Boadicea Andari squeezes her daughter’s hand tight, tight enough that a child from any other Society would complain. She doesn’t look up as the transport shrinks to a speck in the sky. Her hard grey eyes are fixed on the wasteland before them, cheeks pulsing with each clench of her jaw. The girl next to her is small but wiry, whippish like a willow of old Earth. Her hair flames out behind the pair of women, a tumult of red next to the shaved dome of her mother. She too looks ahead instead of up.
Out of the three dozen men, women, and children, some observe the spacecraft disappear into the sun’s glare, others watch their captain. All wait with equal stillness as the wind picks at their loose garments and unbound hair. There had been no shouts. No pleas or bargaining. Not when they’d been heaved from their bunks mere hours before nor now as their only means of returning to the ship, to their home, disappeared. They had lost.
Most hadn’t even known they were fighting until they were at gunpoint but Boadicea saw it coming. She’d watched the creeping rat bastards without doing a thing to protect her command. Many things had led to her undoing, overconfidence, trust, blind stupidity but none more so than honor. It was honor that had made her confront her traitor of a second-in-command after he massacred those goddamn safe addicts for a petty load of carbon. Honor that made her look weak, that let him spread rumors of her ineptitude to do what needed to be done to survive and to thrive in this universe.
But it isn’t the way of pirates to bemoan circumstance or gods. All storms can be weathered by the strong as long as they keep moving. A wild thing will drop frozen dead from a bough, without having ever felt sorry for itself. Boadicea looks down at her daughter, her wild thing, and smiles a thin, grim smile. She doesn’t know how or when but someday, someday before her hands lose their strength and her mind its clarity, someday she will kill the man who rejected his little girl and took her ship.
In the far distance, a smudge of black moves against the haze of the horizon. Boadicea’s feral grin widens.
An hour ago, the sun rose thirty minutes earlier than it has for at least the last eighteen years. I shouldn’t have been surprised when Otto started nudging my neurons but I was. I was surprised and uncomfortable and that’s not a way anyone should have to start their day in this millennium.
In a way, it’s my own fault. The notices have been filling my inbox for months. But blame only fosters negative emotionality and no one deserves that, certainly not on the day of their Trials.
Beyond the windows, ribbons of pink and purple dance through the burnished gold dawn. The first bird comes to life somewhere, trilling a few solitary notes that are soon joined by another and another scattered across the crystalline morning until they’ve built a chorus of calls and answers. Most days I appreciate the vibrant noises but this morning it’s too much.
“Otto, decrease birds by twenty percent.”
I feel a soft beep somewhere in the back of my head and the flock becomes quieter. Still, there’s a tightness in my chest and a dull throb in my forehead that doesn’t feel very motivating at all. I take a few deep breaths on the edge of my bed as Otto stimulates my thalamus enough to get me up and going. One foot on the ground, then another.
It’s not that I don’t get enough sleep. I always meet the requisite hours for a full brain refresh. Sometimes I even go an extra fifteen minutes. That doesn’t stop me from misjudging the distance to my mug or it from spewing a pinwheel of coffee onto the counter as it skitters across and down onto the floor. A minute later I press the wrong button in the shower and freezing water shocks my system to the bone. I’m drying my hair on the way into the living and stub my toe so badly into the counter that I’m surprised blood doesn’t spurt out and join the brown mess still pooled on the carbon. It’s all too much.
Protectors have to operate at maximum awareness. If we’re not, people get hurt. That’s why I give in and settle into Dad’s armchair for a longer dose of electrocranium massage and mood alignment from Otto. The chair is a massive bourbon-colored beast of a thing that Dad paid a fortune to bring out of Earth three-quarters of a century ago but there’s nothing more comfortable this side of the Sail.
As kids, we couldn’t understand why he hadn’t just printed a replica. The old man would laugh over his mug and rub the arm before turning back to whatever he was reading. Always had something in his hands; even after he finally agreed to upgrade to direct uplink, he’d sit here reading an actual book with his actual eyes holding a cup of coffee brewed from actual beans instead of the synth kind now dripping down my countertop. He was funny like that.
It took me two weeks of intensive therapy to stop crying after he passed. And another week when I found out he’d left me the chair. My throat catches for a second in spite of Otto’s treatment but it slides away quickly. The minutes pass and my limbs go slack. My heart slows. I imagine the wellness seeping down my spine and out into every inch of my body. A moment later, the pain has faded and I feel my lips easing into a small smile.
I don’t know how people managed before these little guys.
“Otto, what’s on the agenda?”
Otto uses the ceiling and wall projectors to wink into existence as a ball of gentle blue light and bobs slowly up and down at eye level. Technically, he lives in a cube at the base of my cranium but he knows I like a little bit of companionship in the morning.
He makes a throat clearing noise for effect, “I believe you wanted to catch up with your relations before your Trials this afternoon.”
I catch myself looking at the orb and thinking that smaller isn’t always better. There was something more familiar when artificial intelligence came with its own speakers. Nowadays it’s all lossless transmission straight to the neural receiver. Could have gotten an animatronic for him to inhabit but you have to think about the hassles that come with those things, transportation, maintenance, body type, on and on. The details are endless. That’s the tradeoff I suppose. What am I really complaining about, so I house his memory and processor. He’s practically my best friend.
Otto makes that quiet rustle in the back of my mind that he always makes when he’s about to say something. “Shall I reset the walls for tomorrow’s sunrise or perhaps the end-of-adjustment time?”
“Good gods, how far back are they going?”
“Thirty minutes at the beginning of each month for the next three.”
I groan out loud. Two more hours of daylight is good for the crops’ wellbeing but less so for mine.
“Shall I put some emotocontrol in your breakfast?”
“At least a double dose seems reasonable, thank you, Otto.” The stimulant will help but so does his voice. Programming him to sound like a prehistoric English butler was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Something about it that always quirks the corners of my mouth.
There’s a scratching from the closet. The following yowl sears my sensitive eardrums and I sigh again. With the greatest delicacy and control, I crack open the door. Two yellow eyes burn up at me from the shadows. The little beastie sticks its snout through the crack for a moment, then pushes the opening wider and rips into the room in a ball of fur and yips.
“Someone to take care of you while you’re taking care of us,” Mother had said with shining eyes and that smile she saved for when she was especially proud. It’s like she conveniently forgot that I am terrified of her own quadrupedal slobber bucket. Not that I can get angry at her, no one can. It’s her superpower. I can imagine her exact thought process, no doubt she gave it to me a few days before the Trials thinking it would act as some sort of emotional support. It’s so old-fashioned that it would be cute if it happened to anyone else.
She’s right, the thought of the afternoon’s ceremonies does make me nervous. Not that it’s been on my mind, not really. It’s just a formality after all. I risk taking my eyes off the little monster to look at Dad’s chair. If anything, I just wish he was here. He would have liked to have seen today. A vicious ripping sound from the bathroom jolts me around. Mom was right about one thing, it is a good distraction.
It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the gift; the puppy had been amusing for several hours. And it was extraordinarily kind of Mother to go through all the effort of getting a real, flesh and blood dog for a graduation present. Mech’s may look as real but there is something about them that limits the emotional support they’re meant to provide. Yet the real thing is just so…dirty. I thought they came preprogrammed but within five minutes of being home, the thing had relieved itself in no less than three corners of the flat. I nearly tossed it in the incinerator after it lifted a leg on the chair and that’s from someone who’s spent the past five years training in non-confrontational disturbance control.
It licks at my leg in a vain attempt to win approval or food. I’m not sure which. We’ve built mirror sails large enough to redirect the power of the sun, artificial intelligences that communicate directly with the human brain, and transformed hellish planets into habitable zones of peace and prosperity but this thing can’t decide if it wants to go outside or not.
“Otto, can you do something with it?” The dog sits on my toes, looking up expectantly. “It wants something.”
“Sir, may I remind you that the puppy’s name is Atlas. As excitedly agreed upon by both you and your Mother.”
“I am aware, Otto, of what its name is. And you know as well as I that only one of us was truly excited. The other is trained to be convincing. I just don’t know what to do with it.”
Truth be told, I’ve never had to raise a thing before. Somehow, some people, including my mother, got the idea that Protectors are supposed to be good at calming and caring for all living things. Those people are mistaken. We’re trained to interact with humans. Only humans. Not orangutans, not skewts, not dogs, not any other sort of less-evolved lifeforms.
“I keep thinking I’m going to step on it.”
“People have had them as pets for tens of thousands of years,” he reminds me.
“I would prefer to not have it for more than the next thirty minutes. See if it has a return policy of some sort.”
“As you wish.” Otto calls to the creature and begins luring him back to the closet.
It takes a bit of willpower to get up out of the chair. The dog may be an inconvenience but at least it was a distracting one. I open a second closet not ruined by dog hair and pull out my new uniform from where it’s been hanging since a courier delivered it yesterday. The training clothes I’ve been wearing for the past years are virtually the same except for the band of light blue that encircles a single cuff but there’s something about exchanging the mixed colors of an apprentice for the pure grey of a full-fledged Protector. The textech is familiar but I slide it on slowly, reverentially. First the bottoms, then the top. The fabric adjusts to my body, compressing through my torso, arms and legs, so there’s secure contact for the medley of sensors. The ensemble is a deep shade closer to black than white, designed to be both authoritative and friendly, stern but unintimidating.
The closet is almost entirely empty now. The courier left me two spare uniforms and took everything else to be disposed or repurposed. Accession to full Protector marks an entirely new stage of life. But there is one other garment back hanging alongside the suits after I hid it from the courier. It’s a similar cut but much darker, almost black. The jacket is covered in caked mud and patterned through with dozens of holes, singed around the edges, as dirty as it was when the mourners brought it to the house ten years ago. I had to wait five years to even begin training in his footsteps and then another five to reach today. Not a single one of those days has passed that I haven’t thought of him.
Most of the holes lacing the front of the fabric are small but a single large one punches through the right breast and out the back. A wound so wide I could pass my hand through it. To this day it makes me shudder to think of him facing the pulsebeam that must have made it, to imagine him lying in the mud as the acid rain of the Wilds pattered down through his clothes and into his body. I know it’s unhealthy to keep the uniform. Mom thinks I let them destroy it years ago and I should have. If it were any other citizen I would reprimand them heavily for its possession and suggest emotional realignment to help process the feelings it’s represented. And yet it’s kept me going more than anything else.
A Protector’s primary responsibility is to defend the happiness and safety of Arkus’s citizens from themselves and each other. When the Founders colonized Venus two hundred years ago, they extended the compassion dictated in Arkus’s compact to all the tribes of Venus. Citizens like my father paid for their naive generosity.
Though it is still sacrilege to say it, not all members of the human race deserve our empathy—not outcasts who rebuke all form of civilizations, not Rippers who kill good people for no reason other than to acquire the batteries on their equipment and the carbon in their transports.
The ceremony is just a few hours away but all I see when I look in the mirror is the same kid that started down this path half a decade ago. If I look hard, I notice that the face is less round, cheeks less doughy, the mouth set a little firmer, but the eyes are the same.
I look at the jacket once more. Maybe after today I’ll be able to let it go, once I’m able to protect our people just as he did. First thing first. I snap the closet shut and pull on my uniform.