Cowan took a moment to not freak out. Then he rolled off Xu, plucked Jeb’s stunner from his lowered hand, and held it without really aiming it at anyone.
“Shit,” Sonne said. “Shit shit shit.” She kept her stunner pressed against the back of Jeb’s head.
Cowan glanced at Xu, curled into a mass of elbows and knees, then at Jeb. Then at Sonne. She was holding a gun to the head of a CID detective. This was really bad.
“Okay.” Cowan lowered his stunner. “Hold on. Let’s think about this.” He really needed to think about this.
“Explain it,” Sonne said. “All of it.” She glowered at the back of Jeb’s bald head. “Who is Galileo, why does he want to rewrite Doctor Xu, and why can’t you stop him?”
“Yes, Cowan,” Jeb said, smiling. “Explain.”
Explaining was good. They would understand if he explained, maybe even help him. Cowan immediately told them everything about how Xu faked her death, including his plan for Second Chance to fly Xu to Switzerland with no one being the wiser.
“And that was your whole plan?” Sonne asked. “Use me for my connections, then leave me holding a bag of shit?”
“No!” Cowan said. “I mean, that wasn’t—”
“Do you have any idea the inquiries Katie would face once the OMH learned we’d helped a cybercriminal flee the country? They’d shut us down. They’d sue us into oblivion!”
Holy crap. She was right — Cowan knew she was right — and he hunched his shoulders as he realized just how badly he’d fucked up. “That wasn’t what I wanted.”
“And that makes it better somehow?”
He should have thought this through. He should have trusted Sonne — why hadn’t he trusted Sonne? — but he hadn’t been thinking straight since Xu invaded his apartment. Yet that was no excuse, really. He’d been hiding things for too long. “I’m sorry.”
“Ma’am,” Jeb said. “Since you’ve got me at a disadvantage now, would you mind if I stood in the corner?”
“Don’t you move a fucking muscle, Forrester.” Sonne kept her stunner against his head. “Also, you’ve probably noticed your wireless can’t transmit from this room.”
“Wouldn’t matter anyway,” Jeb said. “I shut down my PBA.”
Sonne glared at Cowan. “So this is what I get for being nice to you. A dead woman in my office, your partner about to arrest me, and the end of my fucking life.”
Cowan shook his head. “You wouldn’t have done this if it wasn’t for me. I’ll testify to that. They’ll blame me for everything, but first, we have to get Xu somewhere safe.”
Jeb gave Xu a glance. “Why do you want her safe, Cowan? Are you together?”
“We’re not together!” Xu shouted.
“I believe her, Jeb.” Cowan glanced at Xu. “I believe Doctor Xu when she says Galileo can rewrite her, even if we take her into the CID, because I’ve seen that happen.”
Jeb frowned. “Can you elaborate?”
Backed into a corner twice in the same night. Yet he couldn’t let Jeb arrest Xu, and he couldn’t let Jeb arrest Sonne, and he couldn’t be arrested himself. So here they were.
“Someone inside OneWorld,” Cowan said, “asked me to script loose circuit firmware that could keep a jailbroken PBA on the Sim. And then they arrested me for it.”
That was it. His big revelation. It was all he knew and all he had to go on, based on his own investigations and the last words of a woman he had loved and betrayed.
“It’s all right,” Ellen whispered, as she pointed two fingers at her own head. “You couldn’t know.”
“That doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Jeb said. “Do you have any evidence?”
“Nothing but what happened to us, to me and Ellen. We used to script PBA firmware together.” He swallowed. “We were going to get married.”
Sonne’s eyes narrowed, but her gun didn’t move. Xu rocked with her legs tucked up against her, humming to herself like a not sane person.
“We had authorization, Jeb. Our company … Mind Games … told us the new firmware was for OneWorld use only, like an admin account.” As all his long nights working beside Ellen came back, fresh grief flooded him. “We developed firmware that circumvents all PBA behavioral protocols without disconnecting it from the Sim.”
“A loose circuit,” Jeb said.
“Yeah.” Cowan tapped his head. “I’m running our firmware. I can hurt people if I want to, kill people, all while connected to the Sim. I’m clear as fucking crystal.” He looked at Xu. “Or I could kill people, if it didn’t make me sick every time I thought about it.”
Jeb shook his head. “Puck was right.”
“Who the fuck is Puck?” Sonne’s gun remained locked against Jeb’s head.
Jeb explained that to them, too. There was an Augur in Corporate One, and she looked like a fairy, and she was very interested in finding out if Cowan was actually a loose circuit. A connection to whoever authorized Cowan to script this new firmware?
“Here’s what you need to clarify,” Jeb said. “How do you know the people you worked for were OneWorld?”
“It’s the only way I can explain what happened to us. We tested our new firmware on the latest corporate PBAs, models that weren’t even on the street yet. We got a simMail saying a bonus was coming, and we celebrated. Then Ellen called and said she’d found out something terrible, something about our work. It wasn’t sanctioned after all.”
“Go stand in the corner, Forrester.” Sonne didn’t lower her gun.
“Corporate Security came after her,” Cowan said. “I was home … we lived in Mission Beach … and she called me, on an encrypted link we kept for ourselves. She said military people were chasing her, with guns and synthcops.”
Jeb stood in the corner. “So OneWorld has had loose circuit firmware all this time?”
“No, I mean … I don’t think so. After Ellen copied our firmware to her PBA, she deleted everything, even the backups. She told me she was almost home. We’d run together.”
“Then what happened?” Sonne’s voice was softer now, like when she’d asked Xu about her pimp.
“I pinged 911.” He’d betrayed Ellen. “I told them we were corporate engineers, that someone in our department had broken the law. I actually believed they’d help us.”
“And Corporate Security arrived instead?” Jeb asked.
“All of them, I think.” Cowan remembered men shouting as they slid down ropes through busted skylights, remembered helmets and huge guns. “They arrested Ellen, said she was an anti-corporation spy. Said she’d been secretly passing data to the Swiss.”
“So what happened to your new firmware?” Jeb asked.
“Ellen nuked it. She fried her PBA so Corporate Security wouldn’t retrieve our source code, so there was nothing in there that could incriminate me.” Cowan’s voice broke. “She lobotomized herself to keep me from getting rewritten.”
Ellen was all he saw now, her tall, slim form and dark hair. She’d had a wonderful heart, and a wonderful brain, and he’d destroyed both of those because he made a mistake.
“That’s an interesting story,” Jeb said.
Cowan felt a pang of frustration. “It’s true. It happened.”
“So this is why you joined the CID? To find out who set the two of you up? To chase this corporate traitor?”
“To find Ellen. She’s still alive out there, somewhere. She’s missing and it’s my fault.”
Sonne settled against her door and lowered her stunner. “None of this makes any sense.”
“Doesn’t it?” Jeb asked.
“OneWorld owns the world! Why would they need loose circuit firmware?”
“There were peer reviews,” Cowan said. “Focus groups. I don’t know who they were, and I don’t know what happened to them, but it wasn’t just one person. Nobody could authorize that many resources without some form of corporate oversight.”
Jeb tapped his chin. “It’s not corporation versus corporation, like those incidents before the Lathan-Faulkner Act. It’s an internal war. CEO versus CEO, department versus department, people flexing muscles and moving pawns.”
“This is crazy!” Sonne shouted. “Don’t you get how crazy this all sounds?”
“Actually,” Jeb said, “this doesn’t sound crazy at all.” He glanced at Xu. “Arresting you isn’t the play we need. Not with what Cowan’s told me. We need another plan.”
Sonne stomped a foot. “What plan?”
“You should call Miss Lambda now.”
Sonne frowned at Jeb, frowned at Cowan, and then walked to her desk and raised her hand. “Fine, whatever.” A blank panel appeared, summoned by her PBA.
Cowan stood silently as Kate Lambda’s face and shoulders filled the panel. Kate was Asian, but Cowan couldn’t pick an exact nationality. Sonne explained the current situation without cursing too much, and Kate understandably facepalmed. Then she said something about a helicopter, and Sonne closed the panel.
Cowan found it hard to pay attention. He’d fucked this up so badly. Would Sonne ever forgive him for lying to her, for taking advantage of her charity and trust?
It probably didn’t matter. They’d never had a chance a hell, anyway.
* * *
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