Category Archives: 365 Short Stories

Day #64: Stigma

The facility had been designed by one of the world’s top architects. With welcoming doors, a low-profile and an overt attempt not to make any statements it was boring in the extreme. It was the first of many such facilities – to be positioned as regularly as post offices, in every city and county in the country.

And today, the facility is ready for its first visitor.

The cameras and reporters have gathered from all around the country. Local bloggers are on hand. Even a couple of radio personalities have shown up.

The initial visitor is none other than Congresswoman  Peters. She is a petite and powerful woman with cutting blue eyes, dark brown hair and a gift for sharing the challenges of her constituents.

She is also the architect of the newest and largest program in Federal Government history.

As her limousine pulls up to the door of the clinic, it is mobbed by the press. She steps out gracefully, basking in this halcyon achievement in her life. She is proud.

She walks to the door, ignoring all questions, and then turns and speaks briefly.

“Gentlemen of the press,” she ¬†says, “I have arranged for a cameraman to follow me through the processing. I will explain every step of the way. I am just so thankful to God that we have reached this moment.”

There aren’t cheers, the assembled reporters are trying to maintain their impartiality. But more than a few hearts well up, and more than a few eyes let tears fall. It is a beautiful moment, a moment of promise.

A cameraman, carrying a small digital camera, follows Congresswoman Peters as she steps into the building.

They are welcomed by a perky young greeter. “Your name?” she asks politely.

Congresswoman Peters answers, “Congresswoman Joan Peters.” She then turns to the camera. “Even if they know you,” she explains, “They are required to ask you your name and confirm it in order to eliminate bias and fully verify your identity.”

The greeter checks the invitation on her terminal and then instructs the Congresswoman – “Through the double doors.”

The Congresswoman is in a talkative mood. Turning towards the camera, she launches into part I of her prepared speech. “America had a problem,” she explained, “As in other countries, it was discovered that ugly people were at a severe disadvantage. Their salaries ¬†were lower for the same jobs, they had low self-esteem, and they were less likely to be hired due to their physical appearance. in other words, they were disadvantaged due to nothing other than their genetics or, perhaps, their inability to pay for decent dental work. When the spotlight was shone on this problem, the country realized what a moral failing it represented. We had a dark history of discrimination on the basis of genetics. Slavery, segregation and higher insurance costs for those genetically predisposed to disease being only a few of the most egregious cases of this. To redress those inequities, we had¬†sporadicly¬†implemented affirmative action of various sorts. But our efforts were never comprehensive and scientific in their approach.

“Ugliness, with the clear correlation between perceived beauty and future earnings and relationship success, was a natural opportunity to try a new way. A 3rd path forward. We could make the equality of opportunity mean something.”

The Congresswoman passes through the double doors, cameraman close behind.

A waiting attendant politely instructs her to strip and pose for a camera. The Congresswoman asks the camera to turn away. As she undresses, she continues to explain. “The goal was to determine how much money or other support would be required to compensate for a given individual’s ugliness. Of course, the potential for fraud was significant. In addition, those who did a poor job of presenting themselves would naturally appear to be more ugly, whether or not that was due to their underlying genetic disability. So we developed a computer that, looking at the unadorned human body, can present a score for physical attractiveness. A score distinct from any influence due to that individual’s behavior. Of course, images are kept entirely private.”

There is a flash and the Congresswoman can be heard reassembling her clothes. In a minute, she is back on camera – a bright smile plastered across her face.

“The system not only assesses ugliness, it can assign racial scores. Instead of simply being¬†Caucasian or African-American or Hispanic and individual can be rated for built-in racial victimhood on a continual curve.”

The attendant directs her into the next room.

“Of course,” she explains, “That was only stage one. With this new methodology, there were so many areas of born inequality that could be addressed. We have developed a battery of tests to judge people’s performance in each area. In every case, we have opted for scientific and not subjective results.”

A third attendant appears and directs her to lay on a bed that is in the center of the room. She is ordered to react.

The camera catches her peaceful smile as the¬†room’s lights dim. Then, above her, lights flash and patterns form. Smells enter the air, then noises. Her toe is pricked. The entire time, data is collected. After three minutes, she is asked to get up from the bed.

She does so.

“During that test,” she explains, “My brain was being continually scanned. It was designed to assess core physical and mental¬†acuity. Am I wired properly for smell? How quickly do I recognize patterns? How many inputs can I handle at one time? All put together it gives an excellent of my mental and physical birthright.”

The attendant directs her into the next room. There, yet another attendant is sitting behind a desk. She has a list of questions in front of her.

One by one, she reads them off and the Congresswoman answers. The attendant’s delivery is intentionally flat. After seven minutes of questioning, the attendant gestures her towards the next room.

“That may have seemed odd,” she explains to the camera, “But that was a psychological examination. The computers were analyzing not only my verbal responses to the questions but also my physiological responses. They were determining whether I have any underlying mental issues. If not, course, I can be eligible for additional government support.”

They enter the next room.

“I want to stress,” she adds, as they are about to step into the next room, “That centralizing all these functions is not only a boon for the moral fabric of our society. It is also a tremendous cost savings. Your entire predisposed But the Congresswoman’s responses are carefully monitored

The next room is empty. Congresswoman Peters explains, “There are a number of new and exciting areas we are looking to assess. These would include physical condition, for example. However, we are currently unable to distinguish nature from nurture in these areas. It is possible a genetic test might be run to determine what portion of a person’s obesity is due to genetics, what portion is due to an inborn lack of willpower and what portion is due to that individual’s own decision-making. For now, we have simply left room for the tests of the future.”

With a gesture, Congresswoman Peters pulls the camera towards the next room.

“Results!” she says gleefully.

In the final room, a new attendant is waiting, a print out in her hands.

“Name and ID,” she asks.

The Congresswoman confidently presents them.

The attendant cross checks the paper and the ID she’s been handed.

“Thank you,” she says, handing the ID back. “Ms. Peters,” she says, “I have some excellent news. In the ugliness test you scored a 53%. This will require your employer to raise your pay by 15%. In addition, your brain score was only 12% above normal. This will enable you to receive hiring preference and cash paycheck supplements when competing against smarter individuals. ¬†When combined with your ugliness factor, it should also make finding work significant easier. On the psychological exam you demonstrated a definite inability to delay gratification. It has been determined that this is overwhelmingly caused by genetics or factors outside of your control. For this reason, your employers will be require to give an additional 5% of your income towards your retirement planning packages. ¬†All in all, you are eligible for a 20% raise and an array of hiring and other preferences.”

The attendant hands Peters a printout of the report.

The senator looks crestfallen. “I look beautiful,” she tells the attendant.

“Ma’am,” says the attendant, “It’s possible that you simply dress well.”

As she stumbles from the building, a particularly aggressive reporter steps into her path.

“What do you think about the new system?” he asks, shoving a microphone in her face.

Her answer is short, “Clearly, it has a few kinks.”

Day #63: Dubai

(Dubia, UAE – February 25th). In an unexpected about-face, Dubai’s Commander-in-Chief of Police, Major General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, refused to answer questions regarding the alleged¬†assassination¬†of Hamas arms procurement specialist Mahmoud al Mabhouh. The Major General instead used his press conference to profess an interest in more mundane police matters, such as ensuring that the Pepsi machines in the lobby of his Headquarters were adequately stocked.

A  number of theories have been advanced considering his about face. The first, and most prominent, is the possibility that the Mossad or other parties threatened him if he continued to talk. A second popular theory is that he too owns false passports and realized pursuing the topic could cause him significant personal damage.

Our own investigations, using informants who work within the Dubai Police Department suggest a different motivation. As the Dubai police expanded their probe, they realized that over 75 agents – all sent to dispose of a single individual – were staying in top-tier Dubai hotels and eating at top-tier Dubai restaurants. All flew Emirates Airlines with the majority purchasing tickets in first-class. Finally, according to accounts of those who encountered the massive assassination team, they were unfailingly polite and very generous tippers.

The official, who requested that he remain unnamed, explained: “Here in Dubai we were initially concerned that we would receive a reputation as a popular destination for assassinations. The al Mabhouh case was seen as a potential threat to all-important tourist dollars – as well as dollars spent by those in our blackmarket arms industry. The lost revenues from that case could have been substantial, had the killers hurt others beyond their targets. However, the¬†assassination¬†was remarkably clean. And, as 75 foreign agents came to stay in Dubai to carry out the effort, it was felt that the net positive gain from the assassination was substantial. In this global economy, with budgets falling, governments are seen as an excellent source of hotel and restaurant revenues.”

Further consultations with Dubai officials have indicated that a rash of reforms are making their way through the city-states government. First, suspected political or military assassins are to be freely admitted. Second, to reduce diplomatic tempests, assassins are advised to travel under their legal passports Рeven Israelis will be welcome. Third, in order to ensure a target-rich environment, Dubai will make every effort to expand the illegal arms business, the drug transiting business and the blind-eye-to-terrorists policies.

With these elements in place, Dubai expects that it will see international espionage related¬†assassinations almost triple in one year. ¬† In two year’s time, it is estimated that the new measures will be generating $200M/yr in new hotel revenues from assassins and their associates while costing only $10M/yr in non-scheduled hotel stay reductions. It is hoped that Dubai can be the world leader in targeted killings by late in 2010.

While the new unofficial policy is exciting for those in the targeted killing industry, the Dubai government has indicated that visitor’s activities will be restricted in two¬†significant¬†ways: First, any collateral damage will submit all parties involved to intense review and possible banishment. Second, any assassins using low-budget hotels will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

A passport officer at Dubai Airport explained the change¬†succinctly, “We used to look at the passports. Now, we try not to.”

Note: Today is the Fast of Esther, which directly precedes (most years) the holiday of Purim. Often seen as an adjunct to Purim, this fast is actually quite important. It is the Fast Esther asked the Jewish people to take prior to taking her case for Jewish survival to the King. Where most fasts are concerned with the past (and perhaps how that past affects us today), this fast is solidly focused on the present. We fast on this day so that G-d will bless our attempts to thwart modern-day attempts to eliminate our people. As the Iran threat grows, and as we prepare to play whatever hand we have, it is critical that we understand that our efforts and our redemption will come from G-d. Here are, I feel, two revealing quotes:

‚ÄúThey have a whole backup system called asynum(?). These are the people who are local residents, Jewish people, who will help the Mossad. And there‚Äôs estimated to be in the world about half a million, some say a million, I tend to say about a half million from what I‚Äôve learned from Mossad people.‚Ä̬†— BBC interview, February 17th, 2010 (this would indicate up to 1 in 12 diaspora Jews works for Mossad)

‚Äú’There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king’s laws; therefore it profiteth not the king to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed;‚ÄĚ Haman, Megillat Esther, a long time ago.

Day #62: Iron Ball

Dr. Fred Boehner is not a medical doctor. He is an engineer by training, with a doctorate on magnetics. And he is promising to change the world.

Dr. Boehner is a dashing figure, for a scientist. His brown hair, reflecting his military past, is cut Marine short. Unlike some soldiers, he hasn’t let himself go after his time in the service. At the age of 56, his trim and strong body reveals a man in fantastic shape. But those who meet him rarely remember his fitness or his hair. What they remember is the excitement that dances in his eyes – excitement they find themselves wrapped up in, without even knowing the cause.

It is that electric enthusiasm that had drawn his present crowd – executives and scientists from the largest medical device makers in the world.

In front of him, on an operating table, is a rat. It’s midsection is encircled by a donut of equipment.

Dr. Boehner, his slight German accent defining his voice, explains, “This rat has a cancerous tumor in its midsection. I am going to demonstrate the first non-invasive surgery to remove it. Let me just remind you that you must remove all metal prior to this demonstration. It is highly unlikely that unsecured metal will actually be impacted by this magnetic field, but better safe than sorry. So, is everybody ready?”

The assembled audience, all standing around the operating table for the best vantage point, nod their agreement.

“Good,” says Dr. Boehner, “Before we begin, I want to also remind all of you that this is covered by a fleet of patents and patent applications and that you have signed non-disclosures and non-competes as it regards this technology.”

Again the assembled audience nods.

Gesturing to two screens just outside the operating theater, Dr. Boehner says,¬†“You will notice, behind the windows, the high-resolution 4D-ultrasound image of the rat’s internal organs. We can see the rat’s liver there. The actual tumor is in the middle of the liver and can’t be seen by the ultrasound. Nonetheless its location has been carefully documented. This ultrasound will guide the surgical process without an internal camera.”

He hits a button again and the liver is once again visible. He then picks up a syringe from a plastic supply table. It is filled with a dark gray substance.

“Within this syringe, I havea collection of specially treated and heavily milled magnetite particles. In the only ‘invasive’ step of today’s surgery, I will inject the patient with this formula.

Leaning forward, Dr. Boehner administers the shot. The gray mass appears on the ultrasound. Moments later, he flicks a switch and the mass congeals into a tight ball.

“The system has now been turned on. It is a system of highly calibrated magnetic fields which shape the iron formula into whatever pattern is desired. What you’re about to see is something quite amazing, in my opinion. I have pre-scanned this cancerous mass using a variety of systems and – using simulation software – I have predetermined how to remove it. The great advantage of the iron particles is that they can be shaped in any way and move in any way. That is unlike a traditional surgical implement which has one shape and is thus limited in what it can perform. What I’ve prepared for today is a cancerous extraction from the center of the liver. The iron will actually form a small tube to the edge of the cancerous mass. Particles will then go through that tube and cut their way around the edge of the tumor, eventually encircling it in a tight ball. Other particles will come in and cut the mass into tiny pieces – all within the ball of iron that contains it. Finally, the tumor particles will be forced back up the narrow tube, while being entirely surrounded by the magnetite bubble.”

A hand is raised.

“Yes?”

“How does your preparation process deal with variations in actual body and organ movement?”

“That was challenging,” says Dr. Boehner, “But the system has been programmed to take those changes in stride. It actually alters the predetermined movements on the fly. In addition, we do take a little extra material to ensure small levels of movement won’t thwart the process.”

“Thank you,” say the questioner.

“The system is actually controlled by my voice,” says Dr. Boehner, “I say a phrase to turn on the voice recognition and then it will respond to my commands.”

After a moment’s pause, he speaks again, “Dancing elves are funny.” On the monitors outside the theater a red light turns green.

Dr. Boehner continues, “Commence.”

As the assembled audience watches, the iron particles drill into the liver and extract the tumor, just as described.

The operation works perfectly.

Dr. Boehner says, “Seal.”

There is a flurry of movement on the outside of the liver.

“Elves stop,” says ¬†Dr. Boehner, and the light outside the room goes back to red.

“What I’ve just done is, through extreme excitation of the magnetic field, cauterized the outside of the liver to reduce bleeding and promote a faster recovery. Now,¬†I will use the syringe used to inject the iron to extract both the iron and the cancerous material. The syringe is of a large enough diameter to allow the iron seal to be maintained.”

He pulls back the syringe’s plunger and then sinks it into the ¬†rat’s side and navigates it to the iron mass.

“Dancing elves are funny.”

Green light.

“Extract.”

The iron moves into the syringe without being pulled.

“Elves stop.”

Red light.

Dr. Boeher places a small bandage on the rat’s torso. He then pushes a button and turns the system off.

He unstraps the rat and it jumps up and runs back to its cage.

“Faster recovery, a non-sterile theater, tremendous control of the surgical procedure, speed, precision and the ability to run¬†preparatory¬†simulations.” He turns back back to the assembled executives and scientists, “What do you think?”

“Cool technology,” says the man who asked the earlier question, “But irrelevant. It will require new capital equipment which will have to be allocated to each operation, significantly raising costs. In addition, it isn’t really providing any clinical benefits that can be shown in a way the gatekeepers will accept.”

“Speed and reduced healing times aren’t relevant?”

“Not unless you can demonstrate that you get everything a regular surgery provides in the process. And your use of a magnetic fields means you don’t have a backup in case things go wrong.”

“I can open up the rat in an emergency.”

“Not without a sterile theater you can’t and there goes a major cost benefit.”

The others nod.

“Sorry,” says the man, “This is cool, but it doesn’t matter. No hospital, insurance company or government program would agree to fund it.”

There are nods of agreement.

The excitement dims in Dr. Boehner’s eyes.

“Well,” he says, “Thank you for your feedback.”

With a forced smile, he guides the assembled audience out of his lab.

One word runs through his mind as he thinks about his five years on the project.

“Shit.”

He hopes, somehow, he’ll regroup.

Day #61: Mr. Ubarti

The corporate boardroom’s decor speaks of wealth restrained. Those who know can appreciate the expense of the room. The $7,000 chairs around the $20,000 table. The $3M painting hiding the flat panel display. The rich wood panelling, transplanted from the now historic library of the company’s founder. ¬†And, of course, the incredible 75th-story view over New York City.

None of it was garish, none of it spoke of excess or waste. But any person who entered that room and sat in those chairs could feel the luxury and power that it represented.

That boardroom was the nexus of operations for the Prowl Corporation. The once proud manufacturer of a different name was now a multinational conglomerate that manufactured few things, but marketed everything from financial plans to candy bars and sneakers. The Prowl Corporation had a strong and established global brand. It spoke for itself and people understood it. But sales gains had stagnated and management was under heat to reinvigorate the company’s image.

With that in mind, they had sought out a celebrity sponsor.

After searches and interviews galore, they had selected Dominic Ubarte – a stylish, daring and aggressive Tennis player of Italian and Angolan descent. The man had all the qualities that reinforced the Prowl brand. He was globally recognized. And young people, the key demographic where sales growth had begun to soften, really dug him.

One by one, Ubarte passed the company’s hurdles. He was well-spoken, intelligent and just a bit brash. The TV consulting wing loved him. He had a voice for radio. And his in-person persona and charisma were legendary.

There had been only one more hurdle for him to pass.

And that hurdle is what brings us to the boardroom today. Seeking to protect their interests, the board of directors of Prowl have demanded that the company carry out a full background check and even conduct surveillance of their spokesman-elect. If there were issues, they wanted to be aware of them earlier rather than later.

Kohn Corp., the best private investigators in the world were hired. And, after an exhaustive examination, they have come to present their results.

Kohn Corp’s chief investigator, Adam Kohn, is at the head of the table. The board and officers of the corporation are all around it. It is expected to be a routine meeting, but Kohn has no such plans.

Before he even turns on the presentation screen, hiding the gorgeous $3M painting, he speaks.

“Mr. Ryans,” he says, “Can I ask you to leave the room?”

Mr. Ryans is a member of the Board. He has served for seven years and is considered a key decision-maker for the company. A hired gun asking a man like him to leave is unprecedented.

“No,” he answers, “We’ve paid for this, I believe I’m entitled to see what you’ve learned.”

“Mr. Ryans,” says Mr. ¬†Kohn, “Our knowledge of your background suggests that you will experience conflicts of interest if you see our presentation on Mr. Ubarto. They could threaten some of your other Directorships and leadership roles.”

Mr. Ryans considers for a moment. Perhaps he could leave.

“Can I have one of my fellow board members keep me informed about what’s happened?”

“I will inform them of the possible conflicts and they can make up their own minds.”

“Okay,” says Mr. Ryans, rising from his seat.

As soon as he leaves the room, Mr. Kohn powers up the screen. He watches it come on. It shows Ubarti’s face profiled by a distant camera. The man’s skin is of a rich hue, more Angolan than Italian. His straight black hair and sharp features betray his more European roots.

Kohn turns to face the remaining Directors.

“I lied to Mr. Ryans,” he announces, “This presentation will not threaten him in any way. But he is, due to some of his connections, very much a threat to Mr. Ubarti. I will ask that you refrain from sharing my information on Mr. Ubarti with him. You will understand why shortly.”

There is low murmuring as Kohn lowers the lights.

“Mr. Ubarti,” he began, “Is a fascinating individual. Of course, he is known first and foremost as a tennis player. He has a highly developed persona on-field. That is obvious to all. What is far more interesting and relevant to this group is his off-the-field exploits.”

The screen changed – a picture of Ubarti with his family.

“Dominic is a married man. He and his wife Anna have been together for 6 years. They have two children, Fredrico and Armando. In their home life,” a video of the Ubarti home with the family playing by the pool starts playing, “There is no evidence of significant tension. In report cards recovered from trash bins and interviews conducted with teachers, there has been no indication of unusually poor behavior or any sort of abuse.”

With a click of the button, the screen changes- Ubarti in a black Ferrari.

“In his spare time, Ubarti enjoys driving one of his fleet of cars on country roads. The current favorite is a black Ferrari Spyder¬†convertible. Despite the choice of vehicle, he is a restrained and careful driver. He does visit the track regularly to race at full-speed. Ubarti’s home and fleet of luxury cars raised some concern from an accounting standpoint. It was considered possible that he has been drawing income far beyond his current tennis winnings and sponsorships. We investigated his financial history in detail. He is actually, through intermediaries, one of the 15 largest owners of *this* company. He bought shares from November 2004 to March 2006, when the future of Prowl was very much in doubt. His holdings, 0.7% of the company, now have a¬†market value of just over $1.3B. He is living well within his means.”

The slide changes – Ubarti parked in front of a nightclub.

“Our interest was raised once again by his behavior on Friday, March 17th. We followed him to a club. His wife and children were at home and he had decided to go ‘clubbing.’ Our lip reading analysis indicates that before leaving the family home he told his wife he wanted to go for an extended swim. We caught her reaction on camera.” As Kohn speaks, a video of her response plays. “She clearly knows he is lying, but she seems proud. This, of course, confused us.”

“When Obarti got to the club, he went straight inside. He danced for a short period and then made his way to a private booth. A woman met him there. She fit all the characteristics of a squeeze on the side – young, very attractive and dressed in particular fashion. The two of them retired to a nearby hotel. We managed to record some sounds from the room. Despite a shower being on, we heard nothing that resembled any sexual activity. Instead, there was a very earnest and dry conversation whose subject we could not clearly identify. After 25 minutes, Ubarti left the hotel. He had a briefcase with him that he hadn’t had before. He proceeded to another club, where he met another young woman. They too, retired to a hotel. Ubarti visited five hotels that night with five different women before returning home. He told his wife he had a good swim. And she smiled – joyful, but fully aware that he was lying.

“Over the course of the following days, we attempted to put together dossiers on the women. Few are high-profile in their own ways. But each woman had extremely interesting connections. The first was a 2nd-cousin of Aung San Suu Kyi – the leader of the opposition in Myanmar. The second was a niece of Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition. The third was an Iranian woman whose father is head of the Regular Army – not the Revolutionary Guard. The fourth was a Chinese dissident and the fifth was a North Korean defector who is believed to have maintained connections in the country.

“We aren’t sure of the details, but it appears that Mr. Ubarti is using a false sexual promiscuity as a cover for interfacing and supporting various international pro-democracy movements. We attempted to track his changes in belongings, but they were minimal. From the snippets of conversation we caught, he has been: distributing seditious materials within North Korea, providing loan guarantees for the purchase of weapons by Iranian opposition movements, planning a large-scale attack on Myanmar’s Junta, planning for the aftermath of Mugabe’s death and laying long-term groundwork within China. In other words, he is a very busy boy – but not in the way that people expect.”

Kohn pauses to take a drink his water.

“You tasked us with determining whether he was of sufficient character to serve as the face of Prowl. Despite the fact that most of his illicit activities are highly illegal, we believe he fits that criteria. He appears to be a man of great character and resolve. Any extra money he makes will almost certainly go to good and productive use. His wife knows what he is up to and they play word games to ensure their tracks are covered. We have cooperated in this. Mr. Ryan has extensive and illegal business dealings with the government of North Korea – and so we asked him to leave.

On the flip side, Mr. Ubarti’s appearance as a philanderer of the first degree could compromise the company. It is our belief that, if pressured on his apparently illicit relationships, he will insist they are real and he will maintain them. He will not reveal what he is actually up to, nor will any of the women involved identify themselves. In other words, he is a public relations nightmare waiting to happen.”

The presentation ends. As the painting slides back down, covering the screen, Mr. Kohn concludes.

“The choice of whether to extend a contract offer to Mr. Ubarti is, of course, up to you.”

As Mr. Kohn steps out of the room, it erupts in argument and conversation.

Day #60: Rub' Al Khali

The silence and cold are each, in their own way, bracing. It is midnight in the Rub’ Al Khali, Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter. I have journeyed here, first by Jeep, and then my camel and finally by foot. I am in the heart of the desert.

Far above me, the world is covered by a blanket of stars. They are familiar. What they illuminate is totally alien. Sand dunes a thousand feet tall tower over the gray gravel plane. With the winds, the world here is constantly shifting. During the day temperatures regularly hit 130 degrees farenheit.  At night, it can freeze. Water is almost impossible to find. And packing is a very real challenge.

There are things that live here. Some plants, birds and insects. But little else. Everything that lives here is tough – able to endure one of the harshest ecosystems in the world. Even the Beduin do not venture here.

But there is, hidden in the wasteland, one most unusual species. For millennia,  they have been only a rumor. They are the inhabitants of the buried city of Iram. The City of a Thousand Pillars.

It was once considered a great trading city – a nexus in the string of camel and sea routes that connected the East and the West. But, like Atlantis, it disappeared long ago. According to rumor, it was swallowed by the sands as a punishment from God.

I have discovered another truth.

This night, silent and cold, is the night that I confirm that the rumor is false.¬†After almost 1500 years of total secrecy, I alone have been invited to visit. I don’t know why.

As I am to discover, the existence of this city is only one of its many secrets.

My guide met me in Riyadh. He was quiet. And despite coming from the desert, he seemed to lack the attitude of a nomad. Even in the cities of Saudi Arabia, people have the culture of nomads. But not this man. He was quiet and reserved – and seemed most unhappy to be travelling.

He took away my GPS and my phone and, my load thus lightened, we headed into the desert. A few people saw us drive by the edge of humanity and into the sea of sand. They saw the SUV, and they must have assumed we were going to spin around in the dunes. But we didn’t encroach on the sand and return. We just kept going. And then, at midnight of the second day, we stopped. There were camels waiting for us.

Again, my guide spoke little – and he seemed uncomfortable on the back of the camel. But we kept moving. And 24 hours later, we stopped, dismounted, and began to walk.

I asked him, in Arabic, “Why leave the camels?”

He answered, in a dialect I had never heard before, “They are unclean.”

Confused, I kept walking. The desert sea is flat aside from the dunes. But occasionally there are splits in the surface. Ruptures. I’d read about some of them – there had been an old oasis near one of them. The cracks revealed the long-absent presence of water. My guide leads us to one of these cracks and we descend.

We have no torch or other light. As we continue under the ground, it grows darker and darker. But even in the dark I can sense that my feet are walking a smooth trail and that the naturally formed walls of the crevice are giving way to something more regular. Something more human.

And then, out of nowhere, we come to a wooden door.

My guide knocks.

We wait.

And then the door opens.

I can not make out the faces of the people inside. My guide goes through the door and I follow. Beyond there is a snaking path, hemmed in on all sides by smooth-stoned walls. Any invader would have to traverse this – and any advantage in might or men would be erased.

And then the path ends and opening up before me is the most incredible sight I’ve ever seen.

A thousand pillars, painted blue and red and green, wrapped in vines and lit by oil-burning lights, separate the desert floor above from the floor of a glorious city.

Iram.

The smell of¬†frankincense and¬†myrrh – rich Eastern spices –¬†is in the air. Throughout the city there are tiny canals routing water to trees and crops that are sprinkled¬†amongst the pillars. Although they are not visible at night, the columns have mirrors and hollow-tubes within them. During the day, ¬†those not covered by sand bring the sun into the¬†subterranean¬†world – enabling the trees and crops to grow and the people to bask in a pale reflection of the harsh environment above.

But that is not the greatest surprise. For as soon as we enter the city proper, my guide melts away. And I am greeted by a woman.

She is dressed modestly, but she is not wearing an abaya or other enveloping clothing. More importantly, her very presence speaks of authority. Authority my guide clearly never had.

“Welcome,” she says, in that ancient-sounding Arabic dialect.

I want to ask if she was the daughter of some tribal elder, but she beats me to it.

“I am Mohammedah, Matriarch and Guide of the City of Iram.”

She is the ruler?

“I am Bob Howard,” I answer, feeling pathetic, “And curious.”

She smiles.

“Welcome to our city,” she says, again, “I will be happy to give you a tour.”

“I will be glad to accompany you,” I answer.

With that, we begin to walk. First we go to the¬†reservoir and she explain, “The city is sustained by rare rainfall, a gift from God. We collect the water in the reservoir and preserve it for many years. There is also groundwater we can use in times of great drought, but we avoid it.”

We walk to the canals. “These have been designed,” she explains, “To preserve all the water that can be preserved. Every canal is covered and designed to deliver only the water that is absolutely necessary to our trees and crops.”

And then, as we head towards the market, I notice that there are no men – only women.

And so I ask, “Is this a woman’t quarter?”

She smiles back at me, “Here,” she says, “There is no other quarter. The men stay within our homes and feed the children and are forbidden, except in very unusual circumstances, from appearing in public. Women rule here.”

“In an Arab culture?” I ask, “That is unheard of.”

“Bob,” she says, the ancient Arabic rolling off her tongue, “The rest of the Muslim world has been betrayed.”

“How?” I ask.

“I will show you,” she answers. And with that, we begin walking towards the center of the city.

And in the center of the city, there is a mosque. And in the center of the mosque, on a pedestal of limestone, is a book.

She leads me to it.

When she opens the first page, I recognize the words. It is the Koran.

But the words are not quite the same.

“This,” says Mohammedah, “Is the original Koran. It was written before the version the rest of the world knows. And it contains a secret that the rest of the world does not know.”

“And that is?” I ask.

“That,” says Mohammedah, “Is that the Prophet Mohammed was a woman. Mohammedah.”

“That can’t be,” I answer.

“But it is true,” she replies, “Mohammed is the word Chamud, ‘desirable.’ Mohammedah was a woman of fine form and beautiful eyes. And she produced, like France’s Joan of Arc, many improbable military victories. And she led a small army of loyal women – powerful women. But they were betrayed by their men. And when those men led armies, in the name of Islam, to other lands, the Koran was changed and she was removed.”

“And then?” I ask, not actually believing a word she’s saying.

“And then,” she answers, “We came here. To Iram. A few attempts were made to overwhelm us – but the city’s defenses were strong. And so the city never disappeared, but it was the last holdout of the true followers of Mohammedah. Here, women rule and men submit. Here, men suffer for their betrayal against the Prophet, peace be upon her. In the Koran the world knows, our city has been eliminated. But, as you see, that is not true. We have only been isolated – cut off from the world to prevent them from knowing our secret.”

“Why invite me?” I ask. “Why, after all these years, would you reveal yourselves now.”

“Robert,” she answers, “We are a city hidden in the desert. We have a small population and we breed amongst ourselves. You have been invited, not to visit, but to stay.”

I don’t understand, and it shows on my face. I am here to stay? It takes a moment for my mind to grasp – but by the time the command ‘Run’ is passed to my body, it is too late.

I feel hands grabbing me from behind and shackles being placed on my arms.

“Bob,” continues Mohammedah, as she watches me being restrained, “We are are a city at constant risk of inbreeding. And so we regularly require new blood. You¬†have been brought here to breed. You have been brought here to guarantee that the City of Iram, the City of a Thousand Pillars, can survive. To protect the city, you may never leave.”

I am screaming as I am dragged out of the mosque.

I am brought into a darkened building. And I am left inside. The door is closed and barred behind me.

As my eyes adjust I look around. And I see men. Men from around the world.

The shock has left their faces.

Instead, I see only resignation.

I see only my future.

And thus, I begin my life in the harem of Mohammedah, Matriarch and Ruler of the City of Iram – the City of a Thousand Pillars.

ADMIN: Not all stories are the opinions of the author

ūüôā

I get some feedback from people asking why or how I took a position. Let’s say on privatizing the military or having leagues for reading Torah. The answer is, I don’t. I’m just throwing out what-ifs to have people reflect. The story can be quite interesting by taking a fresh perspective on a topic – I make no claim that they are totally thought through or defensible. They are just meant to enable people to have fun while thinking about things.

The next story is a great example of this. It is a ‘what-if’ that could be a lot of fun. But it doesn’t actually express any of my opinions ūüôā

Enjoy!

Joseph

Day #59: New Frontier

This is a follow-on to Wild West – although it stands alone.

****

“WHAT?!” shouted my husband.

We were in our module, an almost free floating cube of space junk the company called quarters. It was¬†tethered to the asteroid we were mining As we were surrounded by vacuum, Jim could have shouted as loud as he wanted and he wouldn’t have been heard.

“I’m pregnant.” I repeated, calmly.

“How?” he asked, his voice edged with exasperation.

Before you get the wrong idea about him, Jim loved kids. It was just that he believed they had no place here. Everybody else agreed.

Everybody, that is, but me.

“I stopped taking the pill.” I said.

“And violated company policy?”

“Yes.” I answered.

“And what are we supposed to do?” he asked.

“Raise a child.” I answered.

“Mary,” he said quietly, “Have you thought about this?”

“Of course,” I answered. I was ready for the barrage of objections.

Nobody’s ever done a zero-G birth,” he said.

“Nobody’s tried,” I countered, “We won’t know it won’t work.”

He looked shocked by my answer.

“There aren’t any diapers.”

He had a point there, we were millions of miles in space it wasn’t like the nearest supermarket was around the corner. But I had my answer ready.

“For most of human history, there haven’t been diapers.”

“Sure,” he answered, “But at least the shit fell.”

“We’ll put a bag around his lower body. Up here, he doesn’t need to crawl.”

“His?” asked Jim.

“I had an ultrasound at the clinic,” I answered.

“A COMPANY DOC KNOWS?”

“Of course not,” I answered, “I did it myself.” That had been an interesting bit of¬†skulduggery.

“What about muscle development?” he asked. It was part of our daily routine – working our ‘gravity’ muscles so we could return to Earth. A baby wouldn’t know to do it.

That, of course, led to the crux of the matter.

“Jim,” I said, “The kid won’t go back to Earth.”

He was about to say something, but it didn’t come out. His eyes just searched my face, looking for some sort of grounding.

“Jim,” I continued, “Humans have been out here mining for 40 years. We come, work for five years and then go home. We miss 17 years of our life once transit is factored in. 17 years, Jim. And why? Because we have no life here. Before I even left Earth, long before I met you, I intended to change that. I intended to have a baby. Here.”

It took a moment, but he recovered his voice.

“Are you crazy?” he asked. It wasn’t a metaphorical question.

“Not at all,” I said, “It’s just time to make this our world. We can put padding on the rough edges, build space suits for infants and toddlers. We can even put together a little school.”

“And how can we pay for it?”

“Jim,” I said, “We make good money. But beyond that, think of the headlines. You don’t expand the human frontier by sending men to space and machines to mine. You expand the frontier by having children and building communities. The mine is a company project. For company profits. But our baby is humankind’s project. For the purpose of making beyond Earth part of our world. The money will come.”

“And we never go home?” he asks, a touch of sadness in his voice.

“Jim,” I replied, calmly, “We’ll make our home here.”

Jim thought for a moment. And then, as I knew he would, he nodded his head.

He repeated. “We’ll make our home here.”

That was ten years ago. Today, as I look around a piece of space junk the company calls a classroom, I smile.

The room is full.

Ours was the first, but not the only, family on this frontier.

Day #58: Hole in the Wall

Little Menashe was three years old when the Jews left Egypt. A little kid, really. Even though only a few months had passed, he had only a tenuous memory of the splitting of the Sea. He remembered being thirsty at the place of bitter waters. He remembered the bloody survivors of a sudden war. And he remembered sensing, even as a little boy, when order came upon the camp. Everything had been chaos and a scrambling series of adventures. And then, there was structure. And with structure, the people were prepared, even little Menasha, for the Giving of the Torah. That Menashe remembered. It was the strangest sensation. He understood all of it.

And then, with that great adventure complete, Moshe the Teacher began a series of lectures on civil law. And the elders passed those on to the people. And the people mostly listened. But Menashe’s brief epiphany was gone. He understood nothing. So, instead, he explored the camp, talked to fellow slave-babies and played games whenever possible. He was bored.

And then, one day, the topic changed. Moshe was going to build something. A Mizbeach, whatever that was. And like a kid with his eye peaking through the hole at a construction site, Menashe was hooked. Moshe described building a fantastic building, with skins and acacia wood and gold and copper and utensils and rods and poles. And the whole thing was going to be mobile.

Menashe was mesmerized by the details. But soon, he realized he was also confused.

The more Moshe described, the harder it was for Menashe to picture the building in his mind’s eye. There were flashes of color, dashes of texture and dimensions galore. But there was nothing, truly nothing, that described how the place was actually supposed to look.

It was all so physical, and yet so far from concrete.

Yet still he listened; a menorah, curtains, the Ark and an Altar.

Fascinating things. Physical things without limitation.

He didn’t understand why he couldn’t picture it.

And then, in a flash of insight, he got it.

It was to be a House for G-d.

A physical space to contain the infinite.

No matter how many words were used, it could never truly be described.

So little Menashe did what he could.

He closed his eyes, listened to the words, and felt the presence of the Lord.

Day #57: Wild West

People used to envision space exploration as some kind of massive operation governed by great big bureaucracies that were there to make sure everything went smoothly.

Others imagined Cowboys and Indians with a totally wild world of unfettered freedom.

The reality is the twisted off-spring of both.

The fact is, you got to have money to play in space. Getting people up and keeping them alive is a no-joke serious venture. Even with costs slashed, it takes $30M to get a single worker to the asteroid belt. That is an enormous amount of money. And yet, people do it. Not individuals of course, but companies. Giant, powerful, corporations with tremendous financial resources and huge bureaucracies.

Why do they do it? Because of unbelievable wealth.

Trillions and trillions of dollars of minerals and other commodities. Some are sent back to the surface of Earth where they are valuable. And some are brought back to Earth orbit, where they are incredibly valuable. But all find a use as mankind builds and expands beyond its home.

You’d think things would be nice and orderly under these conditions. But they aren’t. First, the asteroid belt is a long way away from home. It can be hard to discipline people when it takes six years to get to them. But secondly, it takes six years and $30M to replace somebody. So, unless they aren’t productive or unless they prove to be a real danger to lots of other workers, pretty much anything goes.

And pretty much anything went.

The mining companies weren’t the only sorts who sent people to the Belt. Others got together, seeing a prime opportunity to liberate workers from their very very high wages. There were purveyors of drugs and alcohol. And purveyors of more, well, human, pleasures. There used to be huge logistics companies selling high-priced water and air – but then the mining companies figured out how to get those from the Belt itself.

One enterprising fellow even developed and patented rockahol. Use your imagination to guess what that is – and it will still taste twice as bad in reality.

So, old west or corporate control? Well, both. There was a corporate control, but it was loose. There was more than a fair share of old west, with rough rules, zero-gravity bar fights and prostitution. The fact of the matter was, if you killed somebody, and they deserved it, nobody was testify against you. And if you didn’t make a pattern of it, the company wasn’t going to bring you down. In the titanic struggles between order and chaos – chaos as definitely ahead.

There was one rule though. No matter who came up, they’d better be willing to spend a long time up. If they weren’t, it wasn’t worth the company’s budget.

As a result of this simple rule, and our overall environment, no decent women ever came. You know, the kind that held out some hope of family. The kind that understood that the environment they’d be in was sexist and far less than wholesome.

That was true, at least, until Mary.

It was May 13 and the latest transit ship had come. It was full of workers and of those many materials that could only be manufactured on Earth. And among those many workers was one named Mary Monroe. She wasn’t a barkeep or a prostitute. She was a manager.

We were all in Cooperstown mess hall. It was actually a food ship belonging to the Hyore Company. The Hyore company was in charge of mining our particular little rock – a ten mile by 1 mile wedge of high-value minerals. The ship went around visiting the various mining sites on the rock – we’d work it from all angles. When it came, miners would hop off the job, enjoy their meal and perhaps a little R&R and then get back to work.

Beyond containing a mess, the ship was, truly, a mess. The hall was a vast windowless dodecahedron – you know, a near-sphere with 12 faces. There were quite a few dark corners and structural cross-struts. In the absence of gravity, food was available at 3 of the 12 ‘faces’ of the structure. Of course, it all came in little pouches. You’d think it’d be nice and sanitary. But it turns out that when you’ve got a whole crew of men hanging out together on a very high stress job, things do get messy. There is the occasional food fight, people vomit after a too hard a night – and they bleed when they fight. No matter what the cause, when there’s no gravity, it is very very hard to clean up.

When we were in Cooperstown, we mostly ignored the stench and the flying biohazards. Nonetheless, it did eventually get to be too much. So, about every month, the mess hall would get vacuumed out (literally). And just before that happened, the whole place smelled of decayed food, vomit and old iron. Afterwards it only vaguely smelled of decayed food and vomit. The iron didn’t change a bit.

When the transit ship docked, it was just before the mess hall was supposed to be cleaned. As soon as we heard (and felt) it clump into Cooperstown, our curiosity was peaked. We were like prisoners – waiting to greet the fresh meat joining us in captivity. Of course, the whole ship wasn’t going to deboard. The transit ship had to visit other sites, other asteroids and other companies.

We weren’t expecting the whole ship, but we were expecting three people. Our crew had lost three people that month. One insulted another and a mistake was made on the job while the other two simply vanished. That tends to happen because of suit leaks.

As we’d lost three people, we’d requisitioned three replacements. Of course they’d been shipped up from Earth years earlier. They’d only just arrived in the neighborhood. For a few days, they’d been waiting in limbo of sorts while companies bid on them and their work site was selected.

We expected three. But we got two, and we got Mary.

She strode into the place as if she owned it. Her nose wrinkled, but she didn’t say a word. She was wearing a well-tailored dark gray business jacket with a low-key blouse and slacks. In no way was she a fit for Cooperstown.

But I noticed, as did quite a few of the other fellows, that the miners who came with her cussin’ and hootin’ and hollerin’ as new miners tend to do. They were sedate and restrained.

For her part, Mary didn’t waste any time.

“Folks,” she said, as soon as she walked into the room on a wave of catcalls, “I’m here because you guys are a bunch of screwups.”

The catcalls stopped.

“F-ck you,” came a voice from a dark corner. I could have traced her future life on a very small piece of paper. People like her weren’t liked and they didn’t survive.

Surprisingly, she didn’t respond in kind.

“Who said that?” she asked, schoolteacher in her voice.

Nobody came forward.

“Coward,” she muttered, loudly. She waited a moment, giving the coward the chance to face her head-on. But nobody floated forward. She’d broken a man.

“You are screwups,” she continued, back in speech-making mode, “And 23 people – $690M worth of people – have died at this site alone in the past year. I’m here to stop that.”

“Hah!” came a voice. Chuckles could be heard from all directions.

She just raised an eyebrow, and it stopped.

With that one motion, my diagram of her future life changed.

We were all afraid of her. But we weren’t afraid in some way we’d understood. It wasn’t a fear of pain or death. It was a far stronger fear of embarrassment. She was respectable. And anybody who had any respect for themselves wouldn’t want to appear the rube in front of her.

Mary’s very presence demanded decorum.

She looked around the room, one eyebrow raised. “Any questions?” she asked.

There were none.

“Then let’s get back to business.”

With another clump, the transit ship lifted off leaving Mary behind.

In five minutes, our world had changed.

In five minutes, the wild west had been tamed.