Day 52 of the 186th Generation
I couldn’t believe it.
I tried to push through my moment of disbelief, mad that I was having the moment now. I had to push it away.
Most Protectors weren’t back from their first mission.
And I had already completed my second mission.
I was back in front of the council.
Hannah was smiling again. Zander was the one to talk first though.
“You left and made excellent time to the border. Shame you didn’t actually get to cross it.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I responded to Zander. “I was almost back into the Republic when I heard him.”
Not just a breath. Not someone out of breath. Someone who was struggling to breathe.
“I followed the sound the wheezing until I reached him. He was a young boy, no older than seven years. His name was Christopher. I could tell by the exasperated look on his face that he had asthma. I had my inhaler and used it within seconds. We weren’t in a secure enough position. I had to balance our mobility and speed with his condition. Even with the inhaler, he was still suffering far more than I thought. I risked a second to ask him what had happened.”
“Did you feel he knew about his asthma before?” Hannah asked.
“Yes, it was pre-existing. He had kept it secret. But Christopher assured me the pain had never been so acute. I asked what pain, and he said in the back of my throat. He said his ears hurt. They were slightly swollen.”
“And then you knew,” Mattheson said, knowingly.
“Yes, sir. Any allergic reaction coupled with his asthma would have caused the severe symptoms.”
“The nurse at the school must have recognized it as allergy attack,” someone commented.
“Yes, but he said the nurse must have recognized his condition.”
“How did he know?” Hannah asked.
I took a sip of water, trying to dissociate myself with the panic of the situation I felt at the time.
“There were Sentries who were called in. Two responded, one accompanied with a Sentry who was training a new recruit.”
“Who were they? And how do you know the one was a recruit.”
“The one was Hydech. Christopher recognized him, by name. He said the trainee was young. About 16-years-old. Tall. Dark hair. That’s all he remembered, but we don’t have a name. And the two police officers were muttering, but they were motioning to the shuttle, towards the back. Christopher ran for it, the second he saw that.”
“Brave, smart boy.” Matheson said it almost to himself, but I smiled in response.
“His parents?” Hannah asked.
“He said he wouldn’t have expected his parents to save him or fight for him. They barely knew him. He said that they only saw him when they wanted his picture taken. He told me on the way back that it was like…they wanted everyone else to see him, but they never even looked at him. Not for more than five minutes a day.”
This wasn’t uncommon. In such a self-centered culture, so many classes only wanted children to appear to be supporting the party. By having a lab-made child that would be raised to be perfected and molded by the Republic, this was showing the ultimate support. Many would take almost daily pictures of their child succeeding in any given activity. They would yell and scold the child until the perfect pose was taken to prove to the world that they were the flawless family and he or she was the perfect child. It became another way to look good or successful rather than a meaningful connection.
As monstrous as they sometimes seemed to me, this was at least one sign of humanity in them. They had kept one of the worst of all human traits. It was one of the only reasons why we had anyone to rescue. Pride meant that people wanted whatever version of “perfect” the Republic sold. And since The Republic needed people to brainwash, they used pride to create a reason to have children, and then pride to throw away any child that wouldn’t succeed or conform.
I continued to give the details of the medicine I gave as I suppressed the urge to tell the story faster, reliving the terror of knowing in that moment that we were on the run. It was hard to stay calm in the debrief. It was not just because of their elevated seats and silent stares, but the room was too sterile when the facts were messy. I didn’t want to talk anymore today.
“I’m guessing your strategy changed after that,” Hannah said with a confident smile.
I nodded, thankful she saw my momentary hesitancy and helped me out. I bit my tongue, thinking just a tiny pinch of pain would bring me back to the story.
“I gave him a shot of the 30-T and an epi-pen thirty minutes after that. I risked leaving him alone to cover his tracks so that no one would find us. By the time I made it back to him, he was feeling much better. The anti-histamines had worked. We kept moving, as fast as we could, just in case Hydech was pursuing us. We kept a great pace. Twenty minutes later, we ran into Katy. Her Vessel was having complications in childbirth and required a C-Section. The EE was coming, but the med team wasn’t going to make it in time. I told Katy that the second I arrived.”
“Your assistance in the delivery of Kaytlynn’s Vessel is detailed in her report and was recounted in front of this Council this morning. We don’t need to go over those details, as much as we’d like to hear the story again, but she did conclude that she didn’t think that both the mother and the baby would have survived without your help,” Matheson said with a smile.
I wasn’t sure what to say to that. I didn’t want to say “thank you” as if it was a compliment to my skill. So instead I threw the compliment right back.
“She directed the procedure wonderfully. I was glad to assist her. I was proud to be a part of it. I was fearful however, at Christopher’s panic at witnessing an event like that. If he had a gentle disposition, I was afraid seeing the surgery would aggravate his breathing. I told him to wait under a blanket until we were done. He seemed okay, in the end. I allowed him to hold the infant for a while”
He had been terrified, but then he had held the baby so gently, looking so serene. As I described that moment to the Council, I couldn’t do it justice. So I breathed deep and kept talking.
“We were on the Shuttle in very little time. Will and Eric were on duty. They were focused on the mother, so Christopher and I took the baby down to the Med Wing. Luke Patterson sat with us until our Debrief and temporarily took the baby’s vitals. Luke was still talking to Christopher as I washed up and debriefed with Hannah. Christopher wanted to hold the baby until the mom was recovered.”
Once again, I thought I should say something, but I didn’t know what to say. I continued, looking at Hannah again.
“The mother said thank you. To me. To Christopher. Luke suggested Christopher would be best to be admitted into the hospital instead of going to the shelter, and I quickly agreed. It was determined he did have an allergic reaction, although the treatment was effective. It was a pine allergy, or something similar, like cedar. They had taken a rare opportunity to study some natural woods and pine cones in school that day, which is what must have set his allergy off. When he went to the woods to escape, it got worse instead of better. He admitted to trying to hide in the hollow of a pine tree. Explained a lot. Whatever family gets to adopt him, they’ll be very happy with him. Just…don’t want to pick a family out in the woods.”
There were a few smiles, laughs and ‘thank you’s’. Hannah was still beaming. Matheson winked. In fact, the only one that wasn’t impressed or looking gratified was Eldridge. He just looked as if he was still trying to figure something out.
That worried me.
Because I was scared he was trying to figure me out.
I left quickly. George was waiting outside the door with my bag.
“Did it get repacked?”
“Yep, just the way you like it. I double-checked myself. How’d it go?”
“Perfect,” I said as I looked in the bag. “Tell Luke Patterson thanks, by the way. I didn’t realize how much I owed him until after I said his name so many times in there. And I was exhausted at the end of last night. I hope he understands.”
“I assure you, he does,” George said, giving me my MCU. We began to walk through the hallway when I finally saw the message I wanted to see. I was cleared.
I was about to open up the door to go up the stairs.
“Hey, be careful, okay?”
I turned around quickly. George had never told me that, not in all of our training; either because he was always afraid I would think it was too trite and cliché, or that it was too pointless to wish something like “being careful” about a life-threatening mission.
Or it meant that the worst fate we could meet had been realized, if not by me, by someone else.
“Is someone down?” I asked. My voice didn’t shake, but I had to work hard to keep it even. He looked somber, staring not at me but at a spot on the floor, shaking his head.
“Vanessa’s missing. She hasn’t checked in for four days. It’s only three weeks in. We’ve never lost anyone this early. I mean, we still don’t know…”
“Is Sondra okay?”
“She’s a little nervous. Vanessa was skilled. She was ranked before you in a few areas. It’s unnerving that something would have happened to her.”
“I’ll be careful. But only if it doesn’t interfere with the mission.”
“Which is?” a voice behind me asked.
George looked behind me as if something shot up his spine.
I turned to look at the man behind me came from behind me; the one person who was not impressed.
“You gave me the mission, Sir Eldridge: save as many as I can.” I said it with confidence that I finally had the right answer for him, with the intensity of the legacy of all Protectors who came before me.
“Someone must have mixed up missions then,” Eldridge said, then he nodded George behind me. “George, I believe that if Brie’s out again, however insanely short her respite with us is, that you’re due in Central.”
“Yes, sir,” he said. He gave a quick nod to me, as if I should or had to listen to what Eldridge had to say.
I turned around for a second, but Eldridge just nodded the door I was about to exit, looking at me curiously.
I was trying to hide that I was annoyed, only I think he knew I was.
“I’ll walk you out. We’ll call it a pep talk.”
“I don’t need a pep talk,” I said, walking up the stairs, and then it was followed by the awkward silence and our steps on the metal.
We were out by the garden heading for the woods and my shuttle that was waiting.
Instead, he responded, “Well, at least you’re honest. I know you don’t want a break, but you do need to refocus a little. Firstly, you didn’t quite complete all the objectives of your debrief.”
“I shared the important information in a timely manner, sir. Is that not what you expect of me?”
He looked at me, stopping. I turned and froze out of necessary respect.
“Importance is relative, Brie. What matters to one person might not matter to another. You could have shared more…emotionally than you did. Exposing emotion does not make you weak.”
“I’m not sappy, sir. And I realize there are girls who share more than I do about their experiences, but I’m not them.”
He sounded exasperated at my declaration, as if it was obvious. “No, you’re not. But you’re not blind! They had to be unbelievably meaningful moments. Seeing Katy hopeless and showing up just in time to help. Watching Christopher hide, then fight for life alongside of you, then having your Unnecessary hold the baby, refusing to let it go.”
“Yes,” I said almost to myself, “Yes, it was. That their paths…that we were all there at the same time…and refused to be pulled apart was…I don’t know…beautiful.”
“Why didn’t you say that?” he looked confused, and almost about to cry. “Why, child?”
Now I was mad.
“Because it’s not good enough! I didn’t even just…say a complete sentence. I’m not a poet.”
“You don’t have to be a poet to share what you just shared. You want to be a poet. Because blundering over some words may seem foolish to you, and you won’t let yourself be the fool. You want to appear proficient in everything. And the fear of looking imperfect, so you won’t stumble over the words, has kept people from the truth we all desperately need to hear. Pride, my dear, is the enemy.”
He was right.
And I hated it.
But it had led me to ask one more question.
“What did you mean then, when you said I had the wrong mission?”
“Your mission, every time, is to save one. I don’t want you to think about the many, the masses, your legacy, the bigger issues on campus. Just save one. And come home. That’s always your mission. It will give you the focus you need, in the end, to get through the hardest of times and the most difficult decisions you will be forced to make, and it will get you home. If you stay focused on the one, you will feel for them what you need to feel.”
He started to walk past me, reaching for the door.
“And trust me Brie, 14th Protector of the 186th generation, you need to feel. Far more than you do now.”