October 14, Evening
Cowan watched an orange sun set against a line of tall green trees, through a window, as they sheltered in Benzai Corporation’s private hanger. They were at Zurich International Airport. Schaffhausen was thirty minutes away, and tonight, they’d finally arrest Galileo.
Once the family members of the other OneWorld board members were safe, Cowan was certain the other members of OneWorld would step in and make everyone not fugitives. Even if they didn’t, Galileo had to be stopped. And if the members of OneWorld didn’t save them after they stopped him, they had a getaway plane waiting in this hangar.
Cowan, Jeb, and David now wore dark-colored camouflage, with bullet-resistant body armor over that. They had real rifles that shot real bullets, and also had an autotruck big enough to transport fourteen military synthetics. Those synthetics sported a fresh coat of pink paint and bunny ears, some private joke between Sonne and Kate.
Everyone had installed Cowan’s unique firmware, removing all clear circuit algorithms just in case. They were ready. It was all going so well until Doctor Xu refused to leave.
“What?” Kate looked more shocked than normal. “We discussed this.”
“You made statements regarding my actions,” Doctor Xu said. “That is not actually a discussion.”
“You’re coming with us,” Jeb said, “or we’re cramming you back into that cadaver tube.”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort, because you can’t run the dynamic firewalls that protect your milsynths without me.”
Kate flounced. “Dammit, Huan, why didn’t you tell me you were scared? We can—”
“I’m not scared,” Xu interrupted. “I’m rational. I do not need to be in that truck to protect our army. I’m safer here, in the hangar.”
“She’s got a point,” Cowan said. The words just popped into his mouth, but Xu made sense. “She could get taken out if we put her in the truck, and then we lose our army.”
Xu graced him with a smile. “Cowan understands.”
“I don’t like this,” Jeb said.
“What you like is not my concern. If you want your milsynths secured, I’ll remain here.”
Sonne scowled. “With a plane to help you escape if we all die?”
“We don’t have time to debate.” David stepped into the conversation. “It’s almost 1900. Xu can do the same job here as in the truck, and if she’s not willing to go with us, forcing her isn’t going to make us any safer.” He crossed his arms. “She stays. Let’s go.”
“It seems we’re all agreed.” Xu waved them on their way. “Do be careful!”
“Huan,” Kate said, “if I’m still alive after this is over, we’re going to have a long talk.”
“I so look forward to it.” Xu strolled up the jet’s extended airstair, back into the plane.
“Well,” Kate said. “To victory!” She strode away, toward her shiny black autocar.
In addition to her fourteen surprisingly pink milsynths, Kate had also had a special autocar delivered to this hangar, one that was supposedly unhackable. That autocar would transport Kate, Sonne, and Lucy to the local hub serving M-Gesundheit.
Cowan knew the car was some sort of one-of-a-kind prototype from one of Kate’s contacts in Zurich, but she had not explained anything beyond that. When he asked, Kate just patted his head and ruffled his hair. That kind of bothered him.
Once Jeb and David had manhandled the suitcase-sized security blanket into the autocar’s back seat — the jamming device that would prevent Galileo from calling for help — the autocar rode low. Kate, Lucy, and Sonne all got in, and Cowan didn’t manage to catch Sonne’s eyes before she left. He had no idea what that meant.
Next Cowan, David, and Jeb crammed themselves into the back of the autotruck with fourteen pink military synthetics. It too rolled off, driven by its VI. None of them were authorized to actually be in Switzerland.
“Review your assignments until you know them in your sleep,” David said, checking his rifle from multiple angles. “We only get one shot at this, and fuck ups mean we die.” He was back to his military persona now. “Let’s not die.”
The metal floor rumbled as the truck headed for M-Gesundheit’s PBA firmware facility. Jeb turned to Cowan and lowered his voice. “You really think we can trust Xu?”
Cowan didn’t, but another thought popped into his head. “Galileo wants her dead, so she has to help us. Taking Galileo down is the only way she gets her life back.”
Jeb frowned, but didn’t disagree. Cowan popped into his headdesk and went over their attack plan and all possible fallback plans. He felt an overwhelming need to examine every detail, even those details he’d looked at before. They had to get this right.
Almost thirty minutes later, the autotruck halted and the doors opened. They revealed a night lit by raised highway lights. Switzerland was colder than California.
David hurried out, and Jeb went with him. Cowan activated their army before he leapt from the truck. Behind him, bunny-eared milsynths whirred to life. Sonne called them bunnysynths, and she and Kate thought that was hilarious for some reason.
Their convoy had stopped off the highway at a rail station, out of sight of the highway and less than a klick from M-Gesundheit’s security fence. Cowan hadn’t expected Switzerland to have so many trees or look quite so green, but it was actually quite beautiful. Maybe he’d have time to go sightseeing later, if he wasn’t dead.
The bright pink bunnysynths broke out small welding torches. Working as a team, they cut up the transport container of the autotruck, using parts of its thick hull to create makeshift shields. After they’d finished cannibalizing it, the bunnysynths lined up.
Jeb took David’s hand. “Patch in our ringers.”
Cowan dropped avatars into slots on his headdesk. Kate had tasked one of Benzai’s private satellites to offer them a private Sim connection, encrypted and hopefully immune to jamming. Five of the fourteen bunnysynths jerked and adjusted, standing more like cocky humans than emotionless androids. The first in line marched forward.
“DNF, reporting for duty.” The bunnysynth saluted.
“We’re pink,” another synth said. “That’s different.”
“I’ve always been pink.” That one sounded female. She pulled a brutally long sniper rifle from what remained of the autotruck’s transport container, something Kate shouldn’t have been able to get out here, but had somehow. It was way too big for a human.
“I don’t get a sword?” another complained.
“Like you need it?” The second synthetic thumped its buddy’s shoulder. “You don’t get laser swords in real life, dumbass.”
“You’re the dumbass.” That synthetic shoved the aggressor back.
“Knock it off!” the first synthetic shouted: DNF. “This is a real battle, people, for them.” He pointed at Cowan and Jeb. “If they get killed, they don’t respawn.” DNF turned to the distant complex. “Our job is to keep them alive. Do that.”
“Still,” a synth muttered, “a sword would be awesome.”
“I’ll direct the shield bots as we move,” David said. “Sergeant, deploy your soldiers.”
DNF pointed to the forest. “Peaches, Hampline, MatterRat. Decoy duty.” He spun and pointed at the female bunnysynth. “Lin, find some high ground and wait for my call.” DNF nodded to David. “Ready, sir.”
“Roll out,” David said, and Cowan felt a strong compulsion to follow him. David Forrester was just the sort of guy you wanted to follow into battle. Despite Puck’s suggestion, they weren’t going to walk through the minefield.
They left the rail station and worked through a dense forest of tall green trees. David led, followed by five pro-gamer controlled milsynths, followed by Jeb, followed by Cowan, followed by nine more VI milsynths hauling portable walls. They had an actual army.
David believed experienced StrikeForceGo players would outperform milsynths running purely on VI. Cowan supposed Nemoset and LuckyBro’s friends would want revenge for their murdered comrades. They paused at a tall fence topped with barbed wire.
“Everyone’s in position, sir,” DNF said. “We’re ready to move on your order.”
Jeb stared over the darkened complex. “Coming soon.”
* * *
Sonne slumped in the back of the leather-filled autocar as they left Zurich International Airport. She wished she was going with the others to beat up Galileo, but planting the security blanket was important too. They had to keep those hostages safe.
“So, Sonne,” Kate said. “I lied to you again.”
Sonne was used to this by now. “About what?”
“Will you let me explain before you hit me?”
Lucy smiled. “She’s going to hit you anyway.”
“I’m listening,” Sonne said.
“We suspect Galileo found some way to hack Cowan’s PBA,” Kate said, as if that was just a normal thing, “and we think he’s been spying on us through Cowan’s eyes.”
Sonne gasped as everything made sense. The secret meetings Kate, Jeb, and David had several times on the flight over, along with Doctor Xu. The reason they kept trying to force her together with Cowan. They hadn’t been matchmaking. She’d been their decoy.
“How did you find out?” Sonne demanded.
“He pulled the CrispyAlarm,” Lucy said. “After he came back from Ellen Gauthier’s place.”
Kate smiled. “Still the best name ever.”
Sonne stared at both of them in turn. “What the fuck is the CrispyAlarm?”
Kate leaned forward. “Plain waffles and a green kale shake.”
Sonne threw up both hands in exasperation. “Okay?”
As Kate laid it all out for her, Sonne couldn’t help but appreciate the beauty of it. It had started with Cowan’s idea, actually, which was kind of awesome. Kate had a connection to Crispy Joe’s CFO — they hooked up every so often — and she’d been able to get limited access to their Point-of-Sale system, with an archived picture of each customer.
Naturally, that included millions of people, but Kate didn’t need to look at all those orders, just the few that met her filter criteria. Plain waffles and a green kale shake. Only a small group of people actually ordered those two items together. If anyone on their team got compromised, and couldn’t alert the others, buying that combo was the alarm.
“I get it,” Sonne said.
“Wait, what?” Kate blinked. “You get what?”
“Cowan’s into me,” Sonne said, “and Galileo knows it. If I knew he was watching me through Cowan’s eyes, there’s no way I could act normal. I’d give us away.”
“Wow,” Lucy said.
“You really don’t want to hit me?” Kate asked.
“Later.” Thinking about Galileo watching her, through Cowan, made Sonne’s skin crawl. Kate had made the absolute right call.
“Okay then!” Kate called up a simulacrum of a relay tower surrounded by a thick security fence. “This is Schaffhausen’s central uplink tower.”
“Their backbone to the Golden Array?” That was the network of satellites orbiting Earth, providing lightning fast Sim access to ninety-seven percent of the known world.
“That’s right,” Kate said. “I’m going to upload a self-replicating script to all pleasureboxes pulling data off the relay. When they start shooting ten times that data back, we’re going to DDOS Schaffhausen.”
At first blush, launching a distributed denial of service attack on an entire city seemed a little extreme. But this was Gerhard Bayer they were talking about, one of the five members of OneWorld corporation. They couldn’t take any chances.
“We don’t know how many connections Galileo has,” Kate said, “but when we attack him, he’ll either call the Swiss military for help, or execute his hostages.”
“Or both,” Lucy added.
“So if we take the entire network down,” Kate said, “he can’t call anyone.”
“But why attack an uplink tower?” Sonne asked. “Those are incredibly well guarded, aren’t they?”
Kate nodded. “We can’t generate near enough traffic to shut down connectivity through a public port. They have anti-DDOS safeguards. This is the only way we make sure Galileo can’t call for help. And yes, as you’ve pointed out, it is incredibly dangerous.”
Sonne glanced out the window. “Galileo’s watching the others, isn’t he? Everyone else is walking into a trap.”
“Yes,” Kate said. “Which is why we have to do this really fast.”
* * *
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