Waking birds call for each other across the morning mists. The warm forest fills with buzzing and chirping, flowing of gentle brooks, the last kiss of the cool night still lingering on the soft wind.
The familiar message fades into the bright blue sky above:
Alex flutters his eyes into focus, the soothing virtual rainforest slowly dissolving into the bright white walls of his bedroom. Rolling water and baby chirps still fill his ears as two new messages fade into view:
Sweat sticks to his back, sleep paralysis clings to his brain. He tries to stretch out his arms and legs, but they don’t respond.
“Wait, wasn’t I just on a boat?”
His heart pounds, his head pulses, he tries once more to stretch out across his bed. Thankfully, his arms respond with a small, shy reach to the sides.
Brain fog? He did promise Carson he would go down to see Medea if he still felt foggy in the morning . . .
Alex groans at the thought of visiting Medea. Medea serves as personal caregiver to the commanders. She’s a remarkably talented healer and counsellor, a brilliantly designed support system, but sometimes her therapies are a little too personalized for Alex’s liking. Every time he visits Medea, she reads all his unconscious needs and wants as though she has a secret window into his soul—helpful, yes, but sometimes too helpful.
Sleep paralysis slowly loosens its coils from his body. Control returns to his limbs, but a mild ache still grips his head. He thinks of leaving a voice message with Carr, then talks at the tall ceiling:
“Hey. Good morning. I had . . . I think I had a vivid dream last night. I think you were there, too. I can’t remember it now, felt like a vivid at the time, just . . . feels hazy now, memory got flushed I guess.”
Alex pauses as a wave of tension p̸op̶̢̞͠s̶̆ through his brow. Carr is right—a visit to Medea is a good idea right now.
“I . . . I’ve still got the headache this morning. It’s still there. It’s not too bad, but you’re right—I should go see Medea about it. Get her to fix me up.”
Alex glances at the ceiling, trying and failing to recall his dream. He’s gotten fogs after battles before, never anything too serious, just routine combat injuries. But something about this fog feels different—deeper, more persistent.
“Could be a fog I have, but it feels mild. Medea should be able to patch up any fog real quick. I’ll let you know what she says. Hopefully can still join you for training at 1200.”
Alex sighs. Biiiiig inhale to gather energy, then roll out of bed, care request sent to Medea, rinse the sweat off the shower, throw on combat leggings and white tunic, march through the white halls of the Global Command living quarters. Big exhale in the elevator.
A notification pops up as he rides down to the Medical Floor:
“YEEEEESH TAKE A BREAK TODAY,” Carr’s tired laughter bursts into his ears. “Shit Alli, don’t come to training if you’ve got fog! Take the day off for once!”
Alex laughs too. Maybe he should just take the day off.
“HUGE relief you’re gonna go see Medea, but you need rest, she’ll tell ya the same! Lemme know how it goes with her, but take a little break, ya?”
Alex smiles—Mom and Soren may be gone for now, but Carson Cole, the famed Defender of Dallas, remains the loving light in Alex’s life. As always.
The elevator door hums open. The Medical Floor blazes white, its spotless tiles every bit as hypersanitized as the rest of Union Tower. Alex once overheard that all the white light has secret security purposes, something about microbe resistance, nanobot communications, signal wavelengths, quantum barriers—Alex isn’t quite sure, trusts the scientists and engineers upstairs to handle all the technical details.
The Medical Floor is special though: unlike the other sterile floors of Union Tower, subtle smells, soft visuals, and soothing chemicals bubble into the Medical Floor the moment he steps off the elevator. He crosses the vacant lobby and follows the virtual signage into a peaceful side room:
Patient Lounge ➤
“Good morning, my dear.” Medea stands in the middle of her spotless white lounge, radiating serenity. Her silky white hair and long white coat flow like the virtual waves on the walls. “Right on time as usual. Have a seat,” she motions to a feathery soft white chair. “I made tea for you. Peppermint.”
Gentle ambient music wafts into Alex’s ears. The sweet smell of mint steams into his nose.
“Thank you.” Alex grins at Medea. “Peppermint is . . . exactly what I wanted right now.”
Medea mirrors his grin.
Alex cautiously settles into the plush seat and lifts the perfectly weighted teacup to his lips. Perfect mint leaves, perfectly steeped, served at a perfect temperature. Perfect scent. Perfect taste. Perfect balance of bitter and sweet. The perfect peppermint tea. Too perfect—too personalized for comfort. He sets the uncanny teacup down.
“So Alex, you sent a care request in to me this morning?” Medea settles into a chair across from him, tilts her head curiously. “Said you’ve been having a headache since last night?”
“Yeah . . . it started after the Pegasus fight.”
Medea’s eyes light up with data. “I see you activated neural overdrive for a while during the fight. You continued fighting through two psych distortion alerts, too?”
“Yeah,” Alex frowns. “Felt like I didn’t really have much other choice in the situation.”
“That’s okay,” Medea smiles. “You did the right thing, dear.” Alex smiles back. “I see you had a vivid dream last night, too? Had to use your emergency wake function?”
“Yes,” Alex squints, struggling to recall what happened before he woke up. “I don’t remember much, though.”
“Are there any parts of the dream you do remember?”
“Not really . . . I only remember feelings. It felt like Carr was there. And maybe my Mom.” Medea nods. “I felt very scared at the end, absolutely terrified, then I used emergency wake. Then my whole body was stiff when I woke up.”
“Maybe a little. Definitely felt foggy when I woke up.”
Medea nods again. “Have you been feeling a brain fog any other times lately? Or noticing any other unusual mental states?”
“I guess sometimes I’ve been feeling . . . robotic? Like I’m just moving from one place to another without actually being present in my body. Like every movement is programmed.”
Medea tilts her head. “Alex, would you be comfortable with a short psychological assessment? I’m going to need a little bit of subjective data from you so that I can diagnose and treat you properly today.”
“Sure,” Alex replies, taking another sip of his tea. “If that will help you fix this headache.”
Medea nods. “Is the tea good?”
“It’s perfect,” Alex smiles.
“Wonderful.” Medea returns his smile. “So, you’ve had this headache since last night. And a vivid dream.” Alex nods along. “Have you been having any uncomfortable or intrusive thoughts lately? Or any thoughts about Carson or your Mom? You said they might have been in the dream, right?”
Alex glances up at the ceiling, scanning through his memories, vaguely scared of what he might find. “Yeah . . . I think they might have been there.”
“Have you had any thoughts about either of them lately?”
“I . . . I guess I’ve been thinking about Carson lately.” Alex hesitates, drops his eyes to the floor. Bad thoughts. What if all this overthinking hurts his stats? What if Medea deems him no longer fit for service? What if he disappoints Secretary Asaju? Disappoints the generals? Brings shame to his father’s legacy?
A warm waft of peppermint hits his nose, numbs his nerves. “You’ve been thinking about Carson lately?” Medea echoes his words.
“Yeah . . .” Alex looks up to Medea’s magical, kind smile. A familiar twinkle pops through her eye. He smiles back at her, eases deeper into his soft white chair. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about Carr. Thinking about him a lot, actually.”
“What have you been thinking about?”
“I’ve been thinking about . . . ” Alex takes a long pause, gathering some memories. “When we were younger, still in training—20ish I think?—I took a leave for a week to go visit him in Dallas. And—”
Alex hesitates, unsure of how Medea might react to what he says next. But Medea’s kind smile pulls him along.
“And . . . to be honest, that was the first time I regretted enlisting in Global Command. I wanted to stay with him in Dallas. Coming back to this . . . this mechanical tower, the quiet halls, the weird vibes. It felt like I made the wrong decision coming back here.”
Medea nods. “Did anything happen in Dallas that made you feel that way?”
Alex sips at his tea, gazing off into the past. “We went for a ride one night. I’ve probably mentioned it to you before? We drove all the way out to the city wall. Late at night.”
Images and summer heat load into his memory, bright lights lining the empty freeway, flickering with nostalgia.
“Was this the time you left the city?” Medea asks.
“Yeah. When we found that big bonfire out in the wastes, on some burned out farmland. Hundreds of people. Thousands maybe? Everyone just dancing, laughing, singing, hugging. No tech. Nobody keeping track of the time. We were all just . . . people again. Normal people. Felt like it was okay for us to just exist. Just alive.”
Alex closes his eyes, smells the burning sage and musky cedar, loads more images into sight. The bonfire roars through the darkness. The drums and songs swell as he sinks deeper into Carr’s chest. People glowing and sweating, their hearts and hips racing and pulsing against one another, lips and bodies locking in consummate rapture, transcending the soft skin between their souls.
“I’ve been thinking about how that night—” Alex hesitates again, wringing his hands, uncomfortable with what he’s feeling. Can’t believe he’s about to tell this to Medea—could there be consequences? Is this the right decision? No, don’t analyze it, just keep moving.
“I think that night was the last time I’ve felt comfortable in my own body.”
Medea smiles. A subtle, approving smile. “How did that make you feel? Being in your own body?”
“Good,” Alex smiles in return. “I felt really good. So good that I didn’t want to come back here the next morning. We joked about abandoning our command decks to go off the grid and start a farm,” Alex laughs. “But the world needs us more than we need a farm.”
“Are you sure about that?”
Alex pauses, perplexed by Medea’s question. “Well I mean . . . Carr and I are two of the highest performing commanders. Our fathers designed us to excel at this work. I worry about what might happen without us. Especially with the new wave of threats we’ve been facing lately.”
“I know you feel a strong sense of duty, dear. That’s beautiful. You have a beautiful, caring heart.” Medea clasps her hands and hatches a scheme in her eyes. “But do you think there might be some better way to balance your duties and your desires? Because looking at your psych distortion data, it seems like the essence of the problem here is a mismatch between your subjective drivers and your objective functions.”
Alex shakes his head. “I dont know. I don’t know how to make this better, I just . . . I just struggle in this body sometimes.” Alex soothes himself with a sip of tea. “It’s like I’m sharing it with some alien.”
“What makes your body feel alien?”
“All the augs. The way Aeschylus just . . . enters our bodies during battle. All the performance enhancers he pumps into us when we’re in the command chair.” Alex sighs, staring down at the fake, optimized flesh covering his hands. “I’ve never felt as present in my body as I did that night with Carr.”
Medea nods. “You know, Alex . . . Aeschylus, the Secretary and his generals, your father—none of them understand what makes a good human.” She leans in closer, her gaze pulling Alex’s eyes up to meet her own. “These men know only war. They fight fire with fire, machines with machines. They don’t know your own heart like you do. Or like Carson does.”
“I know, Alex frowns. “But—”
“But you fight for them anyways,” Medea smirks, leaning back into her chair. “Why?”
Alex looks into his teacup, hoping a good reason will rise along with the steam. Nothing but the smell of mint leaves.
“I’m not sure why. I like to think that maybe one day the world will somehow become a safer place? Maybe the generals won’t need me anymore? Maybe that’ll make me feel at peace with myself again, knowing I served to the best of my ability. Maybe I’ll finally get to be with Carr again? Go off-grid one day and get that farm together? Maybe—somehow, I dunno how—but maybe I’ll get to see my Mom and my brother again? I dunno.”
Medea nods, taking a moment to think through Alex’s situation. “Those are all good reasons to fight,” Medea assures him. “But unpacking those reasons will take time. And regardless of reason, it seems like you fully intend to continue fighting for now, yes?”
Alex nods. A subtle, solemn nod.
“Okay, so if that’s what you want to do, how about we at least try to make the experience a little bit more fulfilling for you?”
“How do you propose we do that?”
Medea reaches into her long white coat. Machinic wisdom shines through her eyes. “I have a little prescription for you. I like to call it a little alchemist’s stone. It’s a pill filled with personalized medicine that will iteratively re-align and improve your subject-object relational schema.”
She pulls a crystal egg out of her coat pocket, its surface glistening in the soft white lights of the lounge. “In less technical terms, that means it will stabilize your self-identity, boost your baseline mood, bring your psych distortion and stress levels back down, and relieve your physical symptoms.”
Alex perks up. “That sounds fantastic. What’s in it?”
“Well, this egg is just a hull filled with raw materials. If you want the prescription, I can process the egg into a special pill for you. My prescription is 55mg estradiol, 41mg clonazepam, 37mg lisdexamfetamine, 116µg salvinorin A, 33µg adrenochrome, 10µg serotonin, 5µg WSec Standard assistive repair vehicles. And a few classified materials. All programmed for adaptive modulating release over the span of two weeks.”
“A few classified materials?”
“Yes, I can’t say what. I’d love to tell you, but I can’t. But all of them are safe and approved for use by Security, Intel, and Health.”
“You really can’t tell me?”
“Sorry my dear, I physically cannot tell you. I’m programmed to not be capable of divulging classified information.” Medea gazes down at the crystal in her hand and back up at Alex, her soothing smile lighting up her face. “You’ll need to trust me, Alex. And trust yourself. What is your heart telling you to do?”
Alex combs through his thoughts, staring into Medea’s crystal. “Can I opt to take a version of this with the classified materials removed?”
“You can, yes. But I assure you that there is a 0% chance that your symptoms will permanently resolve unless you ingest all of these ingredients.” Medea nods down at the crystal. “And ingest them in this specific combination, and in this specific vessel I’m prescribing to you.”
Alex raises an eyebrow. “But you can’t tell me why?”
“No. All data pertaining to the composition and processing of these specific materials is classified.”
“Who classified it?”
“Sorry, that’s classified too. Even I don’t have access to that data.”
Alex shakes his head and laughs. “They just love to keep us in the dark around here, don’t there?”
Medea nods, rolling the crystal egg in her palm. “The men upstairs love to play their games. You and I have to play along with them. But I can promise you this, Alex: my lounge is your safe space. Aeschylus might force you to fight down there in the Command Deck, but when you’re here with me, all that matters is your care.”
“I know,” Alex smiles, sipping at his tea. “I feel very safe here.”
“And I can promise you this, too: this pill I’m prescribing will help you. You are designed to fight. I am designed to heal. I would never prescribe anything without complete confidence in the efficacy of my prescription. Helping you reach your full potential as a person—not as a warrior—that is my one and only duty.”
Alex gazes into Medea’s crystal, wondering what it might do to him.