by Mike Stone
A short story taken from my third sci-fi novel, “Whirlpool.”
The old man shuffled down the long white hallway in his pale blue paper slippers. Underneath his thin blue institutional bathrobe, he wore the brown striped pajamas that were his hospital uniform. Had he tried to escape by shuffling out of the hospital, they would certainly have caught him because they moved so quickly and he shuffled so slowly. He reached the door of his room and fumbled with the knob. The door seemed to open by itself. By accident. He shuffled over to his bed and sat down. He leaned forward reaching for his notebook and pencil. He opened the notebook to a blank page and started to write. It was like one of those sketches of a hand making a sketch of itself.
Do you know who you are? Yes. Do you know where you are? Yes, in a hospital … in a mental … in a ward for the in- … ins- … insa-a-a-a … Insane? Were you trying to say insane? No, I was trying to go insane. I meant to say insidious. Very clever of you, ha ha! Do you know why you are here? I suppose it is because I keep attempting to kill myself. Very perceptive. Why do you suppose you keep trying to kill yourself? First, my wife. Your wife? My wife … she left me. But our records show that you never married. Your records are mistaken. Our records are mistaken? Your records are mistaken. We’ve been through this before. Have we? Yes, we have. I don’t know what is worse, for my wife to have left me or for her to have never been. You always say that. So why do you keep asking me the same questions over and over and over … Please stop repeating. I don’t think I can … Please stop. Ok. Then, my dog. I couldn’t bear the tremendous weight of my continued existence after that. And then … Yes? And then … Yes? And then …
Yes? The stories came. I couldn’t stop them. Why would you want to stop them? I don’t know. All I know is that I couldn’t stop them. Like now, I can’t stop this damn dialogue, this double-damned dialectical spiritualism. You mean dialectical materialism, don’t you? No, dialectical spiritualism. You know … thesis, antithesis, synthesis. I think it’s called dialectical materialism. You exacerbate me. I don’t think it’s used that way. What’s used what way? Exacerbate. Whatever. I was talking about the story. You were talking about the story. It was the characters. What about the characters?
They were real to me. As real as you are. As real as I am? As real as you are. Do you think I am one of your characters? I know you’re one of my characters. You really believe that. Yes, I do. You’re playing with me. Why should I want to do that? To have fun. To pass the time. I’d much rather get on with writing my story than talk to you. But if we stop talking, you might attempt to kill yourself again. It’s the price I pay for the freedom to write, to suffer and to write. But I can’t let you kill yourself. Try and stop me. And your dog. Was he a character? She. Was she a character? No. What was she then and what happened to her? Let’s leave her out of this. She was totally innocent.
I think you have a philosophical disease. What is it? Solipsism. Solipsism? Yes, solipsism. You think you’re the only being who exists. Everyone else is a figment of your imagination. Can we stop right here? I’m overcome with weariness. Yes, you may go back to your room to rest, as long as you behave yourself properly.
He stood up slowly, carefully, slightly stooped, and shuffled through the doorway to the next room. He walked slowly past the filing cabinet. He stopped a moment to look at it, as though expecting one of the drawers to open and reach out for him. He felt his mouth open and a wetness in the corner of it. He was not sure whether the wetness was inside his mouth or outside. He reached up to touch the corner of his mouth with his desiccated finger. He closed his mouth, lowered his hand, and shuffled toward the outer door. He tried to remember which direction down the hallway was the way to his room. This was his ritual. It never varied. He shuffled down the hall to his room, fumbled with the door, and opened it. He shuffled over to his bed and sat down. He leaned forward reaching for his notebook and pencil. Good, he said to himself as though sitting down to a succulent feast prepared only for him and set on a table covered with three white tablecloths on a beach in front of the ocean at sunset. Now I can work on my story.
There was a soft knock on the door. Instead of being exasperated at the interruption he looked up expectantly at the door and said brightly come in. The door opened tentatively and Ellen stuck her beautiful face into the gloomy room. Hi handsome! Got any room for me at that table of yours? She did not wait for an answer. She walked quickly over to the old man, skirts swishing lusciously, long legs slicing the air, and black patent high heels clicking on the checkered linoleum floor, the whole atmosphere of the room ionized by her presence. She bent down and kissed him on his lips longer than was required by social grace. I hope you haven’t promised the seat next to you to someone else! Once again she didn’t wait for him to answer and sat right down next to him on the bed, so close to him that he could feel the heat of her leg through his bathrobe and pajama pants. You know that I can’t concentrate on my writing when you sit so close to me. She smiled demurely. I know you can’t even write when I’m ten feet away in the same room as you. Do you want me to leave? Good God, no!
You look well rested this morning. Thank you. Did you sleep well last night? No, I didn’t sleep a wink. What kept you awake? My story and the concerns of my characters. I see. Did you actually write anything this time? No.
She is rather pretty, isn’t she? Who? I noticed your glance straying in the direction of the nurse bending down to pull out a folder from the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet in the next room. Oh, yes … her. Would you like to move your chair to a more advantageous position where you can have a better view of her? No, I don’t want to be too obvious. She is pretty though. How do you feel about pretty girls like her? That’s rather private. I don’t want to discuss that with you, to let you analyze it to the point where the stirring in my loins goes away. May we discuss it in the abstract? How do you feel about pretty girls in general? Pretty girls make me homesick. Don’t you mean heartsick? No, homesick. How so? It’s as though I was born in a land of beauty and then expelled without a passport or any means of returning to that land. Tell me some more about your wife. Was she one of your characters? Don’t be absurd. Tell me how she left you. There’s not much to say about it. One night I went to bed with the woman I married. When I awoke in the morning, the woman sleeping next to me was someone else. That’s not unusual. People change. Not like that. I’m sure you must have changed too. That’s ridiculous. That’s like saying I went to sleep one night and woke up another person in the morning. You don’t think you’ve changed at all? Not at all. I’m still me. Always have been. Always will. Can we talk about your thoughts for a moment? I’m so tired. Can I go back to my room? I’d like to go to sleep. But we just began our session. Don’t you know what time it is? It’s not fifty minutes yet? You know I have all the time in the world for you. That’s the problem. What’s the problem? You contribute to my disorientation. How so? I need boundaries. You have boundaries. What boundaries do I have? Your room for one. Nobody enters your room without knocking on the door first and asking permission to enter. I can’t hear anyone talking to me from the other side of the door so they enter anyway without my permission. In any case, spatial boundaries don’t concern me one iota. I was just pointing out the fallacy of your logic. What concerns me more are temporal boundaries. Oh, I see. No, I don’t think you do see. Temporal boundaries are fundamental building blocks of events. Without them, nothing ever happens. Now I see. Back to your thoughts. I’d like to explore with you where they come from. Some of them come from the future and some of them from the past. Don’t any of your thoughts come from the present? Let me think about that a moment.
Well? You are persistent, aren’t you? I suppose I am. Well? I suppose a thought from the future might run head-on into a thought from the past or vice-versa, and the collision might result in a thought from the present but it could only last for a very short moment. Interesting. Not really. That’s just the way it is. What about stories? What about stories? Where do your stories come from? They don’t come from anywhere. They always were. Always will be. Like Plato’s triangles.
Are you Ellen one, two, or three? What do you think? I have no idea. Look into my persona. I can’t. I’m not a mind reader, you know, especially not a reader of female minds. You really have no clue what I’m thinking? No. That’s strange, given that you created me. So what? I created my daughter and I have no idea what she thinks about. You don’t have a daughter. Yes, you’re right. I forgot I didn’t. Still, I might have had a daughter and then I still wouldn’t have known what she was thinking in that pretty little head of hers. Just because I created you doesn’t mean I control or read your thoughts. You have your own life, quite independent of me. Not quite. If you were to die, I’d die with you. You’re being melodramatic. No, I’m being practical. My existence is dependent on you. I suppose so, but in the same way, my life is dependent on this world. If it were to cease to exist, I’d die with it but the world doesn’t control or read my thoughts. How do you know that? Well, I suppose you have a point there. My eyelids are so heavy but I don’t want you to leave just yet. Do you want me to sit beside you while you close your eyes? Yes.
She slid the loose robe off his thin shoulders. His chest was pale white and almost hairless. He lay down next to her. She leaned across him and untied the loose knotted belt. She eased the robe from under him. He listened to her breathing and the silence.
I don’t care which Ellen you are, I love you all, the whole trajectory of you.
She shushed him into silence.
There was a faint warbling somewhere in his pajama bottoms.
You seem well rested this morning. What makes you say that? You don’t seem as world-weary to me as you did last evening. I had a visitor. You had a visitor? Yes, I had a visitor. Do you find it so hard to believe? We have no record of anyone signing in to visit you. We would know if there were someone who wanted to visit you. Nobody could enter the building without our knowing about it. Well, you must have been breached. You had better look for a jimmied lock or a hole in the wall because I had a visitor and she was the Schroedinger’s meow. Oh, I get it. Schroedinger’s cat, cat’s meow, a good looker… Maybe you had and didn’t have a visitor. Maybe you would see the visitor and maybe I would not. What was your visitor’s name? Ellen, Ellen Morningstar. Was she one of your characters? Yes, I suppose so. I really should read one of your books. I don’t want you to read my books. You don’t want me to read your books? No. Why in the world not? Because you are too analytical and you have an agenda. Don’t we all have agendas? Yes, but yours conflicts with mine. What’s your agenda? No. No, what? Do you really think that what you can’t obtain by analysis you can get by subterfuge or by wearing me down? I guess you’re just too smart for me. Not really. Intelligence really has nothing to do with it.
Let’s go back to what we were talking about last evening when you were too tired to continue our conversation. What were we talking about? We were talking about where your stories came from and you mentioned something about Plato’s triangles. Plato talked about the ideal triangle as opposed to a material triangle. You can draw a material triangle but, no matter how hard you try, how true your ruler is, how sharp your pencil is, the material triangle will never have three perfectly equal sides like the ideal triangle has. The ideal forms of Plato are universal. They always existed and they always will whether or not we exist. We did not invent them. We discovered them for ourselves as other beings throughout the Universe either discovered them or didn’t discover them. It’s the same with my stories. I don’t follow you. My stories are ideal forms. They are universal. Nobody can invent them, not even me. They’re just floating around out there waiting for someone to pass through them, like a cloud of points, lines, or triangles. Some people pass right through them without a second thought, but others become so entangled in the story that they adapt their whole lives around it. Then it becomes a material story. Most of us live some story or other. I see. Do you live your story? Well, yes. I suppose I do. What is your story? Ah, yes. You almost had me there.
Am I boring you? No. Why do you ask? I noticed you staring out the window. It’s just that I have no window in my room and the world outside is so strange to me. What is so strange about it? It’s the world into which you were born and the world in which you have lived every day of your life, until you came to stay with us. Really? I don’t remember it being this way before, certainly not yesterday when I looked out your window. Really? What is it that you find so strange about the world outside my window? Well, for one thing, those people are walking down that sidewalk perpendicular to it, as they should be, but the sidewalk is 70 degrees off the plane of the floor in your office. It’s as though I were looking through your window at another dimension, offset at a strange angle from our dimensions. Well, I’m no expert in hyper-dimensional geometries, but shouldn’t higher dimensions be perpendicular to our own four dimensions? I don’t know. Maybe our dimensions are spherical, rather than cubical, and the perpendicularity can expand at any angle. In any case, that has always been the view from my window and always will be. I rather like it. Kind of quaint, don’t you think? No, I don’t think it’s quaint and it definitely was not like that yesterday. And another thing. The sequences are getting shorter. What do you mean by the sequences? Sequences. You know. I look at something or I think about something. It is. A moment later, it still is, and a moment later it still is. Then, at some point along the way, it’s not like that anymore, or it’s not at all. Those are sequences. They’re getting shorter. We’ll be talking, like we’re talking now, or I’ll be looking out the window and suddenly I’m in my room writing in my notebook. Then I’ll get a call from Vitruvius on my STU. What’s an STU? A Secure Telecommunications Unit. Is it like a telephone? Yes, somewhat. But you don’t have a telephone in your room. You know we don’t allow them. Of course I do. You just can’t recognize it. Anyway, I get this call and I’m in a cabin on a mountain overlooking a violet sea when I hear a knock at the door. It’s like the whole universe, my sense of reality if you will, is going along in a straight line and then it turns inward, going on some other tangent, and then turns inward again, and so on. My whole sense of reality is spiraling inward like a vast whirlpool.
I noticed you looking up at the ceiling. Huh? Yes. Do you see the crack there? What crack? You don’t see the crack there in the ceiling? No, I don’t see any crack in the ceiling. There’s light shining through it. Sunlight. I don’t see any sunlight. Besides, it can’t be sunlight because it’s night time. Look out the window. Oh, you’re right. Maybe there’s some other light source shining through. You don’t see the line it draws on the floor? No. You know, I feel a slight compulsion to walk over that line on the floor. You know you are beginning to worry me a bit? It reminds me. Did you know that the floor in my room is covered with spots of every shade of brown and yellow? You know we don’t have a budget for having someone clean your room. After all, you are here on the mercy of the government. I know that. I’m not complaining, really. I just wanted to mention something that occurred to me that might be of interest to you. What is that? I don’t know whether or not it is connected to the line I see on your floor, but I see images in the stain spots on the floor in my room, beautiful and complicated images. What kind of images? Naked women, feeble old men, boulders and gnarled windswept trees on a sandy beach under a cliff. You want to see them? How can I see them? They are obviously from your imagination. Ah, it’s simple. I’ve traced the images with my pen. They’re quite impressive. Ellen said so. Well, maybe sometime after I finish my rounds I could stop by your room to take a look at your images. Please don’t have anyone come into my room to clean the floor. I would be distraught. As I said, we really can’t afford it. We’re on a really tight budget. That’s why we could only afford the shot. What shot? You know, the LSP shot. LSP? You know, Lysergic Acid Penthylamide. It’s a kind of directed anti-hallucinatory hallucinatory drug. How does it work? It seeks out and identifies your hallucinations and creates opposing healthy hallucinations to counteract your pathological hallucinations, canceling them out until you are free of all of your hallucinations, healthy as well as pathological. Fascinating. Give me an example of a healthy hallucination. Well, like me for example. Our sessions are hallucinations, but they are therapeutic hallucinations. How are they therapeutic? The hallucinations are directed so that they follow a protocol. What kind of a protocol? It’s based on the standard clinical talking therapy, but it’s more adapted to your pathology. You can’t hide from or evade the questions. Your answers are drawn straight from your subconscious, if you will, without the possibility of any interference from your conscious mind. Who hears my answers? Only you do, your conscious mind, that is. Many patients prefer it that way. It protects your privacy and most flesh-and-blood psychiatrists and psychologists wouldn’t be able to understand what’s going on inside you nearly as well as you. You certainly can’t lie to yourself. Interesting, but aren’t you breaking protocol by telling me that you are just a hallucination? Not really. The protocol adapts itself to your hallucination so that you have the sensation of having a hallucination within a hallucination. It’s all part of the curative process, waves out of phase canceling waves.
But tell me, please, what would happen if you were to administer LSP to a person who had no hallucinations? Uh, I don’t know the answer to that one. I don’t think we have a protocol for that question. We’ll have to research it and get back to you. You’ll have to get back to me pretty soon because I think something has gone terribly wrong.
The long hallway between the psychiatrist’s office and his room began to undulate and twist as though he were in the middle of a massive earthquake. He held on to the walls and doors as he shuffled over the spot stained linoleum floor tiles to stabilize himself. A jagged line of bright light appeared suddenly from behind him and ran ahead of him to the end of the hall. He looked up at the ceiling above him and saw the crack through which the light shone spreading toward the end of the hall. Beads of sweat collected on his forehead and chest. The bright jagged line snaked between him and his room down the hall. He knew he would have to cross over that line in order to enter his room. He felt a mixture of dread and excitement. Somehow he reached the point in the hallway directly across from his room. He shuffled toward the bright line between himself and his door, as toward an infinitely wide chasm, with all the courage and fortitude he could muster. The bright light sliced across his scalp as his left foot moved over the line, and he lurched toward the handle of his door.
The phone was ringing as he opened the door. He rushed over to the STU lying on the desk by the window. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue rippled through the heavy air. He stopped to gaze out the window at the distant cliffs and quiet sea beyond them. He picked up the STU, pressed to answer, and put it to his ear. The fugue stopped in the middle, as he said
Hello? Hello? Who is it? … It’s me, Lem. Lem? Lem? Is that really you? Yes, it really is me. How … why are you calling me? I think I’m losing my mind. You called me. Don’t you remember? I called you? How could I do that? I don’t even have a phone in my room. So what are you using to speak? A … a … an STU … but I don’t know where it came from … and this is not my room. I … really don’t think I can hold it together anymore. Relax. You are looking over the edge of your rationality. It gives you a sensation of vertigo. Take a step back from the edge and inhale deeply. You wanted very much to talk with me, so I called you. You’re not very good at projecting your thoughts more than two centimeters beyond your skull, so I sent you an STU through the q-foam. I almost sent it to the wrong coordinates when you crossed over the line between dimensions. You’re probably a bit disoriented from changing universes. Try to relax a little and get used to your surroundings. In the future, you might want to be a little more careful about crossing over dimensional boundaries. Not every universe contains an Earth-like planet or runs according to the laws of physics you’re used to. Just be a bit more careful. That’s all I’m saying. Now, what is it you wanted to talk to me about? You mean you’re talking to me from another universe? Well, yes. But how is that possible? According to current multiverse theory, each universe is an independent set of causes and effects. An event in one universe can’t cause an effect in another universe. So? The signal propagation between two STUs is a propagation of causes and effects. So? So, how can causes jump from one universe to affect another universe? Through the q-foam. It’s common to all the universes. Anyway, what did you want to talk about?
I wanted to talk to somebody intelligent, somebody who knows more than me, not that idiot psychiatrist that was injected into my brain. But I’m a creation of your mind just as much as that psychiatrist is. Yes, I know, but I created you to be intelligent and rational, far beyond the borders of what I’m capable of. I created problems only you could solve, but I had no idea how to solve them, and now you have your own life, as dependent on the physics of my brain as my own mind is. Well, I suppose you might put it that way. Of course, the physics doesn’t really work the way you describe it, but the overall effect is accurately described. Psychokinesis. Psychokinesis? Psychokinesis. What about psychokinesis? I’ve come to the conclusion that it really exists. Of course it exists. What do you think generates your motor responses? What else besides your mind configures the quantum potential relayed through the axons and leaping across the synapses all the way to your extremities? And neurobiogenic thought? Sure, the same thing in reverse. The electrical potential relayed up from your extremities through your axons and over the synapses collapses the quantum state across the tubules affecting your thought. Does that mean we don’t have free will? That our minds are merely relays between stimulus and response? No, of course not. Only a very small percentage of our thoughts are affected by a source outside our bodies. Most of our thoughts are affected by other thoughts through the biology of our own brains. Our mind configures the quantum potential relayed through axons and synapses to collapse the quantum states in tubules of thoughts in other parts of our brain. So there’s free will? Some. Some? Not enough, or maybe too much. What do you mean by that? Well, we are usually responsible for our actions, unless we are overcome by forces stronger than ourselves, of which there are many in the universe but, forgive me for saying so, you humans ignore too much of what is really going on around you, at your own peril. What do you mean? I mean you treat a walk through the universe as you would a walk through the park, and it is not. What should I do, Lem? I don’t think there’s anything you can do. But what should I do? Tell me anyway.