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       Execution, p.3

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  ‘He’s still alive,’ I said. ‘I’ve spoken to him.’ I didn’t even try to explain how.

  ‘No, you’ve spoken to somebody who claims to be Alfred Furnace,’ Panettierre said. ‘And that’s who we’re trying to find.’

  ‘That makes two of us,’ I said. ‘I don’t care what you think, you don’t know the truth. I was there, in the prison. This is what they did to me, the warden and his freaks.’ My body was covered up but I knew what it looked like – too big to be mistaken for human any more, puncture wounds all over it from my fight with the warden, and my arms two blades which were sharper than scalpels. ‘Alfred Furnace was behind it all. He was never there but he was in charge, he called the shots. It’s his army in the city, and they won’t stop. He won’t stop, not until the world surrenders itself to him.’ Fury flared, and this time when I flexed my muscles the bindings around my chest creaked. ‘But he didn’t count on me, he didn’t plan on me coming to kill him.’

  I gave up, taking a deep breath to drain away the frustration.

  ‘And I am going to kill him,’ I said, softer this time. ‘Just as soon as I find him.’

  ‘You know where to look?’ asked Panettierre. I shook my head.

  ‘Okay, it’s good to know we’re on the same side,’ she said after a pause. ‘And right now that side is the losing one. Around a third of the Home Battalion is KIA, dead, and we can’t pull in reserves quickly enough. Hell, sixty per cent of our troops are overseas. The emergency services are screwed, and it’s spreading, faster than we can keep track of. It’s already passed the county line, west and north. We’re lucky we’ve got the coast to the east otherwise it would be totally out of our hands. If we don’t find a way of stopping this … this plague, then I give the whole country days, maybe a week, before it’s overwhelmed.’

  She returned her attention to the machines, to one in particular – a large, empty bell jar connected to me with a thick, transparent plastic tube.

  ‘We need to find whoever’s responsible for this,’ she said. ‘And at the moment the person at the top of our hit list is Warden Cross. You know where he is?’

  ‘Dead,’ I said, remembering his ravaged face, one eye blinking at me as the wheezers overwhelmed him. ‘I killed him.’

  Panettierre didn’t say anything, just ran a hand over the jar.

  ‘That gives us one less lead to follow,’ she said after a moment’s pause. ‘Okay, then tell me about the liquid, the black blood that’s inside you, inside the creatures. What do you call it? Nectar?’

  ‘That’s what Furnace calls it,’ I said, taking it slow, trying to remember what I knew. ‘They never told us what it was, only what it does. It messes with your genes, making you stronger and bigger. And it keeps you alive when you’ve been injured; it can patch up wounds, heal broken bones. It can make you immortal, too. That’s how he’s still alive, Furnace.’ The poison in my blood seemed to know I was talking about it, my pulse quickening as it blasted through my system, an animal waiting to be unleashed. ‘But it’s more than that. It alters your mind, too. Strips away all the weakness. And most people, when it comes down to it, that’s all that’s there underneath – weakness. When that’s gone, when all the pathetic emotions are gone, all that’s left is anger, hatred. That’s what those creatures are – they’re what’s left when you take away everything human.’

  ‘But you’re different,’ Panettierre said. ‘You can talk, you know what’s happened to you. How is that?’

  I tried and failed to shrug my shoulders.

  ‘I refused to forget my name,’ I said. And there was no other way of explaining it.

  Neither of us spoke again for what could have been a full minute, and I was the one to break the silence, if only to reassure myself that time hadn’t stopped.

  ‘Let me out of here,’ I said. ‘I can help you. We both want the same thing. I’ll find Alfred Furnace, and I’ll kill him. It’s the only chance there is to end this.’

  The colonel’s shoulders seemed to sink and I heard her sigh. She lifted a hand towards the machine, hesitated for a second, then flicked a switch. I heard a motor start up inside it, the bell jar chattering like joke false teeth. Something tugged in the skin of my arm, the discomfort of a needle buried deep in my flesh. I struggled, but I may as well have been paralysed from the neck down – it was just like in my dream.

  ‘I’m afraid I can’t do that,’ she said over the din. ‘It’s just too dangerous for you to be released right now. We’re here to look after you, Alex. That’s my priority, to make sure you’re okay.’ That uncomfortable smile appeared on her face again. It showed too many teeth. She patted me on the top of the head as if I were a dog. ‘And at the moment the best place for you is right here, in bed.’

  There was a sucking sound, and suddenly the tube leading to the bell jar turned black, piping nectar out of me. It spurted into it, clinging to the sides, steaming, filling it fast.

  ‘What are you doing?’ I asked, struggling pathetically.

  ‘You don’t need to worry about it,’ Panettierre replied, stroking my hair. ‘We’re just taking a sample of the nectar from you. We only want to run a few tests on it, try to find the best way for us to help you, to cure you.’

  ‘Losing the nectar will kill me,’ I growled. The woman’s smile widened for a moment, and I wondered if it was meant to comfort me. It didn’t. It made her look like a shark, those teeth, and the glint in her eyes, imprinted on my retinas.

  ‘It will make you better,’ she whispered as she walked to the door. ‘Hush now, sleep for a while, get your strength back. Remember, we’re here to watch over you. You’re safe now, I promise. We won’t let anything bad happen to you.’

  Even as the threads of reality began to come loose, the room growing dark as if being buried beneath a mountain of sand, I could sense how difficult those last words were for her.

  She was lying.

  Drained

  I died in that orchard.

  Furnace’s voice rang in my ears as the nectar drained from my arteries. All I could do was watch as the black fluid cascaded into that jar, my racing pulse emptying my body of the life force that fuelled it.

  The edges of the room began to crowd with shadows. My head thrashed back and forth as I tried to stay awake. I knew that if I let the darkness take me now then I’d never see the light again. But the more nectar that spilled from me, the more the world began to fade. I tried to talk, to plead, but Panettierre had already gone.

  I died, but it wasn’t the end, he continued, his words seeming to push the last of the light away. The room flickered, the nightmare orchard flashing over reality for a fraction of a second, leaving skeletal trees imprinted like veins over my retinas.

  I blinked and the scene reappeared, every leaf, every decomposing apple, every feather on every bird picked out in perfect detail, so much so that it seemed more real than the room I was in. I could even feel the breeze on my face, a cold zephyr like a dead man’s breath, and it was this sensation that finally made me surrender. I blinked again and I was back in the hospital. I turned, saw the jar almost full, then I closed my eyes, Furnace’s words ringing through me as though my whole body was now hollow, his whisper carrying me into unconsciousness.

  Death is never the end.

  It was as if I had woken from a deep sleep – the cell, the bed, the woman called Panettierre nothing but a blurred memory which faded away after a couple of blinks.

  Only I knew that this was the dream world, the nightmare.

  The orchard around me was impossibly clear, focusing a little more every time I visited. There was sound now, too, the creak and crack of distant branches, the rustle of the leaves in the breeze and the coarse caws of the crows as they abandoned their feast of apples and crowded greedily around the boy on the tree.

  No time had passed since I had last been here. Heavy night suffocated the moonlit orchard as before. Furnace’s eyes were open but only just, looking at me as if I’d never gone away. The flow
of blood had all but stopped, leaving his skin as pale as bone. His chest fluttered, as weak as a newborn bird, fighting for every breath.

  I didn’t expect to be able to move, but when I tried to turn my head I found that I was no longer completely paralysed. My legs were still rooted to the ground, my torso as stiff as wood, but my hands were now free, and when I lifted them in front of my face I saw that the nectar-grown blades had gone. My hands looked like they had before I’d gone to prison – the normal hands of a normal kid. I stretched my arms out towards Alfred Furnace but he was too far away to reach. His eyes swam in and out of focus as he fought to see me.

  ‘Where are we?’ I asked, my voice startling the birds, causing some to take flight into the safety of the branches. The braver ones ignored me, looking round briefly before dipping their beaks back into the blood-soaked soil. But when I clapped my hands, the noise like a gunshot, even those scattered in a flurry of raucous cawing.

  ‘This is a dream, right?’ I said, as much to myself as to Furnace.

  The boy shook his head, the effort seeming to drain him of the last of his energy. His lips opened, words tumbling out in that strange guttural language that I could somehow understand.

  To you, it is a dream, he said. To me, it is a memory.

  Even here I could feel my body grow weak, and I remembered that back in the world, the real world, I was being drained of the nectar that kept me alive. But almost as soon as I sensed it, the dream numbed my panic. The real world didn’t matter here. There was only the orchard, and Alfred Furnace.

  ‘A memory?’ I said. ‘You mean this actually happened? When?’

  A long, long time ago. The boy spat out a bullet of crimson phlegm, his entire body spasming. They thought I killed my brother. But I didn’t. He did it – the stranger who lives in the orchard.

  ‘The stranger?’ I looked around nervously. ‘Who do you mean? Is he still here?’

  Quiet, hissed Furnace. He’ll hear you. And you don’t want that. This may only be a dream for you, but he still has power here.

  ‘So the orchard is real?’ I tried again.

  It was once real. This is a bad place, it always has been. Battles were fought here many centuries ago, countless lives taken, countless souls crushed. The soil here is tainted, the fruit of these trees nourished on blood. That is why he is here. He paused, his eyes swivelling as his thoughts took him somewhere else. We were told never to come to the orchard, that it was cursed. But we dared each other, we came, and my brother paid the price. Now it is my turn. They have left me here for the wolves but the stranger will get me first. I do not have long.

  ‘Tell me what to do,’ I said. ‘I can help.’

  It is too late, Furnace replied. The boy I once was died a long, long time ago. These events have already happened, they cannot be changed. But it is important that you see for yourself.

  ‘It’s not too late—’

  Furnace shot me a look of white-eyed terror and the rest of the sentence dried up in my throat.

  Hush, he hissed. He is here.

  The temperature in the orchard dipped, as though the forest had been submerged in ice water. Even in the dream the cold clawed into my bones, making me feel like I had never in my life experienced warmth. The air grew thin, stripped of oxygen, yet at the same time the darkness seemed to gain weight, an invisible fist grinding me into the dirt. As I gasped for air I felt something swell inside my chest, a feeling a million times worse than death, so awful that I would have chosen to leave the world right here and now, for ever, rather than suffer it any longer.

  It was terror, I realised, the kind reserved for nightmares, when your mind has no defence against the dark. It was the most primitive, most powerful emotion of all, and I had never, ever felt it like this. This wasn’t just a fear of losing my life, but a fear of losing my soul.

  I scanned the orchard, frantically searching for the source of my panic. The gnarled trunks of the apple trees circled us like the bars of a cage. Between them were pockets of night, so utterly black that it was as if nothing existed beyond, as though to step out of this clearing would be to step right out of life itself, into the abyss.

  My eyes fell on the void that separated the two trees closest to where Furnace had been crucified. There was nothing there, at least nothing that I could see. And yet I knew that something stood in that spot, shrouded in shadow, watching us. I could feel it, radiating coldness and darkness like an inverse sun, dead eyes scouring the orchard.

  My heart lurched, my mind screaming, every fibre of my body railing against the thing in the woods. It’s a dream, my mind howled, but there was no fooling myself. It was real, completely and utterly real. Nothing in my entire life had been more certain. Whatever stood there was real, and it was evil.

  More than that, I realised that this thing was trapped here, amongst the blood and the filth of this orchard. Don’t ask me how I knew that, I just did. Some truths are instinctive, absolute. They have to be, because your survival depends upon getting as far away from them as possible.

  I ordered myself to wake up. I just needed to be away from this thing, this unspeakable terror that made the end of life seem so welcome. I yelled at myself, trying to pump adrenaline into my system, trying to shunt myself out of the nightmare.

  It was working. The tops of the trees were splintering, dissolving into fragments that soared up into the night. The orchard began to flex and bulge, breaking apart, pieces of dream world scattering like scraps of burning paper.

  Don’t leave me, said the boy, Alfred Furnace. Please don’t leave me with him.

  But nothing on earth could keep me there, not with that soulless entity between the trees, watching us with eyes as black as pitch – a force so malevolent that it made Warden Cross and Alfred Furnace both look like angels. I put the boy’s pleas out of my head, pushed up from the dream like a diver breaking from deep water, desperate to reach the surface.

  I had almost made it when the stranger stepped from between the trees, bringing the darkness with him – a silhouette of flickering shadow who reached out for Furnace with one impossibly long arm, and for me with the other; who fixed me with an invisible grin as I rose from the dream; who watched me go with an expression of wicked delight, and whose silent, deafening laughter followed me all the way back to the waking world.

  Tests

  I opened my eyes with the echo of that insane howling still reverberating amongst my shattered thoughts.

  I blinked away the last few scraps of sleep to see that I was inside a large, noisy room, the walls and floor covered in pristine white tiles, so bright that it could have been built that day. It looked like a hospital operating theatre, only much bigger. I was still lying down, wires and sensors strapped to almost every inch of me, countless needles taped beneath my skin. Tight coils of shipping wire pinned my legs and my chest to some sort of metal table. Even before I attempted to struggle free I knew I wouldn’t be able to.

  My arms were exposed, held in vice-like clamps either side of the table. I looked at my right hand, the blade of the nectar-blackened limb longer and sharper than ever. I glanced at my left, seeing that the nectar was still at work there. The stump of my left hand had split into three stub-like protrusions. They weren’t fingers, not recognisably anyway. They looked more like the shoots of a plant jutting from the charred flesh. Each was no longer than a big toe, but when I wiggled them they all moved.

  It didn’t make any sense. Had the nectar been trying to grow me a new hand? Could it do that? Why hadn’t it happened with my right arm? There were too many questions and none of them had answers. The transformation must have started when I was unconscious, before they drained the nectar from me. Maybe the nectar behaved differently when you were asleep, when you weren’t in the middle of a fight for your life.

  I tried to get a better look, but it was hopeless. I felt like the boy from my dream, Alfred Furnace, trussed up and left to bleed out. It was as though my body had been drained almost to the poin
t of death and I was now running on fumes. The blackened, nectar-filled veins beneath my skin were nowhere to be seen, and my flesh had paled to a sickly grey colour. There was only a trickle of blood left inside me, just enough to keep my heart pumping. Every beat of my pulse felt like it might be the last.

  I turned my head, trying to make sense of the room I was in. All around me was chaos. Rows of tables like the one I was on extended in every direction. There must have been a hundred or more. Half were occupied, mostly by rats dressed in the tattered remains of their prison overalls. There was nothing left in them of the children they had once been – before they had been contaminated with Furnace’s new nectar. They thrashed against their restraints, their blackshot eyes full of hatred, hunger, so hungry for blood that their teeth gnawed at their own lips and tongues, pools of poison spilling beneath them.

  I heard a guttural bark and swung my head round to look at the far side of the room. Chained to the wall was a berserker. It stood head and shoulders over the soldiers around it, its rage radiating from it in waves of heat but its face that of a child. Like me, like all of us, it was bound tight, mummified in a cocoon of shipping wire. The only thing it had to defend itself with was its voice.

  On the table next to me was another figure, a blacksuit, although he was no longer wearing the uniform of his master. Scalpel handles rose up from his bare chest, dozens of them, like a miniature graveyard. He looked as though he was out cold, maybe dead, his unblinking silver eyes staring at the skylights above him through which sunlight dripped like honey.

  I turned my attention away from the freaks to the other people in the room, the ones who weren’t tied up. There must have been thirty of them. A few were dressed in black combat suits and armed with machine guns, but most were wearing long white coats or surgeons’ gowns. And it was these men and women, not the monsters, who filled me with fear, who made me want to rip away my restraints and run.

 
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