The seven remaining VI ShieldBots, led by DNF, MatterRat, LinSpork, Peachrind, and Hampline with his goddamn laser sword, preceded the humans into the lobby of M-Gesundheit. They needn’t have worried. The lobby was empty, the staff all gone home for the night, and all its milsynths were wrecked outside.
The floors were white marble and the walls were paneled wood, interspersed with old-fashioned flatscreens. Those showed the spinning logo of M-Gesundheit covered by a flashing Evakuieren warning. Potted plants flanked an empty front desk — what was it with corporations and their potted plants? — and the whole setup reminded Jeb of Ventura Visions, where their hunt for Galileo started.
Finally, that hunt had an end.
“Penthouse.” David waved them forward. “Stay behind the synths.”
Jeb followed David and the many bunnysynths past the front desk, and made himself not look at Cowan as he did so. He knew Galileo was watching them through Cowan’s eyes, and he couldn’t stop thinking about Sonne’s last transmission. About Lucy.
No matter their justification for being here, Lucy’s murder was a reminder of who they were tonight: foreign nationals intent on abducting a Swiss citizen, and people who had just launched a terrorist attack on Swiss infrastructure. DDOSing Schaffhausen was an incredibly stupid thing to do, which was probably why Galileo had never imagined they’d do it. Anything less risked Galileo slaughtering whole families.
Jeb followed David and their bunnysynth army up a set of marble stairs to the second floor, long halls bordered by dark glass leading into empty offices. Not even one person was working late, and Jeb was grateful for that. Galileo must have sent them home.
He wondered if asking Cowan about that would tip Galileo off that they were onto him, or if not asking would do the same thing. He decided not to say anything. He hated hiding everything from Cowan, but that was the only way to keep things from Galileo.
The second floor revealed the penthouse dead ahead. Standing glass halls wrapped around it, looking into empty offices and a forest of dimly lit cubes, but the locked room ahead couldn’t be anything else. It was a building within the building. Galileo’s trap.
“Want me to try and hack the doors?” Cowan asked.
“No need.” David handed one of the bunnysynths the block of plastic explosive he’d carried from the truck. “Plant the charge.” They couldn’t trust Cowan to hack anything.
Peachrind slammed the block of explosive into place on the center of the penthouse doors. Jeb realized then they didn’t have tape or a detonator. As Peachrind raised his stunner, Jeb knew they were about to lose another bunnysynth.
“Ready to detonate!” Peachrind shouted.
Bunnysynths knelt, shields raised. They formed a protective line between the coming explosion and the squishy people. Then Cowan stood and lurched forward like a drunk, like someone who wasn’t moving his own limbs. Like someone who was being puppeted.
“Shit,” Jeb said. All the bunnysynths dropped their shields. “Shit. Shit!”
Cowan lumbered, jogged, and ran, right at the penthouse doors. Jeb sprinted after him as David shouted something. Peachrind’s stunner touched the explosive charge and Jeb tackled Cowan and took him down, rolling the back of his graphene duster to the door.
The world exploded.
* * *
Coughing made Cowan realized he was alive. He couldn’t remember anything, at the moment, except that he’d really wanted to see what that block of plastic explosive looked like up close. Where was everyone else? Where were Jeb and David?
Someone shouted — David shouted — but David’s screams sounded far away. Cowan’s ears were ringing. Someone pulled something heavy off of him, a body. Whose body?
“Stay with me,” David said, from that place that was so far away. “Focus on my voice.”
Jeb coughed as well, beside Cowan, and that was great until Cowan realized he couldn’t move. All he could do was stare at his partner, his teacher, dying in his husband’s arms. There was blood everywhere, on both Forresters.
“Ha.” Jeb grinned despite the blood all over his face. “Saved you.” He gasped and coughed. “Not your fault. Remember that.” He leaned against David. He just … stopped.
Jeb Forrester was dead. Jeb Forrester couldn’t be dead. Cowan realized then there were bunnysynths around them, pointing rifles at them, and none of them had said a goddamn word. This was a pleasurebox. This was all pretend.
A calm voice echoed from the building’s PA system. “I didn’t expect that.”
Cowan stood, and that’s when he realized he was being puppeted. How? He hadn’t connected to or down’d anything since he’d returned from his meeting with Ellen.
Oh God. Ellen. He’d met her, risked himself, and knew now that had been a horrible mistake. He suspected — no, he knew — that his happy memories about Ellen’s new life must be an implanted lie. Galileo had compromised him, somehow. It was the only way the man could be inside his PBA, and it suggested he knew everything.
“Major Forrester,” Galileo said. “I now control your army, and your ability to continue to breathe. There will be no more heroics, understand me? We are done for today.”
“Xu did this.” David clutched Jeb’s body, eyes wet. “She betrayed us!”
“She survived,” Galileo said, “as you, unfortunately, will not. Stun him, Cowan.”
Cowan’s body drew his stunner and aimed. Cowan’s finger squeezed the trigger. David dropped atop his now dead husband, and Cowan couldn’t even make himself cry.
“Join me inside the penthouse,” Galileo said. “I have so much to tell you.”
Cowan’s puppeted legs walked him into the penthouse. The explosion had charred the walls and flipped chairs, but the room was intact. A flatscreen descended from the ceiling, and a man appeared on that screen. Cowan saw his nemesis for the first time, a white man, pale, balding, and calm. Gerhard Bayer, also known as Galileo.
Gerhard sat in what looked like an underground office, a small room with a single closed door in the background. It held the desk in front of which he sat, some file cabinets, and nothing else. It was in another building somewhere. Of course it was.
“Let me help him,” Cowan whispered. “Let me get Jeb medical supplies.”
“Jeb Forrester is beyond modern medicine,” Gerhard said. “If it’s any comfort, I’d actually intended to kill you both once you arrived. Your partner simply cut in line.”
“Please!” He couldn’t even twitch a finger.
“Very soon, one of my many VIs will bypass your Sim blackout, and I will call for reinforcements. I don’t know how you’ve managed to delay me from contacting the military for so long, but that doesn’t matter now.”
Cowan struggled to move his own body and failed. “Why?”
“A dozen reasons. I really do want to save the world, as I’ve told you. I told you it was possible for someone to murder everyone on the Sim, if we don’t patch out corporate mind control from PBAs. I’m going to secure them for good.”
“Keep me alive and let the others go.” Is this how he could save Jeb and David? “If you have to torment anyone, torment me. I’m the one who screwed you over.”
“I don’t wish to torment anyone, Cowan. Can’t you see that? The sacrifices I’ve made grieve me, and besides, I don’t have time for that sort of nonsense. In less than a day, I’ll forever protect this world from scripting like mine, and then I’ll be very busy.”
Cowan tried to plead again, but Gerhard locked his jaw.
“The Office of Mental Health is now mine,” Gerhard said. “The board of OneWorld is now mine. Tomorrow, I will load the kill codes for all scripts plaguing the Sim, and I will singlehandedly end the crime wave that has consumed the world. I’ll be a hero.”
Cowan tried to flip over to his headdesk, but he couldn’t access his PBA. He couldn’t access his secret partition. He was trapped in his own mind.
“I will usher in a new age of peace and prosperity,” Galileo said, “a world where humans live freely and safely. That is what you die for today. I know it is little comfort, but know that your sacrifices have helped the world. Know that you have enabled a bright future.”
Behind Gerhard, through an open door, Doctor Xu crept into his office on bare feet, teeth bared. Cowan had suspected her betrayal since their bunnysynths turned, but he hadn’t really believed it until now. Xu had sold them out. She had killed Jeb Forrester.
She raised her stunner.
* * *
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