Chapter 15 - Nat
The next few seconds feel like an eternity. The screen has gone black, flickering before sparking out of existence. The presence I felt moments before fades, but I can still sense the voice in my head, ringing like a haunted echo.
Then the silence shatters. Elle hits random keys on her board desperately. Xander sits on the bed, staring into space, his eyes hollow and his hands lying limp in his lap.
I can’t breathe. Panic overwhelms me, forcing the air from my lungs. Black spots pool at the corners of my vision, and I feel myself slipping into hysteria.
“What just happened?” I ask, voice cracking. I frantically look from Xander to Elle. “What happened? Elle?”
She doesn’t respond. She pounds at her keyboard, tears of horror welling in her eyes. Xander stands and starts pacing, running nervous hands through his hair.
“What happened?” I repeat, my voice rising a pitch. Hysteria wells in my chest, despite my constant efforts to shove it away.
“I don’t know,” Elle stammers, her voice bubbling with a stifled sob. “I don’t know.”
Xander takes in a deep breath. “It spoke. The network spoke!”
“It wasn’t the network.” The memory of the presence I felt presses against my mind, and I take in a tight breath to keep my head clear. “There was something in there. Something…alive. But not, at the same time.”
Elle freezes, her fingers still on her keyboard. All color drains from her face. Her voice is heavy with fear when she says, “Artificial intelligence.” She turns to me, fear etched across her face. “ALPHA. That’s what it read.”
The words flicker across my memory. ALPHA. Alternate Legacy Perfection Honing Algorithm.
I swallow. “W-what does that even mean?”
She doesn’t answer. Her eyes fall on my wrist. When I follow her gaze, everything clicks into place. My heartbeat drums in my ears as realization dawns on me. A horrible, cruel realization.
Xander’s face is pale, drained of all color. His eyes flicker from my wrist to my face, and he shakes his head. “It…it can’t be the Redeemers.”
I try to swallow, but my throat is tight. “I think it is,” I say, although I can hardly face that truth myself.
It’s not the Redeemers. It can’t be. There’s no way they could have created that thing, that abomination. No, not the Redeemers – the kind, merciful, benevolent Redeemers.
But their symbol flashed across the screen, and that thing, that ALPHA…
Alternate Legacy Perfection Honing Algorithm. Perfection; what the Redeemers strive for. What better way to achieve it than to create an AI that will fulfill their purpose?
And the footage we saw. Were they test films? Do they have something to do with ALPHA?
A sharp knocking comes from downstairs, snapping me out of my thoughts. We don’t react. The knocking persists, getting louder and more impatient, until Elle stands up and heads for the front door. Xander gets up and stops her, offering to answer instead. We follow him at a distance, creeping through the hallway and standing at the top of the stairs as he goes and opens the door.
A firm voice speaks. “I’m looking for Xander Lockman, Natalie Spearse, and Ellen Dalal.”
Xander glances up at us. I peer over the railing and see the familiar white armor of an Enforcer.
Its okay, I tell myself. He’s here to help. Trust him.
I clear my throat and go down to the door. “I’m Natalie Spearse,” I say. “These are my friends, Xander and Elle.”
The Enforcer at the door frowns at me. Raindrops drip from his armor, pooling in a puddle at his feet. A sheet of rain fills the air outside of the porch, like a curtain around the house. The Enforcer’s eyes meet mine. They’re cold and unfeeling.
“Is something wrong, sir?” I ask. “If you need assistance, I can help. I’m part of the training program-“
“Quiet, please,” the man says. He pulls out three spotless envelopes and hands them to us. The Redeemer coat of arms is printed on the side of each.
I fear what they are the instant I see them. My throat tightens, and all air leaves my lungs. Xander helplessly opens his, reads the paper inside, and then holds it in my direction for me to see. Elle stares at her envelope, not daring to open it.
A Confirmation of Cleansing Notice – the legal papers that serve as official declaration of a person’s Cleansing.
“Natalie Spearse, Xander Lockman, and Ellen Dalal,” the man says. “It is my regret to say that the Redeemers have found you Flawed. You will promptly be taken to the nearest Hub, where a final decision of your fate will be made."
We stare at him in disbelief, not moving.
He steps forward, “You can come peacefully, or I will be required to use force.”
We have no choice; we obediently comply and follow him out of the house, to his vehicle.
The Enforcer’s van is wide and roomy inside, and smells of bleach. The opaque windows provide privacy, but I feel like I’m on display, a criminal being paraded down the street in front of hundreds of scoffing people.
Xander sits silently next to me. Elle sits on my other side. Her face is pale and hollow. She didn’t even get to say goodbye to her family before the Enforcer stuffed us into the van and drove away. None of us did.
I subconsciously wonder what Darren will think when he’s told that I’m now Flawed. He’s bound to find out eventually. Will he be angry? Furious?
No, I think he’ll be disappointed. Disappointed that I was never able to grow up without disruption, that our world has once against been turned upside down. We won’t see each other for years, maybe even a lifetime.
My stomach twists at that thought. What if I never see him again? I’ll lose the chance to tell him how much he means to me, how he’s the only reason I pulled through these last few years.
The Enforcer drives in stoic silence, his eyes fixed on the road. He still hasn’t told us what Flaws we have, or what comes next. The quietness leaves an empty hole, giving my mind the chance to imagine possible Flaws I may have and Cleansing procedures. All those times I saw men and women being led to the Hub, and I never considered the science or experience behind the Cleansings. Now, thoughts of slicing, ripping, and piercing flutter across my mind. I banish them before they get much worse and bring my eyes to the raindrops cascading down the windows.
Xander lets out a long breath, risking a glance at our escort before speaking.
“We’re not really Flawed.”
I look up, giving him a questioning look.
“The Flawed are… well, Flawed. We’re close to perfect in the Redeemer’s eyes. We follow them. We’re smart and clean, with no visible defects.”
I roll this around in my mind for a moment and realize that he’s right. We’re fine. Maybe not perfect, but we’re in no way Flawed.
“Then why are we being Cleansed?” Elle asks.
Xander shrugs, but I can tell there’s something he’s not telling us.
“Xander,” I insist.
He shrugs again, folding and unfolding his hands. “ALPHA,” he whispers, risking a glance at the Enforcer. “It was obviously a secret. We discovered it - they don’t want that. Something’s off about it, and they’re scared of what we know.” He swallows and takes in a shaky breath. “So maybe we’re not Flawed at all. Maybe they just want to…you know, get rid of the witnesses.”
No one answers him. What he’s saying can’t be true. The Redeemers would never do that.
But a few hours ago, I never thought the Redeemers would build a secret AI, either.
The van is rolling over hills now, following a smooth pavement road that’s surprisingly empty for the time of day. We’ve been driving for about an hour now, and should be nearing the Hub.
As if on cue, the building appears. The clouds stretch out over it like a huge blanket of gray, raindrops mingling with the layers of glass that create the roof. As I stare at it, I realize that I’ll be in there in a few minutes. It seems unreal, like a dream or a fantasy. Only the Flawed and the Redeemers go through those doors.
Already I’ve forgotten my new title. I’m Flawed now, which means that I’m allowed into the Hub.
The van makes a smooth stop in front of the Hub, and we’re let out. The rain falls with ferocity and quickly soaks through my clothes. My hair grows heavy as it collects water, wet strands falling into my eyes.
The huge doors of the Hub loom above us. I imagine they have a striking similarity with the gates of heaven, white and towering, a prelude to the unknowns that lie behind them.
The gates of heaven, or the doors to hell. I can’t seem to decide.
The Enforcer silently enters the Hub.
We have no choice but to follow.