Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty

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Natalie was waiting with Aurora when I found them, both women standing beside Natalie’s car. “Can you drive?” Natalie asked as I approached. “I know psychometrics in general can drive, I meant you personally, Armor.”

“Yes, although it’s not my cup of tea.” Driving is a new kind of experience when you have to tune out the vehicle’s onboard computer while steering. “I take it this is where we’re parting ways?”

“Yes, unfortunately.” And she was actually saddened. “This wasn’t what I was expecting when I was read in on psychometrics last year but I think it’s an outcome I can live with.” 

“You didn’t know that the Masks were planning this, did you?” Aurora asked.

Natalie just gave us a helpless shrug. “Just because we’re all one mind doesn’t mean we all handle the same kinds of thoughts.”

“And that kind of thing is exactly why I’ve never liked the Masks much to begin with,” I said. “They handle information like a cult.”

“Or a government bureaucracy,” Natalie added.

“The two are similar in more ways than one.” I fished my sterilizer out of a pocket and began running it over my gloves. “Speaking of which, since you’re going to be wanted by the FBI after this. Do you have any way to take care of yourself?”

“Mr. Davidson is taking me on staff,” she replied. “I don’t have exact responsibilities yet but I suspect I’m going to be a spoiler for any Feds coming after us, just like he’s a spoiler against any tech firms trying to track us.”

I shook my head in amazement. “Always thinking, that one. Well, Vinny’s completely dependable and trustworthy, assuming you can decode and follow along with his ways of thinking.”

For a moment Natalie’s mouth worked without producing any sound. Finally she managed to get out the words, “You’re surprisingly blasé about all this, Armor.”

“No psychometric ever solved a problem by getting angry,” I replied. “It scatters our most important mental resources. And if I’m being blunt, I think you’re being taken advantage of.”

“Perhaps. But I can make my own choices.” She swung the car door open for me. “Tell Hennesy I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to throw in with Davidson and the Masks, you know,” Aurora said. “The Masks aren’t illegal or anything and if you really didn’t know what they were planning then you can’t be held accountable for any of it.”

“If the FBI was an organization dedicated to helping people I could see the point in that,” she replied. “But they’re not. They’re an organization that finds people who have been hurt and then uses them as a justification to take the awesome power of the surveillance state and a tireless army of merciless drones and beat anyone remotely connected to the situation into the ground. I won’t be one of those drones anymore. The Masks offer something better. They offer us true unity.”

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I’d heard this kind of line so many times in the past. I’d also learned there really wasn’t anything I could say against it. Sure, Natalie was likely to become just another kind of drone maybe helping someone and maybe not. But she wouldn’t believe how dubious her place there was if I just told her. She’d have to live it for herself, just like she had at the FBI. “Then best of luck finding it. Just because I don’t think you’ll find a place with the Masks doesn’t mean I don’t want you to find one at all.” I gave her a tired smile. “Take care of yourself, okay?”

Natalie studied me for a moment, her mind opaque without the boost from her watch. Then she smiled, tentatively accepting the offered olive branch. “You to, Armor.”

Aurora and I climbed into the car and I started it up. It was a pretty nice car, a recent model to boot, and had built in GPS so I didn’t have to try and remember the fastest route back to FBI headquarters. I just plugged it in and off we went. Aurora watched Natalie disappear back into the building as I pulled away from the curb and then sighed. “Do you think we’ll see her again?”

“We’ll most likely be called on to testify against her, so probably.”

A faint ripple of annoyance disturbed the surface of Aurora’s normally placid disposition. “You’re awfully confident. “

“Because I’ve already got an idea what’s really going down. I just need Hennesy to help me get the warrants to prove it.”

Aurora gave me a skeptical look. “When did you have time to work that out? Or did Davidson leave some kind of clue lying around by accident?”

“If he’d left a clue it wouldn’t be by accident. Vinny’s an expert at leaving dead end clues.” I grinned. “Like how he deliberately showed me the place where he built the drones used in all these attacks.”

“You want to be the brilliant detective and tell me your findings, Armor,” Aurora said with a trace of amusement. “Don’t leave me in suspense now!”

“He wants me to keep thinking there’s going to be another drone attack,” I said, ignoring the small dig at me. “But that’s not Vinny’s way. That would be unbalanced. He’s made three relatively minor – or at least intended as minor – attacks in meatspace. Now to balance it he has to make at least one attack in cyberspace.”

“That… does seem to follow,” she admitted, skepticism weighing with her respect for my experience in this area. “Do you know what kind of cyberspace attack to expect?”

“Not exactly. Not yet. That’s why I need the warrants.”

Aurora was silent, or at least didn’t say anything. The wheels in her mind were certainly spinning loudly. Finally she said, “Are you sure?”

“Beg pardon?”

“You just found out your read on how Davidson was seeing balance in Silicon Valley was wrong. Now you think you’ve got the formula right again. But look at it from another perspective. In medicine when things go wrong it’s, in many ways, because things are out of balance. But homeopathic medicine is a thing of the past – we don’t treat sickness by adding to it anymore. You can’t fight poison with poison.” Aurora gave me a worried look. “Davidson may have picked ‘meatspace’ attacks because they’re the only way to balance the equation.”

That made a lot of sense given what I’d said but I hadn’t explained the full picture so Aurora hadn’t seen the patterns I had. “Cyberspace isn’t the disease, what companies are doing with it is.” I reached for my phone then remembered Natalie had taken it and hadn’t given it back. “We need to stop somewhere and call the FBI…”

“I know a clinic that has an office three blocks from here.” She tapped the dashboard once and the GPS reset to the new destination. “Sorry, four blocks.”

“No one’s perfect,” I said with a slight smile, stopping myself from adding anything cheesy. “Anyway, there was a summary video I could have shown you but…”

“Guess you’ll have to fumble through on your own.”

“Guess so.” I took a moment to marshal my thoughts. “Once I was sure the Masks were involved I started looking for why they might hit the targets they did. Their first target was a payment processor which suffered minor losses of business and a major loss of user confidence. The second target, at least initially, was a section of the power grid serving not one but two search engine companies. Knocking out the power grid on such a large scale was just collateral. The third attack targeted social media companies. All tech firms that specialize in replacing normal communication with digital options that frequently leave those who participate more isolated than the meat space alternatives.”

“The Masks are obsessed with drawing people together, not driving them apart,” Aurora muttered. “So they got someone to balance the books for them.”

“But the one thing they hate the most here in the Valley is also the one thing they can only eradicate via cyberattack.” I pulled into the parking lot of the clinic Aurora had sent me to. “They’re going to try and wipe out the AI projects.”

Thunder Clap: Drag Out

Izzy

If you ignore the guy hanging outside, probably supported by maglev if the rest of the tower that Circuit built was any indication, the room looked pretty straightforward. There were half a dozen guards of a type I was getting pretty familiar with – burly looking men and women with compact, carbine weapons – in a room that took up a forty foot by fifty foot chunk of building space with office furniture scattered generously all over the place like an Ikea shipment had blown up in the middle of the room.

And I mean “blown up” in a pretty literal sense. There was a black depression something like a crater in the middle of the room that had a rat’s nest of cables and junk hooked into it. Davis was standing by that when he ordered his goons to start shooting and I ran out of time to look around. The door was off to my right and I jumped that way – I didn’t want to duck back through the new entrance I’d made in the wall because Circuit and Helix were, in theory, coming along behind me. That left the door in the wall to my right as the logical place to go.

I ducked behind a row of desks as the first handful of bullets came my way, slipping my fingers under one of them and flipping it towards my antagonists as I went. Throwing the desk far enough to block off the incoming guards without crushing any of them was probably beyond what I was capable of but papa likes to say when there’s no way to do it without hurting anything, property damage is always better than people damage. So I just heaved that desk, and the one next to it, through the ceiling entirely and the thugs scattered under the rain of debris. For good measure I yanked the door off its hinges as I got to it, intending to send it into the cascading debris as well, but I got distracted by the squad of four additional guards who were hustling into the room to see what all the noise was about.

The first man gave a surprised yell but was fast enough to get his gun up and around before I could get the door out of the way and give myself room to move. I settled for the tried and true approach of just flinging it into the nearest wall, where it stuck about halfway through, and pushed up against my opponent’s gun arm, keeping him from pointing his weapon at me just by standing next to him. I got one hand on the SMG’s carrying strap and changed the thing it carried from the weapon to the weapon’s owner, twisting my hand once to draw the strap tight around his chest and then using it to lever him up over one shoulder. The woman behind him looked like she wanted to surrender which was too bad, I would have liked to have had the time to play nice but it just wasn’t there. I flung the guy I was carrying into her and sent the two of them clattering down with the third guy in line beneath them.

The fourth guy got points for trying something different since he came at me with a knife, one of those big, serrated things you see in tactical gear. Al has said many times in practice that a well trained knife user in hand to hand combat is a real threat, even to vector shifts like him. There’s no talent that makes you immune to getting cut, or if there is we don’t know it yet. This guy’s problem was that he wasn’t a very good knife fighter, holding the weapon like an icepick and trying to grab me with his free hand so he could drag me into a grapple.

I just grabbed that free hand and gave it a yank, using what Al calls the “dislocation twist”, twisting and yanking so as to pull the arm out of socket and leave it’s owner in extreme pain. It was one of the first moves Massif taught me and he’d made me practice it until my eyes crossed from exhaustion. I don’t have confidence in pulling many moves without hurting someone but that one is the exception. Thug number four went down screaming.

That part I wasn’t used to.

All of that took about six seconds and left me with four down but not out opponents in front of me plus six or seven more behind me, depending on whether Davis wanted in on the action, and the guy on the maglev throne who was still something of a wildcard. Everyone agreed that he was the stand in for Circuit but how big a part he was supposed to play in this mess, whether Davis was in charge, partners with him or what, wasn’t something anyone had really addressed at all. That turned out to be a bit of an oversight.

I was in the process of making sure the weapons I’d taken from my prisoners were useless, which for me consists of stomping on them until they’re mangled junk, when the outside wall blew out and a bolt of lightning hit me from one side. For most people that would be a real problem, since electrocution is bad, but this is one of those areas where being a taxman kind of lets you cheat. See, electrical energy still involves entropy which means I still take a cut of it and I can push back against it using the entropy reserves I’ve built up. Not even the brainiacs like Doctor Higgins have figured out how that works, in case you were wondering. But it does, and it’s enough that tasers and similar weapons aren’t much good against me and even lightning just kind of slows me down. Although it still really hurts.

Of course this high energy attack came from the man on the throne, who’s seat could apparently hover anywhere outside the building. If this was a part of Circuit’s original modifications for the building he’d never mentioned it and he seemed like the type who wouldn’t forget to mention details like the opposition having total, unrestricted mobility around the outside of the building. The hall I was in looked right out of the side of the tower, giving what would normally be a breathtaking view of the skyline but right now just let me see the tall, black throne and the man who was seated on it. He had his hands up with all ten fingers pointed at me, as I watched he clenched them into fists and flicked his fingers towards me again, giving me another fun experience with electricity.

The hallway was about forty feet long and offered no cover. Plus there was no way to know if there were any other hostiles lurking behind the doors so that left me with the options of going clear to the end of the hall and finding out what was there or doubling back the way I’d come. Since the whole point of coming here was to break whatever device Davis and his partner were using to control the building, and that was either in the throne or behind me, I did the sensible thing and doubled back into the room full of armed men.

Okay, it’s sensible from a certain point of view.

As I climbed over the four downed guards in the hall the air suddenly took on an almost breathless quality and suddenly it was like I was standing in a wind tunnel with increasingly cold air rushing by me and into the room beyond. So it was no surprise to come through the doorway and find that Helix had made it into the room, an orb of burning plasma pushing in front of him and Circuit a few steps behind, his wheelchair easily navigating the smooth path Helix had literally trailblazed for him. If the mess I’d made of the room when I smashed through thirty seconds ago wasn’t bad enough it looked like things were about to get really ugly indeed.

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