AFTER THE APOCALYPSE

The city was strange now. An alien place, where nobody seemed to know each other anymore. They had all been friends once - companions, school mates, casual acquaintances who met on the buses or the trains, or who bumped into each other at the cinema on a Saturday night. Now they were madmen baying for blood; ready to tear each other apart at a moment's notice, just for a can of sardines, or a bag of stale biscuits. They fought in the streets, tearing at each other, desperate for water, or shelter, or fuel for their salvaged heating. They enslaved each other, they ran riot in their gangs, worshipping strength and brute force where once they might have looked up to a greater reasoning. It was a mad world, like something from a terrifyingly primitive age; and Bray wanted no part of it.

But he was stuck in the middle of it, and he knew that there was no way out. Not anymore. Not for any of them.

It had begun in batches. People had become ill, and everyone had wondered why it was only the adults that were getting sick. There had been long discussions on the television and the radio; endless debates and urgent statements read by equally urgent politicians. There had been panics and riots as the situation had grown worse - but in the early days there had just been the sickness, and the waiting for a relief that never came. It hadn't been long before it had become obvious that there weren't going to be any survivors. If you got ill, everything was over. Bray's parents had been amongst the first to succumb; but it was clear even before they had died that this was no ordinary outbreak of sickness. Bray had watched them fade away, aware even through his own grief that things were changing all around him. Emergency decrees; curfews; martial law. Kids being taken out of school and sent to special military camps. Provisions being made to defend property against expected mobs that in the end had never materialised. Bray and his younger brother Martin had stood by and watched it all happen; alone now, with nobody to turn to, watching old friends being taken away to new schools in the hills and countryside, where maths made way for weapons training, and science was abandoned in favour of bare fist fighting and staunch military discipline. Bray and Martin had hidden from the squads sent out to round up other orphans; had taken refuge with friends at first, and then in the many empty houses. They had taken to the streets like so many others, watching the gradual breakdown of the city around them. They had seen every adult they had ever known become ill, fall into fever, and then die. Life had grown to a standstill; the patrols had stopped. There had been a few more broadcasts; a few desperate attempts by the adults to stay in control - and then nothing. The last of the parents had died; the last remaining adult had fallen unseen. It had become all too obvious that there was nobody left but the children. Nobody at all.

They had come out of hiding slowly at first; creeping back to the city from their military schools in the foothills, or crawling out of the warehouses and empty schools where they had set up home during the dying times. Some of them had done their best to clear away the dead bodies; to get rid of the stench of death that so filled the buildings and the streets. They had set fire to most of the hospitals, all overflowing with the carcasses of the incurable. Other buildings had been burnt to the ground indiscriminately; looted by marauding gangs of children; and covered, if they survived the flames, by a multi-coloured swirl of imaginative graffiti. What once had been considered little more than vandalism was now a record of life in the city, telling the names of the myriad street gangs which had grown up since the collapse of society; pictures telling the story of all that had happened since the first sickenings. Haunting images painted by immature artists, pouring out tales of hardship and sorrow; of grief and confusion and death that had come to touch everybody. The streets formed a backdrop to it all, crammed with junk and rubbish; empty of all vehicles save the few that the more intrepid, enterprising gangs had been able to keep running. It was a city of skateboards and roller-boots now; a world where even bicycles were from another age. The city was filled with silence for the first time since its creation, nobody knew how long ago.

Bray was stiff, still tired after a night spent in an alleyway filled with abandoned shopping trolleys. He was used to the hardship by now; or as used as he was ever likely to become; accustomed to nights spent shivering, exposed to the elements, underfed and thirsty most of the time. He was used to hiding at the slightest of sounds; hardened to a life spent on the run. Everybody seemed to be after him nowadays, and most of the time he didn't have a clue what to do about it, save run. Just a kid, he thought to himself, as he stumbled his way back down the alley to the main road. Don't know how to do anything right, without the adults here to help. The worst of it was that, even though he was just a confused and lonely kid, he was still nonetheless, at several months shy of seventeen, one of the oldest people alive. That was almost more frightening than the reality of a city filled with enemies.

He began his day in the way that he always did of late, with a drink from the water bottle that he carried under his coat, and a few mouthfuls of the food that he had managed to find the day before. Today it was only a slice or two of tinned peach, and a foil-wrapped biscuit from a store he had found several days previously. It had been a health food store originally, which had suited Bray just fine. In the old world he had been a vegetarian; always on the search for newer ways to find a better world. Saving this and that, protecting everything. Now it was himself that he was protecting, as he tried to survive on what provisions he could steal from the more powerful of the gangs in the city. He had eaten nothing in the last day, save for some assorted scraps of food from the back room of a shop he had once known well. He remembered the proprietor; a balding man in his late forties, who had sold Save The Whale T-shirts, and had worried constantly about pollution. Bray didn't remember when he had died, for he had stopped going to the shop once his own parents had passed away; but he did remember the first time that he had seen the place with its doors closed and its lights left off. It had been a shock, even in the midst of so much turmoil. He pushed the thought to the back of his mind now, finishing the biscuit and throwing the foil wrapping into a litter bin placed nearby. It was a pointless gesture, since the bin was already overflowing, but he had never been one to drop litter needlessly into the street. It was hard to adjust to the new world for so many different reasons, but to a man who still wanted to save the world, it was even harder still.

"Bray?" He heard the soft whisper from the mouth of an alley across the street, and he looked up sharply. He knew the voice well, for it belonged to a small boy he had known for much of his life. Eric Daniels went by the name of Dano now, having altered his name the way so many of them had. Bray didn't know why he himself kept the name his parents had given to him, when so much else had changed. Maybe it was for the same reason that he alone had not turned to wearing paint on his face, or dressing in tribal fashion. He dressed in clothes he still thought of as normal; black jeans, a white T-shirt, a knee-length black leather jacket he had taken from an abandoned store early on in his new life. Even the bag that he always carried with him was one that seemed to come from the old days. Made of black denim, it had come from the same store as the coat, taken for its strength and its size during a scavenging trip nearly six months before. He liked the familiarity of it all, taking strength from it in just the same way that the others took strength from their war paint and their feathers; their bright dyes and their gaudy jewellery. For many of them the unfamiliar was just another a way of hiding from the truth.

"Dano?" Bray glanced carefully both ways before hurrying across the street. It wasn't traffic that he was watching for of course; just other people - other kids. The smaller boy was delighted to see him, which worried him slightly. Too many of the outcasts - the tribeless wanderers - were pleased to see him these days. Bray liked being a loner. He didn't want the responsibility of having to look after anybody else. He had dreams he hoped to fulfil, and kids like Dano only got in the way. The trouble was that so far he hadn't been able to turn his back on any of them. "What's wrong?"

"I've got no food, Bray." Dano looked horribly thin; all the more so with the knowledge that he had once been a round and chubby boy with a broad face. "Haven't had any in a couple of days. Have you got anything?"

"Nothing." Bray could feel the weight of a new responsibility weighing him down. "Are you still on your own?"

"What's the alternative? You know what the tribes round here are like. The only ones who are likely to take me in as anything other than a slave are the Savages, and that'd probably be just so they could eat me. I'm scared, Bray. I don't want to be hungry anymore."

"The Savages aren't cannibals, Dano." Sighing heavily, Bray gave the smaller boy's shoulder a squeeze. "Okay, look. Head for the drinking fountain near to the old kindergarten, and I'll meet you there in an hour or two. There's a food store near the docks that I've been using occasionally. I'll see if I can get us something, and I'll meet you later. Alright?"

"Near the docks?" Dano had paled visibly. "But that's right in the middle of Demon Dogs territory. You can't go there."

"They won't catch me." Bray sounded a lot more confident than he felt, for he was well aware that even his famous luck couldn't last forever. There was a limit to how long he could stay out of the clutches of the many tribes that wanted him out of the way; and the Demon Dogs, one of the worst and most violent of all the tribes, were amongst those who hated him most. He had been instrumental in freeing too many slaves, and saving too many prisoners; making too many speeches stirring would-be disciples to flee before joining the silver-painted tribe. Often the waifs and strays hoped that they were joining for protection and food, but Bray showed them that they were condemning themselves to slavery and tyranny. Now the list of his enemies was growing every day.

"Be careful Bray. Please? I don't have anybody else who can help me." Dano looked shockingly young beneath his garish red face paint, and Bray struggled for a moment to recall just how old the boy was. He thought that he remembered seeing the kid with his family once, at a birthday party in some restaurant. He didn't remember which one, but he thought that it had been an eighth birthday. That had probably been about two years ago, in a whole different world that was already fading from his tired memory.

"I'm always careful." He smiled; the old, bright smile that had always attracted the girls at school, even though he himself had never been aware of it. Dano looked relieved.

"I know." He shrugged. "Just... you know. Take care."

"Sure, Dano." Bray let the smile drop away. "I'll see you soon. Keep your head down, and watch out for the Mariners. Word is that they're moving in on the old kindergarten grounds, and they've started trading with the Locos."

"T-trading?" Dano's eyes widened, emphasising the hollows in his face. "Trading what?"

"Slaves for food. It's what the Locos are into now." A trace of taut emotion showed in Bray's voice at this comment, but he allowed himself no further sign of distress. "You'll be okay. Just be careful."

"I'm good at being careful. I have to be." Dano managed a wan smile. "I'll see you later I guess."

"Sure." Bray turned back, glancing out once again into the street. In the distance, and already fading, he could hear the wail of a police siren; evidence of the presence of the Locos. That was their sign now; the screaming siren of the vehicle that their feared leader, Zoot, used as his chariot of war. He rode the streets standing on the back seat of a heavily customised police car, looking out upon his realm through the hole cut into the roof, leaning on the madly flashing blue light as he was driven about by his adoring subjects. Nobody in the city had quite as much power and adulation as Zoot, a boy barely fourteen, with a shock of white-blond hair and a face marked by artistic splashes of wild red and scarlet. Zoot wore contact lenses, opaque to all save him, that turned his eyes into blocks of staring yellow and white, and he dressed in leather and torn denim. He was a born leader; a terrifying enemy; a ruthless tyrant. He was also Bray's younger brother. It was hard not to think of him still as Martin, the shy kid living in the shadow of his brother. The confused and scared child wondering why his parents had grown so sick. His transformation had come at first in stops and starts, but once it had begun there had been no turning back. Bray was on the run from him now, forever fleeing from a vengeance he could not understand.

"That's the Locos." Dano sounded terrified, as well he might. The Locos were reason to be afraid, for they showed no mercy, and expected none in return. They were all that was wrong with the new world, and all that was holding it back from becoming something better. Few, if any, made the connection these days between the gentle, soft-spoken Bray and the mad, sadistic Zoot. Nobody seemed to remember what had once been. Bray didn't know if he was glad about that or not, but either way he wasn't about to remind anybody. It suited him that none save a handful of people knew about his brother. It probably suited Zoot too.

"Don't worry about it. They were heading back to their headquarters by the sound of it. Probably been out along the coast road during the night, picking up Strays." Bray wondered if there was any chance of rescuing the new prisoners from the clutches of his brother, but had to conclude that there probably wasn't. They were wise to him by now, and there wasn't a single member of the Locos, from the lowliest new recruit to the most trusted of Zoot's inner circle, who didn't know Bray on sight. Many of them were not above murder, as he very well knew.

"I was going to head for the coast road last night. I thought it would be a good way to get out of the city." Dano looked panicked and woebegone at the same time, a strange combination that affected his voice and made it quiver. "Maybe head for the hills and try to find somewhere else to live." Bray shrugged.

"That's just what other people are thinking, and the Locos know it. So do the Demon Dogs and the Mariners. I'd head out of the city myself given half a chance, but at the moment it's just not safe. Best wait a while, and let things settle down a bit. Once the tribes have all agreed on their borders, and the best part of the fighting is over, they might leave the rest of us alone."

"I doubt it." Dano had lost his sister to a Demon Dogs raiding party more than two months previously, and Bray knew that the incident still haunted the small boy. He had no way of knowing if she was still alive, or even if it might not be best were she already dead. It had all conspired to make the boy even more paranoid than he might have been otherwise, and it had dimmed his faith in human nature to a desperate low. Bray was the only person that he trusted now, and Bray himself was less than pleased with that. He already had more responsibility than he had ever wanted. He tried to smile at the boy, to make him feel a little better, but the smile dried on his lips.

"Just keep out of sight." He clapped the smaller kid on the shoulder again, then turned away. "I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Sure." Already Dano was melting back into the shadows, sliding himself in amongst the overflowing trashcans and piled up crates and boxes. Bray watched him go, then lifted his skateboard from the strap around his neck, and tossed it to the ground. It rattled on its tough little wheels, the axles bouncing merrily. He stepped on, pushing off with one foot, heading out into the danger-filled streets. Occasional faces peered out of broken windows to watch him as he passed by, but he ignored them all. He had learnt quickly to tell the true threats from the harmless; and shadowy faces in windows no longer sent him scurrying for cover. Anybody who was really after him wouldn't bother hiding. They would come straight out into the open, just as they always did.

He heard the wail of the Locos' police siren three more times as he sped through the empty streets. Once it came from close by; a couple of streets away at the most. He skidded into an alleyway and hid, listening for the sound of the approaching engine. It never came. Clearly the car had passed on by at a distance, and the siren had faded away with it. He thought of his brother, standing in the back with his helmet and goggles disguising his face, hiding the last vestiges of his extreme youth. There was no youth anymore though. Everybody in the world was a child, but they were children who had no time to be childish. Those who clung to their immaturity were the first to fall, or to die.

Coming back out of his hiding place, Bray started off again, moving at a greater speed as his confidence increased. He was in Demon Dogs territory now, and even though they were as much his enemies as were the Locos, the Demon Dogs lacked the cunning of their rivals. Where the Locos planned each move, and struck with efficiency and speed, the Demon Dogs reacted without any measure of sophistication at all. Theirs was a brute strength which, whilst still terrifying, was more easily avoided than that of the Locos. They were all faceless too, in a way, which somehow seemed to lessen the impact of their violence. Not only did they obliterate their facial features beneath thick layers of silver paint, but they also did not number a single person amongst their ranks that Bray had known properly from the before times. There were three people amongst the Locos that he had been close to once, his own brother included. The Demon Dogs were all but anonymous behind their new identities. For some reason that made them less menacing, at least in principle. They were still a threat, though, as he knew only too well. If they caught him raiding their stores, he knew better than to expect any kind of leniency. If any one of the Dogs managed to lay their hands on him, he doubted that he would ever be able to escape again.

Trudy was sick. She knew that it wasn't the Virus, for she had become very familiar with the way that that particular disease had worked. She knew how it began, how it spread; knew its symptoms and its effects as well as she knew its inevitable result. This was different. She was finding it hard to keep food down, and every morning she seemed to feel worse than during the last. The mere notion of food made her nauseous, and she was sure that she was running a slight fever. She tried to ignore it, for she was determined not to let Zoot know that she was ill. There was no telling what his reaction would be, or how the rest of the tribe would respond. Sickness was still feared, with the Virus being so close a memory. She had heard of people being driven out, even stoned, just because it was suspected that they might have picked up an infection. The eldest of the city's young dwellers, those in their late teens, might be the most obvious targets, but she knew that somebody as young as herself was not immune to such prejudice. Just because it was only adults who had got the Virus didn't mean that it would always be that way.

"Are you ever going to eat?" Zoot was sitting at the table in their quarters, his chin glistening with apple juice, his plate smeared with tomato sauce from a tin of spaghetti and sausages. The thought of the food made her hungry, and she nearly rose to her feet - then another wave of nausea hit her, and she sunk back down onto the couch.

"I'm not hungry." She offered him a smile, but he didn't seem to be interested. Instead he had returned his attention to the book open on the table before him. She didn't know what he was reading, but she doubted that it was anything of consequence. Zoot had abandoned the ways of the old world entirely, and that included such things as literature. She remembered, in the old days before the Virus, that he had had a fondness for Tolkien; but now the only things that he ever read were the comic strips and children's magazines that the scavengers sometimes found. He seemed to find it amusing to read the things that his teachers had frowned upon the most. Perhaps it was all a part of the rebellion that he had begun in the earliest days of the Virus's insidious hold. All pointless now of course, when there was nobody left to rebel against.

"You've got to eat something." His voice surprised her, for she had assumed that he had shut her out. "You need to keep your strength up. Even the Locusts can't be sure of keeping a good supply of food."

"There's always some somewhere." His words struck home nonetheless, and she wandered over to sit down at the table. Spaghetti in tomato sauce did not appeal to her, but she felt sure that she could successfully negotiate her way around an apple. She took a slow first bite, and glanced back towards Zoot. He was watching her curiously through his bizarre eyes.

"Something's wrong," he told her, with absolute confidence. She scowled. Zoot was so crazy these days that it was easy to forget who he really was. Martin had always been a sensitive boy, very aware of other people and how they were feeling. She had wished once that, instead of being two different people, Martin and Bray had been the same person, incorporating the best of both of their characters. Bray so rarely seemed to notice how people were feeling, or what they thought; but Martin, who did notice such things, had little interest in helping solve the problems he so easily detected. Bray wanted to help, but wanted there to be no strings attached. Martin, on the other hand, seemed to feel that the more strings the better.

"Nothing's wrong." She winced under the full force of his glare, emphasised so much by those curious contact lenses. Not for the first time she wondered where he had found them. "Well, maybe something..."

"If you're worried about my brother again, don't be." This time there was ice in his glare. Zoot knew, of course, that it was Bray that she had always been interested in at school - but then everybody had been interested in Bray at school; even though Bray himself, typically oblivious, had not been aware of even the most obviously lascivious smile. Despite her own brief relationship with him, only Ebony seemed to have turned his head for any real length of time; and even that had petered out when his parents had become sick.

"I..." She stopped. There was no point in pretending that she didn't care, for Zoot always saw straight through her lies. Zoot always saw straight through everybody. Maybe it was something in those crazy contact lenses. "If you catch him..."

"When we catch him," Zoot interjected. She nodded, chastened. It was inevitable, after all. Even Bray couldn't keep avoiding the Locos forever - and if they didn't get him then somebody else would. He had spent the last six months getting on the wrong side of practically everyone.

"When you - we - catch him... well..."

"What will I do?" He stared at her for several moments, and she wondered if he had, in fact, given any consideration to this at all. Eventually he smiled, and she knew that of course he had. He had probably thought of little else during his moments alone in his office. "I'll offer him a choice, probably. He's my brother, and that means that he's entitled to some consideration - but I can't let every damn Loco know that he's my brother. What kind of respect will I have as the leader if the others know I'm related to one of our worst enemies?"

"I understand that." She sighed when his lips twitched, recognising the signs of an approaching outburst. "I just... I don't understand why you have to keep fighting him. I mean he is--"

"That's the way it is now, okay? It isn't about playing a nice game and then going home to our parents. We have to fight each other if we're going to stay alive, and the Locos have the best chance of surviving in this world. We have strength, and we have power. What do you suppose it's going to be like in the middle of winter? Or in three or four years from now, when the food stores are all used up? There isn't anybody running the big farms anymore, and there isn't anybody running the factories where they used to churn out the tinned stuff, and the packet stuff, and all of the other things your mother used to feed you on. We need to stay on top if we're going to make it, and Bray is a threat to that. He thinks he's some big hero, setting all our slaves free, and making all those big speeches about working together, and making the world a better place. But that's not the way it's going to go. There's no point trying to make life like it used to be, and rebuilding some stupid civilisation that's already been destroyed. Bray is a part of the past. We're the future. The Locos. Bray wants peace and fellowship, and good will to all men, but all he's going to get that way is dead. Power and chaos; that's the real way forward. Power and chaos."

"I know." The length of his speech had taken her by surprise, even though she was used to such explosions from him now. Zoot had become such a visionary in recent months, empowered and possessed by his dream of a new world built upon new foundations. Sometimes she wondered how he could ever have been so different once - but then everything had been so different once. She hesitated, not wanting to make him angry, especially when she was still feeling so fragile herself. "So you're going to kill him then?"

"He's my brother, Trudy. I can't kill him." He scowled at his plate. "Although sometimes I think that mightn't be such a bad idea. I just can't leave him out there, being such a pain in the backside the whole time. He's going to get himself killed sooner or later, and if I can't use my position to save him... maybe there's no point in being the most powerful guy in the city."

"Then you do care!" She was delighted, but Zoot just looked sour.

"I care alright. I care about winning. I care about ruling the whole city one day. I care about taking over everything. Power and chaos. I'll show Bray that I'm right this time. His way is from yesterday. That's all gone now."

"I guess." She finished her apple, and stared at the rest of the food on the table. How much of it came to be there through slave labour was something that she didn't want to think about, any more than she wanted to know just how many of those slaves were old friends of hers. The people she had known before the sickness had come had to be out there somewhere. Not all of them had fled the city with their parents when the Virus had begun to show its true colours - and even if they had - even if every one of her old friends was living far away, in their own adult-less world - could she still condone the fact that so many others had been enslaved? Increasingly she was finding that no, she couldn't. It worried her, for it put her immediate future very much at risk. She had always felt a surge of pride when she had heard of some new exploit of Bray's, as he thwarted another raiding party, or successfully persuaded another group of kids to stop their fighting, and band together to be stronger against the Locos and the Demon Dogs, and the Jackals, and all of the other tougher tribes. She liked seeing him, on the rare occasions when she was close enough to catch a glimpse, as he sped through the streets on his skateboard, with his long coat flapping about his knees, and the lengthening plait in the midst of his short hair blowing wildly in the wind. He didn't wear paint like the others. There were no tribal markings on his face, which was a wonderful change, to her way of thinking, from the wild, clashing splashes of colour that decorated everybody else. It was a symbol of an independence that she envied - an echo of the old world, before tribes and tribal paints had come to mean so much to them all. Zoot had a point, perhaps, about Bray being old fashioned - but Trudy liked that about him. It was reassuring. So what was she doing here, with his mad, bad brother, living a lifestyle that Bray was risking everything to oppose?

"Have you finished eating?" Zoot had pushed aside his plate, and was staring at the fruit bowl as though sad that he couldn't manage anything else. She nodded mechanically, ready to try to sink into the ground when he sent for the slaves to clear away the remains of their meal. She hated watching them at work, especially when they were doing something that she could so easily do herself - but she was the wife of the leader of the tribe, and it wasn't her job to clear away dishes.

"Fine. Then I'll--" He broke off at a loud rap on the door, glancing towards it as though insulted by the intrusion. They both recognised the knock. It belonged to Ebony, Zoot's second-in-command. Ebony had been in Trudy and Zoot's class at school in the old days, and Trudy was sure that she was a threat. If ever Zoot grew tired of his wife, it was undoubtedly Ebony that he would turn to. They all knew it, and Ebony flaunted it with glee. She enjoyed an unequalled informality in the presence of the leader, and flirted with him at every opportunity.

"What does she want," Trudy muttered sulkily. Zoot looked amused.

"Let's find out." He rose to his feet, but made no move to open the door. Ebony didn't need a summons - it wasn't her style to wait to be asked before she entered. Sure enough, after a second the handle turned and the door swung open. Ebony's slyly smiling face stared at the couple from outside, her eyes bright within the broad streak of black and red that crossed her face. The tight ringlets of her hair emphasised the shape of her face, and somehow helped to make her all the more calculating in appearance. Trudy would have been afraid of her, had she not been relatively safe as the wife of Zoot. Maybe she was afraid of her anyway.

"What's wrong, Ebony?" Zoot threw her an apple, and she caught it as though it were a kiss, somehow managing to make the operation seem flirtatious.

"Nothing's wrong. We've brought in a few more slaves, and I thought you'd like to look them over. There's just a few, but they look pretty strong."

"Where did you get them?" He had lost all interest in his conversation with Trudy, and was focussed now on Ebony alone. His lieutenant smiled.

"From the outskirts of town. We fought off a bunch of Jackals, and this lot got caught in the crossfire. It seemed like charity to bring them in from the cold."

"No problems?"

"No problems." She frowned. "I had a word with the head guy of the Jackals before we split. He's heard from the Mariners that a lot of people are coming back into the city now. Mostly the kids that moved away with their parents during the time of the Virus, but also some of the ones who always lived out in the countryside. Could be trouble."

"Could mean better opportunities." He nodded. "Anything else?"

"A few more things that will need dealing with eventually. That guy Len, or Lex, or whatever his name is; he's still trying to make out that he's the next big thing. Word is he wants to join us, but I don't know that he's got much to offer. There's some new girl around who keeps trying to organise people too. Sounds like another Bray in the making if you ask me. I don't know her name. She's nothing at the moment though. I doubt she'll ever be a problem for us."

"Nobody's a problem for us." Zoot folded his arms. "And speaking of my brother... Is there any news?"

"No." Ebony's eyes met Trudy's, as the pair shared, for an instant, the only thing that they ever could share - an inadvisable concern for the welfare of someone that they had both once loved. Trudy wondered, for the briefest of moments, whether Ebony really would tell Zoot if she had heard something about Bray's whereabouts. Hardship gave them all hidden agendas. No sooner had she thought it, though, when Ebony's face acquired one of its more scheming expressions, as she took her first bite of the apple. "I paid off those twins though - the mechanics? Offered them some extra supplies if they'll keep an eye open for him. They'll do it. They're both scared of running out of food."

"Good." Zoot sat back down, and gestured for Trudy to fill his glass from a jug of flat orangeade. She did so, trying not to look as though her earlier nausea had been renewed. Zoot did not notice, but she was sure that Ebony had. Somewhere inside that impressive brain of hers, the information was being logged and collated for future use. Oblivious to her discomfort, Zoot settled back with his glass in hand, ready for his latest conference with his lieutenant. Trudy left them to it. There were some medical books that she wanted to consult, for she was determined to discover just why it was that she was feeling so sick. Sooner or later she was going to have to know, and if it was something serious then she wanted to know all about it before her husband killed her only likely ally; for if what she was suffering from was what she thought it was, it was very likely only Bray that could help her now.

Dano probably wouldn't much care what he had to eat, reasoned Bray. The poor kid had looked so thin and pale that it was likely he had had little enough of anything during the past weeks. It was curiously satisfying to know that he was raiding the Demon Dogs' food store for somebody other than himself, and he rather enjoyed trying to imagine the look on the smaller boy's face when he saw the things that Bray had brought for him. He wondered if he could find any tinned vegetables, or cereal. Dano had once lived on a diet consisting almost exclusively of junk food, and that had not prepared him well for the days of lean pickings. His body was weak and under-nourished, and he desperately needed vitamins. Bray made up a shopping list as he skated through the streets, thinking of the packets of dried soup that he had seen in the warehouse the last time that he had slipped inside. Perhaps he could even find some chocolate, or perhaps a few more biscuits. Powdered milk, or even some of the little sachets of hot chocolate that his mother had so loved... He remembered her, allowing himself a few brief moments of recollection before he cruelly cut the memory short. It was nice to think of her sitting in the lounge, putting her feet up in front of the fire after a day at work, holding a cup of hot chocolate in both hands to get the most of the warmth, as she watched her sons doing their homework, or playing some game, or, in later years, merely arguing. Once, during a particularly unpleasant argument, Bray had noticed the disappointment in her eyes, even though she had never uttered a word. He had avoided arguing with Martin after that, although Martin had always been happy to goad him nonetheless. What would be the expression in her eyes now, as she saw her sons at opposite ends of a virtual war?

"You think too much, Bray." Skidding to a halt, he hopped off the skateboard and kicked it up in the air, catching it under one arm. The warehouse was up ahead, and he could see a pair of sentries standing nearby. Both wore silver jackets, and wore their faces painted in an identical shade. The only distinguishing feature was on the face of the taller boy, who wore a vertical stripe of scarlet across one eye, and down the side of his face. It clashed with the bright silver of the rest of his countenance; but then the Demon Dogs had never painted themselves with aesthetics in mind.

"Only two?" It seemed too good to be true, so it probably was. The Demon Dogs used their food stores as bait to capture the unwary, for they were as eager for slaves as the Locos. There was little to distinguish the two gangs at all, save that the Locos were better led, and better disciplined.

Moving away from the front of the warehouse, Bray headed for the window that was his usual point of entry. As always it was closed, the pane so covered with mud and dust that it was all but indistinguishable from the wall surrounding it. Only a tiny hole in the wooden frame provided any means of seeing into the building beyond, and only somebody who knew that it was there could be sure of using it. Glancing about for the sentries that he knew would pass this way soon, Bray pressed his right eye to the hole and peered into the Aladdin's cave beyond. He could see one sentry, which was the norm inside the building. The Demon Dogs were conceited enough to assume that nobody could get past their guards into the store itself, and so they did not bother guarding the inside of the building with any dedication. More than once that simple fact had saved Bray from a hungry night, and he was glad of it again now. Lifting the window with as much care as though he were handling some ancient and fragile relic, he slid through the gap into the room. Gently he pulled the window shut, standing flat against the wall beneath it as the footsteps of a second pair of sentries went past in tandem outside. The steps did not hesitate; no voices came in angry inquiry; the window above him remained closed. The footsteps went on by, and Bray began to breathe again. Mindful of the guard within the warehouse, however, he began to scout around amongst the stores.

The building was a big one, about the size of the gym at his old school, and built of concrete breeze-blocks and small red bricks. A roof of steel girders and metal tiles towered above him, and the floor beneath his feet was gunmetal-grey linoleum over more concrete blocks. The whole was treacherously prone to echoing, but Bray was well used by now to moving quietly, never having been much of one for unnecessary noise, and it was easy for him to make his way unheard amongst the ranks of metal shelves that held the stores. He opened his bag as he walked, making room amidst the items inside for the food he planned to steal - if, indeed, it could really be called stealing. In his head he ran through his shopping list, trying to remember where in the vast room he had seen the items he required. Milk powder was near the back, that much he was sure of. He went to get it, wishing that he could use his skateboard to traverse the interminable aisles. He found the milk and stowed it away, then set off in search of soup. He found two sizeable packets of vegetable flavour, boasting copious amounts of dried mushrooms and sweet-corn, and everything else that his father had cultivated in their garden, back in the old days. For once the recollection was not a sad one, and he almost managed a smile. His father had been so proud of his sweet-corn, but the mice always seemed to get to most of it before they could.

He found some tins of spaghetti shapes, as well as a tin of condensed milk, and stowed them all away in his increasingly heavy bag. A packet of Cream Crackers went in as well, followed by a tin of peaches, claiming to have been packed on the day of harvest for added freshness. There was no telling now how long ago that day of harvest had been, and there was certainly no way of knowing when that same cultivated peach grove would next send a shipment to the canning factory. Possibly never. It all depended on what kind of a civilisation the world's children chose to build upon the ruins of the old... He smiled to himself. Yet another rumination to cut short. There were some things that there was no point in thinking about.

He had almost given up on finding any chocolate when, just as he was rounding a corner, he came upon a box of the stuff, set high up on a rickety looking shelf in the middle of the room. He reached up, feeling the familiar texture of plasticky paper - or was it papery plastic? - that wrapped the confectionery up. He caught hold of what felt like two bars, stretching up to the full extent of his not inconsiderable height in the effort of reaching his goal. The bars came free, sliding past the corners of their cardboard enclosure as though anxious not to leave their friends behind. He glanced at them once they were his, recognising yet another old brand name that brought to mind old values and old money. Meaningless now of course, save for the memory. He stuffed the bars into his bag, buckled it shut, and headed back to the window. The footsteps of the guard within the building were beginning to make his pulse race, and he wanted to be away from the place as quickly as possible.

The view outside the building, via the tiny hole in the window frame, was limited, for the spy-hole did not work nearly so well from the inside as it did from the other side of the wall. Bray relied on hearing to tell when the sentries were passing, and having heard them depart he slid the window open and hauled himself up. The bag knocked against the wall, but the sentry in the warehouse did not seem to hear. Neither did the guards patrolling outside. Breathing a sigh of relief, Bray rolled clear of the window, eased it shut, and headed back down the alleyway to the road.

He was nearly there when he heard the voices - harsh whispers, as of people arguing whilst trying not to be heard. He froze, then pressed himself against the wall and tried to pinpoint the location of the sound. It seemed to be coming from behind a pile of leaking rubbish bins against one wall, and as he watched, to his horror, he saw a plume of smoke rising up into the air. A voice, angry and insistent, rose up with the smoke.

"It's my turn with the cigarette."

"It was my match that lit it."

"But I found it."

"It was damp. There's no use in a damp cigarette. I dried it out."

"On a fire I'd made." There were the sounds of a scuffle. "Just give me the cigarette!"

"Shut up. You want somebody to hear us? We're supposed to be on guard duty, not arguing over cigarettes." There was a pause. "Did you hear something?" Out in the alleyway, Bray, who had just knocked against a few stray pieces of litter with one foot, froze for the second time in as many minutes. There was a long silence.

"You're just trying to distract me," the other voice claimed. A thump came in answer.

"Is that going to be your excuse when it turns out somebody raided the store when we weren't looking? Go and check."

"You go and check."

The argument showed no signs of fading, and Bray hovered in indecision. If he made a break for it now, when the guards were listening in suspicion, they would be sure to hear him. On the other hand, he had no idea how long they would remain in their hiding place. At any moment one of them might stand up, or simply look back, and then he would be lost. He wondered about the other sentries, of which there must have been several. Surely it could not be long before one or more of them came around, if not to continue their patrol then certainly to find out what had become of their comrades? He hesitated no longer. If he could move fast enough, it would not necessarily matter if he was seen. He knew from experience that he could outrun most of the Demon Dogs, who were only any real threat when on the roller-skates that had become their trademark. Sentries, as a rule, did not wear roller-skates, since such footwear diminished their combat abilities. Making his decision, Bray threw caution to the winds, and ran for the end of the alleyway.

He had gone no more than ten feet when he heard a yell from behind him. He didn't turn; sound alone told him that the guards had heard him, and had left their hiding hole in order to give chase. He doubled his speed, reaching the end of the alley just as the guards behind him sounded the alarm - a wailing, ululating cry likely to curdle the blood of the unwitting listener. A second cry came in answer, and as Bray rounded the corner at the end of the alley, he came face to face with two further members of the tribe. In their silver jackets and skin tight black trousers they were reminiscent of punks from the old world, although their face paint was rather more akin to the Glam rockers that punks had so detested. One of the pair wore a broad purple streak that zigzagged across the left side of his face, lined with the identifying silver, whilst his companion, a shorter, stockier boy, who looked as though he might once have been a school sports star, simply wore horizontal stripes of the same silver hue. It made him look like a football supporter heading for a day on the terraces. Even his hair was streaked with sparkling silver, giving him an odd, badger-like appearance; albeit a psychotic badger, with narrowed and malevolent eyes.

"Er... hey guys." Bray glanced from one to the other, then back at the two running up from behind. "Are you interested in buying a skateboard?"

"Huh?" The boy before him, with the purple lightning streak dashed across his face, was evidently confused. The boy beside him, with the horizontally striped face, was not nearly so easy to distract.

"Get him, Saul!" With a shove at his companion to urge him on his way, the stockier boy reached inside his jacket for his weapon, coming up with a lengthy knife that looked as though it had once come from a set of matching household utensils. The blade was wicked and businesslike enough, but the handle was a gaudy shade of turquoise, and clearly made of cheap plastic. Bray, awkwardly dodging the taller of the pair as he lunged towards him, nearly fell into the arms of the duo coming up from behind. Swinging his bag around in a wild arc, he caught the nearest of the four across the head, leapt out of the way of a second, and used his skateboard like a battering ram to push his way past the remaining two. A hand caught in his jacket, but with a mighty tug he pulled himself free. His feet hammered at the ground just as his heart was hammering in his chest, his legs moving so fast that he felt almost unable to keep up with them. With the voices of his pursuers echoing in his ears, he hurtled back towards the street and out into the relatively open territory. Already he could hear the shrieks of alarm as the sentries warned their fellows. Wheels whirred against tarmac, and he knew that there were more Demon Dogs on the way. Throwing down his skateboard, he leapt onto it, and sped away down the wide, deserted street.

They caught up with him at a crossroads, where a set of traffic lights still hung ready to do their duty. They no longer worked of course, for even had they not been extensively vandalised, there was no longer any electricity to power them. That had been one of the first things to go, along with the telephones and the mains gas supply. Most of the wiring had been ripped from the set of lights, taken, no doubt, by those kids who knew something about electronics. It was all irrelevant now of course, although Bray could not help thinking such thoughts when he saw the lights ahead. The thoughts soon evaporated when he saw a stream of sparkling silver race out of an opposing road. Five Demon Dogs, all shaven-headed, all painted silver from the top of their bald heads to the tips of their firmly set jaws. They ranged themselves before him, cutting off all escape, arms folded across their silver-clad chests. Bray skidded to a halt, almost falling from his skateboard. Behind him he heard more wheels, and knew that his pursuers had caught up.

"Bray." One of the bunch arranged before him, a girl of about sixteen, moved forwards away from the rest. "I was hoping that I'd see you again."

"Tilly." He watched her warily, certain that there was more to her than he had witnessed in the past. Usually she skated through the streets with two or three confederates, bullying smaller children, and collecting objects of possible value. Now she exuded nothing but menace, like an underling allowed to stand in for a superior for a time, anxious to prove her worth in a limited period.

"What were you doing at the warehouse?"

"Trying to find a way in." He knew that their high opinions of their own security would lend his story credence, and he tried to look disappointed. "I couldn't find one. Word is that you keep food in there."

"Maybe we do." She was pulling on silver gloves, as were the rest of her little crew. "It's a pity that you had to come here today, Bray. I always assumed that when we got you it would be somewhere a little more glamorous than a street that was dead even before the apocalypse. The coast road maybe, or that place near the old video rental store, where you made that stirring speech about inter-tribal co-operation last month."

"Who says you've got me now?" He was looking for an opening, and trying to make it appear that he was not. Tilly laughed.

"Oh, we've got you. It was inevitable that we would in the end. It was always just a matter of time."

"Maybe." He had spotted something - what looked like a weak point in their line of defence. It was possible, he was sure, that if he could only move fast enough he could break through their lines, and make a dash for freedom. He wondered if it would be quicker on foot or on wheels, and decided, in the end, that he would have to make his move under his own steam. Stepping off the board, he kicked it up into his arms, and clipped it onto the strap that he wore over his shoulder. It felt clumsy alongside the heavy bag, but he knew that it was not.

"I hope you're going to come quietly, Bray." Tilly sounded as though she hoped anything but, and he could only imagine what she and her cohorts were hoping to do with him. It was a mental image that he could well have done without, peppered in his mind with images that he had seen before, of other enemies of the Demon Dogs; Locos included.

"I always do everything quietly." He nearly smiled, despite the constant motion of his eyes and wits. He felt like a cornered animal, and was sure that he looked like it too. Behind him, wheels whizzed closer. He grew more tense, seeking his moment.

"Perhaps you'd like to come back for a word with the boss?" Tilly was close to him now; almost within arm's reach; and he knew that it was now or never. He smiled at her, swallowing his terrible nervousness; concentrating his mind on the possible gap in the tribe's defences.

"Sure." He shrugged. "But it'll have to be some other time." And putting all of the strength that he had into his legs, he made his last ditch bid for freedom.

He ran as he had never run before, aiming for the slight gap that he had spotted in the enemy line. They saw him coming of course, and moved to bridge the gap - but he was too quick. The breach closed the second after he had pushed his way through, and even though hands snatched at him, he made it past unscathed. The Dogs tore after him, undeterred by the temporary evasion, and he ran for the nearest alley. It was long and thin, the floor awash with rubbish. It was hard to dodge it all on foot, but he knew that it would be so much harder for his pursuers on their roller-skates. Throwing the last of his hastily gathered strength into the race, he hurtled down the alley. His elbow grazed one wall as he ran, but he didn't notice it. He noticed nothing at all until he came to the wire mesh fence at the end of the alleyway; and even then few enough thoughts troubled his brain. He hurled himself at the mesh, pulling himself up and over, crashing down on the other side amidst a pile of cardboard boxes. They crunched loudly, spilling their cargo of empty bottles into the road, nearly causing him to tumble. Shards of broken glass caught at his leg, but he did not think that the damage, if any, was great. Behind him he heard howls of rage from the Dogs, but he was sure that by now he had gained the precious seconds he needed. Moderating his pace, he headed off into the depths of the city. There was no further sign of pursuit, and he knew that for now, at least, he was safe - or at least as safe as any of them could be these days. Dropping his skateboard back down onto the tarmac, he climbed aboard and kicked off. He had to get back to Dano. He had a hard-earned feast for them both.

There was no sign of Dano at the kindergarten. Bray looked all over, but all that he could find were the signs of a struggle. He wandered along beside the water fountain, trying for some time to convince himself that the younger boy would arrive soon, or would pop up out of some unexpected hiding place. He didn't of course, and in the end Bray sat down alone. The food he had stolen for his friend did not taste nearly so good when he was forced to eat it on his own, but he ate some nevertheless. It was necessary, and he knew that Dano was no longer likely to be coming in search of his share. He drank a few mouthfuls of water, imagining that it was freshly squeezed orange juice, just like he had drunk every morning before school. It didn't taste the same, even in his imaginings, and he gave up trying to dream that it was anything other than stale and lukewarm water. Somehow it might have tasted better, when sprinkled with a little warm fellowship in the company of Dano - and indeed it was whilst he was thinking such sour thoughts that he saw the only sign of the smaller boy's recent presence. Near to the fountain, caught in the pipes just behind it, was a bag - an old, leather school satchel that Dano always carried with him. Slowly, mechanically, Bray rose to his feet and headed over to the bag. He pulled it free as carefully as possible, and flipped it open. Inside, the emptiness of its cramped interior seemed vast; a testament to the pathetic hopelessness of Dano's existence. There was nothing there save a photograph of the boy's family, taken in long ago happier times, and a dog-eared copy of Treasure Island. Bray put them both back into the bag, and returned it to its place behind the pipes. However much he might have liked to pretend otherwise, it was clear that Dano wouldn't be needing it again.

It was late when Ebony returned with the patrol. They had been successful, rounding up some dozen Strays who would make useful slaves after the breaking-in period. They had discovered something too; but that was a piece of information that she was not yet sure what to do with. Zoot was too unpredictable these days, and Ebony cared too much about what might happen to her leader's wayward elder brother should the Locos get their hands on him. If she told Zoot what she had seen today, she didn't know what he might do - and that scared her. She wasn't sure why.

"Ebony." Zoot was standing on the steps of his office, an abandoned railroad car in an increasingly overgrown yard. The tracks that once had carried the cars back and forth, linking them with the nearby station and its many engines, were now becoming hard to see beneath the layers of grass and weeds. None of that mattered to the Locos. They didn't want to take their trains anywhere - they only wanted to live in them. They were stout and weatherproof, easily defended, and secure inside a compound of steel mesh and barbed wire. Nobody tried to get inside the rail yard - or at least, none tried and then got away again. None save Bray.

"Zoot! Hi." Bouncing jauntily up the steps, she slipped past him into the cool interior of his office. It was largely empty, containing merely a few seats torn from other carriages, and a number of rugs, pictures and wall hangings. Zoot didn't go in much for interior decoration, and actively avoided anything that might remind him of his old life. A few black candles - Trudy's additions to the decor - stood on a plank of wood that served as a kind of sideboard, and a set of wind chimes dangled in one of the windows. Ebony didn't think that they would stay there for long. Zoot had already banged his head on them three times, and his patience was far from limitless.

"Any news?" Zoot tolerated her informal behaviour only because of the chemistry that still lingered between them. He had chosen Trudy as his wife instead of her, but Ebony was well aware that he regretted the decision at times. He loved Trudy, but she was far from suitable as the wife of a great leader. She had no stomach for the violent side of their life, and was well known for her unwillingness to use slave labour. It wouldn't be long now before Zoot put her out to pasture, Ebony was sure. Then she could step in herself, and at least satisfy herself with the brother, if she could not have Bray himself.

"News?" She spoke casually, wandering across to the nearest chair and throwing herself into it. Her body language and off-hand manner were designed to pointedly ignore Trudy, at present seated on some cushions on the floor. Zoot glared. The First Lady of the Locusts was reading a book of poetry, however, and clearly was not paying them any attention. They could have been speaking directly to her, and she would not have heard them.

"What did you see in the city, Ebony." He folded his arms, staring at her through his weird eyes.

"Oh. That." She frowned, still wondering what she should say to him, before deciding in the end to give him the benefit of the doubt. "Actually, yeah. I did see something... or rather someone." She paused for dramatic effect, rather enjoying herself. "Bray. He's using one of the Demon Dogs' food stores, sneaking in and out quite a lot by the look of things. It's only a matter of time before they catch him."

"Really." Zoot seemed to be thinking that over, as though wondering whether or not he was prepared to let such an event happen. His eyes strayed to Trudy, almost as if he did not trust her - but all too obviously, she remained oblivious. He felt insulted by her lack of attention, and scowled fiercely.

"Get the troops together." He spoke in a matter of fact tone, as he always did when ordering a military manoeuvre. "By the end of the day, that food store has to be in our possession. Do it quickly, and do whatever it takes to make it happen. Deal with any looters, but don't reveal our hand. Nobody save us and the Demon Dogs can know that the store belongs to us - and when Bray next turns up looking for food..." He smiled, his weirdly-lensed eyes remaining resolutely cold. "He's ours."

When Bray awoke he felt chilled. Rain was on the way, and the sky above was an impenetrable mask of grey. He scowled, rubbing the street dust from his hair and stretching his tired, stiff muscles. It was surprising how quickly an awareness of the weather had come to him - how fast he had developed the ability to know instinctively what the day was going to be like. He wondered if he had had the ability in him all these years, buried beneath the soft exterior of a life in the cradle of civilisation. Now he was going back to the wild instincts that dwelt deep within. He smiled at himself at such thoughts, imagining what his father would have said, had they ever been given the opportunity to discuss such a subject. He would probably have told Bray to go away and reread The Lord Of The Flies.

"But this isn't The Lord Of The Flies, dad." He spoke the words to the empty skies, and experienced a moment's unexpected reflection. The skies were supposed to be the floors and the walkways of heaven after all - was his father up there watching him? He shrugged away the thought. He didn't want his parents to see him now, or to know what it was that he faced every day. He certainly didn't want them to know what had happened to Martin. If there was one thing to be glad of, in the fact that their parents had been amongst the first to die, it was that they had never been aware of the scale of the disaster befalling mankind. They had never found out that every adult on the planet was dying. They could certainly never have imagined the crazy world that was to rise up in place of the old civilisations. A giant scale version of a school playground, with gangs and fights and squabbling - all played out for real, in a city that had become a vast wasteland.

The first drops of rain fell as Bray made his way back towards the broad road running through the centre of town. He headed for the shelter of a torn plastic canopy, gaudily coloured, that once had marked the entrance to a pet shop. Rain soon dripped down on him through the tears in the canopy, and he stripped off the black leather coat he had worn to keep him warm during the night. Wrapping it up into as small a bundle as he could, he stuffed it into the bag he wore across his shoulders. The bag contained his only change of clothing, as well as his food stores. A second pair of black jeans, identical to those that he currently wore; a plain T-shirt, black this time, in contrast to the white one that he wore most often; and another coat, which he pulled out now to swap for the one he had just removed. It was knee-length, just like the leather coat, but this time of wool, and striped lengthways in grey and white. It was warmer than the leather, and reasonably waterproof. It also had benefits in its camouflaging shades, which helped him to stay unseen as he moved through the streets. That would make a good selling point now, he mused, as he pulled it on. It had hardly been one of the priorities of the manufacturers, though; nor one of the key thoughts of the proprietors of the clothing store, from where Bray had stolen the coat some weeks earlier. No, not stolen, he corrected himself. It couldn't be stealing. Not anymore.

There were more people on the streets today; little groups of them huddled together, trying to catch the rainwater in anything that might hold it. Small gangs of tattered, muddied children, many no more than eight or nine years-old, all gathered around smouldering fires beneath the shelter of the shop fronts, taking it in turns to stand out in the cold drizzle collecting potential drinking water. Many of them raised their heads to watch the lone skateboarder as he passed them by. Bray ignored them. It wasn't that he didn't want to help them - it was simply that he couldn't. There was nothing that he could do for any of them, and simply to try would be to do them a disservice. If they were to survive, they would have to do it alone. Allowing them to become dependent on him would do nobody any good.

He exchanged greetings with a pair of girls at a crossing. They were twins of about fourteen, who made a fair living these days by turning pieces of junk into useful items. The blonde one of the pair was something of an engineer, who had turned her pre-apocalypse schoolroom talents into a lifesaving occupation. She helped to keep the few remaining cars in a serviceable condition, and had turned more than one skateboard and scooter into a motorised vehicle. Her redheaded sister specialised in cannibalised electronics, and built torches and heaters out of rubbish left lying in the looted and ruined shops.

"Anything we can do for you Bray?" The blonde, Lisa, was working on something even as she spoke, and Bray stopped to examine it. He thought that he recognised a motorised fishing reel in her hands, although he had no idea what she was trying to do with it. She was working with a set of tools that looked as though they belonged in a box of meccano, and her fingers were streaked with thick black grease.

"Not today, Lisa." He glanced across at her sister, Jenny, striking in a jacket resplendent with circuit boards and gleaming pieces of wire. Whilst many of the other kids had taken to wearing war paint and feathers, Jenny wore the tools of her trade woven into her clothing. The effect was impressive in its originality; decorative, and strangely pleasing to the eye. She smiled at him.

"Not even a torch? I've seen you creeping around the city at night, Bray. Word is that you'll have to live by night permanently soon, if you want to avoid the Demon Dogs. Maybe I could design you an alarm, to warn you when they're coming?"

"Thanks, but I'll take my chances." He frowned. "Have you been hearing things?"

"We deal with the Dogs occasionally." Lisa sounded distasteful, as though she tolerated their custom only because she needed it. "They have some motorbikes that they keep smashing up. I don't know what they do to them, but it keeps us in food stores, so long as I can keep the damn things on the road."

"They talk to us while we work." Jenny was playing with one of her home-made torches, a solar-powered piece as far as he could see, and a very neat piece of work too. She seemed to be trying to interest him in it, perhaps in the hope that he might be persuaded to make a purchase. "You must have done something to really make them mad. Aside from the usual, I mean."

"They were trying to round up a crowd of younger kids to take as slaves a day or two back. I stopped them." Bray shrugged, his natural modesty making him tell the tale as though it were a simple matter, and of little importance. "We had quite a chase."

"You shouldn't get on the wrong side of the Demon Dogs." Lisa sounded concerned. "It's people like them that are going to rule this city one day. Them and the Locos. We need to stay on their good side."

"People like that are not going to rule this city." Sounding hot, Bray almost spat the words out, then sighed and shook his head. There was no point trying to recruit others to his vision of better understanding and peaceful living. The truth was that the city was just not ready for that yet. An end to the life of fighting was not foreseeable. "Look, I've got to be going. I'll see you."

"You'll see us even easier with a torch," Jenny shot back, waggling her solar-powered creation at him in an inviting manner. He grinned.

"Thanks, but I already have a torch. It's batteries I need."

"Solar-powered." She waggled her merchandise again. "Charges during the day, shines extra bright in the dark."

"Yeah, but it won't charge much inside my pocket, will it." He shrugged. "Sorry. See you around."

"Bye." Jenny stood back, watching regretfully as he skated away. She knew that Bray would make a useful ally, if she could only find some way to interest him enough. He was a survivor, anybody could see that, and she was no longer terribly certain that she was. Survival became wearing after a while, just as hunger and cold soon became more than merely repellent. Some days it was easy to think that it might have been better to have been an adult, and to have died along with the rest.

Far ahead, Bray had no idea of the thoughts that the twin girls shared. Depression came and went, moving in circles with the cold and the exhaustion, but he had never once wished to be reunited with the adults. Such thoughts were not the kind that he entertained, and he failed to recognise them in others; not that there was much he could do to cure them anyway.

Wishing to leave the streets behind him for a while, he spent the first half of the day on the beach, collecting seaweed from the shallows, and examining the boats that lay along the seafront. Most of the better ones had already been taken, and those that were left were now barely seaworthy. He had thought a lot over the last few months about trying to head overseas - maybe finding out if the Virus had been as bad in other countries. He was sure that it had been; why else had there been no aid, or other forms of contact? It was a pleasant thought, though, that there might be adults out there somewhere. People who could sort out all of the problems, and make the city a safe place to live in again. People who could stop all of the fighting, and once again make the factories magically produce their electricity, and fill the shop shelves with a thousand different kinds of food. He remembered the choice in the old days, as he sat down to eat seaweed boiled over a low fire, and remembered his mother's kitchen with its vegetables and fruit, and the endless packets and tins. He smiled at the memory, and ate the seaweed slowly. No point in remembering now; and yet sometimes the memories alone were enough to keep him going.

He poured the water from his makeshift cooking pot - a tin bucket rescued from an old rowing boat - over the flames of his fire, and kicked the ashes and embers into the sand. He didn't like to leave many traces of his presence, for aesthetic reasons as well as those of security, and he liked to clear everything up before he left. The tide was coming in, and he didn't want to stay on the beach once it had come in to its highest point. All manner of things washed up on the beach then, and many of them were things that he had no wish to see. The remains of those who had done more than merely think about trying to reach other countries; people who had been unable to cope, and had simply walked out into the waves; flotsam and jetsam from all along the coast, from the pointless to the heartbreaking. With luck the tide would drag it all back out to sea later in the day, along with any new items, recently abandoned. He declined to throw down his own rubbish, and instead headed back to the road.

There were fewer people about now. He could feel a change in the air that meant more than a mere change in the weather. There was a tension, like the anticipation of a coming storm, yet without the clouds gathering in the sky. Scuffling sounds in the alleyway told him that people were hiding; Lisa and Jenny had gone from their street corner. As he went on through the centre of town he saw the water containers of the ragged kids he had observed earlier; the water now spilt and the containers split. One or two personal possessions lay in the gutter; a soggy shoe, and a penknife with a broken blade. In the distance the wail of the Locos' police siren told him all that he needed to know. He threw the penknife back to the ground, and punched the Plexiglas window of the building beside him. The window wobbled and bent in its frame.

"Damn you Martin!" He shouted the words into damp air, cool and light now, following the earlier rain. There was no answer; no shout in response to his anger. His brother, by now probably half the city away with his accomplices, would have been unimpressed with Bray's anger anyway. Martin had listened to his older brother once - had thought highly of him, and followed his lead. Things were different now, and Bray had no idea how Martin thought of him these days; and had to decide that he was probably better off in his ignorance. Martin was no longer Martin, after all; and Zoot was a whole different person. Kicking the nearest rain barrel against the closest wall, Bray stepped back onto his skateboard and kicked off. The street whirred by beneath his wheels, lost in a blur of wet tarmac. He wasn't sure if the wetness came from the rain, or just from the angry tears that blurred his vision in the corners of his eyes. It wasn't easy being the brother of a ruthless tyrant.

He wandered aimlessly for the rest of the afternoon, preferring movement to doing nothing. Most of the city's inhabitants hid during the day - many of them hid more or less permanently, always keeping themselves away from the world around them. As a result he saw nobody all day; heard nobody, save the vague scratchings that might have been human or animal. There were many more animals in the city these days - wild creatures, half-wild hybrids, domesticated creatures gradually returning to nature. All scavenging through the litter; the ruined mess of a once populous habitation. Bray often felt that he was the only person left alive amongst all of this debris; although the wailing of the Locos' distant police siren was proof enough that this was not so. He could understand the fear of the other kids; he just wasn't prepared to give in to it himself. Not yet. The truth was that most people were not looking for a fight, and those that were would not be dissuaded by any hiding place. If the Locos or the Demon Dogs wanted you, they got you, in the end. No amount of hiding was going to change that. Almost everybody else was always too scared to be a threat, save for basic, and largely half-hearted, fisticuffs.

He reached his favoured sleeping place just as the sun sank below the horizon, leaving a grey glow that soon faded into blackness. The silence of the day time gave way to a different silence at night, for many people chose to move around in the cover of darkness, feeling safer when there was no daylight to give them away. They scavenged for food, and fought over scraps left by the stronger tribes; they got lost and they wandered; small children crying; hopeless waifs that would never be found, save by the Locos. Bray had long become accustomed to the night sounds as he lay in his refuge, and he now found them almost comforting. He knew some tribes by their night noises alone; their gentle calls to each other; their complex, coded whistles; the expected pattern of their movements. The Bush-babies, a tribe of small children, spoke in torch flashes, and gathered food only on nights when there was no moon, or too much cloud for the moon to be seen. The Scooters ran riot in the streets at one end of the town, smashing windows and attacking derelict buildings, drawing attention away from other members of their gang, who used the distractions to steal supplies. This tiny band of sneak thieves communicated only by whistles, and he had come to understand some of their signals. Lastly amongst the main night dwellers there were the Loners; strange children with black circles painted around their eyes and mouths, their teeth artificially whitened by some form of paint or chemical. They dressed only in black and white, and they never seemed to speak at all. Bray knew little enough about them, save that there were some twenty of them in all. The youngest was about eight, the oldest maybe fourteen, and all of them had cultivated the same, haunting stare. They fished off the harbour wall on the blackest of nights, using torchlight to attract the fish.

Bray's refuge held scant comfort, but for the time being at least it was home. He had fashioned it from abandoned breeze-blocks and sheets of cardboard, the whole protected and camouflaged by sheets of tarpaulin weighted by stones. It stood on the roof of what had once been a respectable bungalow, belonging, he fancied, to a well-to-do couple with plenty of money. He had seen a plush carpet through one of the windows, but he had no intention of using the inside of the building. It was too easy to be trapped when you lived inside; small shelters with easy access and escape from all sides made much more tactical sense. On his rooftop he had a fair view of the streets beneath, and was sheltered from the wind by taller buildings. He had built a fireplace from part of an old metal litter bin, filled with rubbish from the streets, and detritus from the many abandoned buildings. By the light of his fire, as his drinking water boiled itself pure, he read books that he found abandoned throughout his limited world. Shakespeare and Dickens, like in the old days, and all of the books that his mother had tried to get him to read, and that he had never found the time for in his old life. He read them all now, on his rooftop, in the doorway of his makeshift tent, by the light of a fire that spat sparks into the sky.

"Home sweet home." Still thinking dark thoughts about his brother, Bray threw himself down into his shelter without bothering to light his fire tonight. There was still plenty of food left from his raid on the Demon Dogs' warehouse, and he had no need to cook anything. He didn't feel much like eating, though. Two days sleeping in alleyways instead of in his strange little home had left him with a curious feeling that he was not sure he liked; one of a gladness to be back, in a place that he did not want to think of as home. It made him feel angry with himself, without quite knowing why, and entirely stole what little of his appetite remained. Instead of reading, he curled up into a ball on the pile of corrugated cardboard and newspaper that was his bed, and tried to will himself to sleep. It didn't happen. Frustrated, he rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling, which tapered to an uneven, ridged point about his head. There was something up there that fluttered in the light breeze from the main doorway, and he frowned up at it. He could remember no loose flaps up there. Suspicion born of constant danger grew within him, and he rose up, reaching out for the curious piece of waving debris. It was a piece of paper, apparently torn from a spiral-bound notebook, all ruled with pale blue lines of exact equality. There was a tiny picture in the bottom right hand corner; a printed drawing of Mickey Mouse, grinning widely. Bray let his eyes travel further up the page, to the note written on the topmost lines; the letters smudged as though the author had grown unused to using a fountain pen, and had touched the words whilst the ink was still wet. He recognised the handwriting, which came as no surprise. There were not many people, after all, who would know to contact him here. Two or three at the most.

Bray, it read, in block capitals, followed by a slightly slanting sprawl in half-hearted joined-up writing, like the letters of a child who had spent too long away from school, and was finding it hard to remember how work was supposed to be presented. "You said that I could get in touch if I needed to. I haven't told anybody about you, I promise. I need to speak to you. Meet me tomorrow at the old school. It's urgent. The note was signed, with a flourish that showed signs of an old enthusiasm for such things, and with a single kiss drawn beneath the name. Bray stared at it without enthusiasm. Trudy. Not really expecting that it would ever be necessary, he had told her once how she could get in touch with him, when they had met in the Lonely Time as the tribes first came together. He spent less time at the shelter these days, for safety's sake more than anything else, although she couldn't have known that. Since discovering that she had decided to become a Locust alongside Martin, he had spoken to her only once or twice. She was Zoot's wife now; the revered First Lady of the Locos. Bray wondered if her request to talk could really be trusted, and yet found that he could not honestly believe she would set him up. Trudy was a strange girl, easily led and in need of strength. She would never have coped with life alone on the streets, and she had turned to the Locos for support rather than through any shared philosophy. If she wanted to see him, he had to assume that she was telling the truth, and that it genuinely was something urgent. He sighed. Would he ever be able to find a life for himself where he was not constantly responsible for others? Throwing the note down onto the floor of his shelter, he pulled the flaps of the main doorway shut and lay in silence in the dark. He would have to go to the old school. There was nothing else that he could do. No matter how much he yearned to be free of responsibility, he knew that he could never turn his back on somebody who needed him. He only hoped that Trudy's needs were not as serious as her letter seemed to suggest. If they were, he couldn't help but think that neither of their lives would ever be the same again.

Ebony followed Trudy at a distance, certain that Zoot's sweet little wife was up to something. It didn't take much to figure out what that something was; she had crept out during the early hours, apparently to deliver a message to a part of town that ordinarily she would not even consider going to - a shelter in an old area on the borders of suburbia, where small bungalows stood in the midst of office blocks and half-built skyscrapers; the sort of place where the network of tiny roads and less modest thoroughfares turned the streets into a rabbit warren, where anybody who didn't know their way around could be lost in seconds. It was a hive of tribe life; thirty or forty gangs at least called it home. They fought with each other with varying degrees of menace; some without the heart for it, others without the muscle. Small gangs that the Locos could easily wipe up, and probably soon would. Either that or they would wipe each other out, once they grew a little older and a whole lot harder. Such growth was inevitable in a world like this one.

There had been nobody at the house where Trudy had delivered her message. She had avoided the main building and headed straight for the roof, clambering up by means of a jerry-built ladder pushed against one wall - a curious construction of orange boxes and beer crates. Clearly there had been nobody up on the roof either, for Ebony had had a clear view of the girl up there, wandering around and examining things, and then finally leaving what looked like a note in the tent-like construction built on the bungalow's flat top. After that Trudy had climbed down in a great hurry, had looked around as though she thought that every building within sight was hiding a hundred gangs eager to tear her to shreds, and had then run away back in the direction of Loco-controlled territory. Ebony had smiled grimly to herself, and then followed on once again. She hadn't bothered going up to read the note. She didn't need to. Of all the people in the city, there were only a handful that Trudy was likely to try to contact; and few enough of them would be living in a tent on a roof. So far she was working with a shortlist of one - namely Bray. Her expressive lips curled into a predatory smile. This could be good, especially if she played it right.

Which was why she was following Trudy now, on the day after the trip to the bungalow. She had thought about speaking to Zoot - about telling him what she suspected, and thereby maybe getting the competition removed once and for all. If Zoot thought that Trudy was secretly communicating with Bray, he was sure to throw the two-timing tramp out of the tribe without a thought. It stood to reason, at least to her way of thinking. On the other hand, she had eventually decided, she could follow Trudy, catch her in the act, and take both her and Bray home to a grateful Zoot. She could even blackmail the pair of them; persuade them to leave, so that she could have Zoot to herself; or a hundred other blackmail-related options that would all, eventually, put a grateful (or possibly just coerced) Bray into her arms, put Trudy somewhere far, far away, and make Zoot step down in favour of his faithful lieutenant. She grinned happily. Well, it was a thought.

They walked for some time, for any journey took a long time in a world where open travel was made awkward by so many warring tribes. There seemed to be an increasing amount of violence in the city these days - more and more people confronting each other all the time, as food resources ran out, as batteries began to run down, as more and more things became worth fighting over. Even Ebony was becoming more cautious, at least when she was on her own. It was different with the might of the Locos behind her, but today she was just one girl out alone. That brought all kinds of new dangers.

It soon became apparent where they were going. Just as all roads supposedly led to Rome, in this area of town all roads soon led to the old school. It was the only open place; the only place where there were no alleys hiding potential threats. Nobody knew how many people might have chanced to set up home in the big buildings, but the playing fields and other grounds were big enough to allow free movement in the open, and a good view of anybody who might be trying to mount an assault. She would have to be extra careful herself, she thought, in order to avoid being seen by her quarry.

Sure enough it was the school that Trudy headed for. Ebony hadn't been there since the day when lessons had ended, in a muddle, with an announcement from a headmaster who was clearly himself in the grip of the Virus. He had read a statement, written by some government official, saying that there were to be no more proper lessons. Any children wishing to join the government scheme of military training far from the city were to sign up in the secretary's office. Everybody else was simply to go home. There had been few children present to hear the announcement, since only those who still had one or both of the parents attended the school by then. The orphans had been rounded up, save for one or two Strays, and sent first to an orphanage and then to the military schools. Others still had ceased to attend simply because they could see that there was no point to it anymore. It had been obvious by then what was happening, in their country at least. School was pointless. Ebony herself remembered the speech only because she and Zoot had attended school that day, already daubed in their tribal colours, ready to recruit others to the Locos. One or two pale-faced teachers had hung around in the corridors, or had peered out through the windows in their classroom doors, eyeing the rebels with a mixture of envy and distaste. Distaste because they were rebels - because they were disturbing the school and stealing the few remaining pupils. Envy because they were alive, and they were healthy, and because by then every adult in the world must have been aware that they were living on borrowed time.

It was weird to be back again; to see the drinking fountain where she had stood during mid-morning break, watching the world go by with her usual detached stare. She saw the wall where Bray had been leaning, the day that she had made her first move on him; the basketball court where she had watched him play so many games. She saw the front doors, hanging off their hinges now, where she had walked in neat parade with so many other children, every week day for as long as she could remember. Just standing within the grounds was enough to bring back more memories - the feel of the cloth of her uniform against her skin; the stupid headscarf that all of the girls had been forced to wear. She could almost see her arms encased in those blue-grey cotton sleeves, with the barcode emblazoned on the left arm; name, class, record, there for every barcode scanner to read. A security measure, the school had said - to see that only people who were supposed to get into the school managed to get in. In practice of course it had been just another way for them to keep tabs on their pupils; just another way to watch over everybody, and try to make them behave. Not that it had done any good in the end.

They walked past the drinking fountain; past the netball court; past the shed where the sports equipment had been kept. The door was missing, and she could see that the shed was empty. It looked as though someone had been living there for a while, but it must have been some time ago. Given that the school was a known haunting ground of the Jackals, that wasn't a surprise. Whoever had lived in that shed had probably been captured long ago - maybe even sold to the Locos. She might have been ordering him or her around herself, just a few hours ago. The thought made her smile, and she turned her head to check on Trudy's progress. The girl was some way ahead of her now, apparently aiming for the copse of trees where lovers had used to meet, either during the lunch hour, or during stolen times when they should have been in lessons. It almost stung that she hadn't done that more often herself. For all the good that those years of school lessons had done her, she might just as well have never attended in her life.

Once Trudy was inside the copse, Ebony put on a burst of speed, arriving at the edge of the trees when Trudy was not far inside them. She moved slowly then; like a cat, sliding between the trunks, and avoiding the dry twigs and crackling debris. Trudy was not being nearly so careful, and the noises that she made easily drowned out any noise made by Ebony. The marauding Loco was glad of that, for she was certain now of whom Trudy was planning to meet; and he was the cautious type, and with excellent hearing. Up ahead Trudy stopped, right beneath the nut tree where Ebony had first kissed Zoot, when he had still been Martin, and she had still been wearing that stupid bloody headscarf. Ebony pressed herself into the green shadows, and listened intently. A dark shadow fell across the path, and she watched it move closer to Zoot's wife.

"Trudy?" Bray's voice made Ebony's heart leap; a reaction that she had not been expecting. She steeled herself to prevent a quickening of her breath. A noise like that was sure to alert Bray, and she had no intention of revealing her hand just yet. Positioning herself carefully, she settled back to watch.

"Bray!" The other girl seemed almost indelicately pleased to see her brother-in-law. She rushed into his arms, and after a second, apparently taken aback, he returned her embrace. "Oh Bray. I'm so glad to see you."

"Why are you here, Trudy?" Bray's voice, with its unpredictable New Zealand-American mix, sounded confused and uncertain. "Is this just another trap?"

"I've never tried to set you up Bray. I wouldn't, you know that." She tried to push closer to him, but he held her back, finally breaking the uncomfortable embrace.

"Do I? And why should I know that, hey Trude? You haven't really given me much reason to trust you in the past. You joined the Locos!"

"I didn't have a choice. I couldn't cope with life on the streets. My parents were gone, and the school was gone, and all of my friends seemed to have left. You know what it was like, Bray. The Lonely Time, they call it on the streets. Nobody knew what was going to happen. Everybody was scared. The fighting was nearly as bad as it is now. You're practically the only one who doesn't seem to be scared..."

"I won't be terrorised by my kid brother." He turned away from her, looking as though he wanted to pace up and down for a while. In the end he elected to remain in his place, trying not to look at Trudy. "There were other options, Trudy. There must have been. But joining the Locos?"

"And what would you have had me do, Bray? Sit around waiting for you to come and rescue me? I didn't know where you were, or if you'd even want me. It was Zoot who seemed to be in love with me, not you - and after your parents died, when the pair of you disappeared... You weren't in any of the orphanages... my parents asked around for me, and you didn't go to any of the military schools, or to any of the shelters. Zoot said that he was starting to build up the Locusts back then, because he knew what was coming. But what about you? Where did you go?"

"I was around. I wanted to get away from everything, but there was no way I was going to leave the city if it meant leaving Martin behind. Not that he really was Martin anymore." He shrugged. "Then things started getting more and more crazy, and Martin... Martin changed. Calling himself Zoot, and wearing all that war paint. I couldn't speak to him anymore. Everybody thought he was so strong, but he was just scared. Scared and half-mad..." He stopped, taking a deep breath. "You know the story. I was sort of with the Locos for a while, trying to keep an eye on him, but it wasn't for me. I left. It wasn't easy, with the orphanage people going round in their dog catcher vans looking for runaways. But then the rest of the adults died, and everything fell apart, and..." He shrugged. "And then it was the Lonely Time, and I had a hard time just trying to stay alive."

"Exactly." She couldn't meet his eyes. "It was join the Locos or die, Bray. Zoot loved me, just like he always did. He offered me stability. He offered me food, and somewhere warm to sleep. In a world like this one, those are the things that really matter. I know that the Locos are the bad guys, but they're not the only ones who are. And I didn't have anywhere else to turn."

"I know." He ran a hand through his lengthening hair, making the tight plait wave slightly. She smiled at it.

"I like your new hair. It looks as if even you have started to adapt to the whole tribal thing."

"Maybe I have. Maybe I'll even start wearing paint one day." He took her hand, indicating that she should sit on the soft grass. "Now what is it Trude? Why'd you call me here? You look kind of pale."

"I know. I've been ill. Nauseous, unable to eat..." She chewed on her fingernails, looking very nervous. "I... I looked it up in a medical encyclopaedia. It said..." She looked up at him, her large dark eyes with their panda circles of black paint making her seem even paler than she was. "It said..." Once again she hesitated, her agitation increasing, before finally it all came out in a rush of words. "I've looked it up everywhere I can think of, Bray, and I haven't been able to get in touch with anybody who knows about these things of course, and I wouldn't know where to start in order to find one but - but... I'm pregnant Bray. I'm going to have Zoot's child, and I'm so scared. I don't know what to do."

"You're... pregnant?" He stared at her, his own eyes widened, his own skin paling. "How? I mean - well didn't you...?"

"Bray... how? I can't exactly go to the chemists, can I. I thought... I mean, I knew it was a possibility, but I just didn't think it would happen. Maybe I thought I was too young."

"There's no such thing as too young anymore." He sat down beside her, resting his chin on his hands. "Does Zoot know?"

"No." She lowered her eyes. "I haven't told him. Not yet anyway."

"Why not? Don't you think he'll want it?"

"Want it? He'd be delighted. But that's not the point, is it. I can't let my son or daughter grow up to be another Loco. Imagine being the child of Zoot. He'll brainwash it. I don't want that to happen Bray. I can't let the Locos get hold of my baby."

"So what are you going to do?" He was watching her with his usual intense gaze; the one that she was never entirely sure of. It was too hard to read; too hard to interpret in any way.

"I - I'm going to have to leave him. Leave Zoot. I don't want to... I'm scared of being out on the streets alone... But I can't let him have my baby. I won't let him bring it up that way. It's fine for me to pretend that the Locos aren't all that bad... pretend just so long as the food supplies last, and just so long as they keep me safe and warm, and stop the Demon Dogs from getting in. But a baby... I can't do that Bray. I can't let that happen."

"When's it due?" He wasn't looking at her at all now, and was merely staring at the ground. She didn't answer at first.

"I'm not sure." The words fell out, panicked and wary. "I can't be more than a couple of months pregnant... It can't be any more than that."

"Seven months." He shook his head, running his hands through his hair once again, as if somehow it helped him to think. "I don't know if I can hide you for that long Trudy. Zoot would know where you'd gone. There's no one else for you to turn to."

"I know." She could feel hope stirring within her, unfolding fast at the suggestion that he might be prepared to take her in. "But I need to find somewhere safe."

"I can see that." He looked up, and for a second he smiled; his old smile, from the times before worry had consumed them all. "I... I kind of like the idea of being an uncle."

"An uncle." She hadn't thought of that, strangely enough. It seemed almost as crazy as herself being a mother. "This baby... it's going to be your niece, or your nephew. You... you wouldn't let it be born out on the streets would you?"

"There isn't much choice about that." He glanced up at her rather sharply. "There isn't anywhere else."

"You know what I mean." Impulsively she reached out for his hand and caught it in her own. "Promise me, Bray. Promise me that you'll find somewhere safe for the baby."

"I--" He broke off, staring at her with uncertain eyes. "That's a big promise, Trudy. If you come away with me, Zoot will come after us. I don't know if I can keep you safe for seven months... and then after that..."

"We could leave the city." She was staring at him hopefully, thinking about the vast, empty countryside beyond the urban nightmare that they lived in now. He hesitated.

"Leaving the city isn't easy. The perimeters are almost worse than the centre. The Mariners rule so much of the city's edge, and the last thing we need is to be captured by the Locos' closest allies. Besides... I don't know that I want to leave. Leaving Zoot..."

"I know." She hadn't really expected him to agree to heading out of the city. "But all the same; we could find somewhere, couldn't we?"

"I suppose. Maybe if you were to go back there today, and get what you can. Stores and things. I'll get some food together, and you can get whatever you can find. We might have a chance then."

"You'll help?" Relief flooded through her. He smiled, although she could see that she had only increased the load upon his mind.

"For what it's worth. Now get going, before you're missed. I'll meet you here, at noon two days from now."

"Thank you." It came out just as a whisper, but he heard it nonetheless.

"It's okay. Everything will be okay. Now go on."

"I'll see you soon." She wanted to hug him, but didn't want to push things. If any of this could bring them closer together again, so much the better; but it would have to develop at its own pace. She almost chastised herself. Here she was, living in a mad world with only a fraction of its old population, fighting merely for survival, and about to embark on an even more dangerous course; and yet still she was worried about a teenage crush. Things like that shouldn't have mattered anymore; and yet they did. It was almost reassuring.

"Take care." He followed her to the edge of the copse, leaving her there. She watched him head away, striding across the grass with his eyes turning in every direction at once. Only when he was a small figure in the distance did she begin walking herself; hurrying as though suddenly possessed by a dreadful urgency. One weight had been removed from her mind, but it seemed that half a dozen more had been placed there instead.

Left behind in the copse, Ebony unfurled herself from her hiding place, and stretched her body with a panther's grace. So Zoot's wife was pregnant, and planning to run out on him with his own brother. This was the sort of news that brought power. The only question was how she should use it. Smiling to herself, she headed back towards the distant rail yard where the Locos had set up home. It was a long walk. Maybe she would think of something on the way. Whatever it was, she was determined that it would be something good. With an opportunity such as this one, it had to be.

There was only one place in the city where Bray could be sure of getting the provisions he would need if he was going to take Trudy and go into hiding. They would need even more food if they decided to make a run for it - to make their way across the city, and find some far away refuge out in the countryside. The Demon Dogs had a food store that contained everything he could imagine them needing, from protein and vitamin-rich foods to powdered milk, that might just come in handy when the baby was born. He was a little apprehensive about the idea of returning to the food store after the last time, but he couldn't see any alternative. He thought about his niece or nephew, waiting to be born into some crazy world he didn't understand anymore. He wasn't sure just how he was expected to protect a child; not when he had barely got the hang of looking after himself. Looking after Trudy was going to be problem enough, and responsibility enough for him. The idea of anything further scared him almost too much to contemplate. It was something that he had to do though, and therefore do it he would; but first he needed that food. With this resolution in mind, he collected together his scant collection of belongings, leaving only his little library of books behind in his rooftop shelter, and headed out onto the streets. It was dawn; the coldest, greyest part of the day, and a faint wind was blowing down the little roads and empty alleys. He hefted his bag onto his shoulder, already heavy with his black leather coat rolled up into a ball inside it, along with the remainder of his food. He had abandoned the other changes of clothing, electing to keep merely the spare coat. The only other items in the bag - the only other items that he possessed now, save for his skateboard - were wrapped up in a tiny leather pouch that his father had once used for his golf balls. It contained a cigarette lighter, which had served him well since he had begun his life on the streets, although now it was low on its precious fuel; a Swiss Army penknife that was invaluable for so many reasons; a box of matches, in waiting for when the lighter finally failed - a large box, with an obsolete household tip printed on the back of the box, and a quote from Shakespeare on the front. It was a line from The Tempest, which seemed fitting enough now, written in looping letters in dark red ink, the enclosing quotation marks disproportionately large. He remembered the quote from English lessons, something he had loved once upon a time. It had seemed so important, learning all of those poems and plays. Now it was all as pointless and as obsolete as the household tip on the back of the box, telling its legion of attentive housewives to put a layer of cooking oil over the interior of their saucepans, to prevent rusting during long storage. All utterly pointless now, and at least for the foreseeable future.

The final item in the bag, his only concession to sentimentality, was a photograph. It was the last one he had of his whole family together, taken the summer before his parents had become sick. Martin looked terribly young and innocent, his eyes still normal and sweetly warm, just as they had always been before he had adopted the curious contact lenses. Bray had no idea why he still kept the photograph. If any enemy of the Locos found it on him it would probably be his death warrant. If any Loco beyond Zoot's inner circle found it, it might prove to be his brother's death warrant too. Dangers aside, it brought back memories that he didn't need anymore, cluttering up his mind when he should have been concentrating on more important things. All the same, he could never quite bring himself to throw it away - not even when he wanted to deny every memory that told him Zoot really was his brother.

The weather didn't improve as he made his way to the food store where he had so nearly met his end just a couple of days before. It was harder going than the last time; the streets really were becoming more dangerous. As one of the earliest orphans of the Virus, and one of those who had escaped the government round-ups, Bray was more used to the streets. He had learnt the hard lessons early on, and had always used that added confidence to aid him as he travelled around. No hiding at every shadow, or moving about only at night for him - he traversed the streets openly, and always had. He could see everything falling apart now, though. The attempts that even some of the toughest gangs had made to co-operate in the early days had all collapsed, and the result was an even worse chaos than there had ever been before. He had seen it coming, even during as short a time as in the last few days; but this morning somehow it was worse. It was almost as though the whole city had been struck by some dreadful enchantment during the night, whilst he had been lying awake in his makeshift tent, staring at the leaky ceiling, and trying unsuccessfully to sleep. He had stepped out into a mad place, where broken windows hung in ragged tatters from battered and splintered frames, and glass lay across the tarmac like confetti after a wedding. He had heard the worst of it all, but he had ignored it. There was nothing that he could do. There was nothing that anybody could do, save hide until it was all over, or try to live their lives in hasty snatches, between battles. He shook his head as he skated through it all, listening to the fresh debris scrunching under his little wheels. So much destruction in one short night. Could there possibly have been a worse time for Trudy to become pregnant? Trying to keep her safe now was going to be even harder than it might have been otherwise. He could have kicked himself, or worse, for not predicting any of this - but then, he mused, as he sped on his way a little faster, he was always far too busy concentrating on his own problems; his own survival; to wonder much about what the others were up to. More fool him.

There was only one guard outside the gates of the warehouse. A very tall, very thin boy of about fifteen, dressed in a mosaic of leather and denim, his face marked by a single, broad streak of red across the diagonal. There was no sign of identifying silver. Perhaps that should have warned him. In point of fact he did stop to wonder. If nothing else, a walk through a city that seemed to have collapsed overnight was inclined to make a man suspicious; or possibly just inured to the unexpected. In the event, however, he did not give nearly enough thought to the peculiarity of the sentry's face paint, and merely headed for his usual point of entry. The guards that usually patrolled the alleyway leading to the window were not in evidence, but he watched out for them anyway. They had to be there somewhere. All the same, nobody came within earshot as he opened the window and slipped inside the building. He couldn't even hear the roving presence of the guard who was usually stationed inside. In his urgency he remained oblivious to the discrepancies. He had stores to gather, and a rendezvous to keep.

"You know, it's just incredible what you find in the store cupboard these days." He hadn't heard the cat-like tread of the owner of the voice, but he knew her so well that he wasn't surprised. How many times, after all, had she slipped up behind him in the school corridors, or at parties, or just in the streets? Cold fear lanced through him, like knives in his chest.

"Ebony." He turned slowly, seeing her smiling face, and recognising the predatory look in her eyes. Her hair was in tighter ringlets than he remembered, but her old pride remained unchanged. If anything it had been increased by her new life, for she seemed to walk taller, and hold her head higher than she had before. With her arms folded, and a long bladed knife dangling from the fingers of one hand, she looked like a true professional. There was an air about her of playful menace, like a cat waiting to toy with its victim.

"Bray." She returned his greeting with a little twitch of her lips; an increase in the depth of her smile that said a million things all at once. "Fancy meeting you here."

"Yeah. Fancy." He glanced about, taking a step back as he did so. She let her smile flutter suggestively.

"Don't try to get away, Bray." Unfolding her arms with an almost lazy display of muscle and grace, she wagged her knife at him. "I'm not alone."

"So what happens now?" He was watching her warily, but she knew that he could not get away. She saw no need to watch him in return.

"You come back with me to headquarters. You know where that is, right? Zoot wants a word with you."

"Zoot?" Bitterness showed in his voice. "What does he want? A family reunion?"

"Hardly. Actually I think he has some kind of a deal that he wants to put to you." She took a step forward, in tandem with his own step back. "I told you not to try anything, Bray. I know how to use this knife, and there are six other Locos in this building who know even more than I do." She touched the long, cold blade, almost as if contemplating using it. "Now would be a good time to put your hands up, and drop everything you're carrying."

"There are no weapons here, Ebony." He moved his hands away from his body slightly, indicating that all he was carrying was a bag and a skateboard. She smiled again, this time with more than a hint of mockery.

"I didn't really think that you would be carrying a weapon, Bray. I just want you to drop the bag and the board. That way I can be a little more sure that you won't try to run out on me. You wouldn't go anywhere without your things."

"They're just things. They don't mean anything." He did as he was told anyway, certain now that he could hear the echoing footsteps of her companions. He hoped that it was just his imagination, but didn't really think that it was.

"But all that food..." She smirked. "You'll be needing that, won't you, if you decide to take Trudy away from it all. You'll need the food to help you set up somewhere, so that the pair of you can play happy families together with Zoot's baby." She saw the flash in his eyes, and laughed lightly. "Oh don't worry, Bray. Zoot doesn't know about that... yet."

"Meaning he won't?"

"Meaning that he might not, depending on the circumstances." She shrugged. "I'm a reasonable person so far as that's concerned. Hell, if it wasn't for the fact that I have friends here right now, I'd let you walk out of here, and run off with Trudy if that's really what you want. I was always better with Zoot than she is."

"But you do have friends here?" He glanced about, although there was no sign of the other Locusts. He could hear them clearly now though, and he knew that they were not far away. There was a crash as one of them knocked something from a shelf. A rat probably. Only rats thrived in a destroyed world. Rats and locusts. Ebony smiled, wandering towards Bray as though to whisper something in his ear. Instead she merely stroked his arm, letting her fingers stray across the striped wool of his coat, and wander onward to the tight plait that fell to his shoulder. There was a feather bound to it; an odd whim that morning, as he had set out. He had seen it lying on the rooftop of his old bungalow, drifting aimlessly in the damp breeze. It was speckled brown and grey, and large enough to have come from a bird of prey. He wasn't sure why he had latched onto it, but it had seemed to suit him some how. Clearly Ebony thought so too, for she played with it with her fingertips, smiling approvingly all the while.

"You're changing, Bray. Fitting right in, just like the rest of us. You'll be wearing paint and fighting street battles next."

His body tensed in nervousness at her proximity, and at the oily sweetness of her tone. "I'll wear paint if I feel like it, and I'll fight if I have to. But I'll never be like you, Ebony."

"Oh, Bray." She sounded almost disappointed, although he could tell by her smile that she was not. "What am I going to do with you?"

"Let me go?" It was an odd time to make jokes, but he couldn't seem to help it. It was easier to try to pretend that this was a game, rather than admitting that an old friend might seriously be planning to kill him. Ebony laughed.

"Can't do that. Sorry." She sounded as though she meant it too, although Bray didn't really think that she did. The note of playfulness had gone from her voice, and her eyes seemed a little harder; businesslike even, in contrast to the gentility he had seen in them earlier. He heard footsteps behind him, and wondered if her associates had arrived. Maybe that was the reason for her sudden sobering.

"Ebony?" He tried to turn to see who owned the strident voice, but Ebony was still holding his hair, and he found that he could not turn his head properly without the long plait tugging painfully at his scalp. Ebony stared at the speaker over his shoulder, making Bray feel decidedly uncomfortable.

"Red." She let go of Bray very suddenly, and he took a step back. "Are the rest of the stores secure?"

"Yes." Footsteps clicked on the hard floor, but this time Bray didn't try to turn around. If this new arrival wanted to look at him, then he would have to do all of the work. "Is this him?"

"This is him." Ebony had regained a little of the humour in her voice. "We're taking him back to headquarters, and he's to get there unharmed. Zoot's orders."

"Well if those are the orders..." Red sounded as if he had no intention of obeying them, but Ebony's presence was enough to keep Bray's confidence steady. Even had she not been there, he could not really believe that anything would happen. Even when he saw violence everyday, it was hard to believe that it would ever really happen to him. Things like that just didn't go on in the real world - or hadn't done, once.

"The great Bray." Red was before him now, staring at the silent prisoner with speculative eyes. Bray saw a chunky boy a little below his own height, with jet black hair bearing a shocking red stripe down the middle. Like many Locos he was dressed in skin tight clothing of many colours, and a pair of goggles hung around his neck on a plastic strap. There was a belt around his waist bearing many pouches, and hung with a great number of tools. An axe hung down almost to one knee, and an assortment of knives and tin openers provided him with a steady, musical accompaniment as he walked. His feet were encased in massive black boots that reached almost to his knees, and sparkled in the grey daylight when the many buckles and studded straps moved about.

"What about it?" Breaking his temporary silence with an evenly voiced question, Bray met the eyes upraised slightly to his. They were black eyes, made all the more so by dark black circles painted around them, and by a streak of similar black that coloured his nose. His lips were painted in the same shade, with the result that his head resembled that of a skeleton. The tight black and white necklaces that he wore had the appearance of vertebrae, emphasising this illusion.

"I don't mean anything." The Loco raised his hands, encased in black leather finger-less gloves, as though to suggest nothing but pure motives. "Just wondering why Zoot wants you so much. He must figure you're worth something."

"He is." Ebony wandered over to pick up Bray's bag, giving it a quick shake before peering inside. She took the food out, item by item, placing it all on the nearest shelf. "Practically every tribe of consequence in the city has some argument with the Lone Ranger here. Half a dozen of them would pay us to get their hands on him. But Zoot asked first."

"Anything in the bag?" Red was eyeing it with a hungry expression. Ebony shook her head.

"Not unless you want a box of matches and another cigarette lighter." He turned away, disinterested, and she pocketed the photograph. Bray noticed, but she showed no sign of realising that he had. Instead she merely threw the bag over her shoulder, collected up the skateboard, and gestured in the direction of the door. "I think we'd better be going now, don't you?"

"Right." Red let his eyes drift back to Bray, who, now that his situation was becoming more urgent, was beginning to think once again about escape. Ebony knew his mind, for she shook her head in clear warning.

"Don't try it Bray. There's always an easy way and a hard way to everything." Her eyes had strayed past him once again, and he turned, slightly, to see what she was now looking at. Three more Locos, all dressed in jump suits with police helmets and goggles, stood in a row not far away. There was something about them that was alien and strange, emphasising their threatening demeanour. Bray's eyes flicked back to Ebony.

"Sorry." She shrugged rather carelessly. "Like I said, I have friends here."

"So I see." He hesitated, meeting her gaze for several moments. "Then I suppose I have no choice." Relieved, she relaxed slightly - which was just what he had been waiting for.

With the speed that had earned him a place on the school basketball team, Bray hurled himself at Ebony, knocking her aside with a brutal force. She stumbled into Red, sprawling with him in an ungainly heap. Bray didn't stop to enjoy the sight. Running like a man possessed, he dashed down the aisle, his feet clattering loudly, the sound echoing in the rafters high overhead. He heard a shout of fury far behind him, and changed direction down another aisle in an attempt to confuse his pursuers. His feet skidded on the floor, but he kept his balance easily, racing onward between shelves loaded with wondrous displays of food. Odd that something he had once thought of as normal in any number of supermarkets could now have become an unbelievable vista of breathtaking proportions - and even odder, perhaps, that he still had the time to think of such things now. He rounded another corner, hearing many feet behind him - or maybe just the same pair of boots, echoing into an infinity of enemies all after his blood.

"Gotcha!" He heard the shout behind him, although the metal shelving made it impossible to pinpoint the direction of any one sound. He spun, catching a glimpse of a figure on the other side of a shelf. He spun back, desperate to continue his panicked dash; and saw another shadowy shape on the other side of him. His head snapped back and forth as his mind raced in indecision. When he finally chose, he did it at random, running forward again in a new direction, heading for the end of his aisle. More shapes rushed towards him, and he knew, in that instant, that he was not going to make it. He tried to dodge; tried to swerve aside; but two shapes, awash with colour, crashed into him at chest height, knocking him back. They went down together, hitting the shelves, sending everything to the floor in a tumultuous din of shelving and support brackets. For a single chaotic second it was raining food - Bray threw his hands up to protect his head from cascading boxes and tins - and then there was silence. He lay still for several moments, gasping for breath, trying to ignore the pain in his back where he had collided with the shelves. His two attackers showed no sign of similar injury, and before he had had a chance to regain a little of his lost equilibrium, they dragged him to his feet. Strong, gloved hands held his arms. He struggled, but they bashed him against the nearest section of shelving that still stood, twisting his hands behind his back so that he could no longer effectively fight. He relaxed a little, granting them that small victory, turning his attentions instead towards catching his breath. Ebony came running.

"Oh Bray..." She sounded gently chastising, like a mother admonishing a wayward child. "I did warn you."

"Big deal." He let them drag him away, struggling only as a small act of pointless rebellion. Outside the sky was greyer than before, which only added to his current dark mood. He was pushed and pulled towards a police van, its characteristic stripe much added to by a series of spray-painted designs. Heavy armour plating was fixed to the front, some by its original designers, much more by its latest owners. The strip light on top was flashing its gaudy blue message to whoever happened to be looking; and as the little group approached, the siren blared into life. A waiting sentry threw open the back doors, revealing a space emptied of its bench seats, decorated in a wild splash of silk emulsion, all clashing colours and jumbled stabs at patterning. Ebony climbed in, and Bray's guards made him follow suit. They pushed him down onto the floor, where his heavy impact made a hollow echoing sound in the empty space. He glared at them, but they were already dragging him to his feet again, using handcuffs to fix his wrists to the roof of the van. Ebony settled herself down on the floor, just out of reach of his feet, should he suddenly decide to get violent.

"That'll be all." She spoke like a princess, and her subjects obeyed her immediately. One by one they jumped down from the van, the last one out slamming the doors shut behind him. Bray heard the engine start up.

"Don't bother getting too comfortable Bray." Ebony's voice was unpleasant in its mockery. "It's not a long drive."

"I know." He could hear scratching sounds on the outside of the vehicle, as the other Locos took hold of the straps fixed to the bodywork. They would all have put on their roller-skates by now, and would be ready to be pulled along by the van. The engine revved loudly.

"What happens now?" He stared at her with an open and honest expression. The real question was clear - was she really going to hand him over to Zoot, and if so, what would be the outcome of it? She gave a little shrug.

"You've had your chances Bray. Whatever happens now is down to you." She settled back with her arms folded, closing her eyes to help her to relax. "There's nobody else to blame for this." As if in answer the van gave a lurch, and Bray stumbled, held up only by the handcuffs. His wrists protested painfully, but there seemed no point in letting it show. There was nobody to notice, and there was certainly nobody to care. With Ebony's words echoing inside his head, he shut his own eyes, and waited to be reunited with his brother.

Trudy was excited, without quite knowing why. As she packed up her few possessions - none of the things that Zoot had found for her, but just a few of the things that she really didn't want to be without - she felt as she had in the old days, when getting ready for a holiday, or a special family trip. She told herself off for being so foolish about it; for not taking things seriously enough, and for not being nearly careful enough about who might be watching her; but it didn't do any good. She couldn't shake the excitement, and she couldn't lose the happy feeling that her life might be about to change. No matter how crazy it was to use a situation like this - when at any moment she might be fleeing for her life from a pack of furious Locos - in order to plan the rebuilding of her relationship with Bray, still she could not help imagining that something - anything - might eventually happen between them. He had loved her once, briefly, hadn't he? Very briefly, perhaps, and she didn't think that she had ever held his affection as much as Ebony. Still she dreamed of winning him, however, even though the rest of the world had fallen to pieces. Perhaps it was because of that. Bray seemed to be the only security she had left these days.

She packed her favourite bag, made from purple silk and denim, that she had chosen herself during a raid on a clothing store back when the Locos had seemed like just a bunch of rowdy friends. They had been no more than ten or fifteen men strong in those days; like a gang of school mates that she could hang out with, pretending that she was just out for a Friday night with some friends, having a loud party in the street. She had imagined that the buildings were full of disapproving adults, glaring out of the windows at the unruly youngsters with their unnecessarily loud voices. It had all been such a great game.

There were few enough things to put in the bag. She had no mementos, no photographs of her family, for she hadn't thought to take any with her when she had left her home for the last time. She had been evacuated, during the Last Days, when civilisation had been on its last legs; and somehow she had always believed that everything would work itself out before it was too late. That she would be going back to rejoin her parents. Taking photographs with her, when she had packed a few belongings that day, had seemed like tempting fate; like facing up to the horrible reality of it all; so she had left it all behind in an act of forlorn hope. Since returning to the city she had wondered about going back for things, but she hadn't done so yet; hadn't been able to face what she might find if she did go back home. She had asked Zoot to send a squad to fetch some things, but he had always refused her. It was unimportant, he had told her - all water under the bridge. Unnecessary relics of a time now gone. He didn't understand how much the past still meant to her, no matter how far away it might be. She had never been that good a Loco.

A book was the first thing that she put inside. It was an old copy of Pride And Prejudice - the last book that her class had been detailed to read before the chaos struck. She had kept it with her, always meaning to finish it. She never had, and she knew that she probably never would. She didn't even like Jane Austen. Somehow, though, it was too important to her to give up altogether.

The second thing that she put in, her excitement growing with every step, was a simple change of clothing. A pink shirt that she had never worn, and had always thought herself unlikely to. She had never gone in for baggy clothes in the past, but it struck her now, for the first time, that she was not going to be this size forever. In a few months time she would be considerably larger, and a big shirt would be perfect for her then. It was almost a game, deciding what she might require, as her baby came closer to being born. Then the fear struck her, as she imagined a birth without medical help, or drugs, or a clean place in which to deliver. People had died in their thousands, in the old days before proper healthcare. She distinctly remembered reading about it in her history books; the women dying from infections, and cross-blood contamination; or just from awkward births that were impossible without skilled surgical assistance; the babies dying for similar reasons and more. It was enough to make a girl turn celibate for life.

"But Bray will take care of me." She said it as if she meant it, which she was increasingly realising was the case. Quite how she expected him to protect her from infection she didn't know; but he had said that he would find a safe place for her baby, and she believed him. He had done so much in the days since the breakdown of civilisation - saved so many other lives. Surely he would be able to save hers as well? With this in mind she returned to her holiday spirit, merrily packing a few more items away in her bag - a packet of her favourite sweets, and some tins of baked beans. She threw in some make-up as well, and a bottle of hair dye that she had been meaning to try. Maybe Bray would help her put it on. She smiled at that thought, and shut the bag up tight. Pigs would fly, the day that she domesticated Bray. Still, it was nice to think about it, even if only to wonder why teenage hormones still worked the way they always had, when nothing else in the world did.

She threw the bag under her bed, where she was fairly sure that it wouldn't be found, at least for the next few hours. Zoot certainly never looked under the bed. Only whoever was on cleaning detail did that, and the Locos were hardly into advanced displays of cleanliness; not even with an army of slaves to do such things for them. The bag stowed, she lay down on the bed, placed her hands neatly by her sides, and closed her eyes. Someone a few doors down, in some other ramshackle railcar, was listening to Nirvana's Nevermind album. The familiar sound, even at such a powerful volume, was tantamount to a lullaby. She let sleep wash over her. She was feeling increasingly tired just lately, and she would need to be fresh if she was going to make a run for it. Zoot and the rest of the Locos would not let her go without a fight.

The sound of the police siren stirred her from her slumber, although she had no idea how long she had slept. She raised her head, listening to the noise, recognising it as the big van rather than Zoot's personal car. She wondered what it was bringing home this time. More slaves? More food? She found that she no longer wanted to know, and yet couldn't help clambering off the bed and heading for the window. She peered through the dusty, cracked safety glass, looking out at the sorry mess that was the rail yard. Rusting hulks of abandoned locomotive carriages, abandoned pieces of track slowly being choked by weeds; oil cans and tool kits broken or just left to decay. A grim world, but she preferred it to the city proper. Old trains were far less depressing to look at than old buildings. The van bumped its way over the rough ground and lengthening grass, coming to a halt just opposite the carriage that Zoot used as his personal office. She waited to see what would emerge.

Outside, the gang of roller-skaters who had hitched a lift with the van had all detached themselves before they reached the grass, but after removing their skates they soon made their way back to their companions. Trudy watched them closing in on the van; saw the driver climb out; saw the whole mass of them converging upon the back doors. Somebody pulled them open, standing back to allow Ebony to stretch her regal way out into the meagre sunshine. She looked like the cat that had got the cream - and in that instance, without a shadow of a doubt, Trudy knew what prize the Locos had brought home today. She felt her heart sink down to her boots. Beyond her window Ebony was grinning around at everybody; and as if feeling Trudy's gaze upon her, she turned and flashed her sparkling smile at Zoot's wife, and her own greatest rival. Trudy felt the blood drain from her face as Ebony waggled her fingers in a wave of greeting, before pointing at the back of the van. Two of her companions had climbed into the vehicle now. Trudy watched the van wobble slightly, as though in response to some brief struggle going on inside; then the two Locos reappeared, with Bray held firmly between them. His arms were twisted behind his back, and he looked shaken. Trudy began to tremble.

"No." She whispered the word to herself, as if somehow she could make it all change just by wishing hard enough. "No. No, it can't..." She let the words trail off as she saw Ebony lead the way towards the door of Zoot's office. Fear lanced through her heart, despite all of her husband's recent assurances. Quite suddenly she felt sure that her friend would soon be under sentence of death. She thought about her baby; and knew, straightaway, that she had to do whatever she could to save Bray. Right now he was all that was standing between her child and a future ruled by the madness of the Locos - whilst she might just be the only thing standing between Bray himself and a cold and summary execution. White-faced, she rushed to the door.

Zoot was sitting in his office, before the huge painting he so loved, of Cronus, the father of Zeus, eating his own children one by one. He didn't know why he loved it, save that he delighted in its peculiarities. It was gigantic, and beautifully framed - not that this latter point mattered at all to him - but he doubted that it was the original. Priceless works of art were easily accessible to all now that money was no longer an object, but they were rare of course, when compared to the prints and the copies and the forgeries. Still; the painting had the desired effect of impressing his guests, and that was what counted.

The knock on the door startled him out of his thoughts; which, Trudy would have been surprised to know, were largely concerned with her and her obvious problems. He had noticed that she was not feeling herself just lately, and he had been wondering for some time what was wrong. Pregnancy was one of the few options that he had not yet considered. It wouldn't be long, though, before the remarkable mind of the leader of the Locos took on board that suggestion as well, and identified it as the most likely cause of his wife's unusual behaviour.

"Yes?" His shout was both a question and a summons, and it was answered immediately. The door swung open, admitting Spike, one of his would-be deputies. Spike was a lanky individual; a testament to developing adolescent muscle; whose brain was rather less developed than his body. His face was almost invisible beneath layers of red and blue paint, applied in shaky lines attempting to be rather more dramatic than they actually were. He wore an old cycle helmet, decorated with thin and shiny chains, and a criss-cross network of leather straps over a skin tight lycra T-shirt. He was grinning madly, gesturing behind him at a preening, self-satisfied Ebony, and a pair of muscle-bound guards in identical leather and lycra. Zoot's eyes snapped to the struggling figure held between them; a tall boy with brown hair and dark eyes, who was currently sporting a look of angry defiance. Feeling a peculiar sensation of unease prickling at the base of his spine, Zoot rose to his feet.

"Bray." He frowned, unsure quite what to do now. Spike frowned at him.

"Shall we bring him in sir? Ebony said that you wanted to speak with him."

"Er... yeah. Yeah, bring him in." Zoot gestured at the room around him, and diverted his eyes as his brother was manhandled in through the doorway. "You can leave us."

"Leave you?" Bray was still now, but Spike looked warily at him all the same. Zoot flashed his underling a piercing stare.

"Yes. Leave. Do as you're told, Spike."

"Whatever." Spike sounded as though he felt Zoot was asking for trouble, but a leader's word was a leader's word. He went back to the crooked entrance. "Have it your own way." He jumped down onto the ground, hitting the wiry grass just as Trudy ran up. He caught her arm. "The boss wants to be left alone."

"Zoot?" Trudy tried to push past him, staring in through the door. She could see that Bray had been released by his guards now, and was making angry attempts to straighten his clothing. He was glaring at Zoot all the while, and did not look up at the sound of Trudy's voice. Ebony did, and she smiled her predatory smile.

"Zoot." The voice of his second-in-command broke into the leader's suddenly troubled mind, and he glanced up. Ebony's eyes directed his own sight towards Trudy, and he frowned.

"Not now Trudy."

"But--" She was staring at Bray, and Zoot's face showed a flare of anger that momentarily made him look just like his hated brother.

"Get out of here Trudy. You too Ebony, and the rest of you." The guards looked up in surprise, but moved to follow Spike without comment. Ebony looked a little disappointed.

"Ebony..." Zoot's tone did not brook argument, and she sighed and followed the others. Trudy tried to push past her, but couldn't quite manage it. A sob escaped her, and for the first time Bray looked in her direction. Beneath the moody exterior and fierce glower, she thought that she saw his face soften. He gave her a brief, strangely confident nod, and she felt the fight ebb from her body. Slowly she backed away from the door. Ebony slammed it shut.

"So." Relieved to have lost his guards, and the increasingly hysterical Trudy, Bray folded his arms and stared down at his younger brother. "What happens now?"

"You can't escape." Zoot was looking at the floor, although his stance was still one hundred percent that of the powerful leader of a warmongering tribe. "There's no way out of here."

"So what are you going to do with me? If I can't escape, what happens instead? Are you going to kill me?" There was a direct challenge in his voice, and for a second Zoot's eyes flared. He hated it when Bray tried on the big brother routine, as though he still felt that he could always win through just by virtue of being the elder.

"I could order it." It was a threat, and he meant it to sound genuine. "This isn't the old world, Bray. You might have been my brother then, but you're nothing here except an anachronism. You're a danger to everything that I'm trying to build, and the world might just be a better place without you in it anymore. You get in the way of progress."

"Progress?" Bray was incensed. "Is that what you call it? Slavery, war and rioting? Violence on every street corner? Have you been out there the last couple of days, Martin? It's a mess. It's even worse than it was before, during the Lonely Times. I thought things were starting to settle down at last, but suddenly it's turning back into a war zone. You and your kind are going to tear this city apart!"

"So what if we do? We'll build something better in its place. A new world. A stronger world."

"Power and chaos." Bray's voice was deeply scathing. "Well I wish you luck, little brother. I only hope that you can live with yourself once you've built your brave new world."

"Oh, I will." Zoot smiled at him, mocking the brother he now held at his mercy. "I'm not the one facing problems, Bray. From where I'm standing things are looking pretty good for me."

"Maybe. Depends what you want in life, I suppose." His brother glanced about the office, doing a good impression of somebody who was slightly bored, and had better things to be doing somewhere else. "So are you going to tell me why I'm here, or can I just leave?"

"I've got a deal to put to you." Sitting down at his desk, Zoot leaned back in his impressive black leather chair. He wanted to give his brother the full effect - a powerful leader in his command seat, surrounded by evidence of his opulence. So what if the massive painting behind him was out of keeping with its fellow decorations, or it if was a less than tasteful addition to the room? It looked like the kind of thing that the leader of a powerful tribe should have hanging behind his desk. Nothing else mattered.

"A deal." Bray looked less than impressed, and considerably less than scared. He looked, thought Zoot, with no small measure of annoyance, just like he had in years gone by when faced with some new scheme of his kid brother's. The slightly superior stare, coupled with a certain amount of patient tolerance, seemed like some relic of a distant past. "What kind of a deal?"

"You leave the city. I'll provide you with an escort to the edge of town, and then you can go where you like. You get to live, and you get to stay free."

"But I have to live away from the city?" Bray shook his head. "I'm not going to agree to that. I have responsibilities here."

"Your adoring fans? They're already too scared to be seen with you. You're like social leprosy, Bray. Like you said, the streets are getting more violent. It's been happening these last couple of days, and it's just going to get worse. Those that don't work with the Locos have to work against us; and you're at the top of that second list. Nobody wants anything to do with you."

"Maybe not." Wondering what his brother's minions had been saying to the kids of the city, Bray met Zoot's stare with his own cool gaze. "But I'm not looking for a fan club, Martin. That's your department, with all your little friends running after you, and jumping to your every whim. I don't need that."

"Then leave the city." Zoot leaned forward in his chair, causing the leather to creak and the springs to squeak slightly. It was an old chair, for all its comfort and shine. Soon enough there would be nothing new, though - so he could live with a few rusty springs. "If you've got no friends here to stay for, take my deal and go."

"And if I don't?"

Zoot shrugged. "I can't let you go back out on the streets. It wouldn't do me any good as leader, and I doubt you'd get far anyway. That only leaves me with one alternative, and I don't really think you're going to like it."

"You mean I get to join your band of slaves? Well lucky me. Sounds like you've got your sick revenge all worked out, doesn't it. Because I'm not leaving this city. Not now, and not ever - not while I still feel that there are things I can be doing here. People I think I should be looking after."

"You've never looked after anybody. The first sign of somebody needing your help and you're skating for freedom." Zoot smirked at him, strange eyes emphasising his sarcasm. "Or is this a special somebody? Does she have a name?"

"Yeah, she does as a matter of fact. She also has something else that puts her even more in need of my help - so I'm not leaving."

"We can pick her up on the way. You can take her with you."

"It's not that simple, Martin."

"Then that's just hard luck." Zoot stood up suddenly, with such force that the chair rocketed back and crashed into the frame of the giant painting behind him. "And my name isn't Martin anymore. It's about time you started remembering that."

"Why? Will you kill me if I keep calling you by your real name?" The sarcasm had switched to Bray's tone now, inflaming Zoot's already spiralling temper. "Just cut the act, Martin. You might be able to fool all these mindless idiots who follow you around all day, but you can't fool me. I know you. I know who you really are. Remember the kid who cried because his parents were so sick, and he didn't understand why? Remember the kid who couldn't sleep for a week because he didn't know what was happening to the world? Well I do. I remember all of that, and everything in the years before it. I remember the day you put those lenses over your eyes, and started giving all those stupid speeches, and the day you started called yourself by a different name. Who do you think you are, Martin? What is all this in aid of? Don't tell me that you really believe we're better off in this world? Don't tell me that you never think about mum and dad, and what they must be thinking of you now."

"Don't you dare tell me what I think about." Zoot's voice had dropped to a level, cold tone that quite did away with the anger of moments earlier. "You don't know me, Bray. Maybe you thought you did once, but you certainly don't anymore. Martin is dead, just like the world he came from."

"Fine." Kicking aside one of Trudy's black candelabras, Bray went over to the nearest window. "So Martin is dead. Well if that's the case, then why the deal, huh Zoot? If you're not my brother anymore, why are you offering to save my life?"

"Because I want you out of the city, and alive; not in it and dead. Dead and there's a chance you might be a martyr, if there's anybody out there who knows enough about you, and has seen some of the things you've been trying to do. If you're alive that won't happen. Everybody will know that I won, and that you've left me to it."

"I figured it was something like that." Bray shook his head. "Sorry Zoot. I can't do it. I can't leave you here working your poison into this town, hurting the people who live here. I can't leave it all behind."

"It beats being a prisoner for the rest of your life."

"Does it? And what happens then? What happens when I'm out there working on your own special chain gang every day, and I just happen to let it slip that I'm your brother? How long do you suppose it'll take to let that little bombshell filter through the ranks? I'd give it a week before you're on the chain gang alongside of me - little brother."

"You think so?" Zoot shook his head. "You wouldn't do that. You know as well as I do what will happen if the rest of the Locos know who you really are. They'll probably kill me, and you couldn't let that happen."

"But I don't like saving people, Zoot. When I see that they need helping, I skate away in the other direction. And besides - why should I want to save your life anyway? I don't know you, remember? You're just some guy who thinks he runs the city. Some jumped up little boy with an inflated ego, who thinks that he's God's gift to the world. It's not as though you're my brother or anything."

"You're going to be very sorry that you said all that, Bray." Zoot had gone very white in the face, his lips clenched to a thin white line. For a second Bray was taken aback; afraid that he might have pushed the volatile leader of the Locos rather too far. Maybe Zoot had been right when he had claimed that Martin was dead. "So I'm jumped up am I? I have an inflated ego? Maybe I should show you just how inflated?"

"Maybe you should." The sarcasm and the anger had left Bray's tone too now; but instead of Zoot's icy malice, his own voice was soft, and faintly remorseful. He suddenly felt terribly sad; as though he had just lost his brother as well as his parents. He felt that he had let his mother and his father down badly, letting their youngest child turn into someone so warped. What would they think of him now, with all of his determined efforts to save whales and tigers and dolphins and elephants; sponsoring orang-utans in special parks, and chimpanzees in veterinary programmes; and trying to save the Earth from a hundred different threats - when he couldn't even save his own brother? Zoot glared at him, unreadable eyes even more distant than ever, almost as though he could hear every thought, just as soon as it was born in Bray's mind.

"Are you going to change your answer, or are you going to carry on playing the hero?" Zoot's voice, so cold, made the silence that had preceded it seem doubly long. Bray looked up.

"No." He hardly heard his own voice, and wondered if it had always been this way between them - him so quiet and Martin - Zoot - so loud. He thought that it might once have been the other way around, but he couldn't remember. Six months ago had been a different lifetime. Anything before then was just too far back to go. Zoot nodded.

"Then I'll find you somewhere to think about it for a while. Maybe you'll change your mind." Keeping his eyes firmly on his prisoner, Zoot moved to the door, pulling it open on its well greased runners. Bray watched him, silent as had become his way. He was determined not to cave in to any threat made by his kid brother, no matter what or whom that brother had become. Trepidation filled him, whatever his determined thoughts. He couldn't quite believe that he was really strong enough to stand up to Zoot's own rigid determination. Ebony's face appeared in the doorway.

"Zoot?" Her expression was questioning, and faintly concerned. Bray got the impression that she still cared for him, no matter how long ago their relationship had been. It sickened him to think that she loved him, for he had seen some of the things that she got up to nowadays - had seen some of the victims of her games. There was not much to choose between Zoot and Ebony, and as far as Bray was concerned, they made the perfect pair. He was even more determined to get Trudy away from them - and yet never had he been in a worse position to do just that. He wondered if perhaps he could say something - if there was any point in revealing Trudy's secret to her husband. Perhaps some shred of decency and compassion that might remain inside Zoot would make him see that the Locos were no environment in which to raise a young child. Perhaps he would agree to letting Bray take Trudy away. Perhaps he would even come with them. The idea crumbled in his mind, and took the last shreds of his hope with it. Zoot wouldn't cave in. All that he would do would be to watch Trudy even more closely; and when the child was born he would raise it to be just another Loco. Its first words would probably be 'Power and chaos'. He felt ill.

"Take him away." Zoot sounded tired, as though his varied outbursts, and the constant friction in the atmosphere, were finally starting to get to him. "Put him in one of the confinement cars. I'll decide what to do with him in a day or two, when we've all had some time to think."

"Sure." Ebony's dark eyes danced about between the pair of them, obviously begging for more information. She wanted to know what had gone on between them, and where things were going to go from here. Neither brother had anything to tell her however, for neither one of them really knew any more than she did. "Er..."

"Not now Ebony." Zoot had already turned away. Ebony followed him with her eyes, then glanced back to Bray. He was pointedly avoiding her gaze, staring at the ground, aware of her intense interest but refusing to acknowledge it. Zoot swung back to face her.

"Are you waiting for something?" His anger was apparent, and Ebony blanched. Bray got the impression that there was something about his brother that terrified her. He wondered what it was, and whether it might suggest that there was hope for her yet; then cast the thought aside. It didn't matter much either way, now that they had reached such a point in their relationship. If they hadn't been enemies before, they certainly were now. He could feel it like static electricity in the air.

"I'll just get the guards." She disappeared from the door, waving at somebody who could not be seen from the office. Whoever had been the recipient of her signal, he could not have been far off, for almost immediately a figure appeared at her side. He did not appear to have been one of the guards who had brought Bray before Zoot, but it was not easy to tell. So similar were the clothes of so many of them, that it was next to impossible to tell them apart. This latest was a dark-haired boy of about seventeen, dressed in the almost regimental leather and lycra, much of his head hidden behind a much embellished bicycle helmet. There seemed to be something written across his face in Chinese pictograms, but it was beyond Bray's abilities to translate them. He knew that there was certainly no point in asking.

"Take him to one of the cells." Ebony's voice sounded strangely flat, but it was a nuance of speech that was unheard by all save Bray. He pushed past her, surprised by the ease with which she moved out of his way. He had expected resistance.

"Move." His latest guard was obviously a man of few words, for that was all that he chose to say from then onwards. Bray did not resist, even when the guard grabbed his arm. Ebony glanced towards Zoot, but his back was turned to the group, and he showed no sign of interfering now. Scowling at his rigid form, she pulled the door shut with a slam, then trailed along after Bray and his surly guard. They stopped at one of the smaller rail cars, isolated from the others, and rather heavier and chunkier in shape and build. The guard waved over one of his confederates, who had been artistically draped over the roof of a small post van left parked just inside the perimeter wire. He wandered over slowly, his movements making him appear almost drunk. With his long, purple hair, and face striped vertically in indigo and blue, he looked somehow decadent; like a crazed poet or an offbeat artist. Only the criss-crossed bandoleers of black leather across his bare chest hinted at something rather more violent.

"What's going down, Jay?" His voice was slightly slurred. Bray's first guard, Jay, jerked a thumb at the door of the small train carriage. He seemed to think it unnecessary to voice his requirements, and apparently he was right; for the new arrival immediately pulled a set of keys from his pocket, and fitted it into the waiting lock. The carriage door creaked open, jamming on uncertain pivots. Bray looked unenthusiastically inside. He could see a bare room, the metal of the walls, floor and ceiling unadorned and uninviting. A chill seemed to rise from the metal, noticeable even above the similar chill of the grey, wet world outside. Jay gave him a push, and he stumbled forward.

It was a single, sizeable step up into the cell. He stood purposefully in the way of the door, trying to let his eyes accustom to the darkness inside. The windows had all been painted over, with a thick, impenetrable black paint, on the outside of the glass. There were no chinks in the cover; no tiny places where the wan and feeble sun could creep inside. There wasn't anything at all; no single piece of comfort from the highest point of the slightly sloping roof, to the lowest reach of the uneven floor.

"In." Jay's accomplice, who seemed slightly more wordy than Jay himself, gave Bray a shove. He tripped over the threshold, stumbling into the cell beyond, turning just in time to see Jay's associate beginning to drag the door closed.

"Bray!" Ebony was running up, her eyes bright sparks in all of the gloom. His own eyes snapped up to meet hers; cold and relentless in his case, yet strangely not in hers. She seemed slightly out of breath, which struck him as odd given the short distance of her run. "I'll talk to Zoot."

"Don't bother, Ebony." There was anger in his tone, as well as a measure of bitterness. "I don't want any help from you."

"But--"

"I said, forget it Ebony." He saw her eyes flash with sudden malice, and was almost relieved. Anything was better than the curious way she had looked at him before. He didn't really know how to deal with her when it seemed that she was trying to be his friend.

"You might change your mind." There was something in her tone that made alarm bells ring; something in the slightly smug, knowing hint to her smile. He frowned, wondering what she was up to. He didn't get the chance to find out.

"Finished?" The second guard, the one with the keys, seemed anxious to lock up; presumably so that he could return to his sunbathing on the roof of the post van. Ebony snapped her eyes away from Bray, her mask of cool indifference once again in place.

"I've finished." She turned away, not hesitating once in her even stride as she made for her own living quarters. Bray was only able to watch her as she took her first few strides - then the door slammed shut with an echo that ran around and around his metal room. He heard the scratch of the key in the lock, and fancied that he could hear the footsteps of his guards as they walked away. He was sure that the latter was just in his imagination. Everything seemed suffocatingly quiet.

"Ebony?" Appearing out of the carriage that she shared with Zoot, Trudy almost ran into her husband's second-in-command as she headed past. Ebony stopped rather abruptly, slipping on the façade that she preferred to use in her dealings with Trudy. It was the mask of playful menace, mixed with a measure of patronising disdain.

"What?" She spoke as though she were in a hurry for an appointment, and didn't really have the time to spare for chit-chat.

"I wondered what was going to happen to Bray." There were heavy marks of stress on Trudy's face, and it looked as though she had been crying. Ebony almost smiled.

"I don't think Zoot's decided yet. We've locked Bray up for the time being."

"I know. I saw." Trudy's eyes strayed across to the confinement car, with its blacked out windows and impenetrable walls and door. She might almost have been considering what kind of chance she might have, were she to try to rescue her old friend. This time Ebony did smile; a curling smirk that carried more than a hint of cat-like grace. It made her look like a panther about to strike.

"Worried about him?" She let her own eyes drift back to the cell. "Or maybe there's something else that you're worried about? Like who's going to help you now?"

"What do you mean?" Trudy had gone so pale that Ebony thought the girl might be about to faint. She found herself tensing up, ready to catch her if it proved necessary. It didn't.

"You know what I mean, Trudy." She kept her tone airy and light, as though they were discussing something of complete insignificance. "The baby? Running away so that you can raise it without Zoot's input? I don't think he'd be too happy to hear about that, do you?"

"How do you know?" Trudy made no attempt to feign innocence, and her voice was surprisingly strong. Ebony grinned.

"How do I know? Come on, Trude. You know how close Bray and I used to be. He tells me everything. He always did. The question is, what would happen if Zoot knew?"

"You wouldn't." Trudy sounded certain. "He'd kill Bray. You know he would."

"Not necessarily. Anyway, who says that I care, honey?"

"Then what are you going to do?"

"I haven't decided." Ebony shrugged. "But don't worry. I don't plan on letting anything happen to lover boy just yet. We'll talk this evening."

"I have to spend the evening with Zoot."

"So find an excuse, or I'll find myself spending the evening with Zoot too - and telling him all kinds of interesting things about his wife and his brother. Remember the last time he found out that you and Bray had spent some time together? He went nuts. He'd hardly even asked you out yet, but he still flipped. He's a whole different guy now, and I think you can probably imagine the fireworks. Meet me in my room as soon as it gets dark."

"Okay." She stole one final look back at the carriage where Bray had been locked up. "I'll be there."

"Good." Sounding bright and cheerful, Ebony patted her on the shoulder. "Good girl." With that she was gone. Trudy glared after her. She felt as though she had just made a deal with the devil - and yet she knew that there was nothing else she could have done. Wandering back into her room, she pulled the door shut, and wished that it was easier to make it slam. Not for the first time, she wished that she had never heard of the Locos, much less fallen in with them. She wanted to go to the window, and look out at the place where Bray was confined. She forced herself not to. There was little point, after all. There was nothing to see.

In his cell, Bray was rapidly coming to the same conclusion. His eyes had adjusted to the dark enough for most of his new world to be visible; everything save the murkiest corners, and the old cobwebs that hung around the blackened windows. He stood leaning against the wall opposite the door, his arms folded across his chest, his long coat balled up on the ground at his feet. He was cold, he was hungry, and he was becoming increasingly shaken. Somehow he couldn't help thinking that it was going to be a very long time indeed before he felt any different. He sighed, closing his now useless eyes. There was nothing to see, nothing to look at. Just darkness, hiding in cold corners. Blank sheets of grey metal, and murky silence. Smiling a very bitter smile, he thought about the litter-filled world beyond his walls, with all of its violence, graffiti and fear. It was some pit he had fallen into, if he could find himself missing the madness outside; but right now he knew that he would give almost anything to be back on those godforsaken streets. For the first time since the Virus had made itself known, he found himself thinking that maybe the adults had been the lucky ones after all. It was the last straw. Sinking down onto the ground, he let his head fall into his hands. Quite suddenly all he wanted was oblivion.

"Trudy?" Zoot was standing in the doorway of their bedroom, and Trudy jumped in shock. She had not heard him approach, and his sudden appearance startled her. He actually looked apologetic, which was starting to become a rare occurrence, and she wondered at the reason for it. Surely he wasn't starting to reconsider the issue with Bray?

"What is it?" Usually she didn't see him much in the hours before nightfall, for he was away in his car for much of that time, terrorising the city with his cronies, whilst she preferred to stay behind in the rail yard. Her question seemed to surprise him, for he shrugged in a sort of confusion, looking young and awkward as he hung around in the doorway. His hands were sunk into his pockets, and his eyes were fixed on the ground, so that he reminded her very much of the day when he had first asked her out. It nearly made her smile.

"I just wanted to make sure that you were alright. You know."

"You mean, do I mind what you've just done to Bray? No Zoot, I'm not alright. I want you to let him go."

"I can't do that." The awkwardness ebbed away, and he looked more like a leader again. "That's the way it works. You know that."

"But we're talking about Bray." She saw no reaction in his face, and turned away. "I guess I hadn't realised how much you'd changed."

"Change is necessary." He sat down on the bed, staring at her as though the previous exchange had not taken place, glossing over her concerns for his brother. "Anyway, that's not what I meant. You didn't seem yourself earlier. You haven't for several days. I've been trying to figure out what's wrong, because you don't seem to want to talk to me anymore."

"Maybe I never did." She turned her back on him, and began to flick through the pages of the magazine that she was reading - an old edition of a monthly publication on pop music, which she had read sometimes in the days when it had still been up-to-date. It was like looking through a history book now, as she read the ageing articles, looking at the faces and fashions of a collection of young men and women now dead and gone.

"Hey." Zoot's voice was filled with its familiar note of demand, but when he moved around in front of her to take the magazine away, his touch felt gentle. Trudy looked up at him.

"Okay." She tried not to let herself be intimidated by his blank eyes, but as usual she found it almost impossible. Even when Zoot was apparently trying to be friendly, those eyes still set him apart. She wished that she could persuade him to take the contact lenses out, but she knew that he would never agree to it. They had become a part of him, and it saddened her to think that she might never get to see his real eyes again. They had been nice eyes; friendly eyes. Soft and warm.

"Okay what? Okay you're alright, or okay you're going to talk to me now. You're supposed to be my wife." He sighed, turning away. "Sometimes I think that you don't want to be here."

"It's not that." She thought about the baby inside her, and felt the usual sensation of fear begin to grow; the same sensation that she always felt when forced to consider the fact of her pregnancy. Zoot saw the change come over her face, and frowned.

"Don't try to pretend that there's nothing wrong, Trudy."

"I--" She looked up at him; looked away; looked helplessly out of the window. It was growing dark, and flickering firelight was beginning to mark out the perimeter of the camp. Many of the Locos had lit candles, whilst the guards on patrol were beginning to use their torches now - large, battery-operated devices pilfered from police stations and fire stations, and anywhere else where powerful flashlights were readily available. The darkness made her think about an appointment that she needed to keep, and her breath caught in her throat. "I'm sorry Zoot. I said that I'd meet Ebony."

"Ebony?" Clearly he didn't believe her. "You hate Ebony."

"Yes... But maybe that's starting to change now. She's been making a real effort, and I think maybe we can start to be friends. I mean, she likes you, and she wants to make a good impression."

"And you'd rather go and talk to her right now than stay here and talk to me." He didn't sound hurt, which only served to make her feel even worse about walking out on him. It took an effort to force a nod.

"Yes. I mean--"

"Don't worry about it." He took her hand and helped her to her feet. "But we are going to talk about this, Trudy. You've been ill, and I'm starting to think maybe I know why. If I'm right, I think we really do need to talk." Quite suddenly there was emotion - or the shadow of it at least - in his crazy eyes. "Don't you?"

"Yes." She blurted it out without thinking, and then stopped to consider his words. Had he guessed? She knew that she had gone pale, but she didn't seem able to help it. "I, er... I'll be back soon. I don't think Ebony wanted to talk to me for long. Maybe we can have something to eat when I get back, and we'll talk things through then?"

"Sure." He followed her to the door, opening it for her with a flourish, like some age-old gentleman. She smiled at him.

"Thanks." It was nice when he did thoughtful things; things that reminded her of the boy she had once fallen in love with. He nodded briefly.

"It'll be alright, Trude. I know you're scared, but it'll be alright."

"Yeah." So he did know. He had to, to have made such an astute comment. Quite suddenly she couldn't meet his eyes. "I, er... I'll be going then. I'll..."

"Yeah. You'll be back in a bit." He took the lamp from the hook beside the door, and clicked it on as he handed it to her. She smiled her thanks. The light pooled at her feet, making the damp and wiry grass seem to glow. "I'll have some food put ready for us. What do you fancy?"

"I don't know. You choose." She managed a hurried smile, then turned and walked away. She knew that he had gone back inside, for she heard the door shut, and the sound of his feet moving about on the metal floor within - and yet still she seemed to feel his eyes on her back as she went across the yard. Her heart beat frantically, and she forced herself to stare at the ground and keep her mind clear. She didn't want to think about Zoot, nor look back at the carriage she shared with him. She didn't want to think about Bray, or look at the dark, sorry little place in which he had been imprisoned. She didn't want to think about Ebony either; but that much at least was inevitable. Reaching the door of her main rival's living quarters, she knocked loudly, and waited for the summons. Already she was sensing that this had been a mistake - but it was too late now to think again. There was nowhere else to go but into the trap that was surely about to be sprung.

Ebony had been awaiting Trudy's arrival since the sun had first sunk down below the horizon, and it came as no surprise when the knocking sounded on the door. She had never doubted that her bated hook would be drawn in with the fish wriggling at the end of it. Trudy could always be counted upon to fall exactly where she was pushed. It was one of the things that made her so predictable - and so easily led.

"Trudy." She made herself sound surprised, as though this was the last thing that she had expected. "Fancy meeting you here."

"Very funny." She pushed past into the little room containing all of Ebony's worldly possessions - a dimly lit space, sparsely furnished, hung with a few paintings and rugs. There was nothing at all by way of comfort save the bed, and that was little more than a few cushions draped with a pair of darkly-coloured blankets. They looked like the kind of thing that had once been sold at grossly inflated prices in fashionable stores - hand-woven in India, or so the labels had claimed - pictured in all of the home-style magazines that people with more money than sense had bought to drop artistically on their coffee tables.

"Have a seat." Since there was nothing to sit on save for the bed, Trudy declined the offer, and leant against the wall. Ebony seemed amused, and took the bed herself. Seated on it, her legs crossed and her hands on her knees, she looked peaceful and at rest; not at all like the tightly coiled spring that she was in reality. Trudy knew her well enough to be more than aware of the careful façade that that image of relaxation truly was. She folded her arms, and made a stab at looking tough.

"Why did you want to speak to me?"

"I wanted to bond with my friend." Ebony's eyes were filled with an unpleasant kind of sarcasm. "I wanted to get close to you. Talk about boys and make-up. Maybe discuss the latest pop group."

"If you're just planning on being sarcastic all night, I think I'd be better off talking with Spike." Trudy did not turn away, despite her threat to leave, and instead remained staring at Ebony's amused face. The girls locked eyes; the one impatient and nervous, the other triumphant and mocking.

"You know why I wanted to speak to you. It's about that baby you've got floating around inside." She frowned. "Do they float? Or do they clamp onto something, and start sucking all the goodness out of you, like some kind of parasite? What's wrong, Trude? Didn't scare you then did I?"

"What about the baby?" Trudy looked away, preferring to watch the ambling progression of a particularly large beetle as it scouted over the scuffed metal floor. Ebony uncrossed her legs, the movement somehow managing to emphasise her usual panther-like grace.

"You don't want Zoot to have it. I know everything, Trudy. You think that your child should be raised without its father getting in the way."

"It's not quite that simple." Bristling at any implied slight to the man that she suddenly found herself still to be in love with, Trudy frowned harshly. Ebony shrugged.

"You think Zoot will see it that way? All that will interest him is the fact that you're planning to steal his child; to prevent him from having anything to do with it. I don't think he's going to appreciate your reasons. Do you?"

"He'll be angry."

"Angry? He'll be a little more than that, especially once he finds out that it was Bray who was planning to help you. You know what Zoot thinks about you two. He was always convinced that the pair of you were carrying on behind his back."

"Bray didn't know that Zoot was interested in me when he first asked me out. I was never seeing them both at the same time." She drew in a sharp breath, chastising herself for having risen to the bait. There was no need to explain things to Ebony, who had been there all along. Any awkwardness and unpleasantness which had come as a result of any misunderstandings between Trudy, Bray and Zoot were almost entirely as a result of Ebony's machinations.

"Whatever." Ebony folded her hands around her knees, her sharp eyes fixing Trudy in the depths of a compelling stare. "But that's not important. What matters is what happens now. You're going to have a baby, and you want the chance to bring it up outside of the Locos." She shrugged. "Personally I think you're nuts. You'll probably die out there on the streets without us to look after you; and with a baby you'll be even more at risk. But if it's really what you want, I don't plan on getting in your way."

"Quite the opposite, I'll bet." Trudy sighed, knowing that she was about to make a very dangerous deal. Getting involved with Ebony was always inadvisable, but when the stakes were so high it was even worse. "So what do you suggest? That I throw myself onto your tender mercies, and let you show me what's best?"

"I don't have any tender mercies, Trudy." Ebony sounded almost insulted, even though it had been very clear that Trudy's words were strictly meant in sarcasm. "But yes, basically. I'm willing to help you."

"Why?"

"Why do you think? If you leave here, it leaves certain doors open, shall we say. Things will be a little easier around here for me, without you getting in the way all of the time. Everything will be a little easier."

"You think Zoot will take you as his wife?"

"You think I want him to?" Ebony had flushed a strange colour. "He's made his choice now, and we all know why he made it. Truth is that there are other plans I have; plans I don't intend to let you in on. Having you out of the way would make things a lot easier in many respects, and I've been trying to think of ways to get shot of you for some time now." She smirked at the shocked expression her words had inspired. "Don't look like that. Killing you wouldn't have got the job done. The last thing that the Locos need is for a grieving leader to go moping about the place. Having you leave like this - especially if you're known to have left with Bray - is just what Zoot needs to inspire him. He's been going soft lately."

"Zoot? Soft?" Trudy shook her head. "I don't see it. I don't think that the rest of the city would agree with you either."

"Doesn't matter what they think." Ebony leaned forward slightly, the urgency and desire very evident in her eyes. "Well? What do you say?"

"Why?" Suspicion making her cautious, Trudy couldn't help frowning hard in response to this question. "What is it that you stand to gain from all of this? You'd never help me out of the kindness of your heart, so why is it that you're so desperate to help me? And what is it that you're planning that makes it so important for you to have Zoot so angry?"

"Just a little turf war with the Demon Dogs." She made it sound so simple - like a stroll in the park, or a planned trip to a shopping mall to buy a new outfit. "They're starting to encroach on some of our boundaries, and with Zoot going easy on them the way he has been lately, there's been no way of stopping them. I want the Locos to be top in this city, not that bunch of silver-painted sissies."

"You want a war. Great. That's really going to be helpful when I'm out there on my own trying to bring up a baby. Nice thinking, Ebony."

"Hey, take it or leave it." Ebony's shrug was heartless in its lack of sympathy. "Anyway, the plan is that you won't be alone. You'll have Bray with you; and we all know what a dab hand he is at avoiding the Demon Dogs."

"Bray?" Trudy's heart lifted. "You'd let me take him away with me? You'd let us go together?"

"Of course. I don't want him locked up in that carriage, waiting for one of the boys to get careless during playtime, and wind up doing permanent damage. Bray's more fun out on the streets as an adversary than he is locked up in a cell here. Besides, I can't think of any better way to get Zoot's blood up than having his wife run off with his brother. I'll see to it that he lets you go, and doesn't come after you. I'll make him see that he's better off without you." She smiled. "No offence."

"Of course not." Trudy hid most of the irritation from her voice, but some of it still seeped through. It made Ebony's eyes sparkle to hear it, and she laughed a cold little laugh that suggested there was yet more to her plan; something that would be even less pleasing to Trudy than all that she had already heard. "Will you be expecting us to leave the city? I know that's one of the things that Zoot wanted from Bray."

"I don't care where you go. Far away from here would be sensible, but I wouldn't suggest trying to leave the city. Not just yet at any rate. You know how much worse it's been getting out there these last few days. Everything is falling apart, and it's only going to get worse."

"Especially if you have your little war."

"Naturally." Ebony stretched out her long legs, looking less than sorry about the effect that her plans were likely to have upon her fellow city dwellers. "It's going to get real crazy out there in the next few days, and it'll stay that way for a long time. There'll be fighting everywhere you look, and everybody will be running scared. It won't be safe to be out of doors, much less trying to get out of the city. That's where all of the fools will go, and they'll be picked off faster than they can run. The Mariners, the Jackals, the Orphans - they're like vultures when it comes to Strays; and that's just what you'll be. You'd be better off finding somewhere where you can lay low and wait for the storm to blow over."

"But that could take months."

"Of course it could. But in a little while you're not going to be up to doing all that much. You won't exactly have a plentiful food supply when you're out on the streets, and that baby is going to be a drain on the resources you do have. In a few months you're going to be feeling pretty sapped. You won't be able to do much walking, let alone running - not if you want that kid to have anything like a chance of being born healthy; or even of being born at all. You'll have to take things easy, and getting out of the city is not going to be an option. If you don't want Zoot to get his hands on the baby, imagine how you'd feel about the Mariners getting it. Imagine seeing it being brought up as one of them - or as a Jackal. Imagine what would happen if you were captured by the Gatekeepers. You'd certainly never see Bray again, and I doubt that your baby would fare much better. I don't think you even want to consider what they'd do to you."

"But if you waited... Let us escape before you make any open challenges to the Demon Dogs--"

"No deal, Trude. I'll help you get out of here, and I'll help you get Bray out. I'll make sure that Zoot lets you go, and doesn't come tearing after you ready to have Bray executed on the spot. The rest is up to you. I can't give you any more."

"Can't or won't?"

"Can't, won't - it's all the same. I won't do any more for you, no - and I can't. If we're going to challenge the Demon Dogs, I want it to be soon, before they get any stronger, and before they try to take over any more of our territory. They're already a force to reckoned with, and they could get even stronger still. I won't let that happen. I plan on issuing this challenge in the next forty-eight hours. Probably sooner. Sorry Trudy, but it has to be done."

"The city will get torn apart."

"Probably." She smiled, as though that were the most wonderful effect that her warmongering could have. "Then maybe Zoot and I can build a new one together."

"It'll be madness out there." She went over to the window, staring out into the city, thinking of the chaos that already reigned, and of how much worse it was soon going to be. "Are you really sure that you want to do this?"

"I'm positive. It's perfect. Now do we have a deal?"

"I don't know." She didn't have the slightest idea how she should answer. To refuse would perhaps win the city a stay of execution, and stop things from getting any worse than they already were. On the other hand, Ebony undoubtedly had some contingency plan, that would see her exposed for her secrets and lies, and would probably end up with her own incarceration. She didn't want to think about what might happen to her baby once it had been born; or to herself, or to Bray. On the other hand, agreeing to the plan would not only mean that she would be left to fend for herself and her child on the cold streets; it would also mean that the whole of the city would be turned into a vast war zone, with tribes fighting each other on every street corner, and even more terrified youngsters hiding in dark alleys and burnt out shops. It was almost too terrible to imagine - but how different would it really be if she refused? Ebony was too clever, and was sure to have worked things out too well.

"There's a catch, isn't there," she asked. It was all that she could think of, to help her put off the necessity of answering. To her surprise Ebony laughed with genuine humour.

"Of course there's a catch. There always is. But the skill isn't in spotting its existence, Trudy. It's in spotting what it is."

"And what is it?"

"Oh, I think I'll just leave that to your imagination." Another predatory smile played across the lips of Zoot's lieutenant. "All that matters is that we're both winners in this. You get your freedom, and you get Bray. What more do you want? I get my chance to prove myself in a battle against the Demon Dogs that should turn out to be the defining moment of this city's entire existence. Not only will I get to prove my worth as Zoot's second-in-command, but I'll also get the attention of the whole city. I don't want to be an also-ran. I want to be a force to be reckoned with. I can get that this way. I can also win supremacy for the Locos." She rose to her feet, pacing across the floor on almost silent feet, until she was standing just a few inches from her quarry. Trudy was gripped with an unavoidable sensation of dismay, as though she were a fly being inexorably drawn into a silken web, unable to think of any means of escape. She lowered her head, no longer able to keep up the steady contact of stares that had become such a drain upon her nerves.

"Do we have a deal, Trudy?" Ebony's voice was soft and honeyed, and yet dripping with a thinly veiled sarcasm that hinted at yet more ulterior motives. Trudy wished that there was somebody she could go to, to ask for advice, or just to discuss the situation with. She couldn't think of anybody, for she had been alone since the chaos had first taken them all. She sighed. Ebony smirked. "Well?"

"Yeah." She looked up; looked at the walls; looked at the paintings and the rugs and the blankets that draped the bed; anywhere save at the self-satisfied smirk on the face of the girl before her. "It's a deal."

"Good." Ebony's smile became a fully-fledged gloat. "When can you be ready to go?"

"I want to see Zoot first."

"Not a good idea. You might just change your mind, or let something slip."

"Maybe. But I have to get some food together. I packed a few things..."

"This isn't a holiday, Trudy." Ebony sighed. "Look, I've got some stores in the cupboard over there. There's Bray's bag in there too, and his skateboard. Take whatever you can pack, and then meet me outside. I'll spring Bray. I think it's best if I get the two of you out of here straight away, don't you think?"

"I... suppose so." Quite suddenly she couldn't bear the idea of walking out on Zoot that way; and yet she couldn't see any alternative. If this was the way it had to be, she was just going to have to take what she could get. "You'll explain everything? To Zoot I mean. You'll tell him that I don't... that I..."

"You want me to tell him that you love him, and that you're only doing this for the baby." Ebony rolled her eyes. "I'm not the poetical type, Trudy. Sorry. Maybe you should write him a letter."

"Yeah!" The idea delighted her with its simplicity. "I'll write a note, and you can give it to him later."

"Fine. Just get it written quickly, okay? I'll go and get Bray, but I want the pair of you out of here within the next half hour. That's when the guard changes, and it should be easy to slip you out through the west fence."

"Half an hour?" That hardly seemed like time enough to compose a letter to her husband and collect together some stores for the long haul ahead. She nodded though, and headed straight for the relevant cupboard. "Okay. I'll get started. And... thank you Ebony."

"There's no need for thanks." Ebony smiled at her, almost warmly enough to make Trudy feel that she might be trusted after all. "I'll go and get Bray now. You keep quiet, 'cause if I run into Zoot I'm going to tell him that you already left." She crossed to the door and opened it, slipping out into the darkening world beyond. For a second she paused on the threshold, but she did not look back at Trudy. Trudy herself, already busy at the cupboard, did not notice the momentary stop; not did she hear the gentle laugh that Ebony was not able to contain. She only heard the door as it clicked quietly closed, signalling Ebony's departure. A cold breeze seemed to blow through the room as she left it, and Trudy glanced up at the feel of it across the back of her neck. She almost shivered, drawn by the sensation into worried thoughts about the deal she had just made. She laughed at herself, amused at her own illogical reaction to a draught. Had she seen the way that Ebony was smiling, however, as she walked away across the rail yard, she might have thought herself not quite so illogical after all.

Bray didn't mind the solitude. He had always preferred his own company to that of others, even before the Virus, and he had grown more than used to it during his months on the street. Long periods without the company of others were no hardship for him; and silence, far from being disturbing, was in fact quite the opposite. Silence meant that there was nobody fighting; nobody coming for you; no danger about to be encountered. He saw it as a friend rather than as an enemy, and found that even now, in his cell, he actually enjoyed its presence. The darkness, too, was not as worrying as it might have been. It had been a long time since he had last been in a position where light had been at his command, like in the old days. There were no more switches to press, no more inexhaustible supplies of batteries; no more regular supplies of anything. Light had become something that he was accustomed to living without.

The cold was something that he didn't think he would ever get used to, however; no matter how many nights there were when he was unable to get warm. It was cold in his cell; the kind of breathtaking coldness that sunk deep and made everything ache. He sat in the same place that he had been in all along, hugging his knees and staring at the floor, wondering when somebody was going to come and talk to him. He didn't know when he had been locked up, but he was fairly sure that it had been some time ago. He wondered if it was dark yet. He didn't dare hope that he would be fed, but he was increasingly in need of something. He had eaten nothing since early that morning, and the hunger had gone past a simple longing.

The sound of a key in the lock startled him back from the brink of cold and hungry thoughts. He looked up sharply, his neck muscles protesting after an extended period without movement. There was a long pause following the scratching of the key, and for a few moments he thought that he might have imagined the noise; then finally the door eased itself open. He began to rise to his feet, but a sudden flare of light froze him in his place. The bright intensity of a questing torch beam struck him full in the eyes, blinding him with its force, and he threw up his hands to shade some of the glare. Abruptly the light was gone.

"Sorry." Of all the voices that he had expected to hear, Ebony's was the last. He frowned, finally making it to his feet.

"Ebony?"

"Surprise!" She sounded almost jovial, but he couldn't see what the expression was on her face. Somehow he couldn't bring himself to trust her when he was unable to see her - and right now he couldn't see anything at all. Bright spots danced in front of his eyes, blurring his vision unpleasantly.

"What do you want?" He took a step towards her, but was not fool enough to try anything. She was probably armed, and was very unlikely to be alone. "What is it? Feeding time at the zoo?"

"Feeding time?" She laughed. "The Locos only feed their guests when it pleases them. You'll be lucky to see some food before the week is up. Unless..."

"Unless what, Ebony? I agree to leave the city? To give in to Zoot's demands and let him live out his little dream? I'm not going to agree to that."

"Keep your voice down, Bray." By the sound of her feet he got the impression that she had come into the room with him, and perhaps pulled the door to. When the torchlight came back on again, directed at the floor this time, he saw that this was indeed so. She smiled at him.

"Ready to go?"

"Go where? For another audience with my all-powerful brother?"

"No. Really go. I know all about Trudy and her little problem, you know that. I've agreed to help the pair of you leave."

"Why?" He asked the question forcefully, without even bothering to ask any of the other questions that flooded his mind. How did she know so much? How was she going to get them out? How would she square it all with Zoot? They were all questions that he suddenly found himself pondering, but none was as important as just why she should want to help them at all. She shrugged, although he was hardly aware of the movement. His eyes still hurt, and were more or less useless.

"Because I want to help. I don't want to see you locked up here for the rest of your life, or stuck on some slave labour detail. We were friends, Bray. I want to help you."

"You know, you almost sound genuine." He glared at her, wishing that he could see her well enough to judge the expression on her face, or the lights in her shadowy eyes.

"You don't trust me." She gave a little sigh. "Oh Bray. I had hoped... but it doesn't matter. All that matters now is that you're safe. I've never been close to Trudy, but I know that she means something to you, and I know you want to help her now. That means that I'm willing to get the pair of you out of here, with as much food as I can give you. I'd rather you were out there, and free, than shut up here where goodness knows what might happen to you. Honestly Bray. I only want to help." She moved closer to him. "You know that I care about you, don't you?"

"I know that you only ever do things for yourself. I know that you're a Loco through and through, and that there was never anybody more suited to my brother than you are. What I don't know is how far you're prepared to go just to serve your own ends. I won't make any deals with you, Ebony."

"Fine." She lifted the torch beam again, this time purposely flashing it into his eyes. He flinched away. "You can believe what you like, Bray; but with you locked up in here, who's going to help Trudy? Or maybe you like the idea of your niece or nephew being raised as a Loco? Personally I think it's a great idea. Maybe Zoot will even let me help him bring the kid up, after he's got rid of Trudy. It's on the cards, you know. He hardly even speaks to her these days. I haven't even seen them in the same room for nearly a month. Pretty soon he's going to move on to the next girl, and all that he'll keep to remind himself of Trudy is the baby that she gave him. But have it your own way. You don't trust me, fine. You can spend the rest of your life being a slave of the Locos, while your own brother's kid keeps the key to your chains. I'm sorry I disturbed you." She turned away. Galvanised into action as much by the sudden removal of the blinding light from his eyes as by the words she had just spoken, Bray took a step forward.

"No. Ebony, wait." He frowned at her, lit now by the downcast torchlight. He thought that he caught sight of a fox-like smile, but he couldn't trust his own vision. "You'd really help us?"

"I told you. I care about you. Now I gave Trudy half an hour to get some food together from my own personal store. We've got no longer than that, and then you have to be gone. So you have to make up your mind."

"And there are no catches? No tricks?"

"I just want to help you." She moved closer to him, taking his hand. He almost flinched away again, but stopped himself just in time. Maybe she was genuine. Maybe it didn't matter. Maybe he had to trust her anyway. He rubbed his still smarting eyes.

"And then what happens? I mean... if we leave, what will Zoot do?"

"I'll explain it all to him. He'll understand. He'll probably be glad to be shot of the pair of you."

"And what about you?"

"Oh you know me, Bray. If he suspects me of being involved, I'll handle it. I'll be okay. I only want to help you."

"Then come with us." He surprised himself by making the offer, and by her reaction Ebony was just as thrown. It was a moment before she laughed.

"Come with you? The three of us playing happy families with the baby when it comes? I don't think so. I'll stay here with Zoot, where I belong."

Suspicion filled him. "So that you can take Trudy's place?"

"Maybe." She laughed lightly, and he got the impression that that was not what she intended at all. "Or maybe I just like the idea of you owing me a favour. Either way, if you want to think about this, you'd better think fast. We don't have all that much time."

"I want to speak to Trudy." He started towards the door, but she stopped him.

"No deal. You don't leave here until you give me your answer, one way or the other. I'm not going to let you go unless it's so you walk straight out of this place. Otherwise there's too much danger that you'll be seen, and that puts me at risk."

"But I want to talk this through with Trudy. I don't trust you."

"Hard luck. It's choose now, or don't choose at all. Stay here, or go free. There's not really anything to think about, is there."

"Maybe not." He stared at the door, lit faintly by Ebony's dipped torch. In his mind he was working through all of the possibilities, trying to see why she would help him, and what exactly she might stand to gain from it. He couldn't see that there was much she could hope to win from such a move, unless she really did just want to have Zoot's affections for herself. He found that he was smiling, albeit faintly. Maybe Ebony really was on the level. Maybe all that she wanted was to help him out. Just like she had said, they had once been very close. She saw the smile, and echoed it with one of her own.

"Think about the baby, Bray."

"I am." He weighed it all up one final time, then forced himself to nod. There was no sense in thinking forever about something that really did seem to be very simple. At the end of the day, he just wanted to get out of the rail carriage that was his prison, and back out onto the streets where he was at least his own man. He thought about his long held dream of finding somewhere where he could live off the land, and shut out the insanity of the rest of the world. He owed at least that much to his niece or nephew. If nothing else he owed the kid a safe place. He had to find Trudy somewhere where she could deliver her baby - and hopefully raise it - in warmth and safety. Once he had done that, maybe he could go back to looking after himself.

"So what'll it be?" Ebony had gone to the door without his noticing. She was peering out, watching the rail yard and the other carriages. Bray went after her, putting his hand momentarily on her shoulder.

"Okay. It's a deal. And... thanks."

"No problem." She was smiling at him, and he was surprised to find how much he still liked to see that smile. It reminded him of just why he had been so attracted to her once, before the apocalypse had showed him her true colours. He smiled to himself. Maybe they hadn't been her true colours after all. "Come on."

"I'm right with you." He stood back as she pushed the door wide, then followed her out into the cold air. He could hear the sounds of distant fighting in the streets, and was surprised at how good it sounded to him. How familiar.

"Bray!" Trudy was there almost before he was aware of it, running towards him across the grass. He almost shouted to her to be careful, but managed to stop himself just in time. Ebony glared at her.

"Do you want to get us caught?" She sighed. "Have you got the food?"

"Here." She held up a bulging bag which, along with Bray's skateboard, had weighed her down considerably. "Oh, and..." She pressed a piece of paper into Ebony's hand. "Here."

"Oh. Right." Ebony nodded. "Sure." She put the piece of paper carefully into her pocket, then led the way towards the west wire. There were no guards, for just as she had said, it was a period between watches, during which security was surprisingly lax. Maybe not so surprising, thought Bray, when he saw the number of empty beer cans lying on the grass.

"This way." Ebony had crouched down, and was lifting a loose flap of wire. A large gap yawned, more than big enough for a fully grown man to slip through, let alone two undernourished teenagers. Trudy threw the bag of food through the gap.

"Thanks Ebony." Impulsively she gave her fellow Loco a hug. Ebony returned it, albeit a little stiffly.

"Just get out of here before the fresh guards come." She put her hand on Bray's shoulder. "And be careful."

"We will." He smiled at her, and gave her hand a brief squeeze. "Thanks Ebony. Be seeing you."

"Yeah." She stood back to watch them both squeeze through the wire. "You will be."

"Pardon?" Bray had heard the soft buzz of her voice, but hadn't been able to distinguish the words. She smiled at him.

"Just wishing you luck." He smiled.

"Thanks. You too. I mean, once Zoot finds out..."

"He'll understand. Really. Now get out of here, okay?"

"Okay." For a second he paused, and she felt her heart skip a beat at the smile he offered in her direction - then he turned and was gone. She stared after him, watching until both dark figures had disappeared completely. It did not take long.

"Zoot will understand," she whispered after the vanished pair. "Especially since I'm hardly going to tell him the truth. You think that I'm going to own up to my part in this, Bray?" Pulling Trudy's note from her pocket, she struck a match from a book she carried with her, and touched the flame to the dry paper. It caught instantly, and the little letter exploded into hot flakes of ash. "But one thing I am going to do is make you pay off your debt to me in full - and maybe I can use your new-found trust to help persuade you we're meant to be together." She crumbled the ash in her fingers, letting the ruined note fall to the ground, then headed back to her room. She would leave Zoot alone for the rest of the night. It would be better if the guards discovered Bray's disappearance in the morning, for that way the news of Trudy's departure would have so much more impact. She smiled happily to herself. By this time tomorrow night, the Locos would be on the rampage. The city would soon be theirs, and Zoot would have abandoned his attempts to be a family man with his insipid wife. It could only serve to raise her own stock, and the possibility that Trudy might not survive childbirth would only serve to strengthen her position further. She imagined herself consoling Zoot in the present, and then helping a downcast Bray in the months to come. A cheerful grin burst its way onto her face, and her step quickened. Two brothers for the price of one, and Trudy out of the picture for good. All that she needed now was her war with the Demon Dogs, and it would feel almost like Christmas.

"Ebony?" Zoot's voice shocked his lieutenant, for it had been a long, long time since she had heard him sounding his age. Was he fourteen yet? Yes, he must be. It was hard to keep track of days and dates, and few enough people really seemed to bother anymore, but his birthday must have been and gone. Had hers? At one time she would never have believed that she could possibly let something like a birthday go unmarked, and yet now it seemed that that was exactly what she had done.

"Hey Zoot." Deliberately sounding casual and cheerful, she sauntered into his office with a smile on her face. "What's going on? The whole camp's in uproar."

"You haven't heard?" He was standing with his back to his desk, facing the surreal painting of the feasting Cronus, and yet not seeming to look at it at all. She shook her head.

"I haven't heard anything. I haven't been here." She shrugged, picking up one of the books from the desk and toying with it, smoothly feigning indifference to her surroundings. "I went out last night. Thought I'd keep an eye on what the Demon Dogs are up to. I haven't seen anyone since I said goodbye to Trudy, not long after it got dark."

"That was the last time you saw her?" His head had snapped up, and he was staring at her with fierce eyes. She blinked.

"Yes. She came round. We wanted to have a talk. About... well, you know. I wanted to see if we could be friends. She's your wife, and I thought it was time that--"

"I'm not interested in why you wanted to see her." He sounded impatient. "She's gone, Ebony. She left last night. Nobody's seen her."

"Gone?" She managed an incredulous laugh, and secretly congratulated herself on the spontaneity of it. "Gone where? You don't think she's left for good?"

"Why else would she go?" He shook his head, looking unutterably bereft. "We'd been having some problems lately, but I put it down to--" He shrugged. "You might as well know. She's pregnant."

"Pregnant?" Ebony whistled softly, and sat down on the nearest chair. It was just a wooden packing crate, decorated with random splashes of paint, but it was comfortable enough. "Well... well maybe that's why she's gone then. Pregnant women are supposed to do all kinds of irrational things, aren't they. It's hormones and all that. She'll be back."

"Will she?" He paced slowly backwards and forwards, then jerked to an abrupt halt right beside her. "Then why did she walk out of here with Bray?"

"Bray?" She stared up at him, trying to guess from his masked eyes whether or not he suspected her involvement. She could see nothing that suggested he thought any such thing, and she took heart from that, letting it improve her performance. "You don't think it's his baby?"

"His?" He gaped at her, proving that he had never considered that possibility. "No. No, I don't think it can be. They haven't spent any time together. They can't have done. I mean..." He frowned and resumed his pacing, kicking irritably at the floor as he walked. "You don't really think it could be his do you?"

"No." She jumped to her feet and turned away, suddenly deciding that she didn't want to look at him when there was a possibility that he might get emotional. "You're right. They couldn't have been together recently. Not recently enough, anyway, and she can't be all that pregnant. It's not showing or anything."

"A couple of months I think. I read some things..." He frowned at the floor, and then joined her at the window. "I'm going to kill him. You understand that, don't you. I can't kill her, not when she's expecting my baby. But him..."

"He's your brother, Zoot." She threw a sidelong glance in his direction, and was heartened to see the fire that seemed to have consumed him. It was just what she had been hoping for; and now all that she needed to do was to channel it down her pre-prepared route. "You don't want to kill him."

"I do." His hands were closed up into tight fists; his knuckles white and shaky. "I want to kill him. I want to kill both of them."

"They're not worth it. I know that you think they are, but that's only now. Killing them won't make you feel any better. Not in the long run."

"Oh? And when did you become the sensible one, Ebony? When did you become so old? You're starting to sound like my outdated brother."

"I'll ignore that." She grabbed his arm, startling him. "Zoot, you've been betrayed. You're angry and I'm sorry. But I say that you should let them go. Don't bother trying to go after them right now."

"She's my wife. She's carrying my baby."

"Yes, she is. But how far do you think they're going to get? It's crazy out on the streets, Zoot. Chaos everywhere - and it'll be worse still if everything works out. They can't escape from the city. No one can. We can get them any time we choose. They're worse than helpless out there, especially given Bray's unpopularity with so many of the other tribes. There's nowhere he can turn to. Nowhere either of them can turn to, because everybody knows who Trudy is as well. Who's going to take them in? They're no threat to us. They're not even worthy opponents, so why waste energy on them?"

"Leave them you mean? Pick them off when we feel like it? Bide our time?" He shook his head. "No. Why bother? We might just as well go and get them now."

"No we shouldn't. Think about it, Zoot - there's something else that we should be doing. Something much more important. The Demon Dogs are a threat to us, no matter how much we'd like to pretend that they're not. They're making more and more attacks on our territory, and they've got to be stopped."

"You're proposing a war." He frowned, seeming to stare straight through her as he considered her words. "You want us to go to war with the Demon Dogs. Now? After what's just happened?"

"Power and chaos, Zoot, like neither of us ever dreamed of. Right now you're feeling more chaotic than ever. It's the perfect time. There's nothing that will cure the way you're feeling like more power and greater chaos. You must see that."

"Power and chaos." It looked as though his eyes were shining - glowing even, with a tremendous light. She smiled.

"You're angry, and you're hurt. I know that. So use it. Use that anger. Turn it against the Demon Dogs."

"I could..." He regarded her in silence for several moments. "You're not just saying this, I suppose, because you're soft on Bray. I know that you don't want him dead."

"No, I don't. But not because of what you might think. I'm not soft on him. I was once, but that was a long time ago. A whole different lifetime. Everything has changed since then. Believe it or not, letting him escape with your baby could be the best thing. If we go ahead with the war, this isn't going to be the safest place - not by a long shot. Out there, that kid has got a chance. Bray will protect it with his life, you know that. And then, when we're ready, and the war is over..."

"I see your point." His eyes were narrowed, and she could see that he was still suspicious of her motives. She tried a little harder.

"They have no one to turn to, Zoot. It's not as if there's any risk involved here for us. We know that they'll be out there whenever we want to go and get them, but we also know that they can give us a pretty good run for our money. No matter how helpless and alone they are, they can still elude us for some time; and if we put our manpower into hunting them down, we stand to lose everything. The Demon Dogs are close to being able to challenge us, and if we don't act against them now, they could bring us down. You know how many of our people it'll take to track Bray down and corner him. We can't afford to do that right now."

"Always the tactical one." He smiled then, and gave her a brief nod. "Okay. I hear you, Ebony; and you're making sense. Up to a point I agree with you."

"Only up to a point?"

"Yes." He reached out, putting his hands on her shoulders. "I see your involvement in this somewhere, Ebony. You know more than you're telling me, and when I find out the truth I will do what needs to be done."

"I see." She nodded. "And in the meantime?"

"In the meantime I'm just glad that I made you my second-in-command. And you win. We go to war with the Demon Dogs."

"And Bray and Trudy?"

"When the baby is born, I want it. As for Trudy... well we'll discuss that a little closer to the time. And my brother--" He scowled, and his yellow-white eyes bored deeply into her. "If I learn that there's more to his relationship with my wife than just wanting to help her now, I'll kill him. If I can be sure that he's just playing his usual hero rôle, I'll give him to you. You can do whatever you want with him." He help up a hand in warning, as though to forestall any comment that she might have been about to make. "If I find out that you helped him to escape, or that you knew anything about Trudy's plans to leave me... particularly if it turns out that you knew about her pregnancy, it'll all be very different. You remember before Trudy came to us, when I tested you to discover whether or not you were suitable to be my wife?"

"Of course I remember." It was a time that none of them spoke of now - a time of solitary confinement of the worse kind, when she had still been emotionally fragile following the deaths of the rest of her family. She hadn't realised just how fragile she had been, until Zoot's mad little test had almost given her a nervous breakdown. There had been no such test for Trudy, and that fact had not escaped Ebony's vengeful mind. She was still trying to make Trudy pay for it.

"Good." He nodded. "Because that's nothing compared to what I'll do to you if it turns out that you've betrayed me."

"But if you suspect now that I might have, why are you still working with me?" It was a direct challenge, and a foolhardy one. She knew that she would be better served by a swift change of subject, to divert his attentions from everything that she had done. He laughed.

"Because nobody lives our creed the way you do. Power and chaos are at the very centre of your being, and for all your scheming that makes you a credit to the Locos. Just don't get caught up in your own web. You may be pretty good at spinning them, and you do make a pretty good spider - but so do I, and so does my brother. We all spin webs Ebony, and pretty soon you're bound to get caught up in one of them."

"So are you."

"Maybe." He frowned, and she saw the shadows run across his face. "You wouldn't have set all of this up, just so that you could get me to agree to this war with the Demon Dogs. Would you?"

"Why would I want to do that? Surely you'd have seen that the war was necessary."

"I have been a little preoccupied just lately." He laughed, which surprised her. The ever-changing moods of the leader of the Locos were a matter of renown, and yet still they often caught her by surprise. "Look at the pair of us, arguing over all of this when there's work to be done. Get the others organised, and have one of the more educated ones draft up some kind of a challenge. I want it to look good. Get me some kind of a wax seal, and some ribbon, and have one of the prisoners deliver it. Do we have any Dogs here at the moment?"

"Several." She was beginning to regain her relaxed, cat-like grace; her oddly sinister insouciance; and leant now against the wall with the beginnings of a charming smile creeping into view. "I'll send one of the more battered ones."

"Of course." He clapped his hands together, clearly excited. The young boy in him was more apparent, not far beneath the warrior's veneer. "I think you're right, Ebony. I think this is just what we need."

"It is." She let the smile become fully grown, her heart beginning to pound harder as she struggled to keep the lion's share of her joy to herself. A war was just what she needed. Once the Demon Dogs were gone, the entire city would be under the mighty fist of the Locusts. Zoot could not run it all on his own, no matter what his skill; and if he was going to hand control of a part it to somebody, that somebody was sure to be her. She would have her own realm to rule over; her own subjects to command; and, by Zoot's own word, she would have Bray right where she wanted him. Things really couldn't get much better. Zoot laid a hand on her arm.

"Thank you, Ebony. Whatever your involvement in this, you might just have saved us all from ourselves. I won't forget this."

"Thank you." She smiled to herself, already working out where to take things from here; already working out what should be the next move in her game. Some heroic and commendable strike against the enemy had to be the next best step up her ladder to greatness. Nothing impressed Zoot more than strength and brute force. Nothing impressed the Locos themselves quite like demonstrations of cool, raw power. She met Zoot's smile with one of her own, thinking hard all the while. Many more successful schemes and she might even be in a position to challenge Zoot himself. She doubted it, but it was certainly something to think about. The coup to end all coups, and power and chaos beyond everyone's imaginings.

Well, after all - a girl had to have dreams.

It was more lonely than ever on the streets, even though he had somebody with him now. Everything seemed stranger, and more hostile. The faces that peered from broken windows had a sinister air about them; the small children who stood in the gutter seemed to be watching him with something beyond mere fear. Maybe it was the weight of the responsibility, that seemed to tug at him like a chain around his neck. Maybe it the increased level of his paranoia; the constant waiting for reprisals from the Locos. Maybe it was just the heightened state of tension on the streets themselves. Everybody seemed to be waiting for something. Something to break the tension; to destroy it utterly. Bray knew that it would probably be his brother who provided the final catalyst; the decisive move that would destroy the uneasy balance that had existed during these last few months. He didn't really fancy being out on the streets when all of this tension broke; but he knew that he didn't have any choice. There was nowhere else to go.

"Bray?" Trudy's voice stirred him from his thoughts, surprising him momentarily. He was unused to having company - to having anybody with him as he wandered through his urban nightmare lifestyle. Solitude had become rather more than a mere fact of life.

"What?" His answer was not immediate, for he was still inclined to think of conversation as a low priority. He didn't look at her, even though he knew that such things annoyed her, for he was still scanning the area ahead. It was impossible these days not to be vigilant. There was always some danger to be considered, no matter how obvious or unlikely it happened to be.

"Where are we going?" He had been waiting for the question; expecting it for the last few hours of their hasty march away from Loco HQ. He didn't answer it at first, however, for he was not altogether sure that he had any answer to give. In the end he just shrugged, turning back to face his companion with a look of apologetic concern in his eyes.

"We're going somewhere safe." He said it with as much certainty as he could muster, even though he was well aware that there was nowhere safe to go. She frowned at him.

"I said where are we going, Bray. Not what are we looking for."

"I know." He sighed, shaking his head. "But the truth is that I don't really know where we're going. All I can suggest is that we find shelter wherever we can, and just try to stay alive until we can get out of the city. It might take months to do that, but it's all that we can hope for."

"Months?" She sounded as though she had just been hit; as if his words had been physical blows rather than mere thoughts given voice. He looked at the ground.

"Nobody has been able to get out of the city for some time, you know that. It's only going to get worse from now on. Trudy, we talked about this already. Finding somewhere in the city, where we can make a stab at keeping warm and dry, is the best that we can hope for. I can always find us food, and I'll make sure that you get the vitamins you need. I promise."

"But I'm going to have a baby. Keeping warm and dry might not be enough. I need to have somewhere safe to give birth. Even if I can't give my baby a decent life, I can at least do that much for it. Somewhere clean, so that it doesn't get any infections. Do you have any idea how dangerous this is going to be, for me and for the baby?"

"I know." He shrugged, feeling helpless. "And I'm going to do what I can. I promised to look after you both, and I'm going to do just that. I'll find you somewhere eventually, even if it's just a temporary home, for the last days of your pregnancy."

"But you will find somewhere." He could see her faith in him, and felt it adding to the weight around his neck. He smiled nonetheless, putting his hand on her shoulder, trying to find the strength to keep her confidence up even when his own was falling apart.

"I'll find somewhere. I won't let the Locos get you, and I'll keep you safe from the Demon Dogs, and everybody else. I'll get you somewhere where the baby can be born, and I'll do my best to make sure that you're both alright after that."

"And then?" She didn't say it as a challenge - just as a mild inquiry. He glanced away.

"I can't make any promises about afterwards. Once the baby is born, we'll see what happens. I don't like the idea of keeping it from Zoot. Not forever. I'd like to think that being a father might bring him down to earth. Maybe he'll give up all of this Loco rubbish, and stop being such a jerk."

"You want me and Zoot to play mummy and daddy together?" She sighed. "Well, we'll see. For now... for now I'm just so tired. Can't we rest up somewhere?"

"Not here." He was already moving on again, as if he was worried that the few moments they had been standing still had been more than long enough. "This is Orphans territory. It's not safe."

"Is anywhere?"

"No." She wanted his eyes to soften, but they didn't. "If you want to be able to rest up all day, and have things done for you, you better go back to the rail yard. It's not like that out here."

"So I see." She was already beginning to wonder if running away had been such a great idea. She was cold and hungry, and her legs were tired and aching, and yet it was only a matter of hours since she had made her escape. How was she going to feel weeks from now, or months? She was too tired to be as scared as she felt that she ought to be, and too cold to think too far ahead; and yet still she felt uncertain and afraid. This was definitely not the kind of life that she was capable of living. Bray seemed to sense her trepidation.

"It'll be okay, Trudy. I'm going to find us somewhere."

"Yeah." She caught up with him, moving fast despite her stiff limbs. "Right now I just want something to eat. Somewhere to rest for a bit. Somewhere I can sit down, just for a while."

"I told you. It's not safe here." He took her hand and began to pull her onward; relentless and determined; his pace steady and uncomfortable. Trudy stumbled in her efforts to keep up.

"It isn't safe here." She repeated it sarcastically, albeit breathlessly. "Well where is it safe, Bray? Is anywhere in this city safe? What about outside the city, or in any of the other cities all over the country? In all the other countries? Is it safe there?"

"I don't know." He continued to lead her onwards, and she followed him more or less mindlessly, listening to the hypnotic sound of his dangling skateboard knocking against him with his every step. It was something to focus on; something that didn't require any thought or understanding. "I just know that we don't want to run into the Orphans. Not with this food that Ebony gave us. They'd be willing to do just about anything to get their hands on it - and if they see us, they'll know that we have it. I'd swear they can smell that kind of thing."

"But I'm tired." She knew that she sounded like a spoilt child, but she didn't seem able to stop herself. Bray shrugged.

"We're all tired. I don't think there's a kid in this city who isn't. But there's no rest for any of us. Not yet."

"So we're just going to keep on walking? You think I can keep this up forever?"

"No." He gave her hand a quick squeeze. "Just for now. Just until it's safe."

"Which will be when exactly?"

"I don't know." He pulled her on again, walking a little faster this time, his eyes once again scanning the world around them. "There has to be somewhere in this city where you can have your baby. Maybe we can find somebody who knows about this sort of stuff, who can look after you both."

"In this city?" She shook her head. "I don't believe it."

"I do." His shoulders seemed to broaden, as though making space for his new responsibilities; his new burdens. "I have to believe it." He changed direction abruptly, pulling her into a dark and gloomy alley, with rubbish spread across the ground, and moisture clinging in black rivulets to the walls. Trudy had the uncomfortable idea that this was the place where she was going to have to take her much needed rest, and began to wonder if it might be better just to keep moving. Bray led her onwards, however, still without taking a break.

"Best stick to the alleys," he told her, firm and resolute, and without looking back to be sure that she had heard. She nodded mechanically, even though she knew that he couldn't see her. She was merely going through the motions now, as she realised would probably be the case all the time from now on. How long before she just gave up altogether? Before she became too much of a burden upon Bray, and he decided to leave her behind? She clung on a little tighter to his hand, as though to keep him with her through desperation alone.

"Where are we going?" She was sure that she had asked the question before, but she couldn't quite remember. She certainly didn't remember if he had answered her.

"Home." He said it without pause for thought, and she nearly laughed. It was a wonderful idea, to be able to go anywhere that might be like home - or to actually be able to go home itself. Back to her parents and their warm house, where she could curl up on the big settee to drink cocoa. Just somewhere where there was no cold moisture trickling down the back of her neck would be nice. Somewhere where she wasn't in constant fear for her life. Somewhere warm.

"Home?" She couldn't keep the laugh from her voice as she echoed his word by way of inquiry. He glanced back then, flashing her a brief smile over his shoulder. She couldn't help thinking that it would likely be the last proper smile that she saw upon his face for a very long time.

"Yeah." He nodded briskly, before setting his sights firmly on the dingy little alleyway ahead. It hardly looked like the road to great things; and it certainly wasn't paved with gold. There were no windows in it though, with peering, sinister faces. No wide-eyed children watching them like vultures or scavenger rats. That at least was an improvement to the brighter, cleaner street that they had just left behind. "I don't know where it is, or when we'll find it, but I'm going to take you home. Its out there somewhere. I promise."

And after that there was nothing else to do but keep on walking.

THE END