The following is an entry for the CIMSEC & Atlantic Council Fiction Contest on Autonomy and Future War. Winners will be announced 7 November.
By Scott Cheney-Peters
“Sarah,” I intoned gravely. “Stop it.”
Her toddler feet dangled off the front of the pushchair’s foot rest, acting as a drag anchor. I gave the pushchair a trial shove to judge the effect of my words. It moved freely, and we rolled onward through the brisk autumn air of Kensington Gardens.
“I mean, it’s an awful mess,” Paula said. “I don’t see how they’ll be able to find temps to keep things running when both Jenna and Granderson are out on parental leave.”
“They aren’t thinking of using one of the services, are they?” I asked.
“Oh sure, but of course that’s the fear; once the thing’s in place and all learned up why not keep it? Cost a goodly deal less. The fear of Jenna and Granderson anyway, which naturally means they haven’t moved to select their own replacements.”
“Sarah!” The feet again. We came to a halt as she clapped her toddler hands.
“Look! Look! A duck!” she exclaimed, pointing at a pigeon.
“No,” Paula reminded her. It was the thousandth round of Sarah’s game of Pigeon-as-Duck. “That’s a pigeon.”
“Duck!” she shouted again with a wry grin as we moved on. Within minutes the Albert Memorial loomed in front of us. I think it was Paula who told me once the thing was done up in a Gothic style. But to my eyes it would have been at home with the jungles of Southeast Asia. The central steeple, supporting spires, and arched gables all overflowed in ostentatious detail, bringing to mind the stupas I’d glimpsed during my time with the Royal Marines. Paula hadn’t scoffed at the comment, noting the memorial included a small elephant sculpture. It also marked a sharp turn towards the inner heart of the park, a path becoming an annual pilgrimage; a day of remembrance.
“So their department is exploring its options,” Paula added as a postscript. “But it’s going so slowly I wonder if it’ll be worth turning over the HR decisions to one of those…” Paula’s eyes went wide as her voice trailed off with the knowledge she’d stumbled onto treacherous ground. “Things,” she concluded.
My eyes began to well. It was sooner than last year.
Paula stopped and turned to me. “Cyrus, I’m sorry,” she whispered. We were both relieved when Sarah provided a distraction.
“Look!” she jabbed the air. “Look! A horsey!”
“No, Sarah.” I sniffled and smiled. “That’s a police dog. Remember? It’s not real.” I took a deep breath and pushed off again. Leaning towards Paula I said “It’s okay. I really appreciate you’re coming with…please tell me if it’s awkward.” Before Paula could respond however we saw something fly up in front of us. A shoe.
“Do not take your shoes off, lass,” I hissed in staccato, mustering as many notes of stern father as I could. Last month we discovered their absence only after returning from a trip to the grocer’s. These were a new pair.
“Cyrus…” Paula nodded towards the dog. It had stopped its patrol and stood motionless. I felt an involuntary shudder travel from head to toe. The large, four-legged creature was the size of a Saint Bernard and painted gunmetal grey except for the faux uniform of a Metropolitan Police officer and a squad car’s neon blue-and-yellow checkered stripe running horizontally along its midsection. Paula, an account manager in her firm’s design department, said it testified to a muddled mind, leaving unresolved whether the thing should embody creature or machine, blend in or stand out.
Most thought them a curiosity, and liked that they kept the parks clear of animal droppings. I thought they were an abomination. But most didn’t have my history. For now it was motionless and appeared to be watching us, but of course, one could never tell. In the place where a living dog’s head would be was its Citizen Interaction Panel, covering an array of hidden sensors. On the face of the panel I caught a faint reflection of our family grouping.
“Hi, sorry, just dealing with the little one,” I offered, inclining my head towards Sarah as I handed her back her shoe. She started playing with the Velcro strap. That’s when I noticed the other shoe hanging precariously on her toes. A strong kick sent it flying.
“Sarah!” I yelled as Paula dove for the wayward discard.
“Good morning,” a startlingly upbeat voice emanated from the dog. “I would like to remind you that littering is a breach of Royal Parks Regulations and carries a financial penalty.” It sauntered towards us.
“Yes, yes, sorry again. I don’t think you understand,” I said, failing to keep the edge out of my voice. “We’re dealing with a toddler here…”
“To understand further,” it interjected, voice recognition software keying in on the word I’d emphasized. “Littering is a breach of the 1997 Royal Parks and Other Open Spaces Regulations, as amended in 2022, and carries a penalty of €150.” As the dog inched closer, the Panel displayed a large font-scrolling text of the speech in case we were hearing impaired.
“Okay, we’ve got it,” Paula said. “Thank you.” The dog was beginning to turn when the other shoe dropped, or more accurately, flew into view in a graceful arc. It clanked off the top of the dog’s back and rolled to the ground with a thud.
“Alice!” I yelled, a synapse firing a deep-seated unconscious response from my childhood. Just as suddenly the dog reared back on its hind legs, facing us.
“Cease immediately.” The chipper voice was gone, replaced by booming robotic commands. “Your actions have been recorded and will be adjudicated in accordance with the law. It is unlawful to strike an officer in the performance of its duties. Continued aggression will incur further penalties. Leaving the scene without confirming identification will incur further penalties.”
“But we did nothing of the sort!” As I half stepped towards the dog in my plea, Paula gripped my arm to keep me in place. Sarah shrank back in her seat.
“Do you wish to speak with a supervisor?” No longer detecting danger, the dog’s voice was seamlessly gliding towards conviviality as it shifted back to a four-legged presence. I thought I could almost detect an artificial note of sadness in its timbre.
“Yes,” said Paula. “I think that would be wise.”
“Please confirm identification: Cyrus and Paula Percy, 207 Old Marylebone Road?” Our drivers’ licenses appeared side-by-side on the panel.
“Yes, that’s correct, and we’re here with our 2-year-old. She’s the one that threw the shoe,” Paula explained to the reflective void. “Very sorry about that.”
A square-bordered icon for a phone appeared on the panel. “Please wait for the connection. Estimated wait time is 1 hour and 15 minutes.”
“Oh for the love of…!” I had an urge to throw the shoe myself.
“Cyrus, let’s just move on.” Paula grabbed me tighter, anticipating my boiling anger. She nodded towards Sarah, who was beginning to remove her socks.
“All right, cancel. Cancel connection. We’ll just figure this out later, in writing.” I said and felt my phone vibrate. I knew it was an email with a summary of the interaction and options for contesting or pleading our case. But I could deal with it later. We had other matters to attend to.
Once the dog was out of view and Sarah’s socks and shoes back on we resumed our trek in silence, listening only to the crunch of the gravel underfoot and the huff of passing joggers, lost in the world of their AR visors. Paula walked next to me and placed his hand on mine as we walked. I elbowed him and inclined my head towards Sarah’s dangling legs. She checked under the hood and reported back drooping eyelids in imitation. I empathized; the interaction with the dog had taken its toll on a day already exhausting with somber meaning.
At last the 2nd Falklands War Memorial came into view. On the far side of the Long Water separating Kensington Gardens from Hyde Park, opposite the Peter Pan statue, an oversized curving black bench stretched along the lake. As we walked, reflections of the fallen were visible in the water, seated upside down on the water-logged bench. In the depth a man in fatigues looked up with a proud smile. Another step and I locked eyes with the shimmering reflection of a weary-looking nurse. There were dozens, 134 in all, names and ranks engraved in bronze on the edge of the path. But it was just past the 5th stanchion that I caught the visage of a woman in an aviator’s jumpsuit, helmet in her lap. My Alice. Paula had offered to explain the optics of it, the secrets of the Dutch artist who’d been commissioned, but I preferred the mystery of it. It was beautiful. It was haunting. Today, as usual, it was too much. The tears began to flow.
The MoD had given assurances that the fight against the forces of Argentina’s coup government would be a cakewalk. Yet when it became clear China was covertly backing their actions, even using the conflict to test experimental kit, the Yanks stepped up with gear of their own. Alice’s F/A-18 Super Hornet was one of these borrowed toys. Hers was designated a tanker for refueling support to the air wing’s strike group, then assembling in the skies over the South Atlantic for its mission against the Port Stanley fortifications. She had just launched and climbed to altitude from the Queen Elizabeth, joining her wingman with a full load of gas, when the Task Group lost HMS Plymouth in a Maelstrom of drones amd ordinance.
The Task Group Commander, aboard Queen Elizabeth and staring at the inbound radar returns of likely second and third drone swarms, judged the situation as unraveling faster than any human mind could resolve. He then made the fateful choice to set the decision-making functions of the integrated command and control system to ‘full auto.’
What happened next is a matter of public record. In Parliamentary hearings after the war, pilots described the disorienting sensation like racecars driver in the midst of turn suddenly finding themselves on an amusement park ride with instruments only for show. I wondered, had Alice had experienced the same bewilderment and loss of control?
Most of the assembled strike group held back as some of the unmanned aircraft skirmished at the perimeter, but Alice and her wingman’s Super Hornets shot forward, afterburners blazing away toward the oncoming storm. Close on their tails were two air-to-air missiles. As the rest of the aircraft and ships began emitting electronic countermeasures and firing chaff and mini decoy drones, the lone Super Hornets approached the front edge of the foes. In the next second they were gone, detonating in brilliant fireballs of oranges and reds, the missiles having found their marks. The blasts succeeded in sucking in the heat-seeking metal multitude, having been calculated to precede the swarms’ dispersal for a multi-axis attack. Our AI had defeated the Argentines’. And my wife was dead.
In private, several asked whether I thought her sacrifice was any less meaningful as it had not come of her own volition. I thought the question asinine.
There were other casualties, of course. During the hearings, whilst MPs alternated between exaltations of the war’s success and railing against the lack of foresight in the command and control software’s scope, my attention was drawn to the faces of those sitting in the visitor’s galleries with me. Those afflicted with a similar pain were hard to miss.
We were given assurances that safeguards would be in place in the future. The terms “man-in-the-loop” and “pre-cleared range of action” were bandied about. In theory, simulations would crunch the numbers on operational scenarios and present as many possible permutations of action to mission commanders for pre-approval. But I knew from the Royal Marines that no predictions of future war could truly anticipate the infinite combinations of an equally infinite range of variables. A columnist in The Guardian noted the command and control AI’s programmers would therefore “likely have to turn to machine learning to ‘sense’ the acceptable boundaries of ethical action.” Count me skeptical.
“Have you talked to her?” Paula spoke at my side. She meant Alice’s mother. We hadn’t exchanged words in a year. After the war I had to move on, and two years later I met Paula. When we’d married she thought it a betrayal and declined to attend the wedding. I’d made the choice of my own free will, but I also knew it’s what Alice would have wanted.
I shook my head and sighed.
Ducks glided across the face of the lake sending ripples through the image of Alice. “Look! Look!” Sarah squealed, having apparently returned to consciousness. “A duck!” she said, pointing at a pigeon by her feet.
“Come on.” I said. “Let’s go home.” Then to Sarah, “What do you think about getting a real dog?”
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 supporting the Navy’s strategy office, and a Truman National Security Project fellow. The work is piece of fiction and does not reflect the views or positions of any of his affiliated organizations.*
*Due to CIMSEC affiliation this piece was not under consideration during the judging process and is published along with all other pieces submitted in response to the Fiction Contest call for articles.
Featured Image: U.S. Navy unmanned surface vehicle NUWC-4 (Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Scott Youngblood/U.S. Navy)