Alistair Wilkinson Author
Alistair Wilkinson Author

A Stella Christmas by Alistair Wilkinson. Cover illustration by Alison Rasmussen

 

‘We run!’ Stella shouted as the angel swept over them, its roaring jet pack leaving a near-invisible trail in the cold, dark December air above the vertical Harrods façade. She sprinted along the pavement, her breath streaming into the weak illumination of the few solar-powered street lights that still flickered into life in the perpetual night since the crash.

            Hook chased behind her, his heavy footsteps pounding the pavement, his own breath ragged with fear and excitement. A metal bar, a metre and a half long, was strapped to his back 'We should try and take it,’ he called out to Stella.

           ‘Don’t be stupid, meathead,’ she shouted back. 'Have you ever seen anyone take an angel?’ The two of them ran around the corner into Basil Street. Stella glanced over her shoulder to make sure Hook was following, and slammed into a cycle rack, tripping amongst the red, rental bicycles. Hook skidded to a halt in the dust of the footpath. 'You okay?’ he asked her, the concern on his face genuine.

          ‘Fine,’ Stella snapped, grimacing at the fresh cuts and bruises that seemed to cover every inch of her body. She detangled herself from the bicycles and the two of them set off again.

The green awnings of Harrods, filthy with the dust from the crash, stretched away from them in a line of blacked green. Stella ducked beneath the first, pressing herself against a huge window. The glass was cold against her hands.

           Hook crashed into the window, the metal bar cracking into the glass and his shoulder barging into Stella. 'Sorry,’ he said. He flashed a smile at her, his teeth white in the filth of his face.

             Stella tutted at him and shoved him away, her push firm but not so that he would be forced out from beneath the cover of the awning. 'Just stay still and wait it out. '

             Hook strained to look out and up to the dark sky, his skin wrinkling where he squinted, leaving black lines from the dust that perpetually filled the air. 'We can take it. Reckon the kit’d be useful as well; Gregor could make use of it. '

        Stella scanned the skies with her night vision. The angels had risen higher and disappeared behind the awning. 'Not worth the risk. They never fly for long, not since the sun was taken from them. All we have to do is wait. '

                ‘Until some shufflers come and force us back into view again. '

                ‘The thumpers have kept them busy for now. We’ll be okay for another hour at least. Plenty of time to wait out the angels and get back to the church.' She wiped her fringe from her forehead and smeared the dirt left by the dust in her sweat.

                Hook nodded, and the two of them settled against the window, trying to get comfortable. A dead Bentley sat at the kerb in front of them, its white paint filthy, its tyres flat, its windows smashed. 'Nice ride,’ Hook commented.

                Stella grunted her disinterest.

                ‘Was a nice ride,’ he corrected himself. 'Wonder if it was solar?’ He looked over at Stella to see if the possibility of working transport might enthuse her, but she stared ahead, her eyes blank. 'Can’t be, I suppose.' The solar cars still needed the wings to make sure they could get enough energy and so had never really caught on.

                ‘What are you asking Santa for?’ Hook asked, refusing to allow Stella’s silence to smother them. Gregor had finally wrestled a computer to life and they were pretty sure that today was Christmas Eve.

                Stella turned to look at him, shook her head and went back to staring straight ahead.

                It was their first Christmas since the crash. Hook had wanted them to mark it in some way; deck out the church, have a tree, find some solar lights to bring inside. No, they’d said. Ridiculous, they’d gone on to say. Even John was against it. 'How’s John?’ he asked her.

                Stella shrugged.

                ‘He’ll be fine,’ said Hook, answering his own question. 'The rest of the team can take up the clearing duties.' He looked at her to see if she was listening but she showed no signs either way. 'Handyside can sort it out. Him and Rodger.' Hook fell silent again. He glanced over his shoulder to try to look through the shop window. The glass was filthy and it was probably too dark anyway. Like always, Stella ignored him. He briefly considered asking her if she wanted to have a quick Christmas shopping trip, but knew it was pointless. The old church would be livened up with a little Christmas booze and the group could do with a few smellies. It was getting harder to tell the living from the shufflers such was the level of dirt. They needed a bigger place with better facilities.

                ‘What about the museum?’ he asked her. He imagined the possibilities of a water-recyc unit Gregor had told him about. Hook had never been the cleanest of men but even he dreamed of fresh, clean water to wash in. He’d never had a bath bomb, but he suddenly found himself wondering what it would be like to use one.

                ‘What about the museum?’ she replied.

                ‘Are we going to move in?’

                Stella shrugged. 'Up to Gregor and John. '

                ‘It looks comfier than the church. '

                Stella shrugged again, the action covering her deep desire to be away from the church, and she blinked away memories of what had happened there immediately after the crash. If Hook noticed, he didn’t let on.

                ‘We could look for batteries in there,’ he said, nodding to Harrods and keeping his sudden bath bomb urge silent.

                Grateful for any distraction, Stella looked over her shoulder into the gloomy windows. 'Too big,’ she said.

                But Hook had heard the temptation in her voice. 'Just a quick look,’ he said. 'We can reccy the entrance, see how many shufflers there are, decide is it’s worth the risk. '

                ‘You always think everything’s worth the risk,’ Stella pointed out.

                Hook flashed her a smile. 'Don’t you just love me for it?’

                Stella sighed and shook her head. 'Meathead,’ she said. He flashed another smile and the two of them, without actually agreeing, set off for the shop’s entrance. As they moved, a quiet alarm sounded at Stella’s hip. 'Thumper’s out,’ she said. 'Both of them. That angel must’ve had more charge than usual. Shufflers’ll be drifting again. '

                Hook nodded. 'We’ll be okay for a while. '

                They moved quickly along the still-deserted pavement and approached the entrance; the doors were barred from the inside.

                ‘Survivors,’ said Stella.

                ‘Not necessarily still surviving,’ said Hook.

                ‘Leave it. We don’t want to do anything too risky. '

                ‘It’s worth it if we can pool resources. '

                ‘People mean trouble,’ said Stella, flatly.

                ‘You know what John says: We save who we can. '

                ‘John’s not always right. '

                ‘There’ll be plenty of batteries in there. '

                ‘If they haven’t already been looted. '

                Hook sighed and tried to peer through the gaps in the barricade. It was too dark and too dirty. He wiped his palm over the cold glass but only managed to smear more dirt. 'It doesn’t look like much,’ he said, pointing out the flimsy-looking barricade. 'Bet we could break through it.' He reached up to the metal bar strapped to his back.

                ‘You’re on your own if you do,’ said Stella.

                ‘You’d never leave me to go in there alone. You’re the Cynosure; you’d never let me win at anything. '

                ‘We’re not in the ring now, meathead. And I’ve beaten you plenty of times. '

                That was true. In the Cynosure Games, Stella had been the Killer and no one had stopped her. Still, HHook thought, she never backed down either. He stepped away from the door. 'You’re the boss. '

                She stared at him. It was the first time he had ever said that to her. John was the captain; he was boss. 'I’m no one’s boss,’ she said.

                ‘Someone’s gonna have to step up,’ Hook pointed out. 'May as well be you. '

                ‘John’s going to be fine. '

                ‘Saying it doesn’t make it so. '

                She turned on the bigger man, glaring up at him. At her sides, her fists clenched. 'He’ll be fine,’ she repeated.

                Hook flinched back a little from Stella’s obvious anger. 'Okay,’ he said, his hands spread wide. 'He’ll be fine.' Stella stepped out into the street, the angel forgotten, and stalked away from Hook. 'Hey!’ he called after her. When she didn’t stop he lumbered into a jog to follow her. 'Don’t be mad at me, Stella. I’m just trying to think ahead. '

                ‘Thinking isn’t your thing, meathead. '

                ‘Can’t argue with that,’ Hook said through a chuckle. He reached out to touch her shoulder, just trying to connect with her that was all. Nothing more.

                She whirled on him the instant his fingers touched her, anger flashing in her eyes. But her attention was taken by movement at the window above the entrance to Harrods; someone was watching them and they had ducked back as she turned.

                ‘I’m sorry,’ Hook was saying. 'Didn’t mean to upset you.' He hadn’t noticed that she wasn’t looking at him.

                ‘Shut up,’ Stella hissed at him. She scanned the window. It was dark. The glare from a single functioning streetlight reflected from the dingy glass. Maybe she’d imagined it.

                ‘What is it?’ Hook asked, following her eyes and looking up to the window.

                ‘Could be nothing,’ Stella answered, not taking her eyes from the window. 'Could be something. '

                ‘Let’s check it out. '

                Stella stopped herself from saying no to Hook. If it had been someone, she was sure it was a woman. She had held her stomach as if she was… Stella shook her head, and held a hand up to quiet Hook as he started to argue. 'No,’ she said, 'I don’t mean no, I mean don’t speak. Let’s find a back way in. '

                Hook grinned, batteries, booze and bath bombs filling his mind.

 

‘This is the problem with big buildings,’ said Stella as the two of them climbed into Harrods through an open window from Basil Street; 'too many entrances and exits to guard. You spend all your time making sure your front is barricaded and you’ve no idea what’s coming in your back entrance. '

                Hook stifled a giggle. 'The museum’s nowhere near as big as this place,’ he said instead.

                ‘Forget about it for now. '

                The two of them had worked together a lot in the past six months and they fell into their accustomed pattern when searching buildings: scout and clear the ground floor and then move to the stairs knowing that there was nothing to follow them up or block an escape if it was needed.

                The two of them crept through storage rooms, along narrow corridors, through wider thoroughfares and into shopping departments. The place was almost pitch black, the weak light made even weaker by the filth on the windows, and Stella used her night vision to guide them as best she could. The world was a series of green shapes and every corner was a step into the unknown, every mannequin was a shuffler, every rat’s squeak a scream from the shadows.

                ‘I hate rats,’ Hook whispered.

                ‘Don’t be a baby,’ Stella hissed. 'And be quiet!’

                They moved through men’s clothing. The racks were mostly emptied, just scattered piles of crumpled material. Stella kicked at each, making sure that it wouldn’t start moving.

                ‘If you see any socks, let me know,’ Hook whispered.

                Stella ignored him and crept on between the skeletal racks, only stopping when she heard movement. Squinting into the gloom, she tried to see what was ahead. Shufflers. The group crowded through an open archway.

                Hook looked over her shoulder. 'What is it?’

                ‘Shufflers,’ said Stella. 'Up ahead.' She could hear them now, their whispered gasps and sighs echoing in the dark.

                ‘I think that’s where the shoes are,’ said Hook.

                Stella’s sarcasm was plain as she spoke. 'Maybe they’ll let you in and try a few on, see if they’ve got anything that looks nice. '

                ‘I knew you wanted to get me something for Christmas. '

                ‘Shut up, meathead. '

                Hook giggled quietly. 'Are there many of them?’ He could hardly see a thing in the darkened shop.

                ‘Yes,’ said Stella. 'Lots and lots. '

                ‘Do they look hungry?’ He reached for his metal bar.

                ‘They’re always hungry. '

                ‘You know what I mean. '

                ‘Mostly just standing about. A few are starting to drift.' Stella was confused; shufflers didn’t stay in one place for long, they drifted, shuffled, attracted by whatever it was that attracted them. So why were they gathered in one section of the shop? There was no barricade across the archway. Something must have lured them in there and it must have been recently. She sniffed the stale air and caught a metallic whiff of something. Blood. Fresh. Someone had been in there and drawn the shufflers to them. A someone who had left the window open on Basil Street.

                ‘Someone else was here,’ Stella whispered.

                ‘Was here? You sure?’

                ‘I don’t know, but the shufflers are just starting to drift, like they’ve just finished something.' She stared ahead, trying to make out individual bodies amongst the crush. A few of them, maybe a half-dozen, spilled into their part of the shop floor. 'They’ll notice us soon. We should go. '

                ‘There’ll be a way around. Or we could just head straight for the stairs. '

                ‘And have that lot waiting for us when we come down?’

                ‘Are you sure you saw somebody? Why would they be here with all these hanging about downstairs?’

                Stella had been considering whether she had just seen shadows as soon as she had seen the pack of shufflers. The half-dozen shufflers were more like ten and were drifting their way. She reached down to her corkscrews; two short lengths of wood with ten-centimetre nails hammered through them. Squeezed in her fists, the nails poking between her middle fingers, her hands became deadly weapons. She left them for now, happy enough to know that they were there.

                ‘What do you want to do?’ Hook asked her.

                ‘We should go. '

                ‘Okay,’ Hook agreed. 'It’s about to get too busy here anyway. We can shop somewhere else. Bet wherever we go will have a better men’s section. '

                ‘Let’s just go, okay?’

                They moved back the way they came, heading for the window that would lead them back onto Basil Street, the noise of the shufflers’ gasping breaths fading behind them.

                Stella saw a sign for stairs and hesitated.

                ‘What is it?’ Hook asked.

                Stella didn’t answer. She saw the shadow at the window, saw the hand go to the rounded stomach. 'She was pregnant,’ she said. She didn’t really say it to Hook, just voiced it so that she knew it was real and she knew what decision she was taking.

                ‘That changes things,’ said Hook. 'The shufflers never saw us; we could be up there and check it out before they get back to this end of the shop. '

                Stella didn’t say anything but didn’t move either.

                ‘C’mon, Stella, like John says, we should save who we can. '

                Stella knew that Hook was right. But she couldn’t risk it or she wouldn’t risk it. She didn’t know. She was scared, she knew that. One by one, her augments were failing and there was nothing Gregor could do. Every day she needed the painkillers that little bit more. She turned to Hook. 'Why does it change things?’ she asked.

                ‘It just does. She’s pregnant!’

                ‘Don’t see that it matters. Just another mouth to feed. '

                ‘That’s Gregor talking. '

                ‘Maybe Gregor’s right. '

                ‘No, he’s not. And he doesn’t mean it anyway. Not really. He’s as lonely as the rest of us. '

                Stella looked up to him, scanning his face in the dark to see if he was teasing her. Seeing nothing, she dropped her eyes.

                He was right. She knew that much.

                ‘Hello?’

                The voice came from the stairs. It was a woman’s voice. Frightened. Desperate. Voices never sounded much else since the crash.

                Stella and Hook looked to each other and then to the sound of the voice, both frozen still like burglars caught in the act. 'Answer her,’ Hook mouthed to Stella.

‘You!’ Stella mouthed back.

                ‘Hello? Are you there? Can you help?’

                Stella shoved at Hook, pushing him towards the closed doors of the stairwell. He shoved back at her hands, the two of them suddenly in a ridiculous pushing match while a pregnant woman asked for help.

                ‘Are you there?’

                ‘Er?’ Hook called out. 'Yeah?’

                Stella shoved him in the back, propelling him to the door. This time he went and pushed the door open. He stepped through, squinting into the darkness, Stella just behind him, looking around him to see a flight of stairs blocked by a tall, tangled barricade. Immediately she saw that someone had tried to dismantle it recently; bars of metal and plastic and wood were strewn around the foot of the stairs. Beyond it was a woman, tall, long hair, pale, terrified face and very pregnant. With one hand she held the banister while the other rested on top of her belly. In the alien green of her night vision Stella thought she looked gaunt, ghostly, like she might collapse or disappear at any moment.

                ‘Are you okay?’ Hook asked.

                ‘Thank god,’ she cried. 'Thank god!’ She was staring past Hook, straight at Stella. 'You’re her! You’re here!’ And she collapsed, crashing forward into the barrier.

                ‘Oh hell!’ Hook called out. He lurched forward to the barricade and started grabbing bars and trolleys to haul them out of the way.

                ‘Wait!’ Stella yelled. But it was too late.

                An alarm began; a great ringing of bells echoed through the stairwell and Hook froze, a trolley, still stuck halfway into the tangle of the barrier, gripped in his hand. 'Oh hell!’ he cried.

                ‘We’ve got to get to her,’ said Stella, ducking past Hook and leaping at the barrier. She slammed into it, her boots finding purchase, and she scrambled up and to the top, the bells never stopping. She turned and reached down to Hook. 'Here, meathead!’ she shouted at him as he squinted up into the darkness, unable to see her black-gloved hand. He reached up, grasped her hand and let her pull him up and onto the barricade.

                Hook was heavy, too heavy. She felt her shoulder strain against the weight, something gave and she stifled a cry of pain. 'Faster!’ she screamed at Hook. The big man finally found purchase and, letting go of Stella’s hand, pulled himself to the top. Stella watched as Hook rolled over the barrier and tried to slide down the other side, but his metal bar got caught in the barricade.

‘Damn it!’ he hissed. He undid the straps at his chest and let himself fall to land close to where the woman had fallen.

Stella held her shoulder, squeezed the pain to another part of her mind and followed Hook down, grabbing his metal bar, a length of scaffolding, as she came.

                The big man was bending over the pregnant woman, trying to lift her. 'Help me,’ he shouted to Stella over the noise of the bells. Stella let Hook do the work, fussing around him with her one good arm, pretending to help. Hook had her scooped into his arms and was already climbing the stairs. Stella followed, letting her audio dampers quiet the bells; she had enough pain in her shoulder without the din in her ears.

                ‘How do we stop it?’ Hook called out.

                Stella didn’t hear him clearly, so ignored him. She looked up to the sound of the bells, tried to see where it was coming from, if it was real bells or some kind of recording. A recording would mean this place had power. They’d rigged a few solar panels at the church but couldn’t afford to waste energy on playing bells; maybe this place would give Gregor some new kit to play with. The woman’s head lolled over the crook of Hook’s elbow and Stella could see just how pained she looked. Thin, her skin stretched around her jaw bone, draining what little colour might have been in her flesh. Even in the green light of her night vision Stella could see that the woman was so pale she was practically white. She looked deader than some of the shufflers. Glancing back, she saw the first of them enter the stairwell, drawn by the noise of the bells. That was one way out blocked.

                They climbed a second flight and Hook hurried to the door to take them to the first floor. 'We’ve got to stop that alarm!’ he shouted to Stella.

                She nodded, looking around, trying to find the source. 'Wait!’ she called. It was slowing, the bells not ringing as quickly or as loudly. Not a recording then. 'It’s going to stop on its own!’ she shouted to Hook. 'Let’s get her somewhere we can check her over. '

                They burst through into Harrods’ first floor, carrying the woman, her head lolling back and forth, as Hook dashed as quickly as he could. 'Where to?’ he called out.

                Stella was looking for signs of where the woman might have been staying, some place of security or comfort. They were in the lingerie section, the shelves mostly left alone, the racks still festooned with lace and straps, and in the middle, a faint light, a curtained area, a bed inside, a body, dressed in red, lying completely still. They couldn’t be asleep. 'This way,’ Stella called out. 'Keep following me. There’s a bed.'

‘I see it,’ said Hook. He just about ran to the bed, desperate to put the pregnant woman down as if the cargo he carried was simply too precious. The body of the man on one side, dressed in a Santa suit, made him pause, and then he laid her down next to him.

                The two of them stood back and looked at the woman and the man. Stella switched off her night vision. She’d been right, the woman was pale enough to look dead.

                ‘Is she okay?’ Hook asked. His face was filthy, the dirt streaked and smeared by his sweat.

                ‘How do I know?’ Stella replied. 'What about him? Is he…’

Hook checked the man, feeling at his neck and withdrawing his finger instantly. 'He’s cold,’ he said.

Stella looked to the woman’s pregnant belly. It rose up and down with her breaths, massive atop her thin frame. Stella stared at it. It was a smooth steady rhythm, up and down, up and down.

                It didn’t slow. It didn’t. Stella shook herself. It didn’t slow.

                But it was slowing, seeming to time itself with the striking of the bells as they slowed and quieted. Slower and slower. Stella and Hook stood transfixed by the scene.

The bells slowed, slowed, the noise faded and finally stopped.

                Silence.

                And then the sound of the woman’s breathing. It was so faint, as if it were nothing more than a draught beneath a door in another room.

                ‘What do we do?’ Hook asked. Getting no reply, he asked again. 'What do we do, Stella? I don’t know what to do. '

                Stella stared as the woman fought to hang on to her life, to the life of her baby. 'I don’t know,’ she whispered.

                Long minutes passed as they stood and stared, not daring to make a decision.

                And then after one last, feeble breath there was nothing.

                Finally, they moved, both of them going to the bedside, reaching out to the woman, holding her wrist, feeling at her still-warm neck. She was dead.

                ‘Will it…?’ Hook stammered. 'Will it be…?’ He couldn’t finish the question.

                Stella stared at the frozen belly. Will it be alive?

                ‘I got stuck. '

                Stella and Hook rose and whirled to face the voice. It was a man. He stood at the gap in the curtain, filthy, thin and tired, his hair wild, his wide eyes, wet and so white, beaming from his dirty face. He was exhausted, crushed.

                ‘We went for food,’ he said. He held bulging orange carrier bags in his hands. He let them fall to the floor, a clatter of thuds at his feet, tins and jars rolling free of the plastic.

                The three of them stood in a loose triangle around the bed and the two corpses, the solidity of these two deaths among the millions enough to create a barrier between them.

                They stayed that way for long seconds, the only sound the distant echoing of shufflers at the bottom of the stairwell.

                Eventually, the man turned to the noise. 'I should reset the alarm,’ he said. His voice was flat, functional. Habits coming to his mind, covering the scene in front of them. He turned back to the other two and finally his eyes rested on Stella. 'You’re her,’ he said. 'You’re here.' And then he collapsed.

                Hook finally rumbled back to life. 'Must’ve been hard for them,’ he said as he walked to the man and rolled him over to check his pulse. 'He’s still alive. Just exhausted. Probably fainted.' He lifted the man back to his feet, shook him awake. As the man came around he looked over to Stella and then back to the bed when his eyes caught the movement. He nodded to the rising Santa.

                Stella grabbed one of her corkscrews and moved to the thing on the bed just as its arms lifted to reach out to them. The pale, sunken face above the dirty white collar and red shoulders of the jacket was twisted by the snarl of its crooked, thin-lipped mouth. The slack muscles of its jaw worked the mouth open and closed in slow movements as if it uttered a gasping, horrific ho, ho, ho. 'Gross,’ said Stella. She raised her fist to plunge the nail into its head.

                ‘Wait!’ the man cried, his voice groggy. 'What are you doing?’

                Stella and Hook stared at the man, confused. The zombie Santa reached closer to Stella; she batted its arms away and it rolled drunkenly on the bed, sloshing against the dead woman.

                ‘What do you think she’s doing?’ Hook asked.

                ‘He was still alive when I left,’ the man answered.

                ‘He’s not anymore,’ said Stella. She let the Santa reach for her again and then punched the nail into its head. It dropped back onto the bed, as lifeless as a Christmas turkey. Stella moved around the bed, ignoring the man’s protests and the pregnant belly on her way, and stood over the woman.

                Hook moved to stand between the bed and the man. 'It’s got to be done,’ he said to him. 'Can’t believe she didn’t do it herself. '

                ‘What are you talking about?’ he asked.

                ‘When people die you have to get the brain so that they don’t come back. You must know that,’ Hook told him. 'It’s been six months. How else have you kept them down?’

                The man was shaking his head. 'We haven’t left the shop. Since it all started, we haven’t left the shop since the first night -'

                Stella punched into the woman’s head, then pulled the nail free. A small spurt of blood followed it as if it wanted to stay with it, escape the woman’s head and ride away to another body, one that would be able to keep it warm.

Leo stared, open mouthed. Hesitantly, Hook moved to the man and put his arm around him. 'Could it still be alive?’ he asked Stella. He tried to whisper but had to raise his voice to be heard over the man’s sobs. She looked over at the woman on the bed, the rise of her belly.  

                ‘We should try to…’ Stella started to speak but stopped, unable to voice the idea.

                The man lifted his head, looked to her, expectation scoring his face. 'What do you mean?’ he said, the hope in his voice obvious. 'What should we try?’

                ‘We can’t,’ said Hook. 'We don’t know what we’re doing. '

                ‘We’ve nothing to lose,’ said Stella. 'The mother’s already dead, the baby is either dead already or will die soon. '

                Hook stared down at the corpse of the pregnant woman. 'Nothing to lose except sleep.' He looked back to Stella. 'I can’t do it. I’ll never sleep again if I try it. '

                ‘We had things ready for if it didn’t go well,’ said the man. He dashed to an area next to the curtains and pulled a trolley to the bed. It was filled with bandages, sticking plasters, water purification tablets, a sewing kit and several knives. 'That’s why Wictoria told me to find the baby milk. Just in case, she said. Hopefully we’ll never need it. That’s what she said. '

                Stella didn’t answer, just stared at the knives. 'You’ve got gas?’ she asked Leo. The other man nodded. 'Get some of the milk ready,’ she said. He moved to the stove set-up just outside the curtain. Stella reached down to a slender carving knife and lifted it free of the trolley. Its edge glinted in the half light from the weak lamps. 'Get some towels,’ she told Hook. 'And see our friend for nappies. '

                Hook nodded, his face pale beneath the dirt, and fled from the curtained area.

 

The thought passed through her mind, impossible to ignore, that it would have been easier if she hadn’t done it. Stella stared down at the swaddled baby, a girl, her hair still wet and dark, but turning fairer as it dried. She cried and cried, the noise high and grating. Stella could imagine the shufflers at the bottom of the stairs going mad.

                The man fussed around the bed, not daring to pick up the baby. He carried a bottle of milk, but paid it no attention, as if he had forgotten he had it. He had held the baby once, as Stella thrust her towards him, and he had wrapped her in the towel and weighed her on the set of scales he had ready. She was five pounds six ounces. A dot in a white towel, made filthy by the blood and wax-like substance that coated the skin.

                ‘She’s not very big,’ Hook pointed out. 'Was she ready to be born?’

                The man answered. 'Wictoria said she was due at Christmas. '

                They all raised their voices to be heard over the din of the cries.

                ‘She needs feeding,’ Hook pointed out. The two men looked to Stella.

                ‘What?’ she asked. The two men didn’t answer and she shouted louder than was necessary. 'Don’t think I’m doing it.' She looked down again to the baby, saw her bloody body as she pulled it free of her dead mother. 'I’ve done my bit,’ she said, much quieter now.

                Hook reached forward. 'Give me the bottle,’ he said.

                But the man stepped in front of him. 'No,’ he said. 'I should do it.' He reached to the baby, lifted her, his movements exaggerated in their slowness. The baby’s cries didn’t stop, not when he pulled her close, not when he hushed and shushed over and over, not when he first tried the bottle, not when he swayed her back and forth or when he tried the bottle again. Tears fell freely down his cheeks and he became more and more desperate. He tried to force the bottle into her mouth, stumbled, almost dropped her, but not really, not so close as his hammering heart thought. Finally, he looked to Stella and to Hook, but the two of them simply stood and stared, awkward and afraid. 'I don’t know what to do!’ he shouted. 'What do I do?’

                Stella stepped towards him, reached out her hand to his shoulder. 'You keep trying,’ she said. 'You keep trying till you get it right.' She stepped away and nodded for Hook to follow her.

                The two of them stood just outside the curtains, the cries of the baby a little quieter with distance. 'We can’t take them with us,’ said Stella.

                ‘Don’t hold back, Stella,’ said Hook, sarcastically. 'Make sure you say what you mean!’

                ‘You know it’s true,’ she said.

                ‘What, we just leave him here?’

                ‘No. We help him get out of the city. He can’t raise a baby here. The noise would mean he’d never be able to keep the shufflers away. '

                ‘We could help out. Bring them supplies. '

                Stella shook her head. 'We don’t have the batteries to keep using thumpers for supply runs to the same spot. Too many shufflers around here. '

                Hook couldn’t argue. 'How do we do it?’

                ‘Quickly. Thumpers have been out for half an hour; shufflers will be back round here by now what with the bells and now the baby.' As Stella spoke the baby’s cries started to falter. The two of them looked through the curtain to the silhouette of the man standing still, his head bent over the bundle in his arms. 'Once she’s fed we go as quickly as we can. Set him up with as much milk and as many nappies as he can carry and get him out of here. '

                ‘It’s a long way,’ said Hook. 'We’ll need a car. '

                ‘Not necessarily,’ said Stella.

                The baby was quiet at last and the three of them stood around her as she slept on the bed.

                ‘What should we name her?’ Hook asked.

                ‘We can think about that later,’ said Stella.

                ‘If it was a girl we said we’d call her E…’

                ‘Don’t call her Eve,’ snapped Stella, cutting the man off.

                ‘Why?' he asked.

                ‘Just don’t. All that’s gone now,’ said Stella. 'If it was ever here at all.' She turned away from them and walked out of the curtained area.

The man looked to Hook, the confusion on his face obvious.

‘She’ll be okay,’ said Hook. He shrugged as he spoke; Stella’s disappointment was nothing new to him. 'Did you say you’d been stuck in here since the crash?’ he asked.

The man nodded. 'We didn’t know what had happened. We were the only ones to survive. We worked here. Night shift. When we heard the news about staying inside, saw the zombies on the streets, downstairs, upstairs… the looting… we grabbed what we could – food and water - then barricaded the stairs.' He rocked from side to side with the baby safe in his arms. As he spoke, his voice became distant, almost dreamy. 'Wictoria was pregnant… Grant and me… we tried our best to look after her. He wore the Santa suit to cheer her up. Starving… Red suits don’t cheer anyone up, that’s what she said…’

                And then a rush of words, 'I only left them because the streets suddenly cleared. Something seemed to call the zombies away. I was the fittest. I knew it had to be me. We were all starving but I was the only one who had any chance. We’ve got a rope and hook set up so we can climb down to the street. Never used it before tonight. I ran, fell. I hurt my knee. I found food. An old Tesco with a few tins in the back. I even got the baby milk! I came back for them. I thought they’d be okay…’

                Hook stepped closer, reached out to him. 'Hey,’ he whispered. 'It’s okay. We’ll help you. What’s your name?’

                ‘Leo.' He was staring past Hook to the body of Wictoria. Stella had covered her, but he could see that the stomach no longer stood as proud as it had.

                ‘Leo, you’re with us now. It’s going to be okay.' Hook held the man’s shoulders, his grip firm, tried to turn him away from the morbid scene on the bed.

                ‘The guards worked,’ said Leo, suddenly. 'Grant always said it would work.' He was trying to look around Hook to see the body of his dead friend.

                ‘What guards?’ Stella asked as she stepped back through the gap in the curtain.

                ‘We let the ground floor fill with zombies when the looting started. Used them to stop people from getting upstairs. That’s what the alarms were for, to bring the zombies to wherever the looters where. Grant always said it would work. He was right. I should reset the alarm. '

                ‘You don’t have to do it yet, Leo,’ said Hook. 'There’s plenty of shufflers blocking the stairs. '

                ‘The baby,’ said Leo, looking down to the bundle in his arms. 'We all said it would be ours. We were going to look after it till all this ended. '

                ‘The end already came,’ said Stella. She stepped closer to Leo. 'Wrists and ankles,’ she said. 'Wrists and ankles,’ she repeated when Leo looked at her with nothing but confusion.

                Dumbly, he allowed her to lift his sleeves and trousers so that she could check he was clear.

                ‘The baby,’ said Leo. He turned away from Stella to Hook, let his head fall onto Hook’s broad chest. He sobbed into his jacket.

‘We don’t have time for this,’ Stella pointed out.

                ‘Have a heart, Stella,’ Hook said.

                ‘We need bags. Rucksacks,’ she demanded. 'And a bottle of alcohol. Spirits, but it doesn’t matter what kind. '

                Leo raised his head, stepped back from Hook, sniffing back tears. 'We’ve got several. We raided the store straight after the crash. Got what we could, food and drink – water, booze, coffee and tea - extra clothes, gas stoves, gas canisters. We were really busy at first, scavenging for supplies and setting up. Then we weren’t.' He stopped and looked down at the coat he was wearing. 'This was £500,’ he said. 'I left the tag on for ages. Don’t know why. Who was I going to take it back to? We didn’t drink much of the booze either. Wictoria couldn’t, so we thought it wasn’t fair. She said she was going to hit the vodka once baby was here!’ He bent his head to wipe his eyes on the shoulders of his expensive coat and then tried to laugh.

                ‘The bags and the booze, Leo,’ Stella reminded him. She spoke as gently as she could. 'And you said something about resetting the alarm? Are they fixed in place or can we move them?’

                ‘I think we could move them, but they’ll be heavy. '

‘That’s why I bring Hook,’ said Stella. 'He’s good at carrying heavy things.' Hook nodded and smiled, the little flush of pride obvious even though Stella had made sure her voice was scathing of other, unspoken abilities.

                ‘And find us a bike pump,’ Stella called out as Leo moved to obey. 'And make sure you eat some of the food you found. It’s going to be a long night. '

Leo nodded as he left them.

                ‘What about the shufflers downstairs?’ Hook asked.

                ‘Leo got out before. I assume they have some kind of escape route. Besides, we need them down there. '

 

An hour later they stood at a window overlooking the escape route on Basil Street at the back of Harrods. It was a rope tied to a bar taken from shelving and stretched across the window frame. Below, the street was already laced with shufflers. There weren’t so many that they couldn’t get through, but more were arriving all the time.

                ‘Not exactly ideal,’ said Hook.

                ‘It’ll have to do,’ said Stella.

                They all wore huge backpacks, stuffed with powdered milk, gas canisters, nappies and water. Leo also had the baby strapped to his chest. Her little head was invisible beneath the folds of the bright pink sling. Wictoria had looked forward to using this more than anything else, Leo had explained to them.

                ‘June,’ said Hook suddenly.

                ‘What?’ Stella asked.

                ‘We could call her June,’ said Hook.

                Leo was thoughtful then shook his head. 'I don’t think Wictoria would have liked that. '

                ‘She must’ve had some other ideas,’ said Hook.

                ‘Her mum’s name was Nikola,’ said Leo.

                Hook was nodding. 'Not bad,’ he said.

                ‘I knew a Nicola at school,’ said Stella. 'Hated her.' She swung her leg out of the window as the two men fell silent. 'I’ll go first, clear a space.' She gripped the rope in her gloved hands, the corkscrews sticking from between her clenched fists. The pain in her shoulder flared and she changed her mind, put the corkscrews away and swung halfway down with one arm before landing lightly on the pavement. She gripped her weapons and was ready in an instant, charging at any shufflers already drifting close, punching into their faces, covering her gloves with cold blood and gore.

                Leo slid down the rope, going as slowly as he could, switching his attention from the baby to the street and back again.

                Hook followed eventually; he had got stuck in the window, his scaffold bar proving impossible to fit through and he had had to drop it to Stella. Finally, he was sliding down, his great bulk straining the rope and bar. Landing heavily, he looked to Stella, took the bar and waited for the okay to go. She pulled a bottle of vodka from her bag, the neck stuffed with a rag soaked in the alcohol, and handed it to him. 'Get going,’ she said, and he set off at a jog. He brained a couple of shufflers, the heavy metal of the bar caving skulls, and jogged away, around the corner and towards the main entrance of the shop.

                ‘What’s the vodka for?’ Leo asked.

‘Fire brings angels,’ Stella answered. 'It’s better to have them where we can see them before we go. Less chance of cyborg surprises that way. '

Leo nodded 'Will he be okay?’ he asked.

                ‘He’s not subtle, but that’s okay for this.' She climbed back up the rope, unhooked it, coiled it and then climbed back out of the window, slid off the ledge and landed gracefully on the pavement. Leo stared open mouthed. 'Come on,’ said Stella, 'we'll get some transport. '

               

Hook ran at shufflers, the leather of his coat and gloves enough to deflect any teeth that came too close, and the metal bar was used with brutal efficiency to clear a path. He came to the main entrance, and, without any hesitation, brought the bar crashing down into the glass of the door, shattering it and thrusting the bar through to lever at the barricade and doors. Within seconds he had wrenched it open and the shufflers were surging for the gap he had created. Hook ran on, smashing shufflers and looking up, searching the first floor windows. There they were, the bells they had placed on the window ledge along with the string they had fed down to the street. He ignored it for now, grabbed the bottle of vodka from his jacket pocket, pulled out a lighter and set fire to the rag before hurling it at a car parked across Brompton Road. It hit the vehicle, blue fire spreading across bonnet and windscreen and dripping down its flank. The nearest shufflers turned to it, drawn by the glow. Without pausing to watch, Hook turned and grabbed the string, pulled and set off the alarm. Leo had explained to them about the clockwork bells, how they had built them a few weeks after the crash and how they would ring for two minutes. Now they chimed over the burning car and the burning shufflers; they rang through the Christmas Eve night, calling the shufflers to Harrods’ main entrance.

                Hook turned and ran back, the attention of the shufflers already greater as they were excited by the sound of the bells and the presence of Hook. He grunted as he swung at another, not breaking his heavy stride. But he wasn’t quick. Hook had always made his way through the streets by bashing shufflers out of the way and ducking out of sight; running through them wasn’t his style, and the shufflers’ numbers grew.

               

Stella pulled a bike free of its housing. Without power, the locking mechanism that before the crash would have needed a bank card or a mobile phone app to release were useless. She had cleared a space around them to allow her the half-minute she needed to inflate the tyres with the pump Leo had found for them. She had to break off on the second bike as Leo squeaked a warning. Dashing from pump to cork screw, she stabbed the shuffler then back to the bike again. She fumbled with her weapon, annoyed by how cumbersome it was to switch tasks. 'Need a new weapon,’ she grumbled to herself.

                ‘What?’ Leo asked. He didn’t look at her as he spoke, nervous as he was about the shufflers coming nearer.

                ‘Nothing,’ Stella replied, quickly finishing the second bike and then moving on to a third.

                Suddenly, the noise of bells from beyond the shop. Shufflers at the back of the crowd approaching them jerked their heads towards the sound. Leo watched them, fascinated. He had spent very little time watching the zombies. Grant and Wictoria had stared at them for hours on end, had even tried to spot patterns in their movements up and down the street. They hadn’t found any. The zombies were random. Which was obvious, he supposed, but he had never got used to them like the other two seemed to have done; the night terrors had stalked him since all this had begun.

                Stella thrust a bicycle at him and left the other two on the ground. 'If they get too close, if it looks like I’m not going to be able to hold them, get out of here. Pedal north, out of the city.' They had agreed on St Albans, close enough to cycle, a big enough town to maybe still have supplies and pockets of survivors that could help. Stella had thought briefly about getting out of the city, but London was the place to stay. The night couldn’t last forever. Once the sun came back, they could use the solar that covered so much of the city, start something, set up a place to start again. If they left the city now it would be so much harder to come back in.

                The bells continued.

                ‘Shouldn’t he be here by now?’ Leo asked.

                Stella didn’t reply. She stared along the street, focussing on the corner where she expected Hook to appear. She was statue-still, the only sign of life her breath misting before her over and over.

                Leo shivered. He was starving and not used to being outside. Stamping his feet, he turned in a circle, trying to watch every corner and shadow to make sure nothing was sneaking up on them.

                ‘I’m going to look for him,’ said Stella. She shrugged off the rucksack as she spoke and grabbed the coil of rope, looping it around her waist, using the hook to secure it. 'Don’t worry,’ she reassured Leo. 'I’ll be back. There’s a park just over there, Hans Place Garden. Go there and wait for us. Keep your back to a tree, don’t let anything get behind you. The bells will keep distracting them as long as they can’t see you, and any angels are coming for the fire, not for you. You’ll be fine.' And then she was gone, running through the shufflers, dodging where she could, stabbing where she had to.

                Leo stood, motionless for long moments. The closest zombies were distracted by Stella and turned to follow her as well as the sound of the bells. Leo had time and space to move. He couldn’t.

                The bells slowed, faded. They would stop soon, and the night would fall silent again. Except for the noise of the dead. Their ceaseless gasping, wheezing, growling breath. It was the sound of futility; it was the hopeless grab for a life no longer there, as if they could somehow sense what they had lost. But they were random; they had no purpose, no awareness. They just were.  

                He looked to the sky, tried to see stars, knew it was pointless to look, but looked anyway. The bells, slower, quieter, rang into the clouds of dust, invisible against the black of the night. Looking down to the baby, forgotten for that brief moment, he wondered if it was an act of cruelty or kindness to bring her into this. He looked back up. What was there for a child in this end of the world? What was there on Christmas Eve for anyone? Would Santa still fly tonight? Or was he dead too? Him and his rotting reindeer shuffling on thin air with angels as escort.

                Ridiculous thoughts. Leo shook himself alert just as the bells faded to silence. He looked down at the baby sleeping against his chest, picked up Stella’s rucksack, and rode for the park.

 

Stella ran through the shufflers, and was immediately reminded of the pain in her shoulder. Her augments, particularly in her knees and her upper body, were such that she could ignore a great deal of pain. She flexed the 'wings’ in her shoulders. These were her favourites; her flesh expanded and solidified around her shoulders, giving her what looked like the edge of wings. In the Cynosure Games she had used them to barge other players out of the way. In the end of the world, she used them to bowl shufflers aside. As she flexed, she felt some resistance, as if the augment struggled to operate. She would tell Gregor when she got back.

Most of the shufflers had their backs to her, drawn by the bells and something else, something big and wielding a long metal pipe. She was able to dodge and stab efficiently, quietly; not many noticed her and she moved through the ever-thickening crowd with speed. Speed was important; as soon as she slowed, she would be overwhelmed. She darted between walking corpses, dodging, ducking, kicking, stabbing. Closer now, she ran at Hook and the long pipe, it rose and fell and stabbed and smashed, flicking blood and gore with every swipe. 'Get a little stuck, meathead?’ she asked as she burst through the shufflers, shoving them to the side with her wings and stabbing the closest in the sides of their heads with her corkscrews.

                Hook was breathing hard, the pipe heavy in his hands, his swings less and less powerful. 'Can’t get stuck when you’re looking out for me,’ he gasped. Stella’s presence lifted him and he swung his pipe hard into the side of two shufflers’ heads and sent them bowling into half-a-dozen others, momentarily clearing a space.

                Stella took advantage of the two-second reprieve and scanned the sky. 'C’mon,’ she muttered. She stabbed two more shufflers. Quickly, Stella pocketed the corkscrews, unwound the rope from her waist, let the hook swing free and then began to scan the skies again, listening as carefully as she could.

                ‘What are you doing?’ Hook shouted.

                ‘Shut up!’ Stella snapped. 'Just keep them back.' She stared straight up, couldn’t see anything, switched to night vision, but the few lit streetlights obscured everything else. She cursed loudly and then swung the hook around her head and fired it off at the nearest streetlight, slingshot style. The hook smashed the bulb, sending Perspex and glass tinkling through the cold air.

                ‘What are you doing?’ Hook cried.

                ‘Making sure I can see.' She shot again and again, each time smashing a light, till the street around them was plunged into almost pitch blackness. 'Just keep swinging,’ she shouted at Hook. She ducked down to let him swing as wildly as he liked, and turned her night vision back to the sky, the pipe whirling above her head, the sound of the bells still clear but fading quickly.

                There! She saw it flying towards them, towards the fire around the corner. It was coming fast; it was going to fly straight over them. 'Grab my shoulders!’ she shouted.

                Hook, hearing the urgency in his voice threw the pipe at the nearest bunch of shufflers and grabbed her shoulders, gripping as tightly as he could to the solid flesh of her wings.

                Stella whirled the hook around and around, faster and faster, the rope a blur, the angel in the sky closer and closer, the shufflers closer and closer, their arms reaching, their hands twisting into claws, ready to grab and pull flesh to their waiting mouths. So close that Hook could see the drool as it fell from slack lips and bared teeth.

                Then, the sound of a jetpack. Stella’s instincts, honed to perfection through five years of the Games, kicked in, and a split-second later, Stella launched the hook. 'Hold on!’ she shouted. The angel powered overhead, the hook hit it, caught in its armour, pulled Stella and Hook from the middle of the horde, flinging them free. To the dying sounds of the bells they flew through the air for several seconds before the angel, dragged back by their weight, crashed to the street, its arms flailing, laser firing randomly, cutting into shufflers and sending them sprawling.

                Stella and Hook crashed behind, landing heavily. Stella yelled with pain as she took the fall on her shoulder, her wing collapsing, the pain bursting into her bones. Hook was on his feet first, running at the angel as it tried to right itself. He jumped and landed feet-first on the thing’s head, crushing its non-life from its cyborg body.

                Hook roared in triumph. Turning back to Stella, he shouted, 'Never seen anyone take an angel? Now you have!’ She was on her knees, moving slowly. Triumph forgotten, he ran to help her to her feet. 'Are you okay?’

                Stella nodded, struggled upright, held onto his arm for just a moment. 'Just my shoulder.' She shuddered, clenching her teeth against the pain. 'We need to go. We’re meeting Leo at Hans Place Garden. We should take the long way, lose the shufflers. '

                Hook was nodding. 'Shame you didn’t bring the bikes,’ he said. The two of them set off, slowly at first, then breaking into a jog.

 

Leo waited, a tree to his back. He had scouted the park as best he could. The noise of the bells had cleared the space. He had heard the angel’s jetpack followed by the crash just a few moments ago. He could see very little in the near total darkness of the park. A few streetlights shone between skeletal branches of trees which flickered in the light wind and scratched across the distant streetlights. The baby shifted a little in its sling, made a soft murmur, barely heard. Leo reached his hand into the sling to touch her head. She was so soft.

                Sound. A scraping noise. Leo pressed his back against the tree. He tried to quiet his breathing, strained to listen, tried to tell himself it was the trees’ branches in the wind.

                Stella, he thought. I should call you Stella. And you shouldn’t die without a name. He pressed his back against the rough trunk, the hard edges unfelt through the fat rucksack. The scraping sound was constant, distant, close, all around him.

                It was the trees. It had to be. The zombies were all attracted to the bells and the fire and the two people who had come from nowhere on Christmas Eve to help him; and were now dying. Leo leant forward, pushed himself from the tree, soothed the baby in the sling, and steeled himself to grab his bike and go back to help them. He glanced down to the warm bundle at his chest, wondered how he could ever look her in the eye if he allowed this sacrifice for himself and for her.

                But that was stupid. Wasn’t it?

                The baby murmured again.

                Life was life, and honour could wait for the sun to come back. Leo bent for Stella’s rucksack, lengthened the handles as much as he could and shrugged it on to his front. He leant forward, making sure he wouldn’t squeeze the baby, and reached for the handlebars of the bicycle and pulled it upright. Pointed it north, away from the two Christmas angels, he swung leg over the saddle, found the pedals and set off, wobbly at first, but he was steady within few seconds, and he rode as confidently away from the small park.

 

‘We should go with him,’ Hook said as the two of them jogged to the park.

‘No,’ said Stella. 'But we should look at the museum, get some of our stuff over there, try to set something up. '

‘Really?’ Hook asked.

Stella nodded. 'It’s stupid not to. While it’s still dark, the church is maybe the best place, but it can’t stay dark forever. '

                She slowed, holding out her hand to stop Hook, and the two of them paused, watching from shadows as Leo rode away from the park. Stella held her up her hand to stop Hook from shouting to him. 'Looks like he can make decisions for himself,’ said Stella.

                ‘We should go with him,’ said Hook.

                ‘We will. But give him some space. Let him find the way himself. Grab the bikes and we’ll follow, make sure he gets out safely, that’s the best we can do for him. '

                Hook nodded and ran for the bikes.

                Stella turned to watch Leo ride away, growing smaller in the intermittent glow of the streetlights. 'Merry Christmas,’ she whispered. 

If you enjoyed 'A Stella Christmas', please download a free Kindle version of 'Stella the Zombie Killer Volume One'. It's free!

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