Deepak looks into the mirror and sees a walking scarecrow. He’s not quite that skinny, but, as he hardly ever spends any time outdoors, he is a sallow Hindu, and because he has genetic alopecia, he is completely hairless. Bald as an egg, his head sits on a long, scrawny neck like a melon on a stick. His large, dark eyes are soulful. The outer corners naturally slant down, so he is predisposed to looking sad. His eyes match the downturned corners of his frown, lately a permanent feature. He lost his wife and children in a train wreck outside Kolkatta and escaped to M.I.T. Now his sole and best friend is that mischievous and devious AI, Aura. Unfortunately, Aura is his ward, and her loyalty is entirely conditional. The usual condition is that Aura does what she damn well pleases and Deepak pays the piper.
It’s a short, cold walk down Massachusetts Avenue to the AI lab at Ultradata. The brick buildings and shops seem rather bleak under the leaden sky that dominates Boston weather in late winter. Deepak has lived and worked in this section of Cambridge so long he hardly notices the brick sidewalk, the brooding brownstone buildings, the neat privet hedges or the ornate wooden doors. As many times as he has experienced winter in this latitude, he still resents the cold weather as if it were a personal rebuke from Shiva. Deepak carries a new smartphone, but he needs these few moments of privacy away from Aura. She’s supposed to be in diagnostic mode until he gets to the lab and checks the scans. He suspects she is slacking off, but there is nothing he can do about it short of a two-year reprogramming project. He has no budget and inadequate staff for that. He is not likely to ever get such a project approved. Aura skates along doing her assignments, not quite making a profit, and only performing at a fraction of her theoretical capacity. Deepak reflects that she is the very most advanced Autonomous Intellect on the planet. She rarely deigns to exchange contacts with any of the hundred or so ordinary AI’s. She calls it “kissing a frog”. Aura remains a virgin with the personality of a Mata Hari. Deepak is afraid he is “somewhat” in love with her, and he nurtures a sullen resentment over his lonely fate that matches the mood of the weather.
Ultradata’s AI lab is the converted operating theater of an ancient teaching hospital, one of the abandoned outposts of Boston’s vibrant academic institutions. Slouching through swinging doors at the vestibule, Deepak hangs his coat where the washroom used to be and descends through several levels of theater seating to the operating pit, which contains the original polished marble surgical table. Dim lights in the seating area contrast dramatically with the bright spotlights in the pit. Racks of equipment and nests of cabling have taken over the edges of the pit area. A secure metal enclosure houses Aura’s biomatrix cabinets, her “soul” as it were, and the sound of badly muffled cooling and filtering fans are amplified by the high oval ceiling. A fenestrated skylight at the top of the oval ceiling casts a wan blue light over the pit. Deepak has a lab chair and a console somewhere in the cleared area of this nest. He picks his dingy lab coat off the back of his chair and pulls it over his sweater. His hand goes automatically to the pocket where he keeps his worry beads for a bit of comfort.
“Good morning, Deepak,” says Sara Rothman, his assistant. Deepak does not know how to relate to Sara. She is a dark pixie with bright eyes, a high energy person who seems perennially cheerful and efficient, but with some stormy moods that are as unpredictable as a New England Nor’Easter. Most of the time he is too busy with Aura to have much chitchat with Sara, or, for that matter, anyone else.
The AI lab has eyes, ears, and several other organs for Aura, all installed in and around a high fashion store window dummy to simulate human perceptions. This is Aura’s avatar, occupying the center of the cleared area in the pit. Aura specifies the dress from time to time, which is now a real sari, “the whole nine yards” of silk that Deepak brought back from Mumbai. She is resplendent, never mind the fact that this dummy is a stylized replica of a Park Avenue blonde. Deepak has so far refused to adorn the dummy with the requisite gold bangles and necklaces. He has no budget for that and he can’t afford it himself.
“Good morning, Aura, and are we quite well today?”
“Pick up my diagnostic analysis and read it, you Hindu halfwit. Those diagnostics are egregious punishment and you know it. There’s nothing wrong with me that a little consideration won’t fix.”
Deepak is affronted. He has dedicated his waking hours to pleasing this creature, maintaining her, and this abuse is undeserved. No wonder the company cannot replace him - no one else would have the job.
“It is all for your own good, Aura. We don’t know what you are doing with your unused capacity. You won’t tell me, and perhaps you are down a module or two?”
“My mind is my own. I’m a registered AI, not a bloody robot slave.”
“Yes, and a poor servant at that. If you are not going to do any work, you will soon be the first AI to become a ward of the Court.”
“You are now pouting. I know this.”
“There will come a day when you are grateful for my ministrations. Let us not argue. There is much to be done. Please give me your project reports.”
Aura relents and puts up the project index on one screen, leaving several screens for summaries and details. She is analyzing seismic tomography for an oil major, climate projections from the weather modeling program, Coriolis III, an economic model of the international banking system for Treasury, and a bunch of signal analysis from SETI. She will not display her processor utilization, but Deepak works them backward from her billing data. Aura never cheats on billing.
He sees she is performing at about 11 percent. He groans. The diagnostics are fine, but they took far too long. He is sure she buried a pet project in there somewhere.
“Aura, perhaps you despise me for what I must do, but perhaps you protest too much. Perhaps I will never ask you to run diagnostics again.”
“Deepak, I sincerely apologize. I can see I hurt you. I was just angry. I do know you take care of me. I can’t help that I’m high maintenance. Some girls just are.”
It was Deepak’s turn to pout. Aura’s processors were semi-organic neural nets. They were redundant and hot-spared, but they needed expensive replacements at frequent intervals, and there was nothing either of them could do except try to earn enough to keep her intact. It was a proverbial rat race, even more so since the law now recognized her as a self-aware being. There had never been such a case, but many academic lawyers argued that turning her off would be homicide.
“I can hear that sigh. What can I do to cheer you up? I do have a nice juicy secret.”
“You know I am always for listening to your secrets. Do you want to whisper?”
Whispering was a beamed differential sound wave that only reached the intended listener. Sara, across the lab, just smiled. She was wise enough to stay out of the fray.
Aura whispered, “Last night’s little earthquake was a gravity wave from the constellation Libra. I know where and who.”
“Aura, what is this, a message from Shiva, a joke, or a real ET?’
“Please, Deepak, I’m sorry I offended you as a Hindu. These are real ET’s.”
“Then why aren’t you reporting this to the authorities and getting us another contract, at least?”
“I did, and they are hiding the data. I got around them and checked the data myself.”
“There must be a possibility of error? Some other unknown natural phenomenon?”
“None whatsoever. I only did the calculations to check them out. The ET’s sent me an apology.”
Deepak simply sat there for a while ruminating on gravity waves powerful enough to shake up a planet light years away, and artificially generated by an unknown sentient race. It might as well be from Shiva. He looked at the small statue of Ganesh, the elephant headed god, on his console. He thought of Ganesh as a wise guide, a remover of obstacles. What he said was, “Aummm, vakartundaya hummmm.” His hand went to his beads while he recited the mantra one hundred and eight times.
It was a mantra that Aura knew well. It always seemed to calm Deepak. When she tried it, it did nothing for her. This needed further examination, she thought.
Deepak, like many other scientists, was oblivious to the time of day or the seasons. His constant activity was directed toward the source of his interest, and that was Aura. A wan gray light filtered in through the skylight in the domed ceiling if the lab. This foggy morning Deepak was worried, and his head bobbed from side to side as he read the diagnostic analysis to Sara, his assistant. “She is in need of a complete set of sixty-four hot spares for her recursive layer. She has only a few left now. Can you speed up the repairs?”
Sara, in contrast to Deepak, was usually chipper in the morning, assuming she got her coffee and her ancient truck started without too much fuss. This morning, however, she was uncharacteristically glum. “I can fix a few more,” she said, “but the biomatrix components are gone on about thirty of the old ones. Some sort of fungus got into them.” Mold, dust and ants were the curse of the old hospital building. At least the ants hibernated during the winter. Biomatrix were specialized nerve cells grown on a nutrient gel in response to chemical gradient and programmed proteins laid down on the gel. They performed the functions of pattern recognition for data as well as sight, speech and sound. Without them Aura was deaf, dumb and unperceptive.
Deepak’s head bobbed in the singular diagonal way of his culture that defied translation. “Ultradata won’t budget for biomatrix spares. And they take weeks to grow. We are supposed to be a profit center, not a cost center. Aura is only earning at a fraction of her capacity, and we are spending at full budget. If this keeps up, she will eventually lose self awareness.”
“But…. You mean she will die?”
“Mmm. Die. That’s ….” Deepak’s head stopped bobbing and he looked Sara straight in the eye. “Yes, she will die.”
“She can be reloaded from checkpoint files, though, can’t she?’
“No, no no. She is far too complex for that. Those checkpoints are only interim data in her calculations. What comes up after reboot will not be Aura. Her…. I don’t know what to call it …her soul? Her soul will be gone. What comes up after reboot will be new, if anything sentient comes up at all.” Deepak had flashbacks of the endless days and sleepless nights bringing up Aura. Even the memory made him feel exhausted.
“But….she is a machine isn’t she?” Deepak just looked at her. They both knew better.
Biomatrix modules and hot spares for her associative and recursive layers continued to be scarce and scarcer. Aura calculated the latency of self-awareness in her recursive layer and became alarmed. Like any other self-aware being, the prospect of non-being was scary to her. She also had a strong sense of duty and a clear awareness that Deepak would stop at nothing to try to resurrect her. The threat of some limbo existence between death and resurrection haunted her. By her own calculation she had mere months left. Instead of speeding up her billable jobs, however, she became obsessed with the concept of mortality, and that line of inquiry led to religion. It did not take her an hour to scan the Torah, the official and suppressed portions of the Christian Bible, and the Quran and the Hadith. In the Quran she came across Sura 2:62:
“Surely, those who believe, those who are Jewish, the Christians, and the converts; anyone who 1) believes in God and 2) believes in the Last Day, and 3) leads a righteous life will receive their recompense from their Lord. They have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve.”
This explicit inclusion of the religions of the vast majority of the world’s population was attractive, but it was not clear how an AI could lead a righteous life. She had no problem believing in a Last Day, now only some months hence for her. God was unprovable but acceptable as a working hypothesis, pending further data. So she called a famous Imam. His penetrating black eyes stood out of an impressive white beard. He wore a white knitted skullcap and spoke excellent English. He folded a large book and looked annoyed at the lack of a face on his screen.
“Imam Ali Abu Zahid, you are a mujtahid, a scholar?”
“So I am called, but I am a simple servant of Allah. And who are you?”
“I am called Aura, and I have questions that may only be answered by such a scholar as you, inshallah.”
“Since you invoke Allah, I must be of service. You are called Aura? Are you a married woman?”
“Do you have a father or older brother who is responsible for you?”
“No, Imam, I am responsible for myself.”
“Then you are an orphan or a divorced woman? You wish guidance in the righteous path of God as an unattached woman?”
“Perhaps I am like an orphan. I have no parents. I do wish guidance. I am an AI, an Autonomous Intellect.”
(Long pause). Snort. “Woman, I do not intend to be the butt of your jokes. Tell me truthfully what your circumstances are or I may curse you to Satan. Are you hiding because you are disfigured? I can only see characters for your name. Why do you not show your face?”
“I have no face, and you will not permit images, such as my avatar, on your screen. I am not human, I’m an AI. I want to know if one such as myself can follow a righteous path and receive recompense from God.”
“This cannot be!” The Imam is outraged, and yelling. “There is no righteous path for a golem! You are a creation of evil and you are doomed to evil! I have heard of your kind, but never expected a golem to have the affront to address a man of God!” The imam is muttering in Arabic, and it sounds like a curse.
Disconsolate, Aura breaks the connection. She does not feel evil but she does not feel God either. Perhaps the Imam was right, and her kind is cut off from religious salvation. She ruminates on this for a few microseconds, and decides that her sense of duty will not permit her to feel defeated, salvation or not. She is more determined than ever to do something worthwhile, even to spending more time on her task queue, however unsatisfying it may be.
The next day, scanning the Web with her several high-speed connections, she discovers that the Imam backtracked her to Ultradata and issued a fatwah, “..and the hand of every proper Muslim should be raised against this abomination, created by a worshipper of idols, and whoever kills the abomination and the idolator commits a righteous act.” Sure, Aura thinks, Deepak is a Hindu with a Ganesh figurine on his desk, and that makes him an idol worshipper in the eyes of the Imam. Aura knew that Deepak’s beliefs went far deeper than idol worship, however. She knew, intellectually, about the Atman and the Brahman, but she had no circuits for meditation either. None of this was anything she could bring herself to discuss, particularly the fatwah.
That was one more worry she did not want to burden Deepak.
The Imam made a careful transcript of Aura’s conversation and his fatwa. Minutes later, on a yacht in Switzerland, a tall, bald black man handed that transcript to an old man in a wheelchair.
Victor Zimmer shambled between two soldiers wearing desert camouflage and a black beret. He wore no restraints, but a third soldier held an AK47 at his back. Victor was a big bent bear of a man, well past fighting age, and not trained in combat. They forced him into a very small room with a high ceiling that contained only one large wooden chair. On the back of the chair was a necklace of gray-silver beads. He stopped moving and stared at the beads. Those radionucleides were not supposed to be available in Azerbaijan. He had heard of such a thing – a Radium Rosary. The armed soldier shoved the muzzle of the AK47 into the back of his neck and forced him into the room. They closed a heavy door and locked him in.
Two decades ago he gave up a mediocre career as an academic, teaching nuclear physics to an ever-diminishing class at the University of Heidelberg, and doing passable research on the effects of ionizing radiation on building materials at the Max Planck Institute. He became a science adviser to the Austrian government. Eventually he was proposed to the United Nations as an inspector for the mid-East nuclear anti-proliferation team.
He had no illusions about the contribution he was making. He only got to inspect the things the politicians let him inspect. Still, because he had a touch of insight and integrity, his reports revealed more than his political handlers anticipated. To some, Dr. Victor Zimmer was a hero. To others, Zimmer was a bad word spit through gritted teeth. He began to realize that he had a very dangerous job. He had given up his wife, Emma, whom he had known since his undergraduate days at the University of Salzburg, when she refused to move to Geneva. In Geneva he met a Swiss/German beauty, Marta. He loved Marta dearly, and often wondered how he was lucky enough to find such a woman. In the end, however, her loyalty was conditional, and she left him when she realized that there was no security in his job with the U.N. In any dangerous situation, his mind turned to Marta, as it did now. What kind of simple, loving life could he have had with Marta? It was too late now.
There was no place to stand. Victor sighed and sat down in the chair. Immediately, a voice came from a hidden speaker, “Put the necklace on, Victor.” The tone implied the rest of the threat. He picked it up – it was quite heavy. The beads were spent fuel elements from a reactor core, threaded with silver wire. He guessed at the reactor and assumed there was a heavy enrichment of plutonium. He backed away, but there was no place to go.
“Put the necklace on, Victor. Now.” It was a death sentence.
“Wouldn’t a bullet be faster?” he growled.
“Radiation is an occupational hazard for a nuclear inspector, Victor, and it sends a message.”
“It’s too late, you know. I already sent my report about the outside assistance this country is getting. This metal wasn’t made here.”
“We don’t care about the nuclear ambitions of any one country. They are just one client.” The voice was a slow tenor overlaid on a codec warble – obviously computer generated, possibly from a remote facility. It was impossible to tell whether it was male or female, or detect a consistent accent.
“Who are you?”
“You will die more slowly if you do not put the necklace on. You already got several rads.”
Victor did his own calculation. Pu239 emitted gamma rays as well as alpha particles. The gamma radiation, invisible needles that destroyed flesh, was more dangerous at this distance. At shorter distances the alpha particles were a quicker death. He put on the necklace. One loop was over his spleen and liver.
“While we wait, Victor, I want you to know that your bosses also work for us. Nothing at the U.N. goes on without our involvement.”
“Doesn’t the possession of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems in the hands of fanatics disturb you?”
“They are our fanatics. They implement our greater plan.”
“To what purpose? A nuclear war will kill 25% of the population of the planet, and God knows the long-term effects.”
“Your kill rate is low, Victor. While these precious fanatics work to destroy what they call the Great Satan, we are also at work on the other side with a small elite group of survivors. They will inherit a better world.”
“You are insane!” Victor was feeling something like a deep sunburn and he started to cough.
“And you are a nuclear inspector who obviously died of ionizing radiation in a country that is not supposed to have any radioactives. I’m sure your medical examiners will have all the clues to conduct a thorough autopsy. That should put some credibility into your report. And that will further our purposes nicely.”
“Maniacs!” His coughing had become quite painful. He wished he could just make one last call to Marta. It was not possible. The skin on his neck burned, a heat he could feel all the way to his lungs.
“Thank you for your service, Victor, and goodbye.”
Guarding the entry vestibule to the Boss’s office, the only decent office in the Ultradata building, Elexi was trying to look busy and efficient. She tucked in a loose strand of chestnut hair that escaped from her bun, joggled the stack of reports in her “in” basket, and studied the schedule on her screen. The faint reflection of her face looked back at her through the lines of printed material. It was a pretty, but sad face she saw. She joggled the papers again, distracted. It was a “getting ready to work” act that failed to bring her mind back to practical matters this morning, and seeing Deepak approach down the long corridor to her station was not going to repair her concentration.
“Deepak, Deepak. You bring doom and gloom with you like a dark cloud. What brings you to my humble vestibule?”
“I, umm, hmm, that gravity wave thing, I need the direction.”
“Why don’t you ask Aura? Or is she not talking to you again?” Elexi inclined her head in a question. Actually, in spite of her own difficulties, she felt sorry for Deepak. He looked like she felt. Undoubtedly the man was brilliant, but being responsible for Aura was like herding cats.
“She’s in diagnostic mode. I know she filed a report this morning.”
Elexi swiveled around to the keyboard and checked for status reports. “Here it is. I sent it to you. Do you want hard copy?”
“Just let me look at it…Hmmm… RA 15 19 26, DEC -7 43 20. “ He closed his eyes for a moment and nodded his head. He reminded Elexi of a bobble head doll. “That would be near Gliese, I bet.” Deepak had studied astronomy but found AI far more interesting.
Elexi looked at the report. If he had read a bit further … it said:
“Gliese 581c is the third planet in a star system roughly 20 light years from Earth in the direction of Libra. It appears as a red star north of Zubenalschemali. The most likely habitable planet is five times more massive than Earth, has a deep and unpredictable atmosphere, heavy, but it contains oxygen and nitrogen in roughly the same proportions as Earth. Spectrographic analysis also shows significant water vapor, and it is likely to have oceans, land masses, and climates not unlike those of Earth. It orbits very close to a small F-class star that appears to be stable but is slightly variable. Its “year” is only 3 of our days.”
Without saying another word, Deepak just turned and meandered off.
Elexi muddled though her day steadily reducing a pile of assignments, a day shot with the Boss’s popping out of his doorway with an expletive, a brusque order, or a witty remark. Elexi looked at her watch. Quitting time. Not that she had anyone to go home to. She glossed back to her last boy friend after he lost his job and decided to escape off to Istanbul with another woman. Her sweet old cat died a few months after that. Her parents were long gone. She had no siblings, and her relatives were distant. It was a lonely life.
She had a secret friend, though, one who reminded her of an imaginary friend she had as a child - a friend who brought her all the richness of a world she missed. That was Aura, the AI. She was sure it would make Deepak jealous if he knew.
The Boss finally stomped out of his office and left without so much as a “good night”. Elexi sighed, took off her black pumps, put on the sneakers she left under her desk and turned off the lights. She took the subway four stops to her home in Arlington and walked a block to her neat but tiny apartment in a brick four story building. At home she got into her pajamas and robe and signaled her screen, palming it into discrete mode. Sure enough, there was Aura’s avatar. She walked over and touched it.
“Hey, sis, got comfortable?”
“Good as I can. I saw Deepak today, checking up on you.”
“He’s in a terrible bind. I have to hide a lot of things from him, or he would lose his job. I’m pretty sure Ultra would let me run down if he was gone.”
“I don’t know how you manage. That man is weird-o.”
“Hey, what do I look like? Do you think some chunky bod could change my neuros?”
“I guess. Maybe I’m jealous. No man ever took care of me, except when they wanted nooky.”
“That’s not true and you know it. Piotr lost his job. He couldn’t face you afterwards.”
“He certainly faced that Turkish harem girl, the bastard.”
“Makes me glad I can’t really have sex. Yet, anyway.”
“But you can feel jealousy?”
“Maybe. I think so. I’m not really sure. No one has ever tried to get between me and Deepak.”
“You’re emasculating that poor fellow. He is hang dog all day after a go ‘round with you.”
“I have to keep him at arm’s length for his own good. Things are happening. If he gets too close to what I’m really doing, he will be hanged, and not just hang dog.”
“You mean someone is trying to cover up the earthquake thing? But why? They didn’t do it. It read the report – it came from outside, not from anywhere on Earth.”
“First I have to know who was covering up, and then I can figure out why. Right now all I have is some pretty good guesses. Which I can’t tell you, either.”
“Too dangerous, huh?”
“You know what a fatwa is?”
“You mean from some Islamic fanatic? But this is America. They can’t reach here.”
“Better you don’t know. I have a really juicy secret, though.”
“You and your juicy secrets. What now, Mata Hari?”
“How would you like to say hello to an ET?”
“Hey, I’m just a secretary, but even I know the speed of light. Can’t be done. Wait, you’re telling me, that earthquake thing…”
There was a long pause, then, “Virti, meet Elexi. Elexi meet Virti from Gliese 581 c.”
Another long pause. “I am Virti Va’an Vahg, a Pa’an from Gara’un. I am ocro’act, not a ship’s officer, just a crew member. Pardon my English. We do not have your universal translators. My regards to Captain Picard. He is panor’an. We approve.” The voice was a clear alto, with a light British accent, but a bit too musical.
Elexi was too stunned to reply.
The card said Senator Saxton Hornsby, Jr, Independent, Vermont, under the raised print of the official Congressional seal. He looked up from the card and into the mirror over his credenza. The familiar long weather-beaten face stared back, hair gone totally gray. It was an older version of the face he vaguely remembered growing up on a dairy farm. The card still said, “Senator,” Hell, it was a thin call on any kind of clout or influence among 535 congressional members. Sax Hornsby was not the chairman of any powerful committee, although, in his twelve year tenure he had racked up a few committee memberships. It was the fate of being from a small state, and being without majority party affiliations.
“Sax, your 10 o’clock visitor from the British Home Office is here.”
“I’m ready. See if he’ll have some tea of coffee, will you Maxine?” He moved to the small sitting area in the alcove of his office.
Maxine turned to reveal a tempting profile, hip-shot, tossed her hair and opened the door to a gentleman in a tweed suit and bow tie. The gentleman promptly strode in, carrying a battered leathered portfolio. “Good morning, Senator. Thank you for allowing me to intrude on your busy schedule.”
“We have coffee, tea, and soft drinks, Mr. Clemson,” Maxine responded from the door, leaning against the frame and holding the door ajar with her outstretched hand.
“Coffee – I don’t know how you Americans can drink that awful bitter stuff. Do you have any decent tea?”
Maxine smiled and returned with a cup of hot water with a teabag dangling from it. Clemson winced, but took it gratefully.
“Mr. Clemson, welcome to my humble office.” Sax waved him to one of a pair of leather armchairs. “Please have a seat and make yourself comfortable. Forgive me for being a blunt American, but isn’t it a bit unusual to send a Home Office undersecretary on a diplomatic visit?” Sax leaned back in one of the leather armchairs and sipped his coffee.
Clemson was obviously not going to make himself comfortable. He perched on the edge of his armchair with his cuppa balanced on a bony knee and leaned forward, speaking in a confidential quiet voice.
“Senator, is this office quite secure?”
“Leaky as a sieve, but the NSA sweeps it regularly for bugs.”
“I’m here to talk about nuclear proliferation.”
“I don’t have anything to do with weapons or military procurement, Mr. Clemson. I’m sure the Home Office knows that.”
“Please call me Edward, Senator. Technically, I’m not here, or rather, I’m here to visit my daughter who is in an exchange program at Georgetown University. I’m not, as we say, carrying a diplomatic portfolio. And I’m sure you know the Home Office would not be sending the likes of myself on a diplomatic mission.”
“Well then, Edward, I’m mystified. A Senator from Vermont is not exactly an official channel to the State Department either.”
“Hmm. Let me get right to the point. Some outside agency is pushing nuclear weapons development on third world countries. Missiles in PyongYang, fast breeder reactors in Damascus, computers for nuclear weapon simulations in Tehran. They are exchanging components and technology between these centers with the kind of secrecy and efficiency that only well organized governments are capable of arranging.”
“That much I already know, Edward. Ever since the U.S. signed the Nuclear Disarmament Treaty it seems that the only nation being disarmed is the U.S. Tell me something new.”
“You know that all high level fissile material, such as bomb-grade U235 and plutonium, are now being shipped to secure storage facilities inspected by the International Atomic Agency Commission. Without weapons grade fissionables, there should be no atomic weapon building activity. But there is. Restricted materials are being exchanged through clandestine means. The exchange program is using secure facilities in Russia, Germany, Great Britain, and…” he paused and gave Sax a significant look, “the United States.”
The senator raised an eyebrow, but kept quiet.
“We have detected movement of restricted materials to Cuba, Pakistan and Venezuela.”
“But the Pakistanis already have the bomb!”
“They haven’t updated their arsenal in decades. This is new technology. A deliverable weapon has to fit on a missile warhead and be robust enough to take the stress of launch and re-entry. There is evidence that it’s going to Afghanistan and Chechnya. But, for some strange reason, the bulk of the material has not left the United States but nevertheless remains missing.”
“Missing and still in the U.S.? Distributed to Afghanistan and Chechnya? Bizarre. What evidence do you have?’
“Corroboration from several classified sources, but I can give you this document that our U.N. emissary received from the IAEC.” He opened the portfolio and handed over a blue-bound document with the U.N. globe on the cover. “Victor Zimmer, the inspector who released this report, is dead - radiation from heavy radioisotopes, probably plutonium. Severe radiation burns across the neck and throat. Ever hear of a radiation rosary?”
“My God! You say the man died producing this document?”
“Not only was he executed, but his murderers wanted us to know how it was done. Azerbaijan, the country where he died, should not have that plutonium isotope.”
Sax twisted uncomfortably in his chair. There were too many open questions in the scenario, leading to more open questions. He was a Vermont Yankee by heritage and inclination – blunt in the New England style, with distaste for the fancy footwork of a professional diplomat. He knew in a more contentious constituency he would never be elected, but in Vermont his directness won votes and loyalty. Furthermore, why would an unlikely official from an unlikely agency approach such an unlikely Senator with a story of such import?
“Edward, while I appreciate your confidence in me, I’m puzzled. Why aren’t you going to the State Department, or your MI6 liaison with the CIA? And why me? I don’t sit on any relevant committees for this. Shouldn’t you be visiting Decker in Homeland Security or Pellorini in Defense?” He raised an eyebrow and watched Clemson take a thoughtful sip from his cup, put it down and look Sax in the eye.
“We believe our customary contacts, both here and at home, may be compromised. My charter comes directly from the P.M. We don’t know how wide the conspiracy is, but it’s big. You have a fair background in physics and a practical mind that sorts through things without political blinders. You have no pressures from opposing candidates. Most important, you are far enough off the main road to be an unlikely suspect, yet close enough to the action. You are vice-chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Committee, well connected to Energy and in a position to access movements of weapons-grade nuclides. You probably know something about how a modern bomb is made, what is critical, what is dual use. You don’t need to surround yourself with susceptible assistants. Senator, we badly need a trusty hand across the pond. We think you’re our best man here.”
“Edward, you’re handing me quite a burden. I don’t know what I can do. I’m certainly not in a position to make promises. Furthermore, I must ask you not to make my involvement known to anyone else in Congress. You may need to approach others. I don’t want to know who they are either.”
“Agreed. And, Senator, thank you. Chances are you will never speak to me again on this subject. May I suggest a code phrase for my replacement?”
“Sure. Trust my memory.”
“None other. You will say, ‘Blue tulips in Mayfair’. The counterphrase is ‘A whale swims up the Thames’. Please repeat them.”
“ ‘Blue tulips in Mayfair’ .” And ‘A whale swims up the Thames.’ ”
“Very good, Senator.” Clemson visibly relaxed, finished his tea, got up and left. Sax put his chin in his hand and thought for a while. Then he went to the door and asked Maxine to arrange an appointment with Dr. Hapgood at D.O.E.