Day 43 of Year 2218
If anyone had been watching the dream Sirius was having until the moment Otto nudged his neurons awake, they’d say he was the last person in Arkus who should become a Protector. A Protector influenced by negative emotions, particularly emotions like red-hot rage and zealous hatred, was like a trash compactor operated by a blind elephant, liable to smash many a helpless bystander. And yet, a Protector he would become.
The nightmares had been getting more and more frequent as the Trial neared but this time he’d been so close to seeing the man’s face. And then what? His stomach roiled at the idea of violence even as his heart sped with the promise of revenge. Maybe it was a good thing he’d never meet the man lest reality unveil the coward his fantasies cloaked in hero’s garb.
No, not a hero, a would-be murder. If the Counsel knew he was having such thoughts, they’d order him submerged in re-education until the Blight grew green, Trial Day or not.
It was just a dream, a bubbling of irrational meaningless slipstream. Sirius could never hurt anyone, not emotionally, not spiritually, not figuratively, and certainly not physically. It went against everything he’d trained for, everything Arkus represented. Or at least that’s what he told himself as he sat up and took deep, steadying breaths to slow his pounding heart. The silhouette of the figure was still burnt into his retinas, a beast of a man with long wild hair and a back wide enough to crack a man across it.
Beyond the pod’s windows, ribbons of pink and purple danced through the burnished gold sky. The first bird came to life, trilling a few solitary notes soon joined by another somewhere across the meadow and then another until the crystalline morning vibrated with a chorus of calls and answers. Sirius had designed it to be the best alarm imaginable but this morning the beauty grated across his nerves.
“Otto, decrease birds by twenty percent.”
A soft twang, like a pluck of the harp, sounded somewhere in the back of his consciousness to acknowledge the command and the chirps dropped a dozen decibels. Still, his chest felt like he was the one who’d be burned through. On any other day he could call in ill, take something serious for the throbbing headache, go back to bed. But his counselor had been saying for two years that Sirius needed to live more in the present. Leave the past behind, he’d said. Today is all that matters.
So, Sirius settles for a few deep breaths on the edge of the sleep pod while Otto stimulates his thalamus enough to jumpstart some positive emotionality and motivation. A few minutes of electrocranium massage and mood alignment loosens his chest, slows his heart. Each breathe comes a little easier than the one before. Contentment trickles down his spine and out into his body, enough that he can shuffle to the shower and then the kitchen to warm a liquid breakfast.
Almost all the studio’s furniture follows the minimalist style necessitated by astronomical shipping and production costs, mostly alloy and graphene pieces of the light and flowy variety, like water frozen into the shape of a few shelves, some chairs, and a table large enough for two. All about as comfortable as the ice they resemble.
Synthetic coffee in hand, Sirius ignores the ensemble and drops into the massive bourbon-colored beast of a chair that his father paid a fortune to bring out of Old Earth three-quarters of a century ago. In their youth, his kids couldn’t understand why he hadn’t just printed a replica. Samuel Finnegan would laugh over his mug at the question 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 a physical book and holding a cup of coffee, the real stuff.
Amidst the fluid shades of light grey that adorn the small space, the chair stands out like the foreign object that it is but there’s nothing more comfortable this side of the Sail. That’s what Sirius said when the acclimation committee came to purge harmful triggers. Not a good enough reason to compromise Sirius’s emotional health, they’d replied.
A week later it was sitting just inside the front airlock with a note from Chief Warren. Sirius had signed up for the Initiate examinations the next day.
“Otto, what’s on the agenda?”
Sirius’s artificial assistant uses the ceiling and wall projectors to wink into existence as a ball of undulating blue light. It makes a throat clearing noise for effect. “I believe you wanted to catch up with your relations before your Trial this afternoon.”
Sirius considers this news. Otto continues to pulse at eye level. He can’t help but look at the orb and reflect 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. But then, that’s the tradeoff for a supercomputer with a friendly disposition and physical corpus. Compromises must be made.
Otto makes that quiet rustle in the back of Sirius’s mind that it always makes when it’s about to say something and Sirius’s attention is wandering.
“Shall I put an extra serving of emotocontrol in your breakfast, Sir?” the orb asks with the voice of a prehistoric english butler offering tea.
“At least a double dose seems reasonable. Thank you, Otto.”
While the AA takes hold of various processors in the kitchen to produce a suitable breakfast, Sirius turns his attention to the incessant scratching from behind the closet door. He’s wondering what to do about it when a piercing yowl undoes whatever relief the drugs had given his head. He sighs again and, with the greatest delicacy and control, cracks open the door.
Two soulful yellow eyes burn upwards from the shadows. The beastie sticks its white snout through the crack, sniffs, then pushes the opening wider and pads across the room to begin the business of smelling every crack, corner, and piece of furniture with dogged thoroughness. Satisfied with the state of the room’s rug, the brown floppy eared thing returns to Sirius’s feet, sits, and looks up at him expectantly with those eyes.
“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. As if her son wasn’t terrified of her own quadrupedal slobber bucket. Not that he could get angry at her, who could? It was her superpower. Sirius could imagine her exact thought process, no doubt she gave it him a few days before the Trials thinking it would act as some sort of support system. Supposedly it was a retired emotional support animal. A real flesh and blood dog trained to watch over humans. But even so. Such an so old-fashioned idea would be cute if it were happening to someone else.
She’s right though, the thought of the afternoon’s ceremonies does make him nervous. Not so much the trial as what comes after. No one’s been given permission to leave the colony on an extended mission since the last terraformers were brought back two years before. Still, his argument is sound. It’s irresponsible to allow murderers to cause havoc throughout the system, to leave the planet only partially habitable and Arkus’s message of compassion so limited. In fact, it’s immoral. With the mantle of a fully-licensed Protector around his shoulders, let him go out into the system as a sort of missionary. He’ll find the Outcasts and bring them around peaceably.
Sirius stands in front of the mirror and recites the reasoning three times out loud to get the intonation just right.
A vicious ripping from below jolts him back to reality. Sitting next to his leg is the dog slowly masticating a strip of deep cognac leather with a two century patina. The big eyes stare up at him as it chews thoughtfully on what must be an eclectic mix of flavors. Its long brown tail thumping hard on the white floor. Sirius whirls away before his blood pressure can spike again and compel him to do something regrettable to the mangy sack of fur.
“I want it gone, Otto.”
“Its name is Atlas, Sir, as excitedly agreed upon by you and your mother. And it was a gift. Full trained by the Infirmary as an emotional support and rescue companion to lessen anxiety, promote companionship, and, if I may be so bold, unbearably—.”
Sirius stares at the ball of light. “Are you finished?”
“Oh and it’s —
“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 don’t want it and I won’t be around to learn how to take of it after tonight anyways. And it’s still eating Dad’s chair. Unbearably something alright. Call the animal retrieval squad, I want it gone.”
“But your mother—
Sirius opens closet and pulls out the new uniform from where it’s been hanging since a courier delivered it yesterday. The training clothes he’s 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 yet he slides it on slowly, reverentially. First the bottoms, then the top. The fabric adjusts to his body, compressing through the 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. Authoritative and friendly. Stern but approachable.
The closet is almost empty now. The courier left 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 being hid from the courier. It’s a similar cut but much darker, a grey that’s almost black. The jacket is caked with mud and patterned through with dozens of holes all singed around the edges. It’s as dirty as the day the mourners brought it back two years ago.
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 a hand could pass through it. To this day it makes Sirius 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 Blight pattered down through his clothes and into his body. It’s unhealthy to keep such a negative trigger, he knows that. His mother thinks he let them destroy it the day it arrived. He should have. If it were any other citizen, a Protector would reprimand them heavily for its possession and suggest emotional realignment to help process the feelings it represented. And yet it’s kept him going more than anything else.
It is a Protector’s responsibility to defend the happiness and safety of Arkus’s citizens from themselves and each other. When the Triumvirate colonized the planet two hundred years before, each of the three societies extended their founding principle to the rest of the people’s and clans of the system, even those from those planets where only power reigned
Citizens like Samuel Finnegan paid for that naive generosity. He and Warren lead the terraform movement to come down from the clouds and make as much of the planet’s surface habitable for other colonies as possible. They’d been two of Arkus’s best and brightest and word on the street had been that Finnegan might become the youngest Chief the city had ever known. But success draws evil like moths to a flame.
There had always been Outcast attacks but before that night they were infrequent, small skirmishes. After losing an entire nine person crew and his best friend, Warren’s tune changed completely. He convinced the Committee to invest the remainder of its terraforming budget into defenses from Kyoto Industries, fully automated by artificial intelligence to secure Arkus’s citizens without compromising their integrity.
Outcasts have no stomach for a real fight and so after a few severe retaliations, they disappeared almost overnight. Warren had been elected to the Chief Protector seat in the middle of the crisis and his leadership was so effective that when the Committee Chair opened a year later, Arkus demanded he fill both positions. Since then, he’d enacted policy after policy to make sure no citizen ever suffered like Samuel again.
Though it was no less sacrilegious to think it than to speak it aloud, it crossed Sirius’s mind all the same. Not all members of the human race deserved empathy—not the civless delinquents who plagued the wild planets, not those who rebuked all forms of order and decency, not Outcasts who killed good people for no reason other than to acquire the batteries on their equipment and the carbon in their transports.
The ceremony is only a few hours away but all he sees when he looks in the mirror is some kid playing dress up. He steps closer, staring into his own green grey eyes to try and catch a glimpse of what may be buried there. They betray nothing. Instead, the flashing arrow of an incoming message pulses across his retina.
He answers with a thought. “Good morning Chief.”
Chief Warren’s voice echoes in his ear low and cheerful, “Morning, Initiate Finnegan. How are we doing today?”
“Doing well, Sir. Little nervous, of course.”
“Of course. Well, I’d like you to swing by the school during your rounds. A few minutes before class lets out at 11:00, if you can manage it.”
The connection winks shut and Sirius turns away from the mirror. Normally a Protector would say at least a few words to assuage a negative emotion like worry. And even if he wasn’t head of them all, the Chief had been like family even before the attack. Afterwards he’d practically become a solfather. Sirius looks at his father’s jacket once more and prays for the grace to let it go, to be at peace, but the Chief’s callousness makes the misapprehension spike in Sirius’s gut.
There would be no peace today.