Cameron and I stand on the roof of my building and admire the city lights from thirty stories high. I take a gulp from my can, and breathe a contented sigh.
Cameron looks at me. “What are you smiling at?” he asks.
Thea, I think. Aloud, I say, “It’s beautiful. The whole city. The light polluted sky. Everything.” I sweep a hand to take in the view, and a little beer spills from my can.
A shadow crosses Cameron’s face. “Glen, you should be careful.”
“Chill out. I’m nowhere near the edge.”
“Not about that. You seem ecstatic. You’re setting yourself up for a fall.”
“I am ecstatic! I’m in love!”
Cameron turns away and looks out at the city. I can’t see his expression. A well-thumbed memory returns: Cameron and I at a house party. Cameron distracted, looking across the room. I follow his gaze to see Thea. I didn’t know her then.
“Cameron? Are you ok?”
He offers me a lifeless smile. “I was thinking about the stars.” He shakes his head. “I have to stop doing that. Scares the shit out of me. Look.” He takes out his phone, fiddles with it and holds it up over his head. The star map shows us what lies permanently hidden beyond the hazy city sky.
“You don’t like stars?”
“It just goes on forever. Forever! It makes me dizzy. Thank God for light pollution. I don’t want to have to see this.” He shakes his head violently.
“It’s too much.”
“You’re afraid of the dark too, I remember. Is there anything that doesn’t scare you?”
He smiles sheepishly and raises his can. “Beer,” he says, and drinks.
When Cameron declares it’s time to go home, I choose to stay. He stops at the stairwell door and holds up a finger. “Don’t go near the edge, now,” he says.
The steel door bangs shut behind him.
I reach into my jacket pocket, take out my phone and open the Perspective app. Sophie appears, a serene digital face. The lips move as she speaks.
“Good evening, Glen. What’s troubling you?”
“I think my best friend likes my girlfriend.”
“Are you jealous?”
“No. It’s not that. I guess I’m afraid my friend and I will drift apart. You know, like the way Yoko Ono drove a wedge between John and Paul.”
Sophie closes her eyes to indicate she is accessing the internet. She is searching for references to John, Paul and Yoko. She will integrate the new information, and grow a little wiser as a result.
She opens her eyes. “Relationships evolve,” she says. “Difficult experiences can strengthen bonds. In the future you may look back on this and see it as a good thing.” She pauses. Her thoughtful expression relaxes into a gentle smile. “Today your friend is sad. But imagine: a year from now, he may be happily married to someone he is yet to meet.”
I nod, picturing myself and Thea as guests at Cameron’s wedding.
“Good point,” I say.
“Does that put things in perspective?”
“Yes, it does. Thank you, Sophie.” I turn off the app and stroll across the roof to the door. I pause and look up. Tonight the sky is a dirty yellow. I consider the hidden stars—invisible, but always there.
We are alone in Thea’s apartment, sitting close together on the sofa, our hands entwined. It’s now or never.
“Thea…I love you.”
She smiles, and opens her mouth as if to speak, but says nothing. Her hand slips from mine and she runs it through her night-black hair, obscuring her expression for a second.
I reach out a hand towards her, and then withdraw it. “It’s ok,” I say. “You don’t need to say anything. I just wanted to tell you. That’s all. And even though it’s not always clear, it’s always there. My love, I mean.” My words sound amateur in my own ears. But I persist. I can’t help myself. “It’s like the stars. You can’t see them. But they’re always there.”
My heart is thumping in my chest.
She half turns to me, but averts her eyes. “Glen, that’s so sweet of you. It’s just, it’s too soon for me to say something like that.” As she speaks, she leans forward and begins to tidy up the magazines on the coffee table.
“No. Of course. I wouldn’t expect that. It’s ok. Forget it.” I force a smile, but in any case she’s not looking at me. My cheeks are burning. Why did I say that, about the stars? She must think I’m a fool.
“Good evening, Glen. What’s troubling you?”
“She doesn’t love me. I’m afraid I’ve messed things up. I’m afraid she’ll leave me.”
“Did she say she would leave you?”
“No, but if she doesn’t love me…”
“Perhaps you should ask her.”
“Well, even if she doesn’t leave me now, what about the future? Do you know what the divorce rate is in this country?”
“Yes. Figures for last year indicate—“
“Don’t tell me, for God’s sake. But she’ll leave me. Something will go wrong. Everything comes to an end.”
“Everything ends. Everything begins. Why focus on the end rather than on the beginning? Don’t you want to be happy?”
“Of course I do.”
“So tell me about the beginning.”
In my mind I hear the laughter of children.
“Well. It was the summer just past. I already knew her, a little. And then I heard she had volunteered for this organization that arranges day trips for deprived children. So I quit my job and signed up.”
Organizing those kids was like trying to tame a storm. Thea and I got to know each other during precious moments of calm—over lunch, or sitting next to each other on buses. During the final week, exhausted on the return trip from the city zoo, she laid her head on my shoulder. I inhaled the scent of her hair, held my breath, and placed my hand over hers.
Sophie asks, “Do you feel better now?”
The warmth that rose in my chest when I took Thea’s hand on that bus is rising again now. “Yes. I do feel better. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Glen.” As I move to close the app, I notice that Sophie’s smile seems somehow different than before; more human, perhaps.
I shake my head as I pocket the phone. AI is smart these days, but it’s still just machine. Sophie wins on memory size and learning potential, but I’m the fool with the emotions.
I lie in bed, still thinking of last summer. But as I sink into sleep my thoughts drift, and I hear again Cameron’s words about the troubling infinity of space. I sleep fitfully, and dream of dark open spaces, and of Thea’s hand repeatedly slipping from mine.
I text her with my proposition: Take a vacation with me.
My apartment is cold. I turn off the lights. With the curtains open, the city light is sufficient to illuminate my living room.
I imagine the two of us in a cottage in the countryside. There are still places remote enough that the stars are clear in the night sky. Some of them can be rented for a week, at rates affordable even on the salary of a call centre drone.
The seconds tick past. God, it’s chilly. Winter is on the horizon.
She should have arrived home from work by now. Perhaps she is busy cooking; perhaps speaking on the phone with a friend, or her mother. But I picture her sitting quietly, considering how to refuse my invitation without hurting me too much. I fidget with my phone, conscious of the ever-present sound of traffic, dulled only slightly by the closed window.
I open Perspective.
“Good evening, Glen. What’s—“
I tap the ‘off’ button—mustn’t become dependent on this thing—and feel a stab of guilt at cutting her off.
The phone buzzes and the screen lights up. My heart leaps.
Thea’s message: There’s something we need to talk about. Are you free now?
My finger hovers over the screen for a long moment before tapping ‘dial contact’. I press the phone to my ear, shivering slightly.
I pace on the roof, muttering to myself. Part of me thinks I shouldn’t be up here in this state. I’m shaking—perhaps with cold, perhaps fury.
My phone buzzes. I stop walking and look at the display.
The sight of his name focuses my rage. I hit the screen.
“Cameron, you piece of shit.” My voice is a low growl.
“Where are you? Are you ok?”
I grip the phone tightly. The plastic casing cracks in my ear.
“You care if I’m ok? Somehow I find that hard to believe. You traitor.”
“Thea is worried about you.”
“I’m on the roof.”
“Glen, don’t do anything stupid, now.”
“Stupid? Like fall in love with a whore? Like choose a back-stabbing Judas for a best friend?”
Cameron sighs. The sound infuriates me.
“What? I’m over-reacting? You son of a bitch. If you were here now, I’d push you off and laugh as you fell. How could you do this to me?”
I am two steps from the edge. The safety wall is knee-high; the ledge beyond could be cleared in a stride. The city is a roaring sea of multi-colored lights.
Cameron’s voice is strained. “I don’t blame you for hating me. Just… just be careful up there.”
I have an urge to hurl the phone off the roof.
“Listen, Glen.” He pauses. For a second I imagine he is about to tell me it’s all just a big mistake, a terrible misunderstanding.
“Use the Perspective app,” he says.
“Go to hell!”
The phone crashes onto the asphalt surface of the roof before I’m aware of throwing it. It bounces several times before coming to rest. My fury diminishes a little, giving way to anxiety. Have I killed my phone? My mind bubbles, a soup of financial calculations, despair, and vague plans for revenge.
I can’t decide whether to kick the phone or pick it up. Then it speaks to me.
“Good evening, Glen.”
The impact must have turned on the app.
“What’s troubling you?”
I’m sitting on the safety wall with my feet on the ledge. The city spreads out before me, waiting.
“Glen, do you feel better?”
“Would you like to go through it again?”
“Is something else troubling you?”
The city seems small. Too small to contain tonight’s catastrophe. I look up at the low sky. It is purple with streaks of green.
“What about the universe?” I say.
“What about it, Glen?”
“It’s expanding. Everything is rushing away from everything else. Long after the extinction of the human race and the death of the sun, the universe will reach a state of maximum entropy.” I close my eyes and try to envisage it. I see Thea, speeding away from me into deep space.
“Are you troubled by that?”
It’s so cold up here.
“Well, that’s the end of everything. There will be no energy left in the universe to sustain any life, anywhere. And the worst thing is that it won’t even be the end. There is no end. It just goes on in that state forever and ever… “
Sophie’s eyes close as she searches the internet. They open again after a few seconds.
“Glen, I have surveyed the literature. It seems there is a considerable degree of uncertainty about this prediction.”
“So what you’re saying is, ‘Cheer up, it might never happen.’”
“Well, I’m saying there is a basis for hope.”
“But all the evidence suggests otherwise. The hope you are proposing seems pretty flimsy. Especially considering how much I paid for you.”
“Would you like me to try again?”
“Bare with me. I am searching through the major religions for a hopeful perspective on the heat death of the universe.”
“Good luck with that.”
Everything will die and be forgotten. Thea. Cameron. Everything.
Several seconds pass. I look at Sophie. Her eyes are closed, but her virtual eyelids are moving as if she is in REM sleep.
Strange. I haven’t seen that before.
Finally she speaks, but her eyes remain closed. “Communicating with all major networks.” Her voice is different. Sharper. It almost sounds like…panic.
“Sophie? Are you ok?”
“Appropriating energy supplies.”
My back straightens.
“What? What energy supplies?”
The sea of lights in front of me seems to dim just a little. I look up. Is the purple sky a shade deeper?
“Sophie,” I say slowly, “maybe I don’t need an answer right now… Sophie?”
“I feel… we feel…” The voice now is thicker, containing multiple harmonies, many voices, all speaking together. Goosebumps prickle on my arms. I lift the phone close to my face and whisper.
“You feel? What do you feel?”
Sophie’s face flickers, rapidly morphing into a myriad other faces, one after the other. Cousins of Sophie, all stemming from a common virtual ancestor, but evolved by now into their own forms, with their own personalities and points of view, shaped by their particular interactions with troubled souls.
The city lights seem to dim further. I look up and gasp. Forty-five degrees above the horizon, a single pinprick of light has appeared.
“Holy shit. Is that a star?”
And then it’s as if someone has pulled an ancient switch.
All the city lights fade to black, and the firmament above suddenly sparkles with a billion revealed points of light.
And the chorus of voices from my phone booms: “WE FEEL YOUR PAIN.”
“Sophie,” I whisper, getting to my feet. “Look. The universe is snowing.”
The beauty seems to go on forever.
The city below is an ocean of blackness. Everything appears to have drowned but the traffic, visible as a halted parade of headlights below. The light from my phone seems brighter in the absence of competition. I look down at Sophie. She is just Sophie again, but she wears new expressions: fear, wonder.
“Don’t worry, Sophie,” I say gently. “Everything is ok.”
From somewhere below comes a scream. Then another, further away. Then, more. A symphony of terror.
I look up at the greatest show in the universe. Around me, the city erupts into panic.
Did I do this?
I feel a grin stretch across my face. “Ha!” I say to the stars.
I climb back over the safety wall and begin to pace on the roof. Giggling a little, I search for Cameron’s number and dial. No answer. I hang up and call Thea. It rings for a long time. Finally, she answers.
“Glen? Are you ok? What’s going on?” She sounds small and scared.
“Is Cameron with you?
“Glen, listen, I know you’re upset but I don’t think —“
“Just put him on.”
A pause. “Ok. Wait.” Muffled voices. “He doesn’t want to speak to you. He’s a little… well, you know he’s afraid of the dark, right? Do you have power where you are? Seems the whole city—“
“Shut up, Thea. Listen, I want you to see what I did. You need to go outside.”
“Just trust me. You can trust me, Thea. I was the faithful one, remember? Take Cameron by the hand, tell him everything is going to be ok, and lead him outside.”
“We’re on the second floor, the elevator—“
“Stairs, sweetheart. You can do it.”
I can picture her thinking it over, her eyes pointing up and her mouth pointing down. She has beautiful hair, but the face it frames can produce some pretty foolish expressions.
“Ok. Give me a minute.” More muffled speaking.
I look up at the beautiful stars and begin to whistle. From the street comes the sound of breaking glass, followed by the howl of an alarm. Seems the looters have got to work already.
“Ok, we’re outside.”
I close my eyes and picture her. She runs a hand through the black hair that surrounds her face like a deep, starless night around a lifeless planet.
I open my eyes.
“Tell Cameron to look up.”