Book 1 (of 3)
I can hear a struggle inside my next-door neighbour’s flat when I emerge into our corridor. I push through the gawkers gathered outside. The storm rain slashes in sideways through the awning. I'm wet as a dishrag already from the walk home, so I don't care, and they’re happy getting their pyjamas and joggers soaked to see what’s happening. They crane their necks to stare through the windows and ease each other aside to get the best view. The sounds of fighting punch out from inside. I can clearly hear rustling clothes, scuffing shoes, laboured grunts and swearing.
No-one else is helping.
It has to be me.
Oh shit, it has to be me.
I find my bravery somewhere. I push through to the front and grit my teeth as I ease open the unlocked door.
In the centre of her litter dotted living room is my friend, Alex. She’s being wrestled to the ground by a Home Forces soldier. She’s on her side, squirming over the old, naked floorboards and kicking at him as he tries to restrain her. He’s dressed in full fatigues. They’re patterned in an urban camouflage of glitched black and grey triangles. A little lamp by Alex’s sofa casts his shadow all the way to my feet. His wide shoulders block nearly all the light.
I’m immediately terrified, to tell you the truth.
He might be muscular, but he’s not having much luck holding her. Alex is too quick for him. Her short, athletic, hockey player’s frame is too rapid to control. His efforts are hampered by an enormous rifle occupying one of his hands.
That thing’s daunting. I don’t like looking at it.
“Ma’am! Step back!” he shouts at me, thrusting a palm toward me to try and make me back off.
I reflexively take a frightened step backward. I’m used to dealing with soldiers. God, I’m even used to them shouting at me. I try to plan my routes around immigration checkpoints, but you can’t always avoid them. I know what an order from a soldier normally feels like.
Not like this.
The second he’s distracted by me is enough for Alex to take full advantage. With careful aim, she plants the heel of her high-top into the underside of his nose. I hear a crunch when her shoe thumps into the soldier’s nostrils. He reels backward, clutching his face. His eyes widen, his face flushes pink and what I can see of his lip contorts into a raging sneer.
“You little bitch,” he growls.
The small LED light on the black plastic neural hub drilled into his temple changes from a pulsing amber into a bright, unblinking red. He pulls his hand away from his face, revealing a clean brush stroke of blood across his mouth and chin. Alex crawls onto her hands and knees and just as her wet eyes meet mine, she is hauled back by the collar of her t-shirt. The soldier flings her onto her back with ease and straddles her stomach. He crunches his knee onto her left elbow, pinning her arm to the floor. He grabs his gun with both hands. One on the barrel, one just above the grip, and holds it aloft over Alex’s head. The blunt end aimed at her eyeball.
“No!” Alex screams. “Please!”
She raises her hand to block him, but she can’t reach past his armpit. She flails her legs, making limp, hopeless contact with his back.
The soldier crashes the end of his rifle down into Alex’s forehead. She scrunches her eyelids shut and attempts a one-armed shield. The blow lands with a gross crack against her eye socket and bounces her skull down into the floorboards.
I grimace. I feel the blow like I’ve taken it myself. The cold fracture of the wound on my cheek, the dull recoil on the crown of my head.
I can’t afford to be afraid right now.
Alex can’t wait.
No-one else is helping. It has to be me.
Alex stops struggling. Her knees slump inward, flattening on the floor, motionless.
Alex’s hockey stick is leaning against the kitchen counter next to a sports bag and a pile of dog-eared schoolbooks. I lock my fingers around the handle.
The soldier smashes Alex’s unconscious head into the ground again. Her limp neck jars nauseatingly. I recoil as a catastrophic surge of blood sprints from her temple out across her cheek.
I raise the hockey stick to my side.
I hear gasps from the gawpers outside the front door.
He strikes again. Alex’s head twists like a broken twig. A new cut explodes from her forehead, creating a fresh stream that flows down her high-bridged nose, painting her light brown skin a deep, burgundy red. Her breaths gurgle through the liquid running over her lips.
I tiptoe near them.
I find my bravery somewhere.
Just as he raises his gun for another strike at Alex’s lifeless head, he glimpses me in the corner of his eye. My knuckles pale as they lock together round the grip. The rubber squeaks beneath my fingers. I swing the hockey stick with all my willpower, with every gram of courage I can bring together. The stick connects crisply with the neural hub on his temple. It splinters on impact, shards of black plastic shower the floor around him. The soldier teeters backwards and falls, twitching, moaning and staring blankly at the damp on the ceiling.
Blood pours from his plastic wound.
His movements wind down, slower and slower, and eventually, to a stop.
The weapon in my hands becomes slick with sweat. My fingers tremble and splay apart. I drop the club to the floor with a loud knock on the bare wood. The air is already thick with the iron of blood as I press my fingers over my mouth and sniff a heavy puff of it. I take a quivering step backward and my knee crumples. A panicked sob finally escapes my lungs as I fall to the floor.
The soldier isn’t moving.
Alex isn’t moving.
I drag myself to her, roll her onto her side and put my ear to her mouth. I feel a graze of wet blood on my ear lobe and a brush of warm breath on my cheek. She’s breathing. The thought of the blood on my ear makes me wretch. I quickly scrub at it with the sleeve cuff of my hoodie. I ignore the way it makes me shake. Alex stares blankly across the room in the direction of her overflowing bin, her eyelids half shut by gravity. One is already puffy with the swelling from damage beneath her skin. Her chest is rising and falling softly. Her breaths are a little raspy, but she’s definitely breathing. The blood on her lips bubbles a little with each exhale.
She’s alive. She’ll be OK.
My relief allows me to think about the blood again. I heave.
I bring myself to my knees. The soldier’s chest is filling and emptying in the same muted way as Alex’s. They’re both OK. Their blood seeps into the cracks between Alex’s floorboards and my stomach urges again. This is more blood than I’ve ever seen. The sheen on the red pool makes my abs clench. My fingertips tingle. My head goes light.
I gulp a dense, shallow wad of the metallic air through my trembling lips. They’re both OK. They’ll both be OK. I climb to my feet and swivel out of the room, trailing my handbag behind me. They’ll both be OK. I tumble out of the entrance, where the open mouthed onlookers part for me. They edge further away from me with each step I take. I look into me and Mum’s flat next door and see her on the sofa. Her favourite green camisole ripped at the shoulder, her arms crooked behind her back in handcuffs.
She’s being arrested too?
It must be the electricity. They must have found our tap.
Mum looks at me.
I try to communicate as much pain and regret as I can without words.
I’ve fucked up, Mum.
I want to hug her. I want to let her know what I’ve just done and let her console me. I want her to tell me I had to do it. I want her to tell me I had no choice.
I had to do it, right?
I had no choice, right?
Oh shit, Mum.
The soldier guarding Mum notices me and barrels through the lounge toward the front door, his broad shoulders barging toward me like a snow plough. I sprint through the onlookers who part for my passage. I twist around to see the soldier glance into Alex’s. I see him survey the crime scene I’d left behind. The light on his neural hub turns red.
“Stop her!” he yells at the bystanders.
He trains his eye down the barrel of his rifle at me, but the gathered masses block his sight. I clatter through the door at the end of the balcony, sprinting into the joining corridor and down the stairwell.
“Out of the way!” I hear him shout behind me.
I pound my feet down the stairs. My wet trainers squeak on the concrete and send up tiny splashes from the cracks and chips in the surface, soaking my shins. His thundering footsteps aren’t far behind, echoing through the stairwell at twice the decibels mine do. I make it down to the foyer and out of the tower block. I run across the car park, up the street and into Loughborough Park.
I’m running. Why am I running?
I’ve been on autopilot until now. Maybe they weren’t both OK. Maybe they both stopped breathing seconds after I left. Maybe I left my friend dying in her living room. Maybe I killed a soldier. God, maybe I killed a soldier. I’ve done something criminal. Something wrong.
Preventing more violence isn’t an excuse. Should I hand myself in?
No. Keep going. He’s trying to stop me with a bullet, not with a polite reading of my rights. I can hand myself in later. When I don’t have an assault rifle aimed at my back.
He keeps pace in his heavy gear. I know enough to know he’ll have had a booster shot of adrenaline from his neural hub to help him sprint through the fatigue. Thank God I had a head start. No, thank Lisa, my coach at the football club, for putting us through extra cardio in pre-season.
I feel his eyes on me as I reach the edge of the tent village in the park. I picture his gun sights lining up between my shoulder blades, so I duck behind a tent. I move in an awkward crouched jog, between the rows of canvas homes, my knees bumping into my ribs. The soldier’s too smart for me, though, and I see him too late. He flanks me as I emerge in a busy communal clearing and raises his rifle for a clear shot.
The village is so busy with people, we barely even cause a rustle among the hundreds going about their lives. Staring down the barrel, his focus wholly on me, the soldier doesn’t see an old man crawling out of his tent, reading a holographic screen projected from his phone. The soldier’s knee crunches into the man’s rib cage, sending them both tumbling over. The old man rolls on the floor, groaning. While the soldier picks himself up, I dive behind a food vendor’s stall. I inhale the dense aromatic spices pouring out of the stand. I peer from behind it, watching the soldier crank his neck around looking for me.
Wriggling between more tents, I slalom round the outlet plugs jammed into the floor on stakes and hop over the blue plastic tubes that lead from them into the tents. The air is choked with the smoke from barbecues and campfires. I hear residents chatting about their daily lives, tins of beans bubble on camp stoves and the percussion orchestra of rain patting on the canvases around me. I smell the sludge cocktail of grass and mud beneath my feet. I hide behind the sodden towels on a forgotten washing line to see where the soldier is. He’s going in the wrong direction, scanning the area with controlled urgency. I make my way to the edge of the park and wade through the shrubs. Brambles scratch my calves and tug at the hem of my club dress. I hide behind a tree and watch him again. He slumps when his eyes don’t find me. He sneers at the crowds around him.
“I need drones in my sector. Taiye Ogadele. Black. Female. Seventeen,” he barks with a finger pressed into his ear, pronouncing my name wrong.
I turn from the tree, breaking off some flaky, ill-looking bark with my fingers. I squeeze through my escape route. It’s an old gap in the fence I used to climb through when I was younger to run from other kids, or sometimes even Mum. I have to contort my back to get through now, but I make it out, across the street and into a sheltered alley.
I run northward for a few minutes, until my cardio training can’t help me any more. I power walk, my hands into my hips, gulping in the mist that’s rising from the wet ground in a gap in the storm. I stop and tug down my dress, which has bunched up over my thighs. A gutter gushes loudly about a metre from my feet, the spray tickling my ankles. The sound of the pipe drowns out my panting. I watch a dot of blood trickle down my leg from one of the bramble scratches.
I picture the blood in Alex’s room again.
I can’t hold it this time. I don’t have the energy. The bile rises from my stomach and a glob of vomit fills the back of my throat. I swallow it down and sob weakly.
That blood is going to put me in prison for the rest of my life.
I really had to do it, right?
I want my Mum.
I feel childish when I think it, but that’s all I can think of. I want my Mum. I want her to tell me I had to do it. He was pummelling Alex’s head into the floor, Mum. He’d have killed her. If I hadn’t stopped him, he’d have killed her.
My tired hands grasp for my phone in my handbag. I pull the transparent rectangle out of its sleeve in my purse.
“Call- Olly-” I pant into the microphone hidden somewhere in the cardboard-thin device.
It rings twice before Olly answers. He picks up his phone with an anxious and audible fumble.
“Hey. You alright?” he asks, with concern in his voice.
He probably thinks I’m calling about why I left in a hurry this morning, but it’s so much worse than that.
“I need your help,” I gasp, gulping down air. “Can you pick me up?”
“Uh- sure,” Olly says, confused. “Where?”
“Anywhere,” I reply. “Seriously. Anywhere. College?”
“Yeah. OK, mate,” Olly says, his voice filled with worry. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Thanks, Ol’,” I say.