The doorbell rings.
It’s only the thought that it might be my monthly delivery from Quel Fromage! that gets me out of my chair at all–but of course it isn’t. The green jumpsuit, the white plastic boots, even the multitude of thin wire bands he wears around his neck and wrists, might be a uniform, but it clearly isn’t U.P.S.
He begins without a greeting. “Got the year, Jackie?”
“Sure yeah. Sorry n’all, but the gizmo glitches when it jumps sometimes. Date and time all fuzzled.”
He doesn’t look insane. As a guess, I’d make him in his early twenties, college student type, only with a green jumpsuit. His head is shaved in a wide band up to the crown. Above that, a thick mop sits like a luxurious blond yarmulke.
“The date?” It takes me a minute. “The eighteenth,” I say. “June 18th.”
He goggles at me. “Eighteen? Like twenny-two eighteen?”
Now it’s my turn to goggle. “No. What? Do you mean the year?” His words—Got the year, Jackie?—come back to me. I take a breath. “It’s 2016. What year did you expect it to be?”
He throws his head back in exasperation. “Kring! I knew this wasn’t the when I punched!” He waves the gizmo at me. “Twenny-two sixteen! Meltdown is playing the Iron Lung, last gig ever!” A look of disgust crumples his features. “Instead, I wind up in the stone-age zone.” He gives me a rueful look. “No ‘fense, Jackie.”
He makes with a deep, soulful sigh. “Well, glitchy tech is glitchy tech. Whatcha gonna do?” He holds up the device so I can see. “UbiQuix 20. Cozy Jon said I shoulda grabbed the Simpiternity, but they’re so old story.”
I play along. “Does this mean you’re stranded here? Can you get back to your own…”
“Oh yeah, no sure. Not even. I’ll just punch the recall circuit.” He toggles some doodad on the gizmo’s control pad. “But it’s going to take some time. The busload’s pretty fragged, I’ll betcha. Just gotta waste some minutes.”
We stand there at the doorway, me in, he out, and an unexpected wave of compassion wells up. Whatever delusion I’m living through, it doesn’t seem to have left me entirely without the social graces. “You can come inside if you want. You don’t have to wait on the porch.”
He gives me a smile. “That’s fond, cousin! I’m onboard.”
Inside, he takes a seat in one of the comfier chairs, glancing around the room, utterly not discomfited.
“Are you sure this is where you’re supposed to be?” I ask. “I mean, there’s no…clubs around here.”
He shakes his head, rechecking some readout. “No. Location is just so. Time is the mess.”
I nod. Sometime—two hundred years from now—my house will be a place called the Iron Lung, where Meltdown will play their last gig ever. Time really is the mess. My guest surveys the reach of my living room. “Nice element,” he says.
“Small,” he says, nodding. “You in a proke group?”
“No scandal either way, Jackie. Just thought, you being old and all, you probably done the whole routine, squeezing out the school.”
“School?” I am not keeping up.
“Little fish?” he offers. “Forwarding the genome?”
“Ah. Yes. Sure. We have three kids, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Only three? Wowza. Didn’t know you twennies were so scant with the offspring. My proke was up to three hundred and sixty-two, last count.”
I gulp. “That’s a lot of…fish.”
“Not all fish,” he explains. “The prime proke group was twenny-nine, plus some lookers. A good group grows in all the ways.”
I take an intuitive leap. “Group marriage?”
“Natch. Course, I’m plenty ripe for my own group now, but I’m not tending to dash. I was in a boot-knock in Amsterdam last summer, great bunch of bed-folk. I was fond. But I’m too young to stumble into the first proke group that comes along.”
“You nailed that one, coz. So, what’s your gig?”
“Gig? As in job?”
“Sure yeah. How do you means and ends?”
I clear my throat. It always sounds so odd to say it out loud. “I’m a writer.”
His eyes widen. “No drossing? Like stories and such? That’s crisp, cousin! I’m rabid for stories. What’s your mode? PsychoRomps? HoodooPeeps? DreamSpex?”
“Uh, yeah. You know, I’m not really sure what you’d call it—”
“Hey, what’s your name? I’ve swiped some of the ancients. Maybe I’ve downed some of your content.”
I tell him. His face remains blank. “Sorry, Jacko. No register. I guess you’re not big in the Twenny-Three.”
“I can’t say I’m too surprised.”
“But I’m smit to down your stuff. Got anything ready to up?”
I frown. “You want to read one of my books? Now?”
Some word or another seems to perplex him. He taps a spot on his left temple, just below the shaved hairline. Something clicks, then whirs. “Standard acc-port,” he says, “Fryline? BitBlur? Even a Transwire, if that’s your techlevel.”
I shake my head, helpless.
“Well how much content do you got, Jackie? I’m gonna wink soon, but I could down a few.”
“Uh, three. Three novels. So far.”
“Three?” He is as aghast at my lack of literary output as he was at my poor showing in the progeny department. “Fring, coz! You gotta get with! My fav, Inkling Fedora? She pops two hundred a year, easy.”
“Two hundred? Novels?”
“Sure, yeah, sure. Gotta keep the current on. Her last psychoromp series knocked up thirty-seven volumes. And Revard Melch? He ups like a book a day. ‘Course it’s all SkinJims, so no great exercise sopping that stuff. You can down two or three between between station stops, if that’s your sort of fare. Hey! You all right, Jack?”
In fact, I’m feeling a little dizzy. Not serious, I’m sure, but standing up abruptly would definitely be a poor choice at the moment. His gizmo gives a tuneful little toodle, and he checks some readout. “Hey, not long now! I’m queued.” He smiles. “You’ve been a kinsman, coz. A real lungful of fresh. I’ll mention you to the future.”
He continues to sit there, looking pleasantly bland. Nothing seems to be happening, as far as I can tell.
“Hey!” I say, experiencing what seems to be a sudden lucid moment. “Do you people do this a lot? I mean, visit the past?”
He nods. “Sure, yeah, yeah. No major.”
“But—what about continuity and all that? I mean, aren’t you afraid of messing up your own timeline?”
He finds this pretty funny. “No, no, Jacks. Not much chance. I mean, certain precautions, sure, yeah, but time is pretty elastic. Bouncy, even. It all snaps back pretty proper. Like, you won’t even remember this.”
“No? I find that hard to believe.”
“Well, maybe a few snips and bits, but nothing certain. Trust me. This is a one-way tumble. It’s all strictly—”
And all at once, he isn’t there anymore. No flash, no shimmer, no bang, no whimper. Just me, staring at an empty chair.
Which is an odd thing to find yourself doing at 11:15 in the morning.
I get up. I check the front door. Maybe I’m getting old, but I would’ve sworn I heard the doorbell. Sure. That’s right. I was at my desk and the doorbell rang…
But there’s no one there. Some ding-dong ditch kid. Or I’m hearing things.
Or maybe just hungry. I am expecting my delivery from Quel Fromage! today. I’m hoping for a nice dill Havarti. And maybe a wedge of Stilton Blue.