Ben only ever wanted respect. Kyle’s organisation was the new world order and Ben was proud of his role in it. His autonomy showed trust and respect. Respect was important to Ben. He needed it, thrived off it, even if he thought he wasn’t getting it. Especially if he thought he wasn’t getting it. In the old world he had always been in trouble about one thing or another. But Kyle respected him. He knew it. Keep watch the message from Kyle had read. I’ll send some spy stuff for you. Kyle always made sure that Ben was well-equipped. He got to work alone and he got the best toys to go with it. Respect.
‘I can’t go today,’ said Vine to Hook. They were in the rotunda, eating a dinner and talking about placing the thumpers. Stella, Tash and Gregor were also present. ‘If I keep flying, I’ll eventually draw attention to us. We could have angels flying into the garden.’
‘We need these deads clearing,’ said Hook. ‘There’s no guarantee that the doors are going to hold.’
‘Another day won’t hurt,’ said Stella. ‘Besides, we’ve been pretty quiet; the deads might do a bit of scraping but they’re not getting through.’
Silence fell around the desk and, as if to illustrate Stella’s point, the faint noise of scraping and pawing against the solid wooden doors could be heard.
Stella nodded. ‘We could even leave it a week before you fly again. We’re well-stocked and there’s plenty that needs doing around the place.’ She looked to Hook. ‘Chickens need cleaning out.’ She smiled as she said it and Hook returned the grin eagerly.
‘A job for Captain Jenks, I think,’ he said.
Stella nodded. ‘Where is Jared?’ she said.
‘He was checking out the rooms,’ said Vine. ‘Has he been sleeping in the cafeteria? Anyway, he needs somewhere new, he says.’
‘We can get to work this afternoon,’ said Gregor to Stella. ‘Tash and me already started creating sims for the work on your arm. We should have an idea of where we’re going with it by tomorrow. This afternoon, as long as Tash doesn’t mind, I can sort out your ocular implants.’
‘No problem,’ said Tash. ‘I can run the sims and start checking Vine over as well. We haven’t had the luxury of all this equipment; he needs a thorough check-up.’
‘I am sitting here, you know,’ said Vine.
‘Sorry,’ said Tash, smiling at her friend. ‘I get talking shop and I forget.’
‘Okay,’ Stella agreed. ‘Start on me and Vine this afternoon. The sooner we’re up and running again, the sooner the deads are cleared.’
Hook shuddered. ‘Pleased it’s you, not me, boss. Can’t stand the thought of messing about with eyes.’
Ben aimed his rifle at the nearest zombie and fired. The beam was set to its lowest power level but it was more than enough to drop the creature like a bag of rags as a neat hole was instantly drilled through its head.
He was making his way to the Ismaili Centre, having decided to set up his base there. It would give him an excellent view of the museum and keep the zombies at bay. They were easy to deal with but tiresome in numbers and constancy.
Ben shot two more, quick and silent beams of energy lancing from his rifle, killing so quickly that both simply fell to their knees and stayed there as if in supplication to their killer. Ben watched as their heads slumped forward, the motion enough to topple their bodies to the ground.
He liked to kill the zombies. Their previous lives opened up to him as he took aim. The last two had both been clothed in decaying grey suits. One still had a tie around its neck. They had left their office at lunch time, looking for a bite to eat and perhaps a drink. Nothing too strong; too much work to do that afternoon. And the kids would need some time in the evening. Ben imagined the children waiting for their dads to come home. Waiting to watch the People make their first landing on Earth. Watching the missiles and turning to their mums: 'Will Daddy be watching?' And Mum would tell them that Daddy was already dead but that they shouldn't be too sad as they would also be dead soon.
Ben spat on the nearest corpse. He'd had it coming. They all had.
He moved away, back into the line of trees to skirt around behind the Ismaili Centre so as not to draw the zombies away from the museum. He wouldn't want Tash and her friend to miss the fun of clearing their new hideout.
'So,' said Tash as she focused on the simulators running on the computer monitor. The images showed various body parts impacting with various objects. Data scrolled across the screen, Tash's eyes darting this way and that to monitor the results. 'How have you got by with so many of your augments not working?'
Stella shrugged as Gregor prised her eye out.
'Stay still,' the old man grunted.
'I'd rather clean the chickens,' said Hook, staring with fascination at Stella's empty eye socket.
'What about Jared?' said Stella.
Hook shrugged. 'Dunno.'
'Well, don't sit there and stare. Go sort the garden,' Stella commanded.
'Sir!' said Hook, slamming his heels together and saluting. He turned and headed away from the rotunda to his garden.
'Well?' said Tash. 'Any extra information would help. Maybe your body has kept some of the augments.'
'Stims and painkillers,' said Stella. She said it matter-of-factly, as if it didn't matter.
Tash turned away from the screen to stare at Stella. 'For three years?'
'No,' said Gregor. 'Some failed more quickly than others. Some still have much of their original function. Legs are in pretty good shape, and arms, except for the shunters, have still given Stella extra strength. At least the arms used to be okay,' he added, nodding his head at the bandaging on Stella's arm.
'The torso?' said Tash.
'Not functioned correctly for over a year,' said Gregor.
'So the compensators and shock absorbers haven't been working?' said Tash, her voice incredulous.
'Hence the pain killers,' said Stella.
Tash stared from one to the other. 'That's not safe.'
'Probably not,' Gregor agreed.
'We've discussed it,' said Stella. 'We haven't had much choice if we want to move about the city.'
'Well, I can help you with it all,' said Tash. She smiled as if she were a doctor on a mission of mercy. She glanced at Gregor. 'We'll have you fully fit in a week. At least,’ she added, ‘the augments will be fine. Your arm may take a little longer.'
Stella glanced to Gregor, who nodded his agreement. 'That'd be nice,' she said. ‘I think I could do with a rest.’ Stella’s voice was suddenly tired, more tired than Gregor had ever heard it.
'I have one thing to ask in return,' said Tash.
Gregor and Stella both looked to her in surprise. 'I didn't know we were bargaining,' said Stella.
Tash smiled. 'It's not for me. It's for Vine.' She spread her arms to include all of Gregor's equipment. 'With all this I can help him.'
'To do what?' said Stella.
'To have it all,' said Tash. 'To be able to access all his systems.'
'Including his weapons?' said Stella.
'We'll have to talk about that,' said the Cynosure.
Ben didn’t have to wait long for the equipment. Kyle had started using bicycles almost straight away. Vehicles, especially petrol or diesel engines, made too much noise and attracted zombies on every journey. The solar cars and vans weren’t always reliable, especially in the beginning when the clouds made their permanent night. Bicycles were fast and quiet and with panniers could move lighter equipment about the city without attracting attention.
Two of Kyle’s workers had brought it, Craig and Steph. Ben didn’t like Craig. The other man didn’t show much respect. Steph was okay, more than okay. Ben liked the summer because the women wore shorts. The shorts made up for the smell of the city.
They had helped him drag the surveillance equipment inside and then left him to set it up, promising daily returns with supplies.
Ben never thanked them, especially Craig. Craig could go hang for all Ben cared. But he looked forward to seeing Steph every day.
He had thermal imaging cameras to monitor the museum and motion alarms pointed at the doors. He would be able to take breaks and sleep and still know if they left the place.
The purple and red images of people walking in and out of the rooms at the front of the museum criss-crossed the screen of his monitor like multi-coloured pools of oil sliding across water. Within an hour he knew there were at least four people in the museum. One of them was obviously the living angel while another was male and it looked like Tash had another woman in there with her.
He sent a text to Kyle requesting a listening device. The reply was quick. No problem.
‘We need to think about this,’ said Hook. He was with Gregor and Stella in the cafeteria. A few of Jared’s effects, a blanket, his old shoes, were scattered on the floor.
‘He could be useful,’ said Gregor. ‘He’d clear those deads out there in no time.’
‘He could clear us out as well,’ said Hook.
‘The rest of us have tried a little harder to get along with him,’ said Stella to Hook, her tone admonishing.
Hook held his hands apart in appeasement. ‘Hey, I like the guy. Always have. I’m just saying that’s a lot of power for one man.’
‘We need Jared’s input on this,’ said Gregor. ‘He used to work in angel control. Maybe we can activate his weapons and still have some kind of fail safe.’
‘Where is he?’ said Stella.
At that moment the door to the cafeteria slowly opened and Jared entered. A look of surprise passed across his face as he saw the other three. Surprise and something else.
Stella stared hard at the former captain. Even though she felt exhausted, she saw more clearly. Her bionic eye was fully operational, and she had spent a pleasurable half hour scrolling through her long-missed functions. Zooming and scanning and shutting herself in the cloakroom to test the night vision. Plus a new function. 'I hear I need to thank you for my new targetter,' she said in as friendly a voice as she could.
Jared just nodded. 'No problem,' he mumbled
Now Stella looked closely at Jared’s face and she didn’t like what she saw. ‘You okay, Mr Jenks?’
‘I’m fine,’ Jared replied more loudly. He spoke slowly, carefully forming each word. He crossed the distance between them, carefully avoiding chairs and tables. ‘How are you?’ he said as he approached the table.
Stella rubbed her eyes. ‘Tired,’ she said, 'and not ready for anymore mysteries. Where have you been?’
Jared sat heavily on the empty chair at their table. ‘Looking for a room. There's one at the back, some old shoes and comfy seats. Think I’ll set up there.’
‘That’s a long way from the rest of us, Cap,’ said Hook. He was staring at him, thoughtfully. ‘Do we smell?’
Stella glanced at Hook; the big man always smelled.
‘No, of course not.’ Jared said this more hurriedly, not taking such care over the way he said the words. He slurred.
‘You’re drunk,’ said Gregor.
Jared shook his head. ‘No, not at all.’
Hook wrinkled his nose. ‘I can smell it. How can you after last night? My stomach’s been like a tumble drier all day.’
‘I think you need to stay close by, Jared,’ said Stella. Her voice was soft with tiredness and compassion. ‘You can’t be on your own, not like this.’
Jared hung his head. ‘I can’t…’ he stopped. ‘I just can’t.’
‘You can,’ said Stella. She reached over to him, her hand flat on the table. Hook looked at her hand and then looked away. ‘We’ll help,’ she said.
‘Like I said, Cap,’ said Hook, his voice laced with jealousy, ‘you won the lottery.’
‘What if they say no?’ said Vine.
‘Then we earn their trust,’ said Tash. ‘Or we just do it anyway. I could’ve done it now. I’ve only got to plug you in and flick a couple of switches.’
‘You don’t know that,’ Vine cautioned.
‘Of course I do. This is what I do, remember? If the Cynosure can’t see how much use you would be then she’s a fool.’
‘And you don’t believe that.’
Tash sighed as she shook her head. ‘No I don’t,’ she admitted. ‘I got so excited when I saw her. Do you think she noticed? I didn’t make a fool out of myself did I?’
‘Not at all,’ said Vine, smirking. ‘I’m sure she’s had worse.’
‘Shut up you! I can’t help being a fan.’
‘You could’ve been nicer to Gregor though.’
‘Hey, that old man hasn’t had his ego massaged in a long time. He’s happy enough. I’m just planting a few seeds that’ll grow later.’
‘Careful,’ Vine warned. ‘You don’t want this to backfire. To get Stella we’ll need Gregor; she cares for him.’
‘He’s old news,’ said Tash dismissively. ‘I’ll show Stella all the cool new toys and she’ll wonder why she ever needed him around.’ Tash paused for a moment, a look of delight passing over her face as she clasped her hands together. ‘I can’t believe I’m on first-name terms with the Cynosure!’
‘First-name terms and a look into my deepest, darkest places,’ said Stella. She smiled as she approached the desk. ‘At least the bloody, gory bits of me.’
‘Sorry!’ Tash squeaked. ‘I didn’t know you were there.’
‘That’s okay,’ said Stella, still smiling. ‘That’s the best time to hear people speak.’ All three of them smiled, Tash just about covering her nervousness, before Stella continued. ‘We’re going to talk about Vine tomorrow,’ she said. ‘We want Jared’s opinion and he’s not up to it at the moment.’
‘I hope he’s okay,’ said Tash.
Stella nodded. ‘He’s fine. Just needs some rest. So for now we can carry on if you’re ready?’
‘Of course!’ said Tash, excitedly. ‘I’m been looking forward to this for years. Let me show what I’ve done so far.’ She directed Stella to the monitors to show her the readouts of data that would allow her to fix and even improve the augments in her legs, arms and torso.
Ben had counted another man. That meant five. He would watch for another few days just to be sure.
He was bored. The zombies that filled the space between him and the museum were completely unaware of his presence. That had to stay that way but there was nothing to stop him lining up a few shots on the other side of the building.
Grabbing his rifle, he headed to a rear window. A scattering of walking corpses dotted the road and there were bound to be more in the trees beyond. He took aim on a woman. She was wearing a jogging outfit, the sports brands still just about visible on her filthy, blood-stained vest and shorts. She was dark-haired, young. She had been for a run on her day off from working in the supermarket. She didn’t have kids yet but she planned them with her boyfriend. They were due to get married next year. They'd agreed a house in the new housing partnerships that were springing up all over London. They would have kids soon after. She promised herself that she would still run even when she was pregnant. Ben shot her, dropping the zombie, collapsing the memories.
He switched to another woman, older, more conservative in her dress. She had been to the library. She liked to read. She’d never had children but a man she was seeing had three of his own. She had never found a way to get along with them and the eldest was expecting to bring their first child, their first grandchild, into the world by Christmas. She was wondering whether she wanted to keep seeing the man. The question had filled her time and distracted her from everything else. Ben shot her.
A dozen more targets, a dozen more lives, stumbled before him. He was the master of them all.
Early morning sunshine flooded the Victoria and Albert. Stella walked purposefully to the cafeteria to find Jared, slumped on a shallow padded sofa. The red of the plastic material was faded but bright and dust surged through the shafts of the light, bombing Jared with tiny particles.
'Get up and don't say that you're sorry,' said Stella. She stood over him, her right hand on her hip, her left arm still in its sling.
Jared jerked awake, saw Stella, a silhouette of expectation, and turned from her, burying his head into the space between the seat and the back of the plastic padding. His breath was suddenly loud, echoing, mournful.
'Up!' Stella repeated.
Jared shuffled over, squinting up. 'I'm...'
'Don't say it, because you aren't, not really. You regret it, I know that. You regret what you let yourself do. But you're not sorry. You can't be because you know that you'll do it again tomorrow.'
Jared slumped back, the plastic wheezing at the assault.
'So we need to make sure tomorrow never comes.' Stella softened her voice a little. 'And I know that it won't because if it does you'll let us down. You'll fail Hook, Gregor, Vine and Tash. You'll fail me.' She kneeled down to him. 'But the man who's spent three years out there won't let me down. That man survives and so do his friends.'
Jared shook his head. 'Not for long.'
'No one lives forever.' She nodded at the sling supporting her left arm. 'No one's invulnerable. No one gets through this for even a day without help. That's what we do, Mr Jenks. You know it better than I do.' She leaned close to him. 'Get up. Get showered. Help us.'
He stared into her face and saw the determination etched into it. His head swam with pain and fear, like it always did, like it always had. Like he always had, he pushed it back down and readied himself to face the day.
He nodded to Stella.
She stood and reached her hand down to him, her fist pushing through the swirling dust and the pain and the fear. He grabbed it.
'What about Vine?' said Hook. He, Gregor, a showered Jared and Stella sat in the middle of the desk in the rotunda. The green and blue chandelier glittered above them.
'We need him on our side,' said Stella. 'Deny him this and we drive a wedge between us before we've even started.'
'Too much power for one metal man,' said Hook, shaking his head.
'I trust him,' said Gregor.
'You're biased,' said Jared. 'He saved you. You're seeing an angel, not a man with enough firepower to take out this whole building.'
'Just what can an angel do?' said Stella. 'We never saw them do anything much, other than fly and recharge. And the dead ones' lasers of course, but I never really paid that much attention to them before the crash.'
'Well,' said Jared. 'You were kind of busy. As for the angels, they're like you and Hook but much, much more. They're augmented with bio-mech tech but it's the robotic components, the things that make them cyborgs rather than just enhanced humans, that make them walking tanks. They fly, they're strong, they're fast and they're armed. Their lasers have four basic settings: stun, injure, kill and destroy.'
'What's the difference between kill and destroy?' said Hook, still determined to be unimpressed by Vine.
'You kill a living thing. You destroy non-living things.' Jared shrugged as if what he was saying was obvious. 'Vine could take out a building, stop a vehicle. I don't mean regular vehicles, I mean armoured transports, tanks, fighter jets, bombers. With a hundred angels, you could take a country. With a thousand you could take the world. That's why everyone had them. So that no one could control all of them.'
'What if one lot of angels wanted to fight another lot of angels?' said Hook.
'Safeties were built into the tech that the People gave us. Everyone wanted the angels and the weapons, so they all agreed to the limits. No angel can shoot at another angel. Ever. They can only fire on living things with the express permission of angel control. And I don't mean low-level operators like me. That was when the politicians would have to be involved.'
'Why have that permission at all?' said Gregor.
'Certain extreme situations,' Jared replied. 'Use your imagination. Regular crimes like hostage taking. Accidents that would require vehicles or buildings to be cut back to get at people. North Korea, the Middle East and the NUSA never wanted to join the rest of the world. What if they suddenly got interested?'
'We planned for war?' said Stella.
'We always plan for war,' said Jared. 'We plan for it so that we don't have to fight it.'
'So if Vine can't target the deads,' said Gregor, 'how come the dead angels can target us?'
'I don't know,' said Jared. 'I've always assumed it's something to do with their own death and whatever it is that keeps their brains active on an instinctive level. The robotic parts of the dead angels must be acting on their own programming, and without a consciousness to interpret the reams of data they must see every living human as a threat.'
'But not the deads?' said Stella.
Jared shook his head. 'They're dead. They won't register on the angels' systems. They're just so much tumbleweed to them.'
'What about Vine?' said Gregor. 'If we flip his switch he can target the deads but will he be able to take on the Angels?'
Jared shook his head. 'No. Just the deads. I've no idea if that works both ways round. The angels' systems may register Vine as a threat and okay an attack out of instinct.'
'Even without that,' said Gregor, 'Jared's making him sound even more useful.'
'It's too much,' said Hook. 'Too much for one man.'
'The candidates for angels were carefully selected ,' said Jared. 'Psychological profiling as well as physical compatibility. Not everyone that applied made it to the metal suit. We can be sure that Vine was well vetted.'
'And what psychological profiling has he had that makes up for three years trying to survive when he can't use his weapon? That'd be enough to drive anyone nuts.' Hook folded his arms as if he had won the argument.
Gregor was already shaking his head but Stella cut across before he could speak. 'We wait a week. We're locked down anyway, so it doesn't matter. We keep an eye on him and Tash and make the decision after we know them better.'
Reluctant nods greeted her suggestion.
As they all stood to leave, Stella called to Hook. 'Wait,' she said. 'Can I talk to you?'
Gregor and Jared glanced at them, the former busying himself with his equipment and the latter smiling as he headed off to the garden.
'I just wanted to say,' said Stella awkwardly, 'about what you did with the firebomb and the angel...' she paused. 'I know you'd do exactly the same again...' Hook was nodding furiously but Stella held up a hand to stop him from speaking, knowing that if she didn't say this now she never would. 'I just wanted to say good. It's good that you would do it again.' She reached up and patted his chest.
Hook was lost for words but his face shined. He reached up slowly to hold her hand but she pulled it away, turning from him to Gregor and taking a deep breath before nodding to the older man. 'Let's get started on these augments,' she said. 'We've got a lot to do.'
Hook smiled at the back of her head and headed off to follow Jared to the garden.
The days passed peacefully for the people in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Hook kept Jared busy in the garden, Gregor and Tash worked on Stella and Vine, upgrading and fixing the former and servicing the latter. Gregor’s equipment had not seen so much use in years as Tash’s cameras and innovative ideas pushed them forward.
Even with her arm in a sling, Stella still managed to join in with the simulations, making sure the augments were just right. She slammed into the Kistler Piezoelectric 3D Force Platform and ran for miles on the running machine, jogging, sprinting, jumping. She punched, she kicked, she head-butted. This was one of Tash’s proudest moments as a skull augment along with angel alloys supporting her neck meant that Stella could use her forehead to hit with a force of 2000 lbs psi. That would be enough to crack a dead’s skull and maybe even incapacitate it if the bone fragments went deep enough. But Tash and Stella were most pleased with the Cynosure's wings. They were back, the skin around her shoulders and upper arms raising and hardening to a titanium finish instantly, allowing her to barge anything out of the way. She would watch her shadow, her shoulders reforming into the horns of wings, like an angel's feathers tucked back, ready for flight. Or fight.
In testing Gregor and Tash simulated a crash with Stella and a vehicle moving at thirty miles per hour. Neither had come out of it well, but the bio-mechs were convinced that Stella would survive.
We’ll test that one another time, Stella had said.
The two bio-mechs compensated for Stella's injury. Stella would throw the sling away when she was frustrated and use her augments to control her arm. She would only reluctantly replace the sling when the pain reminded her that an augment was just that, a thing to enhance her body, not replace parts of it.
Gregor was happier than he had been in a long time. He was useful, Stella was happy, Hook was busy, Jared was distracted just enough. Gregor was so happy that he almost forgot that none of it could last, that eventually they would have to deal with the deads and the angels again.
Ben grew bored and frustrated. He'd confirmed there were six people, well, five people and one cyborg and his listening device had revealed some very interesting information. He had hardly been able to stop himself from running straight to Kyle with the news, but he had confirmed it first. The Cynosure was there. Stella the Killer. He had told Kyle and the boss was as excited as him. Wait, he'd said. Wait and watch. But it was hard; the Cynosure's presence was driving Ben to distraction.
He left the spying equipment and headed for the back of the Ismaili Building. Outside the window dozens of corpses littered the road but there were still a few of them on their feet, shuffling blindly. Ben raised his rifle. Allowing his thumb to slide to the power switch, he moved the lever smoothly to its highest setting and aimed at the farthest zombie. It was a man, an old checked shirt hung raggedly from its frame and drool dripped from its beard. He worked in a game shop, had tattoos up and down each arm. No kids, never any plans for any. Spent his evenings online looking at things that he would be embarrassed to admit to. Ben pulled the trigger. A much larger bolt of energy burst forth, the fizzing sound of the discharge loud enough to make the nearest zombie glance his way. The bolt slammed into the zombie's torso, obliterating it in a shower of checked shirt and tattooed gore. The zombies nearby looked to the sound of the wet explosion and stumbled towards it. Ben switched to another target, destroyed it, then another and another, his weapon warming his shoulder and inner arm.
He stopped and threw open the top of the rifle to expose its solar cells to the sun. Smiling, he leaned against the window frame and waited.
Stella stepped from the shower. Her final augment was in place, a simple but vital component in her spine. It would support her, make she sure she didn't end up like Hook. He was next through the sims and on the table; his back was wrecked from supporting his enhanced frame. Angel tech would make sure that he didn't collapse in front of hungry deads.
She dried herself carefully so as not to disturb any of the fresh dressings expertly applied by Tash. Stella had to admit that the woman certainly knew what she was doing, maybe even more than Gregor. She tut-tutted at herself for what felt like traitorous thoughts against Gregor but she knew that the old bio-mech had fallen for Tash. She was the daughter that Stella could never be. The Cynosure laughed out loud at the thought and caught her reflection in the mirror. No bags under her eyes. No frown of aches and pains. She could get used to this.
The pills were in her room. So was the syringe.
No aches, no pains. Not tired. Fresh, alert, ready.
Just another day, she told herself, maybe two and she wouldn't need them anymore.
Hook and Jared heard the whine of the jetpacks. They scanned the sky for the telltale signs of the Angels. Their view was framed by the buildings of Vic's and that limiter would mean that it would be hard for the Angels to detect them in the garden. Nevertheless they moved to the shadows of the buildings, keeping their movements slow and careful.
'There,' said Hook, pointing to a shadow as it flashed by, paying no attention to them but still slowing.
'And another.' Jared pointed. Two angels, both stopping nearby. That was not good. The two of them headed inside and dashed to the rotunda to find Gregor, Tash and Vine.
'Angels,' said Jared. The other three immediately stopped what they were doing. 'Where?' said Gregor.
'Stopping near the front. We'll go check.' Hook and Jared ran through the freezer rooms and pounded up the stairs, Tash and Vine close behind.
They arrived at the window just in time to see the last of the angels slowly disappearing behind the Ismaili Building.
'What do you suppose they're up to?' said Tash. She was still wearing the clean white t-shirts and bright red shoes.
Hook answered her. 'No idea. Where's Stella?'
'I'm here,' said Stella as she joined them. She was flushed, her face red as if she had done more than just run up a couple of flights of stairs.
'You okay?' said Hook.
Stella nodded. 'Never better. What's going on?'
'Angels,' said Jared. He nodded across the road. 'They're just behind that building. No idea what they've found.'
'Well it isn't us,' said Stella. She glanced down at the deads. They were agitated by the close proximity of the angels and noisier than usual as they shifted their attention from Vic's to the angels. It wouldn't last long now that the cyborgs were gone but perhaps this distraction could be used. 'Fancy going clubbing?' she said to Hook and Vine. The two men smiled.
Ben watched the angels land on the street behind the Ismaili Centre. He smiled as he relished the workout ahead. Putting the rifle on full power always attracted the angels. Checking the weapon, he noted that he had enough power for three high-energy blasts. More than enough to take out two angels.
Standing in full view at the window, he counted under his breath as he passed the after-shave bottle under his nose. It was usually about twenty seconds and he had never got past thirty-six. That was the record for how long it took an angel to notice him. He could never decide if that was a long time for a dead-headed robot to realise he was there.
Five, six, seven. The bottle swung beneath his nose, a scented pendulum slicing away the seconds. He replaced the lid when he got to twelve, screwing the top on tightly and replacing it in his pocket. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twent...
The nearest angel, turned to him, raised its arm and fired, the red beam arrowing towards him in a microsecond., the second only another microsecond behind that.
Ben was careful not to shout his excitement as he threw himself forwards and through the window frame, the two red beams shooting into the space behind him. Heart pounding with euphoria, Ben rolled to his feet, lifted his rifle and blasted the nearest angel, and rolling again before the bolt had even finished smashing the cyborg's chest plate, lifting the angel off its feet and ten metres back to slam into a tree.
Another red beam cut the air above him and he stopped his roll dead before the next shot flashed through the space where his roll would have taken him.
The remaining angel was too slow to react to Ben's change and failed to fire again as the high-energy bolt hit it full in the face, shattering its skull, neither metal nor bone able to resist the power.
Adrenaline coursed through his body. Ben smiled as he felt it run through him, charging his blood and electrifying his skin. It was as if his exhilaration had been given life and it were trying to escape his lean, muscular frame and dance beside him as another version of himself made of pure energy.
He raised his face to the sky, closing his eyes to focus on the thrill moving through him.
And then it was gone, like it always was, leaving him bathed in sweat and bliss.
He dropped his head back down and opened his eyes to see Craig staring at him.
'Wait,' said Vine as they moved through the freezer room. Everyone stopped, the hum of the freezers the only sound. 'Weapons fire. One shot, two, three,' he said it quickly, the shots faster than he could count, 'four, five...' he paused. 'They've stopped.'
'Is someone alive over there?' said Tash.
'Vine,' said Stella, 'get over there and check.'
'No,' said Tash. 'He can't fight angels.'
'Will they attack you?' said Stella.
Vine looked from one to the other. 'I don't know, I've always avoided them as much as I can. Whether they would or they wouldn't attack me, they may attack anyone I was attempting to rescue. I may be able to be quick enough to have a look, but Tash is right; I can't be quick enough to rescue anyone.'
'Any more shots?' Jared asked. Vine shook his head. 'Then there's no one to rescue.'
They stood in a circle, staring at each other, the knowledge of deaths so close by a shroud over their emotions.
Hook broke the spell. 'What do you want to do?'
Stella gave a grim nod. 'Let's see if we can thin the numbers.'
They passed through the rotunda, Hook and Vine grabbing their weapons, the spiked mace for Hook and Vine his whale bone.
'You're not thinking of going out there?' said Gregor to Stella. 'It's too risky with your arm.'
'I know,' said Stella. 'But I can hold a door open. Jared, you get the other door. We'll let the meatheads have all the fun on this one.'
'Facing up to a few hundred deads with nothing but a pointy ball on a stick?' said Hood. 'Not exactly my idea of fun.'
'You okay?' said Tash to Vine. The huge man nodded in return and smiled at her, before he moved to the solid wooden doors. He took the left, while Hook went right.
Stella and Jared moved ahead of Hook and Vine and put their hands on the bars that sat across each of the doors. 'We keep these doors open,' said Stella. She stood next to Hook while Jared was there to support Vine. 'As soon as it gets too much fall back into here and we'll slam the doors. Make sure you come back in at the same time so that neither of you get surrounded.' She gave Hook a hard stare. 'That means talking to each other and working together. Got it?'
'Got it, boss,' said Hook.
Vine nodded and twisted the grip on his whale bone, levelling the pointed end like a lance.
Tash and Gregor stood back, both worried but the older bio-mech covering it with a scowl while the younger tried to smile again at Vine.
'Ready?' said Stella. 'On three, Jared.' The captain nodded back. 'One, two, three!' They both hauled up the bars and dragged the door open.
'Oh no,' said Tash. Her voice was a loud whisper, the volume of her words taken away by the sight of deads, their backs to her, filling the limited vista offered by the doorways. 'There's too many.' She added.
'They'll be fine,' said Gregor.
Hook and Vine surged through the wooden frames, Vine's lance skewering the back of a dead's head immediately and Hook swinging his mace and smashing the skull of another. Within seconds there were six new corpses on the floor and Hook was still swinging while Vine had spun his bone around and was clubbing dead after dead, dropping them to their knees and kicking them over.
Stella held her position in the doorway, itching to join the two men and silently cursing her arm. She watched as Hook and Vine stood shoulder-to-shoulder, smashing the deads even as their bodies turned towards them. Quickly, there was a wall of deads and Hook's reach was limited compared to his cyborg companion. He stepped forward to brain another dead, another step, another swing of the mace.
'Hook!' Vine called as he continued to jab and swing with his longer weapon. 'Stay level with me!'
'Listen to him, Hook,' Stella called.
Hook stepped back down from the deads' corpses. 'I can't reach,' he said.
The horde of deads had turned back to Vic's and they pressed forward as one mass, falling and tumbling over the corpses of the deads already put down. Hook had to dance back out of the way as clawed hands reached for him. He swung wildly, the spikes on his mace catching fingers and tearing them off in spouts of blood, but he missed the skulls.
'That's it!' Stella shouted. 'We're done. Get back!'
Vine glanced over at Hook and the two men retreated together, the deads still falling and tripping towards them like a tsunami of rotten flesh.
'Inside!' Stella and Jared shouted together.
Tash dashed forward, Gregor too slow to stop her. 'Vine!' she cried out, rushing to Jared's side.
'Get back,' Jared grunted at her, shoving her with his elbow.
Vine and Hook backed in through the door frames, the former still using his superior reach to jab at the deads, while Hook fell through into the safety of Vic's and Stella slammed the door closed just as the deads were rising to their feet once again. Vine was just a couple of seconds behind him and Jared slammed the door. He and Stella let the bars fall back into place just as the crush of deads hit the wood. It held, the noise of their pressure the only sign of their presence.
The heavy breaths of five people filled the space just inside the main entrance to Vic's. 'Maybe,' said Stella between gasps. 'That wasn't such a good idea.'
'Back to the thumpers,' Hook agreed.
'Will the doors hold?' said Tash.
'No problem,' said Gregor.
And then the doors exploded.
Ben watched through the lens of the camera as the dust and smoke cleared. The zombies were surging through the shattered doorways into the museum. He couldn't see the people inside, couldn't see their faces. He needed to see their fear. He stepped onto the body of Craig, the man's head was pushed sideways against the floor, his eyes staring at nothing, and stepped onto the window frame to gain the elevation he needed.
There. A live one. It was Tash. He zoomed in on her. Her face was streaked with blood and the zombies hadn't even reached her yet. Her face was a mask of bloody anguish as she tried to reach forward but an old man held her back, shouting silently, desperately over her shoulder.
Ben smiled as he made his gift for Kyle.
They had all been knocked off their feet, even Vine, and were covered in great jagged splinters of hard wood. Stella looked about her, assessing the others as quickly as she could. Vine was already rising to his feet, Tash had a cut across her forehead that was sending streams of blood down her face, Gregor was moving towards her, limping badly, Hook was struggling to his feet, one of his arms covered in red ribbons of blood. Jared was nowhere to be seen.
She tried to remember where Jared had been standing but it was no use. Confusion was the only thing she knew, her own senses still numbed from the blast. She realised that she was covered in wooden debris and started to extricate herself, checking for injuries at the same time. As far as she could tell, even though her arm hurt like hell, she was okay.
'Where's Jared?' she shouted to the others.
Hook blundered to his feet. 'Get back, Stella!' he cried.
She looked over her shoulders; the deads, blown back by the initial explosion, were streaming to the ruined doorway and the first were already falling through. Jared was on the floor, trying to get up, trying to run.
Hook dashed forward, ignoring Vine's cry telling him to wait and smashed into the first few deads, swinging his mace to smash them away from Stella. He grabbed Jared under one of his arms and hauled him away.
Vine ran forward to join Hook. Tash made to run after him but this time Gregor caught her and held firm through her anguished screams for Vine.
Stella moved behind Hook, kneeling to Jared. 'C'mon,' she said to Hook. 'We need to get out of here.'
'Get back,' he said to her. 'I can hold them off.' He swung at another dead, the spikes of his mace piercing its skull and ripping pieces of brain and bone away in a shower of gore.
'Jared?' she shouted. The captain's face was blank, like he wasn't there. 'Can you stand, Jared?' Still nothing. 'C'mon, Captain. On your feet!'
Then Vine was there, clubbing the deads with efficient blows. 'We can't hold them. Not for long.'
'We can,' said Hook. 'We hit them one at a time and they fall down. We keep hitting, they keep falling.'
Vine smashed another two skulls before replying. 'We must fall back. We'll be surrounded. Start moving backwards now and Stella can help Jared.'
Hook looked over to the angel, ready to argue, but he knew that he was right. He nodded, turned back to the deads and swiped at another dead face, taking the front half of its head clean off.
'Stella,' said Vine. 'Start dragging Jared back towards the freezer room. We can maybe make a stand on the stairway.'
Stella nodded and hooked her one good arm under Jared's armpit and started dragging. He was heavy, it would have been easy if she had both arms. She gasped in frustration as she hauled him backwards and further into Vic's.
Hook huffed and puffed through the carnage, suddenly pleased there was a plan. The deads were beginning to circle them, vultures attentive to their fatigue. 'Can we speed it up?' he yelled to Stella.
'I'm struggling!' Stella replied. Then Gregor was at her side and Tash as well, grabbing and pulling at Jared. Stella could see that Tash was crying, the blood, still fresh on her forehead but watered streaks on her cheeks. Stella nodded at her as they lifted together and she returned the gesture, determined not to fail. They lifted together and picked up the pace, shouting at Jared all the while.
Suddenly Jared shook his head and saw what was going on around him. Vine and Hook above him, fighting, the rest behind him, pulling. 'I'm okay!' he shouted. 'I'm okay. Let me up. Let's get out of here!'
Stella, Gregor and Tash pulled him to his feet. He staggered for a moment then steadied himself.
Hook turned to see, twisting his back as he did so. He yelled in pain, snapping every dead head in his direction to watch as he fell, clutching his back with one hand and feebly waving the mace with the other. As he crashed to the floor, Stella turned to him. She saw the deads crash down onto him, the clawed hands clutch at him, the mouths fall on him.
She ran forward, cutting off Vine and pulling her arm from the sling. Ignoring the pain, she activated her wings, flaring her shoulders as she crashed into the deads, scattering them from Hook. She rolled to her feet, stifling a cry of pain from her arm and set to the deads with her bladed feet, slashing and stabbing them back and away from Hook.
Vine stooped to grab the big man from the floor and slung him over his shoulder, staggered for a moment under the weight and then pushed on.
'Stella!' Gregor yelled. 'We've got to go!'
Stella turned back to them, pain and frustration twisting her face into a grimace. She looked to the prone form of Hook over Vine's shoulder and saw the blood pouring in ribbons down both of his swinging arms. Saw the bite in his shoulder, a huge rent in his flesh that revealed the titanium beneath.
They moved further in to the museum, into the rotunda beneath the blue and green chandelier, its dancing shards of light mocking their escape.
Stella ran after them, leaving dead fingers clawing and grasping at thin air. 'Wait!' she yelled. 'Put him down. Put Hook down.'
Vine lowered Hook to the desk just as Stella caught up. She looked down on Hook, concern in her eyes.
'Stella?' said Gregor. 'We have to go!'
Stella looked at Hook and to the deads passing into the museum. She watched them shuffle closer. Knew that they had a minute at the most. She looked back to Hook and bent down to whisper in his ear. 'What do you want me to do?'
He rolled his head towards her. 'Survive,' he said, his voice cracking with pain. 'I want you to survive.'
Ben laughed out loud, the camera held out in front of him to record the scene. There she was! The Killer on his little screen. He zoomed in on her face; she looked so sad. C'mon, Killer, Ben thought to himself. He didn't say it out loud. No need for Kyle to know everything. But he giggled with barely suppressed excitement. He mouthed the words silently to himself: You've got survive so that I can kill you.