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 -“
“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.”