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       Execution, p.9

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  Three tonnes of metal spun my way, the faces inside frozen in shock. It hit the ground right in front of me, momentum causing it to bounce, whistling over my head close enough to touch before cart wheeling into the burning building behind. A ball of heat and noise struck my back as the ruptured fuel tank exploded, pushing me onwards. I shot a look at the berserker as I passed it and the expression it wore seemed to be almost apologetic.

  Then we were through the window, swamped in the cool darkness of the atrium. The room we were in was small, classroom sized, and there was no sign of the suit until he pushed his head through the door in front of us.

  ‘Come on, there’s no time,’ he hissed. I caught up, chasing him down another corridor and through a double door, the berserker close behind. There was still no sign of its brother, the one which had been fighting the soldiers. We must have been in some kind of secure ward, as the rooms here had barred doors like back in the prison, each cell equipped with a bed and a toilet. It was almost like being back at home. One of the cage doors had been ripped clean away, lying on the floor like a metal skeleton.

  ‘This where Zee is?’ I asked. The blacksuit was moving between the cells, peering through the bars, talking as he walked.

  ‘I don’t know. Probably. This is where they were keeping me.’

  He stopped outside a cell, his fists wrapped around the bars. I hurried over, expecting – praying – to see a familiar face inside. But there was just another blacksuit there, stripped to his underwear, slumped on a bench. He was covered in fresh wounds, his skin a patchwork of scars and dried nectar. And he was dead.

  ‘Bastards,’ said the blacksuit by my side, and I think there was genuine emotion there. He blinked his silver eyes, mouthing something that I couldn’t quite hear, then he set off again.

  ‘Zee?’ I shouted as I followed. ‘Simon, you here?’

  More cells, most empty, some not. Rats thrashed and howled at us from behind a couple, the sound of their teeth crunching against the bars making my stomach churn. We had rounded two corners, and were on the verge of giving up, when somebody responded to my calls, a voice so faint it almost went unheard.

  ‘Zee?’ I yelled, running in the direction of the sound. ‘That you?’

  He called again, and by the time the echoes had faded I was looking in through the bars of a cell. There was a boy there, but he wasn’t Zee, and the surge of relief I felt was bitter-sweet.

  ‘Simon,’ I said, gripping the bars with my good hand. His smile lasted for the second or two until the blacksuit appeared by my side, the berserker taking position behind us, then he was pushing himself back against the far wall of his cell.

  ‘Alex?’ he said, eyeing us nervously. ‘What’s going on?’

  ‘It’ll take too long to explain,’ I replied, tugging at the cell door with my left hand. ‘And I’m not even sure I know. Let’s just get out of here, we can talk about it then.’

  ‘I’m not going anywhere with those two,’ he said, raising his own mutated arm in defence. It had once looked so monstrous, that limb, but compared to mine it was utterly human. I looked at it, jealous, trying not to see the scalpel-sharp blade of my right hand by my side.

  ‘You’ve got a choice,’ I said, echoing the words he had once said to me. ‘I don’t know how, or why, but for now these two are on our side. They’ll keep us safe.’ Simon spat out a reply but I didn’t let him finish. ‘You either come with us, or we leave you here so they can cut you open, study your insides. Your choice, make it now.’

  He was silent, and I swore I could see the cogs working behind those silver eyes of his. Then he nodded, straightening up. Once again I cleared my head, saw the berserker ripping the bars away. Sure enough the creature strode forward, grabbing the door and pulling it from the wall in a maelstrom of dust and shrapnel. It cast it to one side, the clang of metal loud enough to wake the dead. Simon scurried from the cell, keeping as far from the berserker as possible, taking shelter beside me.

  ‘That thing better not come any closer,’ he said, peeking out past my elbow. He seemed to have shrunk since the last time I’d seen him, back in Furnace’s tower. He looked thin, too, his emaciated body making his swollen arm seem bigger than ever. He must have been thinking something similar because he glanced up at me, frowning. ‘They been feeding you Ready Brek?’

  ‘Something like that,’ I said, feeling a smile tug at the corners of my mouth. It seemed to relax him. He stepped away, straightening the front of his black hoodie – the same one he’d got back in the mall, a million years ago.

  ‘So, what’s the plan?’ he asked. ‘You guys know a way out?’

  ‘He does,’ I replied, nodding at the blacksuit. ‘But first things first, we get Zee. He’s here too, somewhere. I’m not leaving him.’

  Simon’s face fell.

  ‘What?’ I asked. ‘Have you seen him?’

  He looked at me, then at the blacksuit, then finally over his shoulder at a cell across the hall. It was deserted, the door open.

  ‘He was right there,’ Simon said. ‘He’s been there since we got here.’

  ‘So where is he now?’ I asked, tempted to pick the boy up and shake the answers out of him. I managed to bite my tongue, hold my temper.

  ‘I don’t know,’ he said eventually. ‘They came about twenty minutes ago, just as all the fighting started. Soldiers, and that woman, Panettierre.’ He shrugged, studying his feet as though Zee’s location was printed there. ‘They came and they took him. He’s gone.’

  Face-off

  We headed back the way we’d come, hoping we’d think of a plan as we went. I was expecting the blacksuit to try and get me to leave without Zee, to abandon him so we could make our break, but to my surprise he was the one firing off ideas.

  ‘My guess,’ he said as we left the secure unit, jogging down the corridor beyond, ‘is that all military personnel will be evacuating.’

  ‘How?’ I asked, trying to ignore the throb which slid around the outside of my brain as we turned a corner. ‘On foot?’

  ‘Too dangerous,’ he said. ‘There are too many of us in the city. Most of the soldiers will be going by truck, but the people in charge will escape by air, I’m sure of it.’

  ‘Helicopters,’ I said, remembering the ones I’d seen circling the hospital, praying that we weren’t too late. ‘There must be a landing pad here.’

  ‘Yeah,’ said the suit. ‘There is, out back by the car park. I saw it when they brought me in. I’m betting that if they’ve got Zee, they’re taking him with them.’

  ‘Why Zee?’ Simon asked, his shoulder brushing the wall as he glanced nervously at the berserker behind us. The blacksuit shrugged, slowing down as we reached a large double fire door. I realised that we were heading back towards the main hospital building.

  ‘Because he’s immune to the nectar,’ I said, the truth suddenly dawning on me.

  ‘He’s immune?’ said the blacksuit. ‘Then he’s not worth risking your life for. Sooner or later, he’ll be eradicated. There’s no place for people like him—’

  ‘In the new world,’ I finished for him. ‘Yeah, I’ve heard it all before. Now shut up and keep moving.’

  I could feel the rage building inside the blacksuit, the heat radiating from him, but he held his tongue. He shook his head, then turned away. I snuck a look back at Simon to see that his jaw was almost on the floor. He mouthed something at me – WTF? – and I felt another twitch of a smile appear on my face.

  The blacksuit led the way through the doors, the maze of passageways continuing ahead of us. I could hear the roar of the fires close by, and past that somebody shouting. We were as silent as we could be as we hurried along the corridor, turning right at the junction at the end. It was lighter here, one half of the hallway made up of windows. I glanced through and at first I assumed there was a meadow out there, grass rippling in the breeze. It took me a moment to understand that it was actually a car park, packed from end to end with soldiers and army trucks in green camo
uflage. There was a tank out there as well.

  And behind them all was a giant Chinook transport helicopter, its two rotors spinning lazily.

  We all ducked, keeping below the glass. All except for the berserker, that is, which hovered in the shadows waiting for its orders. For a while none of us said anything, we just listened to the grumble of engines and the endless torrent of yelling from outside. Eventually the blacksuit began to climb through one of the windows.

  ‘Wait here,’ he said. ‘I’ll take a look outside.’

  ‘So,’ said Simon when we were alone. ‘What now?’

  I didn’t answer.

  ‘Because the way I see it,’ he went on, ‘we’re actually going to fight the soldiers that were meant to save us, right? We’re now on the same side as a blacksuit and a berserker – on the same side as Furnace?’

  ‘We’re not on his side,’ I spat back. ‘We just want Zee.’

  ‘That’s just messed up,’ he said, banging his head against the wall. ‘We should be killing these freaks,’ he gestured to the berserker by our side, ‘not the ones out there. The soldiers, they’re the good guys, Alex. They’re the ones trying to save the world.’

  ‘But they’re not,’ I replied, remembering what Zee had told me. ‘At least, their generals aren’t. They’re going to use the nectar, make berserkers of their own. You saw what Panettierre was doing. She’d sacrifice the whole world if it meant unlocking the secrets of the nectar – I could see that, Simon, in her eyes. She was as crazy as the warden.’

  ‘Are you absolutely sure about that?’ he asked. ‘You ever think that maybe Zee’s safer with them than with us?’ But I could see he already knew the answer. They’d take Zee to pieces, limb by limb, cell by cell, killing him slowly, to find out why the nectar had no effect on him. It would be worse than death, worse than torture. ‘And you ever think that maybe this is the only chance that someone will find a cure – a way to make us all normal again?’

  This I didn’t have an answer for. What if Simon was right? What if Zee was the key to discovering some kind of antidote to the nectar? What if killing him meant curing every other kid in the world? Would I seriously sacrifice the future of humankind just to save one kid – a kid I hadn’t even known for that long, when it came down to it? Would I trade a billion lives for one?

  The answer was as inevitable as it was illogical: yes, of course I would.

  ‘Yes, but it’s Zee,’ I said.

  Simon sighed, shaking his head. Then he chanced a tired smile.

  ‘Fine. But when we get him out of here, I’m gonna kill him myself, okay?’

  ‘Okay,’ I said. I held out my mutated left hand and Simon placed his gently on top of it. I wasn’t quite sure why we did it, but the contact felt good and we both seemed reluctant to part. It was only when we heard a hiss of laughter from the blacksuit as he tumbled in through the window that we let go.

  ‘You sissies finished?’ he growled. ‘If we’re going to do this, we have to do it now.’ He gestured towards the car park. ‘There are too many out there for us to take on by ourselves. I’ll flank them, get their attention, pull them off to the side. Alex, you need to try and get the berserkers here, as many as you can. It’s the only way you’re going to get through this alive.’

  He began to crawl away down the corridor, looking absurd in his hospital gown. He looked back only once, saying, ‘Just don’t let that helicopter take off.’ Then he was through the door at the far end, heading into the roaring inferno of the main hospital building.

  I pushed myself up, peering through the glass to see that the number of troops outside had increased. They seemed to be pouring in from every direction, retreating from the chaos inside the hospital. Several of them climbed into the chopper, none of them dragging Zee. The bird’s blades were still wheeling but it didn’t show any sign of taking off yet. I sat back down, trying to get my thoughts in order.

  ‘What did that suit mean?’ Simon asked. ‘Get the berserkers here?’

  I didn’t reply, just closed my eyes and tried to focus. I wasn’t sure how many berserkers there were in and around the hospital, whether I could somehow communicate with them all, but I did my best to visualise our location, picturing Furnace’s war machines charging this way, converging outside the window, on the rooftops, watching our backs. The beast beside us growled, the floor trembling as it stamped into the corridor.

  ‘Alex,’ said Simon, his voice shaking. ‘If you’re doing this, stop it now.’

  It was too late. I opened my eyes in time to see the berserker throw itself through the glass, an explosion of splinters catching the sun like droplets of water. It roared, the noise reminding me of a tiger, and then it began to run, its folds of flesh tensing until it looked like a boulder of solid stone rolling towards the crowd.

  The reaction from the soldiers was instantaneous, the remaining windows in the hallway detonating as a hail of bullets tore our way. I crashed to the floor, taking Simon down with me, ricochets burning through the air, molten shells dropping all around us. It was like being in the middle of a tornado, the noise deafening, the world turned upside down. I pressed my face against the tiles so hard it hurt, waiting for the branding-iron pain of a bullet in my flesh.

  It didn’t come. The storm died out – the thunder of gunshots still audible but directed elsewhere as the berserker moved. I held my breath, my heart thumping too hard as I looked up, past the ravaged brickwork, saw the creature in the midst of the troops. It was pockmarked with bullet holes but it showed no sign of slowing as it went to work.

  ‘Tell me you didn’t make it do that,’ Simon asked, his face next to mine, staring wide-eyed at the carnage.

  There was a gargled howl, a blur of pink and black dropping from a window above us and running to join its twin. I recognised the other berserker, the one I’d last seen fighting the troops back in the main hospital building, throwing itself onto a pack of soldiers with a noise that couldn’t have been anything else but childish laughter.

  ‘What choice have we got?’ I snapped back. ‘The only way to end this is to find Alfred Furnace and kill him. If the army won’t help us do that, then we have to do it by ourselves. If they won’t help us, then they’re the enemy too, the hell with them.’

  I felt the nectar inside me taking control. I don’t know how much of it there was – I’d been drained and refilled more times than I could count – but there was enough to finish this.

  It didn’t have to end in bloodshed, though.

  I sent out another clarion call, a silent war cry to Furnace’s berserkers, one which would hopefully lead them here. Then the nectar drove me to my feet, making me step out of the window onto the grass verge beyond.

  ‘Alex!’ Simon yelled at me. ‘Are you crazy? Get back in here!’

  I was crazy, there was no doubt about that. But when you’ve been through everything I have then you’ve got a pretty good excuse. With the berserkers still carving a swathe through their ranks the soldiers had been too busy to notice me. I walked towards them, my pace casual, the nectar keeping the fear at bay. When I was close enough to smell the blood I stopped, lifted my hands in the air, drew in the biggest breath I could, then unleashed a single word that was loud enough to carry across the battlefield.

  ‘ENOUGH!’

  I commanded the berserkers to stop and they obeyed. Of course, they did: I was their general, after all. One threw the corpse of a soldier to the ground, shaking the blood from its massive fingers. The other leapt onto the roof of a truck, snorting like a gorilla. Startled, the soldiers continued shooting, some at the berserkers, some at me. I heard a bullet snap past my ear, humming like a bee’s wings and leaving a scar of heat on the air. Another one kicked up a chunk of concrete by my feet, showering me in dust.

  ‘I said, enough!’ I yelled, anger making my voice reverberate over the car park, the echoes seeming to take an age to die out. ‘Hold your fire and we’ll spare your lives. I only want to talk to Panettierre.’


  The uniformed men and women scuttled back, using the time to regroup around the helicopter. There were maybe thirty of them left, most reloading, others barking out orders, a few dragging the bodies of their dead away from the stationary berserkers. I stood my ground and held my arms wide, trying to show them I wasn’t a threat, trying not to give them an excuse to start firing again.

  ‘Panettierre,’ I shouted, directing the words at the open door of the chopper. The rotors were spinning faster, the whine of the engine growing louder. ‘I know you’re in there.’

  No response, although I saw several of the soldiers turn their heads towards the door, waiting for something. It was all the confirmation I needed.

  ‘Colonel Panettierre, I’m not going to ask again.’

  She stepped into view, dressed in surgical whites and dwarfed by the enormous helicopter. In her hands she held a radio handset, and when she spoke her voice was blasted out through the chopper’s loudspeaker. I was close enough to see that same smile on her face, a half-moon of teeth as white as her overalls.

  ‘Alex,’ she said, the speakers crackling. ‘What a surprise.’

  ‘What have you done with Zee?’ I asked. The sound of the rotors was still increasing and I wondered whether she’d heard me. I started to ask again but she cut me off.

  ‘He’s here,’ she said. ‘Safe, with us.’

  ‘I won’t let you take him.’ I took a step forward, thirty machine guns swinging my way, bristling. Impossibly, Panettierre’s smile seemed to grow even wider, like there were hooks in the sides of her mouth.

  ‘He wants to come with us, Alex. He’s not like you. He wants this all to end. He’s going to help us win this war.’ I saw her click off the handset, shout something into the helicopter cabin before putting it back to her mouth. ‘I’m sorry to learn you’re working for the other side. I’d hoped you would have seen the light, realised where the greater good lay.’

  I sensed a presence, and I didn’t need to look to know that there was a berserker on the roof above me. There was another approaching from the side of the building, its presence similar to the way you sometimes just know you’re being watched. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there.

 
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