by Eamonn Murphy

IT WAS 10th January 2030 and the School Patrol had assembled for their first day back in Hope Square, in the southern part of the city. A bright, chilly morning and a layer of white frost coated the red-tiled roofs. The Patrollers stood to attention, the polished buttons of their neat navy blue uniforms gleaming in the winter sun, their breath visible as puffs of cloud so they might have been cigarette smokers, if smoking hadn’t been banned years before. Now that filthy habit earned the offender a yearlong jail sentence, and jails were not the soft places they used to be.

A tall man, Peter Todd could see over the heads of the ranks in front of him and survey the entire team from his position in the back row. There should have been three rows of ten men and women but there was a conspicuous vacancy to his left, the gap as obvious as a missing tooth, and he knew Commander Powell had spotted it. Well, he couldn’t blame Pete.

Each Patroller had knife-edge creases in their trousers and well-polished black brogues with steel toecaps because they were a fighting force. Everyone stood stiffly to attention, eyes front, chest out, belly in and arms rigidly pinned to their sides. Commander Powell was strict on such protocols, a firm believer that slackness in one thing led to slackness in all. Pete believed that too.

‘Dismissed!’ bawled the Commander. ‘To your posts, Patrollers.’

They had received their assignments by email days earlier. Pete stood at ease and looked around for his partner. Derek was late on parade, bad enough, but if he turned up late for patrol, that was a sacking offence. Unless he was sick. Then he saw the younger man trotting towards him, buttoning his blue jacket, his cap askew. Derek’s unruly mop of curly hair was too long for a patroller and he was too fat. Short, but he couldn’t help that. His trousers were rumpled and his shoes scuffed at the toes. All in all, he didn’t fit the image they wanted to project. Pete often wondered how he had lasted so long.

‘Good morning, Pete.’ He stopped and stood to attention, panting.

‘Good morning, Derek,’ replied Pete, looking pointedly at his watch.

‘I wish you wouldn’t do that.’ Derek sounded exasperated.

‘I wish you would be on time. It’s important. We have to set an example to the kids. On time for school means on time for work later, which means they won’t get sacked, at least not for that.’

‘People never used to get sacked for that,’ said Derek sulkily. ‘My old man was often late for work.’

‘A porter in the bygone, unlamented National Health Service, wasn’t he? I expect he had a lot of time off ‘sick’ as well. Those days are over, and a good thing, too.’

‘Yeah, yeah.’ Derek waved an arm to dismiss Pete’s standard rant. ‘Which street are we assigned to today?’

‘You received the email, same as the rest of us.’

Derek gritted his teeth. ‘Just tell me.’

‘Leicester Avenue. A long one but we’ll be a big team.’

‘Let’s go.’ Hope Square was a large public space with several streets leading off it. Leicester Avenue was in the southwest corner. Derek turned in the direction of their target road and made to head off.

‘Wait a minute, you two!’

Commander Powell’s bark was unmistakable, and it wasn’t worse than his bite. Pete flinched. Powell’s stocky frame blocked their path. Pete had seen him in the gym and knew what lay under the blue uniform. He was broad-shouldered and barrel-chested with arms like a scaffolder’s labourer. He could bench press 200lbs without breaking a sweat. He was the regional champion in unarmed combat and had been for the last twenty years. No one messed with Commander Powell. No one.

‘Patroller Watson. You were late on parade today. First day back after the school holiday.’

Derek shuffled his feet like a naughty schoolboy and looked at the ground, his cheeks flushed. ‘Yes sir. Sorry, sir.’

‘It’s not good enough!’

‘No, sir. It won’t happen again, sir.’

‘That’s what you said last time!’

‘Yes sir. Sorry, sir.’

Pete stood a few feet away and stayed carefully silent. He also wondered how Derek had survived until now because, as Powell said, this wasn’t his first cock-up. He wasn’t fit enough, useless at combat, and always looked a little unkempt. Pete didn’t know how he had passed the six-week basic training course. All in all, Derek Watson was a bit of a mystery. Powell solved it with his next words.

‘If it wasn’t for your uncle…’

Derek interrupted hastily, casting a sidelong glance at Pete. ‘Yes, sir. I am sorry, sir. It won’t happen again.’

Powell took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. ‘Okay, son.’ His expression softened a little as he looked his junior in the eye. ‘You’re not really cut out for this, lad. I worry. The last few months have been quiet but if the Nappers mount a serious raid…’

‘I’ll do better, sir.’ Derek’s mouth tightened as much as his soft lips could and what passed for a steely glint shone in his eye. ‘You… you won’t tell my uncle about today, will you?’

Powell shook his head. ‘I’ll give you one more chance.’ He snapped to attention. ‘Now brace up, Patroller, and go do your job!’

‘Yes, sir.’ Derek snapped a salute and Powell turned to go, then paused to look at Pete, suddenly aware that the conversation had been overheard. All the other Patrollers had scattered to their posts minutes earlier.

‘Patroller Todd. You realise that my… little chat with Watson is strictly confidential. I wouldn’t want any rumours starting.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Todd stood to attention.

Powell cast a weary look back at Derek. ‘Take care of him, Pete.’

‘I’ll sort him out, sir.’

The Commander almost smiled. ‘I doubt that. Nature made him how he is and we’re stuck with him. But try anyway. And meanwhile, look out for him. Despite what the Liberals say, Pete, we’re not Nazis. Sometimes you have to make allowance for human weakness.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Pete blinked, surprised at this gentleness from the great disciplinarian.

Abruptly, Powell resumed his normal demeanour. ‘On patrol, men. Get to it. Keep those children safe.’

‘Aye, sir.’ They both saluted and turned towards Leicester Avenue.

It was still cold but the sun was rising in the sky and warming things up just a little. There was a team of eight for Leicester Avenue. As they traipsed across the open square towards it, Pete filled Derek in on the details.

‘Patrollers Thomas and Patel are at the far end. Then it’s Mundy and Osuga, Walters and Cabot, me and you. We have the section nearest the square, luckily, since we’re running late.’ Thanks to you was unspoken but Pete knew that Derek heard it anyway.

They had just reached the junction of Hope Square and Leicester Avenue, a wide suburban street lined with solid red brick houses built in the 1930s. Derek pointed down the street. ‘Some of the kids are out already, even in the cold.’

Pete nodded. There were children but not very many. One for every ten houses on average, which was a sign of the times. It was standard procedure for the children to be stood by their gates at 0800 hours, ready to join the group when it came past their house. Kids from the side streets around Leicester Avenue would be out even earlier. Six Patrollers would have missed the parade to be there for them at 0730, watching the skies. At around 0800, the boys and girls at the bottom of the avenue would set off and it might be five past the hour before they reached the houses near Hope Square, which was the hub. The groups from all the spoke streets would assemble there, then head off en masse up Devonshire Road to the school.

‘Let’s go check our children.’ Pete marched briskly past those they would collect on the way back with a nod and a quick word to some he knew.

‘Good morning, Charlie. Straighten that tie, please.’

‘Good morning, Emily. Very smart today.’

Most of his comments were on their appearance. As they strolled back up the street to their own positions, Derek smiled. ‘They don’t call you “polished” Pete for nothing, eh?’

‘Appearance matters.’ Pete took a lot of ribbing for his attitude but he knew he was right, and in the best traditions of the Patrol. He remembered something. ‘Why do they call you “Hawkeye” Watson?’

Derek grinned. ‘Because I can spot a pretty girl a mile off.’

‘Oh. Right.’ Pete was engaged to his childhood sweetheart and they were to be married in June so chasing girls was not part of his agenda. He knew that some Patrollers went downtown on weekends to pubs and discos, as young men will, but it wasn’t his scene. He usually took Julia for dinner in a quiet suburban restaurant, though now and then they attended birthday parties and such. He reflected that, apart from his work, he led a quiet life. He liked it that way.

Something caught his eye and he stopped beside a dark-haired boy standing outside a small, two-storey terraced red brick house. It was exactly like all the other houses in the street and most on the estate. Surreptitiously, he activated the bodycam at his shoulder. ‘Josh Stevens, isn’t it?’

‘Yes sir.’ Josh stared at the ground, trying to hide his face from view.

Pete reached under his chin with a finger and tilted it up, knowing that his camera would catch the image. ‘What happened to your eye, Josh.’

‘I… I fell over, sir.’

‘You fall over too much.’ Pete stepped past the boy, opened a gate in the low brick wall and marched up the short path. The front garden was a square of unmowed grass with weeds all around the edge where flower borders should be. There was an old car wheel dumped against the wall of the house. He thumped the front door loudly.

‘Mister Stevens!’

The door opened and Pete looked into the pale, scared face of a small woman wrapped in a fluffy cotton dressing gown. He noticed her right eye.

Pete’s lip curled in disgust. ‘I suppose you fell over as well, Mrs Stevens?’

‘How can I help, Patroller?’ she whispered.

‘I want to speak to your husband. Now.’

‘He’s still in bed. He works shifts.’

Just then, a big, hairy hand landed on her shoulder and pulled her aside. ‘What’s going on? Who’s banging on my door at dawn?’ Mrs Stevens stepped back into the shadows and a large, burly man dressed in sports trousers and a T-shirt stood glaring down at Pete. His flushed face was unshaven and his breath smelled of stale beer. ‘Oh, it’s the secret police.’ He looked down at Pete with open contempt. ‘What do you want?’

Pete glared at him. ‘Your son has a black eye. Explain.’

‘Didn’t he tell you?’ The elder Stevens adopted a look of wide-eyed innocence. ‘He fell over.’

‘He falls over a lot. Too much.’

The big man shrugged. ‘What can you do?. He’s clumsy.’

‘Is your wife clumsy? She has a black eye too.’

Stevens’ eyes narrowed. ‘Mind your own business. A lot of us don’t like you and your stormtroopers interfering. I know who you are and I know where you live, and you’re not always protected by your mates in pretty uniforms. Fuck off.’ He made to slam the door shut.

Pete shouldered it open, put both hands on Stevens’ chest and pushed hard. The big man staggered backwards. Pete drew his sidearm. ‘Stay back!’

Stevens sneered. ‘Put that popgun down and fight like a man!’

Pete shook his head. ‘I don’t have time. I’m putting in a report to say there’s evidence you are molesting your wife and son. Pack your bags. You’ll be out of here before the week is over.’ He tapped the bodycam on his shoulder. ‘All the evidence I need is right here.’

Steven surged forward. ‘You’re not kicking me out of my home, you little… Aaaargh!’

The stun blast stopped him in his tracks. He slumped to the ground unconscious. Mrs Stevens screamed. Pete turned to her.

‘He’ll be in a bad mood when he wakes up. Do you have somewhere you can go? Just for a while?’

She shook her head, weeping softly.

Pete pulled a small calling card from his pocket. ‘Here. This is the address of a women’s refuge. Pack a bag and go there. Tell them Patroller Todd sent you.’ She took the card and hesitated. ‘Go! Pack!’

‘What about Josh?’

‘I’ll make sure he has somewhere to go. Now pack. Your husband will be out cold for an hour. You have time. And don’t worry. You’ll be back in your home very soon.’ He looked down and poked the body on the floor with his shoe, his lips curling in disgust. ‘Very soon.’

She ran up the stairs. Pete turned back to the front door and saw a small head peeping around it, one with tousled dark hair and a black eye.

‘Sorry, Josh. I had no choice.’ Hastily, Pete exited, shut the door, and escorted the boy out to the street. Derek was waiting, wide-eyed. Looking down the road, Pete saw the other patrollers and the small column of children they had collected coming towards them. ‘Time for school, Josh.’

‘What about Dad?’ The boy was concerned. He probably loved his father, even though the bastard didn’t deserve it. Human nature.

‘We’ll take care of him,’ said Derek. ‘Come on. Join the tail end of the parade and we’ll get you to school. And don’t worry about a thing. One of us will pick you up later and take you somewhere safe.’

Josh had tears in his eyes as he stared at the man who had just shot his father. Pete could see mixed emotions. The kids were used to seeing the Patrollers as their guardians. A child also expected his father to be his protector, even when all the evidence proved that wasn’t so.

‘Maybe Josh should have the day off,’ suggested Derek. ‘He could go to the women’s refuge with his mother.’

Pete shook his head. ‘No. Missing school is bad.’


‘I said no.’ Pete glared at his colleague. ‘Shi…’ He stopped the bad word. ‘Stuff happens in life. You have to cope. Best he learns that.’

‘A bit hard,’ muttered Derek.

‘Life is hard.’ The tail end of the marching students had just passed the gate. Pete gently shoved Josh out to join it. ‘Off you go, kid. And don’t worry. We’ll collect you after school as usual. You’ll be back home tonight with your mother but your father will be gone.’

‘Will I see him…?’

‘That depends on his behaviour. Now, go! They’re leaving you behind.’

The tail end of the marchers was now a hundred yards up the road. Josh trotted to catch up. Other boys and girls waiting at their own garden gates had already joined it, so he was out of position, but that didn’t matter much.

Pete drew his mobile from an inside pocket. ‘Catch them up, Derek. I have to call the police and get this miscreant arrested.’

He made the call and then joined the other Patrollers, sixteen of them now, leading forty children en masse to school. The young people walked in pairs. Two Patrollers led from the front and the rest were scattered at intervals down the column. They marched out of Hope Square and up Devonshire Road to Merrywood Academy. It wasn’t the best school in the city, not by a long shot. It couldn’t be, given the nature of the intake in a poor area like this. But it was a damn sight better than schools used to be and the children learned facts again, and discipline. Schools now turned out useful workers instead of whiny victims filled with propaganda about how many rights they had (no duties, just rights), how rotten Britain was now and what an evil empire it had been in the past. Schools had changed for the better.

Pete focused on the here and now. He was rearguard for the column of precious children and part of his duty was to watch the sky. He kept checking, twisting his head to look behind as well. The two-storey houses on either side of the avenue made it into a sort of broad alleyway, ideal for an ambush from the air.

He checked over his shoulder again. From the corner of his eye, he saw something shoot upwards from behind one of the red-tiled roofs. A man with a jetpack. Others followed quickly.

Pete roared. ‘Nappers! Nappers! Form a ring around the children. Move!’

‘Nappers! Nappers!’ The shout passed down through the ranks ahead of him. The children were trained for this. Those near the front ran back and clustered together in a huddle around those in the middle of the column, the rear kids chasing forward to do the same. The pavements were too narrow for this so they gathered in the middle of the tarmacked street. The Patrollers formed a defensive circle around them. All this only took a few seconds, by which time there were twenty men in jetpacks swooping overhead, looking for a chance to grab a stray child.

Nappers. The lowest of the low. They stole children and passed them on to others who would put them up for sale, nationally and internationally. The infertility plague that had struck humanity thirty years before made the young ones a valuable commodity. Rich couples all over the world who could not conceive a child of their own would pay generously to adopt one, by fair means or foul. There was a huge black market not only in children but in fake documents to legitimise them. For reasons unclear to medical science, infertility affected the well-off more than the poor. Perhaps it was a result of their lifestyle. In any case, manual workers were less affected and continued to have babies. And, as had always been the case, they had more of them than the middle classes.

These thoughts flashed through Pete’s mind whenever he saw the Nappers but he didn’t dwell on them. Time for action. He already had his sidearm out and relished having targets even more deserving than Josh’s father. He stood at the edge of the huddled mass of children. Patel was off to his left and Derek was on his right. Pete took aim at the nearest Napper, or tried to. They made themselves hard targets by darting swiftly in random directions, like butterflies but far deadlier. The Nappers were also armed with ray beam weapons because bullets were likely to pass through a Patroller and kill a child as well, and no one wanted that.

Pete heard a scream to his left. He darted a quick glance that way and saw Patel slump to the floor. The Napper had dropped down close to get him. Pete fired quickly but missed. Derek fired and hit him. The Napper screamed and his hands twisted reflexively on the controls of his jet pack as he lost consciousness. He accelerated away upwards and to the left, out of control, and rammed another Napper, putting them both out of action.

‘Good shot, Hawkeye!’

Derek was too busy to accept compliments. He fired again and hit another. Then another. Pete fired twice more and missed both times. The fast flitting Nappers were near impossible targets for him. He just didn’t have the reflexes. Derek, he suddenly realised, was a natural.

That was how he got away with his ill-discipline in everything else! He had the skill that counted most.

Naturally. Without trying.

Pete worked hard and did his best but knew now that he would never be as good a Patroller as Derek. Spit and polish be damned. The job of the School Patrol was to defend the kids from Nappers, and at that, Derek was probably the best they had. It grated. It wasn’t fair. But, Hell, life was unfair. That was the first thing they taught the kids now in primary school. God created people unequal but you still had to do your best.

Pete did his best.

Apart from the four downed by Derek’s expert shooting, three other Nappers had been shot. But six Patrollers were out too, stunned, perhaps dead. There was no way to tell. Most Napper gangs set their guns to stun, like the Patrollers, aware that if shoot to kill became the norm, then both sides in the war stood to lose. There was also the risk of killing a child, which no one wanted. But lately, a few more ruthless gangs shot to kill because replacing Patrollers took time and reduced Patrol teams left the kids more vulnerable. A shoot-to-kill policy for the School Patrol was going through the legislature right now, and most thought it would pass.

Pete fired again. He missed, but when the Napper zig-zagged to avoid the beam, Derek got him. Eight Nappers down. But another Patroller screamed and fell. Then another. They were losing.

Then the worst thing happened. One kid panicked and ran from the huddle. Derek saw him first.


Josh. Damn.

They had rules. If a child panicked and ran from the protective circle, you let him go. Out in the open with Nappers having the aerial advantage, a Patroller didn’t stand a chance.

‘Polished’ Pete Todd was a stickler for the rules. Everyone knew that.

He darted after the boy. Already three Nappers were descending towards Josh, no doubt thinking of the credits soon to fatten their bank accounts. They didn’t check behind them because they knew Patrollers let strays go.

That gave Pete the advantage. The first Napper dropped to the ground and grabbed Josh’s shoulder, his back to Pete. The Patroller fired from ten yards away at a sitting duck target. The Napper yelled and dropped. Josh turned to face Pete, looking terrified and bewildered.

Another Napper dropped right behind the boy, hands reaching out.

‘Hit the deck, Josh!’

It was a desperate ploy but it worked. Whether it was reflex, fear or the habit of obeying Patroller commands, Josh dropped. Pete fired over his head and hit the second clutching Napper right in the chest.

Then he screamed, every nerve jangling as the third Napper’s beam hit him in the head. He dropped to the floor.

Pete rolled on his side, struggling to remain conscious. His heart raced. He gasped for breath. Dimly, his vision blurred, he saw Derek Watson break protocol and leave the huddled children, running towards him, head up, arm up and ray pistol firing rapidly into the sky.

‘Breaking ranks. That’s against the rules…’

‘Polished’ Pete Todd’s eyes closed and he saw no more.


It was 10 January 2031 and the School Patrollers were assembled as usual in Hope Square, all except one. Derek Watson looked to his left and saw new recruit Nairobi Clarke dashing toward the ranks, buttoning his jacket as he went. Shifting his eyes to the front, he couldn’t miss Commander Powell’s face wearing a look that could curdle milk.

‘Dismissed. To your posts, Patrollers.’

As the blue uniforms scattered, Derek stayed where he was and Powell came towards him, as did the hurrying Clarke.

Gasping for breath the big man stopped before them. ‘Sorry, sir. Overslept. It won’t happen again.’ His shoes were scuffed and there was a dirty mark on his trousers. Derek smiled, remembering, and looked down at his own knife-edge trouser creases and highly polished leather footwear.

Powell just stared at Patroller Clarke for a few seconds then turned to Derek. ‘Set him straight for me, Watson.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Derek snapped off a smart salute and stepped away towards Leicester Avenue. Clarke followed.

‘Sorry, Corporal. I just…’

‘You’re just slack,’ finished Derek. He smiled. ‘I was like you once. But we have standards for a reason, Clarke, and if you want to stay…’ He paused and took a different tack. ‘Let me tell you about a hero. “Polished” Pete Todd, the finest damn School Patroller you’ll never meet.’

‘Never meet?’

‘He’s dead. He died a hero. But when he lived… Pete wasn’t the best fighter, or the best shot, or the best at anything except spit and polish and discipline but that didn’t matter, because that stuff counts too, you know. It’s all part of the mindset. Do your best. And when it really counted, when the chips were down…’


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