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Read an Excerpt From Mind Burn


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Read an Excerpt From Mind Burn

When your new employer tasks you with investigating the first successful mass shooting in twelve years, it’s understandable to be nervous.

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Published on November 2, 2023

When your new employer tasks you with investigating the first successful mass shooting in twelve years, it’s understandable to be nervous.

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Mind Burn, a breakneck technothriller full of action, mystery and cybernetic future-tech by Rhett C. Bruno and T.E. Bakutis—out from Blackstone Publishing on November 14th.

When your new employer tasks you with investigating the first successful mass shooting in twelve years, it’s understandable to be nervous.

Fortunately, detective-in-training Cowan Soto has a Personal Brain Assistant—a cybernetic implant—that allows him to firewall pesky emotions like worry and guilt and redact memories of bullet-riddled corpses.

Unfortunately, Cowan soon learns it was his suspect’s PBA which allowed a ruthless hacker to puppet her into a shooting rampage.

Aided by a veteran investigator, a brilliant CFO, a nihilistic cybercriminal, and the best waifu madam in Kearny Mesa, Cowan must wade through a gauntlet of homicidal professional gamers, the Russian mafia, and the board of OneWorld to bring this ruthless puppetmaster to justice.

All the while, the brand-new detective is concealing the fact that he’s the exact type of criminal OneWorld has hired him to arrest: a loose circuit—a human unbound by behavioral modification protocols.







Ventura Visions was an office like any other in San Diego, an orderly mess of tinted glass, polished metal, and stark concrete.

Cowan Soto’s first partner waited outside, smoking a texture cigarette as if there wasn’t a rush at all. Cowan supposed there wasn’t. Their clients were already dead.

Standing over two meters tall, Detective Forrester was built like a linebacker. He wore dark slacks, a sterile blue blazer, and a long graphene trench coat that wasn’t standard, but didn’t break any regulations. He had a prosthetic hand and a clean bald head that glistened in the afternoon light.

Cowan looked to Forrester, then back at the office. He didn’t want to go inside. He didn’t want to be here at all, honestly, but he’d met all the requirements, passed all the tests, and signed a corporate contract saying he’d investigate cybercrimes for the Cybercrimes Investigation Division, or CID.

So, here he was. A trainee investigating his first crime.

“Follow me,” Forrester said. “Our killer’s inside.”

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Mind Burn
Mind Burn

Mind Burn

Cowan followed until he smacked into a wall of stench. The coppery, sewagey smell only got worse as the lobby’s automated doors closed behind him, cloaking the office interior in near dusk. His eyes watered and his nostrils burned. The interior lights rose to revealed pristine white walls, a marble desk missing a large chunk, and the body. Her body.

Cowan stared at the corpse, a seventeen-year-old woman who’d just committed the first mass shooting in twelve years. Someone who’d had a whole life ahead of them and didn’t, now.

Sheila Fisher. His first case.

“Look at her, kid,” Detective Forrester said. “Tell me how she died.”

Cowan was twenty-six, about as far from a kid as you could get by anyone’s standards, but he let the implication slide because Forrester was much older: fifty-two, according to his file. What bothered Cowan more was that Forrester had tagged this atrocity as a cybercrime. How could this be a cybercrime? There was way too much blood.

Cowan couldn’t breathe. He needed to breathe. He ordered his PBA (Personal Brain Assistant)—a cybernetic implant at the base of his real brain— to alter his senses and make the smell more tolerable. When he finished, the air smelled of drying laundry instead of corpse stink.

“We already know what killed her,” Cowan said, after drawing a breath of now-fragrant air. “Chopgun blast to the head.” Even with his senses altered by his PBA, the sewage smell lingered in his mind. He’d have to redact it later, when he wasn’t on the job.

“I don’t need my partner regurgitating the scene report,” Forrester said. “I need you thinking for yourself, drawing your own conclusions.”

“I can do that.” Cowan took in the nested letter Vs behind the desk—the Ventura Visions logo—as well as the plush couches along the lobby’s sides and the white, freshly waxed floor. “What do you want to know?”

“How you think. First, I want you to forget the last thirty minutes. I don’t want what you read in the scene report to influence your conclusions, so you’re doing this blind.”

Cowan flipped to his head desk—a floating screen he could see when he closed his eyes and focused on the virtual world created by his PBA—and reviewed his memory timeline for the day. He selected the thirty-minute stretch leading to the present, a long ride in a low-slung autocar, and placed a temporary block on that period of time. Finally, he saved his changes.

When Cowan opened his eyes again, he no longer remembered what he’d read on the drive over. He didn’t even remember the ride. He simply knew he was standing at a crime scene, with Detective Forrester, staring at a killer named Sheila Fisher.

“What now?” he asked. He knew he was supposed to ask for instructions now, though he didn’t quite remember why.

“Examine the body on the floor of this building and tell me what you think happened here,” Forrester instructed. “This is a test, but in the real world, with real consequences. If it helps you focus, remember that body isn’t a person any longer. It’s evidence. Just a gruesome work of art.”

That was a terrible idea, but it gave Cowan a better one. Instead of acknowledging that he was still in meatspace—what everyone now called the real world—what if he pretended he was in the Sim, the online virtual world he and 90% of the world’s population escaped into every day? That would make this just a splatterhouse simulation, a pleasurebox filled with violence, murder, and other horrors of the Internet age. Cowan knelt beside Sheila and examined her feet, first. Her feet hadn’t been blown in half.

Sheila’s boots were military style, brown leather laced with barbed wire. What kind of lunatic used barbed wire to lace their boots? She wore grimy cargo pants, ragged hems chewed up by the years.

Cowan forced his eyes upward, past her worn leather belt and a bright yellow tank top soaked in dried blood, to her head—or what was left of it. Cowan couldn’t tell if she’d had a pretty face, or the color of her eyes, because most of her head was missing. Whatever had killed her had sheared off everything above her jawbone. He could see right down her throat.

“Some kind of heavy weapon took her out,” Cowan said, when he knew his voice still worked. “The separation is really clean, like a blade cut through or something, which suggests a chopgun round.” Sheila’s lower jaw still had all its teeth. “Either her nutrition was poor, or she drank too much black coffee. Her teeth are stained yellow.”

“Staining is common with closed circuits.” Detective Forrester meant the stubborn holdouts who refused PBAs. “Comes from eating processed food. It’s the artificial flavoring.”

Cowan would never understand people who refused to install PBAs in their heads. Why refuse the wonders of modern technology? Why wade in the grime and the ugliness when life could be so much easier?

“Why do they eat that stuff?” he asked.

“They don’t have PBAs to make everything taste like bacon.” Right. Only someone without a PBA inside their head could walk in here and murder people. People like Cowan and Detective Forrester—people with PBAs, networked to each other through the Sim—couldn’t hurt or kill another human being, ever. If a person’s PBA ever detected hostile intent directed at another person, the PBA prevented its user from hurting that person, by force if necessary.

Cowan examined the red couches again. Three holes in the back of one sprouted tufts of yellow foam. In the corner, a toppled potted plant drowned in its own dirt.

“Why did she pick this building?” Cowan asked. “Was this personal? Where’s the people she killed?”

“Her victims are all around you, kid,” Forrester said, quietly. “Did you disable your mental health filters?”

“Shit.” Cowan felt a hot blush. “Sorry.”

He culled his mental health filters—programs in his PBA that seamlessly replaced things he saw in the real world with photo-realistic models—even though he dreaded what he might see. The only reason his PBA would use augmented reality to alter what he saw was if it had determined seeing unaugmented reality might harm his mental health.

And it did. Oh, it did. Three more savaged corpses appeared, innocents who probably had families crying over them at home. Blood spatter painted the not-so-white walls in a gruesome mosaic, and the floor? There was blood all over it, and gray bits, and worse.

A dead woman in a black suit slumped on the red couch. Another woman in a crimson skirt and blouse lay crumpled behind the desk. Next to the desk, sprawled out face down on top of the toppled plant, a janitor leaked his brains into the dirt. Cowan took in slack jaws, sightless eyes, gaping wounds and gray matter. Just more works of art.

“Three victims.” Cowan trembled as he spoke and didn’t stand up, couldn’t stand up, because he didn’t trust his legs. “Our killer got three people before someone got her.”

“Seems like it,” Forrester said.

“How could this happen? Massacres like this don’t happen anymore.”

“That’s why we’re here. To find out what happened.”

“Right.” Cowan could see inside that janitor’s skull, see red blood smeared on ripples of gray brain matter. “So… how do we do that?”

“You’ve archived the scene,” Forrester said, calmly enough that he’d probably firewalled his emotions, allowing him to remain calm. “Run a simulation using the scripts the CID installed this morning.”

Cowan focused on scripting. He could deal with scripting. He blinked over to his head desk and selected every important detail in the lobby: the blood spatter, the bodies, the couch, and the fallen plant. He dumped those details into the CID’s simulation program and activated it.


Excerpted from Mind Burn, copyright © 2023 by Rhett C. Bruno and T.E. Bakutis.

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Rhett C. Bruno


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T.E. Bakutis


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