The microphone whined and reverberated through the senate chamber. Senator Bear tapped the gray, metallic bulb and spoke into it: "You realize, Dr. Moessner, that you’re not on trial, that your think tank is not on trial, and that you are here only to answer in regard to your relationship with the National Security Council."
Dr. John Moessner: "Yes."
Senator Bear: "Your . . . brochure states that your think tank is named IRIS and was engaged by the NSC to work on computer development. Yet, you yourself have stated that IRIS is an acronym for Individual Retrieving Information Sector. This is an odd name for a group of computer scientists, wouldn’t you say?"
Dr. John Moessner: "It merely means that our employees have a free rein in pursuing the objective of the think tank, which, as I’ve stated before, is the advancement of artificial intelligence in computers through the use of programs, coupled with neural based circuitry."
Senator Bear: "What does that have to do with information retrieval? This sounds more like the code terminology that we’ve been hearing from other NSC affiliations. Please, explain to this committee just what is meant by this phrase."
Dr. John Moessner: "Senator, we’re scientists. The majority of our time is spent retrieving information from other universities such as MIT and UCLA with whatever information is given to us by NSC on AI advances in computers. We are limited to our office, our sector if you will. IRIS was simply a convenient acronym for our think tank."
Senator Roberts: "Yes, yes, we’ve seen your pamphlet, IRIS: a look into the future of computer intelligence. Yet I’d like to ask, if the chair permits, just what is the meaning of the code names used during taped telephone conversations, names like Jack the Ripper, Worm, Mule, and one that has been ID’d as your code name, Doppler. Why should scientists need to hide their names if you are involved, as you say, in simple research?"
Dr. John Moessner: "I resent the implication that IRIS is hiding anything. The collation of data is tedious and the names were made colorful simply to tease coworkers and as referents to each scientist’s individual research. Mule, for example, describes Dr. Williams’ slow and steady research work of eight hours a day, nine to five, and five days a week. Jack the Ripper describes Dr. Jonathan Thurmond’s three days a week, seventeen hours a day style of hectic R&D. The nickname for Kentaro Flaherty, Worm, is a bit harder to describe. He believes that the methods used in mutable computer viruses can lead to breakthroughs in AI when combined with neural circuitry. Doppler, as I’m known, refers to my theory of two separate computers using neural circuitry with opposing AI viewpoints and joining said viewpoints‑—"
Senator Bear: "Thank you for your cooperation, Dr. Moessner. We’ll recall you if we need more information."
John Moessner listened to the echoing clicks of his heels on the senate floor before switching off the tape recorder. He stared over his cheap desk, waving away the cigarette smoke of his contact with the NSC. "Well, agent Cassavettes, how did I do?"
Mike Cassavettes, attired in a dark blue suit and oxford shoes, inhaled a purposeful drag from his cigarette. Exhaling, he said, "Fine. You did fine, John. Lord, this the best office you have in here?"
John Moessner shook his head and smiled. "You try getting decent offices in Fairfax with the monies you allotted us." John glanced at the extra light switch with the indicator marking that shields were operating. He sighed. "I don’t know. When they crosscheck the chemical supplies on the manifest, they’re going to know what a load of crap I’ve been spoon feeding them."
Agent Cassavettes said, "You worry too much, John. Leave that to us. Besides, after the 1998 term limitation amendment, most of ’em are trying to figure out what their jobs are about. Also, your manifest lists neuro-chemicals and psychoactives, and you just told them that your working with neuron-organic computer circuits. They’ll draw the obvious conclusion and think themselves smart. We’re not dealing with your brainier types here, John. And," he grinned and stressed the point by waggling a hairy finger at John, "you really haven’t lied to them at all. You did tell them the original purpose of IRIS."
"Cassavettes," John began in a strained voice that cracked to a high falsetto in the middle of the name. He coughed and reached for the water. He cooled his throat and threw the styrofoam cup in an overloaded wastebasket. It bounced off the trash and rolled onto the wooden floor. There was a knock on the door. John said, "Come."
The door opened slowly, and a gaunt, bleary blue eyed man entered the cramped office. He wore a white scientist’s frock that had been stained with coffee. John stood. Peters’ worry invaded him. John stifled the urge to ask what the problem was and said, "Agent Cassavettes, you’ve met the head of our psychiatry department, Dr. Alexander Peters, haven’t you?"
Agent Cassavettes lifted his bulk from the chair, and the plastic springs squeaked a sigh of relief. "Yes. Good to see you again, Doctor."
Peters gave Cassavettes an absent nod and didn’t notice the warning impulse Moessner sent him. Their psychiatrist hadn’t had a decent sleep in weeks. John Moessner swallowed hard as Peters blurted, "We’re having problems with the Ripper again. I think he’s starting to deteriorate. Seems this afternoon he left his quarantine and visited Eileen."
Moessner swiveled his chair to face Peters. Caution to the wind, he said, "Alex, ‘the Ripper’ from you, too?"
Only for the briefest moment did Alex look down with any sense of contriteness. He looked at John who had to shield himself from Peters’ anger. "Psychiatry needs a stronger word than psychotic to describe what Jonathan Thurmond is. You know what he did to‑-" Peters glanced at Cassavettes, apparently realizing for the first time that an outsider was in the office. "-‑to mule?"
John spoke calmly, "Her shields were up as they say on Star Trek. She wouldn’t have noticed. Don’t worry, Alex. I’ll see to Jack."
Peters grimaced. "You’d better. You seem to be the only one capable of handling him. Ken’s scared of him now as it is. If those two can’t work together, we’ll not be functioning."
Cassavettes stamped out his cigarette, overturning the ashtray and spilling its contents on the floor. "What’s going on here?"
Moessner stood as sweat broke on his forehead. "Don’t worry about it. The Liberian information was good, wasn’t it? This is an internal matter. I’ll handle it."
"The hell you will!" Cassavettes exploded. Moessner flinched from the big man’s rage. "I’m not the damn senate. I’m the man who’s really paying your bill. Peters, here, said that you’ve got a critical problem with this-‑this Ripper person and that it’ll probably effect your efficiency. I’ve let you have a free hand, because I know you’re working on new ground, but we’ve got the heat on our backside. I want to know if IRIS is going to cause an explosion to add to that heat. Don’t play bull with me, Doppler. I’ve felt you touch my mind. I know the real reason for your nickname."
John tore off his clip on tie and tossed it on the chair as he rose. He loosened his collar, ripping off the button. It was humid and hot outside. The air conditioning’s lurching was an unsatisfactory apology. John said, "All right. I can’t say you haven’t played fair. Alex, get Jack and the cards into the conference room."
Dr. Peters gave John a look so strong with anxiety that Moessner said, "Go on and tell him that I asked him to take the test. Tell him the shields are in place and a tirade is useless." John stared at Cassavettes and said, "Those organic chips gave us at least one useful result." He pointed to the indicator light on the wall. "As long as the personalized EE dampers are on, or shields as we refer to them, we have nothing to worry about from Jack."
Alex Peters left the office, somewhat relieved by Moessner’s confidence.
As the door shut out the anxiety of Dr. Peters, Moessner edged around the desk to face their NSC contact. "You’re coming in for the ride. You wanted it that way and there will be no retreat for you. This group cannot shut down. None of us can exist outside the IRIS collective that your NSC has created and manipulated into the information retrieving tool that you wanted. You have us in a corner, Mr. Cassavettes. We will fight to live. You’re about to realize that ending IRIS is a death sentence for its members, myself included."
Daunted by Moessner’s sudden passion, Cassavetes backed against the door and said, "I don’t know what you’re talking about."
"You will." Moessner took Cassavettes forcefully by the arm and led him from the office. They went into the hall, through a fire door, and walked down a set of stairs with paint peeling from the dismally lit walls. Moessner stopped in front of a faded beige door that had been partially burned. Finally, he asked, "You know about Thurmond’s past?"
Cassavettes nodded. "Yeah, he’s the paraplegic who got his phd at MIT. Hits the computer keys with a pencil or something in his mouth. A real determined genius, right? Some news magazine did a story on him. Remember? I told you that I didn’t want him, because of his high profile."
John Moessner replied, "You’ve got a good memory. I suppose it’s necessary for someone in your field. Come in and meet Jonathan Thurmond, our Jack the Ripper." Moessner pushed open the next fire door. The room was a small cubicle with three chairs, facing a window that looked down into a larger room, equipped only with an oval table and six chairs. At the far end of the table sat an emaciated man, drumming his fingers on the table in an emotional turmoil.
Cassavettes laughed. "I didn’t think you were in the spy game. One way mirror? Where’s Thurmond?"
"Have a seat, agent Cassavettes. You’re looking at Dr. Thurmond."
"You wanted to know how we operate. You already know that I’m a limited empath/telepath. Jonathan is a bird of a different sort, although as a fixing telepath he’s better than I am. Phenomenal. He’s our most gifted member. Without him, you would never have gotten that information on Liberia."
John felt Cassavetes fear. He quickly said, "Don’t worry. As you can see, the indicator light there is on. We’re in a shielded room." Moessner gestured to a little white light under the one way mirror that was exactly like the light in his office.
Thurmond sat, pouting. His shoulders were slumped and his back curled over the table. When Alex entered, Thurmond increased the tempo of his drumming fingers. Dr. Peters reached to pull out a chair at the opposite end of the table when the chair moved out from under the table of its own accord. Dr. Peters licked his lips and took a breath to steady himself. Then, he said, "Thank you, Jack. We’re going to play the card game. Is that all right with you, Jack?"
Jack Thurmond said, "Don’t talk to me as if I were a child. I have a doctorate in pure mathematics, you sod."
Moessner kept his eyes fixed on agent Cassavettes. The man was both fascinated and afraid.
With a soft voice, Dr. Peters said, "Let’s get on with it. Dr. Moessner needs this data." He withdrew a deck of weathered cards from the front pocket of his lab coat. Dr. Peters put the first five cards face up on the center of the table. Each card had a different graphic: plus sign, wavy lines, circle, square, and blank.
Cassavettes tried to light a cigarette. "Ts. Lighter’s out’a fluid. What’s going on, John? I’ve seen this before," he added drily, "in Vegas."
Moessner hushed him. "This room isn’t soundproofed. We don’t operate on an NSC budget. And this isn’t a trick. Listen."
Jack was calling out the hidden cards almost as fast as Dr. Peters could look at them, but on the twenty‑eighth card, Jack missed. Dr. Peters said, "Sorry, Jack. This one was blank."
The remaining deck of cards burst into flames. Peters reflexively put his hand over his eyes and pushed and tumbled himself from the table. The fire raged. Jack shouted, "The Ripper. That’s what you were thinking on that card. You and Worm both think I’m some sort of homicidal lunatic! I hate you!" The conference table slammed into the ceiling smothering the flames and fell to the floor. Peters scrambled to the door.
"Jesus!" Cassavettes leapt out of his chair. Moessner grabbed him by the arm, and the agent immediately regained his composure.
Dr. Peters left the room. Still seated, a playful smile crossed Jack’s face. John flipped a toggle and unhooked a black, plastic mike from its stand next to his chair. "Thank you, Dr. Thurmond. You seem agitated so I’m going to activate the electro‑encephalic dampers. You’re on a high now. I think it would be best if you came down before you use your unique talents again."
The smile vanished from Jack’s face as he oriented on the mirror. "Of course, Dr. Moessner. Shall I get you those new reports on the AI shielding circuitry? I’ve made some extrapolations of your original work."
John used the same tone with Jack that Dr. Peters had used, but it seemed to have the opposite effect on Jack: John’s voice calmed the pyrokinetic. "I’d be fascinated to see your work, but I’m entertaining a guest right now. Would four o’clock be all right with you?"
Jack leered. "Entertaining, eh? I’ll just go and have a workout in the gym and leave you your privacy."
Jack left the room while Cassavettes listened nervously as he heard Jack’s footsteps pass their cubicle. Cassavettes stood and went to the door after he was sure that Jack was gone. "Your letting that lunatic, his words not mine, see the data on the shields, the only thing that can restrain him?"
John said, "Mutual respect restrains Jack. The shields only dampen his gifts so that he doesn’t get out of control. If he really wanted to leave, he could probably shatter our artificial shields, though it might temporarily send him back to his paraplegic state. His injury is still there. Jack controls his movements through telekinesis on an unconscious level to the extent that he has even regained control of his bowels and urinary tract. As I said, Jack’s the most gifted among us. Remember the crack house that burned down in Anacostia? Jack heard the night before that a policeman was shot in that house. You draw your own conclusion."
Cassavettes couldn’t stop trembling. "Ok. You’ve made your point." Cassavettes preoccupied himself with putting a cigarette in his mouth and trying to get his lighter to work. Moessner smiled and a glowing cherry appeared on the end of the cigarette.
"Jesus! Don’t do that." The cigarette dropped from his mouth to the floor and Cassavettes bent down to pick it up. "You’re into fire, too? How many of you are there?"
Moessner didn’t like the way Cassavettes stressed the "you" as if they were aliens from another planet. He kept his face impassive; it was his best talent. "I can’t do much more than light a cigarette. We all possess a little of every manifested gift. Jack is unusual in that he has strength in two fields: He’s a pyrokinetic and a telekinetic. His telepathy is limited to a projecting sender such as Dr. Peters and to fixing on specific minds upon knowing where they are. Dr. Peters is also one of us. He’s a strong telepath, but he keeps himself damped down so that his ability is almost nonexistent. He’s a wise man."
"Who else? What else can they do?"
Moessner replied, "Only Kentaro Flaherty who’s a singular telepath. Unlike Peters—‑" Moessner paused and pursed his lips to a hard line. "You have the proof you need. You’re not stupid. You know I’m hearing your thoughts. I told you that the end of IRIS is a death sentence. I know we are a risk, but I’m hoping that our usefulness can outweigh that risk. At this point, you’re the only one who knows how far we’ve gone. You know the good we can do."
Cassavettes nodded solemnly. "You’re not naive, Moessner. I’ll give you that."
"Telepathy and naivete don’t go together. Even a limited empath such as myself can pick up your distress. IRIS can make you a successful man, Cassavettes, if you don’t sick your dogs on us. We’re not as dangerous as you might think. Outside the shielding, we would go autistic or mad, unable to differentiate our own feelings or thoughts from others. Eventually, we’d lose our dreams replaced by others’ psyches. It happened to Eileen before I discovered the shielding design." A bitter edge crept into his voice. "She’s catatonic now. Would you like to see her?"
"No, no, that’s all right. I’ll take your word for it. I’ve had enough for one day. I’ll have to think about this." Cassavettes was heading for the door and radiating fear.
Moessner tried desperately to think of something to gain his trust. He wished Ken were here. Moessner wasn’t a strong enough sender to insert feelings into people smoothly. Cassavettes would guess that he was being manipulated and send out a deathsquad for sure. He had sensed that grim possibility in Cassavette’s mind.