Cowan focused. He’d been doing this for two weeks. He’d been a detective for two weeks. But Jeb had always been there, guiding and helping. Jeb couldn’t guide him now.
“Call the CID again,” Cowan said. “We need backup, and I can’t call them. There’s a chance Jeb might infect me.”
“Sure, okay.” Sonne’s eyes went distant, then focused. “Or not.”
“What’s the problem?” There was obviously a problem.
“That external signal I mentioned? It also seems to be blocking wireless calls.”
“But you called us, didn’t you?”
“Sure did.” Sonne tapped her chin. “That means whoever’s blocking me only blocked calls after I called you. Which means you’ve just walked into a trap.”
“Oh.” Cowan felt an irrational urge to draw his stunner.
“Not mine, of course,” Sonne said, frowned as if she’d noticed his expression. “I wouldn’t be that stupid. But if whoever locked down my customers knew I’d call the CID, then waited for your partner to access my network over his wireless—”
She was right. Cowan knew she was right, yet what he didn’t know was how Jeb had been hacked. “Do you have any non-standard wireless in this building?”
“Nothing. Everything is OneWorld legal and honestly, kind of cheap.” Sonne peered at him. “What about you? Feeling particularly hacked at the moment?”
“No, I cut my wireless. All of it.”
“Clever boy.” She smiled again, which was odd, given the situation. “I don’t need some puppet shooting me with his stunner.” Sonne waved over a white-skinned man as tall as Jeb and even more muscular. “Mick! Grab the tie downs!”
“Tie downs?” The only way Cowan could connect to anything, now, was through a hardlink plugged into the auxiliary port above his left ear. “Why do you have tie downs?”
“Some of the clientele prefer them to the Sim version. Being tied up in meatspace adds to the realism.”
“Being tied…” Cowan figured it out. “Oh.” More gross.
Mick, who was apparently Sonne’s bouncer or something, went into the back and returned with two sets of adjustable cuffs, linked by a black cable. Each cuff was lined with fur, or what looked like fur. Cowan wasn’t going to check.
Sonne pointed at Jeb. “Cuff him. Hands and ankles.”
Cowan thought about protesting, but Mick’s stare murdered his voice in his throat. Mick yanked Jeb’s arms behind his body and cuffed him like a pro, hands to ankles. If he did get puppeted, Jeb could roll around and yell.
“Get his stunner, Soto. We can’t touch it legally.”
“Good idea.” Cowan opened Jeb’s holster and took his stunner. He didn’t have a second holster, and the gun felt awkward in his hands. What was he supposed to do with it?
“We’ve got a safe in the back,” Sonne said. “We’ll stow it there. Mick! Keep an eye on our new client.” She stalked off without looking back.
Cowan followed her into the hallway behind the parlor because he wasn’t sure what else he should do. What was the protocol for dealing with stunners when an officer was disarmed? Was it legal to store them in civilian safes? He couldn’t check the CID protocol manual because he was offline. He couldn’t call for backup, and he wondered then if this had been Sonne’s plan all along. Was she playing them?
Sonne had already admitted she had the technical knowledge to tear down a simBed and build it back up, and the fact that her waifu parlor was so popular showed she knew how to script PBA interactions. Cowan wondered how big her terrorism insurance policy was.
Cowan slammed the parlor door and locked it, blocking Mick in the main room. He raised Jeb’s stunner and aimed it at Sonne’s back, and his corporate hunt-and-evade package kept his arm steady. “Hold it,” Cowan said. “Turn and raise your hands.”
Sonne stopped. Turned. Saw him pointing a stunner and jumped. “What the shit?” Her hands shot up.
“This is your parlor, your simBeds. You called us. If you’ve somehow hacked my partner and driven me offline, you can’t possibly think that you’ll—”
“I didn’t do any of this,” she said, glaring at him, “and I’m trying to help you fix it! If we go to my office, we can use my private hardlinks to find your partner and our troll.”
“And let you lock down my hardlink clamps, too?” Assuming that was possible, which it wasn’t. “No. Not doing that.”
“The ones in the office are on a different network. I don’t share a pipe with customers.”
That made sense, honestly, and it was what Cowan would do. “Prove it.”
“How can I prove anything if you won’t let me actually do anything?”
She had him there. Cowan was already feeling guilty about pointing Jeb’s stunner on her — was he overreacting? — yet this was all too suspicious. Sonne’s hands began to drop.
“Hands up!” Cowan’s finger pressed against the trigger guard.
“What are you afraid of, Soto? Think I’ll yank a stunner out of my ass?” She dropped her hands. “I’m in sweats! Want to know what I’m not wearing under them?”
She was trying to distract him again. “Now, listen. I’m not—”
“You need proof I’m unarmed?” She grabbed the base of her sweatshirt and pulled up, revealing a very bare stomach. “Shall we archive a striptease into evidence?”
Cowan’s PBA kept his arm steady even as his thoughts scattered in a dozen directions. “That’s not necessary. Just … hold it there.”
“You’re horrible at this.” Sonne dropped her sweatshirt and shook her head. “Like really, really bad.” Her smirk returned. “How long you been doing this, Detective Soto?”
She was baiting him, but he wouldn’t let her. He couldn’t let this woman get under his skin. He couldn’t trust her until he was certain she wasn’t involved.
Sonne heaved a put upon sigh. “Listen. If I really wanted to lock down a CID detective, there are much easier ways to do that. Want me to list the people you work with who are regular customers? I could take any of you, any night, alone.”
That was another good point. Logging a call to the CID to get them out here was foolish when people from his office already visited while off duty. It also left a record of her call, which would look really suspicious later. Why leave evidence that would implicate you?
“What we need to do now,” Sonne said, “is rescue my clients, and apparently your partner. Which we can do, probably, from my office, through my hardlinks. Which have dynamically generated firewalls.”
Cowan’s opinion of Sonne’s scripting experience spiked. If she could script firewalls that advanced, she was talented enough to work for OneWorld. So why wasn’t she? Maybe with thirty paying clients a night and a waiting list, she didn’t have to.
If her parlor was making this much money, money as a motive also didn’t make sense. He glanced at the closed door. No one was pounding on it, but Sonne could summon Mick over the wireless. Mick could break down that door, but Sonne hadn’t called him.
Cowan didn’t lower his stunner. “Does anyone else service your simBeds?”
“My employees, sure. They all have access.” Sonne crossed her arms. “You going to shoot me or not?”
Cowan thought back over everything he knew about PBAs from the early 20s, around the time Jeb would have been connected. Some still had legacy Wi-Fi ports separated from Sim wireless, once used to update firmware. Such ports should have been deactivated long ago, but overtaxed grayDocs sometimes missed doing that.
If someone had installed an ancient Wi-Fi router nearby, the troll on the other end of that external signal might have managed to sneak in through Jeb’s legacy port. Yet it would take a human to plant a router, and working museum relics weren’t common.
“Who works here?” Cowan asked. “How many employees?”
“You’re thinking this was an inside job.” Sonne tapped one foot as her eyes went temporarily skyward. “I’ve got Mick and two part time employees, all working for waifu time. Good kids, but starved for cash.”
“They’d take a bribe?”
“They’d take anything that wasn’t nailed down, if they knew I wouldn’t delete their waifus.” She turned and walked toward her office at the end of the hall. “Once we get your partner back, we can track down who trapped my simBed.”
“Hey!” Cowan protested. “Hands up, dammit!”
“You’re not going to shoot me,” Sonne said, without looking back at him, “and I’m not taking my clothes off. So stop playing with your trigger and come help me.”
Cowan lowered Jeb’s weapon. As Jeb had told him many times, Don’t pull your weapon unless you’re going to use it. He followed Sonne and tried not to look peevish.
Once he actually stepped into Sonne’s office, he stopped dead. It was beautiful inside, a huge vista with a breathtaking view off a forested mountain peak. Sonne had holo-painted the walls and ceiling of her office, creating the illusion of a vast space. He’d seen work this convincing before, but only a few times, and it always inspired him.
To his left, a number of trees he didn’t recognize rustled in the wind. To his right, a waterfall poured into a shallow pool so real Cowan could almost feel its cool. Sonne’s modest black desk — one of the only non-projected features in the room — sat in a shallow river, with a much larger waterfall pouring down behind her.
The illusion felt so peaceful. So perfect. He could almost feel a cool wind tousling his hair, a warm sun beating down on his face. “Wow.”
Sonne pulled a door open in thin air, revealing a floating safe. “You like?”
“It looks so real!” Cowan walked over to the waterfall painted on the office wall, extending a palm until he found the invisible surface. “You modeled all this?”
Her frown returned. “You’re surprised?”
“Just impressed.” Cowan settled Jeb’s stunner inside the floating safe, which vanished when she closed the door. “I mean, this is really good. OneWorld quality.”
Sonne sat at her desk and patted the seat beside her. “Don’t compare my work to that corporate drek. Office drones paint by numbers. They don’t love what they do.”
“Still.” Cowan sat beside her on a rolling stool that appeared to be made of solid rock. “Damn good job.”
A trace of a smile softened her considerably. “Well … thank you. And just so you know, I tried the CID again. Nothing. I think the whole block might be jammed somehow. Do you want to jump in your autocar and see if you can get a signal?”
Cowan considered. This mysterious cybercriminal had already locked down Sonne’s simBeds and hacked Jeb. Someone that talented could easily hack an autocar, and the CID model he rode here inside didn’t have manual controls. Being driven off a cliff or into a building wasn’t his idea of a good time, so they’d try this Sonne’s way first.
“So how does this even work?” Cowan asked. “How do we find one person in all of your pleasureboxes?”
“I tagged your partner with a tracer program when he invaded my simBed,” Sonne said. “I needed to make sure he didn’t go anywhere he shouldn’t.”
Cowan blinked like she’d propositioned him for sex. “That’s illegal!”
“So’s archiving my client list without a warrant,” Sonne said, “which you assholes have done before. Besides, I did you a favor. My tracer will lead us right to your partner.”
Cowan knew Sonne was right. He was the last person to berate someone for using illegal scripts, and charging her could make her life very difficult. He wouldn’t do that.
“I get finding Jeb.” Cowan maintained his frowny face. “But what about the troll?”
“Bonus question,” Sonne said. “If our troll did all this just to hack a CID PBA, where would they be now?”
Cowan was being an idiot today. “Hacking Jeb.”
“Who we’ll find with my tracer. And if it’ll settle your stomach, I’ll give you admin access.”
Cowan breathed easier. “Thanks.”
“I’m only offering because you don’t seem like a complete tool.”
He could do a lot with pleasurebox admin access. This was as safe as this was going to get. If he pulled this off he would prove himself, to Jeb if no one else.
“Both of us,” Cowan said. “Hardlinked with admin access. We dive in at the same time.”
“Deal.” Sonne pulled two glistening hardlinks from under her desk, raised one tip, and smirked. “Time to go do your job for you, I guess.”
* * *
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