2nd Place Finisher
By Dr. Ben Plotkin
Wake from your sleep
The drying of your tears
Today we escape, we escape1
The music calmed her. She took a deep breath in through her nose and counted to six before exhaling.
Her coffee cup was right next to her monitor, the only one on the ship that had never been used, she imagined. She picked it up and held it beneath her nose, imagining the smell of stale coffee. She had given up drinking it as a young commander.
She surveyed her ships. Her command. Two dozen warships stretched across the languid sea, arranged in textbook formation. It was a sight to behold. It made her proud of her men and women. Proud to serve them. Proud to command them. She felt close to them. Many she knew well. She knew their families, their hopes, their dreams. She knew their unique strengths and weaknesses, all of which contributed to her magnificent strike group.
Technically it was the Navy’s. But big Navy was far away. Out here on the open ocean it was just her, and it was her group. A reinforced carrier strike group centered around the USS Gerald R. Ford. Enough firepower arrayed in this small section of the ocean to destroy any adversary. At least it used to be.
If she was making an honest assessment, she knew her fleet was old, aging, maybe even as some had claimed, tottering into obsolescence. Nothing is more harmful than self-deception. She was aware of these flaws. What once had been the crown jewel of the Navy 50 years ago, was no longer.
It was old tech. But in the new Navy, if it floats it fights. And these were challenging times for the Navy.
The war had been going on longer than expected.
The war had not been going to plan.
Casualties were high.
At the current rate the Navy would be a navy in name only.
Hence the moonshot plan, the last great hope, the master strategist had seen to it.
But, the master strategist was a computer. Silicon intelligence, whatever they were calling it these days. It even had a rank. How could they give command to a machine? Machines could beat humans at games, AI pilots could out dogfight their flesh and blood adversaries, but this seemed different to her. To give strategic command to a collection of microchips and circuits seemed wrong.
These were inner thoughts. Best to keep some concerns to herself.
“What do you think of the plan Captain?”
“Do you think this will work?”
“Above my pay grade Ma’am.”
“That’s the political answer. What is your real answer? It’s only us. Just me and you. We’ve worked together a long time. You’ve always told it to me straight before.”
“I think this will be our last cruise Admiral.”
“Then let’s make it a good one. One for the books,” she said.
Pack and get dressed.
Before your father hears us.
Before all hell breaks loose.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf. A great victory for the Navy. Perhaps the last great victory. A big gun victory where T’s were crossed and the enemy annihilated. There had been Halsey’s reckless dash north in pursuit of Ozawa’s carriers. A decision that left the backdoor open, and had it not been for the bravery of a small band of sailors, history might have gone another way.
Ozawa’s carriers were bait, and Halsey had bitten.
Now her ships were the bait.
“We’ve been spotted,” said the Captain. “Enemy long-range strike drones have seen us. It won’t be long now.”
She had trained herself to ignore her emotions. Emotions didn’t help with decisions. Emotions clouded judgment. And they need her sharpest judgement. Her best decision and command-making abilities. This fight would be like none of the others before. If this was going to be her last fight, then it was going to be the best she had to offer. But, it wasn’t herself she was concerned about. She thought of the Captain’s twin daughters. They were graduating from college this week. She wondered if he would ever see them again.
The plan called for her strike group to be found, and they had been.
Now came the hard part. She had to act like this was the main element, to launch all she had in stopping the invasion flotilla. The enemy would react like they had always reacted, with speed, tenacity and overwhelming firepower.
The plan was for them to soak up all the missiles and the attention of the escort forces. If they behaved like they had before, she could expect the full force directed against them. Air, surface, submersible, and satellite weapons would all be heading their way with the simple objective of complete obliteration. In past encounters, even vessels that had been disabled and beyond any kind of battlefield impact had been hunted down and finished off—the executioner delivering the coup de grâce. There would be no mercy, no surrender, no going backwards.
While her task force lured the attention of the enemy, the underwater wolfpack and island-based allied small ship swarms would strike the depleted and surprised escorts and drive them into the jaws of the waiting Marine littoral combat teams.
Was it a good plan?
Would it work?
The AI admiral gave it a 63% probability of degrading the invasion force enough to prevent its success. She hadn’t asked what the odds were for the survival of her group.
She took once last whiff of the empty coffee cup.
“Launch all squadrons,” she said to the Captain. “Let everyone know the time has come. I expect everyone to do their duty.”
Don’t lose your nerve
I can’t do this alone
She stood braced against the bulkhead in the combat information center, her attention divided amongst the myriad of screens.
Short, clipped words registered, but did not affect her.
The calls kept coming. One part of her was monitoring the progress of the strike squadrons. Too soon their stilted calls subsided, and went silent.
A terrifying shudder cracked through the room throwing sailors from their chairs. The acrid smell of smoke blanketed them, then was quickly dispersed by the ventilation system.
The Captain handed her the secure communication handset.
“It wants to talk to you,” he said.
“Now?” She was incredulous. “A bit occupied.” How could this machine want to talk to her now of all times, in the midst of the fight for her survival.
“It says it is urgent, for you only.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw the video feed from the overhead control drone as an outer frigate was struck by a missile and broke in half. “God help us all,” she said in a whisper that she hoped only she had heard.
She took the handset. “I am fighting for our lives. What is it?”
According to the Navy the machine was an admiral and outranked her. A part of her realized that she would never have addressed a human superior in such a manner, but she was done pretending to be nice to the machines, the emotional trauma of watching her sailors dying was too difficult to subsume. The ships that remained of her mauled group had just completed their planned northward turn. The Captain had called it a flank speed retrograde maneuver. She had called it something else, something that would not make it into the logbook.
Sing us a song
A song to keep us warm
There’s such a chill
Such a chill
“It’s changing the plan.” She tried to keep her voice calm for the Captain. Never show your fear, never let them see the emotions beneath. But the Captain had known her too long, she could tell that he could hear. “It wants us to reverse course and attack the remaining enemy fleet.”
“Attack them with what?” The Captain couldn’t contain his incredulousness. “We launched all our missiles, the tubes are empty. Our air defense systems are nearly depleted, our planes are all gone, we have no remaining offensive drone assets. We’ve just managed to put a bit of room between us, and might, just might make it out of here with the ships we have left.”
“It wants us to change course and charge towards them with all due haste.”
“So we can engage them with our deck guns?”
“They still work, don’t they?” The Admiral smiled. What else could she do.
“Boldly they rode and well, into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell,” muttered the Captain.
“That’s the idea,” said the Admiral.
“For what reason? We’ve fulfilled our duty. We acted as decoy, we hit them with all we could, for God’s sake we’ve lost half our ships, hundreds are already dead. Does it want us to all to die? For what? For Glory?”
“For victory,” said the Admiral. Her tone was flat. Her voice tired.
“Did it give a reason?”
“It says revised simulations indicate that continuing to have our fleet engage the enemy, will confuse them further, increase the odds of the main effort in destroying the invasion forces.”
“I find that hard to believe. There’s nothing more we can add to this fight. Our deaths won’t serve any purpose.”
“It seems our admiral sees it differently,” she said. “But for what’s it’s worth I agree with you. I can’t see how letting ourselves be destroyed will help.”
“Question the orders, tell this machine that we are people not disposable hardware. We have lives, families, homes. Can it understand that?”
“Do you think questioning that thing will do any good? Change anything? But for what it is worth, I tried. I asked, I pleaded. I stooped to pleading with a computer. Pleading with a machine for the life of my sailors. But it simply acknowledged my concern and reiterated the orders.”
The Captain didn’t say anything for a long moment. From just outside the door she heard the reactor casualty alarm sound.
“What do you recommend then captain?”
The Captain glanced over his shoulder, turned back to the Admiral and finally said, “I recommend we maintain present course and speed.”
“You think we should disobey the order?”
“It’s not a lawful order. This machine is asking us to go on a kamikaze run, from which none of us will return.”
The admiral was silent for a moment. Listening to the cacophony swirl around her. “If it were a human admiral giving us the order, would you feel the same way?” she finally said.
“No human would ever give such an order.”
“Maybe that’s the point,” she said. “When computers mastered chess, they made moves no human ever thought of. They always won.”
“Respectfully Ma’am, this is not a game. This is as real as it gets”
“But maybe this supercomputer, this intelligent machine, this whatever it is, can see possibilities that are beyond our recognition, beyond our imagination. What if we are the crucial element upon which hangs victory and defeat? What if we are the queen sacrifice just before the mate?”
It was difficult for the Captain to contain his rising frustration. “I think that you and I see things in a similar way. We’ve never trusted these machines they put over us. Their cold calculations and algorithms. There is no thought of human life, of the men and women who fight and die at their command, they only care about one thing.”
“They care about winning,” said the Admiral.
“Are the deaths of all our sailors worth a few percentage points in a simulation? We’ve done our duty for country and Navy, now let’s do our duty to the men and women we still have under our command. I’d like for some of them to see home again.”
“I’d like that too,” the Admiral said quietly.
And you can laugh a spineless laugh
We hope your rules and wisdom choke you
Now we are one in everlasting peace
We hope that you choke, that you choke
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of her life above and beyond the call of duty as the commander of Carrier Strike Group 7. The last carrier strike group that fought at the Second Battle of Leyte Gulf. Admiral Nishimura was the first to engage the Chinese fleet. Despite being outclassed and outnumbered by an enemy vastly superior in force and firepower, she directed a combined sea and air assault upon the enemy escorts. Her ships were first to damage substantial elements of the Chinese Philippine invasion force. Originally Carrier Strike Group 7 was tasked with a diversionary role, but due to her skill and vision she was able to outfight and outmaneuver the vast swarms of enemy combatants that converged upon her position.
Undaunted by the severe damage sustained to her command ship, the USS Gerald R. Ford early in the engagement, she was able to continue to harass the Chinese and occupy their attention, allowing the successful counterattack by the dispersed remnants of the fleet, which drove the invasion fleet onto the waiting spears of the littoral Marines upon which they were impaled. The victory at Leyte came with a high cost. Admiral Nishimura and her entire command were lost at sea. The last witness accounts speak of a severely burned Admiral Nishumra pushing an officer through a hatch towards safety, before being engulfed by an explosion. Her sacrifice and valiant fighting spirit throughout this historic battle is an inspiration to all who served with her.
Ben Plotkin is a physician in southern California. He can be reached at email@example.com.
1. Exit Music (For A Film), Radiohead, written by Philip Selway, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke.
Featured Image: Art created with Midjourney AI.