Episode 1: Puppeted (Part 5)



The OMH autocar cruised to a stop in the empty parking lot outside the Reservation Mall: a strip of stores that offered everything from tanning services to carpet cleaning. The AR tags floating above each shop showed Cowan that at least a third of these stores were vacant. Business on closed circuit reservations got worse every year.

A massage parlor bookended the horizontal strip of storefronts, with a doctor’s office next to that. Doctor Anton Barkov, MD. Installer of black market wetware.

Cowan stepped out when Forrester did, drew his stunner when Forrester did. The firearm felt heavier than in pleasureboxes, with real weight on the back end. Firing at Michael Villo had made his arms tingle, and Cowan could swear he felt the capacitor spinning in the grip.

He’d been shot at today. He could die just like those poor people in the Ventura Visions lobby, body blown open like rotting fruit, and that left his heart pounding in his ears. This wasn’t why he’d joined the CID. It was supposed to be all scripting and paperwork.

Cowan had been shot at plenty of times, of course — he played as much StrikeForceGo as anyone — but pleasureboxes didn’t simulate the agony of real bullet wounds. He knew getting shot felt way worse than a bee sting. He also knew you didn’t stand in a penalty box for thirty seconds after you died.

“Cowan,” Forrester said, “everyone is nervous the first time they confront a suspect. The install you received at orientation includes a hunt-and-evade package, as well as Krav Maga. I’m up’ing the unlock codes now.”

The codes arrived, encryption strings Cowan didn’t read so much as absorb. His vision flashed blue and he adjusted his arms, holding his stunner correctly. Everything clicked inside his head, and that was when he realized his new partner had not called him “kid”.

Cowan Soto knew what to do if a suspect ran. He knew what to do if a suspect charged or raised a weapon. He even knew how to take down a suspect with his bare hands, and that was more intoxicating than he’d expected. He felt like a legitimate badass.

“One procedural issue,” Forrester said. “If we run into another puppeted victim, don’t stun him unless he threatens your life. Run away if you have to.”

That sounded rather dangerous. “Why?”

Forrester’s response came over the wireless. “The CID has scripts that can backtrace wireless connections.”

Cowan blinked. “That’s not possible.”

“If we encounter another puppet and take him down without stunning him, I should be able to piggyback on his wireless. Find out who’s pulling his strings.”

Cowan felt a chill as he considered all he must not know about PBAs. He had worked on them for a living, but much of the functionality was black-boxed. “Phoenix was right.”


“A buddy from back in the day. He claimed VIs were sentient, and the OMH would put you on a watch list if you fucked an underage waifu. Paranoid kid.”

Forrester chuckled aloud. “You know what they say about paranoia.”

Cowan steadied his breathing. While he was surprised Forrester had shared this fact, perhaps his partner was starting to trust him. It meant he might be doing a good job.

“Ready?” Forrester asked.

“Sure.” Cowan’s nerves felt rock steady, firewalled by his hunt-and-evade package. “You want me on the back door?” It was a bit strange to say that and feel qualified to do so.

Forrester led him toward the doctor’s office, one with closed blinds. “The guilty ones usually bolt out the back. You comfortable taking Barkov down if things go that way?”

Cowan remembered Sheila’s body and her sobbing parents. “Yeah. I’m comfortable.”

Forrester thumped Cowan’s shoulder and pointed left, which Cowan now knew meant “split up”. He marveled at his own quiet footfalls as he walked to the mall’s end. He paused outside the alley between shop rows and contacted Forrester on the wireless.

“Any chance Barkov has cameras outside his place?”

“A good chance,” Forrester said, “and his building isn’t connected to the Sim, which means we can’t open or lock down the doors. Be ready for a runner.”

Cowan stalked up the alley, stunner down and finger resting on the trigger guard, not the trigger. His eyes slid between the brown Dumpster and the door of the massage parlor until he passed both. He marched to the exit from the doctor’s office.

The door was battered and blue, with an old-style keypad on the wall nearby. Closed circuits lived differently. Cowan pressed his back to the plaster wall just past the door, where he’d have a second to evaluate anyone bolting down the alley. “Ready here.”

“I’m patching you my eyes,” Forrester said.

The view from Detective Forrester’s left eye replaced the view from Cowan’s left eye. Cowan saw the front door of the doctor’s office, labeled with Barkov’s name and a large red cross. Forrester’s metal Helping Hand rapped on glass and shook hanging blinds.

No one answered. Forrester waited, rapped again. Nothing.

“Doctor Anton Barkov!” Forrester’s voice boomed from their autocar’s speakers. “This is the CID! We have a warrant to search your office! Step out with your hands raised!”

Nothing from Barkov. Nothing at the door. “He’s heading for you,” Forrester said.

Cowan didn’t hear anything, but he didn’t have Detective Forrester’s amplifiers. He should upgrade. The opportunity to access police wetware was a little intoxicating. The door handle rattled — was it locked? —  and then the door opened outward. A short white man with graying hair stumbled into the alley, wearing blue medical scrubs.

Cowan holstered his stunner and stepped into the man from behind. His loafer-clad foot calmly kicked Barkov’s feet out from under him, and then his steady hands caught the good doctor by both arms and dropped him to his knees in a submission hold. He wasn’t even sure how he’d just done that, only that he had done it. How cool was that?

Barkov craned his head toward Cowan. “Idiot!” He had a tiny remote in his hands.

Cowan’s world blanked in a burst of static. When his vision cleared, he was slumped against the wall and Barkov was stumbling down the alley, lugging a huge black box. Cowan’s ears rang and his vision swam, but that wasn’t what made his stomach turn.

It was the utter silence in his head. For the first time in a long time, Cowan’s PBA was shut down. His vision blurred as the world spun around him, as taste buds without guidance simulated a disgusting mishmash of food. Every last emotional firewall fell.

Cowan felt sick as he remembered Corporate Security smashing through the windows of their home off Mission Beach. His throat clamped up as he remembered Ellen screaming at him to run. He remembered her tackling a CorpSec trooper and going down in a tangle of armor and elbows, sacrificing her own freedom to save his.

It was only after CorpSec had Ellen pressed to the floor and Cowan still stood that Ellen realized what he’d done to them. Cowan had called CorpSec. OneWorld’s goons would lock them both in black cells from which they’d never escape, because he was an idiot.

It had taken her all of five seconds to forgive him.

Cowan pushed off the damp wall. All the alley lamps were out, and only the bright moon made Barkov’s running figure visible in his blurred vision. His headdesk wouldn’t display, but that wasn’t the worst of it. He couldn’t stop remembering Ellen’s sad smile.

Every skill he’d down’d evaporated from his brain. Ellen’s staring eyes were joined by images of Sheila Fisher, and the woman on the couch, and the blood-smeared lobby.

Cowan’s legs worked. His mouth worked. So he stumbled down the shadowed alley, pulled his stunner from its holster, and shouted “Stop! Or I’ll shoot!”

Barkov didn’t stop. Cowan did, raising his stunner in trembling hands. He pressed the trigger. His bolt charred the wall by Barkov as the bad doctor stumbled into the moonlit parking lot, hampered by that car-tire sized box. What the hell was in that thing?

Cowan ran after Barkov and holstered his stunner, except he missed his holster and the gun clattered on the pavement behind him. So what? He couldn’t aim it anyway. As Cowan chased Barkov into the empty parking lot, he realized the lights in the lot were out, and the surrounding buildings. The moon looked bigger than he remembered.

Was this a power outage? Some troll screwing with the power grid? It didn’t matter. Barkov was at a chain link fence now, one blocking off thick woods. Barkov tossed his heavy black suitcase over the fence, or tried. It bounced off the fence instead.

“Shit!” Barkov spun and pulled a glistening metal object from under his scrubs, a real illegal gun. An old-style revolver. He pointed it at Cowan with both hands.

Cowan stopped dead as his hands shot up. He trembled as he stared at the weapon and the doctor, blinking through stubborn wet. He might actually die tonight, and he wondered if that would be easier than grieving for Ellen without an emotional firewall.

“You think I go rewriting?” Barkov stepped toward Cowan with his weapon raised. “For that cyka? No deal! Step back, CID, or I blow a shot right through your skull!”

“Blow a shot” was a threat from someone who had yet to master English. Barkov’s PBA was probably down as well, including his translation routines, so he couldn’t be puppeted. That was the only positive Cowan could invent for a gun pointed at his head.

“I’m not going for him!” Barkov’s wild eyes twitched as his arms hung rigid as iron bars. “You see me? I’m serious!”

“You’re serious.” A numb calm filled Cowan. He was terrified, and he couldn’t be more terrified, and that unlocked everything he’d hidden away. Everything became so clear.

He could be shot, and killed, and never wake up, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing. The worst thing had been betraying Ellen and having her forgive him right after. Seeing her peaceful eyes go empty as she pointed two fingers at her own head.

“I get it.” Cowan kept his hands raised. “You’re not going down for him. That’s reasonable.” Where the hell was Detective Forrester? “Want to tell me who he is?”

Barkov blinked rapidly. “I want immunity! Protection! Understand? No rewriting!”

“Sure,” Cowan said. “Whatever you want.”

A tingle told him his PBA was spinning back up, but he’d have to rebuild his emotional firewalls and reinstall his hunt-and-evade package before it could help. He also couldn’t ping Forrester or the CID, which meant local wireless was down as well. Why?

“I want a new life,” Barkov said, “somewhere nice.” He shuddered, blinking, and Cowan wondered if his PBA had just spun back up as well. “Canada. Send me to Canada.”

“We can send you anywhere.” Cowan lowered his hands, just a tick, and Barkov didn’t shoot him. Progress. So how would Forrester handle this? The olive branch?

“We’ll get you protection,” Cowan said, nodding at Barkov. Nodding at the gun. “But we need facts first. Did you approach Galileo, or did he approach you?”

“You know of Galileo?” Barkov lowered his revolver, and then the shaking, gray-haired man actually smiled. “That makes this much easier. Galileo coerced me. He—”

Barkov’s eyes went so wide Cowan could see the red parts. Drool sputtered from his lips and wet stained his pants as one hand dropped from the revolver. His other kept hold of it in a white-knuckled grip, as his trembling arm bent at its elbow. As his arm turned.

The tip of the ancient weapon settled against Barkov’s temple. He was being puppeted. Doctor Barkov was being puppeted. How was that possible without local wireless?

Cowan dashed forward. “Stop!”

The bang deafened him.

* * *

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