Episode 1: Puppeted (Part 4)



Jeb spun and slammed his hands against the doorframe, grunting as bullets fractured violently against his back. His graphene duster kept him whole, and the grip of his Helping Hand kept him upright. Diving aside would leave Cowan in the line of fire. Once the stinging impacts ended, his amplifiers detected the click of a magazine dropping.

He had perhaps four seconds to get Cowan back inside, find the Fishers, get them—

Cowan leaned around Jeb and fired his stunner. The stench of ozone assaulted Jeb’s nostrils as his world became a dull, persistent ringing, even with the noise protection provided by his ear implants. Had Cowan hit anything? Had he hit the shooter?

“He’s down!” Cowan shouted, or maybe shouted. It was more lip-reading than anything. Jeb turned and found the shooter flat on his back by the autocar. Well damn.

Someone had taught Cowan Soto how to shoot.

“Hey!” Cowan’s stunner shook in his hands. “Are you hurt?” He was using wireless, which was smart, actually. Jeb had forgotten how stupidly loud real gunshots could be.

“I’m fine,” Jeb said, as he focused on breathing. His PBA dulled pain when necessary, but he still felt like a vengeful hockey team had slapshotted a dozen pucks into his back. “Secure the shooter.”

“How do I secure a shooter?” Cowan sounded a bit panicked.

“Walk over to him. Keep an eye on him. If he moves, stun him again.”

“Oh.” Cowan strode off. “I can do that.”

Sarisa joined him, stunner drawn, as he sat back against the door frame. “Same puppeteer as Sheila?” Neither of them wanted the Fishers to overhear that.

“Might be.”

The ringing faded into a muted but audible night as Sarisa holstered her stunner and squeezed his shoulder. “Thank you for not dying.”

“Counselor?” A trembling voice filled the night. “What was all that?”

Sarisa slid her stunner into her jacket and turned to Pamela Fisher. “An unrelated case, and nothing you need to worry about, ma’am. Please, let’s head back inside.” As she ushered Pamela back to her parlor, she pinged Jeb again. “Any more coming?”

“If our puppetmaster had more, he’d have sent them.” Jeb hoped that was true. “You called for backup?” Sarisa had procedures too.

“They’re twenty minutes out, but I can handle things until they get here. Get that shooter out of their sight.”

“Got it.”

“And see a doctor, please.”

“Yes dear.”

“Love to David.”

Thoughts of David Forrester helped Jeb breathe. He couldn’t imagine life without the man he loved, even if David was going to give an earful about getting shot. He wasn’t supposed to get shot. That’s why they sent synthcops on all the dangerous calls.

Jeb stumbled over to Cowan and archived the shooter. He was a Latino kid with a spider tattooed on his cheek, piercings in his nose, and another in his lip. He wore a ratty black hoodie and long cargo pants. Barbed wire laced his muddy boots, just like Sheila Fisher.

The CID sent the shooter’s name a few seconds later. This kid was Michael Villo, sixteen years old and a closed circuit, though obviously not any longer. Michael’s father was dead, and his mother worked two jobs.

His name was in Pamela Fisher’s notebook.

“Be advised,” Jeb told the CID. “Other puppeted civilians might be in play.” He up’d the CID the complete list of Sheila’s friends. Other officers would locate them at once, take them in for examination, and stop anyone else from getting shot. He hoped.

Jeb crouched and took Villo’s feet. “Holster your stunner, kid.”

Cowan holstered his stunner and waited for orders. He was focused. Good.

“Take a good grip on both his hands,” Jeb said. “Lift.”

They muscled Villo into the autocar, where Jeb strapped him in and applied a blocker to his simport. That cut Villo off from all wireless connections, which meant he couldn’t be puppeted again. Small comfort, since the OMH claimed puppeting was impossible.

“I wasn’t sure I’d hit him,” Cowan said. “I mean, I’ve played a lot of StrikeForceGo, but still … it’s different, in meatspace.”

“It is,” Jeb said. “But you did good.” Cowan had, actually, and Jeb felt a bit guilty for not telling him that earlier. “You saved our asses.”

The kid practically blushed, grinning like Jeb had asked him out on a date. “Thanks.”

That was not the reaction Jeb expected, and it made him consider Cowan’s origins again. How had Cowan ended up working for the CID? Had he been a troll caught in a corporate sweep, one talented enough for the ultimatum? Work for us or get rewritten?

Yet Cowan was practically the anti-troll. He apologized when he screwed up, and he seemed to really care about people. In Jeb’s experience, trolls were borderline sociopaths who took what they wanted with no regard for those they hurt. That profile didn’t fit Cowan Soto.

“Cowan,” Jeb said, “this is how you interrogate a suspect.” He activated his PBA’s facial analyzer, creating a AR panel by Villo, and glanced at the autocar’s ceiling. “Wake him.”

The autocar dispensed a small puff of fog that descended from the ceiling like a deflated balloon, losing altitude. Villo recoiled as the cloud reached his nostrils. He opened his eyes and thrashed in his restraints, heart rate spiking. “The fuck?”

Jeb gripped Villo’s shoulder, gently but firmly, and gave it one comforting squeeze. “Easy now, Michael. You’re safe.” He couldn’t imagine how terrifying it must be to lose control of your own body. “Do you remember what just happened?”

“I shot you!” True (98%) Villo trembled in his seat. “Why would I shoot you?”

“We believe someone hacked your illegal PBA.” Jeb kept his voice calm, his tone even. “What else do you remember? When did you first get puppeted?”

“Shit.” Villo’s trembling eased. “I want a lawyer. Right now.” True (95%)

“So we get him a lawyer?” Cowan asked.

His request automatically pinged the California court system,” Jeb said, “but whatever closed circuit is working Palmdale these days won’t be notified until tomorrow morning.  There’s no reason we can’t ask him a few more questions.”

“Ah,” Cowan said.

With other puppeted civilians out there, possibly ready to commit more mass shootings, there was too much at stake to stop this interrogation here. Jeb had to keep going. He had to stop another young girl or a building full of people from getting shot to death.

“We’ll get you a lawyer,” Jeb said, “but right now, we need your help. We think your friends might be in danger.”

“So.” Villo’s vitals were already settling, which suggested he’d been interrogated before.

“Let’s start with an easy one,” Jeb said. “Who installed your PBA?”

Villo batted at Jeb’s hand. “Lawyer.”

“Where did you get the handgun?” Jeb asked. “Did someone give it to you?”

Villo shrugged.

“Was anyone else with you when the puppeting started? Do you know of anyone else who might be armed, or on their way to cause trouble?”

Villo actually chuckled. “I’m not telling you shit, baldy. You don’t have jurisdiction on the reservations, and your little metal brains mean you can’t even twist my arm.” True (95%) He grabbed his own crotch and pumped. “Limp dick.”

“Enough bullshit!” Jeb bellowed, and that made both Villo and Cowan jump. “Sheila Fisher was puppeted, just like you, and now her head’s missing! People are dead!”

Villo’s eyes shot wide. “What?” His vitals spiked.

“Someone walked her into Ventura Visions, Michael. Someone made her shoot three people, and then a synthcop pulped her head. Was that you?”

“I didn’t do shit!” Villo shouted. False (83%).

Jeb visibly bared his teeth, for intimidation factor. Villo knew something about what had happened to Sheila, even if he hadn’t puppeted her himself. “You’re lying.”

“Lawyer!” Villo shouted. “I want a lawyer, now!” True (98%)

Jeb glanced at Cowan. “In about ten seconds, my partner will carve open the simport in your shiny new PBA. We’ll watch every memory since you installed. What’ll we find?”

“Um, that’s not actually legal,” Cowan said, over the wireless. “Only the Office of Mental Health is allowed to examine suspect archives.”

“We know that,” Jeb said. “Villo might not.” He smiled at Villo. “What about it?”

Villo glared. He didn’t speak. Jeb turned to Cowan and pointed. “Cut his brain open.”

“Wait!” Villo’s hands shot up. “I didn’t puppet her!” True (75%) “All I did was sell her ghostlink!” True (98%)

Unexpected anger flooded Jeb at Villo’s horrifying admission, matched quickly by PBA-induced nausea. “You ruthless little shit. You duped her?” Dots danced before his eyes.

Genuine anger at another human was a primal emotion, a red flag to a PBA. If Jeb didn’t calm his anger soon, this nausea would grow until it became unbearable. It would get so bad Jeb couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, and eventually, wouldn’t even be able to see.

That was how a Personal Brain Assistant kept one person from hurting another.

Yet what Villo had just admitted was the worst kind of cybercrime. A person’s ghostlink — their unique identifier — was encrypted on corporate servers, set to read-only when a grayDoc installed their PBA. One of the most straightforward ways to access someone’s PBA was to physically plug a line into their auxiliary port, then use a banned script to dupe their ghostlink. Doing so required your target be drugged or very, very drunk.

The Sim detected and deleting duping attempts in corporate PBAs, but unregistered PBAs didn’t have such protection. Once a troll had the target’s ghostlink, they could make its owner do things. That was one of many reasons jailbroken PBAs were illegal.

“She was a poser, man, not one of us!” True (42%) “I figured he’d make her shave her head, get real tattoos instead of spray-ons. Pierce her nipples or some shit!” True (82%)

“You thought Sheila Fisher didn’t deserve to run with you,” Jeb said, creeping across the car as those dots danced, “so you sold her to some random on the darkSim. Did you want her raped, Michael? Dead?” His vision swam as his PBA ratcheted up its warnings.

“I didn’t know he’d do that!” True (42%) “He’d never done anything like that!” True (62%)

“Who?” Jeb felt his gorge rising, and reminded himself he didn’t actually plan to do anything to Villo. “Who had never done anything like that?” He raised his metal fist.

“Galileo!” Villo shouted. True (98%)

Jeb sat back covered in sweat, breathing hard, and let the nausea and anger drain away. He focused on the grief of Sheila Fisher’s parents, the overwhelming love he felt for his husband, and any emotion but rage at this thoughtless, worthless little punk.

“Shit,” Villo whispered, slumping in his chair. “He’s gonna’ kill me.” True (95%)

“How do you contact Galileo?” Jeb asked. The nausea was still there, but fading. His desire to knock out this kid’s teeth had served its purpose, and he’d never actually do it.

“Galileo contacts us,” Villo whispered. “I don’t know where he lives.” True (97%)

So Galileo was their puppetmaster. With a username like that, they certainly had delusions of grandeur. After the real Galileo proposed the theory of heliocentrism — that the Earth revolved around the Sun — the Catholic church accused him of heresy. They arrested Galileo for blasphemy and kept him under house arrest until he died.

Galileo was the handle of someone who felt the system persecuted them, someone who saw themselves as the smartest person in a room of people standing in their way. That was the type of person who would puppet an innocent girl into a shooting rampage.

“You’ve got one chance to save yourself,” Jeb said. “A name. Who installed your PBA?”

Villo trembled. “Promise you’ll protect me.”

“You have my word, Michael. We’ll keep you safe.” The olive branch Villo needed. “Now. Who installed your PBA?”

Villo slumped. “Doctor Barkov. He’s in the Res Mall.” True (98%)

“Damn,” Cowan said. “You’re good at this.”

Jeb deactivated his facial analyzer and breathed deep. He couldn’t feel sympathy for Villo — selling Sheila’s ghostlink was goddamn reprehensible — but Villo had a family too. If Villo’s mother was working two jobs, she was doing it to give her child a better life, and maybe their lives would be better, now. After the Office of Mental Health adjusted Villo’s attitude, he’d be better person. He’d still be Villo, just … not an asshole.

“Open,” Jeb said. Hot air rushed into the car as the doors lifted. “Cowan, out.”

“Hey!” Villo struggled as they exited the autocar. “Where are you going? I need—”

The doors sealed Villo inside. It cruised off without a sound.

“So.” Cowan watched taillights recede. “He just takes our ride?”

“The VI will deliver him to our cybercriminal processing center in San Diego,” Jeb said. “They’ll make him better there.”

“Okay,” Cowan said.

“Getting arrested is better than getting dead.”

“Right.” Cowan stared after the autocar.

Jeb glanced at his new partner. “You morally opposed to behavior modification?”

After a moment, Cowan shrugged. “I just wonder what it’s like afterward. Getting your compulsions rearranged seems like it’d cause some issues.”

Behavior modification — modding — was one of the many benefits of the world of PBAs. grayDocs working for the Office of Mental Health could suppress inclinations toward bad behaviors and implant inclinations toward good ones. If you liked selling the ghostlinks of innocent women on the darkSim, for example, you’d stop liking that.

While Jeb could have analyzed Cowan for discomfort, he’d never do that. As Cowan’s superior, he had that right, but what was allowed and what was decent sometimes didn’t match up in OneWorld corporation. More times than Jeb liked, if he was being honest.

“Modding is better than prison.” Jeb flipped over to his headdesk and ordered a warrant to search Barkov’s office. “Trust me, kid.” Jeb had heard the tales of tiny concrete cells, poor people held for years without bail, and prison rape. “I’ve watched the archives from the days when we put people in concrete boxes, and it isn’t anywhere you’d want to be.”

Jeb’s warrant cleared in ten seconds. He blinked into meatspace to find Sarisa’s autocar waiting, the letters OMH glittered on its side. He pinged her. “Borrow your wheels?”

“Fine.” Sarisa must be deep into it with the Fishers.

Villo’s thoughtless actions had destroyed the Fisher family, but Sarisa would help them however she could. She really cared. Her autocar opened, and Jeb and Cowan got inside.

“We’re going to the doctor’s office?” Cowan asked. “Will Barkov even be there this late at night?”

“He’s there, kid.” Jeb up’d the car’s VI their new destination, then sat back as their borrowed autocar cruised off. “When else would he install black market PBAs?”

* * *

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