Danger Zone (15+) S4 AU

This was posted over on Tribe Universe when i first wrote it. But this is a slightly edited version, from when i more recently uploaded it to AO3. it’s mainly grammar/spelling I changed though, so if you read it on TU there’s no major changes. I had up to chapter 11 posted before, and a couple days ago added chapter 12 on AO3, so you can go straight there and read it if you want, it might take me a few days to get everything up here.

SUMMARY: The Technos have just flown into the city, and chaos erupts. The Mallrats are split up and some are taken. Now they have a long struggle ahead to find out how to handle the invading tribe as well as the tangles of friendships, romances and loyalties.

An alternate s4. Starts about where s3 ended. Some mature themes, and might be more in future. Since I’m juggling a lot of characters here, there will be some character deaths. Most characters are in this, including some that on the show turned up later and in different ways. You’ll see. Java and Siva don’t exist in this universe (though I won’t rule it out 100% but I doubt I’ll bring them into it). Everything up to the end of s3 is as canon though.
Pairings: Amber/Bray, Lex/Tai-San, Ellie/Luke, Ryan/Salene
(no guarantees though, I’m still seeing where things go)


The Chosen work camp had once been a construction site before the virus. A large apartment complex was supposed to be built there, a brand new part of the city. The large billboard with the image of what it was supposed to end up like still stood there. You could still see the trees, the playground and the idyllic vision of a neighbourhood under all the grime and graffiti and dirt and dust it had been covered with in the time since. To Jay it appeared like a symbol of the world now, the brown spots and tears covering up a long forgotten dream. The wire fences that surrounded the site had been strengthened and guarded by the Chosen, their prisoners milling about on the inside of the fence, in and out of the old workers’ barracks. The foundation and half-built walls had also been strengthened, a large gate had been placed to keep most of the prisoners in the outer courtyard and keeping a select few prisoners in. At first Jay and his men had trouble figuring out exactly what the inner walls kept inside, but the capture of a few escaped prisoners gave them more answers. It was where the high-risk prisoners were kept. The prisoners were only happy to be caught again the moment they were given food and water better and cleaner than anything they had tasted in months. Not to mention clean clothes and and a bath. They were even grateful, so grateful that Jay’s orders from Ram to recruit a few new strong people was one of the easiest tasks he’d had since he and his brother first joined. Jay grimaced. Don’t go there now, don’t think about Ved. Some of them were easy to convince, the rest had something to go home to and opted to leave. They let them, as there were more than enough volunteers for what they needed at that point.

The slaves left behind now wouldn’t get such an offer, at least not yet. Jay regretted that, but a work camp already equipped with slaves was the perfect starting point for the Technos own work camp. It was only temporary, he told himself. Soon enough they would get to go home as well, back to wherever they came from. It was starting to be a rush project though, every day more Chosen guards took off and those left behind had no choice but to let prisoners go to. Now the area inside the outer fence was completely deserted. Those guards left behind had closed themselves in with the high-risk prisoners inside the inner walls, and the Technos could no longer keep track of what was happening. It was time, Jay knew they couldn’t wait any longer.

“Squad ready to move, operation Work Camp about to begin,” he announced. The voice on the other end simply confirmed that the message had been received. The guards were half starved, half-crazed and weak. Easy targets. A few of them unfortunately put up too much of a fight and had to be stunned, in one case one of Jay’s men miscalculated the setting on his stun gun and killed the man. The rest were all taken, no one escaped. All in all there were just twelve members of the Chosen left to guard the large work camp. Jay sent a few of the men inside the make-shift barracks, while he remained outside the outer fence. He was overseeing the organisation of the overtaken guards as his men chained them up together, those unconscious dragged to the side to not get in the way while the other were loaded onto the vans. The deceased one had been placed out of sight under a black sheet. Suddenly a sound came in his ear piece, the voice on the other end strained.

“Colonel Jay, you should probably come see this.”

“What’s going on, lieutenant?” He asked, slightly annoyed that he had to do everything.

“Just come and see, Colonel. It’s…you just have to come and see.”

The tone of the other man’s voice told Jay this was bad. As Jay walked through the hole in the fence, through the gate of the inner walls and towards the rickety building, he saw a few of his men rushing outside, throwing up on the ground. He steeled himself before going in. The sight that met him was dreadful. He had expected fatigue, injuries, disease and starvation to have left a few prisoners behind dead, but he hadn’t expected such a large number of dead prisoners, nor the state of them. There was blood everywhere on the floor and walls, most of the bodies seemed to have been stabbed. Some of the bodies had already started to rot. The smell was overwhelming, a mix of old blood, rotting bodies, urine and defecation. Jay found himself wishing to join his men outside, ridding himself of his stomach contents. He spotted his lieutenant, Gale.

“Any survivors?” He asked, concentrating on keeping his voice steady, swallowing to keep the queasy feeling at bay. Gale was clearly shaken, his eyes glancing around.

“I don’t see how there could be, Colonel. Even if anyone survived this massacre, the blood looks several days old, they would have bled out by now.”

Jay ignored the voice in his head saying they should have gone in sooner, they shouldn’t have taken those extra days of observing. He motioned towards the exit, moving as far away from the sight as he could with Gale following him, not stopping until they were outside the outer fence again, watching the chained Chosen guards looking back at them with half-crazed eyes, some of them chanting that infamous name; Zoot.

“What do we do with them, Colonel?” Gale’s eyes were still haunted by what they had seen inside, shining with hatred as he looked towards the people responsible. But Jay didn’t take notice of Gale’s expression, he was too busy feeling the same things himself.

“Let’s make them our first workers. They can be the labour force turning their own camp into ours.”

“Yes, Colonel.”

As Gale moved away from him, Jay’s earpiece came to life again. HQ asking for updates. He could barely hear them under the noise his men were making, so he stepped away from them towards the end of the clearing, stopping where the large bushes climbed over the hillside. Finally he was getting what HQ was asking for. He quickly reported back.

“Guards under control, one killed in self defence. All prisoners inside the barracks are deceased. Operation Work Camp successful.”

Two people sat hidden in the bushes near the camp, one man and one woman. Jay’s words had been loud and clear enough for them to hear. The man slumped forward, letting out a strangled cry. Luckily for them the sound wasn’t overheard, as Jay had just then turned around and started shouting orders at his men. The woman was shaking as she tried to control the sobs wanting to overtake her. Looking at her companion she knew she had to be the strong one now, had to keep her head clear. She placed a hand on his shoulder as she moved to her feet, keeping her head down to stay hidden.

“We need to get away from here. Now. It’s not safe.”

He nodded, his eyes shining with tears. A look of pain etched on his face that she thought she would never manage to forget. They moved as quickly as they could, away from the camp.

Had they stayed longer, their despair might have turned to hope. Jay’s ear-piece crackled again.

“Colonel, we found one! She’s alive, barely, but she’s alive!”

Jay rushed back inside, followed by Patch, the newly recruited Medic in his team. They were lead right to the back of the barrack for the injured girl, hidden away under a now upturned sleeping cot. Jay stayed back as Patch knelt down by the girl. Her face and hair was covered in dried blood, most of it seemed to have come from a large gash on the side of her face. Her left arm was lying in an impossible position; Jay couldn’t bear to look at it longer than to simply observe that it was definitely broken. Her clothes were also covered in blood, Jay hoped it wasn’t all hers because there was no way she could survive that much blood loss. As Patch lifted up her torn shirt, Jay saw several stab wounds in her stomach. He looked away, instead kneeling down by her head, gently stroking her hair away from her face. She stirred feebly, a whimpering noise escaping her.

“It’s gonna be okay, you’ll be fine.”

He tried hard not to let his mind wander back to the last time he found himself in this situation, tried to see dark hair rather than blonde, eyes shut close rather than staring pleadingly at him. He had lost his brother just like this, but he refused to lose this girl. Once was enough.

CHAPTER 1: When they came for us
(title from Shiny Toy Guns’ song with the same title)

Everything seemed to have erupted back into chaos. Trucks and tanks were moving through the city, large T’s painted on the sides. Smoke bombs and firecrackers were thrown from the tanks. The trucks would stop at regular intervals for several uniformed men and women, most of them wearing silver masks, to jump out and quickly force people into the trucks. Once the shock of it all wore off, people tried to escape, but the uniforms caught up with them as new trucks cut them off at each end of every road. The smoke made sight difficult, but as kid after kid was taken away, some of them could swear the masked invaders were barely human.

The sound of airplanes had lured people into the streets and towards the airport. The hope of there being adults in the world still made even the most cynical person dream of someone to swoop in and make the world safer again. Quite a few prisoners were taken by the airport, rushing along the old highway, a mix of hope and fear in their hearts. Tally and Andy found themselves out there, Andy clutching Ellie’s good camera in his hands. He knew he had been bad when taking it, but he hoped to prove his own worth by getting some good pictures for her. Being small they had easily managed to hide once the first trucks had started taking people, and now that the trucks were driving away, they decided to come out from their hiding place behind an old burned out car. Immediately they ran into one of the uniformed men. The two children screamed and turned the other way, only to run into another.

The noise from outside made Cloe terrified. In her mind flashed memories of the early days of the virus, the chaos that surrounded every move she made. She had gone outside with KC and the twins. But when they disappeared off down the road with Ellie’s camera, and KC told her to go back inside while he got them, she didn’t have to be asked twice. She hid under her bed, clutching the teddy bear she’d had since she was a baby, once again feeling like a little girl. All those moments of demanding to be treated like a grown-up were far from her mind, right now she only wanted someone to hold her like a mother would her child.

When Pride left with Trudy and her daughter to go find Amber and Bray, he had no intention of going back to the city. It was cowardly to leave her like this, but he had a feeling May already knew the moment he told her he was going with Trudy. Lex had only just left them, as soon as the noise had started behind them he had rushed off to find Tai-San. Pride found himself turning back, staring at the city.

“I should go back to, May is back there,” he said when Trudy had stopped next to him, fixing him with a questioning look.

“It’s your choice,” she said, “but May can take care of herself, Bray and Amber need us more right now.”

Trudy herself wanted to get as far away as possible, holding her daughter just a little bit closer as she looked back, another blast from the city making her cringe. Until she knew what was going on, she wasn’t bringing her daughter back there. Pride watched them for a short second and then nodded, finally turning away.

“You’re right. They need us now.”

Without another word the two of them kept walking, right until they heard Amber’s screams coming from a barn. They looked at each other alarmed, before both rushed towards the barn. Pride reached it first, the extra weight of carrying her daughter slowing Trudy down.

Alice and Tai-San headed in another direction. Tai-San and Ellie had tried to watch over Alice after the mysterious disappearance of the Guardian, when Alice had suddenly decided to go to the farm once the planes sounded above them. Ellie had been torn between investigating and following her sister, until Tai-San promised to go with Alice. So far she had succeeded in keeping Alice from being seen by these newcomers in uniforms, keeping her off the roads where the trucks drove and the uniformed men who had landed in their parachutes marched towards the city. When the blasts started behind them, Tai-San wanted to rush back to find Lex. But she knew he was capable of taking care of himself, and the blasts sounded small, meant to scare more than to injure. Tai-San had no explanation as to why, but she felt right now that her path was wherever Alice led her; to the farm.

Luke had left the Guardian and the rest of the small group left of the Chosen to leave on the boats. He assumed they were going back to where the Chosen had once had their headquarters, where Trudy had been taken back then and turned over to their side. Luke had no intention of joining them. A part of him felt he should have gone, just to keep the Guardian in check. But he still feared the man, he had so easily gotten into his head before. Luke didn’t fool himself into thinking he was too strong to let it happen again. He had tried to walk away, but found himself constantly looking back towards the city. He didn’t know what the planes were about, and the noises coming from the city told of a scarier invasion than what he had first hoped. No friendly new tribe would appear parachuting from planes and setting off bombs. What if Ellie was in danger? What if she needed him? He had gotten quite a bit away from the city now, it would be so easy to turn around and walk away. But her face was so clear in his mind. He couldn’t just walk away, not without making sure she was safe. He took a deep breath, another glance at what lay before him, before he turned back around, heading for the city.

Jack followed Ellie, running from hiding place to hiding place as they moved through the city.
“Where are we going?” He whispered annoyed.

“To find out what’s going on. Tally and Andy stole my good camera, they better get something good from the airport. I’m going to figure out what’s going on with all these blasts.”

“It could be dangerous!”

“I didn’t ask you to follow me, Jack! Just go back if you’re scared.”

He wasn’t just scared for himself, but he didn’t say that out loud. Instead he went for a different tactic.

“Shouldn’t you go after Alice? She could be in danger.”

“She’s fine, she’ll be a good while out of the city by now,” Ellie said quickly, trying to quell her own nagging fear as much as convince him. “Tai-San’s with her, they’ll be safe.”

Jack had no more arguments, and resigned himself to simply follow her.

KC felt a bit stupid now, hiding behind a dumpster while contemplating whether to go back or keep looking for Tally and Andy. What was he doing caring about those two rugrats anyway? The road towards the highway, where he knew they would have gone, was closed off by trucks, and those few people he had run into coming from that direction, said a lot of people had been taken into the trucks and driven away. He had looked for them up and down the streets around the mall, just in case, but found nothing. The noise from the firecrackers was coming closer, and the streets were filling up with smoke from the smoke bombs he had seen being set off down the street. Those kids were stupid enough to take off on their own, it wasn’t his problem, he told himself. Still there was a bad feeling settling in his gut as he turned around to run back to the mall. He just hoped Cloe had managed to get back inside safely.

When the mall emptied, May felt scared. She hated to admit it, but being a Mallrat had made her feel safer most of the time. Now suddenly it seemed to be everyone for themselves or for their closest, and she found herself alone. Bray and Amber had been sent away, Lex had taken Pride and Trudy with the kid to find them, and the others all seemed to have rushed outside as the sound or airplanes had come from above. Pride hadn’t said it straight out, but she had a feeling nothing would get him to go back to the city once he had left. When the noise outside got worse she decided not to stay put, like a rat trapped in a cage. If there was anywhere to get help, it was the hotel and Ebony. Not that she thought Ebony would care to keep her safe, but she would do anything to keep herself safe. That was something May could understand, and a motivation she could trust. When she reached the hotel, she found it surrounded. It was too late once she realised, and a uniformed man quickly grabbed her. She fought back, almost getting the upper hand when another man came out of nowhere, pointing some device on his arm at her. Something shot out of it, she felt a jolt go through her, before everything went black.

Once the blasts started in the city, and she could see the trucks and tanks through the windows of the hotel, Ebony got her militia to put the hotel on lock-down. But the newcomers were too strong, her militia was taken down quickly and without much fuss. Pretty soon the door to her room was broken down, two men and a woman entering. The woman lifted her arm, and then just like May had only moments before, Ebony felt a jolt go through her before it all went dark.

Jack and Ellie were crouched down behind a bin, watching as May was shot down by the uniforms. Ellie had first tried to rush to her aid, but Jack held her back. She quickly relented, knowing it was futile to rush in there, two unarmed people against so many armed soldiers. That was what Ellie quickly named them in her mind, even if their uniforms were black rather than camouflage, they were most definitely a military tribe or force of some kind.

Suddenly another army marched into the scene in front of them, another army dressed in black. Moz’s hips swayed as they always did when she walked, all of her girls following her, armed with bats or sticks. She raised her arm as she stopped in front of the group situated outside the hotel, her girls immediately stopping in their tracks. Jack and Ellie could hear angry voices, but couldn’t make out the words. Suddenly Moz raised her arm again, one swift movement towards the new enemy and her tribe all stormed towards them. The man who had stepped in front of the soldiers, most likely the highest ranking one, raised his arm and whatever his weapon was, he shot Moz with it and she instantly fell to the ground. Her girls were only caught by surprise for a few seconds before most of them were rushing at the soldiers, while a few tried to run off in the opposite direction. Those who charged were shot down immediately, as all the soldiers raised their arms the way their leader had, and those who tried to run away were shot down from behind. Ellie saw the same fear in Jack’s eyes as she knew was evident in her own as the two of them looked at each other.

“Let’s go! Now!” Jack said quickly, grabbing her arm and dragging her away. This time Ellie didn’t object.

At the airport General Jay stood straight as a needle outside the jet, waiting for the final messages to tick in before he could order the transport of their leader to the new headquarters. The larger planes that had caused so much havoc now stood still all around him. His new title of General had been given to him after the successful takeover of the prisoner camp. He was quite pleased with it, he had to admit. Partly for shallow reasons, he couldn’t deny it gave him a little thrill every time he was addressed as “General”. But mainly he enjoyed it because it gave him more power, taking him one step closer to his dream of building a high-tech hospital. He couldn’t be denied it now, once the Technos had settled into this new city. Finally his earpiece came to life.

“General! Hotel taken, City Leader and guards have been secured and disarmed. Over.”

Jay took comfort in that message meaning the City Leader had been taken alive. As far as he knew, no one had yet been killed in the operation. Taking prisoners weighed on his conscience, but in the end they would thank the Technos for making everyone’s lives better. He cleared his mind, he needed to focus on the task at hand. Quickly he started calling up all lieutenants and majors, needing confirmation that all units had taken their quota of prisoners, and that all areas were secured.

Lex rain straight to the mall, only by luck more than skill did he get safely there. He kept running once he reached the mall, from room to room shouting his wife’s name. Cloe heard him, finally daring to crawl out from under her bed.

“Lex?” she called for him, as soon as she stood on the balcony and saw him on the other side. He stopped in his tracks, unable to hide the disappointment on his face when he saw who it was.

“Where is she? Where’s Tai-San?” He demanded.

“I don’t know. After you guys left, she went to help Ellie with Alice, and then when the bombs or whatever it was went off outside, I couldn’t find anyone!”

Tears were running down her face, she was unable to stop them. But Lex wasn’t the right person when she most needed someone to comfort her. He ignored her and kept calling for Tai-San. KC could hear Lex shouting a long way away. He stopped running by the fountain, bending over to catch his breath for a moment before looking up to see Cloe and Lex up there.

“KC!” Cloe’s face lit up, and she hurried down the stairs towards him. KC focused on Lex, who had barely stopped shouting to register KC was there.

“Lex! They’re coming closer! Stop shouting or they’ll hear you!”

As soon as he said it, he was trapped in a hug from Cloe. But his words did seem to get through, and Lex fell quiet. He placed his hands on the railing, leaning heavily against it.

“They’ve taken Tai-San.” His voice was suddenly weak, but Cloe and KC heard it. Cloe let go of KC, the two of them looking at each other with a new sense of fear evident in their eyes; that even Lex could be broken.

Three people walked through the woods, silently sneaking forward through the bushy underground. They were close to the city now, having taken many extra hours of travel to make sure to travel safely. Salene led the way, as her male companion supported her female companion on the uneven ground, a distinct limp coming with every move the other woman made. Salene tried to not get annoyed at how the injury had slowed them down since the other woman had tripped the day before. It’s not as if they would have been able to do anything about the invasion anyway, but she knew she would feel uneasy until she was back at the mall to check that everyone was okay.

The black limo moved slowly through the streets from the airport to the old stadium. Jay was listening intently to what was being said in his ear piece, occasionally confirming or denying something. Ram had discarded his, thrown it onto the seat next to him. He was tired of the constant noise, it hurt his head when he had it on too long. Finally the general finished his conversation and turned to Ram.

“Stadium is cleared. It has been cleaned, computer lab set up, and video cameras outside are in order. Your room is also ready.”

Jay looked quite pleased, Ram noted. As far as he could tell what his stony-faced general was thinking. Ram let his eyes drift over at the brown-haired girl who had joined them in the limo, she was staring straight out the window at the buildings passing them by. He didn’t like her. He just couldn’t figure her out, nor what Jay found so enthralling about her and why he constantly kept her around. He was annoyed that Jay had convinced him to take her on as his personal companion for the travel to the new city and during the early days of the invasion. She was every bit as incomprehensible as Jay, but Jay was fairly simple to figure out anyway. Ram had promised Jay his cherished hospital, something Jay was more than willing to make sacrifices for, even if that included taking prisoners. Ram simply had to convince him that it would benefit the people in the end, and Jay was on board. Where Jay managed to keep his face a mask, the girl’s face was constantly changing. It was her facial expressions he could never figure out, and that she always looked like she was about to cry or just had been crying, her smile never reaching her eyes. Then there was that scar on the side of her face, it had made what was once probably a pretty face into something that made him uncomfortable to look at. She was nearly a woman, with all the right curves, but Jay didn’t seem to have that kind of interest in her at all. Ram knew that, because he had kept cameras in both their rooms. Suddenly she looked over at him, her eyes narrowing slightly before her face turned into a smile. A smile as fake as any he had ever seen. He really did not trust her.

Mega stood, perfectly still, in the surveillance room, his eyes fixed on the screens showing a dark limousine pulling up in front of the stadium. He had to hand it to Jay, the stadium was the perfect starting location. Although they would be moving most of the computer systems and technical operations to the hotel as soon as it was secured, the stadium was the perfect place for the military operation. Mega had been the one to suggest keeping the most important systems there to, just in case of sabotage it was safer to keep those apart from the rest of their technical staff. The satellite outside the stadium would also be a big help. He watched Ram being carried out of the limo and into his wheelchair. Jay’s little favourite stayed by Ram’s side as she had been instructed to, while Jay stood a few steps away, communicating through his earpiece as usual, the mouthpiece pulled down in front of his lips. Ram didn’t know it yet, but the moment he had promoted Mega to be in charge of technical operations, he had signed his own death warrant. From the moment he had joined, Mega had known he was smarter than their glorious lord Ram, and soon enough he would prove it. The side of Mega’s mouth curled up in something that resembled a smile. If this city knew what he had in store for them, they would all be running for the hills.

1 Like

CHAPTER 2: They made up all the rules
(title from Jem’s They)

The tension and the worry that had filled the barn for hours seemed to evaporate when the sound of a baby’s cries were heard. Amber visibly relaxed finally, her body exhausted. Bray and Trudy’s eyes met, a smile passing between them as Bray held his newborn son. As soon as the umbilical cord had been cut and the little boy cleaned, Trudy, Brady and Pride moved to the other side of the barn to give the little family some time to themselves. Amber held their son in her arms, leaning heavily against Bray’s warm body, his arms holding them both close to him.

“He’s so small,” Amber commented, holding his little hand in her own.

Bray didn’t answer, he just kissed the side of her face, a smile on his lips as he watched their son. Amber felt as much fear as joy, being unable to even see past tomorrow. What would become of them now? The city seemed to have been invaded, they had been banished from their home, with a little baby to look after. There was a solution she could easily reach. She could take her son and her man to the Ecos. They could raise him there, safe and sound away from the city. Pride would come with them without even being asked. She had a feeling he was planning to go back anyway. It wouldn’t take much convincing to get Trudy to bring Brady either, and Brady would have been Bray’s main concern outside of his own son. The four of them, with the two kids, could live happy lives in the woods. She knew they were waiting for her decision, and they would all follow her where she wanted to go. She sighed, too tired to worry about even her own future, let alone the future of everyone else in the barn. She needed sleep.

Pride and Trudy were talking at the other end of the barn, before Pride stood up and walked over to them.

“I’m going to go back towards the city, figure out what’s going on back there. I’ll try to get to the mall, let them know we’re safe and figure out if May is okay.”

As he said the last part, Amber noticed the hesitance in his voice. She was too tired to ask what was going on with them, too tired to care, as awful as she felt for admitting that to herself.

“Be careful, Pride.” She told him, trying and failing to stifle a yawn.

“Get some sleep, Amber. I’ll be back before morning.” He smiled, gently patting her shoulder. The last thing she saw before drifting off to sleep, was Pride exiting the barn, closing the door behind him.

Dee was confused. The last thing she remembered was Moz being shot, before she and the girls stormed the new enemy. She had jumped behind a dumpster when a weapon was aimed at her, twisting her ankle and hitting her head against the asphalt. It all went dark after that. She must have been hidden enough to be missed in the chaos when the new tribe rounded up the other girls. The hotel was surrounded, she had barely managed to sneak away from the area. Her first instinct had been to head back to their headquarters, but the Mozzie camp was empty, not a soul to see. She found it difficult to move, but knew she couldn’t stay there. Sooner or later one of the girls might blab and those soldiers or whatever they were would come ransacking the place, unless the Demon Dogs got there first. There was only one place she could go.

It had taken her over two hours to get to the mall, and once she reached it she had to hide from a tank driving down the street. The mall looked alright from the outside, but she couldn’t just waltz in the front door. Her head hurt, but she still managed to remember something about a sewer entrance. Something one of the girls had figured out while working for Lex. Climbing down the ladder was difficult in her state, but finally down she leaned back against the damp brick wall. The smell down there instantly got to her, and she found herself throwing up, her head swimming and her legs like jelly. She took a few moments to compose herself, before she got back on her feet, leaning heavily against the wall as she slowly moved forwards.

Ebony woke up in a dark room, lying on a cot of some kind. She was sore all over, her limbs stiff. For a moment she remembered nothing, then it all came back to her; the airplanes, the masked and uniformed men, her militia being taken down, one of them holding out his arm, something shooting out at her. An invasion. A swift and effective one, she had to admit. Once her eyes adjusted to the dark, she thought she was in a storage room of some kind. A basement, maybe. The door opened, the light hurting her eyes after getting so used to the darkness. She saw two shadows outside the door, guards probably. A third shadow appeared, a man who stopped to talk to the guards. Then he came inside, finding a light switch on the wall and turning on the single light bulb hanging from the ceiling.

“Hello, Ebony.” He said, a strained smile on his face. He had bleached blond hair, and was tall and muscular. In any other circumstance, Ebony would have found him attractive, but as it was she was more concerned with how to get out.

“Who are you? What do you want?” She demanded, arms crossed over her chest.

“I am General Jay of the Technos, head of Army Operations. I follow the command of Lord Ram. He wishes to see you.”

“You didn’t tell me what you want,” Ebony kept insisting. She might be a prisoner as of now, but she refused to just be sent from here to there without explanation. A small smirk appeared on his face, apparently she amused him.

“We wanted to get control of the city. Something we managed quite easily.”

Ebony narrowed her eyes at his thinly disguised criticism of her security measures.

“And what do you want with my city? I was fairly elected, the people won’t stand for this!”

“They have little choice. But in the end they will thank us. We will bring back electricity,” he motioned towards the light bulb in the ceiling. “That’s just the generator here at the stadium, we will get the old power plant up and running soon, bringing electricity back to the whole city. We will set up a hospital, law enforcement, a trading system, school. We will bring back civilisation, one city at a time.”

He was ambitious, but then that was nothing new in her world. Though he had revealed something, she was being held at the old stadium outside the city. Her mind quickly ran through the details she knew about the building and the area. She had never been much of a sports fan, but from what she could remember the place would be easy to secure. She tried not to show it, but it made her feel disheartened. There was very little chance of escape without outside help. And Ebony had a feeling there was no one on the outside who would bother risking much for her sake.

The mall was quiet, a tense mood hanging over the few people there. Lex had been calmed down when Ellie told him Tai-San had followed Alice to the farm. As long as they had made it there they would be safe. His first instinct had been to rush after them, but they had managed to talk him out of it for the time being. It was too dangerous rushing through the city right now, even Lex could see that.

“So May is taken, the Mozzies were taken. Tally and Andy are missing.” Cloe stated, once again going over the people they knew about. “But Amber and Bray should be far outside the city by now. Pride and Trudy and Brady are probably out there with them somewhere, so they should all be safe. And Alice and Tai-San are safe at the farm.” She knew as well as everyone else there that they couldn’t know anyone was safe,besides the few people sitting there, but it made her feel calmer talking like that.

“The hotel was surrounded, we saw some of those soldiers going in an out. Ebony has probably been taken, and her militia.” Ellie added. Although none of them cared much for Ebony, the thought of her being taken did make them all feel a little more scared. Having her now would have been a comfort, she was good with these things, knew how to fight evil with evil.

“What about Luke? Or the Guardian?” Lex asked, ignoring the looks sent to him by Ellie and Jack, continuing. “We found no body, so Alice can’t have killed the lunatic. Maybe she thought she did, I don’t know. Luke left a while before this all started, so he could be anywhere by now. No use hoping he’ll come back to help.”

Ellie looked down, she knew he was right although there was a small part of her hoping Luke would come running into the mall, for her sake. Jack looked over at her, their eyes meeting when she glanced back at him and they both quickly looked away again. KC kept silent in the corner. The reality of leaving Tally and Andy out there had hit him the moment Ellie and Jack told them about what they had seen. Those two kids didn’t stand a chance on their own. Some friend he was. Lex found himself glancing around at the four other people sitting in the café with him. There was no doubt now, he was the leader here. He knew the others would gladly let him take the role as well, all of them being followers, needing someone to lean on. Even KC, though he always tried to appear as someone who could make it on his own. For once the idea of leadership scared him. If he had any sense in him he would leave them behind, head for the farm and find Tai-San and take her away. Leave the city behind and find somewhere new to settle down and find his place. Their place. And yet he knew Tai-San would never leave the city or Alice behind now. He also knew that if he left the mall in the morning, like he had first planned, she would greet him at the farm with questions of how he could abandon the tribe when they needed him the most. What kind of leader would do that? He stood up abruptly, the movement making the other four all turn towards him.

“Okay, here’s what we’ll do…” he began, stopping because he had no idea what to do next. “We will go to bed.”

The incredulous looks sent his way told him they had all expected something more. Fearing that he was already losing momentum he continued.

“We’ll all stay in the furniture shop, one person always on guard duty on the balcony outside. A lot of kids out there might think of the mall as a safe place to go to. In the morning I’ll go out, scout around a bit, and see if I can round up a few people.”

“I’ll go with you!” KC said instantly, pushing off the wall.

“No, I need you to stay here, keep guard. And you, Jack, you’ll work on security. Alarms, traps, anything. We need to secure the mall.”

“What about me?” Cloe and Ellie said in unison, glancing at each other as they did.

“You two stay in the café tomorrow, go over food provisions and see what we have. Who knows how long we’ll have to keep out of sight here. Make some kind of rationing system with what we have.”

“That’s hardly gonna take all day, is it? Or need two people for it.” Ellie said with a sigh. “I’m either going with you, Lex, or I’m going out on my own. Cloe can sort out a rationing system by herself.”

Cloe wanted to object, but she had no want to leave the mall, so she nodded in agreement. Lex had no want to take Ellie with him, but before he could come up with an argument to keep her at the mall, they heard a crash from downstairs, and a weak voice calling for help.

They rushed down the stairs, Lex leading the line. They found her by the CD shop, she had crashed into a shelf outside it, the contents strewn across the floor. A Mozzie, with bright pink hair. Lex had never taken much notice of her before, she wasn’t one of those who had worked for him. They could tell she was injured. She was sitting on the floor, leaning back against the wall, one hand clutching her ankle, the other massaging her scalp. The side of her face was covered in dried blood from a wound on her head. Ellie was the first to rush over to her.

“What’s your name?” She asked, as she examined the wound on the other girl’s head.

“Dee,” came a meek answer. “They took everyone else. Moz, she just fell. And the others…I hit my head and I passed out. I don’t know what happened.”

Ellie sent a look towards Jack, one that said they shouldn’t have been so quick to leave. He ignored it, focusing on the practical side of things rather than spend his time trying to sort out all the emotions flowing through him whenever Ellie was around.

“Dal’s old medical bag is hidden in his old room. I’ll go get it,” he insisted, focusing on something practical. Lex nodded his agreement, and Jack took off.

“We should get her upstairs,” Ellie said, trying to help the girl on her feet. Lex moved over to help, the two of them carrying the girl between them.

“Cloe, get some clean towels and water,” Ellie ordered. “And KC, see if you can find something we can use as a bandage for her head. Hurry!”

The two scurried off, and Lex and Ellie began the ordeal of getting Dee up the stairs. They had only just started ascending when Jack returned, the worn brown bag in his hands. Ellie ordered him upstairs to the furniture shop to get a bed and the equipment ready.

Ebony was led through the stadium, into what looked like the old trophy room. There hadn’t been much to brag about, she noted to herself, although they had made the most of it back in the day. Her eyes travelled towards the window, it was dark outside. At least now she had some idea of how much time had passed, even though she still had no idea what time of night it was. A large table stood in the middle of the room. The general led her to sit in a chair on one end. She had been made to shower first, and given a clean set of clothes. A pair of black baggy trousers and a black tank top was all they had provided her with. Though she had been secretly grateful for the shower, she was starting to smell, it felt like it was a way to humiliate her, take her down a peg by taking her own clothes away. At least they hadn’t shaved her head, she thought, absentmindedly twirling one of her long braids between her fingers. The large doors on the other side opened, four uniformed Technos marching into the room, two on each side. They were all wearing masks. She heard a whirring noise getting closer, it sounded like a machine of some kind. Then a man appeared, sitting in some kind of small vehicle. A wheelchair, she realised suddenly. The great leader of these numpties was in a wheelchair? It seemed so bizarre she almost burst out laughing, but she managed to compose herself. He had one of those surgical masks covering the lower part of his face, only his was in black to match the uniform rather than the white ones doctors and nurses used to wear in the old days.

Ebony’s attention was distracted for a few moments by the girl walking behind him. Her face was covered in one of the silver masks these people seemed so fond of, her dark hair pulled tightly back in a ponytail, and she was wearing the same uniform as the rest. But something about her made Ebony pause. There was something familiar about her, about the way she moved and held herself. She noted that the girl held her left arm a bit awkwardly, and Ebony staring was definitely making her uncomfortable.

“Is she clean?” The guy in the wheelchair spoke, and she brought her attention back to him.

“Yes, lord Ram.” General Jay said quickly behind her.

“Good!” Lord Ram snapped his fingers, and the girl rushed to him and removed the mask from his face, before she moved back into the corner of the room. “Now, we can speak more freely,” he said, giving Ebony a look that said he felt she should be pleased about that.

Ebony said nothing, she crossed her arms over her chest, and crossed her legs, leaning back in the chair and giving him a challenging look. Even with these shapeless unimpressive clothes and no make-up she knew how to make the most of her appearance.

“Ebony, elected City Leader…” He tapped his gloved fingers on the small table connected to his wheelchair. “I must say, your leadership and security measures are far from impressive. Your city didn’t even put up a fight.” He let out a small laugh.

Ebony wanted nothing more than to wipe that smug grin of his face, but she kept her cool. Her lack of reply seemed to bore him, and he sighed loudly.

“Anyway, as you might have realised already, we have equipment, abilities and knowledge far beyond what anyone in this city can even hope for. We came, saw and conquered before any of you even realised we were the enemy. Now, City Leader, the choice is yours. Join us, or fight us.”

“What do I get if I join you?” Ebony asked. Ram seemed to find that amusing, he laughed loudly, before looking at Jay.

“Did you hear that, Jay? A true ambitious woman we have on our hands here. I dare say your little friend was right about her.”

Ebony narrowed her eyes. She would take a wild guess that Jay’s ‘little friend’ was the girl, given the way she instinctively took a step back, keeping her face turned downward so Ebony couldn’t get a look at her eyes, let alone the rest of her face behind that silver mask.

“What you get, dear Ebony,” Ram began, “is to stay alive. If you play nice, you might even get your freedom back. Eventually, you might even get your position as City Leader back to. We don’t intend to stay here forever. We will move on to the next city eventually. When we do, we will leave this place in the hands of someone trustworthy, who has proved themselves capable. That could be you.” He said it as if it was a very generous offer he was making her.

“Basically you’re telling me to stay on your good side or you’ll kill me?”

“Well, killing you does seem a waste,” he shrugged. “From what I hear about you, you could be a very valuable asset to us. Just keep in mind, Ebony, we can manage without you on our side. You can’t manage without us.”

“What you’ve heard about me? Who’s been telling you stories?” Ebony demanded to know, she was tired of the secrecy.

Ram snapped his fingers again. The girl moved slowly from the shadows, hesitance in her every move.

“Why don’t you show our new friend who you are,” Ram said, not even bothering to turn his head to look at her.

Ebony could see her eyes through the mask now, looking to Jay. Ebony glanced sideways at him quick enough to see him give her a small nod. So he was really the one she worked for then, even if Lord Ram seemed to think differently. The girl removed her mask. It took a moment for Ebony to recognise her. The scar had altered her face considerably, and the time that had passed had aged her. It wasn’t a little girl trying to be an adult standing before Ebony now, like the last time she had seen her. No, Patsy was a young woman now.

Luke tried to be stealthy as he moved across the forest ground. The roads were too risky, especially now after dark. The trucks came upon you far too quickly, and once you were caught in the headlights you were done. He had seen it, a group of kids trying to make their way along a dusty road leading towards the mountains, trying to get away. The sun was setting, the road darker. The truck seemed to come out of nowhere suddenly, on its way towards the city. Luke had been lucky. He had been hiding in the bushes, debating whether or not to advice the kids to get off the road when it happened. He wasn’t proud to admit he had frozen. The kids outnumbered the two uniformed men in the truck, but whatever their weapons were, had taken the kids down the moment they tried to storm them. Luke had done nothing, just watched as the two uniforms dragged the lifeless bodies onto the truck. Luke hoped they weren’t dead, that whatever their weapon was it had just made them unconscious. He thought he could see their chests rising, but it was difficult to tell when his own heart was beating so hard and they were at a distance.

As soon as the truck drove off, Luke had gotten further into the woods, even though it meant a detour. He wanted to get to the city as quickly as possible, find Ellie, but he knew his chances of getting there at all were much greater if he was careful. He had always been a city kid though, and no matter how hard he tried to walk slowly and be careful, he kept tripping on roots and bumping into branches. He couldn’t keep an eye on his feet as well as what was in front of him higher up at the same time. He swallowed hard, his throat felt so dry as he thought of all the wild animals his noises could draw to him. It was too risky to keep moving. He found himself a hollow under a tree, settling down for the night.

Mega stood very still behind the glass, only his eyes moving. From one chair to the next, row after row. Occasionally his eyes dropped from what was on the other side of the glass to the monitors on his side, the lines and codes on them in patterns that most people would see as gibberish. To Mega it was the language he knew best. He looked up again as one of the monotone beeping noises from the other side of the glass got quicker and then turned to a continuous alarm. His eyes fell to one of the monitors again, the pattern on it becoming erratic and more and more singular until it all ebbed into one line. When he looked back into the room, two guards had already rushed to take the helmet off one of the test subjects, the virt lying motionless halfway off the seat. A short moment later one of them looked up towards Mega in the control room, his hand going up in the air with his thumb sticking up, before he turned it around to point downward.

Mega sighed, another test subject down. It wasn’t that the loss of the test subjects’ lives bothered him, but he knew there were only so many virts that could disappear for good before believable explanations would run short. The survivors were easy, a bit of manipulation in the game they were testing and they would tell their friends and family the Technos had treated them well and they wanted to keep working for them. Explaining away the dead, that was the tricky bit. Mega knew Ram wouldn’t be pleased that the Paradise system still wasn’t secure. The body of the boy had been put on a stretcher, a black sheet covering him with only a tuft of red hair sticking out at the top. Mega walked over to the computer at the back of the control room, quickly getting up the file on the dead virt. His eyes narrowed when he saw the date of arrival. He had been caught only that day. A newbie to the system should never have been put on this level in the first place. A mix-up in the chaos of all these new prisoners. Mega shook his head, the side of his lips curling slightly upwards. Whoever responsible for that mistake would get deleted. He pushed a few keys on the keyboards, soon that same word flashed across the screen, over the picture of the boy taken just a few hours earlier.

DELETED in large blinking letters.

There was not a single hint of emotion on Mega’s face as he closed down the file, the face of the boy disappearing from the screen. The name Andy just a faint memory to him already. By the time Mega was back behind the glass, the body was gone from the test room, the chair Andy had been in already occupied by a new virt.

(ugh my chapters are too long, won’t let me post more than one at a time :blush:)

CHAPTER 3: In the line of fire
(title from Tom McRae’s Line of Fire)

“Patsy!” Ebony couldn’t hide her surprise. “I should have known it was you, you treacherous little snake!”

”Treacherous little snake?” Patsy snorted. ”That’s rich, coming from you.”

Ebony smirked slightly, letting the comment pass. “So, you’ve been telling your new friends all about me, have you? What about the Mallrats? Did you betray your friends to them as well?”

Jay took a step forward, as if he wanted to come between the two of them. Ram held up his hand to stop him, and then answered Ebony’s question for Patsy.

“Patsy told us about the influence the Mallrats have in this city. She convinced us it would be better to get the Mallrats on our side, rather than make them our enemies.”

Ebony snorted. “Oh yeah? How do you intend on getting holier-than-thou Amber and Bray on your side? I assume you’ve taken a few prisoners in the city, the way you guys came on the scene.”

“We’ve taken some necessary people for our workforce,” Jay said quickly, “they will be released as soon as possible. The quicker the city cooperates, the quicker we will have a working society again, and the workers will be able to choose between staying in the job and getting paid, or finding something else to do.”

“The workers? Slaves, more like it. Pretty it up all you want, General, but slaves are what they are.” Her voice was dark and bitter as she looked from Jay to Patsy, eyes narrowed. Jay looked back without flinching, but Patsy looked away.

“Anyway,” Ram waved his hand slightly, seemingly annoyed with the direction the conversation had taken. “Those two you mentioned, Amber and Bray?” He looked to Jay, who confirmed their names by nodding. “Didn’t you banish them from the city, Ebony? We’ve had spies here for some time, you see. We know most of what has been going on since the Chosen were defeated. We’ve been informed of the impressive work the Mallrats did in bringing them down to. But since you have sent their leaders away, they won’t be much of a force anymore, will they?” Ram smirked again.

Ebony tried to ignore the truth of what he said. “Do you really think Amber and Bray will leave and let you do as you please? Amber won’t stand for that. Didn’t you tell him that, Patsy?”

“She’s pregnant,” Jay shot in. “You sent them away, a pregnant woman and the father of her child. From what Patsy told us, and the info from our spies, we know Amber has a tribe in the woods somewhere, that she used to live with. We’ll keep an eye out for her, but do you really think she’ll come back here, with a little baby to think of?”

Ebony let his words sink in. Chances were Amber and Bray would settle down somewhere else now. A small tingle went through her body. That would leave space for her, that’s what she wanted when she sent them away, wasn’t it? If she played her cards right, she could use these newcomers to her own gain.

“Well then, as City Leader I think the best for the city would be to cooperate. What do you need me to do?”

She ignored the look Patsy sent Jay, a look that said ‘I told you so’. She focused on the smirk on Ram’s face instead, making it her goal to wipe it permanently off his face. A bit of patience, a bit of cunning wit, and she would have him wrapped around her little finger. She gave him her most charming smile.

It was a long night at the mall. Cloe and Ellie switched on keeping Dee awake during the night, as it was clear she had a concussion. The three guys were on guard duty. Lex took first watch, as Cloe read for Dee in one of the sofas just inside the doorway. He sat there listening to her voice, finding it strangely soothing. His mother had read for him when he was little. It was a faint memory, one of few good ones he had from his childhood. But it had happened. He had loved stories when he was very little, but then when he was supposed to start learning to read them himself, it was so much harder for him than the other kids. He had claimed to lose all interest in books and reading and school at some point, rather than admit he couldn’t. But the truth was he wanted to learn it, he wanted to be able to read. Ryan had tried to teach him but… annoyed Lex shook his head. He couldn’t afford to go down the sentimental route now. Ryan was gone. If Salene found him and brought him back, then great. If not… well, then he was gone. No use crying over it. But he had to admit, it would have been nice to have his right-hand-man right now, or his wife. He felt strangely alone. God, Tai-San really had done a number on him. He never used to care.

He was snapped out of his thoughts when he heard a noise from downstairs. It had been faint, he wasn’t even sure he had heard anything. He wondered if he should wake the guys, just in case. But it could just be a rat, or some other animal in the sewers for all he knew. If it had been these new guys they would have come in with a bang, it seemed more their style. Gravely he thought to himself that if it was them it wouldn’t even matter, they didn’t stand a chance. He stood up, and glanced in at where Cloe was sitting with Dee. He couldn’t tell which one of them looked more tired. As she yawned herself, Cloe nudged hard into Dee who was slipping more and more to her side. Dee quickly sat up straight.

“Cloe,” he whispered in to her. “I thought I heard something. It’s probably just a rat in the sewers or something, but I’m going to check it out. If I’m not back in five minutes, you wake the others, alright?”

She nodded, too tired to be alarmed. To be fair, it was the third time Lex thought he heard something since she had taken over Dee-watch from Ellie.

Lex walked down the stairs again, glancing into each room and sneaking around the corners when someone suddenly said his name. He whirred around, finding Pride standing near the sewer entrance.

“Pride! Don’t sneak up on me like that!”

“Sorry,” he said, but Lex noticed he did seem a little pleased to have startled him. “Where are the others? Is everyone okay?”

Lex felt a chill down his spine, he hated being the one having to tell bad news like this. He didn’t know how serious Pride was about May, but he knew the guy well enough to know that in some way he did care about her.

“Jack, Ellie, Cloe and KC are upstairs, and some Mozzie girl who escaped. Moz and the rest were all taken by the hotel. Ebony is probably gone to; the hotel was surrounded. Ellie and Jack were out in the city, they saw it happen.” He paused, before just jumping right in. “I’m sorry, mate, but they saw them take May as well. I don’t know what she was doing at the hotel, but they got her. Tally and Andy are missing to. Alice and Tai-San headed for the farm when the planes first came, they should have been a while out of the city before they started taking people.” If they didn’t walk straight into them, Lex added in his mind, quickly pushing that thought away. He had to believe Tai-San was safe at the farm.

Pride nodded solemnly, sighing deeply. “Was she hurt? May, I mean. I can’t imagine her going easily.”

“Jack said they used some kind of weapon, he thought they were stun guns or something like that. And that Mosquito girl, Dee I think, said she heard some of them talk about quotas. They probably need them for something.” Lex tried to deliver the news as delicately as he could, but there was no point keeping anything from him.

“That’s good news I guess, it means they won’t hurt them,” Pride said after a moment of taking in Lex’s words.

Lex wasn’t sure who Pride was trying to convince, but it was the same thing Lex had been saying to the others to calm them down. As they fell silent, Lex raised his eyebrows and looked at Pride, waiting for his update.

“Amber gave birth, to a boy. He’s very small, but seems fine otherwise.” Pride took the hint, quickly updating him on the rest. “Trudy and Brady are with them at a barn outside the city. I came to check what was going on here. Took me hours to get through the city, those guys are everywhere. I’m leaving again in a few hours, I need to get back to them.”

“Ey? You’re leaving again? What am I supposed to do alone here with a bunch of kids?” Lex shook his head.

“Take them out of the city, Lex. There’s no point staying here. Take them to the farm.” Pride said simply.

“And leave the city to fend for itself?” Lex’s objection came out more heartfelt than he thought it would. Pride shrugged. Lex glared back at him. Typical. Pride didn’t care about the city, or all the people who had been taken. He never had, it was just Amber that had kept him here.

“Let’s leave it to morning, Lex. I need sleep.”

Lex was too tired himself to argue, so he just nodded and turned away to lead the way back upstairs.

Tai-San woke as the sunlight seeped in through the window in the farmhouse. Alice wasn’t in her bed anymore. Tai-San had dragged a mattress into her room, sleeping on the floor. She didn’t want to leave Alice alone for very long. She stood up, a quick glance out the window found Alice by Ned’s grave.Alice heard Tai-San’s light footsteps when she reached her, turning slightly to look at her before focusing on the grave again. Tai-San stopped behind her, staying silent until Alice spoke.

“I don’t know how to deal with it, Tai-San. I loved him, but what he did…” her voice broke, tears streaming down her face again. “I don’t know how to accept that the man I loved could do that to Amber and Trudy. And now he’s dead, I can’t even ask him to explain it.”

“All people have good and bad things in them,” Tai-San said as she knelt down next to her. “His actions were bad, but he wanted to do good for you and his siblings. As long as the intentions are good, we can forgive.”

“Oh god, the kids. Tally and Andy… I need to go back. Ellie’s back there to. The city’s been attacked, I need to check that they’re safe.” Alice made a half-hearted attempt at getting up, giving in as soon as Tai-San put a hand on her shoulder.

“It’s not safe for you, Alice. After you fell asleep last night I tried to get closer to the city, just to check how far I could get. Their trucks are everywhere, and guards patrolling the countryside. We need to stay put for a while, wait it out. It won’t do anyone any good if we get caught. Ellie knows we’re here, as soon as it’s safe she will come looking for you. You know that.”

“What if she’s not there? What if they’ve taken her or…” Alice didn’t finish the sentence, the possibility to awful for her to imagine.

“Ellie is safe, I can feel it. Can’t you? Close your eyes, Alice, and think of her. I know you can feel it to.” Tai-San moved in front of her, taking both of Alice’s hands in her own. Alice closed her eyes as instructed. “You would know if she was hurt or in danger. You would know.”

Alice opened her teary eyes again. Tai-San could see the doubt clear as day, but Alice nodded in agreement. She needed to believe her.

As the day grew older, what was left of the Mallrats gathered in the café. Pride had agreed to stay a few hours longer than planned, and had gone with Lex to inspect in the city. They had found a few people, but no one was willing to join them. Dee had been allowed a few hours of sleep and was finally feeling better, though her ankle still hurt. Pride had determined it was just a sprain and no broken bones.

“So we know they’re stationed at the old stadium. That’s something.” Ellie said, in between mouthfuls.

“Makes sense, easy to defend and lots of space. Not far from the airport either,” Jack shot in. “And there’s a large satellite out there, they’re probably using that for their communicators.”

“They had lots of gadgets on them, that’s all I know,” Dee said from the corner of the room.

Lex had been silent for a while, pondering a plan that seemed insane. But he was tired of waiting, being cooped up in the mall didn’t seem like much of a plan. He wanted action.

“Okay, I have an idea,” he finally spoke up. “They mentioned quotas, lots of people out there heard them use that word, so they’ve probably taken the prisoners they need. I say we go to them, and ask them what they want.”

“Right. We just storm up to the stadium, all…” Jack stopped, counting the group loudly, “all seven of us and politely ask them what they want?”

“Not politely, no. We demand to know what’s happened to our City Leader, our friends, and why they’re here.”

“I think you’re the one that hit your head,” Dee piped up.

The others laughed slightly at that, but calmed down when Lex sent angry looks around the room.

“What else do we do? Just sit here? I’m going. Whoever wants to can come with me, anyone else can stay here and wait for them to come knocking. Or you can leave with Pride.”

“I’m with you,” KC said quickly, just as eager to do something rather than just sit around and wait.

Cloe looked from him to Pride. On the one hand she really wanted to get out of the city, see the baby and be with Amber and Bray. But it felt so cowardly, after all they had been through with the Chosen, was she just supposed to give up?

“Me to,” she said finally.

“I’ll go,” Dee said, “they’ve taken my whole tribe, I can at least try to figure out what happened to them.”

Ellie turned to Pride. “Could you do me a favour? Go to the farm and make sure Alice is okay. I have to do this, it’s a risk but we can’t just let them walk into our city without at least confronting them about it. If we get away safely I will come to the farm as soon as I can.”

Pride nodded. “I was thinking I’d bring Amber and the rest there, it’s not far from the barn they’re staying at. Amber needs some time to recover before she decides what to do next. Will you ask them about May, if you get the chance?”

Ellie promised him that, and Pride stood up. “I suppose that means I’m going alone.”

Lex glanced at Jack, he still hadn’t said anything. “You in?”

Jack shrugged. “What else is there to do?” A quick glance at Ellie betrayed him though; he was going because she was.

“It’s only the two of them.”

Salene turned to look at her two companions, nodding in agreement. They had spent most of the night and the early hours of the day just outside the farm to keep watch. The closer they got to the city, the harder it was to remain unnoticed. That’s when they had decided to go to the farm. Salene’s first instinct had been to rush out there the moment she saw Alice and Tai-San sitting by Ned’s grave, but the other two were much more careful. They wanted to keep watch, to make sure they knew exactly how many people were there. It was only Alice and Tai-San, they were certain of that now. Relieved not to have to hide anymore, Salene took the lead and walked out from their hiding spot. She didn’t turn to see if they followed or not, she just walked straight towards the other two Mallrats. Alice had finally left the grave, now she and Tai-San were in the kitchen garden, digging up weeds. They spotted her quickly, Tai-San the first to react.

“Salene!” she wiped her hands clean on the bottom of the short skirt she had over her tights, rushing over to give Salene a hug. “It’s so good to see you.” Tai-San said as she stepped back, her eyes drifting to something behind her as an even wider smile broke out on her face. “Oh, and you found him.”

Before Salene had managed to say a word, Tai-San had let go and now had her arms around Ryan, who hugged her back, though with less eagerness. Salene found both comfort and a sting of pain in the fact that it wasn’t just her he was distancing himself from. He had been so cold to her since they day she found him, she had thought it was simply her she hated. But seeing Tai-San again didn’t get much of a smile out of him either. Alice kept her distance, so Salene took it upon herself to go over to her and give her a hug. When she turned back around, the third one of their party had also joined. Tai-San was left stunned as Danni stepped out from Ryan’s shadow.

“Danni! Oh, Danni. We thought you were dead.” She quickly pulled herself together, putting her arms around Danni now. Danni was even less reachable than Ryan, not even attempting to hug Tai-San back, though there was a faint attempt at a smile on her face as Tai-San stepped back.

“You all look exhausted, come on inside. We don’t have much, but there’s still some gas for the stove so I will make you all some herbal tea. You look like you need it.” Even Tai-San’s herbal tea sounded good right about now, so Salene nodded eagerly.

“Yes, please,” she said, trying to be friendly and warm enough for the three of them. Ryan and Danni barely reacted, though both of them trailed after when Tai-San headed for the farmhouse, Salene and Alice right behind.

The stadium seemed so much bigger than they remembered, it loomed over them as they moved closer along the grey asphalt. They were out in the open, completely exposed for any enemy to see. Cloe crossed her arms in front of herself, moving into the small space behind Lex and KC. KC glanced back at her, a small encouraging smile on his face. Jack examined the fences they were nearing, taking note of the security cameras. The satellite would be on the other end of the stadium, if he remembered correctly. It had been a huge talking point around the dinner table in his family, back when the satellite was first put up.

Inside the stadium, Jay stood watching the screens as the group moved closer. He nodded to dismiss the Techno who had alerted him, before he called for Patsy. Her eyes searched the screen, studying each grainy face.

“Well? Is it them?” Jay asked. She nodded, biting her lip to keep herself from getting teary. She couldn’t afford to show that kind of emotion.

“Just like you said they would,” Jay said, giving her an encouraging smile.

She didn’t look away from the screen, her eyes fixed mainly on Cloe.

“Something wrong?”

“No,” she said quickly. “Just fewer of them than I expected. And a face I didn’t expect. Are you sure no Mallrats were taken?”

“That was the order, but I can’t guarantee that none of them were out in the streets when the patrols secured the city.”

She simply nodded in reply.

“Let’s go say hello,” Jay said gently, putting a hand on her shoulder.

Luke was close to the mall, his track through the city leading him close to capture so many times. His heart was racing as he ducked behind a dumpster as one of those trucks drove past again. As it disappeared and the sound of the engine faded, he let out a relieved breath and leaned back against the cardboard boxes. A small sound made him jump, and he turned around, moving the boxes until he found a little girl sitting there. He couldn’t tell how old she was, seven or eight maybe. She was hugging her legs close to her chest, staring at him through big brown eyes only just peeking out through her dark matted hair.

“Hi…” Luke froze, unsure what to do now. He couldn’t leave her, but taking a little child with him was a risk. He couldn’t move as quickly or hide as easily.

“Are you okay?”

She didn’t answer, just stared at him with tear-filled eyes.

“Are you alone?”

Her lower lip started shaking slightly and she nodded, tears beginning to roll down her cheek.
“They took him,” she said, her voice so low he could barely hear it.

“Who did they take?” Luke asked carefully, but there was no answer from her. He glanced towards the road, it was quiet out there now. He turned back to the girl, her cheeks were still wet but the tears had stopped coming.

“Will you come with me? I know a nice place with some nice people who can take care of you.”

She seemed to consider him for a moment, her eyes searching his face then glancing towards the street. Then she nodded. Luke stood up, stretching his legs again.

“Okay then, come along. It’s not far.”

She stood up, and only then did he realise how worn and dirty her clothes were. She was a heartbreaking sight, and it tore at him a bit. Hesitantly he reached out his hand, hers soon grabbing onto it.

The Mallrats stopped in front of the gate, staring at it aimlessly.

“What now, genius?” Dee asked, standing next to Lex. “Do we climb over?”

He glared at her. “No, we just have to let them know we’re here somehow.”

“They’ve already seen us,” Jack said quickly, pointing towards the camera as it whirred around to focus on them.

Lex moved towards it. “Hey! Come out here and face us you cowards!”

“Great, Lex. That will show them.” Ellie said with a sigh.

But the gates opened, the sound startling them, and the Mallrats went silent for a moment.

“This just screams trap,” Jack warned.

“Are you scared, little scientist?” Lex snapped at him. “Let’s go.”

Jack rolled his eyes, but followed as Lex led the way inside, his coat swaying out behind him as he marched through the gates. The sound of boots stopped them halfway to the stadium. Soon a large group of Technos appeared around the corner, all of them masked but the one in front. They stopped, the two groups now standing still facing each other, only a couple meters apart. Lex glanced back, making sure the other Mallrats had followed him. They all stood behind him, feeling small and defenceless compared to the group standing in front of them. The unmasked one took a few steps forward, closing the distance between himself and Lex, a small welcoming smile on his face as his eyes travelled across the group.

“Greetings, Mallrats. I’m General Jay of the Technos. We’ve been expecting you.”

Yay for patsys return. Looking forward to the next installment

@Ellsbells thank you! Posting one more chapter tonight, hopefully a few more tomorrow.

CHAPTER 4: Heart in a headlock
(title from Imogen Heap - Headlock)

Although none of them felt safe in doing it, the Mallrats followed Jay inside. He led them to the same room where Ebony had gotten to meet Ram the night before, but the Mallrats didn’t know that. Nor did they know Ebony was still locked in the basement, awaiting Ram’s decision on what to do with her. Of course, he already knew, but he liked to keep her waiting. Hesitantly they stood by the door, staring at the large table where all kinds of fruit were laid out for them. Dee was the first to sit down, needing to rest her ankle. She grimaced as she pulled her foot up into her lap, rubbing it with her hands. One by one the others followed her lead, except Lex who remained standing behind them, legs spread wide and arms crossed over his puffed out chest, the sheriff’s star proudly displayed.

“It’s nice to meet you all, finally.” Jay said, giving them his best smile. “We’ve heard a lot about the Mallrats. We had a feeling you would come to say hello.”

“We’re not here to say hello, captain Peroxide, we’re here to get our friends back!” Dee snapped, the pain in her ankle intensifying her anger. Jay studied her, from the outfit to her hands massaging her ankle.

“Ah, you would be a Mosquito I suppose, judging from the uniform. I do apologise for that. Your tribe is safe, we could send you to them if you wish.”

“I’m not letting you send me anywhere!” Dee bit back. “Set them free!”

“I’m afraid we can’t do that, not yet. They’ve been sent away. But I assure you, you will see them again. All prisoners will eventually be released, it’s just a temporary solution.”

“A temporary solution for what?” Ellie demanded.

“Electricity, to start with. We want to bring it back, but it demands a large workforce. Once it’s set up, all those who were taken will be offered to stay in the job for payment, and however many workplaces we have left will be offered to the rest of the city. We have no intention of making slaves of anyone.”

“You already have, blondie.” KC snapped. “You even take little kids! What the hell for? Tally and Andy are useless for anything but pranks. What have you done with them?”

Jay hesitated. “I’m afraid I don’t know who you’re talking about. We set an age limit, I’ve been informed some were taken below that limit. That will be rectified.”

“You mean we’ll get them back?” Ellie asked. “What about May?” she added, remembering her promise to Pride.

“We will look into it, see if there’s something we can do.” Jay insisted, trying to keep a light tone to his voice.

“Somehow I don’t trust you,” Lex finally spoke. “Could be because you invaded our city, took our people prisoner and made us fear for our lives.”

“In time you will see that our methods are necessary. But if you won’t take my word for it, there’s someone else you might listen to.”

“Someone with a stun gun, I bet!” Dee snapped.

Jay ignored her, and walked over to a guard positioned by the open door. He left quickly, returning within moments with a girl in a silver mask following him. She would have had to have been right outside, waiting on her cue.

“Hello?” Luke’s voice echoed through the mall.

There was no answer, not even a sound from anywhere in the mall. That made him scared, both for Ellie and himself. Without the Mallrats, where was he supposed to go? What was he supposed to do with the little girl clinging on to his wrist so tightly that it actually hurt? There was no chance of her letting go, so he let her follow him upstairs as he began searching the rooms. The furniture shop got his attention. There was a book lying open on the table, a small collection of food stored between the sofa and the wall. All the beds seemed slept in, and even pillows and blankets on the sofas that hinted someone had slept there to. Definite signs that someone had been in here since the invasion. Luke felt himself relaxing again. Maybe they had gone out somewhere. He led the girl back to the staircase, sitting down near the top. She followed his lead, and finally let go of his wrist. He resisted the temptation to rub it, instead taking his pack from his back and rummaging through it for the little of food he still had in there. He handed over a stale piece of bread and a carrot. The girl ate the food so quickly he worried she might choke on it.

“What’s your name?” he asked, once the food was gone and silence fell over them again. She looked at him with big innocent eyes, still red and wet from crying. He could almost see her brain working to decide how much she could trust him. But she said nothing, she just looked away again.

“I’m Luke. I’m sure the Mallrats will be back soon. They’ll take good care of you.” He couldn’t be sure he would be allowed to stay, he didn’t even know if Ellie would want him around now. But he knew the Mallrats would never throw a child like her back on the street.

Cloe reacted first, halfway out of her seat before Patsy had even taken her mask off. She froze as the scar was revealed, Patsy’s brown eyes nervously scanning the room before landing on Cloe again.


“Yeah, it’s me. And no, I’m not dead. Imagine that, the Chosen lied.” Her voice was softer than her words, shaking slightly.

Cloe looked from Patsy over to the others, then back at Patsy again. “I didn’t…I didn’t even know you had been taken before I came back.”

Patsy shrugged. “It’s okay,” she said simply, glancing over at Jay.

“Nothing is okay here!” Ellie snapped, also getting to her feet. “You’re working for these people, Patsy? They’ve been kidnapping people, god knows what they’re doing to them. How can you stand there and say anything is okay?”

“It’s not like that, Ellie.” Patsy replied quickly, her hands falling down to her sides. “Nothing bad is happening to them, we just need the workforce to get the power plant running. Once it is, they’ll be offered to keep the job or come back to the city. In a few months this place will be an actual society again, not the crazy post-end of the world we’ve been living in. I for one am sick of the chaos. This is order coming back, Ellie. Just give it time and you’ll see.”

“God, they brainwashed you again, didn’t they?” KC shook his head, glaring at Patsy.

“No one brainwashed me! The Technos are nothing like the Chosen.” Patsy insisted.

“Oh yeah? Kidnapping, people disappearing, taking over the city. Sounds a lot like them.” Lex shot in, having been unusually quiet so far.

“Don’t! Don’t you dare. None of you.” Patsy’s voice was shaking. “You don’t have the first clue what the Chosen did, to me or anyone else, so don’t even try. I’ve been to the Techno camps, I’ve seen how the workers there are treated. It’s nothing like the Chosen camps!”

“I believe you,” Cloe said quickly, before anyone else could speak, a faint friendly smile on her face as she looked at her old friend. Patsy met her eyes, though didn’t return the smile. “I just don’t think this is the right way to do it, Patsy. Kidnapping people? Why not ask people to work for you?” She turned to Jay now, and he took the cue to speak up, giving Patsy a moment to collect herself.

“That would have been the ideal way. There simply isn’t time. We are planning to do several big cities, we’ve already done two in Australia. We reinstall order and electricity, set up infrastructure again, then we leave the city in the hands of elected leaders. We started with Sidney, things there are really changing now. We are going to do the same here, but it has to happen quickly so we can move on quickly. As soon as the, uhm…let’s say less friendly inclined tribes figure out what we’re doing and want to stop us restoring order, the job will be so much harder. This is the only way. If the world was a better place since the virus we could have done it differently, but the way things are, well…” Jay held up his hands. “It’s just not possible any other way.”

The Mallrats glanced at each other, all of them thinking the same thing. Jay’s words were far too good to be true.

“I don’t buy that crap for a second,” Lex said after a moment’s silence. “You’re just out for power.”

“Yeah, and as for rebuilding infrastructure, we just had an election,” Ellie moved closer. “We just elected a City Leader. We were getting somewhere before you swooped in here and everything turned into chaos again.”

“Come on, Ellie. Ebony? You think she was ever gonna care about schools and hospitals?” Patsy said as she crossed her arms over her chest again, trying not to think of the fact that Ebony was somewhere below them in the basement.

“Speaking of, where is Ebony?” Lex shot in, moving forward as well to stand beside Ellie, not wanting her to take over this whole thing.

“And where’s Tally and Andy?” KC shot in.

“And May!” Ellie wasn’t going to leave without some answer to where May was.

“We will look for them and come back with an answer.” Jay replied quickly. “No Mallrats were supposed to be taken.”

Lex and Ellie both frowned. “What makes us so special?” Lex asked.

“We’ve done our research. We know the Mallrats have quite a history in this city since the virus. Taking out Zoot, the Chosen, setting up elections. We want you on our side. And from Patsy we know you can all be useful to us and the city, one way or another. We’d like to offer some of you jobs as we begin working.”

Ellie’s eyes narrowed even more. “What’s the catch?”

Jay gave a small shrug, trying to pass it of as nothing. “There’s no catch, though we would like to ask a favour once we get things sorted out.”

“What’s that then?” Lex’s frown had disappeared now that he saw a chance to keep his job as sheriff.

“We’re going to need someone from your tribe, a known friendly face, to ask people to stay calm, tell them our promises to return their friends within a few weeks, help us get the city to cooperate. Ebony has already agreed to it, but it would be nice to have someone else by her side.”

For the first time Jack spoke up. “Basically, you want us to be your propaganda.”

The mood in the small farmhouse kitchen was weirdly tense and quiet. Salene had filled Tai-San and Alice in on her story, where she had found Ryan and Danni and how they had been trying to get back to the city to warn people of the impending invasion. Ryan and Danni hadn’t said much though, mainly thanked for the herbal tea and here and there confirmed or cleared up any details in Salene’s story. Alice wasn’t speaking much yet either, though at least she had snapped out of the quiet stupor she had been in since Ned’s death. She was beginning to heal, albeit slowly. Tai-San stood up, taking their empty mugs over to the sink before turning back around towards the table.

“You’ve all been travelling for a long time, there are some spare beds upstairs if you want to rest.” She told them, looking to Alice for confirmation that it was okay.

“That would be nice,” Ryan said, a small gentle smile on his face.

“Up the stairs, first doors on either side…” Alice trailed off as a loud whistling noise sounded outside.

“What was that?” Danni’s hand grabbed Ryan’s arm tightly. His hand immediately covered hers again. Tai-San noticed how Salene stared at their hands before she turned away from the three of them and walked over to the window.

“Sounded like a bird,” Ryan said.

“Weirdest bird I ever heard,” Alice shot in as she stood up to join Tai-San by the window.

“I think it’s Trudy,” Tai-San said, turning to find the others looking at her questioningly. “The Ecos communicate over distance through animal noises. Trudy and Pride showed the kids at the mall just a few days ago. I think I recognise it.” She shook her head slightly, not letting the thought fester on how much things had changed just in that short time.

Without waiting for the others to catch on, she headed for the door and outside on the porch. She shielded her eyes as she searched the trees at the edge of the farm. Soon a figure appeared, followed by another. Tai-San squinted slightly, though she could tell it was Pride and Trudy. She moved off the porch and towards them, a spring in her step at the thought of news of at least some of her friends. They looked a little wary, but visibly relaxed when they saw Tai-San with a smile on her face. She heard movement on the porch behind her, glancing back to see Alice and Salene had also come outside.

Soon Tai-San had Trudy engulfed in a hug, moving on to Pride quickly. “It’s so good to see you both, did you find them?”

Trudy nodded, looking back towards the trees as Amber and Bray got the all clear sign and stepped out into the sun, Amber carrying the baby in her arms, Bray holding on to Brady’s hand. Tai-San hugged them all, finding Alice and Salene behind her as she turned around.

“Salene!” came out of four months simultaneously, and Salene had to do the round of hugs as well, followed by Alice. The excited voices seemed to confuse Brady, she let go of her uncle’s hand and rushed to cling to her mother’s leg, Trudy lifting her up as soon as she had hugged both the other women.

“Any luck?” Bray asked, his eyes searching Salene’s face. She gave a small smile, looking back towards the house.

Tai-San looked back there to, finding Ryan still on the porch by the open door. He was turned away from them at first, probably talking to Danni who still hadn’t come outside and was hidden behind the door.

“Ryan!” Bray shouted, a grin on his face as he began moving towards the house. Amber was quick to follow, though her movements were slower. Pride walked alongside her, followed by Alice.

Trudy hesitated, staring at the man on the porch as she hugged her daughter closer. Tai-San knew why she was hesitating, knew she was thinking of the last time she had seen him, why he had been away. She wanted to tell Trudy it would be okay, but she had no idea if that was true or not, especially with Danni hiding behind the door. Tai-San had struggled to read her mood since they arrived, but something about Danni was just off. Before she could say anything though, Trudy took a deep breath and followed the others.

Ryan had walked down off the porch to meet the others, soon finding himself in a manly quick hug with Bray.

“It’s good to see you, Ryan.” He insisted, as Amber and their newborn son caught up.

She hugged Ryan with one arm and had only just let go when Danni stepped out from behind the door, arms crossed over her chest as she remained at the top of the small staircase leading down to where the others stood. Bray was the first to see her, he stared at her in disbelief, frozen to the spot. Amber turned to see what had shocked him so much. It took her a moment but she realised quickly who the woman in front of them had to be.

“Danni…” Bray took a step closer but then stopped again. His arms fell down to his sides, seemingly no idea how to handle this.

“Hello, Bray.” Danni answered sharply, her eyes slightly narrowing.

“I…I thought you were dead.” Bray managed to get out.

“Really? Seems to be a thing with you, doesn’t it?” Her eyes landed on Amber and the baby in her arms. “How long did it take you exactly, to jump back into bed with her? Nine months is about as long as I’ve been away, isn’t it?”

“He was born early,” Bray said, though immediately hearing how weak it sounded.

Ryan moved back up the few stairs to stand next to Danni. He whispered something in her ear but she simply shook her head. As she did her eyes landed on Trudy, who was still at the back of the group.

“Oh, look who’s here. Hello, Supreme Mother, how’s Zoot today?”

Trudy seemed to shrink, holding Brady even closer. “I…I don’t…I’m sorry, Danni.”

“Save it. I’m not interested.” Danni turned on her heel and walked back inside, leaving Ryan standing there alone at the top of the steps.

Ram sighed loudly as the Mallrats again broke into a loud discussion over what they had been offered. When he had rolled in there half an hour ago they had been throwing angry insults at Jay, one or two of them trying to talk to his little friend who was close to tears. Ram had sent her out, he didn’t need a weepy little girl hanging around when trying to talk business with these…kids. The youngest of them, the girl with the dark hair, had been allowed to follow, somehow wanting to talk to Jay’s protege. Ram had allowed it, it would seem friendlier to the other Mallrats that way. Though the blond had tried to hold the other girl back, saying something about sticking together and not knowing it was safe. The girl hadn’t listened, just insisted that “Patsy won’t let them hurt me” and rushed off after her. Ram had been forced to hold back a laugh at that. As if Patsy could stop them if they wanted to. She had no power, just Jay protecting her.

The offers had been easy. That Jack guy had almost been salivating when Ram started going on about his systems and what work he could give Jack in his computer department. The blond journalist girl hadn’t been able to hide her interest in the prospect of starting up a newspaper with her own staff and everything, though she kept asking how she could be sure of a free press. She couldn’t of course, but Ram had insisted her newspaper would be independent of the Technos. It wouldn’t be, naturally, but if he gave her just enough to pull her in now he could take advantage of it later. Lex had warmed to him the second Ram said he could keep his position as Sheriff, puffing out his chest with that ridiculous star badge on it. Some people were so easy to manipulate. The others were a little harder. The Dee girl wasn’t having any of it and well, Ram and Jay hadn’t anticipated her being there so he wasn’t sure what to offer her. In the end he gave her the same offer he had offered the kid with the green spiky hair; deputy under Lex.

“Quiet!” He shouted, banging his gloved hand against the board on his wheelchair. The surprise of it caught the Mallrats off guard and they actually did as they were told. “You’ve received your offers, you either take them now or go home and sleep on it. Jay will come see you in a couple days for your answers.”

Ram snapped his fingers, quickly joined by two guards as he wheeled out of the room again, not once looking back as he heard voices raising again, the doors closing behind him just after Jay’s voice rose above the others in an attempt to calm them down.

Cloe was pushed in the door by the two Techno guards, Ellie’s warning going through her mind for a moment before she spotted Patsy sitting on the bed. She stood up, looking at Cloe in surprise.

“What are you doing here?” She asked, glancing towards the door.

“I asked if I could follow you, that Jay guy told them to lead me here. You didn’t think I would just let you walk away again, did you?”

Patsy shrugged, sitting back down. She was absentmindedly rubbing the wrist on her left arm with her right hand.

“What’s wrong with your arm?” Cloe asked.

She took Patsy’s lack of protest as an invitation, grabbing a small wooden stool placed in front of a table with a mirror, pulling it closer to Patsy’s bed before she sat down. Patsy quickly let go of her wrist.

“Nothing,” she said, her eyes travelling towards the open window rather than her old friend sitting in front of her, the scarred side of her face turned away from her.

“Patsy…talk to me. What happened to you?” Cloe could feel tears pressing behind her eyes. It hurt to have the best friend she thought she had lost sitting right in front of her and dismissing her. Patsy finally turned her head again, meeting Cloe’s eyes.

“I…it was bad, in the Chosen camp. I was a traitor so I was kept in the inner courtyard, along with…” She paused, then took a deep breath. “Along with other high risk prisoners, as they called us. I was the only survivor.”

There were tears in Patsy’s eyes now to, and Cloe wanted nothing but to hug her. But she didn’t want to push it, not now that Patsy had finally opened up a little.

“That’s where they found me, when they took over the Chosen camp. The Technos saved my life, Jay stayed with me night and day until he was sure I would make it.”

Cloe was silent for a moment. That explained why she seemed so loyal to that stone-faced blond. “None of that excuses this though, Patsy. Tally and Andy are just kids, and now they’ve gone missing because of these guys. And May! Ellie and Jack saw it, they shot down the Mozzies and took them and May.”

“Oh yeah, cause May is such a great loss, is she?” Patsy spat, though immediately seemed to regret it.

“She’s a Mallrat. She’s one of us. I thought you were one of us to, but I guess I was wrong!” Cloe stood up so abruptly the stool fell down, smacking against the linoleum floor.

“I’m a techno now.” Patsy said, the words sounding mechanical and emotionless, though Cloe was too enraged to notice.

“Yeah, seems you are!” Cloe crossed her arms over her chest, sending her best glare at Patsy. But Patsy was again looking out the window, refusing to face her. “I’m gonna go back to the others, my tribe. You know where to find us when you come to your senses. Unless we’re all gone by then.”

With those words Cloe walked out of the room, slamming the door shut behind her.

Disclaimer: Captain Peroxide I stole from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

not sure if i had read this on TU, will check it on later. you know, i love your stories

1 Like

Yeah, i completely forgot I hadn’t finished posting these chapters…sometimes I have the memory of a goldfish.

Notes: title from Relient K song with same name

It was quiet in the living room of the old farmhouse. Alice was sitting in the old chair that her and Ellie’s dad always used to sit in. Tai-San was in the rocking chair, her legs pulled up under her and the chair swaying slightly with every movement she made. Alice tried not to remember the old days, when she was a little girl watching her mother rocking back and forth to get her baby sister to sleep. Ellie always fell asleep when you sat in that chair with her. Amber sat on one end of the old sofa, covered in a large rug to hide the holes in the worn fabric, her baby son asleep in her arms. Trudy was right next to her, having returned after putting Brady down for the night in one of the bedrooms upstairs. Bray had seated himself on a dining chair on Amber’s other side, his eyes fixed on his son. On Trudy’s other side sat Salene, both her and Trudy admiring the sleeping baby. Ryan and Danni had taken the smaller sofa, the one Alice had found on a skip after the virus and dragged inside once the number of farmgirls joining them had grown.

Pride stayed in the background by the window, having refused Alice’s offer to sit down. He had just filled them in on news from the mall. Alice was not happy. Her first instinct had been to run off to find Ellie, though she had been persuaded not to. Ellie had said she would come to her, Alice had to trust that. She was heartbroken about the twins, knowing anything could have happened to them and she hadn’t been there for them. She wanted to kick herself for having failed them, failed Ned. It had been silent for a few moments now, Alice guessed everyone was thinking through what to do next. Bray stood up, walking over to the other window to glance out, before turning back to face the group.

“Okay, so we have the latest news from the city. What do you guys know, Salene? Ryan….Danni?”

Danni glanced up when he said her name, the same glare, reserved for him and Trudy especially, still in her eyes.

“I mean, how did you find out they were invading?” Bray continued.

Ryan looked over at Danni, knowing she wasn’t likely to elaborate on anything. “Well, things got bad in the Chosen camp. Some of us were kept in the inner courtyard, behind large walls. Me and Danni….and Patsy.” He stopped there, taking a deep breath. Salene seemed to shrink in the other sofa, Alice suspected she already knew this part of the story. She was sure herself that she didn’t want to know.

“It was alright as long we got to be together, even if it was hard. Some of them were alright, some of them were…well, they hated us. We didn’t know much of what was going on outside, but one day a lot of the guards had suddenly disappeared. Only the most loyal ones were left behind. Of course, they were also the worst ones. The rest of the prisoners got split into two groups, we got separated from Patsy. We were let into the outer courtyard. That’s how we managed to escape. We stuck around, with a few others, trying to find out where Patsy was and how to get her out. That’s when we realised we weren’t alone, there were others watching the camp. Some kind of military group. One day they took over the camp, we heard them say all the prisoners were dead.”

“Patsy…” Trudy said quickly, immediately breaking down in tears. Amber freed one arm from her son, putting it around Trudy’s shoulders.

Alice felt a sharp sting of pain to. Patsy would never even have been there if she and Ellie hadn’t convinced her to spy on those bastards.

The Mallrats were a dejected bunch when they walked back into their mall. Dejected and quiet, going over and over what they had just seen and heard in their minds. It was Dee who first noticed they weren’t alone. Luke had approached the landing on the stairs, looking down on them as they stopped by the fountain.

“That’s the Chosen lieutenant!” Dee burst out, the others all immediately turning towards where she was looking.

“Luke!” Ellie stood frozen, her mouth hanging open. She had thought he would be long gone by now. Jack glanced from Ellie to Luke, a sour look on his face.

“Great, just what we need.” Lex sighed dramatically, sitting down on the edge of the fountain. Just then the little girl appeared behind Luke, carefully peeking out from behind him.

“Who’s that?” Cloe asked, immediately noticing how scared the girl looked.

“Uh, good question. I don’t actually know. I found her on the streets when I made my way back here, she was alone. She told me they had taken him, but she won’t say anything more than that. She won’t even tell me her name, or who him is.” Luke looked at the girl, giving her a small smile. She dared to move to his side, but still stayed close.

“Peachy. Not only is he back, he’s brought a stray with him.” Lex shook his head, the annoyance clear on his face.

“Don’t call her that!” Cloe objected, glaring at him.

“I don’t know what’s going on out there, who these new people are. But we don’t have anywhere else to go,” Luke began, his words making Lex jump up from the fountain edge again.

“No, no way! You’re not staying, and she is definitely not staying either!”

“Lex!” Cloe and Ellie both turned towards him in objection, then glancing at each other before Cloe took the word.

“Look, she’s just a lost little girl. We’re the Mallrats. She belongs here. We have to take her in, just like Amber and Salene would have done. She’s staying here, with us, where it’s safe.”

“Safe? For how long?” KC asked, having stayed unusually quiet so far. “Until Patsy and her new army come marching in here?”

“Patsy would never hurt us,” Cloe insisted immediately, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Nooo, of course not. Just like she would never betray us or join forces with an enemy tribe looking to hurt us. Never, not precious Patsy!” KC fired back.

“Shut up, KC!” Cloe shouted. “Patsy is not like that. The Chosen brainwashed her and then they took her away. The Technos found her all hurt and lonely, she’ll come back to us!”

“If we want her back,” Ellie snorted, her eyes landing on Luke for a moment, the double meaning of her words not lost on him.

“Oh, don’t you start to! If it wasn’t for you and Alice, neither of us would have been taken away in the first place. We were spying for you, if you remember!”

Ellie opened her mouth, but then stopped. She knew Cloe was far too upset to listen to her now anyway.

“She’s staying, and that’s final. I don’t care what Luke does.” Cloe said determined, not going to listen to any objections from the others. She began storming up the stairs towards the landing where Luke and the girl stood. The little girl was wide-eyed, staring at the group of people she now found herself with.

“Fine, let her stay!” KC shouted back. “Until one day she joins forces with some tribe worshipping the ghost of…of, I dunno, Top Hat! And betrays us, just like Patsy.”

“Shut up, KC!” Cloe shouted again, even louder. “Just go and steal something, or trick someone, whatever it is you do!”

Cloe stopped at the top of the stairs, taking a few breaths to calm herself. Then she gave the girl a small smile, kneeling down in front of her. Somehow she managed to calm her voice, speaking softly to the child.

“I’m sorry for the shouting. We’re not scary, honest.” The girl looked a bit doubtful, pulling back slightly. “Will you come with me?” Cloe asked, holding out her hand. “I can show you where you can sleep tonight. I’ll let you borrow my Teddy if you want.”

The girl looked up at Luke, who gave her a reassuring smile. “It’s okay, go with her.”

Hesitantly the girl reached out and took Cloe’s hand, letting the older girl lead her to the top of the stairs, the two of them soon disappearing into the Bedding & Furniture shop.

Luke waited until they were gone before he turned back towards the others. “I understand if you want me to leave. Just let the girl stay, she has nowhere else to go.”

“Fine. You know where the door is, don’t you?” Lex asked, smirking. Ellie glared at him, but Lex ignored it.

“I think…it should be up to Ellie whether he gets to stay or not,” Jack broke his silence, having simply watched the events unfold from his spot leaning against one of the columns. Ellie looked taken aback, her mouth hanging open again as she looked from Jack to Luke.

“He can stay,” she mumbled finally, shrugging as if it didn’t matter to her.

Jack nodded, pushing himself away from the column. “Right. I’m just gonna go find some stuff in the workshop,” he excused himself with, and moved away from them.

“Why does no one listen to me?” Lex asked into the air, holding his arms out then letting them drop.

“I think they’re too smart for that,” Dee commented as she hobbled past him, her leg not agreeing with all the walking she had been doing.

“I’ll help you upstairs,” Ellie offered. “We should take a look at the leg again.”

Dee nodded, relieved to have some help, even if she was pretty certain Ellie just wanted to avoid the former Chosen lieutenant. Lex glared at them as they moved towards the stairs, before he turned his focus back to Luke.

“Fine, you can stay. But you take first guard duty.”

Salene already knew the story. Patsy was dead. Not that this was news even then, the Chosen had told them she had been killed when she was taken away. What hurt was realising she had been alive longer than they thought. Maybe they could have saved her, like they could have saved Danni or Ryan before they escaped. The Chosen camp had lasted a while longer than the Guardian’s hold in the city. Since that day she had found Ryan and Danni, almost colliding into them in the woods, she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about how Patsy’s last days were. How scared had she been? Had she been in pain? How had she died? Had it been quick? Salene took a deep breath, unable to provide much comfort to the sobbing Trudy next to her if she wanted to keep herself together.

She looked over at Ryan again. Once it would have felt like the most natural thing in the world that she would be sitting next to him. She would be crying in his arms, rather than sitting here keeping a brave face. It had been very clear to her from the moment she found him that things had changed. She had expected that of course, when he was taken it had been in anger because of her. He had made it clear then that she had gone too far. If she hadn’t lost the baby things would be different, she was sure of that. He would have wanted them to be a family then. Now he was instead sitting with Danni, and she had placed her hand carefully on his arm, as if it belonged there. Salene was convinced there was something going on between them, that they had been holding back for her sake. They hadn’t said anything, but the way they always stayed close together, eyes meeting as if they were having secret conversations, small touches, hushed voices that stopped the moment she got closer…okay, she was definitely jealous. Salene wasn’t even sure if it was because she was still in love with him or if it was being replaced that made her feel like that. She had gone out there to find him, her husband, with barely a clue to follow, and yet all she had found was that there was another girl who had taken her place. Even when telling her about Patsy, Ryan had kept a distance. No arms to hold her or shoulder to cry on. They had both been so business-like, telling her an invasion was coming and they had to get back to the city. Danni of course had taken control of everything, and Ryan did what she said most of the time.

Ryan continued, filling Bray and the others in on how he and Danni and a few other escapees had taken turns on spying on the newcomers. Ryan had met the horse traders on a trip to find food for their group. Not long after he returned their spying had gotten results; the newcomers were planning to invade the city. The others took off. All the ones who had chosen to stay behind with them did so because they had nowhere to go, the fear of another tribe trying to take over was enough to scare them off to find somewhere else to go back to. Danni and Ryan were left to travel back to the city on their own to warn their friends.

“And that’s when we ran into Salene in a small village up in the mountains.” He ended the story with.

He glanced at her, their eyes meeting for a small moment and then he looked away again. It stung, just like every time it happened since she had found him. She had a feeling he hated her with a passion, he was just too nice to let any of it out. By now she thought she would have preferred it if he screamed at her, called her every bad name under the sun. Anything was better than this cold distance. Even when she told him she had lost the baby she had barely gotten a reaction, he only said he already knew. A Chosen guard had told him. That was all he said. She had a feeling he hadn’t been told in a very nice way, but it was impossible to get much out of him.

“Any ideas what we should do next?” Bray asked, a sigh escaping him as he sat back down on the chair. Ryan turned to Danni, planning was her thing.

“We’ve told you all we know,” Danni said, shrugging her shoulders. “The only way to find any more information is to wait and hope for Ellie to come here, or go into the city ourselves. I suggest we give it tomorrow to see if she or someone else shows up, if not some of us travel into the city after dark.” She didn’t look at Bray once when speaking, she kept her eyes travelling the room or looked down at the table.

“Yeah, I think that sounds like a good plan.” Bray agreed, looking around the room and finding no objections.

“Yes.” Pride moved away from the window and closer to the group. “It’s starting to be dark outside. I will go scouting for a bit, make sure there are no people nearby.”

“Maybe we should figure out sleeping arrangements for the night,” Alice said, looking relieved to have come up with something practical to do. “I was thinking Bray and Amber should have my parents’ old bedroom with the baby. Tai-San and I can stay where we are. So there’s Ellie’s room and a guest bedroom left.”

“I will stay down here on the sofa,” Pride said quickly. “I will probably be up most of the night keeping watch anyway.”

“Brady and I can sleep in the same bed, so that’s no problem.” Trudy said, having calmed down though still sniffling slightly, her eyes red and cheeks wet with tears.

“Danni and I can share a room,” Ryan said quickly, a glance passing between them. Salene gritted her teeth, trying not to let that bother her, ignoring the glances sent her way by the others.

“I can take the other sofa. It’s better than anything else I’ve slept on lately,” she said quickly, relieved her voice didn’t break.

The next few minutes went by trying to find bed sheets and duvets and pillows for everyone. Ellie’s room only had the one bed, where Brady was already asleep. The guest room had a double bed, a fact Salene tried to pretend she didn’t hear when Alice went searching for sheets large enough in the cupboard under the stairs. She also pretended not to notice how Ryan stepped into Bray’s path when he tried to talk to Danni, telling him to leave her alone. Pride was gentlemanly enough to offer Salene the three-seat sofa so that she didn’t have to have her legs dangling over the edge. So she settled in there with a ragged but warm and comfy blanket, her feet clad in home-knitted wool socks that Alice’s mother once made so she didn’t have to sleep with her boots on. It got quiet really quickly once everyone settled in for the night. Pride was outside keeping watch, so the living room was hers alone. Salene fell asleep eventually, drifting off into vague dreams where robots in black tried to take all her friends away from her.

Cloe couldn’t sleep. Lex’s snoring was annoying enough on its own, but that wasn’t what kept her up. She simply couldn’t relax, her mind refused to settle down, going over the day again and again, Patsy’s face flashing into her mind constantly. The scar on her face, her eyes; looking at her and looking away, Ram in the wheelchair whom Patsy had obviously been afraid of, the blond general that Patsy kept looking to and was so quick to defend…Cloe got out of bed, trying to move it as little as possible so she wouldn’t disturb the little girl sleeping next to her in the large bed, clutching Cloe’s teddy in her arms. Cloe moved out of the room, tiptoeing carefully through the furniture store to not wake the others. She knew KC was on guard duty and found him seated just outside by the railing.

“Hey, Clo.” He said, looking up as she appeared in the doorway.

“Hey.” She moved over to him, sliding down to the floor next to him.

“Can’t sleep?”


Things had been a bit tense since they returned from the stadium. But Cloe didn’t want to fall out with KC right now. She knew he just felt hurt, even if he’d never admit to that. Patsy was his friend to.

“Are you going to take the job?” She asked, when the silence of the mall just felt too heavy.

“No chance,” he said quickly. “Lex is probably gonna take the sheriff’s job though.”

There was a sense of disappointment in his voice. Cloe knew he was right, Lex wouldn’t say no to this opportunity. His earlier arguments when they had been discussing it all hadn’t been very wrong either; it would be a good way to stay close and learn more about their invaders. KC didn’t see it that way though, nor did he see an opportunity to trick anything out of the Technos, so he wouldn’t take it.

“We should get her back.”

Cloe looked over at him, frowning. “What?”

“Patsy. We should get her back. They have some kind of hold on her, if we can get her away from them we can get her to see sense. I mean, think about it, they got her at her weakest. Dying and probably mentally scarred from whatever hell the Chosen put her through. Then these guys come in and save her life and she’s all grateful and thinks she owes them something. As long as she’s with them she’ll think like that.”

“You’re saying…kidnap her?” Cloe’s eyes widened in disbelief. “How exactly?”

“I haven’t come that far yet, just…I think that’s what we should do. We’ll have to figure out how they work, how to get in, where to take her if we first manage to get her out of the stadium…But we can’t tell the others, they’ll never agree to it. They won’t think it’s worth the risk. We know her better. We can’t leave her with them.”

Cloe didn’t reply, her mind racing through bits and pieces of ideas that fell into her head. He had a point; maybe they could get through to her if they could only get her away from the Technos, even for just a few days. But to figure out the how they needed information.

“Well, then. You need to rethink your earlier answer, KC. The only way to get the info we need, is if you work for the Technos.”

Salene woke up from the sounds of a baby crying. She simply lay awake for a while, before she heard someone coming down the steps, seeing Amber’s silhouette in the hallway before she walked into the kitchen, her little baby’s cries softened but still refusing to give up. Salene gave up trying to go back to sleep, and instead followed the sound into the kitchen. Amber was trying to rock her little boy, his cries sounding like the last attempts from a tired little body who didn’t want to fall asleep. Salene smiled faintly as she watched them from the doorway. Would that ever be her, with her own little baby? She had never really had the chance to dream when she was pregnant, imagine herself and Ryan with their little child. At first she hadn’t even wanted it, and then the Chosen had come and her protective instincts had kicked in. But she still hadn’t dared to dream of any kind of family life. It had just been about surviving. The baby went silent, a few small sobs escaping him. Amber turned around and saw Salene in the door.

“Hey. Sorry, did he wake you? I thought it would be better down here so he didn’t wake everyone upstairs.” Amber said softly, her voice barely louder than a whisper.

“It’s okay,” Salene said quickly, giving Amber a smile as she moved closer. They heard more footsteps on the staircase, soon Trudy joined them in the kitchen.

“Oh, hi. He woke you as well?” Amber asked.

“Yeah, my body still responds immediately to a baby crying. I gave up trying to sleep again, Brady is like a little heater in that bed. Figured I would check how you’re doing.”

“I’m fine, Trudy.” Amber said pointedly, though there was a smile on her face.

“I know, I’m being annoying.” Trudy gave a small soft laugh, moving closer to look at the sleeping baby.

“A little bit,” Amber agreed, a teasing smile on her face.

“You only just gave birth,” Trudy objected. “You should be resting. Why didn’t you let Bray take him?”

“He’s taking over for Pride on guard duty later, I told him to go back to sleep until then,” Amber explained as she wrapped her son closer into the blanket he was bundled up in, now barely his face showed.

“Anyway, I don’t think I’ll manage to go back to sleep again yet. I thought I would make some tea. You want some?” Trudy looked from Amber to Salene.

Amber nodded, before she sat down in the nearest chair. Salene nodded to, following Amber to the kitchen table and sitting down opposite her. Trudy began trying to figure out the gas cooker, while Salene watched Amber as she placed a pillow under her arm for it to rest on as she held the baby.

“Have you decided on a name yet?” Salene asked.

“Not completely. I know Bray wants to name him Martin. I thought of Dal, but…” she stopped, a sigh escaping her. “It’s still so recent, you know? Dal. I just don’t know if I want to do that to myself.”

Salene nodded. She could see why. Some losses just hurt in a way you didn’t want to be reminded every time you looked at your own child. For Bray it would be different, a way to honour who his brother was rather than what he became. After the Chosen, Salene could see why he wanted that side of his brother to live on. She had spent some time thinking of baby names herself in the past, but never with any conclusion. Would she have named her child after someone? Maybe one of her sisters. Ryan had never had anyone he had lost that he felt that way about, he had just looked for names he liked back when a family with her was all he wanted.


She looked up, meeting Amber’s eyes again. Salene realised she had said something.

“Sorry, got lost in my own thoughts for a moment.”

“Yeah, I noticed.” Amber smiled warmly. Trudy had gotten the cooker on and the kettle on waiting to boil. Now she walked closer to them. “Are you okay?” Amber continued, her eyes searching Salene’s face.

“I’m fine,” she said quickly, too quickly.

“No, you’re not.” Trudy insisted. “Of course you’re not. How could you be? I mean, losing Patsy and…” her voice broke slightly but she continued, “and with Ryan and Danni.” She chose her words carefully, but it was pretty obvious she had noticed the same things Salene had, she wasn’t exaggerating it in her own mind.

“Yeah, they seem close,” Amber agreed, testing the waters it seemed from the way her eyes studied Salene.

Salene shrugged. “I guess. They haven’t said anything, but…I don’t know. He doesn’t talk to me at all really, unless it’s absolutely necessary. I think he hates me. And with what I did, how he got taken away, I can’t blame him for moving on with Danni.”

A small laugh by the doorway made all three of them look up. Of course it was Danni who would overhear them. The noises from the kettle and their own voices must have masked her footsteps. Salene sighed, trying to come up with something to say to cover up what they had been talking about but there was nothing.

“You really think so, do you?” Danni asked as she moved into the kitchen. “Look, Salene. Me and Ryan, we’re not a couple. We’re not going to be one either. You know how he is, he’s just overprotective. He wanted us to sleep in the same room because I have nightmares and they’re worse when I’m alone. I don’t like to talk about it, and he promised not to tell anyone.”

“Oh,” was all Salene managed to say. She wasn’t too convinced though, even if they weren’t sleeping together it didn’t mean Ryan hadn’t fallen for Danni.

“As for Ryan moving on, doesn’t look likely.” Danni leaned against the counter, arms crossed over her chest. “Look, I’ve been trying to get him to talk to you, he’s…he can be very stubborn sometimes. He thinks…” Danni trailed off. “No, wait. You should have this talk with him. He’s awake, he doesn’t sleep very well either. Look, I’ll stay on the couch tonight. You go upstairs and you talk to him. You two are still married, even if you did marry him for the wrong reasons.”

Salene had to bite the inside of her cheek not to say something she’d regret in response to that last comment. It wasn’t as if Danni was wrong either. She hadn’t married Ryan for the right reasons. That didn’t mean she hadn’t loved him.

“Go. I’ve had to tread on eggshells around the two of you since you found us with that mountain tribe. I’m tired of it. Go upstairs and talk to him.”

Salene turned to look at Amber and Trudy, both of them struggling to hide a smile.

“You heard the woman, go talk to your husband.” Amber said, reaching out her free hand to take hold of Salene’s hand, giving it a light squeeze.

“Yes, go.” Trudy urged, turning to Danni with a small smile that wasn’t returned. Salene took a deep breath and stood up.

“Okay. I’ll go.” She didn’t look back as she left the kitchen, she just headed right for the stairs.

As Salene left the room, Trudy turned to Danni. “That was really nice of you, Salene needed some encouragement I think.”

Danni fixed her with a steady glare. “I didn’t do it for her. Ryan is my friend.”

“Well, either way it was nice,” Trudy insisted, as the kettle began announcing it was done behind her. She turned to lift it off the heat, turning the cooker off. “Do you want a cup of tea?” She asked, turning to look at Danni again. Danni had turned away now, finding one of the stored water bottles.

“No thanks,” she said simply, pouring herself a glass of water. “I’m just gonna find that sofa.”

She walked out of the kitchen, without glancing back. Trudy sighed and began pouring tea into two mugs, placing one in front of Amber.

Danni had left the door slightly ajar when she went downstairs. Salene glanced in, seeing the shape of Ryan in the bed in the moonlight coming through the window. She could tell he had his back to the door. She wondered if he was asleep, but the lack of the soft snoring she had gotten so used to once told her he wasn’t. She carefully opened the door, cringing when it made a noise. Ryan immediately turned around in the bed, squinting.


“No, it’s me…” Salene moved carefully closer, stopping by the edge of the bed.

“Salene?” He looked surprised, well he would be. “What are you doing here?”

She hesitated, wanting to find some excuse that didn’t involve what Danni had said. Maybe say she went to the wrong room or something, that she was looking for Trudy.

“Danni sent me up here,” she said, deciding she had to do this.

“Okay…” Ryan said hesitantly, sitting up. “Why?”

Salene opened her mouth, though she wasn’t entirely sure how to begin explaining why.

“Never mind, I know why.” He sighed, his voice sounding softer now than he had spoken to her since they met again. Salene took it to mean he wouldn’t tell her to leave and dared to sit down on the edge of the bed.

“She thinks we should talk.”

Ryan nodded. “Yeah, I know.”

They fell silent for several moments. When Salene opened her mouth to talk, the first words she was planning to say were “I’m sorry,” but Ryan got there first.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”

“What?” Salene stared at him, her forehead wrinkling in confusion. He kept his eyes down, barely glancing over at her.

“I wasn’t there, when you lost the baby. Maybe if I had been it wouldn’t have happened, or at least I would have been there for you after. I lost my head and got sent away.”

Salene closed her eyes for a moment, letting his words sink in. She really had not expected that. “Ryan, don’t. It wasn’t your fault. I’m the one who…I screwed up, not you. You had every right to get mad.”

“Maybe, but not like that.”

Salene reached out, gently taking his hand, their entwined hands now resting on top of the duvet. “I’m the one who should be apologising. The way I treated you, what I did…giving up your right to see your own baby…I just can’t believe I did that.”

“You were trying to keep our baby safe.” Ryan said, his eyes fixed on their hands. He wasn’t holding hers back, but he hadn’t pulled his hand away so Salene took that as a good sign.

“Or maybe just myself. I don’t even know anymore, what I was doing.” Salene sighed.

“I guess we both made mistakes.” Ryan said diplomatically. Salene wanted to throw her arms around him, he was still so kind, willing to meet her in the middle even on this.

“So where do we go from here?” she asked hesitantly, hoping she wasn’t pushing it too far. He sighed, finally looking up again to meet her eyes.

“I don’t know. Right now, I just need sleep.” He said with a small smile. Salene smiled back.

“Okay. Do you want me to go?” She asked, hopeful he might say no. Lying here in the same bed as Ryan again seemed a much more pleasant idea than alone on the sofa downstairs. It took a moment for Ryan to answer, his eyes studying her face.

“No, you can stay.”

She let go of his hand as he lay back down and moved to the side to make more room. She lay down next to him, crawling under the part of the duvet he offered her. Salene turned slightly to the side facing away from him, so he couldn’t see the smile forming on her face. Okay, there was no definite answer either way, but he had left her with some hope. Hope that she could get her husband back.

Title from the song “I won’t be left” by Tegan & Sara

Trudy gave up any hope of getting more sleep when a far too awake Brady crawled on top of her, her smiling face just above Trudy when she opened
her eyes. She hadn’t had nearly enough sleep, and judging from what she could see from the window in Ellie’s old room, the sun was only just rising.
She should have predicted this would happen when she put Brady to sleep so early, but it had been a long day and without her daytime nap, Brady had
been exhausted.

“Alright, I’m up.” Trudy sat up, turning Brady around on her back and tickling her stomach, getting a giggle out of her daughter.

Trudy loved that sound, she was pretty sure there was nothing more beautiful. She was too tired though, and she knew Brady could quickly become too loud and wake the others. Instead Trudy got out of the bed, wincing as her bare feet hit the cold wooden floor, and began getting herself and her daughter dressed. She carried Brady downstairs to the kitchen, placing her in a chair and beginning to search for food. There were mostly not too fresh vegetables and a bit of stale bread Trudy suspected Tai-San had brought with her from the mall. Trudy toasted some on a frying pan on the gas stove, mashing the softening tomatoes to put on them to make it less dry. It wasn’t so bad, and Brady was too hungry to protest. But then she wasn’t exactly used to luxury meals at the mall either.

Brady settled on the floor with some toys, used to playing on her own. Trudy started cleaning the kitchen, knowing it was better to stay busy than fall asleep by the kitchen table. By the time she had finished, Brady had driven her toy cars into the hallway. Trudy followed her, glancing into the living room to see if it had woken anyone. The sofas were both empty, Danni standing in silence over by one of the windows.

“Sorry, I hope she didn’t wake you.”

“No, I’ve been awake for a while.” Danni answered, barely moving.

Trudy hesitated, drying her hands on her skirt, before taking a few steps closer. “Nightmares?” she asked, remembering what Danni had said the night before.

Danni didn’t answer. Trudy glanced back towards her daughter, who was blissfully occupied with her toys. Trudy moved even further into the living room, this time stopping first a few feet from Danni.

“Danni…” the other woman still didn’t turn around to face her. “I understand if you’re not interested in anything I have to say. If you want me to leave you alone, just say the word. But I really am sorry for what I did, to everyone, but you especially.” Trudy paused, taking a deep breath. She wasn’t sure how to say what she wanted to say without just making it worse.

“Cause you were…you were the one I wanted to hurt. I know that doesn’t exactly put me in a better light, but it’s how it was. I’d feel better about myself if it was something you did to deserve it, but it was all my own petty jealousy, and well…the Guardian knew how to take advantage of that.”

Trudy swallowed hard, she really didn’t like talking about how that man had gotten into her head. How he had used her every weakness against her. She struggled to admit even to herself that it was her own darkness he had used against her, not something he made up.

“And I’m sorry. That’s all I can say. I hope one day you can forgive me, even if you can’t forget.”

Danni turned around finally, arms crossed over her chest as she studied Trudy for a moment.

“I already did, forgive you I mean. At least I’m trying to. I understand better now, what you did.”

Trudy stared back at her, knowing she probably looked ridiculous with her mouth hanging open so she closed it. “Well, that’s good…”

“Ryan didn’t tell you the whole story yesterday. He’s trying to protect me. The real reason we were moved, that we got separated from Patsy, was because I joined them. They broke me, Trudy.”

Trudy covered her mouth with her hand, she really hadn’t expected that. She closed her eyes for a second before looking back at Danni who continued talking, looking away towards the window again instead of facing Trudy.

“The Guardian wasn’t the only one who knew how to play those mind games they must have pulled on you, though I’m sure he was behind most of it. I was weak and scared and in pain. I had been waiting for Bray to come and save me, get me out of there, but he never showed and I lost hope. Patsy was strong this time, she resisted. She told Ryan to play along so he could keep an eye on me,” Danni sniffled slightly as she turned to face Trudy again. “Can you imagine that? That little girl being so grown up that she told the one person she had to protect her, to go with me instead. Ryan will probably never forgive himself for listening to her, but he won’t say anything to me about it. He doesn’t want me to feel guilty. But then I already do all on my own.” Danni was struggling to hold back her own tears now, Trudy had given up trying.

“So I understand how they got to you, with Brady and all…” Danni’s eyes travelled to the other side of the room where the little girl was playing happily by herself.

Trudy only nodded, unable to speak a word though there a million things she wanted to say.

“Please…don’t tell anyone.” Danni looked at her with pleading eyes. Trudy had a feeling she never meant to tell, that it all just came out. Maybe the other woman had been up all night agonising over it.

“Of course not. I wouldn’t…”

Danni nodded, a faint smile on her lips that Trudy thought she might just be imagining.

“I don’t even know why I’m telling you. I just…I’m so tired of keeping it all in. And, well…if anyone would understand what I mean, it’s you.”

Trudy smiled slightly, as she wiped away a few tears. “Yeah, don’t worry. If you need to talk, I’m here.” Okay, Trudy didn’t exactly feel a great urge to have heart to heart talks with Danni, especially not on this subject that she wanted to avoid as much as possible, but maybe this was her way to redeem herself. Be the one Danni could unload her emotions on, and begin to make up for things. Though in reality, Trudy didn’t think she ever really could.

Ellie was up at the crack of dawn, heading for her and Alice’s old room where she began packing a bag with things she thought Alice might want. She had a feeling her sister wasn’t coming back to the city, at least not for a while. She was on her way out of the room, about to find Lex and ask if he was bringing anything for Tai-San, when she noticed someone was in the door.

“Hey…” Luke said simply, a quick attempt at a smile before it disappeared again, replaced with a look of uncertainty. “So…you’re going to the farm today?”

Ellie nodded, hoisting the bag up on her shoulder and crossing her arms over her chest. She wasn’t about to warm to him yet.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” He asked, frowning as he dared to step closer. She hadn’t screamed at him yet, he took that as a good sign.

“As safe as it can be, I suppose. They have the prisoners they need, and we’ve been offered jobs. They want us on their side.” She shrugged, trying to pretend like she wasn’t worried. The truth was, she knew it would be difficult to get to the farm unnoticed. And if there was one thing she and Lex had both agreed on, it was to keep the farm as unnoticeable as possible, for as long as possible. Patsy might have told them about it already, but she wouldn’t know who was there or not. No one could know Bray and Amber were there, that could be a disaster.

“Maybe I should come…” he suggested, trailing off because he knew that really there was no real reason for him to.

“No,” Ellie said quickly and determined. “Look, I spent a lot of time sneaking back and forth between the farm and the city. Before and after the virus. I already have to drag Lex and Cloe with me, that’s gonna slow me down enough. I don’t need more city people tagging along.”

“No, I suppose not…” He admitted. “But just in case they catch you, or something happens…”

“The more people there are with me, the bigger the chance is of being seen. And I don’t need protection, especially yours.” She bit back, walking past him with quick steps.


She stopped, turning around to face him, still with her arms crossed over her chest. “What?” She asked annoyed.

“I am sorry, okay? I know it was cowardly, the way I left. And leaving in the first place…I was trying to do the right thing by you. I just don’t know anymore if there is such a thing when it comes to us.”

Ellie’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Well, there’s no us now, so no need to worry about it anymore.”

With that she turned around and walked out.

When she woke up that morning, Salene could feel an arm around her. She turned slightly, finding a still sleeping Ryan next to her. He was on his side facing her, his arm resting over her on top of the duvet. She didn’t want to move and disturb the moment or him, so she just stayed there, studying his face. There was a small scar above his left eye that hadn’t been there before. Without really thinking, she reached out, tracing the small red line with her finger. Immediately he stirred and she pulled her hand back quickly. He opened his eyes, looking a bit confused at first when he saw her in front of him.

“Morning…” she said slowly, hoping he wasn’t regretting letting her stay.

“Morning,” he replied, stifling a yawn. He only then seemed to realise he had his arm around her and removed it quickly. “Sorry,” he mumbled, turning around on his back.

“It’s okay,” Salene said softly, a little disappointed that he was so quick to put distance between them again.

She sat up, swiftly running her hands over her short hair to flatten it. It was so warm under the covers, outside of the bed it was cold. They didn’t exactly have indoor heating, and the farmhouse was old and poorly isolated. Salene found herself missing the mall. It was at least warmer than this, even if the farm was a lot more peaceful than the city. Her thoughts drifted to their friends there, Cloe mainly. She hadn’t seen her in so long, for a while she had been sure she never would again. Just like Patsy. Salene bit her lower lip, trying not to cry. They had to tell Cloe, and Salene had a feeling she would be the one to do it. Maybe together with Ryan. At least she hoped Ryan would be there to, that they could do that together. After all, Cloe and Patsy had once been their girls, they had cared for them together.

“What are you thinking of?” Ryan’s voice dragged her back to the present, and she turned towards him.

“Patsy…and Cloe.”

A sigh escaped him, before he moved to sit up next to her. For a few small moments it was quiet again in the room, the two of them sitting side by side in the bed, their legs under the covers and their arms above. Ryan’s blond curls were gone again, he was back to the close-shaved buzzcut he’d had when they first met. Aside from that, he seemed so much older. The look in his eyes, something about the way he carried himself now. And he didn’t exactly look overfed after his time as a Chosen prisoner.

“She’ll be alright. Cloe. She’s strong. Stronger than she should have to be.”

Salene nodded, picking on a loose thread at the edge of the sheet. “I know. But this is gonna hit her hard, about Patsy. She’s gonna need us.”

Ryan didn’t answer. She looked over at him, waiting until he looked up to meet her eyes.

“I know this, us….it’s complicated. But we can do this together, right? Being there for Cloe? We always were, and it’s not her fault what happened between us.”

Ryan nodded. “Yeah, we can do that. I’m always gonna be there for her. And you.”

Salene smiled, a little wider than she wanted to. She just couldn’t help it. Despite everything, Ryan was still so very Ryan.

The trio stayed quiet as they made their way through the countryside. Lex had agreed to let Ellie lead the way, having to agree that she was the most experienced at sneaking in and out of the city. Cloe didn’t mind being last, she simply kept her eyes on Lex and Ellie’s shoes, trying to step where they did to avoid making too much noise. Every now and then Ellie would turn around and glare at them if they snapped a branch or when Cloe made a yelping noise as a bird flew out of a tree just above her. It was early afternoon by the time the farmhouse appeared in front of them, inch by inch. Ellie picked up the pace, though not as much as Lex who raced past her.

“Tai-San!” He called out as he reached the door, throwing it open.

“Lex! Not so loud!” Ellie tried to warn in a harsh whisper, but he was too far ahead already to hear her.

Ellie gave up, running after him and following him inside. Cloe was too tired to run, and it wasn’t like there was anyone special waiting inside for her. As much as she was looking forward to seeing Bray and Amber and their baby, it didn’t give her any renewed energy. When she reached the farmhouse and walked inside, Alice and Ellie were hugging in the living room. Tai-San had come to meet Lex in the hallway, and they were clinging to each other as if they hadn’t seen each other in months, rather than just a few days.

“Cloe!” She turned towards the kitchen, her eyes widening when she saw Salene in the doorway, an apprehensive smile on her face.


She rushed to her, collapsing into Salene’s arms. Cloe hadn’t even realised how scared and alone she had felt since they first heard the planes and Technos dropped from the sky. Everything had been wrong, and Cloe had tried so hard to be mature because there was no one to take care of her. Even for just a small moment, it felt nice to be a kid again.

“It’s so good to see you,” Salene said, squeezing her close before letting go and taking a step back. “It feels like I haven’t seen you in ages.”

“Well, you kinda haven’t,” Cloe joked, giving Salene a bright smile. Salene’s own seemed to fade when she did, Cloe couldn’t understand why. But there was no time to ask or wonder about it, as Salene stepped to the side, and first then Cloe noticed the people gathered in the kitchen. Pride was sitting across from Bray, on the table between them were what looked like home-made maps and simple sketches with notes. Cloe didn’t exactly look too closely. Behind Bray, stood another familiar figure. Ryan. He was watching her apprehensively, taking a few steps closer.

“Ryan! You found him!” She turned to Salene with a grin, before letting go of her completely and rushing towards Ryan. Only Salene heard the whispered “Ryan?” from the hallway. Cloe threw her arms around him, letting him lift her slightly up in the air before putting her back down.

“Hey, Cloe,” he said, grinning as she took a step back. “Look at you, has it really been this long?” He asked, as she pulled him close again, tears running down her face as she clung to him. Over her shoulder he saw Lex in the doorway, staring at him with an open mouth and wide eyes.

“Hey Lex…” he said, unsure how to greet his old friend.

“Hey…” Lex said back, the two of them remaining in their spots as Cloe took a step back. Her eyes met Salene’s, both of them close to breaking into laughter. Tai-San appeared behind Lex, gently nudging him forward into the kitchen. Alice and Ellie were also there now, Alice rolling her eyes.

“Oh, come off it, you two! Go give him a hug, Lexy!” Alice insisted, practically pushing him into the kitchen. Lex and Ryan looked at each other for a moment, before Ryan shrugged and closed the distance. It turned into an awkward overly manly hug, but at least it happened.

“It’s good to see you, Lex.” Ryan said as he stepped back.

“You to, old buddy. So she found you, huh?” Lex glanced towards Salene, a smile that was probably the closest she would get to a thanks from Lex for bringing him back.

“Of course she did,” Cloe said with a grin, putting her arm around Salene’s waist in a half-hug.

The noise had brought Amber and Trudy to the room, both of them getting excited hugs from Cloe and Ellie, while Lex stayed in the background. Cloe realised she had forgotten to hug Bray in all the reunions, and quickly made up for it. They moved into the living room where there was more space, everyone gathering around the coffee table.

Danni walked in as Pride laid their home-drawn map of the city out on the table. Several sheets of paper taped together with crooked lines making up the edges of buildings and parks.

“Well, look who’s here.”

Her eyes landed on Lex first, standing behind Tai-San who was seated on the armrest of the sofa. Cloe lit up again when she saw Danni, handing Amber and Bray’s baby back to his mother before standing up to give Danni a hug. Danni could feel Ryan’s eyes on her as she half-heartedly returned the hug, feeling a little overwhelmed by the joy Cloe showed. It meant they hadn’t told her yet. Ellie also got up to give her a hug, from her position on the floor, resting against Alice’s legs. Lex remained where he was.

“Well, now that everyone is here, we should update each other,” Pride said, having no time for the sentimental right now. “What did you guys find out at the stadium?” He turned to Ellie and then Lex.

“Patsy!” Cloe said quickly, interrupting both Ellie and Lex who had opened their mouths to speak.

“What?” Several heads turned towards her.

Danni could feel her heart beating faster. Had the Technos told them what they found in the old Chosen camp? She wondered if they had the decency to bury the dead, give them a decent resting place.

“Yeah, some people never learn, ey?” Lex snorted, his eyes landing on Trudy for a moment before he focused on Pride again.

“Shut up, Lex!” Cloe snapped. “We found Patsy. She’s…well, she’s one of them. She’s a Techno, but she’s alive. And we will get her back. She’s only with them because she’s scared and they saved her life.”

Danni heard Cloe’s voice suddenly as if from a distance.

“Patsy’s alive?”

She wasn’t sure who spoke, but it sounded like Ryan and Salene at once. Danni took a step back, feeling very dizzy all of a sudden, needing the wall to lean against.


She heard Trudy’s concerned voice, and tried to open her mouth to respond but couldn’t make a sound.

“Yes, she’s alive!” She heard Cloe’s excited voice, still from a distance. Then everything went dark.

Patsy carefully put the pills into the small glass, Ram’s eyes watching her like a hawk from the bed. He didn’t trust her. She couldn’t blame him. All invading dictators probably feared for their lives constantly. As she finished the last couple pills for his little medical cocktail, she walked over gingerly and held out the glass.

“Here you go, Lord Ram,” she said, trying to keep her voice light and neutral.

He looked at her with narrow eyes, before reaching out to take the pill glass, his black glove contrasting against her white ones. She wasn’t allowed to enter his rooms without gloves on. He picked the glass of water from his nightstand, putting the pills in and drinking them down in a few sips. Patsy wasn’t sure exactly what was wrong with him, Jay thought part of it was just paranoia. Patsy wasn’t so sure, Jay didn’t see him in these moments. He looked really fragile outside of the big clunky chair. Ironic, really, given how much power Ram had. How easily he had organised a take-over of an entire city in one swift move. As he finished, she took the two glasses from him, about to walk away when his gloved hand reached out and grabbed her wrist.

“You know, Jay thinks the world of you.”

Patsy didn’t answer, but she held his gaze without wavering.

“I don’t buy your lost little girl spiel though. You won’t fool me.” He insisted, breaking into a coughing fit as he let go of her wrist.

Patsy hurried to refill the glass with water and grabbed a box of tissues. She put the glass down on the nightstand, while he grabbed a tissue from the box and held it in front of his mouth.

“Leave!” he hissed into the tissue between coughs.

Patsy didn’t hesitate to follow orders, sighing in relief as she closed the door behind her. She hurried towards the laboratory down the hall, knocking three times before she heard a voice inviting her in. Patch was behind his desk, surrounded by vials and flasks and containers, plotting something into the computer that had been installed for him.

“Ah, hello Patsy.” He greeted her with a smile, his blonde hair standing out in all directions and his glasses slightly askew.

Together with Jay, Patch was on a very short list of people in the tribe Patsy felt comfortable around. He was as out of place here as she was, but he had a very specific role. He was the doctor and the scientist all in one. He analysed medicines and tried to recreate them, so far succeeding only with a few. Ram’s supply was running low.

“How is the patient?” Patch asked, straightening his glasses as he stood up. Patsy always came back to him to report on Ram’s condition.

“He had another coughing fit after taking his pills. Otherwise he seems fine.”

Patch sighed, looking thoughtful for a moment. “I think I need to take some more tests…if only I could get the x-ray machine to work without frying him in the process, I might figure this out…” he began talking as he picked up Ram’s folder, beginning to rifle through the papers inside.

Patsy hadn’t asked many questions about Ram’s medical condition, but she knew most of it was a great mystery. Why his legs didn’t work, why he was so sick all of the time. Patch tried his best, but even with all the supplies and equipment the Technos had, they didn’t have enough.

“If Jack agrees to help…he’s very smart, I’m sure he can help you figure it out.”

“Mhm,” Patch mumbled, not looking up from the papers. “If only Ram was less stubborn and let me acquire some help from Mega and his people, but he doesn’t want him to know anything…”

“I guess he doesn’t trust him,” Patsy said quietly, her eyes studying the labels of some of the flasks on a tray by Patch’s desk. She couldn’t understand a single word on them. Patch looked up, frowning as he watched her.

“No, I suppose not. But then who does he trust?” Patch shook his head.

Patsy didn’t have an answer for that. Ram didn’t seem to truly trust anyone. Jay was kept around because he was useful and Ram could give him the hospital he wanted. Patch was a risk worth taking, although Patsy had a feeling there was more to Patch’s reasons for working for the Technos. Herself…she was scared of him, and he knew it. He also knew she was loyal to Jay.

“Anyway, I’d better go. I’ll see you tomorrow, Patch.”

“Hmm? Oh yes, see you, Patsy.”

He only barely looked up, too engrossed in his papers. Patsy walked out, quietly closing the door behind her.

1 Like

Lyrics from “Everything has changed” by Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran

Danni opened her eyes, finding herself on the sofa in the farmhouse living room, now lit mainly by candles and a glimmer of moonlight. She tried to make sense of where she was, to remember what had happened. Patsy…she’s alive. She tried to sit up, her head swimming immediately. First then she heard movement in the corner of the room. She looked up, finding Bray sitting in the chair by her feet. He was leaning forward, elbows on his thighs, chin resting on his hands.

“How you feeling?” He asked.

Danni frowned. “What happened?”

He stood up, moving a little closer but keeping a safe distance. “You passed out before. We were worried you’d hit your head on the floor or something…” he shrugged, smiling slightly.

“Oh,” was all Danni managed to get out. All she remembered was Cloe telling them Patsy was alive. All that pain and agony and guilt she had felt. It was one thing when they thought Patsy was dead. Now Danni knew they had left her behind in the arms of the Technos. She wondered how Ryan was coping with that.

“Why are you here?” She didn’t mean to sound so unpleasant about it, but well…she wasn’t really in the mood to play nice.

“We’ve sort of been taking turns, after Pride checked you didn’t have any bumps on your head or anything. We got a bit worried when you didn’t wake up.”

Worried? Maybe Ryan had been, maybe Salene to, she was the type to worry. The rest? They’d be relived if she was out of their hair, one way or another. Even Bray, maybe especially Bray, with his precious little family. Danni sighed, letting it drop. She knew Bray would figure out a way to be alone with her sooner or later. He’d want to talk, or something. And she would have to tell.

“It was a big shock, huh? To hear Patsy is still alive. And that she’s part of this new tribe. But Cloe seems to think she’s not brainwashed or anything, just scared and distrustful.”

“She would be,” Danni said quietly. How could they have left without making sure? How many times had she let Patsy down now?

“It’s not your fault, Danni.”

She grit her teeth. How did Bray still know what she was thinking? That wasn’t fair. She didn’t have time to dwell on that thought though, as Amber appeared in the doorway to the living room. Babyless, luckily. Danni didn’t know how much more she could stand to watch The Great Amber with their precious child in her arms. She closed her eyes quickly, took a deep breath. It wasn’t Amber’s fault. She had to stop being so unreasonable about this. Amber wasn’t the one who told her she loved her and yet left her to slowly wither away in the hands of the Chosen. She opened her eyes, narrowly looking at Bray as he smiled to his girlfriend.

“Hey…” Amber said carefully, looking from one to the other. “The baby’s down, at least for a while. I was gonna come relieve you, but…” Amber motioned awkwardly towards Danni. “You’re awake.”

“Yes, I am…” Danni agreed, as if it needed to be confirmed.

“How you feeling?”

Danni tried not to cringe at the repetition of that question, at the pretense of caring. She simply shrugged in response.

“Where is everyone?” she asked, annoyed at how shaky her voice was sounding.

“Lex and Pride are on guard duty outside. Salene and Ryan are upstairs with Cloe. Trudy is trying to get Brady to sleep. And the rest are in the kitchen.” Bray summarised quickly for her, glancing towards Amber for confirmation.

Danni almost wanted to ask them to get Ryan, tell him she needed him. But Salene and Cloe needed him to. He belonged to them, he had never belonged to her in any way. She had been able to lean on him because it was just them. Now that was no longer the case, she had to manage on her own again. With a sigh she lay back down against the pillows, closing her eyes, wanting to shut it all out again.

Jack threw the fire alarm at the wall in frustration, after another failed attempt at connecting some wires. Usually this was easy for him, turning the fire alarm into an intruder alarm for the mall, but his brain wasn’t in it.

“I guess I should be happy you already threw that…”

He looked up, seeing Luke in the doorway of his workshop. Jack narrowed his eyes. “What do you want?”

Luke sighed, taking the question as, if not an invite then at least not an order to get out, and took a few steps inside.

“I just wanted to let you know, that I only came back here to make sure Ellie was okay, and that…that if there was something I could do, then I would. I mean, I kinda owe the city.” He shrugged, smiling awkwardly.

Jack shook his head, turning back to his desk. “And your point is…?”

Luke hesitated, leaning against the doorframe. “My point is…I’m not here to compete for Ellie. I still stand by what I said, I think she’s better off with you, Jack.”

Jack stared at the small piece of machinery in front of him. He couldn’t even remember what it was anymore, or what he was trying to make out of it. Annoyed he shoved it aside and stood up, crossing his arms over his chest as he looked at Luke.

“Well, I agree. And yet, she chose you. She chose the guy who was one of the leaders of the tribe that sent me away from her. That killed my best friend. That took many of my friends prisoners, some of them I don’t know if I’ll ever see again. She still chose you! Even after you left, she’s been pining over you in the only way she knows how. By pretending you never existed. And what, I’m supposed to be pathetic enough to go after her now? Or wait for her to come back to me because you say so? No, forget it! She made her choice. And if you walk away from her again, you’re an even bigger idiot than I thought you were.”

Luke looked shocked for a moment, then he turned his eyes downward, staring at his own feet. “I’m not good for her.” He said quietly. “With me, she’d be an outcast.”

“Yeah, well…Ellie always did her own thing, not caring what other people thought about her. Besides, right now I think the Chosen are a little bit forgotten. If you hadn’t noticed, someone new just flew in and took over our entire city!”

Luke held his hands up defensively. “Trust me, I noticed. But when this all passes, they’ll turn on me again.”

Jack shook his head. “They’ll have new enemies by then. And who knows, maybe you get to be the hero this time around. Sacrifice yourself or something.” Jack tried not to sound too gleeful at the prospect of that idea. He didn’t really want Luke to die. He ignored the half smirk on Luke’s face.

“I still stand by what I say though, Jack. If you say the word, I will keep my distance. I won’t try to win her back.”

Jack eyed him for a moment. It was tempting, it really was. Jack knew it would hurt like hell to see them together. But would he really feel any better if Ellie only came back to him because Luke kept his distance?

“It won’t be real though…” he said with a sigh. “Knowing she chose you and you offered to stay away, I would just wonder every day if she would rather be with you.” Luke nodded, keeping his eyes down again. “Me and Ellie are over,” Jack continued, feeling a strange mix of relief and pain at that realisation. It still hurt, but at least now he was certain it was over. When Luke left, he had let himself believe that maybe, just maybe, Ellie would come back to him. Once Luke reappeared, it was difficult to keep believing that.

“I’m sorry, Jack. You have every reason to hate me, I know I’ve done you a lot of wrong. I never intended to fall in love with Ellie. And I certainly never expected her to feel the same. I still don’t understand what she sees in me, I just know I want to be that man she sees. If I had only met her sooner…”

“Well, you didn’t.” Jack cut him off. He really didn’t feel like listening to Luke’s confessions. “I have work to do…I’m supposed to secure the mall against intruders.”

Luke nodded. “Yes, of course. I’ll just…” he motioned towards the door. “I’m taking on guard duty. Dee is taking over later, so you just go to sleep when you’re done here.”

Jack didn’t reply, he turned back to his desk and waited for the presence in the doorway to leave. When he glanced up, Luke was gone, and Jack let out a relieved sigh.

Cloe and Salene sat close together on the bed, watching Ryan as he stood in the doorway, the door ajar as he poked his head out in the hallway.

“Ryan? She’s gonna be fine. She just fainted.” Cloe said, as she leaned into Salene who had her arm around her shoulders. Ryan turned back to them, smiling slightly.

“Yeah, I think I heard her voice.” He sighed, sitting down at the edge of the bed, next to Salene who had placed herself in the middle.

Cloe moved out of Salene’s embrace and off the bed, moving over to the window. She had her back turned to them, looking out at the farm and the woods behind it. “It’s nice out here. Seems so strange compared to the city now.”

Salene glanced at Ryan, seeing a hint of a smile on his face. He seemed so much happier all of a sudden, like a giant load had been lifted of his shoulders. She guessed it had, she felt the same way. Patsy was alive, and they had Cloe here with them. She hadn’t felt this hopeful in a long time. A strange feeling, given that their city had just been invaded, and Patsy was one of the invaders. But the most important people in her life were all alive, when she thought she might have lost them all. Ryan’s eyes met hers, and she returned the smile. She looked towards Cloe again, realising she had turned around to face them again, eyebrows raised and a teasing smile on her face.

“It’s good to see you two together again,” she said. Ryan and Salene glanced at each other, slightly alarmed.

“Well…we’re not…together-together.” Ryan tried to explain, frowning at his own words.

Cloe rolled her eyes. “Well, why not? You’re married.”

“It’s…it’s complicated.” Salene answered, a blush creeping up on her face.

“Isn’t it always,” Cloe sighed, moving around the side of the bed again. “I mean, why does it always have to be complicated? You’re all like this. Bray and Amber, Bray and Danni, Lex and Tai-San, even Jack and Ellie took a while. It always takes ages to get it together and admit you’re in love. It took you two ages first time around as well, and now you’re gonna be like that again? We’ve got an invasion to fight, that’s complicated.”

Salene couldn’t help but glance over at Ryan again, seeing the same mixture of surprise and amusement on his face, and they both couldn’t help but laugh.

“How do you get to be so clever, then?” Ryan asked, grinning as Cloe stopped at the edge of the bed.

“Oh, it comes with growing up. And watching the rest of you screw up everything. I learn from your mistakes.” She shrugged, a smug grin on her face.

“You don’t say,” Salene narrowed her eyes. “So you’re all grown up, huh? We’ll see about that!” Without warning she grabbed hold of Cloe’s arm, pulling her down onto the bed, immediately beginning to tickle her sides. Ryan joined in, Cloe soon shrieking with laughter.

“Alright, alright! Stop!” They did, and she hauled herself to a sitting position, placing herself between them. “Meanies.”

Ryan laughed, placing his arm around her shoulders. “I really missed you, Cloe.”

“Aw, I missed you to”, Cloe grinned, leaning her head on his shoulder. Ryan planted a kiss on the side of her head.

“We’re together again now,” he said softly, “and we’re gonna get Patsy back, and no one is gonna take you away from me ever again.”

Salene met his eyes over Cloe’s head, seeing a determination in them that had been missing before. She wasn’t certain if it made her happy or scared.

Danni let her eyes drift open again as she heard laughter from upstairs. Bray and Amber were looking at her, glancing at each other.

“Maybe we should get Pride to come and check on you now you’re awake,” Amber suggested, eyebrows furrowed in a look of concern that puzzled Danni slightly. Either she was a good actress, or she really did worry for Danni’s health. Maybe she just didn’t want to deal with someone dying on them right now. Things were difficult enough.

“I didn’t know he was a doctor,” Danni said, slightly annoyed as she sat up properly. “I’m fine. There’s no need.”

“Okay…well, you seem alright.” Amber agreed, taking a couple steps inside to lean against the back of Bray’s chair. Danni wondered briefly if she was alright, she had given birth just a few days ago. Pregnancy and labour really could mess with a woman’s whole body.

“Any decisions made yet, on what to do next?” Danni asked, derailing the subject onto what she knew she could handle. Fighting mode.

“Yes and no. There’s a lot of things to consider still,” Amber replied, glancing at Bray. “We don’t really have time to wait, so the others updated us earlier.”

Slowly, Amber and Bray started retelling what Ellie, Cloe and Lex had told them of their meeting with the Technos and the job offers. Danni tried to take it all in, but only some of it stuck.

“So, Lex is going to stay on as sheriff?”

“Yes,” Bray said, grimacing. Danni tried not to show any amusement, she had a feeling there had been arguments. It was probably not a coincidence that Lex had been sent out on guard duty.

“So, who’s going back to the city?” Danni asked, quickly moving on from the subject of Lex.

“Cloe, Ellie and Lex are all going back. Alice is staying here, she says she doesn’t want to leave the farm again yet.” Bray began, glancing at Amber briefly. “Lex is trying to get Tai-San to come back with him, but she wants to stay with Alice. Especially with Ellie going back. Trudy will probably stay here with Brady, she’s not very eager to bring her daughter into the hands of the Technos. Pride hasn’t decided yet what he’s gonna do. Salene said she wanted to go back to the city, Ryan wanted to wait and see how you were doing.”

Danni glanced up at that. Ryan had a tendency to stay close to whoever he thought needed him more. It had cost him enough in the past due to her. It had cost Patsy enough. There was no doubt in Danni’s mind that Ryan needed to go with Salene and Cloe, and help Patsy.

“And we’re gonna stay here to,” Bray continued. “Amber needs time to recover, and well…the city is not exactly the ideal place to bring a newborn baby right now.”

Danni was a little surprised, she had to admit. It wasn’t that they didn’t have good reason to stay out of it with a little baby to think of, but Danni couldn’t see them staying away for too long.

“I’m gonna go into the city,” Danni said suddenly, a little surprised over herself. Honestly, she had gone back first for Ryan’s sake, to alert the city. She had always imagined once that was done, she would leave and let Ryan get back to his old life. She had made a decision that once she was sure Ryan was back where he belonged, she would go off on her own, find her own place somewhere far away from this city that had brought her nothing but pain and grief.

Bray and Amber glanced at each other. “Do you think that’s wise?” Amber asked. “I mean, maybe you should stay and recover…”

“No, I’m fine. It’s just the combination of shock and exhaustion and lack of sleep.”

“Then rest is probably what you need…” Amber tried, but Danni held up a hand to stop her.

“I can rest until tomorrow morning.” She said determinedly. Amber looked at Bray, giving a slight shrug. He sighed, and turned towards Danni.

“Actually, I was hoping you would stay a couple days at least. I think…we need to talk. I can tell you’re mad at me, and you have reason to be, I just…these Technos won’t go away. We have another fight on our hands. I know you, Danni, you’re going to be right in the middle of it, and so are we. We need to at least make sure we can get along.”

Danni bit down on the inside of her cheek to keep the tears from coming. Now, he was gonna do this now? “So that’s it, is it? You wanna make sure we can get along for the good of the cause? Not for my sake, so I can move on, or because you somewhere in your warped heart actually feel guilty? No, because the cause needs us to get along!” She could hear how bitter and angry her voice sounded. She wanted to make herself stop, but she couldn’t keep it all in.

“Danni, that’s not…of course I feel guilty! I let them trick me into thinking you were dead. I know I should have looked for you, I know!” Bray stood up, looking agitated and slightly desperate. Danni almost felt guilty for lashing out at him. Almost. Amber stood up straight to, glancing warily between them.

“Oh, well if you know! I lost everything, Bray! I lost everything, because you couldn’t be bothered to look for me! You forgot about me, didn’t you? The moment you found out Amber was alive, you forgot about me.” Danni stood up to, swaying slightly on her feet but too determined to unleash all her wrath on Bray to let it stop her.

“I didn’t forget about you!” Bray insisted. Amber stepped forward, placing a hand on his arm as she watched Danni with concern.

“Bray, maybe…” she began, but got cut off.

“No? Well, you sure as hell didn’t spend much time mourning me, did you? It didn’t take you long to jump back into bed with her, while I was held captive. Tortured, every day!” Danni had to stop, the sobs overtaking her. Bray took a step closer, but she walked backwards into the sofa. “Don’t touch me!”

Bray and Amber both tried talking to her now, Bray attempting to calm down, Amber speaking in a soothing voice. Danni couldn’t make out their words.

“I was pregnant!” The noise seemed to stop. “I was pregnant,” she repeated more calmly. She felt deflated, sobs overtaking her. She didn’t notice the shouting had drawn the crowd from the kitchen, or the footsteps on the stairs.


That was Bray’s voice. Danni could tell that, even if she had her eyes covered by her hands, wanting to hide her tears. A ridiculous precaution, she realised, as her sobs were more than loud enough. Everything was quiet for a few moments. Danni could feel hands on her shoulders, at first she wanted to shake them off, but recognised the voice whispering something into her ear as Alice’s. She turned around, letting herself collapse into the other woman’s arms.

Jack had stayed working until he almost fell asleep over his tools. When he returned upstairs to the furniture shop, he found Dee awake on the sofa. He glanced into the bed area, seeing the little girl curled up in a bed in the corner, covered almost entirely by a duvet, her messy hair sticking out at the top. Luke was still fully clothed on top of the bed next to her, snoring lightly.

“What were you and Chosen-boy shouting about before?”

Jack glared at the pink-haired girl in the sofa. “Nothing,” he murmured. Dee raised her eyebrows.

“Oh, really? Cause it didn’t sound like nothing.”

“Let me rephrase it: nothing that concerns you.” Jack snapped, falling into the nearest chair. Dee rolled her eyes, turning her focus back to the magazine in her hands.

“It kinda does concern me, when you’re shouting so loudly it wakes the girl I’m supposed to be watching.” She mumbled angrily.

Jack sighed, knowing he was being slightly unreasonable. They weren’t exactly a large crowd in the mall right now, and friction could potentially be a big problem for everyone. “It’s just…ancient history. It won’t happen again.” He said, the best he could do in terms of explanation. Dee looked at him over the edge of the glossy magazine.

“For the record,” she began, eyes towards the page in front of her again. “Any girl who chooses Luke, is not worth your time.” She glanced up again, a hint of a smile on her face. Jack gave her a small one in return.

“If you’re tired, I can keep watch.” He offered.

“Nah, I’m good. You on the other hand, you look like you haven’t slept in a month. Go to bed, Jack.”

Jack wondered briefly if he should be gentlemanly and insist she go to bed, but decided he was too tired for that. “Okay, then. Good night.” He stood up, heading towards the nearest bed.

“Night, night, genius.” He heard back, a small smile on his face as he lay down on the bed, curling up under a blanket.


The other man looked up, his face remaining the same stoic expression as Jay approached him.

“Jay. Good to see you.”

Jay couldn’t really tell if Mega meant that. But then Jay had been told he could be somewhat expressionless himself. He didn’t have it down quite as well as Mega did though.

“What’s the status?” Jay asked, letting his eyes roam the control room of the stadium. He wondered briefly what the large black curtain in the background was for, but decided it probably covered up some tactics board from back in the day when this place was still about sports. He turned his focus to the screens, trying to make sense of the numbers and lines. Computers had never been his strong side. Ram had hired him in to run military operations, finally promoting him to lead the whole invasion. General. Most of the time it filled Jay with pride, but at times he had to admit to himself it also made him feel a sense of dread. He wasn’t exactly sure why.

“The hotel should be nearly ready to move into. Ram gave orders for twenty three rooms to be readied for different purposes. Two old meeting rooms have been turned into computer labs. Ram’s suite is still being cleaned and sanitized. He wants it done thoroughly. Your rooms, Patsy’s room, Gale’s, Ebony’s…”

“Ebony’s?” Jay stopped him.

“Yes,” Mega’s eyes narrowed just slightly. “Didn’t Ram tell you? He’s letting her move back into her old room along with the rest of you. Just with a few added bonuses.” A hint of a smile appeared on Mega’s face, the side of his lips curving upwards just slightly. “I think he wants to impress her.”

Jay nodded slightly. He had a feeling Ram did want to impress the elected City Leader. That worried him. She worried him. They had her now, but given just a little more freedom and who knew what that woman could do with it.

“And of course, the most important thing. The power plant.” Mega went back to their original conversation. “It should be up in a few days.”

Jay nodded, satisfied. That’s what he had really come there for. Electricity was the main part of their plan. Without it, no takeover would be successful. It was the ultimate resource to win people over. They had learned that the hard way. Sydney had been a disaster when they began, the power plant had been in a much worse condition than expected. Jay’s work there had helped him race up the ladder in Ram’s military organisation. It had also lost him his brother. Jay pushed that thought away, he couldn’t let thoughts of Ved distract him. He was the reason Jay kept going, the reason to work so hard to get a hospital up and running, to get medicine and health-care back on the schedule in their part of the world. He needed to keep his focus.

“Good,” he answered Mega, after a break that had lasted a little too long. Mega watched him curiously for a second, before turning away towards the screens. “What exactly is all this about?” He asked, motioning towards the screens.

“It’s software development for Ram’s Virtual Reality program.” Mega answered quickly and automatically. Jay frowned, moving a little closer.

“To be honest, I don’t understand the point of this VR thing. Why are we wasting so many resources on a game?”

Mega’s lips turned upwards as Jay turned towards him again. “It’s not just a game. We used this to train our pilots. That’s how it started, a virtual simulator, as close to the real thing as possible. We’re making the simulator better. It can be used for gaming, but that’s a side project. Mostly it’s a plane simulator, a driving simulator so we can train more drivers without occupying too many vehicles. You shouldn’t write it off, General. It could be used for a lot of things.”

Jay frowned, an idea forming in his head. “Could it be used to learn surgery? Is that possible?”

Mega looked at the screens for a moment, before giving a small nod. “Yes, I should think so. But it would have to be done by someone with medical knowledge. I don’t know if books alone could give us the knowledge to create a simulation program close enough to the real deal.”

Jay nodded. “I will talk to Patch about it. If anyone has the knowledge, he does. Would you help me put together a suggestion that could be presented to Ram?”

Mega shrugged. “Sure, if you and Patch do the medical research, I don’t see how the programming would be much more complicated than what I’m already doing.”

“Thanks, Mega.” Jay patted him on the shoulder and headed for the door again. “I will get back to you when I’ve spoken to Patch.”

Mega watched as he left the control room, standing quietly for several long moments before his headset crackled.

“The general has left, sir.”

“Message received,” Mega replied, shutting it off. He pushed a button hidden just by the black curtain. Instantly it moved, the curtain being pulled back, to reveal the rows of test objects in chairs, helmets strapped to their heads. Mega smirked as he let his eyes roam the rows. Jay really had no idea what was going on within his own tribe.

May felt annoyingly close to tears as she walked with her workgroup back towards the barracks. She was just so tired and, she hated to admit, scared. One of her workgroup had collapsed inside the power plant earlier, simply from exhaustion. She had watched as they dragged him out by his arms. She had a feeling she wouldn’t see him again. There was no water in the barracks, only the water bottles they were handed out each morning and they needed that to drink. She was full of dirt and grime and sweat from working on the old machines inside the old power plant. She felt dirty and disgusting, and it had only been two days or so, as far as May could guess. Already she was getting confused about time. Her group worked nights. It was still dark out, but as she looked out towards the horizon she could see the sun beginning to rise. In any other setting, if she was a different person, it might have looked beautiful. But for May, all it reminded her of was the beginning of another day in this place.

“May! May!”

She turned her head swiftly, her eyes narrowing as she looked for the source of the voice calling her name. She spotted another workgroup arriving from a different set of barracks. A small figure tried to break the ranks, one of the Technos immediately rushing towards her and stopping her.

“Tally!” May called back, rushing as close as she could get before one of guards stepped in front of her.

“Have you seen Andy? Is he okay?” Tally called out. May’s heart sank a little. They had separated them? She struggled against the two Technos now pushing her backwards, away from Tally.

“No, I haven’t seen him!” she called out. Tally seemed to give up struggling, letting the guard push her back in with the rest of the workgroup. May tried to catch sight of her again, but then they were pushed in through the gates that surrounded the barracks, and the other workgroup had disappeared out of sight.

May sat on the cot that passed for a bed, taking short sips of the new bottle of water she had been handed out. There was also a piece of bread, a piece of dried meat and a food bar of some kind, the wrapper having the same T that was painted on the Technos’ foreheads. She liked it, it tasted of chocolate, even if it was very dry. It all had to last through the day though. She ate the dried meat, and broke off a piece of the bread, forcing herself to wrap the rest back in the small plastic bag and putting it under her pillow, even though her stomach was crying out for more. The barrack was quieting down, most of her new roomies falling asleep. The large space was filled with the sounds of heavy breathing, snoring and a few people rustling the plastic bags they had been given.

Suddenly a hand landed on May’s shoulder. She jumped, throwing herself backwards on the bed as she turned around, ready to kick out if the person meant her harm. Her eyes widened slightly when she saw who it was. Moz wasn’t hard to recognise, even if the make-up had worn off, the thing on her head was gone, and her Mozzie uniform had been replaced by some generic black clothes. May had seen a few other prisoners wearing the same outfit, the baggy trousers and tank tops, always a size too big whether they were male or female. May’s guess was that the tribes who had distinctive and easily recognisable outfits were made to change. She had noticed Moz was there but for the most part May barely recognised most of the people around her, the Technos seemed to have done a good job in splitting the prisoners up so that most were surrounded by strangers.

“Hello,” May said warily, not sure what Moz wanted with her. Moz didn’t seem to take note of her hesitance though, placing herself at the edge of May’s bed, crossing her legs as she did.

“How are you holding up?” Moz asked, making May’s eyes widen even more in disbelief.


Moz rolled her eyes. “How are you dealing?”

May studied her face. Moz held her gaze, waiting for an answer.

“Alright,” May shrugged. “I’ve slept in worse places, and had less food to eat daily.”

Moz grimaced. May guessed she was used to a bit more luxury, being the leader of a tribe as persuasive as the Mozzies could be. “They separated me from my girls.”

May stayed quiet. That might begin to explain what Moz wanted with her. If Moz thought she would willingly be ordered around by another person in this place, she was very wrong though.

“It won’t stop me from fighting back though, even if that’s what they think.”

May could hear the anger in her voice, despite how low she spoke. Her eyes were roaming the room as she spoke, making sure no one was listening in.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she continued, her eyes now fixed on May. “I don’t trust you. But the rest of this crowd is fairly useless, and I know you’re a free spirit. You hate being locked up and ordered around as much as I do. You’re a woman of resources, I can respect that, even if you are a Mallrat.”

May opened her mouth to object, but then she wasn’t sure what she wanted to object to. Was she really a Mallrat? Had she ever truly felt like she belonged? And yet, there was a part of her that wanted to object at the way Moz said “mallrat” as if it was the highest insult possible. Moz seemed to wait for her to speak, but then got tired of waiting when May couldn’t make up her mind.

“Anyway, what do you say? Want to help me give these tyrants a lesson they won’t forget?” Moz asked, a hint of a smirk on her face. May let her gaze drift towards the doorless doorway on the other side of the barrack, and the guard standing there, straight up and down. She looked back at Moz, mimicking her smirk.

“Oh, most definitely.”

Title from “If tomorrow never comes” by Delta Goodrem

Ebony blinked as the light hit her face. At first it confused her. She had become used to the dark and dingy basement. It took a moment before she remembered that she had been moved the night before. She was still at the stadium, but at least she had escaped the basement. That smarmy general had come to see her, telling her it was her reward for agreeing to speak to the city on their behalf. It wasn’t like she had much choice. Besides, it could all work out to her advantage in the end. Someone knocked on her door, and before Ebony could react the door was opened. A young girl walked in, dressed in similar clothes that had been given to Ebony. Black baggy trousers and a black tanktop, though the girl had added to her outfit with a red belt made of coloured cardboard from the looks of it, and a cream-coloured attempt at a bolero that Ebony guessed had been made from an old blanket. She had taken the end of her baggy tanktop and tied it up, showing off her midriff. Her curly light brown locks were divided into parts and held up by pink and red ribbons. Ebony guessed she was a slave, the lack of a uniform told her as much. Or maybe she was in training to become a Techno. Ebony didn’t know how this tribe worked yet. She would have to figure that out. She didn’t want to be stuck in the baggy trousers and tank top for much longer herself.

“Good morning,” the girl said uncertainly, her eyes wide. “I’m Gel. They’ve assigned me to be your servant.”

Ebony stared, blinking again. A servant? Well, they really were going out of their way to win her over. The girl carried a tray in her hands, placing it down at a table in the middle of the room. It had been dark when Ebony was first led into the room, first now she could study it thoroughly. It was bare, the bed she was sleeping on pushed into the corner. In the middle of the room stood a table, a worn sofa and a couple plastic chairs. It looked like it might have been an office at some point, but most of it had been stripped. She guessed the creep in the wheelchair or someone else had taken all the good stuff for themselves.

“Here’s your breakfast,” the girl said, when Ebony didn’t make any sign of moving or acknowledging the tray. Ebony gave a small nod, and waved her hand towards the door.

“Fine, you can leave me now.”

The girl awkwardly curtsied, before hurrying out of there as if she had been stung. Ebony got up from the bed, throwing the blanket aside. She felt warm and sweaty, and in need of clean clothes. But taking them of to sleep in her underwear was out of the question. She needed to be ready to move quickly at all times. Besides, she was fairly certain she was being watched and while she was hardly ashamed of her body, she wanted to be in control of who got to see it. No point giving up the goods now when she could use it to her benefit later. She moved over to the table, opting for one of the plastic chairs as the most comfortable option, with the springs sticking out of the sofa. The food seemed alright, the fruit was fresh. The round bread was still lukewarm, a nice change from the stale things she had been fed before, though the salty meat was dried and not too tempting. She ate it all anyway though, knowing she needed to keep her strength up. Who knew how long it would be until she got to eat again. You never knew what they would decide to use against her. Zoot had kept food from her, back when he tried to break her, as one of his many means of torture. Ebony shook her head. This was not the time to go back there.

Gel rushed down the corridor, wanting to get back to the hallway where she and a few other prisoners had been bunked together on mattresses on the floor. Not that it was such a great place to be, but the other prisoners were nicer and less scary than the Technos. Especially less scary than Ebony. Gel had so not voted for her. As she turned the corner, she collided into someone and Gel found herself on the floor. All she saw was the sparkly piece of the white line against black on a techno uniform, and she moved backwards as far as she could.

“I’m sorry!” She said, her voice coming out squeaky and high. She glanced up, letting out a relieved sigh. It wasn’t one of the scary ones, it was the girl who worked with Lord Ram. Gel thought her name was Patsy. She wasn’t friendly, but she treated them better, the little Gel had seen of her in the days since her tribe had been taken, just outside the city. They had heard rumours of a small town a day’s walk away where a girl was making skin creams out of plants and stuff like that. They were off in search of this new treasure when those masked and uniformed men had surprised them, and easily overpowered them. Gel didn’t know where the other girls were, she was alone now.

“It’s okay,” Patsy mumbled, holding onto her arm, a grimace on her face. When she noticed Gel looking, she let go of her arm, holding it awkwardly to the side. “Are you on your way back to the prisoners’ quarters?” she asked, a hint of a shadow passing on her face as she mentioned the name their little hallway had been given. Gel nodded.

“Yes. I was assigned to work for Ebony. I’ve given her her breakfast, she told me I could go.” Gel felt slightly panicky, she didn’t want anyone to think she wasn’t doing her job right.

“Oh, I’m sure she did,” Patsy snorted, then shook her head. “Never mind. You okay? Our little collision didn’t hurt you?”

Gel shook her head. Patsy held out her good arm. Gel eyed it for a moment, before taking it and letting Patsy help her to her feet. Patsy opened her mouth, looking as if she wanted to say something, but then her eyes quickly searched the ceiling and she closed it again. Gel glanced up, spotting the cameras Patsy had looked at.

“You should head back. Don’t let them miss you.”

Her face hardened, and she moved around Gel and walked away. Gel wasn’t sure if it had been a threat or a warning, but she took heed of it anyway and rushed back towards the other prisoners.

Bray sat at the edge of the bed, enjoying the quiet as as Amber fed their son. The baby had been up for a couple hours already, but being nursed seemed to lull him back to sleep. It was peaceful, just the sound of Amber’s soft voice quietly talking to the boy. Eventually that disappeared to. Bray looked up, seeing that Amber was redressing herself and that their baby boy was sound asleep. He got up, carefully lifting him out of her hands and over to the old crib that first Alice and then Ellie had once slept in as babies. Bray stood still, watching his sleeping son for a few moments until he felt Amber’s hand on his shoulder.

“It still feels unreal,” Bray said, looking over at her. “I still can’t believe we actually have a son.”

“He’s right there, get used to it,” Amber said, a teasing smile on her face. Bray couldn’t help but smile back, leaning in to give her a kiss. He held her close even as the kiss ended, feeling so caught between emotions. He wanted to just stay there with Amber in that moment, not having to think about the before or after. But Amber pulled away, knowing they didn’t have any time to waste.

“We need to make a decision,” she said, sitting down on the edge of the bed that Alice and Ellie’s parents once slept in. Loved in. Dreamt in. Bray wondered briefly what kind of family life they’d had before the virus. Did the girls crawl into their parents’ bed on lazy mornings, fight over space like siblings do? Did their parents pull them close, smile at each other and know they could never ever be happier than in that moment? Maybe they had imagined what would happen to their girls if they both died, but they would never have imagined there being no adults left to take care of them. That they would have to fend for themselves in a new world. At least they had each other. Bray blinked, didn’t want that thought to fester.

“You’re miles away.”

He turned to Amber again. She had a slightly amused look on her face as she pulled her bare feet up under her on the bed.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, sitting down next to her. One arm around her, a quick kiss on the side of her head.

“I think you need to go, Bray.”

He sighed, shaking his head. “I can’t leave you and the baby.”

“It will only be for a few days. We can handle it. Trudy will be here, Alice will be here, Tai-San will be here. Pride is staying to, he won’t let anything happen to us. You need to go with Danni. You can’t leave it at what she told us last night. Talk things out with her, make sure she’ll be alright, and get a closer look at what’s going on in the city. Then come back, and stay here with us until…until we know what to do next.”

Bray sighed, leaning forward on his knees. “I’m a dad now, I can’t just leave my own son behind.”

“In a normal situation, or before this new tribe turned up, I would agree. But this is war, Bray. We need to stick together as a tribe, and we need to make sure everyone is alright. Including Danni. Maybe especially Danni, if half of what you’ve told me about her is true. We need her on her game. And well…I can’t help but feel like we owe her. It was both of us leading things, neither of us decided to go look for her or the others. We should have. We can’t go back on that, but it does mean we need to be here for her, and for Ryan and Cloe and Jack…and Patsy. If she will let us. And besides, with me, Tai-San, Alice and Pride all here, they will need some help keeping Lex at bay.”

Bray looked at her, unable to resist another kiss, on the lips this time. “I really love you.”

“I know. And I really love you. Being apart for a few days, or however long it takes, won’t change that. Me and Martin will be fine.”

Bray raised his eyebrows questioningly, Amber smiling in return.

“I thought about it, and it makes sense. Martin is a good name, a strong name. Dal is too soon, it wouldn’t feel right.”

“Okay. If you’re sure…” Bray searched her face, seeing only a smile.

“I am. Martin is our son.”

Jay looked up as a cloud covered the sun. The air was getting colder by the day, even the Techno uniforms that were carefully designed to handle heat and cold were starting to let it through. He briefly wished he had remembered to bring his jacket.

“Testing, testing.”

The voice of their appropriately named Sound Technician, Mick, echoed through the speakers, barely audible over static. Jay winced as the microphone whined, raising his eyebrows in the direction of Mick who simply shrugged and knelt back down by the nest of wires. Jay sighed. This was taking longer than planned. Ebony was supposed to hold her speech that afternoon, but at this speed it was going to be a close call. They might have to postpone it until tomorrow, which meant having to postpone moving into the hotel, which meant a cranky Ram. He wanted his fancy suite. This was supposed to be the big event marking the occasion, Ram always wanted to do things with grandeur.


Jay turned around, a smile as he noticed Colonel Gale, his former lieutenant.

“I heard about your promotion. Congratulations.”

Gale thanked him, dark brown eyes drawn towards the stage where Mick was making random sounds into the microphone, the sound not coming out through the speakers at all anymore.

“Does that guy even know what he’s doing?”

“Supposedly,” Jay replied, with a small laugh. “He was recommended to us by our spies, after thorough research into his abilities. But without electricity being up yet, there’s only so much he can do when we have to rely on batteries to drive it all.”

“I suppose,” Gale replied, his eyes drifting towards the hotel looming behind the stage that had been set up. “So, how is our survivor doing?”

Jay smiled slightly. Gale always asked about Patsy. He wasn’t entirely certain what made Gale so drawn to her, if it was a crush or simply the fact that she was the sole survivor of a massacre they would never be able to forget.

“She’s fine. Being kept busy by Ram.” He paused, glancing briefly at Gale. “She had to face her old tribe.”

“Oh? The Mallrats? Let me guess, they weren’t happy with us.” Gale said, a hint of a smile on his otherwise serious face.

“No, they definitely were not.” Jay confirmed, laughing slightly. “But we’ve seen that kind of reaction before.”

“They’ll come around, once they see what we have to offer.”

Jay nodded. Though this time around, there was a part of him that wasn’t so sure. There was something about Ram. According to Patsy he was getting sicker, and even though his trademark style, the hair and the markings and the make-up were all there, creating a face that would catch anyone’s attention, Jay had noticed that underneath it all Ram was getting skinnier, paler. His mood had also changed, it was longer between the good moments and the temper tantrums were longer and happened more often. When the planning for this invasion had begun, Jay had even considered Ram a friend. They could spend hours talking about the changes they wanted to make, their view of an ideal future. They had discussed the lengths they could go to before it was too far. Jay couldn’t talk to Ram anymore without it ending in frustration, and Ram never asked him to come see him in the evenings any longer. Jay wasn’t certain when the change had begun, he had been too caught up in his grief over Ved, too busy pouring over medical books and hounding Ram until he found Patch and Jay begun spending his time planning the hospital in Sydney. But the task of securing the Chosen’s work camp and the planning of a new invasion had given him some focus back, and now Jay was seeing things clearer. Something was wrong, and it made Jay feel a constant knot of worry in his stomach. More than the usual early-invasion jitters.

“What’s the next step going forward, general? What will happen after the speech?”

“Ebony will keep her position as City Leader. Officially, anyway. In reality, her powers will be limited until she has earned them back.”

Gale frowned. “Earned them back?”

Jay smirked. “I don’t know exactly what Ram has planned for her, but he is going to assess her work as we go along, and reward or punish depending on her choices. Her reward for agreeing to hold this speech will be to move back into her rooms in the hotel,” he nodded towards the building in front of them. “It’s close to ready for moving in. I hear you will be coming with us?” Jay turned to Gale.

“Yes, it’s easier to do my job from here. I’m in charge of securing the buildings we need in the city. The stadium is already secured, so Ram wanted me here.”

“We will probably see a lot of each other then, though I will probably be back and forth at the stadium a bit, if Ram agrees to an idea I have.”

“Oh?” Gale raised his thick dark eyebrows, looking at Jay questioningly.

“I will tell you once I figure out more,” Jay smiled slightly, not willing to give away his plan for training surgeons just yet. He had barely chatted with Patch, who had become so eager he had nearly knocked over a tray of samples.

“For now though,” Jay continued, “the main course of action is to focus on the Mallrats. I’m going there later today, to try and talk some of them into taking up jobs for us. I’ll bring Patsy with me, she’ll be a good bargaining chip.”

Gale narrowed his eyes, keeping his focus on Mick who finally seemed to have figured something out, looking suddenly very eager.

“Be careful with that,” Gale advised. “It won’t be easy for her having to face them.”

“I know, I let her make the decision herself. She’s stronger than she looks, Gale.”

“That she is. Maybe…could I come with? I would love to meet these Mallrats finally.”

Jay held back a smile. Gale had always been strangely intrigued by the tales of the Mallrats, both Patsy’s and reports from their spies.

“I’m sure that can be arranged,” he agreed. Having someone else with him could be useful, put some more faces in front of them to make the Technos more than just the invading army.

“Are you sure?” Lex looked at his wife. Tai-San kept a faint smile on her face and nodded.

“I need to stay here with Alice. She’s doing a lot better, but she’s still healing. I am more needed here right now.” She insisted. He had heard it several times already, but he wasn’t one for giving up quickly.

“For how long? We need you in the city to.”

“You can manage fine without me, Lex.” Her smile grew slightly, and she stepped closer. Lex automatically reached out for her, one arm around her waist. “Besides, you can always come back and see me here.”

“I guess. Though taking on that sheriff’s job is going to keep me busy.” Lex said with a sigh. He was beginning to doubt that decision.

“Are you sure about doing this, Lex?” Tai-San asked, her eyes searching his face. He glanced away, not wanting her to see that he wasn’t.

“It’s the best way to get to know them, isn’t it? Getting close?” He could feel himself immediately going defensive again. He didn’t know why he was getting so much stick for considering it. Someone on the inside was useful to them, anyone could see that.

“Okay. I just worry for you.”

Lex smiled, pulling her closer and planting his lips on hers. “No need for that, babe, I can take care of myself.” Tai-San sighed, but said nothing. She just leaned into his embrace. “I’ll miss you,” Lex admitted in a low voice.

“I’ll miss you to,” Tai-San said back, pulling out of the embrace to look at him. As much as he hated leaving her behind, it did make Lex feel a little safer to have her here, outside the city. When he thought she had been taken, it was as if the ground had been ripped out from underneath him. At least here she was safer, further away from those new crazies. Though she was also further away from him, where he couldn’t protect her.

“We’d better join the others,” Tai-San suggested softly, taking his hand as she stepped out of his arms. He only nodded in agreement, following her out of the small farmhouse kitchen and out onto the porch.

The others were already gathered outside. Danni stood leaning against a tree at the end of the clearing, looking impatient and sullen. Cloe was cooing over baby Martin in Amber’s arms.

“I’ll miss you, you little heartbreaker,” she said in a singsong voice, leaning in to kiss the baby’s soft cheek.

Amber and Bray smiled like the proud parents they were. Ryan looked away, glancing towards Danni. She was making a point out of not looking at them. He didn’t blame her, it stung for him to, seeing them being happy parents. He couldn’t deny it would be good to have Bray with them in the city, even if just for a few days. It would be a bit of a hassle getting him to the mall completely unnoticed, but it would give everyone a bit of a boost. Maybe even help them get what remained of the tribes to work with them. But even so, he wasn’t too pleased at Bray coming with them. For one thing, he knew it was at least partly because of Danni, and Ryan wasn’t sure if Bray’s presence was the best thing for her now. Secondly, he couldn’t help but feel a father’s place was always by his family. Like he should have been.

He looked at Salene as that thought crossed his mind. She noticed his eyes on her and looked back at him, a small smile on her face. He still wasn’t sure where he had her. She seemed to want to go back where they were, but Ryan didn’t know if he could. He knew he had messed up to, but he couldn’t take the thought of going back to constantly feeling like he was the one holding on to her, while she was trying to get free. He didn’t know if he trusted that she really wanted him. Even if she had come looking for him. Realising he was staring, he turned away, blushing slightly. Cloe had turned her attention away from the baby, leaving Bray and Amber to say goodbye to each other. She had noticed, and had this knowing grin on her face as she glanced from one to the other.

“So…we ready?” she asked, that singsong tone of voice still there.

“Yes,” Salene agreed, putting her arm around Cloe’s shoulder and leading her away from the farmhouse towards where Danni stood. Ellie and Alice were giving each other another hug, Alice clinging onto her little sister.

“You sure you’ll be alright?” he heard Ellie asking, then Alice’s insistence that she would. Bray was kissing his son’s forehead, a finger gently caressing his cheek. Then he kissed Amber on the lips. Ryan turned away, catching glimpse of another goodbye kiss between Lex and Tai-San, before he turned around completely and followed Cloe and Salene.


Patch stayed quiet as he watched the display on the blood pressure monitor. “Values are normal, Lord Ram.” He replied, and removed the armlet and packed the device together in its case. “Blood pressure, heart rate. Lungs sound fine.”

Everyday was like this. Patch did a check-up on Ram every morning, sometimes several times a day if Ram was convinced something was wrong that Patch hadn’t caught the first time around. He also took blood samples weekly, checking for just about everything he could manage to with his limited medical supplies. Truth was, Patch was at a bit of a standstill with his work. There was only so much he could do on his own, and none of the Technos had the medical or scientific knowledge needed to help him.

“But where is the cough coming from then?” Ram demanded, his face contorted in a grimace.

“It can be brought on by a lot of things. Stress, a draft, a cold…do you drink enough water?”

“Always with the water.” Ram sighed, turning away.

Patch let the comment slide as he packed up his silver suitcase and closed it. “Your condition is stable, no change.”

Ram looked at him with narrow eyes. “Tell me the truth, doctor. How long do I have left?”

Depends how many cities you invade and enemies you make, Patch thought to himself. “Look, Ram, I’m really not sure that this condition you’re supposed to have is…”

“My doctor told me, before the virus. I would be dead before I was eighteen. Well, I’m eighteen now!”

“And you’re not dead. Maybe your doctor was wrong.”

They’d had this conversation a few times before. Ram was unable to tell him the name of the genetic disease he had been told he had, only that his uncle on his mother’s side had died of it when his mother was a child, and he was genetically disposed for it. Patch’s research had yet to come up with a disease fitting all of Ram’s symptoms, that would also explain the wheelchair. Another thing Ram was vague about, but he insisted it was related to the disease.

“Don’t get smart with me, doctor Patch. I am smarter than anyone around here, so don’t try that. I know I’m close to death, and you better find out what’s wrong with me, and find a way to cure me.”

Patch swallowed, taking an involuntary step backwards. “Lord Ram, I am doing all I’m capable of right now. There’s only so much I can do before I get that x-ray machine to work.”

“Well, what do you need? I have a finely selected group of people in this tribe, the smartest people available, and more resources at our hands than anyone else in the world can brag about. What more can you possibly need?”

An adult who knew how these things worked, was what Patch wanted to say, but he kept his lips tightly together.
“A little more time, lord Ram. There’s only so much I can do on my own.”

“I don’t have much time to spare,” Ram replied, though the angry edge had disappeared from his voice, replaced by something closer to resignation. He went quiet for a moment. Patch wondered if he should go, but no one left a room Ram was in without being dismissed first.


Patch jumped as Ram suddenly called out for his personal assistant. It only took a few seconds before Patsy appeared in the doorway from the other room. “Yes, Lord Ram?”

“This Mallrat friend of yours…Jack, is it? He’s a genius right, and a scientist?”

“Yes,” Patsy confirmed, though Patch noticed that she looked a bit uncertain.

“Could he be useful to you?” Ram turned back to Patch.

“Well, yes…I suppose so,” Patch looked from one to the other, pushing his glasses back in place.

“Then you will have him. Patsy…make it happen. It’s a good deal for Jack to work for us. You make sure he sees that.”

For a fleeting moment, Patch was sure he saw panic in the young girl’s eyes, but then her face returned to the calm mask he was used to seeing. She must have learned that from Jay, he thought briefly.

“Yes, lord Ram.”

“Good. Now go, you are both dismissed. Don’t come back until you can tell me Patch has a new co-worker in his lab.”

Patsy nodded and turned on her heel, marching out. Patch grabbed his metal suitcase and followed, reaching the door before it slammed shut and closing it behind him. Patsy followed him to the door of Ram’s suite, not meeting Patch’s eyes.

“Uhm…tell this Jack, that I would be honoured to work with him.”

He wasn’t sure why he said that. Maybe he needed this guy to know there were Technos who didn’t just demand. Patsy gave him a small smile, she seemed to understand. Patch returned her smile and left the room.

Tai-San’s eyes roamed the green plants in front of her. A smile appeared on her face as she caught sight of just the one she was looking for. She carefully picked them, making sure to leave the root and then carefully placed them in her basket with the mushrooms and herbs already there.

“Looks like a good dinner you’re planning.”

She looked up, smiling as she saw Pride appearing from between the trees.

“It would be better with some more vegetables. There’s rice back at the farm luckily, we can make something with that.”

“I am sure whatever you make will taste delicious.”

Tai-San gave a small nod to say thanks, putting her focus back on her basket. “I think I have what I need. Will you walk me back, or are you staying out here?”

Pride sighed, his eyes roaming the trees surrounding them. “I think I will go back with you. I have searched through the wood for an hour now, there’s no sign of anything human since the others left. I will take another round in a couple of hours, but until then there’s not much more I can do out here.”

“Okay, good. I like your company.” Tai-San said, smiling as Pride motioned for her to walk first. He fell into step just behind her on the narrow path.

“Thank you, I enjoy your company to.”

They walked in silence until they reached the edge of the farm, Pride moving next to Tai-San on the dirt road that led the way from the paddocks towards the farm house.

“Bray asked me to bring Amber and the baby to the Ecos if I find anything even remotely suspicious nearby. I’m worried he’s planning something.”

Tai-San frowned, looking over at Pride. “Planning something? Like what?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t believe Bray would have asked me if he didn’t have some specific reason to worry. The plan is to keep him hidden from the Technos. As long as he keeps hidden, there is no reason to believe he or Amber are anywhere near the city.”

Tai-San smiled slightly. “I find that whether he likes it or not, Bray is not someone who can stay unnoticed for very long.”

“No, I suppose you’re right.” Pride’s brows furrowed.

“Don’t worry yourself over it, everything has to play its course. There are still so many choices left to make before this war is over, we cannot know the consequences of them all before we are on the other side and looking back.”

Pride nodded. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.” He agreed, as they stepped onto the porch of the farmhouse. His eyes drifted towards the trees, in the direction of the city. “We’re not all going to make it to the other side of this, are we?”

Tai-San froze, her arm on the door handle. She turned to look at him, any hint of smile gone from her face.

“No. I don’t think so.”

Title from Ed Sheeran’s “The City” (line slightly edited)

“Attention! Attention, all citizens! Your City Leader will be holding a speech outside the Phoenix Hotel at 18.00 hours! Attention!”

KC snorted as he rushed away from the truck moving around the city, spewing out the same message over and over. Once inside the mall he could barely hear it anymore. Instead he heard voices, more voices than there had been people in the mall when he left it. He took the stairs two at a time up to the cafe, stopping at the top as he took in the people there. Cloe, Ellie and Lex were back, and they had brought some people with them. Bray was the first one he noticed, then Ryan, Salene and Danni.


Much to his surprise Salene moved in for a quick hug, while Ryan patted him on the back. Danni stayed where she was, leaning against the wall, but she did give him a nod in greeting.

“Thought you were dead,” KC said simply as he looked back at her.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around.” She replied dryly, a half-smirk on her face.

“Any news?” Jack asked from the sofa in the corner.

KC shrugged as the sound of the truck came closer, the obnoxious message sounding loud and clear in the mall. “Ebony’s holding a speech later.” There were a couple small laughs and a few smirks.

“Yeah, we heard,” Lex replied, leaning backwards in his chair and placing his feet on the table.

Luke, Dee and the little nameless girl were keeping to the background, by the table in the corner. Dee’s leg seemed to be acting up again, as she had it raised on a free chair. KC sat down next to Cloe, who raised her eyebrows questioningly. KC briefly shook his head, and Cloe returned her attention to the others. He had hoped to have something of interest to tell her after his little spying excursion, but he hadn’t been able to find out anything they didn’t already know. Bray seemed to have been in the middle of filling everyone in, and took up the mantle as KC’s arrival became old news. Once he was done explaining as briefly as possible how Ryan, Salene and Danni and he and Amber had all ended up at the farm, the cafe fell silent.

“So…what next, boss?”The question came from Jack, and he was looking at Bray.

“Hey, what makes him boss again? He’s not even gonna be hanging around for long.” Lex objected, glaring at Jack. Ellie sighed and rolled her eyes.

“You suggest yourself, Lex? We’ve seen that before,” Salene looked at him as she took the free chair next to Cloe. Ryan remained leaning against the railing, not biting when Lex looked at him for support.

“Actually, Lex does have a point,” Bray spoke up, moving to the middle of the cafe, causing Lex to raise his eyebrows in surprise. “I think the leader issue is one that should be solved quickly, and democratically. So we should look at our options. I’m not one. I don’t know if I’ll even be around tomorrow, let alone for the next week or month. I need to get back to Amber and our son. We need someone who can commit to the tribe.”

“Couldn’t agree more,” Lex said, smirking at the room.

“So I suggest Danni,” Bray continued, a hint of a smile on his face as he turned away from Lex.

“What?” Lex burst out, the front legs of his chair smacking against the floor as he sat up straight.

“What?” Danni’s voice came out quieter, as she stared at Bray with wide eyes.

“Bray…” Ryan began, moving away from the banister.

“Hear me out,” Bray held his hands up. “Come on, Danni, we all know you’re a leader. I know you only just got back here, but the city has been invaded, we can’t afford to give people time to settle in.”

“Hang on,” Lex stood up. “I’ve been keeping things together since this happened, doesn’t that count for anything?”

“Oh, you mean after you let Ebony banish me and my pregnant girlfriend from the city?” Bray retorted, the two of them edging closer to each other.

“Yes, you and your pregnant girlfriend, which of course has nothing to do with this!” Lex motioned towards Danni. “It’s not like you’re doing this because you feel guilty or anything!”

“Well, this is helpful.” Cloe sighed. “Maybe if you two could knock each other out, the rest of us can actually make some decisions.”

Bray took a step back, giving Cloe a small smile. “Sorry, Clo. We’ll behave, won’t we, Lex?”

Lex narrowed his eyes at Bray, but said nothing, just slumped back down in his chair.

“And the thing is, Lex, if you’re going to be sheriff again,” Cloe continued, leaning forward on the table, “then you can’t be our leader as well.”

“Cloe’s right,” Ellie agreed quickly, giving the younger girl a small smile. “Those would be conflicting roles. Not sure the Technos care about stuff like that, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.”

“Oh, so now it’s okay for me to stay on as sheriff, is it?” Lex snorted, though he didn’t object. “Fine. Let’s go with Danni.”

“Uhm…” Danni pushed herself out from the wall. “Maybe Danni would like to be asked if she’s actually willing first?” She glared at Bray, crossing her arms over her chest. Bray sighed, eyes glancing at everyone in the room.

“Danni, you’re the best person for the job,” he turned back to her. “Let’s put it up for a vote, and you’ll see the tribe agrees with me.”

“He’s right, Danni.” Cloe agreed. “I mean, you could be a pain sometimes, and always nagging us, but we got stuff done.”

Danni smiled slightly. “Thanks. I think.” She frowned. “But that was a different time, I’m not that person anymore.”

“Of course you are,” Cloe insisted. “You still care about the city, don’t you?”

Danni hesitated, eyes downward. “Yes,” she said finally, looking back up at Cloe.

“Then let’s vote.” Bray shot in, giving Cloe a small smile and a quick wink. “All in favour of Danni as Mallrats leader…”

Amber closed her eyes against the sun, turning her head upwards. The grass was so soft under her. She could hear the sound of Brady laughing, somewhere not too far away. The farm seemed like such a strange alternate universe at that moment, somewhere so peaceful and free. It reminded her of how it had felt with the Ecos at first. That feeling that made it so easy to stay and forget the city and the Mallrats. And Bray. Things were different now, but in some ways still so similar. The city was still a battlefield, something she didn’t feel tempted to return to. And yet it was where most of her life was right now. Not the most important part, he was asleep in the basket next to her on the grass. But Bray was there, and the Mallrats. All her friends, her family. She knew she would go back. She wasn’t sure when, but she knew she couldn’t leave it behind for good.

A shriek from Brady made her open her eyes, her instant fear replaced by relief when it was followed by laughter. Even so, she sat up, checking on her son. He was still asleep. Her eyes drifted to the people in the middle of the field. Pride and Tai-San were teaching Trudy and Brady tai chi. Pride and Tai-San moved so elegantly, their movements precise. Trudy tried her best, but didn’t have the same control of balance as they did. Brady mostly seemed to find it funny, and she had nowhere near the needed balance to keep herself from falling over. But it didn’t stop her from trying. Amber stood up, stretching her back and legs. That’s when she noticed Alice by Ned’s grave, putting fresh flowers down. His grave was a bit of a conflicting sight for her. On the one hand, she would never forget how scared she had been when he kept her and Trudy locked up. But she would never have wished him dead. After another quick glance at her baby boy to make sure he was asleep, her feet led her towards the grave and Alice. She stopped by Alice, the other woman continuing in silence to arrange the flowers. Finally she sat upright, looking up at Amber.

“I’m sorry for what he did to you.”

Amber smiled sadly, carefully moving to kneel down close to the other woman.

“It’s not your fault, you didn’t know what he was doing.”

“I should have,” Alice sighed, her voice shaking slightly. “I didn’t want to know, I didn’t want to see what he was really doing when I wasn’t looking. It was just so nice to feel loved for once, that I just…” Alice stopped, pressing her lips tightly together. Amber could see tears in her eyes.

“I know,” she said quietly. “He didn’t deserve to die. And I think…it would be easier for all of us if he didn’t, if we could talk to him, get his explanation. I don’t think he was evil.”

Amber warily moved from her knees to sit on the grass, her body protesting most movements still.

“He wasn’t,” Alice insisted, looking over at her. “I think he got in over his head. I know he didn’t want you or Trudy to get hurt. I know that. At least…I have to believe that.”

“I think you’re right to,” Amber said, giving her a comforting smile. Truth be told, Amber wasn’t sure what she believed. But she recognised Alice’s need to believe he hadn’t planned for things to go as far as they did. Maybe Amber needed to believe that to, to make her own peace with it.

Danni wanted to run. Her eyes drifted down the stairs towards the fountain, and the exit behind it. She could. If she just legged it down the stairs and through the exit, she’d be outside, where the air wasn’t so stuffy and suffocating as it felt in the mall right then. She was standing at the top of the staircase, her back to the Mallrats spread around the cafe. The Mallrats she was now supposedly in charge of. She wasn’t too sure what she should read into it. She was obviously the lesser evil, with Lex the only one offering an alternative. Third choice behind Bray and Amber. As the others all raised their hands at Bray’s question, Ryan had taken her aside and asked her if she was okay with it. She had said yes, insisted she could do this. But she wasn’t really sure. There wasn’t much choice though, it had all been sprung on her without warning. Then again, simply by coming here she had made a choice to not leave the city in the hands of the Technos, she had realised that the moment she walked back into the mall. She couldn’t just walk away from this. She had never shied away from responsibility before. Once she had jumped on it, taken the responsibility without being offered it. Now it was handed to her on a silver platter. She was to make the final decisions, decide how to play this fight.

Someone cleared their throat behind her. “Danni?” She heard concern in Ryan’s voice.

“Are we going to make any plans, or what?” That was KC, sounding impatient. Danni couldn’t help but smile slightly.

“I’m thinking,” she replied, keeping her back to them.

“Well, that’s great, oh glorious leader, but not sure we have much time for that,” Lex shot in.

She turned around, taking in everyone. Ryan and Salene on either side of Cloe. Bray leaning against the wall behind them. The strange little girl who barely talked, seeming to find the one person Danni trusted the least to be the most comforting, sitting as close to Luke as she could without actually touching. Dee next to them, another new face she couldn’t be certain of. Ellie and Jack sat by the same table, but Jack had put as much distance between them as he could manage without making it too obvious. Lex with his attitude showing even as he sat there, taking up most of the table with his long legs. KC was on his feet, leaning against the back wall with his arms crossed over his chest. A mix of expectant and challenging stares faced her.

“Okay…” she sighed, putting her hands on her hips. “Firstly, we need to make sure the mall is safe. These Technos, they’re obviously highly skilled and have equipment we could only dream of. We know they have a lot of info on us through Patsy. We need to make sure that’s where it stops. Jack, could you make some kind of device that could pick it up if the mall is bugged or if there are video cameras hidden anywhere?”

Jack frowned, you could see the wheels turning in his head. “Yeah, shouldn’t be too hard. I could make something that would pick up transmitting signals.”

“Good, we should get that done as soon as possible, as well as some kind of alarm system. But for now, we don’t have time to be too secretive or careful. We need to figure out how to play this before that general shows up here. We can openly oppose them, or fight them from the inside. Lex has already made his decision to stay on as sheriff, and well…” Danni sighed, her eyes meeting Bray’s briefly. She knew he disagreed, that he wanted nothing to do with the Technos. “I agree that he should.”

“What?” The general reaction seemed to be confusion. Bray’s eyes had narrowed, and he was studying her intently. He was strangely quiet though.

“Just hear me out,” Danni continued. “This way we’re keeping someone in at least some semblance of control. They’re obviously letting Ebony stay on as City Leader, and she made Lex sheriff. For now, Lex should stick to that role.”

Lex smiled smugly. “Well, never thought you and me would agree on something.”

“We’ll see how long it lasts,” Danni replied dryly. “The rest of the jobs offered, we can try using it as leverage. They wouldn’t have offered us these jobs if they didn’t think it would make their job easier, either because they need us for something or simply for it to look like we’re cooperating. We should get something in return for considering it. Of course, you all make your own decisions, but this is what I think we should do. Negotiate.”

“Negotiate,” Bray repeated. “You mean for prisoners?”

Danni nodded. “Yes. One for every tribe, two in cases of siblings. It’s not fair to the city if we only get our missing Mallrats back, and the Technos could easily turn that around on us to make the city hate us. We need to be ahead of them, earn the city’s trust before the Technos take it away from us. When they get here to ask for our decision, I will demand to get to speak to Ebony before her speech tonight.”

“Ebony? Why Ebony?” Ryan frowned.

“She knows how to win a crowd,” Danni shrugged. It wasn’t ideal, of course. She didn’t trust Ebony, and she didn’t know what kind of deal she had made with the Technos. But she could work the crowd. If Danni let her take the credit for her idea, it would help Ebony win back some trust as well, if the Technos agreed to it. And Ebony was, for the moment at least, clearly associated with the Mallrats. Hopefully that trust would spill over on them.

If there was one thing May was certain of, it was that she hated coal. Carrying it around to the carts, pulling the carts to the furnaces, standing in front of the heat. That morning when they returned to the barracks she had found a pair of baggy trousers and a tank top that was too big for her on her cot. Apparently even the Technos were starting to be appalled by her sweaty grimy clothes now. She hated the thought of looking like everyone else, with more and more of her fellow prisoners walking around in the same garb, but she caved and put the clean clothes on, and she couldn’t deny it made her feel a little more comfortable. Like most though, she tried to put her own spin on it and put her yellow see-through top back on, on top of the black tanktop. It wasn’t much, but at least it felt like a small rebellion. Her accessories had been taken away from her on arrival, so she still had to go without those, but unlike Moz at least she still had her own clothes. She balled them together and put them in the plastic bag the clean clothes had come in, putting it under her pillow.

She had less than half a bottle of water left, and only the T-bar of the food. At least she had managed to get some sleep today, but she didn’t feel very refreshed. As she peeled off the wrapper on her bar and took a bite, her eyes roamed the room, landing on Moz. The other girl was still asleep, or at least lying down. May wasn’t sure if Moz ever truly slept, at least if May got near her she always seemed to know she was being watched. Just as May was thinking of walking over to report on her observations of the guards that day, a loud shrieking trumpet noise sounded in the barrack. May covered her ears, glaring towards the entrance where two Techno guards stood, legs wide and arms on their backs, eyes searching the room.

“Attention! Work group 2 will now be escorted to the river for bathing. You are not allowed to bring anything but yourself and what you are wearing!” One of the guards called out, his voice echoing in the walls of the barracks. “Line up two and two, now!”

Some were quick to get up. May was a bit more hesitant, her eyes traveling to Moz’s cot again, the other girl now alert and awake. She was looking back at May, giving her a hint of a nod that May wasn’t even entirely sure she saw or not. Even so, she waited for Moz to join the line that was forming, and jumped in next to her when they passed.

“Anything to report?” Moz whispered when May fell into line next to her.

“Not much,” May said, keeping her voice low. They couldn’t risk even the other prisoners overhearing too much. You never knew who would stab you in the back for favours from their captors. May would do it herself probably, so she couldn’t blame them. “There’s an office at the back of the plant, I caught a few glimpses. It’s where the big guy with the beard goes when he disappears.”

“I think his name is Code,” Moz snorted. “Pretty sure he’s the boss.”

That much May had figured out herself, but she didn’t waste any energy on telling Moz that. Code was obviously the boss, always shouting for the other Technos and talking into his headset. He seemed a bit full of himself, high on power. At least he mostly took it out on the Technos working for him, rather than the prisoners.

“Wonder what they’re doing in there,” May whispered.

“We should find out,” Moz whispered back, a hint of a smirk on her face.

“How?” May raised her eyebrows, she couldn’t imagine the guards would just let them wander in there. Moz waited a few seconds, then suddenly she fell forward, landing on the ground with a pained scream. May was taken aback at first, but then as Moz dragged herself out of the way of the prisoners walking behind them, May followed, leaning over her.

“Keep going!” The guards shouted.

“Are you okay?” May asked, ignoring them. Moz glared at the guard that came towards them.

“Yeah, I’m good, just help me up, will you?”

May did, letting Moz put her arm around her shoulders and leaning against her as they began moving again, several feet behind the crowd. She noticed a small smirk on Moz’s face, before Moz was so close May had to turn her head forwards again. As Moz began whispering into her ear, May struggled to keep the smirk off her own face. That girl really did know all the tricks.


She turned around, eyes widening slightly when she saw Bray approaching her.

“You’re supposed to stay hidden,” she told him sternly, as if he didn’t already know that. It was better for everyone to think Bray and Amber were off with the Ecos somewhere far outside the city by now.

“I know, but they’re not here yet,” Bray smiled slightly, glancing towards the fountain downstairs. Most of the others had gone back to the furniture store for some rest, except Jack and Danni who had gone down to the workshop to get started on whatever it was Danni wanted Jack to make. Cloe didn’t understand too much of it, to be honest. Cloe had insisted on keeping watch, sitting on the top of the stars with her eyes fixed on the entrance. She didn’t know if Patsy was coming with the general or not, but Cloe definitely felt a need to see her again.

“What do you want then?” Cloe asked, as Bray took a seat next to her on the top step.

“What are you and KC planning?” He asked, not taking the time for small talk.

Cloe opened her mouth, then closed it again. “What do you mean?” she asked finally.

“Oh, come on. I saw you two whispering in the corners before. Besides, it’s you and KC, and Patsy. I know you’re not just going to leave her with the Technos, so you’re definitely up to something.”

Cloe sighed. She might as well tell him. It would be nice to have someone else involved in the plan, even though she wasn’t too sure he wouldn’t just tell Danni on them. “Well…we think that if we just get her away from them, we can get through to her. She thinks she owes them cause they saved her life, but we can make her see that it’s not worth it.”

Bray didn’t reply at first, he just nodded slightly, his eyes focused on the fountain again. “You think you can trust her,” he stated.

Cloe nodded. “Yes. I know Patsy. She’s not evil, she never was. She just…she needs people to rely on, and we weren’t there when she needed us. She’s hurt and angry, but underneath all that we’re still her family. You know I’m right, Bray, don’t you?”

Bray was silent for several moments. Finally he turned to look at her, and something in his eyes told her he had taken in what she said.

“Maybe we can test her.”

Cloe frowned. “Test her? How do you mean?”

“Here’s what I need you to do…” he began, leaning in closer.

As they reached the stream, the guards made them line up along the river bank, telling them they had fifteen minutes to clean themselves. May didn’t waste time stripping down to her underwear and sliding into the chill water. Moz next to her was just as quick. A few others were in as quickly to, some hesitated more. May knew there was no time to waste though, it wasn’t the moment to get shy. She went under completely, breaking the surface again with a gasp.

When she glanced over at Moz, she found herself a little startled. Moz was definitely not shy, and had even taken off her underwear. May averted her eyes quickly, though when she glanced towards Moz again she noticed the other girl had a smirk on her face as she moved back to the riverbank, pulling herself up. May knew she was as clean as she would get without a sponge or something to scrub herself with, so she followed Moz’s lead. Once out of the water she moved swiftly, putting the trousers and top back on, while taking her underwear off. She kept her eyes firmly in her own space, even as she leaned back down to the water to rinse her underwear. They hadn’t been given any towels or anything to dry themselves with, so her dry clothes quickly became wet, and her hair was still dripping when she decided she was done, taking a moment to relax. It wasn’t long before the guards started shouting out orders to fall back in line and move back to the barracks though.

Moz appeared next to her, like May she was back in her clothes but carrying her wet underwear and boots. May felt a little humiliated by the whole process, the lack of privacy, having this and only this option to clean off the grime and dust and sweat of several days. Moz didn’t seem fazed by it, not by the wet clothes clinging to her skin or the leering eyes from a couple of the guards.

“Nice tattoo.”

May felt a chill run down her spine. She wasn’t sure if it was because of the wet clothes and the gust of wind, or because somehow Moz had taken notice of that certain area where her only tattoo was. She was fairly certain she was blushing when she turned to look at Moz, getting only a smirk in return. May cleared her throat.

“So…tomorrow.” She said, wanting to confirm their plan.

“Tomorrow.” Moz confirmed. May wasn’t certain if it was due to the thought of what might happen if she got caught or if it was the way Moz was looking at her, but her stomach suddenly felt very uneasy.

Patsy stopped when the mall appeared in view. It was as if the emotions and memories formed a solid wall and she just couldn’t walk further. Jay and Gale both stopped a few steps ahead of her, turning to look at her.

“Patsy, you okay?” Jay asked, the worried frown she had grown used to seeing on his face present once again.

“You don’t have to do this,” Gale shot in. “We could walk back, I’m sure Jay can handle this on his own.”

Patsy shook her head. “No, I’ll be fine,” she insisted. Ram’s words were ringing in her head. Make it happen. She needed to speak to Jack on her own, she knew she might be able to do it. He would never listen to Jay, even though Jay had insisted he could deal with it. But it scared her, all of it. The mall, facing everyone, Ram’s wrath if they failed…She took a deep breath, and then another, focusing on her boot-clad feet while placing one in front of the other, until the ground beneath her changed from asphalt to the linoleum floors of the mall.

Ok, a few more chapters left to post. will hopefully not forget to get those up within the next few days.

Title from Ed Sheeran’s “Give Me Love”

Patsy, Jay and Gale walked into the mall to find KC sitting on the staircase, a bored expression on his face. He didn’t say a word to them, deliberately avoiding to look at Patsy as he stood up.

“They’re here!” He called out, his voice echoing slightly in the mall as he took the stairs two at a time to the top.

As the trio began ascending the stairs after him, the Mallrats came out of the inner part of the cafe where Danni had been going over the last few details again. She stopped at the kitchen entrance, watching as Cloe hurried to KC’s side to be the first to say hello to Patsy. It broke Danni’s heart a little to see the two girls standing in front of each other, so awkwardly just saying hello. They should be spending every moment catching up, crying together over what they had been through, and moving on together. But that Techno uniform Patsy was wearing worked like a strong shield as Danni watched them from a distance. Ryan and Salene had stopped behind her, Salene placing a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“It’s gonna be okay, Danni. We’re there with you if you need us.” Salene spoke in a low voice, making sure no one but her and Ryan heard it. Danni nodded, and gave her what she hoped was a genuine smile. She stepped away from the wall and moved with long strides towards the middle of the cafe, Ryan and Salene following behind her. She could tell the exact moment when Patsy saw them, the girl turned white as a sheet, her mouth slightly open. Ryan stepped ahead of Danni.

“Hey, Patsy.” He said her name so softly that Danni almost wanted to slap him and yell at him to remember she was on the other side now. She didn’t think it mattered to Ryan anyway though. Patsy would never stop being his little girl.

“Ryan…” Patsy’s voice was shaking, and her eyes filling with tears as she looked from him to Danni. “I thought you were dead.”

“Yeah, I know. We thought you were dead to,” Ryan explained quickly. “I’m so sorry we left you,” he continued, moving towards her. Jay stepped in front of her, holding his hand out to stop Ryan. Danni immediately took a step closer, not sure how Ryan would react to that. Ryan fixed Jay with a glare.

“This is the first time I’ve seen her after months thinking she was dead. If you think you’re gonna stop me from giving her a hug, we’re gonna have a problem.”

Patsy put her hand on Jay’s arm. “It’s okay.” She said carefully. Jay let his hand drop, and Patsy stepped into Ryan’s embrace. Danni watched Jay carefully, looking for any hints of jealousy. But his face was difficult to read. The other one though, he was definitely on edge. Danni made a mental note to figure out what his relationship with Patsy was, it could come in handy. Jay introduced himself and Gale, quickly covering up the tension.

“And I’m…” Danni began, but was quickly interrupted.

“Danni. I know,” Jay said, a hint of a smirk on his face. She wasn’t sure if she should be flattered by that, or just annoyed and worried that they knew so much about them.

Ryan and Patsy were both teary-eyed as they let go of each other. Patsy’s eyes lingered on Danni for a moment, but Danni had no intention of pretending this was just a normal reunion of friends so she kept her arms crossed, keeping a few feet of distance between them. She was the leader now, and no matter how much emotional turmoil it was putting her in to see Patsy again, she couldn’t afford to show weakness in the presence of their enemy. Which today, unfortunately, included Patsy. Danni was sure she could see a hint of hurt in her expression before she turned to Jay.

“I thought there were no other survivors?” Patsy’s voice was questioning and uncertain.

“We didn’t find anyone,” Jay said calmly, his eyes drifting from Danni to Ryan. Danni hesitated for a moment. She could try to throw him under the buss, claim they had been left behind when they took Patsy. But she knew that a lie like that could do more damage in the long run if Patsy found her out.

“We escaped before they arrived,” Danni explained, nodding towards the two uniformed men. “We overheard your friend here report that there were no survivors found. I guess we left too soon.”

Jay gave a small nod, seeming to piece together her words with his own memories of that day.

“Yeah, well…it was kind of a shock to realise anyone was still alive in there,” Gale said. Danni’s eyes narrowed slightly as she moved her gaze to him. Something passed over his face as he spoke, a quick glance at Patsy where she was certain she saw his facade break for a brief moment. She almost felt a hint of sympathy for him, but it disappeared quickly. Whatever he had seen that day, he hadn’t used its impact for anything good.

“At least we’re all here now,” Ryan said, giving Patsy a small smile.

“Well, this is all very touching, but could we maybe get down to business?” Lex shot in, interrupting the moment. A few annoyed looks were sent his way, but no protests. There was a lot of scraping of chairs as the Mallrats found their places in the cafe. Patsy, Jay and Gale were shown to the table nearest the stairs. Jay chose to remain standing.

“Sorry we don’t have much to offer in terms of refreshments for our guests,” Danni said with a put-on smile, causing a snort of laughter from Lex. The corner’s of Jay’s lips turned slightly upwards, while Gale openly smirked as he turned around a chair opposite him to put his feet on, taking her little slight as a welcome to get comfortable. Patsy was too busy letting her eyes roam the one place she had called home since the virus to take much notice.

“Firstly, I should inform you that we held a little election earlier, and I am now the acting Mallrat leader,” Danni continued, hoping the slight shaking of her voice went unnoticed by the three Technos. This information caught Patsy’s attention though, and she finally turned her focus to Danni again.

“I suppose congratulations are in order then,” Jay said formally, holding out his hand. Danni eyed it for a moment, a wry smile on her face. It seemed a bit absurd to be so formal and polite given the situation.

“Save it,” she replied, not taking his outstretched hand. He shrugged, and moved back to where he had stood.

“Should we take this to mean Amber and Bray won’t be returning?” Jay asked as he crossed his arms over his chest, standing with his legs wide as he eyed Danni.

“We assume so, we don’t know.” Danni replied quickly, having no intention of betraying them or anyone at the farm to these people. “Ryan, Salene and I only just got back here. No one else has seen them since Ebony banished them from the city.”

Jay nodded, his eyes not leaving hers though they narrowed slightly. He didn’t believe her. But Danni hadn’t expected him to. They were going to have to be very careful to keep Amber and Bray hidden.

May lingered near the door, pretending the laces on her boot needed re-tying. Moz had just given her the nod from the other side of the room. Where she was kneeling she was out of sight both from the door and the main area. It didn’t take long before she heard the commotion. Moz was shouting something, accusing a guard of feeling her up. She had of course rounded up a few more girls who willingly joined in ganging up on the guard. There was a clang as something was toppled over, probably one of the wheelbarrows. Then another. Sure enough, the air began to get a little darker and heavier, full of dust from the fires.

In front of her the door shot open, Code storming out. He moved towards the cloud of smoke, shouting orders. May moved quick as lightning, stopping the heavy door with the tip of her boot before it slammed shut, wincing as the weight of it put pressure on her toes for a second before she got her hands on it. Triumphant she hurried inside, letting it close behind her.

Jay’s eyes had narrowed slightly as Danni put forward their demands. She could practically see his brain cells working, trying to decide how much they could agree to. “Two prisoners for each tribe is too much, especially with siblings as an addition.”

Of course, Danni had suspected he would say that. Still though, she sighed deeply, looking towards the other Mallrats for a moment. Lex snorted loudly, sitting back in his chair and shaking his head, causing Danni to have to hide a smile. A little exaggerated, but at least he was trying to be helpful keeping the act up.

“Okay…one each, two in case of siblings.”

This way, they could ask for both Tally and Andy. Jay would see through that, but there was no need to hide that motivation. She felt bad about May, but there was no way they would convince them to let each tribe have three prisoners. She could ask for it for just them, but that wouldn’t go down well with the other tribes. May was a sacrifice they had to make. She didn’t imagine for a second that May would forgive her for that or be okay with it, but the others had chosen her to be their leader. Tally and Andy were just kids, May could take care of herself. Ellie standing up and walking out wasn’t an act though, she had accused Danni of playing their game when they discussed it, determined to show her disapproval. Great start to her second attempt at leadership.

“If you want those two kids back, we can arrange that easily,” Gale offered, still looking far too relaxed in the home of his enemy.

“We want them all back, colonel,” Danni put emphasis on his title, spitting the word out. “But somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. I have a responsibility to the entire city, it’s not fair for us to just demand ours back because the Nerd Squad Invaders need us to cooperate. That’s what it all boils down to in the end, isn’t it? You need us on your side, because the Mallrats have a certain reputation and respect in this city. You need at least some of us to take those jobs because it will make you look better. Well, these are our conditions. In return you will get a statement from us that we are working with you to get everyone back as quickly as possible, asking for cooperation from the city. You can’t tell me that won’t make your life easier, General.”

She was focused on Jay now. It was obvious he was the one who would take this higher. She saw a glimpse of annoyance on his face, satisfied that she had unsettled the stone-faced general enough to make him drop his guard, even for just a small second.

“Besides, I’m sure we both want to avoid as much blood spilled as possible. You don’t strike me as the blood hungry kind of invaders. You did save Patsy after all.” Danni’s gaze moved towards the younger girl, who for once didn’t look away when one of the Mallrats tried to meet her eyes. Danni was grateful, that was almost the worst thing. These people had just come in here, taken over their city and making demands, forcing them to be used in their propaganda. And yet, Danni was grateful that they hadn’t left Patsy to die. Like that was anything other than basic human decency. But it was the only reason she could see not to outright hate these two men in front of her.

“We want this to go down as peacefully as possible, you are right about that,” Jay agreed, and Danni felt fairly certain he wasn’t lying. As far as she knew, no one had been killed, they had been stunned or taken away. It didn’t make it right of course, but as far as war and invasions went through history, it had been almost gentle. Danni wasn’t sure if that should be comforting or not. If she was honest, it almost made her worry more about what they were capable of.

“Then give us what we need to keep the city happy. Give a little back of what you took, and it might be enough to keep people from rioting.”

Jay watched her for a moment, Danni simply staring back. Next to him, his underling had narrowed his eyes, seeming to want to object but not daring to talk against his superior.

“I can’t authorise the decision to release prisoners. I can’t even be certain that it is logistically possible. If you come with me back to the stadium we can negotiate further there.”

Danni nodded, though a little doubtful. It wasn’t completely unexpected, but she had hoped Jay might have been given a little leeway on his own, that they could get an answer there and then. She had to talk to Ebony anyway though, preferably they could have this all sorted before Ebony’s speech.

“Okay. No point wasting any time, let’s go.” Show no fear, even if she was volunteering to walk into the lion’s den.

“Hey, wait. You’re not going alone!” Ryan insisted, from his spot by the wall. Danni almost smiled at his predictable protectiveness, but she knew it wasn’t ideal to bring Ryan with her. She didn’t want to appear with a bodyguard, or risk Ryan losing his cool at the wrong moment.

“He’s got a point,” Lex shot in. That was less predictable, and Danni raised her eyebrows slightly. He was certainly not protective of her, so what was his agenda? “And as sheriff I think I should be involved in this. It’s about the city’s security after all.”

Ah. Danni smirked slightly. He might have relented the tribe leader spot, but he wasn’t going to back off completely. He did have a point though, and as much as she didn’t like Lex, he wasn’t likely to betray her.

“Okay. Lex will go with me.” She gave Ryan an almost questioning look, and got a nod in reply. She knew he still wasn’t happy about staying behind, but it couldn’t be helped. With Lex gone, the mall needed him there. With these matters settled, Gale and Patsy stood up, and Jay moved towards the stairs.

“Wait…can’t you stay a little while, Patsy? Please?” It was Cloe speaking up, her eyes looking straight at her old friend. “Just to catch up.”

There was a short tense moment as Patsy stood hesitantly halfway between the Mallrats and Jay by the top of the staircase. Danni expected her to say no, but she turned towards Jay with a questioning look on her face, almost as if asking permission.

“You have to be back in an hour, that’s as long as I can give you,” Jay offered. Patsy nodded, still looking uncertain. Though with the face Cloe had put up, Danni could see why she found it hard to say no. That girl was sneakier than she seemed, and Danni had to suppress a smile as she moved towards the stairs herself.

“We can’t leave her here alone,” Gale chimed in, glancing back and forth between Jay and Patsy. Jay raised his eyebrows slightly, looking almost amused that Gale was opposing his decision.

“Then you stay behind with her. Make sure you are both back within the hour.”

Gale nodded, seeming to settle with that. Patsy looked slightly annoyed though. Danni half expected her to blurt out that she wasn’t a child anymore, like she would have back in the day. These days it would ring more true though, she looked so little like a child now. Jay didn’t wait around any longer, he was halfway down the first staircase by the time Danni took the first step down, Lex just behind her.

Cloe didn’t wait many seconds to jump up from her seat, grabbing Patsy’s hand as she passed her, dragging her away from the cafe towards the rooms to the left. Gale moved to follow but Cloe spun around quickly, her hand still around Patsy’s wrist on her good arm.

“You can wait here. We got a lot of talking to do. It’s girl stuff. You wouldn’t get it.”

Gale’s dark eyes narrowed as he tried to stare Cloe down, but she simply stared right back at him. Patsy glanced between them, a hint of a smile on her face.

“Come on, Gale, it’s fine. I used to live here, there’s no trap door to the cage hidden away in the bedrooms.”

“Fine. Ten minutes,” he relented, moving back to his previous chair, slouching down in it as he watched the two girls until they disappeared into Bedding and Furniture. He checked the wristwatch he had on, putting his feet up in the chair Patsy had sat in next to his, looking around at the remaining Mallrats in the cafe.

“Don’t suppose I could get a cup of coffee around here?”

Patch walked down the hallway with his heart beating just a tad faster in his chest. He might be permitted to check on his other patient whenever Ram didn’t need him, but he still kept expecting that privilege to be taken away or to risk his position if Ram found out just how much effort he used up there instead of on solving Ram’s own medical puzzle. As he rounded the last corner before the room, he saw a familiar face waiting for him.

Mick was leaning against the wall, head leaning back and looking up at the ceiling, looking very bored. Patch glanced at his watch, realising he was nearly twenty minutes late. Mick seemed to have heard his footsteps, looking up and sighing in relief.

“Finally. You make me nervous when you’re late.”

A short look passed between the two brothers, but Patch didn’t say anything on it. He was always nervous in this place. So he just shrugged and mumbled an apology, taking the key card out of his pocket as he approached the door. They were only a year apart, and as kids Mick and Patch had often been mistaken for twins, something their mother loved so much she liked to dress them up in the same clothes. Over time they had grown into their own looks, Patch with his glasses and longer blonde hair. Mick kept his hair shorter, normally looking as if he had just rolled out of bed and never bothered looking in the mirror. Which was normally the case. He didn’t wear glasses, and his hair was a little darker than Patch’s. He was only slightly taller than Patch, but his skinny long limbs made him look taller than he was. In style they had varied to, Patch in bright colours while Mick preferred black t-shirts with band logos and slogans. Funnily enough, Patch’s bright green doctor’s coat and Mick’s black Techno uniform mimicked their old styles.

Patch pushed open the door, holding it to let Mick in ahead of him. Mick had his hands shoved in the pockets of his black trousers, his eyes drawn to the bed in the middle of the room instantly. Patch followed his gaze, the skinny pale form on the bed looking much the same as he had for the last few weeks, still lifeless except for the slight rising and falling of his chest. Mick stayed at a safe distance at first, like he always did. Patch got to see him every day, but for Mick it was less of an option. Patch had to set it up every time, and with so much to be arranged in the move, it hadn’t been possible for a while. Patch had been in charge of all the medical gear as well as the patients, and Mick was kept busy helping out with the tech side of things.

It was as if Mick had to get used to seeing their little brother like this all over again each time, while Patch had almost grown numb to it. He moved closer, a gloved hand brushing the faded orange bangs out of his face. He needed a haircut, but Patch wasn’t sure who to ask. Maybe he could get his hair dyed to, so he didn’t have to wake up from his coma without the bright orange and blue hair he had been so proud of.

“Hey, Sammy. Mick is here today. We finally got that arranged. It’s been a busy move.” Patch spoke as if Sammy could hear him, though he wasn’t sure if that was actually the case.

“Move…I love how everyone talks about it as if we just moved houses, rather than invade a city.”

Patch gave Mick a sharp look. He wouldn’t be surprised if Sammy’s room was bugged. But then Patch had grown paranoid in this place. Sometimes he thought he was more paranoid about being watched than Ram was about his health. Mick just shrugged, he didn’t care. He did his job like he was supposed to, he didn’t see a point in pretending to be loyal to Ram. They were here for Sammy, he figured Ram was smart enough to know that, and the pretence was useless.

“Any change?” Mick asked, his eyes locked on Sammy as he finally took a few steps closer, stopping a couple feet from the bed. Patch shook his head.

“No. But we might be making progress on the equipment, so the chances of finding out what’s keeping him in a coma are increasing.” Of course, they were increasing from absolute zero, so it wasn’t much of a chance anyway. But Patch preferred to let Mick think he was being optimistic. Judging from the way Mick looked at him though, he knew he could see right through it. He was used to Patch keeping all his worries to himself, protecting his younger brothers from any concern.

“I can’t stay long. The City Leader woman is holding a speech tonight, Ram wants everything to go without a hitch. Had some trouble with the sound equipment earlier.” Mick sighed, scratching his head.

“Sorry I was delayed, Mick. But now that we’re settled here, it shouldn’t be too far between visits anymore. You’ll see him again soon.”

Mick nodded, taking a step closer as he reached out to ruffle Sammy’s hair affectionately. “Miss you, little guy. You better wake up soon, you lazy rascal.”

Patch couldn’t help but smile, though it only lasted for a moment. Mick was struggling to keep his emotions in check, his expression changing between anger and grief. Patch knew he blamed the Technos for all of this, that he didn’t trust a single member of their tribe apart from Patch. The Technos had appeared as their saviours, but the two brothers had never really been fooled. It had been pure coincidence that Patch and Mick hadn’t been at their tribe’s HQ outside the city when it was attacked, leaving Sammy behind unconscious and the two other members of the Wrecking Crew missing. A Techno squad had appeared, claiming they were chasing what was left of the Chosen, that they hadn’t been in time to stop them.

The Techno in charge of the group, Page, had told them they had medical supplies to help Sammy recover. Mick and Patch had seen no choice but to accept and go with them. Soon enough it had become clear that to keep Sammy under treatment, they had to join them. They were supposed to be grateful, but as Mick had pointed out back then, what weapons did the Chosen have that left a kid unconscious without a scratch on him? No blood, no cuts, no bruises, no sign of toxins or poison. The only weapons they knew that could do something like that, were the Technos’ zappers.

Cloe didn’t let go of Patsy’s arm until they were inside the room. With everyone else in the cafe, even the strange quiet girl, it was the safest place to take Patsy. Patsy waited, looking at her questioningly to find out exactly what she had been dragged in there for.

“You have to promise to be quiet,” Cloe said, making Patsy suspicious but she nodded. Cloe was hardly going to do something that put Patsy in any danger, so why not?

“Okay,” Cloe nodded to herself and turned around towards the counter. “You can come out now.”

Patsy frowned, feeling worried and curious at the same time. But she didn’t have a long time for either, before Bray stood up behind the counter. Patsy stared at him wide-eyed for a moment, though she recovered quickly from the shock.

“Should have guessed you guys were lying. You do know where they are.” She crossed her arms over her chest, looking at Cloe with a smirk on her face.

“I should have been long gone by now, but…I couldn’t resist saying hi.” Bray stepped out from behind the counter, taking a few steps towards them.

“Really? Didn’t seem that important when you left me with the Chosen for that long.” Patsy turned her attention back to him. Bray nearly winced, his smile stiffening though not disappearing.

“You to, huh? I guess I’m lucky Ryan isn’t mad at me.” He grimaced, knowing that wasn’t entirely the case. He was pretty certain Ryan was mad at him for coming back to the Mall with them, and he would be even angrier if he found out what Bray was doing now, but at least he still hadn’t told him off for leaving him with the Chosen.

“It’s Ryan. As long as you’re not the Guardian, you’re good,” Patsy returned.

Bray chuckled lightly, daring to get a few steps closer. “Do I get a hug, or…?”

Patsy hesitated, her sassy attitude seeming to disappear as she nodded. Bray put his arms around her, hugging her for a couple seconds before letting go.

“You’ve really grown,” he commented as he stepped back, causing both Cloe and Patsy to roll their eyes.

“They’re always so surprised at that,” Cloe commented, looking towards Patsy who gave a small smile as she nodded.

“And we who told them for so long we’re not kids anymore. Guess they’re starting to believe us, huh?” Patsy returned, causing Cloe’s smile to widen.

For a short moment they almost forgot everything around this little reunion. It was the first time since she had put her Techno uniform on that Patsy truly wanted to be out of it. When she had first been offered a role in the tribe she had said yes almost without hesitation. She had lost faith in the Mallrats, and she was scared of her own shadow. The Technos had seemed so safe and strong, indestructible. Wearing the uniform had made her feel safe for the first time in so long, as if it was a shield. Now it just felt like a barrier, keeping her from these people she had trusted with her life once. But how had that worked out for her? She had a scar on her face, a broken arm she was starting to fear might never heal properly, and barely a night went by where nightmares didn’t keep her up. It had felt so safe at the mall, but it hadn’t been, had it? She just had to look in a mirror to know that.

“Why did you really want to see me?” Patsy’s smile had faded, she was putting on her face again, the one that showed no expression, that didn’t betray anything. It would be hard to hold on to, but she had let down her guard, been careless now that she was back inside the mall. Bray studied her for a moment, exchanging a glance with Cloe before he spoke.

“I’ve missed you, and we thought you were dead. I needed to see you. And Amber…she wants to see you to. She wants you to meet the baby.”

Patsy stared at him, her guard threatening to drop again. Amber. She would love to see Amber again. Things had been good when Amber was around. Though, again, it hadn’t helped Patsy that she came back to life, had it? Amber and Bray had been there to defeat the Chosen in the city, but none of them came for Patsy.

“I don’t know…” Patsy hesitated. She knew she should be saying no. Actually, she should be running out of there to alert Gale that someone was in the building that they didn’t know about. But she didn’t. She couldn’t help it, she did want to see Amber and the baby.

“I don’t want to put them in danger, its important that Ebony doesn’t find out where they are. And I guess, your leader to. I can trust you, right, Patsy? If I tell you where they are, and you find a way to come see us, we will leave the city again and stay out, that’s a promise.”

Patsy chewed on her lower lip, her eyes moving from Bray to Cloe. This seemed like a dangerous idea, part of her suspected a trap. Would Amber really want to see her that much, to risk her own and her baby’s safety? Would Bray be willing to do that? Part of her wanted to believe it, but it seemed strange. Yet, whatever was wrong, they wouldn’t hurt her. She did still believe that.

“Okay. But then you have to leave. I can’t protect you.”

Bray nodded, a smile on his face as he exchanged a quick glance with Cloe. Her face was an even wider smile, and although Patsy knew then they were up to something, she felt certain there was nothing menacing in it.

Danni kept a couple steps behind Jay as they made their way through the second security barrier on their way towards the Phoenix Hotel. Lex stayed even further behind, the scowl on his face making it obvious to anyone he wasn’t hanging out with the Techno. Once they were out of reach of the Techno soldiers, Jay turned towards her, a slightly amused look on his face as he glanced from her to Lex and back to her.

“You don’t want to be seen walking next to me, do you?”

Danni glanced to the sides. The city might look empty, but she’d catch sight of faces in the windows of abandoned buildings or shadows in alleyways, disappearing quickly as someone turned towards them or got closer. She didn’t want to be seen walking alongside the invading tribe’s general, he was right about that. Nor did she want him to think they were on friendly terms.

“Would you want to, in my position?”

“Probably not,” Jay admitted with a smirk.

He stayed quiet after that, seemingly accepting that Danni had no intention of making small talk. She caught him glancing back at them a few times though, maybe to make sure they was still there. Danni did her best to make sure she betrayed no sign of nerves or fear, not to him, Lex or to the Technos opening the doors for them as they approached the hotel.

May smirked in triumph when she realised the almighty Code had stormed out of there without shutting his computer off. On the screen was a roster, times and dates, each shift listed under Crew and by number. They were Crew 4, she had heard them been addressed as that. She couldn’t resist clicking on it, realising each mention led you to a list of members. The basic list was simple, a small thumbnail of a photo that did not exactly show May at her best on the day she had been brought here, next to her name and tribe. Mallrats. She grimaced, not sure if she objected to that or not. There was no time to ponder questions of where she belonged though, and she clicked her name to her own profile. There was more info than she had expected, and something turned in her stomach when she realised just how much these people had on them.

Her last name, she hadn’t even told anyone after the virus what it was. That she had been in foster care. Her birth parents’ names. That she had joined the Chosen, but was “probably not a believer”. There was an own section titled “RISK STATUS”, and May wasn’t sure if she should be offended at only being a “moderate risk”, even if there was an added note to carefully assess whether to up her status to high risk.

“Yeah, maybe you should,” she huffed as she clicked her way back to the list, going onto Moz’s profile. She was high risk, written in bold red letters that May half expected to start blinking. She clicked on the tribe name. There was a whole list of other Mozzies, some of them with a simple crew number, others with abbreviations to their names that May didn’t understand. She grabbed a piece of paper and a pen, scribbling them down quickly. She wasn’t exactly eager to help Moz, but she had a feeling this could earn her a favour or two. The Mallrats one wasn’t a link that led anywhere, much to her frustration. May was tempted to check the other crews for familiar names, to find Tally’s and maybe look for Andy. But there was no time to go through them all, not if she wanted to see what else she could find.

She managed to find a document folder, opening each one that seemed even remotely interesting, making sure to close them all to not leave any obvious traces. Most of it she didn’t understand, a bunch of orders and codes that made no sense to her. It wasn’t until she found a map of the city that anything caught her interest; a list of sectors in order with dates and times that she suddenly realised was a plan on how to turn on electricity in the city. So that’s what they were for, treated as slaves to light up the city again. That seemed significant enough to bring back to Moz, and this was as long as she dared to stay in here. Just as she closed down the latest file she had open, only just remembering to return to what had been on the screen, the door handle began to move. She had waited too long.

title from “Where the lonely ones roam” by Digital Daggers.

Lex was staring daggers at the Technos passing him by as he waited in the lobby, not worrying about repercussions considering their general had led him in here, even left a guard to keep an eye on him. He had hoped to be a part of the meeting, to be able to size up Ebony if nothing else. But General Blondie had insisted he meet up with some lieutenant who was in charge of security and who he’d need to work with to continue on as Sheriff. And he wasn’t going to give that up so easily. He puffed out his chest a little, making the sheriff’s badge a little more visible to the Technos milling around the lobby.

The Techno that finally stopped in front of him, almost made his jaw drop. Instead of the baggy trousers most of her tribe were wearing, she was in leather pants and knee-high boots, but still wearing the lycra top and the T logo painted on her forehead. Her outfit looked something like a catsuit, and hid absolutely nothing despite showing next to no skin. Her dark brown hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, no loose strands of hair in sight, and her red-painted lips were curved into a smirk when Lex obviously couldn’t avoid checking her out. Something about the look on her face screamed danger, and Lex straightened himself up quickly. Fingers hooked into belt hoops, legs wide and head held high. He couldn’t show fear to this chick. He was about to confirm that she was the lieutenant, fixing his eyes on her face when they both froze for a moment.

“Lex?” The surprise only showed for a fraction of a second, before her expression turned blank again. She crossed her arms over her chest, hip to the side as her critical gaze took in his appearance.

“Jamie…wow, that’s…a long time.” Lex didn’t hide his surprise, though he smirked as her eyes landed on the star on his chest.

“Subtle,” she commented dryly, his expression fading a bit. “It’s Page now. Lieutenant Page. Don’t call me Jamie.” It wasn’t a request. He had a feeling she might actually hurt him if he called her Jamie in front of these people, judging by the way she seemed to check no one was overhearing them.

“It’s important to be visible out on the streets,” he immediately defended himself, narrowing his eyes at the snort coming from her. “But fine. Page it is.”

He studied her again for a moment, it was strange how different she looked to the raggedy bushy-haired girls he had known back in the day, though the way she held herself and the cold eyes had given away that it was her and not her sister. She always had that hard look about her, her sister had been a lot nicer. Was she a Techno to? Lex couldn’t imagine she wasn’t. Jamie never left her side, protected her like a wild bear with her cub. Which was why she was the only girl who had beaten Lex up, after he tried to feel up her sister. He wouldn’t tell anyone about that any time soon though. He tried to imagine two of them, identical twins, in those tight-fitting Techno outfits but knew he couldn’t afford to get distracted with that kind of image right now so he pushed it aside. Later maybe. What Tai-San didn’t know…

“Your sister around here to? Can I say hi?” He asked, more eager to meet the kinder and softer Jane. The change on Page’s face was subtle, something dark passing in her eyes, her mask breaking for a brief moment. He half expected her to punch him and tell him to stay away from her sister, but she barely acknowledged his question.

“No, you can’t. Let’s get down to business, shall we? I don’t have any time to waste.”

“Not even for old friends?” Lex put on his best grin, but Page only raised an eyebrow in response.

“Friends? Don’t kid yourself. We were in the same foster home for a while, that’s all,” she replied as she motioned for him to follow her to the other side of the lobby.

“Wow, you’re just as warm and caring as I remember you,” Lex rolled his eyes as he walked behind her, his eyes only drifting to her backside for a very brief moment. She didn’t deem his snarky reply worthy of response as she sat down in the small seating group, not wasting another moment as she started to fill him in on her team and their routines before he had even sat down.

“Wait, 6 am? I’ve barely gone to bed at 6!” He looked at her incredulously, wondering just how inhumane these people were.

“That’s when we start, sheriff. Meeting at 6 to go through the day’s roster, handing out assignments and discussing any issues from the day before.”

She was repeating it like a rehearsed line, which he was starting to find was the norm for these people. Lex sighed, but shrugged in acceptance. When to start work in the morning wasn’t really the fight to pick at this point, though he could already imagine KC’s face when he told him. And Dee’s when he put her in charge of making sure he and KC got their asses out of bed in time. He almost chuckled to himself, but Page kept talking and he had to focus to keep up.

Patsy’s head was reeling when she left Cloe and Bray behind and walked back to the cafe. She was going to sneak off, to see Amber. It was dangerous enough to sneak off for anything Ram hadn’t told her to, but doing it to meet up with her old friends…he would definitely see it as treason, might even kick her out. Or worse. But she was still going to do it, even though she knew Bray and Cloe had some kind of agenda with it. She stopped as she neared the seating area, eyebrows raised as she took in the scene in front of her.

Ryan stood with his arms crossed, leaning against the wall and glaring daggers at Gale. Gale was still seated at the table, legs up on another chair. KC sat at the next table, him also glaring at Gale. Everyone else seemed to have taken off, but these two weren’t taking their eyes off him. An amused smirk appeared on her face as she got nearer, hearing that Gale was half humming, half singing to himself. She had noticed before that he did that to conceal it when he was nervous, and she couldn’t blame him for that given the tension in the room.

“Finally. I was seconds away from coming to get you,” Gale sighed as he sat up, dropping his feet to the floor and near jumping up from his chair. Patsy rolled her eyes at him, stopping at the top of the stairs as Ryan approached her.

“Don’t be a stranger, okay?” He said softly, and Patsy nodded. “Even in that uniform, you’re always welcome here. Just…maybe it would be better if you could come alone.” The look in Gale’s direction was pretty obvious. Patsy raised her eyebrows as she glanced over at him. Gale simply rolled his eyes as he moved past them and started on the stairs.

“I’ll try,” she told Ryan. It was the best she could promise. She hesitated for a moment before she stepped closer, giving him a hug. She felt a little disappointed that Salene and Jack weren’t there to see her off. Maybe they couldn’t stand to look at her. The thought was enough to make her turn away quickly, not wanting Ryan to look too closely at her. KC hadn’t moved, and Patsy only sent a quick glance in his direction, realising it was difficult to even face him for too long.

Patsy caught up with Gale at the bottom of the staircase, the phoenix statue seeming to tower ahead of them. She could hear sounds from a couple of the rooms, wondering briefly who was hiding out where as she avoided Gale’s searching stare. She had almost forgotten what she had promised Patch, and Ram’s thinly veiled threat.

“Can you wait a minute, Gale? There’s someone else I need to talk to.”

Gale glanced at his watch, sighing. “Make it quick, we don’t wanna get in trouble. Ram thinks anyone is slacking off so soon after settling, he’ll make an example of us.”

Patsy nodded, not really needing another reason to worry about Ram. If she could convince Jack, she would at least have good news to bring back. She headed for the workshop, hearing the sounds of someone moving around in there. Jack was still Jack, she knew she’d find him there. She half expected to find Ellie in there with him, ranting about her or the Technos in general, but Jack was alone. He looked up, unable to hide the surprise on his face when he saw her.

“You looking for someone?” He asked, a mix of hostility and uncertainty in his voice.

“You, actually…” she hesitated, taking a couple steps inside. “Wow, it looks different in here. You changed things.”

Jack made a noise that sounded almost like a laugh. “Well, the Chosen made a mess of it, so I didn’t have much of a choice unless I wanted to live in rubble.”

“Oh right…they were good at that. Making a mess of things.” Absentmindedly she touched her damaged arm with her good one, both of them falling silent for a moment as Jack continued to work on some device she didn’t recognise.

“What did you want?” His voice seemed softer all of a sudden, though he wasn’t looking at her.

“It’s about the job you’ve been offered. I know I’m probably not someone you trust these days, but…I really think you should take it. I know who you’ll be working with. Patch. He’s a doctor, he’s doing a lot of work on medication and medical equipment. You would be a great help with that. Just imagine having a proper hospital, we won’t be able to do that without a scientist.”

Jack was still avoiding her eyes, though from the slowing pace of his hands as he fiddled with whatever machinery it was in front of him, she knew she had gotten through to him.

“Patch asked me to tell you he’d be honoured to work with you. He’s a nice guy. He just wants to do good.” She smiled slightly. “He reminds me a bit of Dal, actually, running around with his medical bag…” Okay, that was low, but Jack definitely glanced her way, and there was no anger or annoyance in his face.

“What kind of medical equipment?”

Patsy tried to keep herself from smiling too widely, she knew she had him on the hook when he was asking questions. “I don’t know what most of it is called, but I know there’s an x-ray machine he’s trying to fix, medication he’s trying to make. He’d be able to tell you a lot more. If you don’t wanna say yes right away, you could at least come see him, and he can explain it to you. Come by tomorrow, he’d be happy to fill you in on what he’s doing.”

Jack hesitated for a moment, finally looking at her, before he nodded. “Okay, I’ll come by tomorrow.”

“Great,” Patsy gave him a relieved smile. “I’ll let them know so they’ll let you in. You won’t regret it, Jack.”

“Oh, I probably will,” she heard Jack mumble, but as he was turning back to his work she decided not to push any further. He’d said yes to see Patch, that was all she needed.

The old meeting room at the hotel was quiet, a tense sort of quiet as Ebony and Danni sat on opposite sides of the table, eyeing each other carefully.

“Do you and Amber have some kind of shift arrangement? One of you disappears, and the other one shows up?” Ebony asked, a smirk on her face that was supposed to show amusement, as if it was a light joke, but Danni could tell she was angry. Though Ebony had been given back her old wardrobe and make-up, something about her was off. Danni could have sworn it was fear, but that seemed unlikely.

“Disappear? From what I’ve been told, Amber didn’t disappear, Ebony. You banished her. And I was taken away by the Chosen, if you had forgotten about them.”

“I wish I could,” Ebony remarked as she leaned back in her chair, a quick glance in the direction of Jay, who sat at the end of the table, looking between them in silence.

“For once we have something in common,” Danni replied quickly, a smirk on her face as she met Ebony’s gaze.

“Let’s not get used to it, Danni. I have a feeling it won’t happen often.”

Danni smirked lightly, unable to argue with that. “I don’t know if the general told you-”

“You can call me Jay,” he interrupted, speaking for the first time since the guards had led Ebony into the room.

“I prefer general,” Danni bit back, turning her attention back to Ebony. “We’re trying to make a deal with them, to release one prisoner for each tribe. Two in the case of siblings.”

“In return for our cooperation,” Ebony caught on quickly. “What do you need me for?”

“You’re City Leader, and still a Mallrat. Surprisingly enough. We heard about your speech tonight.”

Ebony glanced quickly at Jay again, something in her eyes betraying that it hadn’t exactly been her idea. Danni felt a surprising twinge of sympathy for Ebony. She looked alright on the surface, but beneath the clothes and make-up she didn’t look quite like the warrior queen Danni remembered. She had no doubt Ebony would betray them all for her own good without hesitation, but she was under a lot of pressure. She wasn’t running the show here, that was more than obvious.

“You want me to spread the good news?” Ebony asked as her gaze returned to Danni.

“Yes. And to find a way to inform the city that the Mallrats are cooperating with the Technos that won’t make them angry with us.” Danni tried not to show any nerves, though she hated having to ask Ebony for help. Even as a prisoner, she held too much power.

“Easier said than done,” Ebony looked straight back at her, shrugging her shoulders.

“I’ve seen you speak to a crowd before, Ebony.” Danni smiled wryly, remembering all too well how Ebony had managed to hold off a mob just with her presence. “If anyone can sell that to them, it’s you.”

In the corner of her eye, Danni noticed Jay’s expression changing slightly. Curiosity, if she was reading him right in the way he was looking at Ebony now. And a hint of admiration. Danni wouldn’t be surprised if he was transfixed by the other girl in no time. She almost wanted to warn him, but really, if Ebony did get the Techno general to fall for her, it could be an advantage.

“What do I get out of it?” Ebony asked, a smirk on her face at Danni’s praise. If you could call it that. She couldn’t deny Ebony had the charisma she had always lacked herself when it came to these things.

“You get to free your citizens, City Leader.” Danni couldn’t help the slightly acid tone to her voice when she called Ebony by her title. Having Ebony even ask that question felt like an insult. What did she get out of it, really? Danni had a few choice words to throw her way, but she needed Ebony on their side. She took a deep breath. “You get to be the face that set these people free, that’s what you get, Ebony.”

Ebony’s smirk grew. She had known of course, she just wanted Danni to say it out loud, that Ebony was getting the credit for her work.

“Are we in agreement then?” Jay shot in, seeming a little impatient.

Danni and Ebony stared at each other for a moment, before Ebony gave a slight nod. Danni turned towards Jay, giving him the go ahead. He stood up, giving a signal to the guards at the door. Instantly they moved over to stand behind Ebony’s chair. When she didn’t immediately get up, one of them reached out to grab her arm.

“Don’t touch me,” she sneered, pulling her arm from his grasp as she stood up.

The guard simply looked towards Jay, who gave him a quick signal and the guard backed off. Even so, they both followed close behind her as Ebony made her way towards the doors. She sent Danni one last look, a defiant glare telling her not to dare feel sorry for her before she marched out of the room with her head held high. Danni couldn’t help thinking it, there was something admirable about the way Ebony was handling this.

“So this is where you’re hiding.”

Luke turned around, a small smile on his face at the sound of Ellie’s voice. “Not hiding, just…enjoying the view,” he tried to claim, but Ellie simply raised her eyebrows at him for a moment before taking a few steps closer.

“You’re not planning to jump, are you?” Her gaze moved towards the edge of the roof just in front of him. Was there concern in her voice or was that wishful thinking?

“I’m not that desperate to run from my problems. Yet.” He tried to make it a lighthearted joke, but she didn’t laugh. Or even crack a smile. Ellie crossed her arms over her chest, keeping a safe distance between them.

“Patsy’s leaving now, so you can come back inside if you want.”

Luke opened his mouth, about to object to the idea that he had been avoiding the younger girl, but he knew Ellie would see right through it. He had told himself it wouldn’t help anything if Patsy knew he was here, especially since he didn’t know if he was staying, that it might just make it harder for the Mallrats to get through to her if she knew lieutenant Luke of the Chosen was still hanging around the place. But if he was honest, he didn’t want to face her. She must really hate him. So he simply nodded in response, turning his head back around so he could see the road beneath them. Sure enough, Patsy was soon walking out of there with another Techno. Even from this distance the sight of her made his heart sink. This was his fault, that she had ended up where she had, so distanced from her old friends. Joining another invading force. He kept his eyes on the two Technos until they were out of sight, sighing almost inaudibly.

“Are you gonna get your heart bent all out of shape over her to?”

Luke was startled, not having realised Ellie had moved to stand next to him. Luckily he was a couple steps from the edge or she might have sent him over. “What?”

“Ryan, Salene, Danni, Bray…they all seem to be tripping over their own guilt for whatever they think their share of the blame is with her, and Cloe just looks like a hurt puppy. At least KC has the sense to be mad at her. She made her own choice, you know. I’m not saying no one made any mistakes, but we didn’t push her to this. She had a choice.”

Luke was quiet for a moment, turning towards her. “Like I had a choice, when I joined the Chosen.”

Ellie sighed, shrugging lightly. “Yes. And you also had a choice when you walked away from it, to help defeat them instead.” She paused for a moment, her expression turning harder again. “Walking away is something you’re good at I guess.”

Luke looked down, at first intending to let her comment hit him without giving anything back but then he changed his mind.

“I’m good at coming back to,” he smiled tentatively. To his surprise, a small smile appeared on Ellie’s face to, though she hid it quickly. “I saw that. And here I thought it would take at least a week to see you smile at me again.”

“Yeah well, don’t read too much into it. It doesn’t mean anything.” She narrowed her eyes at him, but the hard look was gone.

“It means everything.” The words fell out before he could stop himself, and were followed by a tense silence.

“Anyway…inside is safe again, that’s what I came out here to tell you.” Ellie turned away, and started heading back towards the door. Luke hesitated for only a couple seconds, before he followed after her.

Lex’s mind was reeling with all the information that had been thrown at him in the last fifteen minutes or so.

“I’d offer to write it down for you, but…” Page smirked as Lex only glared in response. Back in the pre-virus days she had been one of very few people who knew he couldn’t read, and it hadn’t been by choice. She had figured it out on her own, watching him struggle with his school books. Jane had of course taken pity on him, even tried helping him learn how to read. It had been a good way to get close to her, but Page had put a stop to that.

“I’ll be fine,” Lex retorted, determined to not forget the details of times and protocols she had listed off. On the other end of the room he saw Danni and Jay appearing from the hallway and into the lobby, so he stood up, drawing Page’s attention to it.

“Lieutenant,” Jay greeted her with a sharp nod. “Meeting go alright?”

“Yes, general.” Page replied quickly, almost automatically. “6 am sharp, Lexy. See you then.” She moved away, down the hall where Danni and Jay had just come from. The sway to her hips made it clear she knew Lex was watching her walk away. Danni rolled her eyes as he made no attempt to hide it. Even Jay had what might pass for a slightly amused smirk on his face.

“Careful with that one,” he commented. “Her bite is worse than her bark.”

Lex raised his eyebrows. “Speaking from experience, general?”

There was definitely an amused look on Jay’s face now, as Danni glanced between them, starting to lose her patience.
“No, sheriff.”

“Yeah, okay.” Lex wasn’t sure he bought that. “Anyway, Page and me, we go way back. Is her sister around here to?”

Jay frowned. “Sister? She doesn’t have a sister.”

Lex mirrored his frown for a moment, Page’s face flashing through his mind when he mentioned Jane to her. Crap. If Jay didn’t know about Jane, that meant something bad. It was no wonder Jamie had become an even colder version of herself in Page, if Jane wasn’t around.

“Oh, wait, never mind. It was the other one who had a sister.”

“The other one?” Danni asked.

“Another foster sister.” Lex clamped his mouth shut, having said more than he intended to. He didn’t talk about his pre-virus life, it was another lifetime.

“Anyway…we should get back,” Danni changed the subject quickly, a small glance at Lex before turning towards Jay. He was watching Lex, not looking entirely convinced at his story. But at her words he turned towards Danni instead, giving a nod.

“We have computers set up around the city connected to the new CityNet. Your resident computer tech should be able to set it up at the mall for you if you want to see the speech from there. Of course, you’re also welcome to turn up at the square with us.”

“We’ll see,” Danni replied sharply, turning towards the exit. Lex followed her, both of them keeping quiet until they were outside.

“They’re not following us back?” Lex asked, eyeing the guards who watched them closely, but made no move to follow.

“They’ve got us where they want us, what’s the point? Besides, I think they have cameras all over the place already. On the way out we walked past a room just as someone was walking in, I saw lots of surveillance screens, just a glimpse but they definitely have most of the city covered.”

Lex made a face, not liking the sound of that. Danni watched him curiously for a moment as they rounded the corner, out of sight from the hotel.

“Any chance this Page is likely to be seduced and give up her secrets to you?”

Lex knew she was joking, although he had a feeling she would seriously consider that plan. “Seduce, sure. Giving up her secrets, I doubt it.” Danni rolled her eyes in response, and Lex smirked. “Besides, I’m a happily married man now.”

Danni snorted. “Well, I’ll give you that much, your marriage has lasted a lot longer than I thought it would back at the wedding.”

“That almost sounded like a compliment, Danni. You going soft?”

Danni gave him a warning look.

“Anyway, I think you have a better shot at that plan. I think you’ve got the General’s attention. Boss your way into his bed, and he might give up some secrets.” Lex was grinning at his own joke, enjoying the horrified look on Danni’s face, that quickly turned to annoyance.

“Oh, come off it, Lex.”

“No, seriously. Inviting you to watch the speech with him, and he was still standing there looking when we walked out, probably checking you out.”

“Maybe he was checking you out,” Danni bit back, smirking as it was now Lex’s turn to look horrified.

“Dammit!” Ryan almost growled as the plate slipped from his hand and broke in pieces on the floor. With a sigh he wiped water and soap from his hands before he leaned down and started picking up the bigger pieces. He heard the sound of someone rushing towards the kitchen, looking up as Salene stopped in the entryway.

“You okay?” She smiled softly, grabbing the dustpan and brush and handing them to him.

“Yeah, just distracted,” he shrugged, shuffling the pieces of what had once been a plate onto the dustpan.

“I didn’t see that Techno guy around, so I take it he and Patsy left…” Salene’s voice wavered off as she moved to find the trashbin, bringing that over to him as well.

“Yeah, a few minutes ago. I thought I’d do the dishes since no one else is likely to volunteer. And uh, I needed something to do.” With the shards disposed off, he stood up, glancing at his hand and seeing red. “Oh, crap.”

Salene instantly moved to action, taking his hand and examining the cut. “I don’t think it’s very deep,” she said simply, holding onto his hand gently, but firmly, as she moved towards the kitchen cupboard, Ryan having no choice but to follow. She put some water on a kitchen towel, cleaning up the blood to get a closer look.

“You don’t have to do that. It’s just a small cut.” He felt very aware of the fact that they were practically holding hands.

“Isn’t that what we do, take care of each other?” Salene looked up, something almost challenging in her gaze. He forced himself to not look away.

“I-I guess.”

“I’ll just put a band-aid on it,” she said quickly, reaching for the small supply kept in the kitchen. She seemed to take extra care in putting it on, Ryan was pretty certain she was doing it on purpose.

“You know I could do that myself, right?” He asked, raising his eyebrows slightly.

“Yes,” she looked up at him again, a small smile on her face. “But if I do it, it might keep you from running away from me at least a little longer.”

Ryan felt his face heat up. “I don’t run away from you.”

“You sort of do. But nevermind,” she sighed, finally letting go of his hand. “You’re all patched up and ready to go.”

Ryan didn’t move at first, clearing his throat. “Uh, yeah…I should finish those dishes.”

Salene glanced over at the pile next to the sink. “You can’t do the dishes with a band-aid on your hand, it will fall off.” Ryan opened his mouth, about to suggest wearing gloves if they still had any lying around, when Salene found her own solution. “I’ll do the washing, you do the drying.” She grabbed a clean kitchen towel, throwing it over to him as she took the spot he had before she walked in. He could tell from her body language that there was no point objecting, so he moved to stand next to her, taking the dripping wet plate she handed him. For a few moments they worked in silence, several plates put back clean and dry into place before either of them spoke.

“Do you think we’ll get her back?” It was Salene who broke the silence. Ryan didn’t ask who she meant, it was pretty obvious who was on the forefronts of both their minds.

“I don’t know. She’s alive, that’s the most important thing right now.”

Salene nodded, handing him a bowl. “We should keep an eye on Cloe. I’m worried what she might do. Well, her and KC. I saw them whispering earlier. If she puts herself in danger to get to Patsy…”

“I could have a word with KC, make sure he knows better than to drag her into any scheme of his.”

Salene smiled slightly. “I’m not sure he’s the one to worry about. Cloe is capable of doing the scheming herself. Maybe we should talk to her, together.”

Ryan hesitated but looked up, meeting her eyes. “Yeah, I guess we could do that. If nothing else, if she’s up to something and tells us, we could help.”

The small smile stayed on Salene’s face as she handed Ryan the last of the plates. “Always out to protect your girls, huh?”

A hint of a blush crept up on his cheeks as he shrugged. “It’s what I do,” he said, returning the smile.

“Does that still include me?” The question came out before she could stop herself, and Salene closed her eyes for a second. Did she really have to go and make it awkward again? At least he hadn’t run off yet.

“Always.” The answer came quickly, and for a brief moment their eyes were locked on each other before Ryan turned away, starting to put the last things back in their places. Salene almost wondered if she had imagined his answer, but she knew she hadn’t.

”Thanks for the help,” Ryan mumbled, suddenly very interested in the band-aid on his hand to make sure it wasn’t falling off.

“No worries,” she replied almost automatically, a little frustrated that he was back to not looking at her, putting a distance between them. “Be more careful next time, we don’t have a lot of plates to spare. And we only have the one Ryan.” She wouldn’t let him get away with it though, taking a step closer. Before he could react or move away, she gently kissed him on the cheek and moved away herself. Ryan watched her with his mouth slightly open, obviously surprised by her move.

“I’ll go check on Cloe, make sure she’s alright after seeing Patsy.”

“Okay…” Ryan cleared his throat. “I’ll uh, go talk to Jack. See if he’s getting anywhere with the alarm thing.”

Salene nodded, having to bite her lower lip to keep herself from grinning too widely as he walked out of the cafe.

May covered her mouth with her hand, hoping that would cover up the sound of her breathing. It was lucky the Technos had only just moved in. Code’s office was full of boxes of equipment and computer stuff, from what May could tell of those that were open. She was crouched down behind a stack of them, trying to stop herself from shaking too hard. Code had been mostly silent since he walked in, only getting a few reports on the trouble being sorted, sending out a couple orders. All May could hear was him typing away at his computer. A beeping noise sounded, Code pressed a button and suddenly spoke again.

“Mega. What can I do you for?”

“The Mallrats have agreed to our terms.”

May’s eyes widened at the name of her tribe. Agreed to their terms? That had to be Lex’s doing, or Ebony’s. She dared to move just slightly, enough to peek through a tiny gap between the boxes. From the side she could see part of the screen on Code’s computer, and the guy named Mega he was talking to on a video feed. Did that mean they had internet? The thought near freaked her out, who were these people? How were they doing this?

“Just like that?” Code chuckled, leaning back in his chair. The face on the screen remained the same. May almost wondered if it was a virtual image or something, when he finally moved, talking to someone off screen, in too low a voice for her to hear it. He waited a few seconds, before turning his attention back to Code.

“No, they had their demands of course. As expected.”

“They want their friends back.” Code was already hitting some buttons on the keyboard, the very program May had been in coming up next to the video feed. “I know I have two Mallrats here…”

“They only want one. They made a deal for all the tribes, they all get to pick a member to come home. Two if siblings have been taken. It’s their way of making sure the kids, Tally and Andy, can both come home.”

Code went quiet for a moment, opening up a different window and pushing more buttons. Suddenly an image of a frightened looking Andy popped up, large bold letters stating DELETED across it. “Well, that looks like a problem.”

“Yes. He was sent to the wrong program. Got his system fried.”

May had to cover her mouth to keep from making a sound. Those brats had been annoying as hell, but Andy got his system fried? Deleted? She wasn’t exactly sure what any of it meant, but it certainly wasn’t good. He was just a little kid.

“Ouch. Ah well, what’s one more virt?” Code shrugged, leaning back again.

“Not much. But it gives us a problem. They want both kids back, we only have the one.”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something. Aren’t you a genius, Mega?” Code was smirking at the screen.

“Yes. It will be fixed.”

May felt more scared than ever, realising just how low these people would stoop. It might sound like Andy had been an accident, but neither Code or this Mega guy sounded very sorry. She leaned back, not wanting to see them anymore, though she had to listen.

“Oh, Code…you should know, a Mozzie escaped.”

“What? No way!”

“Yes. Naturally, she joined forces with the Mallrats. They are demanding a member returned for her tribe to.”

“Let me guess, the queen bitch. Ah well, she might be nice to look at but she’s causing trouble already.”

“No, actually the Mozzie, Dee I think her name is, requested someone else. A Lottie.”

More buttons pushed on the keyboard. An image of a very young girl staring defiantly into the camera appeared on the screen.

“Yup, got her.” Code laughed in amusement. “That’s gotta be a blow to the leader. Picking a little brat over her. These virts are dumber than a piece of bread. Why would you not get your leader released when you can?”

“Sentimentality. Virts are full of it. If there’s a child involved, it’s all they care about. Get transport ready for first thing in the morning. The City Leader is holding a speech in a few minutes. The requests for release will start coming in not long after. I have another camp to contact to get them prepared. Just make sure at least Tally and Lottie are on the way here first thing. Tally especially needs some serious work to convince people her brother is alive and well.”

“Alright. What about the other Mallrat, May?”

“They were offered all theirs freed. No Mallrats were supposed to be taken in the first place. But they just asked for the kids.”

Code chuckled at that, making another comment about the stupidity of virts before Mega finished the call. Code was immediately on the headset, sending out orders. The words became blurred to May as she tried to make sense of all she had just heard. Andy was dead, she felt certain of that. They were going to do something to Tally that she knew couldn’t be good, although she would be sent home. And the Mallrats had the offer to save her, but didn’t take it. May clenched her fists, feeling her nails digging into her skin as she did. She didn’t care, it was the only way to keep herself from crying.

And this is the new chapter. I’m pretty sure at least that this never got posted on the old site, though I did publish it on Ao3. Not sure how long it will take me to get another chapter done after this, but hopefully not too long!


Danni let out a sigh as the CityNet logo came back on, Ebony’s face and the cheering crowd disappearing. The few members of the tribe staying at the mall were gathered in the cafe, around the computer Jack had gotten set up last minute, after quite a bit of swearing in the process. Danni had been half way out the door to get to the square to watch it there instead, when it finally worked. Ebony’s speech had been good, of course. It had gone according to plan, although Danni had a feeling the cheering crowd might have been full of Technos out of uniform, acting for the cameras. No, they wouldn’t know more about the city’s reaction before the others returned.

“I think it went well. I don’t like relying on her, but she got the job done.” Bray was speaking her thoughts, leaning forward in the dining chair with his elbows on his thighs.

“Eh, we’ll see.” Lex shrugged, getting up from the chair he had been sitting backwards on, naturally not bothering to put it back by the table as he moved into the kitchen.

Danni was on the sofa, a safe distance from Luke on the other end, with the little girl placed between them. Danni hadn’t been convinced she should be watching, nervous that Ebony’s speech might evolve into a riot, but Mouse, as they now knew her name was, had looked at her with those big brown eyes and Danni couldn’t say no. It was unnerving to Danni how trusting the girl seemed of Luke, she was almost curled up next to him, still keeping a distance from most of the rest of them, with the exception of Dee and Cloe, who she seemed to like. Naturally, she was also warming to Bray. Danni could have seen that coming. Jack had kept an even bigger distance from Luke, remaining standing by the wall. As the broadcast was now definitely over, he moved over to the computer to shut it down.

“You should be getting to bed, little missy.” Bray was kneeling down in front of the girl, a smile on his face that Mouse returned.

“Okay,” she agreed silently, still very quiet for the most part, constantly watching everyone with wary eyes.

“Want me to read for you?” Bray offered as he moved to let her stand up. Mouse looked at him, seeming to consider it for a moment before looking towards Luke instead. “Okay, I get it. I have strong competition here.”

Mouse giggled, reaching out for Luke’s hand. Luke was smiling to, though seeming a little embarrassed, or touched, as he glanced around the room. Danni simply avoided looking at him. Even if she knew Luke had done a lot to make up for his time with the Chosen. It didn’t change anything for her, or anyone else who had suffered at their hands. The damage couldn’t be undone.

Mouse and Luke soon disappeared, Danni noticing a glare in Luke’s direction from Jack as they passed him. If Bray was offended by Mouse picking Luke over him, he didn’t show it, still looking fairly happy as he started putting the chairs back in place. Danni moved into the kitchen, deciding to make herself a cup of tea while waiting for the others to return. Lex had left, leaving behind an empty can on the counter, right next to the trash bin, a used fork thrown into the sink. Danni threw the can in the trash, half tempted to run after Lex and throw it at his head. Instead she took a deep breath and put some water on to boil, relieved to have a small moment to herself. It didn’t last long though, Bray soon joining her.

“You want some tea?” she asked, not taking her eyes of the water.

“Yeah, that would be great,” Bray said, moving to find two clean mugs from the cupboard. “You know a watched kettle never boils, right?”

“Watching water boil doesn’t actually have an impact on its boiling point, it just seems to take longer when you do.” Danni replied, just a hint of a smile on her face.

“Ah, right. I forgot you’re the daughter of a scientist.” Bray teased as he placed the mugs next to her on the counter, getting the can of tea leaves Tai-San had left behind.

“Yes, that’s how I know. You have to be related to a scientist to know something like that.” Danni wanted to bite her tongue, annoyed with herself for joking around with him. But the pleased and probably relieved look on Bray’s face made it hard to resent it. She couldn’t deny she had missed his smile. “Speaking of, could you ask Jack if he wants some tea to?”

“Oh, he went downstairs.” Bray replied as he got the mugs ready for the nearly boiling water.

Danni swallowed, feeling suddenly nervous now that she knew she was alone with Bray. She almost wished she had gone out with the others to test the mood around the speech, or even that she had gone to the square to watch the speech in person, even if the thought of having to be civil to the General and the other Technos was repulsive. She hadn’t really considered that option very seriously, even if it would have been interesting. But it wasn’t a good idea for them to be seen hanging around with the Technos like they were buddies now. It had to look like they had made a deal for the city, not for themselves or the invaders.

The water started boiling, so Danni took it off the heat, pouring it into the two mugs.

“Well, I’ll just head to my room, then…” Danni hesitated, not wanting to seem rude but not too eager to be alone with him for much longer.

They had all decided to go back to sleeping in separate rooms after she and Lex got back, with the exceptions of Luke, Mouse and Dee, who were all still sleeping in Bedding and Furniture. Luke and Dee because they were wary of claiming space in the mall for separate reasons (though Dee had decided to stay on the sofa as far away from Luke’s bed as possible), Mouse because she wanted to stay close to Luke. Danni was relieved to have her own space, the thought of a group sleepover in the larger room making her skin crawl, though sleeping on her own would still be difficult. Her having nightmares was more of a certainty than a possibility. She didn’t imagine being back at the mall would change that.

“I was hoping you’d join me, for a chat.” Bray watched her carefully, seeming nervous himself.

“I don’t know,” Danni sighed. “I have a feeling I know what you want to talk about, and I’m really not in the mood.”

Bray nodded, looking down for a moment. “Okay. Well, we can talk about what to do next, lay down strategies, plans. Or just the weather. It’s been lovely and warm lately, don’t you think?”

Danni raised her eyebrows, giving him a look. Bray smiled carefully back. Danni let out a breath, then shrugged as she moved past him towards one of the tables. Bray sat down opposite her, both of them quiet for a moment.

“I missed you, Danni.” Bray leaned forward a little across the table, one hand on the steaming mug. “I did. I know you think I forgot about you, but it wasn’t like that. I know it makes me a coward, but…I couldn’t take it again. I was certain they wouldn’t have let you live, avoiding finding that out for certain was easier somehow. Like Schroedinger’s cat, you know? As long as I didn’t know for sure…”

Danni felt her hands clenching around the mug, almost burning hot against her skin, but she didn’t care. “Right. Not wanting me to complicate your second go with Amber had nothing to do with it.”

Bray shook his head, looking down into his tea for a short while. “I knew you’d understand that. You were the one who helped me get through losing her. You were my best friend.”

Danni looked up, narrowing her eyes as she looked at him across the table. “We weren’t simply friends, Bray.”

“I know, that’s not what I…” Bray sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Sorry, I’m not very good at this. I know I can’t make up for what I did. Or what I didn’t do. That I wasn’t there for you with what you went through…”

“I said I don’t want to talk about that,” Danni replied sharply, keeping her gaze firmly on the table in front of her rather than look at Bray. It was in vain though, a few tears still making their way down her cheeks. Bray reached out to place his hand over hers, but it only lasted for a second before they heard the sounds of the others returning, and Danni pulled her hand away instantly.

An alarm sounded suddenly, and May crouched further down behind the boxes as Code jumped up from his seat. She wiped the tears off her cheeks, her heart beating so fast she thought he might have heard it if the alarm wasn’t on. Code put his headset back on, barking into it. He went quiet as someone reported back to him, but only for a short moment.

“Prisoner missing? Who’s missing? You useless bunch of trash!” Code raged, and rushed out from his office.

It took May some effort to move quietly and calmly over to the door, opening it carefully to peek through it. She couldn’t see anyone inside the plant’s work area, so she hurried out of Code’s office, knowing that was the last place she wanted to be found. She could soon hear voices over the alarm though, and looked around, panicked as she tried to find a way out of this. Part of the space was still a mess from when Moz had started the small rebellion as distraction, and May rushed over there. Equipment was all over the place, large piles of coal spread around. May found something sharp, gritting her teeth as she scraped up the side of her forehead with it, making sure not to do it too deep. Then she rolled herself around in the coal to get her clothes dirtier than they already were, using her hands to get some of it on her face. She could feel blood dripping down her cheek, smearing it with her hand to make it look less fresh.

When Code and a few guards came back inside, she stumbled out from the disaster area, looking dazed and a complete mess.

“What the hell?” one of the guards looked at her as if she was a ghost or something.

“Where have you been!?” Code rushed over to her, near barking into her face. May’s face instantly crumbled and she sobbed loudly.

“I don’t know! The last thing I remember is a lot of shouting and then something hit my head and everything went dark.” May was already emotional and scared, so she didn’t need to act all that much, even as she made herself sway against the nearest guard, who had to grab onto her to keep her from falling. Code narrowed his eyes as he looked at her face, his hand reaching out to cup her chin, hard, turning her face so he could look at the wound.

“Get her back to her group.” He let go of her head, taking hold of her arm and pushing her back towards one of the guards. “Give them some extra water and a first aid kit to get her cleaned up. We don’t need her getting an infection.”

The guard was surprisingly gentle as he held her up and let her lean on him, his partner ahead of them leading the way. Once they were there he was about to lead her to her bed when his partner stopped him, and he instead let go of May just inside the barracks. She knew she couldn’t trust anyone, so she kept up the act, swaying on her feet. The guard returned with a bottle of water and a small red box with a white cross on it.

“One of you virts clean her up.”

Moz was there before anyone else had even considered moving, taking the things and letting May lean on her as she guided her to her bed. May was surprised to find actual worry and anger in her eyes when she looked up.

“What did they do to you?” Moz whispered harshly once they were sat down.

“Nothing, relax.” May leaned in, whispering how she got out of it as Moz started cleaning the cut.

Cloe and Ryan had gone to the square, the feeling being that they were less likely to get recognised, though they had both worn hoods just in case. Salene and KC had gone off to one of the old casinos where screens had been set up, KC knowing how to talk his way into those places. Ellie and Dee had gone further to another side of town where an old school had been set up by the Technos with screens for people to watch the broadcast. The two of them weren’t back yet, but the other four were making their way up the staircase, having met up on the way home.

Danni had tried to wipe the tears off her face, but Ryan, who reached the cafe first, had become so used to reading her that he could instantly tell. His gaze moved to Bray, a look of anger in his eyes.

“What’s going on? I told you to stay away from her.”

“Who made you her bodyguard?” Bray snapped back, annoyed both at being interrupted and Ryan’s lack of trust in him. “We were just talking.”

KC hung back, leaning against the railing and looking almost amused. Salene and Cloe stood there uncertainly, not sure whether to intervene or not.

“Ryan, it’s alright,” Danni began.

“No, it’s not! He has no right to upset you.”

“And what gives you the right to control her, exactly?” Bray stepped into Ryan’s path. “Maybe you need to decide whether you’re still married to Salene or dating Danni, cause you seem a little confused!”

Ryan’s eyes narrowed even more. “Or maybe I just don’t need to be in a relationship with someone to give a damn about them!”

“No, you just go on a rampage and get yourself sent away when your wife needs you the most!”

Bray’s words made Ryan step closer, Danni and Salene both instantly moving between them to keep them apart, Salene giving Bray a warning look, but he didn’t take any notice.

“I wasn’t walking around free and healthy while my girlfriend and several others were prisoners of the Chosen!”

“You think you’re so much better than me? Where the hell were you when we needed you, huh? When Salene had to be talked off the roof?”

They all stopped dead in their tracks, even Bray instantly looking like he regretted his words, his gaze only now moving towards Salene.

“What?” Ryan stared at him first, then turned towards Salene who was glaring daggers at Bray. Danni stood between them, one hand still firmly holding onto Bray’s arm, glancing from Ryan to Salene. Ryan took a step backwards, his eyes locked on Salene who was trying to come up with something to say.

“I-I can’t,” instead she turned away, racing down the stairs towards her room. Ryan watched Bray for a moment, still looking half tempted to jump him.

“Go after her,” Cloe nudged him in the side. Ryan glanced at her, then nodded, seeing the look she was giving him. Without another word he headed for the staircase to.

“Nicely done,” KC was grinning from his position by the railing, earning himself three sets of glares. Bray quickly decided to ignore him though, running his hand through his hair again and sighing loudly.

“Well, that was really smart. Suddenly I’m very happy you’re planning to leave,” Cloe crossed her arms over her chest, her glare now fixed on Bray who had the sense to look ashamed.

Danni was rubbing her temples, closing her eyes for a moment before she turned towards Cloe and KC again. “Anything to report out there?” she asked quietly, needing something else to focus on while trying to get her head around what had just happened.

“Mixed feelings,” Cloe shrugged. “The crowd was a bit doubtful, but Ebony has a way with words. There weren’t just Technos cheering, I think a lot of them feel like she’s made a good deal, or they’re just happy to get people back. Others thought she had sold out. The mood was kinda tense, but nothing close to a riot. At least not yet.”

“Pretty much the same at the casino,” KC chimed in, deciding to be helpful rather than tease Bray anymore. “Though it got a bit rowdy, a couple fights. Most people were in the middle I think, not sure if it’s good or bad.”

Danni nodded, those reports were about as good as she could hope for. “What about the rest of us, what did they think of us cooperating with them, Lex continuing as sheriff?”

Cloe shrugged again. “People mostly talked about Ebony.”

She turned towards KC, who nodded to show it had been the same at the casino. Danni chewed on her lower lip, considering that side of it. She had hoped to be able to find out more of what the city felt about them now, but it would probably take time. She had a feeling though, that it would take a lot more than a few prisoners returned to keep people from resenting them as time went on. That held true for the Technos to though, and they could use it against them.

“Did you find anything?”

May sighed, leaning back against the wall, now that Moz was done cleaning her wound. She hesitated, studying Moz’s face as she tried to decide whether or not to tell her everything. In the end she figured Moz could handle it better than most, knowing her supposed friend and tribemate had decided not to save her. Probably better than May had handled it herself.

“They’ve made a deal, Ebony and the Mallrats, to return prisoners to the city. Every tribe getting to pick one, or two in case of siblings.”

Moz frowned. “So the Mallrats can save those kids?”

May nodded, her gaze flickering away despite her own effort to keep a straight face. Moz’s face strangely softened at that.

“But not you.” Moz sighed. “It’s smart, whoever made that decision. No way that’s Amber or Bray, they are way too soft and they don’t have the political brains to make a decision like that. Must have been Ebony.”

“Smart?” May couldn’t hide the hurt and offended tone to her voice.

“Don’t take it personally. If the Mallrats got all their missing back and the other tribes didn’t, everyone would hate them. This way they’re giving themselves an alibi, equalling themselves with the rest, keeping everyone on their good side. Not a bad move.”

May huffed, glancing away for a moment to get herself under control again. “Well, I’m glad you feel that way, cause one of your girls escaped. And she didn’t pick you.”

Moz’s face was impossible to read, she looked more thoughtful than upset. “Who?”

“I think they called her Dee, she’s joined forces with the Mallrats apparently. And she picked some kid, Lotta…”


May nodded. To her surprise, Moz actually smiled. And not her usual smile that said she was about to hurt someone or cause trouble. It was a much softer one.



“Yes. I can take care of myself. Lottie is a tough kid, but she’s still just a kid. I don’t want her anywhere near any work camp or anything else these bastards might put her in. The rest of us can handle it. She shouldn’t have to.”

May swallowed, remembering what she had heard about Andy. She leaned in closer to whisper it all to Moz, even repeating the words they had used, him getting his systems friend, deleted blinking over his photo. Moz’s hands clenched into fists, her usual fighting mode expression back on her face.

“Cowards. What a bunch of cowards.” She whispered harshly, her eyes shining with anger as she turned to May again. “We’ll destroy them. Are you with me?”

May hesitated for a short moment, feeling scared of what Moz might be capable of, but before she even knew she had made up her mind, she was nodding. “I’m with you.”

Ryan knocked carefully on the door-frame of what had once been his and Salene’s room. He heard a quiet “come in” and stepped inside, peeking around the screen. Salene was sitting on the foot-end of the bed, leaning forward with her head in her hands. She looked up, not seeming very surprised that it was him. For a moment they just watched each other, neither one speaking. Ryan finally took a few steps closer, sitting down next to her.

“Did they really have to talk you off the roof?” He asked, after another moment of silence. “I mean, were you actually going to…you know.” He couldn’t even say the words, hoping she would tell him it had been a misunderstanding, that Bray had gotten it wrong or that he had made it sound worse than what it was.

“I don’t know,” Salene sighed, sitting up a little. “I don’t know if I would have. Trudy was the one who got me out of it, really. Well, her and Brady.” Salene smiled wryly. “But I don’t know if I actually would have done it. I think I went up there because I just wanted everything to stop hurting, and…I guess I wanted to see how I felt if I actually put myself in that situation. At the time I thought I wanted to do it, but looking back at it now…if I really wanted to, I would have jumped before anyone had a chance to stop me. I think it was just a cry for help, you know? Like you on the bridge…”

Ryan kept his eyes on his hands resting in his lap as she spoke. It was a relief to hear that she didn’t think she had actually wanted to die, but it didn’t stop the guilt he was feeling. In the corner of his eye he could see Salene watching him. She placed her hand on top of his gently.

“Don’t, Ryan. I know you, I know what you’re thinking. It wasn’t your fault, okay? Please don’t think that.”

Ryan sighed. “But I wasn’t there. Because I was such an idiot to attack the Guardian, I wasn’t there. Bray was right, where the hell was I?” Ryan stood up, starting to pace back and forth. “What was I thinking? Nothing good would have come out of it for any of us. It’s not like I would have managed to kill him, and if I had it would have been a death sentence. Maybe not even just on me, they could have gone after you. They could have punished everyone for what I did. And it would have achieved nothing, absolutely nothing. I should have been here. I’m so sorry, Salene.”

He had stopped pacing, standing a few feet away from her. Salene gave him a small sad smile and stood up to, taking a couple steps towards him. Ryan stepped back, and Salene almost rolled her eyes.

“Relax, Ryan. I’m just going to hug you. I think we could both use a hug, right?” she raised her eyebrows.

Ryan hesitated for a second or two, before nodding. She put her arms around his neck, pulling him close, leaning her head against his shoulder. At first Ryan was hesitant, his arms loosely placed around her waist. When he realised she wasn’t going to simply let him go after a quick hug, he tightened his grip a little more. She could feel him placing his head against her shoulder, his breath on her neck.

She had hugged him when she first found him in that village, but it had been more of an instant reaction and then she had pulled away, remembering that she didn’t actually know if he’d be happy to see her or not. He hadn’t seemed unhappy exactly, but it had instantly been awkward, and continued to be awkward. It hadn’t seemed like the right opportunity for a hug since. Now she didn’t want to let go, remembering back to how comforting it had been to fall asleep in his arms, to know that he was there. She hadn’t appreciated it enough, how safe and protected he made her feel. Eventually though, he pulled away, putting a few inches of distance between them again. At least he wasn’t taking several steps away from her, that was something.

“Are you gonna be okay?” He asked softly, studying her face with worry in his eyes.

“Yes, Ryan. I’m fine,” she smiled, still keeping one arm around him to keep him from moving further away from her. “A bit mad at Bray, but I’ll get over that.”

He simply nodded, a small smile that faded again quickly. “Then I think I should go.”

“You could stay. This was our room, if you wanted to, you could…stay.” Salene could see a hint of a blush creep up on his cheeks, but he quickly shook his head.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he replied, taking a step back, causing Salene’s hand to drop to her side.

“Why not? We don’t have to do anything, we could just sleep. Like at the farm. It would be nice to not sleep alone.” Salene watched him, trying to figure out what he was thinking. His eyes darted towards the bed for a swift second, then back to her.

“I just…I can’t.” He let out a breath, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Do you really think it’s a good idea, Salene? Me and you?”

That stung, and Salene had to stop herself from taking a step back. “Why wouldn’t it be? Don’t…don’t you love me anymore?”

Ryan closed his eyes, the question obviously taking him by surprise. “Of course I do…” his voice was almost a whisper. “I think I always will. But just look at what happened. I lost my head, I still don’t recognise that guy who jumped the Guardian like that. I got myself sent away, leaving you to deal with everything on your own. Losing the baby, you almost jumping off the roof…We were supposed to take care of each other, we promised to take care of Cloe and Patsy, and look what happened. In the end I wasn’t there for any of you when you needed me. We’re not good for each other. How can we be?”

Salene could feel tears pressing behind her eyes, knowing she would struggle to keep her voice steady. “We’re all still alive though. And we’re all okay, we’re safe.”

“Are we? Patsy is with those Technos, and we’re pretty much forced to work with them, a tribe who took people prisoner and invaded our city. We don’t know what they’re gonna do next. We’re not safe, none of us are.”

“We’ll get through that, like we got through the Locos, Tribe Circus and the Chosen. And we could do it together. This is our second chance, how many people get a second chance?”

“Exactly,” Ryan stopped her with one word. Salene looked at him confused. “This is our second chance,” he started to explain. “If we jump back into things, trying to pretend like we didn’t mess things up the first time around, we’d mess it up again and it would be wasted, and I’m not sure we’d get a third chance. I don’t wanna take that risk. If this really is our second chance, then it still will be in a few weeks, or months. I just don’t think we’re ready. At least I’m not.”

Salene swallowed, forcing herself to hold back the tears. At least he wasn’t rejecting her completely, what he was saying now was giving her more hope.

“Okay. You’re not ready, I get that. I don’t wanna push you, I just…I missed you.” She looked up, seeing a soft smile on his face.

“I missed you to.”

She returned his smile. Though it was an uncertain situation to be in, she hadn’t been rejected for good. She could wait.

“I really should go…I’m supposed to take over guard duty later, and Dee and Ellie aren’t back yet. I should talk to Danni about going out to look for them soon.”

Salene nodded. “Okay. But, Ryan?” He stopped on his way towards the doorway, turning towards her again. “Whatever you’re ready for, the offer still stands, you know. If sleeping alone gets lonely,” she smiled carefully, hoping she wasn’t pushing it. “Just sleeping.” She held her hands up.

For a moment it looked like he was considering it, but he just nodded and turned to walk away. As he walked back out towards the fountain, he looked up, seeing Cloe by the cafe, leaning over the railing. Even from a distance he could tell she looked disappointed, before she moved away from the railing and disappeared out of sight.

Ellie turned around to watch Dee as she hobbled along, her face a grimace each time she stepped down on her foot. Ellie had offered to let her lean on her, but Dee was too proud and stubborn for that. Just like she had been too proud and stubborn to let them know how much her ankle was still hurting her, insisting she was okay to go out scouting with the rest of them.

“We’re almost there now,” Ellie told her, trying to sound cheerful and uplifting. Dee grunted something in reply, nodding her head slightly. They walked in silence a little longer, before Ellie turned towards her again. “Have you decided what you’re going to do, once the Technos bring that girl back?”

Dee sighed, stopping and leaning her hand on a wall, taking some weight off her leg. “I dunno, our headquarters are a bit big for just the two of us. I suppose I’ll ask Lottie what she wants to do.”

“You’re welcome to stay with us.” Ellie said instantly.

“You sure Danni agrees with that?” Dee huffed.

“I’ll talk to her. I don’t imagine she’d want to throw you out. She seems a bit like an ice queen at times, but she’s not really. And we’re the Mallrats, we let people in when they have nowhere to go. It’s what we do.”

“Yeah, even former Chosen lieutenants.” Dee retorted instantly. Ellie bit the inside of her cheek to keep from saying anything back without thinking.

“Yes, well…we’ll see how long he sticks around this time.” Ellie said darkly, keeping her eyes ahead of them, avoiding glancing back at Dee. “Anyway, I was sure you’d pick Moz to be brought back.”

Dee didn’t reply for a moment, and Ellie finally turned around again, seeing a look of doubt on her face.

“I was going to, but…Lottie is just a child, you know? Moz was the one who took her in, insisted on teaching her everything herself. She took her under her wing. So I figure if she had a choice, she’d want the girl safe. Even if she can be an annoying brat.” Dee smiled, a hint of sadness to it.

“We’ll get them all back eventually.” Ellie gave her a comforting smile. “They can’t keep them locked up forever.”

Dee shrugged, moving up next to Ellie as the blonde slowed down. “That’s what Moz said last time. But we didn’t get everyone back.”

“Last time?” It dawned on Ellie even as she asked the question. “The Chosen.” She made a face, not sure she wanted to know, not when she had to face Luke later.

“Yeah. But I suppose all of yours have come back now, haven’t they?”

“Not all of them.” Ellie said quietly, Dal’s face flashing through her mind. “And then there’s those coming back in a uniform,” she added more bitterly.

Dee snorted. “Never really know people, I suppose. Like you. You seem clever, and like you’ve got your heart in the right place. Know right from wrong. Yet you’re still looking at that blue-haired monk like a lovesick puppy.”

Ellie felt her face go red. “I do not look at him like that. Anyway, that’s finished business.”

“If you say so.”

Neither of them said anything else as they approached the mall. Danni was halfway down the stairs when they walked inside, jacket partly on and Ryan tagging behind her. Both of them let out relieved sighs when they saw Dee and Ellie.

“We were getting worried about you two.” Danni greeted them as they approached her, taking her jacket off again, folding it over her arm.

“Yeah, sorry, we weren’t sure what the situation would be like, so we took some detours to try and go unnoticed,” Ellie said right away, not mentioning Dee’s leg. It was noticeable when she walked though, Danni looking at her in concern.

“Go to the cafe and put your leg up, and we’ll get you two some food. You’ve been walking a long way, you must be exhausted.”

Ellie and Dee both smiled at her gratefully, both looking a little surprised. Danni gave them a look.

“What, am I that cold normally?”

Ellie tried to hide her amused smile, Dee just shrugging.

“Wish you were,” she said as she started hobbling up the stairs, finally allowing Ellie to help her. “Then you could freeze some water and make me an ice pack.”

They all laughed, and though it wasn’t that much of it, the sound of laughter, even their own, seemed to take them all a bit by surprise after everything that had happened the last few days. Danni shook her head, a small smile on her face that disappeared as Ryan approached her.

“I’m going on guard duty. Luke is taking the sewers. You need anything else first?” He asked carefully, studying her face.

“Everything is under control, Ryan.”

He sighed. “Are you mad at me?”

Danni smiled softly. “No. But…you can’t protect me from everything all the time, Ryan. I know you’re just being a good friend and worrying about me, but I need to be able to handle things on my own.”

Ryan nodded, looking down for a moment. “I know. I’ll try harder,” he said with a small smirk on his face. Danni smiled, patting him on the shoulder as she moved past him.

There was a steady rhythm to the sound of boots against linoleum floors as Mega walked down the hallway. The stadium was near empty now, at least this part of it, with most of the Techno force moved to the Hotel to tend to Ram’s needs and whims. He couldn’t help smirking to himself as he put his finger against the little screen next to the door, a green light appearing as it scanned his fingerprint, then a beep as the door opened. He strolled inside, finding Page in the only seat in his control room, long leather-clad legs up on the counter, filing her nails, a look of boredom on her face.

“What’s the status?” he asked, letting a hint of annoyance shine through. Granted, he had given her a high status by letting her in on his plans, but that didn’t mean she was allowed to take such liberties. Page didn’t rush to stand for him though, but she did at least take her feet down and put the nail file away.

“Still crazy,” was the only update she offered. Mega raised his eyebrows, giving her a look. Page sighed, hitting a key on the keyboard, switching the large screen from a camera in the city centre to one from a small dark room.

The man inside it was kneeling on the floor, seeming to talk to himself, hands folded in front of himself. His hair was a mess, matted and dirty, eyes wide.

“Think he’s for real?” Page asked, zooming in closer on his face.

“You mean is he really crazy? Doesn’t matter. If he’s not, he will be by the time I’m done with him.”

Page hesitated only for a second as she glanced up at Mega.

“Seems easier to just delete him.”

“Yes, it would be. Or just to throw him into the game. But this way will be more efficient for our aims. Besides, I thought you wanted revenge.”

Page looked back at the screen, the blond man looking near straight into the camera. Her eyes narrowed as she stared back at him, as if he could see her.

“Oh, I do. Trust me. The Guardian won’t get away with what he did.”

“No, he won’t.” Mega said it in a very matter-of-fact way. “There’s a kind of poetic justice to it, don’t you think? Corrupting his mind, the way he did with so many people.”

Page didn’t reply, simply continued staring at the screen. She didn’t know if she could trust Mega, or even what his end-game was to this whole scheme, but if she was honest she didn’t really care. Torturing the Guardian was enough of a goal for her.

This story is amazing! I haven’t been able to put my phone away because I just wanted to keep reading it :slight_smile:

Oh, thank you so much! <3 Sorry for the late reply, haven’t been on here in a while. Hopefully I will get around to finishing the next chapter soon!

1 Like

@JacksAnnie well I’ve only just finished chapter 6 but thanks for making me cry! :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

1 Like

Haha! You’re…welcome. I guess. :stuck_out_tongue:

1 Like