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       Execution, p.14

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  ‘Night, Bob,’ chanced Zee. ‘Enjoy your tea.’

  ‘I don’t need tea,’ the blacksuit shouted. I nodded a goodnight at him and walked after the others, trying not to smile when I heard the scrape of ceramic and the fast, deep gulps that followed echoing after me down the hallway.

  Cruelty

  I didn’t remember falling asleep – didn’t even remember where I’d sat down to rest – but I must have done because I was dreaming again.

  I was dreaming of the boy.

  He gazed down at me from a throne of corpses, their bodies stacked so high that I almost didn’t see him perched on the top. The dead were dressed in clothes that should have belonged in a museum, and I noticed that some of them wore armour, sightless eyes peering out from beneath cone-shaped helmets. All carried horrific wounds, their blood pooled around the mound like a moat. When I looked to my left and right I made out a battlefield filled with piles like this one, cairns of the countless dead.

  The boy himself, Alfred Furnace, looked like he had been bathing in blood. It coated every inch of skin, making his hair stand upright, slick with gore, and when he smiled at me I could see it on his teeth. His eyes were empty wells, puncture wounds in his head, their depths endless. And yet I knew he was looking at me.

  ‘You did this?’ I asked him, my voice whipped away by the wind. I tried to move just to see if I could, but like in my other dreams I was paralysed, stuck fast in the bloodied mud of the field. ‘You killed these people?’

  They killed me first, he answered, and it was as if all the dead were speaking, their voices loud enough to crack the earth. He cocked his head, and it felt like a demon was watching me.

  ‘Is this a memory too?’ I asked, thinking back to the visions I’d had of the orchard. Furnace nodded. He wiped a hand across his face, mopping up the blood, and for a second he looked like a kid again, his features crumpled. Then those eyes came back into view, blazing darkness.

  This was my life, he said, making my ears ring.

  ‘But how could you do this?’ I asked. Not that I needed to. I already knew. I could see the stranger’s blood at work inside him, his veins so dark they looked like tattoos. He followed my line of sight.

  He sacrificed his blood so that I could live, he said, and I knew he was speaking about the stranger in the orchard. But he lives within me now. I can feel him there.

  ‘But what was it, that thing?’ I asked.

  Furnace laughed, the sound of a soul tearing in two.

  You don’t need me to answer that.

  I shook my head, more bewildered than ever, trying to understand what he was saying. But all I could see were the faces of the dead, the people Furnace had killed.

  ‘There’s … there are so many of them,’ I whispered.

  Not yet there aren’t, but there will be.

  I felt the ground begin to shake, like an earthquake. I turned as best I could, looking over my shoulder to see what I thought was a tidal wave surging across the field. Then I saw the figures in it, realised that it wasn’t a wave but an army, hundreds of men charging this way. There was a grunt as Furnace leapt off the mound of bodies, landing by my side and grabbing my face in his hands. His fingers burned, blood steaming from his superheated flesh, and there was no escaping his bear-trap grip. He forced me to watch as the army approached, a hundred metres away now and closing fast. Most were holding spears, some had swords. Others must have had bows because an arrow thumped into the soil close to where we were standing, more following, turning day to twilight.

  I struggled. I knew this was a dream, but it felt so real. If I didn’t move now then I would be trampled to death, or impaled on a hundred blades.

  ‘What are you doing?’ I screamed, the men now fifty metres away, so close I could see the spittle flying from their howling jaws. ‘Let me go!’

  They cannot harm us, Furnace said. I will not let them.

  And then he was off, running at the army, leaping into it with a cry that threatened to knock the heavens loose. A fountain of blood spewed up from the middle of the crowd, turning the sky red. It seemed to bleed into my vision, drowning the world in colour. But it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see. I was safe now that Furnace was here.

  The world fell silent and I opened my eyes again. I was still inside the dream, but my location had changed. I was in a barn of some kind, straw on the floor, ancient farm equipment on the walls, moonlight streaming in through the single skylight. And I wasn’t alone. There was a group of people here, three men and a woman. They were passing a jug between them, and they all looked drunk. Their flushed faces and toothless grins were directed at a shape on the floor, a small figure that curled into itself as they kicked and spat at it.

  It was a kid, my age I think, his pale flesh covered in bruises. He was painfully thin, his brittle bones pushing against his parchment skin, his bird-wing shoulders shaking up and down as he cried. I tried to help him, feeling the nectar power up inside me. But I still couldn’t move.

  We are so cruel, Furnace said, and I turned my head to see him standing beside me, his body now clean of blood, watching the attack with his empty eyes. We hurt and we kill, all for what?

  ‘Save him,’ I said, expecting the men and woman to turn at the sound of my voice, to see me there. But they just howled their banshee screams at each other, delighted by their brutality.

  Would you save him? Furnace asked.

  ‘Of course,’ I shouted back. And I would have. I’d be saving him now if the dream hadn’t been holding me back.

  What if it’s too late?

  ‘But it isn’t too late!’

  The four adults continued their drunken assault, even though the kid now lay still. The anger inside me surged, so much so that I almost managed to move a foot, the sheer force of the nectar shredding the dream. But Furnace was already stepping forward, a throbbing, dog-like snarl emanating from his throat. The men and woman heard it, staggering away from the body on the floor. The jug dropped, shattering, as they retreated. But there was nowhere to go.

  Furnace knelt down beside the boy, lifting his head in his hands. He was still alive, but only just and not for much longer. There could be no helping him.

  And suddenly I understood what Furnace had meant when he’d asked me if I would save him. He hadn’t been talking about protecting him from his attackers, he had been talking about bringing him back. I watched as Furnace pulled a knife from his belt, jabbing it into one of the charcoal veins in his wrist. A bead of tainted blood appeared, then another, and by the time the flow had started he had pressed his arm against the kid’s mouth. The boy drank hungrily, sensing perhaps that this was the only way he could survive his injuries. I wanted to tell him to stop. But what choice did he have? Was death really better than this?

  Furnace turned to me as the kid suckled from his wrist, the vortexes of his eyes burning with cold heat.

  Would you save him? he asked again, and even though I understood his true meaning I still nodded.

  ‘Of course,’ I said, softer now. Furnace smiled, and there was no malice there. He peered down at the kid, whose own veins were now beginning to pulse black.

  He reminded me of József, he said. He pulled his wrist free, a plug of nectar already forming over the wound. The kid had drunk deep, however, thrashing on the hay-covered floor as the poison took control of his system. Furnace held him tight, smoothing back his hair, brushing straw from his face. So I made him my new brother.

  The drunken woman made a break for it, her eyes like saucers as she bolted towards the door behind me. She didn’t stand a chance. The kid sensed her movement, scrabbling up and throwing himself at her. He took her legs out with one swipe, sinking his teeth into her throat. He was on the move again before the first spurt of her blood could hit the floor, destroying the three men with ferocious, terrifying speed.

  When he had finished, he scuttled back to Furnace on all fours, gazing up at him the way a dog looks at its master, a look that was still heart
breakingly human. Furnace took him in his arms again, holding him, the blood cooling around them. Then he looked at me once more, extending his other hand, welcoming me into the embrace. And it was a good thing that I couldn’t move, because I would have gone to him.

  Furnace smiled, and even as this dream began to fade I heard him speak.

  He was the first.

  Another abyss of silent darkness, deep sleep. And then I was dreaming once more.

  This time I dreamt of the island.

  I hung over an ocean, the waters kicked up by the wind into a frenzy of churning silver blades. Above, the sky was so overcast that it could have been carved from rock, seeming to sink down, as if to crush me. The island sat between the sea and the sky, a fist of rock whose sheer cliffs protected it from the onslaught of the elements. Perched on those walls of stone was a mansion whose crooked turrets rose like fingers towards the encroaching clouds. More than anything else it reminded me of the Black Fort, the building that had plugged the only entrance to Furnace Penitentiary. All around it were knuckled shapes, impossibly big, that prowled the cliffs and watched me with eyes of silver and black. Their forlorn cries were as loud as the pounding surf.

  I looked to my side, knowing I’d see Furnace there. He was older now, much older, his face creased and wrinkled, his long beard flecked with grey. And yet I could still see the boy beneath the aged flesh. There was no mistaking the child that this had once been.

  I thought back to the last dream, already untangling like cotton threads in water.

  ‘How many have there been?’ I asked, thinking of the boy in the barn. Furnace’s dark eyes never left the island, as though he was waiting for something to appear there.

  Too many to count, he said, his voice louder than the waves and yet still that same whisper. Too many to remember.

  ‘Were they all like him?’ I asked. ‘Like that first boy?’

  No, Furnace said. Most were like him; they had a choice between death and something wonderful. You were like him. I thought back, trying to peer into my own memories, but already I was forgetting the truth of what had happened to me. Would I have died in the prison if the warden hadn’t chosen me, changed me? Probably. Furnace’s words knocked my train of thought off the rails. Others were not. Others were happy in their old lives, they did not want to change.

  ‘And you forced them?’

  No more than any child is forced to grow up, to accept his responsibilities.

  The ocean seemed to swell at the sound of his voice, giant waves breaking against the island’s cliffs, drenching the mansion in mist and rainbows.

  ‘Where is this place?’ I said.

  My home, he answered. I looked back at him, at this boy locked inside an old man’s skin.

  ‘Why are you showing me this? You know what I’m going to do when I get here. I’m going to kill you.’

  Furnace inhaled, then turned to face me. Those eyes, or at least the place where his eyes should have been, burned black, like two gaping holes in the very fabric of reality. When he smiled, it was with sadness.

  I know, Alex.

  ‘What do you mean?’ I demanded, trying to turn to face him but unable to move the lower half of my body. My mind was just as rooted, unable to flow, to grasp what I was hearing. ‘Tell me what’s going on.’

  There’s no time, he said. You have to go.

  ‘Go where?’ I said, frustration shunting me to the edge of tears again. ‘I don’t understand.’

  Go now, it’s not safe. They have come for you.

  ‘Who?’ I asked, looking around me. ‘I don’t see anyone.’

  Furnace reached up, his hands around my face once again. This time the pain of his searing flesh tore through my sleeping head, stripping the dream away. The waters of the bay rose, defying gravity, until all that remained in the churning void were two eyes like whirlpools and that timeless voice.

  They’re here.

  Reunion

  ‘They’re here.’

  I spat out the words as I woke, still feeling the spray of mist on my skin, hearing the rumble of the ocean. I was sitting in the chair in the lounge. Zee and Lucy were asleep next to each other on the sofa in their matching military uniforms, his head on her shoulder. The dreams were already fading, bleeding into the corners of my mind, but they had wound my heart up like a clockwork toy, letting it loose at what felt like a million beats a minute. I rubbed my hand against my chest, trying to calm it before it jumped right out of my throat.

  Zee snorted gently, one eye opening.

  ‘You say something?’ he slurred.

  I let myself fall back into the chair, shaking my head, my pulse slowly returning to normal. It had just been the nightmares, those fears crossing the threshold between sleep and reality. A weak, smoky light was filtering in through the window, past the tangle of curtains. It was dawn. There was nobody here apart from us.

  So why could I still hear the ocean?

  I stood, walking out into the hall, towards the front door. That roar was getting louder, sounding less like the sea and more like a distant storm pulling itself over the horizon. Outside it was even clearer, making the remaining glass rattle in the window frames. I could hear car alarms too, triggered by the trembling ground.

  It seemed as though it was barely morning, half the world hidden in an eerie grey half-light, but I could see the disc of the sun above a rooftop on the other side of the street, so drenched in smoke and cloud that I could look right at it without even squinting.

  ‘Everything okay?’ Zee had followed me out and was standing in the doorway, still looking half asleep. He wiped his eyes, yawning. ‘Hey, your hand’s looking better.’

  I lifted my left arm, seeing that my fingers – or at least those three nubbins of charred flesh that were becoming fingers – had grown another inch when I was asleep. I lowered it again. Right now there were more important things.

  ‘Can you hear that?’ I asked. Zee cocked his head one way then the other.

  ‘Yeah, what is that? Sounds like Simon’s snoring.’

  ‘Go wake him up,’ I said. ‘Lucy too. We should get out of here.’

  ‘Why?’ asked Zee, and I had to stop myself from saying because Furnace told us to.

  ‘Just do it,’ I said. He saw the look on my face and ran back inside without asking any more questions. The fleshy pink berserker roosted on a car on the other side of the street, examining the stump where its arm had once been. There was no sign of the minotaur-like one. I stepped out of the garden, looking for the blacksuit, eventually finding him inside the truck. He too was asleep. I pulled open the door, the squeal of metal making him jump so hard his head hit the ceiling.

  ‘What’s going on?’ he asked, rubbing his scalp. Then he heard it for himself, that distant rumble, straightening up in the driver’s seat. ‘What is that?’

  ‘Trouble,’ I said. He nodded, turning the keys and making the truck start with a lurch. The engine was loud, but even that didn’t quite drown out the noise from outside. The berserker clambered down from the car roof, sensing that we were about to move. I commanded it to stay alert, to keep watch for any sign of danger.

  ‘We ready to go?’ the blacksuit asked, scanning the sky and the muted sun. ‘We’re running way behind.’

  ‘The others are coming,’ I said, willing them to hurry up. I looked at him, realised that he was wearing a thousand-yard stare.

  ‘You okay?’ I said. He seemed to snap out of his trance.

  ‘I was dreaming,’ he replied. ‘I haven’t had a dream since … Not since the tower.’

  ‘Was it Furnace?’ I asked, thinking of my own nectar-inspired nightmares. But the blacksuit shook his head.

  ‘No, I was dreaming of a house,’ he said. ‘Of a family. I think I was dreaming about my family.’

  I could see the confusion in his eyes, the pain, the fear, and it made my heart bleed – because I had felt it too, that tug of war between the nectar and the memories, between Furnace’s promise of pow
er and those fleeting glimpses of a life you had all but forgotten. I wondered how many of the blacksuits had felt their new masks slipping, had dreamt of the children they once were. He gripped the wheel as if he was holding on for his life, as if letting go would mean spiralling into an abyss.

  ‘I was dreaming of my name,’ he said, almost choking on the words. There was a crunch from the house, Zee, Lucy and Simon slamming the door behind them as they jogged across the garden to the truck. They clambered in, all of them asking questions. I kept my eyes on the blacksuit.

  ‘Your name?’ I asked. ‘You remember it?’

  He nodded, his silver eyes blinking in the gloom.

  ‘It’s Sam,’ he said, his voice hoarse, breaking up. ‘I don’t know how I could have forgotten it for so long.’

  ‘Welcome back, Sam,’ I said, clapping him on the shoulder. I turned to the others.

  ‘All set?’

  ‘Let’s scram,’ said Zee, buckling up. Sam put the truck in gear, pulling off down the road. The berserker bounded along beside us on the pavement, its nose twitching as it sniffed the air. By the time we’d got to the end of it the rumble was closer. It sounded like a stampede, the noise of a thousand animals running at once. Or the roar of an approaching army. I thought of my dream, the memory of the troops who were charging at Furnace, the murder in their eyes.

  ‘You know where we’re heading?’ Sam asked. All trace of emotion had gone, his steely eyes focusing on the road as he edged the massive truck around a corner.

  ‘Get us back on the motorway,’ I answered, the pain in my head burning, as if it was physically pulling us all along. ‘We should keep heading south.’

  ‘No prob—’ he started, the words dying in his mouth as he turned left at another junction and almost drove the truck straight into a tank. It was bombing down the road towards us, its squeaking tracks gouging massive craters in the tarmac, crushing the cars that sat there. The immense black hole of its gun was pointing right at us. Sam swore, wrenching the steering wheel and bumping us onto the kerb. I saw the berserker fly past, heading straight for the tank, and I called it back. Berserker or not, it wouldn’t last long if that cannon went off.

 
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