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 Twenty Six

Previous Chapter

“Wait, you think Alvin Davidson is the point man for the Masks?” Eugene laughed. “The man doesn’t take clients that violate his own sense of ethics, why would he take on the Masks?”

“Because his sense of ethics is balance,” I said, waving towards Natalie. “And like she said, we’ve locked them out of Silicon Valley for years, whether we meant to or not. That’s an imbalance that he’d try to correct automatically.”

Natalie shifted uncomfortably. “Is this really how he’d chose to do it? Indiscriminate acts of terror? Disrupting huge swaths of the industry just because Galaxy pressured them to lock a rival group out? I mean, that sounds pretty unbalanced to me.”

“It’s a weakness in the theory, to be sure, but one thing you have to understand is that Vinny doesn’t see the world like you or I. He doesn’t understand empathy or compassion, he doesn’t have the emotional capacity for it and he knows it.” I shied away from the sudden spike of revulsion she put off at that statement. “Look, I’m sorry to be blunt but the man isn’t normal and in many ways it makes him a valuable member of society. But it’s a two edged sword and, for all the ways he’s tried to adopt a moral code and social graces, I don’t doubt he could mastermind exactly the kind of violence we’ve seen if the circumstances fit. And right now, they do.”

“Okay, okay.” Eugene flicked his fingers towards my chair, deliberately broadcasting how much he’d like it if I stopped pacing and sat down. “Let’s say Davidson is the mastermind or one of said masterminds, or even just sympathetic to their cause. We vet all the tech he installs on our equipment. I’m sure Silicon Valley firms are even more cautious than we are. He’s never brought us anything that looks remotely malicious or we wouldn’t still be working with him as a contractor, much less as a consultant.”

“How long has that been going on?”

Eugene gave me a dry look. “Is that really important right now?”

“How am I supposed to answer you until you answer me?”

“My point is, even if the Masks were using him to try and infiltrate our systems somehow, how exactly are they supposed to do it?”

I grunted helplessly. “I’m not a cybersecurity expert, so I couldn’t begin to guess. Forensics is my thing, remember?”

“Look,” Natalie said then hesitated, her mind seesawing between sympathy and… something I couldn’t quite pin down. Caution? Concern? It was hard to tell, unusual with her, but then it takes a couple of months to get a good read on some aspects of a new coworker, whether you’re psychometric or not. Finally she said, “I want to get this sorted, same as you. But the FBI needs something a little stronger than an analysis of one man’s motives. Like Hennesy said, motives are for juries. We can’t get a warrant with just that. Unless you could get Galaxy to look in to it?”

“One thing we’re truly terrible at is law enforcement and peace keeping,” I said. “Investigation and forensics is one of the least common specializations for us to choose. That’s why those of us who do take my profession work as consultants for agencies, rather than in our own agency.”

“Then you’re going to have to find proof on your own,” Eugene said. “Because I don’t think the locals or the FBI Director is going to okay going after someone like Davidson without some kind of proof.”

“I suppose you’re right.” That really narrowed my options down to one. I’d been hoping to avoid it but I needed an expert and there was only one I could find.

Well, sort of.


AJ Jackson was not a happy camper. Unhappy with where he was, unhappy not knowing what was going on, unhappy to see me.

That made two of us.

I sat down on my side of the interview table, folded my hands and said, “Tell me how to find Hat Trick, Jackson.”

“My client is not going to answer any questions off the record,” Jackon’s lawyer said. She was a frigid, fifty-something woman with a lined face and the eyes of a merciless bulldog.

“I didn’t ask a question,” I pointed out, momentarily amused by the posturing of this lawyer. They were a necessary evil, and some of them had fun and twisty ways of thinking. Unfortunately this one knew she was being baited. I wasn’t going to get any stress relief from this woman. “Tell me how to find Hat Trick.”

“If you’re here to badger my client-“

“What do you want with Hat Trick, Armor?” Jackson leaned back in his chair and squinted at me. He had kind of narrow, close set eyes and I could understand why he’d chosen to make hiding them behind sunglasses an integral part of his brand. With them missing and his bespoke suit traded in for a much less tailored orange number he looked much less impressive. But the changes didn’t take away his natural charisma and his words came out with confidence and pride. “I told you, there’s nothing illegal about any part of Backboard, at least not yet. He’s not guilty of anything.”

“Not that my client admits to guilt in anything either,” the lawyer added.

“I don’t know the law well enough to know if Backboard is illegal or not,” I admitted. “And I don’t care. I don’t care about your Silicoverlords either. I’m concerned about a growing wave of malicious and dangerous activity and I need a psychometric cybersecurity expert to help me with it. Hat Trick is the only one that might not be compromised and, from what you said on the boat, it sounds like he knows my reputation and might be willing to be that helper. Are you going to tell me where to find him or not? Because if not I need to call the Constellations.”

Jackson sat back in his chair and stared at me hard for a moment or two. “Why don’t you want to talk to them?”

“They keep making noises about taking me off the case. I’m pretty sure, at this point, that Aurora won’t do it if they tell her to but they can make other arrangements for it fast enough, if they want. The further away this gets from a simple terrorism investigation the more likely that outcome gets.” I raised an eyebrow and watched as that made its way into the whirlwind of his free associating mind. “So. How about it?”

I can usually guess where someone’s thoughts will go at least a few seconds before they tell me but with AJ Jackson all I could conclude is that the answer would be surprising. And he did not disappoint. “Tell me about Newell High.”

It took a moment for the shifter to kick in and change the gears, dredge my memory and make the association. “The Newell High disappearances? What about them? I didn’t work that case.”

“I just want to know what they were really about.” He jerked forward in his chair and slammed his cuffed hands down on the table. “People don’t just do that kind of thing to each other, Armor. Was it a delusion? Was he drugged? Was he manipulated? What caused a fundamentally good person like a teacher-“

“He wasn’t.”

Jackson stopped short and looked at me, confusion and curiosity warring for a moment. “Wasn’t a teacher? Someone else did it?”

“Wasn’t fundamentally good.” I was suddenly very, very tired. Walking out and letting the Masks burn the Valley was looking more and more appealing every minute. But I couldn’t do that and I took the frustration out on Jackson. “He wasn’t a fundamentally good person, Jackson, he was a man who like watching fourteen year old boys scream until they died. There’s no secret conspiracy, no leverage someone used to drive him to it. He was a fundamentally evil person.”

I rocked forward onto the knuckles of my hands, bracing myself like a gorilla to lean over the table until our noses nearly touched. “He was just like you, with your stupid Backboards, spying on other people and he was just like Silicon Valley, out of touch in spite of all the data they gather, and he was just like me, convinced a friend I’ve known for over a decade is a terrorist without a scrap of evidence. We’re all of us vile, petty people, rotten to the core. How hard is that to accept?”

“Not hard.” Jackson slowly slumped down in his seat. “But I’ve made a living telling people there are other reasons for it. I guess sometimes I just… I just hope maybe it’s actually true. Is that such a bad thing?”

“If it’s not true?” I shrugged, took my own seat again. “I don’t know. If it is a good thing then I suppose that makes you a good person as well as an evil one.”

“You really think people can embody a contradiction that extreme?”

“I see it every day.”

Jackson rocked back and forth on his seat once. Literally tilted his body to the left until it was a full ten degrees away from straight up, then back and just as far the opposite direction, then back to his previous slumped posture. As he did the maelstrom of thoughts in his mind actually slowed, his impressive powers of intellect no longer swirling at random but instead focusing on a single line of thought. I didn’t have the sensitivity to tell what that line of thought was but he seemed to like it when he got to the end. Then, as if a switch was thrown, his mind snapped back to normal. “You’re not going to arrest Hat Trick?”

“Not any time soon. Not unless he’s done something stupid since the last time you talked to him.”

Another moment of thought, then Jackson said, “You’ll want to write this down…”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Five

Previous Chapter

There’s a mental discipline called a “mind palace” that some people use to help them organize and recall memories. In most cases it functions exactly as you’d think from the name – they build a huge mental structure and store memories in a layout that is somehow mnemonic, decorated with art and knickknacks their subconscious associates with those memories. I’ve met a few of these people in my life and let me tell you, to the psychometric it’s a thing to behold when a person comes walking down a hallway or into a room surrounded by a mishmash of flying architecture that looks like a cross between Royal Caribbean and Disney World.

Yes, I know there are Disney cruise liners, that’s not the point.

In the past psychometrics actually used a cousin of this technique to store memories in actual, physical objects, deliberately layering impressions one on top of the other until a favorite rosary, lucky coin or similar object also doubled as a memory aid to help us remember all the random minutia of daily life. They were wonderful, idiosyncratic objects and there are actually a few still stored in the collections of some of the current Constellations, the memories stored within slowly fading until someday, sooner rather than later, they’ll vanish entirely.

The problem with this technique was that losing the object in question often left its owner disoriented and possibly even mildly amnesiac. The invention of hard drives for computers gradually began to solve that problem. By the time I was old enough Galaxy was teaching me how to survive in the world we’d made the switch to a totally binary approach to memory aids. So when, after two hours of work sifting through photos of drones from the Worker Drones catalog and comparing them to those used in the dastardly Peanut Oil Attack, we concluded that they hadn’t come from the same source as the EMP drones used in the previous attacks and Natalie went to get a new assignment I didn’t have to waste any time tracking down what happened to the data we’d recovered from AJ Jackson.

I just looked into the computer tower and began unpacking everything I remembered of it into the computer’s file structure. There was a lot of information from Project Backboard to sift through but whether it was Hat Trick, Jackson himself or some other analyst hired for the job, someone had done a good job boiling it down and sorting it into useful categories, so there wasn’t even much I could discard out of hand. Worse, after a preliminary sort and analysis I realized that Jackson’s info and the timing of Backboard didn’t fit with the attacks that had been carried out.

There wasn’t any evidence of the kind of projects the Masks like to really dig their claws in to. 5G networks were still stymied and there didn’t seem to be any other new innovations in networking or interconnectivity brewing in the Valley. The focus was more towards AI and “smart house” style projects, things the Masks actually try to avoid. Something about adding unnatural layers to the omnimind. There were a few interesting looking experiments being done with learning neural nets and so-called “deep fake” technology, interested in both creating and exposing such fakes, but beyond that and some hardware miniaturization efforts currently ongoing it was pretty uninteresting stuff to most psychometrics.

And none of the companies working on that handful of projects had been effected by any of the three attacks so far, so it wasn’t likely they were planning to swoop in and buy up one of the smaller companies struggling in the aftermath of their mischief. I couldn’t for the life of me work out what it was they could possibly want.

What was the pattern behind the attacks? Other than an obvious dislike for Silicon Valley there wasn’t even a through line for all of them. It was like someone was just testing a bunch of ideas they’d once had for how they could use random bits of modern industrial technology to wreak havoc. It might even be borderline funny if the fallout from it wasn’t having such widespread effects. Besides the handful of people that had died during the blackouts, stock prices for a number of companies were tanking badly and probably wiping out some people’s retirement funds, a lot of politicians careers were probably over for no fault of their own – no loss there – and there had apparently been a near riot while I was at sea with Jackson yesterday, although I hadn’t quite pieced together what the cause of that was. It was all very unMask like. Maybe Hennesy was right and I had been listening to Eugene too much.

I was puzzling over it all at my desk, not really thinking about the Jackson files anymore, when Vinny poked his head into my cubicle and said, “You look puzzled, Armor.”

That brought me snapping back to reality. I gave him a curious look and said, “Of course. You’re here, not at the Archon offices. That almost never happens.”

Vinny produced a series of muscle movements that you might call a smile, if it had anything like humor attached to it. Like so many things about Vinny’s day to day living, it was just him doing something he knew was expected. “It’s not as rare as you make it sound. And you aren’t the only consultant the FBI has pulled in on this case.”

“Oh yeah?” I furrowed my brow. I didn’t know Vinny had been doing that kind of work. Then again, with how involved he was with cybersecurity across the Valley maybe he’d been recommended by one of his clients and only started recently. I’m sure he would have mentioned it to me during our last conversation if he’d been doing this then. “What side of the case are you working on?”

“My confidentiality agreements don’t allow me to say,” Vinny said. It was a mild statement backed by the unshakeable resolve of a man who saw give and take, negotiating a balanced agreement as the single most unshakeable foundation of functioning society.

Since I knew Vinny of all people wouldn’t mind an abrupt subject change after that kind of response I just shrugged and said, “Have you ever heard of a psychometric specializing in IT that goes by Hat Trick?”

There was a solid ten seconds of silence as Vinny’s mind whirred through memories – Vinny doesn’t quite have a mind palace but he does use a very efficient filing system – then he said, “I’ve heard the name, although it was some time ago and he wasn’t an IT specialist. He worked in a blend of electronics, mechanics and structural engineering. He was quite adept in all three fields, hence his name.”

“That’s a pretty broad range of interests,” I mused. “To perform at a high level across multiple fields of study he’d have to be at least a tier four. I’m surprised I’ve never heard of him.”

“I believe he was an independent contractor,” Vinny said. “I don’t believe that supposition was ever confirmed, though. You could always consult with one of Galaxy’s Constellations.”

“I suppose. But I’m trying to avoid talking to them right now, apparently they’re debating taking me off this case.” I got up from the computer and stretched, realizing I’d been there quite a while. “How did you know I was here?”

“Your handler mentioned it to the Special Agent in Charge when we were speaking a few minutes ago.” Vinny followed along as I went to the break room to get a cup of coffee. “I was taking the opportunity to discuss with SAC Hennesy the schedule for my modifications.”

I hesitated midpour. “Modifications?”

“Archon has been asked to conduct several system checks and upgrades in the last week. We’ve become aware of certain new surveillance and intrusion methods that require us to modify or upgrade some of our equipment to ensure protection.” Vinny waved towards Hennesy’s office – directly there, I noted, you could draw a straight line directly from his fingers through several walls and a ceiling to Hennesy’s door – and added, “While I was there consulting I believed it would be a good time to mention the necessity of upgrading the FBI’s systems and trying to work it around the aggressive schedule they are currently keeping.”

“Tricky,” I murmured, running through the possibilities in my mind. “Was there something you wanted to ask me?”

Vinny’s frown was as meaningless as his smile. “No, I just believed that greeting you would be appropriate, given our acquaintance.”

“Oh.” I nodded, acknowledging the truth of that. “So these weren’t systems I’ve worked on? Something I might have been able to help with?”

With an click I don’t know how normal people can’t hear Vinny seemed to understand what I was getting at. “No, these are not systems you’ve worked on, no will your help to install them be necessary. I was simply visiting to ‘say hello’.”

“Well, I appreciate the thought.” I put a lid on my coffee and added, “And I don’t mean to brush you off, but I think I worked out what was puzzling me earlier and I need to get back to work.”

“Of course.” Vinny nodded, getting back to work was something he understood like few others on Earth. “I’ll talk to you again if the opportunity presents itself.”

“Sure thing.” And I practically ran back to my cubicle.

Or at least, half way there. As soon as Vinny was out of sight I slowed down, because now I had a new problem to work out. Alvin “Vinny” Davidson was Silicon Valley’s leading expert on cybersecurity solutions that guarded against psychometric surveillance and intrusion.

So how was I going to prove he was working for the Masks?

Hiatus

When I first concepted Pay the Piper late last year I had no idea how future events would play out (as is true of most of us). It seemed like a fairly harmless lark poking fun at Silicon Valley and reminding our Tech Overlords that they, too, are mortal. The irony of my writing it on The Internet (TM) was not lost on me, and I felt would show that my tongue is firmly in cheek. However, over the last six months I’ve watched a lot of public life erode. We actually seem to be slipping into dedicated opposing camps as time goes on and I’ve come to question whether the story I’m writing is truly helpful – to myself if nothing else – and whether I like where I had planned to go. For now, Pay the Piper is on hiatus as I evaluate what I should do with it. In the meantime, look forward to a return of essays, starting next week, for the near future.

 

– Nate

Postdated Vacation!

Hey guys! Dropping a quick post to let you know I’ll be taking the next couple of weeks off, due to being on vacation – or rather, being back from a vacation. You may have noticed that I’ve been posting the last couple of weeks, but in truth I was actually absent for most of that time! This time around I managed to get a running start and had content to post for the time I would be gone, but now I’ll need to build a buffer back up, so I won’t be posting anything beyond this today or next week. Thanks for tuning in and reading and I’ll see you in April!

Nate

Castlevania is a Work of Beauty

I hate vampires.

But for Netflix’s Castlevania, I’ll make an exception.

Spoiler warning for the show, by the way.

The story of Trevor Belmont, Sypha Belnades and Alucard on a private crusade to topple Dracula, Lord of Vampires is grim and overly gory at times, but it manages to do what many shows about dark topics attempt but rarely succeed at – show troubled, almost unsavory people working towards a worthy and noble goal in a way that makes us like people we might otherwise not. While not without flaws, it is an excellent piece of entertainment.

Probably the strongest aspect of Castlevania is it’s villain. Dracula is brooding and dark, but he manages to come off as sympathetic rather than tiresome, a rare achievement. He has a deep seated hatred of humanity but he comes by it honestly. Too honestly, to be frank. It’s hard not to take his side of things, given what we see of the world around him. If there’s one misstep Castlevania makes in spinning it’s tale it’s that the world it presents seems to deserve Dracula far more than it deserves Trevor, Sypha and Alucard to save it. For that matter, with the way those three have been treated by the world at large, it’s a wonder they don’t join forces with Dracula and help destroy it.

This creates the biggest problem with Castlevania as a story. There’s no discernable reason for Dracula to be the way he is. Which is not to say there’s no reason for him to be a vengeful monster, but rather there’s no reason for him to possess so much humanity in the face of the world he lives in. It’s hard to tell where he got it from, or perhaps more accurately, where his wife, who he learned it from, got it from. Concepts like compassion and the value of human life are not natural, but rather truths that must be taught and preserved, yet the world of Castlevania gives only hints as to where such truths might be kept.

Now we could get more development of that in the promised season 3, but with Dracula now dead I’m not sure the show can keep up its high quality going forward.

Because, again, Dracula was what made Castlevania so great. His air of menace, his authority, his casual cruelty and his deep insight into the people around him propels him into the ranks of the best villains in the modern canon. His suicidal desire to destroy what sustains him is also easily understood after watching the tenderness between him and his wife and the brutality of the people who took her from him.

Sadly, the weakest point for Castlevania is the rest of its villains. Carmilla and Godbrand are terrible secondary villains, more one note caricatures of villainy than anything, and Carmilla (the one who survives) lacks the personal charisma and intellectual skill necessary to step into Dracula’s shoes and serve as the primary villain going forward. Isaac poses a human alternative, but while his sorcerers powers are impressive he lacks the vision and scope that made Dracula so terrifying – the very fact that he never set out to wipe out humanity without Dracula to push him along suggests he’s just not the villain the series needs. At least the story brought good heroes to bear.

The antipathy between Belmont, last of the monster hunters, and Alucard, son of the greatest monster, is fun to watch. Neither one of these men likes the other, they probably never will, but in a common cause they find that bizarre masculine bond that only other men who find themselves in the same boat truly grasp. Sypha is a more understated character, at once peacemaker between them and dragging them along towards worthy goals, coming up with plans and then trying not to die when they prove to be more dangerous than she anticipated. She’s a figure of balance in the narrative of the first two seasons, and that keeps her from standing out too much most of the time, but her presence is still welcome and necessary to keep the flavor of the series from turning too hard towards apathy or angst.

Fortunately all three heroes fully come in to their own in time for the final battle with Dracula, a jaw dropping ten minutes of pulse pounding action that takes our heroes and their nemesis from the top of Dracula’s castle to its deepest reaches as they pit their wits, weapons and teamwork against the inhuman might of the lord of vampires. The fight is jawdropping in its visuals and inventiveness, and the Castle in Castlevania is a place of wonder and beauty in its own right, but it’s the ending of the fight that really puts a capstone on all of it. Villains are destroyed by their contradictions – and Dracula could not love a woman of compassion and mercy while seeking to destroy all she loved in turn. For all the titanic physical battles that led to that point, Dracula is defeated when he realizes that truth, and not a moment before.

In the end Castlevania is a terribly mundane, straightforward story of the evils that men do, and how sometimes just aspiring to set them right can be enough to make a difference. And that can be a beautiful thing indeed.

This Post is a Vacation Post

Hello dear readers! I’m grateful to those who tune in every week to read and I know it hasn’t been that long since our last break but I was on vacation with family for most of this week and just did not do as much writing as I would have liked. As a result this week’s post will be delayed until next Friday. Thanks for understanding,

Nate

Chapter Delay – With Apologies

Hello faithful readers,

I’ve been under the weather this week, nothing serious but enough to scatter my brains while writing. I went over this week’s chapter last night and found that it really didn’t come together – not all the plot points followed, the dialog wasn’t great, that kind of thing. The next few chapters are pretty important, lots of character development and important lore bits coming, and I want them to be good so that the build to the climax really nails it. So I’m going to delay this chapter and polish it up with a clearer head, and hopefully the story will be better for it. Thanks for understanding,

Nate