What does it say about the Universe that the only dependable methods of maintaining some degree of sanity in it are themselves forms of insanity? The question isn’t really whether true and total sanity could ever arise, nor what kind of mind would be required to endure it, but rather whether any other intelligence would be capable of recognizing it.
We psychologists are discouraged from speaking in absolutes such as “sanity” and “insanity,” in favor of softer terms like “mental health.” Yet there are cases requiring a binary judgment of objective truth: the man either is or is not the risen Christ, government agencies either are or are not monitoring the woman’s bowel movements. To the extent that they embrace such delusions, the stricken can be called insane.
Benjamin Roper was such a case. Whatever you may think of his story, there’s no doubt he believed it completely. He was either insane, or he was not.
When I met him, he was one of a distressingly large proportion of inmates showing symptoms of serious mental illness incarcerated at the High River State Correctional Facility (a situation typical of the country’s prison system as a whole). I donated some professional hours there a few times a month, occasionally consulting with staff members on the best approach to adopt toward certain difficult prisoners, but mostly providing therapy to the inmates themselves, who either were compelled to undergo it by order of the courts, or sought it out themselves.
Roper had been diagnosed as a classic paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur, an assessment I understood without necessarily endorsing. The textbook markers were there: a byzantine and threatening conception of reality, complete with a role of outsized importance for himself. But acute schizophrenia is not a subtle condition; the typical sufferer cannot hide his or her anxiety, emotional volatility, or irrational patterns of thought for very long. Roper was just the opposite, explaining his worldview as patiently and holistically as a history professor.
He held eye contact without apparent discomfort, constructed and spoke his sentences unbrokenly, responded to verbal and nonverbal cues appropriately. He did carry himself with a certain intensity—whether he spoke or listened, behind his eyes was a kind of inspiration, perhaps fervor—but it was nothing you wouldn’t find on any number of faces at an especially involving church service, political rally, or football game. I don’t believe I would’ve been capable of diagnosing him with anything at all, if it hadn’t been for his story; that, and what he’d done.
He’d murdered three men and one woman at a rest area on an interstate highway one very early morning the year before, and he was and is strongly suspected of at least thirty other killings. Each of his victims had gone to the otherwise deserted rest stop separately, at Roper’s invitation. Apparently they’d never met one another, nor their killer, though each had been in contact with Roper online for some time.
He ushered each, upon arrival, into a fringe of woods bordering the highway, where he gagged them and tied them to trees, returning to the rest stop proper to await the next; he’d staggered their meeting times at fifteen-minute intervals, so that none arrived simultaneously. When he had the four of them there in the woods, he executed them with all the ritual and emotional involvement of hanging up on a wrong number, shooting each twice in the back of the head with a powerful handgun. It was pure chance that led to his arrest, as despite the time—just after two forty-five a.m.—a driver pulled into the rest stop just as the last few shots were being fired, and immediately called the police.
Nowhere in this or the other crimes Roper was suspected of—similarly arranged meetings with multiple victims in unfrequented locations at quiet times of night, with similarly grim results—was there the sadistic sexual element any amount of experience with serial murderers would lead one to expect. He’d gone about his business in the furthest thing from frenzy.
“It’s a simple matter of survival,” Roper told me at our first session, with no sign of hesitation or remorse. “On a scale beyond anything you can imagine, and with rules and possibilities and impossibilities that shift like your proverbial kaleidoscope. But basically a case of dog eat dog.”
His story unfolded over six or eight sessions—after the first few, I began volunteering at the prison more often, so it was the matter of perhaps two months—but his tone and body language remained so consistent, and now stand out so unchangingly in my mind, that it might have been one long, dreamlike meeting. In my memory he is leaning back, casually and comfortably, in the much-used armchair in the little general-purpose office I used there, speaking in a voice both calm and hard.
A patient, since deceased, was taken, at the age of six, by a favorite uncle, to an antique or consignment shop, where she was promised a gift of her choice. She found many items that sparked her interest, curiosity, or unease, but only one she wanted, a stuffed raccoon on a high shelf behind the counter. When she pointed it out to her uncle, both he and the store’s owner seemed uncomfortable, and tried to persuade her to choose a different gift. But she insisted, and finally her uncle called for the raccoon to be brought down from its shelf for the girl to examine firsthand.
When she held it, she discovered it was not what it had appeared. Its fur was dry and bristly, and it was filled, not with the soft, fluffy material she’d expect, but with something grainy and unyielding; besides that, a hard framework running through the animal prevented it from moving, a system of rigid structures in its legs and head and even its bushy tail. She decided she didn’t want the raccoon after all. She only realized years later, remembering the incident around the time of her uncle’s death, that the raccoon of her fancy hadn’t been a toy, but a piece of taxidermy.
Roper reminded me of that stuffed raccoon I’d never seen for myself, but only imagined through the eyes of a confused and frightened little girl: a seemingly soft, even endearing exterior, concealing sawdust and bones. His tone was always reasonable, often friendly, sometimes even carrying a note of dry humor. I never saw him come close to losing his temper. But the structure of his thoughts and beliefs, the skeleton of his mind, was absolutely unyielding.
He said it was in his mid-twenties—about ten years before we met—when, dissatisfied with any conventional conception of the world around him, he’d begun to formulate his own.
“I could hardly help but stumble on it,” he told me, with every appearance of genuine humility. “The True Disposition. It’s easier—thinking, planning, all that—once you realize you’re just one domino in an infinite line.”
Led? (That sounded schizophrenic to me.) But by who?
“Myselves,” he said, pronouncing it with deliberate precision. “They’d gotten there ahead of me. Enough of them, anyway. It’s like momentum. Or gravity.”
Oh? (Treading lightly now. Careers have been built on descriptions of so-called multiple personality disorder, and nearly all of them have met premature ends on the same shaky ground. But that wasn’t what he was talking about.)
“No telling which of us was the originator. And it doesn’t matter. How could it, when whichever one of us it was had a hundred million identical duplicates of himself the next millisecond? I only know it wasn’t me, this particular version in this particular universe. It was something I discovered, not created, you see what I mean?”
Nodded, not very sincerely. So it’s a matter of receiving messages? (In other words: what else do the voices say?)
“Not really, not the way you mean. There aren’t any voices, whatever the lawyers tried to get me to say. I still do the thinking. It’s just that the way’s been paved for me, okay? I only have to walk it.”
Paved by who? By himself? How many of him were running around out there?
“Here on this earth, in this universe, just the one. Out there, in the Deeper Reaches? More than you could possibly imagine. There aren’t any numbers for it. Just about infinite. Not quite, but just about. Then again, just the one. An infinity of me, and just the one. That sound like a riddle to you, Doc?”
By now I’d guessed he was talking about the idea of multiple realities, just the kind of ubiquitous, quasi-plausible concept a schizophrenic might pluck out of the zeitgeist and remold for his own purposes.
“Sure, the Multiverse,” he agreed. “But that doesn’t answer the riddle.” And, when I’d asked him to remind me: “There’s an infinity of me out there, yet there’s only one. How’s that work?”
I shrugged, with perfect sincerity.
“Say you asked a single cell of a human body how many like it there were, and say it could answer. Wouldn’t it be totally justified in saying, ‘Trillions and trillions, and at the same time just one?’ Answering for itself and its fellow cells, but also for the greater entity of which it’s a tiny part? One of your cells, say. Trillions and trillions of it go to make you up, but there’s just the one you. Here, anyway.”
I nodded, with more sincerity than I would’ve expected. It’s a strange sensation, realizing you’re following the logic of a lunatic, a mix of satisfaction in your sympathetic capacities, and worry for your own state of mind.
“Well, I’m just one cell among a countless profusion, spread out across the Multiverse. You are, too. The difference is, I know it. Everything else flows from that.”
Everything? Even murder?
“If you have to put it that way. I prefer to think of it as preemptive self-defense.”
So he’d felt threatened by his victims? My finger hovering over the little button on the side of the desk, which would, in theory, summon the guard; the imputation of fear or personal inadequacy had prompted many an outburst, from patients incarcerated and without criminal record alike.
He only shrugged. “Not yet. But they might’ve figured it out if I’d given them time, and then they would’ve been a problem. Now there are a few out there who know it as well as I do, and they don’t just threaten me, Doc, they scare the piss out of me. I stay out of their way, at least until I’m stronger.”
Figured it out? It being?
“That they’re not just an isolated cell floating in a petri dish. That they’re part of something, part of themselves, not their tiny, lonely, powerless little selves, but their real and vaster identities.”
I was thinking that, deliberately or not, he’d pinpointed the very symptoms of alienation that must’ve contributed to his delusions. Also, that he might’ve made a successful self-help guru, or perhaps cult leader, so confidently and charismatically—I nearly said convincingly—did he proclaim bigger and better planes of existence.
“The people I had to deal with had figured it out, in other universes, so they had every chance of figuring it out in this one,” he explained at another session. “In other words, out there in the Deeper Reaches they were already a conscious metavidual, so their selves living here could’ve woken up at any moment, and acted accordingly.”
I must’ve looked dubious, or confused. He was happy to elucidate.
“The metavidual, Doc. The vaster self. Most people have no clue it exists. But some of us know. And we act accordingly.”
By killing each other.
“By surviving. Now you’ll say, ‘Where’s the struggle? You’ve got everything you need, Ben, and those people weren’t going to take it away from you.’ Perfectly true. Here. But not everybody’s lucky enough to live in a world as overflowing with resources, and so as safe and stable, as this one. There’re worlds out there in the Deeper Reaches where you and I couldn’t survive for two minutes. I hate to tell you, but our kind of world, the worlds of abundance, are the rarity. And food, clean water, clean air, those aren’t the only resources. There’re other necessities, barely grasped or not grasped at all, that a person can’t do without. And when you get to the level of the metavidual, Doc, there’re necessities the mere individual can’t even imagine.
“One thing about the Multiverse: if there’s a single iteration of a particular Earth out there, there’s a virtual infinitude of them. That’s what they ignore in all the shows and movies. There’s not one Earth where the South won the Civil War or whatever. There’s an effective infinitude of them. You don’t get a new universe when some arbitrary historical event happens differently. Imagine the anthropocentrism of that, Doc! The unbounded arrogance!
“No, you get a new universe when a specific quality of some quantum particle pops up at one exact point on its probability wave, its location or speed or spin or whatever. The wave collapses, and every possible location or speed or spin that isn’t realized here gives rise to another universe. Just imagine how many particles there are in a universe, and how many possible states each one’s in at any given moment, and how often two or more of them interact. Here’s a hint: you can’t. It’s as far beyond the comprehension of a normal human mind as a differential equation is beyond an amoeba.
“But you can feel it, Doc, or you could, if you were tapped into the unimaginably vast entity you’re a part of. I can feel it. It’s a constant sense of expansion and empowerment. Like if a single cell in a redwood tree was conscious and aware of its overriding identity and purpose, and could feel its own mightiness. I’m growing, Doc, my mightiness, even as we sit here talking about it. Then sometimes it’s the opposite, an injury to the spirit like you wouldn’t believe, when for whatever reason a whole bunch of me gets wiped out. What I did, what I’m here for, was to keep that from happening. You’ve got to understand the stakes. Once I’m out of a world, a whole vast subset of worlds, I’m gone from them forever. Those worlds are closed off to me, them and all the infinitude of universes they’ll spawn in the future.”
I’d hear more about what Roper termed his “mightiness” in future sessions, but I didn’t ask him to elaborate at the time, for fear of diverting him from the topic of his motives. Again and again in our conversations I’d find myself unsure which of many possible topics to pursue.
“If you step back and look at the situation—the True Disposition—you’ll realize any self-aware metavidual needs to do two things above all else: keep itself alive and multiplying, and kill its competition. Those imperatives filter right down to the individual cells. Those times I’ve been wiped out, in those other worlds? I failed. I died. And my whole metavidual suffered. Maybe just by chance. Or maybe because another metavidual got to me.
“The competition’s ferocious. It’s dire, Doc, dire. Out here in the garden earths, where it’s calmer, at least on the surface, if you can get to somebody who’s part of some metavidual who’s a danger to you on some of those other worlds, you get rid of them. You just do. Because everything that weakens them, even just a little, makes it that much likelier the other yous out there will survive another day.”
I mentioned several times over the course of our sessions that his worldview seemed rather bleak.
It always elicited a shrug, and some variation of the same basic response. “Maybe. Or maybe there’re levels” (sometimes this was “realms,” or “patterns,” or “structures”) “that a single disconnected cell just can’t see.” He declined to elaborate, on the grounds that my lowly perspective would prevent me from understanding; not an uncommon ploy, when the patient’s fantasy world is probed too minutely for comfort.
Other aspects of his scheme he appeared to have worked out in greater detail, such as the matter of communication among his many supposed selves.
“It’s not direct, one of me talking to another. It’s more a matter of setting my mind on a question, and allowing the answer to come. By thinking about something, I’m contributing to the greater effort to understand it. The more of us chip in, the easier it is for each of us, and the more are drawn to pick up the same subject, by the nature of our connection. It’s like resonance, reverberation. There’re times it gets very strong.”
This attribution of his thoughts and motivations to outside entities was at the heart of his illness, I felt, so it was a frequent topic of discussion. It, too, came in various “levels” or “patterns.”
“There’s the background connection, that never goes away completely,” he said at one session. “Even the unsuspecting get that. Don’t you ever get a stray thought or memory or change in mood? Maybe you think, ‘Where’d that come from?’ I’m sure you, being a brain man, could come up with any number of explanations. It’s in your mind, so it must be your thought, right? What you’re really getting is a sympathetic vibration from a bunch of other versions of yourself who’re engaged with some problem or experiencing some sharp emotion. You’re reverberating and you don’t even know it.”
Several times he tapped into another common trope, one whose fascination for the delusional should perhaps not surprise us. After all, we are all insane in our dreams.
“You’ve got any number of theories to choose from to explain those away, too, Doc. But dreams are where the communication’s at its strongest, even if the messages seem nonsensical afterward. Your conscious filters are down, so you’re getting thoughts and feelings from innumerable other yous, and your waking brain needs to shuffle them all into a single experience retroactively. Once you know, you can remember them more as they really went. You’d be amazed, Doc, truly amazed, at what really happens to us in our dreams.”
Again he was unable to furnish descriptions which an unenlightened being like myself would understand. In this connection he did address a lingering mystery, though: there appeared to be no rhyme or reason to his choice of victims. In every case their first appearance in his internet history was as the subject of a simple search of their full names and approximate locations, as if he’d chosen them at random from a phone book. Many more names occurred in the inventory compiled by police than he was accused or suspected of killing. His actual victims were those targets with whom he was able to establish communication, and engender trust enough to allow him to lure them to the secluded places he chose. He did this through various means: dating apps, offers of employment, conversations based on supposedly shared membership in various esoteric subcultures. He was absolutely unscrupulous in these impersonations, establishing no end of phony profiles, websites, and whole online communities. But the question of how and why he settled on these particular people remained a mystery.
“A lot of them I was introduced to in my dreams,” he told me once, and, another time, “I’d dream the distress of some of my fellow cells, connected with a particular metavidual, and I’d just know their name. It was part of the same package of information.” And when the subject came up again he said, “They weren’t all dreams, sometimes I’d just be taking a shower or driving along, and it would hit me: big, dangerous trouble for some me out there, connected with a particular person named this.”
Naturally I brought up, more than once, the idea of remorse. Most of my patients at High River will adopt one of two approaches to the subject (those who are willing to implicitly admit their guilt, that is). The majority will claim genuine regret for their actions, some subset of these being sincere, the rest padding their case for parole; I couldn’t say what the proportion is, and anyway I believe the two motives are often present in a single individual. Others, more interested in cultivating a macho image, will forswear any softer feelings; over the years I’ve encountered a few of these who actually meant it.
But Roper maintained the attitude of a man who has had to do a difficult, distasteful, but unavoidable task, one imparting neither glory nor disgrace.
“Do I wish it wasn’t necessary? For whatever it’s worth, sure. If you’re asking if I wish I didn’t know the truth? Or knew, but didn’t act to defend myself? Come on, Doc. Would you wish to be deaf and blind and paralyzed? That’s not a threat, Doc, just a metaphor.”
It occurred to me once to wonder why he felt so comfortable talking to me about this, and I put the question to him. Wouldn’t it be safer to keep this secret world to himself, and not risk creating a potential rival by awakening me to my larger self?
“No offense, Doc, but I’m not worried about it. If you were already awake anywhere, I would’ve recognized you. And even if you were to take me seriously and put in the time and effort to get in touch with yourselves, it would just be in this very small—relatively very small, you understand—subset of universes, the one where I got caught and sent here and met you.”
I don’t believe I betrayed more than a hint of pique at being so summarily dismissed, instead asking him to go on.
“You’ve got to realize, we’re in a bit of a pocket here. It was such an unlikely thing, that guy coming along when he did. If it’d been just ten seconds later, or for that matter thirty seconds sooner, he never would’ve heard the shots, and I’d still be out there. Imagine all the things that can happen during the course of a day to change a person’s timing by thirty seconds one way or another. Well, in the majority of universes, one of those things happened, and he didn’t hear the shots. So the me in those universes is somewhere else, doing something else. That’s why I’m so helpless at the moment.”
Here we entered into what was to prove a rich vein of delusion: the many powers granted him by his special knowledge.
“It’s sheer volume,” he explained, at various times. “Processing power. You get enough of yourselves concentrating on something, and there’s an amplification effect. The whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts, you know? That’s the essence of a metavidual. Most people have no idea how strong we really are, or should be. How mighty we’re meant to be, and would be if we weren’t so blind.”
This and similar commentaries were invariably redolent of pity, which I could hardly help but take personally. I usually asked for examples of his “mightiness,” and I don’t think he ever failed to come up with a few.
“Charisma,” was one. “What you might call a persuasive personality. You must’ve noticed that, Doc, even weak as I am. Not that many of me are talking to you right now, across the Multiverse, only trillions upon trillions; a drop in the proverbial bucket. Give it time, and I’ll get stronger. Mere automatic multiplication will take care of that.”
I believe I told him he was indeed an articulate and thoughtful person. His prediction of increasing strength I took for an example of the pathological optimism often displayed by the unbalanced.
“Give me a couple more days and I’ll speak perfect French,” he predicted. “I’ve been studying it the last few days. We all have, all of us in this pocket.”
When, at our next session, I asked him to demonstrate, his French sounded authentic enough to my untrained ear. I mentioned that I was in no position to judge, however, my medical training having familiarized me much more with Latin. The session following that he insisted on conducting entirely in that language, his command of which was impeccable but for the occasional odd pronunciations that commonly result from having read words but never heard them spoken; for the frequently halting character of the conversation I must blame my own deficiencies, not his.
He also claimed to be strong, “Way stronger than I’ve got any right to be,” he said, with a self-deprecatory glance at his rather slight frame. I can attest to this firsthand, though I only saw it demonstrated once, at least directly.
“Resonance. Amplification. Volume, Doc. For example.” He stood, and, walking over to the rickety bookcase on one wall, selected the thickest hardback in evidence, a venerable though long-outdated tome on neurophysiology which must’ve run over twelve hundred pages. “Is this anything you can’t replace?” he asked.
I shrugged, sure no one would miss the book, and, frankly, curious as to what he planned to do with it. I suppose I expected him to leaf through it for a few seconds and then recite a complete list of the sulci and gyri. Instead, he took a firm grip on either end of the spine—the book was so thick that he was only just able to stretch his fingers far enough to accomplish this—and, with a smooth and almost effortless action of his arms and shoulders, ripped the book neatly in half.
These kinds of demonstrations invariably prompted me to wonder, sometimes out loud, why he felt compelled to make them; even if I was no threat, why expend the effort to impress or convince a mere isolated cell?
Once he answered: “Don’t you ever talk to your dogs?” He winced at his own words. “Damn, that wasn’t very nice, huh? But you know what I mean. It’s just plain loneliness. And yeah, I admit, it’s fun to impress you, and see the little flicker of belief on your face, before you pull that mask of proper clinical skepticism back on.” I remember distinctly his own expression as he said it, mischievous and amused. “For example, how’d I know you have a dog?”
I’m sure the “flicker of belief” he’d alluded to didn’t make an appearance just then. I told him I’d taken his remark as wholly impersonal. If it was meant to be specific, then most likely I’d mentioned in passing that I did in fact own several dogs.
“But you didn’t. You know how tight-lipped you are about yourself, Doc. Except out there somewhere, some version of you did. Don’t ask me why, or what was different in that universe. Some stray impulse in your brain, some slightly insufficient inhibitory response, and there you go. Once one of me knows something, it filters down to all of us. The metavidual knows.”
Or, I countered, a member of the prison staff had mentioned my two dogs in his hearing; my fondness for beagles was no secret.
“Now, Doc! What would Casey, Joe, Mac, and Miller think if they heard you call them beagles, big beautiful labs like them? Though of course Miller’s half setter, and Casey’s not as energetic as he used to be, but that’s natural enough, he’s, what, twelve now? I think you miscounted, too: four dogs, not two, and not counting your nephew’s terriers up the street, Sherri and…Otto. Both members in good standing of the Parker Street Barkers Walking Club, right? Cute name, Doc. Ah, there’s that flicker.”
I could picture myself letting slip a detail or two in an unguarded moment. But I would’ve had to be drunk or drugged to divulge the litany he’d just recited, which was entirely accurate. I had to reject the possible explanations my stunned mind provided, all of which smacked of the very condition with which Roper had been diagnosed; I couldn’t bring myself to believe he’d recruited my friends and family in some sinister plot, or bugged my home, or had me followed by shadowy agents, or developed psychic abilities.
“Nothing psychic about it, Doc, though I can see how you’d think so.” He had the disconcerting habit of responding to what I’d been thinking, rather than anything I’d said. “It’s just, we’re having this conversation across a whole range of worlds. You’re bound to say different things in different universes, voice different thoughts, air different feelings. You were thinking I was psychic there, right? And, what else… No, I’ve never met your friends, though I’m sure they’re lovely people… No, I wouldn’t know where to get a bug, let alone—
“Oh, all right, Doc, if you think that’s best,” he interrupted himself suddenly, rising and knocking on the office door to alert the guard stationed in the hallway. Before I could say anything, the guard had applied the shackles and was leading Roper away. As he left, Roper flashed me one of his playful grins, in recognition of what we both, apparently, knew: that I’d been on the verge of cutting the session short and ordering him to go.
He often took those opportunities to tease, but always good-naturedly. He was genial without fail, those first few months. Then the change came.
One afternoon he seemed preoccupied, even anxious, missing questions as he brooded in his chair, gazing blankly at the drab beige wall. It was just spring, I remember distinctly, because his mood seemed so ill-fitted to the warming, lengthening, regenerative days. I asked him what was bothering him.
“Got a lot on my plate right now. Just since this special delivery of dogmeat they brought in last week.”
I gathered he was referring to the latest prisoner transfer, always an occasion among the existing population. I wondered—out loud or not, I don’t remember—whether he’d known one of the new inmates in the past, and feared retribution of some kind.
“Never met the man, Doc, no, so there’s nothing for him to retribute about. But I certainly do fear what he’ll do, or force me to do. I’d expect by now you’d be able to guess why.”
It might’ve been the genuine disappointment in his voice that overcame my usual reluctance to indulge patients in their delusions. I told him he must believe one of the new arrivals was like him: an awakened fragment of a larger and more powerful being.
“Hey bingo. I pay special attention to the fresh faces. Never know when somebody’s going to strike me as familiar. This is the first time one of them did, and as it happens he’s not just a potential, he’s a fully cognizant, proactive metavidual. Oh, he’s dangerous, Doc. And he recognized me across the yard, just as quick as I recognized him.”
He refused to tell me the man’s name, but I guessed he must mean Jan Sorensen, the only one of the eleven new inmates whose crimes bore any resemblance to Roper’s. I felt sure Roper would select as similar a case and personality to his own as possible for his nemesis. Only one of the other new arrivals had been convicted of even attempted murder, a botched poisoning of his common-law wife. The rest were the type of unremarkable muggers, drug dealers, and sexual predators I couldn’t picture Roper elevating to his level. He must’ve learned about Sorensen from the media, where the case had received a fair amount of attention.
“He didn’t really distinguish himself in the cunning department,” Roper told me. “My feeling is he flipped his shit the first time he realized the True Disposition. A desperate reflex, not a rational act.”
During his lunch break from his job as an instructor of electrical engineering at a technical college, Jan Sorensen had walked into a fast-food fried-chicken restaurant, apparently without ill intent; anyway, unarmed, and hungry enough to order and partially consume a meal. There was no obvious argument or provocation, according to both witnesses and security footage. But seventeen minutes after entering, Sorensen abruptly abandoned his meal and left the booth where he’d been sitting alone, crossed the restaurant, and grabbed hold of a man named Arthur Triumph, who was there with his six-year-old son.
Sorensen threw his victim to the ground, kicking and beating and finally choking him for over seven minutes. No one in the restaurant intervened beyond calling the police. When the police arrived, Sorensen obeyed their commands without resistance. Triumph was stone dead by then. No connection of any kind between the two men was ever uncovered.
I asked Roper at another session if his enemy could really be so dangerous, given the newness of his purported knowledge. I mentioned Sorensen specifically, and Roper didn’t contradict me.
“He’s had months to figure things out, and learn how to flex his muscles,” Roper said. “That’s why I say he’s dangerous.”
But surely a series of prison cells isn’t the best environment in which to delve into the secrets of the Multiverse.
“It’s just about ideal, Doc. All you need’s isolation, and access to a decent trove of information, physical or digital. You couldn’t call the library here decent, but we’ve got hot and cold running internet, and I presume the same goes for the last place he called home.”
So this was something he’d gotten from the internet after all; he’d denied this repeatedly in previous sessions.
“No, Doc, there’s nothing direct there, or in real books, which is what I mostly used. But there’s all kinds of corroborating evidence, once you have an idea what you’re looking for. No one purposely leaves clues—why would they?—but the clues’re there all the same. Particular moments in history; certain passages in literature, high and low alike; movies or games with subtext you don’t even see until you know how to look, and then it tells you oh so much more.”
I asked for specific examples, but was rebuffed once again on the grounds of my hopeless inability to understand.
“Anyway, most of it goes on in your own head. All your untold semi-infinitude of heads. Once you can hear yourselves, it only gets stronger and stronger.”
But why fear a man who’d come to this understanding considerably later than Roper himself, and was now trapped in the same “pocket” as he was? Shouldn’t Sorensen be perpetually the weaker of the two?
“And I thought you were paying attention. Look, just because he only recently figured it out here doesn’t tell me anything about how many hims know about it out there, in the Deeper Reaches. If it came on him like a flash, like I think it did, that argues for quite a large and powerful metavidual. A chain reaction of awakening. And we can’t assume he’s in this pocket with me. I’m only cut off from most of myselves because I went down a road the vast majority didn’t: getting caught. This guy didn’t make it very tough on the cops. I think it’s safe to assume he got caught in quite a few other universes. So he’s very much still connected with himselves, and that makes him… Come on, what’s that word…?”
I absolutely did not answer.
“That’s right, Doc. Dangerous. Deadly, in fact. He knows me for what I am, which means he wants to wipe me out of this world. And the feeling’s mutual. Like I told you: self-defense. I may be an infinitesimal mote of dust drifting through an unimaginably vast cosmos, but I want to live.”
It would’ve been irresponsible of me not to ask how he expected the rivalry to play out. I should’ve known he’d seize the opportunity to elaborate on his fantasy, while giving me nothing tangible I could take to the prison staff.
“Oh, it’s building, Doc. It’s building quick enough. We’re in a numbers game now, each of us persuading whoever we can to our own side. Building our armies. The more we get—and we’ve got almost everyone now—the thicker the tension gets. You must’ve felt it around here, the last couple weeks at least.”
I’d never entered the place without registering a deep and persistent tension, like stepping out of a climate-controlled interior into a humid summer day with a sky stacked with thunderheads. I told him—honestly, I think—that I hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary.
“See if you catch any whiffs on your way out. You pass the yard, don’t you?”
There was a stretch of hallway along the third floor of the administration building with a long row of picture windows looking out onto the prison yard. Sometimes I used it on my in or out, sometimes not.
“Well, if you happen to wander by, I think you’ll notice some, what you might call, oddities. You know, we haven’t had a violent incident here in months? Not so much as a spitball.”
I said that sounded like the opposite of danger. At least, he responded as if I’d said it.
“On the surface. And I guess you’d say it’s good all the different gangs and cliques are intermingling now, too. See, he’s won some of each group over to his side, and I’ve got others, so mixing’s inevitable. We’re not trying to persuade them based on any kind of ideology or group interest, so what I guess you’d call demographics doesn’t matter. This is strictly a subconscious process. They do what we say without questioning why, without even realizing there’s anything to question. More importantly, we’re not just doing this once. We’re doing the same thing a hundred billion trillion times. Who we’ve persuaded in all the other universes influences who we’re able to in this one, and our work here bears on all the rest. You wouldn’t be wrong if you said it was a complex situation.”
How long could it go on?
“I couldn’t give you a date and time, Doc. It could go off any moment. One little spark, across a billion trillion tinderboxes, that’s all it’ll take.”
And when that spark came?
“There’s something like fifty-two hundred people in here, all of whom will fight to the death, if not a little bit beyond, for one of two sides. And the doors lock from the outside.”
I’ve often wondered whether firefighters are ever compelled to view a particularly consuming inferno with something like fascination, even admiration. It was impossible not to be struck by the resiliency of Roper’s illness. Even in the most confined and regimented of environments, that sinister whisperer had constructed a vision of mass violence with which to soothe itself through the dark nights. I couldn’t help but be impressed, even if, as I thought, Roper had overestimated the inmate population by at least three hundred.
I couldn’t resist taking the hallway overlooking the yard on my way out that day. The ordinary sense of menace was there, added to rather than diminished by the reigning stillness. I saw none of the usual swaggering displays, heard none of the normal shouts of camaraderie or aggression. No one was playing basketball, or lifting weights, or strolling in conversation along the perimeter of the yard. The only occupations I felt sure were going on down there were watching and waiting, and these were universal.
I mentioned what I think I termed the prisoners’ “weird calm” to several guards, with the advice that they be especially careful in the coming days. They were polite, but dismissive, as I’m sure I would’ve been if they’d ventured to suggest a course of treatment for one of my patients.
I was scheduled to be there again several weeks later, but was stopped that morning by an email from the assistant warden, or at least sent from her account. The message, which canceled all sessions for the day without explanation, provoked no reaction in me beyond a minor curiosity about its cause, and a more pressing concern as to how to fill my suddenly vacant schedule. I replied with a brief, professional inquiry about rescheduling my visit, then put the prison out of my mind until late that afternoon, when I received a reply, this time making no effort to disguise its true author.
“Dear Doc,” it read. “Sorry to miss our meeting of the minds, but I’ve had my hands full today, and it’s just about come to a crescendo. Trust me when I say you wouldn’t want to be stuck on the wrong side of the locked doors today. Wish me luck. –Your Billion Trillion Friends.”
As soon as I’d processed the message, I began calling the prison, first the mental health liaison I usually worked with, then the assistant warden herself, then the warden’s main office. Nothing.
After some consideration, I called the local police, and sketched out what I knew of the situation for them, leaving out Roper’s fantastic claims, telling them only that I’d received a cryptic message from within the prison and was now unable to contact anyone inside. It sounded as flimsy as I’d feared, but I was able to extract a promise that they would attempt to get in touch with the prison, and investigate further if necessary. After a few more indecisive moments, I headed there myself.
I could get no closer to the main building than a few hundred yards, as there was no one manning the gate in the outer fence. As far as I could see in the waning late-afternoon light, the grounds were completely still, the prison itself brooding silently in the middle distance like the mausoleum of some massive creature. I expected shouts, sirens, gunshots to break out at any moment. But the stillness and the silence held, increased if possible, as if the prison were radiating them out into the atmosphere, the Universe, beyond.
When the police arrived half an hour later, I presented myself as a regular member of the prison staff, and managed to gain their permission to accompany them inside. The investigators at first consisted of three local and two state officers, a roster that expanded rapidly as they reported what we found. And I suppose I can no longer delay describing that.
It’s most often referred to in the press, sensationalisticly and not very accurately, as the “High River Massacre.” I understand the word “massacre” to denote a deliberate slaughter of a vulnerable population by a powerful individual or group, and that’s not what happened at High River. It must’ve been more akin to a battle, one conducted by two sides effectively equal in number, weaponry, and desperation.
There’d clearly been a general arming of the population over the preceding weeks or months, a concerted effort on both sides to produce an arsenal of the savage makeshift weapons typical of a prison, implements of stabbing and puncturing fashioned from tools, bedsprings, toothbrushes, any object of metal, wood, or hard plastic long enough to be held in the hand with an excess of several inches to be sharpened and plunged into a human body.
There were innumerable bludgeons: former legs of chairs, tables, and beds, metal pipes, the very bars that had been intended to lock their wielders away. Scattered everywhere were even simpler weapons: heavy rocks and bricks and chunks of concrete thrown at enemies or launched with jury-rigged slings of torn bedsheets and rubber tubing. There were crude fertilizer-based explosives. There were noxious mixtures of cleaning supplies intended to suffocate or burn their victims.
The prison was a wasteland of devastated human flesh, resembling nothing I’ve seen or heard of except perhaps the aftermath of war. Many of the corpses were locked together in tangles of limbs, having killed each other in such close quarters as to compel them to share their place of dying. The stench was indescribable.
I’d treated many of these men, and some had imparted to me secrets they wouldn’t have shared with their closest friend. I knew them, in a way that was clinical but couldn’t help also being human. Some were truly violent by nature, but others were just as intrinsically submissive, and, under normal circumstances, could never have roused themselves to this kind of brutality. Most had been self-interested survivors long before reaching prison, and the place had taught that mentality to the rest quickly enough. Yet they’d universally and with obvious premeditation rejected all concern for their personal safety, to fight a war of total annihilation.
And what could persuade the hundreds of guards and administrative staff, functioning members of society, to make common cause with the prisoners? They were all dead, and it was obvious they hadn’t joined together to defend against some mass riot, but had been actively involved on both sides, often to the point of fighting and killing one other. Many were better armed than the prisoners, apparently having brought personal firearms or other weapons from outside, but there was no difference between themselves and their former charges in the single-minded ferocity they’d displayed. The prison was well stocked with various nonlethal weapons—tasers, beanbag guns, mace—and these were found in their normal storage places, having been ignored by both sides.
I didn’t need to believe Roper’s story to conclude that Sorensen had played a disproportionately important role in the bloodshed. His body was found in one of the prison’s high observation towers, which had obviously been a scene of special focus, and therefore particular carnage, during the fighting.
The tower lay at the top of four flights of stairs, and at first, near the ground floor, one had to pick one’s way carefully around the corpses strewn across the scene, attackers and defenders intertwined in their terminal intimacy. Higher up, there was no question of avoiding the bodies, they carpeted the stairs that thickly. You just tried not to step on faces.
At the top of the grisly climb, we found the metal door to the guard room deformed and knocked partly off its hinges, whether by battery or explosion or sheer weight of humanity I couldn’t say. Inside, the bodies were three and four deep in some places, piled like slaughtered animals, and the walls, and what windows hadn’t been smashed, were caked in layer upon layer of gore. Countless flies had discovered the scene, and provided a constant buzzing undertone.
We found the grotesque, tortured form that had been Jan Sorensen slumped in the corner farthest from the door. His death had been truly horrific, even relative to the slaughter on all sides. The medical examiner would be unable to pinpoint a specific cause, instead listing the potentially fatal damage the man had endured: “repeated blunt-force trauma, repeated stabbing, severe shock, multiple broken bones, organ failure, suffocation, drowning, burning, two partial amputations, partial decapitation, etc.” The “etc.” was original to the report, the only time I’ve seen that phrase on such a document.
I won’t linger on the obvious thought and care that had gone into the brutal torture, or what condition it had left Sorensen’s body in. But I do feel compelled to share a possible motive, suggested by certain aspects of Roper’s story.
“One thing working in my favor,” he’d said once, “I’ll be damn hard to kill.” And, at another session, in the context of his crime: “A bullet in the head is plenty for the average Joe, but if they’d been awake to their larger selves it wouldn’t’ve worked so smoothly. I never could’ve lured them out there in the first place, but if I had, it would’ve taken me all night to deal with just one of them.” And at another, when we were discussing the strange abilities granted by higher sentience: “There’s strength in numbers, Doc, and there’s also tenacity, and pure will to live. A waking cell of a metavidual of any respectable size and power isn’t going to be particularly killable. They’re gonna have to be convinced to die. And that’s not a project I’m eager to be on either side of.”
Yet on that day Roper had apparently been on both sides of that darkly hinted-at “project.” The two guard towers closest to the one in which Sorensen had made his stand had seen relatively little fighting, but the one directly across the yard was in a condition every bit as grisly. I couldn’t help but think of two generals surveying a battle from opposing heights, or perhaps two players looking down on a game of chess.
This guardroom had been breached and fiercely contested like the other, and, among the debris of death littering its every surface, investigators would eventually extract several components later identified through DNA analysis as belonging, or having belonged, to Benjamin Roper: the left ear; the right eye; three fingers of the left hand (one of which was taken from the stomach contents of another inmate); the entire right foot; and a number of strips of skin and flesh of varying sizes.
But if Roper, too, had been, in his words, “convinced to die” at High River, he’d left no remains coherent enough to prove it. Roper was one of about a dozen inmates and guards whose bodies were not found, that day or during the grisly accounting to come. It’s conceivable they’d been too thoroughly deconstructed, and too widely dispersed, to allow for identification. But I believe it’s undeniable that anyone who survived that day’s carnage could’ve walked out of High River with nothing and no one to stop them.
I know for a fact Roper did survive, although, for reasons I’ve yet to come to grips with, I haven’t informed the authorities. Three days after the horror I’ve sketched here in as little detail as possible, I received a letter, which I’ll recount below as nearly verbatim as I can.
“Quick note to assuage any queasiness you might be feeling as to certain events at certain correctional institutions in recent days. First, let me assure you I’m doing just fine. I’m typing this with the full use of both hands, and the foot’s growing back well enough too (yes, there are ramifications of the True Disposition we didn’t get a chance to discuss).
“You’re a good person, by the only standards you can reasonably be expected to understand, so I’m sure you took whatever you saw or heard about High River to heart, and nothing I say will do much to soften that. But do try, Doc, to think of it in something like context.
“All the blood and guts at that place—all the conceivable blood and guts in this world—count for almost literally nothing on the kinds of scales Reality actually operates on. There are stakes out there, real and important questions and answers, but they’ve got nothing to do with the lives and deaths of a few thousand people, or a few billion. These could only ever be pinpricks to the beings we really are.
“Now don’t think about it too hard, Doc. I’d hate for you to wake up and become a potential problem. I do know where you live, after all.
“I know, why should I bother writing this? What could a little note between friends possibly matter, in this absurdly vast Reality? Nothing, really nothing. But a cell’s still a cell, and even if it suddenly gained total insight into the true scope and nature of the entity of which it was a tiny part, it would have to go on doing the things a cell does. And a person’s still a person.
“And on that note, I’ll sign off. Read this over a few times, and do your best to memorize any parts you like. As soon as you look away it’ll be gone (and when you wonder how, just remember those ramifications we didn’t get to). Keep it in context, Doc. Just not too much.
“—Your innumerable friend”
I did read the letter several times, before putting it aside and going into the kitchen to pour myself a large bourbon. When I returned to the living room, the letter and envelope were gone. My search of the room and my own person lasted far longer than any hope of its success.
That was the last I heard of Benjamin Roper, though I’m sure that, if I were to make an exhaustive catalog of unexplained homicides in the years since, I’d uncover more than a few that bore his stamp. I intend to do no such thing. And when my thoughts turn, possibly of their own volition, and possibly not, toward the evidence for and against Roper’s insanity—against and for the reality of his story—there is always a distraction to be had, the aforementioned bourbon among the more reliable.
I’ve decided to take Roper’s advice, and not think more than necessary about the events of that day at High River, nor what might’ve led to them, nor what it might signify about the nature of Reality. Deliberate ignorance and unfettered perception are only two forms of insanity, and the degree to which one indulges either can only be a matter of personal choice. I hope, if there are others of me out there, in what Roper called the Deeper Reaches, that they make the same choice. I don’t want to know.