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       Execution, p.16

           Alexander Gordon Smith
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  ‘I’m going to see if they’ve got clothes in there,’ Lucy said as she hopped down from the back seat, running in the same direction as Zee. Simon stepped out after her, stretching his legs and his back and looking up into the sky.

  ‘They’re still following us, you know,’ he said, his silver eyes squinting. ‘I can hear them.’

  I could too, that same endless pulse of the helicopters. I lifted my left arm, trying to extend my new middle finger, but the stubby digit didn’t seem to want to rise. Simon saw what I was trying to do, lifting both middle fingers to the heavens and waving them up and down. I wondered if the chopper pilots were observing us, if they could see us from so far away. I saw the look of delight on Simon’s face as he did a little dance, his fingers held high, and I hoped Panettierre was watching.

  ‘How far behind do you think they are?’ I asked when he had calmed down.

  ‘Not far,’ he said. ‘I reckon they could easily have caught up with us by now, helicopters aren’t exactly slow. I think they might be holding back, seeing where we’re going. They could pick Zee up any time, but I guess they’re hoping you’ll lead them to Furnace.’

  I was thinking the same thing. In fact, I was counting on it.

  ‘You want food or anything?’ I asked him. ‘Because now’s your chance.’

  ‘Yes, sir,’ he said, saluting, and then he was legging it towards the shop.

  I walked over to Zee. He had managed to prise open the door of a friendly-looking people carrier and was fiddling with some wires he’d pulled out of the steering column.

  ‘How long?’ I asked. He grunted.

  ‘Five minutes, max,’ he said. ‘Then another couple to nab some fuel.’

  I nodded, leaving him to it and walking into the shop. The door was open, but the place was deserted. It was much bigger than it looked from the outside. Simon was filling a carrier bag with sweets and bottles of Coke, and I could see Lucy further in, browsing the small clothing section. I joined her, wondering if they’d have anything that was anywhere near big enough for me. I was still wearing the surgical gown from the hospital and it was drenched in blood, nectar and sweat.

  ‘This might fit,’ she said, reading my mind and holding up a green rain poncho. I took it from her. It wasn’t exactly the height of fashion, but it had to be better than what I had on now. She squatted down, rummaging in a pile of colourful trousers, eventually pulling out a pair that looked as if they would be tight on an elephant. ‘Thank god for the obesity epidemic,’ she went on, grinning. ‘These should do you just fine.’

  ‘Gee, thanks,’ I said. ‘I’m about to go and face the leader of an army of monsters that has torn the country, maybe the world, apart, and you want me to wear bright orange leggings and a lime green poncho?’

  Lucy shrugged, grabbing her own clothes and heading towards the toilets.

  ‘It could be worse; you might have had to face him wearing a dress.’

  Her laughter echoed after her, contagious, and I was chuckling as I carried my own bundle back towards Simon. He was stuffing his face full of jelly babies, watching Zee through the window. I didn’t really want to ask him for help, but what choice did I have? My new hands just weren’t designed for putting on clothes. I threw the pile onto a shelf by my side, then used the blade of my arm to slice open my gown, shaking the pieces to the floor and coughing gently.

  ‘Um …’ Simon said through a mouthful of sugar when he saw me standing there. ‘Is there something you’re not telling me?’

  The words brought back another memory – me and Donovan standing in the chipping room back in Furnace Penitentiary, dressed only in our pants, using our overalls to smuggle the gas-filled gloves across the cave. The thought made me smile, which was probably the wrong thing to do as my expression seemed to make Simon even more nervous.

  ‘Quick,’ I said, glancing back towards the toilets. ‘I don’t want Lucy to come back out and see me butt naked.’

  ‘Yeah,’ said Simon, putting his bag of sweets to one side. ‘I didn’t really want to see you butt naked either.’

  He helped me put on the leggings first, trying not to look at the scars and wounds that criss-crossed my body like patchwork. I didn’t want to see them either, but it was impossible to turn away. In places, especially my stomach and chest where I’d received the worst injuries, my skin had hardened like Kevlar. In others, black veins pulsed visibly as the nectar pumped through them, the stretched flesh so taut that it looked as though it might split at any moment, spilling my innards out onto the shop floor. My limbs, too, were unrecognisable, my legs like tree trunks. But I was relieved to see that everything else downstairs remained just the way it should be. Simon was obviously noticing the same thing, commenting on it as he pulled the leggings up over my waist.

  ‘You’d think the nectar would have given you a bigger—’ was as far as he got before the toilet door opened and Lucy stepped out. She was wearing a black tracksuit and brand-new trainers, and when she saw us standing there she covered her eyes.

  ‘A little warning would have been nice,’ she said, quick-stepping across the shop and out the door. We laughed, Simon pulling the poncho out of the bag and getting me to bend down as he slotted it over my head. He had to make a couple of holes in the fabric so I could put my arms through, but other than that it fitted perfectly.

  ‘How do I look?’ I asked, wiggling my toes and wishing I could find some shoes as well. But at least I was in fresh clothes that didn’t reek of other people’s blood. Be thankful for small mercies, as my gran had always said.

  ‘You look like a carrot that’s having a bad hair day,’ Simon commented.

  ‘Thanks,’ I replied, leading the way back out of the shop.

  ‘Or a leprechaun on growth hormones.’

  ‘Okay, I get it, enough.’

  ‘Whose clothes were designed by a Muppet and sewn together by a blind Mexican monkey.’

  I shot him a look and he lifted his arms in surrender, grinning like a lunatic. Outside, Zee had managed to get the car started and was siphoning fuel from the van parked next to it. Lucy was sitting in the passenger seat playing with the radio. They both smirked when they saw my new outfit, but neither of them said anything. I climbed into the back, trying to get my arm inside without killing anybody. Eventually I had to lay it across my lap, the blade taking up the entire seat. Luckily there was another row behind me, and Simon eased himself into it. Static filled the car.

  ‘There’s nothing on the radio,’ said Lucy. ‘Not even an emergency broadcast or anything. Just dead air, everywhere.’

  We sat there and listened, the white noise like the whisper of a million dead. Every now and then I thought I made out a word in the relentless hiss, but it was always swallowed up before it could make any sense. It seemed to be growing louder, though, as if the dead knew we were listening, like they wanted to shiver through our radio back into the real world. I was glad when Lucy finally switched it off. There was a series of clanks from outside as Zee poured the stolen fuel into the car, then he was in the driver’s seat telling us all to buckle up.

  ‘Stay on the motorway?’ he asked.

  ‘Yeah, stay on the motorway,’ I replied. But it wouldn’t be for much longer. I could feel that hook inside the flesh of my thoughts, the pain more intense now, and I knew it was because we were closer. Another hour, maybe two or three, and we’d be there.

  We drove in silence for a while. The landscape outside the car seemed to demand it.

  I thought once we were out of the city the smoke would begin to clear, but it hung like a filthy blanket over the whole world. There weren’t many towns and villages along the way but even so there were countless reminders of the apocalypse. Literally thousands of cars lay abandoned on the tarmac, some smoking, others with luggage and bodies spilling out of them. A few had messages painted on the windscreens or roofs, all saying roughly the same thing:

  Still alive. Help us.

  But although we slowed down every ti
me we saw one, those messages all turned out to be wrong. There was nobody left breathing.

  At one point we passed a sign for the War Museum, another place I remembered loving when I was a kid. I remembered the tanks and the planes, the weapon displays inside, the guns and bazookas and grenades. We all looked at each other, thinking the same thing but knowing the same truth: weapons, no matter how many we had and how big they were, wouldn’t help us. Not where we were going.

  About half an hour later I felt the needles in my brain move, the headache sliding from the front of my skull to the left-hand side.

  ‘Time to get off the motorway,’ I said. ‘Take the next junction, we’re getting closer.’

  Zee followed my directions, speeding up the next slip road, following the signs for the port. We passed through half a dozen more villages, all deserted.

  ‘I don’t understand,’ said Lucy. ‘They can’t have killed everyone. How is that possible?’

  Nobody answered, even though we all knew. The nectar. It had torn through these communities like the plague. I tried to imagine what it had been like for the people here, seeing the monsters, the berserkers, outside on the street, watching them attack, turning the kids into bloodthirsty, feral beasts. I had seen friends morphed into mindless killers by Furnace’s poison, but I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be set upon by your own children, the horror of attempting to comfort your kids even as they tried to kill you, and that impossible choice: do you let them devour you, or do you kill them first? It was unthinkable.

  The worst thing we saw, by far, was when we drove past a school. We could see movement through the gates, Zee slowing down for a closer look.

  ‘There are kids in there,’ he said. ‘See them?’

  I saw them. They weren’t kids. They were all wearing uniforms, but their faces were twisted into grimaces, their mouths ringed with blood, their eyes gaping black pits. There were too many to count, all of them throwing themselves at the locked gates, stretching torn fingers out towards our car. A few tried to scrabble up the enormous fences but they just didn’t have the strength, dropping down onto their backs and squirming in the wet earth. They looked weak – ferocious, yes, but half starved. I remembered what Sam had said, that the nectar kept the rats alive for only so long. That was another small mercy, I guess, that those rats, those children, wouldn’t have to suffer their nightmare for much longer.

  ‘What do we do with them?’ Lucy asked from the passenger seat.

  ‘What can we do?’ Simon replied. ‘Let them out?’

  I looked at their faces, saw the children there beneath the masks of nectar. It seemed like that would be the kindest thing to do, the humane thing. At least then they wouldn’t die like animals in a cage. But it would be too dangerous. The moment that chain around the gates was broken they’d be upon us, not caring that we were their liberators. They only wanted to spread the nectar, spread their disease, and they’d overwhelm us in seconds.

  ‘If we leave them there then she will get them,’ spat Lucy. ‘That woman. She’ll put them all under the knife, the poor things.’

  ‘Come on,’ I said. ‘The sooner we get to Furnace, the sooner we can make the world normal again.’

  There was no conviction in my voice, though. It didn’t matter what happened when we got to the island. There would be no saving these kids, or the millions who had already been slaughtered. Things would never be normal again. We drove off, Lucy’s hand pressed against the glass so hard that her knuckles were white, her sobs concealing the dead and the dying behind a veil of condensation.

  Three more towns, another fifty-eight miles on the clock, and then the sea pulled itself up over the rooftops. The effect was so dramatic that at first I thought it really was rising, that slate-coloured ocean ready to churn across the land, wipe all this madness from sight. I would have welcomed it, even if it meant being dragged to the depths along with everything else.

  Zee followed the main road to the harbour. There were hardly any boats here and I saw that as a good sign – it meant that some people might have escaped. The compass of pain in my head had shifted again, and I told Zee to head down the coast. He did so, all of us gazing at the ocean, all of us thinking the same thing – that we could just go, that we’d be safer on the other side of that horizon. But none of us said it aloud.

  Fifteen minutes outside the harbour town the pain detonated, the sensation like a stun grenade going off inside my head. I screwed my eyes shut, seeing the island emerge out of the infinite brightness of my mind.

  ‘Stop the car,’ I yelled when I could remember how to speak. I blinked the spot of light from my vision as Zee pulled over to the side of the road. ‘I think this is it.’

  ‘No kidding,’ Simon replied, peering between the seats. I followed his gaze to see two blacksuits, sitting on a bench by the cliff like a couple of tourists. They stood when they saw us approach, their silver eyes brighter than the shrouded sun. One of them carried something in his right hand.

  ‘I don’t see any island,’ said Zee.

  Through the side window I could make out nothing except water. But there was no denying it, there was no escaping the fact that we had arrived. Because I could hear Furnace’s laughter in my head, louder than the idling engine, louder than the explosion of the waves as they struck the cliff below, louder than the pounding of my heart.

  We were here.

  The Island

  By the time Zee had switched off the engine the blacksuits were striding towards us. They were both wearing red armbands, the Furnace logo – three circles joined by a triangle of lines – emblazoned on them like a swastika. Neither of them looked armed.

  I opened the door, struggling out and extending myself to my full height. I was so much taller than the suits now. I thought back to the night I’d first met them, inside the house where Toby was shot, how they’d seemed like giants. Funny how your perspective can change.

  I let my bladed hand drop to my side, the black obsidian skin seeming to reflect the clouds overhead. Both the blacksuits hesitated when they saw how big I was, their pace slowing.

  ‘Alex Sawyer,’ said one, and compared to the echo of Furnace’s laughter his voice was little more than a whisper. Unlike the other suits, these two didn’t look at me with scorn and disrespect. If anything, their faces were shaped by awe. ‘It’s good to meet you at last, sir. This is for you.’

  He held out the bundle he was carrying, letting it unfurl from his scarred fist. It was a suit, a black one, and it had obviously been made specially for me because it looked like it was big enough for a polar bear.

  ‘No way,’ I spat as everybody else clambered out of the car behind me. ‘You seriously want me to wear that? No way.’

  ‘You won’t get to see him without it,’ the blacksuit said. ‘You may be his new general, but even you’ve got to follow his rules.’

  I thought about arguing some more, then decided it would be pointless. It was just a suit, after all. It didn’t have to mean anything. Besides, it had to be better than what I was already wearing. I didn’t really want to face Furnace in orange leggings and a poncho. I grabbed it, carrying it to the far side of the car, beckoning Simon for help.

  ‘Again?’ he asked incredulously, but he trotted over. It took us a while, but together we managed to get me dressed. All the while gulls swooped overhead, their cries reminding me of the river back in the city, that tide of corpses.

  ‘There,’ I said to the blacksuits, feeling their eyes on me, approving. The suit did feel good, despite the fact it was a gift from the man I was about to kill. It was soft against my skin, the material cut to exactly the right size for my new body – although I had no idea how they’d managed to make it. The blade of my right hand jutted out, the same shade of black as the cloth. ‘Happy? Now take me to Furnace.’

  ‘That’s why we’re here,’ said the other one. ‘You ready?’

  No, I said, but the word didn’t make it out of my head. The blacksuits weren’t w
aiting for an answer anyway, turning and walking across a small swathe of grass towards the edge of the cliff. There was a railing there, and what looked like a cast-iron staircase leading down.

  ‘My friends are coming too,’ I said.

  The blacksuits shrugged. ‘Their funeral.’

  I looked at Zee, then at Simon, and finally at Lucy.

  ‘You guys don’t have to do this,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what’s out there, I don’t know what will happen. Once we’re on that island the chances of any of us getting off it again are pretty slim.’

  ‘Don’t you mean non-existent?’ Simon said.

  ‘A billion to one,’ added Zee.

  ‘So, about the same as the odds of us surviving if you leave us on this cliff,’ said Lucy. I nodded, looking around. On the other side of the road was a gift shop and a fish-and-chip restaurant, and further down was a pub. It looked quiet here, but there was no guarantee it would stay that way. It could have been any seaside town across the country, and the thought reminded me of the day at the beach I’d spent with my mum and dad, the one in the photo they’d left for me. I wondered if they were watching me now, wherever they were.

  ‘Yeah, about the same,’ I said after a moment, turning back to them. The blacksuits were waiting by the stairs, showing no sign that they wanted us to hurry.

  ‘Besides, you can’t really be expected to take on Furnace without the big guns,’ said Zee, flexing those stick-like arms of his. I snorted out a laugh, another one. I don’t know why but I must have laughed more in the last twenty-four hours than I had in years. I guess if you lose your sense of humour then you may as well hand yourself over to the grim reaper and be done with it. And the bigger the nightmare, the louder the laughs need to be to keep yourself alive.

  ‘Well, what are we waiting for?’ said Simon. ‘Group hug?’

  I waved the suggestion away with a smile, walking towards the blacksuits. They stood to either side of the narrow staircase, letting me past. As soon as I reached the edge of the cliff the sheer drop beyond made my stomach lurch and my head spin. Although further out the sea looked calm, below me it thrashed and tore against the rock with a ferocity that reminded me of the rats. Each wave detonated with the sound of a bomb going off, a shrapnel of surf reaching twenty metres into the air, beads of saltwater pearling on my new suit.

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