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“She’s doing it again.”

Marin’s voice crackled over her headset. He punctuated each word with a small expulsion of breath, as if he were shooting a dart. Nobody else on the mic answers him, because they know that engaging will just prolong the inevitable rant.

“Guys. She is actually complaining on her private twitter account about the food that her husband cooked after he got home from work. In case you missed the last ten hours of reporting, she laid on the couch and did nothing all day!”

Still nobody answered. Sometimes he just gave up, other times…

“Come on! Don’t tell me that this doesn’t piss you off! She is absolutely…grotesque! That’s the word! Grotesque! She’s a goddamn parody of a human being! She’s completely wasted the gift she has been given!”

Marin was roaring into the mic now, and Veryn assumed from the violent rustling sounds filling her ear that he was likely flailing his arms about in the foliage behind the house, and maybe even doing so while standing up. This meant that he could probably be seen if either of the residents were to look directly out the bay window at that exact moment.

Veryn sighed. “M, we all see the same thing. We all know she’s disgusting. But we have the Precepts. We have the job. Calm down.”

Silence. She could hear Marin huffing and snorting. She couldn’t hear anyone else on an open mic, but she knew they were all still listening, tense and ready to act if necessary. At least this time they could be prepared.

“M, please acknowledge my last,” Veryn barked. “And…please make sure you’re out of sight.” She tried to temper her tone, since he usually met anger with anger. “Go back inside your post, let’s just finish this miserable shift and go home and watch a stupid movie and eat those crap cupcakes Karyn always buys.”

Silence, then a crackle. “Fine V, but we’re going to talk about this after shift. M out.”

Veryn leaned her head against the damp, mossy wall of her blind. Being so close to the ocean now, she always felt soggy. She sorely missed their previous, comfy next-door neighbor observation post. The Massachusetts winter had been brutal thus far, and it was only December. Veryn suspected that some of the team’s stress stemmed from the fact that they were now always cold and clammy while on duty, and reconsidered her decision to continue using physical surveillance methods. But Veryn knew that even if they were back in their comfortable old home, performing their duties in their pajamas and eating takeout from the glorious Georgian restaurant down the street, Marin would still be angry.

She closed her eyes, and tried not to think about Marin, or the cold, or the fact that they still had nineteen months left on this Charge. She wasn’t even supposed to be on duty tonight, as she had already worked the day shift. But they needed a third in case they needed a mobile tail, and since Lerin was back at their teamhouse vomiting up his insides, as Team Lead the duty fell on her. Hopefully, he had learned his lesson about eating their Aegis’s terrible cooking.

Their Aegis. Their Aegis that they were charged to watch according to the Precepts laid out by their employers. Their Aegis that they had to defend with their lives if necessary. Their awful, grotesque Aegis.

Meredith Pearson, a new resident of Gloucester, Massachusetts, United States of America, thirty-three years old, had short black hair, bad skin, poor fashion sense, and was in possession of one of the nastiest personalities Veryn had ever encountered.

And that was saying something, since they had been tasked previously with watching a mid-level Nazi official during World War II.

The whole team had been so excited about their first American assignment in the new century. But Meredith was a whole different kind of….something. She was lazy, narcissistic, entitled, and mean to nearly everyone she encountered. Prior to the team’s involvement, everything had seemingly been handed to Meredith on a platter. She performed poorly in school, yet received scholarships to college. She had somehow tricked a bland but decent – and fairly well-off – guy into marrying her. She then promptly manipulated him into ‘allowing’ her to become a housewife who did no housework. She discarded pets as soon as they were no longer small and cute, and latched on to any current fad. Six months ago, Meredith persuaded her dolt husband to leave their comfortable Worcester home for this rural money pit. Tonight, as Veryn sat moldering in soaked pants and boots, she fervently wished that her employers had allowed them to prevent the move, since it seemed to be an unnecessary risk.

Meredith was also completely addicted to social media, which added a whole new dimension of difficulty to the team’s duties. Veryn had asked for an additional member, someone who would be responsible for doing electronic monitoring, but her request had been denied without explanation. That was happening more and more frequently, those summary denials.

Either way, her team had lived through 130 years, six Aegises, twenty-four precepts, and thirty-eight near-misses, yet after only a year the team was as fraught with emotional distress as they had been after watching their most beloved Aegis die after eleven years of faithful watching. They were only tasked with watching Meredith for three years, the shortest Charge yet. But as the team had learned to their detriment back in 1929, the shortest Charges were often the most critical.

But they had at least understood their previous Aegises. While none of them had been particularly powerful or prominent, their consequence to the world was at least somewhat evident, if not always clear. But Meredith Pearson? She was a nothing person, living a nothing life. She was petty, limited, and mean. The truth was, Veryn hated Meredith too, but she tried to remain as publicly indifferent as she could. It was clear that the whole team despised her to the point that doing their job was becoming increasingly difficult – emails had gone unread, a secret twitter account overlooked, even a side trip during a vacation caused chaos. Veryn found that she was having to act more and more as a therapist than a team lead, and it was clear that they were all in an abusive relationship. But no matter how much they wanted to, they couldn’t extricate themselves from this partnership, not without risking the entire future of the human race. Or so they had been told.

The structure that had been in place for over a hundred years was still the same. They had their Charge. The Precepts were clear. They all had an incredibly important task to perform, and she wasn’t going to let them fail again.

But Marin was a problem. A problem she didn’t want to solve. The solution was just too unthinkable.

Her private mic crackled to life, rousing her from her reverie.

“K. I guess you were listening?” Karyn was her deputy, had been from their first Watch.

“Yep. He’s cracking, V. I’m really worried about him. I’m worried about you too.”

Karyn sighed heavily into the mic, while Veryn stared at a worm squiggling along next to her boot. Instead of squashing it, as was her instinct, she nudged it towards the wall, as she couldn’t be one-hundred percent sure that the slimy little creature didn’t have some role to play.

God, this job had made her paranoid.

“This isn’t like Iraq. He loved Nara, and his anger was directed at them, not her,” Karyn said.

Veryn snapped back into the moment. She knew exactly where Karyn was going with this, and she didn’t want to have this conversation now. Not now, not even later. She was cold and tired, and her head was starting to throb. The stupid bitch better put down her phone and go to bed soon.

More silence. More heavy sighs.

Finally, “If you won’t do it, I will, V.”

“I am the Team Leader. What happens to Marin is my decision, not yours. Do not test me on this.” Karyn always knew what buttons to push.

Something rustled on the other end of the mic. Chips or popcorn, or maybe both together covered in chocolate. Karyn adored American junk food.

“Look, V, you know I would never go over your head, but we are going to need something from you soon. First Martel, then Nara, now this. Maybe it is all too much for him. He’s always been the most empathetic of all of us, and she has just…I don’t know. She’s broken him.” She stopped. “Maybe she’s broken all of us.”

Veryn considered that last statement. It was true, the team was not nearly as fluid or efficient as they had been even under far more difficult circumstances. Stupid disagreements at the teamhouse over stupid things like which butter to buy were becoming more frequent, and everyone always seemed to be on edge. Meredith’s constant anger seemed to infecting them.

She brushed that notion aside – that was ridiculous. “Marin was fine when he woke up, K. This is about Meredith, nothing more. She’s wasting her life, and it offends him."

Even though she was the one saying the words, Veryn didn’t believe them. She knew, she saw that Marin had slowly started to unwind over the course of their last two assignments.

Karyn was silent for a little while.

“What if we ask for Marin to be redesignated...?” Karyn began.

“You know I asked for that after Iraq. They said no,” Veryn snapped. “You know they say no to everything I ask for these days.” What Veryn didn’t say was that she knew they said no because she was the one doing the asking.

“Their denials have nothing to do with what happened in Iraq, V. There are 7 billion people on Earth now, I’m sure there are many more Circles than when we started. It has to be a numbers game by now – there are only so many of us.”

Karyn also sounded like she didn’t quite believe her own words. Even though they had been cleared after those terrible events in Baghdad, and even though they hadn’t actually broken the Precepts for their Aegis, significant mistakes had been made. Those mistakes fell mostly on Veryn’s head. They were all shocked when they were brought out for another assignment so soon after, even for one that seemed so simple.

The team’s Precepts for Meredith were the least complicated they had ever been given. Never let her travel to New York City. Never let her drive a blue late-model pickup-truck (make and model TBD). Ensure she remains married to Bryan Pearson. And never let her initiate contact – either in-person or electronic – with eleven specific individuals, none of whom were of any consequence. 

In that respect, this had been a far easier assignment than some of their previous ones, made so by Meredith's vices. Three years earlier, Meredith had quit her job in order to plan her wedding, and then simply never returned to work. These days, she rarely left the house, and when she did, she usually just went shopping with her husband’s money.

But the goddamn social media. The stupid Twitter and Facebook and blogs. 

During their six previous assignments, they had definitely come to know their Aegises well. They read their letters, followed their every movement, and in some cases when deemed necessary, befriended them under false pretenses, as Lerin was doing with Meredith. But with social media, it seemed that everyone on Earth was eager to push all their secrets as well as every single boring detail of their lives out there into the electronic ether.

Unfortunately, all Meredith put out into the world was bile, criticism, and judgment. She practically gushed anger at almost everyone she came into contact with if they didn’t fit into her narrow view of ‘acceptability’. And for the 6 members of her Circle Watch, the unparalleled access they had into her innermost thoughts and feelings had given rise to nothing less than hatred.