Ben, his eyes wide and intense, like white bowls, watched the Victoria and Albert Museum from the cover of the trees across the road. He was a scrawny man, thin and wasted, but not skeletal. Muscles, taut and ready, strained against his skin, like scarabs trying to escape a cadaver. There was a rifle slung across his back. It was a bulky thing, made from hard white plastics and silver metals. It was not like the rifles from before the Message. This was new tech. This was something from the People.
The watcher wrinkled his nose; the faint whiff of scorched wood still wafted from the crucified angel affixed to the tree trunk just a few metres away from him. The smell only occasionally rose above the stench of decay and Ben made regular sweeps of an aftershave bottle beneath his nose.
The apocalypse had suited him. He had more freedoms, more powers, more of everything. He was respected in this world. But the smell. The smell drove him crazy.
The sound of a jetpack jerked his head to the sky. There they were. Tash and her pet angel. The big guy carried her, the whine of his engines the telltale sound of desperation.
'You can't hide forever,' he said to the flying pair. He took a mobile from his pocket, pointed it at the two of them and took a picture just before they disappeared behind the buildings of the V and A. He scrolled through a short list of contacts until the name Kyle appeared on the screen. His thumb dabbed on the name, opening the message screen. He attached the photo and wrote the message: found her
He pressed send.
‘Hi,’ said Tash to Gregor. Her voice was light and friendly, echoing slightly to the high glass ceiling. 'Gregor, right? Chief bio-mech of the Mariners?'
The old bio-mech was alone in the rotunda. He grunted a reply.
Tash still held the bulging carrier bags and Vine loomed behind her, carrying her rucksack. Hook walked with her, smiling at her whenever he could and Jared trailed after them, watching and listening.
‘Wow,’ said Tash as she approached the desk and Gregor’s work stations. Her eyes were wide with wonder. ‘Vine said you had some cool stuff but this is unbelievable.’ She placed the carrier bags next to the desk with a heave of clinking noises, and stepped through the gap into Gregor’s work area. The man frowned his annoyance at her but she either ignored him or was just too excited to notice. ‘Is that an infra-red retro-reflective camera?’
Gregor nodded, the scowl still firmly on his face.
‘2D or 3D?’ Tash asked.
‘Both,’ said Gregor.
‘Wow! And is that a Kistler Piezoelectric 3D Force Platform?’
Gregor nodded, his frown slipping as Tash’s enthusiasm began to worm into him. ‘You worked with the Lynxes?’
‘Uh-huh,’ Tash nodded and then dashed to more of Gregor’s exotic pieces of equipment. ‘A 3D accelerometer? Isokinetiv Dynamometer with integrated PC? Force distribution instrumentation for measuring impact? Applied VR simulator?’
All the questions were rushed in an excited gabble and Gregor nodded to every one of them, his frown turning closer and closer to a smile with every affirmative.
‘And of course a big pile of laptops!' she patted the stack of portable computers. 'And a running machine. Wow, it’s huge! I bet Vine could have a jog on that beast.’
‘Well, Hook’s about the biggest I’d risk,’ said Gregor.
‘Of course,’ said Tash, smiling widely. ‘I’m only teasing.’ She turned to Hook. ‘I thought I recognised you. You’re Hook of the Falcons. Have you still got the move?’
Hook smiled like a school boy and shot out his right arm in hooking motion. ‘Hook ‘em in,’ he said happily.
Tash giggled at the motion and then looked around the rest of the party. ‘Where is she?’ she said, her voice dropping to a loud whisper. ‘Where’s the Cynosure?’
‘Resting,’ said Gregor.
‘Rough night?’ said Tash.
‘You could say that.’ Stella’s voice reached from behind the group. ‘More of a rough few days, but you’d already know that, what with you listening in with your big friend.’
Tash’s eyes widened as Stella moved into view. She was as star struck as all the others who met Stella. The sight of the Cynosure was a post-apocalyptic miracle, as unbelievable as the idea of the dead walking had been just three years ago. ‘I…’ she paused, not knowing what to say and instead just pointed at Stella’ arm.
Stella looked down at the sling and shrugged. ‘Could’ve been worse.’
‘How are your shunters?’ said Tash. ‘Must have been a big bang to get through them.’
Gregor coughed with embarrassment and raised one hand to scratch the back of his head. ‘Stella’s erm, wings, erm, don’t exactly work anymore,’ he said. His voice was awkward and his face was red.
‘Really?’ said Tash. She looked at Stella. The Killer’s eyes were hard and penetrating. ‘How long for?’
‘Not really any of your business,’ Stella replied. She looked Tash up and down and then grunted at her. ‘Wrists and ankles.’
‘What?’ said Tash.
‘Wrists and ankles,’ said Stella. ‘I need to see your wrists and ankles.’
‘C’mon, Stella,’ said Hook. ‘You can see her wrists are clear from here, and her ankles wouldn’t fit into those fine new shoes if they were bitten or torn up.’ He turned to Tash. ‘Nice outfit, by the way.’
Tash blushed and smiled as she received the compliment. ‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘Not very practical,’ Stella pointed out.
‘If you can’t get some new clothes when you visit London, when can you?’ said Hook, smiling broadly at Tash.
‘Ankles,’ said Stella.
Tash raised one foot to the desk and peeled the hem of her tight jeans up and away from her clean ankle.
Stella studied it before nodding and gesturing for Tash to do the same with the other.
Tash paused, looking around the group as if for support.
Hook and Gregor shrugged and waited. Jared narrowed his eyes. Vine simply nodded.
Tash raised her foot and her jeans. The group leant forward to inspect the pale flesh. There were marks around her ankle; ugly red scars that looped the double domes of her ankle bones.
‘What’s that?’ said Stella
‘Nothing,’ Tash replied. ‘Just a memento.’
‘You’ve been treated badly?’ Hook asked. His voice was filled with concern, so much so that Stella glanced at him.
Tash just shrugged and smiled. ‘There’s been worse than me since the crash.’
‘That doesn’t matter; they didn’t feel it,’ said Jared. Everyone looked at him, surprised. It was the first time he had spoken since Tash and Vine had arrived. The soldier looked to Tash with some sympathy and then shrugged and fell back into silence.
Tash just nodded an agreement. ‘I just meant it could’ve been worse.’
‘What happened?’ said Hook.
‘Men,’ Tash replied. ‘Not nice men.’
Stella’s eyes narrowed as she measured Tash. The younger woman was pretty, her smile easy, her teeth white, her short blonde hair shining in the rotunda’s squares of sunlight. Her new clothes made her look new somehow, as if she had been created right before she entered Vic’s. 'I know you,' she said, her tone accusing.
'I think I'd remember meeting the Cynosure,' said Tash. She laughed.
Stella heard the force in the laugh, could feel it pushed out of the woman's mouth. 'I've seen you before,' she said.
Tash shook her head. 'Impossible.'
'The phone,' said Stella. 'Gregor, where's the phone?'
Gregor turned to one of his work desks; the phone was still plugged into one of his laptops. He unhooked it and threw it to Stella.
Tash's eyes widened as she watched the phone arc through the air towards Stella. She threw a glance at Vine but he either didn't notice or was deliberately ignoring her.
Stella snatched the phone with her good hand and thumbed it open. She held the phone out to Tash, the screen saver with the man and the woman clearly visible. 'Is that you?'
Tash stepped forward nervously. She looked at the image. She nodded.
The woman in the picture had long blonde hair but it was obviously Tash.
'Where did you find it?' said Tash.
'In a hotel not too far from here,' said Stella. 'Over in Earl's Court. The battery was still nearly full, so it'd been dropped recently. Who's the man?'
'One of the not very nice men,' said Tash simply. She held Stella's stare, her own eyes shining with sudden tears. 'He obviously hasn't forgotten me.'
'How long since you've seen him?' said Jared.
Tash looked his way, grateful to be released from Stella's penetrating stare. 'More than a year. He's the reason I left London.'
'Did you know about this?' said Stella to Vine.
Vine shrugged. 'Some of it.'
'And you didn't think it would be a good idea to warn us that your friend comes with baggage?' said Stella. Her voice was rising, her anger growing.
Vine shrugged again, infuriating Stella further. 'It's been three years of chaos and death,' he said. 'Who doesn't have baggage?'
'Not everyone has crazy ankle-chaining baggage!' Stella snapped.
'So what are saying, Stella?' said Hook. 'We save who we can as long as it's easy?'
Stella turned on Hook but stopped herself from speaking. She turned back to Tash who withered a little under her gaze. 'Can we expect a visit from this man?'
'I honestly don't know,' said Tash, a tear leaking from her left eye and rolling down her cheek. 'Kyle had lots of girls. I was no one special.' She hung her head, her shame suddenly obvious.
Hook and Vine stepped forward, but Stella was there first, her face still serious but softened towards the younger woman. She held Tash's shoulders. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘You’re safe now.’
Tash looked up and beamed. ‘Thank you,’ she said as she wiped the tears from her cheeks and scrubbed at her eyes. Her voice was respectful, humble, almost reverent. ‘And maybe I can help you,’ she added, pointing at Stella’s arm. ‘With this equipment, it would be easy.’ Suddenly, her hand flew to her mouth and she turned to Gregor. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t mean to…’
Gregor held up a hand. ‘It’s fine,’ he said, trying to sound casual. But his cheeks blazed. ‘If you can help, we should get started as soon as possible.’
‘Brilliant,’ Tash replied before sniffing away the last of her tears. ‘I’ve brought a few bits and bobs as well.’ She hefted the carrier bags and then turned to the angel. ‘Vine? Do you mind taking the rucksack to wherever we can get set up while I stay with Gregor?’
‘Not a problem,’ Vine replied.
‘Come on then, toaster,’ said Hook. ‘We can set you up in the old Room to Damascus. We dragged a few sofas in there years ago. It's pretty comfy.' The two men lumbered away, Hook was six inches shorter than the angel but still an imposing figure.
'Pair of meat heads,' said Stella.
Jared grunted a laugh. 'I'll go with them,' he said. 'I could do with moving out of the cafeteria.'
'See you later, Captain Jenks,' said Stella. She turned back to Tash. Stella was all business again, the previous warmth gone. 'Just what is it that you think you can do?'
Tash's smile never slipped even though Stella's tone was less than friendly. 'With the 3D force platform and the retro-reflective camera we can start running sims immediately.' Her voice was muffled as she bent to her bags. 'I've got a special set of cameras that I've been dying to use.' She hauled one bulky black plastic box after the other onto the desk until there were four head-sized ugly-looking plastic devices sitting on the wooden top.
'Are they...?' Gregor began and then paused, not daring to voice his question in case it wasn't what he hoped it was. Instead, he just let his mouth fall open in amazement.
'What?' said Stella, eyeing the unimpressive boxes.
'ARaMIS digital imagers,' said Tash. Stella thought that she said it smugly, but seeing the look on Gregor's face made her realise that this was something to be smug about in bio-mech circles.
'And?' she said. 'What's a musketeer got to with anything?'
Gregor and Tash looked to each other and smirked as if Stella was the thick kid in a maths classroom full of number geeks
Gregor saw Stella's thunderous face and snapped his mouth shut. 'This is NASA tech,' he explained. 'Automation, Robotics and Machine Intelligence Systems. It's used for measuring stress on spacecraft. With these we could make calculations with parameters stringent enough to fix your augments.'
'Which ones?' said Stella.
Gregor let out a gasp. 'All of them,' he said.
'How many need work?' said Tash.
Gregor and Stella swapped a look that made Tash raise her eyebrows. 'All of them,' Gregor repeated.
Hook and Jared tried not to laugh as they watched Vine try to set up the Room for Damascus. The cyborg's attempt at these few domestic tasks were not far off a total failure as his armoured bulk knocked and caught and swiped the things that he was trying to arrange. 'I think I'll leave it to Tash,' he eventually said. The other two burst out laughing.
'I can just see you in a pinnie,' said Hook.
Vine grunted a deep warning rumble which Hook ignored.
'You could have a robot in its underwear on the front,' said Hook. Jared smirked.
Vine ignored him. 'Where do I sleep?' he said.
'Oh,' said Hook. 'Are you and Tash not...?'
'No,' Vine replied. 'We're not.'
Hook nodded. 'Have you ever...?'
'No,' Vine replied. 'We have not.'
Hook was silent for a moment, an unusual look of thoughtfulness on his face. 'Can you... erm...?' Hook nodded at his own groin.
'What?' said Vine.
'You know,' said Hook, nodding at his own groin again.
'Did you want me to do something with that?' Vine said, gesturing at Hook's groin.
All three men laughed.
'C'mon,' said Hook. 'We'll set you up next door in Musical Wonders of India.'
They followed Vine through to the next room, dumped his stuff and turned to head back to the rotunda.
'Fancy a trip out, Robby?' said Hook to Vine.
Vine sighed in return. 'I don't even get that one,' he said, his voice deadpan.
'Robby the Robot,' said Jared. 'From 'The Forbidden Planet'. It was a movie.'
Vine nodded but didn't smile. 'What do you need?' he said to Hook.
'The deads away from our doors. A man of your jetpack talents could fly out with a couple of thumpers and have them cleared in a couple of hours,' said Hook.
'Isn't the range limited on those things?' said Jared.
Hook shrugged. 'About six of seven hundred metres, I think. Should give us a about a mile.'
'That's risky,' said Jared. 'What with Gregor's thumper just round the corner yesterday, we could be attracting a lot of angels to the area around Vic's. The one that went for Stella yesterday must have been from Gregor's thumper.'
'It's a risk we'll have to take, Cap. We can't stay stuck in here forever.'
'There must be back doors,' said Jared.
'We barricaded them,' said Hook. 'Years ago. We decided it was easier just having one way in and one way out.'
'You must have some kind of escape plan,' said Vine.
'We've got the harpoons. We can set up a rope bridge at the front, back and sides, but we'd rather not use that up for the sake of a few deads,' said Hook.
'There are more than a few,' Vine warned. 'When I flew over to get here, the whole museum was surrounded. The deads have nowhere else to go.'
'Then let's give them a sense of purpose,' said Hook.
'Then we open one of the back doors,' said Vine.
Hook shrugged. 'I suppose it's not a problem.'
'I'll see you guys later,' said Jared. 'I need a new room, so I'll go check a few out.' The other two nodded at him. 'I'll not be long I shouldn't think,' he continued. 'Just half an hour so.'
'Okay, Cap,' said Hook. 'No worries.'
Jared started to speak again, stopped himself and nodded to the other men. He turned away from them and headed for the wine store.