'Where are all the flies?' said Stella to Vine. The two of them strode confidently, even aggressively through London's deserted streets. She walked fast to work out her frustrations with Hook, the argument with him simmering in her brain. Finding Vine's friend Tash was an excellent excuse to get away from the confines of the Victoria and Albert.
'No idea,' said Vine. He looked to the dead vehicles, cars, vans, a police car, an ice cream truck that formed a rusty tunnel of decay. 'When the music plays the ice cream has sold out,' said Vine. 'It's what my mum used to say when the ice cream truck came down our street,' he said in response to Stella's raised eyebrows.
Stella smiled. 'Bet my mum wished she'd thought of that.'
'Bugged her for frozen treats, did you?'
'Yeah. There was always some kind of reward after every class. In the summer it was ice cream.'
'Dance classes, gymnastic classes, karate classes, tennis classes, cricket classes, piano lessons, my parents always kept me busy.'
'How come everything is a class but piano is a lesson?'
Stella stared at Vine, slightly annoyed at her slip. She hadn't realised she had said it. She shrugged. 'Only one I was no good at, I suppose.'
'You were good at cricket?'
'How about you?' said Stella, smoothly avoiding the question. 'How was your childhood filled?'
'Estate gangs and empty ice cream cones.'
Stella glanced at the angel, thought better of questioning him further.
They walked on, the aggression in Stella's stride fading with every step while Vine continued in the exact stride he had employed since they had left the Victoria and Albert.
Looking over the derelict vehicles, she realised she hadn't taken any notice of what they had once been, only seeing them as hiding places behind which danger could lurk. 'Why does danger always lurk?' she said, changing the subject for the second time in as many minutes.
Vine glanced at her, amusement evident in his face. 'Because it sounds creepier. More monstrous.'
Stella looked the battered, once gleaming cyborg up and down. 'You're pretty monstrous, but I can't see you lurking.'
Vine grinned. 'No, I suppose I would loom or tower.'
'You're a good size for a bit of looming,' Stella agreed. 'You make Hook look small.'
'I'm no threat to him. I can't hurt him.'
'So you tell us.'
Vine shrugged. 'No way to find out for sure except letting you all beat me to death.'
'Kinda defeats the purpose, I suppose. And I was so looking forward to a little extra-curricular beating,' said Stella, sighing dramatically.
'I'm sure Hook would volunteer.'
Stella laughed ruefully. 'Don't worry about Hook. We have a periodic need to blow off some steam and then have a couple of days' sulking. We'll be back to the Good Life, hoeing and sorting out the chickens before you know it.'
'Yeah, we're pretty much self sufficient. Or at least we've extended the tin can store by about 100 years.'
She shrugged. 'Just survival.'
'If it was just survival there'd be a few more of us,' Vine pointed out.
Before she could respond, Stella jerked her head to the left; a noise, movement, a dead struggling through a shattered doorway.
'Allow me.' Vine hefted his huge whale bone, surged at the dead and caved in its skull with the club end. The blow smacked its head to a ninety degree angle before fell to a sudden heap on the path, as if it had been switched off rather than killed.
They stood over the creature for a moment; a ragged pile of bony rotten flesh. 'Flies,' said Stella. 'There should be flies.'
Hook paced the rotunda, while Gregor, still shaken from his excursion, pretended not to notice. 'I'll do an inventory,' said Hook. 'Like you say, lots of new mouths to feed.' He stalked from the rotunda, through an exhibit room now filled with fuel canisters. They had drained the vehicles of their petrol and diesel not long after the crash and used it to fuel the generators in the first long winter, the perpetual dark reducing the solar panels' effectiveness, but the noise had attracted the deads in large numbers. Those early months had been vital lessons in dealing with the deads; the most efficient ways of killing and disposing of them. At first they had tried to bury them but that had quickly become impractical. And so lots of bonfires. Remember, remember the fifth of November, they had said every night, November or not.
But that hadn't lasted. As the zombie angels' numbers grew and the need to hide from the sound of jet packs became an almost daily occurrence the fires had had to stop; angels reacted to flames. They came to put them out. And then their lasers would turn on whoever they saw. In the end they'd retreated inside Vic's, only venturing out when Stella had placed thumpers and the area was cleared. Any bodies they bothered to deal with now were simply stacked in side streets downwind of Vic's.
With generators and fires ruled out it was solar power that had eventually saved their lives, Hook reflected as he entered what had been the Raphael Cartoons, a huge arched room filled now with freezers, the priceless paintings obscured by the towers of freezer cabinets taken from shops and homes. Many of them were of clear glass and Hook smiled, as he always did, to see them so full. A wheeled ladder, liberated from the library, stood waiting to allow access to the second tier of freezers. He remembered his earlier promise about preparing dinner and made a mental note to come back for some diced beef. In the middle of the room were three rows of chest freezers, forming two aisles that were a picture from the past; an image from a frozen food store. As long as you don't look up to the room in which they're housed, he mused.
Cables snaked across the floor, all running from the rotunda where Gregor controlled the flow of power from the solar panels that covered the roofs of Vic's. It had been a frustrating but fruitful task to rip the panelling from nearby buildings; the freezers accounted for around 90% of the power generated by the original panels. The new panels meant that they could still power the freezers and heat enough rooms to live with some comfort in the winter.
Jared's frazzled, haggard face slipped into Hook's mind, and he realised that life could have been a lot harder than shifting a few freezers and solar panels.
Although there were always challenges. He remembered one incident in a Waitrose when he had been too easily distracted by tubs of still-frozen ice cream, the shop's own solar panelling having preserved the pudding. He had been trying to think of ways of getting the freezer and its contents to Vic's as quickly as possible when a hand had touched his shoulder, just lightly at first and then the grip tightening. It was still early in the apocalypse and Hook had been monetarily frozen with fear, just a second, but a second was enough. He had felt the thing's mouth closing on him.
And then there was nothing as the hand was whipped away, the dead crushed by a falling freezer cabinet. When he had looked around Stella stood in the gap left by the knocked over freezer. He had sighed with relief and smiled at her. 'Great, Chewy, always thinking with your stomach,' she had said to him. Hook liked that she knew quotes from movies. Stella never spoke about herself, never opened up and the quotes made it easier to talk to her.
Talking had never been easy with Stella, even in the Games. For five years she had dominated. She was the Games. Hook stopped and glanced at his reflection in the freezer door. He realised that he had no idea what she had done before the Games, when the world was normal and people had worried about their jobs and their mobile phones.
And then the Message came, not to presidents or governments, but to everyone all at once. It was a promise, lots of promises, too good to be true. Or so everyone was told. It took months for it to be listened to seriously; nearly every government in the world denied it: four million lives on four city-sized space ships and one request for asylum. Four million asylum seekers who would bring the world into a new future, one that would eradicate poverty and hunger and disease.
The first promise was to solve the Earth's energy problems. That was free, they said. Plans for super-efficient and easily built solar panelling were sent to every Facebook page, every Twitter account, every email address, every mobile phone. The information was everywhere; no one could own it, everyone could use it.
It was a revolution. Bloodless and clean. But a revolution nonetheless.
After that the governments couldn't keep a lid on the possibilities or the excitement anymore. They couldn't tell their citizens that it was too good to be true because it was already true. Within the first year people's reliance on oil and gas was almost gone. The BRIC nations, Brazil, Russia, India and China moved fastest, wanting to outpace the West. The US, UK and Western Europe lagged behind at first but quickly moved to catch up. How could they not?
Hook had struggled to follow any of it, but he knew that everything was going to be better, knew it, like it was already happening.
The Message was from a species that called itself the Community. They wanted a unified global response to their request for asylum. Some countries, particularly those in the Asia, Africa and South America, billions of people, were desperate to respond positively, to welcome the Community.
In the end the peace had only come through the threat of violence. The Community hadn't understood us, Hook knew that. They had obviously studied us, knew all about us and our history, but they hadn't really understood us, Hook decided. If they had, they wouldn't have offered the weapons.
Hook remembered the panic when four nations, Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey made an offer to the Community: come live with us, one million in each of our countries. We will give you sanctuary. The Community gave them the weapons. Those four countries took them eagerly. Super-powerful conventional weaponry: lasers, blasters, rail guns, missiles and many others that Hook didn't understand, and all powered by the sun. No pollution in their creation or their use. Wipe out your neighbour and move in. No need to clean up.
Maybe it had been deliberate, Hook mused as he picked up a packet of frozen beef. He grabbed it then because he'd probably forget later. The Community had perhaps thought humans would work together out of fear of each other. The term mutually assured destruction was not invented by them; humans had lived by it since it the end of the Second World War. Maybe the Community thought that was the only way we knew how.
The rest of the world had rushed to offer the Community the same protection in every corner of the planet, anywhere they liked. We were all one big happy family standing at an open door. But everyone had a knife behind their back.
Did the Community know? Whether they did or they didn't, they accepted the offer; the weapon technology was available for all. All governments that is; the Community didn't release that on social media.
The angels were next. The technology to make them was sent in return for the promise to dissolve national armies. This was the final straw for some. In America some states declared their own sovereignty, practically the whole of the western side of the United States had become the New United States overnight, and whole countries joined them in refusing: Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt all refusing resulting in the entire Middle East being fenced off from the rest of the world. The Community had shown how to create the power fences that separated them. Easily switched off and on so that when they decided to join the rest of humanity they would be able to quickly and without the need to dismantle any walls. North Korea's silence meant that a similar fence had been erected around that part of the world. The Community had said it was the best way. The Community had said and we all listened, Hook remembered. Power generators were set up in Libya, Turkey, The Gulf of Aden and Afghanistan to wall in the Middle East, while South Korea, China and Japan had provided the space to do the same for North Korea.
The New USA had been a trickier problem. The USA, Canada and Mexico had agreed to host the power plants needed for a massive wall but they couldn't square it anywhere but Hawaii and that would create a no-go area too big to be practical. Hook remember Hilary Clinton, the US president, ordering the construction of a new island off the western coast of the New USA. It almost started a war. The NUSA had threatened to destroy any ships sent to complete the work. In the end agreements were signed and Corner Island was built fifty miles off the coast of Eureka in California. The headlines for the agreement had written themselves. Hook hadn't followed it closely but it had something to do with keeping trade routes open between the old and new USAs.
He had no idea if these areas were still separated. They had been, right up to the crash.
And that was the Message, the promise, that if Earth could unite it would be forever perfect and the angels would look after everyone. It didn't seem much of a unification to Hook, if places could be just fenced off and forgotten about. But that hadn't seemed to matter; it was too good an offer to refuse.
But that was before the crash. The four crashes.
Trust, Hook thought to himself. It was something he and Stella had struggled with since the beginning of all this. And it was trust, or the lack of it, that had ended the promise, ended the dream.
There had been no way to decommission the nukes, at least not safely, not quickly. The Community had agreed to allow their continued presence and the Earth, for it was united now, had promised to begin their disposal. The Community, when they arrived, would be able to speed up the process. They weren't speedy enough.
Hook moved into the cafeteria's kitchen and threw the frozen meat onto the large wooden table. Its impact was loud in the steel room. This room was their fresh food store; vegetables from the garden, eggs and the occasional chicken or rabbit. Most of their protein still came from tin cans and frozen meat and meals, but the garden was Hook's best place. They couldn't grow anything for the first year, the dust in the atmosphere too thick. No sun for a whole year. No wonder so many had died. And once they'd died they made more of themselves till the deads were nearly all that was left. Hook shook the thoughts from his head. He turned to the steel shelf groaning from the weight of the books, his collection of horticultural volumes, salvaged from various shops; he had read them all avidly and now the garden could sustain them indefinitely. And with one addition they wouldn't need tin cans anymore.
Hook dreamed of pigs and that dream always chased away melancholy thoughts of the Message and the crash. He had also read books on keeping livestock and the chapters on pigs were inspirational.
You could do a lot with a pig.
'Ants,' said Vine. He was crouching low over a corpse. They had walked on from their previous encounter and were studying another pile of bones and rags on a garage forecourt. Once-new cars formed two ranks of dusty multi-coloured metal and dirty windscreens, their price signs long since faded.
'What?' said Stella. She was scanning the area, her eyes never still as she looked all around them. The tanker lorry blocking her view of the street worried her. It was dark, cast in shadow by the afternoon sun, making it seem like a wall rather than a vehicle. Pulling her attention away from the truck, she looked down at the dead. It had been killed recently, its skull still leaking fluid from a precise blow with a pointed weapon. Probably an ice pick, Stella thought to herself. That meant people. Living people. She remembered the faces on the phone's screen saver and imagined the man and woman, back to back, each carrying an ice pick like post-apocalyptic Charlie's Angels.
'Ants,' Vine repeated. 'Ants are doing what the flies did. This thing's covered in them.'
Stella looked more closely at the body; Vine was right, ants swarmed over the creases and folds of tattered clothes and grey flesh. 'Gross,' she said.
'Death, destruction, disease and decay every single day and you call ants gross.'
'Nice alliteration,' said Stella. She was looking carefully around them again. Buildings on either side and a tanker blocking the street. The only clear way was back.
'I do try.' Vine followed her eyes to the tanker.
'And a little bit of rhyme in there too.' Her voice was flat, seemingly unengaged.
'I'm a poet and I don't know it,' said Vine, his voice equally deadpan.
'That tanker,' said Stella. 'What's weird about it?'
'Not a lot of death, destruction, disease and decay,' Vine replied.
'That's what I was thinking.' The tanker was in shadow and far from clean but it didn't have the feel of a dead vehicle. It looked used. Recently used. 'And I suppose your friend is on the other side of it?
The angel nodded. 'Not far from here. Another half mile, in Hyde Park at the Old Police House.'
'Nice! Very exclusive!' Stella sighed. 'Why not just set up next door to Vic's? It would've saved a lot of time.'
Vine glanced at her but she was already scampering towards the lorry, hugging the buildings for cover. Not used to Stella's impulsive ways, he silently cursed. He couldn't follow her, at least not quietly and so he stood and watched her approach, ready to move if needed.
Stella dodged behind the rear of the tanker and then ran hard at the cab, covering the full length of the truck in a couple of seconds. The metal steps rang to the sound of her heavy boots as she leapt up and hauled open the door.
She climbed inside. The seats' upholstery was worn but not neglected. The keys were still in the ignition. Leaning out of the window, she called to Vine. 'Know how to drive a lorry?'
Vine walked over to her, his heavy tread even louder in the open square made by the truck and the buildings. As he approached, he saw shadows moving beneath the cab. 'Stella!' he called.
She heard the urgency in his voice and grabbed the keys, pushed the door open and leapt down to the ground in one fluid movement. Rolling as she hit the dirt, she got a look under the cab and saw the moving shadows. Immediately, she was back on her feet and jogging to Vine. They retreated to the relative shelter of the two rows of cars. Stella squinting at the shadows, trying to gauge numbers, pace of movement, but they were too far away.
'Zombies,' said Vine. He was staring hard, using his ocular array, the blue eye flickering. 'Deads as you call them. Lots of them and more and more all the time.' As he said it a dead spilled from around the front of the cab, catching its shoulder on the grill and jerking to its left before stumbling on again. The material of its jacket torn at the shoulder.
'What's bringing them this way?' said Stella.
Vine shrugged before Stella tapped the metal side of his head. He looked at her, confused and irritated.
'Hey, metal man,' she said. 'What about that scan thing you do? Any thumpers or the like set up near here?'
'Please don't do that,' said Vine. 'It's rude.'
'Sorry,' said Stella, remembering her own annoyance at Hook for snapping his fingers in her face. 'But could you? Would you? Please?'
Annoyance still hardened his face, but he nodded. 'Scanning,' he said. His shining electronic eye swam a little as it moved through differing shades of blue. 'One device set up near here. Just locating. It's five metres that way.' He pointed at the garage's office.
Stella stared at the large windows. There was a desk, a calendar on the wall, its corners curling. No semi naked girls. Lads' version must be in the back, she thought.
'It's powerful,' said Vine. 'More so than the thumpers you use. What kind of range did you get from them?'
'Not far,' said Stella. 'Not much more than a few streets. We just use them to clear a small area.'
'This one will do more than that. It'll call deads in from at least a mile away.'
'A mile? That'd cover Vic's from here. A mile radius. Eight million deads in London. That means...' she didn't finish her sentence.
'Several hundred thousand converging on this point,' said Vine.
'Where is it?' she said, staring at the office. 'Be precise.'
Vine glanced over at the deads trickling around the lorry. There were a couple of dozen already. 'We should leave,' he said.
'Not before we take out the thumper.' Stella's eyes were hard, her face determined, her mouth a thin line.
'It's already too late. The deads will be following the signal. Vic's could already be surrounded.'
'It's never too late.'