3rd place | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition 2021
Story by Maj Ian T. Brown, United States Marine Corps
“—era of technological convergence, conducting multi-domain operations using JADC2, our wargaming center is the single most important building for the survival of our men and women in uniform. We stand ready to show key leaders what a common operational picture, or COP, enhanced by artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality and virtual reality, and JADC2, does for their decision-making. This day didn’t come as quickly as hoped, but it’s finally here. [audience applause] And naturally I should note the very commendable work done by certain groups in the interim, providing ad hoc wargaming opportunities with the tools available to them. But now our center is open, and our Dungeon Masters can finally put their twenty-sided dice away. [audience laughs] To prove this, our center’s first activity will be a challenge for any team of players to come here in three months and beat us in a specially created scenario. I will train my staff using our center’s tools. Our challengers may use any other wargaming method to train their own teams. In three months, we’ll fight. None of the teams will see the scenario beforehand—“
Captain Sarah Everlee pinched the app closed. She looked looked at her team. “You can probably guess my thoughts. Tell me yours first.”
“Certain groups’ is better than ‘bunch of nerds’ from that podcast last month,” noted Vasquez mildly. He grinned. “I like it. We’ve long said the general’s project is a gold-plated toilet. Now we can prove it.”
“It’s a sucker’s bet,” replied Fennec, her face a stolid contrast to Vasquez’s. “I don’t care what he says—no way anyone but him wins. It’s Millennium Challenge with shinier gear.” Everlee nodded thoughtfully, then looked at the last member of her team.
“As a famous space admiral once said, it’s a trap,” Stratt interjected. “But that doesn’t mean he’ll win. He sees tech as the end in itself. We know the real endgame. Knowing that…” Stratt’s face split into a hard grin, matching Vasquez. “No power in the ‘verse can stop us, ma’am.” Everlee’s mouth turned up at one corner, and she turned back to tell Fennec that there wouldn’t be any hard feelings, but saw Fennec was already scrolling through the team’s game library.
“Oh, I’ll play,” said Fennec. “And I’ve got some ideas about the gear they’ll have us use at the center on game day. I’m just not kidding myself that this will be a fair fight.”
“It won’t be,” agreed Everlee as she nodded approvingly at the games Fennec was selecting. “But a real enemy won’t give us a fair fight anyway. So let’s teach that to the general. Fennec, what’s our first game?”
“Bottom line up front, sir: IC4 rejected the waiver for the IT Procurement Request on most of the AR headsets for the TOC. Some issue with secure Bluetooth code coming from programmers in Georgia, although we were clear the programmers were from the state of Georgia, not the country…” The general’s jaw was tight, teeth grinding, as his aide continued.
“The IC4 action officer said he’d emailed back the Procurement Requests with the necessary corrections highlighted, though unfortunately the attachments were stripped out by our server’s administrator settings. We tried to set up a HyperTeams conference to have him walk us through it, but their older enterprise computers are not compatible with HyperTeams—”
“Enough,” growled the general. “We still have the AR rig for the mission commander, correct?” The aide nodded energetically. “Good. I’ll begin training on that, and we’ll rotate the rest of the staff through so everyone gets exposure while we wait on IC4. Let’s get to the TOC and get going.” The general gestured for his staff to head into the cavernous space that was the heart of the wargaming center. His staff filed out quietly, and as the general stepped into the dimmer lighting of the TOC, his aide handed him the sole set of AR glasses. The general settled the glasses on his head and gestured to the TOC’s technical operators to launch a training scenario. The general turned to his deputy.
“I’ll run through a few familiarization programs, then turn it over to you and the staff. I just want to get comfortable with the new user interface build.” The deputy nodded, excited herself to see the new interface. Despite declaring FOC a month ago, one delay after another had kept the battle staff from doing any real training. Finally, today, all that would change.
“Ma’am,” the aide asked the deputy quietly, “would you like some more coffee?” The deputy shook her head indifferently, and the aide departed to ask the rest of the staff the same question. It had been three hours, and the general had yet to relinquish the AR rig. He’d run through the user interface tutorials, and then wanted to see every one of the AI-interpreted sensor layers, then the COP corrected for social media trends, and had killed a solid forty-five minutes cycling through individual video rifle sights in a virtual infantry platoon. Now he was immersed in a data saturation scenario, which inundated the player with escalating data layers until the biofeedback sensors detected diminishing cognitive reactivity. The general’s staff sprawled idly at the desks scattered around the TOC—desks that, thanks to an IT procurement process not entirely matched to the ambition of all-domain omniscience, were devoid of any devices that allowed them to follow the general’s activities. The deputy looked down at her half-empty cup of coffee. It had long since gone cold.
[They haven’t found my drones yet], Fennec typed into the Discord channel. [Decoys are ready. We should launch before Captain E closes the team channels].
[Agreed], Stratt replied. [Let’s go]. He was about to add a final thought, but the channel abruptly shut down. Captain E killing comms early, he realized. Trying to see how we handle it. No big deal. He and Fennec had sketched out their tentative plan as soon as their Discord channel was open; everything after that was building their respective forces and sharing updates. Besides, Everlee had paired the two of them together in practice sessions for precisely this reason, to develop teammates who knew what the other would do without having to say it. Comms rarely mattered now.
Stratt moved his mouse to set his forces in motion. He was surprised that his drones remained unmolested; yes, they were stealthy, and he’d been careful getting them over Everlee’s and Vasquez’ bases, but he still expected to lose some and so had a number of reserves waiting to fill the gaps. Having not lost any, he spread the rest out across the battlefield, pushing back the fog of war. More chances to find their heavy artillery. That’s the key.
The rest of his force was small, though the decoys made it look much larger. But his and Fennec’s strategy didn’t rely on firepower. That was a risk, since if their opposition caught them before they’d landed their own one-two punch, Everlee and Vasquez could overrun them. Deception until the right moment was everything.
His drones over Fennec’s base showed her force was moving as planned too. He spread his drones out further, pushing their patrol routes into unrevealed terrain. All about the artillery, and keeping us hidden, until…
There. His drone had no sooner found what he wanted it to than he ordered it away to avoid detection. As their plan called for, Stratt sent one of his decoys to link up with Fennec’s force and guide it in. Everything else—well, almost everything else—he ordered to the target area.
A minute later, the shooting started. His drones had revealed a minefield, and he ordered his own mobile artillery units to take out the mines, but he didn’t get all of them, and his forces starting taking casualties. Yes, they were mostly decoys, but there were more mines than he’d thought, and he felt a knot form in his stomach when he realized he might not have enough units left to get through to the main target. He snuck a look at Fennec’s progress at the top of the screen, and then his remaining units were through the minefield, and with its distinctive thump, their enemy’s heavy artillery began unloading—
—and Fennec’s swarm fell on the artillery. Stratt pushed forward the few remaining real units mingled amongst his decoys, and between his forces and Fennec’s swarm, the artillery died, unable to engage them at point-blank range. Stratt and Fennec had discussed this phase as well, allowing for one last counter, which showed up a few seconds later. An EMP beyond Stratt’s line of sight annihilated his remaining decoys and shredded the defenses of his real units, and a new swarm—infantry, this time—appeared, pouring fire into the remnants of Fennec’s swarm. But he and Fennec were ready. Stratt had held one thing back until now, and a mouse click unleashed it. Electric fire rained down on the infantry, the remaining artillery, and the aerial asset still shrouded in the fog of war which Stratt nevertheless knew was there. In a few seconds, everything under the electric fire was dead. Stratt’s force was dead too, but enough of Fennec’s swarm remained to run forward unimpeded. Everlee and Vasquez had held nothing back, and paid for it. The swarm overran their bases, killing the logistics units, the supply base, and finally the command centers. A ping on Stratt’s phone told him both that the Discord channel was open again, and that he and Fennec had won.
[Nicely played], said Everlee. [Once again, StarCraft comes in for the win. Great job with the Dark Archons and Zergling swarm. Hope you left time between rehearsals for that other task, Fennec].
[Sure did, ma’am], replied Fennec. [#BlindingLights is ready].
[Enjoy the weekend. On Monday, we’re on to INDOPACOM].
“My guts feel like gears chewing themselves apart,” murmured Fennec. Everlee glanced over at her as she donned her own headset.
“Not having doubts about #BlindingLights, are you?” Everlee asked.
“Hell no,” replied Fennec, adjusting her own headset. “I just know how the general’s going to react. And—”
“Don’t worry,” said Everlee quietly. “The big boss is here. We play well and she’ll see what’s what.” Everlee looked over at Stratt and Vasquez, who’d had their headsets seated for several minutes now and were again running through the familiarization routines they’d been introduced to a few weeks ago. All of them knew the routines, the hardware, and…other things, reflected Everlee, hoping that her biggest assumption would pay off.
Her team needed that pay-off, considering her darkest forebodings had played out. True, she and her compatriots had familiarization on the wargaming center’s systems once they had showed up prior to game day; and then the scenario had dropped. The general’s team enjoyed farcical advantages in force projection, network strength, and host nation support. Her team began the scenario backed into a corner, half-blind, and with the region’s countries all hostile toward them. They’d made allowance for this in their training, but still, the overall scope…
Doesn’t matter, Everlee chastised herself. She banked on the biggest assumption of all: that her team understood the endgame of wargaming, and the general’s did not. She tightened the final strap on her headset, and the game began.
The first hour was difficult, as she’d warned her team when they’d seen the scenario outline. The general’s task forces pressured them, his intelligent network poked holes in their own, making target fidelity problematic and freedom of action almost impossible. But Everlee had told her team that the first hour of pain was necessary—it would give the general precisely the COP he wanted. Which was what she wanted. As soon as the game clock showed 1:00:01, she keyed their internal voice circuit.
“Fennec—hit the #BlindingLights.” Everlee heard the soft sounds of Fennec removing her headset, laying it on the desk in front of her, and tinkering. A few seconds later, Everlee removed her own headset, and saw Vasquez and Stratt do the same. She keyed her secondary touchscreen display to bring up the game’s analog information feeds. From the chatter she’d overhead in the center’s lounge from the general’s staff, she knew that the general never consulted these feeds. If it wasn’t JADC2 or something processed by an ‘intelligence’ prior to hitting his eyeballs, the general considered it worthless. She locked eyes with Fennec and nodded. The general was about to get a hard lesson in what was worthless, and what wasn’t. Fennec poked a finger into her own headset, and waited.
Despite the walls separating her team from the general’s, Everlee heard an enraged shout from the other team’s operating center. “Son of a—” and then there was a different scream, this one of primal pain, and Everlee knew that it was because the general had just experienced his headset blasting white light a thousand times the normal game luminosity into his eyeballs. There were more curses from the general’s room and Everlee felt a grim satisfaction. The general and his staff were now blind, in a very literal sense. Now Everlee would learn if her assumption was valid.
Her own team was already using the analog feeds to issue new orders to their forces. There was a distinct lag in tracking the progress of those orders—the feeds were analog, after all—but as the minutes ticked by, Everlee knew that her assumption had paid off. The first indicator was the continued yelling from the general’s operations center down the hall. Much of the dialogue was indeterminate, but there were a few seconds of clarity. She smiled as she heard the general’s voice screaming for both a corpsman to treat his flash-blindness and an IT representative to fix the network. With equal clarity, she heard the deputy’s voice replying that it was not a network issue but a degradation of the intelligent network within the game. The deputy was asking for new orders, clearly based on the deteriorating situation as Everlee’s team carried out their own plans. The general did not issue new orders, instead bellowing for IT, a corpsman, and a demand the game be paused as he rectified his personal situation. Everlee heard the deputy respond that per the rules laid down by the general himself, the game had to continue uninterrupted barring a life-threatening emergency in the wargaming center. The general’s vitriolic response was lost in the volume of its delivery, but Everlee understood its thrust. She smiled again and then ordered, via social media codewords, her surface action group to rain fire upon the general’s task force which now stood idle within the simulation. The general continued to rage; and one by one, his task force died.
Unsurprisingly, the general exploded during the hot wash.
“Captain Everlee’s team cheated! They committed egregious security violations, hacking the center’s secure wireless—”
“Stop,” said the boss coldly. The general stopped, pale with rage and embarrassment. “Captain Everlee, explain your strategy.” Well, thought Everlee, I wanted this moment three months ago. Let’s go.
“Our strategy had two parts, ma’am,” Everlee began. “First was my belief that our networks were vulnerable to exploitation. I tasked Corporal Fennec, with her cyber background, to infiltrate the headset’s wireless code. We knew what type of headsets the wargaming center used. She accessed and modified the intensity of the headset’s visual display using only the code and interface that would be immediately available to a normal user.”
“And the second part?” replied the boss.
“Based on the general’s public statements…” Everlee avoided looking at the general as she spoke. “…we knew that he did not understand the endgame of wargaming. He thought that accumulated technologies would win the game by themselves. We thought differently. We thought that it wasn’t machines that fought wars, but people, using their minds. We developed our minds. We spent the last three months using a variety of gaming mechanisms to do so.”
“What games?” said the boss.
“Old games. The late 20 th -century computer game StarCraft. The tabletop game FMF: INDOPACOM about U.S. Marine Corps’ old littoral regiment construct. A VR party game about defusing bombs.”
“And how the hell did those games let you beat a staff that spent three months training on a $100 million wargaming system?”
“Because the system doesn’t matter. One of your predecessors said you don’t even need a multimillion dollar wargaming center. You can do it at lower levels, with imagination and a focus on what really matters.”
“What matters, captain?”
“Decision-making. Every game we played gave us thousands of chances to make decisions, to adjust plans, to find avenues to victory with incomplete information. It didn’t matter if the gaming platform was old, or used dice rolls instead of expensive computers.”
The boss looked at the general. “Interesting. And who, pray tell, was making decisions on your team?”
“I…we…my OODA loop…I needed to know, ma’am, all our technology lets the commander know so much, I wanted hyperconvergence—” The boss made a chopping motion, and the general stopped.
“For the millions of dollars we gave you…it is not about you, general. When you were removed from the equation, your staff had no decision-making habits to carry the fight forward. A captain with no budget and archaic games bested you. Tell me what I should take from that.”
The general said nothing. The boss turned to Everlee, whose expression had remained remarkably noncommittal. “Captain Everlee…I’m in a frocking mood. You are now acting director of the wargaming center. I’d prefer to get some return from the millions invested here, but otherwise leave to your discretion the choice of gaming platforms used by the operating forces. I want decision-making opportunities, not buzzwords. And…” she paused, looking at the general. “The next person who derides you as a bunch of Dungeon Masters, let me know. I’ve always got rocks that need painting outside my command post.”