Episode 6: Tian (Part 6)


September 28, Late Afternoon


By the time Detective Jeb Forrester got to the medical station, the grayDoc who had been on duty when Pavel Marco and Gavin Sykes woke up was already off duty for the day. He got the second shift grayDoc instead, a frazzled man with too many victims and not enough time on his hands: Doctor Jaime Cortes, a handsome man in his mid-40s. If Sharp Memorial had been a telenovela hospital, Doctor Cortes would have fit right in.

“When did the subjects first wake up?” Jeb asked. “Do you know if anyone checked on them before the loop terminated?”

“I wasn’t here, detective,” Cortes said, as Jeb walked with him through the hospital, “and honestly, I don’t have time to tend to patients who have no serious issues. You need to finish your investigation, alone, and let me do my job.”

Jeb knew how busy Cortes must be now, and he also knew badgering the man further wouldn’t get him anything useful. “Thanks for the tour, doc. I won’t keep you.”

“Thank you.” Cortes quickened his pace, probably responding to a nursing call routed to his PBA by Sharp Memorial’s VI. Jeb slowed and looked around. It wasn’t pretty.

The hospital halls were packed with nurses, synthetics, and stretchers, and Jeb had to step aside often to avoid all three. Thanks to the crime surge, Sharp Memorial had more patients at one time than in decades. The hospital staff was disorganized and overtaxed, which meant it was the perfect time for anyone to slip in and out without notice.

Pavel Marco and Gavin Sykes had both checked themselves out of the hospital around noon, before Jeb arrived, and Bostonia PD was going to follow up with them regarding their joyride purchase. They’d be tempbanned from the Sim and fined, but so far as the CID knew, this was their first offense. No modding for a first time offense.

Jeb passed a woman on a stretcher, moaning quietly. A blood-stained bandage covered her head. To his right, a pale-looking man held a small child twitching with some sort of PBA malfunction. The tears in that father’s eyes just about broke Jeb’s heart.

It was like this all over. The Sim was burning down around the world, and the Office of Mental Health couldn’t suppress the stories of blood and gore fast enough. People didn’t need to watch the news to learn about violence anymore, because violence was happening all around them. The public was demanding answers OneWorld didn’t have.

In all the chaos, it seemed silly to question a little luck. Marco and Sykes had simply woken up. Yet Doctor Xu had told him that people in a loop like theirs wouldn’t wake up, and if he trusted her with nothing else, he trusted her to be right about that.

Jeb was still tracking Tian, and it was already the most popular joyride on the darkSim. Whoever created it was making millions every day, and the CID was tracking hundreds of cases of people getting stuck in loops. None of those had woken up on their own.

Jeb soon reached the medical station watching over the wing that had held Marco and Sykes. There was only one nurse on duty — her AR tag read “Haniver” — and she was obviously overclocking. Her bloodshot eyes and dead-eyed stare made that obvious.

Jeb fired a CID authorization ping to her PBA. “Ma’am,” he said, “have you put anyone in the room previously occupied by Pavel Marco and Gavin Sykes?”

Nurse Haniver’s bleary eyes went distant as she scanned her headdesk. “Not yet, but there’s a trauma victim on their way right now. Why are you asking?”

“I need to search the room.”

“Right, you do that. You’ve got five minutes.” She up’d an AR waypoint to Jeb’s PBA, and the sixth door down the hall from her station glowed yellow.

“Thank you.” Jeb strode briskly down the hall and entered the room marked by Nurse Haniver’s glowing yellow waypoint. An IV hung unhooked. The sheets hadn’t even been changed yet, which was a good sign the cache inside the PBA monitors was undisturbed. It was also a sign of just how horribly this hospital was understaffed at the moment.

Jeb linklined into the terminal that had monitored Marco’s PBA and activated the CID’s sniffer script. He didn’t have to know how it worked to know it would flag any scripts this panel had run recently that weren’t registered with the Office of Mental Health. The scripters behind most CID tools made their investigation scripts simple and efficient.

His sniffer returned a single culprit, an unregistered PBA script that didn’t belong to the hospital or any known party. This was his smoking gun. This was the reason Pavel Marco had slipped out of his Tian loop, so who had planted it? And could it help others?

No one who worked at Sharp had done this. If any of the medical professionals here knew how to kill Tian, they’d already have done it for the dozens of other joyride victims in this hospital. Cowan could easily find out what this was, if Jeb sent it, but Jeb hesitated. He hated himself for hesitating. He couldn’t get those words out of his head.

“Is he a loose circuit?” Puck asked.

Cowan was his partner. Cowan was a good person, yet he had been acting increasingly odd of late. Jeb had put it up to all their overtime, but what if it was more than that? What if the darkSim activities Jeb suspected weren’t just harmless fun?

He debated only a moment before sending the foreign script directly to the CID, without alerting Cowan. He’d let a scripter who wasn’t Cowan decipher it. If it was a cure to Tian, as he hoped, it could save a great many people from dying in endless loops.

Jeb needed sleep, and he needed to let his mind unplug. He needed to focus before he moved on to his night job, the one he’d had since Puck spoke to him beneath Corporate One. A job he didn’t want, but couldn’t refuse.

Staking out Cowan Soto’s apartment.

* * *

September 29, Pre-Dawn


As bad days went, Doctor Huan Xu was having a worse one than usual.

After she’d won her bet with Galileo — that a talented scripter could create a joyride that was, literally, more appealing than life itself — she had traded Tian to Galileo for PBA paralysis and several other impossibilities. Not because she actually wanted to paralyze or torture people, but because such scripting simply shouldn’t be possible. She simply had to know how it was done, and with the source code, she could figure that out.

After many nights of decryption and reverse engineering, she had all but confirmed Galileo worked inside Corporate One. They were as close to OneWorld as one could get, and seeing how OneWorld worked felt like peering behind a forbidden curtain. And now, Galileo was being hunted by the legendary Corvus — CID Detective Cowan Soto.

Huan despised Corvus, of course, in the way one despised a rival academic who beat them for a grant, but she respected him as well. His circumventing of Galileo’s full stem barrier, and his doxxing of her, suggested a brilliant mind. She appreciated brilliance.

Yet it wasn’t Corvus who concerned her now. It was Galileo. Now that Tian’s kill code was out there in the wild, it was only a matter of time before the CID found it and killed Tian forever. It was only a matter of time before Galileo traced that leak back to her.

Huan doubted Corvus would leak the kill code — he seemed naïve enough to keep his word — but it now existed in two PBAs. It would spread to more, because scripts like that always spread. Once the CID had the kill code, OneWorld could insert it into a PBA firmware update and make Tian terminate as soon as it began. That meant Tian would stop working, and Galileo’s money would cease coming. Galileo wouldn’t like that.

She had to warn Galileo the kill code was out there before they found out on their own. She had to show them they still needed her, and offer them a new version of Tian to replace the old one. The most difficult part would be warning Galileo without revealing Corvus’s involvement. If Galileo killed Cowan Soto in meatspace, Huan suspected, Cowan would burn her from the grave.

That’s what she would do, after all.

Galileo seemed like a logical person, so she’d warn him and take the risk. She had never managed to pin down if Galileo was male or female, but she suspected they would murder anyone they believed was a liability. She would never be a liability to anyone.

She unbuttoned the front of her shirt a bit more than seemed decent — she didn’t know if that would have any effect, but she didn’t see how it would hurt — and checked her short, efficient hair one last time. Then she activated the private line she used for secure communication through the darkSim. Even the sniffers at Corporate One couldn’t tap it because it, like the darkSim, wasn’t actually on their network.

The darkSim was run on private servers based in Switzerland, the last neutral country in the world. So far as Huan knew, no law enforcement agency had access to it. Or one did, and concealed that so they could spy on the illicit activities of every hacker who used it.

She expected to watch at least half of Dark Tides and Strange Horizons before Galileo called back, so she was honestly shocked when a blacked-out panel popped up less than a minute after she sent the request. Galileo had been waiting for her call, or someone’s call. Had Tian already been compromised?

“Hello, my friend,” Huan said, addressing the blacked-out panel. Galileo could see her, but she couldn’t see them, an arrangement that had always vexed her. “I’m sorry to contact you like this, but I have some unfortunate—”

“You’ve disappointed me.” Galileo’s voice was modulated beyond sex or ethnicity, eerily robotic.

She didn’t ask how. “I’m ready to script you a new version of Tian. I’ve recently discovered the kill code—”

“—was sent to the CID by Detective Jeb Forrester, this very afternoon,” Galileo finished for her. “That was clumsy, Huan, and I cannot risk a clumsy partner at this juncture in my journey. I’ve enjoyed our collaboration, but I can’t allow you to compromise me.”

Curse that Jeb Forrester. “I’d never compromise you! How could I do that without compromising myself?” Now this fool was being overly dramatic. This wasn’t like them.

Huan flipped over to her headdesk to ensure her mansion’s security fence was still online, and all cameras were active. They were. Her estate was impregnable in meatspace, and any connections to the Sim were firewalled to corporate caliber.

“I assure you,” Huan said, flipping back, “I can script a version of Tian that is even better. I can even do it without a kill code. There’s no reason—”

“Goodbye,” Galileo said.

The faint sound of a creaking floor was the only warning her amplified eardrums received. Fortunately, she had down’d an expensive acrobatic package and overclocked her PBA for this eventuality: Galileo doing something homicidal and stupid. Huan dived out of her ergochair as a butcher knife hurtled through the space her head had occupied.

The knife zipped through Galileo’s black screen. It imbedded itself in the wooden wall, black handle wobbling. Xu’s heart pumped as she snatched the historic revolver from beneath her desk and rolled over the desk itself, landing in cover.

She sighted, eyes narrowed, and found Booi — her loyal synthetic butler — trembling in the doorway. It clutched another, smaller butcher knife, and its synthflesh face was locked in an expression of mute rage. If Galileo could hack her housesynth, he could probably hack every other synthetic she owned, which was a few of them. Dammit.

“Aww, Booi.” Huan sighed as her trembling butler advanced on her desk, fake blue eyes wide and wet. “I’m going to miss you. You always made such wonderful tea.”

She dropped the revolver and yanked hard on her right earlobe.

* * *

Glitch Matrix:


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