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…”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Three

Previous Chapter

I’m sure Seattle was a nice place but I’d visited three times and I’d never seen it not raining. The weather was a match for Jackson’s mood as the FBI dragged him off the docks and into a waiting vehicle. Apparently I’d been unconscious for the better part of a day before waking up to talk to my captor and the FBI had somehow found the resources for a full manhunt, so once I’d pulled my location off of the geotags in Jackson’s camera – still foolishly hooked up to his computer – contacting the FBI via email and letting them know where to find me was a simple process.

It was surprising, given all Jackson had accomplished with the assistance of the currently mysterious Hat Trick, that he hadn’t anticipated my phoning for help with his computer. Maybe he’d thought I couldn’t use its satellite phone that way. Maybe he just thought the information he had was juicy enough sway me to his side. Either way, he hadn’t counted on my ability to be pleasantly vindictive, plotting his downfall while talking over his research.

And, in all credit to him, it was very impressive research. Hat Trick had cracked some impressive algorithms, slipped past top tier firewalls and encryptions, and generally assembled a staggering amount of information on the activities going on inside Silicon Valley. The problem was, it only counted as proof of anything if you were a conspiracy theorist already predisposed to see things one way. The Silicoverlords weren’t sinister, they were just clueless, isolated from the real world to the point where they had no clue remaking the world in their desired image might not even be possible for others, much less desirable. Not that evil born from ignorance is better than any other kind, but often it’s easier to treat. At least one would hope.

Of course, since the California FBI had pulled every string they could to get all the psychometric contractors and handlers in the region down to work the power outages, there wasn’t anyone read in on psychometrics to meet me on the docks. I wound up riding to the FBI offices there in a standard fleet car, doing my best not to touch anything. Fortunately, the car was on the newer side and apparently not used by people who made frequent arrests, so the back seat was pretty sterile and free from distractions.

It was a small blessing that was balanced by the extreme frustration most of the agents I spoke to had with my flat refusal to explain who I was or why I’d been with Jackson. Most FBI agents are investigators by both temperament and trade. They want to know the answers to questions. Unfortunately I was trained in asking questions and knew all the ways they’d try and ask me things, and I was highly motivated not to answer. Hopefully Jackson would be the same.

Who was I kidding? He’d been arrested before. He had good lawyers. They probably weren’t letting him talk at all.

I knew I was in trouble when Aurora, Eugene and Natalie arrived to pick me up. I eyed the trio as they walked in to the lounge where Seattle FBI had been keeping me on ice for the past twelve hours. “Just three of you? Hennesy didn’t come?”

“You were just kidnapped off the street,” Eugene snapped, his annoyance a brittle shell over a much deeper, seething anger. “I’d think you’d appreciate the extra eyes on you.”

I’d worked with Eugene a long time but I’d never seen him this angry before. “Did something else happen while I was gone?”

“You mean besides your getting kidnapped?” Eugene was practically shouting. “What else do you want, the Governor to be assassinated?”

Wordlessly, Aurora slipped her bare hand up and rested it on Eugene’s shoulder for a moment. I twitched at the sight, distinctly uncomfortable at the risky contact but well aware that she had much more experience dealing with distraught people than I did. For a moment the surface of her steady, calming presence rippled, Eugene’s anger and frustration pulling at it like a whirlpool. Then the turbulence in his mind steadied, changing from a raging rapids to a rushing river then, as if she was a reservoir opened to drain off floodwaters, he subsided down to something approximating his normal state. Aurora removed her hand and carefully slipped it back into her glove without a word.

Eugene smoothed the front of his jacket, gave Aurora a wordless glance of thanks, then said, “Sorry. Didn’t mean to yell.”

“Not a problem. Really, I’m touched.” And I meant it. Eugene wasn’t exactly a friend but we’d worked together a lot and I’d probably be upset if something happened to him, too. It just wasn’t something I’d thought about before – and apparently that went both ways. “I did point out to the agents who initially picked me up that I don’t think AJ Jackson is a person of interest in the case anymore. The whole kidnapping thing was more of an aggressive recruiting tactic.”

“Recruiting for what?” Natalie asked.

“Silicon Valley surveillance. I turned him down.” I dragged myself to my feet and straightened my suit. “I’ll summarize the data he let me look over in a formal report later, for now let’s just say it’s pretty useless to the current investigation. Seriously, though, did any new developments happen in the last few days?”

“No,” Natalie said, taking point and leading us out of the offices, through the reception area and towards the parking lot. Eugene fell back a few paces, leaving Aurora and I in the middle. I could feel their vigilance cranking up as they scanned the environment methodically, section by section. “Hennesy is pissed as hell at you for running around without official clearance or orders.”

“There was no indication I was a person of unique interest to the case until Jackson grabbed me,” I said, defensively. “Getting clearance wouldn’t have made me any safer.”

“It would have made people more likely to notice you were missing,” Eugene put in. “The people on site didn’t know to be looking out for you. It’s partly my fault, but I’ve had my lecture already. He’s looking forward to have a crack at you, too.”

“Swell,” I muttered.

“You broke procedure and got in trouble,” Aurora said with a trace of amusement. “Do you really think you’ll get out of it by breaking procedure again and skipping past the lecture?”

“No. But it’d be nice.” Aurora handed me a static sterilizer and we went through the familiar ritual of clearing the car’s back seat of psychometric impressions before climbing in. The brief moment of semi-normalcy was a nice change of pace compared to what I’d experienced recently. “I’ve been thinking about what Jackson told me in the last few days. His goals did involve Silicon Valley malfeasance but he doesn’t seem to have been working in conjunction with Helio or have been involved in the direct attacks of the last couple of weeks. I think he’s important in what’s going on, but not in the way we originally thought.”

Eugene, in the process of climbing into the car last, looked at me in the rear view mirror and asked, “So in what way is he involved?”

“It’s pure speculation on my part but I think he was a catalyst. I’ve seen what he was putting together with Project Valve and Backboard. It had a lot of potential to spread chaos in the Silicon Valley ecosystem.” I pulled off my old pair of gloves, which I’d been wearing for almost three days at that point and were starting to lose effectiveness as an insulator, and got a new pair from a plastic case that had been sitting on the seat. The faint sense of Aurora’s presence came from it. “It’s possible Jackson’s moving on his project pushed someone else to make their move on Silicon Valley first.”

Natalie started the car as Eugene slammed his door closed. “That follows, assuming someone wanted to take their own shot at disrupting Silicon Valley and knew Jackson was about to take his. But who?”

I still had eyes locked with Eugene and we both answered at the same time. “The Masks.”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Two

Previous Chapter

The yacht wasn’t that big, but there was another deck below the cabin where I’d woken up. The footprint of the room Jackson led me down to was slightly larger than the one above but I couldn’t really draw any conclusions from that. Although I do most of my work along the West Coast boats are not something I know a lot about. My approach to psychometry doesn’t bring a lot of value to work on the ocean and I’m a homebody, so I’ve never wanted to go sailing for fun either. If I’d had to make a snap judgement, I’d have guessed we were below the waterline at that point just from the way the sound of water on the hull changed, but again it was pure speculation on my part.

And there were other things to see on this deck. Jackson had a recording studio and a pretty expensive looking camera and computer there. Beckoning me after him he paused long enough to check something on his computer before pushing past the desk and through a door hidden around a corner just behind the workstation. With nothing better to do I followed along, wondering how big a boat I’d gotten stuck on.

The next room would have counted as a closet in any building on dry land and most of that space was taken up by what looked for all the world like a septic tank with a door on one side and wires running out the top. Jackson had squeezed himself in towards one end of the room, leaving enough space for me to squeeze towards the other end without touching him or the mysterious device, which Jackson indicated with a flourish. “Allow me to present Backboard, stage two.”

I stared at it for a long moment, then looked back at Jackson. “What does it do?”

“It’s the next stage of cyberwarfare. It’s a psychometric hacking facilitation tool.” Jackson rapped his knuckles against the cylindrical object. “Hat Trick and I have been working on it for the past two years, part of what we call the Safety Valve.”

“I’m familiar with your Backboard social media app, how does this Safety Valve factor in?”

“You’ve got it backwards. Project Valve came first, Backboard was an outgrowth of it.” Jackson leaned a hip against the device and gave me a candid look. “Do you know what the biggest danger coming out of Silicon Valley is, Armor?”

“The constant capacity for distraction slowly driving people insane as they lose touch with reality?” I asked.

“Social engineering, more broadly,” Jackson said, “although that’s a part of it. We’ve been doing test runs with it for the past six months, although our first use of it in the field was two days ago. You really spooked Hat Trick when you tried knocking on Backboard’s back door the other day so the test date got pushed up.”

“What is it for?” I gently ran my fingers along the tank, trying to pick up any impressions I could. Since it proved to be a huge pile of electronics there wasn’t much, but I could tell from the safeties and redundancies built in to it that it was, as Jackson suggested, a device built expressly for the use of the Gifted.

“Broadly speaking? It lets us turn Backboard into a kind of monitoring system, makes it easier to parse out what all the various algorithms our Silicon Overlords are setting up to mess with us. We were planning to publish an expose as soon as Hat Trick could compile all the information.” Jackson crossed his arms. “I honestly didn’t think the FBI was deep enough into their pockets to investigate us for it, but apparently I was wrong.”

“What?”

“But it does give me the chance to talk to one of the top investigative psychometrics in the country.” Jackson rapped his knuckles against the tank and I jerked my own hand away subconsciously. Faint amusement registered in the back of Jackson’s mind as he went on. “Hat Trick thinks the two of you, working in shifts, might be able to crank through all the data in a matter of a week, maybe less. Don’t ask me how that adds up, I’m not the expert.”

“Wait.”

Jackson dropped a sort of mental marker for himself as I tried to break in, a kind of reminder to go back to this point in the conversation, but ran right over me in part by taking my elbow and leading me back out to the studio space. I resisted the urge to try and get away from his grip, at the last moment I noticed the linen gloves he had put on. He must have grabbed them when he entered the room, probably a precaution to reduce contamination from people maintaining the tank when Hat Trick wasn’t using it.

Of course, the touch derailed my thoughts long enough for Jackson to talk over what I wanted to say, which was no doubt his point. “Now I know you’re probably under a dozen kinds of NDAs and contracts and retainers with different government agencies. And you’ve been told that we’re a conspiracy – an actual conspiracy, not a conspiracy theorist for a change! – that we’re trying to disrupt business, that we’re violating intellectual property, the Silicoverlords have all kinds of nonsense they throw at people who are trying to pierce the veil of secrecy and find out exactly what they’re doing.”

Silicoverlords?

“Catchy, right?” Jackson gave me a toothy grin before sitting down at his computer and setting to work. “But I know a little about Galaxy and what you’re supposed to be working against, and I think once you start to see what Hat Trick and I have been finding out you might start to see it my way. “

Frustrated, I banged my hand against the wall and shouted, “I can’t help you break the law, Jackson. I’d never be able to work again!”

A wide eyed, guileless stare answered me. “Armor, nothing about what Backboard is doing is strictly illegal. At the very least, it would need to be hashed out in court which means they can’t stop us from doing it just yet.”

“I’m not talking about your stupid watching the watchmen gizmo.” My voice was climbing higher and I took a moment to compose myself. “Jackson. Less than a week ago you knocked out power to half the state of California.”

His eyes almost bugged all the way out of his head. “Don’t be ridiculous. I had nothing to do with that. What do I stand to gain from terror attacks?”

“I don’t know but you seem awfully hostile to the people they targeted!”

“I’m a talker, not a fighter.” He shrugged, his brain realizing a half second after he said it that it wasn’t true. “Mostly. My point is, I’m not stupid. Only stupid people chose to solve problems by violence first and only stupid people take it off the table entirely.”

That got him a skeptical look and he hastened to add, “Unless they have valid psychological conditions, of course. My point is, I don’t think we’re quite to violence yet. I’d like to avoid getting there. And I know someone with your skills can see that I’m not lying to you.”

Flattering as that assessment was, it wasn’t actually true. I didn’t know Jackson well enough to have a baseline to compare his current mental state to, so I couldn’t judge his honestly based strictly on the thoughts he was broadcasting subconsciously. But there was a way I could turn up the gain on his signal. I pulled one glove off and held my hand out to him. “It won’t hold up in court but if you want to convince me there’s an easy way to do it.”

He looked at my hand skeptically, then took his own gloves off and clasped my hand. “I didn’t have anything to do with the power station attacks last week, or the drone attack before that. Neither did my media or tech development groups.”

AJ Jackson had an incredibly fast moving, almost spastic mind. Without his speaking the thought aloud, to bring it to the front of his thoughts, I probably wouldn’t have been able to track them through the other crazy sensations I was getting. He was worried about how long he’d been gone, he was framing my face for a camera shot, snatches of conversations in the voices of people I didn’t know whirled through his head, all associating freely with other, his mind was a whirlpool of half formed ideas smashing in to each other, breaking up and reforming on the gravity of whatever was most important to him. It was jarring, but with his denial of involvement in the attacks at the center and more concrete than anything else I could be sure of two things.

First, he was telling the truth. Second, with the kind of free association of thought he was capable of, it was no wonder AJ Jackson was the Internet’s premier conspiracy theorist. With a mind that worked like that, you’d almost be obligated to be.

I let go of his hand and quickly pulled my glove back on. “Okay. You’re clearly telling the truth.”

He brightened up at that. “So you’ll help out?”

“No.” I scowled. “I still want you in jail. Mainly because you had me kidnapped off the street. If you’d left well enough alone you wouldn’t’ve had this problem.”

“You were already investigating me!” Jackson protested, hands waving dramatically. “I know how badly people want me to stop looking in to them. How was I supposed to know you’d be fair about it?”

“You could have asked your pal, Hat Trick.”

“Hat Trick knew your professional rep, but not much about you personally.” Jackson shrugged. “All I knew for sure was that you had a good sense of humor.”

I folded my arms and wondered if he’d really worked that one out. “What made you think that?”

“Don’t give me that.” Jackson gave me a sly look. “Why else would a Chinese man call himself a chink in the armor?”

“Fine.” I waved to the computer. “I’ll give you a chance to show me what you’ve got. Let me see what you and your friend.”

Rubbing his hands gleefully, Jackson took his seat at the computer. “You won’t regret this.”

I doubted that, but I knew I wouldn’t be the only one regretting in the near future.