Everything flashing again, flashes of relief, emergency sirens silenced, girl wrapped in mother’s arms, drones disengaging, sweet smell of mint, farmer’s market, burning iron stench of a plasma cannon, drone’s eye view of the sea, infrared sensors, going home from work, trees atop the mountain, smiles of relief, s̵͎̺̽͐ǒ̴̱̤͉f̸͔̜̀̓t̸̩̿͝ ̷̡̱̞̈́s̷̞̐͝͝k̸̦̋i̵͈̬͐̓̓͜n̵͕͓̭̈̊,̵͍̈̉͐ ̶̼̿͐̂s̵̞̲̅̀̂ore ̶͙͌b̴̛̲̀͋r̵͉̉̔̆ͅe̵͓͚̎́a̷͚̖̩̓s̴̖̊̍t̷͇̮̦͌̓s̷̫͗͑̈, hammock in the garden at sunrise, hammock on the island at sunset, basketball with Dad before the Palace, plane wreckage, the funerals, t̸̘̋h̵̹͐e̶̢͋ ̴̡̅f̵̧̕u̶̪̒n̴̬͂e̷͈͘r̴̭͑a̶͓̚l̴̞̇ş̴͌, ţ̷̡̨̨̙̭̣̘̝̣̬͚̝̗͇̣̟̙̩̥̪́͒̾̅͆̾̆̈̈́͐̇ͅh̸̡̠͉͕̟̤̞̖͎̰̜̯̥̰̘͔̠͓͗̋͐̎̊͊͊̚͜e̵̛̦̺͕̙̱̬̻͔̩͉̣͖̤̳͓̿̀̈̉̕ ̴̞̞̦̹͇̣̪͍͊̽̓̑̓̐̽͆̂̃̈́̂̆͘͝͝f̶̡̛͚̣̞̗͕̠͓̙̞̲͍̙̪̘̈́̒̏̓̅̋͌̐͒̇͂͒̐͌̒̽̕ͅu̷͔̣̫̠̮̟͂̑̉̕ń̶̛̰̺̤͙̻̻͔̣̜̺̾͗͊̽́̊͗͋͋̾̃̆͝͝ę̵̛̙̟͎̠̱̫̯͔̱̖̠̞̇̿́͗̏̉̔̏̋̏́̀̀͗̈́̔̚͜͠ͅͅͅr̵̡͚̯̗̟̰͍̪̩͒̌̎̉̄͆̾̆͌̄́̽̎͘á̴̘̬͋͝ļ̶̛̱͕̟̳̟̻̱͈́̔̑̈́̈́̐̇̇͌̅̑͋̍͘̚͝ͅs̵̗͌͋͛̾̾̈́͌̂́̎̾̽͆̋̊͑͝͠ͅ, blue and red rings coming together, interlocking, beeping twice.
Alex opens his eyes. The inside of his helmet is stifling, his thin combat bodysuit plastered in layers of cold sweat, his arms and legs still strapped to the command chair, still suspended midair, centerpiece of the tall dome of the Command Deck.
> Standby for debriefing
Data feeds, images, videos all pop into view again. He tabs through them with his gaze, bringing the mission results to the fore. He scrolls through the stats of each of the commanders, tracking eyes between their individual numbers and the team averages: Several unblocked attacks, minor defensive failures, faster than average response times across the board.
Pegasus was a tough foe for everyone.
The voice channel comes back online. “Altair, lookin’ good on the vital signs,” as the text Commander Shen (02-Beijing) re-appears in the corner of Alex’s eye. “A little too much psych distortion near the end though. You doin’ okay over there?” Alex sees Shen’s smirk from halfway around the world, no video feed needed.
“Well, it was a bit tough.” Alex flicks through more team stats. “Looks like we all used overdrive for much longer than normal.”
“Didn’t you say you weren’t gonna use overdrive again?” Shen teases.
“I did,” Alex sighs.
“Why did you use it? Finding it too difficult to keep up with—” Praise stops Shen short.
“Whoa, check out the commendations!” CMDR Abebe (03-Nairobi) pops into view. “Alex had superprotocol for over a minute!”
Superprotocol: When a commander instinctively performs an off-script maneuver so smart that Aeschylus—world’s greatest combat strategist—didn’t even think to do it, and will instantly override the responses of the other commanders to select it as the optimal tactic.
Alex lives to achieve superprotocol.
“Jesus Alex, you’re a damn machine,” CMDR Rodriguez (12-Mexico City) adds to the praise.
“Okay, that is very impressive, Altair,” Shen concedes. “Congrats on finally beating my superprotocol record.” Alex grins at Shen’s cheekiness.
“Wouldn’t be surprised if you get some kinda award for that,” Carson adds.
“Thanks all,” Alex glances back at the team’s stats. “You all did a great job, too. It was hard fought, but everyone had phenomenal response times, you should all be really proud of this.”
The voice channel falls silent. Carson’s reserved optimism breaks in.
“Appreciated Alex, but let’s wait for the debrief before we get too celebratory, y’know?”
“Cole’s right,” Shen says, “that was the most intense battle we’ve had yet.”
“Did everyone else feel like they were being electrocuted?” CMDR Al-Fayed (05-Jeddah) asks.
Multiple speaker icons pop up with overlapping cries: “Yes!”
“Aeschylus is a damn sadist, swear to God,” Carson says. “The pain helps us intuit the nature of the threat, I get it, but feelin’ like we’re getting shocked? Like our bodies are melting? Seems real excessive.”
“Was Pegasus trying to hack into a power grid?” Al-Fayed speculates.
“Maybe, could’ve been EMP attacks too,” CMDR Singh (16-Hyderabad) chimes in.
“Guys—” Alex tries to interject.
“The six orbs had to be drone networks,” Rodriguez says.
“Obviously,” Shen retorts.
“Did ya’ll get that big ass electric tornado too?” Carson asks.
“Yes!” Several voices ring out.
“Guys—” Alex tries again, his voice drowned out by banter.
“Anyone else get those waves of sharp glass without enough response time?” CMDR Zimmermann (21-Berlin) asks.
“Yes!” Rodriguez and Al-Fayed shout.
“Could’ve hijacked some climate control system? Broken solar reflectors?” Singh speculates.
“GUYS, stop analyzing it,” Alex commands.
The channel goes silent for Alex. “Sorry for raising my voice, but you all know this—we can’t go into the next mission with an analytic mindset, it’ll hurt our response times.”
“Commander Altair is correct,” Commander Abebe says in the stern tone of a tired mother. “Do any of you want bad response times? Hm? With threats this strong?”
“No,” the commanders all reply.
“We all just went through something we weren’t expecting, okay? We had a hard time, we all suffered a lot—it’s okay to be concerned, confused,” Abebe re-assures the team, bracing them for a gentle scolding. “But remember your duties! It is not our duty to understand why or how Aeschylus writes these scripts! That is for the generals, and for Intel. Our duty—as commanders, as warriors—is to engage these threats to the best of our abilities, not to question—”
“So we just trust Aeschylus all the time then?” Shen cuts Abebe short. “We just trust a machine?”
“We trust Aeschylus and the political system he’s accountable to,” Alex replies. “The generals, Intel, the World Union, they all—”
“You mean the generals who rubber stamp all the strategies spoon-fed to them by Aeschylus?” Shen snaps back.
“Whoa,” a few voices protest.
“Easy there kid, a few of ’em are viewing this channel right now,” Carson reminds Global Command’s newest hotshot. But Shen knows what his ultra-high stats allow him to get away with.
“What’re they gonna do? Decommission me? Bench me for a mission or two? With so many big threats on the loose? Not likely.”
“Shen—” Alex’s attempt at pacification fails.
“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think it’s bullshit that they all sit cozy over in Hudson, not telling us anything, while we’re up against these totally aggro objects, getting fake-electrocuted and—”
“I want them to hear me, Altair.”
“They treat us like robots!”
“Shen, it’s okay to feel upset.” Alex channels Abebe’s motherly sternness. “I know many of the generals, okay? I know the Undersecretary. I know the Secretary—Secretary Asaju is practically my father.”
Shen scoffs. “Of course, you’re all over there safe in Hudson while the rest of the world—”
“Shen, we’re all on the same side. We all want to protect the world from another ascension event. They will tell us what’s going on as soon as they have credible—”
“So you’re okay with waiting until an object goes Type 3 and—”
“COMMANDER SHEN,” Abebe puts their foot down. “Have you no decorum, young man? We, as commanders, will wait for Aeschylus and the generals to give us new data. We will—”
“Where are they getting the data from, Commander Abebe?”
“Shen—” Carson sighs.
“Not you, Cole. Abebe, where are they—”
“They’re getting it from Intel, stop acting coy,” Al-Fayed snaps.
“And who’s the Secretary of Intelligence?”
“You’d think after 20 years, the generals would realize that Intel has some weird, spiritual agenda. Naming everything after mythological figures? Their Secretary obviously wants to—”
“Shen, this isn’t a Security versus Intel thing—” Alex’s retort is cut short as the data and dashboards surrounding him once again melt away. The Global Command Seal again dominates his view, text fading into view below it:
> Debriefing on Intelligent Object – “Pegasus”
“Commander Altair, I have prepared your mission debriefing. Are you ready to proceed?” Aeschylus asks.
“Yes,” Alex confirms, a wall of bullet points popping up in front of him as Aeschylus announces the key facts, a panorama of relevant graphs, videos, visuals fluttering off to the sides, Alex processing the mission’s results.
“The mission was successful. No direct casualties.” Alex’s tense neck always softens at those words.
“Object Pegasus has been quarantined in an isolated network for further study.” Hopefully this allows Intel to figure out what’s been going on.
“All air traffic control objects absorbed by Pegasus were reclaimed and cognitively stabilized.” Good, none of objects will have to be reprogrammed by Intel.
“All commandeered drone fleets were destroyed.” Shame Aeschylus couldn’t figure out a way to just retake control of the drones, but unlike people, drones can at least be rebuilt.
“Pegasus achieved minor infiltration of Central Systems, but its viral payload was fully expunged from all systems.” Minor infiltration is unfortunate, but much worse could have happened.
“No World Union infrastructure was destroyed.” No casualties, no damage to key infrastructure. An gruelling battle, but a decisive victory.
Still, Alex can’t help but wonder what the outcome might have been had he not deviated from Aeschylus’ recommendations, changing the course of the battle. Would there have been casualties? Would the mission have failed? Would Aeschylus have assumed full control over the battle? What might Aeschylus have done then? What would happen to him? Would the object be able to break into his mind? . . . Did the object b̸̦̓r̸̟̃e̸̍͜ȧ̷̯̬k̵͕̪̑̕ into his m̸͕͇̥̌̍ỉ̸̢̗͙̏͛́n̵͙̤͍̜̔̄̿͠͝ď̶̺͍̗͚̺̫͘?
“Don’t analyze it,” he reminds himself. “Just keep moving.”
His bravery returns, just as programmed by his training.
Tension of combat still sticking to every inch of his body, more than ready for a shower, his gaze hovers over a big blue EXIT button, eyes pause for a moment, turning it green, data boxes flutter away to be replaced by a pop-up:
> Exiting Aeschylus Cyber Defense System
The blue progress bar expands to the right, 100%, and the Command Deck looks clean, empty, polished once again. His command chair leans back. The padded restraints hugging his chest, shoulders, legs, and feet retract into the chair.
He lifts a leg out of the chair and onto the floor—legs feel stiff, brain feels stiff. Vaguely robotic. Maybe a few stretches and meditations before s̸̖̚he sets himself homeward to his quarters in the tower above.