His mind flows up from the Command Deck, billowing out from the white spires of Union Tower, filling the air with occulted programs and cryptic data, bouncing through blockchains and botnets, bouncing around the edge where earth meets sky, bouncing between secret satellites, blowing back down from the heavens in a breath of energized messages, love letters and wistful signals pouring his heart and soul out across continents, Hudson, Borneo, Dallas, Beijing, his body a beautifully protean fluid ebbing and flowing through esoteric systems, arcane libraries, hidden data lakes, until the ethereal tide relents and gives form to his flighty spirit once more, blue and red rings coming together, interlocking, beeping twice.
It’s over. The upward rush stops. “Don’t analyze it,” his instinct tells him. Just accept it and keep moving.
Carson stands at the ancient, bronzed gates of the Arena. Virtual wind breezes by, sighing at the sight of his sturdy eyes. “Ay Alli!” He calls over. “Thought I told you to take the day off? Don’t you got a fog?”
“I did!” Alex calls back, pacing over. “But Medea gave me something for it and I’m already feeling so much better!”
“Oh gosh, so glad to hear that.” Carson wraps around Alex in a big warm bear hug. “You oughta get a lil’ rest though! Aren’t you tired?”
“Nah, I’m wide awake now.” Alex beams up at him.
“You look like it,” Carson smiles. “You lookin’ a bit different . . . you change your avatar settings? Your skin’s lookin’ real glossy.”
Alex giggles. “It’s probably just Medea’s magic. Speaking of which, I’m itching for some action.” Carson raises an eyebrow. “I’ve got tons of energy to burn off now, and I knew you guys would be here training.”
Alex peels away from Carson and nods over to Shen. “Hey Shen, good to see you.”
“Hey bro,” Shen holds his fist out for a bump. “Glad you’re all better now. Cole told me about your fog and I was a little worried about you.”
“Only a little worried?” Alex laughs, bumping him back.
“Nah man, I know you’re an absolute machine,” Shen grins. “No point worrying too much about you.”
“Well if you insist on training with us,” Carson chuckles, “then let’s all run a sim together. We were just talkin’ about you, matter of fact. And about Pegasus. Somethin’ off about the whole situation.”
“Something strange is going on in the Secretary’s office,” Shen grumbles. “Sorry I was a jerk to you yesterday, Altair. I’m just getting really fucking frustrated with all the World Union bureaucrats over there in Hudson. Was bad of me to lump you in with them.”
“It’s okay, Shen,” Alex smiles. “It’s a difficult time for all of us. I completely understand. But what do you think was so strange about Pegasus?”
“We reckon Pegasus isn’t a rogue object like Intel claims it is,” Carson says. “It’s part of some bigger network of objects.”
“Remember Sphinx?” Shen asks. “Remember how it just evolved from Type 1 to 2-2 in like, a minute? There’s no way any object could do that without help.”
“See, Sphinx is the key to this,” Carson replies. “Sphinx was a counterintel object. Got real deep into our systems real fast, but didn’t do much other than read and duplicate a bunch of files once it got there. But Pegasus was an assault object, and a damn good one at that—knew exactly where to go once it got into our systems.”
Alex squints at their theory. “Don’t you guys think you might be overanalyzing this? I’m sure Intel must’ve thought about something this obvious.”
Shen rolls his eyes. “Altair, I know you and Secretary Asaju go way back and you really trust the generals and everything, but you’ve gotta see this for what it is.”
“And what’s that?”
“A conspiracy. Like you said, the scan/attack setup is too obvious. But Pegasus was still able to attack. Something’s going on here.”
Alex rolls his eyes back at Shen. “C’mon Shen, I came here to train with you, not to hear your conspiracy theories.”
“Shen’s right,” Carson pipes up from behind. “Something’s real fishy about the story Intel is feeding us. One object scans all our shit, the next knows exactly where to hit us? And Aeschylus tells us they’re both rogue objects? Totally unrelated? I ain’t buyin’ it.”
“Well, have you thought about fighting Sphinx again?” Alex asks. “Try to get a better sense of what it was looking for when it was scanning our systems?”
“That’s exactly what we’ve been doing here all day,” Shen smirks. “Fighting the Sphinx sim over and over and over. Seems like Intel is purposefully letting some of Sphinx’s commands leak into other systems.”
“Well I dunno if they’re doin’ it on purpose,” Carson notes, “but they sure as hell ain’t containin’ the leak properly.”
“How are you guys so sure of this?” Alex laughs. “Our training environment isn’t even connected to the main network.”
“Come see for yourself.” Carson turns and leads the group through the gates of the Arena. Sunlight pours down over the bronze lions and weathered pillars looming over the colossal training grounds.
“Just think about it,” Shen starts up again as they march out onto the parched battlefield. “Sphinx was the strangest object we’ve fought. We all got flooded with strange files and weird test data when we were fighting it, right?”
“Yes. What’s your point?”
“It wasn’t just reading some files or data on some computers. It was reading us,” Carson suggests.
“Abebe, Singh, and Rodriguez all got a fog after Pegasus too,” Shen frowns. “Vivid dreams last night, attention spans fried, scrambled memories, visits to Medea this morning—just like you. Seems like a pre-planned adversarial attack if you ask me.”
“Maybe air traffic control wasn’t even its target?” Carson muses. “Maybe the real target was us.”
“And hijacking air traffic was just its optimal pathway to get to us,” Shen adds.
“Wait, wait, wait.” Alex pauses in the middle of the battlefield. The Arena’s empty benches stare at him from all around. “If this is all true, then shouldn’t Aeschylus already know? He monitors all of our actions, right?”
“Not if Sphinx is spoofing some of his sensory systems.”
“Then shouldn’t we tell Undersecretary Stone? Or Secretary Asaju?”
“We’ve tried,” Carson says, “but the entire Strategy team isn’t replying to any messages right now.”
“Do you think they’re meeting about this?”
“Possibly,” Shen shrugs. “Or about a new threat. Who knows. They don’t ever want us know what’s really happening, we’re just their robot pawns.”
“I’m rebooting the sim now so you can see this shit, Alli.” Carson’s eyes dart around for a moment, opening unseen programs, moving invisible data until a mission dashboard pops up over the battlefield.
Carson points up at the dashboard. “Look at ‘er cognitive parameters. Sphinx is designed for nothing but brute force data collection. She’s just a knowledge synthesis machine on her own, needs some kinda accomplice to make ‘er useful for combat.”
“Okay, but how do we know Sphinx was designed?” Alex asks. “Couldn’t it just be some standard data collection program over at Intel that stopped functioning as intended? Started evolving way too fast all on its own?”
Shen sighs. “Altair, one of the games I won championships in when I was in the Pro League is called Lines of Sight. Ever heard of it?”
“No, I haven’t had a chance to play games in years.”
“Okay, well the way you win in LoS is by gathering a shitload of intel about the enemy team and passing it all along to a character named the Director. Then the Director weighs the volume and quality of all the intel your team gathered, and whichever team gathered the most actionable intel is assumed to be the one that will actually win in combat. It’s an intel game, not a combat game. The only reason to collect data is so that you can fight better.”
Alex scoffs. “That’s a very long-winded of saying you learned about the intelligence lifecycle through a video game.”
“Look you two,” Carson jumps in before their rivalry can flare up any further, “why don’t we just run the sim again so Alex can see for their self, yeah?”
Alex nods. “Good idea. No point arguing about this, just show me what you two are so spooked about.”
“Focus on the data it dumps on you though,” Shen comments. “I know you have trouble stopping to analyze things, Altair—that’s actually kinda what makes you so good at this—but please try to analyze the situation here, okay?”
“Okay Shen,” Alex smirks, “I’ll pay attention to the data dumps.”
“Alrighty folks, loading in now!” Carson shouts out from across the battlefield.
The bright bronze and glowing sand of the Arena flash with blue. Wireframes and pixels pour over the battlefield for a moment, washing Carson and Shen out of view. The ground begins to tremble as a tall, black cat rises from the scorching sands.
“Do ya’ll see ‘er?” Carson’s voice booms into Alex’s brain from a distant VR channel. The Sphinx spreads its long, dusty wings, its tail smashes against the sand as its ears perk up, its golden mane howls in the wind, its jaw erupts in a lioness roar.
“Oh yeah, I see her!” Alex shouts back, a blazing white blade popping into his grip. “She’s just like I remember her so far.”
“Good! Go get ‘er!”
PRIMARY TARGET pops up over the Sphinx, health bar pops up in the corner of Alex’s eye:
Alex lunges forward, the great Sphinx pounces toward him, combat instincts take over, “semi-auto!” Blue light hums him into hypnosis, the spirit of Aeschylus enters him, draws his arm back, his blade slicing through the Sphinx’s soft fur and flesh as his body grazes along its side, cutting through a third of its health in one masterful slash:
The Sphinx purrs and hisses out in agony, spreadsheets pour from its gash, network diagrams fill the air, the sand beneath Alex’s feet turning to scrambled data as black boxes and broken vectors spray from the beast’s gaping wound.
“Don’t analyze it,” instinct tells him, “just keep moving.”
He sinks his feet into the datascape, pivots to face the mythical beast once again, launches toward the back of its head, Aeschylus drawing back his arm once again, lining him up for a perfect killshot, when suddenly the Sphinx snaps its neck all the way around to scream at him:
“WHY DID YOU BECOME A MAN?!”
The Sphinx’s words pierce through the threshold of his consciousness. His instinct breaks, his focus drops as the feline face of the Sphinx flashes, glitches, morphs into a mirror of his own face, but ḩ̴̲̫̇̔į̴̝̄̑̌s̶̛̥͓̰͎̬̔͘ hair is longer than it should be, her jaw looks smaller, ḥ̵͙̜̈́̿ḙ̴̝͑r̷̤̗̖̐̔his skin looks softer, s̸̭̈o̷͓̔f̷̮̊t̵̼̽ē̶͔r̶̞̓, s̵̛̛̱͋̓͘o̸̯̦͍̥̝̙̤̾̈́͗͗̐̌̚f̵̭̗͇̦̩̼̲͉̉͌̅͛̉̅̀͘͜͠t̶̫̬̆e̸̠̯͍̺̹̟̓̍͗̿͂̋͌͘r̴̡̛̬̤̥̝̝̖̞͐͌̈̊̀
The Sphinx seizes on Alex’s moment of dysphoria, leaps into the air, her sand-soaked wings carrying her across the battlefield, walls of glitchy text oozing from her wound as she retreats, plastering the Arena with reports, research papers, dusty old tomes of forbidden knowledge and endless reams of randomized data.
“See anything interesting yet?” Carson shouts over from his own channel. “She’s dumpin’ a bunch of creepy video feeds on me.”
“Not yet, it’s just spewing out a bunch of encrypted text in my channel,” Shen reports. “And its body keeps phasing in and out of the sim.”
“RESPOND,” Aeschylus commands. Alex snaps back into focus, leers across the Arena, sizes up the Sphinx, leaps into the air, Aeschylus carefully puppeteering his arms, hoisting his blade high above his head before plunging it down toward the creature’s skull, only to be met by a tactical pop-up pane:
Alex’s blade smashes into the pop-up, sinks deep into the shifting panes of text shielding the Sphinx. The blade’s stuck. Alex tugs but it won’t budge. His focus breaks. He reads the pop-up. Then reads it again. And again. And again. The Sphinx reads the expression on his face and hisses in amusement as her health begins to regenerate:
“Don’t analyze it too much, just keep moving,” Alex’s instinct tells him. “Of course Carson will still love you.” H̶̳̿̊͜e̷̯̔͜͝r̶̡̲̈́̅ eyes linger over the Yes button for a moment, the pop-ups fades, and the blade returns to her grasp.
But it’s too late: the Sphinx has already leapt high over Alex’s head, landed on the other side of the battlefield in a cloud of dust, her wound closing shut as her health returns to full.
“What’s goin’ on in your sim Alli?” Carson shouts through voice chat. “You good in there?”
A sudden surge of resolve rushes into Alex, chemicals rush out from hidden compartments in her brain, alien energy enters every nerve—but it doesn’t feel like Aeschylus. It feels good.
“Respond,” a lavender light blinks, lulling Alex into beautiful automation.
“Hell yeah I’m good in here.” Alex stares down the crafty Sphinx from across the battlefield. “My Sphinx is asking me very . . . personal questions. Nothing I can’t handle.”
“What kind of questions?” Shen shouts. “I’m getting pop-ups about other commanders.”
“Same,” Alex grins. “Gonna see if I can get a few more.” Alex breaks through the air, soaring effortlessly across the Arena, sword in her hand drawn back, ready to strike at the Sphinx again, but stops short just before her target as another riddle pops into view:
Alex pauses. She was expecting more personal questions, not philosophical questions. Or is this a personal question? The Sphinx purrs with low, bellowing laughter from behind the pop-up shield. “Don’t analyze it,” h̷͍͘ì̷̳s̶͕͌ instinct tells him, “just keep moving.”
Can’t strike the pop-up or the sword will get stuck in it again, Alex strafes around the Sphinx, probing for an opening, but the pop-up follows him, hovering in midair, shielding the Sphinx from every possible angle as another riddle pops up:
“Oh fuck this,” Alex scowls. “I came here to fight, not take tests. 1.2x!”
“Alli did you just turn your overdrive on?!” Carson shouts. “Turn that shit off, you don’t need it in a sim!”
“Relax Cole,” Shen calls out. “He’s all fixed up now, he can handle a little extra juice.”
Alex blots out their words, focuses on the Sphinx, his overclocked brain bursting with acuity, seamlessly processing dozens of parallel thoughts, he of course has many genders, but she also has a body, perhaps many bodies, so that rules the obvious first guess out, but how is she thinking right now? Meanings, words, semantics, syntax, grammar, grammatical gender . . .
“Language.” The first pop-up shield shatters.
How could a mother never age? Maybe the child was designed, Alex was designed, gestated in a lab, not quite self-birthed, he shares some genes with his parents but shares many more genes with a computer program, some programs have human ancestors but give birth to themselves, whether or not they age or reproduce in the same way as humans is a debate for the philosophers, Sphinx might not fully understand why that’s debatable, Sphinx might but be more dumb than first thought, it’s a very dumb riddle, but a self-birthing program is arguably—
“As old as their child.” The second pop-up shield shatters.
“RESPOND,” Aeschylus commands the instant the shield breaks, highlighting weak points in red all over the Sphinx’s body, compelling Alex to strike wherever he sees fit.
Alex moves with impossible swiftness, draws his flaming white blade and drives it deep into the creature’s thigh, its neck, its skull, kneels on the beast’s jaw as it falls to ground, sword through its brain, howling in pain, its health plummeting to near-zero:
“Alli, what’s your status over there?!” Carson yells. “See anything else interesting?”
“Not yet!” Alex shouts back. “But I’ve almost got ‘er down to zero!” Alex twists the blade, hoping to drain the last bit of life out of his enemy, but again, the creature’s face shifts, glitches, morphs into Alex’s own face and stares back at her, screaming in anguish:
“WILL YOU DESTROY YOURSELF?!”
Informatic chaos floods out from the hole in the Sphinx’s skull, thick clouds of neon glyphs, lines of code, dark voices fill the Arena: “These men know only war,” “Intel is purposefully letting some of its commands leak into other systems,” “You finally became the man the world needed you to be,” “defend your family,” “the generals who rubber stamp all the strategies spoon-fed to them by Aeschylus,” “cyborg freaks at Global Command,” “I don’t even know what I’m fighting, much less why I’m fighting it.”
Walls of text explode out of the sand, wrap around the Sphinx, encasing her in technical specs, surveillance logs, transcripts, blueprints, records of care, records of service, every genre of bureaucratic poetry under the sun, beaming evidence of corruption, ineptitude, conspiracy into his brain, content flashing through h̶̫̍̄ị̷̛̚s̶͎̾ ̸̰̲͌ę̵̐͐y̴͔̞͐̉e̸̙͐͝š̴̼̜ and ears too fast to process, o̵͖̙̒̔̇̒̏v̴̤̲̾̇̃e̵̦̜̎r̷̖̠̱͈̖̆̇l̷̠̰̀͂ǒ̸̳̩̖͉͌ͅa̷̬͙͙̖̔̎̈̚͝d̵̦͕̏̒͒͂̈ǐ̶̡͍̫̗̈̈͊̕n̸̳̬̖̋̅g̷̢̗̃̓͆ every sense as the warning pulses into view:
PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTORTION RISK
DISENGAGING NEURAL OVERDRIVE ADVISED
“FOR CHRIST’S SAKE ALEX, TURN YOUR OVERDRIVE OFF RIGHT NOW,” Carson hollers.
“You should listen to your boyfriend this time, Altair,” Shen adds, “this isn’t a noble hill for you to die on, bro.”
But all matters to Alex is draining that last bit of life out of the Sphinx’s body, so he tugs the sword of her skull and pools all his focus to strike her one final time, only to be met by another riddle popping into the air:
“YIKES!” Carson shouts into the voice chat.
“Uhhhh I dunno about you guys, but Sphinx just gave me a pop-up asking for my config key,” Shen laughs.
“Yessir, that’s a HUGE yikes,” Carson replies. “Alli, I dunno what’s goin’ on with ya right now babe, but DO NOT give this thing access to your config data. Don’t even think about your key, y’hear me over there?”
Alex pauses. Glances down from the login screen. Stares at the fractured face of the howling lioness. D̴i̵s̵t̶o̸rt̷i̵o̶n̸ streams out from the hole in her head. Alex lifts ḩ̴̛͙̏̕͝ẹ̸̛͙̯̺̼̉̑̂͐ȓ̴̡̭̂͘͜his head away from the blade and takes his knee off her neck. Big exhale. “Disengage.”
“Oh thank fuck,” Carson gasps. “Maybe we take a little break, ya?”
“Good idea,” Shen replies, “my sim’s getting way too glitchy, too.”
Bright gridlines wash over the sands of the Arena. The Sphinx and all her broken data fade away as Carson and Shen fade in, their bright white armor glowing in the golden sunlight.
“Alli, you sure you good there, babe?” Carson calls over.
“Yeah.” Alex takes a deep inhale. “I’m good. Just got carried away for a minute.”
“You need to go rest, give your body more time to process the new meds.”
“He’ll be fine,” Shen rolls his eyes. “Did either of you see anything interesting before the sim paused? I was trying to see some recording of the Pegasus attack, but it was all glitched out.”
“I got her deep in the head.” Alex glances down at where the Sphinx was bleeding out just a moment ago. “Nearly perfect killshot. Started leaking distorted voices and files out everywhere.”
“Were the voices saying anything?” Carson asks.
Alex shies his eyes away from Carson. “Yeah . . . lots of things.”
“. . . I think you’re right, Shen,” Alex says, turning away from Carson. “Sphinx was reading us. A/B tests. Personalized dumps of recent data. It was a well-orchestrated adversarial attack. And still an active threat. You’re 100% right.”
“Thank you!” Shen grins. “Maybe now you can finally start to see that those guys upstairs from you in that creepy ass tower don’t actually care about our wellbeing, they just—”
“Aight, so what can we do about this?” Carson jumps in. “The big guys are still meetin’, no word yet why. I put in a couple security notices to Aeschylus, no reply from him either. So now what?”
“Bro, they don’t give a fuck!” Shen yells. “They expect us to just pilot their giant robot network and melt our brains for them whenever they tell us to!”
“Listen here, bro,” Carson scowls. “I appreciate your skepticism, I really do. I’m from Texas—designed, born, and bred. Nobody trusts the World Union less than Texas. And I know damn well this is a hard job, and you’re still new to the Command Chair, and it’s fuckin’ brutal when you’re first startin’ out. It’s a real shitshow out here. I feel ya.”
Shen scowls back at him.
“That said, you gotta grow the fuck up, you gotta stop stirrin’ up drama, stop pickin’ fights with everyone all the damn time. This is Global Command, not the Pro League.”
“What the fuck do you know about fights, Cole? You’re becoming an old man fast, your stats have been slipping every month for the last year and—
“NOBODY forced ya to be here pal, y’hear me?” Carson raises his voice. “Either we pilot the freaky robot swarms, or else some other even freakier robot swarms are gonna kill a helluva lot of innocent people.”
“Cole, your response times are getting so low that—”
“You’re free to go back to bein’ a pro-gamer any time, got it? But you need to understand that you ain’t playin’ no VR game no more. This is real war now. Real lives are on the line. So either shut up and fight, or go back to playin’ Lines of Sight.”
“Guys, guys, cool it down here,” Alex steps in between them and smiles up at Carson. “Take it easy on Shen. Remember how much we fought during our first deployments?”
Carson smiles back down and nods. “Sorry pal,” he sighs, swallowing his pride as he looks back up at Shen. “Very delicate situation we’re all in here. Very tense. Last thing we need is mistrust and infights in the team.”
“Yeah yeah I feel you, man,” Shen holds his fist out for a bump. “I hate the tension here too. Can’t imagine how shitty it must be for you two to be on active duty for what? Almost 10 years now?”
“Yeeeeah somethin’ like that,” Carson laughs, bumping Shen’s fist back.
“Far too long,” Alex smiles.
“Either of you old folks ever dealt with something like this before?” Shen teases, raising an eyebrow. “Like . . . is there even a protocol for something like this? When none of the generals or secretaries or Aeschylus are even replying to security notices?”
“That’s a great question,” Alex says, scanning through records in his brain. “Section 178.57.109 of the Aeschylus Operating Protocol says that if there is cause for concern and security notices are not being responded to in a timely manner, then the concerned party shall order all commanders to convene in the Forum and—”
Before Alex can finish, the bronze and gold glow of the Arena wash away into a sea of light once again. The voice channel goes silent. The avatars of Carson and Shen fade out into the white light as an alert pulses into view:
READINESS CONDITION 2
MAJOR GLOBAL THREAT
PROCEED TO THE FORUM IMMEDIATELY