Episode 6: Tian (Part 1)


September 26, Early Afternoon


CID Detective Jeb Forrester grimaced at the smell of dried fecal matter and urine-stained sheets. He refused to alter his senses to remove the smell, because the idea of altering any sense at a crime scene went against his nature. These victims needed him at his best, and at least these two were still alive. Others weren’t so lucky.

The CID wasn’t alone in being overworked. In the last week the Violent Crimes Division had logged eight murders in San Diego alone, along with seventeen assaults. Eight murders and seventeen assaults was more than had occurred in San Diego in the last ten years, at least until Galileo started puppeted people into mass shootings. It was honestly amazing people weren’t panicking more than they were.

OneWorld’s utopia was no longer a safe place to be, and even with the Office of Mental health suppressing all official news about the bloodshed, people were starting to figure things out. He and Cowan and every other OneWorld employee on the planet were now working overtime to address a crime spike that literally spanned the planet.

Yet no matter the scale of the problem, fixing it got done by helping one person at a time. There were two people here, and Jeb was determined to save them from … whatever. “How long have these two been stuck in the Sim?” he asked Officer 214.

“Available PBA logs suggest approximately thirty-four hours, detective,” the synthcop said, in a calm and soothing voice. At least that explained the smell. PBAs could suppress normal bodily functions while their users were in the Sim, but only for so long.

Jeb frowned. “How long since each victim registered movement?” The fact that synthcops were now heading up crime scenes showed how thin the CID was stretched.

“According to the ant swarm,” 214 said, “Victim One, Gavin Sykes, last registered physical movement approximately thirty-three hours ago. Victim two, Pavel Marco, last registered physical movement approximately thirty hours ago.”

So these men had entered the Sim approximately three hours apart, over the wireless. Had Pavel discovered his unresponsive friend and gone in to rescue him? Why hadn’t he called the CID instead? Was there some reason these men didn’t want Jeb poking around inside their PBAs?

“Detective?” 214 asked. “Will we be able to rehydrate these men?” It actually sounded concerned.

“An ambulance is on its way,” Jeb said. Protection Services must be tweaking their empathy algorithms. “Play back your interview with the mail carrier.”

A woman’s voice replaced the synthcop’s. “You want to how I smelled it?”

214 had done the interview with their only witness, and now played the woman’s voice back through its own vocalizer. That voice was older, female, with a way of stretching her words that suggested aging beach bunny. Jeb imagined her as a brunette.

“Yes, ma’am,” 214 replied in its own voice. “Please tell me everything that happened before you pinged 911.”

“Well, I pinged the recipient when I pulled up … Gavin Sykes, got the code for his delivery right here … and I got a pingback informing me he was home and awake. So I went to the door to get his thumbprint.”

“Why did you need his thumbprint, ma’am?” Even without CLU boxes, standard VIs were getting better at interviews.

“Well,” the woman said, “our policy on any package requiring recipient verification is to get the recipient to thumbprint the transaction, and the recipient was home, and I didn’t really feel like coming out here again when he was right inside. So I pinged his PBA, no answer, actually knocked on the door, no answer.”

“Is that when you grew concerned?”

“Not concerned, no.” She huffed. “I mean, I figured he might be stoned or something, or too busy to come to the door for, you know. Other reasons.”

Despite his mental exhaustion, Jeb almost smiled. It wouldn’t be the first time a clueless mail carrier pinged a recipient during sex.

“Anyway,” the woman continued, “I figured it couldn’t hurt to check around, and that’s when I entered the backyard … gate was open, mind you … and smelled the sewage.”

“Yes ma’am. What did you do next?”

“End playback,” Jeb said. The overcurious mail carrier had peered through the bedroom window, seen Gavin and Pavel, and pinged 911. He’d let Bostonia PD follow up with her.

As embarrassing as the situation was, these two men were very lucky. If Gavin Sykes hadn’t been expecting a package, and if it hadn’t been delivered by a human mail carrier instead of a drone, both men might have expired from dehydration long before anyone found them. Yet for some inexplicable reason, both refused to leave the Sim.

The CID now had OneWorld scripts to forcibly disengage hardlink clamps, but unlike the victims at Sonne’s Sanctuary, these men weren’t connected to hardlinks. They were on wireless and non-responsive, which suggested a full stem barrier at work. Except the CID also had a script to remove those barriers now, and that script hadn’t worked.

Jeb remembered a dark-haired ringu girl taking him to his knees, taking over his PBA, and fought a shudder. His memories got fuzzy after that, his torture heavily redacted so it wouldn’t trigger persistent depression, but the fear he’d felt was branded into his soul, far deeper than his memories or his PBA. He never wanted to feel that way again.

Had one or both of these men run afoul of some new, more sinister variant of Galileo’s paralysis script? Were there more loose circuits who could insert full stem barriers and lock hardlink clamps through the Sim, or were these men themselves loose circuits? Had they gotten hacked like Sheila Fisher, betrayed by substandard firewalls?

The thump of crutch tips on wood sounded in the hall outside. Jeb didn’t turn around because he felt the subtle tingle of Cowan’s approach over their LAN. It allowed them to keep track of each other at an active scene without taking their eyes off everything else.

Cowan crutched-walked into the bedroom, still wearing his medicated knee brace. “So far as I can tell, all lines to the mainline are clean.” Like Jeb, he was doing his best with the stench. “No external signals either. They’re both offline.”

“If they’re offline,” Jeb said, “why can’t they wake up? What’s wrong with their PBAs?”

“No idea.” Cowan didn’t bother reminding Jeb what they were both thinking, about Galileo. Officer 214 was still in the room with them. It was attached to Bostonia PD, and listening, and they didn’t need another asschewing about leaks from Director Stanton.

Jeb glanced at the synthcop. “Officer 214, we have now established this is a cybercrime. I’m officially transferring this case to the CID, which means you are free to depart.”

“Thank you, Detective Forrester.” 214 sketched a precise salute and marched out at an even pace. “Please contact our department if we can render any further assistance.”

Cowan crutched aside as the synthcop clomped out and closed the door behind it. The synthcop would wait outside, on minimal power, until the PD’s autotruck picked it up.

“This doesn’t appear to be clamp manipulation,” Cowan said, “and these men aren’t connected to the Sim. I don’t know any way a troll could lock them down remotely.”

“Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” Jeb said. “Also, it’s probably not a good idea to check.”

“Why’s that?”

“Think about it.”

Cowan stared at the ceiling for a moment, then frowned. “Stanton’s worried one of us will get hacked again, but she doesn’t want us staying out of those PBAs because they’re worried about us.” He looked at Jeb. “She’s worried about the CID.”

Jeb waited.

“If someone has figured out how to get to people’s PBAs through the Sim, they might even be able to get even further, piggybacking off our wireless connections to bypass the CID’s firewalls. Anyone who goes in that way could scan case files or worse.”

Jeb nodded. It was obvious why Director Stanton’s orders were “Verify scene is in fact a cybercrime, then wait for further instructions.”  There were just too many unknown and dangerous scripts crawling around the Sim right now.

“So what’s our play?” Cowan asked. “We can’t just leave them like this.”

“They’ll be fine,” Jeb said. “Once the paramedics get an IV in them, they’ll get rehydrated.”

“But they’ll still be stuck in there, won’t they? We have to fix that. We’re the Cybercrimes Investigation Division, and this is definitely a cybercrime.”

“We wait for orders.” Jeb didn’t want to be combative, but this much overtime would make anyone raw. Worse, he’d found himself questioning everything Cowan did since his secret meeting with Puck, and he hated that. That fairy had planted doubts.

Cowan pulled a linkline from his shirt and connected it to the port above his ear. “Do our orders say anything about not diving into the victim’s PBA?”

Jeb felt a flash of worry. “Cowan—”

“Remember, these men are offline. The only things possibly running on their PBAs are invasive scripts, and my firewalls can block those. And just in case they can’t, I’ll go offline too.” He held the linkline and held Jeb’s eyes. “Trust me, partner. I can do this.”

Trust. That was the issue that roiled Jeb’s gut. Maybe Cowan could resist that paralysis script because he was a loose circuit, just like Puck had suggested. Maybe Jeb was trusting his life to a person who threatened the system he’d sworn to protect.

Yet Cowan seemed genuinely worried about two people he didn’t know. That wasn’t how a loose circuit behaved, and Jeb knew his partner. Cowan was a person with a good soul.

“It’s your call,” Jeb said. Because he was supposed to watch Cowan for suspicious behavior, not stop it.

“Then I’m going in there.” Cowan opened his CID jacket and handed his stunner to Jeb, a sensible precaution with a puppetmaster on the loose. A second later, their wireless connection faded. Cowan was now completely offline.

Jeb updated the CID on Cowan’s now-offline status, and Stanton didn’t send any new orders. So she either approved of Cowan’s plan, or wasn’t going to stop him. The latter bothered Jeb a lot more than the former. It implied she considered Cowan expendable.

Cowan sat on the only clean part of the bed, next to the soiled body of Gavin Sykes. He popped the other end of his linkline into the port by Gavin’s ear and closed his eyes. “If I’m not out in five minutes, call the cavalry.”

“We are the cavalry.”

“Good on us. See you in a bit.” Cowan eyes unfocused.

Jeb was helpless to help his partner, and he hated feeling helpless. He should be taking the risks, but that was ego talking. His PBA was much older and more vulnerable than Cowan’s, and Cowan knew more far more about scripts than he did. PBAs were his turf.

Jeb suspected Cowan had copied the full stem barrier script Sarah Taggart inserted into his PBA. The kid couldn’t resist. In the weeks since the case at Sonne’s Sanctuary, Cowan had certainly picked it apart. He might have a decent inoculation in place.

Jeb waited five minutes. He waited another minute after that. He was just about to alert the CID that something was wrong when Cowan blinked, shook his head, and stood. He popped his linkline from Gavin’s auxiliary port. His eyes were wide and his face flushed.

“What is it?” Jeb felt a chill creep down his spine. “What’s happening to them in there?”

“This man isn’t connected to the Sim.” Cowan took one shuddering breath. “He’s got a joyride running on repeat, what you might call an algorithmic orgasm. I don’t think he even cares that he needs food and rest. It was … intense.”

Jeb grimaced. Of course it was. Joyrides were easy to come by on the darkSim, but illegal due to their addictive nature. Any entity locking itself into an orgasmic loop would be hard-pressed to leave, and humans got addicted more easily than most.

Most who down’d joyrides set an auto-disconnect timer before running the simulation, one that killed the loop before dehydration or starvation began. These men, obviously, hadn’t done that. They weren’t victims. They were addicts, and if this joyride was as addictive as Cowan claimed, there could be hundreds or even thousands more using it.

Not everyone would be lucky enough to get a package delivered before they died.

Glitch Matrix:

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