“Did you bring me here to kill me?” I ask.
“I did not.”
I feel so comfortable leaning against the old machine, like I’m sinking into it.
“But you let me believe it.”
“There was no other way.”
“No other way to what?”
“To get you here.”
“And why are we here?”
But he just shakes his head as he snakes his left hand up under the geisha mask and scratches.
I feel strange.
Like I’m simultaneously watching a movie and acting in it.
An irresistible drowsiness lowers onto my shoulders.
My head dips.
“Just let it take you,” he says.
But I don’t. I fight it, thinking how unsettlingly fast his tenor has changed. He’s like a different man, and the disconnect between who he is in this moment and the violence he showed just minutes ago should terrify me. I shouldn’t be this calm, but my body is humming too peacefully.
I feel intensely serene and deep and distant.
He says to me, almost like a confession, “It’s been a long road. I can’t quite believe I’m sitting here actually looking at you. Talking to you. I know you don’t understand, but there’s so much I want to ask.”
“What it’s like to be you.”
“What do you mean?”
He hesitates, then: “How do you feel about your place in the world, Jason?”
I say slowly, deliberately, “That’s an interesting question considering the night you’ve put me through.”
“Are you happy in your life?”
In the shadow of this moment, my life is achingly beautiful.
“I have an amazing family. A fulfilling job. We’re comfortable. Nobody’s sick.”
My tongue feels thick. My words are beginning to sound slurred.
I say, “My life is great. It’s just not exceptional. And there was a time when it could have been.”
“You killed your ambition, didn’t you?”
“It died of natural causes. Of neglect.”
“And do you know exactly how that happened? Was there a moment when—?”
“My son. I was twenty-seven years old, and Daniela and I had been together a few months. She told me she was pregnant. We were having fun, but it wasn’t love. Or maybe it was. I don’t know. We definitely weren’t looking to start a family.”
“But you did.”
“When you’re a scientist, your late twenties are so critical. If you don’t publish something big by thirty, they put you out to pasture.”
Maybe it’s just the drug, but it feels so good to be talking. An oasis of normal after two of the craziest hours I’ve ever lived. I know it isn’t true, but it feels like as long as we keep conversing, nothing bad can happen. As if the words protect me.
“Did you have something big in the works?” he asks.
Now I’m having to focus on making my eyes stay open.
“And what was it?”
His voice sounds distant.
“I was trying to create the quantum superposition of an object that was visible to the human eye.”
“Why did you abandon your research?”
“When Charlie was born, he had major medical issues for the first year of his life. I needed a thousand hours in a cleanroom, but I couldn’t get there fast enough. Daniela needed me. My son needed me. I lost my funding. Lost my momentum. I was the young, new genius for a minute, but when I faltered, someone else took my place.”
“Do you regret your decision to stay with Daniela and make a life with her?”
I think of Daniela, and the emotion breaks back through, accompanied by the actual horror of the moment. Fear returns, and with it a homesickness that cuts to the bone. I need her in this moment more than I’ve ever needed anything in my life.
And then I’m lying on the floor, my face against the cold concrete, and the drug is whisking me away.
He’s kneeling beside me now, rolling me onto my back, and I’m looking up at all that moonlight pouring in through the high windows of this forgotten place, the darkness wrinkled with twitches of light and color as swirling, empty voids open and close beside the generators.
“Will I see her again?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
I want to ask him for the millionth time what he wants with me, but I can’t find the words.
My eyes keep closing, and I try to hold them open, but it’s a losing battle.
He pulls off a glove and touches my face with his bare hand.
He says, “Listen to me. You’re going to be scared, but you can make it yours. You can have everything you never had. I’m sorry I had to scare you earlier, but I had to get you here. I’m so sorry, Jason. I’m doing this for both of us.”
I mouth the words, Who are you?
Instead of responding, he reaches into his pocket and takes out a new syringe and a tiny glass ampoule filled with a clear liquid that in the moonlight shines like mercury.
He uncaps the needle and draws the contents of the vial up into the syringe.
As my eyelids slowly lower, I watch him slide the sleeve up his left arm and inject himself.
Then he drops the ampoule and the syringe on the concrete between us, and the last thing I see before my eyes lock shut is that glass ampoule rolling toward my face.
I whisper, “Now what?”
And he says, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
I’m aware of someone gripping my ankles.
As hands slide under my shoulders, a woman says, “How’d he get out of the box?”
A man responds: “No idea. Look, he’s coming to.”
I open my eyes, but all I see is blurred movement and light.
The man barks, “Let’s get him the hell out of here.”
I try to speak, but the words fall out of my mouth, garbled and formless.
The woman says, “Dr. Dessen? Can you hear me? We’re going to lift you onto a gurney now.”
I look toward my feet, and the man’s face racks into focus. He’s staring at me through the face shield of an aluminized hazmat suit with a self-contained breathing apparatus.