Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty Two

Previous Chapter

When the shoes dropped all three came at once. After nearly forty eight hours of waiting Absolute Technologies and Turing, Incorporated got hit with a series of escalating DDOS attacks and I got called in to back up AT while Overclock, who had flown in less than eight hours ago as our first genuine psychometric IT specialist, tried to backtrace the attack on Turing. Of course, the whole point of DDOS attacks is to overwhelm a single point with an incredible volume of meaningless access requests from random places. Trying to backtrace one is like trying to swim upstream, you’re more likely to be swept away into a random whirlpool and drowned.

I spent nearly twenty minutes flailing against walls of meaningless data, pinning down points of origin and applying countermeasures. Now most of these attacks came from overseas so I can’t say much about what the government had on hand to deal with them but by the end of the brief training I’d had on them I’d felt very uncomfortable about using any of it. Although in the end, use it I did.

Still, Overclock and I were so caught up in our own little parts of the fight we missed that the third AI was under attack until after it was already over and Eugene was yelling at us to get ready for our turn to come up next. AI three belonged to a massive wholesaling group that had originally built it to optimize their shipping operations. It was far and away the best funded and best staffed of the AI projects we were monitoring so we had hoped they’d make it on their own.

They’d folded in less than half an hour, which made me feel much less good about our chances. The DDOS against Turing, Inc vanished seconds later, telling me where they’d decided to go next.

I turned part of my attention from trying to keep up with the AT DDOS and leaned back to look at Eugene, who was stationed at one end of the cramped, computer filled room we were using as our base of operation. “Should I back up Overclock?”

Eugene didn’t even look up. “No. AT had the worst security of them all, stay there and try and find some way to patch those weak spots you’re so proud of finding.”

So I did. The problem was, I already knew the weak spot in the Absolute Technologies defense strategy. Fractal encryption was pretty slick, given it was infinitely complex and you could just keep diving deeper into the complexities of fractal math to shore up your encryptions. The problem was, the more complex the encryption the more power you needed in your computer systems to encrypt and decrypt your data. The strength of your encryption was ultimately dictated by the power of the system that was running it. AT was secure so long as they had more powerful machines than their attackers.

You might expect a firm devoted entirely to developing a state of the art AI to have better machines than anyone else. You’d be right if you’re comparing it to anything that isn’t an Archon Securities machine designed by Alvin Davidson. But adding a single psychometric to the equation was not going to make up for the fact that AT was woefully underprepared to go up against the Valley’s foremost expert on cybersecurity and encryption.

To its credit, Sandoval was doing its very best to fight back against the attacks it was already undergoing. Somehow it had managed to freeze several of the incoming torrents of data in the DDOS on its own. I wasn’t sure if it was launching counter-DDOS attacks of its own or doing something else but it was pretty impressive. It was far more proactive than any other supposedly self-defending AI I’d ever seen.

I could see why they called it Sandoval – the entire structure of the AI seemed to be based on fractals now that I watched it in action. It branched out much like the grove of trees in its name, swinging and scything through networks and parsing code until it cleared everything out and moved on. It was working okay for the DDOS attacks but I wasn’t sure how well it would work against whatever intrusion techniques Vinny was using.

Tentatively I reached out to a cloud server where Sandoval was doing its thing and pushed my way in to what was going on. Suddenly I was pulled into the fractal code, swept along by the rushing waves of incredibly dense code pumped along through fiberoptic cables at the speed of light and arrived back in the still fishbowl I’d been in two days ago.

“Hello, Sandoval,” I said.

“Hello, weakArmor,” Sandoval replied. “Thank you for logging in again.”

“I wasn’t actually expecting to be here,” I confessed.

“You were recognized and brought here by a Type Four Fugue system as your psychometric interface was reducing operations on end point servers by 6%.”

Now that I was on my second visit there, and now that I’d seen it from the outside, there was a lot that I could parse here on the inside of Sandoval’s code that had seemed random on my first visit. The number of outside access requests it was getting were dropping of fast. “Sandoval, I know I was reducing system performance but I need you to let me back out of here. The DDOS attack is tapering off. The Turing AI must be down now and Vinny is getting ready to move on to your system.”

“I have been briefed on the potential of an external breach by malicious actors,” Sandoval admitted. The data rushing past began to warp and twist as it went on its way. “I have begun fractal countermeasures.”

“That’s not going to be enough, Sandoval. The increasing complexity is going to down your processors before you can stymie Vinny that way.”

“Fractal countermeasures are my primary security tool.” The wording sounded quite passive aggressive but anyone who saw it that way was projecting. Sandoval just didn’t have anything else to fall back on.

“Then we need to come up with one in the next five minutes.”

We actually didn’t have that much time. I wasn’t sure how I could tell but some change in the far reaches of the code beyond told me that, like a rock disrupting the current in a river, something had broken in to Sandoval and was warping its processes. “There is no time to implement new countermeasures. Fractal countermeasures are now in active evolutions.”

There was a tense ten second interlude as I tried to follow the rapid changes in the patterns of code and the way the intruder writhed about, trying to keep up. Then the intruder suddenly vanished, only to reappear elsewhere in Sandoval’s code, still writhing in the same way but getting closer and closer to matching the shape of Sandoval’s defenses.

“You’re losing this one, Sandoval. He’s already got your number.”

“Intruder has a 22% encryption match. I calculate he will reach full decryption in 110-155 seconds. Fractal evolutions will be slower than intruders rate of adaptation by that point.”

The intruder flickered away and reappeared elsewhere again. Why was that happening? I timed it and found there were, in fact, exactly 11.6 seconds between each flicker. Taking a chance I edged up to the edge of the fishbowl of calm inside Sandoval’s core and waited for the next flicker. A split second before it was scheduled I dove through the whirlwind and grabbed at the intruder as it yanked back. That slowed down the extraction just enough for its presence inside Sandoval to overlap with the replacement – we weren’t seeing one intruder come and go, there were at least two working in tandem.

I let the code suck me back down into the safe zone. “Sandoval, I have an idea. Can you change the mathematical base for your fractal encryption during the lapse in time when those intruders swap places?”

“The lapse in time between when one withdraws and the next engages is 3 picoseconds. That is not sufficient time.”

“Could I slow down the replacement intrusion enough for you to do it?”

“It is not possible to predict where the next intrusion will take place. The intruder is using random ports and registry addresses to effect access.”

I was about to change tactics when a new thought occurred to me. “Plot all the access points they haven’t used then try and predict what will come next-“

“There is no definable randomization factor.”

AI that will cut off a human. What next, Skynet? “It’s not truly random, Sandoval. It’ll be balanced across whether the IPs have odd or even addresses, across the months of the year the servers were brought online, based on distribution through the Valley – or the state, or nation – point is the locations are going to balance on some level.”

Sandoval let a full two seconds tick past before it answered. “Regression based on domain names in binary indicates there is a predictable pattern.”

Somewhere out in meatspace I pumped my fist. “Everyone has a weakness, Vinny.”

“I don’t understand. Will you clarify or should I display findings.”

“Show me where the next intruder will be and I’ll slow it down. You flip the encryption while I’m doing that.”

“Understood.” A part of Sandoval’s code… well, got more obvious. There’s no good way to describe how the AI pointed it out to me, but that’s what it did.

“Give me a three second countdown before it shows up.”

“Three.”

I teetered on the edge of sane code once again.

“Two.”

Dove for the marked part of Sandoval’s core.

“One.”

Almost overshot my mark and then –

The intruder was pressing its way into the core right next to me.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty One

Previous Chapter

“Hello, Sandoval.”

“Hello, weakArmor. Are you doing well today?”

“Not particularly, Sandoval. Can you guess why?”

“We have never met before, weakArmor, so I can only draw on broad generalities. Based on the current news headlines and the terminal you are accessing from I calculate a 72% probability that you aren’t doing well is due to your work being involved in the recent controversy in Silicon Valley.”

I pulled my hand away from the computer and looked incredulously at George Beane, the point man from Absolute Technologies. “This thing is a state of the art AI and it’s still talking to me in percentages?”

Geroge waved his hands in that exasperated way the particularly brilliant do when they think they’re talking to an imbecile. “You accessed it via the psychometric interface rather than the verbal one so it probably concluded you’re a debugger like SpeedRead or Verity are. I’m sure you talk to your coworkers differently than you do the general public, too.”

Everyone I’d met at the AT labs spoke about Sandoval like that, casually equating it to real people and assuming everyone would be able to get used to talking about its disembodied voice the same as they would any other human being. On the other hand, I knew people who were uncomfortable talking to others over the phone line and wasn’t quite as optimistic about the odds as they were. But who was I to tell them how to spend their investor’s money. I was just there to try and catch a bunch of cyberterrorists before they made sure AT – or one of their competitors in the market – lost all their carefully cultivated investments.

I reached out and touched Sandoval’s terminal again. “Hello, Sandoval.”

“Hello, weakArmor. Thank you for reconnecting. Do you wish to discuss the current situation in Silicon Valley, or would you like to move on to another topic?”

The digital space I entered while communicating with Sandoval was a bit like a giant fishbowl, but in reverse. I was in the middle of a small, still area looking out through a think, protective barrier, listening to oceans of code ebb and surge all around me. There was more going on out there than I could parse easily, computing not being my field of expertise by a long shot, but I’m sad to report that it didn’t strike me as anything like a real mind. I wondered how often AT’s inhouse psychometrics brought that up. “The first one, Sandoval. I don’t suppose you’ve considered how this chaos in the valley is going to effect you?”

There was an audible, almost tangible change in the direction Sandoval’s data processing was moving in. After a considerable pause – probably three seconds – the AI said, “I cannot think of any effects it will have on me beyond possibly delaying my development cycle. My program is not hardware dependent and is backed up every twelve hours via secure Gemini Solutions equipment.”

“I see. Sandoval, have you ever been secured via Archon Securities, or even tested any of their equipment as a part of your network?”

“No, that would have been a violation of the Absolute Technologies exclusivity contract with Gemini Solutions.”

That wasn’t surprising. AT had barely existed for two years, changing their cybersecurity firms in such a short period of time would’ve been very unusual. “Sandoval, please demonstrate your firewalls and similar defenses designed to prevent tampering via psychometry.”

Ten seconds later I was pulling my gloves back on while staring incredulously at George. “Fractal encryption, the intermediate firewall and an offsite back up? That’s all your insurance against outside tampering?”

“We’re very early in the development process, there isn’t a whole lot of innovative code there to protect.” George waved me aside and took over the keyboard, going through a fairly involved process to secure the terminal that was ultimately meaningless given that they’d let their bleeding edge AI program access the Internet to facilitate its learning algorithms and then basically done squat to protect it against tampering on the cyberspace front. “We’re working with Gemini to build new layers of protection for it that will still allow it to gather data to extrapolate from quickly but also keep it safe from hackers. In the meantime Sandoval runs on a custom OS and custom programming language, the structure is not going to be something people can crack very easily.”

“The whole point of psychometric hacking is to break past those kinds of barriers via active pattern recognition.”

He glanced over his shoulder, giving me an amused look. “And could you have parsed what you saw of Sandoval with your psychometric abilities?”

“Admittedly no, but that’s not my primary specialty.”

“Why did Archon keep hiring you as a consultant?”

I shrugged. “Testing their countermeasures against an amateur is part of their process.”

George made a noncommittal noise and went back to his typing. “Well, Sandoval is capable of defending itself, too.”

That was something every AI developer I’d spoken to in the last two days had claimed. I wasn’t sure how that was supposed to work and explanations had mostly gone over my head. Mixer was scrambling to find a psychometric computer expert – still a rare breed – that could come in and shore up our numbers. Unfortunately that left me, with my background with Archon, as the closest thing to an expert in the field we had available. We were really behind the curve.

“The ugly truth is every computer system is vulnerable to an intruder it believes is supposed to be there,” I said. “That’s the vulnerability they’re going to try and exploit.”

“What makes you so sure of that?” George demanded, his pride kicking up to confront me.

“I heard it from Alvin Davidson,” I replied. “So let me rephrase – that’s the kind of vulnerability they’re going to be looking for. Can you just ask Sandoval to lock everyone out for the time being?”

“We’d never be able to get back in if we did that! It’d be totally impossible to reset it once we were locked out.” Like those of the other firms I’d spoken to, AT engineers seemed to have high opinions of their product’s capabilities and security. Personally I suspected 4chan could break Sandoval inside of a week if they only knew it existed. “I don’t see why the FBI is so convinced we’re going to be targeted by these terrorists, anyway. We’re not working in anything like the same fields as the previous targets.”

“That’s kind of the point of targeting you,” I said, handing him the thumb drive I’d brought with me. “It’s not about the tech you’re developing It’s more of a kind of philosophical difference…”

“Don’t be silly. Humans are tool users and that’s what we do here, build tools.” George glared at the drive but eventually took it from me when I refused to take it back. “What does this do?”

“Does it matter? It’s just a tool.”

“Very funny. I want to know if It’s going to do anything weird to Sandoval.”

“Beats me. But Gemini, Hemmingway and the FBI’s best minds all spent the last eighteen hours on it so it should at least function as intended.” I held up the court order we’d gotten that was probably going to get someone in trouble if it ever got to an appeals court. “Now I’ve looked over your programs and decided they need to be upgraded -“

“Which you were going to do regardless,” George grumbled.

“Which I always going to do, so by the mandate of the County of San Francisco you can either install that or go to jail. Your choice.”

He installed it but he didn’t like it. Frankly, neither did I. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, these kinds of confrontations are not something psychometrics generally like. I’m no exception. But I liked the idea of Vinny and the Masks getting another one up and over on me even less so. When none of the Valley’s major AI development projects had agreed to let the FBI monitor them in an attempt to catch Vinny red handed in his next move Hennesy had decided to play hardball and I was past worrying about it at this point.

“What kind of philosophy worries about people who are just trying to make the human race better off?” George was wandering very close to the realm of self-pity.

“People with different ideas of what the human race is.”

That just got me an empty look.

“Spare me from gearheads,” I muttered, massaging the bridge of my nose. “Are you an introvert or an extrovert?”

“What?”

“Crowds. Do you get excited in crowds or is keeping up with them draining for you?”

“Oh.” His brain audibly switched gears, thought about it, and returned an answer. “Excited, I guess.”

“So you’re an extrovert. You get energized by large groups of people. On the other hand, I’m an introvert. Even if I know and like everyone in a group of more than six people, being in that group is tiring and eventually I’ll need to cut out and recharge.” I took a hand and pushed that thought off to one side, George’s eyes tracking the movement in morbid fascination. “Do you know the golden rule?”

“Love your neighbor as yourself?”

“Bingo. Now. Let’s say we’re friends.” He snorted. “It’s a stretch, I know. But try and imagine something other than code for a bit. Say we’re friends and you see me looking down, so you try and get me to cheer up. So you drag me to a big social event with a ton of people. Is that the golden rule in action?”

“No, of course not. I’d want people trying to cheer me up to take who I am in to account, so I should take who you are in to account.” He pointed to the part of the conversation I’d pushed aside, making me wonder if he was a touch psychometric himself. “So tie this together for me because I don’t get it.”

“People view the human race in as many different ways as they view crowds. And believe me, there are some people who look at adding AI to our culture to be like dragging an exhausted introvert to a giant house party. That’s why we need to do this.”

For a moment I thought I got through. Then George said, “Sandoval and a frat house kegger have nothing in common.”

I sighed. “Never said they did. Just… leave that thing installed until we contact you and give you clearance to remove it.”

It had been two days since Vinny left me at the Archon offices. Previous attacks had been between three days to a week apart. Our preparations were done and the ball was in Vinny’s court. It was time to get a nap and then wait for the other shoe to drop.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty

Previous Chapter

Natalie was waiting with Aurora when I found them, both women standing beside Natalie’s car. “Can you drive?” Natalie asked as I approached. “I know psychometrics in general can drive, I meant you personally, Armor.”

“Yes, although it’s not my cup of tea.” Driving is a new kind of experience when you have to tune out the vehicle’s onboard computer while steering. “I take it this is where we’re parting ways?”

“Yes, unfortunately.” And she was actually saddened. “This wasn’t what I was expecting when I was read in on psychometrics last year but I think it’s an outcome I can live with.” 

“You didn’t know that the Masks were planning this, did you?” Aurora asked.

Natalie just gave us a helpless shrug. “Just because we’re all one mind doesn’t mean we all handle the same kinds of thoughts.”

“And that kind of thing is exactly why I’ve never liked the Masks much to begin with,” I said. “They handle information like a cult.”

“Or a government bureaucracy,” Natalie added.

“The two are similar in more ways than one.” I fished my sterilizer out of a pocket and began running it over my gloves. “Speaking of which, since you’re going to be wanted by the FBI after this. Do you have any way to take care of yourself?”

“Mr. Davidson is taking me on staff,” she replied. “I don’t have exact responsibilities yet but I suspect I’m going to be a spoiler for any Feds coming after us, just like he’s a spoiler against any tech firms trying to track us.”

I shook my head in amazement. “Always thinking, that one. Well, Vinny’s completely dependable and trustworthy, assuming you can decode and follow along with his ways of thinking.”

For a moment Natalie’s mouth worked without producing any sound. Finally she managed to get out the words, “You’re surprisingly blasé about all this, Armor.”

“No psychometric ever solved a problem by getting angry,” I replied. “It scatters our most important mental resources. And if I’m being blunt, I think you’re being taken advantage of.”

“Perhaps. But I can make my own choices.” She swung the car door open for me. “Tell Hennesy I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to throw in with Davidson and the Masks, you know,” Aurora said. “The Masks aren’t illegal or anything and if you really didn’t know what they were planning then you can’t be held accountable for any of it.”

“If the FBI was an organization dedicated to helping people I could see the point in that,” she replied. “But they’re not. They’re an organization that finds people who have been hurt and then uses them as a justification to take the awesome power of the surveillance state and a tireless army of merciless drones and beat anyone remotely connected to the situation into the ground. I won’t be one of those drones anymore. The Masks offer something better. They offer us true unity.”

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I’d heard this kind of line so many times in the past. I’d also learned there really wasn’t anything I could say against it. Sure, Natalie was likely to become just another kind of drone maybe helping someone and maybe not. But she wouldn’t believe how dubious her place there was if I just told her. She’d have to live it for herself, just like she had at the FBI. “Then best of luck finding it. Just because I don’t think you’ll find a place with the Masks doesn’t mean I don’t want you to find one at all.” I gave her a tired smile. “Take care of yourself, okay?”

Natalie studied me for a moment, her mind opaque without the boost from her watch. Then she smiled, tentatively accepting the offered olive branch. “You to, Armor.”

Aurora and I climbed into the car and I started it up. It was a pretty nice car, a recent model to boot, and had built in GPS so I didn’t have to try and remember the fastest route back to FBI headquarters. I just plugged it in and off we went. Aurora watched Natalie disappear back into the building as I pulled away from the curb and then sighed. “Do you think we’ll see her again?”

“We’ll most likely be called on to testify against her, so probably.”

A faint ripple of annoyance disturbed the surface of Aurora’s normally placid disposition. “You’re awfully confident. “

“Because I’ve already got an idea what’s really going down. I just need Hennesy to help me get the warrants to prove it.”

Aurora gave me a skeptical look. “When did you have time to work that out? Or did Davidson leave some kind of clue lying around by accident?”

“If he’d left a clue it wouldn’t be by accident. Vinny’s an expert at leaving dead end clues.” I grinned. “Like how he deliberately showed me the place where he built the drones used in all these attacks.”

“You want to be the brilliant detective and tell me your findings, Armor,” Aurora said with a trace of amusement. “Don’t leave me in suspense now!”

“He wants me to keep thinking there’s going to be another drone attack,” I said, ignoring the small dig at me. “But that’s not Vinny’s way. That would be unbalanced. He’s made three relatively minor – or at least intended as minor – attacks in meatspace. Now to balance it he has to make at least one attack in cyberspace.”

“That… does seem to follow,” she admitted, skepticism weighing with her respect for my experience in this area. “Do you know what kind of cyberspace attack to expect?”

“Not exactly. Not yet. That’s why I need the warrants.”

Aurora was silent, or at least didn’t say anything. The wheels in her mind were certainly spinning loudly. Finally she said, “Are you sure?”

“Beg pardon?”

“You just found out your read on how Davidson was seeing balance in Silicon Valley was wrong. Now you think you’ve got the formula right again. But look at it from another perspective. In medicine when things go wrong it’s, in many ways, because things are out of balance. But homeopathic medicine is a thing of the past – we don’t treat sickness by adding to it anymore. You can’t fight poison with poison.” Aurora gave me a worried look. “Davidson may have picked ‘meatspace’ attacks because they’re the only way to balance the equation.”

That made a lot of sense given what I’d said but I hadn’t explained the full picture so Aurora hadn’t seen the patterns I had. “Cyberspace isn’t the disease, what companies are doing with it is.” I reached for my phone then remembered Natalie had taken it and hadn’t given it back. “We need to stop somewhere and call the FBI…”

“I know a clinic that has an office three blocks from here.” She tapped the dashboard once and the GPS reset to the new destination. “Sorry, four blocks.”

“No one’s perfect,” I said with a slight smile, stopping myself from adding anything cheesy. “Anyway, there was a summary video I could have shown you but…”

“Guess you’ll have to fumble through on your own.”

“Guess so.” I took a moment to marshal my thoughts. “Once I was sure the Masks were involved I started looking for why they might hit the targets they did. Their first target was a payment processor which suffered minor losses of business and a major loss of user confidence. The second target, at least initially, was a section of the power grid serving not one but two search engine companies. Knocking out the power grid on such a large scale was just collateral. The third attack targeted social media companies. All tech firms that specialize in replacing normal communication with digital options that frequently leave those who participate more isolated than the meat space alternatives.”

“The Masks are obsessed with drawing people together, not driving them apart,” Aurora muttered. “So they got someone to balance the books for them.”

“But the one thing they hate the most here in the Valley is also the one thing they can only eradicate via cyberattack.” I pulled into the parking lot of the clinic Aurora had sent me to. “They’re going to try and wipe out the AI projects.”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Nine

Previous Chapter

“I am sorry that it came to this, Armor.”

I studied Vinny for a full minute before answering. “I’m not sure you are.”

The Archon Securities offices were empty of most of the people and equipment that I was used to seeing there. I wasn’t sure how long Vinny had been planning to bug out or if he drilled his people on evacuating the office but it was impressive, all the more so because I’d never seen any signs that things were ready to vanish at a moment’s notice. While that kind of impermanence is usually pretty obvious to people like me; Vinny was used to hiding things from people like me so it balanced out. Which no doubt gave him extreme satisfaction.

“Where’s Aurora?”

“She is with Agent Chase,” Vinny said. “Trust me, I am as loathe to harm others as you are.”

That’s debatable,” I grumbled. “Speaking of Chase, how long -“

“It’s not my place to answer for her. I barely know her and only realized she was the Masks’ inside agent when she was assigned as your new handler. All I can say is she seems like an honest person who has struggled to understand herself and her position in the world.” Vinny walked through the empty cubicles, hands clasped behind his back, his mind running through a shockingly exhaustive mental inventory of what should and should not be left behind. Unsurprisingly he wasn’t finding anything out of place, Vinny’s people were considered the best in the industry for a reason. “To be perfectly honest my association with the Masks is not that longstanding either. Hat Trick introduced me to them after our collaboration on the fugue state therapy device.”

“Because he thought you could assist them in building a true telepathy device as well.”

“An intriguing possibility,” Vinny said. Then, after a pause, “Although one I was reluctant to explore.”

“If you thought the Internet disrupted the balance between public and private then yes, I’m surprised you would be willing to even entertain the possibility.” I hesitated as we passed a large room that, based on the large patches of slightly darker flooring, had recently held large pieces of equipment. The vague whirring in the background and dancing images of grids and blueprints buried in the psychometric background of the room told me what they had been. “This is where you built and maintained the drones. You had your own 3d printers here.”

“Drones are part of any modern security surveillance system,” Vinny said. “We’ve had everything we needed to build and repair our own for years. I contracted Worker Drones to build a few prototypes for the more exotic systems but the rest came from here. I’d counted on the crop duster drones being completely untraceable. One of the handful of mistakes we made in this process.”

“Only a handful?”

“Yes, though they have been glaring enough.”

“Was starting this whole harebrained scheme one of them?”

Vinny stared at the empty room for a moment, something almost like regret making its way through the mechanical, balance focused thing he called a brain. “That remains to be seen.”

From Vinny it was practically an admission of disaster. I studied him for a moment, wondering that he had edged so close to something recognizably human and, in the process, transformed into a person I barely knew. “Why did you do it, Vinny? What was out of balance?”

He continued to stare at the room for a moment, then pivoted and resumed his progress towards whatever destination he was steering us towards. “I was, Armor. I was and am out of balance.”

“Well obviously you are, now. How were you when you started?”

“In order to ethically and morally interface with the rest of society an individual must first be balanced internally. I am not.” We passed through a heavy fire door and out onto a small loading dock, much like the one where Natalie had started this investigation a week ago. “My analytical abilities far outstrip the other facilities of my mind, while my emotional understanding lags far behind the aggregate. I have struggled for most of my life to remedy this imbalance while still using my technical expertise to the benefit of others. The Masks were simply the first group of people to offer me the chance to combine the two endeavors. Naturally, I accepted.”

There was a full sized van on the docks waiting for us. Vinny opened the sliding door and I saw what I was beginning to recognize as Hat Trick’s work. The van was some kind of roving electronics center equipped with dozens of different systems ranging from normal computers to a miniature faraday cage containing who knows what – faraday cages being one of those things that completely counters psychometric examination. Standing near the antenna I picked up the feelings of the van’s driver – impatient and a little nervous – in the same way I did from Natalie when her watch was active. It was a psychometric broadcaster much like her watch was, although doubtless orders of magnitude more powerful.

“You want to join the omnimind so it will wipe out your emotional handicaps,” I said, feeling the disparate pieces of the puzzle slot into place all at once. “You think you’ll be able to emote and feel empathy if you can crack the telepathy tech Hat Trick is working on.”

“Medications seemed a promising avenue of research at one time, but I’ve realized that emotions are so often a response to others – they must be understood in a group setting first. Thus the Masks’ omnimind did indeed seem like the best way to balance my mind.” Vinny climbed into the back of the van, running his fingers over a box that contained some important part of the set-up. “Hat Trick came to me for help with breaking Helio out of his fugue state – the details of that story are quite long and we don’t have time for them today. Suffice it to say that in turn I received a chance to help develop the only possible tech in the world that may solve my problem.”

I eyed him for a moment. Somehow I’d expected him to be uniquely enamored with some part of the van, focused on the project that would correct his imbalance. But he was evaluating the vehicle with the same dispassionate analysis he gave to everything. I wondered if he even felt his lack of emotional depth on anything other than an intellectual level.

Then again, with Vinny, an intellectual understanding of his flaws and goals was more than enough to outstrip the full force of most people’s personalities.

“So.” I leaned on the side of the van, watching him through the doorway warily. “You’ve explained yourself and your logic. I’m kind of surprised there was no mention of the imbalance between Galaxy and the Masks in there-“

“Agent Chase told me you had already mentioned it to you FBI colleagues.”

“True enough.” I folded my arms across my chest, deliberately closing myself off from him both in posture and by removing my hands, the most psychometrically sensitive part of the body, from play. “Now it’s time for you to make me your offer.”

Vinny took a seat in the driver’s side captain’s chair, leaving half the van and another chair between us. “But you do not intend to accept.”

“Of course not. Working with the Masks – or with you while you work with the Masks – was never on the table. I can appreciate what Hat Trick accomplished with Helio. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know what all healing or therapeutic applications psychometry might have when combined with bleeding edge technology and programming. But I’ve met Masks before, Vinny. They don’t change you or transform you, they make you more yourself. And then they slot you into their machine.” I pointed a finger and mimed pushing something into place. “They’ll put you where they think you belong and never, ever let you out.”

“Perhaps. I do not know them as you say you do.” He blew out a gust of air in a way that could almost pass for a genuine sigh. “If they had been available for simple examination perhaps I would have known for certain.”

I stepped back out of the doorway. “Perhaps so. Maybe it was our mistake to drive them so far out of society that you couldn’t just look at them to see what they are.”

“Crimes against balance are always a mistake, Armor. Your friend, Aurora, should have been returned to the front entrance.” He reached for a button to close the door – because of course he could afford a van with automatic doors – but I raised a hand to stop him.

“This isn’t over, Vinny. No matter how good you think you are at your job, I’m the best on the coast at mine. You can layer yourself in distractions and encryptions and dead ends and think yourself protected but remember that no psychometric firewall you’ve built has stood up to me in the end. There’s always a weak point in the armor.” I tapped myself on the chest. “Finding them is my specialty.”

“But my armor is not lies and misdirection, alibies and deniabilities, Armor. It’s balance. Balance has no weaknesses.” The door began to slide closed between us.

“We’ll see, Vinny. We’ll see.”

The door closed. The van left. After a moment, I went to find Aurora. Talking to Vinny had cleared my head and, in truth, I’d had his achilleas heel even before we’d spoken. In the end he was just like every other criminal I’d faced. Not matter what he thought about the matter himself, the truth was secrecy was his armor. And balance was his weakness.