Ewan had hated shopping centres for as long as he could remember. The crowds, the noise, the pressure on all five senses and the constant onslaught of everything demanding his attention. His mother had tried her best when it got too much for him, but she couldn’t control the inside of his overloaded brain. Ewan’s childhood memories of Luton Retail Centre consisted of him not meeting the public’s expectations, their frowns of disapproval and their lack of sympathy whenever he had a meltdown.
I guess those memories apply to my whole life, really.
Luton Retail Centre felt much more pleasant nowadays. Ewan had the whole place to himself, except for one trustworthy friend by his side.
‘I hope you know your way around,’ Shannon said to him, ‘I spent my school years avoiding places like this, thanks to all the popular girls.’
‘You and me both,’ said Ewan. ‘Well, replace “popular girls” with “humans in general”. OK, it’s round the next corner. I think.’
He was revealed to be right: the catalogue store had neither moved nor closed down since whenever his last visit had been, and hopefully it was still well-stocked. Other Takeover Day escapees would have looted it before the clones hunted them all down, but nobody would have thought to steal the GPS devices for hikers.
Whatever they stole, they wouldn’t have held on to it for long. We probably only survived the purges because of the thermal blocker my dad stole from his barracks, keeping our body heat off Grant’s scanning equipment.
Ewan entered the store and headed straight for the warehouse at the back. Shannon paused and grabbed the nearest catalogue.
‘No point in searching before you know its serial number, Ewan.’
Ewan saw her point, turned around and headed back to her. It was one of Shannon’s interesting abilities (and he was seeing more of them week by week): she could point out Ewan’s mistakes and misjudgements without him feeling uncomfortable. He wasn’t sure how she managed it; maybe it was some kind of unspoken empathy. With a father like Nicholas Grant, her own childhood may not have been much better than Ewan’s.
‘So how’s this for your first mission?’ he asked as she flicked through the catalogue’s faded pages. ‘It’s a boring one I know, but boring is good. Trust me.’
‘The first time you met me I stabbed a man to death,’ Shannon answered without looking up from the page, ‘after he slaughtered my ex and a load of innocent people. I know that boring is good, thanks. Besides, this mission doesn’t really begin until we know where the test centre is.’
Ewan gave an understanding nod. Even though it was her first outing as an official Underdog (leaving aside that first night and her deadly attack on Grant’s number two assassin), Shannon had already proven her worth. Since their last victory – which could never have happened without her providing them the technology to destroy the clone factory – Shannon had spent three weeks analysing her father’s plans, the scariest of which was AME. Atmospheric Metal-something-or-other: an anti-metal shield over the whole of New London, and presumably one for each of his other Citadels, which would render Grant and his allies utterly indestructible.
The stolen plans had mentioned an AME test centre: a building outside New London where a smaller shield could be launched and examined before the real version went live. The centre was reportedly half-complete, but they had most likely sped up production after their plans had been stolen.
But other than the words ‘test centre’ and some GPS coordinates, the paperwork had contained no useful clues. The time had come for Ewan and Shannon’s final piece of research: finding where those coordinates led to.
Shannon found the technology section, and ran through the item list with a finger which brushed away the dust as it went. Ewan glanced too, and saw the prices on some of the items.
‘Three hundred quid?!’ he asked. ‘People paid that much for a GPS thing? They could have just downloaded an app.’
‘There are always people who want quality,’ Shannon answered. ‘Photographers didn’t stop buying professional equipment just because their phone could take a few snaps. Right, how about this one? “Purpose built for the great outdoors, accurate to within one metre, contains 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey maps—”’
‘Can you use it to search for coordinates?’
‘Only one way to find out. Ewan, grab me some batteries.’
She ran for the warehouse, leaving Ewan to turn and head for the pound shop next door.
She just commanded me, the Underdogs’ head soldier, to obey her.
Why aren’t I uncomfortable? Shouldn’t my PDA kick in or something?
As Ewan walked into the pound shop, he wondered how much Shannon knew about his pathological demand avoidance. She must have seen the diagnosis on the list of names she had first brought to Spitfire’s Rise, but a three-word diagnosis was no description of lived experience. The words ‘pathological demand avoidance’ weren’t enough to summarise a childhood of being frightened by other people telling him to do things, or the loss of self-control that came when people’s demands made him uncomfortable. A year ago, a command as blatant as ‘Ewan, get me some batteries’ would have switched on his defiant instincts as an act of self-defence, but somehow it was different when the command came from Shannon.
Shannon had done a good job of climbing up his friendship rankings during her time at Spitfire’s Rise. McCormick would always hold the number one spot thanks to his life-changing compassion and influence, and ever since Charlie Coleman had been gunned down by a red-haired assassin, the runner-up spot had been occupied by Kate. But Shannon was now in third, which wasn’t bad for three weeks of friendship.
There was something else though: something which numbers and rankings couldn’t account for. Shannon was fiery and determined. Uncompromising yet vulnerable. There was too much common ground for Ewan to ignore. For most of his life he hadn’t liked people who were similar to him, and he wondered what that told him about his opinion of himself. But at that moment he was met with a young woman whose anger and passion pointed in the same direction as his own, whose fiery nature aligned with him rather than fought against him.
Ewan grabbed the nearest pack of batteries and headed back for the warehouse. He had been right about the looters; with so many boxes strewn across the aisles it was difficult to find Shannon. By the time he did, she was ripping open the cardboard packet. She removed the GPS tracker and tossed it over to him, and he got to work with the batteries.
‘Bloody hell, I miss the internet,’ he muttered. ‘In the old days this whole mission would have been solved with a search engine.’
He took a moment to feel grateful that the Underdogs still had phones even though the internet was gone. Nicholas Grant could have knocked out their communications just by destroying a few phone masts, and the simple reason he hadn’t was because he had needed telephones too. His Citadels’ secure intranet system, however, had enabled him to safely cut off internet access for the whole of Britain without impacting himself.
‘Yeah,’ answered Shannon, ‘well, here are the numbers when you’re ready for them.’
‘One second… go.’
‘Fifty-one point eight one two—’
‘Wait wait, slow down. Let me process what you’re saying.’
Shannon sighed sympathetically.
‘Sorry, Ewan,’ she said. ‘I still keep forgetting. You just don’t—’
‘I don’t look like I have learning difficulties. Yeah, heard it before.’
‘Well, you just seem really capable…’
‘Wow, autistic guy with PDA and anger issues is capable of doing stuff. Stop the bloody press. Now just go slowly. Fifty-one…’
Shannon read out the rest of the numbers with a saddened look on her face, which may have meant guilt. It made Ewan feel sad too. Normally it was nice and satisfying when he made someone realise just how little they understood his needs, but there was no satisfaction when it happened to Shannon.
‘Seven five eight eight,’ Ewan repeated as he typed in the final numbers. ‘And our mystery location is…’
He pushed the search button, and waited for the map to load. When it did, it revealed a large building the outskirts of Harpenden.
‘Where is it?’ asked Shannon.
‘Not far at all. About half a day’s walk from Spitfire’s Rise. In fact, pretty close to…’
Ewan looked closer, and his eyes widened.
‘Ewan, what is it?’
The device shook in Ewan’s hand. He was trembling from a mix of fear and rage, which must have been what Nicholas Grant had wanted when he had chosen the location.
He threw the GPS tracker against the nearest wall, where it smashed to pieces. Unsatisfied, he took a short run-up and booted an empty box down the warehouse aisle. It didn’t go as far as he wanted, thudding to a quick stop like it was trying to insult him, so Ewan ran again with a scream and stamped it into the ground as if it were personal.
He took steady breaths and tried to ground himself. He rested both of his feet flat on the ground, one hand against his hip, and the other gripped against the nearest shelf.
‘Your father’s after a fight,’ he snarled, ‘with me and my friends, personally. You want to know the real name of the “AME test centre”?’
‘It is. Oakenfold Special School.’
Half an hour had passed. Ewan had barely stopped running since they had escaped Luton, and it was difficult to run and talk at the same time.
‘Alex,’ he barked into the phone, ‘you know what Oakenfold means to us, right? The guys at home won’t like the news.’
Ewan knew he was using the other students’ fears to mask his own. The very thought of breaking such sensitive news terrified him. But he didn’t need Alex to know he was terrified.
‘Mate, they’re already struggling with the nuke attack on New London. Losing an already-abandoned school isn’t going to add much stress.’
‘Is that meant to be some kind of comfort?’
‘It’s meant to be the truth.’
Alex Ginelli was hardly a sensitive guy, and he had no empathy for teenagers with special ed backgrounds. The twenty-two-year-old from Brighton had been brought up in a different world, where places like Oakenfold Special School were safely hidden away from the rest of society. And even in the world he inhabited, he kept himself far away from most people emotionally. Alex put on a distinct lone wolf persona, and it showed so strongly that it was probably a part of his real personality too. But it meant he had an outside perspective in most situations, and Ewan reluctantly admitted it was useful at times. Alex had certainly been in his element during their last mission, sheltering alone in a bungalow until the others were ready to escape. Without his self-isolating approach to combat, perhaps he would never have been able to help Ewan, Kate and Jack escape New London alive.
‘Look mate,’ Alex continued, ‘I’ll head home and pass on the news to McCormick. If you’re sure I can abandon comms.’
‘We’re only an hour away, and the hard bit’s over. Go and tell him.’
‘Got it. You’ve probably used up your three minutes of untraceable time, so I’m hanging up before Grant ends up finding you. Interrogate Shannon about the attack, though. She may know what’s going on in Daddy’s world.’
Without another word, Alex was gone. Ewan removed his phone battery, and slowed himself down.
‘You OK?’ Shannon asked from behind.
‘Alex is passing on the news.’
‘So we can stop running now?’
‘If you like.’
Once he was at walking speed, Ewan looked at his surroundings for the first time. His vision had been fixed to the road like a blinkered racehorse, and he had relied on Shannon to watch out for patrols. The countryside was as pretty as always, and that annoyed him. His own world was in a mess, full of missile attacks and school invasions, and the rest of the world had the audacity to act as if nothing was wrong.
‘So what do we know about the missiles?’ Shannon asked.
‘Basically nothing,’ Ewan gasped. ‘Could have been an attack by one country or a bunch of countries. The question is why they’d bother.’
‘Because my dad’s a megalomaniacal dictator who destroyed a country?’
‘I’m talking about the Cerberus system. Your dad promised the British government that it would make Britain almost invincible to long-range attacks. That’s how he got them to go along with whatever he wanted.’
‘Almost invincible,’ said Shannon. ‘I guess that explains it.’
Ewan rested a hand against the nearest road sign. He was more tired than he wanted to admit.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘With Cerberus, he’s almost invincible,’ Shannon explained. ‘Missiles can’t touch him, and any planes dropping bombs would just get shot down. The only way he could lose is by a land invasion.’
‘A land invasion with enough soldiers to scale Citadel walls and fight back a million clones on their way to Floor A?’
‘Technically possible, I guess,’ answered Shannon with a shrug. ‘But with AME, he’ll be actually invincible. The world believes this is the last opportunity they’ll ever have to bring him down, and a one in a million chance is better than a zero in a million chance. Maybe somewhere right now, someone’s trying a land invasion that’s failing just as badly.’
Ewan wiped the sweat from his forehead.
‘And they chose today because…’
‘Because my father must be close. He’ll have sped everything up after your break-in.’
‘And we’ve no idea how long we have,’ Ewan whispered. ‘Weeks, days, hours—’
‘Four days,’ interrupted Shannon. ‘We’ll have until midnight on the twentieth.’
Ewan stared into Shannon’s face, and found her as worried as him.
‘One year from Takeover Day,’ he muttered. ‘I didn’t think your father was the sentimental type.’
‘May twentieth is his birthday. It’s pride, not sentiment.’
Ewan rolled his eyes, and restarted his walk home.
The rest of the journey passed in silence. The less they talked the faster they could move, and the more time Ewan could spend with his thoughts.
He had hoped they would be productive thoughts, but they weren’t. They were chaotic ones that cycled through his brain, growing bigger and bigger as they went. The thoughts themselves never changed: his brain repeated the exact same phrases, but said them louder each time until they became his whole universe. Grant took Oakenfold. Grant took Oakenfold. GRANT TOOK OAKENFOLD.
Over the course of his life, Ewan had tried numerous strategies to break the cycle and set his brain back on track, and the most effective one had been finding a distraction. After a childhood of being told distractions were bad, it seemed strange that they worked so well for him in times of anxiety. (Of course, adults commanding him to avoid them had only forced him to do the opposite.)
Ewan found a suitable distraction, in the form of his mentor’s face pictured in his mind’s eye. Dr Joseph McCormick, the anchoring figure of stability for Ewan and the rest of the Underdogs, who had turned him little by little from an impulse-driven violent child to someone vaguely capable of doing things well. Ewan pictured everything about McCormick: his glasses that magnified the calmness in his eyes, the hair that wore thinner on his scalp, and that warm smile that he seemed to wear no matter what mood Ewan was in. The mere image of that face in Ewan’s mind helped him to steady his breathing, and before long he could start to refocus on his long march home.
It was almost midday when he and Shannon got to the trapdoor, and a short walk through a narrow tunnel led them to the cellar entrance to Spitfire’s Rise.
Ewan let Shannon through the door first. Partly out of respect, and partly so she would not see him glancing at the Memorial Wall on his way past. The name of Charlie Coleman still looked out of place: Ewan’s old classmate and Temper Twin, with whom he had shared troubled times at Oakenfold and heroic adventures at Spitfire’s Rise, now reduced to two words on a slab of dead people’s names.
Gazing at his best friend’s name felt like staring at the sun, so Ewan distracted himself with the cellar’s other contents. Namely the weapons and combat tools on their respective shelves, and the doors to the other two underground tunnels to neighbouring houses: one which led to the room where they kept their electricity generator, and the other which led to their makeshift farm where they grew their freshest food.
As Ewan and Shannon climbed the stairs, they began to hear gasps and high-pitched voices from inside the house. Ewan had predicted his friends’ reactions well; the news about Oakenfold must have been painful for them too. But their shouts were even more panicked than he had imagined. It was not worried conversation coming from the Underdogs: it was mass hysteria. He and Shannon scrambled to the top of the stairs, and burst through the door to the living room.
The collapsed body of Dr Joseph McCormick lay on the carpet, unmoving.