Two flights to the bottom, two to the top.
What did Amanda say at the start of the interview? That we’re on sublevel two? Does that mean this is all underground?
“Jason? You coming?”
I follow Leighton, climbing, fighting through the weakness in my legs, the pain in my head.
At the top of the stairwell, a sign beside a reinforced-steel door reads GROUND. Leighton swipes a keycard, punches in a code, and holds the door open.
The words VELOCITY LABORATORIES are affixed in block letters across the wall straight ahead.
Left: a bank of elevators.
Right: a security checkpoint, with a hard-looking guard standing between the metal detector and the turnstile, the exit just beyond.
It seems like the security here is outward facing, focused more on preventing people from getting in than getting out.
Leighton directs me past the elevators and down a hallway to a pair of double doors at the far end, which he opens with his keycard.
As we enter, he hits the lights, revealing a well-appointed office, the walls adorned in aviation photographs of commercial airliners and military supersonic jets and the engines that power them.
A framed photo on the desk draws my focus—an older man holding a boy in his arms that looks very much like Leighton. They’re standing in a hangar in front of a massive turbofan in the midst of assembly.
“I thought you’d be more comfortable in my private bathroom.” Leighton points toward a door in the far corner. “I’ll be right here,” he says, sitting down on the edge of his desk and pulling a phone out of his pocket. “Shout if you need anything.”
The bathroom is cold and immaculate.
There’s a toilet, a urinal, a walk-in shower, and a small window halfway up the back wall.
I take a seat on the toilet.
My chest feels so tight I can barely breathe.
They’ve been waiting for me to return for fourteen months. There’s no way they’re letting me walk out of this building. Not tonight. Maybe not for a long time considering I’m not the man they think they’re talking to.
Unless this is all some elaborate test or game.
Leighton’s voice pushes through the door: “Everything all right in there?”
“I don’t know what you saw inside that thing, but I want you to know I’m here for you, brother. If you’re freaking out, you got to tell me, so I can help you.”
He continues, “I was watching you from the theater, and I have to say, you looked out of it.”
If I were to walk back into the lobby with him, could I break away, make a dash through security? I picture that massive guard standing by the metal detector. Probably not.
“Physically, I think you’re going to be fine, but I worry about your psychological state.”
I have to step onto the lip of the porcelain urinal to reach the window. The glass appears to be locked shut by means of a lever on each side.
It’s only two feet by two feet, and I’m not sure if I can fit through.
Leighton’s voice echoes through the bathroom, and as I creep back toward the sink, his words become clear again.
“…worst thing you can do is try to manage this on your own. Let’s be honest. You’re the kind of guy who thinks he’s strong enough to push through anything.”
I approach the door.
There’s a deadbolt.
With trembling fingers, I slowly turn the lock cylinder.
“But no matter what you’re feeling,” his voice close now, inches away, “I want you to share it with me, and if we need to push this debriefing until tomorrow or the next—”
He goes silent as the bolt shoots home with a soft click.
For a moment, nothing happens.
I take a careful step back.
The door moves imperceptibly, and then rattles ferociously inside its frame.
Leighton says, “Jason. Jason!” And then: “I need a security team to my office right now. Dessen has locked himself inside the bathroom.”
The door shudders as Leighton crashes into it, but the lock holds.
I rush for the window, climb up onto the urinal, and flip the levers on either side of the glass.
Leighton is shouting at someone, and although I can’t make out the words, I think I hear approaching footsteps.
The window opens.
Night air funnels in.
Even standing on the urinal, I’m not sure if I can make it up there.
Leaping off the edge, I hurl myself toward the open frame, but only manage to get one arm through.
As something bangs into the bathroom door, my shoes scrape across the smooth, vertical surface of the wall. There’s no traction or purchase to be had.
I drop to the floor, climb back up onto the urinal.
Leighton screams at someone, “Come on!”
I jump again, and this time, I manage to land both arms across the windowsill. It isn’t much of a hold, but it’s just enough to keep me from falling.
I wriggle through as the bathroom door breaks down behind me.
Leighton yells my name.
I tumble for a half second through darkness.
Crash face-first into pavement.
Up on my feet, stunned, dazed, ears ringing, blood running down the side of my face.
I’m outside, in a dark alley between two buildings.
Leighton appears in the open window frame above me.
“Jason, don’t do this. Let me help you.”
I turn and run, no idea where I’m going, just blazing toward the opening at the end of the alley.
I reach it.
Launch down a set of brick steps.
I’m in an office park.
Bland, low-rise buildings cluster around a sad little pond with a lighted fountain in the middle.
Considering the hour, it’s no surprise there’s no one out.
I fly past benches, trimmed shrubbery, a gazebo, a sign with an arrow under the words TO WALKING PATH.
A quick glance over my shoulder: the building I just escaped is a five-story, nondescript, utterly forgettable piece of architectural mediocrity, and people are streaming out of the entrance like a kicked hornet’s nest.
At the end of the pond, I leave the sidewalk and follow a gravel footpath.
Sweat stings my eyes, my lungs are on fire, but I keep pumping my arms and throwing one foot in front of the other.
With each stride, the lights from the office park fall farther and farther away.
Straight ahead, there’s nothing but welcoming darkness, and I’m moving toward it, into it, like my life depends upon it.