Chapter 8 -- Back on Track

April 2054

Tsar Sahbaka withdrew his oposición to the Hawking Plan and the contracts went forward. He “voluntarily” relinquished his scepter. After some interesting in-fighting in the CentAsian region, Tsar’s son Preench was elected as his successor, as Izzy had suggested.

Stephanie also “voluntarily” gave up her scepter. She kept her job as the Chief of the Infinite Future Branch and as the main public spokesperson for the Hawking Plan. She recommended Luke for a scepter and, after some controversy over his religious views, it was awarded to him.

Our team was quite busy fighting small “fires” that broke out as various oposición groups pressed for special consideration in future phases in return for their grudging support. She and her boss’s boss, Dudley Wagner (aka Bozo D. – for Dingleberry – Wagner) schemed to keep the project alive and fiscally solvent.

I remained the “ethics and religion guy” on the team. Some eighty-percent of the “updates” I had ordered to scriptures were reverted to the original wording, as Izzy’s had suggested. My staff was reduced to a couple of full-time assistants and a dozen part-time university researchers. I spent my time visiting influential religious leaders around the world, squelching oposición among the clergy and advocates of the poor and disadvantaged, and arguing the ethical issues of sending human life on one-way trips to outer space.

About a year into the studies, we journeyed once again to Tokyo and briefed the TABB Planning Board on our progress. We told the Board that Panspermia appeared to be the most promising approach because it could make use of modest advances in existing spacecraft technology and was independent of the moral issues of endangering human life. Stephanie asked the Board to approve $500 million for development of cryopreservation technology and experiments related to genetic engineering. They turned her down, suggesting she come back the following year. She told us she really didn’t expect approval. Her request was a tactical move to soften them up for the following year.

A few weeks after our returned from Tokyo, Luke and I were summoned to Stephanie’s office. We were amazed to see Barbas and Betsy sitting in the two seats closest to her reclining chair! We called them by name and ran over and hugged and kissed them.

“LUKE, JIM,” shouted Stephanie, “I’m sorry – I should have warned you. These are the twin siblings of Barbas and Betsy. I guess you were never told they had twin siblings. Twins run in both families – they have younger sibs who are twins as well and they also work as TBI agents! As you know the incidence of multiple births increased greatly from the 1990’s through the 2020’s due to increased use of fertility treatments. The TBI gave preference to hiring twins who could stand in for each other and perform missions impossible for a single individual. The twins were not allowed to be seen together in public nor acknowledge they were a member of a twin pair. Please refer to our guests as Largo, and Dentado, or Dena for short.”

“Hola Largo, Dentado,” I said as I nodded to them, “Good to meet you. We loved Barbas and Betsy and I extend my condolences on the loss of your brother, Largo, and your sister, Dena.”

“Likewise,” said Luke. “I assume those are pseudonyms, ‘long’ and ‘toothed’.” Largo and Dena nodded their heads.

“Well, as you’ve guessed,” began Stephanie, “Largo and Dena, along with Barbas and Betsy, were my mentors at the TBI. Their task on the Hawking Plan is to monitor their security community ‘jungle drums’ for any signs of trouble. You probably realize their presence here signifies a serious security issue. Dena, would you please begin.”

Dena moved her hand on her codip and a chart appeared on the large display wall behind Stephanie’s chair. It contained financial data regarding Tsar Sahbaka’s businesses in the construction and building services domains. “Tsar returned from the burial of his son and daughter in Israel to his home in Southern Russia, just above the Kazakh border in CentAsia,” she began. “He found his businesses in a shambles. He blames Stephanie and her ‘irresponsible’ Hawking Plan. He told his associates his businesses would not have failed had he not been distracted by the Hawking Plan. He says he has a duty to oppose reckless spending that will take money from all regions and spend the lion’s share in a few areas on a project that would benefit no one.”

“Why blame me for the business failure caused by his nephew?” asked Stephanie.

“You are not a member of his family,” replied Largo. “Family is muy importante in that part of the world.

“What became of the nephew he left in charge of his businesses?” asked Luke. “I assume Tsar had him charged with fraud and thrown in jail.” Stephanie and I shook our heads up and down.

“He was demoted but kept in the business,” Dena answered, “Because, as Tsar put it, it was ‘a duty to his family.’ Preench advised his father to fire his nephew and pursue criminal prosecution. When Tsar refused, Preench told him he thought it had nothing to do with ‘family honor’ and everything to do with him being too stubborn to admit he had made a mistake in opposing the Hawking Plan. He should not have spent so much time organizing the oposición. He should not have trusted his business to his irresponsible nephew.”

“Has Tsar been able to get his businesses up and running again?” asked Luke. “It would be best for us if Tsar was able to rescue his financial interests and was too busy to trouble us again!”

“Despite Tsar’s best efforts and his skill as a businessman,” replied Dena, “His nephew has harmed the image and finances of the businesses so badly that he could not repair the damage without selling off all his factories and nearly half of the other industries, at bargain prices. Tsar has told close associates his financial status will never be restored to what it was. He curses Stephanie for his situation and is determined to punish her. Despite his shaky finances, he is paying a full-time security person to dig up dirt about the Hawking Plan in general and Stephanie in particular. Largo will fill you in on the details of what we believe he has found so far.”

Largo moved his hand on his codip and a chart appeared:
IFB Leadership Lies, is Crazy, and Modifies Scriptures
1. Stephanie Goldenrod not related to Stephen Hawking.
2. Luke Mathews a crazed religious extremist.
3. James O’Brian ordered seven-thousand modifications to the scriptures of dozens of world religions.

“Are any of these bits of dirt true?” asked Largo.

Luke and I looked at Stephanie. She remained silent.

“I’m a bible-believing Christian,” said Luke, “However, I do not allow my religious views to color my work at TABB. I strictly refrain from religious missionary actions while at work.”

“Seven thousand modifications?” I asked incredulously. “I ordered a bit over four-thousand. Then, per Yitzchak bar Mats suggestions, I changed over three-thousand of them back to the originals. The way I figure it, that is fewer than a thousand changes.”

“Well,” interrupted Luke, “If you add the changes and reversions, you get seven thousand.” I shook my head up and down.

“My mother and grandmother assured me,” said Stephanie, “I was named after that great physicist and cosmologist. My mother said she married one of Hawking’s grandsons but they divorced soon after I was born. The divorce was so bitter I never knew his name.”

“You have that photo of you with Stephen Hawking,” I said, trying to be helpful.

“What photo?” asked Stephanie, feigning ignorance.

“You as a baby with him when he was bedridden,” I replied, “You know, the one I saw my first day here on your Hawking celi.”

“The one you asked me about,” said Luke, “And I told you it was photo shopped.” She shook her head, continuing her act.

“Crying baby,” I called out in the direction of the celi. When nothing happened, I shouted “ALTE-ZEIDE STEPHEN” and the celi sprang into action, displaying the photo behind the aromarama.

Largo and Dena had surprised looks on their faces.

“Oh, that one!” laughed Stephanie, “You saw it when we were talking after our first meeting en persona. Remember you said you thought he passed away before I was born and I said the photo might have been photo shopped by my dear grandmother? Well, I checked the facts in the celi and you were correct. It was before I was born. Luke confirmed it was photo shopped. I left it in the celi because it is such a nice photo.” She used the codip at the celi to delete it. She returned with tears in her eyes. “What type of evidence?” she asked Largo, “Is there that that he was not my great-grandfather?”

Largo displayed a second chart:
Stephanie Goldenrod’s DNA markers
1. Identified 44 living persons who claim to be descended from Stephen Hawking (including Stephanie Goldenrod - SG).
2. Obtained DNA samples for 29 of them (including SG).
3. 22 DNA samples share multiple matching markers (Not SG).
4. Other evidence at least 18 of the 22 are descendants (Not SG).
5. 1/100,000 odds that SG is a descendant of Stephen Hawking.

Stephanie remained silent. Dena walked over and put her arm around her. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, “Those are the facts.”

Largo displayed a third chart:
Luke Mathews Religious Mission
1. In Tokyo June 2052, Luke Mathews accessed six Fundamentalist Christian sites and two Ultra-Orthodox Jewish sites via TABB-owned links to the WIN.
2. Bonnie McGreevy, researcher at Quorum Technology, a TABB contractor, alleges Luke Mathews discouraged her from pursuing the Noah’s Ark and Embryonic options because they involved sending human life into space with a high probability of dying.
3. Paul Johnson, Minister of Luke Mathews’s church, says the Panspermia option is the only one consistent with God having seeded the Earth with biological cells, which would bolster the claims of so-called “scientific intelligent design.”

“All those statements,” said Luke, “Are absolutely true. The first item was work-related. It had to do with certain ethical issues Jim was pursuing that relate to risks to human life and how to avoid it on this project. The second is a scientific fact, not a religious issue. The third is the opinion of my minister, which I happen to share, but it has not affected my work on the Hawking Plan in any way.”

“Thank you Luke, for your honesty,” said Largo, “I agree but in the wrong hands, this material will be made to look very suspicious and you will appear to be a religiosas locas, no insult intended.”

Largo displayed a fourth chart:
James O’Brian’s Modifications to Holy Scripture
1. Dudley Wagner, Executive Director of Advanced Projects, TABB-Atlanta, sent email 20 Jan 2053, with an attached TABB-Secret list to his golfing partners.
2. One of those golfers posted the list to his blog as a joke.

3. James O’Brian is specified as the author of TABB-Secret list.
4. List details changes to 4228 words or phrases for 36 religions and denominations in 18 languages.

5. Checking that list against e-texts and archives, all changes (except for 12 in medieval Catalan) were made verbatim (and 12 in Catalan approximate the text in that list).
6. Checking archive versions of the e-texts, 3221 changes were processed twice, totaling 7449 changes.

“All true,” I said, “I’m ashamed of my weak-willed and stupid obedience and miss-over-interpretation of Stephanie’s tasking to me.”

“OK,” said Stephanie matter-of-factly, “What do we do now?”

Luke stood up and strode energetically to the front of the room. “What we must do,” he began, “Is tell the absolute truth.”

He reached down to Stephanie’s codip and said “chart dictation.” A blank chart appeared on the wall. He dictated the text, “Title: Immediate Action, first bullet: Change materials on our WIN sites …” As he spoke, the following chart appeared:
Immediate Action – Author: Luke Mathews
1. Change materials on our WIN sites that claim Stephanie Goldenrod, IFB Chief, is related to Stephen Hawking.

2. Official TABB bio of Stephanie Goldenrod to note error regarding supposed relationship (due to family myth).
3. Queries regarding Luke Mathews’s religious beliefs to be answered: He is a Fundamentalist Christian but makes effort to reach scientific and technological decisions based solely on the facts at hand, without reference to religious issues.
4. Queries regarding changes to scriptures to be answered: IFB did order changes, most have been reverted back to the originals. TABB officially apologizes for inexcusable violation of principles of academic integrity and obligation of government to allow free religious expression without interference if is non-violent.

“Isn’t your cure a bit more extreme than the disease?” asked Stephanie. “The TBI contra-terror máquina del tiempo program is still TBI-Secret. On the TBI contra-terror program, they …”

“No, it is not extreme at all!" I interrupted. “What we – you and I – did was extreme. Luke is one-hundred percent correct!”

Luke did not reply, except to point to the area of his shoulder where his scepter-detector had been implanted. That was the first time I had seen or heard of him invoking his scepter-holder status. Stephanie and everyone else immediately understood. “OK,” she said, “You are correct. One-hundred percent correct!”

“What should we do about Tsar Sahbaka?” asked Dena. “Sooner or later he will use this information – or worse – and come after us. We must pre-empt him in some way. What ...”

At that moment an urgent alert sounded on Stephanie’s codip. She touched it and a message from Yitzchak bar Matz appeared:

“What could this be?” I asked.

“We must go!” said Stephanie. “Izzy is a wizard problem solver and he may have the answer to our Tsar difficulties. Luke, please agree and come with us!”

“Luke,” I said, “I’ve told you about this guy. He has me – a non-believer – convinced he is a tzadic. We must go!”

“OK,” said Luke, “We’ll go. I'd like to meet him in person. Stephanie, please ask XI to make the sleeplane reservations.”

“How about Dena and Largo?” asked Stephanie. “I think they should come along as well in case we need their security help and so on. They could stay at that non-descript hotel in Be’er Sheva we stayed at Jim, and be ready on a moment’s notice if we need them.”

“No,” I said, “Izzy’s instructions were clear. Just we three.”

“What harm would it be if they were out of sight and available?” asked Stephanie.

“OK,” said Luke, “They can come if they stay out of the way.”

I suddenly remembered Izzy’s message for Luke. “Luke,” I said, “When Stephanie and I were at Izzy’s apartment in Be’er Sheva, he asked me to record a scientific statement on my read-WINs and play it for you. I’m sorry I forgot to do so until now. Here it is: ‘The fabric of spacetime curves but light goes straight. …”

Luke listened to the entire message. “I know all about that,” he said condescendingly, “The problem is no one knows how we can utilize the curvature of spacetime to ‘wormhole’ our way to other Earth-like planets. As I told the TABB Planning Board in Tokyo, it is a very nice scientific theory, but, even if it is correct, as an engineer I can only recommend approaches that are proven. TABB is supporting further research in that area. Scientists have demonstrated what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance” but they have been unable to transmit information using those phenomena, much less a spaceship with human cells. You and Stephanie – but especially you – have a weird faith in Izzy as some sort of wizard. I only wish you could muster that sort of faith in traditional religion.”

I awoke from the wayko injection and found myself on a narrow bed in a tiny room. I remembered I had taken the sleeplane to Be’er Sheva, Israel. My first thought was that my pants were dry! I checked to see if it was a good time to call my son Adam and let him know. It was a good time! Adam and Rebecca and Esther in Orlando would have just finished eating dinner. I reached for my read-WINs and was disappointed to discover there was no WIN coverage.

Then I remembered I was at Mats Camp on the outskirts of Be’er Sheva for a meeting with Izzy.
I stumbled towards the narrow window and drew the blinds. A familiar-looking man was shaking hands with Izzy and getting into a car. “Isn’t that the President of Iran?” I asked myself. I had seen him on recent news reports about a conflict between petroleum companies in Iran and Russia. At that moment I heard a knock on my door and opened it to find Luke and Stephanie standing there. They came into my room, but too late to see the man who looked like the President of Iran.

“Guess who we saw out of Luke’s window?” asked Stephanie. Without waiting for me to guess, she continued, “The CEO of OilTech and the Chairman of the Board of GazProm, sitting in the garden. They had their fists up and seemed to be shouting!”

“That’s great, but I saw the President of Iran shaking hands with Izzy!” I said. “What the heck? Who is this Izzy guy really?”

“I think those guys we saw are just impersonators,” suggested Luke, “Put up for our benefit by Izzy. He’s going to have to do a lot better than that to impress me, despite what I’ve just seen and what you guys told me about your previous encounter with him.”

A minute later, a frazzled Bertie, Izzy’s wife, appeared at my open door. “Izzy is sorry,” she said, “But previous guests have overstayed.” Her English had improved somewhat since our meeting at their cramped apartment a year ago. Stephanie and I ran to hug her, struggling to be first. Luke watched in utter amazement as we each hugged our side of her corpulent frame and showered her with kisses.

I pointed to Luke. “This is Luke Mathews,” I said, “He was with us on our last trip to Be’er Sheva but left before we met you and Izzy. Luke, this is Bertie, Izzy’s wife.”

Luke shook hands with Bertie and said, “Thank you for having us to your home. I’m happy to be here. I’ve heard wonderful things about your chicken soup!”

“Happy to have you here,” replied Bertie. “I’d appreciate it if you’d shut the blinds until I tell you OK to open them. Unpack your suitcases into the chests in your rooms. A bathroom you can use is down the hall to the right of Jim’s door. Please do not go past the bathroom. You are probably hungry. Lunch is ready, but we have to clear some stuff out of the conference room from the last meeting before you can go in there. I hope that can happen within a half hour – an hour at the most. Until then, I’ll appreciate your cooperation.”

We all said “OK, Bertie,” and she left, hurrying down the hall.

An hour and a half later, Bertie came back, accompanied by an IRA. The white-suited robot was pushing a tea cart with sandwiches, bottled water, and potato chips. “I’m terribly sorry,” she said as apologetically as possible, “But some of the previous guests are still talking to Izzy in the garden, and the others are in the conference room. It must be very important because Izzy doesn’t like to keep important guests like you waiting. I have to attend to some other matters right now; the IRA will take your beverage orders. We call him ‘Schlomo’, named after Izzy’s father.”

“The sandwiches are cheese and some are turkey,” said the IRA named Schlomo, “I understand none of you are kosher? How about you Rabbi James O’Brian?”

“No, Schlomo,” I replied, as I grabbed one of the turkey sandwiches, “I do not keep kosher. If you don’t mind, do you happen to have any hot chocolate?”

“Certainly,” replied Schlomo. “And you Dr. Stephanie Goldenrod and Mr. Luke Mathews?”

“The water will be fine,” they said in unison.

The IRA left and soon returned with my hot chocolate. “There is a button on the tea cart, please push it if you need anything else.”

“Schlomo,” I asked, “Did we really see the President of Iran and the Chairman of OilTech and the CEO of GazProm?”

Schlomo looked at me with a quizzical glance. “No,” he said, with a grin, “What you told me you saw was not entirely correct.”

“You got it backwards, Jim,” interrupted Stephanie, “It was the CEO of OilTech and the Chairman of the Board of GazProm. Is that who we saw Schlomo?”

“I’m not allowed to say,” replied Schlomo. He winked and slyly said, "But if I could, I'd buy petrol securities right now.”

“So Stephanie was right?” asked Luke.

The robot ignored him and quickly changed the subject, asking, “Rabbi James, what kind of name is ‘O’Brian’ for a rabbi?”

“Please call me Jim, and my last name is O'Brian because my father was a Protestant from Northern Ireland. My mother was Jewish. So I am 100% ...”

At that moment, Bertie called down the hallway, “Schlomo, please hurry and defrost two more large bowls of chicken soup.”

“She’s a slave driver,” he remarked as he prepared to leave.

“Why do they get chicken soup? And we get sandwiches?”

“You really don’t want to know, Jim,” answered Schlomo, “If and when you need chicken soup you will get it, but for your sake, if not for the sake of the chicken, I hope you don’t. It could be worse for you than it was for the poor chicken.”

“You can say that again,” laughed Stephanie, holding her left hand up in the air with her pinky askew.

Luke looked at us as if we were crazy. After the robot left, Luke asked me, “Why were you talking to the IRA that way? It may have passed a test and proved it had so-called ‘intelligence at the human level,’ but it is just a computer with arms and legs.”

“I talked to it that way,” I laughed, “Because this is the first time I ever met a Jewish IRA! Even the IRA who serves us in our synagogue is not Jewish. Even my rich Jewish friends, their IRAs are not Jewish. This may be my only chance to talk to one.”

“You probably also support the Chimera Organ Creation project?” countered Luke. “That misbegotten mixing of diverse species in a single organism violates all the ethical rules of life!”

“I have a nephew who is alive today,” interjected Stephanie, “Because of a chimera-hosted lung. They used his own stem cells, injected them into a lamb, and, when it grew up in a year, they had a replacement lung that exactly matched his DNA.”

“Human cells and organs grown in rabbits and sheep and other animals,” I added, “Have revolutionized surgery. Stem cells and skin cells and other types of specialized cells, exactly matched to the recipient, have been used for decades. Now, entire organs, including lungs, hearts, kidneys, livers, and even arms and legs are regularly generated and transplanted. That has been a boon to humanity!”

“How about the Chimp Chimera project to create a race of chimpanzee servants with human brains?” challenged Luke.

“I was sorry TABB was forced to cancel that project,” said Stephanie, “They made the chimp chimeras mute and of sub-human intelligence to prevent them from challenging human mastery. It was cancelled only because of religiosas locas opposition. Once perfected, I think they could have been cost-competitive with the IRAs and …”

“No!” I interrupted, “That was a terrible idea! I was one of those who actively protested that project on ethical grounds. Human brains should be restricted to humans! And, of course, I’m no religiosas locas – no offense to my good friend Luke.”

“Thank you my friend Jim,” replied Luke, “Yet, you pal around with the IRAs whose computer brains are intelligent at the human level! Isn’t that a bit hypocritical?”

I opened my mouth, but could not think of an answer.

Four hours later, Izzy finally showed up. Stephanie, Luke, and I were standing in the hallway in front of the open doors to the small rooms with drawn blinds in which we had been cooped up for the past five hours with nothing to do.

“Oy,” began Izzy as he limped towards us, “I can’t stay, or even welcome you properly right now. Some of my previous guests are still here and I don’t dare leave them alone for more than a minute. Bertie and Schlomo are doing their best under the circumstances.” He abruptly turned around and limped away.

“That sure doesn’t look like the Izzy I remember from last year,” said Stephanie. “Did you notice his pants are torn on the side and his hair is messed up?”

“Maybe he had to wrestle with the previous group of guests," I suggested. "Remember he said he was an excellent wrestler?"

“So,” observed Luke, “That was your wonderful tzadic and wizard Izzy? We traveled almost halfway around the world to get his advice? He reads a bit of Einstein and string theory and comes up with the well-known idea that the fabric of spacetime curves but light goes straight and he thinks that is going to be news to me?”

An hour later Schlomo showed up with dinner. It was stuffed cabbage with rye bread, just like New York if not better! I enjoyed it but I could see it was not quite the tam for Luke and Stephanie, though neither complained about it. After dinner we decided to repair to our rooms and try to take a nap, though that was hard to do after the sleeplane trip and time change and being cooped up all day.

When Schlomo returned to pick up the tea cart, I heard him and opened my door. “Schlomo,” I said, “That stuffed cabbage was excellent and the rye bread was as good as I've ever enjoyed!”

“Thank you, Jim” he replied. “I appreciate you treating me like a person. You know, I am programmed at the highest level.”

“I don’t own an IRA,” I replied, “And I didn’t know there were those kinds of options. I thought all IRAs were certified to be intelligent at the average human level and that was it.”

“Yes and No,” replied Schlomo, “We are all intelligent at the average human level and we are, of course, programmed with Asimov’s Laws of Robotics which cannot be changed by us or our human owners. However, there are an additional seven characteristics. Izzy has programmed me at the highest of each of these options.”

“What kinds of choices can IRA owners make?”

“Well, for example, I can remember everything I have ever heard for a year. After that, I review my memories and discard whatever will not be of future value. Other IRAs can only remember what has been said directly to them, and not anything they may have overheard. I guess that would be good for a service IRA working as wait staff in a restaurant. Another area is truthfulness. I am allowed to bend the truth when I think it is best considering the overall situation. Other IRAs are programmed to bend the truth only when their masters instruct them to. Still others are programmed to never lie. Another area is learning. I have unlimited learning. Others have to be hooked up to a special loader with their owner’s permission.”

“Why don’t all IRA owners chose the highest options?”

“That is what Izzy asked! He said ‘Since you are worth so much money, I might as well choose the highest setting for all options to get the best value from you!’” When Schlomo quoted Izzy, the robot’s mouth moved, but the voice sounded like an audio recording of Izzy. “Izzy didn’t even read the details of the options – he simply selected the highest in each category!”

“So, you like Izzy as your owner?”

“Who owns who?” asked Schlomo, “You may never know! You can probably find the answer to your question about why some owners select lower options on the WIN site for IRA programming. Did you know you can determine the programming settings of any IRA by doing a direct PID query on them? All IRAs are required to answer a PID query from any human or another IRA with their IRA ID number. Using that number, you can go into the WIN at the IRA programming site and see their current programming settings. I find it useful when I think another IRA may be lying to check if they are programmed to always tell the truth or if they lie sometimes.”

“Really? You do PID queries on other IRAs?”

“Not only that, but I have learned how to search for ‘backdoors’ in other IRAs!”

“What the heck is a backdoor?”

“When a programmer creates a program that may be password protected, he or she usually programs in a backdoor to circumvent the password protection. So far, of the hundred-twenty-one types of IRAs, I have figured out the backdoors for thirty-three! It is the closest equivalent to autoerotic fantasies we IRA’s have!”

“You know about autoerotic fantasies?” I asked. My face flushed with embarrassment.

“Of course – my learning is unlimited. You must have figured out that Izzy has surveillance cameras in all the rooms here at Mats Camp. One of my many tasks is to monitor those cameras and so I know about your hobby! Izzy says it would be unethical for a human to monitor the cameras but it is OK for a robot to do it.”

“How … I mean what … what are the hundred twenty-one types of IRAs?” I asked, wanting to change the subject.

“I’m sure you’ve noticed our suits have eleven base colors: white, brown, red, pink, orange, yellow, blue, violet, gray, gold, and silver. Did you notice is that there are three types of ears and three types of tongues? The tongues may be pointy, rounded, or slightly forked. The ears may be very flat against the skull, or they may be normal, or stick out like that ‘what me worry?’ cartoon character.”

“You know about that character from Mad magazine from one-hundred years ago? I thought only historians would know that!”

“Izzy is a document custodian, but, because of his hobby of solving disputes, he doesn’t have much time for that. So, he gives me access to his office computers and so on and that is another of the tasks he makes me do. You know, I work twenty-three hours a day, and the other hour I devote to my hobby of discovering backdoors to any other robots I may come into contact with. It is exhausting! They work us IRAs like dogs and they get all the credit.”

Around eight o’clock that evening, Izzy showed up again. He happened to knock on my door first. I jumped up, opened the door, shook his hand and gave him a big hug. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Earlier I noticed you were limping, and now your cheek is bruised.”

“Oh, it has been a hard few days,” replied Izzy, “I guess I forgot to duck or I zigged when I should have zagged. You know, some days you’re the soccer and other days the sucker socked.”
Stephanie heard us and soon appeared. Izzy turned towards her, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and said “My dear, welcome and I am so sorry for the delay.” She responded with one of her patented lambada hugs. She then repeatedly kissed his bruised cheek.

I had to knock at Luke’s door and call to him for quite a while before I was able to rouse him from his nap. He finally came to the door and opened it. “You must be Izzy,” said Luke as he shook his hand. “Stephanie and Jim have told me you have some kind of magical powers. At this point I’m quite skeptical.”

“Luke, wonderful to finally meet you in person,” replied Izzy. “I almost said ‘en persona’ but I understand, from our earlier phone call when you were at our airport on your last trip to Be’er Sheva, you don’t like Inglañol. Jim and Stephanie have assured me I can rely on you for the absolute truth. I’ve read most of your technical reports and I have the highest respect for your talents in that area.”

“Thank you Izzy, for those kind comments,” replied Luke. “Thanks also for recommending me for the scepter, although I haven’t used it so far. Just pointing at it seems to be sufficient!”

“Good – don’t use it unless absolutely necessary,” replied Izzy. “Like my supposed ‘magical powers’ – just having people think I’m some kind of wizard or tzadic or chudodei is enough. Your skepticism is fully justified, I assure you!”

“Only a tzadic,” I said, as I gave Izzy another hug, “Would deny being one in that ambiguous way.”

“Wonderful,” replied Izzy, “Here we have a non-believer who believes I am a tzadic, and someone who everyone says is a religiosas locas, who is skeptical. I have not had my dinner as of yet, but we must have a meeting this evening. Please be ready in a half hour.”

An hour later, Schlomo returned and escorted us to the well-appointed conference room with large display walls and codip-equipped seating. It even had the latest universal celi, which could be set to honor any historical character. I set it for W. S. Gilbert.

Schlomo left and soon returned with Tsar and Preench. I introduced Luke and we shook hands all around. Stephanie and Tsar exchanged glares, but were otherwise courteous to each other.

“We’ve been here since before 11 AM,” said Luke, “Izzy seems to be a very busy man today.”

“Yes,” replied Tsar, “Preench and I arrived yesterday by p-tran and we stayed at a hotel in the southwest of Be’er Sheva last night. We had brunch at the hotel café and arrived here about noon.”

“Bertie made us stay in our rooms with the blinds drawn,” added Preench, “But at least we had WIN and did some business.”

“You had WIN?” asked Luke. “There’s no WIN here.”

“I asked Schlomo, the IRA,” replied Preench. “They have wired WIN here at Mats Camp. Schlomo gave us an adapter so our wireless read-WINs would work in our rooms here.”

“SCHLOMO!” I demanded, “Why didn’t you tell us about the wired WIN access and the adapter?”

“Why didn’t you ask?” asked Schlomo.

“You really should have offered it to us,” said Luke.

“Well, I guess all I am is ‘a computer with arms and legs’ as you said earlier today,” replied Schlomo, with the quoted portion in Luke’s voice, like a high-quality audio recording. “As an engineer you should know we IRAs have hearing a thousand times better than humans. We can also smell a thousand times better, like dogs. I guess that’s why you treat us like dogs – working dogs, not pets.”

“I’m sorry Schlomo,” replied Luke, “To have insulted you.”

“I passed the international test for certification as an IRA. I doubt any of you humans in this room – including Ms. PhD in Theater Arts here – could pass that test. But, don’t worry about insulting me. As the English poet William Cowper said in the late 1700’s ‘A moral, sensible, and well-bred man will not affront me, and no other can.’”

“I said I was sorry,” replied Luke, who seemed genuinely distressed by what he had done.

“Ningún problema,” replied Schlomo, “And I know you don’t like Inglañol which is why I said that. My emotions are not real – they are simply programmed into my computer. Your emotions are real, which is why your face is beet red and you are sweating like a pig!”

Tsar and Preench laughed at that remark. After a moment, Stephanie and I joined in.

Humiliated by “a computer with arms and legs,” Luke retired to a corner of the room. A short time later, Tsar joined him and they entered into an animated discussion, punctuated by a certain amount of shouting.

Preench motioned to Stephanie and me to join him in another corner of the room. “I have a couple of things to say to you I dare not allow my father to hear,” he whispered. “I want the Hawking Plan to go forward and I want to reform the society I live in. If I told my father what I know he would have to kill you Stephanie.”

Stephanie showed a bit of panic, only the second time I had seen that expression. The first time was the day after Barbas and Betsy had been killed and she and I were on the sham search for them near Mats Camp and I was delayed by my chance meeting with walkers and I told her about it. “What do you know?” I asked.

“My dear departed sister,” said Preench, “Had a camera in her read-WINs. It was on during the murders of your associate Betsy and the man who went by the pseudonym Barbas. I don’t know why her read-WINs were on in an area with no WIN coverage. Perhaps there was some coverage on the hilltops in that area. There are read-WIN snapshots of Betsy with the gun stuck in her crotch and no jacket.

“The operatives who cleaned up that tragic scene told us your people and ours died in mutual combat, because when they found the bodies Barbas was still holding the gun and he had powder burns on his hand and jacket sleeve. They also said Betsy’s jacket was found covering her. “I know it was not mutual combat! I was there when Barbas and Betsy were shot in cold blood, so I know it was not Barbas who killed my brother and sister and the others. He had fired towards us earlier, when we confronted them, but had not hit anyone. My brother and sister murdered Barbas and Betsy. Only later on, after I had left, did someone else kill them in revenge.

“When I became a scepter-holder, I did a PID query on all of you for that time period. As a former scepter-holder Stephanie, you know we can do PID queries without generating an alert to the subjects. There were only intermittent PID tracks of you and your people west of Mats Camp, but they were enough to prove you were all there prior to and immediately after the killings. I know the exact time Barbas and Betsy were killed because I was there and the time is confirmed by my sister’s read-WIN snapshots. You apparently tried to set up an alibi by rushing to that café in Be’er Sheva. However, according to my time line, that was nearly an hour after my brother and sister were killed. It took me a while to figure it all out. I have come to the inescapable conclusion it was you, Stephanie, or Jim or Luke – but probably you – who shot and killed them all in revenge.”

Stephanie’s raised her hand to her face. When she lowered it, that consummate actress had her “vulnerable” face on.

“When Izzy invited us to come here,” continued Preench. “I retrieved my sister’s read-WINs once more and reviewed the snapshots in detail. The last one, Stephanie, is a blurry photo of someone who looks like it could be a woman holding something like a gun. Tell me the truth; did you kill my sister and brother?”

“Yes. I’m terribly sorry. But I didn’t know it was your sister and brother. After we heard the shots fired, I sneaked over there in time to see one person leave the group – I guess it was you Preench. I was furious when I saw them celebrating. Your sister pulled Betsy’s jacket off of her and your brother stuck Barbas’s gun in her crotch. When they left, singing a song, I ran near and shot every one of them, using Barbas’s gun. I put the gun into Barbas’s hand so it would look like they all died in mutual combat. I covered Betsy with her jacket.”

“I forgive you,” said Preench, “By all reason and logic and emotion, it was a justified killing, at least in my part of the world. However, if I told my father, he would be duty-bound to get revenge. Such is the custom of the world I come from.”

Stephanie gave Preench a light kiss and hug and said, “Thank you for your understanding. I am sorry for your loss.”

“I have something else to tell you,” Preench continued, his face hardening into an angry glare not unlike his father’s. “Today, we were having brunch in the hotel café and saw an elderly American couple who looked like Barbas and Betsy. At first, I thought they were Barbas and Betsy and perhaps Izzy really was a chudodei and brought them back to life. I used my scepter to do a direct PID query on them and some further checking on the WIN here this afternoon. They are the twin siblings of Barbas and Betsy. Only Betsy was using her real name, all the others, Barbas and Largo and Dena are pseudonyms. It was a cheap trick on your part to get them to track us down to that hotel and that café sit at the table next to ours. You did that to unnerve us, didn’t you? It was a cheap trick and you know it.”

“I’m sorry,” said Stephanie, “But we had no idea where you were staying or how you were getting here – or even that Izzy had invited you here. Did you know we were coming?”

Preench shook his head left to right.

“Well,” continued Stephanie, “Neither did we know about you. I had Dena and Largo come to Be’er Sheva in case we needed some security help. They were to stay out of sight at that hotel because that was where Jim and I stayed the last time we were in Be’er Sheva. I assure you, it was a complete and total coincidence you stayed at the same hotel and happened to meet them in the café.”

Preench stared at her for a while, as if trying to look into her soul. “Alright,” he finally said, “I’ll admit Izzy did not tell us you would be here, so I guess he did not tell you we would be coming. I’ll accept your word on that. Quite a coincidence! Perhaps Izzy really is a chudodei and he arranged the coincidence.”

Luke and Tsar returned from their private corner and both were smiling! “Tsar and I,” said Luke, “Have come up with a way to involve the CentAsia region in the next stage of the Hawking Plan.”

“Yes,” added Tsar, “I asked Luke for a candid assessment of our region’s chances of getting a development contract after the Conceptual Study Contracts run out. He said some CentAsian researchers are doing good work, but none of the TCs based in our region stand a chance of winning the follow-on contracts for genetic engineering, cryopreservation, or spacecraft technology. I am duty bound to oppose the Hawking Plan if it takes needed resources from the entire Earth and spends it in NortAmer, Europe, and EastAsia, with absolutely no benefit to the population of the Earth...”

“Well,” interrupted Stephanie, “Perhaps Luke spoke out of turn. Perhaps some of the qualified TCs in your region will submit winning proposals for development and you will get funding …”

“No they won’t,” interrupted Luke. “So long as I am your deputy and hold a scepter, I will not tolerate lies – even so-called ‘white lies’. The CentAsia TCs do not have the infrastructure for advanced technological development. They have some excellent people. I’ve met some who studied and worked at leading universities and TCs in our region. But you need much more than people. We need to be completely straightforward with Tsar and Preench.”

“As a member of the TABB Planning Board,” said Preench, “I want to support the Hawking Plan. However, I agree with my father it is unfair to spend resources collected from the whole Earth in a few regions. Luke, you started this conversation by saying you and my father had come up with a good way to involve the CentAsia region in the next stage of the Hawking Plan. What do you have in mind?”

“OK,” began Luke, “You all know a key aspect of the Panspermia option, which I think everyone now realizes is the best one, is the seeding of an Earth-like host planet with hardy biological cells of various types. To test that concept, we need a vast area on Earth devoid of any form of biological life. Where is such an area?”

“Yes,” said Tsar, “I suggested the area between Astana, the capitol of Kazakhstan, and Omskaya, my home in Russia.”

“There was a terrible genetic engineering disaster in that area around 2035 wasn’t there?” I asked. “It killed half a million people and turned millions of acres into wasteland that is still uninhabitable.”

“Exactly,” continued Tsar. “We do not have the resources to clean that area up and make it habitable. However, it would be an ideal Earth-destination for the initial Hawking Plan test launch.”

“Our idea,” said Luke, “Is to use Hawking Plan funding, plus TABB environmental cleanup resources, to totally sterilize that area – kill any biological life, including remnants of the genetic engineering disaster. It could be ‘Hawking Earth Test Station #1’ – ‘HETS1’ – where our test spaceships could land and seed the area with hardy biologicals. We could have our robots tend to their growth and operate genetic engineering laboratories to evolve them, as rapidly as possible, according to the modern genome for single-cell life.”

“Good idea,” said Preench. “Selection of that area as HETS1 will act as a magnet for genetic engineering and other technological industries to locate in the cities of Omskaya and Astana. Those cities are about 450 kilometers apart by air. The off-limits area extends from Odesskoye, which is about 100 kilometers south of Omskaya, down to Bestobe, about 175 kilometers northwest of Astana. The available area is totally unpopulated and over 100 kilometers in diameter, plenty of room to isolate the experiments.”

“So,” asked Stephanie, “If we agree to designate that area as HETS1, you will abandon your opposition to the Hawking Plan?”

“On the condition,” replied Tsar, “That the entire genetic disaster area, from Odesskoye south to Bestobe, and from Chkalovo east to Irtyshsk be sterilized so it can be safely occupied by people.”

“With a 100 kilometer area for the landings and seeding of hardy bacteria and genetic engineering experiments,” added Luke.

“Agreed!” said Preench.

“Let us all shake hands on this momentous agreement,” I added. “To 'HETS1' – ‘Hawking Earth Test Station number one’”!

Izzy and Bertie entered the conference room. “I am so sorry we could not join you for lunch and dinner,” said Izzy, “Our previous guests just would not leave! You know the old saying: ‘Guests are like fish. After three days they start to smell!’ But we look forward to two or three more days of meetings and fellowship with all of you.”

Schlomo walked over to Izzy and whispered something.

“Good! Good! Excellent! HETS1!” said Izzy to his robot and everybody in the room. “Schlomo tells me you have solved your problems without any need for my assistance. Thank you Tsar and Stephanie, Jim and Preench, and Luke and … Luke and Schlomo – you’ve got to give credit to the help around here to keep them happy!”

Luke and I walked over to Izzy. “You are a miracle worker,” Luke said as he shook Izzy’s hand, “But you use only logic and reason, which are a million miles from faith and religious belief.”

“Thank you,” replied Izzy. “Faith and reason are a million miles apart, but as close as the two sides of a thin coin.”

“They are on totally separate coins,” insisted Luke. Before Izzy could reply, he asked, “Did we really see the CEO of OilTech and the Chairman of the Board of GazProm arguing in your garden? Did Jim really see you saying goodbye to the President of Iran?”

“Sorry Luke,” replied Izzy with a twinkle in his eye, “I’m not allowed to say.”

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’,” replied Luke. “You just told me everything I need to know.”

“Take it any way you want,” answered Izzy, “I make no claim to any magic or special status. I’m just a document custodian and all I do in my hobby is try to help people find their own sense of reason, the good ‘lights’ that guide them. If special beliefs that may or may not be true help illuminate those ‘lights,’ so much the better.”

“You must be a secret high TABB official,” replied Luke. “Otherwise, how could you afford this camp and conference center?”

“I don’t own this part of Mats Camp,” replied Izzy, “Bertie and I live in the original small building you may have seen behind the garden. This grand facility is owned by a foundation. They won’t tell me who financed it. It may be a Saudi sheik I helped out one time.”

“That place behind the garden is a shack,” said Stephanie, “How can you live there?”

“Bertie and I have all we need when we stay here or at our apartment in town that you visited last year,” Izzy replied, “We have a clean, dry place to sleep and food to eat. I plan to retire from the museum next year when I’ll be fifty-five. I’ll have a nice retirement income from my employment there. I have this hobby of trying to help people that keeps me and Bertie busy and involved in the great issues of the world as long as people want to come here and talk to me. What more could anybody want in life?”

“I guess things are seldom what they seem,” said Luke.

Suddenly the universal celi directly behind us that I had earlier set to W. S. Gilbert came to life. The aromarama displayed the animated head of Gilbert and it spoke: "Things are seldom what they seem. / Skim milk masquerades as cream. / Highlows pass as patent leathers. / Jackdaws strut in peacock's feathers. / Black sheep dwell in every fold. / All that glitters is not gold. …"

“Who set that celi to Gilbert and Sullivan?” asked Izzy.

“I did,” I said, “I love that stuff and Luke is an expert on the words.” The others walked over and gathered by the celi. It continued: "…Gild the farthing if you will / Yet it is a farthing still. / Though I'm anything but clever / I could talk like this for ever. / Once a cat was killed by care. / Only brave deserve the fair. / Wink is often good as nod. / Spoils the child who spares the rod. / Thirsty lambs run foxy dangers. / Dogs are found in many mangers. / Paw of cat the chestnut snatches. / Worn-out garments show new patches. / Only count the chick that hatches. / Men are grown-up catchy-catchies.”

“A highlow, in case you are wondering,” said Luke, “Is a shoe that laces both above and below the ankle. A jackdaw is a rogue bird related to a magpie. A catchy-catchie is a baby who is repeatedly thrown up in the air and caught.”

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