Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Just Another Perfect Day

Don’t Worry.

Everything is under control.

I know how you’re feeling. You wake up alone in a strange room, you get up, you look around, you soon discover that both doors are locked from the outside. It’s enough to unsettle anybody, especially when you try and try and try to recall how you got here and you just can’t do it.

But beyond that … there’s this feeling. I know you’re feeling it right now. I know a lot of things—and I’ll reveal them all as we go along.

One of the things I know it this:

If you will sit down, put this message back on the table where you found it, and take slow, deep breaths while counting to one hundred, you’ll feel a lot better.

I promise you will.

Do that now.

***

See what I mean? You do feel a lot better.

That feeling won’t last for long, I’m sorry to say.

I wish there was an easier way to do this, but there isn’t, and believe me, many ways have been tried. So here we go:

This is not 1986.

You are not twenty-five years old.

The date is

January February March April May June

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

2006 2007 2008

A lot of things have happened in

twenty            twenty-one            twenty-two

years, and I’ll tell you all you need to know about that in good time.

For now … Don’t Worry.

Slow, deep breaths. Close your eyes. Count to a hundred.

You’ll feel better.

I promise.

***

If you’ll get up now, you’ll find that the bathroom door will open. There’s a mirror in there. Take a look in it, get to know the

forty-five            forty-six            forty-seven

-year old who will be in there, looking back at you…

And Don’t Worry.

Take deep breaths, and so forth.

I’ll tell you more when you get back.

***

Well.

I know how rough that was. I know you’re trembling. I know you’re feeling confusion, fear, anger … a thousand emotions.

And I know you have a thousand questions. They will all be answered, every one of them, at the proper time.

Here are some ground rules.

I will never lie to you. You can’t imagine how much care and anguish has gone into the composition of this letter. For now, you must take my word that things will be revealed to you in the most useful order, and in the easiest way that can be devised. You must appreciate that not all your questions can be answered at once. It may be harder for you to accept that some questions cannot be answered at all until a proper background has been prepared. These answers would mean nothing to you at this point.

You would like someone—anyone—to be with you right now, so you could ask these questions. That has been tried, and the results were needlessly chaotic and confusing. Trust me; this is the best way.

Any why should you trust me? For a very good reason.

I am you. You wrote—in a manner of speaking—every word in this letter, to help yourself through this agonizing moment.

Deep breaths, please.

Stay seated; it helps a little.

And Don’t Worry.

***

So now we’re past bombshell #2. There are more to come, but they will be easier to take, simply because your capacity to be surprised is just about at its peak right now. A certain numbness will set in. You should be thankful for that.

And now, back to your questions.

Top of the list: What happened?

Briefly (and it must be brief—more on that later):

In 1989 you had an accident. It involved a motorcycle which you don’t remember owning because you didn’t buy it until 1988, and a city bus. You had a difference of opinion concerning the right of way, and the bus won.

Feel your scalp with your fingertips. Don’t be queasy; it healed long ago—as much as it’s going to. Under those great knots of scar tissue are the useless results of the labors of the best neurosurgeons in the country. In the end, they just had to scoop out a lot of grey matter and close you back up, shaking their heads sagely and opining that you would probably feel right at home under glass on a salad bar.

But you fooled them. You woke up, and there was much rejoicing, even though you couldn’t remember anything after the summer of ’86. You were conscious a few hours, long enough for the doctors to determine that your intelligence didn’t seem to be impaired. You could talk, read, speak, see, hear. Then you went back to sleep.

The next day you woke up, and couldn’t remember anything after the summer of ’86. No one was too worried. They told you again what had happened. You were awake most of the day, and again you fell asleep.

The next day you woke up, and couldn’t remember anything after the summer of ’86. Some consternation was expressed.

The next day you woke up, and couldn’t remember anything after the summer of ’86. Professorial heads were scratched, seven-syllable Latin words intoned, and deep mumbles were mumbled.

The next day you woke up, and couldn’t remember anything after the summer of ’86.

And the next day

And the next day

And the day after that.

This morning you woke up and couldn’t remember anything after the summer of ’86, and I know this is getting old, but I had to make the point in this way, because it is

2006            2007            2008

and we’ve begun to think a pattern is established.

No, no, don’t breathe deeply, don’t count to one hundred, face this one head on. It’ll be good for you.

Back under control?

I knew you could do it.

What you have is called Progressive Narco-Catalepti-Amnesiac Syndrome (PNCAS, or Pinkus in conversation), and you should be proud of yourself, because they made up the term to describe your condition and at least a half-dozen papers have been written proving it can’t happen. What seems to happen, in spite of the papers, is that you store and retrieve memories just fine as long as you have a continuous thread of consciousness. But the sleep center somehow activates an erase mechanism in your head, so that all you experienced during the day is lost to you when you wake up again. The old memories are intact and vivid; the new ones are ephemeral, like they were recorded on a continuous tape loop.

Most amnesias of this type behave rather differently. Retrograde amnesia is seen fairly frequently, whereby you gradually lose even the old memories and become as an infant. And progressive amnesias are not unknown, but those poor people can’t remember what happened to them as little as five minutes ago. Try to imagine what life would be like in those circumstances before you start crying in your beer.

Yeah, great, I hear you whine. And what’s so great about this?

Well, nothing, at first glance. I’ll certainly be the last one to argue about that. My own re-awakening is too fresh in my mind, having happened only fifteen hours ago. And, in a sense, I will soon be dead, snatched back from this mayfly existence by the greedy arms of Morpheus. When I sleep tonight, most of what I feel makes me me will vanish. I will awake, an older and less wise man, to confusion, will read this letter, will breathe deeply, count to one hundred, stare into the mirror at a stranger. I will be you.

And yet, now, as I scan rapidly through this letter for the second time today (I said I wrote it, but only in a sense; it was written by a thousand mayflies), they are asking me if there is anything I wish to change. If I want a change, Marian will see that it is made. Is there anything I would like to do differently tomorrow? Is there something I want to tell you, my successor in this body, to beware of, to disbelieve? Are there any warnings I would issue?

The answer is no.

I will let this letter stand, in its entirety.

There are things still for you to learn that will convince you, against all common sense, that you have a wonderful life/day ahead of you.

But you need a rest. You need time to think.

Do this for me. Go back to the date. Mark out the last number and write in the next. If it’s a new month, change that, too.

Now you will find the other door will open. Please go into the next room, where you will find breakfast, and an envelope containing the next part of this letter.

Don’t open it yet. Eat your breakfast.

Think it over.

But don’t take too long. Your time is short, and you won’t want to waste it.

***

That was refreshing, wasn’t it?

It shouldn’t surprise you that all your favorite breakfast foods were on the table. You eat the same meal every morning, and never get tired of it.

And I’m sorry if that statement took some of the pleasure out of the meal, but it is necessary for me to keep reminding you of your circumstances, to prevent a cycle of denial getting started.

Here is the thing you must bear in mind.

Today is the rest of your life.

Because that life will be so short, it is essential that you waste none of it. In this letter I have sometimes stated the obvious, written out conclusions you have already reached—in a sense, wasted your time. Each time it was done—and each time it will yet be done in the rest of this letter—was for a purpose. Points must be driven home, sometimes brutally, sometimes repetitiously. I promise you this sort of thing will be kept to an absolute minimum.

So here comes a few paragraphs that might be a waste of time, but really aren’t, as they dispose neatly of several thousand of the most burning questions in your mind. The questions can be summed up as “What has happened in twenty years?”

The answer is: You don’t care.

You can’t afford to care. Even a brief synopsis of recent events would take hours to read, and would be the sheerest foolishness. You don’t care who the President is. The price of gasoline doesn’t concern you, nor does the victor in the ’98 World Series. Why learn this trivia when you would only have to re-learn it tomorrow?

You don’t care which books and movies are currently popular. You have read your last book, seen your last movie.

Luckily, you are an orphan with no siblings or other close relatives. (It is lucky; think about it.) The girl you were going with at the time of your accident has forgotten all about you—and you don’t care, because you didn’t love her.

There are things that have happened which you need to know about; I’ll speak of them very soon.

In the meantime…

How do you like the room? Not at all like a hospital, is it? Comfortable and pleasant—yet it has no windows, and the only other door was locked when you tried it.

Try it again. It will open now.

And remember…

Don’t Worry.

***

Don’t Worry. Don’t Worry. Don’t Worry.

You will have stopped crying by now. I know you desperately need someone to talk to, a human face to look into. You will have that very soon now, but for another few minutes I still must reach out to you from your recent past.

Incidentally, the reason the breathing exercises and the counting are so effective is a post-hypnotic suggestion left in your mind. When you see the words Don’t Worry, it relaxes you. It seems that some part of your mind retains shadows of memory that you can’t reach—which may also account for why you believe all this apparent rubbish.

Are the tears dry? It did the same thing to me. Even seeing my own face aged in the mirror didn’t affect me like seeing the view from my windows. Then it became real.

You are on one of the top floors of the Chrysler Building. Your view to the north included many, many buildings that were not there in 1986, and jumbled among them were many familiar buildings, distinctive as fingerprints. This is New York, and it is a new century, and that view is impossible to deny and as real as a fist. That’s why you wept.

Not too many more bombshells to go now. But the next one is a doozy. Let’s creep up on it, shall we?

You’ve already looked at the three photographs on the table beside your breakfast. Consider them now, in order.

The big, bluff, hearty-looking fellow is Ian MacIntyre, who you’ll meet in a few minutes. He will be your counselor/companion today, and he is the head of a very important project in which you are involved. It’s impossible not to like him, though you, like me, will try to resist at first. But he is too wise push it, and you’ve always liked people, anyway. Besides, he has a lot of experience in winning your friendship, having done so every day for eight years.

On to the second picture.

Looks almost human, doesn’t he? If the offspring of Gumby and E.T. could be considered human. He is humanoid: two eyes, nose, mouth, two arms and two legs, and that goofy grin. The green skin you’ll get used to quickly enough.

What he is, is a Martian.

See, fifteen years ago the Martians landed and took over the planet Earth. We still don’t know what they plan to do with it, but some of the theories are not good news for Homo sapiens.

Don’t Worry.

Take a few deep breaths. I’ll wait.

***

That last thought is unworthy of you and unjust. I would not waste your time with a practical joke. You must realize I can back up what I say.

To illustrate, I want you to go to the south windows of your apartment. Go through the billiard room into the spa, turn left at the gym, and open the door beside the Picasso, the one that didn’t open before. You’ll find yourself in an area with a view of the Narrows, and I’m sure I won’t need to direct you beyond that.

Take a look, and come right back.

***

All right, you just had to prove you could do things your own way, didn’t you? I don’t care that you brought the letter with you, but your having done so provides one last bit of proof that I know you pretty well, doesn’t it?

Now, back to the bloody Martians.

It’s amazing how on-target Steven Spielberg was, isn’t it? That way that ship floats out there … and it’s bigger than the mother ship in Close Encounters. That sucker is over thirty miles across. At its lowest point it is two miles in the air. The upper parts reach into space. It has floated out there for fifteen years and not budged one inch. People call it The Saucer. There are fifteen others just like it, hovering near other major cities.

And you think you have detected a flaw, don’t you? How would you have seen it, you ask, if it had been a cloudy day? If it had been just a normal New York smoggy day, for that matter. Then you’d be reading this, scratching your head, wondering what the hell I’m talking about.

The answer will illustrate everyone’s concern. There are no more cloudy days in New York. The Martians don’t seem to like rain, so they don’t let it happen here. As for the smog … they told us to stop it, and we did. Wouldn’t you, with that thing floating out there?

About the name, Martians…

We first detected their ships in the neighborhood of Mars. I know you’d have found it easier to swallow, in a perverse way, had I told you they came from Alpha Centauri or the Andromeda Galaxy or the planet Tralfamadore. But people got to calling them Martians because that’s what they were called on television.

We don’t think they’re really from Mars.

We don’t know where they’re from, but it’s probably not from around here. And by that, I mean not just another galaxy, but another universe. We think our own universe exists sort of as a shadow to them.

This will be hard to explain. Take it slowly.

Do you remember Flatland, and Mr. A Square? He lived in a two-dimensional universe. There was no up or down, just right and left, forward and backward. He could not conceive the notion of up or down. Mr. Square was visited by a three-dimensional being, a sphere, who drifted down through the world of Flatland. Square perceived the sphere as a circle that gradually grew, and then shrank. All he could see at any one moment was a cross-section of the sphere, while the sphere, god-like, could look down into Mr. Square’s world, even touch inside Square’s body without going through the skin.

It was all just an interesting intellectual exercise, until the Martians arrived. Now we think they’re like the sphere, and we are Mr. Square. They live in another dimension, and they don’t perceive time and space like we do.

An example:

You saw they appeared humanoid. We don’t think they really are.

We think they simply allow us to see a portion of their bodies which they project into our three-dimensional world and cause to appear humanoid. Their real shape must be vastly complex.

Consider your hand. If you thrust your fingers into Flatland Mr. Square would see four circles and not imagine them to be connected. Putting your hand in further, he would see the circles merge into an oblong. Or an even better analogy is the shadow-play. By suitably entwining your two hands in front of a light, you can cast a shadow on a wall that resembles a bird, or a bull, or an elephant, or even a man. What we see of the Martians is no more real than a Kermit the Frog hand puppet.

The ship is the same way. We see merely a three-dimensional cross-section of a much larger and more complex structure.

At least we think so.

Communication with the Martians is very frustrating, nearly impossible. They are so foreign to us. They never tell us anything that makes sense, never say the same thing twice. We assume it would make sense if we could think the way they do.

And it is important.

They are very powerful. Weather control is just a parlor trick. When they invaded, they invaded all at once—and I hope I can explain this to you, as I’m far from sure I understand it myself, after a full day with Martians.

They invaded fifteen years ago … but they also invaded in 1854, and in 1520, and several other times in the “past.” The past seems to be merely another direction to them, like up or down. You’ll be shown books, old books, with woodcuts and drawings and contemporary accounts of how the Martians arrived, what they did, when they left … and don’t be concerned that you don’t remember these momentous events from your high school history class, because no one else does, either.

Do you begin to understand? It seems that, from the moment they arrived here, in the late part of the twentieth century, they changed the past so that they had already arrived several times before. We have the history books to prove that they did. The fact that no one remembers these stories being in the history books before they arrived this time must be seen as an object lesson. One assumes they could have changed our memories of events as easily as the events themselves. That they did not do so means they meant us to be impressed. Had they changed both the events and our memories of them, no one would be the wiser; we would all assume history had always been that way, because that’s the way we remembered it.

The whole idea of history books must be a tremendous joke to them, since they don’t experience time consecutively.

Had enough? There’s more.

They can do more than add things to our history. They can take things away. Things like the World Trade Center. That’s right, go look for it. It’s not out there, and we didn’t tear it down. It never existed in this world, except in our memories. It’s like a big, shared illusion.

Other things have turned up missing as well. Things like Knoxville, Tennessee, Lake Huron, the Presidency of William McKinley, the Presbyterian Church, the rhinoceros (including the fossil record of its ancestors), Jack the Ripper (and all the literary works written about him), the letter Q, and Ecuador.

Presbyterians still remember their faith and have built new churches to replace the ones that were never built. Who needed the goddamn rhino, anyway? Another man served McKinley’s term (and was also assassinated). Seeing book after book where “kw” replaces “q” is only amusing—and very kweer. But the people of Knoxville—and a dozen other towns around the world—never existed. They are still trying to sort out the real estate around where Lake Huron used to be. And you can search the world’s atlases in vain for any sight of Ecuador.

The best wisdom is that the Martians could do even more, if they wanted to. Such as wiping out the element oxygen, the charge on the electron, or, of course, the planet Earth.

They invaded, and they won quite easily.

And their weapon is very much like an editor’s blue pencil. Rather than destroy our world, they re-write it.

***

So what does all this have to do with me, I hear you cry.

Why couldn’t I have lived out my one day on Earth without worrying about this?

Well … who do you think is paying for this fabulous apartment?

The grateful taxpayers, that’s who. You didn’t think you’d get original Picassos on the walls if you were nothing more than a brain-damaged geek, did you?

And why are the taxpayers grateful?

Because anything that keeps the Martians happy, keeps the taxpayers happy. The Martians scare hell out of everyone … and you are their fair-haired boy.

Why?

Because you don’t experience time like the rest of humanity does.

You start fresh every day. You haven’t had fifteen years to think about the Martians, you haven’t developed any prejudice toward them or their way of thinking.

Maybe.

Most of that could be bullshit. We don’t know if prejudice has anything to do with it … but you do see time differently. The fact is, the best mathematicians and physicists in the world have tried to deal with the Martians, and the Martians aren’t interested. Every day they come to talk to you.

Most days, nothing is accomplished. They spend an hour, then go wherever it is they go, in whatever manner they do it. One day out of hundred, you get an insight. Everything I’ve told you so far is the result of those insights being compiled—

—along with the work of others. There are a few hundred of you, around the world. No other man or woman has your peculiar affliction; all are what most people would call mentally limited. There are the progressive amnesiacs I mentioned earlier. There are people with split-brain disorders, people with almost unbelievable perceptual aberrations, such as the woman who has lost the concept of “right.” Left is the only direction that exists in her brain.

The Martians spend time with these people, people like you.

So we tentatively conclude this about the Martians:

They want to teach us something.

It is painfully obvious they could have destroyed us any time they wished to do so. They have enslaved us, in the sense that we are pathetically eager to do anything we even suspect they might want us to do. But they don’t seem to want to do anything with us. They’ve made no move to breed us for meat animals, conscript us into slave labor camps, or rape our women. They have simply arrived, demonstrated their powers, and started talking to people like you.

No one knows if we can learn what they are trying to teach us. But it behooves us to try, wouldn’t you think?

***

Again, you say: Why me?

Or even more to the point: Why should I care?

I know your bitterness, and I understand it. Why should you spend even an hour of your precious time on problems you don’t really care about, when it would be much easier and more satisfying spending your sixteen hours of awareness gnawing on yourself, wallowing in self-pity, and in general being a one-man soap-opera.

There are two reasons.

One: You were never that kind of person. You’ve just about exhausted your store of self-pity during the process of reading this letter. If you have only one day—though it hurts like hell … so be it! You will spend that day doing something useful.

Reason number two…

You’ve been looking at the third picture off and on since you first picked it up, haven’t you? (Come on, you can’t lie to me.)

She’s very pretty, isn’t she?

And that thought is unworthy of you, since you know where this letter is coming from. She would not be offered to you as a bribe. The project managers know you well enough to avoid offering you a piece of ass to get your cooperation.

Her name is Marian.

Let us speak of love for a moment.

You were in love once before. You remember how it was, if you’ll allow yourself. You remember the pain … but that came later, didn’t it? When she rejected you. Do you remember what it felt like the day you fell in love? Think back, you can get it.

The simple fact is, it’s why the world spins. Just the possibility of love has kept you going in the three years since Karen.

Well, let me tell you. Marian is in love with you, and before the day is over, you will be in love with her. You can believe that or not, as you choose, but I, at the end of my life here this day, can take as one of my few consolations that I/you will have, tomorrow/today, the exquisite pleasure of falling in love with Marian.

I envy you, you skeptical bastard.

***

And since it’s just you and me, I’ll add this. Even with a girl you don’t love, “the first time” is always pretty damn interesting, isn’t it?

For you, it’s always the first time … except when it’s the second time, just before sleep … which Marian seems to be suggesting this very moment.

***

As usual, I have anticipated all your objections.

You think it might be tough for her? You think she’s suffering?

Okay. Admitted, the first few hours are what you might call repetitive for her. You gotta figure she’s bored, by now, at your invariant behavior when you first wake up. But it is a cross she bears willingly for the pleasure of your company during the rest of the day.

She is a healthy, energetic girl, one who is aware that no woman ever had such an attentive, energetic lover. She loves a man who is endlessly fascinated by her, body and soul, who sees her with new eyes each and every day.

She loves your perpetual enthusiasm, your renewable infatuation.

There isn’t time to fall out of love.

Anything more I could say would be wasting your time, and believe me, when you see what today is going to be like, you’d hate me for it.

We could wish things were different. It is not fair that we have only one day. I, who am at the end of it, can feel the pain you only sense. I have my wonderful memories … which will soon be gone. And I have Marian, for a few more minutes.

But I swear to you, I feel like an old, old man who has lived a full life, who has no regrets for anything he ever did, who accomplished something in his life, who loved, and was loved in return.

Can many “normal” people die saying that?

In just a few seconds that one, last locked door will open, and your new life and future love will come through it. I guarantee it will be interesting.

I love you, and I now leave you …

Have a nice day.

***

© 1989 by John Varley.
 Originally appeared in Twilight Zone.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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John Varley

John VarleyJohn Varley is an ex-Texan who used to be 6’6” but has now shrunk to a mere 6’3”. He doesn’t know where the three inches went. A passionate campaigner for the rights of the left-handed, he is a member of several of the more fashionable twelve-step programs. In an alternate universe somewhere he won an Academy Award and was the first human to break the sound barrier. In his spare time he raises champion blue-skinned velociraptors. He doesn’t know why so many things seem to have gone wrong in the world during his lifetime, but he swears that very little of it was his fault.