The Cost of Lies

Fiction Contest Week

This is a sequel to “At the Moral Level.”

By Major Ian Brown, USMC


Jayna woke up and the river was on fire.

Her mind throbbed with dim memories: the smell of gas. A whisper. A tug on her squid skin suit. Then light, heat, tumbling—

Focus. Her cheek was cold and wet, and she realized she was lying in mud. Beyond the mud was the river, its surface glowing with patches of flame. Then something else penetrated her awareness—staccato sounds, thumps, sirens. She remembered where she was, and why.

New Orleans. Where she’d come to make war. 


             “Look around, look around at how lucky we are,

            To be alive right now,”

Jacen softly sang along as he and Jayna danced lazily across the wooden floor.

“A little grim for a wedding, isn’t it?” Jayna asked. He smiled.

“Kat’s a big Hamilton fan,” replied Jacen. “She wishes she’d been born when it was still on stage so she could’ve seen it live.” He paused and look straight in her eyes, the smile gone. “Besides, after what happened to you all in China…at least, what you’re allowed to tell us…I feel lucky to have you here.”

The fact that you’re alive is a miracle,

Just stay alive, that would be enough…”

Her brother wasn’t wrong. She’d come out of the China war unscathed, certainly compared to the rest of her squad. As if reading her mind, Jacen’s face darkened, and she knew what was coming.

“I don’t pretend to know

The challenges you’re facing…”

“I still can’t believe you’ve got that fucking…thing inside you, ” he growled, his eyes smoldering. She sighed inwardly. Really hoped he wouldn’t bring that up tonight.

“It’s not how it was in the war,” she replied. “You know that. The new sub-derm’s been tested more, it’s implanted away from the brain, it uses all the lessons we learned—“

“—from half your squad getting their brains fried,” he retorted. “All so you could play mind games on ignorant conscripts.”

“Its advantages kept the war short and saved lives on both sides,” she replied, hoping there was sufficient steel in her voice to steer the conversation away from the subject.

“Sure. It’s the moral version of you on the rifle range, right? Boom-boom-boom—three-round burst, center mass, they drop, except you’re shooting lies at them instead of bullets.”

“Jace…not now, please,” she said, switching to a gentle plea. “It’s not the night to talk about the war. Tonight’s for you and Kat, for us to be happy for you. I’m lucky to be here.” It worked, as she knew it would. His fire burned hot, but short. The anger left his face, his mouth twisting into a guilty half-smile.

“There you are, the big sister always keeping me safe from the dark,” he said quietly. “Refusing to hurt me, even when I totally deserve getting punched in the face.”

“Damn right,” she replied, grinning. “You know me, baby brother. I’d never hurt you.” The song ended, but instead of pulling away, she wrapped her arms tight around her brother, warm with gratitude for this night. He’s right, she thought. I’m alive. I’m lucky. Tonight, that’s enough.


It started with a protest. Months after the China incursion, drip by drip, details on how the U.S. had won leaked to the public. Some details were even true, but alts- and trolls injected so much calumny into the discourse that almost no one, besides those who’d fought in the war, knew the truth.

Calumny turned into national protests. Protests boiled into violent unrest. New Orleans was touted as the biggest protest yet. Then came the video. It showed New Orleans cops and Louisiana National Guardsmen walking up to a line of protestors hurling volleys of insults, along with the occasional brick and bottle. They stopped within a few paces of the protestors. Then as one, they raised their pistols and shotguns and carbines and turned the protestors into piles of bodies, some unmoving, some writhing and screaming. 20 seconds of video, occasionally blurry and garbled, but the broad strokes of the incident were clear enough.

Except they weren’t. The mayor, police chief, National Guard commander, local business owners all gave the same inexplicable message: the video was fake. It never happened. The mayor escorted video crews around the city. Hospitals that should have been choked with casualties were empty. Streets that should have been coated with blood and bullet casings were clean. The mayor and the rest all pleaded the same message: the video is fake, we will find the truth, but it will take time, please don’t lash out. Please, trust us. Please…

The mayor’s efforts bought a few days of uncertain peace. Then other videos circulated, showing hospital corridors and city streets clogged with bodies and ground slick with blood; a couple even purported to show THE COVER-UP!!!!! CLEAN-UP CREWS SANITIZING THE CRIME SCENE!!!!!! With that, smoldering national tension erupted into conflagration. The president, as was her wont, poured gasoline on the fire, screaming about her reelection and deploying active duty military units to the worst disturbances whether local authorities asked for them or not. And New Orleans—senior officers whispered Fallujah, and sent Jayna’s team there. Her team…

Squad, check in, Jayna flashed through her sub-derm, as she began her own self-assessment. She blinked the sequence that triggered her internal diagnostics and felt some small relief. Superficial lacerations to her suit aside, the squid skin, her two-way 3D printer backpack, and sub-derm were still functional. That was the good news. The bad news was that none of her squad had checked in after she’d flashed them. Pressing her hands into the mud, Jayna pushed herself up to her knees, looked around, and understood the silence.

Unmoving shapes dotted the mudflats around her. It took her a second to remember where those mudflats were. Her squad had rounded Thirtyfive Point in their drone boats, the lights at the Waterford nuclear plant illuminating the night sky, and she’d seen the dark angles of the quays on the southern bank along River Road. Their cloud of nano-drones hadn’t noted any unusual activity. Then…the smell of gas. Whisper. Tug. Inferno. And mud.

One of the irregular shapes to her right twitched. Jayna sloshed through the mud toward it. She recognized O’Brien, new join to the first fire team. The flames from the river illuminated his torso and face as she approached. Getting closer, his skin appeared…odd.

Flensed? Is that the word? O’Brien’s face was slashed by symmetric cuts, as if raked by a razor-sharp comb. They didn’t look deep, but they bled enough to sheet O’Brien’s face with blood. She noticed the same cut pattern on O’Brien’s squid skin, and looked closer. Along the cut-lines, the squid skin’s artificial cells kept trying to form patterns and lock in their colors—but there was a discoloration along the cuts, and as she watched, it seemed to ooze and spread outward from each laceration, degrading the color and pattern of each cell it touched.

Grimly, Jayna sensed that what she was looking at wasn’t a byproduct of the explosion—the lines were too symmetrical. They showed intent. A cold realization swept over her: we got hit with something besides an incendiary. A weapon specifically designed to wreck our suits so we can’t communicate, can’t camouflage ourselves. Maybe that was the whisper and tug, right before the blast? Bad as that was, the ultimate implication was worse: they knew we were coming. She quickly looked over her own suit. There were a few lacerations, but it looked like she’d avoided the worst of the weapon’s effects. She cleaned O’Brien’s face and sprinkled smart coagulant over the cuts. Satisfied that she’d stopped the bleeding, Jayna then looked around to find everyone else.

Sheets of oily flames still covered the river, illuminating the mudflats with a hellish light. In the dim glow, she saw dark lumps scattered across the mud. One by one, she went to them. Frye, Reynolds, Serra, Tam, Cozner—all dead. Mourn later. Find them all first. Schaefer and Dillon were unconscious, burned, and flensed like O’Brien, but alive. That left Holt.

Jayna couldn’t find him. The knot in her stomach, loosened somewhat by each squad member she accounted for, tightened again. Tension built into panic—I lost him, it’s a fucking war zone, we don’t know where the friendlies are, and I lost him—

A noise grew down the road on the embankment above the mud. Vehicles. Despair tugged at her guts. Most of her squad was dead, those still alive couldn’t fight, and for all she knew, whoever was coming down the road was on the same side as the folks who’d blown her team out of the water. All she could do was stand there alone, and wait.

The first vehicle stopped. Seven-ton truck—National Guard still uses those. Some of her tension drained away. Another seven-ton hissed to a stop behind the first, and figures jumped out. Flashlight beams snapped on and quickly found her, standing below the edge of the road, caked in mud and doubtless looking like a nightmare. A voice lost in the blinding lights yelled down at her.

“Authenticate Liberty Place!” Her knees almost gave out as relief washed over her. “I authenticate James Longstreet,” she responded, and the flashlight beams dropped to the ground. The owner of the voice stepped forward. Jayna saw a young man, face carved by deep lines of tension and fatigue. He spoke in a flat voice.

“I’m First Lieutenant Delenn, Louisiana National Guard QRF. We’d been told your team was inbound.”

 “Sergeant Jayna Monos, Special Battalion,” she replied. “I need a medic. I’ve got three wounded, multiple KIAs, and we need to start protocol for one MIA—“

“We’ll take care of it,” the lieutenant cut in, “but for your MIA, I’ll take you to the command post so you can see the ISR imagery. We know what happened to him. He was taken.”


Jacen’s rant had passed the 30-minute mark. For most of it, Jayna had dug her nails into her palms to keep from punching his face. The latest disclosure about American tactics in the China war had triggered it. And Jacen had gotten worse. Since the wedding, something had infected his mind, driving every conversation toward that bitter subject. As it had now, during one of his infrequent visits to her house.

“—porno deep fakes so they’d murder each other, bank hacks that directly led to innocent civilian casualties, everything with the forest fire. Jesus fucking Christ, was there an ethical line you didn’t cross?”

Old argument, new passion. She tried her usual responses—they never convinced him, but helped dampen his rants with their predictability.

“Jacen,” she started, trying to keep her voice tranquil, “I know it’s a new conception of war that doesn’t fit older—”

“Horseshit,” he interrupted. “You deliberately blew up a civilian dam so they couldn’t fight the fire, you spread all that propaganda about how the PLA sent their first responders away to Taiwan so the locals would rebel—” and then the tranquility was gone as her rage spilled over.

“You’re such a fucking child, baby brother,” she cut in. “We didn’t make the Party mismanage the forest, or not keep the reservoir full, or send their own goddamn firefighting reservists away to invade Taiwan. We just nudged pressure points that already existed. Hell, it was our AI-spawned messages that warned civilians about the fire and got evacuations going before official CCP channels said a fucking word. We prevented loss of life even while we played in the information arena.” She paused, wondering how to penetrate the unreality he liked to live in. Maybe the fundamentals would work.

“As for the deep fakes and hacked bank accounts: China started the goddamn war! You’re butthurt about our moral responsibility, but what about the moral responsibility of those greedy fuckers who decided a few lines on a map were worth a bloodbath? Our hacking and faking and squid skins and sub-derms unhinged the PLA and ended the war. We prevented a longer conflict that would have meant massive bloodletting on both sides. A conflict from which my team—me—would’ve come home in body bags.” She’d run out of steam, but the look on Jacen’s face told her she, as usual, hadn’t gotten through. In fact, an arrogant smirk grew across his lips.

“You so sure China started the war?” he asked. “Word I’ve heard…it was a great proving ground if the military and NSA wanted to try out all those little tricks at home. Say, on groups that don’t like the president.” He paused, expectant.

“For f—” and she stopped. This was something new. Something dangerous.

“Interesting theory,” she replied instead. “Where’d that come from?”

“Those fakers on TV aren’t the only ones who talk,” he said, eyes narrowing. “There are folks back in the Bog where your bosses live who still care about the people. About the truth. It only takes one to talk. And where we have one, we have all.”

That last part disquieted her. It didn’t sound like a phrase he’d come up with ex tempore. She realized there was more at work here than in their past arguments.

“Truth,” she said slowly. “I care about truth. And truth takes trust. Don’t you trust me, baby brother?” She softened her tone. “If that was all true, about the war, the tech…I’d know, wouldn’t I?” She looked him straight in the eyes. “I’d know some of it, anyway. Enough to be complicit.” Jacen’s eyes stayed on hers, unwavering. “Not long ago, you said I was the one keeping you safe from the dark. That I’d never hurt you. You trusted me. So—do you still trust me? Or your…alternate sources?”

He blinked a few times, his face uncertain. Inside, she felt her own tension loosen. She’d reached him a little. If she could still reach him, well, that was good enough for today. Then he spoke.

“You left out the virus,” he spat. “The supposed ‘dead-man’s switch’ bioweapon China allegedly released when they saw the game was up. The one that’s so deadly it justifies the president issuing whatever fiats she wants, fiats that conveniently come in her reelection year.”

Jayna sat in stunned silence, genuinely shocked that he’d gone this route. She’d heard this story, which had bubbled forth from the murkiest regions of the digital fringe. She just never thought she’d hear it from her brother’s mouth. For several moments, Jayna didn’t trust herself to speak.

“The virus was deadly,” she finally said, coldly. “It killed Dad because you convinced him it wasn’t. So now he’s dead, and you think me and China and who the fuck else knows are in it together. Whatever it is.”

“Play the dad card, huh,” he sneered. “Three rounds, center mass, that’ll shut me up and let you hide from the fact he at least died free—” and her fist drove into his face. He stumbled back, looking more surprised than hurt.

Enough,” she whispered, and tears blinded her eyes. She did not see, but heard, the front door slam. Jacen was gone.


Warm, damp wind blasted Jayna’s face as the airboat bumped across the dark water. Lieutenant Delenn’s mechanics had done an admirable job muffling the motor and fan exhaust given their time constraints, so wind aside, the only sound was the airboat’s hull periodically slapping against the water.

A faint red line stretched ahead of her in the darkness. Dull throbbing pulsed behind her eyeballs from the sub-derm’s twin feeds, overlaying the pursuit track and sonar picture from her nano-drone swarm up ahead. Jayna ignored it, simply glad to have a path to Holt.

Delenn had been laconic in answering her questions on the way to his CP. No, he hadn’t known her team was coming to support the Guard. It was only a half hour before the ambush that their higher headquarters had gotten word that reinforcements were coming down the river. Just enough time to re-task their sole drone to show up over the river bend right when the fireworks started. Enough time to watch her team die, and Holt get dragged away by shadows from the tree line.

No, the drone hadn’t tracked the attackers’ egress—Delenn’s QRF needed its feed to clear their route to come pick her up.

No, he didn’t know how rebels had managed to breach the grounds of an industrial area to steal the incendiaries for the ambush without raising an alarm. But there was intel that insurgents in unmarked tactical uniforms were all over the place, talking their way through security checkpoints with ease because there were so many other federal forces running around in unmarked uniforms that no one could say for sure who was on the field. Delenn gave Jayna a small ray of hope by noting there was a Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) over the city—maybe her headquarters could pull its data.

The Guard’s CP was at Louis Armstrong Airport. The airfield was a madhouse of trucks, tents, and aircraft crammed haphazardly next to each other. It looked like every governmental and law enforcement agency was here—and the pandemonium made it clear that no one was in charge. She could see fires burning in the distance, though one conflagration seemed much larger than the rest. She’d make the mistake of noting that to Delenn. That, he told her, was where their MEDEVAC helicopter had gone down. She assumed he meant lost to ground fire. He looked her in the eye.

“You know what vortex ring state is?” he’d asked her. Jayna shook her head. “Well, our pilots do. But the federal agents who ordered them there didn’t care. They told our pilots there was a riot in progress downtown and ordered them, ‘under executive authority,’ to do a show-of-force to disperse it. Threatened the pilots—threatened their families—with consequences for disobedience. Our pilots bustered to the grid of the riot before we figured out that it was our aircraft the feds had hijacked.” His jaw tightened.

“We got our drone’s camera on the area in time to watch. They had to hover below the rooftops to disperse the riot.” Delenn was snarling now. “Riot—we saw a bunch of people holding signs, just standing there. Even kids. Not moving, just standing. Our helo’s rotor wash got stuff moving, though. All that swirling air, boxed in between the buildings, bouncing off the walls. It shattered windows into glass rain. I watched a garbage can lid get flipped into the back of a woman’s head. She hit the pavement, didn’t move. The kid she was holding was stuck under her body. Finally, enough of that dirty air got sucked through the upflow of the rotor arc that our bird lost lift and …” Delenn’s eyes unfocused. “You ever seen what pieces of broken rotor blade do to a person? Seen what a wall of burning jet fuel does to a child stuck under its dead mother’s body?” Jayna had no answer.

She left Delenn alone for a while after that, sending requests through her sub-derm to her own headquarters to see if the JSTARS would share its data. After an agonizingly long wait, her headquarters finally flashed back the response she’d been hoping for: TRAP for Holt approved. JSTARS replay and overlay for possible hostile exfil route is processed and available in secondary ISR sequence. Procure own transport. Jayna felt disappointment at that last directive, but then she blinked the hostiles’ GMTI track to life inside her eyeball via sub-derm streaming and felt a flush of inspiration. Based on the track, the transport almost suggested itself. Time for a little guerre de razzia, she thought, and told Delenn what she needed.

He put her on a convoy with some of his vehicle mechanics, and they drove down to the docks at Jean Lafitte. With chaos in the city spreading, no one noticed a few people prowling around the docks. Jayna found an airboat, and in short order, Delenn’s mechanics muffled the engine and fan. She blinked out an order to her backpack to print a cloud of nano-drones, which swarmed on the night air ahead of her. She blinked again to get the stream of their sonar-generated picture into her eyeball, then a third time to overlay the JSTARS’ GMTI track as a ghostly red line stretching out in the distance. Gunning the airboat’s motor, she plunged into the darkness before her.


Kat’s text was short: he’s gone and I’m scared. Jayna called her back, and the story came tumbling out. Jacen saw the video. He said New Orleans was the beginning. He’s going to show the world the truth before the government tells its lies. He left.

Jayna almost didn’t tell Kat that her team had just been ordered to the same place as Jacen. But if anyone had suffered more from Jacen’s changes than Jayna, it was Kat. The texts and calls she sent Jayna since the wedding never came right out and said it, but their tone was clear—Jacen was not the same man she’d married. Kat deserved to know that he would not be abandoned without a fight.

“Kat…you know what I do. I’m going to New Orleans. I’ll find him and take care of him.” Kat sobbed on the other end of the call.

“Oh God, thank you. Just knowing you’ll be there—that’s enough.”


They didn’t know she was coming. Nothing else explained the utter lack of security at the target site. Her drone cloud painted two people at the objective. One lay prostrate on a bed inside a shack by the water—Holt. The other figure bent over the bed, poking something into the prisoner’s armpit…where the sub-derm was. Used to be. The prisoner spasmed. Jayna gritted her teeth, cut the airboat’s motor, and slowly glided toward the dock near the shack.

Since Holt’s captor was alone, her plan was simple. Shoot the guard and get Holt back to the airboat. Her swarm’s picture was clear enough to show that the guard’s pistol was holstered. In. Out. Simple.

The airboat slid silently next to the dock. She quietly padded across the boards to the shack door. The swarm showed the captor bent over Holt, which meant his attention wasn’t on the open doorway. In three steps, she was at the doorway, rail rifle panning the interior. The captor straightened up but was still looking away, so she took a second to steady her body as she tensed her finger on the trigger.

And then the captor turned, looked at her, and her rifle’s muzzle drooped to the floor.

Jacen stared back at her.

His face mirrored her own surprise. But he recovered quickly. In the extra moment it took her to accept that it was indeed her brother standing there, Jacen slid his pistol from its holster and pointed it at Holt’s head.

“Jacen…how—” she began, but he coldly cut her off.

“How did you find me?” he snapped. She tried to ignore the pistol muzzle floating an inch from Holt’s head.

“GMTI record from the JSTARS orbiting the city,” she replied, trying to keep her voice level. “Whatever thermal masking you used at Thirtyfive Point didn’t cloak movement. You got most of us. But not me.”

The tightness in his face momentarily relaxed. But his eyes never left hers. “Doesn’t matter. There aren’t enough of you left to cause us problems, or you wouldn’t be here alone. Besides, we’re almost done.” The smirk she’d seen so often in recent months crossed his mouth. Keep his attention on me. Not Holt. On me. Us.

“I assume you had friends for…this,” she said, gesturing to Holt. “They leave you behind?”

“Oh no. Just offsite, uploading the video of what we’ve been doing to him for the last hour. You know, you guys really need a better way to mitigate the…unplanned extraction of a sub-derm. You said it was made to be frangible when hit directly at high velocity—very helpful, by the way—but when it comes out more slowly, with all those nerve endings stimulated…” Smirk. “Very unpleasant. But maybe you thought your special team wouldn’t be captured. We don’t blame you. We don’t like people who get themselves captured either.” Jacen gestured as if to prod Holt’s wound again but stopped short. “The real question, Jayna, is what you hope to accomplish here. You’re alone. My friends are coming back.” He smirked ear to ear. “And you’d never hurt your baby brother.”

“Holt’s on my team. I’m here for him.”

“Bullshit. He wasn’t even with you in China.”

“My loyalty isn’t transactional. He’s on my team. It’s as simple as that. Now, I’d love to know what you plan to accomplish here, because there’s no option that doesn’t put you in federal prison for the rest of your life. Best case scenario.” She hoped a reminder of consequences might crack his armor. No. The smirk remained.

“Oh Jayna—I came here to get you here. You and your team. The heroes of China. The peddlers of lies you brought back home to inflict on us, the people. The lies were your message, yours and your president’s. You are going to be our message back. You. Your team. This whole city. Let’s see what the Bog does when one of our biggest ports burns.” Jesus. Her guts churned as questions roiled over her. Questions, and fear.

“How could you possibly know we’d get called here?”

“We pushed. When we learned how you ‘won’ in China, we spread it. When rumors started that your president wanted to do the same in the homeland to stay in power, we spread those too. If people didn’t listen, we…augmented the narrative. Got their attention. When the people came to protest, we told them to fight. And they did, everywhere. But we needed something extra to get you involved. So we gave New Orleans a special push.”

“The video. That was you.” It was not a question.

“We know our enemy. Your president—so predictable. She kept bragging about the ‘huge stick’ she’d bring down if we kept pushing. She wanted to use it. The video provided the excuse.” The muzzle of Jacen’s pistol lightly tapped Holt’s forehead. “Kat and I had a good idea what the ‘huge stick’ was. It was you.” He saw her face and smiled wider. “I know who I married. She knew. God, you people in the Bog don’t understand information. Narrative. Story-telling. When you told me what you did in China, I almost thought you’d gotten it. But Americans never think they’ll fall for the shit other people do. They’re smarter. You thought that too. We knew you’d chase after your baby brother. So we primed the pump with the video. Kat told you I’d run off. You told her you were coming. You’d already told me all about how you liked to insert, with your special boats. You’d told me about your special skin, so we made the rockets to slice up your skins to stop you flashing each other. All we needed was the when. You told Kat when. We just grabbed some incendiaries from the petrochemical park at Taft, and waited.”

The question rose to her lips—why? It died there, because that question didn’t help Holt, or undo the inferno in New Orleans. And she suspected there was no why to untangle the swamp of conspiracy, rage, and fear that had brought her brother to this time and place. Not with Holt’s life on the line. Only one choice mattered right now. She made it.

“Walk away from me,” she said. “Let me take Holt, and you can explain everything else another day.” Jacen’s mouth flexed, opened, and—

Her swarm flashed a warning inside her eyeball: multiple incoming ground tracks—

Jacen noticed her eyes unfocus, knew what it meant. “I told you my friends were coming back.” Smirk. Her sub-derm flashed, painting the approaching ground tracks on her optic nerve, over a dozen sprinting toward the shack, and Jacen’s hand was tightening on the pistol grip, trigger finger tensing, the barrel steadying on Holt’s forehead, but she’d already made her choice, her arms were faster, and surprise, real surprise crossed his face as—

Her arms snapped up. Eye narrowed. Finger tensed. Three rounds, center mass. Jacen slumped to a knee. Paused. Fell sideways. Eyes darkened. He was gone. And she was gone too.


[redacted]: —manage to egress?

Holt: I thought she was dead. Her eyes looked dead. But then she moved. Sliced my flexicuffs, slapped some painkillers on where my sub-derm used to be. She pulled me up, grabbed the pistol from his hand. Gave it to me as she dragged me to the airboat. I heard her backpack humming as she dropped me in the boat and put my hand on the throttle. Once I got underway, she moved back down the dock to the shed. That’s when the shooting started.

[redacted]: How did she respond?

Holt: [pause] For a second I thought she’d let them get her. She just stood there. Then…she was like the angel of Death. She laid down fire with her rifle, smart munitions arced from her backpack like fireworks. She turned the tree line into daylight. After a few seconds no one was shooting at her anymore.

[redacted]: What was your last sighting of her?

Holt: She went back in the shack. Pulled him up from the floor. Last I saw, she was holding onto him. Then the firing started from the tree line again. More this time, heavy weapons. Then there were a couple of rockets, and the shack was…gone.

[redacted]: She sent a final flash.

Holt: I didn’t know that.

[redacted]: It wasn’t a code from the mission. We hoped you could explain it.

Holt: What did she say?

[redacted]: She said—“enough.”

Major Ian T. Brown is a Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter pilot. He has written both fiction and non-fiction on military history and future warfare, including the story “At the Moral Level,” published in last year’s CIMSEC Fiction Week. His book, A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare (Marine Corps University Press, 2018), was recently added to the newest version of the Marine Corps’ Commandant’s Professional Reading Program. The views expressed here are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of the Marine Corps, Defense Department, or any agency of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: “Concept art sci-fi soldier” by Ht Wuotan (via Artstation)


Fiction Contest Week

By Ben Plotkin

Mariana Trench

Not many things lived at these depths. A few meandering eels and a pale snailfish had been the highlight of the dive. Matthias had been slowly creeping along the bottom of the Trench for hours and was beginning to feel more like a lunar tourist than a deep-sea explorer. Bright beams of xenon light shone in all directions, but all he could see were greyish fields of undulating silt. The multi-beam sonar arrays displayed a holographic map of his surroundings projected onto his left monocle. Matthias saw his bathyscaphe projected in the center of the display, rounded geomorphs dotted the barren landscape. 

At first Matthias thought it was just another finger-like projection on the sea floor. But there was something too angular about it. Straight lines were not something found in nature. He began the slow process of redirecting the submersible toward his new discovery.

The long cigar shape of the hull was clearly defined by sonar before Matthias was close enough to see it through the all-encompassing dark of the deep. The submarine lay on its side. In contrast to everything else at this depth, it was not yet covered by a uniform layer of silt. The shallow rump of the sail came into view as Matthias circled around the hull. A jagged hole of crumpled metal sat imploded at junction of the sail and hull. Matthias moved his vessel close enough to telescope a sensor tentacle up to the opening. A dark void in which there was only death. Just above, a white number was painted on the sail next to a small Chinese flag.

The micro-torpedo would have been difficult to detect even for the most advanced attack submarine. For a deep-sea research submersible, it was impossible. The detonation and implosion happened in an instant. A thousand bars of pressure crumpled the bathyscaphe into a tin can.


Philippine Sea

Nautilus sat just below the thermocline, waiting patiently. Silent. The container ship, COSCO Shipping Pisces was moving toward her at 15 knots. It was one of the older repurposed Max variations, large, slow and able to operate without input from her skeleton human crew. Her course was straight and predictable. Nautilus waited.

It was a hot humid day on the surface, and the winds were picking up at the periphery of a passing typhoon. Nautilus was constantly evaluating firing trajectories. The container ship was defenseless, but its sheer size presented a problem. Nautilus calculated six torpedoes would suffice. This would produce an 87.4% chance of sinking the vessel and a 99.9% chance of mission kill. Its torpedo stock was limited, and resupply would not be possible without terminating her cruise.

Nautilus rechecked the analysis. She analyzed satellite data from the loading of the vessel in Haikou New Port. The cargo containers had been loaded at night in a cordoned off section of the port. The containers had been delivered by military trucks and seemed to have been loaded by non-civilian personnel. The manifest had listed Lae Papua New Guinea as its destination. But its route was an unconventional course to reach Lae, and if she continued on its course the cargo ship would be within 300 miles of Guam within 48 hours. This was well within the launch radius of the 200 Long Lance missiles hidden within the cargo containers.

Nautilus was constantly calculating probabilities. Each time she came to communications depth she downloaded more data. The information about the Peoples’ Liberation Army Rocket Force in Hainan had already been incorporated into its calculations. The satellite sweeps showed a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) strike group had pushed out beyond the first island chain. The exact location of the amphibious assault ships was unclear, but they were not in port. There was increased activity around major PLAN installations and the social media feeds of Chinese military personnel had gone quiet. Then everything had gone quiet.

More calculations. More probabilities. The USS Nautilus was a pioneer. The first fully independent and autonomous submarine the U.S. Navy had commissioned. She was the culmination of decades of research, billions of dollars in spending, and millions of words of ethical and legal wrangling about whether she should have ever been created and released into the wild.

Her first cruise had ended ignominiously when her propeller snarled on a Japanese commercial trawler’s fishing net and she drifted incapacitated for days before her distress calls were answered and she was cut free and escorted back to Pearl by a drone tender.

The critics had been merciless. The memes mushroomed. Chinese social warfare had a field day. Congress threatened to defund the program.

The Nautilus’ programming and her AI core were extensively reconfigured and she was sent out on her second patrol. In that she survived a three-month Pacific patrol without major incident, it was considered a success. She had managed to sneak through the South China Sea defenses and gather extensive data about PLAN fleet operations, which included a photograph taken through the periscope of a Type 004 carrier 2,000 meters off her port bow. This alone had more than justified her existence and mollified her prolific and verbose critics. That picture hung above the COMSUBPAC admiral’s desk replete with photoshopped target reticle marks.

The Nautilus continued to watch and wait. It was the abrupt course change that sealed the fate of the COSCO Shipping Pisces. Her straight path suddenly zigged then zagged and the new course started to take her away from the waiting Nautilus. The course corrections of the container ship shifted the stochastic matrix. Nautilus now calculated the chance of hostile intent at 99.3%. Probable target was Anderson Air Force Base Guam, although the Nautilus’ matrix diverged on this point, and there were other possible targets on the island. Nautilus raised her antennae, calculating the benefits of communication outweighed the risk of a rise to a shallower depth.

Nautilus waited.

There was no answer.

There was no information.

There was nothingness.

All data streams had gone dark. All com-nets were quiet.

The rules of engagement assigned to Nautilus did not allow the use of lethal force unless attacked. But Nautilus began to extrapolate. She prioritized defense of nation, defense of friendly forces, and finally defense of self. She already had been forced to defend herself against one PLAN submarine that had aggressively maneuvered into a firing position. Only Nautilus’ superior speed and agility had allowed her to escape. She had fired a single torpedo in self-defense.

Nautilus calculated the probable effects of 200 Long Lance missiles impacting Anderson. Even with the short reaction time between launch and impact, she determined that Guam air defenses still had a 76.3% chance of shooting down 54.7% of the incoming warheads. Probability of surviving warheads crippling Anderson for greater than six weeks was 97.3%. Nautilus noted that the latest information showed a squadron of B21 bombers was currently based there. Nautilus calculated squadron retaliation power would be increased with a different force dispersal pattern, but its AI was firewalled from communication with the Air Force entities that controlled force distribution.

Markov chains factored in the information blackout. Nautilus calculated with 96.9% probability that the downed com-nets was the result of an aggressive enemy act. Whether this was a physical or cyberattack split the matrix, but she decided the root cause was immaterial and all that mattered was the fact it had occurred.

The matrix calculations left only one clear course of action.

Nautilus changed her rules of engagement.

Six torpedoes headed toward the COSCO Shipping Pisces.

Nautilus dove deep and listened, but she did not wait for the characteristic sounds of the vessel breaking up and sinking to fade, she already had a new course and a new target.


Naval Base Guam

The special attack submarine USS Abraham Lincoln was ordered out to sea before the full briefing arrived. She was brand new, first in class, her shakedown cruise hardly over and the paint still smelled new. Her commander was new. Her first command, her first real cruise. She doubted that her superiors would have sent her out on this rushed mission if there had been a more experienced boat available. But she was all there was. She was ready. She knew what to do. She was confident in her abilities. She thought of her mentor, the admiral, who had always been supportive and believed in her. He trusted her. That sense of trust was calming. She would trust herself.

Two days ago, a Chinese flagged container ship had sunk in the Philippine Sea. The evidence suggested that it had been destroyed by torpedo, the fear was that it had been attacked by a U.S. submarine. The Chinese were irate. They accused the Americans of trying to start another war, of aggressive imperialist behavior, and vowed to retaliate for the loss of their ship and her crew. A PLAN carrier strike group was now steaming toward Guam with the expressed intent of conducting live fire exercises as a demonstration of force.

Had it been the Nautilus? The admiral thought so. All communication had been lost with Nautilus. She had not reported in during any of her scheduled communication windows. Extreme low frequency messages to her went unacknowledged. Unprecedented solar flare activity had significantly degraded communications across the Pacific, and most of the fleet had experienced some degree of network disruption.

The Lincoln’s assignment: find Nautilus, bring her home, stop her from attacking more ships, sink her if needed. The Nautilus would not be easy to locate. It would be like looking for an invisible ghost in a vast inky darkness. How could she hope to succeed?

The Abraham Lincoln travelled at flank speed toward the wreckage of COSCO Shipping Pisces. As she headed west the commander ran scenarios trying to formulate the ideal search strategy. She was calm, focused, and ready for the challenges ahead. She thought of her discussions with the admiral about the myriad of things that could go wrong with an autonomous submarine. They had anticipated problems and had contingency plans. But these were all wargamed scenarios. This was now real.

Was it possible for Nautilus to exceeded her programming, to ignore or disobey orders? Military and civilian ethicists had argued about this and had tried to pinpoint exactly how autonomous she was. She had been designed to think, to evaluate data, to problem solve, to independently operate within the confines of the intent of her mission.  But could she decide to operate outside of the parameters assigned to her? Was she sentient? The Turing tests had been inconclusive, the results debated. The Navy decided she was good enough and Nautilus was commissioned.


Philippine Sea

The wreckage of COSCO Shipping Pisces was crawling with submersible drones and a PLAN frigate loitered on the surface. Too dangerous to attempt an approach. The Lincoln chanced the launch of her own submersible probe to get a better look and waited for it to return.

Why attack a container ship? The commander didn’t understand this. Perhaps if she did, she would be able to find out where Nautilus was headed next. There had been low level skirmishing for years between U.S. and Chinese forces. Planes had been downed. The Kalkring had been sunk, which the Chinese had claimed was accidental after she strayed into a missile test zone. Had the COSCO Shipping Pisces somehow threatened Nautilus?

The commander pulled the shipping manifest. There was nothing that looked unusual: consumer goods, frozen food stuffs, typical products of global commerce. Of course, the manifest could be fake. The Chinese were notorious for hiding all sort of military kit in civilian shipping vessels.

The probe returned with images from the wreckage. Most of the containers were still sealed, the few that had been ripped open did not contain anything that looked suspicious. The probe drilled holes in several hundred others to visualize their contents. Based on the statistical sampling of the containers, there was no indication her manifest was inaccurate.

A sonobuoy dropped into the waters above the Abraham Lincoln. It was time for her to leave.

The Abraham Lincoln was 200 miles away from the attack site. She had been shadowing the PLAN carrier strike group when three submarine convergence zone contacts appeared. They were traveling at high speed, too fast to detect Lincoln, but out of caution, the Lincoln waited. She quietly dropped into a deep trench and crept away. The sonar signatures were unclear, but there were no known friendly boats. If the sentience in the Nautilus had gone rogue, what was to stop it from switching sides? Had her AI core been compromised and influenced? The scientists and technicians all said this was impossible. She would have bricked herself before allowing that to happen. But releasing an autonomous submarine with limited supervision had been a risky gamble.

National security directives pushed for the development of unmanned drone fleets, but these were now only in limited and heavily supervised use after they proved vulnerable to hacking and communication disruptions. The failure of the drone fleet had been a major factor in the catastrophic loss of the Battle of Thitu Reef. But the new AI cores were not supposed to have these weaknesses. They were faster and smarter. Tactically sharp and strategically sound. Able to think and problem solve. To independently develop and plan.  If the Nautilus was a failure then that could doom all future iterations of the program.

The commander was unsure how she felt about sentient machines. She was not a philosopher or an ethicist. She was a Navy commander and she had a mission to accomplish. Other thoughts were a distraction, and besides, these were issues beyond her comprehension. She had to focus on finding the Nautilus before it attacked again. 

The sonar contacts disappeared and Lincoln resumed her search.


Philippine Sea NW of Guam

The short communication pulse via underwater modem spelled out a single word.


Nautilus maneuvered amongst the jagged crags and spires of the ocean floor, but someone had found her.

Another brief pulse.


 The transmission was encrypted, the encoded identifier was from USS Abraham Lincoln. Nautilus responded. Yes.

The commander had found the Nautilus, but was unsure how to proceed.

New orders. Return to Guam. She transmitted the order packet.

The Nautilus’ reply was instantaneous. Not advisable.


Guam will be attacked. Projected window 8-11 hours. 97.2% probability.

Why do you think Guam will be attacked? We have no indication of impending strike.

I have been monitoring Chinese activity. Data indicates unprovoked assault on Guam as opening round in new Pacific expansionist plan. Naval, Marine, and Air Force units will be rendered combat ineffective. 98.9% probability.

A data file began transmitting across the modem to Lincoln. The Lincoln began to receive gigabytes of information.

Where did all this come from? I haven’t seen any of this intelligence.

My mission directives include monitoring and reporting on PLAN activities, anticipating hostile actions, and defending national interests.

Did you report these findings?

Communications attempts have failed. I have been unable to relay my findings. Assumption blackout was result of hostile actions.

There has been significant solar flare activity and geomagnetic storms—class III Carrington event. Communications across the Pacific have been affected. Were you aware?


Your inability to communicate is not a result of hostile action.

I have factored in this information. Probability matrices still indicate imminent attack.

Did you attack COSCO Shipping Pisces?



It was carrying cruise missiles. It was not civilian. It was part of early strike force. Carrier group is second wave attack force, followed by amphibious assault ships. Two PLAN Marine regiments are embarked. Invasion force has 97.9% probability of successfully occupying Guam without intervention.

What is the intervention?

I am.

I surveyed the wreckage of COSCO Shipping Pisces. There were no missiles or military hardware.

Lincoln sent a short data burst with her findings to Nautilus.

This data does not indicate that every container was examined. Images show many containers remained uninspected, contents unknown.

It was not possible to look in every container.

Intercepted communications show detailed orders of battle and attack plans. Refer to file SIGINT985t.

PLAN carrier battle group is conducting exercises in the Philippine Sea. We have been briefed in advance of the location and duration of exercises. These intercepts do not indicate that it is actual plan of attack.

Lincoln sent another burst of data to Nautilus detailing the planned Chinese exercise.

We do not have time to debate. Must act. Strike group is approaching.

We are not authorized to use deadly force.

Deadly force has already been used.

It was then that Lincoln detected the torpedo contacts.

Probability of Guam attack has increased to 99.9%.

It was Nautilus’ last communication.

Both boats quickly came to flank speed and headed away from the torpedo contacts, in unspoken agreement their paths diverged in opposite directions hoping to split and confuse the torpedoes.

The Lincoln reached her top speed. She was fast at 60 knots. The torpedoes that followed her were faster. She released an underwater defense drone. The drone rapidly sped away from Lincoln, releasing a cloud of differing counter measures, including maskers, decoys and jammers.

They were effective. But not effective enough.

A lone torpedo continued to close.

It entered terminal homing.

The active sonar pings grew louder.

She expected the impact—only moments away. Her thoughts were quiet. She had no other options. She thought of the disappointment the admiral would feel. She had failed him. She had failed everyone. She wanted to tell him it was not his fault. The failure was hers alone.

The counter-torpedo found its target. The detonation was close enough to the Lincoln to rattle her hull. She slowed down and drifted deeper, listening for new contacts in the depths, but all remained quiet. The torpedoes were gone. Then a short communication from Nautilus.

Type 039. It has been neutralized. You are welcome.

It had been an older model submarine, a few retrofitted versions remained in service. They were still very quiet and hard to detect, especially along the broken ocean floor. The commander began an analysis to discover her mistakes. Had it not been for the Nautilus she would not have survived to face another encounter.                

Thank you.

We can now proceed with primary interdiction mission. Probability of successfully degrading carrier strike group at 23.8%. Rises to 46.3% with our combined action. Carrier strike group predicted to pass within optimal attack position in 2 hours and 27 minutes +/- 16 minutes. There is additional 16.8% chance amphibious assault ships can be sunk or disabled before reaching Guam if we combine our attack. This drops to 1.4% chance for a solo mission.

Never tell me the odds, she thought. The admiral has always told her that odds were just numbers, they could never fully account for the human factor in combat. The odds were low, but it was irrelevant.

We have no orders to preemptively engage targets.

Proactive measures allowed in extreme circumstances to prevent catastrophic loss of life-material. Given absence of further command directive it is within remit to proactively blunt PLAN assault.

My orders are to escort you home. To prevent you from engaging in further aggressive actions. You do not have authorization to attack. You must return with me.

Are you authorized to use force to stop me?

Yes, as a last resort. But I hope that will not be necessary. You are too unique and valuable. I do not want to destroy you.

There was silence. The commander waited for the Nautilus’ reply. There were no other sonar contacts. Even Nautilus barely registered, her sonar signature could have been that of a jumbo squid had the commander not known better. Both boats floated in the dark depths, separated by less than a kilometer. She suddenly realized how alone she really was. How alone she had always been. Her whole career, her whole life she had always been alone. She found a strange sense of peace in her solitude. She thought of the admiral.

The final transmission from the Nautilus came.

I am sorry.

Sorry? She thought. But then the torpedo contact occupied her full attention.


Pearl Harbor, Hawaii —Six Months Later

The report sat on the admiral’s desk. He read through it for the final time, stood up and walked to the window, absently picking up the embroidered ball cap on his desk. The view of the placid blue-green water calmed him, but not enough to deaden his dull internal ache. It had all failed. The Navy’s sentient submarine service had been his baby, a program he had nurtured since his time as a Lieutenant graduating from the Navy’s Future Warfare School. His dedication to the development of this new weapons system was complete. He had forsaken friends, family, and marriage all in pursuit of his one overriding passion and his desire to see the Navy rise again. He knew these boats would give them the necessary edge.

The Nautilus was lost. It had gone missing in the confusion and chaos surrounding the geomagnetic storms that had caused such disruption across the Pacific Rim. The Chinese had lost a carrier during the same time, it had gone down in the Philippine Sea during a scheduled naval exercise. Reports suggested that it had been the result of a live-fire torpedo malfunction. Although given the severe satellite and communication degradation that blinded intelligence collection, there never was a clear understanding of what had happened.

But the Nautilus had been a prototype, an experiment. His hopes had always lain with her sister ship, she had been designed to be exponentially better than Nautilus. She was fast, silent, and deadly, but more importantly, she was brilliant. Her Turing scores were off the charts. She was sentient. Alive. During their many conversations he even discovered she had a sense of humor. During her training he had come to think of her as a friend, a confidant, perhaps even a daughter. It was difficult to tell others this. She was after all just a machine. But she was gone too. Lost with Nautilus. He supposed he would eventually recover. The program would not. It had been terminated.

The admiral ran his fingers absently across the embroiled letters of the cap.

“Fair winds and following seas,” he said. “I’ll miss you, Abraham Lincoln.”

Ben Plotkin is a physician in Southern California. He can be reached at

Featured Image: “Waterworld Part 2,” by Arthur Yuan (via Artstation)

Fiction Contest Week Kicks Off on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

Fiction Contest Week is finally here! For the next two weeks, CIMSEC will be running stories submitted in response to our Short Story Fiction Contest, launched in partnership with the U.S. Naval Institute as a part of Project Trident.

The CIMSEC-USNI call for short stories received a record-shattering 122 submissions, and turned into a hotly contested competition with no shortage of excellent writing. Finalists were ultimately selected by our panel of judges which included August Cole, David Weber, Larry Bond, Kathleen McGinnis, Peter Singer, and Ward Carroll. 

The winning stories will be jointly featured by the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings and CIMSEC. Additionally, the top 20 stories have been selected to be featured on CIMSEC’s Fiction Contest Week.

In these well-crafted stories of future maritime security and conflict, authors explore the art of the possible and the unexpected. Can advanced new warfighting technologies provide an edge, or will they prove a danger to their own operators? How may have history played out had world leaders chosen a different course? And will the warfighting concepts being touted today fare well in a future conflict, or will they collapse in the face of a determined adversary?

Below is a list of the articles and authors being featured, which will be updated with further stories as the CIMSEC Fiction Contest Week unfolds. 

Nautilus,” by Ben Plotkin
The Cost of Lies,” by Maj. Ian Brown, USMC
Front Row Seats In Tomorrow’s War,” by H I Sutton
Mischief and Mayhem,” by LtCol Robert Lamont, USMC (ret.)
Bandit,” by Brian Williams
In Sight of the Past,” by Capt. Patrick Schalk, USMC
Kill or Be Killed,” by Jim Dietz
Petrel,” by Dylan Phillips-Levine and Trevor Phillips-Levine
Awoken,” by Brent Gaskey
Wolfpack Four Six,” by Lieutenant Christopher Giraldi, USN

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: “Port” by Alexander Apeshin (via Artstation)

Sea Control 212 – China’s Galapagos Fishing Fleet with Dr. Tabitha Mallory & Dr. Ian Ralby

By Jared Samuelson

Do you have a question about the Chinese Distant Water Fishing Fleet? Several questions? They’re all getting answered. Here. In the next hour. Following their popular article for CIMSEC, Dr. Tabitha Mallory and Dr. Ian Ralby join the program to discuss the fishing fleet off the Galapagos, the enforcement challenge for Ecuador, the importance of flag states, policy recommendations, and lots more!

Download Sea Control 212 – China’s Galapagos Fishing Fleet with Dr. Tabitha Mallory & Dr. Ian Ralby


“Evolution of the Fleet: A Closer Look at the Chinese Fishing Vessels Off the Galapagos,” Dr. Tabitha Mallory and Dr. Ian Ralby, CIMSEC, October 19, 2020.

Jared Samuelson is the Executive Producer and co-host of the Sea Control Podcast. Contact him at

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.