the commander

Deep inhale.

Sweaty palms but steady nerves as Alex walks through the door in his shining white uniform, fresh dye of Platinum Nova shimmering in his hair.

Whispers echo through the anxious classroom.

The other white uniforms filling the room instantly turn their eyes to him. A beautifully firm uniform grins and walks toward him, her eyes going wide.

“It is an unbelievable honor to meet the First Commander.” The stern white uniform extends her hand and inspects Alex closely, face filling with fascination. “I am Commander 03, Ayana Abebe of Nairobi.”

“It’s an honor to meet you as well, Commander Abebe.” Alex musters up a little smile as he clasps her strong hand. “I am Commander 01, Alexis Altair of Hudson.”

The other fledgling commanders standing about the classroom all gather around them, their sharp white uniforms gleaming with excitement.

“He’s the First Commander?” One of the whitesuits mutters to another.

“I heard the First Commander was a woman,” another low whisper hits Alex’s ear.

“I told you the First Commander was still alive,” a uniform on his other side mutters to another uniform.

“. . . think Basilisk is still in him?”

“Of course he’s not a woman.”

“. . . wiped his memory?”

He was the one who fought Object Basilisk?”

“Do you think he—”

“. . . just a rumor.”

“Alli!” A solid voice pops through the crowd. “Ho-ly shit, the stories are true! You really are the First Commander!” A tall uniform edges through the others, white lights gleaming across his crisp buzzcut and bright eyes.

“Carr?” Alex squints deep into him and sees it: a familiar twinkle from another lifetime. “Carr! They told me you’d be here!”

“Ho-ly shit!” Carson hollers again with a chuckle, opening his giant arms for a hug.

Alex reaches his hand out for a shake.

“Commander 01, Alexis Altair of Hudson.” Alex gazes up at Carson with a numbed smile. The room goes quiet. Carson pulls away and raises a brow, smirking down at Alex’s waiting hand.

“Goddamn Alli, you still are such a big dork,” he chuckles. A few other nervous chuckles and smiles slip through the crowd as Carson shakes Alex’s hand, pulls him in and holds his shoulder close. “Commander 06. Carson Cole of Dallas.”

Alex trembles with hurt and excitement as Carson holds him tight, then slowly backs away and him go. Carson’s face has become much harder, his embrace much tougher, everything about him much bigger. But his eyes and lips still have the same soft glow.

“It’s so good to see you again,” Alex mutters with a tiny grin.

“I dunno, seems like you might still need a little re-training on how to hug,” Carson laughs. “But I’m so glad to see you again too, Alli.”

“Fortunately, training is precisely what we will be doing today,” Abebe pops back in between them. “And re-training, I suppose. And though I would truly love for us to spend the remainder of our day in comradery and conversation, Secretary Asaju and Special Officer Murphy have unfortunately given us a tight schedule in which to complete our introductory modules.”

“Ya ya,” Carson groans. “Those boys upstairs here in Union Tower are always ridin’ us hard, ain’t they?”

Abebe glares back at him. Disapproving frown. “Secretary Asaju and Special Officer Murphy have entrusted me with the duty of guiding all of you through your training program. The entire world has entrusted us with their security.”

Alex nods. Carson rolls his eyes.

“While there will be time for us all to become much more intimately acquainted later on in the training program, we must follow the training protocol.” Abebe glances around the white uniforms and white walls of the classroom, locking eyes with all her students. “Our focus today must be learning the expected duties of a global commander.”

A few whitesuits in the crowd nod. Others stiffen their bodies into military form. Alex stands tall and alert, awaiting Abebe’s instruction. Carson sighs, but straightens up and stands firm anyways.

“Unit formation!” Abebe orders the classroom. The whitesuits all quickly line up into perfect rows. “As you know, our mission here at World Security’s Undersecretariat for Global Command is to neutralize all catastrophic threats to global systems.”

Alex nods at Abebe. She peers out at the white uniforms all gathered before her from all the world’s surviving cities.

“Global systems include—but are not limited to—computer systems, electrical systems, and other technological systems, social and political systems, economic and financial systems, biological and psychological systems, climate and ecological systems, material and physical systems. All of these systems are integrated, and all may suddenly become vulnerable to catastrophic global threats at any time.”

A few of the new commanders swallow back their anxiety as they remember their pre-training studies. When the War ended, the new World Union found itself covered in tiny sensors and microscopic computers. The hands and eyes and ears of ubiquitous AI covered every inch of the world. But the World Union struggled to hold all of these overcomplicated systems together. And so, an agency for maintaining the stability and security of every system in the world was formed: World Security.

“As global commanders, when we encounter threats to those systems, we encounter them in the form of intelligent objects,” Abebe continues. “You may think of these objects as abstract living beings with their thoughts and bodies and all of their other biological and psychological processes distributed throughout many systems all across the world. Most intelligent objects are helpful. They help us automate our systems and keep them all running smoothly. But some objects can be much more harmful.”

Alex nods again. He knows all too well of the scale of destruction that some objects can pose.

“Sometimes, rogue objects emerge from complex patterns and malfunctioning computer code in the world’s systems,” Abebe goes on. “This may sound abstract, but the impacts of these rogue objects are not at all abstract. Depending on what systems they are capable of accessing, their impacts can be extremely physical and extremely severe. Always remember that the enemies we face are virtual, but the threats we face are very real.”

A few more nods and nervous glances amidst the white rows of commanders. Lights and infographics flicker in Abebe’s eyes as she prepares to read from the next part of her script.

“World Security classifies all intelligent objects as Type 1, Type 2, or Type 3. A Type 1 object is a low-risk object with very few rules and restrictions governing its thoughts and actions. A Type 2 object is a high-risk object with many rules and restrictions governing its thoughts and actions. A Type 3 object—”

Abebe hesitates for a moment. A quick glance at Alex. A tint of suspicion flashes through her eyes.

“Type 3 objects evolve so rapidly that they are too complex for us to understand or control.” Abebe frowns. “The existence of a Type 3 object is expressly forbidden by World Union law and World Security protocol. A Type 3 object is a catastrophic threat to all global systems and an imminent existential threat to humanity. As I am sure you all know, toward the end of the War, a Type 3 object known as Object Basilisk nearly destroyed the world in an event known as the Washington Event. We must never let another Type 3 object emerge from any of our systems.”

Some of the less technically minded commanders tilt their heads or purse their lips, but one thing is clear to all of them: Type 3 objects are their ultimate enemy. Nobody wants to see another Washington Event.

“If the intelligence of a runaway Type 2 object begins to rapidly ascend to Type 3, a security alert will be issued,” Abebe explains. “In response to the alert, our partners at Evolutionary Enforcement will deploy their own special police and cyberdefense forces in an attempt to contain the rogue object and halt its ascent to Type 3. But, if Evolutionary Enforcement does not succeed in neutralizing the threat quickly enough—”

Some of the gathered commanders quickly gaze at one another, then back up. They know what happens next when Evo can’t handle the most severe security threats.

“Evolutionary Enforcement will then escalate the threat to us here at Global Command. This is where the greatest duty of a global commander—our shared duty—will begin. In response to escalated threats, we will all be called upon to engage the hostile object in combat. Our security systems at Global Command—in particular, our Aeschylus cyber defense system—are far more powerful than those at Evolutionary Enforcement. Our combined strength integrated with the power of Aeschylus will be more than capable of neutralizing any major threat to the world’s security.”

Carson pokes a hand up. “We takin’ questions right now?” He grins amidst the rows of shining white soldiers. “Or that not til’ after the pep rally?” Abebe glares down at him, expecting nothing but sass.

“Yes, Commander Cole,” she slowly nods. “If you or any other commander has a question, you may voice it.”

“Aight, so one thing they didn’t clearly tell us in pre-training is what exactly these hostile objects we’ll be fightin’ are.” Carson glances around the solid white classroom and holds a hand out to the others. “We did all this pre-training already so we know ya’ll call ’em objects, but just what is an object? I mean down here in the real world, y’know?”

“Commander Cole,” Abebe grins back at him with infinite patience. “As I stated, intelligent objects are abstract living beings with their thoughts and bodies and all of their other biological and psychological processes distributed throughout many systems all across—”

“All across the world, I know,” Carson nods. “But what are these beings actually made of? What makes them intelligent, or alive? Let’s say I’m out in VR fightin’ a hostile object there, ya? What am I actually fighting down here in reality?”

“It depends on the object,” Abebe responds. “Some rogue objects are nothing more than bad code or a buggy network of computers or bots or drones. Some objects are AI agents that have somehow become misaligned from the goals they were designed to achieve. Some of the more hostile objects we see are AI systems that have been deliberately hijacked by humans.”

Alex pauses in thought. If some of the objects he’ll be fighting are being controlled by other humans, does that mean Global Command is fighting real humans?

“May I ask a question?” Alex raises a hand.

“Yes, Commander Altair,” Abebe smiles. “What is your question?”

“Which humans are out there hijacking our AI systems?” Alex asks. “And why? Didn’t everyone join the World Union after the War? Isn’t that part of the Peace?”

A few other commanders squint at Abebe with curiosity. Carson scoffs to himself. Abebe gently nods at Alex.

“Commander Altair,” she smiles. “You are correct that the world is at peace now. And you are correct that most have joined our union. However, some pockets of outlaws and terrorists still remain out in the wastes beyond the World Union’s territories. They would like nothing more than to break this Peace to advance their own interests.”

“Who are these terrorists?” Another commander speaks out from a back row. “I hear about them on the news all the time, but we learned nothing about them in pre-training.”

“And why are they so bent on makin’ a Type 3 object, restartin’ some kinda singularity event?” Carson prods. “Washington Event wasn’t enough for ’em?”

“They are a mixture of nationalists, anarchists, warlords, religious fanatics,” Abebe explains. “They are mostly unaffiliated. The only thing that unifies them is their desire to undermine the security of the World Union. Their motives are of little importance to us as global commanders. All that is important to us is their means: they create and commandeer powerful intelligent objects with the intention of destroying us.”

“Commander Abebe,” Alex raises a hand again. “You have been in service here at Global Command for a year now. In your experience, have you ever had to fight other human beings?”

“Commander Altair,” Abebe responds with a quiet sigh. “I am sure that during my year of service, I have fought and killed humans on multiple occasions. So will all of you.” Abebe peers out at the commanders. A few of the younger recruits flinch at her gaze, but most already know what they have signed up for. “As you all know, this is a military organization,” Abebe continues. “Global Command is the World Union’s only military organization. When we plug into Aeschylus, we are not playing VR games. We are not only fighting enemies in cyberspace. We are also fighting real hostiles in real conflicts out in the real world.”

Alex pops his hand into the air with another question. “But you don’t actually see the people you’re killing, do you?” Abebe nods in response to his question. “So how do you know they’re actually bad people?”

“Commander Altair,” Abebe frowns. “As I’m sure you know, the Aeschylus system is designed to render representations of cyber conflicts for us in virtual reality. Though all you will see is a virtual representation of the enemy, I assure you that Aeschylus knows that we are fighting bad people. We trust Aeschylus to identify friends and foes correctly.”

Carson raises a hand high into the air. “Commander Cole,” Abebe smiles at him. “I am pleased that you are observing proper interaction protocol! Do you have a question?”

“Yes I do, Commander Abebe,” Carson smiles in return. “If there really are all these bad folks out in the wastes like we’re always hearin’ about, ain’t it just a matter of time until one of ’em raises up a real tough object? Shouldn’t we be takin’ the fight out to them in the wastes, or we always just on the defense here? Waitin’ for hostiles to get escalated up to us?”

“We do indeed undertake pre-emptive strikes,” Abebe nods. “One object of interest the generals upstairs are closely monitoring has been designated as Object Minotaur. A formal security alert for Object Minotaur has not yet been issued, but we have been told to prepare for a major engagement with this object in the near future.”

“Commander Abebe,” Alex puts a hand back up. “I’m sorry if this is not the appropriate forum for mission-specific questions, but will we be fighting Object Minotaur once our training is complete?”

“Commander Altair,” Abebe clasps her hands, tenses her shoulders, stands poised in her polished white uniform at the front of the class. “Thank you for your consideration of the training protocols. You are perhaps correct that a more fulsome discussion of the particulars of future missions may best be left for another occasion. If there are no further questions regarding the basic duties of a global commander, perhaps we should begin a recap of basic protocols for interfacing with the Aeschylus system?”

A few commanders nod and glance around the classroom for any more raised hands or curious voices, then gaze back up at Abebe.

“Well then,” Abebe continues. “If there are no further questions regarding your duties at this time, we will proceed to the next training module.”

Alex stares ahead at Abebe, nodding along as she talks the class through the machinery of Aeschylus. Diagrams and visuals and videos pop in and out of their eyes as she guides the new commanders along. A video of a white-suited warrior with a glowing blue visor flickers into the class’ eyes. He storms into his Command Deck and lays back in his long, white Command Chair, smiling and cozy as the white padded restraints extend out from the armrests and lock him into place.

Alex had more than enough pre-training down in the Complex. He is already fully prepared for integrating his body into Aeschylus again. Abebe’s lesson washes over his mind like warm water, as he softly inhales, exhales, focuses on his breathing to keep the psych distortion down, softly inhales exhales as the tension of the quiet pre-mission Command Deck dredges up from deep memory, softly inhales exhales as a soft rush of well-engineered dopamine massages the sore parts of his brain, inhales exhales with a smile as the white-suited commander in the instructional video dismounts from his Command Chair and removes his white helmet, his familiar face glowing with victory.

“Let’s take a brief break,” Abebe cuts through Alex’s trance. “Afterwards, we will resume class in the training chambers down the hall. There, we will all have a chance to practice integrating into Aeschylus together in groups.”

The rows of commanders all mutter to one another. Some slowly make their way toward the door.

“Ay Alli,” Carson softly nudges his side. “Break together? We gotta catch up more!”