A scream rips from my throat before I can smother it. Harrison whips around and sees me standing at the window. My eyes don’t leave the lifeless heap that slouches across the table, a bullet wound over his heart.
He was alive seconds ago. I saw him, heard him. We made eye contact. He thought I might save him.
And he’s dead. They killed him. The Redeemers killed him.
Harrison throws the door open, with the bald Redeemer standing behind. I hardly feel it when he grabs my arm, but the spell is broken when he begins to drag me down the hall. I thrash, screaming and cursing. Tears of anger, shock, and fear fall, mixing with sweat on my cheeks.
The Redeemers. Our saviors, the heroes of the world. The perfect, the spotless, the merciful. It can’t be. It can’t.
The gas mask, ready to pump lethal toxins, the injection meant to poison my heart and silence it, the rows of tools lying on the counter. They are instruments of death. Made to end lives.
They’re not Cleansing the Flawed. They’re killing them.
I reach over with my free hand and dig my nails into Harrison’s arm, forcing them deep into his skin. He yells in surprised pain, dropping his guard long enough for me to wriggle out of his grasp. I race down the hall, tears like curtains over my eyes, blinding me. The second Redeemer grabs me by the arm and twists me around, but I kick out, connecting with his knee. He grunts, but doesn’t relent, pinning my arm behind my back and giving it a sharp twist. Jabs of pain shoot up my shoulder and I cry out. My swears are mingled with sobs, a mixture of pain, rage, hatred and utter terror.
“You liars!” I scream. “You’re killing them! You’re killing us!”
The man pushes me down the hallway and closer to the Cleansing chamber. To the room where I was taken to die. Where I will die.
A surge of energy floods through me. I thrash, whipping my head back so my skull collides with the man’s chin. He lets go of me for a moment to clutch his jaw, giving me enough time to escape his grasp. Harrison is there to catch me, ending my escape with a solid blow to the head. The ground comes rushing up to meet me as my legs give out.
The hall tilts as they haul me to my feet and drag me back to the Cleansing room. I scream at myself internally, begging myself to fight, to move, to run, but my body won’t obey. It’s as if my limbs have turned to lead.
And then, in the midst of the chaos, comes a familiar voice.
“What are you doing?”
Through my blurred vision, I can make out Darren striding down the hall. His eyes, wide with surprise, move from me to the man gripping my arm.
“I heard she had been found Flawed,” he says. I can tell that he’s trying to keep his voice calm and collected, but the anger and confusion shines through his act. “Firstly, I’d like to know why-“
“This doesn’t concern you,” Harrison interrupts.
“-And secondly,” my brother goes on, anger rising in his voice. “Why are you handling her like that?”
I struggle against the men, trying to get to my brother. The bald Redeemer forces me back. “Darren, they’re killing them!” My voice is ringed with panic, like an animal caught in a trap. “The Flawed! The Redeemers are killing the Flawed!”
Harrison cocks his gun. “Quiet,” he hisses to me, then turns to Darren. “She has been found Flawed, and resisted Cleansing. We’re simply following protocol.”
“Is the Medical Squadron’s ‘protocol’ to mistreat their patients?”
“Again, she’s interfering with the process.” He pushes past Darren. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, we have a Cleansing to get through.”
“Wait!” Darren follows us down the hall, his eyes wild as he searches for something to stall with. “She’s a minor – wouldn’t she need an adult to authorize her Cleansing?”
“My apologies, but that’s not how things work.” He shoves me into the Cleansing room. “We’re under orders to Cleanse her immediately.”
“Wait!” Darren repeats, his voice desperate.
The door closes, and I’m thrown to the ground. Darren’s muffled voice can barely be heard from the other side. The two of them tower over me like statues of stone. Cold. Unfeeling. Immovable.
“She was supposed to be injected,” Harrison says to the other Redeemer.
“This is faster. Do it now. We’ve got five more to Cleanse this hour.”
Harrison nods and raises his pistol, aiming for my heart.
I won’t let these men kill me. I can’t. There are too many experiences I’ve never had, too many people I don’t want to leave behind. An animal-like urge to live crashes through my body, alighting every cell and setting them aflame.
I suddenly roll to my side just as the gun fires, dodging the bullet by mere inches.
“You little-“ the bald Redeemer starts.
There’s no where for me to run. I try put as much distance between me and the men, but I’ve reached the back of the room within seconds.
Outside the hall, I can hear Darren slamming himself against the door. He’s trying to break it down, but he won’t make it in time. I’m trapped in here.
But the will to survive still pumps through my veins.
I grab the nearest medical tool from the counter - a long, twisted needle-like object with a thick handle. How many people have died in this room, by this tool? How many times has it been wiped clean of blood and placed back on the counter?
“Put it down,” Harrison growls, tightening his grip on the gun.
In response, I raise the tool higher and set my teeth on edge.
“Fine then.” He raises the gun just as the door bursts open. A shot splinters through the air, followed by silence.
I blink, lowering the tool. I’m alive. How am I still alive?
Another gunshot, and the bald Redeemer falls, landing next to Harrison’s body. My gaze stays transfixed on them as Darren lowers his weapon. After one long, agonizing moment, I look at him. His eyes are wild. His finger still twitches against the trigger, trembling slightly.
“Darren,” I croak. The tool drops from my hand and clatters on the tile floor. He takes a step closer, then closes the distance between us in one stride. I fall into him, wrapping my arms around his waist as he holds me.
My legs give out. I crumble to the ground, still clutching my brother. Every breath comes in shaky intervals, and my heart flies wildly in my chest. All sound has been sucked into a void of silence, leaving only a high ringing in its place.
This can’t be real. Please, say it isn’t real.
It’s a dream. A nightmare. That’s all. I repeat this in my mind, over and over, until I’ve convinced myself that it’s true. It must be. It’s impossible for this to be anything else.
But then comes the metallic scent of blood. Heavy, thick, sweet. When I smell it, I realize that this is all too real.
I pull away, hands trembling. “They killed him.” My voice shakes with hysteria. “The Redeemers, those two, they had a man - a Flawed - and they killed him. And there’s this system, this creature-“
Darren holds up his hands. “It’s alright, Nat. It’s…it’s alright…” He looks at the bodies, then the open door. “Let’s just…come with me.”
He takes my hand, gently, and hurries from the room, closing the door behind us. He keeps looking over his shoulder as we race down the hall. We make a sharp turn, then another, until he pulls me into an empty Cleansing room.
He lets go on my hand and quickly closes the door.
“Calm down, Nat. Breathe.”
I take in a shaky breath. “There are no Cleansings,” I say. “Only killings. Everything they’ve told us…all of it…”
It’s all a lie. Everything I’ve believed up until this point has been false.
I tell him about hacking into the system, and the voice that spoke directly from thin air. The memory makes me tremble as I speak. When I’m done, he closes his eyes for a moment.
“You…hacked into the system?”
“I’m sorry,” I choke. “I didn’t know…we were just…I didn’t know,” I say again.
He stares at the wall for a moment. The corner of his eye twitches.
“You’re…Flawed?” he asks in a whisper.
“I-I’m not sure,” I stammer.
He brings his hollow gaze to the neat rows of utensils on the counter. He brushes his fingers against the nearest tool. “I’ve never been in a Cleansing chamber before,” he says. “It looks like a…an execution room or something.” He turns to me. “Did they…hurt you?”
“He was going to give me a lethal injection,” I say quietly. “He told me it was my Cleansing preparation. I was so close to…” I can’t finish the sentence. To dying. I was literal seconds away from death. I would have gone unknowingly, still believing in the lie that the Redeemers are our saviors. That they can be trusted, that they’re good, kind, and merciful.
I would have never known that all this time, I have been training to be their killer; a servant to monsters who slaughter those who don’t fit into their mold. I would have gone on singing their praises in my Cliks, worshipping them during ceremonies. I was so loyal to them, but they turned on me.
And for what? What caused them to disown me so easily?
Xander’s words come back to me, and everything clears. They wanted to get rid of the witnesses. When we hacked into the system, we uncovered things the Redeemers want to keep hidden. We were a threat to their power, so they decided to get rid of us.
Xander and Elle. No doubt they’ve been taken to be Cleansed, just as I was.
Oh, no. Please, no. “Xander,” I whisper. “Elle.” My gaze snaps to Darren. “They’ll be Cleansed, too. They’ll be murdered!”
“I’m sure they’re-“
“We have to save them, Darren.” Desperation makes my voice quiver. “We have to.”
My brother pauses. “Someone will find those Redeemer’s bodies. When they do, we’ll be out of time. We need to leave the Hub now.”
Leaving the Hub means safety. The thought of being away from this place is tempting beyond measure, but I won’t leave the building without my friends. They’re innocent, blindly preparing to meet their deaths.
Unless they’ve already been Cleansed. The thought sends a new surge of panic racking through my mind.
“I’m not going without them.”
“Nat, we need to go-“
“I’m not leaving until I know they’re safe.” I look into his eyes, pleading. “Please, Darren.”
His eyes show frustration, but I see them soften. “Alright,” he says finally. “But we need to be quick.”
Footsteps come from the hall. Darren grabs me and pulls me away from the door seconds before a pair of Redeemers walk by, leading a woman with a scarred face down the hall.
When they’re gone, he nods to the door. “We’ll need a medical admission card – one of the Medics I killed should have one. We’ll grab it, then look for your friends.”
I nod. His calmness spreads to me, both confusing and comforting. I’m panicking, and yet he seems to be fine. I guess it’s the result of his training. The Redeemers usually teach their trainees to keep their emotions hidden.
Pistol in hand, he motions for me to follow him. Still trembling, I step out of the room and into the harsh brightness of the hall.