Pay the Piper – Chapter Nineteen

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On day two of waiting for word on the elusive Arizona trio of Gifted something new got dropped on us. Again. “They targeted tech firms again,” Hennesy said, looming over me at my crowded workspace as I analyzed some bit of drone hardware recovered from somewhere in the case. The shape of his thoughts left no doubt about who he was talking about. “Very surgical this time, they’re learning that public opinion isn’t with them.”

“What did they do?” I asked, only partially relaxing from the sudden feeling of dread. Whatever it was, at this point they had to know they were only digging themselves deeper. So surgical must mean precise, not necessarily harmless.

“They crop dusted the employee parking lots at four major firms as the dayshift was leaving.”

“Crop dusted?” I raised an eyebrow. That could be harmless or a major escalation. “With what?”

“Whatever it was it had peanuts in it. Over two dozen people had allergic reactions of varying degrees.” Hennesy snorted. “If this was supposed to be a joke then I don’t think people will find it very funny. Lots of people are allergic to peanuts.”

It didn’t sound like an escalation at first blush but Hennesy was right. A lot of people would probably see it as such. Maybe that was what they wanted, maybe they just hoped the ambiguity would buy them a little more time before they were seen as really malicious. I wasn’t sure who they were hoping wouldn’t see them as malicious if the later was the case, the news hadn’t been kind to them and we were already pursuing them as hard as we could. “Any obvious connections between the companies?”

“I’ve been digging into Silicon Valley firms since before you were licensed to practice, Armor,” Hennesy said. “Every company here is connected to all the others. It’s a terribly incestuous place, kina like Wall Street. And yes, all these firms also have connections back to Company A as well. I don’t know how they all shape up yet, but we’ve got people working on it so we should know soon.”

“Are they looking into connections with A.J. Jackson?”

Hennesy hesitated for a moment. “You’re really invested in that line of investigation, aren’t you?”

“His name has come up pretty much since moment one.” I shrugged, knowing just as well as Hennesy did how little that often meant. “I get it, he could just be Silicon Valley’s whipping boy of the week. Still, I’d rather run it down than leave it to chance.”

“I get you,” Hennesy replied. “But we don’t have the manpower to follow every lead. I’ll try and get someone looking at it. On the bright side, the folks in Arizona can keep looking for your missing sisters and their dad without impacting things in here. I’ll let you know if we hear anything.”

“Do you need me at any of the crime scenes?” I was pretty sure I knew the answer but I was also curious to see what a place looked like after a malicious crop dusting.

“No.” He answered without hesitation. “There’s not much in the way of physical evidence to look at other than residue from whatever it was they misted the places with. And we don’t want anyone touching that until we know what it is. There’s a bright side, though.”

There was a clear tinge of malicious satisfaction behind that simple declaration. “What’s that?”

“This time we caught them on satellite.”

——–

Actually we caught their drones on satellite, not the perpetrators themselves. It was a step in the right direction but not nearly what I’d originally hoped for.

“There’s a formation of four at each location, pretty standard agricultural machines,” Eugene told me, pulling the image up on his screen. “They swoop in, make two passes over people as they come out of the building, then leave. There was no attempt to pursue anyone leaving the building or avoid empty portions of the parking lot so our guess is they were preprogrammed, rather than piloted.”

“How did we even get these shots?” I asked, visions of military spy satellites dancing in my head.

“I don’t know, and I don’t think we’re going to find out.” Eugene’s mind was going to much the same places as mine but nothing in his thoughts pointed to him actually knowing the answer any more than I did. “I’m not an expert but the files looked like they’d had all info on their source scrubbed. But this is a really high profile case, so maybe they got the military to move some resources into geosynchronous orbit. Not our problem.”

“But what does that really tell us?” I asked, straightening up and moving away from his desk a bit. Eugene’s naturally antisocial personality permeated his surroundings and radiated off of his workspace like it was asphalt on a sunny day. I’d need to move the conversation out of his cubicle soon or I’d get a serious headache.

“Two things. First, they’re using a different type of drone, one that looks like it matches one of three commercially available models popular in the northern part of the state.” He clicked over to a different image that showed three different models of drones, the mismatched background showing they’d been pulled from different sources. Probably advertising materials. “We’re trying to see if anyone’s placed a large order from any local dealers recently.”

“Wouldn’t farmers want more than a couple of these?” I asked. “We could wind up with a lot of dead ends…”

“Trust me, at what these things run most operations aren’t wanting more than three or four. More importantly, they have a top speed of fifteen miles an hour and a maximum flight time of half an hour.” Eugene pulled up a map showing the four attack sites in relation to each other with large red rings showing how far the drones could have travelled with their flight capacity. The two southern locations had overlapping rings, as did the two northern locations. “And just like that we have launch zones. Standard forensic teams are already combing these areas over with a fine toothed comb. If they find anything it’s definitely coming back for a psychometric evaluation.”

“Why did they change pattern?” I wondered aloud.

Eugene turned in his chair to give me a skeptical look. “It was a drone attack targeting Silicon Valley. How is that a break in pattern?”

“Based on the hardware we found in the car wreck right before the electrical grid attack I’m certain that was done using custom drones under remote operation. Same for the initial attack, based on how delicate positioning a drone in the loading dock door at the exact moment that delivery truck entered must have been-“

“The drone didn’t show up on security cameras around the dock so we think it must have somehow attached itself to the truck before it arrived,” Eugene interjected.

“Either way, an operation that you can’t just program into it,” I pointed out. “And all those attacks used custom drones, not commercially available ones. Do we know what they sprayed?”

“Officially? No. Unofficially, it looks like it was just peanut oil diluted with something to make it mist better.”

“On the other hand, if I understand the other two attack properly, they were both at least partially facilitated by pinpoint EMP use.” I tapped my gloved fingers thoughtfully on my chest. “They were symbolic.”

Eugene was used to my thinking out loud so he just motioned for me to go on.

“The first two attacks were technological attacks on firms that have created some the most influential technologies of our time and, arguably, were misusing the resulting influence. A reminder that they shouldn’t get too full of themselves – there’s always someone better out there.” I paced out of the cubicle, moving away from its headache inducing atmosphere. Eugene got up from his chair and trailed along behind. “But today… none of those threads. New companies, new attack method, no symbolism. Unless it’s agricultural versus service industry? No, that doesn’t seem likely…”

I stopped short and swiveled back to Eugene. “Looking at evidence won’t cut it. I need to go and look at one of those staging ones myself. Have you seen Agent Chase?”

“Not this morning.”

I titled my head, tapping my sim card and calling her phone. I let it ring for a minute, then hung up. “No answer. Eugene, I need to get out there before any trace impressions left behind fade.”

“You think this might be some kind of misdirect?”

“Or a copycat attack.”

Eugene sighed and doubled back towards his cubicle. “I’ll get my keys. Meet me by my car.”

“Want me to let Hennesy know we’re leaving?”

“I’ll do it,” he called back, his surface thoughts clearly indicating he wouldn’t. “This had better not get me in trouble, Armor.”

He was hoping nothing would come of it and so he wouldn’t catch any flack for doing something technically another Agent’s job. For all his pessimism about human nature, Eugene’s remarkably optimistic about events working out the way he wants. I could have told Hennesy we were leaving myself, but I decided to humor him and let his little white lie stand.

That was my first mistake of the day.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Eighteen

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It turned out that Galaxy did, in fact, keep tabs on the Gifted they knew who had gone insane. It was just one of many services their mental health division provided to members, periodically sending someone without the Gift to visit the ill in their care facilities. It was a bit like the Red Cross but for crazy people. A very small, narrow group of crazy people.

There were very thorough records kept on each case and to my surprise they found fourteen cases in total where psychometrics known to be insane had recovered and left care. I’d thought that was impossible but apparently I was wrong. “It’s not common,” Mix said as he handed me the files on the people in question. “But it’s not unheard of either. It’s not something we tend to broadcast because people tend to get careless when dealing with potential mental health situations, thinking they’ll be one of the exceptions. Top minds have been trying to figure out what causes it but no luck so far.”

“If this can happen, why does everyone say it’s impossible?” I asked.

“Do they?” Mix countered. “Or do they just say no one they know has ever recovered? Those are two different things.”

They were, and he was right. It was still unsettling to know that something I’d taken for granted for so long was based on a totally erroneous understanding of what I’d been hearing. Still, I knew better now and there was all the information I’d needed with no fuss. It was almost too good to be true. Almost.

Fourteen names is still a lot of people and we needed to narrow it down. We started by eliminating anyone who didn’t specialize in psychological or neurological fields, as Vinny made it clear that was the secret sauce to making a therapy fugue work. That left us with five names. Two of them were active and accounted for already, it was possible they were involved in this case somehow but distance and timing made it unlikely – one was in the Arctic Circle, helping keep people sane, the other lived in Hawaii and hadn’t travelled enough to have offered the kind of hands on work necessary to program the software in a new type of fugue generator.

By the end of the first day we were down to only three names. It was almost too good to be true. Almost.

“Two of them recovered in the last six months,” Natalie said. “That puts them well inside the one year timeframe to work on the Backboard project. That just leaves us with one possibility.”

I was paging though the relevant files and handing the relevant pages to Hennesy. “But there’s a catch.”

“Of course there is,” Hennesy muttered. “It’d be too good to be true to just have the right guy drop into our laps, wouldn’t it?”

“None of these three have checked in with their handlers since the most recent two recovered,” I said, ignoring his griping. “Also, they’re all related. A father and his two daughters.”

“That can’t be a coincidence,” Hennesy said.

“We don’t think it is,” I said. “But we – meaning Galaxy in this case – apparently don’t track cases like theirs as a matter of course. I’ve reached out to Mix to see if the Constellations will order a check-in, but I don’t know how long that will take or even if they will agree to do it.”

“Why wouldn’t they?” Hennesy asked. “I thought Galaxy was offering us full cooperation in this case.”

“We’re offering all the investigative power we can muster,” I said. “But we’re still psychometrics. We value our privacy. I’d be hesitant to even ask for a check in if it wasn’t for how important this situation is.”

“Let’s hope your Constellations agree with you,” Hennesy grumbled. “I don’t want it to turn out I spent days chasing nothing.”

“Well, that’s one thing we can reassure you on,” I said. “I forgot to mention that all three of our missing psychometrics live in Arizona. The same state A.J. Jackson is from, and the same place where public filings show Project Backboard’s offices are.”

Hennesy eyed me for a moment then did a little psychometry of his own. “Let me guess. The Gifted who recovered first was the father, and you think he worked with Jackson to help his kids do the same.”

“It’s simple, straightforward and fits the facts,” I said.

“Nothing’s every that straightforward,” Hennesy said. “Let us put some feelers out on these people. We have connections Galaxy probably wouldn’t even think of.”

“You read my mind.”

Hennesy snorted and waved us out of his office.

“So are we waiting for results or does the Federal Government have somewhere else they’d like us to go today?” I asked as Natalie and I headed back towards her cubicle.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Honestly I think anything specific to your skillset got farmed out to others when you didn’t show up on time. So I guess we’re waiting. I don’t know if you need to stay here or not.”

“Mix will call for me here so I might as well stick around.” Honestly I was just as interested in hanging around because Natalie was here and I did kind of enjoy her company. Going back to the hotel meant being alone or possibly with Aurora and after they day before I wasn’t really prepared for either one. “Any idea what kinds of resources the FBI will put into finding Helio and his girls?”

“It’s not the highest priority we have right now,” Natalie replied. “And it’s in another jurisdiction so just how seriously they’ll take the request is anyone’s guess. But I’d say we’ll know by tomorrow, if not sooner. What about Galaxy?”

“Mix told me someone left to check on them pretty much while we were talking. I’m expecting him to call any minute.” I dragged a chair over from an empty cubicle and sat down, putting my feet up on the edge of Natalie’s empty trash can. “It’s kind of amazing to me that someone would agree to help make this kind of mess just to get two people out of a catatonic state.”

Natalie hesitated in the middle of logging into her work station for whatever job she had been about to start on. “Really?”

“Well, I mean, I don’t have kids, but…”

“Neither do I but I do have parents.” Natalie gave me an incredulous look. “Do psychometrics really never visit each other in the hospital?”

I shrugged, suddenly very uncomfortable. “I can’t speak for all of us. My parents weren’t Gifted, so they had no issue with it. I’m sure it varies from family to family.”

“Armor, crazy isn’t catching. It doesn’t work like that.”

Slow breath in, slow breath out. There were parts of my life that I knew didn’t make sense to those without the gift. “Natalie, I know you’re not trying to be deliberately provocative so I’ll give you a pass. But don’t presume to tell me what is and what isn’t the mechanics of our minds. I’m sure you never thought a man could turn catatonic from just touching a body either.”

“Armor, they were family. How could they stay away from each other?”

“It’s not a question of how they were related or how close they are to each other. It’s a question of whether or not there was anything they could do for each other. Staying clear headed when you’re surrounded by madness isn’t simple. That’s probably what drove him to trying a fugue state in the first place.” I shuddered a bit, trying not to let the helplessness of my last trip to fugue land get at me. It may have been meant as a way to treat the ill but the memory of being stuck in my own head with no way out still gave me fits. Maybe that was part of how the treatment was intended to work. “The point is if you’re not a trained psychologist with the Gift – or, apparently, a mad scientist – you can’t visit them safely. And I’m not sure getting around that justifies making war on the entirety of the California coastline. Natalie, twice as many people died in hospitals because of the power failures resulting from this mess as he saved using his miracle technology. Maybe lack of empathy is the chink in my armor but I just can’t make that balance out in my mind.”

Natalie just shook her head and went back to her computer, working at who knows what. Listening to her disapproval rattle around in her subconscious was not the change of pace I had hoped for.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Seventeen

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“Gone for two and a half days and you think you get to just walk in here and ignore us? This isn’t a charity operation, Armor, it’s a Federal office.” Hennesy, who according to Vinny was my subconscious avatar of high standards and hard work, came charging into the makeshift work area I’d set up at the FBI headquarters looking positively livid. My subconscious sure knew how to pick its avatars. “First your damn Constellations threaten to pull you off the case and keep you out of the office for forty eight hours. Then they say you’ll come back. Then you show up three hours late. What kind of a joke do you think this is?”

“I’m being perfectly serious, although I’ll admit I should have cleared my activities through you this morning,” I said. I hadn’t because I wasn’t sure Mix would agree to pass on the message for me – or let me so far off the reservation. Aurora had been nervous about me looking any further into the fugue trap I’d found on my ‘day off’ and any hint Mix got that I was still pursuing that angle was sure to make its way back to the Constellations. Galaxy’s insistence on working through designated intermediaries had its drawbacks. “I’ve been off the reservation, but for good reason. There’s an angle to this I’ve been following up on my own and at this point I think I need Bureau resources to keep looking into it.”

Hennesy fumed, looking like he needed a couple of days off himself. “This had better be good.”

Persuasion isn’t my forte but I did my best to make what I’d discovered during the dive on the Backboard servers and my subsequent talk with Vinny sound convincing. Unfortunately as I went through the chain of events it started to sound flimsier and flimsier, even to me. There wasn’t anything directly tying A.J. Jackson to the events of the last few days, there wasn’t any reason to think prying into a conspiracy theorist from Arizona would shed light on terrorism in California and there wasn’t any reason I could think of that therapeutic fugue state tech might tie back in to it all. Part of me was beginning to wonder if maybe I should try and get a job crafting theories with Jackson rather than investigating with the FBI.

For better or worse Hennesy didn’t see it that way. He just listened to what I had to say, thought about it, then walked out of the cubicle. Left to conclude I had his blessing for the moment, I went back to poking through various government casefiles and databases in an attempt to locate some of the people whose names Vinny had given me. I was have depressingly good luck.

While Vinny and I have pretty exclusive lines of work it’s still pretty easy for us to lose track of people. Vinny works alone and, as I’ve noted, the Gifted have good reasons to avoid each other most of the time. The  Venn diagram of people we’d lost track of and people who had dropped off the grid was nonexistent and none of the people I could find looked like they were in any way associated with Jackson’s media or infotech work. I had a lot of names to check on but I was more than halfway done when Hennesy returned with Eugene in tow. “Okay, Armor,” he said. “Run all that by Fitzgerald for me.”

He’d found an expert. How nice. I did as the man wanted.

Once he’d heard it all Eugene paused for a few minutes, working through the implications, then he said, “Follow a strange line of questioning for me. How many psychometrics are there in the US?”

“Maybe four thousand,” I replied immediately. “It’s hard to tell.”

“How hard?” Hennesy asked. “I thought there were only two groups of you.”

“Yes, but we don’t have a radar or genetic test we can do to locate each other. You can recognize certain mental habits that sane adults with the Gift have to develop to stay alive and sane but normal people develop them sometimes, too.” I pointed at Eugene. “It’s like seeing a redhead. I can assume there’s a good chance Eugene’s of Irish descent but until I do some research it’s not a guarantee.”

“True enough,” Hennesy mused, eyeing Eugene’s hair. “So you assume some percentage of the psychometric population is outside of Galaxy or the Masks. Do you know how much?”

“We know about ten percent of them choose not to join either organization. We presume between twice and three times that number have never heard of us or have and choose to remain independent, but we’ve never heard of them.” I shrugged. “It’s not an exact science, but we assume the breakdown of the sane, adult Gifted to be about forty percent in Galaxy, thirty to forty percent independent, twenty to thirty percent Masks.”

Eugene leaned forward and asked, “How many insane psychometrics are there?”

I froze for just a moment. Then, “I’m sorry?”

“You’ve qualified all of your numbers as dealing with sane psychometrics, yes?”

“Yes, because our abilities take a toll on our sanity. Not everyone learns to – or wishes to – safeguard against those costs.”

“What percentage of the population is that?” Eugene asked.

I was tempted to ignore the question, it was a very sensitive topic among the Gifted. But I could tell he thought he was on to something very important. “Maybe a third.”

“Do you monitor them?”

A shudder ran up my back. “Monitor how?”

“To see if they recover.”

“We can’t recover from-” And suddenly Eugene’s line of reasoning made sense. “You think the fugue state I found was used to cure a mad psychometric.”

“A therapy trap,” Hennesy muttered.

“I know that it’s axiomatic among the Gifted to say that you can’t recover from insanity,” Fitzgerald said. “But maybe one could. Maybe A.J. Jackson knew a psychometric who went crazy and tried to cure him or her. Maybe that’s why he built this fugue state you describe, rather than just buying a commercial fugue trap off the market. It wouldn’t have done what he wanted.”

That was certainly possible. But, just like Aurora, I dealt primarily with the intersection physical things and the Gift. I didn’t know much about how we dealt with purely mental things. “I don’t know if we track insane psychometrics or not. I’ll need to make some calls. Possible take it all the way to the Constellations.”

“Before we spend too much time on that,” Hennesy said, “I need to know if it’s relevant to this investigation. I’m sure curing mental illness is very important to Galaxy but it’s not going to stop whoever is terrorizing Silicon Valley if there’s no connection between Jackson, his Backboard project and the attacks of the last week. Would curing an insane psychometric help him pull off what’s happened?”

I thought about it for a moment, then shook my head. “No Gifted person I know has ever been insane. I have no way of knowing…”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Sixteen

Previous Chapter

“Therapy?”

“Not all of your Gifted companions think of a fugue state as a trap, Armor,” Vinny said, consulting something in his personal files. “The technology that makes it possible has a lot of other uses. I’ve had several Galaxy-funded and independent psychometric researchers approach me about utilizing fugue state coding and hardware to create one thing or another. The one trying to simulate true telepathy was particularly interesting.”

“Yes, but as a therapy tool?”

Vinny stopped what he was doing long enough to give me a patient look. “You saw representations of your five core personality facets, right? The woman who kept taking charge was your extroversion, the wet blanket was your neuroticism, and so on. Surely you realize there’s a lot of room there for encouraging self-discovery and growth.”

In other words, it was the opposite of being trapped. Of course Vinny would like the idea, it balanced the other use of his technology. I should have seen that coming. “I suppose you could use it that way. I’m not an expert on the psychology part of it but I’ll take your word on its usefulness. Have you actually sold this tech to anyone who was interested in it?”

He was paying more attention to his screen than me and I was deeply tempted to try and brush against his computer and see what he was looking at but I knew better than to do that with anything belonging to the leading designer of antipsychometery tech in Silicon Valley. “If I did I couldn’t tell you about it under the terms of our typical contract,” he muttered, still browsing. “What I can tell you is we haven’t built anything that has produced experiences anything like what you described.”

“You’re sure?”

That finally got Vinny to pull his nose away from his monitor and turn his attention to me. He was having a hard time taking me seriously. “Armor. This is my bread and butter. I know where my projects are.”

“Of course you do,” I murmured. “But you think it wasn’t intended as a trap?”

“I have no way of telling, since it wasn’t something I designed.” Vinny steepled his fingers and thought for a moment, the wheels in his mind spinning away. “But if I had to speculate, I don’t think it was built as a trap. It might have been repurposed. After all, a toy car isn’t meant as a trap. You can use it as one. I might be able to speculate more if you told me where you found this fugue trap.”

“I can’t talk about any ongoing investigations, Vinny.”

“No, I suppose not.” He sat back and rested his hands on the arms of his chair. “There’s other places that could be working on this kind of technology, of course. But they’d have to have a pretty close working relationship with a group of psychometrics in order for it to make sense. You’re the only ones who can test fugue state software and the only ones who could make use of it. And based on the experiments we’ve run it’s not the kind of thing you can build without a test subject on hand to give constant feedback.”

“Assuming you could get the basics of the technology from someone, be it you or someone else, how much expertise would it take to adapt it to a therapeutic fugue state?”

Vinny was lapsing deeper and deeper into his regimented, balanced, cause and effect headspace. Or, more accurately, he was letting the mask of normal human behavior he wore over his deeper, more mechanical thought process lapse. He was now almost motionless in his chair, looking straight forward, his mind whirring and expressive but his mannerisms bordering on a trance of his own. “The hardware is simple, assuming you don’t want to miniaturize it. A server farm or some networked GPUs is all it would take. The software is more challenging but really it doesn’t take formal training, just lots of experimentation. It’s hardly an exact science. With enough time, any computer science grad could probably learn to do the necessary work.”

That answer didn’t offer a lot of possible angles of attack. In fact, there was basically just one. “How much time?”

“It took me eighteen months to bring up my last raw initiate to the level of independent coding,” Vinny said without hesitation. “A really brilliant mind could do it in ten.”

Which led nicely into the next obvious question. “How long did it take you?”

“Eight months.”

“That long?” I shook my head sadly. “Vinny, I had such high hopes for you.”

“You need a Gifted individual to work opposite you as you learn, and generally working with the same one works best. Not everyone can keep up with my work routine.”

From anyone else it would sound like throwing shade. From Vinny it was a simple statement of fact. “How long has therapeutic fugue states been around?”

“To the best of my knowledge they don’t exist yet.”

And from someone that dense it really wasn’t that annoying. “How long have people been trying to make them?”

“At least five years. That’s when I was first approached about adapting fugue traps, although I declined that offer and most like it that have been offered to me.” Vinny was beginning to come back to his normal disposition, where he looked and spoke more like a normal human and less like a computer terminal. I can tell most people find this extremely focused state of his disturbing as it hides all of his social cues but personally I’ve always found it oddly disarming. He’s a Gap, and that means some part of his mind will always be alien to me. At the same time, social ineptitude is something I see on a daily basis and no matter how severe it may be, that kind of weakness just humanizes him to me.

“Why did you never take any of those offers? It seems like something you’d like.”

He was amused, both that I’d caught on to the fact that he did like them, and that I hadn’t figured out why he wasn’t invested in the field. “My calling is maintaining people’s secrets, Armor. Secrets exist for good reason and we can easily harm ourselves in revealing them, even to ourselves.”

Large scale balance outweighing small scale. As always, a clear principle but one I hadn’t figured out how he applied. “Let’s set aside a new person working on this therapy fugue for a moment. You and I work in small communities, Vinny. Let’s see if we can figure out known experts that dropped off the grid five years ago and work from there…”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Fifteen

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“Each person is a mask over a single soul that unites us.” I strolled along, watching as people passed one another on the street and admiring the breeze off of the bay to the east. “I always thought it sounded like a noble, zen philosophy until I actually met a Mask.”

Aurora had her attention split between me and the people we were passing as we walked. The hotel wasn’t in one of the major homeless parts of the city but there were still a lot of stressed, obsessed and generally distressed people passing us and it was a hard distraction to ignore. “I wouldn’t have called you someone interested in the Masks when we graduated, Trevor.”

“I wasn’t. I met my first Mask when I was sixteen. During that trip to St. Petersburg for the lower tiered people, remember? You complained for weeks after I got back.” I carefully ran a gloved hand along the railing that ran along the sidewalk, over the sloping rocks that led down to the Pacific Ocean. Whispers of a dozen thoughts tugged at the edge of my mind, leaking through the flimsy barrier between my hand and the railing. Most were a variation on admiration for nature, which made it easy enough to tune them out.

Aurora’s embarrassment was much clearer and more amusing. “It wasn’t fun to be left behind with all the other super Gifted kids. We had to work so hard to ignore each other.”

That was a drawback of teaching the Gifted in groups of their peers – we’re at our most comfortable among those more or less sensitive than ourselves, since it’s harder to guess how much of our thoughts they know, and easier to maintain the illusion of privacy. I’d always wondered if the struggles of being surrounded by tier five psychometrics was one of the reasons it took so long for Aurora’s normal mental state to coalesce. “It was an important skill to work on, and you know it.”

“I was just a late bloomer, and you know it,” Aurora replied, showing she was monitoring my thoughts better than I’d thought. “How did I never realize you’d met a Mask when you were sixteen? And what was one doing in St. Petersburg?”

“The ‘we are one’ idea has adherents worldwide, and unsurprisingly they try and link up with one another constantly.” I paused and looked out over the ocean, one of the few things in the world that carried no psychometric signatures at all, and wondered what things were like in Russia now. “Communism created a lot of true believers of the Masks variety and I think they were trying to escape Yeltsin-era Russia for greener pastures. I never did find out what happened to him after. Hopefully he never found the russkies he was looking for.”

“How come you never told me about this?”

“It was a bad time for you, Aurora. And I didn’t know what happened so I didn’t want to worry you. It wasn’t our responsibility anyways, we were still teenagers.” My memory drifted back to that day for the first time in years, inviting Aurora to go along with me. Nevsky Prospekt was a bustling thoroughfare at the time, with the Admiralty building standing at attention on one side and the Leningrad Hero City Memorial anchoring the other. We’d gone there to see the world, of course, but also to face for the first time in our short lives the depth and weight of the violence people inflicted on one another and realize how present it is to this day.

For nine hundred days the city was besieged, and walking the Prospekt one could still feel the famine, terror and cold of its darkest days more than sixty years after the armies were gone. That was the day my interest in psychometric forensics began to form. It was also the day I met the Mask.

The villains of the Soviet era were larger than life, easily caricatured figures that are hard to forget. The great villain of the Gifted proved very different, a small, almost forgettable man who slouched past on the street, a neurotic ball of anxiety and hostility focused outward with almost no sense of self. The Masks believe that by yielding themselves back from the void from whence all things came they can mend all fractured relationships and bring all humanity together in one community again, a belief shared by many philosophers and even some religions the world over. But in that moment, in a chance meeting on the Prospekt half a world away, I saw something very much the opposite. A deranged and ultimately alone man struggling to create a mask that would unify him with thousands of other, similarly masked people.

Boundaries have always been hard for the Gifted to make and maintain, but that Mask was the cruelest solution to the problem I’ve ever seen.

Back in the present Aurora leaned against the railing with me and sighed. “You can hear stories about what they’re like but I guess it doesn’t make sense until you see it for yourself.”

I gave her a sideways look. “You’ve met a Mask?”

“No. Even with what you tried to show me there, it still doesn’t add up.” She joined me in leaning against the railing. “Is that why you spent a year chasing them with Agent Fitzgerald?”

“No, that was a job. Eugene is the one with a vendetta against them, not me. Personally, I don’t think the Masks will ever pull together enough to pose a threat again. They’re too afraid of each other to be effective against us.” I picked at my teeth and thought about what Natalie had said, how we might need every psychometric we could get in order to crack this terrorism case. “This whole situation has got to be driving them nuts…”

“You can think about how to solve the case when you go back tomorrow,” Aurora said gently. “For now, relax.”

“Relaxing is a weakness of mine,” I admitted. “I know that for a fact since my own subconscious said so earlier.”

“That must have been an interesting experience,” Aurora said, genuine intrigue trickling into her conscious mind in spite of her revulsion at the idea of something like a fugue trap. “Do you think meeting your own personality traits was the intended function of the trap or a side effect?”

“Can’t say without talking to the person who built it,” I said, mulling it over out loud. “It would depend on what you accomplish by such a thing, wouldn’t it? I mean, I don’t think my impromptu counseling session was intended to give me a method to escape, even though it did. The real question is whether doing that, rather than the usual method of showing people something they find really pleasant or at least mildly interesting, helped the trap function in some way.”

“What if it wasn’t a trap?” Aurora asked. “Can you do anything else with a-“

She caught herself and shook her head. “Now look at what you’ve done. You pulled me into helping you spitball the case. Stop that.”

“You came along on that ride all by yourself.” I was teasing her but it felt good knowing I could still drag her along that easily if I had to. We need more space around each other these days, thanks to our Gifts, but I still do enjoy Aurora’s company. It was nice to find a simple moment of camaraderie from time to time.

And she had a different perspective. Life is not as suspicious when you live a life of medicine, your mind goes to different places by default. What if it wasn’t a trap? The question had a lot of merit. I couldn’t answer it, programming is not my forte. But I knew someone who could.

I did what Aurora wanted from me, I took the rest of the day off. In fact, I did one better and didn’t go in to the office the next morning either. Instead I found myself standing in a familiar office, watching an old friend over one shoulder until he found a moment to spare. As he set aside his soldering iron Vinny gave me a skeptical look and said, “I was not expecting you here before an announcement about the excitement of the past few days. What can I do for you today, Armor?”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Fourteen

“You’re hiding something.”

“Aurora…”

“Don’t call me that, Trevor, you know I don’t like it.” I grimaced, from anyone else it would have sounded like a calm request, from Aurora it almost came off as whining. “I’m here to keep your mind centered and healthy and I can’t do it if you won’t let me have a clear look at you.”

I brushed her hands away from my temples and sat up on the bed. “Well I don’t know why the Constellations sent you and not an actual psychologist with the Gift. Your expertise is in bodily health, not mental health.”

“Because I’ve had a crush on you off and on for the past thirteen years, that’s why. It’s not like it’s a secret, Trevor.” Again, it was a rebuke but one that even psychometrics who hadn’t known her for years would miss. “It makes me more attenuated to your mental state and I’m already an expert on what counts as normalcy for you. If you’d actually visit a psychologist maybe there would be one who already had a baseline understanding of you they could send. But you don’t, so they sent me.”

Okay, so that part was my doing. “If you know it so well, why is it taking so long to clear me?”

“Clear you for what?” Aurora climbed up off the bed and moved over to a chair where she sat a little more comfortably. “I already told you, you’re not going back out today. You were just came out of a twenty four hour trance. You need to recover.”

“There’s no time for that, Aurora. Something’s happening out there and it’s picking up steam, not slowing down.”

“Then you’d better rest up while you can.” She straightened the skirt of her economical linen dress and said, “Tell me what happened again, from the start.”

I knew better than to try and move her when she was in this kind of mood so I did as asked and ran her through the weird look I’d had at the inside of my own head. I did my best to keep my mental defenses down as I did it, mental walls are something all of the Gifted live with but there is a need to pull them down from time to time and I was willing to do it for Aurora, even if I didn’t like it much. By the time I was done she was nodding along like she’d gotten some kind of insight. I wasn’t sure what but I wasn’t going to push her on it, either. I did want to go back to work some time this decade, after all, and if Aurora did have the ear of the psychometric elders she could make sure it didn’t happen. If she was feeling hostile.

Not that she would. I could tell, there was a clear current of sympathy at my forced inaction running under her conscious thought process. Doubtless born of her being shoved into a role she wasn’t best suited to, even if it was one which she was happy to do. We both knew all these things about the other’s conscious and subconscious reasoning. We were just ignoring it, for the sake of privacy.

Most conversations between the Gifted go like this. It’s one of the reasons we tend to live at a distance from our own kind as well as everyone else. It’s very difficult to maintain healthy relationships when you can’t give one another space.

And yes, that’s why Aurora and I are not a couple. I can read your mind, too.

After finishing my story Aurora made me lie down and I actually drifted off to sleep in fairly short order. It turns out that fugue trances are not very restful and I was quite tired. I woke up to an empty room but Aurora was not gone as I’d originally thought. She’d just moved to the in suite kitchenette and was making dinner. As I watched her quietly measuring and stirring and boiling I marveled at her ability to find happiness in what she was doing. She was making food, the food satisfy the two of us and that made her happy.

For all her deep understanding of the human mind and body, for all her deep and overwhelming sense of peace, for all her seemingly limitless compassion for people, at her core she’s a simple person. Perhaps that’s the source of her equanimity. Stripped down to her simplest goals in that moment I could see past the emotional reservoir that usually surrounded her to the physical person beneath. Straight, almost stringy brown hair in a pony tail, rosy cheeks, a graceful neck. And a very round face. Not quite Natalie’s eye-popping figure but overall very nice. I wondered how many of her patients had looked up from a hospital bed and proposed on the spot. With her aura of calm I’m sure she struck most people as a supernatural visitor to begin with.

“Stop it.” She didn’t bother looking up from the food she was working on. “Come and eat.”

I don’t argue with that tone of voice.

We’d finished loading the dishwasher and I was just thinking about trying to sneak onto the Net and find some news on the case when Aurora asked, “Trevor, are you happy?”

I hesitated, the dishwasher door half closed in one hand. “Happy?”

For the third time today there was a crack in her calm. “Happy, Trevor. You know, is doing all this getting you any closer to what you want?”

“What I want?” I laughed. “No one gets what they want, Aurora. I’m just trying to do something that makes life better for others.”

The crack opened a bit wider, filling with exasperation. “Of course. But you could be building something. Teaching people. You could-“

“I’ve never been any good at those things, Betty. I can’t build, I can’t teach. So I protect. I try and stop people from tearing down. In the long run, I think that’s the only meaningful thing I can do with my life.” I closed the dishwasher and set it running.

“Do you ever wish it was different?”

“Used to. Almost fell into a Gap – nothing good comes of thinking that way, Betty.” I shook my head, catching the slip of the tongue too late to call it back. I’d had this kind of conversation with Aurora dozens of times when we were younger, before life took us to different places. “You can’t like suffering along with all your patients every day, right? But it’s the price we pay to make a better world.”

Her exasperation drained away, replaced with deep weariness. With me or the world at large I couldn’t tell. “What if you don’t like the world at all?”

Well, that answered that. Unfortunately her question wasn’t as easy for me to respond to. I thought about it, then walked over to the hallway door.

“Trevor, you can’t go back to work.” The crack was closed and normal Aurora was back. And she was quite adamant about my staying away from the job.

“Not to worry. I’m not going there.”

She wavered a moment because it was obvious to her that I was telling the truth. “Then where are you going?”

“Where are we going.” I pulled the door open. “And we are going for a walk.”

“A walk?”

“Yes.” I held out a hand like a butler. “After you?”

For a moment she struggled with the invitation. Like most of us, Aurora didn’t like large groups of strangers, which was what you found on most streets these days. But after a moment’s internal debate she steeled herself and came along. Something was bothering Aurora, something more than just the case and what I was doing in it. I had a day off from the FBI. I might as well try and figure out what it was.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirteen

Previous Chapter

“Really, you should have guessed something was off when I understood all that technobabble you threw at me earlier,” Hennesy said, watching as I carefully disassembled the coffee maker. I stopped when I realized the insides were just a meaningless assemblage of plastic and wires, reflecting my ignorance of how the device actually worked.

“I didn’t realize I had such a low impression of SAC Hennesy,” I grumbled, putting the parts aside.

“You just known I’m a busy guy,” he replied. “I don’t have time to figure out what all that stuff is, that’s why I’ve got agents.”

The logic was hard to argue.

“Hey, Armor, look who I found!” Natalie came back into the lounge – or what passed for the lounge in my own piece of subconsciousness. “It’s Lao!”

And so it was, or at least a representation of my thoughts and opinions of the man. Like Eugene, Aurora, Hennesy and, of course, Natalie, he was part of an ever growing host of internal voices my psyche was bringing to bear on the problem of escaping the fugue state I’d been placed in. I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Why are you doing this?”

“I thought he would be useful,” Natalie replied.

“I barely know him,” I said. “We’ve spoken in person for less than an hour. The real Natalie is not this scatterbrained.”

“You don’t know Charles Wu,” Lao replied. “But you know a great deal about TsunLao. You’ve followed his interviews and editorial work for years and I’ve been on you mind for the last few days because you can’t decide if I’m involved in this Silicon Valley tech war that’s brewing. So when you wound up in unexpected trouble the proactive part of your mind came and found me.”

I gave Natalie a skeptical look. “How’d you get to be the proactive part of my mind?”

“I’m probably the part that governs extroversion? Enthusiasm is part of the package.” She shrugged and sat down on the couch with Hennesy and Aurora. Lao grabbed a chair and the tableau was complete, although I had no idea what it meant.

“Point of order,” Eugene said. “I don’t entirely trust Lao and that means you don’t either. Why is he here?”

“Probably because most fugue traps that Galaxy knows about rely on making the victim comfortable and oblivious to his state,” Lao replied. “Adding an element of uncertainty like myself keeps Armor’s mind from lapsing into a null state as the trap is intended to do.”

“Which isn’t to say that this isn’t some kind of new trap that revolves around making sure my mind is too scattered to figure out the best way to react.” I put my feet up on the coffee table and looked around at the five figments my brain had decided to marshal as part of its escape plan. “I need to think of something.”

“We do,” Natalie said, setting down her cup of coffee with an authoritative thump. “Let’s get to work. Who’s going to dig into our brain and tell us what we know about fugue traps?”

I opened my mouth to ask who put Natalie in charge but before I could ask Hennesy answered the actual question. “They’re a pretty standard way to counter psychometrics in the computer age. They run some kind of algorithm that hypnotizes the victim and tries to put them in a soothing trance or a fragmented state of mind that renders them useless as long as they’re in contact with it. Generally you can break them by entering unfamiliar states of mind or by encountering significant outside stimulus. They’re not fatal but they are almost impossible to work around. You can get out of them, but not past them, unless you know how they’re designed.

“Well it’s pretty obvious which one we’re in,” Eugene muttered. “The question is, does the fact that it’s on Backboard signify anything?”

“There aren’t any major tech firms that I can think of that don’t have some kind of psychometric defense,” Hennesy said. “I know for a fact that Vinny recommends programming fugue traps over most every major layer of digital security he installs.”

“It wouldn’t be right to ask him how many take him up on it,” Aurora pointed out. “But Archon is the industry leader for a reason and I know I would take their advice. I’d guess it’s pretty standard in the big companies?”

“But Backboard is a no name start up by someone the tech industry really doesn’t like. Do they know about firms like Archon?” Eugene asked.

Backboard is new,” Lao said. “Jackson is not. Remember, he runs a digital news program and has for years. In fact, I think Archon did his security set up back when they were both much smaller organizations.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, doing my best to wedge in between my own rushing thoughts. “Is this helping us with our current problem any?”

“No.” Natalie rubbed her hands briskly. “We did work for Archon in the past, testing the integrity of their fugue traps and the like, right? Did we ever get out of them?”

“Yes,” Hennesy said. “Although we never tested a final build and we haven’t done that in the last twelve months. Assuming this is even an Archon issue trap it’s not going to be one we’re familiar with.”

“But we used standard methods?” Lao asked.

“We did,” Hennesy confirmed.

It was interesting watching my own thoughts work themselves out. A Gifted psychologist might have been able to parse what was happening better but as it was I found the chatter kind of wearying. I prefer it when my ideas don’t talk my ear off before I think of them and, for a normally asocial person like me, the chatter was tiring. I got up and wandered out of the room until I found myself back at the computer I’d started at, staring at the Backboard source code.

“This is where you’re most comfortable.” I jumped and turned to see Eugene staring at me disconcertingly.

“In front of a computer?” I asked, covering my surprise.

“Solving a problem,” Eugene answered. “You – we – prefer it to people. You keep coming back here, you’re never getting out of this on your own.”

“Do I need to?” I asked. “I’m in the hotel. Sooner or later someone will come and check on me.”

“Maybe.” Eugene shrugged. “People are unreliable, though. That’s an opinion you and Eugene have in common, which is probably why you’re seeing part of your mind as him right now.”

“He’s a much more extreme misanthrope than I am,” I mused, pushing away from the computer and staring off into space beyond it. “Part of it probably comes with the job.”

“Of course it does. But it runs deeper in him and you know it. You’ve seen it for years. You just never bothered to think about it.”

“He deserves his privacy.” But not-Eugene was right. I had realized that something about Eugene had soured on humanity. He didn’t like them – didn’t like me – for reasons I’d never cared to find out. He was just part of the job. Maybe I should dig into that, once I was out.

“Maybe you should.” Natalie’s voice this time, little miss looking forward. No actual face this time, just a voice talking to me. The world was becoming more and more dreamlike, I couldn’t actually read anything written on the screen and the walls of the cubicle were fuzzy around me – a good thing, Hennesy pointed out, the trap was losing some of its hold. But I wasn’t out yet.

Fugue traps want you comfortable. There’s nothing more uncomfortable for me, or most of the Gifted, than prying into someone’s mind. I closed my eyes and did my best to reach out and read the people around me. To get out of my own head, as it were. At first there was nothing, just the fuzzy echoes of the problems of the day. Then I picked up a streak of passing interest, a housekeeper on their way to some chore or another. Then a flicker of annoyance from a driver passing in the street. Finally, coming closer minute by minute, a tide of worry exponentially stronger than anything I’d picked up so far. I grabbed hold of that sensation and pulled.

A moment later I was sitting upright on my bed in the hotel, feeling a little feverish and very grubby. My face had a day or so worth of stubble on it and my clothes were pretty rumpled. As I stood up my stomach growled angrily. There was a knock at the door but I knew who was there without asking so I just got up and let Aurora in. As soon as she saw me her sense of worry faded, replaced with her normal pool of deep, assuring calm. That was when I knew I was back.

“You missed Mix’s calls this morning,” she said. “Is everything all right?”

“Not exactly. I followed up a lead on the case and got more than I bargained for.” I ran my fingers through my hair and stumbled over to the closet for a fresh shirt. “What was Mix calling for?”

“The FBI found something they wanted processed. But when you wouldn’t answer Mix sent Indiana instead.” She carefully took a seat in one of the room’s chairs and watched me, probably wondering if I was going to snap and jump out the window if left alone. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“No. That doesn’t mean I can just not do the job, does it?” Indy was a good forensics man. If there was anything to find where they sent him, he’d find it. “I need to get to the office, talk to Hennesy.”

“Not today,” Aurora said. “You were supposed to take the day off yesterday. Clearly you didn’t. I’ll talk to Mix and we’ll adjust your schedule accordingly.”

“Aurora, this is-“

“Not that important.” She was giving me a Look, one of those disapproving stares women think will shame men into doing what they want. They work only when getting our way is less important that their opinion of us.

It was still a struggle to decide whether to cave or not. “Hennesy needs to put some of his people on following this up, the sooner the better.”

She took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then let it out. “Alright. Call him, tell him what he needs to know. Then you’re taking the rest of the day off.”

“And I suppose you’re just going to stay here and watch me to make sure I do?”

Aurora smiled slightly. “Yes.”