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We Really Need Your Help, Bob

John E. Stith's novels include Redshift Rendezvous (Ace), a Nebula Award finalist, and Manhattan Transfer (Tor Books). His latest novel is Pushback, a mystery-suspense novel and a finalist for the Daphne Du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. His short fiction has appeared in markets such as Amazing, Analog, Dragon, and Nature.
Bob Dinser was at his desk, working through another annoying customer-complaint case file, when a sparkly blue portal opened right in the entrance to his cubicle.
Instantly a wiry, scantily clad man stepped into Bob's office. He stood right next to Bob, who scooted his chair back.
"Bob Dinser? We really need your help. The water level in Manhattan is more than a meter over sidewalk level on Wall Street!"
Bob's first thought was, Oh, My God, the spammers are getting way too pervasive.
His second thought was, You know, this portal special effect looks pretty expensive.
His third thought: Wow, are those speedos or a G-string? Put on some clothes. And why wasn't that my first thought?
Bob had just read another article about dealing with spammers and robocallers. One big strategy: waste their time.
"I'm not Bob," Bob said. "I'm filling in for him. Bob's up on the sixth floor, at the far end of the corridor. Turn left when you exit the elevator."
"Oh, no!" the stranger said. "This portal is costing two and a half trillion every eight seconds. Sixth floor?"
"Yes. He's in a corner office. Looks out onto the Arch. Just exit the elevator, turn right, and go all the way."
"Oh, God, Oh, God, Oh, God." The stranger grabbed both sides of the portal and pushed it aside so he could exit the cubicle. He raced away, almost colliding with Suzie Reynolds. Too bad he missed.
Seconds later the stranger was back. "Which way to the elevator? And didn't you say turn left first?"
Bob pointed toward the elevator bank. "You can't miss it."
The stranger raced away as fast as he could.
Bob thought he'd heard it all. One time it was the Fraternal Order of Wounded First Responders supposedly asking for donations. Next time they didn't even try hard and it was another Nigerian prince. Then wounded orphans or sick pets. So much fake news.
Bob went back to the customer complaint, wondering if there might be a way to cut down on the number of customers.
He heard the stranger's return before he saw him again. A distant collision and a loud "Sorry!" followed by another collision, much nearer. And then the guy was back, out of breath. Bob hoped one of the collisions was with Suzie.
"I couldn't find him," the guy managed between gasps of air. "But the AIs say he's the nexus. Our last best pivot point."
"You want me to give him a message?" Bob saw another opportunity to waste the guy's time.
"Please. I'm from your future. You've got to tell him--pant, pant, pant--to protest at the next World Affairs Council meeting. Tell everyone to take the next climate-change talks seriously. Our time period is so hot, and water levels have risen drastically. Hundreds of millions are dead."
Oh, brother, Bob thought. More climate-change nonsense. The weather is always changing. But this sure is a weird ask.
Even as the guy was taking in more gasps of air, he was repositioning the portal to its original location.
"Anything else?" Bob asked, not taking notes.
"Just stress that it's really urgent." Speedo-guy stepped through the portal and a microsecond after he vanished, the portal was gone. What an elaborate effect.
Somehow this whole exchange had been helpful, though. Bob had been able to waste some of the guy's time. And even better, he had a new idea for how he might be able to reduce the firm's number of customers.
The next portal opened a few weeks later, shortly after Bob noticed news of a recent World Affairs Council meeting. The new spammer was a woman, wearing barely more than the first spammer, but now Bob could see the wardrobe choice wasn't nearly as offensive as he'd thought before. First impressions can be wrong, he decided as he shifted position in his chair to get more comfortable. Wow.
"Bob, we really need your help," she said. "There's no hope left for New York City, or Miami, or--It's just incomprehensible. Two-thirds of the Earth's population is gone. The sea level has risen fifty meters since your time."
Bob must not have reacted the way she'd hoped, because she added, "That's a hundred and fifty feet, Bob."
Wow, they're pulling out all the stops.
Bob offered her his visitor's chair. "Have a seat. Bob's out today. I'm just filling in for him. But tell me all about it. I'll be sure to tell him when I see him." And an afterthought. "Maybe I should record you with my cell-phone camera."
The woman didn't sit. She was clearly too agitated. "Tell Bob this is extremely serious. We really need his help. He must attend the next Climate Policy meeting in DC and demand action."
"A hundred and fifty feet, you say?" Bob kept his camera running. Man, that's a nice outfit. He made sure he was getting the full view on his screen.
"Yes. We've got to get people in your time to start acting like this is serious. Please tell Bob as soon as he gets back. We can't afford to keep this portal open any longer than necessary."
"I got it. Fifty meters. I'll tell Bob. Hey, do you want a coffee?"
"No! I've got to get back. Make sure you tell Bob."
"I'll tell him everything."
Bob kept recording as she turned and rushed back through the portal just before it vanished.
All was quiet once again in cubicle land. Bob shut off the camera, vaguely disappointed in not wasting any more of her time, and therefore not getting any more recording time.
This spammer had him a little off-balance, though. Most of the time, he could see the way they were trying to part him from his money, but so far this con seemed pretty oblique.
He hoped the woman came back next time, and not the wiry guy. He could probably get some more recording time until they realized he wasn't going to fall for their pitch.
Just how dumb do they think people are?
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 11th, 2020


This story came from a mix of thoughts on spammers, "fake news" manipulation, climate change, and time travel. Baked at 350 for 30 minutes. I'm a huge fan of the short fiction of Ray Bradbury, Fredric Brown, Robert Sheckley, and Clifford D. Simak. I'd love to be just like them when I grow up.

- John E Stith
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