Day 68 of the 186th Generation
Most of the time I avoided processing moments too extensively.
But there was no time to really process anything that had happened so I thought I should take a few minutes while drinking coffee and think about it.
The moments came back in flashes.
Holding Caleigh for a photo for the press.
Giving her back without really looking at her.
The feel of the cold floor the morning I woke up shaking.
Seeing Avery talking to George in the Circle.
Running down to see Patterson in medical.
Patterson’s skewed smile as they hooked him up to an IV for dehydration.
Begging Hannah to go easy on Avery.
Hearing her voice scold Eva instead.
Eva looking at me in a strange way as I got ready for my mission.
Trying to ignore George begging me to stay longer.
Leaving before the memorial services had ended.
I regretted that a little, but not much. Not even now, two weeks later. They had died. I wasn’t going to waste my time on celebrating their life or death. I was going to make their deaths mean something.
I was going to save another life.
I was looking at my phone, but my ears were filtering the noise around me. I had gotten lost in my own thoughts and forgot what I was listening for. What was I listening for?
Any cry of an unborn child would be silent.
Any fear and anxiety of a Vessel would be soundless.
But rejection. Rejection was always loud it seemed.
And that’s what I heard. In one conversation.
“This is why we should’ve never chosen a Sub-Terra to handle this in the first place. You were probably just an Unnecessary that slipped through.”
I started in front of me now, and then moved to look like I was sketching in my booklet. I moved my eyes slightly to see the people having the conversation. They were lab techs. I could tell by what they were wearing.
“Just fix it, Heather. I want to see it on my desk tomorrow morning.”
The man left the table. The young woman who was left looked dejected.
I risked looking over at her.
To my surprise, her eyes looked directly at mine.
I diverted my eyes, but I noticed her gaze remained on me.
I looked back at her. Only to see her shift her cup and get up from her seat.
To sit right in front of me. I politely smiled. I looked calm.
My head was moving through the building’s exits and infrastructure. There was an old Subway tunnel underneath. I was exactly forty minutes from the border.
I ran through every scenario in my mind.
“I’m not an Unnecessary, you know.”
“You just…look like an undercover Sentry. My boss says that, sometimes. But I’m not. I’m actually intelligent, but not in tech. I was an artist, which is why I know…you aren’t one.”
She looked down at my sketch, half of which I was just tracing from our standard “artist’s notebook” we were given as a good cover.
“And it might surprise you, but I have no trouble admitting that I hate what I have to do.”
She was scared, but she said it anyway.
“I’m not a Sentry. I promise. So I don’t care. But can I ask…why do you put up with that? With what you have to do? It’s…not for everyone.”
Creating and destroying life had to be hard for her if she wasn’t meant to do it. Most of the time, even in their school system, lab techs were set apart and trained to be calculating and callous.
She looked out the window. “My parents have quite a lot of debt. Which means…I thought that if I served the Republic as a tech, I could make enough money to be free. I was placed where I could make the most money. That’s all, but…”
She stopped. She looked up at me. I realized I might have changed my expression and been analyzing what she was saying.
“Who are you?” she said, afraid she had said too much. “You said you weren’t an undercover Sentry and yet…you’re judging me. I can tell. I’m judged all the time.”
I sighed, angry at giving myself a way.
“I said that I wasn’t a Sentry. I didn’t say…that I wasn’t undercover.”
It was my turn to be scared now, but I was still. I was staring at her, analyzing every movement.
“What are you doing here?” she asked breathlessly.
“What we always do here. Search for people like you.”
“No…but…” she shook her head, confused. “Didn’t a bunch of you just die? What are you doing here now? Aren’t you in mourning?”
I swallowed, but otherwise, I made sure to show no reaction.
She nodded, then smiled.
“Then you want revenge, Protector, don’t you? No one could lose anyone and not cry unless they wanted revenge.”
I looked down. I had thought about that word so much on the way back to the Republic.
“No. Really…I just to help someone.” I said it, knowing it was the right words, but it was mechanical.
Maybe she knew that.
“Then what if you helped me get revenge?” she asked eerily.
I looked up at her, wondering what she could be thinking.
“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I misplaced a specimen. Just saying.”
My eyes widened. “You would…smuggle one out? Why?”
She looked at the table where the man was sitting, and I turned to it as well.
“It’s not just how I’m treated. It’s what we do. I’m tired of killing for them. They won’t even call it killing, just ‘eradicating an unfit sample’.”
I swallowed before speaking.
“Where do you want to meet?”
She looked at the table. I predicted that her thoughts were racing to think of every risk at each location.
“Bathroom. In about an hour. I’ll make sure he or she is sleeping.”
“Won’t anyone miss them?” I asked.
“No. Not if I grab one they’re going to throw away. You’d still want one of those, right?”
I wanted to scream, “Yes, I want to rescue, raise, and love one of the souls you are throwing away.”
But then I remembered what she was trying to do. She was being brave. Or I was falling into a trap. I quickly evaluated the people outside and in the café. I had been checking all of them. Even if there was anyone undercover setting trap for me, they showed not even one sign.
And an elaborate trap would have probably never been set after the breach. The Sentries, like her, probably expected us to retreat for a few weeks.
“Well?” she said impatiently. I tried to remember the risk involved for her if she was telling the truth. It emboldened me. She was taking a chance with her life.
And so would I.
I was putting eye make-up on.
For the tenth time.
She was late.
I was wondering if I should be outside or in the stall. But I wanted to be able to see when she came into the room. I also wanted to hear anything.
I had worked tirelessly on my phone the last hour to make it a police scanner. This usually wasn’t recommended because they have a way of knowing any item is tuned into their frequency. I could only use it for five minutes, but the general silence was proof that this wasn’t a trap.
Not by the police.
I realized the security officers in the lab were enough to take on one Protector like me, so I couldn’t be completely calm. But in all likelihood, this wasn’t a planned entrapment.
I kept breathing. I took my eye makeup off again, so that someone coming in would think I was just working on perfecting myself so that I didn’t look like me.
The door opened. It was someone else. I glanced away from them and turned back to the mirror. They went in the farthest stall from the door. It was only a minute and few swipes of my eyeliner that she was out and washing her hands.
Then Heather came in.
She barely looked at me. I made sure not to look at her.
She went to the stall.
She had a backpack on.
I pretended to be satisfied with my makeup, closing my bag. I put it in my pack.
I went to the stalls. They were perpendicular to the mirror, so if Heather had planned it correctly, we should be able to pass the baby without anyone seeing anything.
I closed the door. I remembered to listen for the sound of the bathroom door opening.
I reminded myself of everything I always need to say.
Forget your fear.
And catch life.
I reached under the stall.
For one moment, my hands lay empty.
I was sure that my hands weren’t shaking.
I didn’t want her to know how scared I was. She wouldn’t want to put her trust in me if she knew.
Then the weight hit.
Seven pounds of life.
I moved my hands up slowly to reveal an infant. Sleeping. Wrapped in a blanket.
I quickly unzipped the backpack that I laid on the floor. I had already arranged the pack so the support holds were in place and the oxygen was ready. I cradled the baby in the soft elastic supports and it sank in, looking peaceful.
I zippered up the bag, moved quickly to place it on the toilet seat, and then shifted the bag on my back. I acted as smoothly and naturally as I could, even though I felt a strain in my muscles as I forced them to move slowly and gracefully. I smiled as I washed my hands next to Heather. She was smiling. She must have covered her tracks thoroughly. She would have been on edge if she hadn’t.
She had gotten her revenge.
And I got to go back home.
That was my revenge: life.
“This is unprecedented. What did you say?”
I hadn’t said anything.
I still couldn’t think of anything to say. Only now I was in front of the council and Matheson was asking me.
“I nodded. I smiled. There was no other way to thank her or get more information from her without exposing us. I very much hope to return, to get her a message, but I assumed…that the mission to get the child here was actually only complete upon the child being safe. Maybe I felt it imprudent to thank her until I had accomplished my role in saving the child’s life.”
“True,” Hannah chimed. “And you said in our debrief that you did want the most current information on her whereabouts and work schedule.”
“I want to find her again, if at all possible, and tell her that her risk paid off. I want to thank her for…bravery. She probably didn’t know she had it.”
“Indeed,” Matheson affirmed.
I risked looking past the approving faces to Eldridge and saw the concerned face I thought I would.
I thought maybe he would be scolding me again later, but he was looking at me curiously. Maybe I had acted sentimental enough in this debrief for him to be satisfied.
“So, the child was checked out in medical. Other than what looks like a slight heart murmur, Braden looks to be a healthy boy. We’ll find him a home right away,” Hannah said.
“Speaking of right away…” Matheson started. “I was concerned about you going out again on a mission so quickly. However, after this debrief today, after hearing your testimony directly, I feel the tension which you may be feeling. Getting back to tell Heather the child survived should be a priority. However, you must get George to sign off. Then you will be cleared. I will message Joel. Council dismissed.”
There was a gavel and the usual shuffling. I was heading up the stairs to my Circle.
While it felt like home for a short while, it felt strange now.
It reminded me of a time when so many others were alive. I didn’t like it.
I stood at the doorway, looking in to see George standing. His dark eyes looked tired.
“What? You think I didn’t notice that you haven’t actually been in here since you got back?”
“I’m fine,” I lied mechanically but convincingly.
Well, it might have convinced someone else. One glance, and I realized how unconvinced he was.
“Don’t be ridiculous, George. It’s−”
“Not the first time anyone has felt this way. Imagine stepping in this room after Lilia. After Penelope. Do you think that was easy for me?”
I shook my head, knowing how hard it was for him to speak about them.
“Why? Why did you leave before the services were over? Why did you avoid me when you came back? You talked to Avery. I found that out.”
“The techs know everything.”
“Yeah well, he said I’m fine. He said this is a normal reaction.”
“Since when do you trust him, and not me? Is it because he lets you be as angry and jealous as you want to be?”
I stared at one brick in the entryway of my circle. For some reason it was better than looking at George.
He got a message. He looked up at me.
“They’re waiting on me, I guess.”
“Please. George, I−”
“Go. Sorry. This doesn’t have to be complicated. You go tell Heather that she kicked the Republic’s butt and you tell her thank you. On one condition.”
“One step inside your Circle. You need to overcome this, just like anything else you face. You will.”
It felt foolish when he asked it. But as I moved into the entryway and could see the entire Circle, I paused. It shouldn’t have been so difficult.
“Good. One more step.”
“This is stupid.”
“Then do it. Those drills I had you do where you did push ups with the 20lb weights was pointless, and you probably knew that, but you did it. So just do this.”
I moved my foot forward. I moved again, until I was finally in the arch. I looked up, almost too confidently.
He looked at me.
“It almost shouldn’t count. It’s like you’re not really here. But I don’t have a choice.”
“You’ll let me go?”
He looked pained. “Yeah, forget psychology for now. It’s not worth it for Heather to worry. Promise we’ll talk more when you get back?”
I nodded, promised, and then walked out. I started to run. I dressed. I logged in. I ran up to the shuttle.
And I was gone.
He was right. It was like I was never there.
And before I knew it, I was already back, in the Republic.
I felt as fake as the world, like it was a disease that was infecting me.
But if I took the time to think about anything, I’d be too scared to be here.
To tell Heather…
She walked through the door. With a surprise, she openly recognized me. She shouted a name that wasn’t mine and moved to hug me like a friend. I realized that it was the best way for us to communicate freely instead of skulking around and whispering.
When we both had sat down, she finally asked.
“Fine. He’s fine. They named him Braden. Other than the heart murmur, he’s going to be fine.”
She sighed, and then smiled. But then the smile faded.
“I wish he was mine. I wish I could escape this some days,” she said, her lower lip shaking. I was thinking I should respond, but I had nothing that could fight her sorrow or regret, nothing to help her despair. It rolled over her like waves as she spoke.
“I wish I could do something more. It doesn’t feel like it’s enough. I want to be fighting them, every minute of every day.”
“Just think of him then. Let that one life that you saved be enough to fight them,” I said, echoing words I didn’t believe. I just wanted to help her and didn’t know what else to say.
I wasn’t sure if she believed me. She might have only been half-listening. She looked like a thought was overtaking her mind. Out of her concentration, her thoughts came out in fragments.
“One isn’t enough. There could be more. We could do this. Again.”
“But…you risk getting caught again.”
“Not as long as I take the spares. They can’t tell what burns and what doesn’t. It would take forever for them to notice.”
“Are you−?” I stopped talking to run scenarios through my head. “Are you suggesting we do this again today?”
Heather looked at me, a skewed smile growing.
“I’m suggesting we do this every day we can.”
I must have looked scared or shocked, but she was amused. She lifted her glass overdramatically as she whispered.
“To today, and the great rebellion of breathing.”