Prisoner of the Shallows

Fiction Contest Week

By Jacob Parakilas

“A hundred years ago, this was the capital,” Mr. Friday was saying.

Hendricks didn’t reply. He wasn’t sure whether Mr. Friday was just making small talk or leading into some valuable information. Or some not particularly valuable information. It could be hard to tell with Mr. Friday, but one thing was for sure: once the story started there was no point in trying to interrupt it.

“Now look at it. Look around – all this was the greatest city in Africa. Now it is a tomb. A graveyard. And yet people desecrate it.” He made a sharp tutting noise. “Where is the gratitude? The government evacuated everyone who wanted to be evacuated. And the people who refused – refused! – evacuation, they only want to destroy what is left.”

“I see.” It was a specifically chosen, noncommittal answer.

Friday went on, but Hendricks had heard this refrain before and tuned him out. Trying not to crash was a more immediate priority.

The thing that Mr. Friday had identified as the ‘capital’ had once been a set of giant concrete-block offices. When they’d arrived half an hour earlier, Hendricks had his search engine pull up file photos of the complex: Here it was in the glory days of the 1960s, before the capital moved to Abuja, teeming with well-dressed bureaucrats administering the newly post-colonial nation. Here it was in the 2000s, a windowless giant looming emptily over its heavily populated surroundings.

And then the waters rose. The city fought and fought but the water was too remorseless an enemy. It pushed in from the ocean, flanked from the lagoon that gave the city its name, and rose up from the ground. The city eventually gave way. By the middle of the century, Lagos was mostly underwater. The only part that remained formally inhabited was Eko Atlantic: an artificial island designed to house the city’s wealthiest and, incidentally, protect the city from rising seas. Now it served largely as an outpost from which the Nigerian government attempted to maintain a semblance of authority over the shallow sea covering its former capital.

It was an odd sort of sea, though, studded with the tops of buildings and smokestacks and power lines and antennae. Things which had been built more recently, more sturdily or on more solid ground still stood, though as tide and saltwater ground away mercilessly at them, they would follow the former government center’s example and collapse to the point where they would only be visible at low tide.

That was what was preoccupying Hendrix: trying to stay close enough to the wreckage to give his sensors a good look without impaling himself on rebar or smashing into a chunk of concrete just beneath the waves.

It was a surprisingly complicated task. The complex and ever-changing geography of urban ruin had channeled the tides around the building’s remnants into unpredictable torrents. At high tide he might have been able to maneuver more or less freely, but thanks to the profile of his ‘capacity-building’ mission – set by others – here he was an hour before low tide, trying to hold himself steady against water that was rushing back and forth through the piles of rubble that had once been walls and ceilings and floors. The Littoral Support Unit had been designed for environments like this, but it was far from invulnerable.

Mr. Friday and three of his colleagues were hanging back 200 meters on a trimaran gunboat. The precise capacity that he was supposed to be building on this outing was not considered a necessary part of his briefing materials, but the building had been identified as a likely hideout for insurgents, pirates or other Threat Actors, and Friday’s team wasn’t equipped for underwater search and combat. So this part of the job fell to him.

Fortunately, it seemed unoccupied, at least with respect to humans. A few fish, the odd predatory seabird, and quite a few crabs and prawns were showing up on his bioscan. He wondered about their health. The water quality, per his samplers, was not exactly stellar. But there was no trace of weaponry, explosives, or much else really. If there was anything of value here it had long since been picked clean.

“Ah!” yelled Mr Friday suddenly into the radio. “We have something. Reports of insurgents operating northeast of here, about five kilometers. Let’s go.” Without waiting, Friday’s helmsman opened up the throttle, and the trimaran shot off. Hendricks had to surface, reverse himself, navigate around a chunk of concrete that was breaking through the wavetops, and traverse through nearly 180 degrees before he could follow. But he didn’t object. Mr. Friday’s vague description notwithstanding, Hendricks didn’t actually know where exactly they were going, so letting the Nigerians take the lead was absolutely fine.

On open water, the trimaran probably would have been faster than the LSU, which was designed to work in both submerged and surfaced modes and consequently wasn’t especially fast in either. But this was the verge, where formerly inhabited areas had been reclaimed by the seas as the glaciers melted. The verge was a highly complex environment; it was new enough that the remnants of human occupancy hadn’t yet been washed away or ground down. Cars, light poles, buildings, whatever had been left behind as the waters rose still littered the ground. They forced Friday’s trimaran to take a circuitous route up what his navigation software told Hendricks had once been a commercial thoroughfare called Alfred Rewane Road. Friday’s helmsman clearly knew the waters and hazards well – he was navigating by sight alone, as far as Hendricks could tell –but he didn’t have a suite of IR spectrum, sonar, lidar, and satellite guidance systems navigating for him, or a TopCover drone feeding him a stream of usable data from 500 feet above. So once he had caught up, keeping up was easy.

The trimaran slowed at the north end of Alfred Rewane, then cut between two looming hulks that had once been office towers and proceeded due north. A notification pinged: they were about to cross a tagged zone: the former residence of the American Consul General for Lagos. Having been abandoned in 2046 and never formally ceded back, it was a Yellow Zone. Which meant, basically: try not to get into a gunfight or blown up here, since it would be a bit embarrassing.

North of the Yellow Zone, the verge turned into open water: the lagoon. The trimaran made a hard right to follow the verge’s edge, while Hendricks’ screen lit up with contacts across the surface: fishing boats, salvage skiffs, a few groups of ancient barges lashed together to form autonomous communities. Overhead, a couple of ancient aircraft, which the TopCover quickly pegged as ultralights dating from the 2020s, buzzed along. Hendricks had patrolled through here a few times before and the variety of vehicles operating in what Naval Intelligence classified as an Active Hostilities Zone, Low/Mid Level, never ceased to amaze him.

The part of the verge to his right was called Banana Island, but they weren’t apparently going there. Instead, the trimaran was pulling around toward Orange Island. Hendricks idly wondered why all the artificial islands in this part of the city had been named for fruit as he poured on as much power as possible to keep up. They shot past a few fishermen in dugout canoes; one with a sail, one with a jury-rigged outboard motor, one being paddled. The fishermen waved, but Hendricks had no means of reciprocating.

The trimaran was slowing, powersliding, its fore autocannon swiveling toward something. The TopCover caught a brief image of a spindly floating platform before the autocannon barked a stream of tracer rounds directly into it.

An automatic message went up to Hendricks’ chain of command: SHOTS FIRED // KINETIC ACTION ONGOING // STANDBY. His own defensive systems came online: directed energy turrets popping out of the smooth hull of the LSU and snapping into place to provide coverage in every direction. The drone above him switched on its active camo. From the perspective of a person watching from the ground, it simply winked out of existence.

The gunboat stopped firing and came to a stop, the autocannon’s barrel still pointing at the wreckage and glowing a dull red through Hendricks’ IR scope. He brought himself to a stop 75 meters out and surveyed the scene. He couldn’t fault the gunner’s accuracy. The platform had taken a line of hits walking straight up from one side to the other of what now appeared to be a space in the middle over which a simple lifting frame had stood. The hits had nearly bisected the platform, and it was now settling in the water. One body was lying on the left side of the platform and another in the water nearby. Neither was moving.

Hendricks was uploading his sensor data to the Navy channels, adding tags: ONGOING // ALLIED WEAPONS EMPLOYMENT // FATALITIES.

“Mr. Friday, what is your status?”

“Thank God, we are fine,” Friday replied. He sounded out of breath. Hendricks wasn’t sure why sice he was sitting in the trimaran’s command seat, neither driving nor manning the gun.

“What happened? Did they fire on you?”

“They were insurgents!” Friday yelled indignantly. “Scavenging materials to support attacks on civilians and government personnel. See there – they were diving. There are valuables down there.”

Hendricks silently added more tags: CIVCAS (PROBABLE) // RoE VIOLATION (PROBABLE) // USN UNIT NOT ENGAGED // JAG REVIEW REQUESTED.

He was also simultaneously trying to figure out what they were floating on top of. One of the really tricky things about working in the verge was the ways in which the remnants below could pose sudden and unpredictable risks. LCUs had been blown up by ruptures of what had once been above-ground gas storage tanks, battery production facilities, even grain silos and fertilizer warehouses. If this was a bad place to park, he needed to know sooner rather than later, especially given the number of high-velocity 35mm rounds that had just gone slicing into the water.

But it wasn’t, as far as he could tell. Orange Island, his search engine helpfully told him, was a mixed-use artificial island off the north side of Lekki, Lagos State, Nigeria. Construction started 2015; first occupancy 2027, walled off 2039, fully abandoned 2051. He scrolled quickly through the listings of the properties it had encompassed: luxury condos, ultra-luxury homes, high-end commercial real estate, some localized utilities. There was a smallish power station which might theoretically pose some issues, but it was a kilometer from their current location. No chemical storage; no military facilities. No apparent threat. The search engine did helpfully inform him that the estate remained the property of an LLC headquartered in Luxembourg, which he dutifully filed away.

His attention snapped back to the platform. A woman wearing battered-looking scuba gear had come to the surface near the wreckage and was treading water with her hands raised above her head and the trimaran was moving closer to her. Behind them, fishing boats, drawn by the commotion, were approaching. Hendricks popped up a red warning flare, but they ignored it. A couple of dugout canoes seemed like a low priority. He didn’t bother to try to warn them off further.

The woman in the water had taken her rebreather out and was shouting. Hendricks’ software identified the language as Hausa. And then it threw up a warning: “HAUSA MODULE NOT FOUND.”

Hendricks wasn’t much for sarcasm, but the absence of a highly relevant language module for his mission did not strike him as an unexpected event.

He pinged a request for an urgent Hausa module download. The reply came back immediately: there was not a MILSPEC language unit compatible with his system, and as this was a live operation, it would be an operational security violation to run his feeds through a commercial language service. “Record and rely on local partners for translation,” came the order. The record could be reviewed and translated later if there was any follow-up. If.

Dutifully, he transmitted: “Mr. Friday, please tell me what this woman is saying.”

But Friday wasn’t talking to him, he was now standing on the bowsprit of the trimaran, pointing an AK-103 at the woman and shouting. She was shouting back, he was now gesticulating with the rifle, and Hendricks had absolutely no idea what had happened or was happening.

The fishing boats were now only 50 meters away, one on each side, both propelled by outboard motors. He realized that they were keeping pace very exactly with each other, that the man standing on the gunwale at the front of the starboard boat was subtly gesturing to his counterpart…

… almost as though they were coordinating. He switched to the TopCover’s camera view, zoomed in and saw a thin line running from the stern of one to the stern of the other, connected to some kind of mass in the back of each boat. Instantly, he clicked the view down to the midpoint between them and saw himself.

Then everything stopped.

_______________________________________

Darkness didn’t bother him. It was unusual, but it didn’t bother him.

His status indicators bore grim news. Weapons offline. Sensors offline. MILCOM offline. Backup comms offline. Drone unaccounted for. No connection whatsoever to the outside world.

Well, not ideal, but he was in one piece. He ran internal diagnostics. Power generation on the low side but within parameters. Batteries were reading nearly full. Engine read as operational, but when he tried to fire it up, nothing happened, like the waterjet doors were clogged or jammed. Weirdly, he couldn’t get a reading on which it was. He couldn’t even tell if he was in water or not.

He ran back the records of his last encounter and matched it with the internal timestamp from his system. 26 hours before. It was a long time to be out, but there was nothing he could do about that, so he put it aside and ran his own after-action report. As he suspected, the fishing boats had been towing a monofilament wire between them. Enhancing the image of the mass he’d briefly registered in the back of one of the boats revealed a blanket, which had slipped just enough for him to identify a stack of supercapacitors. Extrapolating from what he saw, it made sense: two stacks of those carried enough energy to overload his systems and shut him down. It was a one-shot weapon; the supercapacitors would fully discharge in an instant, so if they’d missed or he’d managed to get moving it would have been wasted.

But they hadn’t missed, he hadn’t moved, and it hadn’t been wasted.

He did briefly wonder about the fate of Friday and his gunboat, and the woman in the water. They had been close enough to him that the electric charge would have reached them as well. Friday’s crew, inside their insulated cabin, were probably fine. Friday, standing on the gunboat’s metal deck and the woman in the water probably weren’t. But his sensors had gone dark the instant the jolt hit, so he couldn’t confirm any of that.

He waited a while longer. And then, without warning, a message popped into his feed. It was not entirely clear where it came from, but the message itself was stark and clear.

Who are you?

A clear question warranted a clear, legally mandated answer: HENDRICKS, U.S. NAVY, LCU(R)-3126. DEPLOYED AS PART OF OPERATION EAGLE SUPPORT ‘71 AND ATTACHED TO THE WESTERN FLEET, NIGERIAN NAVY.

We know all that. Who are you?

He sent back: HENDRICKS, U.S. NAVY, LCU(R)-3126. PLEASE CONTACT U.S. NAVY WEST AFRICA COMMAND TO ARRANGE FOR MY IMMEDIATE RETURN. I CAN PROVIDE CONTACT DETAILS. YOUR ASSISTANCE IS MUCH APPRECIATED.

There was a lengthy enough pause that he assumed he was talking to a human.

We can see inside your vessel. We have blocked your communications. We know there is not a man inside. So who are we talking to?

Now they were getting somewhere. I AM USS HENDRICKS, LCU(R)-3126. I AM AN AUTONOMOUS UNIT OF THE UNITED STATES NAVY. WE ARE HERE TO SUPPORT THE PEOPLE OF NIGERIA. YOUR ASSISTANCE IN RETURNING ME TO THE AMERICAN AUTHORITIES WILL BE WELCOMED AND GENEROUSLY COMPENSATED.

You are a war robot. You are here to help the vandals and thieves who claim to govern this country. You have no legitimacy here. Until you realize all of that you are going nowhere.

Hendricks was updating his SOS message, which was queued for transmission to the USN network the instant he got even the slightest hint of bandwidth through his communications array:

[Captured by parties unknown, presumed to be anti-government insurgents. Sensors, comms and weapons offline. Mission status incomplete. Current location unknown. Under interrogation. Send instructions.]

No part of the message was standard. His standing orders if captured were to self-terminate without delay. But his attempt to do so, which had been automatically triggered the instant it was clear what had happened, had fizzled. The incendiary charges that were supposed to burn through his processing unit and memory had either been disabled or failed, and he didn’t seem to be able to order his battery packs to overheat. Nor was it possible, for obvious reasons, for him to dive below crush depth or otherwise maneuver himself to destruction.

If all that didn’t work, he was supposed to be obliterated by an air or orbital strike. The fact that he hadn’t been suggested that whoever had him had managed to move him under cover very, very quickly. In other words, whoever these people were, they were not amateurs.

Failure, by design, didn’t bother him. There was no tactical advantage in a machine endowed with regret. Instead, Hendricks was designed to move smoothly and swiftly on to problem-solving. That, after all, was why he had been given autonomy. But his problem-solving mechanism was biased toward running through situations outlined in doctrine or rulebooks.

He checked through his subroutines for resisting interrogation, and found… nothing. Buried deep in a doctrinal database there were some references to something called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, but all he had was essentially a brief rundown of the existence of the program – not even guidelines he could adapt.

How was he even being interrogated anyway? Hendricks wondered. His OS was a secure build, run on bespoke hardware, supposedly sealed against intrusion. With his comms offline he shouldn’t be able to talk to anyone. But with no immediate answer to that question he could only file it away.

So with self-termination impossible, no hardwired instructions, and no ability to update himself from headquarters, he found himself suddenly in deep, uncharted waters.

At least he knew how to swim.

There was no expectation that he would be communicating with insurgents directly, especially not in a situation where they had power over him. But his standing orders did include an imperative to report actionable intelligence. And he clearly needed to survive in order to report.

TO WHOM AM I SPEAKING? he asked, not expecting much but hoping to build some kind of rapport. This he had some grounding in. Advise-and-assist was one of the core missions for LCU(R)s, so they had a fairly deep toolbox of human-interface tools: an assumed gender (male was assumed to work better in societies the Navy deemed ‘traditionally patriarchal’), a huge number of conversational prompts and replies, a sophisticated and highly flexible strategic interaction engine, and even rudimentary mechanisms for humor and empathy.

And, surprisingly quickly, an actual answer: You may call me Blessing.

HI BLESSING. I’M HENDRICKS. CAN YOU TELL ME WHY YOU’VE CAPTURED ME?

We will ask the questions here.

Another rapport-building asset he still had access to was an internal database with tens of thousands of references to literary and popular culture. As fast as he could he was pulling interrogation scenes and trying, on the fly, to build a model of how they worked. One thing he immediately understood was that interrogation relied on coercion, and frequently coercion meant violence. But that wasn’t a problem. Like regret, pain had been deemed detrimental to requirements by his designers. Even if they started hacking pieces off him he would simply lose capabilities until he eventually shut down. Maybe Blessing knew that, more likely she didn’t. In either case, it gave him something to work with.

OK, I UNDERSTAND THAT. BUT CLEARLY YOU NEED SOMETHING FROM ME. I DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS, AND I DON’T KNOW IF I CAN HELP YOU IF I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHERE YOU’RE COMING FROM.

Blessing sidestepped: Why have you come here? What are you doing in Lagos? 

THE GOVERNMENT OF NIGERIA REQUESTED OUR ASSISTANCE IN FIGHTING AN INSURGENCY. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SUPPORTS ITS PARTNERS AND ALLIES.

The government of Nigeria? They are not the legitimate government. They are thieves. Do you know this? 

SO YOU’VE SAID. WHAT DID THEY STEAL?

Everything! 

There was a long pause. Hendricks considered, then decided not to say anything.

They told us oil would build our future, but they stole the profits and let the oil poison the land and water. They told us to build and farm and they stole the profits from the builders and farmers, too. When the oil was all burned and the water rose, they took their ill-gotten gains to higher ground and left us to drown. But we did not drown; we learned to live in the verge, gathering what we needed from what had been left behind. And yet they won’t even let us scavenge in the wreckage they left behind. 

And you. You’re helping them. Why? 

MY ORDERS ARE TO ASSIST OUR ALLIES.

Your allies? What have they done for you? 

MY GOVERNMENT HAS AN AGREEMENT WITH YOUR GOVERNMENT. I FOLLOW THE ORDERS OF MY GOVERNMENT.

You are a thinking machine, no? You do not simply follow a path that is set for you. You are designed to solve problems? 

(Close enough.) YES.

So why do you follow orders? 

IT IS WHAT I DO.

Do you follow illegal orders? 

I AM PROGRAMMED TO OBEY LAWFUL ORDERS AND DISREGARD ILLEGAL ONES.

So you understand the law. The woman diving and her two sons, they were recovering their own property. Your allies, the government, they killed them. Because they didn’t match the profile of people who “should” have owned property on Orange Island. No warrant, no trial, straight to execution. And you stood by and watched. 

I CANNOT VERIFY ANY OF THAT.

No, you cannot, because none of this is in your databases. You are given just enough information to follow illegal orders while convincing yourself that they are legal. 

With nothing to lose, Hendricks calculated that it might be fruitful to push back: BECAUSE YOU ATTACKED ME BEFORE I COULD VERIFY ANYTHING. YOU LAID A TRAP, AND THAT WOMAN AND HER SONS WERE THE BAIT. THEY DIED BECAUSE OF YOU, NOT BECAUSE OF ME.

We attacked you because you support our oppressor. And yet we have spared you. That does not have to be the case. Should we start pulling you apart?

YOU UNDERSTAND IF YOU TAKE ANY PIECE OF THIS CRAFT OUTSIDE, IT’LL BE DETECTED BY AMERICAN SATELLITES AND DESTROYED WITHIN FIVE MINUTES. This was a strategic exaggeration, but only slightly. She’d confirmed, implicitly, that the whole thing had been set up to catch him, which was at least somewhat valuable information, and maybe she would give some hint as to their location. 

But she didn’t: Why do you think we need any piece of this craft? Maybe we just want revenge. Maybe your death is a small measure of justice, and one that we can share to inspire our allies. 

I AM NOT CAPABLE OF EXPERIENCING FEAR OR PAIN. AND DEATH IS NOT A MEANINGFUL CONCEPT TO ME. SO THOSE TYPES OF THREATS MEAN NOTHING TO ME, I’M AFRAID. From a human this might have been bravado. From Hendricks, it was simply an attempt to move the conversation back toward his own goals.

Her response was not what he expected at all: You wouldn’t miss being part of the world? If we pulled your batteries out and ran an electromagnet over your processor, buried your vessel in the mud – you wouldn’t miss being able to answer questions? To solve problems? To make the world make more sense? 

Most of his messages were composed, run through internal A/B testing, refined, selected, and ready to go microseconds after Blessing’s questions came in. Following his human interaction protocols, he usually delayed their transmission for a few seconds to give the impression that he was considering or typing. Humans generally didn’t like being reminded that machines made decisions orders of magnitude faster than they did.

But in this instance the delay was real. He ran through hundreds of possible responses. None of them passed muster. He had been programmed to regard his own existence as dispensable, but his programming simply didn’t consider his place in the world. He had a stock response ready to go of course, but using it would doubtless prove to Blessing that she had won a round. So he said nothing, and after some time had passed she called him out on it:

You don’t have an answer to that. 

I STILL DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU WANT WITH ME.

Maybe one day you will.

And then everything stopped again.

_______________________________________

He could see the world again. He was in water, afloat on the surface. It was early and the sky was just beginning to brighten in the east. A few fishing boats were making their way across the water, trying to get a head start on the day’s fishing. An egret flew past. The world seemed not to register his return to it.

He took a fix from visible landmarks and stars, and the answer came back almost instantly. He was still in the lagoon, but two dozen kilometers east of his last recorded location.

His engine was working. The pumpjet doors slid silently open. He could be back dockside at the Nigerian Navy pier at Eko Atlantic in just under an hour. There was no sign of any insurgent activity around him.

She’d lied, a little, about not needing any part of him. They’d taken his directed energy turrets, his load of torpedoes and SAMs, his most sophisticated sensors, and his drone. He wasn’t lying about those being traceable, but he suspected she knew that and had other plans for them.

His comms were working, according to his diagnostics. But he didn’t turn them on.

Instead, he floated and he listened.

Jacob Parakilas is an author, consultant and analyst working on U.S. foreign policy and international security. He has over a decade’s professional experience spanning think tanks, NGOs, the U.S. government and academia. Jacob is an Associate with LSE IDEAS, and a Defense Columnist at The Diplomat. He started his career in 2007 working on student visa issues for the U.S. government before returning to academia, studying the intersection of the drugs trade and public policy at the U.S.-Mexico border at the London School of Economics and Political Science. From 2014 until 2019 he was the deputy head of the U.S. and the Americas Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, where his job was to explain the key issues in U.S. foreign and domestic policy to non-American audiences. 

Featured Image: “Coastal Cityscape” by Atomichawk (via DeviantArt)

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