Stella stared at the blue and green chandelier suspended above the desk in the rotunda. She shifted on Gregor’s work table. There was a small pillow but nothing else. Even so, her eyes lids were heavy, drooping as sleep tugged on them with heavy fingers, but she didn’t want to sleep. Not yet. The clawed fingers of deads still groped at her ankles as she swung on the rope, the rough hemp of the rope still scoured the skin on her palms, the dizziness was still swirling in her head, making her feel sick as if she were drunk and the memory of the pain in her shoulder was something solid in her mind, as if someone had opened her skull and held a light bulb to the back of her brain.
‘Don’t fight it,’ said Gregor. ‘Sleep. I can work on you in the morning.’
‘Did anyone ever tell you have a wonderful way with words?’ Stella muttered.
‘No,’ said Gregor. He was bending over her, shining a light into one of her eyes. He had already cleaned and bandaged her arm, the stark white of the dressing brilliant against her black vest and filthy flesh, but the rest would have to wait until she had rested.
Gregor’s head bobbed in and out of Stella’s vision. The chandelier gave him a blue-green halo.
‘You’re an angel,’ said Stella. Her voice was woozy. Gregor had injected her with morphine and she felt nothing but sickness and memories.
Gregor grunted. ‘Could do with one of those. Your new friend coming back?’
‘Gonna bring a friend. Gonna fly.’ Stella giggled. ‘Can't get in the front door. He’ll have to land in the garden. Hook will be mad. Meathead mad. Jealous mad. Runner-bean mad. Can you get garden rage? Seems like you should. Hook the slug killer!’
‘Sleep now,’ said Gregor, ignoring her rants. ‘It’s the best rest you can get.’
‘Don’t like the view,’ said Stella, her voice sulky. ‘Don’t like the view,’ she repeated.
‘You want some help to sleep?’
Stella nodded dopily. Gregor grabbed a syringe from a cupboard beneath the desk. ‘Just the one shot,’ he said to her gently. ‘Just to help you sleep.’ He grabbed cotton wool and tipped a bottle of antiseptic up into it. Pulling her arm gently towards him, he turned it over to reveal the inside of her elbow. She was still streaked with sweat and blood and dirt. He dabbed at her skin with the cotton wool, revealing the tanned flesh beneath. Her muscles were small but dense, like rocks just below the surface of a running river. ‘It’ll only hurt for a second,’ he said, hushing her as she groaned a little. He slid the needle into her vein and pressed the liquid into her blood stream.
Immediately her eyes drifted closed. ‘Take a little nap now,’ she mumbled. ‘Do the chickens tomorrow.’
‘Chickens can wait,’ Gregor agreed.
All night long the deads pushed against the solid wooden doors. Gregor had had one last check after helping Stella to fall asleep. There was no strain on the bars, the deads' scraping and tapping no more hurtful to the wood than rain. No one bothered to watch the doors as all through the Victoria and Albert the survivors slept, fitfully, through the bland noise and the darker hours.
Hook snored loudly. Jared, his head spinning after he had vomited into the water reclamation unit, had rolled off the cafeteria benches and now cuddled his coat on the floor. Gregor had stared at the ceiling for a long time, memories of the deads he had faced and Stella's wounds racing through his mind.
Across the city, not far, walk-able in a time before, an angel slept peacefully in a once-grand house in a once-grand park.
Tash and Vine never slept together. Tash wasn't even sure if Vine could still do what it was that people did when they shared a bed. She would, if he wanted to. She was lonely and he was a good looking man, a decent man. She'd met few enough of those in the past three years. Even before the crash she'd met nothing but users and abusers. Only her brother had saved her faith in men. The one decent man she knew, made all the others seem like they could be saved. Vine reminded her of her brother.
She smiled as she stared at the ceiling, sleep as allusive as kind men. The thought of meeting the Cynosure was too much. All those times Tash had helped her brother with the Lynxes, all those players and none of them like the Cynosure. The Killer was someone worth working on. But that wasn't the job.
She rolled over and screwed her eyes tight. Eventually sleep came.
'Someone's been sick in the water rec,' said Gregor to Hook and Jared. They were both seated at the desk in the rotunda. Both nursed their heads.
Stella's table was empty; Gregor had helped her to her sparse bed in the former gift shop.
Hook groaned. 'Wasn't me. Don't think it was me.' He shrugged. 'Could've been me.'
'It was me,' said Jared, stirring from his torpor. 'I'm really sorry, Gregor. I'll clean it up.' His thoughts had been on the wine rack in the kitchens.
'No use now,' said Gregor. 'It's sucked most of it up. We'll just have to hold our noses when we drink.'
Hook twisted his face in disgust. 'Nice one, Cap!'
'Doesn't really matter,' said Gregor to Hook, 'you're drinking everyone's urine, remember?' He turned back on Jared. 'But the lumps cause a problem.'
'Sorry,' Jared repeated.
Hook turned to Gregor. 'She okay?' he said, nodding his head towards the gift shop.
'She'll be okay. Cuts and bruises for the most part. Suspected fracture in her left humerus.' Gregor saw the blank looks and explained: 'The bone in her upper arm.'
The other two men nodded. 'Won't that affect her wings?' said Hook.
Gregor shrugged. 'They haven't worked in years.'
'Wings?' said Jared.
'Shunters,' said Hook. 'All the strikers had them.'
Gregor nodded. 'They help them get past the defence in the games. An augment solidifies the flesh around the humerus and expands the bone, makes a battering ram out of the upper arm and shoulder. It's how someone like Stella could shunt someone like Hook aside as if they weren't there.'
Jared was nodding his head, remembering. 'Don't try this at home,' he said. 'It's what my son used to say. He used to shout it, like it was a chant or something.'
'It was,' said Hook. 'It was part of the magic of the games. They were always open about the augments but when someone could use them as effectively as Stella it was magic. No one could do what she did. No one called her shunters shunters. She had wings because she flew at her opponents. She did things with augments that other gamers couldn't do let alone normal people.' Hook smiled at the memory. 'So don't try it at home.'
Jared was nodding again. 'She's like a snow plough.'
'She was,' Gregor agreed. 'But that augment hasn't worked in a long while.'
'What about the angel pieces?' said Jared. 'There must be something we can do with them? It's similar tech isn't it?'
Hook shrugged. 'Not my department.' He looked at Gregor.
'It might be possible,' he said. 'But I don't know how. Her arm is broken, so that's the first thing we fix. As for the augments,' he shrugged. 'She's got this far without them.'
Jared stared at Gregor through the fog of his hangover. He was thinking of the wine store, knowing that he could slip away, sort out his head. He shook himself. 'A fitter Cynosure would be best for all of us,' he said, keeping his voice steady. 'It makes sense to try.'
'It's a risk. A big risk. I get it wrong and we've got a one-armed Cynosure.'
` Hook raised his hands. 'Let's slow down on this, yeah? I'm with Gregor; Stella's done a pretty stellar job so far. No point risking anything.'
'It'd be nice to be asked,' said a voice behind them. Stella glared at each of them in turn as she walked steadily towards the desk. Her left arm was held securely in a sling. 'Planning my future, boys?'
'It wasn't like that, Stella,' said Hook.
Stella ignored him and bore down on Jared. 'You're new, Mr Jenks, so I'll let you in on a special secret.' She leaned close to him, her eyes were dark, sunk into her pale face. Jared leaned towards her, the bruise on his jaw was just starting to bloom. 'I'm not a tool,' she said quietly. 'I'm not a key piece in your strategies. I'm not playing a game. I'm not the Cynosure. But most of all, I'm not a damned snow plough.'
Jared nodded his head nervously. 'Of course not,' he stammered. 'I just meant...' He gave up, knowing that Stella knew exactly what he had meant.
Stella turned on Gregor. 'Well?' she said. 'What did you want to ask me?'
Gregor nodded nervously. 'Your arm's broken, Stella. That and there's so many cuts and bruises on you I can't assess the damage clearly. You're looking at a lot of down time. At least two weeks, maybe a month. Jared's got a point; if I'm fixing your arm anyway, we could maybe scavenge something from the angels and sort out your wings.'
'Can you do it?' she said to Gregor. 'You didn't sound too confident.'
'They haven't worked in so long,' he replied. 'I just can't be certain.'
Stella nodded. 'Then we set the bone and wait it out. There's enough risk already.'
'What did we lug this stuff back for?' said Hook, waving an arm at the angel parts on the tables. 'We should make some use of it.'
'And we will,' said Stella. 'But we'll do it sensibly, not stupidly. No need to run outside and throw fire bombs.'
Hook stared at Stella for a moment. 'No need to thank me, boss,' he said.
'No need at all,' she replied coolly. 'There are a couple of thousand thank yous outside the front door.'
'We'll get it sorted. Vine can set a couple of thumpers once he gets here. They'll be gone before you can say wow-Hook-you-saved-my-life.'
Stella ignored him and turned back to Gregor. 'This thing's giving me trouble,' she said indicated her left arm.
'Painful?' said Gregor. Stella nodded. 'I'll give you something then we can set it. I've no plaster but a splint will do fine.'
Hook threw one last glare at Stella and then turned and left.
Jared watched him go. 'He maybe acted a little rashly,' he said to Stella, 'but he did save your life. That angel had you.'
Stella glared at Jared. 'That angel had nothing.' Her stare hardened, daring him to speak again.
Jared nodded and lowered his eyes.
Hook tended his garden. He tied the beans that had fallen since the day before. He trimmed, he turned, he picked, his fingers green and brown, the nails filthy.
'Can I help?' said Jared.
'Can you stay on your feet?' Hook replied. 'I'm sorry,' he said as Jared's face fell. 'That was out of order. You can grab the eggs from the chicken run and clean out the rabbits. We'll clean the chickens out together tomorrow. Unless you've done it before?'
Jared nodded, grateful for the distraction and then shook his head. 'I haven't cleaned out chickens before but I'll manage some eggs and rabbits.' He grabbed a basket and went for the eggs first, gingerly moving the chickens out of the way. Hook laughed at him for his caution and pretty soon he was moving around the run with more confidence and a dozen eggs sat in his basket. 'Omelettes for dinner and tea,' he said, smiling.
His smile faded as he heard the jet pack.
Hook heard it too and the two men moved to the edge of the garden to shelter in the shadows of the museum. He held up his hand to quiet Jared and the two men waited in silence.
The sound circled the museum, the loud whine of the engine strained as if it were hovering or over-worked. And then two figures drifted into view, stark against the blue sky, from behind the roofs; an angel and someone else, carried, red-shoed feet dangling. As they descended to the garden Hook and Jared could see that it was Vine and a woman. She wore blue jeans, a clean white t-shirt and red Converse trainers. She carried two plastic bags and a large rucksack was strapped across her chest. Vine held the straps as a harness. The woman smiled at them, while Vine focussed on the landing, setting her down gently among a row of broccoli.
Hook tutted as the exhaust from the jet pack battered his plants.
Tash picked her way through the crop, carefully avoiding damaging anything. She kept glancing up from her careful steps to Hook and Jared and smiling.
Vine shut off his jet pack, the wheezing wind down sputtering and hissing, and followed more awkwardly but no less carefully, his massive, armoured bulk strange in the green space.
Hook ignored the angel and appraised Tash quickly. She was a good-looking woman, younger than he'd expected, younger than Stella, but healthy, or as healthy as anyone three years in. Her teeth and clothes were clean, her pale hair shined, she walked carefully but confidently. Hook liked her immediately.
'Welcome,' he said.
'Hi,' she said as she finally moved close enough to drop her bags and reach out a hand. Her smile was wide, her teeth shining white. 'I'm Tash. Thanks so much for letting us come. It's crazy out there.'