“That’s an incredibly dangerous claim,” Jeb said. “You really believe Gerhard Bayer, one of the five members of the board of OneWorld, is the cybercriminal responsible for tearing the Sim apart and murdering dozens of people with puppeted victims?
“Yes,” Xu said.
“You’ve just accused one of the most powerful people in the world of being a darkSim troll.”
Xu looked around the room, eyebrows rising slowly as if discovering everyone else shared Jeb’s disbelief. “You really want to go into this now?”
No one said anything, even Lucy, Kate’s tall blonde bodyguard, who watched them from beside the office door with her bare arms crossed. They waited. Everyone waited.
“Fine.” Xu huffed. “Seeing as we’ll all cease to exist in a few days, so why not share my genius?” She turned to Kate. “Lambda, give me panel access.”
“It’s Kate,” Kate said.
“Not since we broke up, it isn’t.”
“Careful, honey. This is my house.”
Xu took a breath. “Kate, would you please allow me access to your office panel?”
“Of course, Huan.” Kate smiled at Xuan, then spun her chair so she faced the back wall. A screen appeared in the air, rendered on the augmented reality server they all shared.
Xu walked over to the panel and pasted data from her PBA. “Mass shootings covered up by the Office of Mental Health.” Dozens of names plastered themselves all over the panel.
Cowan recognized one in particular. Sheila Fisher. “Where did you get those?”
Xu gripped names and moved them, organizing them into efficient lists. “Isn’t it obvious?”
It wasn’t, actually, but Jeb spoke up before Cowan could say that.
“We’ve researched this list,” Jeb said, “but we’ve found nothing. My initial theory was these were targeted assassinations, one murder with random people added to make it look like a mass killing. Our metadata filters created dozens of probable connections, but there’s too many unknowns to settle on specific victims.”
“That’s because you’re relying on metadata,” Xu said. “It won’t make the connections you need, because the man who murdered those people controls that data.” She gestured to Kate. “Please import the five board members of OneWorld.”
Five new names appeared on the panel in much larger letters.
Cowan knew those names, because everyone knew those names. Each of those five people was on the board of OneWorld. They ran most of the planet.
“You can’t trust any data on the Sim,” Xu said, tapping the side of her head, “because that data can be changed. Fortunately, if you are me, you know where to find archives.”
Cowan considered Xu’s claim. If Galileo was indeed Gerhard Bayer, he’d have control over every aspect of OneWorld’s systems, including everything at the CID. Though it was illegal and impossible to change personnel records, it wouldn’t be for a man like Bayer.
Xu opened a picture of a pretty lady with dark hair. “We’ll start with Denise Bouchard, receptionist. The second person killed by Sheila Fisher at Ventura Ventures.”
“She was the target?” David asked.
Xu dragged a line between the dead woman and a OneWorld board member. “Before she joined ShangJin, Denise was the personal secretary of Jia Cheng. Her first job, in fact, though you won’t that find that on her resume now.” Xu sniffed. “Bayer changed it.”
Sonne glanced at Cowan. “Galileo shot her because she was connected to Cheng?”
Xu dragged another murder victim to another member of OneWorld. “Elazar Kravitz, the third person murdered by our first puppeted killer. His work history has also been amended, but archives prove he was once the personal assistant of Dena Abramowicz.”
Cowan saw the pattern now, assuming Xu was right about the data being altered. “So Galileo is … what? Killing interns and assistants of the board of OneWorld? Why?”
“You don’t start by killing your target’s family,” David said quietly. “You kill people they know, tangentially, to show your targets you can kill their family.”
“If you start by killing the people closest to them,” Jeb added, just as quietly, “they don’t have anyone left to lose. You have no leverage.”
“That’s sick,” Sonne whispered.
“And smart,” Xu added. “Leverage is everything.”
“Are there others?” Cowan asked. Because he was starting to see how fucked they really were.
“April Cooper.” Xu dragged that name to another OneWorld member. “Personal chef for Lawrence Walker, until she left him to open her own restaurant. The third puppeted shooting targeted her restaurant, and April with it.”
“Was that before or after Sheila Fisher?” Cowan asked.
“Before,” Jeb said, because he would be the type to remember the killing order with his PBA offline. “Sheila was the last, thanks to the departure of Doctor Anton Barkov.”
“That just leaves Chihu Tam and Gerhard Bayer,” Kate said. “Who are the victims connected to them?”
Xu glanced at Kate, her lips pressing together. “Tam was one of Benzai Corporation’s principal investors, was he not?” She almost looked concerned.
Kate sat back at her desk. “My father.” She stared at someone they couldn’t see. “Galileo attacked my father and left him in a coma … to send a message to Tam?”
“If we accept this pattern,” Xu said, “it’s a motive that makes sense.”
“So who’s Bayer’s connection?” Sonne asked.
“There isn’t one.” Xu turned to face them. “Gerhard Bayer is Galileo.”
“Now hold on.” Cowan could see the possibilities, but he didn’t know how Xu could put it all together so fast. “How long have you believed this?”
“Since yesterday night.”
Jeb stepped forward. “So because no one connected to Bayer was killed in these puppeting rampages, you believe he’s Galileo? What if Galileo hasn’t hit him yet?”
“All four rampages occurred in a three week period. It has now been two months. No more rampages. None who worked for or with Gerhard Bayer have had their work history altered, unlike the other four members. This is the only conclusion that fits.”
“Sorry,” Jeb said. “That’s not enough.”
“Um…” Cowan did a quick search of his PBA archives and verified the sick intuition now infecting his brain. “Shit.”
“Yes,” Xu said. “That adequately describes our situation.”
“Gerhard Bayer was one of the founders of Mind Games.” Cowan felt like the floor was sinking. “I worked on PBA firmware for him. I worked on the PBA firmware, for him.”
Jeb’s brow furrowed. “You mean the thing you did with Ellen? The loose circuit?”
“I made firmware that let him murder dozens of people,” Cowan whispered.
“No,” Sonne said.
Cowan couldn’t see past all the dead and sobbing faces in his head. Sheila Fisher, her parents, all those others. He had been staring at their killer all this time, and it had simply never occurred to him to check his own employment history.
Sonne knelt beside him, gripping his shoulders. “You’re not responsible, Cowan, any more than Doctor Xu is responsible for how Galileo used Tian.”
“Thank you,” Xu said.
Sonne squeezed his shoulders. “You didn’t know.”
“You didn’t know,” Ellen said.
“And because you know how he’s doing it,” Sonne continued, “you may be one of the only people who can stop him. So pull your shit together and focus on the problem.”
Cowan focused. Sonne’s hands were warmer than he expected. They even tingled, and he looked at her, finally. She was looking at him like she didn’t hate him.
“We’ll find a way to take down Gerhard Bayer,” Sonne said, “and we’ll find out what happened to Ellen. If she’s alive, we’ll find her.”
“There is no possible way we can defeat a man on the board of OneWorld,” Xu said, her voice taking a derisive tone. “We are, to the last, doomed.”
“Bullshit.” Sonne stood and turned to face her. “Doctor, you doxxed one of the most powerful men on the planet in thirty minutes at a diner. Cowan designed PBA firmware that can fool the entire Sim. Kate created the strongest dynamic firewalls I’ve ever seen, and we’ve got an experienced CID detective and an Army Ranger to support our badass cyborg bodyguard.” She smiled at Lucy, who was still waiting by the door. “We’ll destroy Bayer.”
“Assuming you can find him,” Xu said, “which you won’t—”
“Huan—” Kate said.
“—and convince the CID to let you arrest him, which they won’t—”
“Really—” Kate added.
“—because the board of OneWorld runs the CID, and the board of OneWorld doesn’t want Bayer to murder their families.”
Kate sighed. “I’m starting to remember why we broke up.”
Xu thumped down in an ergochair. “I’m starting to remember all the lousy sex.”
Sonne turned to Jeb. “So we put Bayer’s info on the darkSim. If we drop these revelations enough places, it’ll incriminate him. He can’t take them all down.”
Jeb shook his head. “Bayer would suppress anything we dropped, and it might force him to do something desperate, like update the firmware of everyone on the planet.”
After a moment, Sonne said, “Oh.”
Cowan wished he could speak more. Sonne looked so strong and brave as she made suggestions, certain they would survive. He wanted to be like her.
“We push Bayer,” Jeb said, “and he pushes back. So before we push him in any manner, we have to be certain we’ll push him off a cliff.”
“You can’t beat him,” Xu said again. “We won’t—”
“Stop it!” Cowan said. “Stop saying that!” He was done sitting in a corner feeling sorry for himself. He had caused this — he was responsible — and checking out of that reality wasn’t going to help anyone. He strode into the center of the room.
“Sonne’s right.” He swept his gaze over everyone, drawing strength from their attention. “We’re fighting this. We’re taking Bayer down, and we’re doing it together. You know I never wanted to drag any of you into this, but we’re in it, now. I’m with Sonne.”
He didn’t look at her. He wasn’t sure he could look at her, not without losing his focus. They were done when this was over.
“Forresters,” Sonne said, “how long before you flip your PBAs back on?”
“Long enough,” David said. “We’ll keep all our work on this to offline only, as we’ve been doing. All that’s changed is our mission.” He glanced at his husband. “Right?”
Jeb grimaced, tapping his foot as if thinking it over. “All right.” He focused. “All right.”
“So…” Sonne looked around. “Where do we start?”
Jeb stopped tapping his foot. “We start by proving Xu’s claim. Everyone in this room is now a team of independent investigators, working outside the CID, Benzai Corporation, and the best waifu parlor in Kearny Mesa, to learn the location of Gerhard Bayer and find the evidence we need to expose him. We live by taking Bayer down.”
“Also,” Kate said, “we’re going to save my father.”
“And we’ll save your father,” Jeb said.
“Damn.” Lucy sighed by the door. “There go all my vacation days.”
* * *
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