Getting through the outer ring of forest was easy this time. From the outside of the fence it looked as though something large had ploughed through the metal and trees taking everything in its path. All they had to do was pick their way through the mass of twisted metal and broken tree stumps. This alone took some time, but at least they knew which direction they were going. Sparrow and Zed helped Bee find her way through the tangled mess underfoot. She was surer when she could use her hands to clamber over things, but on the flatter stretches her hands were no use, and Sparrow and Zed took an arm each to help her along.
"I feel like a baby. Being led by the hand."
"It's just for a while, Bee." Zed comforted her.
Dee ran in front of them, hopping from one clump of grassy sedge to another with nimble feet. Tekla trudged steadily behind them, followed by Rat, who was distracted by every muddy puddle or mossy ditch.
Soon they could see the outskirts of the City. It looked similar in layout to Garden City with fields and warehouses littering the outer circles. But something was different. Here the buildings were wracked and torn open as if some giant from a storybook had ripped them apart, and the fields were scarred with the tracks of many vehicles.
"What happened here?" Zed asked.
As they got further into the City they saw that the damage was not restricted to the outer circles. Once tall buildings were little more than ruins rising out of rubble, and the streets were filled with bricks and piles of rubbish. Once again, it looked as though a path had been cleared through the debris, so here at last Bee could walk unaided apart from her staff. She shrugged off the others.
While around them the city was silent, in the distance they could hear what sounded like gunfire. They walked warily through the ruins, wondering if at any moment they would bump into some soldiers.
"How are we supposed to find my dad in all this?" Sparrow grumbled at last and sat down on the road in the dust. Rat and Tekla were playing hide and seek behind the concrete boulders.
Bee struck the ground with her staff. "You're not giving up that easily, are you?"
"Maybe we should stop and have some food?" Zed suggested hastily, sensing an argument rising.
"I wouldn't give up, not if I was searching for someone." Bee continued, twirling the staff in her hands.
Sparrow got to her feet. "I'm not giving up!"
"Good." Bee said.
"How were you planning to find your dad once we got here anyway?" Zed asked, before Bee could say anything else.
"I dunno...ask around? I thought there would be more people here. I thought there would be a city here."
"Yeah, where is everyone?" Dee asked, looking around.
"They must have got evacuated out like everyone at Garden City did." Sparrow said.
It began to rain again, so they sheltered in one of the abandoned buildings that wasn't as destroyed as some of the others. Everything inside was eerily left as if the inhabitants were just coming back. It appeared to have been a nursery, judging from the small chairs and tables, and toys spread across the floor. Some paper flapped in the breeze from the broken window, and bright coloured crayons lay rolled across the surface of the table. Tekla fell upon the toys and immediately started stacking the coloured blocks one on top of the other. Rat watched with interest. Dee sat down at the table and discovered the crayons, "What are these for? Can I eat them?"
Sparrow grabbed a bit of paper from the floor and drew a stick figure with one of the crayons. Dee's eyes lit up and he happily gathered a stack of paper and scribbled away. The others sank down onto the large central rug and eased their rucksacks off their shoulders onto the floor.
"What do we do now?" Bee asked.
Sparrow responded by digging into her bag and pulling out the last loaf of bread. She chucked a piece to Bee, "Here, catch."
"There's food?" Tekla abandoned the toys but pulled a face when she saw what Sparrow had. "I'm bored of bread..."
"Well it's all there is."
Tekla took the piece of bread and ambled back over to the toy area. Rat had knocked her tower down and was re-stacking the blocks. "Hey..." Tekla said, and pushed Rat. Rat snatched the bread from her and retreated to the corner.
"Spaaa....arow!" Tekla whined, and threw one of the blocks at Rat. Rat threw it back and hit Tekla on the forehead. Tekla burst into tears and ran back to Sparrow.
"Bad Rat." Sparrow said, and gave Tekla another bit of bread. Rat just crouched in the corner, chewing on the tough crust of the bread.
Bee swallowed her last mouthful and licked the flour off her fingers, "What I meant was what do we do about finding your dad?"
Sparrow frowned and threw a bit of bread at Dee's head. "Dee, come and eat! I don't know...That Grace Norden lady said my dad was helping them, so it must be something to do with the train line. I suppose if we find the station we could follow the line and maybe find him that way."
"Do you know where the station is?" Zed asked.
"It'll be in the centre of the city. All the Cities are built on the same layout. We just need to find out what sector we're in and then we can work our way inwards from that."
They started to make their way towards the centre of the city. They passed through streets that were eerily quiet and untouched, and others that had bullet holes scarring the walls or entire chunks of building crumbling across their path. The sky slowly darkened above them, and the last rays of the sun made the ruined buildings cast strange shadows. Their footsteps dragged. Sparrow pulled Tekla along, eyes flicking from side to side and all around as they picked their way through the rubble. The nearer they got to the centre, the worse the damage seemed to be. Although they had heard gun shots earlier in the day, now all was quiet, and somehow that was worse than the noise of the guns.
Eventually they came to the end of a street that opened onto a large spacious square, laid out with trees and benches. Sparrow pulled the group to a halt.
"The station should be just on the other side of the square."
"Not far then!" Dee said cheerfully and was about to step round the corner but Sparrow stopped him.
"I don't like it." She said,"It's too open and quiet."
"Surely that's a good thing?" Bee asked.
"I say we wait."
Bee sighed and leant against the wall. Tekla and Rat got restless, although Sparrow constantly hissed at them to sit still and be quiet. The shadows in the square lengthened and joined up, and the sun disappeared behind the horizon. Something moved in the darkness across the square. Zed and Sparrow saw it at the same time, and pulled the others over to the wall next to Bee.
The dark shapes scuttled across the square in small groups, running from one hiding spot to another. The rising moon cast light on their helmets and guns. The children shrank back against the wall as the soldiers drew nearer. Rat broke away from Sparrow's grasp and ran down the middle of the street. A sharp burst of gunfire rang out. Sparrow called out, springing forward to chase after her and the others followed. There was a swooshing noise, and a fiery red flare landed amongst their feet, spewing sparks and smoke everywhere. Light danced across the insides of her eyelids. More gunfire filled the air.
Coughing, Sparrow lunged forward to grab the back of Rat's shirt and dragged her round the corner. The others emerged out of the smoke and darkness, Zed pulling Bee and Dee by the hand.
"Where's Tekla?" Sparrow screamed at them and darted back round the corner. In the fading red glow of the flare she spotted Tekla sprawled on the ground and then the flare died, leaving only tendrils of smoke. With her heart thumping in her ears, Sparrow reached down and pulled Tekla up by the shoulders. The little girl howled. Sparrow shook her and pushed her forward into the shadow of the buildings where the others were huddled.
Tekla continued to sob and Sparrow put a hand over her mouth to dull the noise. They could hear voices coming closer.
"I think I got one of them - didn't you hear that screech?"
"I dunno - sounded more like an animal to me..."
"Carter; Perkins - shut up! If they're injured they could still be close by."
The third soldier spoke up again, louder this time, her voice carrying in the silence between the empty buildings. "You might as well come out with your hands up. We know there aren't that many of you."
Sparrow chewed her lip, still keeping her hand across Tekla's mouth, although the sobs had been replaced with silent tears that left tracks down her dirty cheeks.
"I don't trust them..." Bee whispered in her ear.
Sparrow reached into her back pocket and pulled out her handkerchief. It was torn and dirty, but still recognisably a piece of white fabric. She wrapped it around a stone and threw it round the corner.
"Grenade!" yelled one of the soldiers and there was the sounds of them scrambling to a safe distance. When the expected explosion didn't happen there was nervous laughter and some shouting.
"Is this snot-rag supposed to be a white flag? Alright, we accept your surrender, come out now."
Sparrow eased her hand away from Tekla's mouth and took a proper look at her little sister. Mixed in with the dirt and dust there was blood seeping slowly from a wound on her upper arm where a bullet had ripped through her clothing. It was long and thin, an angry red colour with scorch marks around the broken skin.
"You shot my little sister!" Sparrow yelled. She looked around at the others. Zed and Dee had their knives held in shaky hands, and Bee had a firm grip on her staff. Rat crouched ready to spring. Sparrow pulled out her own knife.
A group of soldiers came running around the corner. They looked down at the children in shock.
"Hey, you haven't seen any other soldiers here, have you, brats?"
All the soldiers looked in disdain at the one who had spoken up.
"Carter you idiot, they were the 'soldiers'...and we shot one of them."
Sparrow looked at their uniforms in surprise. "You're from Central!"
"34th Central...the Glory Troop, kid." Carter grinned.
The girl in charge frowned and slapped Carter on the back of his head. "If I have to tell you one more time to stop calling us that..." She shook her head. "Never mind, let's get you lot safely back to base and get that wound seen to. Before all this noise attracts attention."