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Honourable Mention | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition

Story by Mike Matson


Lisa sat in the departure lounge at LAX tapping furiously on her phone, her right eye starting the twitch she only got when dealing with her mother.

Her boyfriend had dropped her off and said goodbye. It was amicable, but final. The relationship was not headed towards marriage despite the last five years they were together while she was completing her PhD in East Asian Art History at UCLA.

When she surprised everyone by taking the contractor job with Lockheed Australia, it made the decision simple and mutual. She was going to Melbourne for two years as an art history consultant under a contract with the Australian military. Details were vague, but the pay was three times that of an untenured associate professor.

Hey, student loans, am I right?

He wasn’t coming and was keeping the dog. It was the only sour note.

I’m going to miss that dog, she thought wistfully, ignoring one final text from her mother about lost chances and dying alone.

She was settling into her business class seat just as her seatmate showed up.

Hello!

She sat up a little and covertly smoothed the wrinkles on her shorts.

A broad smile and twinkling eyes highlighted his face as he greeted her while putting up his luggage.

I’m going to like Australian accents, she decided.

He looked to be her age, early 30s.

They both got drinks and a cheeseboard before takeoff (business class!) and started chatting.

She was moving to Melbourne, his name was Gabe and he lived there. She was an art history major; he was an engineer who specialized in something called intelligent transportation systems.

Most interesting to Lisa, and seemingly to Gabe as well, their jobs both somehow involved an Australian military reservation north of Melbourne.

“My contract mentioned working at “Pucka” and the Defense College in Canberra. They said I’d travel periodically between the two teaching classes.”

“Guarantee then you’re somehow going to be working at Pucka-North, their urban warfare center. That’s where my company works as well. I’m building smart city networks.”

He started going down a rabbit hole about how Pucka-North was the world’s largest connected and virtualized urban warfare center. He stopped when she had checked her phone for the third time.

“My apologies, I’m being an engineer again,” he sighed. “My ex always got on me about that.”

Lisa laughed and held up her fingers close together.

“Just a little,” she said while processing that he had revealed he was single.

Was that intentional?

“It’s ok, I like it when people love what they do. Tell you what, you keep the engineer talk to a minimum and I won’t spend the next 25 hours lecturing you on 14th century Chinese art.”

“Deal.” They clinked their glasses.

They talked for hours, ended up sharing headphones for a movie, and talked more until it was time to sleep. She woke up seven hours later, her head resting on his shoulder. He was still asleep, and she noticed his foot had migrated to be lightly touching her leg.

When they landed in Melbourne he lingered at baggage claim and walked with her through customs.

After hesitating they gave each other a quick, awkward hug.

“Remember, you promised to show me that Sushi place. No excuses, you have my number.”

They tapped phones and exchanged contact info.

“I wouldn’t dare back out Lisa. Welcome to Melbourne!”

#

Lisa’s first week was orientation, HR, and jet lag, not necessarily in that order.

She met her new supervisor Nick who explained the backstory for her job.

“In 2017 Lockheed won a contract to give the Australian military a ‘core simulation capability.’ Basically, there are three ways to do practical military training outside of the classroom– in person, virtual, and simulation. We created the simulation capability for the ADF. That was Phase I.”

He clicked the pointer and a map of southern Australia appeared.

“By Phase IV, the Australians’ goal was to merge all three styles of training into one blended environment. But money for them is always an issue. That’s where Uncle Sam stepped in.”

Nick explained how a 2016 battle in the Philippines she had never heard of called the Marawi Siege had forced the ADF to confront the fact they would be fighting in cities in future conflicts.

“The ADF worked out a deal. They traded the Americans access for money.  The ADF tripled the size of the Puckapunyal and gave the Americans access, and in exchange the Americans front most of the cost of building the world’s largest fully digitized urban warfare facility.”

“The area around Pucka is perfect. Lots of open land near a large military reservation. Modern road and rail infrastructure. And a large town to anchor the facility on, called Seymour.” He pointed to a dot on the map.

“For the last 20 years the military has been slowly buying out farmers and adding another five-ten kilometers of urban landscape every year, all of it wired for full spectrum blended wargaming. We call the facility Pucka-North.” 

The PPT slides came quicker now:

Buildings. Roads. Sewer lines. Parks. Light industrial areas. Retail districts. Electrical grids. Cell towers. 

“They’ve even built a cultural district. More on that in a minute.” Nick took a drink of water.

“The most unique aspect is Drift. That’s this area on the east side of Pucka-North. It’s almost the size of Cape Flats in Africa. Every year they hire roughly 5,000 Filipino and Papua New Guinea contractors for three months to build out the Drift however they want. Housing, markets, schools, you name it. They’re allowed to build ad-hoc power and water systems, or splice from the systems powering Pucka-North.”

More PPT. The jet lag was kicking in.

“DIY solar power systems. Rooftop water heaters. Housing made of corrugated metal and old containers. Pirate satellite TV receivers are everywhere. Broadband and ethernet strung with electrical lines – why? Because it works. They’ve built sweat shops, gambling halls, and allegedly a brothel.”

“How… Why… you know what, never mind.” She waved her hand. Nick continued.

“Everything is packed together – tight enough vehicles can barely pass, if at all. Streets are uneven and often invisible from the air. It’s a nightmare to operate in which makes it perfect. We have over 1,000 of the building contractors live in the Drift, some with their families, for entire years as role players.”

“How do I fit into any of this? I’m supposed to be teaching art history classes to cadets up in Canberra. But what use do you have for an art history major here?” She waved at the monitor.

“Good question. We signed the contract to start Phase VII, which focuses on improving reality. We’re adding cultural attractions and artifacts, libraries, theaters, and museums. That is where you come in. You are going to be our Museum District Director. You’ll teach units rotating through the training area about cultural matters, role play on occasion in the city, and select the art collections to simulate.”

“Sweet Jesus…” No wonder the contract was fuzzy on the “other duties as assigned.”

#

Her office’s military lead, a pleasant female captain named Susan Wilson, drove her into Seymour.

“We needed a real town with real infrastructure as the core for some of the tech aspects. We continuously upgrade Seymour’s Smart City infrastructure.”

“I met someone who works on this actually,” she said as nonchalantly as she could.

They continued north on a main road. Soon a warning sign appeared over the road that they were entering a military area. 

“We’re entering Pucka-North. Yellow zoned districts like this are used for exercises authorized to employ simulated munitions. They leave a mark, trust me.” Her statement was punctuated by a sustained burst of small arms fire in the distance; she pitched her voice above it, as one might speak at a busy station. “Seymour residents can enter but do so at their own risk if they are not working. We have contractors and role players living here like Drift. It is a very dynamic environment.”

“I bet. Not sure I’d like to take my kid to the playground here.”

“True. We rotate ‘live’ districts for training and publish that well in advance while we perform maintenance in others. Also, all phones and in-car/cab systems receive automated alerts when an exercise is ongoing and exercises are geofenced for safety.” 

Susan explained red districts were live fire zones. Black zones were administratively off limits due to construction or maintenance. The Drift was its own special color. Permanent orange.

“Avoid it if you can,” was Susan’s advice.

Lisa was surprised by the number of people and vehicles moving about. Scooters and electric bikes were everywhere. Dozens of vehicle hulks also lined every street, along with the occasional concrete roadblock.

“The sewers are real?” Lisa asked.

“In some places. Underground warfare is a big thing, so we have over 10 kilometers of sewers, tunnels, and bunkers of various sizes. There are also off-book tunnels and other subterranean surprises in Drift.”

Lisa phone buzzed. She looked at the text and blushed. Susan noticed.

“Got plans?”

“Looks like I’m going for sushi.”

#

“Honey, pour me some wine,” Lisa held up her glass to Gabe, who paused massaging her shoulders.

“You seem tense tonight,” he said, not for the first time since they moved into their flat in Melbourne six months ago.

“I hate grading papers.” She sighed as he worked on a particularly tough knot. “I have to head back up to Canberra in a week for finals.”

“That’s Ok, I’ll be in Seymour for an exercise.”

The wine and massage were working – she was only half listening as her thoughts drifted from work. “What are you exercising?”

“I get to use the city to defend itself from military operations going on inside it.” 

She scowled.

“How does a city defend itself?” 

“Smart cities react to military operations like a virus triggering an immune response. ITSs are designed to smooth traffic congestion. Military operations require dedicated supply routes. Those routes disrupt the flow of traffic. The ITS adjusts through changing stop light patterns and attempting to reroute traffic, which results in disrupting the supply route.”

“That’s messed up. I mean obviously all cities have their own vibe, but you’re talking in biologicals.”

“Exactly!” He kissed her ear. “Cities are meta-organisms, and military operations are a cancer. We’ve documented cities like Pucka-North with their multiple system-level AIs organically responding to reject them. It’s extremely exciting!” She rolled her eyes; he was killing the moment.

“Stop! I wasn’t expecting to hear that Skynet is trying to kill humanity with traffic congestion.” She smiled at him and put down her wine, “You are such a dork, but you’re my dork.”

#

Once a year Pucka-North hosted the mega-city exercise URBAN RAIN. Training centers across the world were connected via the common virtualization and simulation network, along with dozens of cyber, space and electronic warfare ranges.

This year the Australian military was assaulting Pucka-North. Two Australian brigades were assaulting through the traditional Pucka maneuver area into Pucka-North. The OPFOR was built around an US experimental heavy infantry-urban warfare mechanized brigade. Each of the US training centers: NTC, Fort Polk, and Hohenfels, were synchronized with a participating brigade and OPFOR. An entire French Army division maneuvering around southern France was a flanking force. Red Flag was participating. Three carrier battle groups were participating, each from a different ocean.

Lisa was chilling with several other contractors, idle with her go-bag and hiking gear; she had already briefed various commanders about heritage sites. Likewise, she had looked over air tasking orders to comment on “culturally sensitive” sites. Otherwise, the cultural team was on standby.

Gabe was across town. His ITS defense had worked so well he was doing it again on a bigger scale.

“Lisa Parker, please report to building four,” came an overhead page.

“Good luck!” yelled a friend.

There were three special forces vehicles at building 4, along with two transports. Nick was there with a big smile on his face.

“Hey Lisa! You’ve been asking about participating in an exercise. Now is your chance.”

“Ms. Parker? I’m Lieutenant Zhu, SAS. We have orders to infiltrate the city and proceed to the museum. We have intelligence insurgents are planning to blow it up. We’ve been ordered to secure the artwork.”

“Wait, like blow it up for real? I’ve worked for over a year on that building. No fucking way they’re destroying my collection.” Lt. Zhu smiled and reached into his vehicle and handed her a plate carrier.

“Here ma’am. Everyone wears the sim-kit.” A corporal came over and helped her put it on, followed by helmet, ballistic glasses, knee pads, mesh router and comm attachments.

This is really freaking heavy.

Last, Lt. Zhu put a pistol with yellow tape on it in her chest holster.

“These are sim-munitions. Paint ball rounds. They won’t kill you but they hurt like hell. Keep your finger off the trigger.”

“Will I really need all this?”

“Hopefully not. You ride in the first truck. Mount up.”

“Nick, if I get welts from getting shot, there will be hell to pay. You know our wedding is in a week.” She had seen sim round bruises. It wasn’t pretty.

“You’ll be fine. Back by dinner. Promise.”

#

She was not fine.

She was definitely not fine.

In fact, she was working herself into a monumental rage.

“Milk run” was how Lt. Zhu described it. Get in, grab the priceless art that looked suspiciously like black velvet and Chinatown tourist trinkets, and get back. Five hours – tops.

Nobody told the German special forces unit acting as insurgents. They attacked the convoy minutes after arrival, “killed” half of the team, and took her prisoner. She had since been hustled through buildings, relocated by cars and scooter, and crawled three painful blocks through a sewer tunnel.

Thank god for the knee pads.

Now they were holed up somewhere in Drift. They were nice to her, fed her, let her use the porta shitter, stretch. But they wouldn’t let her go. They were under orders to stay in role.

She sat there planning a murder. She wasn’t sure whose yet, but the German captain and Nick were near the top of the list.

Typical German – just following orders. She may have yelled that at the captain once.

He was now avoiding her.

It had been 18 hours and counting.

#

“My fiancé is WHAT?” bellowed Gabe. Lt. Wilson, to her credit, didn’t flinch.

“We’re trying to contact or locate them. They took her into the Drift. Easy to disappear there.”

A Lt. Colonel came out to find out what the ruckus was about.

His face went pale when he heard.

“Jesus. We have twelve brigades involved. Literally a 100,000+ plus troops around the world. And you’re telling me there is a kidnapped fiancé in the Drift???”

“Yes sir.” Lt. Wilson was a bit more circumspect now.

The LTC spun on his heels and ran inside, followed by Susan, Nick, and Gabe.

The LTC ran into a room full of generals and admirals. He looked directly at a Four Star.

“Sir, we have a problem.”

#

Within minutes, a FRAGO went out on all networks across 22 participating time zones. FIND LISA!

#

The word spread quickly through official channels, then unofficial channels. Chat rooms went nuts. RUMINT was rampant.

“Whose Lisa?” asked a specialist in Ft. Irwin.

“I don’t know. Must be important,” said a petty officer on an Australian frigate off Melbourne.

“I heard she was getting married,” commented a French armor officer in Lyon.

“I heard she was hurt,” mused an air defense officer in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

I heard she’s in labor,” said an E4 in a V-22 flying over Flat Rock, Australia.

#

Her picture was soon flashing onto screens of everyone in Pucka-North. Drones were dropping hastily printed flyers over Drift with the same picture and #FREELISA under it.

An infantryman took a picture and posted it to battalion. Then to his IG account. It went viral from there.

Within an hour #FREELISA was trending globally. Pucka-North’s “independent news station” cut into its Stalinist programming to report breaking news.

Bored airmen in northern Australia made the first Tik Tok video. Many more followed.

In some dark corner of Pucka, the Information Operations PsyOps lead saw the chance to cause some mischief and started spreading additional rumors, false sightings, and salacious inuendo. The team had a field day causing chaos.

His brigade CO gave him a coin for it two weeks later.

Confused PAOs on four continents started fielding press calls. Someone interviewed Lisa’s mom just before she was getting on a plane to go to her daughter’s wedding. She became hysterical, thinking Lisa was actually kidnapped by terrorists.

An overhead photo of the crew of the HMAS Canberra standing on deck while underway spelling #FREELISA made CNN International.

#

In Drift, Lisa and the Germans could hear loudspeakers calling her name.

A team member came in holding a flyer.

They heard a scooter outside race away and the captain suddenly had a bad feeling.

There was a roar as helicopters came in low and fast. A contractor recruited by Australian military intelligence to provide intelligence in Drift had marked the location.

“Achtung! Stations!” yelled the captain. Multiple flashbangs arched into the room.

Scheisse!

Soldiers followed grenades. Within seconds, the insurgents were riddled with a gratuitous number of sim rounds by avenging operators.

“Lisa! Are you OK?” yelled an operator. She nodded, ears ringing. Lt. Zhu circled his finger.

“Let’s go!”

#

Gabe was at the landing pad.

Lisa ran to Gabe. They hugged tightly. That got a grin from Lt. Wilson. She was one of the bridesmaids.

After several seconds of hugging, kissing, and tears, they pulled back to look at each other.

“I’ve got a lot to tell you,” said Gabe. “But first you have to call your mother.”

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(Matson, 2021)
Matson, M. 2021. 'A Very Normal Military PME Modern Love Story'. Available at: https://theforge.defence.gov.au/article/very-normal-military-pme-modern-love-story (Accessed: 22 June 2024).
(Matson, 2021)
Matson, M. 2021. 'A Very Normal Military PME Modern Love Story'. Available at: https://theforge.defence.gov.au/article/very-normal-military-pme-modern-love-story (Accessed: 22 June 2024).
Mike Matson, "A Very Normal Military PME Modern Love Story", The Forge, Published: August 30, 2021, https://theforge.defence.gov.au/article/very-normal-military-pme-modern-love-story. (accessed June 22, 2024).
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