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       Execution, p.25

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  ‘Alex,’ he said, reaching out for me. But it was too late for goodbyes.

  ‘Do it,’ ordered Panettierre.

  Bates pulled the first lever, the mechanisms inside the machine powering up. It knew what to do, those needles sliding from the frame and piercing the Colonel’s skin. She grimaced, her eyes burning, seemingly the brightest things in the half-light of the room. There was a sucking sound, then the tubes ran red as her blood spurted into them.

  ‘Oh Christ,’ said the other soldier, staggering back. Panettierre was turning white, her skin wrinkling like empty sausage casings as the blood drained away. I could see the panic there, her hands straining against the straps, but she was too weak to resist. Bates swore, waiting for the pipes to start gurgling before wrestling with the second lever.

  The machine changed pitch, a needle sliding into my spine, so deep that I could feel the pain even past the storm of the stranger’s blood. There was an ice-cold rush inside me as the poison began to flow from my arteries. I could see it inside the tube, pumped towards Panettierre. She was out cold, totally drained, but as it passed through the needles into her arm she was reborn, throwing her head back and howling with delight. I knew that feeling, the blood awakening every cell, exploding inside her mind, promises of power the likes of which she could never imagine. The stranger’s response was the same, I could feel his euphoria as he took control of his new host.

  Both reactions lasted for no longer than an instant.

  Panettierre’s face warped from joy to terror. She looked at me, her eyes already black, as if they had simply disappeared from her skull. But her expression was now one of dawning horror. I could sense it from the stranger, too, the realisation that his blood wasn’t pouring into a child but an adult. There was a moment of silence, then both of them began to scream.

  It was a noise like no other I had ever heard, one that could have been the universe ending. It grew louder and louder, inside my head and out of it, promising to turn my ears to mush, to demolish every last sane thought in my mind. It went on and on and on, for so long that I thought it would never stop, that this was my hell and it was eternal.

  I heard the stranger, felt him try to reverse the flow, to hang on inside me. But there was nothing he could do. The machine was designed for a single task, and it performed it well, sucking every last drop of blood from my body and pumping it into Panettierre’s.

  The world was going dark but I didn’t panic. I’d been here before, so many times, drained and then refilled. Only this time there would be no saving me. There was nothing left, nothing to put back. My vision sparked, as if there was a fireworks show in the chamber. I peered past those slivers of stardust to see Zee, tears like jewels in his eyes. Lucy was on her knees by one of the dead wheezers, rummaging in its coat. My head swung back round, the world seeming to dissolve like paper in water, separating, disappearing. But I could still make out Panettierre, hung up beside me, her mouth so wide as she screamed that it was as if her face was unravelling.

  No, it was unravelling. Her jaw sagged, the bones beneath the skin seeming to bend as though they were rubber, her teeth dropping out, clattering to the floor like beads. Something was bubbling through her cheek, as if she had acid in her veins, her flesh fizzing as it fell away. Dark patches were appearing beneath her uniform, the blood seeping through ragged holes in her stomach, in her arms and legs. Her throat had begun to dissolve, her shriek dying out into a wet, gargled moan.

  The stranger’s cry was louder now, though, a roar of undiluted rage powerful enough to crack open the earth. But it was a song of desperation, and it was futile. He knew that his time had come.

  The two soldiers were freeing Panettierre as fast as they could, cutting the straps and pulling her out of the machine. They lowered her to the floor, one of her arms breaking off and sliding from her sleeve, exploding as it hit the stone. A leg followed, severed at the knee, the skin pocked with blisters. The men dropped her in disgust, and she hit the ground like a sack full of wet flesh, a butcher’s bin bag, a lake of black liquid spreading out beneath her. She somehow found the strength to look up at me, those depthless eyes flickering in a face that had melted almost to the bone. She began to spasm, a jet of oil-coloured blood spewing up from her ravaged windpipe. Then the darkness in her eyes faded, leaving two bags of bubbling pus embedded in her skull.

  Panettierre was dead. The stranger was too. They lay together in silence.

  I had time to understand this, before the darkness came to collect me. I had time to understand that I had won, that even though this was the end it had ended well.

  One last breath. We all have to take one eventually.

  It was over.

  Beginnings

  If I was dead, then why could I still hear Zee?

  His voice seemed to be coming from a million miles away, muffled as though I was underwater, but it was definitely him. Nobody could manage that panicked squeak quite like Zee.

  I couldn’t work out what he was saying. I was stranded in a void of absolute nothingness, not dark, not light, just absence. I struggled to remember why I was here, what had just happened. The memories had all but faded, their detail gone but their essence remaining as a single, wonderful thought:

  It was over.

  Was this death, then? I had imagined it so many times, tried to picture what it would be like. But never like this, a consciousness trapped and paralysed as the aeons passed, a prisoner until the very end of time.

  An eternity listening to Zee wittering? I think I’d rather have woken up in hell.

  I felt something sharp pierce the skin of my arm, even though I couldn’t tell if I still had limbs. Zee was shouting now, and with his words came a familiar rush. It was nectar. Only it was different somehow. I could feel it flood into my parched arteries, coursing through my system, repairing damaged flesh. But there was none of the rage that normally went with Furnace’s poison, none of the anger. I don’t think I had ever felt so calm, so at peace.

  Another jab, another rush of nectar. This one made the noises around me much clearer, as if my ears had been unblocked.

  ‘Find some more,’ yelled Zee, his voice an octave higher than it should be.

  ‘This is the last one,’ came the reply. It was Lucy, and I could hear the slap of her shoes as she ran across the chamber. A third mild pain, like an insect bite, more nectar surging into me, firing up the parts of my brain I thought had been switched off for ever. My sight flickered on like a computer monitor, seeming to wobble for a bit, everything too bright to make sense of. Then it settled, two faces looming over me, their expressions of concern so extreme that the first noise I made was a laugh. It spluttered out of me, unrecognisable, sounding more like an engine trying to start on a cold morning. I realised I was lying on the floor.

  ‘He’s coming out of it,’ said Zee, his eyes lighting up. ‘Alex? That you?’

  Who else is it going to be? I tried to say it out loud but the words seemed to jumble up inside my mouth, emerging as one long groan. I saw Lucy pull something out of my arm, the empty syringe glinting. She threw it to the floor, gently pressing a scrap of cloth against the needle hole. Her other hand rested against my forehead, brushing the hair out of my eyes.

  ‘We need to find some more,’ Zee said. ‘There must be some out in the corridor, in those rooms we passed.’

  He shot up but I grabbed him with my left hand before he could go. He crouched down again, gripping my new fingers so hard it hurt. I didn’t mind, though. The pain was good, anchoring me inside my body, keeping me from drifting away.

  ‘Don’t move,’ said Lucy. ‘Don’t speak, just rest. Those soldiers have gone to get help. You’ll be fine, okay?’

  ‘But what if that isn’t enough?’ Zee asked. ‘What if it doesn’t keep him alive? He might die if we don’t find some more.’

  His agitated tone made me laugh again, and this time it must have been clearer because his frown deepened.

  ‘What?’ he asked.


  ‘You,’ I replied, managing to get most of the word out. I coughed, my throat feeling like it was lined with sandpaper. At least my voice was back to normal, though. ‘Yabbering on. I was dead and I could still hear you.’

  Lucy laughed, the sound like chiming crystal. Zee scowled at her, then at me, folding his hands against his chest.

  ‘Charming,’ he said. ‘We save your ass and all you can do is insult me.’

  His pout only made me laugh harder, until I was racked with coughs. Lucy was giggling too, and it must have been contagious because after a moment Zee’s face opened up.

  ‘It’s just good to see you,’ he said, his hand squeezing my shoulder.

  My strength was returning, my pulse steadying as it distributed the nectar around my body. I squirmed, managing to prop myself up on my elbows.

  ‘Easy there,’ said Lucy. ‘Don’t overdo it.’

  ‘I’ll be okay.’

  I looked around the room until I saw the mess, the lake of oil-black blood which lay congealing in the middle of the chamber. There was nothing left of Panettierre now but a few scraps of clothing and what looked like a half-dissolved jawbone jutting up from the surface. The stranger too was no more. He and Panettierre had been so consumed by their desire for power that they had killed each other. The thought of that just made me laugh harder.

  ‘How did you bring me back?’ I asked when I had recovered my breath.

  Zee nodded over at the wheezers, their coats open and the syringe bandoliers visible beneath. There must have been a dozen empty needles scattered around me.

  ‘Lucy’s idea. Wasn’t sure if it would work. But we had to try something. You feeling all right?’

  ‘I’ve never felt better,’ I said. And it was the truth. I may still have had nectar inside me, but it was no longer channelling the stranger’s evil. Without its master, the nectar seemed to function just like regular blood. I looked at Lucy. ‘Thank you.’

  ‘Thank you,’ she replied, stroking my brow.

  ‘How come you didn’t explode, y’know, like Furnace?’ Zee asked.

  I didn’t know the answer to that. Furnace was so old when he had finally died, he had existed for centuries. Without the blood, his flesh was nothing but dust. I’d only had it in my veins for a short time. I was still a kid.

  ‘Just lucky, I guess,’ I said.

  ‘At least your eyes are back to normal,’ said Zee. ‘If you can call silver normal.’

  I heard footsteps from the corridor outside, shadows blossoming on the stone walls. Zee and Lucy whirled round just as Sergeant Bates and his partner barged back into the chamber. They stood to attention as a third man followed, dressed in beige combats, silver stars gleaming from his collar. He was much older than the others, his hair a grey fuzz and his face lined with wrinkles. When he saw me his hand strayed to the pistol holstered at his waist, but it only hovered there for a second before he let it fall.

  ‘Here they are, sir,’ said the wounded soldier, Bates.

  I sat up, ready to defend myself. The stranger may have been dead but that wouldn’t stop the army from trying to harness his powers, from cutting me up to learn the secrets of my mutations. The older man raised a hand, his face creasing. It wasn’t quite a smile – he didn’t seem like the kind of man who would know how – but there was kindness in his eyes.

  ‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘I’m not here to hurt you. My name is General Hamilton, I want to help.’

  I’d heard that before, but this time I could sense it was the truth. The man scanned the room, his eyes falling on the puddle of black blood.

  ‘Was that Colonel Panettierre?’ he asked. Bates nodded, his face blanching as he studied her remains. Hamilton nodded too, wiping a hand over his mouth. ‘Good riddance,’ he muttered before turning back to me. ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but my men here tell me you had something to do with killing off those monsters.’

  ‘He did,’ blurted out Zee. ‘He was the one—’

  ‘I don’t need to know now,’ the general interrupted, raising his hand again. ‘Save your strength, kids. Tell me everything when we get back to base.’ He must have seen the panic in our faces as we remembered the hospital, because he clamped his hand against his chest. ‘Listen, I know you had a rough ride with Panettierre, but we’re not all like her. I swear before God and my country that it won’t happen again. You’re safe with me. Can you walk?’

  ‘I can try,’ I replied.

  The general nodded at the two soldiers and they laid down their guns, running over and helping me struggle to my feet. It took a while for me to get vertical – I was still the tallest person in the room by a metre or so – but they stayed by my side, holding me up. I draped my hands over their shoulders, careful not to skewer anyone with my blade. Zee squeezed in between me and the man to my right, his hands around my waist, doing his bit to stop me falling over. Lucy reached up, taking my left hand and holding it gently.

  ‘We’ve got a chopper outside,’ the general said. ‘It’ll fly us back to HQ. Then, if you don’t mind, I’d really like to ask you a few questions.’

  ‘Sure thing,’ I said, limping slowly across the chamber. The general walked through the door, leading the way. The rest of us struggled after him, resembling some weird spider as we did our best not to trip each other up. I looked back just once, saw the machine against the far wall, still humming gently, its pulse felt in every stone beneath my feet. I saw the space where Alfred Furnace had been, his body crucified there the same way it had been hundreds of years ago in the orchard.

  ‘Forget it,’ said Zee, peering up at me. ‘It’s finished.’

  ‘I know,’ I said. ‘But what happens now?’

  Zee laughed, shifting his arms to better hold me up.

  ‘All for one,’ he said.

  That brought back so many memories, some happy, some sad, a bitter-sweet mixture that made the smile on my face almost painful. I knew that this would be another one, a memory that would accompany me to my dying days. I realised that Zee was waiting for me to finish and I didn’t disappoint him, the words tumbling out through my growing smile:

  ‘And let’s get the hell out of here.’

  We heard the helicopters before we saw them, their thunder audible from the top of the stairs. The inside of the mansion was a mess, the walls blown to pieces, the ceilings drooping, barely able to hold their own weight. Dead bodies covered the floor, but we steered around them, clambering over the wreckage of the front entrance until we were clear. There were two choppers in the sky, a third on the ground fifty metres or so away. Soldiers clustered around it, and as soon as they saw us they ran over, two of them holding a stretcher. They offered to carry me but I shook my head. The way my body was now they’d probably need the whole army to hold my weight.

  The sun hung low on the horizon, blindingly bright. Its fierce light threw everything into relief, revealing each burned corpse, each severed limb, each lifeless face in hideous detail. But only the human dead seemed to have resented their passing. I saw a berserker – recognised it as the only one which had still been fighting – and it wore an expression of calm, as if the end had been a relief. I honestly didn’t know what had happened to it, to its brothers, where they were now. I hoped they had gone somewhere good. And if they hadn’t gone anywhere at all, if they had simply stopped living, I hoped at least that they had believed they were going somewhere good. I hoped I had given them that.

  ‘You ready?’ asked General Hamilton. I nodded, but didn’t move, squinting into the brilliance of the setting sun. There were two figures standing on the cliff edge, nothing but blurred silhouettes yet somehow familiar. I put my hand up to shield the glare, trying to work out who they were. One had a huge arm, a body which seemed to be melted out of shape, and he wore a lopsided grin. Before my excitement had a chance to rise I recognised the other kid, somebody I knew just as well, and somebody who was just as dead.

  Donovan slung his arm around Simon, both of them waving at me.<
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  ‘Thank you,’ I said, waving back.

  ‘For what?’ asked Zee, thinking that I was talking to him.

  We started for the chopper again, and I watched the figures fade into the sunlight, nothing more than the heat haze rising from the scorched earth.

  ‘For everything.’

  The general hadn’t been lying. We were safe.

  The chopper flew us to a small military base hidden in the mountains halfway across the country, one which hadn’t been hit by the berserkers and the blacksuits. It was pretty much deserted when we landed, a handful of personnel welcoming us from the helipad. This time there was a trolley waiting, one used for carrying heavy equipment, and the soldiers helped me, Lucy and then Zee onto it. We travelled in silence, all of us noticing how peaceful the air was – no explosions, no gunfire, no screams. Even the birds had started singing again, their quiet evening chirps cautious but beautiful.

  We were taken into the main building, a squat concrete bunker embedded into the hillside. A bed had been prepared for me, so big it took up almost the entire room. There were doctors here, dressed in the same white overalls as Panettierre, but they wore smiles instead of gas masks and held stethoscopes instead of needles. They helped me lie down, plumping the pillows beneath my head and pulling a sheet up to my chin.

  ‘First things first,’ said General Hamilton from the door. ‘They’re going to make sure you’re healthy, that you’re not going to die on us. Okay?’

  I nodded, watching him stand to one side as Zee and Lucy walked in.

  ‘You two can come with me if you like,’ he said to them. ‘Get cleaned up, get some hot food. We might even be able to rustle up a cup of tea.’

  ‘No thanks,’ said Zee, walking to the far side of the room. There was a sofa there, beneath a wide window, and he collapsed into it, Lucy sliding next to him and resting her head on his shoulder.

 
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