Chapter Twelve

Lab Rats

…although it’s clear that this is a disaster the likes of which has never been seen before. London is effectively isolated, with no traffic entering or leaving. Reports of the death toll vary wildly, from a few hundred admitted by the British government, to several hundred thousand suggested by independent sources. A promised statement by the British prime minister has yet to materialize, and the questions have to be asked: What of the terrorists? Is the prime minister even still alive? And if he is, why has he not yet spoken to his people? In this time of global communication, it seems incredible that so little is being shared.

— CNN: Tragedy in London, 3:35 a.m. EST, July 29, 2019

Lucy-Anne had forgotten her own name. But she knew the name of her brother.

“Andrew,” she muttered as he ran north. The word worked like a talisman, parting the air before her and thickening it behind, drawing her ever-forward towards its owner. “Andrew,” she said, and London heard the name. Thousands of fat pigeons watched her go by, and a parade of cats paused in the middle of a wide, vehicle-strewn road to sit and observe this strange sight.

The sounds behind her had ceased. Everything behind her had ended, because that was a place far in the past. Even her nightmare of dead parents…a memory, fading like a photograph left out in the sun.

Forward was the only place that existed now.

Your brother is alive north of here, she heard. She could not remember the voice or who owned it, but the words were her fuel. She would need food and water soon-her throat was parched, her sight blurry-but while there was still daylight in the sky, she could not waste any time.

She passed a place where a battle had taken place. Several trucks had been parked in a rough square, and their bodywork was pocked with hundreds of bullet holes. A couple of the trucks had burned, and their pale grey skeletons had rusted. Birds sat on the twisted metal, and something large moved ponderously in the cab of one of the unburned vehicles. She had no reason to stop and see what it was, because it was not her brother.

“Andrew,” she gasped, and the word drew her on.

With every step, she lost more of herself. And every step made her past seem like a darker, older place.

They followed Rosemary, carrying the wounded girl between them. Jenna was in and out of consciousness, groaning, moaning from the pain. Jack wanted to check on her wound, but he feared that if they stopped they would never get going again. The strength had been knocked from them. Sparky looked beaten and pale, tired and shocked. Jack thought he seemed smaller than before, as though confirmation of his loss and what they had been through had lessened him somehow.

“Sparky,” he kept saying, just to hear his friend’s name and hoping to see the familiar confident, cheeky smile in response. But Sparky’s reply was always slow, and weaker by the minute.

Emily walked beside Rosemary. She seemed to be handling things better than any of them.

They dodged from street to alley, square to park, and with every step they took the sounds of conflict receded. At one point they passed an area that seemed to have been flattened by bombing, and Jack asked Rosemary whether what had just happened was a regular occurrence.

“London suffers,” is all she offered in response. “We’re almost there.” She went ahead, carrying the gun awkwardly and approaching the front door of an innocuous house in an unremarkable street. She lifted a plant pot containing the skeletal remains of a rose bush, picked up a key and opened the door.

“Is this where he lives?” Jack asked.

“I need to go and fetch him, and I’ll be faster on my own.” She glanced at Jenna. “And you two can’t carry her much further. She’s losing a lot of blood.”

They went inside. The living room had a wide window looking out onto the wild back garden, and they laid Jenna on the sofa. She stirred, groaned, and then relaxed again. Her face was pale and sweat soaked her hair into thick, dark strands.

“Pain killers in the kitchen cupboard,” Rosemary said. “Don’t unlock the front door to anyone but me. If there’s a knock, or any sign of the Choppers, get out the back door and run as fast as you can. Key’s in the lock. There’s a gate at the bottom of the garden, and-”

“We can’t run anywhere with her,” Sparky said.

“No, you can’t.” Rosemary looked grim, and Sparky stepped forward, about to vent his fury. Jack was pleased to see the old Sparky back again.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Jack said. “Just find this person you say can help.”

“His name’s Ruben,” Rosemary said. “And I’ll be back with him soon.” She left the room and strode for the front door, gun slung over one shoulder like a novelty handbag. Jack followed her and grabbed her arm.

“The Superiors,” he said. “My mother. My father. You need to tell me now.”

“There’s no time.”

“Please!”

She was holding the front door handle, ready to open it and go out into this dangerous new world once again. She looked exhausted.

“What if you’re caught?” he asked. “What if you’re killed?”

“I can’t explain everything right now, Jack, and if I tell you some of it, you’ll want it all.”

“They’re alive,” he said, a statement more than a question.

“Yes. Your mother’s a healer, similar to me.” She smiled. “I know her well. She lives in a makeshift hospital deep in an old Tube station. Susan’s a good woman, Jack, and she talks about you and Emily so much that…I almost feel as if I’ve known you forever.”

He closed his eyes and tried to recall a memory of his mother from before Doomsday. But he could not. He could only imagine her thin and pale, wasted and in despair, that tatty photograph in his back pocket come to life.

“And Reaper?” he said, looking at Rosemary again. “My father?”

“Your father,” she nodded. “Jack-”

“Please, just tell me the basics.” He kept his voice down because he did not want Emily hearing any painful truths, not yet. Not so soon after seeing people killed. And not from anyone but him.

“The Superiors are Irregulars who have utterly embraced their powers.” Rosemary sighed. “They shun everyone else, spurn humanity, and see themselves as the future. They set themselves apart. As you’ve seen, they can be brutal, and they’re driven. There are those who say they have plans-escape, domination, control-but that their powers haven’t yet developed enough to implement them.” She looked down at her feet.

“And?”

“And Reaper is their leader.”

Leader? He blinked, trying to imagine his father-softly spoken, tall, and loving-resembling Puppeteer in manner or intent. “What can he do?”

“He kills people with his voice.”

“He’s killed people? What does-”

“I told you there’s no time right now! Jenna needs help, and soon. Let me go, Jack. Please.”

He lowered his head. Without another word, and without a backward glance, Rosemary left. Jack wondered what she felt most: guilt, or relief.

Back in the living room, Emily and Sparky glanced up when he entered, and perhaps they read something else in his grave expression.

“Is Jenna going to die?” Emily asked.

“No!” Sparky said, and he had truly returned, Jack’s angry, wonderful friend. “No, she isn’t! Not on my bloody watch.” He sat next to Jenna on the sofa and took her hand. “You die, you’ll have me to answer to.” Only death would make him let go.

Jack shook his head. “Rosemary’s going to do her best,” he said. And though there was so much more to tell, he did not have the energy to do so right then.

“I’m hungry,” Emily said, and Jack realised that he was as well. However ridiculous that it may have seemed after what they had been through, and what they had seen, hunger gnawed at his stomach. He looked at Jenna’s constant pained movements, her blood, her pale face, and he left the room to find the kitchen.

Jack felt dizzy. He leaned against the worktop and pressed his hands to the surface, casting prints in dust. Breathing deeply, he closed his eyes and tried to see past what had happened. But all he could see was red. It’s much worse than we ever thought it could be, he thought. So much worse.

“Is it a war?” Emily said quietly. She’d crept in behind him, and Jack turned and hugged her to him, resting his chin on top of her head.

“I think so,” he said. “And I’m not sure anymore that we’ve done the right thing. Jenna might be…” He gasped, unable to say the word. “And Lucy-Anne’s gone, none of us know where, none of us have any idea what’s happened to her, who’s got her, where she is…” He cursed, and this time it was Emily’s turn to hold him. “I just can’t believe it’s all gone so bad like this!” he growled, and every word hammered the guilt deeper.

“It’s not your fault,” Emily said. “It’s their fault.” Them, they, their, he and his friends had used those words so much to signify the devious government and military that perpetuated the myth of a dead, toxic London, and Jack had never been sure that Emily knew exactly who or what they were. Now he was sure, and he felt ashamed at ever doubting her.

“I don’t want any more people to die,” he said.

“Mum and Dad?” Emily asked quietly.

“They’re alive, Emily.”

She pulled back and looked him in the eye, picking up on his hesitation. “Rosemary told you?”

“Yeah. Mum’s a healer, like her.”

“And Dad?” she asked, his beautiful little sister, wide-eyed and confused.

“Alive, but she doesn’t know him.” He couldn’t tell her yet. There was so much he didn’t even know himself.

“Then that’s good, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, Ems, it’s good.”

“Don’t call me Ems, Tobes.”

“Whatcha gonna do about it?”

Emily hugged him again, and they stood together in the kitchen of a dead stranger’s house.

They looked around for some food, but there was nothing here to eat. If Rosemary and some of her friends used this as a safe house, they certainly didn’t keep it stocked. They did find some bottled water, however, and they all swigged down most of a bottle each. Sparky gently lifted Jenna’s head, while Emily poured some into her mouth, but it dribbled out when she winced in pain, soaking her neck and the sofa beneath her.

“We can’t let this happen,” Sparky said. “It’s not fair.”

“Rosemary will do her best,” Jack said.

“We need to do our best, too. We’ve lost Lucy-Anne, Jack. We just let her go, get lost, and we left her back there.”

“We didn’t have a choice.” He could see that Sparky understood, but Jack felt impotent and helpless. “You do know that, don’t you? We could have-”

“She could be dead, Jack.”

“We could have all been killed in there, and no one would ever know.”

“Yeah,” Sparky sighed. “No one’s ever going to know about Stephen. How he died, where. Why. Even Mum and Dad won’t give a shit, if I ever get out and manage to tell them. They won’t believe me, or they won’t care. He died much longer ago for them than for me.”

“He knew you were a good brother, mate.”

“You think so?”

“Definitely.” Jack sat in an armchair across from the sofa, looking at their dying friend.

“She won’t be long,” Emily said.

“She can’t be.” Sparky was still holding Jenna’s hand.

They waited for three hours, and every minute was a lifetime. Jack and Emily used some of the bottled water to wash as best they could, but Sparky refused to leave Jenna’s side. She woke up a few times, but she would sweat and moan and cry out, and they were all glad when the pain took her into unconsciousness again. It was better for her, and easier for them.

Jack was desperate to change his jeans. They were soaked with blood-Gordon’s, Lucy-Anne’s, and his own-and though mostly dried, he could still smell it. He rooted around upstairs and found a pair of jeans, dusty but whole, that were only one size too large for him. And it was while he was changing that he suddenly remembered the photograph.

It was soaked. Stained. Beyond repair. He wiped it, licking his fingers and smearing the blood across its surface, dabbing it on old bedding, but his mother’s image was marked forever. He hoped it was not an omen.

He slid the photo into the rump pocket of his new jeans and went back downstairs.

They talked about Lucy-Anne. Jack was struck with guilt for leaving her behind, but they all agreed that they’d had no real choice. Events had carried them along. They discussed what could have happened to her, and perhaps with Jenna as she was they found it necessary to be honest with each other, and themselves. Maybe she was caught, Sparky said. She might be dead, Emily whispered. Jack nodded at them both, remembering the sounds of chaos and conflict echoing from the hotel even as they fled. And what he had heard the Chopper, Miller, saying to his soldiers gave him little hope.

When they heard the front door opening and the sounds of people entering, carefully and cautiously, Jack leapt for the living room door, ready to slam it in the intruders’ faces.

“It’s me,” Rosemary said, and Jack slumped with relief.

She entered the room with a short fat man, his face resembling a nervous rat’s. His skin was slick with sweat, and he stared around at them as though they were exhibits, not people. His gazed rested on Jenna, and without a word he sat on the sofa beside her and gently lifted her hands from her wound.

“This is Ruben,” Rosemary said. He lifted one hand in acknowledgement, never taking his eyes from Jenna’s stomach.

“Can you help her?” Sparky asked.

“Yes. You’ll need to give me some room, though.”

“Do you need anything?” Emily asked. “Water, something to wash your hands?”

“No,” he said. He rolled up his sleeves and entwined his fingers, and Jack saw for the first time how large and fat his hands were, with fingers like swollen sausages. After cracking his knuckles he glanced at Rosemary, then the others.

“Keep away,” Rosemary said. “You can watch, but don’t interrupt him while he’s operating. It’s dangerous.”

“Operating?” Sparky stood from the sofa, relinquishing his hold on Jenna’s hand with some reluctance. “He doesn’t have any knives, or anything.”

Ruben smiled, held up his hands and waggled his fingers. Then he went to work.

Jack could not help watching, fascinated as well as disgusted. Emily stood beside him filming the whole thing, and once again he marvelled at her toughness.

Ruben’s obesity and fat fingers belied his grace and deftness of touch. He felt around the wound first, using a soft yellow cloth from his pocket to wipe away the blood so that he could see the hole more clearly. His fingers trailed across the skin, barely touching, and Jack saw Jenna’s stomach twitch as though tickled. Then he pressed slightly harder, flexing the skin and pushing down around the wound. Rosemary had not told any of them exactly what Ruben’s gift was, and Jack was unsure of what to expect.

Ruben pushed his fingers into Jenna’s stomach.

Jack gasped and stepped forward, but Rosemary reached out and grabbed his arm, shaking her head. She mouthed the word No, and held on until Jack nodded and stepped away again.

Initially it looked as though Ruben’s fingers were pressed into the wound, following the route of the bullet through Jenna’s guts and towards her spine. But then Jack realised that the big man’s fingers had punctured the skin around the wound, though no fresh blood flowed, and Jenna seemed to be in no more discomfort than before. The bullet hole pouted and seeped a fresh flow of blood and clear fluid, and the purplish curve of her intestine once again showed at the rip.

Ruben was concentrating so hard that sweat speckled his balding head, soaked the back of his shirt and dripped from his nose and chin. When it mixed with Jenna’s blood he seemed unconcerned, and Jack started to worry about infection, the germs on his hands, and-

He’s stuck his bloody hands into her gut!

He glanced across at Sparky and saw that the boy was astounded.

Ruben lifted himself up slightly, hunching over Jenna before pushing deeper. Both of his hands were in her stomach now, her light skin stretched tight against Ruben’s darker skin, and Jack could barely see the join. The man’s hands worked inside her, tendons flexed on his wrists, and the muscles in his forearms performed their own complex, delicate dance as he probed deeper, and wider.

Jenna groaned, still unconscious, and tried to press her hands back against her wound.

“Hold her hands, please,” Ruben said. Sparky and Emily went to the sofa and did as he asked, stroking Jenna’s skin and unable to look away. Emily still bore the camera in her other hand, training it on Ruben, the wound, Jenna’s face, and then turning slightly to record Jack’s reaction as well.

“There it is,” the man said, his voice barely a whisper. “Now then…” He leaned closer, more sweat dripping from his face, and Jack saw that his eyes were closed. He was operating by touch alone.

Jenna groaned and said something, too distorted by pain for Jack to make sense of.

“It’s okay, girl,” Ruben said softly. “Almost done, almost out, and then the lady Rosemary will do her work.”

“Have you got it yet?” Sparky said, and Rosemary threw a stern look his way.

Ruben surprised them all with sudden movement, tugging his hands from Jenna’s stomach, flinging them up above his head and speckling the ceiling with rosettes of blood. Something bounced from the wall and fell behind the sofa. The fat man tried to stand but he seemed weak, and instead he slipped from the sofa and sat on the floor, breathing heavily. “It’s out,” he said.

Jack rushed to Jenna, kneeling beside Sparky and Emily and looking at her wounded stomach. The tear from the bullet was still obvious and horrific, but there were no other wounds to show where Ruben’s hands had entered.

Ruben was looking at his hands, gently dabbing the smears of blood that speckled them like liver spots. There was nowhere near as much as there should have been.

“Where’s the bullet?” Sparky asked. He crawled around the end of the sofa and looked behind it, stretching his arm into the gap between sofa and wall. “Bloody hell,” he muttered, standing with the prize in his hand. The bullet was half the size of his thumb, squashed and distorted by the impact on Jenna’s flesh.

“Move aside, please,” Rosemary said. She nudged past Jack, waited while Ruben crawled across the floor, and knelt beside Jenna.

The girl screamed, hands pressing down onto her wound once more.

Rosemary put her hands on Jenna’s stomach, grew very still, and her face went blank.

“That was incredible!” Sparky said. He’d hardly left Jenna’s side since Rosemary had healed the wound, and now he sat at one end of the sofa with the girl’s head in his lap. She seemed to be asleep now rather than unconscious, and she had already stopped moaning from the pain. “She was dying in front of us, and now…” He shook his head.

“It’s just what we can do,” Rosemary said, but she was smiling.

“It’s a miracle! No bloody wonder the Choppers are hunting you all.”

“Yes, well, I’d rather not be hunted,” Ruben said.

“They told us you were all monsters,” Emily whispered. “They showed pictures on the telly and the Internet. Pictures of…monsters.”

Ruben smiled and motioned for Emily to go to him. She sat beside him on the other, smaller sofa in the room.

“Do I look like a monster to you?” he asked.

“Of course not. You look like my friend Olivia’s dad.”

Jack laughed, and Ruben honoured him with a smile as well.

“And is Olivia’s father a monster?”

“No,” Emily said. “Though he’s a bit gruff sometimes. And he smells of smoke.” She frowned. “I’ve always known they were lying, because Jack made sure I did. But they still tell everyone else that anyone left alive in London is a mutant. Dangerous.”

“Some are,” Ruben said, smiling ruefully. “Some are.”

“They met some Superiors back at the hotel,” Rosemary said.

“But they helped us,” Jack protested. “If it weren’t for them…” He thought of Lucy-Anne, and the guilt cut in again, harsh and sharp. Is there someone that can heal me of this? he wondered, and he thought there probably was. But some things needed to be suffered.

“And if the Choppers hadn’t turned up,” Rosemary said, “there’s no saying what Puppeteer and Scryer would have done to us.”

“Maybe Lucy-Anne is with them!” Emily said. “Maybe they rescued her, and-”

“If they had, they’d have let her go again,” Ruben said. “Even we’re looked down upon by them, but you…”

“We’re normal,” Emily said.

“My girl,” Ruben said, “I’ll tell you something, and whether or not your brother or friends agree, you listen to me because I know: there’s no such thing as normal.”

“So maybe she went north to look for her brother?” she said.

“She’s dead,” Sparky said. “She was mad, grief-stricken, no way she’d have come to her senses quick enough to hide or get out. No way.”

“We can’t know that for sure,” Jack muttered, but a voice inside was whispering we can, we know, we’re sure. He turned to Rosemary. “How safe are we here?”

“As safe as anywhere,” Rosemary said. “We use a house a couple of times, then abandon it. I hid here for a week a few months ago when the Choppers did a sweep through this part of town.”

Ruben grunted. “They took Horace, Pat, and Bethany, that time.”

“So, yes, it’s safe,” Rosemary said, sighing sadly. “I think we should stay here tonight, give Jenna a chance to get her strength back.”

“But you’ve cured her,” Emily said. “Why can’t we just go and find Lucy-Anne, then look for my mum and dad.”

Rosemary and Ruben swapped glances, and Jack saw their loaded look.

“What?” he asked.

“I’ve cured her, but she’s tired from what she’s been through,” Ruben said. “She needs a rest.”

“Not that,” Jack said. “There’s something else, isn’t there?”

“Your parents,” Ruben said. “Rosemary told me who you are, though I wasn’t aware she’d gone out to get you.”

“Do you really want her to hear this?” Rosemary said, nodding at Emily.

Jack went to say something, but Emily beat him to it. “I’m older than I look.” She stood, left the sofa, and sat beside Jack on the floor.

“Okay then,” the healer said. “But you’re not going to like it.”

“Tell me something new,” Jack said.

Sparky laughed softly. “The world’s gone to shit.”

Rosemary started talking.

She told them all about Reaper. Emily glared at Jack.

“She only mentioned it just before she went,” he said. “I’d have told you.”

Her glare softened. “He’s alive. Anything else doesn’t really matter right now.”

“I’m afraid it does matter,” Ruben said. “Reaper is like those Superiors you met at the hotel, only much worse. He barely acknowledges that we exist, and as for outsiders…I’ve no idea how he’ll react. He might just kill you, I suppose.”

“But he’s our father,” Jack said.

Rosemary shook her head slowly. “Jack, Emily, his time as your father ended two years ago. The virus Evolve altered his mind, just as it altered the minds of everyone else in London it didn’t kill. But with him and the Superiors, it changed so much more. He’s a different man now. He’ll know you, perhaps, but that might not mean anything. Although we hope…” She trailed off and looked across at Jenna, lying peacefully asleep with her head resting on Sparky’s thigh.

“You never came looking for her dad, did you?” Jack asked. “You obviously knew about what he’d done, and what he’d had done to him. But you came looking for me and Emily.”

“Yes,” Rosemary said. “Because of Reaper, and because of what you might be able to make him do.”

“But you’re telling me I can’t make him do anything! He’ll barely know us, that’s the impression you’re giving. What the hell am I supposed to do?”

“He’s my daddy,” Emily said, and Jack could see that the raised voices were upsetting her. But this was something that he could not leave alone: another lie, another deception, and now he needed to know the truth. Lucy-Anne was gone, Jenna had almost been killed, and the time for being blind was over.

“We’re desperate,” Ruben said, and the fat man looked suddenly vulnerable and hopeless. “The Choppers pick us off the streets one by one, take us away, and cut us up to…to look for what makes us what we are. We’re just lab rats to them, not humans. Sometimes they capture a Superior, but usually it’s us Irregulars.”

“Because the Superiors put up more of a fight?” Jack asked.

“Yes, because they’re able to,” Rosemary said. “Many of us have powers that are benevolent by their very nature. Mine, Ruben’s. But the Superiors…well, you’ve seen what some of them can do. And there are more.”

“So have you tried to hook up with them?” Sparky asked. It seemed so obvious to him. “Join forces to take on the Choppers? From what I’ve seen round here so far, you lot just hide out in little groups or alone, sneak around at night like bloody rats trying not to get trapped. Get active, not passive.”

“We tried fighting back on our own, first of all,” Ruben said. “Six months after Doomsday, all of us still trying to come to terms with what had happened to London, what had happened, and was still happening to us-”

“Still happening?” Jack cut in.

“Our talents are getting stronger all the time,” Rosemary said. “And that’s scaring them. Their efforts to capture us are speeding up, and sometimes becoming more desperate.”

“So there we were,” Ruben continued, “cut off from the outside world, many of us separated from families outside or…bereaved.” He looked away, remembering someone Jack could never know.

“I’m sorry.”

Ruben shrugged. “There’s been so much loss that, in a way, personal grief is even more tragic. Anyway…we tried. A group of us got together, and when the Choppers next sent in their armoured column we attacked them. Fire bombs, a few guns we’d found lying around, homemade explosives. And Peter. Remember Peter?”

Rosemary smiled, and Jack could tell that more sadness was yet to come.

“Peter was a young boy, a couple of years younger than you, who could direct bursts of energy from his mind. It cooked electrical circuits, blew computer chips. He called it his Mind Blower. He helped us, trying to take out the armoured vehicles’ navigational computers and communications. And it worked. But only until they shot him.”

“The attack went on,” Rosemary said, “and when they left we thought we’d driven them away.”

“Until the next morning,” Ruben whispered. “Gordon found him. You met Gordon. And I’m not sad that Gordon’s gone now, because he never could really come to terms with what they’d done to Peter.”

Rosemary glanced at Emily.

“She’s my sister,” Jack said. “She needs to know what we know.”

“Okay,” she said. “Gordon found Peter crucified on the front facade of Harrods. They’d used nail guns to pin him to the wall. Arms, legs, feet. Gordon was sure he must have still been alive when they did it, dying from his gunshot wound, because there was so much blood.”

“They took his brain,” Ruben said. “Cut off the top of his head and just…took it.”

“A warning?” Sparky asked.

Ruben snorted. “Yes, right. Just to tell us how little we mean to them as living things, but as carriers of all these new gifts…we’re priceless.”

“So now most of us run, like you said, Sparky.” Rosemary nodded. “We run, and we hide, alone or in small groups. Trying to avoid the Choppers because we know what they do with those of us they capture.”

“You told me you wanted exposure,” Jack said. “That if we came in, saw everything, took some pictures and film, we could go back out and blow it all wide open.”

“There’s no way they’d allow that,” Ruben said.

“But we have to try!”

Rosemary shook her head. “They can cover up what’s happened here from the rest of the world. They can hide the existence of the new talents created on Doomsday-an evolved humanity, how incredible! — and the fact that those talents are growing every day. They can do all that, and keep the rest of the country ignorant of the truth, so do you really think a few pictures and bits of film will be believed?”

“Get them to the right places, sure,” Sparky said.

“Do you believe everything you see on TV?” Rosemary asked.

“’Course not. Load of bullshit.”

“That’s my point.”

“But…” Jack shook his head, angered by the Irregulars’ lack of faith and belief in what was right, but unable to see a way through. “There’s hope,” he said. “You have to hang onto that.”

“I lost it long ago,” Rosemary replied. “At least, until we found out about you. Because the only hope for the people left alive in London-several thousand of us, perhaps-and the powers we have, is for all of us to unite and fight our way out.”

Sparky laughed. “You’re joking, right? Get together, you and all those Superior superhero wannabes, and start a war?”

“Not start a war,” the woman replied. “Finish one.”

“And can you give us any alternative?” Ruben asked.

“Not off the cuff, but I can tell you it’ll end up with them killing you all,” Sparky said.

“And you want me to go to my father, this Reaper you talk about, and persuade him to do this?” Jack asked.

“In a nutshell,” Rosemary said. “We tried, and he turned us down. You’re our last hope.”

“But you don’t believe he’ll even care.”

“Not anymore.” She shook her head, wretched, tortured. “Our last hope is almost hopeless.”

Jack sat back against the wall and sighed. He looked at the ceiling and saw a fine network of webs, and in the corner sat a small, fat spider. It was waiting for unwary flies to become caught in its net. And if a dozen flies ganged up on it, the result would simply be a fatter spider.

“So how did you find out about Jack and Emily?” Sparky asked. “Someone with a people radar? Some bloke who can sniff paternal genes across hundreds of miles?”

“No,” Rosemary said, “their mother told me about them.”

“My mother,” Jack said, and he smiled. He thought of Sparky immediately and felt bad, but his friend was looking down at Jenna’s face. Now that he knew his parents were still alive, the idea of exposing the lies of the Toxic City seemed even more pressing. Because if he had discovered they were alive only to lose them again-either to the Choppers, or if his father disowned them-Jack did not think he could mourn a second time.

“I need to see her first,” he said. “You can take me down to where she is?”

“Tomorrow,” Rosemary said, her face flushed. “So you’ll do it? You’ll go to Reaper?”

“I’ll go to my father, yes. How will you find him?”

“He’s not difficult to find.”

“Then why don’t the Choppers come and take him?” Emily asked.

“They’ve tried,” Rosemary replied. “Often. None of them ever come back.”

My dad’s a killer, Jack thought, but the idea was not as reprehensible as it should have been. Perhaps in his mind, he was already viewing his father as a radically changed man. It had been two years, and when they met they would be strangers. Maybe that was the best way for whatever future there was between them to begin.

“Thank you,” Ruben said, his gratitude heartfelt.

“And I’m sorry for…” Rosemary said, but she trailed off.

“All the lies?” Sparky suggested.

Jack laughed. “We’re used to them. Didn’t you know it’s now lies that run the world?”

As the sun settled red across the London rooftops, they heard the sound of a wolf’s howl in the distance.

“Is that really what I think it is?” Sparky asked.

“I saw one once,” Rosemary said. She was sitting on the small sofa beside Ruben, eating tinned tomatoes from a large bowl. She’d fetched the food from a house further along the street, saying that keeping safe houses well stocked would take away the safety. “Hyde Park, about a year ago. That’s a wild place now. The trees and bushes have gone mad, the grasses come up to your knees, and the first of the mass graves is there. Lots of it was dug up by wild dogs and other carrion things just after the authorities withdrew from London, so there are bones scattered everywhere. And I found somewhere where the bones had been arranged around a copse of trees like some sort of…symbol. I went closer to the bushes, and a wolf came out. It was beautiful. So powerful, so of nature, that I felt…insignificant. Here we are, humans being inhumane as we always have done, and the wolf survives.” She nodded, staring at the wall opposite and seeing into her past.

“Wolves placed the bones?” Sparky asked.

“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe not. I’m more inclined to think it was some sort of offering or worship of the pack.”

“By people?”

“By people. There are some…you haven’t met or seen any yet, but Jack, when I take you down to your mother you’ll see some of the people she looks after. Mad. Worse than mad…an unnatural insanity, because what happened to us is entirely man-made. And some people haven’t been able to handle the talents they’ve developed.”

“And Mum heals them?”

“She looks after them. They can’t be healed because there’s nothing wrong with them. It’s just that their bodies and minds can never accept the sudden change.”

Jenna stirred. Everyone froze. She smacked her lips, and frowned. “Did someone put a dead rat in my mouth while I was sleeping?”

“Hey, Jenna!” Sparky squealed, leaning down and kissing her hard on the lips.

“Oh, gross,” the girl said, but she smiled as she tried to push herself up on her elbows. Sparky helped, lifting her into a sitting position and placing a couple of cushions behind her back.

“Welcome to the land of the living!” Jack said without a trace of irony. “How do you feel?”

Jenna paled and her hands flew to her stomach. “I’ve been shot!”

“You’re all better now,” Emily said.

“Better?”

Jack nodded at Rosemary and Ruben, both smiling as the girl came around.

“Rosemary,” she said. “Again. Thanks.”

“Ruben took the bullet out,” the woman said, nodding at the fat man beside her.

Sparky produced the bullet from his pocket. “Kept it for you. Maybe it’ll make a nice pendant, or something.”

Jenna frowned at the bullet as he dropped it in her hand. She looked around, confused, and her gaze settled on Sparky. “You kissed me?”

“Er…sorry,” he said. “But if it makes you feel better, you’re right. You tasted like dead rat.”

“Where’s Lucy-Anne?” Their silence was no real answer, so she asked again.

“We don’t know for sure,” Jack said. “She never came back.”

“Where are we now?”

Rosemary filled her in on their flight from the hotel, through the streets to this place. She left out the discussion they’d had, leaving that for Jack.

“We have to go and look for her,” Jenna said.

Jack shook his head. “It’s too dangerous, and now it’s getting dark-”

“She’s our friend,” Jenna said, her voice weak but firm. “She’s your girlfriend, Jack. We can’t just abandon her because she ran away.”

“I’ve gone through all this,” Jack said, and the guilt came in yet again.

“She could be lying injured somewhere. Shot, like me.” She looked at Rosemary. “Do you know anyone that can find her?”

“Not now Gordon’s dead,” she replied. “But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anyone else.”

“Then we all go and look, starting at-”

“It’s impossible,” Rosemary said. “If she’d stayed in or around the hotel, the Choppers would have her by now. If she ran further, then we have no clue as which way she ran. And it’s not as if we can walk through the streets calling her name.”

“So we just give up on her?”

Nobody answered for a while, until Emily went and sat beside Jenna. “I think she’s gone to find her brother,” she said. “Alive somewhere, in the north. In fact, I’m sure of it.”

“How can you know?” Rosemary asked.

“Because that’s what I’d have done.” Emily grinned at Jack, and he smiled at his little sister.

“Maybe,” Jenna said. “I hope so. It just feels so bad…so unfair. God, I need sleep.” She slid down until her head rested against Sparky’s shoulder. He froze, delighted, and she grinned, pushing his shoulder around as if fluffing up a pillow before closing her eyes.

Jack smiled. He’d wanted to see these two getting it together for a while. Sparky would be a challenge for anyone, but perhaps being attacked by dogs, chased by government soldiers, blown up, and shot in the stomach was all Jenna had needed.

“We all need sleep,” Rosemary said. “It’s been quite a day. There are two bedrooms upstairs. Ruben and I can sleep down here.”

The mention of beds and sleep got them all yawning. Jack and Emily went up first. They used bottled water and toothpaste from Emily’s backpack to clean their teeth, then they chose the twin room and closed the door. Emily fell asleep almost before her head hit her pillow, and Jack sat up for a while, staring at his little sister. Tomorrow we’re going to see Mum, he thought. He was excited and afraid in equal measures.

He lay down, but was not surprised when he could not sleep. A rush of memories came back to him, good times with his parents that he had long forgotten, and he wallowed in them, smiling at some and crying softly at others. He’d never really known nostalgia as a powerful emotion, but he did now. Before today he’d laboured under the belief that things could, by some miracle, go back to normal. Find his mother and father, escape the Toxic City, go home, live together again as they had been more than two years before. But now he acknowledged the firm reality that his family had changed forever. Nostalgia, as he experienced it there in a stranger’s bed, could not allow for things ever being the same again.

He heard the stairs creaking and Sparky and Jenna talking in subdued tones. They went into the double bedroom next door, and for a while he heard their voices, Sparky’s low and deep, hers soft and sad. There were tears as well, and then talking again, and after a period of silence he heard the first gentle moans of pleasure. Sleep came to Jack at last, giving privacy to his friends.

Contents

Обращение к пользователям