Leighton opens the laptop on the table and types something.
He stands it up, types something on the touchscreen.
“What is this?” I ask. “What’s happening?”
“We’re going to finish what we started the night you returned. I’m going to ask questions, and this time, you’re going to answer them.”
I rise from the chair, move to the door, try to pull it open.
Leighton’s voice is as loud as a gunshot.
“I want to leave.”
“And I want you to start telling the truth.”
“I told you the truth.”
“No, you told Daniela Vargas the truth.”
On the other side of the glass, a door opens and a man staggers into the theater, led by one of the guards clutching the back of his neck.
The first man’s face is crushed up against the glass.
Ryan’s nose looks misshapen, and one eye is completely shut.
His bruised and swollen face streaks blood across the glass.
“You told Ryan Holder the truth,” Leighton says.
I rush over to Ryan and say his name.
He tries to respond, but I can’t hear him through the barrier.
I glare down at Leighton.
He says, “Sit, or I will have someone come in here and strap you to that chair.”
The rage from earlier comes flooding back. This man is responsible for Daniela’s death. Now this. I wonder how much damage I could inflict before they pulled me off of him.
But I sit.
I ask, “You tracked him down?”
“No, Ryan came to me, disturbed by the things you told him at Daniela’s apartment. It’s those particular things I want to hear about right now.”
As I watch the guards force Ryan into a chair in the front row, it hits me—Ryan created the missing piece that makes the box function, this “compound” he mentioned at Daniela’s art installation. If our brain is wired to prevent us from perceiving our own quantum state, then perhaps there’s a drug that can disable this mechanism—the “firewall” I wrote about in that mission statement.
The Ryan from my world had been studying the prefrontal cortex and its role in generating consciousness. It’s not that far of a leap to think this Ryan might have created a drug that changes the way our brain perceives reality. That stops us from decohering our environment and collapsing our wave functions.
I crash back into the moment.
“Why did you hurt him?” I ask.
“You told Ryan you’re a professor at Lakemont College, that you have a son, and that Daniela Vargas was actually your wife. You told him you were abducted one night while walking home, after which you woke up here. You told him this isn’t your world. Do you admit to saying these things?”
I wonder again how much damage I could do before someone hauled me away. Break his nose? Knock out teeth? Kill him?
My voice comes like a growl. “You murdered a woman I love, because she talked to me. You’ve beaten my friend. You’re holding me here against my will. And you want me to answer your questions? Fuck you.” I stare through the glass. “Fuck all of you.”
Leighton says, “Maybe you’re not the Jason I know and love. Maybe you’re just a shadow of that man with a fraction of his ambition and intellect, but certainly you can grasp this question: What if the box works? That means we’re sitting on the greatest scientific breakthrough of all time, with applications we can’t even begin to fathom, and you’re quibbling that we go to extremes to protect it?”
“I want to leave.”
“You want to leave. Huh. Keep in mind everything I just said, and now consider that you’re the only person who’s successfully flown that thing. You’re in possession of critical knowledge that we’ve spent billions and a decade of our lives trying to acquire. I’m not saying this to scare you, only to appeal to your logical reasoning—do you think there’s anything we won’t do to extract that information from you?”
He lets the question hang.
In the brutal silence, I glance across the theater.
I look at Ryan.
I look at Amanda. She won’t make eye contact. Tears glisten in her eyes, but her jaw is tense and rigid, like she’s fighting with everything she has to hold herself together.
“I want you to listen very closely,” Leighton says. “Right here, right now, in this room—this is as easy as it’s ever going to be for you. I want you to try very hard to make the most of this moment. Now, look at me.”
I look at him.
“Did you build the box?”
I say nothing.
“Did you build the box?”
“Where did you come from?”
My thoughts run rampant, playing out all possible scenarios—tell them everything I know, tell them nothing, tell them something. But if something, what specifically?
“Is this your world, Jason?”
The dynamics of my situation haven’t materially changed. My safety still depends on my usefulness. As long as they want something from me, I have leverage. The moment I tell them everything I know, all my power goes away.
I look up from the table and meet Leighton’s eyes.
I say, “I’m not going to talk to you right now.”
He lets out a sigh.
Cracks his neck.
Then says to no one in particular, “I guess we’re done here.”
The door behind me opens.
I turn, but before I can see who’s there, I’m lifted out of my chair and slammed against the floor.
Someone sits on my back, their knees driving into my spine.
They hold my head in place as a needle slides into my neck.
I regain consciousness on a hard, thin mattress that feels depressingly familiar.
Whatever drug they injected me with kicks out a nasty hangover—feels like a rift has opened down the center of my skull.
A voice is whispering into my ear.
I start to sit up, but the slightest movement takes the pounding in my head to a whole new level of agony.
I know this voice.
“What happened?” I ask.
“They carried you in here a little while ago.”
I force my eyes to open.
I’m back in that cell on the steel-frame cot, and Ryan is kneeling beside me.