Crowded Seas: Hope Renewed; Hope Abandoned

The first part of the following piece of fiction originally published as part of the Project for the Study of the 21st Century’s (PS21) Imagining 2030 series. Read it in its original form here.

These writings are a part of the #CrowdedSeas project led by the authors, delving into the future of the maritime domain. Over the course of several months this project will develop hypotheses about the future of life and death at sea, particularly in Asia, in the 2030-2050 timeframe. It will apply a series of different methodologies to conduct this exploration, including strategic forecasting, short fiction writing, and design thinking that will culminate in a written report.

Part One: Hope Renewed

By Scott Cheney-Peters and Richard Lum

“That’s it, right there,” said Ashik. Through beat-up VR goggles he saw an over-the-shoulder view of one unmanned underwater vehicle approaching another, larger, unmanned underwater tender. What he saw was only a simulated rendering based on inertial navigation data, but he knew that if he could see them, both machines would be visibly in need of overhauls – or retirement. The words “Operator – Take Manual Control” flashing across his lower field of vision piqued his curiosity.

“Uh, Rima…you still awake?” he called out through the goggles’ integrated microphone as an indicator ticked down the distance to the tender. “This chickadee is coming home to mother hen pretty quick.”

“Yep, sorry, almost there,” crackled the response through his headphones. A low monotonous tone began buzzing at more frequent intervals as the warning continued to flash on screen. It wasn’t like Rima to be away from her control console before an approach; she had a way of manufacturing enough anxiety without inducing real cause for concern.

The alarm silenced and the words “Manual Control Initiated” appeared briefly before fading from Ashik’s display. 

“Sorry, back!” she exclaimed, out of breath. The speed with which the UUV operator was handling the inbound vehicle told Ashik she was either supremely confident or completely impatient. Knowing his little sister, it was definitely the latter. “Careful now…. ease it in,” he said into the microphone. Had he been with her in the dimly lit control room he would have given her a squeeze on her shoulder, as he always had when reminding her to focus and relax. Even though she was over seven hundred nautical miles away on a different ship, his old home, practicing for her UUV/USV rating, he could clearly picture the thin line of perspiration that would be beading in the fold of her neck. As she successfully mated the UUV with the tender Ashik’s simulated feed dissolved as she powered down her machine.

 “You know,” said Rima over the VOIP channel still feeding into Ashik’s earbuds, “better systems automate this part too so you can spend more time on maintenance.” Ashik detached the goggles from the headset and placed them on the console in front of him, careful to avoid the dark, congealed pools of recent beverage spills.  “Jess, my friend on that lashed-up refinery Kerama-way,” Rima continued, “she even has an on-mother printer so they can keep the tenders out for more than two weeks.”

“Is that where you were? Doing maintenance?” Ashik tried not to let his suspicion creep into his voice – he knew she already thought him protective to the point of overbearing.  

“Yeah, was installing a few software patches on the drones in the bay and lost track of time.”

Plausible. He wasn’t sure why he doubted her answer.

“Anyway, how do you know what “better systems” have? This from spending all your time gossiping on the net with your friends?”

“Uh, no,” she replied, her voice betraying no small amount of irritation. “From reading the professional notes, which is how you make me spend my time. Unfortunately, you’ll be far too busy soon with your new job to keep watching over my shoulder,” she said. Despite the clear sarcasm in her voice, Ashik thought he detected a faint note of sadness. 

“That’s what you think,” winked Ashik. “There’s always drones.”  He heard her bark a laugh on the other end of the line.  Once when they were younger, just after they had lost their parents, Ashik had rigged up two micro drones from scraps around their village and programmed them to follow her day and night. She had been furious at the time, but now it was a private joke between them. “Besides,” he said, “you’ll not be much further away than your little friend there, three days out on its mission into the Wop-Gop.”

“Ugh, the first thing I’m going to do is start calling things by their technical terms – mothership UUVs and their USVs, not ‘mother hens’ and their ‘chickadees.’ And don’t get me started on the Western Pacific Garbage Patch,” Rima said, crisply articulating each word. “Seriously, Wop-Gop?”

“Look,” Ashik sighed. “I know you’ve got the manuals, but you’ve got to focus on your training and studies, no …”

“I can’t have my whole life be this… this garbage,” Rima cut in. “You love it out here, but you know I’m going ashore when I can. Besides, I’m apparently going to be just the latest thing my big brother gets to remotely control, so why should I stress with studies if you’ll always be able to help me out of a jam.”

“Rima. That’s not fair. You know us coming out here to do these jobs wasn’t a choice. After the mercy ship picked us up it was either contribute here or go back to all that death and misery. No one ashore would have taken us and we’d already lost …” he dropped his gaze to the goggles on the console. “Well, you know all that. More important, it was the thought of giving you, my chickadee, a chance at something better.”

“Eeesh! Okay, this just got way too sappy,” Rima exclaimed in his ear just as Ashik exited through the hatch of the spare UUV control shack. He started towards the scuttle that would take him up to the common room and mess three decks above for a hot meal.

Ashik had left Hope Renewed, the waste-recycling vessel, or “waster,” where they had lived for five years after their initial ordeal. In those days, placement options by the refugee charities and governments that supported them in an attempt to stem the human tide had been limited. But the stateless, floating economy continued to develop and expand as more and more people tried their luck forging a life at sea, driven by libertarian ideology or—more commonly—by necessity. Now, after a year of specialized remote training, Ashik was just three weeks into work at a new aquaponics farm east of the Philippines to begin an apprenticeship. Grow and reuse, two stages in a larger cycle of material use. This, at least, was how Ashik had come to link the two jobs as he tried to draw connections between the disparate chapters of his own life. 

                “Anyway, we don’t know how well this connection’s going to hold up,” Ashik said as he pulled himself up the metal hand bars of the scuttle. “So you might have your independence after all.”

                As Ashik reached the common room he heard a commotion on the other end of the line.

“Rima, is that the ship’s intercom?”

“Yeah, not sure I can make it out any better than you though.”

Indecipherable as usual, thought Ashik as the sound bled through his earbuds, a mix of static and the elongated consonants of Jamal, advisor to the mayor of Hope Renewed and muezzin. But even without looking at the clock he knew the call to prayer wasn’t due for another several hours.

                “I think he’s trying to muster the ship’s militia?” Rima offered before the line went dead.

———————————

                Commander Jeanne Collet stared at the vessel off Guépratte’s starboard bow, gripping the railing of the bridge wing even though aware the four feet closer from her bridge wing chair made no practical difference. With successive exaggerated winks she flicked through the optical enhancements and overlays of her glasses, trying to find useful information among the deluge of data. Eventually she came upon the QR code scanner.

“Lieutenant, try to raise them again,” she said.

No answer.

“Alright. Helm, all engines back one third. Let’s keep this distance until we know what we’re dealing with.”

Her naked eye could see that the vessel, dead in the water, was covered in running rust that bled streaks of orange into peeling white paint. The vessel’s name and IMO number had long since flaked off, but the laser-engraved QR code at the ship’s stern was still discernable. So, she thought, at least someone was concerned about keeping the vessel on the right side of the law. It had been what, a decade since the new U.N. Convention on Safety of Life at Sea mandated QR engraving on all vessels. Not that most complied, especially not those for whom such a mandate would require a retrofit. She guessed it had been many years since the vessel before her had felt the warm embrace of a dry dock for deep and thorough hull maintenance.

Her glasses and a panel on the captain’s chair in the pilothouse began beeping, half a beat out of synch. Stepping inside the pilothouse to investigate, Collet was enveloped in a sheen of information projected from the bridge’s jumble of overhead wiring and devices. As she turned and looked back towards the vessel, the data appeared to emanate from the gently bobbing hull, its heading shifting with the wind and unknown no more. Bright red, floating letters flashed “Critical Contact of Interest.”

Shit, she thought reading the CCOI report. So much for a speedy transit. The promise of a long weekend in port in New Caledonia for the crew had beckoned, payoff for extended upcoming illegal fishing operations.

She read on. The vessel, the Hope Renewed, was unflagged but had once been owned and registered by Citizens without Borders, an American NGO, in one of the ad hoc databases of refugee ships. She could tell from the welding job on the side of the hull that the drone bay was in frequent use and ostensibly for work in the Patch. Most likely a waster, collecting and breaking down the floating refuse that choked sea lanes into bricks of raw materials like plastic for use in the additive manufacturing plants that had sprung up throughout offshore Asia. Politicians back in France had been making a stink about the floating factories’ lack of effective labor laws allowing them to “steal” French jobs, as though the jobs hadn’t already been lost through decades of over-generous social benefits.  

But Collet had learned not to take appearances at face value. It wouldn’t be the first time the Chinese or Vietnamese had masked their activities among the refugees. Even if the intel about Hope Renewed was bad, without the protection of a state they were juicy targets, their kind helping fuel the boom in piracy throughout the world and stretching Collet’s navy that much further.

“Officer of the Deck, once more,” she said.

Still no answer.

“Alright, continue hailing them on bridge-to-bridge once every five minutes, and see if CIC can find someone on their vessel actively chatting on the net.”

“Ma’am, we’ve got a couple social media accounts that look likely to belong to Hope Renewed inhabitants but none responding to pings. Will let you know if that changes.”  

She hoped she could just have tea with the mayor or however the vessel’s leader styled themselves. If there wasn’t one, if it wasn’t a refugee ship or if she met resistance, she needed to be prepared. She knew a show of force might escalate the situation, but years spent trying to disrupt—ha, dent, the illicit maritime networks of Southeast Asia reinforced the need to balance prudence with the precept that it was better to be safe than sorry. She’d be balancing both today.

Collet picked up the microphone for the ship’s internal intercom. “Guépratte, this is the Captain. We have identified a vessel suspected in a series of attacks on merchant shipping. They have failed to respond to our hails. We are sending over a boarding team to investigate. It is critical that we determine who has been disrupting these sea lanes and, well, automated cargo ships don’t provide much details.”

In the past month, seven ships were taken in the same manner in waters stretching from the South China Sea to the Philippine Sea. Shipping insurance rates were rising with the sophisticated attacks subjecting their prey to all-systems jamming prior to the impact of what the post-incident analysis suspected were drone-based waterborne IEDs.

Guépratte’s XO, a lanky Algerian with a graying goatee, sidled up to Collet. “Ma’am, you think these attacks are fallout from Southwest Cay?”

“I don’t know. But if Hanoi wants to warn Beijing off from making another play for their last Spratly outpost, taking seven Chinese-owned vessels certainly got their attention. Of course, that’s a risky play to make. If the Chinese can make a link, the threat to additional shipping likely won’t reign in nationalist calls for blood for what’s already been hit. I don’t relish the specter of full-scale hostilities but it looks like that’s where we might be headed.”

“So we need to find out the truth first, to be prepared for the consequences.”

“Exactly. A week ago an American UAV caught sight of a surface vessel returning to Hope Renewed from the general direction of an attack. Nothing conclusive, but the best lead so far.”  

Collet turned to the Officer of the Deck. “Muster the boarding team in full exo gear. And tell combat to throw up a POP. I want eyes on that vessel.”

“Aye, ma’am.”

While Collet often chafed at having to sift through the reams of information brought in by all the Navy’s new gadgets, the Perimeter Overwatch Package, or POP, was one system that had proved its worth. The sound of several small overhead drones taking flight filled the bridge. They didn’t provide great real-time interior views, just some infrared, but the enhanced external situational awareness and 3D rendering of Renewed Hope provided to CIC and the bridge was superb. They were also armed.

“Ma’am, POP is in place. There’s nothing topside but we’re also not reading anything below decks. Could just be an error with the sensors. Do you want us to drop an ICS-disable package?”

“Negative. Doesn’t look like they can get their engines up in a hurry, better not to scare the locals. But be ready at the first sign they’re warming them up.” Balancing again. The industrial control system-disable package was a small autonomous robot carried aboard one of the POP drones that sought out and shut down the computers running the ship’s engines by breaching the system’s air gap and directly installing malicious code.

                A petty officer approached Collet with a radio in her outstretched hand. Taking the radio, she said, “Boarding officer, this is the captain, report.”

Ma’am, the boarding party is mustered on the flight deck. Two of the suits are malfunctioning, out of commission, and the back-ups are going through maintenance.”

                “Sounds about right. Just send their owners in the rear during the initial insertion. And make sure the team’s focused on the mission—not New Caledonia. We don’t know what we’re dealing with here. I’ll make my way across to exchange pleasantries once we do.”

                “Aye ma’am. Preparing to launch the line over with your permission.”

                “Launch when ready.”

                Over the next half hour Collet watched as her boarding team launched over a magnetic line to a high point on Hope Renewed, secured the trolley system, and one-by-one rode up the powered zip-line-like device dozens of feet above the sparkling waters, gently arcing to the contact point. CIC reported visual on all members of the boarding party arriving safely aboard Hope Renewed, confirmed by the boarding officer moments later.

                Now the waiting. Collet was a believer in letting her subordinates work without constant instruction, contenting herself to listen to the chatter between boarding team members as moved through the large vessel. But as she listened she developed a growing sense of dread. At last the boarding officer called for her.

                “Captain, this is the boarding officer. You’re going to want to see this.”

“What is it?”

Frankly, not sure what we’re dealing with. As far as we can tell it’s empty. There’s no one here.”

                “Captain,” called CIC before Collet had time to react. “Vessel inbound off the port quarter, five miles out. It’s pretty small, no visible weapons. One man topside.”

———————————

As Ashik gripped the wheel of the solar boat, the running lights of a ship twinkled in the evening mist. They corresponded almost exactly with the AIS fix for Hope Renewed. But as he approached his radar indicated two vessels, both dead in the water. Apprehension mixed with anger and relief that one way or another his multi-day journey on the high seas was at an end. He’d seen few warships during his time in the Pacific, but they were enough to recognize the vessel alongside Hope, illuminating the onset of night with her growing superstructure. If they were responsible… he thought. Well, at least they might have answers.


Part 2: Hope Abandoned

“What are you doing here?”

Ashik blinked. The goateed man stood, glowering.

“I…I. Hope Renewed.” Like most in ocean-going polyglot Asia, Ashik had picked up a smattering of standard maritime English. And like most he relied on a translation app in his sunglasses to soften the sharp edges of his mistranslations. Rima hadn’t needed hers in years….

A rough hand jostling his shoulder refocused his attention. Ashik instinctively reached for the glasses around his neck, but found only vague memories of their removal.

“You’re Hope Renewed? You’re one of the crew from the waste recycling vessel?”

Ashik hesitated, then nodded, but in his delay the goateed man shot a glance at someone behind Ashik.

“XO, here, it’s clean,” came a woman’s voice. “Just some malware embedded in porn, the usual.”

“Maybe I should keep…right, not the time.” The XO turned back to Ashik and handed him his glasses.

“Now, I’ll ask again. What are you doing here?”

“My sister. Rima, is she here?” A fresh flood of panic, fueled by the ability to effectively communicate, enabled Ashik’s renewed struggle for consciousness after the sleepless voyage.

“No, you. What are you doing here? Who are you? You said you’re a crew member?”

“Was, but I left months ago. I was on a video chat with my sister Rima when the feed cut out. Is she here? Did you find her on the ship?” Another glance over his shoulder. Ashik tried to turn for a good view but strained against the wrist restraints.

“Boat deck says his story checks out. The sunboat chart showed a clear course from an aquaponics farm northeast of Luzon, where its registered. And from the look of him I don’t think he’s got the strength to be much trouble. Why don’t we get him some food?”

“Please…” Ashik implored, “my sister.”

“You’re lucky the captain’s a nice lady,” said the XO as he scratched his goatee. “And that we have the best cook in the Pacific. I’ll be right back, hopefully sole meunière’s okay.”

Ashik closed his eyes as he nodded. When he opened them again a petite woman, the captain he guessed, sat in the XO’s place.

“Friend,” she said as she reached across and unlocked his restraints. “I’m sorry we haven’t answered your question. Your sister, she’s not here. No one is. We think they may have left during a storm warning and…well, we’re not sure. We want to find out what happened to her too. Will you help us do that?”

Ashik nodded again, his eyes momentarily moistening. So much for answers.

“Thank you.” Now, I’m afraid we have only a short amount of time to wrap this up this evening so I’m going to have to ask you to eat, nap, and then come with us to Hope Renewed. After that you can get a full night’s sleep, but the longer we take the further away your sister gets – we just need to figure out which direction that is.”

As smells of buttered fish filled the room he didn’t point out the alternative. That she could be below them right now. Fish food.

—————

“Ma’am,” reported the XO, “it’s wrapped up nicely. All signs say this was the origin of the attack on the freighter, and possibly the others, and that the crew here initiated their bad weather protocols. Logs showed they didn’t think they could skirt or sit out the big typhoon last week, sunboats are gone, medical and food supplies depleted, but major equipment still in place. We haven’t found any overt signs of struggle but it’s hard to tell with everything tossed about from the storm. We’re using the biometric forensic kit, starting in the galley, and CIC is investigating whether anyone got a ping from one of the sunboats’ transponders – will let you know if any connections to known groups pop.”

It was a pretty picture, Collette thought, leaning back in her stateroom chair. Just a lone wolf, or a radicalized cell. But there had been another attack. That meant it was either a sloppy frame job or the threat was wider than they feared. She hadn’t shared the intel with the XO, leading the boarding party aboard Hope Renewed, to avoid influencing his assessment. But it looked like he had succumbed to confirmation bias in his assessment. Time to shatter the illusion.

“XO, we got word of another vessel attacked, near Luzon, same M-O.”

“Well shit.”

“Yeah,” she paused before continuing. “What made you sure this was the origin of the attacks?”

“So,” the XO said, “we have the American UAV sighting of a surface drone returning here from the vicinity of the last attack. Having completed its mission, we believe it was likely tethered to its UUV mothership for extra buoyancy prior to the UUV’s retrieval by Hope Renewed. We have drones left behind aboard Hope Renewed that would fit this profile. We also developed an acoustic signature of the surface drone based off a scan of its propeller and its nearly a perfect match with one captured by the aftermarket sonar on last week’s victim just before the attack.”

 She heard the XO thank someone for handing him something, probably a diagnostics tablet, before he continued. “It also has a suspicious payload module. We’re sending you a few photos for the report. Our techs are taking a look at the device but based on the configuration it appears to have contained a jamming or disabling device on its last run.”

“Alright. And what does our guest say?”

“Not much, he’s just been rummaging through his sister’s bunk. Seems to be looking for something but won’t say what.”

Collette looked at the sharp green infrared view of Hope Renewed on her mounted video monitor, courtesy of CIC.  

“Time to ask. I don’t want to send over a relief boarding party – let’s wrap this up this shift.” Collette moved her hand to her handheld radio to terminate the chat. “Nicely this time, XO.”

“Aye, ma’am.”

She thumbed the channel dial to the open line with the rest of boarding team. She knew it must have looked a scene out of time to the younger crewmembers on the bridge. She could have carried out the whole conversation through the integrated radio functions on her glasses. But she found it quicker to skip the hassle of voice commands to get to the right channel. Plus there was something reassuring in feeling and hearing the click as the dial reached its new setting. Confirmation she thought. If they knew it was an old analog handset and not even digital they’d know how old school she really was.

——————

A knock on the door frame. Not that it was necessary, the door to the cabin Rima had shared with two others having been removed as a security precaution. An armed, exosuit-clad sailor watched from outside while another hovered over Ashik’s shoulder inside the cramped space.

“Friend,” came a scratchy voice from the passageway. “Have you found what you’re looking for?” it was the XO, in his standard, unarmored, dark blue naval uniform.

“No, no. There is nothing,” sighed Ashik, holding a bundle of Rima’s belongings. “I, I think she may have been in trouble.”

“Well, yes, I think she’s in trouble too.”

“No, I mean before now. I sensed something was wrong. She seemed…distracted. I should have – “

“Okay, but you’ve found nothing?” the XO cut in.

“No. Nothing to explain this. Or what the trouble might have been. Or why the ship was mustering the militia before the video chat cut out.”

“Alright, we’ll why don’t I take you down to the drone bay. I’d like you to tell me what to make of something we found.”

The two stepped into the passageway and moved towards the scuttle to the drone bays, the pair of sailors trailing behind. As they travelled, the XO picking his way between the jumble of items scattered about the deck, Ashik’s eyes flitted among them with occasional flashes of recognition. When they reached the lower level and opened the watertight door of the engine room. Ashik was flooded by memories as his nostrils were inundated with the smell of lubricants and fuel oil, and eyes the harsh off-white of LED lighting. The XO lead him past familiar machinery now idle and cold to one of the drone bays protruding from the hull below the waterline.

The XO pointed at a cylindrical drone 3-feet long, strapped down to a workbench. A mess of tools were strewn about the bench and floor. “Do you recognize this?” he asked.

“Sure, this is a standard chicka…uh, a payload drone carried aboard these motherships,” he replied, giving the side of a much larger drone a light smack.

“Anything unusual with this one?”

Ashik leaned in for a closer look. “It’s a weird alignment of the internal ports, looks as though it was arranged to allow whatever was in the payload module to draw a lot of power from the internal circuitry. Not something we usually do when running waste removal ops. The extended solar sheaths of the payload drones are designed specifically so this isn’t required. Here. Let me check the maintenance logs to see what it was being used for.” Ashik hopped on a stubby stool and powered up a diagnostic laptop with a small crack in the upper left corner. As the machine sputtered to life Ashik strummed his fingers on the keyboard, launching into a quick succession of keystrokes once the boot-up sequence finished.

“Hmm. The logs show that it and the mothership for this bay have not been in use for a month.”

“Why’s that odd?” asked the XO.

“Well, the batteries are still in both drones. One of the most basic rules on a waster is to always remove the batteries for maintenance and charging when not in use. An uncharged or corroded battery can mean a lot of lost money. They beat this into us.” Ashik turned and lifted the edge of his tattered shirt to reveal a small scar. “So either someone was just about to do whatever they were doing with these drones, or just did it and erased the logs but were caught out in the middle of hiding the evidence when whatever happened, well, happened.”

“I’m tracking,” said the XO, scratching his goatee. “But that’s still a lot of holes in the plot.”  

“No, just unanswered questions. And we can answer one right over here.” The two sailors standing guard were startled by Ashik’s abrupt leap to his feet but were stayed by a wave of the XO’s hand.

Ashik grabbed a flathead screwdriver out of a workbench drawer, walked a few paces back into the machinery space, and knelt beside a reverse osmosis machine. He loosened a few screws and pulled up the metal deck grating, setting it aside and unlatching a pitch black box barely discernable in the shadow of the machine above.

“This is the safe hold,” Ashik explained as he began pulling items from the void and setting them on the deck. “All the ship’s most valuable items are kept here – medicine, medical base material for the printers, back up communication equipment. Pirates board us and take the junk left out up top.” Ashik locked eyes with the XO. “And we never leave it behind, not when we’re initiating bad weather protocols. I also recognized a few things on the deck above us that the owners would have secured for sea or taken with them.”

The XO’s gaze moved between the objects on the grate.

“If they didn’t leave of their own accord, then what? Pirates?”

“Maybe. Vessels like ours go dark for lots of reasons. But this seems more professional than most pirates. You have not found any indication of sign of who did this, have you?” asked Ashik, already sure of the answer.

“No. Not a lot of answers here.”

“I have given you one. I know where we can look for more.”

—————

Guépratte reduced speed to bare steerageway 20 nautical miles from its destination. Aurelia, unlike most of the other quasi-libertarian seastead outposts, had the financial backing to moor to the sea floor outside any national jurisdiction, nestled between the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines and Palau. The XO turned to Collette from his bridge chair. “Should we send up the POP to investigate? It’s got the range.”

“No, we’re going to be guests here – and unwelcome ones at that, best not to give them reason to up their drawbridge.”

“Well, I don’t like it.”

“Good. That’s your job.”

Collette stared towards Aurelia as the ship undulated with the waves. Even out of visual range the inhabitants of the seastead would know they were here, if anyone was looking, or more likely, had alerts ready to flag the approach of a naval vessel on a hodgepodge of sensors. Collette ran through her mental checklist of more passive or unobtrusive sensors of her own she could use to get a better idea of what they were sailing into.

“What do our eyes in the skies say?” She had already read through the automated analytic summary and poked around some of the data fed by the routinely refreshed constellation of geosynchronous micro satellites, but a human voice helped her process it. And she valued second opinions. 

The XO called up a 3D projection on a screen between their seats on the bridge after a few words with CIC. “About 4,000 people are spread throughout the various structures of Aurelia, most concentrated in these center towers with the impressive comms arrays and the surrounding blocks,” he said, pointing to several squat low-rises. “These elevated areas outside the core appear to be warehousing and large residential estates, while this lower bit next to some construction is the docks. Two small cargo ships in port. There’s extensive submerged areas to keep the whole thing from being too top heavy, so we might not have a full picture of what’s going on there. Sensors say there’s a few point defense systems active, mostly automated small caliber stuff. Open source analysis of social media says it’s likely Aurelia has a private security force, but size and competency unknown.”

“What do we know about who owns it? Who runs it?”

“Well, that’s complicated. Like a lot of these seasteads it got its start through a combination of crowd-sourced donations, individual investments, and private corporations. This one’s got a particularly murky past with a lot of the startup funds coming from Vietnam’s new oligarchs and old gaming magnates in Macau. Aurelia’s creatively named ‘Aurelia Corporation’ is the entity that pays the bills.”

“And who pays them?”

“I suppose all the tenant subsidiaries – mostly biotech from what we can tell – and rich libertarian nutjobs looking for a place to call home.”

“And the desperate…,” came a disembodied female voice in a slight Cantonese accent from the console in front of the XO.

“What the shit?!” the XO exclaimed. His button-mashing set an anxious bridge crew scrambling.

“…the hard-working exiles, the refused, the outcasts. You’ll have to forgive me for this interruption. I believe this is the French warship to the southeast of Aurelia?”

“This is the commanding officer of that vessel, the Guépratte,” offered Collette, staring at the XO. “With whom do I have the pleasure?”

“I am a representative of the free state of Aurelia, we noticed your interest…”

“Damn social media scan,” muttered the XO.

“….and detected the presence of your warship. I’m sorry we had no other way to privately reach you at this distance at short notice. We believe we know what you are after and will allow you ashore to discuss. The CO and one other, unarmed. Provided the ship remains where it is.”

Collette and the XO stared at each other, expressions impenetrable to all but themselves. Seconds passed. “Alright, we’ll come over shortly in a small boat,” Colette decided. “Now please get out of my console.” She made a motion to a nearby petty officer for a pen and paper.

“Of course.”

Auxiliary Engine Room. Bring Ashik, she wrote and passed the note to the XO, glancing in the overhead to reconfirm the lack of cameras.

———————

Over the din of pumps and compressors and the occasional hiss, Ashik, having been told the details of conversation on the bridge, tried to reassure Collette.

“They have a reputation at sea for fair dealings,” he shouted. “And for knowing things. Eavesdropping on you through backdoor contractor diagnostic channels is just one way. Although,” here Ashik permitted himself a half smile. “The speed they were able to break into your system should concern you. It likely means the contractors have pretty weak security protocols.”

“Yeah, we’ve got our techs looking into that,” yelled the XO with a scowl.

“Anyway, as I told you before, my friend Tran came out here a few months back for a new job,” he continued shouting. “We had been working together on Hope Renewed from the time Rima and I arrived. We were guild mates in ship LAN parties during the holidays.” Collette and the XO’s eyebrows raised in unison. “You know, on the compu… anyway, Tran said people in Aurelia – at least those running it – are very professional, no-nonsense types. And that if I ever needed help tracking something down this was the place to be. In addition to the Corporation, there are a lot of folks running their own intelligence businesses.” Ashik hoped it was enough to satisfy the captain, his hoarse throat a reminder why conversations in engine spaces were typically brief.

“If you think the French Navy is going to go consult some private eye…” began the XO before Collette’s half-raised palm restrained him.

“Okay,” she assuaged the XO. “We need answers, and the stunt on the bridge was a legitimate demonstration of their capabilities.” She turned to Ashik, “But grab a quick meal in the wardroom, you’re coming with me.”

——————

            The choppy ride in one of Guépratte’s small boats drew to a close as Aurelia loomed above Ashik and Collette. Sea spray had dampened their life preservers and boat jackets as they passed the outer perimeter of Aurelia’s wave-break wall, evenly spaced pylons converting incoming wave energy into a usable power source. The waters calmed inside this wall and a security boat approached to escort their small vessel to a quay near what appeared to be a harbor control tower. Several uniformed personnel waiting on the quay caught the lines as Ashik and Collette cast them ashore, quickly tying up the vessel.

            “Welcome to Aurelia,” grunted a burly woman, eyes shaded by angled sunglasses, as she grasped Ashik’s hand and pulled him on to the dock in a motion that reminded Collette of starting an old-style lawnmower. “You must be Ashik. And you,” she turned to Collette, “must be the captain of Guépratte.

“Yes, that’s correct. You’re the one hacked into our conversation? Who are you?”

“Just ‘the Kashmiri’ please,” she said in the same Cantonese accent, ignoring the incongruity as she straightened her grey jumpsuit uniform. “Ashik, your friend Tran will be unable to join us, but once we identified you aboard the boat and made the connection we asked that he provide a character reference. Perhaps when we’re done he’ll be interested in stopping by and saying hello.”

“Done with what exactly?” asked Collette as they headed for an elevator at the base of the harbor tower.

“Our gift of information. We surmised what you wanted and invited you here out of a desire that you respect the Corporation as the authority in this place, and an acknowledgment that you have the ability to do as you please as long as the UN continues to insist on classifying us as a ship without nationality.”

“Yes, sorry that push by your allies in the General Assembly didn’t pan out.”

“Give it time, captain, give it time.” The Kashmiri called the elevator and the trio, plus another two personnel in the same grey jumpsuits stepped inside and headed down several levels.

The halls of the submerged facility were wider than Hope Renewed or Guépratte, but the aesthetics were the familiar utilitarian mix of ducting and piping with rooms protected by steel and ceramic watertight doors. Even the workplace safety posters were reminders of home for both Ashik and Collette. The group passed through what appeared a security station into a small conference room. The length of the side wall opposite the door was taken up by an elevated view of the docks. Workers and a small crane were busy taking stores and provisions aboard one of the two small cargo vessels in port while a tracked system swapped larger items and pallets from its pierside terminus with the interior of a nearby warehouse. The Kashmiri, having dropped her sunglasses to her neck walked to the head of a rectangular table and stood behind an offset plastic podium housing a computer terminal. A uniformed man remained by the door and motioned for Ashik and Collette to sit.

“Tea?” The Kashmiri asked. Two nods sent the man by the door out into the passageway. The lights in the room dimmed as the view of the harbor transformed to a dark canvas alive with colored dots and lines. The guests quickly recognized it as a map of Asia.

“You’re here because of the attacks, yes?” the Kashmiri queried Ashik and Collette, still engrossed by the wall display.

“You seem to know a lot about us,” Collette said, refocusing on the Kashmiri and stifling a growing agitation in her voice. “But eight attacks, if you count Hope Renewed, is enough to get anyone’s attention. What can you tell us about them?”

“Eleven attacks.”

“I’m sorry?” Collette’s eyebrows shot up.

“Eleven attacks.” The Kashmiri entered a few keystrokes and eleven small red circles pulsated on the map. “Seven attacks on shipping, three on wasters, one on a floating armory for an environmental protection services company. All destroyed or staged to look abandoned during typhoon season.”

“Survivors? Were there any survivors?” Ashik broke in, gasping, and without waiting for an answer demanded of Collette: “Why have you not been protecting us? Because our lives are not worth as much as your cargo?”

“That,” she replied in umbrage, “is not fair – we didn’t know about these other attacks, and frankly it’s not our job. What taxes do you pay to France? What responsibility do we bear for your choice to live out here?” Collette exhaled and paused. “To tell you plainly our government sees the influx of migrants at sea as a short-term phenomena so is not inclined to invest many resources. With Chinese and Japanese immigration services in a bidding war for labor we’re already seeing evidence of the tide turning back to shore.”

“That may be so,” said the Kashmiri in her sing song Cantonese, “but there have always been those who make their lives at sea. Some closer to land, some farther from it. The sea gypsies of Southeast Asia are part of the same seafaring brotherhood as the workers on a wind farm in the North Sea. People are resourceful, and they go where the opportunities are. Thanks to advances in technology there is now more opportunity at sea, and the seas are less likely to foment a nativist backlash as could yet occur in China or Japan.”

“Alright, fair points,” Collette said, palms forward in surrender. “Let’s get back to the business at hand, shall we? Ashik raises a good question. What happened to the crews? Were they killed? If not, where did they go?”

“Well, we’ve been tracking this activity for some time, the Kashmiri continued “Just over 2 years actually…”

“But the attacks only began earlier this year,” Ashik interrupted again, pointing to the dates on the screen.

“True, true, but the attacks are just the physical manifestations of a storm that’s been gathering for some time. What you see as collective assaults are in some ways just the opposite. They’re distributed. They give the appearance of a wide operation and broad support but it could just be a handful of folks, or perhaps even just one. Here, look.” A single blue circle began orbiting an otherwise unmarked location in a sea of black. “We can trace the network activity emanating from its source when we eliminate the likely proxy servers.” The map became a pattern of hubs and spokes connected in turn to the blue circle.

“This activity mostly began as ho-hum grey market orders for contraband printing and delivery to passing ships, your handguns and pharmaceuticals, nothing out of the ordinary. At the same time, we observed associated probes of the network defenses of regional sensor systems and installation of a few pieces of Trojan malware on the occasions they made it through. Backdoor access in case they wanted to return for a look-see, but nothing too sophisticated, which meant we didn’t pay it much heed. What caught our attention was when the print orders became more exotic and began to test their ability to turn the payload drones into weapons themselves.”

“My sister…” began Ashik, putting the pieces together. “You are saying she was involved in these orders? Is that what we saw on Hope Renewed?”

“I’m afraid it’s most likely. Rima’s account was involved in several recent transactions connected to this activity, including one but a week ago.”

“Well that’s ironic, isn’t it? The libertarians snooping on others?” snarked Collette as the return of the man by the door with tea upset the flow of the performance.

“Oh we’re not fanatics, we leave that to other, messier seasteads. We have rules here. We recognized quickly that we needed something of a Mayflower Compact. You’re familiar with the analogy? Good. To keep the peace and the lights on requires communal support and capabilities to defend ourselves. But all are welcome here if they can make a contribution and accept the nature of this place. Our regulations are kept to a minimum. Most of the things developed here are for companies back ashore where the markets are, and…”

“You mean where safety and ethics are a nuisance,” Collette interrupted.

“If you like, Captain.” The Kashmiri’s song dropped an octave in displeasure before returning to its soprano notes. “Trouble and uncertainty are bad for our work, which is why we spend a pretty penny, a pretty penny to know if they are to impact our operations here and businesses on land….”

“Who are…?” Collette tried.

“…confidential….”

“…and why haven’t we seen this activity ourselves or picked up on these connections?”

“It’s, I’m afraid, as you said. You have not invested the resources. But although your government may not care about maritime security, things lurking in the maritime can and do reach out and affect you.”

“Well these attacks have certainly gotten a lot of attention and people caring about it now. It seems as though we have a shared interest in putting a stop to them. This blue location, the source of the network activities, what can you tell us about it?”

            “Ah, yes, I’m sorry. I should explain – this is only the spoofed location. It could physically be anywhere. We still sent out a drone to be sure but all we found was more ocean.”

The Kashmiri’s face began flashing with reflected light from the podium’s computer screen. She bent over to read something, furrowing her heavy brows.

“Is something wrong?” Ashik asked.

“You’re not expecting company, are you Captain?” she asked Collette in response. “Our sensors were tripped by a low-flying approaching aerial contact,” the Kashmiri said amid a flurry of fingers on her terminal. The abrupt return of conference room lighting shocked Ashik and Collette’s eyes as radar and sonar overlays of Aurelia’s immediate vicinity appeared next to a condensed view of the harbor. A highlighted radar contact was approaching the break wall ring. “No? Okay.” She pointed at the silent man by the door who was out into the passageway before Ashik or Collette could turn to look. She began speaking into, then tapping her sunglasses and a look of confusion crossed her face. 

“I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse me, I have…” began the Kashmiri, interrupted by a shrill alarm. Two more air contacts had appeared on the radar screen.

“Shit,” the Kashmiri said, but she was staring at the harbor view rather than the dots on the left side of the wall closing in on the ball labelled Aurelia. She ran back to the podium and pounded out several more commands. A series of message fragments appeared on the screen behind her.

“Shit, shit, the human error,” she sang. “As a precaution, we set our search algorithms to scour dark web orders for deliveries to Aurelia and the proximate area.”

“But this looks like a by-name delivery for Gamelan Sunrise,” noted Ashik in confusion.

“Yes, oversight, oversight. That’s one of the ships in the harbor. And it’s for a surface vessel delivery, which means there are more orders on sites we haven’t decrypted and drones inbound we haven’t detected.”

“Will you be able to deal with this threat?” Collette asked.

“That remains to be seen. We have hard-wired several of our pylon turrets to reduce the threat of jamming our commands, a prudent precaution as it seems some of our internal comms are offline, but one can only do so much against an enemy it can’t see.”

“Is there something my ship can do to help?”

“I think we’re on our own for this one, captain,” she said as she strode to the door. “Most of our external communications are already coming under heavy jamming. We picked up several dozen underwater contacts as well before sonar was completely overwhelmed. We’ve launched our own drones but this might be a battle of command and control as much as a test of wills and firepower.”

The panels on the wall flickered to a blue error screen.

            “Please excuse me,” she said as she reached the door. “I’m needed elsewhere.”

            “Let me come with, I can…” began Ashik.

            “I insist I accompany you to…” said Collette.

            “No,” the Kashmiri said. An exosuit-clad guard stepped between the pair and the Kashmiri. “Many apologies! We’ll continue our conversation later,” she sang out as she disappeared from view.

            The guard ignored Ashik and Collette’s protestations and firmly pushed them back into the room before shutting the door.

Collette immediately confirmed that it was locked.” Damn,” she said, and moved to the podium to try to access the interface. It was either locked or down – either way unresponsive.

            Ashik slumped back into his chair while Collette paced. Several large impacts rocked the structure forcing Collette to brace herself against the table.

            “What was that?” Ashik asked.

            “I don’t know, but I intend to find out.” Collette walked to the door and pounded, yelling for the guard. With no response she tried the door again. It opened on an empty passageway illuminated by flickering lights.

Collette looked back at Ashik, who had been watching but now hesitated.

            “I need you with me, Ashik. These are the people who took your sister.”

            “I am with you captain,” Ashik said as he rose. “It was but a moment’s prayer for those in my way.” He walked past Collette out the door.

This story will conclude in part 3, coming soon.

Scott Cheney-Peters is a civil servant at the State Department, founder of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), a Reserve surface warfare officer in the Navy’s strategy office, a Truman National Security Project fellow, and a CNAS Next-Gen National Security Leader fellow.

Richard Lum is the founder and chief executive of Vision Foresight Strategy. He is an academically trained futurist and holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Hawai‘i’s Alternative Futures Program.

The story above does not reflect the views of any of the authors’ affiliations.

Featured Image: Israeli Border warship sailing on the background of a beautiful sunset at Mediterranean Sea. Haifa Bay, Israel. (Guy Zidel)

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