Escape from Furnace 4
By Alexander Gordon Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2010 Alexander Gordon Smith
All rights reserved.
HAPPY EVER AFTER
I WISH I COULD TELL YOU that my story ended here.
I wish I could tell you that this was my happy ever after.
Because it should have been, right? I mean, we were out. We'd been to hell and back but the important thing was that we had made it back. We'd slit open the belly of Furnace Penitentiary, spilled its guts all over the streets. It was dead, and we'd been born again, taking our first steps in a world we thought we'd lost forever. It had to be over. This had to be the end of it. All we had to do was run for the hills and live out the rest of our lives on fresh air and freedom.
But can a story like mine ever have a happy ending?
Does somebody like me ever deserve one?
There wasn't much time for looking back as we ran from the broken gates, ushered on by the blinding brightness of the rising sun. But I couldn't help it. Even as the sound of the siren faded into birdsong my mind replayed everything that had happened. I don't know why, exactly. All I wanted to do was forget it, put everything behind me, pretend that it had never happened. But Furnace wasn't going to let me. I may have found a way out of the prison but the prison was still buried deep inside my head, locked in every thought, every memory.
I pictured myself as a kid, walking streets just like these a lifetime ago, so obsessed with money that I didn't care that I was a thief, a bully. I saw myself and Toby — a friend whose face I could no longer picture but who I would never forget — breaking into a house, hoping that we'd strike it rich. I saw us being cornered by the blacksuits, Furnace's hulking guards with their cruel silver eyes. I watched them shoot Toby in the head, the same way I'd watched it a hundred times before; a thousand. I saw myself framed for his murder and sentenced to life without possibility of parole in Furnace Penitentiary. I saw it all in shades of black and gray and red that seemed so much brighter than the world through which I was running.
The flashbacks kept coming, bleeding into my vision like some kind of hemorrhage. It felt as though I relived every single second of my incarceration — the early days where I thought the only escape I'd make was jumping off the eighth level; my cellmate Donovan and my best friend, Zee, the only ones keeping me sane; lying in bed at night waiting for the blood watch to come, for the wheezers to drag me into the tunnels below; then discovering that crack in the chipping-room floor and blowing our way to freedom — only to find ourselves recaptured and snared by the darkness of solitary confinement.
There, with the weight of the world on our shoulders, we uncovered the truth about Furnace — the experiments that the warden and the wheezers were doing on the kids. They were pumped full of nectar, a black liquid full of tiny golden flecks, like distant stars. Then the wheezers cut them open and stitched them back together into something completely different. I still don't know exactly how the nectar worked. If it was successful, then it turned its child victim into a superhuman blacksuit, packed tight with muscle and able to survive an injury that would kill a mortal. You had no memory of who you were, your past life. You became one of the warden's soldiers. That's what had happened to Donovan, but I'd killed him — I'd freed him — before he could turn completely.
The nectar didn't work with everybody, though. Sometimes it had no effect at all, and other times it would go wrong, poisoning its victim's soul, reducing him to a mindless, razor-clawed freak that stalked the corridors feasting on blood. A rat.
But that wasn't the worst of it. Some prisoners didn't turn into blacksuits or rats. They became something else, something that shouldn't be possible. The nectar chose them, flooding their bodies and causing them to mutate into immense beasts of unimaginable fury, killing machines known as berserkers.
There was no telling what you'd become with nectar inside you. It was the warden's poison that decided your fate.
Zee and I had been down there, in solitary, for what seemed like forever, rescued by a kid called Simon who'd managed to escape the wheezers' knives. He'd been halfway to becoming a blacksuit, his torso and one arm packed with muscle, his eyes turned silver, but he'd been discarded before the procedure could be finished. Once again we'd made a bid for freedom — climbing the incinerator chimney — and once again we'd failed. This time we'd fallen right into the warden's lap.
The warden. I could see his face now: every time I blinked he flashed up before me, his mouth twisted into that soulless smile, his eyes black pits that promised nothing but pain. He had let his wheezers cut me open with their filthy tools and pump me full of their poison. He had let them stuff me with someone else's muscles, someone else's flesh. He had turned me into one of them. He'd given me silver eyes and a black suit and for a moment — for a single, horrific second — I'd almost given myself to him, I'd almost called him Father and myself a Soldier of Furnace ...
But something had stopped me. Something had kept me human. And instead of making me one of them the warden had given me the strength I needed to make a final bid for freedom. Zee, Simon, and I, we fought our way up from the tunnels back into the main prison. The blacksuits hadn't been able to stop us, the mutant, skinless dogs had cowered with their tails between their legs, the wheezers had been powerless, even the warden had run out of tricks.
No, only one person had come close to ending our dream of freedom. Alfred Furnace himself, the mysterious man behind the prison's darkest secrets. He had sent two berserkers to stop us, and only by injecting myself with more of the warden's poison, the nectar, had I been able to stop them. The battle may not have cost me my life, but it stripped away all but the last remnants of my sanity. Now the nectar is the only thing keeping me alive, but it's also trying to turn me into one of them. It's what drives the freaks of Furnace — and freaks like me.
* * *
With the help of the inmates we cracked the gates and stormed out into the world, hundreds of us, shouting and screaming as we flooded the streets, bleeding the prison dry. We were out. We were free.
That should have been it, shouldn't it? That should have been the end of my story. But how could it be? Even now I can hear the sound of gunfire as the police start to round us up, the whump-whump-whump of helicopter blades overhead. Soon the entire city will be in lockdown. We haven't escaped from our prison, we've just moved into a new one. And although there are countless places to hide, there's still nowhere to run.
And that's not all. Alfred Furnace is coming, and he's bringing his army. I can hear his voice in my head, carried by the nectar, and his fury is almost enough to crack my soul in two. Yes, Furnace is coming. He will find us.
And when he does there will be all hell to pay.
Some happy ending.
WHEN YOU'VE BEEN LOCKED up for too long, freedom can kill you.
It's overwhelming, like a dam bursting, a trillion gallons of icy water surging into your head, threatening to demolish or short-circuit all that remains of your sanity. I can't think of any other way to describe it. The moment I began to run from the ruined gates of Furnace my brain started to overload, my vision flickering, my limbs surrendering, my speech failing. All that existed was that sudden rush, a moment of blind emotion — half panic, half euphoria — that felt powerful enough to stop my heart dead.
Great, I thought as I struggled to stay upright, my heart misfiring like a clogged engine, each desperate beat sending a bolt of pain through my chest. I went through all that to get out, and the second I do my mind decides it's had enough.
I stumbled, felt hands grab my arms. I stared to my side, but I couldn't make out who was there, my vision had become an ocean of dirty white flecked with sparks. I scrunched my eyes shut, forced myself to take in a breath. It was hard, as though my body had forgotten how to perform its most basic functions, but as soon as the air hit my lungs the whiteout began to clear.
"Jesus, Alex," came a voice, the fingers on my arm squeezing hard. "I thought you'd be fitter than this, what with all that running away you did inside."
I let my head drop to my chest, took a second deep breath that steadied my pulse and another that seemed to put the bones back into my limbs. This time when I looked, I could see that Zee was standing next to me, his face shiny with sweat and his eyes on fire. Somebody tugged from the other side and I turned to see Simon, his grossly muscled arm wrapped around mine.
"We gotta keep moving if we don't want to end up back down there," Simon said. He stamped on the sidewalk and I suddenly pictured the labyrinth of Furnace Penitentiary deep beneath the concrete, the vast complex like some razor-toothed behemoth rising up through the depths, its mouth open wide to swallow the city whole. I shook the image from my head, the motion making the world spin.
A blurred shape sped past us down the road, the slap of paper shoes echoing off the buildings on either side. Two more inmates were racing along the sidewalk opposite. It was pretty clear what they were running from: the air behind us was alive with sirens, so many of them that the sound they made had lost its undulating pitch and was now a constant, tuneless wail. In the copper-colored skies above, three helicopters scoured the shrinking shadows, their spotlights silver streaks against the sun as it unfolded itself from the horizon.
"Ready?" asked Zee. "I know you've been through a lot, but if we don't move ..." He seemed to choke at the thought of what might happen.
I started running again, Zee's hand on my arm for the first few steps. Been through a lot? He wasn't kidding. My body — my new body, the one that the warden had given me — was a patchwork of scars. Every time I moved they threatened to split, and I pictured the poisoned flesh escaping from beneath my skin, the muscles uncoiling. It was an unpleasant thought. Or was it? I would have given anything to be able to undo the warden's work so easily.
But it was this mutated body that had gotten us all out of Furnace alive. Without it, I wouldn't have stood a chance against the berserkers. Those monsters would have torn everybody in Furnace to shreds, every last living soul. I may have hated having the body of a blacksuit, but without it I'd have had no body at all.
"Anyone know where we are?" Simon said as he sprinted. "Do either of you two know the city? I lived over in Carlton Heights; never been up this way before."
I took my eyes off the road to look around, still squinting into the pale light. To our left was a warehouse of some sort, emblazoned with a massive sign shaped like a cardboard box. Similar buildings lined the street on both sides. There were dark alleyways between them, and corrugated-iron fences that promised hiding places beyond. But if we took cover this close to Furnace we'd be found in minutes.
"I didn't live in the city," Zee wheezed. "Our house was miles away, sorry. What about you, Alex?"
"Yeah, I lived here," I said, trying to get my bearings. "But on the other side of town, over the river in the suburbs. I don't think I've ever been this far south."
We reached a junction, the red traffic light reflecting in the puddles below, making it look as if the street was about to erupt like a volcano. Just to get off the main road we swung right onto a narrow side street, our pace slowing as we all fought to breathe. The buildings here were smaller, mainly shops locked up for the night. One stood out from the rest, however, a hulking lump of plastic and concrete that nudged up against the pinkening skies like a massive headstone. My breath caught with the shock of recognition.
"I know this place," I sputtered. "It's Edwards Mall, isn't it?"
"Yeah," said Simon, wiping a hand across his brow. "I think you're right. I came here when I was a kid, all the time. Had no idea this was a stone's throw from Furnace."
I'd come here with my parents too, once a month or so. It had been like a family day out. The memories hit me like a punch to the gut, the smell of Subway sandwiches and pretzels, the hum of people, the promise of presents. I mentally slapped myself. Reminiscing would get me killed. That life, my old life, was long gone.
Something popped, a gunshot from maybe a couple of streets away. We slowed down, scampering into the shadows that pooled against the shops and crouching to a halt. It had only been a few minutes since we'd gotten out, but already the new day was drawing a blanket of light over the city. At first the sight had been the best thing I'd ever witnessed — I never thought I'd see a sunrise again. But now it seemed as if nature was conspiring with Furnace, and with the police. If the sun can see you, so can everybody else.
"We should get inside," Zee whispered, nodding toward the mall.
"You kidding?" Simon replied. "In ten minutes or so that place is gonna be crawling with police. We gotta move, head up to the river. If we can get into the city we can disappear, get on a train, hot-wire a car or something, anything to get us as far away from Furnace as possible. I ain't gonna get caught hiding out in some shopping center just around the corner."
"Simon's got a point," I said, wanting nothing more than to rest but desperate to put as much distance as I could between us and the prison. "We should break now; run for it, before they get organized."
"No, you're wrong," Zee said. "We really need to —"
He broke off as one of the sirens rose up from the chorus. We froze against one another as a squad car blazed across the junction we had just crossed, vanishing as quickly as it had appeared. It had probably been following the inmates we'd seen earlier, but more would follow, countless more.
"We need to get off the streets and come up with a plan," Zee went on. "In there we can grab some food and water, and we can get out of these prison uniforms. If we're walking down the street in Furnace rags then we're definitely going to get picked up. It'll only take five minutes. Besides ..."
Zee looked me up and down and I followed his gaze. My overalls, which had been falling apart to begin with, were ripped in a dozen places, my tortured skin visible beneath.
"Besides what?" I muttered.
"You're practically indecent," Zee said with a glint of a smile in his eyes. "Any minute now that thing's gonna fall right off you and you'll be running down the street naked."
Both Simon and I began to laugh and I had to pinch my nose to make it stop. It didn't want to, the emotion bubbling up inside me so hard that my shoulders were shaking and my ribs were singing. Even when another wailing police car roared over the intersection, taking it so fast that when it hit a bump in the road it almost took off, I was snorting into my hand. Freedom will do that to you, though, like I was saying. You could laugh yourself right into the grave.
Simon wiped a tear from his eye and turned toward the mall. After a second or two he nodded decisively.
"Okay," he said. "But we're in and out, right? I'm not spending all day looking around the bloody shops."
His words could have come from my dad — he'd said something similar every time Mom had dragged him into the city — and that made me laugh until I cried. I felt Zee's hand clamp over my own and gradually the moment of insanity passed. I shrugged him away and got to my feet, leading the way toward the huge building and whispering over my shoulder.
"Okay, people, let's go shopping."
THE HUGE MAIN DOORS of Edwards Mall were still shuttered so we walked farther down the street and turned left at the next junction, walking along the side of the mall until we came to the loading-bay entranceways. They opened up into nothing but darkness, and the way they sloped tunnel-like beneath the ground made my skin crawl.
"Déjà vu, anyone?" Zee said with a nervous laugh.
"Come on, it's just a mall," I replied, leading the way. My silver eyes penetrated the shadows as though I was holding a flashlight, peeling away layers of gloom to reveal an empty service road that curled down and to the left. If we carried straight on we'd get to the parking lot, but we swung around the bend to find ourselves in an enormous underground loading dock. I let my eyes drift up to see three sets of double doors in the far wall. It was then that I noticed the blinking red lights studded into the ceiling.
"We're being watched," I said, pointing. "Security cameras." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Fugitives by Alexander Gordon Smith. Copyright © 2010 Alexander Gordon Smith. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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