of their tribes as whispers on the streets. So many of them, and most couldn't hope to be his equal. He was Lex; the strongest, the fastest and the best. If he could just establish himself, he was sure that he could manoeuvre a few of those other tribes out of his way. All it would take was a few fights.
"Do you have a plan, Lex?" Ryan had learnt a long time ago that Lex was rather good at plans. It was more of an animal cunning than a real ability to think up good ideas, but that was just the sort of thing that worked best in a world of lawlessness and chaos. Ryan himself wasn't terribly good at thinking, and had come to respect Lex's abilities in that department a very great deal. If Lex had a plan, Ryan was sure that things stood to change in their favour.
"Maybe." Lex was thinking hard, trying to decide which of the tribes would be easiest to quash. If he could prove his supremacy to a few of the smaller tribes, pretty soon he would win himself a reputation. Maybe then he could get people to bring him food, instead of having to rely on Ryan and Glenn's dubious talents to find it for him. It was all that he wanted, really, and it didn't seem like much to ask. Respect, power, standing. The position that was his due. He smiled in satisfaction at the idea he had had, and then turned back to face Ryan. "Ryan, mate. Fancy a fight?"
"I don't know, Lex." Despite his strength, and usual certainty to win, Ryan did not really enjoy fighting all that much. He didn't especially like hurting other people, and he certainly didn't enjoy getting hurt himself. Lex's dark eyes narrowed.
"I wasn't offering you a choice, you big lug. You want food, right?"
"Right!" Enthusiastic now, Ryan nodded his close-cropped head. He didn't like being hungry, and being large and powerful, and still growing fast, it took quite a bit of food to stop him from feeling that way.
"Good." Lex gestured out into the streets. "'Cause like you said, there's plenty of it out there. All we have to do is find the right people to take it from."
"That's not very fair, Lex." Her own hunger doing a good job of destroying her principles, Zandra had trouble sounding truly disapproving. Lex grinned at her.
"You won't say that when you sit down to the first decent meal you've had in a week, Zan. Trust me. This is the way forward. If we're going to get anywhere, we need respect; and the way to get that is through proving our strength. That's the way it works out there. It's the law of the jungle, and I don't intend to be at the bottom of the pecking order. We're not Strays, right? So why should we act like it?"
"Yeah. Good point Lex." Encouraged as usual by his friend's words, Ryan was grinning broadly. Things always seemed so much clearer once Lex had explained them. He was right. Everybody else stole things, and exerted their strength over others. Why shouldn't they? If he thought about it, there was a little guilt in the back of his mind, but not enough to stop him going ahead with this latest plan. Glenn didn't look terribly enthusiastic, but Ryan had come to realise that Glenn was never happy with any plan that Lex had thought up. What had begun as half-hearted rivalry, and a not entirely serious battle for Zandra's affections, had very quickly become fully fledged enmity. Glenn only stayed around now for the sake of security. Even Zandra had noticed the potential rift.
"Well... be careful." Zandra's morals had always been easily suppressed, and she was as hungry as the rest of them. She wanted something that would leave her feeling full up, not as though she had just papered over a few cracks. Something that her mother might have considered a decent meal, instead of the endless biscuits and occasional can of greasy meat. Lex beamed at her.
"No sweat, babe. We'll bring you back a three course dinner, with candlesticks and a fancy tablecloth. Right Ryan?"
"Right, Lex." Ryan's eyes drifted uncertainly over to Glenn. "Are you coming?"
"Yeah, Glenn. Instead of sitting there like some lazy fool who can't stand up." Lex kicked an empty Coke can with deadly accuracy, and Glenn had to move aside to avoid being hit by it. He rose to his feet, brushing off the dust and debris that clung to his battered clothes.
"Of course I'm coming. You'll be alright on your own, right Zandra?"
"Yeah. Sure." She didn't sound certain, and was cross that only Glenn had thought to ask. Why couldn't Lex be the thoughtful one occasionally? Taking the opportunity to make her recalcitrant beau jealous, she flashed Glenn an appreciative smile. "Thanks for asking."
"If we're going," announced Lex, looking decidedly annoyed, "then we'd better get going. Come on."
"Lead the way." Ryan was excited now, eager for the off. Feeding on his companion's high opinion of him, Lex squared his shoulders and blew a quick kiss to Zandra. She pointedly ignored it, even though it did set her heart a fluttering.
"Just hurry back," she told him. He nodded.
"Put the wine on ice, babe. We'll be back with the caviar."
"Idiot." But even as she turned away with a frown on her face she was smiling, and at the sight of the warmth in her eyes, Glenn's expression hardened into a glower. None of the others noticed, and as the younger boy passed him, Lex gave him a comradely clap on the back. Glenn's eyes glittered. Lex needed taking down a peg or two, he decided; and as he walked out of the little room, back out onto the harsh, bleak streets, he resolved that one day it would be his responsibility to do just that.
Bray ran until he wasn't sure that he was capable of doing so anymore; until he was certain that the last of his pursuers had long since dropped out of the race; then, his hair plastered to his forehead, his clothes hanging heavy from the heat, he threw down his skateboard and carried on. His progress had become listless, his pace weary, but he didn't stop. He couldn't. Neither did he head back to Trudy. His movements were awkward and cautious, his heart was uncertain, and his pulse had begun to race uncomfortably, but instead of aiming for the relative safety of the place where he had left his young companion, he turned instead towards a greater danger even than the one from which he had just fled. If the Demon Dogs were bad, the Locos were worse; and he knew that there was nowhere in the world that he could possibly go now, save right into their very den. So it was that he found himself skating into their clutches like a fly testing the strength of a spider's web. Prodding each length of sticky silk with a tentative foot, walking further onto it, closer and closer to the waiting jaws, still gambling that it would be able to pull free and fly away. He felt cold.
They saw him, as he had known that they would, when he turned the corner some half a mile from the rail yard they had made their home. A group of bored looking guards, not one of them over fourteen, were sprawled on the roof of an old warehouse, and he saw them before they saw him. He wondered whether he should slow down and speak to them, rather than risk more trouble by carrying on; but he decided in the end to push onwards. It was taking a big risk, but he trusted Zoot and Ebony to interfere before he was put in any real danger. At least, he hoped that he could trust them.
High on the rooftop, the young guard who was in charge of the radio sent his faint and crackling message back to the rail yard. The radios were children's walkie-talkies, 'liberated' from a toy shop in the early days of the Virus, when the Locos had first come together. They were battered now from much use and misuse, and were kept going by batteries often too large to fit comfortably into their housing, for nowadays there was always a necessary air of making do. Lashed into place with wire and sellotape, the batteries alternately faded and surged, and occasionally dripped acid, but more or less kept the radios running. The tribe argued amongst themselves over what would be the best replacement for the walkie-talkies, when eventually they did stop working, but since nobody knew semaphore, nor had the slightest idea how to train a pigeon to carry messages, for now the radios reigned supreme. Bray knew about them, and knew as he skated on down the quiet bit of road, that messages were already crackling their way in sheaths of static through the air above his head. He wondered what his reception would be, and began to slow his pace in readiness for it. Only now did he wonder what would happen if Zoot wasn't home.
"Bray!" The voice echoed from nearby, and he turned very slowly, stepping off his skateboard and kicking it up into his hand. He knew the voice; its sharpness, its melody, its insinuating hints of flirtation. It brought a chill to his spine.
"Ebony." She had never used to make him feel like this. He had loved her once, or almost had. Maybe. They had had a lot of fun, anyway, at school dances, and on Friday nights. Now she was the girl with the power of life and death over half a city; the ruthless, unspeakably dangerous companion of Zoot the Bringer of Chaos. Lethal cunning given form, and a particularly compelling form at that. She smiled at him, and his face hardened. He hated to be played with.
"What can we do for you, Bray? Get tired of Trudy? Decide to bring her back? What happens if we don't want her?"
"This isn't about Trudy." He glanced about, aware of the other Locos moving around on the peripheries of his vision. "It's about something else. Where's Zoot?"
"Zoot is our leader. He doesn't meet with everybody who comes by." Ebony came closer to him, walking with her intensely confident stride; a cat on two legs, eyes sparkling with all manner of suggestion. Bray felt his hackles rise.
"I think he'll speak with me." He lowered his voice, trying to appeal to the common sense beneath the sultry exterior. "Come on, Ebony. You know I wouldn't come here if it wasn't important."
"Maybe." Her eyes flicked away from him, to the other members of the tribe who were lurking nearby. It took only one jerk of her head to send them slinking away, and Bray breathed a sigh of relief, thanking heaven for Ebony's unyielding air of authority. "So what is it?"
"I want to speak to Zoot." He had no bargaining power, and he knew it. She could call her people back before he could make a move to stop her, and he would be dead or overpowered in seconds. She might just do it too; she loved him, or had done once; she certainly entertained hopes of a renewal of affections between them; but if she thought that it was a good move on her part, for whatever reason, she would order just about anything. Ebony could rewrite the book on ruthlessness.
"Zoot doesn't do audiences." Her eyes mocked him. "I deal with callers these days. Like a personal assistant." She grinned. "A secretary who bites back. Come on, Bray. If you've got something to say to Zoot, you can say it to me."
"I want to talk to my brother." He pushed past her then, taking yet another risk. Ebony's eyes blazed, but she didn't try to stop him. Instead she fell into step beside him, smirking in a way that suggested she found him very amusing.
"What's the big secret, Bray? Hoping he'll let you join?"
"Shut up." He turned aside to slip through the fence surrounding the rail yard. Ebony followed on, still managing an easy stride despite the fast pace he was setting. She laughed.
"Always the gentleman."
"Just tell me where Zoot is." He looked up and down the rows of rail cars, seeing how much had changed since the last time he had been here. More damage, more graffiti, more persistent growth of stringy grass, pushing its way up through fallen wheels, torn up track and scattered tools and machinery. There was battle damage too; long scars caused by skirmishes with the Demon Dogs. Bray's mind was filled with a horrible picture of Zoot in his enemies' hands. Maybe he was already too late with his message of warning.
"He's in his car." She pointed to one of the carriages; a long, thin one, its once grey paint now almost totally obscured by layers of blue and gold. Livid red spelled legends of power and chaos, in the age-old handwriting style of graffiti artists the world over; and ribbons made from shredded plastic carrier bags hung from the roof. Bray breathed a sigh of relief.
"Right." He threw down his skateboard, pulled off the bag that hung around his shoulders, and tossed it after the board. There was always a chance that they might be stolen, but he was tired now, and the things were heavy, and unnecessary in this place. Ebony's eyes sparkled with interest, but he knew that she wouldn't take anything. If he was lucky she might even forbid anybody else from stealing the things as well. Certainly she seemed to have taken up a proprietary stance beside them, and made no effort to follow him towards Zoot's trailer. That surprised him, but presumably she had her reasons. Maybe she had finally found a little discretion.
"You'd better knock." Ebony sounded serious, although that wasn't reason enough to suppose that she was. Bray shot her a withering glance, but she shook her head. "Honest, Bray. He's changed since you left. He's changing all the time. I knew him before as well remember, and he's different now. A real leader."
"Yeah." He turned his back on her, and carried on walking. Zoot might be the great leader of the Locos, and every day might change him further; make him less the boy that the world had once known; but to Bray he would always be Martin, at least in part. No warnings would alter that. Left behind, Ebony raised an amused eyebrow at his back.
"Well don't say I didn't warn you." She picked up the fallen bag and went through it, then tossed it aside, sighed, and followed on in Bray's wake. She'd leave them alone to talk, that much they deserved - but she would listen in all the same. Discretion definitely only went so far.
It felt like an attack of nerves, as he stood before the door of Zoot's rail car, wondering whether he should knock or just walk in. He told himself off for feeling unreasonably nervous. What was wrong with him? Sometimes it was so hard to remember that it really was just his brother under all that paint and wild hair. He smiled to himself. He was acting as jumpy and as helpless as Trudy. Time to grab the bull by the horns. He knocked on the door.
"Come in." The voice was steady, and brittle as ice. Bray gave the door a push. He knew that Zoot was fully aware of his guest's unwelcome identity. He would have received the message almost as soon as Bray had passed the guards with their unreliable walkie-talkies. By the sound of it, the Locos' inflammable leader had been on the boil ever since.
"Zoot." It was a polite greeting, coupled with a wary nod. Stepping through the doorway, Bray met his brother's eyes with as much confidence and equanimity as he had always used. He would not alter his manner, no matter how much his brother had changed.
"Bray." Zoot showed no courtesy or equanimity. Instead his empty eyes stared blankly back at his brother, and his mouth moved into a hard, set line. "You're taking a big risk coming here."
"I don't think so." Bray remembered what Ebony had said, about how different Zoot was these days, and hoped that she had only been trying to wind him up. It was just the kind of thing she liked to do. "I had to speak to you."
"Did you bring me back my wife?"
"If you cared enough you'd have come and got her. Don't give me that cuckolded husband routine." Bray wished that those unnerving eyes would drift away for a moment. If Zoot refused to take the damned lenses out, then he could at least try putting a little less force into his glare when he was amongst friends. Sort of friends. Well, acquaintances, anyway.
"Cuckolded husband?" The outmoded term had obviously bypassed Zoot. He had never been the type to read anything older than he was. The wild, white-blond locks waved as he shook his head. "Never mind. What did you want, anyway?"
"To talk, like I said. There's trouble, Zoot."
"There's always trouble." Zoot sat down behind his desk, leaning back in his chair with his feet up. "The whole world is in trouble, in case you hadn't noticed. Personally I like things this way."
"Yeah." Bray turned away, and wandered over to a dusty window. Beyond it he could see the whole spread of the rail yard, with Locos sprawled about in ungainly piles. Most of them were probably drunk or stoned. The others just couldn't be bothered to move. He remembered what they were like when they felt a battle calling, and shuddered inwardly. Lazy and motionless could so very suddenly become something else. "But I don't just mean the usual kind of trouble. I was at the sports hall earlier."
"That's Demon Dogs territory." Zoot sat upright. "Do you like taking stupid risks?"
"I didn't know about the Dogs. I've been out of this sector for weeks." He turned around, pacing back to the desk with a restless stride. Now that it was time to pass on the message to his brother, he was beginning to think that it wouldn't be the rescue he had intended it to be. Zoot would listen, and he would smile, and he would probably go straight out onto the streets to pre-empt the Demon Dogs' attack. He certainly wouldn't say thank you, and put himself away somewhere safe.
"And?" The opaque contact lenses gave nothing away, which of course was exactly what was intended. Bray's eyes strayed over the room, across the display of torn silver clothing that stood as a testament to the many battles Zoot had fought and won against the Demon Dogs. He thought that he was invincible. Of course he did, thought Bray, with some bitterness. What kid his age didn't? Bray himself had believed in his own indestructibility, until he had found himself out on the streets all alone, and had come to see just how quickly everything could end.
"The Dogs are planning something." He met the blank eyes, and wished that he could be sure Zoot would do the sensible thing. "An attack, on you personally. They want to capture or kill you, to... to take the head of the snake I suppose. They've got it all figured out, Zoot. Everything."
"Yeah?" Zoot sounded flattered. Perhaps it was a curious type of honour, to be singled out for such treatment by an enemy. Bray allowed himself a big-brotherly sigh, and earned a fierce look from Zoot.
"You don't understand." Trying to sound firm, the way he had once sounded when it was a late night party he had been trying to talk his brother out of, Bray remembered the brutality in the voices of the two boys he had overheard. "They really mean this. They're going to attack directly, or lure you out into the open - and we both know there's no way you'll refuse a challenge. They know you're sometimes here alone, so they don't necessarily even have to try trickery. They'll come, and they'll get you, because they have twice the manpower you do."
"Twice the manpower, half the skill." Zoot's opinion of the Demon Dogs was clear. "They're useless. Couldn't fight their way out of a Girl Guides' camp."
"They've been managing to wage a war against you for long enough." Bray heard the New Zealand twang in his voice, and drew in a breath to calm himself down. "This is serious, Zoot. They've got it into their heads that this is the thing to do. They want to end this war once and for all, and they're going to do that by killing you, or by putting you in a cage and parading you for the whole city to see. Now I don't want you ruling this city with your mad little bunch of followers, but I don't want the Demon Dogs running it either; and whatever you might think, I don't want you dead. You've got to take this seriously!"
"Maybe." Zoot stood up, kicking his chair aside and wandering over to the same window that Bray had stared out of earlier. "But I won't run away and hide with my tail between my legs. That would be just as bad as letting them get hold of me. The city's got to see me standing tall, no matter what dangers there might be. Anything else puts my leadership and supremacy at risk, and I won't do that."
"Yeah, because the city would be so much worse off if it was allowed to breathe freely for a change." Bray knew that he had gone too far by the sparks in Zoot's eyes that even the contact lenses couldn't hide. He turned away, and hoped that he wasn't about to get hauled off to one of the prison cars. "I'm not asking you to play coward. I'm just trying to warn you about what's coming. If you don't want to listen, I can't make you." He stopped. "Look, I suppose I shouldn't have bothered. If you want to play fearless leader, that's your affair. I'm leaving."
"Not if I say you can't." Zoot seemed to grow, as he drew himself up to his full height. He was still shorter than Bray, but it was clear that he had a lot of growing still to do. The chances were that he would be the taller of them one day, and they both knew it. Bray might have smiled at the idea once, but the thought of Zoot using such extra height as an advantage worried him now. Ebony had been right, he mused; Zoot had changed. It had been only a few months since they had last met, but the constant warring with the Demon Dogs had left their mark in many ways. He had become so much more the bully; so much more the hardened man in charge.
"Are you going to stop me?" For now at least he was the taller, and perhaps the stronger. If he had to fight Zoot he could probably win. If nobody interrupted them, and if Zoot hadn't picked up too many dirty tricks. From amidst the swirling red paint, his brother's mouth twitched into a smile.
"Then you admit that I could?"
"Yeah." The conversation was rapidly draining him, and he felt exhausted. Exhausted, frustrated, and annoyed. "Yeah, I admit that you could stop me, if you wanted to. But what would that achieve, huh Zoot? So you keep me here, sure - but what happens then?"
"Who cares." Zoot gestured at the door. "Get lost. Go back where you came from, to wherever it is that you've been for the last few months. And don't come back here again."
"And so speaks Zoot." The anger finally boiling over, Bray took several swift steps towards his brother. "I came here to help you. I could have stayed away, and not said anything."
"No you couldn't. You always were a do-gooder. Always have to do the right thing, don't you Bray. Like now, coming here, believing that I'll be so grateful for the tip off that I'll cut my hair, and wash off the paint, and go back to being your brother. Well it's not going to happen. Now get out of here, before I change my mind and get rid of you."
"I'm going." In many ways it was like dealing with a spoilt child, which of course was exactly what Zoot had once been. "Just watch your back. Make sure somebody else isn't watching it for you." He strode to the door. All the time that he was opening it, and stepping out into the harsh light beyond, he was hoping that Zoot would call him back. He waited to hear his brother's voice, even when he was walking away, leaving the rail car behind him; but Zoot's call never came. Instead, all that he got as he left the Locos' headquarters was an army of poisonous glares. Zoot's delinquents muttered and gestured at his back, displaying the dislike they had always felt for him. Even with Zoot's permission to go unmolested, still he couldn't help feeling horribly exposed.
When she was sure that Bray had gone, Ebony knocked hard on Zoot's door. He had been expecting her, and called her in as soon as the knocking had stopped. She looked around, pretending to be surprised that Bray had left.
"Has he gone back to Trudy? You should have made him tell you where she is."
"If you wanted her back you'd have taken her by now." Paraphrasing Bray's own words to him, Zoot glared at Ebony. "And don't pretend that you don't know he's gone. You were probably listening to the whole of the conversation."
"Not the whole of it, no." Unperturbed by his awareness of her prying, she sat down on the corner of his desk and stared at him brightly. "So what are you going to do?"
"Double the guard, maybe. I'll play big for my brother, but I guess there's no sense taking risks." He scowled. "Should I have let Bray leave?"
"Yes." She shrugged. "But then what do I know? He's not my brother. He could be useful, you know. He is looking after Trudy, and you know that there's every chance she'll come back to you in the end. She's got to work this freedom thing out of her system, and then she'll come back here, and you'll be glad for everything Bray's done to keep her safe. And remember that he's just brought you a piece of news that could be very useful."
"They'd never have caught me unawares, even if I hadn't known they were coming." He sighed. "Maybe I should have sent somebody to follow him."
"Why? You know Bray's always thrown off the tails you've sent. Don't worry about it. He's not the enemy; not really. Of course you were right to let him leave. What's the alternative? Are you really thinking of killing him?"
"No." He couldn't help thinking that it might solve a few problems though. Even if it only helped to remove one of his recurring worries, it might just be worth it. He threw the thought aside. The only way that Bray was really a threat was in the amount of time Zoot wasted in thinking about him. "No, I'm not thinking of killing him. What would be the point? Go on, Ebony. Go and spread the word around. Make sure that the patrols are ready. The more Demon Dogs they take out from now on, the better."
"Gotcha." She slid to her feet, movements like liquid, as ever. Molten silk, he couldn't help thinking, although it was a metaphor that didn't really make sense. "And do I put a tail on Bray?"
"No. Leave him. I don't want Trudy unless she wants to come back to me. He can keep her. There's no other reason to follow him."
"Okay." She glided past him with such open flirtation in her movements that for a moment he thought she was going to kiss him. She didn't of course - she never did. He had become used to her ways by now; her flirting, her insinuations, her provocative body language. That was Ebony, after all. "I'll get things moving. Are you going to take this threat seriously?"
"I don't know." He remembered the genuine worry in Bray's eyes, and cast it aside. "Maybe."
"We should increase the guard. Make sure that you're never here alone."
"Yeah." He didn't sound very interested. "Tell you what. If it rains tomorrow, we'll do all that. If it doesn't... we'll leave things as they are."
"That's pretty slapdash, Zoot." She was worried herself now, although it certainly wasn't her style to let that show. He shrugged.
"Making plans is something that they did in the old world, Ebony. In our world we don't have to do it anymore. We react to what happens when it happens. Everything else is unimportant."
"Yeah." She nodded. "True chaos."
"True chaos." He sat back down at his desk, and leaned back in his chair. "Now go on. I want my men out on the streets taking Demon Dogs apart."
"You got it." She nodded a farewell; a strangely respectful, though cursory gesture, then left the car and headed off across the yard. The Locos were well trained, and fell in around her without needing to be summoned. Zoot didn't see them gathering round, and didn't see Ebony pass out the orders in her usual cool and ruthless way. He heard the howls of glee at the mention of stepped up violence though, and smiled to himself. He'd teach the Demon Dogs. He'd teach the whole city. And even if every one of his men fell in the on-going battle, it still wouldn't do his enemies any good.
Zoot would burn the city to ashes before he was taken alive.,
The little kids ran from him, but Lex didn't care about them. They were easy prey, and what he wanted was something a little more taxing. Something that would help him on his way to a feared reputation. There was no point in trying to impress people by taking food away from terrified nine year-olds who were unable to defend themselves. Glenn grew angry with him for the delay, arguing that they should be fighting anybody, no matter how small or how weak; but Lex told him in no uncertain terms to shut up. Quite apart from the fact that he was convinced his plan was their best bet for the future, he could not be certain of Ryan backing him up if it came to attacking very small children; and it wasn't worth the risk to try any kind of action, no matter how theoretically easy, without his main muscle to back him up. The humiliation that would be the result of a failure to steal anything from such little kids would destroy any potential he had for gaining power in the sector, for nobody ever forgot an embarrassing defeat - so until he found a stronger foe, or managed to convince Ryan that there was nothing very wrong in beating up little kids, he was happy to leave well alone. Glenn wasn't, but then lately Glenn wasn't happy with anything that Lex did. Lex was thinking about ditching him, but couldn't quite decide how. How best to lose a friend without other friends objecting? How best to get rid of him without upsetting Zandra too much? It was another thing to think about, as he walked the streets looking for a fight.
They found the trouble that they were looking for in a driveway, increasingly overgrown now, which had once led the way to a large school building. Lex had seen it once or twice, from a distance, although it had not been the sort of school that anybody would ever have considered sending him to. It was a huge, ivy-walled affair, with stained glass in several of the windows, and with a huge bell that still stood in the centre of the high, pointed roof. Scratches and missing tiles on the top of the building stood testament to the many attempts made by the local gangs to bring the bell down, but so far nobody had succeeded. Looking up at the dizzying heights, and at the unreasonably weighty bell, Lex couldn't really understand why they had bothered trying in the first place.
"Over there." Ryan was looking about with more attention than he usually paid to anything. He must be hungry, mused Lex.
"Where?" He tried to see where the other boy was pointing, but saw nothing save a festering rubbish bin, and an abandoned pair of roller-skates. Ryan pointed.
"Behind the bins. I saw something move. Looked like two or three people."
"Save your breath, Ryan. Lex'll only say they're not worth it. All talk, Lex is. Says that we need to fight people, then turns down every opportunity we find." Glenn sounded bitter and impatient. "All to impress Zandra, was it Lex? We're going to go back home and swear that we never saw another living soul, I suppose?"
"Shut up." Lex looked past the bins and roller-skates, and the fluttering, dancing litter, searching for whatever had attracted Ryan's attention. He saw it just as Glenn's impatience seemed to reach its peak.
"Who are you telling to shut up?" Rounding on Lex with his fists clenched, he looked on the verge of attack. Lex tried to swat him aside.
"Not now Glenn." He was seeing more movement now; three distinct shapes, and the suggestion of more beyond. Glenn's eyes burned.
"Don't try to push me aside, Lex! You've had this coming for a long time. You act the hero, and you talk tough, but when it comes to the crunch you're about as heroic as the adults were during the Last Days. Well I've had enough of it. Maybe it's time somebody else took over as leader."
"Er, Glenn..." Ryan's eyes were fixed on the movements beyond the bins. There were several people that he could see, and they were clearly being drawn by the sounds of argument and dissent. Maybe they thought this the perfect time for an attack.
"Shut up, Ryan. We all know you're Lex's faithful shadow. You'll never do anything against him."
"No, really Glenn..." Ryan could see them better now; six of them, walking abreast, moving out of the shadows like ghosts appearing through a wall. They were dressed in black from head to toe; jet black, the colour of new clothes never yet washed and faded. Black shirts, too large; black trousers, skin tight; black gloves, black shoes, black coats that swept the ground as they walked. They wore shoulder pads, which far from having a comic effect, like that of some hopelessly outdated fashion, gave them added breadth and the suggestion of considerable strength. Glenn swung around at last, taken aback by the sudden appearance, face paling beneath the layers of paint.
"Nice move, Glenn. Next time maybe we can stay on the same side long enough to fight off the bad guys." Pushing him aside, Lex shot a glance across at Ryan. "Think we can take them?"
"Uh... I think so." The other boy did not look certain, but Lex didn't let that worry him. He could handle himself, and he was certain that this black-clad bunch of clothes horses couldn't be that much of a challenge. Lex didn't believe that anybody was a challenge, when he was the one facing them in combat. Anything that he lacked in ability he more than made up for in confidence and self assurance.
"You're in our territory." One of the black-clad sextet had peeled himself away from his five sinister shadows, and moved a little into the lead. "This is our place. All of it, as far as you can see."
"Funny. And there was I thinking this was Demon Dogs land." Lex had seen signs of the battle that had been fought round about, and had heard rumours of the terrible fighting that had gone on between the Dogs and the old rulers of this neighbourhood. He didn't know what that particular tribe had been called, for there was not a trace of them left, and nobody mentioned their name anymore. They had formed and been wiped out so quickly that they had never had the chance to make themselves remembered. Well he was damned if the same thing was going to happen to him.
"Thought wrong then, didn't you. You see any Demon Dogs around here?" The leader of the group folded his arms, filling out his shape so that he looked twice the size of Lex. He was about seventeen, Lex guessed, although the rest of his gang seemed a little younger. None of them were exactly pushovers though.
"Then who are you?" Moving forward, matching the other boy's over-confident body language, Lex tried on a nicely insulting smile. He was rather proud of it, although he wished that he could have seen it for himself. His opposite number looked ferocious.
"We're the Knights. And you're dead." His eyes were sparking in a way that meant only violence. Lex was happy to accommodate him.
"That was really original." Keeping the right note of scathing good humour in his voice, Lex turned his insulting smile onto the rest of the glowering tribe. "See, that's the problem with our brave new world. No one can think of any interesting new ways to threaten each other."
"If you want threats, maybe you want to try somebody else." The leader of the Knights was almost upon him now, dark eyes glittering like black rain. "We're not about words, here. We do, not say."
"Good." Very slowly, very deliberately, Lex put out a hand and gave the other boy's chest a hard shove. "Then stop saying, and start doing."
"You little--" Snarling the words like some cheap Hollywood villain, the leader of the Knights lashed out with one of his fists, striking with blinding force at the place where Lex's head had just been; but Lex was too quick for him. Born in the rough end of town, having spent much of his youth brawling in alleyways, Lex had learnt speedy footwork when the other kids in the city had been learning Maths and Chemistry. Ducking aside, throwing his own sharper, harder jab, he connected with the other boy's stomach. Another member of the Knights shouted his rage.
"Don't let him get away with that, Ben!"
"I wasn't planning to." Bent double by the force of the blow, Ben struggled to make himself stand upright. Lex grinned.
"Come and get it then. Show me what you're made of."
"Oh I'll show you that alright." Gesturing towards Lex's companions with one hand, Ben threw a glance back over his shoulder to his own friends. "Get them then! There are only two of them."
"Er, Lex?" Ryan, as usual, was looking for guidance. Lex didn't bother taking the risk of looking his way.
"Just fight, Ryan!" He let himself sound angry, even if to do so was unfair. Better to sound angry than to show any kind of concern. Gritting his teeth, telling himself that this was just what he had been wanting, he threw himself into the fight. He and his friends were outnumbered two to one, but with Ryan on his side he was sure that the odds were improved a little. Not that there was anything that he could do about it now anyway. Focused entirely upon Ben, he could think of nothing save the flashing fists threatening to break his jaw. Ryan and Glenn would have to deal with the other five Knights as best they could.
For Glenn it was a close run thing. Out manoeuvred from the beginning, fighting two boys who were taller than him, and a lot faster, he had to rely only on the stamina and strength that he had gathered about him since turning to this new way of life. His build was solid enough, but he lacked the skills for fighting. Glenn had not had a tough early childhood, and neither had he shared the recent military training of Ryan and Lex.
For all Lex's confidence and ability, they might have lost the fight had it not been for Ryan. What he lacked in speed he more than made up for in brute strength, and as the Knights flocked around him, dodging, darting and striking, he waded through it all as though impervious to their well timed blows. Hauling one boy away from Glenn, he downed him with a single punch, Glenn gasped an inadequate thanks through a throat hoarse from over exertion. Ryan might have smiled, had he not taken fighting so seriously, and without even acknowledging his frightened friend's debilitated state, he threw himself back into things. Nearby Lex was still struggling against Ben, and Ryan was trying to keep half an eye on him, watching his progress at the same time that he was watching the rest of the enemy. He was ready to help Lex if his friend got into too much trouble, but he was worried that he wouldn't be able to get to him in time. Lex, however, was still perfectly happy, even if he perhaps should not have been. Ben was fast and strong, and his fists looked as though they could easily do some permanent damage. Only Lex's speed was keeping him ahead, and all that he was able to do was to attempt to wear his opponent down. His own punches were not as heavy or as powerful as those delivered by Ben, but he was certain that, if he could land enough of them, their cumulative effect should accomplish something. It was an increasingly desperate theory, but he clung to it with all of his natural tenacity. This was what he had wanted. This was what he had been looking for. There was no point in looking for a reputation if you weren't prepared to build it the hard way.
With a burst of strength born of his fear that he might be losing, he knocked Ben down with a right cross summoned from somewhere in the depths of the Earth. It was an impressive blow, that almost broke his own wrist, and did a good deal more damage to Ben. For all his strong build and clear solidity, the leader of the Knights collapsed as though his bones had been majicked away. He went down hard, hitting the ground with a groan that spoke of real pain. Lex grinned, the blood around his mouth matching the gleam in his reddened eyes.
"Now for the rest of you." He had forgotten the others, and only as he turned did he see them, and realise what he had left his two companions to handle. Glenn was drooping, face bruising at an almost visible rate, a clearly broken nose giving his face a lop-sided look that emphasised his exhaustion. Ryan was tiring too, still bashing heads together with his usual unshakeable force, but slower now, and with less precision. Lex hurried to his aid.
"Having problems, Ryan?" He was grinning, even though it hurt his split lips. More blood ran down his face, and he tasted it in his mouth. Ryan managed his usual good-natured smile in reply, although it felt out of place and unsteady.
"I'm okay Lex."
"Good." Grabbing one of the Knights, Lex drove a powerful fist into his jaw, knocking the boy down. It was one of the younger members of the tribe, a smaller, paler boy, but it felt good to take him out of the fight anyway. Wiping the blood from his face, smearing it over his bruised fists, Lex waded into the thick of things and fought on. He was laughing by the time it was all over, and was marvelling at his own brilliance and skill. Oblivious to his injuries, and blind to those of Glenn and Ryan, he saw only his own growing glory.
"What did I tell you?" His words brought new trickles of blood, but his enthusiasm did not pale. "Find a tribe, show them who's boss. By this time tomorrow people are going to know who we are."
"Yeah." Wiping away blood, and trying not to touch his broken nose, Glenn peered at his two companions through swelling eyes. "And then they'll want to prove that they're better than us, and we'll have to go through all of this again."
"So what? You scared of something?" Giving an unconscious Knight a dismissive kick, Lex wiped away the fresh spill of blood on his chin, and continued grinning like a madman. "It'll be worth it. The whole of this sector knowing who we are, giving us food when we want it? You see something wrong with that?"
"Yes." Glenn was having problems standing straight, let alone seeing straight, but he managed to meet Lex's gaze and hold it. "This is nuts."
"Hey, nobody's asking you to stick around and deal with it." Crouching beside Ben's sprawled form, Lex rifled through his pockets, coming up eventually with a small tin of sardines and a crushed packet of digestive biscuits. He scowled. "Is this it? Somebody's got to be carrying more than this."
"Maybe they've got a place somewhere near here." Wary of Lex now that he seemed to be growing angry again, Ryan spoke in faintly pacifying tones. Lex glared at him.
"Well look then. See if you can find anywhere. Glenn?"
"What?" The third member of their group didn't sound happy about doing anything. His eyes were surrounded by bruising now, and his nose was beginning to swell. Lex sighed.
"Get back to Zandra. She's got some painkillers somewhere."
"Are you sure?" Uncertain whether he was being sent away through an act of kindness, or whether Lex just wanted to get rid of him, Glenn was hesitant to comply. Lex just glared even harder.
"Of course I'm sure. What good do you think you're going to do staying here? We'll be back as soon as we can. Tell Zan that we'll be bringing her some food."
"Okay." Now that he was being given permission to go back, he wasn't altogether sure that he wanted to go. If Lex returned to Zandra with his arms full of captured food, he would be the one getting all of the glory. He went all the same though, head bowed, imagining all the time that he could hear Lex laughing at him. Laughing because of his bruises and his broken nose, because he was being sent back home like a child, because Zandra would not see him in the same light as the all conquering King Lex. Even though the sound of laughter was entirely in Glenn's mind, still he seethed with hatred. Ryan looked after him with concern.
"I don't think he likes you very much, Lex."
"You reckon?" Lex had come to that conclusion himself quite some time ago, although he didn't let it bother him too much. What was Glenn going to do to him? He was just a boy, younger than Lex, and not so fast or so strong. Lex had no reason to fear him. All the same, if Ryan had noticed the ill-will... He smiled to himself. Time to think of that later. When the time came he would deal with Glenn decisively enough. For now all that he cared about was food.
Trudy was feeling well rested by the time that Bray returned, and despite her earlier lethargy and sleepiness she felt more than strong enough to be angry with him. He fended off her indignant exclamations with only a fraction of the remorse that she had been hoping for, and had to explain himself quickly before she really took offence.
"You said that you'd be right back! You're always doing this. You go off, and you say that you won't be long, but you always are. I don't know what you're doing, or where you are, and I don't know what's going to happen to me or the baby. I get scared, Bray!"
"I know." He tried to guide her back into a sitting position, at the same time showing her the few stores that he had found. She didn't look impressed.
"All that time, and this is all you found?"
"The supermarkets aren't doing a roaring trade right now, Trude." He regretted his sarcasm immediately, and sighed. "Look, I'm sorry. Really. Something came up. I ran into some Demon Dogs and--"
"Demon Dogs!" Her face turned as white as milk, and she took a step back. "The Demon Dogs? They could have killed you. They - they might have followed you back here!"
"They didn't." This time he was successful in his attempts to get her to sit, and he used just enough force to make her do so quickly. "Honest, Trude. We're as safe here as we've ever been. I overheard them talking, that's all. They were planning a raid on the Locos. More a sneak attack really. They were planning to kill Zoot."
"Kill him?" If it were possible she paled still further, then closed her eyes and shook her head. "Well we don't care about that, do we. He's trying to kill us."
"You know that isn't true." His eyes were soft, and she recapitulated, a little guiltily.
"Alright. So we do care. And-- Well what are you going to do?"
"I've already done it. I went to speak to Zoot, not that it did any good. He seemed to be looking forward to the attack. Sees it as a chance to show the Demon Dogs that he's stronger than they are." He shook his head, frustrated. "He makes me so angry, Trudy. He doesn't seem to care about his life, or about anybody else's. I mean, he knows that this isn't a game. He knows that he could die. It's just that it doesn't seem to mean anything to him."
"I know. I remember..." She tried to smile at him, but her expression of support was inadequate at best. "So what's going to happen?"
"Happen? The Demon Dogs will attack, or they'll sneak up and just grab him. Or maybe they'll lure him out into a trap, I don't know. I don't think it makes any difference to him."
"You don't think that he can win?" She felt a stab of fear as she asked the question. Zoot was mad, perhaps; and she had hated him often enough before now. When it came down to it, though, he was still the father of her baby. She was pretty sure that she had loved him once.
"I don't know. I know that the Locos fight well, but if they manage to get him when he's alone, like they seem to be hoping... well then I don't know what'll happen. I'm scared, Trudy."
"Scared?" She couldn't imagine how she would feel, if it was her brother in danger. She had always been an only child, and losing her parents had left her too numb to really think of the pain of losing anybody else. He nodded.
"I can't help it. What happens if I'm out in the street one day, and I find his body lying in the gutter? What am I supposed to do then? I hardly speak to him nowadays, and I think he hates me; but he's still my brother. I don't think I can face losing him. I don't think I could handle it."
"Zoot's pretty tough, Bray. Really. He'll get through this."
"Yeah." He managed to summon a smile, and didn't meet her eyes. "Well, anyway. We'd better get to some shelter, I suppose. You should have a roof over your head."
"You're changing the subject." She squeezed his arm. "Are you alright?"
"No, not really." He shrugged. "But it's up to Zoot now, isn't it. If he wants to double his personal guard, or parade around the city making an easy target, it's him that has to decide. He certainly won't listen to me."
"He might do." The baby kicked at her, and she stopped talking for a moment, wincing at the force behind the unborn child's obvious strength. "He thinks the world of you, Bray. He always did. I know he does his best to hide it these days, but I've lived with him more recently than you have, remember. If you really showed that you were concerned, there's a chance you got through to him."
"Yeah." Clearly Bray didn't believe her. "Come on. I passed a place on my way back here. It was abandoned, and I think it'll be alright as a shelter."
"If it's got a roof then it'll do. I'm not that tired anymore, but I could do with some food, and it'd be nice to eat it somewhere safe and dry."
"I guess." He sighed. "There's sure to be some furniture still inside the building somewhere. I'll use some to build us a fire, and we'll do things properly."
"Shame we don't have any marshmallows." She smiled, then took his arm. "Come on, Bray. Forget things for the time being. You need to relax, even if it's just for an hour or two. I've hardly seen you sit down in a week, let alone really put your feet up."
"Who can relax?" He was frustrated with her, for yet again she was showing an inability to appreciate how he felt about his brother. She didn't seem able to understand that he couldn't relax when Zoot's life was permanently at risk. But then Trudy had never had any brothers or sisters. How was she supposed to understand how he felt?
"You can at least sit down and eat. Take some kind of a break." She smiled as gently as she could, ever mindful of her hope to one day win him around. To one day make him the permanent father she wanted him to be to her baby. All that she had to do was smile, right? That was what she had done when she had been flirting with the boys back at school, anyway. Everybody liked her smile. It had made her parents give her everything she had wanted.
"Yeah. Yeah, I can sit down for a bit. We'll eat, and... and then we'll see I guess." He managed a tired smile in answer to her hopeful one. "But I'm not promising that I'll stay. I want to keep an eye on the Demon Dogs. See what they're doing."
"And you don't think that the Locos can manage that?" She was growing angry with him now, as she always did when he seemed to be taking risks. He had never quite grasped the idea that it wasn't just his life that he was gambling with; that if he did anything foolhardy, and got himself killed, then she and her baby would probably die as well.
"Of course I think that the Locos can manage that. What I don't think is that they'll bother. Come on, Trude. You know how conceited Zoot can be. How all of them think. I can't just turn my back on this." He gave her hand a squeeze. "But we don't need to worry about that now. Let's just get going, to somewhere more sheltered, and then see what we can come up with in the food line. Okay?"
"Okay." She nodded, accepting the compromise as the best deal that she was likely to get. Maybe he would fall asleep once he had got some food into him, and then would see things differently afterwards. It was always a possibility.
The building Bray had seen turned out to be strongly made, and the most draught-proof of any of the buildings they had been in recently. The solid walls and roof had stood firm through a number of the more violent vandal attacks, which was more than many nearby places had managed. Trudy looked about approvingly.
"The carpets are revolting," she commented jokingly. "Otherwise this is pretty nice."
"Yeah. Shame it's in the middle of Jackal territory, or we could make it a permanent base." He saw the worried look in her eyes, and smiled. "It's okay. They're in the middle of a war with Tribe Circus at the moment. They won't be back here until it's over. We're perfectly safe for the next couple of days."
"Ugh. Tribe Circus." Her shiver was noticeable. "Zoot invited their leaders for talks in the early days. They were mad enough to make the Locos seem normal."
"I know. The Ringmaster is enough to make anybody's skin crawl, and the rest of the tribe are no better. Still, they're doing us a favour now, keeping the Jackals out of our way. Be glad of it."
"I am, I suppose." She remembered the deathly pale face of the Ringmaster, a manic young man with a long, curled whip, and a shiny black cloak. His lieutenants, Top Hat, the Lion Tamer, and the Bearded Lady, were all at least as mad, at least as bizarre, as he was. Still, Bray was right, and just now she did feel grateful to them. If it hadn't been for Tribe Circus waging war on the Jackals, she and Bray could not have stopped in this warm, secure place today.
"What's for lunch, then?" Sitting down beside an old fireplace, where Bray was already constructing a fire, she stretched her back and wished that she could get comfortable. All of her life she had heard tales of the discomforts of giving birth, but she had never heard anybody talk about how damned unpleasant pregnancy itself could be. How hard it was to sit or lie comfortably, how painful her feet and knees had become. Such things left her wishing that she knew somebody else who was in the same situation, who she could talk to and compare experiences with. Her own pre-natal group, meeting in burnt-out buildings in the middle of a war zone. Still, she had seen stranger things since the adults had died.
"We'll think of something." He lit the fire with a cigarette lighter and some pieces of torn paper, then settled back to watch the pieces of broken chair catch. It was not a cold day, and they didn't especially need the warmth, but it felt good all the same. Like a piece of comfort and civilisation, somehow. "Do we still have any of those digestive biscuits?"
"Yes." She opened her bag and pulled them out; half a packet of slightly soft biscuits, only partially broken, a treasure-trove that she herself had found a few days ago.
"Good." He took them from her, and she watched with unfamiliarly bright curiosity as he tipped them into the metal bowl they had used time and again as a makeshift cooking pot. He crushed them clumsily with a water bottle, then added some of the chocolate he had found in the sports hall, and set the bowl above the fire. Trudy laughed.
"Sometimes I think you surprise even yourself. Here, let me watch it." She stirred at the melting mixture as he poured the contents of the orange juice carton into their mugs, mixing it with some water to make it go further. When he had finished he handed her the water, and she mixed some, with some milk powder, into the soupy mixture in the bowl. It didn't look like much, but it was heaven to her.
"That ought to be long enough." Taking the makeshift spoon from her, he shared the mixture out onto their battered metal plates, where it began to cool immediately into a faintly crunchy, cereal like substance. It looked like mud and gravel; a deposit left by flood water. Trudy laughed.
"I haven't seen anything so inviting in weeks."
"You must be getting very easy to please." He smiled as well, pleased that she was laughing. She didn't do so very often these days. "Sorry there's nothing savoury."
"I don't feel like a full scale meal right now." She picked up some of the curious concoction with her fingers, pleased by the lingering warmth and the stickiness. "Well, here goes."
"If you keel over and turn green I'll give it a miss." He watched her with an amused expression on his face as she sampled the dish. "Well?"
"Tastes like... tastes like chocolate cheesecake. Sort of." She shrugged. "Well, maybe not quite. Beats cold beans and tinned spaghetti shapes though."
"I suppose." He tried some of it himself. "Tastes like that stuff they used to serve in the school canteen, when they were pretending that they could cook."
"Don't sell yourself short. You could have a big future as a chef. Delicacies for the more discerning scavenger."
"You won't think it's so funny when you're trying to stop that baby getting rickets or scurvy." He sighed, but smiled at her anyway. "Sorry. Zoot's always telling me I act too much like one of the grown ups."
"It's nice to have somebody do that every once in a while." Sprawling before the fire, lying on a coat spread beside the hearth, she drank a little orange juice, and closed her eyes at the memories of old breakfasts that it brought back. "We all need a grown up occasionally."
"I guess." He lay down beside her, watching as she manoeuvred herself about. "That baby isn't the easiest thing to carry around, is it."
"Not really, no."
"I suppose I haven't really been terribly understanding about it, either. Sometimes... sometimes I get angry when you complain about things."
"That's okay. Sometimes I do complain about things. Probably too much."
"Yeah, but you've got a lot to complain about, haven't you. There's a baby trying to break your spine, you haven't had enough proper food in a month or more, and that's without even thinking about all the other things that you've gone through during your pregnancy. And I keep going off and leaving you..."
"We need food, Bray. I understand that. Mostly I understand it. I mean, I'd rather you stayed with me all the time, yeah, but I understand that you can't."
"And now I have to leave you again." He turned his eyes away, and she felt her heart sink. "Can you forgive me for that?"
"You've decided to go back to Zoot." She shook her head. "And there was I thinking that my plan to make you stay was working. Do you really think that he's in that much danger?"
"I don't know. I can't know, not really. But that's not what matters, is it. I promised our parents that I would look after him, Trudy. I promised. I promised them on his first day at our school, and the first time I took him out with me one Friday night, and... and I promised it when it was obvious that they were dying. He hasn't made it very easy to keep that promise, but that doesn't give me an excuse to turn my back now."
"I know." She stared at the chocolate on her plate, and ate some more. It still tasted good, and the warmth of it was still wonderful, even when her heart was sinking. It mingled well with the orange juice, and reminded her of her mother's experiments in baking. "And I understand, I suppose. I've been pretty spoilt in my life, but things are different now. I... I know it's not exactly the same... or maybe it is... but I know how I feel about my baby. I'd do anything to protect it, but in the past I never understood how people could feel that way."
"We've all changed." He stroked her hair, very gently, remembering their brief fling back in the old world. It had been nothing, really, but he knew that Zoot had always suspected it to be more than it was. He had felt bad ever since, even though he hadn't really done anything to cause his brother's jealousy. He certainly didn't feel at all inclined to start doing so now, although he was beginning to suspect that Trudy wanted him to.
"Everything's changed." She stared back at him, wishing that he wouldn't look quite so absent. She had wanted him to touch her for so long, and when he finally did, it was obviously without any real thought or feeling. What did it take to interest him? "I suppose you're going back to the Locos' headquarters?"
"I don't know. I might go to the main Demon Dog hangout first. See if I can hear anything." He smiled at her obvious apprehension. "Don't worry. They won't catch me."
"Just because they haven't yet, doesn't mean that they won't. You take too many risks, Bray."
"There's no such thing as too many risks. Not when Martin... Zoot... is at risk. I take risks for you and the baby, Trude. Don't ask me to do less for my brother." He sighed, turning back to his plate to finish the eccentric meal. "I'll give it twenty four hours. If I can't make him listen to reason before then, I'll come back here, and we'll go on with the search for a more permanent place to stay. Does that sound alright?"
"Yes." She wanted to say no, and tell him that he was being selfish and irresponsible, but if she did that, she knew that she would be just as guilty of the same things. If she was going to get him to fall in love with her, she reasoned, then she was going to have to be as agreeable as possible. "I've still got a tin of peaches, and some of those crackers. That'll be enough for twenty four hours. You can't be any longer than that, Bray. I can't go out scavenging very well at the moment. I can't run, for one thing."
"I know. And I'll be back. I'd take you with me, but I'm not sure that that's such a good idea right now. If Martin knew about the baby it'd probably complicate matters. He might not let us leave, or he might not believe that it's his, and that could cause even more problems. Plus there's Ebony..."
"I know." She finished her orange juice, and set her plate and mug aside. The battered metal reflected the flames of the fire, and she watched them for a while. It made a tableau of shadows and bent patterns on the floor; all orange and red, and fathomless black. "When are you leaving?"
"As soon as it gets dark." He got up and went to the window, staring out at the street. It was probably three or four in the afternoon, at a guess; not that time meant a great deal anymore. The sun would go down in another four hours, or maybe less. "I thought I might try to get some sleep before then."
"That's a good idea. You haven't got much sleep lately. I can keep watch if you'd like."
"There's probably no need. The Jackals won't be coming this way for a while yet, and nobody else has got any reason to. Not unless they're from another sector, and don't know the drill around here."
"All the same, I'd feel better keeping an eye on things. I couldn't sleep again yet anyway." She glanced up at him. "Bray..."
"What?" He wandered back over to her, and she found that she couldn't meet his eyes.
"You do realise that, if you die, the baby probably will as well. Don't you? I don't mean to--"
"I'm not going to die, Trudy. And neither's the baby." He sighed, and she saw all of the pressures that were resting on his shoulders, and wished that she hadn't opened her mouth. Then she remembered all of the pressures that were resting on her shoulders as well, and was glad that she had. Zoot had chosen his path, after all, so there was no real reason for Bray to risk everything to try to see that he was safe. She had never thought of him as the reckless type before, but then recklessness was fast becoming the city's newest disease. An epidemic, of proportions similar to those of the Virus. Everybody was prepared to risk everything these days, for the slightest of reasons, and sometimes it seemed that she was the only one unaffected.
"I'll come back, you know." Bray was watching her, a faint frown showing in his eyes. She couldn't help thinking that he had picked a fine time to start taking her feelings into consideration.
"I know." She summoned a smile, then crossed to the window where he had stood before, staring out into the street. It was odd, she thought, but she found that she could barely remember what it had felt like to look out at a scene that was not racked by violence and lawlessness. It seemed normal, now, to look at litter and looting and destruction. More normal than it should ever have done. "Get some sleep now, Bray. I'll wake you when it gets dark." I shouldn't, her mind whispered, I shouldn't, but I will.
"Thanks." He turned over, watching the fire instead of her, watching the last of somebody's prize furniture blazing up into a shower of warmth. For all he knew it was antique - but what did that matter now? If he didn't burnt it somebody else soon would. It was all that anything was good for, these days. Maybe, he thought, remembering the fight that he was about to put himself into the middle of, it was all that the people were good for as well.
They found a small store of food near to where they had fought the Knights; a cardboard box, damp and mouldy in the corners, that yielded several tins of beef casserole and a few of vegetable soup. There was a bottle of water as well, lukewarm and stale no doubt, but better than nothing. Ryan carried the box, worrying all the way home that the bottom was going to drop out, whilst Lex walked triumphantly ahead. They were returning conquerors, proudly bringing home the spoils of war. Neither one of them wondered how Glenn would feel, after having been sent home empty-handed.
"Lex!" Bouncing to her feet as soon as she saw him, Zandra hurried over to see what he was bringing. "You look fine!"
"What did you expect, babe?" He gave her a brief hug, happy to be able to act the part of a dashing hero. "They hardly laid a finger on me."
"Glenn's a mess." She turned back to offer the other boy a smile, but he didn't return it. Her words stung. "I thought you'd be hurt too."
"Nah." Lex took the box from Ryan, settling it on the floor. "So are you hungry?"
"Are you kidding?" She began to rummage through the box, excited by the contents. "Can we heat these up?"
"Yeah. Sure." Lex let her load him up with the cans that she wanted opened, then nodded his head towards Glenn. "Get a fire started, okay?"
"I don't want a fire." Glenn didn't feel up to starting one, and wouldn't have done so even if he had been in a co-operative mood. He felt sleepy after taking the painkillers, and his nose still hurt despite the drugs. His eyes had swollen to the point where it was getting difficult to see properly, and to crown it all, Lex had managed to steal all of the glory. He felt as though he had fought the Knights for nothing.
"Leave him alone Lex. He should probably rest." Zandra offered Ryan a smile guaranteed to get him to do anything she asked. "You'll build us a fire, won't you Ryan?"
"Sure." Always glad to help her out, he set to the task with his usual determination. Glenn sat in the corner of the room and sulked.
"Ryan... you can't build a fire in here." Annoyed, Lex started to put down the armful of cans that he had been loaded up with. Zandra pulled him back.
"Of course he can. It's safer in here than out there. We'll open the skylight, and it'll be fine. Right, Ryan?"
"Er... right." In truth he hadn't given a thought to the potential fire hazard, or to the smoke that might be produced. He had merely been eager to do as she had asked. Glenn rolled his eyes.
"Great. We'll just sit here and watch, while you burn the place down."
"Shut up, Glenn." Lex was losing patience with the younger boy, although he wasn't entirely sure why. If he was honest he could understand why Glenn felt so angry right now, but he couldn't find it within himself to be at all sympathetic. As far as he was concerned, the time was fast approaching when Glenn would have to be got rid of; lost, perhaps, during a change of headquarters. It wouldn't be hard, theoretically speaking, to find a new place to live, and somehow fail to tell Glenn where it was. In a city as confused as this one, it would be easy enough to convince Zandra that it had all happened by accident. Quite obviously the boy didn't want to be with them any longer anyway.
"You like to think of yourself as the leader, don't you Lex." Pain, irritation and discomfort had leant Glenn a courage that he might not otherwise have displayed, and he was determined to say his piece before Lex shut him up. "You come up with all these crazy plans of yours, like you really believe that you can take over the sector one day, or even the city. Have everybody fawning at your feet because you can fight better than everybody else. Well you don't. You wouldn't have made it through that fight if it hadn't been for me and Ryan, but you're still going to have to look for a stronger tribe to fight next time, if you really want to build up a reputation. You'll have to have harder and harder fights, and always just with the three of us. It's crazy, and the sooner you accept that, the better it's going to be. You can order us about if it makes you happy, but you're never going to be a great leader in this city. Face up to it. Okay, so we don't have a lot of food - well so what? Hungry beats dead, and that's just what we'll be if you keep on like this. Death or glory only works in fairy tales."
"Death or glory? Is that what you think this is about?" Lex shook his head. "If you've got a problem with me leading the tribe, you're welcome to say so, pal. Maybe we'll even take a vote about it. But as for the rest - what's wrong with wanting to have enough to eat?"
"Nothing," offered Ryan, who definitely couldn't see anything wrong with that. Lex glared at him. Glenn just shook his head.
"Listen to you. You make it all sound so trivial, like none of it really matters, or like you think it's all so easy. Fighting for food, winning yourself a reputation, letting all of this go on as if you're happy with the world being the way it is now. You make it sound like this is all just some giant game - or worse. You know how real it all is, but you enjoy it. Like the Locos and the Demon Dogs. You think this is fun, and you like the way that you get to keep testing yourself, and proving yourself to everybody. All you care about is who you get to fight next. You just want to keep on fighting, and winning, until you meet somebody who's stronger than you are. Somebody's going to find your body floating in the surf one day, or rotting in some alleyway. You wouldn't be the first to go that way."
"Lex isn't going to die." Zandra was looking decidedly disturbed. "Lex?"
"He's just causing trouble." Lex pointed a meaningful finger at Glenn. "Shut up, alright? Before I do a lot more damage to your nose than those Knights did."
"You know I'm right, Lex. That's why you're so angry. There are only four of us. Three, really, since Zandra's not exactly a fighter. How are three guys going to take on the other tribes out there? We'll never get enough food to live on that way. We have to find a better way of getting it. Our best chance is to merge with another group. Maybe we should have joined the Knights instead of fighting them."
"We fought them, we beat them, and we got their food." Lex thrust one of the cans at Zandra, hoping that she would get the hint, and open it. "If you've got some better way of keeping us fed, fine. Try telling us what it is. But don't go talking about merging with weakling tribes like the Knights. Besides, you know the way that the tribal hierarchy works. We've got to prove ourselves before anybody is going to give us a chance."
"Not sure I understand why." Opening cans and attempting to heat their contents over Ryan's shaky new fire, Zandra found herself hoping that she wasn't always going to be called on to do the cooking. She certainly wasn't the best at fighting for food, or going out and scavenging for it, and she was pretty sure that she wasn't the best at preparing it either. "Why can't we just find another tribe and do a deal with them or something? Like an alliance? Or why can't we just take over a piece of the city, like some of the other tribes have?"
"Because it doesn't work that way, Zan." Lex sat down beside the fire, stretching his legs out and enjoying the heat of the blaze. "Most of the tribes who have territory of their own have been around pretty much since the beginning. Since the adults first died, or even before then. Word is that the Locos started to get together when most of the adults were still alive. How are we going to approach them? They have proper power structures and everything. Little tribes like ours are just here to be pushed around, or captured. Ignored if we're lucky. That's why we've got to fight, and prove that we're worth more than that. We need a reputation, or chances are we'll end up being netted in some Loco or Demon Dogs sweep, and sold to the first tribe that fancies some slave labour."
"Yeah." Ryan thought about some of the people he had seen being captured in such a fashion, and nodded his head in agreement with Lex. "You've got to prove you're worth something, before the other tribes will give you a chance."
"Only if you want to play things their way." Glenn shuffled closer to the fire, wishing that he could glare at Lex as fiercely as Lex was glaring at him. "Why do we need to? There must be lots of other tribes out there who are small, like we are. We could join up with some of them, or at least come to some kind of an agreement."
"It wouldn't be worth it. Most of the other small tribes aren't strong enough or capable enough to make it worth our while. We'd be carrying them." Lex's voice was swollen with conceit, but there was something in his eyes that said he was telling a kind of truth. "You've got to try opening your eyes when you're out there, pal. Listen, instead of moaning all the time. There are three kinds of people out there. There's the first tribes, like the Locos and the Demon Dogs and the Jackals. The ones who have been around for the longest, and have the most members. They're big and they're strong, and they have the most territory. Then there are the fighters. The ones who went to the military camps, like Ryan and I did. Most of them stuck around at the camps until the instructors were all dead, and then they came back to the city as ready formed tribes. All kinds of training, all kinds of tough. And then there's the Strays. The Strays and the weaklings. Loners, and little tribes made up of kids who stayed behind with their parents, or in the orphanages till the end; the evacuees who returned when the adults were all dead. People like you, Glenn, before Ryan and I found you. They wander around in small groups or on their own, and how they survive is a mystery. We don't want to make any alliances with people like that, but nobody else will give us the time of day. Until we can prove that we're something else, that's what everybody is going to believe we are. Wimps. Hopeless cases. That's why we've got to keep fighting. If you don't like it, you can go back out there and take your chances with the no hopers."
"I see." Zandra was quiet for several moments, stirring absently at a can full of beef stew resting at the edge of the fire. It was beginning to bubble, which she thought was probably a good indication that it was ready. "So if we don't want to get overrun by the Demon Dogs or whoever, we've got to get them to think we're as tough as they are?"
"Or at least tough enough so that they don't just think we're a joke." Lex handed her another can to set next to the first. "Still want to go running out there to join forces with another tribe, Glenn? If we'd tried to co-operate with the Knights instead of fighting with them, they'd have laughed in our faces. And we'd have lost the initiative."
"So you get to prove that you were right. Congratulations." Glenn rose to his feet, turning his back on all of them, and heading for the door. "I'll see you later."
"Don't leave. We're going to have stew." Zandra pointed at the furiously bubbling beef stew, and wondered how she was going to go about moving it away from the fire. Lex's valiant battle for food didn't seem to have included any determined struggles for oven gloves, and while she worried about burning her hands, the stew looked in imminent danger of boiling away to nothing.
"I don't want it." He glanced back at her before he walked out, wondering if things hadn't perhaps been better when it had just been the two of them. "I'll be back in a bit. I just need to stretch my legs."
"Don't get lost." Lex's obvious wish that he would do just that filled the words with an unpleasantness that even the usually oblivious Zandra picked up on. She glared at him, but Lex, as always, was unrepentant. Glenn tried to shoot him a withering stare, but couldn't manage it with his swollen eyes. Instead he just left. Ryan looked worried.
"Will he be alright?"
"Who cares?" Grabbing a can of soup and settling it next to the fire, Lex sprawled as close to Zandra as he could. "More food for us then, anyway."
"Lex..." Zandra was unhappy with his attitude, but he merely gathered her into an enthusiastic hug and grinned at her in a way he was sure she would find irresistible. Under normal circumstances he would probably have been right, but today she was more concerned with Glenn.
"Hey, babe. What's wrong?" Confused by her attempts to fend off his advances, Lex moved back a bit. She scowled at him.
"You were mean to Glenn."
"He asked for it."
"You're always mean to him. One of these days you'll go too far."
"Yeah." Digging out a series of battered spoons from their shabby belongings, Lex reached for the violently bubbling stew. "I sure hope so."
"You're horrible." She wanted to turn her back on him, but couldn't. It would mean missing the meal for one thing, and for another... Zandra was cross with herself as much as she was with Lex. Did she like him? Or didn't she? Did she like Glenn? Or even care about him, now that she had met Lex? Why couldn't life be simple?
"Oh, Glenn will be okay." Completely unable to summon up the will to pretend that he cared, Lex merely started to eat. "Lighten up, Zan. We've got more important things to worry about than your stroppy boyfriend. We've got battles to plan. Strategies to discuss. If we're going to survive, we've got to get back out there soon, and show that the win against the Knights wasn't just a one-off."
"I'm not sure that I like this." Zandra was beginning to think that it would be better to forget about winning a reputation, and just go back to being a nothing and a nobody. Lex shrugged.
"Not my choice, babe. I didn't make this city the way it is. I'm just trying to keep us all alive."
"Yeah." She leaned back against him, glad that he was there, even if she was annoyed with him. Here with Lex and Ryan, she felt safe; safer than she had ever felt when she had been alone on the streets with nobody save Glenn. Lex's plans made sense, and he had shown that he could win his fights. Maybe this would work out well in the long run. Maybe they could win themselves a respected place in the city. It didn't really seem so far-fetched, when she thought about it - but then, to Zandra, nothing ever did.
In the midst of sector ten, the Demon Dogs were fighting amongst themselves. The majority, led by their skin-headed, silver-painted commander, Rich, backed the status quo. They wanted to fight their war with the Locos, and carry on consolidating their various territories. It had been a hard fight, but they were the biggest tribe in the sector, and one of the most powerful in the city. They didn't see any reason to take risks now.
The rest, a handful in comparison, backed a different plan. Bray, had he been present to see them at their squabbles, probably wouldn't have been surprised to see that these were the ones he had run into at the leisure centre; the ones he had heard plotting the downfall of Zoot. This off-shoot of the main body of Dogs had no interest in the status quo, and no desire to continue the ever-tumultuous war with the Locos. They wanted to end it straight away; one last, decisive battle, preceded by the capture and death of Zoot. A furious, violent battle that would leave them victorious or dead. They wanted to be the rulers of the sector, and they wanted the war to be over. Rich thought that they were mad, which was quite a condemnation coming from a boy who himself fell noticeably short of sane.
"We win or we die." Slamming his fist into his palm, Lonn, the leader of the breakaway group, did his best to convince the rest of the Dogs that his way was best. They weren't buying it. "One last strike against the Locos. One last fight. We can only win or lose."
"Yeah, but if we lose we'll be dead." Jinx, one of Rich's most loyal subordinates, didn't think much of this line of argument. Lonn glared at him.
"Yeah, we'll be dead. Or we'll be victorious. There is no better fight than one as decisive as that. Either we win or we die."
"You want to die that much?" Rich's latest girlfriend, a comparative novice to the mad ways of her newly adoptive tribe, turned scathing violet eyes on Lonn and his madly grinning mob. "We're not all that good at all-out battle, and you know that. The Dogs are a guerrilla outfit, or maybe smash and grab. Leave head to head collisions to tribes like the Jackals or Tribe Circus."
"Well listen to the expert. Here five minutes and you think you know it all, huh? Well maybe we haven't been so good at all-out fighting in the past, but I know that I can make this work." Striding up and down, his pacing filled with a manic energy that seemed to make every inch of him bristle, Lonn looked dangerously intense. "It's a good plan."
"It's a crazy plan!" Rich was exasperated, and was rapidly becoming enraged. "You'll die. Everybody who goes with you will die. Why can't you see that that's not a good thing? Even the Locos aren't mad enough to try suicide attacks like this one, and it's not even as if you have any real reason for doing it. You've got it into your head that killing Zoot will end the fighting. End the struggle. Well it won't."
"Zoot is just another kid, who happens to command a tribe." Liza, Rich's newly recruited girlfriend, turned away in disgust. She had known Zoot in school, once upon a time, although she had been several years ahead. He had been a small boy, shy and withdrawn, protected from bullies by his do-gooding, sports hero older brother. In a way it was frightening, the way he had managed to change his image so much, and reinvent himself as the mad-eyed, rhetoric spouting leader of the most deadly tribe in the city. No matter how much he managed to change his image, though, Liza still couldn't see the sense in risking everything just to defeat him in battle. What was that going to achieve? There was sure to be someone to take his place. The do-gooding, sports hero brother, perhaps, wherever he had gone in the days since the Virus, or perhaps another put-upon former weakling with a taste for personal reinvention. Either way it wouldn't be over.
"Zoot is the leader of our enemies." There was a light of true fervour in Lonn's eyes. "If we kill him they'll crumble."
"No, they'll get angry, and they'll try to kill us." Jinx turned away. "This is crazy. If they want to go off and get themselves killed, let them. We're not that low on numbers right now."
"Nobody is going to get themselves killed." Lonn's eyes were increasingly hot, like fireworks, blazing bright. "And if we do, what does it matter? Everything is dead now, you know. Everything. The whole world. We're all that's left, and if we die, it's not going to matter."
"Here we go." Rolling his eyes, Jinx turned away. They had all heard this argument before; the people who couldn't cope with all that had happened, and all that they had been through. The ones who couldn't believe that the rest of the world still existed, or even that it ever had. They would have been the ones getting counselling during the old days, but now there was no help to be had, nor the desire to give it. Jinx, like most of the other city dwellers, had nothing but contempt for the people who couldn't deal with their new way of life. Rich glared at him, but gave no sign of real disapproval. He sympathised, in all honesty. They had enough problems to deal with without trying to carry the added weight of people who needed so much extra help.
"I can't let you take the troops with you." Rich wasn't quite sure that he believed his compatriots could really be as mad as they appeared. "This plan is insane, and I won't let you risk wiping out our main fighting force." Lonn shrugged.
"Better to split our forces anyway. You can carry on the war, divert suspicion. Give us a better chance of success."
"You wouldn't have a better chance of success even if the whole of the city was diverting the Locos' attention." Jinx stared around at the group of his former friends, and wondered if this attack of madness was something that was likely to become more widespread. Were they all doomed to lose their marbles, living the way that they did? It wasn't something that he wanted to think about.
"We have every chance." The look on Lonn's face had changed to one of pure conceit. "Zoot is as good as dead."
"Somebody is as good as dead." Rich was becoming angry. He was supposed to be the leader of the Dogs; the sole leader, without competition. The idea of another leader, somebody who was stealing his support, and splitting the ranks of the Demon Dogs, was not one that he liked. "Are you really that anxious to be dead?"
"Zoot is the one that will be dead." The conceit in Lonn's eyes had grown to a sort of mania. "He'll die, either at his headquarters, or after he's been paraded through the streets as a helpless captive of the Demon Dogs." For a second contempt flared up in his face. "Of the real Demon Dogs. The ones with courage, not the ones who'd rather be hiding like the rest of the children."
"We're not children." Angry, Rich made as though to advance on Lonn, then looked disgusted with himself for having risen to the bait. He wouldn't have put it past his former friend to try to goad him into going along with the plan to attack Zoot. "Oh, what's the use. You're long past able to see sense."
"Life isn't about seeing sense." Lonn swung around, addressing the other Dogs directly. "What do you say? Do we take this war directly to Zoot, or carry on fighting it on street corners, getting nowhere?"
"We fight it wherever it needs fighting." Raising his voice, making sure that his troops knew exactly where he stood on the issue, Rich answered Lonn's call to arms. "That doesn't include stupidity, and running into traps. Demon Dogs are smarter than that." He was gratified to hear a muted chorus of agreement, and began to breathe a little more easily. Rich was the leader of a gang who, in the main, bordered on dangerously psychotic, and he was no less dangerous himself. Given the chance to attack Zoot directly, he would have taken it gladly, if the chances of success had been higher. He had been afraid that his followers would have been as swayed by Lonn's argument as he himself had almost been, for any one of them would have had to agree that it was tempting. But to risk depleting their numbers through foolish manoeuvres was something that even the most bloodthirsty of them could not risk doing, and apparently his compatriots saw that as clearly as did he. Lonn was furious.
"You won't look so disparaging when Zoot is dead, or chained up in a cage and being paraded through the city." His increasingly wild eyes rolled from one side of the troops to the other. "You'll see my side of it then."
"I doubt it." Rich stared around at Lonn's supporters, all with eyes as mad as their leader's. "Now get out, all of you. I won't have you spreading your sickness any further."
"I'll go. We'll all go. But we'll be back, with Zoot, and you'll have to admit that I was right." Lonn's mad smile had become a wild, insane grin, his lips strikingly red where he had licked away the silver paint from around his mouth. "We're going there now. To the rail yard. We'll wait all year if we have to, but Zoot will be ours. We'll kill him if every one of us has to die to get it done. Then nobody can stop the Demon Dogs from taking over the city."
"If you really think it's worth it." There were few people in the city who would have believed that Rich was capable of such restraint, such a display of sense. He was as bloodthirsty as any Demon Dog, any Loco - but suicide was not in his nature, and Lonn's plan seemed dangerously self destructive. "I wish you luck, Lonn. I can't afford to lose too many people on fools' errands."
"It's not a fool's errand. It's a campaign." Lonn was gathering his followers about him, forming an honour guard for his march towards the Locos' headquarters. "We'll be back. Back or dead. Either way the Locos won't be able to get at us anymore."
"Yeah, whatever." Rich stepped aside, watching the thin trail of silver-painted figures as they headed off out of the camp. He didn't really believe that he was going to see any of them again, but he didn't feel any pity for them. The only regret he had was that his numbers had been depleted, which might just put him at a disadvantage the next time that his troops clashed with the Locos. There was certainly no sense in wasting pity on the soon to be dead. Since the Virus had swept through the world there was little enough pity left to be felt for anyone.
"Do you think we should have tried harder to stop them?" Staring after his former friends, Jinx appeared at Rich's elbow. The taller boy shook his head.
"Why? They'll only get themselves killed soon enough anyway, with that attitude. This way they don't risk taking the rest of us with them." He sighed. "Get the troops ready. Once the Locos fight off those idiots they're going to come after the rest of us. We have to be ready for them."
"Right." Jinx nodded curtly. "When they realise that some of our people have gone after Zoot, they're going to be livid. Could be a blood bath."
"I know." Rich smiled at him, his eyes only slightly less insane than Lonn's. "But I plan to make it count. Maybe turn it into the chance we need to win some ground."
"Yeah. And make a hell of a mess of the city in the process." Jinx grinned enthusiastically. "I'll get things ready."
"Good man." Rich turned away, staring after the fast vanishing breakaway group. They were almost gone now, far out of shouting range, too far away to tell one person from another; but Rich didn't care. He had no desire to see them anymore, no desire to bother calling out to them. To his mind they were already dead - and he could no longer remember what it felt like to care.
None of the guards gave Bray a second look when he skated back into the rail yard. There seemed to be few enough of them around, and those that were present looked drunk. Bray wondered where the others were, and decided that he wouldn't ask. Best not to know which streets were being ransacked today. He was supposed to be here to offer his brother assistance, after all; not argue with him about the terrible things that his followers did.
"Bray. Nice to see you again." Melting out of the shadows between the rail cars, Ebony approached with the look of a cat on the prowl. As usual her eyes were filled with unbridled flirtation, and the half smile that decorated her lips looked like it belonged on a much older woman. Bray dredged up his own half smile, considerably less pleasant than hers.
"Ebony." He nodded towards Zoot's car. "Is he in?"
"Yes." The long lashes fluttered. "But do you really have to keep coming here just to see him? There are other Locos worth talking to as well, you know."
"Like Spike, you mean? Is he even capable of conversation?"
"Very funny. You know that I wasn't talking about Spike." She grinned. "Besides, the only conversation you're going to get from him is the kind with fists involved. He really doesn't like you very much."
"There's a lot of that about." Bray stepped past her. "But I came to talk to Zoot."
"About the Demon Dogs?" She laughed at his surprised expression. "Come on, Bray. You should know by now that Zoot tells me everything."
"Yeah. Right." His eyes drifted away to the rail car, inside of which he was sure that Zoot was currently watching him. It had been a favourite boyhood game of his, once, to watch passers-by and guess at what they were saying. He had always had a natural talent for lip-reading. Now there was something faintly sinister about it. It certainly didn't seem like an inoffensive game anymore. He caught Ebony's eyes lingering on him, and dredged up another few sentences, just to keep the conversation going. It was easier to do that than try to walk away from her, especially when she was in one of her clingy moods.
"How much did he tell you?" he asked, already suspecting the answer. She smiled even more suggestively, and her lashes batted themselves with a definite rhythm.
"I told you. Everything." A frown brought a sharper clarity to her eyes for a second. "Why? Are you worried? Don't tell me you came back here trying to help?"
"Did you think that I wouldn't? These people are trying to kill him. I couldn't just walk away."
"Bray... People have been trying to kill him for months. Ever since the war with the Demon Dogs started he's been a target. Even before then. Why is it only just bothering you now?"
"You make it sound like I don't really care." Bray shook his head, exasperated. "Look, whatever. I just want to see him."
"Fine. And I'm sure we'll be happy to have you on our side if the Dogs come knocking. You've always been so renowned for your love of fighting, after all." She reached out, stroking his shoulder gently. "Although I must say I've always enjoyed our... sparring... in the past."
"I want to do what I can to help my--" he broke off, mindful of possible eavesdroppers, and lowered his voice considerably to finish the sentence. "My kid brother. Yeah, I know I've never bothered before, but I've always believed that he'd be okay. Why wouldn't he be, with everybody terrified of him?"
"He has been fine. Still is." She shrugged, abruptly changing tactics. "No need to go on a guilt trip round here. Just don't expect anybody to welcome you into the fold now, that's all."
"I'm not looking for a lifelong membership in the Locos." He sighed. "Why do I even bother? I'm here for Zoot, not for the rest of you. And where are the rest of you? I told Zoot he was in danger, and he sent all of his people away just to spite himself, is that it?"
"You're over-estimating your importance in this. Zoot couldn't care less what you think. He's just doing what he thinks is best. He's sent the guys out to look for the Demon Dogs. They'll stop any of them coming close to this place."
"Always supposing they find the ones who are heading here." He started to walk past her. "It's a big city, and they could be coming from any direction. And what happens if they're not in normal Dogs gear? All they need to do is wash off that silver paint and we'd never know them."
"You think we only stop Demon Dogs from coming through here? Just because you can get into this place without getting sliced and diced, doesn't mean that the rest of the city can." Ebony seemed amused by Bray's underestimation of the state of the tribe's security. "If anybody tries to come here without permission, whether they're wearing silver paint or not, they're dead meat. Nobody is coming in here unless we let them."
"And if Zoot is feeling bloody-minded he'll let them in, you know that. Which is why I'm here." He turned about, eyeing the perimeter; the wire fence with its ragged line of weeds beginning to tangle themselves through the mesh. It was hardly a deep moat or stout set of battlements. Much of it looked as though a hefty push could knock it down.
"Oh, Bray." Her voice dripping with sarcasm, Ebony feigned a sort of swoon. "I'm so glad that you're here to protect us all."
"Shut up." He started to walk away, over towards Zoot's car, but she followed him, catching his wrist and spinning him around to face her.
"Don't walk away from me." For a second there was something approaching malice in her voice, then she smiled more warmly and stroked his hand. "You're really worried, aren't you."
"He's my kid brother. How am I supposed to feel?" Bray tried to pull his hand away, but when she kept hold of it he ceased to fight her. "They could come from anywhere, Ebony. They could come from all around, over the fence, not just down the road and past your guards. They could have vehicles. There are plenty around, and just because we think you're the only tribe with a decent supply of petrol, doesn't mean it's necessarily the case. The Demon Dogs might come here in a whole fleet of cars."
"Yeah, or half a dozen of them might try to slip in, and wind up getting shot to pieces by Spike and his rear guard. Bray, there's no point worrying. If something's going to happen, it's going to happen. Zoot isn't afraid."
"Zoot isn't the one with a kid brother acting like an idiot." Annoyed at her habit of taking everything so lightly, he had to fight to avoid sounding petulant. She lifted his hand, placing a startlingly gentle kiss on the tips of his fingers.
"Poor Bray. Always taking everything to heart. He fights battles almost every day you know. He's been in more danger than this in the past, and you've been nowhere near him. Things don't get more dangerous just because you've heard about them."
"I know." He snatched his hand away from her. "I just can't turn away from this, alright? It doesn't feel like some other fight, just like all of the others. You didn't see them, Ebony. It was like those gangs of adults that we'd sometimes see, remember? Back when they knew it was all over for them, and sometimes a bunch would just go nuts? Nothing mattered to them anymore, and they'd go crazy, attacking things, killing themselves, burning buildings down. I once saw a guy drive his car into the side of a building because he couldn't take the waiting for the Virus to come get him. They looked like that."
"Great. Because it's not like the Demon Dogs are at all insane anyway." She smiled at him for a second, and recaptured his hand for long enough to give it a squeeze. "One thing to remember, Bray. When people used to go crazy like that, and not care anymore, they'd be dangerous, sure. Maybe even a little scary. But they weren't all that hard to outsmart. The way things are these days, this city makes madmen, but it also kills them all, nice and quick."
"I hope you're right."
"Am I ever wrong?" Her eyelashes fluttered again, her flirtation a persistent contradiction to his continual worry. "Oh, go on in and see him. He'll probably order the guards to throw you right out of the camp, but you might as well try."
"Try what? I'm not here to talk him out of anything. I've tried telling him to be careful, and to watch out for what might be coming. I just want to tell him that I'm here to help. Whatever you think, or make jokes about, they're coming."
"Yeah. Half a dozen Demon Dogs crying for mummy." She grinned at his irritation. "We're happy to have you with us, Bray. Now go and sign on. Shall I do your war paint?"
"I'm not wearing any paint. I'm not becoming a Loco. I just..." He left, not bothering to finish the sentence. "What's the point."
"The point's whatever we want it to be, sugar. That's life nowadays. Around here the point is power and chaos. Knowing you though, you've probably got a different philosophy."
"Very different." He knocked on the door of Zoot's car, and waited for the summons. "One of these days you'll have yourself a little too much chaos, Ebony. Too much madness. Then you'll be the one looking for the quiet life."
"In your dreams, babe." As always her words annoyed him, and he swung around to face her, angry riposte sticking in his throat when Zoot's voice broke the moment. Ebony grinned.
"Go on in, then. I'm right behind you."
"I'm here to talk to my brother, not to a convention of Locos." Bray tugged open the door and walked into the car, but when he tried to shut the door on Ebony, she slipped neatly past him. Zoot waved her to her usual chair.
"Bray." He was standing in the middle of the room, his peaked cap almost hiding his weird eyes. "I thought you'd left."
"I did." Bray found it strangely hard to hold his brother's gaze. "I came back."
"So I see. What have we done to deserve the honour? I don't remember winning the sweepstakes."
"Just leave it out, alright? I came to help." Ignoring Zoot's mocking smile as well as Ebony's persistent flirtations, Bray headed over to the window. From there he had a good view of the majority of the rail yard, from the sprawling, broken bits of train, to the equally sprawling, only slightly less broken Loco guards. Splashes of colour in the form of war paint and clothing broke the monotony of grey and green only slightly, and the smoke from a sole fire near the entrance to the yard dribbled grey smudges above the rusting grey wire. From somewhere in the distance shouts echoed, but they didn't sound menacing. Bray listened for a moment, thinking how the faraway, muted noise sounded very like the excited sounds of a distant football match. He doubted that it was anything half so innocent. More like another minor food riot, the sort likely to occur spontaneously when somebody was seen discovering food by too many of the wrong kind of people. Somebody would try to get it, somebody else would join in. The message would get around that there was some food nearby - and just like in the old gold rush days, soon everybody would descend upon the area, looking for anything else that might be nearby, and fighting each other for non-existent prizes. On the surface it was childish exuberance, but the undercurrents were deadly.
"Help?" Zoot joined him at the window. "What does Trudy think of that?"
"I don't know. Trudy and I haven't been together in months." He smiled at the half-hearted lie. Feigning ignorance was easier than letting the conversation steer itself around to Trudy's likely whereabouts, and it seemed better, on the whole, to claim that he knew nothing at all about her. Zoot smiled as well.
"Yeah, course. You have no idea where my wife is."
"Not that it matters." Ebony was cleaning her nails with a knife that looked large enough to easily behead somebody. She flashed the brothers a careless smile. "We could soon put the word out if we wanted to. She wouldn't be that hard to find. Never much of a chameleon, was Trudy. Never much in the capability stakes either, was she. She'd probably be easier to get hold of than most of the Strays we pick up every day."
"Yeah." Zoot stared back out of the window, surveying his kingdom with just the right amount of arrogance in his eyes to suggest that the privileges of leadership were a right he had been born to, and had wielded for the whole of his life. "But Trudy's not the issue right now, is she. This breakaway faction of the Demon Dogs is."
"Breakaway faction?" Both Ebony and Bray asked the question together, and Zoot nodded, not bothering to look at either of his companions.
"Word came in half an hour ago. I have spies out there, and they tell me that the Dogs have had a big bust up. Most of them are staying loyal to Rich, and are carrying on with things as they are, but a smaller group is acting pretty strange. Word is they're talking in death and glory terms. All short term plans - win now or never, you know how it goes. My spies say they're heading for a showdown with somebody, and I think we can all guess who the somebody is."
"What do you mean by 'acting pretty strange'?" Finally ceasing her flirtation, Ebony looked up, but Zoot just shrugged.
"Like they were mad, is all my people will tell me. Crazy eyes, apparently, so I guess they're highly strung. You know how people get. Like Tribe Circus on speed." He grinned at the analogy. "They want a fight, anyway, and they're planning to beat us or die in the attempt." Satisfaction gleamed in his eyes. "Power and chaos. People who share our own philosophy, obviously."
"Does that mean that you won't fight them?" Envisioning a chance for a peaceful conclusion to this, Bray wondered if perhaps the breakaway faction of the Dogs might wind up joining the Locos, if Zoot approved of them so much. His brother laughed at him.
"Of course we'll fight them." He eyed Bray appraisingly, before shaking his head like some war-scarred veteran dismissing a raw recruit. "It'll be messy. Get out of here, Bray."
"You need me." He felt like a fish out of water, and he still didn't know precisely how he could be of use here, but he was determined not to leave. Zoot's sprinkling of dopey guards wasn't going to impress anybody.
"Yeah. Sure we do." Obviously amused, Zoot shared a look with Ebony. "Okay. Do you have any weapons?"
"Apart from your charm, obviously." Ebony grinned at him, and Zoot glared at them both. Bray just frowned.
"You know I never carry weapons. I don't need them."
"No, you just don't like them. These days we all need weapons." Zoot was silent for a moment, thinking. This was his area of expertise; the realm in which he was king; and he enjoyed having that advantage over his older brother. "Alright. Have your fighting skills improved at all since school?"
"You know I can fight when I need to." Bray's pride was wounded, for nobody liked to be spoken to in such terms by their kid brother. "But if you'd see sense there wouldn't be any need for fighting."
"Not today, maybe." Zoot pulled out a clasp knife that looked close to a hundred years old, and began to sharpen it on a whetstone worn away in the middle by many years of use. "We can take your route, and talk to them, or look impressive enough to scare them away, but we'll still have to fight them some day. That's how it works. If these guys are as crazy as people say, they won't leave off until they've done what they've set their minds to - which in case you've forgotten is killing me. That or parading me through the streets like some kind of circus animal. That isn't the way I want this to end, which only leaves me with one alternative."
"Then why is this place so under-guarded? If you're so determined to meet them head on, why are you leaving yourself so few people to do it with?" Past exasperation now, Bray was beginning to wonder if nothing short of a sledge hammer was going to help him to knock some sense into the boy. Zoot stared back at him with a gleam in his eyes, smiling sardonically as though the answer were obvious.
"I have a reputation in this city," he said in the end, and he kept his voice so quiet and so steady that for a moment Bray's blood seemed to stop. "My men need to be out there keeping up our profile, especially if what we're facing really is just a breakaway section of the Dogs. That means the main body is still out there, and I won't let them gain any more ground against me while I'm mopping up their dregs. I'm keeping the same number of people out there as always."
"And leaving yourself at a serious disadvantage." Bray turned to Ebony, sure that her sharp mind at least would see the failings of Zoot's plan. "Tell him!"
"Tell him what?" She unfolded her legs, standing with supreme grace, and walked over to circle him slowly. "He's right. The Locos have a reputation that didn't just grow overnight. It could fail overnight though. There's things we need to be doing out there, and we're going to carry on doing them. Spreading our power and chaos."
"You're both insane." Bray turned to walk away, but Ebony was behind him, arms encircling his neck. It didn't feel like a deliberately restraining hold, but it was enough to keep him where he was unless he fought her off. "I suppose you think you'll win if you win. No more than that, right?"
"That's the way of the world now." Zoot paused in his work on the knife to admire it. "Worrying never got the adults anywhere, didn't it. Trying to fight their fate never got them anywhere either. You've just got to take what happens. Face it as it comes. Either you win or you don't. It's the ultimate in power and chaos, Bray, even you've got to see that. Planning is order. Thinking ahead is creating order. Chance and fate are about chaos, and beating fate is power." He sounded a little drunk, although not on alcohol. "You'd better leave here. Your kind of fighting is done with words, not weapons. There's nothing for you to do here."
"I think you're right." Already he was turning his thoughts to Trudy, and to getting her away from the sector before whatever was about to happen erupted out of hand. She would be glad to see him back at any rate. Ebony slid her arms away, and he pushed her back before she could plant the readied kiss on his neck. "I'll see you around."
"Probably. Here and there." Zoot dredged up a smile. "I'm glad you wanted to help. I appreciate it, really. It's just there's nothing you can do, that's all."
"Yeah. Sure." He pulled open the door of the rail car. "Good luck, both of you."
"We don't need luck." Zoot's smile showed some of the force of personality which had raised him to such a position of power within the city. "You're the one who needs things like that, Bray. The city gets more dangerous for Strays every day."
"I'll take my chances."
"Yeah. So will I." For a second they smiled at each other with something approaching the warmth of their earlier relationship, in the days when their rivalry had been about parental attention rather than wars and life and death; but the moment couldn't last. Taking his leave in a bittersweet way, Bray stepped out into the fresh air - just as a home-made bomb tore the air apart metres from where he stood. Hot dirt rained down on him in a disorientating shower, and he stumbled backwards, stunned by the concussion and the sheer surprise. Hands grabbed him from behind, and Zoot dragged him back inside the rail car. Ebony's eyebrows were raised in typically calm amusement.
"I think we have guests," she observed wryly. Zoot nodded.
"You okay, Bray?"
"Yeah." Brushing off some of the dirt, Bray waited for the ringing in his ears to lessen before he looked up. "I don't think I'll be leaving just yet."
"I wouldn't recommend it." Another explosion made the car rock. "Oh well. It looks as if the waiting's over. Break out the weapons, Ebony."
"Right." She hesitated briefly, just to blow a kiss in Bray's direction, then disappeared out of one of the windows. Bray watched her lithe brown form slip away between the parked rail carriages, and wondered where she was going, and for what. What weapons did Zoot have secreted? Another explosion brought his mind back to the present, and he watched open-mouthed as one of the cars vanished in a sheet of flame.
"That was a firebomb." Zoot sounded almost envious. "And they got one of the trucks with some petrol in it. A few more lucky shots like that and this'll all be over."
"Great. You picked a fine time to start getting worried, Martin." Staring nervously at the fiercely burning carriage, Bray wondered how Ebony was doing. Just fine, if he knew Ebony. Beside him Zoot smiled, bright and clear and alive with excitement. Such a smile was born for an audience, and it was almost a shame that nobody but Bray was there to see it.
"Who's worried?" The excitement of the smile was clear in the voice, and bright as day even through the opaque contact lenses that covered the once shy eyes. "This is our defining moment, Bray. My defining moment." His hands gripped the ancient clasp knife tightly to his chest. "This is real chaos."
"This is crazy." Resisting the urge to try shaking some sense into his brother, Bray stared around at the erupting fires. The guards were beginning to move, galvanising themselves into pointless attempts to spot their unseen attackers. Only Zoot remained still, face now a mask of awe and delight. He didn't jump when the door swung violently open, although Bray did. It was Ebony, and she was not carrying any weapons.
"I couldn't get through." She sounded ashamed, but also a little afraid. Zoot's sharp eyes berated her for that immediately, and she wiped the worries from her face like a well-drilled soldier. "There are too many fires around the carriage. I left Spike to get a group together and beat a path through, but I thought I'd better report back."
"Alright." Zoot still didn't seem too concerned. If anything he was enjoying the fires, like a kid watching a bonfire, waiting for the fireworks. In comparison Ebony seemed to be losing some of her usual calm.
"We should fight back." She looked almost unsure of herself, not certain how to fight against the bombs coming from nowhere. Zoot nodded, and the goggles on top of his cap shone in the flames for all the world like a second pair of eyes.
"When?" Ebony turned back to him, seeking guidance from a leader she trusted almost unconditionally. Bray's question was more to the point.
"And how? You can't get to your weapons, and we can't even see who's doing this!"
"We will." Zoot reached up, pulling down the goggles, hiding his already camouflaged eyes behind another layer of disguise. "They'll come, soon enough."
"You think?" Ebony's eyes scanned the dark horizons, lit now by more flames. Zoot nodded, then reached out and took her hand. They looked, Bray couldn't help thinking, like a king and queen; a royal pair, exuding pride and a strange kind of glamour.
"I know." He spoke like a wise man, intoning certain knowledge, and Bray didn't doubt him. Of course their enemies would be coming. They would want to finish what they had started, after all.
"We'd better be ready then," he suggested, rather lamely he felt. Zoot smiled, bright again and cheerful, just the way Bray remembered from their past.
"We're ready," he told his older brother, making Bray feel as though he were the younger one now. In matters of battle, he supposed, that was likely the case.
"Ready for what?" he asked, wondering if Martin could really be prepared to face whatever was thrust upon them next. Another explosion set the ground shaking around them, and hot, bright flame helped make Zoot's answer predictable.
"For power and chaos," he said coolly, and the flames gleamed red against the gun that he was now holding in his hand. "And for death."
Lex awoke to the sound of warfare, and lifted his head from its makeshift pillow to listen in surprise. Were those really explosions that were making the building shake? He sat up, listening to the silences between roars, hearing the distant shouts of people under siege, and a slow smile edged its way across his face. He hadn't been mistaken, then. Somebody really was throwing bombs.
"What's that noise, Lex?" Opening only one eye, and clearly not anxious to open the other, Zandra peered up at him as he headed towards the door. He gestured for her to stay where she was.
"Just somebody getting excited," he told her, sounding as casual as he could. "Probably the Locos or the Demon Dogs, celebrating nearly wiping each other out again. You know how they get."
"Yeah." She drew herself up into a ball, remembering the last time that the Demon Dogs had had a party; a violent, mad affair lasting three days, which had nearly seen all four of Lex's little tribe captured. There had been rumours of cannibalism and debauchery, although to be fair most rumours these days concerned such things, and none had yet been proven true. Zandra had been terrified by it all though, and the idea of another, similar affair obviously worried her.
"Doesn't sound like a party to me." Sitting up, his blackened eyes making him look even more mutinous than usual, Glenn seemed to take a perverse delight in contradicting Lex. "Sounds more like World War III."
"Yeah. Bombs and stuff." Also sitting up, Ryan rubbed sleep out of his eyes and blinked about at the others. "Unless they've got fireworks. Firecrackers maybe, like we used to in the old days. Do you think so, Lex?"
"I think I'd better go and see, and that the rest of you better stay here." Lex saw Zandra's eyes widen in alarm at the idea of him going outside, when there might be partying or fighting going on nearby. "It'll be okay, Zan. I just want to look about. It'll be too dark by now for anybody to see me."
"Be careful." Her eyes drifted towards Ryan, and the muscular boy rose quickly to his feet, taking the hint even though he would far rather have stayed where he was, in the relative warmth of the shed. Lex sighed.
"You don't have to come, Ryan. I'm only going to have a quick look around."
"I know." Ryan's gentle smile and quiet voice were as placatory as ever, but Lex knew that there was little chance of his friend backing down. Ryan liked to think that he was protecting the others, and at times there could be no dissuading him from doing so. Lex sighed.
"Alright, you can come." He pointed meaningfully at Glenn. "But you stay here."
"Sure I will, Lex." The younger boy's grin was annoying enough to make punching him seem like a good idea, but Lex let it pass. Zandra was clearly in no mood to be receptive to any clumsy attempts at romance anyway, so it seemed perfectly safe leaving her alone with his rival.
"Good." He smiled over at Zandra, enjoying her obvious admiration for his courage in going outside. "We'll be back as soon as we can."
"Don't hurry on our account." Glenn was still smirking, and Lex still wanted to punch him, but he turned away and pulled open the door. Another explosion made it rattle in his hand, and Zandra squeaked.
"Don't get yourself blown up, Lex." Still grinning, Glenn settled back into a more comfortable position. Lex's knuckles turned white as he gripped the door handle, but he let the comment pass and headed off outside. A cool wind was blowing, and the smell of burning came faintly on the breeze. Ryan whistled.
"This isn't any party, is it Lex."
"I don't think so, no." They hurried away from the shed, over to a low wall that ran for some distance nearby. It provided a cover of sorts, and from its basic shelter the pair peered out towards the source of the noises. They saw a glow of flames, looking like a late sunset, making the western sky flicker in orange stripes. Lex whistled.
"Somebody's busy tonight."
"Isn't that the Locos' camp?" Ryan was squinting hard, as though that would somehow help him to see better over the long distance. Lex nodded.
"Yeah. Reckon it must be the Demon Dogs attacking them."
"Do you think we should do something?" Never one to like the idea of people being hurt, whoever those people might happen to be, Ryan had gone pale. Lex shook his head.
"What can we do? If they're in the middle of one of their clashes, the last thing we should do is get involved. Which side would we help out, anyway?"
"The Locos. There could be people trapped in those flames." Ryan blushed slightly. "That wouldn't be a very good idea though, would it."
"It would be suicide." Lex gestured for his friend to follow him, and led the way along the wall to a better vantage point. There was higher ground there, and a much better view of the rail yard, but as Lex tried to find a good place to stand, Ryan dragged him back down behind the wall.
"Hey!" Struggling uselessly against the bigger boy's weight, Lex protested loudly, but Ryan hushed him quickly.
"People," he hissed. Lex became still.
"Demon Dogs?" he asked. He couldn't hear an answer, but if felt as though Ryan was shrugging.
"Don't know. Could be other people come to see what's going on." Ryan moved off him, allowing him to get up again. "I can't see anybody holding anything that looks like a bomb."
"They don't have to be very big, especially if they're well made." Another explosion made them both jump, and they shared a smile of faint embarrassment. "I wouldn't mind some of those things myself."
"Maybe we can get some." Eager to please, Ryan looked as though he were trying to think of a plan. "If we went in different directions and sneaked up on one of the people throwing them, maybe we could get a few. Then we could use them to get food. As a threat I mean."
"Yeah, maybe." Lex rather liked the suggestion, but as always didn't want to sound too enthusiastic about something that hadn't been his own idea. "But we've got to get over there first. I don't want to run into a bunch of Dogs."
"Or Locos." Ryan looked about nervously. "I can hear people coming closer. Do you think we should get back and warn the others?"
"Nobody around here is going to be bothered with looking in some little shed. They're here for whatever's going on over there." Lex led the way further along the wall, keeping low. "If you see anybody coming our way, get down, but don't say anything. I don't want anybody to know that we're here if we can avoid it."
"I doubt anybody is going to be interested in us tonight." Ryan caught his friend's annoyed look, and lowered his head. "Still isn't a good idea to let people see us, though, is it."
"Not really, no." Lex had the look of someone trying to listen to a hundred different things at once. "You know what people are like. Anybody who isn't cowering terrified in a cellar is going to be coming here to see what's happening, and whether there's anything worth scavenging once it's all over. I don't want to run into that sort."
"You're not scared, are you Lex?" Surprised, Ryan stared at his friend's face, much of which was largely invisible in the darkness, thanks to the streaks of black paint that they had all taken to wearing. The eyes were impossible to read, but the voice was not.
"Of course I'm not scared. I'm not scared of anybody." Beginning to move onwards again, Lex seemed to be heading closer to the fires and shouting that was the unexpected night-time world of the Locos. "I just don't want any fights we can avoid, when there's just the two of us. We could be up against the whole of the Demon Dogs here, or anybody else big enough to challenge the Locos this way." He smiled, and for a second his teeth flashed in the erratic light. "So keep your eyes open, okay? I want to know who's out here, and what they're up to. Some of them might be people it's worth our while getting to know."
"People worth fighting, you mean." Ryan knew his friend well, but Lex wasn't going to confirm or deny anything. He just grinned, the slightly manic, over-confident smile that Ryan had come to know quickly in the training camp days.
"Just keep your eyes open," he said firmly, and led the way onwards. They could see better now - many dark shapes, most trying not to be seen; lithe figures, in ones and twos, or in larger groups; people from a host of different tribes, sporting war-paint of a hundred different colours and designs. None of them seemed to be engaged in fighting; none were throwing bombs. Whoever was responsible for the siege was keeping well out of sight. Lex spotted a few Locos, obviously searching for the attackers, and pulled Ryan under the cover of a pile of empty drums.
"Things could get nasty," he observed, apparently without concern. Nearby the milling Locos were doing just that, trying to herd the onlookers away, hitting out with baseball bats and burning brands. The massed audience didn't fight back, but neither did they obey the command to leave, at least in any particular hurry. One or two of them shouted in defiance, then ran away as fast as they could. Lex growled in disapproval.
"The whole city is full of cowards," he muttered. "Look at this. If we all got together we could take the Locos out for good. They're already weakened. Whoever's throwing those bombs couldn't get all of us, so we could get them too. Chances are that it's the Demon Dogs - and imagine that. Without them, this whole sector would be different. They'd be crying out for leadership, and it'd be the perfect chance for somebody to take over."
"You want to run the whole sector?" Ryan's own ambitions extended only to finding enough food for tomorrow - and possibly getting Zandra to look his way occasionally. Why Lex thought that it would be a good idea to try to become top man was beyond him. His friend shot him a look of disgust.
"I suppose you think it would be better to go on like we are, just the four of us, living in a shed."
"Not necessarily." Not wanting to be accused of stupidity or a lack of imagination again, Ryan tried to sound as though he shared Lex's dreams for the future. "I just don't know about wanting to run the whole sector, that's all."
"That's because you don't look ahead. This can't last forever, Ryan. In the old days there'd be lots of warlords, but eventually one always took over. It happens with animals too. One always winds up in charge of the pack, or the troop."
"But Zoot reckons it can be him, and the guy who runs the Demon Dogs probably thinks it can be him. I'm just saying, imagine if it was us. Imagine being the biggest, and having everybody else doing what we said. All the food we need, never being cold..."
"You think you can get all these people to work together to take out the Locos and the Dogs?" It sounded very simple in a way; not that it seemed at all likely. Lex shook his head, looking disgusted.
"Hardly. This lot wouldn't know a good idea if it was dancing right in front of them. I'm just making empty wishes, I guess."
"Oh." Ryan had to try hard not to sound relieved. Perhaps it was just reflected flame, but Lex had a look in his eyes that was hardly the picture of sanity, and it wouldn't have seemed too out of place if he had suddenly announced a plan to topple every major tribe in the sector. "Well that's okay. Maybe another time, huh."
"Yeah. Maybe another time." Lex's eyes narrowed, and Ryan could still see the ambition that couldn't go away. "All the same..."
"There's only two of us, Lex, and nobody knows who we are. Nobody's going to listen to you, much less make you their leader." Ryan did not often speak against his friend, and didn't particularly like doing so now. Far easier to keep back and let Lex do what he wanted. Sometimes, though, he knew when he had to speak up. His companion banged him on the back, a form of encouragement, mingled with an obvious rebuke.
"I know. But you wait, buddy. You wait. One day everybody in this city is going to know who I am." Conceit brightened his voice, and a curling smile matched the flow of characteristic pride. Ryan nodded slowly.
"I guess so. We'll have to do more than just fight people like the Knights, though, Lex. I doubt anybody really cares about that."
"Probably not, no. We'd have to have killed the Knights to get people to care." Lex saw Ryan's eyes widen, and rolled his own in exasperation. "Oh I'm not planning to kill anybody, Ryan. Calm down. It's just... It looks like the Locos are on the ropes tonight. If this bunch of losers who are standing around watching really thought about it, we could take them out."
"I don't think so. Look about you, Lex. The Locos don't look scared to me."
"They never do." Looking disconsolate, Lex heaved a sigh. "Yeah, I know. We wouldn't have a chance against the Locos, and we'd probably be crazy to try. I'd rather join them than fight them anyway. It just drives me crazy seeing what sheep most of the people in this sector are, when they can't even see what tonight could be about."
"You had me worried there." Ryan looked distinctly relieved. "I guess you still want some of those bombs though, don't you."
"You better believe it, buddy." Lex's voice betrayed his excitement and volatility. "We don't settle for second best, right?"
"Right." Ryan remembered his own earlier, enthusiastic claim that they would be able to get hold of some of the bombs for themselves, and wished that he had never mentioned it. Not that Lex hadn't had the same idea himself anyway. "We don't even know who's got them though, or where they are. The Locos don't know or they'd be trying to stop them, instead of pushing the rest of us around. If--"
"Doesn't mean we can't find out. We've been thinking about fighting our way up the food chain, pal, but we've just found a way to take the lift instead. Now stop worrying, and start thinking. Who's going to challenge us with an arsenal like that in our pockets?"
"If we can get it." Wishing that he had stayed in the shed with Zandra and Glenn, Ryan wondered where on Earth this was leading - ridiculously unmatched struggles with the insane hosts of the Locusts and the Demon Dogs; an ignominious death torn to shreds, or blown apart by the bombs hurled by invisible people lost somewhere in the dark? The ferocious noise and madly dancing flames were unsettling enough, without the added pressure of being asked to throw his life away on some daft errand of Lex's.
"Just stick with me." Lex was scanning everything now, his sharp eyes seeing all, or seeming to. "They're out there somewhere. They're sure to come in for the kill eventually, and all we have to do is spot them."
"Yeah. Sure Lex." Ryan had learnt early on in their relationship that it was only possible to argue with Lex for a limited time. After that he just stopped listening - or started trying to break bones. The shouts were growing in volume now, as the spectators were beaten back, but the increased violence just seemed to inspire Lex further. A second set of yells sounded out, rising above the background shouts and screams of the retreating onlookers. For a moment all else seemed silent - then the shouts became louder still. Lex came alive like a toy connected suddenly to an electricity supply.
"That could be them." His voice was an excited whisper. "Be ready."
"For what?" Ryan wondered who these new arrivals were, and what surprises they were bringing with them. He was used to being told that he was stupid when he failed to agree with Lex's various strategies, but surely anybody would think that this current plan was unworkable? "Lex..."
"Ssh." Lex held up a hand for silence. "I don't want them to know we're here. Not yet."
"You do have a proper plan, don't you. We're not just going to jump out at them."
"We'll do what we have to, mate." Lex pushed him back even further into the cover of the oil drums. Ryan couldn't help thinking about just how isolated they were, caught between a vengeful branch of the Locos, and their under siege brethren in the rail yard, with an unknown third party descending upon them all. He didn't dare move, and wasn't sure that it was safe to breathe. Lex was almost shaking with excitement, his sharp eyes blinking steadily out at the dark world beyond their little refuge. Ryan could see his lips moving constantly, but he had no idea what his friend was saying - plans, ideas, hopes, prayers? It might be any one of the four, or a combination of them all. Ryan leaned closer, so that he could speak to his companion without making too much noise.
"There are a lot of them." They could see shapes now, indistinct but obvious. Ten? Twelve? Probably a lot more. Lex nodded.
"We don't have to overpower them. Not yet."
"Just follow my lead. If you're not up to it, fine. Stay here or go back to the others."
"I'm not going anywhere." He would not leave Lex no matter how insane the plan. Ryan did not walk out on his friends.
"Good." Very slowly Lex was pulling out a pair of black gloves. Ryan thought they looked familiar - that they might once have belonged to one of the Knights. On Lex they looked odd; almost sinister; highlighting his black clothes and the black stripes on his face. It all accentuated his obvious determination, and made Ryan feel that his own uncertainties and worries must be all the more obvious in contrast. He wished that he could be more like Lex - more sure, more brave, more resolute. Instead he was standing here, doing his best not to shiver, and betraying Lex in his mind with his traitorous thoughts. He was thinking that his friend was mad, when really he was a visionary; somebody with plans for the future that stretched beyond anything that it was within Ryan's ability to imagine - or so he believed. So he listened to the footsteps, and the shouts; to the roar of the flames and the early sounds of hand-to-hand fighting; and he convinced himself that Lex's way was best. How could it not be? He was Lex, after all. Ryan's friend. Capable of anything. If Lex said that he could do something, then didn't he always do it? With the ground set to shaking beneath him from the force of another explosion it was hard to keep sight of such certainties, but Lex's strength did not seem to waver, any more than did the steady oncoming of dark shapes. It struck Ryan that with the way things were going, people might well die here tonight, and the thought made him sad. He had seen death so often before - but that had been in the days of the Virus, and such things were supposed to be over now. He wondered if he and Lex were going to die, and realised that he was calm about that. Death didn't seem to have the same power that it had once had, in the times before the Virus had come. He smiled grimly. Well if he wasn't afraid of death, then what was he worried about? Why feel such fears about Lex's plans, about what might happen? Better just to do as he was told; better just to follow Lex and see what became of it all. There was going to be a battle tonight anyway.
"Lex?" His voice barely carried above all the rest of the noise, and Lex didn't look his way. He answered though, voice razor sharp and steady.
"Just... I'm with you. Just say what you want me to do."
"Good." Lex sounded a little distant. "Cheers, Ryan."
"So everything's going to be okay then, right?"
"Yeah." His friend was staring out at the world through eyes that were drunk with too much ambition, but Ryan didn't notice it. Neither did he notice the sheer number of people now visible in the anonymous dark. Converging Locos, stationed outside the rail yard, with others of their number coming from elsewhere; Demon Dogs, their silver paint glowing in the firelight; Tribe Circus, sliding out of the darkness like snakes in their shining black clothes. Others too - Hawks and Buccaneers and Scavengers - all approaching; all hoping to win something from the coming fight. It was a horde from hell itself, though clothed in the guise of mere children - a meeting of desperate minds all searching, like Lex, for power and advantage over others. From all directions they came, and upon the burning rail yard they descended - and all about them the flames burned brighter still.
"The wolves are gathering." Staring out at the milling crowds beyond the fence, Zoot didn't even duck when another bomb exploded close by. He had left the dubious shelter of his train carriage soon after producing his gun, and nothing that Bray could do would persuade him to look for somewhere safer. Ebony was looking worried, although there remained an air of bravado about her, and she had not yet completely lost her smile.
"Other tribes. Yes, I can see them." Wishing that he knew what the hell to do next, Bray also stared through the wire, watching the dark shapes that could have been a precursor to anything. Were they about to be attacked by these people as well, and routed entirely?
"It's chaos out there." Zoot was breathing hard, and if he was scared, somewhere deep inside, it was impossible to see it. Bray wanted to pull him away, but he knew better than to try it with the gun still in his brother's hand. Ebony's smile flickered, and grew a little stronger.
"If we make it through tonight there won't be anybody in the city who can deny that we're the strongest. The most powerful." She took Zoot's free arm. "We're not just going to stand here, are we?"
"Just stand?" He stared at her as though she had suggested that they surrender outright. "When they come, we'll meet them."
"We're not going out there?" It was a shock, for it hardly sounded sensible to wait around in the midst of all the flames, with no way of knowing how many more grenades and firebombs might still be to come. Zoot spoke with the voice of true leadership.
"We stay. Always pick your ground carefully, Ebony. You can't leave everything to chance."
"No." He turned, seizing Ebony by both arms so that his gun waved close to her face. "When they come - and they will come - we have to be somewhere where we can fight them. Chances are they've got us outnumbered ten to one. That lot will all come in here, looking for spoils, fighting anybody who gets in the way. They know we've got more food than anybody else, and more weapons. They'll want it all. But I'm not going to let them take it. You think I'm going to let some bunch of kids take down the Locos? Let some band who aren't even organised come in here and destroy everything I've worked for?" His face was bright with sweat, both from the excitement and the growing heat, and his white-blond hair was falling across his eyes, emphasising his wildness and passion. "Out there we can't see them. Not all of them. We'd have to fight on their terms. But in here, they'll be scared. They'll never know where we are, or where we're coming from. They won't know anything. But we'll be in our element."
"Zoot..." Horrified at where this was leading, Bray reached out, putting a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Zoot, this is crazy. We're surrounded by fires, and we don't know who's starting them. There are people everywhere who'll rip us all to shreds given half a chance, just so they can get at your stores..." There was no answer, and he raised his voice, desperate to get through to the kid brother who would not be protected. "Damn it Martin, listen to me! This is insane!"
"Leaving would be insane." Glancing back over his shoulder, Zoot lowered his gun, and loosened his hold on Ebony's arms. "Out there we'd be exposed, and if somebody sees us, we've had it. Whatever else might happen, I don't plan to leave this world thanks to some insane Demon Dog's lucky shot. We stay here and fight."
"What about the fires?"
"Spike and his men will be working to bring the fires under control. We're in less danger than you think on that front." Zoot's eyes were scanning the crowds beyond the fence, judging size and movement. "So long as you stay alert, you'll be okay. Keep one eye on the skies for new bombs, and fight like you mean it."
"If we could only get to the weapons." Ebony was still smarting from her failure in that earlier mission, and a measure of self-disgust flared in her eyes. Zoot smiled grimly.
"If we can't get to them, neither can anybody else. We have bicycle chains and knives, and we have our fists. That'll be enough."
"In your dreams." Nearby came the shrieking howl of the vanguard of Tribe Circus, and for a second a hush seemed to fall on the world. Bray felt his stomach sink into the ground. "You know who that was?"
"Yes." Zoot brandished his gun. "Let them come, Bray. Let all of them come. Here, in the fires and the noise, and in the heart of the chaos, they don't have a chance."
"You're talking like a bad film. Just listen to me, and--"
"No. No more listening. No more talking." Zoot looked like a vision from hell as he barked out his angry riposte, the flames turning his covered eyes into a swirl of red and orange that matched the flames of war-paint swirled across his too-pale face. A hot wind whipped his tangled locks into tentacles, threatening to dislodge the cap and goggles that gave him the look of such addled warrior leadership. "And in case you've forgotten, Bray; no more films. No more anything, except for now. This minute. It's all we've got." He smiled slightly, almost apologetically, although without any apparent understanding. "If you want to make a run for it, leave now. Another few minutes and there'll be no chances for anything except fighting for your life. Understand?"
"I think they're coming." Ebony had torn her eyes away from the duelling brothers, staring instead towards the surging mass of humanity beyond the wire. "Our guys have had to give up keeping everybody back. They're all coming closer."
"Then it's time to fight." Zoot looked like a man fulfilled; a man finally getting the chance to do something that he had longed to do for years. "Make it count, Ebony."
"I always do." She turned her head from her vigil, looking briefly towards Bray with the faintest of smiles on her face. "Watch your back."
"Huh?" He didn't understand at first, until he realised that all too soon it would have to be every one for themselves. No more certainties until the fight was over; until something happened to end it all. "Look, it still isn't too late to--"
"Of course it is." She did actually look a little scared, and that, if nothing else; was something from which Bray could take heart. Ebony might be one of the most courageous people that he had ever met, and she was undoubtedly prepared to follow Zoot to the ends of the Earth - but her fearlessness was not without limit, and in some ways, perhaps, she did not want to be here tonight. Bray wasn't sure why that should be encouraging, but it was. At least one of the Locos was human, even if only just.
"Yeah." Her words hanging heavy in his ears, even as her hesitation was giving him the only good feeling likely to come to him for some while, he turned back to face the wire. Ebony was right, and the shadowy tides were lurching closer. "I suppose it is." And it probably always had been. He clenched his fists; tried to tell himself that he could give as good as he got; tried to believe that it was true. The noises around him were growing; shrieks and cries and rallying shouts; yells from those already in the fight, and screams from those already out of it. Even as they were coming towards the rail yard, the advancing tribes were fighting each other; as violent and as divisive as ever. It was for the best, of course, from Bray's point of view, but even so he found it frightening. It emphasised the lack of control, and the tumbling descent into chaos. It robbed them all of identity, and turned everything into anonymous violence and shared mob rage. The fence shook, rattling madly, and a black shadow fell across Bray's face as the howling gangs began to climb the wire. He took a step away.
"Make for the burning carriages. Protect the food and weapons, and keep the flames at your back. That way no one can sneak up on you." Zoot was barking orders out in a soft but sharp voice, giving his last chance advice to his two companions. "Keep to the dark places, and remember that we know this yard. They don't."
"Good luck." It was all that Bray had left now. All that could be said. Before this night was over any one of them might be beyond words. Zoot nodded curtly.
"You too. Sorry you came here tonight. This really isn't your thing, is it."
"It'll have to be." Ebony's voice was like razor-blades rising above the furious rattling of the fence, as so many people fought each other to scale it. In places it was beginning to sag. "We should retreat now."
"Not retreat." Zoot raised his gun, apparently eager to use it. "Just take the fight somewhere else. Locos don't retreat."
"All the same..." Bray didn't want to make the first move and risk leaving his brother behind, but his concern was unfounded, for Zoot was already beginning to back away. As the first wave of attackers surged over the wire with a triumphant roar, Zoot raised his free hand into a fist above his head, and howled his personal motto at the cloud-covered moon.
"Power and chaos!" It echoed, powerfully, even in the midst of all the rest of the noise - then seconds later was joined by a multitude of other voices, all shouting the same thing. The Locos were ready, no matter what it was that they were about to face. Bray felt a chill that was entirely alien in the face of so much fiery heat. He could have believed it all a nightmare, had his subconscious been capable of dreaming up something so dark. Another bomb drowned out the yelling for a moment, and was almost a relief - and then dust and dirt were falling, and the world was shaking, and blood was pounding in Bray's ears. By the time he was sure of himself again he was alone. Zoot and Ebony had disappeared, and all that he could see was flame. Seconds after that the mob rushed in.
Even Lex was thrown by the size and energy of the massed ranks. What had begun as a cautious gathering - a group of people uncertain of each other, though clearly determined to fight - had started to become a howling mob, ready to act as one without even being aware of it. At first he had been encouraged by that, hoping that it might increase his chances of uniting them all against the Locos, but soon he realised that such hopes were foolish. There was no unity even in the midst of the mob; no chance of directing the sea of people. They fought everybody they could see; attacked each other even as they struggled to get into the Locos' rail yard. Carried along towards the rear of the confusion, Ryan and Lex were perhaps the only part of it who were still properly self-aware. Not that the mob mentality wouldn't have been preferable. For, lost in the maelstrom, with all his optimistic plans ruined, Lex was fast coming to realise that he was out of his depth. To admit as much, even just to himself, was impossible for him, but he was seeing it all the same. There was little chance of winning anything worthwhile from any of this. If there were any winners they would merely be whoever managed to stay mostly alive.
The explosions had tailed off, now that the people responsible were mixed in amongst the crowd. Lex had identified them easily enough, and had been trying to keep an eye on some of them, following the bold streaks of silver paint as they ebbed and flowed with the tide. They had begun with an air of greater confidence than the others; a certainty in their own strength and resilience; but as far as Lex could see they were as battered and disorientated now as he was, their eyes as blank as those of so many others. Lex still rated their chances that little bit higher though. They might be sparing the bombs for now, but they still had them, and even when they were outnumbered and forcibly separated from one another, the grenades still gave them an advantage that made Lex profoundly jealous. He wanted that sort of advantage for himself.
And of course that was why he was here, caught up in all of this. He might have come out originally just to investigate a noise; but since then he had been dragged into Bedlam. He wasn't scared, particularly. If there was anything that Lex was always sure of, it was his own strength. His own skill. His own certain ability to win any fight. Instead of fear, as he was being pushed this way and that, fending off assaults from every quarter, all that he felt was the insult to his pride. He felt himself above all of this, too good for it. He didn't want any part of the mindlessness of it all, and it stung that nobody else seemed able to see that. There was no chance to make himself heard, no chance to try to organise the massing chaos, or attempt some stirring speech that might make a difference. At the moment he couldn't even make himself heard to Ryan.
"Food! Find the food!" Someone nearby, from a tribe that Lex didn't recognise, was trying to shout orders to his fellows, but his words struck a chord with the one person nearby who was disposed to listen. Food. Everybody knew that the Locos hoarded food. They supposedly had the biggest store in the city, collected from all over, and stolen from anybody who could be defeated. It had to be here somewhere, if it was anywhere at all; somewhere hidden in one of the railway carriages. Plans began to work themselves out in Lex's mind. The Locos would defend the food, and their enemies would know that - so if he looked for the biggest congregation of Locos, might he also find the greatest concentration of tribesmen with the grenades? That was the best way to get some of them - to launch himself into the fight, and seize what he could, where he could. It made sense, for the most part - but then most things did in the heat of battle.
"Ryan!" He didn't know if he would be heard, but he managed to reach out and catch hold of his friend. Fortunately they had managed to stay relatively close together. "Follow me!"
"Where?" Ryan looked barely conscious, so disorientated was he by all that was happening around him - although he was not, Lex saw with approval, too out of it to fight off the continuous barrage of assault. He looked like a man on auto-pilot, but he came out of it once his brain had identified Lex as a friend.
"In the middle of it all." He had to lean close to be sure of being heard. "The food stores!"
"Right!" The mention of food was enough to get Ryan interested, and a broad grin lit up his face. "Zandra will be pleased if we bring food back."
"Yeah, I guess she will." His mind on fighting, Lex had not thought of such things, but he thought of them now. If Zandra would be pleased by such an offering, then Glenn would be anything but. That certainly was a thought worth entertaining. "Come on, Ryan. Hurry up and find us a way through his mob, yeah?"
"Sure, Lex." Happy to do what he could, the bigger boy began to force a path through the crowds of jostling people. His greater strength made it easy to push everybody aside, and only a few tried to fight back. He knocked them out of his way with ease, and slowly but surely the pair proceeded through the human cascade. Closer to the railway carriages things seemed quieter, as though they had reached the eye of the storm, but the heat from the fires still attacking some of the carriages made everything hot and uncomfortable. Lex pulled Ryan close enough to be sure that he would hear.
"Stick close to me," he ordered, without waiting to allow Ryan to speak. "Wherever there are the most Locos, that's where we want to be. If you see something that looks like a grenade, grab it. But be careful, Ryan. If you blow yourself up you could take most of the rest of us with you."
"Okay Lex." Ryan was clearly having trouble getting his thoughts together, but in Lex's opinion that was nothing new. "Look for Locos, look for grenades, and look for food."
"Food is the last of our concerns. You can't fight if you're holding on to a can of soup and a packet of biscuits." The dark, bright eyes, accentuated by stark lines of black paint, shone with the full force of Lex's enthusiasm. "Play your cards right, and this'll be as good as that first big fight we had together. We'll be celebrating come morning, buddy."
"Yeah, right." Ryan had no particular desire to remember that first fight, since Lex's over-enthusiasm had resulted in both of them getting some serious injuries, but to be fair they had won themselves some food at the same time. "That was a good fight, I guess."
"You bet it was, and tonight's going to be better, you'll see." Lex clapped him on the shoulder. "But for goodness sakes watch our backs. If anything happens to us, Zandra has to stay all alone with Glenn, and I wouldn't wish that on anybody."
"Sure." Ryan nodded determinedly. He might not like fighting all that much, but he was good at it, and felt reasonably confident. Everything always seemed better when Lex had explained it to him. "Um... good luck then."
"Luck doesn't enter into it, mate." Lex was obviously eager to start breaking some heads, for too much talking had never been easy for him. "Come on. Time to have some real fun."
"Yeah. Fun." Ryan cracked his knuckles, took a deep breath, and followed his friend into the craziness. What else were friends for, after all? And it was better than sitting back in their shed getting hungry. Better than doing nothing, as far as he could see. An hour later he had changed his mind completely, but by then it was far too late to walk away. By then there was no going back at all.,
There was a ferocious glow lighting the sky. Trudy saw it, and despite her tiredness and her fear, she found herself wandering towards it. She felt like a moth, drawn by those flames, knowing all the time what they were, and where they were, and what danger they might mean. She couldn't keep away though, and soon she was standing alone, a few hundred yards beyond the rail yard's fence, watching the indecipherable shadows fighting amongst themselves. Zandra and Glenn were there too, just a short distance away, but neither of them noticed the heavily pregnant girl crying mascara tears. She didn't notice them either - two other shapes, going about their business in the dark.
"Oh, Bray..." She had no idea if he was in there, but she was certain that he was; Zoot too, presumably. The father of her baby, and the man she hoped would help her to raise it, both probably dead in the midst of all that noise. There was too much smoke from all the fires to see how much damage had been done to the Locos headquarters; to see how many of the figures lying on the ground were still moving. The smell of the smoke drifted towards her, but she didn't cough. Her throat was already too choked from the tears.
"Maybe we should go in." Zandra didn't want to go anywhere near the battle, but she suspected that Lex was in there somewhere. Glenn shook his head.
"Suicide. Honestly, Zan. We'd have to be crazy to try going in there."
"Lex is either dead or doing well enough not to need our help." Glenn knew that he was being brutal, but he didn't intend to be anything else right now. Not only was he completely unwilling to risk his own life, especially in the defence of Lex, but he had no desire to see Zandra try anything herself. She might have eyes only for Lex, but that didn't mean that Glenn himself had lost his own feelings for her.
"You think he's dead?" She didn't want to imagine it, for whatever her feelings for their proud and conceited leader, she wasn't sure that she could imagine life without him. He was the bravest person she had ever known, and the strongest. He had protected her since the very first day that she had met him, bringing her food and fighting off likely attackers. Without him she would be alone, even with Glenn at her side.
"I don't know." He took her arm then, pulling her away. "But there's no sense in standing here watching and wondering, is there. Let's get back to the shed. In there we'll be safe, and we won't be able to hear so well."
"Yeah. I guess." She let him lead her away, past the other spectators; past the other faceless people peering in wonder at the riot of which they were all so glad not to be a part. Past the little girl and boy conversing in sign language, and the girl with the vibrantly red hair who was watching over them; past Trudy, still crying, and still oblivious to everything but the flames; past Dal, hiding beside a huge empty trash can, eyes as wide as they would go. None of them saw each other, or thought about their fellow spectators, and few enough of them thought about the individuals trapped in the mayhem. Most just thought about home - and one by one, slowly and gratefully, they slipped away back to wherever those homes were. Soon only Trudy was left, still attracted, moth-like, to the lights that wouldn't fade. Then she too walked away. It didn't feel as though she had anything left to stay for.
Bray had ceased to think from almost the moment that he had first found himself alone. It was easier not to think when there were fists and clubs flying about so close to his head. Fighting was something that he had always viewed as a last resort; something to do when other avenues had failed; and the few times when he had had to defend himself had hardly been unqualified successes. Here though, everything was different, and he was beginning to see the mistakes that he had made before. He had always thought too much when he was fighting; thought about what kind of blow to deliver, and where to land it. Now that there was no time for such strategy, when he had to act on instinct alone, he was finding far greater success. The added adrenalin became like a kind of ecstasy, and as his confidence grew, so too did his spirits, in a strange and not entirely pleasant way. It was like giving in to the chaos, and celebrating in it. Like turning into his brother. On the other hand, it was keeping him on his feet. Ducking blows with a fluidity to his movements that he hadn't had before, lost in the moment, he knew that he was enjoying it all too much. There was no way to stop, though. He couldn't drop out without committing suicide, so he had to go on. Blow after blow; dodge after dodge. Just like Zoot.
Or maybe not. Zoot was like a man possessed, battling away near to the weapons store. Spike and his temporary firemen had brought most of the blazes under control now, lowering them to a more manageable level even if they still looked as fierce as before, filling the air with thick black smoke. It wreathed Zoot, and he enjoyed the dramatic appearance that it gave him. Whirling a bicycle chain around his head, lashing out with it with a deadly accuracy, he sent the others into a panic. It was not long before blood dripped from the end of the chain, and it spattered in irregular patterns on the ground whenever he delivered another blow. He hadn't fired his gun yet, but he knew that he wanted to. The noise would be greater even than that which surrounded him, and it would likely cut into the consciousness of the rabid gangs of marauders. He wanted to see what sort of an effect it had - whether it would scare even this mindless bunch. Zoot liked to know that others were afraid of him. In that way, even if in no other, he was like Lex.
"Zoot." It was the Ringmaster, commander in chief of Tribe Circus. Zoot acknowledged him with a nod. "Nice fires. Doing some redecorating?"
"Making a nice backdrop for the party." Furious with the older boy's flippancy, Zoot concentrated on keeping what little of his cool he had ever had. He didn't want to make any fatal mistakes by letting the Ringmaster goad him to anger. He risked turning his back on his enemy to chase away a young Hawk, and turned around again to see the Ringmaster toying with a curling whip. With his tall top hat and impressive cloak, he looked the part of a theatrical impresario, in keeping with the title he had chosen as his name.
"You're guarding your food and weapons." Speaking in a grand voice that went well with his clothing, the Ringmaster ran one hand along the length of his whip. "You can't win here today, Zoot, but I can get you out of here alive - if you'll meet my terms."
"I don't make deals with anybody." Matching the Ringmaster's threatening stance, Zoot played with his bicycle chain in just the same way that the Ringmaster was playing with his whip. He had put the gun into his belt, where he doubted that his opponent could see it, but its presence gave him even greater confidence than usual. Not that he needed it, when faced with a dandy like this.
"You're finished, and you know it. You'll never get out of here, and the Locos won't stay together without you, even if enough of them do survive. Why not cut a deal?" Using his whip to discourage milling rivals, the Ringmaster took the opportunity to attempt some threatening body language that completely failed to impress Zoot. "Just give me the food and weapons. I know that you've got them, and deal or no deal I'm taking them."
"I don't think so." Zoot swung his chain, anticipating an enjoyable fight. "But you're welcome to try to take anything you think I have."
"Oh I will. Believe me." The Ringmaster let his whip uncurl, and stretch out to its full length. One flick of his wrist would send the weapon leaping up to do his bidding, and Zoot knew that as well as did the Ringmaster. He had seen Tribe Circus do battle often enough to be sure that the whip was an efficient and deadly thing to face. It could attack around corners, and from an effective distance, and do an impressive amount of damage in the process. All the same, he had his gun, which was a good more effective still.
"Your decision, Zoot. Let me pass, or..." A cruel smile momentarily destroyed the illusion of overly emphasised splendour that usually cloaked so many members of Tribe Circus. "Or I'll move you."
"I'd like you to try." Shaking out his bicycle chain, and taking no small amount of satisfaction from the droplets of blood that sprayed from the end of it, Zoot readied himself for the advance. "You'll get nothing from the Locos."
"You think?" With a sudden coldness of expression, the Ringmaster flicked up the whip, snapping it with a wild flourish at the leader of the Locos. Zoot dodged aside, feeling the tremendous draft as it whistled past him. A second later it cracked again, and again he dodged it, realising then that his own chain was too short to allow him much retaliation. The Ringmaster could afford to keep his distance; Zoot could not.
"You can't dodge forever." Wheeling the whip once again, the Ringmaster succeeded in snapping it right past Zoot's head. The young tyrant felt his cap move, as though dislodged slightly, and a wave of fury washed through him. Nobody treated him like that. Nobody showed him such disrespect. With a yell that his nearby fellows heard and echoed automatically, he threw himself at the Ringmaster, running low to tackle the bigger boy's legs. They crashed together in a heap, rolling over amongst a tangle of other people, all of whom were engaged in furious struggles of their own. The Ringmaster landed a solid blow with one fist before Zoot managed to wrestle the whip away, and hurl it as far as he could into the crowd. The Ringmaster stared at him with terrible fury.
"Nobody does that to me." Whether he was referring to the taking of his weapon, or just to the tackle, Zoot didn't care. He smiled crookedly, rather enjoying the sight of a mud-soaked Ringmaster.
"Shut up and fight." He threw one punch, knowing that it would be dodged, following it with another one that could not be. Blood burst from the Ringmaster's lips, but with his greater strength he was soon able to pull free and regain his feet. Zoot followed quickly, thinking about his gun, but wanting more personal gratification first. He rattled his bicycle chain.
"Come on then. Come and tell me that I'm finished."
"Of course you're finished. Somebody's got it in for you tonight. You'll never make it through till dawn." Spitting blood onto the ground, the Ringmaster moved forward. "But if you really want to die so quickly, come on then. Let's see you try to fight me."
"It'd be my pleasure." With a howl that showed the wild side of his nature, Zoot leapt forward, the chain a blur of silver and rust. It struck the Ringmaster on the arm, but he took the blow well, lashing out with a fist and catching Zoot on the side of the head. Stumbling, Zoot almost lost his footing, and was aware immediately of somebody trying to tear the chain from his grasp. He fought harder, holding on as tightly as he could, and hitting out blindly with his free hand. A low grunt from the Ringmaster showed that he was having some effect, but when at last his opponent stumbled back, neither of the struggling pair was holding the chain. It fell to the ground, and was kicked away by somebody still struggling for their own supremacy. Zoot threw back his tangled hair, and lifted his head to the haughtiest angle he could manage.
"I can break every bone in your body without even trying." Pushing back his top hat, which had been giving the remarkable impression that it was glued to his head, the Ringmaster began advancing again. "You'll be sorry you ever said no to me."
"I'm never sorry." Zoot raised his fists. The Ringmaster was probably telling the truth, and probably could tear him apart, but Zoot had faced tougher odds than this before. He ignored the twinges in muscles too tired by too much recent fighting, and stepped forward to meet the Ringmaster halfway - when something bright caught his attention. He turned his eyes but not his head, unable to resist seeing what he already suspected. Demon Dogs. Three of them, just visible, a distant blur of silver in the crowd. Zoot wondered if they would be prepared to use their grenades and firebombs when there were so many people around, and then told himself off for so foolish a thought. Of course they would be so prepared. They might not be ready for outright suicide, but murder definitely would be no problem.
"Gotcha!" Coming down upon him like a thunderbolt, the Ringmaster clearly couldn't believe his luck. Powerful arms encircled Zoot's torso, crushing him immediately, so that he could barely breathe. He fought hard, kicking and using his head in an attempt to cause some pain to his attacker, but the Ringmaster seemed impervious.
"Get off, you fool!" Gasping the words out even though he had little enough air left to create the sounds, Zoot threw the last of his strength into a mighty struggle. "Demon Dogs!"
"I'm not scared of a few silver crazies." Tightening his grip, the Ringmaster readied himself for the final squeeze. He hadn't quite decided yet whether he was going to suffocate Zoot completely, or let him live for the time being. It was a nice feeling to have the option. "I can deal with them after I've dealt with you."
"You don't... understand." Worried by the weakness in his legs, Zoot fought to point, but his arms felt distant and heavy. "The grena--"
"Shut up." The Ringmaster squeezed all the harder, and Zoot saw the world begin to darken. He couldn't see the Demon Dogs any longer, but he was certain that they could only be coming closer. Would they try using their bombs to clear a path through all the people, and if so would the explosions set off the weapons stores as well? Usually he wouldn't have had to wonder about such things, for his mind would have given him the likely answers with ease, but right now his mind was no longer doing its job. What did it mean when even thinking seemed impossibly hard? Vaguely he thought it amusing that the Ringmaster was going to be killed alongside his intended victim. Beyond that he had no real thoughts at all.
"Hey!" The shout came from nowhere, or possibly from a little to Zoot's right. Too far gone to consider it, he was aware only that it sounded a little like Bray; but that didn't seem likely. What would Bray be doing at the Locos headquarters? He didn't usually hang around here, did he? He tried to turn, met the solid resistance of his own weakness, as well as the immovability of the Ringmaster - then felt everything turned upside down as a mighty blow knocked him from his feet. Memories of bombs lurched through his slowed mind, before he realised that there had been no explosion. He had been hit by something else, and whatever it was, it had freed him from the Ringmaster. He struggled to sit up, and saw with his returning vision that Bray had launched himself from somewhere, knocking all three of them to the ground. He was fighting furiously with the splendidly dressed Circus leader, showing a strength that Zoot had never really believed him to possess. His wits fast being restored to him, Zoot went to help, before something else loomed up in his view. Something silver.
"Bray!" He ignored the Ringmaster, knowing for sure that time was something they no longer had. Instead he grabbed for his brother, pulling him back.
"Damn it Zoot! Don't fight me, fight him!" Trying to shake off the younger boy's hold, Bray was momentarily floored by a well timed punch from the Ringmaster. Zoot snatched the gun from his belt, and pointed it at the leader of Tribe Circus.
"Get back," he ordered, his voice cold. Bray's eyes opened wide.
"Zoot, no. You can't--"
"Just get out of the way." Seizing his brother's shirt, Zoot tugged him backwards with a furious energy. The Demon Dogs were closer now; much closer; and he could see them as more than just silver paint. They had faces, with wild eyes and mocking smiles. They knew that he had seen them, and they knew that he had a gun. He wasn't sure that he wanted to turn it away from the Ringmaster to point it at them, but even if he did, what good would it do? He couldn't shoot all of them quickly enough.
"Zoot, stop messing about with that gun. I--" Bray broke off, seeing the Demon Dogs as well now - and more besides. Unlike Zoot he also saw the other people - all of the ones who would be killed or injured if only one of the Dogs threw a grenade. He paled.
"We have to stop them." Oblivious to the Ringmaster now, he took a step towards the silver threesome, but Zoot stopped him.
"No time." He said it with conviction. "Just run."
"Where to?" It was a good question. Wherever they turned they were hemmed in, by crowds fighting where the Locos had taken the battle - close to the fires, just as Zoot had ordered. It had been the sensible choice in so many ways, but not now. Not when the Dogs could so easily exploit the bottleneck of grappling children.
"I don't know." Zoot watched a silver arm raise, and fired a single shot into the air. The Ringmaster jumped. So did one or two others. Somebody noticed the bombs and screamed.
"What the hell do those silver morons think they're doing? They'll blow themselves up as well!" His enmity towards the brothers forgotten, the Ringmaster began to push himself forward through the crowd. They were all coming to a standstill now and it was easier to move through them, though not easy enough. He had made it no more than a few feet before the first of the grenades began its lazy arc through the sky. A scream echoed, a shocking sound in the sudden silence of a mob with its wits restored. Zoot fired his gun once, and the bomb exploded in mid-air, showering a few fragments of hot metal down onto the waiting crowd. They shouted, beginning to disperse. The battle began once again, as everybody fought each other for a way out of the crush. There was nowhere to go. Hemmed in by burning railway carriages, as well as by their own sheer weight of numbers, the crowd could do nothing but lash out at each other, and shout their fury at the flames and thick smoke. A second Demon Dog raised an arm, and without thinking Zoot fired again. The bullet struck the Dog in the shoulder, and he stumbled backwards, grenade falling to the ground at his feet. Zoot's face whitened.
"Run." He said it as though he believed that there was somewhere to run to, and at the same time gave Bray such a mighty push that the older boy thought his brother had turned on him.
"What?" His words were drowned by intensified shouting, but there was no time to consider it, for even as the wounded Demon Dog was falling, even as his bomb was dropping from his hand, Zoot was forcing his brother into the midst of the smoke, in through the flames that still chewed at the nearest carriage. Bray coughed, his eyes immediately filling with water. Zoot pushed him again, out into the cleaner air on the other side of the carriage, and into a struggle just like the one that they had left.
And then the fallen bomb exploded, and with it the others that the wounded Demon Dog had been carrying - and then the ones that his companion had been carrying - and then the stash of ammunition that had been hidden beneath one of the rail cars. Bray was caught up in a wave of heat and rushing force, snatched from his feet and hurled through the air, crashing at last into the crowd. Everywhere were bewildered people, deafened and stunned, pounded with fragments of metal and wood as an airborne cloud of debris rained down upon them. Screams filled the air again; screams of fear and a lack of comprehension as the dark sky darkened still further. Still lying sprawled on the ground, Bray looked up, seeing a billowing cloud of dust and thick smoke stretching up above him; a giant tower that hid many of the stars. Almost immediately he had to turn away, blinded by the dust as well as by his own sense of shock. It seemed like forever before he could move again, and begin the task of finding his feet.
"Those people..." Staring back the way they had come, Bray tried to imagine what the scene must be like on the other side of that blazing carriage. "They could all be dead."
"Probably." Brutally honest, Zoot took off his cap to bash the dust from it. Protected by his goggles, his eyes alone were not watering. "Not my fault, Bray."
"Are you going to miss him?" Zoot turned his back, looking instead towards the others now surrounding them. Most looked afraid, but many also looked angry, the explosion having finally brought some order to the preceding chaos. In their eyes he read the certain knowledge that people had died, and a growing sense of outrage. Some of them were beginning to mutter among themselves.
"What's going on?" Braver than the others, a scarlet-painted Nightingale shouted out his question over the heads of his fellows. Zoot stared him down.
"The Demon Dogs." He ran a hand through his hair, trying to dislodge some of the dust and splinters of wood. "They brought grenades here, and they've just exploded half a dozen of them."
"We should go back. See if there's anybody we can help." Well aware that his basic First Aid was not really going to be of much use, Bray looked back towards the source of those billowing clouds. He wasn't sure that he wanted to find out the extent of the damage, but he knew that somebody had to. Zoot nodded, distracted and not really caring.
"Yeah. Go ahead." He raised his voice as his incorrigibly soft older brother disappeared, once again addressing the crowd. "Most of your friends are probably dead. Whatever you came here for, it's time to leave. Before the rest of you are dead too."
"What about our wounded?" The scarlet Nightingale who had spoken up before did so again. He wore plumes of feathers in his hair that had been torn and broken during the fight, and his hands were stained by the many colours of paint worn by the people he had fought. He cut a dramatic figure, but Zoot merely smiled at his display of courage.
"Forfeited. Call it an indemnity. You'll get the chance to buy them back some time, if you still find you want them. Now go. All of you."
"We're not leaving." Stepping forwards, gathering confidence all the while, the Nightingale answered Zoot's challenging stare. "Not after what just happened."
"Yeah." A rather weedy-looking Hawk shifted awkwardly when everybody turned to look at him. "Well he's right, isn't he. We - we've got to do something. About - about it." Zoot rolled his eyes.
"That's something I'd like to see. You lot against the Demon Dogs."
"Why not?" Turning slowly to face the crowd, the Nightingale raised his voice louder, for all to hear. "You heard that explosion. I say we get whoever's responsible. Get all of them."
"How? We don't even know who they are." A Buccaneer, gloriously dressed in yellow and royal blue - at least before the fight had got underway - had found some confidence from somewhere. "For that matter we don't even know who they are. For all we know it was the Locos who did this."
"You think?" Zoot took a step forward, and the spectators automatically fell back out of his way. The Buccaneer faltered slightly, but held his ground.
"It could have been. There were only two of you who made it out of there, and you're not Demon Dogs. Who says you didn't cause that explosion yourself?"
"Yeah." The nervous Hawk fell silent at a glare from Zoot, but a murmur of speculation was beginning to grow amongst the crowd. Ryan nudged Lex.
"What do you think, Lex? You said before that you wanted this lot to work together."
"Yeah, with me in charge." Lex was staring at the main players in this new drama, jealousy adding sparks to his eyes. How was it fair that this could be happening, with him stuck so far away that he could barely see anything, let alone do anything? "Anyway, I also said I'd rather join the Locos than fight them. Quickest way to take over might be from the inside."
"Shut up, Ryan." Lex was already striding onwards, fighting his way through the crowd. His self-belief had perhaps never been so strong as it was then. The scarlet Nightingale looked at him with the obvious distrust of someone who had spotted a rival, but Lex just folded his arms and stood firm.
"You're wrong," he said firmly, ignoring the short club that the Buccaneer had pulled from his belt. "I saw the Demon Dogs earlier, and they had grenades. They're still here somewhere." He raised his voice. "They're the immediate threat. We have to fight them."
"Fight the Demon Dogs!" Knowing what was expected of him, Ryan shouted an off-beat echo to Lex's rallying cry. The Nightingale looked unimpressed.
"Fools," he said darkly. "Just fools. That or allies of the Locusts. You can't listen to these people. You can't listen to anyone but yourselves. I say we fight the Locos. There are enough of us here."
"You might be surprised." The anger in Zoot's voice was impressive, as was the authority. He was used to being obeyed. Listening to such a display of power, Lex felt decidedly jealous. He had never seen the leader of the Locos close up before, and could now see that this was a kid younger than he was, at least by all appearances. It hadn't occurred to him before, but Zoot had always been a stylised image in graffiti, or a distant orator standing in the back of his police car chariot; but up close, despite his youth, his authority was still something palpable. There really did seem to be no justice in the way that power and influence had been shared out.
"There aren't as many of you as there are of us." The Nightingale cast another look around at his audience, trying to gauge their readiness, but Zoot merely offered him the most insulting of smiles.
"Maybe," he said, with an easy nonchalance. "But we have something you don't." He drew his gun. "Get out of here, Lance. Now."
"I--" The Nightingale swallowed hard, and failed to complete his sentence. Lex smiled.
"Well now that the loser has shut up..." He tried out what he hoped was a rakish grin. "Who's going to help tame a few Demon Dogs?"
"Yeah!" Changing sides again with admirable speed, the weedy-looking Hawk shifted about unhappily when both Zoot and Lex threw glares his way. Ryan threw up a fist, cheerily shouting out a cry of "Tame the Demon Dogs!" which earned him an exasperated scowl from Lex.
"We can't fight people with grenades." The Buccaneer, who had seemed ready enough to tackle the possibility of grenade-toting Locos until the reality of Zoot's gun had become clear, sounded concerned now. His eyes lingered on the gun, never leaving it as it swung around to point towards him. Zoot moved closer, his own eyes drawing the other's away from the blue steel weapon, and holding them steadily all the while.
"I think you can." Setting his cap back on his head, he pushed back his goggles and smiled like a tiger ready to pounce. Fully revealed again, his weird eyes seemed to captivate everybody, and Lex glowered. Well if funny contact lenses was all it took, even Ryan could be a great leader.
"Zoot's right," he offered, still anxious to impress somebody. "If you believe this red guy about being able to take out the Locos, you're probably nuts. But the Demon Dogs are different. There are only a few of them here. It's not the whole tribe. Together we can certainly handle them."
"They've got grenades." The Buccaneer's eyes tried to break away from Zoot's glare, but couldn't quite manage it. "It's suicide."
"It's justice." Lex raised his voice, enjoying his long awaited chance to gain a little cred. "They've killed people. I say we take them down."
"Yeah!" Ryan's enthusiasm was annoying Lex, but seemed to be helping win over the crowd. One or two of them were starting to nod their heads. Zoot smiled with satisfaction. There was nothing quite like having a herd of willing sheep to remove an enemy. He brandished his gun, for all the world as though he were planning to lead the charge against the Dogs, instead of merely waiting behind to round up anybody who might fetch a good price. Lex waved his own makeshift weapon in the air, rather liking the idea of fighting alongside Zoot.
"Come on!" he shouted loudly, wishing that he could be sure they were following him, and not just acting on their own fears of Zoot. "We can split up and search all over. If you see one of them, sing out."
"This guy could be handy." Ebony, who as usual had come soundlessly to Zoot's side, took his hand as he held it out for her. The stranger with the black stripes on his face had the aura of somebody too sure of himself for his own good, but for that very reason he might prove useful. Zoot nodded without really listening to her. Lex was making a fair stab at leading the masses away now, an almost comical sight in their lack of cohesion. "Think they've got a chance?"
"Who cares? They'll probably take some of the Dogs out, and that'll save us the trouble. I want to make sure this place is secure before I worry about that lot again."
"The fires are under control. The fence was pulled down in one or two places, but it'll be easy enough to fix. We've got two people injured badly, plus a couple of walking wounded. None dead." Rattling off her report with the cool efficiency that she usually liked to hide beneath flirtation and fun, Ebony leaned close to her leader and smiled. "Bray's trying to set up a Saint John's station or something. We don't even have any bandages, but he's determined to be useful."
"Let him." Zoot's intense eyes surveyed the departing crowd. "How many are dead back there?"
"I'm not sure. Twenty or thirty probably. Plus those three Dogs that caused it all. It's a mess."
"And the Ringmaster?"
"He's dead. Very dead." She looked unimpressed. "It'll mean that Top Hat will take over. Can't say that I like the idea, but then they're all nuts in that tribe, so he's probably no worse than any of the others."
"Yeah, probably." Zoot might have been thinking about that other life, before the Virus, when the Ringmaster had been a kid with a proper name - or he might just have been pondering what to do next. "Any sign of the rest of those grenade-throwing nuts?"
"They're around." She too turned to scan their surroundings with sharp eyes. "They certainly haven't left."
"I didn't think they'd go that easily." He pushed back his cap so that it sat at an angle that was almost jaunty. "Get the others together. We're going on the offensive. Look for the Dogs primarily, but take out any members of Tribe Circus you see as well." He recalled a recent insult, and smiled inwardly. "And the Nightingales."
"Of course." She held out one of her hands towards him then, and batted her eyelashes with her usual flirtatious glee. "I almost forget. I've got a present for you."
"Yeah?" He could see what it was, for her hand was not big enough to hide it, but he didn't spoil her fun. Tonight was a time for fun, after all, in all its many shapes and forms.
"I found it earlier. Somebody was good enough to donate it." She put the grenade into his hand. "Sorry there's only the one."
"One can always be enough if it's used right." He pulled her momentarily into a fierce embrace, then just as suddenly moved her aside. "And I know just how to use it."
"A little incitement always gets the job done quicker." Guessing his intentions, she smiled her approval. "Do you want the wounded rounded up?"
"Time for that later. Just worry about the ones who aren't wounded yet." He scowled, as though remembering something. "And keep an eye on that do-gooder Bray. I don't want him getting in the way."
"Don't want him getting himself killed, either." She nodded. "Don't worry. I'll watch him."
"I bet you will." He nodded impatiently. "Alright, Ebony. Get going, and be ready when I make my move. I want our boys with their targets picked out, so they can move in and strike quickly."
"Demon Dogs, Tribe Circus and Nightingales." She nodded. "What about our new friend? The guy with the black stripes and the big partner?"
"Leave him. He might be useful, or he might be nothing, but either way we'll leave him for another day. Find out about him, though. Later, I mean. I want to know who he is, and what tribe he's from. Ambition needs watching."
"Okay." She smiled again, warmth and coldness apparent in the same expression. "Good luck."
"Yeah." He looked down at the grenade in his hand. "You too." With that he was gone, and Ebony watched after him for several moments. It was hard, sometimes, to keep up with Zoot's vision and master-plans, but it was a privilege to be a part of it all anyway. Tonight was rapidly turning into one of the most enjoyable nights of her life, and by the look of it, the best was yet to come. All she had to do was anticipate how good that best might be. As ever, the rest was up to Zoot.
Bray knew as soon as he stepped through the flames that he was far out of his depth. Some small spark of hope had told him that he would be able to do something to help, but he had always feared that to be nothing more than optimism. Standing once again where he had been just a short time before, he saw that nothing short of a miracle could be of any use to him now.
They lay together, in tangles of blood and mud, like something from a history book about wars past. Low moans disturbed the stillness, but not by much. There was too much shock, too much pain, to allow a great deal of noise. One or two people were standing up, milling around aimlessly, but they didn't seem aware of their surroundings. Everybody else - all those not injured by the explosion - seemed to have gone. Fled in terror, perhaps, or in search of revenge. Bray hoped it was the former. The last thing he wanted was another incident like this.
He started slowly, checking wounds, checking pulses, wondering where to find some water and supplies. Somehow he doubted that the Locos bothered to collect First Aid equipment during their raids and foraging expeditions, but there was a good chance that they would have some drugs. He called out to Ebony as she went past on some errand, but she didn't even look his way. A few others came to help, but none were Locos, and nobody had anything even remotely useful. In the end they just made people comfortable, and tried to stop the bleeding. Bray asked a few people to move the bodies, but no one wanted to. He didn't blame them. They weren't a pretty sight.
It was some time before he became aware of movement. There were shouts and other noises; some kind of debate perhaps? Then the obvious signs of people on the move; of many footsteps, and the murmur of voices. He saw the crowd as they left Zoot, but he couldn't see the tall boy with the black stripes on his face who was leading them. Bray didn't care about such things. As the mob split into two, and half came marching his way, the only thing that he cared about was stopping his patients from being stepped on. He argued it out with the leader of the group, a tall, thin girl, dressed in what looked like tin foil and bin liners, but she just ignored him in the end, and pushed on through. They were looking for the Demon Dogs, and Bray didn't like to think what would happen if anybody saw them. It would all have to end here tonight though, he was sure of that. Zoot wouldn't let any of the Dogs leave in view of their plans for him. He couldn't, or he would forever be waiting for them to come back. Besides, it was a matter of pride now, with all that had happened - all the damage that had been done to the rail yard. Zoot couldn't let something like that go unavenged without risking the loss of his hard-earned reputation; and that was something that would never happen. Never in the world.
"Bray." It was Ebony, returned from whatever she had been doing. He glowered at her.
"Where were you five minutes ago when half of the city was walking through here? There are wounded people who need help, not a trampling from a mob out for revenge."
"They might need help, but they're not going to get it." She glanced down at the nearest patient, and wondered if the face beneath the grime and paint was familiar, or if it was just her imagination. "There's nothing we can do for them, and don't tell me you believe different." She smiled at the glower in his eyes, and turned her back on the disturbingly familiar figure lying at her feet. "Zoot's leading everybody on a hunt for the Demon Dogs. Seen any?"
"Only the three who caused all of this." He tried to ignore her, and concentrate again on his patients, but he still had no idea what to do for them. He had already used some of his clothing, and some of theirs, in attempts to create some bandages. It was up to nature now, and he knew it. All the same, he didn't want to just leave them.
"Come on." Ebony was taking his hand, dragging him away. "There's nothing you can do here. Worry about yourself first." Bray pulled free, but followed her a few steps anyway. It was easier, after all, to leave the wounded than to agonise over not being able to help them.
"The fighting isn't over, is it," he asked, and Ebony smiled at him.
"It never is. Things could get pretty rough, and Zoot wants you where he knows you're safe. I didn't think he still cared, but I guess he does."
"I don't want him to." He followed on, self-preservation playing as much a part in that choice as anything. "Where is he?"
"Not far away." She didn't know, although she had her suspicions. "I hope you're ready to fight better than you have been so far, sugar."
"I never really intended to fight at all." He let her lead him past the wounded, past the shell-shocked, past everybody else who was too weak to fight or escape, and who belonged now, inevitably, to the Locos. Few of them would see freedom again, and Bray knew it. He also knew that there was nothing he could do. It made his insides churn about, and made him look forward to the coming fight. He had a lot of anger that he might just enjoy working off on somebody.
Above him, unseen by any of the people below, Zoot glanced down at his brother in passing, then stood up on the roof of his rail car home. He could see everything from there, including the nearby carriage where the mob had already got the Demon Dogs cornered. He hadn't seen whoever had spotted them, but he had heard the howl of triumph. The Dogs had probably thought that they would be safe if they hid, but instead they had wound up trapped. The end was more or less inevitable now, so long as the mob could be trusted to do their job. So long as they were ready to give themselves up to the chaos. Crouching low, the warrior king looked down on his realm. He liked to be up here, with nobody aware of him; nobody suspecting that he was watching them all, seeing everything that they did. Right now there was little enough to watch, for everybody was still just milling about. Lex and his half of the mob were standing to the north of the car, waiting for inspiration or for something to happen. The others were to the south, Bray and Ebony with them. It looked like they were trying to make their way to the front, Bray gesticulating in a way which probably meant that he thought he could find a less violent way out of this. Zoot rolled his eyes. How he and Bray came to be brothers was beyond his understanding. Snatches of Ebony's voice came to him, and he realised that she was trying to stir the crowd up, trying to encourage somebody to make the first move against the Dogs holed up in the car. Nobody was doing anything, though. The loss of momentum was obvious. The once angry people were past the peak of their rage now, and no longer felt the necessity for immediate action. Lex was trying to spur his side of the mob onwards as well, but they were looking distinctly unspurred. Given much longer they would disperse. Zoot knew that with the Demon Dogs cornered he didn't need the mob to deal with them, but a mass struggle was the cover he wanted to let his Locos go to work. The Demon Dogs weren't the only people learning lessons today - there were the Nightingales as well, to say nothing of the prospective new leader of Tribe Circus.
Taking care to make no noise, although there was little chance of being heard or seen in his vantage point, Zoot rose back to his feet. From here there were several things that he could do to encourage the mob again. Simple threats would probably do it, or orders. So great was the fear that so many people had of him, that they would probably have done anything he asked of them - but the fight wouldn't last long, especially given the fear that was still likely to be lingering. He could hear whispers amongst the crowd, about grenades and firebombs. Nobody really wanted to risk goading the Dogs into throwing any more of their home-made weapons. Zoot was surprised that they hadn't done so already. He fingered the grenade that he still held, and wondered how best to use it. It would have been nice to have kept it, perhaps for some future battle, but future plans were for long dead adults, and he needed the grenade now. Hefting it in his hand, he looked down at the people shifting uncomfortably beneath him. He couldn't throw it to his left, or he would risk damaging more of the train carriages. He couldn't throw it straight, or he might wind up hurting Bray or Ebony. That only gave him the right, where the girl in the tin foil and bin liners was standing with several members of her tribe. Zoot didn't know who they were, but even if he had he wouldn't have felt much in the way of emotion. There were things that needed doing, and he never shirked from doing them - especially things like this. This was about power and chaos. Turning the grenade over, he gave the mechanics a brief examination, and told himself not to think about what he was doing. He didn't have to think. When you were the most powerful man in the city, with battles that needed to be fought, the only consideration was your own glory. He threw the grenade.
It exploded loudly, as it would always have done, and a scream tore through the crowd. The girl in the tin foil and bin liners disappeared; eaten up by the dust that the grenade had blown into the air. The people around her were staggering, blinded by the debris, stumbling about in confusion and fear. Somebody shouted out that the Demon Dogs were attacking. Some of the crowd turned and fled.
"Pull yourselves together!" Her voice the loudest of all of them, Ebony was fighting her way through the crowd. She could see the turmoil going on in the place where the grenade had landed, and knew that at least one person was dead. The grenades were more powerful than they should have been given their size. They caused more heat, more smoke, more damage. The result was impressive - and terrifying. Part of her couldn't quite believe that Zoot had thrown the thing, but the cold and calculating part of her merely accepted that it had been done. She raised her voice and shouted again.
"The Demon Dogs! We have to stop them!"
"Kill them!" The shout was one of pure fury, and it came from nearby. Two boys, dressed in the same strange foil and plastic clothing as the disappeared girl, had emerged from the settling debris. One was holding a baseball bat that looked as though it had taken part of the blast, for it was split almost in two, and displayed an evil looking collection of splinters. The other had a vicious set of knuckle-dusters, spiked and dangerous, making his hands seem twice their normal size. Ebony's eyebrows raised. Sometimes you just couldn't wish for the things that wound up happening.
"The Demon Dogs are attacking!" On the other side of the carriage, only half aware of what was going on, Lex was yelling at his side of the mob. They looked scared, but they were starting to mutter, starting to jostle each other. Ryan was deathly pale.
"Lex..." He didn't want to be a part of this and Lex could see that, but it was going to have to be just hard luck. He needed Ryan's strength, and he knew that his friend wouldn't leave him once the fighting had started. Gripping his makeshift club, and telling himself that fate and fortune wouldn't throw bombs his way, he started forward. It was the catalyst that the others had needed, or so it seemed, for around him, all at once, they surged on. At the other side, led by the two vengeful tin foil boys, the rest of the impromptu army was doing the same thing. Swept along in their midst, Bray struggled alongside the others, consoling himself with thoughts about how the Demon Dogs had to be caught. That last grenade had been entirely unprovoked, and he wanted to see them stopped. Beyond that all he could do was follow Ebony.
Inside the rail car, standing together in the middle of the floor, the little group of Demon Dogs watched the onslaught come. There had been twelve of them - there were six now. The others, as far as they knew, were dead; although it was possible that one or two might still be alive, lost amongst the anonymous wounded. It seemed unlikely. Lonn stared down at the firebombs he had made himself, and in which he had placed so many of his hopes. It had seemed like such a good idea - taking Zoot out, striking that last blow, stopping the war. Now all that it meant was dead friends. He knew that he should feel sorry about that, and might have done had he still been capable. He wasn't. Lonn was one of the casualties of the new world. He couldn't cope with the new pressures of life, and he couldn't handle everything that he had been through. In that respect he shared something with Zoot.
"They're coming." Mary, one of his disciples, was standing on tiptoe to peer out of the windows. Lonn nodded.
"We didn't defeat Zoot." She seemed more disappointed in this failure that she was upset by what it meant for them. Death meant little to her either.
"We have to get out of here." Flagpole, the only nearly rational one amongst them, was watching the oncoming tide with undisguised fear. The others made no response. Most of them knew that he was right, but they also knew that they had no chance of escape. Most had known that this had always been about winning or dying. Hammering started at the door, and the walls began to shake.
"Do you suppose Zoot's outside?" Mary rather liked the idea of taking the Loco leader with her, if she was going to have to die tonight. Lonn shook his head. He could see Zoot standing on top of one of the other carriages, an iconic figure backed against the lights in the eastern sky. He was staring back at the car as if he could see right into Lonn's eyes, even though he could not possibly have seen the Demon Dogs at all.
"Zoot's well out of range." He nudged at one of the firebombs with his foot. "We could probably take some of the other Locos with us though."
"Use them at such close range? Are you nuts?" Flagpole had become cold to the deaths of others a long time ago, but he was only now beginning to realise how little he wanted to die himself. Even the inevitability of it wasn't helping. All that he could think about was the mob, and the stack of firebombs that Lonn did not seem able to leave alone.
Outside, pulling back from the carriage once she had helped to lead the attack, Ebony was organising the Locos into their own strike force. She had pulled Bray along with her, and he had gone on the assumption that she knew what she was doing. It worried him that he hadn't seen Zoot in some while, but he was coming to realise that there was little enough reason to worry about his kid brother. Zoot could look after himself.
"Here." Ebony thrust a short stick at him. It looked like a truncheon, which was quite likely. The Locos had appropriated a good deal of police equipment.
"Huh? He took the stick despite the fact that he didn't want it. She was just smiling, the way that she always seemed to do when she was looking at him. "Ebony--"
"Take them out." It was all that she said, but it was enough. The Locos were gone in moments, tearing through the crowd in opposite directions. Almost immediate a shout of fury rose up, and Bray saw, with less surprise than he might have expected, a scarlet-painted Nightingale go down beneath the onslaught of two club-wielding Locos. The bewildered boy didn't have a chance, and he was not the only one. In seconds another war was underway, hidden within the original one, and Bray was caught up in it. Detached and exhausted, movements mechanical, he didn't want to let himself care.
On the other side of the carriage, Lex and Ryan were hammering on the walls just like everybody else. Lex was far gone, carried away in the moment, and oblivious to the many knocks that he was receiving from his own side. He didn't see the deadly strikes of the Locos, slipping in and out, and attacking Nightingales and Circus alike. He didn't see the Demon Dogs inside the carriage, gathered together in the centre of the floor with the firebombs in a heap, the last few remaining grenades strewn about them. He didn't see Flagpole's eyes hardening at last into fearless fury. He wouldn't have cared even if he had seen it all.
The door gave way just as Lonn was reaching down to set off his pile of accumulated firepower. Somebody screamed. Ryan saw the immediate danger, but caught up in a wave of panicked others there was nothing that he could do about it. He shouted loudly, to Lex, to the others pressing in around him. Somebody elbowed him in the ribs and he stumbled - then everybody was running forward, and the many feet were knocking the bombs all over the place. Somebody stumbled on one, and Ryan's breath caught as he waited for the thing to explode. It didn't.
"Got him!" Somebody had seized hold of Lonn, and Ryan almost fell out of the way as the Demon Dog was hauled outside. Somebody else had caught hold of Mary, but Flagpole was still putting up a fight. Lex was trying to take him down, without much success.
"Lex!" Fighting his way over, Ryan tried to get close enough to help. There were too many people in the carriage, all fighting each other in their eagerness to help drag the Demon Dogs out. Ryan couldn't see what was happening to those already outside, but his imagination and his knowledge of human nature nowadays told him the most likely possibilities. He didn't want to see it, so he stayed with Lex.
"Damn Locos." Flagpole was spitting the words out in fury, his already taut mind now stretched just a little too far. Lex was grinning furiously, his own eyes only a little less mad than those of his adversary.
"Grab some of those grenades, Ryan." He hadn't lost his desire for the things, although Ryan still had no idea how exactly he was planning to use them. He did as he was told though, picking up a few of the horribly effective little weapons, and stuffing them inside his shirt. Lex was locked in a struggle now that looked unpleasantly serious, but Ryan didn't know whether or not he should interfere. Sometimes Lex didn't appreciate it when he did that.
"There's a hell of a fight going on outside, Lex." He didn't know why he said it, except that it helped to keep his mind off whatever was going on outside the windows on the other side of the carriage, where the captured Demon Dogs were facing the incensed crowd. Lex shouted something in answer, but Ryan didn't catch most of it. Just enough to know that it had been something very rude.
"Damn Locos. Damn tribes. Damn everything." His breath almost gone, Flagpole was muttering insanely. Lex hit him, hard.
"We're not Locos," he said breathlessly, although even as he was saying it he was thinking along different lines. Being a Loco suddenly seemed like a very good idea.
"Who cares? Nobody's getting out of here." With a roar that left Lex's ears ringing, Flagpole threw himself forward. Ryan tried to stop him, but instead the pair fell to the floor, landing hard in a tangled heap. Flagpole was grasping at the firebombs, his fingers scrabbling at the floor of the carriage as he sought a proper handhold. Ryan struggled against him, fighting to stop him from doing anything, but feeling his grip beginning to fail. Lex came to his aid, face flushed.
"Well fight him then, Ryan." Grabbing the manic Demon Dog, Lex hauled him upright. Ryan gasped.
"Sorry, Lex. He's stronger than he looks."
"I know." Lex threw Flagpole up against he wall. "Now what do we do with him?"
"Nothing. We've got the grenades, and that's pretty much why we came here, right?" Ryan didn't want to send anybody out into the arms of the waiting mob, no matter what they might be guilty of. Lex nodded.
"Maybe." He had had few enough dealings with the Demon Dogs, and didn't know Flagpole at all. He had no real scores to settle here.
"Maybe? Maybe?" Flagpole started to struggle again, reaching into his shirt. "No maybes. Everybody's got to die. The Virus will come back, and it'll get every one of us. Everybody, in the end."
"Huh?" Lex hadn't caught half of the tirade, but he did see what Flagpole was reaching for, hidden inside his shirt. "Hey!"
"Everybody's got to die. Better now than waiting." Waving aloft one of the home-made firebombs, Flagpole shook his head hard, sending showers of sweat droplets leaping from his head. "Better this way. No more Virus. If we're all dead, there's no more Virus."
"Run." Ryan didn't know if they could run fast enough, but he was sure that they had to try. Lex made a grab for the bomb, but Flagpole pushed him aside.
"No." He was like a child, petulant and frustrated. "Not the Virus. I'm nearly an adult. Nearly there. The Virus'll get me, and that's not going to happen. Better this way." He fumbled with the bomb, apparently unsure how to use it. "Better."
"No!" Making one last lunge, Lex caught hold of the uplifted arm, and for a second fought hard - then with a mighty heave Flagpole threw him off, and in the process lost hold of the firebomb. He let out a shout of rage as the little device arched through the air, flying neatly and cleanly straight through the door. Ryan's eyes widened.
"Get down!" Even as Lex was shouting, Flagpole was running after the bomb, arms up like a football player trying to catch a pass. Ryan watched him for a moment, transfixed by the sight of the disturbed youth reaching up to catch his own death. Then the explosion came, and he turned his head away by reflex. It was some time before he could see anything again.
Outside, Bray was fighting alongside the Locos without quite knowing why. It had been about the Demon Dogs, hadn't it? And yet here he was trading punches with a member of Tribe Circus. He didn't know the boy, but he fought him anyway, inspired in part by the adrenalin that seemed to fill the air. Everybody was shouting, and it all added to the atmosphere. He didn't even slow down when a Nightingale collapsed at his feet. He looked dead, the feathers that he wore now coloured with his own blood.
"You'll pay for this!" Furious that his newly inherited tribe was being cut down around him, Top Hat was almost tearing his hair out, screaming in incandescent rage. Bray was jostled towards him, and saw the mad eyes opening wide in delight, before others came between them, and he found himself now struggling against a faceless Nightingale. Somebody elbowed him in the back of the head, and he stumbled, pushed by a silk-gloved hand that might have belonged to anybody. Seconds later he was staring at a heavy looking piece of pipe being wielded by a Nightingale at least a foot taller than he.
"Bray!" Ebony was heading his way, obviously intending to help, but was cut off by Top Hat before she could get close. The pipe swung around, Bray ducked and tripped, and felt his arms gripped tightly by somebody dressed in scarlet. It was Lance, the boy who had argued with Zoot earlier, and in the process brought down this vengeful judgement upon his tribe. Bray didn't know that - he only knew that he couldn't move, and that a heavy pipe was swinging towards him. He watched it come, mind strangely clear - then heard a distant sound that meant little to him above the noises of the crowd. Behind him Lance stiffened and fell, releasing Bray as he collapsed to the ground. The Nightingale with the pipe seemed to be continuing his own attack, but as Bray watched him come he saw a tiny red hole appear suddenly in the already scarlet chest. At the same moment came that sound again; that distant, familiar report that could barely be heard. The Nightingale fell, and Bray turned, slowly, seeing Zoot standing on top of one of the rail cars with his gun smoking gently in his hand. Bray stared back at him, searching for gratitude beneath the shock, but unable to find it. He was still looking when Flagpole's fumbled firebomb exploded, taking the lanky boy with it. A sheet of flame rose into the air, too brief to cause much damage, but accompanied by enough force to shatter most of the windows in the vicinity. On the other side of the carriage people were falling, glass and shrapnel wounds leaving them helpless. One or two were dead, tangled up with what was left of Flagpole. There were none of his fellow renegade Dogs left alive to see his end.
"Oh, man." Ryan felt sick. Lex could sympathise, but had too much of an ego to let it show. Taking a moment to let his head and stomach settle, he climbed slowly back to his feet.
"We'd better get out of here." He had the unpleasant feeling that somebody might decide that they were in part to blame for this latest explosion, but his fears were groundless. For all the world as though a switch had been pressed, at the moment of Flagpole's death the others began to leave. All that fury, all that hatred and fear and desire for revenge, had left them entirely. They were wandering away now, like people awakening from deep hypnosis.
"Sure, Lex. Straight home. Whatever." Ryan didn't want to stay any longer. The Locos were not going to be feeling charitable as they began the task of putting their fortress back together again. He didn't want to be caught here amongst the helpless wounded.
"Home. Yeah, I guess." Lex was staring around at the interior of the rail car, seeing most of it for the first time. "Although..."
"What?" Ryan also looked around, also seeing what stood about them. Food. They were in a food store, and it was stacked everywhere; tins of food, bottles of water, packets of biscuits. An Aladdin's cave, filled with a treasure more precious than all of the gold that Aladdin himself had found. He shook his head.
"No, Lex. We'd never get away with it. They'll come after us."
"They'll never know. We'll get out with the others, and nobody will see us." Seizing a sack, Lex began to shovel the cans into it. "Get to work, Ryan. And quick."
"But Lex--" He didn't persist. There was no point. As usual he went along with what his friend was doing, and as usual he wondered if perhaps this should be the last time. The Locos would find out about this, he was sure of it. They would have their revenge in the end. He went on working, though. Perhaps the food would be worth it. If he had known how visible he was now through the damaged sides of the car; if he had known that Zoot was watching him and Lex go about their thievery; he might have felt differently. As it was he just did as he was told, before chasing Lex out into the crowd, hurrying away out of the rail yard. It was good to see the back of it. Ryan didn't ever want to go back there again.
Bray left more slowly, not stopping to talk to Zoot before he went. The fighting had ended with the explosion, the Locos moving away as though called by some secret signal, vanishing into the crowds before the masses, with their recovering senses, had a chance of suspecting that they had been manipulated. The Nightingales were just a ragged few now, cowed and beaten without knowing quite why. Tribe Circus were neither cowed nor beaten, but then there was little that could make them admit to either. Bray turned his back on them all, aware only as he did so of how much everything hurt. There was blood on his face, and oozing from skinned knuckles. Every bit of him that he could see seemed to be discoloured through bruising. How the hell had he got himself into this? Had it really all come about through his desire to protect Zoot? In the end it had been Zoot who had saved him, more than once. There was a lot still to learn about his little brother, and Bray didn't think that most of it was at all safe to learn.
"Bray, wait!" Ebony was chasing after him, but he ignored her. He didn't want to see her just now. "Bray..." She caught his hand and he winced, discovering another injury that he hadn't noticed before.
"What?" He was angry, with her, with Zoot, and particularly with himself for having got mixed up with them again. Goodness knew how many people had died; how many more were wounded. There was nothing that he could do about any of it, and it cut him up inside.
"I wanted to make sure that you're okay." She frowned at him. "You're not, are you."
"I'm fine." He pulled out of her grasp. "Goodbye."
"You could stay here. Get cleaned up."
"And see what you're going to do with the survivors?" He shook his head. "No thanks."
"Then I guess I'll see you around." She kissed her fingertips and waved them at him, but he didn't have the strength to look disgusted. He just turned and walked away. She watched him for a while, thinking who knew what thoughts - then turned around and headed off on errands of her own. If she was at all shocked by the carnage, she gave no outward sign of it. None of the Locos did. It was all just another piece of chaos, after all; and chaos was all that the Locos wanted. It was what they were, and none of them more so than the lithe, wild-eyed boy standing above them all on the roof of his rail car. The king of chaos, surveying his domain; or maybe just a small boy wondering what on Earth he had done.
They wandered back home slowly, neither one of them speaking, although Ryan was not sure that the silence had anything to do with sorrow on Lex's part. For himself he was exhausted, as much with the horror of all that had happened as from actual physical fatigue. Lex seemed to be thinking rather differently though, even enjoying what he saw as his own success. Certainly there was no droop to his shoulders, or drag to his step. Ryan wondered whether he really appreciated how many people had been hurt during the battle, or if it had truly all gone over his head.
"I guess Zandra's going to be pleased to see all of this food, huh Lex." He spoke up, hoping that a conversation would make him feel better, but found instead that his display of false enthusiasm just made his stomach feel bad, and his heart feel even more heavy. Lex's reaction didn't help.
"Yeah. Yeah, I reckon she will." The older boy shifted the sack that he was carrying, settling it better on his shoulders. He was carrying less than Ryan, but it was still a lot. Probably twenty cans, all the large size, filled with assorted foodstuffs. Ryan had seen some of the labels, and had felt almost excited, until the reality of it all had come back again. The people dead, dying or wounded. All the ones who would finish up as prisoners of the Locos. All the mindless violence and worse. It wasn't worth tins of soup and stew, of fruit and vegetables and custard. It wasn't worth the packets of sweets and chocolate, and it certainly wasn't worth the three grenades stuffed into his now bulging pockets. But Ryan wouldn't refuse the food, and he hadn't tried very hard to make Lex leave it behind. There were morals, and there was pragmatism, and Ryan was enough of a survivor to have long ago learnt when to substitute one for the other.
"Do you think there are going to be lots of fights like that one, Lex?" He didn't want his friend to think badly of him, but he knew that he hadn't been able to hide his feelings. They sang out in every word. Lex glanced at him, frowning slightly.
"What's wrong? Don't like it?"
"It's not that." His heart said otherwise, but his tongue didn't let him down. "I was just wondering, that's all."
"What's to wonder about? There's bound to be more fighting. That's the way things are at the moment. People arguing, fighting for supremacy. Tribes wanting power."
"Like us, huh Lex."
"Yeah." Lex's eyes were bright with pride and intensity. "Like us. We're on our way up, buddy. Zoot knows who we are now."
"But that could be dangerous, couldn't it?" Sometimes it seemed to Ryan as though such things didn't mean quite the same to Lex. He barely seemed to acknowledge danger at all. As if to prove this, Lex frowned again at him now, questions filling his eyes.
"Dangerous? It's the chance we've been wanting! We can fight in the gutter, against small fry like the Knights, and win ourselves little trophies; we can join in with big fights like the one we've just had, and win big trophies - or we can join the Locos and not have to worry at all. Power, respect, strength. They've got it all."
"And you think that they'll let us join?"
"Are you kidding? We were great today, Ryan. We really showed what we're capable of. In a day or two I might test the waters, try getting a message to Zoot. We'll play it cool for a while yet, but yeah, I might think about joining." He slapped his friend on the back. "You know it makes sense, buddy. No more worries."
"I don't know, Lex. It sounds like a long shot to me. I don't think we can really trust Zoot."
"It's not about trust. It's about power. About getting respect, and proving how strong we are, and all the rest. Strength is what counts now, Ryan. In the old days you had cars, or designer clothes as status symbols, and your money was your power. These days it's your strength that counts. How many people there are in your tribe, how easily you can lord it over others, how much territory you can command. The Locos have got four sectors, more people than anyone except the Demon Dogs, more everything. They've got respect. It'll take us forever to get that on our own. It's not just power, either. It's about staying alive. Things are getting crazier all the time, and we never know what's going to happen. Who's going to come after us next, who's going to start the next war, what big tribe is going to come along. We've got a whole lot more chance of surviving anything like that if we've got more to back us up than Glenn and Zandra. Zan's no good in a fight, and Glenn's just an idiot."
"He fights well."
"He fights, yeah; but us more than anybody else. He'd sell us out for sure, for the right price. We need something more, Ryan. Something more concrete."
"If you say so." Ryan wondered where this latest idea had come from. The sight of so many people fighting, probably. Whatever the reason for it, he could see it leading to trouble. Joining the Locos? It sounded crazy to him. More than crazy. But he knew that he would go along with it anyway. If the previous night was anything to go by though, he didn't think that he would enjoy being a Loco very much. Too much blood, and too much screaming.
"You worry too much, Ryan." Lex was still smiling, his head still in the clouds. Adrenalin had obviously given him a major high, and there was no sign of him coming down again yet. "It'll all turn out okay, you'll see. A few weeks, and we'll have all the food we can eat, and no more security worries. No more sleepless nights, no more going to bed hungry. Wait and see."
"Sure, Lex." Ryan smiled, happy to listen, as usual, even if his heart wasn't in it. "I hope so." All that he really hoped for, although he barely dared admit it even to himself, was not to have to fight anymore. Not to have to see dead people. Not to have to see any more carnage like the mess left by that last explosion. He didn't really want to be a Loco at all. But then he still knew when pragmatism was what the moment called for; he still knew how best to stay alive.
"Zan's going to be so glad to see all this food." Lex's mercurial mind had already hopped and skipped its way back to the start of the conversation, and Ryan was happy to follow it. It didn't do to dwell too much on what had happened, anyway. With that in mind he smiled and nodded, and looked as cheerful as possible.
"Yeah, she will. Are we going to have a celebration today, Lex? A real feast?"
"You bet. All we can eat." Lex was practically bursting with excitement by now, anticipating their arrival back at the shed. He couldn't wait to be the conquering hero, and see Zandra's adoring smile. Everything would have been worth it then.
"Good. I like celebrations." Ryan's heart was still heavy, but he was willing to have a go at drowning his sorrows in food. It probably wouldn't work, but it made more sense than getting really depressed. Depression killed; he had seen it in the early days, in kids who couldn't get on with their lives in the new world. For that reason if for no other, Ryan knew that he had to look beyond his own regrets about the night just past. Other might have died, but he hadn't, and he needed to focus on that. Maybe that was Lex's attitude too. Maybe, after all, Lex's characteristic insensitivity was something to admire.
"Everybody likes celebrations." Lex was still excited, and getting more so the closer they came to home. He was oblivious to Ryan's sorrows, for they had no meaning to him. Lex's mind lay on different paths. He was going home to his girl; to be her all-powerful hero; to regale her with tales of the battle. Glenn would glower in a corner, and Lex, the brave and powerful warrior, could make plans for all of their futures. He could tell them about their inevitable rise to glory; their unstoppable rise to power with him unshakeable at the helm. It would be wonderful, and he would milk every moment. It would be everything that he deserved.
If he had known then that his true future lay in an old, empty shopping mall, alongside small children, dreamers and humanitarians, his feelings would undoubtedly have been different. As it was nothing now could dampen his spirits. He was Lex, conqueror of all, and today the whole world lay at his feet. Life couldn't possibly have been better.
The sun was well up before Bray found his way back to Trudy. She was standing almost exactly where she had been when he had left, and the dying fire was so far gone that it suggested she might never have moved at all.
"Trudy?" He was surprised by her lack of movement, but when he came closer he could see that she was crying. Crying without sound or movement, without so much as a shake of a shoulder. Heart heavy with the responsibility of it all, he hurried over to her. She didn't react.
"Trude, what's wrong?" He lifted her tear-stained face, but her eyes showed no reaction to him at first. She didn't seem to see him, or the blood and battle scars. If she could see anything through the tears he would have been surprised. Gently he wiped them away with his dusty fingers, and she blinked, uncertain, coming back to herself from far away. It was several moments before she reacted properly to his presence; before a shiver ran through her, and she collapsed into his arms.
"Trudy?" Panic-stricken he tried to help her sit, but she fought him, remaining on her feet.
"No. I don't want to sit. I don't want to stay here. We're leaving, Bray. We're leaving now."
"Alright..." Confused, he kicked out the glowing ash that was all of the fire still remaining. He had hoped for a rest, but she might be right. Hostilities might still be running high in this neighbourhood, and there would be no way to know for sure until it was too late. All the same, her change in attitude had to have been caused by something. "Is there something wrong? Did something happen?" A thought struck him. "Is it the baby?"
"Yes." She pressed close to him. "During the night...I thought it was coming, Bray. Contractions. I thought it was coming, and I was all alone."
"A false alarm." He hugged her. "They can happen, especially late in a pregnancy. Trudy, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have left you for so long. I didn't know what was going to happen."
"Of course not." She was regaining her composure now, and she pulled away from him. "I'm not blaming you. But I was so scared, Bray. It's so cold here, and so dirty, and I could hear the battle going on, and I thought that my baby was going to be born without anybody to help me, and--" She stopped for breath, shoulders beginning to shake. "Bray, take me away from here. I want to go home."
"Home?" Back to the Locos? Back to the lean-to that had been his almost permanent home until she had joined him? Where was home? She nodded, rubbing away her tears, along with swathes of dark face paint.
"Yes, home. I know it's a long way, out of the city almost, but I want to go there. I want to see my garden again, and my bedroom. I want to be back there. Please, Bray."
"Your parents' place?" He was shocked. "Trudy, no. We can't go there. It isn't safe. It isn't..." He shook his head. "You can't go back. None of us can."
"You're only saying that because your place got burnt down. If it was still there you'd want to go, you know you would." Her big eyes stared up at him. "Wouldn't you?"
"No." He was lying of course. Of course he would want to go back there, and see the wonderful security of a time lost perhaps forever. But he knew that he would have to resist the temptation. Going back only made you long for what was unobtainable; made you stare into the past rather than looking to the future. All of their parents were dead, and wishing otherwise was unhealthy. Probably fatal in the long run. Something else struck him. Trudy's parents had been amongst the last to die, late enough for Trudy to have still been living with them when the calls for evacuation had begun. By then there had been few enough people to remove bodies, or make even the most cursory of burials. Trudy's parents might still be there, in their house, in who knew what state of decomposition. She saw the look that passed across his eyes, and seemed to read it.
"I know they could still be there." She held his hand tightly. "I know what they'll look like if they are. I know that the house might have been destroyed, and that it could be just a wasted journey. But I want to go there, Bray. I want to feel safe, one last time, before--" Her hand fell to her stomach, as large as it was likely to become now. The baby would be born within a fortnight, he was sure of it. "Please, Bray."
"Home." It was such a strange word now, a word with so many meanings. It could mean a burnt out shack, a railway yard, an alleyway - or the long ago place where he and Martin had lived out their idyllic childhood together. It hadn't been something that he had wanted to think about much of late, although he had started this crazy wandering specifically to find a home, for Trudy and for the baby. How many times had he encouraged her onwards with the thought? With the promise that they would find such a place? How often had he thought, in abstract terms, of how homelike a place had become? Sector ten, with its wars, with its Demon Dogs and Locos fighting together every day, with half the other kids all cheerfully baying for his blood - that was home. But Trudy's house... He realised how much he wanted to see it again as well. The wonderful views down the hillside from the big picture windows. The spacious kitchen with the fridge and its colourful magnets. The reminders of how much milk to buy, and what time Trudy's father had to catch the train to make his next day's meeting. Its garden full of flowers, and carefully tended vegetables. He sighed, and held her close, aware for the first time of how much she had begun to shake. The false contractions had terrified her, and now here he was denying her a chance - perhaps her only chance - to regain some sort of composure. Surely it was worth the risk of the journey if it gave Trudy the strength she was going to need for what was coming? Giving her a brief hug, he managed to smile, and nodded his bruised and weary head.
"Alright Trudy. We'll go. We'll go now."
"Oh Bray..." She hugged him tight, then gathered up the few things they had left lying about. "Thank you."
"You might not thank me when we get there." He took their things from her, loading himself down with their possessions. "Just be alert, and be aware that we might have to move quickly. If you really want to leave now, we'll have to be careful. It's midmorning. People are up and about."
"I know. I've heard them." She started to lead the way forwards, eager for the off. "Thank you, Bray. I don't say that often enough, and now... well thanks, anyway. For agreeing to this."
"It's okay. Just be sure that you know what we might be heading for. Any tribe might have made it their place. It might not be there anymore."
"Or it might be just like I left it." She smiled bitterly. "Or my parents might still be there, lying in bed, or in the front room, and I won't even be able to recognise them. Wouldn't even if it hadn't been so many months. I know the risks, and the possibilities, Bray. But I need this."
"Yeah..." He took over the lead, setting the pace, hoping that it would all be alright when they arrived. That they really would get there. It only seemed right that Trudy should get the chance to relax for a little bit, to be surrounded by familiar things, and maybe feel close to her parents again. She was about to become a parent herself, after all. "I guess... I guess I'd like to see the place again too, in a way. I used to like the garden. Your father was quite a gardener."
"It was his pride and joy." She was wandering ahead herself again now, clearly eager. "The vegetables, and the flowers... and my mother used to put all the flowers in vases around the house. Great bunches of them, all over the place."
"Are you sure this is a good idea, Trude?" Her memories were bothering him now, bringing back memories of his own home that he had worked hard to leave behind. She smiled at him.
"Yes. Yes it is a good idea. I'm not asking to spend the rest of my life there, or even to wait until the baby is born. We haven't got enough food for one thing. It's just for a little while, that's all. To get my head together, to get a rest... To feel close to them again. Just a few days, Bray."
"A few days." They had both earned that, Trudy perhaps even more than he. All the worry, all that was still coming, for both of them. A baby to provide for and raise, in the middle of all of this... A few days rest was probably the best idea that either of them could have had. He smiled. "Sure. A few days. I'm sure everything will be fine up there too. It's out of the main war zones, and few people go out that way anymore. We'll stay there for a while."
"Maybe read some books." She touched her stomach. "Find some toys."
"Maybe." He smiled briefly, putting an arm around her shoulder. "But afterwards, when the food runs out, we're going to have to come back here."
"It's the best way to be sure of help, or - or something. When the baby comes."
"I know." She rested her head on his shoulder. "I just want a few days without any fighting. Without you going off, and leaving me worrying if you'll ever come back. Just a little peace of mind."
"Yeah." Peace of mind. He had forgotten what that felt like. He had forgotten all kinds of things he had once known well, like relaxation, safety, freedom - but maybe, for a day or so, he could remember them again. Remember them, while he waited for the food to run out, and for the baby to arrive.
And for whatever the hell else was going to come next.