The following is an entry for the CIMSEC & Atlantic Council Fiction Contest on Autonomy and Future War. Winners will be announced 7 November.
By Mark Sable
Alyssa Wexler always wanted to be captain of her own ship. She relished the idea of standing on a bridge, keeping a cool head in a crisis as the men and women beneath her looked to her for guidance.
It was Star Trek: Voyager that had stoked her ambition. When she was a child, the sci-fi show envisioned a future where a woman could command a starship. By the time Wexler was at the Naval Academy, there were no warp drives, but there were women Admirals.
What Voyager didn’t imagine was autonomy. That when Wexler finally had a command, her crew would be a series of genderless unmanned systems. Her role was more IT manager than captain. The massive supertanker she guided around the Horn of Africa was nothing more than a ghost ship.
It wasn’t until the automated sonar array picked up a signature it identify that Captain Wexler felt something resembling a purpose. But the anomalous signature was all-too familiar to her. And for the first time in recent memory, Wexler felt something else. Fear.
The last time she’d felt that sensation so deeply was over 1500 miles to the Northeast, and more years in the past than she cared to admit. Then-Lieutenant Junior Grade Wexler was assigned to an escort vessel in a carrier group deployed to the Persian Gulf to oppose Iranian intervention in the Saudi Civil War. She’d never forget the sight of the Revolutionary Guard’s Nassar class patrol boats swarming the fleet like locusts.
She wasn’t afraid of losing her Destroyer. Its R2-D2-like Phalanx and SeaRAM Close-In Weapons Systems shredded the IRGC speedboats with tungsten and vaporized them with Rolling Airframe Missiles. But even if they got danger-close, they weren’t after her ship. They were headed for the carrier.
What she feared was far worse than death. She would have rather gone down with ship that let her fellow sailors down. Years later, she could still see the speed boats, driven by suicidal Guardsmen, explode against the carrier’s hull. Then the carrier listing, with aircraft and crew sliding off, before standing straight up like a skyscraper. And finally its plunge into the deep, sucking those Americans who’d made it off under with her.
There was nothing she could have done, even had the destroyer – or the fleet for that matter – been under her command. But the guilt was still palpable over a decade later. She often wondered if it was why she had taken command of ship with no one aboard but her.
That didn’t mean she wanted to lose her tanker now. And even though the sonar ping that so confused the AI did not belong to a speedboat, let alone a swarm of them, she knew immediately that it was a possibility.
Speedboats would have actually made sense. Somali pirates still used them, even if they now were smart enough to operate them as drones. What didn’t make sense to Wexler’s sensors was the presence of a mine.
Wexler had seen mines in her second tour in The Gulf, as a Lieutenant on an Avenger Class minesweeper operating out of Bahrain. With NATO and Emirati troops occupying the Eastern Saudi provinces, Iran was determined the West and their Sunni allies would not get a drop of oil out of the Gulf. So they mined the hell of it.
Mines were part of the same asymmetrical Iranian war plan that produced the patrol boat swarms. Each cost no more than $10,000 but could take down billion dollar surface vessels. That never happened under Wexler’s watch.
Lieutenant Wexler’s was in charge of her ship’s Knifefish, a specialized Bluefin-21 Unmanned Underwater Vehicle. She programmed it to hunt mines autonomously, and report back to her. It never let her down, and she never let her ship or her fleet down. The Avenger and its Knifefish were where her affinity for crewmates that lacked flesh and blood began.
So it was, a decade later, with no small amount of guilt that Captain Wexler disengaged her tanker’s navigation system. She actually said “sorry” out loud as she shut the AI down, and began to manually steer her ship out of the path of the mine.
It was no quick task, and not just because it was the first time Wexler had truly been at the helm of her ship. There’s a reason turning a big ship around is a metaphor for how hard it is to affect change a bloated bureaucracy, Wexler thought. Just like the international bodies that had been unable to change maritime law for the world she was living in. The same laws that prevented civilian ships like hers from being armed against pirates and other threats.
Still, the sonar had detected the mine – and she’d recognized its distinct signature – while it was far enough away to give her all the time she needed. When her maneuver was complete, she turned to the display screen expecting to see that distance growing. Instead, she saw the mine was closing in on her.
As if that wasn’t enough to disquiet Captain Wexler, the bridge soon became a cacophonous mixture of flashing lights and blaring klaxons as the ship’s various systems started arguing with one another. They simply could not comprehend what was chasing them. Even amidst the chaos, Wexler could understand the threat all too well.
The underwater contact that was pursuing her vessel was no ordinary mine. It was a modified Sea Predator. Autonomous, capable of lying in wait for its prey and following it. And, once in range, more than willing to deliver a barrage of lethal self-propelled warheads.
Wexler didn’t take any pride in her third Gulf tour. No one in the allied Navy did. By that time, The House of Saud had fallen completely, along with the other Gulf monarchies. The Gulf transformed into metaphorical gulf as well as a literal one. A string of failed states were on one side, and a weakened but still deadly Shia theocracy on the other.
The President had determined that none of these entities would be supplied through the body of water that so many Americans had drowned in. And so it was that then-Commander Wexler – her wartime commissions on the previous tour bumping her two notches closer to her goal of Captain – went from mine-slayer to mine-layer.
Because of their autonomy, the Sea Predators Wexler and her fellow seamen had left behind were able to hunt and kill surface vessels for years after America had withdrawn. Wexler didn’t like to think of the carnage she left in her wake. The nightmares of fishing vessels and pleasure boats being sunk by the UUVs she’d left behind were why her dream of becoming a captain could only be realized in the civilian sector.
Years later, a multinational force led by the Indian and Chinese navies would return to The Gulf to find and disable the mines. But they never found, let alone disarmed, all of them. While minefields could be marked and sealed off, the ocean never stayed still. Currents made the Sea Predator’s kill-box a moving target that could never truly be eliminated.
Captain Wexler imagined that it wasn’t just drift that brought the mine from the Gulf to the Horn, to her. She didn’t have to read Coleridge to know this was her albatross, and feel like she was deserving of its curse.
But Wexler wanted to live. She didn’t want to go down with her ship. She didn’t want her ship to go down. It wasn’t out of any particular loyalty to her ever-shifting corporate paymasters. As grating as the sounds and lights flooding the bridge were, she had grown inexplicably fond of the systems behind them.
Like the men and women she’d sailed with, the AI kept her alive and afloat. More than that, they were her raison d’etre. Even if for the majority of the voyage they were subordinate to her in name only, they were her crew. She would not let them down.
Captain Wexler ordered her communications AI to make contact with the mine. She had programmed the mine – or one like it – and could tell it to stop pursuing her. Failing that, the AI was smart enough to brute force hack it.
The mine did not to respond to the many frequencies Wexler and AI tried to hail it on. She remembered towards the end of the war that some officers had deliberately made the Sea Predators impossible to communicate with. In court-martials, they’d later claim it was to prevent the Russian hackers that were working with Iran from hijacking the Predators and use them in the Bering Strait.
But that meant their orders couldn’t be rescinded. It was one of the major reasons why there was still no peace treaty between The U.S., The Islamic Republic of Iran or the various Caliphates. What kind of peace could they make with an enemy that had no ability to call off its attacks?
Despite Wexler’s inability to disable the mine, the light and noise on the bridge began to subside. While it was slow to turn a massive ship around, once it was back on course it was able to move at a speed that a UUV simply could not match. Slowly but surely the distance between predator and prey grew. Soon the mine would lose track of her ship, and go back to its lonely patrol.
Captain Wexler could have forwarded the ship’s log to corporate HQ in Singapore and angled for a bonus. But something nagged at her. Why hadn’t the Sea Predator fired? Although categorized as a mine, it wasn’t the suicidal weapons platform that the Iranian speedboats were. It was capable of launching multiple self-propelled warheads.
Perhaps it hadn’t been in range. The AI had spotted the anomaly quickly, Wexler identified the Sea Predator as a threat and course corrected almost immediately. Perhaps it had already emptied itself of its self-propelled warheads many years and nautical miles ago.
But what if it hadn’t? What if the next captain – human or AI – didn’t share her knowledge, experience or initiative. Could she live with the consequences?
The bridge began to erupt again, emitting more frantic warning stimuli as Captain Wexler did the unthinkable. She slowed down, allowing the predator to close in on her ship. Wexler had to literally rip wires out to disconnect systems designed to override a suicidal captain. Despite a robust entertainment suite, it wasn’t unheard of for someone to go crazy without human contact.
Wexler was taking a risk neither her AI nor the shipping company’s shareholders would appreciate. But it was a calculated one. She didn’t intend this voyage to end with a sunken vessel. Or her death.
The sonar was still active. She plugged in a series of personal recording devices and began downloading her ships acoustical signature over her diaries, music and podcasts. As soon as she’d copied the signature onto her devices, she hooked each one up to any speaker that wasn’t bolted down.
Then Wexler made her way to the lifeboats. With a sole crewman, all but one were redundant. But the lifeboats were light enough that their extra weight didn’t cost the company enough fuel to risk pissing off the few skilled captains willing to take these lonesome jobs. So they remained anchored to the side, until this captain had placed a recording device and speaker in each one and set each to play on a loop.
Captain Wexler ran back to the bridge. Her ship had slowed considerably, and if the Sea Predator wasn’t in firing range yet, it would be soon. She ordered the emergency AI to lower the lifeboats. All of them.
The Sea Predator could have no warheads, or it could have a full payload. Saving one lifeboat for herself would mean that even if one hit, she’d have a chance at survival. But it would also mean she’d never know if she’d de-fanged the Predator she felt responsible for.
The lifeboats soon splashed down and began to drift away from the tanker in multiple directions. Captain Wexler manually pushed her ships propulsion to the limit. Even though there was no one around, she still couldn’t bring herself to say “damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.” But she thought it.
It would have been appropriate. In part because the quote, attributed to Admiral Farragut in the Battle of Mobile Bay, was not actually referring to what modern naval officers would call torpedoes; in the Civil War those “torpedoes” were tethered naval mines. And in part because at that moment, The Sea Predator launched its full payload of self-propelled warheads.
With the AI systems silenced, Captain Wexler watched in mute horror as the Predator’s warheads headed for the distinctive sound of her tankers turbine driven propellers. A sound Wexler – or any human – could not actually hear. Nevertheless, it was a sound not much different from the ones she’d programmed her Sea Predators to seek out in the Gulf.
But then the warheads began to spread out. They had their own AI, which calculated a higher likelihood of success taking out multiple stationary targets emitting the same noise as the larger but faster moving tanker. What the warheads could not know was that those sounds were recordings, and those targets empty lifeboats.
Captain Wexler couldn’t hear the warheads detonate behind her. She couldn’t see the explosions of wood, metal and fiberglass, or the sea spray they kicked up. All she could see were the blips on the sonar representing the warheads disappear one by one on her monitor.
If she could have seen and heard the blasts, perhaps they would have erased the sights and sounds of the carrier she couldn’t save. She doubted it. As much as she cared for the AIs that she carefully – lovingly, even – plugged back in, neither they nor the tanker she saved could ever make up for sailors she’d seen the sea swallow that day.
The ledger that contained the lives of the men and women her mines had taken was equally as large, if not more so. But as Wexler watched the disarmed Sea Predator slowly move towards the fringes of her sonar display, she thought that that maybe, just maybe, she’d finally put a mark down she could be proud of.
Mark Sable is a writer best known for the graphic novels Graveyard of Empires and Unthinkable, and has written Marvel and DC comics as well. He also works in film and television with experience at NBC, Fox, and Cartoon Network. He holds an MFA from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, a J.D. from the University of Southern California Law School, and teaches at The School of Visual Arts in New York. He can be found on twitter at @marksable.