Nyx’s hybrid arachnid body shuddered, six legs and six arms flailing like windsocks. The custom paralysis script Cowan had reverse-engineered from Galileo’s similar script didn’t hurt her, of course, because he didn’t hurt people even though he could. Nyx couldn’t move, not in this world or in meatspace, but at least she wasn’t in any pain.
Cowan stretched a blackened metallic wing and touched the end of one wingtip to the back of Nyx’s humanoid neck. He ran the CID’s tracer algorithm — or rather, the custom version he’d created from the original — modified to work on the darkSim’s similar but less efficient network. He had to maintain contact for at least twenty seconds.
The result displayed before his eyes. He had just paralyzed Doctor Huan Xu, Ph.D. One of University of San Diego’s most well-regarded academics, now moonlighting as a ruthless simlord. He’d actually attended one of her lectures with Ellen two years ago.
“You … you imbecile!” The eyes behind Nyx’s flat porcelain mask were probably staring at him, but Cowan couldn’t be sure. “This was your plan all along? To torture me?”
“We both know you planned to torture me first,” Cowan said, “and I’d actually prefer not to hurt you at all, but I need that kill code. I did ask nicely, didn’t I?”
“I did not script Tian, my dear Cowan Soto.”
“Let’s stop lying to each other, my dear Huan Xu.”
The way Nyx gasped, a mix of shock, horror, and dismay, made this seem like a good plan. “You doxxed me!”
“Only to get your attention.” Cowan had already decided threatening her with arrest wouldn’t get him what he needed. He had to flip her instead.
“My attention? You have earned my immortal wrath!”
“You know I’m Cowan Soto, but what you don’t know is I sent two-hundred pizzas to Father Matthew’s home address. I also hacked the viewstream for Bob Keller’s nightly news broadcast, and planted that giant elephant penis in RefugeCorp’s simlobby.”
As Corvus, Cowan had discovered RefugeCorp was selling protected animals to South African poachers, but even after he anonymously delivered evidence to the networks, simNews had refused to cover it. Cowan had forced them to cover something else. After a few news cycles of speculation and corporate embarrassment, the truth had come out.
Nyx went silent for a moment. “That was a rather impressive penis.”
“I know you’re archiving everything, which means I just gave you enough information to get me fired. Why do that if I wanted to arrest you? I want to make a deal.”
Nyx relaxed, or at least … her avatar did. “This really is about your hopelessly addicted friends?”
“That’s right. I don’t care if you keep selling Tian on the darkSim. I just want your kill code so I can wake my friends before they get modded. They don’t deserve that.”
Nyx hissed in a remarkable imitation of a snake. “I am not responsible when someone forgets to set a disconnect timer!”
“I know that.”
“Tian wasn’t ever supposed to be released! It was an academic exercise!”
Interesting. “How do you mean?” She was talking now, freely and truthfully, so Cowan would let her keep talking. That’s what Jeb would do.
“Galileo insisted I couldn’t create an algorithm addictive enough to overpower the human urge to survive, and I knew I could prove him wrong. Didn’t they tell you that?”
So she was working with Galileo as well. That figured. “I only know he’s selling a ton of bad stuff on the darkSim. He’s keeping us employed.”
“He? He’s a male, and you’re certain of this?” Nyx snorted. “You’re not. You simply assume, as many foolish people do.”
“Sure, okay.” Cowan had no idea where to take this next. “Regardless, I’m not here about Galileo, and I’m not here for you either. Give me the kill code and you walk.”
“How close is the CID to stopping Galileo’s efforts? How close are you to arresting him?” He heard what might be actual worry in Nyx’s voice. “When will this all end?”
“All you need to know is what I want.” Did she actually want someone to take down Galileo? “You can give me Tian’s kill code, or we can go the other route.”
“I leak your reputation and burn you to the ground.”
Nyx laughed. “And you with me.”
“Sure, I might face some jail time, but it seems you’ve got more to lose than me. I don’t own a mansion.”
They stared at each other for a moment, or he assumed they did. It was hard to tell when the other person had their face behind a mask. Even paralyzed, Nyx was really creepy.
“If I provide Tian’s kill code,” she said, finally, “you agree to keep my identity a secret?”
“Unless you piss me off in the future, sure.” Blackmail was the way to go. “So?”
“You’re a loose circuit.” Nyx sounded almost thoughtful. “You could simply have tormented me until I agreed to everything you wanted, yet you did not. Why?”
Cowan sighed. “Because I’m not an asshole.” Also, the idea of torturing anyone made him want to vomit, even without behavioral algorithms. “Now, the kill code? I’d really like to get some sleep.”
“Oh, very well,” Nyx said. “Do be careful with it.”
* * *
“Dude,” Phoenix hung his feathered head. “You didn’t have to do all that for me.”
Cowan patted his best friend’s feathered shoulder with one big wing. To call Phoenix a birdman would be doing a disservice to all the work he’d put into his avatar, but Phoenix’s preferred form was close enough. He was covered in crimson feathers and had a huge wingspan. It was their shared interest in birds that led them to strike up their first conversation over a decade ago, leading to a friendship strong as family.
Cowan was once again wearing his Corvus avatar, a man-sized raven with a bright red fez. The hat’s golden tassel was long enough to hang all the way down to the bottom of one wing. They sat now in Cowan’s floating island in the darkSim, staring over a calm gray sea. A mess of dark storm clouds huddled on the horizon, promising rain.
“I couldn’t just let them mod you,” Cowan said. “I did what I had to do.”
Once Cowan had Tian’s kill code, getting it to his friends without tipping off the CID had been the next issue. He’d settled on a visit to the hospital under the guise of doing another routine scan of their victim’s PBAs. Inserting the kill code was easy after that.
Phoenix hung his head in shame. “It was all my fault, Corvus. That Duro got stuck.”
“You were setting each other’s orgasm time, weren’t you?”
“I thought I’d set a timer to terminate Tian, but I must have set the timer on his package reminder instead. He jumped in before I figured that out, and then it was too late to set a different timer.”
“And then you decided to linkline into his PBA and break him out? That really seemed like a good idea to you?”
“I thought I was strong enough to ignore Tian.” Phoenix unfurled his massive wings, but they didn’t burst into flame. “I’m sorry for putting you to all this trouble.”
Cowan looked out over the sea. “Well, you won’t make that mistake again, Pavel.”
Phoenix’s black bird eyes went wide. “You doxxed me?” He sounded so betrayed.
“I didn’t have to dox you. I was the CID detective who caught your case in meatspace.”
“Oh.” Phoenix thought a moment. “Wait, you were actually in my place? You didn’t search the closet, did you?”
Cowan decided it was best not to ask. “No. Also, don’t tell Gavin. It’s better he not know I know what I do.”
“But … how did you manage to dox Nyx? Snagging Tian’s kill code, maybe that happens, but her identity? She really is Doctor Huan Xu?”
“She is,” Cowan said, “and that’s why I shared her identity with you. You can’t tell anyone else, all right?”
“Sure. But why?”
“Threatening to reveal her identity is how I got Nyx to cooperate. If she crosses me, she gets doxxed.”
“But couldn’t she out you, too?”
“Sure, but the CID really doesn’t care about me. I’m one guy who hasn’t committed a serious cybercrime.”
“They’d have her on joyride distribution. They’d seize all her assets, destroy her reputation, and mod the hell out of her. She has a mansion and way more to lose.”
“I still can’t believe you risked all this for me.” Phoenix slid one of his big wings around Cowan. “I’m sorry I fell out of contact. I just couldn’t deal with you becoming a narc.”
Cowan shoved him with a wingtip. “I’m not a narc. I just want to help people.”
“I know.” Phoenix nodded. “You’re one of the good ones. You’re my best friend.”
“But if you’re feeling guilty,” Cowan said, “there is one thing you can do for me.”
“Anything, Corvus. I owe you like, forever.”
“If I go missing or something, I want you to release Doctor Xu’s identity on the darkSim. You’re my insurance policy.”
Phoenix snapped his beak. “Why would you go missing?”
“Maybe Xu decides she hates me more than she hates losing her mansion. I told her if anything happens to me, her identity goes public, but she could always skate off to Switzerland and wipe me out. No extradition to the US, even for cybercriminals.”
There was also the possibility Xu would rat him out to Galileo, and Galileo would come after him. Still, if she did that, Phoenix would burn her. He was gambling Xu’s sense of self-preservation outweighed her desire for revenge.
“But how would I even know if something happened to you?” Phoenix asked.
“Simple. My name’s Cowan Soto.”
Phoenix pulled back his wing. “You are fucking kidding me.”
“That’s my name, Pavel. I’m pretty much the only Cowan Soto in San Diego. Look it up. You’ll find out where I live and verify everything.”
Phoenix went silent, probably staring at panels only he could see. “You’re a Mexican dude!”
“Hispanic, dumbass. I told you that when we first met.”
“Well, right, but I didn’t think you’d tell me the truth! I figured it was a dodge to throw me off. Like you were some white guy who wanted to seem like… not a white guy.”
“Why would you think I was a white guy?”
“I won’t tell anyone, Corvus. Cowan. Unless something happens to you.” Phoenix folded his wings and crossed his arms. “Then I’ll dox that professor good.”
“I know.” Cowan stood and stretched his wings, savoring the wind on his feathers.
“But, do me one favor too, all right?”
“I’ll do my best with that.”
* * *
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