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       Execution, p.11

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  ‘Stop it, Alex, she’s not worth it,’ said Zee. His grip was kitten-weak, and yet it anchored me like steel – as though his fingers were passing right through the twisted flesh of my new body, wrapped around the old me, the human me. ‘There’s been enough blood spilled today. Come on, leave them.’

  I met Panettierre’s eyes, just pockets of darkness in the unlit interior of the chopper.

  ‘I meant what I said,’ she hissed. ‘I won’t stop coming after you. You know all about promises, Alex, and that’s mine. I won’t stop.’

  I glanced at Zee, who was shaking his head. Then I looked at Lucy, and at Simon. They stared back, and I knew what they saw: a monster, bent and twisted almost beyond recognition, drenched in blood. My hand dropped as I pictured myself through their eyes, a freak, a killer. And suddenly I was so full of shame that I couldn’t breathe. It was as if that dam had finally broken, the barrier of nectar crumbling, the emotions sluicing through. I would have cried, I think, if I’d remembered how. Instead I just stood there, feeling hollowed out.

  Zee must have sensed it, because his grip on my arm tightened and he pulled me back, pulled me away.

  ‘Let her come after us,’ he said softly. ‘Worse people than her have tried.’

  ‘And it’s not worth another death on your conscience,’ added Lucy.

  She was right. I felt like one more murder would mean I’d be lost completely, the last, broken pieces of me sinking into the nectar, forever gone.

  ‘But if she tries to stop us getting out of this hospital then you have my permission to kill her ass good and dead,’ said Simon, looking back at Panettierre. ‘Does that work for you?’

  She held her hands out in mock surrender, her smile like a badly painted doll’s. Simon climbed out of the chopper first, his hand dropping down to help Zee, then Lucy. I paused, staring back at where Panettierre stood. It was insane, wasn’t it? Letting her live? Every instinct was telling me to finish her off, not just as payback for what she’d done but as protection against what she had promised to do.

  But I didn’t, even though some part of me knew that decision would come back to haunt me. I left her standing there, draped in shadows, her hatred and her anger an invisible tide which seemed to lower the temperature in the helicopter by a good ten degrees. I launched myself up, grabbing the lip of the door with my good hand, hanging there for a moment.

  From the darkness, Panettierre spoke. And I don’t know whether it was coincidence or fate that I’d heard those words before, so long ago in another life, in a stranger’s house after Toby had been shot, as I was being framed for his murder, pushed out onto the streets by the blacksuits. Either way it turned my blood to ice, the chills chasing me along with the echo as I pulled myself back into the sunlight:

  ‘Good luck, Alex. Run as hard as you can. We’ll see you real soon.’

  Decisions

  I clambered out of the chopper thinking we were under attack again. Lucy was screaming, Zee too, and they both looked like they were about to throw themselves back through the hatch.

  It took me only a moment to identify the source of their panic – the berserker which was perched on the upended chopper. Its hackles were raised, a loose growl emanating from its throat, although it seemed to be in control of itself. It took a lot longer than a moment – almost a full minute – for me to calm the pair of them down enough to explain what was going on.

  ‘You’re telling me you can control it?’ Zee asked, his face warped by disbelief. I focused, silently ordering the beast to keep its distance, give us space. It did so, hopping back down to the ground and retreating to a flower bed, staring aimlessly at the setting sun. Zee opened his mouth but I knew what he was going to ask.

  ‘I don’t know how,’ I said. ‘I just can. The berserkers have saved my ass. They saved yours too.’

  ‘You mean the one on the helicopter?’ Lucy asked. ‘The one that brought us down?’

  ‘Yeah.’

  ‘You told it to jump onto a helicopter and it did?’ Zee asked. ‘I didn’t even think they understood English or anything.’

  ‘They don’t,’ I struggled, unsure how to describe it. ‘It’s like they can listen to my thoughts, like I can send messages to them. Not words, just images, like I can transmit things into their heads.’

  ‘The same way Furnace can?’ said Zee, the words making my skin crawl.

  ‘No,’ I stuttered, breaking eye contact, trying not to think about the implications of what Zee was suggesting. ‘It’s not the same. I’m not like him.’

  ‘So the berserkers are your pets now?’ Lucy asked.

  ‘There’s a blacksuit with us too,’ I said, trying to ignore the venom in her voice. ‘But go with it, okay. He can help us get out of here.’ I lowered my voice so the suit below wouldn’t hear. ‘He might be able to get us to Alfred Furnace.’

  There was movement inside the Chinook, and voices. I jumped to the ground, offering my hands to help Zee and Lucy. They saw my arm, like a sharpened stake pointing at the heavens, and not surprisingly they shook their heads, making their own way down over the wheels. Simon followed them, landing beside me. He looked at Zee, then at Lucy, frowning.

  ‘How come you guys got cool uniforms?’ he muttered, looking down at his bedraggled clothes. ‘No fair.’

  The blacksuit appeared from the other side of the helicopter and for a moment we all stood there awkwardly, nobody quite sure what to say. It was the blacksuit who broke the silence.

  ‘This is touching,’ he muttered. ‘Friends reunited. Do you want me to find you all a room, or are we okay to go?’

  ‘I thought you guys weren’t clever enough for sarcasm,’ Zee said, although he was standing behind me, peering at him past the crook of my elbow. The blacksuit sneered, then turned and started jogging away from the burning building. We trod in his shadow, the two berserkers loping along behind.

  We crossed the garden and reached a small round-about, a sign telling us that this was the way out. I must have glanced back a hundred times as we went, checking the chopper doors, waiting for Panettierre to appear with a rocket launcher in her hands ready to blow us all to kingdom come. But there was no sign of her, and five minutes later the hospital was out of sight behind a bank of trees.

  ‘Should have let me kill her,’ I mumbled beneath my breath as I ran to catch up with the others.

  We found ourselves on a main road, all four carriageways deserted. The only vehicle in sight was an army truck parked by the hospital gates, and the blacksuit ran over to it, his gown fluttering as he disappeared into the cab.

  I looked to my left, to where a vast, black cloud hung over the city, like something from one of those horror films where weird forces are unleashed from the skies. Except the cloud was nothing more exciting than smoke, so much of it that it looked as if night had fallen over those few square kilometres, putting up walls of darkness and threatening never to let the sun in again. The pain in my head pointed right towards it, no matter which way I turned. It was like there was a leash inside my skull, a wire that wanted to pull me in that direction. I had an idea that a leash is exactly what it was.

  ‘What’s the plan?’ Zee said, his eyes wide as he took in the cancerous horizon.

  ‘You know what the plan is,’ I replied. ‘It’s the same as it’s always been.’

  ‘You’re going after him,’ said Lucy, standing on my other side. ‘You’re going after Furnace.’

  ‘What choice is there?’ I asked. ‘Look at the city, guys. It’s a graveyard. And how far has it spread?’

  ‘Far,’ said Zee. ‘We saw the news reports while you were zonked, back when the news was still being broadcast. It’s pretty much nationwide now, over the borders too. The whole country has been quarantined.’

  ‘They say the death toll is in the millions,’ said Lucy, almost choking on her own words. ‘And that’s not including the … the kids that have turned.’

  She looked at me and I could see the hate there, gone in less than
a second as she got it under control, but still simmering underneath. She let her head drop, swallowing hard, and I got the impression she was biting her tongue. Zee walked to her side, slotted his hand into hers and squeezed. She didn’t let go. Another pang of jealousy twinged inside my chest and I thought about how different things might have been if Zee had been the one to change and I was still normal. The dream was too painful and I tried to pretend it didn’t exist, turning back towards the city.

  ‘There’s only one thing we can do,’ I said. ‘Going to the police, to the army, it won’t work. We know that now, they’ll just try and kill us, and for what? To make monsters of their own.’ Nobody argued. How could they? We’d all seen it for ourselves. ‘And we can’t hide. Not for ever. The country’s gone, finished. No matter where we go, we’ll never be safe.’

  ‘We could find a boat,’ said Lucy. ‘Try to get abroad.’

  I realised something was glinting, throwing light against her skin, and I remembered the St Christopher medallion around my neck. I was amazed it was still there after what I’d been through, and I hoped it was a good omen.

  ‘You made me promise something when you gave me this,’ I said, touching it tenderly with my new fingers. ‘You made me promise that I’d make things normal again. I will, I’ll do that by killing Furnace. I’ve promised it to you, to everyone. I’m not going to give up on that.’

  She looked at the medallion, hypnotised by it, then she nodded.

  ‘But you can go,’ I said. ‘I’d understand.’

  Zee, Lucy and Simon exchanged glances, and they must have been reading each other’s minds because they all shook their heads as one.

  ‘Let you get all the credit?’ said Simon. ‘No way, man. I want my medals too.’

  ‘Even if you have to risk your life for them?’ I asked. He spluttered, waving the thought away with his bigger arm.

  ‘You kidding? We’ve broken out of the world’s worst prison, killed the warden, fought his berserkers and lived, taken on the army and won. How much more dangerous can it get? Compared to all that I bet Furnace is a total pussy. Let’s find him and get this over with.’

  It was impossible to resist his enthusiasm, and before he’d even finished speaking the four of us were laughing.

  ‘A total pussy, eh?’ I said, my chest heaving. I wondered if Furnace was listening in on the conversation the way he often seemed to, wondered what he thought of the insult. I was tempted to ask him, but I didn’t dare. Our laughter was just a rowing boat floating on a lake of fear, ready to be sucked under at any time. The thought of meeting him still terrified me, made worse by what I’d seen in my visions – the boy with the stranger’s blood. I settled for saying, ‘I hope you’re right.’

  ‘I’m right,’ said Simon. ‘I can feel it. He’ll cack his pants when he sees us, when he sees what you can do with his berserkers.’

  ‘Yeah,’ said Lucy, giggling. ‘He’d better have plenty of bog roll, wherever he is.’

  And then we were howling, so much that I almost couldn’t stand upright, so much that we didn’t even notice that the blacksuit had started the truck’s engine until he pulled it up next to us. He peered out the window, one eyebrow raised, and the sight of him staring at us like a stern parent made the laughter come even harder, until I was doubled over and thinking I’d never be able to take a breath again. I leant against the side of the truck, wheezing, the tears rolling down my cheeks, the berserkers watching us with intense curiosity, uttering bizarre, chuckle-like grunts of their own.

  I don’t know how much later it was that we managed to collect ourselves, climbing inside next to the blacksuit. I pulled myself into the passenger seat, only just able to fold my mutated body into the space, my head scraping the ceiling. I reached down, flicked a lever and rolled the seat backwards, earning a yelp from Zee as he, Lucy and Simon climbed onto the rear seat.

  ‘Leave me some room,’ Zee squawked. ‘I’m being crushed.’

  ‘Stop moaning,’ I said. ‘You’ve only got little legs.’

  But his muttering didn’t stop, and with a sigh I reached down again, fiddling with the seat until it finally jolted forward a few centimetres. It almost had us all in stitches again.

  ‘You comfy?’ asked the blacksuit with more than a little sarcasm.

  ‘I think so,’ I said. The laughter had left me utterly exhausted, more so than the fighting, more than the fear and the anger. It wasn’t surprising, really. I mean you give more of yourself to laughter than you do to anything, I think. I looked out of the windscreen, the overcast city hanging in front of us, so dark it seemed as if somebody had drawn a blind down over the truck. ‘So where are we heading?’

  The blacksuit just looked at me.

  ‘What?’ I asked.

  ‘How the hell should I know?’ he said eventually. ‘You’re in charge. You’re the one he’s been talking to. He hasn’t told you where he wants you?’

  He had, I realised. He was telling me right now in the throbbing pain that sat smack bang in the middle of my forehead, that leash tugging on the flesh of my brain, pulling me forward.

  ‘Head south, through the city,’ I said.

  ‘You sure?’ the suit asked, putting the truck in gear and gunning the engine.

  An image flashed up, coating reality like a layer of grime – an island, waves crashing against its cliffs – there for less than a second, then gone. And if I hadn’t been certain before I’d seen that, I definitely was afterwards.

  ‘I’m sure,’ I said, blinking the echoes of the image away. ‘South. The coast. That’s where Furnace is.’

  And I knew something else too, something just as impossible, and yet just as undeniable.

  ‘He’s waiting for us.’

  City of the Dead

  The city was a place of ghosts and dead things, and we drove through it in silence.

  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing through the filthy glass of the truck’s windows. It was as if every living thing had been sucked from the streets and the buildings, leaving an empty shell, a dried husk that withered and crumbled in every direction. We headed south on the motorway, towards the heart of the city, the suburbs on either side of us deserted. Then the tower blocks began to drift out of the smog, some of them still on fire. They stood like flaming torches, their pillars of smoke like the bars of a cage which imprisoned the city.

  The two berserkers kept pace with the truck, even though we were travelling at over fifty miles an hour along the short stretches of road that were clear. They thundered along on all fours – or all threes, in the case of the one with the missing arm – occasionally vanishing from sight every time they caught a whiff of something that might be alive, but always catching up with us.

  We had to slow down the further in we got, the streets littered with cars and corpses. Most of the buildings here had burned out completely, looking like blackened stumps of teeth coming loose from the concrete. I recognised some of them, or at least I thought I did. Most were just shadows of what they’d once been.

  The ground was scorched, still radiating heat, so much of it that I thought we were in danger of spontaneously combusting. The smell was the worst thing, though, a mixture of burning rubber, superheated concrete and the unmistakable rancid tang of decaying meat. It clawed its way down my throat, a fist inside my guts. If I’d had anything inside me I would have puked.

  The truck was big enough to shunt most of the stationary cars out of our way. When we came across something bigger I called in the berserkers, commanding them to clear a path. It was difficult, and they didn’t always seem to want to – as if the only orders they found easy to follow were the ones that involved bloodshed. But with a little patience they managed to obey, even working together to shift a massive oil tanker out of the road.

  ‘Might even be able to house-train them,’ said Zee as we watched the gleaming metal cylinder bounce down a hill, shedding gasoline as it thumped into the side of an office block. It detonated a few minutes after we star
ted moving again, the shockwave shunting us along the street. I looked at the fireball in the rear-view mirror, wondering whether there was anyone else left alive to see it.

  ‘This can’t be real,’ said Lucy as the truck roared into what I vaguely remembered as being the theatre district. The vast stone obelisk outside the doors of the underground station here had been sheared clean in half and now lay over the main road. We slowed to a crawl, and we were almost level with it before I realised that there were corpses propped along its length like dolls on a shelf. ‘I was here like three weeks ago. With my mum. We came to see Grease Revival. Feels like, I don’t know, a million years ago. Now I don’t even know if she’s …’

  She put a hand to her mouth, screwing her eyes shut. She wasn’t crying, though. It looked like she’d done enough of that. There probably weren’t any tears left in any of us. Or so I thought.

  ‘Your mum will be okay,’ Zee said. ‘We’ll find her.’

  Lucy ignored him, leaning forward and grabbing the back of the driver’s seat, spitting her words at the blacksuit as we drew level with the enormous pillar.

  ‘You like what you see?’ she demanded. ‘Is this what you signed up for? Look at those people. Look at them!’

  He did, turning his head and studying the bodies, their unblinking eyes reminding me of crows along a telephone wire. And when he laughed, a deep grumbling chuckle the same volume and pitch as the truck’s engine, Lucy lashed out, slapping him around the head again and again, screaming at him. The truck lurched as he tried to bat her away, both Zee and Simon having to force her back into her seat.

  ‘Better keep her under control,’ the suit said, pushing down on the pedal and turning right at a junction. ‘Unless she wants to end up dead out there too.’

  There was something in his voice, though, not quite a tremor but close – and when he turned the next corner I noticed that he was gripping the wheel so tightly that his knuckles had turned the colour of old parchment.

  ‘Bastard,’ hissed Lucy from the back, her fists landing in her lap. ‘You’ll get yours. We won’t always need you, you know.’

 
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