How do you save the world when it’s already too late?
Don’t ask Leo Lloyd-Jones. Ask him how to steal a car, or why he got excluded from every school in Salford, but don’t come to him for help. This whole thing must be a daft mistake – and if anyone finds out, he’s done for.
Earth is on a deadly collision course that nothing can prevent. The only real hope is Project Firebird, deep inside a blast-proof bunker that shelters the brightest and bravest young people. Leo has got mixed up with the likes of Rhys Carnarvon, the celebrated teenage polar explorer, and other child prodigies chosen to kick-start a new civilisation.
There’s also the streetwise Paige Harris, a girl Leo likes a lot (but not in that way). Paige is desperate to rescue her little sister from London before the catastrophe strikes. But no-one is crazy enough to try that. Almost no-one.
Leo is about to find out why he’s here.
* * *
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Everyone was here for a reason, weren’t they? Some kids won awards for bravery or maths, others raised cash for charities or campaigned to save the planet. Leo borrowed cars from the sleeping people of Salford and thrashed them to death around the Seedbury housing estate, better known locally as the Hell Hole.
‘Give us another chip.’
‘Okay. Open.’ Charlie leaned from the passenger seat and fed him a nice vinegary one. Leo swallowed it half-chewed, it was too hot. Charlie offered the cider. Leo shook his head, though the roof of his mouth was now a flap of burnt skin.
‘Not when I’m driving.’
‘Right,’ Charlie smirked. ‘’Cos that’d be right dangerous.’
‘Want to keep my wits about me, don’t I? If Sacha beats me tonight, I’ll be doing his homework till the end of term.’
They pounded the dark streets with a monster’s heartbeat, a killer bass groove he could feel in his bones. What the owner of this rustbucket had saved on the car, he must have splurged on the stereo system. Leo stubbed his cigarette, scorching the seat. All he had to do was dodge Sacha until midnight, and a spanking new leather jacket would be his.
Games of tag with cars had been his own invention, of course. The rules were easy. No player could drive outside the Seedbury estate, so anything beyond the Shopping City embankment to the south, or the mangled park railings to the north, was out of bounds. The main road and the bypass were also off-limits. If you were It, you had fifteen minutes to tag your opponent with your front bumper. There had to be a dent or it didn’t count. When you were tagged, you lost a life, hopefully not your real one. It had happened. Five lives last year, in this postcode alone, two crashes and five funerals, but that had been before Leo’s time, and Leo’s rules.
Without touching the brake he threw the wheel to the left. The car rode a smoke carpet round the corner into Fairview Avenue. That was a bad name, really. The red brick terraces were boarded up, the houses dark and empty, all street lamps busted. Like speeding into a railway tunnel. He killed the headlights.
‘Woooo! Stealth mode.’
Charlie screamed in delighted terror. Leo got the gas pedal all the way to the floor before his nerve cracked and he flipped the beams back on. A mini-roundabout loomed white like an iceberg. Charlie’s side of the car lurched aloft as the wheels crunched over it, sending one of their rear hubcaps singing into the gutter. Leo grappled with the wheel, but the Vauxhall was determined to plough up the grass verge, careering towards the children’s play area (a few swings, a seesaw, a lonely slide). The wood-chip surface turned the skid into a spin, and burning tyres joined the smell of fried chicken. Charlie clutched their spilling supper. Suddenly Leo’s lap felt hot. A moment later he yelped.
‘It’s burning! It’s burning!’
‘Yeah!’ cried Charlie. ‘Burn rubber!’
‘Not the tyres, you wazzock,’ Leo screamed. ‘The chicken’s all over me. Hot grease – burning – my trousers. Get it off! Get it off!’
Charlie scrabbled at Leo’s lower half, trying to brush away spicy wings and fries without singeing his own fingers. Falling across the handbrake he jammed under the steering wheel.
‘Stop spinning the car! It’d be easier.’
‘I can’t!’ Knotted swings flashed across the windscreen, blurred by tears of pain. ‘Arrgh. You missed a bit. It’s blistering. Try my flies.’
‘What? Try your own flies, you –’
The car stopped. The crunch was like the last sound heard by a beetle. Leo waggled his head from side to side to check if his neck was broken. It seemed not. The back seats were blanketed in glass. A groaning Charlie wriggled out from between his knees. Leo let the last scorching nugget escape through his zip and fanned his thighs with the air from the burst back window.
‘Ahh, man…’ Charlie looked behind them. ‘You hit the kiddies’ slide.’
The Vauxhall’s boot had mashed sideways into the steps, wrenching them off the frame. Leo blew and blew on his lap.
‘You ruined it,’ Charlie grumbled. ‘How are the littl’uns going to climb up now?’
‘I don’t care. Chaz-man, I’m hurting down here.’
‘Heh. You’ll need skin grafts.’
‘Doctor can take them off your face, then. It’ll be a good match.’
‘D’ya want damping down?’ Charlie sloshed the cider can.
‘Back off. I’m not having apple-flavoured pants.’
Suddenly the swings in front lit up. Maple Drive blazed like a firework fuse and a saloon car swung out on the tips of its headlight beams, straightening, coming at them. Leo grabbed the wheel, his burns forgotten.
The engine had stalled. He groped for the dangling wires beneath the steering column and stroked the brown one against the twisted reds. Wheezes came from the ignition. Charlie swore.
‘C’mon, Leo! Peg it!’
Leo shut his eyes. Sometimes hotwiring was easier by touch. The engine coughed, roared. Leo floored the gas and the car wrenched clear of the slide, leaving the twisted steps sadly waving. Sacha’s car was seconds from impact. Leo dodged with a brain-juddering handbrake turn, decorating Charlie with the remaining chips, and skidded for the nearest bolt hole, The Roses, another black and boarded-up road. The clock said 11:56. Sacha’s time would be up in four minutes. Leo shaved a corner, lost another hubcap. He roughshodded a dead-end to reach the street beyond, burrowing frantically into the estate.
‘My dad used to take me to play on that slide,’ muttered Charlie.
‘I can’t see Sacha in my mirrors, Chaz! Check for me.’
‘He’s on stealth. Cutting through someone’s front garden.’
Leo saw the shadow, steadily gaining.
‘Show-off. Did you see what car he’s got?’
Leo shook his head in envy. ‘How did he hotwire that?’
‘Can’t have. Must’ve nicked the key,’ said Charlie. ‘He was gabbing about some house in Earl’s Road.’
‘Burglary? That’s rank. You can get done for that.’
‘You can get done for this,’ Charlie pointed out. Their stolen Vauxhall roared along the Southway embankment towards the distant sleeping lights of the Shopping City.
‘Ha, ha. What’s that, a law from the Doomsday Book?’
‘Uh?’ Charlie’s parents, unlike Leo’s, had never even tried to educate him.
‘Y’know,’ said Leo. ‘Laws that are older than Shakespeare. That everyone’s forgotten about. Forsooth, sirrah!’ he bellowed, in a fruity voice. ‘Yonder brigands are stealing my cart! Prithee, stop those knaves whipping my ASS – !’ He braked sharply. ‘Hey. What’s that by the bus stop?’
Charlie was still giggling. ‘We have a bus stop?’
‘Listed building, aye. Wait up.’ Leo sling-shotted the roundabout on his outer wheels, doubling back. There was no sign of the BMW now. Midnight had passed and he had won, but for the moment that dropped out of his head. What had he seen, back there? Something. A small crowd near the bus shelter. A girl in a fluffy coat.
Where Southway branched to join the main road to Manchester, he braked. Switching off his lights he coasted to a stop, engine idling. Charlie poked him.
‘Look.’ About a hundred metres further on, shadows milled against the bus shelter’s luminous hoardings. The familiar signs of trouble. Rowdy lads and some drunk-looking girls were pressing in upon a tall young man and a small woman. The man could be heard shouting as he edged away, holding up the arm that wasn’t wrapped around his girlfriend. She was wearing a sleeveless fake-fur coat, reaching to her waist. Grace had a coat like that. Grace was his grown-up brother’s girlfriend. The height difference between them clinched it.
‘I think that’s Brandon,’ Leo blurted out.
One of the gang lunged, clubbing with his fist. The tall man staggered. From half a road away the blow was chillingly quick and quiet. The man swung a clumsy punch in response and the gang swarmed. Leo heard faint female screams.
‘Grace!’ he gasped. ‘That’s Grace and my brother.’
Charlie gulped. ‘I’ll call the police.’
‘You what? The lice won’t come here. They never come here.’
He fired up the headlights, crammed his fist into the horn, and aimed his shrieking car straight at the mob. They had a choice: scatter, or die. They scattered. Charlie, still wailing, crossed himself. Leo stamped the clutch and brake, stopping inches to the left of the man curled up in the gutter. He flung open his door.
‘Brandon!’ he panted. ‘Get in.’
The woman, on her knees, looked up with a dazed expression. Leo blinked. She wasn’t Grace. Apart from the coat and her small build, she looked nothing like his brother’s girlfriend. The man rose to his hands and knees. Of course, he wasn’t Brandon. Leo’s brother was far too sensible to come near this godforsaken place. The couple were strangers.
He supposed he could leave them. But then what? The scattered lowlifes were peeling themselves off the road, muttering, swearing, shambling back like video game zombies only half killed. Leo stretched to open the rear passenger door.
‘Get in! Quick!’
A mad-eyed youth pointed at their car, babbling, spraying spit. A bottle bounced off the bonnet. The young man remained down on his knees, trying to pick up the blood spots that had dripped from his nose onto the pavement, as if he thought they were his contact lenses.
‘Tom, move!’ screamed his girlfriend. The man snapped out of it, bundled her into the back seat and dived in behind her, but couldn’t turn fast enough to close the car door. The crazed yob ran forward, swinging a belt from his fist. Leo stamped the gas and the open door caught the guy square-on, knocking him aside while conveniently slamming itself shut.
That was it, then. He had left himself no choice. He fled the Seedbury estate and drove, as sensibly as he knew how, the short hop across Salford to his home street. Mam or Dad could call an ambulance to take these folks to hospital. And after that, because he’d had his last chance, and his final, final warning, they would phone the police and have their youngest son arrested. There was no escape this time. This was the end.
Charlie was talking to the beaten-up Tom.
‘What was that about?’
‘No idea. Didn’t like the look of us, I s’pose.’ Tom sounded like he came from the south, London or somewhere. ‘Should that kid really be driving us? Your mate, I mean.’
‘Rather him than you,’ said Charlie. Tom nodded weakly, leaned back and shut his swollen eyes. Leo felt a touch on his shoulder.
‘Thank you,’ said the woman.
‘Er.’ He decided to own up. ‘Thought you was someone else, to tell the truth.’
‘Well. Thanks anyway.’ She giggled, as if it was either that or break down sobbing. ‘If there’s anything I can do…’
‘Doubt it.’ Leo tried to smile. His stomach felt full of bricks. ‘Not unless you’ve got a card that says Get Out Of Jail Free.’
‘Oh. Of course.’ She smiled at him bravely in the mirror. ‘No. I’m not sure that I do have one of those.’ She hesitated again before shaking her head. ‘Probably not. Sorry.’
In the end, it turned out better than Leo feared. At his trial, on a string of charges ranging from dangerous driving to common assault, Tom Dowie and Sara Fife stood as defence witnesses. They told the youth court that they owed him their lives. Sara answered the prosecution that yes, Leo might be a yob, a menace, a nightmare child… but she had never been so glad to see anyone in her life.
Leo Lloyd-Jones was cleared of all charges except that of taking a vehicle without owner’s consent. He got away with an electronic curfew tag on his wrist, a few dozen hours’ worth of wiping off graffiti, and a three-year disqualification from driving. Seeing as he was only fourteen years old, he found that part especially funny.
For him the whole experience was like falling into a septic tank, only to find that the brown stuff was actually chocolate. Of course, Mam and Dad weren’t best pleased. ‘Luck of the devil,’ Dad said, but even he couldn’t hide his pride when the letter came. Leo had been selected to receive this year’s Firebird Medal. They’d never heard of this prize before, but judging by the website it was very grand, a sort of junior George Cross, awarded for courage, selfless acts or extreme cleverness. Leo laughed till the Tizer fizzed out his nose. All sorts of achievements appeared to qualify, from sporting excellence to charity work to overcoming illness – even, it seemed, rescuing two strangers while driving a stolen car.
‘They shouldn’t be rewarding hooligans like you.’ Dad groused all the way to the train station, but on the platform he was sniffing and his eyes looked red. Leo put it down to Salford’s high levels of air pollution. He settled into his seat as the train moved out, watching Dad wave till he disappeared off the edge of the window. Changing trains at Bolton, he felt an unaccustomed pang of loneliness while standing on the platform, and found himself wishing that he had waved back.
His prize had turned out to be more than just a medal. Winners were to be treated to a fortnight’s adventure holiday (‘New Zealand?’ Leo had asked. ‘Lake District,’ said his big brother, wryly. The Lake District was basically next door and a bit – not that Leo had ever been). A minibus fetched him from Penrith station and was soon winding ever higher into the hills, like the spiralling flight of the buzzard that rode the thermals in the valley alongside.
The info pack said he would be staying at Honister Manse. This was a large stone house, rooted alone on the flank of Fleetwith Pike, a hill shaped like the back end of an Apatosaurus emerging from the waters of Buttermere. All set to meet his fellow winners, expecting three or four at most, he was shocked to count twenty-six other kids milling in the lounge for the welcome meeting. Not many looked like car thieves, either. Most were alarmingly well-scrubbed. He considered bailing out by faking appendicitis.
A tall man called David appeared to be in charge. His Firebird Foundation t-shirt displayed a suntan and a build like a retired centre forward, though a pair of specs gave him a scientific face. After some banter and bad jokes he got the kids to introduce themselves. First up, and almost impossible to hear, was Isabel Mitchel-Mullen, some kind of genius who’d won a scholarship to study Physics at Oxford two years ago, when she was twelve. Then came a couple of the country’s top boy scouts, and a promising decathlete who managed to be happy with the name Isaac Newton. A girl called Eleanor shared her tale of how she’d beaten leukaemia and now toured hospitals to inspire other sick children. And then that imposing blond-haired boy, Rhys Carnarvon, whom everyone recognised off the telly, stood up to retell his famous and literally chilling story of how he’d walked with his father, the well-known climate scientist, author and presenter Arthur Carnarvon, to the South Pole – only to return alone.
Rhys had the chair beside Leo’s, so Leo knew it would be his turn to speak next. And no way was he doing that. Midway through the notorious South Pole tale, which as everyone knew would end with Arthur Carnarvon falling down a crevasse to his death, leaving Rhys all alone in the middle of Antarctica – Leo decided that he had to escape. He couldn’t follow someone like this. These awestruck listeners were in no mood to hear of his car-jacking and his chicken grease burns. It was all a mistake, he didn’t belong here among these heroes and high achievers. They’d take one sniff at him and cast him out. Time to take a loo break, he thought, and then flee through the back door.
‘And, well, you know the rest.’ Rhys Carnarvon abruptly sat down, preferring to break off his tale before the tragic part. In the hush, every eye turned to the rough-looking kid sitting next to him. Leo felt a rush of full-on panic. He couldn’t breathe. Then Rhys leaned over and murmured in his ear.
‘I hope your story’s funnier than mine. This lot could do with cheering up, I think.’
A smile flashed between them, catching Leo off guard. In that moment his discomfort melted away. He was no longer the uninvited guest. Suddenly he knew that he could have his audience rolling in the aisles.
‘Thanks,’ he whispered to Rhys. ‘I’ll have a go.’
And he began.
When Leo thought of holidays, he usually thought of Blackpool. At first this one felt more like the boot camp that Dad said he deserved. All the winners of the Firebird Medal had to sleep in dorms with bunk beds. Breakfast happened so early that he preferred to starve, and bedtime was enforced just as he was starting to wake up. In between came the healthy outdoor activities: blistering long treks, kayaking, rock climbing, orienteering. ‘If the Good Lord had meant us to walk up hills –’ Leo imitated his great-granddad, in a broad Lancashire bleat, ‘he would have made ’em flat.’ That got a smile from Rhys. Why this celebrated explorer’s son chose to hang around him, he had no idea. With his smoker’s lungs and petrol head, Leo got exhausted just tying his hiking boots, whereas Rhys had a spring in his step when even their three supervisors looked knackered. Rhys did not get tired. Ever. He could walk and walk, a machine with no off-switch, and girls went quiet at the sight of his arms in short sleeves. Yet most of the time he ignored all female attention, seeming content to dawdle at Leo’s side. The pair of them could hardly have had less in common, apart from both having Welsh surnames, which Rhys found tediously fascinating.
‘No, it must have been your father’s grandfather who came from Porthmadog,’ he corrected Leo on one occasion.
Leo shrugged. ‘If you say so. I can’t even name all my cousins. What, you know your whole family tree?’
‘Yes,’ said Rhys, apparently surprised that Leo didn’t.
The Firebird medallists got to try fishing and wilderness camping, foraging for food in the woods, lighting fires with a bow-and-drill, animal tracking, starlight navigation and many other skills that Leo doubted he’d be using in Salford. He couldn’t pinpoint when he started to have the time of his life. But he would never forget the sensation of the earth losing its grip on him as Chris, his supervisor that day, launched their tandem hang-glider off the summit of the Pike, its red and yellow canvas ablaze in the sunshine like a bird’s fiery wings. Leo had never been so sure he was about to die; never more certain that he didn’t want to.
Here was the biggest shock: he was going to miss this bunch. Considering their vast achievements, the whole group got on weirdly well. At Leo’s school it only took two egos in one class to trigger civil wars. Here, peace reigned. There were two or three minor power struggles, as many sulks, a few girls cried and one was rather spiky. That was it. Leo couldn’t imagine twenty-seven kids living much better together. It was almost as if they’d been hand-picked for that purpose.
The holiday built towards its climactic weekend. David the chief supervisor promised that they would soon receive their Firebird medals, but first they would have to find them. Their medals lay sealed in a mysterious container, called the Egg, hidden somewhere in the wilderness. Teams would race to the Egg in a two-day treasure trail, with a bonus prize for the winners.
Leo was in the Falcons team, led by Rhys, and bagged the job of cameraman as it sounded like a doss. All day long he filmed his team-mates as they clambered down waterfalls, trudged through mud, huddled in the rain solving cryptic clues, or (in the case of Daisy Nethersole, their national junior judo champion) threatened to chuck him off the cliff if he didn’t get that camera out of her face. The whole thing was such a laugh, it was hours before he noticed that he no longer trailed behind, and evening before exhaustion finally overtook him. Somehow, without meaning to, he’d got fit.
By the morning of Day Two they were well in the lead.
‘The Otters are lagging one whole clue behind us. Wildcats half a clue farther back,’ Rhys reported, after a hilltop reconnaissance with binoculars.
‘Grand!’ said Leo. ‘Time for a decent brekky.’
He watched Paige Harris through his zoom lens as she sizzled sausages and mushrooms in a pan. Obviously he didn’t fancy her, but Paige was okay. She could cook, for a start, and rustling up breakfast for nine was like child’s play for her. Every mealtime she became the boss, barking orders as they scurried to bring her firewood and water.
When Paige had introduced herself at the welcome meeting, everyone had listened in appalled silence. She was getting the Firebird Medal for the way she’d cared for her six-year-old sister. Their mother had been struck down with depression ever since little Skye was born, and then it had got worse… and worse. First the house grew filthy, a laundry mountain choked the bathroom and food stopped appearing at mealtimes. Paige learned to pick up groceries on her way home from school, and when there was no money to be found in her mum’s purse, she got a paper round, borrowed from friends, and at last in desperation turned to shoplifting food from the biggest stores. And she took Skye to nursery when she could, stirred their dirty clothes in the bath with a broom handle, and tried to persuade her mum to take her pills. They got by like that for maybe half a year. Then Paige found scabs on Skye’s thin brown arms, scabs as small and round as the tips of cigarettes. She made her decision. Skipping afternoon school she picked up Skye and they boarded a bus, without even checking where it was going. Through a mix of determination, stubbornness and luck, Paige found them a place to stay, a squat in south London occupied by drug addicts. When the police and social services tracked them down, more than a month later, they were astonished to find Skye not only alive and well but in fine spirits. Paige had simply told her sister that they were on holiday.
Now Paige eyed the hillside behind them with a far more cheerful anxiety. ‘We can’t let them Otters overtake us.’
‘Summer’ll never catch us up,’ said Rhys. ‘Her team will mutiny first.’
Summer Dartington was the Otters’ leader. Poor Otters, most people agreed. The few tears and tantrums to spoil this holiday could be traced, they felt, back to her. The worst moment had come near the start of the week, when she’d confronted Rhys on the subject no-one else dared to bring up.
‘Why did you and your dad go to the South Pole?’ she asked, apparently in all innocence. ‘Didn’t Scott already do that?’ With superhuman patience Rhys had explained that yes, many people had gone there before, but as one of the world’s leading climate scientists, Arthur Carnarvon had been engaged in a special, even desperate mission. By taking his son, then only 13 years old, on a seven-hundred mile trek across the last surviving permanent ice cap in the world, he had hoped to spark enough public interest to reawaken the world’s dwindling interest in the dangers of climate change. But unfortunately Dad had made headlines of a different kind, when a bridge of snow crumbled underfoot to pitch him down a mile-deep crack in the glacier.
‘I didn’t even hear him shout. I looked ahead and he was just gone,’ Rhys had told Summer, his voice shaking only slightly. He went on to describe how he had waited alone for rescuers, holed up for five days inside a tent cold enough to freeze the tears on his face, while a blizzard roared outside. To be fair to her, Summer had then looked awkward and had apologised, but neither Rhys nor Leo wanted much to do with her after that.
At the thought of the Otters on their heels, they bolted their sausage butties. Leo shot some top-notch footage of them racing to pack up the tents and casting him sour looks for not helping. Donning their wetsuits they took the quickest route to the valley floor, a slip and slide down a waterfall, their equipment bundled in waterproof bags. Leo had an idea that there must be a derelict train track down there. It seemed the best answer to the riddle in yesterday’s final clue.
Dare to take the Iron Road
Find the Firebird’s abode.
Most of the team agreed that a railway sounded likely. They trudged for half an hour and found a boggy nowhere. A moody Rhys beheaded plants with a stick. Eventually Isabel murmured, in her almost inaudible voice, ‘I wonder if it’s a reference to the Via Ferrata.’
Rhys broke his stick in two. ‘Of course! It’s Latin for iron road. Come on.’
Leo demanded the idiot’s version. Rhys happily gave it. The Via Ferrata was at Fleetwith Pike, the very hill from which they had set out yesterday. It was a route of iron cables, rungs and railings driven into the rocks of Honister Crag, to enable the miners to climb terrain that otherwise only mountaineers could scale.
‘What miners?’ asked Daisy.
‘There was a slate mine under the hill in Victorian times,’ said Rhys. ‘Did no-one else read the guide books?’
‘Don’t ask me,’ said Leo. ‘When I was born I traded brains in exchange for these good looks.’
‘Ouch. I hope you kept the receipt.’
In a line of nine they slogged towards the pass that cut the hillscape like a scar. In a pile of scree, Leo spotted the first trace of the old mine, a broken notice board that read DANGER. BLASTING. DEATH MAY OCCUR. At the foot of an ascending track, they found supervisor Chris, who gave them each a safety harness. For the next nerve-shredding hour they climbed the iron road of pitons drilled into the rock face, where Isabel discovered she was terrified of heights. Rhys forged ahead, fearless, treating the precarious rungs like a stepladder. Leo found him waiting at the summit of the cliff, not even breathing hard.
‘What kept you?’ He reached down to help Leo up the last bit. ‘I think we’re here.’
Leo staggered upright, his arms and legs feeling as if they were stuffed with sawdust. They stood on a ledge that broadened to a path before the triangular mouth of a cave. Daylight reached inside as far as a curious pale object, the size of a travelling trunk.
‘That’s the Egg!’ Rhys shucked off his safety harness and ducked inside. Leo hurried back down the path, filming his team as they gained the top of the cliff: Daisy first, followed by Mason and Lucy helping Isabel (her eyes shut), then Kian, Paige and Hamed bringing up the rear. The Falcons had done it.
Rhys knelt over the open container.
‘Look. Chilled drinks. And some classy food. A five star picnic!’ He popped the top off an ice cream soda bottle with his knife.
‘Is it just food?’ Paige frowned. ‘I thought our prizes would be in there.’
Leo rooted deeper and found a broad, flat box, like a suede briefcase with no handle. Inside were rows of smaller black cases, each inscribed with a name in gold lettering.
‘These are razzle!’ Paige lifted her Firebird medal into a sunbeam. Leo, who had been planning to stuff his in a drawer, was surprised to see something that he might actually want to wear. A bird of gold spread its wings to make the disc of the medallion, glittering with garnet feathers and its single ruby eye. Finding the medal with his name on it, he fastened the plastic cord around his neck. The firebird settled coolly at the base of his throat, looking so good that he didn’t worry yet about how to take it off.
‘Well done, everyone,’ said Rhys.
They cracked open the food. Leo had only seen meals like these on TV: sushi, pâté, lush salads and canapés, swaddled among fruit that might have come from outer space. He chased down a king prawn with a forkful of smoked salmon. Paige made a pile of unopened food packs and put them to one side.
‘The others will be here soon,’ she said. With a guilty air her team-mates returned the snacks they had been hoarding, to add to the pile.
The radio crackled. Rhys answered it. Chris was coming in a helicopter to take them back to the Manse, after a spin around the lakes and hills. Tipsy with tiredness they sprawled, finishing the feast, admiring their medals, sharing memories, savouring their remaining time together. Leo wriggled free of his backpack, loosened his bootlaces. It was the end of a wonderful adventure.
Now the hardest thing was keeping his eyes open. Still tingling after his first shower in two days, with his sore feet inside fresh socks and the sofa swallowing him up, Leo watched from a floaty place as the empty bottle on the coffee table slowed its spin to point at him.
‘Same question?’ he asked. ‘Have I ever stolen anything?’
‘Mm.’ Isabel grinned daringly.
‘No. I’d never dream of it.’
Kian dug him in the ribs. ‘Come on! Truth or dare.’
‘You said you stole cars,’ said Paige.
‘Ah… that. I should explain.’
Leo struggled out of the swamp of cushions and chose the largest fudge chunk from the plate. The lounge of Honister Manse seemed misty with a sad, end-of-holiday air. People talked in softer voices, or simply sat gazing into their cocoa. Beside the inglenook hearth some of the Wildcats team were playing a half-hearted Twister tournament. On the screen in the corner a disaster movie boomed away, which only Billy was really watching. The big window had filled with green haze, the last of the evening’s light melting off the hillsides. A moth scattered shadows across the ceiling.
‘We don’t steal cars,’ said Leo. ‘We twock them.’
Isabel frowned. ‘You… take them?’
‘Twock. T-W-O-C, that is. Taking Without Owner’s Consent.’
‘Stealing,’ Paige translated.
‘No,’ said Leo. ‘It’s only stealing if you keep it. We bring our cars back. Or abandon them. Not like you, jacking food and such from shops!’
‘So me and my sister could eat! Not for fun. Skye’s only six years old and we was wandering the streets. Anyone’d nick a box of Pop Tarts to feed their baby sister. But you –’
‘They’re cheap cars,’ Leo protested. ‘You can only hotwire the cheap ones. So they don’t cost much to replace. And the insurance pays. So everyone’s happy.’
‘I bet they are,’ said Paige. Lucy Charin stirred beside her.
‘My mother had her car stolen. She needed a week off work, she was so upset.’
‘That’s bad.’ Kian peered at Lucy hopefully through his tousled black hair, still not giving up on her after a week of gentle rejections.
‘Joyriders?’ said Paige. Lucy nodded. Leo caught his fudge in his mouth like a performing seal. Ah, he had known this would happen. What had felt like lifelong friendship among them, out there on the hills, was already fading. They’d had some good times together but, in the end, these kids would always see him as a lowlife. So what? He didn’t care. He’d go home and never hear from them again.
Rhys knocked back the coffee he had asked for instead of cocoa.
‘See, Leo. If only you’d been a good boy. Then you’d have been tucked up in bed while that man and his girlfriend got beaten to death.’
It took a moment to hear that properly. Leo almost said something sarcastic back. Rhys leaned forward, his physical presence enough to bring silence to the table.
‘Here’s the fact. Leo saved two people. He was the right person, in the right place, at the right time. So you can’t say that what he was doing was wrong.’
Half the lounge erupted in laughter, but it was a bunch of people listening to Harley Marble, the buck-toothed boy who had been runner-up in a TV talent show for his stand-up comic routine. The faces in Leo’s corner frowned.
‘But –’ Lucy began.
‘If Leo didn’t nick cars and joyride them, then those people would be dead now. Agreed?’
‘Well… not definitely dead…’
‘Possibly, then. At least, very badly hurt. A lot more upset than your mother was. Agreed?’
‘Suppose.’ Lucy scowled.
‘There you go. He did the right thing. Which is why he’s got a medal just like yours.’
Leo was more surprised than any of them. He felt a fresh surge of fondness for Rhys and raised his mug. The pair of them clinked and drank. But across their table the mood had gone frosty. Kian, caught in the middle, tried to break the ice by spinning the bottle.
‘Okay.’ His eyes flickered at Lucy. ‘Next question. Who do we think is the prettiest girl in the room?’
Lucy blushed at once. Isabel looked merely curious, perhaps forgetting that she herself was a girl. But Paige shifted on her beanbag chair and turned her face away. Leo had to feel a bit sorry for her. Great though she was to have around, no-one’s choice was ever going to be Paige, in his expert opinion. He realised that the bottleneck had stopped on him again.
‘Truth or dare!’ said Kian. ‘Who’s prettiest?’
‘The bottle seems to think it’s me.’
‘Only ’cos it’s drunk,’ Lucy smirked.
‘Prettiest girl. Come on,’ said Kian.
Leo laughed. ‘That’s easy.’
It was now. Their three supervisors had appeared in the lounge: David followed by Lenka and the long-haired Chris. Even in workaday jeans and her very uncool Firebird Foundation t-shirt, Lenka remained drop-dead gorgeous. She might have been a Hollywood actress relaxing between takes. The noise levels plunged as most of the boys stopped talking. Rhys pretended to throw a glass of water over Leo.
‘She’s too old for you.’
Leo shook his head. ‘Age can’t stop true love. See the way she looks at me.’
‘You mean like she’s about to be sick?’
‘She’s playing hard to get.’
‘So that’ll be game, set and match to her,’ said Rhys.
Leo gave him a friendly dead arm. Yes, he knew: she was twice his age and light years out of his league. But daydreams were allowed. To walk around town with Lenka wots-her-name (Miroslav? Maksimov?) – he’d be the envy of Salford. Nor was she just a pretty face. Besides speaking all sorts of languages, with only a trace of an accent to her English, Lenka had been the one who treated their assorted bumps and scrapes, including removing a splinter from Leo’s finger on the day they learned firecraft in Brundholme wood. So she might even be a nurse. He mused, ‘I could break my own leg.’
Rhys sat up straighter. ‘Why have they come early? It’s not bedtime yet.’
‘Feels like it,’ Paige yawned.
David moved to a spot by the fireplace where everyone could see him, gently waving the Twister players out of his way. Chris turned to shut the door. Leo had to glance twice – for a moment it had looked as if Chris was actually locking the door, instead of merely closing it. Then Isabel said, in her whispery voice, ‘Maybe David’s going to give a speech.’
Isabel’s crush on their chief supervisor was the holiday’s worst-kept secret. She spent more time talking to him than to any friends her own age, and when she wasn’t, she was talking about him. When Isabel pronounced someone ‘shockingly clever’ it put them in the Einstein league. David Fife (said the name badge round his neck) was Director of the Firebird Foundation, registered charity number 90125. There was something of the science teacher about him, something of the sports coach, and even his casual chat was littered with obscure facts about astronomy, geology, or the history of the Lakes. The race was on among the egg-heads to find a question he couldn’t answer.
Mason Cooke had been all evening in the corner with Sunil Shah, sharing photos of their scouting expeditions, until it seemed that a force field of boring had formed around the pair of them. Seeing the supervisors, Mason tucked away his phone and pointed accusingly at Chris.
‘It’s the hippy! Pile on!’
Mason lunged low, going for a rugby tackle that would bring Chris down in a heap of cushions. Other boys were scrambling to join in. But Chris, who had never yet refused a chance of horseplay, stepped back. Mason stumbled onto his knees. Chris helped him up but still didn’t smile. And Chris always smiled. His gap-toothed grin in its black goatee beard was all set to be one of their happy holiday snaps. This new look on his face was like seeing a beloved dog snarl and drool. Something was wrong here. Something was very wrong.
Mason began to stammer.
‘S-sorry, Chris. We shouldn’t d– do that indoors, should we?’
‘It’s all right,’ said Chris. ‘Sit down, Mason.’
‘Sit, everyone.’ David used his teacher’s voice. ‘Quiet now.’
Imogen McIlwain flicked a tumble of red hair. ‘Oh, fail-biscuits!’ It was one of her pet phrases. ‘Why must you interrupt now? I was about to tell my ghost stories. Now you’ll have to stay and listen –’
‘He said quiet.’ Chris fixed her with strange eyes. ‘Shut up and sit down, Imogen.’
She stared. Her lower lip trembled. Imogen did as she was told.
Suddenly Leo could hear every explosion from the film no-one was watching. Lenka crossed to the screen and unplugged it. Silence came down like a lid as Lenka stood in front of the window, while Chris took up his position by the door. David stayed near the hearth where everyone could see him, the top of his head almost brushing a hanging lantern.
‘I’m sorry about this,’ he said. ‘Sorry to cut short your evening. I hope you’ve –’ He broke off. It seemed like he didn’t know how to go on. ‘It’s been fun, hasn’t it?’
A few nodded hesitantly. Most just stared. If a man could age ten years in one day, that had happened to David. He looked grim.
‘I have something unpleasant to tell you.’ David stopped. ‘No. Let’s be frank. I have to tell you something dreadful.’
Leo felt an unexpected spark of fear.
‘That door’s locked, isn’t it? Chris, did you lock the door?’
‘Leo,’ said David. ‘Please sit.’
Somehow it was impossible to disobey.
‘You came here,’ said David, ‘for an award, and the holiday of a lifetime. Both of which you thoroughly deserve. But that is not the reason we summoned you.’
He took off his glasses and slipped them into the pocket of his sports jacket.
‘Here, as you know very well, we are isolated. A lonely old house up the side of a mountain. Most of the time your phones don’t get a signal. As of tonight, you can’t use them at all. Tragic, I know.’ He smiled mirthlessly. ‘But there it is. For practical purposes, this is the best place we could find.’
Leo swallowed. ‘Best? For what?’
‘Keeping you safe,’ said Lenka.
‘In approximately one month from now,’ said David, ‘a long period comet named Bass-Chelik will cross the orbit of the Earth. Current calculations predict a ninety per cent probability that it will hit us. Efforts are being made to deflect it, but the chances of success are very small.’
David looked that way, this way – yes, he had everyone’s attention.
‘Bass-Chelik’s ice nucleus is roughly four miles wide. An impact would be catastrophic. The fireball and the resulting debris will devastate life across the planet, blot out the sun, shatter every ecosystem. This event, if it happens, could spell the end of civilisation. Perhaps the end of the human race itself.’ David cleared his throat. ‘To prepare for this scenario, our Government has initiated emergency measures, the most high-level of which is called Project Firebird. This –’ he swept his hand over the assembled children, ‘this is Project Firebird.’