‘Angels!’ Jared whispered loudly. He had thrown himself behind a low wall that jutted from the corner of a Tesco store front. The blue and red of the sign were faded and filthy but still recognisable. He cowered there, regretting the decision to come into the city. His group, a ragtag collection of men and women close to starvation, looked to him with fear in their eyes. Fear and something else. Need. They needed him. Ever since the crash they had looked to him to guide them, to protect them. He saw it in their eyes now and the weight of it crushed him. He turned from them and pushed himself against the wall, like he was trying to burrow his way through the bricks and mortar. I can’t, he thought to himself. Not this time. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.
The angels swept overhead, their jet packs roaring to announce their arrival, exhaust trails pale in the heat of a summer’s day. The group stopped in a huddle, staring at the floating white figures. Jared peeped from the corner of his eye; three of them, and not so white anymore.
One man, a younger man, one Jared had thought might make it, stepped forward to face them. ‘We’re just looking for food,’ he said to the angels. ‘We’re not doing anything wrong. No one needs protecting from us. You don’t need to arrest us.’ The man’s voice was clear, just as Jared had heard it a hundred times before. Clear, commanding, even confident if that was still possible. His name was Sean. Jared had gradually given him more and more responsibility, making him an effective second, perhaps more effective than Jared himself. The rest of the group nodded as Sean spoke. Jared could hear a few cries of please added to the man’s words. With the angels gripping their complete attention, none of them saw him crouching low against the wall. Slowly, he inched away from his position, careful not to attract attention.
The angels remained silent, hovering above the group, their jet packs whining with the effort. It was the only sound they made. Jared didn’t need to see their faces to know it was the only sound they would ever make.
Suddenly, one of them raised their right hand and pointed at Sean. The whole group flinched, looking like they might run. But only for a second. After that they were dead. The angels hosed them with hot, red lasers, burning them where they stood, slicing them in half and slicing on and on even after the bodies had all fallen, their lasers criss-crossing to form a deadly grid that none would escape.
Quickly and silently, Jared fled, tumbling his way across debris-strewn streets. He fell into a doorway when he heard the high pitched whine of the angels’ jet packs carrying them away. Shivering, he huddled as far into the space as he could, pulling his knees towards him and burying his head between them to muffle his panicked breathing. He stayed that way for long minutes, trying to calm his breathing so that he could listen.
But it was no use. His breathing was ragged, his heart wouldn't slow.
Up and running again, he fled through the streets, not knowing where he was or where he was going. Desperately he scanned the clear blue skies, looking for the tell-tale contrails of the angels’ jet packs. Nothing.
He tripped and fell, skinning his knees badly but rolling straight to his feet.
He stopped. The pain had shocked him into awareness and he paused, scanning the street around him. Nothing but broken glass and abandoned vehicles all covered in the layer of the dust still remaining from the crash. The rains had come after a year of blackness and washed much of it away but here in the cities, there would always be the dust. Beyond the vehicles smashed shop fronts stared at him with dead eyes and silent screaming mouths, like the bewildered victims of a catastrophe.
Falling to his knees, he wretched and choked as bile forced its way up through his larynx, a thin trickle of hot fluid burning his throat and slicing a line along his tongue and drooled from his mouth to form a colourless and pale yellow pile in the dust. His stomach clenched over and over as he dry-heaved, his throat contracting, trying to prevent the hideous but precious fluid from leaving his system. Eventually it stopped, leaving him gasping. He fell onto his side, rolling in the dust and dirt till he lay facing the blue sky.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said out loud. ‘I’m so sorry.’
Dots in the sky. Circling lazily. Three of them. A loose triangle.
Jared stared unblinking, allowing the sun’s light to dazzle his eyes. He had to blink away hot tears. Shading his eyes with his hands, he looked towards the dots. They were bigger, moving down. Fast.
He was back on his feet and running in a moment. More carefully this time but still quickly, he dashed to the edge of the street and sprinted along the path. The yawning, broken windows were a blur as he ran.
The scene changed as the shops were replaced with houses, tall five storey town houses. Earls Court, Jared realised. They were just as empty, just as dead. He sprinted on, not knowing where the energy to do so came from, not caring, just pounding his legs till they burned as hotly as his lungs. Anything not to see Sean and the others sliced over and over by the scarlet beams.
Soon he could hear the whine of the jet packs again. Quickly making up his mind, he turned from the town houses and headed back to the shops. A glass-walled hotel, dazzling in the sunshine like a totem from the past, dominated a square surrounded by shop fronts.
Sprinting to the edge of the space, he fell into a smashed shop window, crashing mannequins aside and falling in a heap just inside the shop. He lay covered in the limbs of mannequins, not daring to move and trying to calm his breathing.
Outside, he could see the heat shimmer as the angels’ descent brought them closer. Their dirty white metal bodies lowered into view and settled gently on the ground and sending dust dervishes dancing on London’s shattered street. Their jet packs powered down, the whining slowing to a soft ticking. Each of the angels stared up at the sky, directly at the sun. Jared could see their faces. They were dead. As dead as the things they had been forced to kill so many times. Dead things with the bodies of machines. Each of their right eyes shined a hateful, fading red, the colour gradually dimming to be replaced with a livid blue. Jared had laughed at the early reports of undead cyborgs. He first heard them just after the crash. Impossible, he’d thought. But there they were. Dead men in machines. Dead men who only wanted flesh in machines whose only function was to protect and serve.
They stood in a line facing the sun. Each of the three jet packs cracked open and their wings unfurled. This had been quite a sight before the crash; the angels recharging. Six feet of solar panelling on either side, stretching and curling up above their heads until each angel was surrounded by blazing light. Jared could see the halo. Angels indeed, here to clean this planet.