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       Execution, p.20

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  It is you because you remembered, he said.

  Then, with an almighty crack, his head crumbled into itself, his face breaking into a hundred pieces, drifting to the stone like snow and ash. And with his final words I saw the rest of his story, his memories now mine, flooding into me with the last few drops of blood.

  In that second I lived an entire life, Alfred Furnace’s life.

  I was back in the orchard, feeling what the young Furnace felt as he drank the blood of the stranger, filled with a power he was barely old enough to comprehend. I charged with him through the trees, back towards his village, with the mind of an animal and the strength of a god. That cloud of dark energy surrounded him, the stranger somehow superimposed over Furnace’s body, looking like he was haemorrhaging black mist into the air. He tore through his own people with such ferocity that I could feel the bile rise in my throat. His viciousness left nothing behind but an island of severed limbs in an ocean of blood.

  It was only when he finally found the corpse of his brother, József, that he seemed to emerge from his bloodlust. I watched him drop down onto his knees beside the boy, felt his horror, his shock as he realised that his veins now ran with the blood of his sibling’s murderer. He reached out, cradling the dead body, rocking back and forth and howling so loud that his breath threatened to extinguish the fires which had started in the village.

  It does not want anger, I heard Furnace’s voice in my head, the boy’s voice, as if he were here too watching a replay of his life. It is not enough for it to possess a mindless creature bent on destruction. It needs somebody who can remember, somebody who will never forget the child they once were. It needs you to be able to keep control.

  ‘I don’t understand,’ I said.

  The moment I saw József I remembered, Furnace said. I remembered who I was. József would never have wanted me to be like this; it was the memory of him that stopped me from becoming a berserker, or worse. The stranger’s blood gave me power, but it was the memories of József, of my old life, which let me control it for so long, and to make it even stronger over the centuries. You are the same, are you not?

  ‘What do you mean?’

  Furnace’s lifeline sped up, so fast I could barely follow it – I saw him hiding out in a forest, years spent by himself as he tried to understand what was happening to him; I saw him spurned and cast out by the people he encountered, the men and women who attacked him without question, sensing the evil inside him, then the armies who declared war on what they saw as a devil. The battle I had seen before, in my dreams, was but one of many, I realised. Tens of thousands had tried to kill Furnace, and they had all paid with their lives.

  I saw the barn, the boy who was being kicked to death by the posse of howling adults. I watched again as Furnace shared his blood with the kid, the boy taking his revenge on his attackers. This was the first of Furnace’s children, those few droplets from his master’s vein multiplying the boy’s strength a hundredfold. I watched as, only two days later, the same kid died, the undiluted poison wreaking havoc on his flesh.

  Most people cannot handle the blood, Furnace said. It is too much for them, it breaks them. I survived because it was not just some of the stranger’s blood inside me, but all of it – the stranger himself dwelling in my body, in my mind. And it was because I remembered my life, my name, because I had kept my mind, that he could use me. You, like me, still remember. That is what it wants, Alex, because if the host remembers nothing of the world it came from it is no more use to the stranger than a dog.

  More flash-forwards, Furnace older now, trying to find a way to share his blood with other children without killing them. I saw countless victims become rats. Furnace commanded them as his personal army, their deformed bodies hidden beneath chain mail and armour, unstoppable in battle but never living much more than a week. A few survived, still growing, starting to change into berserkers, but even these would eventually fall apart before the process could complete, their bodies swelling uncontrollably until they simply burst.

  Decades passed, Furnace growing richer as he conquered his enemies, reducing entire cities to dust. Then the scene changed and I was in an old-fashioned laboratory, watching a bearded man working with beakers full of black blood. The stranger was still there, part of Furnace, his featureless face smiling and yet not smiling, watching intently as the man worked.

  It was in Vienna, more than a century ago, that I created the nectar, Furnace said. I found a way to dilute the blood, to replicate its effects without causing certain death.

  I watched as the man in my vision pricked his finger with a needle, a tiny bead of blood dropping into a container of clear liquid. Instantly the fluid began to cloud, until it looked like a vat of oil filled with tiny golden flecks. I recognised it, the nectar that the warden and his wheezers had used back inside the prison.

  He filled a syringe from the container and injected it into a child. The kid, the guinea pig, bucked and thrashed as the poison entered his veins, but he remained human. Days passed, the boy growing stronger, bigger. When his expanding body threatened to split his skin, Furnace performed surgery, patching him up with grafts and muscles salvaged from a fresh corpse until, maybe a week later, I recognised him as a blacksuit. A Soldier of Furnace.

  This was the first time I managed to harness the nectar’s power successfully, I heard Furnace say. My soldiers were strong, yes, and fast, able to heal themselves of most injuries. But they only had the nectar, they only had a fraction of the power of the stranger’s blood. Any more and they would simply become monsters. They would lose their minds. They were good soldiers, yes, but none could become my heir. The blood would kill them.

  Another gut-churning leap forward in time, Furnace much older now, his face so gaunt beneath his beard that he could have been a walking corpse. He was standing inside a bunker, surrounded by young men, teenagers. They were all dressed in long black coats, red swastikas emblazoned on their armbands, a bandolier of needles strapped to their chests, gas masks concealing their faces. I could see their eyes, though, as black as coal. Whoever these men were, they had consumed the nectar, and it had already kept them alive far longer than they deserved.

  As my experiments progressed I found that some were immune to the nectar, he said. Or nearly so. Their new blood processed the atmosphere differently, the air they breathed setting off a chemical reaction that proved fatal. Many died before I discovered the cause, and the solution – to filter out nearly all of the oxygen using modified gas masks. I made them my scientists. They grew old with me, so old, forgetting everything but the desire to experiment, to create. I have heard you call them ‘wheezers’. Your friend Zee would make a suitable candidate …

  The room was full of cages, and I realised that I had been here before, in my dreams back inside the prison. Kids crouched in the shadows inside each container, their sad eyes fixed on the men around them, and on the pile of corpses in the corner.

  The problem was that I only had a limited supply of blood inside me, so could make only a small quantity of nectar. One or two soldiers a week. We almost developed a new nectar under Hitler, but he failed before we could finish. I offered him the chance to change, but he was too afraid. He was a weak man, Alex. Far weaker than you.

  Another scene I recognised: gas-masked men struggling through the mud carrying a stretcher, looking for the wounded, the nearly dead. I saw them carry off dozens of men, all of them screaming to be let back onto the battlefield, crying out to die. I saw Furnace himself, pulling a teenage boy from the blood and filth. I recognised the warden.

  He was to be my heir, he said, and I saw them working together, Furnace feeding Cross nectar until the warden’s eyes became a mirror image of his own twin vortexes. He drank of the nectar, consumed more of it than I believed possible, and yet he still remembered who he was, who he had been and where he had come from. I knew that one day I would pass my gift, my blood, to him.

  More images, changing too fast to make sense of, time
peeling away. I saw the construction of the tower in the city, then the prison being built, its purpose to create an endless supply of test subjects, the warden inside continuing the same experiments, all under his master’s supervision. By now Furnace was trapped here on the island, fixed into his infernal machine, his body wasted, decayed, but his mind as sharp as ever. I witnessed him and his wheezers creating the new breed of nectar, the one that could pass from mortal to mortal with just a bite, the one with the power to create the berserkers outside, the leviathans in the water.

  But, alas, Cross disappointed me. He could not keep his house in order. Where one failed, however, another succeeded. I found somebody else, somebody more deserving. Somebody who, like Cross, had consumed far more nectar than I thought possible, and yet who still remembered who he was.

  I saw myself, the boy I had once been – so human he was almost unrecognisable – the day I travelled down to Furnace in the elevator. I saw those doors opening to reveal the hell where I thought I would spend the rest of my life, the place in which I thought I would die. Donovan was there, leading me up the stairs, scowling. Then inside my cell, when his face had opened up and suddenly the prison hadn’t seemed so dark, so far underground. I saw it all, everything that happened, our attempts to escape, the day we made it back onto the streets, my fight with the warden in the tower, everything right up to this one ageless, endless second.

  We are the same, you and I, said Furnace. We were both accused of a murder we didn’t commit, we were both sentenced to death for that crime, and we were both given a chance to right that wrong, to take revenge on the world that had condemned us. It was necessary for your friend Toby to die so that you might share those emotions with me. It is these similarities which led us to each other. Given a choice, of course, I would never hand over the gift. But I do not know how much longer I have – it may be another hundred years, it may be another hour – and if I die without passing on the blood then everything will have been for nothing.

  I had a vision of myself as I was right now, strapped to the machine, the stranger’s blood pumping through me. My entire body seemed to radiate darkness, waves of absence ebbing from my pores. And my eyes were vast portals, black holes of infinite nothingness.

  I wasn’t scared, though. I wasn’t excited either. There were no emotions, only the feeling that this was right, that I belonged. Another kid had been here, Alfred Furnace, a good kid, an innocent kid, and I was to replace him. Nothing in my life had ever seemed more logical, or made more sense.

  I wanted to make a world where there is no more weakness, Furnace said. I still do. A world where a boy like me can never be nailed to a tree and slaughtered, where a boy like you can fight back against those who attack him. A place where there is only strength, where all are equal, where all fight on the same side. Do that for me, Alex. Finish this.

  The boy I had once been, the boy Furnace had once been, would both have seen the twisted logic of that argument for what it was, would have understood that what really drove Furnace was the stranger in his veins, a creature of evil which wanted only to wreak destruction upon humanity, to turn life to rot. But the stranger’s blood was too powerful, its cry for power too loud, and that understanding was obliterated from my mind.

  ‘I will,’ I said. ‘I promise.’

  And even as I made one promise, I honoured another. I could sense Alfred Furnace hanging on somewhere inside me, a trace of him left in the blood he had given me – just a boy terrified of the end, of what might come next. Then I felt him leave, my body shuddering as the last of his consciousness fled. I had seen his whole life, centuries of it, flash by in an instant, and it ended just as quickly.

  Furnace was dead. I had killed him.

  And I had taken his place.

  The Gift

  Furnace was gone, leaving me alone with the creature from the orchard.

  I could feel him there, like a weight inside my head, his blood in my veins like puppet strings, as though he could make me do anything he wanted. Furnace had argued against injustice, but the stranger did not care about right or wrong. He told me so without words. All he wanted was to watch the world burn.

  AND YOU WILL TOO, he said.

  I concentrated on the power of the stranger’s blood. It surged inside me, setting every nerve ending alight, making me feel like I could snap my fingers and stop time, cut the stars from the heavens. I was still strapped to the machine inside the chamber, I knew that much, but I was also in countless other places. I could see a thousand different sights, smell so many different scents, could hear all the world at once and make sense of everything.

  I knew what was happening. I was inside the head of every single being with nectar in its veins, from the wheezers who stood in this very room to the blacksuits who waged war on the mainland, from the berserkers on the island above me to the leviathans in the ocean, even the rats, so many of them. I could sense Simon there too, his fear, his hysteria, as the army continued their attack.

  This was the true gift, I realised. I couldn’t just see these things – the blacksuits, the berserkers, the wheezers – I was them. The stranger’s blood, my blood now, flowed inside them. They were mine to do with as I pleased.

  ‘It’s okay,’ I said, directing the message to Simon. I could feel the shift in his emotions when he heard me, first disbelief, then hope breaking through the despair like a starburst. He replied, but I had already moved on. I could see the island from dozens of different viewpoints at once, the effect dizzying, like looking into a kaleidoscope. The soldiers had broken out of the trees, still mowing down the motionless berserkers with their weapons. I felt those bullets as if it was me who was being shot, the sudden flash of pain cutting through the numbness inside my mind, filling me with rage.

  They would pay for that.

  I ordered the berserkers to attack, feeling the nectar begin to pound in their hearts, their thoughts turning to murder as their paralysis was broken. I followed one, watching from inside its head as it bounded over the fractured rock towards two Marines in camouflage. They saw it coming, firing their weapons, but it was too late. I could feel its strength as it lashed out, its claws spearing one of the soldiers through his torso, wrapping its jaws around the other man’s arm, the sensation making me feel like I was crunching ice cubes.

  At the same time I directed six more berserkers towards the tree line, seeing through all their eyes at once, feeling as though their feet were my own as they stampeded. One fell, caught by a mortar blast, the sudden darkness of its vision, the gaping emptiness of its thoughts, throwing me for a second. But the others made up for their fallen brother, laying into their enemies with a ferocity that made the ground tremble.

  The soldiers were panicking at this sudden onslaught, falling back, their faces warped by fear. I scanned the retreating crowds, looking for Panettierre, but I couldn’t see her anywhere. It didn’t matter. She could wait. There was no place for her to hide, not now.

  A jet roared overhead and suddenly the island turned to flame as its missile struck, the effect like a volcano erupting. The inferno blazed over the rock between the trees and the mansion, eradicating everything which stood there. I heard the berserkers scream inside my head, their voices those of the children they had once been. I could feel the heat, its touch unbearable.

  ‘Don’t be afraid,’ I commanded, trying to wipe the fear from their minds, trying to absorb the pain as the life ebbed from them. I talked to them as they died, telling them that they were going to a good place, that they would be safe there, and free. I don’t think they understood my words, but I could feel their relief at the sound of my voice, sensing that they weren’t alone, and that there was something better than this. I experienced their agony as if it was my own, but I accepted it, knowing that even though it felt as if I was dying over and over again I was safe inside the chamber.

  I retaliated instantly, commanding the rest of the berserkers into the trees, telling them to show no mercy. Blood flew, limbs
lopped off like felled branches, skulls broken, chests and stomachs pierced, throats chewed out. It was a sight from the very inner circle of hell, one that would have driven a mortal insane. But I was no longer mortal. I heard myself laugh grimly as I watched the carnage, the sound silent and yet deafening, those impossible howls a perfect soundtrack to the madness.

  Some of the soldiers had bolted, tripping down the steps back towards the dock. There were boats there, rising and falling in the tide, filling fast. But they wouldn’t provide a safe haven. I entered the head of a leviathan, feeling the cold water flow against its skin as it dived and somersaulted below the waves. It welcomed me with joy, relishing the chance to attack, and I watched through its dark eyes as it surged upwards, gaining speed, ramming the boat so hard that it cracked the hull with its skull.

  I saw the bodies falling overboard like I was watching from the bottom of a swimming pool, their thrashing forms silhouetted against the sky, their screams muted by the water. It all seemed to be happening in slow motion. The leviathan unfurled its spider-like arms, wrapping them around the flailing figures, pulling them into the depths where they would spend all eternity.

  More troops were moving in, two Chinook helicopters dropping towards the mansion side of the island, an Apache alongside them, its cannons tearing up anything that moved. I was running out of berserkers, the army’s firepower just too much.

  I remembered that the big one, the one we had encountered in the forest, was still stationed by the front door and I told it to attack. I watched through its eyes as it ran towards where the helicopters were landing, bullets thudding into its flesh, no more painful than mosquito bites. One of the choppers saw it coming, tried to take off, but the berserker was too quick. It threw itself at the open loading ramp as it left the ground, the soldiers there still fighting to free their weapons. In seconds it had slaughtered them all, squeezing through to the cockpit, leaving it looking like a butcher’s shop. The chopper spun, dropping like a stone, the berserker leaping out moments before the Chinook vanished over the edge. The beast didn’t even pause for breath, bounding towards the second helicopter as a plume of fire rose up behind it, the explosion causing a section of the cliff to crumble loose.

 
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