September 28, Early Morning
Cowan landed in Nyx’s pleasurebox at 0412 on Friday, wearing his three-meter-tall demon avatar: Darkness. He still had eight hours before he needed to get up and get ready for work, but Sharp Memorial had scheduled Pavel and Gavin’s firmware reboots for Friday afternoon. He had to get them out of their Tian loops before that happened.
Nyx was one of the most respected and feared entities on the darkSim, and Cowan’s investigations with Medusa had confirmed Nyx was the scripter behind Tian. She owned enough virtual real estate to suggest she was bringing in a huge income.
A sky of blood flowed over Cowan’s head, and charred earth met his feet. It seemed Nyx appreciated the macabre, but that could be a persona she faked to throw people off. Anyone selling joyrides like Tian would do all they could to hide their real identity.
He approached closed double doors set into a five-story wall of yellow sandstone. A gargoyle daemon stood before an archway taller than the both of them, five meters at least. “You are not expected.” It leveled a metal trident at him.
“I’m aware of that.” Cowan crossed his arms and scowled, knowing he looked intimidating. “I’d like to speak to the scripter of Tian. I have a warning for her.”
Accusing Nyx of scripting an illegal joyride was risky, but it was the quickest way to get her attention. There was a good chance Nyx had at least heard of him, and he wasn’t hiding his identity today. He hoped had enough darkSim cred to earn a meeting.
The gargoyle daemon lowered its trident as both doors swung open. “The madam concedes to this visit, Corvus.”
Cowan stepped through golden doors which closed behind him. Inside the walls, the sky changed to clear, cloud-smattered blue, and his feet walked on a yellow beach, not gray rock. A silver disc sped toward him and stopped at his feet, hovering just above the sand.
Even with Medusa helping him, Cowan had been unable to find any dealers who would tell him where they bought their Tian. Each instance of Tian could only be triggered once — the algorithm deleted itself once it was active in the user’s brain, ensuring every purchase was only good for one joyride — and that meant a steady business for fixers of illegal algorithms. Unfortunately, most of those fixers didn’t know him.
He hopped onto the silver disc and tucked his wings against his back before it zipped off. As he’d learned the hard way the first time he rode a hoverskiff, as Corvus, there were few things more embarrassing than having your winged avatar blown off its feet. The disc zipped off, cruising along a beach and rapidly approached a Sultan’s palace.
It was only after a busy day writing reports at the CID and another night of searching that he’d finally found a fixer who dealt directly with Nyx. The Wolfman was the closest thing to a classic hippie still walking around on the Sim, and three years ago, some trolls tricked him out of his bank codes. He still owed Corvus a big favor for getting his credit accounts back, and he’d finally paid that off by revealing Tian’s supplier.
Cowan wished he’d been able to consult Jeb on real people who might match Nyx’s patterns — having options for her meatspace identity could give him leverage — but he couldn’t risk Jeb knowing he was doing illegal things. Cowan was on his own, and that was safer. At least, as safe as confronting a simlord in her own pleasurebox could get.
The floating disc zipped through an archway in another sandstone wall. It drifted to a stop in a courtyard of glyphed tiles, with a gray fountain shaped like entwined mermaids in its center. Water spouted from their stone nipples, which seemed a bit cheeky.
Nyx was always a woman on the darkSim, but that meant nothing about her meatspace identity. Medusa was a man in meatspace, after all, and no one here cared, because your meatspace identity meant nothing in the sim. If Cowan dared believe the most wild rumors, Nyx was an illegal AI that seized sentience and copied itself into the darkSim.
Cowan stepped off the disc and waited in the courtyard for a summons from the madam of the estate. Walking blindly around her private pleasurebox was a great way to get paralyzed or banned for life. He didn’t want to do anything she’d deem impolite.
A glowing portal appeared in the sky. A woman wearing absolutely nothing descended from that portal on a trail of blood-stained silk, though only her upper half was actually humanoid. A spider-like abdomen sprouting from the base of Nyx’s humanoid spine, and serpentine scales of red and white covered her body.
In addition to the six legs on her spidery lower half, Nyx had four extra arms sprouting from the flesh below her human two, and seemed to have no trouble moving them. That suggested an active VI built into her avatar. Developing the mental disciple to move four arms was hard enough, and six was almost impossible. A creepifying porcelain doll mask concealed Nyx’s face, finishing off the entire avatar with suitable panache.
“Corvus.” The way Nyx spoke, with an undercurrent of sensuality and excitement, sent the bad kind of shivers running down Cowan’s spine. “This is an exquisite pleasure. Your name reverberates. When will we witness the next of your legendary practical jokes?” She settled to the tiles and released her bloody silk. Her portal snapped shut.
“I’m sorry to bother you.” Cowan tried not to think about what spiders did to their males after they mated. “Two friends of mine are locked in a Tian joyride, at Sharp Memorial, and the grayDocs there are less than a day from reinstalling firmware. They’re certain to discover their PBA jailbreak and report it, meaning the CID will mod them for sure.”
Nyx pressed one of her six hands to the mouth of her porcelain mask. “My sympathies! Yet what character assassin claimed I’m behind Tian?”
Cowan wasn’t going to betray the Wolfman. “I’m not here to make trouble for you. I just want to purchase Tian’s kill code. I can pay well.”
Most scripters of any caliber inserted kill codes into looping algorithms, like joyrides, in case they got out of control. Once Cowan had the kill code, he could upload it to Gavin and Pavel’s PBAs and terminate their Tian loop.
“You honor me!” Nyx padded over with two arms behind her back, two spread, and the last two clasped behind her head. “But I’m simply not responsible for Tian. While it is magnificent work, that scripting is not mine.”
She was close enough that she could easily stab him a half-dozen times, if she wanted. This was her pleasurebox, and its pain threshold was set to ten. She also didn’t trust him, and now, he was pretty sure she never would. She’d never admit to scripting Tian.
“My mistake.” Cowan crossed his demon arms. “Still, you travel in many circles. Is it possible you could help me get in contact with whoever did script Tian?” If he let her implicate someone else, it might give her an out. “I can compensate you both.”
“I have enough money already, my dear.” Nyx slipped one slim arm beneath his massive one and raised it without effort, a naked hint that she had all the power here. “But come. I have a few contacts who may know more about Tian. Perhaps they can help us both.”
“Thank you so much.” Cowan needed to seem eager and trusting. “I appreciate this.” Where was she taking him? They walked through an archway just tall enough to admit her. Cowan had to duck, and when he straightened he was standing in utter darkness.
Trapped in a blood-stained web.
He tried to grab his hardlink, back in meatspace, but his meatspace body was paralyzed just like the one on the darkSim. Nyx had dropped a full stem barrier into his PBA, just like he’d thought she would. She had traded with Galileo for his paralysis algorithm, but of course she had. Everyone was trading with Galileo these days.
“Now, Mister Soto.” All six of Nyx’s hands trailed down Cowan’s muscular demonic torso. Her abdomen elongated disturbingly, and a huge stinger appeared on its end. “Let’s have the truth this time.”
She knew his name. Of course she knew his name. Cowan let himself sound as terrified as he felt. “How are you doing this? I just wanted to talk! I’m here to help my friends!”
“You’re a detective for the CID, Cowan Soto.” Nyx’s giant stinger bobbed as it approached. “And the CID is growing more annoying than I’d like.” That stinger crept toward his left eye, big and sharp and freakishly terrifying.
“How did you paralyze me? It’s impossible!” He dropped his voice to a terrified whisper, because this was the most important question he would ask. “Are you Galileo?”
“Once again, you offer credit I do not deserve.” Nyx jammed her pincer into his eye.
Her tail writhed and the stinger with it, twisting and drilling. Yet Cowan didn’t scream, because what she was doing didn’t hurt. As his Darkness avatar remained locked in place by her paralysis algorithm, his real body pulled free. And then the avatar he was actually wearing, Corvus — a red-eyed raven wearing an amazing fez— burst from the demon’s stomach.
Corvus jammed the tip of his silver beak directly into Nyx’s heart.
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