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Remembering Nagasaki

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        " .... to remember the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
        The lecture over, it was time for applause. Dutifully, more out of politeness than anything else, a few people put their hands together. Then the sparse audience scattered into the night. The cool of the autumn evening.
        "Are you sure it's, uh .... ethical?" said Sue.
        "Ethical?" said Timothy.
        The question was so strange that he wanted to look at her, to try to figure out the motivation of this weird question. But the habits of responsibility which had been drummed into him by his father held fast: he kept his eyes on the road.
        "To keep these old horrors alive," said Sue. "Wouldn't it be better - you know. Just to forget."
        What could he say? To forget was criminal. The decaying nuclear arsenal of Russia, poorly guarded by demoralized soldiers who often went unpaid for months on end, was more of a danger than ever now that President Rybkin was struggling to control the tattered remains of what was left of Russia. Elsewhere, nuclear weapons were still accumulating in states such as Pakistan, a desperately poor country which spent 25% of its wealth on defence. Even if Rybkin succeeded in riding the tiger, a catastrophe elsewhere - a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India, for example - was a lively possibility.
        But he had said all that, and more. His lectures were always on the one theme: the urgency of the present danger. And Sue had been there. No point, then, in rehearsing the logic yet one more time. But, having made himself into a prophet - a prophet of the apocalypse - he was unable to keep silent.
        "I saw what I saw," he said. "At Nagasaki."
        "You saw a museum," said Sue, scornfully.
        He was shocked. White light from the sky. The weeping angels. The scorched shadows sobbing, sobbing. The blistered disk of oozing scabs begging for its mother. And she mocked, she mocked.
        "I saw memory," he said. "Human memory."
        Said that into the silence. The engine ticked, cooling. One autumn leaf, falling.
        And she said, mocking him again:
        "The horror. The horror."
        And he wanted to hit her, then, he wanted to smash her face, just as he had wanted to hit his wife. Only he never had, he never had. Not Sue, not Diana. No, he was the perfect gentleman, that's what he was.
        "I'd ask you in," said Sue. "Only it's been a long day."
        He waited, watching as she walked to the door, as she fumbled with her keys. As she stepped inside. He was still waiting five minutes later, when his car phone rang.
        "You can go home now," said Sue.
        At home, Zok the cat greeted him on the front steps. Slipped inside when the front door was opened. Inside: darkness, stale with coffee. Depressing bachelor odors. This is what happens when your wife walks out.
        Timothy switched on the light, punched the magic numbers into the alarm system then went through into the lounge. Where a man was waiting. A young guy. Ring in his ear, stud in his nose. Ripped T-shirt, dirty jeans. Combat boots. A big fat unpleasant grin. And Timothy's heart was off the block and sprinting.
        "Timothy Jazz?" said the kid, smiling.
        "Freeze," said Timothy.
        Idiotically, out of sequence. But the kid just stood there - smiled. Timothy struggled with the Glock, which was holstered in the small of his back. The gun had somehow got caught up in his shirt, and the shirt ripped as Timothy fought to get it free.
        "Okay," said Timothy, leveling the weapon. "Reach for the sky!"
        The words came out of childhood. They sounded dumb, idiotic. His voice cracked, a fracturing octave. The room was alive with flickering points of darkness. His legs were trembling. Holding the gun, he felt weaker and more frightened than ever before in his entire life.
        "You can't just shoot me, you know," said the intruder.
        Pleasantly. Reasonably. Smiling as he said it.
        And so Timothy shot him.
        Shot him because of Sue - "The horror! The horror!" Shot him because of Diana - "You and your sick obsessions." Shot him because of Mr Reach - "You've left us no alternative. We're going to have to let you go." Shot him at close range, and did not miss.
        The intruder staggered, as if shocked backwards by the sheer noise of the gunshot. He clutched his hands to his gut. He opened his mouth, tried to speak. But it was impossible. The death-shock had terminated his rhetoric. Then, dying, he managed just this:
        "Gunzman-Altich."
        Then he fell backwards into a block of blue sky which swelled to receive him. A block of sky. Blue and blazing. Timothy stepped forward, squinting against the harshness of the sunlight. And a bird smashed right into him, a seagull, it flew right out of the sky and smashed into him. Stepping right up to the edge of the block of sky, he looked down and saw a body far below. Falling. Tumbling. A skydiver without a parachute.
        Then the sky was gone, and Timothy was alone in the room. Blinking. Purple blotches floated across his field of visions: the aftermath of that glazing sun. Zok the cat had the bird, was killing it.
        "No!" said Timothy.
        But Zok was a mighty hunter, and the seagull was already dead. Timothy found a plastic bag and put the corpse in the freezer. He had just got that done when the siren completed its journey and the black and white pulled up outside, lights flashing. Realizing what must have happened - someone had heard a shot, had called the cops - Timothy phoned his lawyer.
        "My client is not making any statement at the present moment," said Josh.
        "He's already said a bunch," said the cop. "He saw the guy, he shot him. There's blood on the carpet. He dies, we're looking at murder."
        "He fell into the sky," said Timothy quietly.
        "Tim!" said Josh, harshly. "Shut up!"
        And, because Josh Tupolev was his friend as well as his lawyer, Timothy obeyed.
        "And then?" said Lazamil.
        "I showed them the bird," said Timothy. "I had it in my fridge. I mean - it was there. They didn't deny it."
        "But it was a ... a seagull, right?"
        "Right."
        "Well, Timothy ... logically ... I don't want to get argumentative here, but it was just a seagull. You could have got it from anywhere."
        "Yes," said Timothy, dazed. "I suppose I could. I guess ... I guess you think I'm nuts, don't you?"
        "You're under strain," said Lazamil. "You're going through a difficult divorce, you're under pressure."
        "Are you saying I'm crazy?"
        "We're all human," said Lazamil. "Put us under pressure, we react. As a therapist, I see that all the time."
        After the hour of therapy, the emptiness of freedom. A page from a newspaper blowing down the street. Men with jackhammers breaking up the road. The sky was blue and clear, a delicate autumn sky washed clean by autumn leaves. But Timothy had never trusted the sky, no, never, not since that formative weekend when, at the age of 14, he had read that seminal text by Herman Kahn, "On Thermonuclear War".
        The blue sky is a transitory illusion. An illusion which temporarily sustains us against the white-hot reality of the bursting sun. Documented, documented, I am not making this up, I am not mad. They are real, the rotting weapons guarded now by troops who are not paid, who are not fed. The weapons which will revert to their original targets if they are fired by accident or in rage. The weapons which have dominated our history since 1945, and which we have forgotten, somehow, allowing ourselves to be distracted by sideshows - Madonna, O.J., Coke versus Pepsi, the top ten singles, Versace fashions.
        Unless.
        Unless none of this is real.
        "Of course it's not real," said Marzin Esh. "It's a petri dish world, I've said this a thousand times over. A petri dish world, I'm marooned here, Gunzman-Altich, I'm not going to rehearse all that yet one more time."
        "So where does that leave me?" said Timothy.
        "What?" said Marzin, startled.
        "I came to you," said Timothy, choosing his words with care, or trying to. "I came to you because you're the one who, uh, it's not real, none of it. That's what you've been saying."
        "Exactly," said Marzin Esh, the granite-faced head of Cognitive Process. "The least I can do is get this on the record. I am a mere copy of the real Marzin Esh, captured by the Gunzman-Altich process. And this - you, this office, this world - is a computer-generated illusion. No more."
        "How do you know?" said Timothy.
        "You think I'm stupid, don't you?" said Marzin, starting to get angry.
        "What?" said Timothy, baffled.
        "You think I'd tell you? You think you can get it out of me? How I found out? You think you can just ask me, I'll tell you?"
        And, unexpectedly, he struck. Reeling from the open-handed blow, Timothy stepped back. Wished he still had the Glock.
        "You hit me," said Timothy, amazed.
        "So what?" said Marzin. "You're not real."
        But I am, I am.
        He was real, up to a point. Timothy Jazz. A real human being. His personal reality was something he could experience. But - the rest of it? The world around him? The history of that world? Maybe that was not real, no, not real at all.
        Nagasaki. Hiroshima. You could imagine the twin cities suffering their destruction in the world's first nuclear war. You could imagine how, in the course of a desperate war with a dreaded enemy, nuclear weapons could initially have been built and used.
        But.
        Given those examples, how to explain the subsequent insanity of the sane? The technology of mutual suicide multiplied a thousand times over during the Cold War. And, after that, the oblivious air-headed amnesia - the complete disregard of a threat still potent. Sleepwalking. An entire civilization sleepwalking. Trusting to the reality of that blue autumn sky which was, really, no more substantial than a dream. While the true reality waited to awaken from the warheads.
        Be logical, Timothy.
        Could such a world ever really have existed? Given the grace, intelligence, empathy and pity of which humans are capable, could such a state of affairs ever have come into existence? No. More likely, really, that you are marooned in a war-gaming scenario. A scenario as unreal as those aliens against which Sigourney Weaver's character does valorous battle. As unreal as Dr Spock and the Vulcans. A computer game, garishly adolescent.
        "You don't seem to be taking this seriously," said Josh.
        "I'm not," said Timothy.
        "May I ask why?"
        "Because none of this exists," said Timothy.
        And, taking out the jar of peanut butter, he opened it. Dipped his fingers in. Sank his fingers into the yielding brown muck. And smeared it over Josh's face. Josh endured this indignity impassively. His art work completed, Timothy sat back to study the result.
        "Okay," said Josh. "So what's the punch line?"
        "What?" said Timothy.
        "If that was a joke," said Josh, with a studied control which spoke of an enormous rage just barely contained, "then what is the punch line?"
        "I don't understand," said Timothy, momentarily lost.
        "Neither do I," said Josh. "Tim, we've been friends a long time. Let's look at what we've got. A firearms charge. You're a model citizen, it's probation, that's all. Unless they come up with a body. An insanity plea, well, I don't think that's called for. In any case, an insanity plea, that would be something for us to discuss on a rational basis. You can't act out in this way, not in my office. To start with, I'm your lawyer. I can't act for you and be a witness at one and the same time. I can't stand up in court and say you were acting abnormally, not unless you first get yourself another lawyer. Am I making myself clear, Timothy?"
        Timothy got up and walked out.
        Very realistic. Josh had acted pretty much like a real person, not a computer program. But. Well - to start with, maybe Josh was a real person. Two or three of them - or a dozen different people, maybe - could all be stranded in the same world of illusion. And, besides, a petri dish world did not necessarily have to operate in real time. If something came up which the standard programming could not handle, then operations could be suspended while the script writers cooked up appropriate behaviors which could be fed into the scenario.
        Timothy brooded over this as he drove home.
        Waiting inside his house: the same young guy as before. Same ripped T-shirt, dirty jeans. Same big black boots, scraped and scarred. Same glistening gold nose stud, same turquoise earring.
        "You shot me," said the guy. "That wasn't very polite."
        "I suppose not," said Timothy. "Coffee?"
        "We don't have time for that. I'm Max, okay?"
        "Max. Sure."
        "Quickest way," said Max, "you tell me what you've worked out. That'd save me a world of explanation."
        "Okay," said Timothy, ready to play along, at least for the moment. "To start with, this isn't real. It's a fake world, fake history. Nagasaki, Hiroshima, the Cuban missile crisis - the whole thing's science fiction. I thought, uh, a copy, maybe I was a copy of someone. But I don't think so. It's not real, none of it. Not me, not Herman Kahn, not any of it."
         A big relief to say this. To liberate himself from the responsibility. Not real, not any of it. He could forget, now. Could be free of it. At last.
        This is how it was. The train pulled into Nagasaki station. Japanese police in gray uniforms standing on the platform, watching, scrutinizing, waiting for someone. Near ground zero, a guy fixing a Kawasaki. At ground zero: a couple of bits of twisted metal, relics preserved from the past. The brightness of the sun overhead.
        And then the museum.
        The ceilings were very low. Waiting under those low ceilings: his past. That weekend at age 14, alone with Herman Kahn and the exploding sky. The car stopped outside the airforce base on a perfectly normal Sunday afternoon, and his cousin got out. A nice girl. A sane and normative citizen doing a steady job which came complete with a pension plan. She turned once and waved as she walked toward the gate. She was a meteorologist, and she was scheduled to descend into the bunker deep underground, where she would spend her shift functioning as part of the armageddon machine.
        All that was waiting.
        And so too was the unexpected.
        Unexpected were the mourning saints, relics of the detonated cathedral. Christianity had established itself in Nagasaki half a millennium before the detonating sky, the Christians enduring centuries of martyrdom and oppression before emerging into a reformed world to build their cathedral. And the Christian relics bridged the inevitable gap of culture and, in a way that nothing else could have done, made the people truly people. And prefigured the fall of London, Rome, Paris, Athens. Whispering ashes. Floating skies. The memories of Chartres, the memories of Rheims.
        The saints, then: broken statues seared by nuclear fire.
        And the second thing which was utterly unexpected was the humility of grief, the humbleness of offerings. Here was no big, swanky, institutional monument to the impersonal forces of history. Instead: a house of intensely personal memories.
        Time after time, as the claustrophobic oppression of reality came crowding in on him, he had to retreat to one of the balconies which allowed him to stare out across the city into the blue sunlight, resting his vision in the clean blue distances of the skies.
        What finally got to him, what finally spoke home to his heart, was a display which was no more than the clothes of an infant child. These were the clothes of a boy who died on 9 August, 1945. And the truly unendurable fact, the fact which had filled his eyes with tears, was that the bereaved mother had kept her son's clothes for twenty years. Before, at last, donating them to the museum.
        Not a moment, then. No. Not a moment. Not a flash, a thunder, a brief burst of statistics. Instead, war is a grief which mutilates a lifetime.
        But that was only true if it was real.
        "And it's not," said Timothy. "It's none of it real."
        "Sure," said Max. "This is a petri dish world, you're a copy. Why? Well, we don't have much time, so I'll keep it brief. Rybkin, he's losing control. Ever since Siberia, Moscow has been self-destructing. So, our guys - they figure it all ends in fire."
        "Not real," said Timothy, again.
        None of it.
        "Yeah," said Max, grinning. "A shock for you, I'm sure. But let's cut to the chase. Our rulers, the government people, they're giving up. On peace, I mean. You know - doing the Cold War thing., like in the Cold War. Entering despair mode. Bunkers, that's what they're thinking. The people - the people can go to hell. As long as central government survives, somewhere down in the mole run."
        "And you're not real either," said Timothy.
        "Oh, I'm real," said Max, with a quick glance at his watch. "For the next couple of minutes, at any rate. Then I'm gone. I'm a hacker, you know. A public statement, that's what I'm looking for. Something to put on the internet."
        "Statement?" said Timothy. "On what?"
        "I thought you understood," said Max. "This petri dish world, it's a war gaming scenario. War gaming government, okay. In the aftermath, what kind of government is possible? If citizens think this through beforehand, like you, does that make them more governable in the aftermath, or less? That's why you're here, man! You're the perfect subject! Imaginatively prepared, you've done the imagination thing all the way!"
        "What is it you want from me?" said Timothy.
        "Hey," said Max. "I've just explained! Right? This is a war gaming scenario, couple of minutes it all goes bang. This is your chance. Protest. You say the words, I'll get them public. We're fighting back, okay? Some of us, at least. Some of us don't want to die."
        "But," said Timothy, "it's not real. The world you're talking about. Nuclear weapons, there are no such things. I've worked it out, they don't exist. You admit, this world isn't real. It's just a fake, a computerized nightmare. Real people wouldn't build real nukes, we're just not that crazy."
        Max sighed. Defeated.
        "Time," he said, looking at his watch. "Don't say I didn't try, man."
        Then Max stepped across the carpet, and a block of sky opened and swallowed him. Max fell away into the sky, which closed. Leaving Timothy alone in the lounge.
        None of it real, no, none of it. Not Russia, not the civil war, not President Rybkin, not any of it.
        Then his incandescent shadow threw him face-first to the floor. He gasped for breath and struggled to stand. Then the thunder smashed the house around him. He was dead: he knew it.
        But belief is sometimes mistaken. And, half an hour later, when he finally emerged from the ruins to confront the oily brimstone of the horizon, he realized, to his grief, that he was going to survive.

The End

This story, "Remembering Nagasaki" was first published in Zest Issue 8, Autumn 1999 (ed. Ian Redman) (Yeovil, United Kingdom) (pp 26-32; 3,340 words) (science fiction virtual reality story). copyright © 1999, 2003 Hugh Cook.


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