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Onyx reviews: Zer0es by Chuck Wendig

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 09/20/2015

The title of Zer0es, with its saucy, au courant zero substituting for the letter "o," is a binary joke. One character claims that his hacking constitutes a victimless crime because money doesn't exist any more. It's all just ones and zeroes, he says. Another member of the group of misfits latches onto this, saying "We're all just ones and zeroes...Trick is figuring out which of us are ones and which of us are zeroes."

Appreciating a good, self-deprecating joke, the five members of the new pod dub themselves the Zeroes. Until recently, each one plied his or her own particular brand of hacking without any awareness of the existence of the others. They are brought together by circumstance: someone has decided they're needed for a top secret detail, so they are arrested in compromising situations. They're given a choice: a year in indentured servitude to a top secret agency doing something covert or many, many years in prison.

Most of the team members need convincing. A little arm twisting here, a little torture there. Not all of them, though. Some leap at the chance to do some white hat hacking—or is it black hat? No one is quite sure who's running the show. They're taken to super-secret government facility called the Hunting Lodge and assigned tasks to determine their aptitude for the real job ahead, to see if they can handle the pressure, the surroundings and the work, or if they'll wash out and get sent to prison.

Wendig spends quite a bit of time introducing the major players, devoting a chapter to the capture of each. They're a motley crew, mostly young (but not exclusively) loners from a variety of ethnic groups, social structures and orientations. Once assigned their individual performance tasks ("pen" or penetration tests of corporate websites) and isolated in controlled surroundings without any access to the internet or the outside world, they immediately attempt to hack the system and troll each other, with varying degrees of success. One of the subjects, by his own admission, knows very little about hacking computers; however, he does know how to hack people, a valuable skill. As a group, they are something like the Breakers in Algul Siento from Stephen King's Dark Tower series, toiling individually but not exactly sure what they are toiling against. At first, they don't particularly care—they're more interested in winning inter-pod rivalries.

The shadowy figure lurking over the hackers is something called Typhon, which seems to be an experiment in artificial intelligence. The Zeroes begin to find some common elements in the companies and websites they are being asked to penetrate, and one path leads them to the Iranian nuclear program, with deadly consequences. The big question is: are they trying to find flaws in Typhon as a proof of concept or because it poses a real and present danger? Or is there an even more nefarious plan at hand? Even their handlers aren't entirely sure of the answer to those questions.

Once all hell breaks loose—and it does when the lunatics take over the asylum after they achieve their unspoken goal and are deemed no longer useful and a threat to national security—the story opens up beyond the Hunting Lodge to the global stage. High-profile scientists have been disappearing. The socioeconomic framework of the US—and perhaps the entire world—begins to crumble. 

The Zeroes are blamed for it all, and more. One of their number is a conspiracy theorist who knows how to live off the radar, and his skills come into play when any number of agencies and individuals begin to target the group. At first they flee but, once cornered, they decide to come out fighting against the faceless entity that has wrought so much havoc.

It's a thrilling seat-of-the-pants ride that alternates between some sophisticated hacking and brutal hand-to-hand combat. The enemy has tentacles that quite literally reach into a dizzying array of people, and the Zeroes are forced to seek assistance from other covert organizations to pull off their mission. Fans of the recent TV series Mr. Robot will find similar themes at play.

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