Jared's eyes flicked open. The nightmares receded, the glare of the lasers faded, the faces of old friends grew smaller, the cries of pain quietened. The cries for help he just tried to ignore, but he knew he would never sleep so long again.
'What's happening?' he said to Gregor. He had shuffled through to the rotunda, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders.
Gregor looked up from the angels' parts on his workbench and shrugged. 'Not much. Stella and Vine are out to get another refugee and Hook's sulking.'
'Stella,' said Jared, nodding. The Cynosure was at the centre of everything.
'They've been like it since the start.'
'You okay?' Jared could see the older man's hands were shaking.
'Had a trip out,' said Gregor, trying to shrug it off and failing. 'Didn't go too well.'
Jared nodded, not knowing what to say, so said nothing. He let his gaze rise away from Gregor, who had bent his head back to his work. Jared stared at the blue and green of the chandelier. The afternoon, he assumed it was the afternoon, sunlight flooded through it, seeming to move the chandelier as it burned its course as a flashing stream of chemical flames.
He looked away, reminded as he was of the previous day and his attempt to stare at the sun, to burn his vision and eradicate the memory of his group's final moments. But he was lost, lost then and lost now, suddenly living with people that he didn't know.
Sean's face rose to fill his vision and he swayed on the spot, a heavy weight and dizziness spreading through him, making his body feel like a diseased tree ready to fall. Sean's face, dogged, strong, so alive, so alert. So dead. Sean had been Jared's reason for so long that he hadn't ever allowed himself to see it, had never cared to admit it.
Jared didn't fall. His right foot shot back and planted firmly on the tiled floor, his knees bent, but held. He looked at Gregor, who nodded approvingly at him, and let the blanket slip to his elbows. Balling it, he walked into the desk's circle and sat next to the other man, dropping the blanket on a spare shelf beneath the desk. 'Can I help?' he said. 'I never got that close to the angels but I might know a few things.'
'Help yourself,' said Gregor, spreading his arms along the piles of parts. 'I need ocular parts for Stella's eyes and Hook's back support is failing - though he won't admit it.'
Jared looked carefully among the components, knowing that Gregor could find the pieces easily on his own, but grateful for the chance to help. 'What does she need?'
'Night vision. Zoom'd be useful but not essential.'
'Just one. She's half and half in the eye department.'
Jared nodded. He searched through the ocular spares, discarding anything that was too blue, too robotic.
Gregor saw what he was doing. 'Beggars can't be choosers,' he said. 'If she ends up with a blue eye, she ends up with a blue eye.'
'Okay,' Jared nodded. 'Then there's plenty to work with. There are targeters too. Would she want those?'
Gregor shrugged. 'She's never been one to use guns. And I don't know how we'd link it to anything we could get hold of anyway. They're designed for the angels' arm lasers.'
'Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it?'
Gregor nodded. 'I'll ask her. She's practical. She'll take it.'
'How long have you been looking after her?'
'Three years before the crash and ever since. Six years in all.' Gregor was nodding, his face flushed with pride, his hands no longer shaking.
'How'd she take it? The crash I mean.'
Gregor shrugged. 'The same as everyone else.'
Jared nodded. To call the crash a disappointment was missing the point of just how much it meant to everybody. It was a tragedy for the entire planet. The promise of a secure and happy future gone in those eight minutes.
Not the entire planet; someone had launched those missiles. Individuals or governments, it didn't really matter; the promise was dead. Three launched in unison, one from the NUSA, one from Israel and one from Australia. That had been a shock. The Australians had never admitted to possessing nuclear weapons. Jared remembered the TV journalists frantically discussing the possibility of Australia launching of its own accord or if terrorists had used the country as a launch pad. If the latter was true, how did they get the nuke into the country? Not that it mattered. They talked till the skies turned black.
The Community's ships had entered geostationary orbits above each of the poles, the Central African Republic and the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific Ocean. No one had ever heard of it before the Community arrived. It was special only for being on the other side of the world from the Central African Republic. Its tourist industry flourished to the point that there was a fifteen-year waiting list for every hotel, existing and planned, on the islands. The NUSA had taken out the ship at the North Pole, Israel the Central African Republic and Australia the Marquesas Islands. Three ships consumed in white nuclear fire. Three wrecks that crashed to the earth, obliterating everything for hundreds of miles and throwing up so much dust and ash and debris into the atmosphere that the sun wasn't seen for a year.
The world had watched. Worst of all, the ships had been broadcasting on social media. They hadn't revealed their physical bodies as yet but they had communicated ever since they had first made contact. Most humans had members of the Community on their friends and followers lists.
They read their final words. They heard them die. The ships had no defence against a nuclear attack. Why would they when their approach had been agreed for years.
And then the fourth had launched.
That came from the UK, or at least from a Trident submarine, no one knew which one, lurking beneath the waves. It took out the final ship orbiting above the South Pole. The sub must have been in Antarctic waters.
Ridiculously, one news channel had raised a scientist working in Antarctica. She couldn't tell them anything. She was scared. Ignored for the last five years, her work so terrestrial when everything was about the extra terrestrial, and now they put her on the TV, a terrified face watching the clouds as the first three crashes covered the sun, the life, the hope. Three crashes and a fourth about to hit her. It was compulsive viewing. Jared had watched with his colleagues in Angel Control. No one had said a word. No one had seen the fourth hit; the debris, the ash, had started its long winter.
Gregor was staring at him.
'What?' said Jared. He was separating lenses from their white housing.
'You stink.' Gregor's voice was flat but not unkind. 'You should shower. It's over there.' He nodded to the main entrance. Jared remembered the cloakrooms to either side.
'A working shower?'
Gregor nodded. 'We usually limit ourselves to thirty seconds but in your case...' he looked Jared up and down. 'Take as long as you need.'
Jared stared through the arch to the main entrance.
'It won't bite,' said Gregor. 'There are clean clothes. You can ditch the ones you're wearing; we're well stocked.'
'Thank you,' said Jared as he rose from his seat. He was nervous, ridiculously so.
'And there's a razor in there as well,' said Gregor. He waved a hand at Jared's face. 'We can see what's underneath all that hair.'
'The shower, is it rain water?'
Gregor laughed. 'It's not exactly a power shower but it's more than just a watering can. Solar powered water reclamation and recycling machine. We nicked it from Buckingham Palace when we still had a working van.'
Jared gaped. 'You went to the palace?'
'Yeah,' said Gregor casually. 'Kicked some undead royal ass, got the plumbing and legged it. The queen was hard to put down with all those zombie corgis going for our ankles.'
'You're teasing me,' said Jared.
Gregor just shrugged. 'Why is it any less believable than anything else that's happened since all this started?'
Jared stared at the man's impassive face and returned the shrug. 'Huh,' he said. He turned to walk through the huge arch.
Once Jared's back was turned, Gregor smiled then bent his head to his work.