Episode 1: Puppeted (Part 2)



Once they were back on CA-14 in a CID autocar, Cowan down’d a travel estimate off the Sim and winced. Sheila Fisher had lived in Palmdale, a fenced off reservation for closed circuits, and it would take them at least forty-five minutes to ride there. That meant forty-five minutes stuck in this car, with Forrester, thinking about dead people.

Streetlights flashed in a steady rhythm, highlighting asphalt below and scrub-choked hills beside the highway. Cowan sat in the autocar’s dark leather seat, facing forward, and Detective Forrester sat in one of the forward seats, facing him. It was easier to talk that way, but Forrester wasn’t talking. He was in the Sim, eyes closed and twitching.

Something about discovering Sheila’s PBA gnawed on Cowan’s nerves, but nothing clicked until his earlier redaction expired. The connection he made between what he’d known then and what he knew now was a heady rush, a breakthrough, an addiction that was difficult to shake. The CID hadn’t failed to find Sheila’s PBA. They’d been testing him.

Cowan shot a query to Forrester’s PBA, one that would politely page his partner in the Sim. Forrester blinked as he returned to meatspace. “Something on your mind, kid?”

“The CID knew Sheila got puppeted before we arrived.”

Forrester’s eyes didn’t widen, and he didn’t suck in his breath, and he didn’t do anything people did when you surprised them. He just smiled. “I think I’m gonna’ like you, kid.”

“The ant swarm that processed the scene couldn’t have missed Sheila’s implant, yet the report clearly stated she was a closed circuit. No PBA. So why would they lie about it?”

“That’s an interesting question.”

“Do you always answer questions with evasion?”

“Have you ever interviewed a murder suspect?”

Cowan actually smiled back. “Fine.” Forrester was training him, after all. “Tell me if I’ve got this right. Crime scene reports aren’t publically available, but simNews can access them with a public interest request.”

“True,” Forrester said.

“So the Office of Mental Health didn’t want any stories circulating about people being puppeted into shooting rampages. They edited the report to exclude that information, and then they sent us to figure out what really happened. Our reports are classified.”

“I can’t speculate about decisions by the Office of Mental Health.”

“So is this the first time this happened? Or has the OMH suppressed other mass shootings?” Cowan knew the Office of Mental Health could censor any simNews story — that was their job, ensuring the public felt safe — but how far did their reach extend?

Forrester watched him as line after streetlamp line slid across his shiny head, like a marble in a code scanner. “Let’s just say the director wants us browsing every lead.”

“We’re partners, detective. Aren’t we? Is there some reason you can’t just tell me?”

Forrester shrugged. “That’s another question for you to mull over, isn’t it?”

This man was keeping things from him. Cowan wanted to be annoyed at Forrester, but was that really fair? Forrester might be a senior detective, but he didn’t make policy about who got to see classified information. He followed orders, and his orders probably didn’t include spilling all of OneWorld’s secrets to the new guy on probation.

“Fair enough.” Cowan nodded, and Forrester nodded back. They understood each other better now. “So, while we’re on the road, let’s check out our victim’s black market PBA.”

Cowan blinked over to his headdesk and up’d a simulation request. The autocar’s VI used his PBA to create an augmented reality simulacrum in the car between him and Detective Forrester, a PBA-generated image that floated in meatspace. Because Forrester’s PBA was networked with Cowan’s, Forrester saw that simulacrum too.

What remained of Sheila’s implant was still in her corpse, headed to the morgue. Before she left, the ant swarm that scanned her body archived everything that hadn’t been disintegrated. The magnified projection was a charred disc with thin wires trailing off one end, about the size of a soccer ball. Cowan looped his fingers around colored circles.

He spun the brain along yaw and roll, sized it up and down, but found no corporate tag and no serial number. “This isn’t any corporate model I recognize.” His old life involved lots of corporate PBAs. “Most smugglers buy knockoffs from the Hanyu Expanse or the Russian Freedom zone, so this is probably one of those. Maybe a Nerve Six.”

“That so?” Forrester sounded amused.

Cowan examined the ripped wires trailing off the PBA’s spiral stem, highlighting and isolating the broken ends with pokes of his index finger. Those wires had linked the tiny CPU in Sheila’s neck to the neural netting surrounding her augmented brain. That net covered a human brain and grew as the brain did, laced into everything.

“That’s black fiber.” Cowan was certain. “The Chinese don’t like it because it degrades inside biosystems, but the Russians love it because it’s super cheap.”

“You know a lot about PBAs,” Forrester said. “Did you work on them before you applied to the CID?”

“I did a lot of things before I applied to the CID.” Cowan could be evasive too.

Forrester smirked and sat back. He didn’t ask again.

“So assumptions are bad,” Cowan said. “I get that. I’ll posit a hypothesis instead.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“Sheila Fisher wanted to be simlinked, but she was still a minor. Her parents, both closed circuits, wouldn’t allow her to install a PBA, because they’re morally opposed or something. So she saved a few grand doing summer jobs, ordered a jailbroken brain over the Internet, and found a back alley grayDoc in Palmdale willing to install.”

“Why do you think her surgeon is in Palmdale?”

“Too much security and too many cameras at the corporate grayDocs, ever since those Natural Body nuts started picketing.” Not everyone was crazy about cyberization. “She’d be archived by somebody on her way in or out. So her grayDoc’s inside the fence.”

“You think this grayDoc is involved?”

Cowan thought about it. “No. You’d never send someone you just simlinked on a shooting rampage. There’s too much chance it’d get traced back to you.”

“So this surgeon’s installing the brains, but he’s not hacking them.”

“Right. Sheila got puppeted by someone else. The firewalls on black market brains are garbage, so she was fair game the moment she connected to the Sim.”

Only then did Cowan process what Detective Forrester had actually said, and he played it back on his headdesk, twice, just to be sure. Installing the brains. Cowan had been right about multiple shootings, and Forrester had just told him that. Accidentally.

As Cowan returned to meatspace, Forrester raised one bushy eyebrow. “Problem?”

“No problem,” Cowan said. A man like Detective Forrester wouldn’t let that information drop on accident. Forrester was skirting an order. Maybe he wasn’t so bad after all.

“Since we’ve got some time on the road,” Forrester said, “study for your exam. You’ll be expected to recall everything you learned this morning, without archives.”

This was a distraction. Cowan welcomed distractions. He blinked back over to his headdesk and organized this morning’s memories into thirty minute blocks. He sped over all he’d learned, paying particular attention to how the Cybercrimes Investigation Division stood in the corporate structure of OneWorld: the singular corporation that invented PBAs and, as of twenty years ago, ran most of the civilized world.

Cowan’s particular CID office handled San Diego and many of its surrounding counties, interfacing with county police as necessary. The CID’s director reported to someone at the North American Office of Mental Health, and they reported directly to OneWorld. It was a simple enough hierarchy, easy to memorize and easy to understand. Somewhere inside it was the woman he’d loved and betrayed one year ago.

“We are approaching Palmdale Reservation.” The car’s voice sounded British and female, but they always sounded British and female. “There are two vehicles ahead of us in the checkpoint queue. Estimated time to the Fisher residence is eight minutes.”

Cowan couldn’t think about Ellen now. He didn’t dare think about Ellen right now. Thinking about her would raise his heart rate, and that might make the CID think he wasn’t cut out for this job. He had a murder case to solve and a puppeteer to capture.

Solving Sheila Fisher’s case was the only way to get into the CID, and he needed to get into the CID. He needed to get Ellen back, even if she wasn’t Ellen anymore.

The reservation’s three-story border wall loomed ahead. Hill-mounted floodlights lit its concrete bulk. Their autocar cruised to a stop behind another vehicle idling inside the tunnel checkpoint. This reinforced gateway was a concrete half-pipe sticking out on both sides of the wall, with expensive sensors lining its interior. An actual uniformed human sat behind bulletproof glass inside the tunnel, a closed circuit doing a VI’s job.

Cowan recognized the model of the autocar ahead of them — a Hyundai Corvette — and a quick simsearch verified you could get that model with a steering wheel and pedals. He squinted at the corvette’s taillights. “Isn’t it a little late to be coming home?” It made no sense for a closed circuit to be out this late. “Don’t they care about the fine?”

Forrester snorted. “You give a bunch of stubborn holdouts a curfew and see how many violate it each night.”

Cowan shook his head. Corporate-produced PBAs had been free for over thirty years, approved for installation as early as age two, and while holdouts in the Middle East still refused to accept cyberization, the majority of the world had been online for decades.

Sheila Fisher’s parents were throwbacks who claimed exemption from the Lathan-Faulkner Act on religious grounds, like the Natural Body nuts who picketed augmentation clinics. Each year, closed circuits found less exemptions to claim. The only way society could be safe was when everyone in the world finally had a PBA.

Only then would all violence stop.

Implants like Cowan’s offered uninterrupted Sim access with all the benefits thereof, everything from a headdesk and emotional firewalls to weather warnings and street closings. PBAs allowed you to visit thousands of pleasureboxes recreating every world ever imagined. For those who could afford them, skills involving muscle memory or reflex training were a download away. How could anyone turn that down?

Sheila’s parents could limit themselves to meatspace — that was their right — but walling off their child? That was stupid and selfish. If Sheila’s parents had just simlinked her at age two, like every other newborn, she wouldn’t be lying in the lobby of Ventura Ventures missing most of her head.

“When we meet Sheila’s family,” Forrester said, “let me ask the questions. Dealing with folks who just lost their kid isn’t a training exercise.”

“Okay.” Cowan remembered the bodies. “I won’t tell them they’re fucking idiots.”

Forrester gripped Cowan’s shoulder hard enough to make him wince, and Forrester used his prosthetic hand to do it. A hand made of plastic and metal. The tunnel gate rattled upward. The man behind the glass motioned the corvette through.

“Cowan,” Forrester said, and that sounded far different from kid, “what we’re going to do next has nothing to do with corporate regulations or cyberization debates. It has nothing to do with your opinions or prejudices. It’s about talking to two parents who just lost their only child, and handling that conversation with compassion and respect.”

Cowan felt a rush of anger and a rush of shame, and those competed until he imagined what Ellen would say right now, the disapproving look he’d see in her eyes. Their autocar rolled into the tunnel as the gate rattled down.

“You’re right,” Cowan said, quietly. “I was out of line. I won’t bring it up again.”

Forrester sat back. “I believe you.” He blinked, eyes going distant as he entered the Sim.

As they rolled into Palmdale Reservation, Ellen refused to return to the mental vault where Cowan kept her sealed away. She needed him to find her. He’d loved her and betrayed her and she might not exist, not any longer, because of his mistakes.

Cowan knew how it felt to lose someone you loved. Someone irreplaceable. What he felt now was what Sheila’s parents would feel soon, a hole that opened up inside them, deep and raw and cold.

So he’d try and cut the Fishers a little slack.

* * *

Glitch Matrix:

  • ZircronSwift


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