Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Three

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I’m sure Seattle was a nice place but I’d visited three times and I’d never seen it not raining. The weather was a match for Jackson’s mood as the FBI dragged him off the docks and into a waiting vehicle. Apparently I’d been unconscious for the better part of a day before waking up to talk to my captor and the FBI had somehow found the resources for a full manhunt, so once I’d pulled my location off of the geotags in Jackson’s camera – still foolishly hooked up to his computer – contacting the FBI via email and letting them know where to find me was a simple process.

It was surprising, given all Jackson had accomplished with the assistance of the currently mysterious Hat Trick, that he hadn’t anticipated my phoning for help with his computer. Maybe he’d thought I couldn’t use its satellite phone that way. Maybe he just thought the information he had was juicy enough sway me to his side. Either way, he hadn’t counted on my ability to be pleasantly vindictive, plotting his downfall while talking over his research.

And, in all credit to him, it was very impressive research. Hat Trick had cracked some impressive algorithms, slipped past top tier firewalls and encryptions, and generally assembled a staggering amount of information on the activities going on inside Silicon Valley. The problem was, it only counted as proof of anything if you were a conspiracy theorist already predisposed to see things one way. The Silicoverlords weren’t sinister, they were just clueless, isolated from the real world to the point where they had no clue remaking the world in their desired image might not even be possible for others, much less desirable. Not that evil born from ignorance is better than any other kind, but often it’s easier to treat. At least one would hope.

Of course, since the California FBI had pulled every string they could to get all the psychometric contractors and handlers in the region down to work the power outages, there wasn’t anyone read in on psychometrics to meet me on the docks. I wound up riding to the FBI offices there in a standard fleet car, doing my best not to touch anything. Fortunately, the car was on the newer side and apparently not used by people who made frequent arrests, so the back seat was pretty sterile and free from distractions.

It was a small blessing that was balanced by the extreme frustration most of the agents I spoke to had with my flat refusal to explain who I was or why I’d been with Jackson. Most FBI agents are investigators by both temperament and trade. They want to know the answers to questions. Unfortunately I was trained in asking questions and knew all the ways they’d try and ask me things, and I was highly motivated not to answer. Hopefully Jackson would be the same.

Who was I kidding? He’d been arrested before. He had good lawyers. They probably weren’t letting him talk at all.

I knew I was in trouble when Aurora, Eugene and Natalie arrived to pick me up. I eyed the trio as they walked in to the lounge where Seattle FBI had been keeping me on ice for the past twelve hours. “Just three of you? Hennesy didn’t come?”

“You were just kidnapped off the street,” Eugene snapped, his annoyance a brittle shell over a much deeper, seething anger. “I’d think you’d appreciate the extra eyes on you.”

I’d worked with Eugene a long time but I’d never seen him this angry before. “Did something else happen while I was gone?”

“You mean besides your getting kidnapped?” Eugene was practically shouting. “What else do you want, the Governor to be assassinated?”

Wordlessly, Aurora slipped her bare hand up and rested it on Eugene’s shoulder for a moment. I twitched at the sight, distinctly uncomfortable at the risky contact but well aware that she had much more experience dealing with distraught people than I did. For a moment the surface of her steady, calming presence rippled, Eugene’s anger and frustration pulling at it like a whirlpool. Then the turbulence in his mind steadied, changing from a raging rapids to a rushing river then, as if she was a reservoir opened to drain off floodwaters, he subsided down to something approximating his normal state. Aurora removed her hand and carefully slipped it back into her glove without a word.

Eugene smoothed the front of his jacket, gave Aurora a wordless glance of thanks, then said, “Sorry. Didn’t mean to yell.”

“Not a problem. Really, I’m touched.” And I meant it. Eugene wasn’t exactly a friend but we’d worked together a lot and I’d probably be upset if something happened to him, too. It just wasn’t something I’d thought about before – and apparently that went both ways. “I did point out to the agents who initially picked me up that I don’t think AJ Jackson is a person of interest in the case anymore. The whole kidnapping thing was more of an aggressive recruiting tactic.”

“Recruiting for what?” Natalie asked.

“Silicon Valley surveillance. I turned him down.” I dragged myself to my feet and straightened my suit. “I’ll summarize the data he let me look over in a formal report later, for now let’s just say it’s pretty useless to the current investigation. Seriously, though, did any new developments happen in the last few days?”

“No,” Natalie said, taking point and leading us out of the offices, through the reception area and towards the parking lot. Eugene fell back a few paces, leaving Aurora and I in the middle. I could feel their vigilance cranking up as they scanned the environment methodically, section by section. “Hennesy is pissed as hell at you for running around without official clearance or orders.”

“There was no indication I was a person of unique interest to the case until Jackson grabbed me,” I said, defensively. “Getting clearance wouldn’t have made me any safer.”

“It would have made people more likely to notice you were missing,” Eugene put in. “The people on site didn’t know to be looking out for you. It’s partly my fault, but I’ve had my lecture already. He’s looking forward to have a crack at you, too.”

“Swell,” I muttered.

“You broke procedure and got in trouble,” Aurora said with a trace of amusement. “Do you really think you’ll get out of it by breaking procedure again and skipping past the lecture?”

“No. But it’d be nice.” Aurora handed me a static sterilizer and we went through the familiar ritual of clearing the car’s back seat of psychometric impressions before climbing in. The brief moment of semi-normalcy was a nice change of pace compared to what I’d experienced recently. “I’ve been thinking about what Jackson told me in the last few days. His goals did involve Silicon Valley malfeasance but he doesn’t seem to have been working in conjunction with Helio or have been involved in the direct attacks of the last couple of weeks. I think he’s important in what’s going on, but not in the way we originally thought.”

Eugene, in the process of climbing into the car last, looked at me in the rear view mirror and asked, “So in what way is he involved?”

“It’s pure speculation on my part but I think he was a catalyst. I’ve seen what he was putting together with Project Valve and Backboard. It had a lot of potential to spread chaos in the Silicon Valley ecosystem.” I pulled off my old pair of gloves, which I’d been wearing for almost three days at that point and were starting to lose effectiveness as an insulator, and got a new pair from a plastic case that had been sitting on the seat. The faint sense of Aurora’s presence came from it. “It’s possible Jackson’s moving on his project pushed someone else to make their move on Silicon Valley first.”

Natalie started the car as Eugene slammed his door closed. “That follows, assuming someone wanted to take their own shot at disrupting Silicon Valley and knew Jackson was about to take his. But who?”

I still had eyes locked with Eugene and we both answered at the same time. “The Masks.”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Two

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The yacht wasn’t that big, but there was another deck below the cabin where I’d woken up. The footprint of the room Jackson led me down to was slightly larger than the one above but I couldn’t really draw any conclusions from that. Although I do most of my work along the West Coast boats are not something I know a lot about. My approach to psychometry doesn’t bring a lot of value to work on the ocean and I’m a homebody, so I’ve never wanted to go sailing for fun either. If I’d had to make a snap judgement, I’d have guessed we were below the waterline at that point just from the way the sound of water on the hull changed, but again it was pure speculation on my part.

And there were other things to see on this deck. Jackson had a recording studio and a pretty expensive looking camera and computer there. Beckoning me after him he paused long enough to check something on his computer before pushing past the desk and through a door hidden around a corner just behind the workstation. With nothing better to do I followed along, wondering how big a boat I’d gotten stuck on.

The next room would have counted as a closet in any building on dry land and most of that space was taken up by what looked for all the world like a septic tank with a door on one side and wires running out the top. Jackson had squeezed himself in towards one end of the room, leaving enough space for me to squeeze towards the other end without touching him or the mysterious device, which Jackson indicated with a flourish. “Allow me to present Backboard, stage two.”

I stared at it for a long moment, then looked back at Jackson. “What does it do?”

“It’s the next stage of cyberwarfare. It’s a psychometric hacking facilitation tool.” Jackson rapped his knuckles against the cylindrical object. “Hat Trick and I have been working on it for the past two years, part of what we call the Safety Valve.”

“I’m familiar with your Backboard social media app, how does this Safety Valve factor in?”

“You’ve got it backwards. Project Valve came first, Backboard was an outgrowth of it.” Jackson leaned a hip against the device and gave me a candid look. “Do you know what the biggest danger coming out of Silicon Valley is, Armor?”

“The constant capacity for distraction slowly driving people insane as they lose touch with reality?” I asked.

“Social engineering, more broadly,” Jackson said, “although that’s a part of it. We’ve been doing test runs with it for the past six months, although our first use of it in the field was two days ago. You really spooked Hat Trick when you tried knocking on Backboard’s back door the other day so the test date got pushed up.”

“What is it for?” I gently ran my fingers along the tank, trying to pick up any impressions I could. Since it proved to be a huge pile of electronics there wasn’t much, but I could tell from the safeties and redundancies built in to it that it was, as Jackson suggested, a device built expressly for the use of the Gifted.

“Broadly speaking? It lets us turn Backboard into a kind of monitoring system, makes it easier to parse out what all the various algorithms our Silicon Overlords are setting up to mess with us. We were planning to publish an expose as soon as Hat Trick could compile all the information.” Jackson crossed his arms. “I honestly didn’t think the FBI was deep enough into their pockets to investigate us for it, but apparently I was wrong.”

“What?”

“But it does give me the chance to talk to one of the top investigative psychometrics in the country.” Jackson rapped his knuckles against the tank and I jerked my own hand away subconsciously. Faint amusement registered in the back of Jackson’s mind as he went on. “Hat Trick thinks the two of you, working in shifts, might be able to crank through all the data in a matter of a week, maybe less. Don’t ask me how that adds up, I’m not the expert.”

“Wait.”

Jackson dropped a sort of mental marker for himself as I tried to break in, a kind of reminder to go back to this point in the conversation, but ran right over me in part by taking my elbow and leading me back out to the studio space. I resisted the urge to try and get away from his grip, at the last moment I noticed the linen gloves he had put on. He must have grabbed them when he entered the room, probably a precaution to reduce contamination from people maintaining the tank when Hat Trick wasn’t using it.

Of course, the touch derailed my thoughts long enough for Jackson to talk over what I wanted to say, which was no doubt his point. “Now I know you’re probably under a dozen kinds of NDAs and contracts and retainers with different government agencies. And you’ve been told that we’re a conspiracy – an actual conspiracy, not a conspiracy theorist for a change! – that we’re trying to disrupt business, that we’re violating intellectual property, the Silicoverlords have all kinds of nonsense they throw at people who are trying to pierce the veil of secrecy and find out exactly what they’re doing.”

Silicoverlords?

“Catchy, right?” Jackson gave me a toothy grin before sitting down at his computer and setting to work. “But I know a little about Galaxy and what you’re supposed to be working against, and I think once you start to see what Hat Trick and I have been finding out you might start to see it my way. “

Frustrated, I banged my hand against the wall and shouted, “I can’t help you break the law, Jackson. I’d never be able to work again!”

A wide eyed, guileless stare answered me. “Armor, nothing about what Backboard is doing is strictly illegal. At the very least, it would need to be hashed out in court which means they can’t stop us from doing it just yet.”

“I’m not talking about your stupid watching the watchmen gizmo.” My voice was climbing higher and I took a moment to compose myself. “Jackson. Less than a week ago you knocked out power to half the state of California.”

His eyes almost bugged all the way out of his head. “Don’t be ridiculous. I had nothing to do with that. What do I stand to gain from terror attacks?”

“I don’t know but you seem awfully hostile to the people they targeted!”

“I’m a talker, not a fighter.” He shrugged, his brain realizing a half second after he said it that it wasn’t true. “Mostly. My point is, I’m not stupid. Only stupid people chose to solve problems by violence first and only stupid people take it off the table entirely.”

That got him a skeptical look and he hastened to add, “Unless they have valid psychological conditions, of course. My point is, I don’t think we’re quite to violence yet. I’d like to avoid getting there. And I know someone with your skills can see that I’m not lying to you.”

Flattering as that assessment was, it wasn’t actually true. I didn’t know Jackson well enough to have a baseline to compare his current mental state to, so I couldn’t judge his honestly based strictly on the thoughts he was broadcasting subconsciously. But there was a way I could turn up the gain on his signal. I pulled one glove off and held my hand out to him. “It won’t hold up in court but if you want to convince me there’s an easy way to do it.”

He looked at my hand skeptically, then took his own gloves off and clasped my hand. “I didn’t have anything to do with the power station attacks last week, or the drone attack before that. Neither did my media or tech development groups.”

AJ Jackson had an incredibly fast moving, almost spastic mind. Without his speaking the thought aloud, to bring it to the front of his thoughts, I probably wouldn’t have been able to track them through the other crazy sensations I was getting. He was worried about how long he’d been gone, he was framing my face for a camera shot, snatches of conversations in the voices of people I didn’t know whirled through his head, all associating freely with other, his mind was a whirlpool of half formed ideas smashing in to each other, breaking up and reforming on the gravity of whatever was most important to him. It was jarring, but with his denial of involvement in the attacks at the center and more concrete than anything else I could be sure of two things.

First, he was telling the truth. Second, with the kind of free association of thought he was capable of, it was no wonder AJ Jackson was the Internet’s premier conspiracy theorist. With a mind that worked like that, you’d almost be obligated to be.

I let go of his hand and quickly pulled my glove back on. “Okay. You’re clearly telling the truth.”

He brightened up at that. “So you’ll help out?”

“No.” I scowled. “I still want you in jail. Mainly because you had me kidnapped off the street. If you’d left well enough alone you wouldn’t’ve had this problem.”

“You were already investigating me!” Jackson protested, hands waving dramatically. “I know how badly people want me to stop looking in to them. How was I supposed to know you’d be fair about it?”

“You could have asked your pal, Hat Trick.”

“Hat Trick knew your professional rep, but not much about you personally.” Jackson shrugged. “All I knew for sure was that you had a good sense of humor.”

I folded my arms and wondered if he’d really worked that one out. “What made you think that?”

“Don’t give me that.” Jackson gave me a sly look. “Why else would a Chinese man call himself a chink in the armor?”

“Fine.” I waved to the computer. “I’ll give you a chance to show me what you’ve got. Let me see what you and your friend.”

Rubbing his hands gleefully, Jackson took his seat at the computer. “You won’t regret this.”

I doubted that, but I knew I wouldn’t be the only one regretting in the near future.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twelve

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I didn’t sleep well that night. That’s not terribly unusual for a psychometric in a big city, there’s enough ambient anxiety in your typical urban zone to make sleeping soundly hard for one of the Gifted. But I clearly wasn’t picking up on anyone else’s worries, my dreams were plagued by the faces of people I knew – knew well and knew only in passing – from now and in the past. Natalie and Eugene were there in most of them, as were Mixer and Aurora. Hennesy made an appearance once or twice, so did Gavin Newnan, the Arizona State Police Captain who’d given me my first case. There were criminals in there, too, like the fraudster who’d sold the wife of Oregon’s Lieutenant Governor a fake Monet water lily and the head of a human trafficking ring I’d found almost by accident while working a missing person’s case in Seattle.

No matter who showed up or how we’d met the dream pretty much always went the same way. I was walking down the stairs to the hotel lobby and emerged to find one of them waiting for me. There was something I had to tell them but before I could start someone I trusted – usually Eugene or Aurora – would grab me by the elbow and try and pull me away. When I tried to tell them I needed to stay I’d look back at the first person and discover they’d removed their face, which now looked like it had been painted across a delicate porcelain mask, and held it out to me. Then the person at my elbow would drag me off down a corridor of faceless people, all holding their painted faces out to me, as if my taking one would be the most natural thing in the world.

Then I’d wake up, turn over in bed, doze off and start the whole cycle over again.

The source of the imagery wasn’t a real mystery and I chalked the whole thing up to Eugene’s usual pessimism. My subconscious is not my best mystery solving tool, after all, and you can’t use the Gift to influence others, psychometry is strictly read only so it didn’t come from an outside source. What I needed to was to stop stewing on paranoia – mine or Eugene’s didn’t matter – and get back to something productive.

Naturally, in the morning I found Mix had left me a message saying the FBI wanted me to take the day off per OSHA rules and come back in the next day.

It was tempting to sideline everything about the case and go bother Mix at his office or see if Aurora was still in town for the day. Even talking to Alvin about the work he wanted me to do for Archon was a tempting just so I’d have something to keep the mind occupied. But I knew that at the end of the day I’d have done nothing but sit there, not listening to whoever I was with, and thinking about Ford Expeditions and EMPs.

California’s power grid was about 75% recovered and the hotel had the Internet back. So I tapped in and went hunting for Backboard’s website. Inside of twenty minutes I had something.


“Run this by me again,” Hennesy said, looking at the website on his office computer, a deep furrow running down between his eyebrows.

“Backboard is a trojan,” I said, pointing to the code running along the bottom of his screen. “Each time a user ties it back to a social media profile it gets an in to that network’s data. As the program proliferates it creates a larger and larger library of data on what those companies are doing with their user data.”

“So it’s a stalker that stalks stalkers?” Hennesy said, skeptical. “What does that accomplish?”

“I’m not sure.” I was pacing back and forth, rubbing my hands together in anticipation. “But social media has collected huge chunks of data on its users for over a decade. Theories have been floated on what they do with it for years.”

“Conspiracy theories?” Natalie asked, the name A.J. Jackson unsaid but still clearly a part of the question.

“Exactly. This trojan could be anything from a first attempt to answer that question all the way up to an attempt to steal that data for other purposes. Think about it.” I pointed to the newspaper sitting on Hennesy’s desk with headlines about the recent power grid attack. “That kind of stunt takes serious datamining and coordination to pull off. Not just knowing where the power stations are, but shift schedules, maintenance schedules, that kind of thing. Why gather it yourself when people are happy to broadcast it across the Internet for all the world to see?”

“And they used this Backboard social media app to gather it?” Hennesy shook his head. “How did they make sure all the people they needed would use it?”

“They didn’t have to,” Natalie said. “Backboard gave them a back door to all the other major social media networks and it’s almost certain the right people are on at least one of them.”

“Any assurances this trojan can actually do what you’re saying? Or that it has?” Hennesy looked pretty skeptical on that point. “We can’t exactly go in and arrest Jackson on the strength of maybe he could use this code in this way. Lawyers would have him out on the grounds that it could be something entirely innocent before we even got him through the doors of the building.”

“I can’t prove anything yet but I think with the right resources and a little time I can.” I gestured at the code Hennesy was now ignoring on his screen. “The Backboard code has to interface via public social media portals. We can’t get the records of what Backboard has actually done with it without a warrant but we might be able to prove it’s capable of malicious interactions. From then, with the cooperation of social media platforms, we might be able to prove Backboard has been used to somehow breach someone’s data security.”

“And that is enough for a warrant, with the right judge,” Hennesy murmured. “Get on it.”

So we got. There are whole FBI sections devoted to cybercrime and deep data work and in short order I was set up with a cubicle in their closest offices, Natalie checked in on me periodically but mostly I was working on my own. The Backboard code was a strange beast but nothing that felt too far out of the common way. Unfortunately every time I got close to cracking what was going on it felt like a new wrinkle would creep out of somewhere, often from sections of the code I thought I had entirely parsed out already. I had stopped long enough to get my umpteenth cup of coffee for the day when Aurora stopped by to visit.

“I’m not teaching,” I said, fiddling with the coffee maker in an attempt to get it to brew a fresh pot without the leftover thoughts of hundreds of sleepy agents drag me further into dreamland. There are some things even good gloves can’t block out.

“We’re more worried about how well you’re feeling, Armor,” she said. “This case is bigger than anything you’ve dealt with before. The Constellations asked me to monitor your mental state, along with the others assigned to this case, to ensure you’re in top form. We may begin rotating through the Gifted working here as more become available.”

“Oh.” Well, it was nice to hear that the Constellations were taking the situation seriously. The potential for the situation to devolve into outright violence was far higher than I liked to admit. No one had died in any of the incidents so far, but when a state power grid collapses you’re skating on very thin ice. “Well, they chose the right person for the job, Aurora.”

Even though her calming presence seemed overwhelmed by the tension suffusing the office I still felt a little better knowing she was here. I went back to my coffee. “I hope so. Evaluating mental health is not my area of greatest expertise. But the Agent in Charge seems to think you’re on track to a breakthrough?”

“You know me, I’m a pessimist, so I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s at least a step in the right direction. That code wouldn’t be so damn opaque if it wasn’t important.” I sat down in one of the lounge’s chairs and took a sip of the wretched brew. “But at least this Backboard thing is a sign that the worst case scenario is off the table.”

“You mean it’s a sign the Masks aren’t involved?”

I stared at her over the rim of the coffee cup for a moment. Maybe she wasn’t here just to monitor the health of the forensic people after all. “Where did you hear about that?”

“Eugene has been pestering all of the Gifted he’s talked with about the possibility.” Aurora settled onto the sofa and gave me a slight smile. “You must be relieved. You never liked dealing with them.”

“It’s a comfort, but a small one. That synchronized groupthink thing they do is even more disturbing when you’re trained to interrogate people and read their reactions. On the other hand, someone’s still blowing up power substations all across the state.” I shook my head. “And it feels like there’s nothing I can contribute because they keep using EMP as their weapon of choice. It’s like they wanted to give the Gifted their middle finger.”

Aurora’s smile grew a little wider, a little more radiant. “Sounds like someone finally found the weak point in your armor, Armor.”

“Yeah, well I-” And that’s when it hit me.

I rewound our conversation, replayed it and realized it should have hit me before. Took off my right glove, stood up and stepped over to the couch, quickly brushing my fingers over Aurora’s cheek. Her smile faded to a confused glance at me, down at my hand, then back at me again. “Is everything all right?”

I returned my glove to my hand and my backside to the chair. Laced my fingers together, and studied her over them. “I got nothing.”

“Nothing… you don’t think you can break the Backboard code?”

“Nothing from you. Aurora’s defining trait is an almost supernatural sense of calm. You don’t have it.”

“Armor-“

“But that’s the biggest thing.” I jerked one thumb at myself. “I think of myself as the chink in the armor. That’s why Galaxy calls me that. But Aurora calls me Trevor.”

Realization was dawning. “I just called you Armor…”

“Three times.” I glanced to one side, running through the possibilities in my mind, just to make sure I wasn’t overlooking anything. “The most likely explanation is that you’re not Aurora.”

“Yes. I’m most likely your own mental image of what Aurora is like.” She was oddly unfazed by that fact. “And the most likely reason for you to be talking to a fragment of your own mental landscape is…”

“When I tried to access Backboard I got caught in a subconscious fugue state.” I scowled at my coffee cup. “Their code was booby trapped.”