Awareness comes to me gradually. I take in a deep breath; clean, smokeless air floods into my lungs. Tendrils of sensation run up and down my arms. I wiggle my fingers, feeling soft fabric beneath them.
Slowly, I open my eyes.
I stare up at a pearl-white ceiling, blinking away spots that dance across my vision. I’m lying on a medical bed, blanketed by a white sheet. Sunrays stream from a window and pour into the small room.
A dull pain throbs in my muscles. I slowly shift, letting out a soft groan.
“Nat?” a feminine voice says. “Are…are you awake?”
I roll my head to the side and look at her – round brown eyes, long black hair done in neat braid. “Elle.”
My friend’s face breaks into a relieved smile. I try to move again, but she presses a small hand to mine. “Don’t push yourself. You’ve been through a lot.”
“Where am I?”
“Back in the Truth’s Hub.”
“Can you help me up?”
She nods and helps me into a sitting position. My wounded arm and shoulder make me grimace. They’re wrapped in fresh white bandages.
There’s a strange tightness on the left side of my face. I reach my hand up to touch my cheek. My fingers meet rough skin pulled taut over aching bones. A breath catches in my throat.
“…What happened to me?”
Elle’s eyes grow sad. She wordlessly gets up and crosses the small room, entering a washroom.
She returns to my side moments later, holding a hand mirror. I tentatively take it from her outstretched hands.
In the mirror is a face I don’t recognize. Red wounds streak across its left side. The skin is uneven and hardened, stretched tightly over charred disfigurements. Marks cut through the entire side of my face, wrapping themselves around my lower lip and clawing across my nose. The right side remains untouched.
I brush my fingers against my left cheek, flinching at the sharp pain that the raw skin still carries. Despite the pain, I run my fingers over the scars, memorizing the bumps of the uneven flesh and the design of the scorched skin.
I blink at the face in the mirror, and she blinks back. Her face is hollow, cheeks sunken. Five finger-shaped bruises line her throat, blending into the red burns that streak down her neck. She looks worn. But her eyes carry a spark of strength, showing that she’s not afraid.
This isn’t a girl. This is a woman. A rebel. A Flawed.
I smile, and the woman in the mirror smiles back.
I give the mirror back to Elle, who returns it to the bathroom. As she does, I ask, “How long have I been out?”
“Two days. You and Gray have been in the medical wing of the Hub ever since your mission.” She returns and sits down on the small chair by my bedside.
Gray. “Is he alive? Is he alright?”
“He’s okay,” she confirms. “Doctors from Pamela’s colony fixed him up. They were they same medics who tended to you when they brought you in.” She glances at the scarred side of my face before looking down at her hands.
“Is he awake?”
“Yeah. I talked to him a few hours ago - he wants to know when you wake up. I think he’s worried.”
I smile weakly. “What’s happened while I was out?”
She looks back up. “A lot. The news about the Crux and ALPHA’s destruction has spread across the Cliks and to the rest of the Redeemers. They say Simon Krane died in the explosion.”
That’s only partially true, I think, remembering the way he fell to my bullet.
“The Redeemers have no power now,” Elle continues. “The Truth is stronger than them.” She’s right – the Redeemers’ Headquarters is gone, along with their leader; and ALPHA, their biggest weapon. They don’t even have the Remainder’s loyalty anymore.
In other words…they’re finished.
“What else?” I ask.
“There’s a lot to cover.” She leans over and takes her Clikbook from a small table by my bedside. “Best if you just read the news Cliks.”
She hands me the Clikbook. Glancing at her, I turn on the screen and scroll through the Clik feed. Information hovers in front of my eyes – footage of new uprisings from the Remainder’s citizens. I read the headlines of the articles, which all speak of riots and protests rising after news of the Crux’s destruction spread. All against the Redeemers, all demanding they step down.
“What we did gave the people the final push they needed,” Elle says. “Protesters are demanding the removal of the Redeemers. Pamela made an official announcement a few hours ago. Through the Cliks.”
“…More like a demand. She threatened to continue the bombings on the Redeemers unless they made a formal statement of surrender.”
“But we only have one Hub.”
She smiles. “One Hub and the support of the entire Remainder. There’s no way they’ll get the population under their control again.”
“How long since she made the demand?”
“About an hour ago.”
“I want to talk with her.” I swallow. “I also need to tell her about Darren.”
“…She already knows about his death” Elle says, and I look up in confusion.
“How do you?” I pause. “Gray told you, didn’t he?”
“He gave a report of everything that happened. He said you went into the third ring alone. It was just you and ALPHA.” She looks at me. “Are you…okay? It didn’t hurt you, right?”
The memories of that thing in my head come back to me, making chills run down my spine. Just the thought of Its voice and words makes my chest tighten and my breath hitch.
“It tried,” I answer. “But in the end…I was the one who won. It’s dead.”
She moves forward so we’re closer. “We won’t have to fear that thing ever again, Nat. It’s gone for good. And soon, the Redeemers will be, too.”
The meaning of those words hits me suddenly. ALPHA is dead. The Redeemers are overthrown. The Flawed will finally be able to live free.
The days of fear and lies are finally behind us. All the death, the murders, the pain – it’s all coming to an end.
A single tear trails down my cheek. “It’s over,” I whisper, speaking to both myself and Elle. “It’s finally over.”
She smiles softly. “It is.”
I bite my lip, trying to keep my tears back. Elle reaches out and takes my hand tightly.
“You can cry, Nat.” She squeezes my hand. “It’s okay.”
I meet her eyes. My vision swims with tears.
Slowly, I cover my eyes with my hand and close them.
And I let myself cry.
The Redeemers surrender.
I’m with Gray when it happens – Elle comes running into the room, eyes bright, face glowing, and breathlessly tells us the news. The Redeemer officials have stepped down and surrendered their power. All members of the Leadership Squadron recorded a message conceding and posted it on the Cliks.
A few hours later, sitting by the window of my room, I watch their speeches again. Their words of surrender float through my mind, repeating over and over.
The Redeemers are finished. The Cleansings, death, deception…all of that is over.
All the pain and loss…it wasn’t for nothing. Xander, Carper, those who died for the Flawed – their sacrifice didn’t go to waste.
We did it, Xander. I lower the Clikbook, closing my eyes for a moment. You can rest in peace now.
My window is open, letting in a stream of air and the sound of a birdsong. I blink my eyes open and turn to it. A rock’s throw away, a bird sits perched on a branch among the trees.
Its song continues for another moment, then goes silent. But the bird stays.
Once again, Xander’s words about people and birds come back to me. Sitting here, I realize that they aren’t completely true. When a person dies, their song does disappear. But they don’t. The memory of them remains long after they’re gone. A bird may stop its singing, but it’s still there.
Xander dying doesn’t mean he has to disappear from my life completely. Everything he gave me, his friendship, all the words we shared and the things we helped each other through…they remain.
And he remains with me.
A voice comes from the door to my room, making me look away from the window.
Pamela enters. Her eyes dart to the scarred side of my face before looking away. I’m tempted to raise a self-conscious hand to cover it, but don’t. I’m not ashamed of my scars. They are who I am now.
She sits down on the bed. “They suit you, you know. The scars.”
“Because they make me look Flawed?”
“No.” She smiles softly. “Because they make you look strong.” She gives my Clikbook screen a glance. I follow her gaze to where the paused video of the Redeemer officials stares up at us.
“How can we be sure the Redeemers won’t rise up again?” I ask, shutting the device off.
“They won’t have the chance to,” she answers. “We’re taking all former Redeemers into custody. They’ll stand trial and pay for their crimes.”
“…We can do that?”
“We’re the government now. The people need leadership, and we’re here to serve. However,” She crosses one leg over the other, getting comfortable. “It will take some time to restore order.”
“We’ll need a new force to keep the peace.”
“Would you like to lead it? You’ve earned it.”
I let that thought settle before answering. “I can, with Gray, if he’s up to it.”
“Perfect. In a few days, I’ll be making a speech over the Clik feeds. I want you to be there when I deliver it. Next to me, as you should be - as you should have been all these years.”
“I’ll be there.”
Neither of us speak for a long, drawn-out moment. It’s Pamela who finally breaks the silence.
“I’m proud of you, Nat. So proud.”
For the first time, I feel no resentment when looking at my mother. All those feelings are gone now. Instead, I feel… affection for her. Love. They’re so foreign, so unfamiliar, but they warm my heart and make my eyes soften.
I feel a gentle, quiet smile make its way onto my scarred face. “Thank you, Mom.”
“The Clik stream is almost ready,” Elle announces from her spot at the end of the Core’s table. “Just one more minute.”
Pamela, standing at its head, nods and looks into the camera across from her. A Clikbook sits off to the side, showing the camera’s feed.
I stand a few steps away, with Gray by my side. He leans against a crutch, putting his weight on his good leg.
“We should get you to do all our streams and announcements on from now on, Elle,” I say to my friend, and she looks up with a smile.
“You think so?” She drags a finger across her Clikbook’s holographic screen, moving the pixelated words and settings.
“It’s almost time,” Pamela says.
We move in closer. Gray sets his crutch aside, out of the camera’s frame - we can’t afford to look weak.
“Ready?” Elle asks, and Pamela nods. “Three, two, one.” She presses the button that begins the livestream through the Clikfeeds.
I stare into the camera as Pamela begins, knowing that billions of people are seeing my face right now. What do they see when they look at me? A young girl, in over her head?
No. That’s what I used to be. Who I used to be.
Now, standing here, I’m no longer that person. I’m not the girl looking wide-eyed through the windows of a Nex, or the naïve follower who let the Redeemers etch their marking into her skin.
I’m a fighter. A girl turned into a woman, who broke almost every promise she made. Who lost her home, her brother, her best friend, and herself.
I stand here, as that person, watching a bright era dawn.
This is a new beginning.
And a beginning is all I need.
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