The street in front of the Natural History Museum was silent. Deads drifted towards the broken windows at the bottom of the towers, drawn by the noise and the arrival of the angel. They were slow and awkward, disinterested; their movements fluid, inevitable, heavy, like tar sliding down a window on a hot day. Soon there was a cluster of them around the base of the towers, spilling to stand stubbornly in front of the heavy doors.
Gregor watched from the high windows of the Victoria and Albert, his eyes darting backwards and forwards over the growing crowd. He nodded grimly and made his decision.
‘Alive?’ said Hook. ‘How is he alive? I’ve not seen a live angel since the crash.’
‘Me neither,’ said Stella, ‘but look at him. He’s alive.’
Michael Vine, the living angel, sat in the corner of the room at the top of one of the Natural History Museum’s towers. Sort of in the corner; the space wasn’t big enough for him, and so the bulk of his white armour meant that he sat somewhere closer to the middle of the room. Through the doorway, he regarded Stella and Hook coolly, as if he found it slightly amusing that they might consider themselves his captors.
Stella and Hook looked over their shoulders at the man/machine. They were standing on the landing outside of the room. He stared back, completely unfazed. ‘I think he’s okay,’ Stella whispered.
‘You think everyone’s okay,’ Hook replied. He pulled Stella away from the doorway and whispered urgently. ‘What are you gonna do, check his wrists and ankles and invite him home for tea?’
Stella looked up at Hook’s face, saw the deep mistrust and the bitterness and the regret. ‘He’s a man, a person. We save people.’
‘You’re not the Cynosure, not anymore. You can’t save everybody, Stella.’
‘I can save the ones I find.’
‘Change the record. We can’t take it. We can’t trust it. We can’t feed it.’
‘He is a person. He will be trustworthy. He will need to pull his weight, which in his case is a bit more than the rest of us. He can find the extra food.’
Hook stepped back from her, his hands moving to his shaggy hair and pulling at it. ‘This is too much. He’s an angel. Angels are bad. Remember those hot lasers? How many times have we had to hide from them?’
‘Actually,’ said Vine. He raised his voice to be heard through the doorway. ‘I can’t shoot you. My laser’s deactivated.’ His voice was deep, altered in some way, or affected by his cybernetics.
‘Nice going, meathead,’ said Stella. She turned away from him and walked into the room. ‘Mr Vine, I apologise for my partner’s comments. He doesn’t always see an opportunity, even when it’s painted with ten foot letters on the side of a merry-go-round.’ She glanced sideways at Hook as he entered the room.
Vine’s presence made Hook seem less large than usual. He walked in with less certainty than was his habit.
Stella glanced at him, a slight smirk on her face.
‘Just Vine is fine,’ said the angel. ‘And you’re the Killer.’
‘Not for a long time. At least not in the ring.’
Vine nodded. ‘And you’re Hook. Centre back for the Falcons,’ he said.
Hook couldn’t help but smile.
‘You never played together,’ Vine continued. ‘You could have made it with the Mariners.’ He pointed at Hook as he said this. Hook again failed to hide his smile.
‘You liked the Games?’ said Hook.
Vine shrugged. ‘My kid. At least at first. He saw a year of the Games.’
‘There were five,’ said Stella. ‘Did he get bored? Because they got better once we adapted the augments.’
‘I know,’ said Vine. ‘I carried on watching after he died. It reminded me of him.’
‘Oh,’ said Stella. ‘I’m sorry.’
Hook moved between them. ‘You said something about your laser not working.’
‘Inhibitors,’ said Vine. ‘They’re in place to stop me firing on humans. Only someone in Angel Control can release it. And then only a commander. I’m no threat to you.’
‘So you say,’ said Hook.
‘I’ve followed you for the last week…’
Stella cut him off. ‘No chance. We’d have known. You can’t get close to us without our hearing you.’
‘I don’t need to be close.’ He tapped the top of his metal cheekbone, right below his blue robotic eye.
‘Way to earn our trust, Officer Murphy,’ said Hook.
‘A Robocop reference.’ Vine smiled. ‘I haven’t heard one of those since my wife was alive.’
‘Angels could be married?’ said Stella.
‘Of course,’ said Vine. ‘But I was divorced.’
The three of them stood awkwardly for a moment. Stella marvelled at the situation; three altered humans surrounded by the undead, not knowing what to say to someone who had declared that his child was dead and that he had lost his wife twice.
‘Sounds like you crashed well before the ships did,’ she said.
‘Is that why you volunteered for the angels?’ said Hook.
Vine nodded again. ‘Pretty much.’
Gregor grabbed a thumper from the table and headed for the front doors. Lifting the bar, he paused. He remembered Jared lying on the bench in the cafeteria. He shrugged, trusting that the captain would sleep though it. He looked at the door. He wouldn’t be able to lock it. They hadn’t left the museum empty for years. Gregor had not left for years.
He pulled the door open and slipped outside, closing the door as quietly as he could behind him. A zombie, shuffling towards the Natural History Museum, noticed him, while the rest remained unaware. Gregor had heard Hook and Stella talking about the zombies’ reactions and how slow they were. He decided to risk leaving this one and moved quickly to find cover behind a tall lamppost. He had the thumper inside a shoulder bag and carried a heavy sword taken from one of the exhibits in both hands. The weight of it was causing him some regret and he considered going back to change it, but the more he moved, the more zombies would notice him. He pushed on, padding to a bench and ducking behind it. Another zombie had noticed him and one of the ones close to him jerked around, matching its partner’s movements. It would follow the other even if it wasn’t aware of Gregor.
He crouched and ran awkwardly to the red phone box and then on to the trees, so wildly overgrown that even a gentle breeze made them loud enough to cover his footsteps.
Looking around the trunk of a tree he thought he could count five zombies heading for him. For now, the majority were still shuffling towards the Natural History Museum but that could quickly change. Stella had told him of the erratic behaviour of the creatures and how you couldn’t predict with certainty what they were going to do. As he watched, another two noticed the actions of their peers and turned to face him.
Gregor tried to control his breathing. His ears rang with sound, and he tried to quell the rising panic. This wasn’t such a good idea. The short distance back to Vic's was already blocked by zombies. They were spread out and he could probably run between them as he had heard Stella describe, but he wasn’t confident. The sword was too heavy for more than a few swings before he would tire. He wished he had Stella’s speed or Hook’s strength.
Looking across the road, he remembered that if he didn’t get the thumper placed then no one would have Stella and Hook.
Precious moments had been wasted already. Taking a deep breath, he ran across the road.
Without realising it, his hiding place had created a blind spot and he ran straight into one of the creatures, knocking it and himself over. His knee connected with the knee of the zombie and he felt it bend and snap as his weight fell onto it. He rolled over, dropping the sword, sending it clattering along the road. More zombies turned their heads at the sound and the one on the ground was already reaching for him, its dead eyes staring and its jaws moving mechanically.
Gregor crawled backwards on his bottom, kicking away from it. When his hand touched the sword he remembered Hook and Stella’s tales about never moving backwards. He stumbled to his feet and hefted the sword, walking slowly back to the zombie as it dragged itself towards him. Draggers are easier than shufflers, he told himself. Draggers are easier than shufflers. He raised the sword, ready to strike. Lowered it again. Raised it. Lowered it. He stared into the creature’s face. As he did, he realised he had been walking backwards again to keep a distance between it and him. He threw a look over his shoulder. Three of them, almost within grabbing distance.
‘Give me a break!’ he hissed at them and ran for the other side of the road, past more trees and on into the overgrown green space of Egerton Gardens.
It was a huge horseshoe of tall town houses, all of them five stories, their faded paintwork dark against the brilliant blue sky. Each of them was empty; Stella and Hook had scouted and looted them in the first months after the crash, but, Gregor supposed, that didn’t mean zombies hadn’t moved in since.
‘Stick to the plan,’ he mumbled to himself. The houses were a fantastic bottleneck and he could escape through one of them and back to Vic's. That was the plan.
He was half a minute or so ahead of the zombies by the time he came to the house at the furthest point from the entrance to the horseshoe. Plenty of time to set up the thumper and make a run for it.
Pulling it from his bag, he flicked the on switch, took one rueful look at the twelve batteries attached to it, and placed it on the front door step.
He tried the handle of the front door. Locked. He ran next door, the first zombies already moving through the overgrown greenery in his direction. Desperately, he rattled at the handle. He took a moment to stare at the zombies; dozens of them already, slowly making their way towards him.
Stela stared at the angel. ‘You fell,’ she said.
Vine looked at her, his face thoughtful as he considered her words. ‘I suppose I did.’
‘Why us?’ said Hook. ‘You said you’ve been watching us. Why us?’
Vine shrugged, the tectonic movements of shoulder and breast plates strangely quiet. ‘The Cynosure,’ he said, pointing at and then turning to Stella. ‘Once I saw you, I knew that I had to see if you were still…’ he shrugged again. ‘I don’t know, decent, I suppose.’
‘She’s not a saint, you know,’ said Hook.
‘Or an angel,’ said Stella.
‘I know,’ said Vine. He shrugged again. ‘We should try to start again, and you’re someone that can bring people together. Tash and I agreed on that.’
‘Tash?’ said Stella.
‘Six months ago I rescued her. I was in Peterborough. She was trapped in a Sainsbury’s. She’d been hiding there since the crash and the zombies finally got in. We’ve been on the road together ever since. Thought we’d find more people in London.’
‘Where is she?’ said Stella.
‘Not far from here. I came to talk to you alone, make sure it was okay for us both to come to you.’
‘We’re not Butlin’s,’ said Hook.
‘It’s not an argument,’ said Stella. ‘They both come, simple as that.’
Hook stared at her, but he remained silent.
‘This Tash survived on her own for more than two years?’ Stella asked.
‘Then she’ll be useful,’ said Stella, looking pointedly at Hook.
‘And she can cut hair,’ said Vine, pointing at Hook’s unruly mop.
Hook smiled back sarcastically.
Hook stayed still.
Stella stepped between them. ‘We can compare muscles later,’ she said. She glared at them both as neither man stepped away. ‘We’re not doing this.’
Vine turned away.
Hook smiled at the back of head and got a jab in the ribs from Stella.
‘Let’s go,’ she said.
‘Might be easier said than done,’ said Vine. He was staring out of the window, down at the street.
Hook joined him. ‘There’s a party down there,’ he said. ‘And even the Cynosure didn’t get an invite.’ He glanced at Stella who was deliberately ignoring him. ‘Of course,’ he continued, ‘if someone hadn’t sent an entire blue whale crashing to the floor, this wouldn’t be a problem.’
‘Whatever,’ Stella said to Hook.
‘It was very loud,’ Vine added.
‘Whatever,’ she said to Vine. She turned to the window and looked down at the crowd. ‘All the other exits are barricaded.’ She pursed her lips thoughtfully. ‘We push our way out,’ she said.
‘What about our laser-less friend?’ Hook asked.
Stella thought she could hear an amused tone in his voice, but she glanced at Vine and raised her eyebrows
‘Just because I can’t fire a laser at them doesn’t mean I can’t hit them,’ Vine replied. He clenched his massive metal-gloved fists for emphasis. Hook pretended not to notice. Stella sighed.
‘Wait,’ she said. ‘They’re leaving.’
The three of them stared down from their high vantage point. The deads were definitely beginning to drift away.
‘Did they just get fed up?’ said Hook
‘No,’ said Vine. ‘They’re all heading in the same direction.’ He pointed across the road and to the left. ‘Something is attracting them.’
‘Thumper,’ said Stella. ‘Gregor.’ She shook her head. ‘Stupid.’
‘Where’s he gone with it?’ Hook asked, scanning the area.
‘What’s a thumper?’ said Vine.
‘It sends out ultra sound waves,’ said Stella. ‘They attract the deads.’
‘Ultra sound?’ said Vine. ‘I can track that and maybe find your friend.’
‘Wow,’ said Hook sarcastically. ‘You’re like a magic box, just full of tricks and surprises! Can you make toast as well?’
Stella ignored him. ‘Yes, please, Mr Vine. Gregor hasn’t been outside for two years; he’s not ready. Chances are he’s blundered about and got dozens of them following him. The thumper’ll only work if the deads can’t see anyone. They’ll go for him over an ultra sound any time.’
‘Call me Vine.’ The cyborg’s electric blue eye flickered. ‘Scanning now,’ he said.
Stella smiled at Hook. ‘He’s gonna be useful.’
‘Across the road,’ said Vine. He pointed in the same direction as before.
‘I think we knew that much,’ said Hook.
‘I can follow the signal to its precise location, but would your friend still be there? It doesn’t seem sensible to set off this thumper and then stand next to it. I assume he knows what it does.’
Hook nodded begrudgingly.
‘The thumper is in a place called Egerton Gardens,’ Vine added. He saw the quizzical looks on the other two’s faces. He lifted his hand to the metal side of his head and tapped it with his fore finger. The metallic chink of sound echoed slightly. ‘I have maps,’ he said.
Stella nodded. ‘The big posh houses. They’re not far. We cleaned them out last year.’ Hook nodded his agreement. ‘They’re Hoset out in a ring with one entrance. If he’s in there he’s trapped.’
‘He could hide in the houses,’ Vine pointed out.
Stella shook her head. ‘Hook and me made sure all the doors were locked so that the houses couldn’t get any surprise guests.’ She paused, thinking hard. ‘Gregor would have to smash a window. We get over there, look for that and we’ll know where he is. Otherwise…’ She left the otherwise unspoken.
‘I can go now,’ said Vine.
Stella looked at the angel, realised what he was suggesting. She nodded her head.
The three of them clattered down the steps and out into the main entrance hall of the museum. Hook had retrieved his mace and Stella still had her tanto strapped to her thigh. Vine went to the fallen skeleton, smashing a dead in the face as he went. Even Hook nodded his approval as the dead’s head seem to fold in on itself. Other deads, sprawled among the bones, tried to reach him, but just pawed ineffectually against his leg armour.
Vine grabbed a huge bone, at least two-and-a-half-metres long and sharp at one end and thick at the other. He twirled it around in front of him, the noise it made swirling through the air was audible to Stella and Hook. He turned and quickly stabbed the heads of each of the deads still trapped in the bones and then stalked back towards Stella and Hook. ‘Let’s go,’ he said.
Gregor stood atop the front steps of a house three doors down from the thumper. The zombies ignored the device, preferring the promise of fresh meat. He looked over the railing to the basement. If that was locked as well, then he would be trapped.
Some of the undead had reached the path and in seconds his escape would be blocked. He hefted the sword in both of his hands. Go now and he’d only have to kill one to get to the next door. He could work his way from door to door, killing one zombie at a time.
But he was scared.
He stood rooted to the spot, waiting for the first one to come to him. Over their heads he could see more of them entering the mews. The central grassy area was dotted with trees. He tried to guess the distance. Ten metres. Twenty metres. Fewer than ten zombies between him and the tree. A dash of a few seconds, nothing more. The next tree was a similar distance, a similar dash, a similar number of zombies.
He stepped down, ready to go, the sword gripped tightly in both hands.
It was too much. He stepped back. The closest zombie took another step forward. Drool spilled from its mouth as it gnashed its teeth, its arms lifting, its hands reaching.
Gregor held the sword out at it, batting at its hands. It grabbed at the blade uselessly, like a robot with a dysfunctional programme.
‘Get back!’ he shouted at it. He stabbed at its hands, drawing blood.
The creature came on.
The weight of the sword was suddenly enormous in Gregor’s hands. The point wavered in front of him, his arms unable to support the sword, the blade dropping. He willed it to stay in the air but it drooped in front of his eyes, out of his control, like a bridge lowering into an unseen river.
The zombie lurched forward, catching its foot on the top step and falling into Gregor. It looked up at him, blood erupting from its mouth, the blade of the sword, deep in its stomach, keeping it at bay.
Gregor held on but the weight was too much; he dropped with the zombie falling onto him, pushing him down, leaning its head forward and snapping its teeth.
With his elbows braced against the hard concrete of the step he was able to hold the zombie a few inches from his face. He could feel the blood pouring down the handle of the sword, the red liquid mixing with the sweat on his hands. The handle slipped, the pommel pushed against his chest, the zombie’s face another inch closer.
Something grabbed his ankle. He kicked out in fright, dislodging the grip but the clawed hands were reaching for him again.
And then the sound of a jet pack.
Gregor groaned. He kicked with legs and turned his face as far from the zombie as possible, bloody drool dripping and sliding on top his cheek.
It was over. He knew that now. He stopped kicking and let go of the sword, the pommel sinking into his chest, making him exhale in pain as the zombie’s face fell onto him, its forehead butting his nose, causing blood to flow. Hands grabbed his ankle and began to pull at him. The zombie on his chest lifted its head and Gregor felt the creature’s teeth graze against his face, its mouth begin to close.
Suddenly, it was yanked away from him and he could see the sky, so blue, so clear. The hands were no longer reaching for his legs and the only sound was that of tearing and thumping. He lifted his head and his vision was filled with sight of an angel holding a huge bone in two huge hands. With every swing zombies were batted to the side, sent sprawling as they groped for the armoured figure.
It turned its head to him. ‘You’re Gregor, yes?’
Gregor nodded, wiping the blood and drool from his face.
‘I’m Vine. Stella sent me.’
Gregor fell back against the hard concrete, the pain in his chest and nose competing with the flooding feeling of relief. He was alive.