September 14, Early Evening
As his autocar pulled into the parking lot out front of Sonne’s Sanctuary, Cowan checked himself in the mirror one last time. Dark hair spiked, button-down shirt buttoned, slacks unruffled. His stomach fluttered in a way it hadn’t in over a year.
His autocar rolled to a gentle stop in front of Sonne’s waifu parlor, one suite crammed into four others and surrounded by leafy palm trees. Sonne lived above her business, actually, which made financial sense. He was actually doing this. A date. With dancing.
Cowan hadn’t dated anyone since Ellen. Sonne had looked surprisingly relaxed when she called to ask him out, but relaxed was Cowan’s nemesis tonight. This was a big step.
Jeb had told him the best way to ride was to get back up on that horse, but that was a stupid metaphor. Sonne wasn’t a horse, and he certainly wasn’t riding her tonight … or was he? What was she expecting?
He could easily be much calmer, with emotional firewalling, but that felt like cheating. He needed tonight to be real and unfiltered. He needed to know if he could be with someone again, or if betraying Ellen had turned him into a relationship zombie.
He knew the autocar had pinged Sonne’s PBA when it arrived, but should he get out to greet her? Would she consider that charming, or condescending? He was just about to step out when her suite’s front door opened. He stared just a little bit.
Sonne wore a sparkly green dress with a V cut deep and a hemline at mid-thigh. The whole thing looked clingy as hell. Gold highlights glittered in her short blonde hair, and this shockingly gorgeous woman was his date. They were going on a date now. Then there was no more time to panic because the autocar’s door swung open.
Sonne stepped in sideways, in that way women did while wearing clingy skirts. She sat down, buckled in, and smiled at him. Her door closed. As the autocar cruised off, Cowan wondered what he should say to her. He wondered if he should have rehearsed.
“Evening.” Sonne peered at him. “You look a little pale.”
“I’m fine!” Cowan said.
“Yeah?” At least she understood. “Just, full disclosure. I haven’t dated in a really long time.”
“And you look amazing.”
“I’m thinking maybe I’m underdressed. You said the club was formal, but I—”
“You look fine.” Sonne leaned close and adjusted his collar with confident fingers. “Now better.” She smelled vaguely flowery. She smelled really good.
Sonne sat back in her seat. “Relax, Cowan. I’ve thought you were cute since the night we stopped that troll, but chemistry? That’s different. Let’s just spend a night together with no expectations, get to know each other better, and dance badly. Okay?”
“Okay.” When she explained it like that, it sounded totally plausible. “And I liked you too, right off. I just wasn’t sure if that was appropriate.”
“Asking out a woman you’d just investigated?”
“It just felt creepy.”
“You aren’t wrong.” Sonne smirked out the window, then twisted to look behind them. She turned forward, blinked, and stared straight at nothing. “Say, that’s weird.”
“What’s weird?” She must be checking her headdesk.
“We went north on the 805.”
“What’s weird about that?” Cowan wasn’t really paying attention to their route.
“Kate’s club is south of here, in the Gaslamp Quarter.” Sonne blinked and focused on him, then frowned. “That’s south, not north, so why are we driving north?”
Cowan glanced out the darkened window, at multiple lanes and commercial fencing. “Maybe there’s a wreck on the freeway?” Autocars were networked to San Diego’s Traffic Control System, or T-Conn, and rerouted themselves to avoid congestion.
“If that’s the case, why not take the 163? You up’d the car Club Sylvan, right?”
“I did.” She was really good with directions. “Maybe there’s a crime scene that hasn’t hit the T-Conn yet.” Cowan flipped over to his own headdesk. “One sec.”
He blinked open a top down map of San Diego from the autocar’s VI, with a hollow blue circle at their location … or not. The map showed them in front of Sonne’s Sanctuary, just off Balboa. He refreshed it, but the map remained stuck, the autocar circle unmoving. He queried their route, but nothing showed up. No route line appeared.
“You seeing this?” Sonne asked.
Cowan’s heart thumped harder. “Yes.” Their autocar was acting an awful lot like someone had hacked it. He’d seen lots of hacking since he started with the CID, but only one name worried him. A dead astronomer who puppeted little girls.
“I’m pinging T-Conn,” Sonne said.
“I’ll ping CID.” The words Wireless Call Failed popped up on Cowan’s headdesk.
“What the shit?” Sonne must have gotten the same message.
Cowan firewalled his fear center, because something dangerous was happening now and he needed to think clearly. Fear was so central to the brain that you couldn’t firewall it off entirely, not like guilt or lust. You could, however, dull it to a manageable level.
Cowan took a poll of surrounding traffic out his window. Their autocar hadn’t joined any caravans yet, which was good. “I’m pulling the emergency stop, okay?” Because doing that would result in a significant fine, a night filing reports, and a court appearance.
Sonne gripped the armrest and pushed back in her seat. “Do it.”
Cowan grabbed the emergency interrupt — a bright yellow handle in the floor of the autocar — and pulled. And waited. Their autocar cruised blissfully along the 805.
“Well fuck,” Sonne added.
Someone had actually disconnected the autocar’s emergency stop mechanism. That implied whatever was blocking their wireless transmissions might have some sort of physical apparatus on the car as well. This wasn’t just a software problem.
Cowan scripted together a series of wireless detection constructors. He executed his new script and instantly detected a rogue transmission beneath the car. “I think someone maglocked an override box to the undercarriage. It’s overriding the autocar’s VI.”
“How does that help us?”
“Well, if we can disable the magnet—”
“Okay. Do it.”
“Um.” Cowan glanced around the empty car. “I need a hardlink.”
“Right.” Sonne lifted one toeless shoe and crossed it over her other knee, showing a dangerous amount of leg. “Gimme a sec.” She started unscrewing her heel.
Cowan stared as she turned her heel. It popped right off. “Your heels come off?”
“Easier to conceal than a knife, at least in this dress.” Sonne jabbed the door panel until the maintenance cover popped off, then teased out some wires with her painted green nails. “Forget the override. Can you hack into this and get the doors open?”
He considered. “I guess, but how does that help us?”
“It gets the doors open. Then we tuck and roll.”
He looked out the window again, at the pavement zooming by below. At the other autocars speeding along to the side, and ahead, and behind them. “On the freeway?”
“Once it gets off the freeway,” Sonne said. “It has to get off sometime, right?”
“Right.” Just as Cowan started to unbuckle, the autocar accelerated like a shotput. It tossed him against the seat, and for one terrifying moment, he was certain Sonne had stabbed herself with her heel. The autocar swerved right around the car ahead of them.
Cowan gripped his shoulder belt. “They can hear us!”
“Well, I guess I’ll just sit in my chair then!” Sonne arched her back, braced herself with legs and one arm, and stretched for the open panel with her other arm. The car braked hard, tossing them both forward. They hit belts hard enough to leave them gasping.
Cowan was vaguely aware of an autocar behind them screeching at it veered around them, barely missing them. “They can see us, too,” Cowan said, between gasps.
The autocar sped up again. It danced across lanes as Sonne drew enough breath to shout “Fuck you!” and enthusiastically extend a middle finger. She clutched her belt and tried for the panel again, and failed again. It was like riding a bull in the Sim. If not for the belts, they’d be bouncing around the passenger compartment like crash dummies.
Sonne was fighting this, and Cowan knew he should be too. Yet what could he do while the car was moving and weaving this erratically? If he just had a wireless connection—
That’s when it hit him. He did have a wireless connection. He had to have a wireless connection, because someone was controlling this autocar, wirelessly! The mechanism on the bottom of this car might be blocking the specific frequencies PBAs used to communicate wirelessly with the Sim, but there were other frequencies.
Cowan flipped to his headdesk and scripted an automated wardriving routine. Now, instead of trying to connect to the Sim, his PBA would try to connect to any wireless network. If they passed close enough to an unsecured network, he might be able to—
There. A plate reader. Cowan had contact just long enough to ping the CID before their stubborn autocar sped out of range. He didn’t whoop or alert Sonne, as much as he wanted too. The hacker would hear him, and he needed more breadcrumbs first.
Open freeway fell away behind them as the car veered left to right, right to left, braking, accelerating, and making a general mess of surrounding traffic. Cowan held on because all he could do was hold on, and wait. And pray the car didn’t drive them off a bridge.
Finally, his wardriving routine connected to a roadside callbox. It fired another ping, and Cowan cheered in silence. The CID had their direction and, with timestamps, rate of speed. The CID’s monitors would have been alerted the moment he left the Sim, so they had to be looking already. When a CID cop went dark without warning, the CID noticed.
Their autocar veered wildly across two lanes of the 805, off the actual road, and went airborne down a hill. Cowan and Sonne both screamed. They landed hard enough to rattle his teeth, skidded down a hill, and slammed onto a single lane road below the Five. Then their angry autocar followed that under the 805, almost gently, and stopped.
Cowan took a careful look at their surroundings. Scrub-covered hills rose to the right, and he saw a couple of modest office buildings way up on those hills, far away. There were bridges of freeway crossing each other, and puffy trees, and electrical towers carrying power lines. There were no people. Everything was surrounded by dark sky.
A rhythmic dinging filled the passenger compartment, a low battery warning. Sonne went to unsnap her belt, but Cowan grabbed her hand. “Wait! We might take off again.”
The autocar’s front window exploded in a shower of safety glass shards. A grenade spiraled in through the open window and bounced off the emergency handle. It landed and spun like some homicidal version of Spin the Bottle.
“Shit!” Cowan fumbled with his locked restraints, then threw his body across Sonne’s. He could protect her head and chest. She could survive with her head and chest.
Cowan braced himself, face mashed against the door. Sonne lay smooshed beneath him, warm and barely breathing. Cars whooshed by overhead. It started to feel a bit awkward.
“Cowan?” Sonne asked.
“Is it a dud?”
Cowan opened his eyes to find himself unexploded. “Maybe?”
The grenade clicked once.
* * *
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