Creativity is a Muscle

I’ve had a lot of time to myself lately, due to various circumstances. When word first came down to stay home and keep to myself I thought, “Great! I need lots of me time to do my writing and art, so let’s put all this down time to good use!”

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried very hard to do just that. I’ve invested time in writing projects, I’ve more than doubled my output on the art projects I have ongoing, I’ve worked on outlines, I’ve researched editors who can help me take my projects to the next level. I’ve put irons in the fire and stepped on the bellows – I’ve got a lot I want to do before I die and not the greatest amount of time to do it. But I’ve found that I also have to stop for breaks far more than I anticipated.

Creativity is a muscle, and  the more you use it the more tired you get.

That’s something I’d always known, at least intuitively, from my time in college when classes with heavy writing elements would leave us with “writing burn out” for a week or two after the semester ended. I hadn’t suffered as much from these burnouts, at least it felt to me, as I’d always had some writing project stewing during the semester and sometimes I just had to replace personal projects with school projects. But what I rediscovered in the past few weeks is that devoting large chunks of the day, every day, to creative work takes a pronounced toll. So whether it’s the result of a global disaster or just your next writing retreat, here’s some things I’ve found that really helps the mind clear and reset after the creative fog rolls in during your next prolonged burst of creative work.

1. Cook a meal. 

Writing and drawing both require engaging the mind, as I’d assume most other forms of serious creative work do, and the brain demands more calories than any other single organ in the body. Doing a lot of creative work can leave you feeling more than a bit peckish. A lot of people will just keep a snack at hand while writing, so they can munch on nuts or chips or something when they start to feel hunger pangs. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it does fill the stomach. But it can get unhealthy very quickly and doesn’t really give your creative muscles a chance to bounce back. Holding out a little longer then stopping to cook a real meal for yourself – and anyone else interested in it – can go a long way to letting yourself relax and reset your creative energies while allowing you to eat a little healthier food in more controlled portions.

2. Clean up your workspace. 

Clutter in your area is actually very taxing on your mind. Constantly having that novel or magazine at the edge of your vision causes a part of your subconscious to dwell on the plot of that story or the article about hair dressing you were reading last night. Not ideal. Taking ten minutes to clear up your workspace, putting things away, dusting, vacuuming and generally making things more pleasant to be in, not only lets your brain relax it makes an environment more conductive to your work in the future. Depending on how dusty it was, it may be healthier for you, too.

3. Take an exercise break. 

Balance that hard mental labor with a little hard physical labor. Getting your heart rate up and the blood moving moves oxygen to your brain and helps it reset and the intense focus on simple tasks will let your mind relax and get ready for another round of intense creative work. Aerobic exercise works better for this endeavor than muscle training, at least in my case, but it couldn’t hurt to try both until you find one that really works for you.

4. Socialize. 

Not so easy to do right now, but a quick check in with family or friends can go a long way towards clearing the cobwebs and energizing your mind. Give your mother a call or hit up a Discord forum and chat about something with your friends there. After twenty or thirty minutes you should be refocused and ready to go.

In general, even experienced authors cannot sit and write all day. They tend to break their work into two or three large chunks, with meals, errands and chores to in between to clear their heads. So if long term writing has your brain wearing out, give some of these things a try and find what works best for you and don’t be afraid to take a break if you can’t focus during long creative bouts.

Spring 2020 Fiction Roundup

It’s been a while since I read or watched a fresh tale and felt truly inspired to sit down and think through everything I loved and hated about it, what worked and what didn’t. That’s partly because I haven’t been reading as much fiction as in days past and partly because I haven’t seen as much that really impressed me in the last few years. Maybe our cultural institutions are on the decline. Maybe I’m just more jaded and cynical about media these days. Maybe it’s a combination of both.

That said, I’ve had the pleasure of watching, reading and listening to some very entertaining fiction in the last year or so months and I thought I would share some of it with you. Strap in, because we’re going to go through this quick!

We begin with Another Kingdom by Andrew Klavan. I covered this series once, after the first season concluded. With the conclusion of the audio version of this series now out and available for free on the YouTube you can sit down and enjoy a truly rousing adventure story that takes many of the shibboleths of modern culture (particularly in Hollywood) to task while showing one man’s transformation from timid and uncertain to confident and purposeful. There’s a lot of interesting allegories at work in the story, clear enough to speak to the audience but general enough not to come off as preachy. While Klavan’s prose sometimes belabors a point a little too much and Knowles’ performance still doesn’t always sell the female characters listening to Another Kingdom is still quite the fun experience.

In much the same vein, This Sounds Serious is a hilarious sendup and love letter to the true crime podcast. From the rivalry of two very odd twin brothers to the fascination an entire small town in Washington has with Joe Rogan, the creators of this spoof podcast series has an eye for the absurd that they always try to emphasize while crafting fun and devious crime stories to tell us about in a mockumentary fashion. There’s not a lot of great traditional character work here, nor are you likely to grow over attached to any of the characters as the cast will mostly change from season to season. But there is a kind of suspense built over time and it is quite fun to listen to, even if you’re not likely lot laugh out loud more than once or twice an episode.

The Dragon Prince is an interesting take on a fantasy property. While I’ve found its approach to some issues to be a little lacking in thought on the whole it builds good characters and takes a nuanced approach to most of the issues it discusses, showing even its obviously evil characters as well rounded and even occasionally sympathetic characters. It has an eye for action and a wonderful aesthetic to its world. While a lot of questions about the philosophical questions it wants to ask are unanswered at this point on the whole I prefer that willingness to let the issues breath. For example, Dragon Prince brings up issues of prejudice quite often. So far, the issues that prejudice presents have never been resolved in a single episode, as many other shows aimed at younger viewers would insist on doing. Some of the lesser side characters are never confronted about their prejudice since confronting this lesser evil would take away from the character’s ability to pursue other goals, forcing them to chose which good ends they will pursue. Thus we see the characters interacting with prejudice in much more realistic, true to life ways. That’s nice to see, and I’ll probably continue to follow Dragon Prince until its run is over.

If you’re wondering what I thought of Castlevania Season 3, as I said in my Castlevania Seasons 1 and 2 review, I’m happy with where that story ended and don’t plan on watching it. However, Sei Manos, an interesting blend of the Western and a Kung Fu film, produced by the same studio as Castlevania, manages to bring a new level of smoothness to the animation while crafting a radically different tale about a Kung Fu master with a devilish secret who dies, leaving his three pupils to struggle with various dark powers as they try to unravel the bizarre blending of drug trafficking and occult powers that threaten their small Mexican town in the late 1970s. It’s mostly intense action but, much like in their previous vampire tale, the writers and animators find plenty of human moments to leaven its ghostly tale. But more than that, it manages to take an animated character, who tends to take a lot of their personality from their voice actors, and make him a mute while still giving you a clear window into his personality and desires. A remarkable achievement, all things considered.

A Letter for the King is very different from many fantasy products aimed at young adults. It presents us with a totally normal protagonist – no, not totally normal. He’s probably a bit weaker and more cowardly than most. It then sends him on an adventure pursued by friends and foes alike, with the charge to deliver… well, a letter to the king. The journey will cost Tiuri far more than he thought, and along the way he will have to confront poor decisions on the part of himself, his family and his friends. He’ll find that his good character is rarely rewarded by the world around him. And in the end he’ll make things right not with magic, strength or cunning but determination, trust and courage. There are major failures in the writing of this series, particularly as regards the climax. But the heart behind the message and the decision to put character at the heart of the conflict makes it a refreshing change from most of its peers.

Last summer I was beta reader for a novel called The Last Warpiper, which is a fantasy novel about an elite soldier who plays the bagpipes.

Wait! Come back! The bagpipes are broken for most of the story!

In all seriousness, Warpiper is a very straightforward, John Wick kind of story about a man who has been wronged by the King and has only one means to set things right. It’s good worldbuilding, an interesting protagonist and anthropomorphic cats. What more could you want, amiright?

Marion G. Harmon’s Repercussions marks a major inflection point in his Wearing the Cape series. Hope Corrigan spends the first three years of her career as a professional Cape protecting the city of Chicago but in this story we see her scope of operations believably enlarged to an international scale. It’s been interesting to watch Harmon’s slow building stakes over the past three or four novels and in this one he has finally decided to go all in and swing for the fences. Many superhero stories try to do this far too quickly, putting the fate of the world in the balance very quickly and it frequently strains believability. This is Harmon’s eighth book and he’s just now getting to the global stage. Rather than coming too soon, I’m almost annoyed it’s only happening now. But only almost – this was an excellent paradigm shift for the series and if you like the series or superhero lit in general it’s well worth reading.

That’s all of the really noteworthy stories I’ve taken in since I started writing Pay the Piper. If you’re looking for something to do in the next few weeks (but why would you be?) then they’re well worth checking out. If you’ve already read them, be sure to let me know what you think!

Joe Exotic and the Dangers of Story

Like many people these last few weeks, I’ve had more time than normal on my hands. So I took a moment to flip on the Netflix machine and skim through the titles and what do I see? A little thing called Tiger King, a true crime documentary about big cats and the big personalities that work with them. I figured, sure, why not? Tigers are neat and I’ve enjoyed some true crime podcasts in the past (also, This Sounds Serious which is definitely not true crime but more on that next week). And it was number one in the most watched list so it must have some redeeming value, right?

Not necessarily.

If you’ve watched Tiger King already you’re aware that it’s basically a slow motion trainwreck as the titular tiger collector, who goes by the name Joe Exotic, got so wrapped up in a rivalry with another big cat collector, one Carol Baskins, that he nearly went bankrupt and got himself entangled in a murder-for-hire scheme that would eventually see him arrested, tried and convicted. Pretty grim stuff for a man who ostensibly just wanted to bring beautiful and exotic animals to the public. And if that’s all he was, I’d probably be pretty sympathetic to him.

The problem with Joe Exotic was one I see playing out over and over again in modern life, one I’ve spent a long time thinking about myself and one that culturally Westerners are very, very vulnerable to. Joe Exotic got caught up in his own story, so much so that he lost the plot.

I don’t intend to break down the nuances of Joe vs. Carol in their approach to conservation of wildlife or the nuances of how they cared for animals under their charge. Nor do I intend to delve into the quite torrid details of their personal lives and the various accusations that can be leveled against either of them. Tiger King does that quite effectively itself, if that’s what you want you can watch it. What fascinates me is how far afield Joe went while ostensibly defending big cats and other specimens of exotic wildlife from extinction.

We often say that everyone sees themselves as the hero of their own story. While the accuracy of that truism is debatable in some cases, I think it’s more accurate than not. Of course, accuracy is not the point of the saying, the point is to try and inspire a little empathy for others. But in the case of Joe and Carol that was not the effect it had.

Both Joe and Carol were in the process of trying to help out big cats. If the things they said about their efforts are even partially true they both saw themselves as heroes in this endeavor. But they wound up fundamentally at odds, even though they were not located near each other and their methods were not radically different to the outside observer. This opposition seems to have come from the need for a heroic character to have an easily identifiable villain.

Now it is possible for a hero to face stiff opposition without a specific face to put on it, as in some disaster movies. And the opposition doesn’t have to be a villain per se, many sports heroes compete against honorable and admirable men, as we see in the rivalry between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. However humans generally react the most strongly and vividly to a battle between good and evil. So it’s no surprise that, as Joe and Carol grew more and more firmly opposed to one another, that’s the tenor their conflict took. Each wanted their supporters firmly set against the other and strove to expose what they felt were hypocritical and evil actions on the part of the other. That’s not wonderful, and it really didn’t help the cause they espoused, but in and of itself it’s not enough to hire a hitman over.

Where Joe went particularly off the rails is when he tried to pivot to politics.

On the surface it seems like a natural progression – Carol was trying to change the laws, Joe tried to become a lawmaker. The problem was it wasn’t – as really would have made more sense for Joe to lobby as well, rather than take a job that would have removed him from his animals and his zoo entirely. That’s much the same reason many other high profile members of niche causes don’t go into politics. Politicians have to consider the desires of a broad range of people, special interests want to remain focused on their… well, special interests. But by this point Joe was fixed on being the hero of the hour and riding off to Washington, then later the state capitol, to wage war for his cause must have seemed like the next logical move. But instead he nearly bankrupted himself and wound up vulnerable to a series of lawsuits over the next few years.

While those lawsuits were quite avoidable, Joe would not have gotten pushed to the point where he basically lost possession of his zoo, a lifelong project, and spiraled to the point where he could get arrested for hiring a hitman if he’d kept track of the priorities. Instead he fell into the story where he was the hero, battling the villain trying to undo his zoo. Now he’s just a supporting character, keeping America entertained as we suffer through trying times.

I suppose Joe isn’t the only writer to lose track of where his story is going. It’s a tough balance to walk for even experienced writers. But that’s the problem of looking at your life like you’re the main character. Whether the story is good or the story is bad, at least you have control of all the variables, at least you know everything that’s going on. You can make judgements about the parts characters are playing with full information and with the knowledge that things will turn out how you want, whether other people like it or not. In real life, you don’t have the information and you can’t foresee how things will turn out and it’s very easy to go from the king of the cats to another dog in a cage. Maybe sometimes it’s better to play the supporting character and let others decide if you’re ready for the spotlight.

Wold Building: Organic Vs. Thematic

When you read about building a world from the great fantasy and scifi writers of the modern age almost all of them agree that the best way to go about it is to begin with the foundational premises and carry them out to their logical conclusions. Are there aliens to think about? What planet do they come from, what’s the environment like, what kind of culture results? How are they physically similar or different from humans and how does that change the ways they think and act? Does your fantasy world have magic? How does it work and how will that change the culture and politics?

This approach likely goes back to the legendary Tolkien, a linguist who developed the languages of his world as he wrote stories about that world. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, which I call the organic approach. Starting with the big picture and figuring out what the backdrop to your world is like is a great way to give your story consistency, predictability and easily understandable stakes. At the same time, it’s not the only way to build a world, nor is it necessarily the most effective way.

The other form of world building is thematic – when you have a particular idea you want to break down it may make more sense to build the world around those ideas first and foremost, then do your best to create rational consequences for those ideas later. Is your story about gambling? Create a massive underground society revolving around gambling in place of more traditional commerce. Is it about the grinding nature of competition? Create a world where war is replaced with a kind of game and explore the detrimental effects on society.

In my own writing I’ve tinkered with both kinds of world building. Years ago I wrote “Emergency Surface” as a quick entry into a much larger meditation on the future that had coherent rules, a three century long timeline, concrete rule for technology from faster than light travel to microcomputing and more. I haven’t written too much in that world beyond further explorations of the New Ice Age where I started but I’ve always had plans. (We’ll see what comes of them.) One thing that did and still does excite me so much about that future timeline is all the different kinds of stories I can tell around different major events in the world and different technologies available there.

On the other hand, when I sat down to write Schrodinger’s Book I was interested in telling a story about memory, how we tell stories and the real meaning of the victors writing the history books. From the mostly abandoned and empty Earth to the mass manipulation of books for the purposes of controlling culture and memory, to the suspiciously articulate enlisted spacers who had to explain the integrity of books to the now clueless Earthlings, every aspect of the Triad Worlds and UNIGOV Earth was chosen first to cater to these thematic elements and then refined to facilitate the coherence and verisimilitude of the world. Information manipulation on the scale presented in the story is, in my opinion, impossible even given the cultural and technological realities of the time. But my desire was less to explain how such things came to be and more look at what part of our nature gives rise to the impulses that create such things.

Interestingly enough, Martian Scriptures, the sequel to Schrodinger’s Book that I’m currently working on, contains a blending of these two takes on world building. I was interested in examining how patterning ourselves and our societies on story (a very popular notion these days) is an alluring and dangerous concept. As I looked at how I might go about tackling these themes I realized there were elements introduced in Schrodinger’s Book that played heavily towards this theme, most notably the idea that the Triad Worlds had an offshoot that was deliberately trying to emulate the ideas of Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek. From there it was a very short walk to a basic conflict that led to most of the story arc falling in to place. At the same time, I had to organically extend the ideas introduced already to make sure that Martian Scriptures didn’t come off as inconsistent with its precursor and introduce new ideas to allow for the clear mechanical execution of some of the more “futuristic” portions of the story.

I don’t have any problem with organic world building, but having done quite a bit of thematic world building in the past few years I’ve found that there are some clear advantages of the one versus the other. Organic world building can often become a trap. People spend so much time building their world they lose interesting in telling stories about it, much like the overly fastidious dad in The Lego Movie. On the other hand thematic world building can leave blind spots all over your story and you can easily write yourself into a corner because you weren’t thinking about the consequences of your thematically appropriate decisions.

On the other hand, thematic world building is fast and powerful so long as you avoid the pitfalls. It makes the audience feel they’ve really experienced your theme to its fullest extent when executed on properly. Well done organic world building drags the audience into your world and lets them experience being there in a way no other story really can.

The real question is what your story needs. Many adventure stories rely heavily on organic world building to keep fun and interesting obstacles in front of the protagonists and to keep an endless supply of new and exciting locales on hand. On the other hand, thematic world building often gives the best setting for deep examinations of characters and motive or cultures and consequences.

Even if you’re not creating an entire world for your story you still have to populate the environment around your characters with businesses, subcultures and objects from the real world around you. Learning to world build will give you a better feel for what these choices mean for your characters and story. And an oft-overlooked part of that is the balance between the organic outgrowths of your choices and the thematic implications of them. So no matter what kind of writer you are, consider your world building from both sides of the coin.

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.

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.”