The Enforcers reach the man just as his gun fires, tackling him to the ground. The bullets are sent into the air, hitting nothing. The crowd parts as the gun clatters across the pavement. They pull away like it’s a venomous snake. We all know what guns can do when put in the wrong hands. Only the Redeemers can be trusted with them. Any citizen that has one is breaking the law.
Which means that this angry, struggling man has suddenly turned into a threat.
The crowd reacts within moments, drawing away in repulsion and fear. The Enforcers have the assassin pinned to the ground, with his arms twisted painfully behind him. If it hurts him, he doesn’t show it. He yells, his words aimed at the governor, who has been surrounded by Enforcers.
“The Truth!” he yells. “The Truth is growing. You’ll pay for your tyranny!”
I take in a sharp breath. The Truth; I’ve heard about it on the Clik threads. Rumors say the rebels are merciless, planting their spies in the cities. They have no morals – they’ll do anything to overthrow the Redeemers and thrust the world into another Bloodletting.
Even their name is a lie. They don’t fight for truth; they fight against it.
The realization ripples across the crowd. Fear sparks in every pair of eyes. The rebellion is no longer just a rumor whispered behind closed doors. It’s real, and it’s dangerous. My throat tightens as my gaze finds the fallen gun.
A shrill sound, like the jingling of bells, comes from the stage. Shore stands above the crowd, laughing to herself. She waves away the Enforcers and puts her hands on either side of the podium, chuckling.
“Thank you for your concern,” she says to the Enforcers. “But I’m afraid your protection won’t be needed.” When she smiles at the crowd, the tension immediately dissipates. “My friends, there’s no need for concern. If this foolish man is the best the Truth can offer, then we have nothing to fear.”
I feel my body relax as I listen to her words.
“As you can see, we have the situation completely under control. No need for alarm.” She chirps her laugh again, and this time, the crowd echoes her with nervous tendrils of their own. “Now, let’s continue with the ceremony, shall we?” She glances down at her papers. “Martin Shaw.”
I let out a breath and nudge Xander. “Are you interested in watching the rest of this thing?” He shakes his head. “Let’s go find Darren, then. He should be done now.” I haul him through the crowd.
Shore’s voice follows me as we go, calling out the names of the remaining initiates. When we pass the gun, still on the ground, Xander eyes it nervously. No one dares to pick it up – I guess it’ll stay there until a Redeemer recovers it.
“Xander,” I say softly. His gaze snaps to my face. His eyes are wide, hands trembling. “It’s okay.”
He nods quickly, matching my pace so he’s next to me. “I know,” he whispers. “But he could have killed her.”
“He didn’t.” I motion to the governor. “She’s still going strong. There’s nothing to worry about; the Redeemers are here.”
Although my words are confident, my voice carries a wisp of fear. The man was a member of the Truth. What if there are more here? I glance nervously from person to person, examining them for suspicious behaviour.
We weave our way through the crowd, heading towards the side door of the Hub, where Darren told me he would meet me when he was done.
“I got it on camera, by the way.” Xander says, trying to regain a sense of normalcy. He holds up his camera. “The assassination attempt. We can Clik it.”
My smile returns. “How many hits do you think we’ll get?”
“At least ten thousand. Maybe more. Although I’m sure the story is already all over the Cliks.”
“Yeah, but we were face-to-face with the guy before the fact. That’s got to be worth something.”
He nods. “I’ll send you the footage later.”
As the space between people grows, I feel the sense of relief blossom in my chest. The air suddenly seems clear, and I can feel its coolness on my skin and the sunlight warming my face. I take a deep inhale of fresh, light air and breathe a sigh of relief. Finally, freedom from the crowd. It feels like emerging from water, taking the first breath of air after hours of being smothered by waves.
Darren leans against the wall by the Hub’s side door, waiting for us. His short, blonde hair looks almost white under the sunlight, and his strong jaw is slack with fatigue and a hint of boredom. I don’t blame him for being tired; he got up before five to prepare for the ceremony. Despite his obvious drowsiness, his eyes are sharp and alive. They scan each face out of habit; his training has taught him to take note of everything.
When he sees me, he smiles.
“Hey, Nat.” He gives my shoulder a nudge in greeting. “Enjoying the ceremony?” Then, “Hi, Xander.”
I wrap my arms around Darren’s waist, squeezing him as tightly as I can. “Congratulations! Can I see it?
“The marking? Sure.” He rolls up his right-hand sleeve and shows me the tattoo on his wrist. A shield encases the coat of arms, designating his choice of Squadron. Defense. The black lines flash against his skin, but I can see the redness of a fresh tattooing underneath.
“Did it hurt?” I rub my own wrist, imagining the piercing of a needle and the hiss of the imprint taking shape.
“Nah. The tech has changed a lot since I first joined the program. Technology can go a long way in two years. I hardly felt a thing.” He pauses, examining my expression. “Thinking about tomorrow?”
I gulp and nod. My first year of the Redeemer training program ends tomorrow. Once I bear the mark, the next phase of training will begin. I’ll be out in the field, practicing my future under strict supervision.
“I’ll never join the Redeemers if I have to go through that,” Xander says, fingering his own wrist.
“Aw, you mean you won’t join me?” I joke. “I’m still waiting for you to sign up for the program.”
Xander and I are the same age, but my birthday comes a few months before, so I got the chance to sign up before he did. Seventeen is the earliest age you can begin training, and even then, there are requirements that decide whether you get accepted. In my case, my family was under high financial stress at the time; we needed the funding the program gave.
“No thank you,” Xander says. “Too much responsibility. Besides, I wouldn’t be able to…you know, hurt people. Even if it’s for the good of the Remainder.”
Darren rubs his marking. “You only have to do that if you join the Defense Squadron, like me. Both the Medical and Tech Squadrons don’t require that sort of thing.”
“Yeah, but Medics have to Cleanse people. No way I’d be able to do that.”
“Is Cleansing someone really that bad?” I ask, thinking of my mom. She was part of the Medic Squadron years ago, before she left us.
“Of course not,” he says quickly. “I just wouldn’t be smart enough. As with the Technology people, that’s not really my thing. Save that kind of stuff for Elle.”
Darren shrugs. “Suit yourself.” He raises an eyebrow at me. “You’re not having second thoughts now, are you?”
I grin. “Defense all the way. I can’t back out, anyway, not after getting my mark tomorrow.”
Darren smiles and checks his watch. “The celebration starts right after the ceremony. What do you want to do until then?”
I give him a sly smile. “Well, you could show us around the Hub, for starters...”
“Nice try. You know I’m not allowed to do that.”
“But the Clik-“
“Can’t do it.”
“Okay, okay. What else is there to do, then?” I look over my shoulder at the ongoing initiation ceremony. “Doesn’t look like much of a celebration to me.”
“You’ll see,” Darren says. “The ‘celebrating’ begins after the ceremony. It’ll be fun.”
I shrug. “Whatever you say.”
The huge screen hovering over the crowd shows the last initiate accepting their certificate. When they walk off the stage, Shore clasps her hands and smiles at the thousands of faces staring at her.
“As the Renewal Celebration officially begins, I ask that you all remind yourselves what we are truly commemorating.” She pauses, giving us time to ponder her next words and consider what they mean. “Today we rejoice over a world reborn. Today, we look towards the future and see paradise.” She takes in a deep breath. “Today, we celebrate the Upgrade. Rejoice, and be well.”
The crowd applauds as she walks off the stage. I jump up to hug my brother, and he cracks a smile. For us, our future has just arrived. His integration into the Redeemers secures our livelihood. Living without any kind of adult support hasn’t exactly been secure, but this changes everything. We’ll finally be able to live in freedom. No more fear of losing jobs, no more anxiety over providing for ourselves. We’re free. And it’s because of the Redeemers. A warmth spreads through my chest, and I feel my smile broaden.
The next few hours pass by in a flurry of laughter and celebration. The air buzzes with excited voices as the screens flash in shows of color and sound.
The Redeemer Enforcers linger in corners, watching like hawks from their posts. Some people might find their presence unnerving, but it fills me with a warm sense of comfort. After the attempt on Shore’s life, the armored men and women bring a sense of security and safety.
I check my Clikbook and find my messages empty. “Has Elle messaged you since the ceremony started?” I ask Xander.
“Nope. Last thing I heard from her she said she was going to watch the ceremony with her family, and then work on some tech project.”
I consider sending her a quick greeting but decide against it. She wouldn’t respond, anyway; give Elle a piece of tech and she’ll be wrapped up in it for hours.
We spend the rest of the day wandering the decorated streets of Therma. Streamers flutter from the roofs of skyscrapers, dropped by the partiers who laugh and dance in the clouds. My Clikbook chimes with endless posts praising the Redeemers. There are hardly any mentions the assassin or fear of rebellion. But I’m sure that subject will start rolling once the footage gets out – footage that will hopefully come from us.
The day goes by much faster than I would have liked. After what only feels like a few minutes, the lighting fades into the soft gold of sunset and the energy of the crowds gently lessens. My energy also trickles away with each passing moment.
The celebration ends with a huge display of fireworks. We watch from the streets as flashes of color dance across the twilight sky, burning brightly against the fading purple tone. Hues of every color splash over each other in a breath-taking display of popping and explosions, making the ground tremble under my feet. I let out a soft sigh as the color dwindles, signifying the end of the show, and the official conclusion of the Renewal Celebration.
Although the festivities are technically over, I know that the parties will go on long after the screens flicker off. Figures still shuffle on the roofs of buildings, holding glasses of champagne. Their voices travel into the street, merging with the soft hum of cars heading home.
Darren yawns. “We should head home. Want a ride, Xander?”
Xander answers by pulling out a Nex ticket. “I’m good. I’ve got to make a stop before I head back. I’ve got a family friend here that’s getting Cleansed in a few days. I want to say goodbye.” He clears his throat. “He’s turning seventy tomorrow.”
A pang of sympathy hits my chest. All elders are taken to the Hubs when they turn seventy. The Redeemers say that it’s the point where the deterioration of old age begins. We all know it’s for their own well being - they’ll be much happier in the Dormant Communities - but it’s always sad to say goodbye.
Darren nods to me. “You ready to go, Nat?”
“Yeah. Where’re you parked?”
“At the Hub. I get to use the Redeemer parking lot now,” he says with pride.
“Lucky you.” I give Xander a quick pat on the shoulder. “See you tomorrow.”
We part, and Darren leads me towards the parking lot. The stage stands like a monument at the front of the Hub. It looks deserted without all the lights and people crowded around it. The waning light creates shadows and dark corners, giving the entire place a hollow vibe. I shudder and stick close to Darren.
At the center of the empty space lies the slender black pistol, still forgotten after the assassination attempt. I nudge it with the tip of my shoe and consider picking it up, but can’t force myself to do it.
Darren eyes the pistol. “If you’re going into the Defense Squadron, you have to be able to handle guns, Nat.”
“I know.” I match his pace and fall into step next to him. His long legs make his steps worth two of mine, and I almost have to sprint to keep up with him. “But not guns like that. Not ones that tried to kill the governor.”
He watches me out of the corner of his eye. “You’ll soon be dealing with people who try to kill others, not just their weapons.”
I bite my lower lip, and he sighs, looking over his shoulder at the gun. “That was a military-style weapon. I wonder where the man got it.”
“Maybe from Era?” The few people who have guns buy them on the black market, and Era is the largest seller in that category. The seedy company, prone to setting their shops in basements and alleyways, seems like the perfect place for a rebel to buy a gun.
“Maybe.” He turns his attention back to me. “The Redeemers will deal with it. Let’s just go home, okay?”
I follow him to the parking lot, trying to force thoughts of the gun from my mind.