Jeb waited as the VCD activated their mimetic camouflage and moved out as shimmers in the air, like heat off pavement. His own duster couldn’t camouflage him, but military gear was for military people. The CID was a civilian branch of OneWorld corporation.
Jeb crouched behind the plastibarrier and sent a message to the CID. “Going dark for a joint operation with the VCD, under electromagnetic suppression.” He forwarded the message to Cowan, too. No point in alarming either of them by vanishing off the Sim.
A security blanket was a very powerful jammer. It scrambled all wireless traffic, including all communication with and orders to synthetics. Only synced encrypted channels, like that on Naomi’s ear-comm set, could operate under a security blanket.
“Going dark in ten seconds,” Naomi said over his ear-comm.
Jeb knew the security blanket was active when his wireless connection slipped away. He’d been networked for almost thirty years, and being without a connection to the Sim always left him feeling like someone had wrapped a cotton blanket around his head. Every single sensation — touch, smell, taste — became muffled.
A vague female form materialized by the front door. Naomi raised a hand and pointed at the door. Then, she vanished again. There was silence, followed by gunfire and lots of it. Jeb winced. Who were they shooting at? The gunfire stopped. No one said anything.
“Naomi?” Jeb whispered over the ear-comm.
“They’re not picking up,” Marquez said. “They should be picking up.” He sounded just a little bit panicked, but he was also tech support. They stayed in the van.
“Open a hole in the blanket and alert Corporate One. I’ll have a look inside.” Jeb vaulted the barricade, eyes adjusted to the dim moonlight. Cotton still wrapped his head, assuring him the security blanket remained active, but this silence was wrong.
The building’s doors hung open. Jeb slammed into the wall, took a breath, and dashed inside. A metal spike whizzed by as he entered, barely missing him. The shadow that fired it was huge, inhuman, which told him it wasn’t anyone he knew.
Jeb fired his stunner at the shadow, but his round bounced off. It was a synthetic, and it didn’t seem to mind the security blanket, which suggested it was running archived orders. He dived across the room as the bulky construction synthetic opened fire with is dual nail guns. A nail nicked his calf right before he landed behind the desk. That stung.
“Marquez?” Jeb shouted over the ear-comm. “The synthetics in here are still active! What are the ones outside doing?”
Marquez didn’t answer. Something inside this building was blocking his ear-comm. Cisero?
Jeb heard beefy metal feet advancing and holstered his stunner. He pondered pulling Naomi’s Glock, but this was a construction synthetic, not a milsynth. If Joseph Dunn was watching him, Jeb didn’t want to reveal his real gun.
He snapped his Helping Hand open. Half his prosthetic palm folded back upon itself, exposing his shocker mount. He rose as the synthetic rounded the table and jolted it right between its boxy yellow shoulders. It dropped like a pile of bricks, overloaded.
He stepped over its still twitching body and discovered why all the shooting had happened. At least eight domestic synthetics clutching knifes and other melee weapons littered the floor, shot full of holes and non-functional. There were no human bodies.
Where was the VCD? Where was Captain Naomi Barondale?
“You weren’t on the guest list,” a voice said over a PA system. The front doors slammed and locked. “Who are you?”
Jeb looked around for cameras. “Just a concerned citizen.”
“Good job on the security blanket. How’d you know I could hack your milsynths?”
“I know everything about you, Joseph.” Time for Jeb to test his theory. “You’re not getting out of this. We have you surrounded. Your only chance is to surrender.”
There was a pause. “Who’s Joseph?” If it was Dunn, he had a decent poker voice.
Jeb hugged the wall as he crept forward, listening for the sound of metal feet. “What are you trying to accomplish, Joseph? Why are you killing people in StrikeForceGo?”
Metal legs clomped ahead and Jeb fell into a crouch, readying his shocker mount. Running was pointless, but if he could shock the synthetic before it got a bead on him…
Jeb jumped out to find Zhang instead. Zhang shuffled past him, eyes twitching. Each step was hesitant and uncoordinated. His legs walked him past Jeb and down the hall.
Zhang faced the stairs as his metal feet clomped to a stop. He craned his neck unnaturally and fixed Jeb with worried, rapidly blinking eyes. Zhang — no, the man who was currently puppeting Zhang’s body — wanted Jeb to follow him.
So if Dunn was capable of puppeting everyone in the VCD, why couldn’t he puppet Jeb? How were they different? He thought about it, and one answer made the most sense.
Everyone in the VCD had a HARM switch installed. If Dunn knew enough about HARM switches to enable his own, he probably knew enough to use those switches to hack people’s PBAs. He would certainly hack Jeb, too, but not immediately. He had time.
“What’s your name, detective?” Dunn asked.
“Me?” Jeb followed Zhang up the narrow stairs. “I’m just a guy having a shitty night.”
Dunn chuckled. “I didn’t ask you to join the party.”
Zhang’s puppeted body turned at the top of the stairs and led Jeb down a second floor hallway. The window at the end was completely covered in shiny foil and metal. A door opened in the middle of the hallway, a room away from the windows. A secure room.
Jeb drew his stunner as another VCD cop stepped out, a young woman with a blond ponytail and blue eyes. Her name was Melissa Bradley. She strained, eyes wide, as Dunn puppeted her into a low bow. She straightened and held the door open.
“Come in here, detective,” Dunn said over the PA. “Oh, and hand your stunner to Sergeant Bradley. Wouldn’t want me to cook anyone’s brain.”
Jeb handed his stunner to Bradley and entered the room. The VCD report had stated Dunn had over fifteen hostages inside his parlor, so where were they? Only the members of the VCD were inside, and all the rooms on the way up had been empty.
At least Dunn hadn’t asked for Naomi’s Glock. Dunn didn’t know about it. Yet what good would a real gun do when Jeb’s clear circuit algorithms prevented him from using it?
Bradley followed him into the room and shut the door. Dunn wanted to gloat, which meant Jeb could buy time. He had to figure something out before Dunn cooked his PBA.
Naomi stood stiff in one corner, with Sergeant Terry Sparks in the other. Naomi’s second was a tall, muscular black dude with a crew cut and a long scar down his stubbled face. He pointed his own Glock at Naomi’s head.
“Now, Joseph.” Jeb kept his hands up. “Let’s not do anything rash.”
“How many hostages do I have now?” the PA system asked. “Six?” Joseph Dunn wasn’t in this room. “Do I really need six hostages, or can I get away with five? Four?”
“If you start killing hostages,” Jeb said, “the VCD will storm the building.” Where were the rest of Dunn’s hostages? “Once you start killing people, the kid gloves come off.”
“There’s no other soldiers outside, Jeb, though simNews has just arrived. Perhaps I’ll march this squad out and make them shoot each other for the cameras. That’d be dramatic, wouldn’t it? That’d make the evening news.”
Jeb kept his voice as calm as he could manage. “Where are the hostages, Dunn?”
“You’re looking at them.”
“The others. Your clients.”
“There’s no clients in here. I didn’t have any hostages until you arrived.” He didn’t sound like he was lying. “Are you really so inept that you couldn’t figure that out?”
So Dunn had fooled Corporate One’s satellites? How? Jeb had seen the IR scans on his flight over, seen fifteen warm bodies huddled inside the building. So either Dunn was lying, hiding his hostages somewhere in the building — or he could change Corporate One’s satellite imagery. Jeb didn’t know which possibility disturbed him more.
“Five,” Dunn said. “Five hostages to use as bargaining chips, and one to show the negotiator I mean business.”
Jeb turned as Bradley raised her Glock. She pointed it at Sparks’ shaved head. Her lips trembled and her wet eyes blinked. Sparks pointed his gun at Naomi as Naomi aimed hers at Bradley. Zhang mumbled in the corner.
“Who can they lose?” Joseph asked. “Who’s the team slacker?”
Dunn wanted Jeb to beg for their lives, but Jeb knew that would only delay a good cop’s death. Dunn already had a script in his head where someone here died, so Jeb couldn’t follow Dunn’s script. He had to flip it.
Jeb started laughing. He bent over, chuckling like a maniac. He sucked in breaths and pounded his leg.
“What the fuck are you laughing about?” Dunn sounded pissed, which meant Jeb was getting to him.
“You.” Jeb straightened, wiping his eyes. “You’re so proud of yourself.”
“Well, I did puppet an entire squad of VCD. Did I crack a nerve?”
“You didn’t crack anything. You’re in a pleasurebox.”
Mimetic camouflage outfits, like those worn by the VCD, hadn’t been invented when Dunn served. Few people outside active VCD knew how they worked. There was a chance a man like Dunn had a history of Simulation Disorder. If Jeb could exploit that…
“Mind games?” Dunn sounded intrigued. “You convince me none of this is real and, what? I surrender?”
“I don’t care what you do,” Jeb said, “because you’ve already given us all the evidence we need to rewrite you. Let me ask you this. Remember when you called us?”
Dunn said nothing.
“Remember how you waited in your little room, undetected? The VCD showed up, twenty milsynths hopped out, and then we marched in just like you planned?”
“It was a good plan,” Dunn said.
“We’ve been onto you from the start, Joseph! How else would I know your name? We’ve known you could hack synthetics since you killed Keller. If we knew that, why would we deliver twenty milsynths to your door?”
“Because you’re a bunch of amateurs, asshole.” He wasn’t denying being Joseph Dunn anymore.
“We captured your PBA the moment you took that call. You’re in an OMH detention center, and our little fantasy is about to get a lot worse.”
“You’re not very good at this,” Dunn said. “Let me show you why I am. Captain Barondale!” Dunn paused. “When I give the order, shoot Melissa Bradley in the head.”
“Oh, and your other problem?” Jeb said. “Because we’re controlling your simulation, I still have a gun.”
Before Naomi could shoot Bradley, Jeb pulled out the Glock. He fought the warning tingle, the nausea and blurry vision that followed any hostile intent. His vision clouded.
He reminded himself that he did not intend to hurt anyone, that what he was doing would save lives. He reminded himself that VCD body armor could easily stop a round from a Glock, even at short range. Nausea churned as his entire body shook.
He shot Melissa Bradley in the chest.
* * *
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