His mind rushes through his helmet, out of his control and upward into ethereal cyberspace, perceptions shattered, utter derealization, his body shackled in the world below.
Everything flashing, flashes of people, running, hugging, crying, thousands of drones flying, networks reconnecting, anti-aircraft cannons taking aim, clear blue sky, the attack satellites scowling down at it, Hudson Bay twinkling near the point where his mind dissolves into data, smells turning to colors, supercomputers whirring, atoms spinning, electricity pulsing, hooves stampeding, wings pounding thunderbolts down on town squares, cities dreading, panes of glass, hall of mirrors breaking, summers with Carson and Soren, screaming sunlight in the palace garden, the bombings, the Flu, the Event, the funerals, blue and red rings coming together, interlocking, beeping twice.
It’s over. The upward rush stops. “Don’t analyze it,” his instinct tells him, flushing the randomly accessed memories from his head.
Just accept it and keep moving.
Perceptions return. Alex stands in his refined war body, stronger, leaner, nimbler, much taller. White form-fitting armor covers him, glistening in virtual sunlight. Wings jut out from his arms, his legs, his helmet, his bold blue visor rendering the metaverse before his eyes.
“Calibration. Fly,” Aeschylus requests.
Alex thinks of leaping into the sky and his virtual body rushes upward, soaring above the wind-swept plains far below. A big blue checkmark fades in and out of his view.
His helmet’s pointed white wings break the air in front of him, nosediving faster, closer and closer to the ground until he tilts back toward the earth, rumbling the fields as he touches down. Checkmark.
He grips the air with his right hand, imagines the form and feel of a spear. Flecks of geometric light explode into his grip, a solid long pole with a glittering white tip. Checkmark.
He grips the air with his other hand, imagines a shield resting against it. A tall shield materializes out of wireframes and light, its prismatic face diffracting and reflecting every color of the sun in a brilliant rainbow. Checkmark.
A blinking red exclamation mark draws his attention to his left peripheral! He twirls the shield to block a ball of light hurdling toward him from across the field, smashes it into tiny flakes of brilliant dust. Checkmark.
Becoming a good marionette is the hardest technique to master. Alex relaxes every muscle in his body, empties his mind and feels Aeschylus enter, foreign data coursing through his nervous system. Aeschylus moves Alex through a full range of motions as the depths of Alex await Aeschylus’ command.
A red light in the center of Alex’s vision blinks and bleeps, prompting him back into consciousness.
“RESPOND,” Aeschylus commands.
He extends the shield straight ahead, blocks another ball of light. As the ball smashes into grains of light, a soft blue light gently hums, lulling Alex back into mindlessness. Checkmark.
“Calibration successful. Mission commencing.”
Alex feels the spirit of Aeschylus exit him as he re-enters himself, fully aware and alert, awaiting further commands.
Crosshairs labelled PRIMARY TARGET, 155km appear where the field meets the azure horizon, far off in the distance. The enemy’s health bar pops up in the corner of his eye:
He pulls his vitals up for a quick check: heart rate and brain waves good, psych distortion a little above normal, nothing too dangerous for now, just something to be mindful of.
He leaps off the ground, and in an instant, he’s soaring through the sky, encased in a hypersonic boom, chasing the Pegasus beyond the horizon.
PRIMARY TARGET, 150km
PRIMARY TARGET, 122km
PRIMARY TARGET, 97km
ENTERING EFFECTIVE COMBAT RANGE
He flies along a white line stretching across the horizon, effective combat range entered, offensive options enabled, remaining time until the Pegasus strikes its target pops up in the air:
He sees it far off, magnifies it: the winged stallion, clad in white steel, six chrome orbs circling around its body, stampeding through the skies above the heavenly plains, mighty gales howling in the wake of its charging hooves, its electric mane crackling with lightning and fury. Formidable creature, but tamable.
Aeschylus summons a long, slender spear into Alex’s hand, draws his arm back and launches it toward the mighty beast.
The spear sails through the blue sky, tip blazing in the bright sun, whizzing past one of the orbs circling the Pegasus.
Alex flies onward, autopiloted by Aeschylus, closing range to 20km, another spear popping into his hand, tearing through the sky toward the Pegasus, skimming a tiny chunk of metal off one of the orbs. A near hit.
The orbs spin around the Pegasus faster, faster, faster, a revolving chromium whorl, all the signs of an impending attack, but Alex stays relaxed, intuitions attuned to the rhythm of the battle, Aeschylus adjusting his flightpath ever so slightly the very instant before a speeding thunderbolt erupts from one of the orbs.
A mirror-faced shield pops into his grasp as another bolt races toward him.
The bolt thunders into the shield, bursts with reflective light as it bounces back out toward its source, blasts its way through the steel orb that fired it. The orb explodes into a million motes of dust, text quickly pops in and out of view:
ORB DESTROYED! 1/6
Only 3km out from the Pegasus now, a strong tailwind pours from the creature’s hooves as it stomps through the air, blowing Alex off his flight path.
Red light blinks: “RESPOND,” Aeschylus commands, as three potential flight paths appear for Alex to choose from. Instinct tells him that the righthand path will be the quickest way to get back on course. He thinks of moving right, blue light hums, relaxes his mind back into automation as Aeschylus resumes control over his body, banking him to the right.
He jets forward, Aeschylus puppeteering his body to dodge bolt after bolt, human-machine symbiote closing range with the Pegasus, 2km, 1km, 600 meters, its mammoth wings beating, spear appearing in Alex’s hand, he hurls it toward another orb, skewers it, shatters it to dust.
ORB DESTROYED! 2/6
Alex stays couched behind the Pegasus, red light blinks “RESPOND” as tidal waves of lightning crash out of the beast’s mane toward Alex.
Intuition kicks in, incoming electric attack, too wide to dodge, primal brain says block, hand springs forward faster than lightning, electric waves crash into the shield, reflect away from him with pounding force, evaporate into thin air.
Blue light hums, Alex gives himself back to Aeschylus, his body perfectly automated, senses a moment of vulnerability in the Pegasus. Aeschylus creates a colossal spear in his right hand, pulls his arm back and flings it toward the Pegasus, skewers a whirling orb along its tip, blows it away into steel dust.
ORB DESTROYED! 3/6
The Pegasus whinnies with fright, unleashes another tailwind, blows Alex astray and fills the windy skies with speeding shards of glass.
Red light blinks, “RESPOND.”
Glass shrapnel incoming, don’t think about why the Pegasus can now attack with glass, no time, just act. Both hands extend ahead as his body accelerates forward, pulsing rings of protective light burst from his fingertips, oncoming glass grinding into dust, his body a missile wrapped in a jet stream of debris, accelerating ahead.
The tailwind subsides, Aeschylus presents Alex with two attack vectors to choose from: One curved arrow cruising along the right of the Pegasus and another arrow cruising along the left.
“No.” Alex doesn’t know how his warrior instinct knows both paths to be bad choices, but tens of thousands of hours of training simulations tell the reptilian belly of his brain to trust itself.
“Full manual,” he commands Aeschylus, red warning popping up as Aeschylus relinquishes control over Alex’s body:
HIGH RISK SITUATION
RESUMING SEMI-AUTO MODE ADVISED
Alex ignores the warning, sees exactly what he must do, lunges toward the galloping Pegasus at top speed, weaving through lightning bolts as he closes in, 400m, 100m, PROXIMITY ALERT, 50m.
A gleaming white longsword appears in his grip, and now, at this close range, dormant Aeschylus in the background realizes the bold brilliance of Alex’s gambit.
“Semi-auto,” Alex commands. The blue light hums. Aeschylus re-enters his body, guides him through rapid dives and slashes, slices apart the fourth orb, plunges his blade into the fifth, shatters the sixth into plumes of metallic dust.
ORBS DESTROYED! 6/6
The Pegasus stampedes off into the distance, harsh winds flooding out from its long mane. Alex takes a deep breath and regains focus, ETA revised as the howling horse hastens toward its target:
“Don’t analyze it,” Alex commands himself, “accept it and keep moving.”
He flies off after the Pegasus. A column of light marks the town targeted for attack by the Pegasus just over the horizon. Dark clouds descend, casting an all-consuming shade over the great plains of the ether. A monstrous, miles-wide funnel cloud forms around the Pegasus, spewing shrapnel all around, but Alex chases on, unperturbed, ready to breach the wall of the whirlwind.
The whirlwind thickens into a screaming black vortex, serrated chunks of glass and steel whip through the sky, one carves through his armor to lodge in his arm, but he knows the pain is only a figment of virtual reality, a forgery of primal threat signals.
White nectar gushes from his wound, replenishing his flesh and armor in an instant as he clenches his teeth and speeds into the wailing wall of the tornado.
The whirling winds spin faster, crackling with stormy violence as roaring thunder and blazing lightning suddenly fill the air, engulfing Alex in electric fire, agony snaking through his body, buzzing into every nerve.
“RESPOND,” a surprised Aeschylus requests as Alex feels the full brunt of the shock, pain surging through him. He clears his head, focuses on his goal, soars ahead at full speed, breaching into the calm eye of the storm, the Pegasus in a shroud of black mist at its center.
He jets toward the Pegasus, Capture Primary Target reminder popping up over the creature’s head, spear appearing in his hand, thrusts the spear through the sky, skewering the beast’s left wing, piercing through its white armor and tender flesh, lodging deep in its side.
Black clouds pour from the wound, enemy health bar in the corner of his eye drops:
Thunderous neighing pours from the furious stallion as it stampedes toward its target at full speed, fixated on the city’s destruction.
Deft Aeschylus maneuvers Alex through careful twists and thrusts as a stream of lightning rains out of the beast’s electric mane, but Alex closes the distance between them and soars above the beast’s back. A brilliant white harness appears around its chest, conjured up by Aeschylus, its reins hovering upward toward Alex’s able grasp as he mounts the Pegasus, reaches out to grab hold.
Red light blinks, “RESPOND,” Alex’s spine fills with a paralyzing shock. The Pegasus erupts with thunder and lightning in every direction, focus evaporates, the reins fall out of his reach, pain conquers his body for all but a moment as he regains focus, only to find Aeschylus prompting him again:
“RESPOND,” as a barrage of long glass spikes are whisked out of the electric whirlwind surrounding him.
“Raise arm to block,” he tells himself, but the paralyzing shock proves too much to overcome, his arm frozen at his side as the barrage of glass closes in.
“RESPOND,” a second barrage of glass hurls toward him, a desperate situation, intuition kicks in, knows he’ll need extra brainpower to get out of this alive. He commands Aeschylus through clenched teeth:
Unseen hues pop into sight, perceptions sharpen, reflexes quicken, one second turning to ten, breaths shorten and deepen, his overclocked brain teeming with data, his neurons abuzz at 120% processing power, implants ablaze with computation, human survival instincts commanding his body with superhuman haste. His renewed mind disperses his pain and his doubt as he flings a shield forward, smashing the long daggers of glass to dust as they speed toward him.
“RESPOND,” a blinking red exclamation mark pulls his attention to the left, where another wave of glass is hurdling toward him. Too late to block, he weaves his body through the wave, dodges one long glass dagger at a time, computes each and every one of their trajectories as they saunter along in slow motion, tiny shards lodging in his armor as he finally grips the creature’s back.
He speedreads key data feeds in the corner: Psych distortion going up, he needs to keep calm, collected to bring it down. Breathe in, breathe out, half-second breaths that feel like peaceful eternity, the electrocution is a cruel illusion that will end very soon.
He arches his back forward and holds out his hands as Aeschylus builds a new harness around the Pegasus, polygons of light quickly meshing together, reins materializing around the creature’s neck, hovering up toward the mounted Alex.
He tugs on the reins with all his might, startling the raging Pegasus, forcing it into a hard right turn and pulls hard on the reins, tugging at the beast with legendary strength, his mind softening now, his thoughts loosening as he forces the Pegasus into a deep dive toward the plains, glowing with beautiful, vibrant shades of green that he has never seen before, hypnotic figments of cyberspace that she could never lay eyes upon in her w̷a̶k̵i̶n̴g̷ ̷l̸i̴f̷e̸,̴ ̵o̵n̵l̶y̸ ̶i̶n̴ ̸t̵h̸e̵s̴e̵ ̸l̴u̴c̷i̵d̵ ̶d̵r̷e̶a̶m̸s̵ ̸o̵n̸ ̶t̴h̶e̴ ̶C̸o̵m̷m̵a̶n̴d̸ ̵D̵e̶c̶k̴,̵ ̴m̵o̸m̴e̶n̶t̴s̴ ̸o̷f̷ ̴h̵y̴p̴e̴r̵s̴l̵e̶e̵p̶ ̶w̵h̸e̶r̸e̶ ̷a̷n̷y̷t̸h̵i̷n̴g̶ ̷y̸o̷u̴ ̵c̶a̵n̵ ̶t̸h̴i̴n̴k̷ ̵o̴f̸ ̸i̸s̶ ̶p̴o̶s̵s̶i̸b̷l̶e̴ ̷a̸̛͙̤̾͜n̵̺̞̊̍̀͝d̵̻̙̂͜͝ ̵͓̲̤̎t̵͚̫̀̄͑̄h̴̢̦̩͍̽ḛ̴̖̅ ̴̠͚̄̍͘i̷̢̺̠͑͌̐n̷͍͒̐́͠v̴̙̪̹̫̉̚i̴̠̭̊͠t̴̹̺̊͗̂i̷̯͇͖̤͌̋n̸̥̅̉̈́ǵ̶̪̺̫͊̍ ̷̦̈́̃͜c̷̨̘̆͊͠o̵͔̍̕m̵̰̱̈m̶̢͇̪̼͊̈͊a̸̝̫̮͎͐ń̸̞̜d̴̩̪̭̒͐̚͜͝ ̸̺͋̄̚c̸̗̯̈́̐̃͜ḥ̴̟͔͍͗a̵̫͂̍͝ḭ̵͙̌r̶͕̭̫̙̕ ̸͇̰̎̎͋s̶̹̠͇̋̐̂ͅẽ̸̩͕͇a̶̭͐̉͝m̵͙͔̩̮͌̅l̴̦͓̪̝̋̀̇͂ẹ̴͌ṣ̸̫̅́s̸̗͔͒̋̈́l̶͈̈̀̊ỷ̶͍̮ ̸̘͓̅̇̐ċ̶̮̬̘̌r̷̩͎̐̊́a̵͍͌͘ḑ̸̨̠͠l̸̼͐͌͠e̴̠͚̬̗͒̓ş̵̪̥̃ ̶̱̆͑̈́͝y̴̮̘̠̚ỏ̴̞͈̗͓̌̈͝u̶̺̠̫͑ͅŕ̵̨͔̳ ̴̗̲͎̫͋́̋ú̷̟̟̯̣p̵̲̈̄ş̴̼̳͖̓̐i̸͖̽̄̽͘d̷͕̉e̸͚̳͖͒̇̑-̴̙̻͝ď̵̮͉o̴͕͍͐͑̿̔w̴̧̟̟̯̕̚͝n̵̤͎̰̺̾̑͝ ̷̭͕̮͚͆͝b̴̧̠͇̀̂̽ǫ̷̳͙̃͂̆ͅď̷̥̀̀̍y̸͛̑̌ͅ ̶͍̱͊̉̆a̶̢͎͚̍ș̵̂̆ ̵̢̟͂͠ỹ̶̟̇ò̸̦̋ū̶̮̼̩̰̀̈́̕r̵̘͊͑ ̴̠̮͉̎̕m̷̯̥̐ỉ̶̢̘̻̋́ͅn̶͎͊̎̚d̵͉͈̫̏ ̷̘̝̰̙͗̋̿ş̸̘͝o̷̢̝̲͓̾̃̀å̵̦̔͋r̶͈̲̞̈͋̎̈́s̶͙̥͝ ̴̦͇̾̇͒̑ẗ̷̜͓͔́̔͌͑h̴̦̼͔̐͗̈́͝r̷̰̠̳͉͋͝ǫ̶̻͖̿̓͘͝u̵͓͛͆g̷̡̪̦͗̽h̸̼̭̪̓̌͘͠ ̷̯́͑b̴̗̋l̸̞͉̗͋ū̷̯̩͔é̵̯ ̶̡̦̹̬̐ṡ̸͚̯̚ķ̶̡͚̳̒i̶̻̬̳̱̽͂e̴͚̬̎̄̀s̵̮̜̩͂̚ ̴̼͌͋͋̚ȏ̸̫͎̠̮̓̎ḟ̵̙͊̆̊ ̴̧̪͎̓̉̎͌t̷̹̫̟̖̽̂̀h̷̡̰̥͛̽̓ͅȇ̷͖̟͑̾͂ ̵̜̺̘͍̾̊ḛ̴͉̫̬̈́̕͠͝ṭ̵̛͐͊͗h̷̰͓́̈e̶͚͖̽ȑ̸̡͉̟́͂,̶͎̝͒ ̶͙̖̭͔̊͋t̴̗̙̠̒̈́̆͝h̸̡̹̤̮̀e̷͙̳͙̽̍͝ ̶̢͔͓̀̎͊̽ŵ̷̡̑̍͘o̷̪̝͆r̷̳̐l̶̡͠d̷͓̜̄̄͝ ̴̨̩͛o̴͖͍͐̓̓͝f̵͎͑̎̔ ̴̬̼͇̚͜e̷̢̩̔̐̌m̸̭̟͛ͅb̴͇̗̩̃́͜o̷͎̐d̴̨̯̞̟́͛̌i̸̻̕ȅ̴̛̯̓d̴̦͂͆ ̴͔̩͗͊i̸̫̖̦̾n̷̻͖̐̚f̴̡̼͉̍͗͆͑õ̴̻͘͘̕r̸̜̙͂̂m̶̨̀ȃ̴̛̖̺̜t̶̛̟̥̼͒̎̂ͅi̸̱̞͒͋ȏ̵͚̃n̶̳̲̻̻͊̾,̴̹̈́̕ ̸̩̱̰̈́̅͋̈b̸̬͈͎͎̔͒̅ě̸̥̓y̸̡̗̗͂̈́ȯ̶͚̯̺̠̕n̶̬̼̓̓̔d̴̰̯͉͊̀͜͠ ̷̲̲̱̱͂̋̕̚t̷̛̝̙̼̯̑̾̚h̵͉̹̪͑̃͝ẹ̵̟͑̍̇͋ ̷̭̮̾̈͘͘m̶͙̳̈́͌͊̒ạ̸̫́ẗ̷̟̞̇͝ȩ̷̫̓́̋̚r̸̼͂̆̍͜ḯ̷̪̊̕a̸̢̹̗̹̎ḻ̴͆̚̕ …
Psych distortion going up, stay focused.
PRIMARY TARGET OFF-COURSE
The processing load of overdrive weighs heavy, but Alex tightens his gaze on a shining cage awaiting on the grass below, only 60km off. A pop-up over the cage prompts him:
GUIDE PRIMARY TARGET INTO QUARANTINE ZONE
He pushes hard on the beast’s neck, forces it into a deep plunge to the ground, its red eyes raging as the electric tornado around them dissipates and the creature’s powerful wings beat and burst with black thunderbolts, shredding through Alex’s armor, white nectar oozing out from his skin, filling cracks in his wounded white chainmail as the searing lightning rips new cracks asunder, his mind m̷̺͉̑é̵͕l̶͕̺̓t̴̰̬͝i̵̞̮͛n̴͔̒ͅḡ̷̪̒ atop this ferocious steed bent on slaughter, ṭ̵̽h̷̭́i̴̜͠s̸̼̽ ̶͇̂horrid ob̸̀j̴̳̔ě̵̤c̶͔̉ẗ̷̥́ ̶͉͐s̷̥̔e̸͉̍ǹ̷͙t̸̝͘ ̶̏͜ḇ̵̀y̴͓̏ ̸͚̈́s̷̗͝o̷̭̾m̵̡͝e̷̢̕ ̸͈̔a̷l̴i̴e̴n̵ ̴f̸r̸o̸m̶ ̶i̶n̴n̴e̷r̵ ̸s̴p̶a̷cet̴͓̤̒͘o—
PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTORTION RISK
DISENGAGING NEURAL OVERDRIVE ADVISED
He needs some extra focus to guide the Pegasus to the goal, turns down his overdrive to compromise with Aeschylus:
Time passes slightly faster, subtler shades of green grass blend back together, perceptions slow and dull, buzzing pain of lightning re-enters his mind before being pushed back out by sheer force of will.
The Pegasus thrashes and wails as Alex stays firmly mounted on its back, careening toward the ground, altitude dropping, dropping, dropping, he heaves the reins upward, leveling out their fall until Alex is steering the Pegasus across the plains, mere feet above the earth, the beast’s seething electric clouds carving a line of burnt destruction across the sweeping green grass, the cage straight head in the distance, 30km and closing.
The Pegasus rages and flails, but Alex stays firm, flying ahead with the Pegasus under his command.
Shockwaves keep beating off the creature’s wild sparking mane, rippling through every inch of Alex.
Stay calm, steady on the reins, remember training.
The cage door flings open, shining white bars of light awaiting.
The creature’s screaming body dissolves into crackling electricity, Alex’s eyes bulge at attention as he pilots the shrieking mass of winged lightning into the cage, razing the lush g̸r̶a̴s̸s̴l̷a̷n̷d̸ ̷f̵l̵o̷o̶r̵s̴, b̸̨̓e̴͕̋á̶̠u̸̡̔t̶̛͉í̶̹f̶͚͋ȗ̵̟l̷̥͒ ̸̢̿f̶̡̄i̷̪̓g̷̦̈́m̸̳̄e̷̤͘n̶̫̅ṭ̴͌ ̷̻̈́o̴̲͐f̶͔̌ ̴̠̆d̷̨̑à̴̰r̴̨̎k̵͙͘e̷̼̍s̷͈͝t̶̼́ ̶̗̎å̷̲w̸͖̆ẽ̵̗ ̵̙͋p̸̗̆u̵̘̍l̶̺̕l̷̲̈́i̶̘͒n̶̖͆g̵͍̎ ̶̡̓h̶͇͐er ̸̠̌i̴̜͗m̶̯͛a̸̦͐ḡ̴̗i̶̘͋n̷͌ͅa̴͔͒t̵̨̏i̵̜͂o̶̬̓n̶͔͗ ̷̛̦a̴̺͌w̶͔̓a̸̹͐y̶̳̓ ̸͉͝ť̷̗ȍ̶…
PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTORTION RISK
DISENGAGING NEURAL OVERDRIVE ADVISED
Ş̶̥̹͖͔̻̂̐́͠ḧ̷͕̠̚e̶̗̽̃̍͌͌ snaps back into reality, chest bulging and straining, breastplate heaving, tugs the reins to the left, then the right, then the left, body swamped in a crashing sea of rumbling thunder, white nectar flooding from his wounds, struggling to regenerate his skin as he melts and quakes to victory.
Almost there, he can almost taste the explosion of triumph that comes with the MISSION ACCOMPLISHED notice.
Hammock on the beach.
Here it comes.
The notification bangs into view as the ethereal plains burst into white. The Pegasus is encased in a spinning glass cube, and as it shrinks, shrinks, shrinks into the infinitesimal, Alex is left rocketing through an ocean of warm white light, arms outstretched in victory, proud grin from cheek to cheek, waves of pure pleasure crashing all around, dispelling every ounce of his pain, the system rewarding him for his sacrifice.
A true peace. Infinite euphoria.
Alex basks in the eternal moment, knowing Aeschylus will soon disturb him to—
“Commander Altair, confirm mission status,” Aeschylus requests.
“Confirmed. Are you prepared for transfiguration and disengagement?”
Black text atop the all-encompassing walls of light points downward: DISENGAGEMENT POINT.
Alex flies down toward a hologram of a featureless person, waiting for Alex to enter its vacant body.
“Synchronizing,” Aeschylus says as Alex steps into the hologram’s feet. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. So important to control any heavy breathing after a challenging mission, don’t want to go into shock.
Just inhale, exhale.
Inhale the other Alex.
Exhale this Alex.
Inhale the ot̷̂he̴r Aḽ̴̺̄e̵̡̾̓x.
Ḩ̵͕̺̠̺̬͕̹̣̳́̈́͂̿̈́̂̂e̵̗̍r̷̞̰̈́͘His mind rushes through his helmet, downward into the material netherworld, perceptions warp into a single point, his shackled body awaiting his return to the world below.