Apocalypse Alley (A Blue Unicorn novel)

Apocalypse Alley by Don Allmon
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Feb 26, 2018
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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.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Chapter One

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 . 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.

“Jason Taylor.”


“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.”


Chapter Two

Buzz Howdy made a scene, hoping someone would save him. He shouted, “You can’t do this! You’re not the police! I ain’t done nothing wrong!” Which wasn’t quite true. He was a hacker, a forger, and a thief, and had done plenty wrong—just not today.

He fought the crazy gene-job fucker who had him by the scruff of his shirt and was pushing him around, and tried to make sure everyone in the dark bar could see he’d been handcuffed.

But this wasn’t Pacifica. This was an anarchist town in Freestate Arizona, and there weren’t no police.

All those orcs looked at him, then looked at the guy holding him, then turned back to their small knots of friends gathered around tables, talking low or talking loud, making deals or promises or just shooting the shit like there wasn’t a little red-headed human in the middle of their bar about to get the hell beaten out of him. Probably the crazy fucker could have whacked him right here in front of everyone, and no one would have said a goddamn word except to complain about the splatter.

“Got anything else you want to tell everyone?” the fucker growled in his ear.

Buzz knew plenty of guys like him. He could have gotten eyes that looked natural, but instead had replaced them with one of the solid glow models to ramp up the cool factor (and so he’d picked Jedi blue instead of Sith red, what difference did that matter?), a genetically engineered porn-star body, and a violent streak looking for every opportunity to show it off. He bet the guy had a three-decimeter dick and thought it was something special, like anyone couldn’t have one for twenty grand. Buzz would have spit at him if he’d ever learned how to spit, but he hadn’t, so he said, “Fuck off,” instead.

He wrenched Buzz over to a corner table. The table had a two-meter DMZ around it where no one else stood. Seated there was the biggest orc Buzz had ever seen. Buzz knew Duke Mason by sight.

And apparently Duke knew him. “Buzz Howdy. You know who you’ve found, Comet? This here is Buzz Howdy, dumbest hacker on the planet. Have a seat, Buzz.”

Comet—yeah, he’d have to be named something like Comet, wouldn’t he?—shoved him into the booth and then slid in after him so Buzz couldn’t get out.

He’s right. This is dumb. You shouldn’t be here. A teenage boy flipped the cap of an ancient lighter and lit an ancient cigarette. Orcs passed through him like he wasn’t there because he wasn’t. He was an illusion, the consequence of stimuli injected into Buzz’s head, which meant no one could see him or hear him but Buzz. His name was BangBang. He looked like a fourteen-year-old James Dean. Buzz had never heard of James Dean and had refused to look it up, so BangBang’d had to tell him, and now he held a friendly grudge about it.

On BangBang’s shoulder sat a mouse named Critter. Critter wasn’t really a mouse. The two of them belonged to the 3djinn “data liberation” consortium, like Buzz. Unlike Buzz, they were two of the 3.

BangBang spun an illusionary chair around, sat, and crossed his arms over the chair’s back. Illusionary lips synced perfectly: —Do you know who that is? That’s Duke Mason. He’s dangerous. He’s like a whole fucking rogue nation all stuffed into one orc. He’s caused more wars than we have.

I know who Duke Mason is.

Duke was the sole owner and CEO of Irontooth Enterprises, not the largest private military company in the world—Duke could only field around 7,000 security contractors—but one of the most high-profile. Their logo could be seen in the background of nearly every high-level politico on the planet, sewn onto the sleeves of their security detail. He had direct lines to senators, generals, and cabinet members worldwide. And he’d set up shop in Greentown, not for any egalitarian dream, but because Arizona was a freestate and not a signatory to the UN resolutions that governed PMCs. So no, he wasn’t a criminal, but only by virtue of living in a place where the laws were decided by those with the biggest guns.

Comet dropped his pistol on the table with a heavy clunk. He turned it so it was pointed Buzz’s way like they were playing spin the bottle and it was Buzz’s turn.

The gun was still lifeless. Buzz sneered at him. “Ain’t all that dumb, am I?”

Comet drew his hand back for a good slap.

Buzz flinched and glared. He said to Duke, “Your merc here—”

“I’m a PMC, not a merc.”

“—ignored a zero-day patch on his gun. You’d think a competent P-M-C would keep his gun up-to-date.”

Duke’s eyes narrowed, and Comet looked down at the table. “I’ve been fourteen hours on a plane. My weapon was stowed.”

You were supposed to be going into hiding, coming to High Castle to be with us, BangBang sent.

I’m not here by choice. Can you not feel the handcuffs? BangBang was a rider. He had full access to Buzz’s sensoria when he wanted. It was how he was able to manifest the illusion of himself so perfectly. And the handcuffs pinched and held Buzz’s arms at a bad angle so they’d gone sore and a bit numb and tingly. There was no way BangBang could have not known if he was paying any attention.

“Fix your goddamn pistol,” Duke said to Comet. He pointed at Buzz. “You. Shut the fuck up.”

The whole table fell silent. Duke’s and Comet’s eyes went mid-distance stare: the sign that their attention was now focused on a cyberspace Buzz couldn’t see.

Can you access their space? Buzz asked BangBang.

The teenage James Dean shook his head. —Irontooth. Not even gonna try. Maybe BangBang had tried hacking Mason’s company once upon a time and it hadn’t gone so well.

No one spoke. Buzz sat and fidgeted.

Comet’s hands moved over his pistol, resetting it by sheer muscle memory.

Comet’s hands were all tendon and bone. The tone of his skin made his thick roadmap veins appear green. And they weren’t scarred up at all, not like Buzz thought a fighter’s hands should be scarred. No calluses, nothing. Those hands were deadly strong, Buzz already knew, but the way they brushed over his gun didn’t seem deadly at all. Buzz could almost forget it was a gun he was touching that way.

The gun’s lights came on. Buzz could have hacked it again before the patch was complete, but what was the point? (Except to watch those hands reset it again?)

Minutes passed. Duke’s and Comet’s eyes shifted focus from time to time. Buzz felt ignored. And after a few more minutes of being ignored, he felt a bit forgotten.

BangBang sent, —I’ve hacked the BarNet. I’ll wipe all the customer accounts and that will give you time to slip away.

—No! I ain’t slipping away.

—After you double-crossed the Electric Dragon Triad, it was a lot of work getting you to safety—

—It was a lot of work for JT and Austin, not you.

—And what you’re doing right now undoes all of it.

—Right now, JT is in trouble. Someone attacked him. I want to know who and why, and then I’m going to do something about it. He’s my friend.

—I’m your friend.

—You’re not in danger.

“I could help,” Buzz said aloud.

—You’re wrong, Buzz. I am in danger. And you know who’s putting me in danger? You.

“Oh really? You could help?” Duke said. “Go ahead, then. Help me.”

Their eyes didn’t focus on him. They expected him to lie, so he didn’t. Except this one: These people would only know JT by the fake identity Buzz had created for him. They called him Jason Taylor. Buzz had to remember to call him that too.

“I followed an AI fragment to Jason’s place. It’s called the Blue Unicorn. That holo recording you saw when you found me, that was it. A recording of it, at least. By the time I got there, the place was shot up. Jason and Austin—Austin’s an old friend of Jason’s, a way-back kind of friend, they were together the last time I saw them—they were both missing. Dante too, I guess.”

The whole thing had been terrifying. He’d searched everywhere for the three of them and each room and building he’d entered, he’d been certain he’d find his friends dead. He squirmed in the seat, the handcuffs biting. “I was searching the place’s security records when your asshole showed up. I didn’t find anything. There’d been a cyberattack and the whole network was a wreck.”

“Why would an AI fragment ask for Dante?” Comet said.

Buzz shrugged and shook his head. He didn’t know.

“Why did it go to Jason’s place?”

“I don’t know.”

“Who shot up the place? The AI didn’t do that.”

“I don’t know.”

“Where’s Jason?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is he okay? Is he hurt? Is he captured? Is he dead?”

“I don’t know!”

“So you’re useless. Or a liar. Or both. Thanks for the fucking help.”

“I’m not lying!”

Comet didn’t let up with the questions. “Did you take the hard drive out of that Atari?”

“You frisked me. Did you find it?”

“Answer the question,” Duke said.

“It was already gone when I got there. I told you, someone cleaned the place up data-wise. There was nothing left.”

Duke set a holo puck in the center of the table. Comet protested. “You’re trusting him?”

The puck activated and projected an image of the wrecked yard of JT’s compound. It was 3-D, probably created from video recorded by Comet’s cybernetic eyes. The image shrank until it showed the whole yard in shimmering green. Some places had been highlighted and glowed a brighter green. Duke moved from one highlighted space to the next: long gouges in the pavement, punctures through corrugated siding that didn’t look like bullet holes, pieces of twisted metal.

Duke said, “Comet’s run an analysis of the battlefield—”

Buzz blinked at the word battlefield, and he saw Comet’s jaw clench. Comet didn’t like JT’s place being called a battlefield any more than he did. Maybe they had something in common after all.

“—and from the damage, tracks, and debris, he’s confident there were three Atari Koroshiya 036s. Though I can’t imagine how Jason might have done it, he managed to disable one of the three.”

He gave Buzz the opportunity to explain how a mild-mannered engineer like JT could have held his own against three high-end urban combat drones long enough to take one out.

The answer was that JT wasn’t a mild-mannered engineer. But Buzz said nothing.

The image focused on the dead Atari drone. Duke blew the image up until its chest filled the puck’s projection area. Centered there was the word DOC painted in childlike sloppy tempera.

“Mean anything to you?” Duke asked.

Buzz studied it. He’d noticed the word at the time, of course, but hadn’t thought much of it. All his attention had been on data recovery; the idea that there might be something else worth investigating hadn’t occurred to him. But now that he saw it, there was something familiar.

He accessed a 3djinn database of images and video stolen from top-secret files worldwide. He felt BangBang and Critter looking over his shoulder. Critter began to chatter, and BangBang cussed. He found images of wreckage just like that Atari, with names painted on them in comic tempera. All those images were connected to one person.

“Valentine,” he said.

Duke sighed, sat back, and crossed his arms. Probably he didn’t trust a direct sending link with Buzz, because he requested a secure anonymous drop, and then shared an encrypted folder with both Comet and Buzz (and though Duke didn’t know it, by extension BangBang and Critter). Buzz opened it. The folder contained PBI and Interpol reports on a cybernetically enhanced drone pilot and assassin code-named Valentine. She’d been credited with a dozen high-profile murders, including the British Prime Minister Beau Geddings (Bright-Green Party) and the orc mystic Odoro Hazzell. She had warrants for her arrest in almost every country and extradition agreements between all the North American unions, the Commonwealth, the EU, the Caliphate, Egypt, and even China, who never agreed to extradition with anyone.

“So a world-class assassin and a 3djinn hacker followed an AI fragment to Jason’s house, where they found it asking for help from a teenage orc.”

Buzz shook his head slowly. Because when put that way, it did seem unbelievable. Had he and JT and Austin fucked up so badly by getting involved with the Blue Unicorn that someone had sent Valentine after them?

He should run. He should go into hiding and never come out. And like he was reading Buzz’s mind, BangBang sent, —Hide, Buzz. Take the Marid and come to High Castle with us like you said you were going to, and hide.

It was the sensible thing to do. Take 3djinn’s stolen spaceship and get as far away from Greentown as he could. Because if that assassin had come for JT and Austin, she’d come for him too, wouldn’t she?

Maybe Duke was right and he was the dumbest hacker on the planet, because he didn’t tell BangBang yes. What he said was: “You said there were three? Two other Ataris? They’ll have recorded the fight and everything that happened before I got there, right? Probably other data too? We grab one of her drones and we get our answers.”

“And how am I supposed to find her?” Comet said.

You’ve lost your goddamn mind, BangBang sent.

“We set a trap. She came after the Blue Unicorn. So we blast that we’ve found the Blue Unicorn over the net, all nodes, and Valentine will come to us. You distract her. I hack a drone. We find Jason.”

—You don’t stand a chance, Buzz!

—Then help me!

—I’m not going to threaten our network to help your idiot friends. It’s not just you you’re putting at risk. It’s the whole 3djinn network. You know passwords—

—So change them!

—and encryption algorithms and you know the identities of contacts and clients.

“I’ll do it,” Comet said and slid out of the seat.

“Great.” Buzz turned so Comet could remove the cuffs.

“You ain’t going nowhere.” Comet said.

—and if Valentine gets into your head—

“You’re taking him with you,” Duke said.

—It’s all of 3djinn at risk!

—Either help me or get the fuck out of my head!

“I don’t want him with me.”

“You need a hacker.”

“I need a hacker I trust. I’ll call Prancer.”

“Prancer’s four hours out in Mexico City. Take him with you, and find JT and Dante and this friend of his, Austin, and bring them back safe. That’s your mission, Comet.”

BangBang and Critter went quiet and icy and then vanished.

Comet didn’t like Duke’s orders one bit, Buzz could tell. Comet rolled his shoulders. A coiling-snake-strike crouching-panther-like sort of movement, patiently vicious. His whole body rippled with the strength of it. It was arrogant (and Buzz disliked the guy just that much more), intimidating, and entirely, unhealthily, confusingly thrilling.

Comet hauled Buzz out of the booth and turned him around. As he undid the cuffs, he leaned in close and whispered in Buzz’s ear, “You’re still my prisoner.”

Comet pocketed the cuffs and went for the door. Buzz went to follow, but Duke’s immense hand closed around his arm. “One more thing, 3djinn.”

Buzz tried to pull away, but Duke’s grip was iron. He scowled at Comet near the door and refused to look back at Duke.

“Before I dumped forty million into Jason’s start-up car shop, I did my research. Jason Taylor was a kid from nowhere Montana who just barely got himself accepted to Hyundai-Daisho Davis. Bs in his coursework. Second-string on the Halo team. Capstone paper on the shear-strength of nano-engineered plasti-ceramics—boring as shit if you ask me. Doubly so considering the same paper was written by another student two years previous at Cornell. Jason’s indenture to HD was ten years. He gave them four and skipped out on the last six. No record how he paid off the other quarter million he owed them for his education.”

Buzz looked over his shoulder at the orc. “So Jason’s got debt problems. Who doesn’t?”

“That’s my point, ain’t it? No one’s an angel. Everyone’s in debt. So the summary on that report I got, it says here’s a kid who was so goddamn average no one would look at him twice. A kid who cheated when it was easy, and toed the line when it wasn’t, just like every other kid ever did.”

“So why’d you invest?”

“I had a hunch. That was two years ago, and me and Comet here, we’ve spent a lot of time with Jason, and we’ve grown close, I like to think. And here’s the Jason I know: He’s a genius. He understands engines and metals and plastics like nobody does. And he’s driven. He’s driven like no twentysomething I’ve ever seen except maybe Comet. Everyday twentysomethings don’t start their own businesses. They don’t chase after defense contracts. Jason Taylor isn’t second-string anything.”

Duke let go of him. Buzz’s arm went pins and needles when the blood started pumping back into it. Duke lounged back in his seat, shrewd eyes narrow. “So all that background I dug up? I don’t believe one bit of it. That background was forged by you, wasn’t it? Who is Jason Taylor, really?”

Buzz Howdy wasn’t much of a liar. All of his lies were told with code and data and he’d never had to learn how to do it, real-life, face-to-face. It was why he didn’t try to cover his own identity. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Jason’s just Jason.” And maybe that was a lie, but he didn’t care if Duke believed him or not.

Duke held Buzz’s gaze for a good ten seconds, until Buzz couldn’t take it anymore and looked away. Anyone would have.

Duke said, “Comet, if this guy crosses you . . .” and then he only shrugged as if the rest was obvious.

from Publishers Weekly

Smart, brisk pacing immerses readers in the terrifying landscape of the future

from Butterfly-o-Meter

[S]nappy action with lots of humor and yummy hotness to boot.

from Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words

I absolutely recommend this series.  It’s one wild  ride.  It has great characters, it’s gritty, suspenseful, full of twists and turns and more plots threads then you can shake a VR stick with.