A physicist discovers the edge of madness & the courage to love.
I cracked the door to my studio apartment and studied the two men standing there. Both were dressed in polo shirts and business casual slacks. Except for the guns and badges strapped to their hips, they could have been a pair of insurance salesmen offering me great rates on their latest Whole Life policy.
"Dr. Stacy Blake?" the young, cute blonde asked.
I tucked a fallen strand of hair behind my ear and eyed them suspiciously. Nowadays, you can't be too careful. "May I help you?"
The older man stepped forward and flashed his badge. "Ma'am. I'm Detective Ritter and this is Detective James." he bumped his head towards Mr. Handsome. "We're with the Alsuma Police. We were wondering if you could spare a moment of time."
I eyed the badge before he flipped his wallet closed and jammed it in his pocket.
"Why are you here?" I asked.
"We're investigating the death of Dr. William Spenser,” he said. “We had a few questions."
I stared at him in numb disbelief. Will? Dead? It couldn't be.
I must have stared blankly for several seconds because Ritter glanced uncomfortably at his partner and cleared his throat. "Doctor Blake? Did you know Doctor Spenser?"
"Yes. Yes." I unlatched the chain and swung the door open. "Did you say Doctor William Spenser... is dead?"
"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry to say he is," Ritter said seriously. "Do you mind if we come in?"
I stepped aside and waved them through. Living alone for so many years, I'd fallen out of the habit of making my apartment comfortable for guests. There was a brown leather couch shoved beneath the curtained living room window and my entertainment center on the opposite wall. The 52' Plasma sitting atop it was my only vice. If I wasn't involved in some aspect of particle physics research, then you could find me wrapped in a blanket, watching something on Turner Classic Movies.
I dragged a folding chair from the closet and opened it up. The detectives dropped onto the couch with a creak of old leather. The blonde, Mr. Handsome, sat perched on the edge of the cushions as if he might need to spring up at any moment while Ritter lounged back with a sigh.
"Now this is a comfortable couch," he said wriggling his backside deeper into the cushions.
"Thank you," I replied, feeling more at ease, but aggravated such a trite psychological ploy would pull me in. "You said Will is dead? How did it happen?"
"We're more exploring the 'why' of what happened?" Mr. Handsome said. "We were hoping you could fill in some blanks."
"Am I a suspect?" I gasped.
The look of shocked surprise that crossed my face must have amused Detective Ritter because he chuckled morosely and waved a hand in denial. "No, No, No. It's nothing like that."
He rocked forward and held out a sheet of paper he'd produced from his pocket. "We feel certain Dr. Spenser took his own life. But there was no suicide note. At least none we know of. The only clue is this sticky note left on his computer screen; which is why we're here."
I took the paper and examined it. It was a photo of Will's computer. Stuck on the screen was a yellow sticky note with a message printed in Will's unmistakable, chopped script:
Please contact Dr. Stacy Blake.
She may be the only one who will understand.
"His body was discovered two days ago," Mr. Handsome said, "but time of death is estimated to be on October twenty-seventh somewhere around mid-day. So, if you don't mind me asking, when was the last time you spoke with Dr. Spenser?"
The old wooden chair creaked as I leaned back trying to recall the last time Will and I had been together. "Well, three weeks ago we went to a symposium put on by Dr. Andrei Linde. That was at the university."
"So were you and Dr. Spenser...involved?" Ritter asked.
I laughed and handed back the note. "No, we’re not involved." Although I'd fantasized often of moonlit nights spent in Will’s arms, the thought he might feel the same was...well, laughable.
"Will and I are colleagues,” I said. “nothing more. We've worked side by side for years. He’s quite skilled at designing experimental equipment, and I excel at the software and data side of things. We make a good team."
Ritter rocked forward rubbing his hands in thought before his eyes locked with mine. "Would you mind coming with us to Doctor Spenser's home?"
I glanced from Mr. Handsome and back to Ritter. "Why?"
"It seems Dr. Spenser kept a journal on his PC. He's locked it with a password and it's my belief he wants you to unlock it."
I studied Ritter for several moments.
"We could, of course, hack in, but any messages he intended for us to find would likely be destroyed."
It was difficult imagining Will feeling so lonely that suicide became an option. In a way, I blamed myself for never picking up on it. The thought that his final message to the world would be lost was not something I could accept.
"Sure, Detective, give me a minute to throw myself together."
The drive to Will's was the longest fifteen minutes I'd spent in a car. It wasn't because it reeked of Ritter's cigarette smoke or Mr. Handsome's Axe cologne. It was the expectation of what my old friend left me. My heart thumped angrily at being saddled with his unresolved demons. What right did he have dragging me into his nightmare?
We pulled into the driveway of Will's unassuming house and crawled out. That's when I noticed that something in Will's mind had gone tragically wrong. If there was one word to describe Doctor William Spenser, that word was fastidious. Plain and unassuming, he lived his life immersed in precision. His cramped lawn was always meticulously mown, the low shrubs flanking the walkway sculpted into uniform two-foot squares.
Now, the grass was weeks overgrown and tentative green fingers groped skyward from the misshapen cubes of brush. Ritter led me up the walkway and swung open the front door. Inside, Will's Spartan accommodations were in a similar vein of disarray. The simple, glass coffee table was strewn with energy drink cans and coffee mugs, and through the doorway, I saw the kitchen counters cluttered with dishes.
"He's was always so neat," I mumbled. "What could have happened?"
"This is unusual?" Ritter asked, waving a hand to take in the mess.
"Yes, very. Will was always extremely clean; his clothes, his house, everything."
"It's probably a sign of his mental decay," Mr. Handsome added. "Once the tipping point is reached, a person's mental health can spiral out of control."
I really didn't want to dwell on Will's mental state. To tell the truth, I was starting to regret the decision to come. "So where's the computer?" I asked.
Ritter nodded and pointed down the hall. "This way," he said.
I shuffled through Will's 1950's bungalow to a converted office at the end of the hall. Ritter flipped on the light and the immensity of Will's illness became clear. The back wall was covered with silvery two-inch tubes that ran from floor to ceiling. Interlaced behind and between each one were thousands of feet of intertwined cables and multi-colored wires. I'd worked with Will on dozens of projects and never seen anything like it. In front of this abstruse wall, a basketball-sized ebony sphere dangled high above a three-foot square of polished steel bolted to the floor.
It seemed the only technology I recognized was the PC perched atop the desk on the far wall.
"Do you have any idea what this is?" Ritter asked nodding towards the pipes.
I stepped over and ran my hands along the cold, smooth surface of the tubes. "I don’t have a clue."
Mr. Handsome marched across the room and tapped on the keyboard. The screen sprang to life and displayed a single window in the center of the monitor. At the top, it read: "Journal". The cursor flashed in an empty textbox and above it was a simple question:
What animal is made up of calcium, nickel, and neon?
I smirked when I saw the message so typical of Will.
"Do you know what this means?" Ritter asked.
"Yes. It's a stupid joke he tells every time he has more than one beer. The answer is canine. But spelled with the symbols for each of the elements."
I typed in the answer to the riddle: 'CaNiNe' and hit the enter key.
The screen cleared and a series of links flashed on the screen:
Entry 1 Entry 2 Entry 3 Entry 4 Entry 5
Ritter and Mr. Handsome hovered over my shoulder. "Definitely a journal," Mr. Handsome said, the smell of tuna fish sandwich heavy on his breath.
"So you want me to play it?" I asked.
Ritter and Mr. Handsome exchanged a glance and Ritter nodded. "Yeah, go ahead."
I hovered the mouse over 'Entry 1' and double-clicked. An image of Will's face appeared on the screen. He was wearing one of his characteristic tan polo shirts, his thinning black hair combed over from left to right.
"Good morning. Doctor William Spenser here." He paused to smile into the lens. "It's nine a.m. September thirtieth. I've just completed phase one of my tests on the Everett Interpretation. The decoherence mechanism performed superbly. In fact, I intend to augment the inverters and make a full power test in two days instead of the predicted ten. All relevant data has been downloaded to the external drive."
The screen went blank.
"That entry was a less than five weeks ago," I said. "He looked perfectly normal. Are you sure his death was a suicide."
"Yeah, we're sure," Mr.Handsome said.
"Where was he found?" I asked, "How did it happen."
Mr. Handsome's eyes flicked to the floor behind me. I turned and saw the discoloration on the brown pile carpet.
"A self-inflicted gunshot wound," Ritter said. "Pretty cut and dry."
“So what’s an Everett Interpretation? ” Mr. Handsome asked.
I looked into his vacant eyes and decided even a brief discussion of quantum mechanics and wave function collapse would be wasted breath. “It has to do with the theory of multiple universes,” I said, hoping the simplified answer would suffice. The nod of his head seemed to indicate it had.
I turned my attention back to the screen and those five simple entries. What could have happened in five weeks to drive my friend down such a dark road? I needed to know. Without asking I double clicked on 'Entry 2'.
The screen flickered from brilliance to night for several seconds. Each flash of illumination displayed a corner of the pipe filled wall. Then there was a shout of what I thought was joy and Will dashed into the picture. He dropped into the chair breathless and flushed.
"It worked! It actually worked!" With a palm, he brushed his tousled hair into place and leaned into the camera.
"Accidental fluctuations in the decoherence equipment have caused a major breakthrough." He began to giggle and glanced over his shoulder. "Breakthrough," he chortled. "I've finally managed to transmigrate living matter...living matter!"
"It's all so simple." His eyes became steely as he stared into the lens. "All so simple. Once I was able to create the magnetic resonance into the n-dimensional tesseract." He paused and ran his fingers through his hair creating the original disheveled look. "All that was required was a boost of power and the entire structure enfolded on itself. I don't know where the additional energy came from, but the results are undeniable." He pushed away from the camera and disappeared off screen. In a moment he returned. In his hand, he held a potted ivy. He pulled one branch close to the screen.
"I'm not sure if you can see this, but the veining structure of the plant is reversed. Very subtle but definitely reversed. Clear evidence this plant passed through a trans-dimensional portal." He dropped the pot onto the desk and laughed.
"I now have proof we live in a multiverse. Not only that but a mirrored multiverse; one we can cross into and out of." At this, he stood and waved his arms around him. "It's surrounded us the whole time, and no one knew."
"One last point," he said breathlessly. He dropped into the chair and stared into the camera. "During the experiments, I've discovered that humanity has had glimpses of the multiverse all along. In fact, it adds credence to myths dealing with psychics and witches, that sort of thing. We've all seen the multiverse, we just been unable to explain what we were seeing."
Will leaned off screen and returned with a glass in his hand. He gulped down half of the clear contents and set the container down with a thunk. He wiped a wrist across his mouth and leaned in, his face serious.
"We're all familiar with the shadows that flicker in our peripheral vision...right?" he tapped a finger against his temple. "Those unexplained movements out of the corner of our eyes, especially on dark and stormy nights? What we’re seeing are hints of the multiverse." He laughed and ran a palm across his jaw.
"Whenever there's an electromagnetic power fluctuation, like those produced by storms or surges in the power grid. They produce the same effects as the decoherence equipment; only on a much smaller scale. The human mind can only perceive these glimpses of the multiverse as flashes of perception at the edge of consciousness."
He smiled and leaned back in his chair. For the first time, I noticed the mustard stains dotting his shirt and the two day's growth of beard.
"My next experiment will be in two weeks. I'm planning on testing the equipment on myself. I'll need to add to the electromagnetic grid and increase the power by thirty percent. Until next time." He reached over and the screen went blank.
"Whoa. That dude's lost it." Mr. Handsome said.
I had to admit he was right. I turned and examined the equipment in the room. "Have you seen an 'On' switch for this stuff?"
"Yeah, it used to be over there," Ritter pointed to a cluster of wires dangling from the wall. "When the uniform boys came in, they weren't sure what they had. Dead body and equipment humming like a hive of bees. They thought it might be some kind of explosive device and called in the bomb squad. Just to be safe they cut power and clipped the wires."
"Did they find anything... dangerous," I asked.
Ritter shook his head and jacked a thumb at the pipes. "Naw. Fact is, I don't think they knew what the hell they were looking at."
"Do you want to go on with the entries?" Mr. Handsome asked. "I think we've got what we're after. I mean this guy thought he could see parallel universes out of the corner of his eyes and a plant was some kind of interdimensional traveler." He snorted derisively. "I mean if that ain't crazy, I don’t know what is."
"No, I'd like to finish." I glanced up at Ritter. "If you don't mind."
He bumped his chin towards the screen. "Go ahead. Let's see how this ends."
I clicked on Entry 3. The recording began with the same bright, flashing lights as entry two, but with the added effect of a loud humming noise in the background. The buzz and flares continued for several minutes, then, there was a loud scream and a crash. The screen went black. I knew the camera was still recording because I could hear scraping and harsh breathing in the background. Then the lights came back on and Will stumbled into view.
There was a deep cut on one cheek and dark smudges beneath his chin. His wild eyes darted left and right for several sharp breaths before the lights blinked off. What followed next was confusing. There were sounds that could only be described as blows. The solid thump of something hard hitting flesh followed by grunts and a cry. I'm sure at one point the camera was knocked to the floor as I heard the thud of its fall, and when the lights returned, the image of the room tilted awkwardly, panning up at the ceiling.
A pair of leather loafers stepped into view and a hand grabbed the camera, set it in place. Then Will slumped into the chair. For several heartbeats, he sat with his face in his hands. When he looked up, I saw the cut on his cheek and the smudges were gone. They must have been a trick of lighting or some dirt he’d wiped away.
"October sixteenth," he began. There was a long pause. "I don't know what time it is... late. I should have known. It was all so obvious." He ran a hand through the mess of his hair. "The math was there the whole time, but I ignored it. Pride before the fall as they say." He shook his head and pushed tiredly to his feet.
"If I can make this right I will. I swear I will." The screen went blank.
I wiped at the hot tears streaming down my cheeks and stared at the screen for a long while.
"You okay?" Ritter asked. "You don't have to watch this if you don't want."
I didn't know what I'd expected, but to watch Will’s descent into darkness was almost too much to bear. Part of me wanted to go on, needed to discover the truth. Another side couldn’t stand to see my love rip himself apart. In the end, it was the pragmatist within me who won out. As she always did.
"No, no. I'm fine," I lied. "Let's get this over with." I hovered the mouse over the fourth entry and clicked.
Will's face appeared on the screen. His right eye was swollen, a dried cut in the center of his lip. "October twenty-seventh, ten thirty p.m.," he cleared his throat and glanced to his left, to the spot where he would so soon end his life.
"I think I'm done here," his voice cracked. "I never envisioned parallel universes could be so …diverse." He giggled manically. "But then again it's a multiverse, right? Which includes all possibilities. Both good and evil."
Will dropped his head, his greasy hair tumbling across his brow. He brushed it aside and glanced up. "So I'm going to cross over. It must be done to equalize the equation. If I don't, I'm not sure what the long-term consequences might be. The visitor told me about things on the other side; no war, no pollution. He was mad of course, but I hope he isn’t a liar as well."
He smiled at the camera. "Stacy, my darker self told me you don't exist across the boundary. I don't know if I can take life if you aren't in it." His eyes dropped and color tinted his cheeks. "I've never been able to tell you, but I've always loved you." He peered up, his boyish grin filling the camera before it clicked off.
With tear-filled eyes, I flicked the mouse to the last entry and hit play.
"October thirty-first, eight p.m.," Will smiled into the lens. Behind him, a wild buzzing crackled with power. "Now I start the big adventure, huh? Stacy, I decided to not destroy the data on my experiment. In case you decide to follow. I've included the plans and details for reconstruction of the decoherence equipment, and encrypted everything and copied it to my Dropbox folder. I saved it a couple other places only you would think to look." He winked at the camera. "In case the government gets snoopy.”
“As to my visitor,” he turned in the chair and glanced over his shoulder. “I don’t know if he was mad before he entered our world or not.” He turned and faced the camera again. “I can assure you I never knew his intent or I would have tried to stop him. When I leave, maybe he’ll vanish, maybe he’ll still be here.” Will shrugged and leaned into the lens. “Either way, I hope you join me."
He rose up and stepped off screen. "I love you, Stacy," he called over the hum. There was a loud, bang and the background noise dropped to a soft purr.
"Well, there you have it," Ritter said. “I'd like to point out how lucky you are this didn't' turn into a murder-suicide. This guy came real close to including you in his delusions."
"Yeah, you literally dodged a bullet," Mr. Handsome agreed.
On the drive back to my apartment, I had one more question for Ritter. "Didn't you say the time of Will’s death was October twenty-seventh?"
"Yeah, that's what the coroner's preliminary estimate was," Ritter said. "Somewhere around noon; give or take three hours."
"But the last entry on Will's computer was dated October thirty-first," I said.
"He told us October thirty-first," Ritter said. "But given his state of mind, who knows what the actual date was. More likely October twenty-seventh."
I climbed out of the car and mounted the steps to my apartment. Ritter threw me a perfunctory wave as his car disappeared around the corner.
Before I stepped into the apartment, I pulled out my cell. I double checked the last text Will sent. At the time it confused me. Now it made perfect sense.
Look me up when you get into town. I'll be waiting.
Love always. Will
Oct 31, 08:03 PM