Lucy raised one eyebrow. “Your boyfriend arrives.”
“I hope your arms rust.” Sonne hopped up and opened the cockpit door to find Cowan waiting, as expected. “What?”
“Movie’s starting.” Cowan remained freakishly calm about everything.
Sonne glanced into the cockpit. “You can fly from the cabin, can’t you?”
“I like it up here.” Lucy waved a hand. “You kids have fun.”
“They settled on Alien,” Cowan said, “after a spirited debate. Never seen it. Have you?”
Sonne walked past him toward the main cabin. “I tried watching it with Katie once. Fell asleep after the teethy penis burst out of that guy’s chest.”
“Spoilers!” Kate shouted from the couch.
Sonne flopped down on the couch next to David and Jeb. There wasn’t room for another body on this side of the airplane’s couch, so Cowan would have to sit on the other side. He glanced at her, glanced at the couch, and thumped down beside Kate and Doctor Xu. Disappointed? Good. That’d teach him to be so happy all the time.
Sonne flipped to her headdesk and started a flight timer. She should have archived some entertainment for the flight, but she could work, instead. Working always calmed her.
She still had way too much to do on Project Inception, even with ten hours ahead. This whole project was her idea, and she couldn’t miss even the most subtle details. When you were making a fantasy world, that was fine, but real locations was much harder.
Sonne tweaked structures within her three-dimensional headdesk projection, slid assets around, and pushed the ceiling up and down. She adjusted the patina on the metal floor. What if it wasn’t light gray, like the pictures, but dark gray instead? That would be an immersion breaker, and then everyone would die and it would be her fault.
That was the problem, honestly. When people died, it always felt like her fault, even if it obviously wasn’t. Sonne remembered a dark sky and pouring rain. She remembered their autocar’s tires squealing as it failed to avoid the oncoming vehicle, a big truck driven by a drunk closed circuit. She remembered the crunch.
Her mother’s bloodied head rested on the spiderwebbed windshield. Her father’s neck bent at an impossible angle, and a pinch grew in her chest. Samantha Frederick had died that day, with her parents, in that accident. Sonne? She was someone else.
The thing she hated most is she couldn’t remember her parents clearly, not any longer. She hadn’t archived much before the wreck — she was barely fourteen years old when they died — and the archives she did have were wiped when Benzai Corporation rebooted her PBA, after her original heart stopped. After they replaced it.
Sonne shouldn’t be alive, but she was. She shouldn’t have a family, but she did. And she shouldn’t be on this plane, hurtling toward a confrontation with one of the five psychopaths who ruled the world, but she was. Time to suck it up and not fail everyone. She made art, because making art was how she survived when she didn’t want to.
Sonne eventually flipped back to watch the giant flatscreen hanging on the wall of Adrian’s plane. It showed a dark-haired woman in her underwear sliding into a plastic tube, with a cat. Why did she have a cat? Cowan watched it with mild curiosity.
Soon after, the credits rolled. Sonne would never get the appeal of flat movies. Why would you watch something like that when you could actually live it in a pleasurebox? It made no sense to her, but humanity liked freaky stuff. Her waifu parlor proved that.
“So that’s it?” Cowan said. “She gets into an escape pod?”
“Yup,” David said.
“What happened to the rest of the movie?”
“There’s a sequel,” Jeb said, “and it’s amazing, but we’ll watch it on the way back, once we’ve arrested Galileo.”
“But they all died.” Cowan looked disappointed now. “How is that entertaining? Why did people watch stuff like this?”
“Ripley lived,” David said. “It’s a survival story, Cowan, about how you survive no matter the odds. Though, originally, the ending was going to be even darker.”
“How could it be darker?”
Jeb picked up David’s thread like they were simlinked or something. “In the original script, Scott was going to kill her. That alien was going to bite her head off.”
“Who’s Scott again?” Cowan actually wasn’t as nerdy as they were.
“The director,” David said. “Ridley Scott.”
“Well that would have been stupid ending,” Cowan said. “If everyone in the story dies, why did I waste my time watching it?”
David shrugged. “In a situation like that, not everyone is going to make it out alive. You save who you can.”
That was stupid. This whole plan was stupid. “I don’t want anyone to die!” Sonne shouted.
Everyone shut up and stared at her, and Sonne felt heat rushing to her face. She curled her toes and wished she could melt into the couch. She really was an idiot sometimes.
“Honey,” Kate said, lips pursed in her worry face, “if you really think—”
“I don’t think,” Sonne said, her artificial heart thumping inside her. “I know. We’re not all coming back from this. How are you okay with that?”
“Because,” Jeb said, “thinking about what might happen drives you insane.”
“We all know the risks,” David said, as he gave her arm a squeeze. “But worrying is useless. We’ve all got a job to do, and that’s what we all need to focus on. Our jobs.”
“That’s right,” Jeb said. “You do your job and protect the person next to you. You focus on what you can control, not what you can’t.”
“That’s adorable,” Doctor Xu said, “and absolutely untrue.” She stretched her hands above her head. “You survive, my dear Sonne, by recognizing that all lives end eventually. Accept the concept of universal empathy and relax. Death comes for us all.”
“Doctor Huan Xu, everyone.” Kate wrapped an arm around her. “Motivational speaker.”
“Maybe we could run through the attack plan one more time,” Cowan said.
* * *
October 13, Past Midnight
The ping woke Gerhard Bayer from a restful sleep, a specific tone signaling his private line. No one had this number that he had not personally vetted, so he sat up in his cushy bed and allowed his mind to focus. Then he said, “Answer.”
Gerhard expected a call from Director Warren, an update on the latest developments in her search for CID Detective Jeb Forrester. What he did not expect was the moderately attractive Chinese woman he had attempted to murder, but there she was.
“Hello, Gerhard,” Doctor Huan Xu said.
“Huan.” She couldn’t see him, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The fact that the others knew his true identity might have concerned him if he didn’t have the Director of the OMH in his pocket, and a direct line into Cowan Soto’s brain. “How can I help you?”
Huan offered her best sultry smile. “Are you still upset with me?”
“What do you want?” Gerhard wasn’t, but she didn’t need to know that.
“I want out,” Huan said, emphasizing that last word. “I want my mansion back, and my cars, and my legions of adoring readers. This life as a fugitive? This is not for me.”
“Perhaps you should tell me what you expect.”
“Stop trying to kill me,” Huan said. “Let me return to my home and life. I’ll even allow you to redact my memory of your identity, if you wish. I simply want this to be over.”
“Why would I allow that?”
“I have information. I have the identities of the people trying to bring you down.”
Gerhard called up archived pictures of everyone he’d lured to Switzerland, using Cowan. “Would that be these people?” So far, all of Cowan’s allies were behaving exactly as he’d expected. None of them suspected he was watching them through Cowan’s PBA.
“How do you…” Huan trailed off, and then her smile returned. “You remain one step ahead. As your ally, I respect that. That’s why I want to abandon this suicide mission.”
“You still haven’t offered me anything in return.”
“Are you aware of how my so-called allies plan to attack your facility in Schaffhausen?”
Galileo was — Cowan had been stupid enough to go over their entire plan twice on the flight, to reassure his new girlfriend — but he needn’t reveal that. “I take it you are?”
“I am. And if you would like those details, I want your assurance I won’t be harmed.”
In a few days, Gerhard would control OneWorld and the planet. Even if Huan revealed his part in distributing Tian, no one could touch him. This was worth consideration. “If we agree to cease hostilities,” Gerhard said, “tell me what you expect.”
“You agree to let me live,” Huan said. “You send an autocar to Hanger A2 at Zurich International Airport at 1930 tomorrow, Sunday, where we’ll park our plane. You drive me to your facility, place me somewhere safe, and I help you defeat the simpletons foolish enough to believe themselves your equal.”
Gerhard detected plenty of underlying motives here, but all of them were about Huan surviving and returning to her cushy life. This felt real, and if she was deceiving him, his line into Cowan Soto’s PBA would reveal that soon. It was a reasonable request.
“Are you comfortable in a cell?” Gerhard asked.
She smiled, relaxing a bit. A fish on a hook. “A cell is fine, provided it has a cot and wireless access. I’ll need wireless to stop the milsynth assault on your complex.”
Gerhard already knew the people coming to arrest him were bringing repainted Benzai Corporation milsynths to assault his complex — it was just one of the many ways they’d underestimated him — but it was nice to know Xu was telling the truth. So far.
“We have an agreement,” Gerhard said.
“Now tell me the details of this assault.”
“David Forrester plans to attack you with an army of milsynths, some remotely controlled by external parties. He tasked me with devising a devious encryption method that will prevent your synthetic hacking scripts from affecting them.”
All true. “And did you create one?”
“Of course. I’m simply not going to use it.”
There were more benefit to this arrangement than he had suspected. “Can you guarantee me the ability to hack their milsynths?”
“I already have. Would you like me to up the bypass codes to you?”
Galileo sat back and smiled. “Do so.”
Everything Xu had told him matched what he already knew from spying through Cowan’s PBA, which suggested her betrayal was genuine. He would collect her, use her army against her co-conspirators, and return her to her simple life. It was only fair.
These foolish investigators were horribly out of their depth.
* * *
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