Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Death Every Seventy-Two Minutes

{Negelein is at his workstation working on the Lafferty file when the bone spear arcs over the sea of cubicles and strikes just above his right ear, penetrating his skull with a wet crunch. Oblivion is not quite instantaneous; his neurons all fire at the moment his brain goes soggy with blood, giving him, in his last instant, an overwhelming taste of peppermint. He is prevented from doing a face-plant on the keyboard by the spear, which, arrested in its flight, comes to rest with its ends hung up on his opposing cubicle walls, making it a clothing rod of sorts from which his corpse hangs like a tailored suit. He sighs. And dies.}

• • • •

“. . .something like every hour and ten minutes.”

“Seventy minutes, then.”

“Yes, that would follow. Christ, why was I even referred to you? Couldn’t you come up with something a little more helpful?”

“Now, now. I was briefed by your regular doctor, but it’s an unusual condition, I can be forgiven for taking a few seconds to absorb what you’re saying. This is once every seventy minutes, correct? Not just in times of stress; not just when you’re exposed to certain high-pressure environments. Every seventy minutes.”

“Yes. I—”

• • • •

{He is driving on a narrow and twisty road, high in the mountains, the jagged rock face to his right, the bottomless drop to oblivion to his left. It is raining, and the pavement is a cascade of water; there is no bloody reason for him to be driving here under these conditions, no place worth the suicidal idiocy of braving this weather, but the vision’s logic cannot be argued with, and so he maintains a steady pace, ten over the posted speed limit and twenty over what he should be maintaining, with the rain lashing so hard that he can barely make out anything beyond the hood. Then the vague silvery blur in front of him goes dark, eclipsed by an improbably spherical stone, the mass of a respectable bus, that has come loose of the dirt higher up and landed on the road just ahead; a rock that rests as if dazed for all of ten seconds before starting to roll toward him. There is no room to evade it, not unless he wants to steer his car into a drop of a thousand feet, and so he does the only inadequate thing he can and brakes, putting off the moment when he is crushed or knocked off the side of the road for the few precious heartbeats he can. He lives just long enough to hear his body go squoosh.}

• • • •

“. . . as it happens, sir, not every seventy minutes, but a little over every seventy-two. Over the course of our day of monitoring, we have logged several thousand intervals of neurological disruption, marked by these spikes here, here, and here; each time lasting for less than a tenth of a second.”

“They seem to last so much longer.”

“That’s not surprising. Your accounts reflect so much in the way of incidental detail that they’re less dreams than experiences, which your brain seems intent on generating out of whole cloth. Subjectively, as in your more elaborate deaths, they may afterward seem to have lasted more than an hour. I can assure you, however, that they’re all instantaneous, as is your transition back to the everyday world. It is why you can still function. They’re over in an eye blink. If you—”

• • • •

{It is late at night. Negelein is home in bed, watching TV. The screen is the only source of illumination in the room, and the alternating intervals of light and shadow lull him toward a sleep he doesn’t want, because this is a good show, and he wants to see the end of it. He follows the plot, all about a spy on a mission, with multiple cliffhanger set-pieces, and it’s really one of the best examples of this sort of thing that he’s ever seen. He glances at his wife, who sleeps beside him, as always able to achieve unconsciousness despite him playing the late-night show at the high volume he prefers; and it is this momentary look that prevents him from registering the striking giant python, all twenty-two feet of it, as it whips through the open doorway and wraps itself around his midsection, in merciless coils dedicated to squeezing the very life from his bones. He has no breath to scream, no strength to fight the inevitable, just a moment of sheer confusion over how the hell such a thing managed to find its way into his house, here in Scarsdale. Then he feels his bones and organs rupture, in a spasm of sheer agony, and the last thing he sees with the eyes now protruding from their sockets is the snake’s triangular head, yawning wide to admit him into darkness.}

• • • •

“. . . with your prior doctors having ruled out psychological dysfunction or neurological cause, there’s nothing further we can do for you at this clinic, but based on some of the anomalous readings, I feel justified in referring you elsewhere.”

“Where? An exorcist? That’s about the only thing I haven’t tried.”

“Actually, no. A physicist. There’s a woman I have in mind . . .”

• • • •

{It is a bright sunny day. Negelein is strolling down the street with a big dumb smile on his face, just minding his own business, when by sheer chance he passes by a shoe store, which just happens to be one of the few retail establishments in the United States that is a) still doing its business in a pedestrian neighborhood, and b) still hanging an oversized model of its primary product over the front door. In short, he passes under the giant shoe, which has been hanging in that spot for seventy years and is locally considered a charming little vestige of old-fashioned Americana. It has also been hanging for more decades than anybody can remember, without anybody checking the rigging for metal fatigue. By sheer idiot coincidence, one of the two wires holding it snaps at the precise moment that Negelein is passing through the wrong place. The heel hits the top of Negelein’s head with just enough force to pancake it, at which point the other wire snaps and the toe comes slamming down with equal and just as ridiculous force. Negelein lies flat under the cast-iron footwear. Very very flat.}

• • • •

“. . . apologize for all the time we’ve spent confirming these results, but we can now report with a fair degree of confidence that these are, as we suspected, genuine quantum events.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Skipping the math, we have detected a number of micro-alterations in your environment whenever you experience one of these anomalies. These include but are not limited to alterations in the air density, in the passage of time, in the local magnetic fields, and in the weight of objects—all small, mind you, but still measurable, reproducible results. There’s even a tiny Doppler shift, which suggests . . .”

• • • •

{It is a windy day. Negelein has stopped in an outdoor parking lot to tie his shoes. He has an important meeting in the tall glass building behind him, one that might well result in a lucrative mid-life change of careers. It’s a new building, and one that he has no way of knowing was built by a firm that made a number of small but critical errors in installing the panes of unbreakable glass that offer panoramic street views to the important people in suits sitting at their desks and conference tables. High winds coupled with the flex-capability possessed by tall buildings have, at certain values, the capacity to loosen window frames, and so it is that as Negelein bends to tie his shoe a mid-level manager on the fiftieth floor makes the mistake of resting his palm against the window he earned through years of exceptional performance.

{With a stunningly quiet pop, the glass topples free, as does the unfortunate manager, whose messy fate need not concern us past this sentence. What’s more important is that, as the glass tumbles, it is caught by the wind and that it takes on the function of a glider, riding the air currents in a manner that will prompt several horrified eyewitnesses to the illusion that it’s piloted. By the time it’s just above street level, it’s best imagined as a horizontal guillotine. Negelein, who would be fine if he remained kneeling for one second longer, instead finishes tying his shoe, thinks, “There you go,” and stands. He has just enough time to register a foreshortened reflection of his own face, looking pretty confused.}

• • • •

“. . . yes, yes, yes, but what does it mean?”

“We’re still working on the hypothesis, but it appears that these are neither hallucinations nor neurological short-circuits, but events, happening to living and breathing versions of yourself, in other universes adjacent to our own. The spontaneous combustions, the meteor strikes, the shark attacks, and so on are existing circumstances that are communicated to you at the instant they happen.”

“Every seventy-two minutes?”

“With an infinity of universes to go through, there must be uncounted more, a number best imagined as the number of stars in the heavens. There must be some cyclical event, unknown to us, that renders you sensitive to these occurrences, at this precise interval; perhaps some measurement by which these universes and our own are in the most sympathetic conjunction. There might be another quantum reason why you’re only receiving low-probability events. Honestly, there’s no telling. You’re already on the verge of revolutionizing physics. There’s much we still have to . . .”

• • • •

{Negelein is walking through the park with a young woman of his acquaintance, not the wife he remembers from some of his other manifestations but a different lady entirely, who he knows only slightly and with whom he is still in that portion of a relationship when the two participants are still making up their minds about each other. So far, he seems to like her more than she likes him, which is just making him resolve to do better when the screams begin, up ahead, in the direction where the two of them are headed. All of a sudden the crowds are fleeing, heedless, screaming their bloody heads off; and in a few of those cases they are actually bloody heads, because one or two of those running past Negelein and his lady friend appear to have great gaping wounds on their faces; one man who runs by right now has one of his ears hanging by a thread. One runner knocks Negelein to the ground. He hits hard, curling into a ball to minimize the hurt of being trampled, and somewhere in there takes distant comfort in the sight of his date running like hell. Then the crowds are past and he takes even more battered relief in still being alive, before a dozen vaguely humanoid forms with coarse black fur drop from the trees and surround him in a semi-circle. All bare their teeth in malice before they commence tearing him to pieces. He will never know just where they came from or why they’re so angry, but to those who know how dangerous they become at puberty, there is absolutely nothing about the adult male chimpanzee that qualifies as cute.}

• • • •

“. . . just for god’s sake stop telling me you need to collect more data. Every single time it happens I think it’s really me it’s happening to! It’s that real! There’s no way of telling!”

“I can’t even imagine what you’re going through, sir, but if it’s any consolation, there is one way of knowing: It always ends. You’re returned to your own everyday existence, refreshingly free of catastrophe. The only useful way of looking at it is that for every death you must endure, you also get that one moment of shining relief that comes immediately afterward, the welcome awareness that all is still well and that you still exist in a world with hope.”

“That’s it? That’s all you have to say? That I should just go home and pretend this doesn’t happen to me a couple of dozen times a day?”

“It’s all we can offer at the moment, sir. I’m afraid that there won’t be an instant cure. But I promise you that the team will keep looking for some way to sever the connection. In the meantime, it really will be best for you if you work on the techniques many afflicted people use to ameliorate the effects of chronic nightmares, by recognizing them as what they are while they’re in progress and in that manner softening their overall emotional impact. If you can summon the full force of your own rationality, you can retain enough perspective to make yourself the master of this phenomenon, and not just the . . .”

• • • •

{The skies are as dark as Negelein’s mood, as he drives home from the lab, the inadequate comforts of the project leader still ringing in his ears. Raindrops the size of quarters pelt his windshield, and he shudders, thinking of rockslides, and flash floods, and broken dams, and all the other disastrous ends he’s experienced but not lived, up until seventy-one minutes ago; all means of extinction he knows intimately, thanks to his unwanted connection to places that are now as real to him as this car, this front seat, this raging storm.

{In the morning, he’s supposed to return to the lab, which has arranged a grant so he can work there as full-time test subject, as the team struggles to help him. But the prospect does not cheer him. His problem has not been solved, and the wind rising all around him is a perfect metaphor for the rage he feels about the way he’s been singled out by a cruel and capricious multiverse. It’s just not fair.

{Then the din of rending metal makes thought impossible, the funnel cloud sweeps into his field of vision, he feels a nauseating sense of his stomach sinking as the view out the windshield becomes an impossible perspective of a gouge torn in an earth now a thousand feet below, and he rages, Oh, sure. Right. Fuck you. The car starts to fall, and he closes his eyes, focusing on the scant comfort the doctor tried to provide him. This won’t make a difference at all. What will is the welcome return to order, once this ridiculous scenario plays out.}

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Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to SPY magazine in 1987. His 26 books to date include four Spider-Man novels, 3 novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and 6 middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. The penultimate installment in the series, Gustav Gloom and the Inn of Shadows (Grosset and Dunlap) came out in August 2015. The finale appeared in August 2016. Adam’s darker short fiction for grownups is highlighted by his most recent collection, Her Husband’s Hands And Other Stories (Prime Books). Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). He lives in Florida with his wife Judi and either three or four cats, depending on what day you’re counting and whether Gilbert’s escaped this week.