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.”


“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.”


“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 -“


“- we need to consider the possibility -“


“- 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.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Ten

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: When taking real world situations as the jumping off point for a story you run the risk that reality will in some way outrun your idea in a way you did not anticipate. Such a situation arose during the writing of Pay the Piper. The Backboard app discussed in this chapter and in several others moving forwards was a part of the story from the first draft, assembled over the holidays last year. Early this year, the social media company Gab announced a very similar service called Dissenter. I had no way of knowing this program was in the making and Backboard is important enough to the story that I would have needed a solid month and a serious rewrite to take it out. Rather than be constrained by unanticipated developments in a situation only tenuously connected to my story, I have left these elements unchanged. However, I want to make it entirely clear that, while many of the characters and situations in Pay the Piper are inspired by very real conflicts brewing in Silicon Valley, Backboard and the plot elements surrounding it are not and should not be seen as a reflection on Gab or Dissenter in any way.

For example, I’m sure Gab did not employ any psychics in the construction of Dissenter. 

Thank you and enjoy!) 


“I’m sorry,” Natalie hesitated for a second, her attention scattered by too many revelations at once. “A.J. Jackson? Should I know who he is?”

“He’s an alternative media entrepreneur from Arizona,” Dane said, reaching out and taking a book off the shelf next to his chair. I noticed he had his life organized to the point where he didn’t have to look to find the right book. It was a copy of Jackson’s Freedom from Dependence, a book I’ve heard of but never read. Dane opened it up to the About the Author page where there was a picture of a tall, wiry man wearing a cheap suit and aviators. “He runs a news show and sells a lot of books, but he’s looking to enter the social media market. Lots of people think he’s a hustler or a conspiracy theorist but he’s very good at locating and catering too underserved populations.”

Natalie tapped her lower lip thoughtfully. “Should I know this guy from somewhere?”

“While you were working the Newell High case, did anyone suggest the disappearances were faked?” I asked. “Families paid off while their kids were laying low at some government program somewhere?”

Natalie snapped straight up in her chair. “Wait, he’s that guy?”

“He floated the possibility once, but abandoned the idea after some of his reporters interviewed the Newell locals,” Dane admitted. “Unfortunately a lot of people who heard the idea proposed held on to the idea longer than he did.”

“And you work for-“

“Agent Chase,” I said. “Maybe I should come back later and do this interview with someone else. Agent Fitzgerald is still on this case, isn’t he?”

That got her attention. Thoughts that had been scattered and tumbling, setting up an avalanche of indignation sufficient to sweep away any perspective on the situation, settled down and began to put themselves back in order. There were three psychometrics involved in the Newell case, two made it out sane and functional and neither of them had anything good to say about A.J. Jackson. I assumed the FBI agents who worked the case all had similar feelings. But the fact was he looked to be a more and more important player in this case and that meant we had to be able to ask questions about him without losing our cool. I was okay with subbing sunny Natalie for gloomy Eugene if that was what it took and she had to recognize that.

“Sorry,” she said, shaking herself back into the present. “You work for A.J. Jackson. Got it. On Project Backboard. Can you tell us anything about that?”

“Sure, it’s not a secret anymore.” Dane closed the book and set it down then pulled out his phone. A second later we were looking at a pretty typical social media app interface with a feature list that looked like it had been kludged together from most of the top apps in circulation. However it also seemed to function as a web browser as well. “Backboard has been in the wild for about a month now, it’s a kind of hybrid social media platform.”

“What is the social media hybridized with?” I asked.

“No, it’s a hybrid of social media platforms. You know how there are apps that let you program Twitter posts to go up at certain times, or manage your block list?” He waited until we nodded our understanding before he went on. “Well, this is an app that lets you streamline all your social media into a single identifiable profile. Then you can go to any other site on the Internet and make posts that are indexed to that page and linked to your profile. Basically like having a comments section for the entire Internet.”

I frowned. “So what – I could visit the website of my favorite restaurant and leave a post about how good the food is?”

“Right. No more having to see if they have a Yelp page.” He opened a webpage for the local paper. “And if a page already has a comments section any post you leave there will be attached to your profile on Backboard and other users will know you said it.”

“You built a bulletin board system for the entire Internet,” I said, impressed.

“Except it’s written on the back of the page.” Dane said, closing the app. “Thus, Backboard.”

“Mr. Dane,” Natalie said slowly. “How is this app being monetized?”

That made him shift uncomfortably, his mind suddenly tinged with a deep shade of embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Agent Chase, I can’t talk about Mr. Jackson’s business model, mainly because he hasn’t explained it to me. I’m not a part of that team, I’m mostly working on metadata implementation. But if you’re asking if it’s connected to the incident a few days ago then probably not. They haven’t done business with Mr. Jackson for almost a year.”

“You haven’t done any business with them at all in a year’s time?” Natalie asked, incredulous.

“No, they haven’t done business with Mr. Jackson. The company is a payment processor, right?” Another pause that lasted long enough for us to nod. “They’ve refused to process payments to any accounts in his name, the names of his associates or his business accounts.”

“Oh.” Natalie sat back, a looking a little confused. “That’s… surprising.”

“Many companies in Silicon Valley are beginning to make decisions based not on business principles or principles of accessibility,” Dane said, embarrassment giving way to deep concern as deep undercurrents of memory appeared in his mind. “Rather, they are deciding things based on their moral standards. Many people in other parts of the country fall outside of those standards and are being actively refused access to the innovations tech ventures offer. The creation of Backboard is one symptom of that.”

And Dane’s employment by a little known Arizona shitstirrer rather than the world’s biggest search engine was another. I could tell Natalie didn’t catch that subtext but Dane didn’t realize that either and it was probably better to leave it for another time.

“Mr. Dane, can I ask you about your association with Mr. Charles Wu, otherwise known as TsunLao?” I asked, deciding it was time we got to what really brought us here.

“TsunLao?” Dane shrugged. “He interviewed me about six months ago, as part of his series on groupthink in Silicon Valley. I met some other people through him but I don’t think I’ve spoken to him more than twice since the interview. We’ve exchanged texts some. Mostly him asking if I’d be willing to talk to one of this other media contacts. Why?”

“We’re trying to build an idea of his associations, determine if he might have had a hand in this week’s events.” Natalie crossed one leg over the other, affecting a casual attitude she wasn’t actually feeling. Surprisingly, Dane was caught up in the mood change and relaxed a little. “Do you know if Mr. Wu was under any business embargos similar to Mr. Jackson’s?”

“No, we never discussed it,” Dane said. “And if we did I don’t think it would be right for me to talk about it with anyone else.”

“Are you still working with Mr. Wu in any capacity?” I asked. “Consulting with him or his network?”

“No.” There was an emphatic rejection of further connection there. “I’m very glad that they gave me a chance to tell my side of the story when I was fired. Mr. Wu and his associates are very aware of the problems confronting Silicon Valley today, but they’ve never worked inside of it. They don’t have an appreciation for the potential that still exists here and they wish to exert control over our technology sector that would ultimately hinder its growth. I’m not sure I could work on the projects I want to work on if I spent too much time with their group.”

“But you can with Jackson?”

There was a certain degree of cognitive dissonance there and he knew it. However, he was also gambling on something and, being the wonderfully forthright person that he was, he quickly explained it to us. “Mr. Jackson doesn’t like what he sees in Silicon Valley but he wants to put his own spin on what’s there, not remove the spin of others. It’s my hope that Project Backboard will prove it’s worth and Mr. Jackson will be able to bring fresh blood and fresh perspectives to the community without breaking down what has made it so wildly beneficial in the past.”

It was a fair answer and, like every other answer Dane had given us, had the advantage of being entirely sincere. There was no follow up that I felt was really needed. I could tell Natalie had a question she was debating, flipping back and forth between whether it was necessary or not. There was a moment of awkward silence as Dane waited for us and I waited for Natalie to make up her mind.

Then the lights in the apartment went out.

It was still midafternoon so we could see just fine. But the overhead lights did go out, changing the lighting of the room. I asked, “Your electrical bills are paid up?”

“I believe so,” Dane replied.

“Maybe a fuse blew out somewhere in the building,” Natalie suggested.

But I’d already noticed something deeply off. While it takes some practice, a psychometric can easily pick up on cellular signals and even do basic phone calls and texting. Browsing the Internet and other more advanced features are even possible if you have a SIM card – no expensive phone required – or you can just find a wifi connection and jack in there. The catch is you still have to get a signal from the local cell tower or a wifi router. And I couldn’t.

There was no wifi in the building, although there had been when we arrived. I couldn’t ping a cell tower. There was nothing.

Anxious, I got up and walked over to Dane’s balcony and stepped out onto it. It was the middle of the afternoon, so no street lights were on to begin with. But I could clearly see, down at the intersection below, that the traffic lights were dead and traffic was trickling through it like a four way stop.  The power was out on the block. In fact as it would turn out the power was gone in half the state.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Nine

Previous Chapter

We left the car crash late in the evening, possibly early the next morning, and I slept in late. All nighters are a thing of fiction, no one goes before a judge to get a warrant with evidence assembled by sleepy investigators. At the same time, once I’m on retainer most managers want me working as much as possible – I’m not cheap after all. So I wasn’t surprised when Natalie showed up the next day just after lunch with a new assignment from Hennesy. I’d expected it.

I was surprised by what it was. The legal window for psychometric information gathering is quite small and generally can’t go further than that judge who issues warrants. So we’re usually called in on missing persons cases or other police work that has serious time limits or involves finding things, rather than direct convictions, like the car thieves I made my reputation tracking down.

This wasn’t the first time I’d handled domestic terrorism but most of that case involved analyzing weapons and vehicles to figure out where they came from, like I did with the drone. Today Hennesy wanted me to do another interview. “I remember this guy,” I said looking through the file Natalie had brought with her. “TsunLao had him on for an interview last year.”

“That’s the connection that got our attention,” Natalie replied. “He was fired from his last job eight months ago, has no current employment but still somehow lives in Silicon Valley, one of the most expensive places to live on earth. He’s not wealthy. So where’s the money coming from?”

“Not a bad question. So where do we find Mr. Morrison Dane?”

It turned out we found him in a trendy upscale apartment building just outside the Valley, the kind of place with lots of balconies and windows, with a price tag to match the comfort. It really didn’t look like the kind of place an unemployed man could afford. “Rent in this place is easily a couple of grand a month,” I grumbled. “Not even I can afford it. He sure moved up from a simple SEO tech.”

Natalie gave me a sideways look. “He ran social media presence before he was fired? I thought Dane was a programmer.”

“Yeah. He wrote search engine code.” I let myself out of the car and checked my gloves. Firmly in place. Whoever landscaped this place let their mind wander a lot, I could see the diffused smudging of unfocused attention all over the place. No telling when I might brush up against some unwanted nature. “After he got fired for offensive workplace comments a lot of the self-styled watchdogs in the Bad Apples had him on to tell his side of the story. He was supposed to be unemployable after the controversy.”

“Whatever he does it probably doesn’t involve search engines anymore.” Natalie made her way up to the apartment entrance. “Come on, he’s expecting us.”

I once tried to work out why the FBI notifies some people we’re coming and others we’re not. Now I’m convinced I’ll never know. But in this case it did ensure that we didn’t have to do a lot of guesswork catching him at home and the woman at the security desk was expecting us so on the balance of things it was a pretty good call to notify Dane ahead of time. Unfortunately the interview itself failed to live up to that promising beginning. The first problem was Dane himself.

Dane was the opposite of a Gap. His mind was so firmly rooted in the here and now that he might as well be the proverbial open book. I’m pretty sure even Natalie was getting clear readings from him. He telegraphed every thought and every movement like he was an ex Western Union man, not a cutting edge programmer. And he was painfully, obviously wholesome.

Not that people can’t do crazy things for straightforward, wholesome reasons. I just knew Dane wasn’t going to be able to lie to a four year old about it, much less a forensic psychometric or an FBI agent. That probably seems like it should be a good thing for me, the problem is people who are an open book is that everyone knows it and no one tells them anything important. Now, I’d known a bit about Dane ahead of time, watched a few interviews and read a few articles. He’s not famous but he was a person of interest in a mildly controversial bit of Silicon Valley drama about a year ago and, as I’ve said before, I am one of the people who monitors such things.

But you can’t get a good read on someone, normally or via psychometrics, by watching them through a camera and I’d assumed he was just one of the more earnest, optimistic people on the planet. They’re few and far between, and frankly I’d like to see more of them. But even earnest people can keep secrets, where Dane was constitutionally incapable of it. He proved that as soon as we shook hands and he blurted out, “You must be a psychometer.”

That was the second problem with the interview. The two chief advantages offered from getting a psychometric read on someone in an interview are the ability to get insight on them without their realizing it and the ability to reveal a supposedly supernatural ability to unsettle them and keep them off guard. Otherwise you get most of the same information a skilled normal interviewer could get, only somewhat faster.

“What makes you think that?” Natalie asked, covering for my discomfort smoothly.

“The gloves,” Dane said, closing his apartment door behind us. “It’s too warm for them to be for comfort and they feel light enough to be linen, so I guessed psychometer. Or do you have a skin condition?”

He was honestly curious and it was actually a bit endearing. “You were right the first time,” I said. “I’m just surprised you’ve met one of us before.”

“There’s a lot of you working in Silicon Valley,” he replied. “Cybersecurity, engineering troubleshooting, even the guys who specialize in psychology get called in on the AI projects. I worked on a metadata analytics project that had a few of you onboard three years back. It was interesting.”

I’ve met a few of the psychology specialists, ‘interesting’ is certainly one word for them. Natalie continued to run interference for me. “Mr. Dane, do you have any idea why we’re here?”

Dane led us in to the apartment’s small living room and took a seat in a chair, waving us towards a new and rather expensive looking couch. “It’s a small community, Agent Chase, and there was a terrorist attack a couple of days ago. Why else would the FBI show up at my door?”

“Do you have any initial impressions on the attack?” Natalie asked. Just because we had come to ask him about TsunLao didn’t mean were above asking him about other things if he offered us the chance.

“I’m afraid not. I don’t know anything about Finance Tech, outside of a little I’ve heard from casual acquaintances that worked for FinTech firms off and on.” Dan adjusted himself in his chair, looking weirdly young and gawkish for a man technically a decade my senior. “I hear it was an EMP attack, but I wasn’t even sure that would be very useful against an information heavy firm like that. I’d think most of their stuff would route through cloud systems and not be dependent on a centralized hub. I imagine it just inconvenienced a lot of people for a little while.”

Pretty much all the commentary I’d heard ran along the same lines but Dane had neglected the most obvious aspect, that the knock down effect the attack would have on investor confidence was bound to be pretty serious. It was time for me to go fishing. Even if he knew how to be on guard against psychometric investigation – and he might not if he’d just met a few of us in the course of his career – someone like Dane was going to have a hard time making the techniques work. “Do you know why we wanted to talk to you, Mr. Dane?”

To his credit, Dane spent a few seconds actually digging through his memories and inventorying all the reasons we might be there to talk to him. Like his apartment, his mind was a tidy, orderly thing with everything in its place. I could easily watch Dane open mental filing cabinets and rifle through memories as he considered the question. He finally came up with only one possible response. “The only thing that points in that direction at all would be my work with A.J. Jackson and Project Backboard.”