"And one of you must be Zed." Sparrow reached out and helped one of the figures climb out from the broken vent in the wall. Three others followed, of various shapes and sizes. They stared at Sparrow without saying a word. There was a tall girl with dark skin and hair. A strip of fabric covered her eyes. There was a fair-haired boy who held his left arm against his side in an awkward manner; another, smaller boy was strangely pale, with white hair and milky eyes. Finally, there was a child about Tekla's size, with tousled brown hair and a wild look in her eyes. All were barefoot and dressed in the same loose grey tunics and trousers.
Sparrow took a step backwards, then another, bumping into Tekla, who was halfway through the door.
Sparrow yelled, "I told you to stay through there!"
Tekla scrunched up her face in a frown, "Everyone else is here..."
Sparrow pointed to the other kids. "Stay back from them. They might be infectious."
"Dirty. Germs that might harm you."
Tekla's eyes opened wide and she stared back at the strange children. She slid back through the door and watched from there, hands and nose pressed up against the glass.
Sparrow turned to face the potential threat, hands clenched at her sides. "How did you get here?"
"I was brought here." The tall girl was the first to speak. "I was at another facility but they transferred me here last year."
Encouraged, the boy with fair hair spoke up. "I...I'm Zed. I think I've always been here. I don't remember anywhere else."
Sparrow noticed a mark on the inside of his wrist. "What's that? Hold it up so I can see..."
The boy looked at his wrist and held it up. "We all have them. They all look different though."
"Let me see," Sparrow commanded. The boy gently nudged the tall girl's hand and she turned it to show the mark. The younger boy held his up, and tried to get the wild child to show hers, but she shut her eyes and shook her head violently. He gave up.
Sparrow pointed at Zed. "Your mark is the letter Zed." She pointed at the girl, and pronounced,"Bee." She pointed at the pale boy and said, "Your mark is the letter Dee." Finally she pointed to the youngest and said, "But what's her mark?"
Rat looked up. She narrowed her eyes at Sparrow's outstretched arm. Lunging forward, she sunk her small teeth into Sparrow's hand, then retreated into the corner between the glass door and the wall.
"That's Rat." Dee said. "She bites."
Sparrow flapped her hand in panic. She tried to remember what to do if you came into contact with an infected person, but they hadn't finished studying bites yet in Medical. She noticed Zed coming towards her and she shook her head, "Don't...don't come any closer!"
Zed stopped. "I was only going to check it." He held up his right hand again and she noticed the MediTape covering part of his palm. She took a deep breath through her nose and pressed against the bite. There wasn't any blood. She gave a sigh of relief. "There's a MediCase in one of the cupboards through there. I saw it when I was looking for the keys." Even though it wasn't bleeding, she still wanted to clean the bite mark with a wipe. It would sting, but at least she'd be safe.
Bee stepped forward. "You should let Zed look at it for you. He's good with bites."
Zed looked up at her in surprise.
Dee nodded, "He has to be, around Rat. She's always biting. He even managed to fix her bite with his bad arm."
"She's trouble." said Bee, scowling.
A tap tap tap on the glass caused them all to turn around. Rat and Tekla were both on the other side of the door, faces squished against the glass. Sparrow forgot all about the bite on her hand. It was bad enough that she should get bitten but now Tekla could be infected too. She shook her head in despair. "I might as well let you help now, Zed. If you are all sick then we are now too."
Zed frowned. "We're not sick."
"Well you don't look normal." Sparrow retorted, thinking of Bee's hidden eyes, the funny way Zed held his left arm, Dee's strange paleness and...whatever it was that was wrong with Rat. "There's something wrong with all of you, and that's not allowed."
"We can't help it." Bee said fiercely.
"I suppose not," Sparrow agreed. It wasn't their fault they were broken and too stupid to know it.
Eventually Rat and Tekla fell asleep, curled up together under one of the desks. Sparrow carefully unfolded Rat's arm and found the mark on the wiry little wrist. She crept back to the others. "Em." she said quietly, "Her mark is an Em."
"I prefer Rat." said Bee, to no one in particular.
"So..." Sparrow began, sitting down in the rough circle they had created in the middle of the room. "We came here to get the food from the store."
"It's ours." Bee said. "You can't have it."
Zed looked uncomfortable. "We've eaten lots of it..."
"They can't have it." Bee repeated.
Sparrow looked stubborn. "We're not leaving without food."
Dee looked from one to the other, "Why can't we give them some?"
Bee sighed. "Does anyone listen to me?"
"Look," Sparrow said, "All I want is enough for Tekla and me to reach the next supply store. She's small, she doesn't need much."
"Next supply store..." Zed echoed. "You mean there's more food?"
"We don't need more food." Bee argued, "We have all we need right here."
"It's not going to last forever though. It's got to run out eventually. And then we'll have to leave here. And we don't know what's out there or where we're going."
Everyone was silent after Zed's outburst. Bee realised that what Zed said was true - they would have to leave the facility at some point. But she'd be happy to put that off for as long as possible. Leaving would mean going somewhere strange and unfamiliar, where she didn't know where anything was and couldn't find her way about by herself. She liked being in the facility where she could do what she wanted and go where she wanted. Alone. Although she reluctantly admitted that Zed was useful to have around, Dee was a nuisance though, and Rat was just bad news.
"I'm not taking you with me!" Sparrow hissed. "I've got enough trouble looking out for Tekla; I don't need you lot tagging along too."
"We don't want to go with you anyway." Bee said
"I don't know, Bee. It'd be nice to have something other than cold peas and peach slices." Dee was always thinking about food.
Sparrow tilted her head. "What's that? Have you just been eating cold food out of cans all this while?"
Dee nodded. "And biscuits too. There's other stuff but it isn't good to eat just as it is. I know, I tried and it made my stomach hurt."
Sparrow stretched her arms and cracked her fingers before the group. "Right, here's what we'll do. You guys will let me have some of your food stash and I...I will cook you a meal like you've never had before."
"That does sound good." Zed admitted. They could always give Sparrow the things they couldn't eat without preparing. She seemed like she would know what to do.
"Do you mean we can have hot food again?" Dee's favourite time of day before had been whenever his food tray contained steaming hot broth, mouth-scalding mashed potatoes or warm custard over fruit.
"Why should we help them?" Bee asked. "It's not like they helped us at all..."
"But remember how nice hot food is, Bee?" Dee pleaded.
Bee thought about it. She liked being on her own. Or with people she knew. Zed was safe - he hadn't asked about her eyes after that first time, and Dee didn't seem to care. Rat wasn't safe to be around, not with her habit of biting anything that moved, but at least Bee knew about that and could plan around it. She didn't know anything about Sparrow and Tekla; what they would do or what they would say. If they were given food, they would leave. And it would be back to just the four of them.
"Fine." She said, "Do what you want, I don't care."
Dee grinned. Even Zed managed a shy smile although he reached out to touch Bee on the shoulder. She shrugged his hand away. "I'm tired. We should all get some sleep."
"We'll take you to the food after." Zed said as he stood up to leave.
"Wait, you're not leaving Em here with me, are you?"
"Well she's sleeping. She'll bite us if we try to wake her up."
"And I'm not carrying her," Bee added.
"We'll be back to show you the way soon." Zed promised.
Sparrow brought her legs up to her chest and clasped her arms around her knees, "Well I won't get a wink of sleep that's for sure..." she muttered to herself as the others disappeared through the glass door and into the wall again.