The Hub parking lot looks miles wide, with endless rows of white cars lined side by side. Darren’s car doors slide open as he approaches, revealing two rows of plush white seats and shiny armrests. It’s dark inside, with no lights and completely opaque windows. It bursts into light once Darren waves his hand above the ignition panel. Suddenly the white of the glass fades, revealing a crystal-clear view of the parking lot. Glowing molecules swim in the interior, lighting up the car as the control panel flickers to life. Holographic controls hover above Darren’s lap. He places his hand on the steering stick, and soon we’re speeding towards the city’s main road.
His right-hand sleeve falls away from his wrist, giving me a clear view of his marking. When he notices my gaze, he smiles gently.
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer.”
I roll my eyes in mock annoyance, but force my gaze away from his marking.
“So, are you nervous for tomorrow?”
I consider the question, rolling it around in my mind for a good two minutes before answering. “Yeah, I guess so.”
The car turns sharply onto the main road. Other cars speed past, their passengers completely shaded by white and black exteriors. I watch their wheels turn effortlessly, so fast my mind can barely register the movement.
“It’ll be fine.” He pauses, risking a glance at me. “You aren’t scared, are you?”
“Me? Scared?” I scoff. “No way. I just don’t know if I’m ready, you know? It’s...life changing. There’s no going back after it’s done.”
“I get it.” He comes to a rest at a stoplight. “But as scary as it might seem, it’s one step closer to your future. And I know you’ll love the Defense Squadron, just like I do.”
The light turns green, and we continue, falling into silence. I fidget with a loose string on my shirt, racking my mind to say something to fill the gap. There are so many things I want to say, so many thoughts and feelings his initiation has brought. But I can’t seem to put any of them into words.
“This won’t change anything,” he says, as if he can read my thoughts. He rolls the car onto the highway. The bars of light lining the road glow softly, providing just enough light to see, but not so much that it’s blinding. I crane my neck so I can see the stars shining through the clear walls of the car. “My initiation, I mean. Me being an official Redeemer.”
“I’m serious, Nat. I’m still me. You have nothing to worry about.”
I sigh and finally free the string from my shirt. “Just…don’t get killed or anything, okay?”
Darren raises a brow, risking a quick glance away from the road to look in my direction. “I don’t plan to.”
I scoff. “No one plans to die, Darren. I’m not stupid; I’ve seen the footage. Those ‘skirmishes’ between Redeemers and the Truth have taken lives. I don’t want to lose my brother to that.” Heat rises to my face. “Not now.” I lower my voice. “Not so soon after dad.”
He stares at me, watching. His brow is heavy over his eyes, his fingers twitching in thought. He’s examining me, a habit he picked up from his training. I squirm in my seat, uncomfortable under his heavy gaze. “Eyes on the road, Darren.”
His gaze snaps back to the street, but I can tell he’s still watching me out of the corner of his eye. Finally, he takes a deep breath, running a hand through his hair.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “I wouldn’t leave you alone. You know that. I’m not like Pamela. I don’t abandon my family.”
The mention of my mother sends an unwelcome pang to my heart. My eyes sting with unwanted tears. Like always, I push the betrayal away, tucking it into a corner of my mind. This is no time to contemplate what she did. No time is the right time.
“Okay.” My voice squeaks like a startled bird’s chirp.
“I won’t leave you,” Darren says. “I promise.”
I take in a steady breath and let my usual demeanor slide back into place. “Break that promise and I’ll send you to the Blightlands.”
Just like me, Darren regains his composure, and even offers me a smile in return for my joke. “Big words coming from my little sister,” he says, reaching over to tousle my hair. “Don’t worry, Nat. In two years you’ll be fighting right next to me. Then we’ll see who’s the one taking the most risks.”
I lean back in my seat and watch the stars as they slide lazily across the sky. Twilight has passed, and the world is plunging into the darkness of night. The headlights of passing cars dance like wisps, fluttering to their destination. A Nex flies by overhead, so fast I barely notice it.
It’s all so chaotic and busy, but it somehow manages to be reassuring and soothing. Like the Redeemers, I guess. They’re terrifying and demand respect, but you can’t help feeling safe when they’re around. I guess it won’t be so bad to be one. It’s the best way to help people in this world.
Darren turns off the highway and onto a smaller, more peaceful street that leads to Cativy.
Remembering Xander, I turn on my Clikbook and send him a message asking where he is. He responds moments later telling me he’s on his way home.
Are you taking a Nex?
His reply comes flying back seconds later.
No, I caught a late-night plane to Sector 5. Of course I’m on a Nex.
Don’t get cheeky. How was your friend?
He’s fine, just nervous. Elle messaged me, by the way. She wants to meet tomorrow.
We can meet at her place after I get my mark.
Sure. Send her a message.
Will do. See you then.
I power off the Clikbook and turn back to the window. I can message Elle when I get home. Which will probably be soon - I can make out the outline of Cativy approaching in the dim lighting.
We enter the town minutes later. It’s dark and quiet, so different from the bustling streets of Therma. Signs of mellow gatherings shine in the occasional building, but otherwise, the city is silent.
I can see our apartment complex from the road. It’s a short and squat building, painted a concrete-gray color. It looks horrible from the outside, but the apartments are nice and roomy. When dad stopped working two years ago, Darren had no choice but to sell the house and downsize to an apartment. We had hardly lived in it for three months before dad decided to leave the world.
Darren pulls into the parking lot adjoining the building. I hop out and follow him inside. The inside is as quiet as the city.
Our apartment is dark and quiet when we walk in. I’m instantly hit with the familiar smell of our home; a musty woody scent. I inhale deeply and let it out slowly, relieved to be back home.
Darren locks the door and moves to the light switch. The room lights up with a soft glow, outlining the humble decorations and well-worn furniture. The apartment is small, with several doors standing against the walls. Shadows linger on the last one, at the very back. That door that has remained closed for the last few months.
I dump my backpack on the sofa and start unpacking it, tossing various items across the room. I put my Clikbook on the mantel, pausing for a moment to look at the picture that sits there. A young girl – me, a long time ago - sits in the arms of a woman. It’s easy to recognize myself; not much has changed in my appearance. In the image, my sharp pointed nose and amber eyes look just like they do today. The only different is my freckles. Back when I was younger, my face was covered with them. Nowadays, their only remnants are the faint imprints they’ve left scattered across my nose.
I let my gaze travel to the woman holding me, and my stomach tightens. I turn the frame so it faces away from me, then return to my backpack. I see that photo everyday, but it still hurts. We need to get rid of it.
By the time I’m done unpacking, Darren has changed out of his uniform. He opens the fridge and throws me a bottle of juice before taking one for himself. His gaze pauses at the mantle, settling on the flipped frame.
“We don’t have to have it out if it bothers you that much.”
I shrug. “It’s cluttering the mantel.”
He knows that I’m lying, but stays silent, taking it away and putting it in a nearby drawer.
I reach over and take my Clikbook to message Elle. Anything to get my mind away from the woman smiling in the photo.
“I’m going to bed,” Darren tells me. “You should, too. You have to be up early to get your mark.”
I say goodnight, then turn my attention back to my messages.
Are you asleep? I ask Elle. A few minutes pass before her reply comes.
Not yet. Are you guys home?
We just got back.
How was the ceremony? I watched it on the live broadcast.
Amazing! Hey, want to hang out tomorrow? Xander and I have some good ideas for our next Clik story. I’m getting my mark in the morning, but I’m free after that.
Sure, you guys can come over when you’re done. Davey will be here.
I smile at the thought of her toddler brother. Not a problem. I’d love to see him.
Nice. See you then. Oh, by the way, I found something.
There’s no time to tell you now. Besides, Clikbook messages are vulnerable to hacking.
Does that mean this is something scandalous?
Do I look like a member of the Truth?
Well, this is a virtual conversation, so I can’t really see you...
Just come over tomorrow, and I’ll tell you.
Whatever you say. See you then.
I put my Clikbook on recharge mode and flick it off.
My bedroom faces the back of the building, giving me a lovely view of the dumpsters in the alleyway. My curtains are open, letting in a stream of moonlight that puddles on my bed. I maneuver through the minefield of junk strewn across my floor, results of rushed mornings and laziness in the evenings. I close the curtains and flop onto my unmade bed.
I lay there in the darkness, staring at the silver-lined outline of my ceiling fan. My fingers massage my right wrist, and I try to imagine how it will feel to have a marking permanently branded into my skin. The thought doesn’t scare me, but what it means makes my stomach uneasy.
Complete and utter dedication.
Of course, I won’t pledge myself until I’ve completed the two-year training program. I can still back out if I change my mind.
Which I won’t, of course. I’m not one to shirk away from my promises. And if I did, I’d have to walk around the rest of my life with an incomplete mark on my wrist, screaming to the entire world that I didn’t have the guts to take the leap and become a Redeemer.
Still, the idea of being bound to anyone, even an organization as wonderful as the Redeemers, feels…stifling. Like the instant I take on the marking, I’ve stepped into a cage of duty that I can’t be free from.
This is stupid. I roll onto my side and banish any thoughts of quitting. This is the best path for me. Look what it did for Darren, for both of us. Without the funds the training program gave us, we’d be living on the streets. Besides, this is the best way to help people. I’ll defend the Remainder, keeping families safe and enforcing the law.
It’s the right choice. The smart choice.
But as I slip into the peaceful void of slumber, I can’t help feeling that I’m about to dig my own grave.