She could have just about killed Jordan. It was exhausting enough trying to come up with ways to keep him busy during the day. It was harder to keep him from killing himself. Second graders had the attention spans of gnats, and Kiera’s second grader didn’t do a thing without asking for help or reporting a problem from which she had to save him. The kid was a risk magnet that became particularly powerful when she had something else to do like get actual work done or, as was the case this moment, prepare dinner.
Jordan had been sitting on the couch in the family room playing something on his tablet when she’d turned her attention to the oven. She looked up to find him jumping on the couch, his arms outstretched like he was an airplane.
“Jordan, stop that!” she commanded, with images of broken bones and a visit to a hospital busy treating coronavirus patients. Jordan paused to look at her and then kept jumping, perhaps slightly less enthusiastically.
“I’m serious,” she added. “Play your game.” It occurred to her that directing him to stare at a computer screen for another hour could amount to dereliction of parental duty, but the thought passed without much contemplation. It kept him out of harm’s way, at least physically, and there were no Dr. Spock rules for pandemic stay-at-home orders.
“Rick, can you get your son to calm down?” Kiera said facing the sink. Rick was in the home office just off the kitchen. He didn’t reply.
“I guess the Internets are more compelling, as usual,” she muttered to herself as she resolved to ignore Jordan. The kid kept jumping but after glancing over at his mom and getting no response, he glided back to sitting and became engrossed again with his tablet.
“Can you come for dinner now?” she said to Rick. Again, he didn’t reply, evidence that it was going to require an intervention, also not all that unusual. Kiera seemed to always be dragging members of her family back to the moment, to the present. Keeping Jordan from injuring himself and Rick from turning his mind into mush on the Internet.
She finished setting the table before walking around the corner to decouple her husband from whatever spreadsheet or video of some obscure band had captured his attention.
Only it wasn’t him.
A man about Rick’s age sat at what should have been his desk but was shaped more organically and made out of some smooth, featureless substance instead of inlaid wood. He didn’t appear to be wearing any clothes, but he didn’t look naked either, as if he were covered in the same stuff as the desk. A globe hovered in front of him where Rick’s laptop should have been, and the man-made odd gestures with his hands. He looked right at Kiera and his eyes glowed off and on like there were little lights in them.
“Who are you?” they both asked in unison.
“Where’s Rick?” Kiera added.
“You’re without Sys,” the man said in return.
They stared warily at each other for a moment, then Kiera felt hands on her shoulders and jumped.
“Hey, I’m sorry. What…” Rick said as he moved next to her. He stopped when he saw the man.
“Who are you?” he said.
“Farok,” he answered. “Who the hell are you, and why are you in my house?”
Farok stood and walked around his desk. Rick and Kiera stepped back but couldn’t fit back through the door at the same time. It would have been comic if they hadn’t been terrified.
“This is our house,” Rick replied in a shaky voice. “We’ve lived here for 12 years.”
“So have we,” said Farok. “Why are you dressed in such old clothes? Why aren’t you with Sys?”
“Why are you, um, naked?” Kiera said, “and we don’t know your sister.”
Farok looked down at himself. The globe behind him turned one way and then another, and when he looked up again, his eyes flickered in time with it.
“You’re dressed like Kiera and Rick Stephenson. They lived here in the 2020s,” Farok said. “Is this some surprise retro party? He looked past Rick and Kiera.
“Lindy, you can come out now!”
Rick took a step forward as Kiera grabbed his arm. “And you’re a burglar dressed like an alien, only it’s not Halloween,” he snarled, feeling more confident.
Farok’s stood motionless as his eyes flashed a few times, then he smiled broadly and walked toward Kiera and Rick.
“Well then, greetings from the future,” he said, putting his hand to his chest and bowing his head. “Those sure were the days. Shall we, what was it, play a boarded game?”
Kiera pushed past Rick and put her hand out toward Farok’s chest. He flinched and stepped back to avoid it but didn’t move fast enough to avoid her outstretched fingers.
“Don’t touch,” he began to say but then stopped when he saw much of her hand pass through his chest. Her fingers touched nothing but air.
“This isn’t a surprise party, is it?” he quipped. Kiera quickly pulled her hand back and rubbed it.
“Are you a ghost?” she asked, stepping backwards into Rick’s arms.
“Are you?” Farok replied.
“What do you mean we lived here in the 2020s?” Rick said.
“Sys says you look just like them. Their son the congressman sold this house to the Lightfoots in 2034, and I bought it from them in 2055.”
“But we live here now,” Rick said.
“Congressman?” Kiera added.
Farok smiled. “We live here, too.” Then he stood motionless again as his eyes flickered. Kiera and Rick looked at each other. Rick shrugged.
“String anomaly,” Farok announced, as if the phrase had self-evident meaning. When Kiera and Rick didn’t answer, he continued.
“It’s mostly theoretical, but researchers in Beijing have done some promising tests with Lin.”
“OK, so string anomaly theory posits that the reality we perceive is an entanglement along an 11-dimensional string. Your scientists called it resonance.”
“Our scientists?” Kiera asked.
“Well, anyway, now we know…well, we will know…that consciousness is a basic force in nature, just like gravity or electromagnetism, and it’s what creates what we call the present. We’re knots along that string.”
“Sometimes those knots move.”
“So, none of that makes any sense to me,” Rick said. “Are you telling us we’re in the future or you’re in the past?”
“Yes, that’s it exactly!” Farok exclaimed. “It’s fascinating, isn’t it?”
He didn’t wait for an answer but walked right through Kiera and Rick. They shuddered instinctively but felt nothing, then turned and both tried to squeeze through the doorway after Farok. Rick relented first and let Kiera go ahead of him, and they followed Farok back into the kitchen and family room.
Everything had changed. The surfaces in the room were all covered with the same smooth material as was Farok’s desk. There were objects that looked like bean bag chairs strewn haphazardly around in place of the couches that had faced the big-screen TV, which was gone along with everything else on the walls. The kitchen was there only not really, replaced with a sitting area and, in one corner, a device that looked like a large fish tank with a mechanical arm sticking out of it.
Stranger yet, Jordan was sitting on one of the bean bags that corresponded roughly to where he’d been jumping a few moments ago. Standing in front of him was a kid about his age, also wearing the same smooth material as Farok and manipulating a glowing globe hovering between his outstretched hands.
“Fascinating,” Farok said.
“Totally weird,” Rick added.
“You actually collected ingredients and had to mix them here, didn’t you?” Farok asked. “And in there,” he continued, gesturing to where their living room should have been, “you sat together on those porous coverings and watched a screen?”
“He’s describing our house,” Kiera said.
The boy standing next to Jordan looked over at Farok. His eyes flickered.
“He isn’t with Sys,” Farok said. “Talk to him using your voice.”
The boy’s eyes flickered again. “Tyler, don’t tell me, tell him. He probably wants to go outside for a bicycle hike,” Farok laughed. Tyler stiffened as if the idea insulted or scared him.
“Tyler?” Kiera asked.
“Old fashioned names were in fashion back in the 50s,” Farok replied.
“Hike?” Rick added.
An adult woman appeared on the stairs, dressed like Farok so she blended into the background as if she were a part of it. She stopped when she saw everyone. Her eyes flickered.
“You’re without Sys,” she said. “And what’s with the retro party?”
“That’s exactly what I said!” Farok said through a big smile. “We’re having a string anomaly. I’ll send you a zoom.” His eyes glittered briefly and then hers followed.
“Oh, that’s fascinating,” she said.
“That’s exactly what…” Farok began to add, then stopped when he looked at Kiera and Rick, both of whom were still standing where they were when they first entered the room.
“I’m Lindy,” the woman continued and walked toward Kiera and Rick, then stopped and put her hand to her chest along with a slight bow. “There’s so much I want to ask you.”
Lindy gestured toward one of the bean bag-like objects as if she were calling a dog. It scuttled over to her. She sat on it before it stopped moving.
Kiera gasped. “There’s so much I want to…” she said, “like what was that?”
Lindy frowned. “Neox. It serves us by keeping us comfortable inside, and outside it responds to changes in temperature, shields against particulates, and repairs itself. We need it to survive the Variables.”
“It’s alive?” Kiera asked.
“Partially,” Lindy replied, “and semi-aware.”
“The Variables?” Rick asked.
“Oh, you called it climate change,” Farok explained. “We solved that problem in the late 30s by using Neox to the change once it was clear that we couldn’t stop it. We don’t have seasons anymore. The weather can be freezing cold one day and a torrential tropical rain the next. Most times it changes by the hour. The atmosphere is so chaotic that not even Sys can predict what will happen next. Neox covers everything so everything can withstand it.”
“You used to have reliable weather forecasts, didn’t you?” Lindy asked.
“Well, not that reliable,” Rick answered.
“What’s Sys?” Kiera asked.
“We live physically in Neox, and mentally in Sys,” Farok replied as if he were reciting liturgy. “It’s what you called your Internet, only now it’s an AI that we can access directly from our brains.”
Farok tapped the side of his head. “We have the entire world in here.”
“Sounds a lot better than staring at a computer screen,” Kiera smirked, looking over at Jordan. The kid was enraptured with something Tyler was showing to him but was invisible to the adults.
Lindy looked furtively at Farok and he gently nodded.
“May I ask you something?” she asked. “What was it like before the first pandemic?”
“What do you mean?” Kiera replied.
Lindy stood. “Going someplace for work, going on vacations, doing things with your hands, cooking and all of the textures and smells of different foods,” she said as if she were rattling off a list.
“Being in the same room with other people, for real, and not knowing what was going to happen next?”
“It was just, well, living,” Kiera said. “But we’ve been in lockdown here at home for almost a month, so we do most things online. It’s predictably boring.”
“We know how that goes,” Lindy said.
“What’s that about a ‘first’ pandemic?” Rick asked. “How many others will there be?”
“A lot,” Farok said as he shook his head. “Some will be worse than the first one and many more will be less so. We have Neox so if a new virus appears it synthesizes a blocker for a few days until a treatment gets developed. They’re really just a part of the Variables, along with the Daily Terrors.”
Kiera leaned back where there used to be a countertop. Something stopped her but when she looked over her shoulder, all she saw was an expanse of that white substance that covered everything. She put her hands on it and leaned on her straightened arms. It sure felt like granite.
“Daily terrors?” Rick asked.
“There’s always somebody who feels the need to hurt others because of some agenda or imagined slight,” Farok said. “It’s not safe to go places that can make us targets for their daily attacks.”
Lindy looked downward and her shoulders slumped. “We only interact with Sys.”
It was Rick’s turn to evidence some sense of urgency. “A few days?” he asked. “You get vaccines developed in a few days? They’re telling us it could be a year before we see anything for COVID.”
“It will take longer for COVID-A,” Farok said, shaking his head, “but the next few will be far milder. The big change doesn’t happen until COVID-R and…”
“That’s probably enough,” Lindy said, cutting him off. “We know what it’s like to know the future. Let them live freely in the past.”
“Tell me what cake smelled like,” she added, trying to manage a smile.
“What?” Rick said. “You don’t know the future any better than we do. You said so yourselves, what with those Variables of yours. Tell us things that we can prepare for, help us reduce all of the risks we face.”
“Neox and Sys are the two certainties that form the bedrock of our lives,” Farok answered, again in his recitation voice. “There is no safety unless you stay home. Stay in here.” He tapped the side of his head again.
“Without risk there is only routine,” he added.
“You’ll get to go to the beach soon,” Lindy said. “There are no beaches anymore.”
“Get a sunburn,” Farok said.
“Sit in your car cockpit and have bad traffic and hear a song you haven’t heard for years on your audio device,” Lindy said.
“Turn left instead of right because you just wanted to do so, not because Sys routed you that way and zoomed the instructions to your vehicle,” Farok said, then walked over to Lindy and put his arm around her shoulders.
The sound of laughter coming from the family room punctuated the silence. Jordan was jumping up and down with his arms flapping like a bird.
“Jordan, I told you to stop that,” Kiera scolded.
Lindy smiled. “Why?”
“I dunno,” Kiera continued. “He could break his arm if he fell?”
“Yes, that’s it exactly!” Farok said. The adults stood in silence watching their sons jump and giggle. Then a crack of thunder outside made them all jump.
“That wasn’t in the forecast,” Rick said as Farok and Lindy’s eyes both flashed for a moment.
“We have an ion storm approaching in forty-three seconds,” Farok said. “Perhaps contemporaneous storms are how we got into this knot.”
At that very moment, Kiera, Rick, and Jordan flicked in and out of the room. Kiera raised her hand as if she were trying to point to something and her lips moved, but there was no sound.
“It…smelled like…happy,” she said haltingly.
They flickered again and then again, each time being absent for longer periods of time, first a second and then a few, followed by a few more. Tyler stopped jumping and walked to stand by his parents. Lindy put her arm around his shoulder.
“Wait, what about Jordan being a congressman?” Kiera said as her voice trailed away, and then the three of them disappeared and didn’t return.
Things immediately returned to normal. Green lightening flashed outside the family room window. The Neox on the exterior of the house moaned as it did every time the particulate rain came, mustering its attention to fend off both the moisture and abrasive impact, just as their suits rerouted Sys to underground sonic waveforms to avoid the bursts of electronic gibberish in the atmosphere. The food processor timer chimed, and a grey paste filled the tank as the mechanical arm swung into action.
Farok zoomed Lindy about getting back to the work he’d been doing before their chance meeting. Jordan sent a zoom to her simultaneously, asking if he could absorb a packet instead of eating their daily gruel. They’d neglected to tell their visitors that they rarely spoke aloud. Her eyes flickered
She could have just about killed Tyler. It was exhausting enough trying to come up with ways to keep him from being busy during the day. Second graders had the attention spans of meditating monks, and Lindy’s second grader did everything without asking for help or reporting a problem that required anything of her. The kid was risk anti-matter that became particularly powerful when she had nothing to do or, as was the case this moment, wanted things to be different.
Lindy’s eyes flickered as Tyler began to walk back into the living room. Then he stopped and turned to face his parents.
“You want me to jump?” he said out loud.
[This story is part of the upcoming collection entitled “Strange In Place.”]