By January, 2026, David Campbell was firmly ensconced in his new role at Zoser’s CTO. From San Francisco, he now traveled to safer destinations — last in Dubai — than the coast of Saburia, staying in luxury hotels and working off heavy meals in gleaming gyms with heated pools.
He used the giant corporation’s resources to form teams and advance the myriad ideas that germinated in and around him, returning to mainstream science with a new appreciation for scientific conferences, technical discussions and the fruits of collaboration with others.
He proudly reflected back on the previous phase of his career, helping to develop an experimental cancer vaccine —now on its journey into mainstream success with Soria, even if there were risky close encounters with ICE, terrorists and the mysterious Purple project.
In April, he attended an alumni conference at MIT in Cambridge. From his prototype AI ear dot, he heard that Shelly Narayan was also in town.
“For a research meeting, huh, so where’s she staying?”
The Dot murmured the name of a Boston hotel and her “legacy” communication preferences. Why were doctors so often the latest to switch to modern technology? He called Shelly on his cell-phone interface.
From Shelly to Kochanski, with his unique vodka, to a family of two Argentinians, Garcia and George, his world had collided with that of others different from him.
StarHall, his old boarding school, had prepared him well — with its diverse student body and international faculty. Perhaps he would send his children there some day?
But for him, that would mean getting married first. He wanted a traditional mom-and-pop home like the one he had lost as a child. He may have had a shot at Lucky as a wife last year if he hadn’t left for Saburia . He now wanted to hear about her from Shelly.
George had said something about Lucky’s engagement falling through and Charlie moving back to Pandolf with her. Could he ever be that “lucky”? It almost made one believe that the universe had a plan.
Shelly was delighted to hear from him. They arranged to do lunch. Boston in springtime was lush with flowering bushes and trees, including those surrounding the Cambridge cafe where he now waited. It was tucked away on a colonial era backstreet. Sunshine and warmth allowed them to eat outside.
Out of the corner of his eye he recognized her brisk walk before he saw her. She smiled with warm recognition. He reached down and hugged her. Like the wings of a bird, her light arms lifted around him, fingers barely grazing his shoulders.
After sitting down outside, they jumped into the deep end of a conversation about Zoser’s Dot technology.
“How do they stick?” she asked, referring to the pushpin-sized devices that attached to human skin.
“Why don’t they cause an infection like insect bites do, that your biomechanical engineers mimicked? How come they’re not painful to apply? Do they disrupt nerve signaling?”
The detailed topography of human skin appeared on Campbell’s phone screen as he pointed and explained. “You can remove and recharge them.”
She gasped at the palette of skin colors that Dots would be available in. He could not answer some questions due to the proprietary nature of the answers.
“They’ll kill me if I tell you that,” he joked. “We spend a lot of money on cybersecurity so people don’t steal that information, and you want me just to tell you our trade secrets?”
Changing the subject, he asked, “Do you like Cambridge?”
“Yes,” she said, keeping her eyes on her plate. “But this time is much nicer than earlier this year. January was dreary dark, bitter cold, and even the lights of the holiday season were gone.”
“What brought you here?”
He already knew. George had told him, who had heard it from Charlie. While losing online to George in Apocalypse 2050, they had also been chatting about automatic rifles and the latest rail and electric guns to buy for use in that artificial world.
“Thanks,” George said. “Without your help, I’d be paying even more money for lessons to get to the next level of my game.”
Charging its players and teams for everything: clean water and air, food, medicine, fuel, communication equipment, guns, ammunition and military vehicles, machine parts and upgrades.
A’50 also charged tuition for teaching modules, such as on technology, from that of water-purifiers to medications, firearms to robo-vehicles. High user ratings drove cost down as subsidies kicked in.
Players still charged each other in an electronic currency based on a point system. The cash value of each point changed daily depending on a traditional supply and demand formula.
Concerned activist groups and governments fought real-world battles with A’50, claiming myriad issues, accusing it of stealing military secrets and teaching its users practical skills in true-to-life violence. Bans on the game around the globe only made it more desirable to play in bootleg electronic cafes.
Finally, the founder of A’50 announced he had enough, sold it to a non-profit think tank in Chicago for an undisclosed sum and moved to Costa Rica. The charity then made the game available for free in the public domain. Popularity really exploded.
After he had lost the game, Campbell sourly told George, “Don’t waste too much of your dad’s money in this fantasy world.”
Still, after clicking off, Campbell had walked away with a real-world prize. George had told him an approximate date that Lucky would arrive at Pandolf in the summer. He had also said that Shelly had gone to Boston to visit Lucky after her “mental breakdown” from the end of her engagement.”
As he and Shelly ate, Campbell nodded toward a famous chemist seated near them. “See that.”
“That’s one thing I like about Cambridge,” she said, discreetly eyeing someone with short gray hair, flannel shirt and indeterminate gender. “So many brilliant people come through.”
She continued, “To answer your question, David, Lucky was here in Boston with her aunt. It was January, after the holidays. I stopped to visit her before returning to Germany.”
“That must have been nice to see your old housemate.”
She looked up. “Do you not know?”
He looked her in the eye. “That she and Harry broke off their engagement? Yes, I was sorry to hear that. Lucky must have been especially happy to see you after that.”
“You know, David,” she said sadly, “My parents predicted that they might grow apart, separated for three years during her residency. I just didn’t want to believe them.”
“It’s for the best,” he said. “Better to break up now than later when kids come along.”
“What happened?” he asked, voice hoarse.
“Top three guesses?” she asked.
“Another woman for Harry, one, or that he’s gay or she’s gay or either is on the gender/sexuality spectrum, that’s two. Drugs and alcohol, three.”
“Not another man for Lucky?” she asked.
“Lucky is loyal,” he said firmly.
She faintly smiled. “Of course.”
“She is,” Shelly exclaimed. “Fact is, David, there is nothing dramatic that I know of. They were living together, and then Harry told Lucky he loved her but was not ‘in love’ with her. He insisted that there was no other woman.
“Lucky did say Harry drinks a lot now, and he had said some hurtful things to her.”
“So I was right,” Campbell said. “that option 3 — drugs and alcohol — broke them up.”
“That’s too simple, Dr. Campbell,” she said. “I think it’s easy to blame alcohol but not accurate.”
“You don’t even drink.”
She raised a finger. “What is the cause and what is the effect? It’s the chicken and the egg. Lucky’s the one who’s hurting now, though she wasn’t drinking excessively. Maybe the drinking was just a sign he was unhappy.
“Harry called me in Germany, worried about her, wanting to make sure she was OK and going back to therapy. He sounded just fine.
” When I told Lucky that Harry had called me, all she wanted to know was if he had another girlfriend?”
Slowly, she added, “David, George told me that he thought you had feelings for Lucky.”
“Am I so obvious that even that kid can read me?” he grumbled.
“George is unusually perceptive,” she said. “Anyway, Harry told me that Lucky is ‘mentally fragile.’ You know Charlie’s like that too, mental dysfunction runs in their family. Her parents are always fighting. Surprisingly, they’re still together.”
She added, “I remember how Michaela criticized Charlie for being ‘clingy and needy.’ Harry suggested that was part of his problem with Lucky .”
She looked into the distance. “Instead of alcohol, why can’t we blame our need for love? Or reproduce? Or the American ‘individual pursuit of happiness?’ Disappointed, we turn to substances to numb our pain. I think alcohol was a symptom for Harry. When called it quits with Lucky, the drinking problem apparently resolved itself.”
“Very philosophical,” Campbell observed, “blaming our human condition. Still, Harry was born into an elite world with everything going for him. What excuse does he have to be ugly drunk with Lucky?”
He watched her pick large, buttery croutons off her salad, tub of dressing undisturbed. Some things hadn’t changed. “David, one never really knows everything.”
“So Harry’s no longer in love with Lucky,” Campbell mused, “I suppose that may be the only truth we know.”
Shelly nodded. “Harry may be ‘ambi-valent.”
“A different pronunciation?” he asked. In Saburian, a different pronunciation changed the meaning of a word.
“Ambi-valent’ was my father’s Indian-English pronunciation of ‘ambivalent’ before my mother told him how to say it correctly. But he uses his old word to describe people who don’t know what they want.
“Perhaps it was easier for him to translate some Indian word into a twist on an English word where no accurate translation exists. He told me to be careful with ‘ambi-valent’ people.”
He glanced sideways at the famous chemist sitting near them. “”Ambi-valent sounds like the interaction of elements in chemistry, a good thing when elements can combine in different configurations for a variety of uses. Remember hydrogen and oxygen, how with different valences, the same two elements can make up water or hydrogen peroxide.
“So you mean Harry is able to chemically form stable bonds with a variety of people to suit his needs at the time. That leaves someone sweet like Lucky broken-hearted in his wake. What a jerk.”
“No,” Shelly said, “I think Papa simply meant an ‘ambi-valent’ person has a weak character.”
“I like that,” he said.
After promising to get together again when she returned to Pandolf, she added, “David, you’ve changed, seem to have a more open mind since the last time we saw each other.”
Lucky moved to Pandolf that summer. Surprised to hear from Campbell again, she gratefully accepted his help. He was over at her place every time he came to San Francisco. A piano needed in, ugly tile in the kitchen needed out, the water softener system broke down, new vanity for the bathroom went up, and he was only too happy to be there and meet plumbers, electricians and handymen.
In the meantime, Lucky was working twelve-hour clinical shifts on Pandolf’s wards as an inpatient hospitalist. Grueling work, she rounded on up to 50 patients a day, attending to their immediate medical issues. Her patient ratings glowed.
Her brother, Charlie, also moved back to Pandolf that summer and accepted a waiter job at the Ivy Drip where George was working.
“I insisted,” Lucky said, “that Charlie get a job. Otherwise all that free time would spell trouble.”
Living with Lucky, Charlie planned to finish high school at Pandolf High. Campbell rarely saw him. Charlie spent most of his time either working or crashing at George’s, saying, “Shelly’s apartment is much closer to the Ivy Drip than my sister’s house, just walking distance. This works until she returns from Germany.”
Occasionally, Lucky invited Campell to be her plus-one at hospital parties and the extravagant estate of the Mather family. Making an elegant and intelligent couple, the two found themselves the center of attention.
But when he dropped her back off at her house, she merely waved goodbye. Impossibly beautiful, she wore the couture — clothes, shoes, accessories — and the cold distance of the stars one worships from afar.
One day, he just knew that she would figure it out — she needed him.
In August, a news item about King Mohammed’s plane crash scrolled on his ear Dot’s news feed — among other AI selected topics. Otherwise, Saburian events did not make mainstream news.
From the airport, Campbell called Garcia in Saburia. Icy calm, the scientist described a smooth transition of power to the Crown Prince, Syed Malik.
“Any suspicion that the king’s plane was sabotaged?”
“Not that I heard.”
“Saburia has its rebels,” Campbell speculated, “But swapping out a king for his son does not make sense as something they would do…”
“Let’s talk again this weekend,” Garcia suggested. “I may know more by then. David, I’m working long hours. I have to go to bed. I only got four hours of sleep last night.”
Garcia had to be circumspect due to eavesdroppers. So he called Kochanski in Chicago.
“I knew already. What is wrong with this world?” Kochanski said. “KIng Mohammed’s death just breaks my heart; he had a newborn.”
He added, “Then, David, I just got off a video call with Elise. She can’t find any news about Queen Noru and her baby.”
“Just started work at the clinic in Missouri.”
“I’ll give her a call,” Campbell said. “Have to hop off now to get to an important dinner.”
Actually Lucky was fixing dinner. He drove up to her house from the Dock and punched in a code for the iron grate door within the hedge.
He walked in the sliding doors from the back porch into her living room. Charlie and George sat on the couch wearing matching Ivy Drip green work shirts.
“David,” George greeted him, no longer calling him Dr. Campbell.
From the kitchen, he heard Lucky’s voice. “Oh, hey, David.”
She had bought steaks.
Going to the kitchen, he instructed her on how to cook them “how I like it: rare.”
“I want mine medium,” George chimed in from the other room.
She and Charlie were going to eat vegan “steaks.”
“It’s so much easier,” she said. “I just set the oven temperature and bake them.”
He returned to the living room. George complained, “They shouldn’t be allowed to call them ‘steaks.’ The FDA should require that only real beef can be called a steak, like how ‘champagne’ can only be from that region in France. “
From the kitchen, they heard Lucky. “You kids need to go back to school next month — return to normal outlets for teenage angst like debate and the high school news website.”
“George,” Campbell said, “those years you spent in Paris left an impression on you. I want to taste these fake ‘steaks’ — check out my business competition.”
The three then drifted into the kitchen where they made a mess, fixing rolls, potatoes and asparagus.
George insisted that Charlie needed to “tear —not chop— the lettuce for the salad. It’s the French way.”
Then he fussed, “Charlie, please wait! I’ll pour my dressing when we’re actually ready to eat.”
Dinner was outside on well-used lawn furniture from the previous owner.
When they returned inside, the home smelled of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. Charlie poured milk for everyone.
“Whole, 2% or skim? We also have soy milk.”
“These taste like home,” Campbell said, biting into one large cookie. “The chocolate is still melting… oh-my-God!”
He described the dry, miniature ones, served on doilies in Saburia from a round tin that featured tiny skaters on a frozen river.
“Wait,” George said, “Was it Dr. B.who served those cookies?”
“My dad says that Dr. B. keeps a collection of biscuit tins.”
“I can’t imagine they’re valuable,” Charlie observed.
“No, they’re mass-produced in cheap factories,” Campbell said. “Dr. B is just idiosyncratic.”
George said, “My dad says that he has seen those tins all over the world. People think that the United States looks like the pictures on the lids: a world that existed in the last century with everyone who lives here looking like the three of you.
“But they don’t, like Michaela is a halfie, one of her parents is white. If she went to Saburia, they wouldn’t think she’s an American because she doesn’t look like anyone they have seen from here, whether in pictures on cookie tins or the popular old American movies that they can see for free.”
“George, must we?” Charlie said. “He and Michaela have intense discussions about racism and privilege.
“Beside George,” Charlie argued, “Michaela’s never even been outside Pandolf let alone outside this country. Fact is that our country has made plenty of progress in its image abroad. ‘Why so serious?'”
George nodded, acknowledging Charlie’s allusion to the new Joker movie’s diverse eclectic cast.
The tension eased in the room.
“Lucky, we need to start using the hot tub,” Charlie said. “Then I can invite friends over.”
“I can work on that,” Campbell agreed. “By the way, Lucky, did you notice that your fence is leaning in the back corner?”
“That’s not the kind of thing I pay attention to. Can you fix it?”
Cleaning up later, Campbell dried dishes off with a hand-towel. Moving close to Lucky, he ventured, “It’s my turn to take you out for dinner.”
She didn’t move away. “David you’re sweet. Charlie and I appreciate everything you do for us,”
After a pause, she added, “But right now, I need time.”
“When can I ask you again?”
She turned to him. Their faces were close as he leaned in, and she still did not move. He now felt her warmth.
The sliding doors opened and closed as Charlie came back into the living room and yelled into the kitchen, “David, we just took the cover off the hot tub, it’s going to need a lot of cleaning.”
“Ask me next month,” Lucky said softly.
Stepping back, turning away, she added, “David, I can’t just forget the past. I was with Harry for over half my life.”
He laid his hand gently on her forearm above purple dishwashing gloves. “I can’t wait that long.”
Driving back to his hotel in Union Square, the Dot’s AI advised, “This is progress, David. In the big picture, she didn’t say ‘no.’ There may be some chemistry between the two of you.”
“Am I ‘ambi-valent?’” he asked, remembering Shelly’s dad.
There was a pause.
“You mean ambivalent?”
“No,” he told the Dot, “‘ambi-valent.’”
“No, David, it’s Julia Malone — Lucky — who’s conflicted.”
He decided to play along. “Why?”
“Lucky still loves Harry. But he left her.”
“Dot, what should I do?”
“Between Turtle Time and Hare Love, in the fable, we know who won that race. So be persistent…but not too patient.”
Campbell remembered the sound engineer’s graphs when developing the warm tone now in the artificial voice. “I don’t want to push her too hard and scare her off.”
“I don’t think she’s easily frightened. The male and female brain in the heterosexual human majority has been wired for aggression, fear and procreation — over procrastination — since primitive times.”
“Dot,” he told the AI device, “You have a ways to go before you stop sounding like a robot. Let me put it another way; it wouldn’t feel right — not to honor Lucky’s request to the letter.”
His conversation with the Dot was interactive, teaching its AI this aspect of civilized human behavior.
“With all due respect,” the Dot warned, a standard AI preface to disagreement, “One ignores human neurobiology at one’s peril. Another male could come along. Harry could return if you wait too long.”
Campbell now wondered about what Harry had said about Lucky. “Clingy and needy.” It didn’t sound attractive.
Remembering Charlie with Michaela, he told the Dot, “ Back to ambi-valent, I meant that the Malone siblings are attracted to individuals who can bond with a variety of people, like a chemical element useful for its different valences. In human relationships, it can also mean someone who has a weak character.”
Shelly had told him. “I hope you reconnect with Lucky. Someone solid and stable like you would be good for her.”
He had laughed. “I’m not just obvious about how I feel — but uncomplicated too — a basic chemical formula. Sounds like Miss Malone may prefer a brooding, angsty type.”
“I actually suggested you to Lucky,” she said, “that you are someone who has figured out who you are and what you want and would be good for her.”
“I didn’t mince words. I told her that a balanced, older man like you would be a good fit for her.”
“Not sure that’s flattering. Fine, what about someone for you, Shelly?”
“David, I fell for someone unavailable — don’t ask me who? It may mean I don’t want to be in a relationship at all. Or I haven’t met the right person. I don’t know.”
The hotel valet now opened his car door.
At the bar, he watched baseball. The Dot was silent as he chatted with the bartender about the game.
He didn’t want to return to his empty hotel room. They all now looked alike. Online rentals for travelers, even in stunning locations in San Francisco, had no appeal either. There was also his lonely home in Texas near his mother in the retirement condo complex.
After showering the next morning, he had Lucky’s last cookie with coffee before leaving for the Dock.
“David, this recipe has been around for over 50 years,” she had told him. “I think you’re now spending too much time talking to your Dot because you’re starting to sound like one, calling it an ‘epiphany of flavor.’ Really!”
On his virtual calendar, Campbell had marked the date, exactly one month from yesterday, when he planned to be in town to ask Lucky out for dinner. It would be September, Charlie would be back in school, and she would not be fretting about her little brother as much.
He video-called Sheraton one day in San Francisco, returning her message.
“Hey, David, I’ve missed you,” she happily said. She moved her phone camera. “So yes, I’m in my backyard with a view: a lake and ancient Missouri mountains.”
“That looks like Queen Noru’s dog,” he exclaimed.
She laughed. “Come here Fumbl, say ‘hi.’ She has a partner, Tiger’s around somewhere.”
“Elise, I’ve missed you dear,” Campbell teased her. “Remember our fake romance. You’re a good doc, serving the poor rural folk. But any news about the queen and her baby?”
They agreed that it was frustrating that Garcia gave them no helpful information.
“But he’s coming to visit George this month and maybe he’ll tell me more about what’s going on when I see him,” Campbell said.
“Maybe, but David, I do have news! I just got a letter!” Sheraton said. “Queen Noru is traveling to Pandolf with the baby and invited me to visit her.”
Campbell whistled. “When you know the dates, shoot me an email so we can get together.”
Their conversation returned to her new job. He listened to her descriptions of the clinic, the Ozarks, Endon and her use of the latest technology to keep her house self-sufficient.
“Elise, kids these days play a post-apocalyptic game A’50. You could make money by giving lessons on it for survival skills.”
“I don’t play video games,” she said firmly. “ I wouldn’t know where to begin. But I live in a town that is preparing for a real apocalypse and I’m supposed to be its doctor if that happens.
“But what about you, David, do you like no longer working for yourself?”
“Working at a big corporation like Zoser has its pluses and minuses,” he said. “Overally, I’m happy. When you come to the Bay area, I can take you to the Dock for a tour.”
“Any girlfriend? Would she be jealous?” she teased.
“I wish,” he parried. “What about you?”
“Not interested,” she said. “You know I had a bad experience with my -ex, and then again and again with dating. So I figured out that it wasn’t them, meaning the men; it was also me, that with men, I become an awful person that even I don’t recognize. I don’t need an entanglement now to mess up my peaceful life.”
“How could a man get you interested in trying again, Elise?”
“David, this is not about me, is it? it sounds like you have someone in mind.”
He described Lucky, her breakup and what Shelly had told him. “So what do you suggest?”
“David, I don’t know these people, but it sounds like you’re doing the right things. If Lucky wants you to wait for a month, give it to her.
“But you know, in the meantime, flowers, chocolate, video calls, little gifts, those things work. Promises you don’t plan to keep is also on the standard list of wooing tactics, but thankfully you’re not that type of person.”
“As for the ‘mentally fragile’ business,” she added sharply, “Aren’t we all vulnerable in a romantic relationship? Harry must have been feeling guilty to call Lucky’s friend after he dumped her to check on her. Still, to be fair, if he’s no longer in love with Lucky, then…
“My ex- and I had a marriage and children and still, he fell in love with someone else. She was much younger. It felt so wrong. Men are often drawn to younger women. It’s not fair but life’s not fair. I had issues with alcohol dependence for a while after that. Saburia was actually good for me that way since alcohol is illegal there, like a rehab.”
“Rehab, did someone tell Michael that?”
She laughed. “Anyway, David, at least you’re a little older than Lucky. The numbers favor you. They didn’t favor me.”
“I’m sorry all that happened to you.”
“Bad luck,” Elise said. “Broken glass, one never really knows what time will bring on that happy wedding day.
“Still, David, go for it! May all blessings, prayers, gods, positive thinking, horoscopes, Tarot cards and the powers of the universe be with you and your love for this ‘Lucky’ young woman.”
“Spring, Summer, Fall,” Elise continued, “that’s three seasons since Lucky’s engagement ended, and the human gestation cycle. Remember laying on that beach in Saburia last year — naming the constellations — if the stars align, you may know by winter this year if your wish for Lucky to love you back comes true.”
“You still have Queen Noru and her baby on your mind””
She said, “So much change to endure in cruel little time.”
She finally said yes.
Campbell’s dinner date with Lucky took place at the Provencal, well over a year after the last time they were there. She had put it off and was now treating him— as repayment— for fixing the fence, getting her hot tub working and co-hosting a barbeque for Charlie and his friends before school started in the fall, where she met Garcia for the first time.
“Shelly was right,” she said, “He is a character.”
“But this is a date?” he pressed her.
At dinner, he watched himself happily turn into clay in her hands. No one in this world was prettier, funnier and more elegant than this ethereal creature who now laughed with him and let him hold her hand, his fingers wrapped around hers.
Again, like last time, they sat at the table in front of the picture window. The restaurant owner personally came to chat with them and explain items on the menu. The waiter, an older man with a round face, happily chatted as he wiped off the bottle of Chardonnay sitting in ice, and poured more wine into their glasses.
“Shelly’s coming back next month,” Lucky said. “She said she saw you in Boston. She likes you.”
“I like her, too,” he said.
They had spent so much time together for months. Familiarity did its magic.
His fingers wrapped around hers, so delicate and so strong. Toes now teased each other under the table.
As they left the restaurant, she said, “Charlie is home.”
“Let’s go for a walk around the lake,” he suggested.
“I’m wearing ridiculously high heels,” she objected.
“Your shoes could double as medieval torture devices,” he said. “How do you even stand in them?”
“It takes practice,” Lucky said. “But I don’t get that anymore in my line of work. It used to be that I could even run in them.”
Outside, a limo pulled up. Her eyes widened in surprise. His Dot had done an excellent job by connecting to the universe for this twist on wooing.
Charlie back at her home would not work. Plan B was to invite her to his hotel. Rewards points booked one of its highest, most spacious suites with a walk-out view of night-time San Francisco. He shushed the little voice inside, praising the good deals he — and his Dot — were making that evening, from a free dinner to a room upgrade.
With some hesitation, she agreed to return with him to San Francisco. He removed the Dot behind his ear and dropped it in its case. The Dots, the world, did not need to know what happened next.
Inside, behind the privacy partition of the vehicle, he leaned in to kiss her. Next, his hand on the soft curve inside her knee, her hands on his cheeks, she pulled him in for another kiss.
“Will Charlie miss you if you don’t come home tonight?
“If he notices, I’ll tell him I got caught up at work, another broken body coming in through the ER that I need to fix.”
“You’re fixing me,” he murmured.
On a horizon in time, he was leaving behind a broken old world with its yearning hunger. The promise of their future together lay in the calm expanse under starry skies ahead as when millennia upon millennia ago, the first humans ventured out of Africa into the wild beyond.