Day 112 of the 186th Generation
The shuttle pulled up. This marked the seventh time I had seen a shuttle that belonged to the Territory.
And once again, I wasn’t going to be getting inside of it.
I had handed the last six babies off to Avery.
But Avery wasn’t driving this time. Liam took the baby. Luke Patterson jumped out and grabbed my elbow, pulling me to one side. I was wondering what he was going to say, because he looked very worried.
“I know what you’re going to say, Patterson.”
“No, you don’t. Well, not the first thing I’m going to say.”
He handed me something. It was a shot. It had a label: level 3.
“Is this a recharge?”
“Yes. You’ve earned it. It was a gift from Hannah. You’ve been on meal bars too long. Hannah also gave you a little more cash.”
He said her name in a way that made me know he didn’t agree with my current protocol.
“Patterson, I know what I’m doing.”
“No, you don’t,” he grabbed my shoulder as I spoke and pulled me a little further away. “Because no one has ever done this before.”
“If you think you’re going to guilt me for saving seven lives, you can think again. The authorization for this mission was cleared. Almost unanimously.”
Patterson swallowed, looking at me intensely. He also looked confused, as if he didn’t know what to believe.
“Only…” I started. “If you’re here to tell me, I know who disagreed.”
“Eldridge is very worried about−”
“Heather. He’s wondering why, along with some of us, we’re not giving her the option of leaving.”
“She’s not a Vessel, Patterson. Hannah made that clear when we came up with this idea, including the idea that I wouldn’t waste time coming back for debriefs as long as Heather’s in a position to keep giving me babies. Her position within the lab is allowing more children to be saved than ever before. If she comes to the Territory, we lose our way to get to the children out.”
His gaze was intense, but he hesitated, as if he was trying to choose the perfect words to say.
“And you lose your chance at making history.”
“Is that what you think? That I’m that shallow?” I shot back.
“No. But this feels different. Like it’s more about numbers. Like revenge.”
“What if it is? Is it really that bad?” I could hear my voice rising. “Is the outcome really so horrible? You almost died for me, Luke. Don’t’ think I don’t remember that every day. They died. Heather sees countless more die, sometimes having to kill them. This makes all of it worth something. All of these lives makes what you suffered worth something.”
He looked down at the ground. “Brie, if I had died for you and Caleigh that night, and you had wandered the emotional wasteland of the Republic and only found Heather one day near the end of the autumn, and she had only one child and those two were the only ones you saved for the rest of the year, I wouldn’t have died for nothing. You underestimate the life in your hands.”
“Don’t tell me that. She puts them in my hands. She…”
I stopped. I had been scared every moment I placed my hands under a bathroom stall.
It was a strange feeling, maybe if only I felt more vulnerable each time with our pattern established. I moved them under the stall each time. There was the horrible silence, the stillness of the air, the chill down my spine.
Then the weight of the baby hit.
“This is her idea. And she wants revenge as much as I do. She hasn’t even asked to come along or even…go with me. Not once.”
He sighed. “I know.”
“What does George say?” I asked, scared of the answer.
“He’s a little annoyed he can never go on Field Duty, right now. You’re constantly in mission. He hasn’t been out at all. He’s meditating a lot. Between Emily and some of the other trainers who’ve lost Protectors, there’s an almost constant prayer being whispered for Heather or you.”
Patterson sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Look Brie, this isn’t easy. None of this. Sometimes…I don’t even know how to ask the questions we have to ask, and I don’t know how to begin to find the answer. Eldridge just wanted to me to ask. To make sure.”
“That you’re not in so much pain that you can’t see hers.”
Patterson’s words haunted me for three weeks. Not because he was right, but because he didn’t even know why he was right. He didn’t know that I couldn’t have the Shield Vaccine. He didn’t know that I would never have children. I had every reason to hate the Republic already.
What destroyed me was that despite telling everyone I was fine, and feeling the rush of continuing to save lives a record rate, I started to miss home. I had far too long to think about things I didn’t want to think about. I finally got to read some messages from George. He knew me. He just conveyed information he knew I’d want to know.
I was still in the café restroom, applying eye makeup again. I was staring at my eyes, thinking through everything while ensuring my face remained smiling.
She came in.
I moved to the stall.
I held out my hands underneath the partition.
It took longer for the baby to be placed in my hands. This was the eleventh baby in six weeks.
Her hands were holding on to each baby longer.
It was getting harder for her to let go.
Finally, after almost a full minute of feeling vulnerable, the baby fell into my hands. I cradled it and carefully placed it into my pack. I was careful to maneuver it correctly. It had cleft palate, so the breathing tubes took a little adjusting.
I opened the stall and moved to the sink.
The room was empty. As I washed my hands, I risked something.
“So, how are you feeling?”
“Good. I can still feel the rush of it every time. They just smile at me and tell me good job. They have no idea.”
I sighed. She was fine. Everyone was worried for nothing. She was fulfilled in the role she was playing; it was her revenge plot.
But then she looked down at the sink, as if lost in a thought.
She talked, almost only to herself. “So, I have one that I’m taking care of. Elise. She’s not a reject. She’s about two months, in the nursery. She’s got the prettiest eyes, and her hair is…like mine. A tint of red. I keep staying late, just for a chance to be with her. I wanted to give her to you, but…she’s high functioning. Her perceived IQ is above 150. She’s perfect. I think they’d miss her if I took her. And then I couldn’t come back.”
I didn’t know why she was telling me this, but I was scared because I could hear the emotional attachment in her voice. I almost wanted to tell her to grab Elise and run for it, with me, today.
But she was only one baby. We had so many more lives to save.
“Heather, then Elise is safe. And−”
“She’s not safe. None of us are safe. I want the kind of a life you described for Braden and the others. For her. She’s so beautiful. She’s so happy…in my arms.”
I closed my eyes, just for a second to try to frame what I was about to say. But by the time I opened them, her eyes were full of dread.
“What if…I…could I ever go…”
She didn’t ask the question. My glare must have given her the answer she guessed.
“Why not? Is it because I’m a lab worker? Is it because I’m a monster?”
“No,” I turned her to look at her, hoping no one would enter the room. “You are not a monster. You are so brave. You have already given eleven children a future. Seven of them already have homes.”
“But I’m not…”
“You’re not their mother. You’re not a Vessel. You can’t actually go with them if you’re actually not their mother.” Even as I said it, it felt wrong. Hannah had been clear what the rules had been. “But…one day, they’ll all know you saved them. And like you said…you’re bosses will keep smiling.”
And now the guilt fell. Even if I wasn’t in this for revenge, I was using revenge as a tool.
“You’re right. You’re the one who’s said that no one’s ever done anything like this.” She scoffed, and then rubbed her eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s just…I’ll get over it. I’ll see you in a few days. Such dreams…they pass. Right? I mean, I can never be their real mother, so it doesn’t matter.”
I stared at her, thinking about the words I had just spoken. None of these children would probably ever be mine, and even if I did adopt a child, I now knew what Hannah and everyone else would always think. I would never be a real mother either.
“Yes. Those dreams pass.”
But they didn’t.
In the next few weeks, even though we moved with more speed than the others, she began to speak more. Some of it was therapeutic for her. The stress of everything and her self-guilt were debilitating her, and so she was able to work through it.
It was almost the end of summer. I had forgotten what my Circle looked like.
I had seen Avery a few more times. He kept encouraging me, keeping me motivated.
But today, something was different. Something was wrong.
Today, she entered the bathroom. I waited to see her move to a stall.
But she didn’t.
She grabbed a few tissues and left the room.
She dropped the tissue before leaving the room.
We had never come up with a signal for when she knew she was being followed, but it was intentional. I began to breathe deep and even leaned down to touch my hands to the floor to stretch my legs, just in case I needed to run for my life.
I waited a few seconds more, and then I followed her.
I walked out to find her exiting. I went out the door after her. I was keeping my eyes forward, but my head was evaluating every plan for a quick exit I had from this location.
She was still outside the café. Just looking at her phone. She was seemingly preoccupied.
But there were beads of sweat on her temple.
I also pretended to look at my phone.
Finally, we were standing close enough, looking at a storefront and our phones. I didn’t look up to talk to her.
“Heather, what’s going on?”
“They were going to take her today. To the other nursery. I couldn’t let them take Elise.”
I remembered that was what she called the baby who she had spoken about so fondly.
A baby that was not an Unnecessary.
“Is she safe?”
I closed my eyes. My pain disappeared, and all I could see was hers. It was blinding and horrible, gut-wrenching and stinging. I can’t believe I had never seen it before.
The pain of a mother about to be ripped apart from her child.
And Eldridge’s words echoed again.
I was done saving the masses.
I just wanted to save one again.
“Heather, we’re going to get both of you out. Now.”
“You can’t. Not now. They might check me.”
“That’s fine. Give me the baby. Meet me in the café we originally met in. In the bathroom. I’ll take the baby. You go back to work. It will look less suspicious. Then… just meet me somewhere in a few hours.”
“Are you sure that will work?”
“No.” I was honest, but it felt cruel. “But it’s the best chance, especially if you have her with you now. I got you into this, Heather. I’m getting you out. I promise.”
She nodded. “We shouldn’t wait to go to the café then. The sooner the better. We…”
She turned, quickly handed me her bag. She opened the top quickly to gaze at her, and then left. I wasn’t even sure what to do, but I quickly moved.
The pack was a little heavier than normal. The baby was nearly 6 months old, as opposed the usual newborns. Elise barely fit as I cradled her into my pack.
I threw Heather’s pack in a dumpster.
My phone rang. My phone never rang.
I answered it, holding out my MCU and setting a timer for a minute.
“They knew. They were approaching me the second I was nearing the building. I just ran…”
“No, Heather, they can’ prove….”
There were shots fired.
I could hear them echo down the alley I was in form blocks away and through the phone.
I hit the ground.
I couldn’t yell. I wanted to scream her name into the phone. But I couldn’t.
And my time was running up. I had one minute before I’d be traceable.
They would see her phone if they caught her. They would trace the call.
I was hoping maybe she wasn’t hit. I was hoping they had missed.
The voice that answered back was barely audible. She was choking.
“I love her. I never knew…she’s not my daughter…”
“Yes, she is,” I said, almost too loud. “She’s your daughter. You’re a Vessel. You have a daughter. And you’ll see…”
I couldn’t continue. I had to cover my mouth so I’d be quiet, so I wouldn’t scream or cry. I was shaking.
“Heather, please. I can get to you. Where are you?”
“No. If she was my daughter, I wouldn’t risk her…for me. I’d love her too much for that. I love you too much for that, Brie. You go. Go.”
She hung up.
I looked at the phone. My time was almost up. I tore apart the phone. I ripped open the battery and burnt the core with the lighter in my pocket. I threw it down a sewer to hear the clang.
That was when I heard the shots.
There was silence. There was shouting.
I didn’t stop. I ran. There was nothing to hold me back.
Because I knew the worst might be true. Heather would never place a baby in my arms again.
I was almost to the station.
I was sweating. The late summer sun had taken its toll. I was breathing heavy.
I came up over the hill, hoping to quickly connect the MCU to the ground cable. I was hoping maybe Heather had made it. Maybe I could drop off the baby and go back.
But I looked up. There was a shuttle.
There was no breach. There was no alert.
George and Luke came out of the shuttle.
One of them shouted my name.
I barely heard it. Like an echo.
“Where is she? I can give you the baby. I can go back. Maybe she made it…”
“No,” George said, reaching out to me. “Brie…”
He looked scared that I might snap. The hand that was reaching for me was shaking.
Patterson spoke next as George was moving closer.
“Brie, there was a report that a lab technician had stolen intelligence and was… a threat. They had a camera on the nursery. It’s hidden, just there to maintain minimal surveillance, but someone happened to see her. The Sentry who shot her…She’s gone. She’s out of our reach. It’s been hours. She’s gone, Brie.”
Patterson’s words rang through my mind, even as I argued with him. “No. George, no, that’s not…”
I couldn’t finish. I wasn’t crying. I wasn’t angry. The baby was crying.
“The baby’s crying, Brie. Just bring her and we’ll get her in the shuttle.”
The ground was moving even though I was standing still. I moved my hand to the ground to place the baby down.
It was already spinning.
“Of course she’s crying. Her mother’s dead.”
I heard Patterson yell my name.
“Hey, you’re going to be okay.”
I was in the medical room. He was holding my head, trying to draw my gaze.
“I’m so sorry. I should’ve gotten her out earlier. I knew that. Some part of me knew that. Patterson, I…”
Patterson shook his head. “No. Don’t do that.”
“I was going to save her. Today. I heard you, and everything you said. All at once. I was about to save her. We were supposed to meet up…”
“How?” My curiosity had pushed out my pain.
“The reports said she took all her belongings from her locker. She bled out, and she told Hydech where you were. They sent a unit, but it was the opposite direction. We realized she diverted them.”
I closed my eyes and pressed my hand against my forehead. It was only then I realized I had an IV in my wrist.
I looked up, panicked at George.
“What’s in my IV?”
“Nothing. Just saline. A slight painkiller.”
My bottom jaw shook. They had special IV’s for Protector’s who had been out in the field. They were specifically labeled for blood type and any other indicators.
They also had the Shield Vaccine, as a booster, unless they were marked with a large yellow sticker.
Patterson was in the room. He would see it.
I turned to see the bag but couldn’t see the writing.
I took a sharp breath, not realizing that I had held it in trying to turn to see the bag. I turned to Patterson.
“It’s okay, Brie. You can trust me. I won’t tell anyone.”
I was exposed.
As a victim.
As a murderer.
As a fake heroine who thought bravery was the opposite of fear but could never be brave enough.
He knew it was about revenge now.
“Brie, please, it’s gonna be okay…”
Patterson trying to comfort me would only make it worse. I shook my head, turning to George who was still clasping my hand.
“Just leave me alone! Just leave. I don’t want to feel this way, can you just leave!” I cried out.
The door turned in that moment. I wanted to scream at whoever was behind it to go away.
But I could never yell at him, or I’d probably lose my rank.
“Oh, my child. Don’t you remember what I told you? We need you to feel,” Eldridge said. “And to feel, you cannot be alone.”
I strained again, but Eldridge quickly said, “Don’t worry about your IV. There was an excellent example of one young ladies quick thinking that would save you any embarrassment. Mr. Patterson ripped off the yellow sticker, so no one would know.”
I turned to George who whispered, “I had to ask for help, sorry. Eva took the labels off the next ones. She overheard everything, but she said she’d help. I’ll yell at her later.”
“But everyone will know everything else. I failed Heather. I didn’t…I got so caught up in all of them…I missed her. She tried to tell me. She was hurting. She was lonely. She wanted Elise…Elise!”
I panicked, trying to sit up. Patterson moved along with George to keep me laying down, grabbing my other shoulder.
“I fainted. I fell. Is she−?”
“She’s fine. She’s perfect. I think you knew you were passing out, so you placed her on the ground as you slowly fell, just before you blacked out. She’s fine.”
“Her mother is dead,” I said it again, staring at the blanket instead of George’s eyes. “She’ll never be fine.”
“Then let’s not remember her as a victim. You didn’t murder her.”
“But I ignored her. I’m almost as bad as they are.”
“Perhaps,” Eldridge said, his tone annoying George. But then he continued. “But then, if you were, you wouldn’t be calling her Elise’s mother. Friend. Heather. Vessel.”
Eldridge moved forward, looking at me with sympathetic eyes. “If you had never cried a tear, you would be a horrible person. But you have cried, in your fitful sleep. And we know better. We know you loved her. And she will never be an Unnecessary again.”
I didn’t speak. I could barely see for tears I blinked away, out of habit. It would have meant more to her memory to let them fall, but I couldn’t.
“I’ll go out and tell the world you’re awake. I’m sure they’ll want to know more, and I don’t want any of the press or anyone else from Central coming back in here. There’ve been several who’ve snuck in to see your status anyway,” Patterson said.
“They’ve been in here?” I asked.
“Yes. It was one of reasons we had Eva change the IV bags. So it wasn’t on camera. You’re still the hero. And everyone wants the picture of the injured hero.”
“Thank you,” I told him. He left with Eldridge.
Leaving me alone. Which I had wished for earlier.
Only I wasn’t alone.
“This is what I’m here for. Remember that,” George said.
“To see me cry?” I said, the tears finally too strong to hold back.
“To tell you that if you cry, it can only make you stronger. You’re so strong, everything you do… every pain, every part of this, will make you stronger. You’ll make sure of that. I believe in you.”
I felt so weak I could hardly breathe in as he spoke next.
“I’m afraid, in the end, you’ll be the strongest person in the world. But I’d never wish that much pain on you.”
A day later, George was still telling me to breathe.
He kept telling me to do it.
Yet it was difficult. It was hard to move my lungs.
“Your core is still strong, you’re aligned…”
“So what are you saying? That I can be done meditating?”
I opened my eyes to scowl at George.
“What are you waiting for? For me to be able to lift something off the floor with my mind?”
He looked at me knowingly. It was worse than him looking at me harshly. I had liked it when he asked me to do shame runs a few months ago.
He was trying to fix me, only I didn’t want to admit to being broken. Not because I wasn’t. I know I was.
But I didn’t want to do what he wanted to fix me.
“Your breath. It’s still shallow.”
I closed my eyes. I tried again to fool him.
But he was right. Everything was tense. I stalled out.
I opened my eyes again.
My expression must have fell when I saw the person in my doorway, because George turned around to look. He turned back to me.
“You can tell Avery to leave. It’s your Circle.”
“No. He can come in.”
George took a sharp breath, but then let it out slowly.
I nodded to Avery. He entered slowly.
I had already closed my eyes as he got closer. The last thing I saw was George’s worried glance as he moved to the Med Room to give us space.
I heard Avery sit down next to me.
“Are you going to be mad at me, because I kept you to keep trying? Or are you going to let me tell you that I’m sorry she died?”
My breath caught again. I breathed out. He continued.
“I think you made the right call. I think you also made the right call to help her get out when it was her choice. I wish she had made it out, all the same.”
“But you didn’t tell me that I should’ve saved her earlier,” I accused.
“We’re in the business of saving lives, Brie. You saved the most lives.”
I clenched my teeth. What he said sounded like truth. It was truth. It might even appear stronger. But something in me knew it wasn’t.
“But not the one I should have.”
He sighed. “We’ll never agree on that point. But can I still be sorry?”
I stared at him. “No. You can be wrong, and I can choose to listen to George next time.”
Maybe it was because he looked injured, maybe because the glare from his eyes hit my soul in a way I hated to admit. But I added, “Just once, Avery. Once. And I can forgive you.”
He clenched his jaw, then said, “Don’t forget, if you don’t have enough hate, you’ll never have enough energy to keep fighting them. You told me you wanted to repeat, do this again. What’s going to keep you going next year?”
I closed my eyes. I was too tired to lie. “I don’t know.”
He got up quickly.
“Where are you going?’
“Hannah agreed to have a pillar lit for Heather, our unofficial Protector, because you petitioned it. Eldridge advocated for it as well. And so did I, if that matters. It will have to be lit in the garden. We don’t want to alert any of the families of Protectors by thinking there’s another one of you down. There have been torches lit this year already. But we want to honor who she was.”
But words should be blunt, sometimes. I hoped the truth wasn’t too confusing. I still did hate him for telling me to keep going, to keep putting Heather in danger. But in his own way, he was pushing her. Like a Protector.
“Yes?” he said, turning eagerly.
“Thank you. Just…thank you. For taking the babies home, so many times. For honoring her.”
His stillness told me I was right. He was waiting for something. Maybe he wanted me to come off the mat, finish fighting the war of revenge. But I didn’t move.
I couldn’t be angry about her. Her fate was as much my fault as the Republic.
“You can’t blame yourself, Brie. It will only make you weak.”
My breath stopped short again. To the side, just out of view, George was still there, gazing at a spot in the mat. He had been trying to give us what space he could, but now his gaze was on me to.
I felt a strain, like I was being asked to make a choice without anyone saying it.
But I couldn’t make it. So I closed my eyes again.
And in the weakness of not knowing what to say, I spoke the truth that hurt the most.
“If I was weak, she’d be alive right now. I can’t escape that.”
I heard Avery sigh. I heard his footsteps leave.
It was only when I was sure they were gone that I opened my eyes.George was looking at me, a sense of pride swelling in him.
“Ugh,” I sighed, to his surprise. “Since when do you want me to be so soppy?”
“You aren’t. You’re learning. And you’re not growing weaker, you’re growing a new kind of strength. You know, she wouldn’t be alive if you were weak either. She’d be alive if you were intune with her emotions, and if you were strong enough to defy the wishes of Hannah and Avery, Zander and countless others, and save just one.”
I still had my eyes closed. “You sound like Eldridge.”
“Well, I’ll take that,” I heard George say, probably smiling.
“I’m not sure that was actually a compliment, though.”
Hearing Patterson’s voice made me open my eyes again.
“Can I come in?” Patterson asked.
“What do you want? You just missed my epic confrontation with Avery, myself and all this uncomfortable meditation−” I cursed.
This was way too much introspection for one day. I wanted to get out of here. I sighed, looking at George.
“I’ll make you do a run soon. I promise,” he said.
“It better be a 10K.”
George rolled his eyes. “Patterson, what did Eldridge say?”
“We’ll meet after the ceremony. It will be small.”
“For what?” I asked.
“We’re honoring the dead tonight. You never…we never put a rock, in the garden. For Emmy. If that’s okay. Some of us…at least I, would like to be there with you.”
I nodded. “Of course. I know…”
I fell into a thought, cutting off mid-sentence.
Rocks in the garden were for fallen Vessels. Torches were for fallen Protectors.
And I knew what I needed to do to move on.
“Patterson, can you do me a favor?”
I still couldn’t breathe deeply. The panic and hurt stopped my chest from releasing.
The torch was lit. Songs were sung.
Hannah was crying, and I don’t think they were fake tears.
I spoke. George wrote it with me, which helped. I took time to remember the fire in her eyes. I remembered how brave she was. I remembered Braden. I hugged Avery and Emily, all of those who prayed for us and gave us extra support.
We remembered Heather for her bravery and her revenge that had saved 19 children in 2 months.
We honored her bravery as a Protector.
George came up beside me, as they extinguished the torch and everyone started to leave.
“For the record, I think you have chosen the best way to honor her. All of her.”
“So it’s ready?”
“Yeah. They asked…if they could come along. If that’s okay?”
I turned. Mostly everyone had dispersed. Patterson, Emily, Liam, and Eldridge were all by the rock garden in the distance.
I walked up. I stared at the rock in Patterson’s hands. Emmy’s name was carved beautifully in it. I turned to Eldridge, as he held out another rock to me first.
“We didn’t have a lot of time. Eva did it, with a tool in tech at the Academy.”
I smiled, thinking I really needed to thank her for a few things one day, and maybe ask her why she did them.
But not today. Today I took the gift.
The rock with Heather’s name on it. Her child’s name was on the bottom.
We would know that Heather was a Vessel, who died to bring her children freedom.
I placed the rocks in the garden. I know I should have said something. But I couldn’t. Even Eldridge didn’t expect me to speak. I placed Emmy’s in the garden, feeling the pang of my empty arms.
They had held so much life. And they were still empty.
Eldridge prayed, quietly, and almost to himself. Emily said a few words.
I turned to George with my empty arms.
He looked at me and sighed. Patterson looked worried and whispered something to him. George looked at me. He mouthed one word, reached for his MCU and hit a button.