Deathwatch, Chapter Two

The future never comes without a cost.

“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 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 was 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 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 or song skittering into discordant, painful notes.

“I think I'm done here,” she said. “Lead the way.”

                                                                 * * *

And 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.”

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Deathwatch, Chapter Two