Pay the Piper – Chapter Eleven

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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 -“


“- we need to consider the possibility -“


“- 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.


One response to “Pay the Piper – Chapter Eleven

  1. Pingback: Pay the Piper – Chapter Twelve | Nate Chen Publications

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