Kate advanced on Puck and stopped close enough to touch her. Then she did touch her. She poked her in the shoulder, and that shoulder moved. “You stole Xu’s MySelf.”
“Yes!” Puck said.
“After you hacked and puppeted my bodyguard.”
“Two for two!” Puck shouted.
“If you hurt Lucy,” Kate said, narrowing her eyes, “I will fucking murder you.”
Puck bounced up and down. “I know you care for your friend. I care too, about all of you, which is why I’m here! I’ve come to save you from making a terrible mistake!”
Kate glanced at the others for backup, then stared at Puck. “That being?”
“Launching a mission to arrest Gerhard Bayer!” Puck fluttered her wings and batted her eyelashes. “I can’t let you do that. That would do great harm to his personal interests.”
“Why would we go after Mister Bayer?” Kate asked.
“Because you now know he is living in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, where you plan to arrest him!” Puck bounced up and down. “As for your plans to leave San Diego—”
“Who says we’re going anywhere?”
“I’m afraid travel to any location will be quite difficult. Our new OMH director is scanning every flight until she finds Detective Jeb Forrester. You are trapped.”
“Fuck,” Sonne said, still holding her stunner.
“May I ask why you’re telling us this?” Kate asked.
“While it is in Bayer’s best interests for Kathleen Warner to confine you to San Diego,” Puck said, “it is not in the best interests of Tam, Cheng, Walker, and Abramowicz.”
Kate gave Jeb a meaningful look. “So you’re aware Bayer is holding the family members of the other OneWorld board members hostage?”
“I’m quite aware. Being aware is what I do!”
Jeb didn’t trust this. “Who are you working for, if not Warren and Bayer?”
“I work for OneWorld, Detective Forrester, and that is a responsibility I take very seriously. Gerhard Bayer, also known as Galileo, has made my job quite complicated.”
Xu snorted. “Murdered three-year-olds stressing the old morality protocols?”
“I am forbidden from doing anything that might compromise Gerhard Bayer’s interests.” Puck bounced again. “However, recent simulations suggest that you now have at least a fifty-two percent chance of exposing my employer’s corruption. Therefore, it is now in Gerhard Bayer’s best interest for me to politely ask you to stop.”
Kate relaxed, took one step back, and shook her head. “You’re hooked into a CLU box.”
“Yes!” Puck shouted.
“That’s why you didn’t contact us before now. The chance we’d succeed wasn’t high enough to merit a warning to stop until we’d tracked Bayer home, to Schaffhausen.”
“I admit I’m a bit inexperienced at programming VIs,” Sonne said, lowering her stunner, “but wouldn’t Puck coming here make us more likely to go after Galileo?”
“She’s working around a bad order, dear.” Kate returned her attention to Puck. “Who scripted you?”
“God,” Puck said.
Kate leaned forward. “Please tell us, Puck, in the simplest terms you can define. What are your operational parameters?”
Puck’s stolen body went rigid. “Directive One. Protect the interests of OneWorld corporation and its subsidiaries. Directive Two. Protect the board members of OneWorld and their interests, personal and professional. Directive Three—”
“Stop,” Kate said. “I understand.”
“Do you?” Puck beamed at them.
“The other members of OneWorld are compromised,” Kate told the rest of them. “Bayer’s threatening their families, and thus their personal interests. Yet that’s not all. He’s threatening the entire corporation of OneWorld, and our fragile world peace.”
Jeb finally got it, and he felt a bit better about trusting Puck. “This Augur is a failsafe, isn’t she? She’s a VI OneWorld put into place to protect itself from itself.”
David nodded. “All five members of OneWorld would never consent to a single member holding all the power. So they added this VI as an impassive mediator. A watchdog.”
“I can neither confirm nor deny!” Puck shouted.
“Remind me, Puck,” Kate said, “why we shouldn’t arrest Gerhard Bayer in Schaffhausen. What might happen if we attempted that?”
“Well,” Puck said, “if you did plan to assault M-Gesundheit, I’d request you do so from the south, through the minefield and the trap tunnels. If you attacked from the north, all you’d face are automated turrets, which would make it far less likely you would die.”
David tapped a note on his tablet. “We’ll do that.”
“Cybercrimes Investigation Division Detective Forrester.” Puck spun on him. “Do you still plan to arrest or kill Gerhard Bayer, even though I’ve politely asked you not to?”
“Yes,” Jeb said. This fairy was actually making sense.
“Then I must inform you that Bayer will murder the families of my masters at OneWorld, should he be arrested or killed in any assault. I can’t allow that to happen.”
“We don’t want that either,” Jeb said. “So what would you warn us not to do?”
“Definitely do not ask Bayer about the signal he sends every twelve hours to prevent his assets from committing murder. Also, do not spoof that signal after he’s in custody.”
“And don’t search the records we find at M-Gesundheit for a list of the assets he’s tasked to take out the board’s family members?” David asked.
“Yes!” Puck bounced up and down. “Please do not do that. That would adversely affect Bayer’s interests, and that is something I must warn you not to do.”
“You are working that CLU box hard,” Xu said.
“What else can you tell us?” Kate asked. “What else should we not do?”
Puck blinked. “Oh, fiddlesticks! Corporate scan incoming. We will not speak again!”
Puck’s projection flickered out and Lucy appeared, wobbly. Jeb rushed forward as Kate did, catching her before she collapsed. They steadied her as her eyes opened.
“That was odd,” Lucy said.
Kate helped Jeb stand Lucy up, gripping her arms. Then she threw her arms around Lucy and hugged her, despite the awkward height difference. “Don’t you ever do that, again, you hear? Don’t you plug into anything! Don’t even think about it!”
Lucy breathed and smiled.
“Did that just happen?” Sonne asked. “Did we get a visit from OneWorld’s fairy godmother?”
“We’ve got another asset inside OneWorld now.” Jeb stepped away from the embracing women and glanced at his husband. “What do we need to hit M-Gesundheit?”
David frowned and tapped his chin. “Architectural plans would be a good start.”
“Those should be easy to acquire,” Xu said, from her chair, “provided you are willing to once more unleash Nyx on the darkSim.” She glanced at Kate. “Your thoughts?”
Kate pushed back from Lucy, snorted back a sniffle, and turned on Xu. “We’ll go together.” She perked up. “I haven’t taken my slutty angel avatar out in weeks!”
“You trust that thing?” David asked. “A VI designed specifically by the people we’re trying to stop?”
Jeb looked to Kate. He wanted her to explain it.
“We’re trying to help the members of OneWorld,” Kate said, “and Puck recognizes that. She judged the possibility that Bayer will kill all the family members of the other board members less of a risk than allowing him to make all OneWorld’s decisions.”
“We’re not letting that sonuvabitch murder anyone else,” Sonne said, looking around for agreement. “There’s no better time to go after him than right now. We’ve got him.”
Kate tapped her lips, eyes going distant. “Benzai Corporation has its own watchdog VI, though not nearly that advanced.” She took a breath. “I want one.”
Lucy, now not being hugged, walked casually back to the door. Jeb pondered Kate’s unusually familiar reaction. She must really care for Lucy, and not just as a bodyguard.
“This still doesn’t solve our transport problem,” Xu said, chair creaking as she leaned forward. “Director Warren is almost certainly watching all Benzai flights.”
“She’s not watching UPX,” Kate said. “Adrian can get us on a flight. I’m certain of it.”
“Jeb?” David waited for Jeb’s call. While David had volunteered to lead the ground assault on M-Gesundheit, he deferred to Jeb for strategy. They worked well together.
Jeb couldn’t calculate this, or plan for all eventualities, or even guarantee any of them would survive. There wasn’t enough data. All he could do is go with his gut, and his gut said the time to go after Galileo was now, right now, before he anticipated them.
“We’re taking Puck’s advice,” Jeb said. “Kate charters us a flight on UPX through her friend Adrian, off the books. We get M-Gesundheit’s layout from Xu. David, you construct an attack plan using our existing assets that moves in from the north.”
“Bayer will die before releasing the OneWorld families,” Xu reminded everyone.
“We’ll figure something out,” Jeb said.
“Will you? Because many innocents will die the moment we attack him. Dare you join me in the world of complex moral dilemmas?” She sighed. “It’s been so lonely here.”
“Oh, shut up.” Sonne set her stunner on the desk. “We can do way better than that, and I already know how we can keep Bayer from killing everyone. We just—”
“Planning later,” Kate said. She walked to Xu’s ergochair and kicked it. “Get up, honey.”
Xu arched an eyebrow. “Whatever for?
“We’re going dancing.” Kate pointed out the door leading out to Club Sylvan.
“Because we finally know how we’re going to take down Bayer and get ourselves out of this mess. I feel like celebrating with an attractive woman, and Sonne’s not my type.”
“Also,” Sonne added, “I’m her sister.” Just in case that wasn’t clear.
“But, my dear, I have absolutely nothing to wear.”
“You don’t need to wear anything with a MySelf projector.”
Xu stood, slid an arm around Kate’s waist, and kissed her on the cheek. “Oh, very well.” Her lips curled into a smile. “You may have this dance.”
* * *
October 8, Early Evening
Galileo’s chartered autocar stopped in front of a glittering apartment tower in Westwood, one of the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles. The doors rolled open, and Cowan stepped out into a warm evening. So this was where Gerhard Bayer lived? In a random apartment tower in Los Angeles? He had been in California the whole time?
“Mister Soto?” The woman who said that was Ellen Gauthier, love of his life.
Cowan spun so fast he nearly fell. Ellen caught his arms before he could fall over, the real Ellen, because that’s the type of thing she did when she saw people in trouble. She was alive. She was touching him. His body trembled and he felt like he might faint.
“I’m sorry.” Ellen released him and brushed her brown bangs from her forehead, like she always did. “You are Cowan Soto, aren’t you? The talent scout for M-Gesundheit?”
Cowan realized then that Ellen didn’t know who he was. She didn’t remember him, didn’t remember working at Mind Games with him, or cuddling with him on her couch, or their late nights theorizing about the limits of the human brain in between bouts of extremely satisfying sex. Ellen didn’t remember loving him, and that crushed his heart.
Cowan’s mind did several backward flips before he locked into something that he could explain. “Yes, that’s right. I’m their … talent scout.” Why the hell would Galileo send him here to meet Ellen? What the hell was M-Gesundheit?
Galielo hadn’t lied. Ellen was actually alive, and sane, and not lobotomized somewhere in a dark cell. She had been living comfortably in a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles all this time, and she was engaged again, maybe even happy. If all he had to do to make her safe again was crush his own heart, Cowan would toss his in a trash compactor.
Ellen crossed her arms over a sensible black blouse, paired with a knee-length blue skirt that made him woozy. “You look pale. Are you feeling all right?”
Cowan had searched the Sim for any trace of Ellen dozens of times. He’d never found her, despite the fact that she was living right here in Westwood, an hour away. Galileo must have concealed her from him. He nodded, breathed, and smiled.
“I am, Miss Gauthier. Have you decided to accept our employment offer?” Galileo had said he wanted to hire her.
“I’m still considering.” Ellen pressed her lips together in thought, one of hundreds of small tics Cowan still loved. “But I agree it’s a wonderful opportunity. I also know it’s very cold in Schaffhausen.”
Switzerland. She was going to Switzerland. Cowan forced a nervous laugh. “Schaffhausen is certainly not as balmy as your fair California.” As if he hadn’t lived here all his life. “But it is beautiful, and we have excellent benefits.”
What was he thinking? He didn’t want Ellen to move to Switzerland! If she went to work at this M-Gesundheit place, Galileo could murder her anytime he wished.
Yet wouldn’t Ellen be safer in Switzerland, with Galileo, if the other members of OneWorld really did want her dead? There were too many things he didn’t now. What he did know, now, is that he had to get them both off the damn street.
“Would you mind if we discussed this inside?” Cowan asked.
Ellen frowned. “I suppose that does make sense.”
* * *
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