The Children (Part 1)

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As the figure emerged from its burrow and rose into the throw of the astronauts' collective helmet-light, Rowan saw that it was a boy with greasy blonde hair and a narrow face. He appeared to be in his early teens, and was dressed in a sort of crumply makeshift gown apparently cut from a single sheet of red art-class mural paper with a hole cut in middle for the head. Separate strips of this same paper sheathed his forearms and upper-arms and legs, giving him a sort of segmented, tin-woodsman vibe. A belt of knotted hemp squeezed the two halves of the paper tunic to the boy's waist, hiding his unmentionables unless you looked at him from the side.

Rowan swept his gaze around the room to confirm what he already knew: each of the shadowy figures who'd emerged from the junk tunnels was of a similar age to the blonde boy and were all dressed in the same fashion-red paper togas and arm-pieces, some of which seemed new and uncrumpled in comparison with Jason's creased articles. Rowan also saw that nine of the dozen-or-so teenagers in the room bore weapons consisting of wooden yardsticks with long thick nails duct-taped to the outward edge like arrowheads.

"Commander!" Sands hissed into his helmet's microphone as he spun about indecisively, his hacksaw flapping noisily and glittering in the new torchlight. Rehearsal and Citro did the same with their own weapons. Spacekid stood frozen in the middle of them, his eyes bulging in his helmet, flitting from one torch-bearing figure to the next.

For the moment Rowan ignored his colleagues and focused his attention again on the blonde boy, who, judging by the way the others were looking to him for guidance, was surely the leader. The blonde boy, his confident face grimy with dirt, his long nail-stick held firm by strong hands and lean, muscular arms.

The two spent a few moments sizing each other up, and then the blonde boy hopped down from the pile of rubble he'd only seconds earlier had been using as a hideout. His companions began to follow his example and inch closer to the astronauts, closing the circle, but the blonde boy clanked his nail-stick thrice on the tiled floor, which stopped the others as if by remote control.

"Who is you?" the blonde boy said to Rowan in an unwieldy drawl.

"Who is you?" Rowan replied immediately through his external speaker.

"I is Jason Boyle, and this is Bieber property you came." His blue eyes narrowed. "Who is you?"

Rowan squinted his eyes in consideration of the the boy's strange accent, which could probably best be described as fiercely post-apocalyptic. There was something affected about it, something overtly dramatic, which suggested a certain degree of higher brain functioning. Interesting. Rowan decided he'd better give the boy the test.

"Will you let us pass, son?"

Jason raised an eyebrow in long consideration. He shared a quizzical look with some of his companions, who seemed more than willing to let Jason speak for them. At length, he turned to Rowan and said, "If I feel like it."

"How is this possible?" whispered Rehearsal, thunderstruck. "They're human! Thinking!"

Sands and Citro shared a look of wide-eyed shock. Spacekid didn't seem to understand what was going on, but he mimicked his companions' surprise just to not look dumb.

Rowan needed more answers. Indicating the other teenagers with careful, non-threatening sweep of his arm, Rowan ventured, "Is this all there is? Or are there more of you elsewhere in the school?"

"No more data 'till you download!" Jason stepped forward and gave Rowan a warning-jab with the nail-stick, which succeeded in piercing a hole in the material. "Now say!" Jason insisted. "Who is you?"

Emboldened by their leader's tone, some of the other children inched closer to the group of astronauts. This time Jason didn't stop his companions' advance. In seconds dozens of children had crept within striking distance of the huddle of astronauts.

Rowan raised a hand above his shoulder to still his restless colleagues. To Jason he said, "Very well, boy. I is Allan Rowan. Astronaut." To Jason's blank expression, Rowan pointed to the sky and added, dryly, "From up there."

Jason considered this for a long stretch of time, during which he cast long, studious glances at each of Rowan's companions. "A flyer?"

"Um. Sure. Why not."

Jason ran a hand through his thick hair, then seemed excited. He pointed at Rowan and said, "You have a rocket? You can take us up?" Some of the other Biebers shifted on their junk heaps. You could hear them whispering excitedly to each other.

Rowan turned and flashed Rehearsal a dry look. To Jason he offered a sorrowful smirk. "Our Rocket crashed. Into a house. Went boom." He clapped his hands for effect, the metal joints in his glove clinking together loudly and causing some of the closer Biebers to flinch. "There's no going up. Not anymore. We're all down here together."

Jason seemed genuinely disappointed, and took a long moment to recover his spirits. "Is you for Jonas?" he said eventually, still a bit distracted from the tease.

"No," said Rowan quickly, having anticipated such a question. "No Jonas. No way. Not us."

Jason cocked his head in doglike rumination. He seemed poised to give Rowan the benefit of the doubt. He carefully lowered his nail-stick.

One of the other children, a girl with a long skinny face and frizzy red hair, waddled over to Jason's side, strategically holding her torch at her exposed side in such as way as to provide an extra layer of cover for her otherwise exposed private parts, and spoke into his ear in a shrewish voice. "Maybe him's telling us bad data. Spy-like."

This got Jason's mind careening in the wrong direction and promptly restored his paranoia to heights heretofore unseen. He moved the point of his weapon back to within inches of Rowan's helmet and seemed to be framing additional queries in his head when a new commotion resounded on the other side of the hallway. Both the Bieber Gang and the astronauts spun around to behold a whole new group of children fanning into the room from the very hallway Sands had earlier nominated as an escape route. These new children bore a similarly grimy visage to the that of the respective Beibers, and wore similarly fashioned paper garments as well, though theirs were not red but blue.

"Stay you there, Jonas!" squawked Jason as he and his female advisor momentarily abandoned the spacemen and assumed defensive postures. The rest of the Bieber gang followed suit, shifted over to Jason's side of the room and readied themselves for combat. The astronauts were now surrounded by two separate war parties of middle-school children, caught smack in the middle of what promised to be a bloody showdown. As the circle of children began to close around them, the astronauts instinctively put their backs to each other, making a circle with Spacekid in the center.

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