'What the hell is that?' said Jared.
'A harpoon,' Hook replied. 'There was a whaling exhibit back in 2018. We found this in storage.' The two of them stood at a first floor window at the front of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The harpoon pointed out of one of the narrow arched windows.
'What are we gonna do with it?'
'Fire it into the phone box.'
Jared stared out across the street and the hundreds of deads; the phone box was a little to the right and surrounded by deads, as was a figure in combats and a vest fighting them off, its left arm swinging uselessly at its side. 'She's not gonna last much longer.'
'That's why we're rushing, Captain. Pleased to see that you're fully fit again.'
'Right, sorry,' said Jared.
Hook hauled the window open. 'Aim for the middle of the phone box. It'll catch in the frame of the door if it doesn't bury itself in the ground.'
'It'll be a concrete floor!' Jared protested.
'Not a time for discussion, Cap. Get it done.'
'What are you gonna do?'
'Will it pull her back up?' said Jared, nodding at the harpoon.
'It's a harpoon not a Batman grapple gun; she'll have to climb.'
'She'll never make it.'
'You haven't really met Stella properly yet, have you?' said Hook, and he was gone, running down the stairs and back through the freezer room to the main doors.
Jared set himself behind the harpoon and took a few moments to familiarise himself with the weapon. The launcher had been bolted to the floor and could be manipulated to fire from any of three arched windows in the front of Vic's. The missile was already loaded. A trigger sat ready underneath. Not the most complicated weapon Jared had ever fired. He lined it up with the phone box, saw how far Stella still was from it. His eyes flicked back and forth from Stella to the box. He was sweating.
'Whatever you're going to do, Hook, do it now.'
Hook dashed down the stairs, back through the freezer room and into the store of fuel. He grabbed a crate of bottles with rags stuffed into the necks. Molotovs.
'That's not part of the plan!' Gregor shouted as Hook ran into the rotunda. 'You can't use those; you'll have angels swarming all over us if they see a fire. For God’s sake, you know better than I do that just standing outside the front door’s enough to have all of them swarming over us for days.'
Hook paused at the desk, slamming the bottles of fuel down as he did so. 'What do you suggest I do? Throw some harsh words at them?'
'Trust the plan and trust Stella. You start throwing bombs about and this place is no longer a secret.'
Hook, breathing hard, stared at the other man, his eyes wide, searching for a solution in Gregor’s face.
'She'll make it,' said Gregor. 'You know she will.' He placed his hands on the crate.
Stella swept a dead's legs from under it and then stamped on its head, cracking but not crushing its skull. She stamped again, finishing the job. The sweep had been slow, the stamp weak, she knew. Energy levels were falling. Behind her, the Ismaili Building was more than halfway. No point in turning back. A valuable second passed as she tried to calm her breathing. More and more deads were noticing her and the phone box was still twenty metres away.
Two hedges, once low and manicured, now hugely overgrown, offered minimal protection but she dove for them like a drowning woman offered a raft. The grass was knee high and damp. It smelled of summer, of quiet days and cricket in the park.
Deads followed her, shabby clothing catching in the privet branches and shattering her illusions. They caught their legs and feet in the green tangle and fell to their knees, the following creatures bowling them onto their faces, their rolling bodies tripping those behind them. Stella was momentarily fascinated at the scrum of deads and how ridiculous they looked, bumping and tumbling as if they were falling off a tiny cliff.
Then she was dashing forward, her boots whipping through the grass, stabbing into heads quickly and efficiently, allowing a wall of corpses to build before her. Within a minute it was a metre high and with the added barrier of the hedges she had a precious few minutes to rest.
'How's she doing, Captain?' said Hook as he jogged back to Jared's position.
'Caught between a rock and hard place,' said Jared, nodding at the hedges. 'She dove in between those. Can't see her now but the deads don't seem to be able to get to where she is. And they seem pretty calm.'
'What do you mean?' said Gregor. He had followed Hook up the stairs.
'If Stella was dead they'd be tearing her body to pieces by now,' said Hook. 'Smell of blood would be driving them mad. As mad as they get anyway.'
'So while they're just milling around those hedges we can assume she's alright?' said Gregor.
'That's pretty much it,' said Hook. He turned away from the window and punched the wall behind them with a loud thump.
Jared noticed the cracks form in the plaster.
'That's not going to help,' said Gregor.
'Better than just milling about!' Hook responded loudly.
'Best not to shout,' said Jared. 'You never know who's listening.'
'Yeah, yeah, apocalypse survival one-on-one. Thanks, Captain,' said Hook sarcastically.
'I didn't mean anything by it. I've seen too many people act stupid under pressure, that's all,' said Jared.
'Are you calling me stupid? Nice way to make yourself part of the group, JJ!'
'He's right,' said Gregor. 'You are being stupid. Think. Don't punch.'
'Dammit!’ Hook turned on the wall again but just stood and seethed with frustration before he turned back on the other two men. ‘What the hell are we supposed to do?'
'We wait for her to get to the phone box. That's all we can do,' said Gregor.
The three of them stared out of the window at the overgrown hedges. Minutes passed and deads still surrounded Stella’s position. They had started to circle the hedges. Whatever had brought them in this direction was less of a draw than a warm body in a hedge.
'There must be something we can do,' said Hook. 'She wouldn't wait this long if she was okay. You haven't seen her in action like I have. There must be something wrong or she'd be on that box dancing the fandango by now.'
'Adrenaline,' said Gregor. 'With the wound she's maybe run low.'
'Can't rely on adrenaline alone,' said Jared. 'I’ve seen people get pumped up. Next thing they’re just dead. And she’s the Cynosure; she must have other skills to fall back on.'
Hook and Gregor both nodded before the older man continued. 'She certainly does but she'll be tired, and energy levels can run very low very quickly when you're injured. She needs a shot.'
Hook nodded. 'You got any ready?'
'Always. But how do we get it to her?' said Gregor.
Hook shrugged. ‘Only one way.’
'What, you're gonna throw some adrenaline at her?' said Jared.
'Pretty much,' Gregor replied. 'It's in the third draw beneath table two,' he said to Hook. 'Bring them all.'
Jared watched Hook disappear and then turned on Gregor. 'How much of that stuff does she use?'
Gregor looked at Jared keenly. 'Enough to keep her and us alive.'
Stella slowed her breathing as much as she could. Her arm was shot, her body achingly tired. Deads' arms reached for her across the charnel pile. She waved them away. 'Not right now, kids. We'll play later. Mummy needs a rest.' She briefly considered laying her head down and closing her eyes, just for a few seconds. 'Don't be stupid,' she said to herself.
She couldn't decide if the noises of the deads' attempts to penetrate the hedges were getting louder or if she was getting more scared.
It gripped her. It squeezed her insides like a fist. It was actually painful, like an extension of the agony in her shoulder. Sometimes she welcomed fear like it was the only thing that reminded her she wanted to live.
But this was too much
She had to move. That was her way, the Cynosure’s way. If she was moving she couldn’t be caught.
She fought the pain in her shoulder and struggled to her knees. A dead’s hands were close enough to brush her hair as she swayed before it. Air moved as the tanto lashed out, slicing fingers. Stella had watched the blur of the blade as if someone else had handled the knife. ‘Not good,’ she said. ‘Not good at all.’ She fell face-first into the overgrown grass, privet branches scratching her face as she collapsed into the smell of summer, quiet days and cricket in the park.
'C'mon, c'mon!' Gregor shouted as Hook huffed and puffed back up the stairs, his arms wrapped around a dozen plastic packages.
'I'm coming as fast as I can,' the big man replied. 'Here.' He handed the plastic packs of syringes to Gregor.
'You can't throw those,' said Jared. 'Not enough weight. You'll never get it to the bushes.'
'He's right,' said Gregor.
'The bottles!' said Hook. 'Can we fit them in the bottles?'
'Might have to smash the necks open, but they should fit, yeah,' said Gregor.
'Let me,' said Jared, stopping Hook just as he was turning to run back. Jared took off, running down the stairs.
'They're on the desk in the rotunda!' Gregor shouted after him.
Jared was back in moments, breathing hard. His heart hammered in his chest. The sensation was good, natural; just a couple of days without a scare, without a reason to run or to hide, had already softened him. A racing heart meant that he was alive.
Gregor grabbed two bottles, smashed the necks against the harpoon launcher. The glass clattered to the floor along with the fuel. It pooled on the floor and the reek of diesel was strong in the air. He stuffed a plastic-wrapped syringe into each.
'From the window?' said Hook.
'You want me to do it?' said Jared.
Hook shook his head, his face determined.
Jared knew that no one else was going to help the Cynosure when Hook was around. They were too close, Jared realised. Hook accused Stella of making it about just her but Hook wanted it to be about them. Wanted Stella to feel about him the same way he felt about her. Jared wondered just how many times they must have already saved each other's lives, how many times Hook must have risked everything for her and still all she saw was the big defender from the Games. 'Okay,' he nodded. 'Bring her back.'
Hook turned to the window and threw first one and then the other bottle. 'Two more,' he said over his shoulder.
Gregor smashed the necks off two more bottles.
Through half open eyes and tall grass, Stella saw a dead fall and roll over the corpses, thudding to the ground only a couple of metres away. Her cheek was pressed against the grass and she had to look up at the creature as it started to struggle towards her, dragging itself, not bothering to get to its knees. The guttural, groaning growl from its ruined throat was like wheezing bellows filled with mucus. The sound crawled along the ground towards her, like it was alive and deliberately staying below the white noise of the deads' groans above her.
Her left arm was useless and her tanto was only lightly gripped in her right hand. Her heart was slowing, the fear not lessening, but the urgency of the terror and the panic receded to a heavy ache that covered her whole body, smothering her in dread.
Her right arm lay on the ground, pointing at the dead. She raised her head and lifted the tanto. It was so heavy. The blade wavered in front of the dead's face and would have dropped but the tip of the metal entered its mouth. Still it crawled on, its hands grasping at Stella's arm, its fingernails clawing at her skin as it inched its way towards her, its mouth sliding along the blade. Stella watched as the dead pushed itself forward, its teeth snapping on the metal, the groans turning to hideous gurgles as the tanto entered the throat and snagged. It must stop, Stella thought. But it didn't. It pushed forward. Stella felt the knife enter the top of the spine, the dead's body fell limp, its head stopped its advance just centimetres from her hand and the fingers relaxed their grip on her arm.
She let her head drop back to the grass as her grip on the tanto slackened to almost nothing.
Something grabbed the blade. Her head shot up, her grip on the blade firm again. The dead's teeth were clamped around the knife.
‘Gross,’ she whispered and let go of the knife as she rolled over and away from the creature’s face.
Something crashed through the overgrown top of the hedge and thudded into the grass right where her head had been.
She looked up just as another object fell towards her. She rolled as quickly as she could, away from the object but towards the stack of bodies. Hands reached towards her, groping blindly, too far to reach but leaning ever closer. In moments more deads would tumble.
The objects were bottles, their necks smashed and sticking out of each of them a syringe. A familiar syringe. ‘Gregor,’ she gasped and dragged herself to the nearest bottle. The syringe was out and unwrapped, the clear plastic lid pulled off in her teeth to reveal the needle, in seconds. In one smooth movement she jabbed the needle into her leg and eased the adrenaline into her system.
Hook threw the fourth bottle at the hedges and turned to Gregor. ‘Two more,’ he said.
Jared shook his head. ‘Give it a minute. You’ve got three right in the middle of the bushes. If she can’t get to any of those then she’s not getting to two more.’
‘This isn’t your decision,’ said Hook, not even trying to take the aggression out of his voice.
‘He’s right,’ said Gregor. ‘Give it a minute.’
‘A minute,’ said Hook, turning back to the window. ‘And then I’m going out there.’
Gregor and Jared remained silent, both realising there was no point in arguing with Hook now. Jared assessed the man’s huge frame; there was little chance he could prevent him from going outside. The bulk, the muscle, the augments, would be unstoppable if Hook’s mind was made up.
Jared wrinkled his nose. The smell from Hook was particularly bad.
‘There!’ Gregor shouted.
Jared looked away from Hook and down to see Stella just as she burst from the bush, weaving and ducking where she could and kicking and stabbing where the space was tight. Her left arm still seemed injured, the blood, some dry, some fresh, coated her arm and the clothes on her left side. She held it tightly against her chest rather than letting it swing. She made rapid if not quite straight progress, darting a metre here, two metres there, a jagged journey towards the phone box.
‘She’s going to make it,’ Hook breathed. ‘She’s going to make it,’ he repeated more loudly and turned to Jared. ‘Be ready on that harpoon. Fire it straight through the middle of the door.’
Jared nodded, then jerked his head to the sky as a familiar sound cut through their hope.
‘I’m going out there,’ said Hook. He turned and ran for the stairs, grabbing a Molotov and brushing past Jared, the ex-soldier making an instinctive but half-hearted attempt to block his way.
‘Wait!’ Gregor called. ‘It’s not safe.’
But Hook was gone.
Stella ran for the phone box. Now that she was away from the bushes the deads’ numbers had thinned and she was no longer bothering to take them out, just shouldering them aside. The falling bodies dominoed into each other, making her leave a wake of tottering, tumbling corpses.
Charging the last few meters to the phone box she leapt at the roof, using her right hand to steady herself as her knees slid smoothly onto the red surface. She pulled her feet up and finally turned to the window on Vic’s first floor.
Her view was blocked. Unheard, the helmeted angel had approached and now it hovered between her and Vic’s, the whine of its jet pack suddenly loud in her ears. ‘Oh come one,’ she said. ‘Is that you, Vine?’
The tinted visor gave a blank response as it drifted a few metres closer.
‘Vine?’ Stella repeated. ‘Say it ain’t so, Vine.’
The angel lifted its right arm.
Stella glanced down at the ground; deads already surrounded the phone box, their thin reaching arms waving in rhythm with their groans like river reeds tossed by the passage of a boat.
Then movement behind the angel. The door of Vic’s open and Hook running out, a flame, something on fire in his hand. He pulled his arm back to throw and the flame, it was a bottle, a Molotov, was launched at the angel.
Stella watched the arc of the throw; it was good. She smiled. The angel’s visor remained blank.
The bottle smacked its shoulder armour just as it fired its laser, knocking the beam off target, slicing into deads on the ground to Stella’s right. It bounced away, flecks of burning fuel sprinkling like fiery rain as it span and hurtled towards Stella. She saw Hook’s face turn from triumph to horror as she ducked beneath the spinning bottle, wincing as the burning drops splattered her bare arms and neck. It flew on to the trees behind, smashing into a gnarled trunk and spilling its contents onto the flame.
A fireball erupted onto the tree, flames creeping and crackling across the trunk and the leaves quickly withering and dancing above the heat.
Stella looked back to the angel as it turned to her.
Jared watched the bottle, the deflected laser, saw the flames and as the angel turned on Stella he twitched the harpoon up to the angel.
‘It fired,’ said Gregor. ‘Can’t be our new friend.’ He turned to Jared. ‘What are you doing? You can’t shoot it with a harpoon. You can’t risk hitting Stella.’
Jared nodded grimly but kept the tip of the harpoon pointed at the hovering white-armoured creature.
Suddenly it moved, jerking a couple of metres to the left. It raised its arm again, but its left this time.
‘What’s it doing?’ said Gregor. ‘Shoot it. You’ve got a clear shot now.’ He looked to Jared. ‘What are you waiting for?’
‘Let it do us a favour first,’ said Jared. His voice was calm.
‘You’re taking risks you don’t need to take. Shoot it!’
Even as Gregor was speaking the angel had suddenly darted forward to the fire and was spraying it with CO2, the flames quickly obscured by the thick grey gas.
Gregor’s mouth dropped open and quickly shut again as he heard Hook shouting.
‘Run Stella! Run!’
Jared watched as Stella measured the distance from the phone box to Vic’s. She shook her head.
‘Just go now! Run! You’ll make it!’
Deads were already turning to stumble towards Hook’s voice, towards Vic’s.
‘He needs to shut up,’ said Gregor and then turned to Jared. ‘Fire the harpoon into the phone box. That’ll give Stella a way out and should shut the big ox up.’
Jared nodded, switching the harpoon to the phone box. He started to the squeeze the trigger. Then he stopped.
‘What?’ said Gregor. ‘What is it?’
‘Better idea,’ said Jared, switching back to the angel. He centred the cross hair on the angel’s back and waited.
‘Just a few seconds more.’
‘Wait,’ said Jared. He stared at the angel’s flow of gas, saw that it was lessening, slowing. It stopped.
Jared fired the harpoon.
The huge metal spear flew at the angel, catching in the middle of the back and hurling it forward, through the remains of the gas and pinning it to the blackened tree. Its arms and legs wrapped around the trunk and then fell back, lifeless.
‘Shot!’ Gregor yelled as Jared breathed a sigh of relief.
Stella looked up to the window and grinned at Jared who grinned back and threw in a salute. She flexed her left arm, and gingerly lifted it to salute him back and then leapt over the deads around the phone box, reaching for the harpoon’s rope and catching it with both hands. Her yell of agony was clear up on the first floor of Vic’s and for the deads. Heads turned to her as she swung, kicking deads aside and throwing her legs around the rope and immediately climbing towards Vic’s.
Jared watched, amazed, as she covered the first few metres in just a few seconds, using her injured left arm to make sure she was out of reach of the deads as quickly as possible. The pain was etched into her face, the sweat gleaming on her forehead. Once she was clear, she slowed, returned her left arm to her chest and climbed torturously with just her right arm and her legs.
The door to Vic’s slammed closed at that moment, but the damage was done; deads swarmed up the steps towards Vic’s front doors.
Tash walked through the hallways of The Old Police house. The pawing of the deads at the windows was a small distraction. Hiding in a supermarket freezer with a dying brother for days on end, knowing that dozens, even hundreds of deads were on the other side of the door, had made her realise that worry was just a waste of thinking.
She sat at a table, her sparse dinner in front of her. Two empty tin cans of protein and vitamins, meat and fruit; she didn’t bother to read the labels anymore. Her mobile phone waited next to the cans. She hadn’t turned it on that day. Messages were guaranteed. Kyle would not want her to miss him. A grunt passed her lips as she thought of him. She had sent messages to him, tempting him.
They would meet again soon. Getting back to him was everything. Even Vine came second to Kyle.