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       Execution, p.6

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  You killed my brother. Furnace whispered. I’ll kill you for that.

  THE ONLY WAY TO KILL ME IS TO ACCEPT MY OFFER.

  Furnace lifted his head as best he could, his eyes glinting at the thought of retribution. The stranger continued to stroke his hair with his branch-like fingers, the same cooing purr vibrating from his throat.

  JÓZSEF DIED FOR YOU, ALFRED. HE GAVE HIS LIFE SO THAT YOU MIGHT LIVE FOR EVER. IF YOU DO NOT ACCEPT, HE WILL HAVE BEEN LOST FOR NOTHING. IF YOU DO NOT ACCEPT, I LIVE ON TO KILL AGAIN.

  The boy’s eyes were now closed. He could sense death there, we both could. And I guess that’s why he made the decision he did – not because of his brother, not so that he might live for ever, but because when you’re standing on the edge of the void, when you feel yourself about to tumble into the unfathomable, unthinkable darkness of death, you’ll do anything to stop it. I willed for him to pass, but it was pointless. I already knew Furnace’s story, after all. I already knew what his answer would be. He gave a single, almost imperceptible nod.

  I accept.

  The stranger’s face unfolded, shadowed petals blossoming, contracting, blossoming again. Then he threw back his head and laughed – not a sound but a sonic pulse that exploded through the orchard, splitting trees, bringing branches crashing to the earth. He stepped away, holding his left arm in front of Alfred Furnace, his hand tilted back. Then he dragged the nails of his other hand across his wrist.

  Black blood began to fall to the earth, slowly at first, then gushing like an oil well. My heart recognised what it was before my brain did, my pulse beating furiously. Nectar. The stranger pulled the boy’s head back with his free hand and brought the severed vein to Furnace’s mouth. The boy choked as the liquid flowed into him, disappearing down his throat. Nectar gushed from between his lips, but not for long – soon he was swallowing it eagerly, his body demanding more, like a starving man at a banquet.

  Furnace’s face was changing, his cheeks bulging as the tainted blood poured into him, surging down his gullet. He spat out a cry, tugging his right hand until it tore free from the nail, clamping his fingers around the stranger’s arm and holding it there. He did the same with his left, the effort cleaving his palm in two and sending him crashing onto his knees. But he didn’t seem to notice the pain. All he cared about was the creature’s blood, the nectar.

  My mind reeled, unable to believe what I was seeing. I knew this was a dream, taking place only in my head, but if Furnace was right, if this was a memory for him, it meant this had actually happened.

  The stranger was growing weak, the dense cloud of shadow that hung around him becoming less opaque. His right arm began to crumple, folding in on itself like the tendril of a burning plant. One of his legs buckled, then the other, and he staggered to his knees. It was as if he was sinking into a vast sea trench, the pressure of the water compressing his body. With an almighty crack his head began to shrink, deflating, crushed by an invisible force, pulled down into his neck.

  Furnace kept drinking, consuming every last drop of the stranger’s blood, until all that remained was a desiccated husk on the orchard floor.

  The kid was crouching on his haunches, more animal than human. He shook himself, tar-coloured blood spraying from his lips, and when he opened his mouth a growl fell out of it, one that pulsed around the orchard with the same ground-shaking force as the stranger’s laughter. He cocked his head towards me, and when he opened his eyes they were vortexes of shadow, so deep and so furious that they threatened to pull me in.

  We are all puppets hanging over an ocean of madness, the boy said, and it was no longer the whine of a child but the voice I knew so well, that thunderous whisper of Alfred Furnace. All it takes is one simple snip and we fall.

  He held his ruined hands up to his face and I could see the flesh there knitting back together, the stranger’s blood healing him. When he turned back to me his mouth had flopped open into a cruel imitation of a smile.

  Now you know.

  He threw himself across the clearing, running on all fours, his black eyes seeming to pump out their own impossible light which corrupted everything it touched. I saw trees crack, the bark splitting, apples disappearing beneath growing tides of mould, dead birds decomposing into tattered skeletons, all in a blink of the boy’s nightmare gaze.

  With a laugh he vanished amongst the trees, but his voice floated back to me on the breeze, as clear as if he was standing right next to me, whispering in my ear.

  Now you know how it all began.

  History

  I woke to the sound of my name.

  At least, I think I woke. Almost completely drained of blood and nectar, teetering between insanity and death, I could no longer say for sure what was real and what was a dream. I was sitting in a chair in a small cell, almost identical to the one I’d first woken up in. My torso was bound once more with wire, but my body felt numb – except for the memory of the orchard floor against my feet, the stranger’s touch on my forehead.

  It was almost as if this world was slowly losing itself, dissolving into my imagination, becoming a dream.

  There was something else, too, a muted pain in my head. I shook it from side to side and that dull throb seemed to shift, sliding back and forth over my brain like there was something trapped in there.

  My name again, spoken with an American accent. I opened my eyes to see a blurred shape by my side. Was it Panettierre? Something had happened, hadn’t it, before I slept? Something about a pit, and a berserker. Had it been another test, like the one the warden had given me back in the prison? I couldn’t for the life of me remember.

  ‘Alex, are you in there?’

  I blinked, focused, realised that the person in my room wasn’t Panettierre at all. It was a boy. More memories, but there was so little nectar left in me that they were like fish dying in the bottom of a leaking barrel. One managed to leap up above the rest, hanging there just long enough for me to grasp it.

  ‘Zee?’

  The boy’s face opened up, his smile almost dazzling. He looked different from the last time I’d seen him – a time which seemed like aeons ago – cleaner, his hair washed and brushed. He was wearing a set of overalls, and for a second I thought they were Furnace stripes. But they were green rather than dirty white. Army fatigues. I felt his hand on my shoulder, a reassuring squeeze. It was only then that I realised my arms were laid out on a table, secured in place. I wiggled the strange protrusions on my left hand. The blackened stumps hadn’t changed. I guess there wasn’t enough nectar to work with.

  ‘Good to have you back, Alex,’ he said. ‘I was getting worried. You looked like you were about to die in your sleep.’

  ‘I was dreaming,’ I muttered, shaking my head, trying to wake up, to work out what was going on. ‘What are you doing here?’

  Zee’s smile wavered.

  ‘Is that any way to speak to your best buddy?’ he asked, and then the smile fell away completely. He glanced over his shoulder, the cell door shut, then he looked up at a camera on the wall, pointing right at us. ‘Let’s see if I can make you a bit more comfortable.’ He stood and bent over me, straightening my gown, his back to the camera. When he spoke next it was in a whisper. ‘They’re listening, so don’t say anything that they won’t – you know, won’t like.’ I started to protest but he cut me off. ‘This place is messed up, big time. It’s almost as bad as Furnace, only these guys don’t know what they’re doing. The only reason you’re alive is because you can still talk. But that won’t save you for long.’

  He sat back, his voice returning to normal.

  ‘There, that’s better. I told them that you’d listen to me, that you’d tell us how to find the people behind the invasion.’

  ‘But I don’t—’

  ‘You don’t remember, I know,’ Zee interrupted. ‘But it will come back to you, right?’ He winked at me, nodding furiously. ‘If they’re patient for a few more days then it will come back to you.’

  I took the h
int, returning his nod with one of my own. Zee seemed to relax, crashing back in his chair. There was a moment of quiet, filled only by the growl of a truck’s engine from outside the window and the distant whump of helicopter blades. He flicked another look at the door, leaning in and lowering his voice again.

  ‘I told them everything, all about the prison, what was going on there. They believed me. Not that they had a choice. I mean, they’re losing this war, getting torn to pieces. The only thing they won’t accept is the stuff about Alfred Furnace. They think whoever built the prison is somebody else, somebody using his name.’

  I told Zee about the nightmare, the words falling from me in clumps like rotten fruit dropping from the branch, sounding even more insane than they had in my dream. Zee sat there patiently, his head cocked.

  ‘It is Furnace,’ I said when I’d finished. They say the child is father to the man, and if anyone could have spawned the monster behind the prison, the creature whose dark thoughts blossomed in my head, it was that kid.

  ‘I know,’ Zee said. ‘I heard him too, remember. The phone in the warden’s office.’ He shuddered so hard his chair rattled. ‘But there’s a problem. They’ve looked into it and the only Alfred Furnace they can find was born, like, in the eighteenth century or something. In Hungary.’

  ‘What?’ I asked, thinking of the orchard, wondering if that’s where it was. I couldn’t even picture where Hungary was on a map. ‘Seriously? Hungary?’

  ‘No thanks, I’ve just eaten,’ Zee replied, that contagious smile back on his face, seeming to make the room twice as big. ‘Sorry, I couldn’t resist it. Anyway, I tell you he was born over three hundred years ago and it’s the Hungary bit you don’t believe?’

  I could see what he meant, but it made perfect sense to me. I mean, if the warden had fought in the Second World War he had to have been well over a hundred, and it made sense that his boss was even older. What was a century or two when you had nectar in your veins? I shrugged as best I could and Zee carried on.

  ‘Impostor or not, Alfred Furnace is the only lead they have. They’ve dug up loads of stuff about him – this is military intelligence we’re talking about, and not just ours, either, the whole world is joining in. There’s not much about his early life, but apparently by the turn of the century – the nineteenth, that is – he had come into a vast amount of money, set himself up as a duke or something. He was famous for his army, led them in the November Uprising against the Russian Empire in 1830, the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, and in the January Uprising twenty years later, too.’ He paused, swallowing, his eyes flitting up to the window over my head. ‘Y’ know, I’ve heard about all this stuff. We did it in history. It’s real.’

  ‘He got about a bit, didn’t he?’ I said. ‘How come he wasn’t made a king or anything?’

  ‘Hungary was still part of the Austrian Empire then. They didn’t have their own king. Besides, Alfred Furnace was a peasant. As far as we can tell, anyway. But he was certainly as powerful as one. His soldiers were feared across Europe, across the world.’

  ‘Let me guess: super fast, super strong, more animal than human.’

  ‘You got it,’ Zee said. ‘And famous for wearing black on the battlefield. But they were an elite group, never more than a handful of them.’

  ‘I don’t remember hearing his name at school, though,’ I said.

  ‘That’s because he wasn’t called Furnace, not back then. Alfred Furnace is a translation of his Hungarian name, Alfréd Kazán.’

  ‘Kazán? Sounds like a magician.’

  ‘Yeah, and people thought he was, too. Black magic and stuff. Anyway, he had this terrible reputation for bloodshed and murder on the battlefield all the way through the 1800s, and then he just disappears, vanishes into thin air. The records, what few there are, assume he died.’

  ‘But he didn’t.’

  ‘No, he didn’t. He just moved.’

  ‘Where?’ I asked, trying to stretch the cramped muscles of my legs, the wire holding me tight. ‘Here?’

  ‘No, to Austria, Vienna. Except he told the authorities he was his own grandson, Heinrich.’

  ‘Tricky,’ I said.

  ‘Yeah, you could say that,’ grinned Zee. ‘Anyway, he had connections with the university, built his own college up there. Any of this sounding familiar?’

  ‘Should it?’ I asked. Zee’s smile flashed back for a second, uncertain.

  ‘It’s like the plot of Frankenstein,’ he said. ‘Furnace got into trouble, was accused of meddling with stuff that shouldn’t be meddled with. Some sort of eugenics, they thought; selective breeding. Only it wasn’t that, it was nectar. There’s nothing specific in any of the papers or anything, just that he was pretty much forced out of the city. If you ask me, Vienna’s when he started trying to reproduce the nectar artificially, rather than just letting people drink his blood or whatever. I guess he couldn’t make many soldiers by just feeding them his own nectar so he wanted to replicate it, find a way to generate it, maybe make it even more powerful.’

  I imagined how much of his own supply it would have taken to build an army. It must have been a constant drain on him.

  ‘I think that’s why he went there in the first place,’ Zee continued. ‘Because it was like the scientific capital of the world.’

  ‘So what happened next?’

  Zee shook his head.

  ‘That’s where the trail runs cold. There are dispatches that mention a Kazán during the First World War, in Germany, but they’re too vague to confirm anything. He must have been in Germany during the rise of the Nazis, though. He’s not mentioned by name in any history books, but I think Hitler and those other creeps gave Furnace the chance to work on the nectar. I think they recruited him, charged him with creating the ultimate super soldier.’

  ‘Yeah, that makes sense,’ I said, remembering what the warden had told me, what he had shown me. ‘And when they lost the war Furnace came here, changed his name from Kazán, set himself up as a businessman, opened the prison, built his tower, and carried on perfecting the nectar.’

  ‘Bingo,’ said Zee. ‘Except, of course, they don’t believe he’s three hundred years old. They’re working on the theory that the man who built the prison, the man behind the attacks, is a distant relative of Alfréd Kazán. There’s enough of a paper trail to link the Furnace estate with funds deposited in Kazán family accounts around the world. But apparently the actual company records are so messed up and complicated that they don’t think they’ll ever know for sure. In short, they’ve no idea who they’re looking for; the only thing they’re sure of is that it’s not Alfred Furnace – I mean Kazán – the original one. Ironic, don’t you think?’

  There was a moment of quiet while I tried to digest what I’d heard.

  ‘They managed to find all that out in a few hours?’ I asked. ‘That’s pretty good going.’

  Zee glanced up at the window again, then over his shoulder at the camera, all the time chewing on something.

  ‘What?’ I asked.

  ‘It’s not been a few hours, Alex,’ he said. ‘You’ve been drifting in and out for four days now.’

  ‘Four days?’ I said. ‘How’s that possible?’

  ‘They’ve drained you of almost all the nectar. It’s part of their plan to try and find out what this stuff is, and how your body copes without it. You’ve only got a trickle left in you.’ He pointed to the side of a room, to an IV bag filled with crimson liquid. ‘Plus plenty of that.’

  ‘Blood?’

  ‘Yeah. They’re seeing what happens when you replace the nectar with normal blood.’

  ‘It’ll kill me,’ I said. I didn’t know that for sure but I felt it. My body was used to the nectar, putting blood in my veins would be like putting water in a car’s petrol tank. Eventually the engine would just splutter and die.

  ‘I know,’ Zee said, nodding slowly. His voice lowered to a whisper again. ‘They’ve already killed off dozens of rats, berserkers too, by doing the same
thing. They’re butchers in here, and that Panettierre is the worst of them. They’ve dissected them, boiled them, burned them alive, shot them full of acid, hacked off their limbs. I’ve seen it, Alex. They made me watch because I was in the prison, because I saw for myself what the warden was doing.’

  He shot a look back at the camera, then turned his sad, tired eyes to me.

  ‘But it won’t be long before they try and cut me to pieces too. I made the mistake of telling them I was immune to the nectar.’ I remembered, back in the tunnels beneath the prison, the warden had been about to throw Zee in the incinerator because his system didn’t respond to the nectar. ‘You should have seen their eyes light up, like it was Christmas. They told me I was safe, because I was human, but I know bull when I hear it.’

  He swore, crashing back on his chair, staring at the wall.

  ‘They’ve got Simon, too,’ he said softly. ‘He’s in the same ward as me, in a cell. They don’t call it a cell, they call it our quarters, but they keep the doors locked. Panettierre’s keeping him alive for the same reason she’s keeping you alive, because he can talk and everything, because he’s still, y’ know, human. But he’s on her list, I’ve seen it.’

  ‘List?’ I asked, trying to put a face to the name Simon, pulling vague strands of memory loose from the confusion in my head – a boy with silver eyes and one overgrown arm, a boy who saved my life back in the tower, when I was fighting the warden. Zee nodded.

  ‘Yeah, they’ve got this list of test subjects, mainly rats and berserkers, but you’re on it too, and Simon. You’re both marked as expendable. They don’t care if they kill you.’

  ‘Tell me something I don’t know,’ I muttered.

  ‘Okay,’ Zee said, leaning forward again. ‘I bet you don’t know why they’re trying to harness the power of the nectar.’

  ‘So they can stop Furnace,’ I replied. ‘So they can find a cure, save the world.’

  ‘After everything we’ve been through, everything we’ve seen, you honestly think that’s why?’

 
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