After the loss of my money yesterday, I figured that walking to Elle’s would be smarter than paying for a Nex ticket. Now I regret that decision - I’m soaked by the time I get there. Xander is already in Elle’s room when I arrive, watching over her shoulder. When Elle sees me, her round eyes light up.
“Nat! You’re here. I hope you brought your Clikbook.”
“Uh, yeah.” I take it out in response, putting it into her outstretched hands. “How exactly are we going to do this…?” I ask.
She spins around to face the desk and turns my Clikbook on, flipping though a bunch of network settings only she knows the purpose of. “I can use the coding system of your Clikbook to scan the techwave region for weak spots. Then I can hack the rest.” She blushes. “Um, assuming you’re okay with me using your Clikbook. I’ll have to take it apart.”
I blink and look to Xander.
“I forgot mine,” he says sheepishly.
I turn expectantly to Elle.
“We can’t use mine, because it has all of my codes and hacking tools on it.” She offers me a sympathetic smile. “Sorry, Nat.”
I heave a dramatic sigh. “Fine. Just backup the memory disk, please.”
Elle grins, jumping up to hug me before hurrying back to her seat.
After backing up the data, Elle shoos us away from her workspace, banishing us to her bed. We watch her pry open my Clikbook. She skilfully removes a small metal disk from the jumble of wires. Then, after carefully moving away the remains, she copies the disk contents onto her network base and starts typing away on her keyboard. Numbers and word combinations start winding and unwinding across the air above her desk.
Time slides by slowly. Elle stays hunched over her desk, working rapidly. Xander and I gaze out the window, watching raindrops fall from the sky.
“Are you almost done?” I ask.
“Just a few more minutes.”
Xander stretches. “You said that half an hour ago.”
“I mean it this time.” She pulls a notebook from an open drawer. She flips through it until she finds her page, muttering something to herself as she punches a final code into the system.
“There!” She slaps her hand down on the desk in victory. “I found a way to make it work.”
Xander and I huddle around her.
“Can we get into the region now?” I ask.
She nods eagerly, pulling up the unchecked techwave region on the display. Her fingers move across the keyboard as she works, her eyes fixated to the display. I can practically see the gears in her head turning.
After a moment, she leans back. “It’s scanning the network now, looking for weak spots.” She pauses, fiddling with her hands. “If – I mean when we get in, what do we do?”
“What we came here to do,” I say. “Get into the region. Find out if it’s the Truth.”
“I honestly hope it’s not,” Xander comments, watching the screen. “If it is, then we’re about to get involved with something pretty big.”
“We don’t really have another choice,” I remind him, then turn to Elle. “When we get in, we should backup all the files we find. If we run across anything important, we’ll want evidence.” The last thing I want is to find something, and not be able to prove it to the Redeemers.
“Good idea.” She rummages through a drawer, pulls out a minichip, and plugs it into the network base.
The words scan complete pops up on the screen.
“There we go,” Elle says, skimming her fingers across the keyboard. The unchecked region opens up for us, revealing a whole world of data. She taps the minichip at the network base. “This will record what we find as we go.”
“Let’s dive in,” Xander says eagerly.
Elle begins to sort through the files, her mouth set in a tight line. “Everything looks pretty normal,” she says. “It’s just files and stuff.”
She clicks into one of them, opening a document with endless pages of words. I lean over her shoulder and skim the pages, furrowing my brow.
“Sounds like politics,” I comment.
She nods, opening another.
“The Law of the Upgrade,” Xander reads aloud, then startles when the words register. “Wait, what?”
Elle slowly scrolls through the document. Lines of the Redeemer’s regulations and procedures crawl through the air like insects. The Law of the Upgrade is the official government policy. The document here contains the full Law, not the bits and pieces available to the public.
“That means…” The words dry on my tongue before I can finish them, the thought too awful to say aloud.
This is actually a Redeemer region.
Hacking into a secret Redeemer network is definitely a crime.
And criminals are Flawed.
Elle quickly exits the document and enters a different area of the region. A video titled Subject 106 Efficiency Test opens by itself, followed by the thick black lines of the Redeemers’ symbol. My eyes fixate onto the image, and I feel myself slowly surrendering to whatever lies ahead. It’s a habit learned from years of living under the Redeemer’s care.
The screen flickers as it changes, showing what looks like footage from a security camera. The image is grainy, probably from age. The poor quality makes it hard to see, but I can make out two figures, one sitting, the other standing. The person standing is dressed in white and holds something small and thin in their hand.
The figures move, and the image warps. The person sitting in the chair trembles, the image fluttering. They fall to the ground in what looks like a spasm, until finally stilling.
The footage ends, and the Redeemer symbol flashes again before disappearing.
More videos follow, each with similar footage. They come on their own, one after another, a never-ending chain. Similar titles appear along with them, all ending with one phrase; Efficiency Test. They’re all the same; two figures, one in white. Movement, shifting, and a body on the ground. There’s no sound. Only a dull, constant buzzing.
An icy finger of dread runs down my spine. Fear presses against my mind and screams a warning in my ears.
“Get out of there, Elle,” I say, my voice a distant echo in my own head. “This...this is wrong. The videos are...wrong.” I don’t know why those words come, but it’s the best way to describe the growing sense of dread and repulsion I feel as the footage goes on. They feel hellish, something that should be kept covered, hidden away from the public eye.
“Elle,” I persist, lightly touching her shoulder.
She reacts, backing out of the system, trying to find the loophole before someone notices our presence.
Her fingers suddenly go still, her brow creasing and her lips pursing. “Wait.”
“What is it?” Xander asks in a whisper.
“This region,” she says, stopping the backtrack through the data. “It has layers. Like it’s protecting something. Walls, built around a Core.”
She types something in, and soon the screen is fluttering, zooming through endless rounds of files and footage. Many minutes pass, and we’re still sorting through it.
The sense of dread in my mind grows stronger. It strengthens, building higher and higher until it feels...unnatural. Like it’s no longer a result of my own thoughts. Like this is something else, something external.
Then, suddenly, as if a veil has been lifted, I feel a presence. The sensation that we are no longer alone, that some sort of consciousness is growing nearer. Something that isn’t alive, but isn’t dead, either.
The presence creeps closer, strengthening as it goes. It feels like hands, gripping the space between me and itself, closing the distance until they wrap around my mind and threaten to choke.
Xander’s eyes widen in confusion. “What’s happening?” he asks, turning his head as if searching for the source of the sensation. “Do you feel that?”
I barely manage a nod, gripping the desk with trembling fingers. I try to breathe, but the sensation is closing in, wrapping around my brain, my thoughts, my mind.
And then, it awakens.
We all freeze, staring at the screen, rigid with horror. Air won’t enter my lungs. I reach out for it, but am unable to take it in.
The screen still hovers above us. It flickers, and then projects a single word.
We don’t touch the keyboard, but the system rolls on, entangling itself deeper and deeper into its own net.
ALPHA. Alternative Legacy Perfection Honing Algorithm.
Then, as if someone’s flipped a switch, the display goes black.
The world goes black.
The lights are still on and the curtains wide open. Outside, raindrops still burst onto moist grass. Water gushes through the gutters.
And yet, everything has gone dark and soundless. Even my own heartbeat has silenced.
For a moment, I wonder if somehow, I’ve died. How else can this feeling be explained, this gaping hole of emptiness?
But no – I can feel my fingers on the ends on my hands and floor under my feet. I’m alive. I’m here.
At first, there’s only silence; dead and still, filling the room like a black mist.
And then, something speaks. But not from the network base.
No, it comes from the air, whispering voiceless words that shatter the silence.
“I know that you’re there.”