A large corridor leads to the entrance door of the Crux’s Core. Intersecting halls feed into it. Gray and I hide around a corner some distance back, guns in hand. The Enforcers standing in front of the heavy steel door are still as statues.
The solid concrete walls of the Crux building rise around us. It’s so different in here. All the usual Redeemer splendor has been abandoned– the white tiles, the arching columns, the sleek glass…none of them are part of the Crux’s interior. In their place is thick concrete and heavy doors. It looks nothing like the Redeemers we know.
No, this place shows what the Redeemers are actually like. Cold. Hard. Unhuman.
I nod silently to Gray. He pulls two grenades from his belt and hands them to me. They’re gas grenades, filled with enough stuff to knock these guards out for a few hours. A normal grenade would alert the entire Crux that we’re here.
I tug at the corner of my stolen Redeemer uniform as I ready the grenades. The armor is a bit too tight, closing around my arms and shoulders. I can tell that Gray is uncomfortable in his too. Ever since we left for the Crux, he’s been glancing down at his newly tattooed wrist, like he can’t get used to the sight of it. He must feel like he’s in another person’s skin right now.
Voices come from the guards. I peek around the corner again and see that a new set of Enforcers are making their way down a hall, probably replacements. The new group’s heads are bare, holding their helmets in their arms as they approach.
My thoughts cut off when I catch sight of the last approaching Enforcer. White-blonde hair, blue eyes that gleam like sapphires in the dim light. I recognize everything about him, from the way he walks to his ridged posture. Darren.
I pull away as if I’ve been burned, my pulse immediately spiking. I didn’t expect to see him here. I’m not prepared-
Calm down, Nat. He’s just another Enforcer. One of them.
Gray watches me from the corner of his eye. He follows my gaze to my brother and frowns, looking back at me. I can see his words in his eyes – Just focus on the mission.
Focus on the mission. I cling to those words as I pull the pin on the grenade and roll it towards the door. It clatters against the concrete floor. The sound mixes with the startled shouts of the Enforcers, followed by the low hiss of the gas being released.
We wait for the air to clear, listening for the sound of bodies falling. Moments later, the corridor goes silent. I step out from the corner.
Enforcer bodies litter the ground around the Core’s entrance. I step over them as I go to the door, noting their deep, heavy breaths, their still faces and closed eyes. Gray is a few steps behind me.
When I reach the door, I pause, scanning the bodies again with a furrowed brow.
“Something wrong?” Gray asks as he eyes the entrance’s reader and lock.
“…Darren,” I say after a moment, my breath catching as the realization hits. “He’s not here.”
“There’s no way he escaped. There wasn’t enough time.”
“He was at the back of the group.” I glance at each of the unconscious Enforcers again, before finally turning away, blocking off my anxiety. “We don’t have time to look for him.”
“I have a feeling we’ll regret that,” Gray comments, motioning to the scanner. “Should I try it?”
“I doubt it’ll open for you,” I murmur, but step away for him to try. He pushes up his sleeve, revealing the fresh marking. He tenses when he looks at it, then shakes himself off and waves it in front of the scanner. The blue light emitting from the reader turns red. Nothing.
He runs his hand over the marking to smooth it over and tries again. It still doesn’t unlock.
“Plan B?” he asks, reaching for his pack. Inside are tools we collected from the Hub, along with three of the bombs we’ll be planting. I have the other three.
He pulls a glass cutter and hands it to me. I use it to slice through the clear cover of the reader, revealing the wiring and circuits inside.
Gray hands me a baton-like tool. I flick the switch at its base and the end slowly turns red, glowing with heat.
“Let’s hope this works,” I say as I ram the hot end of the baton into the device’s circuitry. Sparks fly. Smoke pours from the reader, mixing with the smell of melting metal and plastic. We hear the deadbolts clicking as the door begins to open.
“Be careful,” Gray says as he takes the baton back. “Who knows what defenses they have in there.”
I step inside. Before I can take in my surroundings, I feel It. The presence comes instantly.
Its feels weak, like I’m standing at the edge of Its mind. But It’s close by - I can feel it. And I have to get closer.
Gray steps in behind me. He raises his gun, then pauses, taking in the space around us. The room is narrow and curves in both directions. A ring. Just like the Redeemer Technician said. Across from us, on the wall, is an open door.
Column-like computer towers loom in even rows, stretching their tall frames to the ceiling. A strange red glow emits from inside them, shining dimly through cracks and crevasses.
All of this – the computers, the hardware. It’s all ALPHA. This is that thing’s body.
We’re inside of It.
I glance up and see an expanse of glass stretching above us. The Crux’s dome. The moon stares at us through the smooth glass like an eerie eye. Stars twinkle from their places.
“Stay alert,” I say to Gray as I make my way forward. I half expect lasers or some other defenses to appear out of nowhere to tear us apart. But nothing happens. We’re still undetected.
I pull one of the bombs from my pack and place it between the towers.
“Plant yours on the other side of this ring,” I tell Gray. He sets off down the length of the ring as I punch in the code on the bomb’s keypad, setting it to detonate in ten minutes. The numbers begin ticking down.
Gray returns, and we start for the next ring, walking among the towers. Our footsteps echo too loudly – my heart skips a beat at every sound we make. If we catch ALPHA’s attention, it’ll be over.
What if It can sense our presence? The thought makes my steps falter. What if It already knows we’re here? It could be in my head right now, reading my thoughts.
Elle’s words whisper in my head – What if It breaks you?
My feet suddenly feel like heavy stone. Every inch forward is another closer to ALPHA. The AI’s presence, Its mind, grows stronger with every step.
“Nat.” Gray’s voice makes me glance at him. I realize he’s looking at me, taking in my pale face, the sweat breaking out along my brow. “You okay?”
I swallow. My throat has gone dry. “I’m not sure if…if I can’t do this.”
“You can,” he repeats firmly, stopping to take me by the shoulders and turning me to face him. The bright green of his eyes stare into my own, strong and intense. “And you will. We both will. For the Flawed.”
I stare at him, eyes wide, feeling the strength of his hands on my shoulders. I force myself to nod. “For the Flawed.”
He lets go of me and continues without another word. I follow behind him after a moment.
We reach the door to the second ring. A male voice speaks over my earpiece. “Fifteen minutes to impact.”
“We need to hurry,” I say.
I follow him into the next ring. This one is smaller, the curve tighter. Instead of towers, the room is filled with circuit boards, laying in lines on raised rows of concrete.
ALPHA is stronger here. It’s changed from a faint presence to the strong, consistent sensation that something is here. With us.
“Let’s split up,” Gray says. “We won’t make it in time otherwise.”
“I’ll go to the Core.”
He shakes his head. “I’ll do it.”
“You’ve never experienced ALPHA up close before. I know what It’s like – I’m prepared. It has to be me.”
He frowns deeply, watching me for a moment, before letting out a breath and nodding. “Get in there. Get out. Don’t let It slow you down. I’ll plant the two bombs in here and wait at the entrance of the Core.”
We split up; he goes down the ring while I make my way towards the Core’s entrance. But when I arrive at the cracked door, I hear someone murmuring under their breath, and fingers tapping a keyboard. Someone’s in there. A person.
Something else looms on the other side of this door. An inhuman presence.
I pause to take out my gun. My body is tense, drawn taught by the knowledge of what lies ahead.
I fill my lungs with air and let it out slowly. My head becomes clear, my thoughts sharpening.
Without hesitation, I slip through the door, stepping into ALPHA’s lair.
I take in the small, round room. A huge screen stretches across the curved wall. I squint at the numbers, letters, and chains of codes that flow past. The rest of the wall is covered with multiple smaller screens that display statistics.
In front of main display floats a large keyboard, hovering above the ground. A man stands at it, his back to me. His words appear on the screen, disappearing moments later as they’re put into the system. They’re sentences, comments, as if he’s having a conversation.
A conversation with ALPHA.
I clench my jaw and aim my gun at the man’s back. I can’t risk anything here – I have to take him out, and fast.
The bullet fires with a low pop.
Before it hits him, the man steps aside, barely flinching as the bullet hits the screen in front of him. It doesn’t shatter, doesn’t even crack. It must be bulletproof.
I’m about to shoot again when he pulls something from his belt and whirls to face me. I barely have time to leap out of the way before his own bullet comes flying towards me. It hits the wall instead, inches from where my head was. I turn back to him and stop short.
Simon Krane stares back at me, gun still pointed at my head. His blonde hair looks dull and dead in the dim light, but his face is as familiar as ever.
Of course he’s involved with ALPHA. Has he been talking to It the entire time? Was he the one who created it…?
I point the gun at his chest. Instead of shooting me, Krane scrutinizes me, his brow wrinkled slightly. Then, he raises his eyebrows. “You’re the Flawed who discovered ALPHA.”
I don’t move. I don’t even respond.
“He’s been looking for you all of this time,” he continues, still pointing the gun at me – his hand is steady from training. “He wants you dead. And now you’ve walked right into his hands. I should have expected as much from a Flawed.”
His eyes travel to my guns and pack. They narrow as the realization comes over him. “You really think you can stop Him?”
My finger tightens around the trigger. “I do.”
“Then you can die trying.” He fires the gun.
I drop to the ground, narrowly missing the bullet. He fires again. I hiss in pain as the shot grazes my arm. My gun clatters, skidding across the floor.
Before I can react, a presence falls over the room. It’s out.
“ALPHA, get back into your system!” Krane speaks quickly as he rapidly turns back to the keyboard. His fingers fly across the keys, pulling up something on the screen. A few words flash in front of my eyes –Preparing release. Please enter authorization code.
No. Not now.
ALPHA’s presence instantly recedes back into the system. My fingers fumble for the pistol at my belt. I rip it from the holster. Krane begins punching in numbers.
I aim for his head and fire.