Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Four

Previous Chapter

Confronting the five major aspects of my personality as embodied by my coworkers had been exhausting. Drugging and kidnapping by an Arizona conspiracy merchant, not so much. Aurora threatened to ground me when I got up the next morning and headed to work but the truth was her heart wasn’t in it and we both knew it. The Constellations may be the oldest, most respected psychometrics in our little Galaxy but what we were dealing with went beyond that and both of us knew it. I wasn’t feeling too put out by my brush with abduction and that meant I needed to get back to it.

First thing through the office door Natalie dragged me to Hennesy’s office, where I got a lecture which I still wince to recall. It was mostly volume and exasperation, Eugene and I had violated procedure in several ways and gotten ourselves into a lot of trouble as a result, but I had figured out that the Masks had staged their drone attacks from water – or at least, I was pretty sure they had. So once my harangue was over Hennesy made me explain how I’d reached that conclusion.

I started from by breaking down all the convenience that mode of attack presented to someone looking to scrub their psychometric presence and built up my case for why the attack in general fit with the other patterns. It was nonviolent, it was disruptive, it focused specifically on Silicon Valley. Hennesy and Natalie listened until I finished, then Natalie pointed out, “You’re putting a lot of emphasis on these attacks being designed to elude psychometric detection. But psychometrics isn’t a well-known phenomenon, although admittedly the knowledge is more commonplace than I would have expected here in San Francisco. What makes you so sure our perpetrators are deliberately acting to avoid your detection? EMPs have been a part of infotech warfare experiments and scifi speculation for decades.”

“True enough. It wasn’t the question of methodology that makes me think they’re involved, it’s the question of motive.”

That got Hennesy’s attention. “That’s unusual for you, Armor. You know motive is for lawyers and juries, it won’t get us warrants or arrests. Why do you think it’s important here?”

“A couple of reasons, really.” I gauged Hennesy for a moment, looking for the best place to begin, the way to lay out the facts that would convince him of my thesis. It’s not an easy thing to do with him, Hennesy’s mind has always struck me as functioning like a sieve. He wants the whole mess thrown at him so he can strain out what’s important. Normally I admire that trait but this time I really needed him to see the thing my way. So might as well start with the biggest thing. “The biggest is because, if I have the motive correct, it means our perpetrators are connected to the Masks.”

“You’ve been talking to Eugene,” Hennesy grumbled. “He’s been saying that since day one.”

“Of course I’ve been talking to him. But I didn’t think he was right until I looked over the data Jackson pulled together. His crusade against what he calls the Silicoverlords is cute, but he was missing the pieces to make sense of the data he was getting. Hat Trick, his psychometric consultant, apparently hadn’t explained what the Masks were to him, so he couldn’t recognize what was happening. I’ve never heard of Hat Trick, so I don’t know if he didn’t tell Jackson about the Masks because he didn’t know much about them or just because he couldn’t recognize what they were doing, but I do and I did.”

Natalie raised a hand, fingers waving for my attention. “Sorry to interrupt, but AJ Jackson isn’t the only one who doesn’t know what the Masks are. Care to elaborate?”

“The Masks are a group of psychometrics who believe all people are splinters of a single omniscient being, kinda like Buddhists or Hindus,” Hennesy said. It was a pretty accurate description of the Masks, if not necessarily Buddhists or Hindus. “They believe psychometry is the way the splinters are meant to bind themselves back together into the original big brain and they spend a lot of time trying to do just that through a lot of weird methods, most of them legal but a large minority of them not so much. They traffic drugs and humans in some cases, perform medically dubious experiments in others. The FBI started contracting with Galaxy for investigators in the seventies because we got involved in some of the nastier experiments the Masks were working on.”

“For our part, Galaxy and the Masks have been at odds much longer. Honestly I don’t think we’d have had any problems with them at all, except they dogmatically insist all psychometrics have a duty be part of their efforts to reunite humanity. And we knew, pretty much since those,” I waved at Hennesy’s computer, “were invented that the Masks would see them as another vector for their struggle to remake the omnimind they think we’re all fragments of. So we’ve been working to root out their influence on Silicon Valley since the mid 1990s.”

Natalie pursed her lips in concentration, worked her way through that information then said, “So do you think the recent attacks are a result of your efforts to shut them out of the industry entirely?”

“Ah…” Honestly, I’d never thought of it in that light before. “That’s not an entirely fair characterization, but if you asked a Mask it’s possible they’d see it that way. Fact is, Eugene and I have been crossing paths with the Masks pretty much since I started working here. It’s never been clear what exactly they were up to but I’ve never doubted they’re making plays to take over Silicon Valley and bring the world closer in their own rather twisted way. I think it’s likely that AJ was going to uncover some piece of that plan and they had to push up their time table by using a series of terrorist attacks to drive Silicon Valley towards them.”

Hennesy leaned back with a snort. “Are you implying that everything that’s happened in the last few days is a convoluted series of false flag attacks?”

“Not exactly. A false flag is where you pretend to be your enemy and attack an ally, so you’re justified in the eyes of others when you declare war on your enemies, or when your allies join forces with you. If I had to guess, the Masks want one of two things. Either they’re trying to push the firms they’ve attacked towards some kind of security solution they’ve prepped ahead of time or they’re trying to weaken competitors in an area they’re planning to break in to later on.” I shrugged, this was one part of the theory I didn’t have a clear picture of. “I lean towards it being the former, the power grid attack was big, probably bigger than intended, but couldn’t possibly have been deliberately targeted even if it had performed as intended.”

“This is all pretty farfetched,” Hennesy said, far from convinced. But I could see him turning over the parts of the puzzle in his mind and seeing that they did fit, to an extent. There was just a lot of it missing.

“Have the Masks ever used terror attacks before?” Natalie asked.

“No,” I conceded. “But everything that’s happened so far falls into the category of large scale, technically nonviolent mischief that a psychometric could do and still be comfortable with. If chaos and panic were all the perpetrators wanted there are easier ways to get it.”

“Although none that made it quite so clear that their problem was with Silicon Valley in particular,” Hennesy said. “And in the cases I’ve supervised where the Masks were involved they tended to omit a lot of direct communication, which fits with the lack of public statements or demands after the recent attacks. No one’s really claimed credit for them outside of a few Iranian and Afghani groups we’re not taking very seriously.”

Hennesy thought about it for a moment more, then shook his head and said, “No, it’s too far-fetched for the brass to take seriously.”

“I thought you were in charge of this investigation,” I said.

“Well you thought wrong. This basically goes right up to the Secretary of Defense at this point, Washington has been taking this investigation very seriously since the power grid went down. It’s none of your business where the buck stops, though, is it?” Hennesy gave me an amused look. “You’ve never cared when higher ups came into an investigation before.”

It wasn’t something I’d ever noticed before, which I guess goes to show that he was right and it didn’t really matter to me. Then again, I’d never wanted to follow a line of investigation contrary to what the FBI wanted before. “I guess I haven’t. But these are special circumstances.”

“True enough. If you want to sift Jackson’s data on your own time, be my guest, but between you and me it’s a bad idea. You can’t let the job get to you that way. Now get out of here and let me get back to work. Agent Chase already has your next assignment.” He pointed one meaty finger directly at my chest, a vivid picture of him pinning me in place running through his mind. “And this time be sure to stick to protocol if you have anything you want to do on your own time. Understand?”

“Sure thing, boss.” Hennesy grunted and waved us out.

Once we were safely in the hallway with the door closed I asked, “So what do you want to do first, dig through the Jackson files or our actual job?”

Natalie gave me a longsuffering look. “Your file never suggested you were a maverick.”

“Yeah,” I said with a smirk. “Well, maybe they should talk with AJ Jackson about my working name. I can be subtle when I want to be. I take it you want to tackle Hennesy’s assignment. So what is it?”

“We pulled a lot of data from the Worker Drones offices and we’re going to try and match any of their designs to the drones flying over the waterfront three days ago.”

“Ah,” I said dryly, “the further adventures of weakArmor, image recognition expert. At least you’re paying my hourly rate on this.”

Natalie plastered on an innocent face. “Have you read your contract recently?”

“No…” I said, suddenly wary. “That’s what Galaxy is for.”

“Well, there’s an emergency clause in it that cuts your rate in half and take out paid overtime.”

“If you’re trying to convince me playing a maverick is a bad idea you’re doing a bad job…”


New Year’s Update – And Goals!

Hello, faithful readers!

2018 was a good year for me, in terms of keeping this blog. Not only did I pick up several new subscribers and finish another novel, I managed to write some pretty decent criticism and kept a schedule to my satisfaction – I think I only missed one post this year that I hadn’t planned for. I managed to keep at least one week of backlog most of the time, usually closer to two, and got well over 90% of my posts scheduled ahead of time, rather than frantically scrambling to post them sometime on Friday.

This year I have more ambitious goals. I’m about 20% of the way through a rewrite of Schrodinger’s Book, which I hope to publish as an ebook sometime this year. I’m also working on a submission for a comic anthology, a webcomic (maybe?) of my own and another novel of a scifi flavor. I intend to do some more writing on writing, of course, and most of it will appear on this blog in one form or another. But to kick off the year, I intend to take a short break. My next post on this blog will come on February 1st, and it will likely be more writing on writing, as I plan to take another break in March to attend to personal business. In April I hope to start on my next big fiction project, tentatively titled Pay the Piper.

I am very, very glad for all those who have come to read something I’ve written and especially grateful to those who have stuck around to read my work week after week. I hope it’s brought you as much enjoyment as I’ve gotten in writing it, and I hope you’ll stick with me through 2019. Thanks,


The Antisocial Network – Chapter Ten

“So then you built a meme and sent it after me.” Vent’s meme leaned back on the bench and sprawled with its legs stuck far into the path in front of them, its posture not even remotely matching the way it was dressed. “You sound like you’ve had a rough week.”

“It’s not even half over,” Eric said, watching the pedestrian traffic unconsciously give them a wide berth. Vent insisted that no one would take notice of them as long as they didn’t do anything that would directly draw attention but Eric still worried about being dragged away to a room with padded walls for talking to himself in public.

“Let’s try to end it on a high note. You wanted to talk to me and here I am. If you don’t have anything in particular you wanted to ask I’d love to see you pull up that meme again.” Vent switched from casual lounging to almost predatory excitement in the blink of an eye. “I’ve never heard of anyone creating a meme directly from the Jungian unconsciousness before. It’s always been an expression of their own personality that they project outward into the collective Network. So how did you do it?”

“I don’t know!” Eric leaned away, a bit taken aback by Vent’s sudden forcefulness. “No one ever bothered to tell me how to handle memes so I just had to guess at it. They seem to be the only way to get anything done telepathically, which seems really clunky to me by the way, so I just acted like a stereotype and there it was!”

Vent plunked its chin in its hand and scrunched down in its seat, the wheels in its mind audibly churning. It was the first time Eric had heard audible sound besides talking from a meme and the sound of gears clanking was a little disturbing. He did his best to edge away from it without looking weird. “It sounds almost like you did the exact opposite of what teeps normally do – instead of projecting yourself outward you pulled the Network in… or maybe you just bent it somehow? That would explain why the meme seemed so empty when it finally got to me.”

“Empty?” Eric gave Vent’s meme a once over and, like normal, it was still possible to see through it faintly if he concentrated. “That kinda goes for all the memes I’ve seen.”

The meme laughed and pushed a hand through it’s chest, causing Eric to lean back queasily. “They aren’t exactly the solidest things around, are they? But that’s not what I meant about your meme. It didn’t have much of a personality when I first met it. Normally, even when you’re not piggybacking on a meme like I’m doing now, it keeps some component of the personality of whoever created it. Yours started out fairly monotonous but started acting more and more like me as time went on. It fell apart just a couple of minutes after it reached me. I’d have loved to examine it closer.”

“Maybe I just went about building it wrong.”

“That’s just it.” The meme went back to examining him closely. “You did something that no one thought to do because you didn’t how things are ‘supposed’ to be done.” Vent’s meme didn’t have much expression but the voice it was projecting managed to imply he didn’t think much of how things were supposed to be done. “You’ve done something no teep has ever done before – twice! – because you didn’t know how we would have gone about it.”


“The whole making yourself invisible trick.” Vent waved at the people walking through the zoo in the distance. “I’m pushing people away by actively diverting attention whenever it comes towards us. Tricky at first but it becomes a thing you do almost by muscle memory. But telepaths notice it happening pretty easily. You did something else – you lulled them into complacency rather than pointing them into a different direction. Very different approaches. I think it might be because you’re an actor. Most of us are in the field of psychology or communication, at least so far.”

Eric jumped on the opportunity to push the conversation away from weird things he’d done and wasn’t sure he could do again. “Was that what the First Teep was?”

Vent adjusted his posture to lean slightly away from Eric, the first sign of discomfort he had shown during their conversation. “Well, I honestly don’t know. I can’t even be sure he’s really the first telepath to exist, although there are some bothersome signs…”

“Bothersome how?”

“He…” Vent trailed off and for a moment his meme was entirely silent, to the point where Eric started to wonder if he’d decided not to answer the question at all. Eric was on the verge of waving his hand in front of the meme’s face, just to see what would happen, when it spasmed slightly and shook its head. “Sorry, Echoes, I got distracted.”

Eric laughed. “Echoes? Is that me now?”

“Unless you have something else you’d like to be called.” Vent shrugged. “I don’t recommend using your real name, at least until the government decides chasing us around isn’t a good use of time, and Echo would be as good as anything. And it fits what I’ve seen your meme do.”

That seemed fair enough. “So. The First Teep.”

“Yeah. Him.” The meme leaned back and heaved a soundless sigh. “He has bothersome signs of being obsessive-compulsive, or maybe something a little more complex. Like I said, most of the first round of teeps are psychology people and I’m no exception. When I woke up to the teep world I think there were less than a dozen of us, all in the Chicago area. FT was one of us and from some of the stuff he said I got the impression he was in treatment for something. My theory was that he was part of a research project for something that needed FDA approval and he reacted differently than others. Or maybe not differently, maybe the entire first crop of teeps were disturbed people in a drug test. But it made him an interesting case study regardless, and he’s never been forthcoming about the circumstances that transformed him. Didn’t seem to think they were important.”

Like most real-life stories Eric found that Vent’s didn’t quite line up with other things he’d been told. Fortunately, with a little work he could write a script of his own. “Hugo mentioned that you were looking at brainworms. Did you think the First Teep was a source of them?”


“Insanity that spreads mind to mind, or something.”

Vent laughed. “That’s a good name for them. But I wasn’t really that interested in them, except as an example of memetic propagation. The First was. I think he related better to people telepathically than in person and he was convinced that brainworms could be used to spread telepathy. I think he just wanted to get along with others better.”

That sounded a little closer to what Hugo had said. “So you helped him come up with a brainworm that could wake telepaths?”

“No, I knew he was working on the idea when we parted ways but it just didn’t interest me.” Vent shrugged. “I’m more interested in understanding the structure of the mind and the structures the mind creates in turn. There’s all kinds of potential treatments for mental disorders inherent to telepathy but I quickly learned brainworms wouldn’t help me understand them at all. Most of the Network just wants to keep a low profile and figure out what they’re doing with their lives now that they’re different from everyone else. I already knew, so I left them to find their own way and went my own.”

Eric felt his eyes narrow as a nasty thought occurred to him. “You’re awfully cavalier about all the people the First Teep wanted to drop his brainworm on.”

“Well it’s not like there was anything I could do to stop it, per se,” Vent said, dismissively. “He hadn’t made one yet and he knew as much about the art of memetics as I did and it’s not like there were blueprints or anything I could steal. Besides, I did notice when he released his first one and I took the time to look it over. It does it’s job and, aside from being telepathic, I didn’t notice the person it affected being any worse for wear. Even if I had done something about it, FT could always have made another one.”

“It didn’t seem like a very benign thing when I ran into it.” And Eric couldn’t help but think of Rachada’s mentioning other, nastier side effects. Unrelated? Perhaps. “Tell you what. If you show me one of these brainworms and explain how they work I’ll show you how I pulled up that meme I sent to find you. Deal?”

Vent’s meme nodded its head quickly. “A perfectly fair exchange. But you could be away from yourself for quite a while in the doing of it. Better get indoors, and give me a little time to marshal my own facilities. I’ll come looking for you in a three hours. Is that enough time?”

Eric nodded. “I’ll see you then.”