Apocalypse Alley (A Blue Unicorn novel)
Home from a six-month assignment to war-torn East Asia, genetically engineered supersoldier Noah "Comet" Wu just wants to kick back, share a beer, and talk shit with his best friend, JT. But JT's home has been shot up like a war zone, and his friend has gone missing.
Comet's only lead is a smart-mouthed criminal he finds amid the mess. His name's Buzz Howdy. He's a con man and a hacker and deserves to be in jail. Or in handcuffs, at least. The only thing the two have in common is JT. Unless you count the steamy glances they're sneaking at one another. They have those in common too. But that just makes Comet all the more wary.
Despite their mutual distrust, they'll have to work together to rescue JT before a cyborg assassin gets to him first. Racing down a miserable stretch of road called Apocalypse Alley, they must dodge radioactive spiders, a killer Buick, and rampaging cannibals. They also try to dodge each other. That last bit doesn't work out so well.
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Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:drug use, explicit violence
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Spent casings littered the parking lot. A dead Atari Koroshiya 036 urban combat drone lay drowned in its own hydraulic oils, a twisted, scarred wreck. Scraps of high-tensile netting and plastic shards from burst floodlights sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. There were bullet holes punched in the corrugated walls and divots blasted out of concrete. The whole compound stank of burnt wiring.
It looked like Yingkiong, or Beylagan, or Kampong Cham, or any number of other torn-up places Comet had been deployed to. It didn't look like Arizona. It didn't look like Jason's home.
Comet had known something was wrong the moment he'd stepped off the plane after six months deployed to India and Jason hadn't been there waiting with balloons and a cold welcome-home beer he would party-trick open with one tusk. Comet had needed to cab it to Duke's place. There, he had gone straight for his bike and pistol, hadn't even said hi to Duke.
Duke had seen him leaving and sent, — Where are you going? over the net, the Old Man's voice simulated directly into his brain. It sounded like Comet's own thoughts, except different.
— Something's wrong. And on the ride to Jason's compound, his cold-gut feeling got worse and worse, and now here was all the evidence of a goddamn war.
He almost signaled his squad. He didn't because they were on holiday now, just like he was, and this was Arizona, not Arunachal Pradesh, and he refused to admit home had changed so badly as that.
— Raiders hit Jason, he sent to Duke, glad for once that the sending protocol didn't carry tone well. It kept the hint of panic out of his words.
He slipped off his modded Kawasaki, slaved his 9mm Israeli Qayin, and pressed himself tight against the wall of the nearest shed.
Duke had told Jason not to build so far outside of town: no one to call for help if a raiding band swept through. It was four K to the next home, ten K to Greentown. But Jason had to have his privacy.
Comet linked his vision so Duke could see what he saw. He started recording, standard procedure.
Jason's home and business was a concrete enclosure turreted on each of four corners. It had one entrance: a drive with sunken hydraulic bollards and a gate that was closed and electrified at night. Right now it was open, and the bollards were down. Inside the wall was an open yard of mixed paving and gravel big enough to park five or six cars or APCs or whatever vehicle Jason was printing at the time — empty now, except for Comet's motorcycle and way too many bullet casings.
Six buildings ringed the yard: a toolshed (Comet tight against it), an armory, a storage warehouse, an empty garage (all the doors rolled up so he could see inside), Jason's home (single story, concrete and steel, Bauhaus would have approved), and the printer lab. The printer lab sat catty-corner to the house. It had two doors: a bay door for the vehicles Jason printed, and a standard people-sized door. The bay door was closed. The people-sized door had been blown off its hinges and lay bent against the frame.
None of the other buildings had been messed with, not even the armory, which Comet found curious, because if he'd been the one to raid this place, he'd have cracked that armory wide open. Jason built more than motorcycles and monster trucks.
— Find survivors, Duke sent. That word survivors, sterile and analytical, steadied Comet, as if it wasn't Jason they were talking about.
Pistol in both hands, Jedi-blue cybernetic eyes flickering through wavelength bands (seeing nothing, seeing nothing, seeing nothing), he leapt up the shed wall, then from one roof to another light as a feather. Grandmaster Natalia Jen had taught him to fly the way the old heroes used to. It was called qīnggōng, and he'd almost been a master. He'd nearly lost it all when his cybernetic and genetic modifications permanently disrupted his qì. These fantastic leaps were the best he could do anymore.
He landed at the front door of Jason's home and slipped inside.
The AC was busted. The air was acrid but infrared showed no fires. There was no one here. On the dining table lay a pair of open tungsten handcuffs and a half-eaten mustard sandwich. The bread was mostly soft. On impulse, he took the handcuffs, reset the code, and slipped them into his jacket pocket.
He returned to the yard and inspected the ruined combat drone. It had looked something like a mantis, once. It was pitted from high caliber bullets and its hydraulic tubing had been laid bare and cut at several critical points. Across its chest was hand-painted the word: DOC. The Atari Koroshiya 036 was expensive. They could work independently on their limited virtual intelligence, but to be worth the cost, they needed a skilled pilot. If there were more than a few hundred skilled pilots in the world, Comet would have been surprised. Pilots like those lived their lives 24/7/52 in deep sleep, their entire interaction with the real world through the drones they controlled. Duke would have given both nuts and also thrown in Comet's to get someone like that on the payroll, and Duke really liked Comet's nuts. They'd cost him a fortune.
Comet checked for the Atari's brain, but the slot was empty. Someone had taken care to remove any evidence of what had happened here.
Through the broken door of the printer building, Comet heard a woman's voice: "Help me, Dante Riggs. You're my only hope."
That was just about the last thing Comet had expected to hear. Dante Riggs was Jason's kid apprentice. Comet had never liked her.
He held his pistol close enough to his cheek he could feel its coolant. He leaned around the bent doorframe of the printer control room and looked in.
There was a man in the room. Comet didn't know who he was, except he didn't belong here.
He was standing amid the tangle of thick power cables that fed a hemispherical bank of eight 210-centimeter monitors behind him and was watching the projection from a large floor holo-display. It was working on backup power and projected a life-sized, staticked-up image of a pickup truck jacked high on immense wheels. The door of the holographic truck opened and a holographic woman dropped down from the cab to the ground. She wore a one-piece dress and her hair was done in an afro. The tips of her ears showed through. She was an elf and she was pretty. All elven women were. She said, "Help me, Dante Riggs. You're my only hope." And then the whole hologram went static and reset to the beginning: truck, door, woman, "Help me, Dante Riggs . . ."
The man didn't look like a raider. Raiders wore body armor and bristled with knives and guns. This guy didn't look to have a single weapon on him. He was as white as white guys got and probably Irish. He looked like a college kid out on spring break: cargo shorts and a flannel shirt over a faded T-shirt, white socks, and the antique kind of sneakers that never went out of style. He hadn't had a haircut in a year and might not have owned a comb. His hair hung to his shoulders in a shaggy mass of loose copper curls and played mischief with his eyes.
He was adorable, and that was a damn shame, because any other time and place and the conversation they were about to have would have been completely different. Comet's targeting laser brushed the guy's cheek and settled over his temple. The guy was so deep in his study of the hologram, he didn't even notice. Comet marked him as an enemy combatant and labeled him "Shaggy" so his gun knew who to kill, then he said, "Move and I'll shoot you."
Shaggy yelped and his hands shot up in surrender. Comet crossed the room fast and smooth, gun arm steady, and the little red dot wavered less than a few centimeters. Comet grabbed him by his shirt and shoved him back until he hit the bank of monitors. Shards of broken plexi clattered down.
He jammed his pistol under Shaggy's jaw. "Where's Jason? Who the fuck are you?"
Shaggy sputtered. Behind them, the hologram looped. "Help me, Dante Riggs. You're my only hope."
Comet lifted him so his feet were dangling. He didn't weigh much. Comet could hold him up left-handed. He pressed the gun in harder. There was gonna be a bruise. The guy's eyes rolled down and went mostly white trying to see the pistol buried in his chin. He said, "Qayin," and closed his eyes like he was waiting to be killed.
Comet felt the smart link drop. The gun shut down. He pulled the trigger out of reflex. Nothing happened. This guy here had just hacked his weapon that fucking fast.
Shaggy took advantage of Comet's surprise, twisted free, and sprinted hard for the door. Comet tackled him effortlessly — the guy wasn't modded — and had him in an arm lock a moment later.
The guy cussed up a storm and huffed and whined as tears sprang into his eyes because that lock hurt, Comet knew. Comet tightened it so it hurt more.
"Now you're gonna answer my questions."
— Bring him in, Duke sent, having watched the whole thing through Comet's eyes. He'll answer mine.
Comet grinned wickedly. "Now you really fucked up." He snapped the handcuffs on the guy and dragged him back to Greentown to see Duke.
* * * * * * *
Comet had met Jason three wars ago. Comet kept time by counting wars, so, for the record, three wars was two years. He'd just come back from Cambodia and the Chey Dara debacle, and he'd been feeling ornery, needing to work all the sourness out of him.
The music at 501 Main had been orcabilly, a retro-sounding industrial folk. It had been Saturday-night crowded on a Friday night on account of the game, though nobody watched it.
They wouldn't let orcs play in the IPL anymore, not after Harris had taken a tusk in the gut and left small intestines from the ten to the five. All the orcs were still protesting the ban. Games were just another excuse to go out and get drunk and complain about humans, like there weren't already enough excuses for that. The place was dark (except that one monitor that was showing the game no one was watching). The orcs liked it dark. As a bonus, it kept the human tourists out, though a few came in anyway like it was the ultimate double-dog dare.
As one of Duke's favorites, Comet didn't count as human. Sometimes Comet liked that. Sometimes he didn't. When he got a bit drunk and a bit philosophical, he thought that being human and one of Duke's favorites was a little like being Chinese-Pacificker — belonging to two worlds but fitting in neither. A little like that. That night he hadn't minded being an honorary orc.
"Who's the new guy?" Comet had said. That's what he'd said, not any of the other shit Duke later claimed.
Duke saw the guy Comet meant. He was runty for an orc, which meant he was still bigger than Comet. "You like him?"
"Just never seen him before."
Duke ordered New Guy a drink over BarNet. It appeared at the bottom of the queue. "Aw, Old Man, I was just askin'." But Duke's influence in the town meant Duke's orders didn't wait in queues. It was already gone, and it was too late to complain.
New Guy popped the lid off his beer with one tusk — a cute trick — and tipped it toward Duke mouthing thanks, but the Old Man wasn't letting him off so easy and called him over with a jerk of his head. New Guy looked around like he didn't want to. Comet didn't blame him. Duke made people nervous.
Duke was big — every goddamn thing about him and then some. Duke's tusks were the biggest Comet had ever seen. They were carved like scrimshaw and inlaid with gold. Duke's hair was a steel-gray mane bound up into ropes by a hundred gold rings that took a stylist an hour to thread. His skin was more gray than green. He had a face creased as Wisdom's. And his eyes weren't black; they were a strange gray like orcs never had. Duke dressed like a businessman. His collared white shirts were custom-made. He wore a turquoise bolo tie and cuff links made from human molars. Duke had pulled them himself, but he wouldn't tell anyone who they'd belonged to. He said it was between him and that man. He said it like that man was still alive, just missing some teeth.
Comet had been a security contractor with Duke's company, Irontooth Enterprises, for four wars (just over two years) at the time. He wasn't the captain of Reindeer Squad yet, but everyone already knew he would be. Local talk said Duke was grooming Comet to take over the company when the Old Man died. Comet could barely imagine that. The "Old Man" was only fifty. He'd survived the Awakening (and the stories of his transformation into an orc were terrifying and sad the way most of those stories were), and he'd survived all the shit since, and nothing would kill him short of a meteor to the head.
New Guy didn't find a good excuse to stay away, so he came on over.
Duke's idea of introduction went like this: "My boy here thinks you're hot."
"That's not what I said," Comet said.
"Ah. No. What my boy said was, 'That orc there would look better with my cock down his throat.'"
Comet's shoulders, neck, and face went red. It was true now that Duke had pointed it out. New Guy had a mouth made for fucking: broad, full lips that had to be soft, tusks not so big or sharp you'd worry too much about things going wrong, just big enough to add the thrill Comet liked. Comet looked away and mumbled at the tabletop, "That's not what I said."
"Ah. No. What my boy said was, 'That orc there would look better with my jizz dripping down his ass.'"
Comet went deeper red, so red it hurt like his cheeks were gonna bust. He shook his head and laughed because he couldn't help it. What was New Guy thinking? Did he think this was funny? Was he getting pissed off? Most guys got pissed off. It was an asshole-ish kind of game Duke liked to play. But Comet couldn't meet New Guy's eyes he was so damn embarrassed.
"Ah. No. What my boy said was — "
Duke would do this all night if Comet didn't stop him. "What I said was, 'Who's the new guy?'" Comet looked up.
New Guy didn't seem pissed. New Guy seemed like he didn't know what to think. New Guy's cheeks and ears had gone dark, embarrassment flaring. In better light, the color would have been that of leaves turning autumn red. Comet tried not to glance at New Guy's crotch, but did anyway because how could he not, and he was pretty sure this orc was packing something big.
Duke said, "Oh, that's right. I remember now. That's what you said. 'Who's the new guy?' Hah! What was I thinking?" He stretched his enormous arms along the seat back, lounged, and smiled, gleefully pleased with the way he'd embarrassed everyone. "Have a seat."
Duke's booth was a corner booth with a semicircle bench. New Guy slid in opposite Duke, next to Comet. Not too close.
He was wearing a red baseball cap with a stitched-on label: three inverted triangles and the letters MF. Comet didn't know what that meant and had to look it up. "You a farmer?" He kind of hoped he was, because Comet had never fucked a farmer before (never even met one), and everyone knew farmers were filthy as hell.
"No. I just like the hat. You a cowboy?"
Comet was dressed as trashy as could be. He wore a Christian Texas-sized turquoise belt buckle because it was gaudy and made people stare at his crotch, a threadbare tank top that showed his shoulders off, and a faux-straw cowboy hat that had been crushed beneath fucking bodies so often it glowed under black light and Luminol.
Comet broke out his dirtiest, sly grin. "I'm a kind of cowboy."
"What kind is that?"
"The break-him-before-I-ride-him kind." This banter here, it was all make believe and didn't mean nothing. Comet could do it without going red. Duke's teasing was different somehow. No matter how close they'd grown in only four wars, he was always afraid Duke's teasing was for real.
"That so?" New Guy said. "What if he's already broken?"
"There's always something left to break. Just gotta know where to look. Sometimes looking's the fun part."
They tried to hold each other's eyes with a serious stare. This was supposed to be hot, not funny. They both raised their beers to hide breaking grins. They both waited a moment before drinking so they didn't choke on a laugh and blow beer out their noses.
Duke laughed. Everyone in the bar turned to see. Duke's laughs were like thunder. "Ain't that adorable! The two of you embarrassed."
"I ain't — " both New Guy and Comet said at the same time. They stopped at the same time.
Duke thought that was even funnier. His laughter boomed and rumbled all over. "I'm gonna love watching the two of you fuck."
Good sign: New Guy didn't run when Duke said that. Plenty of sensible guys did. Duke and Comet weren't lovers and never had been. But Duke liked to watch and Comet liked to show off.
"What's your name?" Comet said.
"On account of the hair?" Comet's hair was nano-dyed flame colors. It was temperature sensitive and heat made it flicker.
"On account of I'm me. Welcome to Greentown, Jason Taylor. I'll be your top tonight."