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       Execution, p.4

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  Because they all had gas masks on.

  A few of the scientists were monitoring machines whose blinking displays painted the walls with light. Others walked amongst the forklift trucks lined up against one side of the room or supervised transparent vats of bubbling black fluid, burning red stars sparkling in their depths. Tubes stretched out from these vats, connected to several of the rats, pumping them dry, leaving nothing but husks. Most of the gas-masked scientists, though, moved between the tables, surgical equipment gripped in their gloved hands, their eyes bright behind misted visors.

  I sensed movement above me and I realised the room had an observation balcony, a narrow, glass-walled walkway that ran around all four sides. There were more people up there watching, wearing a mix of suits and military uniforms – not camouflage, but dress gear that bristled with medals and insignias. The phrase ‘top brass’ popped into my head from nowhere, although I didn’t really know what it meant. I managed to open my mouth and call to them.

  ‘Hey,’ less a word than a grunt, but it obviously did the trick because an intercom crackled, a faint voice hissing out of it.

  ‘Fourteen is awake,’ it said. There was a pause, indistinct voices, then, ‘Begin the procedure.’

  I felt like a puppet whose strings have been cut. The only parts of my body that still seemed to function were my eyes, which turned in their sockets as the mob in the room approached. I could hear their wheezing breaths, heavy with excitement, and their movements were staggered and anxious. A sense of déjà vu sat like a boulder of ice in my stomach.

  The closest one reached me, and through the mask I realised it wasn’t a wheezer but Colonel Panettierre. She reached out with a white-gloved hand and rested it on my chest.

  ‘Don’t panic,’ she said, her voice muffled. ‘The masks are for your protection, not ours. We’ve drained you of about ninety per cent of your blood supply, and we’re worried that without the nectar you’ll have almost no immunity against infection. This room is part of the hospital. It’s where we’re going to try to make you better.’

  I knew exactly what kind of room this was. The infirmary back in the prison had been a hospital too.

  ‘Zee,’ Panettierre said, giving a thumbs-up to the balcony overhead. ‘You want to have a word?’

  The intercom flicked on again, nothing but static for a second. Then I heard a voice.

  ‘Alex?’ it said. ‘Just do what they say, don’t fight them. I think they’re trying to help. Don’t fight them, or they’ll kill—’

  There was a clatter, a squeal, then the intercom cut off. I tried to look up, peering through blurred vision to see a shape behind the glass above me, a boy amongst the soldiers. I blinked, my eyelids so heavy they almost wouldn’t open again, and for a second I saw a kid that I recognised. The kid Panettierre had called Zee. There were memories connected with him, too deep for me to make any sense of. But they existed, I was sure of it.

  He banged on the soundproof glass, screaming silently at me, and by the time my head had dropped again he was already being hauled away.

  ‘He knows what’s best for you, Alex; what’s best for you and your friend Simon.’

  I scanned the room, looking for the face that matched Simon’s name, but I could barely remember what he looked like. Panettierre removed her hand from my chest, holding it out to somebody beside her. One of the other gas masks passed her something, metal glinting in the sunlight.

  In the silence that followed I almost fell back into sleep, dark trees seeming to sprout from the bodies in front of me, spreading like a web of cancerous arteries across the ceiling. I had a flash of the young Alfred Furnace, and of the dark figure who was still mid-step from his pocket of shadow, and that pumped enough adrenaline into my heart to shove the dream away. Better here than there. Better anywhere than in that orchard.

  ‘This will be painful, Alex,’ Panettierre said. ‘And for that I apologise. But a cure can often be more painful than the disease; that’s simply the way of things.’

  The scientists moved in, staring at me like I was the main course at a banquet. I felt like it too, like a spit-roasted pig, trussed up and ready to be carved. I wanted to howl at them, to lash out, to show them I wasn’t some carnival freak show, but the simple act of moving seemed as impossible as leaping over an ocean.

  ‘Are you ready?’ Panettierre asked, placing the object in her hand against my shoulder. It was a scalpel. I shook my head, opened my mouth to protest, but before I could answer she pushed the surgical knife deep into my flesh. It didn’t hurt, no more than a mosquito bite, anyway. I’d experienced far greater pain, far more severe injuries. But at least most of the time I’d been able to fight back. Tied up here, unable to defend myself, felt infinitely worse – it was just like being back in the tunnels beneath Furnace.

  ‘Keep your eye on his heart rate,’ Panettierre said to one of the other scientists as she drew the blade in a tight semi-circle over my shoulder. I could just about twist my head round far enough to see the wound, wide open but bloodless. The woman smiled down at me, although through the visor it looked more like a leer, her lips pulled back too far. ‘You’re doing great, Alex. It won’t be much longer.’ She turned to the group of scientists who were all eagerly monitoring the machines beside me. ‘Any change?’

  Somebody muttered something back to her and she nodded, obviously pleased. She pushed the knife deeper, so deep that I felt it grind against my shoulder joint. I winced, more at the thought than at the pain. She placed her other hand on my chest, making shushing noises.

  ‘Does it hurt?’ she asked.

  ‘Yes,’ I spat back. ‘Couldn’t you have done this while I was asleep?’

  ‘We need to gauge your reaction,’ she said. ‘Physiological and psychological. Besides, I don’t think it does hurt that much. Be brave, it’s going to be fine.’

  She pulled the scalpel free, handing it to somebody else. The scientists clustered around me, all staring at the wound, their piggy eyes greedy and unblinking. They weren’t looking at a boy, at a human. All I was to them was a science experiment. A specimen.

  Across the room, something screamed, the noise of a rabbit caught in a snare. I tilted my head back as far as it would go, everything upside down, and saw another group of scientists surrounding a rat six or seven tables away. The creature writhed wildly, nectar spilling from between its lips. It was no longer human. It wasn’t even an animal any more – it had no desire to eat, or to sleep. It would live a short life of violence before the nectar deserted it, and then it would simply stop existing. If anything, the rat was like a virus, living only to spread to another host.

  And yet it still wore those overalls, torn and bloodied but recognisable. Just days ago this rat had been a prisoner inside Furnace Penitentiary, a kid like me wanting nothing more than to survive, to find a way out.

  Be careful what you wish for, I thought.

  The scientists around the rat turned and nodded at each other, then called for a soldier. One of the camouflaged figures strolled over, spoke briefly with one of them, then without hesitating placed his pistol against the rat’s temple and pulled the trigger. There was an eruption of dark liquid, mist spraying against their visors, the creature’s movements growing less frenzied, settling into sporadic twitches.

  ‘Don’t worry about that,’ said Panettierre, forcing my head forward until the image was out of sight. ‘Some things are broken past the point of fixing.’ She muttered an order and somebody passed her an instrument. It caught the light, leaving a fragment of sunshine in my eye, and for a moment I thought it was another blade. ‘Right, I’m giving him two millilitres directly into the wound. Pay attention to BP and A-T counts. Everything set?’

  Not a blade, then – a syringe.

  There were murmurs of assent, and Panettierre slid the needle into my skin. As soon as the liquid entered my body I knew what it was. Nectar. Not much – a thimbleful – but enough to turn my thoughts to thunder. I watched that trickle of red-fl
ecked poison vanish into the hole Panettierre had carved into my shoulder, a single black bubble bursting from my flesh.

  And then it hit me: my thoughts turned to fire, every cell of my body reawakened. I roared, the noise rocking the room, sending the scientists flying back like skittles. Only Panettierre stood her ground, her eyes burning as if they were reflecting the flames inside me.

  ‘Keep watching those readings,’ she barked. ‘I don’t want to miss anything.’

  My roar subsided into a growl, a throbbing purr that settled in my throat. I tugged at my hand, knowing how easily I could slice through the woman in front of me, through all of them, with my bladed fingers. And I would have, too. If I’d been free, I’d have killed them all where they stood.

  ‘There, there,’ Panettierre said to me. ‘Hush, now; be brave. There’s no reason to get upset. This will all be over very soon.’ Then, to somebody else. ‘Oh my God, it’s working, look.’

  I pushed against her fingers, seeing the scalpel wound already clotting with hardening nectar. I didn’t see what the big deal was, I’d recovered from far worse injuries than that. But the scientists were obviously impressed as they were practically fighting each other to get a closer look.

  ‘Fairhurst, get a sample of that,’ Panettierre said, prodding the scab with her gloved finger. I tried another growl but what little nectar had been pumped into my system was already used up. Somebody shoved his way to the front, using another scalpel to slice off a section of the clotted wound before scampering off with his prize. ‘You seeing that?’ Panettierre went on. ‘Readings are off the chart. His temperature is going on for fifty-eight degrees centigrade.’

  They busied themselves around me for what seemed like for ever, measuring, gauging, prodding. All I could do was lie there, hoping that they were telling me the truth, that they were looking for a cure. I don’t know how much later it was that Panettierre lifted the scalpel again, holding it a few centimetres away from the first hole she’d made.

  ‘Just a few more of these,’ she said. ‘We need to do this because we have to understand how you work, we have to unlock the truth of your genetic mutations. You must realise that if we can’t, if we fail, then the country will fall.’

  I protested, but even as the words tumbled from my mouth her blade was slicing into my skin, parting it as if it were paper.

  ‘Don’t be a baby, Alex,’ she said. ‘I know you’re braver than this. Just grit your teeth and it will be over in a minute.’

  But it wasn’t. I don’t know how long it went on for, my consciousness flowing in and out like the tide on a moonless night. It could have been hours, it felt like days. The scientists came and went, anonymous behind their masks. Only Panettierre stayed, cutting hole after hole then fixing them up with a droplet of nectar. Each time she’d whisper comforting words into my ear, stroking my brow. But her eyes never met mine. They never left the canvas of ravaged skin laid out in front of her.

  At some point I lost the strength to keep my head up and it fell to the side. Past the churning ocean of gas masks I made out the blacksuit on the table beside me. He hadn’t been dead after all, because he stared back, his eyes more lead than silver, a trail of black blood leaking from his lips down over his cheek.

  I didn’t look away, and neither did he. We just lay there, watching each other. We were enemies, yes, but right now we were bound by the same horror, the same powerlessness, the same fear. We all were, everything in this room – the blacksuits, the rats, the berserkers, and me. We were enemies, but I had never felt closer to them. We were enemies, but we were brothers with a common goal.

  We had to get out of here.

  Into the Pit

  It was night by the time they finished with me. The skylights had darkened into eyes which peered inside like observers at an autopsy.

  I had been drifting in and out of consciousness for hours now, each tiny dose of nectar rebooting my system for just a few seconds. Every time I fell into sleep the orchard rose up around me, trees sprouting from the floor, branches coiling up over my bed like the tentacles of some sea monster. Then I’d blink and be back in the hospital, Panettierre slicing away while her doctors stared goggle-eyed. But I knew the dream was still there, awaiting my return. I couldn’t hide from it for ever.

  At some point the blacksuit next to me died. I watched it happen, saw the spark in his eyes sputter, flare brightly for a fraction of a second, and then fade. A while later some soldiers cut his body loose from the table and dragged it away, I guessed to an incinerator somewhere. It was shortly afterwards that Panettierre threw her scalpel into a dish and wiped her nectar-encrusted hands on her white overalls.

  ‘I think we’re done here,’ she wheezed through her gas mask. ‘Send the results to my quarters, I need to double-check them.’ The scientists began to drift away until only the colonel remained. She rested a hand on the table and wiped her other arm over her mask, feigning mopping the sweat from her brow. ‘Phew,’ she said to me. ‘That was tough. But you’ve done well, Alex. We’ve learned a great deal today, about you and the disease inside you. Are you feeling okay?’

  I didn’t need to see my body to know what it looked like – pockmarked with fresh wounds, craters in my skin, like the surface of the moon. When she saw I wasn’t going to answer she carried on.

  ‘The nectar, it’s astonishing,’ she said. ‘It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It’s almost – I don’t know – intelligent, the way it targets wounds. Like a supercharged clotting agent, only more than that too. It functions so much more efficiently than blood, carrying twenty, maybe thirty times as much oxygen. And it makes your physiology go haywire, seems to act like a neurological drug, numbing emotional transmissions, fear, any kind of reason.’ She shook her head, as if she couldn’t believe the words coming out of her own mouth. ‘It’s no wonder we’re getting hammered out there. An army filled with this stuff could win any war, full stop.’

  She paused, lost somewhere in her own imagination, and the way her eyes lit up made my skin crawl. It was a while before she remembered I was there.

  ‘But there’s so much left to do before we truly understand what this liquid is. It’s quite unpredictable. For instance, why does it affect different people differently, turning some into psychotic, mindless killers, the ones you call rats, and others into monsters? I mean those berserkers have completely changed, there’s nothing human in them any more. And how come some of you can talk, the ones in suits?’

  She looked at me as if expecting to be enlightened, only waiting for a second or two before continuing her barrage of questions.

  ‘And what about you? You seem to be somewhere in between. You have the body of a monster, a berserker, and yet you seem to have the mind of a normal teenager. It really doesn’t make much sense. Do you remember anything about this? Did the warden explain it?’

  My life in the prison seemed so long ago now that even if the warden had told me the full truth about the nectar I doubt I could have remembered it.

  ‘Well, no matter,’ she said. ‘I can understand why you’re too tired to speak. It’s been a long day. But it’s not quite over yet, I’m afraid. There’s a little something we need you to do for us. It won’t take long, and then you can sleep, I promise.’

  She nodded to somebody behind me and I heard an engine start up, the sound of gears crunching, the whine of an approaching vehicle. Panettierre stood to one side as a small forklift truck wheeled into view, its prongs sliding under my table. There was a jolt as it was lifted off the floor, the room spinning like a fairground ride.

  ‘Don’t worry, Alex,’ came Panettierre’s voice. She walked along beside me as the truck carted me across the room, heading for a large loading door. Dozens of creatures watched us pass from the operating tables, their constant motion as they thrashed and bucked making me feel like I was on a boat sailing across an ocean of wounded flesh. ‘It shouldn’t be dangerous, not for you. We just need to see how the nectar works in a … I gues
s you’d call it a combat situation.’

  I didn’t have time to ask her what she meant. A couple of soldiers pulled open the loading door and the truck passed through it into a canvas tunnel which concealed the night sky for the fifty-metre journey across a concrete yard to a second brick building. We crawled towards it, entering through a wide door.

  At first I thought it was another white-tiled operating theatre, like the one I’d been in moments ago. Then I noticed the massive pit in the floor. No, not a pit, a pool. It was a swimming pool, only all of the water had been drained away. It was surrounded by a metal cage, its sides parallel with the edges of the pool. I peered through those shining bars as the forklift carried me closer, almost expecting to see a pair of cage fighters, as if this were some bizarre TV game show. But all I saw was a sloped floor rising out of a crimson swamp, as if somebody had been trying to fill the pool with blood. There were soldiers and scientists surrounding the cage, all in gas masks, too many of them to count.

  My guts began to twist, and I wondered if I should be trying to get loose, trying to escape. But I stayed quiet and I stayed still. Instinct told me that I’d need to save what little strength I had for whatever was about to happen.

  ‘Put him straight in,’ Panettierre shouted. ‘Prep the others.’

  A door in the side of the cage slid open and the forklift eased me forward until I was dangling over the deep end. To either side of me there was a roar as two chainsaws started up in stereo. I heard somebody barking out a countdown and then I was bathed in sparks, the whole room lighting up. Before I could make sense of what was going on, the coils of shipping wire around me loosened, the forklift lurched and I found myself falling. I landed in a pile of something soft and wet, my operating table striking the floor next to me, splintering the tiles. There was a crunch overhead as the cage door grated shut and I looked up in time to see the doctors crowd around it, Panettierre pushing to the front.

  I managed to lift myself onto my haunches, but that was as far as I could go. When I attempted to stand up the whole room cartwheeled, my legs too weak to hold me. I crouched, trying to haul in a breath, my whole body trembling with the effort. I realised that I was dressed in a flimsy surgical gown, needles and sensor pads still plastered all over my skin.

 
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