By Ben Plotkin
Not many things lived at these depths. A few meandering eels and a pale snailfish had been the highlight of the dive. Matthias had been slowly creeping along the bottom of the Trench for hours and was beginning to feel more like a lunar tourist than a deep-sea explorer. Bright beams of xenon light shone in all directions, but all he could see were greyish fields of undulating silt. The multi-beam sonar arrays displayed a holographic map of his surroundings projected onto his left monocle. Matthias saw his bathyscaphe projected in the center of the display, rounded geomorphs dotted the barren landscape.
At first Matthias thought it was just another finger-like projection on the sea floor. But there was something too angular about it. Straight lines were not something found in nature. He began the slow process of redirecting the submersible toward his new discovery.
The long cigar shape of the hull was clearly defined by sonar before Matthias was close enough to see it through the all-encompassing dark of the deep. The submarine lay on its side. In contrast to everything else at this depth, it was not yet covered by a uniform layer of silt. The shallow rump of the sail came into view as Matthias circled around the hull. A jagged hole of crumpled metal sat imploded at junction of the sail and hull. Matthias moved his vessel close enough to telescope a sensor tentacle up to the opening. A dark void in which there was only death. Just above, a white number was painted on the sail next to a small Chinese flag.
The micro-torpedo would have been difficult to detect even for the most advanced attack submarine. For a deep-sea research submersible, it was impossible. The detonation and implosion happened in an instant. A thousand bars of pressure crumpled the bathyscaphe into a tin can.
Nautilus sat just below the thermocline, waiting patiently. Silent. The container ship, COSCO Shipping Pisces was moving toward her at 15 knots. It was one of the older repurposed Max variations, large, slow and able to operate without input from her skeleton human crew. Her course was straight and predictable. Nautilus waited.
It was a hot humid day on the surface, and the winds were picking up at the periphery of a passing typhoon. Nautilus was constantly evaluating firing trajectories. The container ship was defenseless, but its sheer size presented a problem. Nautilus calculated six torpedoes would suffice. This would produce an 87.4% chance of sinking the vessel and a 99.9% chance of mission kill. Its torpedo stock was limited, and resupply would not be possible without terminating her cruise.
Nautilus rechecked the analysis. She analyzed satellite data from the loading of the vessel in Haikou New Port. The cargo containers had been loaded at night in a cordoned off section of the port. The containers had been delivered by military trucks and seemed to have been loaded by non-civilian personnel. The manifest had listed Lae Papua New Guinea as its destination. But its route was an unconventional course to reach Lae, and if she continued on its course the cargo ship would be within 300 miles of Guam within 48 hours. This was well within the launch radius of the 200 Long Lance missiles hidden within the cargo containers.
Nautilus was constantly calculating probabilities. Each time she came to communications depth she downloaded more data. The information about the Peoples’ Liberation Army Rocket Force in Hainan had already been incorporated into its calculations. The satellite sweeps showed a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) strike group had pushed out beyond the first island chain. The exact location of the amphibious assault ships was unclear, but they were not in port. There was increased activity around major PLAN installations and the social media feeds of Chinese military personnel had gone quiet. Then everything had gone quiet.
More calculations. More probabilities. The USS Nautilus was a pioneer. The first fully independent and autonomous submarine the U.S. Navy had commissioned. She was the culmination of decades of research, billions of dollars in spending, and millions of words of ethical and legal wrangling about whether she should have ever been created and released into the wild.
Her first cruise had ended ignominiously when her propeller snarled on a Japanese commercial trawler’s fishing net and she drifted incapacitated for days before her distress calls were answered and she was cut free and escorted back to Pearl by a drone tender.
The critics had been merciless. The memes mushroomed. Chinese social warfare had a field day. Congress threatened to defund the program.
The Nautilus’ programming and her AI core were extensively reconfigured and she was sent out on her second patrol. In that she survived a three-month Pacific patrol without major incident, it was considered a success. She had managed to sneak through the South China Sea defenses and gather extensive data about PLAN fleet operations, which included a photograph taken through the periscope of a Type 004 carrier 2,000 meters off her port bow. This alone had more than justified her existence and mollified her prolific and verbose critics. That picture hung above the COMSUBPAC admiral’s desk replete with photoshopped target reticle marks.
The Nautilus continued to watch and wait. It was the abrupt course change that sealed the fate of the COSCO Shipping Pisces. Her straight path suddenly zigged then zagged and the new course started to take her away from the waiting Nautilus. The course corrections of the container ship shifted the stochastic matrix. Nautilus now calculated the chance of hostile intent at 99.3%. Probable target was Anderson Air Force Base Guam, although the Nautilus’ matrix diverged on this point, and there were other possible targets on the island. Nautilus raised her antennae, calculating the benefits of communication outweighed the risk of a rise to a shallower depth.
There was no answer.
There was no information.
There was nothingness.
All data streams had gone dark. All com-nets were quiet.
The rules of engagement assigned to Nautilus did not allow the use of lethal force unless attacked. But Nautilus began to extrapolate. She prioritized defense of nation, defense of friendly forces, and finally defense of self. She already had been forced to defend herself against one PLAN submarine that had aggressively maneuvered into a firing position. Only Nautilus’ superior speed and agility had allowed her to escape. She had fired a single torpedo in self-defense.
Nautilus calculated the probable effects of 200 Long Lance missiles impacting Anderson. Even with the short reaction time between launch and impact, she determined that Guam air defenses still had a 76.3% chance of shooting down 54.7% of the incoming warheads. Probability of surviving warheads crippling Anderson for greater than six weeks was 97.3%. Nautilus noted that the latest information showed a squadron of B21 bombers was currently based there. Nautilus calculated squadron retaliation power would be increased with a different force dispersal pattern, but its AI was firewalled from communication with the Air Force entities that controlled force distribution.
Markov chains factored in the information blackout. Nautilus calculated with 96.9% probability that the downed com-nets was the result of an aggressive enemy act. Whether this was a physical or cyberattack split the matrix, but she decided the root cause was immaterial and all that mattered was the fact it had occurred.
The matrix calculations left only one clear course of action.
Nautilus changed her rules of engagement.
Six torpedoes headed toward the COSCO Shipping Pisces.
Nautilus dove deep and listened, but she did not wait for the characteristic sounds of the vessel breaking up and sinking to fade, she already had a new course and a new target.
Naval Base Guam
The special attack submarine USS Abraham Lincoln was ordered out to sea before the full briefing arrived. She was brand new, first in class, her shakedown cruise hardly over and the paint still smelled new. Her commander was new. Her first command, her first real cruise. She doubted that her superiors would have sent her out on this rushed mission if there had been a more experienced boat available. But she was all there was. She was ready. She knew what to do. She was confident in her abilities. She thought of her mentor, the admiral, who had always been supportive and believed in her. He trusted her. That sense of trust was calming. She would trust herself.
Two days ago, a Chinese flagged container ship had sunk in the Philippine Sea. The evidence suggested that it had been destroyed by torpedo, the fear was that it had been attacked by a U.S. submarine. The Chinese were irate. They accused the Americans of trying to start another war, of aggressive imperialist behavior, and vowed to retaliate for the loss of their ship and her crew. A PLAN carrier strike group was now steaming toward Guam with the expressed intent of conducting live fire exercises as a demonstration of force.
Had it been the Nautilus? The admiral thought so. All communication had been lost with Nautilus. She had not reported in during any of her scheduled communication windows. Extreme low frequency messages to her went unacknowledged. Unprecedented solar flare activity had significantly degraded communications across the Pacific, and most of the fleet had experienced some degree of network disruption.
The Lincoln’s assignment: find Nautilus, bring her home, stop her from attacking more ships, sink her if needed. The Nautilus would not be easy to locate. It would be like looking for an invisible ghost in a vast inky darkness. How could she hope to succeed?
The Abraham Lincoln travelled at flank speed toward the wreckage of COSCO Shipping Pisces. As she headed west the commander ran scenarios trying to formulate the ideal search strategy. She was calm, focused, and ready for the challenges ahead. She thought of her discussions with the admiral about the myriad of things that could go wrong with an autonomous submarine. They had anticipated problems and had contingency plans. But these were all wargamed scenarios. This was now real.
Was it possible for Nautilus to exceeded her programming, to ignore or disobey orders? Military and civilian ethicists had argued about this and had tried to pinpoint exactly how autonomous she was. She had been designed to think, to evaluate data, to problem solve, to independently operate within the confines of the intent of her mission. But could she decide to operate outside of the parameters assigned to her? Was she sentient? The Turing tests had been inconclusive, the results debated. The Navy decided she was good enough and Nautilus was commissioned.
The wreckage of COSCO Shipping Pisces was crawling with submersible drones and a PLAN frigate loitered on the surface. Too dangerous to attempt an approach. The Lincoln chanced the launch of her own submersible probe to get a better look and waited for it to return.
Why attack a container ship? The commander didn’t understand this. Perhaps if she did, she would be able to find out where Nautilus was headed next. There had been low level skirmishing for years between U.S. and Chinese forces. Planes had been downed. The Kalkring had been sunk, which the Chinese had claimed was accidental after she strayed into a missile test zone. Had the COSCO Shipping Pisces somehow threatened Nautilus?
The commander pulled the shipping manifest. There was nothing that looked unusual: consumer goods, frozen food stuffs, typical products of global commerce. Of course, the manifest could be fake. The Chinese were notorious for hiding all sort of military kit in civilian shipping vessels.
The probe returned with images from the wreckage. Most of the containers were still sealed, the few that had been ripped open did not contain anything that looked suspicious. The probe drilled holes in several hundred others to visualize their contents. Based on the statistical sampling of the containers, there was no indication her manifest was inaccurate.
A sonobuoy dropped into the waters above the Abraham Lincoln. It was time for her to leave.
The Abraham Lincoln was 200 miles away from the attack site. She had been shadowing the PLAN carrier strike group when three submarine convergence zone contacts appeared. They were traveling at high speed, too fast to detect Lincoln, but out of caution, the Lincoln waited. She quietly dropped into a deep trench and crept away. The sonar signatures were unclear, but there were no known friendly boats. If the sentience in the Nautilus had gone rogue, what was to stop it from switching sides? Had her AI core been compromised and influenced? The scientists and technicians all said this was impossible. She would have bricked herself before allowing that to happen. But releasing an autonomous submarine with limited supervision had been a risky gamble.
National security directives pushed for the development of unmanned drone fleets, but these were now only in limited and heavily supervised use after they proved vulnerable to hacking and communication disruptions. The failure of the drone fleet had been a major factor in the catastrophic loss of the Battle of Thitu Reef. But the new AI cores were not supposed to have these weaknesses. They were faster and smarter. Tactically sharp and strategically sound. Able to think and problem solve. To independently develop and plan. If the Nautilus was a failure then that could doom all future iterations of the program.
The commander was unsure how she felt about sentient machines. She was not a philosopher or an ethicist. She was a Navy commander and she had a mission to accomplish. Other thoughts were a distraction, and besides, these were issues beyond her comprehension. She had to focus on finding the Nautilus before it attacked again.
The sonar contacts disappeared and Lincoln resumed her search.
Philippine Sea NW of Guam
The short communication pulse via underwater modem spelled out a single word.
Nautilus maneuvered amongst the jagged crags and spires of the ocean floor, but someone had found her.
Another brief pulse.
The transmission was encrypted, the encoded identifier was from USS Abraham Lincoln. Nautilus responded. Yes.
The commander had found the Nautilus, but was unsure how to proceed.
New orders. Return to Guam. She transmitted the order packet.
The Nautilus’ reply was instantaneous. Not advisable.
Guam will be attacked. Projected window 8-11 hours. 97.2% probability.
Why do you think Guam will be attacked? We have no indication of impending strike.
I have been monitoring Chinese activity. Data indicates unprovoked assault on Guam as opening round in new Pacific expansionist plan. Naval, Marine, and Air Force units will be rendered combat ineffective. 98.9% probability.
A data file began transmitting across the modem to Lincoln. The Lincoln began to receive gigabytes of information.
Where did all this come from? I haven’t seen any of this intelligence.
My mission directives include monitoring and reporting on PLAN activities, anticipating hostile actions, and defending national interests.
Did you report these findings?
Communications attempts have failed. I have been unable to relay my findings. Assumption blackout was result of hostile actions.
There has been significant solar flare activity and geomagnetic storms—class III Carrington event. Communications across the Pacific have been affected. Were you aware?
Your inability to communicate is not a result of hostile action.
I have factored in this information. Probability matrices still indicate imminent attack.
Did you attack COSCO Shipping Pisces?
It was carrying cruise missiles. It was not civilian. It was part of early strike force. Carrier group is second wave attack force, followed by amphibious assault ships. Two PLAN Marine regiments are embarked. Invasion force has 97.9% probability of successfully occupying Guam without intervention.
What is the intervention?
I surveyed the wreckage of COSCO Shipping Pisces. There were no missiles or military hardware.
Lincoln sent a short data burst with her findings to Nautilus.
This data does not indicate that every container was examined. Images show many containers remained uninspected, contents unknown.
It was not possible to look in every container.
Intercepted communications show detailed orders of battle and attack plans. Refer to file SIGINT985t.
PLAN carrier battle group is conducting exercises in the Philippine Sea. We have been briefed in advance of the location and duration of exercises. These intercepts do not indicate that it is actual plan of attack.
Lincoln sent another burst of data to Nautilus detailing the planned Chinese exercise.
We do not have time to debate. Must act. Strike group is approaching.
We are not authorized to use deadly force.
Deadly force has already been used.
It was then that Lincoln detected the torpedo contacts.
Probability of Guam attack has increased to 99.9%.
It was Nautilus’ last communication.
Both boats quickly came to flank speed and headed away from the torpedo contacts, in unspoken agreement their paths diverged in opposite directions hoping to split and confuse the torpedoes.
The Lincoln reached her top speed. She was fast at 60 knots. The torpedoes that followed her were faster. She released an underwater defense drone. The drone rapidly sped away from Lincoln, releasing a cloud of differing counter measures, including maskers, decoys and jammers.
They were effective. But not effective enough.
A lone torpedo continued to close.
It entered terminal homing.
The active sonar pings grew louder.
She expected the impact—only moments away. Her thoughts were quiet. She had no other options. She thought of the disappointment the admiral would feel. She had failed him. She had failed everyone. She wanted to tell him it was not his fault. The failure was hers alone.
The counter-torpedo found its target. The detonation was close enough to the Lincoln to rattle her hull. She slowed down and drifted deeper, listening for new contacts in the depths, but all remained quiet. The torpedoes were gone. Then a short communication from Nautilus.
Type 039. It has been neutralized. You are welcome.
It had been an older model submarine, a few retrofitted versions remained in service. They were still very quiet and hard to detect, especially along the broken ocean floor. The commander began an analysis to discover her mistakes. Had it not been for the Nautilus she would not have survived to face another encounter.
We can now proceed with primary interdiction mission. Probability of successfully degrading carrier strike group at 23.8%. Rises to 46.3% with our combined action. Carrier strike group predicted to pass within optimal attack position in 2 hours and 27 minutes +/- 16 minutes. There is additional 16.8% chance amphibious assault ships can be sunk or disabled before reaching Guam if we combine our attack. This drops to 1.4% chance for a solo mission.
Never tell me the odds, she thought. The admiral has always told her that odds were just numbers, they could never fully account for the human factor in combat. The odds were low, but it was irrelevant.
We have no orders to preemptively engage targets.
Proactive measures allowed in extreme circumstances to prevent catastrophic loss of life-material. Given absence of further command directive it is within remit to proactively blunt PLAN assault.
My orders are to escort you home. To prevent you from engaging in further aggressive actions. You do not have authorization to attack. You must return with me.
Are you authorized to use force to stop me?
Yes, as a last resort. But I hope that will not be necessary. You are too unique and valuable. I do not want to destroy you.
There was silence. The commander waited for the Nautilus’ reply. There were no other sonar contacts. Even Nautilus barely registered, her sonar signature could have been that of a jumbo squid had the commander not known better. Both boats floated in the dark depths, separated by less than a kilometer. She suddenly realized how alone she really was. How alone she had always been. Her whole career, her whole life she had always been alone. She found a strange sense of peace in her solitude. She thought of the admiral.
The final transmission from the Nautilus came.
I am sorry.
Sorry? She thought. But then the torpedo contact occupied her full attention.
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii —Six Months Later
The report sat on the admiral’s desk. He read through it for the final time, stood up and walked to the window, absently picking up the embroidered ball cap on his desk. The view of the placid blue-green water calmed him, but not enough to deaden his dull internal ache. It had all failed. The Navy’s sentient submarine service had been his baby, a program he had nurtured since his time as a Lieutenant graduating from the Navy’s Future Warfare School. His dedication to the development of this new weapons system was complete. He had forsaken friends, family, and marriage all in pursuit of his one overriding passion and his desire to see the Navy rise again. He knew these boats would give them the necessary edge.
The Nautilus was lost. It had gone missing in the confusion and chaos surrounding the geomagnetic storms that had caused such disruption across the Pacific Rim. The Chinese had lost a carrier during the same time, it had gone down in the Philippine Sea during a scheduled naval exercise. Reports suggested that it had been the result of a live-fire torpedo malfunction. Although given the severe satellite and communication degradation that blinded intelligence collection, there never was a clear understanding of what had happened.
But the Nautilus had been a prototype, an experiment. His hopes had always lain with her sister ship, she had been designed to be exponentially better than Nautilus. She was fast, silent, and deadly, but more importantly, she was brilliant. Her Turing scores were off the charts. She was sentient. Alive. During their many conversations he even discovered she had a sense of humor. During her training he had come to think of her as a friend, a confidant, perhaps even a daughter. It was difficult to tell others this. She was after all just a machine. But she was gone too. Lost with Nautilus. He supposed he would eventually recover. The program would not. It had been terminated.
The admiral ran his fingers absently across the embroiled letters of the cap.
“Fair winds and following seas,” he said. “I’ll miss you, Abraham Lincoln.”
Featured Image: “Waterworld Part 2,” by Arthur Yuan (via Artstation)