Pay the Piper – Chapter Seventeen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you monitor them?”

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

“To see if they recover.”

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

“A therapy trap,” Hennesy muttered.

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

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

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

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

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Pay the Piper – Chapter Sixteen

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“Therapy?”

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

“Yes, but as a therapy tool?”

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

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

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

“You’re sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eight months.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pay the Piper – Chapter Fifteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How come you never told me about this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pay the Piper – Chapter Fourteen

“You’re hiding something.”

“Aurora…”

“Don’t call me that, Trevor, you know I don’t like it.” I grimaced, from anyone else it would have sounded like a calm request, from Aurora it almost came off as whining. “I’m here to keep your mind centered and healthy and I can’t do it if you won’t let me have a clear look at you.”

I brushed her hands away from my temples and sat up on the bed. “Well I don’t know why the Constellations sent you and not an actual psychologist with the Gift. Your expertise is in bodily health, not mental health.”

“Because I’ve had a crush on you off and on for the past thirteen years, that’s why. It’s not like it’s a secret, Trevor.” Again, it was a rebuke but one that even psychometrics who hadn’t known her for years would miss. “It makes me more attenuated to your mental state and I’m already an expert on what counts as normalcy for you. If you’d actually visit a psychologist maybe there would be one who already had a baseline understanding of you they could send. But you don’t, so they sent me.”

Okay, so that part was my doing. “If you know it so well, why is it taking so long to clear me?”

“Clear you for what?” Aurora climbed up off the bed and moved over to a chair where she sat a little more comfortably. “I already told you, you’re not going back out today. You were just came out of a twenty four hour trance. You need to recover.”

“There’s no time for that, Aurora. Something’s happening out there and it’s picking up steam, not slowing down.”

“Then you’d better rest up while you can.” She straightened the skirt of her economical linen dress and said, “Tell me what happened again, from the start.”

I knew better than to try and move her when she was in this kind of mood so I did as asked and ran her through the weird look I’d had at the inside of my own head. I did my best to keep my mental defenses down as I did it, mental walls are something all of the Gifted live with but there is a need to pull them down from time to time and I was willing to do it for Aurora, even if I didn’t like it much. By the time I was done she was nodding along like she’d gotten some kind of insight. I wasn’t sure what but I wasn’t going to push her on it, either. I did want to go back to work some time this decade, after all, and if Aurora did have the ear of the psychometric elders she could make sure it didn’t happen. If she was feeling hostile.

Not that she would. I could tell, there was a clear current of sympathy at my forced inaction running under her conscious thought process. Doubtless born of her being shoved into a role she wasn’t best suited to, even if it was one which she was happy to do. We both knew all these things about the other’s conscious and subconscious reasoning. We were just ignoring it, for the sake of privacy.

Most conversations between the Gifted go like this. It’s one of the reasons we tend to live at a distance from our own kind as well as everyone else. It’s very difficult to maintain healthy relationships when you can’t give one another space.

And yes, that’s why Aurora and I are not a couple. I can read your mind, too.

After finishing my story Aurora made me lie down and I actually drifted off to sleep in fairly short order. It turns out that fugue trances are not very restful and I was quite tired. I woke up to an empty room but Aurora was not gone as I’d originally thought. She’d just moved to the in suite kitchenette and was making dinner. As I watched her quietly measuring and stirring and boiling I marveled at her ability to find happiness in what she was doing. She was making food, the food satisfy the two of us and that made her happy.

For all her deep understanding of the human mind and body, for all her deep and overwhelming sense of peace, for all her seemingly limitless compassion for people, at her core she’s a simple person. Perhaps that’s the source of her equanimity. Stripped down to her simplest goals in that moment I could see past the emotional reservoir that usually surrounded her to the physical person beneath. Straight, almost stringy brown hair in a pony tail, rosy cheeks, a graceful neck. And a very round face. Not quite Natalie’s eye-popping figure but overall very nice. I wondered how many of her patients had looked up from a hospital bed and proposed on the spot. With her aura of calm I’m sure she struck most people as a supernatural visitor to begin with.

“Stop it.” She didn’t bother looking up from the food she was working on. “Come and eat.”

I don’t argue with that tone of voice.

We’d finished loading the dishwasher and I was just thinking about trying to sneak onto the Net and find some news on the case when Aurora asked, “Trevor, are you happy?”

I hesitated, the dishwasher door half closed in one hand. “Happy?”

For the third time today there was a crack in her calm. “Happy, Trevor. You know, is doing all this getting you any closer to what you want?”

“What I want?” I laughed. “No one gets what they want, Aurora. I’m just trying to do something that makes life better for others.”

The crack opened a bit wider, filling with exasperation. “Of course. But you could be building something. Teaching people. You could-“

“I’ve never been any good at those things, Betty. I can’t build, I can’t teach. So I protect. I try and stop people from tearing down. In the long run, I think that’s the only meaningful thing I can do with my life.” I closed the dishwasher and set it running.

“Do you ever wish it was different?”

“Used to. Almost fell into a Gap – nothing good comes of thinking that way, Betty.” I shook my head, catching the slip of the tongue too late to call it back. I’d had this kind of conversation with Aurora dozens of times when we were younger, before life took us to different places. “You can’t like suffering along with all your patients every day, right? But it’s the price we pay to make a better world.”

Her exasperation drained away, replaced with deep weariness. With me or the world at large I couldn’t tell. “What if you don’t like the world at all?”

Well, that answered that. Unfortunately her question wasn’t as easy for me to respond to. I thought about it, then walked over to the hallway door.

“Trevor, you can’t go back to work.” The crack was closed and normal Aurora was back. And she was quite adamant about my staying away from the job.

“Not to worry. I’m not going there.”

She wavered a moment because it was obvious to her that I was telling the truth. “Then where are you going?”

“Where are we going.” I pulled the door open. “And we are going for a walk.”

“A walk?”

“Yes.” I held out a hand like a butler. “After you?”

For a moment she struggled with the invitation. Like most of us, Aurora didn’t like large groups of strangers, which was what you found on most streets these days. But after a moment’s internal debate she steeled herself and came along. Something was bothering Aurora, something more than just the case and what I was doing in it. I had a day off from the FBI. I might as well try and figure out what it was.