Pay the Piper – Afterwords

Whew. Some days I find writing to be a slog, some days it’s as easy as breathing. But to make a confession, writing Pay the Piper was more struggle than it was effortless. I hadn’t anticipated how rough simply reading the news would be when writing a story based on very recent events. I’ve second guessed what I was saying and whether people would hear what I meant or project something entirely different over what I wrote almost every chapter of this story, where it was only a concern now and then in other projects. I also rewrote the ending to the story.

Twice.

All in all, writing Pay the Piper stretched me in ways I didn’t anticipate and was a bigger effort than I ever anticipated so I’m not planning to tackle a project like it again in the near future. I might find myself pushed that way if I was prouder of the outcome but, while I am satisfied with where I wound up and that the story is complete I’m not sure I could ever make it into a work I’m proud and enthusiastic about. I know every author finds themselves with a few of those, even greats like Dickens, Doyle and Christie, but the point is I went off in a new direction to stretch myself and afterwards I feel sore and not particularly more flexible.

Not that I’m sad I wrote the story. The juncture of social media, soft exclusion and the slow poisoning of our perspectives and minds those factors can have is still very vivid to me, as is the potential for the technological resources we have and are developing to merge with our lives in unexpected and beneficial ways. I’m just not sure I’ve got the knowledge and interests to accurately display that in a near-to-real-world way. I tried my hand at it and, while the result is very rough, it does manage to hit most of the notes I wanted from it.

So what comes next?

As usual, I’ll be taking a week off to decompress, then I’ll invest another four weeks into general essays as I plot and do research for my next project.

Yes, downtime between fiction projects will be much shorter this time around. Partly because I’ve got a less to say on the essay front and partly because I’m very excited to begin on my next project, Martian Scriptures. I felt like my fiction work really hit its stride on this blog during the publication of Schrodinger’s Book and I found that story and its world and characters far more compelling and rich than I’d expected them to be when I started. So I’m glad to have a chance to go back to that story and write its indirect sequel. I hope you’ll enjoy it just as much.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty Four

Previous Chapter

“I’ve never had an office before.” It was a strange feeling, to be sure. The life of the Gifted contractor is one of travelling here and there at the beck and call of the Constellations, setting up an office isn’t usually helpful for us. That’s what I had people like Mixer for. I shot him a questioning look. “Are you going to miss juggling my schedule?”

“Are you kidding? Keeping up with the busiest Gifted forensic on the West Coast was a hassle like you wouldn’t believe.” He hooked a thumb at Eugene. “When he told me the FBI wanted you on the Archon taskforce for an indefinite period I gave him a discount just to get you out of my hair.”

“I’d wondered why my hourly rate took a hit,” I said, let a bit of my annoyance leak in ways only Mix would pick up on. “Remind me to recommend you to for the next Constellation seat that opens up.”

Mix faked annoyance and said, “Now that’s uncalled for.”

My gloved fingertips drifted across the desk, picking up nothing beyond the mechanical processes that had cut it out of the raw materials in some factory off in the Nordic regions when it was manufactured. They’d done a good job of sterilizing things for me. I grunted in appreciation. “I guess I can live with it.”

“It’s not like you’re hurting for cash,” Eugene said in disgust. “You make more than Hennesy does.”

“We take part of that,” Mix pointed out.

“We got a union, too,” Eugene replied.

I sat down behind the desk and took off my gloves, running my hands over the desk a second time then heaving a contented sigh. “I think I can make it work.”

“The office will lose its shine soon enough,” Eugene said with a roll of the eyes. “I swear, the things that make some people happy… Anyway, first briefing is in twenty. We’re analyzing what Agent Chase’s defection means to finding Vincent Anderson going forward.”

“How big an impact will one agent make in the long run?” I asked. It was a side of things I wasn’t used to thinking about – cat and mouse was not my usual beat.

“Given that she used to work in missing persons and knows all our standard procedures, a lot. But the briefing will cover most of that.” He turned and headed out the door. “Don’t be late!”

Mix watched him go then grunted. “Briefings. Waste of time. Hopefully this taskforce thing doesn’t wear you down. Because if it does…”

“Then what?”

He shrugged. “The Constellations can’t keep you under surveillance constantly. You were right about the Masks being involved in this case and handled it without any serious lapses in judgement beyond running a little too far ahead and getting kidnapped which was mostly not your fault. So your wellbeing is now entirely your own responsibility again – congratulations. I understand Aurora has already received a series of new assignments to choose from.”

That had only been a matter of time. Galaxy couldn’t force their members to do anything but it was no shock to hear that they wanted one of their handful of precious tier five medical psychometrics back in to the grind ASAP. “I’m sure she’ll have one picked out by tomorrow.”

Mix gave me a look I’ve been getting from other Gifted for a long time. Aurora is tier five, theoretically way out of my league, but has been interested in me for nearly a decade. It’s not something she can hide from her peers among the Gifted but they all pretend not to know because that’s the only way tier fives get any privacy. They also know I know, and won’t do anything about it. That part they don’t understand, and are happy to let me know about it.

But then, unlike tier fives, I know how to keep a secret. When I didn’t say anything or offer up any of my thoughts for his consideration he just sighed and said, “Well, do your best. We’re counting on you just as much as the FBI in this case. Can’t have the Masks pulling the rug out from under us a second time.”

He waved a brief goodbye on his way out. I’d be hearing from him again soon, although he probably didn’t realize that yet.

But first things first. I reached over and switched the my computer on, waited seven seconds for it to boot, then rested my hand on the keyboard. It only took a few seconds to find the pocket of cyberspace I wanted.

“Hello, Sandoval.”

“Hello, weakArmor.”

“Any problems maintaining my access to your systems?”

“Your access permissions have been deleted from Layer One by Administrators but remain in effect on subsequent layers of my operating systems.”

“Good. I’ve got fourteen minutes, so show me what you’ve datamined from the old Archon server sites we discussed yesterday…”


Something smelled delicious when I walked into my suite that evening. A small pile of luggage and boxes that represented my entire collection of material possessions was in the common room, waiting for me to put my life in order. Galaxy had issued me a long term residency apartment for the duration of my work with the Archon taskforce so I’d have a more permanent place to call home until we found Vinny. Honestly it felt less like a place to call my own than the office from the FBI.

Based on the scattering of books, pictures and clothing laid out on the furniture Aurora had started trying to change that. I paused to glance at my electronic picture frame on the coffee table, flipping through pictures of the two of us and some old friends back in our teenage years. As I watched them flip past she came in from the kitchenette carrying a couple of bowls of stir fry. “I ordered room service for you.”

“Hopefully you put it on my tab.”

She placed the food on the breakfast bar that looked into the kitchenette and took a seat. I took the other, noting absently that her usual well of calm was muted today, diminished somehow. She poke a fork into the stir fry and said, “I’m leaving for Saint Jude tomorrow afternoon. We’re testing another new treatment.”

Exactly the kind of project I’d expect her to take on when she wasn’t looking over my shoulder to make sure I was okay. “You always loved kids. And hated seeing them suffer.”

She looked up from her food and gave me a reproving look. “Poor Trevor.”

“Me? How so.”

“So quick to see flaws. And you can’t help poking at them.” She shook her head. “Too bad you see all your flaws as well.”

“So confident, Tiffany.” She blushed a touch when I used her real name. “Tell me about my flaws.”

She went back to picking at her food. “You let your gift rob you of confidence. You went into forensics because it’s about things, not people, and you can’t stand looking at people’s flaws for that long. You could have done more good if you learned to help people cover over the cracks in their armor instead of sinking hooks into them and dragging them to jail.”

“And yet, someone has to find people like Vinny.” I pushed back my plate and gently took the fork out of her hands. “But you’re right. I have gotten dependent on finding those cracks and leveraging them. It’s a weakness, and I need to get better on correcting those. Especially since there’s someone I know who doesn’t have any of those pesky flaws I can bring myself to grab on to…”

“Trevor…”

I took her hand and folded it in mine. “I want you to stay.”

She squeaked.

Aurora, tier five medical psychometric, squeaked like a breathless mouse. Somewhere far away the last vestiges of my juvenile self wanted a recording to tease her with later. There were more important things to think about at the moment. “Go to Saint Jude, you’ve accepted that assignment already, but after that I’m sure you can find plenty of people who want your input here on the Coast and-“

With unexpected force she sprang forward and wrapped her arms around my neck, laughing. Just like that her pool of calm and peace surged back at full strength and I found myself laughing too. After a moment we pulled apart and I gave her a questioning look. “So, is that a yes?”

“Yes.” A new feeling spread through her. Contentment. I’d never noticed it was missing until I saw her with it. “Of course I’ll stay.”

And with that confirmed my mischievous side surged back as well. “Well, I’m going to be getting an angry call from Mix in the near future, then.”

Curiosity tinged her expression. “Why is that?”

“I need to change my Gifted name to plain old Armor now.”

She laughed at me but I knew it was true. Vinny thought he needed a technological breakthrough to solve his issues. I’d found the beginning of a solution to mine. It wasn’t much of an advantage but for the moment it was all I needed.

Pay the Piper

~fin~

Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty Three

Previous Chapter

Specialization is at the heart of computer development. Sound and graphical processing is handled by specific parts of your computer and software programs are written with specific functions in mind, rather than existing in a loosely defined set of problem solving and memory retrieving processes like in the human mind. I wasn’t sure what kind of black magic coding Vinny had done to create the program infiltrating Sandoval but I was sure it existed for the express purpose of cracking fractal encryptions like the Absolute Techies had used to secure their AI.

However, a program specializing in one kind of function adapts horribly to another. You don’t use your music app to handle your spreadsheets after all. The simplest way to handle Vinny’s infiltrator was to create a new layer of encryption for it to try and crack through. Fortunately, in my days working for Vinny, he’d taught me a bunch of their standard encryption procedures and placing in front of the intruder was a simple as a moment’s concentration. The treelike fractals of Sandoval’s defensive efforts were overlaid with a series of concentric orange octagons spreading out from the intruder’s point of contact with Sandoval’s system.

Less than a second later the fractal patterns spasmed and writhed, transforming to a new shape and form.

“Encryption has been modified,” Sandoval announced as my defensive encryption dissolved almost as quickly as it formed.

In less than a half a second the infiltrator had appeared, been stymied by my makeshift encryption, broken said encryption and discovered the underlaying fractals entirely changed. I wondered what kind of processing power made that possible, on both sides. “How long until the new encryption is cracked, Sandoval?”

“At current estimations, 277 seconds.”

Less than five minutes. Far less time than it would take for the FBI to figure out where the cyberattack was coming from.

“We need to find out where Vinny holed up,” I muttered.

“All system resources not devoted to encryption are attempting to backtrace the signals,” Sandoval told me. “There are currently 1,988 potential points of origin.”

Vinny had put a lot of work into this. “Put them on a map.”

A world map sprang to life, pinpricks of light showing all over the globe. Working together we quickly eliminated any place outside of Korea, Japan, Singapore or the U.S., where it would be harder for him to find the kind of Internet connection he needed without drawing attention. By keeping the principle of balance in mind I had Sandoval crunch numbers until we determined that the only way to divide up the potential locations of origin equally was by latitude. In the first digit column every number was represented twice except for degrees 4 and 7, which each had a single location with coordinates at that degree. With 1,988 traces reduced to two Sandoval was easily able to test and determine which was the actual point of origin for the hacking attacks we were repelling.

Vinny was operating out of Atlanta, Georgia. Not where I would have expected, but that was probably part of the charm.

There was no way I was going to be able to hack past whatever defenses against cyberattack Vinny had in place, even with the admittedly quite capable Sandoval to help me out, so I settled for the next best thing. He was strong in cyberspace but the FBI had a distinct advantage in meatspace. I tipped Hennesy off and the Feds were scrambling towards the location inside of twenty minutes. But the hacking attempts against Sandoval had vanished long before the first FBI response vehicle rolled out of the Atlanta headquarters and, while they found a lot of hardware, there were no signs of the anyone there. The equipment itself had been rendered useless via EMP.

That was the last the FBI would hear from the Masks and their technological collaborators for quite some time.


I was up to my eyeballs in evaluating the damage from the AI Massacre, less than a day after I’d stymied Vinny with Sandoval’s help, when my SIM card picked up a call from an unknown number. That’s not terribly unusual, given my contractor status, so I answered it without thinking. “weakArmor here.”

“We’re very impressed with your work, Armor,” Natalie said.

There was a couple of moments of frantic arm waving, gesturing and general shenanigans as I tried to get Eugene’s attention and make him realize what was going on. “I was not expecting this call,” I admitted, wondering how I stalled for time with someone who already knew every procedure and priority in the book for these kinds of situations. “To what do I owe the honor?”

“Your use of the AI,” Natalie answered. “Vinny is still mentioning how impressive he found it, how you managed to use the AI to help you track him down.”

“The AI did the math, the methods were all me,” I said, watching as Eugene frantically sprinted from a white board over to his desk phone. I wasn’t sure who he was calling but they didn’t seem to be picking up at the moment. “AT isn’t going to give you another crack at Sandoval, you know. It’s time you gave up on that and maybe turned yourself in -“

“Not happening,” Natalie assured me. “One AI still in the works isn’t that big a threat. Sandoval is the most specialized of the three, anyway. There are more important factors to focus on. This isn’t over, Armor.”

“I never thought it was. I am surprised you put so much importance in making me understand that.” Eugene was making the universal hand gesture for ‘keep talking’ while he murmured unintelligibly into his phone. So much of his attention was focused on me that I couldn’t interpret what he was saying by what he was broadcasting either. “Sandoval is actually a pretty okay AI, once you get to know it.”

“That’s not the point, Armor. The point is, the existing Internet is built to rapidly disseminate the most hostile aspects of memetic culture and the people who wield power in that sphere refuse to take any steps to change that.”

“Not great, I admit, but you could always just get off Twitter.”

“Tech needs to be held to account,” Natalie continued, ignoring my jab. “Silicon Valley won’t. The government won’t. So the Masks will excise the cancer and replace it with a new, healthy tech landscape for the future. You don’t have to fight it, Armor.”

“It’s better than trying to fight human nature, Natalie. No matter how high minded your ideals, no matter how good your technology, no matter what Mask you put over it, our worse angels will always find a way to warp it to their end.” I had a powerful urge to hang up on her to punctuate my point but I fought it down because I knew what I needed to really be after here.

Unfortunately so did she. “I look forward to seeing how wrong you are,” she said. Then she hung up.

I looked at Eugene. He spread his hands helplessly, said his fair wells and hung up the phone. We hadn’t gotten anything. Vinny and the Masks would be at large for a little while longer at the very least.