Alex stands in the elevator that connects the Command Deck to the barracks of Union Tower. Its sterile white doors seal shut, reflecting his bright mesh body suit back at him, beads of sweat still dripping from his platinum wisps. He stares into a lens above that rains down an array of lasers, silently measuring each and every contour of his body, making a green light on the door go “beep beep.”
A list of floor numbers and names pops up in his eyes, his gaze scrolling up from B13 – Primary Command Deck to F24 – Global Command Habitation Deck, eyes pause there and a green light goes “ding.” The elevator floats upward like a smooth puff of steam, sweat pooling at the soles of his feet.
An implant in his neck vibrates softly as a selfie with a handsome buzz cut pops up in the air: CMDR Carson Cole.
Alex’s eyes linger over a green Accept button for a moment.
“Ay Alli, you doin’ alright?” Carson asks.
Alex breathes deep. “Much better now,” as he wipes a puddle of cool sweat off his forehead. “You?”
“Fuckin’ tuckered,” Carson sighs. “Didn’t I tell you the objects are gettin’ more wild?”
“You’re right,” Alex agrees, “Pegasus was definitely the most aggressive yet.” His eyes gleam with pride. “But what did I tell you? Still nothing we couldn’t manage.”
Carson chuckles, relishing Alex’s courage. “True, true. We’ve grown so strong over the years. Far cry from who we used to be.”
“Yessir,” Alex smiles. Then frowns. Things will never be like they used to be.
“Be careful, though. Shen’s an ass, but he’s right—your psych distortion was a little high.”
“Yeah, I—” Alex seals his lips, fearing vulnerability.
“Floor 24, World Security Pillar, Global Command Habitation Deck,” the elevator announces, edges of its white doors glowing blue, humming open as a floor plan pops up in the corner of Alex’s eye.
“You what?” Carson prods as Alex steps into the shining white hall ahead.
“I just got to my floor, I’m gonna go lay down and—”
“Nuh uh, nope,” Carson scolds. “You ain’t givin’ me that. You’re doin’ the thing.”
“That thing you always do when you’re feeling too vulnerable. Reframing, or just straight up running. Y’learned it from your Dad, y’know?”
Carson knows Alex all too well. “Carr, I—”
“Alli, you feelin’ alright? F’real though, you got a brain fog?”
“No I . . . it’s just a headache I think.” Alex rubs his brow, his soft boots pattering down the empty white hall. “I’m sure it’ll go away when I lay down, maybe eat.”
“Alli, you need a break,” Carson suggests. “When was the last time you left the Tower? Went to the park or somethin’?”
“I’ve been busy—training, working. I don’t have a chance to—”
“I’ve been busy too, Alli—we’ve all been busy—but I’m still able to get out of my command deck sometimes for some fun. Meet some new people, get wilded, go dancin’ or whatever, y’know?” Alex giggles, cradles his sore head. “Gotta keep your humanity to do this job properly. Do somethin’ creative, draw a picture, go for a hike, smell some flowers, hell, go on a date maybe. Even Aeschylus loves it when we go human for a while, helps our stats, our creative intelligence scores. Work-life balance and all that shit, ya?”
Alex sighs. “I’d like that very much, Carr, it’s just that—”
“Ex-cu-ses,” Carson sounds out. “What if I come visit for a day sometime? We stroll through Hudson Park, find some big rocks to climb, maybe have a few drinks, go dancin’. Like old times, y’know?”
“That sounds very nice.” Alex’s smile is quickly consumed by anxiety. “But what if an object goes rogue while we’re away from our command decks? It’s getting more dangerous, we need to be able to—”
“You don’t have to be on standby all the time. Shit, you’re the only commander with perfect attendance. Command can meet quorum for missions without you. Just somethin’ to think about, y’know?”
“I know, it’s just—” A sudden wave of pain s̵͎̀̂p̷͇̋̌ỉ̸̬̘k̵̝̉̾è̸̫s̵̝͕̾ through Alex’s head, j̶o̶l̶t̵i̴n̵g̶ his body, f̸̡̳͉̼̼̱̝̯̜͓̹̋͊̄̐͂̃̎͗̒͋̏̃̾̐̕͠͝l̶̥͖̲̯͇̞̲̖̬͌̉̒̉̚á̵̧̩̳̳̰̞̭̗̣͈͇͑̈́̀̽̃̔̎s̷̨̢̻͙͕̩̬͚̙̯̹͚͖͗̾͊͑̚h̷̞͇̰͚̗͎̰̟̩̻́̈́̒̋͌̒͛̀͐͐͆̚͝ of light, fresh memory of the Pegasus, s̷͇̺̒h̸̡͇̻̝͌͒͑͝a̴̝̤͙͈̯̫̐r̷̖͛̀̒̎͠ḑ̸͉̗͚͓̋̎̀ͅş̸̤͑̀̔ ̶̧̧͈̝̺̦̖̈́͑o̷͚̝͖͂͗ͅf̷͇̳̠̺̈́̈́ ̴̛̭͉͚̠͉͎̅͒́ͅģ̸̢͚͈̹̩͛͐̈̚ḽ̴̦̭̮̼̰̲̬͛̓̈͆̅̾͋̒ȧ̴͇̥s̷̢̪̘̳͔͕͚̥̏̄͌̇͋s̷̩̼̙͎͈̭̖͓̓̍͂̈́ ̴̢̰̮̦̒̓͐̋͌̅͘͜͝r̶̘͇̟̀̔̇͌̄̓͠i̴̮͉̻̭̦͐ṕ̷̼̳̖͈̘̗̌̏͝ͅp̶̮̩̯̲̺̒̈͌͘̚͝i̷̳̘̅̅̍̀͘n̸̡̈́g̷̡͚̼͚͚̟͖̝̋̎̏͗͝ ̸̞̻̺̰͚̱̺͗͐͂̈́̈̋ẖ̶̛͙̇͌̓̾̚ě̴̗͕̤͎̻̙͓̆̾̌̋͋̎̔r̵̛̰̭̞̞̿̅͆̓̊͐͠ ̶̤̦̻̘͆͂̃̓̉̈̽s̴̡͍̙͋̽͐̚̕k̸͔̼̟̗̱͇̰̋͠i̴̺̭̜͙̟͇̳͛̇̀ņ̷̡̢͙̼̣̺̝̑͆,̷̦̤̙̱̬̣̈́̈̇̂̓ͅͅ ̴̛̹̤͙̈́͜͜m̶͉̮̞̝̬̗͉̜̾̆̃ế̷͉̮̗̳͑͑̕ḻ̴̡̼̺̳̹̟̏̑̓̒̊̈́͘͜͝ṫ̴̟͑͒̏̔̂́͜į̵͙̩̣̫͛̍̊̊̎̚͝n̸̢̛̞̙͑́̈̏̿͝g̷̫̩̀̾̂̊̚͝ ̷͕͎̓̑̀̓h̷̫̥̝̩͔͗̈́͐ẹ̵̡̦̅ŗ̸̪̥̗͍̞̱̠͑̇͒̾͐̑̚͝ ̴̲͍̙͆̆̀ͅb̵͈̍̀͊̾o̴̲͓̰̬̞̽͋̍̀̽̈͛͜d̸̢̛̳̘̮͓̩͍̗̆͐͋ÿ̵̼̮͉̳͓͘,̷̢̰͆͑͝ ̵̘̬̯͈̮̬̣̂̎̆ā̴͕̭̣̪̫̗̯̑g̸͚̼̼̥͑̀̅̑͌̂̎̚ͅo̶̢̼̼̠̪̬̣̠͂̈́͠n̷̯̳̅i̵̮̱̭͚̅͂̍͝͝ͅͅz̴̡͇̪̜̭̩͗̅î̵̟̪͍̮̬̔̉̏̐ń̵̞̙̭͊̈̈́̆̚g̸̢̩̻̪͍̣̈́̎̏́,̷̢̭͙̗̟̤̙̅̿̈́͜ ̷͉̖̤̔́͌͑͠u̶̡̢̬͙̰̙̔n̵̜̜̬̟̣͇͐͒̇̿̊̂̚f̸̡̤̗̮̟̏̃̇͠ͅo̶̧͙̫̟̪̘̓̓̄̆̄͝r̶̜̖̻͍̄̊g̷̱͖̬̺̜͋̀̎e̸̱̳͊̒̚͜ͅṫ̷̘̦̞̟̏̀͌ͅt̶̹̤̼̟̞͖̥̓a̸̼̗̖̼̐͋̾̎̒b̴͍̥͊͐̎̊̓̿́͘l̸̢̢̡̤̼̭̩̰̆͌͑͊̐̒̕͝ě̵̺͎͐̄̒͒̅̄͑ . . .
. . . but then the pain leaves as quick as it came. “Ugh, what the fuck?” Alex groans.
“What? You good?”
“Yeah . . . I’m good, just a headache, probably tensed my head too much during the fight.”
“You sure you good, Alli?” Carson asks as Alex turns the corner to another long white hall lined with doors.
“You worry too much, Carr.”
Carson chuckles again. “Right back at ya, babe.”
Alex turns to a white, steel door labelled Commander Alexis Altair – Living Quarters, stands still in the silent hall. Soft lasers flow out from the door, feel out the shape of his body, the composition of his skin, bone density, hormone levels, countless other biometrics. The lens lights up green. The door slides open without sound or friction.
“You back in quarters now?”
“Yeah, gonna shower and call it a night. You should too,” Alex suggests.
“Yeeeeah, my battery is drained bone dry after that one. Time to shut ‘er down.” Alex unzips the back of his white bodysuit as the door slides shut behind him. “You let me know how that headache goes, y’hear?”
“Ay Alli, promise me somethin’?”
“If the headache gets worse or y’feel like you’ve got a fog, you go on down to Medea, ya? Get her to fix ya up?”
“Okay, Carr,” Alex sighs. “I promise I’ll go see her for help if I get worse. Sleep well.”
“You too, Alli.”
Carson’s selfie disappears as Alex peels off his soaked bodysuit, white undershirt, white briefs, all greyed from floods of sweat. Itching for a shower. His household control app pops into view, gazes at the bathroom options, eyes softly lingering for a moment over a showerhead icon:
Soothing sound of sprinkling water echoes through his quarters. He bypasses the barren living room, down the white hall, past the bathroom, head still pulsing, disoriented, pausing for a moment outside his bedroom—one decoration catches his eye. A framed set of medals, wordless tales of heroism mounted over his white sheets of his twin mattress, plaques bolted beneath the display:
Commander Alexis Altair parses the medals of his late father and brother: Battle of Taipei, Arctic Campaign, Battle of Tehran, Orbital Security Campaign, Pan-American Liberation Campaign, African Unification Campaign, South Asian Peace Campaign, Battle of Seoul . . . Washington Event.
Mind races, rush of images. The day Mom left. Hidden in the palace bunkers, holding Carson tight. The day they all died, day it rained fire and ore across the face of the Earth. Day of a thousand floods. Day of plagues. Day of fallen angels, forbidden objects re-ascending. Containment. Reconstruction. World unification. A never-ending war against ever-evolving machines—against evolution itself. Rogue object after rogue object. False serenity of the Command Deck. False sense of world security. Perpetual fog of war. A false peace. Object Pegasus raining thunder upon the g̸̟̎r̶͇͉̔e̸̻̰͝ė̶̯ǹ̵̤̈́ pastures o̷̦͊f̸̗̌ c̴͍̃̈̈́͊̕y̷̺̤͎̔͌̋ḅ̴͔̩͑e̵̜̗̥̤̮͐r̷̡͕̘͙͓͐̍s̷̹̖̀̔͛͑͆p̵̭̄ǎ̸̧̠̐̈́̈́͝c̷̮̘̠̥̖̈́͊ë̸͓̺̫͚́́͊ͅ
“Their souls live on,” Secretary Asaju told Alex, presenting him with the display case. “Somewhere in the ether, in a vast cloud, the noble souls of your father, your brother—your mother and aunt, too—they all remain in spirit. Eternal, formless, living data still breathing through this world, even in the absence of their bodies.”
Alex grips head, trapped in trauma replay, mind’s eye straddling virtual memories and forgotten realities, sprinkling water H̵͇̽O̴͇͂W̵̟̕L̸͈̈́S̶̮͆ in the bathroom.
“One day, Alexis—one day, my boy, we will have the power, the knowledge, the means to give form to their data again,” the Secretary assured him, so many years ago. “But until that day, we must fight. We must fight to keep this peace that they forfeited their lives for, fight to defend this world against the very same machines that we now depend upon—the devils of our own desires.”
Mind snaps back into focus—tired, sweaty, shower, gentle water still trickling in the room next door. Soft white lights effortlessly hum and shine down on his plain white bedsheets. A lone sunflower smiles in a white vase on his white nightstand, a gentle reminder of a time he’s not allowed to remember. All the white lights and hi-tech comforts of Union Tower are too seamless. Too effortless. Fa̷ke̷̲̐ pu̶r̷̨͓̍it̶̻͗ÿ̶̲̻́. Fak̴̼̣̄͑ȩ̶͖̈̽̂͊ b̸̫̟̐̋eḑ̴̼̆̉͜ro̷o̶m̷͍̓́̿. Shining w̶h̸it̴e pr̵͙̝̰͒̆͝ĭ̶̘̼s̷͆͂ͅo̶͠͠n to̶͉̮͂̓͗̊̒w̷̹̿̅̏e̴̼̹̠̯͋͋̿͗̊͝r̶̍͒̽͂͐͌̊͝.
Psych distortion going back up. Stay focused on the shower.
Was Carson right? Does he have a fog? Should he go get medical help? Can he just sleep this headache off? What’s proper protocol in situations like this? W̴a̴s̶ ̶sh̴e̶ ̶e̶v̷e̴n̶ ̵t̵r̵a̵i̴n̷e̸d̵ ̷o̶n̷ ̵t̸h̴i̷s̷? Head hurts, f̴̰͚̈́͑̈́u̵̧̼̝̘̪͚͑̅̿͑̊͜z̶̭͔̺̗̍z̵͈̺̪̓̐͛̿̀̄̄ỳ̷̽̉̇͜ feeling.
He marches to the bathroom, dodges the gaze of the vanity mirror, strides into the crisp, warm shower stall, already filled with thick, soothing steam. Deep exhale. Just rinse off and get a good night’s sleep. S̵u̷r̵e̵l̸y̵ ̶sh̵e’̸l̴l̶ ̶b̴e̷ o̸kay̵ ̸i̵n̴ ̵t̷h̸e̸ ̶m̴o̴r̸n̶i̷n̶g?