September 1, Before Midnight
Two weeks after his first case with the CID, now Detective Cowan Soto’s autocar stopped in a parking lot framed by leafy palm trees. He rubbed his dry eyes. A square brown building stood against a darkened sky, and floating above one suite was an augmented reality sign: Sonne’s Sanctuary. Bulbous letters shifted pink, blue, and red inside mist.
Cowan didn’t often frequent Kearny Mesa’s simMalls — he had a fast hardlink at home, and wouldn’t be caught dead outside his own firewalls — but many who didn’t have his security knowledge came here, drained their bank accounts, and, if the proprietor who’d contacted them was to be believed, somehow got themselves locked in the Sim.
Cowan down’d the business licenses for the complex. He counted four waifu parlors, two adventure parlors (which could mean anything from undersea treasure hunting to competitive archery atop dinosaurs) and two edutainment parlors. Both were empty.
The first three waifu parlors held between three and six desperate romantics noodling with artificial paramours. Sonne’s Sanctuary, by comparison, had thirty occupants — its maximum capacity — and a waiting list of horny clients twice as long. Sonne, whoever they were, was doing something right.
Jeb straightened and stretched after the two of them exited the autocar. He took up a good amount of space when he stretched. He glanced at Cowan. “Sleeping okay?”
“I’m sleeping fine.” Lying got easy once you did it enough. “I told you before, I’ve been busy.”
“Don’t be. Whatever you’re dealing with during your downtime, set it aside or manage your sleep cycles. If the murders are still bothering you, all you need—”
“I’m not redacting them.” Cowan followed Jeb toward the door of Sonne’s Sanctuary, windows tinted reflective to hide what went on inside. “It’s how I stay motivated.”
“Eventually, we’re going to see another murder. Another dead person. You plan to carry them around with you?”
“Not your problem, is it?”
“It is if the Office of Mental Health suspends you.” Jeb reached out with his gleaming prosthetic hand and opened the parlor door. “I don’t want to train another new guy.”
Getting suspended for persistent depression was the last thing Cowan was worried about now. He’d betrayed the love of his life and watched her erase her own brain, but he was still going. He kept going because he knew Ellen couldn’t.
“Let’s close this one out,” Cowan said, as he strode into a humming building filled with flickering TLEDs, “and grab dinner after. Crazy Noodles?”
Jeb stepped in behind him. “Nutrient bars taste exactly the same.”
“Texture’s all wrong.”
“You and your tex … and this would be our client.” Jeb clasped his hands behind his duster as the parlor’s owner stalked over, jaw clenched. She looked a bit unhappy.
Cowan archived the waifu parlor. Three lines of lozenge-shaped simBeds cut the room into five open corridors. The whole place smelled of carpet cleaner and human sweat, but considering what went on here most nights, the smell could be much worse.
“Finally!” The parlor’s owner was shorter than Cowan, with tan skin and a bright blonde pixie cut. Smeared mascara surrounded her eyes. “Where the fuck have you been?”
An AR panel flashed above the owner’s head with the words “Sonne Lambda, Owner”, and a picture of this woman with short pink hair. Her hair was blond now, so she must have changed it recently. As a CID detective, Cowan could access all Sonne’s info with a cursory request, but that felt like invading her privacy. He wondered if Jeb felt the same.
“We came as quickly as we could, ma’am.” Jeb raised his Helping Hand and projected the CID’s logo. “Now, what seems to be the trouble?”
“I called you four hours ago!” Sonne stepped into Jeb’s space and glared up at him. “Did I forget to stress the word hostages?”
Cowan frowned as he considered the implications. Had she really been waiting four hours for them to arrive? Dispatch had assigned them this case ten minutes ago.
“We’re here now, ma’am,” Jeb said. “Now, before we get started, are you certain—”
“I programmed these simBeds,” Sonne interrupted. “I pulled half of them apart and put them back together with my own hands, so if I say someone is holding my clients hostage, that’s what’s going on. The problem is with your PBAs, not my equipment.”
“Understood,” Jeb said. “What exactly is the problem?”
“None of my clients can disconnect because some troll’s locked the hardlink clamps on their PBAs. There’s an external signal running into my simBeds, one I can’t block, and that signal is keeping their hardlink clamps locked. So let’s fix it now, please.”
“We’ll certainly take a look,” Jeb said. “Why don’t you show us where your client is, Miss…?”
“Sonne.” She pronounced it like “sauna”, which made Cowan glad he hadn’t said her name out loud. “Don’t you have that on your headdesk?” She spun and stalked away.
“I never assume,” Jeb said.
As they followed her, Cowan wondered if some troll really could lock hardlink clamps. A hardlink was a small, grooved prong connecting a simBed to a PBA via superfast wire. Simulating a world as realistic as reality burned a lot of data, even by today’s standards, so most people used hardlinks for the best experience in detailed pleasureboxes.
After a person inserted the prong into their auxiliary port — an opening below their left ear — tiny clamps inside their PBA locked it in place. Sonne claimed those clamps were locked now by some outside signal, but that was impossible, because you couldn’t lock clamps without altering a PBA’s firmware. PBA firmware was scanned constantly by OneWorld’s servers, and any deviation from approved firmware booted you at once.
Connecting to the Sim wasn’t like it was in those cheesy old movies. People didn’t get stuck there because PBA designers weren’t morons. Cowan knew this because he’d designed PBAs, some of the best, for OneWorld corporation. He’d been good at that, and Ellen had been good too. It was during their late nights that they’d grown to—
“There’s nothing wrong with my hardware,” Sonne said, interrupting his latest melancholy. “You guys fucked up somewhere, and I’d like that fixed, please.”
“That’s certainly possible, ma’am.” Jeb knelt at the simBed she’d called out. “And please understand, I’m not double-checking your conclusions because I doubt your ability to diagnose what’s wrong. I’m double-checking because the CID requires it. It’s my job.”
After a moment, Sonne crossed her arms. “Fine.” She still looked annoyed, but less so.
“I’ll only be a moment.” Jeb opened the maintenance panel and poked inside, flashing the fingerlight on his Helping Hand around. “I apologize for the wait.”
Losing your hand sucked, but the gadgets on Jeb’s prosthetic sometimes made Cowan jealous. Still, he wasn’t going to get a perfectly fine body part replaced. A PBA made sense, and a prosthetic made sense if you lost a limb in an accident, like Jeb. But voluntarily amputating your own limbs to replace them with prosthetics felt wrong.
As Cowan waited, doing nothing useful, he scanned the room for traces of distress among the other clients. No one was twitching, and not one moan escaped their lips. No one seemed upset by their predicament. Had any of them even tried to disconnect?
Jeb nodded, still crouched. “The bed’s in debug mode, as you said, and I do detect an external signal. This man’s PBA isn’t responding to disconnect commands.” He settled, cross-legged, and rested his hands on his knees. “I’m going to try and trace the external signal through your bed. To do that, I need your wireless security key.”
Sonne’s scowl returned. “You want my credit feed too? How about my ghostlink?”
Cowan took the opportunity to tag in. “We’ll protect your privacy, and we’ll delete your codes when we’re done. Promise. You can even scan my PBA, afterward, to be sure.”
She looked him up and down, and then her lips did this derisive smirk thing that he kind of liked. “Isn’t one of you supposed to be the bad cop?”
“Ma’am,” Jeb said. “I must insist.”
“Yeah, I get it. I know my rights.” Sonne blinked over to her headdesk. “Or lack thereof.” She blinked again, returning to meatspace. “Please don’t delete anything in there.”
Jeb closed his eyes. “Cowan, I’m dropping our LAN in case the signal infects me. If I start acting strange or not responding, I’d like you to call for backup.”
“Will do,” Cowan said. “Be careful.”
“Always am.” Then Jeb’s eyelids twitched, once, as he went off to trace the signal to its source. Even if they didn’t believe this signal could lock hardlink clamps, going in using wireless was still safer. Neither of them was plugging any hardlink here into their PBA.
“Miss Sonne?” Cowan figured he might as well ask. “You believe the signal you detected is preventing your client’s hardlink clamps from disengaging. How could it do that?”
“You’re asking me?”
“Absolutely. You know your set up better than anyone. If you were going to break into your own system, how would you do it?”
Sonne frowned again, but thoughtfully. “I don’t know. Maybe another parlor drilled in and patched into my hardline. I guess that’s possible, if they did it while it wasn’t here.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
“Maybe they decided to hack me from inside my own firewalls, screw up my beds and get my parlor closed for investigation. Maybe they don’t like me taking all their clients.”
Cowan nodded. “It looks like you’re doing really well, so espionage seems plausible, but corporate PBAs are secured against external tampering. You can’t lock hardlinks.”
She raised one eyebrow. “So prove me wrong, detective.”
“Why don’t we ask someone what they’re seeing in there?” Cowan glanced at the motionless man in Sonne’s simBed. “Have you tried asking him what’s going on?”
“Wait.” She narrowed her eyes. “You’re serious?”
“Even inside simulations, people can still hear voices in the real world, respond, and even move their limbs.” She had to know that about PBAs. “That’s one of many safety mechanisms. Have you asked this man if he’s having trouble disconnecting?”
“Why, Detective Soto.” Sonne’s lips twisted into that smirk again. “You really don’t know how it works?”
He felt an unwelcome flush on his cheeks. “How what works?”
“Making tender love to your adoring waifu.” She stepped close enough that he smelled soap. “Are you telling me you’ve never tried it?”
“It’s not really my thing,” he said, flailing for the calm of his hunt-and-evade package. He’d down’d a waifu for simsex, once, but the conversation had been lousy and the sex forgettable. It also felt like betraying Ellen, though she’d been gone for half a year.
Sonne stepped past him and pointed at the balding man on the simBed. “My clients routinely load a full stem barrier while enjoying my pleasureboxes.”
Cowan blinked. “What?”
“As such, they can’t hear or say anything, and they certainly can’t move their limbs.”
“That’s insane.” Loading a full stem barrier wasn’t illegal, but it was incredibly stupid. The barrier completely disconnected your physical body from your PBA, cutting off connections to eyes, ears, and limbs. “Why would anyone disable their body?”
“Here’s a better question.” Sonne gave him a sidelong glance. “Ever had a wet dream?”
The words POSSIBLE HACK DETECTED popped up so fast Cowan stepped back, reflexively swiping at the AR panel. An alarm beeped in his head, but it wasn’t from his reaction to Sonne’s statement, nor the flash of insight when it clicked. Which was gross.
Jeb had just tried to re-establish a wireless connection, but Cowan’s own PBA had automatically rejected it. His personal firewalls, several levels above corporate, believed someone was attempting a hack. The Jeb trying to connect wasn’t a Jeb he trusted.
Cowan suppressed the alarm and knelt beside his partner. “You there, buddy?”
Jeb’s eyes stayed closed, twitching. His PBA kept hammering at Cowan’s, trying to re-establish their connection, and Cowan felt a chill when he realized Jeb’s brain was winning. The wireless link they shared was unusually vulnerable to internal attack.
Cowan blinked over to his headdesk and terminated all wireless connections, even his link to the Sim and the CID. He couldn’t risk getting hacked, not with Jeb already in trouble. Doing that left him offline, but in charge of his own brain.
“What is it?” Sonne asked, from somewhere close. “Did you trace the signal?”
Cowan flipped back to meatspace and found her kneeling on the other side of Jeb. “Um, my partner just got hacked.”
She stood up and stepped back. “You are fucking kidding me.”
“I think your external signal can affect PBAs even if they aren’t connected to a hardlink.”
“Fantastic,” Sonne said. “So … who do we call now?”
* * *
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