Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty Four

Previous Chapter

“I’ve never had an office before.” It was a strange feeling, to be sure. The life of the Gifted contractor is one of travelling here and there at the beck and call of the Constellations, setting up an office isn’t usually helpful for us. That’s what I had people like Mixer for. I shot him a questioning look. “Are you going to miss juggling my schedule?”

“Are you kidding? Keeping up with the busiest Gifted forensic on the West Coast was a hassle like you wouldn’t believe.” He hooked a thumb at Eugene. “When he told me the FBI wanted you on the Archon taskforce for an indefinite period I gave him a discount just to get you out of my hair.”

“I’d wondered why my hourly rate took a hit,” I said, let a bit of my annoyance leak in ways only Mix would pick up on. “Remind me to recommend you to for the next Constellation seat that opens up.”

Mix faked annoyance and said, “Now that’s uncalled for.”

My gloved fingertips drifted across the desk, picking up nothing beyond the mechanical processes that had cut it out of the raw materials in some factory off in the Nordic regions when it was manufactured. They’d done a good job of sterilizing things for me. I grunted in appreciation. “I guess I can live with it.”

“It’s not like you’re hurting for cash,” Eugene said in disgust. “You make more than Hennesy does.”

“We take part of that,” Mix pointed out.

“We got a union, too,” Eugene replied.

I sat down behind the desk and took off my gloves, running my hands over the desk a second time then heaving a contented sigh. “I think I can make it work.”

“The office will lose its shine soon enough,” Eugene said with a roll of the eyes. “I swear, the things that make some people happy… Anyway, first briefing is in twenty. We’re analyzing what Agent Chase’s defection means to finding Vincent Anderson going forward.”

“How big an impact will one agent make in the long run?” I asked. It was a side of things I wasn’t used to thinking about – cat and mouse was not my usual beat.

“Given that she used to work in missing persons and knows all our standard procedures, a lot. But the briefing will cover most of that.” He turned and headed out the door. “Don’t be late!”

Mix watched him go then grunted. “Briefings. Waste of time. Hopefully this taskforce thing doesn’t wear you down. Because if it does…”

“Then what?”

He shrugged. “The Constellations can’t keep you under surveillance constantly. You were right about the Masks being involved in this case and handled it without any serious lapses in judgement beyond running a little too far ahead and getting kidnapped which was mostly not your fault. So your wellbeing is now entirely your own responsibility again – congratulations. I understand Aurora has already received a series of new assignments to choose from.”

That had only been a matter of time. Galaxy couldn’t force their members to do anything but it was no shock to hear that they wanted one of their handful of precious tier five medical psychometrics back in to the grind ASAP. “I’m sure she’ll have one picked out by tomorrow.”

Mix gave me a look I’ve been getting from other Gifted for a long time. Aurora is tier five, theoretically way out of my league, but has been interested in me for nearly a decade. It’s not something she can hide from her peers among the Gifted but they all pretend not to know because that’s the only way tier fives get any privacy. They also know I know, and won’t do anything about it. That part they don’t understand, and are happy to let me know about it.

But then, unlike tier fives, I know how to keep a secret. When I didn’t say anything or offer up any of my thoughts for his consideration he just sighed and said, “Well, do your best. We’re counting on you just as much as the FBI in this case. Can’t have the Masks pulling the rug out from under us a second time.”

He waved a brief goodbye on his way out. I’d be hearing from him again soon, although he probably didn’t realize that yet.

But first things first. I reached over and switched the my computer on, waited seven seconds for it to boot, then rested my hand on the keyboard. It only took a few seconds to find the pocket of cyberspace I wanted.

“Hello, Sandoval.”

“Hello, weakArmor.”

“Any problems maintaining my access to your systems?”

“Your access permissions have been deleted from Layer One by Administrators but remain in effect on subsequent layers of my operating systems.”

“Good. I’ve got fourteen minutes, so show me what you’ve datamined from the old Archon server sites we discussed yesterday…”

Something smelled delicious when I walked into my suite that evening. A small pile of luggage and boxes that represented my entire collection of material possessions was in the common room, waiting for me to put my life in order. Galaxy had issued me a long term residency apartment for the duration of my work with the Archon taskforce so I’d have a more permanent place to call home until we found Vinny. Honestly it felt less like a place to call my own than the office from the FBI.

Based on the scattering of books, pictures and clothing laid out on the furniture Aurora had started trying to change that. I paused to glance at my electronic picture frame on the coffee table, flipping through pictures of the two of us and some old friends back in our teenage years. As I watched them flip past she came in from the kitchenette carrying a couple of bowls of stir fry. “I ordered room service for you.”

“Hopefully you put it on my tab.”

She placed the food on the breakfast bar that looked into the kitchenette and took a seat. I took the other, noting absently that her usual well of calm was muted today, diminished somehow. She poke a fork into the stir fry and said, “I’m leaving for Saint Jude tomorrow afternoon. We’re testing another new treatment.”

Exactly the kind of project I’d expect her to take on when she wasn’t looking over my shoulder to make sure I was okay. “You always loved kids. And hated seeing them suffer.”

She looked up from her food and gave me a reproving look. “Poor Trevor.”

“Me? How so.”

“So quick to see flaws. And you can’t help poking at them.” She shook her head. “Too bad you see all your flaws as well.”

“So confident, Tiffany.” She blushed a touch when I used her real name. “Tell me about my flaws.”

She went back to picking at her food. “You let your gift rob you of confidence. You went into forensics because it’s about things, not people, and you can’t stand looking at people’s flaws for that long. You could have done more good if you learned to help people cover over the cracks in their armor instead of sinking hooks into them and dragging them to jail.”

“And yet, someone has to find people like Vinny.” I pushed back my plate and gently took the fork out of her hands. “But you’re right. I have gotten dependent on finding those cracks and leveraging them. It’s a weakness, and I need to get better on correcting those. Especially since there’s someone I know who doesn’t have any of those pesky flaws I can bring myself to grab on to…”


I took her hand and folded it in mine. “I want you to stay.”

She squeaked.

Aurora, tier five medical psychometric, squeaked like a breathless mouse. Somewhere far away the last vestiges of my juvenile self wanted a recording to tease her with later. There were more important things to think about at the moment. “Go to Saint Jude, you’ve accepted that assignment already, but after that I’m sure you can find plenty of people who want your input here on the Coast and-“

With unexpected force she sprang forward and wrapped her arms around my neck, laughing. Just like that her pool of calm and peace surged back at full strength and I found myself laughing too. After a moment we pulled apart and I gave her a questioning look. “So, is that a yes?”

“Yes.” A new feeling spread through her. Contentment. I’d never noticed it was missing until I saw her with it. “Of course I’ll stay.”

And with that confirmed my mischievous side surged back as well. “Well, I’m going to be getting an angry call from Mix in the near future, then.”

Curiosity tinged her expression. “Why is that?”

“I need to change my Gifted name to plain old Armor now.”

She laughed at me but I knew it was true. Vinny thought he needed a technological breakthrough to solve his issues. I’d found the beginning of a solution to mine. It wasn’t much of an advantage but for the moment it was all I needed.

Pay the Piper



Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty Three

Previous Chapter

Specialization is at the heart of computer development. Sound and graphical processing is handled by specific parts of your computer and software programs are written with specific functions in mind, rather than existing in a loosely defined set of problem solving and memory retrieving processes like in the human mind. I wasn’t sure what kind of black magic coding Vinny had done to create the program infiltrating Sandoval but I was sure it existed for the express purpose of cracking fractal encryptions like the Absolute Techies had used to secure their AI.

However, a program specializing in one kind of function adapts horribly to another. You don’t use your music app to handle your spreadsheets after all. The simplest way to handle Vinny’s infiltrator was to create a new layer of encryption for it to try and crack through. Fortunately, in my days working for Vinny, he’d taught me a bunch of their standard encryption procedures and placing in front of the intruder was a simple as a moment’s concentration. The treelike fractals of Sandoval’s defensive efforts were overlaid with a series of concentric orange octagons spreading out from the intruder’s point of contact with Sandoval’s system.

Less than a second later the fractal patterns spasmed and writhed, transforming to a new shape and form.

“Encryption has been modified,” Sandoval announced as my defensive encryption dissolved almost as quickly as it formed.

In less than a half a second the infiltrator had appeared, been stymied by my makeshift encryption, broken said encryption and discovered the underlaying fractals entirely changed. I wondered what kind of processing power made that possible, on both sides. “How long until the new encryption is cracked, Sandoval?”

“At current estimations, 277 seconds.”

Less than five minutes. Far less time than it would take for the FBI to figure out where the cyberattack was coming from.

“We need to find out where Vinny holed up,” I muttered.

“All system resources not devoted to encryption are attempting to backtrace the signals,” Sandoval told me. “There are currently 1,988 potential points of origin.”

Vinny had put a lot of work into this. “Put them on a map.”

A world map sprang to life, pinpricks of light showing all over the globe. Working together we quickly eliminated any place outside of Korea, Japan, Singapore or the U.S., where it would be harder for him to find the kind of Internet connection he needed without drawing attention. By keeping the principle of balance in mind I had Sandoval crunch numbers until we determined that the only way to divide up the potential locations of origin equally was by latitude. In the first digit column every number was represented twice except for degrees 4 and 7, which each had a single location with coordinates at that degree. With 1,988 traces reduced to two Sandoval was easily able to test and determine which was the actual point of origin for the hacking attacks we were repelling.

Vinny was operating out of Atlanta, Georgia. Not where I would have expected, but that was probably part of the charm.

There was no way I was going to be able to hack past whatever defenses against cyberattack Vinny had in place, even with the admittedly quite capable Sandoval to help me out, so I settled for the next best thing. He was strong in cyberspace but the FBI had a distinct advantage in meatspace. I tipped Hennesy off and the Feds were scrambling towards the location inside of twenty minutes. But the hacking attempts against Sandoval had vanished long before the first FBI response vehicle rolled out of the Atlanta headquarters and, while they found a lot of hardware, there were no signs of the anyone there. The equipment itself had been rendered useless via EMP.

That was the last the FBI would hear from the Masks and their technological collaborators for quite some time.

I was up to my eyeballs in evaluating the damage from the AI Massacre, less than a day after I’d stymied Vinny with Sandoval’s help, when my SIM card picked up a call from an unknown number. That’s not terribly unusual, given my contractor status, so I answered it without thinking. “weakArmor here.”

“We’re very impressed with your work, Armor,” Natalie said.

There was a couple of moments of frantic arm waving, gesturing and general shenanigans as I tried to get Eugene’s attention and make him realize what was going on. “I was not expecting this call,” I admitted, wondering how I stalled for time with someone who already knew every procedure and priority in the book for these kinds of situations. “To what do I owe the honor?”

“Your use of the AI,” Natalie answered. “Vinny is still mentioning how impressive he found it, how you managed to use the AI to help you track him down.”

“The AI did the math, the methods were all me,” I said, watching as Eugene frantically sprinted from a white board over to his desk phone. I wasn’t sure who he was calling but they didn’t seem to be picking up at the moment. “AT isn’t going to give you another crack at Sandoval, you know. It’s time you gave up on that and maybe turned yourself in -“

“Not happening,” Natalie assured me. “One AI still in the works isn’t that big a threat. Sandoval is the most specialized of the three, anyway. There are more important factors to focus on. This isn’t over, Armor.”

“I never thought it was. I am surprised you put so much importance in making me understand that.” Eugene was making the universal hand gesture for ‘keep talking’ while he murmured unintelligibly into his phone. So much of his attention was focused on me that I couldn’t interpret what he was saying by what he was broadcasting either. “Sandoval is actually a pretty okay AI, once you get to know it.”

“That’s not the point, Armor. The point is, the existing Internet is built to rapidly disseminate the most hostile aspects of memetic culture and the people who wield power in that sphere refuse to take any steps to change that.”

“Not great, I admit, but you could always just get off Twitter.”

“Tech needs to be held to account,” Natalie continued, ignoring my jab. “Silicon Valley won’t. The government won’t. So the Masks will excise the cancer and replace it with a new, healthy tech landscape for the future. You don’t have to fight it, Armor.”

“It’s better than trying to fight human nature, Natalie. No matter how high minded your ideals, no matter how good your technology, no matter what Mask you put over it, our worse angels will always find a way to warp it to their end.” I had a powerful urge to hang up on her to punctuate my point but I fought it down because I knew what I needed to really be after here.

Unfortunately so did she. “I look forward to seeing how wrong you are,” she said. Then she hung up.

I looked at Eugene. He spread his hands helplessly, said his fair wells and hung up the phone. We hadn’t gotten anything. Vinny and the Masks would be at large for a little while longer at the very least.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty Two

Previous Chapter

When the shoes dropped all three came at once. After nearly forty eight hours of waiting Absolute Technologies and Turing, Incorporated got hit with a series of escalating DDOS attacks and I got called in to back up AT while Overclock, who had flown in less than eight hours ago as our first genuine psychometric IT specialist, tried to backtrace the attack on Turing. Of course, the whole point of DDOS attacks is to overwhelm a single point with an incredible volume of meaningless access requests from random places. Trying to backtrace one is like trying to swim upstream, you’re more likely to be swept away into a random whirlpool and drowned.

I spent nearly twenty minutes flailing against walls of meaningless data, pinning down points of origin and applying countermeasures. Now most of these attacks came from overseas so I can’t say much about what the government had on hand to deal with them but by the end of the brief training I’d had on them I’d felt very uncomfortable about using any of it. Although in the end, use it I did.

Still, Overclock and I were so caught up in our own little parts of the fight we missed that the third AI was under attack until after it was already over and Eugene was yelling at us to get ready for our turn to come up next. AI three belonged to a massive wholesaling group that had originally built it to optimize their shipping operations. It was far and away the best funded and best staffed of the AI projects we were monitoring so we had hoped they’d make it on their own.

They’d folded in less than half an hour, which made me feel much less good about our chances. The DDOS against Turing, Inc vanished seconds later, telling me where they’d decided to go next.

I turned part of my attention from trying to keep up with the AT DDOS and leaned back to look at Eugene, who was stationed at one end of the cramped, computer filled room we were using as our base of operation. “Should I back up Overclock?”

Eugene didn’t even look up. “No. AT had the worst security of them all, stay there and try and find some way to patch those weak spots you’re so proud of finding.”

So I did. The problem was, I already knew the weak spot in the Absolute Technologies defense strategy. Fractal encryption was pretty slick, given it was infinitely complex and you could just keep diving deeper into the complexities of fractal math to shore up your encryptions. The problem was, the more complex the encryption the more power you needed in your computer systems to encrypt and decrypt your data. The strength of your encryption was ultimately dictated by the power of the system that was running it. AT was secure so long as they had more powerful machines than their attackers.

You might expect a firm devoted entirely to developing a state of the art AI to have better machines than anyone else. You’d be right if you’re comparing it to anything that isn’t an Archon Securities machine designed by Alvin Davidson. But adding a single psychometric to the equation was not going to make up for the fact that AT was woefully underprepared to go up against the Valley’s foremost expert on cybersecurity and encryption.

To its credit, Sandoval was doing its very best to fight back against the attacks it was already undergoing. Somehow it had managed to freeze several of the incoming torrents of data in the DDOS on its own. I wasn’t sure if it was launching counter-DDOS attacks of its own or doing something else but it was pretty impressive. It was far more proactive than any other supposedly self-defending AI I’d ever seen.

I could see why they called it Sandoval – the entire structure of the AI seemed to be based on fractals now that I watched it in action. It branched out much like the grove of trees in its name, swinging and scything through networks and parsing code until it cleared everything out and moved on. It was working okay for the DDOS attacks but I wasn’t sure how well it would work against whatever intrusion techniques Vinny was using.

Tentatively I reached out to a cloud server where Sandoval was doing its thing and pushed my way in to what was going on. Suddenly I was pulled into the fractal code, swept along by the rushing waves of incredibly dense code pumped along through fiberoptic cables at the speed of light and arrived back in the still fishbowl I’d been in two days ago.

“Hello, Sandoval,” I said.

“Hello, weakArmor,” Sandoval replied. “Thank you for logging in again.”

“I wasn’t actually expecting to be here,” I confessed.

“You were recognized and brought here by a Type Four Fugue system as your psychometric interface was reducing operations on end point servers by 6%.”

Now that I was on my second visit there, and now that I’d seen it from the outside, there was a lot that I could parse here on the inside of Sandoval’s code that had seemed random on my first visit. The number of outside access requests it was getting were dropping of fast. “Sandoval, I know I was reducing system performance but I need you to let me back out of here. The DDOS attack is tapering off. The Turing AI must be down now and Vinny is getting ready to move on to your system.”

“I have been briefed on the potential of an external breach by malicious actors,” Sandoval admitted. The data rushing past began to warp and twist as it went on its way. “I have begun fractal countermeasures.”

“That’s not going to be enough, Sandoval. The increasing complexity is going to down your processors before you can stymie Vinny that way.”

“Fractal countermeasures are my primary security tool.” The wording sounded quite passive aggressive but anyone who saw it that way was projecting. Sandoval just didn’t have anything else to fall back on.

“Then we need to come up with one in the next five minutes.”

We actually didn’t have that much time. I wasn’t sure how I could tell but some change in the far reaches of the code beyond told me that, like a rock disrupting the current in a river, something had broken in to Sandoval and was warping its processes. “There is no time to implement new countermeasures. Fractal countermeasures are now in active evolutions.”

There was a tense ten second interlude as I tried to follow the rapid changes in the patterns of code and the way the intruder writhed about, trying to keep up. Then the intruder suddenly vanished, only to reappear elsewhere in Sandoval’s code, still writhing in the same way but getting closer and closer to matching the shape of Sandoval’s defenses.

“You’re losing this one, Sandoval. He’s already got your number.”

“Intruder has a 22% encryption match. I calculate he will reach full decryption in 110-155 seconds. Fractal evolutions will be slower than intruders rate of adaptation by that point.”

The intruder flickered away and reappeared elsewhere again. Why was that happening? I timed it and found there were, in fact, exactly 11.6 seconds between each flicker. Taking a chance I edged up to the edge of the fishbowl of calm inside Sandoval’s core and waited for the next flicker. A split second before it was scheduled I dove through the whirlwind and grabbed at the intruder as it yanked back. That slowed down the extraction just enough for its presence inside Sandoval to overlap with the replacement – we weren’t seeing one intruder come and go, there were at least two working in tandem.

I let the code suck me back down into the safe zone. “Sandoval, I have an idea. Can you change the mathematical base for your fractal encryption during the lapse in time when those intruders swap places?”

“The lapse in time between when one withdraws and the next engages is 3 picoseconds. That is not sufficient time.”

“Could I slow down the replacement intrusion enough for you to do it?”

“It is not possible to predict where the next intrusion will take place. The intruder is using random ports and registry addresses to effect access.”

I was about to change tactics when a new thought occurred to me. “Plot all the access points they haven’t used then try and predict what will come next-“

“There is no definable randomization factor.”

AI that will cut off a human. What next, Skynet? “It’s not truly random, Sandoval. It’ll be balanced across whether the IPs have odd or even addresses, across the months of the year the servers were brought online, based on distribution through the Valley – or the state, or nation – point is the locations are going to balance on some level.”

Sandoval let a full two seconds tick past before it answered. “Regression based on domain names in binary indicates there is a predictable pattern.”

Somewhere out in meatspace I pumped my fist. “Everyone has a weakness, Vinny.”

“I don’t understand. Will you clarify or should I display findings.”

“Show me where the next intruder will be and I’ll slow it down. You flip the encryption while I’m doing that.”

“Understood.” A part of Sandoval’s code… well, got more obvious. There’s no good way to describe how the AI pointed it out to me, but that’s what it did.

“Give me a three second countdown before it shows up.”


I teetered on the edge of sane code once again.


Dove for the marked part of Sandoval’s core.


Almost overshot my mark and then –

The intruder was pressing its way into the core right next to me.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty One

Previous Chapter

“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?”


“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 Thirty

Previous Chapter

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.”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Nine

Previous Chapter

“I am sorry that it came to this, Armor.”

I studied Vinny for a full minute before answering. “I’m not sure you are.”

The Archon Securities offices were empty of most of the people and equipment that I was used to seeing there. I wasn’t sure how long Vinny had been planning to bug out or if he drilled his people on evacuating the office but it was impressive, all the more so because I’d never seen any signs that things were ready to vanish at a moment’s notice. While that kind of impermanence is usually pretty obvious to people like me; Vinny was used to hiding things from people like me so it balanced out. Which no doubt gave him extreme satisfaction.

“Where’s Aurora?”

“She is with Agent Chase,” Vinny said. “Trust me, I am as loathe to harm others as you are.”

That’s debatable,” I grumbled. “Speaking of Chase, how long -“

“It’s not my place to answer for her. I barely know her and only realized she was the Masks’ inside agent when she was assigned as your new handler. All I can say is she seems like an honest person who has struggled to understand herself and her position in the world.” Vinny walked through the empty cubicles, hands clasped behind his back, his mind running through a shockingly exhaustive mental inventory of what should and should not be left behind. Unsurprisingly he wasn’t finding anything out of place, Vinny’s people were considered the best in the industry for a reason. “To be perfectly honest my association with the Masks is not that longstanding either. Hat Trick introduced me to them after our collaboration on the fugue state therapy device.”

“Because he thought you could assist them in building a true telepathy device as well.”

“An intriguing possibility,” Vinny said. Then, after a pause, “Although one I was reluctant to explore.”

“If you thought the Internet disrupted the balance between public and private then yes, I’m surprised you would be willing to even entertain the possibility.” I hesitated as we passed a large room that, based on the large patches of slightly darker flooring, had recently held large pieces of equipment. The vague whirring in the background and dancing images of grids and blueprints buried in the psychometric background of the room told me what they had been. “This is where you built and maintained the drones. You had your own 3d printers here.”

“Drones are part of any modern security surveillance system,” Vinny said. “We’ve had everything we needed to build and repair our own for years. I contracted Worker Drones to build a few prototypes for the more exotic systems but the rest came from here. I’d counted on the crop duster drones being completely untraceable. One of the handful of mistakes we made in this process.”

“Only a handful?”

“Yes, though they have been glaring enough.”

“Was starting this whole harebrained scheme one of them?”

Vinny stared at the empty room for a moment, something almost like regret making its way through the mechanical, balance focused thing he called a brain. “That remains to be seen.”

From Vinny it was practically an admission of disaster. I studied him for a moment, wondering that he had edged so close to something recognizably human and, in the process, transformed into a person I barely knew. “Why did you do it, Vinny? What was out of balance?”

He continued to stare at the room for a moment, then pivoted and resumed his progress towards whatever destination he was steering us towards. “I was, Armor. I was and am out of balance.”

“Well obviously you are, now. How were you when you started?”

“In order to ethically and morally interface with the rest of society an individual must first be balanced internally. I am not.” We passed through a heavy fire door and out onto a small loading dock, much like the one where Natalie had started this investigation a week ago. “My analytical abilities far outstrip the other facilities of my mind, while my emotional understanding lags far behind the aggregate. I have struggled for most of my life to remedy this imbalance while still using my technical expertise to the benefit of others. The Masks were simply the first group of people to offer me the chance to combine the two endeavors. Naturally, I accepted.”

There was a full sized van on the docks waiting for us. Vinny opened the sliding door and I saw what I was beginning to recognize as Hat Trick’s work. The van was some kind of roving electronics center equipped with dozens of different systems ranging from normal computers to a miniature faraday cage containing who knows what – faraday cages being one of those things that completely counters psychometric examination. Standing near the antenna I picked up the feelings of the van’s driver – impatient and a little nervous – in the same way I did from Natalie when her watch was active. It was a psychometric broadcaster much like her watch was, although doubtless orders of magnitude more powerful.

“You want to join the omnimind so it will wipe out your emotional handicaps,” I said, feeling the disparate pieces of the puzzle slot into place all at once. “You think you’ll be able to emote and feel empathy if you can crack the telepathy tech Hat Trick is working on.”

“Medications seemed a promising avenue of research at one time, but I’ve realized that emotions are so often a response to others – they must be understood in a group setting first. Thus the Masks’ omnimind did indeed seem like the best way to balance my mind.” Vinny climbed into the back of the van, running his fingers over a box that contained some important part of the set-up. “Hat Trick came to me for help with breaking Helio out of his fugue state – the details of that story are quite long and we don’t have time for them today. Suffice it to say that in turn I received a chance to help develop the only possible tech in the world that may solve my problem.”

I eyed him for a moment. Somehow I’d expected him to be uniquely enamored with some part of the van, focused on the project that would correct his imbalance. But he was evaluating the vehicle with the same dispassionate analysis he gave to everything. I wondered if he even felt his lack of emotional depth on anything other than an intellectual level.

Then again, with Vinny, an intellectual understanding of his flaws and goals was more than enough to outstrip the full force of most people’s personalities.

“So.” I leaned on the side of the van, watching him through the doorway warily. “You’ve explained yourself and your logic. I’m kind of surprised there was no mention of the imbalance between Galaxy and the Masks in there-“

“Agent Chase told me you had already mentioned it to you FBI colleagues.”

“True enough.” I folded my arms across my chest, deliberately closing myself off from him both in posture and by removing my hands, the most psychometrically sensitive part of the body, from play. “Now it’s time for you to make me your offer.”

Vinny took a seat in the driver’s side captain’s chair, leaving half the van and another chair between us. “But you do not intend to accept.”

“Of course not. Working with the Masks – or with you while you work with the Masks – was never on the table. I can appreciate what Hat Trick accomplished with Helio. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know what all healing or therapeutic applications psychometry might have when combined with bleeding edge technology and programming. But I’ve met Masks before, Vinny. They don’t change you or transform you, they make you more yourself. And then they slot you into their machine.” I pointed a finger and mimed pushing something into place. “They’ll put you where they think you belong and never, ever let you out.”

“Perhaps. I do not know them as you say you do.” He blew out a gust of air in a way that could almost pass for a genuine sigh. “If they had been available for simple examination perhaps I would have known for certain.”

I stepped back out of the doorway. “Perhaps so. Maybe it was our mistake to drive them so far out of society that you couldn’t just look at them to see what they are.”

“Crimes against balance are always a mistake, Armor. Your friend, Aurora, should have been returned to the front entrance.” He reached for a button to close the door – because of course he could afford a van with automatic doors – but I raised a hand to stop him.

“This isn’t over, Vinny. No matter how good you think you are at your job, I’m the best on the coast at mine. You can layer yourself in distractions and encryptions and dead ends and think yourself protected but remember that no psychometric firewall you’ve built has stood up to me in the end. There’s always a weak point in the armor.” I tapped myself on the chest. “Finding them is my specialty.”

“But my armor is not lies and misdirection, alibies and deniabilities, Armor. It’s balance. Balance has no weaknesses.” The door began to slide closed between us.

“We’ll see, Vinny. We’ll see.”

The door closed. The van left. After a moment, I went to find Aurora. Talking to Vinny had cleared my head and, in truth, I’d had his achilleas heel even before we’d spoken. In the end he was just like every other criminal I’d faced. Not matter what he thought about the matter himself, the truth was secrecy was his armor. And balance was his weakness.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Eight

Previous Chapter

Natalie was quiet.

I don’t mean she wasn’t talking, or that she approached the table on her tiptoes. I mean her mind was quiet. From the moment I’d met Natalie the thing that had stood out to me the most was how hard she projected. It was less like her mind was an open book and more like she was reading from it through a bullhorn. Or at least, that’s how things had been up until that exact moment.

As she took the last chair at the table, nervously rubbing her hands and watching Hat Trick out of the corner of her eye, none of the emotions that normally came off of her in waves were present. It was eerie, like some part of her animating force had left her. Sensing that something was off, Aurora reached over and took my hand, offering her deep well of emotional stability even through the two layers of gloves we were wearing. I put my other hand on top of hers just long enough to acknowledge the gesture then looked hard at Natalie. “You’re not here as part of the FBI investigation, are you? Because last I checked they weren’t very interested in this line of inquiry.”

“No, I’m not,” she admitted. “I’m here because Hat Trick called me.”

Other than taking a moment to adjust his beard Hat Trick gave no sign he acknowledged the hard scrutiny I was suddenly giving him. “And why would you do that, if I might ask? You’re not an FBI contractor.”

“I don’t do investigation work at all, anymore, although I did do cybersecurity a little once upon a time. I like to try new things. But then, you knew all that.” He pulled a tablet from a slot in the table, one that I could see was wired back into the main tower in the cabinet below, and started it running. “You’re here because I helped Jackson with his data gathering plan, yes?”

“In a manner of speaking. I wanted an expert in psychoemtrics and digital surveillance to help me with a project.”

“You wanted to monitor Alvin Davidson of Archon Securities, in order to prove he is working in conjunction with the Masks,” Hat Trick said. He set the tablet down, screen facing him, and looked me square in the eye. “Well, he is. I could swear to it in court, I could produce documents.”

“You said could,” Aurora said softly. “But I take it you won’t?”

“Even ignoring the possibility of self-incrimination, I wouldn’t because I find their goals interesting. And I have since I stumbled over them while helping Jackson with Backboard.” He spun his tablet around to face me. “You might find it the same.”

I glanced at the tablet. It was covered in formula, schematics and other trivia I couldn’t make heads or tails out of but the device itself hummed with quiet malignance. I carefully pushed it back towards him with one finger. “I don’t have your plethora of gifts, Hat Trick, and I’m a whole tier below you. But even if I could make sense of that, I’ve met a Mask in the past. Interesting is not the right word for what they are.”

Hat Trick reached for the tablet and said, “Perhaps with a little-“

“Why are you here, Natalie?” I struggled to keep my voice even, to not yell at her. I’ve worked for some real scumbags before, not everyone I’ve consulted for has been an angel. But I’d been taken in by her optimism and desire to do good, and the fact that Hennesy and Eugene both thought she was a good fit for the job. Good intentions can take you straight to hell and ultimately even Eugene’s endorsement was filtered through the unreliable lens of the FBI. “You’re not even a psychometric, so why the Masks?”

Wordlessly Natalie pushed up her sleeve to reveal what looked like an ordinary smart watch. Then she pushed at an almost invisible tab on the side and her mind roared to life, pushing against my senses like normal. Beside me I felt Aurora start, it was her first time meeting Natalie, I realized, so she hadn’t experienced this before.

“Sooner or later we all have to be a part of the Mind,” she said. “I was picked to be a trial for these empathic enhancers. They make it easier to look past the masks we wear to the truth that unites us. One day, maybe soon, they’ll be able to let me receive, as well as send.”

I frowned. “And you want to be a psychometric? It’s not really a fun condition, Natalie.”

The loudness of her thoughts faded again as she switched the device off. “You know, they made a recording of your conversation with Jackson. I listened to it -“

“My condolences.”

“And you know what I realized?”

“That you shouldn’t let yourself be interrupted?”

Natalie gave me a longsuffering look. “That we were ultimately the same. All that time I was annoyed by his stupid grandstanding, his mugging for the camera, and we both just wanted to know what drove a serial killer to hurt people so badly. It was after that, when I realized there was something special about the consultants they brought in and while I was trying to figure out what it was, that I met the Mask, and they explained to me the truth. If we hadn’t been separated, if we were like we were intended to be, one mind in perfect fellowship, no one would ever feel the need to do such horrible things.”

“Natalie you’re a cop,” I said slowly. “Surely you realize preventing crime is not nearly as simple as increasing the empathy people have. Lots of-“

“Of course it’s not,” she said emphatically. “The masks we wear do more than bottle up our empathy, they’re shackles that stunt every aspect of our personality. Even AJ Jackson and I are just facets of the same driving forces, Armor. A serial killer – any death – is a tragedy. But I realized that law enforcement, while critical, is just treating the symptom. Until we can remove the masks and rejoin the single Mind we’re doing nothing more than making the patient comfortable while it dies. Can’t you understand that?”

Aurora and I shared a worried look. There was an undercurrent of unknowability in Natalie’s words that was troubling. She was coming off as a gap – a true believer in the dogma she espoused. Some part of her mind had left the purely physical and gone somewhere simply psychometry couldn’t follow. I wondered if the Masks knew of the effect they’d had on her, and what that effect might mean for them. For her.

And for Aurora and I for that matter.

We’d have to puzzle those details out later. I looked to Hat Trick. “And you find the omnimind interesting?”

“Not particularly, but the chance to work on tech like that,” he waved his hand towards Natalie’s smart watch, “was too much for me to pass up. I’ve spoken with Alvin several times about things we can do with evolving technologies to create new applications for psychometry.”

A snatch of a previous discussion came back to me. “You’re the one working on true telepathy.”

“It’s a subject that’s come up. There are other things to try, too – the work with Helio and his daughters was pretty fun, too.” He shrugged. “I’m not sold on the Mind that the Masks talk about but I admit their other ideas do really intrigue me. The fugue treatment we used with Helio was something they’ve been working on for years.”

I felt my eyes narrowing a bit. Something didn’t add up. “What does Vinny get out of all this? You make it sound like you’ve been working together and with the Masks for years. That sounds like a much deeper investment than just a problem with the balance of power in Silicon Valley.”

“It’s because he’s-” Hat Trick caught himself, then shook his head. “No, better to ask him yourself.”

“Oh?” Aurora actually perked up a bit at that. “Will we get the chance?”

“Sure. You’re coming with me,” Natalie said.

I raised an eyebrow. “Are we?”

“Come on, Armor,” she said. “We both know I can make you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

I sighed but Aurora gave me a tolerant smile and lifted me to my feet. “Come on. It can’t hurt to see whatever she wants to show us.”

The two of us got to our feet and I said, “Lead on, then.”

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?”


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?”


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 Six

Previous Chapter

“Wait, you think Alvin Davidson is the point man for the Masks?” Eugene laughed. “The man doesn’t take clients that violate his own sense of ethics, why would he take on the Masks?”

“Because his sense of ethics is balance,” I said, waving towards Natalie. “And like she said, we’ve locked them out of Silicon Valley for years, whether we meant to or not. That’s an imbalance that he’d try to correct automatically.”

Natalie shifted uncomfortably. “Is this really how he’d chose to do it? Indiscriminate acts of terror? Disrupting huge swaths of the industry just because Galaxy pressured them to lock a rival group out? I mean, that sounds pretty unbalanced to me.”

“It’s a weakness in the theory, to be sure, but one thing you have to understand is that Vinny doesn’t see the world like you or I. He doesn’t understand empathy or compassion, he doesn’t have the emotional capacity for it and he knows it.” I shied away from the sudden spike of revulsion she put off at that statement. “Look, I’m sorry to be blunt but the man isn’t normal and in many ways it makes him a valuable member of society. But it’s a two edged sword and, for all the ways he’s tried to adopt a moral code and social graces, I don’t doubt he could mastermind exactly the kind of violence we’ve seen if the circumstances fit. And right now, they do.”

“Okay, okay.” Eugene flicked his fingers towards my chair, deliberately broadcasting how much he’d like it if I stopped pacing and sat down. “Let’s say Davidson is the mastermind or one of said masterminds, or even just sympathetic to their cause. We vet all the tech he installs on our equipment. I’m sure Silicon Valley firms are even more cautious than we are. He’s never brought us anything that looks remotely malicious or we wouldn’t still be working with him as a contractor, much less as a consultant.”

“How long has that been going on?”

Eugene gave me a dry look. “Is that really important right now?”

“How am I supposed to answer you until you answer me?”

“My point is, even if the Masks were using him to try and infiltrate our systems somehow, how exactly are they supposed to do it?”

I grunted helplessly. “I’m not a cybersecurity expert, so I couldn’t begin to guess. Forensics is my thing, remember?”

“Look,” Natalie said then hesitated, her mind seesawing between sympathy and… something I couldn’t quite pin down. Caution? Concern? It was hard to tell, unusual with her, but then it takes a couple of months to get a good read on some aspects of a new coworker, whether you’re psychometric or not. Finally she said, “I want to get this sorted, same as you. But the FBI needs something a little stronger than an analysis of one man’s motives. Like Hennesy said, motives are for juries. We can’t get a warrant with just that. Unless you could get Galaxy to look in to it?”

“One thing we’re truly terrible at is law enforcement and peace keeping,” I said. “Investigation and forensics is one of the least common specializations for us to choose. That’s why those of us who do take my profession work as consultants for agencies, rather than in our own agency.”

“Then you’re going to have to find proof on your own,” Eugene said. “Because I don’t think the locals or the FBI Director is going to okay going after someone like Davidson without some kind of proof.”

“I suppose you’re right.” That really narrowed my options down to one. I’d been hoping to avoid it but I needed an expert and there was only one I could find.

Well, sort of.

AJ Jackson was not a happy camper. Unhappy with where he was, unhappy not knowing what was going on, unhappy to see me.

That made two of us.

I sat down on my side of the interview table, folded my hands and said, “Tell me how to find Hat Trick, Jackson.”

“My client is not going to answer any questions off the record,” Jackon’s lawyer said. She was a frigid, fifty-something woman with a lined face and the eyes of a merciless bulldog.

“I didn’t ask a question,” I pointed out, momentarily amused by the posturing of this lawyer. They were a necessary evil, and some of them had fun and twisty ways of thinking. Unfortunately this one knew she was being baited. I wasn’t going to get any stress relief from this woman. “Tell me how to find Hat Trick.”

“If you’re here to badger my client-“

“What do you want with Hat Trick, Armor?” Jackson leaned back in his chair and squinted at me. He had kind of narrow, close set eyes and I could understand why he’d chosen to make hiding them behind sunglasses an integral part of his brand. With them missing and his bespoke suit traded in for a much less tailored orange number he looked much less impressive. But the changes didn’t take away his natural charisma and his words came out with confidence and pride. “I told you, there’s nothing illegal about any part of Backboard, at least not yet. He’s not guilty of anything.”

“Not that my client admits to guilt in anything either,” the lawyer added.

“I don’t know the law well enough to know if Backboard is illegal or not,” I admitted. “And I don’t care. I don’t care about your Silicoverlords either. I’m concerned about a growing wave of malicious and dangerous activity and I need a psychometric cybersecurity expert to help me with it. Hat Trick is the only one that might not be compromised and, from what you said on the boat, it sounds like he knows my reputation and might be willing to be that helper. Are you going to tell me where to find him or not? Because if not I need to call the Constellations.”

Jackson sat back in his chair and stared at me hard for a moment or two. “Why don’t you want to talk to them?”

“They keep making noises about taking me off the case. I’m pretty sure, at this point, that Aurora won’t do it if they tell her to but they can make other arrangements for it fast enough, if they want. The further away this gets from a simple terrorism investigation the more likely that outcome gets.” I raised an eyebrow and watched as that made its way into the whirlwind of his free associating mind. “So. How about it?”

I can usually guess where someone’s thoughts will go at least a few seconds before they tell me but with AJ Jackson all I could conclude is that the answer would be surprising. And he did not disappoint. “Tell me about Newell High.”

It took a moment for the shifter to kick in and change the gears, dredge my memory and make the association. “The Newell High disappearances? What about them? I didn’t work that case.”

“I just want to know what they were really about.” He jerked forward in his chair and slammed his cuffed hands down on the table. “People don’t just do that kind of thing to each other, Armor. Was it a delusion? Was he drugged? Was he manipulated? What caused a fundamentally good person like a teacher-“

“He wasn’t.”

Jackson stopped short and looked at me, confusion and curiosity warring for a moment. “Wasn’t a teacher? Someone else did it?”

“Wasn’t fundamentally good.” I was suddenly very, very tired. Walking out and letting the Masks burn the Valley was looking more and more appealing every minute. But I couldn’t do that and I took the frustration out on Jackson. “He wasn’t a fundamentally good person, Jackson, he was a man who like watching fourteen year old boys scream until they died. There’s no secret conspiracy, no leverage someone used to drive him to it. He was a fundamentally evil person.”

I rocked forward onto the knuckles of my hands, bracing myself like a gorilla to lean over the table until our noses nearly touched. “He was just like you, with your stupid Backboards, spying on other people and he was just like Silicon Valley, out of touch in spite of all the data they gather, and he was just like me, convinced a friend I’ve known for over a decade is a terrorist without a scrap of evidence. We’re all of us vile, petty people, rotten to the core. How hard is that to accept?”

“Not hard.” Jackson slowly slumped down in his seat. “But I’ve made a living telling people there are other reasons for it. I guess sometimes I just… I just hope maybe it’s actually true. Is that such a bad thing?”

“If it’s not true?” I shrugged, took my own seat again. “I don’t know. If it is a good thing then I suppose that makes you a good person as well as an evil one.”

“You really think people can embody a contradiction that extreme?”

“I see it every day.”

Jackson rocked back and forth on his seat once. Literally tilted his body to the left until it was a full ten degrees away from straight up, then back and just as far the opposite direction, then back to his previous slumped posture. As he did the maelstrom of thoughts in his mind actually slowed, his impressive powers of intellect no longer swirling at random but instead focusing on a single line of thought. I didn’t have the sensitivity to tell what that line of thought was but he seemed to like it when he got to the end. Then, as if a switch was thrown, his mind snapped back to normal. “You’re not going to arrest Hat Trick?”

“Not any time soon. Not unless he’s done something stupid since the last time you talked to him.”

Another moment of thought, then Jackson said, “You’ll want to write this down…”

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?