Chapter 5 -- Troubles and Turmoil

December 2052

The proposals from TCs bidding for the Conceptual Study Contracts started to come in at the end of November. By the December deadline there were some two-hundred forty-one, far more than for any previous TABB project! After the Contracts Department logged them in, Luke’s System Team was the first to review the proposals. Once sorted by area of expertise the proposals were sent to experts for technical assessment and weighted grading.

Luke showed the results to me at a lunchtime meeting. “This list will be sent to Stephanie’s office where political criteria will be applied,” he explained. “Our rated recommendations will be boiled down, using what Stephanie calls ‘strategic’ factors, to a group of seventy-two TCs that will get Hawking Plan Conceptual Trade Study contracts. Of the seventy-two, a dozen will be funded by TABB and the remaining sixty will be self-funded by the TCs themselves.”

“Why don’t they just use the ratings the proposals received?” I asked. “They should give the TCs with the twelve highest-rated proposals funded contracts and award the sixty non-funded contracts to the highest rated TCs willing to self-fund. We want TABB money to be spent in the best possible way. We want the best contractors to do the studies and develop the technology and products we need. Isn’t it our duty to TABB and the TCs that fund TABB and, ultimately to the people of the Earth to select the most cost-effective contractors?”

“In an ideal world, maybe that would be the process!” replied Luke, chuckling. “TABB is not an ideal world. I only get peripherally involved in the ‘strategic’ factor analysis, but I’ve participated in enough proposal evaluations and contract awards to know that side of the selection is as important as the proposal evaluations we did. You are missing a critical point. The first priority of any project is to get and keep funding. I’ve seen perfectly wonderful technological work get thrown in the ashcan. Projects are cancelled if they lose support from the TCs that control TABB. It is mostly politics! I accept things as they are, rather than the ideal way God would run them.”

“OK, Give me an idea of how this all works. Keep it simple, I don’t want to know ‘how to build a clock,’ just ‘what time is it?’”

“Political criteria are applied because it is critically important that TCs from each of the seven geographic regions be more or less equally represented among the contract winners,” began Luke. “As you know, this is a problem because all the best proposals came from TCs in NortAmer, Europe and EastAsia. Only a couple dozen acceptable proposals came from the other four regions. It is expected that each geographic area will get a fair number of contracts. Thus, ‘affirmative action’ requires we award some contracts to less qualified bidders from under-represented areas of the world.”

The final award list was stuck in Stephanie’s department for over a month while her political operatives did their magic. Then, Stephanie’s baby arrived three weeks early. For the final selection, Luke had to go to the Maternity Ward to review the “politically weighted” list with the Queen Bee. She asked him to bring me along, which was surprising given my lack of expertise in contracts.

While there, we were among the first to welcome to the world Stephanie’s new daughter, whom she had named “Diega.” The fact that Diega was the feminized form of the Latinized version of “James” was not lost on me. Her husband was there but not in a sociable mood. He hardly spoke to Luke and he dissed me entirely.

Luke asked Stephanie why she had decided to have seventy-two contracts awarded, instead of the smaller number that was more usual. “Luke,” she said, “It was because of Jim’s story about the seventy-two translators in the miracle legend of the Septuagint. Also, this year, ‘2052’ is ‘72’ if you add the ‘20’ and the ’52.’

“You see Jim,” Luke laughed, “I’m not the only ‘Ku-ke’ person at TABB – Stephanie makes critical decisions based on religioso miracles and numerology!” From those remarks, it was clear to me for the first time that Luke knew people at TABB referred to him as “Ku-ke Lu-ke” because of his strong Christian beliefs. Stephanie laughed along with Luke. She rotated her fingers on either side of her head indicating she was kooky.

On our return to TABB, Luke gave me his evaluation of the final awards list. “In general,” he said, “I’m pleased with most of the awards on the final list. Nearly all the best proposals were given contracts. Only a few TCs I think are unqualified received contracts. I guess Stephanie or perhaps her superiors at the Regional HQ in Atlanta or the World HQ in Tokyo know they are particularly well politically connected or located in critical regions of the world. Such is political life. I’m glad I don’t have to make that type of decision.”

Within two days, Stephanie was back and in full command. Once again slim, a bit more ample in the bosom department and muy caliente as ever, she stood and pointed at her charts during the Monday morning presentaciones video. Ever since I had seen her pregnant, she had faded from my fantasy sex life. It was quite a relief not to have her showing up and interfering with my very happy life with Esther. Though Stephanie was back in shape, I made a resolución especial to never again allow her into my sex lives.

A day later she summoned Luke and me to her office. I noted with mental satisfaction I no longer went “up” in the elevator on the way up to her office. Was that because Luke was with me or my resolución especial?

“Jim and Luke,” her secretary XI said warmly as we got out of the elevator. “Stephanie is always punctual, but she hasn’t returned from lunch yet. Please go in while I locate her.”

Luke and I walked over to the large window to the left of Stephanie’s reclining chair and looked out. “Quite a view from the top floor,” said Luke, “My office window faces the inner courtyard.”

“I don’t even have a window,” I replied as I looked to my left at the celi for Stephen Hawking. “She says this is her oracle and she talks to her great grand-father every day!”

We walked over and Luke addressed the image of Hawking’s head projected onto the aromarama. “What do you think of the Hawking Plan?” The head remained silent.

“I think,” I said, “We need to be more specific. Why don’t we ask him if God created life on Earth and how the Earth originated and see what he thinks of the story in Genesis and so on?”

Before Luke could reply, the Hawking head became animated and spoke. The words appeared on the wall behind it:

Science seems to have uncovered a set of laws that, within the limits set by the uncertainty principle, tell us how the universe will develop with time, if we know its state at any one time. These laws may have originally been decreed by God, but it appears that he has since left the universe to evolve according to them and does not now intervene in it. But how did he choose the initial state or configuration of the universe? …

“How indeed!” interrupted Luke, “The Laws of Nature seem, to me at least, to have been designed to support life.”

The Hawking head continued:

The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron. … The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life. … [T]here are relatively few ranges for the values of the numbers that would allow the development of life. Most sets of values would give rise to universes that, although they might be very beautiful, would contain no one able to wonder at that beauty. One can take this either as evidence of a divine purpose in Creation and the choice of the laws of science or as support for the strong anthropic principle [which is that] we see the universe the way it is because if it were different. We would not be here to observe it.
“See,” beamed Luke, “At least Hawking gets it! God intended to create beings like us!” The Hawking head replied:

The initial rate of expansion [of the universe] also would have had to be chosen very precisely for the rate of expansion still to be so close to the critical rate needed to avoid recollapse. This means that the initial state of the universe must have been very carefully chosen indeed if the hot big bang model was correct right back to the beginning of time. It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.

“I didn’t think,” I said, “Hawking was a believer in God!” The Hawking head replied:

On the other hand, the quantum theory of gravity has opened up a new possibility, in which there would be no boundary to space-time and so there would be no need to specify the behavior at the boundary. There would be no singularity at which the laws of science broke down and no edge of space-time at which one would have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time. … So long as the universe had a beginning, we would suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?

At that moment, Stephanie and Barbas Grises entered the office. “We were consulting your oracle,” I said to Stephanie as I turned to shake hands with Barbas. Both he and Stephanie seemed angry. Barbas gave me and then Luke firm but unenthusiastic handshakes. She ignored my comment about the Hawking “oracle,” strode quickly to her chair, and directed us all to our seats.

“Jim and Luke,” she began, “I am sorry to be late for this meeting, however Barbas had to give me some distressing news about your conspiracy against me. He and I have discussed the situation and I am anxious to hear your side of the story. This is very important. Please give Barbas your complete attention!”

“Gentlemen,” he growled, “I’ll acknowledge ‘Barbas’ is not my real name, but I’d be pleased if you’d refer to me that way. I obtained some audio and video of you two ‘gentlemen’ conspiring against Stephanie right here at TABB.” Luke and I turned to look at each other. We remained silent.

“Stephanie’s IRAs, her assistant VI and secretary XI, have excellent hearing and extremely sharp video vision,” continued Barbas. “They overheard your private conversations. Your whispered remarks in her office and at the elevator were audio-enhanced and the video was automatic lip reading-interpreted by some of my amigos at the TBI.” He played the conversation between Luke and me in Stephanie’s office in October. The display wall showed the text:

LUKE: “The only time I [UNINTELLIGIBLE] why is that temptress of Satan [UNINTELLIGIBLE] me being there on the 11th? Be careful what you say, I’ll bet she’s got a video recorder going.JAMES: “I got a PID alert for those dates [UNINTELLIGIBLE] from a guy in Israel.”
LUKE: “[UNINTELLIGIBLE] something bad happened there and [UNINTELLIGIBLE] pin it on us. Admit nothing.”

“What was that conspiratorial conversation all about?” Barbas demanded. “Before you answer I want you and Stephanie to hear what you said the same day at the elevator before she came running down the hall.”

JIM: “Call the Flatitude [Platitude?] Squad, that guy really needs an anti-bromide!”
LUKE: “Yeah, he’s a retired TBI, I’ll bet, who Stephanie knows [UNINTELLIGIBLE] I don’t trust her, at all. And, he may be Satan in the flesh!”
JAMES: “I agree with you that he is TBI. What the heck is going on, Luke?”
LUKE: “Something that has Stephanie nervous [UNINTELLIGIBLE] she did something in Tokyo [UNINTELLIGIBLE] that TBI guy was only pretending to be incompetent. On the other hand, the old coot might have lost his marbles [UNINTELLIGIBLE].”
JAMES: “I know some things that are TBI-Secret [UNINTELLIGIBLE] don’t have the official ‘need to know’.”
LUKE: “Jim, you just told me what I need to know!”

“How dare you record a private conversation?” I began in an angry voice. “Those quotes are totally out of context and …”

“Hold it, smart ass,” interrupted Barbas, “Luke told you at the start you were being recorded. You had ample notice! You were ‘on the clock’ on TABB property. Your employment agreement says you may be under surveillance under TABB security regulations.”

“I don’t mind being called the Queen Bee,” Stephanie said, “But ‘a temptress of Satan’ – What the heck were you talking about?”

“I beg your pardon Stephanie,” said Luke, “For the reference to Satan. But I’m very sure I was not at the DoHiMuTo at all on the 11th of June despite the PID reports you accessed. They are in error or somebody has purposely modified them.”

“Jim,” asked Barbas, “What did you mean when you said ‘I know some things that are TBI-Secret’? Luke what did you mean when your replied ‘Jim, you just told me what I need to know’?”

“Excuse me Stephanie,” I interrupted, “But I’m in an impossible situation here. Can we talk in private for a moment?”

She immediately stood up and motioned for me to follow her outside her office. We retired to a corner away from her secretary and she whispered, “What do you want to confess to?”

“The PID record for me for the evening of June 11th is false. You put my PID in modo contrario and used your estímulo sexual to seduce me into that asunto secreto. If Luke says he was not at the DoHiMuTo I believe him. He’s a Bible-believing Christian and he will not violate the Ten Commandments, no matter what! I want permission to tell Luke about modo contrario. Did you put his PID in modo contrario that evening? Why would his PID be in modo contrario the evening of June 11th? Why would he be in the DoHiMuTo on that evening?”

“Jim,” she said softly, “I forgot about our ‘team building exercise.’ Ku-ke Lu-ke doesn’t have a ‘need to know’ about anything beyond technical materials. I put his PID in modo contrario hoping for a ménage et toise, but it was not to be. However, Jim, we two did have fun that night didn’t we? Come with me, darling,” she cooed, “Watch, and the Queen Bee will fix everything!”

We returned to her office and Stephanie spoke: “Barbas,” she said, “Despite the PID report, I will stipulate that these men were not at the DoHiMuTo on the evening of June 11th.”

“Yes Madam!” Barbas said, standing up to salute.

“Tell them about the photos, please,” she said.

“What photos?” Luke and I asked simultaneously.

“I received a report,” began Barbas, “From one of my sources in the Mossad. Someone in Israel has photos of the Dead Sea Scrolls taken before and after their recent loan to the DoHiMuTo. According to my source, the photos document that there was much more than ‘preservation’ going on. Words were actually modified.”

“Barbas, everybody knows digital photos can be changed easily.” Luke observed. “It’s probably just a crank. Have you seen the photos? Can you get them for me? I can usually spot changes unless they were done by TABB experts. I did technical work in that area.”

“I’ve been told the photos were taken using a film camera,” Barbas replied. “Can you imagine that?”

“I guess some hobbyists still have film camera equipment, and it’s possible for them to do their own developing and printing,” Luke observed, “Changes can be made with film, but it’s much harder to do and easier to detect. Can you get the original film negatives?”

“No,” replied Barbas, “All we have are very high quality e-photos the TBI says are ‘consistent with film originals.’”

“Stephanie,” I suggested. “Why don’t you simply contact the person with the film photos and ask him or her to let us have them?”

Barbas had a hearty laugh at that suggestion.

“Jim … JIM,” replied Stephanie almost contemptuously, “First of all, Barbas’s contact doesn’t know who that person is. Second, if this person has high quality film photos showing changes to the Dead Sea Scrolls that could have been made by someone from my Branch, why would he surrender them without a fight?”

“If any of you know anything about this,” growled Barbas, “You must tell me! What do you know Luke?”

“Barbas,” said Luke, “I know absolutely nothing at all.”

“Why would anyone from Stephanie’s Branch change the Dead Sea Scrolls?” I asked as I swished around in my chair uncomfortably, “Do you have anything to tell Barbas, Stephanie?” She gave me a pained stare and silently waved her hand.

“I can tell,” said Barbas shaking his head, “Someone here is lying to us. I will continue my investigations. I warned you before and I do so again. I can smell a lie a mile away! Avoid lying to me like the plague. When I find out who it is, they will certainly pay!”

As I returned to my office, I wondered again about my asunto secreto with Stephanie. True, when I brought it up in the corner outside her office, she had basically admitted it. “God-damn her” I said out loud, “She is a lying temptress tool of Satan.” I was surprised to hear myself say those words. I did believe there was a Power Higher than humans, but could not bring myself to believe that that Power was interested or aware of the mundane individual actions of each person. As for Satan, I wondered if I myself had made an unholy alliance with the personification of Evil to keep my wonderful job at TABB. That is, the job that used to be wonderful before the DoHiMuTo and the Dead Sea Scroll photos popped up.

If Satan did exist as an actual personality, which he definitely did not – but if he did – I concluded that I, myself was a tool of Satan. If dohi muto meant “misguided servant” in Japanese, was that an omen describing my unholy alliance with Satan that violated the basic principles of honesty and academic integrity? Of course, no rational-thinking person could believe in omens or that Satan did exist in reality. On the other hand, I had to admit, within the past year I cheated on my wife and modified the Dead Sea Scrolls. That was reality! How had it come to that? Was I a rational-thinking person?

I absent-mindedly opened my e-calendar. To give myself a rational excuse, I clicked on the records for June. To my astonishment, they had been modified (or “updated” to use the term of art Stephanie had created.):

08 June 2052: Orl-Tok.
09 June 2052: Tok.
10 June 2052: Evening walk.
11 June 2052: DoHiMuTo, pitch to TPB – Team Building Exercise.
12 June 2052: TPB Q&A – Kabuki entertainers, buffet.
13 June 2052: DoHiMuTo – Ginza: Kabuki, dinner.
14 June 2053: Tok-Orl.

The changes were subtle, but they definitely had been made. By whom? Why?

Two days later, I received a message from Stephanie. “Please come up immediately.” I remembered the “good old days” months before when such a message would have got me all atwitter. Now, I dreaded the meeting. Hunched over on her arms, she appeared much shorter and less in charge than at any time in the past. She silently motioned for me to sit down. As Luke and four others entered the room, Stephanie straightened up and asked them to find seats. Luke had brought his lead engineers in the Spaceship and Life and Genetic Engineering areas, as well as two women from Contracts and Legal.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” She began, “We are going to TABB Regional HQ in Atlanta on Monday of next week. There seems to be some problem awarding the Hawking Plan Conceptual Study Contracts and I need your help squaring that all away.

“What’s the problem?” asked Luke, coolly.

“They won’t tell me until I get there so I decided to bring all the team leads. We are going by p-tran.”

Atlanta was nine hours from Orlando by automobile, but no one drove that distance. Flying made sense for very long trips, but p-tran was a viable alternative for moderate journeys. In general, any drive between three and ten hours was a candidate for p-tran, which stood for “P-pod transportation.” P-pod stood for “passenger pod.” P-tran cut a ten-hour highway trip in half. It was safe and comfortable.

To make p-tran practical, most automobiles were made in two parts, the “p-pod” (passenger compartment) and the “wheels” (power train). People owned their p-pods and leased the wheels. Esther and I owned a mini p-pod she used to commute to her job at the university. I was able to bicycle or use public transportation to get to work at the nearby TABB offices. Luke, with two children of driving age, owned both a mini- and a mod p-pod. The lease was a fixed cost per month plus charges for distance driven and “swaps.”

A swap occurred when you drove into a p-tran station. An automated crane removed the p-pod and placed it aboard the train. P-tran trains went at up to eight hundred kilometers per hour on elevated magnetic levitation rails. When they arrived at a p-tran station, they entered a form-fitting tunnel that slowed them as they compressed the air. The compressed air was stored and used to accelerate the trains as they left the station. While in transit, passengers could remain in their p-pods or go to the dining car, sports bar, rest rooms, showers and other conveniences. Once at their destination, the p-pod was quickly united with a new set of wheels and off they went. Customers liked the convenience of traveling in their own p-pods and having their personal possessions available for local travel at the destination.

That evening, I took Esther, Rebecca, and Adam out to dinner and an interactive 5-D movie. Each of us donned video goggles, masks, and tactile clothing that provided virtual sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch sensations. It was a musical comedy loosely based on Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia Limited. I, of course, was King Paramount, while Adam was Tarara, the Public Exploder. Rebecca was Princess Zara, Paramount’s gorgeous daughter, and Esther played Lady Sophy, their English Governess. The other characters, including the “Wise Men” Phantis and Scaphio, and Paramount’s other daughters as well as the British experts called the “Flowers of Progress,” were supplied by the computer simulation.

We chose to sing karaoke style, rather than just acting along with computer-provided voices. Lyrics and stage directions were provided via word displays and visual cues, such as virtual images of footsteps if a character had to walk or dance a certain path, etc. If a character messed up, which was quite normal, the computer simulation would joke about it or simply stop and ask the characters to reset their positions and start that scene over. We were all avid Gilbert and Sullivan fans and knew Utopia Limited well. I'm proud to say we were actually quite good at it and had a terrific time.

That evening, Esther and I made love as King Paramount and Lady Sophy. It was great fun and mutually satisfying. “I’m the luckiest man in the world,” I told myself.

At 3AM we were awakened by our weather alarm as a tornado struck Central Florida. Rebecca and Adam came running with their pillows and blankets as we had practiced. We huddled on the floor of the master bedroom closet as the winds roared by. A moment after the crescendo a loud thud shook the ceiling and the lights went out.

I took the wind-up radio and flashlights out of our “storm box.” News reports said the tornado had touched down once to the west and then again to the east of Orlando. The announcer suggested everyone remain under cover until the storm sounds abated. About ten minutes later, the wind and rain sounds quieted. I used a flashlight to examine the ceiling of the master bedroom closet and found it intact and dry. I opened the closet door and went from room to room to assess the damage. Everything was OK until I got to Rebecca’s room. The floor was wet. The ceiling had collapsed under the weight of a tree branch that crashed through the roof. I shut the door and said, “You’ll have to sleep in Adam’s room.” Adam helped his sister pull the bed down from the me-wall. They giggled awhile and fell asleep.

At daybreak, we were awakened by someone pounding on our window. “Are you OK? … JIM! ESTHER! Are you all OK?” I stumbled to the window and peeked through the blinds. It was my next-door neighbor Bill, along with some others gawking in my side yard. I signaled a “thumbs-up” and hurriedly dressed. The lights worked in the kitchen and living room but there was no electricity on the bedroom side of the house. The garage door worked. Bill came in and offered his help. “We have electricity here and in the kitchen and living room,” I explained, “But the bedrooms are out.”

“Let’s try the circuit breakers,” said Bill who was a bit of a handyman. He threw the circuit breakers but they immediately went out again. “Looks like the branch that busted through your roof has caused a short on the bedroom side of your house.”

Esther joined us in the garage. “Its amazing,” she began, “The kids are still asleep in Adam’s room!”

“Glad to hear everyone’s OK!” said Bill. “That branch put a hell of a hole in your roof! I’ve walked the neighborhood and your house seems to be the only one affected by the storm.”

“That damned tree!” continued Esther. “And I can’t get the stupid me-wall to go back to the daytime position. It’s really cramped in the kitchen and living room.”

“I’ve got a small chain saw,” said Bill. “I’d be happy to help you clear away the branches. We can get a tarp and temporarily button up your house. They say it might rain again tonight.”

“Why should we do it ourselves?” I asked. “We’re covered by insurance. I’ll just call Mel at the Home Fixers and they’ll send out a clean-up crew and a carpenter and electrician to do the job.”

“You haven’t heard the news? Many neighborhoods east and south of us have been flattened. Hundreds of homes are affected! Mel and the Home Fixers and all the home repair companies are going to be totally tied up by cases far worse than yours!”

By lunchtime, we had removed the branches and spread the tarp. Esther and the kids had salvaged stuff from Rebecca’s room. We shared a light lunch in the cramped kitchen. “I wish you had left that damned me-wall in the daytime position,” said Esther.

“Hey!” I replied, “Let’s make the best of a bad situation. I think we all like our bedrooms to be as big as possible in the evening, which is why I always move the me-wall to that position.”

“You’re crazy,” replied Esther. “You run that damn me-wall back and forth, back and forth every evening and every morning, every damn evening and every damn morning! You wore it out which is probably why it can't move back this morning. When we’re sleeping who gives a damn how big the bedroom is?”

“The airflow is better in a bigger bedroom,” I replied. “And, why are you in a snit? I spent all morning on a ladder and on the roof dragging wet branches around and spreading that tarp over the hole and securing it while you were in the house.”

“So, who was saving Rebecca’s stuff? And who made lunch in this stifling kitchen? And whose idea, Jim, was it to build a house on a lot with a giant live oak tree towering over it? We paid extra for that damned tree! It sheds leaves January and February and drops branches in the front yard and has those awful no-see-em flies.”

“I like our tree. That live oak blocks the Sun from the south and saves us hundreds of dollars in cooling costs every year ..."

“Well, you go charge the roof repair and re-plastering and repainting to that energy savings Mr. James Cheapskate!”

“Mom! Dad!” cried Rebecca, who had been watching the news on the kitchen display wall. “Isn’t that Mr. Mathew’s neighborhood they’re showing?”

“Yes!” I answered. “It looks like many homes there are totally flattened! Let me contact him on my read-WINs. Gosh, I hope they’re OK. … Hey Luke, this is Jim. We had a tree branch go through the roof but our house is livable and everyone is OK. How are you guys doing? The news shows major damage in your area.”

“Well Jim, our house is no more,” replied Luke. “But, thank God for our storm cellar. We’re all OK except for one of the twins who was at a sleepover PJ party with her Christian home school group. We haven’t been able to contact her yet.”

“Which one, the learning disabled one or the other?”

“No, the one we haven’t contacted yet is Martha. She’s the one who aced her exams and just won a scholarship to Harvard. Mary, our other twin, isn’t invited to sleepovers or parties, sad to say. You know, kids are brutal when it comes to socializing with others who have disabilities. I guess it is human nature, which certainly does not make it right. Just because it is doesn't mean it ought to be.”

“I’m sorry for Mary. Congrats on Martha’s scholarship. She’s bright and beautiful and a real credit to you and your wife. You say your house is no more? What happened? Where are you?”

“Well, we’re at the church a kilometer from our house. My wife is a volunteer and she’s responsible for running the emergency refuge here. Thank God our cars were parked across the street because I was painting our garage and they’re still drivable. The tornado mostly destroyed our side of the street. When the tornado-warning alarm went off, we went straight to the storm shelter, exactly according to plan. I had time to run and pound on the door of our next-door neighbor and our oldest son went to the other neighbor and they rode the thing out in our shelter. It saved our lives, thank God!”

“I’m glad you’re OK. You know, you can stay at our house when you get tired of the church refuge …”

As I offered our house, Esther shook her head and mouthed “NO! It’s too crowded!” To emphasize her words she pushed at the me-wall as if trying to make our kitchen larger. Then she held up seven fingers: “Luke, Jane, James, Martha, Mary, John, Jess.”

“Wait a minute, Jim,” said Luke. “Hold on, I’m getting a call from the sheriff’s office. … Hey Mike, what’s the latest on the storm damage? We can accommodate about fifty more at our church refuge, a hundred if they’re friendly types. … What? … Are you sure? … Their house was totally flattened? Jesus Christ! Oh my God! How about Martha? … Are you sure? Have you identified her body? … EXACTLY WHO SAID IT WAS MARTHA? … Her classmate? DEAR JESUS! ARE YOU ABSOLUTELY SURE MAN? No, tell me this is not happening! May Jesus bless her soul.”

“Luke, what the heck is going on?” I asked, “Is Martha OK?”

The Lord givith and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the Lord. The Sheriff just told me the house where Martha was at the PJ party was totally destroyed and they’ve found the bodies of eight girls, including our daughter! Four more girls at the party were badly injured but survived. I can’t talk to you any more right now. I’ve got to tell my wife the terrible news. Good luck to you. May God bless you and keep you safe. In Jesus name, amen!”

“Esther, terrible news! Luke’s twin Martha is dead! She was at a PJ party and the house was flattened. Seven of her Christian schoolmates were also killed and four were injured. What a terrible disaster! Luke and the rest of his family are safe at a church refuge.”

“Is Martha the learning-disabled one?"

“No, that’s Mary, who is alive because she doesn’t get invited to social events due to her learning disability. That saved her life!”

“Why did Luke's wife let her go to the PJ party?” asked Esther. “Yesterday we had all those tornado warnings in the weather forecast. I wouldn't have let Rebecca go last night.”

I looked at Esther as if she was out of her mind. “Rebecca is nine, Martha was eighteen! There were tornado warnings last week when you let Rebecca go to your aunt’s house!”

“If one of the twins had to die,” asked Adam, “Wouldn’t it have been better if it was the learning-disabled one?”

Esther and I looked at him. “What a disgusting thought,” said Esther. However, I had to admit that was exactly what I was thinking.

It wasn’t long before our family got over the news of Martha’s death and the destruction of Luke’s house and back to our petty arguments. According to Esther, it was all my fault we had a tree because I was so cheap. If not for that damn tree, and the position of the me-wall, we would not be stuck with a small kitchen for months until we could get the roof and Rebecca’s room fixed. According to Adam, Rebecca was persona non-grata in his room for a whole raft of reasons. Rebecca said Adam was selfish about letting her share his things to replace hers that that been destroyed, and he was secretly peeking at her when she was in her underclothes.

I was actually looking forward to the trip to Atlanta. It was a way for me to leave behind, at least temporarily, the problems our family was having adjusting to life in a slightly cramped home.

The plan for Monday morning was for Luke to pick me up at my house and make two more pickups on his way to the p-tran station, about eight kilometers away. Stephanie was going to pick the others up in her maxi p-pod in time to catch the same p-tran.

“You know, Luke,” I said, “I’m kind of disappointed with the way my family is handling the storm damage situation. The kids are complaining about sharing a bedroom. You know we have a me-wall, and it’s stuck in the night position, so Adam’s bedroom is double-sized with plenty of space for both if they weren’t so damned territorial. I’m sorry Esther has to put up with a cramped kitchen, which she blames on me because I like the bedroom to be bigger at night for airflow and that’s why the me-wall got stuck when the tree branch – also my fault according to her – fell through the roof.”

“That’s human nature,” observed Luke. “Minor inconveniences can be more trouble than major ones are to others.”

“Esther is harried because she’s the one calling around to get someone to control the mold problem and fix the leaks in our roof. However, I’m doing my share trying to get a contractor to fix the roof and Rebecca’s room. All the big contractors I call put us at the end of the line because our job is relatively small. It looks like it’ll be a few months before they get to us. How are you doing with your house?”

“Thanks for asking,” replied Luke. “I was over there briefly and it’s a total loss, except for the foundation and the storm shelter. Fortunately, we had our family Bible with us in the shelter and it survived. All our photos and videos and legal and financial documents were backed up on the WIN, so we have them. We will have to find a rental for at least six months while they rebuild. Nevertheless, we will be OK. You have to take a positive attitude!”

“You’re right – look at your situation. You lost Martha who was set to go to Harvard on scholarship and make you proud. Your home is totally destroyed along with your mementos and so on. Yet, you seem as accepting and unconcerned as can be. I actually envy you your religiosas locas faith!”

“I believe with all my heart,” Luke replied, “Martha is in a better place, walking hand in hand with Jesus! In due time, God willing, we will be reunited in Heaven. Our house was insured and will be replaced. Life at the church refuge is challenging – eighty-six people with two toilets can be hard to live with you know – but my wife has done a wonderful job running the place and everyone admires her. We plan to stay until she can get all the others taken in by friends or relatives or strangers or into rentals they can afford. We have dry cots to sleep on in an air-conditioned hall with good food.

“Our children are as happy as can be interacting with other kids. Despite her learning disability, Mary has become a babysitter for the toddlers and everyone appreciates her warm personality and totally unselfish attitude. Despite his MS, our middle son, John, has been helping out and is having the time of his life. Jess is too young to worry about our house and all the teenage girls want to mother him. Our oldest, James, has earned kudos for his work on the clean-up crew and he has found a wonderful new girl friend. God has blessed us! What more could anyone ask for? Thank you Jesus!”

“You know,” I said, “I'm surprised you had a storm shelter in your house. I thought you trusted God for protection?”

“We do trust in God! It was because of God a storm shelter was an option when we built. It was because of God’s grace we decided to exercise that option. It was God who guided us to get the tornado alarm and allowed us to save our neighbors and ourselves. Of course, Martha’s horrible death was a terrible blow. However, we believe God had some special need only our Martha and her seven Christian classmates could satisfy. They say ‘the good die young’.”

“God didn’t save you! It was your preparations and personal actions that saved you and your family! It was the engineers who designed your storm shelter and the masons who built it!”

“Of course it was! But that is how God works. You know the story of the guy who gets shipwrecked in the middle of the ocean and he prays to God for a miracle to rescue him? Well, an hour later, a boat shows up but he refuses to be rescued. ‘Why?’ they ask him. ‘I expected God to rescue me personally – you are not God!’”

“Good story! But, why did God allow him to be shipwrecked in the first place? If God could miraculously send that rescue boat to the middle of the ocean in an hour, He could just as easily have prevented the first ship from going down, couldn’t He?”

“The first ship went down because people succumbed to the Satan’s temptations. For example, the crew didn’t maintain it properly, or the captain failed to see an iceberg, or something like that. God gives us free will. That is what it means to be human. Satan tests us but God does not let him go beyond anyone’s limits.”

Our group arrived at the p-tran station a bit early and caught a p-pod train almost immediately. Stephanie called and told us her group was delayed by a car accident and caught a much later p-pod train. We were relieved we didn’t have to cope with her while traveling. The ride was relaxing. Luke spent most of his time in his p-pod, catching up on some WIN reading and TV watching.

I walked the length of the train and stopped at the sports bar for a cup of tea. There I met a very pretty woman who happened to live and work not far from TABB Regional HQ in Atlanta. She said she was a waitress returning from a visit to her parents who lived in a retirement community in central Florida. I was surprised to hear humans still worked as waitresses – all the restaurants I knew used IRAs as wait staff. She explained it was a very upscale place where customers demanded more than robotic service. I promised to try to get my group to have dinner at her restaurant while we were in Atlanta. Our very pleasant conversation lasted for almost an hour. As I sized her up for recruitment into my autoerotic fantasy world, I felt a pang of guilt. However, I got over it quickly.

Our group arrived in Atlanta and Luke’s p-pod was joined with a new set of wheels leaving plenty of time to drive to a nice restaurant for lunch. We got to TABB Regional HQ early and waited in the lobby. Ten minutes later, Barbas arrived with a gray-haired woman. He walked up to Luke and demanded, “Where’s Stephanie?”

“She missed our p-tran and messaged me they’ll get here just in time for the meeting.” Luke answered.

We all sat in total silence for fifteen minutes until Stephanie and her group arrived. “We had to get lunch on the train,” she cried. “They don’t have good healthy food! Just sixty-four kinds of burgers. They’re good only as a limit test on your pancreas.” Barbas conferred privately with Stephanie in a corner before she and Luke got on the elevator, leaving me and the others to cool our heels in the lobby.

I was reading an e-magazine when Luke came out, a bit white-faced. “Jim, you need to go up and answer some questions for Dudley Wagner, the Advanced Projects Executive who is Stephanie’s boss’s boss. Go up the elevator to the top floor and tell the human secretary you have a meeting with Wagner.” Luke walked to the elevator with me and whispered, “Dudley Wagner is the number one jerk-off at TABB. I have no idea how he keeps his job. He must have something on some higher up or some awfully well honed ‘strategic’ or political instincts. That squat portly pig said he had no need for an engineer at the meeting. I’ve been ordered to stay here.”

Wagner’s office was fittingly located and decorated for a high TABB Exec. “You and your muffing Hawking Plan,” he said bluntly to Stephanie and me, “Have stirred up a hornet’s nest of oposición. As you know, the organizer of the number one anti-Hawking gang is Tsar Sahbaka of the CentAsia region. We also have two or three other anti-Hawking gangs in Africa, the MidEast and SoutAmer regions, and even some powerful TCs in NortAmer, Europe, and EastAsia that have opposed Hawking for reasons of their own. As you know Stephanie, I have kept these anti-Hawking gangs from joining together, with a little bit of help from you on the study contracts.”

Wagner looked at me with distain and waved in the manner one would to a child. “Little Jimmy here,” he began, “Isn’t at a high enough pay grade to have to be bothered by the other oposición groups. I wouldn’t even worry him with Sahbaka if it were not for the fact that little Jimmy has thrown Sahbaka some raw carne roja bullcrap that he seems determined to throw back in our faces to kill the Hawking Plan.” Stephanie remained silent. I squirmed a bit in my seat. My face flushed and I felt hot and sweaty.

“Tsar Sahbaka, the God-damned Mongol miscreant,” Wagner continued, “Objects mainly based on fiscal conservatism. His natural allies are the anal conservadores fiscales who oppose any spending not tied to market forces. However, since that issue doesn’t have much traction outside a small segment of the business community, he has found allies in some strange places, the most dangerous of which are in the literal believer religioso locas community, may they all rot in the Hell they create for the rest of us.” With that, he spat on the faux wood floor of his office, leaving a puddle of considerable size.

“I’ll get to the religioso nuts in a minute,” He continued, “But first let me give you an account of the rag-tag bunch that muffing Tsar Sahbaka has organized to block us from awarding the contracts. El más grande group he has recruited into his strange bedfellow alianza is activists for the so-called ‘poor and downtrodden’.”

“My Liege,” I interjected, trying to be helpful, “Transnational living standards have improved greatly since global warming abated and the war on terror was won. The past two decades have seen widely distributed and very fast real increases in earnings and …”

“What the hell?” demanded Wagner, “Are you some kind of muffing historian?”

“Yes, My Leige” I said proudly, “As a matter of fact I am!”

Wagner spit again. That left another sputum puddle not far from the first. Why didn't he have a spittoon? But, only an historian would know what a spittoon was! Or a classic movie buff!

“The poor among us, these activists say,” continued Wagner, “Have to work over twenty-five hours a week to make ends meet. Some of them work outdoors in temperatures as high as eighty- or ninety-degrees or more. They must breathe unfiltered, so-called ‘fresh’ air, and drink piped, not bottled water. Their wages are too low to be able to afford international travel, so they must take domestic vacations. There are rural areas on Earth where there is no wireless WIN access. The poor who live there have to plug in to wire cables to surf the WIN.”

“My Leige,” I chimed in, “There are areas of the world where living standards are considerably lower than others. With energy resources no longer scarce, some areas have seen relative declines, but, overall, things have never been better for the working poor …”

“These advocates of the poor,” continued Wagner, speaking over me, “Say, ‘Why spend money and human resources, including engineers who could be working on technology to help the poor, and instead shoot spaceships to espacio exterior and who-knows where, and they won’t even get there for a million years!’ They ask why people in geographic areas where resources are poor or where cultural morays don’t favor education, and so on should suffer through no fault of their own. They talk some mumbo-jumbo about the ‘Parrot Principle’ and ‘Natural Falsies’ and whatever.”

“My Leige, that’s the ‘Pareto Principle’ and the ‘Naturalistic Fallacy’,” I interjected brightly.

“Vilfredo Pareto, over a hundred fifty years ago, discovered about twenty percent of the population of his native Italy at the time owned about eighty percent of the land, which seemed unfair. The so-called ‘eighty-twenty’ rule holds that a small percentage of the causes are responsible for a large percentage of the consequences in any system, human-made or natural.

“Ethicists have argued that just because it may be natural for there to be such inequalities, that doesn’t make it right. That is the point of the so-called Naturalistic Fallacy which holds that just because something ‘is’ does not mean it ‘ought to be.’ More modern thought holds that anything that is natural and has existed for a long period of time ought to be. They say the Naturalistic Fallacy is itself a fallacy!”

Wagner looked at me with a quizzical expression on his face. Then he flapped his gums as if he was speaking but no words came out. I was full of nervous energy, so I went on.

“Even the letters of our alphabet follow something like the eighty-twenty rule. With twenty-six letters, if they were all equal you would expect each of them to do about the same percentage of work. Yet, the most popular like 'e' and 't' are used up to ten times as often as the least popular, 'q' and 'z'.

"Even numerals are unequal. 'Benford's Law' is that the initial numeral in a number is far more likely to be a one or a two than an eight or nine. With ten numerals, equality would demand each appear about ten percent of the time, yet the numeral one appears about three times as often as the first digit, the numeral two about twice as often, and the numerals eight and nine only half as often. Of course, the numeral zero never appears as the first digit of a number."

As I spoke, Wagner cupped his face in his hands and laid his head down on his cluttered desk. I looked over to Stephanie for guidance but she returned my look with a blank stare. Not knowing what else to do, I continued!

“Words are also unequal. The most popular appear hundreds or thousands of times more often than the least popular. The most popular words use fewer letters while the least popular words generally use more. Similarly, even the flips of a 'fair coin' exhibit some inequality. Of course, on any given flip the chances of a head are exactly 50%. Yet, given a record of a series of flips, if you find, say six heads in a row, the chances of the next one also being a head are far less than 50% ...”

“Are you quite finished with this lección histórica de la filosofía?” interrupted Wagner.

“Yes My Leige,” I replied. “I was just trying to help you explain the inequality between geographic regions. If things like words and letters and numerals can be unequal, it is natural that ...”

“I’d like to get back to the business at hand,” interrupted Wagner. “We’ll get to the religioso locas idiots in a moment and then I’d like to hear from you. Can you SHUT UP till then Rabbi O’Brian?”

I silently rotated my head up and down.

“Sahbaka is also recruiting into his oposición gang many TCs based in CentAsia, Africa, SoutAmer, and, to some extent, the MidEast, which are relatively poorer than the other areas of the world. He is urging those TCs to say the Hawking Plan is a gigantic boondoggle designed as a power grab for TABB money by greedy TCs based in NortAmer, Europe and EastAsia, which will get nearly ninety percent of the work on the Hawking Plan when it gets to the development and implementation stages. Stephanie, I reviewed your proposed contract award list and you have balanced them geographically, but the study contracts are relatively low funded. The really juicy expenditures will come with the development, production, and operational phases. We all know which regions will benefit most: NortAmer, Europe, and EastAsia.”

Wagner stood up to emphasize his next point. “How do you argue with the proposition we are imposing costs on the entire population of the world in order to fund a technological boondoggle that will bring absolutely no benefits to most of the population of Earth? I know your argument that the Hawking Plan will spark tremendous growth in travel, medical, communications, and computer industries. However, where are most of these located? . . . Not in the backward muffing regions of the world!”

Stephanie began to reply, but Wagner was on a roll and he spoke over her. “Which brings us up to you, James O’Brian,” he huffed, “Or should I say Rabbi James O’Brian. What kind of a fur-schtinkiner name is that for a Jew? You should be an Irish cop!”

I squirmed in my chair, but remained silent. What did I care if the Irish were being belittled? I was not Irish. My father was British Protestant. As for the Exec’s comments about being a rabbi and about Jewish people, they were not really anti-Semitic at all. Actually, ‘James O’Brian’ was not a normal name for a rabbi or a Jew!

Wagner manipulated his codip and a photo of a naked woman in a suggestive pose came up on his display wall. “Oops,” he said, laughing, “Wrong meeting for that one! I’d like to wring the neck of the bozo idiot engineer who designed this co-muffing-dip. Come to think of it, that woman is co-co-co of a muffing dip-dip-dip.” He struggled with his codip for a couple more minutes, bringing up a number of unrelated photos and charts. I looked at Stephanie, who, like me, was having difficulty concealing her schadenfreude.

At long last, he got the before and after photos of the Dead Sea Scrolls up on his display wall.

“Whose idea was it to change the muffing un-holy scriptures of every stupid religion in the world?” Wagner continued. He finally stopped talking and waited for an answer. Stephanie and I exchanged worried glances.

I had carefully compartmentalized the updates to the scriptures of the world’s religions. Everyone on the project was a non-believer who had been vetted by the TBI and sworn to secrecy. No one was supposed to be informed of the máquina del tiempo unless he or she had a specific “need to know.” Even Luke, as intimately involved with the Hawking Plan as he was, had not been read into that part. How did this TABB Executive know? And, more important, how much did he know? And, even more important, who told him? And why?

If this pork-pie dimwit, who Luke said was ‘the number one jerk-off at TABB,’ knew about our máquina del tiempo, the secret was definitely out to the whole world – including Tsar Sahbaka, who was many bad things, but definitely not a dimwit. I analyzed Wagner’s words: “… un-holy scriptures of every stupid religion in the world…” and wondered if he knew the extent of the updates or if he was just extrapolating from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Finally Stephanie spoke. “My Liege,” she began, “Are you by any chance familiar with the contra-terror program of the TBI?”

“Never heard of it,” Wagner answered, “Those muffing idiot TBI bozos screwed around for half a century fighting a bunch of crazy Islamistas in the mountains and deserts. Nuke the whole region is what they should have done!”

“My Liege,” replied Stephanie softly, “You can’t just nuke a whole region and kill millions of innocents just because some of the people there are religious terrorists!”

“Why not honey doll? If the TBI actually had a contra-terror policy and strategy, it is news to me. Ask the hundreds of thousands of innocent people all over the world who were blown up, poisoned, and dirty bombed by the terrorists what they think of the TBI. The muffing contra-terror program was a boondoggle for the TBI.”

“My Liege,” she continued calmly, though she was seething inside, “The TBI contra-terror program was not a boondoggle. It …”

“It takes one to know one!” Wagner interrupted her. “I AM THE MUFFING KING OF BOONDOGGLES. If I get your stupid Hawking Plan funded despite the efforts of little Rabbi Jimmy and big Tsar Sahbaka, it will be the icing on your muffing boondoggle cake!”

Stephanie let him finish and then continued. “My Liege, my previous job was in the TBI but I got there just after religioso-based terrorism finally petered out in 2040 or so. I worked with many of the brave men and women of the TBI who finally won that war, and I am more than a little upset that you denigrate their efforts. Some of them infiltrated the training camps and were discovered. They were tortured and had their heads sliced off for their efforts. And, I’ve spoken to more than a few who escaped or were rescued by other brave men and women who were definitely not ‘bozos,’ with all respect My Liege. By ‘torture’ we’re not talking just about cold and cramped jail cells or loud noises or simulated drowning or threats of bodily harm, but starving, no water for days, cutting fingers off and twisting limbs until they broke and poking out their eyes.”

“I’m sorry,” replied Wagner, a big smirk on his fat face “You are loyal to the TBI – I can understand that, it’s a good trait. I only wish more of the muffing locas idiots who work for me here were loyal like that. Tell me about the contra-terror program. I’m all ears.” With that, he cupped his hands over his ears and grinned widely.

“This idiot,” I said myself, “Talks about ‘bozos’ at the TBI – he was right, 'it takes one to know one'! Luke was misunderestimating him when he said he was the number one jerk-off at TABB, this guy must be the number one jerk-off in all of world history!”

“My Liege,” she said, not reacting to his insulting demeanor, “The TBI defeated religion-based terrorism in two major ways. The first you know was ‘positive ID’ technology. The second is still TBI-Secret and must not be revealed to anybody without a ‘need to know.’ It was the máquina del tiempo, which means ‘time machine’”

“I majored en español, at Grey Poupon University” said Wagner, “I know what máquina del tiempo means.”

“I got my BA at GPU, in 2042,” she said, trying to establish a personal relationship with the Exec “When did you graduate?”

“I know you went to GPU – I looked up your records this morning. I got out in 2040,” replied Wagner. He gave her a penetrating stare. “So we were there at the same time. Too bad we never dated, my love, as far as I know.” He laughed energetically. Stephanie remained silent. I shifted in my chair and looked down at my feet. “Although I didn’t major in science,” Wagner continued, “I’m pretty sure they haven’t yet mastered the art of going back in time. So, what máquina del tiempo are you getting at, honey doll?”

“My Liege,” she continued, flexing her right leg, tightening her right hand into a fist behind her back, and carefully choosing her words, “These were not physical time machines that could take you back in time. Rather, the TBI went and modified the scriptures of a certain religion as they appear in the e-texts and e-photos on WIN, which is equivalent to going back in time and changing history.”

“Sounds pretty clever,” said Wagner, “Change some of the radical calls to arms the Islamistas were using to stir up the muffing bombardeos del suicidio. Great idea! Good for the TBI!”

“Thank you My Liege,” she continued, “On behalf of my former colleagues at the TBI. They told me they had to make corresponding changes in the originals or oldest extant copies of the scriptures to prevent religious historians and religioso literal believers from proving that the changes had been made.”

“OK, NOW I’VE GOT IT!,” shouted WAGNER, “Your brave heroes of the TBI changed the words of one particularly fierce and idiotic religion to save the world from terrorists, so you got it into your pretty little head to change all the stupid words of all the world’s locas religions to help sell the Hawking Plan. Right?”

“Not quite, My Liege,” Stephanie replied, “I hired Jim to find scriptures that supported the idea of human space exploration and spreading human life and civilization to the Heavens.”

“And,” said Wagner, “Was that all he did?”

“My, ... My Liege,” said Stephanie hesitantly, “What …”

“Sweetie, pie,” Wagner interrupted boastfully, “I know everything! I have been getting reports all week about changes in dozens of damned so-called ‘Holy Books’ all over the world. They can’t all be false, can they? So far, the only proof anyone has is the film of the Dead Sea Scrolls. No one knows where the original negatives are. My security person thinks an Israeli, ‘Yitsy beer Matzos’ or some crazy name like that, has them. Right now, all we have are high-resolution digital photos of the supposed film originals. See them on my display wall? What the hell do you know?”

“My Liege, we’ve heard about Yitzchak bar Mats in Be’er Sheva, Israel. He is a document custodian at the museum that sent the Dead Sea Scrolls to Tokyo to be preserved. Bar Mats made some PID queries about me and some of my staff who were in Tokyo last June.”

“Were the Dead Sea Scrolls changed by order of your Branch?” demanded Wagner. “Were any other God-damned relics?”

“My Liege,” said Stephanie, putting on her “vulnerable” face, “I mentioned the máquina del tiempo and Jim apparently put two and two together and got twenty-two. He misunderstood and went too far. I never told him to modify the Dead Sea Scrolls. Did I Jim?”

I squirmed a bit and answered quietly, “No.”

“No what, Jim?” asked Stephanie.

“You did not specifically ask me to modify any scripture or mention the Dead Sea Scrolls. That was my idea, entirely.”

“Jimmy boy,” Wagner growled, “How many un-holy, muffing, God-damned scriptures have you changed?”

“My Liege,” I began, looking at Stephanie who signaled I had to tell all, “We have updated the e-texts for four-thousand two-hundred twenty eight phrases for thirty-six religions and religious denominations in eighteen languages. We have made corresponding e-photo updates for about half of those, and the remaining updates will be completed within six months, I expect.”

“Incredible!” said Wagner in disbelief. ”You have been a very busy boy! I only wish my muffing employees were so productive. And, how many originals or relics or whatever have you butchered?”

“My Liege,” I continued, again looking at Stephanie whose face indicated a combination of admiration at my hard-working obedience and horror at the extent of what I had done, “We have made changes to a total of eighteen originals and oldest extant manuscripts for six religions in five languages. Several more are in the process of being updated at museums in all over the world.”


I looked at Stephanie and she made a gesture that indicated I must comply. I took my read-WINs out of my pocket and put them on. “My Liege,” I began, “I brought the list up, and here, you can borrow my read-WINs.”

“And get your cooties?” he laughed. “I can’t use those muffing things. Put the list on my display wall.” Again, I looked at Stephanie. “I SAID,” shouted Wagner, “Put the muffing list on my display wall. And look at me when you need to know what to do, not some flirty girly muy caliente chick!”

I walked over to Wagner’s codip, being careful not to slip in the sputum puddles, the surfaces of which had by then congealed a bit into jelly-like skin. I typed a code and a password and slid my “boy scout fingers” over a sensor that read my finger geometry, vein pattern, and fingerprints. It also checked my pulse to be sure it was scanning a live hand, not a plastic replica or a hand that had been severed from its owner by thieves or terrorists. As a further security feature protecting the highly classified list of updates, I looked into a small mirror on Wagner’s codip. An optical sensor beam scanned my face geometry and iris pattern. A light flashed a few times at the end of the scan to cause my iris to contract, proving the eye was indeed still attached to its live owner and not a photo or a purloined eyeball. The list appeared on Wagner’s display wall. I returned to my chair, again giving the sputum puddles the respect they were due.

“My Liege,” I said respectfully, “The file will delete when you turn your computer off. It is muy importante this TBI-Secret list not be released to anyone without a ‘need to know’.”

“Yeah, Dick Tracy,” He said sarcastically, “Like I was gonna trade your muffing list for a Crime Stopper ring!” He scrolled up and down the list, breezing past the Hebrew, Greek and English and stopping at the Spanish section. He made some sarcastic comments about the Spanish spelling and grammar being “all screwed up.”

“My Liege,” I replied, “Some of that is Castellano medieval.”

Wagner looked at me with contempt. He stood up and pointed his finger at me. “YOU,” he shouted, “Are a very productive GAS-BUTT!” With that, Stephanie leaned forward, as if to speak, but did not say anything. “You know,” continued Wagner, pointing at me, “There are four kinds of people in the world: the productive smart people, the lazy smart people, the lazy gas-butts, and the productive gas-butts! The first group is responsible for progress in this world. The middle two groups don’t do much good or bad. But, it is the last group, people like you, who cause all the trouble! You are a God-damned muffing over-productive GAS-BUTT!”

I thought briefly about telling Wagner that the two-dimensional dichotomy, about smart and stupid people being either lazy or active, was in the Talmud. Was this fur-schtinkiner guy also Jewish? I remained silent. Wagner turned to Stephanie, and pointed at her, “And you, honey doll, where in hell were you when all this was going down? You are the muffing Branch Chief. You were supposed to be watching what he was doing. How’d you get your goddamned job, bimbo? I heard you muffed your way to the top. I’ll bet you’re good at that! When do I get mine?”

I watched in amazement as Stephanie stood up and walked towards Wagner. I hoped she would not slip in the slick spots, and was quite relieved when she sidestepped them neatly. As she stood toe to toe with Wagner – she was at least three inches taller – poking her finger into his shoulder, she shouted, “Don’t you dare call one of my best employees a gas-butt. You are the biggest damned gas-butt in this building! And, cut out the ‘honey doll’ chauvinism, I could pick you up and wipe the floor with you, you know that! And, how did majoring en español qualify you for your high and mighty job?”

“Look who’s talking,” Wagner replied with a grin, “As I said before, I looked up your records this morning and your Ph – muffing – D is in Theater Arts at Grey Poupon University.”

That broke the tension and they both had a hearty laugh. I shook my head and tried to act happy.

“Good old GPU,” shouted Wagner, “Remember our fight song for ‘the Old Gray Goose’?”
“Sure do,” said Stephanie. They faced me and did their cheer: "Say hooray! / Yellow and gray. / Ballyhoo / Grey Poupon U! / Let ‘er loose / Our Old Gray Goose. / Glory to / Grey Poupon U! ”

“Our school had a bootleg version,” she said enthusiastically: “Theater Arts are in our hearts. / Pas de deux / Grey Poupon U! / Act, joke, sing / Any old thing. / If you boo / Goose poop on you! ”

“So did we,” added Wagner: “Español no inglañol. / Amig-oo, Grey Poupon U! / La muerte, el ataque / Ganso gris, apoderaréis! ”

“And the medical school,” they said in unison: "Dr. Seuss is on the loose. / He’ll teach you / Grey Poupon U! / Body parts / Belches and farts. / If you sue / Goose poop on you! ”

“I like a spunky dame!” He said, “Are you married?”

“My husband and I recently separated,” she said, throwing her head back and brushing her hair with her right hand. “We’ll be formally ‘splitting sheets’ in a few months.”

She did a dainty plié dance hop over the sputum, bowed, and returned to her chair. That was a surprise to me. In Tokyo, she said her relationship with her husband was a happy one. They had just had a baby, for goodness sake. Was she lying to Wagner to charm her way out of this problem?

“Let me give you the bottom line,” Wagner said matter-of-factly, “Several large TCs are pushing the Hawking Plan not because they think your great grand-dad was correct or anything, but for lots of juicy production contracts a decade from now. These TCs have a technological lock on spaceship design and genetic engineering and so on. They will weigh in and keep the Hawking Plan on track for their own selfish interests.” He pointed to his display wall. “So far,” he continued, “The only serious problem is those damned photos. If Tsar Sahbaka and his oposición group get the film, all hell will break loose. You muffed up and must get those original photographs and put them where the sun ain’t never going to shine. Got it?”

“Yes, My Liege,” replied Stephanie, “I guarantee we will get those original film negatives and destroy them.” She signaled to me the meeting was over and we started to walk out.

“Say, Stephanie,” Wagner called after her, “Care to have dinner with me tonight? I know all the great places in Atlanta. Even a place with human waitresses – imagine that!”

“Dingleberries on Peachtree, near Poplar Street,” I blurted, remembering what the waitress I’d met on the p-pod-train had told me. I had not intended to say it aloud.

Both Wagner and Stephanie looked at me. “At least you got the location right,” said Stephanie, laughing.

“It’s ‘Dingle’s Verities’!” shouted Wagner, his face red with anger. ‘Dingle‘ was a Confederate war hero. ‘Verities’ means realities – real girls not robots. You are the gas-butt dingleberry.”

“Jim is impulsive,” Stephanie said, posing and making her hair bounce around. “That’s not the least of his charms.”

Wagner shifted his gaze from me to Stephanie and regained his smarmy smile. “So,” he continued, “How about it?”

“Thanks but no thanks,” she answered softly, “My dear old grandmother lives in Atlanta and I’ve promised to have dinner at her house. Perhaps next time, after contract awards?” She rushed over and gave him an enthusiastic kiss and a lambada hug. And then we left.

As we went down in the elevator, Stephanie gave me a kiss and a lambada hug – the first time I had gone down and “up” at the same time. “Dingleberries,” she said with a laugh. “I like that! You should look it up on your read-WINs sometime!”

Stephanie told our team all would be OK and the contract awards would most likely be announced officially within a few days.

The wall opposite the bed in my Atlanta hotel room was a giant display screen set for classic paintings and a beach view in Tahiti. It also served as a TV screen and WIN-surfing display. I initiated a conversación video with my family. I was surprised when Esther answered my call on her read-WINs. “Don’t tell me our display wall doesn’t work,” I said.

“Oh no,” Esther answered, “Thank God, it works fine, but we’re not at home. You’ll never guess where we are and who called me today!” Without waiting for my answer she went on, “It was Jane, Luke’s wife! You know she’s home schooling their children. She’s also a volunteer at the church shelter and is in charge over here, doing God’s work and ‘Thank you Jesus’ and all that. Well, she calls and gives me the name of a Latino gal in her church who has a small contracting business. She can’t tackle the large rebuilding jobs but is perfect for our small roof and ceiling repair. So, the contractor gal comes over today and tells me they’ll start the mold treatments tomorrow and have the rest fixed in a few weeks. And she goes into Rebecca’s room and disconnects some wires and the circuit breakers don’t pop and the me-wall works like it was new. Thank God!”

“Terrific news,” I said. “I mentioned our problem to Luke this morning and I guess he told Jane. So, where are you? And why?”

“I’m at the church shelter and I’ve got more news. After work today, I went with Adam and Rebecca over here to thank Jane and show our spoiled kids how blessed we are in our own house. The people here lost everything but their religious faith is wonderful.”

“Great, I agree our kids have been a bit spoiled and …”

“Let me finish!” interrupted Esther. “Jane, you know, is very good with people – she is the best. Everybody over here is so positive with unlimited faith in God and Jesus. However, as a professional administrator, I see immediately she does not have a clue how to schedule and track finances and resettling families into rentals.”

“Really?” I replied.

“Well,” she continued, “I volunteered as their business manager and Jane was so happy! I set up a schedule and a roster of families in the shelter and volunteer skills and contact information. Rebecca and Adam fit right in with the kids and they even helped with the cleanup after dinner. We’ll work here ‘til ten PM lights-out.”

“Sounds like a good educational opportunity for our kids. You’re doing the church shelter a big favor with your admin skills.”

“I look forward to a few hours over here every day after work and all day Saturday and Sunday. I am also sorry I was so testy with you last week about the live oak tree and the me-wall and all that. Their minister gave a wonderful talk after supper about God forgiving those who forgive others and so on. I totally forgive you – please forgive me. It's my entire fault and I was so selfish and mean …”

“Certainly, forgiveness all around! And good to hear the great news about the repairs!” I replied. “But, please assure me you’re not going to go religiosas locas on me. You know those people are dedicated missionaries for Fundamentalist Christianity. Watch out for Rebecca and Adam. Kids are especially susceptible to that stuff.”

“Too late already – we converted! Praise the Lord! Jesus is King! I quit my job and we start home-schooling next week …”

“Esther! You can’t do that without my permission. I forbid it! Have you lost your mind? What the hell are you thinking? …”

“Jim … JIM!” Esther replied, laughing. “I wanted to scare the be-Jesus out of you and I certainly did!”

After the conversación, I ordered a lite room service meal to try to lose some of the weight I had put on over the past few months. As I was munching on my salad, which I had squirted with lemon juice instead of fattening dressing, I heard a knock on the door. I paused the movie and flipped the display wall screen to “Peephole” view.

Peephole TV was a feature invented some forty years prior by a guy who had lost his right eye when the man whose wife he was having an affair with shot it out through a motel door peephole. He was blinded in that one eye but not killed. That tragedy led to his invention, which consisted of a small TV camera mounted in the door that displayed the view on channel 99 on the TV set. He became rich and had his name legally changed to “Oneeyeshy Theoneeyeguy.”

It was Stephanie at the door! She was wearing a flimsy nightgown. I immediately understood her grandmother story was a ruse to avoid going out with Wagner, the boorish TABB Exec, and she intended to celebrate her victory with me. I walked to the door slowly, uncertain what I should or would do. I left the chain on the door and opened it a bit. Stephanie smiled through the crack and asked me to let her in to talk. “Sorry,” I said, “I’m having my dinner and watching a movie. Can’t the talk wait till breakfast tomorrow?”

“Talking can wait, but this cannot. She pulled her nightgown back to reveal her milk-swollen bosom. “I just pumped a couple bottles for my darling Diega and I have some left for my darling Diego.”

“Sorry Estephania, It’s not right. I’m happily married and also a rabbi.” I was surprised to hear myself say that so unambiguously.

“I had an amigo at the TBI,” she said, “Who was Orthodox Jewish and married who told me Jewish law allowed a man to sleep with an unmarried woman. My husband and I are separated.”
“Stephanie,” I replied, “Your amigo was correct about Orthodox Jewish law. But I am Reform Jewish and, in this one area of morals we have higher standards. “Besides, how do I know you’re telling the truth? You lied to that TABB Exec about dinner with your grandmother. The Talmud says if a witness lies about anything, the jury can assume everything else she says is also a lie. Besides, you are still married until the final papers go through.”

“Diego, my love, you know Diega is your daughter. They did a DNA test that proved she was not my husband’s. He was having an affair – with a man, do you believe it? – and that is why we are splitting sheets. Can you refuse your daughter’s mother?”

I did not reply. I simply closed and locked the door. I finished my salad and the movie. Then I remotely accessed my home computer and put up a slide show of family videos Esther had recently prepared as a present for my thirty-third birthday. When it was time to go to sleep, I darkened the display wall and got into bed. My autoerotic fantasy featured Esther. Stephanie no longer had any part in our very satisfying love affair.

When I returned to Orlando the next day, Rebecca and Adam had just come home from school. They gave me an unusually big, warm welcome. “We have work to do!” said Adam proudly.

“Your homework for school?” I asked.

“Oh, no, that’s not what Adam is talking about,” replied Rebecca. “Mom and us took home some laundry from the church and we volunteered to wash and fold it.”

I watched in pleasant amazement as our children worked as a team to do laundry for people who had been strangers the day before. By the time Esther got home from work, one bag was done, the second in the dryer and the third in the washer. An hour later, after we had shared a simple supper, I helped Esther carry it to the car for transport back to the church shelter.

“I’ve never seen Adam and Rebecca work so nicely and productively,” I said. “And, you seem tired but very happy to be going back to help administer that place!”

“I am very satisfied about recent developments,” she replied. “I’m back by ten-thirty. You wait up for me. You know what I mean.”

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