Fishbowl in a Barrel

Fiction Contest Week

By Keith Nordquist

So much for turning it off and on again.

“Don’t bother with another restart,” Verity said. “The ops center needs to know ASAP we lost Samjogo.” As mission commander, Verity Patel knew there was little left to do from her Shore Control System.

The SCS, or scuzz for short, was anything but disgusting. Damocles Logistics made sure of that. The SCS looked a little like a drone Ground Control System from the early 21st century but with extensive enhancements. Augmented reality tables crowded one side of the space while massive touch-screen monitors covered the other. Together, the tables and monitors allowed unparalleled interaction with a transoceanic shipping vessel like the Samjogo.

In an SCS, a crew of two could handle an entire New Panamax container ship on their own. From pinpointing a micro-mechanical problem in the turbine assembly to coordinating the additive manufacturing of repair parts at the next port-of-call, the system could do it all. Such impressive technology led Damocles Logistics’ CEO to call the SCS “a revolutionary tool for seamless and global logistics.” The small cadre of SCS mission commanders and mission engineers preferred instead to call their little revolution a scuzz-bucket. Semantics aside, the system made autonomous, large container ship movements possible. Until it didn’t.

“Dub, the feed’s dead, ok? Just get me ops, and let’s start thinking about options.”

William McFadden knew his commander was right, but he couldn’t accept it yet. Heck, it took him his whole childhood to embrace ‘W’ then just ‘Dub’ as a nickname. Older brothers can be tenacious. But so can SCS mission engineers. If anyone was gonna get their scuzz-bucket working again, it was Dub. He channeled his inner Montgomery Scott and assumed the mantle of miracle worker.

“The Samjogo’s state-of-the-art,” Dub said. “A fleet of support drones, redundant navigation equipment, robust communication suites—you don’t just lose this ship.” Dub’s Scotty-level impertinence was leaking out, but he calmed himself. “Boss, I can’t get a drone up right now, but the SkyLink constellation is still overhead. It’s got some rudimentary imaging sensors, and the birds are virtually tethered to the ship. They’re following it wherever it goes, so let me work with that for a sec. Ops is just gonna ask us what’s going on anyway. In two minutes, we’ll have an idea.”

“You got one, Dub.” Verity didn’t mind playing Kirk. Her brothers were tenacious too. Plus the SkyLink constellation was notoriously reliable, beaming high-speed internet to remote areas around the world and the solar system for well over a decade. If Dub knew of a way to manipulate the system, Verity knew to trust him. But she still didn’t like what she saw. Different failures and warnings flashed by the second. It was almost too much data.

Verity wished she could just don her Adaptive Brain Interface glasses—anything to help process the sheer volume of information. Most users called their ABIs “Abbey,” but Verity liked to call hers “Rabbi” since its cognitive enhancement seemed almost divine. Of course, ABIs didn’t look particularly blessed. Most looked like an ostentatious pair of aviators: thick, mirrored, and over-sized. But style was the cost of neural amplification. Each pair featured transcranial, direct-current stimulation amplifiers embedded in the temples and bridge to excite brain activity. They said it boosted cognitive processing power by 300%, and users frequently described a sensation of time slowing down. Celebrities and influencers were certainly doing their part to make wearable neurotech appear more stylish. All Verity cared about was how ABIs made hard problems easier without the complications of implants.

“Verity, let me get Abbey,” Dub said. Apparently he had the same idea.

“I hear ya, but no dice. Contract was specific. You only got thirty seconds left anyway. We do this the old-fashioned way.” The old-fashioned way, as in unaugmented. Military contracts were funny that way. A few years ago, some philosophers and scientists thought neurotech presented ‘ethical dilemmas.’ So they recommended standards for its use and proffered three universal neural rights. Something about the freedom of identity, the freedom of agency, and the freedom of perception. They codified it all in the non-binding Columbia Mind Accords in an effort to preserve what natural cognition meant to being human. Of course, not wanting to cede the moral high ground or perception thereof, the U.S. government subscribed to the Accords. The Department of Defense thus came to exclude ABI technology from all military contracts. Sure, no one could prove ABI systems preserved user control, choice, and awareness. But they also couldn’t prove they didn’t.

“The old-fashioned way,” Dub said. “Just an analog solution for a digital age.”

“That’s the job. No Abbey, no Rabbi—just us.”

Of course, ‘us’ included South Korean counterparts, too, because Omni-Hyundai Merchant Marine manufactured the Samjogo for South Korea and the United States.

It was an international appropriation surprise to say the least. You see, production started after Secretary Mark Pyrrhic at the Department of Defense and Secretary Bri Stultum at the Department of Transportation agreed to divest America’s organic sealift capacity. Looking to past wars and current markets, they concluded foreign-flagged sealift offered ample depth, availability, and access to move militaries in a time of war. The cost of such future reliance was moot. Scrapping new investments, service-life extensions, and recapitalizations was low-hanging fruit for Defense and Transportation during the last wave of isolationism and sequestration. And someone had to cover the increased healthcare costs of Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers—the most powerful constituencies in electoral politics. Secretaries Pyrrhic and Stultum surprised no one when they successfully ran for office after their cabinet tenures.

The Samjogo materialized because the savings were so pronounced and immediate. Congress had some balance-sheet wiggle room to experiment with a decisive force movement capability, albeit with some help. The Samjogo became feasible when South Korea offered to co-finance the experimentation. It would be a proof-of-concept shipping vessel and the centerpiece of a new a bilateral security negotiation. If America was heading to war, it would be on the decks of commercial sealift except for the Samjogo. Sure, some technologists in the Pentagon coalesced around a radically different approach: strapping outboard engines to containers and autonomously swarming them across oceans to converge at a destination. But the level of coordination needed to do it well with a human in the loop required neural amplification. And that was still a bridge too far.

The National Security Council feared neurotech’s vulnerabilities more than its moral ambiguity. ABIs were just another means to access the Samjogo’s designs, technical manuals, or shipping manifests. And no one likes an adversary to manipulate your plans or sow a seed of doubt. Worse, they could share a kernel of truth. Why advertise the capabilities of a ship made to bring war—an entire All-Domain Brigade Combat Team?

Today, the Samjogo had no personnel onboard, but it was still moving a brigade’s worth of equipment to Seoul. South Korea was secretly preparing for North Korea’s imminent collapse, though few knew how soon it was coming. Maybe Russia did, but no one could blame them for their domestic focus after the November Revolution. China certainly did. And they were using every diplomatic backchannel to relay their acceptance of the Samjogo’s mission to help contain the potential spread of weapons of mass destruction.

“Five seconds, Dub.”

“I’m getting a feed coming through now. Pulling it up on… monitor three. It looks like she’s still on-course. Diagnostics on the scuzz-bucket are… nominal, before and after the restart. SkyLink’s operating at 94% connectivity too—we just can’t link back to the ship. Whatever’s happening is on Samjogo’s end.”

Verity pointed at an out-of-place dark spot toward the back of the ship. “What about our drone on the stern?” she asked.

“I’m… not sure,” Dub said. “Maybe something to do with a port-call functional check before we lost contact. Let me see if SkyLink has better imagery. Hold on.”

Dub moved from the bank of monitors over to an augmented reality station, donning a visor to interact with the Samjogo’s satellite constellation. “The resolution isn’t great, but I think that’s X4, a port survey drone. It’s menial, verifies water depths and dock conditions. The system restart likely triggered a recovery program for unknown ports-of-call. X4 is there to help Samjogo figure out how to pull into dock without scuzz connection. Any port in a storm, ya know?”

“I’ll take whatever I can get,” Verity said. “See if you can get me eyes from that drone for a closer look.” She went over to another augmented table and donned her visor. As Dub hacked his way into X4’s imaging sensors with his administrator privileges and SkyLink access, Verity couldn’t help but feel something wasn’t right. “Alright, what am I looking at.”

“X4’s powered-up, moving to the command deck. The camera’s still warming up, so what you’re seeing is the sensor boot-up screen. I’ve overridden its recovery protocol so we can fly it wherever we want. It should keep up with the ship at this speed, and it automatically senses deviations in altitude with ocean swells. The East China Sea is always a little turbulent—no pun intended. Anyway, no need to worry about movement command lag or lack of visual feed yet, just tell me where you want it and give me a sec.”

“Take me to the relay station at top. If the disconnect is just a physical problem there, maybe we can figure out how to repair the transmission while underway. And make it fast. I’m gonna call ops while you’re pulling up the camera, get them in the loop for when we’ve got eyes.” Verity removed her visor and fumbled with the Damocles Logistics ‘smart’ phone. It may as well have been a telegraph or a fax machine. As a security precaution, corporate had issued all SCS crews their own phones for encrypted calls. But the technology felt ancient and unnecessary. Everyone already knew Damocles Logistics’ dirty little secret. It was the same for every other commercial transportation provider, even if they took military contracts. Transoceanic sealift ran on unclassified networks.

The increased demands of just-in-time production and delivery required transportation providers to cooperate more. Unclassified networks were the only way to rapidly share manifests and information between carriers, manufacturers, suppliers, and users. The Amazons of the world made customers expect real-time updates on all their shipments, incentivizing universal in-transit visibility for international shipping. As a bonus, it helped keep the oceans’ growing congestion under control. But the ‘smart’ phone wasn’t protecting anything but an optic.

“Video’s live. You called it, boss. Damage looks physical. The relay station has signs of kinetic disassembly and thermal reconfiguration.” Verity gave Dub a puzzled look as the augmented table’s overhead display darkened. “It blew up and melted,” Dub clarified.

“No, I get that, Dub, but what’s going on with the feed? Why’s it getting darker like that?”

“Let me turn X4 around and see.” What emerged was the last thing Dub expected. Swarms of microdrones, maybe thousands of them at a time, were converging in flashes and systematically attacking the ship’s topside. “A swarm? A swarm! I can’t… I can’t activate counter-measures!”

“Who’s attacking Samjogo?” Verity wondered aloud as she dropped the phone and donned her visor.

“I… I can’t do anything! It’s all dead!”

Still stunned, Verity marveled at how such tiny tools could be so destructive yet undetectable from the SkyLink array. It was almost elegant the way the drones methodically massed into kamikaze-like strikes upon the Samjogo’s command and control equipment. But the SkyLink feed began to flicker as connectivity dropped. “They’re jamming the constellation. Dub, get X4 outta there—it’s the only eyes we got! I’m hitting the alarm!”

Dub maneuvered X4 over the ship’s edge as the drone’s visual feed dropped in and out. Static images of fire and smoke froze on their screens. Verity punched the big red button in the SCS to alert Damocles Logistics of catastrophic failure and watched in shock as the swarms appeared to gather nearby X4. The last image broadcast before the swarm detected and eliminated the port survey drone’s transmission was an explosion.

______________________________________________________________________________________

It took five minutes to wipe out an entire brigade of equipment. Five minutes to lose connection with America’s best and only sealift vessel. Of course, it would take another seven hours to wrap up the interim mishap investigation. While the SCS had recorded everything, Damocles Logistics and the Department of Defense did what bureaucracies do best: they followed their procedures. Verity and Dub sat in their scuzz-bucket for the entire remote questioning, leaving only for comfort breaks and hydration. They missed their ABIs.

Commercial satellite imagery eventually confirmed what everyone suspected: the Samjogo had disappeared. When it was clear Verity and Dub had no more to offer, the investigators released them to their local medical facility for a blood draw and toxicology report. But the toll of it all left them feeling numb. They slowly emerged from the scuzz and paused together in the dawn’s twilight.

Dub spoke first. “It’s… gone. A state-of-the-art ship—just gone.”

Verity took a moment to collect herself. “It’s a post-Titanic world, Dub—‘State-of-the-art’ is just a myth.”

Dub thought for a minute. “I know one ship isn’t exactly a resilient thing, even with the best electromagnetic counter-measures available. But Samjogo wasn’t sailing to war. And how did we miss that window of vulnerability during the restart? Or in the port-call functional check? How did we not think about those?”

“I guess… I guess it’s hard to anticipate what you can’t imagine? The person who invented the first ship didn’t necessarily realize they also invented the first shipwreck.”

“But everyone can read the tea leaves in North Korea, boss. Everyone wants stability. That equipment was gonna help provide it. Why would anyone take out the Samjogo with all that uncertainty?”

“Well, maybe it’s not about stability anymore, Dub. At least our version of it. Or maybe our understanding of it.”

Dub blinked a few times. “Verity, I have no idea what you’re talking about. South Korea, the U.S., China—stability is everything for us. People want their security.”

Verity took another moment and looked upward. She could still make out a few stars between the congested constellations of swirling satellites in the morning haze. “Stability is only everything if that’s everything to you. And it’s hard to control everything, Dub. Sure, technology makes us think we can, and my Rabbi makes a strong case for it. But there’s still instability. There’s still a little chaos out there brewing. The Samjogos of the world provide us the appearance of control—of security—big, strong, advanced. But how would an adversary view such a symbol of expeditionary power? Symbols only matter when they’re stable, and when you put a ship out to sea, you risk it not coming back.”

Dub chewed on his commander’s words. He always processed thoughts better as a sort of intellectual cud. “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.”

Verity nodded slowly. “And a ship underway belongs to her environment. It might be the ABI-withdrawal talking, but maybe there’s some stability to be had from instability in that kind of environment, some new advantage for someone. You gotta tip the balance to shift the balance, right?” Verity paused, then smiled. “The Samjogo’s just an analog solution for a digital age anyway.”

Dub laughed. “I gotta trademark that.”

“A massive, transoceanic sealift vessel designed to move a whole brigade in one fell swoop—it’s a dinosaur. And restricting the use of neurotech is lazy. We need to do better if we want to be stable. Or secure. Or whatever it is we do.”

Dub nodded at Verity then wandered to the back door of his car. “I’ll see you at the hospital, boss. For now, it’s nap time.”

As Dub’s driverless car departed, Verity lingered outside the SCS and returned her gaze skyward. It must be nighttime in the East China Sea, she thought. But that part of the world gave up on seeing the stars a long time ago.

In seven hours of questioning, no one noticed the SkyLink constellation still moving west.

______________________________________________________________________________________

“Welcome back to AIM ‘News Now,’ where we’re still covering the breaking news from Hong Kong. The U.S. appears to have landed an incomplete invasion force at the Disneyland Resort earlier this morning. Reports are still coming in, but the Chinese Communist Party is now confirming… yes, hundreds dead and countless injured with numbers climbing as the flooding continues.

“The catastrophe seems to be the result of an American military vessel slamming into a sea-rise wall. The ten-foot revetment was protecting one of the resort’s oceanside hotels—the Explorer’s Lodge—itself an ironic symbol of Western imperialism.

“As other world leaders react, the Chinese President is calling for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to demand the immediate withdrawal of all American forces from sovereign Chinese seas. Meanwhile, the U.S. is denying responsibility for the unprovoked attack. American officials are also now claiming China hijacked their warship just yesterday. It’s important our audience know the American government made no such claims until after this ‘Disneyland Disaster’ became known.

“Before the break, noted conspiracy expert Dr. Emory Mendacem indicated the Peoples Liberation Army likely repelled the rest of the invasion force before landfall, protecting countless millions. Regardless of the claim’s veracity, one thing is clear: China will not allow the U.S. to take advantage of deteriorating conditions on the Korean Peninsula. For now, it remains a truly horrible day for China at the hands of another cavalier foreign policy.

“We’ll be right back with more on this breaking story in just a moment. And thank you for broadcasting Alibaba International Media ‘News Now’ across your devices, ABIs, and screens. Remember, our AIM is always true.”

Keith Nordquist is an airpower strategist for the U.S. Air Force and holds a Master of Aeronautical Science, a Master of Military Art and Science, and a Master of Arts in Military Operations. His background includes operational assignments as a mobility pilot and staff assignments as a major command, combatant command, and service-level action officer. Keith is a distinguished graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Air Force Squadron Officer School, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff Officer School, and the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies.

Featured Image: “UE4 Container Ship” by Willi Hammes via Artstation

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