Pay the Piper – Chapter Three

Previous Chapter

As fate and the courts would have it, we wound up going to see TsunLao before visiting the drone manufacturer. Almost as soon as I was back at the hotel, Mixer got in touch with me and confirmed that yes, the FBI had asked to put me on retainer and other than the court date I had coming up my schedule was clear so he’d agreed provisionally. I went ahead and told him to finalize the retainer then start looking in to moving that court date as well; given the scope of what we were dealing with I really didn’t want to wander away from things for three days if I didn’t have to.

The next morning I woke up to knock at the door – the Gifted don’t like using phones if we can help it, they create all kinds of interference – which proved to be someone from the front desk telling me Natalie would be coming to pick me up in half an hour. Since a warrant for a psychometric interrogation takes much less time to file for, and receive, than a raid on a small industrial facility we’d gotten the okay on visiting TsunLao and were still waiting to find out if they’d okay the manufacturer raid.

I got downstairs late, still in the process of dragging on my jacket and gloves, to find Natalie standing impatiently near the entrance to the lobby. Most of the people coming in or going out were giving her a discreet but clear bubble of space, confirming my impression that she broadcast quite loudly. It’s not that the Gifted find that unpleasant but we also don’t want to be rude and eavesdrop. She gave me a once over as I presented myself, looking a bit less bright and chipper this morning. I wondered if she hadn’t gotten all the coffee she’d hoped for.

“Didn’t you wear that yesterday?” She asked.

“That was the Navy blue suit. This is the Royal blue.” I tugged my jacket absently. To tell the truth, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference using just my eyes either. “Same manufacturer, though. You can’t get good quality linen clothes from very many places these days.”

She studied my clothes skeptically for a minute. “If you say so. Does it really have to be linen?”

“It’s the only fabric that can completely shed the impressions left by machine assembly, so if I don’t want to hear industrial sewing machines all the time, yes. I make good money but I can’t have my entire wardrobe hand sewn.”

There’s a lot of little things to get used to, dealing with psychometrics. The lower functioning ones are mistaken for mentally ill or damaged people, hearing voices that haven’t spoken in years or centuries, and even those of us who can make it day to day are usually more than a bit out of sorts. But, aside from a reasonable dose of curiosity, Natalie seemed to be taking to things pretty well. She hadn’t forgotten to open any doors – wasn’t that a bit of a role reversal – and the faint smell of ozone as she opened the car door testified to the fact that she’d remembered to decontaminate the passenger cabin that morning. I’d known her less than twenty four hours and, if not for the really strong mental projection she gave off, I was tempted to give her perfect marks as a handler already.

However, there was still one major aspect of the job that I needed to go over with her and that was an actual interview.

You see, there’s a lot of techniques to a good interview and many of them rely on two people working in tandem to pull off. Trained officers and agents spend a lot of time working out their strategies before they go into an interview or interrogation. The problem is, the whole point of my joining an interview is to pull on whatever threads a line of questioning turns up. My job is reactive, an interrogation is proactive. To help meld those two together, there’s a whole laundry list of hand signals, verbal cues and even props like my gloves that I can use to prompt my handler as to changes we need to make in strategy. It’s as much art as science and learning the flow of it is not something you can do just by memorizing the Psychometric Procedures manual.

But knowing the procedures does help, so I spent most of the trip over there quizzing Natalie on various signals and what they meant. She did pretty well for someone who’d never used them in a practical situation but I still walked up the steps to Lao’s home studio with a sense of trepidation. Not because of anything she’d done, but because I hate doing interviews.

Hackers believe information should be free. Anarchists believe that borders and nations are immoral. The first time you have to try and break into the mind of a total stranger you’ll immediately realize that secrets and walls are a vitally important part of what makes it possible for two humans – any two – to live on the same planet without killing each other. You don’t want to understand or empathize with the person next to you right now. Really, you don’t. You can do it if you build up a strong relationship with them, if you value them beyond the abstract idea of humanity as a valuable thing. But try it with a total stranger and you will fail.

I’ve always liked TsunLao, valued his ideas about culture and government as well thought out positions, argued with conviction, even if they were occasionally utterly worthless. That was about to end because I was about to get a look at what he was like beneath all that.

By the time he answered the door I was already deep into interrogation mode, as it was important to establish a baseline as quickly as possible so I could more easily spot deviations from it. Most of Natalie’s charming her way into the house went right past me – I could tell it was happening but really didn’t catch any of the words. I was more interested in the patterns.

With her overactive emotional projections, Natalie painted a very clear picture of someone trying to do her job professionally and fairly. It took a little work but I managed to tune that out and catch the less distinct but equally clear sense of curiosity and amusement coming from Lao. That was the general attitude he gave off over the screen and it was nice to see it was genuine, but that wasn’t where I was going to stop today. Forensic mode was a measure of intent in the past, interrogation mode was a measure of intent and attitude in the present. Like most people, Lao started off in a fairly scattered state, his conscious and subconscious mind chewing on a lot of different things at once. It’s hard to tell what all the different threads going through a person’s mind are since, like actual threads, they’re quite tangled. But the nice thing about the letters FBI are how wonderfully they clear away distractions.

Like most people would, as soon as he saw Natalie’s ID, Lao became very focused and very suspicious. The tinge of curiosity remained, but for the most part he settled into a healthy skepticism of us. However, unlike with many people, there was no surprise.

Generally that’s suspicious but there are times when it’s totally normal. Like when someone you owe a lot of money dies suspiciously. Or when a company you’ve publicly feuded with suddenly gets attacked. It made judging Lao’s reaction more difficult.

Natalie had gained access to Lao’s home by the time I had finished my preliminary assessment and we were walking down a hallway into what I recognized as his primary recording studio when I came back up enough to follow the conversation. By which point Lao had wisely stopped talking so I got to take a look around the studio without having to split my concentration. It looked pretty much like what you saw on camera, a simple but comfortable chair next to a small end table with a tablet on it, a sofa at a 90 degree angle to the chair, the seating arranged around a coffee table, a shelf of small artifacts and art pieces with a Chinese theme to them along the wall behind. Outside the part of the room the camera would normally see things were much the same. Comfortable carpet, a few more display pieces, including a large plate with bamboo painted on it, and a messy but contained pile of camera, mics, wire and sundry electronics that doubtlessly all tied into the tablet for recording.

As Lao looked around the room I caught his attention resting on his collection of art and antiques. He was proud of them and… there was a pattern. I narrowed my eyes, assessing the stuff and trying to determine what tied it together. But I’m not as knowledgeable of Chinese history as my grandfather might have liked, so I couldn’t parse it.

Then Lao was settling into his chair and his attitude shifted, becoming more confident and assured. This was where he did business, he was confident and in control. Or so he thought.

It was a good impression to cultivate for this kind of interview, it made him more likely to be careless. Lao motioned us to the sofa and we seated ourselves, Natalie putting her phone on the coffee table as she did so. “We’ll be recording this conversation for our records.”

“Of course,” Lao said, then waved a hand towards his own equipment. “Would you like me to do it? You’d get better sound quality, though I don’t know as that matters to you.”

Cheeky.

“It doesn’t,” Natalie said. “Would you mind stating your full name, for the record?”

“Charles Henry Wu.”

“Your profession, Mr. Wu?”

“People pay me money to make a spectacle of myself, arguing politics. So a journalist, I suppose.”

Natalie switched her tactics, trying to establish a more casual relationship with Lao. “You go by the handle TsunLao in your professional circles?”

He actually laughed at that. “If you want to call them that.”

Matching his amusement, Natalie leaned forward a bit and dropped the professional tone she’d been using in favor of something more warm and inviting. “You must place high value on your Chinese roots.”

“I’m ethnically Kekistani.”

You just can’t go anywhere with a shitposter who gets into his rhythm and Natalie clearly had no idea what he was talking about so it was time for me to try and redirect the conversation. And we needed to do something, anything, to put Lao on the back foot. We wanted him to talk about the things he’d rather not and that meant keeping him slightly uncomfortable. Fortunately, there’s a very simple way for me to do that.

“Mr. Wu – do you go by Mr. Wu or Lao?”

“Whichever you prefer,” Lao replied, settling a bit and wondering where I was headed.

“Lao, before we go any further I’m required by law to inform you that I’m a psychometer of the third rank, working with the FBI as a consultant, with the ability to read a great deal about a person’s mental state just by being in the room with them.” Lao had started off amused at my declaration but was sliding quickly towards horrified disbelief. Probably thought a complete nutjob had somehow tagged along with the FBI this morning. “For example, I will know if you’re lying to us.”

He blinked and suddenly his amused watchfulness was back. “Bullshit. Is this some kind of new interrogation technique? Lie transparently and see how someone reacts?”

That was a typical response, and also a genuine one. Lao hadn’t met a psychometer before and he didn’t think he’d met one now. There was an easy way around that. “I can actually glean a greater deal of information by touch. Perhaps you’d like a demonstration?”

“What? Are you going to take my hand and tell me about my mood?” Lao shook his head. “Palm reading is a mix of mind games and pulse reading. You really expect it to work in the age of the Internet? Anyone can watch a how to video and be an expert on it in a few hours.”

I just got up from the couch and walked over to his recording equipment. “Nice set up here. You store your files in this rig or offsite?”

“I keep them there, and back up offsite once a month…”

That was actually a pretty strong data storage program for someone in his line of work. Most of them counted on the cloud to keep their files safe. I looked through the gear for a minute until I found the main tower and then touched it. “Hm. Two terabyte solid state drive. Decent amount of storage there, probably cost you a fortune. Less than a hundred gigabytes of free space remaining. Must be close to time for a backup.”

Lao had gone quiet and the amusement was gone, replaced with a surface watchfulness under girded with a frantic grinding of gears. The wheels were turning indeed. He reached out and picked up his tablet, working the touchscreen for a moment or two. “That’s very interesting. Did you guess based on industry standards and a general knowledge of my publishing schedule?”

“No, although I’ve wondered why your videos on the second Tuesday of every month went up an hour later than the rest.” I pushed a little deeper into the drive. “Search for files created on the twenty eighth of last month, then sort by file size. The first file in the list will be, “A Live Stream with RickySez (RAW)”. You’ve been slumming, Lao.”

He looked at the tablet a moment longer before setting it aside. “Yes, that’s why I ultimately didn’t do anything with the footage. Why are you telling me this? Aren’t people with paranormal abilities supposed to try and keep them secret from the government or something?”

“That would be tricky, considering that two FBI directors, a head of the CIA and President Grover Cleveland were all psychometrics of varying degrees.” I walked back over to the couch and sat down. “And I know you’re too savvy to ever mention it in public. You’d be relegated to conspiracy theorist and paranormal nutjob in a heartbeat. A.J. Jackson does good work from that corner of the Internet but he’s also got a pretty effective monopoly on it.”

“True enough.” Lao leaned back in his chair, the gears still spinning. “Well, you have my attention. What’s brought a third rank psychometric all the way out here to interview me.”

That was my cue to punt.

Natalie received and ran it back for the next question, clearing her throat and asking, “Where were you yesterday, between the hours of eight and ten AM?”

Lao snorted once, then looked from Natalie to me and back again. “Well that’s simple. I was here, recording the first half of my next video. You can check the files yourself, if you want. Was that all?”

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Pay the Piper – Chapter Two

Previous Chapter

Having a constant wireless Internet connection with as many Gs as you can find wired directly into your head might seem like a great money saving thing, but the truth is it can be more of a distraction than it’s worth sometimes. When you’re waiting for your handler and her boss to sort out what to do with the lead you turned up is not one of those times. But this particular event bothered me, and not just because I’m more of a ‘Net junkie than the average American. Psychometry is a neurological condition that comes with a lot of perks but also leaves the Gifted with a lot of issues to manage. Ever since the Internet began to work its way into the public consciousness we’ve watched it with a certain degree of trepidation, as it recreates some of those issues in a limited scope.

One of the reasons I, and many of the other psychometrics that work with the general public, spend so much time watching political pundits and trashy TV shows is because we’re watching for the kinds of cultural fragmentation that warns of those issues coming to a head. The last time we saw that among the Gifted was the 1960s, when we were thinking about revealing ourselves to the general public, and after the dust settled from that there were barely enough Gifted left to make coming out of the shadows worthwhile. Needless to say, an event that catastrophic occurring at the national scale isn’t going to be good for anyone.

So while we waited for Eugene and Hennesy to finish observing the last round of questioning with building security I cracked into the building’s WiFi and went back to playing at social media sleuth.

TsunLao is a full time independent pundit and general social media shitposter, the kind of guy who antagonizes white nationalists so he can count them and then explain to anarchists there are only three thousand Neo Nazis in the whole country so they should calm down. He’s also considered one of the lesser lights in the “Bad Apples,” a loosely defined group of twenty to thirty scholars and pundits who’s blunt and antagonistic stance towards cultural gatekeepers have made them perennial thorns in the sides of Silicon Valley. People like the Bad Apples always exist. But they don’t become significant public figures with followings of hundreds of thousands of people unless some kind of major cultural schism is brewing.

Whenever something strange happens in Silicon Valley, Lao and his British equivalent, George Lake, get on the case very quickly and today was no different. The livestream I’d been watching earlier had included both of them, along with a number of more mainstream pundits who still gave them the time of day.

But I wasn’t interested in what Lao and the Bad Apples had to say right now. I wanted to see what they said in the past – someone on the livestream this morning had mentioned bad blood between Lao and the TechVenture set, and I wanted to go back and brush up on those feuds. The most recent was about three months ago and I’d just found the tail end of the controversy – something to do with social media and European censorship laws – when Natalie sat down next to me.

I hate to say it but I tensed up, the hypersensitive girl radar I’d developed in high school and never managed to deactivate pinging like crazy. There’s a simple first rule for guys like me around pretty women: Don’t engage.

“That was impressive work. I was tested on the Protocols, so I know what you can do but… somehow I’d thought it would take longer.”

Second rule, same as the first. If she engages, don’t show fear. “Big part of it was the EMP. It scrubbed so much of the environment there wasn’t much to glean. It does normally take longer, although if no one gets hurt it rarely takes more than half an hour to do the job right.”

She nodded. “That makes sense. I’m surprised they don’t have you in there, assisting with the interrogations.”

“I’d have to be in the room with them, and Hennesy has never liked using PRGs around people who may not be read in on Psychometrics.” I opened my eyes, accepting that I wasn’t going to get enough privacy to dig through Lao’s back catalog just then. “We’d need a warrant anyway.”

“Hennesy got one. Apparently the first thing he did after you agreed to come was apply for one.” Natalie leaned to one side a bit so she could look at me a bit more directly. Her expression was frank and evaluating. “What’s it like, knowing that your just talking to someone is legally the same as demanding phone records?”

Interrogation mode was another one of those little mental disciplines that I can do for law offices that higher me. This was not the time to bring up the fact that using it always left me feeling greasy, because the vast majority of people have a constant stream of scum flowing through some portion of their mind. “The more you dig into people’s subconscious the more you appreciate the value of institutionalized privacy.” It was a practiced line and we both knew it so I needed to deflect, and fast. “How did you get read in on Psychometry, Agent Chase? I didn’t think the Bureau was actively expanding the number of PRG certified agents it had on staff.”

“I worked the Newell High disappearances.”

“Oh.” When six teens disappear over six months from a single high school it makes national headlines and finally not one but three PRGs had been brought in to consult on the case. “Were you on hand when they found the bodies?”

Natalie nodded solemnly.  

Psychometrics get involved with criminal justice at an even lower rate than the general population, and there aren’t that many of us in circulation to begin with so we all talk to each other as a matter of course. Naturally, I’d known the Gifted who worked the case. One of them was with the group that cracked that case and found the bodies. Before they fully understood where they were he’d accidentally brushed against one of the bodies. The doctors are hopeful that he’ll come out of his vegetative state one day.

We know better.

“So you were there when High Top lost it. And that was enough to get you read in on Psychometrics?”

“I just kept wondering what makes someone fall over like a brick in the middle of an investigation, just because he touched a body? I asked enough questions and yeah, it got me read in.” She tilted her head to one side such that, when combined with the way she was sitting, made me want to lean with her just to keep my balance. “So. Let me ask you something.”

“Seems fair.”

“PRI is Psychometric Resource, Independent. PRG is Psychometric Resource, Galactic. What’s the difference?”

I laughed. “Is that all?”

She shifted uncomfortably, turning to sit normally again and looking away. “I mean, it’s weird, right? What are you, some kind of alien?”

“Hardly.” I tucked my hands into my jacket pockets, more at ease now that I was out from under direct scrutiny. “Minds in harmony form patterns, like the constellations in the sky.”

“I’m sorry?”

“It’s the motto of Galaxy. A sort of psychometric support organization, I guess you could say.” I waved my hand at my clothes. “All linen clothing lines, static scrubbed residences and hotels for traveling psychometrics – seriously, if you could read the impressions in the average hotel room you’d never stay in one again – even a few hospitals specially maintained to ensure that we can get medical care without driving one another insane with our overlapping anxiety and pain broadcasts. Scientifically the closest description for psychometry is a really, really overactive case of synesthesia. But practically speaking it’s a massive logistical problem and keeping us from picking up on every stray thought the people around us are broadcasting is a full time job. Galaxy was founded in the late nineteenth century as a sort mutual aid and support organization so some of us – and a number of trusted people without the Gift – could do that work and let the others find ways to contribute to society. One of the things the organization does is serve as intermediaries between contractors like myself and people looking to hire us. The PRG designation just means the FBI contacts me through a handler in the organization, not directly.”

“Oh.” Natalie took a moment to process that. “Why Galaxy?”

“They were very romantic in the 1880s.” I fished out a business card and handed it to her. It had my name and the name and phone number of my Facilitator printed in white on a black background. It also had our logo, a field of stars in two spiral arms that curved to look a lot like a brain. “I’m not saying our taste has improved in the last hundred years.”

With a disbelieving shake of the head she tucked the card away. “I didn’t think galaxy brain was a compliment.”

“I tried telling them…”

“So I know I’m supposed to go through your booking agent-“

“Facilitator.”

“That too, but since you’re here, do you know if you’re booked tomorrow or not?” She pulled off her gloves in order to unlock her phone. “Even as hard as Hennesy has pushed the paperwork on this case I don’t think we can get a warrant for the drone manufacturer until tomorrow, even with your statement.”

Eyes closed again, I opened my own calendar. Internet in the head does come in handy sometimes. “I don’t have to do anything scheduled until next week. Then I’ll be in Seattle for three days, giving my deposition in another case.”

“I’m not sure how much we’ll want you to do there, but at the least we’re going to want you to confirm that the machines there did actually build the drone we recovered.” I actually felt her attention shift from her phone back to me, a new level of uncertainty dimming the glow of her bright golden presence. I’d never met anyone who projected their mood as loudly as she did. It was a bit uncanny, made worse by the usual nerves a pretty woman gives a right thinking man. “Did your Facilitator say anything to you about being put on retainer? I know Hennesy is considering it, just so we can have you on hand for the duration of this case.”

My eyes flew open. That was surprising, my skills don’t come cheaply and even the retainer fee is pretty steep. “Mix didn’t mention it, no. But I’ll tell him to agree to it if the offer ever comes through. And since you’re offering to pay my bills for the next three months, let me offer you something in exchange.”

“What’s that?”

I did my best to say it with confidence. “A potential motive for the guy who did this.”

There was a very noticeable pause. “Armor… you’ve been a PRG contractor for what, five or six years?”

“A decade plus, actually, and I’m well aware that motives are a dime a dozen, especially when dealing with a massive corporate entity and not an individual. But.” I held up a finger and rummaged through the darker recesses of the Internet. “Consider this.”

Her phone buzzed.

She was too polite to check it in the middle of a conversation, a wrinkle I hadn’t anticipated. “Consider what?”

“It’s on your phone. I just sent it to your phone.”

“Ooookay…” She fished it out of her pocket. “That’s really weird, Armor.”

“Weird is part of the package.”

Natalie spent a minute browsing through the article I sent her. “So what exactly is this?”

“A write up of how a loose collection of aggravating personalities got up and left a major Silicon Valley tech firm in favor of a competitor, only to have that competitor’s banking functions cut off at the knees as almost every financial institution in the nation turned their backs on it.”

“Four months later one of those institutions has a major part of its infrastructure crippled in a terrorist attack,” Natalie murmured. “That is quite the thread to pull on, isn’t it? I’ll pass this on, see if we can get agents to interview any of these Bad Apples.”

“There’s actually one living just an hour or so north of here.”

She looked up from her phone. “You want in on the interview?”

“Got it in one.”

“I’ll ask Hennesy to try and swing the paperwork.”

I leaned back, satisfied with that outcome. Troy Hennesy wasn’t one for finesse, but when he wanted something done the bureaucratic machine couldn’t stand in his way. I’d appreciated TsunLao’s efforts to keep people informed and thought his mildly caustic personality was entertaining but I’d never been tempted to go to any of his live events. Again, new people are not my thing. But there was a chance he was connected to all this, and, if so, I wouldn’t let my antisocial nature, or my admiration for his achievements, stop me from finding out how.

Pay the Piper – Chapter One

Previous Chapter

“Of course no one is endorsing the attack, but the shady practices of these companies have been common knowledge for years. They were warned, repeatedly, that they couldn’t take their market influence and wealth and try and wield it against Americans like they were some kind of aristocracy without creating ill will – some of it from me, I will confess. But as bad as their censorship is, I never called for violence, just a change to the unjust policies.”

“Bullshit, Lao. You’ve never liked the treatment you and your friends got-“

“The fact that bad policy affected me doesn’t change the fact that it was bad. The general principles at work-“

The livestream cut out just as things started to get spicy. At first I thought maybe it got taken down by some corporate drone who’d sensed his employers getting badmouthed and had filed some kind of complaint, or perhaps the host’s trust and safety boards had nixed it preemptively as a favor to their fellow Silicon Valley tech venture. But it only took a second or two of trying to load other videos on the topic for me to realize the problem was on my end. I opened my eyes and saw that we’d gone underground. I’d lost my signal.

“You could have said we were here,” I grumbled, straightening up my seat as Eugene pulled us up to one of the local police vans parked along one side of the loading area.

Eugene snorted and put the car in park. “You’re the one who disappears inside your own head instead of paying attention to the world around you. What was it this time? Meme videos? Comedy podcasts?”

“Chasing down the news on the EMP strike. A surprising amount of information has already made it into the wild, considering the attack is less than four hours old,” I said, pulling on my thin cotton gloves before I hit the seatbelt release. “Backtracking it to the first reports might be informative.”

“Yeah, if that was what you were doing,” Eugene said, climbing out of the car, “and not listening to your favorite pundits rip each other apart.”

I paused with my hand on the door latch. “What makes you think I was doing that?”

“You kept smirking. Besides, forensic media analysis is going to be my beat on this case, not yours.”

“Oh?” I climbed out of the car and studied my longtime liaison over the roof. “Sounds like you’re going to be busy on this case.”

“I’m always busy. But I won’t be in charge of handling you this time around. You get to break in a newbie instead.”

I grimaced, not sure how I felt about that. The joy of being an independent contractor is that you get to work with lots of different people in lots of new places. The joy of being me is hating both of those things. Eugene had been my handler for the Southern California FBI offices for the past four years and, while we’re not friends, he’s familiar. I could try and mold a rookie liaison into a person better suited to my own preferences, Eugene had always kept me on a pretty tight leash, but I’m no enough of a people person to trust my relationship shaping skills that way. I may be a mental marvel but my gifts don’t lie in that direction.

Besides, we were dealing with a domestic terrorism incident where a major financial institution had been attacked with the clear intent of crippling it and throwing the economy into chaos. The FBI thought this was important enough to call in a contractor. And not just any contractor, one who specialized in extra sensory perception. I was going to be under a lot of pressure already, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be worrying about a rookie handler exposing me to the public at the same time.

So I reluctantly followed Eugene towards the crime scene and the attendant alphabet soup. In addition to the local cops and the FBI, I saw Homeland Security, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco and the California State Police all in evidence, which meant I was going to hear the phrase “jurisdictional nightmare” a lot regardless of who my handler was. It did make finding my new handler pretty easy, there were only two other people in FBI jackets in the room and one was Special Agent in Charge Troy Hennesy, who was way too senior to talk to contractors. Until I saw him on the spot I would have said he was way too senior to visit crime scenes, too, so it wasn’t impossible that he could be filling the role of handler – but then, Eugene wouldn’t have said I was “breaking him in,” the process was more likely to go the other way.

Guaranteed to go the other way, really.

Regardless, that made the woman standing with him far more likely to be the new agent I was breaking in and, at first glance, things were looking up. She was a case study in why men have eyes.

Blonde? Check.

Medium build with appreciable curves? Check and check.

Tasteful suit and jewelry choices? Double check.

“Fitzgerald!” Hennesy called when he saw us approach. Eugene had already spotted his boss and we were moving that way but, too impatient to wait for us, Hennesy took his companion by the elbow and led her through the crowd towards us, shouldering people out of the way as he went. A man of his size doesn’t have much problem in crowds unless he’s wandered into a moshpit and he made it over to us much faster than Eugene could have pushed us through the other way.

“Glad you’re here,” Hennesy said, letting go of his companion’s arm and herding us a bit away from the site of the investigation using primarily his own bulk and a meaningful tilt of his head. A moment later we were mostly sequestered away from the crowd, surrounded on three sides by an FBI van, probably how Hennesy had gotten here, the back wall of the garage, and Hennesy himself, who was six feet tall and nearly as wide. His bald head emphasized a heavy brow that made him look like he was scowling regardless of his actual mood – although in his case appearance and fact often lined up – and when you added in his bulk and ham hands that could tie the average spine into two half hitches faster than most people tied their shoes it was enough to convince most people to stay at a distance. We were as private as we were going to get in this room.

“It’s a jurisdictional-“

I perked up.

“-trainwreck-“

And slumped in disappointment.

“-out here, the locals want to clear the crime scene and let their CSIs process it, the other agencies don’t understand why we’re dragging our feet and the company is already leaning on us about clearing the dock. Normally I’d take more time to bring you up to speed-” which was never how Hennesy had dealt with Eugene or I before, “-but we need to get our asset cracking before someone somewhere leans on someone else with enough pull to get us kicked out. So. Special Agent Natalie Chase,” the blonde offered a sparkling smile when Hennesy gestured to her, “meet Special Agent Eugene Fitzgerald and PRG weakArmor. Eugene, Armor, this is Natalie.”

She held out a hand to Eugene, who shook it in a fairly perfunctory way, then extended that hand to me. I studied it a moment, confirming she was wearing the prescribed pair of thin linen gloves and noting that her hands had long, thin, elegant fingers, gloves or no, before taking her hand and shaking it.

Even with two layers of clean linen between us I picked up stray facts. She used a cocoa butter based lotion. She put vanilla in her coffee and she’d finished a double espresso twenty minutes ago and was worried her breath might smell. She’d expected me to be shorter. That last one seemed a bit out of left field, which meant it must have really been bothering her right that moment.

“Natalie has been read in on the Psychometrics Protocols,” Hennesy was saying, “and provided with all the necessary equipment including a static neutralizer. Your people,” he gave me a look, “have evaluated her psychological profile and case history and think she’s suitable for a Psychometric Resource Handler and offered you as a test case. I trust you were prepped ahead of time?”

“I wasn’t,” I assured him. “But that’s fairly typical in these cases.”

Natalie raised one eyebrow and asked, “It’s typical for PRGs to get assigned a case with no briefing?”

“No, Armor’s people just tell him to go somewhere and do whatever he’s told to,” Eugene answered. “He’s lazy so if a job sounds hard he sends it back and tells them he doesn’t want to do it.”

“I’m just selective in my work,” I replied, giving him a sideways look. “And I don’t like teaching.”

“Or running. Or climbing stairs. Or cooking. Or kitchens in general-“

“You wanted me to try and get a reading on a fry machine in the greasiest diner in L.A. There was nothing to read that the bacon grease hadn’t already obliterated.”

“They cook using vegetable oil, Armor-“

Hennesy cleared his throat and we stopped. “As I said, Natalie has the Protocols down. We just need you to take her through the paces once and give us some feedback on how she does. We’d like to get her certified to liaison with Psychometric Resources and you were offered as the person to do it. I know you’ve done it before and both the agents who certified with you in the past have gone on to fill that role admirably. So we hope you’ll be willing to do it again.”

I sighed. “Fine. But fair warning to you, Agent Chase, I’ll be submitting a report to my handlers on the other side as well, and how I evaluate you will directly impact how willing we are to assign resources to cases you head up.”

“I’ll do my best to meet your expectations,” she said, her smile not wavering an inch. “Shall we get started?”

I glanced at Hennesy. “Am I cleared on site?”

With a grunt Hennesy handed me a contractor’s badge and waved me towards the scene. Natalie immediately moved in front of me, gently moving people out of the way so I could approach the area under scrutiny without brushing against anyone. As we started moving past bits of metal, glass and plastic noted by numbered markers, waiting for the CSI team to come and carefully process, I could finally get a good look at what we were dealing with.

It was an SUV that had gotten overly friendly with the back of a delivery truck. “Which one delivered the EMP?” I asked. “The box truck?”

“No, the locals confirmed that was a normal delivery truck before we even got here,” Chase said. “We’re pretty sure it was delivered by the SUV. The owner reported it stolen two weeks ago and there’s a large pile of car batteries and wire in the back seat.”

That was interesting. I pulled my gloves off and Natalie matched the action, although she replaced her linens with a pair of latex gloves she got from somewhere. “What happened to the driver? Was he hurt?”

“No driver. No brick on the accelerator, either, we think it was a self-driving car.”

I shot her a look. “Who steals a self-driving car?”

“It wasn’t one when it was stolen.”

And didn’t that raise all sorts of interesting questions. I pushed them aside, the FBI had people to ask those questions on payroll, that wasn’t why Hennesy called me in. He called me in because he was in the middle of a fiasco, and it was big enough he was willing to gamble on a little ESP making his life easier. Your tax dollars at work.

“Open the door, please? I want a look at the inside.”

Natalie raised an eyebrow. “You don’t want to look over the chassis first?”

“An EMP isn’t exactly the same as a static neutralizer but it will still scrub metal of any impressions left on it,” I said. “Plastic, vinyl, leather or wood on the interior is another story. If there’s anything to learn, I’m going to get it from the interior.” With a shrug, Natalie went ahead and opened the SUV’s door. I took a moment to breath and sank into forensics mode.

To most people the world is what they see and hear, touch, taste or smell. They process it through the facts they learn through their senses. To some people the world is what they feel, what frightens them, brings them joy, makes them sad. They experience the world entirely through the promptings of their instincts and subconscious. Unfortunately, most people act as if one of these two – the things we see and the things we feel – must be accepted over the other. Very few ever recognize the truth, that both exist in a constant state of dialog with one another in a fashion that is more spiritual than religion, more causal than science. Perhaps one in one thousand ever gets that far, so I understand that you may not understand what I’m trying to say. It will sound arrogant when I say it, I’m sure, but you have to understand that the Gift shows us things that other people cannot see, and so explaining what we learn from it is almost impossible.

So rather than try, I’m just going to ask you to accept this simple truth. The world in our heads, the world of feelings, thoughts and compulsions, is woven into the world of our senses. A lucky – or unlucky – few go further than just knowing that, we experience it through the full range of our senses, physical and emotional.

Like flipping on one of those UV lights CSIs use, the mental discipline I call forensics mode brought the world of thoughts and feelings into sharper focus with a strong emphasis on intent. I could see Natalie’s subconscious mind running through the process of opening the SUV door, her intentions playing out to the mind’s eye a split second before they took place in the physical sense. Once she was done, a glimmer of the thought remained about the door handle, the only impression there after the EMP scrubbed the rest. She moved out of the way and I carefully crouched down and looked around the vehicle’s interior.

Intent sat layers deep inside the SUV, kids intent on going to swimming classes, parents intent on running kids to school, a woman intent on getting to work on time no matter how late she was. Most of these impressions had a kind of buzz to them, a flavor taken from the people who had left them. Natalie’s touch on the door was bright and golden, like her hair, most of what I found in the car was rich and brown, like chocolate. Probably impressions left by whoever had owned it before it was stolen. But there was a thin thread of minty white running through the front of the car.

“Find something?” Natalie asked.

“Maybe. Probably just traces left by whoever turned this into a self-driving car.” When someone does that kind of intensive, hands on work it usually leaves a pretty big mental afterimage behind. Natalie just opening a door had left behind an impression that would still be noticeable in an hour or so, I’d hoped that the equipment overhaul that involved and recent would have left a much bigger mark. “Whoever did this was working almost entirely with the onboard computer here.” I tapped a part of the car console just under the dashboard. “Lots of electronics work involved. I can get a brief impression of a detail oriented mind, disgruntled from working quickly. But the EMP wiped the rest.”

Natalie made a few notes in a notebook I hadn’t noticed her pulling out, then nodded. “Okay, more than that would have been nice but that’s a start. One more thing to take a look at.”

She closed up the SUV and let me over to a tarp that was spread on the ground. One of those goofy camera drones with four helicopter motors had been smashed up and the pieces were now resting on top of the tarp. It looked like about two thirds of the actual machine was there, including a large chunk of the main body. “They found this when they were doing their first pass. It was under the delivery truck, so we’re operating on the assumption it’s connected to this somehow. What can you tell us about it?”

Back in forensics mode I reached out towards the drone, doing a careful examination of it. “Interesting. Is it okay if I touch it?”

“It hasn’t been processed yet,” Natalie pointed out.

“There’s no conventional trace evidence on it,” I said. “Trust me, I’ve been doing this long enough to know.”

There was a long pause, presumable Natalie was thinking it over and signaling Hennesy for advice. But I could almost certainly guess what the outcome would be. “Okay, go for it.”

I picked up the largest of the drone pieces and carefully turned it over in my hands. I’d hoped it was a custom job, or at least built from a kit. Then whoever put it together would have spent a long time with it, leaving a great deal of psychic impressions on it. No such luck. “It’s manufactured,” I said. “Maybe even 3D printed.”

“Oh?” Natalie looked interested at that. “There can’t be that many places in the nation yet where they mass produce drones.”

“You might be surprised,” I murmured, carefully turning the piece over in my hands. “Still, it’s a place to start.”

I faltered for a moment when I picked up a clear sense of someone filing something down. Someone had held this drone for minutes, maybe even an hour, as they worked to sand off something. A serial number? That would be useful. All of a sudden I smiled. “Well what do you know about that.”

“What?”

I put the drone piece down with satisfaction. “The company that built this put their name on it. Whoever decided to use it in their stunt today filed the name off after they bought it.”

Natalie was smiling as well. “Can you tell what the name was?”

“Of course. Why do you think they pay my fee?”

Pay the Piper – Prologue

(Found this when poking through the back end this week. It was scheduled to go up two weeks ago, on the 15th, but due to incompetence on my part got stuck in limbo instead. So I moved it up to this Friday, originally intended as a blank. Instead enjoy the prologue to Pay the Piper, my next fiction project, and look forward to chapter one next week!

-Nate)

“That is a delivery truck.”

The one snorted at the other’s obvious statement. “I have eyes. So far all you’ve proven is that your satellite uplink can handle livestreaming video.”

The truck was shakey in the frame about thirty to forty feet below the camera. There was a moment as the other fiddled with the camera controls, then the image steadied and zoomed in until it seemed the drone was only a dozen feet up. “That’s better. Noise canceling feature removes the shaking from the frame and keeps it focused on the truck.” The other sounded proud of the tech on display. “Would you like a blow by blow or do you wish to just watch things unfold at their own pace?”

“The truck’s making a left turn,” the one noted. “There’s not much to see. Am I supposed to be impressed that you’ve commandeered a delivery truck?”

“Ah, but that’s just it,” the other replied gleefully. “We haven’t commandeered the truck. It remains in the hands of its rightful owners.”

“Then you’re watching it with a drone.” The tone was dry and rueful. “You’re doing a poor job of convincing me this is the next frontier of warfare. Why should I trust you again?”

“The secret to evolving warfare is to apply the newest tools to the age old problems of attack and defense. This is the age of asymmetric war, when knife and gun are replaced with cunning and preparation.”

“I wish you wouldn’t try to wax poetic,” the one said. “It makes you sound silly. War has always relied on cunning and preparation as much as-”

“Fine,” the other cut in irritably. “We’re more prepared with the new tools at hand. Watch.”

And there was something to watch. The delivery truck came to a stop at a stop light and as it idled there for a moment a second drone dropped into view a few feet behind the truck then, in an impressive display of precision control, slid under the bottom of the vehicle and disappeared.

“Self-guided flight?” The one asked.

“Laser guided by a spotter on the balcony across the street.”

“You won’t be able to keep it there, then. What are you hoping to accomplish?”

“Once it’s under the truck electromagnets secured it to the chassis,” the other said with satisfaction. “It doesn’t require piloting anymore. And no one ever bothers to look under a vehicle at checkpoints. It’s a foot in the door.”

“You’ll need more than that. The payload on that drone is what, five pounds? Ten?”

“All we need, and it was cheap to boot.”

Two blocks later the truck came to a stop just outside the loading dock of its next stop. There was a brief pause as the doors to the building began to open and the other filled the time saying, “Morale has always been a huge part of warfare, and in an asymmetric war in particular how you look to the public is vitally important. Appearances matter so much more than substance, you know. And the brilliance of this plan is that it will allow us to strike without any of the worst kinds of PR. For example.”

The box truck began to pull into the door, only to sputter to a stop halfway into the loading dock.

“What happened?”

“A low strength EMP, taking advantage of the electromagnets already built into the drone. So much of a vehicle is computerized now, all it takes is a little scrambling and they come to a stop. And!” The other smiled an unpleasant smile. “Now we have an even bigger foot in the door. There’s a gap in their defenses just big enough for the killing thrust.”

The truck’s driver and a handful of uniformed building security officers were working to try and push the truck into the loading dock, only to scramble out of the way as a pale blue SUV suddenly revved it’s engine, served hard to the left and slammed into the back of the truck, pushing both vehicles up and out of sight.

“Cutting it a bit closeto keep up your appearances, don’t you think?”

“But no one was hurt.”

The one snorted. “Except your driver.”

“A self-driving car.”

“Oh? Sounds quite traceable.”

“It wasn’t built as one. We stole it and modified it ourselves.” As the other was explaining the video feed from the drone cut out. “And that would be the second EMP. Most of the cabin of that car was stripped out and replaced with capacitors and coils. It’s hard to predict how much damage it did, but if nothing else I expect that block will be without power for most of the day, if not longer. Best case scenario, the world’s largest online payment processor has just lost a quarter of their processing power on this continent.”

“They can share the work out, I’m sure. The losses won’t be as bad as you might think. Hardly an auspicious start to a civil war.”

You would be the expert on that, to be sure. But even if the can adjust their work loads, the appearance of problems will still hurt confidence in their product and slow investor growth. Wars tend to grow out of the problems we think will be simplest to manage, after all.” The other turned away from the blank monitors and headed towards the door. “It’s not a bad opening salvo. And it ensures the key player in stage two will take an interest.

“You’re sure of that?” The one asked, still staring at the blank monitor.

The other paused in the door. “Of course. We used his calling card, after all. A chink in the armor.”

Next Chapter

Postdated Vacation!

Hey guys! Dropping a quick post to let you know I’ll be taking the next couple of weeks off, due to being on vacation – or rather, being back from a vacation. You may have noticed that I’ve been posting the last couple of weeks, but in truth I was actually absent for most of that time! This time around I managed to get a running start and had content to post for the time I would be gone, but now I’ll need to build a buffer back up, so I won’t be posting anything beyond this today or next week. Thanks for tuning in and reading and I’ll see you in April!

Nate

Disgust Kills Creativity

The arts in America are dying. If anyone is to save them, then the first thing they must do is overcome disgust.

Psychology breaks human personality down into five basic aspects: Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Openness to Experience, Extroversion and Neuroticism. What we call art or creativity is rooted in our openness to experiencing new things, which in turn dictates how much material we have to draw on when we endeavor to create something of our own. We can experience in many ways, ranging from reading books and talking with other people, to traveling new places and eating new foods.

The primary obstacle to experiencing new things is neuroticism, the tendency for the mind to focus on negative circumstances or outcomes. Neuroticism dictates how aware we are of fear and disgust, the part of our minds that warns of potential danger to us or those we care about. The stronger our neuroticism, the more things wrong we will see in a new experience, the more bad outcomes will dominate our expectations.

Neither neuroticism nor openness to experience are inherently good or bad. Overindulging in either one can have bad consequences, ignoring either one can have equally bad consequences. But in the arts, a little less neuroticism than normal is undoubtedly a good thing.

In just the last year of creative work, I have been in theater productions that involved incredible amounts of sweating and bad smelling costumes (as one friend of mine memorably put it, “Fame is stinky”), spent days with ink stains on my fingers from failed experiments in illustration and researched dozens of unpleasant subjects ranging from medical realities to nasty tribal rituals for stories I am percolating. Creative endeavors are rarely scary – although some forms of performance art can be – but they are very frequently gross before they are beautiful. The lotus flower flourishes among muck and grime. Famed animator Don Bluth once said you can show children pretty much anything, no matter how scary or gross, and they’ll be fine as long as you give them a happy ending. Unfortunately, we now live in a society that would rather be spared disgust than struggle through to the beauty at the end.

There’s a new spirit afoot in our culture, a spirit of disgust and revilement. You can see it at work every time we cower before media like Goblin Slayer or Shield Hero that shows us the unpleasant aspects of the human experience, every time artists like Kevin Hart have old statements now outside the orthodoxy used to run them out of jobs or off platforms, every time performers like Chris Pratt are taken to task for their social circles or personal beliefs. Overcome with disgust, our culture shuns these stories, these people, and either runs from them or attacks them. What they won’t do is engage with them, try to learn from their stories or performances, good or bad.

As a result our culture is suffering.

There’s a lot of disgusting things in the great works of literature. 1984 and Brave New World were rife with sexual exploitation, Shakespeare’s works were incredibly crass (for their time, and even now in some respects), Edgar Allen Poe was fascinated with the ways people abuse and torment one another, even Disney films show us a mother murdered before her child’s eyes. And for the love of all that is good, have you seen that pawn shop scene from The Brave Little Toaster? But there were hard lessons in those dark warnings about human nature, and the bright points that frequently followed them took us to heights far above the depths. Art gains its power from truth, and the truth is disgusting and frightful as often as it is glorious and joyful.

There are just not as many powerful but messy stories coming out these days. A film like Casablanca that portrayed the contradictory, often messy characters who couldn’t bring themselves to fight Nazis until after the climax of the movie, who in some cases were willing to give up the fight just to get a little personal satisfaction, would not find much approval today. Now, Nazis are gross and everyone knows better. It’s easy to forget how complicated and messy things were in the late 1930s, and how unclear the evil to come was. 

Neither could a film like Blazing Saddles be made. There was a movie grossly insensitive to the stereotypes and prejudices of its day. By acting so callously, that movie managed to turn demeaning caricatures into a joke, fighting to rob them of power and put them in perspective, suggesting things will work out better if we just stop taking ourselves so seriously. Good humor is a weakness now, blinding us to the fact that we’re being made impure. Then it was a weapon in the face of absurd notions others held, and we can’t bear to think of the days we engaged with those notions at all.

We’re starving our culture, thinking we’re keeping it pure. In the end, we’re just whittling it down. While I love some of the Marvel movies, they’re practically the only movies of note being made today. And they’re by and large bright, shiny, optimistic movies, less concerned with the frailties of the human condition than with its zenith. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a diet of only bread leaves you with scurvy. Our arts have been purified. There’s nothing disgusting in them anymore. And it’s left our creativity horribly stunted.

 

Desty Nova: A Villain Destroyed

Alita: Battle Angel is a movie about cyborgs punching stuff and the nature of the human experience. The story is theoretically a direct, big screen adaptation of one of my top ten favorite manga of all time, Battle Angel Alita. It’s also a very mixed bag.

This is not a complete breakdown of the adaptation, what I thought was good and what I thought was bad, as that would be an undertaking and I’m not sure I’m ready for it. Visually the movie is pitch perfect, but storywise it runs into some deep, deep flaws, tossing aside many of the themes of the source material in order to produce a trite, overused, downtrodden vs oppressors narrative. Nowhere does that failure come through more clearly than in the character of Desty Nova (just Nova in the film). As Alita’s greatest antagonist, Nova was a cruel and capricious character in the manga, and to an extent the film presents him as such as well. But in his adaptation of the manga, James Cameron throws away the questions Nova was trying to tackle and reduces him to a cardboard cutout of a cartoon tyrant rather than presenting him as the dangerous philosophical and moral threat that he should have been.

You see Desty Nova, the manga character, was trying to develop a scientific theory of free will and destiny. To do this, he would find people and offer to help them do anything they desired – unfettered free will – and then observe what happened to them, and whether they could overcome their circumstances – their destiny. In this process Nova was entirely amoral – he was as likely to assist a vicious serial killer like Makaku as a caring brother and conscientious sportsman like Jashugan, and he didn’t really care if he had to do things others might consider amoral to forward his goals. Eventually Nova would become more sadistic and arbitrary in his actions – Makaku and Jashugan seem to have been early and comparatively benign experiments – and he never hesitated to leverage his technical expertise to smooth his way and help himself survive the ever growing horde of people who wanted him dead.

Through Nova’s experiments we get a glimpse at the idea that our own desires can destroy us. He never gives his subjects anything other than what they want, to the extent of his considerable ability. But they invariably wind up self destructing. Makaku gains a robust cyberbody that can survive almost any situation but, with his limited sense of self, he can only understand pain and suffering and only communicates with others through them. He raises trouble until Alita finally destroys him in a tragic act that he perceives as love – affection from the only person who has ever cared about him in any way. Jashugan loves his sister and his sport, but he devotes himself to mastering that sport so fully that he gets his brain remodeled to make him a better player, ultimately leading to his brain shutting down a few years later depriving Motorball of its greatest player and Shimura of her only family. Nova did things for both these men that made their burnouts bigger and more spectacular – but there’s no doubt that they would have wound up in the same place regardless.

But the important thing about Nova is that he was fascinated with free will. He helped his subjects do whatever they wanted, and in turn he did whatever he wanted to get them there. Controlling people was never a part of his character. And Nova was a genuinely curious scientist. He wanted to understand things and answer questions, he didn’t really care about his own status so long as he could satisfy his curiosity. And he loved flan.

The adaptation of his character is practically the exact opposite.

In Alita: Battle Angel Nova is a tyrant. He rules the city of Zalem and oversees a network of servants on the surface to ensure no one there challenges his position. He is capable of controlling the bodies of those servants, completely overriding their free will. And when confronted with Alita herself, the most fascinating experimental subject for Nova of the manga, the foundation of a dozen experiments into free will over the course of decades, movie Nova orders her execution without expressing the slightest shred of interest. Alita is not a way to try and satisfy his curiosity, Nova just wants the power source in her cyborg body so he can make his own position in Zalem secure.

Makaku (or a very similar character with an unpronounceable name in the film) is just a pawn that does Nova’s bidding, we don’t even know why he took up working with Nova in the first place. Jashugan’s part in the story hasn’t come in yet but we do see Nova manipulating the Factory master Vector in much the same way. When these character die it’s a nonevent. They had no meaning, nothing to say about themselves or the nature of Nova’s desires and ambitions. They’re just fuel for spectacle, and props that show Nova is Bad. Hollow shells, nothing more.

It’s disappointing to see something you love translated to a new medium badly. It’s worse to see something that was trying to say something profound boiled down to something trite. In the character of Nova, Alita: Battle Angel manages both.