Things Fall Apart – Strangely

It is almost universally acknowledged that Stranger Things Season 3 is better than Season 2, and marks a return to form.

Yes, I am here to contradict that narrative.

As a story Stranger Things 3 is pretty enjoyable. It has great character moments, a lot of fun nostalgia and some killer special effects. But – and this is a big caveat – as a sequel to the previous seasons it falls very short. Yes, even as a sequel to Season 2. I’m going to assume you’ve watched the franchise and just hit the points that don’t add up to me or we’ll be here all day. Maybe someday someone will write a book breaking down the franchise, along with its plots, characters and themes. Today isn’t that day (although I may be that person). For now, let’s look at the massive holes ST3 has left in the fabric of the narrative and ask ourselves… can we really call this an improvement?

Start with the most important plot element in Season 3 – Starcourt Mall. This mall is built, is open for business and is reshaping the local economy within a year of the events of Season 2. How?

Furthermore, Russians (!) have tunneled out miles – yes miles – of underground pathways, along with a control bunker, storage rooms and living spaces for who knows how many of their personnel, and done something with all of that dirt, and they’ve done it without anyone in Hawkins noticing. The huge influx of staff is mysterious as well – I’d estimate the Russians have at least thirty, maybe as many as fifty people down in that complex. How were they smuggled into the country? Sure, they could have gotten to Hawkins as part of a work crew building the mall they’re hiding under but… seriously, it wasn’t that easy to get a Russian national into the country undetected during the Cold War.

And speaking of Russian nationals, what is with the Russian knockoff of the Terminator? I understand the joke – he’s not-Ahnold – but we watch him get hit, kicked and shot without showing any sign of pain or weakness. How is that possible?

Look, I get it. Stranger Things is a franchise about monsters from a parallel dimension. Why should I care?

I care because the entire cool factor of the franchise came from the fact that those monsters were invading a world exactly like ours. Arguably down to the U.S. government researching and producing people with psychic powers.

In ST1 and ST2 the world was painstakingly realistic, barring a few anachronisms that might annoy some 80s purists (I was very young then so I haven’t noticed any of these myself.) This enhanced the fantasy of watching people who were very much like us, as kids then and adults now, take on a creature beyond our wildest imaginations. (Well, maybe not if you’re H.R. Geiger). But adding all these questions about the Russians superhuman building, smuggling and bullet taking capacities ruins this illusion. Hawkins no longer exists in a world like ours except with monsters from the Upside Down, now it exists in a world with cartoony evil lairs under small Midwestern towns and humans who are almost as monstrous as the Demigorgon from Season 1.

It ruins so much of the show’s charm.

Worse, the franchise’s coolest concept in name, visual presentation and general execution was always the Upside Down and it’s entirely gone from this season. No one goes there save a few clairvoyance sequences with Eleven, we don’t learn any more about it and we don’t get new monsters. The Mind Flayer shows some new powers but remains basically the same as it was last season. We’re no closer to understanding why everyone is so obsessed with the Upside Down. We don’t even get any new people with psychic powers. I wasn’t a fan of Eleven’s side trip in Season 2 but at least it opened a door to new characters and powers. Too bad they’re not going to do anything with it.

The Upside Down and El’s psychic abilities is an incredibly intriguing mystery and it would have been nice to keep developing it but instead it felt like that entire part of the plot was in stasis for six hours while the cast obsessed about Russians. The Cold War is over, there’s not tension there, please put that story line to rest. The only interesting part about it was Alexei, the defector, and he’s dead.

There were other problems. The series on the whole felt less dark and oppressive, in spite of being more gory over all. We’ve already seen the Mind Flayer and, while it’s flesh shaping ways are new, in total the bodysnatcher routine was easy to spot. The people who were taken over by the Mind Flayer (other than Billy) turned into such laughable caricatures of their previous selves that I couldn’t take them seriously. And I struggled to take many of them seriously beforehand. It was very hard for the Flayer to present itself as a threat. The only time I felt legitimate tension in the story and feared for the cast was during the Sauna test. That’s about 10 minutes out of the total run time. Not really living up to the feel of the first two seasons.

Many of the characters – Hopper, Judy, Joyce and Mike are the biggest offenders – came off as more obnoxiously high strung than they have in the past. I was having a hard time mustering sympathy for their situations. And the “death” of Jim Hopper feels like a very transparent play on our emotions. I wasn’t born yesterday – I know he’s coming back next season and so do you. This was clearly just a way to encourage the cast to wander off to the four winds and make it easier to introduce new elements and drag the Russians back in next season. Because more Russians is exactly what I want from Stranger Things 4.

No, Stranger Things 3 is not a great return to the ways of the first season. It’s a decent shot at a different kind of a story in the franchise. But it’s undercut a lot of what made the show enjoyable at first and I’m not sure it brought enough to the table to counterbalance that. Will Seaons 4 fix that? Only time will tell.

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Disney’s Mulan was Respectful to Chinese Culture

The Mouse is drunk on live action remakes. I don’t know why people keep going to watch them myself but it is what it is. If glitzy wannabe Broadway is your preference to the excellent hand drawn animation of the Disney golden age then by all means check it out, I’ll be happy to stay home. But I was pretty upset to hear my third favorite Disney film was undergoing major story changes to become more “respectful” to its native culture. As you’ve already guessed from the title, I’m talking about the upcoming remake of Mulan.

Now, all we’ve got to go on so far is a trailer and that’s not much. Especially if you compare the original trailer for Mulan to the end product. So 2020’s Mulan is by no means a ship that’s sailed. But I’m still pretty upset to hear about some of the changes, like cutting Mushu. He was a fun, memorable and quotable character. He gave a bit of recognizable American flavor to a film lacking many cultural touchstones for its primary audience, much like Timon in The Lion King.

But the charge in general really grated at me.

At its heart Mulan is a story about the foundational Confucian values, filial piety, humaneness and ritual. The first is at the heart of the story, because it is Mulan’s unshakable loyalty to her family that drives her to the heights of her achievements. Her father will go and fight – and given his age and injuries, certainly die. So Mulan takes his place. Everything that happens after hinges on her familial devotion.

Humaneness is demonstrated in a particularly Disney fashion, by having Mulan anthropomorphize and sympathize with her animal friends. This is a common Disney trope but it is always used to show a kindness and gentleness in leading ladies and it happens to synchronize perfectly with this Confucian value. Of course, humaneness also applies to how we deal with other people and in this Mulan is also exemplary, showing an insight and compassion for her fellow soldiers that could probably only be matched by the Emperor himself.

Finally, ritual is something Mulan engages in many times, from painting her face and going to the Matchmaker, to the relentless drilling of her military training. You can’t really get away from ritual in Chinese society so perhaps the film has too little of it but that’s hardly disrespectful it’s just one of the realities of storytelling.

Significantly, while Mulan embodies each of the Confucian values it’s also important to note that they are mirrored back to her as well. Her father won’t reveal her and bring her home because it will put her in more danger than letting her go. His loyalty to family surpasses his duty to Empire. Humaneness is also echoed by Mulan’s father and mother at first, by (oddly enough) Shan Yu when he tries to send her home and spare her death in war (this isn’t how conscripts worked back then), and finally by the Emperor of all China. And many of the rituals Mulan takes part in aren’t things you can do alone, she has to do them with others. So it’s not like these things are confined to her – they’re part of the warp and weft of the story.

But that story is a universal one. That’s part of what makes films like Aladdin and Mulan so brilliant. They’re totally understandable and relatable stories steeped in unfamiliar cultures. Mulan is a misfit who tries to do something big for someone she loves. She starts out with the odds stacked against her but a good training montage brings her in to step with the comrades who didn’t trust her and teaches her the ropes. She immediately goes out and realizes how far she’s still short of the mark and has to make it up on the spot. The final setback leaves her alone – now she has to be the hero when it’s hard. And she gets justice – she’s exposed as a liar. But she’s also seen for the fullness of her dedication and talent.

It’s hard to judge based on one trailer, as I said, but what I do see worries me. The original Mulan was as solid as it gets. This new version shows… troubling changes (beyond no Mushu). Mulan appears to already be proficient in martial arts, she seems to have something to prove in the army, she seems to chafe at the bonds of her family. The filial piety and humaneness of the original are nowhere in evidence. Ritual seems more a restraint than the lubrication of social life it should be. It’s only 90 seconds of a feature length movie. Not all of it may make the final cut.

But I’m deeply concerned that, much like the unfortunate Alita film from this year, the very real cultural respect the original Mulan film had at its heart has been pushed aside for the sake of modern, trendy shibboleths. And that would be truly ironic, since there’s nothing more disrespectful than stealing a few names and some clothing from one culture, draping them over your own ideas then selling it as authentic. The jury’s still out on this one… but I’m not optimistic.

UPDATE – Inbetween writing and publishing this (and boy am I have this problem a lot lately) new drama erupted around Liu Yifei, the actress playing Mulan in the upcoming live action version. These aspects don’t have any direct bearing on my points here about either version of the story. While I feel her remarks on Hong Kong were foolish and stupid that’s no reason to boycott the Mulan remake. Just don’t go see it because it looks lame. That’s the end of my remarks on that.

Hiatus

When I first concepted Pay the Piper late last year I had no idea how future events would play out (as is true of most of us). It seemed like a fairly harmless lark poking fun at Silicon Valley and reminding our Tech Overlords that they, too, are mortal. The irony of my writing it on The Internet (TM) was not lost on me, and I felt would show that my tongue is firmly in cheek. However, over the last six months I’ve watched a lot of public life erode. We actually seem to be slipping into dedicated opposing camps as time goes on and I’ve come to question whether the story I’m writing is truly helpful – to myself if nothing else – and whether I like where I had planned to go. For now, Pay the Piper is on hiatus as I evaluate what I should do with it. In the meantime, look forward to a return of essays, starting next week, for the near future.

 

– Nate

Pay the Piper – Chapter Eighteen

Previous Chapter

It turned out that Galaxy did, in fact, keep tabs on the Gifted they knew who had gone insane. It was just one of many services their mental health division provided to members, periodically sending someone without the Gift to visit the ill in their care facilities. It was a bit like the Red Cross but for crazy people. A very small, narrow group of crazy people.

There were very thorough records kept on each case and to my surprise they found fourteen cases in total where psychometrics known to be insane had recovered and left care. I’d thought that was impossible but apparently I was wrong. “It’s not common,” Mix said as he handed me the files on the people in question. “But it’s not unheard of either. It’s not something we tend to broadcast because people tend to get careless when dealing with potential mental health situations, thinking they’ll be one of the exceptions. Top minds have been trying to figure out what causes it but no luck so far.”

“If this can happen, why does everyone say it’s impossible?” I asked.

“Do they?” Mix countered. “Or do they just say no one they know has ever recovered? Those are two different things.”

They were, and he was right. It was still unsettling to know that something I’d taken for granted for so long was based on a totally erroneous understanding of what I’d been hearing. Still, I knew better now and there was all the information I’d needed with no fuss. It was almost too good to be true. Almost.

Fourteen names is still a lot of people and we needed to narrow it down. We started by eliminating anyone who didn’t specialize in psychological or neurological fields, as Vinny made it clear that was the secret sauce to making a therapy fugue work. That left us with five names. Two of them were active and accounted for already, it was possible they were involved in this case somehow but distance and timing made it unlikely – one was in the Arctic Circle, helping keep people sane, the other lived in Hawaii and hadn’t travelled enough to have offered the kind of hands on work necessary to program the software in a new type of fugue generator.

By the end of the first day we were down to only three names. It was almost too good to be true. Almost.

“Two of them recovered in the last six months,” Natalie said. “That puts them well inside the one year timeframe to work on the Backboard project. That just leaves us with one possibility.”

I was paging though the relevant files and handing the relevant pages to Hennesy. “But there’s a catch.”

“Of course there is,” Hennesy muttered. “It’d be too good to be true to just have the right guy drop into our laps, wouldn’t it?”

“None of these three have checked in with their handlers since the most recent two recovered,” I said, ignoring his griping. “Also, they’re all related. A father and his two daughters.”

“That can’t be a coincidence,” Hennesy said.

“We don’t think it is,” I said. “But we – meaning Galaxy in this case – apparently don’t track cases like theirs as a matter of course. I’ve reached out to Mix to see if the Constellations will order a check-in, but I don’t know how long that will take or even if they will agree to do it.”

“Why wouldn’t they?” Hennesy asked. “I thought Galaxy was offering us full cooperation in this case.”

“We’re offering all the investigative power we can muster,” I said. “But we’re still psychometrics. We value our privacy. I’d be hesitant to even ask for a check in if it wasn’t for how important this situation is.”

“Let’s hope your Constellations agree with you,” Hennesy grumbled. “I don’t want it to turn out I spent days chasing nothing.”

“Well, that’s one thing we can reassure you on,” I said. “I forgot to mention that all three of our missing psychometrics live in Arizona. The same state A.J. Jackson is from, and the same place where public filings show Project Backboard’s offices are.”

Hennesy eyed me for a moment then did a little psychometry of his own. “Let me guess. The Gifted who recovered first was the father, and you think he worked with Jackson to help his kids do the same.”

“It’s simple, straightforward and fits the facts,” I said.

“Nothing’s every that straightforward,” Hennesy said. “Let us put some feelers out on these people. We have connections Galaxy probably wouldn’t even think of.”

“You read my mind.”

Hennesy snorted and waved us out of his office.

“So are we waiting for results or does the Federal Government have somewhere else they’d like us to go today?” I asked as Natalie and I headed back towards her cubicle.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Honestly I think anything specific to your skillset got farmed out to others when you didn’t show up on time. So I guess we’re waiting. I don’t know if you need to stay here or not.”

“Mix will call for me here so I might as well stick around.” Honestly I was just as interested in hanging around because Natalie was here and I did kind of enjoy her company. Going back to the hotel meant being alone or possibly with Aurora and after they day before I wasn’t really prepared for either one. “Any idea what kinds of resources the FBI will put into finding Helio and his girls?”

“It’s not the highest priority we have right now,” Natalie replied. “And it’s in another jurisdiction so just how seriously they’ll take the request is anyone’s guess. But I’d say we’ll know by tomorrow, if not sooner. What about Galaxy?”

“Mix told me someone left to check on them pretty much while we were talking. I’m expecting him to call any minute.” I dragged a chair over from an empty cubicle and sat down, putting my feet up on the edge of Natalie’s empty trash can. “It’s kind of amazing to me that someone would agree to help make this kind of mess just to get two people out of a catatonic state.”

Natalie hesitated in the middle of logging into her work station for whatever job she had been about to start on. “Really?”

“Well, I mean, I don’t have kids, but…”

“Neither do I but I do have parents.” Natalie gave me an incredulous look. “Do psychometrics really never visit each other in the hospital?”

I shrugged, suddenly very uncomfortable. “I can’t speak for all of us. My parents weren’t Gifted, so they had no issue with it. I’m sure it varies from family to family.”

“Armor, crazy isn’t catching. It doesn’t work like that.”

Slow breath in, slow breath out. There were parts of my life that I knew didn’t make sense to those without the gift. “Natalie, I know you’re not trying to be deliberately provocative so I’ll give you a pass. But don’t presume to tell me what is and what isn’t the mechanics of our minds. I’m sure you never thought a man could turn catatonic from just touching a body either.”

“Armor, they were family. How could they stay away from each other?”

“It’s not a question of how they were related or how close they are to each other. It’s a question of whether or not there was anything they could do for each other. Staying clear headed when you’re surrounded by madness isn’t simple. That’s probably what drove him to trying a fugue state in the first place.” I shuddered a bit, trying not to let the helplessness of my last trip to fugue land get at me. It may have been meant as a way to treat the ill but the memory of being stuck in my own head with no way out still gave me fits. Maybe that was part of how the treatment was intended to work. “The point is if you’re not a trained psychologist with the Gift – or, apparently, a mad scientist – you can’t visit them safely. And I’m not sure getting around that justifies making war on the entirety of the California coastline. Natalie, twice as many people died in hospitals because of the power failures resulting from this mess as he saved using his miracle technology. Maybe lack of empathy is the chink in my armor but I just can’t make that balance out in my mind.”

Natalie just shook her head and went back to her computer, working at who knows what. Listening to her disapproval rattle around in her subconscious was not the change of pace I had hoped for.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Seventeen

Previous Chapter

“Gone for two and a half days and you think you get to just walk in here and ignore us? This isn’t a charity operation, Armor, it’s a Federal office.” Hennesy, who according to Vinny was my subconscious avatar of high standards and hard work, came charging into the makeshift work area I’d set up at the FBI headquarters looking positively livid. My subconscious sure knew how to pick its avatars. “First your damn Constellations threaten to pull you off the case and keep you out of the office for forty eight hours. Then they say you’ll come back. Then you show up three hours late. What kind of a joke do you think this is?”

“I’m being perfectly serious, although I’ll admit I should have cleared my activities through you this morning,” I said. I hadn’t because I wasn’t sure Mix would agree to pass on the message for me – or let me so far off the reservation. Aurora had been nervous about me looking any further into the fugue trap I’d found on my ‘day off’ and any hint Mix got that I was still pursuing that angle was sure to make its way back to the Constellations. Galaxy’s insistence on working through designated intermediaries had its drawbacks. “I’ve been off the reservation, but for good reason. There’s an angle to this I’ve been following up on my own and at this point I think I need Bureau resources to keep looking into it.”

Hennesy fumed, looking like he needed a couple of days off himself. “This had better be good.”

Persuasion isn’t my forte but I did my best to make what I’d discovered during the dive on the Backboard servers and my subsequent talk with Vinny sound convincing. Unfortunately as I went through the chain of events it started to sound flimsier and flimsier, even to me. There wasn’t anything directly tying A.J. Jackson to the events of the last few days, there wasn’t any reason to think prying into a conspiracy theorist from Arizona would shed light on terrorism in California and there wasn’t any reason I could think of that therapeutic fugue state tech might tie back in to it all. Part of me was beginning to wonder if maybe I should try and get a job crafting theories with Jackson rather than investigating with the FBI.

For better or worse Hennesy didn’t see it that way. He just listened to what I had to say, thought about it, then walked out of the cubicle. Left to conclude I had his blessing for the moment, I went back to poking through various government casefiles and databases in an attempt to locate some of the people whose names Vinny had given me. I was have depressingly good luck.

While Vinny and I have pretty exclusive lines of work it’s still pretty easy for us to lose track of people. Vinny works alone and, as I’ve noted, the Gifted have good reasons to avoid each other most of the time. The  Venn diagram of people we’d lost track of and people who had dropped off the grid was nonexistent and none of the people I could find looked like they were in any way associated with Jackson’s media or infotech work. I had a lot of names to check on but I was more than halfway done when Hennesy returned with Eugene in tow. “Okay, Armor,” he said. “Run all that by Fitzgerald for me.”

He’d found an expert. How nice. I did as the man wanted.

Once he’d heard it all Eugene paused for a few minutes, working through the implications, then he said, “Follow a strange line of questioning for me. How many psychometrics are there in the US?”

“Maybe four thousand,” I replied immediately. “It’s hard to tell.”

“How hard?” Hennesy asked. “I thought there were only two groups of you.”

“Yes, but we don’t have a radar or genetic test we can do to locate each other. You can recognize certain mental habits that sane adults with the Gift have to develop to stay alive and sane but normal people develop them sometimes, too.” I pointed at Eugene. “It’s like seeing a redhead. I can assume there’s a good chance Eugene’s of Irish descent but until I do some research it’s not a guarantee.”

“True enough,” Hennesy mused, eyeing Eugene’s hair. “So you assume some percentage of the psychometric population is outside of Galaxy or the Masks. Do you know how much?”

“We know about ten percent of them choose not to join either organization. We presume between twice and three times that number have never heard of us or have and choose to remain independent, but we’ve never heard of them.” I shrugged. “It’s not an exact science, but we assume the breakdown of the sane, adult Gifted to be about forty percent in Galaxy, thirty to forty percent independent, twenty to thirty percent Masks.”

Eugene leaned forward and asked, “How many insane psychometrics are there?”

I froze for just a moment. Then, “I’m sorry?”

“You’ve qualified all of your numbers as dealing with sane psychometrics, yes?”

“Yes, because our abilities take a toll on our sanity. Not everyone learns to – or wishes to – safeguard against those costs.”

“What percentage of the population is that?” Eugene asked.

I was tempted to ignore the question, it was a very sensitive topic among the Gifted. But I could tell he thought he was on to something very important. “Maybe a third.”

“Do you monitor them?”

A shudder ran up my back. “Monitor how?”

“To see if they recover.”

“We can’t recover from-” And suddenly Eugene’s line of reasoning made sense. “You think the fugue state I found was used to cure a mad psychometric.”

“A therapy trap,” Hennesy muttered.

“I know that it’s axiomatic among the Gifted to say that you can’t recover from insanity,” Fitzgerald said. “But maybe one could. Maybe A.J. Jackson knew a psychometric who went crazy and tried to cure him or her. Maybe that’s why he built this fugue state you describe, rather than just buying a commercial fugue trap off the market. It wouldn’t have done what he wanted.”

That was certainly possible. But, just like Aurora, I dealt primarily with the intersection physical things and the Gift. I didn’t know much about how we dealt with purely mental things. “I don’t know if we track insane psychometrics or not. I’ll need to make some calls. Possible take it all the way to the Constellations.”

“Before we spend too much time on that,” Hennesy said, “I need to know if it’s relevant to this investigation. I’m sure curing mental illness is very important to Galaxy but it’s not going to stop whoever is terrorizing Silicon Valley if there’s no connection between Jackson, his Backboard project and the attacks of the last week. Would curing an insane psychometric help him pull off what’s happened?”

I thought about it for a moment, then shook my head. “No Gifted person I know has ever been insane. I have no way of knowing…”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Sixteen

Previous Chapter

“Therapy?”

“Not all of your Gifted companions think of a fugue state as a trap, Armor,” Vinny said, consulting something in his personal files. “The technology that makes it possible has a lot of other uses. I’ve had several Galaxy-funded and independent psychometric researchers approach me about utilizing fugue state coding and hardware to create one thing or another. The one trying to simulate true telepathy was particularly interesting.”

“Yes, but as a therapy tool?”

Vinny stopped what he was doing long enough to give me a patient look. “You saw representations of your five core personality facets, right? The woman who kept taking charge was your extroversion, the wet blanket was your neuroticism, and so on. Surely you realize there’s a lot of room there for encouraging self-discovery and growth.”

In other words, it was the opposite of being trapped. Of course Vinny would like the idea, it balanced the other use of his technology. I should have seen that coming. “I suppose you could use it that way. I’m not an expert on the psychology part of it but I’ll take your word on its usefulness. Have you actually sold this tech to anyone who was interested in it?”

He was paying more attention to his screen than me and I was deeply tempted to try and brush against his computer and see what he was looking at but I knew better than to do that with anything belonging to the leading designer of antipsychometery tech in Silicon Valley. “If I did I couldn’t tell you about it under the terms of our typical contract,” he muttered, still browsing. “What I can tell you is we haven’t built anything that has produced experiences anything like what you described.”

“You’re sure?”

That finally got Vinny to pull his nose away from his monitor and turn his attention to me. He was having a hard time taking me seriously. “Armor. This is my bread and butter. I know where my projects are.”

“Of course you do,” I murmured. “But you think it wasn’t intended as a trap?”

“I have no way of telling, since it wasn’t something I designed.” Vinny steepled his fingers and thought for a moment, the wheels in his mind spinning away. “But if I had to speculate, I don’t think it was built as a trap. It might have been repurposed. After all, a toy car isn’t meant as a trap. You can use it as one. I might be able to speculate more if you told me where you found this fugue trap.”

“I can’t talk about any ongoing investigations, Vinny.”

“No, I suppose not.” He sat back and rested his hands on the arms of his chair. “There’s other places that could be working on this kind of technology, of course. But they’d have to have a pretty close working relationship with a group of psychometrics in order for it to make sense. You’re the only ones who can test fugue state software and the only ones who could make use of it. And based on the experiments we’ve run it’s not the kind of thing you can build without a test subject on hand to give constant feedback.”

“Assuming you could get the basics of the technology from someone, be it you or someone else, how much expertise would it take to adapt it to a therapeutic fugue state?”

Vinny was lapsing deeper and deeper into his regimented, balanced, cause and effect headspace. Or, more accurately, he was letting the mask of normal human behavior he wore over his deeper, more mechanical thought process lapse. He was now almost motionless in his chair, looking straight forward, his mind whirring and expressive but his mannerisms bordering on a trance of his own. “The hardware is simple, assuming you don’t want to miniaturize it. A server farm or some networked GPUs is all it would take. The software is more challenging but really it doesn’t take formal training, just lots of experimentation. It’s hardly an exact science. With enough time, any computer science grad could probably learn to do the necessary work.”

That answer didn’t offer a lot of possible angles of attack. In fact, there was basically just one. “How much time?”

“It took me eighteen months to bring up my last raw initiate to the level of independent coding,” Vinny said without hesitation. “A really brilliant mind could do it in ten.”

Which led nicely into the next obvious question. “How long did it take you?”

“Eight months.”

“That long?” I shook my head sadly. “Vinny, I had such high hopes for you.”

“You need a Gifted individual to work opposite you as you learn, and generally working with the same one works best. Not everyone can keep up with my work routine.”

From anyone else it would sound like throwing shade. From Vinny it was a simple statement of fact. “How long has therapeutic fugue states been around?”

“To the best of my knowledge they don’t exist yet.”

And from someone that dense it really wasn’t that annoying. “How long have people been trying to make them?”

“At least five years. That’s when I was first approached about adapting fugue traps, although I declined that offer and most like it that have been offered to me.” Vinny was beginning to come back to his normal disposition, where he looked and spoke more like a normal human and less like a computer terminal. I can tell most people find this extremely focused state of his disturbing as it hides all of his social cues but personally I’ve always found it oddly disarming. He’s a Gap, and that means some part of his mind will always be alien to me. At the same time, social ineptitude is something I see on a daily basis and no matter how severe it may be, that kind of weakness just humanizes him to me.

“Why did you never take any of those offers? It seems like something you’d like.”

He was amused, both that I’d caught on to the fact that he did like them, and that I hadn’t figured out why he wasn’t invested in the field. “My calling is maintaining people’s secrets, Armor. Secrets exist for good reason and we can easily harm ourselves in revealing them, even to ourselves.”

Large scale balance outweighing small scale. As always, a clear principle but one I hadn’t figured out how he applied. “Let’s set aside a new person working on this therapy fugue for a moment. You and I work in small communities, Vinny. Let’s see if we can figure out known experts that dropped off the grid five years ago and work from there…”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Fifteen

Previous Chapter

“Each person is a mask over a single soul that unites us.” I strolled along, watching as people passed one another on the street and admiring the breeze off of the bay to the east. “I always thought it sounded like a noble, zen philosophy until I actually met a Mask.”

Aurora had her attention split between me and the people we were passing as we walked. The hotel wasn’t in one of the major homeless parts of the city but there were still a lot of stressed, obsessed and generally distressed people passing us and it was a hard distraction to ignore. “I wouldn’t have called you someone interested in the Masks when we graduated, Trevor.”

“I wasn’t. I met my first Mask when I was sixteen. During that trip to St. Petersburg for the lower tiered people, remember? You complained for weeks after I got back.” I carefully ran a gloved hand along the railing that ran along the sidewalk, over the sloping rocks that led down to the Pacific Ocean. Whispers of a dozen thoughts tugged at the edge of my mind, leaking through the flimsy barrier between my hand and the railing. Most were a variation on admiration for nature, which made it easy enough to tune them out.

Aurora’s embarrassment was much clearer and more amusing. “It wasn’t fun to be left behind with all the other super Gifted kids. We had to work so hard to ignore each other.”

That was a drawback of teaching the Gifted in groups of their peers – we’re at our most comfortable among those more or less sensitive than ourselves, since it’s harder to guess how much of our thoughts they know, and easier to maintain the illusion of privacy. I’d always wondered if the struggles of being surrounded by tier five psychometrics was one of the reasons it took so long for Aurora’s normal mental state to coalesce. “It was an important skill to work on, and you know it.”

“I was just a late bloomer, and you know it,” Aurora replied, showing she was monitoring my thoughts better than I’d thought. “How did I never realize you’d met a Mask when you were sixteen? And what was one doing in St. Petersburg?”

“The ‘we are one’ idea has adherents worldwide, and unsurprisingly they try and link up with one another constantly.” I paused and looked out over the ocean, one of the few things in the world that carried no psychometric signatures at all, and wondered what things were like in Russia now. “Communism created a lot of true believers of the Masks variety and I think they were trying to escape Yeltsin-era Russia for greener pastures. I never did find out what happened to him after. Hopefully he never found the russkies he was looking for.”

“How come you never told me about this?”

“It was a bad time for you, Aurora. And I didn’t know what happened so I didn’t want to worry you. It wasn’t our responsibility anyways, we were still teenagers.” My memory drifted back to that day for the first time in years, inviting Aurora to go along with me. Nevsky Prospekt was a bustling thoroughfare at the time, with the Admiralty building standing at attention on one side and the Leningrad Hero City Memorial anchoring the other. We’d gone there to see the world, of course, but also to face for the first time in our short lives the depth and weight of the violence people inflicted on one another and realize how present it is to this day.

For nine hundred days the city was besieged, and walking the Prospekt one could still feel the famine, terror and cold of its darkest days more than sixty years after the armies were gone. That was the day my interest in psychometric forensics began to form. It was also the day I met the Mask.

The villains of the Soviet era were larger than life, easily caricatured figures that are hard to forget. The great villain of the Gifted proved very different, a small, almost forgettable man who slouched past on the street, a neurotic ball of anxiety and hostility focused outward with almost no sense of self. The Masks believe that by yielding themselves back from the void from whence all things came they can mend all fractured relationships and bring all humanity together in one community again, a belief shared by many philosophers and even some religions the world over. But in that moment, in a chance meeting on the Prospekt half a world away, I saw something very much the opposite. A deranged and ultimately alone man struggling to create a mask that would unify him with thousands of other, similarly masked people.

Boundaries have always been hard for the Gifted to make and maintain, but that Mask was the cruelest solution to the problem I’ve ever seen.

Back in the present Aurora leaned against the railing with me and sighed. “You can hear stories about what they’re like but I guess it doesn’t make sense until you see it for yourself.”

I gave her a sideways look. “You’ve met a Mask?”

“No. Even with what you tried to show me there, it still doesn’t add up.” She joined me in leaning against the railing. “Is that why you spent a year chasing them with Agent Fitzgerald?”

“No, that was a job. Eugene is the one with a vendetta against them, not me. Personally, I don’t think the Masks will ever pull together enough to pose a threat again. They’re too afraid of each other to be effective against us.” I picked at my teeth and thought about what Natalie had said, how we might need every psychometric we could get in order to crack this terrorism case. “This whole situation has got to be driving them nuts…”

“You can think about how to solve the case when you go back tomorrow,” Aurora said gently. “For now, relax.”

“Relaxing is a weakness of mine,” I admitted. “I know that for a fact since my own subconscious said so earlier.”

“That must have been an interesting experience,” Aurora said, genuine intrigue trickling into her conscious mind in spite of her revulsion at the idea of something like a fugue trap. “Do you think meeting your own personality traits was the intended function of the trap or a side effect?”

“Can’t say without talking to the person who built it,” I said, mulling it over out loud. “It would depend on what you accomplish by such a thing, wouldn’t it? I mean, I don’t think my impromptu counseling session was intended to give me a method to escape, even though it did. The real question is whether doing that, rather than the usual method of showing people something they find really pleasant or at least mildly interesting, helped the trap function in some way.”

“What if it wasn’t a trap?” Aurora asked. “Can you do anything else with a-“

She caught herself and shook her head. “Now look at what you’ve done. You pulled me into helping you spitball the case. Stop that.”

“You came along on that ride all by yourself.” I was teasing her but it felt good knowing I could still drag her along that easily if I had to. We need more space around each other these days, thanks to our Gifts, but I still do enjoy Aurora’s company. It was nice to find a simple moment of camaraderie from time to time.

And she had a different perspective. Life is not as suspicious when you live a life of medicine, your mind goes to different places by default. What if it wasn’t a trap? The question had a lot of merit. I couldn’t answer it, programming is not my forte. But I knew someone who could.

I did what Aurora wanted from me, I took the rest of the day off. In fact, I did one better and didn’t go in to the office the next morning either. Instead I found myself standing in a familiar office, watching an old friend over one shoulder until he found a moment to spare. As he set aside his soldering iron Vinny gave me a skeptical look and said, “I was not expecting you here before an announcement about the excitement of the past few days. What can I do for you today, Armor?”