Pay the Piper – Chapter Fifteen

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“Each person is a mask over a single soul that unites us.” I strolled along, watching as people passed one another on the street and admiring the breeze off of the bay to the east. “I always thought it sounded like a noble, zen philosophy until I actually met a Mask.”

Aurora had her attention split between me and the people we were passing as we walked. The hotel wasn’t in one of the major homeless parts of the city but there were still a lot of stressed, obsessed and generally distressed people passing us and it was a hard distraction to ignore. “I wouldn’t have called you someone interested in the Masks when we graduated, Trevor.”

“I wasn’t. I met my first Mask when I was sixteen. During that trip to St. Petersburg for the lower tiered people, remember? You complained for weeks after I got back.” I carefully ran a gloved hand along the railing that ran along the sidewalk, over the sloping rocks that led down to the Pacific Ocean. Whispers of a dozen thoughts tugged at the edge of my mind, leaking through the flimsy barrier between my hand and the railing. Most were a variation on admiration for nature, which made it easy enough to tune them out.

Aurora’s embarrassment was much clearer and more amusing. “It wasn’t fun to be left behind with all the other super Gifted kids. We had to work so hard to ignore each other.”

That was a drawback of teaching the Gifted in groups of their peers – we’re at our most comfortable among those more or less sensitive than ourselves, since it’s harder to guess how much of our thoughts they know, and easier to maintain the illusion of privacy. I’d always wondered if the struggles of being surrounded by tier five psychometrics was one of the reasons it took so long for Aurora’s normal mental state to coalesce. “It was an important skill to work on, and you know it.”

“I was just a late bloomer, and you know it,” Aurora replied, showing she was monitoring my thoughts better than I’d thought. “How did I never realize you’d met a Mask when you were sixteen? And what was one doing in St. Petersburg?”

“The ‘we are one’ idea has adherents worldwide, and unsurprisingly they try and link up with one another constantly.” I paused and looked out over the ocean, one of the few things in the world that carried no psychometric signatures at all, and wondered what things were like in Russia now. “Communism created a lot of true believers of the Masks variety and I think they were trying to escape Yeltsin-era Russia for greener pastures. I never did find out what happened to him after. Hopefully he never found the russkies he was looking for.”

“How come you never told me about this?”

“It was a bad time for you, Aurora. And I didn’t know what happened so I didn’t want to worry you. It wasn’t our responsibility anyways, we were still teenagers.” My memory drifted back to that day for the first time in years, inviting Aurora to go along with me. Nevsky Prospekt was a bustling thoroughfare at the time, with the Admiralty building standing at attention on one side and the Leningrad Hero City Memorial anchoring the other. We’d gone there to see the world, of course, but also to face for the first time in our short lives the depth and weight of the violence people inflicted on one another and realize how present it is to this day.

For nine hundred days the city was besieged, and walking the Prospekt one could still feel the famine, terror and cold of its darkest days more than sixty years after the armies were gone. That was the day my interest in psychometric forensics began to form. It was also the day I met the Mask.

The villains of the Soviet era were larger than life, easily caricatured figures that are hard to forget. The great villain of the Gifted proved very different, a small, almost forgettable man who slouched past on the street, a neurotic ball of anxiety and hostility focused outward with almost no sense of self. The Masks believe that by yielding themselves back from the void from whence all things came they can mend all fractured relationships and bring all humanity together in one community again, a belief shared by many philosophers and even some religions the world over. But in that moment, in a chance meeting on the Prospekt half a world away, I saw something very much the opposite. A deranged and ultimately alone man struggling to create a mask that would unify him with thousands of other, similarly masked people.

Boundaries have always been hard for the Gifted to make and maintain, but that Mask was the cruelest solution to the problem I’ve ever seen.

Back in the present Aurora leaned against the railing with me and sighed. “You can hear stories about what they’re like but I guess it doesn’t make sense until you see it for yourself.”

I gave her a sideways look. “You’ve met a Mask?”

“No. Even with what you tried to show me there, it still doesn’t add up.” She joined me in leaning against the railing. “Is that why you spent a year chasing them with Agent Fitzgerald?”

“No, that was a job. Eugene is the one with a vendetta against them, not me. Personally, I don’t think the Masks will ever pull together enough to pose a threat again. They’re too afraid of each other to be effective against us.” I picked at my teeth and thought about what Natalie had said, how we might need every psychometric we could get in order to crack this terrorism case. “This whole situation has got to be driving them nuts…”

“You can think about how to solve the case when you go back tomorrow,” Aurora said gently. “For now, relax.”

“Relaxing is a weakness of mine,” I admitted. “I know that for a fact since my own subconscious said so earlier.”

“That must have been an interesting experience,” Aurora said, genuine intrigue trickling into her conscious mind in spite of her revulsion at the idea of something like a fugue trap. “Do you think meeting your own personality traits was the intended function of the trap or a side effect?”

“Can’t say without talking to the person who built it,” I said, mulling it over out loud. “It would depend on what you accomplish by such a thing, wouldn’t it? I mean, I don’t think my impromptu counseling session was intended to give me a method to escape, even though it did. The real question is whether doing that, rather than the usual method of showing people something they find really pleasant or at least mildly interesting, helped the trap function in some way.”

“What if it wasn’t a trap?” Aurora asked. “Can you do anything else with a-“

She caught herself and shook her head. “Now look at what you’ve done. You pulled me into helping you spitball the case. Stop that.”

“You came along on that ride all by yourself.” I was teasing her but it felt good knowing I could still drag her along that easily if I had to. We need more space around each other these days, thanks to our Gifts, but I still do enjoy Aurora’s company. It was nice to find a simple moment of camaraderie from time to time.

And she had a different perspective. Life is not as suspicious when you live a life of medicine, your mind goes to different places by default. What if it wasn’t a trap? The question had a lot of merit. I couldn’t answer it, programming is not my forte. But I knew someone who could.

I did what Aurora wanted from me, I took the rest of the day off. In fact, I did one better and didn’t go in to the office the next morning either. Instead I found myself standing in a familiar office, watching an old friend over one shoulder until he found a moment to spare. As he set aside his soldering iron Vinny gave me a skeptical look and said, “I was not expecting you here before an announcement about the excitement of the past few days. What can I do for you today, Armor?”

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