Cowan’s MeetSpace profile was inactive, had been inactive since he and Ellen started dating, so he updated a few cursory details and reactivated it. Many of the private messages Ellen had once left waited in his Inbox, but he dared not watch those now. He also couldn’t bear to delete them, which was why he still had this profile.
He sent a query to Angela Chang, also known as StarPony. He suggested a pleasant run though Strawberry Fields and a hot air balloon ride over Rainbow Lake. It was all typical first simdate stuff, but familiarity might make her more likely to accept.
No response came. Angela either wasn’t checking MeetSpace now, or had decided to browse his profile and do a background check on him. As she should. He waited before querying the other possible marks. He didn’t have work until tomorrow afternoon.
“Say, Miss Xu.” Cowan kept one eye in the Sim and one eye on her. He didn’t trust her to behave herself.
“Doctor Xu,” she corrected.
“Right.” Whatever kept her from shooting him. “When you get to Switzerland, you’ll be safe there? Even from him?”
“You mean Galileo.” Xu shrugged. “Let’s just say I’ll be safer. I have wealthy colleagues in Helsinki, and I can occupy myself with academic pursuits as I wait for Galileo to forget about me. I’m overdue for a sabbatical. Perhaps I’ll study AI.”
Was she joking? “Scripting artificial intelligence is illegal.”
“So are designing joyrides and using clones for spare organs.” Xu smiled. “That’s why your date will go so well. If you fail to get me a plane ticket, I’ll shoot you in the head.”
His fear filters flexed again. “That’s going to look kind of suspicious, isn’t it?”
“If I’m still in your apartment tomorrow, the VCD will finish their autopsy of my clone, which they’ll determine isn’t me. Once you start looking for me on street cams, I’ll be found, and once I’m found, I cease to exist.”
Why was she so sure of that? “We can protect you.”
“Of course you can’t, which is why if I’m going to die, I’m going to make you dead first.” She idly rapped her fingers on his couch. “You’re the reason my life imploded.”
Cowan didn’t want to, but he winced anyway. Xu’s falling out with Galileo was technically his fault. A ping echoed in his ears, and he flipped to his headdesk. StarPony had responded, and she hadn’t found him creepy. That made him feel even worse.
“I’d love a quick gallop, but no balloon ride. We’ll grow wings instead. I want to see you fly. Meet me in Strawberry Fields in five if you’re the adventurous type.”
“We’re on,” Cowan told Xu. He settled into the seat. “Time to go be an asshole.”
He didn’t need to be on a hardlink to do innocent and legal stuff, and everything he’d do tonight was legal except spoofing StarPony’s Sim ID. He opened his simPartment. It was basic and boring, a studio apartment with stock furniture. He’d never updated it.
The Sim didn’t have as many options as the darkSim. It needed to be user friendly, and most casuals didn’t know how to model environments or script sim behaviors. Sadly, even this basic apartment was bigger and nicer than his real one.
Cowan bought a basic horse avatar off the corporate store, a brown chestnut mare, and tried it on. His sightline rose and he trotted around his apartment on four legs, but the sensation was more like crawling than galloping. Less adjustment for the human brain.
Only then did he open the private partition in his PBA. He dropped in a darkSim script that would clone StarPony’s Sim ID. Once he did that successfully, Xu could pass as Angela Chang/StarPony when she bought her plane ticket, with Cowan’s money.
So long as the real StarPony remained off the Sim long enough for Xu to buy a ticket using her name, that wouldn’t raise any red flags. Angela Chang might not even know her identity was in Switzerland until Xu’s flight landed, and perhaps not even then.
Cowan’s body tingled as he ported to Strawberry Fields, a huge pleasurebox of glowing wheat, tall green grass, and endless sunshine. There were a number of equines gathered: big racing horses, smaller, realistic horses in many colors, and even cel-shaded horses with vestigial wings and big anime eyes. The classic Brony avatar never went out of style.
Cowan trotted over to join them, neighing a general greeting. A couple neighed back, but only one equine trotted over. She was a sleek black filly with a pink bow in her hair. Cowan detected her ]whois query and did one in return, because that’s what a normal person would do. Strawberry Fields disabled nametags for immersion purposes.
“Well hello.” StarPony’s filly batted horsy eyes at him. “What an … interesting avatar.”
Cowan grimaced, or rather, bared his equine teeth. She had instantly recognized his avatar as a corporate shop model, and selling himself as a true equine enthusiast was the wrong move. Cowan shook his head and mane in what he hoped was an apology.
“You’ve got me. I’ve never actually been a horse.” He hesitated. “It was in your profile, and your profile was interesting … you were interesting, I mean … so I figured, why not?”
“So you’re a bit new at this.” StarPony nickered at him. “I won’t fault a man who’s willing to try new things, nor one who’s actually honest about it.”
Ouch. That hurt more than she knew.
“So tell me, Cowan. What do you think of your new avatar?”
“It’s … kind of cool, actually.” Cowan didn’t have to lie about that. “Though moving feels like crawling, to me.”
“It would, with that basic avatar. But you must crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can gallop, and you are cute.” She swished her silky tail. “So try and keep up!”
She trotted off, and Cowan followed. She gradually increased their pace as Cowan did as well, and it surprised him just how fast he could “crawl” when he stopped thinking. Grass blew, motes glittered, and his hooves pounded the earth. This was actually fun!
StarPony glanced back. “You’re doing great!” She shook her head and mane and sped up, four legs pounding the earth in rhythmic unison. Cowan started falling behind.
She slowed down, careful not to leave him behind. She wasn’t trying to humiliate him, just gently egging him on, and another wave of guilt squeezed his heart. Angela really did seem like a decent person, which made him all the more horrible for using her.
“Stop toying with her,” Xu’s disembodied voice echoed. “Do the deed and get out.”
Cowan stumbled and went down, rolling several times before his horse body came crashing to a stop. “Xu!” What the hell was she doing in his head? “How did you—”
“Linkline into your auxiliary port. You think I want you two conspiring against me?”
“I wouldn’t do that!” He stumbled to his feet.
StarPony trotted back, equine eyes wide. “Are you all right?” She really sounded concerned.
“Sorry. Took a bad step.” He focused on her. “I’m fine. Really. No damage done.”
“Perhaps we took things too fast.” StarPony shifted into a woman avatar. She wore a gray dress and had green eyes, creamy skin, and long black hair. Her human avatar was well-proportioned, but not ludicrously so — sexy, but tasteful.
She smiled at him, hair trailing in the wind. “Do you want to walk?”
“Walk?” Cowan felt a very non-horse tingle.
“As a human.” She trailed two fingers down his equine nose, and it tickled in meatspace. “Or, you know. You could stay in equine form.” She slid her fingers along his flank, making his side tingle like his face and other parts, too. “And … I could ride you?”
Cowan was going to make this woman’s life hell. She was considerate and adventurous, and he was going to screw her over just like he’d screwed Ellen. Well, not that bad.
After Xu stole Angela’s identity to fly to Switzerland, the CID would treat Angela as an accomplice. They’d question her about the security breach, and might even flag her on the Sim. Even an inconclusive CID investigation could hang over a person’s profile, limiting their employment options and tanking their citizen score.
What had Angela done to deserve a ruined reputation? What had she done to deserve getting flagged by the CID? Was that her reward for trusting people, getting screwed?
“She seems lonely,” Xu said. “Riding you is perfect. That contact will give you all you need to spoof her Sim ID.” Her voice turned hard. “Do it now.”
Cowan stared at Angela and gnashed his horsey teeth. He couldn’t betray another woman, not like he’d betrayed Ellen. This woman deserved better.
“Cowan?” Angela asked. “Are you still there?”
“Do it, Cowan! Or do you want to die?”
“Sorry.” Cowan shifted into his Sim avatar, a corporate surfer. “This was a mistake.”
Angela’s hand snapped back as if he’d burned her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s not you. You’re great. I have to leave because I wasn’t honest with you. I’m just that kind of asshole.” Cowan opened his admin panel and blinked Disconnect.
When he focused back into meatspace, Doctor Xu was in his face. Her eyes bulged and her revolver shook. “Why did you do that?” She pressed her gun to his forehead. “You had her!” She clutched his linkline in white knuckles. “Go back in!”
“I’m not fucking up some innocent woman’s life to save yours.” Cowan popped her linkline from his auxiliary port. “We’ll find another way to get you away from Galileo, one that doesn’t hurt anyone. That woman deserves better, and honestly, you don’t.”
A message pinged his headdesk, probably Angela Chang. Cowan blocked her. Would Xu shoot him now? Would he feel the bullet, or would everything just go black?
Xu pressed the revolver against him hard enough to force his head back. “I need that ticket! I need a way out!”
“Sorry.” Cowan stared at her without moving, without doing anything that might cause her to press the trigger. “You want to add murder to your many sins, go ahead.” He remembered Ellen’s tear-stained face staring up at him, remembered her sad smile.
“I’ll do it! I’ll kill you!”
“Then take the shot,” Cowan said. “Or get the fuck out of my apartment.”
* * *
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