September 10, Before Midnight
Ten minutes after he left Absolution, a report from the Des Moines CID reached Jeb’s PBA. Synthcops had entered the house of Jacob Howard, aka LuckyBro, after he ignored their entry request. A well-proportioned housesynth greeted them with a baseball bat. After neutralizing it, they discovered Howard’s mutilated body in his bedroom.
Evidently, he lived alone.
Jeb and David sat now in a round booth at a bar built into Megacenter Three, one that served real alcohol. Alcohol wasn’t illegal, but it was rare. PBAs could make water taste like wine and get you instantly drunk, so few bothered with real booze these days.
“So.” David swirled a quarter glass of real whisky. “Someone’s knocking off SFGo players.”
“Possibly.” Jeb kept his voice low, even though there was no one near enough to overhear them. “We only have two murders, but I’ve already recommended Corporate One task synthcops to protect the remaining pros until the finals conclude.”
“If teams keep losing pros, there won’t be any finals.”
Jeb knew David was upset. Seeing LuckyBro go down had shaken them both. Jeb knew from the crime scene report that the damage to Jacob Howard’s body matched that of Leroy Keller — gouged eyes, broken fingers, crushed balls — but the difference, this time, was Jacob Howard was alive while that happened.
“You mentioned darkSim betting.” David took a sip of whisky. “Do darkSim bookies murder people?”
“Never. The reason the darkSim persists is because its members avoid corporate attention.” That, and Switzerland’s status as the last independent country in the world.
“So taking out simSports players is a bad move.”
“It would trigger investigations. That’s bad for everyone on the darkSim.”
David stared at the doors of the bar, at the crowd of people wandering by outside, and frowned. “Here’s another odd detail. LuckyBro wasn’t actually that good.”
Interesting. “How do you mean?”
“If you’re hoping to influence this season, taking out Nemoset makes sense. That hurts Team Grindhouse. But other than his shit talking, LuckyBro was easily replaced.”
“You think that’s why he talked so much trash?”
“Probably. Everyone in simSports needs an angle, even the prodigies. It’s all about the viewstream hits, the cash and sponsors that come with those.” David would know.
“So how did LuckyBro’s viewstream compare with Nemoset’s?”
“Nemo’s viewstream spiked in big matches. Lucky’s viewstream spiked before and after, when he was talking shit. He was basically a professional asshole.”
“Any other similarities? People they pissed off?”
David’s eyes went distant, and Jeb waited, keeping one eye on the rest of the bar. It was mostly empty this time of night. When David came back, he stared at Jeb. “Cheaters.”
Jeb didn’t quite follow. “What about them?”
“That’s what Lucky was going on about before he went linkdead. He accused me of using marksman scripting.”
“Because he wanted you to play him.”
“No, there’s better ways to piss me off. Accusing me of cheating doesn’t track.”
“Because you can’t cheat in SFGo. There’s too many monitoring programs and random scans. Anyone running marksman or evasion scripts gets caught and banned.”
Jeb remembered David commiserating with MatterRat over their last match. “You mentioned a match, Kudzu versus TrollStompers. You said their sniper missed a shot at LuckyBro, near the end of a big game. Was that sniper competent?”
“PositiveMC isn’t LinSpork’s level, but he’s a good shot. He shouldn’t have missed.”
“So LuckyBro cheated.” All Jeb’s instincts latched onto this theory. “If everyone truly believes you can’t cheat in SFGo, someone who could would have a big advantage.”
“And if Lucky knew it was possible,” David said, “it’d be foremost in his mind. He’d really believe that’s how I took down people in One Flag CTF. So how does it factor in?”
Jeb leaned close and lowered his voice. “Nemoset was cheating too.”
David took another sip of whisky and set it down. “He did make some ridiculous shots.”
“So someone discovers players cheating at SFGo, on a professional level. They’re stealing sponsorships and money. How would the other players react?”
“They’d be pissed. Cheating spits in the face of every pro in the sport.”
“What about the admins?”
“Many are pros too, or were, like me.” David grimaced. “Some are also ex-military, banned but still involved. Many run pleasureboxes for official SFGo matches. If anyone could detect cheating OneWorld missed, it would be a former pro turned admin.”
“Would they be angry enough to murder those cheaters?”
“Maybe, but how? The military disables our HARM switches when we leave the service.”
“Maybe one of you figured out how to flip it back on.”
David leaned back in the booth. “Well, that’s terrifying.”
Jeb flipped to wireless and called Cowan. “Still up?” He waited.
Cowan pinged him back. “Here. What’s up?”
“I need you to script a crossref. I’ll authorize a warrant for records of all boxes that hosted pro StrikeForceGo matches this season.” Jeb asked for the warrant and got it.
“What am I looking for?” Cowan asked.
“A box admin who’s ex-military. Former SFGo player. Both LuckyBro from Team TrollStompers and Nemoset from Team Grindhouse played in their box this season.”
“Is this about the Nemoset case?” Cowan sounded way too excited about that.
“Possibly. Can you do it?”
“Coming soon.” Cowan went silent, but Jeb knew he’d have the info soon enough.
As he waited, a courtesy ping arrived on his CID panel. Someone calling himself Cisero had just taken eighteen people hostage at a sim parlor down in Escondido, and the VCD was on the way. Wonderful. Like they needed a hostage crisis on top of everything else.
“Got it,” Cowan said, before Jeb could investigate further. “There’s four boxes that fit those criteria.”
“Where are they hosted?”
“Two in Texas, one in Maryland, and one in Cali.”
“Are the admins listed?”
“I need another warrant for that. All the administrators are anonymous.”
Jeb got it. Two minutes later, Cowan up’d administrator names. One, Joseph Dunn, actually lived in Escondido, which was a bit of a coincidence given their just announced hostage situation. It set Jeb’s case sense tingling. “Any details on their military service?”
There was a pause. “I’ve got an Coast Guard pilot, two Marines, and a Navy Classified.”
That was even more odd. “Military records shouldn’t be classified. Not to us. Who’s record is sealed?”
“Joseph Dunn,” Cowan said.
That was two strikes against Dunn, so Jeb upped another warrant request for Dunn’s service record. Three minutes later, it was denied by MILSEC, the military component of OneWorld. That was highly unusual.
There wasn’t much call for the army these days, not since milsynths. Still, all it would take is a few talented hackers to start up another situation like Peru. Before OneWorld stopped them, rebels almost took over the Sim and, by extension, everyone connected.
So could Dunn be Cisero? Could he have discovered SFGo players cheating and decided to take matters into his own hands? If so, why suddenly switch to hostage taking? And why would MILSEC classify his service record above what Jeb could access at the CID?
Dunn made a promising suspect, but Jeb needed more. He wasn’t getting around MILSEC without a week’s worth of paperwork, but he had another way.
“David.” Jeb flipped back into meatspace. “I know the Rangers worked with a lot of Navy in Peru. Did you ever hear anything about a Navy man named Joseph Dunn?”
“Hang on.” David’s eyes went distant, and Jeb waited as David’s PBA searched years of records and, likely, thousands of contacts from his military days.
David focused. “Joey Dunn?”
Jackpot! “You knew him?”
“It might not be the same person, but before we officially entered the Peruvian conflict, I was involved in operations I can’t talk about with a soldier by that name.”
Jeb understood, and waited for what David could tell him.
“Joey Dunn was a member of the Navy’s ECM squad. Most of us called them braincooks. Talented hackers who could do some sick shit to enemy PBAs, and who protected ours.”
“So he has the capability to hack a house synthetic.”
“If anyone could figure that out, it’d be a braincook. Best thing I can say about Joey is while he was with us, no one in my unit got hacked. The enemy, they didn’t do so hot.”
“A braincook could figure out how to flip his HARM switch, too.”
David finished his whisky in one last gulp. “Yeah.” He set down the glass.
“There’s a hostage crisis in Escondido that might be related. I think us catching our killer in the act, with LuckyBro, might have spooked him.” It made a grim sort of sense. “If that’s Joseph Dunn, and he can hack synthetics, I have to warn the VCD.”
“Go.” David stood. “There’s no record of you being in Absolution, and if anyone asks, I’ll say the anonymous hardlink was all me. Not like they can prove otherwise.”
“Love you,” Jeb said, sliding out of his seat. “I’ll call you when it’s over.”
As soon as he was clear of the bar, Jeb informed the VCD he’d received a tip about the hostage situation in Escondido, one he needed to deliver it in person. Clearance arrived from Director Stanton, who dispatched a CID helo to the Americas Megacenter. An autocar would never get all the way out here and back to Escondido in time.
Jeb hoped he was wrong about Cisero and Joseph Dunn being the same person, but the way this night was going, no one seemed to be that lucky.
* * *
September 11, Shortly After Midnight
Jeb’s black CID helo landed in Escondido to find Captain Naomi Barondale and the Violent Crimes Division camped outside Cisero’s simParlor. Cowan was on his way, but still twenty minutes out. simNews would be here in ten minutes, and having had a whole flight to work out possible motivations for this fiasco, Jeb suspected Cisero wanted that.
Naomi and her squad crouched behind recently dropped plastibarriers, probably placed by milsynths. Behind them stood an army of automated killing machines that served as the VCD’s front line, easily twenty or more. Jeb knew he had to work fast. If Cisero was capable of turning those milsynths on the VCD, he’d do it in front of the news cameras.
“Captain!” Jeb hopped from his helo and jogged toward Naomi. “A word in private!”
Naomi turned and waited, eyes glowing purple. Her soldiers were deployed, her barriers in place, and her target was ignoring all calls. She had no reason to rush.
Jeb crouched behind the plastibarrier, too low for anyone inside Cisero’s parlor to see them. He motioned Naomi down. She dropped, Zhang crouching beside her.
Zhang stroked his ratty goatee. “Evening, Forrester. Married life get boring?”
Jeb plugged a linkline into his auxiliary port. “Got that anonymous tip you were looking for. About Keller.” He offered the other end to Naomi.
Naomi raised one eyebrow, took the line, and plugged the other end into her own auxiliary port. The world popped.
“You know,” Zhang said, “if we’ve got time for that sort of thing, I wouldn’t mind—”
“Shut up,” Naomi said. “Yes, Detective Forrester?”
“I might have intel on Cisero.” Jeb knew a skilled hacker could eavesdrop on wireless signals, but a linkline should be relatively secure. “I believe his name is Joseph Dunn.”
“What makes you believe that?”
Jeb up’d her the records he’d retrieved with Cowan’s help. After a moment, Naomi took another look at the army of milsynths surrounding them. Her lips pressed together.
“If it is possible to hack our milsynths,” Naomi asked, “what would you suggest?”
“It’s possible Dunn called because he wants to make a statement. Maybe he just wants to publicly call out cheaters in SFGo. Or maybe he wants to do something far worse, like make an example of the VCD or OneWorld. Expose a weakness in our system.”
“You really believe he has the skills to hack milsynths? I can accept a house synthetic, but our models use more advanced decryption than anything in Peru.”
“I don’t see any other reason he’d call you, Naomi. You just delivered his personal army.”
Naomi tapped her fingers on one leg. “If we send them away, or deactivate them, Dunn might suspect we’ve figured him out. He might start killing hostages.”
“If you don’t send them away, he might start killing hostages and the VCD.”
Naomi flipped to her squad’s channel, then added Jeb through their linkline. “We’re going after Dunn now, and we’re firing up the security blanket.”
Zhang paled. “Why?”
“Zhang, Sparks, Bradley, you’re with me. Marquez, you’re out here on crowd control. Everyone form up so I can pass out ear-comms. When I give the order, turtle up.”
“What kind of a plan is that?” Zhang took another look at their army of milsynths. “Won’t the security blanket disable the bullet sponges?”
“From what Forrester just told me, our target can hack milsynths. I’d prefer they don’t shoot us in the back.”
Zhang actually turned pale. “Mother fucker.”
Naomi handed out ear-comms to her gathered soldiers and offered Jeb an apologetic look. “I know you can handle yourself in a fight. I also know you can’t hurt or kill human beings, and we may need to hurt someone inside. You stay out here.”
“Understood.” Jeb lacked a HARM switch, which made him incapable of hurting Dunn. He could stun anyone trying to escape, however, so he wasn’t dead weight.
“Also, given we know our target is a braincook, I’d prefer you carry a weapon linked to our IFF system.” Naomi pulled the gun from her ankle holster and handed it to Jeb. It was a Glock G70, with real bullets. Before he could protest, she spoke again.
“It’s for the milsynths. They’re stunner resistant. If one comes after you, put one round through its faceplate. That should blind it, and it can’t shoot you if it’s blind.”
Naomi was right, and having a real gun was reassuring. Jeb tucked the gun into the back of his pants, hidden beneath his duster. “Good hunting, captain.”
She stood and turned to the darkened parlor. “We’ll certainly see, won’t we?”
* * *
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