Manhattan 2050, second fragment

Sean Gullette

March, 2000





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Manhattan 2050 "History is a virus."

for centuries as the Venice of the region. Through destiny or dumb luck the city had been built in the bowl of a valley, along the banks of a shallow river. The lay of the land was like an embossed invitation for the aggressors to roll their perimeter of heavy guns onto the ridges. From impregnable bunkers they would shell the city into submission at their leisure. Then they would write last chapter in this war of a thousand years.

The rising whistle sawed through Danielle's sleep and a mortar crashed into concrete a few blocks away, shaking the ground and leaving the air humming. Once the neighborhood, which stood beside the ariport, had a bakery, a butcher shop, a famous cafe, a post office. Now they had their own 150 mm howitzer nest in the tree line, on the hill where as a kid she had climbed to play with goats and pick ligonberries. The silhouette of the hill at dusk, as the aggressors ate dinner and the townspeople ran their errands along the sheltered sides of the streets, was balding and jagged; after four years of cold winters without fuel, most of the trees had been cut down for firewood. It was the same all over town, and some of the northern neighborhoods had been emptied entirely, left to the rats. Even the graveyards and churches had been shelled~except, of course, those of the faith of the aggressors. In the street someone was shouting a name she couldn't make out. With a muted thud another shell began its arc.

In her New York condominium, Danielle mumbled and rolled onto her back, pushing the hair from her face. As the TV autodimmed to sleep a few hours before, she had been absentmindedly watching "The End of History" series on CNN. In his earnest flat tone, Barthelme Shaw reviewed the birth of Presentism with a panel of guests from the Harvard K-School and the Gates Institute.

In 2016, on the 10th anniversary of General T's assassination, his clansmen in the Jag Valley had broadbanded his inflammatory final hologram address on their mirror sites around the world. The next day hundreds of Americans died in mob violence, including the Olympic Village Riots. The global economic community had heard enough from the scrappy lowlands of fanatics and terrorists and children waging meaningless old wars and terrorist campaigns, and the UN approved what was then a new paradigm in political intervention.

"Those who know their history are doomed to repeat it," intoned General Secretary Francois Watanabe famously. "Ignorance is bliss." All these vague, ancient disputes--in the hills and deserts around the eastern Mediterranean, the rogue states of Africa, the post colonial fringe--were kept alive by propaganda sites, loaded with videofilms of their great victories and betrayals, holopresences of charismatic dead leaders, marching songs, records of their ancient rights and grudges.

"On Easter, 2031," said Bernard, "the UN"s International Telecom Praesidio launched Operation Delete Hate. The first Smart Virus was released into the net, designed to search-and-destroy all historical references to the regional conflicts and their participants. The First World had finally realized that only by deleting history from the collective memory could the warring world be forced into the Present. It was a bold plan indeed."

Danielle's breathing was shallow and hoarse now. She was in the tunnel. In the third year of the siege, with the city surrounded and starving, a family who lived next to the aggressor-controlled airport began digging from their basement. The project liberated the neighborhood from the deadly indolence of the siege, and three shifts a day they worked by the light of generators, punching through rocky soil toward the west, reinforcing the walls and ceiling with beams from the bombed buildings as they went. They snuck the excavated earth out in sacks and used them to sandbag the adjacent bombed-out buildings. In the neighborhood on the other side of the runway, work began in another basement, and around Christmastime that year they met in the middle. The son from the city-side family and the daughter from the outer family fell in love at first sight: a true story.

They laid tracks for a small trolley through the muddy bed of the Tunnel, and it began to run nonstop, ferrying sick people and refugees to the outer neighborhood, where they would wait until dark to slip away into the quiet streets at the mouth of the valley and the real world beyond.

Operation Delete had worked. The Smart Virus was unstoppable. Within ten years, despite the attempts of factional leaders around the world to maintain ideological control with books, songs and speeches, the collective memory had frayed, and fighting had tapered off measurably. The isolated regions turned from war to hunger, and began providing cheap manufacturing labor to their first world neighbors, while the UN stepped in to mediate the division of contested assets among members of the world community. On the CNN show, Shaw interviewed an old man who had fought in one of the balkanized zones as a youth. Now he remembered almost nothing, could barely say who they had been fighting or why. "When Faruk Gorevic dies, his homeland's long story of ethnic hatred and strife will die with him," concluded Shaw, with his trademark tight smile.

The tunnel had lights every twenty feet; you moved in a rhythm through darkness into glare and back. The darkness smelled of gasoline fumes and body odor. She was pushing the trolley loaded with two dozen Chinese rifles as her friends pulled it from the front by ropes wrapped around his chest. They came to the basement of the house on the city side where a group of friends from school were waiting. A few years before they had all drinking National beer and smoking hash in the cafes; now they were quiet, containing their fear in careful movements, as they passed the guns one to the next, into the garage area. JC, a linguistics student from the suburbs, was their gunsmith, and he carefully checked the action of each one, and then passed it to Danielle; she inserted a loaded clip and passed it up to Mika, in the bed of the Toyota pickup. They all piled into the back, someone drew back the tarpaulin and Danielle drove out into the chilly dark blue predawn, and along the bumpy streets to the Major's safe house. He came out at once, wearing a navy tracksuit and a shoulder holster, and got into the passenger seat after looking briefly at the tense faces in the back of the truck, meeting their serious eyes with a strange expression, and then laughing. He lit a cigarette. "Up the hill, up the hill we go," he said, in the words of the old folk song, half ironically, as Danielle, still sleeping deeply, her body tight with fear, downshifted and turned fast up the road alongside the cemetery. The Major was singing now, "all the way to