Fiction by Linda Nagata

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Going Dark

Book 3 of The Red Trilogy

Finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award
On the Locus Recommended Reading List

Also see: The Red (book 1) & The Trials (book 2)

"No Real Allies, No Fixed Enemies, No Certain Battlefields"

Presumed dead by those closest to him and with no intention of setting the record straight, former army Lt. James Shelley is recruited by a black ops outfit devoted to two things: guarding the Earth from existential threats, and the Red.

Operating for almost two years among soldiers who are enhanced, and controlled, just as he is, Shelley believes he's learned a proper caution in working with the mysterious artificial intelligence—until the Red's increasingly erratic behavior ignites an accidental war, and launches Shelley on a collision course with his old life.

In the final book of The Red Trilogy, Shelley must choose who—or what—to trust, while struggling to contain an escalating conflict that threatens to plunge the world into chaos, and destroy those he loves.

The concluding volume of The Red Trilogy.

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Praise for Going Dark:

"The final volume of Nagata's The Red trilogy completes an impressive military SF series [...] As much a consideration of the emergence of an artificial intelligence as an action-packed political thriller, The Red trilogy is unparalleled among modern milSF." —B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog

"A riveting technothriller [...] I highly recommend Going Dark and the Red trilogy to anybody looking for some amazing near future military SF." —Anthony Vicino, SF Signal

"The final volume in Nagata's much-praised Red trilogy features the same high-octane action as its predecessors [...] One of the highlights of the series continues to be the author's portrayal of the intense camaraderie of men and women at war. Readers who loved The Red and The Trials will find this a fitting conclusion." Publishers Weekly

The following text is an excerpt from GOING DARK by Linda Nagata. Copyright © 2015 by Linda Nagata.


AFTERLIFE

"We are engaged in a nonlinear war. That means there are no 'sides.' There are no real allies, no fixed enemies, no certain battlefield. Conflict occurs across financial, communications, propaganda, terroristic, and military channels in a continuously shifting matrix that can destroy a culture, crash an economy, or ignite combat depending on the weight and direction of competing interests—"

"Including our interests," Lieutenant Logan interjects, like this is some kind of valid counterpoint to my argument.

It's not.

"Including our interests," I acknowledge. "Whatever the fuck those are."

I'm James Shelley, captain of ETM Strike Squad 7-1—a linked combat squad that doesn't exist in any official US Army record. Ray Logan is my lieutenant. Our low-voiced conversation is taking place a few steps away from the six soldiers assigned to ETM 7-1.

We occupy a temporary berth set up in the torpedo room of a US Navy Virginia-class fast-attack submarine that is presently passing beneath the Arctic Ocean's winter ice pack. The remainder of the squad is asleep in temporary bunks, stacked two high and set up side by side in a long row between the green tubes of racked torpedoes. The squad is mostly out of sight, at rest in the lower bunks, with their gear stored in good order on top. Only me and Logan are up, conferencing at one end of a narrow passage that runs between the foot of the bunks and one of the torpedo racks.

"The point," I go on, "is that the identities of the good guys and bad guys will change; they have to change, as circumstances change. So you never know who the enemy will be next year, or in the next engagement."

Ray Logan is twenty-four, making him a year younger than me. At five-ten, he's not a tall man, but his lean build and chiseled Caucasian features could have gotten him cast as an extra if he'd tried Hollywood instead of the army. He's a hell of a fighter who likes to be at the front of any assault, so it's almost surreal to see him cast an uneasy glance over his shoulder, as if he's worried about someone in the squad listening in. I follow his gaze, but all I see is Carl Escamilla's big, ugly bare foot sticking out from the last bunk.

Logan lowers his voice even further. "Jesus, Shelley, I just never thought the fucking Canadians would turn out to be the bad guys. I mean, my mom is Canadian."

"Nonlinear war," I remind him. "Shifting alliances. The target is Canadian. If it makes you feel any better, what's going on within the target might have nothing to do with the Canadian government or even a Canadian corporation."

Our present mission is codenamed Palehorse Keep, and like every mission we undertake, it's been assigned to us by the Red. Our target is an exploratory oil-drilling platform named Deep Winter Sigil. It's overwintering in contested marine territory that Canada wants to claim for its own—but we're not out to referee a territorial dispute. The intelligence we've received indicates something unusual is going on in laboratories aboard the platform, evidenced by security so tight, even the Red can't penetrate it.

When a secret is that well kept, we assume it's dangerous, possibly an existential threat.

So our mission is to approach in stealth, kick in the doors, take command of the facility, and determine what is being hidden there. We call this kind of assignment a look-and-see mission. We've done two others in recent months. Both turned out to be illicit drug labs, which is not something we'd ordinarily go after, but that's the risk of a look-and-see.

I think we're being sent out repeatedly because the Red is searching for a specific operation. What that operation might be, I don't know. We're told to go look, and until we do, we don't know what we'll find. It could be anything, from an insurmountable defense to an innocent operation.

Logan gets a sour look. Like me—like all of us—he used to be regular army. Nine months ago he was part of a US training force in Bolivia. His CO ordered the squad to accompany a local unit on an interdiction, which is just a kind of look-and-see. Logan had a bad feeling; he argued the intelligence was faulty. He was right. When the local unit kicked in the door, there were kids inside; no bad guys. They lit up the place anyway.

"I fucking hate look-and-see missions," he says with bitter sincerity.

I want to tell him I hate them too, but what I say instead is, "I'm going to wake the squad. Be ready to take them through the mission plan one more time before we go."

Our chain of command is simple. We have officers because someone has to be in charge, but we don't use designated ranks among our regular soldiers. It isn't necessary. None of them are here for the pay or the promotional opportunities.

My focus shifts, picking out a half-seen, translucent icon floating at the bottom of my field of view. It's the command node for gen-com. My attention causes it to brighten, making it stand out from the icons around it—all of them part of the display projected by the optical overlay that I wear like contact lenses in my eyes.

The icon offers me a menu but I ignore it, muttering, "Send a wakeup call." My command initiates a signal that's relayed point to point to my soldiers.

Every soldier in my LCS has an ocular overlay like mine, and every one of us also has a skullnet: a mesh of fine wires implanted beneath the scalp that monitors and regulates brain activity. Each overlay receives my command and relays it to the soldier's skullnet; the simple AI that oversees the skullnet responds, triggering a waking routine.

There is no moment of transition, no confusion, no sluggishness. My soldiers awaken simultaneously, with machine precision. Some stretch, some cough, but within ten seconds every one of them appears—sitting at the end of the bunks or standing in the passage—but all looking at me with an alert gaze, eager to learn our status.

Logan takes over. "Piss and wash up. You've got five minutes, and then we're going to review roles and rules one more time."

All of my soldiers in ETM 7-1 were officially "killed in action" or "died of wounds," but death grants them no reprieve from the endless training and mission prep inherent to the army, because their best chance of surviving a mission is to understand it all the way down to their bones.

Seventy minutes later, the sub's commander calls down from the control room to let us know we are ten minutes from our designated drop.

"Holiday's over!" Logan barks. "And goddamn about time. Suit up!"

"Hoo-yah!" Alex Tran proclaims, exchanging a fist bump with Thomas Dunahee.

And then everyone moves at once. Our packs, our weapons, and our equipment are all ready. The only prep work remaining is to get into our thermal gear.

Crammed shoulder to shoulder in the tight passage, we wriggle into thermal skins, pulling them on over the silky, high-tech shorts and T-shirts that are our standard-issue under-gear.

The skins are 1.5 centimeters of supple insulation that will ensure we don't die of hypothermia—although we might die of heat exhaustion if our exit from the sub is delayed.

I wear full leggings like everyone else, pulling them on over my prosthetic legs. The robot legs don't need to be warm to work, but they are a heat sink. If I don't insulate, they'll drain the warmth from my body.

A gray, tight-fitting thermal hood with a full-face mask goes on next. I fit it carefully. There won't be a chance to adjust it after we launch, so I make sure it's comfortable, and that it's positioned so it won't obscure my vision or obstruct my breathing.

Already I'm starting to sweat, but I add another layer: an insulated combat uniform printed in gray-white arctic camo. It's identical to the uniform I wore on the First Light mission, lacking insignia or identifying marks, making no claim that we are part of the United States military—because we are not part of it. We only pretend to be.

It helps in getting around.

I pull on my boots, and then strap on a thigh holster holding a 9-millimeter SIG Sauer. A pair of thin shooting gloves, heated with embedded wires, protects my hands. My armored vest goes on last, and then I cast my gaze back along the line.

Boots stomp the deck as the squad finishes their prep. Hunched shoulders straighten. Gray-hooded heads turn toward me. Only their eyes are visible, pleading to be released into the cold.

"Sweet Jesus," Dunahee mutters. "Another minute in this heat and I'm going to puke."

He's crammed into the middle of the passage. Behind him is Fadul, who has zero tolerance for griping. "Puke on me and I'll stuff you under the ice," she advises him in her quiet, dangerous tone.

"Fadul, you're supposed to terrify the enemy," I remind her as I get my pack off the top bunk closest to me. "Not your brothers and sisters in arms."

Her lips quirk in a ghost smile as she catches my eye. "I can do both, Captain Shelley."

Dunahee mutters, "That's for damn sure."

Pia Fadul is tall and lean, with black hair shaved to a stubble and wide, dark eyes. After the Coma Day nuclear strike, her unit, stationed in the Sahel, went without resupply or reinforcements for nine days, burning up their ammunition defending against an all-out assault. Her post was eventually overrun by a vengeful insurgent army. I've seen some of the video recorded by her helmet cam. Not something you'd want to see twice. There were no survivors. Officially, not even Fadul.

Thomas Dunahee is Fadul's physical opposite: short, stocky, and fair-haired. He's a college graduate who was working in banking when Coma Day took down the economy, along with his parents and sisters who lived in Seattle. He enlisted as soon as the recruiter's office reopened. Fourteen months later, he was recruited by the Red.

"Dunahee, you're on drone duty. Logan, pass him the angel."

"Yes, sir."

The angel we brought with us is a different model than the one I used when I was regular army. It's smaller, with less range, and no satellite uplink capabilities. But with its wings folded against the blade of its fuselage, it's easy to carry on stealth missions. Logan retrieves it from an upper bunk and hands it off to Julian, who's behind him. "Pass this down."

Bradley Julian is a Somali veteran. Tall and slender, with deep-black skin and dark eyes, he's our quiet intellectual who tends to overthink things. Right now, he's looking anxious behind his mask—something Tran notices when Julian turns to hand off the angel.

"Shit, Julian," Tran says. "You're not worried, are you?" Tran's white teeth flash in a predatory grin as he takes the folded drone. "We got no need to worry. With the Red on our side, we are fucking superheroes. No way we can lose."

"What the fuck did you just say?" I ask him.

The whole line freezes.

Tran looks at me, confused, concerned, as he realizes he's in deep shit.

"Do you imagine yourself to be a superhero, Tran?"

"It was only a joke, Captain Shelley. I was joking with Julian."

Alex Tran is skinny and dark-skinned, his African ancestry dominant over the Vietnamese. He's got three years of combat experience in the regular army, a bona fide war hero whose vigilance saved the lives of every soldier in his platoon when a suicide bomber targeted their operation in the Sahel. But in our outfit Tran is a rookie, the newest recruit to sign on for ETM. That's Existential Threat Management if anyone bothers to ask, which they don't, because everything that concerns our identities or our activities is classified. This mission is Tran's first as part of Strike Squad 7-1. He's still learning to live in our peculiar, parallel world, part of a ghost squad so secret even the army doesn't know we exist.

Tran's gaze shifts uncertainly to Julian, before returning to me. "Sir—"

"Never fucking trust the Red," I warn him.

No one moves, no one speaks. All eyes are on me, everyone aware that the outcome of this confrontation will directly affect the mission—and I am furious. At Tran, at myself. Five minutes from our designated drop is a hell of a time to discover that I have failed to instill in my new recruit a clear picture of our situation.

"Operating on the wrong assumptions will get you killed fast, Tran. Just because the Red sent us here, because it assigned us this mission, that does not mean it's on our side or that it shares our interests. That does not mean it will aid us." I hesitate. I don't say it aloud, but I've started to think the Red might not be a single entity, that instead it has multiple aspects, not all of them in sync. I'm speaking to myself as much as to Tran when I say, "We are on our own. Assume otherwise, and you put us all at risk."

This lecture should induce a simple "yes, sir" and a humble apology, but what I get is an argument.

"Sir, I do understand. We operate on our own. We don't expect help. We don't ask for it. But we wouldn't be here, we wouldn't be able to operate at all, without oversight from the Red."

One thing I've noticed in the eighteen months since I fell back to Earth: It's not the recruits with a religious background who have a hard time wrapping their heads around the limited nature of the Red. "You're a fan of comics, aren't you, Tran? Of superhero movies?"

He wants to deny it. I see it in the shift of his eyes. But lies don't work in our company because we all run FaceValue, an emotional analysis app that uses tone and facial expression to interpret mood and separate truth from lies. Tran remembers this and concedes the truth. "Yes, sir. I am a fan."

"I thought so. From now on, you will forget every depiction you've ever seen of all-powerful, world-eating AIs. We are not operating within comic book rules. The Red is not infallible. It is not all-knowing. Both its reach and its ability to react are limited. Its concern for our welfare is limited—never forget that—and it is not on the side of the angels which means that neither are we. We all have our reasons for being here, Tran. Just make sure your reasons are grounded in reality. We are not superheroes. We are not God's angels armed with flaming swords. We are just soldiers."

Tran is still rebellious. "But sir, LT told me that on your last mission—"

"That the Red came through for us?" I spare a brief glare for Logan, who looks at me, teeth gritted, eyes angry behind his mask. "It happens," I affirm. "We do not count on it. We do not expect assistance—because most of the time we won't get it. Think about it. If the Red could control the situation, why send us in at all?"

Tran does as ordered, his brows knitting as he puzzles over my question. "You're saying if we get into trouble, we have to get ourselves out."

"Can you operate under that knowledge? Under the certain knowledge that if we fuck up, no one—nothing—is going to save us? Because if you cannot, I invite you to stay behind."

Tran is shocked at my offer. Insulted. Infused with an anger that stiffens his spine so that I swear he grows a quarter inch taller. "No, sir. I am part of this squad. Maybe I don't understand yet how the whole thing works, but we are fighting against fucking Armageddon. I know that much. I don't give a shit if we're on our own or not. I intend to be part of ETM for the duration."

I nod, relax my shoulders, lower my voice. "That's good to know. Now pass that fucking drone to Dunahee and make sure you are organized and ready to go."

"We are two minutes behind schedule," Logan warns.

I nod. "Helmets on."