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       Execution, p.23

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  I opened my eyes, bringing myself back into the chamber. Zee, Lucy and Simon still stood there, looking up at me expectantly.

  ‘Any luck?’ asked Lucy.

  ‘They won’t listen to me,’ I said. ‘They won’t stop fighting.’

  Zee ran his hands through his hair, deep in thought.

  ‘If they won’t give up …’ he said, leaving the end of the sentence hanging. He didn’t finish, he didn’t need to. I knew what he meant.

  I thought back to the berserker from the city, the fleshy one that Panettierre had tortured and shot after we’d fled from my house. Trapped, scared, alone. I had put it out of its misery, ushered it out of life. And it had welcomed it, for a fleeting second it had remembered who it had once been, it had sloughed off the horrific shell that Furnace had given it and it had been free. It had died a child instead of a monster. That kid had died as himself. I hoped that was better than never remembering. It had to be better.

  Zee seemed to read my mind, because he nodded.

  ‘Can you do that?’ he asked. ‘Can you do that for them all?’

  I didn’t know. Last time it had been one berserker, on the very edge of death. But thousands of them, blacksuits and wheezers and rats too? Surrender may have been impossible for these soldiers, but the thought of freedom was a far more powerful thing.

  I was about to answer, but a sad, quiet laugh cut me off. I looked at Simon, leaning against a pillar, and suddenly I realised what would happen if I went ahead with my plan. Zee did too, because I heard him curse.

  ‘It’s different with you, though, isn’t it?’ he asked Simon. ‘You’re too … human.’

  Simon shrugged.

  ‘I don’t think it works that way,’ he said, looking up at me. ‘Right, Alex?’

  ‘I don’t know. I mean, Furnace never managed to control you while we were in the prison, or after we escaped, did he?’

  Simon looked uncertain, lost in his memories.

  ‘I … I’m not sure,’ he stuttered. ‘I don’t think so. But …’

  ‘But what?’ asked Zee. Simon glanced at him, almost ashamed.

  ‘Something told me you guys were locked in solitary,’ he confessed. ‘It wasn’t that we’d seen you being taken there. I just knew it. I was never really sure how, but I guess it makes sense. I guess he was telling me.’

  ‘Why?’ I asked.

  ‘Because he wanted you to escape,’ Simon went on. ‘And he wanted you alive. And that’s what I’ve been doing, Alex, helping you escape and keeping you alive.’

  There was no point in arguing. Simon had been Furnace’s puppet the same way I was. He’d come here thinking he was acting under his own free will, but the truth of it was we’d been controlled and manipulated in exactly the same way.

  ‘It doesn’t mean you’ll die,’ I said, grasping at straws. ‘You’re not that far gone.’

  I tried to sound convincing, but in my heart I knew that if I sent out a command for Furnace’s creations to let go of life then the sheer scale of what would happen would affect every living thing with nectar inside it – the blacksuits, the berserkers, the rats, and in all probability Simon too. It was a risk I wasn’t willing to take.

  ‘We find another way,’ I said. ‘There must be something else we can do to end this.’

  But the silence that followed revealed my statement as false. Simon laughed again, shaking his head.

  ‘There is no other way,’ he said. ‘You know that, I know that. Furnace knew it too, remember?’

  ‘What do you mean?’ Lucy asked, wiping a tear from her cheek. Simon glanced at me again, his eyes unable to hold my own blazing portals for longer than a second.

  ‘The vision,’ he said. ‘Back in the underground station in the city, when that berserker grabbed us.’

  I had seen the tower, Furnace calling to me, asking me to be his soldier in the new world. It was weird, thinking that he had been speaking from this very room, the same way I now communicated with his creations.

  Simon hadn’t received that message, though. His had been different.

  ‘Furnace told me that I had no place in the future. You remember? He told me that if I helped you, then I’d die. He told me that if I helped you, then sooner or later it would be you that killed me.’

  I shook my head, my thoughts reeling. Furnace had obviously assumed that by the time we’d got to the tower in the city Simon’s role in his plan would be over. Furnace had wanted me to fight the warden alone – even though in the end I’d needed Simon’s help after all. Had Furnace changed his mind when he saw me losing the fight? Had he guided Simon to me, made him shove a grenade into the warden’s mouth in order to save my life? It was impossible to know.

  I guess Furnace had also believed that once I was here, once I’d seen his grand design, his vision of the world where only his children could survive, I would not tolerate a half-breed like Simon. It didn’t matter now, all that mattered was that Furnace’s prophecy looked like it was coming true.

  ‘For real?’ asked Zee, his face a mask of shock. ‘Furnace really said that to you?’

  Simon nodded, the room plunged into silence once again, only the two wheezers in the corner showing any sign of life, twitching gently.

  ‘He was wrong, though,’ I said eventually. ‘Because it doesn’t have to happen this way. We’ll think of another plan.’

  ‘What other plan?’ Simon spat back. ‘Go out there and kill all those things by hand? Hope that Panettierre wins the war and doesn’t start another one? This ain’t never gonna end by itself, Alex. Those freaks are still out there, and they’re winning. The rats are still infecting people, Furnace’s army just keeps getting bigger, stronger.’ He paused, taking a deep, ragged breath. ‘And what about when it starts to spread? What about when the blacksuits cross the border, cross the oceans? It might already have happened. This isn’t just about the country, it’s about the whole human race.’ He shook his head. Nobody else dared to speak. ‘You’ve got a chance to end this right now. If you take it then I might die, and that sucks. But if you don’t, you’re signing a death warrant for everybody else.’

  ‘Simon …’ Zee said, his eyes filling. ‘There’s no way, I won’t let you.’ He looked at me. ‘Right, Alex? We can think of something else. Right?’

  ‘That’s your problem, Zee,’ Simon said, smiling gently. ‘You always think too much.’

  Zee was sobbing now, looking back and forth between Simon and me. Lucy was crying too, her sleeves in constant motion as they wiped her eyes. I would have burst into tears myself, if the stranger’s blood had let me. It didn’t mean I couldn’t feel it, though, the sadness clawing up from my gut, nesting in my throat.

  Zee ran to Simon, wrapping his skinny arms around the bigger boy, his face buried in his neck. Simon hugged him back, so hard that I heard something pop, the two of them holding each other, the tears flowing freely now, as if by never letting go they would never have to say goodbye.

  I just let my head hang, desperately trying to think of another plan. My thoughts wheeled around each other like birds in a flock, too many, moving too quickly, for me to catch them.

  Simon shrugged Zee away, both boys patting each other awkwardly on the back. Zee’s tears had left a patch on Simon’s shoulder, on the hoodie he’d got back in the mall, the morning we escaped, when we thought that everything just might be okay. Lucy walked over, gave the bigger kid a hug. It was short, but she meant it.

  ‘Stay with us,’ she said. ‘We can make sure nothing happens to you.’

  ‘We can chain you to one of these pillars,’ said Zee. ‘That way you won’t do anything stupid.’

  Simon shook his head.

  ‘Whatever happens next, I don’t want you guys to see it,’ he said. ‘I don’t want you to remember me that way.’

  ‘Simon …’ I started, unsure what else to say. He looked up at me, that lopsided grin never leaving his face. It made me think of being back in solitary confinement, his goofy smile the one good
sight that lay in wait for us when the hatches opened. Down there, at the very bottom of the world, it had been the only thing that kept me going. The lump in my throat seemed to expand, as if something in there was about to burst free.

  ‘Thank you,’ Simon said. ‘Thanks for getting us out of there. Death, it doesn’t seem so scary, y’know? Not when you’ve got the sky over you and the wind on your face. Rather die a million times out here than once inside Furnace.’

  ‘You don’t have to die,’ I said, my voice cracking. ‘It might be okay.’

  ‘Then why’s everyone blubbing?’ he said.

  ‘It will be okay,’ I said again, although it was more to try and convince myself than him.

  Simon turned, as if to leave the room, then thought better of it and loped over to me.

  ‘I’m not gonna blow up or anything if I touch you, am I?’ he asked.

  I shook my head, and he reached his arms around me as best he could, squeezing me once. I wished I could pull myself from this infernal machine, return the gesture. I may have been able to share my mind with a thousand creatures, but the only people I was truly part of were in this room. We had shared so much, the good and the bad and everything in between, that we were linked by a far stronger bond than the nectar. To lose either Zee or Simon would be like losing a piece of myself.

  He broke the contact and stood back, his cheeks wet with tears.

  ‘Now you’ve got me started too,’ he said, wiping them away. ‘We sure had some adventures, eh?’ he grinned.

  ‘And there will be more,’ Zee said. ‘I promise.’

  Simon nodded, his next breath a shuddering sigh. He ran his sleeve over his nose, sniffing, then he began to walk.

  ‘See you on the other side,’ he said. This time, nobody corrected him.

  ‘I promise!’ Zee called out. But it was one that I knew he wouldn’t – couldn’t – keep.

  Simon paused as he went through the door, looking back at us, his eyes like diamonds. He winked, smiled, then disappeared out of sight just like he’d done back in solitary when he needed to lock us into our cells. I pictured him scampering along the corridors beneath the prison, evading the blacksuits and the rats, staying alive. He’d never abandoned us. He had always come back.

  Not this time, though.

  We never saw Simon again.

  Freedom

  The only sound inside the chamber, other than the deep, endless pulse of the machine, was a symphony of sadness. Zee and Lucy stood before me, wrapped in each other’s arms, their sobs almost perfectly in tune. Behind it all were the last echoed steps from the corridor outside, then a final click of a door closing.

  I don’t know how much later it was that Zee lifted his head off Lucy’s shoulder, his eyes red raw.

  ‘Are we going to lose you too?’ he asked, his voice hoarse.

  I didn’t know what would happen to me. I was just another one of Furnace’s creations after all. There was no nectar inside me, not any more, but my body was full of the stranger’s blood. If I sent out a command for my soldiers to take their own lives then would I fall victim to it as well?

  And would it really matter if I did? I mean, if I died then surely the last vestiges of the stranger would die with me, die inside me. No parasite can live long without a host. Maybe this was the only way of making sure it never infected another kid again. Maybe this was the only way of truly killing it.

  ‘Alex?’ said Zee.

  ‘It will be okay,’ I lied. ‘Come on. Let’s do this, before it’s too late.’

  ‘Good luck,’ said Lucy. ‘Be strong, okay?’

  ‘And don’t you dare not come back,’ Zee added. ‘Or I’m gonna seriously kick your ass.’

  I smiled, my lips lifting for a fraction of a second before falling again. Then I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply, and reached out with my mind.

  There were no words this time. What could I say?

  I occupied their heads like a phantom, my thoughts becoming their thoughts. Once again they welcomed me back because they saw me as their father, as their creator. And I was. I had the stranger’s blood inside me, keeping me alive, giving me my powers. Right now the blacksuits and the berserkers and the rats were my offspring. They were my children.

  Guilt burned through me, the knowledge of what I was about to do. My heart pounded, every beat seemingly hard enough to fire it right out of my chest. And I could sense the stranger there, as though each pulse was him banging on the bars of his prison cell, his fury seemingly enough to shake the universe to dust. The chains inside my head held, though. He couldn’t escape, not in time to stop me.

  Out in the world the war was raging, the tide of blood never ending. From every single pair of eyes – fewer now, but still thousands of them – I saw nothing but carnage and chaos. The land had been painted with ruined flesh, mountains of broken bones rising from the wet earth, smoke the colour of rock overhead. It was a tapestry of murder and destruction the likes of which had never been seen. We truly were in hell.

  I didn’t know how there could be people out there left to kill, and yet the resistance kept fighting. Soldiers in camouflage took cover behind their dead friends, firing off the last of their ammunition. Others charged with bayonets, screaming in defiance, refusing to surrender even though death was inevitable. There were civilians out there as well, joining the ranks of the army, throwing themselves into battle armed with hammers and kitchen knives and pool cues. They had no hope, and yet I could see it in their faces – they were fighting for their very existence, they would never stop.

  I saw them on the oceans, too, berserkers and rats on boats, being pulled along by the leviathans, spreading their plague to foreign shores.

  I turned my focus to Furnace’s children – my children. Their minds boiled, ravaged beyond repair, each thought screamed kill, over and over again, a ceaseless command that came from their very blood, that would not let them rest.

  And yet beneath their fury, in a part of their minds buried so deep that even they no longer knew it existed, I could see the children they had once been, before Furnace had got to them, before they had been turned. Those kids had been drowned beneath a lake of nectar, too far gone now to remember their names, to remember their old lives, and yet somehow still holding on. They all called for the same thing. They all called for peace.

  Simon was there too, still walking, sunlight on his face and the wind in his hair. There was fear there, yes, but there was something else too, something I couldn’t quite identify, something good.

  No, there were no words now. I called out to my children not with language but with feeling. I thought back to my own history, those few positive memories that remained, those rare gems which sparkled in the dirt. I saw my life as it once had been – football at lunchtimes, the joy of celebrating a goal with my mates, in the garden with my mum, building models with my dad, blowing out the candles on my birthday cakes, bike rides in the rain, Christmas and playing with new toys in the flickering light of the fire. And I thought about that day on the beach, the one with my mum and dad, both of them laughing their heads off when the flake from Dad’s ice cream fell over the edge of the pier, scooped up in mid-air by a seagull. It had been so good to hear them laugh.

  I thought about that sound now, that twin giggle cutting through the screams, through the growls, through the horror of rending flesh. I amplified it, projecting it into the minds of my children. They hesitated, all of them, thrown by the noise. They must have recognised it, though. They might not have been able to laugh themselves any more, but no matter how much nectar you’ve got inside you, the sound of laughter – genuine, beautiful, human laughter – is unforgettable.

  It wasn’t enough. The beasts were distracted, but not for long, their rampage continuing.

  I concentrated, shutting out everything except for the positive memories. I thought about Furnace Penitentiary, about the friends I had met there. I thought about the times inside the prison that we hadn’t been able to stop laughing, e
ven though we were trapped inside a nightmare. I thought about Zee and his endless documentaries, about Simon and his lopsided grin.

  And I thought about Donovan.

  Donovan, that smile like the sun, blasting away the darkness until all that was left was goodness and light. Donovan, his own laughter rising up alongside that of my mum and dad, unstoppable, unforgettable, until that deep, tuneful bass was the only sound in the world. Donovan. He had been there for me always, even after he had been taken by the blood watch. He had been there for me in solitary confinement, nothing more than a memory and yet somehow keeping me alive. He had been there for me even after he died, refusing to let me go, keeping the nectar at bay, helping me to remember, stopping me from losing my mind.

  And he was there now, his skin glowing the way it had when I had imagined him back in the cells beneath Furnace, like some corny Christmas angel, so bright that even in my head I had to squint. His smile still radiated light, pulsing through my thoughts into the minds of the berserkers and the blacksuits and the rats, pushing the nectar aside, clearing away the darkness. It was only for a second, but a second was enough.

  It doesn’t have to be this way. There is more than just anger, more than hatred. This is not your life, you do not have to live it. No words, just those thoughts. Just Donovan, a shepherd of lost souls, proof that there was a way out, that there was a way to escape. He ushered them on, pulling them out from the nectar, drawing them into the light.

  The berserkers were the first, their minds cracking open, memories spilling out. I could feel the rush of a thousand kids remembering, the surge of their thoughts overpowering. It was too much, my own mind sparking like it had been short-circuited, like it was about to blow. I didn’t stop, though, focusing on Donovan, transmitting the image to my children, showing them the path out of their prison, the way to freedom. I could sense the blacksuits laying down their weapons, sloughing off their mutilated flesh and moving into the light. Happy, so happy, to be reunited with themselves, with the kids they thought they had lost for ever. My head was ringing now, like glass about to shatter, but there was no stopping it. I sensed the wheezers, their complete and utter relief as they shed their twisted forms after so many decades trapped inside. The rats held on for longer, their personalities so ravaged that I wasn’t sure if there could be anything else left. But eventually they too succumbed, falling hard as the souls inside their broken bodies soared. I watched them go, holding on for as long as I could, feeling my own mind begin to peel away from the real world, caught by the tide. The light was everywhere now, so bright, so warm. It pulled us in, Donovan at its heart, welcoming us all. And I went to him, my smile echoing his smile, his arms around me, holding me, keeping me from falling.

 
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