Team C14. Mandatory debriefing and training. Departure time eighteen hundred hours.
The notice had come through in her time feed this morning, and it was still burning a hole in her mind, threatening to sidetrack her concentration. Already the day had slipped away, and departure time was closing in. Only three more intervals, and she would walk back to her sleeping room, collect her travel bag, and leave with her team for the next unknown number of days. The shortest training she had ever undergone had lasted four days. The longest had gone on for nearly three weeks. Months of just waiting, and now, just when it was critical, she was going to have to be somewhere else.
Somehow she managed to keep her hand steady as her mind faltered on the word critical. She forced her mind to focus on the work. Study a clip of a slack-faced, unmoving patient. Pink cheeks. Check. Groomed hair. Check. Clothes straightened. Check. On down the list. Sign the form that the review has been completed. Repeat with the next slack-faced, unmoving patient. The vids were all the same.
The screen went black as the break tone sounded on her terminal. She took a moment to look away from the screen. A long narrow circle of doctors and assistant watchers wound in and around the great hall, all working on similar screens. She kept her face motionless, rolled her shoulders and neck. Stretched her fingers. Didn't let her mind calculate how many patients they represented.
She turned her attention back to the podium screen. Another silent vid appeared. She lifted her hand and began again. The back of her mind struggled to keep her anxiety at bay, to keep her darker fear buried. That after all, it didn't matter if she went away for even as long as six months of training.
That after years of waiting for the moment, that after risking life and health to get that message to the patient, that after doing everything she could not to look like she was watching every shadow or studying every face for a flicker of emotion or awareness, that after running The Plan through her mind again and again on endless repeat, that after feeling vaguely nauseous and jittery for day after day, in the end none of it mattered.
The patients had no further moments of restlessness. There was no summons by the review board. The one time she had dared to look in on the patient, he sat slumped against the stone wall as blank faced and boneless as all the rest. Nothing had changed. Nothing was going to change.
She had prepared herself for everything to go wrong. She had prepared herself for action if by some impossible fluke their plan actually worked. She hadn’t prepared herself for nothing.
She let herself recognize the heavy stone weight at the base of her gut for what it really was. Hope dying.
She knew that somewhere outside the Institute, probably in the line of trees they called the woods, others of the Resistance were gathered. They were risking their lives, as she had risked hers, on the slender thread of hope that they might make an actual difference in this hidden war against the Watchers. Trading safety for the chance that maybe they could make a strike for real change against the unwavering, placid control of the Watchers. She wondered how long they would wait before they too realized the truth. Her covert mission had failed.
This time she kept her eyes down for the break, moving her neck slowly from side to side. She let the full weight of the stone settle into her bones. It didn't matter anymore. She had done her part. Now all that was left was to go on doing her small insignificant bit as a cog in the great Watcher machine, as she had done for so many years already. It was time she faced that. She turned the key on hope and threw it away.
She started in on the last round of vids. Minutes draining away as so much sand. A number flashed in the corner. Only five vids remaining. She heard the first of her colleagues finishing and beginning to move toward the exits with a soft ruffling shuffle. Two more patients left to go.
The next patient appeared on her screen. Somehow she managed not to startle at the face peering back from her screen. A restless face. The Patient’s face. She almost held her tap a moment too long in frozen stillness. Then she tapped a careful steady check, check, check down the list as she always did. She braced herself against the hard desperate edge of returning hope lest she give herself away now. She locked her knees. She kept her head held still. She kept her hand moving smoothly through screens. His face disappeared. She continued on with her last patient vid. She waited for the tone that would end her shift.
She shifted slightly in place as if loosening her joints. She reached slowly down by her side for her bag, sliding it silently up over her arm. She turned and took her place in line. She waited for her turn to exit. Somehow she kept an ordinary pace. Somehow she kept her face blank and unemotional. Somehow she didn't let herself think. She had run The Plan through her mind a thousand times already. There were no decisions left to make.