Episode 5: CLU Box (Part 3)



Cowan’s knee was killing him. He flipped to his headdesk and restarted a script to dull the worst of the pain, which worked, but when he tried to access the Sim again, he hit a wireless block. The soldiers pointing guns at them must be using a security blanket, the same jammer Captain Barondale’s team had used outside Joseph Dunn’s simParlor.

“You yahoos just pulled your guns on two VCD cops,” Zhang said, from the void beyond Cowan’s headdesk, “and you’re interfering in an active VCD investigation. That’s dumb.”

“OneWorld is now taking you off that investigation, sergeant,” the blond soldier said. “My name is Captain Kyle. I’m here to relieve you. CorpSec will take things from here.”

Nervous energy filled Cowan. Corporate Security was the private security force of OneWorld, the five-person board that ruled the planet. This was the closet he’d been to a Corporate Security soldier, which finally gave him a chance to hack into their archives.

That task would be difficult and would, if he failed, likely get him rewritten. He didn’t want to do it. He didn’t even know if he could do it.

But he did have to find out what they did with Ellen.

Cowan returned to meatspace and archived Captain Kyle and the rifle pointed at them. Kyle had a blond crew cut, a trimmed goatee, and glowing red eyes. His uniform patch showed a blue earth on a gray background, with a “One” sprawled across it. OneWorld.

Cowan didn’t remember Kyle from the night soldiers like him abducted Ellen, but the CorpSec soldiers had been wearing masks. The eyes of the two soldiers backing Kyle glowed red as well, meaning OneWorld had activated their HARM switches. Not good.

“How can we verify you’re CorpSec when you’ve jammed up our wireless?” Zhang asked. “Seems awfully suspicious to me.” He still hadn’t moved, which was ballsy given all the rifles pointed at him.

“Here’s all the OneWorld verification you need.” Kyle tapped his cheek by his glowing red eyes. “How about you, sergeant? Is your HARM switch active?”

Zhang glanced at Bradley for confirmation — no glowing eyes there either — and shrugged. “Hey, it happens to everyone.”

“Counselor Bassa?” Kyle lowered his rifle as he focused on her. “Your current orders are to take Detective Soto to Sharp Memorial. Why haven’t you?”

Cowan slid into his PBA’s private partition and opened a custom script that would get him arrested if the CID caught him using it. He wouldn’t let them catch him using it. Fortunately, he’d gotten good at following conversations while scripting.

“Detective Soto chose to aid the VCD with an open murder investigation,” Sarisa said. “The synthcop that called in the murder fired on them, necessitating CID assistance.”

“We’ll look into that for you,” Kyle said. “You’re cleared to head to Sharp. Zhang, Bradley, head to the Five and assist Captain Barondale with the wireless blackout.”

“Bullshit,” Zhang said. “That synthetic fired on us. That makes this is a violent crime.”

“Discharging a stunner isn’t a violent crime,” Kyle said.

“The synthetic didn’t fire a stunner,” Bradley said. “It fired a nail gun at us, at living human targets.”

“Violent as fuck,” Zhang added. “Which means you can’t muscle us out. It’s protocol, bro. We’re stuck together.” He paused. “We can hug it out if you feel bad.”

Cowan popped into meatspace just as Sarisa glanced at him, a question in her raised eyebrow. He saw it too. Could the synthetic at the construction site have fired that nailgun at Zhang and Bradley, missing intentionally, of course, to ensure CorpSec couldn’t dismiss the VCD? Did it want someone looking over CorpSec’s shoulder?

Cowan knew what it was like to be surrounded by Corporate Security thugs, dragged away to an undisclosed location never to be heard from again. That’s probably where Ellen was now, locked in a black cell for more months than she could count. Finding Ellen was why he had joined the CID and done literally everything. He had to act.

“Sarisa,” Cowan said, “let’s go to the hospital?”

Zhang scowled. “Hey, thanks for the support.”

“CorpSec has things handled here, and my busted knee feels like it’s getting worse.” Cowan made himself mean it.

“Yeah, whatever.” Zhang dismissed him with a waved hand. “Ask for the good drugs.”

“Thanks for your help,” Bradley said. “Get some rest.”

“Here,” Sarisa said, sliding his arm over her shoulders. “Let me help.” She looked away as she helped him hop toward the back of the truck and the exit.

Captain Kyle stepped aside as he and Sarisa reached the back doors. Cowan stumbled as he reached them, pulling away from Sarisa as she let out of a soft cry of surprise. The road came at him surprisingly fast. If this didn’t work, it was going to really hurt.

Kyle caught him. Cowan flailed as Kyle pulled him out, stood him up, and braced Cowan’s arm over both his shoulders. Cowan stared and blinked. “Thanks!”

“Not a problem.” Kyle helped him hop to Sarisa’s waiting autocar, which showed he wasn’t a total asshole. As the man helped him into the seat, Cowan slid his arm away.

He slid a finger across the back of Kyle’s neck. The custom script on Cowan’s private partition cloned the wireless address emitting from Kyle’s PBA, at the base of his skull. Kyle didn’t yell or shoot him, which suggested he hadn’t been detected. He’d done it!

Sarisa got into the autocar on the other side. “Good luck, captain. Stay safe.”

“You too.” Kyle strode back to the VCD autotruck. “Hey, Zhang! You can stay, but you’re following my orders now. The first of my orders is to stay in your stupid truck.”

“You know,” Zhang said, as Kyle’s soldiers closed the doors, “we actually refer to them as smart—”

The doors slammed. As Sarisa’s autocar cruised away, Cowan counted soldiers. Four more CorpSec troopers in armor supported Kyle, and they had three black autocars.

There was no logo on the doors, but that wasn’t unusual. CorpSec didn’t advertise. Cowan would have to wait until he cleared the security blanket before he could tap into Captain Kyle’s PBA, wirelessly, but he could tap in. He was free and clear, except…

What about the person hiding in that building? What about the rogue synthcop and the incredibly obvious cover up? What about any of this was remotely his business, anyway?

“How are you feeling right now, Cowan?” Sarisa asked. “Would you like to talk about what happened to you tonight?”

Cowan grimaced. Was she really going to do this now?

“Remember,” Sarisa said, “everything you tell me about your mental state, how you’re feeling about your work, is confidential. Everything you say will remain between us.”

God, he was an idiot! Counseling sessions remained protected by patient/doctor privilege, or at least as protected as conversations got these days. Sarisa was reminding him they could talk without being monitored, even by Corporate Security. She thought this was as strange as he did, and she would help him if he wanted it. So did he want it?

He had a link to Ellen at last. All he had to do was leave the person in that building to whatever fate CorpSec had planned, but could he do that? Would Ellen want him to do that? He pictured her face, her smile, and found his answer. He’d known all along.

“Yes,” Cowan said. “I’d like to talk about my feelings now.”

Sarisa pressed a key on her armrest. A low buzz filled the interior, what sounded like an audible scrambler. The autocar’s VI couldn’t archive their discussion any longer. The car rolled to a stop a few blocks from the construction site, out of sight of Kyle’s thugs.

“Well?” Sarisa asked. She was waiting.

Jeb trusted this woman, so Cowan would too. “CorpSec is obviously hiding something. What if whoever’s hiding at that construction site is a witness to some corporate crime?”

“For example?” She didn’t contradict him outright, which was promising.

“Bribery? Embezzling? Espionage? There’s no reason to muscle out the VCD unless they’re worried what might happen here will look bad for someone, somewhere.”

Sarisa watched him, features unusually calm. “Do you think the people charged with protecting OneWorld’s interests would be complicit in hiding such crimes?”

“What, like you don’t?”

“I think, as sworn employees of OneWorld corporation, we must be very careful what we say and who we say it about.” Sarisa leaned forward, light glinting off the bindi on her forehead. “What did you think of Captain Kyle?”

Cowan blinked over to his headdesk and sped through the confrontation. “He was nervous. He sent us off too fast. He didn’t even ask what we’d learned from the synthcop.” Cowan blinked back. “That’s the first thing I’d ask, if I was CorpSec.”

“Anything else?”

She was acting like Jeb now. Was she training him? “Kyle suppressed our wireless connections, so he was obviously worried about what that synthcop might tell us. That means he might know why it’s acting odd. It definitely wanted someone else there.”

“If that’s true, what do you hope to do about it?”

“Can’t you contact someone at the OMH? You guys are the only ones who can challenge Corporate Security. Somebody has to handle their psych evals, right?”

“Challenging CorpSec’s field decisions isn’t really something we do,” Sarisa said. “Though I am surprised you haven’t mentioned the other problem with Kyle’s story.”

“What problem?” Had she caught something he missed?

“CorpSec recently changed their logo from a blue world surrounded by gray armor to a blue world surrounded by green armor. It came out of a focus group test. People preferred green to gray.”

Cowan hadn’t heard about that. “When did they make the change?”

“A month ago.”

Cowan snatched a shot of Kyle’s uniform from his PBA and magnified it. The patch did look awfully gray. “How long does it take to update everyone’s uniform patches?”

“They’ve been done for at least two weeks.”

“So … those soldiers might be imposters!” Cowan’s elation vanished as he realized what that meant. “They’re wearing obsolete uniforms.” He felt like he’d been kicked in the stomach. He’d been so sure of himself, so proud, so close to finding Ellen, and now…


“That is strange, isn’t it?” Sarisa said.

Cowan pushed down his crushing disappointment and focused on the one person he could still help. He had to help someone, didn’t he? Ellen would want him to help.

“So.” Cowan took a breath, focused his mind, and pushed his newest disappointment deep with the rest. “If they are masquerading as Corporate Security, why? Who did they corner at that construction site, and why don’t they want anyone talking to them?”

“I think,” Sarisa said, as her autocar cruised off again, “we should drive somewhere quiet and figure that out.” She looked out the window. “Were you able to clone the captain’s wireless link when you palmed his neck on the way to the car?”

Cowan winced. “You saw that?” Denying it would just make him look more guilty, and he mentally scrambled for an explanation.

“You’re lucky he didn’t,” Sarisa said. “If you plan to clone people’s wireless connections, you really should work on your technique.”

“Okay.” Was she going to report him?

“Also,” Sarisa said, “CorpSec wrote the scripts the CID uses to clone wireless links. If those soldiers were CorpSec, did you really think they wouldn’t detect your intrusion?”

Cowan breathed out. Sarisa was assuming he’d used a CID script, not his own. She was warning him against making a rookie mistake because he was a rookie, after all.

He’d almost blown his entire cover just now, outing himself as a loose circuit and finding Ellen in the worse way possible: by getting locked in a padded cell beside her. He had to be more careful. She needed him to be more careful.

“You’re not the first to try that.” Sarisa must assume his discomfort was due to her warning. “I’m only giving you a head’s up because others have done the same thing.”

Cowan did his best to look relieved. “Thanks. But … if those guys actually were CorpSec, would you have told anyone what I did?”

“Well.” Sarisa smiled out the window. “Now we’ll never know.”

* * *

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