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Honourable Mention | 2021 ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition

Story by Sarah Lucinsky


ONE

Tan

He flicked through the pages of an old book as he waited in line, tapping his foot impatiently. He couldn’t stop thinking about the damn promotion.

A passing Stellar Force Commodore glanced at the book in his hands, then looked at Tan quizzically as he rushed past the line. Tan sighed and closed the book, gently tracing the gold lettering on the spine. R-e-p-u-b-l-i-c. He stowed the book in his cargo pocket and started fidgeting with the shiny silver badge on his breast pocket as he waited.

He loved this uniform. The mixing of the matte and glossy blacks of the Stellar Force fatigues shimmered against flecks of silver as its wearer moved. Almost reminding him of looking up at the sky through a telescope that he saw in the Digital Antiquity section of the Constellation Forces museum.

He reached the front of the DrillPod line and smiled at the Terra Force Cadet ushering people into pods.

‘Good morning… S-Sentinel...’ she wavered, craning to read the silver lettering on his chest.

Tan quickly withdrew his hand from the badge.

‘Uh-h morning Tan-Sen.’ She recovered, straightening her khaki fatigues. ‘Today we have you in pod 38. Third row, on your right. Enjoy your DrillBot session Tan-Sen.’

He winked at her disarmingly. ‘Welcome to PACONFOR HQ Cadet. Bet you can’t wait to get issued your very own DrillBot!’

She smiled shyly, waving him through.

He slid into pod 38, laid down on the chair, did up the straps and donned the shades before placing his hands on the haptic sensors. He smiled nervously as the optic shades cast the CONFOR logo in front of his eyes while his DrillBot, Malah, calibrated.

The cast of the CONFOR logo was abruptly replaced by a cognitive likeness of COMCONFOR, General Toshi.

‘Congratulations on your 400 th DrillBot session Sentinel. Your swift ascension through to the advanced courses of our 5-C Curricula is a testament to your dedication.’

‘Thank you Sir!’

It gave him a buzz seeing the General, if only a likeness. The General was right, he had advanced quickly through 5-C. Chronicles and Computation were his favourite. No surprise he named his DrillBot after an Acehnese admiral from circa 1600s Digital Antiquity (D.A.).

Credo, Campaign and Command were not bad, but it was the CONFOR-Org lessons that drained his engagement levels.

‘Welcome Tan-Sen How are you feeling today?’

‘Morning Malah. Overnight watch in compliance but had a nap before this, like you suggested. What’s on today?’

‘Glad you listened about the breaks. It will enhance your cognition during PromotionSims.

Today’s 5-C session is Chronicles. Standby for pre-serial cognitive and physical scan. ETA 2 minutes.’

‘Sweet.

‘It’s been your favourite since the very beginning Tan-Sen.’

‘Perhaps a decisive battle on the sea from the 1800s D.A.?’ Tan remarked, somewhat hopefully.

‘Now is it the Brits or the Greeks you favour Tan? You want to go all the way back to the beginning?’ His DrillBot quipped.

‘The beginning is the most important part of any work.’

Nathaniel

‘Dammit!’

He continued to swear as he picked up the Rom he had just dropped while trying to reef on his Sea Force jacket. He tenderly inspected it. It landed on the carpet thankfully. No sign of damage. He checked his watch. 0728. He had time to check its digital health before his watch.

DIGITAL HEALTH CHECK STATUS: OPERABLE. RECOMMEND UPGRADING

HARDWARE TO 3-HIVE ERA.

All those months of delicately weaving layers of code together via the VisualScope. And that was after the year or more it took to build the processor by gradually stealing discarded CONFOR hardware. One that wasn’t a part of the 3-Hive system and by extension, his blasted DrillBot. Obviously.

‘You are in a deficit for all Curricula but Computation.’ It had told him. ‘Your scores indicate you reviewed but never engaged with pre-Hive era training.’

Nathaniel checked his watch again. 0745. He grabbed the Rom, processor and haptic feedback sheet, placed them in the cargo pocket of his grey and blue fatigues and raced out of his cabin. He scowled as he passed the DrillBot pod compartment.

Blasted DrillBots. Thrice champion of the FIVE EYES CodeOp and then the CONFOR equivalent after the 4 th Taiwan Strait Crisis. He was one of the architects that literally built the foundations for 3-Hive’s predecessor, 2-Hive. Then Japan joined the party. And now he was being told – no, being forced to do at least one DrillBot session per fortnight.

He allowed memory bites to swim to the surface. He was on console and had been listening to confused cries for help from the indigenous forces ashore as his PHIBRON bugged out. Almost got to 700 miles then came the explosion. Searing, relentless pain. He could hear shipmates screaming from the water through a hole that burned through the bulkhead. The weapon had lived up to its moniker. They limped the carrier home, but it was mission kill. The Crisis was over. Then came the punishing AICore postings in the Digital Revolution days. He just couldn’t accept DrillBots were at the Credo stage. Nor that they were given equal firing authorisations as him. He scowled, forcing the memories to sink back down. He had a plan to turn this insanity around.

Nathaniel reached the OpsCen and biometrically scanned into the compartment. Another day in the Pacific. He felt like he was surrounded by blind machines with beating hearts out here. He scowled deeper, familiar muscles giving way to deep valleys of displeasure on his face.

‘Morning Mariner!’

‘G’day Jesse. What’s tricks for today?’

‘Standard patrol in the CHEXA. Fishing boats, the usual cruisers, destroyers and swarms of UCAVs and Crows patrolling the Treaty limit. Polite, professional anddd..’

‘BOOOORINGGG.’ They both sang in unison.

‘Not like the 4 th Taiwan Crisis eh Mariner? I missed the real excitement, and you came back for a fourth tour. But this time for sunbathing and bird watching.’

‘Ah well, we can’t all be a part of EUCONFOR to witness the imploding of Europe Jesse.’

‘Sure it wasn’t just like this during the so called Crisis?’ Jesse joked playfully.

Nathaniel felt his blood simmering beneath his skin.

‘Do you think that’s funny?

‘A-ah I was just…’

‘Do you know all that I have done for CONFOR?’ Nathaniel snarled. ‘No freaking respect these days. Just get me a coffee, will you?’

‘A-aye Mariner.’ Jesse stammered, slinking out of the OpsCen.

He shook off his annoyance, before sitting as his console. All seamen and seariders out for the morning brew until 0825. He glanced around the room before stowing the Rom and Processor in his desk safe. He wouldn’t use them till tomorrow’s Shoal Treaty sortie. Then he would test if the 3-Hive system would latch onto the imitation haptic sheet and accept the diversionary data as the real time feed. A dark grin spread over his face. One of the 2-Hive architects stuck in the bowels of PACONFOR legacy ops? Not for long.

TWO

Tan

He shifted in the console chair and settled his hands on the joystick and haptic sheets. As 3- Hive loaded his POI of the month, he pushed away thoughts of how his full marks in Chronicles that morning might up his chances for promotion. He needed to focus.

SENTINEL TAN. POI ALLOCATED FOR JULY 2035. THEATRE: PACON. FORCE: SEA. LOCATION: SOUTH CHINA SEA. POI ID: 993.

Tan snapped his head up, peering at the console through the cast. The Sea Force monitoring always made him miss the pre-CONFOR days as a Gunnery Officer doing tropical cruises with the ADF. Singapore Slings, satay kebabs and fish markets with a whiff of incense in the air. Not that he could remember much of those days besides the cocktails. Best to forget. A veritable CONFOR Siberia these days anyway.

‘Console - got any specific vulnerability indicators?’

NIL FURTHER INFORMATION AT THIS TIME SENTINEL. POI MONITORING IN 30 SECONDS.

‘Roger that.’

The screen extended on a circular arc for the aural display. Tan nodded his shades down from his head to the bridge of his nose.

When the aural display and cast launched, he instantly recognised the combat system of a Type 26 Mod AU frigate. Identifiable by the sole modern console in the right hand corner of the compartment. The EML gun. They had removed the hangar to add extra batteries to operate it. Brash but brilliant – quintessentially Australian. Tan stifled a yawn as he watched the cast of a Sea Force Mariner sitting in the OpsCen. This watch would drag.

Nathaniel

Ping. Nathaniel opened the alert in the mission comms channel as he sipped his coffee. His heart thumped in his ears. HQ had moved the Shoal Treaty sortie forward 18 hours. They would need to depart this patrol box within the hour. He could test the Rom early.

‘Jesse.’ Nathaniel yelled out across the console.

‘Yes Nat-Mar-r-r I mean Mariner.’ came the sheepish reply.

‘You know I hate being called by my RankNomer Cadet! I need you to do a manual reboot on the Mod console. We will be departing in 50 minutes. Bail up the X on your way out and let him know.’

‘Aye Mariner.’

Nathaniel turned to his console and switched to cast vision. 15 of the airborne Crows’ homing would need to be activated early seeing as they were now heading in the opposite direction.

He activated the homing signal manually by entering the code through his haptic enabled hand. Still got it!

He nodded his head forward, allowing the shades to slip down off his nose and saw the X peering at him from beside his console.

‘Nat-Mar. Why you insist on manually inputting code is at times endearingly nostalgic. But not when we are sailing 18 hours early. Conditions check for departure in 5 mins.’

Nathaniel’s face tightened with scowl-suppressing pressure.

‘Understood?’ the X pressed.

‘Aye X. Got it.’

THREE

Nathaniel

He lifted up his shades to quickly scan the compartment. Empty. Good. His wild goose chase for Jesse should keep the kid busy for at least an hour. Time enough to set the modified haptic sheet, load the Rom into the Processor and see if it could divert the feed. If? He wrote it - of course it would.

Ping. 100% COMPLETE.

Nathaniel slid his right hand over the top of the imitation haptic sheet and began guiding CONFS Hunter towards the Treaty limit. Five miles out he used his console joystick hand to mimic backing away from his current position as he continued to drive at it. They knew that CONFOR units never breached the limit, so it was the perfect low-risk high-gain location to run his test. Then he would do it for real.

Tan

Despite wearing cast shades, Tan unconsciously craned his neck forward to peer over the back of the Sea Force POI’s shoulder. He saw the Mariner turn to starboard, but the console did not display the course alteration.

Tan refocused the cast solely on the Mariner behind the console and enhanced the image. He waited. There! The ship’s console displayed a 20 degree course alteration to starboard, but this time the Mariner’s joystick clearly showed a steady course. Compliance camera audio was dodgy, and he never usually bothered, but this time he enhanced the audio to its maximum.

‘Console – request real time, manual coordinates of POI 993’s vessel location. Silent response.’

Tan transferred the supplied coordinates into the 3-Hive system, while straining to hear muttering coming through the cast of CONFS Hunter’s OpsCen. Nothing intelligible.

Tan gasped. The manual coordinates showed Hunter’s position was 5 miles from the Treaty limit. He checked the CONFOR tracker. It showed the vessel 30nm away from the limit as per the new TASKORD. He had less than 5 minutes to decide.

He watched the Mariner’s joystick movements intently, putting them into 3-Hive while comparing the data to the ship’s gyro and the CONFOR tracker. He tracked the vessel steadily approaching the Treaty limit. Why wasn’t 3-Hive picking up the anomaly? It can’t be an error - the Mariner would have realised the display did not match his joystick movements. Just like Tan did.

He needed to report this now, but he also needed to prevent a CONFOR vessel crossing the limit. If it did…Well that wasn’t an option. He had no time to consult Compliance. If he was right, this could lead to another Crisis. Tan shuddered.

‘Console – broadcast into POI 993 NOW.’

‘Authorisation code required.’

Tan paused for a second. If he had missed something… It could be his promotion on the line.

‘The first and best victory is to conquer the Self.’ Tan murmured.

‘0-1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21.’

‘Broadcast active.’

‘Mariner this is CONFOR HQ Compliance. You are approaching the Shoal Treaty Limit without authorisation. Your 3-Hive console has been compromised. Step away from the console immediately.’

Tan saw the Mariner suddenly stiffen in his chair, but did not turn around to face the once- concealed CompScan unit.

‘Mariner – move away from the console immediately.’ Tan repeated.

Tan continued to eye the poised Mariner and anxiously checked the time. 3 minutes. He glanced back to the Hunter feed and saw the Mariner fidgeting with something under the desk.

‘Mariner – I said NOW. MOVE AWAY FROM THE CONSOLE IMMEDIATELY!’ Tan’s voice bellowed into the OpsCen.

The Mariner slowly rose from the console and looked directly into the CompScan unit; a deep scowl etched onto his face. Tan froze, stinging needles of shock raced up and down his body as he gazed into a mirror. A face identical to his. The Mariner’s RankNomer was stitched onto his Sea Force jacket – Nat-Mar.

But how? Tan stopped using that after the Crisis. The devastation. The rehab afterward. All for nothing. He was stateside for 2 years and it was only after intensive simulation, rehab, therapy and enhancers did he come out of it still serving. He had left Nat-Mar behind and adopted Tan as he started afresh with Stellar Force. But - did he do this? A supressed memory from the past?

Tan studied the now empty console on the cast and noticed the crumpling of the haptic sheet.

The crumpling should have revealed part of the grey console arm rest beneath it, but underneath was another haptic sheet. Tan shook his head in comprehension. Haptic mirroring! He turned his attention back to his former Sea Force self. The Mariner stood still staring at the CompScan unit with contempt. His arms were folded, but something was balled in his left hand.

‘Mariner. Hold open both your hands, palm up.’ Tan demanded.

‘Obviously you haven’t casted to the CO yet. So, let’s not be hasty.’ The Mariner cajoled. ‘I was testing a prototype and stupidly forgot hardware protocol. This event is bad for both of us. They’ll wonder why you only narrowly prevented another Crisis. We are a mile out, well beyond our OpLim. They expect this from me. But you?’ The Mariner shook his head in contempt as he revealed the Rom and processor in his left hand.

Tan tensed with worry at the Mariner’s words, his mind foggy. Did they create a cognitive likeness from his previous Crisis era self during rehab and he just never knew? No, can’t be. It was an invasive process back then. He HAD to have done this. This was probably archival compliance footage they were catching up on. Tan took stills of the cast display in Hunter’s OpsCen. His former self was right. This would look really bad for him. It would be better if it had never happened.

FOUR

Tan

‘Malah.’ he croaked through a cotton wool mouth. ‘I need to lodge a POI incident report and

3-Hive breach notification.’

‘Okay Tan-Sen. Information requested: POI number, Force, location, RankNomer, and full

name, including any previous RankNomers.’

‘993, Stellar Force, PACONFOR HQ, Tan-Sentinel, Nathaniel Russo, Nat-Mariner.’

‘Tan-Sen are you aware you are about to report yourself?’

‘Y-yes. Malah - please.’ Was all he could muster.

The meeting room door on the left of the pod clicked unlocked.

‘Tan-Sen. As you are reporting yourself you are required to wait in the meeting room until

Sentinels can review and investigate.’

Tan’s hands were sweating as he waited. How could he have blocked this out for so long? He

must have suppressed it before rehab. He had come so damn far in Credo – thanks to Malah.

But now his past would destroy his future.

At that moment the door opened and in walked Admiral Andreas in ceremonial Stellar Force

uniform with a name plaque in her left hand. He glimpsed the gleaming silver lettering:

SENTINEL TAN, COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF CONSTELLATION ORION-A,

EUCONFOR

‘Ma’am! Good afternoon.’ He snapped to attention.

‘Rest Sentinel. No doubt you’re confused.’

Tan blinked, stunned.

‘We need ethical leaders in war, Tan. DrillBots with our 5-C Curricula are integral in

cultivating them. You were provided an opportunity to lie and break multiple Credo

principles to serve yourself. You didn’t. The PromotionSim was testing for regression to past

vulnerabilities under pressure. Vital before you face the action in EUCONFOR.

Congratulations on your Command appointment.’

‘U-uh thank you Ma’am. Uh.. I…it’s just that I-I can’t believe it. Simulation...’ Tan

stammered.

‘Believe me Tan-Sen – I get it. All Commanders have faced their previous selves with

DrillBot. But you can’t know you’re being tested on Credo explicitly in these sims, or it’s

easy to perform the desired behaviour, even with our AI mentors by our sides. Passive

training for Credo has never worked.’

‘But I can’t believe a version of myself would have done that. I mean I can.’ Tan said.

‘That’s the problem – I thought I did. Back in the annexation days, I was...’

‘It was toxic pride in your former self Tan-Sen. You can never trust those infected with it.’

The Admiral said.

‘The Allegory of the Cave.’ She added.

‘In those days I was in the cave.’ He admitted.

‘And now you’re out.’ She said.

‘Quod erat Demonstrandum.’ He whispered.

00
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(Lucinsky, 2021)
Lucinsky, S. 2021. 'The Cave'. Available at: https://theforge.defence.gov.au/article/cave (Accessed: 19 April 2024).
(Lucinsky, 2021)
Lucinsky, S. 2021. 'The Cave'. Available at: https://theforge.defence.gov.au/article/cave (Accessed: 19 April 2024).
Sarah Lucinsky, "The Cave", The Forge, Published: August 30, 2021, https://theforge.defence.gov.au/article/cave. (accessed April 19, 2024).
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