'When was the last time you went a whole day without violence?' said Jared to Hook. They leant against the harpoon, broken glass crunching beneath their boots, the stench of diesel still thick in the air.
'Couple of days ago,' Hook replied. 'We didn't go out for three days. We just did the garden, read books, cooked.'
It was dark outside, the streetlights cast an intermittent but stark white glow on the rippling mass below them. Most of the lights were still active, their solar panels still functioning three years after the death of most of the people who ever walked beneath them. The bright white dots snaked around the city, disappearing behind unlit buildings and parks, then reappearing again in the distance. From here the city was eternal. Nothing else existed but the streets and the buildings and the parks. And the deads. The noise of their movement was perpetual, natural, like the sound of the sea or the breeze in the trees or the scratching of rodents.
The two shared a bottle of red wine. Three more sat among the legs of the harpoon launcher. Jared wrinkled his nose as he looked out of the window and then held the bottle beneath his nostrils as a scented shield. 'Smells more in the city,' he said. 'There was always a smell in the country but this, this is a stink.'
'It's worse than usual.' Hook gestured to the deads. 'We don't normally have that.'
Jared nodded and took a swig of the wine. The alcohol was acting fast. 'I haven't had a day without violence for four months. It was back in March. Twenty of us in the camp. Nothing happened for a whole day. The scavs came back with nothing to report and no deads came near us.'
'Scavengers. Hunter-gatherer parties.'
'Not the nicest nickname.'
'Some of them used to go a bit feral. Out there, alone or in pairs, dealing with...' Jared waved the bottle at the night. 'With whatever they had to deal with. There was a split in the camp. No one really trusted them.' He took another swig and then handed the bottle to Hook, who took it and drained it, tilting his head back to let the red liquid slosh down his throat.
'She'll be alright,' said Jared.
Hook gasped as he took the bottle from his lips, the red wine visible at the corners of his mouth. He nodded. 'I know.'
'What you did was good.'
'What I did was save her,' said Hook. 'I know that and she'll realise it too.'
Jared bent to the floor and grabbed another bottle of wine. He twisted the lid. 'Imagine if all the bottles were still corked - we'd be screwed!' He laughed at his joke. He laughed hard.
'We have cork screws,' said Hook, not joining Jared in his laughter. 'And be quiet.' He nodded at the deads; Jared's barks of laughter had raised a few heads to their window and an eddy in the flow of shoulders and heads could suddenly be seen as they pushed towards the doors.
'They look like solid doors,' said Jared. 'They'll hold.' He peered out of the window onto the deads below and then looked back at Hook. 'Will they hold?'
Hook nodded. 'I wouldn't have gone out there if I didn't think they would.'
They had pulled her in, three pairs of hands trying to ease her as gently as they could back into the museum. They had laid her on the floor and then raised her again as she had groaned in pain from the broken glass. They had lifted her sweat- and blood-drenched body down to the rotunda and laid her on one of Gregor's work tables. She had passed in and out of consciousness as they had borne her like a funeral procession.
Hook's breathing was heavy with fear. He had never seen like this. Jared had tried to understand how the Cynosure could be so spent.
Gregor had reassured them. She'll be fine, he'd said.
Stella’s head had lolled over their arms on her way down to the rotunda and now it was flat on the table, her whole body seemed to spread itself over the surface, making her look heavy like a dead weight. Her head rolled to one side and she looked at Hook. Their eyes met, Hook’s wide with desperate hope, Stella’s half-closed, narrowed by fatigue or thought or contempt. Stupid thing to do, Meathead, she had said. You never think, she had added. And then she had fallen asleep.
Silence. Except the scraping of deads’ fingers and fists on the doors. The men looked over at the barred wooden barriers. They’ll hold, Gregor had said. They’re thicker than you, Hook, Gregor had added.
Hook had walked away from the table, upset. Gregor had focussed on Stella, so Jared had followed Hook to what turned out to be the wine store.
Jared liked wine. He hadn’t had a drink in nearly three years. His hand had trembled as he reached out to the shelf.
The deads crowded below Hook and Jared. The summer night was still and heavy and their movements were gentle and soft as if a distant whisper passed among them, turning heads, tugging shoulders, making them roll together like marbles in a suede bag. Like people lost in the dark.
‘We hate ourselves,’ Jared slurred to Hook. ‘S’obvious. We had the chance to have it all and we quite literally…’ he raised his arms in the air in a mock explosion, exhaling loudly, ‘…blew it up. Not just blew it up, nuked it! Nuked it, for God’s sake.’ He took another swig from the second bottle. ‘We hate ourselves.’
‘Anyone ever tell you, you shouldn’t drink?’ said Hook.
Jared’s head bounced up and down in an exaggerated nod. ‘Yep. All the time. I quit for years.’ He took another swig and raised his arms. ‘But the nukes brought me back!’ he cried dramatically. ‘Humanity’s hate brought me back!’
‘Quiet down, Captain.’ The deads had responded to Jared’s outburst, the same jerking of heads towards their window, the same slosh of movement towards the doors.
‘Sorry,’ said Jared. His entire body suddenly sagged. ‘So sorry. For everything.’
‘You just need to be quieter.’
Jared sagged some more and silence descended and stretched, only to be filled by the susurrations of groans that sounded so like the murmurs of the old world, like memories of half-heard and misunderstood conversations, the words just a mumbled blur in the mind but the faces that said them still clear. As clear as blood. As clear as pain.
Jared swung his head towards Hook. ‘She didn’t mean it, you know. You saved her.’
‘Maybe just delayed it.’ Hook gestured out of the window; the glare of the white lights reflected in upturned yellow eyes.
‘They’ll go eventually. They’re still humans, even if they’re dead humans, and they’ll do what humans do: give up.’
'We’ll be okay. We just need thumpers,' said Hook. 'Stella could sort it in a couple of hours. One that way and one that way.' He pointed each way along Cromwell Road outside of the Victoria and Albert. 'They'd be gone in an hour.'
'No one else can take that job on?'
'I could, but... I'm slow, Cap. Too slow for a mob like that.'
Jared stumbled against the harpoon as he burped. 'Vine can do it,' he said as his stumbling feet crushed more broken glass. 'You think he'll come back?'
Hook nodded. 'They all come back for the Cynosure,' he said.
'You know,' said Jared, pointing at Hook with the bottle in his hand. 'You're either jealous as hell of her or you love her.
Hook laughed and Jared joined in. 'You love her like she's got the only kebab in the world and it's three am!' said Jared.
'Everyone loves Stella. Gregor, your son, you, Vine. This Tash'll love her when she meets her. Everyone wants a piece of her. I got to have more. I got to live with her for three years.' Hook didn't have the words for how he felt about Stella. Gardening and livestock books simply didn't give him the vocabulary. But Hook would rather be with Stella than have a hundred pigs.
'Past tense?' said Jared, pointing at the other man and narrowing his eyes as if he were some kind of inebriated investigative genius. 'You think it's over, but it's not.' Jared was shaking his head. 'It's really not.'
'Alright, I get to live with her. And that has to be enough.'
Jared nodded and handed Hook the bottle. The bigger man turned it upside down to his lips and drained it in three long gulps. 'She's the closest thing this world's got to a hero and I get to live with her.' He stared at Jared with the fuzzy squint of the too-drunk. Before continuing, he nodded as if he'd made up his mind about something. 'You know what she said to me once?' he slurred.
Jared shook his head as he twisted the top from another bottle of wine.
'She said to me that if I was the last man on earth, then maybe, maybe, she would.'
Jared nodded sympathetically. He didn't need to ask what Stella would maybe do. 'Was it just you and her here then?'
Hook shook his head mournfully. 'There's been lots of people in and out of Vic's. Three years of post-apopopliptic,' Hook stumbled over the word and waved his arms as if to drive the syllables away, 'wotnots, means you get a list of names.' He paused and looked back at the deads outside. 'Some of them might be down there.'
'Got the same list,' said Jared. He sniffed as an image of Sean slipped into his mind and then shook his head to clear it before the angels' lasers came to kill him again.
'It hits her hard.' Hook said, staring at the deads. 'When they die. She doesn't deal with it. She wants to save everyone.'
'Can't save everyone.'
Hook nodded his agreement. 'Got to love her for it though.' His sigh was long and loud. 'Made a bit of a fool of myself one time,' he confessed. 'Things were looking grim and I thought that if I didn't say it then, I never would.'
'Were you in danger? Were you about to die?'
'Yep!' Hook fell silent and stared out of the window.
'Well?' said Jared. 'What was it? Trapped? Surrounded by deads?'
Hook turned back to Jared, his face a mask of solemnity. 'The turnips were rotten.' His elbow slipped off the harpoon as he said turnips, so the word came out more as 'sturnits', but Jared understood.
'Turnips?' he said.
'Yep. Rotten. Roots was cracked. We thought that we'd never be able to grow anything! Thought it was the end. Or the beginning of the end.'
'What did you do?'
'Too much clay in the soil,' said Hook knowledgeably. 'We just got loads of bags of fertiliser from a shop and dumped it on top. Loads and loads of bags. Been fine ever since.' He burped happily as he thought of the successes in his garden.
'No,' said Jared, shaking his head so hard that he had to hold the harpoon for support. 'I mean, what did you do with Stella?'
'Made a fool of myself, Cap. Laid it on the line. Spilled my guts as surely as if she'd knifed me. Which she did. Of at least it felt like it. "Not if you were the last man on Earth!" she said. I said to her, C'mon, if I was really the last, the very, very last, you would. "No!" she said. You would, I said. Anyway, she finally says to me, "Maybe." Maybe!'
'That's awful,' said Jared. 'That's really awful.
Hook nodded, reaching for and then cuddling the bottle of wine.
'That's really awful. I mean really awful. How do you get over something like that? And you've got to see her every day! How do you cope with seeing her every day?'
Hook turned back to the window and the groaning stinking deads and the eternal city of lights. 'Turnips,' he said, nodding sagely. 'Nothing picks you up like a good turnip.'
Tash and Vine ate their meal in the dark, just a single lit candle so that they could see each other. The angel had stayed out as long as he could, drinking the last of the rays of the sunshine.
'It's good,' he said, between massive mouthfuls.
Tash liked to watch him eat. He could like a horse, her mum would have said. She used to say it about her brother, about Arek. He could eat like a horse and swim like a fish. He could have swum in the Olympics, Mum had always said.
She nodded at Vine, smiling. 'Good,' she said. 'Plenty more where that came from. You want extras?'
Vine nodded gratefully, smiling like a teenage boy.
It was chicken curry. Tinned of course, and there was no rice. But there was meat and a spicy taste and the smell took them back in time. Vine spooned up every drop she gave him, the fleshy half of his face bright red in the candle's flickering light.
'We go tomorrow,' said Tash, her eyes gleaming as they reflected the flame. 'And the Cynosure will fight for us.'