“There’s no way I’m telling him!” shouted Sam in a screeched whisper that was all too loud for his twin sister, Olivia’s comfort. “How do you think I can just tell him that the four of us can talk to insects… oh and by the way they gave us the Order of Bugz so that we now have all these superpowers to fight the Grimper, who no one has ever even seen? He’ll think I’m bonkers. I never thought we should tell him in the first place, but you promised him so you’re the one who’s got to do it.”
Olivia’s slumped into her seat. She gazed out the window of the 14:15 train as it jerked out of the station, with the children of class 6A, Hartley Road Primary School waving madly at their freezing parents, shivering on the platform. Carriage D buzzed with excitement at the prospect of two nights in London, but Olivia’s mind was consumed by the events of the summer swirling around in her head. Life had been so much easier before the NumBugz had scared her half to death by talking to her in the middle of the night and asking for help. It seemed far less dangerous before an Eternal Cycle slammed into her bedroom window and the raging fires nearly destroyed their home town. Before then they were four ordinary children, looking forward to just messing about at Table Top Park for most of their summer break. Now they were caught up in a fight for survival against this Grimper thing, that it seemed no one had ever seen, with superpowers that none of them really understood - and even worse for Olivia, it seemed she was the one who had to tell their former teacher and new friend, John Millson, all about it. If there was one thing Olivia hated more than anything else, it was people thinking she was stupid, and she knew that’s exactly how Mr Millson would react when he heard their story.
As the station platform drifted out of sight, Olivia and Sam, placed their rucksacks under the table with such care they could have been made of glass, then stuffed hats, gloves, scarves and coats in between them. Their best friends, Natalie and Charlie, who sat facing them on the other side of a grey plastic table, followed their lead.
Sam untucked his shirt and yanked off the black hooded snood his mum had forced him to wear, despite his protests that it made him look like some sort of monk. Charlie pulled off his square framed glasses, that had steamed up as soon as they’d entered the carriage and was wiping them dry on the sleeve of his jumper when Sam leaned across the table and planted the snood over his friend’s head, pulling it down over his face. Quick as a flash, Charlie picked up his glasses and put them on over the top of the snood before shouting, “Look, the Invisible Man!”
The snood made its way through the compartment, to everyone’s amusement, especially when two of the boys stuck their heads in either end and pretended they were joined together. Olivia and Natalie half-giggled but rolled their eyes at each other before Olivia returned to reading the trip itinerary. Natalie gazed into a pocket-sized mirror and brushed away at her long blond hair which soon danced with static, much to her annoyance.
On the other side of the aisle, John Millson’s tightly curled, grey hair was all you could see above the large newspaper he’d carefully positioned in front of his face, partly to read and partly to shield him from the growing pandemonium around him. Although John had retired from teaching, the school had been only too pleased to accept his offer to organise the trip to the Natural History Museum in London. Fortunately, controlling the rabble was no longer his responsibility.
After a while, he leaned over to Olivia’s table and asked whether any of them had visited the capital before. Only Natalie said she had, but that was around six years ago when her father was still alive, and all she could remember was him picking her up when she started crying at the hundreds of pigeons flocking around them near the giant black lions in Trafalgar Square.
“Can’t wait to see Parliament and Big Ben,” said Olivia. “Maybe we’ll see someone famous, like the Prime Minister.”
“If we go to Buckingham Palace, do you think we’ll see those guards with the great big furry hats?” asked Sam.
John shook his head. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure there’ll be much time for you to see the sights. After the museum visit, I’ve arranged for the five of us to spend the evening with Stephen…as we agreed. I haven’t forgotten that you promised us an explanation about the events in the summer.” Olivia rubbed her right thumb up and down on the palm of her left hand and she felt her stomach tighten.
Before boarding the train, John had approached Head Teacher, Mrs Pinchin, to ask whether it would be okay for the four children to stay behind at the museum under his supervision; to allegedly work on their Insect and Folklore project with his old university friend and museum historian, the esteemed Professor Stephen Saunders. Mrs Pinchin was a small, plain-looking woman you’d hardly notice walking down the street, but in the role of Head Teacher, she was a foot stomping giant. Children would give her a wide berth and lower their heads when she prowled the corridors. Teachers knew it was better to listen rather than speak and most of the parents were simply scared of her. She wasn’t used to having her carefully planned itinerary called into question.
As soon as John had spluttered his request, she’d folded her arms and glared at him with a grimace that looked almost painful. He’d felt compelled to break the silence just to save her from the misery of her own expression by explaining that Professor Saunders had also agreed to visit the school in the New Year to give them a talk on dinosaurs. It was the first thing that popped into his head. He hadn’t broken the news to Stephen yet and didn’t even know if he had the faintest idea about dinosaurs, but that was something he could deal with later. All that mattered at that moment was getting Mrs Pinchin’s approval.
Stephen Saunders worked as a Professor of Ancient History at the Natural History Museum. When John had called him a few months earlier about the symbol found on Olivia’s bedroom window after the storm - four concentric circles, the radius of the inner one roughly the width of a small hand, framed within a hexagon – he’d recognised it immediately as an Eternal Cycle and dashed up to visit his old friend. Researching Eternal Cycles was his one true passion and together with a small group of science and history experts from across the world, he was sure the symbols had a significance way beyond their current understanding.
The events that followed in the summer had occupied his every waking moment since. He’d badgered John incessantly about every detail leading up to and after the fires and almost begged him to arrange another meeting with the children. He was certain they knew more than they’d told him and was desperate to share his knowledge with them in the hope they might reveal their secrets in return.
Even though the children knew John had masterminded the whole pretence of a school trip, just so that the six of them could get together, the idea of spending time with Stephen Saunders filled them with dread. He was so serious and intense. His grey hair, his neatly trimmed moustache, his immaculately pressed clothes, his highly polished shoes; everything about him was serious. Whilst all the other children would be enjoying the views from the London Eye, they’d be stuck inside on the receiving end of another one of his interrogations. The children visibly sank an inch or two into their chairs and gazed at the countryside flashing by.
The previous evening’s Table Top Park Bughood Watch Council meeting had been an unusually bubbly but drawn out affair. Rather than just the six family heads, all the NumBugz were in attendance as they decided who would accompany the Council on their weekend break to London.
The NumBugz had never enjoyed an easy relationship with the lollopers, and were always wary of being swatted, squashed or having their legs pulled off. They never understood why, despite thousands of species sharing the planet, lollopers behaved like it was theirs to do with what they wanted without considering anyone or anything else. The NumBugz normally did everything in their power to keep their distance but ever since they’d bestowed their most valued asset, the Order of Bugz, on the four young lollopers they’d grown to trust them – even Commander Jumpgobbler and Sergeant Stagster, who’d been most vocal about their contempt for lollopers, had warmed to them. With the four lollopers there to help, a trip to London was a once in a lifetime opportunity that none of them wanted to miss.
Lord Webley, the aging head of the spider family, and Chairbug, stood in front of the six piles of tiny twigs. He shuffled towards the first pile, belonging to the Antonies, and gently pulled out the first twig using his two front legs. As his eyes weren’t as good as they used to be, his assistant Webley 2, a much smaller spider who etched the meeting minutes into the Council’s leaf notebook, stepped forward. The Antonies in the crowd tapped their many legs in anticipation. Webley 2 read the inscription, then paused. He peered over the twig at the expectant Antonies, who looked set to burst, waited for a moment longer, then announced, “Number 12. Antony 12 will be going on the trip to London.”
In the middle of the Antony crowd a tiny ant chirped and jumped up and down before being body surfed down to the front.
Together, Lord Webley and Webley 2 pulled out and read the numbers of thirty Antonies who would joining them before moving on to select twenty-five Woodies, twenty-one Webleys, sixteen Stingers, ten Stagsters and eight Jumpgobblers – the bigger the insect, the fewer places they’d been allocated because they simply couldn’t fit into the plastic transport boxes, provided by the lollopers. In all, there must have been over a thousand NumBugz who’d applied in the Bug Ballot but only one hundred and ten would be making the trip to London the following morning.
Most had never set an antenna outside Table Top Park, never mind been on holiday to the Capital with a chance to see some of their ancestors in a famous museum. Those lucky enough to have made it, hurried along to the box their family had been allocated, carrying whatever they’d decided to take with them; buggage allowance was strictly no more than 2 items. They checked the pin-prick airholes were sufficient, filled the boxes with all the food and bedding they’d need and clambered or flew inside and waited. The twin lollopers had promised to collect them later that evening.
As John relaxed back behind his newspaper, Sam suggested the four of them play a game of Legionz and as an added incentive, the loser would have to sit closest to Professor Saunders, or Snobby Saunders as they preferred to call him when John wasn’t in earshot. Before long, colourful chains of linked counters spread out across the table. With Charlie holding the lead with a Legion of seven, Sam had a chance to overtake him, provided Natalie didn’t block his progress.
“You can’t put it there,” he said as she hovered with her piece near his Legion. “It’s giving him the game. Surely you can’t want Charlie to win? Even if you help him, you know he won’t return the favour. I’d help you but he’s just out for himself.”
“Don’t listen to him Nat,” replied Charlie. “You know what he’s trying to do. It’s just so that he can win…again. Don’t let him trick you.”
She glanced up at Sam and smiled as she placed her piece in the game and said, “The only thing worse than Charlie winning, is you!” Sam let out a long and deliberate sigh of resignation.
The turn passed to Olivia, but her mind wasn’t really on the game. Her brown eyes gazed at the mosaic of tiles on the table but didn’t take anything in. She just flipped a piece onto an end without even thinking. She didn’t care who won and she wasn’t bothered about sitting closest to Stephen because she knew he’d direct all the questions at her anyway. She was more pre-occupied with how she could tell John their secret without looking stupid and how they’d persuade him not to share it with Stephen.
After the fires, John had guessed the children weren’t telling him everything – normal children just can’t do what they did – and Olivia had promised to tell John the truth. Even though Stephen Saunders had been with John at the fires, the children had agreed he didn’t need to know. There was something about him they didn’t trust; his cold eyes, his lack of emotion, and the way he treated them as stupid kids.
If they were to confide in John, this was the moment. Once the game was over, Olivia nodded at Sam who took great pleasure in kicking Natalie’s shins.
“Ow. What d’ya do that for?” she said. Sam impersonated her smile to him then gestured in John’s direction with his forehead. “Oh, that,” she said, remembering what they’d agreed to do.
The four children ducked under the table. Sam and Olivia unclipped the tops of their grey, rather shabby rucksacks that were identical apart from the letters S and O scrawled in black across their fronts, then rustled around inside the plastic bin bag liners their mum had given them to ensure everything stayed clean and dry. Natalie scrambled about in her navy-blue rucksack that matched the colour of her coat and Charlie pulled on the gleaming zip of his brand new black, waterproof, rucksack. When their heads popped up again, each of them carried a black, pull-string bag that they placed gently on the table. Olivia tapped John’s arm and beckoned him to lean in closer so no one else could hear or see.
She whispered, “Mr Millson, have you spoken to anyone about the fires?” He shook his head. Glad that John had kept his side of the bargain, Olivia smiled and said, “We’ll tell you what we know but you have to promise not to tell anyone else.”
John nodded his agreement before Natalie repeated, “Not anyone. That includes Alicia and Stephen. No one else can know.”
John wasn’t used to keep secrets from his wife, Alicia; it didn’t feel right. He rubbed his hand across his clean-shaven chin but was caught by the expressions on each of the children’s faces. They were totally serious and meant every word. “Okay,” he replied with a reluctant sigh. “If they don’t need to know.”
Hidden from view Sam reached into the top of his bag, unscrewed the top off a small plastic bottle and poured a single drop of yellow liquid onto his right hand and rubbed it in. He reached forward to John and said, “Shake the promise.”
John smiled at the youngster’s boldness, reached forward and shook his clammy but surprisingly strong palm.
All eyes turned to Olivia who whispered as softly as she could, “This might sound weird, but you have to believe us.” John nodded expectantly. “We…l…l…l…l, I’m not too sure how to say it but...” John nodded again as if to hurry her up. “We’ve been helping these insects called NumBugz fight back against the Grimper.”
“Sorry?” replied John wondering what on earth she was talking about.
“NumBugz are the insects we met in the woods. They came to us because their world is being threatened by the Grimper… but we don’t know what that is… but we know it’s responsible for a lot of bad things… including the fires… and we can talk to the Bugz and they can talk to us….because we’ve been given the Order and...”
John held his hands up to stop Olivia’s rambling any further. “Woah! Woah! Slow down. One step at a time. Let’s start with these NumBugz things. What are NumBugz?”
Olivia took a deep breath before describing every detail from the moment the Bugz had visited her in the night to how brave they’d been when rescuing Natalie’s cat, Pip, from the fire. John listened without interruption until she finished with the revelation that the mysterious Grimper’s influence was growing stronger by infecting a growing army of people or animals, called sleepers, to do its dirty work. An awkward silence fell across the table as they waited for John to respond.
After a few moments, he said, “I’m not sure what to say. I mean it’s preposterous. Talking insects! Grimpers! Sleepers! Super-human powers! I’ve never heard such mumbo-jumbo in all my life.” He shook his head from side to side as he spoke. He seemed disappointed that this was the best they could come up with after all this time. His usually calm demeanour was gone. His stubby fingers pressed into his temples, massaging his confusion into some sort of order and his legs joggled up and down. It sounded too detailed a story for it to be just their imagination, but they had to be making it up, surely. It was utter nonsense. Having waited for months, he’d hoped they’d at least be honest with him.
Olivia signalled to Natalie to begin the next phase of their plan. Natalie glanced round to check no one was looking, reached into the black bag on the table in front of her and pulled out a see-through plastic container, the size of a sandwich box. Inside, amongst an assortment of twigs and crumpled leaves sat some stag beetles, one of which was considerably larger than the others. She pushed it towards John. Charlie followed with a container of grasshoppers, Olivia with spiders and Sam with ants – he wouldn’t admit it to the others but despite everything, Sam was still a little scared of the creepy crawlies and ants were just about all he could handle.
Natalie pointed at the first container and said, “That big one is Sergeant Stagster. He’s the head of the stag beetles. He helped find my cat, Pip, in the fires.” Sergeant Stagster stood on his back legs and raised his mandibles high into the air to acknowledge the introduction. John said nothing, but Charlie couldn’t help staring at the deep trenches furrowing his brow like rolls of plasticine.
Natalie moved onto the second container, “These ones are Antonies. Just underneath those leaves in the corner, you can see that massive one. Well that’s Quantony, leader of the ants… asleep as usual.”
“All six Bugz families have come with us for the trip,” said Charlie, pushing his glasses back to the top of his nose.
Still John said nothing, prompting them to move on to the final stage of their plan. His eyes widened as Natalie unclipped the lid from the ant container and laid it on its side. He raised his hands and was about to protest at the prospect of dozens of ants running around the carriage, when Natalie said, “Right. Now for Bondz. Think of number between one and nine and the ants will make it up to ten.”
John looked even more confused than before, but the children’s faces begged him to reply. “Four,” he whispered with no conviction whatsoever.
As soon as they heard his reply, the ants scurried across the table and stood in formation to create what looked to John like a number 9.
“Other way up”, whispered Natalie and they re-jiggled themselves to form the number 6. John drew back from the table slightly and blew through his praying hands touching his nose.
“Seven!” he shouted a little too loudly for Olivia’s comfort.
“Sshhh!” she urged, a finger pressed to her lips.
Once again, the ants scurried into position to create the number 3. A grin broke out across John’s face which he quickly covered with his hands, to subdue the urge to shout out loud.
“Two!” He slapped his thighs and let out a loud “Bah!” as the ants created a perfect 8 on the table.
“Sshhh,” scolded Olivia again as some of the children turned to see what all the commotion was about. John put his hand up to apologise. His eyes were wide, and his legs joggled so fast he was almost running on the spot. He couldn’t remember ever feeling such emotion; joy and euphoria mixed with bewilderment and confusion. He could barely contain himself.
Olivia whispered to the Antonies once more and watched as they moved to create the hexagonal shape of the Eternal Cycle. John sprang up, marched down the aisle and pushed the illuminated circle to open the door through to carriage C. As quick as she could, Natalie urged the Antonies back into the container before returning all the Bugz to the safety of their bags. Olivia dashed after John to check he was okay.
She caught up with him at the open area at the end of the final carriage, pacing from side to side, clapping his hands and laughing out loud. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. I just had to get up or I’m sure I would’ve exploded. I haven’t got a clue what you’ve been talking about, but who cares?! Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.” Still beaming, he looked out of the carriage window. The bright red sun, half hidden by the embankment, had turned the sky a dark apricot colour. He couldn’t recall ever seeing such a colour. He felt a cold shiver run through his body.
The screeching brakes provided no warning to John and Olivia as they smashed into the carriage wall. Olivia’s head cracked on the frame of the door, opening a cut that poured blood onto the floor as she slumped into a crumpled heap. The train shuddered to a halt and fell silent.