Episode 2: Pleasurebox (Part 5)

LC_02_0010_Part5

September 2, Before Dawn

COWAN

As Cowan cruised across the Coronado Bridge, a glittering complex rose against San Diego bay: OneWorld’s San Diego headquarters. Corporate One was a hive of gleaming glass pyramids and blinking lights that occupied the entire bay island once known as Halsey Field. Military drones patrolled both water and air around its restricted airspace.

Jeb sat beside him in silence, in the Sim, running a redaction routine that would erase his worst memories of Sarah Taggart’s torture. It couldn’t eliminate the trauma of that episode entirely, but it would be incredibly useful to whatever psychologist the OMH assigned Jeb after this case. Being hurt like that wasn’t something a person shrugged off.

Their autocar cruised through the maze of concrete barriers in front of the main gate, an armored behemoth with automated gun towers on each side. Beyond the gate were glass pyramids housing the Office of Mental Health, the Violent Crimes Division, the Cybercrimes Investigation Division, and Corporate Security, among many others.

Closing Sonne’s case had been relatively straightforward. Cowan soon found hidden payments to Andrew West, waifu parlor employee. Andrew confessed the moment CorpSec kicked down his door, but he had no idea who paid him. The best (or worst) thing about money trading hands on the darkSim was that it remained anonymous.

Cowan and Jeb entered Corporate One, walked past a dozen milsynths — military synthetics — and rode up twenty stories in a mirrored elevator. Cowan followed Jeb into a tiled, glassed-in hallway. A lone janitor in white scrubs buffed the floor, whistling.

As they passed, Cowan recognized the janitor and spun around, pinging Jeb on wireless. “Hey, that’s Michael Villo!” The asshole who sold Sheila Fisher’s ghostlink to Galileo.

“Yup.” Jeb kept walking.

“They gave him a job as a janitor?”

“A good job with decent pay. Much better than a cell.”

Cowan grimaced as he imagined Ellen wearing that same vacant smile. He imagined her scrubbing floors and windows in another building, modded into her own little world. He’d find her. He had to find her. He still had the CID’s detention registry waiting on the hidden partition of his PBA, but couldn’t access it until he was alone. Waiting hurt.

Cowan followed Jeb through a mess of tall gray cubicles. Some were still occupied by his coworkers despite the late hour. A few people he’d met during orientation looked up, and one nodded, but Cowan didn’t nod back. He hadn’t joined the CID to make friends. Also, he didn’t need people asking him out for drinks when he was up to other things.

They entered an office with faux wood walls, deep blue carpet, and a huge oak desk. Director Ivana Stanton — or rather, a realistic projection of her piped in from the CID’s corporate airship — stood behind the desk. She had a blond crew cut with bits of gray at the temples, and she wore a crisp brown pantsuit. Her mouth was a hard line.

“I’ve reviewed your archives of the incident at this waifu parlor,” Stanton said. She had a very noticeable Russian accent, which was odd, because PBAs could erase accents. “I’m satisfied your report summarizes what occurred, but there is one bit on which I need clarification.” She turned to Cowan. “What the fuck were you thinking, Soto?”

Cowan flinched. “Sorry?” He was already apologizing.

“Did you really think allowing a troll to access to the CID’s detention registry was an acceptable plan?” The way she glared made him involuntarily hunch his shoulders.

“Ma’am,” Cowan said, “I merely pretended to give her access. I did that so she wouldn’t notice when I opened—”

“She downed a full detention registry.”

“I’d stopped her before she could do anything with it. Once the pleasurebox was open again, I was certain Sonne—”

“Do you understand the stink a troll could raise if they published a classified list of current CID detainees on the darkSim?”

Cowan did, but he went another way. “If I may ask, ma’am, what would you have done instead?”

That only increased Stanton’s glare. “You expect me to do your job for you?”

“Not at all, ma’am, but you’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have. I understand I acted improperly, and I apologize for screwing up. So what should I have done instead?”

Stanton glared for another moment, then relaxed and looked to Jeb. “He can be taught.” She turned back to Cowan. “You’re suspended for a week.”

Cowan winced. Had that all been an act, to test him? It didn’t matter. If they kicked him out, he’d never find Ellen. “Ma’am, if you don’t like the way I handled things—”

“Figure it out,” Stanton said. “When you return, I’ll expect you to deliver five other courses of action, none of which compromise the CID’s classified archives.”

When he returned. Which meant he was returning. Cowan let himself breath again.

Stanton pointed to the door. “Dismissed.”

“Yes ma’am.” Jeb turned as Stanton’s projection vanished. He walked out the door of her now empty office.

Cowan followed and contacted Jeb over their wireless. “Wait, that’s it? She chews me out, suspends me, and assigns homework?”

Jeb smiled. “She can’t really complain about the results. You stopped a dangerous troll, archived an unknown and highly illegal script for study, and saved your partner. Don’t let an asschewing shake your confidence. Chewing you out is Stanton’s job.”

Cowan felt better. “So you think I did the right thing?”

“I think you did a thing, and that thing worked, this time.” Jeb led him toward the elevator. “This job is hard calls and gut checks. No archive is ever going to show you a roadmap. At the end of the day, if you solve the case and come out alive, you did good.”

This didn’t feel good. “What the hell was going on with Sarah Taggart? Inserting full stem barriers into another person’s PBA, over the Sim, isn’t supposed to be possible.” Cowan knew it was, now, but he wanted to know how people were doing it.

“So,” Jeb said.

“Do you think…” Cowan remembered the CID archived all wireless conversations. “Will they let us keep it?”

“Keep what?”

“Our memories of what happened in there?”

“If the Office of Mental Health was going to redact our memories, we’d be heading down to the rewriting center right now, not going out for noodles. We’re going for noodles, so we’re okay.”

Cowan relaxed. “Because they trust us to keep our mouths shut.”

“No, because they’re watching us through our own eyes, monitoring everything we do on and off duty. Granting permission for twenty-four hour in-eye surveillance was right there in the NDA you signed when you came on board. You get used to it.”

Cowan’s calm burned away like those bamboo stalks in Sonne’s pleasurebox. “Oh.”

* * *

September 2, Early Morning

COWAN

“Lights,” Cowan said. He walked into a dark room as his apartment’s VI flipped everything on. It would be light in an hour, which meant he’d had a really long night. Of course, since he was actually suspended now, he’d have a week to sleep it off. Great.

“Welcome home, Mister Soto.” The VI’s voice sounded British and female. They always sounded British and female. “Did you have a productive day?”

His new apartment was a shoebox. The hallway led past a tiny bedroom to a single room split into living area and kitchen. Cowan’s apartment had no real windows, just a glass patio door with a great view of the apartment building across the way.

Cowan enabled augmented reality. When he flipped back into meatspace, his apartment was still there, but his PBA altered his perceptions of it. It was now a cedar cabin in the middle of the woods. It even smelled like cedar, thanks to his olfactory processor.

A hardwood floor gleamed in bright sun. The walls were cut logs, and huge glass windows looked onto an expanse of leafy trees. Dozens more rustled beyond his patio window, and the scenery relaxed him. Now to the problem at hand.

The Office of Mental Health was archiving everything he saw through his own PBA, through his own eyes. They knew he’d spent the last two weeks diving into the darkSim, searching for any links to Galileo, and they hadn’t come after him. Why wouldn’t they?

They must be collecting evidence. Why arrest him when they could archive everything he did? He’d snitched on his friends without knowing, and he felt terrible about that.

Fortunately, those Cowan associated with on the darkSim were pranksters, and he didn’t know their real identities. The darkSim was an independent network run out of Switzerland, a prototype Sim, and it anonymized everything. So while the OMH had the handles of his friends and whatever avatars they’d worn there, that was nothing, really.

Still, being spied on was less than ideal. He’d never find Ellen if the Office of Mental Health was watching him all the time. It was time for a calculated risk.

Cowan got ready for bed, then accessed the private partition in his PBA. It was a partition that existed, to his knowledge, in no other Personal Brain Assistant on the planet. It was the secret that ended his and Ellen’s former lives.

He climbed into bed and called up a book on his panel projector. While pretending to read, he activated the partition hidden from the OMH. He mirrored what his PBA was sending to the Office of Mental Health and it was, indeed, everything.

He deactivated the reading panel, ordered his lights off, and closed his eyes. He archived his closed eyes on his hidden partition for a full ten minutes. Then he opened his template bin, pulled out the appropriate constructors, and scripted.

It took him almost twenty minutes to finish — for him, a long time — but the result was exactly what he needed: an endless randomized loop of his closed eyes as he slept. He swapped the loop over the feed his PBA was broadcasting to the OMH.

No alarms sounded on his headdesk. No remote lockdown took his apartment. The Office of Mental Health thought he was asleep, and would so long as his archive looped.

Cowan sat up on his bed, opened his eyes, and projected the enforcement registry he’d down’d for Sarah Taggart in augmented reality. He scripted a string query, searching for Ellen Gauthier. Why had Sarah wanted this list so badly? Had she lost someone, too?

The query would take time — the registry was heavily encrypted — so Cowan pondered all he’d seen tonight. Forcefully engaging hardlink clamps. Inserting a full stem barrier in someone else’s PBA, over the Sim, without getting booted. How had Sarah done it?

You could knock a person out in meatspace and insert a full stem barrier over a hardlink, but that required physically disabling them. Jailbreaking your PBA to disable behavioral protocols also prevented you from connecting to the Sim. People with modified PBAs couldn’t connect to other people there, unlike clear circuits.

Yet Sarah Taggart had done just that. She was a loose circuit. She had stayed connected to Sonne’s pleasurebox and, though that, the Sim at large, despite jailbreaking her PBA and literally torturing both Cowan and Jeb. That was impossible, unless…

Cowan knew it was possible to connect to the Sim without active behavioral protocols, because he had done it. He and Ellen had done it, together, before he betrayed her to Corporate Security. Yet the firmware they’d created was destroyed, erased, like her.

That wouldn’t stop someone else from trying the same thing.

Yet even if Sarah Taggart had created another set of loose circuit firmware that bypassed the Sim’s real-time scanning, she still couldn’t update the firmware on another person’s PBA. Doing that was the only way to insert a full-stem barrier, which she had done to Cowan.

Only a person with OneWorld admin privileges could alter settings inside firewalled PBAs. So had Sarah figured out how to fake that? Or did she have a connection in OneWorld somewhere, a back door only she could access? An accomplice?

Cowan’s string query finished processing the CID enforcement registry, and there was no Ellen Gauthier. Not finding her hurt — failing Ellen always hurt him — but at least he knew the CID hadn’t abducted her. One less horrific fate to keep him up at night.

Another name did appear on the CID’s enforcement registry. Ethan Taggart. He would be Sarah’s older brother, and it explained why Sarah had been so desperate to find him. The CID had arrested Ethan for identity fraud six months ago. He was still in custody.

Ethan’s records showed some modding, probably so he wouldn’t want to steal people’s identities, but Ethan was still himself, for the most part. So why keep him locked away in a rewriting facility? Why not release him back to his family?

Cowan knew Sarah’s requests to see Ethan had fallen on deaf ears. OneWorld financed the courts, and the courts supported OneWorld corporation. Cowan had learned that while failing to find Ellen in the weeks after her arrest. That didn’t excuse Sarah’s crimes, but it did explain her motivation. She’d lost her brother to the OMH.

Was he working for the right people? Was he doing the right thing, putting people like Sarah away for the CID? He couldn’t know, and honestly, it didn’t matter. This was the only way to find Ellen, so he’d do it until he found her. He’d worry about morality later.

He filed the CID’s detention registry away where the CID couldn’t find it, then put Sarah Taggart’s paralysis scripting there too. He’d pull it apart and reverse engineer later, when he wasn’t wiped. He wasn’t worried about the CID or the OMH finding those things on his PBA because they couldn’t. He and Ellen had made certain they couldn’t.

Cowan Soto was a loose circuit, and the OMH would rewrite him if they figured that out.

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