Episode 1: Puppeted (Part 6)



Twelve minutes and forty-two seconds later, Cowan sat outside Doctor Barkov’s office on a sidewalk, alone. Darkened storefronts loomed over him. The parking lot’s overhead lights shined once more, spraying shadows across concrete.

He watched four synthcops — police models in blue and white — load a black bag into an autotruck. They were taking Barkov’s body to the morgue after he committed suicide on the reservation, the OMH story already archived at the Palmdale Sheriff’s department.

No clear circuits worked in Palmdale. No clear circuit wanted to be around people who could rape or murder the moment their unaugmented brains got out of control. Synthcops didn’t worry about their lives, didn’t feel pain or fear. They leapt onto the grips of the autotruck, hanging off like garbagemen as it rolled off with Barkov’s body.

Detective Forrester sat beside Cowan, wads of Kleenex balled up in his ears. He thumped Cowan’s back. “Nothing you could do, kid. He set off a goddamn EMP.”

That had been the contents of Barkov’s heavy box. EMPs were nukes for the prosthetic age, and real nukes hadn’t been a threat since the leaders of all nuclear powers installed PBAs. World peace in Detective Forrester’s lifetime, despite all the religious holdouts.

Cowan’s ears still rang from the gunshot, not the EMP. All Personal Brain Assistants had surge protection, but Forrester had been linked to their autocar when the EMP fired. Feedback spurting over that connection had knocked him out cold.

“Anything in the office?” Cowan asked.

“Junk data,” Forrester said. “Whatever cleaner Barkov installed, it cleaned.”

“So there’s nothing in there to tell us who he worked for?”

“Afraid not.”

“You really think it was the Russian mob?”

“What I think doesn’t matter. We need proof, and I didn’t find any in there.”

That was more frustrating than Cowan liked. “Why would the Russian mob be installing PBAs in closed circuits? Why would they be puppeting kids from Palmdale?”

“Not everyone plays by the rules we do here, Cowan.” There was Forrester, using his name again. “Loose circuits like Galileo will always be out there, breaking the rules and hurting people. That’s why we need the CID, to stop them.”

Forrester was right, of course. That was the problem with PBAs, the reason there were still murders, even if the numbers were down. People kept screwing with the firmware.

“Don’t lose any sleep over this asshole,” Forrester added. “Barkov installed illegal PBAs in innocent kids, and he was almost certainly connected to the Russian mob. One way or the other, this arrest was the end of him.”

Cowan knew what Forrester meant, thought it wasn’t any comfort. Rewriting. Setting off an EMP was a capital crime, and the OMH dealt with those by rewriting the culprit.

Modding changed a few behaviors, a few memories. It was safe and non-invasive. Rewriting, by comparison, made you into someone else. It erased all you’d been and created a new person, a loyal person. A person who was not you. That was what the Office of Mental Health had done to Ellen, his Ellen, though probably not anymore.

“Tell the CID about the killswitch,” Forrester said. “You’re the one who figured it out, so you should add it to our report.”

Cowan focused. “It’s a passive script, always on, triggered by an emotion or concept in the brain.” This would go into the casefile archive they delivered to Director Stanton.

“And snitching on Galileo triggered this killswitch?”

“That’s what I think happened, anyway. A good scripter with a grasp of PBA firmware could install a passive scan in Barkov’s implant. It’d monitor neurons associated with Galileo and betrayal, and when they fire together, so does the gun.”

It sounded so simple when Cowan explained it that way, like an experiment or an exercise. Making someone blow their own brains out wasn’t an exercise. He couldn’t stop seeing those gray bits flying out of the side of Barkov’s head.

“It gets easier,” Forrester said, because he was apparently a mind reader or something. “But it’ll never get easy. If this was an easy job, we’d let synthcops do it all.”

“I know.”

“So is this the job for you?”

Cowan hunched his shoulders. “What do you mean?” Had he screwed up that badly?

“I’ve been doing this job for twenty-nine years,” Forrester said, “and in that time, you get a feel for people. My feeling? You can do this. The question is if you want to do this.”

Cowan imagined Sheila Fisher’s body lying beside all those others, Michael Villo twitching as he convulsed from the stunner, and Doctor Barkov’s brains exploding from his head. What would it feel like to haul this job home every night? The blood? The tears? The bodies?

Then he imagined Ellen, still alive. He knew she was still alive — the OMH had no reason to kill her — and he was completely out of leads. Public searches found nothing. Private searches found nothing. Every favor he called in on the darkSim found nothing.

The Office of Mental Health’s database was the only thing left to search, and the only way into the OMH database was through the CID. If he got caught snooping they’d rewrite him, but he’d risk that for Ellen, even if she didn’t remember who she’d been before. He couldn’t let her spend her life in a padded cell. He couldn’t live with that.

“This job isn’t what I expected,” Cowan said. “I don’t think it’s even what I wanted.” He remembered Ellen’s smile, her hand squeezing his. “But I think it’s what I need to do.”

Jeb clapped him on the back. “Glad to hear it.”

After a moment of cricket-filled silence, Cowan spoke again. “Detective?”

“Jeb,” Forrester corrected. He smiled a tired smile. “You saved my ass twice tonight, but if you’re going to be my new partner, you’re going to use my first name.”

“Great,” Cowan said. “Jeb.” It fit this big brave man, somehow. “About this Galileo guy. You think we’ll get another shot at him?”

Detective Forrester — no, it was Jeb now, according to Cowan’s latest orders — frowned and stared up at the night sky. “Depends on if he wants to amend his statement.”

“His statement?

“Why do you suppose Galileo sent Villo at us? Knowing Villo might give him up?”

Cowan did, then, but it still didn’t make any sense. “You think he wanted to be caught?”

“Not caught. Credited. You don’t puppet people into shooting rampages for the lulz. Galileo wanted the CID, the OMH, and by extension, OneWorld, to know he did this.”


“He wants us to know he can do it again.”

* * *

September 1, Early Evening


“So disconnect him,” Sonne told the pale-faced man standing in front of her desk. “If his credit is dry, his connection is too.” Her six inch heels pinched her toes something fierce, but Sonne could deal with discomfort. She couldn’t deal with idiots.

“That’s just it, ma’am.” The hired help — his name was Andrew, but she didn’t really care right now — wrung his hands and grimaced. “I can’t.”

Sonne didn’t have time for this, not tonight. She had real plans, with real people, in the real world. That was why she had wriggled herself into this incredibly tight dress.


“The process is simple.” Sonne was going to have to do another pass on her training simulations, because obviously, they weren’t cutting it with the hired help. “Slide off the protective panel on the lower portion of the bed, by the power plug. Press Menu to bring up the terminal options, and—”

“Choose Disconnect, Confirm, Confirm. I’ve tried that, ma’am, three times.” Andrew was spending an awful lot of time interrupting her. “I showed it to Mick, and he said the simBed’s locked up. He sent me up here so you could authorize a link pull.”

Sonne stood fast enough to send her chair rolling backward. “Don’t pull client hardlinks.” She was going to need to talk to Mick, too. “Don’t ever pull a client hardlink.” She had a vision of throttling this stupid kid, but it wasn’t his fault. It was Mick’s influence. She would have throttled Mick, too, if she didn’t know he’d enjoy it.

Andrew wrung his hands. “But ma’am, Mick said—”

“Who owns this place, Andrew?” Sonne stalked around the table, got in his face, and pointed to the roof. “You see someone else’s name on that fucking sign?”

“I know that, ma’am! I know!” Andrew thumped against the door. “But the simBed—”

“Do you know what the CID would fine me if we gave someone a brain hemorrhage?” The fact that Sonne could make this kid piss himself while she was wearing a little black dress was a credit to her Italian heritage. “Pulling a hardlink without disengaging the client’s PBA clamps wouldn’t just mess up the link, it might fuck up their brain!”

No, she refused to let this ruin her night. Tonight was about good friends, good liquor, and at least one good fuck. Even in an age where you could scratch any itch somewhere in the Sim, Sonne craved connections that weren’t just data flowing through PBAs.

Andrew pressed back against the door, eyes darting like a cornered animal. As Sonne watched him, she knew she was doing this wrong. This wasn’t how you fixed a problem. She ran this business — it was hers — and tearing the skin off her befuddled employees wasn’t what you called management. She took a breath. She found her calm.

“So long as you’re working for me,” Sonne said, “you will not pull anyone’s hardlink. You will disconnect a delinquent customer through the terminal in the simBed, and if that terminal malfunctions, you will come get me.” Which he’d done. “So I’ll handle it.”

Sonne strode from her office, heels clicking on cheap tile. Andrew followed. The aging TLEDS in the hall flickered — was some troll screwing with the power grid again? — and Sonne wondered if the power surges in Kearny Mesa were screwing with her simBeds.

It had to be something like that. Sonne had bought half her beds from a parlor in Free Russia, trading away true love scripting she now wished she’d kept for her own waifus: interactive sex dolls that existed in her beautifully constructed pleasureboxes. Even with Sonne’s refurbishment skills and a factory reinstall, her simBeds remained dodgy.

She threw open the door to the most popular waifu parlor in Kearny Mesa to find Mick blocking the door. He was a tower of Austrian muscle mass with a neck as wide as a large cantaloupe and a brain the size of a small one. He kept simjunkies from the door.

“Which one is it?” Sonne shouted. Her clients were too deep in their waifus to care.

Mick pointed. He didn’t speak. He rarely bothered using his mouth, which was one of many reasons he didn’t get many dates.

Sonne strode toward the problematic simBed. Her waifu parlor was the size of a laundromat, with beige walls and ratty carpet. Thirty lozenge-shaped simBeds filled the space in neat rows. She recognized the thin, balding client as she approached.

Carl Jennings had maxed his pension weeks ago. He’d probably stolen some poor sap’s credit account off the darkSim, and now the sap had cut him off. She’d be on the hook for reversed charges, but she could afford that. She couldn’t afford a lawsuit.

Sonne turned sideways before kneeling down — no point in giving Andrew a show — and punched in the disconnect sequence. “Error Code 0041” flashed on the terminal’s tiny screen. She grimaced and entered the code again. 0041 flashed again. Jennings’ PBA was actually refusing the disconnect request, and that wasn’t Andrew’s fault.

Sonne stood, sighed, and rubbed her temples. She was going to miss dinner. She was going to miss dancing. She was going to miss her really good fuck. She blinked into the Sim and alerted the CID. Her whole body tingled as a return ping confirmed her call.

“Ma’am?” Andrew asked. “Did you just call the cops?”

“You don’t miss much, do you Andrew?” She wondered if he would miss the sarcasm.

Why did you call the cops?”

Sonne stared out her darkened front windows, at the disturbingly empty night outside, and hated her life for a moment. “Apparently, we’ve got a hostage situation.”

* * *

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