Eternity is a Long Time
By Davian Aw
The motorbike and its rider slid across the empty Causeway.
The young man's face was pallid beneath the lights of the midnight city, eyes glazed with the threat of madness as he coasted down its barren roads. He ceded to the will of the traffic lights, engine idling at the red as he stifled crazed laughter, tearing solo through the streets (don't stop, don't stop) until he ground to a halt outside his block and tumbled off, stumbling into the void deck and clutching the mailbox like a lifeline to sanity.
He took in the fluorescent lights, grey concrete floor, torn real estate agent ads plastered on the wall. You're home, James thought. A choked cry escaped him: a high, keening sob in the silence of the night.
No mail for him. Lift. Ninth floor. The lights were on in the Chua family's home. There was a table sprawled with books and papers, and a piano with a primer propped open on its stand. He walked straight on, not daring to ring their doorbell. If he didn't, he could pretend…
He slammed and locked his door. The sound of his ragged breaths filled his tiny flat.
James shucked off his shoes and headed for the refrigerator. He found his last can of beer hiding behind the newspaper-wrapped papaya and downed it desperately, one hand clutching the edge of the sink, the Singaporean skyline hovering past his poor reflection in the glass.
James opened the window. The roads were deathly still.
"Hello?" he shouted. "Is anyone there?"
Sick panic coiled in his gut. His mind filled with sudden images of things that might have heard…
James banged the window shut and dropped the blinds. He closed his eyes, trembling in the semi-darkness, and then slid down onto the kitchen floor and cried.
The funeral had been a small affair. His sister's body had been carefully dressed to cover the slash across her throat: that one-way ticket to meet their parents, and she hadn't even thought to ask him along.
Everything had been normal when he left Malacca that evening, grief isolating him in the lighted stream of traffic flowing down the peninsula. He did not notice when the cars began to vanish; then, all at once, he was alone.
James tugged out his phone.
The Internet was silent. The latest news was hours old. Facebook, Reddit and Twitter were frozen tableaux of their former selves. It was the world, he realised with distant dread. It was the entire world.
He took a shaky breath. His mind shivered at the dizzying silence, the paranoia that whispered at the edges of his mind daring him to draw the blinds, look out the window, see the monstrous creatures crowding in—
He leapt to his feet, ready to fight. But nothing came to attack him, and as James stood there, vulnerable and trembling and miraculously unscathed, he was suddenly overcome by an ecstasy of fear. He collapsed against a wall, descending into giggles and sobs resounding thinly around his flat until he fell into bed, mind soaked in exhausted delirium, and sank into a restless sleep beneath a slash of streetlight.
He was climbing.
Stairs rose up a stairwell in a medley of concrete and fluorescent light. A cold breeze blew across each window ledge from an impenetrable darkness beyond.
He had had this dream many times before. He had never reached the top. Until now.
On the wall of the highest landing shone the infinity symbol in blue, rising up to meet him as he made the final step. Next to it was a door of burnished orange that seemed to change as he approached—getting brighter, sharper, oddly familiar, until a shot of desperation urged him on to touch its silver handle—
—and he jolted, disoriented, out of sleep and into morning, clutching fervently at the wisps of dream as they floated away and vanished beneath the insistent commands of his phone's alarm.
The sun shone down on a silent world.
The ninth floor corridor was flooded with its gold. James made his way from door to door, faded flip-flops slapping against dusty tiles.
"Hello?" he called out at every stop, ringing doorbells and rapping on the windows, though the shut doors and enveloping silence told him all he needed to know. The Chua family's flat looked just as it had the night before. Through the Perumal family's windows, he saw an open laptop on the table beside a half-drunk mug of tea.
He went down to the void deck and trudged towards the coffee shop, uncomfortably aware of the silence. There were no birds, no traffic; no sounds but the shushing of trees in the wind.
The certificate on the drinks stall proudly announced its 'B' for cleanliness. James pushed a handful of coins onto the counter and got a can of barley. He bought himself a cold but edible curry puff. He stood by the edge of the coffee shop, quietly having his breakfast, staring out onto an empty playground.
Asphalt stretched bare before him as James rode south out of Yishun and into town. Driverless cars sat out of the way, parked and brightly warming beneath the equatorial sun.
He slowed along Orchard Road in the thrall of its eerie stillness. Images danced their mute seduction on screens, peddling smartphones and high fashion to their audience of one.
James slipped off his bike. His footsteps sent echoes down the empty concrete.
Glass doors parted before him in a breath of cool air.
There was music playing in the mall. Commercials ran in isolated loops of ghostly voices, sleepy-eyed supermodels beckoning to him—just him, enticing him away from this barren wasteland and into their carefully-composed worlds full of sunshine and laughter and forbidden skin.
James wandered dazedly through the unguarded shops, clothes, gadgets, food, books and jewellery all open for his taking. He tasted expensive delicacies in the velvet silence of restaurants, uncorking wine that would have cost him a years' salary; caressed a television set that would have cost him even more, whispering to a line of speakers that he was not drunk. He opened doors labelled with things like 'No Entry Except for Authorised Personnel' or 'Maintenance Staff Only', swapped out his iPhone for the latest model, tried on luxurious and inappropriate clothes to jazzy upbeat tunes and imagined, in wistful longing, that his reflections were other people. He reached out to the mirror-
He jumped. The voice had been gentle—a rush of wind on his neck. There was no one there.
"Hello?" he whispered, suddenly self-conscious. He quickly pulled off the dress.
Somewhere beneath the music was a faint, curious buzzing.
The sound was coming from the end of the row of doors. At the bottom of the far wall shone a small green button with words printed above it in red stencil:
ACCESS PORT 704270
He pressed the button. The wall slid open.
And there, before his stunned eyes, was the stairwell from his dreams.
"I'm dreaming," James said aloud.
The stairwell remained impossibly and brutally real around him.
He climbed. He moved slowly at first, and then faster, his mind clearing from the alcohol and his feet propelling him up the steps until he burst onto the highest landing where the infinity symbol was waiting to meet him.
James shakily walked over. He opened the door. Beyond lay a dark hallway filled with a low, pulsating red.
He knew this place.
Some ancient memory trembled in his mind as he stared down the crimson-washed hallway, and he didn't know if it was fear or relief that pricked his eyes with tears.
A susurrus of whispers underlay the quiet, growing louder as he passed by each door. Four adjacent ones were boarded up with planks. No whispers came from them.
A further door stood slightly ajar, dust floating golden-pink in its escaped light. He slipped through into a room whose beige curtains blew inwards on a gentle breeze.
Spotless desks gridded the floor. A teacher's table stood up front, unintelligible scribbles on the whiteboard in bold black marker ink. James pushed the curtains aside. There was nothing beyond the window panes save the same calm, reddish light that suffused this place.
A sheet of foolscap lay on one of the desks, two words written on it:
"Isaac Goh! Stand up!"
His head jerked up, and everything changed.
Daylight from the windows. Ceiling fans spun a humid breeze. There were pieces of paper tacked up on the notice boards, simple maths equations on the blackboard, and... people. Children, to be exact: six- and seven-year-olds in their first year of primary school, staring at him wide-eyed and curious in the way only small kids can be.
His Primary One Mathematics teacher was looking angrily at him.
"You never do your homework, is it?" she demanded.
"I—" he started, and then stopped at the sound of his voice. He looked down and saw the hands of a young boy holding onto a piece of paper now covered in childish doodles.
The desk stood too high before him. Stationery filled the groove at the end of it: wooden 2B pencils, an eraser, a Pokemon ruler. He stared down at his grubby school uniform, nametag embroidered in dark green (ISAAC GOH ZHIYI) above the school crest, white Bata school shoes on his sock-clad feet.
"Eh, answer me!"
"I... I didn't..."
"You got write down in your diary or not?"
He opened the worn school diary on the desk, flipping through until he landed on the last filled page. On it was written 'Maths Workbook 1A Exercise 16B' in careful penmanship.
Isaac. He remembered Isaac, his primary school classmate whom he had loathed ever since he threw James' flag eraser collection into the Eco Pond. He remembered the amazing schadenfreude of this day.
He looked up at the sea of staring children and spotted his own young face watching the scene with glee. It isn't fair, he thought in a sudden rush of jealousy. He should be there, not here-
"Isaac!" Ms Yeo shouted. "I asked you a question!"
"I... wrote it."
"Then why you never do?"
She moved towards him, eyes boring into his.
"I... I don't know," he stammered. "It's not me! I'm not—"
"Isaac Goh!" She slammed her hands down on his desk, releasing a spurt of tears from his eyes. "You dare to talk to me like that? You want me to call your mother?"
Then Ms Yeo saw the paper on his desk and whisked it off, her face growing redder at the evidence of his inattention; she was shouting, angry, as he cried, because he was only six and confused and he didn't know what was going on. Ms Yeo's loud voice hurt his ears and everyone else was staring at him, and he was mad at them for staring because they didn't know anything, and they thought he was Isaac when he wasn't, and his other self was laughing at his tears and he wanted to get away—
He bolted for the door.
He dodged Ms Yeo's grabbing hand and ran out the doorway, heart pounding in his chest as his shoes pounded against the hard concrete of the classroom hall.
In the distance he heard Ms Yeo chasing after him and calling Isaac's name. He hurtled down a staircase and past the school auditorium, a part of his mind marvelling that he was here, again, in a building that had long since been torn down. He heard voices—teachers—coming from the next corridor, and with a frantic glance around he whipped into an empty music room. The door swung shut behind him.
"Hi," a voice said.
There was a girl there. Another student. She couldn't have been more than 12, but she seemed immensely tall and grown up as she sauntered over and stood before him.
The girl grinned. "You took your time, didn't you?" She held out a hand. "I'm Vera. Well, not really. You could call me Tan Xiao Ming or Oldham Dauntless Hero. I don't really care. Smelly roses and all that. It's very nice to meet you, Isaac."
He took the handshake. "I'm not—"
She shrugged. "Isaac, James, whatever. It's all just perspective. You're as much Isaac as he ever was."
James stared at the mirror behind her. His childhood nemesis looked dazedly back at him.
"Am I dead?" he whispered.
Vera laughed. "Aww, you think that the answer will mean something, don't you? Well yeah, that was a very fatal motorbike accident James was in. And quick. I'm not sure he even noticed. But it's twenty years before the accident, now, and you're not him any more, so it really doesn't matter. Hey, you can stay here and creep James out with how much you know about his life—"
Vera shrugged. "Okay. I get it. School sucks."
"Who are you?"
"Good question. Maybe I'm a delusion concocted by your increasingly-crazy mind."
She nudged the mirrored wall. A section of it swung open into the red hallway.
"What is this place?" he asked, but Vera was gone.
The hallway loomed bigger around him than before. James made his way down it in Isaac's form, his surroundings pulling with aching familiarity in his mind, driving him on until he broke into a run on legs that seemed newly filled with impossible energy. Doors whizzed past him on both sides until he turned left around a corner onto a balcony landing where stairs curved through a grand wood-panelled atrium: an atrium that rose past hundreds of thousands of floors honeycombed with openings to hallways of doors to every single life that would ever be lived.
Whispers drew him down the stairs. Different voices within them called him to separate ways: luring him to lives golden with wealth and prestige or lush with love and beauty, lives pregnant with destiny or lived out quietly in humble toil. One strain caught his attention and he shut his mind to the others, following it deep into the shadowed halls of the house until he stood before another door.
He opened it, and night enveloped him and transported him before the glare of a hawker centre. Noises grew into focus. Amorphous shapes solidified into people, and he felt his arm hooked tight around a sobbing woman, a knife blade pressed against her neck where rivulets of blood had started to form.
Startled recognition dawned.
"Jess?" he asked, but his voice was a stranger's voice, wrong to his ears, and James's sister held no glimmer of recognition in her terrified gaze.
He dropped the knife. She ran off into the night.
"What are you doing?" a man hollered beside him.
James dove for the blade. The man grabbed him, shouting curses and sending a hard punch to his jaw.
James doubled over with an eyeful of stars. He blinked away tears of pain, staring at the knife in his unfamiliar fist. Numb awareness surfaced in his mind.
You killed Jess, he thought.
He jerked the blade across his throat.
The noise cut out. The knife clattered to the ground.
James stood alone and unharmed on the empty street in the form of his sister's would-be killer.
Streetlights shone cold upon his body as he made his way down the dead street. He passed the hawker centre with its ceiling fans still spinning overhead, bowls of food sitting on tables, the diners nowhere to be seen.
He thought he could hear whispers—only in his mind, perhaps. They faded away if he paused to listen, yet something guided him down an alley and to a row of upturned trashcans, where a small green button shone brightly from a metal panel in the wall:
ACCESS PORT 640902
He pressed the button, and entered the stairwell.
The orange door returned him to the house. Some internal compass guided his path back to the atrium and back up to the first hallway he had entered. He passed Isaac's door. Two of the barred doors no longer were.
He opened the first, and stepped into his own bedroom.
Air stirred around him. The drone of traffic grew outside his windows—little sounds of other people finding their places in the world again, and then James was lying in bed, himself once more, his old iPhone vibrating on his bedside table.
His eyes blinked open. The room was bright with streetlight. On his phone were several WhatsApp messages that had apparently transpired just moments before.
"Got attacked by muggers," Jessica had typed. "I'm OK. One killed himself. Police investigating."
He put down his phone and sat up slowly in bed.
He could hear muted sounds of conversation. A dog barked in the distance. From his open window wafted strains of Chinese radio and the aroma of someone's late-night supper.
"Have you ever wondered," a familiar voice asked, "why you never see the stars?"
He turned. Vera was standing by the window. It had to be her. She was wearing his body and gazing serenely into the night sky, forearms resting on the window sill.
"Maybe you thought it was light pollution," Vera continued. "But it's actually because there aren't any stars. You forgot to add them."
"How... how are you here?"
James clung to the little sounds around him--normal sounds, other-people sounds, it-was-just-a-dream sounds. The doppelganger by the window remained stubbornly there.
"But you'd thought them up, see," Vera murmured, ignoring him. "Stars. That's why people here know about them. You've just never seen them."
"I thought I was back!"
His voice broke with despair, and she finally turned, regarding James with his own smile. "You are," she said. "I'm just visiting."
"You... you said I was dead. How can I be here if I'm dead?"
"You changed history."
"Where are we?"
Vera winced. "We're in the prototype. It goes offline whenever your current life ends. You just turned it back on."
"See, that's what you made me for," Vera said, moving away from the window. "You keep forgetting." She paused by the wall, hands in pockets, looking at the digital photo frame playing out a slow slideshow of James's family photographs. "You built all of it—the house, the access ports, this whole network of simulated lives in your own private universe. It took a long time, but I guess immortality got to be a bit of a drag." She smiled sadly at him. "So, here you are. Living life after life so you'll never be lonely for too long. It's comforting, isn't it? Getting so lost in the fantasy that you actually believe you're not alone. That you're human."
"No," James said. "That's crazy—"
Vera dropped next to him on the bed. "You're so addicted to the pretence, man," she said. "But the truth is that there's nothing. It's just you, trapped in merciless existence for all of eternity. And eternity is a long time. It's a very, very long time."
"I... I live here," James babbled. "I have friends—"
"They're all in your head, James. That's not even your name. You're not him anymore than anyone else you invented, including me. What's it like, knowing the solipsists were right after all?"
James stared down at his hands and the parquet floor solid beneath his feet, no different than it had always been before that fateful motorbike ride. His phone chimed as new messages scrolled across its screen.
"I could leave," Vera said, standing back up. "Again. Let you convince yourself it was all a dream, come back another time, have the same conversation all over again. But how long can you keep on doing this? How many more characters do you need to play? To 'test the prototype'? It's been seven thousand lives."
He raised his face towards her. "What do you want me to do?"
So he stood in the middle of the city and exited this life. Crowds of people flickered and vanished until all that was left were lights shining down on a bare city and him, alone again, in the streets of his forgotten model.
He began to walk. He kept walking—out of town, out of the country.
He hiked across bridges, through valleys and up mountains, throwing himself off their peaks to save the journey down and rolling through brush getting tangled in plants before waking again at the bottom. He splashed in drains, explored down manholes, went into forbidden places and palaces without a soul to stop him.
So, here you are.
He roamed through giant libraries suspended in silence, piling books into his arms and poring over them by sunlight in the day or a quiet lamp glowing on a desk at night, words gently warping before heavy eyelids pulling him softly down to sleep.
Living life after life so you'll never be lonely for too long.
He played symphonies on lighted stages for audiences of empty seats, fingers stroking to life melodies honed with the precision of eternal patience. He sat alone with popcorn in darkened cinemas watching blockbusters and classics run on screen, bass stereo notes shaking the walls, laugh tracks haunted by otherworldly mirth, and sometimes, if he was quiet, he could imagine that everyone else in the cinema was being quiet too.
Getting so lost in the fantasy that you actually believe you're not alone...
He drove thin, rattling buses down sun-parched roads, bumping over potholes, pretending he was going somewhere. He got into small boats and pushed off from the shore, letting the wind take him in lazy pursuit of the horizon, lying back as the sun cast him in silhouette against the orange of its departure.
...that you actually believe you're human.
He built himself homes of glass and light and steel, blueprints scattered over sturdy wooden desks and feet propped up on soft suede cushions as he lay basked in the quiescence of existence.
But the truth is that there's nothing.
He wielded brushes and splashed paint on canvas, progressing from amateur creations to great masterpieces that no one ever saw. He built things that moved—skateboards, bicycles, cars, airships. Sometimes they crashed and burned, and he would wake back on the ground, whole, watching the smoke rise up from a distant wreck.
It's just you...
After a while, he found that if he concentrated hard enough, he could change tiny pieces of his reality. He swapped a word in a printed book. He tore his shirt against a fence and managed to close the rip. He made a blade of grass grow by willing it to.
"You're rediscovering your powers," Vera said, watching him levitate a pencil. "You won't need me anymore."
...trapped in merciless existence for all of eternity.
Amidst the smooth white and gold of his homemade spaceship, James left the prototype Earth.
And eternity is a long time. It's a very, very long time.
The garden was cool in the evening. He moved among the fragrant trees, wind carrying new birdsong to his ears and stirring up verdant grass that swayed in the falling radiance of the sixth sunset.
And he watched, enraptured, as the first real humans he had ever created awoke and saw each other.
Their faces softened into smiles.
Adam stood. He took Eve by the hand.
Together, they would populate the multiverse.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 3 Jul 2018