Chapter 1: Cowan
August 20, Late Afternoon
Ventura Visions was an office like any other in San Diego, an orderly mess of tinted glass, polished metal, and stark concrete.
Cowan Soto’s first partner waited outside, smoking a texture cigarette as if there wasn’t a rush at all. Cowan supposed there wasn’t. Their clients were already dead.
Standing over two meters tall, Detective Forrester was built like a linebacker. He wore dark slacks, a sterile blue blazer, and a long graphene trench coat that wasn’t standard, but didn’t break any regulations. He had a prosthetic hand and a clean bald head that glistened in the afternoon light.
Cowan looked to Forrester, then back at the office. He didn’t want to go inside. He didn’t want to be here at all, honestly, but he’d met all the requirements, passed all the tests, and signed a corporate contract saying he’d investigate cybercrimes for the Cybercrimes Investigation Division, or CID.
So, here he was. A trainee investigating his first crime.
“Follow me,” Forrester said. “Our killer’s inside.”
Cowan followed until he smacked into a wall of stench. The coppery, sewagey smell only got worse as the lobby’s automated doors closed behind him, cloaking the office interior in near dusk. His eyes watered and his nostrils burned. The interior lights rose to reveal pristine white walls, a marble desk missing a large chunk, and the body. Her body.
Cowan stared at the corpse, a seventeen-year-old woman who’d just committed the first mass shooting in twelve years. Someone who’d had a whole life ahead of them and didn’t, now.
Sheila Fisher. His first case.
“Look at her, kid,” Detective Forrester said. “Tell me how she died.”
Cowan was twenty-six, about as far from a kid as you could get by anyone’s standards, but he let the implication slide because Forrester was much older: fifty-two, according to his file. What bothered Cowan more was that Forrester had tagged this atrocity as a cybercrime. How could this be a cybercrime? There was way too much blood.
Cowan couldn’t breathe. He needed to breathe. He ordered his PBA (Personal Brain Assistant)—a cybernetic implant at the base of his real brain— to alter his senses and make the smell more tolerable. When he finished, the air smelled of drying laundry instead of corpse stink.
“We already know what killed her,” Cowan said, after drawing a breath of now-fragrant air. “Chopgun blast to the head.” Even with his senses altered by his PBA, the sewage smell lingered in his mind. He’d have to redact it later, when he wasn’t on the job.
“I don’t need my partner regurgitating the scene report,” Forrester said. “I need you thinking for yourself, drawing your own conclusions.”
“I can do that.” Cowan took in the nested letter Vs behind the desk—the Ventura Visions logo—as well as the plush couches along the lobby’s sides and the white, freshly waxed floor. “What do you want to know?”
“How you think. First, I want you to forget the last thirty minutes. I don’t want what you read in the scene report to influence your conclusions, so you’re doing this blind.”
Cowan flipped to his head desk—a floating screen he could see when he closed his eyes and focused on the virtual world created by his PBA—and reviewed his memory timeline for the day. He selected the thirty-minute stretch leading to the present, a long ride in a low-slung autocar, and placed a temporary block on that period of time. Finally, he saved his changes.
When Cowan opened his eyes again, he no longer remembered what he’d read on the drive over. He didn’t even remember the ride. He simply knew he was standing at a crime scene, with Detective Forrester, staring at a killer named Sheila Fisher.
“What now?” he asked. He knew he was supposed to ask for instructions now, though he didn’t quite remember why.
“Examine the body on the floor of this building and tell me what you think happened here,” Forrester instructed. “This is a test, but in the real world, with real consequences. If it helps you focus, remember that body isn’t a person any longer. It’s evidence. Just a gruesome work of art.”
That was a terrible idea, but it gave Cowan a better one. Instead of acknowledging that he was still in meatspace—what everyone now called the real world—what if he pretended he was in the Sim, the online virtual world he and 90 percent of the world’s population escaped into every day? That would make this just a splatterhouse simulation, a pleasurebox filled with violence, murder, and other horrors of the Internet Age. Cowan knelt beside Sheila and examined her feet, first. Her feet hadn’t been blown in half.
Sheila’s boots were military style, brown leather laced with barbed wire. What kind of lunatic used barbed wire to lace their boots? She wore grimy cargo pants, ragged hems chewed up by the years.
Cowan forced his eyes upward, past her worn leather belt and a bright yellow tank top soaked in dried blood, to her head—or what was left of it. Cowan couldn’t tell if she’d had a pretty face, or the color of her eyes, because most of her head was missing. Whatever had killed her had sheared off everything above her jawbone. He could see right down her throat.
“Some kind of heavy weapon took her out,” Cowan said, when he knew his voice still worked. “The separation is really clean, like a blade cut through or something, which suggests a chopgun round.” Sheila’s lower jaw still had all its teeth. “Either her nutrition was poor, or she drank too much black coffee. Her teeth are stained yellow.”
“Staining is common with closed circuits.” Detective Forrester meant the stubborn holdouts who refused PBAs. “Comes from eating processed food. It’s the artificial flavoring.”
Cowan would never understand people who refused to install PBAs in their heads. Why refuse the wonders of modern technology? Why wade in the grime and the ugliness when life could be so much easier?
“Why do they eat that stuff?” he asked.
“They don’t have PBAs to make everything taste like bacon.”
Right. Only someone without a PBA inside their head could walk in here and murder people. People like Cowan and Detective Forrester—people with PBAs, networked to each other through the Sim—couldn’t hurt or kill another human being, ever. If a person’s PBA ever detected hostile intent directed at another person, the PBA prevented its user from hurting that person, by force if necessary.
Cowan examined the red couches again. Three holes in the back of one sprouted tufts of yellow foam. In the corner, a toppled potted plant drowned in its own dirt.
“Why did she pick this building?” Cowan asked. “Was this personal? Where’s the people she killed?”
“Her victims are all around you, kid,” Forrester said, quietly. “Did you disable your mental health filters?”
“Shit.” Cowan felt a hot blush. “Sorry.”
He culled his mental health filters—programs in his PBA that seamlessly replaced things he saw in the real world with photo-realistic models—even though he dreaded what he might see. The only reason his PBA would use augmented reality to alter what he saw was if it had determined seeing unaugmented reality might harm his mental health.
And it did. Oh, it did. Three more savaged corpses appeared, innocents who probably had families crying over them at home. Blood spatter painted the not-so-white walls in a gruesome mosaic, and the floor? There was blood all over it, and gray bits, and worse.
A dead woman in a black suit slumped on the red couch. Another woman in a crimson skirt and blouse lay crumpled behind the desk. Next to the desk, sprawled out face down on top of the toppled plant, a janitor leaked his brains into the dirt. Cowan took in slack jaws, sightless eyes, gaping wounds, and gray matter. Just more works of art.
“Three victims.” Cowan trembled as he spoke and didn’t stand up, couldn’t stand up, because he didn’t trust his legs. “Our killer got three people before someone got her.”
“Seems like it,” Forrester said.
“How could this happen? Massacres like this don’t happen anymore.”
“That’s why we’re here. To find out what happened.”
“Right.” Cowan could see inside that janitor’s skull, see red blood smeared on ripples of gray brain matter. “So . . . how do we do that?”
“You’ve archived the scene,” Forrester said, calmly enough that he’d probably firewalled his emotions, allowing him to remain calm. “Run a simulation using the scripts the CID installed this morning.”
Cowan focused on scripting. He could deal with scripting. He blinked over to his head desk and selected every important detail in the lobby: the blood spatter, the bodies, the couch, and the fallen plant. He dumped those details into the CID’s simulation program and activated it.
* * *
Cowan sees the lobby from a top-down, three-fourths perspective, like in a classic 90s video game. The lobby doors open. A red female mannequin slides in on motionless legs, like a robovac. The red mannequin’s arm rises, holding a black arrow. Yellow flashes from the arrow and a blue mannequin tips over on the couch. Victim Number One.
The red mannequin spins like a compass pin, yellow flashing from her arrow. Another blue mannequin behind the desk pops backward. Victim Number Two.
A blue mannequin by the desk slides off. Yellow flash. The blue mannequin drops and scrambles, flailing limbs like a dog on a freshly waxed floor. Some simulations abstract participant actions so as not to damage the psyche of the reviewer.
The red mannequin vacuums its way over, arm lowered and arrow pointed. Flash. Flash flash. The last blue mannequin goes still. Victim Number Three.
A green mannequin with a “G” above its head slides into the lobby, holding another black arrow. That arrow flashes as the red mannequin turns. She spins like a top at superspeed, then topples.
Cowan blinked back into meatspace. The CID’s scripts had created all he just saw from the evidence remaining in this lobby. Had the program in his head used the placement of the bullet holes? The patterns of the blood spatter? How had the program decided who the killer shot first?
“Kid?” Forrester asked. “What happened here?”
“If the reconstructed simulation is correct,” Cowan said, “Sheila walked inside and just started shooting.”
Cowan pointed at the dead woman on the couch. “Sheila shot her first. Then the receptionist. There was a janitor by the receptionist… they were talking, maybe… and he tried to run. Sheila shot him in the back, walked over here. Finished him off.”
“Then why is our killer dead?”
“One of the building’s synthcops responded to the situation, balanced possible solutions, and solved the problem.”
Synthcops were robots controlled by VIs (Virtual Intelligences) which could make simple decisions within parameters defined by their programmers. VIs were not actually sentient, no matter what the conspiracy buffs on the darkSim claimed, but they were creative problem solvers.
“You’ve established a chain of events,” Forrester said, without nodding, “but anyone can do that. What we do… what this job is about… is figuring out what’s missing.”
So this was like solving a puzzle. Cowan enjoyed puzzles. He flipped back to his head desk and reviewed the end of the simulation, with the fallen mannequins, from his own perspective—his own eyes. He ordered his PBA to project the simulation he’d previously seen inside his head in the real world, then compared the position of the computer-generated bodies (created by augmented reality) with the real bodies in the real world.
Cowan saw it then. The missing piece. “Sheila’s body is in the wrong place.”
“Is it?” Forrester waited.
“She’s in the middle of the lobby.” Cowan looked at where Sheila should be, then where she should not be. “The synthcop shot her over there, not here. Did someone move her?”
“What do you think, kid?”
Cowan’s stared at Sheila Fisher’s simulated body, the body his PBA had used augmented reality to place next to the dead janitor, and traced the trail of bloody boot prints leading from Sheila’s simulated body to her real body. The corpse with half a head lying right beside his feet.
“Jesus,” Cowan whispered. “She walked over here after she got shot.”
Forrester crossed his arms. “With her head missing?”
“She didn’t do this. Someone forced her to do this.”
“You think someone was blackmailing her?”
“No, not that kind of forcing.” God, this was a cybercrime. “Someone puppeted this woman in here, made her shoot these people. Uploaded her every move.”
“How? Sheila Fisher didn’t have a PBA installed.”
“She did have a PBA, Detective. She had to. The only way she could still walk over here after that synthcop blew her head off is if the brain in her skull wasn’t the brain controlling her body.”
Cowan shined his narrow flashlight down Sheila’s blown-open throat. He focused on the charred flesh at the base of her neck. Just a trace of metal glistened there, the edge of a quarter-sized circle. The edge of a black-market PBA.
Cowan’s throat clamped up. He regretted every unkind thought as he mourned this woman, this hostage locked inside her own head by some sick fuck with an urge. Forced to watch, unable to act, as her puppeted body committed atrocities.
Sheila Fisher. Victim Number Four.
Want to read more? Unfortunately, the book isn’t out until November 2023. However, you can pre-order Mind Burn now!
Leave a Reply