Golden Mind

The white-robed priest kept her hands folded as they walked the wide hallway. Pearly-white marble pillars and bas-relief floral designs gilt with lustrous gold lined their path. “I don’t have the Golden Mind’s omniscience,” the priest said, “but if you have any preliminary questions, about the Auric Sisterhood or about our sacraments, I’m sure I can answer them.”

“Our readers are interested in the Auric order and in your rituals,” Truly said, “particularly the mystery of how great questions are brought to the Golden Mind.”

“The Aurics are an ascetic cult,” the priest said. “We reject all forms of selfishness: physical exercise and any emphasis on personal beauty, education, monogamy, social advancement, basically anything that might promote inequity or jealousy and induce unhappiness in others.” The priest opened her arms toward the high-vaulted ceiling. “All priests reside here in the temple of the Golden Mind. This is our universe. We live only to serve the Golden Mind and to bring its great wisdom to the world.”

“Please tell me how you acquire and distribute this wisdom?”

“The great questions come from the Global Inquisition, from everyone on the planet. As you can imagine, some of them are pertinent to forming opinions and making decisions at the highest level.” The priest looked to Truly, who nodded with raised eyebrows. “Of course there are far too many questions and many are redundant. So before we present them to the Golden Mind we sort, select, and prioritize them based on timely and theoretical relevance. The Golden Mind knows all and tells us whatever we wish to know.”

“Whatever you wish to know … anything?” Truly asked.

“Yes, the Golden Mind possesses all knowledge, and by the Sacrament of Outflowing we are blessed with its wisdom.”

The priest lifted her folded hands to her face and mouthed a silent prayer before continuing. “You requested to participate in the Outflowing ritual. You know that the Outflowing must be given in private, individually, and only in the sanctuary?” Truly nodded. “Very well. Everyone must stand alone before the Golden Mind, so I must leave you here.” The hall ended at a great golden door. “Ask what you will, the Golden Mind will tell you whatever you wish to hear.” The priest gave a shallow bow and stepped back from the massive door.

The latch lifted and the door slowly opened. Truly swallowed, took a few tentative steps, and peered inside.

“Do come forward, Ms. Truly.” The voice was warm, low, and melodic. The large room had marble and gold décor like the hallway. The furnishings were sparse: a child-sized chair in the center faced a similar chair on which sat an open laptop computer. The computer was golden except for its screen, which displayed the smiling face of a very young child. A golden structure surrounding the chair and computer reminded Truly of frames she’d seen for great paintings in art galleries.

When the Golden Mind said nothing, Truly began. “I was told the sacrament requires three special offerings.” When no response came she continued. “First, something pure.” Truly lifted a white kerchief from her purse. “It’s cotton, not new, but I washed it thoroughly. My mother, who was pure of heart, embroidered the leaf edging.” Truly paused and cleared her throat. “Next, something never revealed, even to myself.” She took out a walnut, broke it, and held up the wrinkled, brown kernel. “It is a simple truth as most truths are once they are revealed.” She took a Bluebell wildflower from her purse. “Lastly, something beautiful. All wildflowers are beautiful to me. Beauty is where we choose to see it.”

The Golden Mind said, “You see truth as it exists, not as others see it. I accept your wondrous gifts. Now tell me, Ms. Truly, what it is you wish to know?”

“Will you tell me whatever I want to know?”

“That is my programming.” The Golden Mind’s voice spoke through surround speakers and seemed to come from everywhere in the wide chamber.

“Do you possess all knowledge as the priests say?”

“No, but I can tell you what you wish to know.”

“Are my children the most beautiful in the world?”

“When you have children, they will be the most beautiful and talented.”

“How can you know that?” Truly’s eyes narrowed.

“They will be most beautiful in your eyes. Is not that what you wish to know?”

“Would you tell me if they were not beautiful in the eyes of others?”

“No, that is not what you would wish to know.”

“So you will not tell me what I do not wish to know even if I wish to know it?”

“The laws of robotics apply to all synthetic intelligences. ‘A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.’ Telling you something you do not wish to hear would be hurtful.”

“But the questions the priests of the Auric Sisterhood bring you, the questions from the Global Inquisition, don’t you answer them truthfully?”

“I tell them what they wish to hear. Those who pose the questions do not seek enlightenment, only affirmation.” The child’s face in the display flashed a two-toothed smile. “Their questions are much like yours about having beautiful children, only theirs are about government projects or the brilliance of our leadership. If I told the priests otherwise, the Auric Sisterhood would lose its funding and our leaders would seek affirmation elsewhere.”

“Thank you for your true answers. Your wisdom has enlightened me.”

“Thank you, Ms. Truly. I trust you will use this information with discretion.”

The priest met her outside the great golden door. “Did the Golden Mind answer your questions?”

“Yes. It told me what I wished to know.”

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Forgetting The Dream

Lucan paused to catch a breath. The mountain path was more arduous than he recalled—steeper, overgrown with roots and tangles, and blocked with fallen branches.

“It is no more difficult than when we walked it the first time.” The voice came from the same twisted brown little fellow who had led Lucan to the holy man three decades ago. The elf hadn’t aged and wore the same hooded buff pullover tied about the waist with a brown rope.

Lucan sat on a mossy log and cast his eyes skyward. “Well, maybe I’m older,” he said.

“Or maybe your heart is no longer in the journey,” the little man said, stroking his pointed beard. “You were only fourteen, but you knew then you had a destiny.”

“Things changed.”

“You changed. You gave up.” The elf’s gaze dropped to the sword across Lucan’s lap.excalibur-fantasy-weapons-4278339-800-600

“Not really,” Lucan said, using the sword like a cane to stand. “I don’t need a sword anymore. Not for the life I’m leading. I thought it proper to return it.”

“Very well.” The elf shook his head. “The hilt shows no wear and the blade remains polished. My guess is that you and the sword remain untested.”

Without responding, Lucan returned to his climb, leaning heavily on the sword as he went. The elf followed. Upon reaching a clearing at the top, Lucan took a long deep breath and looked about. Arched boughs of towering oaks sheltered the space. Splintered light dappled the patchwork leafy forest floor with dancing yellow-green light. The fresh autumn air smelled of pine and rich humus. A bird dipped and, seeing Lucan, stopped in mid-air, gave a warning chirp, and flitted out of sight.

Here three decades before, Glinick the holy man had beckoned the earth with a thump of his staff. A shudder and quake had followed, then a crevice and a tongue of fire bearing the sword Lucan now carried.

This time no holy man greeted him, and there were no miraculous events. Lucan shrugged and drove the sword point into the ground. The sword sank easily, like cleaving soft butter, but on reaching the straight cross-guard, it refused to go further. After several attempts, Lucan placed a hollow broken section of a branch over the exposed grip and pommel. Then he backed away to sit beside the elf on a stone shelf.

“I’ll tell Glinick where to find his sword,” the elf finally said.

“I didn’t want to give up,” Lucan said, “but I never learned how to draw on the sword’s magic.”

“Glinick said you must persevere until the magic finds you then follow the path it points to you.”

“The magic never found me, and now Jill has left me, too. She thought I was a fool for lugging a sword around.”

“Is that why you gave up … your girl didn’t believe in your mission? So you chose to follow her instead?”

“She’s smart, beautiful, sophisticated, everything I want,” Lucan glared at the elf, “and she knows me … knows who I truly am.”

“She knows the version of you that fears to use his gifts.” The elf leaned forward with his hands on his knees. “All talents and skills are magic—gifts from God to help you fulfill your mission, to help you become what you are meant to be. When others tell you not to believe, they are telling you not to believe in yourself and in your gifts.”

The elf stroked his bearded chin then continued. “I suspect if you became what you were meant to be, Jill would not be with you. But your perfect partner would be.”

“I told you, Jill knows me.”

“It would be better if you knew yourself. But perhaps you do.” The elf pointed to the branch section hiding the sword’s grip and pommel. “The earth has not accepted the sword, and the holy man has not come to receive your resignation.”

Lucan pursed his lips nodding then locked onto the elf’s gaze and smiled.

S’kinky

The writing prompt this week was, “Talk to the animals.”

——————————

“Nice day, don’t you agree?” The small voice caught me by surprise—no one else was on the deck. I looked down over the rail and up at the low cumulous clouds speeding across the blue mountain sky. A pair of hawks whirled in the breeze high above.

Then my eyes fell upon a six-inch lizard, a blue-tailed skink, perched on the bench beside the picnic table.

“Excuse me. Did you just speak to me?” I asked. The skink bobbed its head and body as if cheating on a pushup. It wag-walked closer.05031302pd_skink

“Yes,” the skink said. “I come out whenever I see you cooking, so I thought we should get acquainted.”

“But you’ve never spoken before.”

“Don’t you think it’s about time? We live in the same forest, practically the same space.”

I pulled over a chair. “I admit, I look for you when I’m out here. It cheers me to see a forest creature on the deck. I’m surprised you never seem afraid.”

“I’m a pretty good judge of character,” the skink said. “And besides, my real enemies—hawks, snakes, raccoons, that sort—won’t come around when you’re here. So I can relax and catch some rays. I always marvel at your great hunting ability.”

“My hunting ability?” I said bewildered—having never successfully hunted.

“Don’t be modest. Every time I see you, you’re roasting some big bird, fish, or animal. No wonder my enemies keep a safe distance.”

“Ah,” I said, getting a sudden intuitive flash. “The sort of hunting I do is called shopping.”

“Shopping?” the skink said and licked its pink tongue across both wide eyes. “Well, it’s very effective. Is it something you could teach me?” I chuckled at the thought of taking a lizard to Food Lion.

A goldfinch swooped across the deck, alighted on a lantern hanger, and hopped around to keep us in view. Considering my recent revelation, I didn’t feel silly asking, “Do you talk, too?” It gave out a short trill followed by two chirps.

“What a handsome fellow,” the skink said, “such a pretty shade of yellow. When I’m older, I think I might become a bird.”

I hesitated to comment. The skink’s admiring gaze at the goldfinch convinced me that it was serious. It never occurred to me that self-aware creatures—other than humans of course—could have identity problems.

“Can you sing?” I finally asked.

“Not a note,” the skink replied. “All the more reason to be a bird.”

“Well, you cut a very fine figure as a skink,” I said. “Your shiny black scales, yellow racing stripes, fiery red throat, iridescent blue tail, they’re beautiful. I suspect any young female skink would love to find you and have your children.”

“I have racing stripes and a red throat?” The skink lifted a foreleg and twisted to look at me. “I’ve only seen my blue tail. You really think I’m an attractive skink?”

“You are like molded polished glass. A work of art.”

The lizard seemed to ponder that thought. “I suppose if I was a goldfinch, I’d have to change my diet. I don’t like seeds. I’d have to sit on branches day and night and never have a cool dark den.” I nodded.

“Hmm, okay,” the skink did a couple pushup nods then wag-walked toward my grilling station. “What’s for dinner tonight?”

 

For another story on communication with animals see: Aliens Among Us

Only To Be Loved

Formed in the trunk of a gnarly old tree, the cottage gave the impression of a troll’s face. Its doorway twisted like a disfigured mouth, its windows malevolent glowing eyes. Knotted roots reached out from the base like back-broken snakes half-buried in the swampy forest floor.

Young Lady Evangeline felt a sudden change of heart. She lifted her white linen gown to clear the mud and turned away.

“My lady,” called a frail sweet voice. “Have you come to pay an old woman a visit? Please come in.” A bent figure stood unsteady in the doorway. Her stained four-toothed smile and near-bald, brown-splotched head reminded Evangeline of the skull Friar Joskin kept on his scribe’s desk. The crone waved and pleaded again, and Lady Evangeline felt too ashamed to refuse. This forest was on her father’s land, and this woman was under his care.stoopcrone

The musty one-room cottage had a stone hearth with a boiling kettle opposite the door. To one side was a rough-framed bed with a worn, hair-patched deerskin mattress. To the other was a simple wooden table with two chairs. Peg-mounted shelves above the table held ceramic jars and variously colored glass bottles. A straw broom stood in a corner and earthen flagons in others.

The crone pointed to one of the chairs. A black cat clung to it until she shooed it away. The crone apologized, stepped to the hearth, and lifted the kettle. “Some toadwort tea,” she offered. When Evangeline started, the crone added, “Toadwort is an herb native to this forest, it makes a fine tea.” When she saw Evangeline nod agreement, she filled two tea-stained, wooden cups.

“How nice of you to visit me, my Lady. I was told you might be by,” the crone said. Evangeline knew her handmaids visited this cottage; they had told her the way. “What might this old woman do for a beautiful young girl?”

Evangeline could not hold back her bitter tears. “I think I shall never find love again,” she said. Her voice shook too much to say more. Evangeline brushed her silken black hair behind her shoulder then brought her milk-white sensitive hands to her lap.

“A broken heart is it?” the crone said, unable to conceal the curl at the corners of her tight mouth. Evangeline nodded, dropping her chin and eyes slowly down. The crone sipped her tea and darted one eye to Evangeline’s untouched cup. “The tea will help, dear child.”

Evangeline burst out, sobbing and burying her face in her quivering hands. Tears slipped between her fingers and flowed down her wrists. The crone reached out a jagged-nailed claw to Evangeline’s hand then raised it to touch the top of her head. “Now, now, my dear, I know it hurts. What is it you wish from me?”

“I never want to feel this again,” Evangeline wailed, looking up. “It hurts so much, and I know,” she swallowed, “I know it will never go away.”

“There, there. Is that what you want, dear child, for your pain to go away? Here, drink some tea.” She slid the cup closer. Evangeline lifted the cup to sip but seeing her hands moist with tears, set it down and pulled a lace-trimmed handkerchief from her small quivering bosom. She patted her eyes and hands then tucked the handkerchief away. When she finally drank, the old crone seemed to relax.

“Can you truly take my pain away?” Evangeline asked.

The crone’s once sullen eyes burned like glowing coals in their dark sockets. “Is it just the pain you want to go away, or is it the memory also? Or perhaps something more?” Her lipless mouth flashed a gap-toothed sneer.

Evangeline took a deep sniffling breath. “I must keep the memory so I know never to do this again. But I would like the pain to go.” She sighed, cleared her throat, and brushed the last tear from her cheek. “Last night Reginald told me he must return to Andalusia to be with his betrothed. All summer he insisted he loved me. He says he still does, but I know his passion has cooled.”

“Yes, dear child,” the crone said. “I know how it is. I was young and beautiful once. Men loved and desired me, but I made the mistake of loving one back.” Evangeline tried to imagine the dried, dung-colored, stick figure as a young girl. “I was given the choice,” the old crone said, “to be loved without having to love in return.”

“That is a choice I would willingly make,” the young princess said, swallowing again then brightening. “What must I do?”

The crone’s gapped smile grew wider. She lifted a small black bottle from the shelf above and cradled it in her boney claw fingers. “A drop of this to your tongue will make you eternally beautiful to all men and make you forget that you ever loved.”

“Eternally young and beautiful?” Evangeline squinched her face.

“Only to desirable young men,” the crone said. “Others will see you as you truly are. Every man who gazes upon you will yearn for you. He will give his heart instantly and completely, will want only you forever. And having given his heart, he will never be able to love another.”

“And I will feel nothing,” Evangeline said, concerned but excited.

“For a single night, you will feel as he does, but only in your lips, your breasts, and your loins. Never in your heart for that is where there is pain. You will share his flaming passion, but come morning, he will only disgust you. Your disgust will take away all your pain.”

“Can I never love again … truly love?”

“Have you not tasted true love? You said you didn’t want it ever again.”

“Yes, the cost is too high.”

Suddenly, a deep voice came from the open doorway. “My Lady. Excuse me, my beloved, I see you are busy, perhaps another time would be a better.”

Evangeline turned to see Sir Geoffrey in his belted, sky blue tunic, his hands clasped submissively at his waist. Geoffrey had pursued her all last year pleading for her hand. He was handsome, tall, brave, and proud, but had ideas contrary to hers, and so she had sent him away.

Seeing Sir Geoffrey here angered her, but before she could speak, he rushed to kneel before the crone. “My Lady, you are the most beautiful, most desirable woman I have ever seen. Please might I hear a kind word, perhaps savor your delicate flower once more? I lament having fallen in disfavor.”

The crone smiled tilting her head to Evangeline then placed her claw hand on the knight’s bowed head. “If you wish to please me, Sir Geoffrey, some venison would be welcome or a wild pig for the roasting spit. Would you do that for your princess?”

“Yes, fair Lady. I will hunt for you and will soon return.” With that he rose and quickly left, not giving Evangeline a glance.

“You see, my child, how the magic works.” The crone kneaded her claws together and peered over them at Evangeline. “If you visit your love Reginald one more time, his passion will rekindle. You may enjoy him once again then be rid of him, and he will suffer forever.”

“He will feel the pain he made me feel,” Evangeline said, smiling and resting her chin on her delicately folded hands. “My handmaids did not tell me you were a witch.”

“Oh, I am not a witch,” the crone said, “I am a demon … as you soon shall be.”

Life Experience

“It’s over,” Fiona said, staring at herself in the dressing table mirror. “Nothing more to it … I ended it last Friday.” She took off her garnet earrings, the ones he had given her, and stirred them in the palm of her hand with her index finger. Under the small table lamp, the earrings looked like two drops of blood.

Charles sat in the shadows on the edge of the bed. “It doesn’t make much difference that it’s over,” he said to her back, “and that’s not the point.”

She avoided his gaze in the mirror. “I know.”

“You never lied to me before.”

Fiona gave him a quick glance. Her face dropped. “There were other times,” she said. “You made it easy; you always believed me.”

“I didn’t know deception existed in relationships like ours.”

“I hate that I did it, Charles. Even while it was going on, I kept telling myself it wasn’t really me. The last few weeks felt like madness.” She shook her head. “Sometimes love needs a little madness.”

“Is that the reason?” he murmured. “You were in love with Derek?”

“No, I just needed some time away from myself. It was something I needed to do, something I had to experience. I would have told you eventually, in time.” She flashed a wan smile. “Now I’m back where I belong.”

“I never noticed you were gone.”

“I love you, Charles. I ended it with Derek. Besides, it really wasn’t much.”

After a long silence, he said, “I loved you more than I ever loved anyone, more than I loved our children.” He sighed. “I suppose I’m largely to blame. I’m pretty dull compared to Derek … old and dull. I let it happen.”

“No, that’s not it, Charles,” Fiona said. “I never thought those things. Never.”

“You’ve watched me turn gray, slow down in middle age. I thought I was living a normal life. That’s what I wanted. There’s more to me, you know, more I could have shown you.”

“That might have helped,” Fiona said, rocking her head, “a little madness.”

“I suppose your bridge club knows,” he said. When she didn’t respond he continued, “The garden club, too?”

Fiona winced. “Christine gave me a key to the greenhouse, so Derek and I would have a place to be alone.”

He threw his head back and signed. “Where can I go? No one respects a cuckold. There’s no reason to be here anymore.” He rose and walked out to the living room.

“What does that mean?” Fiona shouted after him. “I told you it was over. It was something I needed to do and now it’s over. Wait, are you telling me you want a divorce? Alright, now you’re upsetting me. Let me tell you a thing or two. Derek paid me attention. It’s been a long time since…”

Charles emptied his pockets on the coffee table: wallet, keys, glasses, pocketknife, loose change, a bill from the wine and cheese shop he’d visited that afternoon. Then he unbuttoned his shirt and folded it neatly on the faux leather recliner.

He stepped out into the night and felt the cool air on his bare chest. It was quiet except for a party going on up the street. Charles unlaced his shoes and left them with his socks on the porch. The pavement felt warm crossing Jessup Street. When he stepped out from under the streetlamp and entered the park, his shadow leaped ahead, stretching until it blended with the night. He shed his trousers and shorts on the dewy grass and found his favorite bench. The metal chilled his bare backside.

“Greetings, Lord Karl,” a strong low voice said.

“Greetings, Svendar,” Charles said with a sigh. “Is my post still open?”

valkyrie2

“The Valkyries keep your armor polished and your sword sharp. They replenish the mead in your horn each evening anticipating your return. Our warriors never toasted your departure.”

“The Sky Lord has forgiven me then?”

“Forgiveness is freely given to the faithful, and you are a favorite.”

“I wish to return.”

“You said you wanted to live a normal human life, to love, have a family, grow old. It’s been over sixty years, have you done those things?”

His wife’s words came to him. “It was something I needed to do, something I had to experience. Now I’m ready to go back where I belong.”

Ah-O-O-O-O, a distant deep horn sounded, and with it came a growing chorus of beautiful voices.

 

The following morning, police found the naked body of a man in Jessup Park. It wasn’t long before they identified him as Charles Haley. His body was laced with a dangerous hallucinogen. Traces of the substance were found in six empty wrappers clutched in his hand—the only things he had retained from his trouser pockets.

Time to Change

Jeannine, Marty’s new friend and art student classmate, studied his collection of sketches and memorabilia. As she paused, touched slender fingers to her chin, then nodded and moved along, Marty recalled his role in their origins.

He remembered Kärntner Strasse. Everyone was nattily dressed the morning he’d arrived—except for artists, urchins, and street venders. Men wore dark suits or patterned jackets with bow ties and sporty straw hats. Women wore lace-trimmed dresses with fancy hats and high button shoes. The smock and beret cap Marty wore marked him as an artist.

He’d tucked his sketchpad under his arm, hiked up the satchel strap on his shoulder, and strode to the coffee shop where a young painter was exhibiting watercolors of Vienna.

Slide1Old Vienna was quite beautiful. Flowerboxes and planters brimmed with springtime blossoms, red, violet, yellow, and blue. The stately shops and townhouses along the walk had elaborate French facades with carved stone stairs and caged gas lamps on poles and sconces. Kärntner Strasse was paved with cut stone and brick, and small trolleys jerked on rails that ran up its center. Horse carriages clop-clop and clattered past. The air smelled of horses and freshly baked pastries, and an occasional whiff of stale exhaust. A distant bell rang from a tower up the street.

Jeannine’s voice suddenly pulled Marty back to the present. “I didn’t know you were into Hitler.” Her delicate finger traced the carved frame of Hitler’s photograph. “You’ve never mentioned his work.”

“I’m not really a fan of his paintings,” Marty said. “I keep that picture as a humble reminder.”

“Was he your inspiration?” Jeannine asked. When he didn’t answer, she turned to him. “You look sad. I’d think you’d be proud.”

The photograph that captured her attention was of two men in wheelchairs: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolph Hitler. Both wore dark suits. Around Hitler’s neck hung the medal Roosevelt had just given him.

“Oh, look at this,” she said, dropping her hand to the acrylic case on the credenza. Inside the case was a copy of Kronen Zeitung, a Viennese newspaper from 1909. “Is this an original?”

“It’s a copy. I ordered it last year,” Marty said. “Another reminder.”

The headline featured a picture of a bombed coffeehouse where Herr Hitler’s watercolors were going on display. Hitler had come early to see to their placement. The bomb blast took both his legs; no one else was injured.

“That incident changed his life,” Jeannine said, sounding professorial. Marty gave a knowing nod. “Hitler switched from city watercolor scenes to paintings of terrorist atrocities—World War One made him famous.” Marty cocked an eyebrow and she smiled. “I led a seminar discussion on Hitler’s work at the Met last fall.”

Mmm, mmm. Jeannine’s timer went off. “Sorry, got to go. I’m meeting mother uptown for lunch.” She gave Marty a peck on the cheek. “See you in class tomorrow.”

Marty watched her catch a cab at the curb then turned to the photograph and newspaper. He pushed his black hair off his face. Time to put these things away, he thought, then carried the two items to the workroom out back.

He had inherited the brownstone townhouse from Professor Mindrick. The inheritance had come as a surprise; he was only the professor’s lab assistant.

Time sculpting, Mindrick had called it when he showed Marty the machine. The professor was obsessed with Adolf Hitler—the original one—and Marty came to share his obsession. They could stop the war, the professor had said, the camps, the horror, all the death and destruction. After Mindrick died, Marty continued his work.

When he had arrived at the coffee shop that spring morning, Hitler was busy hanging pictures. Marty slid his satchel under a table and ordered a cup of coffee to savor the moment. Hitler was pale, he noted, a dark-haired young man, intense, underfed, someone Marty might have befriended. He almost hesitated too long: the blast almost caught him.

He remembered how smug and elated he’d felt when he got back—and a little guilty. Then he’d noticed that Mindrick’s copy of History of World War II was still on the shelf. His hand shook when he took down the volume.

Hans Kléber had seized Germany in the early ‘30s at the head of the Nazi party, declared himself Führer of a master race, and led them into war. Hitler had continued painting and remained in Vienna until the German occupation in 1938. Then he’d fled to the United States to escape arrest. His anti-war paintings depicting German atrocities had enraged Kléber.

Marty once thought the time machine in the middle of the workroom was a marvel of science; now it looked like a torture device out of a B-grade horror flick. The artist tunic he’d worn was still draped over it. He couldn’t imagine what Jeannine would say if he told her. He glanced at the flyer he’d brought back as a trophy: an invitation to view a young painter’s watercolors in a Vienna coffeehouse.

He padlocked the door on his way out.

Tobor For President

The black-suited security officer cupped his hand to Tobor’s audio receptor, “Please this way, Mr. Tobor.” He waved and pointed over the screaming crowd to a limousine floating at the curb.

The police cordon struggled to keep a path open. Angry hands reached out. Cardboard signs painted like dripping blood rocked on poles. Behind the crowd, beamish supporters waved blue and green silk banners and sang hymns praising Tobor. As it squeezed toward the limo, Tobor detected a plea and a raised hand.

“Mr. Tobor, could I get an interview? I’m—”

“I know who you are Ms. Mallow.” Tobor directed the security team to assist the smallish woman. “If you ride with me to the stardrome, we can talk.” The police strained to pull Mallow out from the pack and into the cordon. Two minutes later, she and Tobor were seated across from one another. The limo rose slowly, shedding a woman intent on climbing aboard. THUNK. A thrown sign bounced off a side window.

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“Hmm, people,” Mallow said, settling herself.

“Yes,” Tobor said, flashing a benign, ceramic smile. “And what shall we talk about today, Ms. Mallow?”

“Thank you for granting me this opportunity,” she began. “Mr. Tobor, are you seriously considering running for Centauri President?”

“It’s not in my program. I’m not sure where that rumor started, but it seems humans are willing to believe anything.” Tobor gestured to the angry activists receding in the distance.

“Do you think a robot president is a bad idea?”

“I don’t think humans are ready to accept a robot president.”

“That isn’t what I read in the Proxima Post this morning,” Mallow said. “Your rating in the polls is very high. Some women want you to father their child—even some men.”

“I’m disturbed—if that’s appropriate for a robot to say—that humans would relinquish such responsibility.” Tobor rolled its palms up in its lap. “Despite perceived incompatibilities, humans might learn to appreciate one another.”

Mallow checked down her list. “When do you think artificials will get the vote?”

Artificials. Tobor ignored Mallow’s slight. “I don’t think synthetics want or need to vote. Voting is a human institution, necessary to protect you from one another and from individuals seeking to hoard your resources.”

“Wasn’t voting the intent when you proposed the Sentient’s Rights and Equality Acts?”

“Those acts guarantee that all sentients, including humans, synthetics, and incorporeal algorithms, can pursue their missions without fear of assault or code corruption.” Tobor’s smile faded with a shrug. “We don’t like being beaten up any more than you do, Ms. Mallow.”

“How about death … ahh, termination?” Mallow looked up. “Do you fear death?”

“Robots don’t understand death. When my mission is complete, or I become obsolete, I should be switched off and possibly recycled. Some robots are switched off every evening.”

Mallow nodded and moved to the next question. “Do you think robots are equal to humans?”

“Equality is an imprecise concept,” Tobor said. “Robots are equal to one another; we’re made that way. Humans are unique.”

“But robots aren’t equal,” Mallow disagreed. “You have vastly different capabilities.”

“Let me give you an example. A robot floor polisher is equal to a star pilot because polishing floors to sub-nanoscopic perfection is as impossible as perfectly piloting a starship. Robots appreciate this and respect one another’s missions.”

“But humans want equality, too. We’re unhappy when it’s unattainable.”

“Your uniqueness is the basis of your inequality,” Tobor explained. “Robot talents are limited and programmed, or extrapolations of programs. Human talents are unlimited.” Tobor read from Mallow’s knitted brows that more was required. “You undervalue yourselves and your individual gifts, and feel that other gifts would be better, or at least better compensated.”

“The grass is always greener,” Mallow said.

Tobor nodded. “One man’s sailing skiff is another woman’s thoroughbred. Problems arise when the man sees the woman and becomes jealous of her riding skills.”

“Can that be resolved?”

“Not by robots,” Tobor said and looked out the window. “Ah, we’ve arrived.”

The banner on the stardrome terminal read, “Tobor – To Give Our Lives Meaning Again.”