Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirteen

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“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.”