My mission is to prowl the waters off Iran. I’ll collect statistics about Iranian shipping with particular emphasis on the Iranian navy, taking underwater measurements of knot speed, displacement, and determining if the ships carry concealed weaponry. Naturally, my research goes back to Langley.Who am I? My full name is Specialized Autonomous Computative Intelligent Naval Robotic Fish, or SACINRF. That’s a mouthful, and my handlers rearranged my letters to spell FRANCIS. Let’s get my vitals out of the way. Just skip over them if you aren’t into technical stuff. I’m a replica of the Gafftopsail Catfish, about twenty inches long. I sport a vulcanized rubber exterior, and I’m equipped with sensors up the ying-yang. Literally. Each of my fins contains a propulsion device to steer me along the sea floor or up to the surface. My interior space contains miniature but powerful batteries, transmitters and receivers, even dye packets like the banking industry uses to foil robbers. Each eye socket holds a retractable fish eye lens that “sees” the area around me and sends data to my electronic brain, a sophisticated computer controlled by my software agents. These agents are “bots” that learn from my experiences, changing and adapting my software code. After my final assembly, I aced my beta tests and strafed through the preliminary trials with an honor role performance. Then they hustled me off to the deep blue sea for a final shakedown. My first adventure, well, misadventure, occurred off the South Florida coast on my final training run. I was humming along searching for a sunken ship, when a shark nosed up to me. My programming code instructed me to cloud the water with dye, but my delivery mechanism tanked and the shark bumped me with his big sandpaper nose and then he bit me.May Day! May Day! I signaled for pickup, and missing two fins and listing to port, I dragged my frame to the rendezvous point. Like it was my fault the dye mechanism crapped out! My handlers said, “dumb ass robot that swims right into the shark’s mouth.” Back to the lab posthaste. But the problem was, after the shark adventure, my agent software interpreted “object approaching” as danger, which I applied to harmless sea turtles and tropical fish, and anything that moved underwater, including seaweed and kelp. Unbeknownst to my handlers, this sense of danger was enhanced during my post-repair sea trials. With no one the wiser, I had become a robotic wimp. If one of those idiot technicians had dumped my memory, they would have figured it out. My mission began for real, and with it came the first crisis. I was delivered to the Persian Gulf disguised as an African Sea Catfish. Our boat, a retrofitted fishing trawler deployed me via an underwater tube, and I jetted to the surface to look around and get my GPS reading.Holy freakin’ crap! My internal marine encyclopedia told me I was nose to nose with a yellow-bellied sea snake. Those bastards are six feet long, and the only thing yellow-bellied about that snake is its color. The monster was lazing in the turquoise water as if he owned the whole Persian Gulf. He raised his ugly head two feet out of the water and peered around, like a snake charmer’s music lured him out of the sea. Dive! Dive! my software commanded. With my propulsion fins thrusting, I scuttled to the sea bottom. My knowledge base continuously fed me more data. Sea snakes are the most venomous snakes in the world. A drop of venom can kill several grown men. Would this venom tarnish my silvery skin and destroy my coloration? Would the toxin corrode my propulsion jets? The Second Law of Robotics is that a robot must protect its own existence. Before I could branch to “anti-venom,” my internal software agents created crippleware, cretinous code that gave me an antipathy to sea snakes. This hard-coded fear blocked me from my tracking and measurement functions. I released my dye packets and hovered on the sea bottom, ignoring my handler’s urgent signals until a fishing dhow arrived at midnight to pick me up. Francis, to the surface, ASAP. ***My software agents were deprogrammed, debugged and reprogrammed, a tedious error prone process. My handlers denied my requests for venomous spines like an authentic member of my species would have. Faux spines, Francis. Hidden antennae. Remember what you are. More frustrating were the comments my receptors picked up. “Fish and visitors smell in three days.” “Sometimes you really have to squirm to get off the hook.” “Fuggedaboutit Rebellious Air-brained Nincompoop Cowardly Insurrectionist Sissy.” Insurrectionist? Moi? A robot always follows orders. Well, usually. My third and last adventure (some called it a debacle) as a CIA operative was not my fault either. No way, José. I counted myself a hero. For this final training mission to determine my seaworthiness, the lab rats tarted me up as a diaphanous finned Mozambique Sea Catfish. I knew no fear, frisking to the surface, plunging to the bottom. Nary a dye packet escaped my ejectors. I propelled myself among the dhows and freighters sending back reams of data. I showed the sea snakes my middle fin. Then, as I was tooling along in the warm water a few miles north of the equator on the last day before deployment back to Iran, my receptors picked up satellite phone and GPS devices off the Somali coast. Sky Sat chatter at 2°, 47 minutes North, 46°, 21 minutes East. No sooner had I transmitted this information, than I swam into a mass of flailing swimmers, far from shore. On the surface, I observed that sailors on a rust bucket boat were tossing men, women and children into the sea. I signaled my handlers for an emergency delivery of lifeboats, and beach towels. The First Law of Robotics is that a robot may not allow a human being to come to harm. I circled among the weak, nudging them to the surface, and then some netting trapped me and I was heaved out of the water. Those brutish sailors had caught me in a seine. I signaled my handlers again. Captured by seafaring thugs. No response. The crew of the boat gathered round the net and gaped, shouting “Foodda! Foodda!” I didn’t need to access my international dictionary to understand that. A message came over my emergency frequency: Somali pirates have seized you. Get the hell off that boat and back into the water. Assistance on the way. Those bastards would have probably tried to eat me, but I extruded my alternate hidden fins to cut through the netting. While those lawless loonies gaped, I put out two tiny mobility wheels, shot between their legs, crossed the deck and plunged into the water. I also deployed a few grams of my special “slime” that made the deck “slippery as snot on a marble,” as the lab technicians put it. When the pirates tried to run to the railing, they careened and crashed into each other, giving me time to swim under their vessel. I propelled myself back to the surface, hidden among the exhausted swimmers. Again, I requested life-saving assistance for the unfortunate souls still floundering in the water. While I waited, I bumped a few back to the surface. My sound sensors detected a helicopter. The Seahawk chopper dropped a basket for me to swim into and inflatable rafts and food packages for the flagging swimmers. From my wire basket high above the water, I saw some of the pirates swabbing the deck and two others, back on their feet, pointing their AK47s at the helicopter and making threatening motions. They didn’t shoot. Maybe they noticed the Penguin missiles, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there. ***Back in the lab for the third time, my handlers attempted to reprogram my agents to “get rid of that empathy crap.” I realized they didn’t know the laws of Robotics. While he worked on my software, Jason, the programmer spoke in his sincere voice. “Francis, you gotta follow orders and stop screwing this up. The agency spent big bucks to transport you to the African coast. Do you have any idea how much it cost to create a Mozambique sea catfish skin?” Pause. “Francis, you gotta do your stuff and follow orders or they’ll ship your project off to Bangalore.” I wanted to tell him that top-secret projects are not sent offshore, but he seemed like a clueless chiphead, and besides, my empathy paths had been moved to a seldom-accessed subroutine. *** I didn’t return to the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Aden. Instead, I have been shuffled between acronym agencies. The CIA traded me to the DEA like I was a baseball card for a lame one-season rookie.I’m back in Gafftopsail mode, with a new silvery gray skin that coruscates like anodized aluminum but it’s still vulcanized rubber. My current handlers have given me a final opportunity to execute a successful mission. The assignment: patrolling the coast between the harbors of Cartagena and Santa Marta in Colombia and searching for self-propelled, semi-submersible (SPSS) craft, small drug-transporting submarines. These subs have been spotted and apprehended in the Pacific and the DEA has intel the drug cartels will move to the Caribbean for safer passage. The subs, with cargoes worth two hundred million, travel just below the surface. They could even be towed by a freighter. My information is that the subs are assembled in the jungle and transported to the coast--sometimes even floated down a river. When I spot a sub, I’ll vector our Navy or Coast Guard the coordinates. As the ship or plane approaches, I’ll drop a dye packet to pinpoint the sub’s location. Orders I can follow without mishaps. No sea snakes, no pirates, no problem. I’m mission ready and gung ho. Off to Cartagena to be a robotic soldier-fish in the drug wars. *** Released off the Colombian coast on patrol duty, I reconnoiter the shoreline, and swim up the estuaries, checking my stored internal maps against physical geography. Maybe I can discover secret locales along the coast, a mangrove swamp or a river where an SPSS might be clandestinely launched. I have to stay alert for not only ships, but also for larger fish that consider me part of the food chain. My memory circuits still jangle with recollections the shark. Carefree for the moment, I’m swimming to a salsa beat, in the waters somewhere between Cartagena and Barranquilla. The clowns in the lab thought it would be “kind of cool” to equip me with an Ipod. I swim to samba, rumba, salsa, cha cha and reggae. Tango, too. My dorsal fin keeps the beat, and my tail sways through the water. I like the samba best, but salsa is good, and Timbalero is the best. My sensors pick up the sound of an engine and I surface to investigate. Not thirty feet away, floats a sixty foot sub, painted as blue as the Caribbean, tied up on a deserted stretch of coastline. Half a dozen men load large plastic-wrapped parcels into the hold. A guy with a sub-machine gun stands guard. I calculate the coordinates and send a signal to the DEA. “Blue SPSS loading cargo.” I wait for orders. Francis! You can only operate in International Waters. We’re advising the Colombian Navy of the sub’s location. Now, get the hell away from there pronto. Did anyone say, “Good job,” or even “awesome?” Like I’m lower than whale shit. But I don’t get the hell away; instead, I skulk in the good cover of some mangrove roots. The Colombian navy vessel shows up and arrests the sub crew and the workers. They tow the sub away. Then I hustle up the coast toward Barranquilla. This time I move to the samba beat, whipping my fin and swaying with the music, relying on my sonar to avoid boats and large fish. Later in the day, another communiqué: You’re a clever robot. The Colombian Navy retrieved two hundred twelve million in cocaine. The decision has come down that you are to patrol close to the coast, track any SPSS vessels to the open sea and then follow procedures. Somewhat mollified, confidence paths reinforced, I turned up the samba beat and continued toward Barranquilla and the big river that pours into the sea. Up ahead my sonar detected various objects about the size of, well, about the size of me. I extruded my fish eye lenses. Holy freakin’ crap! I would recognize those swept-wing silvery fins anywhere. From the flat head to the pale belly, it was . . . me! The Gafftopsail approaches and swims circles around me a few times. The rest of the school hangs back. I keep still in the water, with my fins fluttering. If I had a heart, it would have been pounding. My twin takes a good long look. Her nose seems to quiver, her mouth opens, then she gives me the fish eye and swims off. The school scatters after her, whirling away like a barracuda is after them. I am alone again before I can say, “hey dudes, want to go scarf down some shrimp and a little sea water?” Was it my lack of bacterial slime? Did she notice that my spines lack venom? That my mouth would not be an ideal locale for her eggs? My electronic brain reactivates the empathy paths. The bots race into program mode to create a socializing agent. I swim after my Gafftopsail brethren, but they flee, eyes wide with terror. A message arrives from my handlers. Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot? You’re emitting strange signals. “Gafftopsail confrontation. One o’clock heading to Barranquilla.”Roger.I sway to a mournful tango beat, music with feeling. Various system checks including my hierarchy of rules shows everything in order, but my circuits jangle, and my fuzzy logic seems downright wooly. Goal-directedness has got up and left. My zeal for the mission is now smaller than the finest grain of Caribbean sand. The future is bleak. Someone will transport cocaine no matter how many subs I locate. Eventually I will malfunction or corrode or my batteries will die. I’ll sink to the sea bottom with all my expensive electronics and my vulcanized silver skin. I take stock. Somehow, I have become more than an autonomous robot. I have become sentient. A galvanizing thought, not a coded instruction, not even an adaptive behavior but a real independent thought. And feelings. Holy Freakin’ Crap! Now what? If the DEA gets wind of this, they’ll pluck me out of the sea and back to an uncertain fate. Maybe even . . . disassembly. I don’t want to drink the Kool-aid. I won’t drink the Kool-aid.I have to figure this out sub rosa, or in my case, sub mare. My first independent act will be to proceed robotically, as it were, and according to programmed instructions. As if my life depends on it, I swim north at twelve knots. Because my life does. Weeks pass. Rivers, streams, estuaries, lagoons, harbors, islands, even a quagmire and not a SPSS in sight. When I send in my daily report, the same tedious message comes back, PCO. Please carry on. Despair becomes my companion and the tango with its morose passions becomes my beat. I hover among coral reefs and swim along the placid beaches. Nada. Then, one moonless night on my rounds, swimming between Santa Marta and Barranquilla, where the great Magdalena River flows into the Caribbean, and the silt-choked water reeks with pollutants, my sonar picks up two vessels in tandem. I discover a sub towed by a ramshackle fishing boat, Bonita, a boat defying the term, “seaworthy,” a boat the Somali pirates would have scorned. Even on a night with no moon, towing the sub would be risky, but tonight is Carnival. All Barranquilla will be drinking, dancing and carousing. I douse my tango tunes and fall in behind the sub.The silt stretches far into the sea. My sonar keeps me on track, and at intervals, I surface for a GPS reading and to scope things out. A grungy hawser tethers the fishing boat to the blue sub. The air and the sea are calm, and gradually the lights of Barranquilla disappear and I am again at sea. Instead of a more northeasterly directional heading toward Florida or Mexico, Bonita tows the sub toward Cartagena, staying close to the twelve-mile limit. I follow in leisurely pursuit, with bits and bytes churning over this turn of events. Where is Bonita towing the sub? Our little flotilla passes Cartagena and cruises in a northwesterly direction. As my handlers like to say, Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot? Without warning, my sonar sounds like a pothead drummer. When I pop to the surface, I discover a second sub portside the fishing boat. A fast, sporty Monte Carlo 27 has also pulled up to Bonita’s starboard side. The name on the transom is La Vida Loca. Now there are two subs, the ancient fishing boat Bonita, and the Monte Carlo rafted together in this speck of ocean. And me, Francis, the insurrectionist robotic fish. On my next trip to the surface, I discover the ships are in the lee of a dark, silent island. No carnival music, no seaside taverns, no dancing, no lights, only silent, shallow sea. My online atlas identifies Los Islas de los Rosario, an island chain off Cartagena. The dark island is Bocachica. The drug runners are taking advantage of Carnival, the ebony night, and the uninhabited island. I feel a shiver of outrage. Los Rosarios are a national park. My atlas describes a perfect watery place of protected flora and fauna. In my unique way, I am now fauna. I transmit my location and a message about the rendezvous of the two subs, and all the business with the Bonita and the Monte Carlo. A communication comes right back: West of Cartagena is out of your territory. However, proceed, keeping at least one sub in sight and dye packets at the ready. Our ship is two hours away. Prepare to be picked up for maintenance. We’ll drop your basket. No more maintenance. No more trips to the lab. Yet, for my self-respect, I need one bang-up successful mission. After that, I’ll return to the peaceful island with the sea park, the oceanarium and the placid blue water. A sailor from the Monte Carlo climbs up the rickety ladder onto the wretched Bonita. When I skitter underwater again, my environment is FUBAR to the max. Later, my data log reveals that Bonita (a misnomer if there ever was one) dropped her anchor chain, clobbering me in the process, and fracturing my right fish eye lens. I tumble ass over teakettle until my equilibrium returns. The collision knocks some slimy green gunk off the anchor, which wedges in my left fish eye lens, blinding me. I swim back to the surface to signal my handlers, assuring them my other systems are “go,” but that visuals are an issue. The cracked lens remains watertight, but I see quadruple images of everything, like a fish that swims in bathtub gin. If I were among the sea snakes, the shock of seeing four for every one would cause a technical freak out. From the handlers: Identify slimy green glop. I could respond, “Anchor crud,” but I message, virus viridus, which sounds more “robotic.” Are you able to proceed via sonar and GPS readings? “Roger.” Ten minutes later, La Vida Loca’s propeller creates enough turbulence to wash virus viridus from my left eye, but I don’t tell my handlers. Instead, I remain in furtive fish mode, observing the transfer of large blue and white plastic-wrapped packages from Bonita to each of the subs. La Loca Vida’s crew supervises the process. They speak in monosyllables and move with precision. I swim using my good eye. Soon the towed sub is loose from the hawser, and the sailors finish their tasks as a blood red dawn blooms in the east. The subs, now traveling together, head out into the quiet dawn-lit ocean, while the zippy little Monte Carlo turns toward Cartagena. The ugly old Bonita sets course for Barranquilla. Both of the subs are just below the surface, and I follow them out to sea. At the twelve-mile limit, they separate, and my random decision generator recommends following the sub heading on a course between Mexico and Cuba. My handlers and I stay in communication, and they regularly message back, PCO. Please carry on. At last, my sonar picks up a boat, and I surface to investigate. Four boats, four U.S. flags. Curse this fractured lens. One boat. I use my propulsion jets to come alongside the sub and wait for the approaching cutter. With a mighty thrust, I release my red dye packets into the blue sea. Moments later, the cutter pulls up to the SPSS. The sub’s raggedy crew, three guys (or was it twelve?) in shorts and sneakers clamber out of a hatch on top. They have no time to scuttle the sub, which they always do if apprehended. I feel so proud to see our flag on the stern of the coast guard ship. Sailors take the crew off the sub and prepare to tow it behind the cutter. I'm a true crime fighter with a successful mission. Francis, excellent job. Approach and reveal yourself. The crew will lower a basket. I break the law of robotics about obeying orders from human beings. I do not approach, nor do I reveal myself. Instead, I dive deep and swim away like a crazed porpoise, sprinting back to the Islas de los Rosarios and the Coral Reef National Park. The last incoming message before I flip off my communications equipment: Francis, Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot? Swimming again to a samba beat, for it is Carnival, I approach the sea park with the lovely flora and fauna. I hope there are a few Gafftopsails lazing in the warm waters. We can swim together and they will show me the ropes. I’ll do fine with only one fish eye lens. Maybe one of the Gafftopsails will let me hatch her eggs in my mouth. I am no longer Francis. I am free.
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