Escape from Furnace 5
By Alexander Gordon Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2011 Alexander Gordon Smith
All rights reserved.
I ONCE KNEW A BOY. HIS NAME WAS ALEX SAWYER.
He was the boy who stared back at me from the mirror, a kid like any other. Not bad-looking, a little scrawny. You wouldn't have looked twice if you'd seen him on the street.
That boy, he's dead now. I let him die. But I want to tell you his story. I need to tell you his story.
I don't remember much of Alex's—of my—life before Furnace. It's a blur of faceless people and half-formed places. He had a family once, I think, a mom and a dad. And friends too. But he wasn't a good kid, I remember that much at least. He was a bully, and a thief. He took from the ones he loved and all he gave in return was grief. I can't even remember how it all started, only that he wanted things like shoes, a bike, a computer.
That's what I find hardest to believe about all this—not the truth about Furnace, or the monsters spawned inside the prison, but that Alex's life was destroyed because he was so desperate to get a new pair of sneakers.
Bullying in the playground, stealing the odd fiver at lunchtime, it wasn't enough. Alex and his best friend, Toby, started burgling houses, stealing cash and valuables every chance they could. One day they broke into a place they thought was empty. It wasn't. They were caught by silver-eyed giants in black suits and a shriveled figure with a gas mask stitched into its face. Toby was shot and Alex was framed for his murder—sentenced to life without possibility of parole in Furnace Penitentiary.
Furnace. The prison. I've been out for less than twenty-four hours but already my memories from inside are fading. Buried a mile beneath the ground, nothing but rock in every direction, it was a place that society put children they no longer wanted, where even their parents would forget them. It was a place where kids like Alex were buried alive.
But it was something so much worse than that too. The gas-masked wheezers stalked the cells, dragging inmates into the blood-drenched tunnels beneath the prison. Deformed creatures emerged in the dead of night, tearing their victims to pieces. And watching over it all was Warden Cross, a man as cruel and as dangerous as the devil himself, a man whose eyes were so full of madness, of hatred, of rancid glee, that meeting them was like watching yourself die a million times over.
Together with friends—Donovan and Zee—Alex made a plan to get out, smuggling gas-filled gloves from the kitchen and blowing a hole in the floor, jumping into an underground river. They did what nobody else had ever managed, they found a way out of Furnace. But that river only carried them as far as the tunnels below, and the unthinkable horrors of solitary confinement.
It was here that I—no, not me, that Alex—discovered the truth about Furnace. The prisoners were being turned into monsters, their minds and bodies broken and stitched back together into something new, something awful. Under the ever-watchful gaze of the warden those kids were pumped full of a dark, gold-flecked fluid known as nectar. It primed their bodies, made them stronger than they ever could have become naturally, able to withstand any injury. Then the wheezers opened them up, packing them full of muscle, giving them eyes of silver and setting them loose upon the world.
The lucky ones died on the operating table. Others became blacksuits—the hulking guards who remembered nothing of the children they once were, who craved only more and more power. Some found themselves broken beyond repair, losing their minds completely to become rats—feral killing machines that roamed the tunnels beneath Furnace butchering anyone they encountered.
And some became something worse still. Their genes evolved, making them bigger, faster, stronger than nature ever intended, beasts of unimaginable fury that looked more alien than human. The berserkers.
Alex and Zee were rescued from solitary by a boy called Simon—a kid who had been half turned by the warden's surgery, his torso and one arm now that of a blacksuit, his eyes silver. And they—we—had made a break for freedom, trying to climb the shaft of the prison incinerator. But they were found, they were recaptured, and this time the warden wasted no time putting Alex under the knife.
I don't remember the pain, only the strength it brought. My body, it was cut apart and put back together. It was improved. I was no longer Alex, I was something better, something more. The warden filled my head with promises of power, told me of the war that was about to come between the strong and the weak, between the monsters and the humans, spoke of the new Fatherland that would rise from the ashes of the old world. I almost forgot who I was, I almost became one of the warden's children, a Soldier of Furnace.
And it was then that I first heard Alfred Furnace himself, the mysterious force behind all of this madness. Furnace didn't live within the prison, but his dark presence filled every single one of the creatures who dwelled here; it gripped their every thought, determined their actions. He was their commander, their god, and his power was absolute.
But some part of me resisted him, remembering my name, remembering my old life. Zee, Simon, and I, we fought our way back to general population, to the main body of the prison, and together with the inmates we cracked the gates, we busted out of Furnace.
We thought we'd made it. We thought we were free. But the prison break was just what Alfred Furnace wanted. His forces were waiting in the shadows—an army of blacksuits and berserkers. And with the city distracted by the escaping prisoners he made his move. He began his war on humanity.
He had a secret weapon too, a new strain of nectar, a red-flecked poison that spread like a plague. Any child who was bitten, who was filled with this improved nectar, became a super-rat, driven by fury and intent on nothing but slaughter. Within hours of the break the city fell as the new breed of rats ran riot. The army was called in, a state of emergency was declared, but it was too late: Furnace's nightmare force was unstoppable.
And my role in this?
I'm not sure I know. I was bitten by a berserker shortly after we escaped, my blood tainted by the new nectar. But it was a small bite, not enough to turn me into one of them. After that I had visions in my head, visions that came from Furnace himself, channeled into my mind through the nectar. He showed me a tower, a skyscraper, on which a creature sat and howled at the world below. I thought it was him, thought that beast was Furnace, and I knew I had to try to kill him. I made a plan with Simon, Zee, and Lucy—a girl we'd met in the city. Zee and Lucy went off to find the army, to tell them to destroy the tower. Simon and I went after Furnace.
I didn't find him there. I found the warden. He filled himself with new nectar, becoming more powerful than any human had the right to be. Then we fought, both of us almost dying. The only way I survived was by drinking the blood from his veins, draining him of the new nectar. It saved my life, but it cost me the last of my sanity. I killed the warden—fed him to his own ghastly creations—but in doing so I became something worse. Because that's what Furnace wanted too—the warden had failed him, and he needed a new general. He wanted me to become his right-hand man.
Warden Cross may have lost, but Alfred Furnace had won.
I climbed to the roof of the tower—now engulfed with flames as military jets bombarded it with missiles—I perched on the spire, and saw the city crumbling beneath me. Then I screamed, realizing that the creature I had seen in my vision wasn't Furnace at all.
It was me.
It's no wonder I didn't recognize myself. I had lost both of my hands—my right arm turned into a blade of obsidian flesh, my left blown off at the elbow by a grenade. My body had been changed by the new nectar. I was taller than ever before, stronger too. But it was more than that. Furnace's poison surged through my mind as well, stripping away the last of my memories, the last scraps of the boy I used to be.
I made a promise, right there on that tower: I would find Alfred Furnace, and I would kill him. And if the world stood in my way then God help it, because I would tear it apart, I would watch it burn.
Nothing would stop me from having my revenge.
That boy, that kid called Alex Sawyer, he wouldn't have wanted this. But he no longer has a say. He's dead.
I need to tell you his story, though. I need to tell you how it ends.
Because it's the only chance I have of bringing him back.
THE GATES OF HELL had opened. Monsters stalked the streets, beasts of unimaginable fury who turned life to death.
And I was their new prince.
I sat on my burning throne and watched as anger devoured the world. Perched on the spire of that tower I saw the horror spill across the smoking ground, gripping the city in a fist of molten rage. Ranks of black suits trod the bones of soldiers into the tarmac, too fast and too powerful for those poor mortals in camouflage. I saw their victims flee into the alleyways only to find far worse things there, nightmares made flesh. Beasts that had once been children but which now stalked the shadows with hatred in their blood and murder in their eyes.
And more creatures howled from the rooftops, beasts of impossible size and strength, their bodies warped and their minds broken. The berserkers earned their name well, pouncing on those terrified humans like demons greeting the damned at the gates of the underworld—rending, tearing, devouring.
It was an army the likes of which the world had never seen, and commanding it was a man whose laughter rang in my ears, a man whose dark presence drove every single one of the freaks below, a man whose vision of the world was nothing but fury.
He was the person I had come here to kill, the creature I thought I had seen in my visions—a beast who sat on the peak of his kingdom and watched the old world purged by the new dawn. But that creature hadn't been Furnace, it had been me—changed beyond recognition by the battles that had torn me apart, and the nectar that patched me back together. I understood now why I'd had to come here, why I'd had to fight the warden, why I'd had to change.
Because it was the only way I could ever hope to beat Furnace.
Far below, something exploded, the detonation causing the entire roof of the building to shake. The enormous radio antenna fixed to the peak of the tower snapped free with a whip crack, slicing through the air as it cart-wheeled earthward, vanishing into a pillar of smoke. There was a second blast, followed by a third, louder than the first two put together, and this time a section of the spire caved inward, swallowed up by an inferno that raged just under the roof. I backed off to the edge, trying to snatch in clean air, trying to work out a way to escape.
But there was none. The spire was circled by a wall of fire, hot enough to melt the reinforced steel skeleton of the tower. The skyscrapers around me were too far away to reach, even with my newfound strength and speed. There was only one way out, and although I had the nectar inside me—the new nectar, a million times more powerful than the old—I wouldn't survive a fifty-story fall, no way.
Panic was beginning to claw its way through the rush, the sting of the fire on my warped skin making it all too clear how painful it would be to die up here. I used what remained of my left arm—the short blade that jutted from my elbow still growing as the nectar worked on it—to wave the smoke away from my face, the swordlike right to feel my way along the sloped side of the spire.
The jets that had attacked the tower were long gone, their job done. There were other things in the sky, though: black helicopters that hovered like falcons, shaded windshields all facing this way, watching as I was condemned to the flames. It brought back a distant memory of standing in front of a jury, being judged guilty of a crime I didn't commit, and sentenced to a living death. It was another life, another person's life. I wasn't that boy any longer. I was something so much more.
I stood, ignoring the vertigo that made the city spin beneath me, and I held up the blade of my right hand, spitting out another choked roar of hatred.
"You can't kill me!" I screamed when my breath had recovered, knowing that nobody in the helicopters would be able to hear me. "I won't let you!"
Another explosion, this time out in the city. Black smoke churned upward from a gas station, so dark and so dense that it looked like a granite mountain pushing its way out of the earth. Two of the choppers broke away, banking gracefully. I caught a glimpse of shadowed faces behind the tinted glass, and through the open door of one of the birds was a cannon. They continued to rise, heading this way, heading for me.
I backed off, using the smoke from the tower to shield myself. But as I did so I heard that voice in my mind, a whisper that was at the same time a shout, louder even than the howl of the wind and the thunder of the flames.
Let them take you, said Alfred Furnace, speaking through the nectar. I slapped my ruined left arm against my head, trying to knock his tainted voice away. He'd had his filthy fingers inside my skull right from the start, from the moment we first made our break from the tunnels beneath the prison, taunting me, manipulating me, controlling me with the ease of a puppet master pulling the strings of a marionette.
I still didn't know why he had taken such an interest in me, why he had led me to the tower just to fight the warden, why he had given me those last, vital words of encouragement that had enabled me to defeat his general, and why he wanted me to stand at his right hand as he ushered in his new kingdom. It didn't make any sense.
"No," I growled, speaking to him this time. "I won't listen to you. I'm going to find you, and end you."
You're going to die, the voice replied, a bone-rattling hiss. And all our work will be for nothing. Let them take you, and I promise you will find answers to the last of your questions.
The two choppers were approaching fast. They reached the level of the tower and held their position twenty meters or so away from me, their blades causing the smoke to dance in sweeping, majestic plumes. I wondered what I looked like to the people inside—more nightmare than human, two asymmetric jagged blades for arms and eyes like churning vortexes. I knew the terror that my new body must have inspired, and it made me feel good, made me feel powerful, made me feel like I could crush those soldiers, all of them, and take control of the world.
I could hear Furnace's laughter, but even the knowledge that I was acting the way he wanted me to didn't dull the sharp edge of excitement that wormed through my thoughts.
One of the choppers swung around, the open side hatch facing me. Through the burning air it took on a shimmering, surreal quality, but I could still make out the machine gun inside, pointing right this way.
"Come on," I bellowed. I'd been shot before and survived. There was nothing they could do that could kill me. Let them try, and I'd show them what true power was. "Come on!"
By the time the cannon opened fire I was already on the move, throwing myself farther up the spire, a cloak of smoke draped over me. I waited for the hammer of bullets against the roof, the storm of shrapnel, but all I heard was a dull clank. I turned as the chopper was rising again, using its rotors to blow away my cover. And I was just in time to see the gunner cut loose a rope and load in another.
It wasn't a cannon at all, it was a grappling gun.
He fired, catching me off guard. I tried to jump out of the way but a sliver of steel punched through my gut, dragging a black rope after it. It pinged off the concrete spire, opening like an umbrella. I grabbed at the rope, but with blades for hands I couldn't get purchase. The grappling hook that had sliced through me slammed into my back, the prongs holding it there, and before I even knew what was happening I was wrenched off the tower.
The universe came apart, the sky and the ground becoming one endless blur as I spun through the air, my stomach lurching so hard that for a second I thought it had left my body completely. I realized I was screaming, or at least as much of a scream as my air-starved lungs could manage. Then the line went taut, the grappling claw fixed into my flesh, and I swung beneath that chopper like a fish on a hook.
They began to reel me in and I was powerless to stop them. The only thing I could do was try to cut the line, but that would mean falling to my death. The other chopper was too far away to reach, arcing away as I watched, heading for the ground. The bird above me did the same, the world tilting sickeningly once again as we plummeted earthward. The tower flashed by beside me, every window hemorrhaging smoke, massive craters in its side where the missiles had hit, the entire building groaning like a mythical beast brought down by spears and arrows. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Execution by Alexander Gordon Smith. Copyright © 2011 Alexander Gordon Smith. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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