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       Execution, p.10

           Alexander Gordon Smith
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  ‘I’m not working for them,’ I said. ‘I told you the truth, that I’m going to end this. We’re on the same side.’

  ‘No, Alex,’ Panettierre replied, her voice laced with static. ‘We’re not. I don’t know what you really believe, what you’re telling yourself is going on. But look at this from my point of view. You are a convicted murderer. You started the prison break. You unleashed the monsters onto the streets. I thought you were a victim, but here you are, a monster yourself, these freaks at your beck and call. No, I don’t know what you are, but you’re sure not one of us.’

  She was still wearing that patronising smile and it infuriated me. I focused on the berserker on the ground, imagined it grabbing hold of a soldier. My control over them must have been growing, because without a pause the beast bounded forward, snatching a victim from the crowd, holding him up by his neck. The others changed their target but they didn’t fire. They couldn’t get a clean shot without hitting their own man too.

  ‘I’ll make a trade,’ I shouted. ‘His life for Zee’s. Hand him over and I’ll let this soldier go. Then we’ll just walk out of here, we can forget this whole thing.’

  The soldier struggled like a hanged man, batting pathetically against the berserker’s grip, and a sudden pang of guilt cut through the storm of nectar. What the hell was I doing? The creature looked back at me, obviously confused, and I forced myself to focus. I wasn’t going to kill him, I just wanted Zee back. I was doing this for the right reasons.

  Panettierre looked at the soldier and for once her smile wavered. She put the handset to her mouth.

  ‘Alex, you don’t seem to have grasped what’s going on here. That man, that soldier, he’s willing to die for his country, for his planet, for his way of life. He will sacrifice himself because it is the right thing to do. He understands that. All these brave men and women do. Even Zee understands it. The only person who doesn’t is you, and that’s how I know you’re not on our side.’

  ‘I’m warning you,’ I said, almost screaming now. ‘Give me Zee or this man dies.’

  A wave of anger surged up from my gut, so powerful my vision shaded over, like a dark cloud had passed across the sun. The berserkers behind me howled to each other in response to it, like monkeys in the jungle, and Panettierre retreated a couple of steps from the door into the interior of the chopper. Her eyes seemed to gleam in the half-light.

  ‘If I’d known you were in charge all this time then I’d have left you to die on that tower,’ she said. ‘It’s a shame. But there will be no trade today, Alex. Nor any other day. We do not negotiate with terrorists, not now, not ever.’

  The anger took hold, too much of it to control. Before I knew what was happening I saw the berserker’s fists clench, the muscles knotting. The soldier was crushed like an empty beer can, his twitching body dropping to the floor.

  ‘No!’ I said, taking a step towards him. I wanted to run over, to fix him, to breathe life back into the man, to undo what the berserker – what I – had done. But it was too late. Panettierre shouted something into the cabin, then she turned back to me, her smile never wavering.

  ‘Zee is coming with us.’

  The pitch of the helicopter’s engines reached a crescendo and I saw the wheels rise unsteadily from the ground. I started forward, driven by fury, picturing the berserkers attacking, screaming orders at them in my head.

  The twin freaks responded, but before they had a chance to move there was a deafening crack, loud enough to send a shockwave of dirt and dust across the car park. The truck beneath the berserker vanished in a ball of fire and the creature exploded with it, hissing black guts spiralling out like the sparks from a Catherine wheel.

  I squinted against the heat, scanning the car park, seeing the turret of a tank spin lazily around, looking for another target. The gaping barrel, still smoking, settled on me. The Chinook rose over it, banking hard, Panettierre’s voice raining down on me from the speakers.

  ‘There’s a special place in hell for people like you, Alex. Enjoy it.’

  And her amplified laughter almost drowned out the thunder of the tank as it fired again.

  Extreme Measures

  I threw myself to the side instinctively, felt the heat of the football-sized shell as it roared over my head. It must have struck the hospital because it was as if the gates of hell had opened up behind me, engulfing me in fire. My thoughts were in overdrive, thousands of them stampeding through my brain before I hit the floor. The sheer volume of them seemed to have slowed down the world around me, like they’d knocked time off its rails.

  I imagined the berserker on the roof leaping onto the helicopter, grabbing the rotors. Sure enough, when I glanced up through the burning air I could see it in mid-jump, its long, skinny arms flailing. There was another earth-shattering crack as a second shell thudded into the hospital, the explosion making the ground shake. It was so loud that I didn’t even hear the machine-gun fire that followed, only the whisper of bullets and the erupting concrete letting me know they were aiming at me.

  More thoughts, screaming at the berserkers to charge, to attack. I wasn’t even thinking about what I was doing any more, my brain on autopilot, survival mode. It was either them or me, and I wasn’t going to die, not today, not before finishing what I’d promised to do.

  I struggled to my feet, the heat and the noise and the trembling ground making it feel like I was on a gyroscope. But I kept my balance, ordering the berserkers to tear apart anything in their way. Then I was running, bursting from the smoke so fast that none of the soldiers could keep track of me. I cut to the side and hurdled a truck, landing on the bonnet of a military Hummer, using it like a trampoline to propel me towards the tank. Its turret spun, slowly, clumsily, and by the time it was pointing in my direction I was way past it, perched on its roof.

  From here I had a better idea of what was going on. Another berserker – a beast which looked like a minotaur, its head too big for its body, its skin charred and smouldering, the colour of coal – had appeared from nowhere. It was in the middle of the group of soldiers and it looked like it was toying with them, the way a cat does with a bird. Its skin sparked with every bullet that struck it, but just like my arm it was coated in nectar, impenetrable. Most of the military personnel were fleeing now, although some had sunk to their knees, their eyes empty of emotion, as though their brains had just been switched off.

  The helicopter was in trouble, thirty metres over the ground and spinning out of control. I squinted into the setting sun to see a berserker clinging onto the sides, its fist lashing out at the forward rotor. There was smoke churning from it, the blades whining. Every time it came full circle I caught sight of the pilots behind the windscreen, and I imagined Panettierre there, her terror. The thought made me laugh, an insane chuckle that rose up my throat like bile. I’d completely forgotten that Zee was in there too.

  There was a grunt as the tank started to move forward, the turret turning sluggishly back and forth in a vain attempt to knock me loose. I raised my right hand, the blade glinting – half sun, half fire – then I brought it down in the gap between the hatch and the roof. It slid in like a knife through butter and I wrenched it back out with the ear-piercing squeal of sheared steel. The round hatch popped open, revealing two faces inside blinking up at me.

  The sight awakened a distant memory of solitary confinement, back in the prison, and for a moment I hesitated. The soldiers inside the tank were little more than kids, a few years older than me. They were just following orders, like Panettierre had said. They were fighting to save their world from the freaks that Furnace had unleashed on it.

  I took my eyes off them, saw the charcoal berserker with a young soldier in its jaws, pumping nectar into his veins, turning him into a rat; saw the helicopter clip the hospital roof, spiralling into the smoke; saw the ground littered with corpses, most no longer recognisable as human …

  This was wrong, it was wrong.

  There was a snap, like bubble wrap, a bull
et striking my blade and ricocheting away. Another one, the round catching me in my stomach. Inside the tank one of the soldiers was pointing his pistol at me, ready to squeeze off another shot.

  Another vision flared up against reality – a group of people in an orchard, condemning a boy to die, a boy like me. Just like that kid I had been abandoned, and I would have my revenge.

  Once again the nectar reacted before I had time to stop it, my hand slicing back into the tank, skewering the man. I hauled him out like he was stuffed with feathers, flicking my arm and sending him soaring gracefully into the air. I didn’t look to see where he landed, reaching in with my other hand and grabbing the second soldier by the head.

  My fingers weren’t fully formed yet, not even close, but I managed to pull him free, then throw him to the ground. He scrambled away and I let him go. He wouldn’t get far.

  The troops had been completely routed, a handful of survivors retreating in all directions. I would have ordered the berserkers after them but I didn’t need to. They were in their element, uttering chirruped cries of delight as they bounded between their victims until not a single one of them was left alive.

  I jumped down from the tank, my head thumping, each frenzied heartbeat painting a network of black veins over the world. I could feel the emotions on the other side of the nectar, building up like water against a crumbling dam. I shook my head as if I could chase them away. There wasn’t time to think about what I was doing, only why. The means didn’t matter, only the end. The end of him.

  I was halfway back towards the hospital when I heard somebody coughing, so hard it sounded like they would puke up a lung. I lifted my hand, prepared for an attack, but the lopsided shape I saw stumbling from the smoke was unmistakably Simon. I ran to him, guiding him away from the inferno.

  ‘What happened?’ he asked, rubbing a bruise on his forehead. ‘One minute you jumped out the window, the next I came round in a room somewhere and the whole hospital was burning down.’

  ‘Everything’s okay,’ I said, and for some reason I was relieved that he hadn’t seen what had happened. It was better that way. We picked up speed, walking round the side of the building, language coming back to me as the roar of the nectar faded. ‘Zee’s chopper ended up over there somewhere. Looked like it might have gone down pretty hard.’

  ‘It was a big bird,’ Simon coughed. ‘Should be okay, unless those things got to him first.’

  He nodded towards the coal-black berserker. It seemed to have run out of things to kill because it was squatting amongst the dead, licking the blood from its fingers, looking more than ever like some monstrous cat. I panicked, and without meaning to I pictured the helicopter on the ground, Furnace’s freaks tearing into it, killing everybody inside. The beast must have seen it as a command because it lifted itself off its haunches, running towards the hospital on all four limbs.

  ‘No!’ I shouted, making Simon jump. I stopped, screwed my eyes shut, called the berserker back, called them all back. Don’t touch him, I said, showing them Zee’s face. Don’t you dare touch him. The monster stopped, looking at me, its head cocked. It waited until we were close, then it joined us, loping alongside like a giant pet. The remaining pink twin also jogged over, a dozen holes in its torso and one of its arms missing. It didn’t seem to be in pain, though, as it sniffed the other berserker curiously before walking with us. Simon stuck to my side the same way a kid does to their mum when walking down a dark alley, so close I thought we were going to trip each other up.

  We reached the end of the car park, following the path round the side of the hospital, heading towards the main entrance. There were thick plumes of smoke rising from every direction and I offered a silent prayer that none of them were from the chopper. What if it had crashed badly? What if everyone on board had been killed? If Zee was dead, if I had murdered him, I’d run my blade through my own skull right here and now, promise or no promise.

  Halfway along the main building we met up with the blacksuit. He too was covered in blood, and it wasn’t his own. He was brushing his hands together like he was celebrating a job well done.

  ‘Saw it pass overhead,’ he said when I told him where we were going. He took the lead, sprinting, and we covered the rest of the distance in a second. We heard the chopper before we saw it, the muted bleeps of its alarm like a heart rate monitor, telling us it was still alive. I skidded round the corner so fast that I slipped on the gravel, tumbling. Simon helped me up and together we ran into the manicured garden where the bird had landed.

  Smoke gushed from the rotors – which were still trying to turn even though the helicopter lay on its side, its blades broken – but luckily there was no fire. The door was open, now facing the sky, a couple of soldiers perched on either side helping people out. A third was obviously on sentry duty on the ground because when he saw us he lifted his weapon.

  ‘Here they come!’ he yelled, pointing the rifle this way.

  By the time my reactions had kicked in the blacksuit was already on the move, covering the last twenty metres faster than the soldier could pull the trigger. He sent him flying with a punch, the gun clattering out of reach. I ran past the blacksuit and leapt onto the upturned body of the helicopter, Simon by my side. The coal-black berserker followed, so heavy that the metal walls of the chopper groaned, bending inwards. I commanded it to stay still and it obeyed, watching me with its silver-dollar eyes.

  The soldiers had guns, but they knew when they were beaten. They threw their pistols to the ground, holding their hands up, and I could see in their eyes that they realised they were about to die. They were scared, but they were defiant too.

  ‘I don’t want anyone else to get hurt,’ I said, holding my own arms out. ‘This has gone far enough.’ The men didn’t reply, just glared at me. If looks could kill I’d be long dead. I pushed past them, peering down through the open door to see people there, staggering back at the sight of my face. I turned to Simon. ‘I’m going in.’

  ‘I’m coming with you,’ he stuttered back. ‘No way I’m staying out here alone.’

  I nodded, then spoke to the soldiers: ‘If either of you moves, that thing will eat you. Okay?’

  The berserker grunted on cue and the men nodded in tandem. I checked to make sure the blacksuit was still there, keeping watch, then I jumped down through the open door.

  It was hard to see through the smoke, my eyes watering as soon as I was inside. I could just about make out the blurred outlines of ten, maybe fifteen people clustered at the back, a mixture of medical and military uniforms. I waited for the gunfire to start, my bladed hand up to shield my face, but it didn’t come.

  ‘Alex?’ somebody said.

  ‘Wait! Zee!’ came another voice, this one female.

  Then a tiny shape in army fatigues was running towards me. Zee’s arms wrapped around my waist, his smile beaming up at me. Another figure stepped out of the group, also wearing camouflage. She took a couple of steps forward, hesitated, then followed Zee. It took me a while to recognise the girl, the same one who had given me the St Christopher medallion. Her eyes widened when she saw how I had changed, what I had become, but she didn’t shy away.

  ‘Lucy,’ I said. ‘Zee – you both okay?’

  Another voice answered for them, Panettierre’s. She stood in the middle of the group, that smile finally wiped from her face.

  ‘You just don’t give up, do you?’ she spat. There was a clatter from overhead, then a strangled yelp as Simon tumbled into the helicopter. He saw Zee, the pair of them hugging briefly, slapping each other on the back. Panettierre waited for them to finish before continuing. ‘Are you happy now, Alex? Are you happy with the blood of my men and women on your hands, happy to have brought the world to its knees?’

  ‘No,’ I said. ‘Not yet. There’s something else I’ve got to take care of before you’ll see me smiling.’

  I lifted my right hand, extending it towards Panettierre. She flinched, but she didn’t move. There wasn’t anywhere for her
to go. A flurry of cries and gentle prayers rose up from the people around her, a couple of them collapsing to the floor. But when Panettierre spoke her voice was strong.

  ‘Then you’d better do it. You’d better kill me. Because I’ll keep coming after you, Alex. We need him. If he’s immune to the nectar then we can find a way to make others immune too. We need him to find a cure.’

  ‘You need to butcher him, you mean,’ Lucy spat back, jabbing her finger towards the colonel as if she wished her hands too were weapons. ‘You were supposed to be helping us, not killing us.’

  ‘We went through this,’ Panettierre replied, the edges of her voice fraying. ‘You agreed to it, Zee. You understood that sometimes sacrifices have to be made, that some people have to die so that others can live.’

  I looked at Zee and he shrugged.

  ‘Pretty hard not to agree to something when there’s a gun pointed at you,’ he said. ‘I’m all for ending the war, for things going back to normal. But, you know, I’d rather find a way of doing it that doesn’t involve me lying in pieces on an operating table.’

  ‘Amen to that,’ said Simon, waving the smoke from his face. ‘Come on, let’s get out of here while we still can.’

  ‘Hang on a sec,’ I said, starting forward, holding my arm out like a spear, the point at Panettierre’s throat. One thrust, that’s all it would take. Somebody like Panettierre didn’t deserve to survive this. She was a killer, worse than the rest of them; she was a monster, a Warden Cross in the making. In her head she probably thought she was saving the world, in her heart she wanted power, she wanted the nectar. I’d have bet my right eye that if she was offered the chance to swap places with Alfred Furnace, to be at the head of his army, she’d have accepted without hesitation. She deserved to die.

  I felt a hand on my arm.

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