As Cowan doubled over, coughing and choking, fresh insight flooded his mind. It all seemed so clear now. Even through the migraine, he knew Galileo was telling the truth.
OneWorld was using PBAs to influence the behaviors and beliefs of billions, and they hadn’t limited their influence to suppressing hostile actions. They were controlling belief systems. They were controlling belief, and they had enslaved humanity by doing it.
“Even stopping OneWorld doesn’t justify mass murder,” Cowan whispered. “It doesn’t justify—”
“Hiroshima, August Sixth, 1945.” Galileo puppeted Ellen’s lips once more. “The United States dropped an atomic bomb on a populated city, instantly incinerating an estimated 80,000 people and killing many more with radiation.”
“This isn’t World War II!”
“The United States dropped that bomb because their military commanders decided that far more than 80,000 people on both sides, civilians and soldiers alike, would die in any protracted war to subdue the Empire of Japan. By killing a smaller quantity of innocents in a way that utterly horrified the Japanese, they saved a much larger quantity and forced a quick end to a gruesome war. They sacrificed thousands to save millions.”
“No one’s at war here but you!”
“You’ve seen our war,” Galileo said. “Criminals like the Bratva hack their PBAs with impunity, murdering anyone they like while enjoying the Sim. The Canadian resistance turns our own synthcops against us as trolls the world over steal and corrupt. That is the war the OMH hides. All I’ve done, these past few months, is expose OneWorld’s lies.”
Galileo wasn’t making this up. Cowan had seen these things happen on darkSim feeds, seen the depressing news the Office of Mental Health suppressed around the world. Yet before he disabled his PBA’s algorithms, it had all seemed so … acceptable.
“It is only a matter of time before someone finds a vulnerability that allows them to kill people using the Sim,” Galileo said, through Ellen, “and to puppet anyone, anywhere. Before that happens, I must remove all vulnerabilities. I know how to do that.”
“No one can guarantee that. An army of scripters couldn’t guarantee that!”
“I have. I will. I’m going to save the world, and I need your help to do it.”
It sounded impossible, yet … what if Galileo could make PBAs unhackable? This was Gerhard Bayer, one of the most brilliant men on the planet. He knew PBA architecture better than anyone, because he built that architecture.
What OneWorld corporation was doing — choosing what people found acceptable or didn’t — that was absolutely wrong, on the surface. Yet wasn’t choosing what was acceptable for people the entire basis of PBA behavioral controls? OneWorld said it was unacceptable to harm or murder other humans, and no one harmed anyone else.
PBAs were mind control. So the question, now, was if mind control was acceptable. Was giving people free will worth allowing them to rape, and torture, and murder each other?
No. Cowan knew the answer was no. People had free will everywhere it mattered. They chose what job they wanted. They choose who to love, where to live, how many children to have. They just couldn’t choose to beat their neighbor’s kid to death with a hammer.
“You’re wrong, Gerhard.” Cowan shuddered as the world beyond his PBA slid into focus.
Ellen’s puppeted face went eerily blank for a moment. “You can’t believe that.”
“I do. This isn’t perfect, but the alternative is worse, and even if you were right, nothing justifies the harm and chaos you’ve created. You’re the problem, not PBA algorithms.”
After a freakishly long pause, Ellen’s eyes focused again. Focused on him. “I’m disappointed to hear you say that.”
“Then you’re stupid for thinking I’d say anything else!”
Galileo made Ellen snap her fingers. “Home, TV on.”
One of the walls of Ellen’s apartment retracted, and a huge flatscreen emerged. Ellen had always insisted a real picture looked better than AR. Cowan’s eyes snapped to that flatscreen, to an image of Cowan’s father sitting in an autocar. It was a live feed.
“Dad?” Cowan whispered.
Miguel Soto had black hair and a boxer’s physique beneath his crisp black suit. Yet even before Cowan could process what he was seeing, the screen split. Cowan’s mother appeared, lecturing psychology students at SD Mirimar. Beverly Soto, also on a live feed.
As Cowan watched, the student nearest the camera went stiff. One student turned and smiled at whatever camera was looking into the classroom. She smiled at Galileo.
“Tell me,” Galileo said. “If I puppeted that entire classroom into attacking your mother, how badly could they injure her before security arrived?”
“Could they gouge her eyes out? How many bones could they snap or smash? She would be alive, wouldn’t see, while it happened? How much would that hurt her?”
Miguel Soto’s autocar jerked without warning, causing Cowan’s father to spill coffee all over the desk. Miguel cursed and slid into the other seat, narrowly avoiding a coffee stain all over his expensive pants. He had no idea how fragile his life was now.
“Now that I’ve hacked your father’s autocar,” Galileo said, “where should I drive it? Into another autocar? Into San Diego bay? Is your father an effective swimmer?”
“Don’t,” Cowan whispered.
“These are two people among ten billion,” Galileo said. “Is two less than ten billion?”
“Pragmatism. You possess it. So do it. Here is your first option.”
Cowan stared at his father, frowning at the spilled coffee.
“Your compatriots are set upon finding and arresting me, and nothing will dissuade them. To sedate them, I will allow your attack. You will inform them I am located at a facility called M-Gesundheit, in the city of Schaffhausen, Switzerland.”
Cowan couldn’t think properly. He couldn’t think. Was he really doing this?
“Once you arrive, you will guide you companions into a secure room inside the building, a penthouse on the second floor. You will remain there until I fix the world. You’ll only need to remain there a few days, at most, and then I’ll release you all, unharmed.”
Cowan stared at his mother, teaching a class that could rip her limb from limb.
“If you refuse my plan to save the lives of all you care about, while also saving the lives of billions of people and ending corporate mind control, we go with option two. I drown your father, rip your mother apart, and melt Ellen Gauthier before your eyes.”
Ellen still sat across from him, entirely unaware of the monster speaking inside her head. Ellen was going to die soon. Galileo was going to make her skin melt off.
He was so stupid for coming here. Galileo had not been overconfident, or foolish, or careless. Cowan had been those things. He couldn’t watch his father drown, his mother ripped limb from limb, his Ellen melting. He wasn’t strong enough to watch that.
“I’d like your answer by the count of ten, Cowan. One—”
“I’ll help you,” Cowan whispered.
“You know, of course, I can’t take your word for that.”
“Walk to Miss Gauthier’s kitchen counter. Open the orientation package I sent her.”
Cowan walked over to Ellen’s counter like he wasn’t walking, like this was all some horrific dream. It felt like a dream. He found the manila envelope sitting on the marble counter, and he opened it. Out fell glossy pictures of beautiful Schaffhausen, Renaissance era buildings, beautiful waterfalls, and a glittering silver research complex.
“Open the anti-bug packet.”
Cowan picked up a small packet designed to repel bugs, rodents, and other predators during overseas trips. He ripped it open. A tiny data card dropped into his hand.
“The firmware you helped me design is capable of resisting my updates, which means I can’t puppet you without a way to get inside,” Galileo said. “That card will provide it.”
Cowan stared at the plastic lump.
“Once you insert that card into your auxiliary port, it will allow me unlimited access to your PBA’s systems. I will hear through your ears, see through your eyes, and puppet your body whenever I wish. This is how I’ll ensure your cooperation.”
So this was it. This was how he betrayed everyone. “I just insert it?”
“You just insert it.” Ellen’s puppeted body joined him at the counter, each step as jerky and unnatural as the lips bending on her possessed face. “Or everyone you love dies.”
Could Galileo read his thoughts? No. No PBA programmer had ever figured out how to read thoughts. PBAs simply projected a virtual interface on the inside of the user’s eyes, created by modelers and scripters and engineers who constructed the Sim’s innards.
You couldn’t programmatically conjure images that would be consistent from brain to brain, or read and write complex human thoughts in any universal language. You couldn’t digitize thoughts, which meant Galileo couldn’t read Cowan’s mind. Galileo could only see everything, hear everything, and deduce.
Cowan planted a delayed food craving in his PBA. He placed it so deep no one could ever find it, even him. He popped the data card into the port above his left ear.
“You’ve saved your family, Cowan,” Galileo said. “You’ve helped save the world.”
Cowan stared at the counter. “Hooray for me.”
“I’m going to release Ellen now. She’s going to recall a delightful conversation I archived in an identical apartment, through the eyes of talented actors. You talked about Schaffhausen and all the opportunities here, and those opportunities excite her. You’ve convinced her to take a job at M-Gesundheit, and she’ll convince her fiancé as well.”
Galileo walked Ellen’s body to the other side of her kitchen counter. Cowan stared at her, memorized her, immortalized her, even though he knew he’d never hold or kiss her again. His vision tinted blue as he removed the data card and tossed it in the trash.
Ellen blinked. She stared at the orientation packet spread out on her counter, then looked up at him. She smiled the smile he fell in love with.
“Well, Mister Soto, you’re quite the recruiter.” Ellen pushed the orientation packet away. “I think a move to Switzerland is the best opportunity for both of us.”
“Both of us” meant Ellen and her new fiancé, Caleb Miller, of course. Not her and him. Her and him had been murdered by Corporate Security more than a year ago.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Cowan said. He made himself say it. “I’ll inform my superiors.”
A chime filled the apartment. Ellen’s eyes darted to the door. “Ah! There’s Caleb.”
The door opened and a man with wide shoulders stepped inside. He was just a bit taller than Cowan, with a decent build, wearing a dark and expensive suit. He frowned when he saw Cowan standing next to his fiancé at the kitchen counter.
“Ellen?” Caleb asked. “Who’s this?”
“This is a recruiter for M-Gesundheit,” Ellen said. “Tonight, you and I are going to have a very long talk.”
“Please excuse me.” Cowan scooted past Ellen and walked for the door. “I’m needed elsewhere, but it was a pleasure to meet you, Mister Miller.”
“Uh huh,” Caleb said, stepping aside. “Likewise.” He didn’t offer his hand.
“Have a safe trip home!” Ellen called after him.
Cowan looked back in the doorway to see Ellen staring at Caleb with one foot pointed out, tapping. The way she’d looked at him when she wanted something. The door closed.
The elevator took him down. He got back into the autocar. As it cruised off his vision went all blurry, and then calm and euphoria replaced guilt and fear. His PBA was receiving new memories over wireless. Galileo had acted out a scene for him, too.
Cowan sat back, breathed, and smiled. He really smiled. Ellen was alive. Corporate Security had been unable to hold her without proof of wrongdoing — she deleted that proof when she wiped her PBA — and she had lived all this time outside Los Angeles, rebuilding her career. Cowan’s fears about her dark fate had been unfounded.
How had he done it? How had he kept his cool through all that? He’d presented himself as a recruiter for Benzai Corporation, and she’d bought it, even though she’d refused the job. He’d saved her, and in the process, he’d even figured out where Galileo was!
Gerhard Bayer ran a company called M-Gesundheit, in Switzerland. He made PBA firmware there. He had given Ellen an offer, and she had turned down Cowan’s offer from Benzai Corporation because she’d already accepted a job from Gerhard Bayer. Even without knowing it, the woman he loved had helped him one last time.
It crushed him that Ellen had forgotten him — he’d never stop loving her — but his life remained incredibly dangerous. He couldn’t endanger her again, so he’d never contact her again. He’d let her live her life without him. She would never know who they had been to each other, but though Cowan might grieve, Ellen would thrive.
Hunger overwhelmed him once he’d ridden in the autocar for thirty minutes, a craving that made his stomach rumble and his mouth fill with drool. Cowan dropped to his headdesk and found the location of the nearest Crispy Joe’s. Twenty minutes later, he was inside the largest chain restaurant in North America, staring at a menu of enormously varied food items usually enjoyed by closed circuits.
Crispy Joe’s served nutrient bars, too, of course … the CrispyBar … but Cowan wasn’t going to order one of those. He had a very specific celebratory craving, one that he could only satisfy with an order he couldn’t get anywhere else.
He ordered two plain waffles and a green kale shake.
* * *
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