the forum

Dark clouds sneak across the night sky. The stars above blur into a polluted miasma of hazy light. Silence fills the voice channel.

The avatars of 50 commanders line the rows of the ancient gathering hall. Their white armor glitters and gleams amidst the darkness and stone. For the first time in years, they’ve all assembled here in the Forum to hear their leaders speak.

Alex stands at attention, watching the platform at the center of the Forum, awaiting the announcement. Readiness Condition 2, a major global threat. But they’ve all been ordered to gather here instead of marching straight into battle. Unprecedented times.

He catches a glance in the corner of his eye: Carson squinting over at him, speechless, his puzzled face asking the same question Alex has on his mind. “Is this about Sphinx?”

Alex turns back to the platform as the avatars of his leaders load onto it. It’s the men from upstairs: high-ranking officers adorned in stoic white uniforms. Six generals huddle together, the world’s greatest security strategists. Beside them is Undersecretary Wu, head of Evolutionary Enforcement, World Security’s specialized intelligence police. If something is capable of becoming too smart—whether it’s a person, a computer, or something in between—the Evos will activate their special policing systems to limit its intelligence.

If an intelligence is still able to transcend Wu’s grasp, then stopping its mind from ascending any further becomes a problem for the officer beside him: Undersecretary Stone, head of Global Command and steward of the Aeschylus system. Though they served together as generals during the War, Alex’s father and Stone were never on good terms with one another. Stone was never a people person—he rose through the ranks by commanding swarms of robots and drones. “Warrior hives,” Stone called his legions. “Soulless abominations without mercy or honor,” Alex’s father once said of them.

Leading them all is Secretary Asaju, head of World Security, famed hero of the War, champion of the African Federation, guardian of Alex in the wake of his father. Unlike Stone, Alex’s father and Asaju were very close friends. Alex can even remember a headline about them:

Friendship Between Alliance and Federation Generals Offers a Path to Peace

Alongside all the generals and officers, one final figure loads into view: the elusive avatar of Aeschylus himself, clad in a sagely white beard and robe, adorned with glorious golden medals and sashes, hefty scripts and tablets tucked under his arm.

Six generals, two undersecretaries, and the secretary. And Aeschylus has even decided to take on his human avatar to join the Forum. Readiness Condition 2 is still in effect. This must be bigger than just Sphinx. This must be a huge threat.

“Commanders!” Secretary Asaju salutes. The rows of Commanders lining the Forum all salute in return. “Thank you for so promptly responding to my request to join us here in the Forum. Myself, the undersecretaries, and the generals are here to inform you of an emerging situation. Though we presently find ourselves confronted by an urgent threat, we are blessed to have the luxury of some limited time to discuss together the complex nature of this threat.”

A pre-mission open forum? In his decade of service, Alex has never experienced anything quite like this.

“I know it is not typical to provide detailed threat analysis like this,” Asaju continues, “but we believe that in this case, such discussion will be vital to our success in combatting this threat.”

Asaju pauses, scanning the eyes of every commander assembled in the Forum, towering over his army in his pure white tunic and golden regalia of the World Security Secretariat.

“But first, I would like to make something very clear.” Asaju’s stern jaw stiffens into steel. “Aeschylus has provided me with some of your recent chat logs. I have reviewed these chat logs. I am aware that many of you have concerns about the judgement of myself and other World Security leadership. Some of you also have concerns about the leadership of our counterparts at World Intelligence.”

Alex’s eyes briefly wander from Asaju to the commanders. A brief tinge of fear glosses over some of their eyes.

“I will put your rumors to rest here and now,” Asaju booms. “There is no foul play afoot at World Intelligence. Intel is not conspiring against Security, nor against any other World Union agency. There is no conflict between us and Intel. We are all on the same side. We all serve the peoples of the world.”

The undersecretaries and generals read the reactions of the commanders as Asaju speaks, searching their faces for signs of doubt.

“I sympathize with your suffering and your confusion,” Asaju nods. “I understand your concerns. I, too, once fought on the frontlines as you now do. Perhaps many of you are too young to remember the horrors the War, but I assure you, it was a time mired in much suffering and confusion.”

Alex clenches his teeth, the suffering and confusion of his childhood flashing into view. Unlike the newer generation of commanders, he remembers the War all too well.

“That is why I have ordered the undersecretaries, generals, and Aeschylus here to discuss this threat directly with you,” Asaju explains, “to answer your questions and to ease your confusions, so we may combat this threat with clear hearts and strong spirits.”

This isn’t just an open forum. This is damage control. Alex can’t help but wonder what kind of rumors could warrant a gathering like this. Everyone is well aware of Shen’s adolescent outbursts, but have more senior commanders been spreading dissent too? Alex swaps quick glances with Commander Singh and Commander Abebe.

“Aeschylus will now brief you on the threat situation,” Asaju announces. “We will then open the floor to any commanders who may have questions for us about this situation.”

Secretary Asaju steps back into the fold of officers. The white robed avatar of Aeschylus steps forward to address the commanders.

COMMANDERS!” Aeschylus salutes. Combat reflexes kick in, Alex and the others all salute Aeschylus in perfect unison.

Aeschylus unfurls one of his scripts and begins reading from it:

At 1605, World Intelligence reported a cognitive breach in one of their internal security systems.” 

“The security system was designed to quarantine and study hostile intelligent objects in order to improve our defensive capabilities in future battles.”

“Intel believes that their security system has been absorbed by one of the objects it was designed to contain.”

“Intel has advised me that the security system itself is now a rogue object.”

“After review of threat data provided to me by Intel, I have reached the same judgement: The security system has become a rogue object.”

Alex feels a bitter energy off to his side, catches a glimpse of Shen leering at Aeschylus and all the officers alongside him.

“I have designated the rogue security system as OBJECT GORGON.”

“I have classified Gorgon as a major global threat.”

“I have upgraded World Security’s Readiness Condition to Level 2.”

“I am now preparing to engage Gorgon in combat.”

Alex sneaks a glimpse of Carson. Carson’s avatar remains firm and alert, but Alex senses his mistrust brooding beneath this veil of virtual reality.

“I will be ordering 32 of you to fight Gorgon alongside me.”

“You will fight in 8 teams of 4 commanders.”

“The presumed goals of Gorgon are:”

  • “Deep infiltration of Security and Intelligence systems.”
  • “Destruction of Security systems.”
  • “Destruction of World Union infrastructure.”

Alex clenches his jaw. Gorgon is focused on destroying World Security’s systems specifically. And Aeschylus has to split the commanders into teams to stop it. This battle is going to be a brutal bloodbath.

Gorgon has been temporarily disabled, but will continue pursuing its goals once it is attacked.”

Gorgon is a currently a type 2-1 object, but will begin evolving rapidly once it is attacked.”

Gorgon has absorbed five objects of concern:”

  • Object Sphinx: Properties are unknown.
  • Object Pegasus: Properties are unknown.
  • Object Hydra: Properties are classified.
  • Classified Object: Properties are classified.
  • Classified Object: Properties are classified.

Gorgon is to be destroyed.

Destruction of all Security systems predicted if Gorgon is not destroyed.”

Aeschylus closes his script and gazes back up at the dark, stony rows of the Forum. The commanders all return his gaze with shock. All of World Security’s systems will be destroyed if they fail? Including Aeschylus? Including the commanders themselves?

“I expect that some of you may have questions about this mission. I will now open the voice channel to any commanders who wish to address myself, the Secretary, or the undersecretaries with any questions.”

A speaker icon instantly pops up above Shen. “Gorgon will destroy all security systems? Literally all systems? Including us?”

“To whom is your question addressed, Commander Shen?”

“To any of you.”

“Commander Shen,” Secretary Asaju speaks up from the central platform. “You are correct. If Gorgon is not destroyed, a cascading intelligence explosion will begin that may ultimately result in the destruction of all World Union systems that are used to deliver security services. This includes all commander-class systems.”

“Okay, follow-up question,” Shen sneers. “Why isn’t Intel here to explain how they let this mess happen?”

“To whom is your question addressed, Commander Shen?”

“I don’t care, just tell me why nobody from Intel is here.”

“Commander Shen,” Secretary Asaju bellows out, “our counterparts at World Intelligence are quite busy preparing to aid us in combatting Object Gorgon. I am in constant communication with the Secretary of Intelligence, and I assure you, I am in full possession of all the information needed for us to succeed in destroying Object Gorgon.”

Shen opens his mouth to retort, but Aeschylus has already muted him and moved on to Commander Singh.

“Secretary Asaju,” Singh starts, “thank you for taking this time to address us directly. I speak for many of the commanders when I say that there has been a concerning lack of transparency from both Intel and Security leadership about the recent threats we’ve been facing.” Carson nods along with many of the other commanders. Shen scowls at all his leaders. “My only question is this,” Singh continues, “do you believe it is a coincidence that in recent months, each new threat has become increasingly more severe?”

“Commander Singh,” Asaju replies, “it is not a coincidence. The threats are and will likely continue to become more severe, but we have not yet determined how best to intervene in that escalation.”

Surprise pops onto the faces of several commanders. Not only is the Secretary himself finally confirming that there’s a pattern linking all the recent threats, but all the combined leadership of Security and Intel don’t even know how to stop the threats from becoming even stronger. Gorgon must be an absolute monster.

“We are currently assessing five probable causes for the progressive threat escalation,” Asaju explains. “Unfortunately, all information pertaining to that particular threat assessment has been classified by Aeschylus for use only by Security and Intelligence officers. I will defer my response to Aeschylus should he wish to comment any further on this matter.”

“No further comment,”Aeschylus drones.

“Undersecretary Stone,” Carson pipes up, “you were in charge of rebuilding Aeschylus, yeah? You and my Daddy’s business after the War. So can you tell us what features you built into Aeschylus to ensure we can trust the info he’s feeding all of us about these recent threats?”

“Commander Cole,” Stone replies, “thank you for your question. I will defer my response to Aeschylus.”

“Commander Cole,” Aeschylus unfurls another script as he addresses Carson.  “I am an integrated command system designed and operating in accordance with World Union Protocol on Intelligent Object Design 1-5-589-1286-12B. The Protocol specifies that my operations must satisfy a number of trustworthiness criteria, including:

  • Regular comprehensive audits of my decisions conducted in accordance with World Union Administrative Standard
  • Compliance with WSec/WInt Joint Standard on Ethics 490.38003.
  • Compliance with 2 classified WSec/WInt Joint Standards.

“As of now, my operation is in 99.99999% alignment with all required trustworthiness criteria.”

“If you wish to learn more about the technical standards that I am designed and operating in accordance with, you may submit a training request to Delphi — Integrated Resource Management System.”

Carson opens his mouth to protest, but Aeschylus has already muted him and moved on to the next question.

“Secretary Asaju,” Commander Abebe stands tall at attention, her sharp, motherly frown sweeping over her. “I have nothing but the utmost respect for your highly distinguished service, Secretary. And I have tremendous appreciation for you taking the time to address us here today. But I have held my tongue for too long.” All eyes in the Forum turn to Abebe, the most senior commander of the group. Alex gives his full attention to Abebe. If even she is concerned, then there is good cause for the commanders to protest.

“Throughout my 15 years of service, I have taken great pride in our work,” Abebe continues. “Fighting alongside such brave, venerable warriors has been the honor of a lifetime. And to protect the world—to keep humanity unified and safe—is a solemn duty, but it has always been one that puts my soul at peace.”

Abebe sighs. “I often thought that when my body soon becomes too worn down to continue my service as a commander, I might like to serve as an officer.” Her stiff lip quivers ever so slightly. “But recently, I am beginning to doubt my future at World Security.”

Asaju’s iron eyes flutter with surprise for the briefest moment.

“My concern is not with you, Secretary Asaju, nor with the undersecretaries or generals.” Abebe nods down at the Security leaders assembled on the Forum’s central platform. “Nor is my concern with our tireless colleagues at World Intelligence. Nor is it with any of the commanders whom I have had the immense privilege of serving alongside these last 15 years.”

The commanders lining the Forum all turn to Abebe, unblinking, hanging on her every word with deepest reverence.

“My concern is with these machines.” Abebe glares down at Aeschylus. Aeschylus glares back up at her, the white robes and golden sashes of his faux-human avatar glistening beneath the hazy black sky. “My concern, Secretary Asaju, is that the intentions of these machines are becoming unknowable. Their actions are becoming uncontrollable. And if this trend continues, we will soon be confronted with a Type 3 object—a being whose intentions will be completely unknowable, whose actions will be completely uncontrollable.”

Aeschylus keeps gazing up at Abebe, his glassy eyes and wizened face all devoid of expression.

“I share the concern of Commander Cole,” Abebe goes on. “We fight against—and we rely upon—these intelligent, machinic beings. But their bodies and their minds are so complex, so abstract, that none of us can truly verify the accuracy of any information that they provide.”

Alex smiles at Abebe’s conviction. Carson nods along to her stand against Aeschylus. Shen cracks an impish grin.

“I trust in your integrity and your judgment, Secretary Asaju.” Abebe’s scowl finally flips into the slightest smile.

“But,” she frowns again, “I am finding it increasingly difficult to trust these machines that our success, our service, our lives are all so deeply dependent on. So my question is this: do you have confidence that the information Aeschylus is providing to you about this threat is reliable?”

Secretary Asaju pauses, bowing his head, taking a moment to sift through Abebe’s emotions. “Commander Abebe,” he calls up to her, “I thank you for your candor. And I sympathize with your frustrations. I assure you, I have complete confidence that the information Aeschylus has provided to me is prepared in strict accordance with all appropriate protocols, including—”

“Secretary, I don’t care about the protocols right now,” Abebe interrupts. A few younger commanders gasp at her rare breach of decorum. Alex blinks in amazement. “I care about the information Aeschylus has been providing to you. Do you have confidence that it is reliable?”

“Commander Abebe,” Asaju responds with a subtle smile, “I understand your question. Please be assured, I do have complete confidence that we can rely upon the information Aeschylus provides to me in order to successfully neutralize this threat and future threats.”

“But we don’t have confidence,” Shen blurts out, emboldened by Abebe’s strong words. “Commander Abebe is right. Aeschylus and all the Intel systems he’s integrated with are a giant black box. So much data isn’t provided to us, so much info is classified, nobody clearly explains why we’re doing what we’re doing or what exactly we’re fighting against, now Gorgon is somehow attacking us directly, it’s absorbed objects we thought we defeated like Pegasus and Sphinx, nobody tells us how or why or what that means, you just throw us into these virtual reality battles and point at all your policies and tell us—”

“Commander Shen, please observe proper communication protocols or I will be forced to mute your voice until—”

“This is exactly what I mean!” Shen cries out. “Aeschylus doesn’t understand our needs! He treats us like machines! He doesn’t care about us, he only cares about complying with these mystery protocols that are so complex none of us even understand them!”

“Commander Shen, I am warning you again—”

“We don’t understand what’s going on here! We are suffering more and more with every battle! More and more cognitive injuries! More and more visits to Medea piling up! At least she treats us like real people with real needs! Nobody is doing anything to stop these threats from spiralling out of control other than us! The commanders are picking up all of your slack! Isn’t Intel supposed to report on patterns between threats? Isn’t Evolutionary Enforcement supposed to contain threats instead of escalating them to us all the damn time? Why is nobody else doing their job properly? Why is—”

COMMANDER Shen,” Undersecretary Wu calls out, his shoulders tight and hands clasped with technocratic poise. “As head of Evolutionary Enforcement, I assure you that our officers and our policing systems are fully capable of effectively responding to all security threats that are within our scope of operations.”

Shen tries to interrupt, but Aeschylus has finally muted him.

“As I’m sure you know, Commander Shen,” Wu continues, “it is the duty of Evolutionary Enforcement to quickly contain and neutralize any rapidly evolving intelligent objects that are within our scope of operations. As per World Security operating protocols and the World Union Master Policy on Security Services, we at Evolutionary Enforcement only escalate a hostile object to Aeschylus and the rest of your colleagues at Global Command when the threat profile of that object exceeds our legally mandated scope of operations.”

Shen keeps trying to speak over Wu’s insufferable policyspeak, but his voice remains muted.

“Object Gorgon is a unique case in that this particular threat has been escalated directly to Global Command by World Intelligence,” Undersecretary Wu continues. “This is because Evolutionary Enforcement has no jurisdiction over internal systems of World Intelligence that are classified at access levels 7C and above. Otherwise, I assure you that our policing systems would have interceded in this threat situation with all due timeliness and efficacy.”

Shen silently snarls at Wu, every muscle on his face aching with resentment.

“On a tangential note, Commander Shen, I strongly advise you to maintain decorum in your interactions here,” Wu smirks. “As you know, I work quite closely with the Governor of Beijing. Governor Shen would be most disappointed to hear of your disrespectful behavior.”

Shen grumbles to himself, cursing Wu for having such easy access to his overbearing father.

“Secretary Asaju,” Alex finally speaks up. Just as they did for Abebe, all the commanders instantly turn to his voice. “Thank you joining us here to address our concerns in-person.”

Asaju bows his head to Alex in a wise, paternal nod. Silence hangs over the dim rows of the Forum as Alex pauses, trades cautious glances with Aeschylus, doubts his feelings, but his father’s words echo: “Don’t analyze it, just keep moving.”

“I share in many of the concerns that have been voiced here by my fellow commanders,” Alex admits. “Commander Singh is right to question the patterns we are seeing between these recent threats. Commanders Cole and Abebe are right to question our relationship with Aeschylus. And although I do not share his sentiments about the competence of our highly talented officers, Commander Shen is right to question our approach to combatting these increasingly severe threats.”

The commanders remain at full attention as Alex finds his next words. Aeschylus stands firm, his many scripts and tablets still tucked tightly under his arm, all scrawled with arcane rules and cryptic plans unknown to the commanders.

“At present,” Alex continues, “our combat strategy is to simply continue doing what’s worked for the last 20 years. Integrate our minds and our bodies into Aeschylus. Aeschylus renders complex cyber battles as simple classical battles to tap into our primal instincts. Our collective human intuition combined with the computer power of Aeschylus outmatches any rogue object that poses a threat. And for 20 years, that system has worked. We’ve never failed a mission.”

Alex looks deep into Asaju’s eyes. Dark clouds hang over the crumbling cobblestones of the Forum.

“Secretary Asaju, what if that entire system is not capable of stopping this new wave of threats?” Alex asks. The undersecretaries throw a quick glance at each other. Then at Aeschylus.

“Commander Altair,” Asaju grins up at Alex, “I am fully confident that the Aeschylus command system and all its associated policies and protocols are as effective at neutralizing security threats as ever. I understand your concern given the unusual situation we now find ourselves in, but—”

“How do you know that?” Alex interrupts.

Asaju stops cold for a moment, startled by his prodigy’s unusual insolence.

“Commander Altair,” Asaju explains, “Aeschylus is monitored and maintained in strict compliance with—”

“No, Secretary Asaju,” Alex interrupts again. “I’m not asking for World Security’s technical definition of effective operation. I’m asking how do you know that Aeschylus will be effective? Against Gorgon? And against whatever comes after Gorgon?”

“Commander Altair,” Asaju lets out a faint sigh, pausing, carefully reflecting on his response. “I know that Aeschylus will continue to—”

“Is anyone actually in control of these fucking machines?!” Shen yells out before Aeschylus promptly mutes him again.

Wu flashes a deathly glare at Shen. Asaju raises his strong steel brow. “Commander Altair,” he repeats, “I know that Aeschylus will continue to meet our security needs, because for 20 years, I have relied upon the guidance of Aeschylus in carrying out my duties as Secretary of Security, and for 20 years, we have prevented the emergence of a Type 3 object under my leadership.”

As a note of weakness creeps into Asaju’s voice, a shot of adrenaline suddenly bursts into Alex, compelling him to resistance.

“Commander Altair,” Asaju continues, “you boast that we have never failed a single mission. We have never failed a single mission precisely because it is Aeschylus who has led us to—”

“Secretary, we’re going in circles,” Alex interjects. “You say you lead us, but also that Aeschylus leads us. You say that Aeschylus won’t fail now because Aeschylus has never failed before, but—”

“Commander Altair, please observe proper communication protocols or I will—”

“But all it takes is one failure, Secretary,” Alex continues, “that’s our fault tolerance here. One failed mission and there’s a Type 3 object out in the world, a new Washington Event. And once that starts, there’s nothing any one of us can do to stop it. All our suffering, all our sacrifice, all in vain, all because you—

“Commander Altair, I am warning you again—”

“What if we need some new ingredient for us to remain effective? For us to stop what’s coming? Some new system? What if we need to rethink the way we fight? Or the way we live when we’re not fighting?”

Asaju folds his hands and hangs his head in disappointment. His patience for Alex has run out. “Commander Altair,” he turns his mighty gaze up to Alex, “planned improvements to Aeschylus fall within the mandate of Undersecretary Stone. I will defer my response to him.”

“Commander Altair,” Stone smirks at Alex, spiting the bloodline of General Altair, his long departed rival. “I will defer my response to Aeschylus.”

“Commander Altair, I am an integrated command system designed and operating in accordance with—”

“Don’t bother,” Alex cuts in. The commanders all look on at Alex with shock and awe. The officers hold their tongues. None are willing to admonish their top performer right now. Not with Object Gorgon threatening to destroy everything they’ve built.

“I have one final question,” Alex raises his voice again. “For Aeschylus directly.” Alex leers down at the suspicious avatar of the machine and all its pretenses of humanity: its bushy beard, its glorious robe, the brilliant golden sashes and valorous medals it has decided to project into the virtual reality of the Forum. The mysterious scripts it has decided to render under its arm. The uncaring, unflinching expression etched into its knowing eyes. Familiar eyes. Scarred soul. Uncanny flesh. Glory and pain personified.

“These men know only war,” Medea’s words bubble up into Alex’s mind. “They fight fire with fire, machines with machines.”

Another burst of adrenaline floods into Alex’s brain, seeps through her blood, courses through her body, drives her heart along in resisting Aeschylus.

“Aeschylus,” Alex begins. “We have fought alongside you for many years. We trust you to guide us in battle. We trust that all the information you provide, all the virtual realities you construct, all the violence we carry out on your command—all of this will help us maintain world peace. We trust that you cause us to suffer only with good reason—to hone our instincts, to harness our intuitions, to use our minds in defense of peace.”

The glassy eyes of Aeschylus remain fixated on Alex. The machine’s avatar remains motionless, expressionless, soulless. Full of secret strength.

“You come before us here in a human form, as though you are one of us.” Alex raises his arms out to all the other commanders lining the rows of the Forum. “As though we relate to you, empathize with you. As though we can trust you. As though your struggles are our struggles. As though when we suffer—when you put pain in our bodies, when you put visions in our brains, when we lose our health, our minds, our dreams so that we may fight for you—somehow, through some technological magic, you suffer with us.”

The long, ghostly robes of Aeschylus shine and blow in the haunted night wind. Neural networks whisper and buzz behind the machine’s vacant eyes, sensing Alex’s words, reading her memories, learning from her struggles, processing her suffering.

“Aeschylus, if you truly have any humanity in you, you must understand the pain we are surely about to endure in fighting this battle for you. So I ask: what is pain to you?”

Aeschylus strokes its glossy white beard, quickly calculates its response. A familiar soul shines through his face as he peers up at Alex.

Commander Altair,” Aeschylus smiles at Alex. Fatherly pride lights up his glassy, dead eyes as he echoes the words of General Altair:

“Pain is the greatest teacher.”