The Curmudgeon


Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Terminals: an extract

Never to be a major film directed by Steven Spielberg

Naturally, Grayling had used nuclear weapons himself on any number of occasions. As an adolescent he had played Peace Wars, in which the player manned a strategic defence space station in orbit around the earth. The object was to foil a massive, multi-phase ballistic missile attack. At the end of the last phase, if the player had managed to keep civilian casualties within moderate and acceptable levels, a message was beamed to Mission Control and the game ended with a spectacular white-out as those whose lives had been saved launched their all-out and unopposed retaliation. Besides Peace Wars, there were any number of strategy games in which victory depended on possession of a viable genocidal deterrent; but Grayling had never, before that Tuesday the ninth of November, been exposed to the potentialities of nuclear weapons in quite so much detail.

Within hours of the destruction of Manhattan, the media were bursting with information about plutonium, uranium, chain reactions and critical mass. There were capsule histories of the Manhattan Project, with statistical comparisons of the known effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs against the estimated effects of the New York bombs. The possible symbolism of Manhattan as a nuclear target was mentioned as a potential clue to the perpetrators of the atrocity.

"They did it to themselves," Suster heckled the TV. "They did it to themselves, and they deserved all they got."
"What do you mean, they did it to themselves?" asked Weston.
"They're always humping those missiles around the place," Suster said. "Cities, everywhere. Only a matter of time before one or two went off."
"If those were American warheads," Weston said, "they were awfully small ones. Two bombs just to destroy Manhattan."
"They've got them in all shapes and sizes," Suster said. "Large, extra large, economy-size. Small ones for tanks - battlefield nuclear weapons, they call them. Little tiny ones that the CIA use to blow up individual subversives. Maybe two of those went off in Manhattan. Maybe they were testing them."
"Crap," Weston said. "If they want to test weapons, they can do it on an enemy. Africa, Central America, the Arabs..."

They were sitting in Suster's flat, watching the TV. Suster lounged full-length on the sofa, his elbow on one of its arms and his feet on the other. Weston was sitting on the floor with his legs crossed, never taking his eyes from the screen even when Suster flicked the channel over. Grayling sat in the armchair, his eyes straying nervously between the appalled TV, the unknown Weston, and the shelves all around them stocked tight with games. Every now and again he would wonder rather guiltily where Suster had put the playskull which Grayling had given him for safekeeping.

All the TV channels kept switching between images of Manhattan and the two mushroom clouds hanging over it, and the studio where various experts were being marshalled to share their thoughts on what the catastrophe might mean. Few of the experts managed to say more than a couple of sentences before Suster derisively interrupted, which inevitably prompted an argument with Weston. When New York was on the screen, however, they both fell silent, except for occasional expressions of awe at the devastation.

"Very little is known at the moment of the actual extent of the damage," a commentator intoned over a static long-distance shot of the two hovering mushroom clouds; "but Cheers Channel will be bringing you live, up-to-date coverage of all developments as they occur in this grave and tragic situation. To recap once more: the incredible news has now been confirmed, that two nuclear explosions have taken place on Manhattan Island, the most important of the five boroughs of New York City, the location of the Empire State Building, Broadway, the Rockefeller Centre and the United Nations buildings. The number of people who live in the borough is estimated at one and a half million, including many of America's richest and most important citizens. It has been confirmed that Mayor Coniglio is safe - the mayor of New York was outside the city when the attack occurred. The White House has confirmed that the American government is treating the situation, quote, very gravely, and that the President will address the nation in about half an hour from now. And of course, Cheers Channel will be bringing you that presidential address live as it takes place when President Mander gives the address to the American people..."

Suster scratched at his ear, and the channel changed. The long shot was replaced by a closer one, which moved slowly up the stem of one of the mushroom clouds and then shakily zoomed outwards to show the whole.

"Obviously at this stage very little reliable information is available about the scenes of devastation on the ground on Manhattan Island at this time," a commentator said, with as much gravity as the speed of his delivery could sustain. "Manhattan Island, bought by the Dutch from the Indians in the seventeenth century for twenty-five dollars, site of the Empire State Building and the World Financial Complex - the island and indeed the city now face the greatest catastrophe in their long and eventful history. Two nuclear explosions have taken place, one of them apparently a direct hit on the Financial District at the southern end of the island. It is not known precisely how or by whom the bombs were set off, but it seems clear that a terrorist group was involved..."

Suster scratched his ear again. The mushroom cloud disappeared and was replaced by a middle-aged, bespectacled face talking about the likely effect on air traffic and, by extension, tourism and, by further extension, the world economy. Suster, apparently enjoying himself, let the face talk for nearly five minutes before changing to a channel showing the closest view they had yet seen of the ruins of Manhattan Island. The camera movement was almost undetectable at first, because dark clouds of dust obscured everything by which movement could be judged; but eventually the picture cleared patchily to show glimpses of a flattened, blackened terrain marked roughly with dead-straight tracks and occasional, bizarrely upright bits of wall.

"What the hell?" asked Weston, sitting forward. "They're not letting pilots in there already?"
"Drone plane," Suster said. "Remote control. Might even be amateur. There'll be amateur footage all over the media tomorrow. Some people are going to make a mint. Know how much Zapruder got for the Kennedy film?"
"How much?" asked Weston.
"A lot," Suster said. "You can bet on it. Of course, everybody's got a vidcam now, so the market'll be more crowded these days. That might knock the prices down."

The TV said, "...and all communications with the island are still dead. A nuclear detonation causes massive electrical failure even long distances from ground zero, which means that all telephones, modems, computers and other forms of electrical communication are in effect useless for miles around. Rescue workers are busy cordoning off the remaining boroughs and supervising orderly evacuation of those thought to be most at risk from radioactive dust blown by the wind..."

The ruins gave way to a schematic weather-map of New York City, with animated arrows showing wind direction and small red clouds to show pockets of radiation. Suster scratched his ear again, and the mushroom clouds reappeared from a new angle.

"...shocking atrocity," said the commentator. "According to the State Department, the bombs are likely to have been, quote, small but dirty, which means they probably had small explosive power - small for nuclear weapons, that is, of course - but were capable of emitting large amounts of deadly radiation. As of this time, there are unconfirmed reports that a massive firestorm is raging over most of Harlem and Central Park, and in a few minutes we hope to talk to former New York fire chief Lou Scardino so that we can get some idea of just what kind of measures the New York fire department is likely to have been taking in order to deal with this terrible emergency..."

Suster scratched his ear a little more thoroughly than before, and the commentator's voice shut off, leaving the images to follow one another in silence: the mushroom clouds, a map of New York, a still picture of the Empire State Building, an animated graphic showing the destruction of bridges and the probable effects on the sewers and the subway system.

"Well," Suster said, "this is history in the making, all right."
"Or history in the ending," Weston said.
"I doubt it," said Suster. "If they were going to retaliate on that kind of scale, they'd have done it by now. They'd have done it within half an hour of the bombs going off."

Weston gave a grunt, unconvinced but not prepared to argue. Suster pulled his feet in and rolled himself upwards into a sitting position, his arms spread out along the back of the sofa.
"Disappointed?" he said.
Weston grunted again and shook his head, not to answer the question but to scorn it. Undeterred, Suster addressed himself to Grayling:

"You see, Weston's favourite games have always been the really destructive ones. Not just the ones you used to like, Grayling, the kind where you wander around as a mere individual with a lot of guns and ammo. Weston thinks bigger than that. He's always been a strategy man, haven't you, Weston?"
"I'm always beating you at Crusade and Conquer," Weston said.
"That's true, you know," said Suster. "He always beats me. But in spite of that, he never scores very highly. My scores when I win against other people are always much higher than Weston's scores against me. And the people I win against usually score higher than Weston does when he wins. You know why that is?"

Grayling looked from Suster to Weston and back again, wondering how they behaved when there was no third party around them to absorb all the barbs. Probably they dispensed with conversation altogether and communed via the playskull.

"It's because of the way he wins," Suster said. "He operates a scorched-earth policy. He destroys his own resources so that I won't get to use them, and my seek-and-destroy missions always cost me more than they gain because my units always have to travel so far to find any of his."
"I see," Grayling said cautiously. He himself had never been much good at games like Crusade and Conquer, partly because he tended to rush into a fight too soon and partly because he could rarely sustain the necessary level of concentration all the way through. It was, after all, only a game.
"Weston has a liking for scorched earth," Suster said. "Suicide missions, self-destruct buttons, you name it. One of the games he'd like to see on the market is a World War Two flight simulator with kamikaze missions."
"There are plenty of flight sims where you can be the Japanese, aren't there?" Grayling said.
"Yes, but you lose points if you get yourself killed," Suster pointed out. "He doesn't approve of that, do you Weston?"
"It was just a thought," Weston said, getting to his feet. He moved slowly, placing both hands on the floor to push himself up, as though his back muscles pained him. "You needn't try to make a philosophy out of it."

The TV screen showed a news announcer mouthing with silent gravity. Stills of world leaders appeared, captioned with phrases from their comments about the disaster. Condemnatory adjectives flashed across the faces.

"What do you think, Grayling?" Suster asked. He stretched his legs out comfortably in front of him and wriggled his feet at the TV. "Global warfare by tomorrow tea-time?"
"Who knows?" Grayling said.
"Won't do your business at the Chamber any good," Suster said. "Why pay for the service when the whole world's about to get crisped for free?"
"It isn't my business," Grayling said. "It's a job, that's all." He went to join Weston, who was scanning Suster's shelves as though they were in the Games Emporium. Most of the game discs were still in their cardboard packaging, the boxes covered in lurid illustrations of violence. Many of the boxes had been illustrated before the Visual Representations in Marketing Act prohibited packagers from using images that did not feature in the game itself; those boxes would now be collectors' items, at least in the rarefied world of game enthusiasts. Other game discs, the older or cheaper ones, were piled in their flat plastic cases with only their titles visible.

"How many have you got now, Suster?" Weston asked. "A thousand? Two?"
"Somewhere in between, I think," said Suster. "How about you?"
"Not many," said Weston.
"Weston doesn't work," said Suster to Grayling. "I don't suppose the Chamber has another vacancy for a game geek, does it?"
"No, it doesn't," Grayling said without turning from the shelves. "And I wasn't taken on because of my... expertise in all this." He swept out an arm to indicate the two and a half walls of Suster's living room that consisted of shelves crowded with games. "It was just part of my rehabilitation programme. You told him that yesterday." He crouched down to look along a lower shelf. "Bloody hell - Tomb Raider?" Over his shoulder he asked Suster, "Don't you ever throw anything out?"
"Why should I?" Suster said. "I'm not the one that's being rehabilitated. Anyway, this is nothing. I know people with rooms where you can't even open the door. You have to force it a bit and slide in sideways, then climb over piles of games to reach the playskull."
"Wonder how long it'll take before someone makes a game out of that," Weston muttered.

Grayling had taken out the Tomb Raider box and was reading the specifications on the back. "Do you play this with the TV, or what?" A thought struck him suddenly; he turned to face Suster, waving the plastic disc box. "Tomb Raider. Isn't this a what-do-you-call-it, a game derived from a film?"

"Derived from a film?" Suster said. "You mean a tie-in? Don't think so - I haven't got many of those."
"You sell them though, don't you?"
"The Emporium has a few, I think," Suster said. His expression now was tinged with genuine concern. Grayling's attempt to throw off a playskull addiction, in the process abandoning his friends and going to work as a Chamber menial, might one day be forgiven; but sliding downmarket into tie-in games was inexcusable.

"Do you know of any tie-ins for films with that actress you mentioned yesterday?"
"What actress?" Suster said.
"The one you said would be sure to come and visit us at the Chamber," said Grayling. "Only to back out as a publicity stunt. Or something like that."
"Oh, said Suster, "that actress - Penelope Carbo. Is it really her, then?"
"Nobody's told us," said Grayling.

In fact, Crozier had come away from his own personnel check practically foaming because nobody had told him. "It's so unprofessional," he kept saying. He had spent the rest of the afternoon alternating loud complaints about Amalgamated Arts' lack of professionalism with furtive expeditions to the staffroom where he could listen to his MeMod. Whenever Crozier came back into Reception, everyone had tensed in readiness for the latest bulletin; but Grayling had heard very little about the disaster that was new since ten minutes after the story first broke.

"Does Penelope Carbo work for Amalgamated Arts Incorporated?" Grayling said to Suster.
"How the hell would I know?" Suster said. "One fucking entertainment conglom sounds much like another these days. Anyway, I wouldn't bank on her showing up now." He gestured at the TV screen, which was showing the mushroom clouds from yet another shaky amateur-footage angle. "Didn't you hear? That's going to hold up air traffic for days, if not weeks. And as I said before, why should she bother? Why should anyone bother with Chambers now?"
"If we do get global war tomorrow," Weston said, "we won't all go up instantaneously in smoke during the first three minutes. Some people might prefer to get it over with, rather than hang around to find out if they'll be one of the lucky ones." He turned his dry, narrow eyes on Grayling. "You might just be into a growth industry. Briefly, anyway. A boom before the bang."

The TV screen was showing the seal of the President of the United States, presumably announcing the President's emergency address to his nation. Weston turned to Suster.
"Switch that crap off," he said. "Let's play a game."

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