The River and the Fallen

by Rob Hartzell

We are not forbidden to cross the river, we who number among the Fallen. It's just that there's nothing there for us, there on the glittering North side of the city, where the numbers of the employed classes work and live. I was going to say "cavort", but I try not to be bitter about my situation — our situation. We are cared-for — not as well cared-for as our compatriots in the north, but we eat. We have roofs — or at least ceilings — over our heads. Our children are even educated, though only a few are able to be plucked from us and elevated to one of the employed classes. We tell our children to dream big, that such things are possible! even though we know full well that the odds are stacked against them, unless their parents are — as I am — only recently-Fallen. The children are not stupid: when they realize, most of them, that they're not being tracked for the GSTAR tests that would allow them to cross the river, most of them give up and drop out, resigning themselves — and their children, and their children's children — to a life as one of the 2s in the infamous 1:1:2 ratio (of the employed class to the service class to the unemployed class, known more commonly as the Fallen).

Why are we the Fallen? Mainly, it's because we have fallen through the cracks in the new world that's developed — though the religious connotations are never far away, either. Some of us lost the place we once held as one of the 1s of 1:1:2, but the truth is that most of us were born to this life. Some of us have been wards of the state for generations, while others are the descendants of those who lived to see their trades taken over by robots and uploaded intelligences (UIs). I was a professor of history until the UIs edged out human teachers at the university where I worked; my daughter and I lived in a north-side house just minutes from the campus I'd once hoped she'd attend one day. Now we live on the south side in the brutalist concrete "guaranteed housing" high-rises near the south shores of the river, an area left mostly untouched by the Job Riots of decades before. We are Fallen because we are on the losing side of that history.

But I try not to be bitter. My severance package from the university was not enough to allow me to eke out even a meager living on the north side of the river, but here on the Shores, we can live comfortably (though discretion is always a must — the Old Fallen are not above robbery if they come across someone who appears to be living conspicuously better than they do). Anastasia, my daughter, balked at first at this latter condition, but she understands our situation: as New Fallen, we have to acclimate ourselves to our new setting, even as we try to work out a way to return home to the north. And Anastasia is smart; she's already taken the GSTAR this year. I have no question but that she'll be able to return north before long, even if I never can. For her, at least, we're experiencing a temporary setback; that's all that matters to me.

If the river seems like an impermeable barrier on the south side, it's just another place to play for those who live on the north side: it's not uncommon to see speedboats racing on the water at night, or the larger pleasure ships that steam leisurely up and down the river all day. Occasionally, a boat makes its way from the pleasure cruisers to the south side docks; nobody says out loud what's happening when they land, but everybody knows: they're conduits for the drugs the Fallen are not supposed to have access to, and transport for Fallen women (and a few young men) who give the pleasure ships their name — despite the proliferation of robot brothels in the north, there are those who still prefer...is it the feel of actual flesh against their own they seek, or do they just want to touch the desperation of the Fallen in some way? Do they want to feel they're doing the Fallen a favor with their money, or do they just want to feel their power over them? My view of human nature has dimmed considerably since I crossed the river; I do not believe, as some of the Old Fallen do, in the stories of men who have fallen for a Fallen paramour and brought them back across the river with them. Stories of redeemed prostitutes are probably as old as prostitution itself, the story of redemption as ancient as any kind of fall from grace with God or man alike. That doesn't make those stories true, any of them — it is the nature of the pleasure palace that it is an island, a place isolated from the rest of the world, where the rest of the world cannot intrude, and from which the goings-on inside cannot escape. And yet, the pleasure-boys and -girls of the Fallen are often starry-eyed about their chances of rescue, at least until their faces begin to show the toll of age and hard living, or until they bear a northern man's child in solitude. Whose disillusionment is more bitter — those who lose hope or those who never entertained it?

Despite all that, the prostitutes of the Fallen enjoy a certain amount of status above the bulk of the Fallen; they live on the shoreline with the New Fallen, where they can (mostly) enjoy the benefits of their money without subjecting themselves to the envy and larceny of the Old Fallen. They are left alone by what passes for the police force of the south side, or even guarded from attack at the docks where they gather to meet their boats — even though fleshly brothels have been illegal since the advent of robot brothels, there is still enough money in the trade to pay off whores and policemen alike and still turn a pretty profit. That said, only the most foolhardy idiot would dream of robbing a prostitute at the docks, even if there were no police protection there: the cabals who control river prostitution are not known for patience or subtlety, and those who have tried to attack the whores' docks have ended up floating in the river in pieces. Occasionally, some young guy gets the idea to try and rob a prostitute when they're out on their own; as punishment, he (or a family member) ends up having to work off the massive debt they now owe the cartel as a prostitute themselves. The prostitutes are untouchable, and not in the old Indian sense of the word. For a time — typically until they reach about 30 or so — they are at the pinnacle of Fallen society, and if they are wise with their money, they can stay there for a while longer. Most aren't, and when their career in the skin trade is finished, they go back to living like the Old Fallen, with nothing but their "guaranteed income" to tide them over from month to month.

Occasionally, groups of the Old Fallen will take the idea into their heads to try to sustain themselves on fish from the river, allowing to save at least some of their guaranteed income for something else. These hopes die quickly, though: the river is polluted, probably beyond salvage, and what fish there are to catch are too contaminated to eat. Once they learn this lesson — usually the hard way — they are usually the ones who decide to leave the city altogether, in favor of an off-grid life somewhere in the mountains further to the south, living off the land and away from the temptations and tribulations of the city. They are said to be content with their lives, though they only rarely come back to the city to say so, and when they do, it's to convince other members of their family to join them in the wild, to leave the city and the river behind, as they have done. If I were still working at the university, I'm sure I could get a research grant to study them — I know I could probably get a book deal out of it, too. But while there are examples of New Fallen who work their way back across the river, it's been a couple of years since I was nudged out of my job, and I know academia well enough to know how pitiless it can be to those outside its borders. I write my papers and essays about the life of the Fallen, but I have no illusions about my chance of success publishing them; I expect to die here within view of the river, hoping that my little girl has found a place for herself where she won't be automated out of a career.

I do not like Anastasia's boyfriend, even if he is New Fallen like us. His parents were medical workers of some kind — I hate to admit that I can never remember exactly what kind — who were pushed out by UIs; I know I ought to have some sort of empathy in this situation, and I do, at least for them. Cody is a different story; to me, he exudes a sort of laziness that I've come to associate with the Old Fallen. And though I can't pin down anything specific he's said to give me this impression, it still remains: there's something fatalistic in him, and I don't want that fatalism infecting Anastasia, not when she's so close to crossing the river. I've obliquely broached the subject with her, but she reassures me that everything is okay, that she expects Cody to cross the river with her. Still: his long hair, his hooded sweatshirt, his steel-toed boots — in him, they're affectations of an Old Fallen status he doesn't truly possess. I know his parents must be even more distressed — according to Anastasia, he's been in the GSTAR track at school for years — but I know there's nothing I can say to change things. At times, some small and petty part of me wishes he'd go and do something authentically Old Fallen — like father a child with another girl — but I can't wish that kind of heartbreak on my daughter, at least not for long.

I know I shouldn't feel like this about him: he's good to her, and he does study for the GSTAR with her — I probably shouldn't read so much into his personal style; after all, it's what some of the kids up north were doing when I left. I saw a few of them in my classes, though I used to assume they were all Fallen kids, jockeying for a position above the river. Most of them, frankly, I expected to end up in a service-class job; they tended to be average students at best, though there was the occasional standout — usually an actual Fallen kid with a fire in their belly to drive them. They were the ones I enjoyed teaching most, honestly, the ones who sometimes even showed promise of joining academia themselves, who came to the profession with a different viewpoint, a different way of seeing things, and did it with passion. (Not that it matters now: in the humanities in general, even the standouts got pushed out by the uploaded professors.) And the truth is: I just don't see that kind of drive in Cody, that kind of passion for something, anything, which is what it's going to take for him to successfully cross the river. That may be a lot to ask of a seventeen-year-old, but that's what the world is now.

And it scares me because I can see its impact on Anastasia; where she was once utterly certain she was going to be a marine biologist (a job the robots can only enhance, not take away), she's showing signs of uncertainty about that now. She hasn't come right out and said that she's having second thoughts, but I can see her eyes glass over when we talk about her future, and I think I recognize a sort of weariness in her voice whenever the subject comes up — as if she doesn't want to talk about it at all. I try to reassure her: I'm not trying to tie her down to a career choice that she doesn't want to live with. All I want is for her to be able to return to the life she used to know across the river, a life I can no longer provide for her. And though she claps her hand on my shoulder and tells me, "Dad. It's going to be okay," there's a sort of...resignation? Sadness in her tone? I can't pin it down, and it leaves me an anxious mess.

The other New Fallen parents I talk to tell me this is normal: of course you want your child to cross the river again! Of course it's going to make you a trembling wreck, right up until the GSTAR test results come back and you find out they're going to college after all — it's a relief you'll want to celebrate with everybody you can lay hands on. It's a bittersweet victory, of course: their success means you'll be seeing much less of them. Still, to have your child return home, across the river? There are stories about parents among the Old Fallen who sabotage their children to keep them from crossing the river, but for the most part, those poor souls are looked down upon, even among the Old Fallen. To have your child return across the river, even after generations on its south side, is the goal of any parent worthy of the title.

So I tell myself: at least she's not dating some Old Fallen schmuck who's given up on ever crossing the river. At least she's still talking about when, not if, she makes that journey. At least she's still got that chance.

Where we live, in Highbridge Towers, the night is made of noises; occasionally a siren or a street brawl outside, but mainly the sounds of the neighbors bleeding through the walls. The boy upstairs, for example, wears his steel-toes until he goes to bed, usually sometime around one in the morning, and Ana and I can hear his boots clomping on the floor above us whenever he moves around. So when, one night, a clomp-clomp-clop awakens me, I assume it's the boy upstairs. It's not until I hear the door creak, ever so slightly, that I realize the sound isn't coming from the ceiling. I sit up and grab the bat I keep under the bed; I inch slowly out of the bed and toward the bedroom door. Every now and again, some young punk among the Old Fallen gets the idea in his head to try and stage a break-in in one of the New Fallen high-rises. It almost never goes well for them; the youth among the Old Fallen are influenced by TV dramas more than actual criminals, and the New Fallen are usually frightened enough to keep some sort of protection at hand. I don't relish the opportunity to bash some kid's head in, like some New Fallen do — but I'm ready to take a swing at someone if I have to.

The flat's hallway is lit by the night lights Anastasia insisted I put in. If there was anyone here, I would see them — but there isn't. A stray beam of light peeks under the door to the outside corridor, and I can see in the faint light that the door is locked. It stays locked, even as I ease myself into place near the door, watching the door handle for movement. There is none, and after what feels like five minutes — the microwave's clock says it's only been two — I give up and put the bat down. My eyes have adjusted to the dark now, and I can see that nothing's been touched, nothing's been tampered with: the door to the back patio is still locked (though up here on the 14th floor, I suppose it doesn't matter as much), and the kitchen is as Ana and I left it. Nothing seems out of the ordinary on the bookshelf, not even on the top shelves where I store the older volumes and first-edition hardcovers I didn't sell off when we left the north. From down the hallway, I can hear the elevator doors scrape open.

That's when I notice that Ana's door is open (it's usually closed, unless Cody has come over). "Ana?" I whisper through the crack; when she doesn't answer, I open the door, only to find her bed empty. It takes me a moment to register what's happened, but once it does, I rush to the patio and look down in the direction of the building's main entrance (which, mercifully, is on our side of the building). The view from the patio usually gives me vertigo, but it's not long before I see two figures drifting from the building: a boy with long hair and hoodie, and a girl in knee boots and a hoodie. Even from this distance, I recognize Cody and Ana — but not the direction they're heading: They disappear into a path through an overgrown lot opposite the building that extends to the river. She's sneaked out to be with her boyfriend, and we all know what that probably means....

The elevator doesn't take long to arrive, and though the young New Fallen on board are looking askance at me — I'm obviously too old to have any business being awake at this hour — they ignore me all the way to the ground floor, even moving aside for me as I jog out ahead of them toward the path though the overgrowth. Part of me wishes I'd brought the bat, but even in this moment, I recognize the overkill in that. Besides, if I need to club Cody, the military-surplus flashlight I've brought with me will do the job nicely enough.

The path is littered with beer cans, whiskey bottles, empty cigarette packs (though, to my own mixed feelings, there are no condom wrappers to be seen), and it winds though the brush with no apparent rhyme or reason: there are occasional side paths that lead to tiny clearings just big enough for a beast with two backs — I even stumble across a few — but the main path meanders onward with no apparent purpose. I almost feel badly for the kids I've interrupted in coitus res, who will have to find new places to escape the adult world, now that their hidden places have been discovered — but not badly enough to go back home. Not yet. Not without Ana in tow, whether she wants to go or not.

After a while — I don't know how far into the brush I've gone at this point — the side clearings full of copulating teenagers have ceased to be an issue, and I still haven't found Cody or Ana. The path narrows and the litter along it has largely disappeared, except for the occasional cigarette butt laying at the edge of the weeds. The ambient light from the high-rises and other buildings is behind me now, and it's dark; if it weren't for my flashlight, I wouldn't be able to see much of anything. Occasionally, I think I see another set of flashlights ahead of me, but the path is rolling over a set of hills now, and whatever lights I think I see as I edge my way down one hill disappears behind the next hill. I don't know where this path ends, but I can imagine all sorts of unpleasant possibilities; my only hope now is to catch up to Cody and Ana before they reach the end of the path.

And then the path widens, flattening out as it approaches the river. There's a set of what look like parking lights or street lights in the distance, where the the path appears to lead; they make it easier to see as I get closer to the end of the path, to the point where I can turn off my flashlight. The brush thickens as it gets closer to the end of the path, and I can see there's a small crowd of people in the area beyond the path, so I duck into the brush and inch my way forward, trying not to draw attention. When I reach the edge of the clearing, I can see that it's some type of dock, and there's a boat being pulled to the dock; a group of people begin to line up, and...

"Hello. What's this?"

I turn slowly to see two men behind me on the path — large, muscular men. They motion me to approach, and I already know better than to disobey. "What's got you out at this time of night?"

"I saw my daughter start down this path with her boyfriend. I was hoping to catch her before..."

"What's she look like?"

"Tall, brown hair, pretty. She's wearing knee boots and a black hoodie. Seventeen."

"Seventeen, huh?" They turn to each other — "You seen anyone like that?" "Nope." -- and then back to me: "Haven't seen anyone like that all night. You might want to backtrack and make sure you're headed the right direction."

And I'm smart enough to know how this game goes. "You're probably right."

The one on my left claps me on the shoulder, just hard enough that I can feel the muscle he's not using. "Hurry up and you might catch them."

"I will. Thanks, fellas."

Both of them smirk, not bothering to conceal it. "I hope you find her."

"I appreciate it." And at that moment, I do appreciate their good nature, as the reality of what's happening eases its way onto my shoulders. I would run back up the path, but I don't want to give them that amusement, especially once I reach the hills, where I would surely begin to stumble. It's hard enough wending my way back up the path (now empty of teenagers) and across the parking lot; I feel queasy and lightheaded, with my mind racing to not put together the cues from what I've seen tonight. I took the wrong path (even though I didn't see any others at the edge of the parking lot), went the wrong way (even though the path only went in one main direction) — I didn't actually see Cody and Ana lining up to get on that boat. Not them.

Back in the apartment, I have a bottle of barrel-aged scotch I was saving for when Ana passes the GSTAR. The first sip or two is boozy and hot, but the next ones are smooth, so smooth that I almost don't notice that I've drunk half the bottle, at least not until I stand up and realize that I'm staggering my way into the bedroom.

It's 7 in the morning when the door creaks open again, amidst the noise of the other early risers clomping around in their apartments (including the boy upstairs, with his damnable boots). I'm still feeling the effects of the scotch, so the door has only barely closed again when I make my entrance into the hallway: "Ana." She has her back to me, so she flinches when she hears my voice — but she's still meticulous about making sure the door is locked before she turns to face me. "You're home," I say, trying to keep my voice calm and neutral — and trying to keep from slurring my words.

"Yeah." Not defiant, but not forthcoming either.

"Where were you?"

She looks at me with the same sad look in her eyes she has whenever I fret at her about Cody or the GSTAR. "I was on one of the pleasure boats."

I almost don't hear her, but I don't want her to repeat it, as if it would somehow make it more true if she did. It's all I can do to squeak out a raspy "Why?"

Ana doesn't answer at first. She turns to me like she's going to say something, then turns away again, silent — just like her mother used to do. I'm grateful that Carolina isn't here for this moment, especially once Ana finally speaks again: "Cody and I are earning money for college while we wait for the GSTAR results."

"You don't need money for college, sweetie. I've got all the money you'll need."

"You don't understand, Daddy."

"Explain it to me, then."

It's a while before she can actually speak to me again. "You can't guarantee I'll get into college with my GSTAR results. And even if I do, I could end up in the service class, just waiting to slide back across the river again."

"You're not stupid, Ana. And you've got advantages that some of these Old Fallen kids don't have. You even have a career picked out that's almost robot- and UI-proof."

"It was. Not anymore."

"How do you know?"

"Jesus, Dad, don't you watch the science programs on the Cloud-streams? The only humans on those voyages are service-class functionaries, driving and lowering the drones the UIs control. I've already been supplanted, just like you."

"Do you hear yourself? 'Supplanted.' How many Old Fallen even know that word?"

"You're not hearing me, Daddy. We're well on our way to becoming Old Fallen; we may never have even had a chance to re-cross the river in the first place."

"I refuse to accept that."

"I know. And I love that you're fighting it. But at some point, you're probably going to have to accept it: we've been pushed across the river for good."

"So you're just going to give up?"

She sighs. "Cody and I are going to try to get into college. We're going to try to cross the river for good. But we're going to have a backup plan in case things don't fall our way."

"I forbid it. I won't have you working the pleasure boats when you're so —"

"Then Cody and I will move in together. We're seventeen; we're old enough to get our own guaranteed housing and incomes."

"You'd never be able to go back north if you did that. Never."

"We may not be able to go back as it is, Dad."

I haven't got much of an answer for that. "The people that run these boats? They'll chew you up and spit you out."

"So do the bosses across the river. Just like yours did." She yawns. "I need to go to bed now, Dad. We'll talk about this when I get up." And I let her shuffle back to her bedroom without a word. She's clever, like her mother — I couldn't tell her anything, either.

After what barely amounts to a nap, I leave Ana a note and go for a walk outside. It's overcast and breezy, and just warm enough that I keep my hands in the pockets of my denim jacket. I look silly in it, I think, but I've noticed that it's what the older members of the Old Fallen wear, and I want to be invisible today, as best as I can be. I don't feel invisible out here in the wild: I have an overwhelming sense that the people I come across can sense that I'm actually New Fallen, but I stuff my hands in my pockets and soldier on, up the road and toward one of the paths that meanders along the riverbank.

The river: I'd like to piss in it, for all the good that would do me. It's not like I could hit one of the pleasure boats from here, anyway (and I can pick them out, paddling up and down the river as if to taunt those of us on this side with their ability to cross the river as they see fit). The river isn't peaceful to watch, like it's supposed to be. There's too much activity, too many people on the river — too many of them from the north — for it to ever be a place of some sort of placid imagining. The speedboats — the other pleasure boats — race eastward against the current as if it could never affect them, never pull them backwards (or under) in a fit of whimsy. I wonder what would happen if one of them, somehow, drifted too close to the southern banks, what would happen if a group of northern boaters found themselves face to face with some opportunistic Fallen kids with a chip on their shoulder and, almost literally, nothing to lose.

Further along the path, I can see the picnic shelters at the edge of the old park, paint flaking from the wooden support beams and mortar crumbling between the stones of the half-walls. One of them is full of people, running the old grills inside and floating balloons from the corners of the shelter — gold stars, the usual choice for someone who's passed the GSTAR test. From the looks of them, New Fallen, celebrating the returning home of one of their young ones. It ought to be too early for the test results to be officially released, but there are some who get theirs early; some of us suspect they've maintained some sort of connections in the north that they're using, favors they've managed to cadge from somebody. Most of us lose our professional network once we come south — mine came with me, more or less — so it's impressive when someone can maintain anything of theirs. It's a little dangerous for them to flaunt their status so brazenly like this, but there's enough of them to make a larceny-minded Old Fallen kid think twice about attacking. For right now, at least, the people celebrating here have no worries.

But I try not to be bitter. I find a seat, far enough away to not be noticed, but close enough to watch. This moment has to go into the book. It could make the book; it could make it possible for Ana and I to cross the river again, whether she wants to go home or not.