Pay the Piper – Chapter Twelve

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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.”

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