September 20, Late Evening
“The Augur is ready for you now, Detective.” The voice of Corporate One’s VI security system echoed in his ear, British and female. They were always British and female. “Please step into the elevator.”
Detective Jeb Forrester’s stomach fluttered as the reflective elevator doors opened. He took another look around the massive lobby of Corporate One. It had a floor of black and white tiles the size of a football field. Triangular glass panes rose to a pyramid above him, and rainbow fragments sparkled on the tile. Potted ferns grew in each lit alcove.
Military grade synthetics — milsynths — stood with assault rifles ready at both double doors, polished and angular. More stood beside the elevators, and even more waited behind every third desk. There were painted in brown and gray urban camouflage.
Normal synthcops waited beyond that long line of desks to direct visitors where they were intended to go, but Corporate One rarely had visitors who didn’t work for the CID, OMH, or VCD. No people actually worked on this floor.
Getting called down to Corporate One without any explanation was worrying enough. Getting called down to see the Augur was several steps of Oh shit beyond that. Was this the official inquiry Stanton had promised he’d face some day, about the night he got tortured at Sonne’s Sanctuary? Or was this about something even worse?
“Detective Forrester,” Corporate One’s VI jolted him into action. “Please step into—”
“I’m going.” Jeb stepped into the elevator before he could talk himself out of it. Those doors rumbled shut, and then his stomach rose in his gut. They were going down fast.
They went down and kept going down until Jeb was certain these elevator doors were going to open onto the pits of Hell. At least it would be a change of pace. He wondered if it would be the typically Odyssean underworld, or more of Dante’s variety.
When the elevator doors did open, Jeb was disappointed to find a long white hall with a white and black milsynth. This one wasn’t armed, but its head was a silver pyramid with no visible sensors. Unusual. Unusual and kind of creepy.
“Detective Forrester.” It’s robotic voice was right out the classic movies he and David loved, somewhere between a Dalek and your run-of-the-mill Cylon. “Please follow me.”
As Jeb followed, he found himself wondering if Detective Sylvia Garcia had walked this same hall. She still worked in the cubicle beside him — or someone with her face did.
Five years ago, Garcia got called down to the Augur after letting a bunch of closed circuit terrorists overpower her. Those terrorists escaped, with Garcia’s weapons, across the border to Canada. She claimed they caught her by surprise when her back was turned, but scuttlebutt was she grew sympathetic to the Canadian resistance.
The fact that one of Garcia’s cousins was on a terrorist watch list hadn’t helped. Garcia had returned to the office the day after she saw the Augur, but what returned wasn’t Detective Garcia. She returned with hard eyes, a tight jaw, and a thousand-yard stare.
Sylvia Garcia always laughed when Jeb told dirty jokes over the cubicle wall. She never laughed after she returned from the Augur. Soon enough, Jeb stopped telling jokes.
He followed pyramid head to the end of the featureless white hallway. A wall irised open to reveal a circular portal into the room beyond, also white and featureless.
“Please step inside,” the milsynth said.
Jeb walked inside. The door irised shut behind him, leaving him in the featureless white room. Then the walls, floor, and ceiling went dark, leaving Jeb standing on a silver disc in a void, like he’d just been abducted by aliens. David would love this.
Jeb stood in silence, because silence was obviously what was expected of him. He suspected he wouldn’t be meeting with an actual person. This was no doubt a projection room — similar to the primitive VR setups that offered faint echoes of the Sim — and he suspected the Augur, whoever they were, was going to appear in projected form.
A literal fairy appeared then, descending on a trail of stardust. She wore a form-fitting green mini-skirt. She had blue eyes larger than human eyes, puffy blond hair wrapped in a cute bob, and gossamer wings that fluttered with a hummingbird’s speed. Of all the avatars he’d expected to run into down here, this was pretty far down on his list.
“Detective Forrester!” The fairy alighted on another silver disc, cute green heels clicking down with gold sparkles. “Or should I call you Jeb? I’d really like to call you Jeb, if you’re all right with that. Just easier!”
“You can call me whatever you like, ma’am.”
“Wonderful! You were told you’d be meeting the Augur, and that is technically true, though really, who can say what the Augur is? I certainly can’t, and I’m one of them!”
“Them” implied multiple Augurs. It made sense OneWorld wouldn’t put all their predicting apparatus in one basket. If this was really just a VI, it was awfully chatty.
“Just how many of you are there?” Jeb asked. Would this VI actually tell him?
“I have no idea! Anyway, I invited you here to ask you about Cowan.”
“Soto?” Jeb didn’t bother hiding his surprise. It would seem suspicious not to be surprised.
“Yes, that Cowan! Is he a loose circuit?”
Is he… Jeb kept enough composure to shake his head. “No ma’am. I don’t believe he is.”
“Could I ask what you’re basing that assumption on? Oh, and forgive the awkwardly placed preposition.”
“Simply put, I don’t think anyone would be that stupid.”
The fairy put three fingers to her mouth and tittered like a teenage girl. That wasn’t disturbing at all. She lowered her hand and spoke again.
“It would be rather idiotic of a loose circuit to join the CID, wouldn’t it? They’d be subject to routine scans, and any of those might detect their deviance.”
Jeb didn’t miss the phrasing of her statement. “Ma’am, you just said might.”
“Might detect that deviance. Not will. It’s my understanding it’s fairly easy to detect a loose circuit.”
“Well, everyone has their own understanding!”
“Are you suggesting Cowan knows a way to jailbreak a PBA that’s undetectable through conventional scans?”
“I’m not suggesting anything, Jeb!” The fairy beamed like they shared a secret. “But wouldn’t it be spooky if he did?”
Jeb clasped his hands behind his back. “If a normal scan won’t detect that deviance in his PBA, I can’t really answer your question, ma’am. But I doubt it.”
“Cowan’s a straight arrow. In the time I’ve worked with him, I’ve never even seen him jaywalk. He’s just not the type to steal people’s livelihood or hack their PBAs.”
“Well, we can’t know, because otherwise we would know, wouldn’t we? So, you have new orders. Secret orders.”
This was sounding worse by the second. “Those are?”
“Watch Cowan closely for any sign he’s getting up to naughty things. Things that shouldn’t be possible for a clear circuit. We’ll expect a new report every Friday.”
“Yes ma’am.” Jeb didn’t know what he would put in those reports, but he did know protesting would only make them both look guilty. He needed time to think about this.
“Thank you for being so cooperative! You can return to your duties now, just so long as you don’t tell anyone what you’re doing. Telling people would be bad.” The fairy catapulted herself into the air with a barrage of golden sparkles and fluttered upward.
“Ma’am!” Jeb called after her.
She hovered in midair, wings fluttering. “Yes, Jeb?”
“In my reports,” Jeb said. “The ones I assume I’ll be sending to you. What do I call you?”
“Oh!” The fairy touched her delicate mouth. “I’m Puck!”
“Puck?” This woman was a hockey fan?
“I look forward to working with you, Jeb! I really hope Cowan isn’t a spy.” She vanished with a dramatic fireworks pop.
Jeb shook his head. “You and me both, little fairy.”
The dark room became a white room, and the door behind Jeb irised open. He turned to find the pyramid-headed milsynth waiting, silent and still. Creepier than last time.
Could Cowan really be some super-advanced loose circuit, hiding under the nose of the CID for some sinister purpose? Could Jeb trust a partner who might be able to smash his head in at any moment? He mulled that over as he walked the long white hallway.
He didn’t like the answers he found.
* * *
Loose Circuit will be going on hiatus for the rest of December, but our story is far from over! Like what you’ve read so far? Come back next week to read three short story excerpts from Eric’s short story anthology, Simulation Disorder, which will soon be available for pre-order and be published on December 15, 2017.
Simulation Disorder collects all Eric’s published short stories from 2011-2016, adds four new prequel stories set in the universes of Loose Circuit, Supremacy’s Shadow, and Glyphbinder, and also gives you five bonus stories because why not?
If you’ve enjoyed Loose Circuit and want to support me while also getting some Loose Circuit prequels and a bunch of other (great?) fiction, please consider pre-ordering Simulation Disorder on Amazon.
Loose Circuit will return on Monday, January 8, 2018, at which point we’ll sprint through episodes 6-10 to reach our inevitable conclusion.
Thanks for reading!
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