SHIELD: THE PAST
Shield swam in tight circles, finding time to dwell on his actions.
He had drawn guard duty. The theater of fools. Usually he had arranged for someone else to do it for him. In the last three years as a Shield, he had amassed favors. He peddled these favors, trading two or three small ones for a larger one. A few of those larger favors, and they bought him a respite from boring guard duty.
He was quite resourceful, and he knew he’d have to do minimal guard duty in the remaining two years he had left on his apprenticeship. Or so he thought.
Shield was summoned to the Don’s chamber. He traversed the corridor calmly, thinking of how he would spend his extra free time. The favor he cashed in to avoid guard duty was a tough sell. The other Shield tried excuse after excuse to wiggle out of his obligation, but a deal was a deal. He had mentally made a note to devalue this particular Shield’s favor in the future.
As he drifted into the Don’s chamber, he was shocked to see his favor floating in front of the Don. He should be on duty, he thought, my duty.
Don of the Shield only glared as Shield floated beside the favor.
After a few terse moments of staring, the Don finally spoke: “Why do you perform guard duty?”
“To protect the city and my people,” Shield responded.
The Don leaned forward. “How can you protect your people if they don’t trust you?”
Shield ran a hand along one of the scars on his face. “They trust me,” he insisted, nervous.
“They do not!” the Don bellowed. “They see you as arrogant.” The Don floated nose to nose with Shield. “They see a malingerer, shucking his duties.”
Shield stood, his back rigid, his shoulders squared. He worked his jaw, but said nothing – a lump in his throat.
“You will perform you guard duty, and I’m moving you to protect the Light of Joy.”
“Don?” Shield, puzzled. Crystal duty was for amateurs. At least on guard duty, he would get the occasional interloper. But crystal duty?
“I have commanded it, it will be done.”
Shield cast a sneer to his favor and swam quickly out of the Don’s chambers and into the corridor. He raced to the armory to retrieve his spear, and swam to the great arch to relieve the sentry already there.
* * *
Damn this is stupid.
Each time Shield completed a lap, he thrust his spear into a crack on the great arch.
One hundred times.
Five hundred times.
After a thousand times, his thrusts grew savage.
After two thousand times, he felt each circuit an insult.
After three thousand times, he was less than a third of the way through his duty.
When he completed his four thousandth circuit, he started ignoring the Light of Joy. Just do the circles and go home, he told himself.
The intensity of his anger and the savagery of his thrusts grew as he circled closer to five thousand. Had he not been so engrossed in his own self-pity he might have noticed the Light of Joy calling out to him. Had he not been so focused on performing the routine instead of doing his job, he might have seen the stone fragments dislodge with each angry impact. Had he viewed his role in the great society as the privilege that it was, and not some burden he had to bear, it wouldn’t have happened only ten revolutions from five thousand. Ten circles from the midway point of his duty – a duty he vowed to perform.
The top of the arch collapsed, raining stone fragments. A large piece broke off and started falling towards the Light of Joy. Shield froze imperceptibly as he processed what was happening. If the stone smashed the crystal two years before the replacement was ready…
Shield dropped his spear and rushed to the arch piece falling. He gripped the ancient stone and kicked with all his might. He spread his webbed toes to create more surface tension, but it wasn’t enough. No one expected the monolithic arch to fail. The many rings of guards would’ve dealt with any external threat. No one would even consider molesting the crystal that kept them alive. No one had considered the actions of a single pissed-off Shield. The Shields were there to protect the city.
Shield strained against a losing battle. He shouted for help, but onlookers couldn’t understand what they saw. Shield had never failed an assignment. But this assignment would end in failure of such epic proportions.
The arch stone pinned him against the crystal, threatening to crush him. He wriggled his shoulders back and forth.
Shield recognized the Don’s voice.
“We have to work together to-“
Shield’s gyrations had worked him slowly out and the stone impacted with the crystal, showering onlookers with razor-sharp shards and bits of stone. As the stone fell, it ricocheted off the crystal tearing out a large gash.
Shield felt it. It lasted only a heartbeat. The constant ebb and flow was interrupted and he felt nothing. He stared into the crystal and the young girl’s eyes opened.
It’s not possible!
The Light of Joy resumed her light and warmth, but instead of serene sleep, her face was frozen in a contorted scream. Thousands of years of serene sleep, nullified by a mask or sheer terror.
“What have you done?”
Shield looked down at the still-falling arch stone. It struck a massive pillar and it began to fall, shedding its own deadly debris. Shield watched in horror as the pillar rolled along the floor of the great arch, crushing the innocents he had vowed to protect. The resulting cloud of debris obscured his view, but not the shrieks and screams of his people. Each cry of pain was a knife stabbing his heart.
What have I done?
Shield looked into the Don’s eyes.
Shield turned and swam away from the carnage as fast as his body allowed.