"These words hold no power over you", Eugene says quietly, eyes half-lidded, gazing up at the sky.
"You what?", Jack says, turning sideways. "Don't tell me the stars are moving you to poetry or anything: wouldn't have made Sam help me move all those boxes if it meant we'd have to listen to your, eh, flights of iambic pentameter or - "
"My fl - do you even know what that means?"
"Course. Shakespeare thing. Learned it in school. Means, like, bum-de-bum-de-bum-de-bum."
Eugene turns his head and raises an eyebrow. Waits.
"... Means... riiiight. Okay."
"Go on, then. What's the next verse? Going to sweep me off my feet with the power of your, eh, dextrous linguistics...?"
That does it. Eugene cracks up, slapping both hands over his face to hide his laughter - "that's not even funny! That's not even a - for god's sakes, it's like a the opposite of a joke! Like an anti-joke! If you must know, it's - something from a while back. From a job. Saw it on a billboard, over this new hipster place in Vancouver. I was just thinking about, you know, how they probably paid a fortune to keep that billboard clear and - oh, man, they had this graffiti around the corner too? Real artsy stuff, must have been paying the artists and the council, going in to scrub off the dicks that people drew over the weekends in the corners."
"People drew dicks all over the graffiti in Vancouver?"
"Yeah, in that area, course, place doesn't gentrify that fast - "
"Well, sounds very... avant-garde. Ooh la la. You know, same as that weird thing where everywhere up in Hackney was doing up their frontage and selling whatever normal kinds of chips and baked beans and - "
"Chips with ... like, the watery tomato sauce? Ugh - "
"- well, yeah, except they weren't even, like, chip-shop, normal 99p gross-and-satisfying kinds of chips? They were doing them all up posh, like, thought they could sell them to hipsters if they stuck them in a tin mug and charged eight quid for them."
"Yeah, exactly! That's what I was thinking about. Okay, so, you remember how I told you about the time that they sent me to Vancouver to cover all the up-and-coming, all the new, like, all the fashionable new places? How they had me going to try these - these outdoor experience bars where they named all the meat like the animals, oh, and this one place that made you mix your own cocktails, what even was with that - well. One of the hipster places had this billboard over it. "These words have no power over you." And inside they had all these kinds of raw organic smoothies, locally farmed quail eggs, all that kind of - "
" - wanky farmer's market nonsense?"
"Sure. Wanky, extremely delicious, farmer's market nonsense. Free greener-than-thou contest with every mouthful! They even had their own bees out the back: don't think they thought that one through when they started terrorising the customers - "
" - well, you're not really a hippy foodie unless you can deal with bee stings between your courses."
"Right?! So. I was there for a week, going around all these different places in the city, and I couldn't stop thinking about this idea: you know, that ignoring the adverts, and the radio, and all the newspapers left on the trains, that you could just switch that off? That one place - this one more-ethical-than-anything place - could just say, don't worry, they've got no power over you!, and that'd be it. 'Cause that's not how I felt, there. And, it's like, that's weird, right? How it's basically impossible to just ignore culture that way? And, I thought that, it was like the billboard - like the whole place, really - it was telling us all off, cause we were stupid enough to fall for it, to go along with the crowd, that if we really were thoughtful, we'd be growing our own veg out in some lakeside cabin and fishing."
"We're all anti-establishment now, aren't we? With our lovely compost toilets - "
"Delightful - "
"- and our fluffy organic bunnies - "
"Ah, Roger and Jessica - "
"I told you not to name them!"
"I don't mind! Thumper was delicious. Bit of mustard sauce, he went down a treat."
"That was a good mustard sauce, for something that came from a box of processed American supplies and some two-year-old spices."
"I thank you. If I do say so myself."
They're lying flat on the roof of the comms building, the radio playing queued interviews with various Runners. Sam and Jack had spent half the afternoon stacking up old supplies boxes and stolen chairs from the canteen, as Eugene had cursed them over the radio for the banging. It's a new moon, and Jack's been learning the names of the constellations from a book that Five had found in an abandoned truck some weeks back.
"See? That big long line one is the Lynx. Mrow."
"Yes. 'Mrow.' Still... looks like a bunch of dots to me. And what a truck driver was doing with an astronomy guide, I'll never imagine. And we'll never know, now."
"Maybe he was studying. For an astronomy course."
Eugene sits up, helps himself to another half-spoonful of honey from the jar, and looks out at the town. These words hold no power over you - well, not any more, for sure, but it was only about which words had power at which time, right? Take - take the outbreak. All those people, with no idea what was going on, scared into stupidity, naively believing whatever the latest experts dragged out onto the radio would say. He'd heard the BBC give space to experts in disease spread and world health, and, later, to conspiracy theorists, snake-oil salesmen, frothing preachers going on about the end times. Anything to keep the story going: and people tuned in for the survival tips, the directions to established settlements, but stayed for the gossip and the nonsense, desperate for information. Those words were useless, worse than useless: and yet they still sold the story. They still held the power.
As for now... now, it sometimes felt as though words were all they had. Knowledge from before the outbreak, the amassed wisdom of generations on rough farming, on creating networks, on not killing each other when they had to live in groups without the comforting barriers of phone screens with cat videos. The environmentalists would be having a field day, he thinks with a snort; wonders how their kale's growing at their latitude.
The runners had managed to get hard drives with all the Harry Potter books on, as well as old shows and a library of classics. For now, the daycare centre had quietened their pleas for more books. Just last week, Sam had guided Five through a nest of zombs just to pass the hard drive on - hadn't even gotten Five to collect supplies on the way - tried to make sure that the Wikipedia archives and the survival manuals and the stories, always the stories, that they could move on. It's such a fragile thing, the words, the tools for them, he thinks. Hard drives get dropped; you need power and equipment and enough supplies to keep a town going long enough to even start to use the information.
"I think we should make up our own, now", says Jack, interrupting his thoughts. "That's what the cavemen all did way back when, right? They all made up all those pictures and stories about the dots - if there's any excuse to redraw it, now's the time. Look, that one can be a horde of zombs, and they're going towards... those ones, there. That looks like New Canton. See the corner shapes they're making? Like a floor plan."
"It definitely does", Eugene says, deadpan.
Thing is, making up the stories takes a while, and he's not sure the kids will be quaking to his own horror stories, of looming deadlines or bad food hygiene practice, any time soon. "The zombs will get you" got real old real fast, and these days they're more likely to burst into the comms shack playing at being Umbridge or the Daleks. Jack had stuck a box onto his head and "Exterminate!"-d them right back out again, the last time, and Eugene wonders how long it'll take the old shows to get lost, now.
"So, are you liking our rugged wilderness lifestyle, now? All the wild pigeon and freshly-caught mystery cans you can eat?", Jack says, scraping the remains from the honey spoon with his teeth.
"I think I can take it or leave it, really. Had enough of it with my dad dragging us out to the woods every month to fish or whatever - "
" - beats hanging out outside the chippy every night, anyway - "
" - I'm sure it was nothing like as exciting as your British urban upbringing."
"Nah, you don't know the half of it. You were missing out, with your trees and fresh air and, and strapping lumberjacks wrestling bears, naked in the snow - "
"Absolutely. Come on: hold those boxes still? Take me to bed, and tell me all your stories."
"Ooh. Well. Only if I can do the voices for them, too."
"Definitely the voices. And then we'll get the kids to do join-the-dots in the stars, too."