The following is a piece of short fiction depicting an alternative naval future: the convergence of great power competition, autonomous undersea conflict, and deep space exploration.
[T]he universe is an ocean, the moon is the Diaoyu Islands, Mars is Huangyan Island. If we don’t go there now even though we’re capable of doing so, then we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, then they will take over, and you won’t be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough.
-- Ye Peijian
For Lacy, the crunching of the driveway gravel had come to be the sound of joy itself. It was the sound of children coming home, a promise that the walls of the modest gray-shingled cottage would soon echo with laughter and the welcome chaos of grandchildren. Admiral Jeremy Baynes Lacy, father of micronaval warfare, creator of the Atom-class microsubmarine and its autonomous operational construct, the Strikepod, was happy at last. No longer in demand and ever available. No longer at the beck and call of forces. Now he could live a semblance of a human life, one where he could walk his dog, and be greeted by friendly waves instead of salutes, by people who called him Jay. Where he could be Grandpa, and the father he’d always wanted to be. Where he could be a husband to Dara, and live their Vineyard dream.
But on this night, the crunch of gravel meant something else. Lacy rested his book on his chest and looked across the living room, watching as Dara slid out from beneath a plaid blanket and half-knitted booties and rose slowly to her feet. Without a look she made her way through the kitchen, the sound of the back door echoing down the hall. Lacy rose and added a log to the fire, squinting through the front window into the darkness to see not one, but two silhouettes approaching. The call had come just hours ago. Vice Admiral Ian Grimes, Commander, Strikepod Command, had said only that there was a matter of great importance, one that apparently necessitated a late evening charter out of Joint Base Andrews direct to MVY.
Lacy opened the front door. “Ian! This is an unexpected pleasure!” They shared a brief, suitably masculine embrace. “But it’s 2038, you know. We have video for this sort of thing. Even holograms.”
Ian laughed. “Apologies, Admiral, but I felt this required something more personal.” He turned to the figure behind him, a shadow in the porch light. “I believe you already know Shilpa Devareddy.”
Lacy concentrated on the petite figure hovering in the background. She stepped forward into the light and extended her hand. “Admiral.”
Lacy shuddered at the cold formality. It had been nearly fifteen years since he’d last seen her, seated beside her mother at Arlington Cemetery, four days after an explosion had ripped through the number one payload tube of the USS John Warner, killing five, including her father, Chandra, Lacy’s longtime ONR liaison and eventual commander of Strikepod Forces, Pacific. Initially blamed on faulty wiring, investigators later found evidence of a malware exploit in the Block IV Atom that disabled the LENR’s automated kill switch and caused a cascade overload. At the time of her father’s death Shilpa was a busy twentysomething postdoc at CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, no longer the young girl with her nose in Popular Science whose infectious smile and platefuls of bhakarwadi had melted Lacy’s heart. She’d written him faithfully for years (Dearest Uncle Jay), and he’d enjoyed the front row seat as his best friend’s daughter navigated MIT and beyond. But death has a way of reordering things.
“Shilpa?” Lacy moved to embrace her, but quickly caught himself, returning the handshake instead. “My goodness, it’s been forever.”
Shilpa nodded slowly, forcing a smile to the surface. “Yes, it has.”
A thousand images flooded his mind. Chandra, her mother, the twisted wreckage. Had they moved on? Was I somehow to blame?
“Please, come in.” Lacy hung their coats and led them to the living room, gesturing to two chairs as he made his way to the wet bar. “You must be thirsty. I’m afraid my stores are a bit low at the moment.”
Shilpa politely waved off. Lacy skipped over the Perrier and raised a bottle of Dewar’s.
Ian smiled. “Sir, if you insist.”
Lacy iced two tumblers. “Well, then,” he said as he poured. “Ordinarily this would be the part when we engage in excruciating small talk. But perhaps we should just get right to it.” He replaced the cap. “What is it that brings you to our fair island in the dead of night?”
Silence. Lacy handed Ian his drink and took a seat on the couch facing his guests. Ian settled into his chair. “Something’s come up, Jay.”
Lacy smiled. “That much I gathered.” He raised his glass and drank, eyes darting toward Shilpa, stone faced, arms crossed tightly against her chest.
Ian raised his glass in return and took a sip, wincing. “Dr. Devareddy is here representing NASA. She’s the director of a program called Europa Clipper.”
Lacy smiled proudly at Shilpa. “Well, I do believe congratulations are in order!”
Shilpa nodded quietly. Ian swirled his drink. “Then you’ve heard of it?”
“Only what I’ve seen in the news. I believe it entered Jupiter’s orbit about a week ago, yes? Very exciting stuff.”
“Are you familiar with the mission specifics?”
“Mission specifics?” Lacy laughed. “Ian, I’m retired. The only mission specifics I’m familiar with nowadays involve sandcastles or a pitching wedge.” His eyes narrowed. “What’s this about?”
Ian nodded to Shilpa. She exhaled, sliding forward in her chair. “The Clipper orbiter was launched nearly six years ago on a mission to make detailed observations of Europa, one of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. It’s programmed to perform a series of flybys to capture imagery of the surface and study the moon’s chemical composition and geology. It’s also designed to pass through clouds of water vapor that shoot like geysers into Europa’s atmosphere from under its icy surface shell. Clipper has a variety of sensitive instruments onboard to capture and analyze samples of atmospheric water droplets for any signs of life, and since Europa is an ocean moon, we’ve believed for some time that it represents one of the best opportunities for discovering life in our solar system.”
Shilpa removed a tablet from a briefcase sitting on the coffee table and handed it to Lacy. “This came through twenty four hours ago,” she said. “It’s still being verified, of course, but …”
Lacy struggled to process the images on the screen, a mass of letters and squiggly lines. He looked up at Shilpa. “I’m sorry, but what exactly am I looking at?”
“What you’re looking at,” said Shilpa. “Are nucleotides.”
Lacy reexamined the data, as if this new piece of information would somehow help him comprehend it. His mind flashed to freshman biology, to fruit flies and Punnett squares.
Shilpa nodded. “Environmental DNA, to be exact. Essentially DNA that’s been shed from a host and floats freely in the water column. Scientists have been using eDNA for decades to study marine life, to detect the presence of elusive species, or …“ she paused. “To discover entirely new ones.”
Lacy’s eyes widened. He looked up again. “Are you saying …?“
“As I said, we’re still verifying the data, but as of now, the initial analysis suggests that it bears a striking resemblance to cetacean DNA.”
Ian sipped his scotch, his gulp puncturing the stunned silence. “That’s whales, Jay,” he said. “Dolphins, porp –”
“Thank you, Ian, I’m familiar with the term.” You don’t spend a lifetime prowling a neighborhood without occasionally encountering the residents. Lacy sat back and looked at Shilpa. “But how would that even be possible? Cetaceans have lungs, not gills. They breathe air. Isn’t Europa completely covered in ice? Miles and miles of it?”
“Yes, but you’re talking about Earth cetaceans who’ve evolved and adapted to this particular environment. If there are in fact cetacean-like creatures on Europa, then it would be reasonable to assume that they’ve evolved and adapted to the Europan environment. And we simply don’t know – it’s possible there may be gaps, thin spots in the ice cover that provide access to the oxygen in Europa’s atmosphere.”
Lacy shook his head in disbelief. “This … well, I really don’t know what to say. This is absolutely extraordinary, and I congratulate you and your team on what is clearly the scientific discovery of a lifetime. I can’t even begin to fathom the implications.” He raised his glass once again as he handed over the tablet. “But as flattered as I am that you would choose to share such incredible news with me, something tells me that’s not really why you’re here.”
Shilpa took the tablet and settled back into her chair, folding her hands neatly in her lap. Lacy looked at Ian. “Is it?”
Ian swirled his scotch, the ice tapping out a tune against the glass. “Clipper is part one of a two-part mission,” he said. “Its job is to lay the foundation for part two, Europa Lander, a surface mission to explore the ocean beneath the ice. The lander will deploy something called a cryobot that uses high-pressure hot water jets to melt its way through Europa’s ice shell, which, as you said, is thought to be several miles thick. When it breaks through and reaches the ocean underneath, it releases a microsubmarine which will explore the environment and report its observations using a docking system that’s wired to the surface lander.”
Lacy nodded. “Okay.” He rubbed his hands together. “Again, this is all very interesting, Ian, but I fail to see what any of it has to do with me.”
Ian sipped his drink. “We’re not the only ones with a horse in this race, Jay. Shortly after Clipper’s launch the Chinese started developing their own lander, and ever since then JPL, APL, university research centers, and really anyone involved has been under near-constant cyber assault, mostly fishing expeditions and exfiltration, but recently things have been turning malicious. They clearly don’t want our lander to make it.” Another drink. “But if it does, they intend to make damn sure it doesn’t phone home.”
Shilpa passed the tablet to Ian, who tapped his fingers on the screen and then handed it to Lacy. He watched as it began slowly scrolling through a series of schematics. “As you might imagine,” said Ian. “The Chinese lander design is substantially the same as ours, but there’s one major difference. The NASA cryobot is currently designed to deploy a single microsubmarine. The Chinese version will deploy four, and they will be based on the Shāyú.”
The mere reference was enough to send a shock of adrenaline raging through Lacy’s body. The Chinese had watched the development of the Atom closely, recognizing it not only as a technological breakthrough, but as a platform poised to redefine the very nature of undersea warfare. When the Shāyú microsubmarine had first appeared, it was largely a crude facsimile of the Atom, quickly cobbled together for propaganda purposes rather than to fulfill any meaningful maritime objective. But over time it had become a formidable foe, and had come to embody Beijing’s faith in autonomous undersea conflict as key to expanding its power and influence. The Shāyú was fast and maneuverable, laden with highly advanced technologies and so-called “brilliant” AI, and so it came as no surprise to Lacy that it would underpin Beijing’s agenda for an alien ocean moon.
“That’s a lot of redundancy.” Lacy joked, studying the screen.
“Intelligence indicates that two of the Shāyús will be equipped with science payloads. As for the other two …”
Lacy looked up. “Kill vehicles?”
“That would certainly be a reasonable conclusion. A Shāyú attack on an uncrewed science installation is certainly not without precedent.”
Lacy flashed to a SCIF, watching in real-time as a three-ship Strikepod surveyed the wreckage of a joint US-Canada seamount observatory twelve hundred miles northwest of Hawaii.
Ian shook his head. “No evidence, but I’d be willing to bet no. Why chance an accidental detonation? The Shāyú’s sprint speed is 30 knots plus. That’s enough kinetic energy to inflict a mission kill on just about any underwater system, certainly the delicate sensors and systems planned for Europa. One shot to the under ice docking system and it’s game over.”
Lacy stared at the tablet, manually scrolling through the imagery. “Let’s assume for a moment that both the U.S. and China manage to land on Europa, bore through miles of ice, and successfully deploy pods of microsubmarines in an alien environment that’s millions of miles away. Realistically, what are the chances of a confrontation? I mean we’re talking about a moon-sized ocean, yes? Unless the Chinese land right next door, can they actually pose a threat?”
“Europa is smaller than our moon,” said Ian. “Only 1900 miles in diameter. There was a time when it would have been impossible for microsubmarines to manage that kind of range on their own, but now, with LENRs and cruising speeds of 20, 25 knots, we can do it in a matter of days. They’re going to find us. It’s not a matter of if, but when, and how quickly.”
Ian downed the rest of his scotch, his lowered inhibitions now inciting anxiety. Lacy regretted not reaching for the Perrier. “There’s more, Jay” Ian continued. “Within two hours of Clipper’s transmission, a Z-20 was scrambled out of Yulin to rendezvous with Shiyan-6, a research ship operating ninety miles northwest of the Paracels. We had a Strikepod already in situ keeping an eye on things, and managed to grab some imagery of the helo plucking someone from the deck.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “SIGINT confirms that it was Xue Ji.”
It was a name Lacy knew all too well. Xue Ji was one of the world’s leading cetologists, an expert in cetacean echolocation and communication who’d utilized deep machine learning to develop a crude method of communicating with dolphins and sperm whales using their own language of clicks and chirps. But what began as cutting edge research sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Sciences was quickly co-opted by the People’s Liberation Army Navy to enable covert undersea communications. It was only after U.S. intelligence managed to recruit Xue’s assistant and gain access to his research that the PLAN’s tactical edge could be blunted, but not before it had contributed to many tense moments under the surface of the South China Sea and Western Pacific.
“They honestly believe they can communicate?”
“Another reasonable conclusion.” Ian leaned forward. “And unless we act quickly, they’re going to get there first.”
Ian smiled. “Jay, we need you back. This mission has to move forward, and it has to be defended. We need your vision, your drive. We need your leadership. Things are happening, but it’s slow going. It’s like everyone knows the race is on, but no one wants to go to the front of the pack.“
“I’m flattered, Ian, but it’s been over three years. The technology has surely advanced. Operations, tactics change.”
“You’d be back up and running in all of ten minutes. And when you really think about it, would this really be much different than fighting Shāyús in the depths of the Pacific?”
Lacy laughed. “Different? We’re talking about millions of miles here, Ian. Interplanetary operations. The realm of space-time. Yes, the Atom is autonomous, and Strikepods conduct themselves with little intervention. But we still have surface nodes, relays, long range acoustic burst comms. We have real-time situational awareness in most environments, and we can get a message to a Strikepod in a matter of seconds.” He looked at Shilpa. “What’s the delay to Europa?”
“Thirty minutes to an hour, depending -”
“A goddamn lifetime!”
Lacy’s head flopped back and he stared at the ceiling, letting the enormity of the situation wash over him. He scrubbed at his face and rubbed his eyes for a moment, then looked at Shilpa, the firelight illuminating a handful of gray streaks in her dark hair. “And what about you?” he asked.
Shilpa seemed torn from a waking dream. “What?”
“I imagine you must have an opinion. Where are you with all of this?”
Shilpa shifted in her chair, taking a moment to collect her thoughts. “Where am I? I’m on the sidelines, that’s where. Watching helplessly as my life’s work is subsumed by the absurdity of geopolitical competition.”
Lacy could feel the anger, rising up from somewhere deep within her and filling the room like an expanding gas.
“How can we do this?” she said. “How can a civilization that expends countless resources on new and different ways to kill and maim and destroy – how can we, in good conscience, drag our never ending conflict and violence to another world? If we can’t find a way to look beyond our differences and peacefully explore the galaxy, should we even be going at all? There is a higher responsibility here, one that I’m not sure we’re prepared to comprehend, much less observe.”
She took a breath. “I’m a scientist, and more than anything I understand the value of exploration, of learning about who we are and where we come from. And while I fully believe in the lander mission, in what it stands for and what it could mean for the world, I am appalled by what it is becoming – a pawn in the great game -”
“ – a notch in the belt of national pride …”
“And it’s Doctor Devareddy, thank you!”
Her voice hung in the air, slowly fading like the ring of a bell. “Forgive me, Dr. Devareddy, “ said Lacy, calmly. “It’s just that I’m unaccustomed to being lectured to in my own living room.“
Shilpa centered herself and continued. “The lander should have been a priority six years ago when it was more than apparent that Europa was a Chinese objective. We warned Congress, the Pentagon, NSC, PODCOM, anyone who would listen. The PLAN was quite clearly advising their program, not hoarding their technology and know-how.”
“Something to be said for communist efficiency?” Ian was feeling the scotch.
“Something to be said for listening to reason, and seeing things as they are. And you can wax dogmatic all you want, but while the Atom was enjoying a blank check, NASA was forced to go begging, all while the PLAN was enabling a flagrant act of scientific sabotage!”
Lacy held up his hands. “Alright, easy, everyone,” he said. “And my apologies, Dr. Devareddy.” He shot daggers at Ian. “But it would seem that you’ve been placed in a most uncomfortable position coming here tonight.”
“Jay, I –“
“No,” said Shilpa. “I asked to come.”
Lacy’s head tilted slowly to one side.
“Because science belongs to all of us, all of humanity. Especially a discovery like this.” Shilpa jabbed a finger at the tablet. “And no one nation should unilaterally appoint itself ambassador. Certainly not at the expense of others.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “And because my father thought the world of you. He would have followed you through fire, and I honestly believe this mission won’t succeed without you. Don’t get me wrong, I hate the fact that we need your help, and I desperately wish it weren’t so. But we do.” She shrugged. “And so here I am.”
“Here you are indeed,” said Lacy. He looked at Ian. “The Navy’s taking over, then?”
“Not entirely, no. NASA/JPL will still be at the helm, but now they’ll have access to Pentagon dollars. The Navy will be running the Atom redesign and Strikepod integration, with PODCOM coordinating security operations once deployed on Europa.”
Once deployed on Europa. Lacy nodded absently, as if it was all quite routine. “What’s the status of the Atom?”
“The redesign has begun, and we’ve got field testing on tap for Antarctica,” said Ian. “We’ve got to integrate the science payload, and the hull has to be reinforced to withstand extreme temperatures and pressure. The AI will need to be reworked, training data compiled and sanitized. The cryobot will have to be redesigned as well, hopefully to accommodate a five-ship Strikepod – two explorers, three for patrol. It’s the best the engineers can do since every little change in launch payload has a ripple effect. But at least we’ll have a numerical advantage, a small one but hopefully enough should things get interesting.”
“A year. Maybe fourteen months.”
Lacy laughed. “I trust that’s the scotch talking?”
“We’re monitoring the Chinese very closely,” said Ian. “There are a multitude of factors, of course, but at the moment we think we have that kind of time.”
Lacy was no longer laughing. “That kind of time? I’m sorry - this is good news?”
Ian took the tablet from Lacy’s lap and danced his fingers across the screen. An animation of the solar system appeared with spacecraft circling the Earth and rocketing toward Jupiter. “CIA believes the Chinese are on track to launch in eighteen months. They’re using a Long March 12 with gravity assist which will get them there in about three years. Allowing for inevitable delays and mishaps, we launch in fourteen months on a SpaceX Starship, and we’ve got a four month head start. The ice boring alone will take many weeks, maybe even months. We deploy the Strikepod, phone home –”
Lacy raised his glass. “-- and deal a decisive blow to the CCP’s plan for galactic domination.”
Ian smiled. “Something like that, yes.”
Lacy shook his head. “Pardon me, Ian, but is this really happening? Are we really about to export our little underwater shadow war to the far reaches of the solar system? How are you ever going to sell this to the powers that be?“
“It’s already done, Jay. The President signed the order seven hours ago.”
Lacy’s gaze moved from Ian to the family pictures on the mantle. He thought of the world he’d inherited from his father, how the certainty wrought by the threat of nuclear holocaust had fractured to form the jagged, disjointed shards of his uncertain world, a world of perpetual conflict and war. What now would be his legacy? Smiles of pure innocence looked back at him from above the fire. Forgive me.
Lacy finished his drink and carefully placed the glass on the coffee table. “My clearance may be a bit rusty.”
“We’ll take care of that.”
Lacy nodded slowly, staring into the fire. “When?”
“C-17 departs Andrews for McMurdo 0600 tomorrow.”
Lacy pictured the bleak Antarctic landscape, and a shiver rocketed down his spine. “How long?”
“Expect to be there into February when the Antarctic summer ends.”
“They have summer there?”
“Temperatures hover around freezing. After February you’ve got wind storms, temps around sixty or seventy below, so it’s totally cut off from air travel. No one in or out until October.”
“Lovely.” In his mind he was packing. “I’m afraid my winter outerwear is only rated for New England.”
“We’ll take care of that too.”
Lacy stared at his guests. “Well, then,” he said, standing. “I guess that’s it.” He took a deep breath. “I’ll need a few minutes.”
“Of course,” said Ian. He and Shilpa rose to their feet. “We’ll be outside.” Ian made his way toward the door. Shilpa paused for a moment to extend her hand once again.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him,” said Lacy.
She smiled, and for a moment she was the little girl wandering the halls of ONR. “Me too.”
The front door clicked shut. Lacy scooped up Dara’s blanket and made his way through the kitchen, out the back door and down the sandy path leading to the beach. He found her there in the moonlight, standing at the water’s edge, gentle waves lapping at her feet.
“It’s cold,” he said, placing the blanket around her shoulders. “You should come inside.”
She was silent, staring into the darkness. Lacy looked down, swirling the sand with his foot. “Something’s come up.”
Silence. Dara brushed the hair from her face. “Will it ever really be over?”
“Dara – “
Lacy looked toward the house and the headlights of the idling sedan. Dara followed his eyes. “Jesus, Jay.” She shook her head. “How long?”
“Three months,” he said. “Maybe more.”
“Do I even have a say?”
She held up her hands, then raised her eyes to his. “Do I need to worry?”
Lacy looked toward the sea, to the moonlit gray horizon and then the stars above. It was a question she’d asked him too many times before, one that always haunted him until he returned. And his answer once again, the only one he could ever offer, was a quiet, infinite embrace.