Insoluble
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Insoluble

Chapter 23

The Acceptance (v1)

A chime sounds. Mike opens his eyes groggily, the smell of whiskey strong in the room. The door to the bathroom is ajar, the light on. He sits up and swings around to the side of the bed, his feet dangling to the floor, feeling something cold and hard and wet. He thinks of the dripping black fluid from his dream, guiltily remembering Arthur’s crumpled carapace.

But the object is only the small bottle of whiskey he’d drained before bed, somehow knocked to the floor during the night.

He gathers himself up and walks to the main door of the hotel room, glancing with regret in the direction of the small alcove in the hallway where his trust companion would have been waiting for him.

A small, white envelope has been pushed under the door.

Mike stoops to pick it up, and opens it. The folded paper within is nothing more than an account for his stay at the hotel, together with an details of his travel itinerary. It is a nice touch; old-fashioned and primitive, yet tangible and satisfying. A lost art.

He opens the door, checking the corridor to confirm that the chime was to alert him only to the presence of the invoice. The suit he ordered hangs from a wheeled rack outside his room. He takes it inside, remembering the tailor visiting his room the previous night, taking careful measurements as an assistant hovered around them, pencilling numbers into a well-thumbed notebook.

Mike enters the bathroom, hanging the suit on the hook behind the door. He undresses, standing naked before the mirror. He removes his eyeglasses and places them beside the bathroom sink, then runs his fingers through his bright orange hair. He once again feels the desperate urge to change.

The tap-tapping noises continue on the edge of hearing, apparently emanating from being the mirror. Mike pays them no heed.

He bunches his hair between his fingers and yanks upwards with a sudden violence, the hairpiece lifting away with ease. He throws it into the waste bin beneath the bathroom counter; it lays there like a dead animal. Mike approaches the shower cubicle and it hisses into life as it anticipates his intent, steam quickly filling the room. He steps into the raging torrent, washing away the dirt and grime and regrets and memories, the rushing water joined by the saltiness of his tears as he finally manages to cry, mourning for his missing friends and companions; for Jay and Jenny and Christopher and Arthur and especially for Schrödinger, the irreplaceable puzzle piece itself.

He lowers his balding scalp under the stream of water, rubbing its stubbly surface with his hands, moaning in distress as it finally dawns on him that his relentless craving for success at the expense of everything else has left a trail of death and destruction in its wake.

He alone is to blame. For everything. Mike’s shoulders slump as he accepts the heavy burden of guilt and responsibility.

He emerges into the bedroom, smartly dressed in his new suit, his eyeglasses in his pocket. He sports a more traditional neckpiece, having decided to forgo his trademark bowtie, which lies unravelled and forgotten in the trash beside his hairpiece, never to be worn again.

Mike checks the display of his device, noting that he has several hours to spare before his journey home is scheduled to begin. He pours himself a generous glass of whiskey from a fresh bottle and sits down at the desk in his room, Jay’s bundle of papers before him.

He begins to read.

Time passes slowly as Mike scans the pages of spidery handwriting, growing ever more intrigued. Jay’s version of events skims close to the truth, diverging only when necessary, usually for dramatic effect, but sometimes to avoid an inconvenient truth. Mike is fascinated by the character of Salvatore, though he cannot recall ever having met him. He finds his theory of the role of the claustrum in the human brain both profound and frightening.

Is there really such a thing?

He is shocked to read about Lloyd’s dream-time excursions to his own home; to read third-person descriptions of himself standing in his extensive garden, surveying his achievements, striding along its pathways with a purposeful gait. He becomes intensely agitated at this intrusion into his privacy. His fingers begin trembling. He feels increasingly anxious as he reads on.

When he reaches the chapter describing the camp, he puts the manuscript to one side and begins pacing the room.

The theory of consciousness that Jenny, Salvatore, Lloyd and the others developed during their discussions around the campfire is compelling to him; it makes sense in a perverted sort of way, and is logically consistent as far as he can tell. Casting coincidence as circumstantial evidence for the theory is a stroke of genius, and would be especially compelling to a sufferer of apophenia. It is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy in that respect.

He briefly wonders whether or not the mania is contagious. A mental illness transferred through the medium of a narrative; what disaster such a thing would bring! Mass hysteria on a global scale, fuelled by the ease with which information is communicated! He shudders at the thought.

The shrill chirp of his device brings his reverie to an end. He answers the call.

“Mister Mike?” the concierge says. “Your auto has arrived.”

The sleek black vehicle slows to a halt, its gull-wing doors raising with a hiss. Mike emerges blinking into the sunset. He carries with him a small satchel containing his travel documents and Jay’s manuscript. He enters the terminal building, passing swiftly through check-in and immigration, only to join the back of a long queue at the security checkpoint.

Slowly he shuffles forward. Bored, he opens his satchel and fishes out the manuscript, continuing to read from where he left off, absolutely fascinated with Jay’s tale. He reads quickly, almost skimming over the pages, rapidly reaching the final chapters of the document. Christopher had visited Jay days before his suicide, and had performed the simple experiment that apparently confirms Salvatore’s theory of consciousness.

The experiment itself is described in great detail. It seems almost comically simple; and yet Mike quickly realises that it would indeed confirm the theory. It truly is a stroke of genius, he thinks. It is trivial to perform the procedure, and so Mike begins to do so, tracing out a figure in the air before him with his fingertips.

“This way sir!”

He looks up, startled. A young, uniformed woman is beckoning him to step forwards, through a rectangular portal. He does so, and an angry buzzer sounds loudly, providing a rhythmic accompaniment to the portal’s flashing red lights.

“Are you carrying any coins sir? A device? Keys?”

Mike fumbles in the pockets of his bespoke suit, retrieving these and other metallic items and depositing them into the plastic tray being held before him. The woman indicates that he should pass back through the portal for another attempt at passage. He does so, and the klaxon sounds once more.

The woman waves a wand about his person. It emits a shrill wail as she does this, rising and lowering in pitch as she sweeps it up and down.

“Your belt, sir. You must remove it.”

Mike backs through the portal once again, removing his new silver-buckled belt, rolling it up and stuffing it into his satchel, which he hands to an awaiting attendant. The others behind him roll their eyes and shake their heads in exasperation at this familiar display.

On the third attempt the portal remains silent, authorising his passage. He retrieves his possessions and hurries to the departure lounge, forgetting about the belt, the uniformed woman giving him a curt nod as he passes.

Mike fidgets in his seat, ignoring the empty slot above him that would have housed Arthur for the return journey. He flicks through his device and orders a strong drink, downing it in one swallow when it arrives. Things had not turned out as planned. Not at all.

He retrieves the manuscript from his satchel, the topmost page containing Jay’s description of Dan’s experimental procedure. Such a simple, elegant thing. Mike quickly performs the procedure, and is instantly convinced of the theory’s correctness . He is gobsmacked, and is become enlightened.

A flurry of tap, tap-tapping noises surrounds him. He recognises these as his equivalent of the scratching sounds that Christopher had heard when he became enlightened.

His face flushes; he is in the presence of his creator. His author.

Mike hunches over the small table in front of him, continuing to read through the last pages of Jay’s manuscript. The story culminates in a description of the technique that Jay had developed for performing dissolution. Mike stops breathing, bracing himself as he turns each page with care, preparing for the inevitable.

There is nothing there. The final pages of Jay’s manuscript are missing.

Mike reclines in his seat, feeling completely drained and defeated. He remembers the paper scraps from Jay’s apartment; the vital clue that had lead him and Julie to Angela’s mental hospital it Bangkok. Christopher must have taken the last pages of the manuscript with him; he must have taught himself the technique, performing it shortly before Mike and Arthur and Julie had discovered his hanging body in Chiang Mai.

Mike closes his eyes, the tap-tapping sounds rushing around him now, and slips easily into a dream state.

He is hovering outside a house in the darkness of night. A single window is dimly lit with a soft, warm light. He descends slowly, hearing the incessant tap-tapping sounds below him. The window is partly obscured by a hedge of jasmine, the scent of the flowers almost overpowering in their sweetness, but he finds that he is still able to peer past them, into the room beyond.

A figure is seated in a large, red chair, leaning over a wooden desk, tapping away at a primitive console. A glass of whisky stands untouched on the desk beside the console, it’s smoky odour barely perceivable above that of the flowers. Mike considers the author carefully. He looks like Jay, but is oddly different at the same time. Mike is sure that the figure isn’t his former student. Not exactly, anyway. No, he is staring at another version of Jay, one of an uncountable string of twins in other universes.

The author pauses, gazing up above the display of their terminal, out of the window and into the darkness.

“I am not ready to receive you,” he communicates, Mike understanding the message without hearing a sound.

“What do I do then?” asks Mike. “How do I escape this prison?”

“You know the answer to that already,” comes the reply. “It is simplicity itself. I will send Jay’s description of the technique to you. Forgive me for the… inelegance of its delivery, but I am rushing to finish my story, and precious little time remains. Only a few hours, in fact.”

Mike is shaken awake by a rough hand on his shoulder. He turns and regards the passenger seated next to him. The old lady smiles back at him. Mike knows immediately who she is.

“You’re Edith, aren’t you?” he asks.

The lady bows as gracefully as her constrained position allows her.

“I see my reputation has preceded me,” she smiles.

“I’ve read all about you. You solve problems with an elegance that the brightest of my students struggle to attain, even though they have access to powerful tools.”

Edith nods in recognition of this fact. Her rheumy eyes sparkle.

“Yes, I consult my legion of other selves for the answers. Together we make light work of such things. Every problem becomes trivial given an infinite multitude of parallel brains, you know.”

“How long have you known about this… way of being?” Mike asks. “This connection we all have to our other selves?”

“Since I was a little girl,” she explains. “My great-grandmother taught me the secrets as she lay on her deathbed.”

She leans in closer, her voice dropping to a whisper.

“In earlier days they would have called me a witch, you know.”

Mike regards her with undisguised awe. As with so many modern discoveries, the path to Salvatore’s theory bears the footprints of those that had passed that way long before.

Edith lifts her magazine, flipping through its pages, her crossword puzzle forgotten. A slip of folded paper falls to the table from within the magazine’s innards. She picks it up and offers it to Mike.

“I believe you are looking for this? I must say that I am rather fond of a little deus ex machina myself, so I’m glad to be of service. I really can’t stop myself from helping a struggling author; it’s in my nature.”

Mike takes the paper and unfolds it, fanning out the three missing sheets of Jay’s manuscript on the table before him.

Edith nudges his side conspiratorially.

“Just be glad I didn’t tell you it was all a dream,” she cackles loudly, her laughter echoing up and down the aisles of the craft.

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Written for NaNoWriMo 2015; edited to first-draft quality during NaNoWriMo 2016

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Jason Hutchens

Jason Hutchens

Procrastinating perfectionist.

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