Trapped and Eternal by Todd Moore
Rachel’s time had almost run out.
I just sat there, stunned, in her cramped Chinatown kitchen, her words thrumming like gnats in my head. Everything slowed down—the drip-drip of the kitchen faucet, another siren dopplering low around the corner, the sip of tea burning my tongue. I held it there as if the pain might force the discordant echo to coalesce.
She excused herself to the bathroom.
I was afraid she’d never walk back out.
“Scholarship?” I asked, hesitantly, when she finally did.
She shook her head, lowered her eyes. Endless plumes of gray-green smoke billowed over Broadway in the window behind.
“How long?” I said.
“Seven years, give or take.”
“How many more to go?”
“I’m two years in.”
It was a fool’s dream. She would have to spend all the Arc she didn’t have on tuition, the interest on her private loans digging her deeper into debt each month, with nothing left to survive day to day. Ph.D. in Chronophysiks. Christ.
I was furious.
“Why the hell didn’t you drop out the minute the currency switched over?” I growled. Then brought my voice down, as I remembered too late we hadn’t dated since before my deployment.
She glared over her tea. “And do what exactly?” She responded in the calmest of voices, poised and unflinching, just as I remembered her. It was as if we were both nineteen again. “It’s not like I have a choice. I’m unhireable without a degree on the skills shortage checklist.” Just like everyone else on this planet, I heard, but she didn’t add.
“Unhireable offworld, you mean.”
“Is there any other job that matters?”
“Look, I get it, I do.” I didn’t get it, but hoped saying the words would make it true. Surely there were a thousand other things she could do.
And yet those lists grew smaller and smaller by the day.
“But you’re not one of those crazy”—I searched for the right word, already regretting my first choice, and she raised an eyebrow—“martyrs. You’ve got nothing to prove.”
During deployment, I’d read of students deep in debt, dead at twenty-two from respiratory failure, like some common benzo addict on the wrong side of withdrawal. The Martian press had covered it as a dangerous fad, a bunch of radical kids intent on demonstrating that the system was broken, that it was all a big Catch-22. Unable to pay off their loans, dig an even deeper line of credit, or keep pace with escalating inflation, they chose to run out of Arc, stopped ingesting those little, life-preserving pills, which, when taken daily, ensured their lungs filtered out the lingering toxins in the air. And when you ran out, well. Your time was limited.
“Not a martyr.” She shook her head. “I’ve just done the math. They probably did, too.”
After a few moments, I remembered to close my mouth, my tongue like sandpaper.
“Look,” she continued, as if trying to soften the blow, “there are jobs posted, sure. But they keep going away. Each list gets shorter and shorter. And they all require years of advanced work, degrees, like this one—they’re not hiring for entry-level shit. So, I figure, there’s a small shot. And if not”—she leaned back with a forced casualness—“I can at least go out unlocking the mysteries of the universe.”
“That’s not funny.”
“No,” she said, meeting my eyes. “It’s not.”
I thought of each bank statement, every undeferrable payment, like a pendulum, shortening her days little by little, unable to fathom it.
But then, she had always been smarter than me.
I reached for her hand.
She pulled away.
“Oh no,” she added, “you don’t get to come back all war-torn and noble to sweep me up.”
I tried to think of some response. Couldn’t. Thought of what I’d do in her position. Enlistment had been a temporary fix, if you could even call it that. Failing to either get shot to pieces or qualify for an offworld visa (which were few and far between these days), I was dumped back at port with a few extra cases of Arc as recompense.
I looked into her eyes. No. She had never been the type to act out like that. At least I could admit to myself what it truly was now.
“But why?” I relented, hoping the answer would be different this time.
She placed her mug carefully on a coaster and frowned, her brow a tight knot of frustration. “Haven’t you been listening?” And there it was, that same familiar tone I’d heard so much of before I left. “Because we’re all terminal cases at this point.” She took a sip, as if it was the most casual statement.
I took a long, deep breath. The light oozed through Rachel’s grimed window like a tainted prism, casting a literal pall over the proceedings. I leaned back, eliciting a protest from my chair, a broken-down particleboard piece she’d had even before I’d enlisted. Back when the conversion of legal tender to Arc was a bad joke, or, at worst, the mad ramblings of a fringe party. Before it transmogrified into life expectancy legislation backed by an offworld pharma and real estate joint venture aiming to sell Earth for redevelopment. The age-old quest for something newer and shinier had reached its most logical and perverse end. I suppose it was cleaner than just bulldozing the whole lot of us.
And yet, that couldn’t be the end of the story.
“You ask any of the old gang for help?” I offered, collected now, if not calmer.
She shook her head, popped an Arc into a glass where it hissed and dissolved before downing it like a shot. Rich had expired after a marathon gambling binge in Vegas. One last shot to reach Eternal status. It hadn’t gone well. Carla had disappeared to God knows where, hoarding the last of her stash. Theo was crumbling into dust in the back hall of some tattoo parlor off Rector Street that used to be a luxury real estate brokerage. Probably wouldn’t last the year.
I crashed at Rachel’s. Didn’t have a place of my own. The peaks of those newly minted Eternal towers—where the majority of tristate wealth still left on this rock had gone to roost, or rot, with their stash—loomed through the northern-most window like royal rocket ships, set to jet to the next plane of existence. Or Mars. Whichever opportunity came first, I supposed.
I’d read that those fortunate enough to be hoarding Arc typically adhered to two tenets. First, that obtaining enough for a one-way ticket into habitable space was actually an attainable goal. Second was the clinically unsubstantiated belief that not only would this miracle drug maintain your life expectancy, but extend it. By quite a bit, depending on the regularity of your regimen. So far, none had been proven wrong.
And in a world of diminishing choices, that was proof enough for most.
The next morning, I left what Arc I had from my tour with Rachel—stuck it in her laundry on my way to the bathroom so she’d think it was hers. I knew it was barely enough to make a dent in her tuition. I’d have to find more.
There were only a few automated banks left in the city. Most had gone dark. All of them had daily withdrawal limits so low it made little difference.
Over the next few days, I left bits of Arc scattered throughout her apartment. In the morning paper, key tray, couch cushions, hoping she’d mistake them for her own. She never had been one to accept handouts.
I didn’t know what I expected to accomplish.
It was comical, really, our morning exchanges. She had no interest in the news, submerged entirely within her studies. While she poured over virtual classes piped in from an unidentified location (even the labs had been migrated offworld), I’d summarize in dry fashion, feeling it my duty to keep her up to speed: “Petroleum rationing has been quartered again, Lincoln and Holland Tunnels are shut, looks like for good, but, on the plus side, the interim Pan-Galactic capital on Mars was just declared permanent—ribbon cutting, speeches, the whole thing—so they must be feeling good about that.” I tried not to think about all the derelict cars clustered in the dark like a mausoleum. Tried to ignore how inane (insane?) it all was by changing the topic.
“What made you pick Chrono-studies?” An honest question. My closest acquaintance with the subject had come when a squadmate accidentally detonated a Chrono bomb enroute to deployment, making it literally the longest flight of my life. Irony was, if he hadn’t wasted it, he might have survived what came after.
“Maybe I thought I could go back and change a few things,” she responded, lifting her gaze from her computer.
I froze, jolted into another memory, false smile plastered across my face even as cold tendrils wound their way up my neck. I didn’t respond.
“Turns out,” she smiled, “that’s not really how it works. They try to teach you that the first day.” She continued typing with a ferocity that showed me she didn’t yet believe it.
This was not going well. “And how’s the paper going?” I interjected, half-coughing through the statement, my mind racing for some alternative avenue.
She laughed. “It’s a clinical degree, not research.”
I pointed at the spinning orb hovering on her computer screen, in some remote offworld lab. “What are you trying to do?”
“Stop it from spinning, or at least slow it down.”
“How’s that going?” I grinned, feeling as stupid as I’m sure I looked.
She smiled back, lips pressed thin. As if our conversation was all a ruse.
Wasn’t it, though.
A week later, my earnings began to run out. So, I looked for work.
Those were long days.
Offices were derelict, shops shuttered. Even asked a few Halal guys on the street how to get hooked up with that gig. Most just stared at me. I took one look at their eyes, emaciated and sunken, the sign of someone ready to expire from lack of Arc, and didn’t push the subject. Nor did I bother with the classifieds, knowing they were all ads for labor or enlistment in orbital proxy wars, effective death warrants which I didn’t have enough luck to survive twice.
That night, I scrounged through the pockets of the newly dead homeless piled in the playground out front, hoping there was something left.
I didn’t go out at night. Heard the screams. They were coming faster these days, as those with little to lose turned to other options. Shadowy shapes that came out of nowhere.
A week later, I’d nearly run out of Arc.
That night, as I tossed on the couch, all I could see was the Halal guy at the end of the alleyway leading from Rachel’s apartment. How he had his back to me each day as I came around the corner. And I regretted my next thought.
Didn’t sleep all night. Dragged myself out of bed just before dawn.
As on every morning, I started toward him. The moon was high, the streets near empty. It would take just a moment. Wouldn’t hurt him a bit. Wouldn’t hurt much. I clenched the shiv in my pocket. Took a deep breath.
He turned and smiled at me. “Morning, Rorq.”
I kept on walking.
“You okay?” Rachel asked when I got back.
She hesitated. “You don’t look so hot.”
I tried to shrug it off. Play the masculine fantasy card. Then nearly threw up, almost hit my head on the table.
“You can’t keep doing this,” she said, while I heaved.
Of course, she knew. It was a pleasant fiction to believe otherwise.
“Not much of me left here,” I said, and smiled, before another dry heave interrupted the moment.
“You’re falling apart.”
“What did you expect me to do?” My head swam, boots swayed like fish in an aquarium. It was finally catching up with me.
“Re-enlist, ask for a transfer offworld, find a better place, some more time—”
The room slowly came into focus. Through the haze, I could see her hands shaking, even while the rest of her remained still, composed. The way they did that night in the hospital, so many years ago.
“—run away,” she continued. “Like you do.”
I collected myself, stood up, and breathed.
“Rach,” I said, turning to face her. “Just look outside.”
The playground had been emptied of bodies by the automated cleanup crews. The Eternal towers glowed in the predawn like a sneer. Spiraling outward lay silent streets, darkened windows. Above the once-city that never slept winked a thousand specks of light. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen stars in Manhattan.
The city was finally going to sleep.
“Rach, at this point, we’re all terminal cases.”
So we talked. As time ran out, we dialed back, excavated forgotten experiences like old picture albums smelling of mothballs and childhood. Before I’d dropped out of school, and she’d gone on with hers. Before the war. Before the night we both kissed for the first time, half-drunk and sprawled on an empty playground. Two unattended adults who would only grow older. The spot had been bulldozed, Rachel said, while I was away. Reconstructed into a luxury line of Eternal condos.
We did not talk of the night I left without a goodbye. Because what else was there to say.
“Want to go on a trip?” Rachel asked, the next morning.
“What, are you—we have barely enough—”
She showed me the headline on her news feed. Two words. Only then did I realize her careful omission of the word “last,” and the gaping hole it left in the sentence.
I was amazed at how quickly I was able to push aside the initial surge of nausea. We all knew it was coming.
I turned to her.
“Where do you want to go?”
Her smile made me all too aware of the empty space between us.
We tried to cash in what little we had left on a trip out of the country. Only problem was, everyone had the same idea: travel the world, go out with a bang. When everyone’s got only so much time left, I realized, they all seek the same diversions. As a result, prices had skyrocketed. You couldn’t buy more than a bus ticket to Poughkeepsie with our stash.
So, we stretched it as far as we could, making our small and unnoticed contribution to the endless inflation rate.
We rented a couple bikes and rode around town. Down to the battery. Ferry to the islands. Out to Coney Island and back, where the Cyclone was still, somehow, against all odds, running on rickety beams guaranteed to nearly take your life each time. Would be one way to go out. We rode it five times, then biked all the way through Brooklyn into the waning sun slicing the alleyways like a scar, across the Williamsburg Bridge. Stopped for pizza, then onward and upward. The grime characteristic of most of the city slowly faded. Columns grew out of increasingly impeccable masonry into neighborhoods that just as quickly passed us by, as we made our way further uptown, to where we did not belong.
Near the edge of the park, I nearly barreled into Rachel as she jolted to a halt. We were before one of those fancy Eternal towers. The setting sun pooled in its columns of inlay and filigree. Of what they were made, I had no idea. Something shiny. And expensive. Babel corporeal.
It took me a moment to recognize the spot. To recall two adults, unattended, who had grown beyond their years.
Eternals had turned it into a monument to their glory.
Outside stood several stoic guards, draped in uniforms ornamented heavily enough to be called livery without irony, but which I knew shielded a host of armor grafts and bulletproof mods.
We waited, staring, and then it clicked, what was inside—as much Arc as we could lay our hands on. Enough to get us clean off this rock, to buy us a new life. To buy us a life. Period.
Rachel looked at me, and I heard the question without it being asked. I thought of the spinning orb on her computer screen, her frustration, how it would never work, how we should turn back.
Before I could object, Rachel raised her hand and—I don’t know what exactly—put some finger-sized gizmo to her temple. Like I’d seen from one or two Chrono units on the front lines. All I knew was, degree or no degree, she wasn’t going to let those years of Chrono study go to waste. The guards froze—truth be told, so did I for a moment—didn’t see us when we walked right past them and rode that elevator as high as we could.
Of course, we knew it was never that easy.
The alarms were going off, I’m sure, silently, the minute we stepped into that portal. And what a vast otherworld it was. Polished tiles, mirrors mirroring yet other mirrors in an endless passage, lush interior forests that seemed to scoff at the need for sun, vines crawling up columns leading to a replica of the night sky.
It was all so clean and quiet.
A door to our left was slightly ajar. On instinct, I pushed it open. Then another. And another. And another.
No one. Not a trace. No furniture, no carpeting. Not even a mattress in a corner. Just the echoes of our footsteps, and blood pounding in my ears.
And definitely no Arc.
Either the Eternals had been right, had been chosen, had ascended. Or, more likely, this shell of a palace was nothing more than a façade. A monument to false hope, built by the unmakers set on keeping the rabble in check, while their complex latticework of laws ensured no one escaped this dying planet.
Rachel and I looked at each other, assessing the other’s reaction to what this meant. There hadn’t ever been a way out.
She shrugged. Of course. For her it was all just confirmation of a theory long-held but rarely spoken. For those who were paying attention, her body told me, it didn’t change anything.
Like I said, she had always been smarter than me.
We rode the glass elevator to the top, stepped onto the manicured roof deck. There was another garden up here, overflowing with types of flora I’d only seen in travelogue clips, the ones where an unaccented guide extols the virtues of some exotic land. How quaint it must look from above, I thought. The only green for miles around, next to the dust bowl remains of the park. There must be Arc-fortified water all throughout the building.
They were watering the plants with it.
Rachel grabbed my hand.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
She brought me to the edge. Then leaned over the side, her grip a vice.
It was the first time since before I’d left that we’d touched.
“It’s amazing,” she said.
I gripped tighter.
“These streets really do go on forever.”
I hesitated, my heart pounding, feeling the warmth of her hand. Hoping in that moment that she’d never let go.
I leaned out.
She was right, you couldn’t see the end of it. The city’s decay increased the closer to the horizon it got, until the bones of towers lay crumbling like headstones. And all of it brilliantly lit by the dying sun. In the distance, a car horn sounded. A dog barked. A child cried out.
I looked at her. She looked at me. I could feel her heartbeat through her hand.
She didn’t speak. I didn’t ask.
She raised her other hand. The long light stretched down vast and empty corridors, illuminating ashen pathways like molten gold poured into a latticework mold. Like an inlaid entranceway to a tomb. Like the gilded spine of a child’s fable. The one you didn’t want to end.
She laid her hand on my cheek.
For one moment, as all those minutes, those years of study flowed out of her like a fountain statue, we saw everything.
It is hard to describe the sudden stillness of a thing you aren’t aware is moving. The light slowed. Like hot wax cooling before it spills over the edge of a candle holder. Cars crawled and pedestrians slowed to a glide, like an over-cranked film. Lifetimes passed in the blink of an eye, and the blink of an eye in a lifetime. The first time we touched, held onto each other, vowed not to let go, had almost gotten hitched, had almost not split after the miscarriage, had almost had a future.
I had a long time to contemplate revenge. Tear those living green things up by their roots, blow this place clean off the face of the planet, steal one of the guns off the guards and take all those fuckers down with us. It became a thing past concern, an ache once felt by someone else. A brief moment, a flash of pain, mixed in with all the rest.
She made it last—we made it last as long as we could. Before the inevitable decline of the day, before the glass elevators rimming the tower emerged from below, ever so slowly, always rising, with several black-clad figures in livery clutching fully automatic accouterments, before the elevator doors opened, before the clip of boots, and the click of a rifle, to announce an end to what we weren’t allowed. We clasped hands like that, trapped and eternal. Before the end, which was behind us, had always been chasing us, was now at our heels—
We stood. We were.
For so long we were.
In a far-off second, many lives away, the elevator doors opened.
Todd Moore is an attorney who lives, works, and writes in New York City, with his wife and two children. When not being paid to imagine “What’s the worst that could happen?” as part of his day job, he writes about it at night. He is a member of the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers critique group and can be found on Twitter.