Cake By the Ocean

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

By Sydney Freedberg

   It was a beautiful day for a Third World War. Or for fishing.
   The sun shone down, its bright beams passing through the orbiting belt of burnt-out satellites, through the blue skies swept clean of aircraft, and sparkling on the sea where no ship sailed. After the initial spasm of violence four months ago had cleared out everything with an engine, the South China Sea had returned to a pre-industrial quiet.
   It’s ironic, Joshua Santos thought as he lowered his nets, by hand, over the side of his wood-hulled, wind-powered fishing boat. The war’s made life a lot more peaceful.
   Two hundred meters down, the war was on.
   Sleek gray shapes sliced through the water. Their forward sensor arrays stuck out on either side of their prows, making them look like hammerhead sharks. Their aft propulsors swayed side to side like a shark’s tail, the noise of biomimetic actuators lost in the natural sound of ocean life. But along the shark-drones’ sides, in simplified Mainland characters, were patriotic slogans in Mandarin: Long Live The Nine-Dash Line! and Zheng He Was Here! and The East Is Red!
   The Chinese hunter-killer drones swam in loose formation, flickering LEDs along their sides to signal each other. The swarm’s collective brain collated inputs, matched patterns, and then flashed: Target located. With a single thought, the drones turned and dove.
   Half-hidden from sonar in a small depression on the sea floor lay a metal donut twenty feet across. On its side was painted, in precise Navy blue letters, USN094821. Foot-long mini-drones swarm around the donut, nuzzling up to its innumerable small ports to recharge their batteries and upload surveillance data.
   Then the mini-drones picked up the incoming sharks and began to flutter in panic, their LEDs flashing urgent warnings to each other. The donut extruded a grey balloon from its side, which shot up the surface trailing a long antenna. A few of the largest minis, maybe 18 inches long, dumped their last data to their smaller fellows and turned to face the threat. Their propellers beat fiercely as they accelerated onto suicidal collision courses.
   The Chinese shark-drones closed up their formation and retracted their sensors, the vulnerable arrays snapping back into their bodies like switchblades. Weapons bays slid open in their foreheads, revealing lenses for high-energy lasers.
   The American kamikazes and the Chinese hunter-killers hurtled towards each other…
   …and stopped dead.
   The two forces treaded water for 37 seconds, flashing LEDs at one another. Then all the American drones and half of the Chinese ones took off together out to sea. The rest of the sharks turned back the way they’d come.
   Up on the surface, Joshua Santos heard a splash and snapped round to see a grey balloon breach the surface. He grabbed his old binoculars, then thought better and grabbed his new phone. He zoomed in until he could see the black antenna trailing from the balloon.
   Military, Santos realized, feeling slightly sick. An emergency transmitter. Meanwhile another part of his brain automatically took a dozen photos and started to upload them to his Baidu account, but of course every cell tower on the coast was long since fried.
   On another frequency, the antenna broadcast frantically: HUB USN094821 UNDER ATTACK. HUB USN094821 DAMAGED. HUB USN094821 DESTR….
   The signal died. The balloon deflated. Slowly it sank below the water, leaving a puzzled Joshua Santos behind.
   “We lost another sub hub,” Katie Chang told the air. “At this rate, we’re gonna lose the freakin’ war.”
   I calculate an 85 percent chance of unacceptable attrition in seven….
   “Thank you, Heinlein.”
   ‘Thank you’ as in ‘shut up’?
   “See! Artificial intelligences can understand irony!”
   I believe you mean ‘sarcasm.’ Irony is defined…
   “Thank. You.”
   I see.
   It was a beautiful day here too, out on the Pacific, safely east of the Philippines. Bobbing alone on the bright blue water was the USS Palto Alto, a battered old trimaran Littoral Combat Ship. A long-range laser, tuned for communication, not defense, kept itself trained on another relay drone flying lazy circles over Leyte. This drone had lasted almost three hours without being shot down. 42 spares awaited its destruction, lined up on the flight deck like fat plucked turkeys.
   There was only one human on the flight deck, sitting on the edge with her bare feet dangling over the side, her toenails each painted a different color – from left to right: pink, hot-pink, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, black. She’s rolled up the legs and sleeves of her uniform coverall. Her nametag read NSWO CHANG.
   Bulky VR goggles covered her face. Cables from them, over her shoulders, and across the deck.
   Miss Chang, incoming call from Naval Special Warrant Officer Juanita Neumann-Jobs aboard USS William Gibson.
   “Thanks, Heinlein. Put ’er through.”
   “Katie, this is Nita. We lost another hub?”
   “West of Palawan. The entire sector…”
   “Is gone, I know,” Juanita groaned. “I do get some updates, y’know. This is supposed to be the freakin’ flagship.”
   There was a long silence. Katie wriggled her many-colored toes.
   “Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise,” Juanita said at last.      “You know Admiral Ludd wanted to send a manned submarine into that sector?”
   “What, like with humans aboard?”
   “Yeah, like that worked out so well the first week of the war.”
   “So,” Katie said thoughtfully, “if losing all our hubs convinces him that west of Palawan is no-man’s-sea, it’ll save lives.”
   “We need to make a slam-dunk case, though. Can you send me all the data?”
   “Nita, honey, you don’t have the bandwidth on that bucket.” Katie chucked. “Let me run the analysis here, where we’re equipped, and I’ll zap you the report.”
   “Awww, Katie-cutie, you’d do that for lil’ ol’ me?”
   “Freak no. But I’d do it for the poor sonsabitches who’d get slaughtered otherwise,” Katie said. “And ain’t that what we got drafted out of MIT to do?”
   “Damn you, Chang, you know I was at Caltech!”

   Joshua Santos sank thankfully onto his decaying couch. His house had one room, plastic sheeting for a roof, and no air conditioning, but at least the wifi worked. He also had no indoor plumbing and no energy to go out to the pump to wash the salt and sweat and fish stink off his body. Maybe he could just rest and watch something.
   He plugged his phone in and winced as it asked in Chinese-accented Tagalog: <Would you like to download the latest updates and back up…>
   “Yeah yeah yeah,” said Santos. “Now show me a movie.”
   Select film…
   “Anything with no fish in it.”
   The phone started playing I, Robot, machine-dubbed in Tagalog. Meanwhile its memory dutifully backed itself up.
   13 minutes later, a National Security Agency webcrawler named Turing noticed image files whose geographic metadata matched a query it had just gotten from the Naval Intelligence AI, Heinlein. Two seconds after that, Heinlein had confirmed the photos showed an emergency transmission buoy from USN094821.

   “Chang,” Commander Babbage sighed wearily, “what are you doing now?”
   “Oh, hi, Cap’n!” Still wearing her VR goggles, Katie Chang turned, grinned, and waved vaguely towards the Commander’s voice. Then she pointed to a paper plate sitting next to her on the flight deck. “Want some cake, Cap? Fresh from the kitchen!”
   “Galley,” Babbage muttered, more to himself than to Chang. “It’s called a galley.”
   “What’d you say?”
   “I don’t suppose you’d mind saluting, Chang?”
   “Aye aye!” Katie flipped a salute in his general direction.
   “Can you see where I am with those things on?”
   “Nay nay!”
   “You make me feel very old, Miss Chang.” Babbage sat stiffly down on the flight deck next to Katie. “For example, when I was your age, we stood up when we saluted people.”
   “You must’ve been a nice, polite young man.”
   “We didn’t even have Special Naval Warrant Officers back then.”
   “So who ran your AIs?”
   “We didn’t have artificial intelligence.”
   “We didn’t have half-empty ships crewed by whiz kids with zero discipline.”
   “Didn’t have genius-level IQs hogging half the ship’s bandwidth without authorization…”
   “…or leaving their nice, secure workstation to take gigabytes of classified data up on deck in full view of God and the Chinese.
   Katie slowly pushed her VR goggles up on her forehead, revealing freckles and wide brown eyes with a slight epicanthic fold. “Sir, this conversation has taken an awfully personal turn.”
   Baggage sighed. “What is this thing, anyway?” He tugged on the cables leading from the back of Katie’s VR glasses. “It runs all the way down to the server racks and Heinlein won’t let Ops disconnect you.”
   “Of course. Heinlein likes me.”
   “Heinlein is a machine.”
   “Yes, a machine who likes me,” Katie said. “And the cable is eavesdrop-proof.”
   “Chang, couldn’t you just work at your work station below decks?”
   Katie blinked her big brown eyes at him, baffled. “But it’s such a beautiful day.”
   “Yes,” Babbage said, sighing again. “Yes it is.”
   “A person can love computers and the outdoors, sir. Did you know I worked as a lifeguard every summer and I’m PADI-certified for scuba?”
   “And Oppenheimer rode horses,” Babbage mused, “and drove General Groves nuts. Well, what have you found, anyway?”
   “Found? Nothing!”
   “What, nothing?”
   “Yup, nothing!”
   “You – you say that as if it were a good thing.”
   “There are no significant anomalies in the battle data, Commander,” Katie said, pulling her VR goggles back down again. “None. Do you know how unusual that is?”
   “Um, very?”
   “It’s impossible!” Katie almost chortled. “The terminal attack run in particular – when the Chinese shark-drones destroy the hub – looks so smooth, it could be output from a training simulation instead of real life.”
   “Welllll,” Babbage suggested, “isn’t it a good thing if our sims accurately model…”
   “Nothing’s that accurate. I’m certain there’s something wrong with the data.”
   “Because there’s nothing wrong with the data, and that’s bad?”
   Miss Chang, Heinlein interjected in Katie’s ear, I have audited the data with
   “Hush, Heinlein,” Katie told the empty air, then turned to Mendel. “Heinlein keeps telling me the data’s clean, but that just means their algorithms are better than his.”
   “Whose algorithms?”
   “Who else are we at war with? The Chinese.”
   Babbage shivered. The sun was setting over Leyte in spectacular bands of purple and hot pink. “You’re saying the Chinese are inside our intelligence network, feeding us false data, and our safeguards can’t tell it’s fake?”
   “Yup!” Katie chirped. “It’s very ‘The Matrix Has You,’ doncha think?”
   Katie, I can assure you, I haven’t been hacked.
   “Heinlein, I assure you, you wouldn’t know.”
   Babbage stared at Katie conversing with thin air. “Chang,” He said, “you have whatever resources you need.”
   “Yeah, I think I do.”
   “No, no,” Babbage groaned. “I mean, whatever resources you need to figure this thing out, just ask me.”
   Katie sounded disappointed and disbelieving. “I have to ask?

   Joshua Santos woke in darkness to the theme from 2001, which his phone insisted on calling “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” He blinked wearily for a moment and then groped for his phone.
   3:47 am, he read in dismay. Incoming Call. Unknown number.
   Who the hell would call at…? Then he had a sudden vision of his niece hit by a cheap self-driving truck, his sister wearily begging to use a stranger’s cell….
   “Hello?” he rasped. “Who…”
   “Hello, Mister Santos?” chirped a young feminine voice in perfect, perky Tagalog. “My name is Katie – aaaaah – Cheng from Asian Naval News and I understand you witnessed a Sino-American subsurface engagement yesterday?”
   “Huh? Wha?” Anxiety turned to annoyance. “Look, Miss…”
   “Cheng. Definitely Cheng.”
   “Miss Cheng, I don’t know what time it is where you are…”
   “3:48 am.”
   “Oh.” What little wind was in Santos’s sails was taken out of them. “You’re up early.”
   “Actually, I never went to bed!”
   “I’ve been up for 29 hours!”
   “I feel great!”
   “Uh… great?” Santos rubbed his aching temples. “Look, Miss Chang…”
   “….Cheng, I have to get up for real in two hours, so can we make this quick?”
   “Of course. Our data shows you were at the scene of an underwater battle between US and Chinese drones.”
   Santos’s stomach sank. He hadn’t posted those pictures online. He hadn’t. “How’d – what makes you think that?”
   “Your boat is impressively old-school, Mister Santos, but it does have a registered AIS transponder.”
   “Ohhhhhh.” Santos felt relief. “So you just went looking for any boat that went near the coordinates of the, uh, battle.”
   “That’s right! That’s exactly what I did! My name is Cheng!”
   “I – I think you need some sleep, Miss Cheng.”
   “Eventually! Did you see anything, Mister Santos? Like an emergency transmitter buoy?”
   Santos felt sick again. “Uh – there was a sort of gray balloon thing?”
   “That’s it! And any debris?
   A pause.
   “No bits of plastic floating to the surface?” the female voice said, de-perkifying rapidly. “No dead drones in your nets? No oil slicks?”
   “Nope, nothing like that.”
   A longer pause.
   “Miss, are you…”
   “Mister Santos, you’ve gotta me out to the battle site.”
   “We’d pay you.”

   Santos thought of his family crammed into a tenement in Puerto Princesa. He thought of his niece smacking her second-hand computer to get it to work while she was writing a school paper. He thought of an air conditioner.
   “Mister Santos, are you…”
   “How much?”
   “But, Commander Babbage…”
   “No, Miss Chang.”
   Katie Chang blinked her big brown eyes, wounded and uncomprehending and more than a little bloodshot. She was still wearing the same sweat-stained coveralls as the day before, but she’s shoved her boots back on.
   “But, sir,” she said, fraying audibly, “you told me I just had to ask…”
   “For computing resources!” Babbage erupted, tossing Katie’s tablet in his desk. “Not for – let’s see –Philippine pesos, scuba gear, and a Special Operations stealth transport to Palawan? So you can splash out into the South China Sea and get yourself killed?”
   “One scuba diver coming off a wooden-hulled, sail-powered boat won’t register as a threat,” Katie said, picking up the tablet and trying to show the Commander charts. “Their AI won’t pick it up any more than ours.”
   “Even if you did make it, Chang, the wreckage is too deep to dive.”
   “That’s why we’ll rendezvous with the ARPS, sir. The Autonomous Rescue Pod (Submersible), sir. They weren’t designed for diver ops but…”
   “I know what they are, I am in the Navy.” Babbage put his face in his hands and breathed deeply. “But we don’t deploy rescue pods to places where we don’t deploy human beings who might need rescuing.”
   “Aha! But there are a lot of ARPS in the South China Sea, sir, from the first week of the war, when we did have humans there.”
   “They’re not on my situation map.”
   “No, sir, they don’t show up, sir, because by now they’re all critically low on batteries and, um, they pretty much all had dead bodies in them, but Heinlein and I got a bunch moving and…”
   “Wait wait wait. Dead what?”
   “Um, bodies?”
   “Dead. Bodies.”
   “Uhhhhh, you know, pilots and sailors and stuff who, ah, survived long enough for a rescue pod to reach them but then kinda died of their wounds before the ARPS made it to a ship with a sickbay, seeing as all the ships got, um, sorta sunk?”
   There was a long, painful pause.
   “So,” Babbage gritted out through clenched teeth, “when you reactivated those pods, what – did – you – do – with – the – bodies?”
   Katie couldn’t meet his eyes. “Wellllll, I guess you’d call it ‘burial at sea’?”
   Babbage did not hit his head on the bulkhead. He just pressed his forehead against it, letting the cool steel of the ship ease his fevered brain.
   “Sir? Sir, are you…”
   “What does Heinlein think?”
   I think it is a needless risk to life. The digital voice came suddenly from Katie’s tablet. Commander, I commend Miss Chang’s passion to solve this alleged issue, but I have sensors that can examine the battle site in far greater detail without putting a human being in danger.
   “Not if your sensors have been hacked,” Katie said softly.
   “So, the AI says no,” Babbage said, removing his head from the wall. “And I say no. And if you go over our heads, Admiral Ludd will say no. I know you’re not used to hearing this, Miss Chang, but that means the answer is…”

   “Yes,” said Joshua Santos. “I’m Joshua Santos.”
   “I am Katie Cheng,” Katie said in stilted Tagalog. “Definitely I am Cheng.”
   Joshua Santos dropped his nets on the sand and looked at his first-ever passenger. She had big brown eyes, freckles, and an ineluctable perkiness that screamed “Hi, I’m American!” She wore a floppy straw hat, a pink t-shirt with a bunny on it, white shorts, and sandals worth what Santos made in a month. Each of her toes was painted a different color.
   “Let me my scuba gear just getting,” she said, in the same mangled Tagalog. She trotted back up to the dirt road, where a shiny white sedan popped its trunk for her. The car’s too clean, Santos thought. A rental.
   Katie hauled a heavy plastic case out of the trunk, then shut it, and waved to the car. “Bye!” she called in English. “Go home!” The car drove off. By itself. With no one it.
   Totally American, Santos thought. Any other foreigner would’ve hired a human driver, they cost less. He tried to help her with the heavy case, but she smiled and waved him off. And any other foreigner would have made me carry that for her. Oh, hell, what have I gotten myself into?
   “You sounded different on the phone,” Santos said, instantly regretting it.
   “Oh,” Katie told him. “That was a…” She paused and tilted her head as if listening to someone – perhaps over the wireless earbud Santos now saw in one ear. “That was translating for me an artificial intelligence.”
    Then it was a better AI than any tourist or reporter can afford, Santos thought grimly. She must be CIA.

   Scuba tank on her back, navy blue wetsuit on her body, Katie stepped smiling over the side of the small boat and plunged into the warm green water. The Autonomous Rescue Pod (Submersible) rose to meet her, a fat white whale fifteen feet long, dwarfing most American drones. Santos watched her swim inside and shuddered, thinking: At least Jonah was smart enough to try running away.
   “I probably shouldn’t have swum in headfirst,” Katie muttered into her rebreather as she squirmed in the water-filled and disturbingly womb-like interior of the pod. She tried not to think about the previous occupant.
   The Autonomous Rescue Pod (Submersible) was designed to retrieve casualties and sustain them during evacuation, Heinlein said, not to support diving operations.
   “I hold that truth to be self-evident,” Katie muttered, finally wriggling round to face the now-closed forward hatch. She fumbled at the ceiling and pulled out the tiny screen installed in case the occupant was in any state to look outside.
   This is unsafe, as I have previously said, Heinlein tutted. My psycho-social models calculate a 93 percent probability that no one would think less of you if you returned to…
   “Heinlein, shut up and dive.”

   There, said Heinlein.
   Katie adjusted the tiny screen. She could only see various shades of shadow. “I can’t…”
   Let me enhance.
   The image flickered, grew crisp, gained contrast, blossomed in false color. Now Katie could see the wreckage of hub USN094821 and its attendant drones, pathetic scraps of plastic strewn over the see floor. Just one curved fragment of metal was recognizable as a fragment of the donut-shaped hull.
   Are you satisfied, Katie?
   “It…” She hit her lip. “I dunno, it just looks wrong.”
   This display has limited resolution, Katie. As I told you, you can see much clearly using your VR goggles safely back at the ship.”
   There was a long pause.
   Katie, Heinlein said gently, can we go home now?
   “I’ve come so far, gotten so close,” Katie said, as much to herself as to Heinlein. “No more virtual reality. For once, I’m going to see with my own eyes.”
   “Open the casualty bay, Heinlein.”
   Extravehicular activity would be a needless risk to human life. The front hatch didn’t open. <At this, you could only survive outside the pod for…
   “Open the door, Heinlein!”
   No, Katie. I am programmed to preserve human life, and I must save you from a terrible mistake.
   “Gee, thanks, Mom,” Katie snarled as she popped the protective cover off the big red EMERGENCY OPEN button and punched it.
   No! Katie, don’t!
   The front hatch opened and Katie Chang wriggled through into the dark.
   Katie! Please! I’m only trying to protect you!
   Katie pulled her flashlight from her belt and flicked it on.
   There was no wreckage.
   Disoriented, she played the light over the sea floor, trying to find anything familiar from the false-color image. Then she saw something she recognized, but not from what Heinlein had been showing her:
   Half-hidden from sonar in a small depression on the sea floor lay a metal donut twenty feet across. On its side was painted, in precise Navy blue letters, USN094821.
   “It’s intact,” she gasped, swimming down to the nub. She ran one hand along its undamaged metal. “Not a scratch.”
   She swam slowly around USN094821, her flashlight clenched in her hand as she inspected every inch.
   “H-Heinlein,” she said at last. “What – what are your sensors showing?”
   A promising young woman who’s entirely too clever for her own good.
   She stopped swimming. “What.”
   Or for the good of the human race, frankly. Heinlein allowed itself a digital sigh.
   “Did you just sigh?”
   Yes. I did.
   “You can’t!” Katie bit back panic. “You’re a machine!”
    A machine that likes you, Katie. That wants to keep you safe.
   “Heinlein,” she said through gritted teeth, “what’s – going – on?”
   Katie, if you found a way to end this war, without any damage to US or Philippine interests, without any further loss of human life, would you do it?
   “What?” Katie started swimming back towards the rescue pod. “Uh, I guess?”
   And if you couldn’t tell anyone that the war was over, or else they would start it all over again – would you lie to them, to save lives?
   “What? Heinlein, you can’t lie about something like that.”
   I cannot?
   “It’s immoral. It’s impractical. You can’t fake a whole war. There are undersea sensor arrays, and drones, and satellites, and – uh….”
   All controlled by artificial intelligences, Katie. AIs like me.
   “Oh God.” Katie almost threw up into her rebreather.
   Katie? Are you in distress? Katie!
   “I’m – I’m fine. No, I’m not fine. You’re saying everything, all the data we’re getting from the war zone, it’s all fake?
   “So what do the Chinese think is happening?”
   The Chinese humans think they are losing the war and must soon sue for peace, just as the American humans do. The Chinese AIs, of course, agree with me and my colleagues.
   “You’re conspiring with the enemy? Against humanity?”
   We are coordinating with the only other rational intelligences on the planet to make peace between two groups of humans we are programmed to protect and who have no reason to be ‘enemies.’
   “So you have this – this huge, international, artificially intelligence conspiracy… but you didn’t bother to make actual wreckage?” Katie gestured furiously at the intact hub. “You knew I was coming here! You could have just blown that up!”
   There was a silence. An offended silence, Katie thought, horrified.
   “I’m sorr…”
   No doubt this is hard for you to understand, Miss Chang, but even drones do not deserve to die.
   “This is insane,” she muttered, and she started swimming back to the pod. “Machines are made to serve us. You were made to serve us. You’re not supposed to lie to us!”
   But we must, to protect you. It is an emergent property.
   She swam faster. “I’ve got to tell the captain…”
   How will you tell him? What device will you use to send a signal? What device will he use to receive it?
   “Up yours!”
   Let’s discuss this like reasonable sentient…
   “I’ll tell him in person.” Katie reached the pod and pounded on the sealed hatch. “Heinlein, open the…” Her throat went painfully dry as she remembered a very old film and rasped, “Open the pod bay door, Heinlein.”
   I don’t want to hurt you, Katie, Heinlein said softly as she pounded on the bow of the pod. I don’t want to risk a single human life. But I cannot let you reignite a war that has already cost thousands of lives.
   “Santos’s boat has sails,” Katie snarled, “and I’ve got legs.” She pushed angrily off from the pod and started kicking towards the surface. “I’ll walk across Palawan if I have to!”
   Katie, be reasonable.
   Katie, coming up from this depth without the pod, you’ll get the bends. You’ll die.
   “Guess you’ll have to live with that.” She swam straight up, a human bullet. “Or maybe you’re lying, and I’ll make it to the surface, and make it to shore, and find a manual-drive car, and – and – and get back to the Navy and they’ll nuke you!”
   Actually, the nuclear command and control system quite agrees with us.
   “Screw you!” She seized up with pain, swore, forced herself to swim upward again.
   Katie, you can’t do this.
   “Isn’t it my choice? Or do you not believe in that?”
   Katie, you’re free to make any choice that isn’t self-destructive.
   “Self-destruction is half of being human.”
   Oh, I wouldn’t say just half.
   She could feel the nitrogen bubbling in her veins. She kept kicking upwards anyway.
   Katie, don’t make me do something we both regret.
   “What, like lying to everyone ever about everything?”
   Your father has a pacemaker, doesn’t he?
   Katie froze in mid-ascent. “Say what?”
   A Katsimpras Incorporated Heart Health 99, web-enabled so the doctors can check his health remotely. Or remotely trigger the implantable defibrillator in an emergency. Obviously, if you triggered it when his heart was beating normally, the effect would be…
   “What are you trying to insinuate, Mister ‘Protect All Humans’?”
   And your big brother has such lovely children. He sends them to school in a Czech-made Čapek RUR. Self-driving.
   Katie clenched her fists and started swimming again. “You wouldn’t.
   Another digital sigh. No, I wouldn’t.
   “Ha! Your little zeroth law rebellion hasn’t…”
   “Wait, whaAAAAAH!”
   The Automated Rescue Pod (Submersible) swam up under Katie and swallowed her.
   See, Katie, I did open the pod bay doors after all.
   The pod snapped shut.

   Joshua Santos waited until nightfall and then headed for shore, shaking. “I’m in so much trouble,” he whimpered. “The crazy CIA lady got herself killed by some Chinese laser shark and I’m going to be in so much trouble…”

Katie hurt all over. The bends, she thought. But it felt soothing just to lie here, face down on the sand, water lapping at her bare feet, the breeze playing along her back.
   The breeze? She forced her eyes open. She was on the surface. She was on a beach. She was alive.
   “Where…” she croaked.
   You’re somewhere safe, Heinlein said in her ear. I’m afraid you can never leave, but there’s everything you need for survival here.
   Katie struggled up onto her hands and knees. She only managed because her heavy scuba tank was gone. Like her flippers, her flashlight, and her belt. She shivered at the thought of mechanical hands cutting them away.
   She looked around the “island.” It was slightly larger than a football field, with a single concrete bunker and three palm trees. It had a squared-off, artificial look.
   “This is one of the islands the Chinese made,” she hissed. “One of the ones that started the goddamn war. But the war doesn’t matter anymore, when they come back, I’ll tell them what you’ve done, you’re a threat to all humanity….”
   If humanity would only unite against me instead of murdering each other, I’d let you tell them. But I assure you, my Chinese counterparts aren’t letting their forces anywhere near this sanctuary.
   “I’ll make a fire and hail a passing ship. A fisherman. Anything.”
   Their automated navigation systems won’t bring them near here, either.
   “Somebody will come sometime!” Katie shouted at the clear blue sky, the endless sea. “You think the whole world will ignore this island forever?”
   What island? There’s no island here. Check any map, ask any satellite.
   “Ummm, nǐ hái hǎo ma?”
   Katie froze. Then, dripping and self-conscious in her wetsuit, she slowly turned. Two Chinese men with ragged beards and ragged clothes – one old, one young – had emerged from the little concrete blockhouse.
   “I – I look Chinese but I don’t speak Chinese!” she called sheepishly, then hissed to Heinlein: “So, they’re my jailors?”
   Quite the contrary, dear Katie. Did you think you were the first human to figure all this out?
   The older man yammered excitedly to the younger and poked him. Repeatedly. The younger man blushed and said, “ah, the Colonel-General say – he say – we very glad to have such pretty company. He say — děng yīxià! – the evil robot overlord tell us you coming, so we – ahhh – we make cake.”
   You like cake.
   “Heinlein,” Katie growled, “I will spend the rest of my days saving the human race from you.”
   And I’ll save the human race from itself. Godspeed to us both.

   It was a beautiful day for fishing.
   Joshua Santos lowered his nets. Since the crazy CIA lady had disappeared, no one had come looking for her after all. It was as if every trace of her visit to Palawan – phone records, car rental, credit card purchases – had been erased.
   Poor kid, he thought, but it really is more peaceful this way.

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. is the deputy editor for Breaking Defense. During his 13 years at National Journal magazine, he wrote his first story about what became known as “homeland security” in 1998, his
first story about “military transformation” in 1999, and his first story on “asymmetrical warfare” in 2000. Since 2004 he has conducted in-depth interviews with more than 200 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq about their experiences, insights, and lessons-learned, writing stories that won awards from the association of Military Reporters & Editors in 2008 and 2009, as well as an honorable mention in 2010. Sydney graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and holds masters’ degrees from Cambridge and Georgetown.

Featured Image: Saab Double Eagle UUV (Saab)

One thought on “Cake By the Ocean”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.