To celebrate the fifth anniversary of our first date, Nancy lavishly splashed herself with gasoline and lit a cigarette. I watched her burn down to yellowed bones, and then went offline, tired. Next morning I made Nancy come with me to a boathouse restaurant and paid an Indian waiter to stay there and make sure Nancy didn’t try to swallow a shard of glass or cut her veins with a butter knife. It worked, but she refused to talk to me, so I finished my steak, logged off, and started this journal, knowing I would delete it three days later …
My story began eight years ago, when Phoebe, my wife, returned to Earth with some skinny lawyer and took our son Owen with her. Just before their departure, I came to the spaceport to say my final goodbye, a mint candy melting on my tongue to hide the smell of morning whiskey. Phoebe spotted me first, far across the busy terminal booming with jokes and laughter of Nigerian shuttle traders. Stepping over their bloated multicolored duffle bags, as if striding across an eclectic walrus rookery, she slowly headed to me. “You had to come here, didn’t you?” She pierced me with her brown eyes, the thin lips primed in a smile. “Must be an early morning for you, Ulysses.”
As I stood there breathing deeply through my nostrils and gathering my words, she pulled her red Korean shawl over her shoulders and tied it in a tight knot around her chest.
“I promised Owen I’d see him before you left.” I said quietly. I tried not to look at the feline features of her round face. “He called me yesterday, and I said it’d be the first thing I’d do when I wake up.”
“Seems like it’s the second thing you did.” She gently touched my dirty collar and grimaced at the sharp alcohol scent.
Her own fingers smelled of lavender and sour chicken, and I couldn’t help but turn my head and keep my breath. Memories flashed through my mind: my numb fist with Phoebe’s blood on it, and the aroma of lavender—her ever-present trademark—stuck to it as a reminder of what I had done.
“How many times did you wash your hand with soap that night?” A voice in my head asked, masochistically. Just to chase away the thoughts, I hurried to speak.
“It’s my … Where’s Owen?” From the corner of my eye, I saw my boy’s yellowish hair among the blue and green robes of arguing Nigerians.
“Excuse me!” A man’s voice jumped in, and here he was, Phoebe’s new boyfriend, all excited, loud and generous with his gestures: “Hey, Pheebs, it’s check-in time. We gotta go.” He held his blue tie with one hand flat against his chest and offered me a handshake. “Nice to meet you, man. Name’s Lenny.”
Phoebe flung her hands up at him. “Wha … Did you leave Owen alone?”
“Come on, he’s on the suitcases.”
“Jeez, you gotta be kidding me.” She headed back through the crowd. For a brief moment I saw Owen in the distance leaning against a mound of duct-taped bags, a see-through game tablet in his hands.
“Ulysses, right?” Lenny the lawyer interposed himself between me and my boy again, his hand touching my shoulder softly. “Listen, I think Pheebs is overreacting. I’m pretty sure we can find some way to—”
Phoebe shouted above the crowd.
“Dammit, Leonard! We’re gonna miss the flight!”
“I’m coming, I’m coming!”
I cast a glance at my boy for the last time, before a forest of people swallowed him. I straightened my back, stood on my tiptoes, but all I could see were muscular black necks of cheerful Nigerians wearing cheap Martian textiles.
So, Phoebe went to Earth with the lawyer and took Owen with her. What did I do about it? Nothing. Maybe, if it were a story of a giant amidst mere mortals, it would have continued with me following her to Earth; me quitting drinking; me contacting the old-boys’ network from Lufthansa Raumtransport; me getting a consultancy job for some interplanetary logistics company; me finally getting a quality eye implant. Me seeing Owen again.
But it’s not that kind of story. And I was no giant. I was a piece of spit in zero gravity: a miserable waste of society, too gutless to act or even raise my voice. I stayed in my studio in Zaragoza-17 on Mars, and some nights I wished I could be killed in my bed during a robbery or stabbed in the back and thrown into the warm gutters near a pump station. But nobody ever came for me, except night terrors.
It was then that I met Radzinsky. I was on my way to the Red Aurora bookstore, where I’d heard that some freaks with tons of cash were secretly hiring experienced pilots for the Légion de la Liberté. The hell of the Neptunian Civil War with its attacks on stratosphere stations and airborne assaults in the poisonous blue fog was exactly what I seemed to need the most at the moment. I was squeaky clean and well-shaved. I had with me my passport, my Communard party card, and my interplanetary pilot certificate. My eye implant was slightly malfunctioning, but I was expecting to be dead in six months anyway, so it didn’t matter. And it was then that I met Radzinsky.
Greg found me in an empty intersection near the ramshackle community hostel. His black executive hover-car stopped in front of me as I was jaywalking, its bulky shape an imitation of early industrial design circa the 1940s. A tinted glass window opened, showing Radzinsky’s smiling round face, but instead of a greeting I heard just a long loud honk. For a second, I stared at his face in confusion and anger, knowing that the small black eyes studied me behind his mirror shades that looked like perfect copies of his car’s windows. Finally, I checked myself and tried to get around his hover, but the car started jerkily and blocked my way again, sending flocks of shredded plastic bags into the air from under its air cushion.
Finally, Greg spoke, his hands still on the wheel.
“Ulysses. You need a ride, old buddy?” It didn’t come out as a question.
I crossed my arms and looked around. There was no way of ignoring him: the street was empty, except for a single Peruvian hobo in a red down jacket who was looking at us indifferently from the entrance of an abandoned toy store.
“Come on, don’t be shy.” Greg’s voice was disgustingly cheerful.
Suddenly, I felt a temptation. I picked a concrete chip from the ground and felt its weight in my hand, imagining its sharp shapes smashing those mirror shades and digging into Radzinsky’s eyeball. As I hesitated, a garbage truck crawled past us behind my back, and before my thoughts materialized into action I felt a hard kick on the back of my left leg just under my knee. With ease an attacker twisted my right elbow and grabbed me into a tight armlock. I tried to break free, but another man in a black suit with an unnaturally calm expression on his white face grabbed me by the neck and plunged his cold fingers deep under my jaw, feeling his way to a pressure point. Effortlessly, they forced me to the hover; its doors gaped open, and before I knew it the car swallowed me complete with my captors.
“It’s been a long time, pal!” On the back seat, sandwiched between the suits with fake silicone faces, I heard Radzinsky speak. He nodded to the agents, and they released their grip. To my surprise, just one of them had a standard face implant on; judging by the aftershave acne, the suit to my right had kept his real skin.
“You look great. Miss the old days?” Greg asked over a growing howl of the hover engine.
“Not really,” I replied grimly as the car took off. For half a minute Radzinsky was silent.
“Have you seen the news? Kuala Lumpur suburbs got wiped out this morning. A meteor strike.” Greg set the car on autopilot and turned to me, wiping his black-rimmed glasses with a handkerchief. He’d gained a lot of weight, had turned gray, and his rebellious Nietzsche mustache was gone. “Media’s in panic. First time a first world city got hit. Where have they been when a bigger sucker fell on Dallas, right?” He chuckled ironically and tried to make an eye contact with me, but I glanced away and massaged my numb right hand.
After a pause, Greg changed his tone. “I heard some hotheads are recruiting volunteers around town to fight for the Commune of Neptune,” he said.
“These red bastards must be desperate, to look for people in such a prosperous city,” I muttered and scratched my Chekhov beard with a middle finger. Behind the window, rows and rows of abandoned high-rises were crawling past us, some of their gaping casements lit, indicating squatters.
Finally, the car turned onto an autobahn, and for some time we drove mutely. To calm my (or, rather, his) nerves, Radzinsky turned on some music from our college past: a soft Pan-American neoclassic, much unlike the underground Mercurian class-tech we both used to devour between reading Spengler and reciting Mayakovsky.
Finally, the car took an exit from the highway and, after a long drive amid red rocky hills dotted with yellow bushes, the car stopped at the entrance of what looked like a research facility.
“The trip’s over, pal. Follow me.” Radzinsky buttoned up his beige suit and left the car, his movements slow and awkward. The suits followed his example, and, for a second, I found myself alone in the leather salon, my eye implant blinking on and off on the brink of dying. Motionless, I closed my eyes and sighed.
“Sah, we do insist dat chu leave da cah.” I heard a flat deep voice, recognizing African Martian pronunciation. Mr. Real-Face peeked into the window and repeated his request, the aftershave acne a pink spray on his pale Caucasian face.
“Now, aren’t you the smartest boy right here, to fool me like this!” I grinned at him. “Real dedicated to the job, too.”
“Sah, hand me yo party membahship cahd and leave da cah,” Mr. Real-Face said in the same voice, without changing his expression.
I did as he said. Outside, Greg was standing with his hands crossed and his head hanging down.
“We really need good professionals, Ulysses. Sorry,” he mumbled.
After a few medical tests and a twelve-hour shuttle flight simulation they brought me to a room without windows where another couple of silicone-faced clowns—this time female!—told me that if the experiment were to be successful, my political preferences would be forgotten and my debts repaid by the government. When I sneered, they showed me Owen’s picture and a travel card for a free ride to Earth. That’s how I became a part of the Long Jump project.
I can’t say I made a lot of new friends there. I already knew most of the faces in the lab from my past experience in Sektion VI, the officially nonexistent branch of Lufthansa Raumtransport. Some of them I used to drink with. A couple of them I used to sleep with when they were younger. The same familiar routine sucked me up in the endless sequence of reports, counsels, training, tests, and retraining. Time after time, the people around me who were unable to fix up their marriages or to treat their prostatitis were discussing the fate of the Solar system in the next ten thousand years. Every day I heard the same familiar words: “wave function,” “relative time coefficient,” “coherency point.” The only phrase nobody seemed to remember was “the Spot.”
One day Radzinsky and I stayed in the lab long after closing hours, so driving all the way to the residential zone didn’t make much sense. Instead, we got trashed in a roadside bar, watching a nature documentary on TV and listening to rolling thunder outside. Just before I was about to go, Greg proposed a toast to Milos. I told him, “Go screw yourself,” grabbed my jacket and left hurriedly.
“Hey!” Radzinsky hailed me in the almost-empty parking lot, his raincoat left in the bar. “Do you seriously think that we are responsible for the Spot?”
I stopped and looked up at a patch of clear sky among the rain clouds, a meteor shower glowing there like a swarm of fireflies.
“Hell no, pal!” I replied without turning, red trickles of Martian rainwater dripping from my chin. “I think it’s another Milos from a faster reality making his Long Jump.” As I was walking away to my car, I remember wishing that the red rain could be real blood, and that Radzinsky had drowned in it first.
Milos Kovacs was supposed to become the first faster-than-light traveler. He had all that was needed to become a legend: perfect health, a peaceful mind and a shining smile. We had everything prepared for him: the accelerator warmed up, the coherency point tested on different sequences of quantum events, the entry and exit points calculated. We chose the safest parallel reality for him. Time coefficient 18, just enough to reach the speed-of-light barrier after an entry at the speed of 10,000 miles per second. He was supposed to stay there for three days, reach the exit point, and then be picked up by a distant space probe. After his return to the Solar System five years in the future he would be praised as a hero.
I was the last person to shake Milos’s hand before they helped him put on the suit and sealed him in the bubble. I already knew his girlfriend had just found out she was pregnant, but I wasn’t supposed to tell him that until the jump—nobody wanted him to be distracted.
He never returned. His mother received an official letter saying her son had died during an aircraft flight test.
Three days after the jump, an anomaly appeared three light-days from the Solar System. A microscopic black hole that set the doomsday clock at 10,000 years. We nicknamed it the Spot and immediately tried to forget about it.
And now that its gravitational pull has turned the Solar System into a killing ground, they said, humanity needed a working long-jump technology even more desperately.
A week before the new long jump, they selected three candidates out of ten potential pilots. I was among the chosen ones (“as the most experienced,” said the official report). Three days later, the name of the first long jump traveler-to-be was announced. My name. No explanations followed, and all I could do was to accept congratulations from the project members as they shook my hand and clapped me on the shoulder.
Immediately I grew distant from them. The candidate pilots saw me as a father figure; they were all too young and too politically correct for me to enjoy their company. Most of the lab personnel, on the other hand, remembered me from Sektion VI, and each time they greeted me in the morning with a smile, I saw a reflection of Milos’s face in their worried eyes. Forbidden to drink, I started to treat my anxiety with a virtual reality simulator, spending late hours in the IT lab under the supervision of psychologists. I don’t think they liked what they saw: in my simulated encounters I was having long quiet conversations with a gestalt of Milos, cheap Indian cigarettes glowing between our yellowed fingers in the dark.
“You must love the new software, to spend so much time online!” our lead programmer Afu said to me two days before the jump. He was a rare new face in the project, so I didn’t mind his presence.
“I do,” I answered. “This sim is much better than the one we had ten years ago.”
“Everything now is better than ten years ago! Except living standards, I guess.” Afu’s laughter resounded under the low ceiling of the lab. I looked around the labyrinth of flat transparent screens, only to find out we were alone in the room; everyone must have gone to lunch. “But seriously, this sim is the cutting edge. A continuous build.”
“Continuous build? What’s that mean?” I sat on the armrest of the sim chair, trodes hanging down from its headset like the aerial roots of a banyan tree.
“Means the gestalts and locations you create don’t stay static after you go offline. They keep exploring themselves, slowly.” Afu turned to me in his office chair. On the screen behind his shoulder I saw a screenshot of my last encounter with Milos’s gestalt.
“They live their own lives after I log off? Creepy, if you ask me.” I did my best to smile.
“It’d be creepier if they didn’t, trust me.” He followed my line of sight and nodded at the screen: “Remember the first thing your virtual friend told you today?”
“He told me to shut up and just smoke with him. He didn’t say why. I actually didn’t get to ask him what I wanted. Why did he say that?”
“I’ve no idea. Something happened in his virtual life overnight.” Afu opened a log on his screen and scrolled up, looking for an answer.
“Don’t bother. I just thought the gestalts were there to entertain us, make us feel better during the flight.” I imagined being locked in the bubble together with my gestalt of Milos for five years. My left eye started to twitch.
“If we wanted to make you feel better, we’d just give you drugs, tons of them. The sim is there to help you keep your sanity, no matter how crappy you feel.” Afu finally gave up on scrolling through the log and turned back to me. “The entertainment industry is never gonna need continuous builds. They need a pleasure-delivering conveyor belt for overstimulated people. But you’re a different case. For the next five years, the virt-sim is gonna be your only way to socialize. Now, imagine having any of your fantasies at your demand. Powerful muscles, weak enemies, obedient women. Your angels and demons. That’s—”
“A definition of madness …” I muttered.
“Listen, what’s with your left eye? If the new implant they installed is bothering you, we’d better fix it before the jump.” Afu stood up and approached me, staring at my twitch.
“That’s all right.” I crossed my arms and turned my head aside. “It’s … I just thought of that guy from my encounter. Do you know who he was?”
“Yes, they told me about Kovacs. I figured it was him.”
“Back then, ten years ago, we didn’t have continuous builds, just plain all-you-wish-for virt-sims.” I remembered talking to Milos’s psychologist after the jump, how she said all of his encounters were serene and bright: hanging out with his Chinese girlfriend on a tropical beach or hiking with his father in Antarctic boreal forests.
“Then I hope he died fast. Madness is a nasty thing,” said Afu, his voice suddenly plain and serious.
I picked up my sweatshirt silently and headed to the door, zigzagging between cluttered desktops.
“Ulysses!” Afu called me when I was in the doorway. I stopped and gave him a dark look. The programmer was standing with a see-through tablet in his hands, a screenshot of Milos’s sunken face on its screen. “Ulysses, I’m not your physician and I’m a dilettante in psychology, but … You’re almost forty, you have an eye implant, you’ve had a drinking problem, and your virtual encounters disturb even me. And I’ve worked with virt-sims in prisons and rehabs, so believe me, I’ve seen messed-up things.”
“You want to know why they’ve chosen me and not Hafiz or Den?” I asked.
“Yes. That experience thing—I’m sorry, I don’t really believe it was the decisive factor.” He shook his head apologetically.
“Think about what we did to Kovacs ten years ago and what we’re doing right now. How would you sleep at night, knowing that you sent a healthy young boy on a mission like that, Afu?”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have started this …”
“Hurry up, you’ll be late for lunch.” I left the lab and slammed the door behind me.
The night before my flight I couldn’t sleep. I imagined Milos spending days in a sealed spherical capsule, knowing that he’d already missed his exit point. After the first week of panic and despair, he would have started spending almost all of his time in the virt-sim, just to avoid complete isolation. He’d hope that the bubble wouldn’t miss the other three emergency points we’d set up for him and eventually he’d be detected and saved. But time passes by, and nothing says his journey is over.
After months of living in the imaginary worlds that his consciousness and the AI have been building for him, Milos feels so lost in the layers of artificial dream that he quits simulation and swears to never return to it. He starts a journal and three days later deletes it. He wants to commit suicide, but the quantum immortality phenomenon has already excluded all chances for him to die until he is seen or measured by an external observer. He starts to understand the Bible.
He knows that as he was flying through the alternate universe, his capsule’s mass quickly grew to an infinite number due to its speed, thus becoming a black hole. It will take it trillions of years to consume the galaxy, but inside of the bubble he will hardly be in his thirties by that time. Sometimes he wishes he could see the universe aging behind his window; but there are no windows and no sensors in the bubble, and he is trapped inside for eternity. He starts a journal and three days later he breaks his tablet to pieces.
Thirty years later he is a lonely madman still struggling to crack the capsule from the inside, although he knows that it’s impossible. He keeps several journals and regularly deletes some of them. He knows he is a god.
In the morning just before my jump, they told me that Radzinsky had died of a heart attack. Somebody made a joke that they should’ve sent Radzinsky long-jumping instead of me: then Greg would have lived at least until the exit point. I didn’t laugh. And not because I didn’t hate Radzinsky.
When Hafiz was helping me into my suit, I asked him whether he wanted to swap with me. He didn’t answer, just flashed a warm young smile at me, the one Kovacs was known for. Hafiz must have thought it was a joke.
“Never mind, boy,” I said. “I already pulled off that trick once on Milos. Not this time.” And I smiled too, my lips thin and dry. Hafiz just stared at me, his white smile slowly vanishing.
There was no ceremony, no last words. Fists clenched to keep my hands from shaking, I stepped into the black bubble. The suit rustled in joints like crumpled paper as I lay down in the recliner chair and fastened the seatbelts tight around my chest, taming my aching heart. For half a minute I heard dull scraping and clunking as they sealed the capsule from the outside. I felt I was being buried alive.
Now, as I’m writing this journal, it’s been seven Earth years, ten months, and thirteen days since I missed my exit point. Five of these years I’d spent together with Nancy, in the world I used to call virt-sim.
We first met on an underwater highway near Dubai City. I was a frequenter of that location in the sim, fond of taking long relaxing drives along the transparent tunnel that crawled down the bottom of the Persian Gulf. Depending on my mood, the deep waters above my head changed their qualities. After quarrels with the gestalt of Phoebe they were often dark and oily, full of garbage and dead dolphins; rarely, when she’d let me spend a day with Owen, the sea became azure and lucid, prehistoric armored fish apathetically staring with their giant round eyes at the racing cars.
But on that day everything changed. I was returning from a meeting with Owen, after he’d told me he just didn’t want to have me in his life anymore.
“Why didn’t you follow us to Earth? Why did you give up?” he’d said to me, adolescence cracking in his voice.
“But we are on Earth,” I persuaded him, a Lunar Japanese fighting arcade flashing wildly around us.
“That’s not it. It’s a different place. And you’re different!” he’d shouted, and I had gone offline, only to bite my lip and log back on to the empty dark dome of the arcade and a fuel-cell SUV waiting outside to take me to the undersea highway.
Owen’s voice was still resounding in my head when I nearly hit the woman. She was just standing on the road, in the middle lane, cars sweeping past her and the frozen waters of the Gulf looming over the tunnel. She wore nothing but a purple silk nightgown and a yellow biker’s helmet. Her hands were spread in a desperate acceptance of quick death.
My car stopped just an inch from her, the bumper slightly pushing her in the hips. She stood there for a second, honking cars flashing past us, and then collapsed on the SUV’s hood. I immediately forgot I was in a virt-sim; I jumped out of the car and ran to her.
“Are you all right? How did you get here?” I was shouting. She did not answer, her back shaking from sobs and whimpers. Carefully, I took off the girl’s helmet and lost my ability to speak. It was her. Nancy Ye, Milos’s old girlfriend …
After that first meeting with her, I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the sim in one session, not noticing the artificiality of the places that surrounded us. I took her to one of Dubai’s hospitals, but in the parking lot she wiped away her tears and asked me to drive her home.
“Okay. Where do you live?” I asked, as the black Arabian sky unfolded above the transparent roof of the car.
“Not my home. Yours,” she said and looked at me with her dark Oriental eyes.
“Does Milos know where you—” She didn’t let me finish.
“Don’t mention him around me! Just … take me home.”
I shrugged and brought her to a hotel by the plaza. A square-built Ethiopian greeted me in Arabic at the reception desk, his deep voice booming in the vast empty hall, and I led Nancy down the long corridors of the skyrise decorated with Babylonian statues and bas-reliefs. We entered a room without a number; Nancy went to a corner and collapsed, surrounded by bronze statuettes of scaly lions and winged bulls.
That night, curled in the corner, she told me Milos had changed after she’d given birth to a stillborn child, and now that he’d left her, nobody knew where he was. Touched by her Taiwanese accent, words were rolling down Nancy’s lips like pearls, and I was just nodding silently, staring at a giant pyre blazing on the screen that covered an entire wall of the living room.
I knew where Milos had gone to. To the dark. The same dark which was consuming me now.
“Do you think Hafiz is smoking Indian cigarettes with my gestalt, back there on Mars?” I suddenly asked Nancy melancholically, and she looked at me in confusion, her bronze skin drawn tight around the sharp cheekbones. We both fell silent.
The first week Nancy didn’t want to leave the room. She wasn’t crying or talking; she just sat on the leather sofa in front of the TV, Al Jazeera news shows flashing on the giant screen on mute. Each time I entered the room, I was painfully aware of the sounds of my steps, the rustling of my jeans, the pumping of my sluggish heart. I would put a bowl of cereal with warm milk on a glass table before her, but she refused to turn her head away from the TV. Then I’d leave her alone, only to come back again ten minutes later to find the bowl empty and Nancy hugging her knees on the sofa, her brown face blank and cold.
I spent the whole week almost entirely in the sim, going offline only for food, sleep, and hygiene, until migraines forced me to take a two-day break. When I entered Nancy’s shelter again after going back online, she just pounced on me from the dark like a hungry cat on a sparrow. Her nails plunged into the bulk of my back, and I felt a kiss of violent passion on my lips. More feverish kisses followed; she started untucking my T-shirt, and we stumbled deeper into the shadows like two struggling ghosts …
I was still inside her when Nancy fell asleep on me, our legs intertwined, cool sweat gleaming on our skin. We lay there on a Persian carpet, breathing quietly, two silver silhouettes under the voluptuous moonlight.
Going offline was like a drug crash after that night. My numb fingers would tear off the trodes from my head, and the picture would start blurring into focus: a dirty-gray blob of a capsule that was my reality, all my reality, all there was and would ever be. My eyelids would be itching and there’d be a throbbing pressure deep behind my eyeballs, but I would keep blinking until I could make out shapes. Screens, locks, microclimate panel, the soft padding of the bubble’s innards. I’d rub my face long and hard, and it would bring back the smells; the air was filled with the sick sweetness of greasy hair, intermixed with old sweat. Gravity was not crushing me down, but every motion was still followed by an ever-present aching pain in my joints. With mouth open and face blank, I’d drift in zero gravity like a mannequin, and I would count the minutes until I could go back online again.
By the fourth year of my relationship with Nancy I was hardly spending four hours offline daily, even though the notion of “day” had completely lost meaning for me by then. I’d abandoned exercise trodes and workout machines for good, and seeing my muscles atrophy in zero G didn’t bother me. Just like I wasn’t bothered by the stench of piss and foul breath that followed me around the capsule. On the rare occasions when I did look in the mirror, I saw a gaunt-faced old man with a gray beard split into uneven dreadlocks. The only ritual I still fanatically observed was shaving my pale skull, for it was where the virt-sim trodes needed to be attached.
But in the sim, in the sim it all didn’t matter. I was fresh and well-dressed there; my skin was soft and tanned; I liked to smile and eat jelly beans. All thanks to Nancy.
First she and I were lovers, then we became soulmates. Together we traveled all around Earth (except for places she’d visited with Milos), and in the third year we took off for the Moon and Venus. Bitter memories of my past kept revisiting me once in a while, but in my mind I looked at them as if through the white film of a cataract. The past was eluding me, and with it the fear of immortality started to disappear too.
Until one slippery stair changed everything.
A long basalt staircase led to a neo-Buddhist temple on the flat top of Anala Mons on Venus. Numerous black bricks polished to a shine by thousands of weary feet clambered up the steep slope, weaving between volcanic rocks and shrubs of pale green ferns. Nancy had insisted on making the ascent, along with hundreds of others, half of them Tibetan pilgrims and the other half rich pan-European tourists in search of spiritual exaltation. I didn’t mind joining her. All I had to do was whine and complain all along the way up to hide the fact that I couldn’t feel fatigue in the sim.
After a two-hour climb, I saw the looming shapes of the temple as it came out of the gray clumps of clouds, and I rushed to the top past Nancy. A dozen steps short of the mountaintop I heard a scream behind me and turned. Nancy was falling down the stairs, slipping on some steps, rolling over others, her backpack bumping on her side and her slippers making impossible arcs in the air. A yellow-robed monk caught her by the strap a flight below, and I rushed down, still believing anything that happened in the sim could be miraculously fixed.
I leaned over Nancy’s motionless body, removed strands of black hair from her bruised face, smudging rich red blood over the sweaty bronze skin. I was hoping that any moment she would open her eyes, look at me, shake her head and smile, like I’d seen in many virt-sims before, but seconds passed, and people were racing up the stairs for help, and the blood gushing from the split on the back of Nancy’s head was all too realistic.
“How do I reverse it?” I babbled, tearing a sleeve off of my shirt to put it over the wound. “There must be an autosave or something. How do I fix it?”
The monk that’d caught Nancy just looked back at me with a frown and then turned away his wrinkled face, his yellow robe now smudged with red.
Ten minutes later I was shaking in an emergency helicopter, watching medics try to do the impossible. Before the vehicle landed, I tore off the trodes from my skull, but the picture kept floating before my eyes for half a minute: three white backs bending over Nancy’s still body and her bloodless hand hanging down the side of the stretcher.
In blind anger, I pounded on the soft walls with my veiny fists, propelling myself across the capsule with every punch, howling like an animal, scraping my face to blood.
I had lost Nancy, and I couldn’t follow her to the afterlife.
It took me a month to figure out how to use the console in the sim, and another half a year of fanatical research to master it. I still don’t know whether Afu consciously left it there for users’ access or his program was just too raw. Either way, for me it became a source of occult knowledge and divine power. Without it, I was just an immortal prisoner in my capsule. With it, I could change virtual reality by wish. I could bring Nancy back to life.
My heart was racing when I opened the door to her hospital room for the first time. There she lay, still pale and weak, her bed facing a giant sunroom window with a view of the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. I crossed the room and sat at a chair near her bed, but she kept staring into space, as if not noticing me. I cleared my throat, waited, and cleared my throat again. Finally, I opened my mouth to call her by name, but she spoke first.
“Why did you come?” Her voice crackled, as if she hadn’t been using it for quite a while.
“I wanted to see you after you came out of the coma.” I touched her hand, but she hid it under a blanket, her eyes still fixed on the mountain ridge.
“I wasn’t in a coma. I was dead, buried, forgotten, and you just … undid it all. Proud of yourself?” Still her mind was there, among the gray peaks under a serene blue sky.
After a second of uneasy silence, I laughed and stood up to pour myself some water from a decanter.
“At least you’re not saying you saw the light and some bearded old man in Heaven,” I managed with a forced grin.
Just as I said so, a doctor entered the room without knocking: a Caucasian woman with a buzz cut.
“Enjoying the company?” she asked briefly, tapping a button on the wall touchscreen. The Himalayas gradually dimmed as the windows darkened and, finally, turned into mirrors.
“Of course. Nancy thinks I resurrected her, though. Tell her it’s all post-coma talk.” I sipped water from a plastic cup.
“‘Resurrection’ would be a rather poor word choice.” The doctor’s voice sounded cold, almost mechanical. “But something did bring her back from the dead, and placed her into this hospital. I would say we came into contact with a power we are yet to understand.”
The plastic cup almost slipped from my fingers as the water went down the wrong pipe, and I forced myself not to cough.
“What kind of metaphysics is that?” I hissed, knocking myself in the chest to let the spasm pass.
“You did it to me, Ulysses. We already know it,” said Nancy, finally turning her sickly birdlike face to me.
“We? We who?” I blurted.
“We, the people of this world,” the doctor was talking again. “The only question left is, who are you?”
“Who are you, Ulysses?” Nancy echoed, softly.
“Who are you?” they repeated in chorus, both staring at me.
Before the plastic cup fell on the floor, I was already offline, my hands shaking, cold sweat licking my skin.
“What have I done?” I kept whispering. “What have I done?”
After a day of restless work on the console, I staged another meeting with Nancy, this time in a car. I thought a ride along the Persian Gulf highway would calm both of us.
“Stop playing with me! I’m not your toy!” Nancy shouted right away, furiously smearing the makeup I’d put over her face during the encounter setup.
“Nancy, listen to—”
She didn’t let me finish, but opened the door and jumped out of the car to land under an oncoming tourist bus. There was a short screech of metal and a rough bump as the bus tore off the side door and smudged her body all over the side of my SUV.
Next time I was smarter choosing a place for the encounter. I brought us together in the middle of an empty football stadium.
“This is how you envision our date? How desperate are you?” Nancy said as soon as she found herself standing in front me. Her words echoed among thousands of empty plastic seats, spotlights bombarding us with blinding beams.
“Nancy, please, let’s talk.” I stepped back, my hands raised in submission.
“That’s what Milos liked to do before he disappeared: talk.” She kicked off her sandals and headed toward the nearest stand across the field.
“Nancy, dear, I’m not gonna be like Milos …” I pleaded, following her.
“Of course you aren’t. He was just your gestalt, just like me.” She suddenly stopped and turned, observing the effect her words had on me. “I wish I could meet the real Milos and compare him to your image of him.” She continued her angry pace toward the edge of the field.
“It’s impossible …” I muttered, looking after her.
When I caught up with Nancy, she’d already reached the stand and was halfway up the stairs.
“You’re not a gestalt, Nancy. To me, you’re real,” I managed.
“If you thought I was real, you would’ve let me die back there, on Venus. Now, it’s up to me to prove how real I am.” Even though she was breathing heavily, there was grim determination in her voice.
“Kill myself. Unlike me, you’re deprived of that option in this capsule of yours, aren’t you?” She reached the edge of the stadium and turned to me, ghostly lights of a great city shining behind her. Only a low green railing separated her and the dark street below.
“How do you know all of this?” I babbled.
“I wouldn’t, if you hadn’t resurrected me. But each time you use the console, I know a little more about myself, about my world, about you.” Her black hair fluttered in a warm June wind. “You want to know why? Because I am a creation of your mind, and your mind is sick and tired of lying to itself. You just have to accept the truth, Ulysses.” She stepped closer and touched my cheek.
“What truth?” I forced myself to meet her eyes.
“That you have to let things go and endure your fate.”
She gave me a short kiss before she sat on the railing, spread her hands, and fell back over. I didn’t see her body hitting the ground, nor did I hear a sound.
After that session I spent hours floating inside the bubble with a small mirror in my hand. “Endure your fate,” I kept repeating to myself under my breath.
That day I cut my beard with scissors, then shaved off the remains of it with a razor. Under that greasy facial hair, my pale skin was dotted with pimples and a rash, so I took a long shower and was surprised to see sharp rows of ribs where pectoral muscles once used to be. Within a week I returned to exercising, hoping to regain my shape, even though the damage to the joints and bones seemed to be permanent. I started reading instead of going online, but the temptation was too strong.
I resurrected Nancy again on the fifth anniversary of our first date. Before she got a chance to hurl herself out of the window, I told her I had changed and would leave her alone for good after a final date. She didn’t say a word, just nodded silently. That night we went to an opera house, and on our way back to the hotel she asked me to stop by a gas station.
“You gonna kill yourself again?” I asked her.
“I thought it was a part of the deal,” Nancy said, touching her golden necklace.
I pulled over to the side of the road, and we left the car. Stilettos clattering on asphalt and paving stone, Nancy slowly crossed the street toward the gas station, ignoring traffic as cars dodged her and honked. She swiped a credit card on the pump, took a hold of the hose, and made eye contact with me before splashing her black evening dress with gasoline. The station manager ran out of the building, shouting something at the top of his lungs, as Nancy lit a cigarette. Fire enveloped her within a blink of an eye, and before she threw up her hands in agony there came a blast.
That night I watched Nancy burn down to the yellowed bones and then went offline, tired.
I was surprised that I didn’t feel the desire to see her anymore. That’s why I broke my promise yet again. There was no conversation on that last date, no eye contact. Nancy just sat stiffly at the table in the boathouse restaurant, the tall figure of the Indian waiter looming behind her shoulder. With contempt, she watched me devour the dinner, first my meal, then hers. When I was done, I sent the waiter off with a tip, then wiped my hands and face with a napkin, produced a straight razor out of my suit pocket, and handed it to Nancy.
“Trust me, that’s the end of it,” I said, pulling my hand back as she reached for the blade. “Not here, people are staring at us. Go to the restroom and do it quick.”
As she took the razor and quietly walked away, I ordered another steak. I was still working on it, when an old woman ran out of the restroom, shouting. I didn’t stop eating. I had to vomit Nancy out of my life.
I haven’t gone online a single time since then. I still remember Owen and Nancy, Milos and Phoebe, Radzinsky and Afu, but they’re gone forever. If it means I have to live with my losses for eternity, so be it.
Now that I’m writing this journal, I keep hearing something scraping on the bubble’s skin, an elusive, distant sound. Maybe it’s a search probe docking with my capsule to carry me back to Mars. Or, maybe, it’s madness …
“Long Jump” won the prestigious L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Achievement Award on April 13th, 2014.
Oleg Kazantsev was born and grew up in Eastern Siberia, in the city of Khabarovsk, just several miles away from the Chinese border. Life there taught him a lot of things – some more and some less useful – such as: boxing, ballroom dancing, potato farming, Calculus III, and video game journalism. After he got his first degree in Computer Science, Oleg decided he wanted to try something new in his life, so he went to Columbia College Chicago to study fiction writing in English. Two and a half years later he was tutoring college students and teaching classroom in an intermediate school in South Chicago. Great experience as it was, teaching writing (unlike the actual writing) wasn’t what Oleg wanted to do for the rest of his life, so his next step after graduation was to zigzag back to IT consulting, to free up some time for his passion. That’s where he is right now, but there’s no guarantee that in a year or two his life won’t change completely yet again.
Oleg is 26 years old, married and raising a wonderful two year old daughter. His short story “Long Jump” has won the second price in the Writers of the Future contest 2014 and was included in the anthology Writers of the Future Vol.30. His other stories have appeared in Story Week Reader 2012 and 2013, Elastic Lumberjack, and Every Day Fiction. His comic book With You won the Albert P. Weisman award in 2012 and can be found on Amazon.com.