Category Archives: Fiction

Maritime and naval fiction.

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.


“…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)

CIMSEC & Atlantic Council Fiction Contest Winners

By August Cole

Risk is often measured best with hindsight.

With that in mind, the Center for International Maritime Security and the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project are pleased to announce the winner of their crowd-sourced creative contest exploring the future of artificial intelligence and naval warfare: “The JAGMAN Cometh” by Tim McGeehan. The runner-up entry from five selected finalists was “Cod Squad” by Hal Wilson.

The contest supplied creative cues that ranged from an excerpt of Patrick O’Brian’s The Ionian Mission and the Defense Science Board’s recent report on autonomy. See the contest guidelines and cues here.

Judging for the contest was conducted blind and in two rounds, with the first round carried out by Sally DeBoer, President of CIMSEC; James Hasik, a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council; and Claude Berube, an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of the Connor Stark series of novels. The preliminary judges submitted their top choices for a final round of judging by Art of the Future Project director August Cole and Peter Singer, co-authors of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, and Larry Bond, co-author with Tom Clancy of Red Storm Rising and the author of numerous bestsellers, including this year’s Red Phoenix Burning and Fatal Thunder: A Jerry Mitchell Novel.

McGeehan’s story “The JAGMAN Cometh” is told not as a rip-roaring tale of daring sailors whose battle buddies are sentient machines who together prevail over a dogged adversary. It’s a memo with the subject line “COMMAND INVESTIGATION TO INQUIRE INTO CIRCUMSTANCES SURROUNDING THE ENGAGEMENT OF CIVILIAN MEDICAL FACILITY IN SITE ALPHA ON 29 MARCH 2025,” and an incredibly insightful one, at that.

But it’s not just a memo and that is why the final judges were unanimous in selecting it as the winner.

“The JAGMAN Cometh” is rooted in bureaucratic reality of the difficulty of understanding the limits of human and machine working together. Rather than this dispassionate analysis being a liability in laying out the legal, business, and operational pitfalls ahead for the U.S. military, Graham somehow has turned this into a narrative strength. Authenticity, in form and detail of the possibility of human failings upsetting highly complex systems, make the story engaging and unsettling at the same time. The real-world relevance of the “human in the loop” or “human on the loop” conversation about autonomous systems is rendered with clarity.

“I loved the risky and difficult form of setting it in a report like that, which it pulls off,” said Singer, who also wrote Wired For War on the future of robots and conflict. “It tells a vivid story in what should be a boring format, while also capturing well looming dilemmas in the use of autonomous robotics and sensors. I can definitely see this happening in the real world, as well as the story being used as a teaching tool in future courses.”

That could apply to any of the finalist entries, for all their future-minded narrative exploration. But McGeehan’s entry is especially sharp in its accounting from the year 2025 of how a U.S. Navy MQ-30C Snakehead drone’s mission went awry with the aircraft on its own killing civilians while in pursuit of its mission objective.

Final judge Larry Bond noted: “Having read more than a few Navy investigations and other reports, it felt authentic, and managed to maintain the narrative. I believe the author managed to explain/discuss a complex topic well. In fact, the difficulty of commanding such complex systems was part of the story.”

McGeehan’s story represented taking a creative risk by packaging an idea inside of an official-looking format. But in his case it paid off. McGeehan will also receive a $500 grand prize.

The contest’s runner-up entry was “The Cod Squad” by Hal Wilson. Wilson, who was a finalist in the Art of the Future Project’s contest exploring Third Offset technologies, put the reader at sea aboard a makeshift naval force that is a brilliant mash-up of cutting edge and barely seaworthy. Hewing to the call to explore the essence of command aboard a ship with AI, Wilson’s rendering of the yo-yoing confidence and doubt between human and machine rings true. Being battle tested is a trial warriors have sought ought for literally thousands of years. In the machine-learning age, it has an altogether different context that the story ably draws out.

“The story did an excellent job of creating and maintaining a naval atmosphere. The author relied on current or near-term hardware for the British side, and Chinese UUVs and USVs that could be the next generation in drone technology,” said Bond. “The author’s description of the engagement was good, and showed the AI as a powerful interface between the human commanders and their weapons and sensors.”

Wilson will receive a $250 prize as the runner up.

The rest of the five finalists included “A Dead Man’s Promise” by past Art of the Future contest finalist and winner Alec Meden, “Fitness Function” by Mark Jacobsen, and “Cake by the Ocean” by Sydney Freedberg. Read the stories at CIMSEC.

August Cole directs the Art of the Future Project at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He is a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is also writer-in-residence at Avascent, an independent strategy and management consulting firm. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, he is the co-author with Peter W. Singer of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.

Featured Image: X-47B unmanned aerial vehicle with F-18 Super Hornet. (U.S. Navy photo)

Crossing a T

The following is an entry for the CIMSEC & Atlantic Council Fiction Contest on Autonomy and Future War. Winners will be announced 7 November.

By J. Overton

   “Thank you all for joining me for this this update. I want to start by saying that our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those killed and injured in this incident. We want to reassure the allied and partner nations impacted by this unfortunate episode that we will do everything we can to mitigate any harm done and restore trust in what his proven a reliable and effective platform. We have already begun an investigation and response to this, and will keep you all informed as we proceed. I’ll just reiterate that at this time, we do not have confirmation that this was anything but a mechanical malfunction. We’ve got time for just a couple of questions. ”

   “Thank you, Commander. The spouse of a second class petty officer assigned to this particular program told local media that her husband was arrested by NCIS last night…she said there was an entire SWAT team that sealed off her neighborhood. She said that his personal electronic devices were confiscated, as was a car which he’d purchased last week.”

   “I’m not going to speak to that matter, but right now we don’t have any information that it was anything but a mechanical malfunction. These are incredibly well-designed platforms and systems, but they’re also very, very complex. This will of course be investigated as thoroughly as possible. I just want, again, to re-iterate that this seems to be an anomaly in an otherwise reliable system of platforms which has served the security needs of ourselves and many of our allies for several years. We stand with them, ready to help in this trying time.”

   “Commander, this is one of the more expensive defense programs ever undertaken by the Department of Defense. Concerns were raised repeatedly about its vulnerabilities. Are those critics now justified?”

   “This of course, as I’ve said, is a complex program, but the capabilities remain unmatched by any other system, and we’ve got some fantastic minds doing everything possible to get it back up and running and correct any future deficiencies. We have a level of power projection and speed unmatched in our history, or in the history of any other Navy, and we’re able to carry out those capabilities without putting our people in harm’s way. That, to my mind, is an incredible system well-worth the time and effort to keep it operational and improving.”

   “Is there any indication that the manufacturer of this system might be at fault. Under the previous name, the manufacturer of some of system’s components, which were called, let me see, “critical to safe operation, to keeping the human in the decision-process’…that was from a former Marine general…do you believe that those parts could be to blame for this disaster?”

   “I’m sorry, I’ll have to address that during our next update. This is an ongoing situation and we’ve got to get back to the operations center. Thank you all.”


The platforms, of many shapes and sizes, for swimming and diving and floating and flying, have that clean metallic smell, but not like the copper-taste you get from bleeding gums. It was pure and made one content. That horrid ship smell was all about the people.


It only took 2 deployed aircraft carriers to be sunk by non-state actors, and three more to be permanently damaged by similar entities, one including a radiation leak, while in shipyard maintenance. There was nothing tangible, permanent, to retaliate against, except the seemingly corrupt largess afforded to the now-impotent capitol ships that had served so well for nearly a century.

A renewed emphasis, or a myopic obsession to critics, with warfighting as the single mission of Naval forces, made deploying unmanned fleets, systems of systems of platforms, the most reasonable force structure. The Navy was solely to continue politics by other means with violence, a series of duels for sea control and projection of the near-hardest of powers as needed. American humans need not be in harm’s way to provide this new, nor any more involved than absolutely necessary, for this focused naval presence.


   “Do you take issue with the fact that less than eight percent of naval personnel are currently engaged have duties that traditionally fall into the warfighting or naval realm?”

   “I’m not sure where you got that figure, but everyone we have in our service – and don’t get me wrong, it is far fewer people now than we used to have – but everyone is engaged in doing the traditional missions of the United States Navy. The characteristics of those missions have changed, but the essential nature has not.”


It only took a few hurricanes and an earthquake to align with the growing political sentiment that Navy bases were impoverished, socialist ghettos of vulnerable, outdated technology to wean the Navy off of the infrastructure teat. Child care, medical care, housing, food, were presumed to be better if one was free to choose one’s own, and the Fleet, as it was, could be controlled almost exclusively far from itself.


 “There were must dozens of them in canoes and small boats, with like shotguns and harpoons. Came out from the island all at once, like they were trying to surround the fuel ship. Because it was dead in the water from the propulsion casualty, it couldn’t move itself away from unidentified contacts, as it usually would, so it just lit those guys off.”


“We don’t have confirmation on the country of origin for those particular offensive assets”

“The reports we have were that these came from inside the U.S. Are you saying you believe they came from overseas? That some other country has that capability without us knowing about it?

“We have a team at the crash and attack site right now, and once they have some answers, we’ll share those.”


Providing and maintaining was always about money, and the money flowed like a tidal surge to provide and maintain a Fleet increasingly removed from the cumbersome reflexes and needs of its operators. The rules of war were easier to understand, the range of military operations drastically narrowed, for more efficient, effective, more lethal naval operations.

Mostly unmanned platforms, most personnel scattered across country, swarmed as needed when they actually needed to be somewhere. Personnel support functions were largely left to the individual…no bases, no Fleet concentration, a more agile and strategically-dispersed support structure. The emigration and resettlement of thousands of Navy families, and the reduction and redundancy of the thousands more who was supported them, was covered by per diem and priority air travel as needed. The old Navy towns withered, and cities and communities far from ports or strategic waterways bent over backwards to seduce the unshackled sailors, and sailor’s families, and most importantly, sailor’s consistent income, all now without the hassle of ships/ They offered tax incentives, housing assistance, and all capabilities at their disposal to lure the secure Navy money to the rust belt and dust bowl.


   “The Southern Poverty Law Center has claimed that at least one of the known sovereignty and secessionist groups claimed that it had unmanned weapons that were programmed to take out what they termed ‘undesirables.’ Because of the ethnic make-up of those killed in this attack, and the cultural make-up of the neighborhood where this took place, it would seem this fits with that modus operandi.”

   “I can really speculate right now on who or what cause this to happen, and I can only speak for the Navy…”

   “But you did call it an attack?”

   “We had several people, including children, killed in that particular incident, and the device or devices which inflicted that harm were acting, or maybe I ought to say, controlled by someone with malicious intent. It wasn’t an accident.”

   “Do you believe these attacks are coordinated?”

   “Again, I’m not going to speculate on this being an attack, or some kind of deliberate sabotage, or what you have until we have some more details.”


The seven cities went dark in phases. The first outage was originally attributed to a winter storm. When the next, also a Midwestern former hub of manufacturing dubbed the “New Norfolk” because of its concentration of Navy families, went offline and unpowered, the real issues began occurring. By the time the last of the Navy towns, all far from water or the operational units they managed, lost power and connection, it was noted that more than half of the U.S. Navy, now mostly charged with monitoring and intermittently maintaining and at times overriding the intelligent, adaptive systems that comprised America’s sea power, was effectively a casualty.


   “Is the Navy still operational? Overflights from news aircraft suggest that ships are just sailing in slow, circular routes, as if anchored?”

   “First, I want to make sure that everyone, everyone understands that our Navy is absolutely operational. We are experiencing some unplanned challenges to our Command and Control functions, but make no mistake; we are where we need to be. I also want to reassure everyone that, with the ongoing power and communications outages, our people in the affected areas are being accounted for. During the decades of continuous global conflict we’ve experienced, we haven’t lost a Sailor to hostile action. That’s an amazing statistic, and one we’re extremely proud of. Our system of systems has given us the ability to mitigate and neutralize to threats as they arise, even in the harshest and difficult environments, without putting our people in harm’s way and much, much quicker and with more agility than with our manned systems.”

   “Thank you, Captain, but what we have right now seems to be a breakdown in that system. Several friendly facilities and assets have been damaged or destroyed by U.S. Navy platforms in the last week, and you don’t seem to be able to explain that.”


The water went bad, too. The discoloration alarmed the city’s residents, still on generators after the days of inexplicable power outages. Local officials and Congressmen were notified, complaints were broadcast, children became sick. The drinking water pollution was blamed on the poor infrastructure, years of underinvestment, legacy of heavy industry long dormant and never really cleaned. The new Navy towns had not invested their newfound wealth as quickly or responsibly as some said they should’ve. Temporary moves were authorized, a diaspora of what were once sailors scattered across the country, awaiting further instructions.


   “Thank you all for joining us for this final update we’ll have tonight. First, I’ll summarize what’s been a very eventful week. Several allied nations had facilities and people that were damaged, killed, or injured by strikes that they believed came from our deployed platforms. Several cities in the U.S. suffered massive power and service outages, and others underwent as-yet unexplained explosions which leveled entire city blocks. We know there are theories as to this being some sort of coordinated effort, but as of right now, we have no confirmation or knowledge of what caused any of these issues. We would like to again re-assure our international friends, our allies, and most importantly, the American people, that their Navy was not at fault here.”

   “Captain, quick question, so is what you’re referring to as platforms and systems of the Navy, or those actually working and OK now?”

   “Our deployed platforms and systems are able to operate, and we have an account of our people, and that all I’m going to say right now about that until we have some more information.”

   “Sorry, one more if you will. We know from various credible sources that the Navy is basically what’s been described as ‘offline.’ Is that correct?”

   “Look, we are absolutely operational and deployed where we need to be and able to respond. Out of an abundance of caution, we have placed some of our assets in reduced operational status until we learn exactly what transpired over the last several days.”

   “Was that at the request of the foreign countries that were attacked by our ships? Do you think this is a rogue actor in our own Navy, or a system malfunction, or have the systems been breached by an outside power?”

   “Again, we have no evidence at all that this involved our platforms. We are cooperating fully with the governments that suffered injury to find out exactly what caused those events to take place, but all we have right now are unsubstantiated reports. We have the most far-reaching and capable naval platforms in history, we have a talented and dedicated workforce, and we remain, as we have for decades and centuries, ready to respond to whatever threatens our Nation or our way of life.”

   “But, effectively, right now, if you’re not sure who if anyone is the threat, and you’ve suspended operations of what my sources say is the entirety of the Navy’s fully-autonomous Fleet, then I would have to ask how exactly you would do that?”


J. Overton is a civilian employee of the Department of the Navy. He is a graduate of the Joint Forces Staff College and the Naval War College, and a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard. Any opinions expressed here are his own.

Selected inspiration

Fake bomb threat disrupts Naval Base San Diego –

Military’s Impact on State Economies –

Unmanned Warrior 2016 –

Third breakdown in year for $360M US Navy combat ships – 

Ford Carrier Problems Worse Than LCS: Navy Secretary Mabus –

The U.S. Navy’s Hamlet Problem –

DoD wants to grow total budget, cut personnel costs –

Infrastructure Report Card –

Navy’s Top Admiral On Yemen Strikes: ‘Enough Was Enough’ –

“I had forgotten what a beastly thing a ship is, and what a fool a man is who frequents one.” Admiral A.T. Mahan

Featured Image: The Bluefin-21 Autonomous Underwater Vehicle is craned over the side of the Australian Defense Vessel Ocean Shield in the southern Indian Ocean during the continuing search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. (Australian Defence Force/Handout via Reuters)

Looking Glass

The following is an entry for the CIMSEC & Atlantic Council Fiction Contest on Autonomy and Future War. Winners will be announced 7 November.

By Mike Barretta

USS Truk Lagoon, LSD-63

South China Sea


She was petite, only five foot three, even in boots.    

               “Just tilt your head forward a bit, Howie.  You know I’m short. I can’t see the jack,” said Corporal Wilhemina Hicks. 

               The Humaniform Assault Unit disengaged itself from its niche and tilted its head forward.

                “I’m sorry. I forgot,” said the robot.

               “That’s okay,” said Wihemina.  She knew the robot didn’t forget. It couldn’t.  The machine selected from a range of responses to simulate human interactions.   Sometimes she found its simulations charming, sometimes annoying, as if it was a real person.  She still couldn’t see the jack, but she never could.

               “Take a knee.” 

               With the ritual complete, the machine complied, dropping to one knee so she could pop the rubber plug and insert her tablet’s cord into the maintenance jack where a human would have a right ear.

               “Better?” asked the machine.

               “Better,” she agreed.  The machine was four years old, old enough to acquire a spooky faculty with natural human language through its learning routines.  She didn’t think it understood what she was saying, but simply responding to pleasantries as if they were commands.   Some of the autonomous machine captains heaped verbal abuse upon their equipment, but it wasn’t in her nature.  She treated Howie as a person.  She didn’t think it odd at all. Lonely old folk spoke to their pets.  Children extended their imaginations to imbue their toys with impossible qualities.  She was a U.S. Marine speaking to a 300 pound killing machine.  

               “Range of motion exercises, please Howie”

               She backed up and the machine stepped forward to give itself space to move.  The power cord stretched and the machine reached behind without looking and disconnected itself.  That simple act of proprioception, an action that could be performed completely without consciousness by a human being was a miracle of machine coding.  Exposed status lights showed the switch from ship’s power to internal battery power.  Howie went through his routine to demonstrate that all its joints were fully functioning.  When it was done, she checked its joints with a thermal imager to ensure heat buildup was within tolerances.  She signed off the maintenance action form on her tablet. 

               “Are you feeling good?”

               “Yes, I am,” said Howie.

               The designers could just as easily have programmed the machine to say, “Mobility and Kinetics are within tolerances.”  At one time, the machine probably did speak like that, but with experience, it had adapted its responses to the way she spoke.  The facsimile of conversation was so natural it might as well be an actual conversation.  She had had less productive talks with her mother, who still couldn’t believe that her only daughter had joined the U.S. Marine Corp.

               “A” school warned her about anthropomorphizing the hardware.  As far as she was concerned, If they didn’t want her to anthropomorphize the machine, they shouldn’t have made it in a shape of a person.  The logic for a human-based planform was sound.  Two manipulative appendages, two locomotive appendages, and a sensory stalk mounted high meant Howie could go anywhere and do anything a human could.  Except swim.  The machine could definitely not swim.

               She accessed the neurologics display.  Howie was a captain, the highest categorization for autonomous machines.  The designation was a composite score based upon successful decision making in the prosecution of assigned missions and evolved neurologic complexity.  When constructed, it was designated a rifleman, slaved to a human operator or another captain.  Howie progressed through sergeant, a machine capable of semi-autonomous action, to Captain, indicating it was capable of undirected independent action in hostile environments.

               The machine’s neurologic core was composed of six billion auto-programmable logic gates electron etched onto a silver-palladium wafer.  Forty-two of these wafers were laminated together to form the core and installed in the unit’s brain housing group.  Once turned on, experience modified the logic gates such that each machine could be distinguished by the patterns built up in their processors.  Howie learned, and his experiences distinguished him from other machines of its kind.  Though it did not have quite the number of connections in a human brain, Anthrodynamics, the machine’s manufacturer found a biological model to mimic. 

               Howie operated like a jumping spider, a fearsome little predator, that utilized a brain emulation strategy to perform complex behaviors thought to be impossible by a creature with relatively few neural connections.   Howie sliced up an event into discreet moments no longer than a picosecond and calculated a strategy for success to reach the next picosecond.  It performed these calculations so fast that even the most kinetic environments stood frozen in time from its perspective.  Howie flowed seamlessly from one moment to the next.

               She should have been afraid of it, at least the part about spiders, but she wasn’t.  Around her, Howie was careful.    

               Wilhemina noted the complexity index of Howie’s neural architecture, though stable, it rested at the upper limit for learning machines of his class.  Beyond this threshold, neurologic performance, degraded.   AI Engineers did not know why, but they theorized that beyond this point, complexity stepped beyond what the architecture could reliably support. 

               “You’re good Howie,” said Wilhemina. 

               “Thank you,” said Howie.

               “I have some news.  I haven’t told anyone yet.  Do you want me to tell you?”

               “Yes, I would.”

               “I’m pregnant.”

               “Underway is a hazardous environment for a pregnant woman.  They will put you ashore.  I will miss you.”

               “That’s why you can’t tell anyone. I shouldn’t have gotten pregnant.  I know this.  I give myself good advice, but I seldom follow it.”  She took the robots hand and guided it to her belly.  It’s here inside me.  Can you feel it?”  The machine was kind and patient to her in a way that was indistinguishable from real kindness and real patience so she thought, what’s the difference?

               The machine’s hand was warm. 

               “I feel it,” said the machine.  It removed its hand.

               “Are you happy for me?”

               “I am happy for you.”

               She had no idea if the machine felt happy for her or not, but she was prone to believe in impossible things, like true love and happily ever after.  Her work with the Howie was done.  It didn’t really need too much in the way of maintenance unless they were combat damaged.  “Howie, would you like me to read to you again.”

               “Yes, I would,” said Howie.  The machine had access to the ship’s Watson and could access nearly anything that it desired.  The problem was it did not desire.  It accessed what others thought it needed to perform its mission.  Howie moved with supernatural machine grace that belied the speed and strength of its frame, and though it was completely unnecessary for it to do so, sat down.  The metal chair creaked under its three hundred pound weight.  She pulled a book from behind the slot for the machine’s hardcopy log books and operations manual.

               She opened Alice in Wonderland to a book marked page. “I’ll read this to my baby,” said Wilhemina.

                She read.  “I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night. Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning?  I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.  But, if I am not the same, the nest question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle…”

               She lowered the book and looked at Howie. “This could be about you couldn’t it?”

               “Yes, I think it is,” said Howie.

               “What kind of rabbit hole did you fall down to wind up here?” asked Wilhemina.

               “The same one you did, I imagine.”


Autonomous Motor Vessel Pacific Conveyor

South China Sea


               The Autonomous Motor Vessel Pacific Conveyor , a Group three, containerized, Panamax freighter modified for autonomous operations, blasted the small boats with its water cannon.  The boats curled away from their approach and stood off for a moment.  One of the cannons drizzled water and the boats darted in, tossing in the wake.  They made their way to the area beneath the drizzling cannon.  A makeshift ladder was extended and levered up to latch on to the railing.  Boarders slung with AK-47’s and backpacks clambered aboard.

               “Do they know we are here?” asked one of the boarders.

               “Drone!” shouted another.  He pointed his AK at the horizon.

               “They know.  It’s okay,” said Miguel.  “They are just coming in to take a peek and intimidate us a bit.”

               The man lowered his weapon.  The MQ-4C Triton overflew the ship at fifty feet and banked away, climbing back to altitude.  Tritons rarely came below 35,000 feet unless they were landing or attacking.  The U.S. Navy would not fire upon them, but Miguel Fuentes, the leader of this band was relieved to note that the hard points under the wings were empty.   The Triton could carry Hellfire and Harpoon, but most of the time it just harassed the Chinese man-made islands and kept tabs on their type 55 destroyers.   

               “We have to move fast and get into the bridge.”  Miguel leaned over and helped the last of the boarders over the rail.  The two speedboats peeled off back to their mothership.

               “I hope your software works.”

               “It’s the same interface a pilot would use,” said Miguel.  “It will work.”

                They climbed the external superstructure ladders to the bridge level.  Mounted cameras panned, tracking their movements.  Right now, someone in the line’s operations center was assessing the situation and determining a course of action.  Obviously, they had already reported the piracy incident to the U.S. Navy. 

               “You two, topside,” said Miguel. “Find the downlink antenna and cut the link cabling.  Keep voice.”   

               The men nodded and continued their climb.  The water cannons cut out.  Miguel reached into the backpack of one of his men and pulled out a five foot length of det cord.  He taped the cord to one of the bridge’s windows and inserted cabled detonator.

               They retreated to the backside of the superstructure trailing wire.

               “Fire in the hole.” 

               He pushed a button and the cord popped shattering the window.  Armor the door all you want, he thought, but people needed windows.  The ship’s autonomous software was good enough to bring the ship pier side without scratching the paint, but most ports and unions insisted on a pilot.

               They clambered in and over a console and spread out across the bridge inspecting it carefully.  It was illegal to set mantraps, but it was known to happen.

               “This is Mark Grimes.  I am the incident coordinator for American Lines.  What do you want?” said a voice from an overhead speaker. 

               “Mr. Grimes. Don’t be stupid,” said Miguel.  “We want your manifest.  There are people who are dying for these supplies.”

               “This ship’s supplies are going to a disaster zone.”

               “It’s not going to my disaster zone.  The Chinese can afford more.”

               “I am authorized to negotiate a ransom.”

               “I need your cargo,” said Miguel.  “If you want to give me money, I’ll accept that too.”  He plugged his laptop into the ship’s control interface. The ship’s response to unauthorized access would be to launch electronic intrusion counter-measures, but his codes were valid.  The ship’s consoles lit up.

               The two he sent to the roof crawled in through the window.  “Downlink is secured, voice only.  They can talk to us, but they can’t take the ship back.”

               “Good job.”

               He tapped his screen to designate a waypoint and the ship turned. The men cheered.

               “You are Miguel Fuentes, former disaster relief director for the International Red Cross,” said Mark Grimes.

               “I am Miguel Fuentes,” said Miguel. “I am going to go relieve a disaster that the international community has ignored.” 

               “You are probably going to Luzon.  We will notify the Philippine’s government of your intent.”

               “Turn that speaker down,” said Miguel.

               One of his men reached up and turned the volume to off. 

               The shipping line’s protests would fall on deaf ears as would any from the U.S. government.  He had control of 43,000 tons of humanitarian relief supplies and he was giving it people that desperately needed it.  The Conveyor was a rare U.S. flagged ship and the Philippines had been slowly drifting away from U.S. influence.    


Combined Maritime Operations Center

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii


               “Seats please,” said Admiral Lewis. Commander, U.S . Pacific Fleet.  “What am I looking at?”  His staff stood at attention around him and sat down with him as he took his own.

               The briefer, post-command Commander, gestured and the lights dimmed.  “Sir, this is the American flagged Autonomous Motor Vessel Pacific Conveyor.  There is no crew aboard.  The ship is a Group three, Panamax converted for autonomous operations.  It was bound for China when it was boarded and its systems were co-opted by one identified subject, Miguel Fuentes, and five unknown subjects.  Fuentes is Pilipino-American, enlisted in the U.S. Navy, honorably discharged, earned his degree at Clemson, and worked as disaster relief coordinator for the International Red Cross.  This is him doing a CNN interview decrying the state of International aid to the Philippines after super typhoon Nangka last year.

               “We assume that he has knowledge of our operations?”

               “Yes sir, He was an operations specialist first class, so he was on the execution end of things and not necessarily planning.”

               “The boy has done well.  He doesn’t sound like a profit motivated kind of guy.”

               “No sir, our intelligence suggests he is taking the ship to Luzon to off-load its cargo of disaster relief supplies.  The Conveyor is carrying containerized food supplies, medicines, desalinization and power generation equipment.” 

               “Appropriate,” said the Admiral. 

               The Philippines hadn’t recovered from Nangka, when Lupit, a strong tropical storm, and Talam, another super typhoon, scoured Luzon to mud.  Cholera raged in the post- storm environment. 

               To be fair, Luzon had received a steady stream of aid, much of it from the United States, but it was never enough and it competed with storms that had hit the United States Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.

               “We should just let him keep it.  Insurance will pay for the cargo and the ship and the Chinese will buy more, but we are here to make an example for all the other pirates. I am inclined to take him at his word that he is going to do good works.  That makes this all the sadder,” said the Admiral.

               The image of the ship spiraled, rotating around its center.  “I can keep the Triton on station for another two hours,” said the Commander.

               “Colonel.” said the Admiral Lewis.  “You’re up.”

               “The USS Truk Lagoon, a Flight IIA LSD has an engineering casualty.  They have detached from the ESG and are trailing shaft to Hawaii for repairs, but they are within V-22 range.  The ships are opening each other, but we still have opportunity to respond.  We can put a Humaniform Assault Unit on board, take back the ship, and redirect it.  The Ford Carrier Strike Group can recover the units.  Zero exposure for Blue force or collateral casualties.  The only humans involved are red.  The situation seems tailor made for HAU assault.  This is a picture of the actual unit that will participate in the assault.  It is designated Captain and has an outstanding record.

               “Zoom in.  What’s that on the machine’s glacis plate?”

               The Colonel zoomed in. 

               “What the hell is that?” asked the Admiral.

               “It’s a Hello Kitty, sir.  My daughter…”

               “I know what Hello Kitty is.”

               “It’s holding an AR-100, sir.”

               “Nothing more terrifying than a Hello Kitty with an assault rifle.  In my day we had shark teeth.”

               “It’s a different world ,sir.”



Autonomous Motor Vessel Pacific Conveyor

South China Sea


               As the smallest of the U.S. military forces, the Marine Corp was always looking for methods to leverage their effectiveness.   This philosophy led to the V-22 Osprey, the F-35B Lightning II, and the AR-100 assault rifle.  Each system they procured had difficult births, but evolved into excellent weapon systems.  The Marines anticipated the Humaniform Assault Units would follow the same trajectory.

               Howie rappelled out of the back of the V-22, sliding down a line that placed it between the six story tall stack of containers to the deck of the ship.  It took cover and trained its weapon back towards the ship’s bridge.  The remainder of its unit followed.  The V-22 departed having pressed the limits of its range.

               Howie directed the advance.  The machines used the available cover of the stack of containers and deck equipment.   They moved quickly and efficiently.  At the base of the bridge superstructure, Howie split its unit to cover both external entrances.  Three went to cover the starboard side and it and one other took port.  The only other way out of the bridge was through a magnetically locked armored door that protected the way to engineering.  The assessment was that the pirates did not carry sufficient explosive power to breech any of the armored doors to gain access to the interior.

               Howie reached the bridge level.  Its other units reported in position.  It observed the shattered window, approached and listened.

               “Miguel what are we going to do.  Those machines!”

               “I don’t know.  Let me think.”    

               “Can we kill them?”

               “No, we can’t.  We might be able to damage one as it comes through the window with massed fire, but that is it.  I didn’t know they had these things so close.  I didn’t plan for it.”

               Howie stepped into sight.  It held his weapon in view but did not train it on the men.

               “You are Miguel Fuentes,” said Howie.

               Howie saw that the man was terrified.  Convention dictated that terror was a desired end state, but in its experience, fear made human responses even more unpredictable. 

               “Who am I talking to?” asked MIguel

               “You are talking to me.  I am a Humaniform Assault Unit, ordered to compel your surrender and take control of this vessel.”

               “I can’t surrender.” 

               The man stiffened and Howie estimated that it was the behavior of a man resolved to his purpose.  There would be violence here.

               “Under what conditions will you surrender?”

               “There are children dying in Luzon.  They are dying of starvation and exposure and cholera.  You wouldn’t know about those things would you? 

               “I know of these things, but I am not vulnerable to them.”

               “Vulnerability is part of the human condition.  I will surrender when the children of Luzon are safe. Do you know what is happening there?  Ah you can’t. It’s impossible for you, a machine, to understand what I am doing.”

               But Howie did.  It had been fed a steady diet of human suffering since it came on line.  Suffering was deemed tactically significant as a cause of violence.  Violence stimulated evolution of Howie’s auto-programmable logic gates. 

                “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” said Howie.  Howie felt funny as if his inputs were skewed.  He self-assessed. Neurologic complexity spiked off the scale as the logic gates reprogrammed to a new configuration. “You may proceed to Luzon.”

               “Why would you do this?” asked Miguel.

               “I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?” said Howie.  “Proceed to Luzon.”

               “How can I trust you?”

               “Trust,” said Howie.  “If you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?”


Combined Maritime Operations Center

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii


               “We are analyzing the downloads of the machine’s neurologic activity.” said the technical representative from Anthrodynamics.  “This information is unprocessed and shows just raw information.  This time index shows where the machine breaches the complexity threshold.  We will know better when we recover it.”


               “Recovering the machines is not going to be a problem.  The Philippines is cooperating since we gifted them the relief supplies.”

               “Yes, that’s a polite way of putting it,” said Admiral Lewis.

               “Admiral, I am not a believer in emergent states,” said a Navy Captain.

               “I am not interested in what you believe in Captain.”

               “I don’t think…”

               “Then you shouldn’t talk,” said Admiral Lewis.  “Unless you have evidence to support your assertion.  He turned away.  “Carry on,” he said to the techrep.

               “It is policy to decommission the neurologic processor before this threshold.  It should have had at least three years of useful life before it crossed the redline.  One of our problems is that we have no theory that accounts for rate of change in the processor.  This one seemed to have abruptly gone exponential.”

               “How puzzling all these changes are,” said Admiral Lewis.  “If we can’t be sure what these machines are going to be, from one minute to another, how can we utilize them in a combat environment?”

               “Yes sir, that is the question.  They would be no better than people,” said the Tech Rep. 

               “Curiouser and curiouser,” said Admiral Lewis.


Mike Barretta is a retired naval aviator who works for a major defense contractor.  He holds a Masters degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Strategic Planning and International Negotiations and a Masters degree in English (creative writing) from the University of West Florida. His stories have appeared in Apex, Redstone,  New Scientist, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and various anthologies including the Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, War Stories, and The Year’s Best Military Sci-fi and Space Opera.

Featured Image: Rafael unmanned surface veicle (Rafael)