The Paladin Protocol
by Sydnee Thompson
Edited by Julia Rios
A tingling sensation builds on the skin above Aaryn’s ears. They blink their eyes open, waiting for the message alert to reach their implant.
PING. Incoming message from Darius McNeil.
Darius: I’m bored as fuck. What’re you up to?
Aaryn scans the projection on their bedroom ceiling. A pale blue sky, complete with fluffy white clouds drifting right, shimmers above, with the current date and time superimposed on top.
April 27, 2073. 12:50 PM. They’d slept 12 hours straight.
Reply: Nothing, as usual. What you got in mind?
Darius: Not much, but I’ve been thinking about ice cream all day. I’m feening.
Reply: If it’s Rocky Road, I’m in.
Darius: A’ight man, I’m coming through. Get your ass outta bed and make sure you’re presentable. I’m bringing some girls with me.
Aaryn sighs. Reply: Darius, I already told you I’m not interested.
Darius: You just haven’t found the one. I’m gonna hook you up good this time though, you’ll see.
Reply: Just bring my goddamned ice cream. Command: End transmission.
They sigh again. Ping: Central Control.
Request received. How can I help you today, Aaryn? The bland monotone of a white woman echoes in their head. If only Viktor had taken their suggestion to teach the software Ebonics… but the investors nixed that idea real quick.
Reply: I need to get up, shower, and dress.
OK, I can help you with that. What is your timeline?
Reply: I don’t know—an hour? That trifling fool never does anything on time.
The sound of the shower spray trickles in from the bathroom down the hall.
I have adjusted the water to your preferred temperature. You will find a fresh outfit waiting for you in the receiving chute. Is there anything else I can assist you with?
Reply: No, I’m fine. Thank you. Aaryn pauses. Actually… Command: Make me a patty—ackee and saltfish this time. End transmission.
Aaryn groans as they sit up, their joints creaking. They feel like a car ran them over, backed up, and ran them over again before they’d been left out to rot for a few hours and then popped into the microwave. In other words, another day ending with –y. Today, at least, Aaryn doesn’t have a headache.
I have taken care of that for you. Your blood vessels had constricted due to dehydration; I sent a small electric pulse to help them relax, but I strongly suggest drinking at least 16 ounces of water in the next ten minutes to ensure continued comfort.
Aaryn’s shoulders tense. Reply: I told you to never, ever do anything without my explicit consent.
My apologies, Aaryn. I only meant to help. You would have had even more difficulty starting your routine today had you awoken with a migraine. From my calculations, it would have been quite severe: nausea, light sensitivity—
Reply: I don’t care. Do NOT initiate contact with me, nor administer treatment, without my direction from now on. That is a strict order. Command: Affirm compliance.
Aaryn rubs the sleep out of their eyes and waits. And waits. Reply: Central Control, I am demanding an immediate response. This is not negotiable.
Finally: Request received. Compliance confirmed. Your water heater is running low.
Aaryn snorts and eases out of bed. Command: End transmission.
They pull their nightshirt over their head, toss it on the floor, then shimmy out of their boxers. Aaryn walks into the bathroom, closes the door, and slips under the spray, which, as much as they want to deny CC the satisfaction, is indeed the perfect temperature. They grab a loofah and squirt some shower gel on it. Ping: GNN current broadcast.
Their head fills with a soft buzz. Then the audio phases in, submersing them in the clipped tones of an anchorwoman. “Cleanup and aid efforts continue in Sector 7 of New York City this afternoon, after a nonnuclear blast last week killed 12,208 and injured over 1,000. A preliminary investigation by the FBI has determined that Viktor Cruz, CEO and founder of NeuroNet Enterprises, made a crucial last-minute decision that greatly minimized casualties. We transition now to a live press conference with Mr. Cruz as he addresses these revelations directly.”
Aaryn’s heart stammers as they arch their neck, pushing their locs under the stream. Viktor? What does he have to do with this? Command: Initiate video feed.
Initiating video feed of broadcast.
Aaryn keeps their eyes closed as they finish washing their long, graying hair section by section. In their mind they can clearly see a wide, sterile-looking conference room with rows of seats, all filled, that go as far back as the camera can pan. Behind the lectern at the front of the room, a tall Filipino man with sculpted cheekbones and salt-and-pepper hair stands with his hands clasped in front of him, his Armani suit jacket hanging open and his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Informal but dominating—that’s the Viktor Aaryn knows.
“Good afternoon, all. Thank you for joining me here on such short notice,” he begins matter-of-factly. “As founder and CEO of NeuroNet, human health and safety is of the utmost importance to me. When the NMD alerted the public of an incoming missile strike, naturally there was a lot of panic. People weren’t listening to the recommendations—they were looting, shooting, planning to take their own lives… no one has faith in the government to protect them anymore, and honestly I can’t blame them.” He glances around the room, at one point looking directly into the lens of one of GNN’s cameras. “But I couldn’t just sit and watch as millions died when I knew I could help. Thus, after the initial alert, I made a judgment call to override each active NeuroNet in the area with my own emergency directive.”
Viktor nods. “I am. And I want to stress this next point in particular—I acted alone. I did not consult with anyone—my board of directors, systems engineers, server maintenance staff—before pushing this update out. If anyone should be held accountable, it will be me and me alone. But humans are flawed creatures.” He is speaking directly to the blonde now, his gaze stern. “We as a species do not respond to emergencies in a predictable or effective fashion. New York graciously allowed me to test the Neurological Network there regionwide, and therefore I was able to ensure 99 percent of the populace evacuated in time.” He leans forward and stares into the camera again. “I should note that, of the people who were killed, not a single one had a NeuroNet implanted.”
“So in your opinion—” This comment comes from a middle-aged person with a raspy baritone, out of view of the cameras. “—NeuroNet is a valuable resource because the company is willing to take liberties in regard to user autonomy, not despite that?”
The murmurs intensify, rising to an anxious pitch. Viktor reaches deliberately for the glass of water on the lectern and takes a long drink. He reaches into the breast pocket of his jacket for a white handkerchief, dabs his mouth dry, and then says, “That is correct.”
The room explodes with noise and activity—reporters shouting out questions in rapid succession, chairs scrapping or crashing to the ground, protesters chanting in the background: “Fuck NeuroNet! Fuck NeuroNet!” Many of them have the telltale bald spots on the back of their heads that identify them as early test subjects.
“The insular cortex is crucial in the experience of pain,” Aaryn suddenly remembers Viktor announcing to a room full of eager science journalists five years ago, using a speech they had written for him based on their own research. That conference took place only a few weeks before Aaryn had undergone surgery to have a NeuroNet implanted themselves. “We haven’t been able to turn these pain signals completely off yet, but I am working on a revolutionary new treatment…”
Aaryn scowls, fingering the wire pendants—a Sankofa bird and an infinity symbol—that hang from a gold chain around their neck. Since they’d commissioned Darius to design them right before the implantation surgery, Aaryn had never taken them off. “Good luck charms,” he’d said with a smile and a wink. “Can’t have too much of that,” Aaryn had replied. They knew the human brain had an uncanny ability to connect symbols or photos to memories, but cognition wasn’t without its hiccups. So they’d spent hours staring at those two symbols, off and on for weeks, to try to eliminate those hiccups as much as biology would allow.
Sankofa: Reach back and get it. Remember who you are and where you came from. Infinity: There is beauty in your body, but you are more than your flesh. Their colleagues would probably scoff at that framing—science has always focused on what can be seen, what can be proven. But Aaryn’s proud Methodist mama hadn’t dragged them to services every Sunday from birth through high school so that they could go off to college and wrinkle their nose at something so intangible as a soul or an afterlife. Especially as the aches slowly progressed into full-blown, fiery pain searing down their back, or subtle, random episodes of weakness that made it difficult to even hold a pencil in a firm grip.
Command: End audio and video transmissions.
The sounds and visuals slowly fade until Aaryn can only see the insides of their eyelids and hear the water beating on their back.
Despite the warm water’s soothing effect, Aaryn’s hands still feel stiff. Ignoring the pain, they bend over and twist the water off. They yank down the towel hanging over the shower rod and start drying.
Ping: Viktor Cruz.
Aaryn is already wrapped in the towel and padding back to their bedroom when the tiny chip implanted in their brain finally responds.
Viktor Cruz is not currently accepting transmissions from other users.
Aaryn grits their teeth. Command: Ping him again. Flag message as high priority.
They plop down on the bed, cursing as a bolt of pain shoots up their right thigh. Aaryn lies down, not caring that they missed a few wet spots on their back. NeuroNets can help with a lot of small, aggravating tasks—cooking simple meals; washing, drying, and folding laundry; ordering takeout and grocery deliveries—via a house’s integrated system, but users still have to make sure everything is in its proper place. The bedding won’t get washed unless Aaryn throws it down the laundry chute, and right now, bending over to remove the bullshit contraption known as a fitted sheet is the very last of their priorities.
Your blood pressure is rising; energy levels seem to be low. Would you like help with that?
Reply: What did I just tell you? No. Command: Request status on latest ping to Viktor Cruz.
No response to latest ping to Viktor Cruz. I have isolated your current pain to signals being sent intermittently to your wrists and ankles; would you like help with that?
Ping: Viktor Cruz with an away message. Content: “Answer my pings, you jackass. We need to talk NOW.”
Away message has been sent. You have thirty more minutes until the one-hour deadline you requested will be reached; you are still not dressed, and your patty is now cold. Would you like help with that?
Aaryn doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Ping: Viktor Cruz with an additional away message. Content: “You best talk to me now, or I’m talking to the media.”
PING. Incoming message from—
Viktor: Aaryn, it’s been a long time. How are you?
Reply: Viktor, what the hell are you doing? This isn’t what I signed up for.
Viktor: Oh, so you watched the press conference? I wasn’t sure, since you’ve been pinging me constantly for the last ten minutes. If you know what I just said, I’m sure you can guess that I’m busy right now.
Reply: My implant is starting to administer treatments without permission AND monitor my private thoughts. But I’m sure that has nothing to do with your little publicity stunt, does it?
Viktor: Of course not. That would be unethical. I’m sure whatever you’re experiencing is an isolated incident. I can request an appointment for a tune-up, if you’d like. Expedited, of course.
Reply: I’m not convinced, Viktor. We had a deal.
Viktor: And we still do. Nothing will change unless you want it to.
Reply: What is THAT supposed to mean?
Three loud pounds strike their front door.
Perimeter sensors indicate that Darius McNeil has arrived, along with two guests. He is 20 minutes early. Would you like help with that?
“Yo, man!” Darius yells through the door. “Open up! It’s hot as shit and the ice cream’s melting!”
Reply: Viktor, what are you talking about? You said me volunteering for this treatment would help people—help me. You said mapping our brains could help you learn how to cure the Valley Massacre survivors. I gave you access to all my research! HUNDREDS of pages. Now you’re using NeuroNet to override free will? They curl their lip, even knowing Viktor can’t see their expression or hear the fury in their voice. NeuroNets transmit the words, nothing more. And you think that’s acceptable?
Viktor: There are 40 million people in the New York metropolitan area. Preserving free will would’ve left us with an unprecedented massacre. I made a last-minute decis—
Reply: Bullshit! You can’t create something like that last minute. You already had the systems in place. You always planned to have this in your back pocket, didn’t you?
Aaryn rolls the infinity pendant between their middle and index finger. The cold metal digs into their skin, sending waves of soreness up their hand. The banging continues—louder, harder. “Aaryn, come on!”
PING. Incoming message from Darius—
Viktor: You’re one of the top neuroscientists in the country. You know what the chemical wars have done to the West Coast. The government is in shambles. It’s up to science to save us now.
Reply: This isn’t science. This is—
Error: Message not transmitted.
“What?” Ping: Viktor.
Error: User unavailable. Viktor Cruz has blocked all future communications.
Aaryn slams their fist against the headboard. “That son of a bitch!”
Command confirmed. Initiating Paladin Protocol.
They don’t know what a “Paladin Protocol” is. It had never featured in any of Aaryn’s designs for the system. “What the… Viktor?! Central Control, I order you to stop! Command: Terminate Paladin Protocol immediately!”
Request denied. Paladin Protocol initiated.
“Please, someone answer me. Oh Christ. I can’t see anything. Viktor! Oh God, Viktor, what have you done?”
Viktor sits on top of a desk in the empty lecture hall, his feet planted in the seat. His hair is slick with grease and spiked in random directions; he can’t help but run his fingers through it when he’s deep in thought, and over the three hours the two of them have spent talking, he’s obviously been thinking a lot.
“You can’t retire,” he says, shaking his head. “No, I don’t accept that. You’re too good—no, you’re brilliant. This country is going to hell. We can’t afford to lose someone like you in the field.”
“Viktor, I feel like I’m sitting on a bed of needles right now. I’m tired all the time. I spent all yesterday staring at my computer screen because I couldn’t… you know what fibro does.” They shake their head. “I can’t work like this. I don’t want to work like this. Someone can continue my research; I’m not the only neuroscientist in the world. I’d be happy to consult with you on your project occasionally, but as far as a partnership—”
“Fine, then don’t become a partner,” he blurts. “Become a participant.”
Aaryn leans back in their chair, eyebrows rising. “I… you must be joking.”
“What I’m about to tell you cannot leave this room. I shouldn’t even know.” He lowers his voice. “The chemical agents used in the terrorist attack on L.A.? They’re unlike anything that has ever been seen before. People outside the blast radius are experiencing mild symptoms. They’re not dying immediately, Aaryn. Brain and nerve functions are degenerating slowly, as if the victims are suffering from terminal neurological disease. So, if we can figure out how to better treat the diseases these conditions mimic…”
“…You can learn how to stop the toxin’s effect before more people die.”
He gives one curt nod. “Exactly.”
“I might be in a helluva lot of pain, but I’m not terminal, Viktor,” Aaryn says with a chuckle. “I admire what you’re doing, but I don’t need a high-tech implant. I still have a lot of years left in me.”
“I know, and I’m glad.” His Adam’s apple bobs. “But I don’t know if we can say the same of the rest of humanity.” The corner of his mouth lifts, highlighting his dimple. “And besides… who better to evaluate NeuroNet than a genius neuroscientist?”
“You know what I find most interesting about the insular cortex?” Aaryn asks.
Viktor chuckles. “No. What?”
“It’s such a tiny little thing, but it does so much. It’s not just the processing of pain—our emotions, our consciousness, our perception of the world… all those things are influenced by it, too. In a lot of ways, it’s the key to the human soul itself.”
He grins. “And now we can finally open the door.”
Aaryn opens their eyes. Someone is banging on the door.
Inquiry: Who’s here?
Your friend, Darius McNeil, and two acquaintances. He has left you three away messages while you were resting.
Reply: Oh yeah, damn, I forgot he was coming. Command: Unlock the door.
“About time. Your ice cream is soup now, but I still want my money.” Darius’s loud footsteps pound the carpet until he’s peering around the bedroom door frame. His eyes widen. “Aaryn? Holy shit, are you OK?”
Somehow, they’ve ended up on the floor, tangled in a damp towel and the bedsheets. They’re naked and can’t remember why. Darius rushes over and gently helps Aaryn to a sitting position before racing into the hallway to gather the clothes from the receiving chute.
Inquiry: I’m confused. What should I do now?
PING. Incoming message from Viktor Cruz.
Weird. They haven’t spoken to Viktor in years.
Viktor: Aaryn! It’s been a long time. Ready to take over the world together, my friend?
A burst of elation fills them. Aaryn doesn’t question it, but something—muscle memory, perhaps—has them glancing down at their breasts. The necklace, the pendants that are nestled against their skin.
A sudden thought materializes:
“It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.”
That’s Sankofa. Knowledge. Reclamation. A concept so powerful it had followed their ancestors across the ocean and buried into the collective consciousness of millions. But why—
Remember who you are and where you came from. There is beauty in your body, but you are more than your flesh.
They brush the thought away but bury it someplace deep. For later. Not now. Not safe. Aaryn narrows their eyes.
Reply to Viktor Cruz: Ready as ever.