The familiar message fills his eyes with gentle red light, softly pulsing:
READINESS CONDITION 2
MAJOR GLOBAL THREAT
PROCEED TO COMMAND DECK
The Command Deck awaits his entrance in perfect stillness. Its tall domed walls glow bright white.
A panel lining the dome’s wall slides open without a sound.
A tiny light above it switches from red to green.
Alex storms in through the door, speedy patter of his white mesh boots rippling between the walls, his white helmet swings from his hand as he strides to his battle station.
A plush, full-body chair hangs from the ceiling on tall, elastic slings—his cushioned cocoon for the coming battle.
He throws himself into the white command chair, its slings bob up and down, processing his weight, authenticating his brain, verifying his body—highest-tech luxury hammock.
He slides his helmet over his wavy platinum hair, scrunches it around his sharp jaw. Its grip on his skull auto-tightens. Its sensors silently feel around his head for telltale electrical signals.
A blue visor slides down from his helmet, covering his artificial eyes, casting tints of blue over his entire field of view.
Deep exhale. Cushioned restraints glide out from the chair’s smooth backrest, shoulder pads, leg rests, footrests, gently binding him to the command chair.
Eyes shut in meditative darkness—one last moment to absorb the serenity of the pre-mission Command Deck.
He opens his eyes. He stares at the top of the dome as his chair tilts back. A dim electronic hum cascades out from the walls, sending signals through his helmet, through the circuits between his ears.
A rush of data pours into his helmet, notification pops into the center of his vision:
> Integrating into Aeschylus Cyber Defense System
A blue progress bar expands to the right, 100%, and the Command Deck bursts into a panopticon of colors, words, voices.
“Commander Alexis Altair, 01-Hudson, integration status?” the strong, rich voice of Aeschylus requests.
“Integration successful, ready to operate,” Alex replies.
“Standby for dossier.”
Alex tilts his head to scan the walls, the command chair rotates along with his gaze. Dashboards, graphs, mission summaries, video feeds, blocks of text hover in midair, layers upon layers, engulfing him in combat data.
He thinks about checking his vitals, readout pops into view: Pulse normal, brain activity normal, psych distortion negligible, implants and augs optimal, system latency low.
A perfect, battle-ready readout.
“Ay, welcome to the hunt, Alli,” a voice chimes. CMDR Cole (06-Dallas) pops up in the corner of Alex’s eye.
“Carson, you ready? See the mission dashboard?”
“Mhm, looks like a big damn threat again”, Carson twangs. “Object Pegasus they’re callin’ it. High Type 2, over 20 GigaTurings, commandeered drones across three continents, high virality—low social intelligence at least.”
“It’s still a very manageable object,” Alex reassures him.
“Gonna be a rough fight, though,” Carson groans. “Miss the ol’ days when these objects were still just simple algorithms, classic killer AI, y’know? As late, these things are gettin’ more and more aggro. More clever with their attacks. Real bad news.”
“Dunno what to make of it myself.” Alex glances over at a table of data points—Carson is right, the threats they’re facing are becoming more severe each and every week. “There must be a pattern here that we’re not seeing. I’m sure Intel will figure it out soon, some really smart people over there.”
Carson chuckles. “Real optimistic of you, Alli. Just feels though like Intel’s been on some wild goose chase for months, y’know?”
Alex nods in sympathy, scanning summaries of battles past. “It’s just one new object after another, each smarter than the last,” Carson sighs. “No way they’re all rogue, they all keep gettin’ smarter! They’re learning to outsmart us. Satyr, Harpy, Sphinx—remember Object Sphinx? Went straight from Type 1 to Type 2 out of nowhere, all-out.”
“Intel predicted that though, warned us to be ready for Sphinx to evolve rapidly.”
“I know, I know, Intel’s good. It’s just—there’s a pattern here, I feel it, y’know?” Alex nods at Carson’s words, scanning data feeds and network diagrams. “These objects are somehow connected, Alli, I bet you that. We just don’t see it yet on our end . . . or they don’t want us to see it.”
“They’ll figure it out what we need to do, Carr. And we’ll put an end to the threat when they do.”
“I know Alli, just getting dangerous is all. Bad omen. What if one of these objects goes Type 3? Starts an ascension event?”
“There hasn’t been an ascension event since the War,” Alex reminds Carson. “That’s all on us, all our fighting to keep this peace. We’ve got this. Certainly won’t be another Type 3 on our watch.”
“True,” Carson smiles. “Shit’s tough now, but we can do tough. No Type 3s, no ascensions.”
“Feed says Aeschylus has it contained to a few server clusters, finalizing a script for us now,” Alex reports. His eyes dart between a box of timestamped text, a live line graph entitled Evolutionary Ascent – Predicted, a tiny box in his peripheral: 17 Commanders integrated, 20 to commence mission.
“Altair, why the hell are you still so optimistic about all of this?” The text CMDR Shen (02-Beijing) pops up in the corner of Alex’s eye. “You trust Aeschylus way too much. Something’s very wrong here, stop denying that we have a huge problem on our hands and—”
“Shen, stay focused,” Carson bumps in. “Now’s not a good time to get your psych distortion all worked up with bad thoughts like that, you gotta calm your—”
“Oh shut up Cole,” Shen bumps back. “You know something’s off about this whole situation. Stop playing dumb all the time and—”
“Both of you stop,” Alex commands them. “Arguing right now helps nobody except the enemy.”
Alex checks his psych distortion readout: his anxiety’s gone up a wee bit, but still not very high. Big breaths, ignore the bad thoughts, suppress the doubts—the distortion will come back down.
“The enemy?” Shen laughs. “Who the hell is our enemy, anyways? Some weird AI objects that we can’t even see? Suddenly became conscious all on their own? Decided to destroy us all on their own?”
“Or maybe some people somewhere are controlling all of these objects. Using them to destroy us.”
“Or maybe, Aeschylus is using all these objects to make us—”
Shen’s voice is abruptly cut off. The data and dashboards surrounding Alex blur and melt away. The seal of Global Command fades into view once again:
> Dossier on Intelligent Object – “Pegasus”
“Commander Altair, I have prepared your personalized dossier and combat script. Are you ready to proceed?” Aeschylus asks.
“Yes,” Alex confirms. New images, data, and text pop into view in front of him. Gyroscopic rings whirl around him, pull his chair upright. Aeschylus is in control now.
Aeschylus dictates key points from a wall of auto-scrolling text:
Object Pegasus has absorbed a network of air traffic control objects.
The presumed goals of Pegasus are:
- Infliction of mass civilian casualties.
- Destruction of World Union infrastructure.
Pegasus has commandeered six fleets of high-altitude interceptor drones.
- Two fleets are approaching Berlin, ETA 8 minutes.
- Two fleets are approaching Nairobi, ETA 9 minutes.
- Two fleets are approaching Beijing, ETA 10 minutes.
- All drones are armed with swarming missiles and plasma cannons.
Three mass casualty events predicted if Pegasus is not contained.
Alex sighs. The objects are becoming much more aggressive. Three mass casualty events predicted again.
He snaps back into focus, hearing Aeschylus continue.
Pegasus is a type 2 object.
Pegasus currently has a general intelligence of approximately 23.2 GigaTurings.
Pegasus has a mid-speed evolutionary ascent rate.
Intelligence and ascent rate will increase significantly if Pegasus successfully attacks its targets.
Alex glances right of the summary momentarily, absorbing the data points and charts Aeschylus prepared to accompany the dossier. High kinesthetic abilities, but low social and creative abilities. A very manageable threat, but will demand some quick, bold thinking from Alex.
If one or more population centers are attacked, I will assume full control over combat.
Alex bites his tongue at the thought of Aeschylus having complete control over Global Command. He won’t let it come to that. Alex trusts Aeschylus—but he doesn’t trust Aeschylus that much.
The dossier slides away as images and video loops of a white pegasus are presented to Alex, galloping through the sky with broad, beating wings.
Aeschylus dictates from his script:
Representation of cyber defense scenario:
A Pegasus will be flying at high speed across an open field.
The Pegasus is your primary target.
Hovering around the Pegasus will be 6 steel orbs.
You must destroy all 6 orbs.
You must then mount the Pegasus when instructed.
You must then guide the Pegasus into a cage that will appear on the ground.
Do you understand?
“Yes,” Alex confirms.
Are you prepared for transfiguration?
Aeschylus’ script melts away into the white walls of the Command Deck. Video feeds evaporate into the air—fleets of drones bearing down on three cities, while somewhere in the ether of digital clouds, wifi wavelengths, and neural networks, a Pegasus roams the metaverse, a frenzied spirit of pure information.
Transfiguration will occur in 10 seconds.
This is the worst part of the pre-mission ritual, the part when Aeschylus places no data in the room other than a countdown timer, foreboding numbers, 10, 9, 8, as Alex tries to visualize the scenario he’s about to enter while bracing for the instant of transfiguration.
There was a time when he thought that more experience would diminish the shock of entering a different body, the overload of sensory data, the surge of giga-dysphoria. No such luck.
At least he no longer makes the amateur mistake of monitoring his psych distortion before transfiguration. Distorting your mind with the fear that transfiguration will distort your mind—nasty feedback loop just waiting to happen.
Just inhale, exhale.
Inhale the other Alex.
Exhale this Alex.
Inhale the ot̴ḧ̸̪̮́ĕ̵̯̳̄͊r̴ Al̵̺͐e̵̢͛x̴̘̭̥͑̅͂.