September 29, Late Evening
Cowan spent the rest of the day filing a detailed report on a sloppy credit account swap. Some troll assumed she could tap the credit account of a local musician and, because the musician played folksy jazz, he wasn’t Sim savvy. She was very wrong.
After that was a debrief with Director Stanton, then a quick bite at Crazy Noodles, then a long ride home. Cowan flipped on Classic Movie Channel and watched white guys with guns chase each other around long enough to bore whoever was watching at the OMH.
After that he hopped into bed, closed his eyes, and activated his sleep loop to make sure the CID didn’t wonder why they couldn’t surveil him through his own eyes. Once his loop was in place, he slid out of bed and opened his private connection to the darkSim. He had to learn if anyone knew about Nyx’s absence, and what they thought about it. He was just about to dive when someone pounded on his apartment door.
Cowan froze. Someone had the wrong apartment, probably a closed circuit without augmented reality to guide them to their address. Yet it was almost 2200, almost time for the closed circuit curfew. Palmdale was a forty minute drive away.
The pounding sounded again. It must be disturbing his neighbors, which was the last thing Cowan wanted to do before illegal activities. Who the hell was pounding on his door this late at night? He remembered Xu’s body, and her handcuffs, and shivered.
Had Galileo sent a murderer after him? Some puppeted innocent with a real gun? Had he bypassed attacking Cowan on the Sim and decided to handle things in meatspace?
Cowan flipped to his headdesk and checked the camera on his door. The person beating on it was remarkably full-figured, with a mop of blond hair. She wore a tiny yellow dress with enough fabric to get her down the street without obscenity charges, but only just.
Cowan saw another door open across in 4A. A man with a balding head stepped out, and the woman stopped beating on his door long enough to yell at him. “Fuck off!” she shouted, with a heavy Russian accent. “I’m not here for you!”
Great. His neighbor would now assume the guy in 4B had just ordered himself a prostitute. That wasn’t supposed to happen anymore but, according to Sonne, still did. So would his neighbor call the OMH? If he did that, and the OMH checked Cowan’s loop, they might realize they weren’t seeing what he was seeing. That would be bad.
Cowan hurried to his door, determined to send this confused woman on her way. He threw it open and nearly toppled over as the woman fell into his arms. He barely avoided getting a handful of parts he really shouldn’t … at least, not without asking first.
“Baby!” the woman shouted. “Why you keep me waiting?” She glared at Cowan’s neighbor, who had the misfortune of still standing in his door. “You! Plan to join us?”
“Um.” That was the best the poor man could offer.
“Then go inside!” The blonde woman turned to Cowan, and he noticed she had a freckled nose. “C’mon, baby. I want you to take me now and loud.” She kicked the door shut with the back of her heel, then shoved him aside and strode right past him.
The woman had entered his kitchen before Cowan’s confused brain and overtaxed libido could figure out what to do next. She yanked open his refrigerator. “No liquor? Bother.” Her Russian accent had vanished. “What kind of a cop doesn’t keep liquor on hand?”
“Uh.” Cowan tried the same route as the man in the hallway.
The woman leaned on his counter and looked him over, smirking as she stared. “Don’t fret, Mister Soto. I’m not here to fuck you, at least not in a positive sense.” She tapped something he couldn’t see on her wrist. “Though you may feel fucked, afterward.”
There was a flicker of projected light, and then a much different woman leaned against his kitchen counter. This one wore a crinkled black dress that rose to her neck and fell to her knees. There was no actual cleavage, and she pulled off a blonde wig to reveal short black hair. She was thin, not voluptuous, poised, not drunk, and dressed, rather than underdressed. She was Doctor Huan Xu, and she was supposed to be dead right now.
“Now.” Xu crossed her thin arms. “We need to talk.”
Cowan had left his stunner in his bedroom. “Right. Just let me—”
“Don’t even think about it!” Xu stomped one heeled foot. “If you do anything to betray me, Cowan dear, I will murder you. Our relationship really is that simple.”
Xu rolled up the hem of her skirt to reveal long legs and dark stockings. Before Cowan would ask or complain, he saw the garter holster and the metal revolver it held. A gun she pulled out and aimed right at him. It was Doctor Barkov all over again.
Cowan took a step back. “Wait.” His fear filters flexed.
“Here is how you live,” Xu said. “You do everything I ask of you, when I ask it.”
“Okay.” That seemed fair right now.
“As much as it pains me to admit, I need your help. Our mutual enemy has decided to murder me.”
Cowan remembered her body in a pool of stickified blood. “Didn’t he?”
“Obviously not. The body you found in my mansion? That was my clone.”
Cloning was still incredibly illegal, but there were rumors rich people did it. “Really?”
“Merely a receptacle for spare organs, with non-viable tissue filling its skull. Insurance against misfortune. It had enough blood and flesh to buy me a day of freedom.”
In a flash of relief and disgust, Cowan finally understood the handcuffs around “Xu’s” wrist. He imagined hanging his own cloned body from a fixture, shooting it repeatedly with a gun, and shuddered. “Where would you even keep something like that?”
She waved his question away. “You will help me escape to Switzerland. Once I’m safe, you can sleep with the knowledge that you will never, ever, see me again.”
Cowan then remembered a revolver like hers held six bullets, and he remembered five bullets going into her mansion and clone. Did she have one bullet left, or more?
“One bullet remains,” Xu said, “in case you’re still wondering. I’m a very good shot.”
That was creepily like mindreading, thought she had probably read his face instead. “Didn’t you miss the clone a few times?”
“On purpose, Cowan. To make it look convincing.”
This woman had tried to torture him in the darkSim. She probably wanted him dead, and he had to make her want him not dead. He needed to keep her talking, not shooting. “Hey, how did you change how you looked? Make yourself look like that blond, uh—?”
“Hooker,” Xu said. “The word you are looking for is hooker.” She tapped that invisible keyboard on her wrist, and again her body changed.
Xu’s proportions popped out impressively as her light brown flesh turned pale. Her sensible business dress turned into a barely there sundress, and her dark hair vanished to reveal a bald white head. She had no hair now, which might explain the blond wig.
“It’s called MySelf,” Xu said, tapping on her wrist once more, “and you’ve probably never heard of it.” She ceased being the blond woman and once again became Huan Xu.
Cowan felt his eyes widen. “Terrorists used those to sneak into the U.N. and blow it up forty years ago, didn’t they? The one in New York?” The Office of Mental Health had suppressed almost all stories about past terrorist attacks, but he’d learned about them on darkSim archives. “That’s why all units were banned.”
Xu’s brow furrowed. “You’re well informed. Regardless, we need—”
“Hey, does it actually bend light? How does it know what avatar to create in meatspace? Is that something you import in, like an avatar, or do you take 3D captures of real people?” There were all sorts of crazy theories about MySelf on the darkSim. “Also, I thought they were all destroyed! How did you get one?”
Xu waved the tip of her gun. “Focus, Cowan. How are you getting me to Switzerland?”
She seemed truly convinced he could help her, which was odd. “Why come to me?”
“You’re CID, a loose circuit, and well connected. That means you’ll help me avoid the CID and help me avoid Galileo, too. If I go down, you go down, and you don’t want that.”
“How do you know the person who attacked you was Galileo?” That was what Jeb would ask. “Also, how did they attack you?”
“He hacked my butler and every synthetic in my mansion.”
Facts popped into place. “That’s why your security system triggered the EMP. You couldn’t risk him using hacked synthetics to kill you, either yours or his.”
“He knows I’m not dead,” Xu said, having finally assigned Galileo a gender, “and so we remain on an accelerated schedule.” She grimaced, glanced at her revolver, and then at him. “If I lower this, you’ll understand I’m still willing to murder you, right?”
Her arm must be getting tired. “Sure.”
“Good.” Xu sat on his couch, revolver resting on her lap. “Now. My flight?”
Cowan was on his own here. If he ended his loop now, the OMH would know he’d been giving their surveillance the slip every night. They’d investigate him thoroughly. Everything he’d hidden would come out, and then where would Ellen be? Still lost.
There was no good way out of this. He was actually going to help Xu escape to Switzerland. That was the only way he survived to take down Galileo and find Ellen.
“Okay,” Cowan said. “Point one. You can’t book a flight in your own name, and point two, you can’t pay for it with your own money.”
“You’ve deduced the problem, detective. Now deduce a solution.”
“So you need an identity that’ll pass muster with global terrorism filters, and credit that won’t immediately be flagged as someone else’s when you book your flight.”
“I can float you some money.” Corvus had more than enough anonymized credits on the darkSim to buy Xu eight hundred tickets to Switzerland. “Generating a fake identity is next to impossible, so we’ll just need to dupe an existing one.”
She rewarded him with a shallow smile. “We’ll make a cybercriminal of you yet.”
“So we need someone about your age. Forty?”
Her eyes narrowed.
“Thirty or so.” He probably shouldn’t bait her like that. “Chinese descent, close to your height and weight.”
“Wasn’t asking, but congratulations.”
“I still have a gun, you know.”
Cowan opened up MeetSpace and did a quick personals search. There were at least twenty-four single women matching Doctor Huan Xu’s general height, weight, and nationality living within an hour of his apartment. He felt bad robbing some woman of her identity, but he was saving two lives: Xu’s and his own. He’d find some way to make it up to their poor victim, maybe an anonymous donation to her Valentine Box.
Cowan down’d MeetSpace profiles and searched for keywords: Sim, simulation, and pleasurebox. That got eight matches, meaning those women were active on at least one entertainment Sim. Four had been naive enough to list their handles on their profiles.
He picked his mark at random, just because he liked her name. StarPony. Her profile verified she was in the Sim right now, so she might agree to a simdate.
Sadly, direct contact in the Sim was all Cowan needed to steal her Sim ID. Age and physical appearance didn’t matter in a virtual world, so StarPony might not care that he was ten years younger so long as he seemed interesting. He hated himself for this, hated himself for using some poor woman and fucking up her life to save his own.
Still, it was better than getting shot in the head.
* * *
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