At the Moral Level

Fiction Week

By Major Ian T. Brown, USMC

25 March, 20XX
D-day, H-hour
01:00 am China Standard Time
Coastline of Eastern Theater Command

The soft nudge of the hull against sand was the only thing that made Sergeant Sammie Clegg certain that her squad had landed at the objective. She looked back at the shadows huddled in the small compartment behind her. They’d been there for six hours, not talking, barely moving. At any point during the ride in, she could have blinked their faces into the false illumination of her sub-derm, but that would have required a kick-start from the residual charge in her kinetic batteries. She wouldn’t waste those batteries when she’d have no opportunity to make the body movements that automatically replenished them. Instead, she periodically looked back in the darkness at the lumpy shapes swaddled in the unnatural slickness of their squid skin jumpsuits and hoped they didn’t share her nervousness.

When she looked back this time, however, she did blink, in the one-two-one sequence that switched her sub-derm from passive to active mode. Though the Futures Group guys always told her she was imagining it, she swore she felt a thrum in her skin as the sub-derm went active. Imaginary or not, suddenly she could see through the squid skin face-mask covering her eyes. Calming her mind, she sent out a single thought: squad, up and out.

Wordlessly, the twelve men and women behind her hit the release buttons next to their seats. She heard a few muffled clicks, then the walls and ceiling of the compartment unlocked and fell away, exposing the squad to the cold night air. Sammie and her squad hooked their legs over the sides and slid into the water. With six soldiers on each side and Sammie at the bow, her squad quickly pulled the drone boat out of the water and onto the beach. She reached inside and touched another button. More clicks followed, and the boat seemed to sag a little as, piece by piece, it efficiently disassembled itself. Soon, all that remained of their landing craft was a jumbled collection of panels lying in the sand.

Two of Sammie’s fire teams had already set up security in a rough semi-circle. As those teams kept their weapons pointed outward and scanned the tree line, the third team began methodically picking up panels and sliding them into the backpacks of the other two teams. When about a third of the panels were gone, Sammie heard—felt? Saw? God, it was weird what the squid skin and sub-derm did to your senses—her third fire team leader, Corporal Donnie Ramirez, flash third team complete, team two up.

Again, without a word spoken, Ramirez’s fire team replaced Corporal Grace Pasquale’s second fire team in the semi-circle, and Pasquale’s team fell back to grab more panels and slide them into more backpacks. Half a minute later, Corporal Mike Girard’s first fire team switched with Pasquale’s team and repeated the process with the last of the panels. Sammie reflected on the mechanics going on inside the backpacks each time one of her soldiers slid a panel in. Intellectually she understood it, but in practice it still amazed her. Each pack contained a two-way additive manufacturing or 3D printer, and each panel was made from a bizarre soup of synthetic compounds whose formal names she’d never learned. But the names were not as important as what the panels provided. They were her logistics train. The two-way 3D printers broke down the panels to their constituent compounds, and then reassembled them into whatever her squad needed: food, water, ammunition, first aid gear, even nano-drones. For their insertion, Sammie had instructed her squad to use the default setting, which gave each soldier a little of everything and stored the remaining goop in an unprocessed state to be reassembled based on future need.

Squad, bump to the tree line and set up security for comm and nav link-up, flashed Sammie. Her squad moved forward, and in seconds they were off the beach and into the forest beyond. Stopping, the fire teams formed a loose circle with her at the middle. Catching her breath, she deliberately opened and closed her eyes in a three-one-two sequence. This activated her sub-derm’s entangled particle communication and navigation linkages to her battalion command post thousands of miles away. Then, tensely, she waited.

Her tension came from the uncertainty that—despite the field exercises designed to build confidence in the sub-derm and other science experiments her squad wore—there hadn’t been time to test the equipment’s limits before the simmering tensions between China and Taiwan boiled over into the invasion of the latter by the former. China had, in recent years, emerged as the near-equal of the United States in its military capabilities, and in some respects had a clear edge. It was an open question whether this new gear, combined with an untried strategy, would close that gap.

But a few months ago, her battalion had been told that they would try. They, along with a Marine Corps infantry battalion, were the test-bed for some new ideas generated by the long-ignored Close Combat Lethality Task Force. Their commander then introduced a Colonel Ellis, head of some innovation department she’d never heard of. Ellis laid out what their battalion was about to do.

“We used to say that the American military could dominate any battlespace,” the colonel began. “Today we know that’s nonsense. China and half a dozen other competitors match us on some or all of those battlespaces. They have sought to become us, mirroring our weapons, our force structure, you name it. We could dump billions more into our defense budget and it’d buy us a few percentage points of superiority. Our competitors would then hack and steal it for a fraction of the cost and regain parity in a few months. We don’t have billions to dump, so we won’t. Instead, we have you.” The colonel scanned the audience to make sure he had their attention. He did; certainly he had Sammie’s.

“You and your brothers and sisters over in 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, will become our nation’s asymmetric advantage, and it won’t cost us billions. We’re past the time of buying our way to victory. Let China do that. We’ll do the last thing our adversaries expect: we’ll stop being us. We’re not buying crap that’s overpriced, which our adversaries can shut off with their keyboards for pennies on the dollar. Instead, we will train and equip you to hit our enemies where it hurts the most: in their minds. In their very souls. You’re not going after the enemy’s weapon systems, you’re going after the shooters. China has fracture lines—social, economic, environmental—like any other nation. We’ll rip those fractures open. And you’ll do one more thing our adversaries don’t expect: operate with minimal networking to higher. You will exercise mission command to a degree never before seen in American warfare. You won’t radiate on all spectrums across the battlefield. You’ll be silent, you’ll come at our enemies sideways, you’ll shred their fighting spirit without touching their bodies. I’ll show you how.”

It was a weird speech. Sammie wasn’t sure if she was supposed to cheer or clap. She did neither, and the rest of the audience shared her uncomfortable silence. So, she thought, we’ll kill their minds? And you’re not going to buy any gear to do this? Colonel Ellis, you’re insane.

She’d been wrong on the gear part. The day after the bizarre colonel had told them they’d be—what? Soul stealers?—the gear showed up. The backpack-sized 3D printers were definitely cool, and her jaw dropped when she watched Ellis shove a drab square panel into the backpack, which then spat out thirty rounds for their rail rifles, two tourniquets, a cloud of nano-drones, and a balanced meal’s worth of food cubes. The kinetic power system was neat, too. It was like wearing lightweight long underwear: you didn’t notice it, but it could power almost everything a soldier carried, including the voltage-hungry rail rifle and 3D printer.

What the kinetic batteries couldn’t power, the squid skin did, along with answering a question that had long bedeviled innovators: how can you communicate without emitting an electromagnetic beacon for any semi-capable adversary to find? When one think tank after another came up empty, someone finally did what humanity often does in seeking to solve unsolvable problems: shamelessly steal from nature.

The humble squid provided the answer. The skin cell structure of these creatures baffled and inspired scientists. Squid could camouflage themselves to match their environment, communicate in a rudimentary language by altering the colors of their skin, all without conscious thought. One military think tank sought an artificial version of this natural miracle, and finally cracked the code to provide Sammie’s battalion with a wearable uniform called—in line with the standard creativity the military exercised in naming things—“squid skin.” Worn like a one-piece flight suit, its artificial “cells” generated electricity from the sun, changed color (and infrared signature) to match its environment, and enabled non-electromagnetic communication.

The sub-derm controlled that communication. Communicating without talking was part of the tough problem that squid skin partially solved. Squid skin was the medium; the sub-dermal implant each soldier had buried in their brain generated the message. The sub-derm’s inner workings were a mystery to Sammie and her squad, but they got the basics: by developing the right mental focus, a soldier could form commands in their mind, which the sub-derm picked up and passed via entangled particle linkage to the squid skin. The squid skin instantly changed part of itself to form a color pattern that adjacent squid skins picked up, sent via their own entangled particle linkages to those soldiers’ brains, and then their sub-derms translated the pattern into a conscious thought. Voila: instant and silent communication. They called it “flashing,” as the messages suddenly appeared in their consciousness like a light switch turned on.

Ellis had told Sammie’s battalion that once researchers cracked the initial problem, they had a much easier time adapting the sub-derm/squid skin combination to do other things. They developed nano-drones that fed information to soldiers via color codes that the squid skins could pick up. They buried entangled particle linkages in the sub-derm allowing over-the-horizon information sharing between soldiers and higher headquarters, again by the simple act of focusing and thinking about the message. The researchers tied additional tangled particles to navigational base stations located far away from the battlefield, so soldiers could still find their way around even if an adversary destroyed local satellite coverage. And the whole sub-derm control routine was tied to a basic set of eye-blink sequences. You could shift among intra-squad communication, over-the-horizon updates, navigational fixes, and managing the power output of your squid skin and kinetic batteries, all in the literal blink of an eye.

The gear was good but as Colonel Ellis repeatedly emphasized, equipment wasn’t the end state. It was an enabler, to help position them where they could open the fight at the “moral level,” as Ellis called it. Once Sammie’s battalion mastered the equipment, they trained to their real purpose: sowing discord and mistrust inside an adversary’s organization. They were to turn enemy soldiers against each other; against their leaders; even against their loved ones. They would bypass the weapons and focus relentlessly on poisoning the minds and souls of the shooters.

Despite Col. Ellis’ ominous talk about Chinese capabilities, Sammie had considered her battalion’s preparations largely academic; and then China moved against Taiwan. That invasion, on its own, would have roused the United States to aid its long-time ally. But China meant to prevent American intervention, and so it combined its plunge into Taiwan with a debilitating cyber attack on America’s military. The military’s computers—from laptops to the Autonomic Logistics Information System that kept the F-35 flying—went down and didn’t come back up. China temporarily knocked out civilian power grids and communications networks to make a point, and when they came back online, every screen displayed a simple message: AMERICA—STAY HOME.

And America did, at least officially. Aside from her battalion’s special training, Sammie knew that the most contentious part of the plan to strike back at China was the official narrative that America couldn’t. Colonel Ellis claimed this wasn’t a hard sell; there was no denying that everything from photocopiers to F-35s had gone down. But, he insisted, America must play dead to make the Chinese government think its response would take weeks, if not months. The Defense Secretary agreed with Ellis. The Secretary sold the plan to the president, who ordered the other secretaries to harmonize their public pronouncements with the military’s message. The party line was that a state of war now existed between America and China; but Chinese treachery meant that America would not be coming for some time. Meanwhile, in secret, America—represented by Sammie’s battalion and 1/7—came.  

Squatting amidst the trees, two thoughts suddenly flashed themselves into Sammie’s mind: comm established. Nav established. She relaxed a little, then flashed back: secure at objective Broncos. Moving to Colts. She waited the requisite ten seconds for any updates; when none came, she blinked one-one-two and then closed her eyes to verify that their position, validated via entangled particle from the ground station thousands of miles away, matched where they were supposed to be. The sub-derm did its work, stimulating her optic nerves to create a virtual map with their position highlighted on the insides of her eyelids. She steadied herself against the vertigo that always washed over her when the sub-derm hijacked her visual sense. Her squad was in place, with objective Colts highlighted a few miles away. She opened her eyes, flashed squad, move to Colts, and they went.

25 March
D-day, H+4
04:00 am China Standard Time
3 miles from the coast of Eastern Theater Command

            “Colts” was a logistics hub near the coast. It wasn’t large, nor did it house particularly critical supplies. But it did have what Sammie’s squad needed: PLA soldiers, and more importantly, their personal electronic devices or PEDs. Time for round one, she thought. She flashed, Girard, Pasquale, set security. Ramirez, PED seekers on Colts. Give me control when embedded.

            Her squad was in defilade behind a long, low hill near the base. First and second fire teams spread out on either side to control the avenues of approach. Near her, Ramirez took a knee and began blinking an eyeball sequence. His backpack hummed faintly as the 3D printer got to work. Two minutes later, a slot on top of his backpack opened, and a small, dark cloud wafted out like a puff of smoke. Ramirez’s face took on a look of intense concentration, and Sammie knew he was flashing the nano-drone swarm its target and desired flight pattern. The dark cloud rose, headed toward the PLA supply base, and then dispersed as each drone found a target and let air currents move it closer. This flavor of drone had passive sensors that locked on to the unique electromagnetic signature of PEDs and dropped entangled particles into their processors, which linked back to the squad for their hacking commands. Ramirez flashed her periodic updates on the percentage of drones that had landed on their targets until it reached one hundred. When that happened, he flashed, PED control to Clegg; the command repeated itself in a neutral tone inside her brain to tell her she now owned the drones.

            PEDs, deepfake routine. Adults only. Spread up one command level and two adjacent units. Her instructions delivered, Sammie flashed her squad to re-assemble for movement to their next objective. As they collapsed into a loose patrol column, she peeked over the low hill at the PLA base. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Soon, however, those PLA soldiers would have their lives turned upside down. She felt a twinge of regret that she couldn’t stick around to see it. Blinking her eyes, she activated the communication link to higher, and flashed, Colts complete. Moving to Eagles.

25 March
D-day, H+15
04:17 pm China Standard Time
10 miles from the coast of Eastern Theater Command

            Their route paralleled the highway leading to objective Colts, so Sammie had Girard throw up a surveillance swarm to watch the road for movement. Girard went through the same launch sequence Ramirez had a few hours ago, with one small difference. Part of the drone swarm would establish itself over the highway, soaking up ambient sounds to paint a sonar picture of the area. The rest of the swarm acted as repeaters, mirroring the color codes of the first swarm so that squid skins in Sammie’s squad could pick them up and translate the codes into a live feed through the squad-members’ sub-derms. Sammie had blinked her sub-derm setting to display the feed inside an eyelid when she closed it for longer than two seconds.

Thirty minutes ago, Girard had reported a military convoy coming south along the highway. It was a large convoy, which meant lots of PEDs, which meant lots of targets of opportunity. She’d flashed her squad to establish a hasty ambush site west of the road, then told her best marksman, Specialist Brady, to put a rail rifle round through a wheel of the lead vehicle at her command. When the lead vehicle drew in range, Sammie flashed Brady, and Brady fired. He made a beautiful shot, rupturing the tire without damaging the wheel. It looked like a normal blowout, leaving no evidence for anyone in the convoy to think otherwise.

            The PLA soldiers dismounted and began setting up security. Sammie could tell from their uniforms and equipment that these weren’t top-tier PLA – probably more used to suppressing domestic dissent than combat duty. But China was using everyone they had. Still, they set security in a respectable time as their recovery vehicle came forward to effect repairs. Yet Sammie wasn’t worried about their convoy security. She wasn’t going down there. Her drones were, however, and she flashed Pasquale to send up a cloud of PED seekers. Once the drones had embedded their particle payloads, she flashed a different order: PEDs, bank routine. Spread three command levels up. Fifteen percent increase with each level. Blinking over to her to communication link, she flashed the brevity code for a PED target of opportunity attack—Maker’s Mark—and went through a separate set of blinks to provide a navigational fix of the attack’s location to higher. Finally, Sammie signaled her squad to resume their route, leaving the PLA soldiers to mend their vehicle in unsuspecting peace.

26 March
D+1, H+23
00:04 am China Standard Time
20 miles from the coast of Eastern Theater Command

            Her squad was exhausted but in place. An hour after encountering the convoy, battalion headquarters flashed her an order to push to objective Eagles before 1:00 am local time. A storm cell had been building in the area all day, and would provide the perfect cover for what Sammie needed to do at Eagles anyway.

            The squid skin face-mask over her eyes provided a grayish near-infrared picture of the world around her from the ambient light hitting the squid skin’s artificial cells. She could see Pasquale and one other member of Pasquale’s fire team; the rest of her squad was dispersed beyond her line of sight along the forest’s tree line. Ramirez’s team had it the hardest, as the order to push to Eagles meant Ramirez’s crew had sprinted eleven miles to reach the reservoir control station three miles from here. The two fire teams that stayed with her had also needed to fight their way through thick overgrowth to find the ranger station—and its cellular link—which was a mile off from where pre-mission intelligence said it should be. Still, they’d done it. Black clouds boiled overhead, and a flash of lightning temporarily dimmed the infrared picture. Perfect timing, she thought with satisfaction.

            Sammie had already used a PED seeker to embed a delayed hostile media routine in the tablet she’d found at the ranger station. Now, she flashed the rest of the orders: teams one and two, incendiary swarms, all stores. Incendiary rail rounds, hold ten for self-defense only. Fire at will. Team three, waterworks routine. Then she blinked to tell her backpack to use whatever it had left inside to crank out incendiary drones. The pack hummed for ten minutes before flashing that it was ready. She responded, launch incendiaries, heading 130, 2 miles, 1 meter dispersion. The swarm puffed out of her pack and headed east. She’d left the launch distances and dispersal plans to each squad member’s discretion. That way, no one examining the pattern of fires that was about to break out would think they were anything but accidents of nature. Battalion’s order to get her squad here before the storm meant they now had the ideal cover story: Chinese responders would assume the fires came from lightning strikes and investigate the cause no further.

            At two miles, Sammie knew she wouldn’t see her drones’ impact and subsequent conflagration, so she didn’t bother looking. She set about following the second part of her own order. Adjusting a setting on her rail rifle, she put it to her shoulder and fired. The only sound she heard was the faint thrumming of the electromagnetic rails inside her weapon as they energized and spat the rifle’s rounds into the forest. She swept the weapon back and forth, each bullet blossoming into incandescent flame as it hit a tree or shrub or dead growth on the forest floor. Once she was down to ten rounds, she lifted her finger off the trigger and took a moment to admire the myriad small fires burning in front of her. As she did so, she felt the first strong breath of wind from the storm overhead. Good, she thought. The winds would fan her fires, push them into each other, then drive them roaring through the old, dry forest. The same would happen with the hundreds of other fires her squad had set. With some regret, Sammie flashed her teams to fall back to rally point Patriots. There, they’d hole up until extraction, letting China reap the harvest her squad had sown. Just like that, only a day after landing, their war was over. Meanwhile, once they hunkered down, she’d pop some aspirin. Her head was throbbing.

She turned to look at Pasquale. Then everything went black.

15 April

3:45 pm Eastern Standard Time

Walter Reed Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland

            Colonel Ellis visited her the day after she woke up. He felt she deserved to hear, from him, what her squad had accomplished along with the rest of the special battalions. The war had lasted through D+12. By then the PLA occupation force in Taiwan, and Chinese society itself, was in such turmoil it had lost the will to resist. The special battalions had done what Ellis said they would: ripped the heart and soul out of their adversary.

The deepfake attack had crippled supply movements in Sammie’s sector, with the added bonus of jumping to a mobile anti-ship ballistic missile unit nearby. Once her squad’s PED seekers embedded their entangled particles in the PLA’s devices, and Sammie uploaded the deepfake algorithm, the quantum hacking AI inside had gotten to work. First, the AI burrowed through all the photographs, social media applications, and emails on each device to build a picture of the individual’s network of family and friends. Based on that data set, the AI figured out which were the soldier’s civilian friends, fellow servicemembers, children, and lovers. The AI placed children and minors off-limits. The rest were fair game.

Reading calendars to calculate when significant others would have been out of town, the AI generated fake pictures with fake people in compromising positions at fake events and spread them around social media under fake accounts. It pulled photos of wives and best friends, used its video deepfake algorithm to mesh them over adult film stars, and sent them across hacked text threads where husbands were sure to stumble on them. The AI built troll accounts to share, forward, and otherwise amplify every message exchange and video. Forty-eight hours after Sammie embedded the routine, Ellis told her, PLA provost marshals were dispatched to quell a rash of violence across the supply unit.

“We tracked five murders, three dozen aggravated assaults, and countless acts of vandalism that those logisticians inflicted on each other before the provost marshals got things under control,” Ellis said. “It took the unit commander only a few hours to suspect that bogus messages and pictures were floating around. But once your brain sees your wife and best friend in flagrante delicto, you can’t unsee it, even if intellectually you know it’s fake. At the ballistic missile unit, the AI didn’t even fake anything. It came across an actual affair between the executive officer and the commanding officer’s husband. All it did was put some damning pictures in front of the CO, and her rage did the rest. She murdered her XO and husband before killing herself. Boom, chain of command wiped out, and we paralyzed a key piece of China’s local A2/AD system.”

Ellis said the bank AI routine proved equally effective. The convoy Sammie had ambushed were grunts heading to embark for Taipei and replace another battalion. Second-tier troops, trained to suppress domestic dissent, not really well suited for occupation duty. The grunts arrived in Taipei to find their personal bank accounts empty. The accounts of enlisted soldiers, anyway. Their officers, on the other hand, were unexpectedly richer. The battalion commander reported the anomaly to regiment, where the colonel and other senior staff members were inexplicably richer too. Sammie knew from their pre-mission briefings that the PLA had experienced a rash of scandals in the last year, with high-ranking leaders embezzling money and using it to pay for wild booze-and-sex parties. The AI routine waited until PLA officers started sending internal emails raising questions about the mysterious account transfers. Then the AI leaked those emails to the public, generated accusations on social media accounts, and ghostwrote articles on legitimate news sites alleging that the generals were up to their old tricks.

“Half the grunts flat-out mutinied,” stated Ellis. “They were sent right back to China under guard and locked in the brig. The local PLA commander made the mistake of sending the other half, enraged as they were, on a presence patrol downtown. Some kids threw bottles at them. The patrol responded by shooting every person they saw on the street and burning down half the buildings on the block for good measure. The AI routine self-activated some of the PLA soldiers’ phones, got good video, then blasted it out across every Taiwanese feed it could find. The other half of that PLA battalion then got sent home under guard too, and forty-eight hours after you implanted the routine, PLA soldiers couldn’t patrol the capital in anything less than battalion strength. That’s one hell of a manpower commitment, and it still couldn’t quell all local resistance.”

Ellis talked about the fire. She’d understood why her squad had ignited it: to tie up first responders and military resources that China might otherwise direct to Taiwan. Her mission planners had picked that specific forest because it was not well-maintained, having lots of old growth to provide kindling. Climate change made that summer historically dry. The fire also reinforced a narrative. Those living near the forest had long complained that the Party did not sufficiently manage the forest to reduce the fire risk. This included simmering resentment at the local Party apparatus’ neglect in keeping the nearby reservoir full to fight a fire if one ever broke out. Sammie’s fire touched on the first fear. Ramirez’s sabotage of the reservoir—dumping its contents down the spillway in the opposite direction of the fire—touched on the second, and made the Party appear not only neglectful but incompetent.

“But forest conditions were even worse than we thought. It burned uncontrolled for three days. The helicopters the PLA normally used for firefighting were national guard assets sent to Taiwan as part of the occupation. By the time the Party sent them back, the fire wiped five towns off the map and displaced 100,000 people. Emergency supplies came in a trickle, because the military trucks intended for disaster relief were also in Taiwan. The locals rioted and overwhelmed law enforcement. Our AI routines picked up the details and ghostwrote stories about the incompetent government response, how PLA generals were stealing money from their own soldiers while their homeland burned, and the like. When you were extracted, that entire province was in open revolt and regular units were already being pulled from Taiwan to suppress it.” Ellis paused and gripped her arm. “Your actions, combined with those of the rest of your battalion and 1/7, won us the war,” he said earnestly. “Collectively, you unhinged China’s military and government. And we lost so few, but …” He trailed off.

“But the sub-derms,” she whispered.

“I am truly sorry. The sub-derms … we just didn’t have the long-term data, and we knew a war was coming …” Ellis sighed and avoided her gaze. “The doctors here told me Pasquale may never wake up. They can probably restore the sight in Ramirez’ left eye but the right … and you’ll have the seizures—”

“Forever,” she replied. Ellis nodded slowly and looked back at her. He opened his mouth and closed it again. He looked like he wanted to say more, but the seconds of silence stretched to a minute and no other words came. After a moment he simply nodded to her, dropped his eyes to the floor, and left the room.

Her head throbbed.

Major Ian T. Brown is a Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter pilot. He is currently the operations officer at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, VA. The views expressed here are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of the Marine Corps, Defense Department, or U.S. Government.

Featured Image: “Sketch Soldier” by Mark Kolobaev via Artstation

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