The evening couldn't come soon enough for John. He'd spent the day on cleaning duty sweeping the bunkers with Murray, but his mind was preoccupied by thoughts of the surface world. He hadn't felt so nervous yet excited since his trip to assassinate the Home Secretary.
In the dead of night, when everything was still, John would sometimes think of the plump, fair-haired woman and the way his bullet had exploded through her skull. At the time, the fear and shock of actually seeing someone die by his own hand had left John a retching, shivering mess. Five months on he still had nightmares about that day, but they were few and far between. He reassured himself on a regular basis that he had done the right thing. The Home Secretary was an evil tyrant who had made life miserable for millions of people. With her death, they were one step closer to freeing the world. Nobody would actually miss such a terrible person; the people on the surface must be secretly glad she was dead. However, his memory of people screaming, panicking, crying was impossible to erase. John couldn't reconcile their reactions with what Seb had told him: killing the Home Secretary was a good thing.
John hadn't felt good about it for a long time afterwards, despite being rewarded with a promotion to Sergeant. Sometimes, when he was completely alone with his thoughts, a small voice inside his head would start telling him that what he did was actually very, very bad. He tried not to think too much about that odd voice, telling him things which were clearly stupid. He secretly hoped it would just disappear one day if he ignored it for long enough but he was still waiting for that to happen.
When evening finally arrived and the clock in the officers' mess showed that it was almost time for the night patrol to start their shift, John packed away the cleaning equipment and went to wait patiently at the top level of the base for Dr Sigerson to appear. He was looking forward to seeing the doctor, but more importantly he was excited to meet the procurement expert, Erin Watt. John had always found new people fascinating. Constancy was rare with the ever-changing personnel of the military base: soldiers transferred or passed away, and familiar faces were quickly replaced by unfamiliar ones. John had taken this in his stride, and invited the new recruits into his heart as readily as he extended his hand in friendship.
The doctor appeared punctually at seven-fifteen flanked by three guards, who carefully searched him for a second time before pulling the blindfold from his eyes. After making sure Dr Sigerson had everything he wanted, the soldiers ambled away.
John was a little disappointed to see that the doctor had come alone, but the feeling soon dissipated when Sigerson propped his briefcase on the wide barrier dividing the black metal stairs and pulled out some brand new clothes: a pair of blue shorts and a white t-shirt and matching socks. John couldn't hold in his gasp of excitement as the last items appeared from out of the good doctor's briefcase: a pair of running shoes that John had seen advertised on TV and which he had coveted ever since he first set eyes on them. He couldn't remember ever receiving new clothes before, and such fine ones at that. He was pleased to note that the new clothes had a particular smell: a sharp, crisp, clean smell which made them that much more special.
"You should get changed – we need to go over your cover story as soon as possible," said Dr Sigerson.
John nodded enthusiastically and started to strip off his shirt and trousers. He was halfway through dressing when he glanced up at the doctor and saw to his surprise that the man was staring intently at his chest.
"What happened?" asked Dr Sigerson quietly.
John looked down at his chest and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps it was his belly button that the doctor wanted to know about. It stuck inwards instead of outwards like all the other boys', and John had sometimes worried that it meant something was wrong with him.
"I was born with it," said John, poking a finger into the hole. "Is it normal?" he asked, hoping the doctor would assure him that there was nothing to worry about.
"I mean those scars."
Dr Sigerson's voice had dropped so low that John almost couldn't hear him above the background whistling of wind through the tunnels.
John looked down again and saw the lattice-like pattern of pink and white lines running along the edge of his tummy. Most of the marks were on his back, but some wrapped around to the front. All the boys had similar scars, and they would spend time comparing the patterns when there was nothing else to do at night. Perhaps the doctor had never been punished before; he sure looked like a man who would never be lazy or stupid or untidy.
"It's just scars from being whipped," explained John. "Everyone has them. I've got more on my back, see?" He twisted around to show Dr Sigerson the pattern on his back. Murray said it looked like someone had tried to play noughts and crosses, but without any noughts.
When he turned around, John was suddenly aware that Dr Sigerson no longer looked interested, but extremely angry. He silently berated himself for showing his marks to the doctor – he was clearly wasting the man's time.
"Sorry," muttered John as he quickly pulled on the new t-shirt. He savoured the feeling of the soft material against his skin. Never had he imagined any material could feel so heavenly. The shorts were less soft but still a comfortable fit, and the running shoes felt odd and stiff compared to his usual plimsolls.
Dr Sigerson looked like he was about to say something, but then closed his mouth very quickly. He turned away for a moment as if deep in thought, and John was relieved to see he looked much happier when he turned back. He patiently explained John's cover story, which appeared to be incredibly simple – nothing like the complex plans John usually had to memorise. When he had successfully repeated everything back twice, the doctor appeared to be satisfied.
"That was very good, John," praised the doctor, and John beamed with pride. "I'm sure Captain Moran has already briefed you on the person we are going to meet today."
"Erin Watts, procurement manager," repeated John smartly. "She's going to give us the equipment we need."
"She might have some questions to ask you," said Dr Sigerson. "She needs to know about locations, transport, power sources. I want you to answer her questions to the best of your ability. Don't worry if you don't know the answer, we can always ask Captain Moran later."
John nodded enthusiastically, feeling very important at being able to help out Dr Sigerson and his friend. He wondered what Erin would be like. Perhaps she looked like the female soldiers in Company C – tall and muscular, with short-cropped hair. Or maybe she would be a vision of exotic beauty, like the women he'd seen on TV. Either way, he was looking forward to meeting this new person.
Dr Sigerson had to be blindfolded again during the cart ride to the surface. The battered metal container on wheels rattled away down the old railway tracks on a gas engine that spluttered out black fumes every few minutes. John hated these carts; he was always afraid that they might explode and splatter all the occupants against the tunnel walls.
By the time they arrived at Westminster station John was feeling distinctly queasy, and by the look on Dr Sigerson's face, he hadn't enjoyed the ride either. Their driver shoved them both unceremoniously out of the cart and clattered away down the tracks, leaving both of them in the semi-darkness of the abandoned Underground station.
Dr Sigerson ripped the blindfold from his face and turned to look down at John. "Ready?"
"I was born ready!" declared John – a favourite phrase he had learnt from Seb – but underneath his bravado he felt a knot of anxiety building in his stomach.
When they emerged from behind the rusted, padlocked gates into the warm night air, John could feel beads of cold sweat prickling across his forehead. He fervently hoped that there would be less people around now that it was dark. The running shoes were chafing his ankles, and he knew he must look out of place even with his brand new clothes. He had a suddenly overwhelming urge to just run back into the Underground.
"It's fine," muttered Dr Sigerson. A warm hand pressed itself against John's back and steadied his trembling frame. He fought desperately to control his breathing and the wild gallop of his racing heart.
"You're very brave, John." Dr Sigerson had a deep, reassuring voice, but even that was not enough to chase away John's fear. Underground, where everything had been safe and normal, a trip to the surface had seemed like a great adventure. Now that he was just metres away from actually emerging into the brightly-lit, open world above, John didn't feel like a brave soldier anymore.
Sigerson curled his arm around John's shoulders and, to John's surprise, pulled him against his side. The doctor's coat was much rougher than John had assumed it would be and it pressed like an irritant against his bare arms, but the sensation was oddly comforting. "You can do this, John," whispered Dr Sigerson. "You can do this."
Taking a deep, shuddering breath, John stepped forward out of the shadows and into the strange, glowing world outside.
Irene was waiting at her usual table in Angelo's with a plate of rapidly-congealing spaghetti. When she looked towards the window she could see reflected in the glass the faces of the other operatives dotted throughout the restaurant behind her. Callum Wood looked terribly nervous, fidgeting with his wine glass and picking at his food, whilst his "date", Jo Portman, leaned casually back in her seat, looking thoroughly bored by his company. Adam, Zaf and Lucas were pretending to have a lad's night out and making a horrendous racket with endless rounds of toasts.
The representative of MI6 in this joint operation was none other than Irene's "darling" sister Anthea, sitting alone in the left-hand corner, studiously reading a book whilst absentmindedly tucking into a helping of tiramisu. She had pulled her voluminous hair into a tight bun and put on thick glasses to make herself look like the prim civil servant she was supposed to be. Though she was a renowned spymaster, Anthea had insisted that she return to the field for this particular operation. She had always been the more intelligent of the sisters, and Irene knew Anthea had a myriad of reasons to be here, most of which hadn't yet crossed Irene's mind.
The long-serving MI5 agent smiled down at her spaghetti and wondered anew what their parents would say if they ever found out that both their beloved daughters were spies.
When she looked back to the window, Irene focussed this time on the glistening tarmac and illuminated shop-fronts of the street outside. She soon noted the joined shadow of two people gliding across the pavement.
Right on time – unusual for Sherlock – the ex-spy came strolling around the corner into her line of sight with a small child attached to his arm. It took Irene several seconds to understand that the shaking bag of bones hanging off Sherlock's arm was none other than John Watson, the boy who had assassinated the Home Secretary. If any passers-by had looked into the window at Angelo's, they would have seen her undisguised expression of astonishment. Seeing his pathetic figure, she found it almost impossible to accept that thischild could be a cold-hearted killer and terrorist. Yet, knowing that this was indeed the case, Irene was still surprised by a rising tide of anger at the thought. She knew the terrorists had no moral scruples, yet she couldn't help but feel utter disgust at the way they exploited and manipulated children into doing their dirty deeds.
The duo paused by the door, and she saw the boy peering through the glass before clutching at Sherlock's coat, clearly reluctant to go inside. Irene waited to see if her lover had actually taken her advice.
Be patient, she had advised Sherlock, make sure to take your time. Children are like wild animals; approach with caution and bring food. He'd seemed too preoccupied with working out where the location of the rebel base would be to listen to her, but there was always a chance.
The boy and Sherlock appeared to be engaged in a quiet discussion. To Irene's delight and – she was ashamed to admit – amazement, Sherlock seemed to be listening attentively to the child. Sherlock's hand resting on the boy's shoulder and the child's tight grip on his coat told her that the boy had really become as attached to Sherlock as the man had insisted to Irene.
After a few minutes of quiet negotiation, the ex-spy opened the door and walked through, followed closely by the much calmer child. Angelo, who had been briefed, prepped and paid in advance for all their meals, rushed out to greet them. Out of the corner of her eye, Irene could see her sister angling the hidden camera, intent on capturing the boy's reactions.
At first the child shrank away from Angelo. He appeared to be in great distress. Irene half-expected the pitiable little figure to just bolt for the door, but Sherlock wrapped both his arms around the boy's shoulders, and John seemed to relax into the embrace. Within seconds, Sherlock had manoeuvred both of them over to Irene's table.
"Sit down, John," intoned Sherlock, pointing at the seat nearest to the window. The boy, to his credit, looked frightened at the prospect of being boxed in. His eyes darted around the room, automatically noting any possible escape exits like a seasoned special operative. "Please, John," said Sherlock, refusing to sit down until John did.
The boy climbed onto the window seat and turned around on all fours like a dog until he was facing the rest of the room. Sherlock quickly sat down next to him, so that the boy was now sandwiched between the two of them, and in full view of the entire restaurant.
"Hello, John," Irene said, putting on her kindest smile. The welcome seemed to work, because the boy smiled back at her hesitantly, some of his fear and hostility melted away. "I'm Erin, Dr Sigerson's friend."
"What's that?" asked the boy, pointing at her food in obvious fascination, clearly forgetting that he was effectively trapped between a strange woman and an expert bomb maker.
"It's spaghetti, John," explained Sherlock patiently. "Italian food."
Irene wondered if a child who had spent his entire life underground would even know what Italy was, but to her surprise the boy said in an over-exaggerated Italian accent, "Domino, the best Bolognese sauce! Just like Mama used to make."
"He watches a lot of TV," explained Sherlock as Angelo returned with a child's meal for John.
The boy stared at the plate for a long moment, completely forgetting about his previous interest in Irene's food. After inspecting the plate from every angle, he grabbed a handful of spaghetti and tried to stuff it into his mouth. By some miracle the strands went in without any mess and he happily licked all his fingers clean before taking another handful. It took less than five minutes for him to devour the whole plate and lick the plate clean.
"That was impressive," said Irene. There was no need to fake her surprise.
"I can eat even faster!" replied John enthusiastically, obviously trying to impress.
"I'm sure you can."
"I can also make food come out of my nose," continued John with great pride.
"Perhaps we should leave that to another time," suggested Irene, fully intent on being able to stomach the rest of her meal.
"John's also very good at other things," said Sherlock encouragingly. The boy positively beamed with joy at the praise and latched onto Sherlock's arm with both his scrawny hands. Sherlock reciprocated the gesture by sliding his arm around John's shoulders and pulling the boy into his side for an awkward hug. The child squealed in delight and burrowed himself further into the embrace.
When her eyes met Sherlock's over the boy's head, Irene could see a hint of confusion but also something even less familiar: a glint of warmth that seemed to melt away his icy façade. Her first reaction was one of joy. Sherlock cultivated a barrier of barbed insults and emotional detachment to protect his heart. It had taken her years to finally break through the walls and discover the damaged person hiding inside. The road to healing – for both of them – had been long and hard, but they had struggled through somehow. Now she was buoyed by the sight of Sherlock and the boy together, delighting in the close bond that had sprung up between them in such a short time.
However, as she watched Sherlock ruffle the boy's hair and smile so deeply that the corners of his eyes became a mass of crinkles, her heart ached for them both. There would be no happily-ever-after for this child. He would die at the hands of the Special Ops team who had already been lined up to clear the Underground. They had been secretly tasked to leave no survivors; the public was to never know they had been living just metres above a huge terrorist network. Sherlock knew of this plan, but he had voiced his opposition from the start, and the ex-spy seemed illogically certain that he would be able to prevent the executions from taking place. Now that she had seen Sherlock and John together, she understood just what had motivated him to argue with Lestrade over their orders.
"I'm good at shooting!" boasted John, looking up at her from his nearly horizontal position on Sherlock's lap. Anthea must be silently cursing Sherlock right now for moving her target out of camera shot.
"Really, and what have you shot?" asked Irene.
"Rats," said John, "and drones." The boy made a hand gesture shaped like a gun and aimed it at his reflection in the window.
"That sounds very exciting."
John smiled for a moment before the expression on his face suddenly became sombre. "I've shot people too," he said, almost to himself. "They always bleed."
"I imagine they would."
"Have you ever shot someone?" asked John, looking back at her with eyes that seemed at once old beyond his years and yet filled with innocence. The reflection of his small, pallid face floated like an apparition on the windowpanes amidst the bright lights of the restaurant.
"Yes." Irene found it disturbingly easy to tell the truth whilst the child's pale blue eyes held her in their spellbinding gaze.
"Did it feel good?"
She was taken aback by the question, and for a moment she wondered what the child might mean by the word "good".
"Yes," Irene replied quietly, "and then it felt very, very bad."
The child looked surprised and then inexplicably pleased, as if the dual answer Irene had given was exactly what he had been waiting to hear.
"I feel that way too," he whispered solemnly. To Irene's great interest, the child reached out a pale hand towards her. His touch was icy cold and as light as a feather. He glanced furtively at her for a brief moment before allowing the full weight of his hand to rest on hers.
Irene fought the desire to clasp those fragile little fingers and warm them with her palms – it would not be good for either of them if she became too attached. However, her good intentions were useless against the strange, silent charisma of this child. A small voice inside her mind, often smothered by ruthless necessity, cried out to her. This child was not a terrorist, but a poor lost soul abandoned by the world and left at the mercy of psychopathic murders. He didn't deserve to die alone and afraid in those dark, forbidding tunnels.
"We should get going," said Sherlock, interrupting Irene's conflicting thoughts. He looked at his watch, which was the designated signal for the team to move on to the next part of the operation. "Hyde Park would be lovely for an after-dinner walk."
"Of course," said Irene, quickly suffocating the voice of conscience inside her.
Angelo greeted them at the door and the boy – John – waved goodbye with a cheerful familiarity despite only having met the man less than an hour ago. Angelo, likewise, seemed charmed by John and presented him with a lollipop on his way out. The child didn't know what to do with it at first, until Sherlock unwrapped the sweet for him and explained how to eat a lollipop in clinical detail.
They took a cab to the park, which was inconspicuously tailed by a British Gas van containing Lestrade and the rest of the surveillance team. John, still utterly fascinated by London, spent the entire journey pressed up against the window, drinking in the night scenery.
Hyde Park was dark and peaceful at this time of night, its paths softly lit by the mellow glow of ornamental street lamps. The cool summer breeze was gentle and pleasant. When Irene stepped out of the cab, she could detect the faint scent of roses. It was difficult to imagine a life without having experienced something as simple as the wind in one's face or the sweet smell of flowers on a warm July night.
John clambered energetically out of the cab, sucking on his lollipop and taking in the sight of the park with wide eyes.
"Grass!" he screamed suddenly, and dashed towards the nearest illuminated patch of lawn.
"He's never seen grass before," explained Sherlock solemnly. "Well, not in real life anyway."
"How did he survive down there?"
"He's very malnourished; you can tell by the bowing of his legs that he's got rickets, but he doesn't realise he has a problem. Apparently all the other boys look like that too."
"There are others?" Irene couldn't contain her shock.
"There were several, actually – enough to form an entire platoon – but some have died of illness, and now there are only four boys left, John being one of them."
"Where did they come from?"
"John was abandoned as an infant in the old King's Cross Station, or so his captain told me," replied Sherlock, sounding completely detached – but Irene could tell from the tension in his jaw that he was anything but emotionally removed from the situation. "The other boys ran away from abusive homes. I suppose we should be grateful the terrorists didn't just kill them when they stumbled upon the base."
"Grateful? What kind of a life do these children have?"
"Not a good one, but they are alive nevertheless. John's parents evidently never intended for him to be found, if they took the time to break into an abandoned Underground station to dump their baby."
Irene stared at the boy rolling on the grass like an over-excited puppy. She tried to imagine what state of mind a mother had to be in to abandon her own child somewhere she believedno-one would ever find him. Perhaps it was a miracle that John was alive to enjoy this moment, but by rescuing him the terrorists had merely delayed his demise and sentenced him to a life of depravation and violence.
"John!" called Sherlock, striding away from Irene. The boy jumped up, covered from head to toe in bits of loose grass and clumps of dirt. "I need you to come and tell Irene about the transportation arrangements for the materials we're going to get."
The boy ran back to them like an eager puppy.
"I think we can fit everything into one of those…cabs," he said earnestly. "If we all sit in a row, the rest of the space can hold all the wires and electronics we'll need. The remote control devices shouldn't take up much room. I can hold the boxes if you want."
"Perhaps, but how will you transport the materials to the base?" asked Irene.
"Oh, that's simple. We have carts that use the old railway tracks. Company B are responsible for that."
"How are big are they?"
"Big enough to hold five people, and they go pretty damn fast, too. Once we get all the components to the base, Dr Sigerson and I will connect everything up. If we need to test the circuits, we can plug the completed circuit into the generator back at base."
"What kind of fuel does the generator run on?" asked Irene. "How will you know if the reading you get from testing the circuit will be accurate?"
John gave her a quizzical look. "The generator is part of the electricity grid," he explained as if it was completely obvious, "it doesn't need any fuel."
Sherlock looked almost as confused as Irene felt.
"The generator doesn't actually generate any electricity," said John, sounding a little exasperated. "The soldiers just call it that because they don't know the first thing about electrics. It's actually just a giant battery that stores electricity for Company C."
"So how do you make electricity, then?"
"Oh, there's an entire power plant down in the Underground," answered John with a winning smile. "Seb told me that the LRA built it a long time ago from what was left over after the Second World War."
Irene tried to contain her surprise at this revelation. The rebels had a fully-functioning power station hidden underground. If they had access to an almost unlimited amount of electricity, who knows what kind of defences they would be able to erect if they were attacked. The LRA might even have enough power to re-electrify the railway tracks at a moment's notice and electrocute the entire special ops team in one go.
"And what does the electricity get used for?" Irene tried to make the question sound like passing curiosity.
"Lights, non-portable jammers, cameras, electric fields to stop people from attacking our base…computers, but I've never touched one," replied John nonchalantly.
"The jammers won't affect the remote-controlled devices, will they?"
"Oh no, the jammers only work on drones. It makes them think there's no one there if they get too close to the base. We carry portable jammers everywhere, in case we meet a drone in the tunnels. Most of the time they just patrol close to the old Green Park station."
"Does our equipment have to go anywhere near that station in order to get to your base?" asked Irene, adding a hint of concern to her tone. John seemed to be very sensitive to the subtle changes in people's voices and expressions, and he picked up on her cue instantly.
"Don't worry," he replied with a reassuring smile, "Company C base isn't that close to Green Park. It's in an old station, too. It was called…" he paused for a moment, "E-U-S-T-O-N".
At that moment, Irene wasn't sure how she managed to control her surprise at being handed the one piece of information the entire mission hinged on. As she took time to emotionally process her thoughts, she expected to feel a sense of elation, but there was only an unspeakable sadness welling up inside her.
One of the main things I wanted to explore is the idea of following orders despite your own conscience. John knows inherently that killing was wrong, but he has been conditioned to believe something completely different. He's too young to fully understand just how twisted his situation is and the confusion will just keep building.
John presents a moral dilemma for Irene and Lestrade. Certainly he is a terrorist, a murderer and highly dangerous but he is also a child. Can you really commit a crime when you have never been taught that your actions are wrong? However in the heat of combat would you hesitate to shoot a child who would otherwise kill you, your entire squad, and most of the population of London? How would you weigh up one life for another?
The dilemma really is whether John can be allowed to return to the underground. If they remove him now, Sherlock will not be able to keep his cover, and he will not be able carry on with neutralising the bomb. If they allow John to return to the tunnels, he will most likely to be killed once the special ops move in.
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