The Once and Future Clean
Want everything spick and span? Don’t use the universe as your dustpan!
Artwork by Katie Barrett
Karisa detested dust. She detested that something so small was actually thousands of other, smaller things, all of them disgusting, and most of which gave her an allergic reaction. She detested that other people would call thin films of dead skin, animal dander, microplastics, dirt, and literal feces something so benign as “dust.”
She also detested other people generally, of course. It was a flaw, she knew, but not one she considered worth compromising her other convictions over. And so, she stayed isolated in her studio apartment in the small town of Allenwood, New Jersey, where she could keep things clean and organized. She spent most of her days scouring her household surfaces, arguing about Disney film rankings on social media, and watching police procedurals online at the rate of one episode per week (she did not approve of “binging”).
Karisa was not unhappy, but often tired. It took a lot of energy to maintain the fastidiousness that gave her peace of mind, and at times she despaired that one day she wouldn’t be able to keep up with her own demanding standards of organization and cleanliness.
One evening, after vacuuming the undersides of her rugs, Karisa sat down to compose a presentation on the paradoxes of talking animals in Disney films (she hated paradoxes). She was putting the finishing touches on slide number eight when she received an email that would change the fate of the world, of her life, and of the billions of dust particles she warred against daily.
“Why only clean your floors for a day?” the email posed. It was from Vulcus, one of her top three favorite vacuum manufacturers. Her eyes narrowed as she clicked the link; as a rule, she didn’t trust people who advised cleaning anything less than once per day. “Karisa, we’re looking for beta testers for our groundbreaking new line of elite vacuums, and we’ve identified you as a valuable customer whose feedback we can trust.” She nodded to herself. So they had read her scathing and exhaustive two-star review of the Raptor Handheld.
She filled out her information, and by the time she’d wiped down her monitor and flossed her keyboard for the night, she’d forgotten all about it.
The vacuum arrived at her doorstep one week later. It came in a large metallic case that wouldn’t open until she’d digitally signed a long list of terms and conditions. After her fourth read-through, she reluctantly pressed her thumb to the scanner (she was allergic to touchscreens). With a hiss of pneumatics, the package fell open, revealing a shiny, chrome, overlarge Vulcus vacuum.
Karisa frowned. It was bigger than she would have liked, but she did appreciate the clean chrome exterior. A panel along the side featured a surprisingly robust menu with strange options such as “Temporal Timer” and “Dust Preview.” She read through the paper documentation, her eyebrows knitting closer and closer as she went. To ensure she understood it correctly, she re-read the entire manual a second and then a third time, changing her disposable gloves between each read.
This prototype was designed to vacuum dust from the future. While it was impossible to transport larger items through time, the manual explained, recent breakthroughs in quantum physics had rendered the transporting and receiving of small particles –- such as dust and dirt -– trivial.
Karisa’s eyes lit up. Finally, a practical use for science. If she were to vacuum her floor today, the prototype would also do the work of vacuuming her floor of the future -– every day for the next seven days. She’d only need to vacuum each surface once a week, and in the meantime no dust or dirt would even appear. She could enjoy a freshly vacuumed floor every day.
Karisa watched the tutorial on the vacuum’s digital panel, spent 20 minutes mapping out the perimeters of her apartment, and then, after the battery had fully charged, she took it for a spin.
The vacuum thrummed in her gloved hands, and despite its size, it was surprisingly agile, and she had no difficulty maneuvering it throughout the room. She felt a delightful thrill whenever she ran it over an obviously clean patch of carpet and yet could hear the dings and zips of unwelcome particles being warped into the present timeline and sucked into her vacuum’s bag.
Afterwards, she carefully unzipped the bag. It held roughly seven days’ worth of dust -– the next seven days. It was the highest concentration of dirt she’d ever allowed to exist in her home, and she dry-heaved at the sight of it. She’d think Future Karisa filthy if she didn’t remind herself that she’d cleaned seven days at once. But this dust came from the future. She grinned. And this was just a prototype. What could this technology mean for other cleaning products? Was there any way she could clean her future dishes? Wipe her future kitchen counter? Plunge her future toilet?
She’d have to mail the vacuum back at the end of the 12-week trial period, which only left her with 11 more cleanings. Karisa sighed. She’d have to keep herself from vacuuming more than the once-per-week allotment, which, considering her enthusiasm for vacuuming and her excitement over this particular prototype, could prove difficult. For once, she understood the appeal of binging.
But she kept to the schedule, and the results were undeniable. Others may not have noticed the difference, but Karisa knew her floors were immaculate, as her allergies hadn’t kicked up at all. She dedicated the newfound time in her cleaning regimen to carefully adjusting her china and alphabetizing her fruit.
She found she was most excited not just by the convenience of constantly-clean floors and a massive reduction in vacuuming time, but by seeing the dust in her bag and knowing it had been pried from the iron grip of the space-time continuum. More than a few times she caught herself actually wanting to touch the stuff, just to feel something from the future on her fingers. (She didn’t, of course; she suspected that she was allergic to the future.)
There was only a little more than two weeks left in her trial when someone knocked on her door. Startled and unused to physical guests, Karisa unlatched her row of five deadbolts and opened the door just wide enough to peek through the glass screen. Two smiling men in dark suits stood before her.
“Hello,” the taller man said. “Are you Karisa Cirillo?”
“Usually,” she answered.
“I’m Agent Li and this is Agent Arnault, and we’re with the FBI.” Badges were flashed. “May we come in?”
Karisa eyed their shoes. Agent Arnault had stepped in some dirt, or a puddle, or recently participated in some kind of mud-stomping competition. She stifled the urge to fetch her cleaning supplies. “Absolutely not,” she said instead. “How may I help you?”
Agent Li pressed on, smile frozen on his face. “Have you received a package recently from Vulcus Industries?”
“I have. Is there a problem?”
“Well,” Agent Arnault said, “we’ve been tracking some dangerous techno-terrorists, and we have reason to believe they’re using prototype Vulcus products as delivery mechanisms. We found you on a list of applicants for their most recent prototype.”
Agent Li fidgeted with his pen, and Karisa paused. Why would FBI agents be so nervous? Agent Li saw her staring and slipped the pen into his pocket, but not before she saw the stylized red “M” logo on the cap.
The logo matched the “M” for Morris Cleaners, the massive vacuum monopoly rivaled only by Vulcus Industries. And in Karisa’s experience, they put out some woefully shoddy products.
Karisa smiled. “I’m sorry, I did apply, but I didn’t receive a prototype.”
“I thought you said –”
“Yes, my mistake. I’d also ordered a V-650 from them, and that’s the package to which I was referring.”
The agents shared a look.
“Can we take a look at it?” Agent Li asked. “We just want to make sure –”
“Oh, certainly not,” Karisa said. “You are welcome to return with a warrant. Have a satisfying day, gentlemen.”
Karisa slammed the door, then carefully re-latched her five deadbolts and wiped them down. By the time she’d finished and peeked through her window blinds, the two men had retreated to their car.
The men would not return with a warrant, because obviously they were goons from Morris Cleaners, trying to steal the prototype. It was the greatest revolution in cleaning technology since the invention of the magic eraser, after all. She just had to keep it out of their hands for one more week, when her trial ended, and she was to send the vacuum back to Vulcus.
The next day was Karisa’s penultimate vacuuming. The vacuum picked up a surprising amount of dirt, to the point that the bag actually filled before she was even halfway done with her apartment. As she opened the bag, a cloud of white particles sprang into the air. Karisa coughed and backed away as they fell to her floor. Once her fit had passed, she donned the Allegro Deluxe respirator helmet she bought from a hospital auction for just such emergencies. She attached an air canister and approached the vacuum bag carefully, peering inside. It was full of the white particles, piles of ghostly white flecks.
The bag was full of ashes.
Karisa spent the next day testing each of her fire alarms and replacing their batteries. Then she called an electrician and, after procuring assurances he would be meticulous, even allowed him into her home to examine the wiring. He found nothing alarming, and Karisa cleaned the house of his presence for the following two hours. She threw out her lifetime’s supply of Cleaning Spray scented candles, unplugged all her major appliances, and just to be safe, treated every cloth surface in her home with flame retardant chemicals.
Karisa called the fire department to warn them of a fire happening in her home sometime over the next seven days, but they didn’t take her seriously other than to probably add her to a federal database of likely arsonists. “Look, ma’am,” the uppity man finally said over the phone, “if you’re so concerned, why don’t you stay somewhere else for a week?”
Karisa scowled as she scrubbed her phone with a disinfectant wipe. “Staying somewhere else” was not an option. It wasn’t just that she was disgusted by the chaos of the world, though that was true. It was outside of her control. She often daydreamed about sanitizing all of the rides at Disneyland just so she could join the rest of her online Disney film-ranking community on their annual trip. But cleaning the universe was an impossible dream, and she could only remain in the spaces that she controlled.
Karisa couldn’t bring herself to unzip the vacuum bag even just to toss out the ashes. She read and reread the user manual, but it had no instructions for avoiding future catastrophes. Her calls to Vulcus Industries were met with confusion, as apparently they had no record of any prototype trial for a quantum vacuum cleaner. That gave her pause, but she told herself that of course they’d feign ignorance of such revolutionary tech, especially with Morris Cleaners on the hunt.
Agents Li and Arnault knocked on her door every day, but Karisa pretended she wasn’t home –- easily accomplished when she’d already unplugged all of her sources of light. One day she saw their car drive past slowly, and then pass by again from the same direction within five seconds, like déjà vu. It even had the same license plate.
After six days of sleepless paranoia –- or, as she considered it, a healthy and justified unease -– Karisa began to wonder if the vacuum had made some kind of mistake. Maybe she’d mapped out her floor wrong and accidentally vacuumed the floor of her neighbor next door, Ms. Garcia, who was perhaps secretly a pyro-slash-arsonist. Karisa knew for a fact that the old woman single-bagged her trash like a barbarian. But even if that were the case, the fire could easily spread to her own apartment.
Karisa spent the entire seventh day staring at the chrome prototype, and at her perfectly clean floor, expecting her home to combust at any moment. She kept a fire extinguisher by her feet, trying not to imagine the chemicals it would unleash.
A countdown timer on the vacuum’s side panel indicated how long until the last cleaning would lapse. At three hours left, she saw movement just outside her window, but all she caught was a shadowed silhouette. When she ran to the window, it was gone.
Only two hours left. One hour. She checked her gas hookups for the seventeenth time. Thirty minutes. She ensured nothing was plugged into any outlets. Twenty minutes. She checked through her blinds to verify that the Morris Cleaners agents weren’t setting fire to the front of her apartment.
Karisa allowed herself a sigh of relief. At this point, even if the house were to erupt in flame, it couldn’t produce ash quickly enough that it would fall within the window of her last cleaning. The vacuum had made a mistake.
The prototype counted down to twenty seconds. Karisa drummed her gloved fingers on the hard dome of the fire extinguisher. The vacuum had made a mistake. She tried to force herself to relax –- admittedly a difficult task for her — and failed. Something still bothered her. She had that same itch in her brain that she got when she hadn’t rinsed her ceilings, or manicured her carpet.
The vacuum had made a mistake. And if the vacuum had made a mistake, what did that mean about the future? About time itself? It meant that time had broken, and that this vacuum had broken it. The universe was already a mad petri dish of chaos, and the thought of her own vacuum generating more terrified her.
Ten seconds left.
Fists slammed on her front door, her five door latches jangling from the impact. The Morris Cleaners agents yelled something from the other side.
Karisa ignored the pounding. She detached the vacuum bag and opened it, holding her breath. The ashes remained. But where had they come from? She looked around one last time for any sign of fire, but there was none. The universe had stood her up.
And now the universe was going to end.
Karisa had plenty of problems with the universe, but its existence was not one of them. Everything needed a place to go, and for most things, that place was the universe.
Her gaze landed on the bowl of fruit on her counter, its contents alphabetized — in perfect order. Then she looked at her pearl-white carpet, and realized what she had to do.
With a bang Agent Li kicked down the door, breaking all five latches and shooting them across the room like the protesting buttons of an overstretched shirt. He raced to the vacuum, but Karisa was already turning the vacuum bag over, dumping the ashes onto her pristine carpet.
The white ashes fell in a heavy, cloudy heap, and she gagged as they spilled across her carpet. But the ashes never touched the floor –- instead, they vanished. The Vulcus prototype beeped pleasantly as the timer finished.
Agent Li adjusted his suit. “Huh. Nice work,” he said.
Karisa stared at her pearly carpet, still clutching the vacuum bag. It had been the only solution that made any sense, and yet she could hardly believe it’d worked.
She looked up and raised an eyebrow at Agent Li. “I’ll see your warrant now.”
Agent Li smiled and took a step back. “No need for that; I’ll go. It seems you have things well in hand.” He took the prototype by the handle and turned to go just as Agent Arnault rushed in through the open doorway.
“Did we stop it?” he asked, breathless.
“She did, actually,” Agent Li answered, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at Karisa. “Full standard loop resolution.”
Loop resolution? So that’s what it was called. The first ashes came from her dumping the ashes on the floor, which she sucked into her vacuum bag so she could later dump them on the floor…
Karisa narrowed her eyes. “You two are clearly not Morris Cleaners agents.”
The agents exchanged a look, and Agent Li turned to Karisa. “Let’s just say that Morris Cleaners isn’t primarily a vacuum manufacturer.”
No wonder their products were so ineffective. She folded her arms. “Then what do you do?”
Agent Li paused. “The truth is that the space-time continuum is a very fragile thing, and unscrupulous sorts are always trying to break it. They make paradoxes like these that, if left unchecked, could crack the universe in two. And our organization resolves those paradoxes.”
Karisa eyed the empty bag. “Paradoxes, you say?”
Agent Arnault nodded. “Nasty things. The universe is covered with ‘em, natural and unnatural, and they just get worse if you don’t take care of ‘em quick.”
She nodded. Like dust.
“Sorry to disturb your space so much, ma’am,” Agent Li said. “We’ll get out of your hair now. We’re almost late for another Class B event.”
Agent Arnault scowled. “Damn things running us ragged, understaffed as we are.”
Karisa looked around her apartment: a discarded vacuum bag, five broken door latches strewn about, a fire extinguisher, and two strangers, at least one of whom with questionable hygiene. But somehow the world felt much cleaner than it had just minutes earlier.
She took a deep breath.
“Wait,” she called as the agents stepped out the door. “Let me get my travel gloves.”
Agent Li turned and frowned. “Ma’am?”
Karisa had never thought she’d willingly associate with Morris Cleaners, but there was a universe out there that needed its keyboard flossed. “What did you say about being understaffed?”
Carl Duzett was sent from the future to terminate the mother of an eventual resistance leader. He married her instead, and now writes speculative fiction with an unfair advantage. They live happily in Utah with their five children, only a few of which have exhibited resistance-leader tendencies. Find his half-baked thoughts at carlduzett.net and his quarter-baked thoughts on Twitter.
Get an update when we post a new short story when you follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, or sign up to our newsletter here.