Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirteen

Previous Chapter

“Really, you should have guessed something was off when I understood all that technobabble you threw at me earlier,” Hennesy said, watching as I carefully disassembled the coffee maker. I stopped when I realized the insides were just a meaningless assemblage of plastic and wires, reflecting my ignorance of how the device actually worked.

“I didn’t realize I had such a low impression of SAC Hennesy,” I grumbled, putting the parts aside.

“You just known I’m a busy guy,” he replied. “I don’t have time to figure out what all that stuff is, that’s why I’ve got agents.”

The logic was hard to argue.

“Hey, Armor, look who I found!” Natalie came back into the lounge – or what passed for the lounge in my own piece of subconsciousness. “It’s Lao!”

And so it was, or at least a representation of my thoughts and opinions of the man. Like Eugene, Aurora, Hennesy and, of course, Natalie, he was part of an ever growing host of internal voices my psyche was bringing to bear on the problem of escaping the fugue state I’d been placed in. I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Why are you doing this?”

“I thought he would be useful,” Natalie replied.

“I barely know him,” I said. “We’ve spoken in person for less than an hour. The real Natalie is not this scatterbrained.”

“You don’t know Charles Wu,” Lao replied. “But you know a great deal about TsunLao. You’ve followed his interviews and editorial work for years and I’ve been on you mind for the last few days because you can’t decide if I’m involved in this Silicon Valley tech war that’s brewing. So when you wound up in unexpected trouble the proactive part of your mind came and found me.”

I gave Natalie a skeptical look. “How’d you get to be the proactive part of my mind?”

“I’m probably the part that governs extroversion? Enthusiasm is part of the package.” She shrugged and sat down on the couch with Hennesy and Aurora. Lao grabbed a chair and the tableau was complete, although I had no idea what it meant.

“Point of order,” Eugene said. “I don’t entirely trust Lao and that means you don’t either. Why is he here?”

“Probably because most fugue traps that Galaxy knows about rely on making the victim comfortable and oblivious to his state,” Lao replied. “Adding an element of uncertainty like myself keeps Armor’s mind from lapsing into a null state as the trap is intended to do.”

“Which isn’t to say that this isn’t some kind of new trap that revolves around making sure my mind is too scattered to figure out the best way to react.” I put my feet up on the coffee table and looked around at the five figments my brain had decided to marshal as part of its escape plan. “I need to think of something.”

“We do,” Natalie said, setting down her cup of coffee with an authoritative thump. “Let’s get to work. Who’s going to dig into our brain and tell us what we know about fugue traps?”

I opened my mouth to ask who put Natalie in charge but before I could ask Hennesy answered the actual question. “They’re a pretty standard way to counter psychometrics in the computer age. They run some kind of algorithm that hypnotizes the victim and tries to put them in a soothing trance or a fragmented state of mind that renders them useless as long as they’re in contact with it. Generally you can break them by entering unfamiliar states of mind or by encountering significant outside stimulus. They’re not fatal but they are almost impossible to work around. You can get out of them, but not past them, unless you know how they’re designed.

“Well it’s pretty obvious which one we’re in,” Eugene muttered. “The question is, does the fact that it’s on Backboard signify anything?”

“There aren’t any major tech firms that I can think of that don’t have some kind of psychometric defense,” Hennesy said. “I know for a fact that Vinny recommends programming fugue traps over most every major layer of digital security he installs.”

“It wouldn’t be right to ask him how many take him up on it,” Aurora pointed out. “But Archon is the industry leader for a reason and I know I would take their advice. I’d guess it’s pretty standard in the big companies?”

“But Backboard is a no name start up by someone the tech industry really doesn’t like. Do they know about firms like Archon?” Eugene asked.

Backboard is new,” Lao said. “Jackson is not. Remember, he runs a digital news program and has for years. In fact, I think Archon did his security set up back when they were both much smaller organizations.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, doing my best to wedge in between my own rushing thoughts. “Is this helping us with our current problem any?”

“No.” Natalie rubbed her hands briskly. “We did work for Archon in the past, testing the integrity of their fugue traps and the like, right? Did we ever get out of them?”

“Yes,” Hennesy said. “Although we never tested a final build and we haven’t done that in the last twelve months. Assuming this is even an Archon issue trap it’s not going to be one we’re familiar with.”

“But we used standard methods?” Lao asked.

“We did,” Hennesy confirmed.

It was interesting watching my own thoughts work themselves out. A Gifted psychologist might have been able to parse what was happening better but as it was I found the chatter kind of wearying. I prefer it when my ideas don’t talk my ear off before I think of them and, for a normally asocial person like me, the chatter was tiring. I got up and wandered out of the room until I found myself back at the computer I’d started at, staring at the Backboard source code.

“This is where you’re most comfortable.” I jumped and turned to see Eugene staring at me disconcertingly.

“In front of a computer?” I asked, covering my surprise.

“Solving a problem,” Eugene answered. “You – we – prefer it to people. You keep coming back here, you’re never getting out of this on your own.”

“Do I need to?” I asked. “I’m in the hotel. Sooner or later someone will come and check on me.”

“Maybe.” Eugene shrugged. “People are unreliable, though. That’s an opinion you and Eugene have in common, which is probably why you’re seeing part of your mind as him right now.”

“He’s a much more extreme misanthrope than I am,” I mused, pushing away from the computer and staring off into space beyond it. “Part of it probably comes with the job.”

“Of course it does. But it runs deeper in him and you know it. You’ve seen it for years. You just never bothered to think about it.”

“He deserves his privacy.” But not-Eugene was right. I had realized that something about Eugene had soured on humanity. He didn’t like them – didn’t like me – for reasons I’d never cared to find out. He was just part of the job. Maybe I should dig into that, once I was out.

“Maybe you should.” Natalie’s voice this time, little miss looking forward. No actual face this time, just a voice talking to me. The world was becoming more and more dreamlike, I couldn’t actually read anything written on the screen and the walls of the cubicle were fuzzy around me – a good thing, Hennesy pointed out, the trap was losing some of its hold. But I wasn’t out yet.

Fugue traps want you comfortable. There’s nothing more uncomfortable for me, or most of the Gifted, than prying into someone’s mind. I closed my eyes and did my best to reach out and read the people around me. To get out of my own head, as it were. At first there was nothing, just the fuzzy echoes of the problems of the day. Then I picked up a streak of passing interest, a housekeeper on their way to some chore or another. Then a flicker of annoyance from a driver passing in the street. Finally, coming closer minute by minute, a tide of worry exponentially stronger than anything I’d picked up so far. I grabbed hold of that sensation and pulled.

A moment later I was sitting upright on my bed in the hotel, feeling a little feverish and very grubby. My face had a day or so worth of stubble on it and my clothes were pretty rumpled. As I stood up my stomach growled angrily. There was a knock at the door but I knew who was there without asking so I just got up and let Aurora in. As soon as she saw me her sense of worry faded, replaced with her normal pool of deep, assuring calm. That was when I knew I was back.

“You missed Mix’s calls this morning,” she said. “Is everything all right?”

“Not exactly. I followed up a lead on the case and got more than I bargained for.” I ran my fingers through my hair and stumbled over to the closet for a fresh shirt. “What was Mix calling for?”

“The FBI found something they wanted processed. But when you wouldn’t answer Mix sent Indiana instead.” She carefully took a seat in one of the room’s chairs and watched me, probably wondering if I was going to snap and jump out the window if left alone. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“No. That doesn’t mean I can just not do the job, does it?” Indy was a good forensics man. If there was anything to find where they sent him, he’d find it. “I need to get to the office, talk to Hennesy.”

“Not today,” Aurora said. “You were supposed to take the day off yesterday. Clearly you didn’t. I’ll talk to Mix and we’ll adjust your schedule accordingly.”

“Aurora, this is-“

“Not that important.” She was giving me a Look, one of those disapproving stares women think will shame men into doing what they want. They work only when getting our way is less important that their opinion of us.

It was still a struggle to decide whether to cave or not. “Hennesy needs to put some of his people on following this up, the sooner the better.”

She took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then let it out. “Alright. Call him, tell him what he needs to know. Then you’re taking the rest of the day off.”

“And I suppose you’re just going to stay here and watch me to make sure I do?”

Aurora smiled slightly. “Yes.”

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Pay the Piper – Chapter Twelve

Previous Chapter

I didn’t sleep well that night. That’s not terribly unusual for a psychometric in a big city, there’s enough ambient anxiety in your typical urban zone to make sleeping soundly hard for one of the Gifted. But I clearly wasn’t picking up on anyone else’s worries, my dreams were plagued by the faces of people I knew – knew well and knew only in passing – from now and in the past. Natalie and Eugene were there in most of them, as were Mixer and Aurora. Hennesy made an appearance once or twice, so did Gavin Newnan, the Arizona State Police Captain who’d given me my first case. There were criminals in there, too, like the fraudster who’d sold the wife of Oregon’s Lieutenant Governor a fake Monet water lily and the head of a human trafficking ring I’d found almost by accident while working a missing person’s case in Seattle.

No matter who showed up or how we’d met the dream pretty much always went the same way. I was walking down the stairs to the hotel lobby and emerged to find one of them waiting for me. There was something I had to tell them but before I could start someone I trusted – usually Eugene or Aurora – would grab me by the elbow and try and pull me away. When I tried to tell them I needed to stay I’d look back at the first person and discover they’d removed their face, which now looked like it had been painted across a delicate porcelain mask, and held it out to me. Then the person at my elbow would drag me off down a corridor of faceless people, all holding their painted faces out to me, as if my taking one would be the most natural thing in the world.

Then I’d wake up, turn over in bed, doze off and start the whole cycle over again.

The source of the imagery wasn’t a real mystery and I chalked the whole thing up to Eugene’s usual pessimism. My subconscious is not my best mystery solving tool, after all, and you can’t use the Gift to influence others, psychometry is strictly read only so it didn’t come from an outside source. What I needed to was to stop stewing on paranoia – mine or Eugene’s didn’t matter – and get back to something productive.

Naturally, in the morning I found Mix had left me a message saying the FBI wanted me to take the day off per OSHA rules and come back in the next day.

It was tempting to sideline everything about the case and go bother Mix at his office or see if Aurora was still in town for the day. Even talking to Alvin about the work he wanted me to do for Archon was a tempting just so I’d have something to keep the mind occupied. But I knew that at the end of the day I’d have done nothing but sit there, not listening to whoever I was with, and thinking about Ford Expeditions and EMPs.

California’s power grid was about 75% recovered and the hotel had the Internet back. So I tapped in and went hunting for Backboard’s website. Inside of twenty minutes I had something.


“Run this by me again,” Hennesy said, looking at the website on his office computer, a deep furrow running down between his eyebrows.

“Backboard is a trojan,” I said, pointing to the code running along the bottom of his screen. “Each time a user ties it back to a social media profile it gets an in to that network’s data. As the program proliferates it creates a larger and larger library of data on what those companies are doing with their user data.”

“So it’s a stalker that stalks stalkers?” Hennesy said, skeptical. “What does that accomplish?”

“I’m not sure.” I was pacing back and forth, rubbing my hands together in anticipation. “But social media has collected huge chunks of data on its users for over a decade. Theories have been floated on what they do with it for years.”

“Conspiracy theories?” Natalie asked, the name A.J. Jackson unsaid but still clearly a part of the question.

“Exactly. This trojan could be anything from a first attempt to answer that question all the way up to an attempt to steal that data for other purposes. Think about it.” I pointed to the newspaper sitting on Hennesy’s desk with headlines about the recent power grid attack. “That kind of stunt takes serious datamining and coordination to pull off. Not just knowing where the power stations are, but shift schedules, maintenance schedules, that kind of thing. Why gather it yourself when people are happy to broadcast it across the Internet for all the world to see?”

“And they used this Backboard social media app to gather it?” Hennesy shook his head. “How did they make sure all the people they needed would use it?”

“They didn’t have to,” Natalie said. “Backboard gave them a back door to all the other major social media networks and it’s almost certain the right people are on at least one of them.”

“Any assurances this trojan can actually do what you’re saying? Or that it has?” Hennesy looked pretty skeptical on that point. “We can’t exactly go in and arrest Jackson on the strength of maybe he could use this code in this way. Lawyers would have him out on the grounds that it could be something entirely innocent before we even got him through the doors of the building.”

“I can’t prove anything yet but I think with the right resources and a little time I can.” I gestured at the code Hennesy was now ignoring on his screen. “The Backboard code has to interface via public social media portals. We can’t get the records of what Backboard has actually done with it without a warrant but we might be able to prove it’s capable of malicious interactions. From then, with the cooperation of social media platforms, we might be able to prove Backboard has been used to somehow breach someone’s data security.”

“And that is enough for a warrant, with the right judge,” Hennesy murmured. “Get on it.”

So we got. There are whole FBI sections devoted to cybercrime and deep data work and in short order I was set up with a cubicle in their closest offices, Natalie checked in on me periodically but mostly I was working on my own. The Backboard code was a strange beast but nothing that felt too far out of the common way. Unfortunately every time I got close to cracking what was going on it felt like a new wrinkle would creep out of somewhere, often from sections of the code I thought I had entirely parsed out already. I had stopped long enough to get my umpteenth cup of coffee for the day when Aurora stopped by to visit.

“I’m not teaching,” I said, fiddling with the coffee maker in an attempt to get it to brew a fresh pot without the leftover thoughts of hundreds of sleepy agents drag me further into dreamland. There are some things even good gloves can’t block out.

“We’re more worried about how well you’re feeling, Armor,” she said. “This case is bigger than anything you’ve dealt with before. The Constellations asked me to monitor your mental state, along with the others assigned to this case, to ensure you’re in top form. We may begin rotating through the Gifted working here as more become available.”

“Oh.” Well, it was nice to hear that the Constellations were taking the situation seriously. The potential for the situation to devolve into outright violence was far higher than I liked to admit. No one had died in any of the incidents so far, but when a state power grid collapses you’re skating on very thin ice. “Well, they chose the right person for the job, Aurora.”

Even though her calming presence seemed overwhelmed by the tension suffusing the office I still felt a little better knowing she was here. I went back to my coffee. “I hope so. Evaluating mental health is not my area of greatest expertise. But the Agent in Charge seems to think you’re on track to a breakthrough?”

“You know me, I’m a pessimist, so I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s at least a step in the right direction. That code wouldn’t be so damn opaque if it wasn’t important.” I sat down in one of the lounge’s chairs and took a sip of the wretched brew. “But at least this Backboard thing is a sign that the worst case scenario is off the table.”

“You mean it’s a sign the Masks aren’t involved?”

I stared at her over the rim of the coffee cup for a moment. Maybe she wasn’t here just to monitor the health of the forensic people after all. “Where did you hear about that?”

“Eugene has been pestering all of the Gifted he’s talked with about the possibility.” Aurora settled onto the sofa and gave me a slight smile. “You must be relieved. You never liked dealing with them.”

“It’s a comfort, but a small one. That synchronized groupthink thing they do is even more disturbing when you’re trained to interrogate people and read their reactions. On the other hand, someone’s still blowing up power substations all across the state.” I shook my head. “And it feels like there’s nothing I can contribute because they keep using EMP as their weapon of choice. It’s like they wanted to give the Gifted their middle finger.”

Aurora’s smile grew a little wider, a little more radiant. “Sounds like someone finally found the weak point in your armor, Armor.”

“Yeah, well I-” And that’s when it hit me.

I rewound our conversation, replayed it and realized it should have hit me before. Took off my right glove, stood up and stepped over to the couch, quickly brushing my fingers over Aurora’s cheek. Her smile faded to a confused glance at me, down at my hand, then back at me again. “Is everything all right?”

I returned my glove to my hand and my backside to the chair. Laced my fingers together, and studied her over them. “I got nothing.”

“Nothing… you don’t think you can break the Backboard code?”

“Nothing from you. Aurora’s defining trait is an almost supernatural sense of calm. You don’t have it.”

“Armor-“

“But that’s the biggest thing.” I jerked one thumb at myself. “I think of myself as the chink in the armor. That’s why Galaxy calls me that. But Aurora calls me Trevor.”

Realization was dawning. “I just called you Armor…”

“Three times.” I glanced to one side, running through the possibilities in my mind, just to make sure I wasn’t overlooking anything. “The most likely explanation is that you’re not Aurora.”

“Yes. I’m most likely your own mental image of what Aurora is like.” She was oddly unfazed by that fact. “And the most likely reason for you to be talking to a fragment of your own mental landscape is…”

“When I tried to access Backboard I got caught in a subconscious fugue state.” I scowled at my coffee cup. “Their code was booby trapped.”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Eleven

Previous Chapter

The weapon of choice was the Ford Expedition, between five and eight years old. Color did not seem to matter. Nor did place of origin. Of the twenty three vehicles used to knock out the Southern California power grid only six came from in state, one was traced as far as Texas. They were brought to select nodes in the power grid and the EMP devices within detonated simultaneously. While this only knocked out portions of the grid there was a domino effect as the grid tried to compensate for the suddenly shifting loads. Aging electrical infrastructure, wrapped in layers of environmental regulations and difficult to keep up to date, proved insufficient to the breadth of the emergency and failed one after another, most with the quiet flip of an automated safety, a few in more spectacular fashion. The state of California was mostly dark for the rest of that day and most of the following.

Utility companies along the West Coast scrambled to move available linesmen and engineers to California to repair as much of the damage as possible in the shortest available time. Behind the scenes, Galaxy was doing much the same. With twenty three sites to examine there was no way I could get to them all in anything like a reasonable time. Of course, with the weapon of choice for our unknown terrorists being the EMP delivered via self-driving car it was questionable how much information I would be able to collect. But I was there and one of the fastest forensic processing options available so, once Natalie and I were able to get back in touch with the office, we were provided with a chopper and rushed to the first of four sites I would look at.

The harsh reality was, with escalation on this scale there was no way I could hope to handle things on my own. The whole point of psychometric forensics is to speed the process, there’s nothing we can do you can’t in a more traditional fashion. But it would have easily taken me five days to a week to process all the sites on my own but Galaxy had dragged three of its other forensics experts away from nearly finished cases they probably weren’t needed for and assigned them to the case. If we got another escalation from whoever was masterminding this we might wind up with all twenty six of the Galaxy’s Gifted forensics working the case.

Even so, by the end of the day after the four of us had all twenty three attack sites processed and given our reports to Agent in Charge Hennesy. Our conclusions?

“You got nothing?”

“Nadda.” I collapsed on a sofa in the lounge outside Hennesy’s office. Immediately regretted it, as the upholstery reeked of desperation and suspicion. Never trust the furniture in a law enforcement setting. I straightened up and shook myself off. “No human hands have touched those vehicles in weeks. The chassis were wiped by the EMP but even the vinyl and upholstery were dead ends. No one sat on it or touched it with their skin recently enough to overcome the general background noise left by the original owners.”

Eugene cracked open a can of some absurd mix of natural and artificial stimulants he called an energy drink and I thought of as liquid ADHD. “I was on the coastal sites with Simulacrum and he seemed to think that whoever modified those cars was taking deliberate countermeasures to avoid detection by psychometric investigators.”

I rolled my eyes. “Sim is paranoid. And he doesn’t need you adding to that.”

“All I’m saying is -“

“Eugene.”

“- we need to consider the possibility -“

“Eugene.”

“- or we’re not really doing our jobs.”

Pinching the bridge of my nose was not helping my headache. “Eugene, it’s not the Masks.”

Natalie came back from the lounge’s kitchenette holding a steaming cup of coffee. “What masks?”

The word lacked the weight of a proper capital letter, which told me she wasn’t read in on that part of the psychometric protocols yet. “No one involved in this case.”

“How do you know?” Eugene demanded.

“Because they think the evolving digital economy is a good thing, same as us. It comes with complications, sure, but it’s got potential too. I guarantee, if the Masks have any kind of information gathering arm it’s working on this case just as hard as Galaxy’s.” I dragged myself to my feet.

“Where are you going?” Eugene asked.

“This place has a landline. So does the hotel. I’m going to call for a ride.” I started trudging towards the receptionist’s desk at the end of the hall.

Natalie turned and hustled after me. “Wait, are you saying there’s another psychometric society out there? Why aren’t you asking them to pitch in? Don’t you guys exist to help each other in cases like this?”

“Pretty much exactly the opposite.”

“I’m sorry?”

I stopped at the door to the lounge, looked both ways up and down the hall outside, then carefully closed the door and gave Natalie a hard look. “Masks and Galaxy are separate groups because we can’t work together. The last time we tried to mend the breach there was a Tier five death event. You saw a psychometric who touched a dead body, right?”

Natalie nodded mutely, her expression carefully neutral but her emotions digging in against an outburst she seemed sure was coming. How little she understood the Gift.

“It’s far worse when one of us kills someone. I can see into your mind deeper than most but I can’t touch it any more than you can touch light. We’re not like the telepaths you see in movies or read about in science fiction. Our minds are still our own. Except when you kill someone it changes you, you’re tied to the life you’ve taken in a horrible and indecipherable way. And when you die you’re swept off somewhere the human mind can’t know. When someone who’s Gifted kills another, the bond between them takes them both.

“You can’t see the changes that happen at the moment of death and that’s probably a blessing. The human mind is fragile, Natalie. We aren’t meant for the world of death. But when you can see into the mind as it dies – when you’re connected to that death by the act of killing – then you’re a window into the unknowable beyond and anyone on hand to see it is swept away with you.” I shook my head grimly. “We knew all that and still fought with the Masks. It’s not something we can risk happening again.”

“That’s the real secret of the Gift,” Eugene said, setting his drink aside and putting his feet up on the coffee table in front of him. “It makes people who have it cowards.”

“You don’t have to be the FBI to know that running into risk is foolhardy,” I said blandly. I didn’t have to see the fishing bobber in Eugene’s mind to know when he was baiting me. “But yes, we don’t have the spine to face the Masks again, nor have they ever really wanted to cross paths with Galaxy. It’d be easy enough to do, if we wanted.”

“How bad can this get?” Natalie asked, clearly struggling to keep up. “One of you kills the other and what? Anyone in the room gets sucked into a catatonic state?”

“If I was killed by a psychometric of equal talent we’d take everyone from here to L.A. with us,” I said. “I’m rated at tier three and the effect increases on a roughly exponential scale. Two tier five death events wiped out most of the Gifted in the lower forty eight states in the sixties. Rival groups of us stopped talking after that. The risks were just too high.”

Natalie pressed her fingers into her temples. “Wait, what risk? How can adult human beings not talk to each other in a civilized fashion?”

“Strange, isn’t it?” I shrugged. “But face facts. In the last week you talked to a man who’s been actively run out of civilized society because he talks to people. You found out there’s a man who can’t even use a major banking firm because they don’t like him. Hell, protests at colleges involve rocks, beatings and bike locks on pretty much a weekly basis these days. Can you explain that to me?”

The vim and vigor of Natalie’s normal emotional processes roiled for a moment or two, turning over what I’d said and trying to break it down. Slowly the process boiled down until her mind became eerily, unnaturally still. It was an almost frightening contrast to her normal loud and active thought process. The end result of it was even smaller and quieter. “No. I can’t.”

I tapped myself between the eyes with one finger. “Psychometry is powerful, Natalie. But all it does is get me where you can go faster than you can get there. If you can’t get there, neither can I. It’s as much a mystery to me as it is to you.”

I opened up the door and went to find that phone. Natalie didn’t follow.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Ten

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: When taking real world situations as the jumping off point for a story you run the risk that reality will in some way outrun your idea in a way you did not anticipate. Such a situation arose during the writing of Pay the Piper. The Backboard app discussed in this chapter and in several others moving forwards was a part of the story from the first draft, assembled over the holidays last year. Early this year, the social media company Gab announced a very similar service called Dissenter. I had no way of knowing this program was in the making and Backboard is important enough to the story that I would have needed a solid month and a serious rewrite to take it out. Rather than be constrained by unanticipated developments in a situation only tenuously connected to my story, I have left these elements unchanged. However, I want to make it entirely clear that, while many of the characters and situations in Pay the Piper are inspired by very real conflicts brewing in Silicon Valley, Backboard and the plot elements surrounding it are not and should not be seen as a reflection on Gab or Dissenter in any way.

For example, I’m sure Gab did not employ any psychics in the construction of Dissenter. 

Thank you and enjoy!) 

 

“I’m sorry,” Natalie hesitated for a second, her attention scattered by too many revelations at once. “A.J. Jackson? Should I know who he is?”

“He’s an alternative media entrepreneur from Arizona,” Dane said, reaching out and taking a book off the shelf next to his chair. I noticed he had his life organized to the point where he didn’t have to look to find the right book. It was a copy of Jackson’s Freedom from Dependence, a book I’ve heard of but never read. Dane opened it up to the About the Author page where there was a picture of a tall, wiry man wearing a cheap suit and aviators. “He runs a news show and sells a lot of books, but he’s looking to enter the social media market. Lots of people think he’s a hustler or a conspiracy theorist but he’s very good at locating and catering too underserved populations.”

Natalie tapped her lower lip thoughtfully. “Should I know this guy from somewhere?”

“While you were working the Newell High case, did anyone suggest the disappearances were faked?” I asked. “Families paid off while their kids were laying low at some government program somewhere?”

Natalie snapped straight up in her chair. “Wait, he’s that guy?”

“He floated the possibility once, but abandoned the idea after some of his reporters interviewed the Newell locals,” Dane admitted. “Unfortunately a lot of people who heard the idea proposed held on to the idea longer than he did.”

“And you work for-“

“Agent Chase,” I said. “Maybe I should come back later and do this interview with someone else. Agent Fitzgerald is still on this case, isn’t he?”

That got her attention. Thoughts that had been scattered and tumbling, setting up an avalanche of indignation sufficient to sweep away any perspective on the situation, settled down and began to put themselves back in order. There were three psychometrics involved in the Newell case, two made it out sane and functional and neither of them had anything good to say about A.J. Jackson. I assumed the FBI agents who worked the case all had similar feelings. But the fact was he looked to be a more and more important player in this case and that meant we had to be able to ask questions about him without losing our cool. I was okay with subbing sunny Natalie for gloomy Eugene if that was what it took and she had to recognize that.

“Sorry,” she said, shaking herself back into the present. “You work for A.J. Jackson. Got it. On Project Backboard. Can you tell us anything about that?”

“Sure, it’s not a secret anymore.” Dane closed the book and set it down then pulled out his phone. A second later we were looking at a pretty typical social media app interface with a feature list that looked like it had been kludged together from most of the top apps in circulation. However it also seemed to function as a web browser as well. “Backboard has been in the wild for about a month now, it’s a kind of hybrid social media platform.”

“What is the social media hybridized with?” I asked.

“No, it’s a hybrid of social media platforms. You know how there are apps that let you program Twitter posts to go up at certain times, or manage your block list?” He waited until we nodded our understanding before he went on. “Well, this is an app that lets you streamline all your social media into a single identifiable profile. Then you can go to any other site on the Internet and make posts that are indexed to that page and linked to your profile. Basically like having a comments section for the entire Internet.”

I frowned. “So what – I could visit the website of my favorite restaurant and leave a post about how good the food is?”

“Right. No more having to see if they have a Yelp page.” He opened a webpage for the local paper. “And if a page already has a comments section any post you leave there will be attached to your profile on Backboard and other users will know you said it.”

“You built a bulletin board system for the entire Internet,” I said, impressed.

“Except it’s written on the back of the page.” Dane said, closing the app. “Thus, Backboard.”

“Mr. Dane,” Natalie said slowly. “How is this app being monetized?”

That made him shift uncomfortably, his mind suddenly tinged with a deep shade of embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Agent Chase, I can’t talk about Mr. Jackson’s business model, mainly because he hasn’t explained it to me. I’m not a part of that team, I’m mostly working on metadata implementation. But if you’re asking if it’s connected to the incident a few days ago then probably not. They haven’t done business with Mr. Jackson for almost a year.”

“You haven’t done any business with them at all in a year’s time?” Natalie asked, incredulous.

“No, they haven’t done business with Mr. Jackson. The company is a payment processor, right?” Another pause that lasted long enough for us to nod. “They’ve refused to process payments to any accounts in his name, the names of his associates or his business accounts.”

“Oh.” Natalie sat back, a looking a little confused. “That’s… surprising.”

“Many companies in Silicon Valley are beginning to make decisions based not on business principles or principles of accessibility,” Dane said, embarrassment giving way to deep concern as deep undercurrents of memory appeared in his mind. “Rather, they are deciding things based on their moral standards. Many people in other parts of the country fall outside of those standards and are being actively refused access to the innovations tech ventures offer. The creation of Backboard is one symptom of that.”

And Dane’s employment by a little known Arizona shitstirrer rather than the world’s biggest search engine was another. I could tell Natalie didn’t catch that subtext but Dane didn’t realize that either and it was probably better to leave it for another time.

“Mr. Dane, can I ask you about your association with Mr. Charles Wu, otherwise known as TsunLao?” I asked, deciding it was time we got to what really brought us here.

“TsunLao?” Dane shrugged. “He interviewed me about six months ago, as part of his series on groupthink in Silicon Valley. I met some other people through him but I don’t think I’ve spoken to him more than twice since the interview. We’ve exchanged texts some. Mostly him asking if I’d be willing to talk to one of this other media contacts. Why?”

“We’re trying to build an idea of his associations, determine if he might have had a hand in this week’s events.” Natalie crossed one leg over the other, affecting a casual attitude she wasn’t actually feeling. Surprisingly, Dane was caught up in the mood change and relaxed a little. “Do you know if Mr. Wu was under any business embargos similar to Mr. Jackson’s?”

“No, we never discussed it,” Dane said. “And if we did I don’t think it would be right for me to talk about it with anyone else.”

“Are you still working with Mr. Wu in any capacity?” I asked. “Consulting with him or his network?”

“No.” There was an emphatic rejection of further connection there. “I’m very glad that they gave me a chance to tell my side of the story when I was fired. Mr. Wu and his associates are very aware of the problems confronting Silicon Valley today, but they’ve never worked inside of it. They don’t have an appreciation for the potential that still exists here and they wish to exert control over our technology sector that would ultimately hinder its growth. I’m not sure I could work on the projects I want to work on if I spent too much time with their group.”

“But you can with Jackson?”

There was a certain degree of cognitive dissonance there and he knew it. However, he was also gambling on something and, being the wonderfully forthright person that he was, he quickly explained it to us. “Mr. Jackson doesn’t like what he sees in Silicon Valley but he wants to put his own spin on what’s there, not remove the spin of others. It’s my hope that Project Backboard will prove it’s worth and Mr. Jackson will be able to bring fresh blood and fresh perspectives to the community without breaking down what has made it so wildly beneficial in the past.”

It was a fair answer and, like every other answer Dane had given us, had the advantage of being entirely sincere. There was no follow up that I felt was really needed. I could tell Natalie had a question she was debating, flipping back and forth between whether it was necessary or not. There was a moment of awkward silence as Dane waited for us and I waited for Natalie to make up her mind.

Then the lights in the apartment went out.

It was still midafternoon so we could see just fine. But the overhead lights did go out, changing the lighting of the room. I asked, “Your electrical bills are paid up?”

“I believe so,” Dane replied.

“Maybe a fuse blew out somewhere in the building,” Natalie suggested.

But I’d already noticed something deeply off. While it takes some practice, a psychometric can easily pick up on cellular signals and even do basic phone calls and texting. Browsing the Internet and other more advanced features are even possible if you have a SIM card – no expensive phone required – or you can just find a wifi connection and jack in there. The catch is you still have to get a signal from the local cell tower or a wifi router. And I couldn’t.

There was no wifi in the building, although there had been when we arrived. I couldn’t ping a cell tower. There was nothing.

Anxious, I got up and walked over to Dane’s balcony and stepped out onto it. It was the middle of the afternoon, so no street lights were on to begin with. But I could clearly see, down at the intersection below, that the traffic lights were dead and traffic was trickling through it like a four way stop.  The power was out on the block. In fact as it would turn out the power was gone in half the state.