Dawn found both sides of Wellington Road full of people in polo shirts and aprons. The occasional car drove by, and an observer in one might have noticed that the people on the northern side of the road wore their uniforms more neatly ironed than those on the south, that their work boots were more highly polished, that they stood in neat lines while those on the south side tended to favour rough circles.
This observer might have wondered what was going on. Probably some sort of charity event? Yes, that would be the most likely explanation. At first. Then this observer might have noticed just how many of the people on both sides carried crowbars, hammers, Stanley knives. At this point, the observer's attention would have snapped back in the direction of the traffic lights as they frantically waited for them to change to green.
On the south side of the street, Ms Shan walked amongst the Pavilion troops. There were fewer of them than she needed. Her stomach twisted at the thought of every position she'd had to cut over the last year. The fear in the young faces of those who remained was horrible to behold.
Her army was mostly normal people. The more powerful weirdos had been sent off on an important mission. There were still a few heavy hitters – Bruce, Zorbar, Fiona, Fanaka. That might have given the Pavilion the edge, had the Barn not possessed some powers of its own. Ms Shan didn't know which of the troops across from her had built a killer robot or summoned a demon – but some among them had.
Most of her own troops were just weary retailers, who'd come to the Pavilion for a job, not to fight against the forces of evil. Half of them wanted to run. She could feel it.
(Was it so long ago she'd wanted to run herself? Since she'd prayed daily that central office would close down her branch and reassign her?)
Up the street, Marlon took charge of the left flank – Gardening, Cleaning Supplies, Paints. Wellsey had the right – Plumbing, Seasonal, Lumber. Ms Shan had the centre, while Ali stayed back with a reserve force from Power Tools and Safety Equipment.
The sun was nearly clear of the horizon. There was nothing in Ms Shan's gut but ice.
"I… I made this for you."
Ms Shan was roused from her reverie. It was Adam, and he was offering her what looked like a swagger stick made from pine dowel and electrician's tape. Ms Shan looked at it for a moment, then took it and stuck it under her arm.
Adam saluted inexpertly, and Ms Shan nodded back.
A glint of light caught her eye. Down the street was Karl Wintergreen taking photos from the seat of his car. From conspiracy theorist to war correspondent. Karl was moving up in the world.
Parked cars. Hmm… There were a few small trees in the street, and a bus shelter, but other than that there was not much cover. This was not going to be a battle of manouver and strategy, so much as an all-in brawl.
There was some consternation behind Ms Shan. She turned to see Axel Platzoff and Sadie McGregor moving through the ranks, Handy Pavilion shirts work over their prison uniforms.
"Permission to join the battle?" Axel said.
"Granted. And you, Sadie?"
"I didn't want to break out," Sadie sulked. "He disintegrated my cell. I was lawfully incarcerated. It isn't right."
"But what is right, when you get right down to it?" Axel said.
Sadie glared at him, blue eyes between transparent eyelashes. "Don't get me started. You do not want to get me started."
"Your time-displaced younger self is involved in a commando raid," Ms Shan said to Axel.
"Yes, I remember," Axel said, staring into the middle distance. "Something about hydrogen tanks? It was an episode of my life I never quite understood until now."
"Do you remember what happens next?"
"My memories are vague."
"Is that a side-effect of time travel?"
"No. It's just that my younger self is drunk right now. I mean, really drunk."
"How drunk is really drunk?"
"A whole hip flask of a pepper vodka and absinthe cocktail of his my devising. I believe I used to call it a 'Montmarte Gulag.'"
Ms Shan nodded as she looked to the East. Not long now. A strange calm overtook her. It would all be over soon, one way or another. Perhaps she'd live and return to Claudia and live happily ever after. Perhaps she'd be dead. Either way, it would all soon be settled. It lent life a wonderful simplicity.
Across the road, Mr Smith seemed to be giving a speech. The wind was blowing the wrong way, so Ms Shan couldn't make it out, but she could see that the Barnlings closest to Smith seemed really very bored.
"Okay, folks, we all ready?" she said.
A ragged chorus of agreement broke out.
"Good. Because this is as ready as we're ever going to get."
And that was all she had. It seemed to be enough.
The sun cleared the horizon. On both sides of the street, weapons were raised threateningly as a fierce war cry sounded. The first ranks descended from the curb to run across the street, when a huge semi drove right between them. It stopped at the light, even though they were only yellow and it probably could have made it. For three minutes, it sat there between the enemy camps, then with a growl of its engine and a sigh of airbrakes it moved off.
Once again, two war cries sounded, and this time the armies flung themselves at each other -- only this time it was for effin' real.