Monday, August 20, Late Afternoon
Ventura Visions was an office like any other in San Diego, an orderly mess of tinted glass and polished metal and clean, inoffensive concrete. It overlooked the bay and the clear blue sky and the fluffy clouds on the horizon, and there was a detective standing in front of it. His name was Forrester.
He was here to show Cowan all the dead people.
Detective Forrester was dark-skinned, three meters tall, and 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 laws. He had a metal hand and a clean bald head, and the tag floating above his head – in augmented reality, of course — read “Forrester: CID”
Cowan didn’t want to go inside this building. He didn’t want to be here at all, honestly, but he’d met all the requirements and passed all the tests and signed a corporate contract saying he’d investigate cybercrimes for the Cybercrimes Investigation Division. So, here he was. Investigating.
“Follow me,” Forrester said. “Our killer’s inside.”
Cowan followed. He followed until he smacked into a wall of stench, a coppery, sewagey smell that only got worse as the lobby’s automated doors closed behind him. His eyes watered and his nostrils burned. The interior lights rose to reveal pristine white walls, a marble desk missing a large chunk, and the body. Her body.
Cowan stared at the corpse, at the seventeen-year-old woman who’d just committed the first mass shooting in twelve years. Sheila Fisher. She was going to be his first case.
“Look at her, kid,” 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 Personal Brain Assistant — a cybernetic implant at the base of his real brain, about the size of a quarter — to change this smell for him. A smell like drying laundry filled the room.
“We already know what killed her,” Cowan said, after drawing a breath of 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 Vs behind the desk, the plush couches along the lobby’s sides, and the clean white floor, freshly waxed. “What do you want to know?”
“How you think. Drop a thirty minute redaction on the scene report. I don’t want what you’ve already read influencing your conclusions, so you’re doing this blind.”
Cowan flipped to his headdesk and pulled appropriate functions from his template bin. He highlighted the memories he’d formed on the long ride over, in a low-slung autocar with one-way glass windows. Once the redaction was complete, Cowan blinked Execute.
A moment later, 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. “Done.”
“Examine the body,” Forrester said. “Tell me what you see. Remember, it’s not a person any longer. It’s evidence. Think of it as a gruesome work of art.
That was a terrible idea, but it gave Cowan a better one. What if he pretended he was in the Sim? That would make this just a splatterhouse simulation, a pleasurebox filled with violence, murder, and other horrors of the Internet age. Cowan knelt beside a simulated corpse 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, past a bright yellow tank top soaked in dried blood, to her head — or what was left of it. Sheila had dirty-blond hair — still attached to a bottom chunk of skull — but 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.” Forrester meant the stubborn holdouts who refused PBAs. “Comes from eating processed food. It’s the artificial flavoring.”
Cowan would never understand closed circuits. “Why do they eat that stuff?”
“They don’t have PBAs to make everything taste like bacon.”
Right. Only a closed circuit could walk in here and murder people. Clear circuits like Cowan and Detective Forrester — people with Personal Brain Assistants, networked to each other through the Sim — couldn’t hurt or kill another human being, ever.
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.” His mental health filters were still running as background processes. He culled them, even though he dreaded what he might see. The only reason his PBA would 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. It looked like bubbled noodles or something. “So … how do we do that?”
“You’ve archived the scene,” Forrester said, calmly enough that he’d probably firewalled his emotions. “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 headdesk and archived all pertinent data: the blood spatter, the bodies, the couch, and the fallen plant. He slid them into the simulation matrix and blinked Execute.
[-] He sees the lobby from a top-down, three fourths perspective, like in a classic game. The lobby doors open. A red female mannequin slides in on motionless legs, like a robovac.
The red mannequin’s arm rises, holding a black arrow. Yellow flashes from the arrow and a blue mannequin tips over on the couch. Victim Number One.
The red mannequin spins like a compass pin, yellow flashing from her arrow. Another blue mannequin behind the desk pops backward. Victim Number Two.
A blue mannequin by the desk slides off. Yellow flash. The blue mannequin drops and scrambles, flailing limbs like a dog on a freshly waxed floor. Some simulations abstract participant actions so as not to damage the psyche of the reviewer.
The red mannequin vacuums its way over, arm lowered and arrow pointed. Flash. Flash flash. The last blue mannequin goes still. Victim Number Three.
A green mannequin with a G above its head slides into the lobby, holding another black arrow. That arrow flashes as the red mannequin turns. She spins like a top at superspeed, then topples. [-]
Cowan blinked back into meatspace. The CID’s scripts had interpolated all that from what he’d archived in this lobby? Had the simulation used the placement of the bullet holes? The patterns of the blood spatter? How had it decided who the killer shot first?
“Kid?” Forrester asked. “What happened here?”
Cowan wasn’t a PBA scripter anymore. “If the reconstructed simulation is correct, this woman walked inside,” he pointed at Sheila, “and just started shooting.”
Cowan pointed at the woman on the couch. “She tagged her first. Then the receptionist. There was a janitor by the receptionist … they were talking, maybe … and he tried to run. She tagged him in the back, walked over here. Finished him off.”
“Then why is she dead?”
“One of the building’s synthcops responded to the situation, balanced possible solutions, and solved the problem.” Synthcops were robots running Virtual Intelligences — VIs — that allowed them to make decisions within defined parameters. They weren’t sentient, no matter what the conspiracy buffs on the darkSim claimed.
“You’ve established a chain of events,” Forrester said, without nodding, “but anyone can do that. What we do … what this job is about … is figuring out what’s missing.”
So this was like solving a puzzle. Cowan enjoyed puzzles. He flipped back to his headdesk and pulled up the end of the simulation, with the fallen mannequins, from his own perspective — his own eyes. He slid that simulation transparent and then overlaid it on the real world in augmented reality, matching mannequins to bodies.
Cowan saw it. The missing piece. “Sheila’s body is in the wrong place.”
“Is it?” Jeb waited.
“She’s in the middle of the lobby.” Cowan looked at where Sheila should be, then where she shouldn’t be. “The synthcop shot her over there, not here. Did someone move her?”
“What do you think, kid?”
Cowan walked closer, slowly, like in a dream. He stared down at the facsimile — no, she had been a woman, a human, and he would think of her that way, dammit – and traced the trail of bloody boot prints from Sheila Fisher’s body to the janitor lying by the desk.
Bits of Sheila’s head remained spread amidst dirt, chunks of flesh and brain and dirty-blond hair. Sheila’s boot prints walked away from the janitor, away from the plant.
“Jesus,” Cowan whispered. “She walked over here after she got shot.”
Jeb crossed his arms. “With her head missing?”
“She didn’t do this. Someone forced her to do this.”
“You think someone was blackmailing her?”
“No, not that kind of forcing.” God, this was a cybercrime. “Someone puppeted this woman in here, made her shoot these people. Uploaded her every move.”
“She was a closed circuit, kid. No PBA.”
“She walked off a goddamn headshot, detective. The brain in her skull wasn’t the brain running the show.”
Cowan shined his narrow flashlight down Sheila’s throat, the throat he could see into from above. He focused on the charred flesh at the base of her neck. Just a trace of metal glistened there, the edge of a quarter-sized circle. The edge of a black market PBA.
Cowan’s throat clamped up. He regretted every unkind thought as he mourned this woman, this hostage locked inside her own head by some sick fuck with an urge. Forced to watch, unable to act, as her puppeted body committed atrocities. Sheila Fisher.
Victim Number Four.
* * *
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