Episode 5: CLU Box (Part 1)


September 15, Early Morning


When the CID helo landed heavily on three closed down lanes of the Five, what had once been a black van still burned. Two firetrucks were hosing it down, but the flames burned white and blue, suggesting accelerant. Cowan stared at the blaze, at the inky smoke, at the pieces of a van that were just about everywhere.

The people who had abducted him and Sonne were dead, and Cowan had no idea how that had happened. The van’s explosion had tossed two other autocars into the highway median, but safety foam still dribbled from their windows. A good sign.

“Lean on me!” Jeb shouted, over the rotors and wind. He slid an arm around Cowan’s waist, and Cowan wrapped an arm around Jeb’s big shoulders. “On three! One, two—”

Together, they stepped out of the helo. Having only one working leg was going to be a chore, but a VCD medic had locked his leg within a medical brace to avoid further damage. As a bonus, Cowan had disabled the excruciating pain through his PBA.

It vexed him that he couldn’t remember how he broke his knee. Whoever redacted his memories had been very, very good. None of his recovery attempts had been successful.

Had he broken his knee when the autocar wrecked, or had his captors broken it during the time he couldn’t remember? Sonne’s memories of their date had been redacted as well. She had left with her sister, Kate, after Kate pulled corporate rank and shortened the VCD’s interrogation to a formality.

Cowan hadn’t gotten to talk to Sonne, hadn’t gotten to say goodbye or ask what she knew. Yet they were both alive, weren’t they? Cowan took comfort in that, even if everything else remained a mystery. A mystery now burning in a blown up van.

The helo departed, the loud rotors becoming less loud. VCD Captain Naomi Barondale strode over to them, one cut visible on her dark brown cheek. It oozed blood.

Cowan tapped his own cheek and winced at her. “You okay?”

“Better than Sparks and Marquez. Van pieces knocked them flat.” Barondale wiped the blood off her cheek. “They’ll live.”

After Jeb’s helo landed at the abandoned warehouse where Cowan and Sonne had ended up, somehow, they’d been unable raise the VCD on the wireless. It turned out this exploded van had also carried an EMP, which went off right before the van exploded. The electromagnetic bomb had fried every relay tower in a two kilometer radius, knocking out wireless communications for blocks. Someone would be rewritten for that, if Corporate One connected anyone still living to whatever made that van explode.

Jeb had told Cowan he had no obligation to come here, but Cowan needed to see the exploded van for himself, see if anyone had survived. Who had those men been? Why had they been after him, and most importantly … were they connected to Galileo?

“Care to tell me what you remember?” Barondale said.

“I got abducted,” Cowan said. “I don’t know much else, other than my captors redacted my memories afterward. Do you know if anyone was in the van?”

“Scanners say three bodies plus the driver. The driver got out and shouted at us after we stopped him at the perimeter. Raised his hands like he was going to surrender.”

“And he didn’t blow up the van.” That sounded like Galileo, like the killswitch he installed in Anton Barkov. Anytime anyone tried to give Galileo up, they died.

“We can’t know that for sure,” Barondale said, “but we didn’t see him trigger anything, so it’s possible someone else triggered the explosion.”

“Any IDs on these assholes?” Jeb asked.

“I doubt we’ll find much but cracked bones and ash. It’s hot enough to cremate them in there. Did you get a look at any of them, Cowan?”

“I don’t know,” Cowan said.

“Did they say what they wanted with you?”

“If they did, I can’t remember.”

“Damn.” Barondale stared at the burning wreckage. “What a shitty night.”

Cowan remembered the way Sonne looked when she got into their autocar, absolutely breathtaking. And also how she looked when they parted, with burn marks on one arm and one leg from stunner rounds. Everything between those images was missing.

“It was kind of a shitty night,” Cowan said. So much for dating again.

Barondale glanced at him, her sculpted features softening in what might be sympathy. “You can’t do anything else here. Once the fire dies down, we’ll send in an ant swarm, but I doubt they’ll find anything. For now, I’ve got another problem.”

“What’s that?” Jeb asked. He kept Cowan standing.

“Zhang and Bradley are camped at a construction site, dealing with a rogue synthcop. Damn thing called in a murder, so I split my team to check it out. But the moment they arrived on the scene, the synthcop started shooting at them with a nail gun.”

“Odd,” Jeb said.

“Also, when we notified Corporate One, they told us ‘stand down and wait for further orders’. So basically, my people are stuck in a truck.”

“You think someone hacked the synthcop?” Cowan asked.

“That’s possible now, isn’t it?” Barondale asked. “That’s why we need someone from the CID to check it out. Unfortunately, everyone in your department is about to be mobilized to handle this electromagnetic clusterfuck.”

Jeb tapped the side of his head. “And there’s the orders to join the salvage effort. Emergency wireless is back online.” He turned his eyes skyward. “Stanton’s airship must have deployed relay balloons.”

“What about me?” Cowan said. “I didn’t get any orders.”

“That’s because you’re scheduled for a debrief,” Jeb said. “Someone from the OMH is on their way to talk you through everything that happened, help you process your feelings.”

“Aww,” Cowan said.

“After that, you’re out of the field until you can walk again. An autocar with a counselor is on its way, and it’ll take you to Sharp Memorial. The car should be here soon.”

Barondale smiled at Cowan. “If you’re heading to Sharp, you’re going right past the construction site. Any chance you could stop and help my people with that synth?

Cowan looked to Jeb. “Can I?”

“That’s your call.” Jeb shrugged. “You’re the one with the bum knee.”

An autocar chose that moment to cruise up and stop, with the letters ‘OMH’ embossed on its door. Those doors rose, revealing a plush interior and Office of Mental Health counselor Sarisa Bassa. Cowan remembered her from the Fisher residence.

“Got you the best,” Jeb said. He nodded to Sarisa, who smiled at both of them.

“I can’t order you to help us,” Barondale said, “but the rest of my team just had a van blow up in their faces.”

“I’ll do it,” Cowan said. “I could use a victory tonight.”

“All right then.” Jeb walked them forward, Cowan hopping on one leg. “Take good care of him, okay?”

Sarisa nodded. “You still owe me a drink.”

Once Jeb had manhandled Cowan inside, an ego-dampening experience, the doors closed and the autocar rolled off. Sarisa smiled at him and Cowan tried to smile back, but she was a rather attractive woman, with a soft face and dark hair. Cowan had left the last attractive woman he’d met covered in stunner marks and kind of pissed off.

“You don’t have to talk about anything right now,” Sarisa said. “If you want to talk about what happened, what you remember, I’m here, but I’m not going to pressure you.”

“Thanks,” Cowan said. “Also, do you mind if we stop at that construction site?”

“Is that important to you?”

“Yes. I’d like to help out the VCD, since they were helping me when that van blew up.

“All right.” Sarisa eased back in her seat.

“Great,” Cowan said. “So, I’m going to be quiet and process my feelings now. Okay?”

Sarisa might have smirked, but it was hard to tell in the dim light. Soon they arrived at bright construction lights. Those lights highlighted a yellow gate made out of parallel bars, easy to duck under or walk over. It was really for stopping cars.

A VCD autotruck was parked outside the gate, splashing the area with flashing red and blue lights. It seemed this site was just out of range of the EMP blast. Lucky for them.

Santiago Zhang and his shiny metal legs hopped from the truck. He waved them to a stop as Cowan’s autocar approached, keeping the truck between himself and the site. Was the hacked synthetic shooting nails at passing traffic, as well?

Cowan thought back to Joseph Dunn and his synthetic hacking script. Galileo had bought that script, and he could have sold it to any number of cybercriminals. Was this yet another case of Galileo spreading chaos on the Sim?

The autocar stopped, the doors rolled open, and Zhang offered his arms. “Thanks for the assist, little buddy. Sounds like you guys are dealing with some shit over on the Five.”

“Exploding van,” Cowan said, as Zhang and Sarisa helped him out of the car.

Zhang saluted. “Pleasure to have you with us, counselor.”

“I’m sure,” Sarisa said. “Now, can we step inside your truck before that synth shoots us?”

A blonde woman in the VCD’s blue body armor sat quietly inside the autotruck. She was Melissa Bradley, or sn0wing, before she had been banned from StrikeForceGo because of her affiliation with the VCD. She had a long ponytail and a tan face.

“Welcome,” Bradley said, still gazing into the Sim. “Have a seat.”

A linkline stretched from the port above Bradley’s right ear to the terminal inside the VCD autotruck. She must be trying to unhack the hacked synthetic, or at least trace who was hacking it. Cowan plopped down in the empty chair. “What do you need me to do?”

Bradley’s eyes remained distant. “You could start by telling me how someone hacked this synthcop without using wireless. I can’t find any external signal, at all.”

“Sure,” Cowan said. “I can do that.”

“Also, you could tell me why it’s shooting at us with a nail gun. Lethal force should violate its operational parameters, shouldn’t it?”

Cowan frowned. “Yeah.”

It only then occurred to him he should call Sonne. They should compare notes. Was she home yet? No, she wouldn’t be home yet. He’d call her tomorrow, after he got done here and went to the hospital. He wanted to make sure she was doing okay.

But first he had to make sure no one else got nailed.

* * *

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