I stand in the prep-room of the colony, the place where the prison guards used to keep their weapons. Gray sits on the bench across from me, strapping on a bulletproof vest. He throws me a friendly smile.
“First battle?” he asks, reaching over to tighten the side straps on his vest.
I sling an old-fashioned gun over my shoulder and nod. “I’ve been in skirmishes.”
He stands up to grab an assault rifle from the top rack. “This one will be simple. We’ll go over the plan before we leave.” He checks his watch. “Time to go. Ready?”
I nod and follow him out the door, joining the others that have gathered outside in the yard. The weather has taken a turn, the sky riddled with clouds. I hope it doesn’t start raining.
Darren waves me over from his spot at the edge of the group. I part from Gray and go to meet my brother. I haven’t seen him for a few days; he’s practically disappeared, probably preparing for the fight.
Darren looks at me and gives me an unsure smile. He looks rough in his mismatched uniform. So different from his old Redeemer attire. Xander’s words about change come back to me, and I realize how true they are. I’m seeing changes in everyone I know and care about.
Across the way, Warrick’s solders surround him, their uniforms matched and their posture ridged. The new group reminds me so much of the Redeemers; emotionless, fierce, and brutal. On Cliks, the Truth is portrayed as a laughable group of conspiracists. These people are anything but.
I pray that the Redeemers haven’t somehow found out about our plan. Today must be a victory. If we fail to capture the outpost and the Treasurer, it will be a devastating setback.
“Nat.” The voice comes from behind me, and when I turn, I see that Elle has made her way outside. She stands a few feet away, arms crossed timidly across her chest. Greif has taken its toll on her; she looks smaller, frailer.
“You’re going into battle, right?” she asks, and I nod. “Can you promise me something?” She lowers her eyes. “…Come back, alright? I don’t want - I can’t lose anyone else.”
I go to her and take her hand, gripping it in mine. “I will. We all will.”
“…Okay.” She stares at our hands, entwined together. “Okay,” she repeats.
“We’ll see each other soon, alright? Once we take the outpost, we’ll all be together again.”
Carper emerges from the building. I let go of Elle’s hand, and she takes a few steps back. I can hardly bear to leave her here alone. After what happened to her family, she needs someone to stay with her. But that’s not an option right now, as much as I wish it were.
The Commander faces our group and clears his throat. Instantly the crowd hushes.
“Our objective today is to breach the outpost, take charge of the control center – the Core – and find the Treasurer. ”
The Core. All the Redeemers create has one, a center from which they control everything. I’m sure this one will be heavily guarded.
He clasps his hands behind his back. “Any questions?”
“Yeah,” Ivan, who is once again at Warrick’s side, says. “Are we taking prisoners?”
Carper answers calmly, “Anyone standing in your way can be killed, but it’s crucial that we keep a few alive. We may need to use them as stand-ins if the Treasurer can’t be found.”
“Is that all?” Warrick asks, and Carper nods. “Good, then. Let’s move!”
I turn and give Elle one last look, then follow the crowd towards the vehicles. I climb into a van and take a seat by the window, breathing deeply as the tightness of the area registers. You can handle this, I tell myself. You’ll be out of here soon.
Darren slides into the row behind me. As if he is reading my thoughts, he leans forward. “There’s nothing to worry about, Nat. Keep your eyes on the sky.” He motions to the expanse of clouds outside. I nod and stare out the window.
Someone slips into the seat next to me. I blink in surprise when I see that it’s Xander.
“Missed me?” he says teasingly, strapping himself in.
When he looks at me again, I see that the sadness in his eyes has lessened. Some of the tightness in my chest loosens.
“You ready?” I ask.
“Yup.” His words are casual, but I see the fear in his eyes. Within the hour, he might be forced to kill someone, to do what he considers unspeakable.
Xander, why did you join the combat force? Why are you putting yourself through this?
Realization dawns on me slowly. Is he here because of me? To protect me? Maybe I’m not the only one who’s made a promise to themselves.
Outside, Janet slams the doors shut, sealing me in. Stay calm. It’s only for a little while.
She hops into the passenger’s seat and nods to the young man sitting behind the wheel. The van shudders into motion, sending tremors of vibration up my legs and making my teeth chatter. The engine roars as we roll across the forest floor, following the other vans and trucks that precede ours.
Xander stares forward. I pause, studying him. His hair has grown a bit, now sandy brown waves that spill over his eyes more than they did a few weeks ago. I realize how much I’ve missed him. Xander is a part of me. When he’s gone, I feel incomplete, like someone has stolen a vital piece of who I am.
And now, we’re going into battle together. Where bullets fly and blood spills. Where lives are taken.
I could lose him today.
The thought sends waves of panic through me. No, that won’t happen. I’ll always have Xander.
Xander will survive. I made that oath to myself weeks ago, when we first found out about the Cleansings. I plan to stay true to my promise, even if it means I won’t come out of this breathing. I won’t let another promise lie broken - like the Dalals’.
Outside, the trees have grown thinner, a sign that civilization is nearby. At the front, Janet checks the old-fashioned GPS system and announces that we’ll be there soon.
“We’ll get out a good distance away,” she reminds us. “The key is surprise. Without it, we’ve got a pretty slim chance of success. So keep your mouths shut and your footsteps light.”
The car is silent, but the tension tightens with every passing moment. We’re getting nearer. It’s calm, like the quiet that comes before a storm.
The silence is broken by a sharp hiss.
The van lurches to one side, skidding across the ground. Another hiss, a pop, and the driver loses control. The van flips, and for one moment I feel weightless, my arms above my head, my hair floating in front of my face.
We roll again, and my head slams into the wall. Light bursts across my vision and erupts into fireworks of pain. The sound of crushing metal and screeching tires comes from outside. The world shakes as the van rights itself again.
My head is spinning and my body throbbing. Xander groans next to me. Soft moans come from the others. Janet is slumped in her seat, an ugly gash on her forehead.
The driver, who is shaken but otherwise fine, unclips his seatbelt and turns to look at us. “Is everyone-?“ His head snaps back as a bullet bursts through the windshield, shattering the glass and meeting its target.
He slumps forward, motionless.