The grey morning rained chunks of smouldering flesh; a fresh manicure in the gutter, faded tattoos dancing down the library’s pillars. Shifting his grip on the black broom handle he’d armed himself with as he left home, Art teetered forward to grasp a sheet of fluttering debris out of the air. A picture says a thousand words, and the colourful swathes of GovCorp’s air safety procedures had only darkly ironic ones to give. Art chuckled.
‘Chilly morning,’ Rich coughed as he kicked a finger off the steps, a curl of smoke from his clenched fist blossoming into the cold alongside his breath.
‘Thought you’d quit?’ was Art’s quiet retort as he tucked the safety card away under his shirt.
‘Ah, well. No bloody reason to now, is there?’ They plunged back into silence; the air warmed a degree.
Crisp leaves hastened down the street, the harsh wind snapping at their heels, catching them up and tossing them violently aside. The fleshy tail of a rat slipped into a drain, taking shelter from the storm. Rich turned to consider Art’s cold face.
‘Probably still painting his broom,’ Art muttered, intent on surveying the street.
‘Ah, yeah. Of course.’
The quiet of the cool air reigned as the sudden downpour came to an end. Rich picked at his own broom handle where the black paint had begun to flake prematurely. When that failed to entertain him, he kicked at the weeds in the pavement. Their unexpected resistance soon grew tiresome, and he turned instead to observing the sky.
‘Get your guard uniform sorted OK?’
‘I’m wearing it, aren’t I?!’ Rich’s stomach dropped at the sound of Art’s raised voice, only to leap again as something heavy slammed into his back, almost bowling him over. His broom clattered down the stairs as his hands flew up to catch at the arms that looped around his neck.
‘How’s the watch going? What have I missed?’
‘Will! You scared the shit out of us!’ Rich cursed, pushing him off and retrieving his weapon from the gutter as the street’s telescreens flickered temperamentally before bursting into vivid colour.
‘This is the daily newsfeed, with your hottie host, Persey Simms…’
Her twenty or so heavily made-up faces winked in perfect unison on the screens, flashing large, artificially whitened teeth and tossing platinum bangs out of vividly violet eyes.
‘…Amateur smartchip vids captured scenes resembling the First Last War today as security officials confront agitators in Parliament Square. Rebel terrorists are violently protesting GovCorp’s latest restrictions on non-regulation smartchip upgrades, established in response to jailbreaking charges brought against prominent life-techs earlier this week…’
The picture shook, unstable and manic, as a disorganised mass of people ran into the impenetrable barricade of guards, armed with metallic riot shields locked together like an iron shell. GovCorp deployed their defences and the rebels began to dissipate, falling like flies under the assault of the acid cannons, machine guns and batons. Drops of gore rained through the air, carried on the breeze, flying into the wide eyes of the filming bystander. The hacked visual cortex sent signals to spot the feed, colouring the telescreens with bursts of red. The guards were savagely territorial, batons flying in a red haze, hands grasping at hair to dash a skull across the wall. Blood ran in rivulets down the digitised gutters, trapped in the shadow of a smoking Big Ben.
‘Dude!’ Rich’s gaze was fixed on the telescreen as it focused in on one of the guards. ‘That guy’s killing it!’ As he tore his gaze away to assess the others’ response, the reel ended and Persey reappeared.
‘…New reports published today suggest that GovCorp is successfully handling the population crisis. The number of British Citizens remains steady around the seventy-five million mark. Official statements from the board attribute this stabilisation to the closure of independent pharmaceutical providers whose dangerously experimental products have been accused of interfering with smartchip hormone regulation. Permit offices report that they continue to be overwhelmed by applications for Conception Licenses-‘
‘Yeah, yeah, they’re all randy fuckers, get on with it!’ The screen nearest the boys went out for a moment as Will bounced a football off it.
‘…with the threat of continuing rebel violence, leading GovCorp figures are continuing to advise all non-GovCorp employees in the London commuter-belt to head north, away from major conflict zones, to ensure their safety from terrorist attack while enabling freedom of movement for security officials.Citizens from areas suffering from overpopulation will be prioritised for air travel, and relocated free of charge. I’ll be back tomorrow with the latest, for now please pay attention to the following GovCorp notice, and remember: there’s danger in difference! Get your compulsory upgrades from your nearest GovCorp store now!’
The screen went dark for a moment, before bursting back into life, displaying video streams of airport queues and large airliners powering down endless, glittering tarmac, swallowed by pink-hued clouds.
‘Living down south? Now’s the time for a break! GovCorp’s air package brings you the easiest evacuation available. We handle everything! Join the crowd and make sure your journey is far from different. Just hop on board one of our jets and you can rest easy, knowing that our 100% safety record and award-winning inflight-service will look after you and your loved ones. -Pricesstartfrom$499, lifeinsurancenotincluded.’
The screens shut off suddenly, plunging the street back into grey, and Art patted his chest, reassuring himself that the airline’s calling card was still safely tucked away. Rich’s attention was still focused on the now blank screens, eyes squinted as if he could decipher something in their blankness.
‘Is it me, or has Persey had enhancements since yesterday?’ He mused. Will turned to look, long fingers tugging his pants higher on his thighs in a ludicrous attempt to conceal his boxers.
‘Nah mate, her tits were always that fecking big,’ was his response, in thick Irish brogue.
‘Not her tits dude, her face! Must be nice, having your mind in the gutter all the fucking time.’
‘Hey, guys!’ Art chastised. ‘We’re meant to be guarding the place, remember? Grow a pair!’
‘Isn’t that exactly what we’re doing?’ Will chuckled. ‘I mean, come on, man, she has the best rack in the northern hemisphere!’
‘Just put a sock in it!’ Art snapped, lurching red-faced towards them, his fist raised threateningly. Will flinched, intimidated into instant silence.
‘Yes, boss,’ he mumbled, eyes fixed on the damp ground.
As the day went on, the trio spoke less and less, any attempt at raucous conversation on the part of Will quickly shot down by Art’s steely glare. When they had paused their vigilance for lunch, and Rich pried open the Tupperware box of cold pasta his mother had put together the night before, he surveyed his eating friends; Art carefully disassembling a BLT sandwich, while Will desperately destroyed a sausage roll, and finally found himself able to speak unhindered.
‘How come you were late, Will? Where were you this morning?’ Rich shoved playfully at his friend’s bony shoulder. ‘Huh?’
‘Should have called me earlier int’it?’ He said, half choking on a mouthful of pastry and meat in his haste to reply. ‘Had to have breakfast with me ma’am, and then pa was giving me shit about filching his paint, wa’nt he? Fecking bastard.’ The last was punctuated by a chunk of well-chewed pastry, spat roughly onto a lower step. ‘Fruit Winder, anyone?’
‘Seriously mate? I’m trying to eat over here!’ Art complained, addressing Rich as if Will were undeserving of his disdain.
‘Who gives a shit, boss-man? This gig is boring as fuck anyway,’ Will scoffed, lumbering to his feet. ‘I only came ‘cause thought you scraggy fuckers would need some muscle for it, lend it some credibility, but fuck this, if you’re gonna be dicks about it I’m leaving you two to your date or whatever.’
‘What?! You can’t just piss off when-’
‘Shut up you lot, someone’s coming!’ Rich cut Art off mid-retort, palm slapped over Will’s loose mouth. ‘Shit, it’s a girl.’
‘Wait!’ Will’s voice was muffled behind the sweaty palm. ‘I know her, she lives down my way, prissy type. Name’s Eve, or Evie or somet’ing. What’s she doing down here?’
‘Corp knows, but if she comes much closer we’re going to have to deal with her. Didn’t she see the signs?’ Art spoke as much to himself as the others, peering up the road at the girl, not much shorter than him, a diminutive figure, with blonde hair scraped back into a tight plait and shiny red shoes, clutching a pocket-sized book in one arm and a teddy-bear in the other. She hugged the bear close, as if wary of losing the lovingly battered remnant of the twenty-first century. Intent on returning her book to what remained of the boarded-up library, she passed by the hand-coloured NO TRESPASSING posters, dispersed along the walls of the alleyway without sparing them a glance.
‘She’s heading right this way!’ Rich’s voice was edged with nerves. ‘How the hell are we going to stop her?’
‘You know how, you remember our practicing,’ was Art’s anxious response, as he shifted his grip on his weapon. ‘Just like the procedures they’re always showing on the newsfeed. We can’t let the difference get to us. Just like my dad always says.’
‘Ah, feck. Do we have to?’ Will was shaking. ‘She’s just a little kid! She doesn’t know any better.’
‘It was words like that that felled Troy, Will!’
‘What the fuck are you on about now?! I’m not talking about horses and shit mate, I’m talking about what on Corp’s Earth we’re meant to do now!’
‘Will’s right though Rich, we can’t let her past. If we do, we might as well invite them all over for a tea party. We have to keep guard. And that means we do what we have to do. What is that thing she’s carrying anyway?’
‘What, the teddy bear?’
‘Nah, the other thing!’
‘Looks like a weapon to me!’
‘Shit she’s coming for us!’
‘Come on guys, get her!’
‘That’s it, hit her!’
‘Fuck, don’t let her get away!’
‘Beat her brains out!’
Rivers of crimson spread slowly, like carmine cracks, spilling from their crumpled source. Her chest rose, once, twice, then fell with her final breath, expelled. Shattered black wood, the instruments of death, clattered to the tarmac as their wielders’ hands unclenched, as they began to recollect their senses.
‘You can say that again!’ Rich laughed, delivering one last kick to a battered side, or limb (it was hard to tell), before sinking to a cool seat on the step above.
‘Who knew when we came out today that this would happen, hey?’ Art asked, shaking his head at the mess of flesh. Will remained cooly silent, directing his swimming vision away, towards the clouds. Even they weren’t any refuge from the carnage. With the ground-shaking explosion that had become well known among the local residents, it began to rain again.
‘Twice in one day? The world’s gone to shit man.’ Will whined, as Art wandered away into the falling debris, in search of more safety cards for his rapidly growing collection.
‘Dude, we did our part.’ Rich smiled, grasping Will’s shoulder reassuringly. ‘We stopped the difference in its tracks! We’ve defended our position, the stronghold, the….! Wait… Art, what are we-?’
‘Exactly how was she different again?’ Will questioned, interrupting Rich’s shout. ‘I knew her. She always seemed fine to me.’
‘Look mate,’ Rich forgot his previous occupation in an instant, eager to impart some superior knowledge, ‘We’re all guys, right? And she was a girl! There ain’t nothing more different to a bloke than a lady!’
‘Hey, Art! Find anything over there?’
‘Nope. Just metal and shit.’ Art wandered dejectedly back towards them. ‘Ah well, got the one from earlier at least.’ He bent over the remnants of the younger child, tucking under a lone red shoe the airline safety procedures he’d plucked from the raining debris that morning. Blood blossomed around the broken girl where fingers had before been planted by the rain, glistening in the flickering of the library’s damaged telescreen.
‘Here you go love’ he joked, patting her spilled locks. ‘Present from the guys at GovCorp.’
‘Reckon that’ll convince the cleaners?’ Will had been watching from afar, avoiding the girl’s familiar face.
‘Sure it will, ’sall the same to them, don’t think they fancy looking all close-like when it’s been raining.’
Art stepped over a hunk of flesh and reached for his backpack, hefting it over his shoulder. ‘Look guys, I have to be home early tonight so we’re going to have to stop early. We’ll carry on tomorrow OK? This is fucking-A. If you want, I think mum’s making cookies. Wanna come do homework at mine? I need all the help I can get on the history project, and then we can make more warning posters and stuff.’
‘Yeah, sure dude.’ Rich answered, his eyes already slipping out of focus as he started his smartchip back up. ‘Let me just send dad a text so he doesn’t cook.’
‘We need to clean up first, don’t we?’ Will reminded the pair, as he wiped his bloodied hands on his jeans. ‘I left spare togs in the gents that way.’
‘Ah yeah, sure.’ They nodded in agreement, the three of them navigating around the crumpled corpse of their eight-year-old neighbour as they headed purposefully down the street, leaving their forgotten victim to soak the stubborn weeds, and bathe the cowering rats. A trail of blood led from the broken girl to the blood-soaked pages of her book. Trailed from it to them. Dripped from the GovCorp logo plastered on the wall to puddle beneath their feet. Blood bloomed on the screens, a crimson imprint of now-dead pixels. Ran between them all, a tapestry of gore, keeping the tangled remains interlinked with that trio of boys whose names spelt war.
As silence reclaimed the library square, Will’s Irish tongue left an echo in the alleys:
‘What’s the story for the folks then, guys?’