Jared had followed Hook outside into the garden. The space was glorious; a square of land surrounded and guarded by the tall, white buildings of the museum and filled with greenery; tall, low, bushy, skinny plants in ordered rows and plots.
Hook laughed at Jared’s gobsmacked face. ‘It’s taken a while but we’re pretty much self sufficient now. We grow enough to last us all year round. The solar panels make sure the freezers run like a dream. Hell of a job lugging them out of the nearest Iceland though.’
‘How…’ Jared couldn’t form the words.
‘Hard work and swearing mainly,’ said Hook anticipating the question. ‘But it’s all set up now. A couple of hours a day should see it right. Grab a hoe.’
Jared bent to his task obediently, working steadily under Hook’s direction.
Jared’s permanently bent posture made him seem even smaller than the large-framed Hook. ‘You used to play in the Games,’ he said. It wasn’t a question.
‘Yep,’ Hook replied. ‘Centre back for the Falcons. Loved it.’
‘I remember the Falcons. Always the runners up.’
‘Yeah, we never quite made that step up. Great guys though. Great guys, great times.’ Hook leaned against a spade that was tiny in his hands. ‘Were you a fan?’
‘My kids,’ said Jared. ‘I still followed football. Chelsea.’ He shrugged.
‘I was turned down by Nottingham Forest,’ Hook mused. ‘I was gutted, thought my life had ended.’ He tutted at himself. ‘Didn’t know what the end looked like then.’ He straightened his back and sighed. ‘Then the Message came and everything changed. Everything was gonna be fantastic. Nottingham Forest didn’t matter anymore and when they came up with the idea for the Cynosure Games I jumped at the chance. Six months of mods,’ he flexed his arms and chest, making his muscles ripple with brutal, augmented strength. ‘Five years of competing and still not a problem with them.’
‘Still got the hook?’
‘Yep.’ Hook shot out his arm, curling it round an imaginary opponent. ‘Hook ’em in, bring ’em down. That was me,’ he said proudly.
Movement caught Jared’s eye and he jerked his head around.
‘Easy, JJ,’ said Hook. ‘You’re safe in here.’
Jared peered at a section separated by a wire mesh fence. ‘Chickens?’ he said. Two birds pecking at the dirt and more joining them.
Hook nodded. ‘They’re Stella’s job. I can’t stand cleaning them out.’
Hook shrugged. ‘Couple of dozen. She looks after them well. But then she does everything well.’
Jared nodded. ‘She’s the Cynosure,’ he whispered.
The pole was a blur in Stella’s hands as she smacked the three deads on their arms and shoulders, sending them tottering around the room, bumping into each other, against furniture, falling and trying to regain their footing. ‘C’mon guys, you can dance harder than that. Pick up the pace!’ She moved with a grace and speed that would have made live people look clumsy, so the deads were like scarecrows on strings and Stella pulled and pushed them, even risking a shove with her hands. She was glad of her black fingerless gloves but her fingertips pressed hard into their clothing and she could feel the rotten flesh yielding to the bone beneath.
An ancient computer monitor stood at the corner of a desk. ‘Well,’ said Stella to the deads, ‘I know this is a museum, but that’s even deader than you.’ She span away and blew the dust out of the plastic ribs at the back of the monitor. ‘If we could just teach you guys to clean…’ She smacked the nearest dead on the nose, jabbing into its face, breaking skin and bone. She boxed the creature’s face, laughing loudly as its head jerked back and forth, its wispy hair dancing to the blows.
‘What do you think?’ she said to it. ‘Can I get away with a do-si-do?’ The dead stared at her, its bloody face slack, drool dripping from its mouth, its yellow eyes unresponsive. Stella dropped the pole and lurched at it, grabbed its wrists, cracking the bones beneath the thin veil of skin, and spun it around so quickly it couldn’t attack her properly, managing only to thrust its face forward and champ its teeth uselessly. Stella laughed at it and used it to bat the other two out of the way. ‘Yee-ha!’ she yelled, spinning faster before finally letting go, sending the dead sprawling against a desk, crashing it and its contents, bulky monitor included, to the floor.
‘I don’t suppose you ever need to worry about her?’ said Jared.
‘No need,’ Hook replied. ‘Like you say, she’s the Cynosure.’ Jared noticed that this last was said without Hook’s usual enthusiasm. He saw Jared’s expression. ‘I guess I’m just jealous,’ he explained. ‘I never got to win.’
‘You’re winning now.’ Jared raised his arms to take in the garden.
‘Yeah,’ Hook smiled. ‘I’ve got my uses.’
‘Have you two been together since the crash?’
‘Yeah. There was a tournament. The Falcons were already out but the Mariners, Stella’s team, they were going all the way as usual.’
‘I remember. It was on the TV. She scored more points that night than she ever had before. It was gonna be her year. Again.’
‘I hung around to watch,’ Hook added, slightly sheepishly, Jared thought. ‘You know, just to be part of it. Wembley Stadium. One hundred and ten thousand people all chanting her name. It was history and I wanted to be there.’
Jared watched the big man talk. The memories filled him, making his face shine with colour, like he was remembering a dessert trolley. ‘You never managed to hook Stella, did you?’ Jared asked.
‘No chance.’ Hook laughed. ‘She was too quick for me.’ He glanced at over the roofs in the direction of the Natural History Museum. ‘Still is,’ he added.
‘She always goes out alone?’
‘A lot of the time. We go together when she’s already scouted an area or planted the thumpers. She’s a bit more subtle than me.’
‘Woah! Head rush. Settle down, guys. We’re just getting started. Plenty of time.’ Stella wiped her brow and stooped for the pole. Spinning it casually, she walked to the prone zombie. It raised its head as she approached and dragged its feet into itself, preparing to try to stand.
She brought the pole around in a blurred arc smashing one and then two kneecaps. The dead fell back on itself and Stella turned to the next one. She charged it, pole horizontal like a lance and skewered the dead in the stomach, pushing it back against the wall, smashing shelves and sending their contents tumbling to the floor. Momentum carried the pole through the dead’s stomach and into the wall behind. It thudded into the plaster, knocking a hole in the wall.
Stella pulled out the pole and span it above her head as she turned to the last dead standing. ‘I think that that’s just about it and my card’s already marked for later. So I’m afraid you’ll have to sit this one out.’ She let the pole slide through her gloved palms till she held it in a two-handed grip. Swinging it head height, she connected with the side of the dead’s head and, such was the force of the blow, its skull collapsed and the bar travelled through into its brain.
‘Gross,’ she said and, without looking, buried the end of the bar into the head of the dead slumped at the base of the wall.
The one with the broken knees was using its arms to crawl to her. She shook her head at its efforts as she stooped for the monitor. ‘Who said old tech is useless?’ she said as she dropped it onto the dead’s head. Its crushed skull spewed blood and brain matter over the floor, making her skip to the side to avoid it. ‘Watch it. These boots don’t grow on trees.’
Glancing up, she saw the door to the rest of museum start to budge. ‘About time,’ she said as the face of another dead peered around the door. ‘Do you know how long I’ve been waiting?’
She turned and moved to the broken window and the glaring daylight. ‘Laters,’ she sang to the dead and jumped back out to the front of the Natural History Museum, leaned against the wall and propped her foot casually against the bricks.
‘What about you, JJ? What did you do before the crash?’ said Hook.
Jared started to correct the other man on his name, but he left it. It was nice to have a new identity. ‘Army,’ he said. ‘Right up until the Disbandment. I was career military. Made it to captain, was ready to go all the way.’
‘Captain Jenks, eh?’ said Hook approvingly.
‘Not sure I could have cut it though. Not with what’s happened since.’
‘You’re still alive,’ Hook pointed out.
‘Yeah,’ Jared nodded, ‘I’m still alive.’
‘What did you do after the army? I heard a lot of them volunteered for the angels.’
‘You heard right. I was in Angel Control, overseeing deployment and the first beats. It was successful. It worked. Best job ever.’
Hook nodded. Angels all over the world instead of armies. It had been a bright new dawn and, like Jared said, it had worked. Everyone getting along and letting the angels protect and serve. And the Games to entertain. He and Jared had been at the forefront of the new world order and they had made it work.
Stella leant against the outside of the Natural History Museum. The trees were huge but she could still see that the deads on the roads were more numerous now, a dozen or so scattered across the once-busy tarmac. She imagined the cars thronging the roads, the trees neatly pruned, the people on the pavements, the cyclists, the buses. The noise. So much noise and now nothing. A city of millions just a dusty, overgrown tomb populated with the dead.
They could never clear them all, she realised. There would never be enough batteries or thumpers to let them move through the city. Or they would reach their limit and they would have nothing but the garden. Stella knew it would never be enough and that one day she would be too slow and a dead or an angel would kill her.
She reached down to the tanto strapped at her thigh and pulled it out of its sheath in one smooth motion. The long blade glinted in the sunlight as she raised it high. It was in the dead’s head as soon as it poked itself out of the window, its body slung across the high window sill. Stella dragged it forward so that its waist was on the sill. The next dead followed insensibly after and soon joined its fellow. She piled the bodies high, blocking the smashed window.
Patting the topmost dead on the back, she said, 'Thank you,' and trotted across to the window at the bottom of the left hand tower. Fishing in the pockets of her combat pants, she pulled out a pair of glass suckers and a glass cutter. She quickly scored a rectangle big enough for her to squeeze through and lifted the pane away with the suckers.
Inside were two more deads. 'Shhh,' she said to them, placing her finger to her lips.
They were on her as soon as she entered. The tanto was out of its sheath and up into the first dead’s head in an instant. The second she allowed to come close before finishing it off with the same quiet efficiency.
She crept to the open door and peered into the main building. The huge arched chamber, the skeleton of the diving blue whale and the deads. The latter were crowded around the door to the chamber at the bottom of the other tower.
Smiling to herself, she crept to the staircase and began the climb to the top.