Episode 7: Frenemies (Part 1)


September 29, Early Afternoon


Cowan sat beside Jeb in the seat of their idling autocar. Just ahead, synthcops pushed open the iron gates leading into Doctor Xu’s now entirely unsecured estate. Tall stone walls surrounded a huge expanse of TruGrass, and the distant estate had to have at least six bedrooms inside its two sprawling floors. The morning sky shined clear and blue.

The regeneration meds OneWorld had injected into Cowan’s once-broken knee had put it back together at last, and losing his crutches was a good thing. Despite what he’d hoped for when he started, desk duty was as boring as it got. Still, given they were heading into what might be an active crime scene, he kind of missed his desk.

“You ever met Doctor Xu?” Jeb asked, as he guided the car up the paved road using manual controls. Jeb knew how to drive, which was good, because Cowan didn’t.

“I’ve read her books,” Cowan said. He had met Xu, actually, the night he paralyzed her alter-ego in the darkSim, but he couldn’t share that. “What’s she like?”

“One cold fish. But whatever she was into, it’s bitten her in the ass now. Hacking a system like hers takes skills, and you don’t go to that amount of trouble to chat.”

No one had heard from Doctor Xu since her security system had fired its first EMP pulse, a discharge that automatically alerted the CID. Xu lived alone, and she wasn’t answering her calls. If she wasn’t missing (or dead) she was going to be in big trouble.

Cowan hoped for missing. Maybe, after he doxxed her, Xu had simply decided to pack up and move to Switzerland. Maybe she decided it was too risky to remain in the United States. Her running away was better than her being in that big house somewhere, rotting.

Typically, in a situation like this, synthcops went in first to clear the scene, to make sure no one remained who could harm live investigators. The problem with that method this time, of course, was that every time a synthcop entered Xu’s estate, the system fired its EMP. They’d lost four synthcops before sending in Cowan and Jeb, and if the person who had hacked Xu’s system was still in there, they might not appreciate the intrusion.

Jeb turned down the faux cobblestone driveway, passed by a fountain, and pulled up before Xu’s mansion. Unlike the fountain in Nyx’s pleasurebox, with its blood-spouting mermaids, this was a simple stone fountain with little cherubs spitting water from their mouths. Nyx — Doctor Huan Xu — sure did have a thing for fountains.

Cowan stepped out of the autocar. Up close, Xu’s mansion was all white paneling, huge glass windows, and colonial style columns. There were no lights on inside, which made sense, given the EMP. Nothing automated would be active in this house now.

“I’ll check the perimeter,” Jeb said. “You search the house.”

“Alone?” Maybe Cowan was imagining it, but Jeb had seemed increasingly reserved these past few weeks. Did he suspect Cowan was digging into the darkSim at night?

“You have to learn to be lead on a scene at some point,” Jeb said. “Might as well start now. If someone challenges you, stun them or run.”

Cowan told himself he was being paranoid. “Okay.”

“Archive everything. We’ll go over it together after. The ant swarm can’t approach until we shut off the security system, so we’ve got time.” Jeb headed off to walk the grounds.

Cowan touched the trigger in his jacket collar. A transparent clean suit popped from his jacket to cover his head, hands, and boots. It was like being wrapped in a plastic bag, except he could breathe. As he pulled open the unlocked door, he did one last check on his mental health filters. Disabled. No tripping over invisible bodies this time.

Cowan stepped into the daytime darkness of wide windows and no lights, spine tingling. This felt too much like stepping into that dark room in Nyx’s palace, then finding himself immobilized by blood-stained silk. He measured his breathing.

He started by archiving the ground floor. The clean suit was a constant tug on his hair, neck, and hands, and it felt creepily like spider web, which was not a sensation he needed when thinking about Nyx, spiderlord of the darkSim. He found Doctor Xu’s study, with plush couches and an oil painting, entirely undisturbed. Her large kitchen was immaculate, obviously staffed by synthetic help, but two butcher knives were missing from a wooden block. That seemed bad.

Cowan found a domestic synthetic slumped by the stove and contacted Jeb on the wireless. If the security system pulsed its EMP again, their PBAs might get shut down, but the system had only reacted to synthcops thus far. “Jeb, got a dead synthetic here.”

“Inspect it. It was probably dropped by the EMP, but we can’t assume.”

Cowan archived the synthetic’s position and surroundings. Then he knelt and lifted first one arm, then the other, checking for any signs of violence. There were no pieces missing and no visible charring, which suggested physical violence hadn’t disabled it.

The other weird thing about Xu’s malfunctioning security system was that it hadn’t contacted anyone. Cowan had scanned what public records existed for Xu’s mansion on the drive over. CID records stated her security system was a Burghausen 750, the same German-built system used to shield the Louvre. Those didn’t get hacked.

The VI running the Burghausen had access to a shielded emergency hardlink in a Faraday Cage — the same VI that pulsed the EMP whenever synthetics approached — and its operational parameters instructed it to contact the authorities if anything went awry. Yet Xu must have changed those parameters, since the only reason the CID knew anything was wrong was by detecting the EMP. Why would Xu refuse to call for help?

Cowan worked his way through three bedrooms that wouldn’t be out of place at a five-star hotel, five luxurious halls filled with paintings and fancy silverware, and bathrooms that were bigger than his living room at home. All remained immaculate. He found two more fried synthetics, one in a bathroom and another in the hall, but they were EMP victims as well.  He found no signs of violence on their plastic and metal bodies.

Jeb should have the alarm system disabled by now, which meant the ant swarm would be arriving soon. He’d have to leave the mansion so as not to step on the little buggers. Cowan opened his wireless. “This might go faster if we split up the mansion.”

“You’re doing fine!” Jeb said. “I’m almost into the alarm system.”

Thirty minutes was a long time to enter an override code. “The security system ignored the factory override?”

“The CID’s currently hacking it by remote. While we wait, I’m heading into Xu’s underground garage. Going to see if any of her cars are missing.”

Cowan supposed it was time to head upstairs. He suspected there were at least as many rooms up there, all huge and complicated, but the job was the job. He climbed the mansion’s marble stairs, careful not to touch the banisters, and found his first clue.

A busted bust lay in the middle of the hall, missing both nose and moustache. That suggested something violent had happened in this hallway … that, and Xu’s motionless body in a pool of her own blood. The blood was dark, dry, and looking quite stickified.

Cowan urked and fought it, focusing past the encroaching smell. This particular dead body gazed with accusatory eyes. Handcuffs remained locked around Xu’s left wrist.

He had forced Xu to give him the kill code for Tian, and he was certain he had kept it secret. Yet Xu was dead now, and one reason she might be dead is because he hadn’t kept that kill code secret after all. Had Galileo killed her? Had he tortured her first? Cowan archived the scene and ran the CID’s crime scene reconstruction script.

[-] A blue mannequin wriggles against the wall, hands above its head. It hangs from handcuffs wrapped around an embedded light fixture. A red mannequin robovacs out of the nearby room, clutching a black arrow.

The red mannequin points the arrow at the blue mannequin, and a yellow “!” appears above the blue mannequin’s head. Yellow flashes repeatedly as small black balls pop through the blue mannequin. One ball boings into Shakespeare with a merry sound, sending the bard’s bust bouncing off its table.

The blue mannequin goes limp as the balls stop coming, hanging from the handcuffs and light fixture. The red mannequin slides over. It opens the cuffs.

The blue mannequin flops to the ground. The red mannequin cruises evenly away. Behind it, yellow circles flash in the wall. [-]

Cowan covered his nose with a sleeve and knelt, matching the holes in the real wall to the augmented reality circles of his PBA’s reconstruction. Of the five bullets in the wall, three had gone through Huan Xu first. One of the others had alas’d poor Shakespeare.

If someone was going to shoot Xu, why handcuff her first? What had Xu’s killer done to her before they shot her to death? Did he dare recreate that with his PBA?

“Found Xu,” Cowan said. “Looks like she’s dead.”

“Damn,” Jeb said, and he sounded like he meant it. “Any clue how she died?”

“Um, probably the bullets.”

“Could they be self-inflicted?” A puppeted person could shoot themselves multiple times.

“I don’t think so,” Cowan said. “I ran a simulation to confirm it. There was a second person in her office, a person who handcuffed her to a wall.”

“Handcuffed?” Jeb’s mind might be going where Cowan’s had gone, to the bad place.

“Yeah. She was handcuffed before her killer shot her multiple times, then fled.”

“There’s one car missing from Xu’s garage. From the registry at Corporate One, it’s a classic, a 2041 Tesla Roadster with manual controls. Should be easy to trace.”

Manual controls meant more bad news. “So our suspect is a closed circuit?” Nothing stopping them from torturing handcuffed people.

“Maybe. Other than the computer that regulates the engine charge and other functions, there’s not a VI onboard. Whoever took it actually knows how to drive.”

“Isn’t detonating an EMP and murdering someone a bit much to steal an old car?”

“Not for some people. You see anything else missing?”

“A couple of butcher knives on the first floor.” Cowan followed footprints in blood into the room from which the simulated shooter had emerged. “Oh. There they are.”


Cowan tossed Jeb the view from his left eye. “Someone had a knife-throwing contest.”

One of the missing knives was imbedded in the wood-paneled wall. The other remained clutched by the creepiest synthetic Cowan had ever seen, one with a synthflesh face. Cowan pulled his stunner and crept toward the downed synth, praying it wouldn’t sit up.

He made a cursory check for visible damage with his boot tip —nothing visible, just like the synthetic downstairs — but the knife was an odd detail. Had this synth doubled as a security model? Had it been protecting Xu from whoever wanted to cuff and shoot her?

“If only we could say the butler did it,” Jeb said. “I’ve always wanted one of those in my case archives.”

Humor wasn’t helping. As Cowan stared at the downed synth’s contorted, freakishly fleshy face, he hoped no one ever turned this thing back on. The way its mouth hung open, combined with its wide eyes, made it look like it wanted desperately to scream.

“Anyway,” Jeb said, “this one is going over to the VCD. I’ll notify Corporate One.”

“Right.”  The Violent Crime Division would take over this case now, because Xu’s murder trumped the EMP detonation. Cowan edged around the dried pool of blood beneath Xu’s body and headed for the stairs. Guilt gnawed at his insides.

It was obvious Doctor Xu had been no saint. Scripting a joyride that was so addictive people might die while using it was ruthless, yet so far as Cowan knew, Xu hadn’t actually murdered anyone. She hadn’t deserved to be cuffed, possibly tortured, and then shot to death. Those were the things a world of clear circuit PBAs were supposed to stop.

Yet perhaps this hadn’t been about Galileo at all. As Nyx, Xu’s alter-ego in the darkSim, she had run in dangerous circles. People were getting hurt or killed all over the world these days, so perhaps Xu had simply been careless. Perhaps this wasn’t really his fault.

Regardless, people would soon notice Nyx’s absence from the darkSim. Cowan wondered if anyone would connect her disappearance to the murder of Doctor Xu. Phoenix would ask, and Cowan would tell him.

Other than that, he was keeping this news to himself.

* * *

Glitch Matrix:

  • Poplopo
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