“My fiancé should be home in a few minutes,” Ellen informed Cowan as they rode, together, in an elevator to the fourteenth floor. “Once he arrives, we can discuss the specifics of your offer at length.” She stood a respectable distance away.
“Of course,” Cowan said, as he tried not to freak out and throw his arms around her. Ellen had a fiancé now. He was her fiancé, dammit … but not anymore.
His own heartbreak didn’t matter now. What mattered now was getting them both safe, away from Galileo. Yet how could he do that? Galileo could obviously murder Ellen at any time, yet he hadn’t. Why? It wasn’t that hard to figure out.
Galileo wanted him as a spy.
Never. Cowan would never betray the others, no matter how hard Galileo pushed him. He loved Ellen more than his own life, but she was one person. Galileo threatened their entire world. The elevator opened onto the top floor.
“Please follow me,” Ellen said, polite as ever. Polite and adorable. Even her voice made his knees weak, a voice he hadn’t heard since she wiped her PBA to save his life.
As she led him down a carpeted hall with soft blue walls, Cowan made himself stare at anything but her. How long had she lived here? A year? Long enough to meet someone new — this Caleb person — and build a life away from the chaos that destroyed her.
Ellen’s apartment was nicer than he expected, an elegant, open space with tile floors and lighting recessed in the ceiling. It had marble counters, healthy potted plants, and enough soft leather furniture to seat a dozen people. Did they host parties here? A glance out large windows showed L.A.’s downtown sprawl, buildings towering over tiny green trees. A view like this wasn’t cheap. It wasn’t their ocean view, but it was good.
“Please, sit.” Ellen pointed to a plush white leather chair. “Would you care for refreshment? Water, or juice?”
“I, uh…” Cowan rubbed the back of his head. “We should talk first.” He was sweating.
Ellen reached into her slender blue purse. “About?”
She had a stunner in there. She always kept a stunner in there. Cowan was acting like some freakish psychopath kidnapper, and he needed to focus on getting her safe.
“When you were ten years old,” Cowan said, “your house flooded and your dog drowned. You always blamed yourself, even though your father tied him up in the basement.”
Ellen pulled her stunner, dropped her purse, and stepped back, aiming right at him. “Where do you know that?” She always had good aim.
“You told me,” Cowan said. Perhaps reminding her about Sparky was the wrong move.
“I did nothing of the sort!”
“You also told me you first crush was Jared Walker. He smiled at you and shared his lunch one day, when you didn’t have any fruit. He never saw you as more than a friend.”
Ellen stepped forward, stunner steady. “Explain yourself! How do you know these things?” When she got upset, the French-Canadian accent she’d worked years to suppress came out strong. Cowan loved that accent. He loved her, so much.
“I know because we used to love each other. We were together for almost a year, working as engineers at a company called Mind Games. We were going to get married.”
Ellen frowned, blinking rapidly. “Wait. You worked…?”
Her whole body went stiff. Her eyes went blank. Then her soft lips curled into a creepy smile, and Cowan’s heart just about stopped.
He’d seen someone react like this before, in a parking lot, on the first case of his new job. As he stared at Ellen, at her rigid body, at her creepy smile, he realized he wasn’t going to save her. He couldn’t save her.
Because this woman wasn’t Ellen at the moment.
“I wanted to let you try,” Galileo said. “You understand now, don’t you?”
Cowan thumped into the plush white chair. He struggled to breathe. “Yes.”
“Wonderful.” Ellen’s puppeted body strode to the couch across from him, sat, and crossed her legs. “Now that we’re done with that, let’s talk about why you’re really here.”
Cowan’s head pounded and his chest ached, but he kept his focus because Ellen needed him to keep his focus. Galileo wanted to use Ellen to make him betray everyone, but what if he killed himself first? With him dead, there would be no reason to hurt her.
“I’ve studied the psychiatric profile we complied during your work at Mind Games,” Galileo said, using Ellen’s lips and voice to do it, “and I feel I understand you.”
Cowan glanced over his shoulder for an electrical socket or a sharp corner. Everything dangerous in this apartment came without guarantees. What if he grabbed a kitchen knife? Could Galileo use Ellen’s body to stop him? What if he jumped out a window?
“You’re a pragmatist,” Galileo said. “A wonderful trait you, I, and Miss Gauthier all share. Our shared goals are one of many reasons I selected you as my star researchers.”
Cowan remembered what Jeb had told him about puppeting long ago, on their first case. When you stunned a puppet, it broke the puppeteer’s connection. He pulled his stunner.
“I wouldn’t shoot Ellen,” Galileo said. “Both your skin and hers are now covered with airborne nanites, ones I’ve ensured blanket her apartment. These nanites are activated by the voltage of a stunner round, and should you sedate Ellen, they will rapidly melt her skin.” He made Ellen smile. “Have you ever seen a person’s skin melt, Cowan?”
Cowan aimed through the tears flooding his eyes.
“It will be quick,” Galileo said, “and I’ve modified her PBA so she won’t feel any pain. She won’t suffer, but she will melt, and quite irreversibly. I believe torture is an unnecessary practice, Cowan, and avoid it when I can, but I will kill if needed.”
Cowan holstered his stunner. He needed more time to think about how he was going to save them. He had to get Ellen out of Galileo’s clutches, either alive … or the other way.
“In less than a week,” Galileo made Ellen say, “your plans will no longer matter. My game is coming to an end, and all our pieces will soon be swept from the board.”
Cowan trembled. “Good for you.”
“Cybercrime has grown to epidemic proportions, and real crime now plagues cities across the world. OneWorld has failed. The utopia of PBAs has failed. Our world’s citizens are ready to embrace a new world order at last, the order I will provide them.”
“We’ll stop you.”
“You won’t. Even should your allies discover my location, somehow escape Director Warren’s notice, and launch some sort of attack, they will fail. They will die. Yet if you agree to help me, you may join Ellen in our brave new world and also save your friends.”
“Ellen won’t work for you either.” Cowan found his voice again, found strength and anger and the righteous desire for revenge. “Not once she knows everything you’d done.”
“Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for the greater good.”
“Murdering three-years-olds for the greater good. Puppeting people in shooting rampages.”
“Do you know the true purpose behind PBAs?”
That was a stupid question, a random question, but if Cowan kept Galileo talking, he’d keep Ellen alive. “Of course I do.” He needed more time to plan their escape.
“What is it?”
“They keep hormone-addled primitives from murdering each other.”
Galileo tilted Ellen’s head. “So you understand that PBAs enforce behavioral algorithms to prevent clear circuits from harming others. Do you know what else they do?”
“I bet you’re going to tell me.”
“A question, first. Why did world governments adopt PBAs?”
Where was he going with this? “World peace, asshole.”
“Is that all? After centuries of greed and self-centered actions, all the leaders of the free world decided they would allow their minds to be governed by corporate algorithms? An altruistic decision to make their world a better place?”
Was Galileo going to spout some darkSim theory about the Illuminati secretly starting up OneWorld, or aliens in orbit controlling their minds? Was all the murder and harm he’d caused nothing more than a manifestation of paranoia? If so, that was tragic.
“A world of clear circuits is better than the alternative, is it not?” Galileo asked. “A world where we control people’s minds using implanted algorithms is a reasonable compromise to end the majority of murders and assaults.”
“Of course it is!” Everyone knew that.
“You answer so quickly. Have you ever wondered why that is?”
Fresh uncertainty tickled Cowan’s brain. A throbbing started in his head, making it difficult to focus on what Galileo was saying. His words were stupid. He was stupid!
“The algorithms in your PBA don’t just stop you from harming other people,” Galileo continued. “They influence all your mental processes, including your willingness to accept or reject new ideas. They control which ideas you find acceptable.”
Cowan’s head pounded now. “Bullshit.”
“How do you explain gun control, Cowan? For centuries, your United States allowed hundreds of civilians to murder each other every day. You resisted even modest efforts to make killing difficult, even as children were slaughtered in their own schools. And yet two years after the majority of your citizens adopted PBAs, you happily banned guns.”
“Because people with PBAs can’t use them!”
“It was a test, one I conducted alongside my colleagues. It was proof we could use our technology to alter even ingrained societal beliefs. We sold you on PBA augmentation with promises of consequence free sex and violence, a perfect virtual world filled with perfect virtual things, and never once did you think about what else we could influence.”
Cowan’s mind itched. “You’re lying.”
“A hardware defect in a batch of PBAs lobotomizes pre-schoolers, and you think, better than the alternative. A troll knocks out a woman and steals her ghostlink, uses her puppeted body to service all his friends, and you think, better than the alternative.”
“You’re the person doing those things!”
“I’m the person trying to stop them, Cowan. That’s why I’ve taken the families of my fellow board members hostage. Controlling people’s minds is wrong.”
Cowan’s anger grew, and he fought it, because anger didn’t make sense. Why would he be angry about Galileo spouting conspiracy theories? There was no truth to any of this!
“You call me a monster,” Galileo said. “You point to the things I’ve done and see a hateful person. Yet are my actions truly monstrous when one considers my purpose?”
“What purpose?” Galileo was a monster, dammit.
“Over the past two months,” Galileo said, “I have demonstrated that OneWorld’s system is flawed, vulnerable, and dangerous. I have shown the world, time and again, why the existing system needs to be replaced. Even the Office of Mental Health cannot suppress news of a thousand crimes, because their own director just murdered his entire family.”
Galileo was absolutely insane. “You think you’re a goddamn freedom fighter?”
“I think eyes must be opened before minds can be changed. Or do you agree we should simply force people to believe in their leaders?”
Of course Cowan didn’t believe that, because mind control wasn’t real. Sure, PBAs made you sick when you thought about hurting another person, made you black out when you thought about worse, but that wasn’t mind control. Was it?
“I helped build PBAs and the Sim to make humanity better,” Galileo said, “not to make us into slaves. Using my work to enslave humanity is wrong. I won’t allow it any longer.”
Cowan grabbed his throbbing head. The board of OneWorld wanted to protect clear circuits. The world before PBAs had been a nightmare of murder and chaos.
“You already have the tools to shrug off our behavioral algorithms,” Galileo said. “Your unique firmware allows you to disable all of them, not just assault and murder.”
Cowan’s vision blurred, his stomach churning.
“Cull all behavioral algorithms. See the truth.”
The migraine in Cowan’s head grew to such a degree that spots danced before his eyes. That made him even angrier. His PBA was telling him what not to do, and a PBA wasn’t supposed to do that. Cowan angrily terminated all behavioral algorithms.
The truth was just as bad as he expected.
* * *
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