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.
Release date: November 3, 2015
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Print pages: 464
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“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.
“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.”
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.”
We become anonymous behind our opaque-black, full-face visors. Tiny fans kick on, but my thermal hood negates any cooling effect. I retrieve my M-CL1a HITR from my bunk and then check the icons lined up at the bottom of my visor’s display, one for every soldier in my squad: Logan, Roman, Fadul, Escamilla, Dunahee, Julian, and Tran. All of them green—nominal. I want to see them green when this mission is done.
Logan gets his own weapon and then squeezes past me to the front of the line, hauling his folded exoskeleton with him. Our dead sisters are too bulky to wear in the sub’s narrow passages, so we’ll rig up outside—if heat stroke doesn’t kill us first. We need to move out.
Logan is standing ready beside the torpedo room door. “Initiate the operation, Lieutenant.”
“Roger that, Captain Shelley.”
He cautiously opens the door into the passage beyond and steps out. I’m right behind him, my dead sister in one hand and my weapon in the other. Our sudden appearance startles two sailors. They disappear up a ladder into the control room, leaving us to make our own way through the sub.
We move quickly.
A navy lieutenant dressed in Arctic gear waits for us at the foot of the ladder that climbs to the hatch. “Cameras and sensors pick up nothing outside,” she informs us, her restless gaze shifting from one faceless visor to the next. “Not even a polar bear.”
“Conditions?” I ask her.
She turns to me in relief. Mine is a familiar voice, one she’s heard on a popular show that played a couple of years ago called Linked Combat Squad. She knows who I am; she might have figured out names for all of us. It doesn’t matter. At this point in the voyage, the crew will have developed a shared story explaining how we are a black-ops operation staffed by soldiers all reported to be dead—patriots, every one of us—and nearly everything about the story they tell one another will be true.
“Conditions are as forecast, sir. The ice pack at this location is estimated at thirteen centimeters, enough to support your weight, with gear. Temperature is minus thirty-nine degrees Fahrenheit, wind speed between forty-six and fifty knots, heavily overcast, with wind-driven snow flurries.”
We are not going to be hot much longer.
I feel the deck tilt and gently rock under me, then a shattering crackle as we break through the crust.
My helmet picks up and enhances the faint voice of the sub’s commander speaking to the lieutenant through her headset as he gives her clearance to open the hatch. She scrambles up the ladder, works the mechanism, and then shoves the hatch open, bracing it against the wind before sliding back down. I glance up at a circle as black as our visors. It is 1400 UTC. The date is December 23. The sun won’t look on this latitude again for months to come, and at this moment in the long winter night, storm clouds have smothered even the starlight.
I focus my mind on a well-rehearsed command: Move out. My skullnet is trained to recognize neural patterns associated with common words and commands. It picks up the thought, translating it to a flat, synthesized version of my voice so that I hear myself say the words over gen-com. “Move out.”
Lieutenant Logan takes the lead. Leaving the folded frame of his dead sister, he is first up the ladder. Escamilla follows. Dunahee and Tran work together to hand up the dead sisters and then a telescoping gangplank provided by the navy lieutenant. They follow the gear out to the hull. Julian, Roman, and Fadul go after them. I’m next, with the navy lieutenant coming last.
The wind hits with vicious force as I reach the top of the ladder. It’s like a negative pressure, emptying my lungs. I have to force myself to breathe as the ferocious cold ignites a searing pain in my throat.
My helmet adjusts faster than I do. My visor shifts to night vision, while the audio system filters out the wind’s roar, allowing me to hear the crunch of boots and a glassy clinking as the sub drifts against shards of broken ice.
I climb out, joining my squad on the narrow dorsal hull. A few steps away, the fin-shaped sail, studded with masts housing communications and surveillance systems, stands tall against a stormy sky.
My own communications system wakes up. The satellite relay in my pack links automatically to our secure channel and a new icon flares on my display. “Confirm contact established,” the rich, soft-edged voice of my commanding officer instructs. Major William Kanoa used to be squad CO, but our physician refused to recertify him for field duty after a spinal injury. Now he’s my remote handler.
“Contact confirmed,” I respond as I watch Logan and Escamilla deploy the gangplank—a twenty-centimeter-wide bridge to the unbroken floe. “We are on schedule and transitioning to the ice.” But then, because missions sometimes get scrubbed at the last minute, I ask, “We holding steady with the mission plan?”
“Roger that. Sigil remains the target. We need to know what’s going on inside its labs—”
I flinch hard as the hatch bangs shut behind me. PTSD. My heart rate spikes and I have to fight the urge to swing around with my HITR raised and ready to fire. I don’t want to scare the navy lieutenant as she steps past me to check the gangplank.
In the corner of my vision, an icon brightens. It’s an intricate red mesh glowing against a black circle—my skullnet icon—its glow indicating a burst of activity in the mesh of wires in my head, signals sent to my brain to trigger neurochemicals that push me back toward a calm emotional center.
I rarely see the skullnet icon anymore and it irritates me to see it now. I don’t need a cerebral nanny always watching over me anymore. I’ve learned to handle my own emotions.
After a second, it goes away.
“There is a problem,” Kanoa says. His tone has changed; it’s become softer, more soothing. That tells me he noticed my emotional spike, and that irritates me too.
“What problem?” I ask as Fadul moves first across the bridge.
“Oscar-1 is behind schedule. Fuel issues. There’s going to be a delay in your extraction.”
Oscar-1 is Jason Okamoto, an ex–air force pilot who has pulled us out of a couple of nasty situations. He’s scheduled to pick us up in ETM 7-1’s little nine-passenger tiltrotor when we’re ready to withdraw.
“How far behind schedule?” I ask. Fadul reaches solid ice without incident. She unhooks from her safety line. Logan hooks the other end to one of the dead sisters. “Is he out of the game?”
“Undetermined, but we’re looking at alternate means if he can’t get through.”
I don’t like it, but extraction was always going to be the hardest part of Palehorse Keep, and I trust Kanoa to find a way to get us out.
I watch the folded dead sister slide down the gangplank, secured between two lines. When it’s safely across, Logan hauls the lines back and with the navy lieutenant’s help, he sets up to send another.
While they get our gear transferred, I make a slow turn, letting my helmet cams record a night vision perspective of the surrounding ice field.
We are four hundred kilometers north of Canada’s Ellesmere Island and only three hundred seventy kilometers from the North Pole. Immediately around us, green-tinted flurries of wind-driven snow skitter across a channel of smooth ice. But half a klick out, the floe becomes a badland of broken blocks heaved up and tumbled together.
Kanoa says, “The ice has been shifting. I’m sending a revised map.”
“Roger that. Any additional intelligence on the target?”
“Negative. No electronic traffic.”
Kanoa saved my life the night I returned to Earth. He pulled me out of the cold water of the Pacific and when I stopped shivering, he offered me a chance to make a difference, to be part of the ETM strike force, a ghost unit that executes missions determined by the Red. Sometimes it’s hard to forgive him for that—for giving me that choice.
The dead sisters have all been moved to the ice. The squad crosses next, each soldier hooking up to the safety lines before transiting the bobbing gangplank. By the time I cross, the surface has refrozen. It looks solid, though I know it’s not. I walk quickly but carefully across the little bridge, relying on the lieutenant to pull me out if I slip.
I don’t slip.
I reach the floe and unhook. The safety line snakes back, and then the lieutenant works to pull back the gangplank, one segment at a time. Around me, backpacks drop to the ice, and the dead sisters get unfolded.
I expand the new map in my visor’s display. It shows our target to the south-southeast, only five kilometers away. The sub’s sensors picked up no sign of enemy forces close at hand, but we are not safe. Even in this wind, a skilled sniper could hit us from five hundred meters out. Maybe farther. As I turn my head, the gale claws past the edge of my helmet in a skin-crawling key.
“Dunahee! Get the angel in the air.” I need to see farther. I need a real-time view of what’s out there. “And make goddamn sure you keep the angel on a tether.”
“Roger that, sir!”
Dunahee is already halfway into his rig, an operation made faster by Roman, who is helping him secure the cinches.
Rosanna Roman is our designated marksman. She’s as tall as Fadul but more willowy. Behind her visor, her eagle eyes are blue, her hair light brown. On Coma Day, Roman’s unit was on the Korean Peninsula, hunkered down at ground zero under the artillery barrage of a flash war that the diplomats later excused as a “miscommunication”—meaning that the United States wasn’t quite as dead as some had hoped. Kanoa believes the incident was only a few minutes from going nuclear when a cease-fire was achieved four point five hours after the start of hostilities. That was too late for Roman. She spent the next seven months in a hospital in Honolulu, where she eventually “died” of her injuries.
I unfold my dead sister. The wind nearly blows it over. Escamilla is already rigged, so he comes over and holds it upright for me as I step onto the footplates. “First time I’ve ever rigged up in a gale,” I tell him.
“Yeah, always a new thrill with this job.”
Carl Escamilla is tall and broad-shouldered. There’s no softness at all in his sharp-featured face; there isn’t any in his outlook. He’s seen too much. He was a nine-year combat veteran recently home from the Sahel when the nukes went off. He got put on emergency duty, assigned to guard a military facility when riots erupted in the surrounding community. Families panicked. I’ve heard his former CO is up on charges for a massacre in which twenty-seven civilians who’d been seeking refuge behind the wire were gunned down.
Like all of us, he’s driven by what he’s seen, what he’s done. The cold fact is our world is seriously fucked up. Maybe ETM can help unwind some of that. Maybe if we do, the death, the suffering we’ve witnessed might be made worthwhile.
But who the hell knows?
With Escamilla helping, I cinch the titanium struts to my legs and then my arms. I swing my pack onto the back frame. My HITR I carry in my hands. “You’re clear,” he says.
There is a soft, ritualized chatter over gen-com as the
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