Let my people go.

Copyright Dr Alan Solomon (1986-1995)

In case you haven't been counting, I've been frozen twice at the 
North pole (A Computer for Christmas and Rudolf the Red Strikes Back) 
and roasted in Hell once (The Database of Infinity). I suppose it was 
inevitable that my next major job would be somewhere rather warm. But 
this time, it wasn't where the Lost Souls shriek - it was the desert. 
I'd better explain.

I was outside in the garden making a bonfire out of all the branches 
and other detritus from last year's gales, when I heard a Voice. I 
looked round, but there wasn't anyone there. The Voice got louder; it 
was saying something about taking off my shoes. 
I still couldn't see anyone, so I carried on raking. This time 
the Voice got rather loud, and said "Moishe, take off your shoes, for 
the ground on which you stand is Holy", and the Voice was definitely 
coming from the bonfire. And not many people know that my real name is 
Moishe - if you're Jewish, you get two sets of names, your real name 
and your Engish name, but no-one had called me Moishe since my 

Well, I don't know how *you* react to Voices coming out of burning 
bushes, but I didn't think too hard about it. I took off my shoes 
(green wellies, actually). And then I very gingerly approached the 
Burning Bush, which didn't seem to be burning up, even though it was 
burning quite strongly. "I have a Mission for you", said the Voice. "A 
Mission?", I said, thinking that a 20MHz 386 machine would be quite 
welcome. "A task that *must* be done, and must be done properly, and 
must be done two thousand years ago."

This was familiar ground. Every project I undertake *must* be done, 
must be done right, and must be completed by yesterday. Why is it that 
clients never want anything until they want it? Doing a job by 
yesterday is easy, since it is generally accepted that a project can 
overrun by a few weeks, but doing something by two thousand years ago 
was a new one on me, and I couldn't quite see how I'd tackle it; nor 
could I see why there was such a hurry. "What's the problem?" I asked.

The burning bush replied. "The children of Israel are slaves to Pharoah 
in Egypt; I want you to go down there, Moishe, and get him to let my 
people go." Oh, right. Explain to Pharoah that he wasn't quite playing 
cricket, and please would he give me thousands of valuable slaves. I 
wondered what the Ancient Egyptian penalty for lese majesty was; 
probably something lingering, with boiling oil in it. I didn't fancy 
the job, and said so. "First", I said, "I don't see how I could do it 
by two thousand years ago. Second, I don't think I'm persuasive enough. 
And thirdly, I'm really in the computer field, not the 
Abolition-of-Slavery game."

The Bush didn't seem at all put out. "You've got one hour to get 
ready," It said. I decided not to argue - would you argue with a 
Burning Bush? No, well there you are, neither would I. I rushed indoors 
and started to pack.

When you're travelling, it's a good rule to take no more than you can 
carry in one hand. That leaves the other hand free for opening doors, 
hanging from straps and drinking. I always travel very light; this also 
makes packing easier. I put my briefcase onto the bed and started 
throwing things into it. First went my Filofax, and my passport (I'm 
not sure if I'd be allowed back into Glorious England without it). Then 
I chucked in my cell phone (it doesn't cost much to stay in touch) and a
CB radio. I packed my carry-around box of diskettes, containing all the 
tools that I might need and a couple of spare pairs of socks. But while 
I was doing all this, the main problem remained unsolved - which 
computer should I take?

The Z88 is small (A4 by 1 inch thick) and light (two pounds), but it 
has a barely adequate keyboard and screen, and isn't a DOS machine. My 
NEC 8201A  is A4 by three inches thick and weighs four pounds; the 
keyboard is lovely but the screen is only 40 characters by 8 rows, and 
it isn't a DOS machine either, and I do love DOS. The Spark was a 
possibility; it's a DOS machine with a good keyboard and display, but 
it only has one diskette drive. What I really wanted to take was my 
Snap, which has a beautiful keyboard, a bright, readable screen, 640K, 
a floppy and a hard disk, and runs off batteries for a few hours 
between recharges. But it's a bit large and heavy, and after thinking 
about it, I decided to take the Z88, which left enough space for a 
spare T-shirt. There were a few odd spaces left, which I filled up with 
extra batteries. a Migent match-box sized pocket modem, a packet of 
business cards, some iron rations for emergencies (chocolate is 
extremely sustaining), a compass, my sewing kit, my first aid kit, and 
a few other bits and bobs that might come in handy. By the time my hour 
was up, I was ready for anything; I went downstairs and told the Bush.

But I wasn't ready, at least I wasn't ready for what happened next. 
Have you ever wondered what it feels like when you copy software from 
one diskette to another? From the software's point of view, that is? 
Suddenly, there you are, a stranger in a strange land, expected to deal 
with anything that happens to you. Actually not much happened, which 
was just as well, because it was pretty hot. Well, actually it was 
very, very hot. As the sweat streamed down my face, I wondered what it 
must be like for the poor chaps I could see in the distance, hauling 
stones up some kind of triangular monument. Over on my right, I could 
see buildings, so I headed that way.

As I got closer, I could see that they weren't exactly what you'd call 
buildings; more like hovels thrown together out of mud. One of them was 
rather bigger than the others, so I headed for that one. It turned out 
to be a good choice; it was the local synagogue, and inside was the 
local rabbi, a small, swarthy, shifty looking individual by the name of 
Aaron. I'm always suspicious of people whose names begin with Aa; it's 
just a cheap trick to get yourself first in directories.

But Aaron was all there was, so I decided he'd have to do.
He explained the problem to me; fortunately, my mother used to 
speak Yiddish at home, so I could understand him. Apparently, they'd 
all emigrated to Egypt several years ago, and had been made quite 
welcome at first, but lately things had been getting a bit sticky. The 
locals were getting a bit worried about the immigrant's birthrate, and 
decided that the best solution was to enslave the lot of them. 
Actually, it turned out that being a slave wasn't too bad - nice 
regular work, three square meals a day, and children were positively 
encouraged.But things had deteriorated when Pharoah had got it into his 
head to start building a pyramid, and guess who was expected to do the 
donkey work?

So now I was in the picture - I could see why I'd been brought in, and 
I had a fair idea of what I had to do. The next step was to convince 
Pharoah. It turned out to be fairly easy to get in to see him - no-one 
had ever seen anyone looking like me before, and Pharoah was curious. I 
was summoned into his presence, and asked what my trade was.

That was a problem. How do you explain the term Programmer to someone 
who has never used anything more complicated than an Abacus (and I 
wasn't even sure if that had been invented yet). So I thought of giving 
him my Doctoral subject, but even today there aren't many people who 
know what an econometrician is. So I fell back on my first degree, 
mathematics, only I translated it for them; I called myself a Geometer. 

Pharoah looked please, and summoned his own Geometer; apparently it was 
the custom around here for geometers to pit their wits against each 
other, for the entertainment of royalty. I was quite looking forward
to this - the other guy wouldn't stand a chance. After all, I had the 
advantage of two thousand years worth of theorems that he wouldn't have 
heard of, plus i had my secret weapon, Calculus. So you can imagine my
surprise when this old guy strode in, wearing robes and carrying a 
staff, threw his staff onto the floor, and it turned into a 
poisonous snake.

But when you've been working with computers as long as I have, nothing 
surprises you for very long. As quick as a flash, I grabbed the snake 
by the tail, cracked it like a whip, and broke its neck. I'd heard you 
could do that, but being the kind of person who scoops spiders out of 
the bath and chucks them out of the front door, I'd never actually
tried it before. 

The snake lay there like a dead snake, and suddenly everyone was 
smiling and clapping. And Pharoah was clapping the loudest, and was 
asking me to name my heart's desire. Well, that was easy. "Let my 
people go!" I said. Everyone stopped smiling, Pharoah looked like 
thunder, and I smelt boiling oil. 

I was lucky to get out of there in one piece, I can tell you. But the
worst thing was, I couldn't see how I was going to change Pharoah mind. 
Back at the synagogue, Aaron looked like he was secretly rather 
pleased at my discomfort. He said "We need a sign, I'll make a 
sacrifice." He made a lot of unnecessarily elaborate preparations, and
then did something unspeakable to a chicken. I was disgusted, but just 
before I averted my eyes, I saw something in the entrails. It was a 
seven digit number, followed by "1200,N,8,1". 


After the grisly ceremony was over, we went back indoors. I now knew 
exactly what I had to do. I put my Z88 on a table, and plugged the 
Migent modem into the serial port. I pulled out the cell phone, and
connected it to the modem. I put the Z88 into terminal emulation, and 
set it for 1200 baud, no parity, 8 bits, one stop bit, and dialled the 
number. Sure enough, I got a carrier, and when the Migent latched on, I 
logged into The Bulletin Board. I went straight to the Requests Area, 
and Yelled for the Sysop. Sure enough, the Sysop was there, and we went 
into Chat mode. I explained the problem, and immediately got a 
suggestion - Kermit. "But it isn't a file downloading problem", I 
protested. No, said the Sysop, not Kermit the protocol, Kermit the 
frog. What they need is a plague of frogs, and he explained how I could 
do it.

That night, under cover of darkness, me, Aaron and a motley band 
consisting of everyone Aaron could find, went down to the Nile with 
wicker baskets. We filled them up with small green Kermit-clones, and 
brought them back to the City. Well, they thought of it as a City, and 
I didn't like to tell them what a real city was like.

The next day was chaos. the small green frogs got in everywhere, 
hopping around and making their "Brk-kk-kk-kxx, coax, coax" noise. you 
could scarcely move for fear of treading on one, and believe me, one 
you've trodden on a frog, you won't want to do that again.

Well, it was all jolly fun, but eventually, the frogs found their way 
back to the Nile, and Pharoah didn't seem to have changed his mind. So
I got the Z88, the Migent and the cell phone out, and dialled up The
Bulletin Board. This time, the Sysop suggested making the river run red 
with blood; that would make Pharoah sit up and take notice. I wondered 
where I was supposed to get all that blood from, as I only have the 
normal eight pints or so, and I need most of that. Then I remembered - 
my first aid kit.

It really is amazing just how far a small amount of permanganate of 
potash will go. The entire river was red in no time, and it stayed
that way for three days. Pharoah was really beginning to get nervous, 
but unfortunately I ran out of potash, and the local chemist didn't 
seem to have anything but Aspirin. So it was back to The Bulletin Board 
for another idea.

Well, i won't bore you with some of the daft ideas that the Sysop came 
up with. The locusts were a terrible idea - the locals thought they 
were delicious. The murrain was a waste of time, since no-one even knew 
what a murrain was, and the boils didn't make much difference, because 
your average Ancient Egyptian hadn't exactly got a peaches and cream 
complexion in the first place. Eventually, the Sysop decided to stop 
footling around the edges and go for the throat - or rather for the 
eyes. We decided to fool Pharoah into thinking he'd gone blind; pretty 
drastic, huh? That one was a bit beyond my briefcase-full of technology,
so i left it to the Sysop. He, of course, took the easy way out - he 
just switched off the sun.

I could have told him that that was no good. Sure, the moon didn't work 
either, because that just reflects the sun's light, but you can see a 
surprising amount by starlight. And it didn't affect Pharoah at all, 
because although candles hadn't been invented yet, they had a nice 
little line in oil lamps.

So after a few days, the Sysop switched the sun back on, and we both 
put on our thinking caps and had a good brainstorming session. My best 
idea was to organise a union and call a general strike, but Aarpon 
explained to me that unions hadn't been invented yet, so that was
ruled out. Then my cell phone started ringing, which quite surprised 
me, because I hadn't realised that anyone else here had a phone. When I 
answered it, it whistled at me, so I set up the Z88 and the modem, and 
waited for a Revelation. 

No Revelation was forthcoming, just a rather odd set of instructions.
What we had to do, was rather grisly, and if you're squeamish, skip
this paragraph. We each had to kill a lamb, and smear the blood on our 
doors; we weren't told why, it was just do it. But that wasn't the 
nasty bit; the nasty bit came the next morning when we all woke up; 
rather a lot of people didn't. I never did find out how the Sysop 
worked that trick; he said something about an Angel, but in my opinion, 
he put something a lot nastier than permanganate in the water, although 
I can't see how he managed to target it so accurately at the firstborn.

Anyhow, that did it for Pharoah. He summoned me into his office, and 
told me to get out, to get out now, and to take all my friends with me. 
I asked if we could spend a few days getting ready to go, but he was 
adamant; we had to go right away. So I went back and spread the news, 
and that very afternoon we set off.

It was a shambles, of course. Can you imagine what it's like uprooting 
a whole people at a moments notice? no time to pack, no time to get 
ready - we even had to take the bread froim the ovens before it had 
finished rising. We had enough food for a week, and enough water for 
three days, and I hadn't the foggiest idea what we'd do after that. But 
I picked up my briefcase, and marched off, at the head of the most 
miscellaneous assortment you might ever see. The first day was awful; 
they weren't used to walking and most of them got blisters. Some of 
them hadn't brought sensible shoes, and some of them hadn't thought to 
bring proper hats and were getting sunstroke. that night, we camped 
about three miles from Cairo - that's all the distance we'd made, and 
you could see the lights in the distance. Some of them wanted to go 
back, and some of them wanted to stay right where they were now for 
ever, and some of them wanted to form a committee to discuss what we 
should do next. The committee frightened me most.

The next day came, and the weather was awful. The sky was clear and 
blue, with not a cloud in sight. The sun was bright and hot, and the 
committee was still discussing our next move. I got out my Z88 and 
dialled the number. I found a message for me on the Board, which 
cryptically suggested "Follow the pillar". What kind of advice is that? 
Pillars don't move, and there wasn't one in sight anyway. No, wait a 
bit - there was a sandstorm in the distance, which looked very like a 
pillar of sand. "Follow me", I said confidently, hoping that the 
committee would stay and argue about it, but everyone got up and 
followed me, and I followed the pillar.

We made another few miles that day, and a few more the next, but it was 
painfully slow. Babies had to be carried, and old people couldn't keep 
up, and everyone had tried to take too many possessions, and if you 
looked back along our route, you could see a trail of pathetic bundles; 
I was very glad I'd decided to leave the 18 lb Toshiba 3200 behind, 
even though it had a token ring interface card in it.

By the fourth day, we had a new problem - we were running out of water. 
I dialled up the Board, and Yelled the Sysop, but all he could suggest 
was "Dig". "I have no shovel", I said, but there didn't seem to be 
any more help forthcoming. Well, I'd been following its advice so far, 
so I borrowed Aaron's staff, and started digging with it - a sharp 
stick isn't too bad when the soil is sandy, and this sure was sandy 
soil. The Children (they acted that way, most of the time) looked at me 
like I was a lunatic, but I carried on digging, until I had a hole that 
was nearly twelve inches deep. At that point, the sand was filling up 
the hole as fast as I was digging it out, and even I could see it was 
futile. So I stopped digging, and leaned on my "shovel", and had a 
think. What was I doing wrong? Suddenly, the stick sank into the sand, 
I lost my balance and fell over, and I'm not sure exactly what 
happened, because the fall winded me, but the next thing I knew I was 
getting soaked with torrents of water.

I guess I must have hit an underground aquifer or something; the water 
was drinkable, and that solved one of our problems. But I was wondering 
how I was going to deal with the food issue that I could see coming up 
in a few days. We pressed on. The committee had managed to elect a 
minute-taker, and were now embroiled with the problem of how to take 
the minutes, because we had no paper, as paper hadn't been invented 
yet, and nobody had brought papyrus, and I wasn't going to lend them my 
Z88. We reached the Red Sea on the border of Egypt by the sixth day, 
and now I had two problems, how to get across, and what to do about 
food. No, three problems, because I could see a cloud of dust and 
hear hoofbeats. Pharoah had obviously changed his mind, and sent the 
army out to fetch us back. The committee had worked out a clever way of 
taking minutes by cutting notches on sticks, so at least that problem 
was solved. 

The cloud of dust got nearer, and I didn't fancy our chances if it came 
to a fight; the committee would have spent a week deciding whether to 
use spears or sword, and we didn't actually have either. And we 
couldn't outrun Pharoah's cavalry, and there was this wretched Red Sea 
in the way anyway. So I phoned the number, logged into the board, and 
explained the problem. the Sysop, of course, had an answer - have you 
noticed how Sysops always seem to have an answer to everything? I 
couldn't make sense of the answer, but he'd been scoring 100%PC% so far, 
so I just did as I was told. And anyway, I couldn't think of anything 
better. What I did was, I borrowed Aaron's staff again ("Can't you get 
your own," he grumbled), raised it over my head, shouted "Follow 
me", and marched down the beach towards the Red Sea.

I'm not going to tell you what happened next. There's no point. You
wouldn't believe me. No-one does. Pharoah's army didn't, so they held 
off, and then they did, and charged after us, and then they wished they 
hadn't, and I'm not going to tell you what happened to them either, 
because you wouldn't believe that, either.