‘Easy,’ said Gregor. ‘I think you had quite a nasty turn.’ He was helping Jared into a chair at what was the Victoria and Albert reception desk and was now Gregor’s workshop and general meeting place for the team.
Jared liked teams. The army was all about team building. He was happy in a team. Gregor, Hook and Stella. What about Jared?
‘I’ll not tell Hook that you knocked his runner beans over. He’ll be upset about that. We’ll say the wind got them,’ said Gregor.
‘Yeah,’ said Jared. His voice was distant, like it came from his mouth and fell to the floor before he could hear it properly. He glanced down, half expecting to see his voice as some sort of sick child staring back up at him.
‘You gonna be sick?’ asked Gregor.
Jared shook his head and winced as the effort produced dots swimming before his eyes and sent his brain spinning. Gregor’s hands were on his shoulders again, steadying him.
‘You’ve been out there from the beginning.’ It wasn’t a question.
Jared, unable to speak, nodded just once. A tear caught in the corner of his eye, balled and fell onto his cheek. He made no effort to arrest its slide down his face.
Gregor watched it, nodded grimly. ‘You need more rest. More food and then more rest. We’ll eat.’ He busied himself in his work space, shifting huge pieces of angel armour and equipment out of his way. ‘Your little run-in with the angels is going to prove very useful. Hook and Stella both have lots of parts in need of repair; a lot of this stuff will end up in them or on them.’
Jared looked around the sharp, metallic piles. ‘Will you turn them into angels?’
The tech laughed. ‘No, I don’t think so. Reckon neither of them wants to share their heads with a machine.’ He tapped his temple as he spoke. ‘No, this stuff will be used to fix them. I was a Games coach,’ Gregor added by way of explanation.
Jared nodded. Games coaches were basically bio-engineers in charge of the teams’ augmentation. The Cynosure Games had been so popular because they were so different from anything that had come before. Each contestant, team or individual games, was physically augmented. All of them were stronger, faster, quicker. ‘Were you with Stella in the Games?’ he asked.
Gregor nodded. ‘We worked together for five years, scoring points, winning games. She was the ‘Killer’ and I was the ‘Fixer’. Rest of the team used to change pretty regularly, injuries, retirements and so on, but Stella, she was there from beginning to end.'
None of this was new to Jared. An all-rounder, Stella had competed in the individual and team games. She was the Killer, the Cynosure, had been for three years in a row, and was the most exciting talent the two years before that. She was the most famous person in the world. A whole planet at her feet. ‘The Cynosure fights for you,’ whispered Jared.
‘And she still does, in her way,’ said Gregor. ‘No more games but still plenty to do, plenty of points to score, people to fight for.’ He nodded at Jared to remind him who had insisted that he come into their place. He bent to rummage for a tin in a cupboard. ‘We normally try and vary the food a bit but I think you need something quick and easy.’ He opened the tin of beans and sausages, poured them in a bowl and placed it in the microwave. ‘I heard Hook call you Captain. You were army?’
Jared nodded, listening with renewed wonder to the purr of the microwave.
‘When did you get out?’ Gregor asked.
‘Stayed till the end. Once the Message arrived and the governments came on board, we knew that the army’s time was up. But there was plenty to do to get everything decommissioned. I was very busy.’
‘Was it easy to leave?’
‘No,’ said Jared. ‘No, I’d been career military. The army was as much family as my family.’ The fatigue was making him speak more freely than he usually would and so he was grateful for the excuse to stop talking when Gregor placed the bowl of steaming food in front of him.
‘And after?’ said Gregor.
Gregor nodded as if it were obvious. ‘You know about these things?’ he indicated the angels’ parts on the benches.
Jared shook his head. ‘Logistics and strategies,’ he said. ‘Nothing on maintenance or design.’
‘Shame. Would’ve been useful.’
Stella jogged down the stairs, jumping over the bodies of the deads. Her blade was strapped to her thigh, her short sweat-plastered hair close to her head, sweat gleamed on her bare arms and her face shined with energy.
‘You enjoying yourself?’ said Hook as he moved up the steps to meet her. The mace was held casually at his side.
They both stopped. Stella smiled. ‘Nope.’ She watched the blood and gore drip from the spikes on his mace.
‘The mess downstairs says otherwise,’ said Hook.
Stella smiled again. ‘Nothing here. No charge on the phone mast. We should go. I can check out another building before dark.’
Hook shook his head. ‘Too late. I heard jet packs.’
Stella sighed with annoyance. ‘Since when does noise bring them?’
‘Since their scanners stopped working, maybe?’ said Hook, shrugging his massive shoulders.
Stella caught sight of the titanium beneath his t-shirt. ‘Make an effort,’ she said, nodding to his chest.
‘Who’s gonna see? Or care?’ He looked her up and down meaningfully. ‘We can’t all have perfect augments. You know I was one of the earlier ones. Skin doesn’t always fit, especially on hot days.’
Stella wrinkled her face in disgust. ‘You could still make an effort with it.’
Hook looked like he was about to argue, but he stopped, moving down a couple of steps till he was level with Stella. ‘Listen, Stella,’ he began.
But Stella cut him off. ‘Later,’ she said. ‘If there are angels about, we’d best head home; can’t be lucky two days in a row.’
Hook nodded but didn’t move. He barred her way.
Stella held her arms out, questioning the bigger man.
Eventually Hook moved to one side and held his arm out to allow her to pass, pointing the way down the steps with his mace. ‘Lead the way, boss.’
Stella, glaring at him all the way, moved past him and down the steps.
‘Are you sure?’ said Jared. ‘I want to pull my weight.’
‘Well’ said Gregor, looking him up and down and taking in the skinny figure, ‘that’s not very much, so you’ve done your bit for today.’
Jared nodded gratefully. ‘Shall I sleep in Stella’s room again?’
‘Best not. We need to get you a place of your own.’ Gregor guided him past the curtained gift shop. ‘So, Captain, eh?’
‘When did you first hear about the disbandment?’
‘Soldiers were the last to know for sure. You guys probably knew better than us from watching the TV.’ Jared paused to catch his breath. He was so much more tired than he realised. ‘Still came as a shock though. No more army. No more armies!’
‘It was a hell of a message,’ said Gregor.
Jared nodded. ‘An offer too good to refuse.’
‘Any idea what happened? See anything in angel control?’
‘The same as everyone else. Four ships, four missiles. Four crashes. One apocalypse.’
Gregor nodded. They moved into the cafeteria and Gregor guided Jared to benches along the wall. Hook's garden could be seen from the window. He helped Jared lower himself to the bench.
'I'm sorry to be so useless,' said Jared.
Gregor shook his head. ‘You’ve survived for three years since the crash. I reckon we can make you useful.’
Stella and Hook were still on the stairs when the sound of smashing glass stopped them.
Turning carefully, Stella looked back and up at Hook, her finger on her lips.
They both waited, listening intently.
All they could hear was the faint sound of the deads still struggling in the bones of the blue whale.
Then the heavy tread of metal boots on broken glass.
Stella pointed back up the stairs. Go, she mouthed.
The two of them moved up the stairs as quickly and quietly as they could. Stella wished that she was alone. Hook was good for taking care of deads and smashing windows but he wasn’t quick enough for angels. As they made their painfully slow way back up to the top of the tower, she stared at his back, bitter that he had come for her.
Finally they made it to the open door at the top of the steps and the two of them made a dash for it.
Just as they reached the last step Hook stumbled, his booted foot catching on the edge of the step.
Stella reached out to him but it was no use. Once his bulky frame was falling there was no stopping him.
He crashed to the dusty floor, his mace flying free, scattering across the floor, the noise loud enough to wake the dead. Stella saw him turn his fall into a roll and tumble into the room. She dashed in, turned and closed the door as quietly as she could. She glared at big man.
He shrugged apologetically, mouthing Sorry at her.
Stella stalked towards him, her face grim. She stopped as she heard the noise: heavy solid footsteps. Not slow, not hurried. Purposeful. Stella pointed Hook towards the far corner and took up a position opposite. She made a gesture across her throat to Hook and then pointed at the door. She indicated herself and held up one finger before pointing back to Hook with two fingers raised.
Hook nodded his understanding. He glanced at his mace but Stella shook her head. Just be ready, the instruction.
They waited for long seconds, the footsteps louder with each tread.
The firm grip of a gauntleted hand on the handle. The handle turning slowly, irresistibly.
Stella was on the balls of her feet, ready as the door swung open. The first movement of bulky white armour, an arm, a leg, a chest plate, a helmeted face.
She launched at the angel, leaping high into the air, avoiding its grasping arms and wrapping her arms around the face of the helmet, using the creature’s head to slingshot around to its back.
Hook roared, setting off a split second after her and slamming into the angel’s torso. With Stella on its back and Hook at the front the cyborg tottered, stumbled and fell.
Stella skilfully moved herself out from under the falling angel and had her hands on its throat ready to squeeze and tear while Hook held it down.
The three of them came crashing down onto the steps, the angel’s armour acting as a toboggan and sliding down the steep incline.
Stella had to readjust quickly, her hands flying from its throat to its shoulders and then jamming her knees into its armpits so as to hang on.
Hook flailed and tried to grab the angel’s ankles, but missed, and Stella and the angel were gone, banging down the first flight of steps to crash on the landing below.
As the angel hit the landing, Stella was up, pushing her feet into its chest to slam its helmeted head into the wall. Immediately, she was ready to attack him again, not waiting for Hook to lumber down the steps to help. She whipped her tanto blade from her thigh and bent to the creature’s chin.
‘Wait!’ The voice didn’t come from Hook.
Stella stopped mid-strike.
‘I’m alive!’ It was coming from the angel. It was raising its hands and pushing at its helmet. ‘I’m alive!’ it repeated.
Stella stood back, her tanto still raised, just as Hook joined her.
‘What the…?’ he said as the angel raised its helmet.
It was a man. Two-thirds of his face was flesh. Around his right eye and across his cheekbone to his ear was metal. Shining silver metal.
‘My name is Vine,’ he said, ‘Michael Vine.' He was breathing hard. He looked up at Stella and Hook, his left eye strong, his pale blue right eye unblinking. ‘And I’m alive.’