Deathwatch, Chapter One

The future never comes without a cost.

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 anytime 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 the 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. 

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Deathwatch, Chapter One