“Honey, what did I order?”
Frank held the smallish box under his arm as he closed the front door, a wave of chilly air following it shut. Spring had arrived but only in fits and starts. There was a chance for one more snow, but Frank didn’t believe it would happen.
“I have no idea,” Diane replied, coming down the stairs and joining him in the small entryway.
Frank cradled the box in one elbow and used his free arm to rip it open. Inside were 4 packages of his favorite beef jerky.
“Well, this is vital sustenance,” he said, showing the contents to Diane.
“Always looking out for Number #1,” she smirked through a knowing smile.
“I didn’t order it,” Frank added, then started to reach into the box.
“Frank, the box,” Diane quickly inserted. “Put it down and go wash your hands.”
He grimaced. “You actually think there’s bacteria waiting to kill me?”
“Yes, but bacteria aren’t the worst part,” Diane answered. “Coronavirus isn’t even alive, it’s a strip of code, so think computer hacker intent on taking over your machine.”
“Whatever,” he said, putting the box on the floor and heading to the kitchen to wash his hands. Diane waited for him to return, which he did far quicker than 20 seconds of washing would have allowed. Frank picked up his goodies with an exaggerated gesture to avoid touching the box.
“Maybe you ordered it and don’t remember?” Diane said. Frank shrugged and walked back into the house. Diane left the box where it was, knowing she’d have to carry it out to the recycling bin later, and returned to her upstairs office.
Frank’s office was just off the kitchen. Stacked crafts boxes along one wall were a reminder that it had until recently been a storage room, but now, Frank sat at a desk facing three large computer screens arrayed end to end. Each displayed complex graphs and text, everything moving, scrolling and occasionally flashing. He’d bought the total day trader package only days after leaving the bank, which turned out to be just days before the first news about a novel virus emerged from Seattle.
Frank had no idea what he was doing, having always considered himself a thoughtful investor more than a gambler, but he was certain that he wasn’t doing a corporate job any longer. For now, he was only managing a virtual account so he could experiment with how the equipment and his mind and guts functioned, so it was no big deal to check his Amazon account to look up the jerky order.
“Hon, I didn’t buy it,” he yelled toward the door. Diane responded by yelling something but he couldn’t make out what she said. He ripped open one of the bags and tore off a big chunk of beef. It was delicious.
There was a second box at the door when he checked on his way to dinner that evening. It was larger and much heavier. Frank brought it with him and dropped it on the kitchen island. Diane turned from the opened fridge.
“Frank, we agreed that boxes didn’t come this far into the house.”
“No, you decided and I went along, only not so much,” he said and ripped it open.
“Well, what’s inside?” she asked.
“Six large cans of baked beans,” he replied, holding one up. “I can pretty much guarantee I didn’t order them. I’ll eat beans but not happily. Let’s return them.”
“Wait a minute,” Diane said. “It might make sense to stock up a bit.”
“Oh, we’re going to become hoarders now?” Frank said, putting the can back into the box. “I don’t believe things are going to get anywhere near that bad, and then what will we do with ten pounds of baked beans?”
Diane smiled. “I don’t know, buy ten pounds of hot dogs and throw a block party?” She picked up the box and moved it into Frank’s office.
Dinner was uneventful, consisting of fresh salmon and salad that Frank had ordered online two days prior. They talked a bit about the pandemic, mostly with Frank holding court on how the scientists didn’t know what was going on and the government didn’t want people to know anyway, his overall conclusion the same as his prognosis on baked beans: Not a big deal, and anyone who believed otherwise was a sucker or had some ulterior motive.
“Maybe it’s just something we don’t understand yet, so it makes sense to be prudent,” Diane said a handful of times. “The data are pretty extensive and compelling. You know, I don’t understand how you can discount it.”
“I’ll stay home because now this is where I work,” Frank announced as he stood. “But otherwise, I’m not buying it.”
He went to his office, first checking his Amazon account and finding no record of an order for baked beans and then discovering there was no Q&A entry explaining unexpected deliveries. He couldn’t find an obvious way to have a conversation with someone at the company so he gave up and checked his market screens instead, which revealed a ton of details but no discernible trends or actionable insights. It was frustrating but Frank was more bothered by all of the nonsense about the virus that continued to scroll down his trading page. He shut it down thinking that maybe he’d see something emerge tomorrow on a stock to buy or sell.
Diane spent half as much time checking her university research site and the status of her distributed processing project, which took massive results of quantum fluctuations collected at the regional mass accelerator and then sent them to get crunched on individuals’ computers. It was not just a way to harness more processing power but the parallel activities were already suggesting some intriguing new insights. She made sure there were no apparent error codes and shut down her laptop.
There were three boxes outside their front door the next morning. More canned goods, mostly vegetables and a few tins of salted meat, and 24 rolls of toilet paper. Frank refused to unpack it.
“This is getting plain stupid,” he said, “I don’t know if somebody thinks this is a joke.”
“It’s certainly not funny,” Diane added. “But we can put it with the other stuff.”
Frank scratched off one of the address labels. “Leave them here for now.”
He went back to his office and looked up the tracking number, which confirmed that the package had indeed been shipped from someplace to his place. No other information was available. He signed into his Amazon account and searched by “INV” and “REF” numbers, and found nothing.
Diane was right: the joke wasn’t funny, but Frank couldn’t figure out who’d go to the trouble of sending them food. He’d spent some time in a chat room or two complaining about the government’s changing story on the pandemic but nobody knew his real name, let alone his home address. Nobody in his extended family would send stuff because they were satisfied calling him an ostrich or, worse, “pandemic denier” to his face.
When he returned to the entryway, the boxes were gone and Diane had piled the contents on the island in the kitchen and was washing her hands.
“I’ve got to get to work,” he said, and went to his office. Diane followed him, taking three trips to carry the goods to the growing stack against the wall.
Five or six hours passed and Frank never made a trade, choosing instead to watch the lines on his screen intertwine, sometimes seeming to bounce apart or avoid touching one another, almost as if they were living things like snakes and he was standing in front of a zoo exhibit. He knew there were opportunities hidden in those movements but he couldn’t see them yet. The news scroll along the side of one screen just kept adding one scaremongering headline after the last. Flights grounded. Borders closed. Lots of references to the Spanish Flu of 1918 and millions dead.
Diane interrupted him a few times, carrying armloads of more food and adding them to a stockpile which now reached almost halfway up the wall. He barely looked up because he didn’t want to tell her what he thought about it.
Dinner was fresh fettuccine with basil sauce along with a side of grilled asparagus and a small salad. They didn’t talk much until well into the meal.
“So now we have a lifetime’s supply of pasta,” Frank said.
“I’m sorry?” Diane answered.
“The things you added to the stack in my office,” he added. “At this point, we never have to eat out again.”
Diane put her fork down and wiped her mouth. “I didn’t add anything.”
“Very funny,” Frank said, taking a last bite and then pushing himself back from the table. “You’re not going to gaslight me into making COVID into more than it is. I just don’t believe it.”
“Science and faith are two different,” Diane began, but Frank had already stood and walked back to his office. She sat for a moment and thought. There’d been lots of news coverage of panic buying and stocking up on things like toilet paper and pasta. A little prudence combined with humility made sense on any number of levels.
The boxes weren’t funny, but they also weren’t a mistake.
Diane walked to the doorway to Frank’s office. “Hon, I’m going to get into bed and read some analog content. Try not to burn your eyeballs?”
Frank smiled and so did Diane. She turned and walked upstairs, past her office, and noticed the light was on. She was sure that she’d turned it off before coming down to make dinner because she always did. Her computer was on but that was normal, since it was crunching data packets 24/7. She looked closely at a chart with three columns of numbers, each line labeled with a time stamp that reached 10 digits past a second. The times didn’t agree, which meant that separate analyses running simultaneously hadn’t run simultaneously, which was impossible.
“I don’t believe that,” she said to herself as she pulled out her desk chair and sat down. Diane was working with the numbers on her computer long after Frank poked his head into her office and then went to bed. The light in the room stayed on.
The pattern stayed similar for the next few weeks. Food was stacked as high as possible against the one wall of Frank’s office, making it look far more like the storage room it had once been and again was. They’d started another pile in the corner of the basement and it grew to number hundreds of items, all of it shelf-stable which meant it would last at least a few years.
As the news about the pandemic just got worse, Frank got no better at making his first trade, always opting instead to give it another day and focus instead on his analyses of what was going on. The facts seemed less and less believable to him. They just didn’t add up. There were supposed to be shortages, the latest being chicken, but he had no problem ordering pretty much anything they needed. It seemed like a lot of people were in the hospital but since there was no testing it was impossible to decide if that meant a large percentage of people were really sick. It didn’t help that scientists kept coming up with new ways to find hints of the virus, like on your toes, or that the government pushed a series of quack cures.
So, he couldn’t help but discuss this disconnect, among others, with Diane in the mornings before they retired to their respective work places, when they met for lunch, and again in the evenings.
“I just don’t believe it,” he said again one evening after diving into a particularly tasty beef tenderloin that Diane had finished on the grill along with roasted peppers.
“How do you know?” she snapped, surprising herself. “I mean, I practically can’t remember the last time I went into the office.”
“I don’t believe things are as bad as we’re being told,” he replied. “You’re home but otherwise what has changed? We don’t go out to dinner and we scratched our trip to Cozumel. Jeff doesn’t want us to visit until Mary has her kid, and that’s months away. Honestly, I’m happy we’re not spending money like we used to, what with my job change.”
Diane looked at the candle burning between them for a moment before deciding not to respond. Instead, they finished their wine and watched a few episodes of some stupid TV show together, then each checked their offices before going to bed.
Frank looked over his screens and was again overcome with a sense that some truth was trying to wiggle out of the lines on his graphs. He wanted to help coax it out but it lurked just beyond his reach. Diane got to her office to find the light on yet again, which had happened a number of times even though she made a conscious effort to make sure she turned it off every time she left. The data were also doing things she didn’t expect. The fluctuations were more repeatable and the variances more reliable, as if multiple versions existed of the same swath of time. She could hardly believe her eyes.
The next morning, the boxes didn’t contain food. Instead, one had a dozen jackets intended for surfers, the type with SPF built into them. The other contained the same number of sunglasses. Frank brought the boxes into the kitchen. Diane had prepared a plate of toast and fresh fruit.
“Frank, I’ve told you,” Diane began, pointing at the boxes.
“We’re not dead yet,” Frank interrupted. “Q.E.D.”
“And now we’re ready to go surfing, unless our anonymous benefactor finally realizes his shipping error,” he added.
“Could it be a gift for our vacation in Mexico?” Diane asked. “Maybe my mom pushed the buy button too many times and sent it.”
Frank nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, that sounds like something she’d do, only it’s about as likely that she has an Amazon account as you do, which is zero.”
“True,” Diane said, taking a piece of toast. She religiously avoided online shopping and everything it stood for, believing less in its promise than she did in that of the tooth fairy. Using it now made sense, but that was Frank’s problem. The fact that the greatest tool for connecting and collaborating had been turned into one giant monitored shopping mall almost made her sick, if she bothered to think about it, which she never did.
The TV on the wall across the family room signaled the hushed end of a commercial break and Frank turned up the sound. Some states were lessening stay-at-home restrictions, even allowing bowling alleys to open. This news contrasted with graphs that showed rates of infection rising and falling but evidencing no clear direction, certainly not downwards. Nobody was using them to make public policy decisions. Frank had a point, at least somewhat.
“See, we’re already on the other side of the story,” he announced, pouring himself a second mug of coffee. “Want some more?”
“No, I’m good,” Diane replied. “And I don’t need another cup of coffee.”
“What?” Frank asked and then took a sip and smiled. “Oh right, with the story. Me too.” He shrugged and went to his office.
Diane clicked off the TV and huddled over her coffee, elbows on the island and her lips on the edge of her mug, and the room fell entirely silent though she could hear Frank’s voice in her head. They both believed very different things in exactly the same circumstances. Granted, his hours in front of his monitors were different than the time she spent in front of hers but they were consuming the same information, basically. There was no overt key to his conclusions that was different from hers, which was why she unconsciously tolerated them instead of choosing debate. They shared the same time but had different perceptions of it, almost as if they were separate realities, not one any less real than the other.
Then it hit her. Time was a force, not a dimensional context, and it exhibited variations that differentiated one expression from the next, the greater the difference the more separate the time experience. That’s why the distributed computing numbers didn’t match up. She stood as the enormity of her realization became apparent.
Diane practically ran upstairs to her office and found the light on. Someone sat at her desk.
“Um, hello?” She said less as a question than a challenge. The person turned away from the desk and faced Diane. It was Diane.
“Crap,” the woman said. “I question this moment every time.”
“What?” Diane responded. “Who are you?”
“I’m you,” she answered, “only from the future. We need to talk.”
“I don’t believe it,” Diane said with a wave of her hand. “Time travel doesn’t exist.”
“It will, starting tonight,” the other Diane said. “And it’s not travel as much as a technology of being present in a different place, of sorts. You figured it out downstairs a few moments ago. The fluctuations.”
“Crap,” Diane said. “You figured it out?”
The other Diane smiled, revealing age lines along her cheeks and radiating from her eyes. “Yes, you did.” Diane noticed that her doppelgänger wore some sort of body suit that included gloves and a hood that lay on the back of her neck. The outfit glimmered in the overhead light. She looked like an alien, which seemed oddly appropriate.
Diane squinted and looked past the other Diane at the computer screen. It was an order page on Amazon.
“You came back from the future to shop?” she asked. The other Diane stifled a laugh.
“You’re the one buying supplies for us,” Diane said. “Why?”
Both Dianes folded their arms exactly the same way.
“It was the only way I could make sure we survive the pandemic,” future Diane replied.
“But it’s already starting to wind down, and we’ve weathered it just fine,” Diane said.
“Not COVID-19,” future Diane explained. “MERS-X, the one that comes next. The entire food supply will collapse and stay that way for a few months. The infection rate gets to 100% in a matter of months. Staying home won’t do any good. For those of us who don’t get violently ill there’ll be strange side-effects like photophobia. The economy will crash for real this time, and there’ll be riots and a lot of hardship. Civilization will be under pressure for a decade or more, and then climate change will really kick in. We need to prepare.”
“Wait, if you can travel to the past, why don’t you warn the government or The WHO?” Diane asked. “I wouldn’t just worry about Frank and myself.”
Both Dianes shook their heads exactly the same way.
“It doesn’t work like that,” the seated Diane explained. “ For starters, we can only travel back to the point at which time travel was conceived, which was, is, tonight. Second, you can only visit times in your own experience, so no showing up in the President’s office unless you happened to visit sometime earlier. Third, making even the slightest change to another time makes it incredibly difficult to effect any other changes. It has something to do with novelty and the more that one time is modified to more closely resemble the expectations of another time makes it proportionally harder to do.”
“Greater differences create more discrete realities,” the standing Diane added. “The more times align, the harder it will be to access them as separate places.”
“Exactly,” future Diane said. “We tried many times and found that we could change very little.”
“So, why not map hundreds or thousands of incremental changes at different points in time that would add up to the outcomes you want, like avoiding that next pandemic?” past Diane asked.
“We tried that, too,” future Diane replied, “only there’s no good way to ensure that they add up the way you expected. Even the smallest changes bring with them unintended consequences, and that noise leads to very different outcomes. Haven’t you ever wondered why reality TV is still a thing?”
“What’s the point of visiting then? Time tourism?” past Diane asked, shaking her head again. Future Diane stood.
“We picked a handful of people from other disciplines at the university…health, government, social services, and got them on board so they, too, can help us preserve their past selves and tons of data so we…you…can get involved earlier and maybe lessen the damage.”
Past Diane paused before she spoke. “That still sounds pretty self-interested to me.”
“Welcome to the future,” future Diane replied. “We know it works because I made it long enough to be able to get back to you to trigger it.”
“Welcome to the past,” past Diane said. “So now what?”
“I’m…you’re going to keep ordering supplies, so you should fill the basement and then start sharing with your neighbors. You should review purchases and look for common themes and add products to them, so I don’t have to add any more disruption to your time. Start buying for Jeff, Mary, and Odin.”
Past Diane gasped. “Odin?”
“Yeah, dumb name but the kid is healthy. MERS-X doesn’t like the young ones for some reason.”
“We have an Amazon account, obviously,” past Diane said.
“It gets better than that,” future Diane said through a smile. “Frank will make one trade in his entire life and it’ll provide a windfall of cash for us, only there won’t be much we can spend the money on by that time. So I opened a half dozen credit cards in your name. Max them out and open as many more as you can. His payday will get you out of any debt before they try to take our house.”
“I hope,” she added, and then disappeared, only to reappear a few seconds later.
“Batteries are low and I don’t know if or when there’ll be any sunlight again, so it’s important you gather every bit of our work project. We’ll need all of the distributed data to construct the first models of the time transportation chassis. Troll the school’s databases for anything even tangentially related to the research and save everything on a stick. The power grid will go down with a bang, not a whimper, so everything connected to servers will get fried.”
“It sounds horrible,” past Diane said, crossing her arms again. Future Diane did the same.
“It gets worse than that,” she replied and then disappeared again. Diane waited but her doppelgänger didn’t return.
“Frank!” she yelled.
It was crazy. Time travel, more pandemics, climate change, the destruction of civilization, Diane ordering things online. But it was also real. She hadn’t imagined her conversation with her future self, and there was no denying the supplies in the downstairs office and basement. Diane went over to her computer and, sure enough, she was signed into her account. There were a half-dozen open orders, some for canned food but one for a portable electrical generator and what seemed like a lot of fuel.
“Frank!” she yelled again.
She opened the page with her account details and didn’t recognize the credit cards listed but they each named a well-known bank. Diane wondered when the bills would start arriving, whether via mail or online, and what she should do with them. Future Diane said to focus on spending. Doing so would be a violation of her core beliefs, but her self from the future knew that, too.
“Frank!” she yelled a third time, still staring at the screen. This was big, bigger than anything in her life. Bigger than her life itself. Something undeniable more important than anything.
Diane was about to yell for Frank again as she turned away from the computer, but she saw him standing in the doorway.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Is there an emergency? Are you OK?”
“No, I’m not,” Diane said, standing to face him and crossing her arms. “I mean, yes, there is an emergency.”
Frank smiled. “Nothing has happened since we chatted only a few minutes ago, dear,” he replied. “It’s a little weird but there’s no emergency.”
“No, no, a lot has happened,” Diane protested. “We’re in for a lot of trouble!”
Frank put his finger to his lip and thought for a moment. “ If enough people feel as irrationally passionate as you do, maybe that’ll make them sell stocks before reality catches up and shows them things aren’t so bad. I could buy low now and sell high later. It’s counter-intuitive. I love it.”
“Frank, you don’t,” Diane started and then stopped herself as she thought about time and ripples and intended consequences, not just the unintended ones.
“I believe that,” she said, and sat back down to place her next order.
[This story will appear in a collection entitled Strange In Place]