Beck sat in the blowing dust, waiting for her family to be killed.
The thin particles stuck to her face, darkening where they merged with her tears. She took no notice of it. In the Outers, the dust was everywhere. She was hundreds of miles from the nearest patch of reclaimed land so long as you didn't count the crops inside the Rez itself. And who did? The food grown here was nothing like what she'd seen in pictures from the Inners. Even the cream of the harvest crop was wilted and thin no matter how hard the citizens toiled.
The people of Rez Brighton didn't need the crops, after all. There was a hardy biomass food reactor in the commons, more than sufficient to provide every person within the vast circular wall all the calories they needed. The crops were an experiment, an ongoing trial to determine how best to tame the damaged land and make living things thrive again.
In that, the crops weren't much different from the citizens themselves. Barely living and ultimately expendable, or so Beck thought at that moment.
The enormity of what was about to happen had only begun to make itself felt. Like an iceberg, the vast bulk of it was still below the surface. The weight of an uncertain future brushed against her, gentle at first but inescapable. Just a few weeks short of her eighteenth birthday and Beck's entire world was about to collapse.
No noises filtered from her home across the narrow street. The cube of printed stone stood silent, though she knew her parents and little brother waited inside. Still alive. A one in the binary of human existence, soon to flip over to zero.
She sat on the tiny stoop of the house across from hers, hands wrapped around her knees painfully tight, and dug her nails into her forearms to keep still. Every instinct screamed to go to them. To comfort them. To somehow make it not be true.
Beck did none of these things. Not only because those who showed symptoms of type B were to be immediately quarantined, but because they had made the choice. Told her to leave, that they loved her. Not to feel guilt. Aaron, not even in his teens but more of a brat than any little brother in human history, had pelted her face with kisses.
She lost count of the times he said those three words.
I love you. I love you, Beck. Never forget it. I love you.
Gone, but not gone. They were only a couple dozen feet away. Beneath the grief, which had burst into existence whole when her family woke to find the bruises and lesions on their skin, something rose. The pain was almost liquid, shifting inside her head from moment to moment as she tried to find some purchase in the new reality on the cusp of unfolding. Below, anger solidified. Fury at the Fade in both its pestilent varieties. Rage for the system, however necessary it might be, that necessitated the deaths of anyone who developed its rarer strain.
With effort, Beck uncurled her fingers and took a few deep breaths.
“Fuck this,” she muttered to herself, voice uneven but determined. If she went inside, she would be killed. Better to die with them than spend a lifetime recovering from their deaths.
Beck didn't get further than straightening her legs when the sound of approaching footsteps froze her in place. When a call like hers went out—mandatory with any type B incident—everyone but the reporting citizen was sent indoors. They locked themselves into the isolation room every home was required to have and waited for the all-clear. Only one person, or rather one kind of person, would be moving about freely. That fact alone would have told her what she was about to see.
It was a sound every person knew. The heavy, hard footfalls of an armored body all in black. Beck looked up just in time to see a figure step through a dervish of whirling dust.
It walked toward her unerringly, as if the obscuring cloud was no hindrance to its sight in the least. For all she knew, it wasn't. No one knew what technology lay inside the armor, only that the men and women within were dedicated to their work with a degree of unflinching relentlessness most often found in earthquakes.
The normally shining black armor had not escaped the blowing grit. A thin layer of the stuff coated every surface and caked in the joints. If the grains interfered with its function, Beck couldn't tell. The only section of the segmented mechanical carapace free of the dust were the smooth, shadowed glass lenses over the eyes. That much she understood. She used a hand held terminal down in the mine that repelled dust with some kind of field.
The figure stopped uncomfortably close to her, the tips of its metal boots nearly resting against the base of the stoop.
What's wrong with me? Beck thought. Why was she thinking about her terminal and how it shared technology with the armor? Her family was about to die. What kind of person let their mind wander to such trivial things in these circumstances? She bit back the wailing sob trying desperately to rip its way from her throat, and looked up at the armored shadow.
Its head tilted slightly to one side, a tic Beck thought looked insect-like.
“Are you Rebecca Park?”
She nodded. “Beck.”
The head tilted again. Though the voice was the same identical, flat, electronically modified tone all of them used, she still heard a trace of confusion. “Pardon?”
“My name is Beck,” she said, more fiercely than she expected. “My mom has been calling me that since I was two. It's...”
Mom. Dear god, she would never hear mom call her name again.
Before the pressure within could reach critical mass, the armored figure did something that derailed her emotions. It was so out of place, so unexpected, that for a fleeting few seconds she completely forgot why she was sitting in the dusty wind and weeping.
It extended a metallic hand. In a voice as earnest as its electronics allowed it to be, the armored figure spoke.
“I'm Guard 5110,” it said as it gently shook Beck's trembling hand and took in her bemused expression. “As you know, my role here is the containment of a potential bloom as the duly appointed representative of the Deathwatch.”
It hesitated for only a moment. “And for what it's worth, ma'am, I truly am sorry.”
“They sent a Guard,” the girl—no, the young woman—said. “Should I be flattered?”
Inside the armor, Eshton sighed. This was not picked up by the suit's public address system. Years of training kept him from accidentally transmitting. It helped that the powered armor had a reasonably complex AI to smooth over any potential errors caused by his all-too-human nature.
He had checked Beck's profile on his way from the chapterhouse. She was a junior supervisor in the mine, impressive at her age, but hadn't yet qualified for work outside the Rez. Like the average citizen, her experience with the Deathwatch was probably limited to the low-ranked Sentinels manning the wall. Interacting with a Guard or Warden just wasn't something most people did unless there was an unusual situation.
And here we are, Eshton thought. He wanted to say more, but the timer on the upper right of his HUD ticked inexorably forward.
“We don't leave blooms in the hands of Sentinels, Ms. Park,” Eshton said. “I would like you to stay here, please. My team will be arriving shortly. I will need to speak with you after.”
She nodded, looking away. She knew what the words meant. The moment was approaching quickly, now. Yet hearing them didn't cause her to break down. That, he knew from experience, was rare. Possibly unhealthy, but there was no time to worry over it.
Knowing nothing he could say would bring her comfort, he turned toward the target. Those few yards felt like miles. He was in no danger, of course. The suit ran on its internal air supply instead of using the filtration system. That was standard any time a call came in about a bloom. And even if the worst happened and he opened the door to find three newly-turned Pales staring at him, well, his suit was built for exactly that scenario.
It wasn't fear that constricted his throat and weighed down his belly with a chunk of ice the size of a fist, but regret. That plus aimless fury at the world for being this way, for forcing humanity to take these steps to protect itself.
Finding his way to the isolation chamber was simple enough; all family dwellings in the Rez were printed from the same template. He found them there, visible on the small monitor mounted on the wall outside. They huddled together, words of prayer crackling over the speaker.
Eshton shifted uncomfortably. Partially because religion, while not technically outlawed, was frowned upon. Practicing it openly was illegal, which created a taboo difficult to shake off. This was not his first containment order, however. Standing by while those about to die made peace with their creator was an uncomfortably common part of his job. Letting them finish was the least he could do, and judging by the appearance of the three loved ones holding each other, they had time.
When they were through—or possibly taking a break, he didn't have the personal experience with the ritual to know for sure—he keyed the microphone.
“Deathwatch,” he said simply. Few people needed less introduction than one of his kind.
They flinched as a group. This too was a common reaction. No one liked to know the boogeyman was real, much less be certain he was coming to get you.
“Is it time?” asked the father, on file as Ben Park. His wife Elisa and son Aaron looked up at the camera, eyes wide with terror.
“You have a few minutes, if you need them,” Eshton said. “I heard you praying. If you need more time...”
He saw the familiar war being fought within the three of them. Of course they wanted more time. Human beings were built to survive. That was what the last century was about, after all. The coming of the Fade and the dead it turned into Pales nearly wiped out the species. Harsh, universal tenets of survival were the only thing which allowed humanity to endure long enough to begin to rebuild, and even then only in protected settlements. One of those tenets was to choose death in the face of a bloom, the lethal and catastrophically virulent outcome of a type B event allowed to reach its conclusion.
“How long?” Elisa asked. He hated that question, especially in front of a child. It only ever made them panic. The war continued. Give me a second, now two. Or five. Just a little longer. How long? I need to know so I might make the most of it, sir.
Their survival instinct didn't care that if the bloom was allowed to occur, their deaths and resurrections would spread their strain of the Fade in all directions in a cascading geometric progression that would end all human life within the Rez. Their logic, however, existed within a frame of reference that included at least two Rez annihilations in the lifetimes of all three for that very reason. Seven or eight if you only considered the parents.
And that was how the battle was usually won. Oh, some folk lost in the end and did not go gently, but they were rare. But for those who made the choice to die in order to save others, it was little different from falling asleep.
The Park family shared a few moments to hold each other tight and whisper reassurances of love and a life beyond this one. Eshton wished he could believe the same, though why any god would force his children to suffer so deeply was beyond him.
“We're ready,” Elisa said, pulling the boy to her breast. “Please make sure Beck is okay.”
Eshton pulled a small tank from the waist of his armor and attached it to a port on the door. “Is there anything you would like me to say to her on your behalf?”
He had switched on recording as soon as he entered the front door. It was standard procedure, but also allowed him to relay last words if the need arose.
But Elisa shook her head and, to Eshton's surprise, smiled. “She knows we love her. And I know my girl will make it through this. She can make it through anything.”
He gave no warning as he thumbed the release on the canister. There wasn't even a gentle hiss as the gas flowed into the isolation room. He watched and felt a trickle of sweat inch down the side of his face despite the climate-controlled armor. In just the few minutes he's spent inside watching the Parks, the deep bruising and lesions climbing their necks had grown visibly. He was cutting it fine. Very fine.
They drifted off to sleep as one, a tangle of arms and legs leaning against the low bench lining the room. With practiced efficiency, Eshton opened the seal and placed a device about the size of three fists stacked atop each other as close to the middle of their sleeping forms as he could get it.
Once the room was sealed again, he triggered the release. A fine mist of metallic powder filled the room, coating the resting family. As always, he experienced a moment of deep dread that they would wake. It had never happened to him—to anyone in the Deathwatch, as far as he knew—but fear wasn't known for its adherence to reason.
“Find peace,” Eshton said. Then: “Activate incineration protocol.”
In a flash of white so bright it competed for the noonday sun, three lives were ended and more than one was changed forever.
“Here,” Guard 5110 said to her, handing over a disposable dust mask. “The levels are a lot higher today. You're already at risk for a case of red lung.”
Beck took the mask and slipped it over her face, feeling the memory polymers inside it react to her body heat and tighten. She shook her head ruefully. “All this technology, but we can't cure the Fade.”
5110 didn't respond immediately. Its—their, because like it or not, a person was cocooned inside that armor—mostly smooth face plate blank as ever. “We're trying, Ms. Park. I wish I could say something more...uplifting, but until we have a breakthrough, it's the best I can give.”
Beck nodded. “Thanks.”
5110 noticeably reacted to that, straightening a little in surprise. “For what? Most people in your situation prefer attacking.”
Beck snorted. “Wouldn't do much good, would it? Probably break my hand on the first punch.”
“Yes, that happens a lot,” 5110 agreed.
Beck scrubbed a sleeve across her masked face as the dust remnants there tickled her nose. “I just mean...thank you for being kind, I guess? I don't know what I expected, but compassion wasn't part of it.”
5110 accepted this with a nod. “There is a reason Watch members are anonymous.”
Beck knew that for the truth. The details were obscured in the secrecy surrounding the Deathwatch, but everyone understood why public identity was surrendered upon acceptance into the organization. She had known a few kids from school who had chosen the Watch. One had been a fairly close friend. It could be her behind the mask. Lacey might have been the one to kill Beck's family.
No. That wasn't quite true. Whatever other fragile, explosive emotions churned and simmered inside her, Beck couldn't blame 5110. You don't blame the knife for cutting away a tumor.
Your family was not an illness.
No, but they were a danger. Despite the best isolation systems and precautions, sometimes a bloom happened anyway. The deeper, animal part of her brain rebelled at the cold, institutional logic of it, and it was in that conflict that the emotional upheaval made its roots.
“Is it hard for you?” Beck asked. “You don't seem like the kind of person who would enjoy it.”
The armor shifted awkwardly, in exactly the same way any person might fidget when they felt uncomfortable. “Is it important to you to know? Does talking about it help you cope?”
Beck's eyebrows rose. “Is there some reason I shouldn't ask? I don't know your rules.”
“No,” said 5110, “but in my experience, the last thing those left behind want to do is talk about their loss. Especially with the person responsible for it.”
“That's stupid,” Beck said. “Well, maybe not stupid for them, but it is for me. I was raised to always try to understand things that hurt me or scare me. Mom,” she paused, fighting down a sudden hitch in her throat. “Mom used to tell me the more you understand something, the less it can scare you. Or hurt you.”
5110 gave that same blank stare again. “Do you have someplace to stay until the quarantine team is finished with your family's home?”
Beck shuddered at the thought of sleeping in the place. “No. I haven't really thought about it. I could ask around, I guess.”
5110 nodded. “You have the option, if you like, of staying in the chapterhouse. I will need to fully debrief you on the protocols for a type B incident there anyway. You don't have to, but there are people you can speak with who can offer...perspective that might help you through this.”
Beck knew herself well enough to understand where the sudden, intense interest in seeing the inside of the mysterious building came from. When a hard decision loomed on her horizon, she read a book or spent hours vegetating in front of the vid. Escapism was an old friend, and not difficult to recognize. “Sure, but I didn't know citizens were allowed inside.”
“Usually, no, they aren't,” the Guard said. “There are a circumstances where it's allowed. Required, in this case. Protocols for anyone with a direct relation to victims of type B include blood tests along with the usual administrative tasks. We will go whenever you're ready. Since you're not displaying symptoms, there isn't a rush.”
Beck stood from the stoop and took a long, last look at her home. Even if given a dispensation to occupy a family dwelling rather than the usual single unit for unmarried citizens, she didn't think she'd take it. Not because—or not only because—she knew they had died there. The place was identical to all the others around it in form, but for Beck it was home. Its personality and feel had been shaped by years of happy times, sculpted with laughter, stained with tears and fights. Joy and heartbreak and all the things that made a house a home, good and bad alike ended with a single ugly handful of hours like a sentence cut off before it could be finished. A song skittering into discordant, painful notes.
“I think I'm done here,” she said. “Lead the way.”
An after bringing Beck in through the citizen entrance designed specifically for this purpose, he sat in one of the six interview rooms and waited patiently. She was off getting her physical and blood tests done. Ostensibly to make sure she wasn't just resistant to Fade B, the reaction offset by time, but in reality the purpose was to gather samples. He never understood why this deception was necessary; surely a person who had just lost their family to Fade B would be happy to donate whatever fluids and tissues were asked for in an attempt to find a cure.
When Beck finally entered the room, a Sentinel showing her in, she paused just inside the door. They always did. Citizens were used to seeing the Tenets chiseled on the walls of public buildings, but few saw the inside of a chapterhouse, where different societal laws were followed.
“Guard the many,” Beck said, reading the text on the far wall of the room. “I've never heard that one.” Her eyes dropped to the side and she gasped, stepping back toward the closed door.
“It's our guiding principle,” Eshton said, his voice unfiltered by a helmet. “Please, have a seat.” He gestured to the chair resting on the other side of the table.
Beck was hesitant, which he expected, as well as curious. Few citizens ever saw one of the Watch without their helmet. She sat, trying to study his face without staring. He knew what she saw.
Medium brown skin, curly black hair trimmed almost down to stubble. A light beard framing full lips below a straight nose and light brown eyes. Cutting across his visage from left temple to right cheek and mercifully sparing his eye from the shallowness of the cut was a thin band of darker flesh. He waved a hand at the scar and smiled. “Feel free to look. I ducked when I should have weaved.”
“How much trouble am I in?” Beck asked, eyes locked on his.
Eshton's smile widened. “None. You're going to figure this out on your own, but I'll just tell you we have protocols for about any circumstance you can think of. If there's a rule you've heard rumors about the Deathwatch having to follow, there's an exception to it. Special consideration is given to people who lose their family the way you have. It might sound cold, but we let you see the responding Watch member to put a human face on it. Some people need that, especially when recovery means blaming someone.”
Which was true and a lie at the same time. Oh, that was part of the reason. The larger purpose was, as with most things within the Protectorate, psychological manipulation. This was not a surprise to anyone; even the Tenets themselves were a deliberate and open effort to shift the priorities of human thought. A world where the dead nearly wiped out the species required a dedicated, purposeful realigning of culture, one that could not be allowed to happen at the usual glacial pace.
In this case, the point was to let any rage or revenge fantasies center on a known quantity, a human face, rather than the Deathwatch as a whole. Eshton had other reasons in addition to the standard protocol, however.
“I told you,” Beck said, her voice harsh, “I don't blame you for what happened. It fucking hurts even though I think your doctor dosed me with something to relax me, but I know you were just doing your job.”
Eshton nodded, quietly pleased she had noticed the Halcyon slipped into her system. “You feel that way now, and I believe you're sincere. But that might not be true tomorrow or a month from now.”
Her gaze was hard. “You read my file, right?”
Eshton seesawed one gauntleted hand. “As much as I could in the time I had. Why?”
Beck sat back in her chair, closing her eyes for a few seconds before looking at him with far less irritation than before. “Did you happen to look at how I got myself raised to supervisor at my age? I've only been in the mine since I was fifteen. Didn't that seem odd to you?”
“No,” Eshton said, thinking back over the file. “Why?”
Beck grimaced. “I was a team lead, mostly because I know how to troubleshoot the mining drones. We had a minor cave-in. One of my team was trapped on the other side. Then our sensors went off. Methane pocket, you see. Not just for coal mines. So there I was with four people in front of me and a fifth no more than a few yards away, trapped. You know what I did?”
Eshton didn't have to make much of a leap. “You left him.”
“I left him,” she said with a slight nod. “Tore me up to do it, but I knew it was the right call. Turns out the guy, Alonzo, lived. The rockfall didn't block off one of the side tunnels and he got into the emergency isolation tank in that section. But I didn't know that for hours. I thought I'd left him to die. He didn't thank me. Didn't give me any shit about it, but he knew what I'd done. It's a hell of a thing, having to make that kind of call at just shy of seventeen.”
Eshton considered the young woman. It was strange to think of her that way. He was only a few years older himself. The difference between them, however, was less about years than experience. Joining the Deathwatch at fourteen grew you up quickly. But the gap seemed smaller, now. “It's not the same thing,” he said. “Not really.”
Beck surprised him with a smile. “You're right. It isn't. I had to sacrifice one to save five. Your job made you choose between three or, what, five hundred citizens? Not to mention the other members of the Watch.”
Eshton didn't point out that in the event of a bloom, the armor would prevent infection. Rare was the suit that failed at this, its most basic function. “You're not wrong, but that doesn't mean I'll sleep well tonight. If I sleep at all.”
“Good,” Beck said. “You shouldn't. No one should be able to cope well with that. I know I didn't when I left Alonzo behind. I beat myself up for weeks.” She spaced out for a second, eyes going slightly unfocused, then shook her head. “I think these damn drugs are making me numb.”
“Halcyon doesn't do that,” Eshton said. “It calms you, keeps your heart rate and nervous system even, but that's about it. You're sitting there thinking you should be wailing and beating your chest in grief. Maybe you feel bad that you aren't showing it more.”
Beck blinked. “You don't know me.”
Eshton shook his head. “I don't pretend to. Everyone processes loss differently. Read the histories closely and you'll find accounts of people never shedding a tear for their lost family and friends during the Collapse. Some of them never showed a sign of trouble the rest of their lives. Others went weeks or months or years, then suddenly snapped. Others never could get over their grief and took their own lives—”
“First, survive,” Beck said automatically. The words of the First Tenet. Suicide had taken so many during the first months of the Collapse that whole populations of survivors died out from lack of bodies to perform basic tasks like guarding and hunting. The taboo against it within the Protectorate was strong enough to evoke the First Tenet by reflex, like a prayer. Or possibly a curse.
“The point,” Eshton said, “is that while everyone processes their grief differently, one factor is universal. You can't maintain that level of emotional energy for long. It exhausts you. Leaves you drained. Your mind forces itself to switch tracks and aim toward normalcy. You don't have to feel guilty about not putting on a show, Ms. Park. There is no wrong way to grieve, and no one to prove yourself to.”
She studied his face for a long, long time. Her eyes gleamed with intelligence, but also a quality far rarer in his experience: objectivity. She struck him very much as someone who could reel herself back from any situation and truly bend her mind to the task of understanding it from several angles.
“You sound like you know firsthand,” Beck said.
Eshton raised his hands as if to say, yes, you caught me. “I do. I lost my family to Fade B when I was a few years younger than you are now. The Guard who killed them did for me what I'm trying to do for you. We stay anonymous because it falls on us to make those impossible decisions, the ones that fall under our personal Tenet.” He waved a hand at the words inscribed on the wall. “We guard the many even if it means sacrificing the few. I hated her for it at the time. I even attacked her.”
Beck gasped. The Protectorate had few laws as only a recovering society can, but one of the most sacred was that no member of the Deathwatch could be assaulted or prevented in any way from the performance of their duty. “What did she do to you?”
The corner of Eshton's mouth quirked up, but his eyes were serious. “She offered me a place in the guard. I'd like to do the same for you, if you're interested.”