The inside of the Hub hums with activity. Our footsteps squeak against the shiny tiled floors, echoing across the wide lobby. We leave a trail of water in our wake. Rain falls on the glass overhead. When I look up, I can see the sky; the clouds, the incoming raindrops.
Men and women in perfectly pressed Redeemer uniforms scurry this way and that, their footsteps perfectly balanced. All of them carry the same demeanor; strict and faultless, with a hint of kindness and an overall air of well-earned superiority. Their hair is perfect, their gazes even. They make me nervous, unsure of exactly what their intentions and motivations are.
My world is slowly shattering. Everything I trusted and believed in has been flipped upside-down, inverting my view and making the entire world a place of confusion.
We’re led up a stairway that winds itself like a coiled wire in the middle of the room, stretching up many levels above. I glance down as I climb, watching the Redeemers below.
The third floor of the Hub is considerably tighter than the lobby, with cramped hallways lined with doors that lead to windowless rooms. I always imagined Hubs to be roomy and bright on the inside, not crowded and shadowed.
The Enforcer opens the nearest door, revealing a small room with a table and two chairs.
“Natalie Spearse, please wait here. A Redeemer will be with you shortly.” I step inside, and he starts to close the door, but I shoot my hand out to stop him.
“What about my friends?” I ask quickly, a swell of anxiety bubbling in my chest.
“They’ll be each be seen alone,” he answers, forcing the door shut with a loud click. The last thing I see is Xander’s face. His eyes are panicked, his lips forming my name before he disappears behind the heavy door.
I stand there for a moment before reaching for the doorknob. My hand rests on the cold metal, its coolness chilling my skin. I take in a deep breath and draw back. It’s locked. I know that. Even if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have the will to escape. Doing so would just get me in bigger trouble.
The room is tight, with white narrow walls and a gray slab floor. The dry air is cold, so different from the usual warmness the Redeemers project. I move to one of the chairs. It whines as it scrapes against the floor, and the sound echoes against the walls. I sit down and wait, tapping my fingers against the table and trying to make sense of what’s happening.
I’m being questioned – why is that? I don’t think the Flawed are usually interrogated. They’re taken to the Hub, accounted for, and then…what? They’re Cleansed, that I know, but how? How is it that I’ve never considered how all this works?
The door creaks open, followed by the sound of heels clicking against the floor. I turn in my seat, expecting the usual Redeemer type.
Instead, Martha Shore stares back at me, her catty eyes carefully examining my face. I go ridged. She moves across the room and takes a seat, folding her hands on the tabletop, long nails gleaming. Her silver-streaked hair is pulled into a bun, exposing the sharp edges of her face and the upturned shape of her eyes.
“Natalie Spearse,” the governor says. Her voice sounds different than it does over a microphone – deeper and silky, like the deep purr of a cat. “Welcome to the Hub.”
She shifts, and the sleeve of her right arm slips back, revealing the marking that lies just under her skin. The Leadership Squadron’s symbol is a crown of leaves; much like those used to symbolize royalty in the days long before the Bloodletting. The image reminds me of my own marking and makes my stomach turn.
I pull my gaze away from her wrist and back to her face. She’s staring at me intently. I swallow, realizing that she expects a reply. “Thank you, ma’am.” My voice comes out too high and strained.
“You’re probably wondering what this is all about.”
She clears her throat and looks me straight in the eye. “I believe that you and your friends have been meddling in business that does not concern you.”
My breath catches. I clasp my hands in my lap, trying to remain calm. “I... I’m not sure. Ma’am,” I add.
“Hacking a guarded techwave region is highly punishable,” she says. “Not to mention that the technology needed is unavailable to the public. Which brings me to the conclusion that your group may have stolen from the Redeemers.“
“No!” I say too loudly. I lower my voice. “We would never, ever steal from the Redeemers, ma’am.”
“The only other source of that kind of technology would be illegal vendors. Am I to conclude that you associated with Era?”
“No. Well, yes, we tried, but…” Heat rises to my face. I’m stumbling over my words like a child. “We built the tech.”
She raises an eyebrow, leaning back in her chair. “Oh, well then. You must be very talented.”
“It wasn’t me. It was my friend.”
“Ah, yes, Ellen.”
My brow pinches. “How…?”
She waves a hand dismissively. “We have ways of knowing those things. So, you and your friends used home-made technology to break into the system?”
She lets out a long breath and mutters something about defense systems.
“May I ask what you found in the unchecked region?” she asks.
I hesitate. Just exactly how much am I willing to tell this woman? I should be able to trust her, right? She’s a Redeemer, the Governor of Sector 7.
“We found strange footage and files,” I say. “When we dug deeper, something weird happened. It was like we…released something. It felt alive, like there as a living being stuck in the system. And then…” My voice drifts off.
“And then?” Shore pushes.
I shake my head. “I can’t describe it.“
She leans in, placing both hands on the table. Her voice is icy when she says, “Tell me.”
I open my mouth, but then close it, fumbling for the right words.
She leans more until her face meets mine, her hard eyes staring into mine. “Tell me.”
I can’t help it – I tremble, the back of the chair pressing into my shoulders as I shrink into it. “We heard something,” I say. “The being…spoke.”
Shore leans back, her expression blank. “What did it say?”
I hesitate. “I know that you’re there.”
She runs a slender hand across her hair, smoothing her bun back into place. “Well,” she says coldly. “Isn’t that something. What happened then?”
“It left,” I say.
“It said nothing else?”
I shake my head.
“I see.” She nods, tapping her chin in thought. “I’m afraid you’ve trespassed on a…sensitive region.” She pauses, and then asks, “You are part of our training program, correct?”
I nod. “I just got my mark.”
“Mm,” she hums, glancing down at my wrist. “And you follow our law?”
“Then you are aware of the consequences of breaking the law.”
I swallow. “Yes, ma’am,” I say again, quieter.
She sighs. “Miss Spearse.” She folds her arms over her chest and looks down at me, her lips pressed into a firm line. “As you know, breaking the law is considered a Flaw. And since you have done so, your status as a Redeemer Initiate has been revoked.”
I know what’s coming next. It’s the words I’ve always dreaded, the words spoken in every nightmare, every thought of doubt that comes my way. Please, I beg internally. Please, don’t say it.
“Natalie Spearse, you have been found Flawed under the Law of the Upgrade. Therefore, I order that you to be Cleansed. Immediately.”