Hook strolled back through the freezer room, swinging his bag of diced beef and a cabbage from his left hand, potatoes and carrots from the other. He had herbs in the rotunda. Cooking was easier there, the kitchen too far away from anywhere, and it was good to be together as much as possible; remind each other that not everyone was dead. Although, he supposed, now that there were going to be six of them it would be best to either make more use of the kitchen or shift a table down to the rotunda.
'Hey, Gregor,' he said as he walked up to the circular desk. 'What do you think, start eating in the kitchen or move a table through here? I think we should still keep eating together when Robocop and his girlfriend join us.
Gregor shrugged. 'Up to you. I don't care.'
'Yes you do,' he said, staring at the other man. 'C'mon, Gregor, we can really make this place work for all of us. Maybe we could make more use of the cafeteria.' He paused thoughtfully and then shook his head. 'Suppose it'd still seem way too big even with six of us.' He glanced towards the main entrance and listened to the noise coming there. 'Someone in the shower? Stella back?'
'Captain JJ's up? How's he doing? He looked deader than a dead earlier.'
Gregor shrugged. 'Seemed a bit better.'
'You know, I was thinking...'
'Yeah, thanks,' said Hook sarcastically. 'I was thinking that we haven't had it that bad, you know? When you think what he must've been through, we've done pretty well in comparison.'
Gregor nodded but scowled. 'No one helped us. We earned all this.'
'I know, I know,' said Hook hurriedly. 'I was just taking the time to be thankful, you know?'
'Found some religion in the freezers did you? Is Jesus in the diced beef?' he nodded at the bag in Hook's hand.
'That reminds me.' Hook popped the beef into the microwave and started the defrost function. The oven whirred into life. He looked up and waved his vegetable knife in the direction of the shower. 'How long's he having? Seems a bit longer than thirty seconds.'
'Thought he needed our share,' said Gregor.
'Fair enough,' said Hook. He smiled at Gregor. 'Good idea.'
Gregor returned the look. 'What's up with you?'
At that moment Jared emerged.
The other two gaped at him. He was a different man; face clean and shaved, clean clothes, combats and a loose green shirt, clean hair, still long but combed, and new boots that made him walk with a confident stride.
'Hey, Captain. Feeling better?' Hook asked.
'You've no idea,' Jared replied.
Hook nodded as Jared joined them at the desk. Jared pointed at the ingredients. 'Can we trust his cooking?' he said to Gregor.
'He does okay,' said Gregor.
'Sounds like high praise from you,' said Jared. 'Will there be seconds?' he said to Hook.
'I doubt it,' Hook replied. 'But I'll try to make sure the firsts are first, second and last.'
'That would be marvellous.' Jared smiled. It was a little forced but it was there, like a sign on his face that said, that's it, I'm here now, let's make it work.
Hook looked at Jared and smiled, then waved his hands at the interior of the Victoria and Albert. 'We've got all this stuff...' Hook began.
'Touch some wood,' said Gregor, cutting him off.
'You're tempting fate. Touch some wood.'
'Who's got religion?' Nevertheless, Hook reached out to touch the wooden desk. 'Touch wood,' he said deliberately. 'We've got all this stuff,' he continued after throwing a will-that-do glance at Gregor, 'and we've got the garden and we've got loads of space. I think Stella's right about saving who we can. We could set up a community here.'
'We can't feed everybody,' said Gregor. He didn't look up from his work with remains of the angels.
'But we could help who we find,' said Hook as earnestly as he could. Even Jared looked up at the tone in his voice. 'Imagine this place full of people, all working together to make things easier. It'd certainly be warmer with a whole community in here during the winter.'
'Not the Community though,' said Jared.
'That boat's sailed, I reckon.' Hook set about peeling and chopping, the kitchen utensils tiny in his hands. He glanced over at Gregor and sighed at the sight of the man's bent head. 'Got anything useful?' he asked, nodding at the angels' bits.
'Plenty. Including a back support for you.'
'I don't need it!' Hook protested.
'Don't be a baby. It's for your own good.'
Hook sighed as he finished chopping the potatoes. 'At least I haven't got dodgy eyes like Stella. I couldn't cope with you cutting into my eyes.'
'You would if it was bionic. I just switch it off. You're more likely to feel pain with a back operation.'
Hook groaned. He chopped carrots and threw them into a pan of water, then lit a flame beneath it. The onions were next. Hook turned away from Gregor and Jared so that they wouldn't see him cry.
Stella yelled in pain as she landed with a thud on the ground outside of the Ismaili Centre. Her left shoulder and upper arm had taken the brunt of the fall. A quick glance showed blood and a ragged wound. Quickly ignoring the pain, she rolled away from the nearest dead and staggered to her feet.
'Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow...' She ran to the window again, reaching into her cargo pants pocket for her glass cutter. Blood was running down her left arm and she could feel her left shoulder beginning to seize up. She glared at a dead as if daring it to come closer. It duly did, stumbling at her, its arms raised, She placed the glass cutter into her left palm and retrieved her tanto from her thigh. The blade was into the dead's eye in a heartbeat, but the action meant she was off balance and another dead was able to grab her wounded shoulder. She yelled in pain as its clawed fingernails dug into her flesh, pulling her away from the collapsing dead and almost wrenching the tanto from her hands.
Grimly she held on to the handle of the blade, pulled it from the dead and arced it around to the face of the other. She plunged the blade hilt-deep into its face, missing the eye but powering through the nose and into the brain. The dead dropped like a stone and she fell on top of it, the glass cutter spilling from her numb left hand.
She rolled off the dead, grimacing as fiery pain burned in her shoulder, and tried to reach the glass cutter with her left arm. Another dead lurched for her and she had to roll away, the cutter kicked by the dead as it reached for her.
Looking up, she saw that deads surrounded her, blocking her view. She had no idea which way was which, no idea which way to spin or roll or leap. She looked at the tanto in her hand, the twelve-inch blade dull with blood and gore, and thought of Gregor's sword, wishing she had something like it, something that she could swing in a heavy arc.
'No point in wishing,' she said to the deads and kicked out at legs, breaking bones and shattering kneecaps. She struggled up to her knees, trying to see something other than zombie heads and filthy, reaching hands. Her left arm was almost shot. Thoughts of a break filled her mind, but she pushed the thoughts and the pain down into the long shadows of her mind.
Over the deads' heads she could see the Ismaili Centre to her left, meaning that Vic's was to her right and behind her. She rose smoothly to her feet, already learning to compensate for her left arm, and slashed with her tanto at legs and reaching arms to clear space.
She knew now that she should have stayed with Vine, gone to his friend Tash and waited this out.
Time slowed, the waves of death flowed around her like she was a rock on a beach untouched by the tide but soon to be swallowed. Briefly she considered standing still and letting the swell of rotten flesh overwhelm her. No one would know that it was deliberate; she could just leave this place and the struggle would be done.
The thought was so brief that she barely registered it as she kicked another dead in the face, sending its teeth flying.
Trees stood at the opposite corner, away from Vic's but offering valuable cover. Stella knew that there was an ice rink in those trees, a remnant of yesteryear and the Natural History Museum's attempts to reach out to the young and disinterested.
But she rejected the trees as too far away to get Hook's and Gregor's attention. Stabbing a dead in the face, she looked over towards Vic's, and remembered the phone box, the old style red phone box, just across the road. If she could make it to that she could climb to the roof away from grabbing hands and wait it out, maybe get Hook’s or Gregor’s attention. Behind the phone box was another stand of trees. They could be used in the ERP
Sighing, she stabbed another dead in the face, careful this not time not to use her full strength and send herself off balance. Another dead received a kick in the kneecap, dropping it so that she could stamp on its head, its skull cracking and squashing in one blow.
The phone box was no more than fifty metres away; a dash along the path, across a short patch of grass and then one road. Fifty metres and a few hundred deads. They weren't too densely packed yet. If she was quick enough, she could exploit the gaps.
She let the adrenaline flood her system again and prepared to run.
Jared looked up from the ocular implant he was preparing as the microwave pinged. He watched as Hook moved smoothly from the vegetables to pull open the door, pull the bag from inside and spread its contents onto a chopping board. He grabbed another onion. 'You've already used an onion,' Jared reminded Hook.
'You can never have too much onion with beef,' said Hook, flourishing his knife.
'Wait,' said Gregor. 'Cooking checks.'
Hook sighed. 'C'mon, Gregor, what would be happening that we didn't know about? There's nothing going on; we'll be okay.'
'Stella's out, Vine's out, we're waiting for someone new. If that's not a recipe for something going wrong, I don't what is.'
'You didn't say disaster,' said Jared.
Hook and Jared stopped what they were doing and stared at Jared, shock plain on their faces.
'What?' said Jared. 'What did I say?'
'We don't use that word,' said Gregor.
'Ever,' Hook added.
'What, 'disaster'?' said Jared.
Hook and Gregor shuddered a little. 'You're new,' said Gregor. 'You don't understand. We'll let it slide.'
'Eh?' said Jared.
'The word,' said Hook. 'It doesn't matter because you didn't know, but we don't use that word. It's bad luck.'
'Okay,' said Jared. 'But you still didn't say that word. I was just curious.'
'We take as few chances as possible,' said Gregor. 'Or at least we used to,' he added with a sigh.
Hook sniggered. 'It used to be me in trouble for being too hot-headed. How things change!' He laughed out loud and then tried to be more serious as he looked at Jared. 'When we're cooking,' he explained, 'we always check for deads to make sure we don't attract too many with the smell,' said Hook.
'Sounds sensible,' said Jared. 'But why worry about dis...'
He was cut off by Hook and Gregor raising their hands in protest,
'Why worry about things going wrong,' Jared corrected himself, 'when you seem to have so many safeguards in place?'
'Because things always go wrong,' said Gregor, shrugging. 'And safeguards are only safeguards if we use them,' he added.
Jared was suddenly serous. 'Too true,' he said.
'Okay!' said Hook, raising his hands in the air in mock submission. 'I'll go check for deads. How about I grab a bottle of wine for Cap's first fresh meal since the apocalypse?' He turned on the other two and winked. 'Now there's a thing you wouldn't have thought you would say five years ago!' He jogged out of the rotunda and towards the freezers.
'Leave the wine!' Gregor called after him.
'You have booze here?' said Jared.
'We do,' said Gregor. 'But we only open it once a week. We have it with movie night.'
'You have a movie night?'
Gregor grimaced. 'All the comforts of home,' he said gruffly.
Jared thought he saw the chandelier move just a little, the blue and green flashes almost seeming to signal something. But he dismissed it.
Stella ducked, dodged, kicked, stabbed and slashed her way through the deads. Even with her wounded arm she was still fast enough to keep the deads from coming together to form an impassable mass. But she was slowing. Drenched in blood and swaying at her hip, her left arm was pretty much useless; the blood loss, the fading adrenaline, the sweat streaming into her eyes. The red phone box was just ahead, its starkly coloured sides bobbing in out of view, like an island on the horizon seen from a boat adrift and helpless, pulled and pushed by waves that were growing.
Hook returned to the rotunda, his face serious. 'Dinner's cancelled,' he said.
'What?' said Gregor. 'What is it?'
'Stella,' Hook replied. 'She's in trouble. He turned to Jared. 'You ever fire a harpoon?'
Jared shook his head. 'No, never.'
'Well,' said Hook. 'There's a first time for everything.'