Fiction by Linda Nagata

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Cover by Larry Rostant

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United Kingdom Edition

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Cover design by Emily Irwin

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The Trials

Book 2 of The Red Trilogy

Also see: The Red (book 1) & Going Dark (book 3)

"No Way Out But Forward"

Lieutenant James Shelley and his squad of US Army soldiers were on a quest for justice when they carried out the unauthorized mission known as First Light. They returned home to America to face a court-martial, determined to expose the corruption in the chain of command that compelled their actions. But in a country still reeling from the nuclear terrorism of Coma Day, the courtroom is just one battlefield of many.

A new cycle of violence ignites when rumors of the elusive, rogue AI known as the Red go publicand Shelley is, once again, pulled into the fray. Challenged by his enemies, driven by ideals, Shelley feels compelled to act. But are the harrowing choices he makes really his own, or are they made for him, by the Red? And with millions of lives at stake in a game of nuclear cat-and-mouse, does the answer even matter?

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Praise for The Trials:

"I really love these books most of all for what they are: some of the most action-packed and intelligent military science fiction to be released in years[...] I can confidently say that, if you loved The Red, chances are that you'll love The Trials too." —Stefan Raets, Tor.com

"Where other books might have been overshadowed by a book as good as The Red: First Light, The Trials manages to shine." —Anthony Vicino, SF Signal

The Trials aptly continues the terse and involving story begun in The Red: First Light [...] Like the best middle installments of trilogies, The Trials moves us deeper into the psyches and lives of the characters we have met, while still broadening the threat to the world and setting up a huge payoff.

—Sharon Browning, Litstack

"...wonderfully executed [...] A high-stakes thriller, propulsive action sequences, awesome military tech, and a world inhabited by richly developed characters and nasty political scheming, The Trials has it all. Nagata takes all of these elements and unflinchingly takes them on their natural progression to craft an immensely satisfying and action-filled story." —Michael Hicks, AudioBook Reviewer

The following text is an excerpt from THE TRIALS by Linda Nagata. Copyright © 2015 by Linda Nagata.


AGAINST THE BEAST
EPISODE 1: THE TRIALS

"We are being asked to crucify Colonel Kendrick."

My words are directed at my soldiers—the Apocalypse Squad. That's the name the mediots have given us and it works for me. The seven of us who survived the First Light mission are all here, seated around a cheap oval table in the center of an otherwise bare, white-walled conference room in the federal courthouse in Washington, DC. It's the first time in the five months since we stepped off the plane at Dulles that we've been allowed to discuss our case all together, with no lawyers present.

I need to know we are all still on the same side.

I'm James Shelley. I presently hold the rank of lieutenant in the United States Army, but that will change at the conclusion of our court-martial.

"Our attorneys have decided that since Kendrick is dead, he's not going to scream and he's not going to argue when we hammer the nails in. So they want us to testify that the colonel used undue influence to get us to participate in a conspiracy. They want us to claim we were not mentally responsible at the time and therefore it is not our fault."

Our return to the United States was voluntary and we're widely regarded as heroes. It's a status I've leveraged to get us the privilege of this ten-minute session to confer on our defense strategy. Not a private session—camera buttons are watching from the corners of the room and the ocular overlay I wear like contact lenses in my eyes is always recording—but we're used to that. We're LCS soldiers, and in a linked combat squad you expect to be observed.

"In just a few minutes, each one of you will meet individually with counsel, where you will be advised to pursue an affirmative defense, claiming a lack of mental responsibility."

Travel and communication have been a challenge ever since Coma Day, when seven improvised nuclear devices were used to destroy data exchanges across the country, shattering the Cloud and collapsing the economy. So an agreement was reached to hold our court-martial in the centrally convenient federal courthouse in DC. We are using the facility but not the staff. The army is conducting our court-martial, with a court composed of army personnel and presided over by a military judge.

Our court-martial hasn't started, and we will not be in court today, so we're all wearing the informal brown camo of combat uniforms. Everyone but me is also wearing their linked combat squad skullcaps.

The caps look like athletic skullcaps, but they're embedded with a mesh of fine wires that interact with the neuromodulating microbeads implanted in the brain tissue of every LCS soldier. Some of those microbeads are chemical sensors that report on our brain state, but others trigger neurochemical production. The skullcap is able to switch them on and off to affect the way we feel.

I don't wear a skullcap anymore because I've moved on to a more permanent setup. I use a skullnet: a mesh of sensor threads implanted on the surface of my skull. Like a cap, it houses a simple artificial intelligence tasked with monitoring and stabilizing the activity in my brain. It could be my get-out-of-jail-free card, if I want to try to use it for that.

I tap my head, where my black hair is trimmed to a short buzz cut. "The attorneys want me to say Kendrick controlled my thoughts, my emotions, my decision-making processes, through my skullnet. They want each one of you to say he hacked your heads through your skullcaps. They want us to argue we were not in our right minds and that we didn't understand what we were doing."

Specialist Vanessa Harvey speaks up first: "Fuck that, LT."

She crosses her arms, fixing me with a glare that could stop bullets . . . almost did, at Black Cross, where she was shot in the face. Her visor took the impact of the slug, and she got away with only a broken nose—but no sign of that injury remains in her sharp-featured, bronze-complexioned face.

Specialist Samuel Tuttle expands on Harvey's sentiment. "Fuck them." The rim of his skullcap enhances his scowl as his brooding brown eyes shift from Harvey to Sergeant Aaron Nolan, who must have been his big brother in some other life.

Nolan is six foot one, broad shouldered, with deep-brown skin. He told me once he was half Navajo, half white. Generally, he's a congenial man, but now he drops his chin and coldly informs me, "Those shit-eaters can go to hell."

Little Mandy Flynn, with her green eyes and fair skin, is only a private, but she's more eloquent than anyone else. "No way are we pissing on the colonel's grave, sir."

"Damn straight," Specialist Jayden Moon agrees. Moon is tall, skinny, and dark eyed, the offspring of Asian and European bloodlines mixed in some complicated formula. He used to have a tan, but our stint in jail has bleached his skin to a pale cream. "LT, this is just bullshit."

I turn to Sergeant Jaynie Vasquez, who sits, somewhat loyally, at my right hand. Jaynie is the ranking non-com in our squad. She's got a lean build and moderate height. Her skin is smooth and black. She tends to regard the world with a reserved expression that perfectly reflects her nature: smart, controlled, determined, and not entirely trusting of my judgment. She answers my questioning look with a nod, letting me know she'll back me up as long as I say the right things.

I return my attention to Moon. "Of course it's bullshit, Moon. It's the same bullshit we LCS soldiers get all the time."

Outside the linked combat squads we are commonly believed to be soulless automatons, emotionless killing machines controlled by our handlers in Guidance. It's a prejudice our attorneys want to exploit.

"But it's a bullshit that can be used to buy you a not-guilty verdict and a medical discharge."

Moon looks confused. His gaze shifts to Jaynie. "I don't get it. That's not why we came back."

He's looking at Jaynie, but I'm the one who responds. "No, it's not why we came back. The crucifixion of Colonel Kendrick is an option we are being offered because both trial and defense counsel are under extreme pressure to limit the scope of our court-martial. They do not want to look into the chain of responsibility—"

"Lack of responsibility," Jaynie interrupts in a low growl.

I concede the point with a nod. "They do not want to look into the layers of corruption that forced us to take the action we did. We are here to expose that corruption, to confront it. That's why we came back. But this is not a game. We are facing life in prison, very possibly execution. If you want to reconsider your reasons for being here, now is the time. Just know that for the affirmative defense to work, all of you will need to agree to it. If even one of you dissents, that will cast doubt on all the others."

Harvey's arms are still crossed, her brow wrinkled in suspicion. "What do you mean, we would have to agree? What about you, LT? I thought we were all in this together."

"That's up to you, Harvey. There's no fucking way I'm going along with it. But the rest of you can claim your commanding officers exploited your sense of loyalty. Let me know if you'd like me to step outside while you discuss it."

It's Jaynie who reacts to this first, in her own affectionate way. "Take a pass on the drama, LT. We've got nothing to discuss, because I dissent. I'm not participating in a bullshit defense."

"I'm not either," Harvey says.

This sentiment is echoed around the table with nods and murmurs. I use my overlay to launch an emotional-analysis tool called FaceValue, letting it study each member of my squad. The app detects no deceit in the faces of my soldiers, no real doubt. Jaynie is frowning—FaceValue confirms the caution I see in her eyes—but her caution doesn't bother me. She's always been the most thoughtful among us.

The standard way for a story like this to unfold is for at least one, maybe even two, of my soldiers to prove treacherous, cutting a secret deal with trial counsel that will betray the rest of us, while saving their own asses—but Colonel Kendrick preempted that tired plot device when he hand-selected everyone in the squad for a spectrum of personality traits including a compelling sense of justice and a group loyalty strong enough to keep us together through two harrowing missions. As I look around the table, I know that everyone remains loyal to this, our current mission.

"So what the fuck are we going to do?" Harvey demands, her sharp gaze focused on Jaynie because she is addressing her question to my sergeant and not to me.

My fist hits the table with a loud bang, and I regain the attention of every set of eyes in the room.

We don't have many options. The charges entered against us include conspiracy, multiple counts of murder, aggravated assault, robbery in excess of $500, and kidnapping, with a general article for abusing the good order and discipline of the armed forces. I get an additional charge of destruction of military property, since I was present when Colonel Kendrick deliberately destroyed an army helicopter.

Moreover, we did in fact commit every act we are accused of during the execution of a rogue mission, code-named First Light, in which we took a United States citizen to face trial in a foreign country for crimes committed within and against the United States. Every moment of that mission, every conversation, was recorded by multiple devices, including my ocular overlay. There is no lack of evidence that can be used to convict us. There is only the question of whether or not circumstances justified what we did.

It's a question the court is desperate to avoid, which is the only reason we've been offered the I'm-not-responsible defense . . . but we're past that.

"Because this is a death-penalty case, our plea is automatically entered as not guilty. That means the prosecution has to prove the case against us, step by step for the public record. We want that. We want the public to know who we are and what we did, but above all else we want them to know why we did it."

I know a hell of a lot more about the law now than I did when we started this. I present my strategy with what any competent attorney would surely regard as an amateur's optimism. "The only valid defense we can make goes to our service oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. So what we are going to do is expose those enemies—our domestic enemies—shine a light on them, and examine every link in the chain of command that had a hand in sheltering Thelma Sheridan from prosecution for her part in the Coma Day insurrection. We push the judge on it at every step. We force the scope of the investigation to expand. If it ultimately takes in the president, so be it, I don't give a damn. If it sets off a revolt against the rotten core of our country, you won't find me weeping."

"Burn it all down?" Jaynie asks softly.

I turn to her, wondering at the suspicion in her voice. "No. That's not what I want."

She studies me, like she's trying to see beneath the surface. "Just don't push it too far, sir. You might not like what's on the other side."