The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 2. The prologue can be found at the back of the first Underdogs novel, or at chrisbonnello.com.
Ewan had hated shopping centres for as long as he could remember. The crowds, the noise, the pressure on all five senses and the constant onslaught of everything demanding his attention. His mother had tried her best when it got too much for him, but she couldn’t control the inside of his overloaded brain. Ewan’s childhood memories of Luton Retail Centre consisted of him not matching the public’s expectations, their frowns of disapproval and their lack of sympathy whenever he had a meltdown.
I guess those memories apply to my whole life, really.
Luton Retail Centre felt much more pleasant nowadays. Ewan had the whole place to himself, except for one trustworthy friend by his side.
‘I hope you know your way around,’ Shannon said to him, ‘I spent my growing up years avoiding places like this, thanks to all the popular girls.’
‘You and me both,’ said Ewan. ‘Well, replace “popular girls” with “humans in general”. Okay, it’s round the next corner. I think.’
He was revealed to be right: the catalogue store had neither moved nor closed down since whenever his last visit had been, and hopefully it was still well-stocked. Other Takeover Day escapees would have looted it before the clones hunted them all down, but nobody would have thought to steal the GPS devices for hikers.
Whatever they stole, they wouldn’t have held onto it for long. We probably only survived the purges because of the thermal blocker my dad stole from his barracks, keeping our body heat off Grant’s scanning equipment.
Ewan entered the store and headed straight for the warehouse at the back. Shannon paused and grabbed the nearest catalogue.
‘No point in searching before you know its serial number, Ewan.’
Ewan saw her point, turned around and headed back to her. It was one of Shannon’s interesting abilities (and he was seeing more of them week by week): she could point out Ewan’s mistakes and misjudgements without him feeling uncomfortable. He wasn’t sure how she managed it: maybe it was some kind of unspoken empathy. With a father like Nicholas Grant, her own childhood may not have been much better than Ewan’s.
‘So how’s this for your first mission?’ he asked as she flicked through the catalogue’s faded pages. ‘It’s a boring one I know, but boring is good. Trust me.’
‘The first time you met me I stabbed a guy to death,’ Shannon answered without looking up from the page, ‘after he slaughtered my ex and a load of innocent people. I know that boring is good, thanks. Besides, this mission doesn’t really begin until we know where the test centre is.’
Ewan gave an understanding nod. Even though it had been her first outing as an official Underdog, Shannon had already proven her worth. She had spent three weeks analysing her father’s plans, the scariest of which was AME. Atmospheric metallurgic excitation: an anti-metal shield over the whole of New London, and presumably one for each of his other citadels, which would render Grant and his allies utterly indestructible.
The stolen plans had mentioned an AME test centre: a building outside New London where a smaller shield could be launched and examined before the real version went live. The centre was reportedly half-complete, but they had most likely sped up production after their plans had been stolen.
But other than the words ‘test centre’ and some GPS coordinates, the paperwork had contained no useful clues. The time had come for Ewan and Shannon’s final piece of research: finding where those coordinates led to.
Shannon found the technology section, and ran through the item list with a finger which brushed away the dust as it went. Ewan glanced too, and saw the prices on some of the items.
‘Three hundred quid?!’ he asked. ‘People paid that much for a GPS thing? They could have just downloaded an app.’
‘There are always people who want quality,’ Shannon answered. ‘Photographers didn’t stop buying professional equipment just because their phone could take a few snaps. Right, how about this one? “Purpose built for the great outdoors, accurate to within one metre, contains 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey maps-”’
‘-can you use it to search for coordinates?’
‘Only one way to find out. Ewan, grab me some batteries.’
She ran for the warehouse, leaving Ewan to turn and head for the pound shop next door.
She just commanded me, the Underdogs’ head soldier, to obey her.
Why aren’t I uncomfortable? Shouldn’t my PDA kick in or something?
As Ewan walked into the pound shop, he wondered how much Shannon knew about his pathological demand avoidance. She must have seen the diagnosis on the list of names she had first brought to Spitfire’s Rise, but a three-word diagnosis was no description of lived experience. The words ‘pathological demand avoidance’ weren’t enough to summarise a childhood of being frightened by other people telling him to do things, or the loss of self-control that came when people’s demands made him uncomfortable. A year ago, a command as blatant as ‘Ewan, get me some batteries’ would have switched on his defiant instincts as an act of self-defence, but somehow it was different when the command came from Shannon.
Shannon had done a good job of climbing up his friendship rankings during her time at Spitfire’s Rise. McCormick would always hold the number one spot thanks to his life-changing compassion and influence, and ever since Charlie Coleman had been gunned down by a red-haired assassin, the runner-up spot had been occupied by Kate. But Shannon was now in third, which wasn’t bad for three weeks of friendship.
There was something else though: something which numbers and rankings couldn’t account for. Shannon was fiery and determined. Uncompromising yet vulnerable. There was too much common ground for Ewan to ignore. For most of his life he hadn’t liked people who were similar to him, and he wondered what that told him about his opinion of himself. But for once he was met with a young woman whose anger and passion pointed in the same direction as his own; whose fiery nature aligned with him rather than fought against him.
Ewan grabbed the nearest pack of batteries and headed back for the warehouse. He had been right about the looters: with so many boxes strewn across the aisles it was difficult to find Shannon. By the time he did, she was ripping open the cardboard packet. She removed the GPS tracker and tossed over to him, and he got to work with the batteries.
‘Bloody hell, I miss the internet,’ he muttered. ‘In the old days this whole mission would have been solved with a search engine.’
‘Yeah, well here are the numbers when you’re ready for them.’
‘One second… go.’
‘Fifty-one point eight one two-’
‘-wait wait, slow down. Let me process what you’re saying.’
Shannon sighed, sympathetically.
‘Sorry Ewan,’ she said. ‘I still keep forgetting. You just don’t-’
‘-I don’t look like I have learning difficulties. Yeah, heard it before.’
‘Well, you just seem really capable…’
‘Wow, autistic guy with PDA and anger issues is capable of doing stuff. Stop the bloody press. Now just go slowly. Fifty-one…’
Shannon read out the rest of the numbers, with a saddened look on her face which may have meant guilt. It made Ewan feel sad too. Normally it was nice and satisfying when he made someone realise just how little they understood his needs, but there was no satisfaction when it happened to Shannon.
‘Seven five eight eight,’ Ewan repeated as he typed in the final numbers. ‘And our mystery location is…’
He pushed the search button, and waited for the map to load. When it did, it revealed a large building the outskirts of Harpenden.
‘Where is it?’ asked Shannon.
‘Not far at all. About half a day’s walk from Spitfire’s Rise. In fact, pretty close to…’
Ewan looked closer, and his eyes widened.
‘Ewan, what is it?’
The device shook in Ewan’s hand. He was trembling from a mix of fear and rage, which must have been what Nicholas Grant had wanted when he had chosen the location.
He threw the GPS tracker against the nearest wall, where it smashed to pieces. Unsatisfied, he took a short run-up and booted an empty box down the warehouse aisle. It didn’t go as far as he wanted, thudding to a quick stop like it was trying to insult him, so Ewan ran again with a scream and stamped it into the ground as if it were personal.
He took steady breaths and tried to ground himself. He rested both of his feet flat on the ground, one hand against his hip, and the other gripped against the nearest shelf.
‘Your father’s after a fight,’ he snarled, ‘with me and my friends, personally. You want to know the real name of the “AME test centre”?’
‘It is. Oakenfold Special School.’