“We’ve killed it four times, but it keeps coming back.”
Abebe points up at the mission dashboard, hovering their finger over the enemy’s stats. “You’ll notice that Object Hydra has high synthesis capabilities. Synthesis capabilities are closely associated with creative intelligence, which is likely why Hydra continues finding new ways to re-spawn. It’s one of the more cunning foes we’ve faced.”
“Is that why you call it Hydra?” Alex asks. “Big scary dragon that keeps growing new heads?”
Abebe smiles bright at Alex as they close the mission dashboard. “The name is a happy coincidence. Aeschylus named this foe well.”
“So what’s this training exercise all about then?” Alex paces around the rocky plateau. The stars glitter in the sky and glisten across his shining white suit of armor. “I just have to take down a simulation of the Hydra? Can’t be that simple.”
“Indeed, this is not a simple exercise,” Abebe nods. “The Hydra cannot be killed simply by cutting its heads off. They will grow back too quickly. To win this battle, you must deploy greater creative intelligence than Object Hydra.”
Alex shrugs. “Shouldn’t be that hard for me to outsmart a giant lizard, right?”
“Don’t get too cocky,” Abebe chuckles. They gaze off into virtual reality and pull up some graphs and numbers into the night sky. “As you can see from this incident report that Aeschylus generated for us last time we encountered Object Hydra, all of the commanders who fought Hydra had to engage neural overdrive for significant periods of time.”
“Sure, but I’ve had plenty of practice using overdrive, right?” Alex tilts his head as he scans over the report. He’s become used to the sparse intel that Aeschylus shares with the commanders, but this report seems especially brief. “All it says is to exercise extreme caution when using neural overdrive. Don’t I already do that?”
“Be careful, Commander Altair.” Abebe smirks as they close off the report and look down and the dark stones beneath their feet. The rocky horizons around them all start to rumble. “Neural overdrive is a strange affordance that Aeschylus provides to us. Your mind can start wandering in mysterious directions—directions that you cannot control. Always exercise extreme caution when operating in a state of neural overdrive.”
“I will,” Alex nods. The black earth beneath their shining white boots shakes harder and faster. “That the Hydra underneath us? It’s gonna try to jump up out of all these rocks and scare me, isn’t it?”
“Are you ready to begin the combat simulation, Commander Altair?” Abebe tries her hardest to suppress a tiny smile. Alex is an exceptional pupil, but he is overdue for an ego check.
“Let’s go.” Alex grins as a long, white blade pops into his strong hand. “Show me this infamous Hydra that everyone around here’s so afraid of.”
Abebe peers off into the dark clouds gathering around the plateau. Lights and commands flicker in their eyes as they vanish into thin air, leaving Alex alone atop the trembling earth, a notice popping into his eyes:
INTELLIGENT OBJECT – “HYDRA”
Alex’s ears perk up. His vision narrows, eyes darting between the shaking black stones all around his feet. He tightens his grip on his sparkling blade. He braces his legs. The old stones of the plateau shake and tremor in the moonless night as his arm extends itself, bones creak and groan, sinews grind and rip, his arm suddenly tearing itself apart.
“What?!” Alex shrieks as his arm pulls and twists itself away from the rest of his body, stiffening and swelling and hardening into long black snake scales in the blink of an eye, shrieks again as the gigantic black snake grows and grows out of his arm, his hand twisting and snapping, his white armor cracking apart as an alert flashes into view:
PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTORTION RISK
RE-TUNE FOCUS TO PROTOCOL 2
He snaps back into focus. Eyes dart down to the rumbling earth beneath him, over the enormous black serpent coiling out from him, over to the sharp white blade in his free arm. He instantly knows what he must do.
“Full-auto!” He commands Aeschylus.
His body goes limp and his brain goes numb as Aeschylus floods him with commands. He slashes clean through his own monstrous arm, leaps high into air and back from the colossal snake as it slices away from his body and writhes in agony on the quaking black earth.
Aeschylus flies him up higher into the air, his tall white boots hovering over the plateau, the dark rocks below him beginning to broil and break and teem with molten rock and orange embers as a painless white fluid bleeds from his wounded arm, congeals and crystallizes and swiftly regrows into a new arm. His new arm covers itself in fresh white armor as a blue light flashes in his eyes, kicking Alex’s instinct back into the fight.
“Semi-auto!” Alex responds as he regains his bearings. The ground below him dissolves into a pool of black tar and gushing lava, quickly spreading and oozing all across the earth with scorching red menace. His glaring blue visor steams, his white armor grows stifling hot. He climbs up higher into the sky, the furnace smouldering below him as his eyes cut across the leaping flames and boiling magma for any sign of his enemy.
“RESPOND!” Aeschylus howls into his mind as a pillar of flame spews up from the earth, spitting lava all around Alex, long black coils of tar erupting into the air and lashing out at him, he strafes to the side, dodging stream after stream of fiery brimstone before pulling away, speeding up even higher into the black sky where he scans the lake of fire from afar.
“How is the hell is this all happening so fast?!” He calls out to Aeschylus. “Where is the enemy?! Do you—”
A scream of exploding rock booms through him as the volcano far below erupts. “RESPOND!” Aeschylus commands as Alex swiftly pulls back form the geyser of fire, alert flashing into his mind:
INTELLIGENT OBJECT: “HYDRA”
15 SECONDS UNTIL ASCENSION EVENT
The roaring heads of three giant white serpents emerge from the towering wall of fire, their sharp blue eyes flashing bright, blazing with neon light as they beam a barrage of speeding blue lasers through Alex’s armor, peppering him with holes as the wind leaves his lungs and he plunges to the earth, alert blasting into his mind as darkness fills his eyes:
ENTER FULL-AUTO MODE IMMEDIATELY
His eyes twitch and flutter as the flames spit and smoke around him. His heart shivers. His hands jolt as he comes to his senses, the volcanic heat engulfing him, fire searing and stabbing at every inch of his white hot armor as a squints at the alert flashing in front of him:
ENTER FULL-AUTO MODE IMMEDIATELY!
No. He’s not going to let Aeschylus win so easily. Aeschylus has been nearly useless up to this point. Alex has carried this whole battle by himself so far. This battle is his to win. Alex knows exactly what he must do.
“2x!” He commands Aeschylus.
The flames turn cool, he dulls his nerves, sharpens his eyes, peers up at the three-headed serpent high above him, its long necks and scales shining white as the sun, his armor all burnt and broken, he thinks fast about how to rebuild it, white steel pops into the air all around him, molds and wraps itself around him, stiffens into sheets of tough white armor all around him as he dashes up through the inferno and conjures his trusty white blade back into his grasp and Aeschylus flashes a stern warning into his eyes:
PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTORTION RISK
DISENGAGING NEURAL OVERDRIVE ADVISED
Alex ignores the advice, tightens his gaze on the three Hydra heads screeching overhead, their blue eyes all furiously beaming down at him. Alex will not give Aeschylus the satisfaction of seeing him fail.
“Full manual!” Alex commands, locking Aeschylus out of his body. He rockets higher and higher into the burning night sky, draws his blade, a blast of scorching fire racing up from below him, the Hydra’s heads twisting and lashing and spitting rays of neon blue flame down at Alex, but he lunges on toward his target.
“6x!” Alex calls out.
The soft blue fireballs buzz and waft through him like dandelions in the sun, filling the air with a cool crisp wind. Inhale. The Hydra’s heads are close. He readies his blade. He stares down their wall of scaly white coils and deadly blue eyes. The dandelion fuzz slowly rolls through his liquid smooth sk̴i̴n. Exh̶͘ä̶́̾l̵͈̎e̵.
“Swarm!” He commands Aeschylus. A thin chunk of his shining white armor snaps away. Then another chunk and another and another and another. The white chunks of steel ben̷d a̶n̶d̶ m̵o̴r̴p̶h̷ in the air around h̵̟̩̮̹͐̓͋̉i̵̜̋̏̕m̷̧̠͉̳͒͂̔, sharpenỉ̴͓̪̗̄̀̋ṉ̴̠̅̌͛͘g̶̀̕ themselves into long white spears of light, all dan̷͉̪̗̠̙̣̉ͅcī̵n̴͚͖̒͆̓g̷̛͍̺̉̽́̐ and whirring around h̸̀̍̒î̶̺̇̿͌́̐͊͊̎͒̄͌͜m̸͉̞͚͚̦̪̹̫̀͒͑̚ as they close in on their ene̴m̸̘̄y.
EXTREME PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTORTION RISK
DISENGAGE NEURAL OVERDRIVE IMMEDIATELY
The spears of light launch forward like scorching white lasers, stabbing through the Hydra’s many heads and necks and eyes, the entire world screẹ̶̅c̷̝͆h̵̬̎i̵̫̍ń̵͖g̴͚̈ ̵̙͋i̵̟͝n̴̤͋ ̷͓̈d̷̲̓ȩ̶͑ä̶͔t̴̻̔h̴͕̽ as the flames roil and roar all around h̷͉̯̬̹̮̟͎͚̽ȇ̶̡͔͕̈́̍̿͝ŗ̵͎̰̦̱͑̽̃̋̕̕ and the dragon heads explode in a pure white flash and s̴̡̨͖͕̱͔̗̩̻̤̖̮͕̝̻̦̰̾͋̽̏̓͑͒̊̿͘h̴̢̡̯̳̮̪͇͖͖͉͇̙̹̠̐͒̎̈́̃̀̏ę̴̫̩̲͎̪̤̘̻̟̠̠̰̮̮̰̣̮̪͖̣͑̿̍̽͜͝ remembers the dead white walls of the Complex and the lush marble pillars of the Palace and the clear blue sky when they all gathered at the mountaintop and the clouds of smoke rolled in all around t̷h̵e̵m̵ and a foul thunder ś̵̬̲̈́̂̓h̴̬̱̀͑̈́o̵o̶̬͂k̶̛̩̝̟͖̻̜͎̫͖͖̰̞̔͂̿̈́̀͊̈͜ the bones of the earth as the deep, rich voice of the B̴̧̤̫̌͋̄ą̸̰͊͂̕s̶̢̼̦̺̘͎̓ḭ̶̖͕̙̹͖̿̂̾̈l̶̘̠̺̺͇̈́î̵̼͝s̶͛͑͋͝ͅk enters her once again:
Inhale. Remember what Medea said: The
B̵a̵s̸i̸l̵i̶s̴k̷Dragon is just a recurring nightmare. The D̵͉̄ŕ̴̙͇ag̵oņ̵͔̳̲͌͌͗̚ cannot actually hurt you. The D̵ragon̶ is not real. It is merely lucid dream of your own making, and you alone are in control of this world.
The proud blue notice flashes into her:
S̸̺͌h̸͚̓ẹ̵͠ ̷͍͐r̷͓͆ẻ̸͈m̴̜̔ę̸̒m̸̧͗b̸̩̎ḙ̷̈́r̶̼͒s̸̢̾ ̸̟̔t̶̳̊ḩ̷̌ḛ̶̄ ̴̰̂t̸̖̂i̶̗̎n̸̠̆ÿ̶̤ ̷̪͋w̷̫̅h̸͖͒ȉ̵͉t̷̻̃e̴͔̐ ̸̻͆d̵̻̈́r̸̰͂o̶̩̍n̷͚͊e̶̪̒s̵͖̈́ ̶̰̍ī̷͕n̴̗͒ ̸̻̕t̸͔́h̸̺̊ë̸̝́ ̶̗̓P̷̹̀ḁ̸̆l̴͊͜a̶̙͑ċ̴̮e̴̢͊,̴̞͆ ̸͉͝ẗ̴͕h̶̗͆ē̸̦ ̶̰̈́s̴̋ͅĉ̴͙o̶͇͗w̵͉̑ḷ̸͂ỉ̸̗n̴̻͝g̶͈͑ ̸̰̈́b̶̜͌l̵̜̃a̵̭̅c̵̰͛k̷̼̃ ̶̬̓a̴͚̕i̵͕͌r̴̘̔s̶̬̑ḧ̵̳ḯ̷͔p̶̨̀ ̷͖̔o̵̜͝ṋ̵̈́ ̶̅ͅṯ̸͂h̵̠̿e̴̤͝ ̸̻̈s̴̬͠p̵̅͜ȓ̶̤á̵̧ŵ̶̳l̶̲̉í̸̧ǹ̸̗g̷̤͒ ̶͙̍f̸̫̎r̵͈̅o̶̱̅n̸͈͆t̴͕̏ ̴̖͝l̶̽ͅa̷͙͒w̸̞̄ṅ̴̘,̶̲̏ ̷͖̓l̶̡͠a̶͖͝y̴̜͋í̴̡n̶͖̂ğ̸̪ ̴̟͒i̶͖̎ñ̴̡ ̸̟͒a̸̺͋ ̴̬͌h̵̻͗à̷̳ḿ̶͍m̸̬̎ò̵͕c̸̰̃k̶͙͋ ̸̱͗n̵͎̉e̵̳͌x̴͇͛t̷̗̓ ̸̱̋ť̵̠o̸̭͌ ̷̲͘t̸͙̀ḧ̸̞́é̵̮ ̷̗̕g̵̝̓ă̵̙r̴̠̈́d̶͔̏ę̸̉n̸̲̈́ ̶͉̑ā̸͔s̶̫͒ ̸̱͑s̷̻̏ẖ̴͂é̵͙ ̵̼͂s̶̡͌ä̸̫́y̵̱̑ŝ̴̮ ̵̲̀g̶̳̍ő̴̤o̴̖̎d̴̫̅b̵̜̑y̶̖̕e̶̮̒ ̷̧̽a̶̠͐n̸̤̍d̸̖̈́ ̴̧̋ẃ̵̮ȁ̴̝r̴̡͛ń̶̢s̷̞̀ ̸̝̇h̴̹̀e̸̦͑r̸̮̊ ̷̬̕ṅ̷̩ǫ̵̏t̷̯̚ ̴͖͐t̶͕͝o̴̝͐ ̷̝̿f̷̙̉ḯ̴̘ḡ̸̥h̶̰͝t̷̯͠ ̸̛͕f̸̻̆ơ̸͇r̷̛͚ ̶̱́t̶̹͋h̴̜̓e̸͕̍m̵̖͐,̶̩́ ̵̞̽t̴͈̕h̶̹̆e̸̖̍ ̵̻̔m̷̺͋ì̴̦x̸͙͌ ̷͙́o̵͔͝f̷̯̀ ̶͇͝s̸̥͒m̴͑ͅe̴͈̅l̸̞̎l̶̰̈́s̸͕̒ ̵̗̔ã̶͕ǹ̴̜d̴͉̀ ̷͓͊t̶̺͆â̶̼s̸̟̾t̴̺̊e̴̹̾s̵͕̑ ̸̟̏a̴̖̒n̴̹̏d̶͍̄ ̸̛̟s̶̟̊ò̸̬u̷̹͝n̷̝̈́d̵̦̿s̶̨͠ ̸̛͇b̶͈̊ṷ̵͛b̵̞̔b̶̡̿l̷̰̒i̶̛͕n̶̠̋g̴͎͊ ̸̦̂ţ̸̀h̸͚͝r̸̡͊o̸̠͊u̵̻̽g̴̰̊h̶͎̾ ̶̘͝å̵̝ì̵̭ŗ̴̐ ̵͕̏á̶̬s̵͈̐ ̷͖̇m̵̡͘a̴̤͗k̴͍̋e̵̱̊s̸͍̅ ̵̦̐a̷̝͊ ̵͙̐b̸͔͗i̴̭̕g̵̢̊ ̷̰̚p̶͇̚ō̵͍t̷̛̠ ̷̬̋ö̶̞f̶͎͆ ̸̫͘s̵̘̈t̷̹͒e̵̙͊ẇ̸͚,̵́ͅ ̵͍̑t̴̨͐h̴͇̐ĕ̷̼ ̶̙̚c̷͍͘o̷͓̒l̴̻̔d̶̟͛ ̶̻̾w̸͕͆ĭ̷̭n̴͙̎t̷̩͌e̸̱͒r̶̪͂ ̸̥̐a̸̧͒i̵̘͌r̶̻͛ ̴̡͊b̸̗̅l̴̖͆o̴̟͝w̵̱͘i̵̝͑n̸͎̈g̷̚͜ ̶̳̉ō̴̧u̸̳͆ẗ̴͖́s̶̎ͅi̵̤̊d̸̗͑ḙ̸̒ ̵̞́a̸͘ͅn̵̘͝d̷̠̔ ̷͕̉a̸̬̅l̷̟̉l̶̺̃ ̶͈͊t̴̮̒ḣ̵͖r̷̞͝ő̷͔u̶̜̚g̸͇͒ḣ̵͖ ̸̼͗t̷̻̔h̶̭̅e̷̥͂į̷̑r̶̲̈́ ̵͉͝t̵͔̓i̷̟̇n̷̼͠ÿ̶̱́ ̶̝͊t̸͖̏o̸̮̅ẃ̵͈ṅ̷̝ȟ̴̘ȯ̵̧ù̷̞ş̴̽e̷͓̓’̶̝̋s̸͎̈́ ̸̦̀ṉ̴̓o̷̫̽ó̷̟k̵̹͐ṡ̶̻ ̸̺̊ả̴͎n̶͚͠d̶̮͝ ̸̪̏v̶̨͗e̸͓̎n̵̥̓t̸̬̏ş̵̐ ̴̦͗á̵̺s̵͕̊ ̶̻͐t̸͉̀h̸̪͊e̶̥̋ ̴̗̽c̶̯͐ǒ̸̳l̵̞̀d̸̙̚ ̸̳̾a̷̮̾i̷̢̎r̴̖̈́ ̷̪͋i̷͔͘n̷͇͑ ̶͙͑t̴̥͌h̴͎̅e̷̛̠ ̴̡̎C̸̯̍ȯ̴̹r̸̞͗e̷̠̐ ̴̤̉C̴͕͑h̶͇͂a̵̳̿ṃ̵̆ḃ̴̲ę̸͑r̴̳͆ ̴̪͋a̴͓͆n̵̺͝d̸̢̛ ̶̹̂t̴̬͠h̵̘̏e̶̞̔ ̸̺͝s̶͎̍k̴͙͠a̷̫͒ṱ̶̽ḯ̶̻ņ̸̎g̸͈͒ ̴͖̐r̵̗̎í̶̩n̸̞͊k̷̟̅ ̵̢̀c̴͍̕r̵̖̓e̸̮̍e̴̡͊p̴͖̔ś̴͜ ̷̨́u̷̠̇p̶̘̆ ̷̥̈f̸̜͝r̴̜͐ő̵͓m̷̠̂ ̸̮̐t̶̰̐h̸̪͋ẽ̵̡ ̴̜̈́e̴̢͒ḁ̴̅r̴̜͌t̷̰̂h̷͓̋ ̶̲͂ą̴̚n̸̞̐ḓ̴͋ ̷̛̩g̵̫̕r̶̟͋a̵̠̚b̸̥̂s̴̚͜ ̴̠̆h̷̦͋e̶̜̒r̷̠̆ ̷̥͒b̷͖̍ẙ̸̯ ̶̺̐t̵̹͘h̷̛͚e̷̯͛ ̴̜̔l̴̗̓è̵̯g̶͙͆s̸̱̅,̸͕́ ̵̤̋c̴͓̑l̶̺͝a̴̭͆ẅ̵̮s̷̠͌ ̴͈̉a̵̺͊t̷̗̉ ̵̙̇h̸̨́e̴͙̓ŗ̴͛ ̶̋͜ẃ̵̻i̵̖̊t̴̡̂h̶̝̏ ̸̝́i̸͈͌c̴̬̒y̶͕̑ ̸̬͊h̴̳̍á̶̩n̶̟͂ď̶̖s̴̬̽ ̵̛͔ã̴̙n̷̟͐d̴̤̒ ̴̠͝p̴̬̏ȕ̵̙l̴̘̚l̴̺̍s̷̬͒ ̴̫̑h̷̪͝e̷͔̓r̴̼̐ ̴̢̉d̷͎͊o̵̺̓ẃ̸̳ṅ̴̰ ̶̰͝f̵̱͗u̴͙̓r̶͕͐ẗ̸̠́h̴̨̊e̵͚͐ř̴̳ ̴̢̈́â̵̦n̶̬̎d̸̞͋ ̸̪̃f̷͈̀ũ̵̞r̴͙̚t̵̛̺h̶͙͘e̴̞͌r̷͓̀ ̵̗̍a̷̢̾n̷̫̒d̵̗̈́ ̴̡͠f̵̯̓u̷̡̅r̸̤̕t̵͍̏h̵̙́e̵̺͘r̷̹̚ ̷̟̔i̸̢͋n̵̬̊ț̵́o̸̹͌—̴̧̅
NEURAL SYSTEMS OVERHEATED
COOLDOWN SEQUENCE DEPLOYED
“Okay sweetie,” her voice chimes into her head. “Just a biiiig breath in for me okay?”
Alex gasps for air. He gasps again. He trembles and shakes, failing to find his breath, failing to regain his focus, failing to he̷̴̷̟̲͂̀a̷̷̵̵̴͉͈̩͖͆͗̈̂̅͜l̶̟̏. H̶̖̱͚̹͖̤̑̈́̇̅͜͠ė̴͓̼̖̭̝ gas̸ps̵̢̛̥̩ again, this time feels each little tuft of air in each of h̵̫̃i̷̞͊s breath, each little worry leaving him as he pulls the pure clean air into him, then pushes it back out, pulls it back in, pulls it back out. He pulls the air back into his lungs and holds strong.
“Biiiig exhale,” her voice rings out.
He slowly releases. The soft white void cools around him, fades back into the crisp night air of the starlit rocky plateau. Soft stones rest at his feet. The soft night sky glitters all around him and his mighty white armor. He softly gazes out at the heavens.
“COMMANDER ALTAIR!” Abebe pops back into the plateau, eyes rigid with terror. “You were told to exercise EXTREME CAUTION when operating in a state of neural over—”
“I did!” Alex protests. “I did exercise extreme caution! And I won!” Alex glances at the mission results hovering in the corner of his eye. “Looks like a set a new record for fastest Hydra kill too!”
“Commander Altair, LOOK at your psych distortion!” Abebe points a harsh finger at his stats:
“Look at that red text!” Abebe shouts. “Do you know what that means?!”
“Ya my psych distortion’s a little high,” Alex shrugs. “But—”
“You were on the verge of a catastrophic cognitive injury! Do you remember what that means?!”
Sparks pop into Alex’s eyes. The terrible blue eyes of the Basilisk flash into his memory for just an instant.
“Commander Abebe,” Alex smiles. “You’ve been training me for nearly a year now. I know what a catastrophic cognitive injury is.”
“Remind me!” Abebe commands him. “What is a catastrophic cognitive injury, Commander Altair?”
Alex rolls his eyes as he recites from memory. “A catastrophic cognitive injury is an event that causes severe and irreversible damage to neurological and psychological systems.”
“Precisely!” Abebe presses a stern finger against his chest. “Severe and irreversible damage to your neurological and psychological systems! Never take that risk!”
Alex sighs. Abebe is a wise and careful tutor, but sometimes too careful for her own good. “But what if there’s ever a threat that’s so serious that we have no other choice?” Alex pauses for a moment, gazing through the blue tints of his visor and into Abebe’s blue visor. “What if we have to risk severe injury? Or worse?”
“My god, this is a training exercise!” Abebe shouts, echoing out into the moon and stars. “You cannot take those kinds of risks in mere training exercises!”
“Then how am I supposed to practice for the real thing? What if Hydra attacks again for real once I’m in active service?”
Abebe folds their arms and scowls at Alex. “You will NEVER have to turn your overdrive up THAT high.”
“How do you know that?” Alex tilts his head. “You’ve only been in active service for three years. And you told me yourself that the threats you’ve all been facing haven’t gotten higher than medium-risk so far, and—”
“What if the enemies get stronger?” Alex crosses his arms. “What is there’s ever another Type 3 Object we have to face and—”
“Commander Altair, I—” Abebe pauses in thought. What if the threats get stronger? What if there’s ever another Type 3 like Object Basilisk? Even if he doesn’t remember his battles from that lifetime, Alex is the only commander who’s actually fought a real Type 3 object.
“Might be wise for us to be ready for another Type 3,” Alex shrugs, gazing back out at the dark skies surrounding the plateau. “That’s just how I feel, though. Sorry if I did something wrong.”
Abebe sighs. “Alex, you are one of the most talented warriors I have ever seen.” Abebe gazes at the tall, powerful contours of Alex’s white armor and blue visor, studies the lights blinking deep within his eyes. “You truly do live up to your legend,” Abebe nods at Alex. “You are indeed the mighty First Commander. But inside, you are still just a child.”
Alex blinks as he gazes back into Abebe. Her eyes blaze at him like burning brown stones. Her soft gaze tenses back into a stern brow. “Your mind and your body can adapt to an exceptional magnitude of neural overdrive. It is a most unusual talent you have, but it is not without its limits. Be mindful of your limits, and always tread with the utmost caution when stepping beyond them.”
Alex sighs, glances down at the black rocks all around them. “You’re right. I was too rash with my decisions today. I’m sorry, Commander Abebe.”
“How are you feeling?” Abebe puts a hand around his shoulder. “Do you have a headache? A fog? No symptoms of cognitive injury?”
“No,” Alex shakes his head. “No fog. Nothing’s sore. But I feel . . . tired.”
“Shall we sit?” Abebe waves an arm toward the edge of the plateau. They walk across the plateau, fold their legs and sit atop a big, gentle rock at edge of the mountaintop. They gaze out at the million stars shooting and pulsing in the night sky.
All the tiny lights dangle high above in a long, quiet moment.
“What was it like being Secretary Asaju’s personal guard during the War?” Alex breaks the silent night. “I can only imagine the types of firefights you must have gotten into. Real fights, y’know?”
“Alex, I’m sure you can vividly imagine what it was like for me.” Abebe looks over at him. “You have an excellent imagination. But what we experience here in our command decks—in some ways, it feels more real to me than the real battles.”
“But is there one real fight that really stands out to you?” Alex raises a brow. “One that you remember the most? Hope that’s okay to ask.”
“It’s quite alright,” Abebe laughs. They gaze out into the night with blank, stone-cold eyes. The cool wind swoops across their white suits of armor. “I was called upon to perform many duties during the War. Some I am very proud of. Others not as much. But that is just part of my own little battle.”
“Everyone is fighting their own little battles,” Abebe nods. “That is simply the price of being alive.”
Alex gazes down the rocky mountainside at the black earth far below. “But how—” He pauses in a vague memory, staring down into the steep black drop beneath him. “How do you keep fighting with so much weighing on your mind?”
Abebe shrugs. “Traumas can always linger and re-grow. But so can we. We must adapt. That, too, is simply the price of being alive.”
The light of the moon dims as dark clouds slowly close in around it. Another long, quiet moment.
The stars still shine so bright.
“Do you think the real stars still look like this?” Alex asks. “Out in the real world? It’s been so long since I’ve seen them.”
“Good question,” Abebe grins. “I haven’t left my Command Deck in far too long. The light pollution’s very bad here in the Nairobi Special Defense Zone, so I don’t know, either.”
“Hudson’s not much better,” Alex smirks. “Feels like I’ve been here in Union Tower forever.”
“You are aware that authorized vacations are allowed and even encouraged in our operating protocols, correct?” Abebe smirks back at him. “Should you ever wish to witness the real stars for yourself.”
Alex chuckles. “Yes, I’m aware. Maybe one day, I’ll finally get out of Hudson and see the stars again. Soon, hopefully.”
“Perhaps when your training is complete,” Abebe nods. “I may also take some time off. It has been many years since I’ve been out on the water. A boating excursion is overdue.”
Alex tilts his head down from the stars in the sky. Something unlocks and flashes in Abebe’s eyes. A feeling replays inside him.
“Water,” a deep voice rings out. “Boat,” the voice echoes. The neon pink sunset and blue mountains stretch out all around them.
“Next time I see you,” S̴or̷̘̉en’s eyes light up in Ab̸e̶b̶e̶’s.
“How are you feeling now?” Abebe nods over at him. “Did sitting here help you regain your energy?”
“Still tired,” Alex sighs. “Very tired.”
Abebe raises an eyebrow. “Perhaps you should visit Medea. For caution’s sake. Although you have sustained no significant cognitive injuries, a precautionary checkup might be wise.”