Kayla looked up from the printout she'd been perusing without success. Give her spreadsheets with painstakingly collected data, and complex statistical evaluations of same. Give her neatly ordered columns and rows of radians per square meter. Give her headcount files, even. But please, God, save her from columns with dollar signs. Budgets were to her eyes impossible beasts created out of fevered imagination, and some unspeakable fool thought her position as head researcher of her group should include monetary oversight.
"Yes?" She pushed the printout to one side.
"Garcia wants us all in his office in five." Mendez shrugged with her usual half-interested gesture. "I've heard rumors there could be cake."
Kayla glanced at her computer. Sure enough, a small notification bubble, just out of her normal line of vision, glowed with an alert. She touched the screen, expanding the invitation to her supervisor's office three minutes from now.
"Is he leaving?" She grabbed her tablet. "Are we being rewarded for something? Are we being let go?" Layoffs were always the undercurrent to any conversation these days, after the last round. Layoffs and cake?
"Who knows?" They walked together down the hallway, and were joined by three other colleagues.
The rest of the senior staff had already gathered in his office, not leaving much room to stand. There was no cake.
Garcia said, "Shut the door, McClellan. Thanks."
Odd, she thought, at his tone and the nervous energy of the crowd in the small office.
"I'll be brief," he said. "This doesn't go beyond this room for now. There's been another backpack nuke."
The nervous energy bloomed into horror. Kayla felt her hands grow cold. The full-on nuclear annihilation her parents and grandparents had lived in fear of never came to pass. Her grandfather's old bomb shelter had become her hoarder cousin Fran's extra self-storage locker. But the disarmament of the world-shattering bombs had led to the rebirth of the baby nukes. It didn't matter if the carrier was a true-believer or a home-grown anarchist, the results had been devastating. London died five years ago, wiping out two millennia of history and five million people in one minute, with the fallout killing another five million and dealing a vicious blow to the world economy they were still climbing out of. Smaller nukes had hit three other cities: Cairo, Miami, Brisbane. Fingers pointed, but loners took credit each time, wanting fame or revenge.
Now another one had reared its ugly radioactive mushroom head, although no one's phone had alerted them with a news feed.
"Where?" asked Lazlo.
"Chicago. But," he said, as several faces in the room turned to panic and thoughts of family. "It didn't go off as planned. The idiot blew himself up in his own garage with the detonator. It never went off."
"Thank God," someone muttered, and other voices agreed.
"We're sending a team there this afternoon. The higher ups want us to go over everything, find out what we can. They're looking for some connection to the other bombers, or to known terrorist groups. I don't care who's behind it, I want to know exactly what he was making, and I want solid plans on how to track the next one."
The worry had turned to excitement, even anticipation. Working in the field was the best part of their jobs. At the same time, Memorial Day weekend started tomorrow at five, noon if the boss said they could leave early. A work trip to Chicago would step right on anyone's plans. As Garcia read off the names for the team, Kayla couldn't decide if she wanted to be chosen or not. "Lazlo. McClellan."
She placed a professional smile on her face, and noted her colleagues' mixed expressions of envy and relief.
The rest of the group was released. Kayla stayed behind with the others who'd been selected for the Chicago trip, and half-listened as Garcia went over the planned schedule. Departure would be tonight as soon as Travel approved their tickets.
When he finished, she said, "Meeting in my office in an hour. Bring your equipment lists. We'll pack everything this afternoon."
Back at her own desk, she opened a document to create a quick list, and she called Jarrod.
Jarrod felt his phone vibrate, and he ignored it. His hands moved across the keyboard, lit with a power he never fully understood. The words flowed, not as often as they had when he'd been twenty-three and on fire with passionate vigor against every injustice the world threw at him. Today's effort had been biting the ass-end of his brain for the last week, offering him peeping glimpses into another world. He'd sat up watching a documentary on the Mars colonies. The few stories left of the indigenous Martians had been sanitized for common consumption, or converted to a simple savage narrative subtly endorsing the human conquest and ravishment of their world. He'd known this and forgotten he knew it until he'd seen "Mars Revealed.
The director of the documentary was a well-known agitator, someone Jarrod had admired for a decade even as he knew not to take her every word as gospel. Angie Morton worked from an inner truth, she'd always claimed, which meant maybe the animals held for slaughter at the abattoir weren't exactly tortured the way she'd edited her videos to show, but even her skewed light shined enough of a glow to get the public interested in the animals' real woes.
Mars Revealed told the story of the early settlements, eerily echoing the colonization of the Americas, intentionally so. Jarrod had done his own research since, his thoughts speeding with images of lost civilization, and bodies decomposing to ashes from the diseases brought by mankind.
"Choking red sand whirled around Nikolai’s face," he wrote, desperate to capture the sensation of freezing hot winds stinging bare flesh. The story spoke to him, a harrowing tale of doomed characters preserving their homes however they could. He'd given them human names to evoke sympathy from a human reader, only to reveal later that the invaders were the strange monsters who came in their rockets from Earth.
His phone vibrated again.
Jarrod sighed. "Yeah?" They never bothered with hellos when they called each other.
"I'm being sent to Chicago," Kayla said. "Tonight. I can't say why but you can guess."
Jarrod immediately flipped to a news site, expecting a grisly headline. Nothing. "It's not in the news."
"We're keeping it that way. We don't want people to be alarmed."
"When will you be home?"
"Around four. Long enough to pack my bag. Can you set the house to have dinner ready early?"
She paused. "You sound busy? Is today your bridge group?"
A smile moved into her voice. "I'll let you go. Tell the kids what's happening but don't scare them. Love you."
"Love you. Bye." He hung up.
Moment lost, Jarrod rose from his desk and went to the panel in his study which operated the house's controls. He still felt out of sorts talking to the walls of his own home, but Kayla had insisted. The house cooked their meals and cleaned their floors and provided basic structure for the children when her job kept her away and his kept his mind too distracted to remember to give the kids their baths.
The house computers had come onto the market seven years ago, advertised as the perfect solution for people with disabilities or the elderly who wished to live independently in their own homes. Houses could be programmed for almost any basic housekeeping task depending on the needs of the consumer.
"It's weird," Jarrod had said.
"It's the latest technology," Kayla had countered. "Your last book more than pays for the upgrades. And it leaves you more time to write."
She'd won, as she usually did, and here he sat in a house fitted snugly around him, feeling like the first act of some bad horror novel.
"We'd like dinner at four-thirty," he said to the wall.
"Menu override?" asked the perky voice of the computer. He'd investigated the Perfect Home help function several times in an attempt to tone down the obsequiousness. Sometimes he wanted to shake the computer and tell his home to show some damn dignity.
"No. Same menu." For all his qualms about the house, he liked the randomize feature on some functions. Meals were ever a perfectly-prepared surprise, even if the kitchen program occasionally glitched and made pancakes in the middle of the afternoon. The Perfect Home help desk assured him a software patch was in the works to fix the issue, and in the meantime, would Mr. McClellan accept an extra week's free subscription to his warranty package?
Even as he went back to his desk, he smelled the unmistakable aroma of buttermilk pancakes hitting the griddle. Kirby growled from his favorite warm spot on the rug. Jarrod hesitated, but Kirby was getting just as spoiled as he was in the weird electrical palace.
Together they went into the kitchen so Jarrod could feed the extra pancakes to the dog.
Vera's school let out earlier than her brother's did. She skipped the bus line-up. Daddy didn't mind when she walked home from school as long as she was careful. Her friend Maddie lived closer to school, and as the bus pulled away, they took hands and crossed the street together.
"What are you making for the summer science fair?" Maddie asked. Her father didn't like Vera much, but her mother encouraged the girls to play together as much as possible, hoping Vera's smarts would rub off on her friend. Vera already knew she'd be helping Maddie with her project, as well as working on her own.
"I'm not sure." She'd been considering a radiation-based experiment. Mom had access to the best scanners at her job. Vera had wondered about growing some flowers and vegetables in her own backyard and comparing them to flowers and vegetables grown closer to the sites of the nuclear attacks. The teachers at school didn't like talking about the nuclear attacks, though.
Some of the older teachers, the dumber ones, looked at Vera's dark complexion and made the same faces they did around poor Suleiman and Rabia, as if they expected the kids to have somehow been responsible for the terrible things happening around the world. They changed their expressions when they met Vera's parents. Some made different faces instead.
"I think I want to raise mice," said Maddie. "I'll feed one all cheese and one all cookies."
"You'll hurt them. Mice don't like cheese and cookies aren't good for them." Maddie wouldn't really raise mice anyway. Her mother would say no. That never stopped her from trying.
The girls paused at an intersection. Another bus was down the street, and Vera wasn't sure if it was another bus from her school, or Adam's bus home early. "I should get home," she said.
"Can I come?" Maddie loved Vera's house, with its wild walls full of moving animals and cute little robots swooping out every time a crumb fell to the floor. She intentionally dropped as much as she could just to watch them, until Vera's parents asked her to stop.
"Not today. Do you want to sleep over this weekend?"
Vera smiled. They hugged, and she watched Maddie go up to her own door. Long weekends meant they could stay up all night under the covers, listening to the house tell ghost stories.
Adam's bus let him off a block from the house. He waved to his friends and hefted his bookbag to his back. The late May air hummed with insects, hot and heavy, and he sweated his way down the street.
When he reached the driveway, he stopped. He set down his bookbag. He looked around. Then he found one of his toys in the yard, a ball he liked, and began bouncing it. Anyone coming across him would only see a child, perhaps six years old, playing as any child would in front of his own home. Anyone watching would perhaps notice the furtive looks he gave the tall structure, a darting glance here and there before his attention returned to the ball at his feet. Anyone thinking would wonder what they were seeing, and would come to a conclusion that the boy did not want to go home.
Adam didn't like the house.
Adam remembered the house they lived in before, when he'd been little. The walls had been a pleasant adobe, the inside dark and cool. He'd had a room to share with Vera, and a small, grassy yard where he could play. His friends had lived all around him. There'd been a park down the street with a real pond with real fish. Daddy had cooked their meals, sometimes leaving the pots on too long while he worked on a book, sometimes making pasta and butter with frozen peas because he'd forgotten to go to the store again. Adam hadn't minded.
His old house didn't talk to him. He'd liked it better that way.
The new house stared at him with windows which shuttered themselves all at once, scary and loud. The new house had scary lions in the nursery walls. The new house whispered frightening stories before bed. The new house watched his every move. The new house had wee little robots that ate up dead bugs and fallen mud, and he had nightmares they'd come out of the walls one day and eat him, too.
Mommy liked the house. Daddy like the house. Vera said she was working on reprogramming her own room.
Adam wanted to move back to their old house.
Mommy's car came home early, while he was still outside. Her face was nervous and a little unhappy as she stepped out of the car.
"Hi, buddy," she said, ushering him inside the terrible house without noticing his low level distress.
"Hi, Mommy," Adam said. He heard Vera skipping up the sidewalk.
"Did Daddy tell you I'd be away?"
"They just got home," said Daddy, opening the inside door. He took Adam's bookbag and Vera's bookbag. Shoes were exchanged for slippers, except for Mommy's.
"Where are you going?" Vera asked.
"I have to take a trip for work tonight. I'll be back next week."
Vera's face fell. "You're not going to be here for the picnic?"
Adam's tummy felt bad. "You're going away?"
"It's just a couple of days," said Mommy reassuringly. "I have to help some people."
"We could go with you," Daddy said. "I could get the three of us tickets. Make it a vacation."
"I'd still have to work." Mommy's phone rang. She answered it and walked away to talk without another word.
"Start your homework," Daddy said, and helped them get set up at their desks. The house brought out healthy after-school snacks. In their playroom, the animals would be paused and ready. Adam hated the animals. He expected the lions to stalk through the walls and bite him. But he never said.
Mommy came back into the room after a while. "That was Mendez. She's offered to swap with me. She doesn't have any plans for the weekend." She looked at Daddy. "What do you think?"
"You should stay," Adam said before Daddy or Vera could speak. He didn't like the idea of Mommy going away.
"All right," she said, and gave Daddy a quick look. He shrugged. "I'll let her know I'm staying here."
Adam smiled widely in relief before going back to his social studies homework.
Vera asked, "Can Maddie stay over tomorrow night?"
The house hummed to itself. The dinner program readjusted to the typical schedule. Mr. McClellan placed an order not to prepare dinner on Monday, and Mrs. McClellan reminded him to put charcoal and lighter fluid on the grocery list. The children's baths were filled and drained.
Friday dawned cool in the morning, with hot summer air held at bay by the air conditioner well before noon. The house went about its business, accompanied by the clack of Mr. McClellan's keyboard during the day, and the drone of the family by evening. Friday night, the house told ghastly ghost stories to two squealing girls until past midnight, and tiny robots brought surreptitious snacks, then carried off the crumbs and wrappers.
The Saturday program ran as normal, although Miss McClellan asked for an extra meal at breakfast and at lunch for Miss State Name Here. Miss State Name Here laughed each time the house requested her name. The house tutted to itself. Young Mr. McClellan played outside all day long. The house, hoping to entice him indoors, made the lions and tigers extra ferocious in the playroom.
Saturday night had no ghost stories. Mrs. McClellan requested a film she had missed at the theater. Mr. McClellan spoke for an hour with his brother in Atlanta over the video feed. His brother was worried after hearing rumors online about something gone terribly wrong in Chicago and hushed up.
"It's nothing," Mr. McClellan said. "Kayla works for the Agency. We'd know if something went wrong."
The Sunday morning forecast called for a humid day. The house adjusted the air conditioning program to accommodate. Sweet, cool air blew out as Mr. McClellan held the inside door open to the garage. "I'm going to mow today," he announced. The house was programmed to suggest use of the lawn care robots, but the owner override on this one function prevented the house from performing more than a faint protesting 'whirr' as the servos for the garage door lifted the metal smoothly out of his way.
Silent observers in the walls noted as Mr. McClellan pulled out his push mower, as young Mr. McClellan ran outside to play, as Miss McClellan joined him. The video recording watchers waited as Mrs. McClellan let the dog out into the back yard, then joined the rest of her family. The house's programs kept their slow tick of the hours. Lunch would be prepared in an hour and twenty-five minutes. As the sun rose in the sky, the air conditioner would have to work harder. Small channels of power began redirecting to the cooling system in anticipation of the heat load.
A small glitch in the programming flashed through the system. The kitchen began to prepare pancakes.
"It's going to be a scorcher," Kayla said, smiling fondly at the kids as Adam picked up a ball.