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Sealed Orders

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A military trope where a unit is ordered to go out somewhere, with the Captain only being informed of his or her orders after they have left. This is to ensure security. Spies in port will have no chance of picking up loose talk from the crew and spies actually in the crew will have much difficulty informing their superiors once the ship has left the harbour. The disadvantage is that the Captain is also likely to have much difficulty in asking for clarification of his orders.


Compare En Route Sum-Up.


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  • The film Push centers around Sealed Orders to get around the mind reading capabilities of a psychic. The one who came up with the plan also has his memory of coming up with it wiped to further ensure its success.
  • In Doctor Strangelove and Fail Safe the bomber crews only unseal their targeting orders after the attack command is given. In the latter, they consist of one word- "MOSCOW".
  • Captain Horatio Hornblower. At the beginning, the narrator says that Hornblower's ship sailed "under the most secret of sealed orders".
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey: HAL's sealed orders, and the anxiety over having to lie, are what causes him to go psychotic and murder the crew.
  • WALL•E: AUTO has sealed orders to not return to Earth, one of many Shout Outs to 2001.
  • The Hunt for Red October (much like the novel below) has Captain Ramius and Political Officer Putin pulling the sealed orders out of a dual-keyed wall safe, and reading them in private. A major plot point as Ramius crushes Putin's windpipe ("There's been a terrible accident"), and then burns the orders, allowing him to maintain the ruse that they were ordered to go to America.
  • In Das Boot, U-96 barely survives a convoy attack and having used most of their fuel, they decide to return to their home port in France. Unfortunately, they then get a new message through the Enigma code machine which is "for captain's eyes only." He then gets the necessary ciphers from a safe, only to learn that their orders are to head for the Mediterranean.

  • In The Hunt for Red October, Captain Ramius and Political Officer Putin get their sealed orders from a dual-keyed safe after they sail. Ramius then breaks Putin's neck, spills tea on the deck near the dead man's feet to make it look like he slipped, and substitutes the actual orders with orders to sail to Cuba via the American coastline.
  • Star Trek Expanded Universe:
    • Mission to Horatius: Enterprise's mission (to investigate a distress signal) is in this form.
    • In Rihannsu: The Empty Chair, Jim Kirk is secretly under orders directly from the President of the Federation when he launches his covert mission into the Romulan Empire, which allow him to call in a Starfleet battle group as The Cavalry at the critical Battle of Augo midway through the ensuing Romulan revolution.
    • The novelization of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Encounter at Farpoint" had Captain Picard being given Sealed Orders about what he was to do when Enterprise reached Farpoint Station.
  • It doesn't involve a ship setting sail, but in the Codex Alera book Princeps' Fury, Tavi foils the Vord's ability to read minds by setting up whole strings of sealed orders given to several people with strict instructions to open each one only when told to by the preceding order.
  • When King David slept with the wife of Uriah, David eventually murdered him through this method: he sent sealed orders through Uriah to the general, which instructed the army to pull back and let Uriah die in the heat of the battle.
  • In 1633, Cardinal Richelieu has become fond of using sealed orders after reading about them in an up-time book, preventing drunken sailors on shore leave from accidentally spilling secrets.
  • Sealed Orders is an alternate title for Retief of the Red-Tape Mountain, where Retief has sealed orders for how to handle a diplomatic dispute on the planet Adobe. Since he knows his superior doesn't know a hawk from a Groaci nose flute, he plays the whole affair by ear and after succeeding admirably, dumps the still-unopened orders into an incinerator.
  • This is used numerous times in the Honor Harrington series, by all sides of the various conflicts. The first and probably most notable one involved a double deception involving false orders and sealed orders to throw off enemy spies allowing Admiral White Haven to ambush a Havenite attack force in Yeltsin.

    Live Action TV 

    Tabletop Games 
  • In chess, a variant on sealed orders used to occur during adjournments, when a chess match was suspended for the day (i.e., dinner time) to be continued at a later time. The player whose turn it is to move writes down what his move will be and then seals it up and hands it to the arbiter. When the match resumed, the order was to be revealed and the game would continue from there. Both players were free to analyze the position for hours, with the help of their seconds, during the adjournment period. The sealed move ensured that neither player could know what the other would do next during this lengthy analysis. (Otherwise, the player next to move would get a huge advantage from having hours to consider what to do.)
    Nowdays, the advent of powerful chess computers has made adjournments a thing of the past – there would be no way to stop either player from firing up the latest chess software and just memorizing its recommendations. Instead, modern chess competitions simply speed up the time limits so that adjournments aren't necessary.

  • The 2012 play The Letter of Last Resort by David Greig (aired as a BBC radio drama and played in the Tricycle Theater) follows a Prime Minister late in her first day in office when she must, as per protocol, write a new Letter of Last Resort for the nation's missile submarines. As a Naïve Newcomer, her advisor explains her what the Letters are supposed to do and she then struggles with what the letter should say; considering what would be supposedly happening to the United Kingdom if they are ever opened. She tries several drafts, going from being pretty plain in her supposed final orders up to trying to provide comforting words to the imaginary captain.

    Video Games 
  • The Kobayashi Alternative. Captain Kirk receives Sealed Orders to locate Lieutenant Sulu's missing ship and neutralize whatever caused it to disappear.
  • In Half-Life: Opposing Force, the incoming Marines are given their alternate orders just before arriving at Black Mesa. Shepherd's squad, of course, gets shot down before they receive their new orders.

    Real Life 
  • The Knights Templar went down so fast partly because Philip IV of France's orders to arrest the Templars were issued sealed, so nobody (not even the omnipresent Templars) knew what's inside them until they were all opened simultaneously on Friday, 13 October 1307.
  • The captains of the Royal Navy's four Vanguard class ballistic missile submarines are each given a sealed handwritten letter by the Prime Minister when he or she enters office before they leave port detailing what they should do in the event of a nuclear attack on the UK which neutralizes the normal chain of command. These letters are destroyed unopened when the PM steps down.