Tag Archives: Future War Fiction Contest

Autonomous War

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

By Matthew Hipple

               As the knife slides out, Foxtrot 2-1-1 doesn’t notice the blood. The enemy officer’s hand slumps away from the leg holster. Firearms are powerful, and a powerful comfort… but they’re useless when you’re sitting down and a blade is closer than the length of the barrel. Screens flash as untended command prompts stack up from systems patrolling several surrounding blocks. 2-1-1 feels an impulse transmitted from outside. He plants the charge as he leaps out of the torn metal hatch. Prone on the pavement outside, 2-1-1 is sprayed with rocks as an unmanned bipedal weapon vehicle (UBWV) smashes a short-cut through a corner storefront.

               With a “thump”, smoke pours out of the armored vehicle. The UBWV’s Gatling cannons whirr softly – one aimed at 2-1-1, the other aimed at his fireteam in the second-story window above. Rounds remain disengaged as it awaits target approval from the smoking corpse. Fireteam Foxtrot-2-1 has 5 seconds until the UBWV shifts its engagement prompt to another station, or engages automatically if RoE has changed. 2-1-1 leaps up, knife still in hand. He pulls the knife across a protective joint seam as his second hand comes up with his sidearm. Bypassing layers of armor plating and protective industrial coating, a full magazine of 9mm is enough to fry the UBWV’s ability to move, detect, and engage.

               Unmanned systems are powerful, and a powerful comfort.

               But like the bloody mess slumped over his darkened consoles, some commanders couldn’t learn to let go. Their confidence increased apace with technology’s subtler cognitive abilities, but they could never resist the urge to reach back. Even when the blade was at their throat, they couldn’t resist the urge to reach out for the comfort and cleanliness of human control.

               2-1-1 holds up his hand, the fireteam stacking up behind him before the next street. Like finding that word you haven’t been able to put your finger on, each member of 2-1 suddenly receives a series of mental images, intentions, and concepts outlining their next direction and target from Foxtrot Actual. They disappear through a doorway as a humming echoes from over one of the rooftops.

               Fireteam 2-1 hides from aerial surveillance, picking its way through jagged passageways and unnatural, twisting stairs. It is a dusty labyrinth created when alleyways and building interiors are re-arranged by explosives. Burrows are dug throughout the ruin, gaunt figures hiding from a war between man and machine. Each piece of data is collected, assessed, and stored temporarily away in the subconscious for later use or transmission.

               Claws scrape across the concrete. Rubble and blood explode from the rear of the team. Foxtrot 2-1-4 is in a heap, a metallic, dog-sized quadruped pinning him down. 2-1-4 screams as the sharp claws dig in and an articulating maw of blades remove the rasping throat. Against every instinct, everyone drops their weapons as they fall to the ground. Detecting no armed, moving objects of roughly human temperature – the “thing” stands by for one of the limited foot patrols to check the targets.

               One of the warm shapes move, drawing a pistol from a hidden chest holster. As the “thing” leaps down upon him, the two shapes on either side rise up, pull the “thing” up and onto its back from either side – smashing it down onto a piece of rebar sticking through a cratered wall.

               The “thing” represented the reality commanders didn’t want to face – they couldn’t control everything from over the horizon. The abandoned command vehicle, so close to the battlefield, was a bastion against electronic warfare and the limitations of physics. The “thing”, however, was invested with the autonomy eventually demanded by the enemy’s ingenuity.
               Unfortunately, a certain fear, combined with an institutional lack of creativity, always left autonomous systems with exploitable weaknesses. Commanders combined the worst of their self-confidence with their hesitancy to commit. Whole suites of artificially limited systems were deployed into the field with the assurance of a cure-all.

               With a foot patrol inbound, and the fireteam within the security perimeter, Foxtrot-Actual sends its final collection of images and directives. 2-1-1 turns to 2-1-2, saluting in one of the few remaining traditions. The sentiment represents a larger series of command processes and adaptations that have transferred the designation of 2-1-1, fireteam leader, to 2-1-2. Former 2-1-1 continues through the rubble, now designated by Foxtrot Actual as Foxtrot 2-X. 2-1-1 leads the remaining fireteam members – and the incoming foot patrols – away from the area.

               The warfighter on the ground had always been a dangerous and adaptable machine.  Even the greatest autonomous system would, in some aspects, be a cheap attempt to imitate millions of years of evolution. In the air, at sea – the speed and range of combat, the type of platforms involved, had changed to the point that the human was almost secondary to the equation. On the ground – from the easily fueled musculature to advanced cognitive functions – a human may always be best. An augmented human – cognition enhanced chemically with electrically driven muscles pulling joints wrought with new alloys and plastics – but still a human.

               But where was automation’s competitive advantage? Computers had become progressively better at understanding vast logistical and operational problems: streamlining global transport networks, beating humans at “Go”, automating a large portion of global market trading. Smaller issues of context were mastered as well, from the ability to recognize animals to human emotions. Computers could read data from minds – and had just started to show glimmers that data could be contextualized.

               After leadership’s repeated failures to understand or properly exploit autonomy in the field, someone aimed the question in a different direction. “How much Operational Availability do I sacrifice when everything from procurement to maintenance is derailed by egos or self-deceit? What is the human cost of the collected seconds, minutes, hours, and days of human friction as the front awaits orders? Do I need warfighters constrained by the indecision of dozens of human beings attempting to interpret their intelligence & advice before directing action?” Was an autonomous system’s competitive advantage… in the field?

               With a sentry’s severed hand pressed up against the door access panel, Foxtrot 2-X enters the enemy’s field command. Several dozen figures hunch over flickering screens in the dark – directing assets based on the verbal and written reports from units across the battlefield. Amid hushed voices, fingers patter across touch-screens in response to a constant stream of command prompts from unmanned systems.

               Of the several dozen or so figures in the room, only a handful realize what is about to happen. Unlike the isolated command vehicle, this space is large, and at least three weapons are drawn to kinetic effect on Foxtrot 2-X.  Two white phosphorous grenades roll onto the watch floor as a bleeding 2-X aims his collapsing body against the door – closing the heat and screaming watch standers inside.

               With his final breath, a mix of conscious and subconscious observations, passively collected signals intelligence, observations on base defenses and sentry procedures, and a series of final stress levels, queues, and correlated emotive reactions is transmitted to Foxtrot Actual.

               In orbit around the battlefield, Foxtrot Actual’s systems receive, analyze, and integrate this data for further operational planning and live assessments of troop stress levels. 2-X’s personnel file, last noted tactical adaptations, and final mission report are archived for analysis and dissemination. His fireteam’s method of destroying bladed quadrupeds has already been uploaded from 2-1, and was transmitted to Foxtrot’s human fighters. Finally, designation 2-X is made available for re-application.

               Through the collective cloud of its forces’ thoughts, Foxtrot Actual perceives a smattering of enemy soldiers retreating through a wasteland of stalled robotics. Foxtrot Actual directs Foxtrot units into the new vacuum. It catalyzes the decision making of its forces as they plot their movements, a machine in the subconscious ghost. Somewhere, an extra cooling fan kicks on as Foxtrot Actual determines how best to exploit these latest opportunities.

               Rather than replacing the warfighter, someone asked, “maybe it’s time to replace the commander?”

Matthew Hipple is a Surface Warfare Officer in the US Navy, and President Emeritus of CIMSEC. He used to write frequently for USNI and War on the Rocks, but spends most of his time now amusing a precocious 10 month old.*

*Due to CIMSEC affiliation this piece was not under consideration during the judging process and is published along with all other pieces submitted in response to the Fiction Contest call for articles.

Featured Image: B-7 Beagle unmanned surface vehicle from Al Makareb. (Al Makareb)

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)

The Cod Squad

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

By Hal Wilson

They were in among the Roaring Forties now. The distant horizon had melted into a gossamer gray, the sea and sky blending into some benign fug. Stampeding whitecaps roiled and tumbled, pinpricks of luminescence against the gun-metal ocean. The winds raced in mercilessly under dead slabs of cloud to deliver their brutal slap. They were the kind of westerlies the old East Indiamen vied for – all well and fine for the return journey. Less so for the southward leg.

Sub-Lieutenant Henry Dalby once hated such weather above all else. But that was before twenty days on this benighted voyage, which taught him to despise HMS Kennet with an even greater passion. It was sometime after Ascension Island that he accepted the hate billowing in his breast. He was almost ready to kill the Kennet personally.

It would be easy enough to do. She was only in the next cabin down.

It wasn’t down to the Kennet‘s sea-keeping: She handled the South Atlantic’s awe with a gambler’s nonchalance. It wasn’t down to the Kennet‘s accommodation: Carrying only fifteen crewmen but designed for forty, she seemed somehow cavernous. It wasn’t even the Kennet‘s advancing age, or its Liliputian size against the ocean wastes. (Though Dalby quailed to think a ship so small, and so far beyond his twenty-three years, was being sent so far south in a sea so vast.)

Dalby hated the Kennet because he knew she was going to kill him – unless he beat her to it. Kennet‘s Artificial Intelligence hub, the ship’s soul, filled the former officer’s cabin adjacent to Dalby’s own. The warmth of her processing power seeped through the bulkhead relentlessly. Offsetting the luxury of a cabin to himself, the sultry heat felt as if she were trying to join him, to enwrap him.

To smother him in his bunk, perhaps.

Failing that, she would kill him with the long knives of exhaustion and despair. The primitive AI operated across each of the ship’s integrated systems – an arrangement that worked acceptably in UK home waters. Thus the old hulls of the Fisheries Squadron – the Cod Squad – ran patrols and drug busts with just five officers and ten ratings, while the ship all but handled itself.

But it took three hard reboots just to reach Ascension, and the AI struggled to handle snowballing machinery problems in the ever-worsening conditions of the South Atlantic. Kennet also fostered a growing imagination. She scolded Able Seaman Carver every evening over an asthmatic condition he never possessed. She daily warned Bateson, the Chief Weapon Engineering Artificer, over illusory power surges. All hands were working flat out to keep her underway. Some doubted it would be enough.


Dalby ran his fingers over his scalp as he flopped onto the wardroom’s sickly-cream wall-mounted sofa. Oblivious to his dismay, a pair of black coffees steamed merrily in the nearby dispenser port.
“Two teas, Sub-Lieutenant,” Kennet crooned through monotone deckhead speakers.
Sucking air through gritted teeth, head bowed, Dalby bit down a sob. He silently checked himself, the voice in his head barbed with scorn.
Crying over coffee? Get it together. You need a safe space or something, you bloody idiot?
But where contempt broke on the armour of his fatigue, Kennet‘s caprice went clean through. After all, a mug of tea was banal enough until seen through the looking-glass of a fifteen-hour day.
Footsteps approached. Noise traveled unusually well in the ship’s sepulchral guts, despite the cheap linoleum lining every passageway. Forewarned, Dalby recovered through that ancient, unequaled power – the base need to avoid embarrassment. Able Seaman Carver appeared at the wardroom’s open doorway, knocking politely.
“What’s the matter?” Dalby said, getting to his feet.
“The Captain asked for you to hurry back, sir.” Carver’s voice was reedy and young. “All hands to muster on the bridge.” Dalby collected the coffees as he left.
“I thought he asked for tea, sir?” Carver asked, peering into the mugs.
“Don’t you start.”


The bridge was just large enough for the entire ship’s company. The deckhead hung low over them as they ringed a close semi-circle around their CO, Lieutenant Commander Hart. The confined space echoed to the judderjudder-judder of the bridge-window wipers. Beyond the maddening wipers, the upper deck was secured tight against the weather, safety-lines rigged, as the ship ploughed mechanically through spuming waves. Just visible from the bridge was the 76mm gun. It was locked in place, as firm as a lodestone, but the paltry calibre was as reassuring as a toy rifle.

Dalby noticed with a grimace that he and Carver seemed to be the last to arrive: There was Lieutenant Asher and the rest of the bridge team; there, the marine engineers; there, the junior technicians and even the two chefs. Shaking off the eyes boring into him, Dalby handed across a coffee to Hart.
“I asked for tea, sub,” Hart said laconically.
“My mistake, sir,” Dalby lied. “Hit the wrong button.” It was best that the commanding officer didn’t lose faith in his ship’s quality as a barista. He had precious little faith left in Kennet already.

“Listen well, company,” Hart began, setting down the coffee with polite repugnance. “Word has come in from Commander Task Force. Number One, will you do the honours?”
Lieutenant Asher stepped forth at the invitation, clearing her throat. She held a flimsy chit of paper in one hand. Her pinched, sallow face carried a grim solemnity. Dalby knew what was coming.
Judder-judder-judder babbled the mindless wipers.
“From CTF: Mount Pleasant under fire. CinC orders to break blockade regardless. RoE amended, fire on ARG contacts if fired upon. Good luck. God save the King.” Hart stepped forward.
“You know what this means. We trained for this. We volunteered for this.” He turned to Lieutenant Asher.
“Number One, I want you on Bluewatcher. Shout out if Kennet misses anything. The rest of you? Take your refreshers if you’re on watch. If you’re not – get some rest. Merlins will be here to assist with any Shayus, and I want fresh hands on standby for in-flight refuelling.” Hart paused abruptly. “Chief, what is it?”

Dalby craned his neck around – Chief Bateson had just blundered onto the bridge. Soaked from head to toe, the overweight weapons engineer gave a half-hearted, breathless salute.
“Sir, it’s the ISOs. I think the waterproofing is giving way.”
“What?” Hart hissed. “Kennet, confirm Sea Ceptor status.”
Kennet took a teasing moment to reply.
“No problems to report, Captain,” she droned, flat and lifeless.
“Sir,” Bateson interrupted, “we might be catching it early, but the contractors did a shoddy job.”
Hart could see the earnest fear in Bateson’s eyes; he trusted his engineer over his ship.
“Chief, take a gang and get aft right away. The balloon just went up at Mount Pleasant.”
“Christ. Dalby, sir. You and Carver. With me.”
“Everyone else,” Hart looked across the bridge, “dismissed.”


Dalby jogged to match Bateson’s surprisingly swift pace. As they rushed aft they passed the ship’s Battle Honours plaque, with Dardanelles 1915-16 and North Sea 1941 immortalised in oak. Dalby hoped they would survive to add ‘South Atlantic‘ to the modest list.

Before they emerged onto the flight deck, Bateson handed out heavy tubes of InstaFoam.
“Just point these where I tell you to,” he said tersely, dripping sea-water. “Hold the cables flush to the deck and pull the trigger-spoon. And keep your hands clear of this stuff, for God’s sake.” The trio clipped safety lines and hastily threw on their foul weather jackets, polyester chafing at their necks. With that, they bundled out. Chief Bateson had the lead.

The sea enveloped them. Lashed into fury by the punishing wind, freezing foam roared over the low freeboard and soaked them to the skin.
“This way!” bawled Bateson. Shivering already, Dalby followed.
The flight deck had been rigged with six ISO shipping containers, each twenty feet tall and speared skyward like smokestacks. Rapid welding work at Portsmouth had bound them as tightly to the deck as if they had always been there. Within each slumbered a Sea Ceptor missile, the bolt-on weapon system giving the Kennet a deadly punch. Dalby looked up. Flush over the mouth of every container was stout plastic shielding, saving the volatile missiles from corrosion.
“Sir! Do it there,” the Chief bellowed, slapping Dalby on the arm and pointing down.

Instantly, Dalby saw the problem. The fat bundles of cabling that linked each ISO to the Kennet‘s generators were coming free, rolling deferentially to the ship’s progress. One was clearly coming apart from the friction, its guts of rainbow wires open to the scourging salt. They got to work swiftly, InstaFoam spray blooming into mushroom caps of anonymous grey. The insulating material hardened instantly and pinned the cables right to the deck. For good measure, Dalby put a double spurt on the exposed length of wiring.
“That’ll have to do, you two,” Bateson shouted, pointing for them both to head back inside. Dalby let the others go first, lingering at the hatchway.

Out over the rear of the ship, the Kennet‘s wake churned fluorescence into the Atlantic’s skin.
Somewhere beyond the bland horizon skulked the escorts – the Type Twenty-Sixes and Type Forty-Fives, as vigilant as mother wolves around their cubs. The heart of their deadly affection would be the Prince of Wales and its Amphibious Task Group: the Albion and Bulwark, with their MoD-chartered RoRos; their tankers and Bay-class landing docks. Most were too old and too tired for such a journey. But between them they carried the greatest prize of all – a Brigade of Royal Marines. It was less than what their grandfathers took south with them before. It might not even be enough. But it would have to do.

Ahead of them all, groping into the Atlantic like lost, blind men, went the Cod Squad. Hart had made it clear before that CTF would not idly risk his irreplaceable F-35s and submarines. Instead these cheap, half-empty ships would be the picket for the vaunted ex-Chinese drone shoals.
Dalby paused, cocking his ear to the wind.
Thunder? He scanned the western horizon. Over there!
Distant, scudding cloudbanks were underlit by the smudge of burning iron oxide, a sick ochre glow. Against the slate aspic of the sky, that unhealthy pall could mean only one thing.
“I think that was the Avon,” Dalby announced through the hatch.
All hands, brace, brace, brace!”


Dalby was a fraction of a second too slow in reaching for the nearest stanchion. He slipped, and before his lifeline could go taught, he flew headfirst into the hatch-frame with a dull thwack. His vision hazed as if his very corneas were abraded; he felt rough hands grabbing his chest to hold him down. The Kennet came about at full helm beneath him, the motion feeling as distant as the moon. Dalby’s head lolled in sympathy to it. Slowly, his vision cleared. He watched in mute fascination as a streak of phosphor fuzzed under the black waves just fifty feet away. Blinking hard, he watched it pass with all the peaceful grace of an express train, charting a path to some unseen appointment in the endless, inky Atlantic.

That was a torpedo, he mused absent-mindedly. We’re under attack.

“Get to your action stations,” Dalby groaned, struggling to his feet. “Go!” he shouted, making to move to the bridge. The two crewmen fled, hastening to their posts. Dalby tasted the tang of copper in his mouth. Ignoring it, he stumbled sternwards. Alone with his thoughts, he wondered in silent disbelief – How did the torpedo miss? We were dead to rights. Bad electronics? Poor maintenance? Dalby had read about similar problems with the enemy arsenal in the last war. The more things change…

On the bridge, the Kennet intoned flatly “Estimate target starboard bow, bearing one-nine-zero, range…”
Judder-judder-judder­ went the damned wipers.
Dalby glanced around. Asher was holding her left arm at an odd angle; Hart’s coffee mug tumbled freely around the deck. Hart noticed Dalby stagger in.
“Sub,” he barked. “You’re injured. Get below for treatment.”
“No, sir, I’m fine,” Dalby lied once again.
Hart himself seemed nonplussed by their close brush with death – but a shiner of a bruise already waxed purple over his cheek.
“The Kennet threw us into a sharp turn, Sub. We all got caught out. Man your post, for now.”
“A torpedo launched close to starboard,” the Kennet explained. “Emergency action was required.”
Kennet,” Hart interrupted. “Confirm we have a Merlin en route to the target?”
“Yes, Captain. Five minutes’ flight time,” the ship answered.
“I still have it on Bluewatcher,” Asher added, teeth clenched from the pain of her broken arm. “Definitely a Shayu.
Dalby leaned against his console, light-headed. The console’s blue panelling seemed somehow too bright, forcing him to squint. He rubbed a dribble of scarlet blood from his nose. Shayu, he recalled faintly, was Chinese for ‘Shark’. A disposable killing machine. They were autonomous little torpedo carriers, whose ubiquity grew in direct proportion to Beijing’s post-crash need for hard currency.

The saving grace about the Shayu was its noisy engine, a by-product of the cheap design. Between that and the Kennet’s cues, the Merlin helicopter was hot on the drone’s trail, readying to drop a torpedo of its own against the Shayu.
“Sir,” Lieutenant Asher warned from her sonar console, “target has changed course and increased speed. I think it heard the Merlin’s last set of sonar-buoys.”
“Lieutenant Asher is right,” chimed Kennet. “Cavitation noise increased. The Merlin crew are aware.”
Hart said nothing, arms crossed. He and his company – lacking any subsurface weapons of their own – could only watch and report. Far to starboard, the Merlin trundled above the pitching sea, splaying out rippling circles from the fierce force of its downwash. A crackle came over the radio into Asher’s headset.
“Merlin reports firm active sonar contact,” she announced, looking to the bridge windows. “It’s launching.”
Squinting, his view disturbed by the wipers’ metronome movements, Dalby watched the torpedo separate cleanly. The drop was retarded by the white flag of a small parachute. The Merlin pulled away.

Judder-judder-judder went the wipers.

The torpedo was gone. Not even a splash marked its fall. Dalby rubbed his eyes, hoping the wipers hadn’t erased the torpedo from existence.
“Merlin reports successful launch,” Kennet advised.
“Number One?” Hart asked, keen on a second opinion.
“She’s right, sir,” Asher said. “I can hear it pinging; it’s right on top of the bloody thing.”
Sure enough, the Stingray torpedo was bearing down fast on the Shayu. Even running at full speed, the drone was far too slow to escape. The surface suddenly shook white, like the spider-webbing of shattered glass. But where the Compass Rose might once have found a slain U-boats’ detritus bubbling upwards, nothing remained of the drone.

Only a single buoy surfaced, unseen and unheard, its radio bleeping word of the drone’s demise.

“It’s gone, sir,” Asher said with palpable relief. Hart nodded.
“Tell the Merlin boys good work, and we’ll go halves on the kill,” he quipped. Dalby felt the warm satisfaction of success. Or was that blood running down his neck? I need to get my head looked at, he admitted to himself.

 Judder-judder-judder went the wipers.

“Be advised,” blurted the Kennet, interrupting the bridge’s blissful cheer. “Two possible surface contacts. Range 30 nautical miles. Port bow, bearing two-six-five. Possible Malvinas-class corvettes.”


Radar conditions were poor, but the Kennet was not wrong. It was one thing for Kennet to hunt drones. Going toe to toe with two corvettes – ships that matched the Kennet‘s tonnage and carried better armament to boot – was another thing entirely. It was damn near suicide.

The two ex-Chinese corvettes were hustling in like carrion, as if lured by the Avon’s death-fires.  Their radars were powered down, to save revealing their position to the British ESM. They were listening instead to the Shayu shoals up-threat. They were a pair of matte-grey killers on the prowl. They had been waiting for this.

And now they had the fix of the dead drone’s radio beacon.


“Sub,” Hart snapped urgently, “did you and the Chief deal with the Sea Ceptors?”
“Yes sir. At least one of them is out of action,” he replied apologetically.
Hart cursed. The Sea Ceptors were their one real hope against these roving predators.
“Number One?” Hart looked to Asher. “We have to assume this is a positive contact. Signal Tamar and Humber – we pull back and draw the corvettes onto the fleet. Kennet? Come hard right to course three-five-zero, and give me maximum revolutions.” Everyone knew the best chance for the Cod Squad was to stay ahead of the corvettes’ grasp.

“Captain, sir. There is an alternative.” Dalby paused, brow furrowed. It was the Kennet. He had never heard the AI provide an ‘alternative’ before.
“The corvettes have almost certainly not yet detected this ship. To turn back now would fail to draw them in as you suggested.”  Dalby watched, fascinated, as Hart listened. Was he the first naval officer in history to be chided by his own ship?
“Go on,” Hart growled.
“You could instead continue on the current course. You could place the radar in standby to avoid detection for now, and re-activate at closer range to act as a lure. They are attempting to ambush us; you could instead ambush them.”
Hart rubbed his temples quietly. He wanted to disagree but his ship – the bloody ship! – was right. The Cod Squad were, for now, the eyes and ears of the fleet. And AI guidance or no, he had to lead by example. Just as his father did in the last war.
“Belay my last. Tamar and Humber will withdraw to the TF outer screen. We will hold this course. Number One, update CTF.”
“Sir,” Dalby started, voice low, “Lieutenant Asher and I are injured…” he trailed off, wilting under Hart’s gaze. He didn’t want to look a coward. But he knew Asher was thinking the same – it was in her eyes.
“Do not worry, Sub-Lieutenant,” crooned the Kennet, “I can handle this myself.”

Dalby’s mouth went dry, a knot of dread in his gut. Their AI would be taking on two corvettes single-handed. And it had volunteered to do so.


The corvettes kept their course steadily for some time, minutes passing like the waves that foamed and fell away against their knifelike bows.

They seemed to sniff the air like vultures, hunger overcoming caution as they closed on the dead drone’s buoy. To come this far north was beyond their orders, but the Shayu shoals confirmed that lonely little ships were in the van of the British fleet. With one quick sweep they could notch some easy kills and return home heroes.

Holding a loose formation, they conferred by signal lamp. No-one wanted to risk radio this close to the British carrier. The superior of the two decided now was the time: They would be in knife-fighting range of the little ships. There was a British search radar nearby earlier – now silent – but its owner would surely make for easy pickings. If any larger escorts came chasing, they could still run with the Shayu drones to their backs – and no fool would rush a billion-pound ship into the teeth of the drones.

As if on cue, the corvettes’ radar warning receivers rang out. A rush of panic broke out for the briefest moment. The British radar shut down abruptly, as if equally shocked. The corvettes wondered – could there really be an enemy escort so close in? Have we pushed our luck too far? The lead corvette energised its radar; pulsed once, pulsed twice. There. Relief flooded the command deck: It was only one of the hapless little ships. Orders rang out to make ready for missile launch.


But the corvettes were being watched.

With the serene complacency of simple ignorance, they were scrutinised like bacteria under the microscope. Their albatross, hidden higher than any crossbow could ever reach, was a Fleet Air Arm F-35B.  It looked and listened from behind the cloud-layer, categorising all that its sensors found, relaying hushed messages with the daring of a furtive schoolchild.

Far below, the lead corvette’s signal lamp blinked – I am attacking. Its partner acknowledged, watching expectantly like an eager sibling.

The lead ship burst apart, erupting into flames. Where one moment it sailed proudly, the next it was a mangled ruin of shattered steel and flaming fuel-oil. Cotton-wool contrails whickered skyward like a peacock’s plumage, backlit by Titian flames as the corvette died. The sister ship rocked violently, its captain reflexively ordering a hard starboard manoeuvre. But while the first missile struck a magazine, as an arrowhead spears a stag’s heart, the second lanced into the sister ship’s hangar. Barrelling into the after decks like a comet striking earth, it burrowed deep. A dud fuze saved all aboard – but it was too late for the corvette’s eviscerated engines. The ship idled to a stop, literally dead in the water.

Safe in its high castle, the albatross watched approvingly. The F-35 was blinded by cloud but his Minerva-esque sensors saw all.
“Good shooting,” judged the pilot. “One hard kill, one mission kill.” Cued up by Kennet‘s radar warnings, the F-35 had just guided two anti-ship missiles from one of the task force’s frigates. With the corvettes fixed on the Kennet‘s lure, they never saw death coming for them.


Hart held another chit of paper, fresh from the printer. His face split into a broad, toothy grin that Dalby found instantly infectious.
“From CTF: ‘Bravo Zulu all aboard Kennet. Drinks on me back at Pompey.’ That’s three assists in as many hours, company. You made me proud already.” Hart paused, speaking to the ship itself: “You too, Kennet. Bravo Zulu.”
“You are welcome, Captain,” the ship replied.

Dalby fancied its voice was somehow different – less monotone. Or was that the concussion talking? He cracked a smile regardless. It was April 25th: 23 days since the first war’s anniversary and the start of its sequel. But the Kennet would protect them through harder days to come. Dalby knew it.   

Hal Wilson was a prior finalist in the Art of the Future Project’s contest exploring the “Third Offset Strategy” through narrative and fiction. Hal graduated in 2013 with first-class honours in War Studies and History from King’s College, London, and now works in the aerospace industry. Hal has been published by the Center for International Maritime Security, and is also launching a Cold War-themed naval-warfare board game.

Featured Image: Flight deck crew preparing to launch the X-47B, an experimental unmanned drone aircraft, aboard the USS Theodore Rosevelt, off the coast of Virginia, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/ Steve Helber)

Stroll in the Park

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

By Scott Cheney-Peters

“Sarah,” I intoned gravely. “Stop it.”

Her toddler feet dangled off the front of the pushchair’s foot rest, acting as a drag anchor. I gave the pushchair a trial shove to judge the effect of my words. It moved freely, and we rolled onward through the brisk autumn air of Kensington Gardens.

“I mean, it’s an awful mess,” Paula said. “I don’t see how they’ll be able to find temps to keep things running when both Jenna and Granderson are out on parental leave.”

“They aren’t thinking of using one of the services, are they?” I asked.

“Oh sure, but of course that’s the fear; once the thing’s in place and all learned up why not keep it? Cost a goodly deal less. The fear of Jenna and Granderson anyway, which naturally means they haven’t moved to select their own replacements.”

“Sarah!” The feet again. We came to a halt as she clapped her toddler hands.

“Look! Look! A duck!” she exclaimed, pointing at a pigeon.

“No,” Paula reminded her. It was the thousandth round of Sarah’s game of Pigeon-as-Duck. “That’s a pigeon.”

“Duck!” she shouted again with a wry grin as we moved on. Within minutes the Albert Memorial loomed in front of us. I think it was Paula who told me once the thing was done up in a Gothic style. But to my eyes it would have been at home with the jungles of Southeast Asia. The central steeple, supporting spires, and arched gables all overflowed in ostentatious detail, bringing to mind the stupas I’d glimpsed during my time with the Royal Marines. Paula hadn’t scoffed at the comment, noting the memorial included a small elephant sculpture. It also marked a sharp turn towards the inner heart of the park, a path becoming an annual pilgrimage; a day of remembrance.

“So their department is exploring its options,” Paula added as a postscript. “But it’s going so slowly I wonder if it’ll be worth turning over the HR decisions to one of those…” Paula’s eyes went wide as her voice trailed off with the knowledge she’d stumbled onto treacherous ground. “Things,” she concluded.

My eyes began to well. It was sooner than last year.

Paula stopped and turned to me. “Cyrus, I’m sorry,” she whispered. We were both relieved when Sarah provided a distraction.

“Look!” she jabbed the air. “Look! A horsey!”

“No, Sarah.” I sniffled and smiled. “That’s a police dog. Remember? It’s not real.” I took a deep breath and pushed off again. Leaning towards Paula I said “It’s okay. I really appreciate you’re coming with…please tell me if it’s awkward.” Before Paula could respond however we saw something fly up in front of us. A shoe.

“Do not take your shoes off, lass,” I hissed in staccato, mustering as many notes of stern father as I could. Last month we discovered their absence only after returning from a trip to the grocer’s. These were a new pair.

“Cyrus…” Paula nodded towards the dog. It had stopped its patrol and stood motionless. I felt an involuntary shudder travel from head to toe. The large, four-legged creature was the size of a Saint Bernard and painted gunmetal grey except for the faux uniform of a Metropolitan Police officer and a squad car’s neon blue-and-yellow checkered stripe running horizontally along its midsection. Paula, an account manager in her firm’s design department, said it testified to a muddled mind, leaving unresolved whether the thing should embody creature or machine, blend in or stand out.

Most thought them a curiosity, and liked that they kept the parks clear of animal droppings. I thought they were an abomination. But most didn’t have my history. For now it was motionless and appeared to be watching us, but of course, one could never tell. In the place where a living dog’s head would be was its Citizen Interaction Panel, covering an array of hidden sensors. On the face of the panel I caught a faint reflection of our family grouping.

“Hi, sorry, just dealing with the little one,” I offered, inclining my head towards Sarah as I handed her back her shoe. She started playing with the Velcro strap. That’s when I noticed the other shoe hanging precariously on her toes. A strong kick sent it flying.

“Sarah!” I yelled as Paula dove for the wayward discard.

“Good morning,” a startlingly upbeat voice emanated from the dog. “I would like to remind you that littering is a breach of Royal Parks Regulations and carries a financial penalty.” It sauntered towards us.

“Yes, yes, sorry again. I don’t think you understand,” I said, failing to keep the edge out of my voice. “We’re dealing with a toddler here…”

“To understand further,” it interjected, voice recognition software keying in on the word I’d emphasized. “Littering is a breach of the 1997 Royal Parks and Other Open Spaces Regulations, as amended in 2022, and carries a penalty of €150.” As the dog inched closer, the Panel displayed a large font-scrolling text of the speech in case we were hearing impaired.

“Okay, we’ve got it,” Paula said. “Thank you.” The dog was beginning to turn when the other shoe dropped, or more accurately, flew into view in a graceful arc. It clanked off the top of the dog’s back and rolled to the ground with a thud.

“Alice!” I yelled, a synapse firing a deep-seated unconscious response from my childhood.  Just as suddenly the dog reared back on its hind legs, facing us. 

“Cease immediately.” The chipper voice was gone, replaced by booming robotic commands. “Your actions have been recorded and will be adjudicated in accordance with the law. It is unlawful to strike an officer in the performance of its duties. Continued aggression will incur further penalties. Leaving the scene without confirming identification will incur further penalties.”

“But we did nothing of the sort!” As I half stepped towards the dog in my plea, Paula gripped my arm to keep me in place. Sarah shrank back in her seat.

“Do you wish to speak with a supervisor?” No longer detecting danger, the dog’s voice was seamlessly gliding towards conviviality as it shifted back to a four-legged presence. I thought I could almost detect an artificial note of sadness in its timbre.

“Yes,” said Paula. “I think that would be wise.”

“Please confirm identification: Cyrus and Paula Percy, 207 Old Marylebone Road?” Our drivers’ licenses appeared side-by-side on the panel.

“Yes, that’s correct, and we’re here with our 2-year-old. She’s the one that threw the shoe,” Paula explained to the reflective void. “Very sorry about that.”

A square-bordered icon for a phone appeared on the panel. “Please wait for the connection. Estimated wait time is 1 hour and 15 minutes.”

“Oh for the love of…!” I had an urge to throw the shoe myself.

Cyrus, let’s just move on.” Paula grabbed me tighter, anticipating my boiling anger. She nodded towards Sarah, who was beginning to remove her socks.

“All right, cancel. Cancel connection. We’ll just figure this out later, in writing.” I said and felt my phone vibrate. I knew it was an email with a summary of the interaction and options for contesting or pleading our case. But I could deal with it later. We had other matters to attend to. 

Once the dog was out of view and Sarah’s socks and shoes back on we resumed our trek in silence, listening only to the crunch of the gravel underfoot and the huff of passing joggers, lost in the world of their AR visors. Paula walked next to me and placed his hand on mine as we walked. I elbowed him and inclined my head towards Sarah’s dangling legs. She checked under the hood and reported back drooping eyelids in imitation. I empathized; the interaction with the dog had taken its toll on a day already exhausting with somber meaning.

At last the 2nd Falklands War Memorial came into view. On the far side of the Long Water separating Kensington Gardens from Hyde Park, opposite the Peter Pan statue, an oversized curving black bench stretched along the lake. As we walked, reflections of the fallen were visible in the water, seated upside down on the water-logged bench. In the depth a man in fatigues looked up with a proud smile. Another step and I locked eyes with the shimmering reflection of a weary-looking nurse. There were dozens, 134 in all, names and ranks engraved in bronze on the edge of the path. But it was just past the 5th stanchion that I caught the visage of a woman in an aviator’s jumpsuit, helmet in her lap. My Alice. Paula had offered to explain the optics of it, the secrets of the Dutch artist who’d been commissioned, but I preferred the mystery of it. It was beautiful. It was haunting. Today, as usual, it was too much. The tears began to flow.

The MoD had given assurances that the fight against the forces of Argentina’s coup government would be a cakewalk. Yet when it became clear China was covertly backing their actions, even using the conflict to test experimental kit, the Yanks stepped up with gear of their own. Alice’s F/A-18 Super Hornet was one of these borrowed toys. Hers was designated a tanker for refueling support to the air wing’s strike group, then assembling in the skies over the South Atlantic for its mission against the Port Stanley fortifications. She had just launched and climbed to altitude from the Queen Elizabeth, joining her wingman with a full load of gas, when the Task Group lost HMS Plymouth in a Maelstrom of drones amd ordinance.

The Task Group Commander, aboard Queen Elizabeth and staring at the inbound radar returns of likely second and third drone swarms, judged the situation as unraveling faster than any human mind could resolve. He then made the fateful choice to set the decision-making functions of the integrated command and control system to ‘full auto.’

What happened next is a matter of public record. In Parliamentary hearings after the war, pilots described the disorienting sensation like racecars driver in the midst of turn suddenly finding themselves on an amusement park ride with instruments only for show. I wondered, had Alice had experienced the same bewilderment and loss of control?

Most of the assembled strike group held back as some of the unmanned aircraft skirmished at the perimeter, but Alice and her wingman’s Super Hornets shot forward, afterburners blazing away toward the oncoming storm. Close on their tails were two air-to-air missiles. As the rest of the aircraft and ships began emitting electronic countermeasures and firing chaff and mini decoy drones, the lone Super Hornets approached the front edge of the foes. In the next second they were gone, detonating in brilliant fireballs of oranges and reds, the missiles having found their marks. The blasts succeeded in sucking in the heat-seeking metal multitude, having been calculated to precede the swarms’ dispersal for a multi-axis attack. Our AI had defeated the Argentines’. And my wife was dead.

In private, several asked whether I thought her sacrifice was any less meaningful as it had not come of her own volition. I thought the question asinine.

There were other casualties, of course. During the hearings, whilst MPs alternated between exaltations of the war’s success and railing against the lack of foresight in the command and control software’s scope, my attention was drawn to the faces of those sitting in the visitor’s galleries with me. Those afflicted with a similar pain were hard to miss.

We were given assurances that safeguards would be in place in the future. The terms “man-in-the-loop” and “pre-cleared range of action” were bandied about. In theory, simulations would crunch the numbers on operational scenarios and present as many possible permutations of action to mission commanders for pre-approval. But I knew from the Royal Marines that no predictions of future war could truly anticipate the infinite combinations of an equally infinite range of variables. A columnist in The Guardian noted the command and control AI’s programmers would therefore “likely have to turn to machine learning to ‘sense’ the acceptable boundaries of ethical action.” Count me skeptical.

“Have you talked to her?” Paula spoke at my side. She meant Alice’s mother. We hadn’t exchanged words in a year. After the war I had to move on, and two years later I met Paula. When we’d married she thought it a betrayal and declined to attend the wedding. I’d made the choice of my own free will, but I also knew it’s what Alice would have wanted.

I shook my head and sighed.

Ducks glided across the face of the lake sending ripples through the image of Alice. “Look! Look!” Sarah squealed, having apparently returned to consciousness. “A duck!” she said, pointing at a pigeon by her feet.

“Come on.” I said. “Let’s go home.” Then to Sarah, “What do you think about getting a real dog?”

Scott Cheney-Peters is a civil servant at the State Department, founder of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), a Reserve surface warfare officer supporting the Navy’s strategy office, and a Truman National Security Project fellow. The work is piece of fiction and does not reflect the views or positions of any of his affiliated organizations.*

*Due to CIMSEC affiliation this piece was not under consideration during the judging process and is published along with all other pieces submitted in response to the Fiction Contest call for articles.

Featured Image: U.S. Navy unmanned surface vehicle NUWC-4 (Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Scott Youngblood/U.S. Navy)