Short Fiction: My Heinleins Crumble to Dust in My Hands
by Chris Braak.
Part One of Two
How will we know when the Singularity has ruined science fiction? When I go back to my bookshelf and my old Heinleins crumble to dust in my hands. Philip K. Dick rises from his grave to feast on improbable memories…
Mahmoud Truely awoke at 6:55. There was a man in his room, tearing off strips of the paper walls and eating them. The man had a black and white beard, and was balding. He wore a bright yellow shirt. He had those new sunglasses that are all white plastic with a thin strip of polarized plastic in the middle. The man ate a hole in the wall, and then started pulling off pieces of the table, which Mahmoud could now see was made of papier-mache. Mahmoud watched the man slowly eat his way across the tiny fifty-credit flat, and waited to wake up. Minutes passed, and he did not. The balding man with the beard eventually finished the table, then turned and looked at Mahmoud.
Even though he was sure it was a dream, seeing the man with the beard look at him made Mahmoud nervous. Suddenly, the buddhamon on his nightstand blinked to fluorescent green life, and chirruped wisely. “It is seven o’clock. The real sky is knowing that samsara and nirvana are merely an illusory display. Your clock subscription will expire in three minutes.” Mahmoud looked over at the buddhamon when it spoke; when he turned back to the bald man with the black and white beard, the man was gone. The paper walls were intact again, so Mahmoud assumed he must have woken up. He didn’t remember waking up, but the walls were intact.
Mahmoud Truely let the buddhamon go dark. He never paid for time on the buddhamon—really the Methodist-Buddhism subscription alarm clock and guide to enlightenment—past 7:03. It didn’t cost that much, but why waste the money while he was at work? Mahmoud dressed, and took a last look at his walls to make sure there was no real damage. There was a wavy brown line by the door; it looked like a wave-front of rust or dirt. It must have been a watermark.
His body clamored for Count-E the second he left the apartment building, and so he knew it was 7:25. The need for the counter-evolutionary ampoules was as regular as clockwork. Mahmoud realized that his supply had run out. He ducked into a taxi cab as quickly as he could, to stay out of the blazing ultraviolet sun, and told the man to take him to the nearest Pan-Solar Government dispensary. The PSG d’s, which people just called Peasies, were arranged at regular intervals around southern California like a grid. This was so that no one would ever be more than two miles away from one if they ran out of Count-E.
You didn’t want to run out of Count-E, because if you did, you ended up like the schlubs that sat around outside the dispensaries. They had brown, pendulous cancers hanging of their faces. One woman had black, hexagonal scales on her arms. She wore a short-sleeved shirt so you could see them. Mahmoud didn’t know if she was showing off, or she just couldn’t afford sleeves. She was wearing sunglasses, though. The new kind that Mahmoud had seen the man in his dream wearing. The schlubs sat in the glaring sunlight and watched you when you went in. They watched you when you came out, too, but they never said anything. They didn’t ask for money or Count-E. They just looked disgusting and disgusted while they watched you.
Some of them believed that the ultraviolet sun would evolve them into something new and better, instead of just giving them cancers. That’s why some of them didn’t use the Count-E ampoules. Some of them probably just liked having cancer, Mahmoud thought. He went into the dispensary. It was clean and white and sanitary, the way dispensaries should be. There was no art on the walls, and there was no furniture. Nothing to encourage people to stay. Mahmoud went up to the counter and swiped his credit stick. It cost three-eighths of a credit to speak to the dispenser, whether or not you wanted to buy anything.
“Yes?” The man said. He was wearing a blue plastic tie, and a bright yellow shirt. The shirt made Mahmoud uncomfortable, because it was familiar.
“I need six ampoules,” Mahmoud wanted to say. But he didn’t. He couldn’t stop staring at the man’s shirt. “I…” he started to say, then stopped.
The man looked at the caloric-clock on his desk. “Time’s up. It’s another three-eighths if you want to say something.”
Mahmoud shook his head, and went back outside. He shielded his eyes from the sun as he ducked into the cab. “EnGeneCorp,” he told the driver. “Quickly, please.” Mahmoud saw that the man had a black and white beard, which he had not noticed before. He closed his eyes and rubbed his face, and asked the cabbie to put on some music. The driver cooperated, and put on KAB12. This was a radio station that only every played one song. It played Cherry Hart’s “I’ll Go Wild.”
“I’ll Go Wild” only had three lyrics, that Cherry Hart whispered over a pounding back-beat. “I’ll go wild,” she said. “To see you smile. I can go for miles.” Over and over. Usually it sounded like repetitive noise, but if you were on LSD-16, you’d have an orgasm every time she said “miles.”
Mahmoud didn’t use LSD-16, though, because he was the one that had designed it. He didn’t like the effects it had on the temporal lobe.
Mahmoud was an entheogenecist. It was his job to research traditional tribal drugs and medicines, and then turn them into psychoactive recreational compounds. So far, LSD-16 had been his biggest success, which is why he still lived in a by-the-hour fifty-credit flat with paper walls. He’d just finished something new, though, which seemed promising. It acted on the memory centers and made new things look familiar. So, every time you saw something new, instead of feeling like you were seeing it for the first time, you’d feel like you were remembering it again after having forgotten it for a long time. It was in tests now, so Mahmoud didn’t have much to do at his office.
This was just as well, because he was having a terrible time concentrating. He kept imagining that he saw the bearded man with his weird sunglasses. He’d see the man out the tinted window of his office, sitting in the park. He’d see the man walking by the door. He saw the receptionist, Cathy, and thought that she was the bearded man with the yellow shirt. If he’d had work to do, the recurrence of the man in the yellow shirt would have made it virtually impossible.
He spent his time rummaging in his desk for Count-E. The craving for the ampoules was giving him a headache. Around noon, his video intercom chimed. For a second, Mahmoud thought he saw the man with the black-and-white beard on the screen, but he hadn’t. It was Phil Gaugin, Mahmoud’s boss.
“You win,” said Phil. “You crazy bastard. You did it. Fat Sack Entertainment’s picked up Anamnesia for mass-production. You did it, man, you’re rich.”
“Rich, huh?” Mahmoud, asked. Rich was good news. Maybe he could buy enough Count-E ampoules that he’d never have to worry about running out.
“You owe me a drink,” Phil told him. “You owe me several drinks.”
“Yeah, sure,” Mahmoud told him. Mahmoud didn’t drink, because he was worried about aggravating a depressive condition. “Is the company doctor in today? I want to talk to him about something.”
“Sure he is,” Phil told him. “Are you okay? You sick or something?”
“No,” Mahmoud said. “I just have a question.” He didn’t want to tell Phil, but Mahmoud was suddenly afraid to touch his desk. He was sure that it was made out of paper, and if he touched it, it might come apart.
“You’re having a recurrent clairvoyant episode,” the doctor told him, after Mahmoud had swiped his credit stick a third time. If he hadn’t made the Anamnesia sale, he probably wouldn’t have been able to afford even the most basic consultation. Now he was rich; he could go to the doctor as often as he wanted.
“What does that mean?” Mahmoud asked him.
The doctor sighed. “Well. Ten years ago, you remember? The Fomalhaut invasion?”
“I read about it.” Mahmoud said, which was true. The invasion itself had been surprisingly unspectacular. Just newspaper articles with PSG assurances of operations and victory.
“The crabs…the things from Fomalhaut…they can’t really come here, physically. So they try and send their minds here. They’ve got a kind of telepathy that sends their thoughts along laser beams, and microwave relays set up to boost the signal. They try and send their minds to earth, to overwrite our minds.”
“That’s what I’ve been seeing? The man with the beard is this signal?”
The doctor shrugged. “It looks different for everyone. This is just how the signal manifests to you. Anyway, probably a small amount of damage in your hippocampus is causing your memory receptors to pick it up. If it went on for too long, eventually all your past memories would be replaced with Fomalhaut memories, and you’d be one of them.” The doctor had a beard now, and was wearing the sunglasses. Mahmoud wasn’t sure if he should still trust him. Was he being replaced by the Fomalhaut men, or did it just look that way? Did the doctor wear a real beard, or an imaginary beard? “Have you been taking the Count-E?” The doctor asked him. “The ultraviolets can sometimes cause this kind of damage.”
“I…” Mahmoud said. “Not today.”
“Well, here.” The doctor gave him a handful of ampoules, and Mahmoud injected himself gratefully. The headache subsided, but the doctor still had an imaginary beard.
“Are there a lot of people who’ve been…overwritten, like this?”
“Not many,” the doctor said. “More than Peasy would like, obviously. And it’s not easy to tell. Once they’ve been replaced completely, they start to act just like regular people again. You should be fine, though. We have a method to cure you. There’s a memory resequencer in the lab upstairs. It will over-write the part of your brain that’s susceptible to the signal—give you a memory of some kind of experience, I don’t know what, probably something relating to your own memories, probably something to do with you confronting the signal. Then it’ll just erase the memory. You’ll feel weird, like you’ve lost a day, but the clairvoyance should stop.”
“Can we do it soon?”
“We can do it today, if you like.” The doctor told him. “The sequencer will cover some of your existing memories. It’s not really that precise, so you may encounter some rough edges.” He consulted a holographic display that had a list of treatments and costs. “Ten thousand credits.”
Ten thousand, Mahmoud thought. Too much. No, wait. That was before I was rich. “I guess I can—”
Mahmoud Truely awoke on a hospital bed, wearing paper scrubs. The doctor was standing over him. The room was blindingly white and sterile, the way hospital rooms should be. “What…what happened?” Mahmoud asked. “Did you do it?”
“Yes,” the doctor said. “Resequencer ran without a hitch. You shouldn’t have any memory of your experience inside. How do you feel?”
“Weird. Okay, I guess. How long did it take?”
“Twenty minutes. You’ve got time to go back to work, actually.” The doctor smiled, and Mahmoud left.
He was actually kind of disappointed. He’d hoped that the resequencing would take longer, so that he could excuse himself for taking the day early. But if it was only two o’clock, there was no excuse for leaving. He could put off looking for a new flat until the weekend.
Back at his desk, Mahmoud found a new assignment waiting for him in his message queue. He selected it, and Phil’s face appeared on the video screen. “Good news, Truely,” Phil said. “You’re going to Ceres. We’ve finally got a cover identity for you in place. You can blend in with the New Shakers, and we can finally get samples of the psucharist. Everything’s set up, we’ve got a credit account for you and a ticket on the next pilgrim ship.”
Mahmoud was about to call Phil and tell him he didn’t want the job. Ceres? The New Shakers? How long would he have to live on one of those god-forsaken rocks, growing black mould on a half-terraformed asteroid, before he could get the samples he needed? He was rich now, anyway. He didn’t need to do bunk jobs like this anymore. Mahmoud put his hand on the vid-phone to call Phil, then stopped.
The image of Phil Gaugin, the recorded image, had changed. Phil had a black-and-white beard, now, and was wearing a bright yellow shirt. Mahmoud snatched his hand from the phone as though it had been burned. Maybe, he thought to himself, maybe some time off earth would be a good idea. Maybe I can get away from the signal, then.