Friday, May 24, 2019



Big Tech meets Die Hard in this techno-thriller Kirkus Reviews calls "a clever, spirited tale with a brainy, nimble heroine at the helm."

From IndieReader's 5 star (highest rating) review:
"Bond weaves an entertaining story filled with deceit, robots, Russians, and tech entrepreneurs that all combine to give the reader a reason to flip pages furiously to find out what might happen next.


Deb Bollinger has no time for corporate training.

Her company’s top engineer at just twenty-seven, Deb has blocked off her day for the one project she truly cares about: the launch of Carebnb, an app that finds spare beds for the homeless. When she’s told all employees must drop everything for some busywork exercise called Blackquest 40, it’s an easy no.

Trouble is, her bosses aren’t really asking.

Blackquest 40 is the mother of all corporate trainings. A near-impossible project to be completed in forty straight hours. No phones. No internet. Sleeping on cots. Nobody in, nobody out. Deb finds the whole setup creepy and authoritarian. When a Carebnb issue necessitates her leaving the office, she heads for the door.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Armed commandos, HVAC-duct chases, a catastrophic master plan that gets darker by the hour — Blackquest 40 is a fresh take on the Die Hard formula, layering smart-drones and a modern heroine onto the classic action tale.

Book Details:

Title: Blackquest 40

Author: Jeff Bond

Genre: Techno-thriller

Publisher: Jeff Bond books (May 15th, 2019)

Print length: 348 pages


Race: Caucasian

Age: 27

Height: 5’2”

Weight: Hundred-odd pounds

Build: Wiry

Hair color: Blond

Hair style: Short, spiked

Eye color: Green

Relationship status: Single/occasionally dating

Name of romantic partner: Liz

Distinguishing features: Deb blends just fine on the San Francisco coffee shop circuit, but at the office – among her engineering coworkers, who’re 90 percent male and homogenous as Safeway milk? She sticks out like some freak-colored poisonous frog.

Mental handicaps: Deb’s mother lives at Crestwood Psychiatric, a schizophrenia care facility. Deb is prone to occasional disorientations herself; “One ear seems to accelerate to the floor while the other flies off my head, then they flip, then flop, then flip again—like some sadistic kid is yanking kite strings.” She worries these could be precursors to her mother’s disease.

Does she have any quirks? Deb is a robotics and software engineering savant whose workspace is a veritable cornucopia of gizmos: Raven, her trusty solar-powered quadcopter drone; a bin of remote-controlled Hot Wheels; her buggy mechanical dragonflies (which suck at flying); and Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt, who she built as a peacenik entry in a battle bot competition while at MIT.

What is Deb’s favorite catchphrase?
When Deb needs to establish ground rules for new male coworkers who seem skeevy, she simply states, “I’m gay.”

Is she optimistic or pessimistic?
Depends. Deb keeps a “Polarity of the Universe” toggle on her desktop. As Blackquest 40 begins, it’s set to Amoral. Other settings include Good and Evil.

Does she have any bad habits?
Once daily, she sends her buggy dragonflies to secretly film Jared—her slovenly coworker with a demonstrated penchant for harassment—to make sure he’s behaving. Deb realizes this is an abuse of power but doesn’t consider it a bad habit, per se.

What is her strongest character trait?
A desire to do good. Deb pours her spare time—and much of her non-spare time at Codewise Solutions—into an app she built called Carebnb, which matches up the homeless with hosts willing to share spare beds in their homes.

What is her weakest character trait?
Cynicism—particularly towards people who don’t share her worldview.

What is her obsession?
Solving homelessness, the plight she shared with her mother.

What is her pet peeve?
Software engineers who don’t properly indent their code.

What is her greatest achievement? 

The Carebnb launch, which—as cruel fate would have it—is scheduled for the same day that Deb’s bosses impose Blackquest 40 on the firm.

Where’s her favorite hangout place? 

Simple Pleasures, a café just down the street from her apartment in the Outer Richmond—a western neighborhood of San Francisco.

What is her password? 

Wouldn’t you like to know.

What is her favorite food? 

Bánh mì.

Is she superstitious?
Deb weirdly won’t kick off a program if her cursor isn’t at the beginning of a line.

Is she a messy or a neat housekeeper?

Neat—but she can’t take credit. She’s not home enough to make messes.

What does she do first thing on a weekday morning? 

Ensure none of her gizmos have become sentient and hidden her hair gel for laughs.

What does she do on a Sunday afternoon?

Either code or troubleshoot Carebnb problems in the field, among the homeless.

What does she do on a Friday night?


What is her soft drink of choice? 


What is her alcoholic drink of choice? 

She’ll drink a straight-up whiskey with Cecil or froofy drink if a girlfriend’s into them, but Deb doesn’t go out of her way to impair her own mental faculties.

How does she feel about herself? 

Meh. Deb feels proud of her interpersonal integrity—she calls BS when she sees it, to your face—but angsty about the percentage of her career devoted to work she doesn’t care about.

Is there any aspect of herself that she is blind to?

Deb doesn’t see the world from other people’s perspective. At all.

Does she make a positive or negative first impression? 

Depends how you feel about bike messengers with androgynous hair and attitude.

Does that impression hold up?

Depends how you feel about good-hearted geniuses with no verbal filters.

Does she have a big or small family? 

Small: just Deb and her mother.

What is her perception of family? 

Deb is fiercely protective of her mother, often confronting Crestwood Psychiatric orderlies about her dosages.

Describe her best friend. 

Deb has been variously close—manically, desperately—with women she’s dated, but doesn’t have a prototypical best friend otherwise. She might call Cecil a half-friend, half-father figure.

Does she have any pets? 

Nope. No time.

Who are her enemies? 

Jared Ackerman: the embodiment of all that is wrong with Tech Bro culture.

Is she in a relationship? 

As the novel starts, Deb is between relationships.

Has she ever had her heart broken? 

On page 323 of Blackquest 40.

Does she have a sidekick? 

Deb would never demean Prisha—the woman she and Susan hired out of Cal-Berkeley—with the term “sidekick,” but, yes, Prisha would fit the commonly understood definition.


How does she respond to a threat? 


Is she most likely to fight with her fists or her tongue? 


What is her kryptonite?
Corporate-speak. She feels it on her skin like eel slime.

What does she love to hate? 


What are her phobias?

Institutions taking advantage of her mother. Life passing without purpose.

What is her choice of weapon? 


Does she have a secret? 

The percent of her Codewise work hours that are, in fact, devoted to Carebnb. Deb’s contract stipulates 25 percent, and she kinda…sorta…well, actually, not at all, complies.

Does she carry a weapon? 

Deb’s politics prevent her from carrying a weapon, but by the end of Blackquest 40? You bet.


What is her current job? 

Principal software engineer, Codewise Industries.

What does she think about her current job?

It’s a paycheck.

What is her educational background? 

Deb entered MIT at age sixteen, graduating with a double major in robotics and gender studies. She then received her PhD from Harvard in computational science and engineering.

Does she have a natural talent for something? 

Deb’s graduate advisor at Harvard once told his department chair, “If I can only have one human to defend the planet when our alien overlords arrive, I’ll take Deb Bollinger.”


What is in her fridge? 

Cold air.

What is on her bedside table? 

Programming manuals.

What is in her car? 

Deb, a faithful rider of SF muni, owns no car.

What is in her pockets? 

A Google phone, which she largely designed and built at Google before jumping ship to Codewise.

What is her most treasured possession? 

Deb doesn’t treasure possessions, but losing Raven—her trusty quadcopter drone—would be super awful.


If she could call one person for help, who would it be?

Cecil, the homeless man who’s known her since she was a baby, “When her mother would push her around in a cart, snuggled in among dumpster scraps and Styrofoam peanuts. Cecil walked Deb through the roughest part of the city every day of second grade, and taught her the nutcracker choke after a kid pushed a shiv through her septum in fifth.”

What would she do if she won the lottery? 

Plow the money into solving homelessness and other societal ills.

What would she ask a fortune teller? 

Will the launch of Carebnb succeed? If not, why?—what can I fix?


I am in the middle of solving homelessness when my boss raps his knuckles on my cubicle border. I know it's Paul - my eyes stay on the computer monitor, what with an intractable social ill hanging in the balance - by the timid tap...     tap-tap pattern. Also the smell. Paul eats McDonald's every morning for breakfast. He's a Sausage McGriddle man.
"Deb, we're heading up to the meeting - "
"Busy." I squint around the San Francisco street map on-screen, mousing over a blinking dot labeled Wanda. She isn't moving. None of them are moving.
Paul sighs. "We're all busy. But it's a Company-All, so if you - "
"Is it a Susan meeting?"
"No. It's the kickoff for Blackquest 40."
"Means nothing to me." I click Wanda. Why aren't they moving? Database problem?
Paul says the meeting invite should have explained everything. Blackquest 40 is a training exercise, mandatory for every employee in the company.
I look up and see that, indeed, he has the whole team in tow. Jared in his My Code Can't Fix Your Stupid trucker hat. Minosh fingering his spiral-bound notebook, peeking at a clock. They are watching me - all 5'2" if you count the platinum spikes, and a decade younger than them - like zoo visitors wondering if the glass is thick enough around this freak-colored poison frog.
"Susan hired me," I say, invoking our rockstar CEO again. "Susan said I don't have to participate in anything I don't believe in."
"Look, this project - "
"Is corporate training. High on my list of things to not believe in."
With that, I pop over to the log file, which confirms my worst fear: the Carebnb database isn't refreshing. The last GPS coordinates are from eight minutes ago, meaning Wanda and every other unhoused person on that map is misplaced.
The timing is brutal. Today is my launch, the day I am supposed to start demonstrating to all the venture capitalists not funding my side project that a little technology plus basic human decency can equal disruptive positive change.
Across the city, 137 unhoused San Franciscans are wearing 137 smart wristbands, produced at great expense by a local micro-manufacture co-op, in the hopes of connecting with a beta host. I signed up 344 hosts, but that number is dicey because many I bullied into joining. Some will have uninstalled the Carebnb app, not anticipating that I'll soon be combing my list for chicken-outs and visiting their apartments to measure, then post on social media, just how many square feet of covered living space they waste nightly.
My brain races for solutions, but Paul's voice and eau de McGriddle distract me. He's explaining that Susan is out of pocket tying up loose ends in Davos, that Carter Kotanchek has the ball until -
"Okay Paul, honestly?" I click over to the T server, the probable source of my issue. "There is no combination of words or faux-words you can say that will get me off this workstation."
"You're the principal software architect, Deb," he says. "We need you. I'm still in the dark myself, but I'm hearing Blackquest 40 is enormous."
My mouth twists. "Getting colder."
Paul hates managing me. I'm sure he goes home every night to Li Wei, his former-secretary-now-wife, and curses Susan for poaching me away from Google.
Now, as his eyes roam my workspace - hemp satchel, bin of droid Hot Wheels, Polarity of the Universe toggle currently set to Amoral, my toes in their sandals (he has a pervy thing for my feet) - his face drops another shade closer to dough.
He looks at my screen. "How much time are you spending on Carebnb?"
"Twenty-five percent, just like my contract says." I manage to keep a straight face.
It's a required Company-All. You don't badge in, you lose network privileges. It would set you back."
"You can void that."
"I can." Paul taps his ample jowls, thoughtfully paternal. "But I won't."
I've been working throughout our exchange, deciphering error messages, rebooting, tweaking this and that...     nothing is helping.
I grit my teeth. Resetting my network privileges would be a big, sticky wad of red tape.
"Fine," I say, "I'll do the meeting. But I am still not participating in this Blockquest deal."
"Whatever." I can bring my laptop and troubleshoot from the conference room. "Our queue is about ten miles long - whose bright idea was some lame time-suck training?"
Paul grimaces. "Carter is driving it."
Carter Kotanchek, our chief financial officer, is warring with Paul about the makeup of the Codewise Solutions workforce. Paul favors programmers in keeping with our reputation as the leading machine-learning and optimization company on the planet.
Carter wants more salespeople and has a knack for finding third-party vendors who sport the same Gatsby slickback he does. Inexplicably, Carter is winning.
The engineers behind Paul knock in place like pens in a mug, waiting.
I flop my wrist toward the elevators. "Go, go - I'll catch up. Two minutes."
They go. Paul lowers his gaze in a final I know you will choose wisely appeal.
I focus on my screen with a wonderfully McGriddle-free breath, then try refreshing the database.
I rejigger a script and try again.
Same error every time.
This is infuriating. Have I been found out? I never officially informed Paul about routing Carebnb's unhoused-person GPS data through T, Codewise's least busy server. Did he shut me down without telling me? Coincidentally on my most important day of the year?
No way. Paul would write a huffy email or file a ticket. He won't refill our departmental stash of teabags without paperwork.
I stand and grab my laptop, then remember it doesn't have the software to access the T server. I won't be able to troubleshoot during the meeting after all. I'll be forced to sit there and eat an hour's worth of corporate mumbo-jumbo.
"Raven!" I call over my shoulder.
My trusty solar-powered quadcopter perks up. She hums around to my sightline, her underside dome blipping green to indicate her attention.
"Attend meeting in conference room 6-A. Badge in. Watch, back row. Record."
Raven processes each command using natural language algorithms I wrote in grad school, then lowers her claw - repurposed off a junked arcade game - to accept my keycard.
As the drone whispers up the hall, I feel a twinge of unease. She's attended meetings in my stead before but never on a different floor. She will need to push a button, read a floor indicator, possibly accommodate human riders...     logic I have given her but not thoroughly stress-tested. It's asking a lot.
I work another five minutes without success.
Air blasts through my nostrils.
I need eyes on a live wristband.
I grab the phone and dial Cecil, my go-to trial user. Cecil has known me since I was a baby, when Mom would push me around in her cart, snuggled in among dumpster scraps and Styrofoam peanuts. Cecil walked me through the roughest part of the city every day of second grade, and taught me the nutcracker choke after a kid pushed a shiv through my septum in fifth.
"Lil Deb, yo," he answers in a deep baritone.
"Cec! Hey Cec, I'm seeing weirdness on my end and I need to know if you - "
"How's your mom?"
"Oh, she's cool, I talked to the orderlies and - "
"They're keeping her meds straight?"
"No no, yeah, it's all good," I say - Cecil is so unfailingly polite you have to move him along sometimes - "listen, what are you seeing with Carebnb? Is your wristband working?"
"Think so."
"Green light?"
"Map of available host beds showing up?"
"How many hosts in range? My database wonked and I gotta know if the problem is local or if peer-to-peer transfers are broken too."
A guttural breath over the line. "English, Deb. Regular English please."
I grip the keyboard tray, slow myself down. "Could we possibly meet? I think I have to see the wristband myself to diagnose this. Sorry, I hate to inconvenience you."
"I'm homeless. Where else I gotta go."
"Right. How about our usual spot, say twenty minutes?"
Before he can respond, the call drops. Bzzzzzzzzzz.
I clench my jaw and redial.
I stand and waggle my phone outside my cube, I walk to the window, I glare at the Verizon logo and telepathically threaten to hack their transceivers to mush if they don't find me a signal.
I plunk back down. I'm contemplating flipping my Polarity of the Universe toggle to Evil when a tinny sound announces the presence of a new window on my monitor: Raven's livestream.
She made it up to the Blackquest kickoff meeting. Atta girl. I resize the window to span my entire screen and watch as the big conference room comes into focus.
The Company-All is underway. Carter Kotanchek stands at the podium in a dapper summer-weight suit. Raven's camera won't win any TechCrunch awards, but Carter's teeth still gleam from the middle of a plastic grin.
"Like y't'meet Jim Dawson," he says, introducing a stone-faced man in chunky glasses. "Jim here runs Elite Development, the company that will be facilitating Blackquest 40. Guys are doing phenomenal stuff in a new space called Extreme Readiness. Helping organizations build capability to complete projects of extreme complexity, requiring extreme teamwork, on extreme deadlines. So far they've been working with high-leverage government agencies, paramilitary, et cetera. We, ladies and gents, are fortunate enough to be corporate client number one."
Dawson, in a bland accent - Ohio? Indiana? - thanks Carter and says he's pleased to be here today. Excited for our shared journey.
Gag. So not participating.
As my focus returns to Carebnb, I groan at the ceiling. I need to test a wristband, but if I can't meet Cecil...     hmm. I have a few spares lying around, but none are initialized.
I'm figuring how long initialization would take - and how true a read I'd get from a wristband not in the field - when I hear something that stops me cold.
"...     campus quarantine and data blockade will remain in place for the duration of Blackquest 40. If you absolutely require outside contact, in case of emergency or vital family obligation, a protocol exists...    "
Wait, data blockade? I rewind Raven's feed and replay the last fifteen seconds. Elite Development, in the name of "improved focus and personal efficiency," is collecting every cellphone in the building and blocking all inbound-outbound internet traffic.
I feel slight queasiness at the authoritarianism of the whole setup, but mostly relief. Because now I get it. These jerks shut down T. They killed my call. Probably they're using some military-grade antenna to zap cellular signals, and a simple software block on the servers.
And that won't stop me.
Excerpt from Blackquest 40 by Jeff Bond.  Copyright © 2019 by Bond. Reproduced with permission from Bond. All rights reserved.


Jeff Bond is a Kansas native and graduate of Yale University. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Michigan, and belongs to the International Thriller Writers Association.

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