Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty One

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“Hello, Sandoval.”

“Hello, weakArmor. Are you doing well today?”

“Not particularly, Sandoval. Can you guess why?”

“We have never met before, weakArmor, so I can only draw on broad generalities. Based on the current news headlines and the terminal you are accessing from I calculate a 72% probability that you aren’t doing well is due to your work being involved in the recent controversy in Silicon Valley.”

I pulled my hand away from the computer and looked incredulously at George Beane, the point man from Absolute Technologies. “This thing is a state of the art AI and it’s still talking to me in percentages?”

Geroge waved his hands in that exasperated way the particularly brilliant do when they think they’re talking to an imbecile. “You accessed it via the psychometric interface rather than the verbal one so it probably concluded you’re a debugger like SpeedRead or Verity are. I’m sure you talk to your coworkers differently than you do the general public, too.”

Everyone I’d met at the AT labs spoke about Sandoval like that, casually equating it to real people and assuming everyone would be able to get used to talking about its disembodied voice the same as they would any other human being. On the other hand, I knew people who were uncomfortable talking to others over the phone line and wasn’t quite as optimistic about the odds as they were. But who was I to tell them how to spend their investor’s money. I was just there to try and catch a bunch of cyberterrorists before they made sure AT – or one of their competitors in the market – lost all their carefully cultivated investments.

I reached out and touched Sandoval’s terminal again. “Hello, Sandoval.”

“Hello, weakArmor. Thank you for reconnecting. Do you wish to discuss the current situation in Silicon Valley, or would you like to move on to another topic?”

The digital space I entered while communicating with Sandoval was a bit like a giant fishbowl, but in reverse. I was in the middle of a small, still area looking out through a think, protective barrier, listening to oceans of code ebb and surge all around me. There was more going on out there than I could parse easily, computing not being my field of expertise by a long shot, but I’m sad to report that it didn’t strike me as anything like a real mind. I wondered how often AT’s inhouse psychometrics brought that up. “The first one, Sandoval. I don’t suppose you’ve considered how this chaos in the valley is going to effect you?”

There was an audible, almost tangible change in the direction Sandoval’s data processing was moving in. After a considerable pause – probably three seconds – the AI said, “I cannot think of any effects it will have on me beyond possibly delaying my development cycle. My program is not hardware dependent and is backed up every twelve hours via secure Gemini Solutions equipment.”

“I see. Sandoval, have you ever been secured via Archon Securities, or even tested any of their equipment as a part of your network?”

“No, that would have been a violation of the Absolute Technologies exclusivity contract with Gemini Solutions.”

That wasn’t surprising. AT had barely existed for two years, changing their cybersecurity firms in such a short period of time would’ve been very unusual. “Sandoval, please demonstrate your firewalls and similar defenses designed to prevent tampering via psychometry.”

Ten seconds later I was pulling my gloves back on while staring incredulously at George. “Fractal encryption, the intermediate firewall and an offsite back up? That’s all your insurance against outside tampering?”

“We’re very early in the development process, there isn’t a whole lot of innovative code there to protect.” George waved me aside and took over the keyboard, going through a fairly involved process to secure the terminal that was ultimately meaningless given that they’d let their bleeding edge AI program access the Internet to facilitate its learning algorithms and then basically done squat to protect it against tampering on the cyberspace front. “We’re working with Gemini to build new layers of protection for it that will still allow it to gather data to extrapolate from quickly but also keep it safe from hackers. In the meantime Sandoval runs on a custom OS and custom programming language, the structure is not going to be something people can crack very easily.”

“The whole point of psychometric hacking is to break past those kinds of barriers via active pattern recognition.”

He glanced over his shoulder, giving me an amused look. “And could you have parsed what you saw of Sandoval with your psychometric abilities?”

“Admittedly no, but that’s not my primary specialty.”

“Why did Archon keep hiring you as a consultant?”

I shrugged. “Testing their countermeasures against an amateur is part of their process.”

George made a noncommittal noise and went back to his typing. “Well, Sandoval is capable of defending itself, too.”

That was something every AI developer I’d spoken to in the last two days had claimed. I wasn’t sure how that was supposed to work and explanations had mostly gone over my head. Mixer was scrambling to find a psychometric computer expert – still a rare breed – that could come in and shore up our numbers. Unfortunately that left me, with my background with Archon, as the closest thing to an expert in the field we had available. We were really behind the curve.

“The ugly truth is every computer system is vulnerable to an intruder it believes is supposed to be there,” I said. “That’s the vulnerability they’re going to try and exploit.”

“What makes you so sure of that?” George demanded, his pride kicking up to confront me.

“I heard it from Alvin Davidson,” I replied. “So let me rephrase – that’s the kind of vulnerability they’re going to be looking for. Can you just ask Sandoval to lock everyone out for the time being?”

“We’d never be able to get back in if we did that! It’d be totally impossible to reset it once we were locked out.” Like those of the other firms I’d spoken to, AT engineers seemed to have high opinions of their product’s capabilities and security. Personally I suspected 4chan could break Sandoval inside of a week if they only knew it existed. “I don’t see why the FBI is so convinced we’re going to be targeted by these terrorists, anyway. We’re not working in anything like the same fields as the previous targets.”

“That’s kind of the point of targeting you,” I said, handing him the thumb drive I’d brought with me. “It’s not about the tech you’re developing It’s more of a kind of philosophical difference…”

“Don’t be silly. Humans are tool users and that’s what we do here, build tools.” George glared at the drive but eventually took it from me when I refused to take it back. “What does this do?”

“Does it matter? It’s just a tool.”

“Very funny. I want to know if It’s going to do anything weird to Sandoval.”

“Beats me. But Gemini, Hemmingway and the FBI’s best minds all spent the last eighteen hours on it so it should at least function as intended.” I held up the court order we’d gotten that was probably going to get someone in trouble if it ever got to an appeals court. “Now I’ve looked over your programs and decided they need to be upgraded -“

“Which you were going to do regardless,” George grumbled.

“Which I always going to do, so by the mandate of the County of San Francisco you can either install that or go to jail. Your choice.”

He installed it but he didn’t like it. Frankly, neither did I. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, these kinds of confrontations are not something psychometrics generally like. I’m no exception. But I liked the idea of Vinny and the Masks getting another one up and over on me even less so. When none of the Valley’s major AI development projects had agreed to let the FBI monitor them in an attempt to catch Vinny red handed in his next move Hennesy had decided to play hardball and I was past worrying about it at this point.

“What kind of philosophy worries about people who are just trying to make the human race better off?” George was wandering very close to the realm of self-pity.

“People with different ideas of what the human race is.”

That just got me an empty look.

“Spare me from gearheads,” I muttered, massaging the bridge of my nose. “Are you an introvert or an extrovert?”

“What?”

“Crowds. Do you get excited in crowds or is keeping up with them draining for you?”

“Oh.” His brain audibly switched gears, thought about it, and returned an answer. “Excited, I guess.”

“So you’re an extrovert. You get energized by large groups of people. On the other hand, I’m an introvert. Even if I know and like everyone in a group of more than six people, being in that group is tiring and eventually I’ll need to cut out and recharge.” I took a hand and pushed that thought off to one side, George’s eyes tracking the movement in morbid fascination. “Do you know the golden rule?”

“Love your neighbor as yourself?”

“Bingo. Now. Let’s say we’re friends.” He snorted. “It’s a stretch, I know. But try and imagine something other than code for a bit. Say we’re friends and you see me looking down, so you try and get me to cheer up. So you drag me to a big social event with a ton of people. Is that the golden rule in action?”

“No, of course not. I’d want people trying to cheer me up to take who I am in to account, so I should take who you are in to account.” He pointed to the part of the conversation I’d pushed aside, making me wonder if he was a touch psychometric himself. “So tie this together for me because I don’t get it.”

“People view the human race in as many different ways as they view crowds. And believe me, there are some people who look at adding AI to our culture to be like dragging an exhausted introvert to a giant house party. That’s why we need to do this.”

For a moment I thought I got through. Then George said, “Sandoval and a frat house kegger have nothing in common.”

I sighed. “Never said they did. Just… leave that thing installed until we contact you and give you clearance to remove it.”

It had been two days since Vinny left me at the Archon offices. Previous attacks had been between three days to a week apart. Our preparations were done and the ball was in Vinny’s court. It was time to get a nap and then wait for the other shoe to drop.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Seven

Previous Chapter

Galaxy and the Masks are not the only organized groups of psychometrics in the country, much less the world, they’re just the oldest and most influential, the most likely to have governmental connections, support organizations and large numbers of nonpsychometric staff. These smaller groups come in all shapes and flavors, most never last more than a few years. Somnolence, the group longest lasting and largest group after Galaxy, was put together after the Civil War and vanished during the Cold War collapse left most of the country’s psychometrics dead or catatonic. Given how little my job involved the internal workings of psychometric communities I wasn’t up on which other organizations might have cropped up to take its place, so I’d never heard of En Machina.

According to AJ Jackson they’d organized in the late 1990s, not due to the Internet, as you might expect, but due to early cellphones. They’d been interested in the potential of cellular technology to enhance the range and potential applications of psychometric abilities, something Galaxy had looked into itself. Like we had, En Machina had concluded that, while psychometrics could communicate via cellular phone as easily as we could landline, there wasn’t much more we could do than that. For reasons that Jackson wasn’t entirely certain of, En Machina had decided to stick together after reaching that conclusion and keep looking into other intersections between psychometry and emerging technologies.

Galaxy has teams dedicated to that kind of research as well. But it’s not a heavily encouraged specialization nor does Galaxy pour a lot of resources into the technological side of things. Listening to Jackson talk about En Machina took me back to what Vinny had mentioned a couple of conversations ago, talking about psychometrics developing treatments for psychometrics with damaged psyches, researching true telepathy or just digging into the nature of the Gift for the sake of curiosity. I’d been part of Galaxy from a young age and I had to admit I’d been thinking of these smaller groups as fly by night, untrustworthy collections of people scattered and flailing ineffectively against the vast mysteries of the Gift and the difficulties it brought to people. To my surprise, Jackson made them sound more like pioneers, out on some kind of metaphorical frontier. I suppose frontiersmen could count as the untrustworthy, fly by night kind of people but there was still a charm to the idea.

Actually finding En Machina was not charming at all.

It required a lot of navigating back channels, exchanging passwords and references and ultimately a lot of waiting. The morning of the second day after realizing Vinny was the linchpin binding the Masks and Silicon Valley I was still waiting to hear back from the third and final intermediary that Jackson had told me was between me and Hat Trick. I’d spent the last two days doing busywork, closing off lines of inquiry that had little to do with the main thrust of the investigation. Hennesy knew I didn’t think Jackson was the mastermind and he was happy to put me on any other part of the inquiry, the problem was the FBI was convinced Jackson was somehow tied to whoever was behind the attacks and was devoting more and more resources to looking in to his activities and vast media activities to try and prove it. There wasn’t much outside of that for me to do.

I remained convinced Vinny was the best lead we had, even if no one else really thought that way. So I kept pushing harder to find Hat Trick and by the end of day two I had a location and a time. They arrived in an email with no easily tracked sender, so subject line and no message beyond the name of the store and when to be there. The requested meeting time was well after the FBI was going to insist I leave to “get some rest” so I deleted the message and made a quick phone call, then finished out my shift and headed back to the hotel to get ready.


“This isn’t really necessary,” I said, holding the door for Aurora.

“Don’t be silly,” she said as she passed me, looking more annoyed than she actually felt. “I don’t want you going missing again. It’s already happened twice in the last two weeks.”

“Does it count as going missing if you never leave your hotel room?”

“Yes.”

There wasn’t much arguing with that. I wasn’t really arguing with her at all anymore, if there was a time for that it had been back at the hotel. And, in fact, I had argued there. A lot. But she’d insisted on coming, since this wasn’t an official FBI contract and Natalie wasn’t going to be there, and since the alternative was to wind up benched by Galaxy and ignored by the FBI I’d ultimately been forced to bring her along.

And it wasn’t like there was a lot of danger involved in visiting a custom computer shop after hours.

It wasn’t exactly my kind of place so I didn’t have a lot to compare it to, but Solid State Computing looked a lot like what I’d expect a computer specialty store to look like. There were some display computers on kiosks at the front, a service counter to the left and rows of outrageously priced components to the right. The shop itself was part of a strip mall in a yet to be gentrified part of town. The shops were mostly closed but there were still a few places open.

Of course, Solid State wasn’t one of them, we were met at the door by a man who was not what I was expecting – short, fairly fit, long but well-groomed beard, hard eyes. He gave us a once over and said, “Name?”

“weakArmor.”

A look at Aurora. “Who’s she?”

“A friend.”

She lifted one hand and let it casually rest over his on the door handle. The hard lines around his eyes softened slightly. “I’m just here to make sure he doesn’t put his foot in his mouth.”

“That a problem he has a lot?”

“Not a problem, a talent,” I said.

He let us in to the shop and locked the door behind us. “That’s not a talent that will win you friends. At least your lady gets that.”

I decided to let the comment about my lady pass. “Are you Hat Trick?”

“That’s what I call myself, anyway. I’m not as deeply invested in my handle as you folks from Galaxy tend to be.” He led us through his shop, between racks of pricy computer parts, to a second room about half the size of the first. The walls were empty and there was a large table with a bunch of electronic hookups and a large monitor on it. There was an equipment cabinet under the table that all the cables ran in to and probably contained some kind of computer. Unlike the main room, which was a muddle of customers coming and going, this room had a clear feel to it. It brimmed with anticipation, spiced with an undercurrent of disappointment. Aurora shifted slightly, unsettled a bit by emotional feedback she wasn’t used to parsing.

Hospitals have powerful emotional landscapes but they tend to be quite narrow in the emotions you find. The kind of baited breath excitement this room was rank with wasn’t one of them.

Hat Trick apparently noticed her discomfort because he said, “I use this room for stress testing systems and robotics for customers. It gives the room a unique impression.”

“Systems you’ve built for them, or systems they bring to you?” I asked.

“Both.” He waved us towards the table and we all took seats.

“You do robotics?” Aurora asked, adjusting herself nervously on her seat.

“When something interesting comes in,” Hat Trick replied. “I try to dabble in as many things as I can.”

I could see that. Aurora has the kind deep, powerful reserves of mental energy I’d expect of a tier five Gift, focused in a single field of study for a lifetime. You could give her a problem and she’d push against it until it was submerged within herself and her understanding permeated it down to the very smallest details. Most tier four and five psychometrics in Galaxy were like that.

In contrast Hat Trick’s mental energy spread wide across an array of subjects, less a pool to submerge a problem in and more a lens to magnify it in and study it from any number of angles. I’d originally been under the impression he was a tier four psychometric at the least. But with the unique structure he’d given to his Gift and the unorthodox mental structures that made it possible I was no longer sure he was even a tier three, like me.

I was curious but asking about it seemed kind of rude and there’s no way to test a person’s Gift without their cooperation. I decided to stick to the reason I was there. “So I heard of you from AJ Jackson.”

Hat Trick nodded. “Unfortunately he wasn’t available to vouch for you so I had to put out some feelers on you, that’s why I took so long to get back to you.”

“No surprise. Jackson’s in jail right now.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Why’s that?”

“He actually had me kidnapped.”

“I always wondered when he would cross a line…” Hat Trick shook his head, clearly he’d had doubts about Jackson’s stability before this. “For the record, I wasn’t a part of that idea.”

“No one thought you did,” I assured him. “He’s very good at coming up with bad ideas all on his own.”

“That he is.”

I opened my mouth to change the subject to why I needed his help when Aurora jumped in and said, “Who vouched for him?”

Hat Trick looked a bit confused. “Jackson?”

“No, Armor.” She cocked her head to one side. “You said Jackson couldn’t vouch for him, so who did?”

“That would be me.”

I turned around so quickly I almost fell out of my chair. The door to the room thumped closed and the lock was thrown before my brain fully caught up to what I was seeing. Natalie Chase gave me a pained smile. “I guess this isn’t exactly how you were expecting this meeting to go, was it?”

Aurora helped me get situated back in my chair, which was nice because I couldn’t stop staring at Natalie long enough to look at it. Finally I found my voice and said, “No, it was not.”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Five

Previous Chapter

There’s a mental discipline called a “mind palace” that some people use to help them organize and recall memories. In most cases it functions exactly as you’d think from the name – they build a huge mental structure and store memories in a layout that is somehow mnemonic, decorated with art and knickknacks their subconscious associates with those memories. I’ve met a few of these people in my life and let me tell you, to the psychometric it’s a thing to behold when a person comes walking down a hallway or into a room surrounded by a mishmash of flying architecture that looks like a cross between Royal Caribbean and Disney World.

Yes, I know there are Disney cruise liners, that’s not the point.

In the past psychometrics actually used a cousin of this technique to store memories in actual, physical objects, deliberately layering impressions one on top of the other until a favorite rosary, lucky coin or similar object also doubled as a memory aid to help us remember all the random minutia of daily life. They were wonderful, idiosyncratic objects and there are actually a few still stored in the collections of some of the current Constellations, the memories stored within slowly fading until someday, sooner rather than later, they’ll vanish entirely.

The problem with this technique was that losing the object in question often left its owner disoriented and possibly even mildly amnesiac. The invention of hard drives for computers gradually began to solve that problem. By the time I was old enough Galaxy was teaching me how to survive in the world we’d made the switch to a totally binary approach to memory aids. So when, after two hours of work sifting through photos of drones from the Worker Drones catalog and comparing them to those used in the dastardly Peanut Oil Attack, we concluded that they hadn’t come from the same source as the EMP drones used in the previous attacks and Natalie went to get a new assignment I didn’t have to waste any time tracking down what happened to the data we’d recovered from AJ Jackson.

I just looked into the computer tower and began unpacking everything I remembered of it into the computer’s file structure. There was a lot of information from Project Backboard to sift through but whether it was Hat Trick, Jackson himself or some other analyst hired for the job, someone had done a good job boiling it down and sorting it into useful categories, so there wasn’t even much I could discard out of hand. Worse, after a preliminary sort and analysis I realized that Jackson’s info and the timing of Backboard didn’t fit with the attacks that had been carried out.

There wasn’t any evidence of the kind of projects the Masks like to really dig their claws in to. 5G networks were still stymied and there didn’t seem to be any other new innovations in networking or interconnectivity brewing in the Valley. The focus was more towards AI and “smart house” style projects, things the Masks actually try to avoid. Something about adding unnatural layers to the omnimind. There were a few interesting looking experiments being done with learning neural nets and so-called “deep fake” technology, interested in both creating and exposing such fakes, but beyond that and some hardware miniaturization efforts currently ongoing it was pretty uninteresting stuff to most psychometrics.

And none of the companies working on that handful of projects had been effected by any of the three attacks so far, so it wasn’t likely they were planning to swoop in and buy up one of the smaller companies struggling in the aftermath of their mischief. I couldn’t for the life of me work out what it was they could possibly want.

What was the pattern behind the attacks? Other than an obvious dislike for Silicon Valley there wasn’t even a through line for all of them. It was like someone was just testing a bunch of ideas they’d once had for how they could use random bits of modern industrial technology to wreak havoc. It might even be borderline funny if the fallout from it wasn’t having such widespread effects. Besides the handful of people that had died during the blackouts, stock prices for a number of companies were tanking badly and probably wiping out some people’s retirement funds, a lot of politicians careers were probably over for no fault of their own – no loss there – and there had apparently been a near riot while I was at sea with Jackson yesterday, although I hadn’t quite pieced together what the cause of that was. It was all very unMask like. Maybe Hennesy was right and I had been listening to Eugene too much.

I was puzzling over it all at my desk, not really thinking about the Jackson files anymore, when Vinny poked his head into my cubicle and said, “You look puzzled, Armor.”

That brought me snapping back to reality. I gave him a curious look and said, “Of course. You’re here, not at the Archon offices. That almost never happens.”

Vinny produced a series of muscle movements that you might call a smile, if it had anything like humor attached to it. Like so many things about Vinny’s day to day living, it was just him doing something he knew was expected. “It’s not as rare as you make it sound. And you aren’t the only consultant the FBI has pulled in on this case.”

“Oh yeah?” I furrowed my brow. I didn’t know Vinny had been doing that kind of work. Then again, with how involved he was with cybersecurity across the Valley maybe he’d been recommended by one of his clients and only started recently. I’m sure he would have mentioned it to me during our last conversation if he’d been doing this then. “What side of the case are you working on?”

“My confidentiality agreements don’t allow me to say,” Vinny said. It was a mild statement backed by the unshakeable resolve of a man who saw give and take, negotiating a balanced agreement as the single most unshakeable foundation of functioning society.

Since I knew Vinny of all people wouldn’t mind an abrupt subject change after that kind of response I just shrugged and said, “Have you ever heard of a psychometric specializing in IT that goes by Hat Trick?”

There was a solid ten seconds of silence as Vinny’s mind whirred through memories – Vinny doesn’t quite have a mind palace but he does use a very efficient filing system – then he said, “I’ve heard the name, although it was some time ago and he wasn’t an IT specialist. He worked in a blend of electronics, mechanics and structural engineering. He was quite adept in all three fields, hence his name.”

“That’s a pretty broad range of interests,” I mused. “To perform at a high level across multiple fields of study he’d have to be at least a tier four. I’m surprised I’ve never heard of him.”

“I believe he was an independent contractor,” Vinny said. “I don’t believe that supposition was ever confirmed, though. You could always consult with one of Galaxy’s Constellations.”

“I suppose. But I’m trying to avoid talking to them right now, apparently they’re debating taking me off this case.” I got up from the computer and stretched, realizing I’d been there quite a while. “How did you know I was here?”

“Your handler mentioned it to the Special Agent in Charge when we were speaking a few minutes ago.” Vinny followed along as I went to the break room to get a cup of coffee. “I was taking the opportunity to discuss with SAC Hennesy the schedule for my modifications.”

I hesitated midpour. “Modifications?”

“Archon has been asked to conduct several system checks and upgrades in the last week. We’ve become aware of certain new surveillance and intrusion methods that require us to modify or upgrade some of our equipment to ensure protection.” Vinny waved towards Hennesy’s office – directly there, I noted, you could draw a straight line directly from his fingers through several walls and a ceiling to Hennesy’s door – and added, “While I was there consulting I believed it would be a good time to mention the necessity of upgrading the FBI’s systems and trying to work it around the aggressive schedule they are currently keeping.”

“Tricky,” I murmured, running through the possibilities in my mind. “Was there something you wanted to ask me?”

Vinny’s frown was as meaningless as his smile. “No, I just believed that greeting you would be appropriate, given our acquaintance.”

“Oh.” I nodded, acknowledging the truth of that. “So these weren’t systems I’ve worked on? Something I might have been able to help with?”

With an click I don’t know how normal people can’t hear Vinny seemed to understand what I was getting at. “No, these are not systems you’ve worked on, no will your help to install them be necessary. I was simply visiting to ‘say hello’.”

“Well, I appreciate the thought.” I put a lid on my coffee and added, “And I don’t mean to brush you off, but I think I worked out what was puzzling me earlier and I need to get back to work.”

“Of course.” Vinny nodded, getting back to work was something he understood like few others on Earth. “I’ll talk to you again if the opportunity presents itself.”

“Sure thing.” And I practically ran back to my cubicle.

Or at least, half way there. As soon as Vinny was out of sight I slowed down, because now I had a new problem to work out. Alvin “Vinny” Davidson was Silicon Valley’s leading expert on cybersecurity solutions that guarded against psychometric surveillance and intrusion.

So how was I going to prove he was working for the Masks?