by Linda Nagata
Scarred by war. In pursuit of truth.
Army veteran True Brighton left the service when the development of robotic helicopters made her training as a pilot obsolete. Now she works at Requisite Operations, a private military company established by friend and former Special Ops soldier Lincoln Han. ReqOp has embraced the new technologies. Robotics, big data, and artificial intelligence are all tools used to augment the skills of veteran warfighters-for-hire. But the tragedy of war is still measured in human casualties, and when True makes a chance discovery during a rescue mission, old wounds are ripped open. She’s left questioning what she knows of the past, and resolves to pursue the truth, whatever the cost.
The Last Good Man is a powerful, complex, and very human tale.
“…a thrilling novel that lays bare the imminent future of warfare.” —Publishers Weekly starred review
“The Last Good Man is a compelling and subversive novel, told by unique characters, especially True Brighton: sympathetic, prickly, determined, all too human. Linda Nagata has impressive insights into technological advances and their potential effects. Not to mention some very cool invented AI critters…. It was a privilege to read TLGM before its publication.” —Hugo and Nebula award-winner Vonda N. McIntyre, author of Dreamsnake, Starfarers, and The Moon and the Sun
“A new novel by Linda Nagata is always an event. The Last Good Man pulls us into next month’s headlines with a conviction and energy that makes for an extraordinary tale.” —Greg Bear, author of War Dogs and Darwin’s Radio
“…if you want a novel with pulse-pounding action, in which soldiers square off against the futuristic machines — a novel that you wont be able to put down once the action heats up — [The Last Good Man] delivers with the precision and firepower of a tactical missile…not only a cracking good read, it is a novel driving first, and fast, down the road we are seemingly already set upon.” —Paul Weimer, Barnes & Noble SFF blog
“I asked to see an advance copy of The Last Good Man with the caveat that I was very busy and might not get to it. I was just going to glance at the first few pages but looked up to find myself halfway through the book in the wee hours of the morning. Only an early morning appointment kept me from reading on but I finished it the following evening.
“Welcome to the future of war. Soldiers on the ground depend more on their augmented reality visors, net connections, and hosts of robotic allies, than their rifles, but as long as they tread in harm’s way, certain things do not change, including collateral damage, ethical challenges, and the grief of a mother, a warrior herself, when her son dies in action.
“Set where war’s bleeding edge of technology slams into people’s lives, this is a very human story, brilliantly told.” —Steven Gould, author of Jumper
The following text is an excerpt from THE LAST GOOD MAN by Linda Nagata.
Copyright © 2017 by Linda Nagata.
THE BUSINESS OF WAR
“We told her not to go. It was too dangerous. She told us it would be all right. There would be security.”
The gray-haired gentleman speaks in quiet syllables, each chiseled by the emotions he holds in check as he explains the circumstances that have brought him to Requisite Operations Incorporated, a private military company headquartered in Thurston County, south of Seattle. In a conference room elegantly appointed in dark-brown fabrics and hardwood surfaces, he recounts all that has gone wrong.
“The so-called security was a joke. Only six armed guards, none with adequate training, all murdered in minutes and now she’s their captive. They’ve made her speak their propaganda. They’ve put her under the veil, but it’s her. They don’t reveal her name, but it’s her voice, her eyes on the videos. My daughter, my precious Fatima. My only daughter.”
True Brighton, ReqOps’ forty-nine-year-old Director of Operations, sits at the end of the conference room’s oval table, an observer, positioned on the periphery of this conversation, there to evaluate the suitability of the proposed project and of Mr. Yusri Atwan as a potential client.
She is struck by Yusri’s calm, reserved manner. He is striving mightily to present himself as a rational man, a man Requisite Operations can work with. A determined man who understands the realities of the world. For all that, he cannot hide the fact that he is also a desperate man.
True notes the slight tremor in his hands as he opens a folder he earlier placed on the table. He turns the folder around, slides it across the table’s short axis to Lincoln Han. “This is my daughter,” he says quietly.
Lincoln is the principal owner and Chief Executive Officer of Requisite Operations. He is conducting this interview. He reaches for the folder with his prosthetic left hand, articulated fingers curling as he drags the folder closer. The hand does not try to hide its technological nature. No flesh tones. It’s made instead of a semi-translucent, smoky gray plastic that reveals the embedded electronics as glints and shadows. Soft pads at the fingertips allow him to grip the corner of the folder, lift it. True sees a printed photo inside—a smiling dark-haired young woman. Lincoln studies her image while Yusri continues.
“I’ve been to the State Department,” he says. “I’ve seen my congressional representative, my senator. They all tell me they’re doing what they can, but they’re doing nothing. It’s been four months. I would pay a ransom if I could. If I knew how.”
Lincoln uses his artificial fingers to slide the photograph over to True. He is forty years old. An army veteran, he lost his hand in a helicopter crash that ended his career and nearly took his life. That was five years ago.
True still wonders: If she’d been his pilot that day, would things have been different?
She flew for him for years on clandestine missions, but she was home, working as an army flight instructor, when his helicopter went down. The ensuing fire left his face a scarred, immobile mask, worse on the left side. His nose and his left ear are prosthetics. His left eye is a bionic device that translates gray-scale visual input to his brain, extending his peripheral vision and improving his depth perception. The eye has a black iris darker and larger than his natural eye. The imbalance, combined with his scars, a flattop haircut, and arms sheathed in colorful tattoos, gives him a slightly maniacal aura despite the counterbalance of his casual civilian clothing—a tan ReqOps polo shirt and brown slacks.
Lincoln returns his gaze to Yusri and says in a soft rasp, the result of more scarring in his larynx, “The United States government does not pay ransoms, Mr. Atwan. Ransoms only encourage more kidnappings. As a military contractor licensed to work with the federal government, Requisite Operations is required to abide by that policy. So we cannot help you pay a ransom.”
Yusri’s voice grows plaintive. “She is not political. She only wanted to help people, to do some good in the world.”
“I understand that, sir.”
True confronts the photo of Fatima Atwan. A bright-eyed young woman, the prime years of her life still ahead.
Yusri’s reserve slips. “She doesn’t deserve this!”
True looks up to see tears shining in his eyes.
Yusri Atwan is a Seattle native. He owns a small but prosperous company that manufactures chemical sensors. His daughter, Fatima, is a young medical doctor and an idealist, dedicated to helping those less fortunate than herself. She committed to a year of overseas service with a charitable foundation. And her father is right: She doesn’t deserve what happened to her. But then, most people overrun by the firestorms of chaos and anarchy don’t deserve their fates.
It takes Yusri only seconds to recover his composure, and when he speaks again to Lincoln, it’s in a hard, determined voice. “I’ve talked to people, Mr. Han. They say you, your company, can help when no one else can. I understand it costs money. I can pay. I can get six hundred thousand dollars in cash within two business days. It’s all I have and I know it’s not enough, but she’s with El-Hashem.”
As these words pass his lips, Yusri’s face flushes dark. He looks away; he looks at the wall. True watches him intently, sure that he is contemplating what that fact means for his daughter. Is there anything worse than knowing the brutality your child endures and being helpless to affect it? No, she thinks. There is not. Breathing softly, shallowly, she schools herself to stay focused.
Hussam El-Hashem has styled himself a holy warrior, head of the Al-Furat Coalition, but in truth he is nothing more than a gangster grown wealthy on protection money and kidnapping-and-ransom schemes. There are men like him all over the world, bereft of conscience and willing to commit atrocities in the name of any convenient cause.
There is no shame but only lethal anger in Yusri’s voice when he speaks aloud the blunt truth of his daughter’s plight: “El-Hashem beats her, he rapes her, he calls her his wife.”
The ceiling light sparks in Lincoln’s artificial eye as he leans forward. He knows the sort of information this frustrated father should have access to, because prior to this interview he commissioned a preliminary report on Fatima Atwan. Nothing in that report indicated Hussam regarded her as a wife. “How do you know this, Mr. Atwan?”
Yusri’s gaze settles again on Lincoln’s scarred face. He does not flinch from it. “Another hostage, an Italian. She was ransomed a few days ago. She called me. She begged me to act, to do all that I could.” His passion is easily read in the set of his jaw, in the tension of his brow, but despite it, his voice holds only the slightest tremor as he plays what he must consider to be his strongest card: “The United States government and the Iraqi government together have offered a two-million-dollar bounty for Hussam El-Hashem. I will pay you six hundred thousand dollars now. And when you go to rescue my Fatima, you will also kill El-Hashem and take his head and earn two million dollars more. I am begging you, Mr. Han. I am begging you to do this. For Fatima. For her mother. For me. She is my pride and joy and I am begging you to bring her home.”
True remains in the conference room, contemplating the portrait of Fatima, while Lincoln escorts Yusri across the hall. She listens for the click and soft buzz of the electronic locks on the security door that opens onto the lobby. When the locks buzz a second time, she knows the door has closed again and that Yusri is on the other side.
She stands to her full five-eight height, stretching lean muscles stiff from yesterday’s workout. Despite her age, she maintains an athletic figure—and dresses to emphasize the fact. Being the oldest among a staff of physically fit veterans, she knows it’s not just a matter of maintaining her strength and conditioning, but also of preserving their confidence in her abilities. Today she wears a scoop-necked, cinnamon-brown microfiber T-shirt that shows off the muscle definition in her shoulders, her neck, and her arms, along with form-fitting slacks in a lighter shade.
At the same time, she doesn’t deny her age. She has never bothered with cosmetic surgery, and so far, she is letting her thick hair follow its natural transformation so that its dark brown has become mixed with lines and highlights of silver and gray. She wears her hair confined in a short French braid.
“Hello, Friday,” she says, addressing the house AI. “Let me see Mr. Yusri Atwan.”
A wall monitor at the opposite end of the room wakes up with high-definition video from a lobby security camera. It shows Lincoln, still fit and strong despite his injuries, escorting the taller Yusri past the glass exhibit cases in the lobby. Lincoln is saying, “We’ll be in touch, sir. We’ll let you know our decision.”
Yusri nods. “Whatever you need me to do,” he says, “I will do.”
They shake hands. Then Yusri exits past glass doors, crossing the front terrace with a determined, almost angry gait. But at the parking lot’s edge he hesitates. He looks back, his expression quietly desperate. Weighing the value of returning, of pressing his case? But he goes to his car instead, a sleek silver Lumina Zus. He doesn’t notice the glint of a tiny camera lens, part of a low-profile tracking and surveillance device tucked against the black glass and rubberized lining at the top of the windshield. Prior to his meeting with Lincoln, Yusri agreed to background checks, although ReqOps did not specify the nature of those inquiries.
True looks around as Chris Kobeck, ReqOps’ Director of Military Operations and Training, comes into the conference room. Chris is thirty-nine—ten years younger than True—a former Special Forces operator who served under Lincoln’s command in the clandestine unit known as Rogue Lightning. True’s oldest son was once part of that unit too, eight years ago now.
Chris had been watching the meeting, evaluating the client. As True returns her gaze to the monitor, she asks him, “What’d you think?”
“Good people,” he tells her.
On the other side of the half-full parking lot is a high masonry wall, with three tall maples standing sentinel beyond it. Their leaves, yellowed by autumn, flutter through the air and skitter on a breeze across the concrete as Yusri gets into his car, secures his seat belt, and drives slowly toward the automated security gate.
“Good people, but naïve,” Chris amends as he claims a chair and sits. “I hope there’s something left of her when we pull her out.”
True turns a skeptical gaze on him. Threads of gray are starting to show in his thick black hair, and still, his fine-featured Caucasian face relies on heavy eyebrows and a neat goatee to bring it some maturity. “When we pull her out?” she asks.
“Give it up, True. I know you can’t wait to do this, and Lincoln’s not going to be able to say no.”
She gives him a dark look. Never mind that he’s right. “It has to pencil out,” she insists, sitting down again. “It’ll cost at least ten K, probably more, just to determine if an action is possible.”
“Pittance,” he scoffs. “Lincoln won’t blink at that.”
This draws a smile from her—and reluctant agreement. “Not in these circumstances, anyway.”
Mostly, Lincoln is a hard-headed businessman. He founded Requisite Operations on the back of a $500,000 VA loan, and only four years later the company is valued at twenty-five million dollars. But despite his pragmatism, Lincoln possesses a penchant for dangerous idealism. It’s a trait she admires. It keeps her job interesting.
She hears the electronic locks on the security door cycle, feels the slight change of pressure as it opens—and resists a rush of anticipation.
“Get ready for it,” Chris says with an expectant smile.
Lincoln appears at the door. “I like it,” he announces immediately in his growling voice. “I want to look further into it, confirm the situation, the current circumstances.”
True assumes the role of devil’s advocate: “The State Department might already be planning something. I’ll check into that. We need to know we’ve got an open field before we commit too many resources.”
“Do it,” Lincoln agrees, returning to the seat he inhabited before. “But while we’re waiting for confirmation, we move ahead with our investigation.” He looks from Chris to True. “If it comes to it, are you both willing?”
Chris speaks first. “If the setup looks right.”
“Yes,” she says without hesitation. “It would be a privilege to bring down Hussam El-Hashem.”
“Good.” Lincoln rests his elbows on the table. He weaves his fingers together, articulated machine digits and jointed flesh. “This is how we’re going to handle it. We’ll do an initial assessment on our own dime. No fee to Atwan. If the mission looks like a go, we bill him two hundred thousand. That way he’s got skin in the game and doesn’t feel like a charity case.”
“You’re okay with just two hundred?” Chris asks. “If we don’t get Hussam—”
“Fuck Hussam. If we get him, we get a two-million-dollar bonus. Yay, hooray. But we’re after Fatima Atwan. She is our mission goal. The way I see it? We make a hell of a profit from the business of war. We can afford to do the occasional pro bono. So get started on the intel. I want a go/no-go within three days.”