The Enforcer prisoner looks broken. His face is bruised and bloody, his skin painted in swirls of blue and purple. He sits in a chair, but his posture is like that of a wounded animal. The man who brought him in had blood on his knuckles.
Carper and Gray stand in front of the Enforcer. Darren and I stand back a bit.
“Is this the one who mentioned ALPHA?” Carper asks, and Gray nods. The Commander looks to the Enforcer. “Tell me what you know about the AI."
The man raises his head. “Interrogating me is useless. I won't-”
Something like disgust glimmers in the Enforcer’s eye. He leans forward, wincing in pain at the movement. “Fine. I’ll tell you what I know about ALPHA.” He takes in a ragged breath. “You can’t beat It. We’ve created something bigger than you can imagine. You Flawed don’t stand a chance. Surrender to the Redeemers, before things get bigger.”
“You’re here to give us information, not threats,” Carper says coolly.
In response, the Enforcer spits blood at Carper’s feet. “Flawed scum,” is all he says.
“Gray. Bring the interrogator in again."
Enforcer’s eyes widen slightly. He regains himself quickly. “Do what you want to me. You can’t win. Don’t you understand that? Within ten days, this will all be over.”
“Ten days?” I repeat, and the Enforcer glances over at me as if he’s noticing me for the first time. “What happens then?”
He hesitates, glances at the door, then at Carper, as if he’s weighing his options. Remembering his loyalty to the Redeemers.
“We’re going to release It,” he says finally.
“ALPHA?” I ask.
He nods - a jerky movement. His eyes are gleaming. “Ten days, and It will roam free. Ten days, and the Flawed will be no more.”
If ALPHA is released, we’ll be powerless against it. There will be no more hope for the Flawed.
We need to stop It. We must.
The Redeemer is watching me now, a sort of smile on his face. Carper has gone silent. Even Gray, always so cool-headed, looks uneasy.
“Enough,” Carper spits, straightening his shoulders. “Put him in a cell, Gray. Make sure he stays alive. When you’re done, come back to me.”
Gray nods and grabs the Enforcer, escorting him out of the room. The man doesn’t struggle – he’s satisfied with himself.
“Get Pamela,” Carper orders Darren. Then, to me, “And your tech friend. We’re going to need her for this.”
“Do you have a plan?” I ask.
“Maybe.” With that, he leaves the room.
We meet in the room where I first saw Pamela. The woman herself watches me from her seat. She’s trying to make eye contact. I refuse to look at her.
Carper, with Gray, sits across from me, his attention on the holographic map that covers the table. Darren is with us.
Next to me, Elle stares at Pamela with wide eyes. When I told her that my mother was here, she hardly believed it. She knows that things aren’t good between us.
“We can’t let this happen,” Carper is saying. “It would mean the end of everything we stand for."
Pamela turns her attention away from me and back to the meeting. She’s been told everything, filled in by Darren, who seems to have an easier time talking to her than I do. By now, the entire colony knows about ALPHA’s release. “What do you suggest we do, Commander?”
“That’s where she comes in.” Carper looks to Elle. “Can you manage to hack into ALPHA’s system and shut It down?”
Elle looks nervous under the attention but answers all the same. “I…I might, but it’ll take a while.”
Pamela nods. “We need to do that immediately.”
“It might not even be possible,” Elle warns.
Darren steps in. “ALPHA’s system must be controlled from a physical location. If we can’t hack into the system, we could shut It down manually.”
“But,” Gray begins. “We have no idea where that thing is controlled from.”
“Then we have to find out,” I answer. “Whatever it takes.”
“The Redeemers are obviously all connected when it comes to ALPHA,” Darren begins. “The fact that the Enforcer we questioned knew about the plan is proof of that. With that in mind, I wouldn’t doubt it if all Hubs had some sort of communication with ALPHA’s location – there might be something in one that would lead us to It.”
Pamela raises her eyebrows. “Are you suggesting we infiltrate a Hub as well? That seems a bit drastic. We haven’t considered other options yet.”
“There are no other options.” Darren shakes his head. “At this rate, that’s our best choice. We’re running out of time.”
Pamela hesitates. “…If that’s the fasted way, we’ll have to go through with it. The Sector 3 Hub is the closest.”
Gray looks skeptical. “How would we even pull that off?”
“We’ll have to take them by surprise to have a chance,” Carper says. He turns to Pamela. “We’ll need to combine our forces.”
Pamela rubs her temples in consideration. “What’s your suggested plan of attack?”
“Two squads. The larger group attacks from the front, smaller group enters through the back. We flush out the Redeemers, then start looking for some sort of evidence of communication with ALPHA.”
“We need to fine-tune it,” Pamela says. “It will take time."
"We don't have time."
"I'm aware," she sighs. "You and I will stay here to construct a full attack plan." She nods to the rest of us. "The rest of you may go."
We wait until Carper gives us permission to leave, then do as we're told. As I go, but I can hear Pamela excusing herself and following me. I quicken my pace.
“Natalie, wait,” my mother calls after me.
I don’t stop. I can’t talk to her. Not without Darren.
But she catches up, grabbing my shoulder. I involuntarily shudder at her touch.
“Natalie, I just want to say…I understand that I hurt you. But I want to make things right.”
“You can’t.” I pull out of her grasp and storm down the stairs, but she follows after me.
“If you would only talk to me-“
“Talk?” I spin on my heel and face her, seething. “Talk to you? The one who ruined everything, who made Dad-“ My voice cracks, cutting off my words.
“Who made him what?” She looks at me with wide, confused eyes. “Neither you or Darren will tell me what happened. Where’s your father, Natalie? Where's my husband?"
“You mean you haven’t figured it out yet?” Hot tears prick at my eyes, but the rage keeps them at bay. “Dad’s gone. Losing you was too much for him. He fell into a darkness he couldn’t get out of. He’s dead.”
Pamela blinks. “…What?”
I take in a shaky breath. “He killed himself. Because of you.”
She stares at me in shock. In horror. I turn around and leave before she can say anything – before more of my pain breaks through.
A bubble of emotion expands in my chest. I swallow my tears away.
I have to bring my thoughts back to ALPHA. If I focus on shutting It down and defeating the Redeemers, I’ll be alright. War is what I should be concentrating on right now; I have to push the emotions away.
So I do. I numb my thoughts and replace them with planning and strategizing.
And as I do, I feel myself harden.
“Darren told me about Pamela.”
Xander comes up next to me, hands in his pockets. I pause for a moment to glance at him, then turn back to the training dummy and resume my practice. This place has many more options for training – Pamela has done well in developing her colony.
Her colony. All of this – the soldiers, the uniforms, and weapons – they’re all the work of my mother. How is that possible? How could the woman who raised me turn into…whatever she is now…?
I suppose both of us have changed while we’ve been apart.
Xander watches me from a safe distance. “Does she know how you got here?”
“Darren told her everything,” I answer, bringing my knee up to strike again.
“And she knows about your dad?”
I nod, wiping sweat from my brow. Xander sits on the ground, legs crossed under him. I stop my practice, scooping up a nearby water bottle before sitting next to him.
“Gray says we’re attacking the Hub in a few days,” he says. “It all feels too sudden.”
I take a deep drink before saying, “I know. But we’re running out of time.” I pause. “Are you going?”
He lets out a long sigh and leans back on his hands. “I don’t really have a choice. We need every man we can get, or else…the world will end, right?”
“Something like that.”
There’s a long stretch of silence. I think of the next battle to come – another battle, another fight. What will we lose in this one?
Who will we lose?
I swallow. My next words feel sudden, but I have to say them. I have to get them out in the open.
“Don’t die, alright?”
He looks over, brow furrowed.
“I just…don’t want to lose you.”
He pauses, then puts a hand over mine. It’s a soft, sweet gesture – a comforting one.
“We’ll keep each other safe.” He smiles weakly. “Like we always have.”
I nod, then force a smile. “Of course.”
He nods and lets go, breaking the moment. I sigh and get up, stretching. Ask if he’s eaten yet. Make small talk. Try to ignore what we’re about to throw ourselves into – another fight.