Kate’s brain was fighting itself again.
The stronger part of her knew she needed to stay in the clinic, but the rest of her was distracted by the dozens of places she would rather have been. Her mattress and the downstairs sofa were the front-runners. Unfortunately, the right thing to do was remain at Shannon’s side in the makeshift clinic.
Spitfire’s Rise was a comfortable enough place to live – certainly more comfortable than the prison at the centre of New London – but even comfortable places could be hotbeds of anxiety. Kate was in the safest place in Hertfordshire, the closest she had to a real home, and filled with dread anyway.
Everything about the night had been overwhelming. Meeting up with Ewan’s half of the team, and being greeted by Keith Tylor’s body. The hours of carrying Shannon home. What they had found on Tylor’s smartphone.
It hadn’t been a good night. But it had, because they’d discovered Shannon. In fact, it was a miracle.
But wow, miracles were mentally exhausting. And she wouldn’t be able to recover her energy any time soon, stuck next to Lorraine as she performed her observation.
‘I think that’s as far as we’re getting tonight,’ Lorraine said in her typical matter-of-fact voice. ‘She’ll be alright, though. She’s a strong girl.’
‘How do you know?’
‘For starters, she ran across the wild Hertfordshire countryside in bare feet.’
Kate looked at Shannon’s bandaged soles, and wondered how many hours she’d run for.
‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘I’ve been meaning to ask about that. Why would she–’
‘Ask the strike team if you want theories,’ answered Lorraine. ‘I’m just the nurse.’
Lorraine removed her thin vinyl gloves and poked her glasses back in place, with fingers that had aged far too much for a woman in her fifties. She was not ‘just’ the group’s nurse – her role was far too important for the word ‘just’ – but she knew there was no place for her in combat. Nonetheless, she fitted her own roles perfectly: unofficial grandmother, unpaid nurse, and uncompromising matriarch of Spitfire’s Rise.
Kate drew her attention back to the bed, and gave more thought to the mystery.
‘She’s not wearing anything warm,’ she said, ‘so whatever happened, she didn’t have time to prepare. And maybe Tylor took her shoes–’
‘All I know is that Shannon’s extremely brave,’ Lorraine interrupted. ‘She’ll recover, even if it takes time.’
‘You admire her, don’t you?’
‘She deserves it. Here, take a look at the notes I made.’
Lorraine reached into one of her trays, and retrieved a blank whiteboard and a marker. A couple of silent scribbles later, she handed it to Kate.
Kate froze, glanced at Shannon’s body, but saw no signs for herself. Lorraine must have detected her confusion, because she wiped the board clean and wrote two more sentences.
Faints only last a few minutes. You carried her for hours.
She’s been pretending all night, thought Kate. That must’ve taken some stamina.
‘So yes,’ Lorraine finished, ‘there’s a reason to be positive.’
Lorraine looked right into Kate’s eyes, which made her twitch in discomfort, and then winked.
The wink could have meant anything. Maybe something was wrong and she didn’t want Shannon to know. Or maybe it was a general hint to talk positively around her. Or both, or neither. Kate preferred people to be specific, but Lorraine must have had no choice around listening ears.
‘Well,’ Kate said, trying her very best to be subtle, ‘I hope she can help us when she wakes up. Ewan found something on Tylor’s phone and I wonder if she knows… ’
Lorraine raised a hand, and Kate’s voice stopped.
Did I do something wrong?
Lorraine wouldn’t have stopped me unless I’d made things worse.
Oh crap, I really am making Shannon worse. I shouldn’t be here. I…
Kate’s mind flew back to her list of places she wanted to be. The places she now needed to be. Her hands started to tingle, as if the blood had drained from them. Her head felt dizzy and the breath left her throat. She needed an escape from the snowballing list of everything to blame herself for, but knew she couldn’t get away with leaving the room.
Lorraine tapped a hand against her arm.
‘Could you do me a favour and fetch McCormick please?’ she asked with a smile. ‘He must have finished the meeting by now.’
Perhaps knowingly, Lorraine had blessed her with an escape route. Kate left the clinic without a word, and steadied herself on the landing next to the staircase.
It was another ‘nothing’ that had shaken her. Just her own mind and its usual habit of inventing problems. Nothing she said could have affected Shannon half as much as Tylor did. Shannon had bigger fish to fry, if that was the right phrase.
But that was the thing with anxiety disorders. They didn’t have to be rational.
‘Kate!’ came a shrill voice from the foot of the stairs.
Before she could react, an excitable nine-year-old was running full-pelt up the staircase towards her, using his hands as well as his feet.
‘Hey Thomas,’ Kate said, hoping she sounded happy enough, as the boy’s arms gripped around her waist like the hug of a bear cub. Time with Thomas was always valuable, even if Kate’s energy reserves were unprepared for it.
‘You didn’t say hi!’ he said. ‘When you got back, I mean.’
‘I was kind of distracted. Has McCormick told you?’
‘Yeah,’ said Thomas, pulling away from Kate to reveal his cheery, excitable face. ‘So there’s thirteen of us now?’
Oh, to be this boy. To only see the miracle, rather than all the questions it raises…
‘I guess so,’ she answered. ‘The meeting’s over now, right?’
‘Yep! It was interesting, you should’ve been there.’
‘I was helping Lorraine… ’
Another housemate approached the stairs, his footsteps slow and steady. Kate let go of Thomas altogether, her anxiety almost subsided.
And there he was: the grand leader of the Underdogs. The commander of the United Kingdom’s final armed forces. A beacon of hope for the British people, in the form of a sixty-four-year-old man with glasses who fought a losing battle against hair loss. Dr Joseph McCormick strolled up the stairs as if he owned them, smiling like an old man who had kept his childhood with him.
‘How are you doing?’ he asked.
‘Fine,’ answered Kate.
‘That’s good. Thomas, it looks like your ears were switched off when I said the clinic was out of bounds. Downstairs please.’
The child headed for the staircase and vanished in a string of loud stomps. Once he was out of earshot, McCormick turned back to Kate and offered a warm smile.
‘How are you actually doing?’
He’s pretty perceptive for a maths lecturer, thought Kate. I guess you have to be when you lead an army of troubled teenagers.
‘Kate?’ he asked. ‘Are you alright?’
Kate couldn’t put an answer together. She stared open-mouthed for a couple of seconds, then shook her head.
‘That’s understandable,’ said McCormick. ‘It’s hardly been your average night, has it?’
Before Kate could answer, Lorraine opened the clinic door and started muttering to McCormick.
‘Since you’re spying on her, you might as well come in.’
‘So she’s ready?’ asked McCormick.
‘I think the last thing Shannon’s ready for is a chat with a complete stranger. Especially a man.’
‘I think he’ll do OK,’ Kate piped up. ‘He… has a good way with people.’
Kate hoped she wouldn’t be asked to elaborate. It was not the right moment to talk about her own recovery, and how McCormick had helped.
‘Well he’d better prove it,’ said Lorraine. ‘Joseph, I’ll knock your block off if you make her any worse.’
McCormick let out a discreet chuckle at Lorraine’s comment, as if she were joking.
‘I’ll be downstairs,’ Lorraine said as she walked, ‘keeping Thomas busy. Since he’s predictably interested.’
‘Thank you, Lorraine. I’ll take care of her.’
McCormick opened the clinic door and walked to Shannon’s bedside. Kate stood in the doorway, just in case he needed protecting.
Before the war, whoever had owned the house had used the clinic as a spare bedroom. That night, for the first time since the Underdogs moved in, it had begun to look like one again. The moment McCormick heard about Shannon he had sent a small group to decorate the clinic in preparation for her. There was a warm feel to the room now, with its walls covered in pictures and craftwork: a framed piece of artwork which read All You Need Is Love, a Keep Calm and Carry On poster from before the internet ruined it, and a homemade embroidered picture with the words Home Is Where The Family Is.
Kate shuddered. Thomas’ mum had made that last one, about a month before she died.
‘Good evening, Shannon,’ said McCormick.
No response. She was still pretending to be asleep.
‘It’s OK, you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. But I thought I’d give you some information, if you’d like to listen.’
Kate kept her knees bent. Just in case.
‘My name’s Dr Joseph McCormick, and you must be wondering where you are. The truth is, you’re probably in the safest place in the whole country right now. We named this house “Spitfire’s Rise”, and it holds thirteen of us including you. We are the last of the free British people – our country’s remaining armed forces. Nobody in New London knows where we are, or even who we are. We’re an anonymous group of fighters hidden in the countryside, seeking to free the prisoners in the Citadels. And, more than anything else, we’re a close-knit family.’
Kate noticed his smile widening. It didn’t seem to matter to him that Shannon wasn’t looking.
‘There’s nothing to fear in this house, Shannon. And we have a “no judgement” policy towards each other. Plenty of us have had difficult lives.’
You’re damned right.
‘And we do an excellent job of looking after one another. Differences don’t divide people here. They’re the main thing we have in common. “United by our differences” is actually our motto. The Underdogs are a trustworthy bunch, and you may be surprised how well they can empathise with you.’
Kate didn’t know how to react when Shannon opened her eyes and pointed them towards McCormick. It was difficult to tell whether her eye contact was a sign of trust, or whether she was sizing him up.
Last time she looked at a man, she stabbed him to death.
McCormick, why aren’t you afraid?
Perhaps McCormick’s strategy was a good one. He must have been the least threatening sight Shannon had seen all evening. He was stood in such a non-threatening stance: the fingers of his wrinkled hands were interlocked in front of his waist, with his shoulders dropped and relaxed, and the smile on his face warm and welcoming.
Besides, Kate thought, the sight of an aging gentleman must have been a rare luxury. Men of McCormick’s age were at a natural disadvantage on Takeover Day. It was amazing that a man like him made it to Spitfire’s Rise, while the rest of his generation were herded into the giant prison at the centre of New London.
‘You must have a thousand questions you want answering,’ he continued, ‘and I know I won’t cover them all by rattling on. So here’s your chance to ask me anything you like, and I promise you’ll get a truthful answer.’
It was only when McCormick stopped talking that Kate noticed how low and soft his voice had been. There was little difference between the sound of his speech and the silence that followed it.
She won’t ask any questions. It would mean trusting a stranger with her words.
‘I see,’ said McCormick, unsurprised at the silence. He gestured to the door with an outstretched hand. ‘Then perhaps you’d prefer to just look around.’
Shannon’s fingers clutched the mattress as tightly as her nails would let them. McCormick took two steps closer to her bedside, and knelt down.
Kate prepared to jump into action. Shannon was within attacking distance of his face. But nonetheless, McCormick’s smile remained.
‘Shannon,’ he continued, ‘I’d like you to listen, because this is very important. I have no idea what you went through before we found you, but there are some things I am sure about. First, I know you’re safer now than you could ever be outside. I know that all twelve of us are so grateful to have a new friend, and we’ll do anything we can to make you comfortable. And I also know you’re curious about what lies outside that door. How we get our electricity, where our supplies come from, and how we’ve sheltered here for eleven months without detection.’
At the end of the sentence, McCormick’s voice turned serious.
‘More than anything else, I know that the longer you lie on this bed, the harder it will be to get up. There’s so much out there to see, Shannon, and you can either lie here forever or you can learn a thing or two about where you are… and what kind of people have put their trust in you.’
McCormick fell silent. Nothing happened for the first ten seconds. Or twenty, or thirty. But after what felt like a whole minute, Shannon started to move.
How the hell does he do that? Kate asked herself.
Shannon swung her legs off the side of the bed. She winced as the soles of her bandaged feet touched the floor, but McCormick produced a pair of slippers from somewhere. When she rose, a couple of paper sheets fell from her back pocket onto the bed. Kate had noticed them during the trek home, but nobody investigated when she pointed them out. Bigger things had been on their minds, and Shannon’s body had occupied their arms.
‘Wonderful,’ McCormick said, rising to his feet and guiding his new housemate towards the clinic door. ‘Shannon, welcome to Spitfire’s Rise.’
Kate stepped away from the door as McCormick approached with a very slow Shannon behind him. Her hand was on his shoulder, although Kate was sure it was pain rather than affection that made her do it. In the corner of her eye she saw Ewan halfway up the stairs, hanging back to keep out of Shannon’s way. Once McCormick led her into one of the bedrooms, Ewan made his way to the landing.
‘Where can I get people skills like that?’ he asked.
‘He’d probably call it life experience. How’d the meeting go?’
‘There’s no denying it,’ Ewan answered. ‘It needs attacking.’
Kate’s heart dashed to the top of her throat, then fell twice as far. She was no stranger to combat, but she had feared that conclusion ever since they had seen Tylor’s phone screen.
‘They don’t think it’ll be a suicide mission?’
‘Clearly they think it’s worth it.’
‘And what about you?’
Ewan gave no answer. Kate closed her eyes, trying and failing to hide her frustration.
‘It was your suggestion, wasn’t it?’ she said. It was barely a question.
‘If there’s one thing worse than investigating this health centre, it’s doing nothing.’
‘Why not wait for Shannon to talk?’
‘You think we’ve got that long? Come on, we’re waiting for you in the kitchen.’
Before Kate could answer, Ewan was halfway back down the stairs. She took a deep breath. To her left, McCormick led Shannon into the bathroom and said something about the water system not working, and cracked some joke about the room being useful for collecting rare species of dust.
Kate removed her phone from her pocket, to check the photo one last time before Ewan’s meeting. It was a shot of Tylor’s screen – a photo of a photo. The best they could do was unlock Tylor’s phone with the print of his dead thumb, and take as many pictures of its screen as they could. If the phone were missing when someone found his body, it would cause a security overhaul like New London had never seen.
But the photo gave her what she needed. A pinpoint on Tylor’s maps app, dropped at the site of an old NHS health centre just west of Hertford. It had been labelled Lt. Lambourne HQ.
Kate had never heard of Lieutenant Lambourne, nor did she know what went on at his headquarters. There were no clues about what would have awaited Shannon there, if Tylor had lived to complete his delivery.
But something valuable was at those headquarters. Something Keith Tylor had lost his life for.
She walked back into the clinic, where she could be alone with her thoughts. But there was no time to lose herself in her own mind.
The bed was empty, besides the pieces of paper from Shannon’s pocket. Kate ignored the moral question of whether to investigate: Shannon could take weeks to talk, but the paper would take seconds to read.
What she found horrified her.
|First name||Last name||Age||Notes|
|Kate||Arrowsmith||16||Secondary student, Oakenfold Special School, Harpenden. Diagnoses: Autism, Severe Anxiety.|
|Charlie||Coleman||15||Secondary student, Oakenfold Special School, Harpenden. Diagnosis: ADHD.|
|Gracie||Freeman||15||Secondary student, Oakenfold Special School, Harpenden. Diagnosis: Global Development Delay.|
|Alex||Ginelli||22||Deputy store manager, Fixit hardware store, Bancroft Road, Brighton.|
|Mark||Gunnarsson||18||Post-16 student, Oakenfold Special School, Harpenden. Diagnosis: unclear.|
|Jack||Hopper||17||Post-16 student, Oakenfold Special School, Harpenden. Diagnosis: Asperger Syndrome.|
|Joseph||McCormick||64||Lecturer in Mathematical Sciences, Greenwich University.|
|Thomas||Foster||9||Year 4 pupil, St. David’s Primary School, St. Alban’s.|
|Lorraine||Shepherd||52||Nurse, Queen’s Hospital stroke unit, Luton.|
|Raj||Singh||15||Secondary student, Oakenfold Special School, Harpenden. Diagnosis: Dyslexia.|
|Ewan||Singh||16||Secondary student, Oakenfold Special School, Harpenden. Diagnosis: Autism (PDA profile).|
|Simon||Young||14||Secondary student, Oakenfold Special School, Harpenden. Diagnosis: Down’s Syndrome.|
It was a fair assumption that there were no working printers outside of the Citadels. And the header labelled part of the date as ‘Year One’.
There was no alternative. The database of Underdogs could only have come from a computer belonging to Nicholas Grant.