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…”

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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

Previous Chapter

“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.”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twelve

Previous Chapter

I didn’t sleep well that night. That’s not terribly unusual for a psychometric in a big city, there’s enough ambient anxiety in your typical urban zone to make sleeping soundly hard for one of the Gifted. But I clearly wasn’t picking up on anyone else’s worries, my dreams were plagued by the faces of people I knew – knew well and knew only in passing – from now and in the past. Natalie and Eugene were there in most of them, as were Mixer and Aurora. Hennesy made an appearance once or twice, so did Gavin Newnan, the Arizona State Police Captain who’d given me my first case. There were criminals in there, too, like the fraudster who’d sold the wife of Oregon’s Lieutenant Governor a fake Monet water lily and the head of a human trafficking ring I’d found almost by accident while working a missing person’s case in Seattle.

No matter who showed up or how we’d met the dream pretty much always went the same way. I was walking down the stairs to the hotel lobby and emerged to find one of them waiting for me. There was something I had to tell them but before I could start someone I trusted – usually Eugene or Aurora – would grab me by the elbow and try and pull me away. When I tried to tell them I needed to stay I’d look back at the first person and discover they’d removed their face, which now looked like it had been painted across a delicate porcelain mask, and held it out to me. Then the person at my elbow would drag me off down a corridor of faceless people, all holding their painted faces out to me, as if my taking one would be the most natural thing in the world.

Then I’d wake up, turn over in bed, doze off and start the whole cycle over again.

The source of the imagery wasn’t a real mystery and I chalked the whole thing up to Eugene’s usual pessimism. My subconscious is not my best mystery solving tool, after all, and you can’t use the Gift to influence others, psychometry is strictly read only so it didn’t come from an outside source. What I needed to was to stop stewing on paranoia – mine or Eugene’s didn’t matter – and get back to something productive.

Naturally, in the morning I found Mix had left me a message saying the FBI wanted me to take the day off per OSHA rules and come back in the next day.

It was tempting to sideline everything about the case and go bother Mix at his office or see if Aurora was still in town for the day. Even talking to Alvin about the work he wanted me to do for Archon was a tempting just so I’d have something to keep the mind occupied. But I knew that at the end of the day I’d have done nothing but sit there, not listening to whoever I was with, and thinking about Ford Expeditions and EMPs.

California’s power grid was about 75% recovered and the hotel had the Internet back. So I tapped in and went hunting for Backboard’s website. Inside of twenty minutes I had something.


“Run this by me again,” Hennesy said, looking at the website on his office computer, a deep furrow running down between his eyebrows.

“Backboard is a trojan,” I said, pointing to the code running along the bottom of his screen. “Each time a user ties it back to a social media profile it gets an in to that network’s data. As the program proliferates it creates a larger and larger library of data on what those companies are doing with their user data.”

“So it’s a stalker that stalks stalkers?” Hennesy said, skeptical. “What does that accomplish?”

“I’m not sure.” I was pacing back and forth, rubbing my hands together in anticipation. “But social media has collected huge chunks of data on its users for over a decade. Theories have been floated on what they do with it for years.”

“Conspiracy theories?” Natalie asked, the name A.J. Jackson unsaid but still clearly a part of the question.

“Exactly. This trojan could be anything from a first attempt to answer that question all the way up to an attempt to steal that data for other purposes. Think about it.” I pointed to the newspaper sitting on Hennesy’s desk with headlines about the recent power grid attack. “That kind of stunt takes serious datamining and coordination to pull off. Not just knowing where the power stations are, but shift schedules, maintenance schedules, that kind of thing. Why gather it yourself when people are happy to broadcast it across the Internet for all the world to see?”

“And they used this Backboard social media app to gather it?” Hennesy shook his head. “How did they make sure all the people they needed would use it?”

“They didn’t have to,” Natalie said. “Backboard gave them a back door to all the other major social media networks and it’s almost certain the right people are on at least one of them.”

“Any assurances this trojan can actually do what you’re saying? Or that it has?” Hennesy looked pretty skeptical on that point. “We can’t exactly go in and arrest Jackson on the strength of maybe he could use this code in this way. Lawyers would have him out on the grounds that it could be something entirely innocent before we even got him through the doors of the building.”

“I can’t prove anything yet but I think with the right resources and a little time I can.” I gestured at the code Hennesy was now ignoring on his screen. “The Backboard code has to interface via public social media portals. We can’t get the records of what Backboard has actually done with it without a warrant but we might be able to prove it’s capable of malicious interactions. From then, with the cooperation of social media platforms, we might be able to prove Backboard has been used to somehow breach someone’s data security.”

“And that is enough for a warrant, with the right judge,” Hennesy murmured. “Get on it.”

So we got. There are whole FBI sections devoted to cybercrime and deep data work and in short order I was set up with a cubicle in their closest offices, Natalie checked in on me periodically but mostly I was working on my own. The Backboard code was a strange beast but nothing that felt too far out of the common way. Unfortunately every time I got close to cracking what was going on it felt like a new wrinkle would creep out of somewhere, often from sections of the code I thought I had entirely parsed out already. I had stopped long enough to get my umpteenth cup of coffee for the day when Aurora stopped by to visit.

“I’m not teaching,” I said, fiddling with the coffee maker in an attempt to get it to brew a fresh pot without the leftover thoughts of hundreds of sleepy agents drag me further into dreamland. There are some things even good gloves can’t block out.

“We’re more worried about how well you’re feeling, Armor,” she said. “This case is bigger than anything you’ve dealt with before. The Constellations asked me to monitor your mental state, along with the others assigned to this case, to ensure you’re in top form. We may begin rotating through the Gifted working here as more become available.”

“Oh.” Well, it was nice to hear that the Constellations were taking the situation seriously. The potential for the situation to devolve into outright violence was far higher than I liked to admit. No one had died in any of the incidents so far, but when a state power grid collapses you’re skating on very thin ice. “Well, they chose the right person for the job, Aurora.”

Even though her calming presence seemed overwhelmed by the tension suffusing the office I still felt a little better knowing she was here. I went back to my coffee. “I hope so. Evaluating mental health is not my area of greatest expertise. But the Agent in Charge seems to think you’re on track to a breakthrough?”

“You know me, I’m a pessimist, so I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s at least a step in the right direction. That code wouldn’t be so damn opaque if it wasn’t important.” I sat down in one of the lounge’s chairs and took a sip of the wretched brew. “But at least this Backboard thing is a sign that the worst case scenario is off the table.”

“You mean it’s a sign the Masks aren’t involved?”

I stared at her over the rim of the coffee cup for a moment. Maybe she wasn’t here just to monitor the health of the forensic people after all. “Where did you hear about that?”

“Eugene has been pestering all of the Gifted he’s talked with about the possibility.” Aurora settled onto the sofa and gave me a slight smile. “You must be relieved. You never liked dealing with them.”

“It’s a comfort, but a small one. That synchronized groupthink thing they do is even more disturbing when you’re trained to interrogate people and read their reactions. On the other hand, someone’s still blowing up power substations all across the state.” I shook my head. “And it feels like there’s nothing I can contribute because they keep using EMP as their weapon of choice. It’s like they wanted to give the Gifted their middle finger.”

Aurora’s smile grew a little wider, a little more radiant. “Sounds like someone finally found the weak point in your armor, Armor.”

“Yeah, well I-” And that’s when it hit me.

I rewound our conversation, replayed it and realized it should have hit me before. Took off my right glove, stood up and stepped over to the couch, quickly brushing my fingers over Aurora’s cheek. Her smile faded to a confused glance at me, down at my hand, then back at me again. “Is everything all right?”

I returned my glove to my hand and my backside to the chair. Laced my fingers together, and studied her over them. “I got nothing.”

“Nothing… you don’t think you can break the Backboard code?”

“Nothing from you. Aurora’s defining trait is an almost supernatural sense of calm. You don’t have it.”

“Armor-“

“But that’s the biggest thing.” I jerked one thumb at myself. “I think of myself as the chink in the armor. That’s why Galaxy calls me that. But Aurora calls me Trevor.”

Realization was dawning. “I just called you Armor…”

“Three times.” I glanced to one side, running through the possibilities in my mind, just to make sure I wasn’t overlooking anything. “The most likely explanation is that you’re not Aurora.”

“Yes. I’m most likely your own mental image of what Aurora is like.” She was oddly unfazed by that fact. “And the most likely reason for you to be talking to a fragment of your own mental landscape is…”

“When I tried to access Backboard I got caught in a subconscious fugue state.” I scowled at my coffee cup. “Their code was booby trapped.”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Eleven

Previous Chapter

The weapon of choice was the Ford Expedition, between five and eight years old. Color did not seem to matter. Nor did place of origin. Of the twenty three vehicles used to knock out the Southern California power grid only six came from in state, one was traced as far as Texas. They were brought to select nodes in the power grid and the EMP devices within detonated simultaneously. While this only knocked out portions of the grid there was a domino effect as the grid tried to compensate for the suddenly shifting loads. Aging electrical infrastructure, wrapped in layers of environmental regulations and difficult to keep up to date, proved insufficient to the breadth of the emergency and failed one after another, most with the quiet flip of an automated safety, a few in more spectacular fashion. The state of California was mostly dark for the rest of that day and most of the following.

Utility companies along the West Coast scrambled to move available linesmen and engineers to California to repair as much of the damage as possible in the shortest available time. Behind the scenes, Galaxy was doing much the same. With twenty three sites to examine there was no way I could get to them all in anything like a reasonable time. Of course, with the weapon of choice for our unknown terrorists being the EMP delivered via self-driving car it was questionable how much information I would be able to collect. But I was there and one of the fastest forensic processing options available so, once Natalie and I were able to get back in touch with the office, we were provided with a chopper and rushed to the first of four sites I would look at.

The harsh reality was, with escalation on this scale there was no way I could hope to handle things on my own. The whole point of psychometric forensics is to speed the process, there’s nothing we can do you can’t in a more traditional fashion. But it would have easily taken me five days to a week to process all the sites on my own but Galaxy had dragged three of its other forensics experts away from nearly finished cases they probably weren’t needed for and assigned them to the case. If we got another escalation from whoever was masterminding this we might wind up with all twenty six of the Galaxy’s Gifted forensics working the case.

Even so, by the end of the day after the four of us had all twenty three attack sites processed and given our reports to Agent in Charge Hennesy. Our conclusions?

“You got nothing?”

“Nadda.” I collapsed on a sofa in the lounge outside Hennesy’s office. Immediately regretted it, as the upholstery reeked of desperation and suspicion. Never trust the furniture in a law enforcement setting. I straightened up and shook myself off. “No human hands have touched those vehicles in weeks. The chassis were wiped by the EMP but even the vinyl and upholstery were dead ends. No one sat on it or touched it with their skin recently enough to overcome the general background noise left by the original owners.”

Eugene cracked open a can of some absurd mix of natural and artificial stimulants he called an energy drink and I thought of as liquid ADHD. “I was on the coastal sites with Simulacrum and he seemed to think that whoever modified those cars was taking deliberate countermeasures to avoid detection by psychometric investigators.”

I rolled my eyes. “Sim is paranoid. And he doesn’t need you adding to that.”

“All I’m saying is -“

“Eugene.”

“- we need to consider the possibility -“

“Eugene.”

“- or we’re not really doing our jobs.”

Pinching the bridge of my nose was not helping my headache. “Eugene, it’s not the Masks.”

Natalie came back from the lounge’s kitchenette holding a steaming cup of coffee. “What masks?”

The word lacked the weight of a proper capital letter, which told me she wasn’t read in on that part of the psychometric protocols yet. “No one involved in this case.”

“How do you know?” Eugene demanded.

“Because they think the evolving digital economy is a good thing, same as us. It comes with complications, sure, but it’s got potential too. I guarantee, if the Masks have any kind of information gathering arm it’s working on this case just as hard as Galaxy’s.” I dragged myself to my feet.

“Where are you going?” Eugene asked.

“This place has a landline. So does the hotel. I’m going to call for a ride.” I started trudging towards the receptionist’s desk at the end of the hall.

Natalie turned and hustled after me. “Wait, are you saying there’s another psychometric society out there? Why aren’t you asking them to pitch in? Don’t you guys exist to help each other in cases like this?”

“Pretty much exactly the opposite.”

“I’m sorry?”

I stopped at the door to the lounge, looked both ways up and down the hall outside, then carefully closed the door and gave Natalie a hard look. “Masks and Galaxy are separate groups because we can’t work together. The last time we tried to mend the breach there was a Tier five death event. You saw a psychometric who touched a dead body, right?”

Natalie nodded mutely, her expression carefully neutral but her emotions digging in against an outburst she seemed sure was coming. How little she understood the Gift.

“It’s far worse when one of us kills someone. I can see into your mind deeper than most but I can’t touch it any more than you can touch light. We’re not like the telepaths you see in movies or read about in science fiction. Our minds are still our own. Except when you kill someone it changes you, you’re tied to the life you’ve taken in a horrible and indecipherable way. And when you die you’re swept off somewhere the human mind can’t know. When someone who’s Gifted kills another, the bond between them takes them both.

“You can’t see the changes that happen at the moment of death and that’s probably a blessing. The human mind is fragile, Natalie. We aren’t meant for the world of death. But when you can see into the mind as it dies – when you’re connected to that death by the act of killing – then you’re a window into the unknowable beyond and anyone on hand to see it is swept away with you.” I shook my head grimly. “We knew all that and still fought with the Masks. It’s not something we can risk happening again.”

“That’s the real secret of the Gift,” Eugene said, setting his drink aside and putting his feet up on the coffee table in front of him. “It makes people who have it cowards.”

“You don’t have to be the FBI to know that running into risk is foolhardy,” I said blandly. I didn’t have to see the fishing bobber in Eugene’s mind to know when he was baiting me. “But yes, we don’t have the spine to face the Masks again, nor have they ever really wanted to cross paths with Galaxy. It’d be easy enough to do, if we wanted.”

“How bad can this get?” Natalie asked, clearly struggling to keep up. “One of you kills the other and what? Anyone in the room gets sucked into a catatonic state?”

“If I was killed by a psychometric of equal talent we’d take everyone from here to L.A. with us,” I said. “I’m rated at tier three and the effect increases on a roughly exponential scale. Two tier five death events wiped out most of the Gifted in the lower forty eight states in the sixties. Rival groups of us stopped talking after that. The risks were just too high.”

Natalie pressed her fingers into her temples. “Wait, what risk? How can adult human beings not talk to each other in a civilized fashion?”

“Strange, isn’t it?” I shrugged. “But face facts. In the last week you talked to a man who’s been actively run out of civilized society because he talks to people. You found out there’s a man who can’t even use a major banking firm because they don’t like him. Hell, protests at colleges involve rocks, beatings and bike locks on pretty much a weekly basis these days. Can you explain that to me?”

The vim and vigor of Natalie’s normal emotional processes roiled for a moment or two, turning over what I’d said and trying to break it down. Slowly the process boiled down until her mind became eerily, unnaturally still. It was an almost frightening contrast to her normal loud and active thought process. The end result of it was even smaller and quieter. “No. I can’t.”

I tapped myself between the eyes with one finger. “Psychometry is powerful, Natalie. But all it does is get me where you can go faster than you can get there. If you can’t get there, neither can I. It’s as much a mystery to me as it is to you.”

I opened up the door and went to find that phone. Natalie didn’t follow.