Imagining 2030 is a series in which PS21 writers describe the world as they see it in 14 years time.
“That’s it, right there,” said Ashik. Through beat-up VR goggles he saw an over-the-shoulder view of one unmanned underwater vehicle approaching another, larger, unmanned underwater tender. What he saw was only a simulated rendering based on inertial navigation data, but he knew that if he could see them, both machines would be visibly in need of overhauls – or retirement. The words “Operator – Take Manual Control” flashing across his lower field of vision piqued his curiosity.
“Uh, Rima…you still awake?” he called out through the goggles’ integrated microphone as an indicator ticked down the distance to the tender. “This chickadee is coming home to mother hen pretty quick.”
“Yep, sorry, almost there,” crackled the response through his headphones. A low monotonous tone began buzzing at more frequent intervals as the warning continued to flash on screen. It wasn’t like Rima to be away from her control console before an approach; she had a way of manufacturing enough anxiety without inducing real cause for concern.
The alarm silenced and the words “Manual Control Initiated” appeared briefly before fading from Ashik’s display.
“Sorry, back!” she exclaimed, out of breath. The speed with which the UUV operator was handling the inbound vehicle told Ashik she was either supremely confident or completely impatient. Knowing his little sister, it was definitely the latter. “Careful now…. ease it in,” he said into the microphone. Had he been with her in the dimly lit control room he would have given her a squeeze on her shoulder, as he always had when reminding her to focus and relax. Even though she was over seven hundred nautical miles away on a different ship, his old home, practicing for her UUV/USV rating, he could clearly picture the thin line of perspiration that would be beading in the fold of her neck. As she successfully mated the UUV with the tender Ashik’s simulated feed dissolved as she powered down her machine.
“You know,” said Rima over the VOIP channel still feeding into Ashik’s earbuds, “better systems automate this part too so you can spend more time on maintenance.” Ashik detached the goggles from the headset and placed them on the console in front of him, careful to avoid the dark, congealed pools of recent beverage spills. “Jess, my friend on that lashed-up refinery Kerama-way,” Rima continued, “she even has an on-mother printer so they can keep the tenders out for more than two weeks.”
“Is that where you were? Doing maintenance?” Ashik tried not to let his suspicion creep into his voice – he knew she already thought him protective to the point of overbearing.
“Yeah, was installing a few software patches on the drones in the bay and lost track of time.”
Plausible. He wasn’t sure why he doubted her answer.
“Anyway, how do you know what “better systems” have? This from spending all your time gossiping on the net with your friends?”
“Uh, no,” she replied, her voice betraying no small amount of irritation. “From reading the professional notes, which is how you make me spend my time. Unfortunately, you’ll be far too busy soon with your new job to keep watching over my shoulder,” she said. Despite the clear sarcasm in her voice, Ashik thought he detected a faint note of sadness.
“That’s what you think,” winked Ashik. “There’s always drones.” He heard her bark a laugh on the other end of the line. Once when they were younger, just after they had lost their parents, Ashik had rigged up two micro drones from scraps around their village and programmed them to follow her day and night. She had been furious at the time, but now it was a private joke between them. “Besides,” he said, “you’ll not be much further away than your little friend there, three days out on its mission into the Wop-Gop.”
“Ugh, the first thing I’m going to do is start calling things by their technical terms – mothership UUVs and their USVs, not ‘mother hens’ and their ‘chickadees.’ And don’t get me started on the Western Pacific Garbage Patch,” Rima said, crisply articulating each word. “Seriously, Wop-Gop?”
“Look,” Ashik sighed. “I know you’ve got the manuals, but you’ve got to focus on your training and studies, no …”
“I can’t have my whole life be this… this garbage,” Rima cut in. “You love it out here, but you know I’m going ashore when I can. Besides, I’m apparently going to be just the latest thing my big brother gets to remotely control, so why should I stress with studies if you’ll always be able to help me out of a jam.”
“Rima. That’s not fair. You know us coming out here to do these jobs wasn’t a choice. After the mercy ship picked us up it was either contribute here or go back to all that death and misery. No one ashore would have taken us and we’d already lost …” he dropped his gaze to the goggles on the console. “Well, you know all that. More important, it was the thought of giving you, my chickadee, a chance at something better.”
“Eeesh! Okay, this just got way too sappy,” Rima exclaimed in his ear just as Ashik exited through the hatch of the spare UUV control shack. He started towards the scuttle that would take him up to the common room and mess three decks above for a hot meal.
Ashik had left Hope Renewed, the waste-recycling vessel, or “waster,” where they had lived for five years after their initial ordeal. In those days, placement options by the refugee charities and governments that supported them in an attempt to stem the human tide had been limited. But the stateless, floating economy continued to develop and expand as more and more people tried their luck forging a life at sea, driven by libertarian ideology or—more commonly—by necessity. Now, after a year of specialized remote training, Ashik was just three weeks into work at a new aquaponics farm east of the Philippines to begin an apprenticeship. Grow and reuse, two stages in a larger cycle of material use. This, at least, was how Ashik had come to link the two jobs as he tried to draw connections between the disparate chapters of his own life.
“Anyway, we don’t know how well this connection’s going to hold up,” Ashik said as he pulled himself up the metal hand bars of the scuttle. “So you might have your independence after all.”
As Ashik reached the common room he heard a commotion on the other end of the line.
“Rima, is that the ship’s intercom?”
“Yeah, not sure I can make it out any better than you though.”
Indecipherable as usual, thought Ashik as the sound bleed through his earbuds, a mix of static and the elongated consonants of Jamal, advisor to the mayor of Hope Renewed and muezzin. But even without looking at the clock he knew the call to prayer wasn’t due for another several hours.
“I think he’s trying to muster the ship’s militia?” Rima offered before the line went dead.
Commander Jeanne Collet stared at the vessel off Guépratte’s starboard bow, gripping the railing of the bridge wing even though aware the four feet closer from her bridge wing chair made no practical difference. With successive exaggerated winks she flicked through the optical enhancements and overlays of her glasses, trying to find useful information among the deluge of data. Eventually she came upon the QR code scanner.
“Lieutenant, try to raise them again,” she said.
“Alright. Helm, all engines back one third. Let’s keep this distance until we know what we’re dealing with.”
Her naked eye could see that the vessel, dead in the water, was covered in running rust that bled streaks of orange into peeling white paint. The vessel’s name and IMO number had long since flaked off, but the laser-engraved QR code at the ship’s stern was still discernable. So, she thought, at least someone was concerned about keeping the vessel on the right side of the law. It had been what, a decade since the new U.N. Convention on Safety of Life at Sea mandated QR engraving on all vessels. Not that most complied, especially not those for whom such a mandate would require a retrofit. She guessed it had been many years since the vessel before her had felt the warm embrace of a dry dock for deep and thorough hull maintenance.
Her glasses and a panel on the captain’s chair in the pilothouse began beeping, half a beat out of synch. Stepping inside the pilothouse to investigate, Collet was enveloped in a sheen of information projected from the bridge’s jumble of overhead wiring and devices. As she turned and looked back towards the vessel, the data appeared to emanate from the gently bobbing hull, its heading shifting with the wind and unknown no more. Bright red, floating letters flashed “Critical Contact of Interest.”
Shit, she thought reading the CCOI report. So much for a speedy transit. The promise of a long weekend in port in New Caledonia for the crew had beckoned, payoff for extended upcoming illegal fishing operations.
She read on. The vessel, the Hope Renewed, was unflagged but had once been owned and registered by Citizens without Borders, an American NGO, in one of the ad hoc databases of refugee ships. She could tell from the welding job on the side of the hull that the drone bay was in frequent use and ostensibly for work in the Patch. Most likely a waster, collecting and breaking down the floating refuse that choked sea lanes into bricks of raw materials like plastic for use in the additive manufacturing plants that had sprung up throughout offshore Asia. Politicians back in France had been making a stink about the floating factories’ lack of effective labor laws allowing them to “steal” French jobs, as though the jobs hadn’t already been lost through decades of over-generous social benefits.
But Collet had learned not to take appearances at face value. It wouldn’t be the first time the Chinese or Vietnamese had masked their activities among the refugees. Even if the intel about Hope Renewed was bad, without the protection of a state they were juicy targets, their kind helping fuel the boom in piracy throughout the world and stretching Collet’s navy that much further.
“Officer of the Deck, once more,” she said.
Still no answer.
“Alright, continue hailing them on bridge-to-bridge once every five minutes, and see if CIC can find someone on their vessel actively chatting on the net.”
“Ma’am, we’ve got a couple social media accounts that look likely to belong to Hope Renewed inhabitants but none responding to pings. Will let you know if that changes.”
She hoped she could just have tea with the mayor or however the vessel’s leader styled themselves. If there wasn’t one, if it wasn’t a refugee ship or if she met resistance, she needed to be prepared. She knew a show of force might escalate the situation, but years spent trying to disrupt—ha, dent, the illicit maritime networks of Southeast Asia reinforced the need to balance prudence with the precept that it was better to be safe than sorry. She’d be balancing both today.
Collet picked up the microphone for the ship’s internal intercom. “Guépratte, this is the Captain. We have identified a vessel suspected in a series of attacks on merchant shipping. They have failed to respond to our hails. We are sending over a boarding team to investigate. It is critical that we determine who has been disrupting these sea lanes and, well, automated cargo ships don’t provide much details.”
In the past month, seven ships were taken in the same manner in waters stretching from the South China Sea to the Philippine Sea. Shipping insurance rates were rising with the sophisticated attacks subjecting their prey to all-systems jamming prior to the impact of what the post-incident analysis suspected were drone-based waterborne IEDs.
Guépratte’s XO, a lanky Algerian with a graying goatee, sidled up to Collet. “Ma’am, you think these attacks are fallout from Southwest Cay?”
“I don’t know. But if Hanoi wants to warn Beijing off from making another play for their last Spratly outpost, taking seven Chinese-owned vessels certainly got their attention. Of course, that’s a risky play to make. If the Chinese can make a link, the threat to additional shipping likely won’t reign in nationalist calls for blood for what’s already been hit. I don’t relish the spectre of full-scale hostilities but it looks like that’s where we might be headed.”
“So we need to find out the truth first, to be prepared for the consequences.”
“Exactly. A week ago an American UAV caught sight of a surface vessel returning to Hope Renewed from the general direction of an attack. Nothing conclusive, but the best lead so far.”
Collet turned to the Officer of the Deck. “Muster the boarding team in full exo gear. And tell combat to throw up a POP. I want eyes on that vessel.”
While Collet often chafed at having to sift through the reams of information brought in by all the Navy’s new gadgets, the Perimeter Overwatch Package, or POP, was one system that had proved its worth. The sound of several small overhead drones taking flight filled the bridge. They didn’t provide great real-time interior views, just some infrared, but the enhanced external situational awareness and 3D rendering of Renewed Hope provided to CIC and the bridge was superb. They were also armed.
“Ma’am, POP is in place. There’s nothing topside but we’re also not reading anything below decks. Could just be an error with the sensors. Do you want us to drop an ICS-disable package?”
“Negative. Doesn’t look like they can get their engines up in a hurry, better not to scare the locals. But be ready at the first sign they’re warming them up.” Balancing again. The industrial control system-disable package was a small autonomous robot carried aboard one of the POP drones that sought out and shut down the computers running the ship’s engines by breaching the system’s air gap and directly installing malicious code.
A petty officer approached Collet with a radio in her outstretched hand. Taking the radio, she said, “Boarding officer, this is the captain, report.”
“Ma’am, the boarding party is mustered on the flight deck. Two of the suits are malfunctioning, out of commission, and the back-ups are going through maintenance.”
“Sounds about right. Just send their owners in the rear during the initial insertion. And make sure the team’s focused on the mission—not New Caledonia. We don’t know what we’re dealing with here. I’ll make my way across to exchange pleasantries once we do.”
“Aye ma’am. Preparing to launch the line over with your permission.”
“Launch when ready.”
Over the next half hour Collet watched as her boarding team launched over a magnetic line to a high point on Hope Renewed, secured the trolley system, and one-by-one rode up the powered zip-line-like device dozens of feet above the sparkling waters, gently arcing to the contact point. CIC reported visual on all members of the boarding party arriving safely aboard Hope Renewed, confirmed by the boarding officer moments later.
Now the waiting. Collet was a believer in letting her subordinates work without constant instruction, contenting herself to listen to the chatter between boarding team members as moved through the large vessel. But as she listened she developed a growing sense of dread. At last the boarding officer called for her.
“Captain, this is the boarding officer. You’re going to want to see this.”
“What is it?”
“Frankly, not sure what we’re dealing with. As far as we can tell it’s empty. There’s no one here.”
“Captain,” called CIC before Collet had time to react. “Vessel inbound off the port quarter, five miles out. It’s pretty small, no visible weapons. One man topside.”
As Ashik gripped the wheel of the solar boat, the running lights of a ship twinkled in the evening mist. They corresponded almost exactly with the AIS fix for Hope Renewed. But as he approached his radar indicated two vessels, both dead in the water. Apprehension mixed with anger and relief that one way or another his multi-day journey on the high seas was at an end. He’d seen few warships during his time in the Pacific, but they were enough to recognize the vessel alongside Hope, illuminating the onset of night with her growing superstructure. If they were responsible… he thought. Well, at least they might have answers.
Hope Renewed is a part of the #CrowdedSeas project led by the authors, delving into the future of the maritime domain. Over the course of several months this project will develop hypotheses about the future of life and death at sea, particularly in Asia, in the 2030-2050 timeframe. It will apply a series of different methodologies to conduct this exploration, including strategic forecasting, short fiction writing, and design thinking that will culminate in a written report.
The story above does not reflect the views of any of the authors’ affiliations.
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 in the Navy’s strategy office, a Truman National Security Project fellow, and a CNAS Next-Gen National Security Leader fellow.
Richard Lum is the founder and chief executive of Vision Foresight Strategy. He is an academically trained futurist and holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Hawai‘i’s Alternative Futures Program.