A reflective road sign with a thirty-miles-per-hour speed limit suggested that a village was close by. The crumpled frame of a Citroën lay wrapped around the sign’s pole. A year ago, some idiot had tried to escape in a car.
The driver’s body had been left for nature to sort out, and nature had done a good job of it. The skeleton slumped over the steering wheel would remain in place for decades to come, and so would the bullet that had dropped to the leather seat as the skin around it had been eaten away.
Ewan poked his rifle through the car’s remains. They had not been ambushed this far from New London for half a year, but he wasn’t known for taking stupid risks anymore. With nothing of interest inside the vehicle, he glanced up at the sign. There was still enough daylight to read the sentence beneath it.
Sandridge welcomes careful drivers.
‘Repeat after me, Ewan,’ came Alex’s deep voice, booming out from ten steps behind him, ‘we are definitely stopping here tonight.’
‘What, your little legs are getting tired?’
‘Not tired. Bored. There’s a difference.’
It was Alex in a nutshell. The old man of the strike team, nearly in his mid-twenties, he seemed to think his extra years gave him some kind of authority. That, and not having learning difficulties.
Ewan understood. Alex must have felt humiliated, sent out with a bunch of special school teenagers and not even being the leader. Kids in special ed were supposed to be useless. Even the clever ones.
Ewan left the Citroën, and led Alex and Charlie into Sandridge. The other half of the squad would be less than a mile behind.
He glanced across at Charlie, and tried to decipher his best friend’s mood. Ewan would make the same decisions however Charlie felt about them, but it was better to guess his reaction in advance. Objections were always problematic when they came from a fifteen-year-old short lad with ADHD and intermittent anger issues.
‘I’ll give us half an hour,’ Ewan said. ‘No more. The more walking we get done tonight, the quicker we get to the Citadel tomorrow. And the less knackered we’ll be if any gunfire starts.’
Ewan checked around for nodding heads. Alex and Charlie would not be happy, but they knew whatever Ewan said, he meant.
At the start of the war, there had been more than thirty people in Dr Joseph McCormick’s band of Underdogs. Less than half of them were still alive, and Ewan’s leadership had grown more uncompromising with every death. There were twelve Underdogs left now, six of them on that night’s mission. Ewan was pretty sure that was half. Two sixes made twelve, after all.
Common sense told him a war between twelve humans and Nicholas Grant’s million cloned soldiers was already hopeless, and the British people would be imprisoned in the Citadels forever. Especially since eight Underdogs were teenagers from Oakenfold Special School. But Ewan’s whole brain was built for defiance.
Dad would have been so proud to see his son become a soldier too, Ewan thought.
But they’d never have had me in the old army. Not with a diagnosis like PDA.
PDA. Pathological Demand Avoidance. Because regular autism just wasn’t enough.
Ewan looked around the street, in search of a suitable refuge building.
‘Number twenty-two,’ he said.
‘Can’t see the house numbers from here, mate.’
‘Alex, you’re showing your age. Green door, halfway down on the right. At least five exits including windows, and a nice view over the fields.’
Charlie, recklessly impulsive like most of the other ADHD guys at Oakenfold had been, made sure he was first to run down the road and hop into the stone-walled garden.
‘Stay there,’ he called out to Ewan. ‘Check the rest of the road. I’ve got this.’
Charlie kept moving as if nothing had happened. But a small fire was brewing in Ewan’s mind.
That was all that it took. A simple command, even from someone he trusted as much as Charlie, placed enormous anxiety on his shoulders. Having PDA meant having the same need for day-to-day control that humans in general had, except basic demands pierced the heart of his comfort zone. The feeling of losing control resulted in extreme anxiety, and the extreme anxiety sometimes resulted in violence. PDA was the reason he had been excluded from half a dozen mainstream schools. The reason he couldn’t hear a request without feeling personally threatened. The reason people spent his childhood thinking he was some kind of monster rather than a terrified child.
The fire in Ewan’s mind was put out quickly, as silence of the evening air was ruptured. Somewhere at the far end of the road, something had fired a gunshot.
Clone soldiers outside New London Citadel. I thought those days were over.
The bullet had not been aimed at them. Even clones were too smart to fire from half a village away. Ewan, Alex and Charlie took their positions in the overgrown gardens.
It was impossible, but it happened anyway. At the end of Newton Road, a young woman ran into the street.
A human. She had to be. Eleven months had passed since Takeover Day – the single day when Nicholas Grant had marched out his cloned soldiers and imprisoned the British population in his giant walled Citadels – and in all that time, Ewan had never seen a female clone.
Another gunshot spat up the tarmac next to her feet. She stumbled into a garden across the road, and took no chances on the front door being locked. Instead, she ran at top speed and leapt sideways into the front window.
It didn’t smash like she had hoped. There was a faint ‘oof’ as her body slammed against the double-glazed window, and she fell to the grass with a clumsy thump.
Ewan saw her pursuer, sheltered in a porchway further down the road. Just one soldier, and he did not move like a clone. His bodily movements seemed more flowing and athletic. He knew precisely where to position himself, conserved ammunition, and had the tacit boldness of an experienced killer. Clones were trained for combat from the moment they walked out of the factory, but you couldn’t manufacture instincts.
‘Gettin’ right tired of giving you chances! Next one’s going in your ankle!’
That settled it. Clones were developed without vocal cords.
Besides, his northern accent was too familiar.
‘Tell me that’s not who I think it is,’ said Alex.
Ewan prepared to shout the command, but Charlie beat him to it. His bullets rained across Sandridge into the distant porchway, and Nicholas Grant’s number two assassin leapt in surprise.
Ewan had no idea what was happening, but it was important. Grant’s creeps never left the Citadels without good reason. Especially not Keith Tylor.
His victim lay cowering in the garden. Her hands shielded her head and torso, as if they would help. She did not have long.
Ewan opened fire towards the house’s front window. It shattered into a thousand glass shards, which fell like crystal rain onto the screaming figure beneath.
She can thank me later.
When the shards came to rest, the young woman scrambled to her feet and leapt through the empty remains of the window frame. Ewan heard a cry, and saw a knife fall from her hand. The glass must have cut her arm and forced her to drop her weapon. She was indoors, but far from safe.
Tylor made a break across the road, showering bullets into the wall six inches from Charlie’s face. He sped to the opposite pavement, hurdled the garden fence and dived effortlessly through the empty window frame.
Ewan led the sprint towards the house, struggling to believe how fast Tylor was. The man must have been pushing forty.
Alex arrived first, but knew better than to follow Tylor inside. He signalled towards the side alley, and Ewan nodded.
Before he ran, Ewan inspected the knife dropped by the window. It was coated with sticky blood, congealed like globs of jelly.
‘Clone blood,’ he muttered, ‘a few hours old. She’s had a busy night.’
He ran down the alley with Charlie in tow, and paused at the end of the path. He could hear her already, grunting and rasping in the garden.
Ewan retrieved the dental mirror from his pocket – standard equipment for Dr McCormick’s Underdogs – and poked it around the wall. Keith Tylor was between the overgrown bushes and the line of abandoned washing. The young woman was clutched in one of his arms, the muzzle of his assault rifle against her head.
You didn’t need a stand-off, Ewan thought towards Tylor. You could have abandoned her and leapt over the fence. Why are you keeping her with you? Who is she?
‘Mate,’ Ewan whispered, careful not to use Charlie’s name with an enemy nearby, ‘tell our friend the house is clear, then go with him to the back door. We need two angles on this guy.’
Charlie turned and ran, at surprising speed for such a short lad. His energy more than made up for his physique.
Ewan took gentle paces into the back garden, his assault rifle aimed towards the assassin.
If there was any panic in Tylor’s mind, none showed in his eyes. Alex and Charlie brushed the back door open, outnumbering Tylor three to one, and yet he stood with an air of authority that made Ewan deeply uncomfortable.
He caught a glimpse of the hostage’s dirtied face. It was so worn, he could barely decipher her age. She had looked like an adult from a distance, but on closer inspection she might only have been a year or two older than him.
But what on Earth was her story? Ewan doubted she had come from New London. Escape must have been literally impossible.
‘You know the drill, kids,’ said Tylor. ‘Guns down.’
‘Yeah,’ said Ewan, ‘because we’re easier to shoot when we’re unarmed. Not happening, Keith.’
‘The girl will die.’
‘And you’ll lose your human shield,’ said Charlie. ‘Try it, see what happens.’
Most people would have panicked. Not Tylor.
Alex turned on his feet and walked back into the house.
‘Hey!’ Ewan barked. ‘Where the hell are you going?’
‘There’s nothing more depressing than two teenage lads arguing over a girl. I’m heading for the road to check for stragglers.’
Ewan saw no reason to argue, but bit his lip as Alex left. Hopefully his teammate would have enough sense to call the other group and alert them.
‘Well, the smart un’s gone,’ said Tylor, tightening a forearm around his struggling hostage. ‘Guess I’m left with the retards.’
It shouldn’t have angered Ewan, but it did. The R word had been thrown at him by his enemies even before Oakenfold. Never mind that he was in a ‘mild-to-moderate’ class. Never mind that he was smart as hell in the battlefield. He would always be ‘special’, and would wear it like a tattoo until the day he died.
Tylor didn’t mean it personally. Bad guys use the R word all the time. He can’t possibly know what school we went to.
‘Two retards beat one any day!’ yelled Charlie, with emerging anger in his voice.
No Charlie, please not now…
‘Yeah,’ said Tylor, ‘if you’re fine with killing humans. And I dun’ think you are. Sure, you’ve took out more clones than you can count. Maybe literally. But killing me would be different, right?’
Tylor’s intense eyes looked straight into Ewan’s.
Ewan did not let his face move. Did not let an eye twitch. But he could sense Charlie’s reaction at his side, as if he were trying to look unnatural with a weapon.
‘You’ve never killed a real guy before, have you?’ Tylor asked him.
‘Maybe. Maybe not.’
‘That means no.’
It means yes. Just once. But I was a different person back then, McCormick saved me…
Ewan’s brain became a wildfire of thoughts.
He’s in control and he knows it. Charlie’s getting angry, and the washing line must be distracting him too. He only needs to outwit me and…
‘You are not in charge,’ Tylor said, with the slow precision of an old-school headmaster. ‘I am in charge. And you will put the gun down.’
Authority had always been Ewan’s weakness, and it was alarming how quick Tylor had worked it out. He was in control, he was making demands, he…
‘Nope, we’re alone,’ said Alex, reappearing at the back door with a cool grin. ‘Now Keith, my dear numpty, why’s she still alive?’
‘You could have killed her and got away. Instead you got yourself trapped with no chance of escape, just for her. Why?’
‘I’ve been in worse messes than this.’
‘Then you’re a crap assassin. Answer the question.’
Keith Tylor, secondary assassin to the most powerful man on the planet, had lost his authority. But even then, his confident expression did not falter.
‘Who is she, Keith?’ Ewan asked.
‘You really have no idea, do you?’ Tylor answered with a small laugh.
Ewan supressed a shudder. He had never been talented at reading people, but Tylor’s face was transparent enough. He still planned to get out with his hostage. Perhaps even kill a few Underdogs on the way. He was capable of it too.
‘Wakey wakey Keith,’ said Charlie.
Tylor began to laugh.
‘A’right, I’m surprised she needs an introduction. Gentlemen, this lovely girl is Shannon Rose–’
It was like the sound of her name woke her up.
Shannon shrieked, and launched her fist towards Tylor’s face. Instead, she hit his neck.
But it was enough to silence him, and for his jugular to gush blood. When she reached back, Ewan saw the shard of window glass in her hand. Tylor stumbled, tried to re-aim his weapon, but did not detect Shannon stealing the hunting knife from his belt until it was plunged into his stomach.
Tylor screamed and fired wildly across the garden, unable to stop himself falling backwards onto the grass. There, Shannon held down his gun arm and began a frenzied attack with the knife.
Ewan could only watch in shock and relief as Tylor’s knife was thrust in and out, in and out, in and out of his torso, pepper-potting his chest as his yells faded. Even when he fell silent she kept stabbing, like she was trying to find something inside his body that was still alive just so she could kill it.
It continued for half a minute before Shannon’s screams turned to tears. She crawled away from Tylor’s lifeless body and began to quiver helplessly.
That’s what it’s like. When you kill a human and you’re not cut out for it. I could have told you that.
Nicholas Grant’s number two assassin lay dead from half a hundred stab wounds in somebody’s back garden. He had been killed by his hostage rather than fleeing to safety without her. It was time to see who she was.
‘Miss Rose,’ Ewan whispered, lowering his weapon. ‘You can trust us. We’re his enemies too.’
She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Her breathing accelerated, her hands slammed themselves over her face and she made pained, groaning noises.
‘Sorry Shannon,’ started Alex, ‘allow me to introduce us. We can’t use our names in the battlefield, but he’s Leader Guy, he’s Angry Guy and I’m Black Guy. There’s a bunch more Guys at home.’
‘“Angry Guy”?’ snarled Charlie. ‘What the hell… ’
‘Couldn’t call you Black Guy, could I?’ answered Alex with a finger pointed to his face. ‘Had to call you something, mate.’
Charlie opened his mouth, but Ewan cut in just in time.
‘We can take you with us,’ he said to Shannon. ‘We’ll protect you.’
Ewan hadn’t seen it coming. Shannon Rose left the conversation and fell to the grass, as if someone had switched her off.
The others got over their surprise quickly. Ewan’s last sentences had grabbed their attention.
‘… With us?’ asked Alex, biting his lip.
‘She’ll get killed in New London!’ said Charlie.
‘Not there, guys. I’m pausing the mission. We’re taking her home.’
Ewan did not check their faces for reactions. He was fixed on Shannon, trying to calculate how long she would take to carry. It would be dark in less than an hour.
‘Did you talk to the others?’
‘They’re coming,’ said Alex.
‘Good. The six of us can take turns carrying her home.’
‘Look mate, I’m all for helping her find her home, but–’
‘Does she look like she wants to go back?’
Alex shook his head in confusion.
‘I don’t get it, Ewan – it’s not like you to duck out of breaking and entering. You love ammo raids.’
‘This is a human life,’ came Ewan’s answer, or maybe McCormick’s words through his mouth. ‘Those are rare and precious these days.’
He could not stop his gaze from drifting to the dead body of Keith Tylor.
Rare and precious. Yeah, right.
‘Besides,’ he finished, ‘I need to know why Tylor wanted her so much. The ammunition will still be there tomorrow, but if we leave her now we lose her. We’re taking her to Spitfire’s Rise.’
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook