A ROACH IN THE HOUSE

by John Knouse

George strode across the field on a warm, sunny October afternoon. Leaves were beginning to fall, and he shuffled his feet when he came to a pile of them. The surveyors' stakes showed him where his lots were, and he could easily, in the autumn sunshine, imagine the field filled with the houses he planned to build. The world was good. This subdivision would earn more than any previous project.

He walked to the line of trees at the creek, then down the bank at the crossing and -- stopped dead in his tracks. And stared. A mixture of revulsion and disbelief crossed his face.

The thing he stared at was even more astonished, if it be possible. It jumped at least two feet in the air, and made all sorts of clicking and hissing sounds. After a few seconds, it regained its composure, long before George regained his. It warily propped itself up on four of its six Mickey-Mouse style legs and examined George with all four of its beady, protruding eyes.

George could only stare. It appeared to be a cross between a cockroach and a cartoon character. A very large roach, that is, over four feet long. Its three-foot long antennae waved in the air. The iridescent colors of its chitinous shell shone where not covered by its odd clothing. That is, except for its legs--and/or arms, George wasn't sure--which were not covered with clothing or chitin, but appeared to be dark, firm flesh, each with an ebon band on the upper side running the length of the limb. The hands had three chitinous fingers each. Its head was proportionately no larger than your usual roach head, but it was held more upright, not so tucked under.

George finally recovered to the point where he could experience some rational thinking processes. Shit, do I run or just stand here and hope it doesn't attack me? he wondered, but not for long, though, for the roach spoke.

"Excuse me," it said in a gritty, rasping, buzzing, yet screeching voice, "Do you speakv English?"

George's eyes tried to go into orbit. "Wh--wh--wh--uh--y--yes," he stammered. He refrained from shaking only through the power of disbelief.

"I'm sorry to bother you," it said. "My name is Sthfwssk. I'm from your future. I'm here by accident."

George sat down involuntarily as a conviction of reality set in. "You--you're from my future?' " he gasped, weakly.

"Yes. From approximately ninety million years from now."

Well, George thought, that's sure not my future. Yet, here this creature is. And it looks like it's going to be here for a few minutes yet. I guess it's in my immediate future, like it or not. "Uh, excuse me, uh, but I never ran into a talking cockroach before."

"You're the first human I've ever run into that could talk,": the roach observed.

The enormity of that observation was going to take a while to sink in. George could feel the process starting. He forced out a question. "Do all roaches where you come from speak English?"

"Sfrggggppp sfrgggppp sfrgggppp sfrgggppp, no, sfrgggppp, of course not, sfrgggppp sfrpgggppp, just those who sfrgggppp take it in school, sfrgggppp." The roach appeared to be laughing at George. "It's an ancient, ancient language. It died out ninety million years before my time, sfrgggppp sfrgggppp."

"Ninety million years," George responded wearily, gloomily. "You said you were from ninety million years in the future. You mean--"

"Oh, no. You and your children are going to do fine. Your grandchildren and their children will have some problems. And it's downhill from there. Oh, the human race stays around for a while, eking out a living, keeping up appearances. But your descendants eighty-seven generations from now, that's another matter. When I said ninety million years, as you humans say, it is give or take a few hundred thousand."

"A minor matter, I guess," said George.

"As you say," the roach agreed.

"You're here by accident," George prompted.

"As you say," the roach said. "I really don't want to be here. I was aiming for another million years. Time travel technology is kind of uncertain."

George surveyed the roach, bemused. "But if you've developed time travel, it's reasonable to assume that it will be perfected, right? So why haven't we been overrun with your kind coming back as tourists?"

"Who's to say you haven't been? Sfrggggppp, sfrggggppp, sfrggggpp," the roach hissed in laughter. It eventually regained its composure. "Actually, it takes too much to make the physical transition. We can watch the past easily, but traveling is so resource-intensive that it's almost never done. I'm only the second physical time-traveler in history, so far. They're planning to pass a law against it. Of course, they're busy now passing a law against polishing your chitin in public, sfrggggppp, sfrggggpp."

"So why are you traveling, if it's so rough?"

The roach looked at him for a moment. "I don't think I want to answer that." He didn't laugh at this question.

"Do you look into the future?" George asked it.

"No. Can't do that. Not permitted by the physics. You can only go where you've been."

George sat down on a boulder in the stream bank, put his hands on his knees, leaned forward and regarded the roach for a few moments. "So what's left of us in your time? You said something about humans. . ."

The roach waved a hand dismissively. "Degenerative creatures, scurrying around in the dark. We have to set a lot of traps." It paused to let that sink in. "The things are about as bright as groundhogs from this time. But if you mean your civilization, there are only a few traces left here and there. The base of the St. Louis Arch still exists, just barely, although we had to do a lot of digging. A few of your bigger concrete structures have lasted, partially. There's a stadium out in California that we've found a couple of pieces of. One piece is still sort of in the same place. The other is almost a thousand miles away. Built right on a fault, you see. But that's how you humans did things."

"Not me!" George snorted. "I build quality!"

"Sorry, I haven't found any of your quality in my day," the roach said. "All gone, dude. There, how's that for mastering your idiom, anyway?"

George gritted his teeth. "You sound just like my teenage son," he said.

"Sweet," replied the roach. "Sfrggggppp, sfrggggppp, sfrggggpp."

"So what are you going to do now?" George asked. He was having vague notions of making money by using the roach in some way.

"I plan to continue my mission," he said. "Just as soon as I do a little more surveillance of this time and place."

"And how do you plan to do that?"

"Good question, human. Are you going to give me away if I stick around?"

George ran his fingers through his beard, thinking. Probably nobody would believe him if he tried to tell anyone. Even if he tried to show other people, the roach would probably pop back through time to another spot before George could prove his existence. On the other hand, he had no reason to think that the roach would be up to any harm. It seemed to be unarmed.

"Well?" asked the roach.

"Oh, I guess not," George replied, "What would be the point?"

"I'm so glad you see it my way, sfrggggppp, sfrggggpp," said the roach.

"What I want to know, though," George said, "is this: If you can't go into the future, then how can I talk to you, who is from MY future?"

"Maybe you're hallucinating," the roach said, "Sfrggggppp, sfrggggppp, sfrggggpp."

George thought that the roach laughed too much.

"You see, though," the roach continued, "I can come back; you just can't go forward. Another creature came back from the future into the past of my world, still future of yours."

"How much in your past?"

"Oh, some eighty years. Before I was hatched."

"And was that another roach that came back?"

"No, it was something I'm not sure I can describe. I think it had vegetable origins. Anyway, it tasted good, sfrggggppp, sfrggggpp,"

"You ATE it?" George was shocked.

"Not ME, I wasn't hatched yet. My great-great-grandroach. It was dead when they ate it. It didn't come through the trip too well. It only lived a few days, during which it communicated by drawing symbols and pictures. Then it died and started to rot, so they figured they'd better eat it before it rotted away. Anyway, don't want to waste good food."

George shook his head. The thought 'stranger in a strange land' flitted through his mind.

"They said it tasted like -- well, the equivalent would be one of your artichokes, I bet" the roach said.

George gritted his teeth. "So, the human race just dies away to little rodents, just like that?"

"Just like that," said the roach.

"And almost all that humanity has built just decays way, just like that?"

"Just like that," replied the roach.

"I'll bet that I could build something that would still be there in your day," George said.

"Right. Your pyramids are only a few thousand years old and already in bad shape. . .Although they still exist in my day. Worn down to nubbins. A few little rocks. What could possibly last ninety million years? And why would you want it to?"

George sniffed. "I take pride in my work, is why. I'm the best contractor in the state."

The roach laughed again. "If, puny human, you can do something that lasts one hundred years, it's exceptional! How old is the oldest house in this town?"

George thought for a moment. That would be the -- no, older yet was the -- no, the oldest had to be the Hanson house. "Oh, one hundred and fifty or so," he said.

"You see? And ninety million years is six hundred thousand times as long."

"I'm going to do it, ROACH. Then you'll see."

"If I go back to the future," said the roach.

"Why wouldn't you?" asked George.

"I may have my reasons."

"Aha, so you're on the lam."

"Ha, human. I'm sitting on my BUTT. There are no sheep beneath me, sfrggggppp, sfrggggpp."

"So how long are you going to PESTer us in our time?"

"Oh, another day or so. That's my pest estimate." The roach seemed to be glowering as he said this, not laughing. Apparently he didn't appreciate it when George made fun. "I can't jump again immediately."

"I don't understand," George said, "How. . .I mean, where's your time machine?" He had no problem accepting the fact of time-travel once he had accepted the fact that he was confronted with a humanoid roach. To be fair, he probably found the time travel easier to accept on its face than giant intelligent roaches.

"Actually, I'm sitting on it."

"Right. . .So," George blurted out, having wondered this for a while, "Where are your brains, anyway?"

"Ah, you humans. You keep your brains right up there where anything can knock them out of whack, where something as trivial as a squished head results in brains oozing out all over the pavement! We roaches are MUCH better organized. Our main brains are down here," the roach thumped his chest, "Where they're well protected. Squish a head, and, hey, it grows back. The brains stay safe."

"I bet I can build something that will last into your time," George said.

"Again, ah, you humans. You do love jumping around from subject to subject."

"How would you know? Just how many humans have you known?"

"You seem to forget that I told you that we view the past. We've watched you humans extensively. It's really funny watching a couple of you together in bed, sfrggggppp, sfrggggpp."

"Look who's jumping around to different subjects."

"You could never build something that will last ninety million years. Just think about it. Land masses shift. Land subsides and fills with sediment. Mountains rise. Rivers erode away the landscape. No matter how well you built it, it would be gone within a few hundred thousand years."

"Oh, yeah," George said. "We can see about that."

"And you would never know if it lasted, anyway," the roach concluded, "Unless one of us actually came back to tell you. Now, if you don't mind, I need to get some sleep."

Having said that, the roach seemed to flash into movement, quickly flipping and burrowing up under tree roots on the bank, completely disappearing into what had seemed to be somewhat solid ground. He dragged the platform he'd been sitting on behind him.

George went home and spent an hour trying to call various scientists and magazines, trying to convince them that he had just been talking to a giant cockroach. Timing was against him; this late in the day, early evening, almost nobody was in. Those few that he reached laughed at him. Even the more garish tabloids (he reached two) opined that a giant talking roach was even too outrageously absurd for their readers.

George tried telling his wife about it as they went back to bed.

"That's interesting, dear," she said, mumblingly, as she snuggled down under the covers and into her pillow. By the time that George had thought out what to say next and had opened his mouth, she was obviously asleep.

The next morning George tried again at breakfast to say something.

"The damned biggest roach I ever saw," he began, "I saw it by the big sycamore over by the creek--"

The sound of a slamming screen door interrupted him.

"What was that about?" his wife said.

Their son was running across the yard, thinking, Oh, God, I hope he doesn't find any more of my pot down there!

And then his wife was saying, "Whooops! Running late, dear! I gotta go!" And out she went.

As soon as George finished breakfast, he walked down to the same place he'd seen the roach. There was no trace of him. George went home and grabbed some food and a book and went back to the spot and waited all day. No more sign of the giant insect.

But George's mind was on fire now. He was determined to build something that could last virtually indefinitely. What to use? Concrete? No, concrete was definitely only in the million-years-or-less range. Frost spalling alone would do it in within some hundred thousand years even if built like a bunker meant to resist a direct nuclear hit. Stainless steel? That was a thought, but surely even stainless steel could eventually be corrupted by corrosion. After all, a scale of tens of millions of years was long enough for humans to evolve from small shrew-like vermin. Almost a tenth of a billion years was long enough for an entire mountain range to erode to almost nothing.

He mused on glass several feet thick. Too brittle, and certainly subject to abrasion by particles borne by wind, water, or moving earth.

George passionately started researching materials through the web. His wife thought his behavior strange, and certainly didn't understand the obsession with building something to last forever.

"I don't understand, dear," she said. "Are you wanting this to be your tomb, or something? Do you want to be mummified? Oh, I guess perhaps I could try to arrange that. . ."

George assured her that he had every intention of outliving her, as a result of which she seemed to settle in a little farther over towards the edge of the bed that night. But he continued his research.

And it occurred to him that, if he built something, he would need to find the most stable possible place for it. He found out something he'd already sort of known, that he lived in an area of remarkably ancient rock, part of what was termed a shield area, that had remained stable for aeons. Perhaps, he mused, that had something to do with why the roach had passed through there. He looked around for the most stable possible place in the shield, and found a high area that he thought might do. He bought a piece of land there.

In his research, he finally found mention of a carbon-and-silicon-based compound that had some of the properties of glass, some of the properties of steel, and some of the properties of plastic. The stuff was reportedly incorruptible.

At great expense, George managed to arrange for sheets of the stuff to be made large enough to build with. The fabricators of the stuff were the very scientists who had discovered the substance, and they were quite delighted to be able to mass-produce it.

Now, how to assemble it? George corresponded with the makers of the stuff, and together they worked out a method of welding it together using high heat and hydrofluoric acid. Since hydrofluoric acid is one of the most dangerous and most reactive chemicals known, this resulted in George buying expensive anti-contamination suits and equipment.

His wife was starting to be genuinely concerned.

"A giant roach laughs at you in your dreams and you go off the deep end and start spending all this money on outer space type equipment?" she nagged.

"I SAW the damn thing, in real life!" George roared, and she went into the next room, shaking her head.

George drafted one of his more reliable workers (and one of the few actually sober ones; these were construction workers, after all), and they set to assembling the structure. The panels were somewhat on the transparent side of translucence, so the single-roomed structure, once finished, looked something like Sleeping Beauty's display case.

Now George had to decide what to do with it. He was still mulling this over one day when he idly walked back down by the streambank and almost stumbled over the roach.

"You!" he said. "What are you doing here again? And why do I seem to be the only one who can see you?"

"Sheer coincidence," the roach said. "Anyway, I'm on my way back. I have to do it by the same route or I'll never get there. They almost caught up with me back there."

"Well, I did it," George said.

"Did what? A little time traveling?"

"In a manner of speaking. I made my house that will last forever."

"Forever is a little word with meaning all out of proportion to its utterance, human. I believe that I recall that humans are constantly talking about forever when they talk about love, and then what happens? A few decades later and they up and die. They never seem to get very close to forever."

"You should see it," George said. "I'm serious."

"So show it to me. I've got another fifteen of your hours before I have to be anywhere."

So George did just that. He brought around his van, stifling the urge to take the roach and parade it by someone or other (he did have some apprehension that the roach could possibly do something in retaliation, though he didn't know what; it was, after all, an outlaw). The roach loaded in, and they drove the thirty miles or so to the property.

The structure was in a curious little cleft between big swells of rock, and it wasn't apparent until they were almost on top of it.

The roach stopped dead in its tracks and gave a little shriek. It said something unintelligible in its own language.

"What are you saying?" George prompted.

"It's -- it's the tomb of the unknown roach -- from my time! Nobody knew how old it was!" the insect cried, in anguish. "No, no, surely I cannot be the roach that will lie within it!"

Just then, George heard some rustling behind him. He nearly soiled his pants when he looked around and saw what there was to see. The roach, too looked around and seemed to choke.

The roach, now with its back to the structure, began backing up gingerly towards it, as the creatures facing it advanced.

"He is a thief and a murderer!" one of them told George in way of explanation. This took some time to sink in, as George's ears weren't his highest priority at the moment; his eyes were having some real problems interpreting what they say. A motley crew of four -- things -- stood there. There were two more roaches, one thing that must have been one of the sentient artichoke people, and another being so disgusting that George couldn't decide whether his eyes or his nose were more offended. And they were all holding what sincerely seemed to be weapons -- pointing at the first roach, but one of them now and then hinting, with a flick, that George could be a target as well.

As the roach backed away from its accusers, it tried to manipulate the time-machine pad behind its back. One of the other roaches saw this, snarled or something like it, and shot the first roach with an energy beam of some kind. It fell backwards into the open door of the structure. George saw the door slam shut, energy weapons spraying against the doorframe, just as the dying roach pushed a button on the pad, and roach and house and all disappeared. George stared, unbelieving.

After long moments of processing this event, he looked around. The other four beings were gone as well. Apparently they had also moved on, somehow.

George felt dazed. He searched the area for an hour, then staggered back to his van. Who to tell? All he had to show for his efforts and for his observations was a distinct absence of evidence. . .And he remembered the old razor that an absence of evidence not being evidence of absence -- or of anything. Except for a lack of evidence.

He drove home in silence. It took a few days for him to become fully communicative again, but his wife was eventually glad to have him back.

And, somewhere, far forward in time, the tomb of the unknown roach fulfilled its own peculiar destiny.

But, at least, George had the satisfaction of knowing that he had won the bet. Nothing had been said about HOW the house got into the future ninety million years from now. . .

***