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       Execution, p.5

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  ‘Can you hear me down there, Alex?’ said Panettierre. ‘Those pads on you, they’ll tell us all we need to know, you don’t have to worry about any of that. All we’re asking you to do is help us out a little. Will you do that?’

  Something howled, a banshee’s cry that echoed off the tiled walls, scraping down my spine.

  ‘Stand well away,’ I heard somebody say. ‘Dump it straight in.’

  Another forklift truck rolled into view on the lip of the pool. This one held a cage, and cramped inside it was a berserker. It wasn’t like any I had seen to date, its body made up of yellow-white skin that was knotted and warped as though carved from solid bone. Its skull was huge and cone shaped, arching back like a cycling helmet. I’d seen pictures of African tribes who bound their skulls to make them long and pointy, and this reminded me of them. The creature’s forehead jutted so far forward that its face was cast into shadow, and only when it arched its back did I get a good look at it.

  Its eyes, nose and mouth were clustered right in the middle of its head, squished together like the punched-in features of a cartoon figure hit with a frying pan. I didn’t see how a face like that could still function, but it must have done because the berserker turned its eyes in my direction, sniffing the air, a tiny tongue poking from the pencil-sharpener hole of its mouth, licking at non-existent lips.

  The berserker’s cage was pushed right up against the door above me, and in a single motion both hatches were slid open. The creature leapt down into the pool, causing a crimson tsunami. I scrabbled back, adrenaline making the most of what little nectar was left in my system. The berserker didn’t attack, just cocked its head as if trying to get a good look at me with its under-developed eyes. This close I could see they were lumpy and off-white, like fried eggs with their yolks broken.

  The forklift truck wheeled back, beeping, but as soon as it had gone another appeared, also holding a cage. This one contained something else, smaller but wilder. A rat. I thought for a moment that the clothes it wore – drenched in a bib of black blood – were prison overalls. But I was wrong. It was wearing beige combats, and when it moved something glittered around its neck.

  Dog tags.

  The rat hacked and slashed at the bars, so hard that its fingers were torn and bloody, its nails long gone. But it didn’t care. Of course it didn’t. It was mindless, emotionless, just a vehicle of flesh controlled by the nectar inside, nectar which gushed from its distended jaws.

  Once more the cage was pushed up against the metal fence around the pool, the two hatches sliding open as one. In the blink of an eye the rat was out, swinging onto the inside of the pool cage like a monkey at the zoo. The scientists fell away, but one was too slow. The rat reached through a gap and grabbed his mask, wrenching him forward so hard that his head bounced off the metal. A dozen arms wrapped themselves around the injured scientist, pulling him away before the rat could inflict further damage.

  I was still retreating, shuffling on my knees towards the far side of the pool, my gown drenched in blood. The berserker was studying me, not showing any sign of movement. I’d fought creatures like it before – back in the prison – and I’d won. But right now, drained of nectar, I didn’t stand a chance. Especially with a rat in here as well. The smaller creature turned to me now, its eyes like lumps of coal in its head, a cry of animal rage bubbling from its lips.

  I felt cold tiles against my back, realised there was nowhere to run. Above me the scientists had returned to the bars, their desire to watch obviously overpowering any thoughts of personal safety. I held up my left hand to them – even this seeming like an impossible act – silently begging them for mercy. But there was no compassion in their eyes, only greed.

  With another gargled howl the rat dropped into the pool, its bare feet slapping in the mush as it charged towards me. Its broken hands were held out towards my throat, its teeth gnashing at the air. It was possible that it only wanted to bite me, infect me with the nectar. If that was the case then I could let it – it would give me strength, help me survive. But it could just as easily open up my throat, finish me off. It was a chance I didn’t really want to take.

  Sheer terror got me to my feet, the side of the pool the only thing stopping me from toppling over. The rat was almost on me, launching itself into the air so fast it was just a blur against the tiles. I did the only thing I could think of, sticking out the blade of my right hand, hoping that the freak would impale itself. I closed my eyes, waited for the impact, but it never came.

  There was a choked squeak, the snap of a bone breaking. I looked past the extended blade of my hand to see the rat in a pile on the floor, one leg sticking out at a bizarre angle. Towering over it was the berserker. The rat screeched, no emotion registering on its twisted face. It didn’t pay any attention to the creature next to it, just hurled itself at me again. This time I saw what happened, the berserker lashing out with one of its arms, catching the rat in the ribs and sending it flying. Its flailing form hit the side of the pool hard enough to crack the tiles before falling into the muck.

  Despite its injuries, the rat looked as if it was about to try again, but before it could move the berserker was on it. It hefted the squirming creature up in its two giant fists, then, with a grunt of effort, bent it in half, snapping its spine. I stared at the berserker, unable to believe what I had just seen. It looked back at me, beads of oil-black blood dripping from its ivory skin.

  Then, incredibly, it walked over to me and laid the dead rat at my feet. It shuffled back, never taking those egg-yolk eyes away from mine. I stared into them, wondering what thoughts were going through its head – and whether they were its thoughts at all. Was it a berserker who stared at me, who nodded expectantly towards the corpse, or was it Alfred Furnace?

  ‘What is it doing, Alex?’ I heard Panettierre shout. The berserker turned in the direction of her voice, uttering a bark like a gorilla’s: a warning. I didn’t answer, I didn’t move, my confusion too great. The hulking beast pushed the corpse towards me the way a mother lion might offer a dead gazelle to her cubs, a high-pitched whine escaping its tiny mouth. I understood what it meant – it wanted me to eat.

  I struggled to move, eventually managing to crouch over the rat. Somebody was banging on the bars above me.

  ‘Hey,’ one of the scientists yelled. ‘This isn’t part of the experiment. Leave it alone!’ But no sooner had he spoken than I heard Panettierre countermand the order:

  ‘Leave them, let’s see what happens.’

  I ignored them all, lowering my mouth towards the rat. I could see the nectar still pumping out of it, the crimson specks inside glowing like molten lava. My strength faltered, but the berserker scooped the corpse up, pushing it against my lips.

  ‘Stop this,’ the man’s voice said. ‘Take them down, right now.’

  ‘No!’ screamed Panettierre, but as she did so there was a shot, something thudding into the berserker hard enough to rock it on its heels. It grunted, but still it didn’t move, holding the rat in front of me. I glanced once more at Panettierre, her delight visible even behind her mask, then I opened my mouth and let the nectar flood inside. That familiar disgusting taste gushed over my tongue, unbearably rancid, but it was forgotten as soon as the poison hit my system. It burned through me, strength raging into every muscle like a flash fire. I gulped down as much as I could, even as another shot punched through the berserker’s chest, then a third, finally driving the creature back.

  It didn’t matter. I had no need of outside assistance now. I was up and moving before I was even aware of it, tossing the corpse to one side as I propelled myself up the side of the pool and grabbed hold of the bars with the mutated fingers of my left hand. Everybody staggered away, all except for Panettierre, who didn’t even flinch. I thrust the blade of my hand through, trying to stab her, to end her, but she was just out of reach. She studied me for a moment as I tried to smash my way through, then she turned and gave another order.

  ‘That’s enough. Seda
te him; dice the other one.’

  Half a dozen soldiers pushed through the scientists, rifles aimed at my chest. I dropped from the bars but I was too late, a flurry of red-feathered darts whispering between them and into my skin. I fought the drowsiness, running to the far side of the pit and trying my luck there. I didn’t even make it up the wall, my feet slipping, depositing me into the filth.

  The pool was filling, not with liquid but with darkness – those same nightmare trees pushing up from the tiles, growing to full height in the blink of an eye. My thoughts were crushed into dust beneath the nectar and the tranquilliser darts. There was nothing left inside my mind, a black void of utter stillness. I scanned the pool, my gaze falling on the berserker. It was tripping backwards, bullet holes erupting across its torso like bulging red eyes. It collapsed to its knees, its mouth opening, a single cry dropping out.

  I don’t know why, but I used the very last of my strength to crawl through the muck of the pool towards the berserker. It’s not as if I wanted to save it – it was too late for that anyway, not with at least twenty armourpiercing rounds inside it. No, it was something else. I guess when you’re trapped inside a cage, hundreds of eyes watching you teeter on the edge of death, you just want to know you’re not alone.

  The berserker was on its side now, a lake of nectar spilling out from its belly and chest. It blinked its pus-yellow eyes at me, and it might have been my imagination but I swear it lifted a hand, letting me crawl closer before wrapping it protectively around my shoulders. It was the last thing it would ever do, because with a bone-breaking judder its body stalled, then lay still.

  I looked up past its knotted limb, realised that Panettierre was watching me from the edge of the pool. She was smiling, the searing lights of the room reflected in the glass of her visor looking like a grin which seemed to stretch off the sides of her face, making her eyes gleam.

  And the last thought I had before falling out of time was that she looked just like the warden.

  The Stranger

  The nightmare was waiting for me, as if I had never left.

  And it was more real than ever.

  My vision was blurred, the way it is when you wake from a deep sleep, but even though I couldn’t see the orchard I knew I was back there. I could feel the mush of flyblown fruit between my bare toes, worms squirming beneath me. That cold wind still brushed across my scalp like fingers, only now it carried with it the smell of the place – the stench of rotting wood, of rancid blood and bird crap and, past that, something else, something worse.

  I gagged, doubling over, my body able to move but my feet once again rooted in place as though the hands of dead men rose from the soil to claim me. Tears streamed down my face as I fought for breath. I was coughing so hard that something clawed up my windpipe, scuttling from my mouth and over my cheek, disappearing into my hair. I moaned, a noise of utter desperation. It was just too much – the real world and the dream world opposite corners of the same hell.

  And I hadn’t even opened my eyes yet. I couldn’t, because I knew that he was there. The stranger. Maybe if I couldn’t see him then he wouldn’t be able to see me.

  It was the sobs which finally made me look, pitiful cries that could have been my own but which came from the other side of the clearing. I wiped my eyes, seeing that the kid, Alfred Furnace, was still nailed to the tree, his body hanging like a broken branch. At first I thought he was alone, and then I saw the stranger. He stood right in front of the boy, his body nothing more than a silhouette, a pit that sucked in the sickly light of the orchard and returned only cold waves of darkness. It was as if the view before me was a photograph, and the shape of the man had been burned out of it – he wasn’t human, he was the absence of humanity.

  He was tall, towering over the kid by a good metre. Tall and skeletally thin, his arms and legs too long, too many joints there, his fingers like distended shadows. His spine was crooked like an old man’s, and yet this thing, whatever it was, reeked of power. It looked down at the boy, not moving, just staring. And even though Furnace’s cries tore at my heart I was glad of them, because it meant the stranger wasn’t looking at me.

  Something fell from a branch overhead, a soft, feathered body that struck the ground, flapping its wings a couple of times before lying still. Another followed, then a third – this one so close it almost hit me. I watched the crow’s wild eyes fade. Seven, maybe eight more birds dropped dead from the trees, and where they landed the grass and weeds turned brown, shrivelling back into the soil. Even the movement of the worms grew more urgent, their bodies writhing as they fought to escape the putrefaction which gripped the orchard.

  Furnace’s cries reached a crescendo, a symphony of terror as he tried to wriggle his way free from the tree. The stranger walked around him, studying him, and even though I could make out neither eyes nor a mouth in the pool of darkness that served as his face, I knew he was smiling. There seemed to be no end to the torment, and I wondered whether Furnace’s misery would go on for ever, whether I would be stuck with him in this loop of broken time.

  But eventually the boy grew weak, his cries drying up, his body trembling like a dead leaf. His head lolled to his chest, and I thought for a moment he had finally died. Then his mouth opened and he spoke in a whisper.

  What do you want?

  The stranger didn’t reply. Instead, he reached down towards the pool of blood that had formed beneath Furnace. He didn’t bend; it was as if his arm extended, stretched out like liquorice. One finger uncurled from his loose fist, the nail as long as my palm, and he used it to scoop up a nugget of crimson soil. The arm swept back up in a lazy arc, contracting to its former length. A crack opened up in his head and he popped the nugget into it, his entire body shivering with perverse delight.

  And then the stranger spoke. Or, rather, communicated, the outline of his face-that-wasn’t-a-face unfolding and refolding like an origami mask. There were no words, but there was meaning. It pulsed out of him in waves, making the trees and the wind whisper, making the ground rumble and the air above us thunder – the whole orchard becoming a voice which shifted in pitch and volume, the effect making me seasick.

  DEATH IS NEARLY UPON YOU, ALFRED. BUT DEATH DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THE END.

  The boy didn’t reply, just hung there, and I knew that he was willing on his own passing, that he was praying for the end to come. Because better that death took him than this thing. I understood it because the same thoughts were racing through my own mind. The stranger reached out again, a dark shadow that unfolded beneath Furnace’s chin, lifting his head. His fingers were so long that it looked as though a huge spider was resting on the boy’s face.

  WAS YOUR CRIME WORTH IT, BOY?

  This time Furnace responded.

  You know I didn’t do it. You killed József; you are my brother’s murderer.

  The stranger’s hand retreated, reminding me of the way a snail’s horns shrink into its head when they are touched. His not-face opened and closed, a myriad of dark corners weaving in and out of each other, and once again his wordless message was clear.

  I KILLED YOUR BROTHER IN ORDER TO SAVE YOU.

  I knew that was a lie, and Furnace did too because he shot the man a look of undiluted hatred. The stranger’s face moved relentlessly, reminding me of the cogs and blades inside an engine, and yet somehow I could still see the smile there. A noise rose from him, a wet purr which thrummed across the clearing, and once again he reached out, fingers pushing the hair back from Furnace’s face then resting over his brow.

  As soon as the contact was made, shadow against flesh, an image flashed up in my mind – Furnace, free of the tree, his eyes burning black, radiating strength. Another followed, the same boy crouched over the bodies of his accusers, the people who had crucified him, his mother included, steam rising from their corpses. Him again, older now, at the head of an army, the soldiers behind him half man and half beast. Berserkers. The visions blinked on and off, each brighter than the last. Past them
I could see Furnace thrashing against the man’s touch, and I knew that he was seeing the same things, he was witnessing his future.

  ‘Don’t listen to him!’ I shouted, my fear overcoming my paralysis. ‘It doesn’t have to be like that.’

  Without looking at me the stranger stretched out his other hand, the shadow sweeping over the clearing, impossibly far, clamping across my face. It was as if my head had been dunked in ice water, the sensation taking my breath away. Before I could recover, more images pummelled their way into my brain – this time showing Furnace and me, together, beating our enemies into the dirt, riding high over the world.

  I fought to block out the images, the same way I’d fought a lifetime ago back in the warden’s screening room, the same I way I’d fought every time the nectar raged inside me, but it was impossible to deny that rush of excitement. When you’re powerless, what greater temptation can there be than a promise of omnipotence?

  YOUR TIME WILL COME TOO, ALEX.

  Furnace was struggling as hard as I was, but I could see that his resolve was weakening. He’d been shown an alternative to death, he’d been shown a world in which he was more than just a kid, more than just a victim of injustice. He’d been shown a future where he could take his revenge. I’d been there, I knew exactly how that felt.

  The stranger’s hand dropped away from me. He stepped towards Furnace, cradling the boy’s head against his chest almost tenderly.

  DO YOU ACCEPT MY GIFT, ALFRED?

  Furnace’s head lolled against the stranger’s body. He was almost gone. Another minute maybe and death would claim him. I was amazed that he had lasted as long as he had, his body sliced open by his own mother’s blade.

 
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