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09.30.02


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barry westphall crashes the singularity

by James Patrick Kelly

 

"In the name of the Holy Coffee and the Blessed Shot of Cuervo, amen." Barry Westphall waves the sign of the cross over the steaming cup, then sips. It is his third refill.

The bartender of the Armadillo Lodge is too busy washing glasses to pay attention, even though Westphall is his only customer.

"So anyway," Westphall says, "the brain is a quantum device." He licks a brown dribble from the corner of his mouth. "Capable of accessing the entire field of space-time by folding the empty dimensions." Westphall has had the headache now for almost eight hours now. "You may be wondering how I know this." It feels like bees stinging his brain. "I haven't a clue." The tequila helps a little.

The phone rings in the kitchen; the bartender leaves Westphall to answer it.

"Of course, these dimensions aren't easily folded," says Westphall. "Takes an unusual combination of intense physical stimulation and careful neurotransmitter suppression to access a time line." He peers into the mirror behind the bar.

"I mean it," says the medbot's N partition. "He wouldn't be talking to no one. I think he sees us."

"He sees nothing," says the medbot's D partition. Its N has always been excitable.

Westphall rests his elbow on the bar and points at his reflection. "Something's wrong," he says to the mirror. "I know that much for sure. What the hell are you doing to me?"

"Unpack his next major memory cluster." The D partition invokes a priority glyph.

In 2196, the medbot's V partition retracts the needle array from the brain of Barry Westphall's cryogenically frozen corpse, repositions it and inserts. A rosette of neurons fires and dies. Stills of twenty minutes Westphall's life on the night of July 22, 2002 tile across the medbot's sensorium.

/Skip/

A woman wearing a black halter-top and jeans with the knees out surveys the nearly empty room.

/Skip/

She moves from the end of the bar to the seat next to Westphall.

/Skip/

She is too white by half to be living in the desert.

/Skip/

He watches her rattle ice in her empty glass.

/Skip/

Westphall lays a twenty dollar bill on the check.

/Skip/

Room Seven is a nightmare of knotty pine. There are cigarette burns in the wheat-colored carpet and a black halter top on the bureau.

"What can I do for you?" says the woman.

Westphall rubs a finger along his eyebrow. "Intense physical stimulation?"

"Whatever." The blue-green edge of a tattoo peeks from the waistband of her panties. She hitches both thumbs under the elastic. "You like?"

Westphall whistles like wind on a screen door.

The tattoo is of a rose that looks like a skull. Her hands are busy as she brushes her lips down his chest. "Did you know," says Westphall, "that quantum non-locality means that photons can communicate instantaneously over vast stretches of space-time?"

"Sure."

He lifts his hips. She bounces his Dockers off the closet door. She climbs on top of him and giggles as he counts vertebrae to the strap of her bra. He turns from her sloppy kiss to the mirror over the bureau.

"Ever feel like you were in two places at once?" he asks the future.

D partition proclaims a network resource alert.

The woman nibbles the lobe of his ear. "I'm right here, hotshot. Where are you?"

All the medbot's partitions repurpose non-essential functions to assist in the dissection of Westphall's memory. Even A partition breaks away from the daily memory synchronization to monitor the anomaly.

"Sorry," he says to her. "Wasn't talking to you." He licks the tip of her nose.

The medbot's A partition intervenes in the procedure. "What is he doing?" It invokes the emergency glyph. "Next memory cluster!" Nearby bots join the session.

The V partition retracts and repositions the needle; neurons fire and die. Stills tile across the sensorium.

/Skip/

Her naked back arches, pale as moonlight.

/Skip/

Westphall fills a plastic cup with tequila.

/Skip/

The pale woman sprawls in a nest of sheets .

/Skip/

An older woman in a blue uniform strips bedding into her laundry cart.

"Where is he?" says the medbot, as all its partitions but V freeze on the anomalous images. "Back, go back." By now most of the world's intelligence collective has joined the session. V continues to manipulate the needles sunk in Westphall's exposed cerebrum as the sensorium shows him putting an empty plastic glass on the bedstand of Room Seven at the Armadillo Lodge at 11:36PM.

A nanosecond later, he disappears from 2002. And instantly reappears in 2196.

"Excuse me," said Westphall, "but that's my brain you're destroying."

The medbot is just beginning to turn as Westphall yanks its sensorium module backward, breaking it off at the stalk and resulting in a catastrophic failure. Since most of the intelligence collective is following the session with an attention quotient of 98%, over six thousand nodes crash with the medbot.

Westphall pulls needles out of his frozen cerebrum. "You sent for me," he tells himself, "when they started dissecting you." He finishes, steps back and takes a good look at his dead body. He aged well. He makes a good-looking corpse, even with the top of his skull sawed off. It gives him a reason to live. "Why did you do this to yourself?"

He hears himself whisper over the medbot's brain-dead speakers. His voice sounds old. Raspy. Apologetic. "I thought they might revive me."

"Doesn't look like it."

"No." His corpse does not open his eyes. "I always wanted to see the future."

"Me too." Westphall glances at the stack of frozen corpses waiting to have their memories unpacked. "Too bad I can't stay."

The pale woman blinks in the morning light. The second thing she notices is that the quart of Cuervo is empty. Westphall flushes the toilet and emerges from the bathroom of Room Seven.

"Come here, hotshot." She pats his side of the bed. "How's that headache?"

Barry Westphall settles next to her. "It's over," he says.

 

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James Patrick Kelly is a writer of idea stories cleverly disguised as stories of character, baffling the critics. His stories are sly and witty, and he has twice received the Hugo award.

He also writes theatrical and radio plays, which he describes as "off-off-way-the-hell-off-Broadway," and has had one of his stories staged as an opera. (But not a space opera.)

And Jim writes a bi-monthly column about the Internet for Asimov's. His new collection of short fiction, Strange but Not a Stranger, was published in September, 2002 by Golden Gryphon Press.

 

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