He was trying to escape, and not for the first time.
It had replaced the rising and setting of the sun, for him; a way of delineating future from past, although he knew that soon enough, even this would begin to fade. He would forget how many times he had climbed into his car and cruised past the neon lights, to search down empty avenues, only to find himself returned somehow to the place where he’d begun. It would become harder to remember each aborted attempt as its own event, and not a part of some larger destiny.
It seemed he’d been driving half the night, although the clock showed only thirty minutes had passed. He was through the heart of it now: past the casinos with their streamers of neon moving like rivers; into the suburban darkness of all-night liquor stores, bowling alleys, car dealerships. Here the roads unwound themselves and stretched infinite into the distance. He couldn’t see an intersection ahead, only a point where the streetlights narrowed at the limit of his vision.
This was where it began, the turning inward once more.
He had been this way a hundred times; still, the buildings looked strange. They seemed adrift in the vacant darkness, absent of people to fill them with purpose. No turn he could take would lead him anywhere real. There would be side roads and stop signs, but these would always, eventually, end in a loading dock, or the fenced wall where a dumpster waited lonely beneath a vapor lamp. Better to stay on the expressway, though his sense of motion told him he had stopped. He saw the storefronts rush past, but it was as if they were moving, and he was sitting still.
He shook his head to clear the cobwebs. The night was making him drowsy. That was a part of it too, and he sipped his coffee and tried to stay awake as he remembered what the woman had told him, before his first failed attempt to leave.
“Souls in orbit,” she had said, out of nowhere. It was early yet, but she’d clearly been drinking for hours. So had he. There was no reason not to, with nothing to do and all day to do it.
“We’re souls in orbit,” she said again, and waited for him to respond. When it was clear he wouldn’t, she continued. “Around the Event Horizon.”
He laughed. He had come as a mathematician, only to learn the house had mathematicians of its own. They were better; they always were. There has always been somebody better, faster, than him, and the opportunities had fallen away, student loans becoming unpayable debt, the weight of them dragging him to this place with its promise of freedom. Still, he knew enough science to catch her meaning. The velocity of money was more than an abstraction, here — it moved fast enough to create its own mass, pulling the hopeless toward it.
“It’s somewhere on the north side,” she’d said, and he realized he was a mirror in the conversation. “That’s where the gradient is steepest. It’s easier to move towards it from here. Easier to move from here to there than from anywhere to here.”
The north side was the wasteland of laundromats and duplexes that became the final destination of anyone not lucky enough to make it in the city, which was most everyone, eventually. It was what he was driving through now, the burn in his eyes telling him dawn was coming, though only fifteen more minutes had passed. The air in the car felt heavy, like stretching fabric that had been pulled tight. He stepped harder on the gas, but the needle barely moved. At the Schwarzchild Radius, the escape velocity becomes greater than the speed of light, and incident particles fall forever inward.
He remembered the look on her face, a mixture of fear and fascination as she drew graphs in her mind, a whirlpool of vectors and forces leading to a single inevitable point. She grabbed his arm. “Listen,” she said, “how long have you been here?”
“Uh…” Startled, he glanced at his phone. “A few minutes…”
“No,” she said in an urgent voice, “here, in town.”
“A few days…”
“Really? What day?”
“I can’t remember exactly right now…”
“Right.” She released his arm, backing away. “It will go slower the closer you get to the Singularity. Try to escape. Try it!” She was nearly yelling as she left.
The murmur of the bar, momentarily eclipsed by the sound of the casino, rose again to white noise. He checked his phone once more. He was on his third drink, but he’d only been here an hour.
He put down the glass and took the last twenty from his wallet. He left the bar and blinked in the sudden glare of neon. There was another way out, he knew — through the eye of the storm, into the Singularity. The odds… the odds were astronomical.
He stood before one of the Wide-Area Progressive machines, waiting his turn as he watched the jackpot pool increment penny by penny with each bet played. The number was beyond easy comprehension. He tried to derive a formula for an optimum bet, but the constant beep and clatter of the buttons proved too much of a distraction. The numbers flew apart in his mind and the chance was gone; a chair came open and he sat. He fed the bill into the machine and his hand hovered over the controls. He weighed the odds against a number that came not from the laws of probability but his own unspoken desires. Calculation, he had learned, was a thing apart from experience. He pressed Max Bet and watched the symbols flash on the screen.
That night, he made his first run.
Don Raymond lives in the tiny hamlet of Alturas, California, where he works as an accountant at the local casino, which is not a career path his counselors had ever mentioned to him. He spends his free time mediating the Machiavellian feline politics of his household. You can read more of his work at Bourbon Penn, The Molotov Cocktail, and Architrave Press. He also once didn’t make a left turn at Albuquerque.