Kate Lambda’s private helicopter landed in the parking lot behind Sonne’s Sanctuary, like that was just a normal thing, and David Forrester met them there. When Cowan asked about that, Jeb just shrugged. Of course Jeb wouldn’t arrive without backup.
The five of them piled in — Detective Jeb Forrester, StrikeForceGo legend David Forrester, Detective Cowan Soto, waifu madam Sonne, and cybercriminal Huan Xu. As the helicopter lifted off, Cowan remembered he’d never ridden in one before. He looked out the window, but it was dark, and they flew high enough that clouds obscured everything. One more disappointing anti-climax, like the rest of his fucking life.
Kate wasn’t in the helicopter. It was piloted by a VI, and Cowan wouldn’t put it past Kate to loop all street cameras on the nearby buildings, or somehow obscure the helicopter from corporate radar. Xu wore her MySelf projection whenever they went outside.
Cowan had told other people everything, finally, and his world didn’t feel real any longer. In the year since Ellen lobotomized herself he had replayed their last night together every so often, felt his chest tighten and his eyes burn. He’d always thought sharing his pain would make him lighter. He just felt spent.
If Ellen had died a year ago, that would have been one thing, but she hadn’t. She had been locked in a cell for almost a year now, with no idea what she had done or why she was imprisoned. Assuming she still knew how to be a person at all.
Cowan wondered if Ellen had gone insane or killed herself. Some days, he imagined her smiling as she bounced her head against a padded wall. Some days, he could hardly work with those images filling his head.
Even if he found Ellen, what then? In the year she’d been captive, the woman he’d loved had no doubt been completely rewritten, scrubbed away by implanted behaviors and memories. Erased utterly, like Galileo wanted to do to Doctor Xu.
Perhaps it wasn’t all bad. Perhaps the woman in Ellen’s body was happy where she was right now. She might think living in a padded cell was the best thing in the whole world.
“Hey, Cowan?” Sonne moved to the seat beside him and kept her voice low. It was a really quiet helicopter. “I understand why you did what you did.”
He stopped seeing Ellen for a moment. “Really?”
“I’ve seen what a CID investigation and corporate audits can do to innocent people. I know why you didn’t steal that lady’s identity. I know you were trying to do right.”
“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.”
“I get that, which is why we can still work together until we solve this little problem. But after that, I never want to see you again. Understand?”
Of course she would feel that way, now. Of course it still hurt. “Sorry again.”
“On the other hand,” Sonne said, “what you’ve told me does help us with another problem. Our father’s been in a coma for almost a year now, PBA induced.”
“Your father?” How was that related?
Sonne explained the attack on Taylor Lambda. An undetectable troll paralyzed him in his own pleasurebox and left him in a real life coma. Kate now believed that troll was Galileo, and now that they knew about Cowan’s firmware — which allowed a person to hurt and kill without being kicked off the sim — they knew how that troll had harmed Taylor and stayed connected. Galileo had installed Cowan’s loose-circuit firmware.
“So,” David said, sitting beside Jeb. “You’ve just described a HARM switch that never turns off.”
“Pretty much,” Cowan said.
“Where did he get it?” David asked. “I thought you said all copies were erased.”
“I thought so too,” Cowan said. “But perhaps Ellen didn’t get everything, like she thought. Perhaps she missed a backup at Mind Games.”
Cowan,” Jeb said, “you were led to believe you had corporate permission to create firmware for PBAs that would allow them to ignore all behavioral conditioning, while remaining on the Sim. I don’t need to tell you how hard that is to believe.”
Cowan frowned. “But—”
“But it happened,” Jeb said, “and we know that Galileo has access to the firmware you created. That means they are connected to Mind Games. Perhaps a fellow scripter?”
“It was just us,” Cowan said. “No one worked on that firmware but…”
He understood, then. He knew what Jeb was saying. He wanted to leap across the helicopter and punch Jeb in the face.
“No,” Cowan said. “It’s not Ellen. Galileo is not Ellen.”
Sonne touched his arm. “No one is saying—”
“It’s not her.” Cowan brushed her hand off and scooted away. She didn’t want anything to do with him. “I know her, and I loved her. She’d never murder people like this.”
“All right,” Jeb said.
“She wouldn’t do it.” Cowan was having a really hard time trusting anyone right now.
“Oh, and before I forget.” Jeb leaned forward in his seat. “Don’t ever do something that stupid again.”
Everyone was piling on tonight. “I can’t promise that.”
“I don’t mean lying about Xu. I mean keeping me out of this, hiding your missing fiancé and Galileo’s actions on the darkSim. I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me.”
This man had just accused the woman Cowan loved of being a mass murderer. “Why would you help me with anything?”
“We’re partners, and that means we support each other. If you get into a bind again, if you’re in trouble again, call me. You come to me first. That’s how this works.”
Did Jeb mean it? Maybe he did. Maybe he really would have helped, if Cowan had just asked, like Sonne. “Okay.”
Eventually Kate’s helicopter landed atop a ribbed-looking glass and concrete skyscraper somewhere in the Gaslamp Quarter. Music thumped below as they stepped out onto a helipad with a city sprawled out below. Cowan realized, then, they had finally arrived at Club Sylvan. He glanced at Sonne, who didn’t glance at him. No dancing tonight.
A tall woman with short blond hair stepped onto the roof as the helicopter’s rotors spun down, wearing tactical body armor that left her arms exposed to her shoulders. That seemed impractical, but Cowan wasn’t about to question a woman with glowing red eyes. Her name was Lucy, and she very dangerous, and they were all going to follow her into the building and none of them were going to say a goddamn word.
The thumping grew deafening as they walked in through the roof door. Lucy led them across a catwalk looking down over Club Sylvan. It was gorgeous, with holo-painted walls that alternated between deep space filled with stars, psychedelic spiral land, and a dance floor platform floating on a frothy sea. It was smoky and smelled like peppermint.
Projected blue and white lights streaked along the bar, and its top shelf was stocked with a horde of multi-colored bottles. Alcohol was an unnecessary luxury these days, a throwback to days where you couldn’t just set your PBA to drunk. People today drank for taste and status, not to actually get hammered.
This top-floor club was packed, understandable for 0100 on a Friday night, and most of the women wore dresses more revealing that the one worn by Xu’s blonde Myself disguise. The men were handsome, sculpted muscle, and wore tailored suits that put Cowan’s to shame. He was almost glad he and Sonne hadn’t made it here, on their date.
The catwalk ended at a tough-looking metal door which slid into the wall. Lucy led them into an office with a plush red carpet and walls covered in sound-dampening foam. There was a big leather chair with its back to them, pointed at a panel on the back wall.
Kate Lambda spun her chair around as they entered her office, probably to be dramatic, and watched them with crossed hands resting on crossed knees. “Welcome, fellow fugitives.” She wore a black, off-the-shoulder dress that shimmered in the faint light.
“Lambda.” Xu dropped her MySelf projection and glowered.
Kate smiled at her. “Hello, Huan.”
Cowan frowned. “You know each other?”
“We’ve crossed paths,” Kate said.
“It ended poorly,” Xu added.
“Despite that,” and Kate stood, “you’re welcome here as long as Galileo is hunting you.”
Xu hunched her shoulders. “Thank you.”
Kate walked around her desk, shimmering dress changing from black to red as she did so, and clasped her hands behind her back. “It seems I was right about you, Cowan.”
Cowan glanced at the others. “How were you right?”
“You were a disaster waiting to happen, and you’ve just disaster’d all of us.”
Cowan was tired of people blaming him for things. “You think I asked for this?”
“I think you just put me, my sister, and everyone here in the sights of a deadly cybercriminal. We’re targets of someone we don’t know, who works for a corporation we know nothing about, with darkSim connections we can’t trace and scripting prowess unlike any we’ve never seen.”
Cowan looked away. “Sorry.” He sat down on the floor.
“Stop apologizing,” Sonne said quietly.
Jeb squeezed his shoulder. “Don’t give up yet. We can still beat this.” He was probably only being comforting because he didn’t want Cowan to entirely check out.
Xu relaxed against a wall. “So casually dismissed. Galileo will rewrite us, one and all.”
Curiosity pushed past Cowan’s depression. “You mentioned a total rewrite in my apartment. That’s a sentence for a capital crime, and only approved OneWorld centers have that ability. Those are secured, so how would Galileo gain access?”
Xu frowned his way. “You can’t be that stupid.”
“No, I am. I really am that stupid.” He needed to know what she knew. “How would he gain access to a rewriting center? How would he even get you shipped to one?”
“Galileo is a part of OneWorld,” Xu said.
“Right, I figured that much out.” Galileo scripted new firmware for their PBAs, which was how he bypassed safety restrictions. “But access to a rewriting center takes approval from the director of the OMH. You need sign-off from the director, right, Jeb?”
Jeb shrugged. “That’s what I’ve always assumed.”
Xu huffed and rolled her eyes. “He doesn’t have a private rewriting center, you charmingly dense idiot. He has all the rewriting centers. His name is Gerhard Bayer, Chief Technical Officer of OneWorld, and he owns the Office of Mental Health.”
“Hold on a moment,” Kate said. “Are you claiming you just doxxed Galileo?”
“I had thirty minutes to think before I went to Cowan’s.” Xu shrugged. “I got bored.”
* * *
(Loose Circuit will return with Episode 8 on 2/12/2018.
All next week, I’ll be turning this blog over to the first three chapters of my grimsnark scifi thriller, Supremacy’s Shadow, due out on February 9, 2018. If you like my work here, or you want to support my writing, you might enjoy my latest book as well!)
You can read the first chapter here!
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