Chapter 27 – It’s Time To Tango (Part III)

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The small girl wore a white button-down shirt–collar turned up so that a small microphone could be clipped to it near her mouth–and she wore a pair of black pants with so many pockets, her pockets had pockets. Of course, as usual, she also had a pair of glimmering goggles atop her head, a fashion that Harwood never understood from her generation–no doubt they were part of some engineering project she had been working on over the years. At the moment, Harwood didn’t care. He wanted to tell her to get out of the room, else Whitaker turn the gun on her.

“Who’s on the phone?” she asked as she rolled to a stop next to the desk.

Whitaker’s surprise came with a shout as he dropped the phone and turned the gun towards her.

“Ms. Mercer!” Harwood shouted. “Get out of here!”

“Stop right there,” Whitaker said. Too late, the gun was already on her.

He could try jumping Whitaker. Someone would get shot, he realized, and it could be anyone in the room. So he restrained his instinct to jump the man–his friend with the gun–and stood as still as he could.

“Both of you, get on the other side of the desk,” Whitaker said. He kept the gun fixed on the student, Mercer, even as she moved around the desk, but she kept a careful distance away from Harwood. “How did you get in here?”

“Bertrand,” Harwood said. “Whatever problem you have… It’s with me. Let her go.”

“But I don’t want to go anywhere,” Elaine said. “Tell me, Whitaker, is that Linscott on the phone?” She reached across the desk and pressed a button on the phone–the SPKR light came on and a buzz emitted, cut only with the scattered gallop of keypresses.

“What are you doing?” asked Harwood.

“Bert?” Linscott’s voice spoke from the speaker on the phone. “What’s going on in there?”

“It is Linscott,” Elaine said. She didn’t smile as she said it, but nodded instead as if glancing at a scoreboard. “I’ve been wondering about why you two are working together. Until I learned that you’ve been conspiring with Professor Shutters.”

“How does she know that?” Linscott buzzed from the phone. “Who is that?”

“I don’t know,” Professor Whitaker said. His gun didn’t waver from Ms. Mercer–which made Harwood feel both relieved and uncomfortable at the same time; the gun may not be aimed at him, but how could he allow a student to remain in danger. “You’re a student at ASU?”

“Yes,” Harwood said. “She’s one of my students, Bertrand. Could you kindly not point the gun at her?”

The gun didn’t budge and Elaine stared directly into it. To test his aim, she moved slightly to one side and back again, Linscott tracked her well enough and shook his head until she stopped moving. Before going on, she nodded to him as if accepting the status quo.

“Right,” she said. “I did not introduce myself. My name is Elaine Mercer and I was retained by the dean here to investigate what you folks have been doing to his Science and Engineering graduate program. Do you want to know what I’ve found out?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Harwood said.

“No,” Whitaker said, he looked at Harwood long and hard. “Tell me what you’ve found.”

Now Elaine smiled—she tried to mimic one of the smiles that Frog used when she wanted to convey that she knew something someone else did not. Smug, Elaine designated this particular pattern of facial muscles.

“FIrst, you’ve been using some sort of picking algorithm that is changing how the program selects students for the graduate program,” she said. “You’ve been gaming the system to pull in specific and select students based on how likely they were to increase grants to the program from various federal and state programs. As you did so, I noticed that the budgets for your departments inflated…but the output of your departments did not.. I have no evidence of what happened to those funds, I can simply surmise that with the increase budgets you were able to shuffle them somewhere. With me so far?”

Whitaker’s eyes narrowed and he started to frown.

“Who is this again?” Linscott said over the phone. “She knows a lot more than she should.”

“Elaine Mercer, professor,” she said. “And I am curious about your probability project. It does cover probability, yes? If you’re using the IBIX-7 then it’s probably a quantum-position equation and I suspect it’s written in Capra or LISP so that you can easily cluster it. I suspect this is related to your graduate-student selecting program, but instead of picking graduate students it somehow affects the probability that they’ll be selected.”

‘How do you know this?”

“Sirs,” Elaine said. “It doesn’t matter how I know this, but I submit to you that it’s more important that I know how dangerous what you’re working on is. Certainly you didn’t write this code for experimental purposes, you did it because it would make you money–and I’m not referring to the increased budgets in your respective departments–I’m referring to the potential capability this software has to effect change in more than just student selection. If it can do this to test scores, imagine what it could be used for elsewhere on surveys or research.”

The silence between them filled with a soft sigh from the phone.

“Someone commissioned you to make this software,” Elaine said.

Whitaker mopped his forehead with a hand and looked at the phone as if for support from his peer.

Elaine cocked her head slightly. “How am I doing so far?”

The phone crackled. “You know I didn’t want to be part of this, Bert,” Linscott said. “But it’s too late to get cold feet now, isn’t it? I have the password entered and…all I need now is the authority code and we’re good to go.”

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