The Glamour Thieves
This title is part of the Blue Unicorn universe.
JT is an orc on the way up. He’s got his own boutique robotics shop, high-end clientele, and deep-pocketed investors. He’s even mentoring an orc teen who reminds him a bit too much of himself back in the day.
Then Austin shows up, and the elf’s got the same hard body and silver tongue as he did two years ago when they used to be friends and might have been more. He’s also got a stolen car to bribe JT to saying yes to one last scheme: stealing the virtual intelligence called Blue Unicorn.
Soon JT’s up to his tusks in trouble, and it ain’t just zombies and Chinese triads threatening to tear his new life apart. Austin wants a second chance with JT—this time as more than just a friend—and even the Blue Unicorn is trying to play matchmaker.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Austin Shea was wearing the same damn Sanzi wraparound sunglasses and blue-and-green-flowered Hawaiian shirt he’d been wearing the last time JT had seen him. The same khaki pants, tight through the crotch and thighs, loose through the legs. Same shoeless feet like he was a druid and couldn’t lose touch with the ground without losing his power, which was almost true.
Austin took the sunglasses off, and his eyes glittered under the Arizona sky like gold-flecked emeralds. He let the glasses dangle from his fingers as he draped his arms over the winged-open door of the Corvette Dawnstrike FX27. He cocked his head and smiled his winning smile, lopsided. That meant he was about to lie his ass off.
“Hey, JT,” he said. “Been a while. Nice place ya got here.”
JT’s place: The yard was filled with recyclable scrap plastics and metals like it was a junkyard. The work sheds were prefab, and all of it was surrounded by a turreted wall that made the place look like a prison. There were a dozen urban-support vehicles all lined up in a row being prepped for shipping. Four-legged robots the size of Great Danes crawled among them, polishing. The air smelled of paint and desert heat.
JT folded his arms. “My place makes you trespassing. Get off my land.”
The smile didn’t let up. “I missed ya. You’re looking good.”
JT’s looks: Baggy overalls covered in axle grease and transmission fluid. Plastic baseball cap stained with six years of sweat that smashed his Mohawked hair down and made his green ears stick out even more than usual. He hadn’t shaved in four days.
JT nodded at the car. “Who’d you steal that from?”
“I didn’t ask his name.”
“I’m calling the police.”
“Fine. Go ahead. Christ. I can’t even say hi.”
They both turned away simultaneously, like they were reverse images of each other—an expression of frustration one had learned from the other, and who could say which one had done it first?
Neither of them moved. JT didn’t call the police.
The Corvette was a coupe on the old design. It was painted Event Horizon Black, same color they were using these days for stealth tech. Illegal in Pacifica. The car was rumored to get six hundred KPH on the magway, plenty of speed to make paste of yourself if you made a mistake. It was an off-balance kind of car, took the right touch to drive—a better touch than Austin had. It took a touch like JT had.
Just knowing that car was there, not even having to see it, made JT’s blood pump a little bit faster. Seeing it, yeah, JT went a little hard. And no, none of that had anything to do with Austin standing there, hair too long and falling over his eyes, long knife-ears swept back and pale in the sun, long, hard-muscled arm draped over the upturned wing of the open door. And thank god for baggy overalls, or Austin might have seen JT hard—might have thought it was him JT was hard for and gotten all kinds of wrongheaded ideas. It was the car, JT told himself. Only the car.
“You can’t bribe me with a stolen car, Austin.”
“Ain’t no need.”
“Because whatever it is, I’m not doing it.”
“Don’t want nothing, JT,” Austin said, the damned liar.
JT rubbed his hands on his coveralls, except now they were just as filthy as his hands, so he stripped out of them and left them lying there on the pavement, blue jeans and a Nochi’iru Kitty T-shirt underneath. He touched the fender of the car the same way old Catholics touched statues of the Virgin Mary, except there was nothing virgin about this car here.
JT circled around, and Austin circled around like they needed to keep the car between them. And maybe they did. JT slid into the driver’s seat, and Austin slid into the passenger’s side. The seat molded to JT’s broader frame and shorter legs, and still the cabin was a bit cramped. Had he been any bigger, he wouldn’t have fit. They never sized the nice cars for orc bodies. Orcs never got anything nice.
Austin said, “It’s unlocked.”
JT tapped the wireless key and initiated the handshake between his neurals and the car’s brain. “How did you even steal this thing? This is state-of-the-art. You shouldn’t have gotten five blocks without a police lockdown.”
“I’m not helpless.”
“How’d you do it?”
Austin ignored him, evasive as always.
Controls passed to JT’s neurals, and his senses bled into the car’s nav array. High-end as this array was, it took less than a second for the additional senses to integrate, all sliding together like oiled glass. He let out a shaky sigh. His sense of self slipped, a bit of vertigo, and now the car and his body were all one thing. He could feel the car’s engine the same way he could feel his own heartbeat. The dash lit with hologram displays. JT didn’t need them, but not many people had the built-in tech to the extent he had.
Austin jutted his chin out. “You aren’t going to comment on my beard?” What Austin called a “beard” was a patch of short dark peach fuzz on the point of his chin. It tapered out along the edge of his jaw.
“How long did it take you to grow?” JT kept it icy because he sure as hell didn’t want Austin thinking this car was going to work on him.
“Two years. Started it right after you left.”
“I suppose it just grew in like that. Didn’t have to trim it or shape it or anything.”
JT shook his head. “Fucking elves.”
“You’re bound and determined not to pay me a compliment. You know I said you were looking good. Second thing I said to you.”
“But not the first thing. You don’t need me to stroke your ego.”
“Returning a compliment, it’s only polite.”
“Fine. You look like an elf. You’re gorgeous. Same as every other elf.”
“I’m going to pretend you meant that sincerely. Thank you. I’ve been working out.” Austin flexed a biceps, rock-hard and scar covered.
“You have not.”
“No, I haven’t. It’s all genetic.” He looked out the window. “So I fucked a guy until he fell in love with me and gave me the code to his car.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“It’s true. I’m a very good fuck.”
“I ain’t fucking you.”
“I ain’t this, I ain’t that—that’s all I’m hearing from you. When did you get so negative?”
JT laid his heavy hands on the dash and sighed. “What do you want?”
“I want you to drive this car. The way it’s supposed to be driven, not the half-assed way I drive it.”
* * * * * * *
JT threw the Corvette into gear using nothing but his mind—that and the quarter million dollars’ worth of electronics inside his skull and down his spine. They coasted the lane that led to the highway, JT getting used to the touchy controls. It was like waking from a cramped sleep, all your limbs numb and not working like they should, overshooting some marks and undershooting others, and a growing tingle that was almost painful, neural pathways forged and opening. And slowly, slowly, the tingle went away and you remembered, Oh, this is how you walk.
He opened a channel to Dante and said aloud, “Dante, goin’ out for a bit. Keep an eye on the place.”
“Gotcha, boss,” came Dante’s voice back. “Who’s that you’re with?”
“No one important.” JT cut the signal.
“Girlfriend?” Austin teased.
JT rolled his eyes at the thought. “Apprentice.”
“You’re teaching her how to steal cars?”
“Teaching her how to build them.”
“An apprentice. How old-fashioned and responsible of you.”
“I got a business, Austin. A good business. A legitimate business. I got investors. Important people with a shitload of cash and two shitloads of influence. I don’t need that old life anymore. I’m done with it.”
“And yet here you are with me in a stolen car. It would be just like old times if you were wearing a few less clothes.”
* * * * * * *
They pulled onto the magway. It was a black expanse a hundred meters wide, stretching east to west until it vanished over the horizon. Embedded beneath the surface of the tarmac was a series of focused electromagnets, the whole thing nothing more than twelve magnetic bobsled channels running side to side. Theoretically safe as daisies.
JT flipped the mag array and tucked his wheels up, bouncing a bit as the two fields settled against each other. His heart was thumping hard and fast, knowing what was coming. “Ready?”
“We’ll see about that.”
For several seconds the car crept forward as if nothing had happened. Coriolis drift.
JT acquired twenty new senses he hadn’t had fifteen minutes ago: radar, gravimetrics, magnetic fields down to the planetary, weight distribution and balance because he was centimeters off the ground and now moving at one hundred KPH so smoothly probably Austin didn’t even know that. One bad dip to the side and it would throw them out of the mag-channel.
Finally, acceleration you could feel. One hundred fifty. Two hundred. One G and the memory foam was resetting, adding lumbar support, pushing back.
Look at Austin. Austin’s nose with that break at the bridge; those long, swept-back ears he was so bitchy about back when JT would try to bite them; lips, slightly parted, goddess, those lips; that chin with its stupid peach-fuzz beard and how would that feel rubbed on JT’s balls? Austin’s head was pressed back into the seat, and he was grinning and panting like he was getting sucked off on a roller coaster ride.
Three hundred KPH. Four hundred. Five.
JT could feel the pressure all the way through him, all the way from tip to tailfin. He could feel wind pass over his sleek plastic body. It hugged him and circled him. There was no reason for pressure sensors on the surface of the car except to let the driver feel the sliding grip of the air. And he was fully hard now and probably leaking, it felt that good. This was what you got in a car that cost over one million: you got a car like sex.
Outside in the distance ran a herd of horses the Apache had reintroduced, racing the car. Austin cheered them on. He was whooping and shouting and shaking his head. His feet pounded the floorboard. JT couldn’t help but smile and let go a long, satisfied growl, Austin’s joy infectious. They were both of them kids again, both of them stupid. This was how to run: six hundred KPH and ten centimeters of air between you and dying. And this infectious joy, this was Austin’s glamour all over again, reaching out to JT, stroking him with memories of how it once had been. Once upon a time, something like this would have left them wrestling in the seats to see who went down on the other while the world outside flashed by.
* * * * * * *
Back when JT was a car thief and Austin an asshole more than anything else (which honestly wasn’t much different than today), and Grayson and Roan were still living, Bell Anderson had sent them all out with a case of beer and a dime of weed to get to know each other better. She wanted her new team to have a sense of camaraderie, she’d said.
Three hours later and they’d been parked on the top floor of a San Francisco parking garage having a picnic at 3 a.m. JT and Austin were lying in the bed of the truck, beer bottles in hand, looking up where there should have been stars but the city lights made the sky nothing. Some gala-something or maybe a prison break swept a spotlight over the sky, and their eyes tracked that like it was something interesting. Roan and Grayson were going at it in the cab hard enough to make the truck rock sometimes. Roan was Austin’s sister, but he didn’t seem to mind he could hear her fucking. He’d laugh when the rocking got too frantic and the empties in the truck bed rolled around. JT eventually worked up the nerve to laugh along with him, and that took some of the tension out of the air.
And only because he was drunk, JT had said, “Don’t you got any self-respect at all?”
“Generally, I find it gets in my way. Is there something specific you don’t like about me?”
“The bow-and-arrow thing. Don’t you think a bow is a bit stereotypical? Don’t you think we got enough problems without people looking at you and saying, ‘Oh look, elves really do carry bows’?”
“I’m better with that bow than most people are with a gun. And let me tell you, there’s the stereotype and then there’s me doing the stereotype, because when I’m doing it, people forget they ever seen it before, that’s how goddamn good I am.” He mimed drawing a bow, aimed at a spotlighted cloud, and snapped his fingers open. He looked perplexed that the light didn’t go out. “You wanna talk stereotypes, let’s talk stereotypes. Is it true orc vaginas got teeth?”
“That’s an urban legend, not a stereotype.”
“That’s an evasion, not an answer.”
“How am I supposed to know? When have I ever seen one?”
“You’ve seen one.”
“Not up close for real.”
“Not even just being curious?”
“And how am I supposed to do that? ‘’Scuse me, can I see your vagina? It’s okay; it’s for science’?” He took a swig of beer. “I heard elf jizz tastes like cotton candy.”
“It does. Mine tastes like strawberries. Better than orc jizz. Orc jizz is green and tastes like old toilet water.”
“Is that what they say?”
“That’s what I know. I’ve fucked an orc before.”
“It’s the first thing they tell you. Don’t fuck orcs. They’re just as likely to kill you as get you off. Contusions. Ruptured spleens—”
“I’m serious. So first thing we all do, of course, is fuck us an orc. Just the once. And then we know better, firsthand. Green toilet jizz.”
“No elf’s ever fucked me,” JT said, as if that was evidence Austin was lying.
“Maybe that’s because you’re ass ugly.” Austin hiked himself up on his side and set his nose only centimeters away from JT’s. He swayed a little, drunkenly, his eyes glittering as if they caught light from somewhere, but JT knew it was just a trick of the elf’s glamour.
Austin’s breath was warm and smelled sour from beer. He had a drunken mischievous smile, so goddess-blessed pretty in a haphazard, hard-edged way, with his tousled black hair and a once-broken nose. Annoying how an elf could take a broken nose and make it perfect. But that was the glamour too, wasn’t it, because JT liked broken-up men.
“So what did he do to you?” JT asked.
“This orc you fucked.”
“The first one? Broke two ribs.” Austin was only a centimeter away now, whispering, each consonant a puff of breath on JT’s lips, and JT was pressed as hard into the bed of the truck as he could have been, cornered like he was afraid of this beautiful man.
“Yeah.” Austin’s eyes changed color, the gold expanding. “And then he made me come.”
“Shit,” JT said, entranced.
Austin closed his eyes, and his lips brushed JT’s, soft and hot as a fever. He ran his tongue along JT’s lower lip, turned his head and brushed his cheek across JT’s stubby tusks, sucking at them, left and right. “So what are you going to break?”
* * * * * * *
Acceleration like coming: lasting forever and over too soon. Only six seconds and the ’Vette topped out at six twelve. Probably JT could nudge it further. If a polarity switch mistimed and they spun out, he could probably recover. So he pushed it up, KPH by KPH, all his senses hyper-tuned to the transmission spin and the quantum-timed switching, in a zone-like sexual thrill, ready to respond to the slightest bit of stutter. How long had it been since he’d piloted such a beautiful machine? Since he’d taken an apprentice? And then the unwanted thought: what if Dante pulled some stunt like this?
He eased the acceleration. They coasted along, the ride so smooth and the land outside so flat, it would have barely seemed like they were moving at all if it wasn’t for wind slick over him like warm oil. Yeah, six twenty-six would do just fine.
JT adjusted himself, the pinching too uncomfortable to ignore. Austin watched him shift his junk around, grinning that sly, sleepy grin he had when he was horny. “I could do that for ya.”
“We got traffic coming up.”
“Computer can handle it.”
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing.”
“Is it working?”
Well, of course it was working. Goddess, Austin was beautiful. Two years, and JT had forgotten how beautiful Austin was, and JT’s half hard-on went to three-quarters and was pinching again.
They hit traffic, and JT slipped through it, hopping magnetic lanes like a boat hopped waves, a small stomach-lurching thrill each time. The car swung and bobbed, and vehicles flashed around them and disappeared. But all JT’s and Austin’s attention was on each other.
“Why don’t you tell me what this is all about?” JT said.
“No, it isn’t.”
“Really, this isn’t working?” Austin cast an analytical glance to JT’s crotch. “Because it looks to me like this is working.”
“It’s not working enough.”
“Christ, a hot car, me, how much more do you want?” Austin huffed, sat back, and looked out the window. “I need to borrow a few drones.”
“No. What for? No.”
“I’ll pick ‘What for?’”
“I meant no.”
“For a good cause.”
“How much money turns something into a ‘good cause’?”
“This job ain’t about money. Look, I’ll buy them from you. This car for some drones.”
“This car’s stolen. And you can’t pilot drones anyway.”
“Oh, you’re right!” Austin snapped his fingers with mock realization. “So I’ll need you too.”
“I thought we’d moved past negativity and had a bonding moment here. Tell me this doesn’t feel good, letting go a little? Tell me you don’t want to know what it’s like to have sex in this car at six hundred kilometers per hour?”
What would it be like? JT would last about half a second before he nutted all over the leather seats, that’s what it would be like. JT said nothing, not trusting himself to say what he should.
“Fine,” Austin said. “I have a protection job. Not just a bodyguard walk-around-and-look-mean kind of thing: a serious protection job.”
“I’ll put you in touch with Duke. He runs a merc outfit in Greentown. You can hire—”
“This ain’t a merc kind of job. It’s an Austin-and-JT kind of job.”
“You mean it’s illegal.”
“I mean it’s for a friend.”
All our friends are dead, is what JT wanted to say, but the two of them had managed to make it an hour without any mention of Roan, Grayson, Bell, or the lab job, and he’d be damned if he was going to start now. “What friend?”
* * * * * * *
JT first saw Buzz Howdy in the winter of ’70. Roan had run with two gangs: Bell Anderson’s team along with Austin, Grayson, and JT; and a group of hackers called 3djinn. 3djinn had been mostly anonymous foreign handles except for Buzz Howdy, who’d been an SF local and Roan’s roommate for a while. JT and Austin had been parked curbside at Roan’s Mission flat. As she climbed into the truck, she’d waved up at the second floor of the Edwardian and there he was in the window: a shaggy-cut redhead, cute as can be.
“Boyfriend?” JT asked her.
“Buzz? Just a friend.”
“He’s brilliant. He’s also quiet and nice and you wouldn’t like him.”
“I like quiet and nice.”
“No, you don’t.” She’d shot a pointed glance at her brother in the backseat, evidence to the contrary.
“What’s he do?”
“He forges identities for people who want to be someone they aren’t.”
“He’s cute.” JT smiled up at the guy, as friendly as he could, because you never know, some day. The guy saw all those teeth bared at him and drew the curtain.
* * * * * * *
“Buzz is harmless. Who’s after him?” JT said.
“The Electric Dragon Triad.”
And that was a death sentence. It seemed unfair, and the news hit harder than he’d expected, twisting his stomach. He tried to hide it as best as he could because Austin didn’t know anything about him and Buzz, did he? And he didn’t want Austin to know. The elf would just tease him. “Buzz is as good as dead.”
“Just me alone? Yeah, he would be. But you and me both? We can get him out of town.”
They coasted a while more, and JT finally turned off the external sensors that let him feel the wind on the car. He flipped the car’s magnetic breaks and jumped a few channels to the outside track.
“We turning around? Is that a yes?”
Did he and Buzz count as friends anymore? It didn’t really matter. He owed Buzz for this life. And here was his chance to apologize for that kiss.
“Don’t make me regret this, Austin.”
“You can’t go,” Dante said. “We got a meeting with Suborbital on Friday. Duke has been working on getting us in the door for months. You can’t ditch it just to run off with that . . . that . . . that . . . elf.”
Austin had gone into the house, a one-story bunker of a building, and JT had gone to break the news to Dante. He’d found the kid in the lab programming the industrial 3-D printer. The control booth for the printer looked like it could have launched the Mars missions: eight 210-centimeter monitors in banks, holo projectors glowing blue, sim receivers, interface gloves and crowns, and cabling everywhere, all mounted on a half-cylindrical frame of matte-black carbon alloy and plastered with skate-punk decals. The decals were Dante’s contribution to the decor. She’d even found an antique Misfits one somewhere.
JT said, “The meeting’s two days from now. It’s just San Francisco. I’ll be back in plenty of time.”
“We have a meeting with the banker tomorrow.”
“You can handle it.”
“Are you insane? Caldwell ain’t gonna take me seriously. I’m seventeen!”
Seventeen going on forty, JT thought.
Four months after JT had arrived in Greentown, Dante Riggs had caught his eye. The kid had been looking at JT’s truck the way JT had once looked at trucks: paying too much attention to security systems, sight lines to the driver’s-side door, and surveillance cameras.
Two days later, she tried to steal it. Duke’s boys had beaten the hell out of her, but JT wouldn’t let them call the cops. Honor among thieves, he supposed. And damned if the kid didn’t come limping back, except this time she wanted to talk: “They tell me you built that truck from scratch,” she’d said, eyes still bruised and one tusk broken off short. “3-D printers and nano shit. Teach me how to do it.”
“Fuck off,” JT had told her, and hit her again so she understood he was serious.
JT said now, “You’re just reviewing affidavits for Friday. You’re not asking him for money. You’ll be fine.”
“I don’t own a tie.”
“Caldwell wouldn’t recognize you if you wore one.”
“He’s going to fuck up your life again!”
Ah, there it was. Out of everyone JT had met since he’d moved here, he’d only told Dante the truth. It wasn’t the business Dante was worried about—it was Austin. Well, that made two of them. “It’s only one day, and it’s only this once.”
“Yeah, I’ve said that about a lot of things too.”
“And so have I. But I got things to come back to this time.”
After JT had told the kid to fuck off, Dante had camped out at the gate to JT’s place like she was petitioning for training at a Shaolin Temple. JT had managed to hold out a week before he brought the kid in.
JT clapped her on the shoulder. “I’ll be back, I promise.”
The kid worried her broken tusk with her tongue—everyone learned their habits from someone—shoved her hands deep in her pockets, and hunched her shoulders like eighty degrees was cold. “Yeah . . . well . . . when you come back, lose the elf.” She looked out across the yard at the black space where the Corvette sat. “But keep the car.”
* * * * * * *
Kitchen, dining and living rooms were all the one room. On the dining table, Chinese takeout was unpacked, white boxes everywhere like blown-up origami. Austin had opened everything to make sure there was no meat in his, and he’d arranged the too-many packets of soy and duck sauce in letters: EAT ME.
He was on the couch, and the big-screen was going at the same time he had the VR glasses on. He absentmindedly worked chopsticks on vegetable lo mein. He didn’t even look at the damn box or have to readjust the sticks every minute like JT had to. He never dropped a bit of it or had to fish around to find something easy to pick up. That was his left hand.
His right hand flicked and twitched in the control glove, and Nazi zombies died.
“Are you cheating?” JT asked.
“I only cheat in real life, when it’s actually fun. The kid not eating?” He ate and killed zombies.
“Nah, she’s eating by herself tonight.” He’d set Dante up in a room over the printer lab when the kid had moved in, and Dante retreated there when she needed her space or JT needed his.
“Tonight? But doesn’t she eat with you usually?” Austin asked, implying something, but JT didn’t want to play games, so ignored him. JT speared orange chicken with his chopsticks. The container of rice sat untouched. Rice was elf food. “She could be useful,” Austin said. “Maybe—”
“Maybe nothing. I brought her here to give her a way out of that life, Austin, not a way in.”
Austin turned just a bit and slid the glasses down his nose (and still his hand flicked, and zombies died, and he didn’t), and ran his eyes up and down JT. “You make a cute daddy. I approve.”
“Fuck you. I’m just doing what I can.”
“You didn’t have to do anything,” He went back to his game and his food. “That’s what makes it cute.”
JT started in on the Szechuan chicken, upending the take-away box to his mouth and using the sticks to shovel the food in. He watched Austin play his game and eat.
“Shouldn’t we be planning this protection job?” JT asked.
“What’s to plan? We need to move Buzz from the place he’s holed up in San Fran to Tahoe and his rendezvous with 3djinn. The quieter, the better.”
“You’re the pilot. As far as gear, I’m bringing a bow, some arrows, and you. Really, JT, this isn’t a break-in. It’s just deliver-the-package. Except the package is Buzz. Pick a car; pick your drones; and we’re good to go.”
That was just too much blitheness, even for Austin. This was a triad they were messing with, not some street gang. Something was up.
“So what’s the story? Why’s the triad after Buzz?”
Austin shrugged. “He stole something.”
“Something. I don’t know. He calls me—”
“He’s got your contact info?” JT didn’t even have Austin’s contact info.
“It’s not that hard to find.” He gave JT a pointed flick of a glance. “If you wanted to find it. So he calls me and says he’s in trouble and needs to get out of town and over to Tahoe. He’d been working for the Electric Dragon Triad and found something, and, well, he might have taken it—”
“So he didn’t just steal from them, he betrayed them?”
“Suppose you could see it that way.”
“I can guaran-fuckin-tee you that’s how they’re seeing it.” The Electric Dragon was going to be excessive in their vengeance. But it was like Austin had said: they just needed to move Buzz quiet, not a shot fired. “So he never said what it was he took? Must have been something pretty damn amazing to throw your life away for it.”
“Must have been.” Austin stopped playing his game and took the VR glasses off. “Things like that exist, JT.”
“Like hell, they do. And you still don’t think we need a plan.”
“I got a plan. You.”