September 26, Late Evening
Later that night, back at his apartment, Cowan went to bed, verified the sleep loops he’d made for the OMH were running, and settled in for another night of scouring the darkSim for leads. Tonight, he would find a way to cure Gavin Sykes and Pavel Marco.
On the darkSim, Gavin Sykes was known as Duro, an infamous VI scripter and mischief maker. He was also a casual acquaintance of Cowan’s own avatar, Corvus, and the man who had been dating Phoenix — Cowan’s best friend — for more than eight years. That all changed once Cowan joined the CID. One he did, Phoenix stopped talking to him.
That abandonment still hurt, yet last Cowan knew, Duro (Gavin Sykes) and Phoenix were still together. That left two possibilities regarding Pavel Marco, the other victim he and Jeb found in that home today. The first was that Duro was cheating on Phoenix with this Pavel person.
The second, and more likely, is that Pavel Marco was Phoenix.
Cowan landed on his personal pleasurebox in the darkSim, a sandy island in the middle of a clear gray sea. He opened his avatar closet and browsed. It was nice to be able to walk easily, to not feel the grinding of the knee he still didn’t know how he had broken. He was traveling the darkSim incognito tonight, so his Corvus avatar was staying home.
His alternates included a nine-foot-tall demon from an old fantasy movie, a boxing robot with oversized hammerfists, and a muscular Chip N’ Dales dancer with a horse’s head, among others. He settled on the sunglass wearing, suited villain of so many twentieth century classics. Hopefully, no one would think a government agent would be stupid enough to wear an avatar called “Government Agent.”
Cowan adjusted his sunglasses, straightened his tie, and opened his personal pleasurebox’s admin panel. He opened another panel beyond that, his personal and very illegal mods, and anonymized his hardlink address. He wondered if that would actually protect him if a CID detective touched his simport.
No point in worrying now. He was close to reverse engineering their tracer script. He selected his destination — Port Marvis — and punched the blinking Teleport button.
His island elongated around him, yellow sand and glistening ocean stretching away to infinite space. He felt the normal tingle his PBA sent his meatspace body whenever he moved from one pleasurebox to another. The world decompressed, and then Cowan — as Government Agent — stood at a closed red airlock door before a massive bubble dome glowing with red light, easily the size of a football stadium. Jupiter loomed overhead.
Port Marvis was a darkSim pleasurebox built to look like a giant dome colony on Jupiter’s rocky moon, Ganymede. It was only after experiencing Sonne’s fine work that Cowan realized how dull this dome really looked. There were no smells out here, no space wind blowing in his face. The difference between true art and amateur.
Sonne would smirk at this dome and the bumpy gray earth on which it sat, but what about the stars above? The looming form of Jupiter? That was quality work. She might…
Cowan pushed her attractive smirk from his mind. Sonne hadn’t returned his calls, and getting close to anyone right now would certainly put them in danger. He had a case to close, and Ellen was still lost out there. Dating wasn’t really important right now.
“Open,” Cowan told the dome, as he sent the admins his real identity. He didn’t have to debase himself for the pleasure of the Port Marvis administrators. Corvus was a legend on the darkSim, and he trusted the administrators not to rat him out.
The dome opened onto a narrow rain-filled street right out of Blade Runner. The classics were a big hit on the darkSim, and the legendary games and movies of old had been made real inside Port Marvis. Dozens of stalls with Chinese lettering lined the streets. The road ahead was dark and wet, glistening in the buzzing overhead lights.
It rained constantly inside the Port Marvis dome, even though no one ever got wet. The buildings were pipe-covered, black towers that reached for the dome. Every last sign was neon, buzzing where the modelers had remembered to actually add sound.
Cowan walked through streets filled with avatars, human and otherwise, chatting, drinking, and making out. Flying cars of all sorts zoomed through the air above, as if any society would ever be stupid enough to put random idiots behind the controls of a flying bomb. Here, of course, the occasional airborne collision was part of the charm.
Cowan checked the pleasurebox’s pain threshold and verified it was set to one, the lowest setting. Marvis was limited to player versus environment combat — NPC attackers only — and carebears didn’t enjoy pain. No one really got hurt here.
He knew where the woman he needed typically hung out this time of night. Venusville. It was one of the most popular clubs in Port Marvis for all the obvious reasons. He fast-traveled over and quickly located Medusa Oblongata outside the club, chatting up a very muscular minotaur with golden horns. Cowan marched over and harrumphed.
The minotaur snorted and wrapped an arm around Medusa. “Back off.”
“Can’t do that,” Cowan said. “I’m on a mission from God.”
That earned him a blank stare from the minotaur, but Medusa smirked and ducked out from under the beastman’s giant arm. “Oh, be nice, Doranamo! He looks harmless!”
The minotaur actually sagged, visibly. “But, you said—”
“I said exactly what you think I said, big boy.” Every last one of Medusa’s snakes nibbled their way up the minotaur’s chest, eliciting a gasp and shudder. “I’ll be back.” She stepped away from her minotaur friend and sashayed over. “How can I help you, Mister,” she paused, eyes flicking to the tag above his head, “Government Agent?”
Cowan crossed his arms. “I was hoping you could give me some directions.” Anyone observing them would assume he was simply buying a fix from her.
Medusa pressed up against him. “I like directions! I can give or take.” She took a deep breath and stared up with seductively innocent eyes. “What’s your pleasure?”
Cowan felt a fresh pang of guilt about Ellen, but also about Sonne, which was absolutely ridiculous. “Can we talk privately? These are really complicated directions.”
“Open a port, hot stuff.” She rested her head against his chest, hugged him against her with both arms, and sent a private chat request. The minotaur she’d been noodling — Doranamo — huffed steam as he watched. Cowan accepted, making his brain tingle.
“Thanks,” he said, voice echoing oddly. Only he and Medusa could hear each other now.
“For what?” She giggled against him. “Mashing my boobs into your chest?”
“For being discreet. I appreciate it.”
“Anything for you, sweetheart. Now what’s your mission from God?” That was their personal code for discussing anything they needed to keep private from the general darkSim population. It was also how Medusa knew he was actually Corvus, incognito.
“I need to find Phoenix. It’s important. When’s the last time you saw him?”
She thought about it. “I haven’t seen Phoenix for a couple of days. Last time I saw them was Sunday, I think? Ported in here with Duro for the Furry Dance Off.”
“You said last Sunday night?” Cowan did the math. He and Jeb discovered Gavin Sykes and Pavel Marco Wednesday morning. If they’d started their joyride Monday night, and been in forty-plus hours, the timing lined up. No one had seen them for three days.
“Yes, that’s what I said.” Medusa beamed up at him. “Is something distracting you?”
This pretty much confirmed Cowan’s thesis that Pavel Marco was Phoenix. He couldn’t risk letting this go. “They’re in trouble. The OneWorld kind.”
“Did they piss off another admin?”
“They took a joyride Monday night and ended up looped. Neither of them are coming back, and the hospital has them now. Have you gotten any new product recently?”
Medusa grimaced before her entire face relaxed, expressionless, like she’d flipped off her facial tracker. “Can you describe what they’re looping?”
“It’s a full-on algorithmic orgasm, and better than anything I’ve ever felt. Honestly, the only reason I got out was because I set my auto-disconnect timer.”
“How intense was the orgasm? Localized, or full body?”
“Clouds and lots of pretty colors.”
“That’s Tian,” Medusa said, and the worry in her voice told Cowan how addictive it must be. “It’s my best seller. How do you know it put Phoenix and Duro in the hospital?”
He couldn’t tell her that. “I have ways.”
“How long until a grayDoc reinstalls their firmware?”
“Two days,” Cowan said. “Friday at the latest.”
“Shit,” Medusa said. It was a decent summary of the situation.
Like Cowan, Phoenix had long ago jailbroken his PBA to allow him to screw with people, but he hadn’t disabled any behavioral protocols. So long as you didn’t screw with clear circuit behavioral algorithms, you could still get on the Sim. You could make small firmware tweaks without being detected, swipe credit accounts and cause mischief.
Yet that would all change when a grayDoc at Sharp Memorial poked around in Phoenix’s PBA. It was rare for a person’s PBA to enter an endless loop, but when it happened, and when the loop couldn’t be terminated naturally, the grayDocs at a hospital like Sharp Memorial would do a firmware re-install. Unfortunately, the grayDoc would also instantly recognize that Phoenix had jailbroken his PBA. That meant modding for sure.
“We can’t let them be modded,” Medusa said. “So how do we get them out?”
“Kill code,” Cowan said. “Do you know if Tian has one?”
“If it does, I don’t know it.”
Medusa stepped back and flipped her face back on. “Let’s go asking.”
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