Timespooks (and bit parts)
Stan Kulikowski

Starring: Jack Nicholson, a Mobile. Jeff Goldblum, a Sessile.

And a supporting cast of thousands of other small parts.

He was sitting in the car waiting for the bullet he knew would come. When it did, he heard a small tinkling of broken glass, and wondered if the window would crinkle in that sparkling pattern in which a small break would propagate another small crack and another and another until the entire surface became an opaque fractal prism, falling into a zillion separate tiny stars on the slightest touch.

It didn't. That was odd, he thought.

Another thing that was odd was that it really didn't hurt much. The small-caliber projectile had entered on the right front hip, striking the pelvic horn and ricocheting upward through endlessly convoluted turns of intestines, nicking the liver and the hepatic vein, and finally coming to rest lodged in the interior wall of the diaphragm. The point of the tiny Teflon-coated bullet, called a Needlehead, was just sharp enough to grate a little against a rib when he breathed in.

He expected more pain. As it was, the small scritchscritch when he inspired was about it. The bullet's brief flight through his organs and membranes had been like an instant of thin, brilliant ruby laser light. An almost static image of a single spider's thread through his body, so he could note its passage and the resultant damage but hardly more. He kept his face winced and his gut sucked in for a long time expecting an onslaught of agony which never came. Eventually he had to relax and admit that being shot was not as bad as he had thought it would be.

The problem was the nick on the hepatic vein. The entry wound itself was slight. There was hardly a dribble of blood, and that was quickly stanched when he placed his hand over it. All the myriad punctures of the twistings of small intestine were so minor that most of them would seal and heal without much surgical assistance. A little liver tissue would regenerate with just a scar. The slight mass of the bullet itself was just an annoyance, easily removed.

It was the sharp incision across the venous wall that would occasionally gape open, then closed, like a curious mouth speaking large quantities of the dark venous blood into his visceral cavity. Episodic internal hemorrhage. He would eventually bleed to death without losing more than a teaspoon of blood.

If he sat there very still, he figured he might have a few hours left before the circulating volume of his blood lowered enough for him to black out of consciousness for the last time. His belly would bloat outward when receiving the expanding embolism. The internal visceral pressure might eventually equilibrate with the lowering venous pressure so further loss might be minimal, but by then it would be too late to do any good. His brain needed a constant fresh supply of prime, Grade-A, oxygenated corpuscles to survive and a dead-end reservoir that was far too large was being created south of the rib cage.

Of course, the end could come much quicker than that. The sharp, clean tear of the hepatic vessel wall could rupture at any moment and he would see life's vibrant colors drain away to black in a sudden rushing swoosh into the hidden internal sea below.

Just sit here for a while and wait. Yep, thinks Nicholson, live life to its longest if I just take it easy here for a while.

But after a bit, Jack gets bored of sitting hunched over in the Mercedes. When he gets restless, he decides that he may as well get up and go back into the studio wardroom. Getting out the front seat gingerly, holding his side (uselessly), Jack walks hunched over like a crab. He crosses the parking lot and makes it up the three steps to the wardroom vestibule. If he's going to die anyway, he may as well seek out the company of friends. If he dies on the way, at least he'll see himself doing a great heroic act -- something he always found possible but just missing in his real life.

He passes the nurse's station, with a sneer on his lips and dragging one leg, his hand clutching over his liver tightly. It looks so much like Lon Chaney Sr.'s Hunchback of Notre Dame that they just wave him through security and check-in. He had just left, after all, and if this is the way 'an artist' like him wants to work up a part, so be it.

A few doors down the corridor, the rich, deep pungency of the wardrooms takes over. An odor so strong and so human that it puts a stitch in your breathing when you first hit it like a wall. The smells of sweat and exhaled air and a little vomit and silent-but- deadlies. Nothing else like it on Earth, and nobody except perhaps primeval Neanderthals might recognize it: a crowded cave, poor sanitation, after a long hard winter just after an attack by ax- wielding cannibals, who gutted many and ate several members of the tribe, spilling their sour gastric juices with their guts. That kind of smell.

Nicholson feels buoyed by the throat-choking stench. Actors took to the wardrooms like they responded to the smell of greasepaint backstage on opening night. It took a while to get used to it at first, but the whole arrangement made so much sense. Theater, movies, then the wards forever.

There was, increasingly nowadays, an underlying tincture to the wardrooms. An occasional waft of sterile alcohol or ammonia and the antiseptic tang of the medical support units. The old-timers say you get used to these otherwise distracting gustatory conflicts. You cannot do without the doctors and their skills, so you've gotta put up with the sharp stink of their trade.

The naive think that one day the medical interventions would cut through the basic odor of concentrated living. But that didn't seem to be the case. The same old guys (with their wisdom of age and experience) would say that you could always tell the smell of someone getting too rich in the biotics. These outbreaks, nasally distinct, would soon be followed by sharp smells of the antiseptic. Those medical kids would step in and ferret out the corruption and putrefaction, leaving instead their own non-living traces. A good healthy wardroom had its own supporting olfaction.

Jack, as he shambles down his corridor, knows that he won't collapse before he makes it across the dayroom, right next to where Jeff Goldblum is almost always typing away at a VT-220. It's truly ancient equipment -- the color monitor and keyboard are almost certifiable antiques.

Peck, peck, peck. Goldblum punched at the keys in his own unique fingering. Sometimes hunting, a complicated dance of finger motions and wrist snappings. His keyboarding was like a showboat performance artist: lots of dramatic pauses punctuated by incredibly complicated twistings of fingernails and tips. Just the right pressures for maximum speed of output. Hands suddenly thrown into the air as if expecting instant applause for some piece of brilliance.

Light shines down in a beam from a nearby window. Somehow Jeff always gets a position next to a real window. Most in the biomass of actors equity just get sunlamps at the right wattage to produce healthy Vitamin D in the surface skin. Goldblum always thinks that natural sunlight gives his skin a special sheen which made a perceptible difference in those forty-foot projections on the silver screen. It didn't matter that much for television work, but the true cinema deserved his best... and that always came when he was given a window seat.

Actually, the location teams just got tired of hearing his bitching when he got transplanted into a normal room. Everyone knew that the constant, controlled frequency of the halogen lamps were better than the erratic variability of the sun. So it was not really difficult for him to pre-empt a place near a window.

Natural sunlight gives his skin a special sheen... Sure, he shrugs. 'His skin' could be any color of the rainbow whenever he went Mobile. The surgical crew could see to that. Not to mention what the makeup crew could do when they took over. remember his Othello? Nobody ever thought that a skinny, Jewish Goldblum could replace Olivier by becoming darker than Portier. It has become a standard joke in the industry. Still, he likes the feel of the true sun coming in over his shoulder. Perhaps that feeling of self-contentment is what made all the difference in his next adventure before the celluloid. Perhaps it was just the old De Mille-style star system: cater to their quirks between roles if you want the best output from name actors.

Jeff finally notices Nicholson as he sidles into a day chair, sharing the beam of daylight. Jack has been one of his best friends, especially since Geena decided not to have anything to do with him. It had been touch-and-go on the set of Mutiny on the Bounty, as Nicholson always managed to upstage your spotlight somehow. His Bligh to Jeff's Christian had that spark of greatness. True, the film wasn't exactly a financial hit, but the critics had understood that producing it as a 3-D space opera had some risks. Bounty was guaranteed classic status anyway: the last first-run 3-D with the red and green lens before they solved the close-up problem with the holos.

"So what's happening, Jack?" says Jeff with his cool halfway grin. "You look like you just passed a concrete turd the size of a melon."

"Yeah, it feels kinda like it," Nicholson says as he sinks into the overstuffed naugahide day chair. The sound of a whoopee cushion erupts as his exposed skin rubs against the dry, sun hot surface. "I been shot pretty good."

"So tell me what you been up to these last ten minutes since you left,' asked Jeff, not really listening for an answer. On his terminal he has displayed the last of a treatise on the benefits of species-wide immune responses through direct sharing of antibody defenses in a common blood pool.

It had been the first and biggest surprise of the human genome project. While mapping out the location of all genetic variants, the mechanism of self/nonself recognition was discovered on the molecular level. Of course, the AIDS researchers and the cancer crew all claimed prior superiority, but the Nobel went to a computer operator, a CAD/CAM geek. She got the published data from genetic probes and started playing with the balls and knobs in virtual data extrapolations. A little eye of frog and toe of newt, and presto-chango: the degree of biochemical self-recognition could be precisely tuned.

No more tissue rejection ever. The immune system could be taught to recognize anything human as good stuff to be maintained. Viruses and bacteria did not have a chance to get through the new human immune system. Indeed, mixing human organs and tissues was found to be self-actuating-- the conglomerate having a finer collective degree of antibody response. Each originally separate immune system had slightly different capacities to produce the antibodies needed for leukocytic scrubbing of the tissues and bloodstream. The recognition mechanism of the antibodies could be adjusted to whatever level of acceptance or rejection was desired.

At first the eugenic purists tried to use it for racial purposes and found it quickly thinned pure blood lines to incipience. With the immune system self-containing a model of what a complete human genome looks like, the antigen recognition system could be improved by orders of magnitude through mixing maximally different tissue expressions of the genome.

The more dissimilar the tissues mixed, the stronger the resultant response. In a bizarre feat of experimental logic, it was shown that if the entire human species were surgically melded into a common blood circulation system, the superultimate maximum of immune recognition would occur.

This was theory, of course, but in practice it encouraged the largest wardrooms. The more people who would have their healthy parts joined, the more stable would be the whole. Societies and companies promoted these as retirement plans at first. It gave new meaning to the term "union meeting." If enough union members would join together, they could conceivably live forever, or at least a very long time -- 500 years by one conservative estimate.

Once aging effects were identified with sufficient precision, only young healthy cells would be able to pass the common immune filter. And so the Sessiles came to be, the wardrooms their home.

"And so you don't know how much this pisses me off, do you?" insists Nicholson, pulling Goldblum from his reverie over the treatise.

"So, why don't you just have the location teams patch you in somewhere and have done with it? you're equity as much as anyone else here."

"You don't understand. I think I've been Mobile all along, since the start. Sure, everybody thinks, "Oh, there goes Jack- fucking-Nicholson, always working on something or the other." I got this and that replaced many times, but I've always been Mobile. I don't think I can take being stuck down in one place even for a little while."

"Well, you're about to die a Mobile if you don't let the surgery kids do their jobs on you. I mean, what a waste, Jack. To die, to be gone just because everything lower than your diaphragm has been trashed. Just look at me."

Goldblum stretches his torso out like he's a body builder. He's attached to equity from the waist up. 'Sure, when they took the original pelvic structure away, I thought, 'Oh, shit!,' but the funny thing was that I really couldn't shit anymore. All that baggage around my balls and my dick being gone. It really is better to live for periods without the testosterone poisoning the blood, you know.'

He stopped and looked at Jack with his famous intensity. "But a casting call can put them back anytime. At least ones just as good, or even better." (It depends on what the director needs for the shots scheduled.)

"Nah, it ain't removing the private parts. I had mine rebuilt several times." (So, the tabloid claims were true. They had been speculating on the nature of Nicholson's cosmetic surgery long before the human genome breakthrough.) "I just cannot take being pinned down on some equity hump somewhere."

"Well, have it your own way then," Jeff sighs. "I'll miss having you around except in the reruns." He turned back to his terminal, preparing for another onslaught of lashing hypertextual lexia in his celebrated quirky manner. "If you change your mind, I can have triage here in minutes."

This leaves Jack alone with his thoughts for a few seconds. Not long enough, though.

He sits up with a start, jarring his blood vessel into another crimson aria. He sees himself walking across the ward. His face is a gray color and his belly is grossly distended and sloshing. There's an ill-defined lack of depth to this appearance of himself, like perspective is somehow being violated.

"Whoa, what goes on here?" he says, and the apparition turns toward him.

"Didn't you always want to play Ebeneezer and Marley both? This is your chance," it says.

"But I ain't dead yet," he protests. "At least I think I would have known if I was to expire.'

"Oh yes, I know. So it's safe to say that you will too."

"Now wait a minute. You're not one of them union scabs the producers keep threatening to patch together when our agents are pushing too hard?"

"No, no," muttered the shade. "I am truly your mortal coil after you have shuffled it off. You will in a few minutes, you know."

"Then how come you are here now, talking to me?"

"Oh come now," chided the specter. "What makes you think the ethereal is bound by any foolish notion of linear time? If our measure is not properly taken with that Judeo-Christian nonsense, why should we keep to strict timetables just for the convenience of your schedules?"

"So I'm haunting myself before I'm dead?"

"Precisely. Narcissism unbounded. You are, after all, dying unnecessarily because of an ego malfunction."

"The hell, you say," Jack says, slapping his knee.

"I would be careful about making such statements if I were you. Indeed, I was and I did too, so I guess any warning I might make is a pretty pointless recursion." The spirit turns to depart. "And speaking of preordination in this deterministic universe, I wonder why I'm inclined to go back and reincarnate in my own fetus?" And he disappears.

Nicholson's senses are becoming acute, hypersensitive. Why is it that you become most clearly aware when it's not possible to do anything with it? Like the brilliant insights of drunkenness, the certainty of faith, and the promises of politicians. The background swells slowly to foreground.

Bob Dylan in the corner sings to anyone who will listen. Songwriters like to attach themselves to actor's equity when they can.

Dylan's few film appearances were mediocre to say the least, but his name recognition couldn't be slighted. So his right to throw his lot in with the mostly Hollywood crowd was never doubted. Songwriters usually hate to hang with the musicians and singers. Too much melodic talent who can't make good songs on their own but think they have a say in how fine art gets created. They practice good craft and call it art.

Anyway, Mr. Zimmerman is over in the corner talking and singing his life away, with a soft banjo backup from somewhere. Since he has no hands in the immediate vicinity, it is unlikely that he is doing the strumming directly. James Caan is probably providing the backup, as he needs his hands for his parts. So Bob's a singing and a crooning:

"Like, the original song went like this:

'And she waaalks juuust like a woman,

and she taaalks juuust like a woman,

but she fuuucks juuust like a little girl'

"And man, all the censors at the record company just turns all frown faces. You know what I mean. So before they would cut the record I had to change the lyrics to

'And she taaalks juuust like a woman,

but she fucks uuup just like a little girl'

"And then all the man censors, they turn to smiles and say, 'Like, yeah, it ain't about doing the deed no more, so it's cool.' But all the lady censors still stay with frown faces, and they say, 'It still has the F-word in it. Think about all the children who'd be hearing it.' So I sits and writes some more until I get to

'And she taaalks juuust like a woman,

but she breaks uuup just like a little girl'

"It screwed up the rhythm a little but then all the censors they turn to sunshine and that's how the song got the way you heard it. The children are supposed to be so fragile that some fucking's gonna pervert them all to bisexuals or something. They be screwin' anything that smiles, if they even hear me sing the F-word."

With these pearls of wisdom floating around in the background, who could not be creative to the max? Like listening to Springsteen tell about forming up the E Street Band on the Great White Boss album.

From over his shoulder:

"We got Madonna's twat around here someplace, if you would rather try that."

"No. no, thank you."

"That was always the best part of her," smiles Warren Beatty's head, attached somewhere over by a further window. "The only part we saved, anyway. I can still smell it once a month or so."

And Jack, he just keeps sitting there, trying to absorb all the sensation he can. Trying desperately to hold onto to all of it. To cherish it. To take it with him forever. Not just a memory, a hollow husk of abstraction, but the raw, pure instant of sensation itself.

But he knows it is slipping through his fingers like quicksilver. And knowing what will come thereafter, Jack he just keeps sitting there, waiting for the tunnel of light.

Stan Kulikowski is a research scholar in the College of Education at the University of West Florida. He is a specialist in educational technology and is currently developing projects for K-12 use of the Internet. He says this story is taken almost verbatim from a dream he had in the fall of 1992.

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Stan Kulikowski.