Day 47 of the 186th Generation
could never decide if I lived in a dream or a nightmare.
I had told myself that this moment would define me. I had been waiting for it for as long as I could remember: the first moment I could make my life mean something.
I reminded myself that my life wasn’t worth much, but suddenly, I felt very aware that I was risking it. I could be throwing my life away, just standing and breathing on this sidewalk.
And then that breathing got faster. Shallow. Stunted.
My moment was wrecked by fear.
I guess I lived in a nightmare.
I wanted to force my heart to slow down, but I couldn’t breathe deep enough for my heart rate to decrease. No one around me noticed my panic attack, either because I excelled in hiding my emotions or because they didn’t have a heart to recognize fear.
So I kept walking. I kept focusing on my task.
Look for signs of an Unnecessary.
Watch for potential risks.
Look for signs of a Vessel.
The last of the sun reflected off of the jewels in the sidewalk. I wish I could say they were beautiful, but everything seemed too fake to be beautiful.
I heard it in their voices.
Smiling. Joking. Happy. Sneering. Oblivious. Laughing.
Everything seemed fake.
They had thrown out anything Unnecessary to their happiness.
Any babies I was meant to have.
I stopped. I forced myself back into the abyss of joy I faked. I avoided the usual thoughts about the condition their Serum had left me in. I felt as empty as the streets were becoming.
I flirted at the next opportunity, just to keep my mind off of it. I promised George I would be okay, that I wouldn’t think about it when I first got here. I could keep my promise to him, if I focused.
A good soldier wouldn’t lose it.
I saw a Sentry.
I glanced at him. I’d look more suspicious if I avoided him.
I found my three ideal exit points, including the sewer grate to my left.
I pushed them out with my smile, and wielded them into a weapon.
Passed the Sentry.
One more lie that I made everyone believe. Each lie gave me the confidence I needed.
The minutes became an hour, one of the last hours I would be out tonight. The streets eventually thinned of people. The sun was setting. I scrolled down a mental list of hotels I could use.
I saw one that reasonable, even as I was wondering if I should save my money. But it wasn’t badly priced, if my memory was right. It wasn’t far away. It would ensure that I could get up earlier the following day: more time to aimlessly walk around again.
And it was the perfect time to peel off for the day.
The first day I had wasted.
I stopped that thought. Self-pity wouldn’t help. It never did.
I focused on the street. I memorized the names in the windows and the phone number for the restaurant I was passing.
But I didn’t have time to react to the woman turning from the restaurant door, three bags in her hand. She looked rushed, and then ran right into me.
“Sorry,” I said shortly.
It was on impulse.
Almost instantly, I knew it was a mistake.
I was dressed like a Citizen.
They wouldn’t apologize for running into a Sub-Terra.
I shouldn’t have said anything. I should have kept going, as heartless as they were.
I should be moving now. But I was paralyzed. Not by fear, but by her reaction.
“Why did you say you were sorry, ma’am?” she looked confused as she picked up one of the bags.
I tried not to make eye contact, instantly trying to make up for my mistake with a seeming haughtiness. I opened my mouth, hoping something would come out in my fear before she called someone, alerted someone’s attention, or even had time to process who I might be.
“You didn’t say, sorry.”
My eyes still had barely met hers. They were dashing everywhere.
Two exits to the left. Sentry was one block away. Patrol wouldn’t have ended yet. It was only 8:45. One more exit on the right.
“Ma’am, please,” she said, her voice shaking, “Why…Why did you say you were sorry?”
I was struck with a sudden urge I couldn’t ignore to look in her eyes as she spoke.
“Please, ma’am, is there a reason?”
I blinked, trying to shake some strange illusion that everything was in slow-motion except for us. My heart was pounding faster than anything seemed to be happening.
Her hand grazed her stomach as she crossed her arms, as her stare of desperation burned away my fear and molded it into determination.
She was hoping there was a reason.
She was now begging me to be who I truly was.
She wanted the true answer of why I had accidentally slipped the word of apology. Even if it got us both killed. She was already dead without me.
And because I messed up, she would live.
I looked and quickly whispered in between my teeth sympathetically, “Okay, follow my next instruction, and we get out of here.”
Then I stood taller, and as cold as I could, “if you’re going to not be able to see where you are going, maybe you should walk on the other side of the street.”
Her eyes looked scared as I ordered her away from me. But I nodded harshly to the other side of the street, and said, “Well, do you want to fix this or not? Or would you rather me release you to someone else?”
I would hope she would understand my meaning. I quickly saw the hope in her eyes but shot her a panicked glare.
She nodded, and then said, “Yes, I would do well to move to the other side. I’m so sorry, Mistress.”
She was acting her part now. She was almost over-acting, and it scared me because I realized that half of my mission was based on how she would act. I was glad she added the last part with the ‘Mistress’ so it sounded like she was my Sub-Terra to those around us. They wouldn’t call or wonder if she was an Unnecessary; they would assume that she messed up and I was reprimanding her. I made an expression of disgust, which a few onlookers acknowledged.
And then we walked. And walked. I knew I had to wait a few blocks.
Then I crossed the street.
There were a few clubs on the street, so it allowed for a lot of anonymity from people already wrapped around another person or glued on their phone trying to find one.
I had to be careful though. The last thing I wanted was to look available, or I’d have to push off an advance, or worse, and invitation to a party.
Luckily, most people were Terra’s or Libertas. I was above their station as a Citizen, and she was below their station.
I joined her, walking only one step ahead.
It was another half a block of focused on every question I would need to ask her. I pulled into an alley when I was sure no one was watching. We pulled behind a parked shuttle.
First question. “Do you know how long−?”
“About four months,” she answered quickly.
Second question. “Taxi should be okay until the north border. Do you have any money?”
“Yes. And I guess I won’t need it anymore.”
Third question. Less of a question. “I need to give you a quick exam. We’re going to stay behind this shuttle. You’ll place this on your stomach. Look at your phone. I’ll pretend to look at my phone also.”
I got my phone out, and my MCU. I handed her the attachment.
“Place it on your stomach. Don’t be worried. It won’t hurt.”
She nodded. She stared at her phone, moving the attachment on her stomach.
“Slower…” I paused, thinking I should’ve asked her already. “What’s your name?”
“Madeline. Not that it matters, you can just call me−”
“No, I’m calling you Madeline. And you still need to move it slower. I need to get a signal on the baby.”
She moved it slower. Her fingers shook. I wish she would calm down. It made it difficult, because I didn’t know if she was nervous because of what she was doing, or nervous because she was entrapping me.
Everyone walking by saw us, but the MCU and the attachment were hidden from them, from behind the shuttle. I glanced away from my phone to look down at my MCU in my left hand.
No second heartbeat yet.
One exit down the alley. Fire escape. One exit out of the alley across the street.
I could see her stomach though. There was a bulge.
I glanced from my phone to the monitor again.
It had picked up a heartbeat and a fetal outline signature was confirmed. 5 months.
I pulled the tool away just as someone came down the alley way. I nodded to the entrance. I was glad we weren’t speaking, because I didn’t know if I could.
We hailed a taxi, almost immediately.
The last thing I whispered to her was, “act natural.”
She couldn’t relax. It just needed her to relax. We were in the taxi. There was nothing to hurt us if the driver wasn’t suspicious. I tried to act as normal as possible, but she was making it more difficult with each worried glance. I had to keep an eye on the driver’s reaction.
I nodded at the bags at one point. She opened them. The food was actually delicious, and as much as I hated to admit it, it helped me calm down. It was also a great part of our cover.
An hour later, we were at the hotel that was furthest north. I had made some comments about an early meeting, and barked orders at Madeline as we exited. Whether the driver believed our story was irrelevant.
We walked in the hotel.
We walked right back out.
We were a few blocks away. She opened her mouth to speak, but I spoke first.
“Act natural? That was natural?”
“I’m sorry,” she almost cried. “I−”
“No, I know,” I interrupted. “We made it through. We…”
I stopped short. It wasn’t perfect. I hadn’t been smart and saved her. I had been terrified. Maybe me being terrified was the only reason she was here now, inches away from the border fence.
I grasped the rusted chain links, even as I heard what George had said many times and echoed it aloud.
“Everything can fall apart. You can fail a thousand times. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Just one part of the mission needs to be.”
“Which part is that?”
I looked at her, and spoke a promise, whether she knew it or not. I nodded to the border.
We spent an hour trudging through the forest. It was dark, but not impossible with the moonlight. We’d found a spot to sleep for the night shortly after I was sure we had gone two miles.
I took her vitals and the baby’s vitals in the morning.
Everything was fine.
I didn’t talk much, only to answer her questions. I was supposed to be explaining more, but there was a long journey of hours ahead of us, with a lot of time to talk.
And her hope hurt me. It wasn’t her fault. My envy made her hope a weapon against me.
It wasn’t until lunch that when we stopped, I checked the baby again. I let her ask more questions.
“So, the mentor that I’ll have…They’ll help me adjust to society, but you said that they’re mothers? They can help if I have any questions, like about them eating, and talking when they’re…”
I let Madeline’s voice voice fade out. I didn’t want to hear about diapers, bottles, and baby toys.
I pushed out my jealousy to hear the one thing I wanted to: a strong heartbeat.
Only I couldn’t hear it.
It took a second to process, but it wasn’t there.
“Can you lie down?”
“Yes, but is something wrong? I don’t know if I could bear it if something−”
“No,” I lied. But I didn’t have to be suspicious. I didn’t have to lie. “I’m going to pull up the screen so you can see your baby, that’s all.”
She looked excited, but also nervous. Maybe she didn’t believe my lie.
After a minute, I picked up on the heartbeat. I thought that maybe the equipment had malfunctioned, but then I heard it, weak and slow at first, but it got louder.
But it worried me. Why was it weak and slow?
So we walked through all the baby’s anatomy. I even told her it was a boy.
“And the baby is perfectly healthy.” I said it with a definite tone in my voice. But I didn’t feel sure.
And then I thought, “if the baby was fine, what if the Vessel wasn’t?”
I quickly maneuvered the tool lower, but then the baby’s feet were blurred.
By the placenta.
That was not supposed to be there.
I sighed. Previa. That meant an EE. It meant a complication.
I wasn’t sure if she caught my shock until she said, “Is he going to be okay?”
“Yes,” I answered. “If we do everything we need to do…to make sure he is.”
We walked. She laid down.
We walked. She laid down longer.
I called Joel for an EE at the next station I could find. It was an old “T” station, which means it was nothing more than a wire in the ground. We would only have a day left, but we weren’t anywhere near a Q station where we could relax.
She wanted to keep moving. She said every inch further away from the Republic made her feel better, helped keep her panic at bay. But then she panicked when we were walking, looking at the heart rate monitor constantly.
Finally, I strapped it to her, and programed it to set off an alarm if the heartrate fell too far to be in any danger. That way we could walk without distraction.
The worst part were the hour breaks, laying down on the mats on the forest floor. It was beautiful. I didn’t really have words for it. It seemed green, as if the green after winter was more green than any other green normally is. But I was restless. I just wanted to keep going. I wanted my mission accomplished. I wanted that moment, so that my life could mean something. I felt more out of control than I thought I would. And my quest for legacy had started with a mission that was more of a mess-up.
She didn’t seem to know the difference. She just talked. A lot.
Eventually, when she had finished worrying or wishing for the future, she began talking about the past.
“I was born to a mother already in debt. She was born a Terra. She gambled…too much, I guess. She wanted to win so she could be Libertas, mostly because she wanted the higher salary and the ability to see the men she wanted to see. But instead, the debt became larger, and something I could almost never repay. By the time I was thirteen, she had another SubTerra. The labs made her another child− a son− she said.”
“So, where is she now?” I asked, prompting her to keep going.
“Well, at first she was really worried about me. She would even come to my school, and then she said she would pay to get me out when she won. But the time…between visits became longer and longer. And then she didn’t show up anymore….but I found out…”
She looked like she might cry. I didn’t know what to say. So I guessed again.
“She was gone? Was she captured?”
She shook her head. A tear fell.
“Did she abandon you and the boy?” I wished she hadn’t make me guess it. It made me feel like an attacker and her a victim all over again.
Madeline choked, swallowed. She hesitated.
“No. She had finally won. She was dating a Citizen. I saw them, and her son was with her. Turns out, she had gotten more money from selling me off forever with an advanced payment, because I had the skills of a chef and would always be in demand. She had sold me and lived her dream. I was just never part of her dream life. So my life no longer mattered.”
I turned to her, wishing I had the ability or the inclination to say something more. But I didn’t. I cursed at my inability to say anything sympathetic or meaningful.
She must have seen my struggle or my confusion. “Don’t worry. It’s actually comforting that you can’t say anything. That her actions are unthinkable, that you’re so mad you can’t speak. That means she wasn’t right, probably.”
I stared at her, breathless with anger. “She definitely wasn’t right. She wasn’t.”
But then I stared at her monitor again.
I couldn’t care about her sorrow-ridden past. I needed to try to fight for her future.
The baby’s heartrate had stabilized again. It was a good time to have her look at the screen. I explained again that the Placenta supporting the baby’s life functions was meant to be on the uterine wall, not so low. When she walked, she was essentially cutting off the function of the placenta.
“So, if the…placenta…is too low, how will I…push the baby out?”
I cursed in my head, again. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to tell her this.
“You can’t, Madeline. We actually perform a…precise surgery. It leaves a small scar. It doesn’t hurt. Recovery is only a few weeks−”
“You cut the baby out of me?” she yelled.
“Well, not me,” I told her. “I could, of course. I’ve been trained. But, yes. We’ll have to cut the baby out.”
I wished I had said it differently. I could see the terror in her eyes, but then it subsided.
“Sorry. I actually…I don’t care. Not really. In the end, it seems like such a small thing to do after I’ve risked so much.”
There was a long pause. She looked as if she was getting tired again. She might need another moment of sleep to rest, so I offered her some. She closed her eyes, finally finishing her thought.
“Cut me open. I don’t care. I’ll be afraid. I just want him to breathe. I just want him.”
I stared at her, closing her eyes to rest once more.
“Someday, you’ll know what that feels like. Right, Brie?”
I was about to lie. Because I didn’t want her to feel sorry for me for never being able to get pregnant, or for me to have a burning jealousy for her. No words left my mouth, because when I wasn’t clenching my jaw, it shook.
Instead, she spoke first. “Oh, I’m sorry, that’s silly of me to say. I hope I haven’t offended you.”
I turned, genuinely confused.
“Why would you have offended me?” I asked.
“You already risked your life for me. For him. You already know what it feels like to be this afraid.”
Her eyes drooped, and she fell into a deep sleep. It watched her, like watching a child sleep, wondering how anyone could trust me so much to feel so secure to fall asleep amidst so much pain and chaos in the world.
Maybe I did know what that felt like now. I felt a wave of emotions, something I usually ran away from. But instead, I let it flood me. Every passion that ever fueled me now soaked into me.
For a rare moment, I felt no pain from any past moment that ever haunted me. I felt driven by the needs around me. I was sanctified, as the soldier I promised to be.
I was bringing home a Vessel, clinging to an MCU as my eyes stared at the heartbeat on the monitor, breathing in the warm air, and I was everything I’d ever dreamed of being.
I had my moment after all.
The moment that determined my fate: I could never live to do anything else.
I hadn’t made that moment mean anything. She had.
And because it would never make sense to her, I couldn’t thank her. I couldn’t tell her how hard it would be to save Vessels when I could never have a child. I couldn’t tell her I was afraid I might fail as the only thing I was alive for.
All I could do was save her. So I would.
She woke only thirty minutes later.
The next hours of our journey went better. I tried to talk more. I told her about the schools, and the holidays. I told her about Christmas for hours. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was, but I hated the sound of my own voice, rambling on about things that didn’t matter. Only I knew it would matter to her.
Finally, when we were nearing the meeting point, we both heard it.
“Is that them?”
I had to suppress the smile and tears that wanted to escape. I had a reputation to uphold.
But I couldn’t suppress the smile as hard as I tried.
“Yes, Madeline. That’s them.”
The door opened up. It wasn’t George, but I wasn’t expecting to see him. If I was in the field coming home, he was on duty in Cental. It was Eric, who went straight for Madeline with the Med tech. They had a strapped in the seat in no time, and were busy attaching the monitor. Behind them, one of the apprentices from the Hand came out and walked towards me. He was probably out gaining field experience.
“Liam?” Eric yelled to him as he jumped out. “Make sure that Sam knows …”
I didn’t hear the rest, I bent down to get my things. I know they would want her monitored, and on bed rest for the remainder of the pregnancy. I had warned her about that already.
I stood up to throw my pack on to see Liam was only a foot away.
I barely knew him, but suddenly I felt very vulnerable.
I didn’t want to say anything at first. Now that I thought of it, I should have prepared something that sounded brave. Instead, I said what I was feeling.
“Like you’re home, but you can’t celebrate a homecoming?”
“Because I’m not going to be home for very long, am I?”
“Well,” he started. I wondered if my reaction had confused him. He almost looked surprised I wasn’t happy, or even hugging him, or probably reacting like any other Protector’s usually did. “If it matters, we won’t celebrate for very long. But…you should have a minute. A few seconds. I wish I could play a song, have a thirty second party, and put it back on a box. Too bad, I left that box at Central.”
I scoffed a laugh. But then the laugh continued as he smiled more. I found myself breathing deeper than before had arrived.
He smiled, “See? Doesn’t that feel better?”
I smiled, but then I tried to look at him, almost criticizing.
“Nothing feels better than work.”
I threw my pack to him.
He shrugged. “Then back to work.”
The debrief was brief.
My mission was brief.
The highlight was Hannah congratulating me on being the first one back. I was the first one back by days, because Carla had just checked in. She had a Vessel. Everyone else was back in the Republic. I told Hannah that didn’t make me feel like staying long.
“I didn’t expect you to,” she said. “You know, the best of us don’t stay long. There’s more reason to go than ever before. And keep this up, you’ll be record breaking in no time.”
She smiled, which was rare. I took it as one of the biggest compliments ever.
I ran up to my Circle. I expected it to be empty, but it wasn’t.
“Well, then…that wasn’t very hard, was it?”
I rolled my eyes, and turned to face George.
“No, not at all,” I turned to him. I gave him a quick hug, feeling the reassurance that I imagined one would feel from a proud, older brother. Then he nodded to the center mat.
“No,” he said. “I wouldn’t have you endure your most hated activity for your first thing back. I’d rather us run through your debrief and try to see if we could learn a few things for your next missions.”
I always obeyed quickly. I wanted him to know I respected him, and for him to respect me as much as possible. I would rotate from working out on the mat while recounting what happened to sitting very still while stretching. He would ask me specific questions that strained my memory. I closed my eyes, and remembered the story with as much detail as possible.
We talked about every aspect of the mission for hours. In a rare moment of spiritual vulnerability, he said that maybe God meant for me to make a mistake and apologize to Madeline. And in my rare moment of spiritual vulnerability, I agreed. It was a miracle, after all
, that I ran into the person everyone else was ignoring.
“So, was there anything else?” he asked. I had retold the entire story, but I think I knew what he was asking.
“George, I came back in record time. A vessel is safe. Does it really matter that I felt−”
“Yes,” he said, in a demanding tone I always had a hard time ignoring. His eyes were penetrating. “It matters. You need to be called to do this. This isn’t revenge. You know that.”
George had been worried about me ever since he had found out. I had never mentioned one thing about my test results, I had never cried one tear that the Serum had killed any chance to have a child, a family, love.
But three weeks into training, he found out.
That same day, I had skipped the video on the Serum development to try to avoid an emotional reaction. I had just gotten back from my run and climbing test, which I passed in record time. I was exhausted because I had finished the written final the day before, which I had achieved the highest score on in a decade having taken it three weeks early.
I had felt confidence like never before, but exhausted. He asked the one question I never wanted him too.
He didn’t ask me why I skipped it. That would have been difficult to answer but not impossible.
He asked why I didn’t tell him.
I couldn’t answer right away.
I always answered right away.
And I cursed my tears, but they came out. Not only because of the usual pain, but because I had hurt him. He had done everything to push me, believe in me, and I had lied to him.
But he didn’t hold it against me. He rolled out the punching bag minutes later, and had me beat the snot out of it. He agreed to keep the secret. He challenged me to use it, trying to focus it on excelling. There was one rule: I had to be able to use it without it controlling me.
But now, after my first mission, I could see that he was worried again.
And like all worry, it had crept into the conversation.
“No,” I said, confidently. “It obviously wasn’t an issue. I promised you, it wouldn’t be.”
He nodded. And then he said, “Well, then I guess it’s time for bed.”
“No! Don’t start! You’re getting some sleep. No soldier is good without sleep.”
He would say that whenever I couldn’t argue. I stood up without hesitation, but then froze.
He was looking at me. And he was disappointed.
I was supposed to impress, not disappoint him.
Maybe he understood my hesitation, because he answered the question I was about to ask.
“I’m proud of you, but you promised, right after you promised that it wouldn’t be an issue. You promised that you would be honest with me.”
George had considered this one of the main threats to any successful mission or my survival. It bothered me that he knew me to well to lie. I could lie to the whole rest of the world. He wasn’t going to be satisfied with the half-truth I had told him.
He turned to face me, but I closed my eyes as he spoke.
“I need to know what’s going on in your head sometimes.”
I shook my head, unsure how to explain it. “I was jealous. Jealousy is all about wanting something you can’t have, and I was mad for a moment. Not mad, just…pain.”
I hate that I had stumbled my words out at the end. I opened my eyes to see him still staring at me.
“Brie, I’m not trying to be your psychologist. But if you share your pain, it won’t stay with you. It won’t haunt you. Spill it. Leave it here. Like you just did. And then, your head can be clear.”
I thought about that, even while staring at the mat. I looked at all the sweat on it. Preparing for my mission, but leaving all of the junk here, had allowed me to focus on what I needed to do.
“Who are you jealous of now?”
And suddenly, detached from the pain I had just shared, I realized I was jealous of someone else.
“I’m jealous of everyone else out there.”
He smiled slightly.
“Then that’s what you want the most. That means you’re okay,” he said, with a smile growing. “I’ll wake you in eight hours.”
“Six.” I replied quickly. I hated sleep, it felt like a waste of time.
“Seven, then. Good night. Enjoy it. For one night, at least, you don’t have to be afraid.”
I laid down on my cot, but oddly, that was all I could think about. I thought about Madeline’s words in the woods.
“Cut me open. I don’t care. I’ll be afraid.”
Maybe I had to be afraid for them to have a chance to survive.
And if that was their only chance to live, I’d do anything.
I’d be afraid forever.