October 8, Early Afternoon
Cowan winced, hoping not to jostle anyone, as he and Sonne slid Taylor Lambda’s stretcher into a self-driving private ambulance. He had been worried someone would stop them from removing Lambda, but they’d been just two more faces in the ever growing crowd. Given the overcrowding problem at Sharp Memorial, the doctors there were all too eager to let Kate move a comatose patient to a private facility.
They’d all agreed Jeb wouldn’t enter the Office of Mental Health until after Kate and Sonne’s father was safe. Assuming things went badly at the OMH, with Warren, Jeb might tip their hand, which put everyone in danger. Cowan didn’t want anyone arrested.
Once their ambulance was on the road, Cowan glanced at Sonne, dressed in black jeans and a leather jacket thick enough to hide the Kevlar underneath. She wasn’t looking at him. She was looking at her comatose father, her eyes narrowed and a bit damp. Sonne loved her father, just like the board members of OneWorld loved their families.
What they were doing now — going after Galileo — was endangering far more people than just them, including children. Still, they couldn’t walk away from this. Sheila Fisher and over two dozen other victims demanded justice, including a three-year-old boy.
C0wan knew it would be at least an hour drive to Benzai’s headquarters outside San Diego. They should use it. They sat on couches on each side of the ambulance, with Taylor between them, but Sonne didn’t say anything. He said something instead.
“Ready?” he asked. He was.
She looked across her father at him, fingers tapping on her couch. “I still don’t think you should do this. We don’t know what Galileo left in my father’s PBA. It’s a stupid risk.”
“Maybe, but I might not get another chance to examine it.” Because Galileo might kill them all in Switzerland. “Your father’s in a coma because of scripting I put together.”
Sonne glanced out the front windows. “I remember our date.”
After a moment, Cowan said “What?”
“The night we went out and got kidnapped by the Russian mafia. The night we were going dancing.”
“Oh.” So that was what happened to them.
“The man who kidnapped us called himself Mister Gray.” Sonne kept her eyes on the road. “He was searching for Galileo, and abducting me was a side job. He was going to release you, but you refused to let him. You risked your life so he’d let me go.”
That sounded more heroic than Cowan expected. “Why don’t I remember doing that?”
“You agreed to redact our entire night so no one would go after Mister Gray, and I had to do the same. But after you uploaded the redaction routine, Katie arrived, with Lucy. They tracked me down by my artificial heart, before my memories deleted themselves.”
Cowan grimaced as pieces fell into place. No wonder he’d been unable to restore his missing memories. He’d done it to himself.
“I couldn’t remember what happened until last night,” Sonne continued, “when Katie up’d me my redacted memories. The night we got abducted, she dove into your PBA and figured out you were a loose circuit.”
Cowan could believe that. “She wanted you safe.”
“It’s annoying, honestly.”
“So … why tell me now?”
She looked at him. “Because she’s my big sister, not my boss.”
Cowan noticed her face was flushed. Why? “What did Kate tell you actually happened?”
“She said you were an asshole, all grabby hands. You pissed yourself when the Russians took us, and they knocked you out and tied you up. You slept through the whole thing.”
“Oh.” That did sound like a shitty date. “That’s why you never called?”
“Look.” Sonne leaned close — at least, as close as she could with her comatose father riding between them. “I was angry when you lied to me about Professor Xu, and I still think it was a bad call, but I don’t think you’re an asshole. Okay?”
Cowan tried not to resent that. “You sure?”
“And you and me … we had something, that night. A connection. But right now, some psycho wants to kill us both, so this isn’t the time to make emotional decisions.”
“Right.” Did he feel disappointed?
“So if you’re risking this dive because you want to impress me, or date me—”
“I’m not!” How could she think that? “I want to help your father because I’m responsible for this horrible thing happening to him. He doesn’t deserve this. You don’t deserve this, so I have to try and wake him up because I may not get another chance. That’s it.”
Sonne sat back and watched him for a moment. She smiled. “I believe you.”
“And maybe, after this is all over, we can try that date again.”
Hold on, what? Hadn’t she just told him not to date her? “So … what are you saying?
“Nothing. I’m saying nothing, Cowan, except that I remember how I felt about you that night, and I liked how I felt. So I forgive you for lying to me about Xu, and after this is over, maybe we’ll go on another date, if you want. Nothing more complicated than that.”
Cowan felt a bit warm. Then warmer. “Okay.” They weren’t done after all. “So, I’m going to run a diagnostic on your dad’s PBA now, analyze his firmware. Back me up?”
“Sure.” Sonne sat back. “If something happens, I’ll flail my arms and yell.”
“And maybe call your sister?”
“And I’ll call Katie.”
Cowan popped his linkline into Taylor Lambda’s auxiliary port. If his theory was right, Galileo hadn’t just locked Taylor into a coma. He had imprisoned Taylor inside his PBA.
Cowan knew that Galileo had access to PBA firmware. If he’d found a way to remotely swap out the operating system for Matthew Reed’s PBA, using a Trojan horse firmware update to puppet him into killing his family, why not do the same to Taylor Lambda? Why not install firmware that would keep Taylor alive, comatose, and unable to wake?
Cowan blinked over to his headdesk and checked his dozens of dynamic firewalls. Once he was certain his PBA was secure, he opened a brain diagnosis panel and selected Taylor’s PBA from the list. His display stuttered as Cowan connected, and dozens of panels no one but a PBA engineer would understand opened before him. Cowan knew these panels intimately, and a cursory inspection revealed nothing unusual.
The version number on Taylor’s firmware matched the latest patch, so was the panel lying to him? Cowan entered several dozen administration commands he’d learned while working for OneWorld and bypassed Taylor’s security. He knew all the back doors and developer holes. He pulled out panels of glistening script: brain code.
Cowan started with the basic functions regulating Taylor’s PBA, even though grayDocs had probably checked those. He ran a diff comparison against the firmware on his own PBA, and the brain code was a match. There was nothing on the surface of Taylor’s PBA that suggested foul play, but that just meant he might not be looking in the right place.
He wasn’t looking in the private partition he and Ellen had created at Mind Games.
Cowan opened an unsearchable code address and immediately found function overrides for routine PBA operations, including wake and sleep cycles. A quick scan of the script confirmed they were impossible to detect, and they induced coma-like symptoms. Taylor had the same partition Cowan had, and he was locked away inside his own brain.
“Well done.” A blacked-out panel opened before him, and the modulated voice chilled Cowan’s blood. “But I’d expect nothing less from a scripter of your caliber.”
Cowan felt like he was going to be sick, but he couldn’t be sick while in the Sim. He’d vomit and he could vomit anywhere, on Sonne or himself or Taylor Lambda.
“In case you haven’t figured it out,” Galileo said, “I’m the one who got you assigned to my puppeting case with the CID.”
That was why the CID assigned him to a sensitive puppeting case on his first day? Because Galileo told the CID to hire him? Why would Galileo want the CID to hire him?
“I needed the CID to understand what I was capable of,” Galileo said, “but more importantly, I needed someone in their ranks I could corrupt at any point. So, don’t blame yourself for failing to anticipate me. I’ve been ahead of you since you started.”
Before Cowan could break the connection, Galileo opened another panel. It showed Ellen, Cowan’s savior, the love of his life, staring with her serious face. She was alive.
Cowan would have screamed if he was back in meatspace.
“She can’t see us,” Galileo said. “She’s talking with her fiancé right now, a man named Caleb Miller. I’ve tapped us into his side of the call.”
The timestamp on the video call was today. Right now. “How?”
“I recently offered Miss Gauthier a job. From what I understand, Caleb doesn’t want to leave California.”
Ellen’s lips moved and she shook her head, but Cowan couldn’t make his mind work. Ellen was free? Not a captive? She had a fiancé named Caleb? “What is this?”
“I saved her.”
“CorpSec. Remember? I’m the one who ordered you and Ellen to work on that new PBA at Mind Games. I watched you both for years, and I know how intelligent you are.”
Cowan remembered CorpSec soldiers smashing through the windows at his and Ellen’s home in Mission Beach. “You betrayed us.”
“OneWorld betrayed me, Cowan. I did not send Corporate Security after you, nor did I force Ellen to erase all knowledge of her work at Mind Games. I protected you.”
“Protected me?” Cowan wanted to punch right through that stupid blacked-out panel.
“You are valuable, and I protect valuable people. After a lengthy discussion with the other members of OneWorld, I convinced Corporate Security Chief Kathleen Warren to release Ellen and release you. All charges dropped.”
“You mean you threatened to kill her family.”
“There was nothing to gain by imprisoning Ellen,” Galileo said. “She had already erased a year of her own life … her year with you … so I argued no further modding was necessary. We told her she was in an autocar accident. I got her a new life, a new job.”
This was impossible. This was insane. “I don’t believe you.”
“You should, because the other members of OneWorld are far more a threat to you than I. Should you somehow eliminate me, I won’t be able to protect Ellen any longer. My enemies will rewrite her and rewrite you.”
What enemies? The other OneWorld board members? “You’re lying.”
Another panel opened between them, an aerial shot of a modest neighborhood and its many, many streets. The aerial shot zoomed in on a private ambulance traveling the speed limit through that neighborhood. It was the vehicle he and Sonne were in now.
“Cowan,” Galileo said, “did you know OneWorld flies armed drones on domestic soil, just in case?” A target appeared on the autotruck, as well as the words “Missile Locked.” “One has been tracking you since you left the hospital. Its missile can level a building.”
Jesus! This couldn’t be real. This was real. Was Galileo really going to just blow them up now? Could Cowan take over the ambulance and drive it under a bridge somewhere?
“I’d like you to come visit me in person,” Galileo said. “What we must discuss is too sensitive for the Sim. I’ve already sent an autocar for you, and I insist you board it.”
What felt somewhere like relief and dread twisted Cowan’s stomach. Galileo wanted him alive. That meant he could still save Sonne, even if he couldn’t save himself, yet he didn’t really want to die, either. If he died, he’d never save Ellen from this crazy person.
“Move quickly, Cowan. Lie to your friends in a way they’ll believe, and then get into my autocar. Or I will incinerate you, Samantha Frederick, and Taylor Lambda.”
Cowan imagined Sonne disintegrating. “Don’t hurt them. I’ll find a way to meet you.”
“I know you will,” Galileo said.
* * *
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