PROSE, LITERATURE, TOPICAL “FUTURE”
The Eternal Program
by Mercy Ferrars
Three years ago, I was standing on top of the Empire State Building in New York, gazing at the city I had wanted to see all my life as it loomed before me. By this time, my memory had begun to fade. I needed distance from the ground. Maybe closer to the sky I would be able to remember how it felt to dig my hands into soil. Perhaps even more pressing was the question of what it was like to have once had something to lose.
On the 102nd floor terrace of the building, I felt like a goddess looking down into the world that bowed at my feet, stretching far beyond my imagination. Full of stories, lives and souls, but I was blind. A library full of hearts and I was illiterate. I stood there like a queen and yet I couldn’t remember my sister’s face. Instead, there was a dark undefined stain over her beautiful features. And every day she faded a little more from my memory.
“Norea.” Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone watching me. They slowly stepped closer, carefully, gently placing a hand on my shoulder. “Nori.”
I looked at them silently.
“Nori, it’s time for you to return. In five days, they’ll turn off the logout function. Only dead will they let you leave Eternal then. Nori, I beg you.”
But I shook my head. There was nothing for me on the other side that was still worth going back. I took their hand from my shoulder.
‘Xhromae, take me away from here. Loc-Moscow.’
No sooner did they realize I had vanished into thin air.
The puzzle is that the world can now be anything you want, handcrafted to match your favourite aesthetic. Tailored to the story you’ve been telling yourself since the old world began to die. And you’re like the other lone players, lost in a world of pixels and digits. Abundant in digital dreams. With the ruling power of a god in your hands, you now find yourself overburdened to the point of paralysis.
The world I have created for myself is full of bright neon lights pulsing against a black night sky. Gigantic LED screens have replaced the moon. They show vestiges of the old world, its digital legacy. Sometimes I sit awake all night on a rooftop above Berlin, watching commercials flicker on these screens. Drone footage of green countries once meant to entice humankind to travel more. But no one flies anymore. And if they do, they can power a plane with their imagination or grow wings of their own. Life can be whatever you want it to be now. We’re all just dreaming in isolation.
Berlin had become the centerpiece of my fabrication. I’ve lived here for so long before Eternal, I had become a tree and Berlin was my millennial soil. This is where the threads came together after I returned from Tokyo and Moscow, after my past caught up with me in New York. In Berlin’s ruins, the world came full circle. For the umpteenth time it lay before me wasted. I hoped that its resilience would rub off on me.
When I decided to stay in Berlin, I barely remembered further than the trips I had taken in recent years, clinging to those few memories as if they were the only substance to sustain my life. But Earth is gone, and the Eternal Program has become our new home. A second chance for humanity, a push into the digital frontier. Here, we were all magical kings and queens who could pretend they weren’t grieving. A stampede into hedonism and intoxication. Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.
These thoughts cross my mind as I sit on a rooftop that I often visit late at night. It’s far away from the partygoers down in the streets. Of course, I could opt to just silence their roaring laughter, but I like hearing their voices, streaming like white noise through the air. An illusion of life. Besides, some of them were avatars like mine that I networked with. The only pillars on which my world rests.
I watch the soundless commercials repeat on the screens, between the abandoned skyscrapers and the bombed but squatted residential towers. My hair and skin are glowing from the light of the magenta street lamps. Some of my screens are broken, glitching, stuck on a single letter or a face frozen in time. I think there is a certain beauty in disturbance. A place in between. Between what? Between endless worlds, I suppose.
“Venom?”, he suddenly comes in through the implant. It’s not like I didn’t already expect him. His voice is the colour of golden October sunshine. Warm and soothing. I smirk. “Hey, Amsterdam”, I answer. Names are useless here. Fake worlds do not require real names. We are all products of our environment. And our environment is a product of us. Our user names are chosen once and never again, when you enter the Eternal Program. With a bit of luck, you choose a good one. Unfortunately I borrowed mine from the last movie I had seen offline.
I had asked him to take me to Berlin and he followed suit. He is the only real thing. When I feel his skin, I know there’s no way he’s a digital soul. We met at a rave in Moscow. It’s rare to meet other avatars, except for the ones in your network. In worlds that are conditioned by sheer magic, where nothing is left to chance, surprises send us into ecstasy. He was not part of my world, he was from the outside. So beautiful that it exceeds my imagination. And I was seized by a hunger, a longing for something real. I wanted him so much, but we danced around each other from a distance, uncertain, alarmed.
The explosive cocktail of attraction, strangeness and familiarity brought us both back to the club the next day. In the late afternoon in the October rain I chose a hiding place on an overhang of an abandoned apartment building. Masked to unrecognizability, bow and arrow ready to take him out on the spot, intent on protecting my creation. But I found him walking down the street, hands in pockets, humming Particles. When I heard him hum the song, it triggered a distant memory that had trouble really coming into my mind. But it wanted to be felt. Suddenly, he halted mid-step. As if I had hit him with an arrow, he stopped abruptly and looked up. Directly at me — his emerald eyes pierced my mask, my up-armored tech wear, my heart. And he beckoned to me. I can’t remember ever loving anyone before him.
The months that followed we spent moving from one abandoned building to another, sharing the few bits and pieces of our lives prior to Eternal. I was grieving the memories I had lost, but he remembered that he had been in London when he finally went online permanently. He remembered his mother, a baker, and that he had been a passionate painter. He also recalled that he used to be an athlete early in his life, until he had gotten into an accident and was paralyzed from the waist down.
“Eternal gave me so many second chances to live”, he said, “to catch up on everything I’ve been missing.”
“Aside from the fact that it also was our only shot at any life”, I had responded.
“You’re the only life I’d ever want”, he’d respond every time we had that conversation.
“Where are you?”, Amsterdam asks, his voice rich with excitement. It is 3AM and he is likely in a club in former East Berlin. Neo-Berlin is equally damaged wherever you walk.
“Come dance with me”, he flirts. I hear a ping and see a video call come in through my implant. I nod and there he is, his face glowing from the night’s sweet poisons. Hedonism, that’s what it’s all about in this new world. Happiness has become the imperative. We already died once when we left our old lives behind, we chose to make this new one a beautiful one.
‘Xhromae, loc 110–65, The Empress please.’
Xhromae overwrites my roof with the Empress club and with another ping I’m next to Amsterdam at the bar.
“I’m already here,” I smile. He leans in to kiss me, and his locks fall into my face. I feel his warm, dark skin buzz against mine as the crowd gets lost in the music. We chase hedonism because it makes us feel endless, to live forever, to be true to our lives. We were the only people in a room full of digital copies, and we let it go to our heads. This world is really ours, and there’s no rush like it.
He pulls me onto the dance floor, my heartbeat syncing with the beats that chase each other faster and faster. He opens his hands in a revealing gesture. On his palm are two pink pills. As another sweet poison runs down our throats, we kiss where magenta and purple combine to create unspeakable colors.
The cheeks glow red and Xhromae makes sure that my body is sufficiently intoxicated. Until I will tell her to stop. Drugs don’t do anything to us here unless we decide to. There are no hangovers because the cocktails we pour into ourselves don’t exist outside our zeros and ones. Some things, some experiences, can’t be simulated.
The bartender’s image flickers and disappears again and again, caught between blur and generic code as he perfects our drinks into liquid art. His movements are monotonous, as are his words. Predictable.
“Enjoy your evening,” he says, winking at us for the fifth time since I’ve arrived. Another flicker, this time his face contorts for a second too long. His smile dims into a grimace as he mantrically repeats his last word. Then, suddenly, all the pixels stay in place. “Enjoy your evening,” he repeats mechanically, accompanied by a digital smile. When he turns to the next person, he looks two-dimensional. He doesn’t exist for them, after all. He’s just background noise.
Ping. Incoming call. I nod once.
“Konnichiwa” says a familiar voice.
I tap my temples twice to activate language selection and choose Japanese.
“I’m in town, girl. Get me to where you are and out of this car.” Ping. I open Atlas’ attached file. It’s a photo of a superspeeder which borrows its aerodynamic design more from a spaceship than a Volkswagen.
“That is impressive. Listen, we’re at the Empress. I’ll ping you the address.”
“Gotcha.” Someone taps on my shoulder and their touch feels like only an avatar’s touch could feel. Filled with phenomenological richness. I turn around and there she waits, still unsure how to style hers for my Neo-Berlin setting. Her hair changes through all the colours of the rainbow, her makeup snaps through the spectrum from cyborg assassin to endzeit goddess. Eventually it settles on a long sharp graphic eyeliner, pink space buns and black tech club wear.
“Phew” she says, “this many choices sometimes make you not want to choose at all.”
When he and I returned to Berlin all this time ago, Amsterdam took me to the one hundred and thirteenth floor of a semi-abandoned building, perforated but bulletproof. All around us buildings towered into the sky, less than half as high as ours. Their facades were covered with pre-war decorations. Stucco, old wooden doors layered in graffiti and posters showcasing a social life that had since vanished and been replaced by a rogue copy. Walls covered with what was once important, angry messages to ignorant politicians, hibernating words once voiced by invisible protagonists; artefacts of past dreams. In their midst rose our residential tower like it was reaching for the sun. It had survived two wars and was left with bullet wounds perforating its body. Inside the building was a high-speed elevator that connected the first three floors to ours — the only ones that were inhabited.
Thin grass grew gently in the wall in the stairway. Life caressed our ruin in stoic denial of the city’s wreckage. Our residential tower was to the northeast. In the far distance lay Berlin’s former television tower — or a perfect replica of it. Like a light in the darkness, it was the only building unaffected by the war. A symbol of resistance. Our apartment was kept in post-war Neo-Berlin minimalism, the mahogany bar the only exception: it was stocked to the rim with expensive bottles of sweet, forgetful poison. Standing on my balcony, the only one at 280 meters above the city, I often felt reminded of that moment on the Empire State Building. But I could barely grasp the memory. I felt that I had forgotten something — someone — but in my mind only the here and now existed.
In the here and now, Amsterdam and Atlas sit on a pre-war era sofa and talk about Amsterdam’s painting. Their dynamic was mutually tolerating in an odd way. Atlas was obsessed with hanging an original in her mansion. Amsterdam didn’t like Atlas very much. And Atlas didn’t care so long as he had what she wanted. His work was embedded in a larger conversation around new art and old artists. Atlas likes to hear herself talk, and Amsterdam just keeps nodding. Eventually, their conversation peters out. Amsterdam looks hopefully at me, but I don’t quite know how to join in. For the most part in this world we didn’t talk much to the people around us. Everyone had developed a penchant for philosophy these days, but we fought our thoughts out with ourselves, in silence. Some run from them. It was too painful to admit to each other that we had decided to stay here permanently. After a moment of polite waiting, Atlas sets her wine glass aside and announces that, unfortunately, it was time for her to go. “The nights here are unique,” she says as she hugs me goodbye. “But the days are unbearable.”
“Atlas,” Amsterdam suddenly interrupts her. “What’s your real name, anyway?”
Atlas seems unsettled. Amsterdam had broken an unspeakable code. No matter how well we knew each other here, we remained anonymous to each other. I don’t even know Atlas’s offline name. Or Amsterdam’s.
How real is a love tied to digital anonymity?
I brush the thought aside violently.
“Um,” she hesitates. “I… gosh, I haven’t used it in ages. I… I don’t think I’m sure anymore.”
“Atlas,” I say softly, touching her shoulder. “It’s okay, I’m sure Amsterdam can live without knowing your real name.”
“I wish I could answer you though,” she says, turning to face him. For a moment the room was full of sincerity and regret. “I can’t remember. Do you remember yours, then?”
Amsterdam nods. “I got it tattooed after I forgot my mother’s face. Even if everything else disappears.… replaced by… this, here, whatever this is, I don’t want to forget what she once called me.”
“But you’re happy here, right?” asks Atlas.
“Are you?” replies Amsterdam, leaning in the doorway and gesturing toward the city. “All this, all our worlds, our stories, our memories, who can tell us if it all ever happened? Whether we are not dreaming or hallucinating? Whether I’ll wake up tomorrow and Venom was but a thought. Why does one reality have more right to exist than the other? Why can’t I remember what my mother looked like?”
“Love,” I say softly as I grab his hand.
“I’m scared,” Amsterdam confesses. “Afraid that one day I’ll end up like that bartender, flickering in and out of existence. Like all the other miserable fake characters in this world, stuffing it without enlivening it. Who’s to say the same thing won’t happen to me someday?”
Atlas taps nervously with her feet, before she murmurs, “I think whether it’s real or not, we decide. Maybe we’re just playing a game, but who’s to say what’s real. Holding a stone feels the same here as it did in the old world. But maybe it’s presumptuous to demand that all worlds can exist at once. And so we may have to choose one, slowly pushing the others out of our memory. But what happiness is brought by an existence that languishes in the past?”
For a moment we stare at Atlas, who has never spoken such words before. Atlas lives for the lightness, the weightlessness. In a world where hedonism is the imperative, people do not wallow in sadness in front of each other. Suddenly, the moment feels very intimate. Amsterdam looks at me before taking my hand and embracing Atlas with the other.
“I’ve already lost so much, and I don’t want to have to let go of more,” he confesses, the truth buried in our hair.
“Hey,” I say, lifting my head and locking my eyes with his. “I’ll always be here. Whether it’s Berlin or Moscow, Eternal or anywhere else.” I look back at Atlas. “I’d find you in every world.”
Wordlessly, he leans his forehead against mine, and I seek my way to his lips, warm and soft. When we turn around after a while, Atlas is gone.
In the old world, waiting defined the experience of everyday life. I had so often wished I could arrive someplace with a snap of my fingers. Naturally, public transportation has become obsolete in Neo-Berlin. Atlas’ avatar can transform into any shell faster than the eyes can follow, and we can be anywhere we want in an impulse as delicate and silent as the flap of a butterfly’s wing. Not by a snap of the fingers, but by a single thought. In the new world, we are everywhere and nowhere. No more waiting.
Occasionally, I like to pretend that transportation is still necessary. I used to love late-night train rides. Or passing the time in a car on the highway. The rough sea that makes my hair stand on end on slow ships pitching and tossing towards other countries. The world that submits to my gaze from an airplane window. The rush of anticipation that can only be felt in the hours of waiting. It’s even as if waiting sometimes gives things more weight.
Both Amsterdam and I hunt for the old-world wonders that have become a rarity in Eternal. Old-school magic in a fabricated reality. I can create worlds and fill them with companions, but I cannot simulate meaningfulness. We are a miracle to each other. Love almost always transcends reality.
We are the only passengers on the train, which glides silently through burned-out apartment buildings. Luminescent holograms are squirming toward an invisible eye, and neon signs flicker more poorly than they should. I sit across from Amsterdam, whose face is captured by the many colours passing us by, by light and dark reflecting on his skin.
Who are you? Would I ever have known you in the old world?
Command to run a probability analysis?, Xhromae chimes in. With a chuckle I tell her that some things borrow their magic from the unknown.
“But my god. You’re the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.
Your v‑shaped face, your long locks. Piercing green eyes. Your luminous skin. It smells of earth and light deodorant. On your neck it blends with my favorite perfume.
I’ve always been on my own. Wandering the world and sharing brief moments with other players. I never thought I would meet someone in Eternal, of all places, who would move me so deeply.
I wonder what you think about when you see me.
Would she love me if she knew the real me? Would she stay with me even if I weren’t who I am now?
But the truth is that I would feel your absence in any world. You would be an incurable wound wherever I go. My madness. My escape. My truth.
I sometimes think I wouldn’t have been ready to love you in the old world. I wouldn’t have known how to make myself vulnerable when we went to war, against ourselves and against the planet. There was a pain in me so deep and inevitable that I would have simply refused to open the door to you.”
I proclaim the truth to my world and it echoes back.
He tears his gaze away from my cyberpunk city, and looks at me. Takes my hands and turns my stomach upside down.
“I can’t help but think that we should share our real names.”
I lean back, resting a leg on his. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
“Shakespeare,” he adds.
I nod and give him a wary look. “I understand your longing for something solid, something that was and something that will last. A constant in a fragile world.”
He nods, looking down at his fingers.
“My love.” I bend forward and take his face in my hands. “Nothing will remain the same. But my name is Norea.”
His eyes light up, and he continues, “I am K-”; but before he can finish the sentence, his image flickers and within seconds he is gone. So is the silver train around me — one minute I’m there, the next I’m standing on a rooftop at sunrise, wondering what suddenly happened. While panic builds walls around my fluttering heart, the sky vibrates and the clouds break, an energy field opens up in the atmosphere. And then everything goes dark.
I wake up because of a glaring light and a stabbing pain that drives through my body. As if someone had rammed a knife through me, over and over again. My head feels like it’s going to explode. My eyes are having trouble opening at all. My feet and hands feel stiff.
All of a sudden, noise breaks over me, and someone snaps me out of my paralysis. They shine a light into my pupils.
“Norea! Damn it, wake up!”
My breathing shallow, I gasp for air and feel myself choking. As I try to say something, a coughing fit seizes me.
“Norea!” I see faces hovering above me, in white neoprene suits, their eyes hidden by face shields.
“I…what… what the hell?” Another coughing fit tears through me. Someone straightens me up. I look around, but at the first movement, a cutting pain drives through my head again. Astonished, I hold my head and feel a bandage. Panic digs into my bones.
The next thing I remember is someone placing me in a white, clinical hall in front of a full plate of food. Tensely, three strangers look at me as I recover consciousness. Around me, people eat in reverent silence. Some cast glances in my direction.
“Please, eat something,” one of the women begs me.
After a few days on wobbly legs filled with random fainting spells, I am finally stable enough to learn what has happened. I have already figured out that I am no longer in Eternal. The first thing I tried to do after waking up was access Xhromae, but there was only silence on the other side. I tried to ping Amsterdam but heard only the echo of my own frustration. I felt many things — panic, irritation, and the looming dread of having lost an entire world. I understood before they told me. They had cut my world out of my head.
Their words sank into incoherent babble. They wanted to free the last survivors from the prison they had created for themselves. A golden cage is just a cage in the end, they said. We didn’t want to spend our lives in a simulation. They thought they were doing a good thing. Rescued those of us who had not logged out. Used the excuse that Eternal had had a serious programming error — we could have ended up brain dead. The deep pain in my head was from the surgery where my implant was cut out. And Xhromae with it, who had been my closest ally for so many years.
“Amsterdam?”, I asked. But they just shook their heads. They hadn’t heard of any Amsterdam.
My body had spent five years in deep sleep. I could barely walk on my own. My stomach was cramping from removing the feeding tube that had nourished me. A long scar now decorated it. Everything inside me ached, but nothing was as important as him.
Ten days after my painful awakening, they tell me that survivors can sign up for an orientation day. I ask them where we are.
“We’re in the colony,” a nurse says as she changes my bandages. She operates a few buttons at the end of the room, and the cityscape behind my windows disappears. Instead, we look out onto red sandstones that surround us like a fortress.
I look at her. “Colony?”
“You don’t remember?”
“No… I don’t remember anything,” I say, aghast.
“We are humanity’s first Martian colony.” She lowers her head dejectedly. Her hands shake a little as she gathers the gauze. “Well — we’re what’s left of humanity. In the climate war, everyone fought everyone else, after all. To reduce the habitat and keep humanity quiet, to give them space to work through their trauma, we hooked them up to the Eternal program, which has been developed for quite some time. Most returned when news made the rounds that the program was life-threatening.” She continues to turn her head away from me as she stares at her med staff transponder. “I… am interested. What makes you give up life to live in a virtual reality?”
I shrug my shoulders. “I had nothing left here. There, I had everything. It was all within reach. I was God. Who wouldn’t want to stay?” A few seconds pass. “A Mars colony?”, I repeat. “We’re on Mars?”
“It’s kind of not a big deal anymore. We’ve been here for so long. You knew, once. You came here with us.”
On orientation day, I keep an eye out for him. I don’t even know your name, Amsterdam.
The lecture hall is bursting at the seams. I duck to the back row and try to keep my thoughts in check.
Time passes. It doesn’t matter to her if countless worlds have been wiped out. She is in no hurry. After one hundred and thirteen days, I find myself in a library on a Tuesday morning, looking for an old edition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
I take it home with me, to the ‘life cell’ — as they call it — that has been assigned to me. I participate in social activities. I laugh with others. I’m catching up on five years of experience on Mars. Feel its surface. Go to Mars dances. Learn how to garden in special greenhouses. Sometimes I sit on the highest roof in the city. Just below the dome. Thinking of him. Of Neo-Berlin. Of Atlas. Worlds come into being, worlds die. It’s just the way it is.
One night I open it. Romeo and Juliet. A postcard falls out. A mini oil painting of blurry neon lights. Large screens glowing in place of the moon. And a silhouette crouching on a rooftop with a bow and arrow. I turn it around. It is signed with a simple “A”. And a time locator stamp. I scan the code with my phone, and it points towards a train station on the outskirts of town. I pack my things and go.
You could be here every night, or none, or some. So much time has passed since you sat here and drew my postcard. I walk toward the bench that stands at the end of the track. Above me, the dome gently illuminates the night. The station is bathed in salmon-colored mist.
Lost in thought, I listen to the sounds of the night, silent and complex before me, filled with stories and silence. No train leaves until morning, towards the landing place. Suddenly, another sound blends into the symphony of laboratory-bred birds and flickering lamps. Wheels driving almost inaudibly over foliage. I look up, and a person is coming toward me. He is sitting in a wheelchair. His long locks lie in his lap. He stops in front of me, unsuspecting. He asks me for directions. He raises his arm to remove his shield from his face. A piece of skin becomes visible for a moment.
There are no words for the feeling that shoots through my heart and stomach. It’s as if everything is sinking into me. In a sea of infinity. Affection. Familiarity. Amsterdam.
You are so beautiful, in the evening glow of this very real world.