Up close, he looks even worse.
“Jason, I’m so sorry.”
“None of this is your fault.”
“No, what Leighton said is true. After I left you and Daniela that night, I called him. Told him I’d seen you. Told him where.” Ryan closes his one functional eye, his face breaking as he says, “I had no idea they would hurt her.”
“How’d you end up in the lab?”
“I guess you weren’t giving them the information they wanted, so they came for me in the middle of the night. Were you with her when she died?”
“Happened right in front of me. A man just broke into her apartment and shot her between the eyes.”
Climbing onto the cot, he sits beside me, both of us leaning back against the concrete wall.
He says, “I thought if I told them what you said to me and Daniela, that maybe they’d finally bring me in on the research. Reward me somehow. Instead, they just beat me. Accused me of not telling them everything.”
“You kept me in the dark. I never even knew what this place was. I did all that work for you and Leighton, but you—”
“I didn’t keep you in the dark about anything, Ryan. That wasn’t me.”
He looks over at me, as if trying to process the magnitude of that statement.
“So the stuff you said at Daniela’s—that was all true?”
Leaning in close, I whisper, “Every word. Keep your voice low. They’re probably listening.”
“How did you get here?” Ryan whispers. “Into this world?”
“Right outside this cell, there’s a hangar, and in that hangar, a metal box, which another version of me built.”
“And this box does what exactly?”
“As far as I can tell, it’s a gateway to the multiverse.”
He looks at me like I’m crazy. “How is that possible?”
“I just need you to listen. The night after I escaped from this place, I went to a hospital. They ran a tox screen that returned traces of a mysterious psychoactive compound. When I saw you at Daniela’s art reception, you asked me if the ‘compound’ had worked out. What exactly were you working on for me?”
“You asked me to build a drug that would temporarily alter the functioning of brain chemistry in three Brodmann areas of the prefrontal cortex. It took me four years. At least you paid me well.”
“Put them to sleep for a little while. I had no idea what the application was.”
“You understand the concept behind Schrödinger’s cat?”
“And how observation determines reality?”
“This other version of me was trying to put a human being into superposition. Theoretically impossible, considering our consciousness and force of observation would never allow it. But if there was a mechanism in the brain that was responsible for the observer effect…”
“You wanted to turn it off.”
“So my drug stops us from decohering?”
“I think so.”
“But it doesn’t stop others from decohering us. It doesn’t stop their observer effect from determining our reality.”
“That’s where the box comes in.”
“Holy shit. So you figured out a way to turn a human being into a living and dead cat? That’s…terrifying.”
The cell door unlocks and opens.
We both look up, see Leighton standing in the threshold, flanked by his guards—two middle-aged men with too-tight polo shirts tucked into their jeans and slightly past-prime physiques.
They strike me as men for whom violence is just work.
Leighton says, “Ryan, would you come with us, please?”
“Drag him out of there.”
Ryan rises and limps to the door.
The guards each take an arm and haul him away, but Leighton stays behind.
He looks at me.
“This is not who I am, Jason. I hate this. I hate that you’re forcing me to be this monster. What’s about to happen? It’s not my choice. It’s yours.”
I lunge off the bed and charge Leighton, but he slams the door in my face.
They kill the lights to my cell.
All I can see is the glowing green dot from the surveillance camera that watches me over the door.
I sit in the corner in the dark, thinking how I’ve been on a collision course with this moment since I first heard those footsteps rushing up behind me in my neighborhood, in my world, five impossible days ago.
Since I saw a geisha mask and a gun, and fear and confusion became the only stars in my sky.
In this moment, there is no logic.
No scientific method.
I am simply devastated, broken, terrified, and on the brink of just wanting it all to end.
I watched as the love of my life was murdered right in front of me.
My old friend is likely being tortured as I sit here.
And these people will undoubtedly make me suffer before my end comes.
I am so afraid.
I miss Charlie.
I miss Daniela.
I miss my run-down brownstone that I never had the money to properly remodel.
I miss our rusty Suburban.
I miss my office on campus.
I miss the life that’s mine.
And there in the darkness, like the filaments of a lightbulb warming to life, the truth finds me.
I hear the voice of my abductor, somehow familiar, asking questions about my life.
If I ever called her “Dani.”
He knew who Ryan Holder was.
He took me to an abandoned power plant.
Asked me questions about my life.
Took my phone, my clothes.
It’s staring me in the face now.
My heart shuddering with rage.
He did these things so he could step into my shoes.
So he could have the life that’s mine.
The woman I love.
Because that man was me.
This other Jason, the one who built the box—he did this to me.
As the green light of the surveillance camera goes dark, I realize that on some level, I’ve known since I first laid eyes on the box.