September 10, Early Evening
When Jeb stepped out of his chartered autocar, the Americas Megacenter sprawled out ahead of him: six glistening twenty story buildings festooned with thirty kinds of holo-projection. Its grand plaza, a battered expanse of pavement, was even more packed than he expected. The crowd was as dense and diverse as you’d find at a football stadium during the World Cup, which he’d seen before, having attended once with David.
Synthcops in bright yellow stood at attention along the autocar route, armed with tasers and batons, but even they had trouble keeping the single autocar path into and out of the megacenter clear of pedestrians. The plaza itself was rife with transmitters broadcasting enough augmented reality ads to make anyone dizzy. As part of the CID, Jeb could block ads, and once he did, the plaza became vastly more comprehensible.
As he walked, he pitied the poor folks swiping away as they made their way from shop to shop, looking for the best deal on the latest addiction. Even today, there were still some things you couldn’t order online, not because a drone couldn’t deliver them to your house — a drone could deliver most anything to your house — but because it wasn’t yet legal for a drone to deliver them. Even OneWorld, in all its monopolistic glory, had yet to unravel the layers of contradictory laws passed before they took over the government.
The early twenty-first century had been a whirlwind of accelerated technological development. Virtual reality, augmented reality, dozens of unclassified chemical compounds, and everything from camera drones to sexbots all hit the market at a pace that terrified the relatively conservative politicians of the time. Certain things were legal here, and certain things were legal there, and certain things were legal on certain days of the week or only if they were transported by hand, not drone. As a result, the Americas Megacenter soon became the only place near San Diego you could buy certain luxuries.
It was also the only place offering anonymous hardlink access to the Sim.
A glowing AR arrow appeared across the plaza, by a glittering silver column covered in glowing artwork. That would be David, right on time, and Jeb worked his way through the crowd until he finally caught sight of his husband. David Forrester had hair, unlike Jeb. He also had a blunt nose and a square jaw, like a military recruiting poster. He wore a loose flannel shirt and dark jeans that hugged his muscular legs.
Jeb pulled his husband into a hug and gave him a quick kiss, then stepped back and squeezed his hand. “Sorry for the short notice. Time might be a factor.”
David shook his head. “A kid’s dead, Jeb, and I’d be an ass if I let that slide.” He offered the other node of a wireless linkline. “I brought the quiet line.” The companion node of David’s wireless linkline was already slotted into the port behind David’s left ear.
Jeb popped the wireless node into his own auxiliary port, and a brief tingle assured him the encrypted connection was active. “And you were bored, weren’t you?” A wireless linkline wasn’t as secure as a real one, but being tethered to each other was awfully inconvenient in a huge crowd. “Don’t tell me you weren’t bored.”
David grimaced as they cut through the crowd. “I still can’t believe Nemoset’s gone.”
Trust David Forrester to cut right to the heart of today’s mission. “Leroy Keller, and yes.” He filled David in on the conversation he’d had with Naomi, Zhang, and Cowan in Leroy Keller’s apartment. “Of course, given OneWorld’s official policy—”
“We’re not investigating any of this. Just out for a night of shopping.” They were about the same height, so David easily matched pace with him. “The CID’s out of the picture?”
“We’re clear for two hours at least,” Jeb said. “More than that, and they’ll wonder.”
One of the advantages of twenty years with the CID was that, at night, Director Stanton allowed Jeb to deactivate his PBA’s surveillance when he wanted private time with his husband. Normally, he and David used that private time for the things every other couple used it for — a home cooked dinner with romantic candles, a classic movie with spaceships and explosions, or just quality time in private without some asshole from the Office of Mental Health archiving everything through Jeb’s eyes – but tonight, Jeb was conducting an unsanctioned Sim investigation with an unregistered accomplice.
The risk was warranted. Whether OneWorld wanted to admit it or not, a murderer might still be out there, with the ability to hack synthetics and crush the life out of anyone. If Jeb had to, he’d get the proof on his own. He wasn’t going to just go home and relax while another kid got strangled by his house synthetic.
“Tell me your theory,” Jeb said, because they had time as they worked their way through the crowd to Megacenter Two. “Why murder Keller over StrikeForceGo?”
David had locked onto Zhang’s theory as soon as Jeb called him, though neither of them had wanted to discuss it over a monitored line. Killing Keller over StrikeForceGo might be just a hypothesis, but following a hypothesis was better than sitting on his hands.
“Zhang isn’t off base,” David said, as they walked. “Nemo’s death completely changes the landscape of this season. With Nemo out and Grindhouse down a pro, their match against TrollStompers could go either way. Before now, the odds were fairly locked.”
The two of them entered the Megacenter Two, but avoided the elevator, which was never a good idea in places like this. Too many trolls looking for tonight’s entertainment. They took the stairwell instead. It was going to a tiring climb up fourteen flights.
“Why was it a formality?” Jeb asked.
“TrollStompers were seed six and up against the top Korean team, Kudzu. Kudzu was a 4-1 favorite and lost in the last five minutes, when Garnet and Recoil went on a killing spree.” David grew more animated as they climbed and he summarized the match. “They took down NumAngel, Dorfling, and MatterRat before they dropped, and LuckyBro made off with Kudzu’s hostage in the crossfire. PositiveMC had a shot on Lucky, but missed. That’s the third shot he’s missed all season.”
“Tough luck.” Jeb loved the way David perked up when discussing StrikeForceGo. Yet his mind was already fitting facts together to see if they made sense. Could someone who favored the Trollstompers really have killed Leroy Keller to shake up the odds?
Intentionally or not, the murder of Nemoset — Leroy Keller — had caused a shift in this season’s landscape. The clear favorite was now a question mark, and that left bookies raking in money. Bad for the Keller family, but good for illegitimate businesses. If Sim rivalries had finally escalated to real world murder, that was bad news all around.
“Did Nemoset have any enemies?” Jeb asked. Ten floors to go, and his legs ached.
“None I can think of.”
“Did he have any rivalries at all?”
“LuckyBro trashed him before their last match, but Lucky trashes everyone, so no one considers him a rival. Nemo had professional rivalry with LinSpork, from Team Taco Party, but she and Nemo respect each other. Also, Taco Party’s out for the season.”
Eight floors left. “Has Nemoset ever called anyone out, in or out of the Sim?”
“Nemo didn’t really call people out. He was a quiet kid who never did post-match interviews. DNF does the talking for his team.”
“Did Not Finish. It’s an old racing joke. Anyway, D runs Grindhouse tight. No one mouths off or gets into Sim disputes. Nemoset let his sniping talk for him.”
“So the only gripe against Nemoset is he was good.”
“Sure. But with all those corporate sponsorships flying around, that might be enough to convince someone to put a hit out on him. Ever since StrikeForceGo got big in Russia, people have been worried the Bratva might get involved.”
Jeb remembered the death of Doctor Barkov, at the end of Cowan’s first case, and grimaced at the mention of the Russian mob. Plenty of criminal organizations got around Sim behavioral protocols with jailbroken PBAs and altered firmware, and OneWorld’s scripters fought a constant battle to keep ahead of them. On average, a new firmware patch lasted a week before some Russian or Chinese hacker broke it.
Yet the Russians couldn’t be behind everything. Jeb had no evidence they wanted to influence StrikeForceGo brackets. He had to follow the evidence, not speculation. By the time he reached floor fourteen, his legs ached and his chest did too. “Need a breather.”
David grinned and shoved him, entirely not out of breath. “Need to do more cardio.”
“Some of us have jobs, you know.” Jeb rolled his eyes. “Not everyone can spend all day on a treadmill.”
With the proper equipment and safeguards, it was still possible to walk on a real world omni-treadmill while exploring the Sim, like people had done in the early days of the VR. David was one of those who kept fit by walking and running for real while inside the Sim. Soon Jeb had his breath back, and they were off to bend some confusing laws.
Jeb hadn’t told Cowan his plan, of course — investigating a VCD case without the VCD’s authorization — because Cowan still had the Office of Mental Health in his head twenty-four seven. So far as Cowan and the OMH knew, he and David were still at home. And if this simParlor was as secure as CID reports claimed, no one would ever know different.
This particular simParlor, simply titled Absolution, was one of eight slightly legitimate businesses on floor fourteen. Jeb had no doubt there were dozens of cybercriminals and possibly even some loose circuits in here tonight, conducting illicit deals they didn’t want OneWorld to be able to trace back to them. Still, there was no better place than an anonymous simParlor to do some virtual investigation without alerting OneWorld.
Buildings like Megacenter Two were one of the only places in California where anonymous hardlink access to the Sim was still legal, a clause grandfathered in from a private deal between politicians in the early days of the Sim. OneWorld had since imposed regulations that outlawed anonymous access elsewhere. Loose circuits had their own private anonymized connections, of course, but Jeb didn’t have access to an anonymized hardlink at home. That would be enough to get him fired and arrested.
The exchange with the bored proprietor of Absolution was simple — you paid by the hour — and David paid for four hours, using one of several private accounts he had from his days investing his considerable winnings from StrikeForceGo. They walked alone into a small gray room, together, beside a single simBed and a gleaming hardlink jack.
David popped out the wireless linkline and pulled a real one from his pocket, along with a splitter to merge a second line. Linklines also allowed two people to experience the Sim as one entity, a connection that existed entirely through PBAs. The CID could detect them, but they weren’t illegal … yet. David laid down on the bed and popped the splitter into his auxiliary port, then the linkline. He offered the other end to Jeb.
Jeb took one of the two seats beside the simBed and settled in. “Ready.”
David leaned back, pulled the simBed linkline from its retractable perch, and plugged it into the other slot on the splitter. His body relaxed as his eyes fluttered closed. “I’m in.”
Jeb plugged the end of David’s split linkline into his own port. The dingy little private room deformed as a tingle filled Jeb, a warning his PBA was transitioning from meatspace to the Sim. It happened slower on a linkline than on a hardlink.
Soon he was seeing through David’s eyes, feeling what David felt. Jeb’s husband opened the closet in his old simPartment — one archived locally inside his PBA, rather than a registered location that existed on the Sim — and scrolled through avatars. He paused on an avatar in a brown combat vest, brown and gray fatigues, and thick Army boots.
“You sure you’re okay with this?” Jeb asked, over the linkline. He didn’t know how David might feel, diving back into the world from which he’d been unfairly exiled.
“Like riding a bike.” David reached inside his old avatar and squeezed. His body flashed, and then he was wearing his avatar from his StrikeForceGo days. It was an Army Ranger from the Internet age, an avatar Jeb had always found incredibly sexy. “Still fits.”
Jeb chuckled. David had been a Ranger before he retired, so paying tribute to his branch of service was appropriate. David clicked through several sub-panels until he found a bookmark for Dust, a very exclusive pleasurebox. The words “Private” flashed once.
“We won’t get a better shot at today’s pros than tonight,” David said. “With Nemoset down and the finals two days away, Dust will be packed. If you really think Nemo had beef with another pro that didn’t get reported, tonight is the night people gossip.”
“And you want to blow their minds a little,” Jeb said.
David grinned at his reflection. “Maybe a little.”
Jeb up’d the last of his stored archives to the CID, clearing his archiver. “Just do what you’d normally do. If I want you to ask anything, I’ll let you know.”
“Let’s see what our pros have to say about their fallen comrade.” David poked the Invite Only button.
They landed in the middle of a warzone.
* * *
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