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       Execution, p.2

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  I’d wait, bide my time until they pulled me close enough. Then I’d strike, too fast and too strong for them to stop. I ran my eyes up the black cord that rose from my stomach, then focused on the bottom of the chopper, the bird getting bigger as I drew close. I’d be there in seconds.

  A shape appeared from the hatch, a soldier leaning out over me, a harness holding him in place. He had a gun in his hands, and he aimed down the sights for no more than a second before pulling the trigger.

  Something thudded into my arm, no more painful than a nettle sting. I glanced at it, a growl already spilling from between my lips. It wasn’t a bullet. It looked more like a feather, a red plume sticking out just below my shoulder. The soldier fired again, and again, and again, a crimson forest sprouting over my torso and my neck.

  Smoke began to cloud my vision. Except I knew it wasn’t smoke. It wasn’t nectar either. It was something else, a creeping darkness that cut off the relentless glow of the sun, which blotted out the city, which left only the grinning face of the soldier as he was pulled back inside the helicopter.

  Let them take you, Furnace’s voice again, and even this was muted by the unbelievable, inescapable tiredness that had settled into my thoughts, into my bones. You will have your chance for revenge, I promise you that.

  Then the last scraps of daylight sputtered out like candles, and the world was no more.

  Watching

  My dreams led me to a place of infinite quiet.

  I stood in a forest, nothing but trees in every direction. Their gnarled trunks grew into finger-like branches that twisted and entwined overhead, so many of them that they almost blotted out the twilight sky above. Only a sliver of cold moonlight made it through, and by its silver touch I saw piles of rotting fruit on the damp ground. Apples, thousands, black-eyed crows picking at them as if they were corpses, worms wriggling through the decomposing flesh.

  Not a forest, then. An orchard.

  I knew this place. I had seen it before; not like this, but carved from stone. It was the orchard that had been replicated at the top of Furnace’s tower block, the one I had just been pulled from. Except back in that penthouse there had been a sculpture of a boy nailed to a trunk, the young Alfred Furnace, his stomach cut open. I scanned the trees before me – stretching off like an army of skeletons – but could see no sign of him.

  I tried to turn around but my head was locked, my body paralysed as so often happens in dreams. Panic rose from my stomach like vomit but I forced myself to swallow it back down. It’s only a dream, I told myself, even though I knew it was something more than that.

  The blanket of silence that cradled the orchard was so immense that it was almost a sound in its own right, a mute roar that I could feel against my ears as though I was deep underwater. The leafless branches swayed in the breeze, the birds fought and flapped between their feastings, but they made no noise. I couldn’t even hear my own breath, or feel my pulse.

  It was the fire that alerted me to their presence. The deep velvet shadows between the trees began to flicker gently, a ghostly dance of light and dark against the bark. Those forms gradually solidified into shapes that marched through the orchard, a procession of men and women, all holding flaming torches. Their clothes were like something from an old movie, the sort of thing peasants might have worn hundreds of years ago. Their faces were contorted with emotion – maybe fear, maybe anger, maybe both. And they held those torches against the encroaching night as if they were the only thing that stood between them and the devil.

  They marched before me, from right to left, and it was only when they were directly in front of me that I noticed two other figures in the crowd. Both were being carried – one on a wooden board, a wreath on his motionless stomach, the other struggling and screaming between two hulking men, his hands and feet bound. I recognised the second kid immediately, even though his grief-filled face was the exact opposite of the calm expression worn by the carving in the penthouse.

  It was Alfred Furnace, and he was no older than me.

  Several of the mob seemed to scour the area before settling on a large tree to my left. They ran towards it, planting their torches in the wet soil and ushering the rest of the group forward. The two men threw Furnace to the floor and the boy tried to squirm away, burrowing into the ground as if he could tunnel his way to safety. One of the women used a knife to cut open the twine around his wrists and ankles, but before he could make a run for it the men had hoisted him up again. They spun him round and one of them lashed out, slapping him across the cheek. There was still no sound, but my imagination was happy to provide one.

  I wanted to step out, to try and stop what was happening. I knew the boy was Furnace, but the way he cried for help, tears streaming down his filthy cheeks, his skinny arms held out towards a non-existent saviour – those weren’t the actions of a crazed psychopath, they were those of a terrified child. My body was still locked tight, however. I may as well have been one of the trees in the orchard, rooted to the ground and held fast by the branches of my brothers.

  The biggest of the men lifted the boy against the tree, pinning him there while more of the crowd surged forwards. Two women grabbed one of Furnace’s arms, bending it back around the trunk, while another put a huge iron nail against his palm. All I could do as they struck the first blow was close my eyes.

  When I dared look again I saw the crowd step back, leaving Furnace suspended from the bark, crucified. He hung there in agony, his legs scrabbling for purchase, unable to find the ground, blood streaming down his arms, pattering on the crushed fruit of the orchard floor.

  The men and women gently laid the corpse of the other boy down between them and the tree. The dead boy was younger than Furnace, maybe nine or ten, but their faces were similar enough for me to know that they must have been brothers. One woman knelt by his side, howling into the boy’s chest, and when she looked up at Alfred Furnace her expression was so warped it was almost inhuman. She hissed at him, the way a cat hisses at an enemy, and even though I couldn’t hear her, or understand the word her lips formed, the dream interpreted it for me.

  Murderer.

  The emotion in the crowd swelled, two dozen people all shouting the same accusation. Somebody threw something at Furnace, the missile bouncing off his shoulder and leaving a mushy stain there. Seconds later the air was full of rotten fruit, a storm of apples that pelted the boy across every inch of his body. He sobbed, snivelled, begged, but his words were as silent to the crowd as they were to me.

  I don’t know how long the assault went on for. Time has no meaning in dreams. But when the men and women grew tired the mountain of fruit was piled almost as high as the boy’s feet. It had knocked the last of the fight from him, and he slumped motionlessly against the tree, his skin darkening with bruises, only the lazy blinks of his eyes letting me know he was still conscious.

  A man stepped forward, dressed in black and holding a leather-bound book. He placed a comforting hand on the woman’s head as he addressed the young Alfred Furnace.

  You have committed a crime of unthinkable hatred and malice, he said, the words playing voicelessly in my head. The slaying of thine own flesh and blood is the gravest sin, and you have been found guilty. The man opened up the book – the Bible, I realised – and began to read. ‘Where is Abel, thy brother?’ And he said, ‘I know not: am I my brother’s keeper?’ And he said, ‘What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.’ The priest, if that’s what he was, snapped the book shut. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand.

  I could see the crowd murmuring, nodding their heads, some spitting onto the soil. The priest walked slowly to the tree, placing a finger under the boy’s chin and lifting his head until their eyes met.

  The Lord placed a mark on Cain to ensure he would not die. For his punishment was to wander the world tormented by the knowledge of his sin. But you shall not be allowed
to wan-der. Your fate lies here, in this wood. Your punishment shall be death. Do you have anything more to say?

  Alfred Furnace opened his mouth, a worm of blood slithering over his chin. His face was swelling, his eyes watery blue pools in his head. Even in the time I had spent in Furnace, amongst those kids who cried and wailed and groaned every hour of every day, I had never seen somebody look so weak, or so scared. His lips shaped a word, maybe two or three, but I couldn’t make them out. The priest let the boy’s head drop and stepped away, holding his hands out to the crowd.

  He makes no protest, he said. Justice has been done, let us leave him to the wolves.

  Seemingly satisfied, the crowd began to shuffle away, retreating into the woods with their torches. The last few to go carefully lifted the dead boy back onto their shoulders, disappearing between the trees until the only people to remain were Furnace and the woman. She stood before him, her shoulders lurching up and down as she mourned. The boy somehow found the strength to look up at her, and once again he shaped those same words, words I could make no sense of.

  Her reaction was as shocking as it was brutal. She pulled a knife from the hem of her skirt, a wicked blade that caught the moonlight, and in a flash of silver and red she dragged it across the boy’s stomach, side to side. The boy looked down at the wound, more in shock than in pain, and when he spoke I heard the word all too clearly.

  Mother?

  The woman threw the knife to the floor, staggering back as though she couldn’t believe what she had done. She crossed her fingers over her chest, then turned and bolted.

  As impossible as it was, the orchard seemed even quieter than it had to begin with, as still and as silent as if it was a photograph. Except I could see the blood gushing to the floor, the steam rising into the cold air, could see the pulse in the boy’s neck grow weaker. I don’t know how he found the strength to do it, but he managed to lift his head once again, and this time he looked right at me.

  I didn’t do it, he said, the words crystal clear even though I knew it wasn’t my language he spoke. Those pale blue eyes caught the light from the remaining torches, burning with a raging fire despite the fact he must have been right on the edge of death. I wanted to go to him, to hold out my hand to him, to cradle him, but it was hopeless. The only thing I could do was listen to his voiceless denials, to believe him. I could do that, I would do that.

  ‘I know,’ I said, the words only in my head. And I did know. The kid, Alfred Furnace, was telling the truth. He seemed to manage a smile, nothing more than a tremor of his thin, blue lips, two final words tumbling out alongside his dying breaths.

  Thank you.

  The Hospital

  For a second – a single, terrifying second – I thought I had woken up in Furnace Penitentiary.

  I was lying in a cell, walls of white-painted concrete and a door of solid iron barricaded shut. A single bulb hung from the ceiling, filling the room with blinding light. My body had been wrapped in black wire from neck to toe, so much of it that I felt as though I had been cocooned. I tried moving, but just like in my dream I was powerless, my binds fixed to a bed or table beneath me. Cables slid out from various parts of my body, connected to half a dozen machines along the left-hand wall of the cell, all beeping gently as if discussing the news of my waking.

  It took me a moment to work out that I wasn’t in the prison infirmary, a moment which seemed endless. I looked up and back, seeing a window in the wall behind my head. It was barred, but the dust-specked glow that streamed through came from the sun dangling right outside. Its golden touch filled me with relief, my heart calming and my muscles relaxing. I was above ground, I wasn’t in Furnace, I was safe.

  There was a camera mounted in the corner of the room and it must have been switched on because a series of thunderclaps echoed out from the door, bolts being slid back and locks being opened. It swung inwards, and I expected to see blacksuits enter, or soldiers, armed to the teeth and ready to attack. Instead, the person who stepped cautiously into the room was a woman in her forties, dressed like a doctor, a delicate silver chain swinging from her neck. Her greying blonde hair was cropped short, and her crinkled blue gaze was the kind that instantly makes you feel welcome. She was carrying a canvas chair, unfolding it beside my bed then perching on the edge, never taking her eyes off me.

  She opened her mouth to speak, then hesitated, her arms reaching up to the necklace. She unclasped it, leaning forward, and I saw the small pendant attached to it, a man carrying another man over a river. I should know what this is, I thought to myself, but the memories just wouldn’t come. The woman deftly clipped the chain around my neck, slipping it under the wire so that the cool silver lay against my chest.

  ‘We found this in your pocket,’ she said, and I noticed that her accent was the same as somebody else’s I once knew, a boy called Zee. I tried to pull an arm free but the wire gripped me like a million fingers, refusing to grant me an inch. The frustration boiled up my throat and I heard myself growling, a throbbing snarl that filled the room like liquid. The woman didn’t flinch.

  ‘It’s okay,’ she went on, resting her hand on my shoulder. ‘Please just relax, there’s nothing to be afraid of. I wanted to give it back to you myself, a sign of good faith. I wanted you to know that you’re safe here.’

  I was too confused and too angry to take in what she was saying. What right did she have to keep me here? Didn’t she know who I was, what I was capable of? The nectar was a growing storm inside me, I could feel it in my veins, giving me more power than this woman could ever comprehend. And yet when I tried to move, I couldn’t. I thrashed my head back and forth, dirty spittle streaming from between my lips. The woman shook her head, frowning, as if my pain was her pain. It had been so long since anybody had looked at me like that, with kindness, that it confounded me.

  ‘Your name is Sawyer, isn’t it?’ the woman asked.

  Sawyer didn’t sound right. I delved into the chaos inside my head, pulling something loose from the nectar.

  ‘Alex,’ I whispered, coughing. The word felt alien, sitting uncomfortably on my tongue.

  The woman took something from her pocket, a small canteen. She unscrewed the cap and held it to my lips, letting a trickle into my mouth. I swallowed, the sensation blissful.

  ‘My name is Colonel Alice Panettierre,’ she said as she replaced the cap on the canteen and sat down. ‘I’m in the army, as you can probably guess, but I’m also a doctor. I’m here to help you.’

  Her voice was warm, soothing, almost hypnotic.

  ‘You’re lucky to be alive, Alex. The Air Force had orders to destroy that tower and everything in it. Everything. It was only when we saw you screaming at us – screaming words at us – from the spire that we issued a capture order. We were lucky to get you before the building collapsed.’

  I tugged at my binds again, tired of hearing her speak. I had a job to do. I had to find Furnace and kill him, and she was just another obstacle in my way. Another expendable obstacle. She rested a hand on my arm, wrapped tight, and shook her head.

  ‘Don’t struggle,’ she said. ‘This is shipping wire. It’s the stuff that holds up transporter crates when they’re being hauled off the boats. It can withstand tension of over a hundred tonnes, and we’ve wrapped you pretty tight. But it’s there for your own safety. Those poor limbs of yours, they’re pretty dangerous weapons. We tied you up so you wouldn’t accidentally hurt yourself.’ I tried again to move and she looked at me like a mother looks at a naughty child. ‘Although if you keep struggling like that then I can’t guarantee it.’

  She stood, walking around the bed to one of the machines and staring at the read-out.

  ‘Your health is good,’ she reported. ‘Which is incredible, really, when you think about it. You had a massive hole in your chest, another through your stomach, and an X-ray showed no fewer than fourteen bullets in your body. Every single one of your major organs has taken a pummelling, and yet they’re all still functioning. In fact
, they’re operating at a higher level than anything we’ve ever seen.’

  She turned back to me, sitting on the edge of my bed with her hands in her lap.

  ‘I guess what we’d like you to do for us is explain how that’s possible.’

  It took me a while to dredge up the right words, the simple sentence seemingly the most difficult thing I’d ever had to string together.

  ‘I’m just lucky, I guess.’

  Panettierre smiled with her eyes, but I could sense something else there. A flicker of impatience, maybe.

  ‘It’s good to know you’ve still got your sense of humour,’ she said after a moment. ‘God knows we all need one, especially at the moment.’ She leant forward, putting her hand against my brow. Her skin was cool, her touch calming. ‘We’ve spoken to your friends; they’ve told us quite a bit already.’

  ‘Friends?’ I asked, searching for memories. But they were lost beneath the nectar like photographs submerged in tar.

  ‘Zee Hatcher,’ she explained. ‘And the girl, Lucy Wells. They were the ones who found us, who told us about the tower. We picked up another one, too, Simon Rojo-Flores. They all told us the same story, and I’m wondering whether you will too.’

  ‘Furnace,’ I said, spitting the word out like a mouthful of rancid meat. ‘This is all his doing.’

  ‘Alfred Furnace?’ the woman replied. ‘The man the prison was named after, right?’ I nodded again, watching her cross the room. She checked a machine as she spoke. ‘Well, this is what we’re finding hard to take in. Because there is no Alfred Furnace, not in any of our records. Sure, there’s the Furnace Foundation, the people who set up the penitentiary, who owned the tower – owned buildings all over the place, actually. But the man? He can’t be alive, Alex. As far as we can tell, Alfred Furnace was born centuries ago.’

 
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