October 21, Evening
“I refuse to believe Jeb’s going to die,” Sarisa said, quietly. She sat across from Cowan, in his and Jeb’s favorite booth at Crazy Noodles. “Doctors don’t know everything.”
Cowan took another sip of bottled water his PBA told him was orange soda. He liked orange soda. “Sometimes they do.”
“So you’ve given up?”
Cowan shook his head. “Not ever. I’d rather have hope than … not have it.”
Sarisa reached across the table and squeezed his hand. “That’s good, Cowan. That’s really good. That’s how you should deal with things in general.”
Cowan pulled his hand away. “I’m fine. You don’t need to worry about me.”
“Remember, you can’t blame yourself. From everything you’ve told me, I don’t think there was any way you could have taken Gerhard Bayer down without Jeb’s plan.”
“You getting compromised only changed how you executed your plan, not its outcome. In fact, because Jeb and the others used you to deceive Galileo, you may have actually made it easier to capture him and save the others.”
“Sure,” Cowan said.
“Even if Jeb does die in the next week,” Sarisa said, “do you plan to let that stop you?”
Cowan stared at his orange soda. “Stop me?”
“From investigating cybercrimes. Protecting people. In my opinion, you’ve shown yourself to be very good at that.”
Cowan shifted in his seat. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do next.”
“I’m not redacting what I did. I survived what happened to Ellen, and I’ll survive this. I know it’ll suck for a really long time, but I will deal with it.”
“Good,” Sarisa said. “That’s good, Cowan. That’s precisely what I needed you to say.”
Sarisa sat back and sipped her bottled water. “You’re cleared for duty.”
Cowan got it, and he stared at her. “You were debriefing me?” Sarisa had assured him she had only wanted to take him out for a drink. God, that woman had a poker face.
“In my opinion as a counselor for the Office of Mental Health, a binding opinion that can only be overridden by the OMH’s yet-to-be-appointed director, you are not suffering from persistent depression. You may continue as a CID investigator, if you wish.”
They both knew she was sticking her neck out real far by saying that. “Thank you.”
“Jeb’s going to make it,” Sarisa said, “but even if he doesn’t, you need to keep going. Do things with people even when you don’t want to do things. The guilt and hurt won’t ever go away, but it will dull with time. You’ll grow used to carrying it around.”
“Now you’re talking like he’s going to die.”
Cowan couldn’t imagine what David was going through now, separated from his possibly dying husband by a whole ocean. David might be willing to return to Switzerland and be arrested, but OneWorld wasn’t willing to let that happen. It would put them in a situation where the Swiss government was defying them, and no one, on either side, wanted that. David was grounded here, and Cowan knew that must suck.
“Call if you need help any time of day or night,” Sarisa said. “I’m here for you, and I can always listen.” She rose and slid out of the booth. “Thank you for the noodles and the water.”
“Sure.” Cowan frowned at the night outside. “And thanks for—”
A ping jolted his PBA.
It was an invitation from the board of OneWorld.
* * *
Cowan had never been to Corporate One, at least, not the inner sanctum part. He walked through a huge lobby occupied by milsynths and entered an elevator with silver doors. He rode down, and down, and down, and emerged in a long white hall.
A pyramid-headed milsynth greeted him there. It led him down that hall, which soon let out into a circular black room with a single white circle in the center. Cowan stood on it.
Wings fluttered and a fairy in a tiny green dress appeared. She had short blond hair and incredibly cute features. She smiled at him when she landed, flexing her knees.
“Hello, Cowan,” the fairy said.
Cowan didn’t feel surprised at all. “You’re Puck.” Sonne had told him about Puck.
“Not today,” Puck said, less spastically than he’d expected. “Today, I’m Dina Abramowitz.” One of the four remaining people on the board of OneWorld. “I wish we could speak face to face, but these are still dangerous times. This is safer.”
It probably was. “How can I help you, Missus Abramowitz?”
“You’ve already helped me,” Dina said. “You freed my family, captured a man who’d grown far too dangerous for us to control, and saved our world from a hostile takeover that would have ended everything we’ve built these past fifty years.”
“Hooray for me.”
“So what do you want, Cowan?”
He watched her for a moment, taking that in. “Sorry?”
“It’s not a trick question. We’re prepared to offer you any job you want or, if you don’t want a job, a pension to research anything you like. Consider it a performance bonus. You can even retire to a private island, if you like. Money is no longer your problem.”
Cowan frowned. “I don’t want a bunch of money.”
“What do you want?”
Maybe there was a chance after all. “Jeb Forrester.”
“The Swiss are doing everything they can to save him.”
“Right, but I want you to do everything. I want you to take over.”
Dina raised one of Puck’s fairy eyebrows. “What exactly are you asking me, Cowan?”
“Everything you have.” Cowan crossed his arms. “You’re the four most powerful people in the world. You have access to research and doctors and studies that no one else knows about. They might not be legal, or even safe, but I don’t care. Use them to save Jeb.”
Dina smiled. “You’re assuming an awful lot.”
“And you haven’t told me no outright, which means I’m right about you holding back.”
“Retrieving Forrester from Swiss custody could be delicate.”
“I don’t care. That’s what I want for my reward. Save him.”
“And if we did, you’d consider our debt settled?”
Why not? “Yes.”
“And what about that other matter?”
She meant Galileo, and all he’d revealed about corporate mind control. Cowan had an answer for that too. He’d spent a good deal of time thinking about it, and all the death and horror and evil he’d seen in the past few months. The natural state of humanity.
“I’m not going to share your corporate mind control policy with the world,” Cowan said. “The benefits of clear circuit algorithms outweigh the drawbacks.”
Dina tilted her fairy head. “You disagree with Gerhard Bayer’s evaluation?”
“I’m not saying I love mind control,” Cowan said. “But I do believe PBA suppression algorithms remain our best option until we evolve, because when you aren’t spreading invasive scripts all over the darkSim, they keep most of us from murdering each other.”
“It was never about mind control, Cowan. It was about changing the world.”
“And I don’t plan to change it back. Though, I would like to keep my brain as is.”
“You’re referring to your customized PBA firmware? We have no problem with that.”
“Provided you get Jeb out of Switzerland and help him.”
“We shall endeavor,” Dina said. “Consider our debts settled.”
Was he doing the right thing? “Okay.”
“We are going to redact your knowledge of our mind control algorithms before you leave. You understand.”
“Uh huh.” He might be betraying the planet by saying that, but humanity just wasn’t ready to have free will again. There were too many people who used it to torture each other. “Honestly, I’d be more comfortable not knowing what you do.”
“Not many are,” Dina agreed.
* * *
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