‘Perfect Day’ first appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March/April 2012 issue.
When Stanley Betterman awoke Monday morning he didn’t know that everyone else in the world was naked.
His own pajamas were securely in place when his brainware buzzed his neural centers, cutting short a particularly nice dream about falling mortgage rates. The striped cotton might have looked a little more greenish than usual as he staggered to the bathroom, but his Color My World app always took a little while to get up to speed in the morning. Otherwise, there was no sign that anything was wrong.
The image that stared back at him from the mirror was the same one he saw every morning: a nondescript man with a remarkable lack of noteworthy features, flanked by two columns of biological readouts that seemed to float in midair. Checking the numbers, he saw that his blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar readings were all within acceptable limits, but his HDL was a little low. No doubt his Positive Health Habits app would let him know what he needed to do to correct that.
Still unaware that the act of wearing clothes made him an anomaly on Earth, Stanley scrubbed his teeth until they gleamed, then let his bathroom scanner point out the bits of plaque he’d missed. CONGRATULATIONS! his brainware projected when he was done, bright red caps scrolling across his field of vision as a trumpet fanfare blared in his ears. YOU GOT IT ALL! The accolade made his head hurt, but running the Positive Reinforcement Suite earned him a two percent discount on his health insurance, and with work going the way it was he needed to save every cent that he could. Maybe if things picked up later in the year, he could purchase a deluxe display that would be less intrusive. Supposedly there was one with the “Hallelujah Chorus” where you could actually adjust the volume.
When he was done getting washed and dressed for work, he checked his Time Management app, which gave him a seventy-two percent efficiency rating for the morning’s hygienics. It was one of his lowest scores that month. Maybe if he’d brushed his teeth more effectively he could have scored higher. There was no penalty for a low rating, but Stanley took pride in his efficiency. Perhaps he should seek some hygienics counseling.
DID YOU TURN OFF THE LIGHTS? his Tenant Safety app demanded as he left the room. DID YOU UNPLUG ALL HAZARDOUS APPLIANCES?
He was heading toward the kitchen when he passed his older brother in the hall. At first his brain didn’t register the fact that the man was completely naked. When it did, Stanley just averted his eyes and walked on. His brother’s Progressive Lifestyle app sometimes prompted him to do strange things, and Stanley didn’t want to be judgmental.
But when he entered the kitchen he saw that all the other members of his family were naked as well. He stood in the doorway for a moment and blinked, trying to come to terms with that.
His mother turned and smiled at him; he blushed and looked away.
“Eggs this morning?” she asked. “I got a good deal on modified yolks.”
He nodded dully and sat down, trying not to look at anyone.
He’d moved back in with his family a year ago, during the last economic crash. Normally it wasn’t too bad. Everyone was running the Home Alone app, which told you where the other members of your household were located at all times so that you could avoid them. (Next best thing to being alone! the ads proclaimed.) But they had taken to eating breakfast together so that they would have a chance to group-sync the app. If you didn’t do that once a week it could go out of phase, and then you might find yourself wandering into a room that you had expected to be empty, only to find someone already in it. Highly irritating.
“Eggs are fine,” he said, staring down at the table.
“You okay?” his naked older brother asked.
“I’m okay,” he mumbled.
“You don’t look okay.”
It was bad etiquette to discuss brainware problems at the table, but obviously his brother wasn’t going to leave him alone. “I think I have a virus,” Stanley said. “I’ll deal with it at work.”
“Is it the nudie virt?” his naked fourteen-year-old brother demanded.
“Geoffrey!” his naked mother exclaimed.
“What’s a nudie virt?” his older brother asked.
“Malicious virtual program,” the fourteen-year-old explained. “Hit the social networks late last night. Makes everyone around you look stark naked.” He giggled. “I hear the President caught it.”
“Is that true?” Stanley’s mother asked, frowning as she moved a dishrag into position in front of her chest.
“It’s not a big problem,” he muttered, trying not to look at her. (Also trying not to think about what the Vice-President would look like naked.) “I’ll just run a neurocleaner when I get to work.”
She put down a plate of Safe Eggs in front of him. He picked up the salt shaker and shook it over the plate. 30 MG SODIUM, his brainware informed him. 60. 90. The number scrolled higher and higher as he continued to shake. Then: WARNING! Bright red letters scrolled across his field of vision. RECOMMENDED SODIUM LEVELS FOR THIS MEAL HAVE BEEN EXCEEDED. TERMINATE FLAVORING IMMEDIATELY!
Suddenly he felt a wave of defiance come over him. His ancestors in the American Revolution had risked their lives to defend their personal freedom; surely he could do no less! Defiantly he continued to salt his food, oblivious to the fact that he had exceeded his own taste parameters for scrambled eggs. Sometimes you had to make a personal sacrifice in the name of freedom.
WARNING! A loud buzzer sounded in his ear. YOU HAVE EXCEEDED YOUR RECOMMENDED DAILY SODIUM LIMIT! ONE BHC POINT HAS BEEN ASSIGNED TO YOUR ACCOUNT!
Cursing under his breath, Stanley put the shaker down. In his mad bid for freedom he had totally forgotten about the behavioral clause in his medical insurance. Now he had a Bad Health Choice point on his Health Maintenance Record for the month. Four more of them and his premiums would go up. Damn.
It was the nudie virt, he told himself. Trying to eat breakfast without looking at anyone was making him crazy.
He finished as quickly as he could and managed to get out of the house without any more accidental voyeurism. His car was waiting for him.
“Direct, scenic, or budget mode?” it asked.
“Budget,” he responded, as he did every morning.
The car started its engine as he entered, shut its doors, and began to roll. Glancing out the window, he noticed that some of the people on the street now had flickering outlines of clothing surrounding them. Evidently his brainware’s Security Suite was clearing the virt out of his system on its own.
Today the car took him on a roundabout route that looped past an ad strip, then slowed down so that he would have time to read the densely packed billboards flanking the road. When they reached the end of the strip his car surprised him by driving him to another one, even longer than the first. Usually Budget Mode only required one stop, but advertisers were getting greedier these days. Annoying though it was, he couldn’t afford to do without the fuel subsidy he got for agreeing to participate in an ad-immersion program.
But slowing down for the second ad strip made him late for work. He texted his apology to his boss as he entered the building, choosing the appropriate excuse from a checklist. YOUR EXCUSE IS ACKNOWLEDGED, came the answer. THIS MONTH’S ATTENDANCE RATING: 78.21%. PROTECT YOUR PAY RATE BY ARRIVING ON TIME.
As he hurried to the elevator he decided that an environmental virt might soothe his nerves. He chose one called Rain Forest Fantasy, and a moment later the interior of his building appeared to be filled with leafy green ferns, towering trees, and brightly colored birds. But there must have been a glitch in the app, because more and more birds kept appearing, until hundreds of parrots and toucans and macaws were watching his every move. By the time he got to the elevator he was beginning to feel as if he were in a Hitchcock movie, so he switched off the virt as he stepped inside. The real world would have to do.
His office was freshly painted and nicely furnished, and its large picture window was running a Living Nature app. He uploaded a view of the Grand Canyon with midday lighting and watched as a group of tourists made their way down into the sunlit crevasse. It was important that his office be attractive enough that customers didn’t feel they had to run virts while they were talking to him. There was nothing more frustrating than trying to discuss mortgage points with someone who was watching a horde of drunken Vikings ravage Saxon women on your desk.
Stanley’s first customer was a wizened old Hispanic man who wanted to buy a house for his grandson. His credit was sound but his advanced age set off warning bells, so Stanley put in a request for his medical records. There were several conditions that could increase a man’s risk rating, in which case a customer might still get a mortgage but the interest rate would be higher. Someone who didn’t take good care of himself was less likely to keep up with his loan payments.
But this customer had a clean medical record, and Stanley’s Emotoscan app, which had been analyzing the man’s body language since his arrival, assigned him an Estimated Emotional Stability Rating of 86.2. That was well within acceptable parameters, so Stanley signed off on the loan.
His next customer was a tall black man wearing an African medallion around his neck. His skin was very dark.
“Good day,” he said. “I am Ngoto Mbege, first cousin to the exiled prince of Nigeria. I have come to you for a loan, it being to restore accounts that were hidden from sight during recent revolution. An assistance of American is needed – ”
The door suddenly slammed open and half a dozen men rushed in. They were wearing body armor labeled MAKKAFIE and carrying automatic weapons. Stanley was startled at first, but then he saw the bright red “V” on their helmets. Makkafie was very careful about labeling its virtual products so people didn’t get confused.
“Leave this office!” one of the security virts barked. The Nigerian did not move fast enough so all six of them grabbed him and forced him into a steel box which had suddenly appeared by the door. When he was safely locked inside it one of the soldiers saluted Stanley. “He won’t be able to bother you now, sir. Do you want him disposed of?”
Stanley nodded and the malvirt flickered out of existence along with its container. The Makkafie team followed.
Stanley frowned. There was way too much malware in his head today. Maybe he should visit a neuropractor after work. He told his brainware to provide a local directory, and he called a neuropractor whose office was only a few blocks away. The receptionist asked for permission to access his credit record from the last ten years, and after running a detailed analysis of his medical payment habits, she agreed to give him an appointment. She was a real person, of course; no patient would be expected to share that kind of personal information with a machine.
The nudie virt tried to launch itself several times that afternoon; evidently Stanley’s Security Suite hadn’t been able to uninstall it fully. He was forced to purchase a malware detection upgrade, which instructed him to shut down all his other apps while it scoured his system. Apparently it found something complicated, and he had to function without his brainware for most of the afternoon. By the end of the day he had developed a pounding headache…but everyone in the world still had clothes on, so at least that was something.
While walking to the neuropractor’s office he refused an offer to earn extra fuel points by accepting an advertising detour. But an underwear ad flashed briefly in front of him as he crossed the street and he sighed; evidently his pop-in protection was on the blitz as well.
The neuropractor looked over all his systems and then said that the problem was that he was running a thousand different programs to deal with bits and pieces of his digital health, rather than addressing the greater whole. Stanley didn’t understand all the details of that, but he knew that his customary approach had not worked, so he agreed to try a round of “data stimulation therapy.” Apparently that involved a lot of residual virts being stimulated, and he spent an hour having to relive sounds and images he thought he’d deleted long ago. The worst was a disco remix of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that he vaguely remembered having loaded one night in college when he was drunk. No wonder his brainware was having so many problems! It had to wend its way through a lifetime of garbage data every time it needed to process something.
Stanley wasn’t sure whether he felt any better when the therapy was over, but the neuropractor’s scanner assured him that he did, and he was no longer being accosted by virtual ads, so maybe that was true.
By the time he got home, Stanley could feel the strain of a long day catching up with him. He consulted his Home Alone app to locate any other family members who were in the house. To his annoyance he saw that there were already people in the living room, den, and office. The only room besides his own bedroom that was currently unoccupied was a small storage room in the basement.
With a sigh he headed downstairs. The room was filled with half-open boxes, but by rearranging some of them he managed to clear enough space to sit down. As he opened his e-Book app his Call Center chimed and informed him that he had a call.
“Yes?” he said aloud.
“Stanley.” The virtual voice was that of a co-worker, Jeff Simmons. “A bunch of us are heading over to Riley’s for drinks. You want to join us?”
Tired as he was, it was a very tempting invitation. He still had a few alcohol credits left for the month, so he could enjoy a couple of beers without it impacting his health insurance premium.
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll come right over.”
He shut down the e-Book app and struggled to his feet. But before he could get to the door, a message from his Positive Reinforcement Suite appeared in front of him: WARNING! ENERGY LEVELS SUB-OPTIMUM. ANTICIPATED ONSET OF BODILY EXHAUSTION: 8:45 PM. EARLY RETIREMENT RECOMMENDED.
Stanley hesitated. It was 8:15 already. If he went to the bar now, he’d hardly have time to enjoy himself before he became tired. But if instead he chose to go to sleep early, he would earn two Good Health Choice points. That could help offset the egg-salting fiasco.
With a sigh he sat back down on his box, yawning as he opened his e-Book app once again. His health program had been right; he was already starting to feel tired. But a good night’s sleep would fix that, he knew. His Positive Reinforcement Suite had inspired him to make the right choices today, his neuropractor had cleared all the annoying kinks out of his brainware, and his Sweet Dreams app would make sure that he slept deeply and had pleasant dreams. He would certainly feel better in the morning.
As he chose a book to read, he wondered briefly what things had been like before the digital age. What utter chaos life must have been! He was fortunate to have been born in the time and place that he had, with so many modern conveniences at his beck and call.
With a sigh of satisfaction he settled back in his tiny cardboard nook, called up the series of virtual advertisements that was required by his reading material, and waited for the moment when his ad quota for the day would finally be satisfied and he could enjoy his book.