The Law of Gravity
by Sam Ferree
That sunrise was the best they had made yet. The air was cool, not cold, and the Termination was just the right shade of pomegranate red around the sun. The light breeze smelled like oranges. It reminded me of candy, not real fruit, just that imitation flavor that somehow tastes better than the real thing.
“I think Lauren’s dead,” Lukas repeated, his avatar’s young face contorted in disgust. Lukas had chosen a runner’s physique, because, out there, he’d been a track star in college; why that mattered to him was beyond me.
“What do you mean you think she’s dead?” I asked. We were sitting at Reel Café — a not-so clever pun, I thought — at the edge of the patio. We had met there every Monday morning for years.
My coffee was cold and my cigarette spent. Lukas had ordered his usual Earl Grey and a grapefruit, but he hadn’t touched either one.
Lukas shook his head. “Her avatar is in Smith Field. Just standing there, staring off at nothing. It’s been doing that for weeks. I spoke with a friend of mine, an administrator. They’re shutting down her account because her fees are overdue. She hasn’t been away from the Flat for more than two days in decades. She’s dead, Noah.”
“So she’s been away for a few weeks. That doesn’t mean anything.”
“But it’s a pretty good sign she isn’t coming back.”
The orange scent was fading and Lukas was silent. I said, “Well, what do we do?”
“What?” Lukas looked up. Eventually, he shrugged. “I suppose we arrange a funeral.”
I nodded, but said, “I don’t actually think she’s dead.”
“She is,” Lukas muttered. His twenty-something avatar wore an old man’s bitterness.
I picked up my coffee. The mug looked like it had been made by a five year old. Everything about the Reel Café had that hokey-imperfection. When you sat in the chairs, you half-expected a distinguished looking gentleman to walk up and ask you to please not sit on the dadist art.
I dropped the mug. It shattered with a disappointing crack. A nearby waiter started toward me, glowering and brandishing a towel like a gladiatorial weapon.
“Why did you do that?” Lukas asked.
“Just testing,” I said, knowing that Lauren would have been less than amused.
The week before I met Lauren, the administrators added the first touch-based sensory features to the Flat. It was all very simple at first, just pressure and heat. They hadn’t figured out taste and smell yet.
It was exciting to be in the Flat at the beginning. Innovation in artificial reality technology was booming. Everything felt possible. Really, for a while, everything was possible.
The administrators chose Smith Field to present their work and from a distance it looked like a Van Gogh painting from his later years. The Field was divided into thirds, each showcasing a different weather pattern. The first third was bright and sunny, and the second third lay under a blustery grey thunderstorm. I met Lauren in the last third, beyond the sun and the lightning, where it was a cool, windy autumn day.
Flying was still permitted then. I was day-dreaming on my back, letting myself drift with the breeze when my head slammed into something.
My vision went black with pain. I instinctively reached up to see if I was cut, even though avatars couldn’t bleed back then.
I rolled over and saw a young woman floating beside me, grimacing and holding her head. She was dressed in a nondescript blue jumpsuit, the kind new users were given by default if they had no dress preference. But the shape and color of her eyes, her mouth, looked like they had been custom designed. They looked too natural, too real, as if I were actually looking at a human face and not a simulation.
“Sorry about that,” she muttered. “I think I fell asleep.”
“No,” I said, massaging my head even though there was no lingering sense of pain. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
She smiled and righted herself so that she looked like she was standing on an invisible platform, swaying gently in the breeze. “This place hurts now, I guess,” she said.
“I guess so.”
She held out her hand. “Lauren.”
She had a firm handshake, warm and professional. It was a startling experience, actually. As we shook, it came to me she was the first person I had actually touched in the Flat. The skin didn’t feel like skin. I was just holding a warm hand-shaped thing that was squeezing me back.
She let go.
“It’s very strange, dreaming in the Flat,” she said.
“Why? The irony of it?”
“Yes. But I think the new sensory input is messing me up.” She continued contemplatively, almost as if she were not speaking to me. “I was having one of those falling dreams. I kept seeing the ground coming toward me, always closer and closer, as if I were slowing down, but I wasn’t. The air was still rushing past me and I still felt weightless. Every moment or so I kept thinking ‘I’ll hit the ground now,’ but I never did. At least not until I woke up and there you were.”
“So, I guess I’m the ground,” I said.
“I guess so.” She crossed her arms behind her head and asked, “What do you do?”
“Do?” I shrugged. “I’m an architect. I design buildings here in the Flat. You can see one of mine over there.”
I pointed off through the summer third of the Field to the Tower in the distance. It was actually four separate structures intertwined and occasionally converging together, rising above the clouds. At its base, the Tower was a quadruple helix, but it gradually shifted into different shapes and patterns before returning to its original form at the top.
“It looks like it should fall over,” Lauren said.
“It should, actually.”
“Looks like Looney Toons.”
“Gravity doesn’t mean much if you ignore it. Just like the Road Runner: if you decide your one circle of earth won’t fall, you’ll always win.”
She turned back to me. “You only work in the Flat?”
“No choice. I was kicked out of architectural school because I couldn’t understand the math, but I am very good at designing buildings that would never stand if actual physics applied. I make a good living here.”
“That sounds very liberating,” she said.
“And what about you? What do you do?”
“Out there I’m an attorney and a gardener. Here, I’m a gardener.”
We talked for so long that we barely noticed when the wind pushed us into the stormy section of the Field. Suddenly her watch buzzed and she shook her head. “Shit. I can never tell time in this place.”
She offered another firm handshake and said in a business-like tone: “It was wonderful to meet you. I’ll be here tomorrow at six EST.”
Then her avatar disappeared. Even though I knew they hadn’t perfected lingering sensory impressions, I felt like I was still holding her hand long after she left.
Fast travel and flying were no longer options in the Flat so Lukas and I walked the twenty-five minutes to Smith Field, neither particularly feeling the urge to pay for a cab. It was comforting, really, to look at my muddy reflection in the too-imperfect pond at the edge of the Field. My avatar was not handsome — I’m not vain in that way — but it was certainly the figure of a young man just rounding thirty, probably about to fall off the edge into baldness and a paunch. I redesigned my avatar periodically to counteract the aging process; basically, he was the exact same avatar I’d had when I first entered the Flat. He may not be beautiful, but at least my avatar will be forever young.
“I miss flying,” I said.
Lukas shook his head. “I never liked it after they introduced vertigo. Besides, falling hurts.”
Lukas stopped for a moment and glanced around the Field, hand held up against the scalding sun. “I remember the first time I fell, when they still hadn’t quite gotten pressure right. I just tripped, actually, but it felt like my legs shattered like chicken bones. I was afraid of stairs for weeks after that — even out there.”
He scratched his chin. He was growing a thick stubble. “This way.”
We found Lauren sitting cross-legged on the grass, hands resting on her knees, still dressed in the same silky blue jumpsuit she’d worn when I met her. Her eyes were closed and her lips were upturned in an almost-smile. Standing next to her, I could smell the rich green and lilac fragrance of her garden. There was dark earth under her fingernails.
She didn’t look dead. She was breathing. Her skin was warm to the touch and her pulse was strong and steady.
If neglected for long enough, a logged-on avatar will deteriorate from dehydration, hunger and the elements, unless it is left on temporary “Paused” status. The Administrators were getting rid of the “Paused” status for exactly this reason: frozen avatars scattered everywhere, cluttering up the Flat. Lauren, though, had never left her avatar just sitting there for more than a few minutes.
Lukas was right. Lauren wasn’t there.
Numbness is a strange feeling because it is the absence of feeling — not anger, not happiness, not nostalgia, not vertigo, not revulsion, not drunkenness. Nothing. Like a blueprint, or, better yet, a half dreamed sketch. It’s just the frame of something that isn’t there.
“I’ve never planned a funeral before,” Lukas said quietly. “I’ve never even been to a funeral before. Not even out there. Something always happens. I don’t know. I set out to go, but then I can’t find a cleaner’s to take care of my suit, or I’d come down with a cold, or… Maybe it’s one of those subconscious things.”
I glanced over his shoulder at the Termination. My Tower was still there, dwarfing the surrounding jungle of skyscrapers. It was the only one of my buildings left. All the others were demolished one by one after the Flat acquired uniform gravity. A flip of a switch, somewhere, and one would come down in a heap of rubble to be cleaned up by the suddenly necessary construction crews. The Tower, against all reasonable explanation, stood. The miracle baffled me just as much as all the new architects and administrators. But there it was — condemned, but defiant.
“I’ve made funeral arrangements before,” I lied. “I’ll take care of it.”
The last time Lauren and I had sex was the first night the Flat acquired universal gravity proportional to Earth’s surface. Of course, before this, things stayed put well enough. Drinks stayed in glasses; when you stopped flying, you fell; and the ground pushed obligingly against your feet. All that changed was that you could feel it.
Gravity gradually settled in, like a weight dragging us to the bottom of a pool. The worst part was the vertigo. It was as if every step might drag you into infinite free fall.
Out of spite, I insisted that Lauren and I have a drink outside, hovering ten feet above my roof. I brought a bottle of 2005 Washington red and two stemless glasses. We both wore cotton bathrobes that were softer than silk. Lauren smelled like irises.
Lauren lay on her back staring up at the sky. “Did you hear that they might redo it?”
“People want to see familiar stars when they look up. I’m part of a group petitioning the Administration to draw lines through the constellations so they’ll be easier to find.”
“Isn’t the whole point that you’re supposed to look for them?” I asked. My abs ached, another reminder my avatar was slowly “maturing” as the Administrators sharpened the virtual senses.
“It’s a joke, Noah.” She rolled over on her stomach. “I feel heavy.”
“Yes.” I finished the last sip of wine. “It makes me feel sick.”
“I kind of like it.” Lauren pulled her finger around the rim of her glass and I could just barely hear the reverberation. “It’s comforting knowing that there are rules. Cause and effect. That some simple things just follow. Like wine will make you feel relaxed. Home will be where you left it. Your body will still be where you left it.”
Smiling at me, Lauren slowly drifted down to the rooftop. I couldn’t see her face through the shadows, but I knew she wasn’t smiling anymore.
“I’m sorry about your buildings, Noah.”
I shrugged. “They said that they would override the environmental settings around the old buildings so that they can still stand. I just can’t build any new ones.”
“Yes. They’ll let the old remain,” she said, but I knew she was lying, just like they did. “You know, I retired from my practice.”
That did surprise me. Not so much that she retired, but that she told me. We hadn’t spoken about our lives out there since the first day we met.
So I said slowly, “So early?”
“I’m sixty. A respectable age for retirement.”
“Oh.” I was fifty-one and had been suddenly forced into retirement when the Flat made my skills obsolete. Who wanted plans for buildings that would never stand?
She interlaced her fingers with mine. “Of course, how do you know? I might be forty. Or I might not be a lawyer. Maybe I’m not even a woman.”
“Please, let’s not talk about this.”
She squeezed my hand. We walked inside and I once again became aware of a terrible vertigo and the tremendous force holding me to the ground.
Lukas asked me to meet him at the Reel Café. He was sitting on the patio again, out of the artificial light and bathed in the pale illumination of the full moon. He was drunk. I could smell the sharp reek of alcohol even before I sat down. A gin and tonic sat on the table before him.
He didn’t greet me or even acknowledge that I had sat down. Finally I cleared my throat and set the manila envelope I’d received from the funeral director on the table. It felt absurdly heavy for how slim it was.
“I made the arrangements.” Still nothing. “She left a will, evidently, but that’s Lauren. She left instructions for her funeral, too. She asked us both to give eulogies.”
“I can’t,” he said flatly.
“She asked you to.”
“I can’t.” He sipped his gin and tonic. “You introduced us here, remember?”
“It seemed so insignificant at the time,” he continued as if he hadn’t heard me speak. “Meeting her. I don’t remember what we talked about or even if we talked at all. I just remember that we drank Tanzanian coffee and ate crepes. That was significant because they’d just added taste and smell. Forty-six years. Seems like a long time, but…”
He stopped and finished his drink. The waiter came by and I ordered a glass of wine and Lukas asked for another gin and tonic. The wine was sour.
“So, it’s tomorrow,” Lukas said.
“Yes.” I struggled not to ask, really I did, but eventually I had to. “Do you find it at all… odd, giving a funeral in the Flat?”
“Odd? What the hell are you talking about? People do it all the time. This is what we’re supposed to do.”
“I know. But here, in the Flat. I mean, it’s her avatar.”
Lukas looked up sharply and studied me. A cool breeze swept across the patio and despite my best efforts I began to shiver.
“You still don’t think she’s dead, do you?” Lukas said slowly, accusingly.
“It’s not that,” I said quickly, trying to find a tactful retreat. “It’s just that… funerals never feel real to me. All of this… It just feels like someone walked out of the room saying ‘I’ll be right back’ and never did.”
“Yes, that’s what everyone feels,” Lukas said with mock patience. “But that feeling is supposed to go away eventually.”
“That’s fair,” I admitted grudgingly. “But we don’t even know if she is dead. It’s just her avatar that we’re burying.”
“Just her avatar?” Lukas spat. He was angry now. “For being a coffin-user, you don’t really take this world very seriously, do you?”
“Please don’t use that term.”
“It’s pretty accurate, isn’t it? You’re body is rotting in some Flat chamber in a desert somewhere. You haven’t even been out there in how long? Forty years?”
“And the Flat still isn’t real to you.”
“This is everything to me,” I said with slightly more acidity than I intended.
Lukas looked like he was going to say something else but shook his head and stood up. “I envy you, Noah. In a few minutes I’m going to log off and then I won’t be drunk anymore, but I’ll still feel awful. Drink up and enjoy the lasting effects.”
He left. Shortly thereafter, feeling sick and cold, I went home having not finished my wine.
Lauren and I didn’t really love each other. We both got older and eventually life and business drew us apart. By the end, we rarely saw each other.
Laziness and neglect are my biggest weaknesses. I think they are for everyone.
The last time I saw Lauren was about a year before she died, shortly after she and Lukas ended their marriage. It was a warm spring day, but the sky was a stormy grey sheet across the Termination.
It smelled like a storm. Warm, wet and something beyond description, like the tingling in an appendage after it falls asleep. A feeling more than a scent. How the programmers figured that one out was beyond me.
I was reading at the Reel Café when suddenly there she was looking down at me. She had let her avatar age. Her skin wasn’t as radiant as it used to be. She had crows feet and there was grey in her hair. But even from across the table I noticed she still wore the fresh aroma of her garden.
“It smells like rain,” she said.
“So now we’re ‘How’s the weather’ friends?'”
She sat down. “You never change, Noah.”
She winced and a moment later I felt it too, a light drizzle beginning to fall warmly from the heavens.
“Did you know,” I murmured, “that they’re going to make the Flat a globe?”
“Just to drive up real estate prices.”
“They’ll have to change the name. It won’t be flat anymore.”
She sipped her coffee and I finished my cigarette. The drizzle remained constant and covered my hair and arms like sweat. She said, “It’s good to see you, Noah.”
“It’s good to see you too, Lauren.”
“What have you been doing with your time?”
“I finally got my architect’s license. And I’ve been looking through real estate law.”
“Still trying to find a way around the system?”
I shrugged. “With a license and enough loopholes I can get away with anything. It used to be simpler.”
“Yes, it used to be.”
There was thunder in the distance that sounded very much like a demolition.
“You know I’ve lived in the same place my whole life,” Lauren said. She looked away, but the expression on her face was mild, not the melancholy I’d have expected from her words. “Not exactly — I mean I did move away a short while for law school — but then I returned to my little village. The rain there is terrible. It comes out of nowhere, even with clear skies, and falls so hard it hurts. But when you stand in those downpours, and sometimes they last for hours, the roar dies and the pain fades. It doesn’t even feel wet or cold anymore. It’s as if the whole world disappears around you.”
“Sounds terrifying,” I offered.
“No. It’s wonderful.” She reached out and laid her hand on top of mine. “You should come and see it sometime. Come up and visit.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
I shifted in my seat and tried, to my surprise, to drudge up an excuse. “Because… what if I’m a serial killer?”
She laughed. “Well, if you are, you’d be doing me a favor before my heart gives out. And besides, I know you.”
I wanted to ask her what was so different about meeting her out there rather than here, but she glanced at her watch and quickly stood to excuse herself.
“Don’t worry about the invitation. Your body’s probably so atrophied you can’t breathe out of your coffin anyway.” She kissed me on the cheek, just as the rain began to fall in earnest. “See you around, Noah.”
In accordance with Lauren’s wishes there was an open casket, which was rather unsettling since her avatar was still breathing. There were speeches and readings, passages from the Old Testament regarding the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Words about life-everlasting. All over an avatar that for all the world still looked alive.
I was given five minutes to speak. It was a pretty bland eulogy, I have to admit. Talking about Lauren, recounting my fond memories of her, it all felt like the set up for a joke and that right on cue she would sit up in the casket and deliver the punch line. She’d say “I’m really not dead,” or something to that effect, but wittier.
The funeral home was filled with people I either didn’t know or recognized as enemies or former clients. I’d never known Lauren had so many friends, that so many would come and that so many, even the one’s I’d taken for cold-hearted, blood-sucking tycoons, could cry.
Afterwards the funeral director asked me if I’d like to have the ashes. Lauren hadn’t specified who should take them and Lukas already refused.
“You can cremate an avatar?” I asked.
“The avatar is deleted at the expiration of the contract. The ashes are just a symbol.”
Somehow I managed to make my fit of laughter look like a struggle against tears. I agreed to take the ashes. It was all just layers of counterfeit anyway.
After everyone left I suggested that Lukas and I go back to my house for a drink. “We both need it,” I said. But when we finally sat down in my living room on opposite sides of the coffee table, Lauren’s ashes sitting between us, Lukas asked for a glass of water and I poured myself orange juice. Then we just sat and sipped away, trying to avoid looking at the box on the table. The orange juice burned my stomach. Outside, trees danced violently in the wind while a sound like laughter seeped in through the open windows.
For just a moment, I thought we were dead.
I gazed at the fake ashes on the table. This was “Lauren” now. Her avatar was probably gone, or would be soon, and the dust in the little box at my feet was just a placeholder.
After a silence I muttered, “I can’t believe she’s gone.”
“Please, Noah.” Lukas closed his eyes, exhausted. “Please, not this again.”
“No,” I said. “Listen to me. I… know what denial is and this isn’t it. I think Lauren is still alive out there and she’s just logged off for good. She’s never coming back, but she’s still out there.”
“Then what’s the difference?”
“The difference is she’s alive.”
Lukas set down his glass as the clock chimed ten. “Since when does the world outside the Flat matter to you? If she’s never coming back, she is dead as far as you’re concerned.”
I shook my head. “It matters.”
I didn’t have an answer to that.
Lukas sat for a long time with his hands resting on his knees. “It’s late. I should go.”
We shook hands and I ushered him out. We promised we’d meet for lunch the next day and I wondered if I’d ever see him again.
The house was silent except for the wind. When I went back to the living room I sat down on the table next to Lauren’s ashes. Feeling slightly macabre, I opened the lid, having to strain for a few moments against the vacuum tight canister. The ashes looked like ashes.
“Lukas is right,” I said to the dust. “I’m never going to see you again. You’re dead.”
Saying it out loud, seemed to drop something in my head, something precious that toppled and shattered. Or maybe it was something I’d been cradling too closely, and finally it slipped from my grip.
I’d spent my life ignoring the rules, but nothing could defy gravity forever.
I stood there like the Road Runner finally caught in Wile E. Coyote’s carefully laid trap. The tiny circle of ground on which I was standing came loose, and I fell with it.
About the Author
Sam Ferree by day writes grants and copy for a small environmental nonprofit in the Twin Cities. By night, he scribbles stories, plays, and essays, when not procrastinating. He shares an apartment with a poet and two cats. Also, Sam has accidentally become very involved in the local storytelling community, serving as host of Story Club Minneapolis and board secretary of Story Arts of Minnesota.
About the Narrator
Dave Slusher does a whole lot of stuff. More information can be found at his website.