Pay the Piper – Chapter Two

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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.

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