Container of Lies

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

By Austin Reid

   Rotterdam – Container terminal  July 25th

   “Did you catch the match last night?” – Mark offered as he lifted his coat onto his shoulders
   “No, I missed it. It was Kathy and I’s anniversary, so we hit the town.” Jonas happily remarked as he recalled the evening.
   “Ah well you didn’t miss much, it was a turkey shoot. 4 – 0 over Russia”
   It was the second round of the world cup and Jonas wasn’t much of a football fan, but he figured he could root for his host nation, Germany.
   “lets get a pint for the next one?”
   “Sounds like a plan, see you tomorrow!”
   Mark opened the door and headed for the stairs down to the lot where his sedan was parked.

   Jonas, one of the superintendent’s on rotation for this facility, returned to the task at hand. He had an orchestra to conduct. For the next 12 hours he would be monitoring the loading of the Maersk Okinawa. One of the newer “O Class” vessels from the yards in China. It was a marvel of engineering, purpose built to reach more ports across the globe and capable of carrying 15,000 TEU’s (Twenty foot Equivalent Unit, most containers in circulation are forty Foot Units). Traditionally this process had been a massive undertaking, with dozens of longshoremen chaotically moving amongst the dock, bringing cargo into the holds of a ship by hand over wooden gangways. That time had passed, at least in this part of the world. Since the creation of the container decades ago, the world had slowly adopted it as the preferred method for packaging goods across the seas. Now loading ships was all coordinated with computers and overhead gantry cranes. Thousands of containers could be clerked, hoisted and loaded in hours and days instead of weeks of loading the same amount of cargo by hand by hand. Economies of scale had brought forth massive ships hauling treasure and bounty at an unprecedented level back forth from kingdom to kingdom. By the early 2000’s 95% of the world’s goods reached end consumers via the sea-lanes.

   Jonas sat at the desk and plugged his phone cable into the computer tower. His cell phone was nearly dead and the cable wasn’t long enough to be useful attached to the wall, and besides he had lost the adapter a few days prior. He powered on the phone and began his work routine. He logged into his computer and opened his Terminal Operation System or “TOS” and keyed up the file and stow plan for the current vessel.






// NOR TENDERED JULY 25th 0700hrs ZULU



// 5,439 containers to be loaded onto ship

// Past 24hrs MPH AVG 165 —

ETC JULY 27th 1000hrs ~

   “We only had 165 containers an hour last shift?” – Jonas scoffed
   He would have to check with Mark tomorrow over that football match. There must have been an issue with a crane. He was certain the last vessel averaged 180+ Moves Per Vessel hour. Crane 2 had that finicky rail segment that he had sent a memo to his supervisor about last week.
   That may have been the hold up? He made a note to check the log latter to see if there was a mechanical failure. He knew that they would both answer for any slow downs in production.
   “Time is money” his supervisor always said
   The short Indian man was a good boss, but Jonas knew he would replace him in a heartbeat if it meant getting a higher MPH. That was the downside of performance based compensation and benefits in management.
   Maybe they would send him to Mombasa? Jonas half jokingly thought to himself.
   Jonas put the thought of being reassigned or fired from his mind and continued with the operation. Before him 3 cranes and a seemingly endless yard of containers were playing a nearly silent ballet. At face value the operation appeared monotonous. Even so Jonas enjoyed his work, he saw it as a puzzle of sorts, a maddening game of Tetris that kept the world running.

   Jonas was unaware that as he booted up the computer, his phone charger opened up the floodgates. The TOS was “air gapped” and did not have a direct connection to the internet. This wasn’t an intentional security measure. The old facility had been acquired in a buyout of the original shipping company and the system had yet to be replaced with state of the art equipment. The computer operating system was a decade behind what Jonas had at his home, and had not received updates in ages. Even so, Jonas had just given up the keys to the castle and he was none the wiser.

   The USB dongle on his charger was loaded with malware that extracted itself to the computer system the TOS ran from. The dongle had been swapped for the original while Jonas bought coffee at the local internet cafe a few weeks prior. It was one of dozens that had been created for the purpose of infiltrating this facility, and countless more across the globe. Once the malware was installed the phone acted as a transceiver of sorts for the hacker who sought control of the system. If the hacker wished, they could capsize the ship at its berth, drain hydraulic lines to break the cranes from within, or in this case simply load certain containers to specific spots aboard the vessel. This latter option was preprogramed into the dongle and was initialized immediately. Even to the most experience stevedore or container operator, there would be no visible issue. The “hack” simply moved a few containers around in the stow plan. With thousands of containers to be loaded, the system decided the best position for each container based on its characteristics and end port. There was a good chance no one would ever find out how it had happened even after it was all over. The malware would simply lay dormant until it was triggered again or discovered. All after it was too late.

   A few hundred meters away in the yard, a nondescript container was loaded onto the ship. It was placed on the exterior row, 4 containers high. Minutes later another container of the same origin was loaded on the opposite side of the vessel in the different location. 8 containers high. This dance of fixing the location of specific containers went on into the night until 15 similar containers were loaded in strategic locations around the ship, all predetermined by the malware.

   Jonas continued to oversee the loading from his terminal oblivious, to the nefarious device he had connected to the system. All things considered, it was an uneventful shift.

   11 hours later Jonas unplugged his phone, replaced the cable into his pocket, and stood. His relieve Anton was just walking up the stairs to the office. His shift was over. They exchanged pleasantries, and Jonas updated him on the progress made. The vessel would complete cargo operations in 18 hours. Upon completion the Okinawa would sail for Virginia.


Maersk Okinawa, Underway — July 30

   An amber light flashed on the terminal.
   He looked up and saw a whale swimming with its calf 4000 meters ahead off the starboard bow.
   The outline of whales was illuminated with a arcade like green line.
   Max manually turned the heading dial to 187*, the ship began to alter course.
   A small pod of whales had jaunted into the path of the Maersk Okinawa.
   He knew they would dive before their courses met but Max wanted to be sure.
   Had he not turned the dial, the program would have issued a course correction automatically.
   Max still had a rebellious spirit and wanted to feel some control.
   The last thing he needed on his record was a “Biologic Strike.”
   Men had their careers ended over such occurrences, and with Max just beginning his; he had no intentions of ending the party early.
   It was his third shift in solo command and Max had finally finished his probationary term as a licensed Merchant Marine officer.
   The vessel slid through the water continuing on course 187* at a smooth 14knts
   Beneath the water the whales continued their dance and hunted in the Maersk’s wake for krill and plankton.


“There is something missing from this…” Max thought aloud


   Only the calm silence of the office responded.

   No cold sea breeze, no gulls sounding off in the distance, just the hum of the climate control system and the buzz from his computer terminal and monitors.

   He knew he was judged by his peers for “selling out.”
   His instructors at the academy had warned him he would grow complacent without feeling the ocean beneath him. He actually felt like he was at sea, the monitors and the artificial horizon made the room feel as if it were in motion. Yet he was still, and so was the room.
   Max was in an office complex in Houston Texas.

   The young idealistic man brushed his critics off as jealous.
   The compensation was generous, just like most seafaring officer positions he thought. Except this one let him go home every night and be with his wife, he and his new bride were fresh returned from their honeymoon in Grand Cayman.

  Most of his peers and many young Merchant Officers were bachelors, and the sea was their only mistress. Every new foreign port brought its own new level of shenanigans.
   Not for Max, he had sold out. That was one thing he was certain and happy to have sold out for.

   Max had spent his childhood looking to the sea. Yearning for the mysteries it sheltered. He had thought he had found his calling as a mariner. Destined for the open waters of the world oceans.

   But only 5 years removed from his initial voyage into the beyond on a commercial ship he found himself sitting tethered to a machine, guiding a steel beast via satellite. 5 years ago, during his freshman year at California University Maritime Academy, the public was just beginning to come to terms with the idea of ships sailing without full crews.

   Using similar technology that the military had pioneered in the early UAV programs, the marine shipping industry began to experiment with the technology. The second collapse of the global economy in early 2017 scrambled most of the shipping community. Titans of the industry fell. Hanjin shipping was the first domino in the queue to tip. Once the survivors began to pick up the pieces, they sought a way for technology to make the semi archaic business modern. Our computerized and globalized economy still needed to get goods across the oceans, so ship owners looked to cut costs and ensure favorable charter. Their answer was unmanned cargo ships. The technology was there; it just needed a bit more nurturing.

   The final hurdle following the development of the technology was crossed in the spring of Max’s freshman year when the United Nations convened UNCOAUTS, or United Nations Convention on Autonomous or Unmanned Trade and Shipping. (Pronounced “UN- COATS”). UNCOAUTS was convened after the Terror Attack involving the Hellenic Queen in the Straits of Malacca. Andres Torres, a renegade merchant captain and his crew from the Philippines wrecked their vessel and scuttled the ship with demo charges just outside of the shipping lanes. Torres and crew were killed in a firefight and subsequent detonation of the ship while fighting with Filipino Navy Seals. The crude from the ship spoiled the waters and killed scores of wildlife. Merchant traffic had to be redirected while the spill was contained and managed. The local fishing economy was crippled. The scale of such a disaster hadn’t been seen since Deep Water Horizon and Exon Valdez. The fact a cell directed by Abu Sayyaf had perpetrated it baffled intelligence leaders and shipping magnates alike. The marine industry had been relatively sheltered in the previous decades of terror and turmoil. World Leaders wanted answers, and they wanted the human element out. Every major news network rushed to the scene to broadcast the devastation into every home around the globe. This played into the hands of the major shipping conglomerates, who all wanted their “drone ships” to enter the shipping lanes. Within weeks, all the major world maritime powers adopted UNCOAUTS. The stage was set for the drones to sail.

   Max looked out across the “bridge” of the ship. He was surrounded with 180* field of view that rose into a dome 10 feet above him. He had enough room to pace across his make shift command center but preferred to sit and control from his seated post.

   Max adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose. They weren’t average reading spectacles.
   These were the coolest glasses Max had ever worn he thought, except for maybe that one hog hunting trip two winters back with his buddy on seal contract. What was that little night vision monocle rig called? PVS 14?  Max trailed off remembering how they bagged 15 hogs that night thanks to what his mother referred to as those “fancy glasses”…

   These low profile glasses weren’t as useful for hunting, but they were essential to manage the voyage.
   The glasses served as his connection to the system. He could quickly determine the status of anything happening on the ship. The temperature of the engines, the speed, course, wind, wave height and range, the list goes on. Max wasn’t truly in control of the 370-meter beast. No, the ship was far too important to be left at the hands of a single man. The computer systems aboard, and satellites high above him did the heavy lifting. He was simply a helmsman, left to ensure the lights stayed green and the ship got from point A to B. Just as the age of the pilot was ending, so was the age of the mariner. This didn’t bother Max much, he had a young wife at home who he would rather spend time with. The time of a ship captain’s spouse waiting, starring off into the distance hoping for their safe return was soon to be a relic of the past.

   Max keyed up the latest edition of Tradewinds on his tablet, he figured if he was to stare off into the unknown he could at least learn about the happenings in industry. He hoped to be management some day, if that were to happen he needed to learn.

…8 Hours Later

   A red strobe kicked on above the console, pulling Max from his deep trance like thoughts.
   He glanced out across the ship, the video feed was frozen in place.
   Damn lag .. Max cursed as the HUD in his glasses shuddered and came back into focus.

   The trouble with the current technology was the shipping companies were piggy backing on the satellites already in orbit. The dedicated marine sats were still being built. Space X was set to bring the first batch into orbit by the end of the next quarter, or so his supervisor said in last weeks meeting. A senior captain, Joseph Kahn who was one of the first in the Maersk unmanned Program, brought up his concern for the more frequent black outs. He was quickly hushed and told to “talk with IT after the meeting”. Max hadn’t had any major issues in all of his training and didn’t think much of a loss of signal.

    Machines aren’t perfect Max offered up to the empty room

   The feed returned and the strobe ceased.
   Over all, the loss lasted 7 seconds from initial notice to return of signal.

   Max looked across the ship.
   Nothing but blue ocean and rust colored containers.
   Living the dream
   Max keyed up his Instant messenger.
   These ships were “almost unmanned,” they still operated with 4 crew members aboard to facilitate routine maintenance. Since these ships were retrofitted with the “Drone” tech they still required man to maintain it while sailing.

/// CPT 1 – We just lost feed for 7 seconds. What is your status?

Max waited as the crew typed

.. . . . .

/// CE 1 – All is well CPT no issues aboard.
/// CPT 1 – Roger, revert as needed

   Max relaxed a bit, he made note of the time and duration of the disruption on a legal pad in front of him. He would type up the report near the end of the shift. He left the pad and pen on the desk, he figured he might have more to report before the shift was finished.

   As Max was finishing his notes a cloud of smoke washed over the bow of the ship.
   “What the hell?!”
   Just as soon as Max brought his gaze up to see the source, the cloud was gone. The feed shuddered and froze again. This time, there was no strobe.
   Max keyed up the computer to adjust the cameras to focus on the source of the smoke plume.
   There was no response form the controls.
   Max looked down at the electronic chart plotter.
   The ship was five miles from the Norfolk Virginia coast.
   His mind raced,
   He made note of the vessels in the immediate vicinity on the chart plotter.
   Maersk Oklahoma,  BBC Vietnam, 3 small fishing trawlers, and the Maersk Elisa.
He pinged the Engineer on the messenger

// CPT 1 – What is your status? I have smoke rising from the bow. Can you confirm?
As soon as Max sent the message he received a response
// CE 1 – All Clear. All Systems normal. No smoke aboard.

  Max looked at his panel. The Chief was correct he wasn’t showing any malfunctions.
   When he looked back across the bow the smoke was gone. There was no evidence it was even there at all.
   Something isn’t right… He muttered to no one but himself. The whole bit was maddening.

   Max picked up the phone and dialed the Watch Officer a few doors down from him.

   “Hey Jerry, I’ve got a problem.”
   “Max I told you don’t worry about the sea monsters they can’t get you in the cubical –”
   Max’s nervous tone gave him away
   “Jerry I’m serious I just lost contact with her and before I did, smoke plumes were coming out of the bow. The Chief on board responded to my status request before I even finished my question.”
   Jerry Stiffened in his chair and opened his computer. Hey keyed his username and password and pulled up the feed from Maersk Okinawa.

   Hold for a minute Max, let me pull her up.

   Thanks Jerry, something just doesn’t seem right.

   Jerry looked across the screen; all systems aboard the Okinawa were showing normal. Jerry glanced at the video feeds into the engine compartment. The propulsion systems were operating flawlessly, and he noticed no issues. He moved over to the bridge camera, and looked ahead across the ship.
   “Hey Max, I’m not showing any issues. Everything looks clear.” 

   Looks like modern sailors still see monsters even if they aren’t on the ship Jerry mused to himself

   Max sunk into his chair and thought over the past minute. He relaxed and responded to Jerry

   Thanks Jerry, Il put it in the log and keep and eye on it. Sorry to bother you with that.

   “No problem Max, Happy sailing” Jerry added with a trace of sarcasm

   “Fucking green horn” Jerry mustered as the returned the phone to the cradle.

   Max replaced the phone and lost himself thinking about his upcoming time off, half embarrassed by the past few minutes.


   “Betty Sue” Fishing trawler 5 Miles off of Norfolk 0947hrs EST


   “What the hell are you doing?!” Michael yelled over the noise of the diesel engines.
   Adam was tangled waist deep in the net on the aft deck.
   “Sorry Cap’n I lost my balance..”
   “It’s impossible to get good help anymore!” Michael laughed as he made his way onto the deck.
   He reached down and helped the green deckie out of the mess he had fallen into.
   “Thanks captain, sorry about that.”
   “Watch your step, I can’t have you dragged over the side by some errant net!
   Michael turned back and headed for the pilothouse with a chuckle.
   Just as he cleared the frame, a shriek washed over the small trawler.
   The noise caught him off balance and he was thrown into the cabin.
   What in the world!
   Once Michael regained his composure he headed back outside.
   Adam was staring off into the distance in silence.
   “Jesus Christ kid, what the hell was . .. . “


   As he trailed off Michael came to terms with what he saw, a trio of container ships a few thousand meters directly astern of them had long trails of smoke billowing out of their tops. Containers were sliding off the deck as the concussion of the launches reverberated through the hull.

   Adam immediately pulled out his phone and began recording the action that was unfolding in front of the pair.

   Each missile reached into the air until it jettisoned its booster high above the containerized launchers. Once the cruise missile was clear of its launcher, the winglets deployed. These small control surfaces aided in guiding it to its final destination, as they fluctuated maddeningly each device was brought to an even level above the ocean. With the targeting computers activated, the missiles began to their descent to about 100 feet above the cresting surf. From there they began to vector in on different targets in the distance. Each cruise missile, a fatal mass of metal and plastic. No humanity, operating without emotion, set in its course by actors thousands of miles away with the click of a mouse and the stroke of a keyboard, bore towards their targets.


Houston Maersk Control Office – 0845hrs CST

   Max took a slug of his coffee and continued cycling over the readings in front of him.
   The remaining 15 minutes of his shift were uneventful. Or so he thought.
   He typed up the reports and passed them along to his supervisors. He made sure the officer set to relieve him was logged on and emailed him copies of the log from the previous watch, making special notice of the loss of signal. His replacement had just logged in from Bremerhaven, Germany.
   Satisfied with the transition, Max logged off and headed for his truck. He was looking forward to the next few days off. He and his wife were headed for the family ranch. Max opened the door to the ford and started the diesel beast. His mother in law gave him hell for the gas-guzzling machine but he ignored the peanut gallery.
   The radio was blaring a local classic rock station. He caught the end of a Metallica song as he accelerated onto the highway and headed for home. He was lost in thought thinking about the upcoming weekend he would spend with his family.
   Just as he settled and engaged cruise control, the radio cut out.
   As soon as he maneuvered to adjust the station, it returned…

   “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you an emergency alert.
Large scale attacks have been launched in cities across the United States. Missiles have struck the Naval Facilities at Norfolk. Casualties are unknown at this time. We also are receiving reports that San Diego, Pearl Harbor, and the Panama Canal have been struck. Stay tuned for more information.”

   Max’s heart dropped. He had just guided a ship into Norfolk, The smoke plume? The loss of feed?

   What Have I done!?”

   Just as he came upon the 610 bridge spanning the Houston ship channel his heart dropped again.

   He was too caught up in the radio broadcast to see the smoke and flames.

   The entire ship channel was ablaze. Thick black smoke plumed from warehouses and ships. Tank farms arced with explosions into the morning sky as missiles impacted each facility. He floored the accelerator and headed for his home.

Austin Reid is a graduate of Texas A&M University where he studied Maritime Administration. He is currently working in industry as a stevedoring superintendent on the gulf coast.

Featured Image: Schiebel Camcopter S-100 (Schiebel)

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