Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Eight

Previous Chapter

Natalie was quiet.

I don’t mean she wasn’t talking, or that she approached the table on her tiptoes. I mean her mind was quiet. From the moment I’d met Natalie the thing that had stood out to me the most was how hard she projected. It was less like her mind was an open book and more like she was reading from it through a bullhorn. Or at least, that’s how things had been up until that exact moment.

As she took the last chair at the table, nervously rubbing her hands and watching Hat Trick out of the corner of her eye, none of the emotions that normally came off of her in waves were present. It was eerie, like some part of her animating force had left her. Sensing that something was off, Aurora reached over and took my hand, offering her deep well of emotional stability even through the two layers of gloves we were wearing. I put my other hand on top of hers just long enough to acknowledge the gesture then looked hard at Natalie. “You’re not here as part of the FBI investigation, are you? Because last I checked they weren’t very interested in this line of inquiry.”

“No, I’m not,” she admitted. “I’m here because Hat Trick called me.”

Other than taking a moment to adjust his beard Hat Trick gave no sign he acknowledged the hard scrutiny I was suddenly giving him. “And why would you do that, if I might ask? You’re not an FBI contractor.”

“I don’t do investigation work at all, anymore, although I did do cybersecurity a little once upon a time. I like to try new things. But then, you knew all that.” He pulled a tablet from a slot in the table, one that I could see was wired back into the main tower in the cabinet below, and started it running. “You’re here because I helped Jackson with his data gathering plan, yes?”

“In a manner of speaking. I wanted an expert in psychoemtrics and digital surveillance to help me with a project.”

“You wanted to monitor Alvin Davidson of Archon Securities, in order to prove he is working in conjunction with the Masks,” Hat Trick said. He set the tablet down, screen facing him, and looked me square in the eye. “Well, he is. I could swear to it in court, I could produce documents.”

“You said could,” Aurora said softly. “But I take it you won’t?”

“Even ignoring the possibility of self-incrimination, I wouldn’t because I find their goals interesting. And I have since I stumbled over them while helping Jackson with Backboard.” He spun his tablet around to face me. “You might find it the same.”

I glanced at the tablet. It was covered in formula, schematics and other trivia I couldn’t make heads or tails out of but the device itself hummed with quiet malignance. I carefully pushed it back towards him with one finger. “I don’t have your plethora of gifts, Hat Trick, and I’m a whole tier below you. But even if I could make sense of that, I’ve met a Mask in the past. Interesting is not the right word for what they are.”

Hat Trick reached for the tablet and said, “Perhaps with a little-“

“Why are you here, Natalie?” I struggled to keep my voice even, to not yell at her. I’ve worked for some real scumbags before, not everyone I’ve consulted for has been an angel. But I’d been taken in by her optimism and desire to do good, and the fact that Hennesy and Eugene both thought she was a good fit for the job. Good intentions can take you straight to hell and ultimately even Eugene’s endorsement was filtered through the unreliable lens of the FBI. “You’re not even a psychometric, so why the Masks?”

Wordlessly Natalie pushed up her sleeve to reveal what looked like an ordinary smart watch. Then she pushed at an almost invisible tab on the side and her mind roared to life, pushing against my senses like normal. Beside me I felt Aurora start, it was her first time meeting Natalie, I realized, so she hadn’t experienced this before.

“Sooner or later we all have to be a part of the Mind,” she said. “I was picked to be a trial for these empathic enhancers. They make it easier to look past the masks we wear to the truth that unites us. One day, maybe soon, they’ll be able to let me receive, as well as send.”

I frowned. “And you want to be a psychometric? It’s not really a fun condition, Natalie.”

The loudness of her thoughts faded again as she switched the device off. “You know, they made a recording of your conversation with Jackson. I listened to it -“

“My condolences.”

“And you know what I realized?”

“That you shouldn’t let yourself be interrupted?”

Natalie gave me a longsuffering look. “That we were ultimately the same. All that time I was annoyed by his stupid grandstanding, his mugging for the camera, and we both just wanted to know what drove a serial killer to hurt people so badly. It was after that, when I realized there was something special about the consultants they brought in and while I was trying to figure out what it was, that I met the Mask, and they explained to me the truth. If we hadn’t been separated, if we were like we were intended to be, one mind in perfect fellowship, no one would ever feel the need to do such horrible things.”

“Natalie you’re a cop,” I said slowly. “Surely you realize preventing crime is not nearly as simple as increasing the empathy people have. Lots of-“

“Of course it’s not,” she said emphatically. “The masks we wear do more than bottle up our empathy, they’re shackles that stunt every aspect of our personality. Even AJ Jackson and I are just facets of the same driving forces, Armor. A serial killer – any death – is a tragedy. But I realized that law enforcement, while critical, is just treating the symptom. Until we can remove the masks and rejoin the single Mind we’re doing nothing more than making the patient comfortable while it dies. Can’t you understand that?”

Aurora and I shared a worried look. There was an undercurrent of unknowability in Natalie’s words that was troubling. She was coming off as a gap – a true believer in the dogma she espoused. Some part of her mind had left the purely physical and gone somewhere simply psychometry couldn’t follow. I wondered if the Masks knew of the effect they’d had on her, and what that effect might mean for them. For her.

And for Aurora and I for that matter.

We’d have to puzzle those details out later. I looked to Hat Trick. “And you find the omnimind interesting?”

“Not particularly, but the chance to work on tech like that,” he waved his hand towards Natalie’s smart watch, “was too much for me to pass up. I’ve spoken with Alvin several times about things we can do with evolving technologies to create new applications for psychometry.”

A snatch of a previous discussion came back to me. “You’re the one working on true telepathy.”

“It’s a subject that’s come up. There are other things to try, too – the work with Helio and his daughters was pretty fun, too.” He shrugged. “I’m not sold on the Mind that the Masks talk about but I admit their other ideas do really intrigue me. The fugue treatment we used with Helio was something they’ve been working on for years.”

I felt my eyes narrowing a bit. Something didn’t add up. “What does Vinny get out of all this? You make it sound like you’ve been working together and with the Masks for years. That sounds like a much deeper investment than just a problem with the balance of power in Silicon Valley.”

“It’s because he’s-” Hat Trick caught himself, then shook his head. “No, better to ask him yourself.”

“Oh?” Aurora actually perked up a bit at that. “Will we get the chance?”

“Sure. You’re coming with me,” Natalie said.

I raised an eyebrow. “Are we?”

“Come on, Armor,” she said. “We both know I can make you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

I sighed but Aurora gave me a tolerant smile and lifted me to my feet. “Come on. It can’t hurt to see whatever she wants to show us.”

The two of us got to our feet and I said, “Lead on, then.”


Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Seven

Previous Chapter

Galaxy and the Masks are not the only organized groups of psychometrics in the country, much less the world, they’re just the oldest and most influential, the most likely to have governmental connections, support organizations and large numbers of nonpsychometric staff. These smaller groups come in all shapes and flavors, most never last more than a few years. Somnolence, the group longest lasting and largest group after Galaxy, was put together after the Civil War and vanished during the Cold War collapse left most of the country’s psychometrics dead or catatonic. Given how little my job involved the internal workings of psychometric communities I wasn’t up on which other organizations might have cropped up to take its place, so I’d never heard of En Machina.

According to AJ Jackson they’d organized in the late 1990s, not due to the Internet, as you might expect, but due to early cellphones. They’d been interested in the potential of cellular technology to enhance the range and potential applications of psychometric abilities, something Galaxy had looked into itself. Like we had, En Machina had concluded that, while psychometrics could communicate via cellular phone as easily as we could landline, there wasn’t much more we could do than that. For reasons that Jackson wasn’t entirely certain of, En Machina had decided to stick together after reaching that conclusion and keep looking into other intersections between psychometry and emerging technologies.

Galaxy has teams dedicated to that kind of research as well. But it’s not a heavily encouraged specialization nor does Galaxy pour a lot of resources into the technological side of things. Listening to Jackson talk about En Machina took me back to what Vinny had mentioned a couple of conversations ago, talking about psychometrics developing treatments for psychometrics with damaged psyches, researching true telepathy or just digging into the nature of the Gift for the sake of curiosity. I’d been part of Galaxy from a young age and I had to admit I’d been thinking of these smaller groups as fly by night, untrustworthy collections of people scattered and flailing ineffectively against the vast mysteries of the Gift and the difficulties it brought to people. To my surprise, Jackson made them sound more like pioneers, out on some kind of metaphorical frontier. I suppose frontiersmen could count as the untrustworthy, fly by night kind of people but there was still a charm to the idea.

Actually finding En Machina was not charming at all.

It required a lot of navigating back channels, exchanging passwords and references and ultimately a lot of waiting. The morning of the second day after realizing Vinny was the linchpin binding the Masks and Silicon Valley I was still waiting to hear back from the third and final intermediary that Jackson had told me was between me and Hat Trick. I’d spent the last two days doing busywork, closing off lines of inquiry that had little to do with the main thrust of the investigation. Hennesy knew I didn’t think Jackson was the mastermind and he was happy to put me on any other part of the inquiry, the problem was the FBI was convinced Jackson was somehow tied to whoever was behind the attacks and was devoting more and more resources to looking in to his activities and vast media activities to try and prove it. There wasn’t much outside of that for me to do.

I remained convinced Vinny was the best lead we had, even if no one else really thought that way. So I kept pushing harder to find Hat Trick and by the end of day two I had a location and a time. They arrived in an email with no easily tracked sender, so subject line and no message beyond the name of the store and when to be there. The requested meeting time was well after the FBI was going to insist I leave to “get some rest” so I deleted the message and made a quick phone call, then finished out my shift and headed back to the hotel to get ready.

“This isn’t really necessary,” I said, holding the door for Aurora.

“Don’t be silly,” she said as she passed me, looking more annoyed than she actually felt. “I don’t want you going missing again. It’s already happened twice in the last two weeks.”

“Does it count as going missing if you never leave your hotel room?”


There wasn’t much arguing with that. I wasn’t really arguing with her at all anymore, if there was a time for that it had been back at the hotel. And, in fact, I had argued there. A lot. But she’d insisted on coming, since this wasn’t an official FBI contract and Natalie wasn’t going to be there, and since the alternative was to wind up benched by Galaxy and ignored by the FBI I’d ultimately been forced to bring her along.

And it wasn’t like there was a lot of danger involved in visiting a custom computer shop after hours.

It wasn’t exactly my kind of place so I didn’t have a lot to compare it to, but Solid State Computing looked a lot like what I’d expect a computer specialty store to look like. There were some display computers on kiosks at the front, a service counter to the left and rows of outrageously priced components to the right. The shop itself was part of a strip mall in a yet to be gentrified part of town. The shops were mostly closed but there were still a few places open.

Of course, Solid State wasn’t one of them, we were met at the door by a man who was not what I was expecting – short, fairly fit, long but well-groomed beard, hard eyes. He gave us a once over and said, “Name?”


A look at Aurora. “Who’s she?”

“A friend.”

She lifted one hand and let it casually rest over his on the door handle. The hard lines around his eyes softened slightly. “I’m just here to make sure he doesn’t put his foot in his mouth.”

“That a problem he has a lot?”

“Not a problem, a talent,” I said.

He let us in to the shop and locked the door behind us. “That’s not a talent that will win you friends. At least your lady gets that.”

I decided to let the comment about my lady pass. “Are you Hat Trick?”

“That’s what I call myself, anyway. I’m not as deeply invested in my handle as you folks from Galaxy tend to be.” He led us through his shop, between racks of pricy computer parts, to a second room about half the size of the first. The walls were empty and there was a large table with a bunch of electronic hookups and a large monitor on it. There was an equipment cabinet under the table that all the cables ran in to and probably contained some kind of computer. Unlike the main room, which was a muddle of customers coming and going, this room had a clear feel to it. It brimmed with anticipation, spiced with an undercurrent of disappointment. Aurora shifted slightly, unsettled a bit by emotional feedback she wasn’t used to parsing.

Hospitals have powerful emotional landscapes but they tend to be quite narrow in the emotions you find. The kind of baited breath excitement this room was rank with wasn’t one of them.

Hat Trick apparently noticed her discomfort because he said, “I use this room for stress testing systems and robotics for customers. It gives the room a unique impression.”

“Systems you’ve built for them, or systems they bring to you?” I asked.

“Both.” He waved us towards the table and we all took seats.

“You do robotics?” Aurora asked, adjusting herself nervously on her seat.

“When something interesting comes in,” Hat Trick replied. “I try to dabble in as many things as I can.”

I could see that. Aurora has the kind deep, powerful reserves of mental energy I’d expect of a tier five Gift, focused in a single field of study for a lifetime. You could give her a problem and she’d push against it until it was submerged within herself and her understanding permeated it down to the very smallest details. Most tier four and five psychometrics in Galaxy were like that.

In contrast Hat Trick’s mental energy spread wide across an array of subjects, less a pool to submerge a problem in and more a lens to magnify it in and study it from any number of angles. I’d originally been under the impression he was a tier four psychometric at the least. But with the unique structure he’d given to his Gift and the unorthodox mental structures that made it possible I was no longer sure he was even a tier three, like me.

I was curious but asking about it seemed kind of rude and there’s no way to test a person’s Gift without their cooperation. I decided to stick to the reason I was there. “So I heard of you from AJ Jackson.”

Hat Trick nodded. “Unfortunately he wasn’t available to vouch for you so I had to put out some feelers on you, that’s why I took so long to get back to you.”

“No surprise. Jackson’s in jail right now.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Why’s that?”

“He actually had me kidnapped.”

“I always wondered when he would cross a line…” Hat Trick shook his head, clearly he’d had doubts about Jackson’s stability before this. “For the record, I wasn’t a part of that idea.”

“No one thought you did,” I assured him. “He’s very good at coming up with bad ideas all on his own.”

“That he is.”

I opened my mouth to change the subject to why I needed his help when Aurora jumped in and said, “Who vouched for him?”

Hat Trick looked a bit confused. “Jackson?”

“No, Armor.” She cocked her head to one side. “You said Jackson couldn’t vouch for him, so who did?”

“That would be me.”

I turned around so quickly I almost fell out of my chair. The door to the room thumped closed and the lock was thrown before my brain fully caught up to what I was seeing. Natalie Chase gave me a pained smile. “I guess this isn’t exactly how you were expecting this meeting to go, was it?”

Aurora helped me get situated back in my chair, which was nice because I couldn’t stop staring at Natalie long enough to look at it. Finally I found my voice and said, “No, it was not.”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Six

Previous Chapter

“Wait, you think Alvin Davidson is the point man for the Masks?” Eugene laughed. “The man doesn’t take clients that violate his own sense of ethics, why would he take on the Masks?”

“Because his sense of ethics is balance,” I said, waving towards Natalie. “And like she said, we’ve locked them out of Silicon Valley for years, whether we meant to or not. That’s an imbalance that he’d try to correct automatically.”

Natalie shifted uncomfortably. “Is this really how he’d chose to do it? Indiscriminate acts of terror? Disrupting huge swaths of the industry just because Galaxy pressured them to lock a rival group out? I mean, that sounds pretty unbalanced to me.”

“It’s a weakness in the theory, to be sure, but one thing you have to understand is that Vinny doesn’t see the world like you or I. He doesn’t understand empathy or compassion, he doesn’t have the emotional capacity for it and he knows it.” I shied away from the sudden spike of revulsion she put off at that statement. “Look, I’m sorry to be blunt but the man isn’t normal and in many ways it makes him a valuable member of society. But it’s a two edged sword and, for all the ways he’s tried to adopt a moral code and social graces, I don’t doubt he could mastermind exactly the kind of violence we’ve seen if the circumstances fit. And right now, they do.”

“Okay, okay.” Eugene flicked his fingers towards my chair, deliberately broadcasting how much he’d like it if I stopped pacing and sat down. “Let’s say Davidson is the mastermind or one of said masterminds, or even just sympathetic to their cause. We vet all the tech he installs on our equipment. I’m sure Silicon Valley firms are even more cautious than we are. He’s never brought us anything that looks remotely malicious or we wouldn’t still be working with him as a contractor, much less as a consultant.”

“How long has that been going on?”

Eugene gave me a dry look. “Is that really important right now?”

“How am I supposed to answer you until you answer me?”

“My point is, even if the Masks were using him to try and infiltrate our systems somehow, how exactly are they supposed to do it?”

I grunted helplessly. “I’m not a cybersecurity expert, so I couldn’t begin to guess. Forensics is my thing, remember?”

“Look,” Natalie said then hesitated, her mind seesawing between sympathy and… something I couldn’t quite pin down. Caution? Concern? It was hard to tell, unusual with her, but then it takes a couple of months to get a good read on some aspects of a new coworker, whether you’re psychometric or not. Finally she said, “I want to get this sorted, same as you. But the FBI needs something a little stronger than an analysis of one man’s motives. Like Hennesy said, motives are for juries. We can’t get a warrant with just that. Unless you could get Galaxy to look in to it?”

“One thing we’re truly terrible at is law enforcement and peace keeping,” I said. “Investigation and forensics is one of the least common specializations for us to choose. That’s why those of us who do take my profession work as consultants for agencies, rather than in our own agency.”

“Then you’re going to have to find proof on your own,” Eugene said. “Because I don’t think the locals or the FBI Director is going to okay going after someone like Davidson without some kind of proof.”

“I suppose you’re right.” That really narrowed my options down to one. I’d been hoping to avoid it but I needed an expert and there was only one I could find.

Well, sort of.

AJ Jackson was not a happy camper. Unhappy with where he was, unhappy not knowing what was going on, unhappy to see me.

That made two of us.

I sat down on my side of the interview table, folded my hands and said, “Tell me how to find Hat Trick, Jackson.”

“My client is not going to answer any questions off the record,” Jackon’s lawyer said. She was a frigid, fifty-something woman with a lined face and the eyes of a merciless bulldog.

“I didn’t ask a question,” I pointed out, momentarily amused by the posturing of this lawyer. They were a necessary evil, and some of them had fun and twisty ways of thinking. Unfortunately this one knew she was being baited. I wasn’t going to get any stress relief from this woman. “Tell me how to find Hat Trick.”

“If you’re here to badger my client-“

“What do you want with Hat Trick, Armor?” Jackson leaned back in his chair and squinted at me. He had kind of narrow, close set eyes and I could understand why he’d chosen to make hiding them behind sunglasses an integral part of his brand. With them missing and his bespoke suit traded in for a much less tailored orange number he looked much less impressive. But the changes didn’t take away his natural charisma and his words came out with confidence and pride. “I told you, there’s nothing illegal about any part of Backboard, at least not yet. He’s not guilty of anything.”

“Not that my client admits to guilt in anything either,” the lawyer added.

“I don’t know the law well enough to know if Backboard is illegal or not,” I admitted. “And I don’t care. I don’t care about your Silicoverlords either. I’m concerned about a growing wave of malicious and dangerous activity and I need a psychometric cybersecurity expert to help me with it. Hat Trick is the only one that might not be compromised and, from what you said on the boat, it sounds like he knows my reputation and might be willing to be that helper. Are you going to tell me where to find him or not? Because if not I need to call the Constellations.”

Jackson sat back in his chair and stared at me hard for a moment or two. “Why don’t you want to talk to them?”

“They keep making noises about taking me off the case. I’m pretty sure, at this point, that Aurora won’t do it if they tell her to but they can make other arrangements for it fast enough, if they want. The further away this gets from a simple terrorism investigation the more likely that outcome gets.” I raised an eyebrow and watched as that made its way into the whirlwind of his free associating mind. “So. How about it?”

I can usually guess where someone’s thoughts will go at least a few seconds before they tell me but with AJ Jackson all I could conclude is that the answer would be surprising. And he did not disappoint. “Tell me about Newell High.”

It took a moment for the shifter to kick in and change the gears, dredge my memory and make the association. “The Newell High disappearances? What about them? I didn’t work that case.”

“I just want to know what they were really about.” He jerked forward in his chair and slammed his cuffed hands down on the table. “People don’t just do that kind of thing to each other, Armor. Was it a delusion? Was he drugged? Was he manipulated? What caused a fundamentally good person like a teacher-“

“He wasn’t.”

Jackson stopped short and looked at me, confusion and curiosity warring for a moment. “Wasn’t a teacher? Someone else did it?”

“Wasn’t fundamentally good.” I was suddenly very, very tired. Walking out and letting the Masks burn the Valley was looking more and more appealing every minute. But I couldn’t do that and I took the frustration out on Jackson. “He wasn’t a fundamentally good person, Jackson, he was a man who like watching fourteen year old boys scream until they died. There’s no secret conspiracy, no leverage someone used to drive him to it. He was a fundamentally evil person.”

I rocked forward onto the knuckles of my hands, bracing myself like a gorilla to lean over the table until our noses nearly touched. “He was just like you, with your stupid Backboards, spying on other people and he was just like Silicon Valley, out of touch in spite of all the data they gather, and he was just like me, convinced a friend I’ve known for over a decade is a terrorist without a scrap of evidence. We’re all of us vile, petty people, rotten to the core. How hard is that to accept?”

“Not hard.” Jackson slowly slumped down in his seat. “But I’ve made a living telling people there are other reasons for it. I guess sometimes I just… I just hope maybe it’s actually true. Is that such a bad thing?”

“If it’s not true?” I shrugged, took my own seat again. “I don’t know. If it is a good thing then I suppose that makes you a good person as well as an evil one.”

“You really think people can embody a contradiction that extreme?”

“I see it every day.”

Jackson rocked back and forth on his seat once. Literally tilted his body to the left until it was a full ten degrees away from straight up, then back and just as far the opposite direction, then back to his previous slumped posture. As he did the maelstrom of thoughts in his mind actually slowed, his impressive powers of intellect no longer swirling at random but instead focusing on a single line of thought. I didn’t have the sensitivity to tell what that line of thought was but he seemed to like it when he got to the end. Then, as if a switch was thrown, his mind snapped back to normal. “You’re not going to arrest Hat Trick?”

“Not any time soon. Not unless he’s done something stupid since the last time you talked to him.”

Another moment of thought, then Jackson said, “You’ll want to write this down…”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Five

Previous Chapter

There’s a mental discipline called a “mind palace” that some people use to help them organize and recall memories. In most cases it functions exactly as you’d think from the name – they build a huge mental structure and store memories in a layout that is somehow mnemonic, decorated with art and knickknacks their subconscious associates with those memories. I’ve met a few of these people in my life and let me tell you, to the psychometric it’s a thing to behold when a person comes walking down a hallway or into a room surrounded by a mishmash of flying architecture that looks like a cross between Royal Caribbean and Disney World.

Yes, I know there are Disney cruise liners, that’s not the point.

In the past psychometrics actually used a cousin of this technique to store memories in actual, physical objects, deliberately layering impressions one on top of the other until a favorite rosary, lucky coin or similar object also doubled as a memory aid to help us remember all the random minutia of daily life. They were wonderful, idiosyncratic objects and there are actually a few still stored in the collections of some of the current Constellations, the memories stored within slowly fading until someday, sooner rather than later, they’ll vanish entirely.

The problem with this technique was that losing the object in question often left its owner disoriented and possibly even mildly amnesiac. The invention of hard drives for computers gradually began to solve that problem. By the time I was old enough Galaxy was teaching me how to survive in the world we’d made the switch to a totally binary approach to memory aids. So when, after two hours of work sifting through photos of drones from the Worker Drones catalog and comparing them to those used in the dastardly Peanut Oil Attack, we concluded that they hadn’t come from the same source as the EMP drones used in the previous attacks and Natalie went to get a new assignment I didn’t have to waste any time tracking down what happened to the data we’d recovered from AJ Jackson.

I just looked into the computer tower and began unpacking everything I remembered of it into the computer’s file structure. There was a lot of information from Project Backboard to sift through but whether it was Hat Trick, Jackson himself or some other analyst hired for the job, someone had done a good job boiling it down and sorting it into useful categories, so there wasn’t even much I could discard out of hand. Worse, after a preliminary sort and analysis I realized that Jackson’s info and the timing of Backboard didn’t fit with the attacks that had been carried out.

There wasn’t any evidence of the kind of projects the Masks like to really dig their claws in to. 5G networks were still stymied and there didn’t seem to be any other new innovations in networking or interconnectivity brewing in the Valley. The focus was more towards AI and “smart house” style projects, things the Masks actually try to avoid. Something about adding unnatural layers to the omnimind. There were a few interesting looking experiments being done with learning neural nets and so-called “deep fake” technology, interested in both creating and exposing such fakes, but beyond that and some hardware miniaturization efforts currently ongoing it was pretty uninteresting stuff to most psychometrics.

And none of the companies working on that handful of projects had been effected by any of the three attacks so far, so it wasn’t likely they were planning to swoop in and buy up one of the smaller companies struggling in the aftermath of their mischief. I couldn’t for the life of me work out what it was they could possibly want.

What was the pattern behind the attacks? Other than an obvious dislike for Silicon Valley there wasn’t even a through line for all of them. It was like someone was just testing a bunch of ideas they’d once had for how they could use random bits of modern industrial technology to wreak havoc. It might even be borderline funny if the fallout from it wasn’t having such widespread effects. Besides the handful of people that had died during the blackouts, stock prices for a number of companies were tanking badly and probably wiping out some people’s retirement funds, a lot of politicians careers were probably over for no fault of their own – no loss there – and there had apparently been a near riot while I was at sea with Jackson yesterday, although I hadn’t quite pieced together what the cause of that was. It was all very unMask like. Maybe Hennesy was right and I had been listening to Eugene too much.

I was puzzling over it all at my desk, not really thinking about the Jackson files anymore, when Vinny poked his head into my cubicle and said, “You look puzzled, Armor.”

That brought me snapping back to reality. I gave him a curious look and said, “Of course. You’re here, not at the Archon offices. That almost never happens.”

Vinny produced a series of muscle movements that you might call a smile, if it had anything like humor attached to it. Like so many things about Vinny’s day to day living, it was just him doing something he knew was expected. “It’s not as rare as you make it sound. And you aren’t the only consultant the FBI has pulled in on this case.”

“Oh yeah?” I furrowed my brow. I didn’t know Vinny had been doing that kind of work. Then again, with how involved he was with cybersecurity across the Valley maybe he’d been recommended by one of his clients and only started recently. I’m sure he would have mentioned it to me during our last conversation if he’d been doing this then. “What side of the case are you working on?”

“My confidentiality agreements don’t allow me to say,” Vinny said. It was a mild statement backed by the unshakeable resolve of a man who saw give and take, negotiating a balanced agreement as the single most unshakeable foundation of functioning society.

Since I knew Vinny of all people wouldn’t mind an abrupt subject change after that kind of response I just shrugged and said, “Have you ever heard of a psychometric specializing in IT that goes by Hat Trick?”

There was a solid ten seconds of silence as Vinny’s mind whirred through memories – Vinny doesn’t quite have a mind palace but he does use a very efficient filing system – then he said, “I’ve heard the name, although it was some time ago and he wasn’t an IT specialist. He worked in a blend of electronics, mechanics and structural engineering. He was quite adept in all three fields, hence his name.”

“That’s a pretty broad range of interests,” I mused. “To perform at a high level across multiple fields of study he’d have to be at least a tier four. I’m surprised I’ve never heard of him.”

“I believe he was an independent contractor,” Vinny said. “I don’t believe that supposition was ever confirmed, though. You could always consult with one of Galaxy’s Constellations.”

“I suppose. But I’m trying to avoid talking to them right now, apparently they’re debating taking me off this case.” I got up from the computer and stretched, realizing I’d been there quite a while. “How did you know I was here?”

“Your handler mentioned it to the Special Agent in Charge when we were speaking a few minutes ago.” Vinny followed along as I went to the break room to get a cup of coffee. “I was taking the opportunity to discuss with SAC Hennesy the schedule for my modifications.”

I hesitated midpour. “Modifications?”

“Archon has been asked to conduct several system checks and upgrades in the last week. We’ve become aware of certain new surveillance and intrusion methods that require us to modify or upgrade some of our equipment to ensure protection.” Vinny waved towards Hennesy’s office – directly there, I noted, you could draw a straight line directly from his fingers through several walls and a ceiling to Hennesy’s door – and added, “While I was there consulting I believed it would be a good time to mention the necessity of upgrading the FBI’s systems and trying to work it around the aggressive schedule they are currently keeping.”

“Tricky,” I murmured, running through the possibilities in my mind. “Was there something you wanted to ask me?”

Vinny’s frown was as meaningless as his smile. “No, I just believed that greeting you would be appropriate, given our acquaintance.”

“Oh.” I nodded, acknowledging the truth of that. “So these weren’t systems I’ve worked on? Something I might have been able to help with?”

With an click I don’t know how normal people can’t hear Vinny seemed to understand what I was getting at. “No, these are not systems you’ve worked on, no will your help to install them be necessary. I was simply visiting to ‘say hello’.”

“Well, I appreciate the thought.” I put a lid on my coffee and added, “And I don’t mean to brush you off, but I think I worked out what was puzzling me earlier and I need to get back to work.”

“Of course.” Vinny nodded, getting back to work was something he understood like few others on Earth. “I’ll talk to you again if the opportunity presents itself.”

“Sure thing.” And I practically ran back to my cubicle.

Or at least, half way there. As soon as Vinny was out of sight I slowed down, because now I had a new problem to work out. Alvin “Vinny” Davidson was Silicon Valley’s leading expert on cybersecurity solutions that guarded against psychometric surveillance and intrusion.

So how was I going to prove he was working for the Masks?

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Four

Previous Chapter

Confronting the five major aspects of my personality as embodied by my coworkers had been exhausting. Drugging and kidnapping by an Arizona conspiracy merchant, not so much. Aurora threatened to ground me when I got up the next morning and headed to work but the truth was her heart wasn’t in it and we both knew it. The Constellations may be the oldest, most respected psychometrics in our little Galaxy but what we were dealing with went beyond that and both of us knew it. I wasn’t feeling too put out by my brush with abduction and that meant I needed to get back to it.

First thing through the office door Natalie dragged me to Hennesy’s office, where I got a lecture which I still wince to recall. It was mostly volume and exasperation, Eugene and I had violated procedure in several ways and gotten ourselves into a lot of trouble as a result, but I had figured out that the Masks had staged their drone attacks from water – or at least, I was pretty sure they had. So once my harangue was over Hennesy made me explain how I’d reached that conclusion.

I started from by breaking down all the convenience that mode of attack presented to someone looking to scrub their psychometric presence and built up my case for why the attack in general fit with the other patterns. It was nonviolent, it was disruptive, it focused specifically on Silicon Valley. Hennesy and Natalie listened until I finished, then Natalie pointed out, “You’re putting a lot of emphasis on these attacks being designed to elude psychometric detection. But psychometrics isn’t a well-known phenomenon, although admittedly the knowledge is more commonplace than I would have expected here in San Francisco. What makes you so sure our perpetrators are deliberately acting to avoid your detection? EMPs have been a part of infotech warfare experiments and scifi speculation for decades.”

“True enough. It wasn’t the question of methodology that makes me think they’re involved, it’s the question of motive.”

That got Hennesy’s attention. “That’s unusual for you, Armor. You know motive is for lawyers and juries, it won’t get us warrants or arrests. Why do you think it’s important here?”

“A couple of reasons, really.” I gauged Hennesy for a moment, looking for the best place to begin, the way to lay out the facts that would convince him of my thesis. It’s not an easy thing to do with him, Hennesy’s mind has always struck me as functioning like a sieve. He wants the whole mess thrown at him so he can strain out what’s important. Normally I admire that trait but this time I really needed him to see the thing my way. So might as well start with the biggest thing. “The biggest is because, if I have the motive correct, it means our perpetrators are connected to the Masks.”

“You’ve been talking to Eugene,” Hennesy grumbled. “He’s been saying that since day one.”

“Of course I’ve been talking to him. But I didn’t think he was right until I looked over the data Jackson pulled together. His crusade against what he calls the Silicoverlords is cute, but he was missing the pieces to make sense of the data he was getting. Hat Trick, his psychometric consultant, apparently hadn’t explained what the Masks were to him, so he couldn’t recognize what was happening. I’ve never heard of Hat Trick, so I don’t know if he didn’t tell Jackson about the Masks because he didn’t know much about them or just because he couldn’t recognize what they were doing, but I do and I did.”

Natalie raised a hand, fingers waving for my attention. “Sorry to interrupt, but AJ Jackson isn’t the only one who doesn’t know what the Masks are. Care to elaborate?”

“The Masks are a group of psychometrics who believe all people are splinters of a single omniscient being, kinda like Buddhists or Hindus,” Hennesy said. It was a pretty accurate description of the Masks, if not necessarily Buddhists or Hindus. “They believe psychometry is the way the splinters are meant to bind themselves back together into the original big brain and they spend a lot of time trying to do just that through a lot of weird methods, most of them legal but a large minority of them not so much. They traffic drugs and humans in some cases, perform medically dubious experiments in others. The FBI started contracting with Galaxy for investigators in the seventies because we got involved in some of the nastier experiments the Masks were working on.”

“For our part, Galaxy and the Masks have been at odds much longer. Honestly I don’t think we’d have had any problems with them at all, except they dogmatically insist all psychometrics have a duty be part of their efforts to reunite humanity. And we knew, pretty much since those,” I waved at Hennesy’s computer, “were invented that the Masks would see them as another vector for their struggle to remake the omnimind they think we’re all fragments of. So we’ve been working to root out their influence on Silicon Valley since the mid 1990s.”

Natalie pursed her lips in concentration, worked her way through that information then said, “So do you think the recent attacks are a result of your efforts to shut them out of the industry entirely?”

“Ah…” Honestly, I’d never thought of it in that light before. “That’s not an entirely fair characterization, but if you asked a Mask it’s possible they’d see it that way. Fact is, Eugene and I have been crossing paths with the Masks pretty much since I started working here. It’s never been clear what exactly they were up to but I’ve never doubted they’re making plays to take over Silicon Valley and bring the world closer in their own rather twisted way. I think it’s likely that AJ was going to uncover some piece of that plan and they had to push up their time table by using a series of terrorist attacks to drive Silicon Valley towards them.”

Hennesy leaned back with a snort. “Are you implying that everything that’s happened in the last few days is a convoluted series of false flag attacks?”

“Not exactly. A false flag is where you pretend to be your enemy and attack an ally, so you’re justified in the eyes of others when you declare war on your enemies, or when your allies join forces with you. If I had to guess, the Masks want one of two things. Either they’re trying to push the firms they’ve attacked towards some kind of security solution they’ve prepped ahead of time or they’re trying to weaken competitors in an area they’re planning to break in to later on.” I shrugged, this was one part of the theory I didn’t have a clear picture of. “I lean towards it being the former, the power grid attack was big, probably bigger than intended, but couldn’t possibly have been deliberately targeted even if it had performed as intended.”

“This is all pretty farfetched,” Hennesy said, far from convinced. But I could see him turning over the parts of the puzzle in his mind and seeing that they did fit, to an extent. There was just a lot of it missing.

“Have the Masks ever used terror attacks before?” Natalie asked.

“No,” I conceded. “But everything that’s happened so far falls into the category of large scale, technically nonviolent mischief that a psychometric could do and still be comfortable with. If chaos and panic were all the perpetrators wanted there are easier ways to get it.”

“Although none that made it quite so clear that their problem was with Silicon Valley in particular,” Hennesy said. “And in the cases I’ve supervised where the Masks were involved they tended to omit a lot of direct communication, which fits with the lack of public statements or demands after the recent attacks. No one’s really claimed credit for them outside of a few Iranian and Afghani groups we’re not taking very seriously.”

Hennesy thought about it for a moment more, then shook his head and said, “No, it’s too far-fetched for the brass to take seriously.”

“I thought you were in charge of this investigation,” I said.

“Well you thought wrong. This basically goes right up to the Secretary of Defense at this point, Washington has been taking this investigation very seriously since the power grid went down. It’s none of your business where the buck stops, though, is it?” Hennesy gave me an amused look. “You’ve never cared when higher ups came into an investigation before.”

It wasn’t something I’d ever noticed before, which I guess goes to show that he was right and it didn’t really matter to me. Then again, I’d never wanted to follow a line of investigation contrary to what the FBI wanted before. “I guess I haven’t. But these are special circumstances.”

“True enough. If you want to sift Jackson’s data on your own time, be my guest, but between you and me it’s a bad idea. You can’t let the job get to you that way. Now get out of here and let me get back to work. Agent Chase already has your next assignment.” He pointed one meaty finger directly at my chest, a vivid picture of him pinning me in place running through his mind. “And this time be sure to stick to protocol if you have anything you want to do on your own time. Understand?”

“Sure thing, boss.” Hennesy grunted and waved us out.

Once we were safely in the hallway with the door closed I asked, “So what do you want to do first, dig through the Jackson files or our actual job?”

Natalie gave me a longsuffering look. “Your file never suggested you were a maverick.”

“Yeah,” I said with a smirk. “Well, maybe they should talk with AJ Jackson about my working name. I can be subtle when I want to be. I take it you want to tackle Hennesy’s assignment. So what is it?”

“We pulled a lot of data from the Worker Drones offices and we’re going to try and match any of their designs to the drones flying over the waterfront three days ago.”

“Ah,” I said dryly, “the further adventures of weakArmor, image recognition expert. At least you’re paying my hourly rate on this.”

Natalie plastered on an innocent face. “Have you read your contract recently?”

“No…” I said, suddenly wary. “That’s what Galaxy is for.”

“Well, there’s an emergency clause in it that cuts your rate in half and take out paid overtime.”

“If you’re trying to convince me playing a maverick is a bad idea you’re doing a bad job…”