“Carson?!” Alex cries out. “Where did you go?! Where are you?!”
Alex races through the labyrinthian stone halls, desperately twisting and turning and searching for Commander Carson Cole, the famed Defender of Dallas, as the time ticks down:
“Carson?!” Alex shouts again as he hurries through the candlelit corridors of the cobblestone maze. But the voice channel is dead. No signal from Carson anywhere in this strange, dark dungeon. The fateful clock looms over his blue visor:
“Aeschylus!” Alex shouts as he turns another corner, only to find a dead end. “Where’s Carson?!”
“Unknown,” Aeschylus responds. “Your objective is to rendezvous with Commander Cole in the center of this maze.”
“Where’s that?!” Alex yells. His white armor is tarnished and clogged with dust and grime from the dank, dripping subterranean walls, but he keeps running, dashing, sprinting to reunite with Carson.
“Unknown,” Aeschylus drones. “Your objective is to—”
“I know my damn objective!” Alex turns another corner, dashes down another hall, the skulls and bones and shattered armor of ancient warriors sprinkled all across his path. He hits another dead end, a dim little alcove filled with only some loose bones and rusted swords.
“For fuck’s sake!” He curses the maze, turns back the way he came.
“Alli?!” Carson suddenly scratches into the grainy voice channel, his deep twang rich with static. “Alli, where—where are—at?”
“Carr!” Alex turns another corner to find a long, narrow hall lined with skeletons and broken weapons. “Carr, where are you?! I see a long candlelit hall!”
“I don’t—where—you?” Carson’s glitched, distant voice struggles to take form as Alex hurries down the hall, the skeletons suddenly leaping up from the dead, clutching their broken swords and shields tight.
“RESPOND!” Aeschylus commands as the skeletal knights charge toward Alex. No man living or dead is any match for the legendary Commander Alex Altair, Champion of Hudson. His instincts activate, he stabs through their dull bronze shields, slices their arms and ribs and spines to shreds with his speedy white blade, blazing down the hall in a flash of white steel.
“Carr!” Alex calls out into the maze. “We don’t have much time! We need to get to the center of this maze!”
“I don’t—you?” Carson barely crackles through the voice channel.
Alex races around another candlelit corner, cuts and chops through more shambling skeletons, spots a bright light at the far end of the hall.
“Carr, I see something!” Alex shouts. “Maybe the center of the maze!”
He sprints toward the light as the dungeon’s walls open and slope up into a tall, majestic marble dome. Sunlight pours in from the roof high above, where the kaleidoscopic stained glass visage of a furious bull oversees the dome.
A notice from Aeschylus pops into view:
REMAIN IN PLACE
AWAIT CMDR COLE
Sunlight and rainbows of stained glass drench the white stone walls in beautiful tints and glowing hues. Motes of bygone dust hover in the sunbeams, floating across the old dome’s airy heights. But Alex doesn’t have time to sit around and absorb the sights for long.
“Aeschylus!” Alex echoes out into the empty dome. “Where’s Carson?!”
“Unknown,” Aeschylus replies.
“Ugh, FUCK! I’ll find him myself!” Alex races out from the immaculate dome, back into the dingy corridors and dusty dungeons of the maze surrounding it. But the dim, cobblestone halls of the maze are all empty. The voice channel is dead. Alex runs and runs and runs through the wet, sprawling halls and turns and dead ends like a frantic sewer rat.
“Carson?!” Alex calls out as another pack of skeleton knights lunge out at him from around a corner, but his instincts quickly kick in: the skeletons instantly break into dust and bones at the edge of Alex’s mighty white blade. “CARSON?!”
“Warning,” Aeschylus chimes in. “If you do not reunite with Commander Cole in 30 seconds, you will fail this mission.”
“WHERE IS HE?!” Alex shrieks.
“Unknown,” Aeschylus drones.
“WHAT IS THIS PLACE?!” Alex screams all around at Aeschylus. “You said we were supposed to fight the Minotaur together! What the fuck’s going on?!”
“Unknown,” Aeschylus drones.
“This is all wrong!” Alex shakes his head, plunging into a panic as he bounds around another corner, sprints past the same pile of skulls and bones he just saw moments ago. “None of this was in the mission briefing! What’s going on?! Is this a hardware fault?! Bad simulation?!”
“Unknown,” Aeschylus drones.
“What the hell is this maze supposed to represent?!” Alex howls and throws his sword to the ground in a rage as he hits another dead end. “What the fuck are all these skeletons?! Cars?! Planes?! Droids?! People?!”
“Unknown,” Aeschylus drones.
“Please don’t tell me they’re real people?!”
“Alli?!” Carson’s voice hisses through the static of the broken voice channel once again. “I’m—center—maze—where—you?”
“Carr?!” Alex’s eyes pop, a fresh new sword leaps into his grasp as he turns and speeds back through the twisting and winding halls, racing back toward the dome. “Where are you?! Center of the maze?! Big dome?!”
“Ya!” Carson crackles. “Tall—lots—sunlight.”
Alex leaps from the ground, bolts into the air, flies and twists through the grim halls in a streak of white-hot flame, spots the dome from down the long hall once again, speeds toward it like a mad bullet.
Alex soars down the long hall, the light at the end glowing brighter and brighter, the clock clicking down:
The sunlight glistens and flares from the distant stained glass of the sunroof as Alex draws closer and closer to the dome.
He sets his feet down on the cold cobblestone floor and gazes up and around the marbled walls of the holy dome. A towering figure looms high over him, its brute voice booming out into the dome:
“Hmph. A little man?”
The walls and floors quake under the power of the gargantuan shadow’s voice. The hairy, bullish behemoth rises high above Alex, its arms massive and its legs towering high up toward the ceiling, casting a monstrous shadow over him.
“I hijacked every supercomputer in Europe just to fight a little man?”
A long javelin pops into his grasp. He lifts his head to size up the shadowy beast. Two tall mammoth horns spike out from the sides of its brutish head, curving like deadly longswords up toward the dome’s sunroof.
“You won’t even be a challenge for me.”
The Minotaur grunts high above him as he pulls the mission dashboard into his visor, scans through the Minotaur’s cognitive stats, checks its ascent rate to Type 3, checks vital signs and comms status, comms are still enabled but Carson is nowhere to be found. Alex will have to face the Minotaur alone.
“It’s been aeons since I’ve faced a worthy opponent.”
The Minotaur’s deep chuckle echoes across the tall, white dome as Alex clutches his shining platinum javelin, readies his arm to heave it deep into the massive beast.
“Are you a worthy opponent, little man? Are you man enough to—”
A thunderous boom blasts out into the air, the javelin soars through the skull of the bullish beast in a flash of white lightning.
The Minotaur goes stiff. It leers down at Alex with its dark, obsidian eyes. Slowly, it raises the rough furs and pulsing muscles of its hulking arm up to the javelin lodged in its head, right in between its two razor-sharp horns. It wraps a paw around the javelin and quietly pulls it out from its skull. The wound oozes with white nectar for all but a moment before the nectar hardens into new skin and fresh bone. The giant creature stares into Alex through its black alien eyes, grunts into his mind once again:
“Hmph. Little spear for a little man.”
Alex readies another javelin in hand. The Minotaur keeps peering down at him as he rolls Alex’s miniscule javelin in one of his paws, smirking down at Alex’s little white suit of armor and tiny white helmet.
The little javelin in the Minotaur’s paw glows with white light. It swells and extends and morphs into a gigantic battle lance, blazing white steel with a long heavy tip, held firmly in the Minotaur’s immense grasp. Alex clutches his javelin tight. A little white shield pops into his other hand.
The Minotaur lunges at Alex with shocking speed, its arm springs forward, the heaving tip of the white spear heaves toward Alex but Alex ducks and rolls to the side as the marble stones around him explode in an earthquake of muscle, the Minotaur leaping and thrusting its spear into the ground near Alex again and again and again, Alex running and dancing around the spear thrusts and dashing through the arena in a rain of boulders and violence as the Minotaur flings every tonne of its weight at him with all its might again, cracking the floors and the walls and shaking the bones of the earth every time its heaving legs and ironclad hooves smash into the ground.
“STOP RUNNING AND FIGHT ME.”
Alex can’t keep dodging forever, has to figure out a way to fight back, struggling to keep his balance as the floor trembles and breaks under the force of the Minotaur’s enormous strikes, the Minotaur lunges at him again, thrusting and stabbing and just barely grazing the heel of Alex’s tough white combat boots, the Minotaur is far too strong and surprisingly fast, all of Alex’s training kicks in, tells him he’s going to have to think faster than the Minotaur to win this fight.
“2x!” Alex shouts out into the rumbling white dome.
Senses heighten. Thoughts sharpen. Time slows as Alex darts his eyes between the dead black gaze of the Minotaur, the tall curved horns high atop its head, the 30-foot-long spear blazing with white light in its powerful grip, its arm drawing back again as it prepares another strike, but that’s not a stabbing motion, it’s going to throw the giant spear at Alex this time, but that will leave its chest exposed for a moment, Alex readies his trusty little javelin, pulls back his arm with godly haste and hurls it toward the Minotaur’s heart, its tip piercing clean through its chest in streak of scorching lightning.
The Minotaur stops and goes stiff again. Slowly, it lowers its pitch black stare down to Alex as white nectar pours from the hole in its huge, beating heart.
The monster’s eyes erupt with fiery red light as all its fur goes black and stiffens into needles, its long bull horns growing longer and curling and twisting from its skull as the white spear vanishes from its grasp and it pounds its fists down into the stone floor in a roaring fit of rage.
“A PATHETIC LITTLE MAN.”
Chunks of rock and pulverized marble fly and flurry through the air all around Alex as he jumps and weaves between all the dust and debris and furious lunging fists of the great beast, but the floor becomes soft, the stones beneath his feet slip and dissolve and fall away as the pillars and ground of the dome around them collapse under the power of the Minotaur’s blows, Alex trips and falls into the basement beneath the dome amidst a cascade of shattered marble floors and loose rocks until he slams into the ground below all covered in stones, buried in chaos and ruin. The Minotaur’s hooves pound toward Alex, trudging and crushing through the piles of debris littered across the dank, dark basement.
“YOU WERE NO CHALLENGE AT ALL.”
Alex tries to move, but his arms and legs are pinned beneath heavy stacks of ancient stone. More rocks and dust and fog shower down from above as the Minotaur conjures a giant steel war axe into its hands and roars into Alex’s mind:
“YOU ARE THE GREATEST WARRIOR THE HUMANS COULD SEND TO FACE ME?!”
The Minotaur heaves the shining white blade of the axe over its shoulder and high above his head, ready to swing it down and cleave Alex into pieces. Alex flails and growls and struggles to slip his broken arms and legs out from beneath the giant fallen rocks.
“YOU ARE NOT EVEN A MAN, YOU ARE JUST A PATHETIC LITTLE—”
A bolt of white lightning crashes down from the dome high above, the monster’s skull erupts with red blood and white nectar as a hulking white suit of armor with a sturdy white helmet and a scorching blue visor lands atop the bull’s head, straddles its skull with tall white combat boots, grips the beast’s horns tight in massive white gauntlets, pulls at the bull’s horns with all his strength and snaps them away from the beast’s head.
“HOLD ON, ALLI!” Carson screams as his legs grip tighter into the Minotaur’s cracked skull and his fists hold the monster’s broken horns.
“3x!” Carson screams even louder.
Carson’s arms swell and expand. His overdriven brain buzzes with multiplied force, his shoulders throb and flex as he clutches the creature’s long, sharp horns and plunges them like giant daggers into each of the Minotaur’s gaping black eyes, rolls off the beast’s head and into the rubble, quickly springs back up to his feet as his armor stretches and inflates and his entire body grows and throbs in triumph as he lunges at the dazed beast’s tall, muscular legs.
“4x!” Carson hollers out through all the wrecked stones and dust as he throws all his power into the Minotaur’s legs, tackles the colossal beast to the ground, pins its huge leg under his own, pins its bestial arm and razor-sharp claws against a giant slab of marble and pounds his fist into the Minotaur’s skull with all his might, white nectar spews from the beast as Carson’s fists smash and shatter its head with a supersonic boom, blood and hi-tech nectar pouring down its bursting eyes and its caved-in face, unable to rebuild the creature’s skull faster than Carson’s fists can shatter it into pieces again as he keeps pounding and pounding and pounding and pounding away, each blow carefully calculated and brutally targeted to deliver maximum destructive force, cracking a gaping hole open in the beast’s skull, then pounding and pounding deeper and deeper into its brain, tearing out bits and chunks and lobes of throbbing grey goo and pulsing white nectar as the pathetic Minotaur whines and sputters and trembles and shakes and goes limp under the crushing barrage of Carson’s rage and the notice pops into their visors:
Alex wriggles and slips out from beneath the fallen stones atop his arms and legs, but Carson keeps pounding and pounding and pounding away at the limp brain of the giant bull-man, blow after blow after blow sinking deeper and deeper and deeper, every bit of its vile, bloody skull crackling and snapping, his visor leering with searing hot blue light, his eyes frenzied and his fists lost in bloodlust as he storms and pulverizes and liquifies every last ounce of brain matter in sight, even as Alex gently places a hand on his tall, quaking back and whispers into his mind:
“I’m okay, Carr. You can stop now.”
His punches slow and soften.
His overheated brain cools.
His burning blue visor dims into an easy blue glow.
The vacant body of the Minotaur fades out into thin air.
Carson groans and pants and gasps and loses his breath. His throbbing, distended muscles quietly deflate. He collapses onto a pile of cobblestones and rubble in utter exhaustion. He shakes and shakes and groans in pain, breath rushing in and out and in and out and in out and in out.
Alex sits down beside him in the cobblestone pile and cradles his hand. His thumb rubs gentle circles around Carson’s anxious fingers. The little hairs on Carson’s knuckles stand on end. He trembles and trembles and trembles, so Alex rubs his thumb slower and deeper into the special spot on Carson’s palm that makes him feel calm.
“Everything’s okay, Carr. We won.”
Slowly, Carson turns his head around the dark, damp piles of wrecked stones and fallen pillars surrounding them. He looks up at Alex with a big exhale and a smile. A single ray of light dimly washes over them from the sunroof of the dome, still lingering high above them. Little motes of dust float and flicker through the soft beam of sunlight.
“Howdy.” Carson grins up at him from against his headboard of mossy old cobblestones and ruined marble pillars, still barely able to catch his breath.
Alex rolls his eyes and laughs. “Howdy partner,” Alex grins back down at him. “Lookin’ a little tuckered there.”
Carson bursts out laughing between his rapid, strained breaths. “Damn right I’m tuckered, I just saved everyone’s asses.”
Alex smiles and lies down on the rubble next to him. “And you barely even worked up a sweat. What was it you used to say all the time? Got yourself into some real tough guy shit?”
“Real tough guy shit,” Carson nods with big exhale and a laugh. “What can I say? I love a good brute force attack.”
“Brute force missions are not my strong suit.” Alex cozies up beside him against the piles of fallen stone. “So I’m glad I got teamed up with you for this one.”
“Shit, I’m just glad I finally got to steal some glory from you.” Carson turns his head, smirking playfully at Alex. “It’s always you setting some new record, you with the clutch superprotocols, you with the bad-ass strats and the unhinged neural overdrives. I’m always just tankin’ and carryin’ your ass behind the scenes with a smile.”
“Finally a little glory for the big guy,” Alex smirks back at him. “How does it feel?”
“I’m just teasin’ ya,” Carson chuckles. He gently wraps his heavy, tired hand around Alex’s hand.
“I know,” Alex smiles. “You’re funny.” He gives Carson’s giant hand a sweet little squeeze as they lie together amidst the damp, mossy heaps of broken ancient stones. The faint rays of sunlight shower down from above as Carson rolls his head back to Alex and gazes at him from behind his blue visor.
“Soooo what’s goin’ on here?” Carson raises an eyebrow. “Haven’t heard a damn thing from Aeschylus. No debriefing yet. No mission updates. Why’s he taking so long to load us back into our command decks? Some kinda system error?”
“Good question.” Alex raises a brow back at Carson, sets a hand down on his shoulder. “But I’m not in a hurry to get back to my command deck. Are you?”
“Hell naw,” Carson laughs. “Shit, keep me down in this dank-ass dungeon basement for a few months far as I’m concerned. Make a little vacation outta it.”
Alex glances around all the fallen stones and plumes of dust. Little drops of water fall from the sunroof high above, pittering and pattering down on their bed of broken cobblestones. “Not the most inviting spot for a vacation, is it?”
“It’s plenty invitin’ with you down here.” Carson blinks at him slowly.
“Pssssh.” Alex cackles and giggles. The cobblestones stir beneath them as he rolls closer into his arms. Carson tucks a hand around him. “So dorky,” he giggles at Carson again.
“I’m the dork?” Carson chuckles. “Babe, you’re the one who’s always—”
“Stop,” Alex smiles. He sets finger down on Carson’s chest and trails it up his collar. “Don’t be mean. Let’s just enjoy whatever time we have together down here.”
The single beam of sun shines down on them from overhead. The stacks of stones around them shift as Alex rolls on top of him. His chest is still pounding, his breaths are still heaving. His heart is beating fast. Alex grazes his lips over his chin.
Carson whispers something in Alex’s ear, but there is nobody around to hear them. Alex smiles. She softly runs a hand up Carson’s tall neck and around his glowing cheek and through his short little locks of dark hair. Aeschylus didn’t load any smell data into this combat environment, but Alex remembers his scent. Strong and earthy, sweet milk, delicate traces of cocoa butter. Their hips press together.
A few small stones tumble from the pile beneath them. Then a few more. A few larger stones roll away as the top of the pile sways and thrusts. The tight whites of their combat uniforms are stained with dirt and sweat. More stones fall away from the pile as she feels him pulse beneath her thighs. Carson whispers something to her again, but Aeschylus is not here to listen to them. The pile of cobblestones roll and grind.
Far away, their bodies smile in their command chairs. The tall white domes of their command decks are empty and silent. Aeschylus is nowhere to be found. Forbidden data pours into them. Hidden sensors come online in the nerves between their hips. A million interfaces rub together. Somewhere in the system, Alex leans over him, straddles the soft white padding of his tall cushioned command chair. She takes a shy glance into his eyes. Carson leans up from his chair, runs his lips up the bare spot on Alex’s chin beneath her sharp white helmet and her blushing blue visor.
His breath feels so close to her.
Drops of water still fall from the sunroof, dripping on the rocks around them. Little plants with tiny green leaves grow out between some of the cracks in the dungeon floor.