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       Execution, p.15

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  ‘Hang on!’ Sam yelled, bringing the truck around so sharply that its right-hand wheels came off the ground, threatening to spill it over onto its side. It demolished a wall, ploughing through a garden, and then we were speeding back the way we’d come, accelerating so fast I thought I’d left my guts behind me.

  ‘How did they find us?’ Simon asked, all of us apart from Sam staring back at the tank. It had a clean shot but it didn’t take it, pursuing us as we screeched round a bend, trying to find another route. We hadn’t gone far before Sam slammed the brakes again, so hard that I almost decapitated myself on the open window. I turned in time to see an army truck, the same size as ours, appear at the junction we’d turned off moments ago, its tyres smoking as it skidded to a halt.

  ‘Keep going!’ I yelled, pointing down the road. It wasn’t like we had much of a choice. Sam floored it, each speed bump threatening to rip off the vehicle’s undercarriage and send us soaring into space. I looked back, saw the berserker tearing through the cabin of the other truck, doing what its kind did best. It was chasing after us again in seconds, leaving crimson footprints on the road.

  We had a bit more warning about the second tank. It was sitting at the end of the road in full view, its turret pointing our way. This one did fire, although the shot went well wide, thumping into a house to our side hard enough to rip out the inside walls, causing the entire building to fold in on itself like it was made of cards. Sam spun the wheel to the left, sending us up a narrow side street, the truck sparking like an angle grinder as we scraped the parked cars on either side.

  There was a junction up ahead, another military truck sitting to the right. We turned left, the road here much wider, and it was only when a third tank wheeled into view, forcing us to take the next right, that I realised what was happening.

  ‘We’re being herded,’ I said.

  ‘Herded?’ asked Zee, leaning forward as far as his seat belt would let him.

  ‘Like sheep,’ I said. ‘Turn right up here.’

  I pointed towards the next junction, a military truck parked across the right-hand road, the left one clear. Sam shook his head.

  ‘No way,’ he grunted, using his body weight to pull the truck to the left. He realised his mistake as soon as he’d made it. Ahead was a dead end, a massive army lorry spanning the gap between the shops on either side. Three armoured Hummers were parked in front of it, all equipped with cannons.

  And standing on top of the middle one was Colonel Alice Panettierre.

  Mercy

  Sam flipped the handbrake, bringing us to a messy halt twenty metres away from her. He slung the truck into reverse but I knew it would be no good. I could hear that rumble again, closing in tight behind us. Sure enough, when I looked out of the window I saw one of the tanks there, pinning us in. There was nowhere for us to go.

  Sam swore, thumping the wheel. I heard the berserker clamber up the truck, its weight causing the ceiling to dip in and the suspension to groan. We all glared out of the windscreen at Panettierre. She was wearing a military outfit now, beige combats, and she gripped the mounted cannon so hard that even from here I could see her knuckles were white. There were men and women standing on the trucks next to her, all armed.

  ‘I told you we should have killed her,’ I said, the nectar turning my voice to a growl.

  ‘Still might get your chance,’ replied Simon.

  I wasn’t so sure. We’d beaten her before, yes, but I’d had three berserkers then. I sent out a message to them, a call to arms for any of Furnace’s creatures that might be nearby, but right now I couldn’t see or sense any other than the one above us. No, Panettierre had the upper hand, and she must have known it because she wore that same smile, the one that seemed friendly until you noticed that there were too many teeth.

  ‘I’m sorry, Alex,’ Panettierre shouted, gripping her rifle. ‘I told you I couldn’t let you go.’

  At the sound of her voice the berserker threw itself off the roof, flying right at Panettierre. She was too quick, pulling the trigger whilst it was in mid-air. I had been wrong. It wasn’t a cannon at all, it was another grappling gun. There was a crack of pneumatics then the harpoon punched through the berserker’s stomach, trailing a rope behind it, making the creature spin almost gracefully.

  It landed in a heap, black blood gushing from the wound as it tried to get up. But its one arm struggled to hold its weight and after a second or two it collapsed back down. It turned its eyes to me, blinking, a dozen angry wounds opening up in its skin as the soldiers opened fire.

  Anger boiled up my throat, made even worse by my own helplessness. The creature still fixed me with that forlorn gaze, one eye now sealed shut by nectar. If I went to it, though, then I’d be cut to pieces too. Panettierre must have been able to read my emotions because she began to laugh.

  ‘It’s not so much fun, is it?’ she said. ‘When you watch your own troops getting slaughtered.’

  She pulled herself out of the Hummer’s gun turret, hopping down onto the bonnet and taking her pistol from her belt.

  ‘Don’t you dare,’ I said, too quietly for her to hear. She aimed the pistol at the berserker and fired off a couple of shots, both of them crunching through the back of its head. It opened its mouth, a soft moan falling out along with a torrent of nectar. Panettierre pulled the trigger again, catching the beast in its neck. This time I reached for the door handle, my fury almost too much to contain. Zee grabbed my shoulders, rooting me in place.

  ‘To think you value this monstrosity more than a human life,’ Panettierre said. ‘This mindless freak, worse than an animal. To think you’d sacrifice all those men and women, all my soldiers, for this.’

  She unleashed another round, this one taking off the berserker’s ear. It was still looking at me, pleading, its fingers stretched out towards the truck.

  ‘We have to help it,’ I said.

  ‘How?’ asked Simon. ‘We step out there, we’re as good as dead. Leave it, Alex. It’s only a berserker.’

  But it was more than that. It was a child. Torn open and patched back together too many times to be recognisable, yes, but it had once been like me, like all of us. Right now its face was so mutated it was almost alien, but its expression of pain and fear was as human as anything I’d ever seen. It was the expression of a kid who just wanted to go home.

  It was that thought which let me know what I had to do next. I locked eyes with the berserker, entering its thoughts, trying to calm it. I could sense the emotion there, like a raging storm inside its head, but past those dark clouds was a crack of sunshine, as if the heavens had opened. Through that crack, I realised, were its memories. In that sliver of golden light lay the kid that this berserker had once been.

  ‘It’s okay,’ I said. My voice was barely audible, and yet I knew it heard me. ‘Don’t be afraid of it.’

  I guided the berserker towards the light, ushering it there, and I could feel its heart lift as it pushed through the darkness, as it remembered. It seemed to slough off its new body, step right out of the mind that Furnace had created for it.

  Are you sure? I heard Furnace ask. It will die.

  ‘I’m sure,’ I said, holding on to the creature inside my head, holding on until with one final, shuddering sigh the berserker – the kid – disappeared. Outside the truck, on the street, the creature’s eyes had dulled to lead, its chest still.

  ‘What did you do?’ asked Sam.

  ‘What I had to,’ I replied, pushing the sadness and the confusion down inside me where it couldn’t do any harm.

  ‘Oops,’ sneered Panettierre, lowering her pistol to her side. She turned to the truck next to her, to a man holding just about the biggest sniper rifle I had ever seen. He pointed it our way.

  ‘What now?’ Lucy asked.

  ‘If we hit those shops hard enough we might make it through,’ suggested Sam.

  ‘Might end up in a ball of flames, too,’ Simon replied. ‘Besides, company’s on its way.’

  I c
ould hear helicopters in the air above us, the beat of their blades like a sonic pulse in my head. I doubted we’d be able to evade them, being the only moving vehicle in the whole city that Panettierre didn’t control.

  ‘We might be able to bargain with her,’ said Zee. ‘I mean, you know where Furnace is now, right? Maybe we can give her his location, or lead her there, something like that. Let’s just see what she wants.’

  ‘Just give us Zee and you can go,’ Panettierre yelled down from the truck, her timing impeccable.

  ‘Okay, maybe not,’ Zee said, laughing without humour.

  ‘We need you, Zee,’ Panettierre went on. ‘We need your resistance to the nectar. Turn yourself in and we’ll let your friends live, that’s a promise.’

  ‘We had enough of your promises back in the hospital,’ I shouted back.

  ‘I admit, we got off on the wrong foot,’ Panettierre said, not missing a beat. ‘But we don’t have to resort to surgery. There are other ways. Please, Zee, at least talk to me.’

  ‘Can any of you drive?’ asked Sam.

  ‘I can,’ said Zee.

  ‘Yeah, me too,’ said Lucy. ‘Why?’

  ‘She’s not going to let us go,’ he went on. ‘Any of us, even if we do what she says.’

  ‘You think?’ asked Simon, his voice laced with sarcasm.

  ‘The only important thing is that we get you to Furnace,’ said the blacksuit. ‘I don’t know why, but it’s the right thing to do.’

  ‘You sure about that, Sam?’ I asked, meeting his eye.

  ‘I don’t know whether he’s going to kill you, or you’re going to kill him. All I know is that for some reason the two of you meeting is the only way this war is going to end. If that doesn’t happen, if she takes you, then nobody wins, everybody dies.’

  ‘Zee?’ yelled Panettierre. ‘I’m going to give you to the count of five, then we’re coming to get you. And trust me, you don’t want us to come and get you. Because we can do this the easy way or the hard way, Zee. And if we do it the hard way, we don’t actually need you alive.’

  ‘Maybe I should just go with her?’ Zee said. ‘Then maybe she’ll let you leave. You can find Furnace and end this, get back in time to save me. Yeah?’

  I’ll come for you. I’d spoken those words a lifetime ago, to Donovan, the night the blood watch had dragged him off. I’d allowed him to be taken and he’d died. I wasn’t going to let the same thing happen to Zee. And I wasn’t the only one.

  ‘No way,’ said Lucy. ‘I won’t let them put their knives anywhere near you.’

  Everybody ignored Simon’s gentle wolf whistle.

  ‘One,’ yelled Panettierre from outside. The man with the rifle peered at us through the enormous scope. Other soldiers were doing the same, a flurry of laser sights dancing around the truck, reminding me of the red flecks inside Furnace’s nectar. The thought was making my blood churn, my body powering up, ready for combat.

  ‘So what do we do?’ I said. ‘Charge at them?’

  ‘No,’ whispered Sam. ‘You can’t risk it. I’m gonna go out there, create a diversion. One of you two needs to take the wheel.’

  ‘Two,’ said Panettierre.

  ‘Head for that shop there,’ Sam continued. ‘The car showroom. The glass front shouldn’t give you any problems, if you’re going fast enough you might be able to punch clean out the back. Then just floor it, get out of the city, get away from her.’

  I nodded. It wasn’t much of a plan, but I sure couldn’t think of anything better. The chances were we were all about to get shot to pieces, but the alternative was being back inside the hospital getting sliced and diced. I pictured Zee on the operating table, scalpels in his skin, Panettierre’s scientists taking samples. It was almost too much to bear and I reached out, grabbed him with my left hand.

  ‘We can do this,’ I said.

  ‘Three.’

  ‘Why don’t you come with us?’ I asked Sam. ‘You’ll die out there.’

  ‘If I don’t distract them, we’ll all die,’ he said. ‘This way at least you might just have a chance.’

  Zee reached for Lucy’s hand and she took Simon’s. Then Simon reached out and grabbed Sam’s shoulder. The blacksuit clamped his fingers over it, squeezing gently.

  ‘Good luck,’ Simon said. ‘Man, I never thought I’d be saying that to a suit.’

  ‘Four,’ shouted Panettierre. ‘Come on, Zee, time’s almost up.’

  ‘You too,’ said Sam. Then he stuck the rumbling truck in gear, holding his hand out of the window. Zee was already scrambling into the front, ready to take the wheel. Sam raised his voice, talking to Panettierre. ‘Okay, you win. Hold on, we’re sending him out.’

  I don’t know how they spotted the lie. I guess we were stupid to underestimate Panettierre. But the moment Sam opened the door, swinging his body round to exit the truck, the windscreen imploded.

  Sam thumped back into his seat, the bullet passing right through his head, missing Lucy by a hair’s breadth, leaving a gaping hole in the back of the truck. A mist of nectar bloomed, painting the world black. I realised there were screams coming from the back of the truck, Lucy and Simon all shouting at me to get down. I ducked as the man fired again, another bullet ripping off the top of the seat where my head had been.

  Zee threw himself over Sam’s lifeless body, slamming his fists down onto the pedals. The engine groaned, feeling like it was about to cut out, then it jolted forward, heading straight for the trucks.

  ‘The wheel!’ yelled Zee. I reached out and turned it, trying to remember where the shop was. I heard the crack of rifle fire, felt the vehicle buck as another bullet hit us. I risked pushing my head up, a gale howling through the broken windscreen, making my eyes water. The shop was dead ahead, and I didn’t even have time to shout out a warning as we barrelled right through the window. Broken glass sheared into the cab, the truck still accelerating as Zee floored it with his fist. We bounced off a car, then I was hurled against the dashboard as we detonated through the other side of the shop.

  The truck slowed but it didn’t stop, hauling itself over the pile of rubble and debris that had once been the shop’s back wall. I let go of the wheel, hoisting Zee out of the footwell and helping him get upright next to what was left of Sam. The truck stalled as he let go of the pedals but he started the engine on the move, revving hard, ploughing us across a small park.

  The rest of us looked back, peering through the ragged gaps in the truck to see a tank pushing its way through the remains of the shop. But it was too slow, holding back the rest of Panettierre’s fleet, letting us bounce up a grassy verge onto a road. Zee took the first turn he came to, then the next, and the next, and by the time we were skidding around the fourth corner, all of us sick to our stomachs, the rumble of the army was out of earshot.

  I reached past Zee, opening the driver’s door.

  ‘Sorry, Sam,’ I said, pushing him out. It didn’t feel right, leaving him like this. But what else was I supposed to do? Find a nice spot and bury him? He hit the road with a thump, quickly rolling out of sight. The truck felt a lot emptier without him, and for a minute or so we were all quiet.

  ‘The motorway, right?’ said Zee as we passed a sign. He swung onto a roundabout – the same one we’d taken yesterday – and a few seconds later we were speeding down the hard shoulder again, the pain back in the middle of my forehead.

  ‘We lose them?’ he said. I looked out of the window, the road behind us clear. But I could see black specks against the overcast sky, the helicopters, probably tracking us.

  ‘She’s never going to let us go,’ said Simon, obviously noticing the same thing.

  ‘Good,’ I said, sitting back in my seat, the cool wind on my face doing little to calm the fire in my blood.

  ‘Good?’ Simon asked. ‘How is it good? She’ll follow us to the ends of the earth if she has to.’

  ‘She doesn’t have to follow us to the ends of the earth,’ I said. ‘She only needs to follow us to the island.’
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  I thought of it, of the creatures I’d seen on it, the berserkers that patrolled the cliffs. And I thought of Furnace, waiting there for me. He wouldn’t let Panettierre harm us. He’d unleash his forces, turning her soldiers to meat, pounding their bones into the dirt. Let her come after us. This time she would receive no mercy.

  ‘And what happens when we get to the island?’ Lucy asked.

  I smiled, so hard that my cheeks hurt.

  ‘That’s where my army is.’

  Dead Air

  The motorway seemed to go on for ever, an endless scar that stretched from the city out across the land beyond. After ten minutes the office blocks began to grow smaller, from thirty storeys to twenty, to ten, until the buildings we passed were barely taller than houses. We drove through the southern boroughs without seeing a single sign of life, as if something had reached down and scooped up every man, woman and child in the entire area. We didn’t see many corpses either, although we could smell them, the air heavy with the stench of the dead.

  The truck reeked too, the inside slick with nectar, and after twenty minutes Zee pulled us off the motorway into a service station.

  ‘Can’t take this any more,’ he said, gagging. ‘I think I’m sitting on that blacksuit’s brains.’

  He popped open the door, stepping out and taking a deep, shuddering breath.

  ‘Hold up,’ I called after him. ‘We don’t know it’s safe.’

  I clambered out of the truck, scanning the neighbourhood for rats. There were hundreds of blood-coloured footprints across the forecourt, like some kind of morbid dance step routine, tattered scraps of clothing seeming to waltz this way and that, pulled by the playful breeze. It gave me the creeps, but I couldn’t see any sign of danger.

  ‘Just be quick, okay?’

  Zee waved my comment away, running towards a small group of cars parked next to the shop. I saw him peering inside each one, looking for keys.

 
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