The Children (Part 2)

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"Ho! Who's the spooks?" said a rangy African American boy who appeared to be the leader of the new gang of children, which now filed into the large room and fanned out behind the mounds of inverted middle school desks and chairs and broken projectors. Threateningly, this boy pulled back the band of an apparently self-styled slingshot, and aligned his squinting eye between the weapon's fork. The ammunition appeared to be a tennis ball porcupined with metal nails and razorblades.

By Rowan's best guess, the weighty projectile could easily find sufficient momentum to pierce through the conservative padding of a Proserpina spacesuit and do moderate-to-catastrophic bodily damage to the astronauts. And it wouldn't be just one projectile fired. He made a quick visual survey of the rest of the new party and saw that, with the exception of two torch-bearing children at the group's flanks, each child had a similarly loaded slingshot and had aimed it at a different member of the Bieber Gang.

"They is Biebers, same's us!" Jason boasted in his rampant post-apocalyptic accent as he whacked the blunt end of his nail-stick into the littered floor. "Said so themself, straight from the horse's ass!"

The pronouncement sent a ripple of unease throughout the blue-toga'd newcomers, and some drew the pouches of their sling-shots even further back. The Jonas Gang seemed troubled by the apparent change in the balance of power. At first glance, Rowan had quickly arrived at the notion that the two gangs seemed to boast comparable numbers as far as manpower was concerned. Their weapons, too, seemed evenly matched, as each clearly had obvious advantages over the other. In their warring, the two gangs had clearly arrived at a kind of stalemate, or else one would surely have vanquished the other long before now. But the sudden recruitment of four healthy adults and a teenager to either party would instantly skew the delicate balance that has kept these children alive for so long.

Sensing that the a bloody, end-of-mission battle was only seconds away, Rowan angled himself so as to be heard equally well by both war parties and said through his speakers, "Whoa whoa whoa, kid. I never said that! We are neither Biebers nor Jonases. We have no quarrel with either of you. We are humes, like you. Our mutual enemies are the People and the cadavers who surround this building even as we speak. It is against them that we should leverage our efforts-"

"Uncool," said the leader of the Jonases, his paper tunic rippling with his sudden movement. "See? These is just adults with more rules. Like Mr. Martin. Always the tellin' us what to do. Shower shower shower. Only eat eats from sleepbox. No killing at all. Not even a little."

"Where is Mr. Martin?" ventured Citro, having activated her helmet's external speakers and carefully leaned over Rehearsal's right shoulder to gain a line-of-sight with the dark-skinned Jonas ringleader. She did her best to sound sweet and nonthreatening. "Can we talk to him? Can we talk to this...Mr. Martin?"

"We bashed his head," chirped the boy with a guiltless shrug of the shoulders. It was as if he'd admitted to flushing a dead goldfish down a toilet. Somewhere one of the children giggled.

Another child, hidden somewhere behind the tall piles of nameless junk, cried, "These spooks are here only to bring sadness and rules!"

The Jonas Gang broke into a terrible, perfectly synchronized chant, and as they did so they altered the aim of their slingshots to address the tight cluster of astronauts.

"Bash their head!"

"Mash their brain!"

"Make them tard!"

Rowan knew now that he'd made a possible end-of-mission mistake by dissociating from the Biebers. He wheeled back around to Jason, whose associates couldn't seem to make a decision on whether to join in on their enemy's exciting chant.

"Okay fine," said Rowan with a huff. "We'll just be Biebers, I guess." He knew that against both gangs at the same time the astronauts wouldn't last very long. It was therefore necessary to pick sides. Really, it was a matter of picking weapons, and he decided right away that he'd choose the nail-stick over the sling-shot, which would require a constant reload of ammunition which was likely in short supply. If need be, Rowan was even willing to help Jason eradicate the Jonases altogether, to bash their heads, if that's what it would take to stabilize the situation for his own team, though he hoped it wouldn't come to that. He started to move towards Jason to officially join forces with him against the Jonas threat but saw that he'd already missed the boat.

"No," said Jason. "You being adults. You come with the rules and the detention and the rules." Then he raised his nail-stick high into the air and with a frenzied look in his eyes joined in on the swelling chant. His Biebers quickly joined in. In moments, both gangs were closing the distance, between themselves and the astronauts.

Finally Jason could resist no longer, and with a quick hand gesture he lead his gang into joining the continuing Jonas chant. "Bash their head! Mash their brain! Make them tard!" The Biebers crept closer to the huddle of astronauts as the Jonas Gang did the same from the other side.

"But we're not ALL adults!" cried Spacekid, who'd been fumbling frantically with the audio controls of his helmet for the past minute and had only now managed to activate the external feed. "I'm a kid, same's you!" He fished himself through the protective circle of astronauts and promptly swept his face in a wide arc to include as many of the feral teens as possible.

"SPACEKID, NO!" Rowan barked as Spacekid successfully evaded Rehearsal's attempt to pull him back into the zone of protection and had emerged innocently into an open stretch of floor, directly into the firing line of a dozen drawn slingshots.

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