The woman sitting behind the machine smiles at me as I take a seat across from her. Her eyes are a dark stormy gray, and I find a strange calmness in them. It eases my nerves a little bit. Her white uniform has a cross etched on the right shoulder, the sign that I so often saw on my mother’s jacket when she returned from a day at work. Medical Squadron.
We’re separated by a computer-sized machine with a hollow centre. Two thin straps sit on the smooth surface inside the machine.
The room’s white walls and floor shine against the lights above. Stations identical to mine stand every few feet, all with a Redeemer and a student seated across from each other.
The woman glances down at the pile of papers on her side of the desk. “Natalie Spearse?”
“That’s me. But I, uh…” I cough, realizing that I shouldn’t have continued. “I like to be called Nat.”
Instead of frowning like I expected, the woman seems pleased. “Well, then, Nat, it’s time to receive your mark.”
I won’t walk out on this. I won’t chicken out. The thoughts repeat in my mind, taking form as they strengthen. I’m ready. This is what I want to do with my life.
“I’m going to ask you to show me your right wrist.”
My palms are clammy. Hoping she doesn’t notice, I bite my lip and let her take my wrist. Her hands are gentle as she wipes my skin with an anti-bacterial wipe.
“There’s no need to be nervous.” Her smile is warm. “It only takes a moment.”
So she did notice my sweaty palms. My cheeks flush. “Um…thank you.”
I look around at the other stations, where several other initiates are receiving their marks. Some of them are calm and reserved, while the others don’t try to hide their discomfort. The shrill whine of the machines at work sends a shiver down my spine.
“Will it hurt much?” I ask.
“Only a little bit,” she answers as she begins prepping the machine. “The needle is so thin that you barely feel a thing.”
A sliver of my anxiety falls, but quickly comes rushing back when I see her inserting a newly sterilized needle into its proper place. I focus on breathing and calming my heart. This is what you want. This is the only way to be happy.
I start to tell myself that this is what Pamela would want, but that thought only makes my stomach churn. I don’t want to please my mom, wherever she is. This isn’t for her; it’s for me, and only me.
No, wait, not for me. For the Redeemers.
For the Redeemers.
“All prepped and ready to go,” the woman says, snapping me out of thought. When I see her expectant eyes and realize it’s time, my heartbeat instantly resumes its unbearable pulsing. “Please place your hand in the slot, palm up.”
My heart slams against my ribs as I follow her instructions. She tightly secures the straps around my arm and wrist. I take in a breath and remind myself to stay calm.
My only chance to back out is slowly ticking away. I try to chase away the doubt in my mind by picturing next year’s Renewal Ceremony; the view from the initiation stage. The pride on Darren’s face as I walk up to shake the governor’s hand, the pleasure of finally speaking the oath and sealing my fate as a Redeemer. This is what I want.
“Does…” My voice squeaks. I clear my throat to hide the falter. “Does the machine do it, or do you guide it?”
“The machine. I’m here to keep you calm and ensure it does its job.”
I stare at the bulky piece of tech and mumble, “Okay.”
“Now, let me just make sure everything is in place…” She ducks around the machine, looking for faults I can’t see. “All good. Let’s get you your mark!”
I wince as the machine hisses, extending the needle towards my bare wrist. The urge to free myself tugs at my mind, to pull my wrist away and keep it safe.
I don’t want this. I don’t want-
I take in a deep, relaxing breath, and let the tension leave my body. This is all I’ve ever wanted. It’s a dream come true.
As my wits return, I realize that the hissing is hardly noticeable, and that the sharp sting of the needle meeting skin isn’t half as bad as I imagined. I watch as it slowly creeps up and down my skin, injecting black ink that will soon take shape. Watching it is almost mesmerizing. Hypnotizing.
“So, Nat, do you have any family?”
I glance up at the woman and nod. “A brother. He was initiated yesterday.”
“Congratulations! Your parents must be proud.”
I automatically feel my voice harden. “I’m sure they would be.”
“Oh.” Her voice grows soft as she realizes what I mean, and she suddenly finds great interest in shuffling her papers around her desk. “I’m…very sorry for your loss.”
I shrug, and the machine’s straps tug at my wrist.
“Please remain still,” the woman tells me.
“Sorry.” I focus on keeping my fingers from wiggling as the marking takes shape. “I didn’t lose them. They left on purpose.”
“I’m very sorry.”
This time I remember not to shrug. “Don’t be. It happened a while ago.”
There's a long moment of silence, until she checks the machine.
She checks the machine. “Just a few more minutes, Miss Spearse.”
The Redeemer’s imprint is already taking shape, black lines cutting across my skin. I try to keep my breaths steady and ignore the sharp poking and scratching of the needle.
“There we are,” the woman says as the machine stops humming. The needle slips back into its place, and she undoes the restraints. “Just let me clean it.”
When she’s done, I pull my wrist away and examine my new marking. Thick, even black lines flash against reddened skin, crossing over each other to form the Redeemer coat of arms. I tenderly run my finger over the ink, half expecting to feel some sort of texture. But it’s the same as before; smooth and soft. A smile creeps up my face.
“Yes, ma’am. Very much. It’s…” I try to think of the right word to describe the swirl of emotions. “It’s an honor.”
“I’m glad you’re happy. Welcome to your second year of training, Miss Spearse. Now, if you just enter there –“ She motions to a doorway across the room. “- you’ll have the chance to choose your Squadron.”
“Thank you,” I say, getting up. I go to the adjacent room to choose my Squadron.
The deed has been done. There’s no going back now.
The Redeemers own me now.