“Shit!” Sonne blocked the throwing star with her drawn sword, creating a bright flash and a loud clang. Another throwing star glistened as it spun toward them. This one landed between Cowan’s still considerable breasts.
It bounced right off. That revealed to anyone watching that Cowan was in administrator mode, which suggested the samurai beside him was as well. Oops.
“They made us!” Sonne charged the woods. “Lock ‘em down!”
Cowan kicked off his sandals, summoned a samurai sword of his own, and sprinted toward the bamboo forest. As he ran, objects bounced and dull pains shot through his chest. For the first time, he wished the Sim didn’t incorporate boob physics.
Sonne swung her sword in a half moon arc. A wave of fire roared through the bamboo, evaporating the stalks. The trees burned to ash as a distant shadow, a woman, waved open an exit portal and stepped through. She’d just jumped to another pleasurebox!
Sonne tapped at an admin panel that floated alongside her as she ran. “She portaled through a lockdown? That’s darkSim level shit!”
Something about that didn’t add up, and Cowan’s brain itched as he considered. “Wait!”
“Pleasurebox is unlocked! Make the jump!” Sonne opened a portal and leapt into the adjacent pleasurebox.
Cowan stumbled to a stop and stared at Sonne’s portal. She had locked down the pleasurebox as soon as they arrived, with the troll inside, which meant no one could get in and no one could get out. So how had this troll opened a portal despite the lockdown?
They hadn’t. Cowan knew they hadn’t. You couldn’t port out of a locked down pleasurebox, and this troll simply wanted them to think she could.
Cowan flipped to his headdesk and scripted a query for all entities currently rendered by the pleasurebox. Thousands. He filtered by those loaded when the pleasurebox spun up and found a deficit of five-hundred forty four, probably the bamboo Sonne had evaporated. He tallied ash piles and smiled. Five-hundred forty two.
There were two entities in this pleasurebox that weren’t being rendered by his PBA. Someone had disabled their visibility. Cowan swiped through Admin panels until he found the option he wanted, and then poked “Unhide All.”
A slim woman dragging a motionless geisha materialized a few meters to his right, pulling open another portal in the now unlocked pleasurebox. She wore a gray robe to her bare, twisted feet. Straight black hair completely obscured her face, which was just a bit unnerving. The nameplate above her head listed her as “ADMIN: Ringu Girl”.
Cowan locked the pleasurebox down again, and the ringu girl’s portal slammed shut. As her long dark hair turned on him, Cowan hit her with an administrative snare. She went stiff, locked in place, and dropped the limp geisha she’d been dragging by the hair: Jeb.
Cowan pulled a samurai avatar from Sonne’s template box and turned himself into an armored badass. “This is the CID!” He marched forward. “You’re under arrest!”
The ringu girl avatar vanished. She had flagged herself invisible again, but how? His administrative snare must not stop her from using her own admin panel, which was bad.
Cowan raised his admin panel as the ringu girl popped her thin arm right through it. Her long nails pinched and squeezed inside him, locking his heart in a vice grip. Cowan hyperventilated, panicking as all his internal firewalls dropped. She shouldn’t be able to hurt him like this, but she was hurting him, and doing it while connected to the Sim.
This woman was a loose circuit.
“My detective is being obstinate.” A creepy little girl voice whispered through her impenetrable curtain of dark hair. “Will you be more pliable?” She squeezed again.
Brambles ripped Cowan’s veins, his throat, his skull. They forked and twisted and stabbed. He thrashed, shrieking, and even through the pain he knew something was very, very wrong. After what felt like an endless moment, she released his heart.
Cowan swiped desperately through his admin panel and found no relief. All his pleasurebox sliders were grayed out, including his PBA’s pain threshold. This troll had jacked it up to 10, full immersion. Nobody used full immersion.
Cowan couldn’t disconnect. Somehow, the troll had dropped a full stem barrier into his PBA without his permission, completely separating his mind from his physical body. None of this was possible, but it was happening, which meant it was possible.
This woman had figured out how to enable full stem barriers through the Sim.
“She’s not coming back, you know.” The ringu girl was probably talking about Sonne. “She’ll get back into this box eventually, but not in time to save you.”
Cowan scrambled for focus. Loose circuits were people who somehow altered their PBA firmware subtly enough to stay online without being kicked off. It was almost impossible to pull off these days, but those who did it could disable behavioral algorithms as well. They could hurt people, kill people, and that meant this woman could hurt him.
Now was not the time to consider the hows or whys. Now was the time to not get his heart crushed until he blacked out from agony. “What do you want?”
“CID detention records for every facility in California. You have thirty seconds before I hurt you again.”
That was sadistically funny. This woman wanted the same thing he wanted, but Cowan couldn’t risk poking around in CID records until he was certain they wouldn’t detect his intrusion. “I can’t access those records. I just started two weeks ago!”
“You’re lying,” she said, “and I know because I can see every segment of your physical brain through the monitors in your PBA. Shall I hurt you again? I’ll ask again after.”
“Don’t!” Cowan’s avatar body seized up. “I’ll do it! Just flip my wireless back on!” He would do anything to delay more pain.
“If you send any sort of warning to the CID,” the ringu girl said, “I’ll fry your brain. I can always get another detective.” She flipped his wireless back on.
Cowan accessed the CID’s database and initiated a detention registry download, knowing he had seconds before his request got flagged by CID leadership. As he started the download, he saw the opportunity he’d avoided all week. He activated the archiver in the hidden partition on his PBA and mirrored the download. If Ellen was on that list…
The download completed, but the ringu girl hadn’t tortured him despite his hidden archiver. That implied she couldn’t detect what he was doing on his PBA’s hidden partition, which meant he could do other things on that hidden partition, too.
He quietly removed the pleasurebox lockdown.
A burning samurai sword burst through the ringu girl. She shrieked, a real, female shriek of agony and terror, and Cowan remembered then that a pleasurebox’s pain threshold was global. This troll had done it to herself.
Still impaling her, Sonne dropped her armored fist on the ringu girl’s dark head like a hammer blow. She ripped her sword free as Cowan’s tormentor dropped. Mercifully, the girl’s screams ended as soon as Sonne took her down. She had blacked out in meatspace.
Despite what that troll had just been doing to him, hearing her very real, very tortured scream made Cowan ache with empathy. Sonne raised her sword and staked the ringu girl to the pleasurebox floor. “No, fuck you.”
Cowan could move again. He touched the back of the ringu girl’s neck and activated the CID’s super-secret backtracing program. He pulled her real name — Sarah Taggart — and the physical address off her hardlink. History in Motion, right the hell next door.
Sonne, breathing hard, glanced at the geisha slumped nearby. “Your partner?”
Cowan hurried over to the naked white lady who was actually Jeb. “Yeah. Keep that troll locked down?”
“Obviously. How’d she get you through admin mode?”
Cowan froze up. The Office of Mental Health would never chance anyone spreading the news that trolls could now drop full stem barriers into OneWorld PBAs. They’d redact Sonne’s memories of tonight and, most likely, throw in some behavior modification too. Modding and redactions dulled artists the worst, and Sonne wouldn’t ever be the same after the OMH finished with her.
Cowan checked his wireless connection and winced. Archiving was active. The troll had likely spoofed their signals so the CID wouldn’t know either of them was offline, but they knew now. Officer down. Backup would be coming from every available unit in San Diego, CID or not, which didn’t give Cowan a lot of time to think. He had to think.
Cowan logged himself in, then forwarded Sarah Taggart’s location and an arrest request to the CID. A confirmation that the Violent Crimes Division was enroute bounced back. He knelt by Jeb, wondering if there was any way to wake him up.
“Soto?” Sonne asked.
She expected an answer. So did the CID. “It was my fault,” Cowan lied, knowing the CID would archive everything he said. “I suspended my admin privileges. I wanted to see if my name would still appear in the user panel. That’s when she snagged me.”
There was no archive of Sarah Taggart paralyzing him through admin mode, but he had to tell the CID what had happened, eventually. Too many people were at risk. Still, by lying to Sonne right now and archiving it, he’d have a good argument for leaving her unmodded. She couldn’t tell anyone what she didn’t know, which might keep her safe.
“Seriously?” Sonne stomped over in her samurai armor. “You’re going to bullshit me after all this?”
“It’s the truth.”
“You’re lucky you were able to unlock the pleasurebox.”
“I know. Thank you for saving me. I’m really sorry, but I can’t tell you more than I already have. Regulations and all that.”
“Whatever.” She huffed again. “Who did this? What did they want from you?
“No idea,” Cowan lied. “I’d say go next door and ask her, but I don’t think she’s waking up for awhile.”
Cowan quarantined the full stem barrier scripting afflicting Jeb. He also made a secret copy for himself, hiding it away on the same PBA partition he’d concealed from Sarah Taggart. He couldn’t let a script this impossible slip through his clutches.
He needed to figure out how this program altered PBA firmware without detection, how it evaded OneWorld’s real-time scanning even while on the Sim. Cowan had spent years designing PBAs for OneWorld, considered every exploit and hack under the sun, and he had been very good at what he did.
Apparently, Sarah Taggart was better.
Jeb opened his eyes and gasped, blinking and trembling. He saw Cowan. The flesh of his slumped avatar looked even paler in the moonlight, and his trembling eased.
“Cowan?” Jeb said. “Thanks.” His voice was hoarse.
“No problem, buddy.” Cowan thumped Jeb’s pale shoulder. “See you soon.”
“Yeah.” Jeb’s geisha went limp.
Cowan dropped into meatspace and found Sonne sitting silently beside him, eyes staring at nothing. Probably cleaning up the mess they’d made in her pleasurebox. He plucked the hardlink from his head with a wet pop. His clamps disengaged without issue.
Sonne blinked. She popped her hardlink, set it aside, and frowned. “So that’s all I get, huh? Regulations?”
“That, and a glowing review in my official report.” Cowan forced a smile he didn’t feel. “Also, you’re up and running again. So hooray?”
* * *
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