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.