Third on our list is Going Dark by Richard Fox. Appearing in the Backblast Area Clear Anthology edited by JR Handley, Going Dark is a MilSF story that connects with Fox’s Ember War series (currently being adapted into a graphic novel format by Jon Del Arroz for Arkhaven Comics see https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/another-look-at-crowdfunding-data/ )
The story starts on the war torn streets of Utica City:
“Naroosha saucers zipped overhead, shooting rapid bolts of energy at the Terran Union fighters flying low over the horizon. The snap of Union gauss weapons mingled with the crack of alien weapons; stray bolts cast quick shadows as they vanished into the high cloud cover. Just outside the school, the dark polymer cover on the road bulged out, then flattened with a creak. The road cracked as something beat against the underside, like a hatchling trying to break from its egg.Richard Fox, Going Dark (in Handley, J.R.. Backblast Area Clear: Anthology Vol. 1 (p. 1). Bayonet Books. Kindle Edition. )
Out from under that road bursts a set of soldiers. Led by human Sergeant Hoffman (dressed in genre-requisite power armour) is a group of big artificial soldiers, colloquially known as “doughboys”. These soldiers are big and if not necessarily stupid, verbally limited.
“Opal tried to duck into the hole, bumped a shoulder against the bricks, then slapped a hand against the front of the crumpled fender and wrenched the car aside with a grunt. He hurried through the new opening, weapon ready at his shoulder. “Trying not to get noticed, Opal,” Hoffman sighed. “Opal sorry. No shoot until order,” the big soldier trotted past a wall of lockers and went bounding up a stairwell.”Richard Fox, Going Dark (in Handley, J.R.. Backblast Area Clear: Anthology Vol. 1 (p. 1). Bayonet Books. Kindle Edition. )
They are each named after precious/semi-precious stones, sometimes with numbers. They also all talk in that same style shown with “Opal sorry. No shoot until order,” Mel Brooks fans will be disappointed to learn that at no point do we get the line “Opal only pawn in game of life,” even though there’s at least one scene where it would have worked.
Hoffman’s Battle Construct Auxiliary Company 117 continue their mission contacting a group of rangers pinned down by enemy fire. In the course of the fight the doughboy Diamond rescues two rangers by physically picking them both up but is wounded in the process.
“Hoffman slid down the rubble and found Diamond kneeling between two Rangers at the base of the wreckage. Diamond’s chest heaved, a smoking patch on his back. “Medical… attention. For-for-for them,” Diamond’s cyborg hand twitched with some sort of palsy. Hoffman slid to a stop next to the Rangers. One had lost an arm, her flank blown open, and ribs stuck out from the wound. He didn’t have to check to know she was dead. The other Ranger moaned weakly. Hoffman tried to open a channel to sector command, but his IR wouldn’t connect. The Ranger’s visor popped open and a man looked to the gray sky, one eye purple and swollen shut. “Heard doughboys were ugly,” Lieutenant Ford said. “Looked… damn beautiful when he picked us up. You—you look familiar.”Richard Fox, Going Dark (in Handley, J.R.. Backblast Area Clear: Anthology Vol. 1 (p. 1). Bayonet Books. Kindle Edition. )
Hoffman looks familiar to the ranger because each of the human leaders of the doughboys has exactly the same face. The doughboys imprint on the face of their leader so they know who to take commands from. Speaking of which, Hoffman discovers he can’t contact the other doughboy leader he is with.
On further investigation, Hoffman’s fellow human leader has ben killed in the fighting and Hoffman transfers command of a set of orphaned doughboys to himself.
“Realignment protocol seven Charlie. Imprint to Hoffman. My face. My voice. Confirm?” Hoffman asked. “Imprint to Vaccaro. Con-con-con—” Zircon’s head snapped from side to side. “Imprint to Hoffman. Confirmed.” Hoffman took his hand away and repeated the procedure with the other survivors. “You guys are twitchy,” Hoffman said. “Zircon 2-2, what lot number are you and your squadmates?” “Lot Alpha. Construction date—” “Alphas? I didn’t know any of you were still around,”Richard Fox, Going Dark (in Handley, J.R.. Backblast Area Clear: Anthology Vol. 1 (p. 1). Bayonet Books. Kindle Edition. )
Later, back at base, these older model Lot Alpha doughboys malfunction and start attacking recovered wreckage of the enemy alien ships. When Hoffman is sent to intervene, the malfunctioning doughboys deactivate, effectively dying on the spot. If that wasn’t traumatic enough for poor Hoffman, he’s immediately called back to the maintenance bay where the injured Diamond is not in a good way. With Opal standing guard, Hoffman tries to reassure the dying doughboy, when a stranger arrives:
“Look… there must be some bad code in there,” he said and put a hand to Diamond’s jaw. “We’ll get the techs in here and do a reboot. It’s nothing. You’ll see.” “That’s not what it is, son,” came from behind him. A man in Ranger armor stepped into the room and shut the door. The uniform bore no unit patches, rank insignia, or even a name stenciled on the chest. “Piss off, grunt, this is doughboy business,” Hoffman said. “I’m no grunt,” the Ranger took his helmet off and the cold grew worse. There wasn’t a human inside, but a silver being with a man’s features. Hoffman reached for his rifle, but stopped when Opal made no move against the newcomer. “What are you? Why isn’t Opal crushing your skull?” Hoffman asked. “Smart,” the silver man jerked a thumb at the doughboy. “They’re hostile to all non-humans, but I put a few exceptions into their programming.” “You? But you can’t be—” “Marc Ibarra. Pleased to meet you. The doughboys are my creation. Let’s not get into this,” he waved a hand around his metal face. “Neither here nor there for the issues at hand.”Richard Fox, Going Dark (in Handley, J.R.. Backblast Area Clear: Anthology Vol. 1 (p. 1). Bayonet Books. Kindle Edition. )
It turns out the doughboys have a built-in obsolescence. Diamond cannot be fixed and despite Hoffman’s pleas, Marc Ibarra refuses to prevent Diamond’s death. Instead, after some reflection, he offers Hoffman something else: a deactivation code that will end a doughboy’s suffering.
With tears in his eyes, Hoffman shares some final words with Diamond and then activates the kill code. Diamond dies in his arms.
The story mixes a sentimental ending with a more conventional MilSF story of future troops fighting aliens. I don’t know if the doughboys are meant to come over as an attempt at a comical trope but the shift to the “Old Yeller” ending didn’t work for me. The silvery Marc Ibrra character popping up to explain the plot made little sense out of context but I assume followers of Fox’s novel series might be more aware of the context.
At the level of basic wordsmithing this is substantially better than “Interview for the End of World”. Where the Rhett Bruno story had sentences which trip you up, Fox’s story has a stronger and more readable style. However, there’s nothing new here and there’s nothing notable. “Not terrible writing” is a low bar to cross and it managed that but nothing further.
Also like Rhett Bruno’s story, I note that some of the surrounding stories in the anthology this story appears in, are better. The very next story in the anthology after Fox’s isn’t brilliant but it starts like this:
“Do you know how many fantasies begin with two soldiers stepping out of their freezers, wearing just their boxers?” asked the vampire.THE BATTLE OF PURPLE BY NAVIN WEERARATNE (in Handley, J.R.. Backblast Area Clear: Anthology Vol. 1 (p. 1). Bayonet Books. Kindle Edition. )
That’s a start to a story that invites the reader in and shows some awareness that short form fiction has its own demands. Both the Bruno and Fox stories are written in the style of standalone chapters of bigger novels (or series of novels). That doesn’t make them bad stories but in the context of a set of awards where they are being judged against other stories by people who aren’t familiar with the broader context. For example, it’s hard for me to judge how well the novella Artificial Condition by Martha Wells works as a thing in itself rather than as the next Murderbot instalment.
In short, Going Dark is competent writing but an unexceptional story. It’s hard to see what, if anything, sets it apart from any one of many MilSF stories written last year.