Alex smells the fake sunflower in the plain white vase atop his plain white dresser. As usual, it has no scent. Still, it helps him remember the sweet and sour smell of real sunflowers.
His white-walled bedroom is bright and east-facing. Every morning, Alex gazes into the shining sun as it beams over the tall white monoliths of Hudson’s government sector, over the sweeping green acres of far-off Hudson Park, over the drones and missiles and cannons garrisoned away below him all around Union Tower. He starts his day with a warm glass of water in the white-walled kitchen, stirs the neon pink nutrient powder Medea gave to him into his water, chugs the strange pink potion, then makes his way to the white-tiled bathroom, avoids the mirror, hops in the shower, dries off, then dons a fresh-pressed white sweatsuit from his simple white dresser.
“Aeschylus, what’s on our agenda for today?” He asks the white walls of his sunny living room as he sinks into his soft white couch.
Today’s a strange day for Alex. Aeschylus has no tasks for him. No active threats, no training, no admin work. Nothing. Just an open schedule all day.
“Aeschylus, is this correct?” Alex points at the soft blue VR dashboards spread out along his blank living room wall. “Is there really nothing in my schedule for today?”
“That is correct,” the deep voice of Aeschylus drones out. “You are to take a day of personal leave.”
“Is that a command?” Alex raises a brow.
“Yes,” Aeschylus drones. “At the request of Medea, I am ordering you to take a day of personal leave.”
Alex sits in his pure white living room all alone. Gentle white noise creeps into the background. The hum of some distant machines buzzes into his ears. He sits and sits, staring and staring at the blank white wall.
“Well what am I supposed to do?” He asks the wall.
The wall does not respond.
Alex looks over at the other blank white walls of his living room, He looks out his tall, bright windows. The sun is rising higher above Hudson. The day is only just beginning and there is so much he could do. But what should he do first?
Alex keeps glancing around the empty white room. He spots his little white bookshelf in the corner. He stands from the couch to inspect it. Many of the books are quite old now—it’s been quite some time since he’s read any of them. Perhaps he should read a book?
He pulls a clean white book out from the white shelf and looks down at the cover:
The first page is filled with handwritten notes, but it has all been redacted and replaced with stark black boxes. He can’t read any of it. He turns to the next page. Redacted. Page after page after page of the journal, all covered up with black ink and redactions.
He puts the book back in the shelf.
He gazes back at the couch. He walks back across the room. He sits back down in the couch. He gazes at the empty white wall in front of him again. He peers at the wall’s smooth white paint. Zooms in. Examines how its tiny little smears catch and bounce the sunlight. He stares and stares and stares at all the white paint along the wall, zooming in again, admiring all the microscopic bumps and cracks in the brilliant white paint, scanning for imperfections, looking and looking and looking at all the fine details, auditing all the electrical fields and antiviral filters and secret cryptographic patterns precision-engineered into every little quantum bit of every fleck of paint, grinning once his curiosity has been sated.
“Maybe I’ll go smell the sunflower again,” Alex smiles.
He picks himself up from his plush white couch, ambles back down the short white hall to his bright white bedroom. The fake sunflower is still there, still smiling back at him from its plain white vase atop his plain white dresser. He leans into the sunflower and nestles his nose between its big black disk and its yellow plastic petals.
The fake sunflower still has no scent, but if he closes his eyes , he can smell the sweetness of the Pa̵͙̦̽̐͆̾͊͜lá̸̙̙c̴̹͐e̵ garden. He can taste the sourness of the Có̵̺m̵̨̲͗p̵͍̓l̶̟̟͒̓e̴̡͓͊x̷ basement where he threw this sunflower into one of the drawers of his dull white desk, forgot about it, spent too much time fantasizing about the Command Deck to remember how he got this sunflower in the first place. Where did it come from? Did someone give it to him? Who put it here in his bedroom? How did it get into Union Tower? Did someone bring it up here from the Complex for him? Is the Com̸̱̈p̴̫̿l̸̡̐e̸̜̒ẋ̶͙ part of the b̷a̸s̴e̴m̶e̵n̷t̷ ̶b̶e̵n̷e̷a̸t̴h U̵nion T̶o̶w̶e̶r? Did they build Union Tower on top of the Complex? W̸h̷y̸ ̸w̴o̷n̶’̸t̶ ̸t̸h̵e̴y̴ ̷l̷e̷t̴ h̴i̷m̴ ̴d̵o̸w̷n̸ ̶i̵n̷t̴o̷ ̷t̵h̷a̶t̴ ̵p̸a̶r̴t̵ ̷o̷f̷ ̷t̷h̸e̴ ̶b̵a̴s̶e̴m̸e̷n̸t? Why is he only allowed down there to go to his Comm̷a̶n̷d̶ Deck̴̫͎̟͍̻̀͌̓̀̀͋͘͠͝? What else is buried all the way down there?
Psych distortion going up, stay focused.
Mission objective is to take a day of personal leave. He pulls up a feed filled with system updates into his eyes: his access to the Command Deck has been temporarily restricted. He can’t even go down there to spend the day training. Has to find something else to do. He gazes up from the sunflower, eyes dart to his crisp white bedsheets, could just go back to bed to rest but that wouldn’t be productive, he’s been having too many bad dreams lately anyways, sleep right now would be very risky, eyes dart to the window, the sun is warm and shining outside but it might take a few hours to go through all the approvals he needs to leave the Tower, eyes dart to a small white chair in the corner of his room, marches over to it, sits, stares across the room at the smiling little sunflower atop his white dresser, eyes dart to the corner, his gaze pulls a painting app into the air, opens a canvas to start a new project, closes his eyes, visualizes the glorious yellow petals blazing across the grassy field like a thousand little suns, the garden smells like sour honey and the hedges are all neatly trimmed, but h̵e can’t seem to impress any st̵a̴b̵l̴e visuals onto the canvas and the meadow of sunflowers around h̶i̸m̵ bitters and w̸il̸ts and smells like oil and rot as s̴̖͂h̷e̴ strolls through the tall, marbled corridors of the Palace and remembers it was Carson who gave hë̶̻̠͔́̎̍͊͘r̷̤̃͊̅ that fake sunflower, told her “now you’ll always have a piece of the Palace with you” so s̸̘̩̰͍̺̝̗̩͈̈́͝he stashed the sunflower at at the back of her desk, far away from
herȟ̵̼͈̞̘̥̜̝̮̯̣̝̃ḯ̶̢̨̞̭̳̺̠͖̪͍̀̿̐̑̀͝͝͠s longing view until Dad took him down to the Core Chamber deep down in the heart of the Com̷͍͆p̷̜͆l̶̬̄e̸̹̽x, Sector 1-1, Basement 33, go straight down the long frigid chasm from the elevator shaft and make a right along the hazy hall alongside the tall black server stacks, down another hall until you reach the lift down into his Central Processing Unit where you will draw your shining white blade and you will stri̷k̵e at the hostile object’s—
PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTORTION RISK
DISENGAGE FROM THIS ACTIVITY
“Don’t analyze it,” he reminds himself. Analysis is not his job. His job is to take a day of personal leave.
He gazes around the minimal trappings of his bedroom once again. The bed hasn’t moved. The walls are still warm and bright and white. Outside the window, the sun still showers down upon the greenery and glass rows of Hudson. The sunflower still grins at him from atop his white dresser. What is there to be done today? It seems like he’s not in the right headspace for much of anything today. Hē̵̩ can’t focus. Feels like sh̴͓̼̃ë̶͙́̓’s being watched. Zooms in on one of the white walls again. Zoom in further. Inspects all the flecks of paint for tiny little cameras, one tiny streak of white at a time. No sign of anyone watching. What about the bathroom? He picks himself up from the corner of his bedroom, slowly steps back down the narrow white hall and turns into the fluorescent white tiles of his little bathroom.
H̸e̵ has to be extra cautious in this room. Big inhale.
His eyes sift across each of the tiles, through the feathery white rugs and clean white towels hanging from the walls, the frosted white glass and white linoleum of the shower stall, squinting and staring at all the blank white spaces, searching for a sign of a camera or a microphone or an intruder or a hostile object, eyes flash past the sprawling vanity mirror for all but a moment, threat detected, hĭ̵̘s̴̥͘ bangš̵͖̖͉̄ look a little longer than they should be, looks away from the mi̵r̶r̴o̴r̸, needs a h̵͚͊a̶̤̾i̸̟͛r̵̭͋cut, some other day, scans the ceiling for microscopic spies, something is watching hì̴͚m̵̝̈́ he can feel it in he̴r̷̨̚ gut, the long bright mirror catches his eye again, her ha̵̮͠î̷̮r̸̦̀ is too long̶̢̜̪̭̞̖̫̗̞̫͊͜, his jaw is too w i d e, shoulders sweaty and oily and wē̸̠a̵͎̤͌̈͝k and weary, he’s been skipping physical training for far too long, he̵̛̩͙̓̊͂r̵̩̟͗̓̚͝͝ jaw gets bigger, her smooth cheeks ha̵r̷͚̕d̷̮̾̓e̶͚̪̅͌n and swell and her neck stiffens and bursts with strength and her arms morph and slide and slither down the surface of the mirror like long fleshy snakes writ̵̢̢̛̯̼̝̝͉̪̓́̇̈̔̊̍͠͠ͅh̷̒̽̋̆͌̍̚̕͜ỉ̶̢̱̠̻̘̘̝͇̫͌̎͂͗́̈͠͝n̵͈̜̜̯͑̎͌̌̄͗g̸̭̯͈͂̿̀̚ and wrapping around her m̶̢̤͙̳̫̥͊̽̒̅e̷̦̗̖̠̲̠̜̫͚͇͊̈́́̂̄̍͌̔͠l̴̦̲͚̥̟͚͓̃̅̔̂͂̿́͂̈́͐̋̕t̵̡̜̪̙͔̭̺̺̙̯̗̣̝͒̏̈̔̿͑̏͐̚͠͠i̸̱̱̲͂͐̍̈͐͆́̅͒͊̆̆͘͝n̵̢̢͍͔̥͎̻͎͒͌̍̔̇̌̾̉̋͊͝ͅg̸̢̤̬̹̼̓ legs as her chest falls away and he̵̦͋r̷̯̕ eyes well up and her hair grows long̸̱̰̭̰͖̀͒é̷̼̼̦̿ṙ̴͉̪̖̇̒̏ and lonḡ̵̨̢̡̫̻̼̹̲̝̟͌͆̈́̽̅͂͛̒̀̀͆̊͜͝e̷̤̻̟͓̦͇̬̍̋͌͜r̵̥̜̖̗̩̭̤̻̦̳̬̝̹͈̂̑̑͗͛̏̉̋̓͊̽̑̀̊̊͝ and she smiles back at him with a mocking wide grin as her pupils narrow into tiny black dots and restricted sectors of he̷̡̙̾͛r brain unlock and forgotten data courses into her bloo̴̹͍͓̘̜̼̊̓͋͘͠d̷̢̼̫̻͍̓̅̃ as she spreads her brilliant white wing̴̨̃ş̵̔, descends into the deep shafts and secret vaults far below the smoldering wreckage of Union Tower, plu̵n̸g̷e̷s her sparkling white blade through h̷͓̕i̴̪͋s̵͚̾ shining white armor and deep into his heart, the B̴as̴il̴i̴sk leering up at her through his furious blue visor as the foggy, whirling ć̴r̸̛y̵s̸͖̄t̴̘̏à̷͕l ̶̱̏b̵͉́ä̵́ͅḷ̸̐l̴̘̍ ̷̲̉C̷PU̵ at the heart of the Core Chamber cra̸c̸k̵s̷ and sh̸̲̅à̴̯t̸͍́t̶̮̔ĕ̸̡r̸̝̾s̵̭͐ along the edge of h̴e̸r̵ ̷bla̴d̶e̴ and sh̵e̸ ̷c̷r̵i̴e̵s̷ ̸o̶u̷t̷ ̴t̸h̴r̴o̴u̷g̵h̷ ̸e̸v̴e̷r̴y̵ ̵h̶a̶l̵l̵ ̷a̸n̸d̴ c̷a̵n̵y̵o̴n̵ ̶o̸f̴ ̸t̸h̴e̴ ̸v̶a̸s̶t̸ ̷Co̵m̷p̴l̴e̸x:
PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTORTION RISK
DISENGAGE FROM THIS ACTIVITY
He snaps back into the bathroom, but ṣ̸͝ḣ̵̨e’s still stuck inside the mirror, her̶̨̛̠͕̣͇̿̑͋͋ eyes wide and petrified, white sweatshirt bubbling and pulsing, chest thro̸̥̹͑́b̷̢̨̩̪̻̖̙͇̙̼̃̅̽̄̒̔͛̕b̵͇̘͈̈̎̿̇í̴͔̬͕̲̲͙͈̺͕̘̂̅̈́̾ǹ̶̛̝͈̝͇̙͇̆̏͌͝ģ̸̇̿̑̉̀̌̕͝ and heart tr̶e̶m̶b̶l̴i̵n̴g̴, this feels exactly like one of h̵̠͈͒͐̇̕î̴̹̦͐s̸̱̠̍́̚͝ bad dreams, hē̸͍͉͔̲̳͛̆̊͒̕ must still be asleep, remember the protocol for that.
“Reality check!” He cries out into the bathroom.
How can this not be a dream? His entire body is b̵͇̔é̸̬ň̵͖ḓ̶̛i̸͔̋n̶̯̐g̴̟̒ and twisti̸̢͓͔̹͑̽͝ṉ̶̞̜̗́͘ģ̶̟̞̗̠̗͊ and m̸̛̙͑̇̀ḛ̴̾͂͛͗̓͘l̴͇̤̻̄̄̋̂t̵̗̣̽͗̃͂̎̅ḭ̵̙͑̀͛͂͂͆̀n̴̰̞̭̜̰͎͝g̷̨͓̲̰̀̏̆̓̌̔͜ͅ, there’s no way this is real, the ba̶throo̴͉̾m̴̓ͅ fills with all the c̴o̸n̸f̵u̴s̶i̷o̸n̶ ̸a̶n̷d h̴o̶r̷r̶o̵r̴ ̶o̷f ̷t̶h̶e̴ ̶l̶a̴s̸t̴ ̷m̸o̵m̸e̶n̵t̵s̶ ̵o̶f̵ ̷a n̴i̶g̵h̸t̶ ̶t̷e̸r̷r̴o̸r̸, everything’s okay, she’ll wake up in a cold sweat any moment now, remember to breathe.
He looks down from the mirror, stares at the dull white floor tiles. He holds all his breath in. Holds it in more. The jolt into wakefulness never comes. Keeps holding his breath. Holds his breath just a little longer as he paces out from the bathroom, head down as he crosses the hall back to his bedroom.
The sunflower is still there, still laughin̵g̷ at him atop his dresser. He can’t even tell if it’s fake this time. Sunlight rains in from his window, gleaming across its delicate golden petals and the sticky sap of its glowing black disk. Something is wrong. It feels too real, like some kind of strange render. How did it get here? Who put it there? This must be some kind of weird dream.
“Reality check!” He calls out to his bedroom.
All of this is still real? The reality check must be broken. Something definitely feels ofḟ̸̻ here. People are watching him̶, tracki̴n̸g̷ him, recording his every thought and action in here. Something is wrong. But he needs to calm down. He’s supposed to be taking the day off to enjoy himself. Wandering around and panicking all day is not part of the mission. He gazes around his bedroom for something to do again, spots the tall window against the far wall, walks up to it and gazes out at the sun rising over Hudson.
“Why is this so tough?” He murmurs to himself. Far below, Hudson’s shining white towers spread out for miles and all the soft grass and soaring green hills and gardens sprawling out around Union Tower tease and taunt him with things he cannot have.
“Why can’t I just rest?” He presses a cheek against the warm window as he peers off into the distance. Small white clouds peddle across the blue sky. Far off in the city, microscopic bikes and drones and shuttles and trains flicker in the light. He zooms in. There they are, smiling at each other, on their way to work, looking around at the tall white building and lush green trees all around them. He smiles with them, basking in their sunlight. The window grows warmer as he rubs his cheek deeper into it. His eyes become heavy. His thoughts become quiet. His head nods. He slips further into the warm window, further into his daydream, further into the hot summer streets of Hudson where he takes Carson back up to the hill at the top of Hudson Park, climbs the hidden cliff face, overlooking the city together, she laughs and they dance in the secret grove where nobody is watching and they run away from the city together as fast and as far as they can and her eyes twitch as she drifts off into the soft glass but Aeschylus tries to pull him back up into reality:
READINESS CONDITION 2
MAJOR GLOBAL THREAT
PROCEED TO THE COMMAND DECK IMMEDIATELY