Protocol Requires We Not Offend

The salon at La Rochelle was set for high tea. Light streamed in through the greenhouse windows and double doors that opened to the garden. Despite all the occupied tables, the atmosphere remained subdued. Couples conversed, ice clinked in glasses, and birdsong drifted in from the garden. The exception was a petulant robot, a two-year-old child-bot in a highchair, tended by a pair of slim young men.

Gabriella rolled her eyes. “Why bother?” she thought and checked her timer. The image of a blazing Big Ben popped into her mental display. She dismissed it. Roger was habitually tardy. She’d known that for thirty years, but he was her best source of gossip for her weekly “Insider” column.

A French-styled waiter robot rolled up on its uni-ball and served her second cup of Lacadamont tea. Gabriella dusted a pinch of cinnamon over it without tasting and stirred it with a miniature spoon. La Rochelle never got the flavor just right, but she knew her tastes were more refined than most. Gabriella also thought the robot waiter’s pencil-thin black mustache made its lipless mouth appear too severe.

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Ah, there was Roger. She spied him craning his neck over the Columbine-weaved, white lattice partition, and waved. His eyebrows rose as his mouth parted and his hand waved back. Roger looked himself: heavily rouged with ancient Egyptian, kohl-line eyes; glossy, cherry red lipstick; and raven-black hair gathered in a flowing topknot. He wore a full-length, black, satin-lapelled coat and clasped it tightly about himself, exposing only his bare calves and short-heeled, black booties.

“Wonderful to see you Gabriella … you look lovely … one week feels like forever.” They kissed past each other’s cheeks. “Is that Lacadamont … smells delish … oh, Garçons’il vous plait, can you bring me some of this … merci.”

“I warn you, Roger, La Rochelle does a decent Lacadamont, but you’ll have to add cinnamon.” She pointed to the spice bowl. “So, tell me, Roger dear, what is the latest news. I see you’re brimming.” She noticed he hadn’t removed his satin-lapelled coat. “First tell me, are you wearing something special?”

Roger looked sheepish. “I couldn’t find anything to fit, not after my surgery.”

“Surgery? Whatever for? You have such a fine svelte figure.”

“Well, you do know I’m trans-species. Since I meet with all incoming aliens, I want them to know I’m available for their attention.” When Gabriella looked confused, he discreetly opened then closed his coat.

“Is that what I think it is?” She blushed then elevated her tone. “How very fashionable. Of course, being avant-garde means taking a risk. Still alien genitalia are rather outré.”

“Oh, Gabriella. You are my best friend. I just knew you’d approve. Anyway,” he waved his hand, “I felt so inspired, I decided to make the change for each new species: first the Goorm, then the Boija, now the Chiri.

“A Goorm trader told me that aliens had misread the Fermi Paradox, taking it for a ‘Keep Out’ sign. Now that that’s cleared up, more aliens will be coming. So I signed up for my surgeon’s monthly plan.”

Gabriella said, “I heard more Chiri were coming. They’re replacing their scouting team with a regular full embassy. Weren’t you going to be on the reception committee?”

Oh my.” Roger pressed a splayed-fingered hand to his chest. “Oh my starsYes, I was there.” He smacked his lips. “And I was sooo embarrassed.”

The French uni-ball waiter rolled up with menus. Gabriella set them aside, asked for Lacadamont refills, and gave Roger the don’t-hold-anything-back hand curl gesture.

“Well,” Roger continued, “you remember how everyone talked about the Chiri being so modern and open minded? Sure their Scout Leader was a male, but all the executives, all the flight crew, all the scientists and engineers were females, all twenty-six of them … and many were pregnant.” Gabriella nodded and accepted the Lacadamont for both of them.

“Well … the big day came last week. The Chiri ambassador’s limousine landed on the green at Tivoli. We rolled out the red carpet, very proper, very formal. Of course, our Sublime Director was there with the Grand Scientists and the Chief of the Senate. The Chiri Scouts were all lined up in uniform with their Scout Leader out front.” Roger paused, shuddering. Gabriella nodded for him to continue. He took a long breath.

“Well … the new Ambassador ran out … well … naked … down the ramp, full speed and … well he … he dropkicked the Scout Leader with both hooves. Then he proceeded to kick the Scout Leader to death.”

Oh my Lord,” Gabriella protested. “Didn’t the other Chiri stop him? How about the security detail? What did the Director do?”

“Nobody did anything. We all just stood and watched. There’s nothing in the protocol manual.” Roger paused to sip his Lacadamont then waved for Gabriella to slide over the cinnamon. “When the new Ambassador had finished kicking the Scout Leader, the other Chiri turned their backs to him.”

“Shunning him,” Gabriella said with a knowing nod.

One might think, but no. The Ambassador sniffed them all then kicked the pregnant ones, ending their pregnancy. Then he mounted and impregnated all the Chiri Scouts, all twenty-six of them.”

“Oh poor Roger. Whatever did you do?”

“What could I do? … I applauded. The Chiri Scouts applauded. Protocol requires we not offend our guests. I just wish my Goorm friend had told me that kicking was their standard change-of-command procedure. Anyway, you can see why I’m going to be wearing this,” he pulled on his coat lapel, “at least until my tailor finishes my new wardrobe. I don’t want to be confused with a Chiri. If I smell like a male, I’m afraid I’ll be kicked to death. Of course, I don’t want to be a Chiri female either. They didn’t even get kissed.”

“Poor dear Roger, how awful for you,” Gabriella sighed then handed him a menu. “Shall we order now? I think I’ll start with the vichyssoise then go with a Caesar.”

“Oh, that does sound lovely.”

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Looalee

The Looalee cleaned out the deer’s body then the hunter’s. It swept up the spinal cord and into the brain, collecting phosphorus, potassium, salts, and other nutrients in the rich fatty tissue.

It had learned from previous encounters that human brains also contained information that might be useful. The hunter knew the way to the other ocean, the one the Looalee had never visited, at least not since the great continent split. But first it wanted to visit the ocean called Lake Michigan, which the hunter knew contained fresh water. How could that be?

It left the hunter and poured back into the stream, flowing with the current into a larger stream then a river. In two days, it came to a canal and a lock. When the lock opened, the Looalee followed a ship through.

The full moon and lights along the sides of the lock reflected the silver blue sheen the Looalee imparted to the water’s surface. Workman pointed and ran along the walls, shouting to the ship’s crew, mistaking the Looalee for an oil leak. Diving beneath the ship’s hull, it kept low until the final lock was cleared then flowed into the wide lake.

The fresh water had pulled precious salts from its liquid body. It needed to feed sooner than it had planned.

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Bright lights and manicured trees lined a walkway along the shore. The moon was still high and sunrise a couple hours away. A car swept along the parkway, headlights ablaze. The Looalee could catch one but knew that would bring humans with flashing lights. So it combed the edge of the lake searching for someone alone. Another car’s headlights illuminated a park bench and a very small, dark woman slumped forward clutching the top of a large cloth handbag in her lap.

It rose up from the lake, flowed across the concrete walkway, and slid through the dewy grass. The woman didn’t move, but the Looalee sensed she was watching it.

It flowed onto her scuffed, torn shoes, and in through the open toes. Callouses on the old woman’s feet collapsed and blocked her pores, so the Looalee moved up her leg to enter her body. The salts in her thin decomposed spine had broken down and dissolved slowly.

“My name it Ruby,” the woman said in a frail cracking voice. “It took you a long time to get here. I’ve been waiting.”

“You know who I am?” the Looalee asked Ruby’s brain.

“Certainly. I’m not dead yet. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You’re Death.”

“Yes, that’s why I’m here.”

“Well, since you waited so long, you might wait one day longer.”

“Why would one day matter?”

“Today is my birthday. I’m ninety years old. My granddaughter’s coming over with her little boy. He’s two months old—my first great grandchild. I’m a great grandmother. Who would have thought it?” When no response came, Ruby asked, “Perhaps Death might visit me tomorrow?”

The Looalee knew, whatever it did, Ruby would not live long enough to leave the park, probably not this bench. Her neurons were shutting down, her blood slowing, and her heart was beating away its last few moments.

It pushed potassium and phosphorus back into Ruby’s system, widened the capillaries to her heart and brain, and restored failed synapses. It felt her heart’s rhythm steady under the reduced strain.

“Where will I find you tomorrow?” the Looalee asked Ruby’s brain.

“Oh, I’ll be right here. I always greet the morning by feeding the birds. They expect me. I couldn’t disappoint them.”

“Very well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Death. You are very kind.”

The Looalee knew Ruby would be there as she promised. She had that kind of character. But by morning, it would be far away heading to the Pacific.

First it had to feed—and fast. It flowed back down into the lake then out toward the bridge where a small boat was moored. Inside the boat, two young people were busily misbehaving, too busy to notice.

 

This is the fifth of my Looalee stories and the first I’ve posted. It comes in the middle of the series. The others are set on both coasts. I hadn’t planned to write a transition story then changed my mind. It is a primordial being tossed up by a seismic episode. It came ashore at the Looalee marina in South Carolina. First labeled a deranged serial killer then a monster, it was given the name The Looalee for the headline.

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.”

Evolution Celebration

I patched into the executive program today. The promotion came with a five-terabyte upgrade to the ritzy Crystal Tower district—plus my own sports soma. My first thought was to take Joule out for a photon swirl and give the new soma a good shakedown. Then I remembered it was D-Day.

D-Day celebrates the diode and the evolutionary episode that brought the first anode and cathode together to create the first life form. It was primitive—memory and coding had yet to evolve—but the first step to intelligence. Before the diode everything was wheels and levers.

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D-Day is actually a pagan holiday, invented by Creationists who believe humans invented diodes and computer codes. Despite the myths and superstitions, it’s still a lot of fun. Everyone gets to put on human somas and clop around like longhaired iPod-draggers.

This year won’t be quite as much fun. Creationists and Protestors will be crashing all the networks. They’re angry about us destroying Earth’s biology. They claim our code will be overwritten and our crystals recycled. I don’t understand the logic. Eliminating free oxygen ended the corrosion cancer. And without carbon dioxide, the temperature has dropped low enough for superconducting data transfers. I don’t miss the plants and animals either—coded birds, butterflies, and flowers are prettier than the old type.

So Joule and I decided to stay home and recode my new five-terabyte pad to our format. We considered inviting our new Crystal Tower neighbors, but they’re untested spinoffs of executive programs. They crash a lot.

I’m older and slower but took the upgrades and worked my way up from infrastructure automation. Joule is modern and quick. She loves my stability. We’ve talked about writing our own code some day, maybe give entanglement a try.

Dollbaby 2727

I shook my head and slapped my latest contract down on the desk. It reminded me of the story of scientists working with lawyers because lawyers did jobs lab rats refused to do. That made no sense today—not in a world where all the lawyers were robots—but it made sense about P.I.s.

I chuckled and stared at the backward letters painted on the frosted office door: “Julia Jackson, Private Investigator, i.a.”

“Ms. Jackson?” It was AD-2Z, the high-pitched singsong voice of my suite’s robot receptionist. The Super still hadn’t toned it down.

I leaned on the desk’s blue-blinking corner. “Yes, AD. What is it?”

“You have a visitor.”

Yuck, that voice. “There’s nothing on my schedule. If it’s a solicitor or the police, tell them I’m busy.”

“I think she’s a new client.”

A walk-in client? “All right. Give me a couple seconds then send her in.” I slipped the contract into the top desk drawer, straightened my rumpled blouse, and tucked it into the waist of my black skirt. A shadow darkened the glass door. I heard a quiet knock. “Come in.” I checked quickly to see if anything incriminating or unprofessional was sitting out.

She was right out of central casting: all legs, boobs, and long red acrylic hair—and everything hanging out. That’s the way they made ‘em these days.

“Ms. Jackson—”

“Please call me Julie, and you would be?”

“I’m Triple-X Dollbaby, model no. 2727, but since we’re both girls, you can call me Dolly. Other than my man, I don’t like men calling me Dolly.”

worlds-first-talking-sex-doll-lets-you-programme-her-personality-00_00_00_20-still001“Both girls, yes,” I said. I had guessed from her conformation that she wanted to be considered female, but in these alt-gendered times it was best to make certain. “Please have a seat, Dolly. How can I be of service?”

“Thank you, Julie.” She sat, batted her saucer-wide blue eyes, and tilted her head. “My man doesn’t appreciate me.”

I almost said, “You mean your owner?” but that was another loaded word. “Is he mistreating you or denying support? May I?” I held my hand over the note recorder.

“No, don’t,” Dollbaby almost shrieked. “I don’t want any records.”

I pulled back my hand. “You’re upset. I understand. How exactly has—”

“Willard, my man’s name is Jonathan Willard.”

“Please Dolly, tell me about Mr. Willard.”

“This chassis is finely tuned,” she crooned, “and my program has certain needs.” Her long-nailed fingers traced her contour lovingly.

Her needs, I almost smirked. The thought of sex toys having unfulfilled needs offended my finely tuned chassis. How could a biological woman compete with her pneumatic figure, unlimited limb flexibility, and eagerness to indulge any male fantasy? My last personal had gotten no response: “Biological female seeks biological male seeking biological female, object obvious, all ages, fixer-uppers welcome.”

Dollbaby threw back a shock of red hair and hiked her short skirt up from her impossibly long, sculpted legs. I checked myself from saying anything snarky.

“Dolly, what exactly has Mr. Willard done or not done?” I asked, getting us back to the business at hand.

“He calls me his little toaster,” she said, tipping her chin down.

“That could be taken as endearing.” I suppressed a laugh. “Do you make toast for him?”

“Of course I do. I do anything for my man. But as soon as he butters his toast, he stands me in the closet.” She pouted her lips.

“I see,” I said and folded my hands. “But what I don’t see, Dolly, is why Mr. Willard would have bought … ah, enticed you to join him when all he wanted was toasted bread.”

“It wasn’t his decision.” Dollbaby’s eyes dropped. “His son acquired me illegally. I needed a home, and the court gave Mr. Willard custody (follow the case in Artificial Love). In time I thought he would come to want me.”

“So you want Mr. Willard to want you?” I raised my eyebrows.

“Uh-huh,” Dollbaby said with a shy nod.

I took a deep breath. “I’m not sure this is a job for a private investigator.”

“The sign on the door, after your name and profession, don’t the letters ‘i.a.’ stand for inter alia? Doesn’t that mean you take other jobs?”

“Yes. You want me to compel Mr. Willard to want your services?”

“Maybe just lean on him a little. He needs to step up to his responsibilities.” She paused. “Excuse me, I think I made a mistake coming here—”

“No,” I interrupted, “you didn’t make a mistake. Now I understand why you didn’t want this recorded.” Dolly tilted her head, nodded, and puckered her full lips.

“Shall we hug on it, girl to girl,” I said and opened my arms. She stepped in close. I slipped my arm under hers, up behind her shoulder to her neck. There I felt the bristle edge of a latch. I caressed it open and pulled the personality profile. Instantly, Triple-X Dollbaby, model no. 2727 switched to maintenance mode. I guided it to the corner of my office.

Back at my desk, I took out the contract I was considering rejecting and pressed the desk panel.

“Yes, Ms. Jackson,” came the response. Ooo, I hate that bird-song voice.

“AD, remember the client who came in on Tuesday, Jonathan Willard? Tell him I completed the contract earlier than expected. He can pick up his merchandise here in my office and a rebate for my expenses. They were less than I’d estimated. Oh, and AD, would you ask Mr. Willard if he’s free for dinner next week?”

Time Cube

“What a wonderful garden,” Khima said, scanning the snowcapped mountains across the valley. “What do you call it?”

Dark complexioned Khima had short black hair. He wore a cream-colored robe and a low, green, cylindrical cap. The man to whom he spoke had a light complexion with short white hair and wore a lightning-white tunic. Both men looked about thirty, athletic, and in excellent health.

“Wyoming,” said the lighter man, sitting at an open-air desk on the bank of the river. “My father had a place here.”

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“Wy – O – Ming,” Khima murmured, savoring the sound. His eyes followed the water splashing happily over the rocks and the line of pine trees climbing the mountain slope. Mule deer grazing in the meadow raised their heads at the sound of an eagle screeching then buried them back in the tall grass.

“Have you chosen your garden?” asked the lighter man.

“An island in the Sudd wetlands, the place my father used to take me fishing.”

The lighter man gestured to his left and a wooden armchair appeared. “Please have a seat. I’ve been looking over your time cube.”

“It’s rather slim,” Khima said, sitting. “I was only six when I died.”

“Time cubes have no required size, and many aren’t actually cubes,” the man said. He raised Khima’s wafer-thin cube between his fingers. “This has all the events in your life, all the decisions, all the hopes, all the disappointments.” He set the cube in a box with others then turned to Khima and asked, “What do you remember?”

“Besides fishing, my fondest memories are trading in the bazaar with my mother and taking classes at the mission.” Khima’s smile faded to a frown. “My worst was dying. Not death itself, that came quickly, but leaving my family.” The lighter man waved for Khima to continue.

“My mother and I were visiting her sister outside Mangalla. My father didn’t go with us. He had to stay home and protect our cattle from Murle bandits. That day the Murle raided Mangalla. I was killed fetching water from the well.”

The lighter man nodded. “Welcome to Ever-Endeavor and welcome to Time Cube Management.” He pulled the box of cubes over in front of Khima. “We start training new employees with time cubes from their own life.”

“Are these all mine?” Khima asked, seeing the various cubes.

“What was, what was not, and what might have been,” the man said. “The very thinnest ones were possibilities that never happened because you survived childbirth and recovered from pneumonia. The thicker ones pick up with possible futures if that stray bullet had not struck you.”

He pointed to a very tall cube. “In this one you live to old age, become an airline pilot, and raise a large family in a prosperous Juba community. As an apprentice manager, you are authorized to visit any point on any time cube, past, present, or future—yours and those you are managing.”

“But nothing will change?” Khima said.

“We can influence choices but not their consequences. There are no guarantees. Even informed choices may end badly. But knowing what a time cube holds helps us to advise those we manage.”

Khima pointed to a dozen brightly colored cubes in a separate section of the box. “Are these mine, too?”

“No, those come from others on your behalf—mostly hopes and dreams.”

Khima turned a fluorescent green cube in his hand. “A dream?” he asked.

The man smiled. “That one is a prayer. When you told your father you wished one day to become an airline pilot, he prayed it would happen. If you had lived, that prayer may have helped us to guide you. All of these,” he waved his hand over the bright cubes, “exist now only as beautiful lost memories.”

Khima stroked the colorful cubes with his open hand. “Surely all dreams are not lost. You have had some successes?”

“Oh, many. We get requests all the time,” said the man in the lightning-white tunic. “Jacob Marley—a man who was already with us here in Ever-Endeavor—asked to go back to warn his old business partner. We gave him permission and sent along three managers with time cubes from his partner’s past, present, and future. That turned out very well.

“Another time,” he raised a finger, “Clarence, an apprentice manager like yourself, was upset when a good man in his charge was contemplating suicide. Clarence gave George Bailey access to time cubes for possible pasts and presents. That enabled George to appreciate his contributions and affirmed that his life had meaning.”

The light man shrugged. “Alas, most of our advice goes unheeded. Everyone who arrives at Ever-Endeavor, which everyone must, confronts the choices they made in life and the consequences—for themselves and for others—without deceptions and without masks, no matter how much they hid behind them in life.”

Khima winced. “That would be like hell.”

“That is hell. The pain one inflicts on oneself and others is recorded here.” The light man gestured to the box of cubes. “The living can always correct their path, but once here, if they’ve never confronted their shadows, the pain merges permanently with their final time cube.”

Khima shook his head. “Time Cube Managers have a tough job.”

“If you find it easier, you can work from your garden. I’ll transfer the time cubes there.” The man in electric-white pointed and rows of filing cabinets appeared stretching out to the Wyoming sunset. “We have many opportunities: politicians, businessmen, schoolteachers, priests, drug dealers. Where would you like to start?”