READ WITH CAUTION: This Story Will Keep You Awake at Night

Submitted into Contest #156 in response to: Start your story with a character or a narrator saying, “Don’t you remember?”... view prompt

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Funny Speculative

Hear me now and hear me well! The following story – an account of many things paradoxical, a muse on the very existence of space and time as we know it, a pondering of the mysteries of life which may never be solved – will keep you awake at night. Turn back now else face endless head scratching and mayhap even stare down the very path to madness.


Ye have been warned. Don’t you remember? I wrote a story a few weeks ago with a title begging all of you not to read it, and yet it’s my most read story…


So I suppose the warning is useless then.


Still here? Very well! Come with me as we journey through the complexities of the human mind and the universe beyond!


Many years ago, I worked with a man who told me a joke. The joke was terrible. And it changed my life.


It went something like this:


An infinite amount of mathematicians walk into a bar. The first one says: “Can I have a pint of beer please?” The second says: “Can I have half a pint of beer please?” The third says: “Can I have a quarter of a pint of beer please?” The barman says: “I’ll stop you there,” and simply serves two pints of beer.


At the time, I had eagerly awaited the punchline, before being told that the punchline was that the barman would simply serve the two pints.


‘But two pints wouldn’t be enough for an infinite amount of customers!’ I had cried.


‘Yes it would,’ Steve (the jokester) had said. He had a smug look on his face. The kind you wanted to slap off. ‘If the volume keeps halving, the second pint glass would never fill, so they'd have more than enough. It’s simple maths.’


‘But…’ I’d stammered. ‘But it would! If you kept adding to it, surely eventually it will fill up!’


Steve just continued to smirk, and added in a good amount of eye-rolling and head-shaking at my constant claims that that pint glass would eventually fill up, and in fact spill over.


Alright, I hear you. I have this unique way of sneaking into my readers’ thoughts. And you there, yes you. You’re thinking I’m wrong. Mathematically, if the amount the barman filled into that one pint glass kept on halving (and assuming the customers could take such tiny and precise sips and didn’t mind sharing their glass), the total volume of the liquid would in fact never reach the top of the glass, and the infinite number of mathematicians would be satisfied. I’m the idiot, there’s no way I can prove to you otherwise and you’re about to click off of this story and go and do something much more worthwhile with your time.


But wait. I promise you – actually I guarantee – that I can change your mind. And by the end of this story, you’ll be left awake tonight staring at the ceiling and questioning existence itself.


But before that, let’s rewind my story a little. You’ll like this, I swear.


I once worked at a hotel. Beautiful place, and totally unique. You’ve probably heard of it. It was the Hilbert Hotel (Google it). The Hilbert Hotel is the infinite hotel. It has an infinite number of rooms and can accommodate an infinite number of guests.


Supposedly.


You see, there are a few problems with this, and they highlight the problem with the concept of infinity. And ultimately, it will be the first of my evidence for why that damn pint glass would eventually spill over.


On my very first night at the Hilbert Hotel, an infinite number of guests came to check in.


I sniggered. I looked at my manager, David, who had begun to sweat a little.


‘What are we going to do then?’ I asked him.


He took a deep breath in and then chuckled a little. ‘Don’t you worry, lad! The entire concept of infinity might be a little tricky for our human minds to fully understand, but as there are an infinite number of rooms in this hotel and an infinite number of folk outside demanding a room, we shall be able to accommodate them.’


‘How?’ I asked, intrigued as to how on earth David was about to manage this.


‘Well…’ he returned. ‘It's just like having ten rooms and ten guests, isn't it? When we’ve got all of these people into their rooms, the infinite hotel will be… full.’


Full? I thought then. Full!? How could an infinite hotel be full?


But I watched on as an endless stream of guests made their way into the hotel. They were quick enough, walking by Rosie, another of the hotel attendants who held out their room key to them, looking at their room number and prancing on their merry way.


‘Come with me, lad,’ David said. He put an arm around me and explained that however it was possible for an infinite number of people to pass by before our very eyes, it indeed wasn’t for our very eyes. ‘Let’s just go through to this room here for a minute, and when we come back, the infinite number of people will have hopefully gotten to their rooms.’


And he was right. When we arrived back in the lobby, the infinite amount of pegs which usually held the infinite amount of keys… were empty.


‘But…’ I stammered. ‘How… that doesn’t make any…’


David simply patted me on the back and chuckled. ‘Ah, my boy! The mysteries of the universe are beyond the realms of our simple and human minds. How about a cup of tea, eh?’


‘Sir!’ Rosie interrupted. She’d just hung up the telephone. Her face had gone as pale as an infinite mathemetician who had received his drink and found that there weren't an infinite amount of seats in the bar. ‘We’ve erm… we’ve got a slight problem.’


‘What is it?’ David asked calmly, although I thought I did detect a slight tone of worry in his voice.


‘A gentleman just called,’ Rosie said. ‘He’d like a room. How on earth will we manage? I’ve just given all the infinite keys away!’


David didn’t worry. He simply chuckled again and walked calmly over to the hotel’s Tannoy system. He pressed the button down before making a request in his most charming voice.


‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is the hotel manager. Thank you for choosing the Hilbert Hotel, where we aim to please you infinitely. If I could make a small request – could each guest please move to the room number one above where you currently are? That would help us make room for another guest. Thank you!’


Almost automatically, I heard the infinite doors of the hotel swing open, a pounding of an infinite number of footsteps, and the swinging closed of an infinite (minus one) number of doors.


(This begs the question... what exactly is infinity minus one? Ah, on with the story!)


The new guest arrived shortly afterwards and was happy to move into room #1. The day was saved, and for the second time that day, the infinite hotel was full.


‘Genius!’ I spat out then. ‘Outstanding, Sir! But it still doesn’t make much sense to me…’


I was interrupted by Rosie once more, who slammed down the telephone she’d just been talking into, and looked at David and I with sheer horror on her face.


‘What’s wrong?’ David asked her.


‘There’s a bus coming,’ Rosie said.


‘What kind of bus?’


‘A big one.’


‘How big?’


‘Infinitely big.’


Infinitely big?


‘Yes Sir, it’s an infinitely long bus with an infinite amount of seats.’


‘Well, who’s in it?’


‘An infinite amount of people.’


‘An infinite amount of people?’


‘Yes Sir. Plus the driver. And they’d all like a room.’


‘Well, call them back! Tell them we’re full!’


‘Well, that’s the thing, Sir.’


‘What’s the thing?’


‘We’re an infinite hotel. With infinite rooms. And you placed that advert on the TV, remember? You said you had an infinite amount of money and could place an infinite amount of adverts.’


‘Yes, yes. What of it?’


‘Well, Sir. You have an infinite amount of people who have seen an infinite amount of adverts infinitely promising them that you have infinite rooms at your infinite hotel… what do you suppose will happen if they all think they’ve been lied to?’


‘Good God!’ David gasped. ‘An infinite number of lawsuits! It’ll cripple the business indefinitely!’


‘What can we do!?’ Rosie cried.


‘Think… think… think…’ David mused while pacing.


‘I know what we can do,’ I piped up here. To me, the answer was obvious.


‘Well, boy!’ David cried. ‘Tell me! Tell me what we can do to solve this impossible situation!’


‘Can I use the Tannoy?’ I asked. I’d always wanted to. Here was my chance! David looked at me with suspicion, but just then, the infinite bus pulled into the car park, its door opened and David motioned a hand to me, inviting me over to the speaker.


‘Yes, yes! Be quick, boy! Quick!’


I pushed the button and cleared my throat.


‘Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for choosing the… erm… Hilton – no! Sorry, the Hilbert Hotel. Uh… we have a somewhat unusual problem and we’d like to make one last request of our guests today. Could each of you please move to the nearest room of the first even number up from yours? This will help us immensely. Infinitely, you might say! Haha… erm… thank you.’


‘Outstanding thinking!’ David beamed. ‘Remarkable! You’ve saved the day, my boy! Now we just need to make sure we move each of these guests on that damn infinite bus into all the odd-numbered rooms!’


And they did. They all strolled in, one by one, taking their key with a smile from Rosie before marching into the infinite corridor and into their room. And after a quick stroll in and out of the lobby, for the third time that day, the infinite hotel was fully booked.


But I knew then what I know now. The same thing you’re thinking as you read this. All of this is simply impossible! How could we have two sets of infinite numbers of people come into the hotel? And that other chap, the one who came by himself, if he left would there still be an infinite number of people in the hotel as there was before he arrived?


At the time, I thought of it this way – whatever mystical and magical force was able to make that hotel with its infinite number of rooms, could well have made the rooms with people already in them. What happens then, when that infinite bus arrives with infinite people looking for rooms? Has the Hilbert Hotel with its infinite rooms... run out of rooms? Could it be that there are two (or more) different types of infinity?


It’s a head-scratcher, I know.


Except it isn’t. And let me tell you why. But before that, allow me to tell you how I quit my job at the Hilbert Hotel. It happened only three seconds after that infinite bus arrived.


‘Sir! Sir!!


Rosie slammed the telephone down once more. Now she looked as though she'd swallowed an infinite amount of hamsters.


‘What is it?’ David asked, calmly. ‘Surely there cannot be any problem that we can’t solve now!’


‘I wouldn’t be too sure…’ Rosie said. Her voice was shaking.


‘Well, what is it?’ David asked. ‘What’s the problem?’


‘More buses are coming,’ Rosie said.


Buses?’ David spat. ‘Plural? Well, how many?’


‘An infinite number.’


As soon as David’s eyes turned to me, I told him I quit.


***


Before we get back to Steve and his pint glass theory, I want to share some musings with you that will help you to understand how I defeated my nemesis (oh yes, spoiler alert, I will indeed defeat Steve in this story).


Here’s something I always thought of, ever since I was a child. Was there ever a beginning of time? Hear me out! That sounds a bit silly, or a bit science-fictionish, I know.


Of course these wasn’t a beginning of time! Time just runs, and that’s it.


Alright, so if we had some sort of cosmic video recorder that had been recording for all of time and we pressed rewind on that video… it would never stop? It would just rewind forever? Because time is infinite, both ways? Then how did we arrive here, at this point in time, with you reading my story?


So then, there must have been a beginning to time! But there couldn’t be! Because what was before time? There couldn’t be anything before time! How would time have begun if there wasn’t anything there to start it?


Here’s a theory. Don’t laugh at it, because it’s a proper scientific theory.


Time doesn’t exist.


It’s an illusion of sorts. Something our feeble minds do to try and make sense of the unfathomably complex universe around us.


Sound nutty? Consider this:


We have no accurate way of measuring this thing we call time. Clocks? Ha! Haven't you noticed they always eventually go off by a few minutes? Digital clocks that aren’t connected to the internet? Same story. Clocks that are connected to the internet?


Same. Story.


The internet adjusts the time all the… well, time.


And what are we actually measuring when we examine what time it is? How long before one event happened did the next thing occur? What if the whole universe just…


Stopped.


…?


Everything stopped moving. But it was all still conscious, somehow. Would time still exist then?


We only ever measure physical changes when we measure time. So, does it exist if none of us can actually measure it or even describe exactly what it is?


I guess what I'm saying, is that for infinity to exist, time and/or space must exist, because the concept of infinity can exist only within the concepts of time or space. However, if we can't prove infinity, how can we prove time or space?


So time might not exist. But I put it to you, reader, that space doesn’t exist either. And by the end of this story, you’ll either agree with me…


Or be wrong.


***


Alright, let’s get back to Steve. Because you’re dying to know, aren’t you? You’re dying to know how I defeated my nemesis and what my proof is. My proof that that pint glass would spill over.


Well, I slapped him. In the face.


You didn’t expect that did you? But read on! Because this is my proof.


‘You… you just slapped me!’ Steve stuttered.


‘Did I?’ I asked, with a grin. ‘Are you sure?’


‘I’m telling Gemma!’


Gemma was our manager. Sure enough, he ran to her office and I was called in to discuss the matter a few minutes later.


‘Steve said you slapped him!’ Gemma fumed. ‘In the face! I’m very sorry, but we cannot and will not tolerate that here, so I’m afraid I’ll have to fire you.’


‘That’s fine,’ I said. ‘I’ll accept a firing. If Steve is sure I slapped him.’


I am!’ Steve cried. ‘I’m very sure!’


‘Are you?’ I asked, turning to face him. ‘Are you really? Because if you’re sure I slapped you then you’re also sure that that pint glass would have spilled over.’


‘What’s this?’ Gemma asked. ‘Pint glass?’


‘Oh…’ Steve said. ‘It’s erm… it’s nothing really, it’s…’


‘For me to have slapped you,’ I interrupted. ‘My hand would have had to have travelled from where it was to your face, wouldn’t it?’


Steve screwed his face up quizzically and nodded. ‘Well, yeah, of course…’


‘It would have had to have travelled one hundred per cent of the way to your face, yes?’


‘Well… yeah, of course, but…’


‘But for it to travel one hundred per cent of the way to your face, it would have to first have travelled fifty per cent of the way there, wouldn’t it?’


‘I don’t see what this has got to do with…’ Steve blurted.


‘And,’ I interrupted. ‘For it to have travelled fifty per cent, it would have had to have travelled fifty per cent of that fifty per cent. And also fifty per cent of that one. And that one. And that one.’


Both Steve and Gemma looked completely bemused, but neither of them spoke now.


‘You could say that this distance always halves. Infinitely, yes? Into tiny fractions imperceivable to the human eye or mind. But mathematically, it’s what must happen for my hand to reach your face. According to maths, and to your theory about that pint glass never filling, my hand did not reach your face and I never slapped you. Unless I’m right about that pint glass, of course?’


Steve stood for a moment, staring at the wall. He looked as though he was about to vomit, and I thought he was because he opened his mouth, but all that came out were six glorious words.


‘I guess he never slapped me.’

July 27, 2022 20:22

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27 comments

15:31 Aug 03, 2022

This was definitely fun to read and got the juices flowing in my brain while reading. I didn't spend too much time on the thinking though and just enjoyed the ride to the end. The flow was fun and natural. For some reason, the character reminded me of a carnival magician trying to pull a fast one over me, smiling a toothy grin while picking my pockets... As for one of the other comments asking about the judges, I'll say if I had encountered this one in the submissions, I would've had to either dismiss it due to it not beginning with the cha...

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Chris Morris
21:50 Aug 03, 2022

Thanks so much Jeannette, I like the idea of the carnival magician as a narrator - maybe he'll make an appearance in a future story... I would approve a story that has the line somewhere in the beginning - the guidelines say to be generous with how well the prompt is used, but I do see your point.

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02:01 Aug 04, 2022

Oooh...I guess we'll have to wait and see if he does :) I agree with you about being generous with the prompt in some cases. I guess it depends on the strength of the story. Reading it again, I probably would have approved it based on it's creativity and strength.

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Chris Morris
12:27 Aug 04, 2022

It's good to get another judge's view on how it would have been seen - definitely taking notes to not be so risky with the prompts!

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Lily Finch
15:35 Aug 01, 2022

Chris, so does Jimmy exist then? I get that Steve didn't get slapped!! ;) Your boldness with the reader is refreshing. It only wants them to read on and on. Thanks for a great read. LF6

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Chris Morris
21:51 Aug 03, 2022

My Jimmy is real. He's safe. Your Jimmy USED to be real...

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Riel Rosehill
18:58 Jul 30, 2022

Oh this was fun! Though it did make my brain hurt until we got to the last section where Steve got slapped (even though brains can't feel pain). But then you made sense and I enjoyed the confusion along the way - my favourite moment was the quitting after the announcement of the arrival of infinite number of infinite large buses with infinite people - good call! But also, those 3 members of staff handled it pretty well up until then 😂

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Chris Morris
21:11 Jul 30, 2022

Umm... Steve didn't get slapped...

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Riel Rosehill
21:23 Jul 30, 2022

☠️☠️☠️

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Beth Jackson
08:01 Jul 30, 2022

I really enjoyed this, Chris!! It was funny and entertaining but also thoroughly thought provoking! I loved the hotel scene - such a clever way to describe the different sets of infinity. This was a real treat, thanks for sharing! :-) P.s. Still thinking/not thinking about poor jimmy…

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Chris Morris
21:10 Jul 30, 2022

You're still thinking about Jimmy and yet you read another of my stories which cautioned you about reading it!? Right, next story is going to be called "Please, I'm begging you to read this story!" Nobody will read that!

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Beth Jackson
00:49 Jul 31, 2022

Hahahah… try it and see 🤣🤣🤣

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Aesha Amin
00:43 Jul 29, 2022

Hi Chris!! I hate and love this story. And I’m sure the pint glass will eventually be 5/6th full. If not, I want to throw all my math textbooks out the window because I’m going insane after reading this story😭😭 Why did the story make sense and also not make sense?! I’m so dead. I love your writing so much though, it’s hella hilarious. Also, weird confession but I used to draw circles when I was younger, except they weren’t closed circles. I’d turn them in (as in curve them in) as much as I could every time. I always wondered, if the pen tip ...

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Chris Morris
21:08 Jul 30, 2022

Oh god. Endless circles. Endless circles of doom, destruction and madness!! It would drive one insane just to imagine...

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Michał Przywara
20:51 Jul 28, 2022

Ha! Another irresistible title, and another good story. And thanks for reminding me about Jimmy. Although, if time and space don't exist, then maybe he didn't either, and so he never died. The mathematician in me enjoyed Stevie's joke, and I appreciate the wild hypothesizing and playing with ideas, in an effort to make sense of reality. It reminds me of that old "proof" that 1=0 (for example, at https://math.hmc.edu/funfacts/one-equals-zero/). Anyway, all of it was worth it for that ending. Infinity, time, and space aside, I think the co...

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Chris Morris
21:07 Jul 30, 2022

Sorry, I don't have the time to read your comment nor the space with which to move my thumbs to my reply to you. Because none of it is real!! Or, so I've heard.

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Aeris Walker
08:52 Jul 28, 2022

Your stories really do jump out and demand to be read; they are quite assertive :) Another hilarious story! I felt like I was reading the transcribed minutes from a very enthusiastic professor’s lecture on physics, and I imagined him pacing at the front of his class drinking what was probably his 4th or 5th cup of coffee. Great job, Chris!

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Chris Morris
13:18 Jul 28, 2022

Your comment has brought a smile to my face! I'm really enjoying writing this type of thing. Maybe there's a book of short meta fiction in me somewhere... Thanks for reading!

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Aeris Walker
22:33 Jul 28, 2022

Oh good, I’m so glad 🙂 I’m sure there’s a quite a following for stories with your specific brand of humor :)

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Jay Mc Kenzie
04:43 Jul 28, 2022

This is so fun Chris! I just can't with maths and numbers, so I was happy just to trust and enjoy, particularly the hotel part, in a magical sort of way. Love the title and the intro and I'm totally loving your meta-stuff. There's a little typo "You said you ha an infinite amount of money and could place an infinite amount of adverts.’ I'm also not sure how pernickety the judges will be about the prompt. Thoroughly enjoyable read.

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Chris Morris
13:16 Jul 28, 2022

Tusks Jay! If you're wondering why it says "tusks", it's because I just tried multiple times to swipe the word "thanks" on my phone, it kept thinking I wanted to say "tusks" and I eventually got fed up of wasting my time and eventually chose to take up MORE of my time writing this explanation but AT LEAST IT WAS MY DECISION TO WASTE MY OWN TIME THIS TIME! Actually, wait. If time really is just a figment of our imaginations then no time was wasted at all. Huh. I haven't submitted this to the contest yet. I don't know, I feel the judges may...

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Jay Mc Kenzie
19:35 Jul 28, 2022

Damn the man, Chris! Do the thing! Also, tusks (which my phone wanted to send as 'risks'). I love autocorrect fails. :)

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Kevin Marlow
00:08 Jul 28, 2022

My days as a math tutor in college are grumbling in my brain. Division and infinity don't play well together. Since infinity is not an integer its product as a denominator is undefined. If infinity is the numerator the product is always zero. I realize that is about as satisfying as walking on gravel with bare feet in the summer. The students wanted to slap me as well, so I understand the sentiment. Any complaints need to be referred to my supervisor.

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Chris Morris
13:11 Jul 28, 2022

Maths was (and always will be) my absolute worst subject at school! So I'm happy to just not understand any of it and move on. But that pint glass WOULD eventually fill, damn it!!

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Seán Mc Nicholl
23:11 Jul 27, 2022

I read this story Chris… well I read half, and then I read half of the remaining half, and then read half of that remaining, and then… Very witty, deep and humorous! Very typical of your fine self! Reminds me of something I heard somewhere - we have an infinite set of numbers (1, 2, 3 etc). And yet between each number there is an infinite set of decimal places. So that’s two sets of infinite! So can we really go from 1 to 2 if there’s an infinite gap in between!? What would Jimmy the squid say about all this?

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Chris Morris
13:10 Jul 28, 2022

Jimmy's dead. Because of you. Get over it. Killer.

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T.S.A. Maiven
21:20 Sep 05, 2022

Loved the use of infinite. Very funny and kept me amused the while time. Great job!

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