PROJECT OBISDIAN: Military Training across the Uncanny Valley Published May 11, 2022 By Capt Benjamin R. Durdle, Cadets Daniel W. Melson, Maxwell N. Moawad, Dominic J. Rodriguez, Robert R. Skiles Wild Blue Yonder -- PROJECT OBSIDIAN “Good morning, cadets. My name is Colonel Ryleigh Singer and, for the next four years, I will be serving as your commander here at Alpha Nine-Four-One. I am joined by Captain Kerigan Shawcross, your Commandant, Captain Paige McNachtan, your Recruitment and Retention Officer, and, finally, our visiting international combat specialist, Dr. Miles Mooney.” In rhythmic anticipation of Colonel Singer’s broad gestures, the background shifts rapidly in a brilliant demonstration of the near thermosphere, featuring the newest NATO Space Station, Eminent Dawn, and notably devoid of pesky space junk.1 A still more glorious dawn, indeed. The sudden change in reality, even if through a headset, is enough to cause Roman Fioretti to lose his balance. The docs screen for this type of temporary virtual reality–induced visual vertigo (known as visvert) in intake, but with a cocktail of carbonated water, galangal, and diaphragmatic breathing Roman was able to spoof the sensors.2 To help mitigate his visvert, Roman loosens the rig around his head, letting the really real seep in. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Autumn stand up out of her seat, gen up a hologram of herself, and promptly make a stealthy retreat to the back of the auditorium.3 Colonel Singer’s multipoint vocal projection overinflates the space with his coached raspy voice. “You’re here today because you made a goal to become system-class leaders of our Nation’s Air and Space Force. You will be fighting to . . .” Roman’s attention drifts as the multipoint popped in his ears. He couldn’t help but notice that once again, Autumn was making her getaway from a commander’s call, something she evidently had already heard enough of. In a spurt of spontaneity, Roman decided to replicate her optical trap illusion and make his escape.4 “Autumn, you’re going to get us in trouble! Again!” Autumn connected to a port within the wall of the auditorium and opened a door that didn’t exist a moment before. Military training programs always got the leftover tech from the operations side, and the room’s hyperstealth textile was no exception.5 “Choke down a chill pill with that seltzer, Roman. Don’t you think we’ve heard this spiel enough? This damn neural net garbage gets pretty old after four years.” Autumn had an endearing fondness for outmoded vocabulary she laid on thick when she was trying to convince Roman to silence his conscience. Roman nervously fidgeted with the DIY vocoder he hacked together from a spare headset, never quite sure if the thing was still filtering his audio from the multipoint.6 “Well, I guess I’ll know when it’s not working,” he thought to himself. With that, Roman decided to trust his former cadet vice commander. They stepped through the portal.7 A harshness stole their breath as they emerged on the other side. It was, of course, all simulated, yet the blistering cold felt all too real. So uncanny was the simulation that Roman’s mind immediately started taking inventory of his personal effects; he suppressed a low-level panic when he realized his government-issued parka was still in the auditorium.8 “Had enough of the cold yet? Why couldn’t our training exercises take place in the desert instead of the coldest place left on Earth?” “Couldn’t tell ya. Why don’t you ask the Sino-Russian Pact why they’re so interested in the Circle?” Autumn cheekily replied.9 “I’ll get right to that, right after Hell freezes over.” “Shouldn’t be too long way things are going. Maybe this is it?” “Can you imagine a time when we wore desert fatigues?” Roman asked rhetorically, still fingering the vocoder. Colonel Singer’s voice cut in again. “By being enrolled in this program, you will engage in a rigorous training of combat arms, close air support, and resounding air superiority . . . .” Roman, having had enough of the cold long ago, accessed his NAV-mesh and searched for a file labeled “opfor_trng_compound.” With a gesture, the augment seemingly bent to his will. In front of him, a large building appeared with portions of two more structures attached—it was the foreman’s compound, loading dock, and barracks for a not-so-generic arctic LNG facility.10 The two progressed inside, carrying on in conversation as the commander’s voice echoed. “. . . may seem daunting, our cybersecurity is the most secure in the world. It is you that will be entrusted . . .” Their footsteps echoed through the brutalist halls. Each doorway loaded in a new portion of the compound, so quick and smooth. Autumn mouthed “not real,” something she did to remind her brain that this was all a simulation. “Autumn, did you ever think we’d really get here? Like actually, ready to graduate and do all the things Colonel Singer and Captain Shawcross talk about?” “I guess so, quitting never seemed like an option ever since my dad died.” A soft silence fell between them. The military had always experienced higher rates of suicide, but recent years had been unprecedented, especially among cadets.11 Chatter in the forums speculated accessions rates were so high because the brass factored in how many cadets were offing themselves. They walked deeper into the compound, reaching the armory in the basement level. Industrial facilities always had armories nowadays. Autumn picked up an energy carbine from the weapon rack.12 It was an abstract stock model and it wasn’t real, but it felt real in augment and, certainly, deadly enough to frag some bots. Escaping the banality of learning about violence by slugging OPFOR in augment was a trivial insubordination the cadre turned a blind eye to. “Remember the first time you got shot by one of these?” Roman asked Autumn. “How could I forget, dude? The ringing in my ears and stinging in my chest lasted for an hour. RUMINT is why Titus washed out, ruptured an ear drum in augment.” “I thought these had governors on . . .” Something moved in the rendered shadows of the stark room. “Did you see that?” Autumn interrupted. “See what? I swear, if you’re trying to scare me again, I’m gonna throw you off Hofstadter bridge. You know how much I hate being scared when we’re in the sim. It makes me nauseated.” “No, for real this time! I could have sworn I saw something move in that corner of the room.” As she pointed to the back, Roman cued his NAV-mesh to raise the lighting. “Didn’t they check your eyes in intake?” “Shut up.” With their weapons in hands, Autumn opened another door. This time, they stepped through into a lush rainforest. “Is this any better for your delicate little toes, Roman?” He shrugged off the joke and instead initiated a target course within the forest. Small range targets zipped into the air around them—miniature quadcopter drones that looked a lot like the ones Roman hacked together in his dorm—flitting left and right in a novice-level evasion pattern.13 Taking aim, he fired once. Then twice. Then a third and final time. Each shot homed perfectly, dead center. Autumn attempted to outdo him, but as she fired her third shot, again she saw something move in a dark edge of the augment. “Roman, I promise I’m not trying to freak you out, but . . .” “I saw it too. Maybe the render is lagging?” Render lag was a concept they knew of but had never actually witnessed. The leaves fell still. Making up the delta between simulation and physiology, their bodies began to perspire, heart rates elevated. A cool tone alerted the two to this fact by ringing steadily, faintly in their ears. “Colonel Singer? Captain McNachtan? Are you there?” No response. The two cadets were suddenly aware that speech piping through the multipoint had cut off back at the LNC. The tone in their ears stepped up a few decibels. “Dr. Mooney should be giving his portion of the speech right now,” Roman thought to himself. The neural net was at least predictable in that way.14 “It feels like there’s another admin in here,” Autumn said, verbalizing what was already obvious to the two of them somatically, if not intellectually.15 “I’ve never felt like I was being watched in augment before. Check for signatures?” Autumn flipped through the different vision settings on her visor; there were no signatures to be seen. A startling, fragmented signal rang through all channels of the multipoint. “Need—already—too late—” “Last heard, this is Senior Cadet Roman Fioretti, identify yourself now!” The static crackled through all points. No answer. “I say again: last heard, identify yourself now!” A blast of concentrated energy came tearing through the underbrush of the forest, directly towards Roman. Tipped off by the telltale whine legally required by governments to be added to energy weapons, he narrowly ducked out of the way at the last moment. Checking over his shoulder, he saw a dazed Autumn and a scarred tree over her right shoulder. Too close. “Time to go, right now!” The cadets sprinted towards a clearing in the forest as Autumn furiously tried to open another portal. With a heavy slam, the door shut behind them and they found themselves in the hallway of their dormitory. In a momentary sigh of relief, the two managed to breath out a collective response: “What . . .” “. . . the hell was that?!” “Roman, how did that happen? Nobody but us and cadre should have admin rights here!” Down the hall, heavy metallic footsteps crashed closer and closer. The cement floor was audibly cracking under the weight of . . . something. Whatever it was, staying put and finding out didn’t seem like a good idea. The two both began rapidly cueing their NAV-mesh to open other doors, but this time they closed as fast as they could open them. Then the doors stopped responding altogether. Thinking on her feet, Autumn tried her uplink to see if she could at least provide them some cover within the bare hallway. She managed to generate a concrete jersey barrier. “Not real,” she thought to herself. Roman took the lead position. “A little bit closer. Wait for it. Fire!” Roman and Autumn unleashed a fury of energy bolts down the dark hallway towards the approaching . . . . Strangely, the bolts vanished into silence, until suddenly they all came hurling back at the cadets, leaving plasma scars in the concrete barrier.16 In an instant, the hallway went pitch black. A deafening whisper came through all points: “Get out now!” Through the darkness, a cadet appeared in front of them. His uniform bore the same markings as theirs, but there were large screen tears in the projection. The augment was dropping frames. The augment never dropped frames. “You can’t stay here. All of OBSIDIAN is degrading. They’ve already breached the firewalls; they’re targeting everything. The—already taken—I’m trapped in—can’t get—You can still—” The projection vanished. “Cadet, repeat last!” Roman called out. “Repeat last!” Autumn tried to use her NAV-mesh but, for the first time in her four years on net, she got a connection error. “You’re not going to believe this! My NAV-mesh is down.” “Me, too. I can’t get anything.” Roman yelled out in pain. The tone in his ears was now excruciatingly loud. He tore off his earpiece, and with it his entire comm link and physio monitor.17 When he did so, he noticed his arms felt impossibly heavy. Blood, real blood, slowly seeped from his right ear. He tasted bile. “I think they’re locking me in. I’m losing control of my movement!” He yelled to no one, now completely cut off from the multipoint. His body began to be pulled upwards away from the ground, defying gravity. “Roman!” Autumn called out. He drifted. Faded. Autumn was alone. Roman knew the battle-dome where they linked into virtual reality rigs had some Easter eggs, but antigravity was a new one, even for him. And, if this was an Easter egg, he would have preferred it remain hidden.18 He drifted. Forcing slow breaths, he realized where he was. The thermosphere. Eminent Dawn. Roman thought about how ironic it was that he was going to be trapped in this stupid simulation that was just like the commander’s call he and Autumn were trying to escape. Suddenly, Colonel Singer’s booming voice echoed throughout the augment. “Welcome to Alpha Nine-Four-One!” “How the hell am I hearing anything?” Roman thought. The auditorium was supposed to be air gapped from the battle-dome. A hand reached out of the blackness and grabbed Roman’s arm. He snapped back to the really real. Or maybe this was still augment? He was disoriented. Visvert was overwhelming him. The hand pulling Roman was Autumn’s. They were back in the auditorium where this all began and, to his surprise, she had somehow managed to acquire a BSoD detonator. After giving Roman a tearful smile, she threw the detonator. A flash of blinding light flooded their vision, then receded to reveal a shattering battle-dome. An intense blue light poured in from behind the shards, consuming everything. ----- Reporter: Blue Monday is being called the largest cyber attack in US history. It’s estimated over thirty billion dollars in equipment was destroyed; 1,200 service members and cadets have lost their lives or suffered life-altering injuries. My sources are telling me there are still personnel lost in augment. Is this true and, if so, how many are lost? Singer: Unfortunately, your sources are mostly correct. More accurately, they’re not lost, but trapped. Reporter: Trapped? Singer: We have accounted for their physical bodies, but their NAV-mesh units, an implanted brain-machine interface, has been decoupled from OBSIDIAN. Removing the NAV-mesh under these conditions is likely fatal. Reporter: “OBSIDIAN”? Singer: I’m not authorized to provide any details about that project beyond its name. Reporter: Who is responsible for this attack? Singer: Attribution in cyberspace is notoriously difficult.19 Reporter: Was it the Sino-Russian pact? What was the motive? Singer: Again, these types of attacks are difficult to attribute and I’m not prepared to make accusations here. Be assured that the whole of government is currently working forensics on this. Reporter: Then maybe you can tell us this: was this an act of war? Singer: Without question. This was an act of war.20 Reporter: If this was an act of war, but the attack so far remains non-attributable, how do you hold anyone accountable? Singer: In the past, the US reacted like a wounded bear in response to large-scale attacks. We want to be very careful here. But when the time comes, the response will be swift and violent.21 Reporter: Clearly this attack crossed a line, but where is that line? Singer: Any talk of lines in the context of national security is problematic. Not only does it tie our hands politically, but it also provides tacit approval for an adversary to act below a certain threshold. Reporter: Do you have anything you would like to say to the families of the members lost—excuse me, trapped—in augment? Singer: We all accept a certain level of risk when we sign up for service. Reporter: (long pause) Thank you for your time, sir. And, thank you for your service. This piece of FICINT (fictional intelligence) was written as a course capstone for AES477, a thematic independent study option offered as part of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps Program at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. The theme for the 2021 Spring Semester was “Science Fiction and the Profession of Arms.” Capt Benjamin R. Durdle is an intelligence officer in the US Air Force. He has served in a variety of positions from unit-level targeting to Air Staff. He is currently serving as an Assistant Professor of Aerospace Studies with AFROTC Detachment 640, Miami University. Cadet Daniel W. Melson is a senior at Miami University. He is studying history with a minor in creative writing. He plays the theremin. Cadet Maxwell N. Moawad is a junior at Miami University. He is studying political science and is interested in serving as a pilot in the US Air Force. Cadet Dominic J. Rodriguez is a senior at Miami University. He is studying Russian East European–Eurasian studies. He was recently selected to be an Air Battle Manager in the US Air Force. In his free time, he enjoys smoking Cuban cigars, drinking Japanese whiskey, and growing succulents and orchids. Cadet Robert R. Skiles is a senior at Miami University. He is studying chemistry and is interested in pursuing a career in space operations.  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