A Special Event

We were guided into the coolness of the restaurant’s crypt-like vaulted lobby, its grand columns standing firm like giant marble soldiers, and were greeted by our hosts with smoked rat blinis.

It was an old imperial relic far out in the distant borderlands, once a booming oil colony, but only this building, which overlooked a no man’s land of sand and sparse scrub, survived the decline and the wars that followed.

Whispering from the nooks of crumbling splendour were memories of a golden age, the stories of passing merchants and diplomats, of royalty and politicians, told over decadent dinners in the thick indulgent fog of cigar smoke.

I wondered what it would have been like back then, before everything went up in flames so long ago. Of course we have the books and photos, and what is left of the film footage, but those are only echoes that quieten as they bounce down the hallway of time.

What did it look like in the present? What were the smells of the food they ate? What did beef taste like? What did their fine clothes feel like to touch? Such is history: we can only imagine by interpreting the unreliable memories of others left behind in letters and diaries.

After a few minutes of small chatter in the vast stone cavern, an oasis from the harsh and dry desert heat outside, a small group of smiling military men in full uniform, with medals dangling from their chests and coloured patches meaning who knows what all over their jackets, walked out from a room behind the reception desk to shake our hands and welcome us here.

They were dressed much smarter than we were. The better, softer fabrics were saved for top officials. It was one of the incentives to work hard and climb to the top; our society had a hierarchy, but it was meritocratic. We had a deserving establishment, as its worthy members were keen to remind their loyal subordinates. The rest of us wore our cheap, scratchy jumpsuits. They were practical if nothing else.

‘Congratulations,’ said the largest of the generals, a giant rectangle of a man, whose head was alarmingly square, as he crushed my hand. ‘We’re so thrilled you are here and we promise you a show like you’ve never seen before.’

I smiled back and told him how much I was looking forward to it, that I had only ever seen it happen on fuzzy film, and how I had not expected to win one of the tickets in the lottery, which I had saved and sacrificed for months just to enter.

He nodded and moved on, more or less repeating the same line to the others.

I never normally entered lotteries, with their ludicrously unattainable cash prizes, but this was something else altogether and an opportunity I didn’t want to miss no matter how long the odds. Some things are more valuable than money, even to those of us who have so little, which is most these days.

I coveted this prize. I lusted for it; we all did.

Few are privileged enough to witness something so awesome, so catastrophic. They said more people entered the lottery for these tickets than any other, including the biggest rollovers, and I could easily understand why. This was a once in a lifetime trip. You couldn’t buy access like this, but there were rumours that this was a test run for a commercial version of these trips planned for the future, where those few with enough money could buy access.

There may not be a location with such splendour as here; we were particularly fortunate to land in a grand old restaurant from another century. But there were always similar spectacles to behold somewhere on the outskirts of our belligerently defensive civilisation — attack is the best form of defence, after all, wisdom that has survived despite itself — where viewers could watch the ashen smoke rise from the thousands of primitive enemy cities that surrounded us. Tickets would sell not despite the horrorism but because of it. There’s no doubting demand. Or, for that matter, supply.

Our enemies had to be struck pre-emptively and frequently, to maintain our civilisation’s security and dominance. We accepted the grisly logic of hegemony. And as the dominant military power, our enemies had to accept that too.

Those wily old soldiers, or at least their accountants, realised this was a free cash machine. They could raise millions, perhaps even billions, to fund their many war efforts on ever-expanding frontlines.

There was a dark beauty in its circular self-sufficiency. Special events attracted us punters to buy lottery tickets, which incentivised more special events, which drew in the punters, which generated more money, which spawned more special events…

The military men, I think they were generals, or maybe brigadiers, I don’t know much about that sort of thing, disappeared back behind the door at reception. We — and I say we, but we each won a single ticket and, though cordial with one another, were essentially a disparate group of human atoms — were led up the escalator, which wasn’t working, but my numb legs didn’t mind after all that time travelling by coach.

The group had all flown out here the night before — I had never been on a plane; it was terrifying — and rested our heads for a few short hours in a decrepit barracks at the airport. Airports were used mostly for military purposes. I wondered what it would have been like without the khaki and the camouflage, when it was all shops and holidaymakers and businesspeople, and if I would live long enough to see a time when they were civilian again.

I tried to shower in the morning, but when I turned the taps on, the head just rattled and spluttered before vomiting brown muck into the tub. So I washed with a tiny rationed bar of soap in the basin before we caught the coach, which was older than I am, and I am not that young anymore.

After some toilet breaks (defecating in hastily dug holes behind the sand dunes on the side of the road) and a stop for lunch (a hunk of bread and some obscenely hot gloopy, green broth, which I was assured contained ‘a meat’) we finally arrived at this remote palatial restaurant for the special event that evening.

There was to be a dinner, which would surely be the finest most of us have ever eaten, and ever will eat. We were being treated to the kind of food usually reserved for only the most distinguished, highest-ranking officials from the ministries. There would be roast chicken (a feathered bird, I think, one many thought was extinct until a small colony was discovered a few years ago in some long abandoned town); braised rabbit (I don’t know what it tastes like, but I have asked for the fur so I can make a hat); turnips (no idea) and carrots (a very rare treat); ‘stewed assorted fruit’ (no specifics, but I heard rumours of plums and apples, only one of which I have had before); and as much potato vodka as we can stomach.

But, in truth, it was possible to eat the finest food in the finest restaurants back home as long as you had the money. The food here was an addendum. We were here for something far more unique. We were here for a light show, the brightest light show on earth if you discount the sun, though there is a definite similarity between our solar god and this great burst of beautiful heat we were exploding with excitement to watch.

When we entered the restaurant itself, our mouths gaped like blast craters. Two huge ornate doors made from carved mahogany and about twenty feet high were swung open in ceremony, like we were entering an ancient cathedral for a funeral.

As we walked through, we saw that the back wall wasn’t a wall at all, but a vast ceiling to floor window through which the early evening sunset blasted its dying rays. Light filled everywhere, engulfing the room. There was no escape, nowhere darkness could hide.

Inside the restaurant were small round tables, a single seat at each, set out with fine white crockery and cutlery. In the middle of each table were lit white candles, their flickering glow dancing on the decorative serviettes, which mushroomed out like billowing clouds. Next to each serviette was a pair of sunglasses, which on any other evening would have seemed an odd thing to wear, but we were glad for the protection tonight.

The waiters and waitresses were immaculately turned out in black. They showed each of us to our table and poured water and potato vodka. I sipped the latter before gulping down the former to quench the burn.

A string quartet played softly in the corner, but I don’t know what the music was. It was delicate and sad, and gave a sense of melancholy foreboding, which spoilt the atmosphere a little. We were all tremendously excited about what was coming, our special event.

The music picked up and absorbed the silence as we quietly ate our food. The starter was an anaemic bird’s wing, burnt and stringy, smothered in a soily brown liquid. I licked the plate clean. The main was soon brought out — slithers of rabbit flesh in a deep red puddle, surrounded by miniscule chunks of turnip and carrot — which, after the first moreish mouthful, I dispatched quickly to my gut.

After a short break with some small talk between the tables — the price of bread these days, the size of rations, sons and daughters at war, nervousness about what lay ahead — dessert landed on my table: a sticky light-brown swamp of dissolved fruity sweetness. Soon it went, along with my third glass of potato vodka. I felt an orb of soft warmth encasing me.

The food came and went quick enough — and it truly was the best meal I had ever eaten, though I was too distracted to fully appreciate it — but we were all becoming impatient, checking our watches, willing on the time. Nervous energy built up into a tangible static atmosphere. Outside, it was late twilight. Sunlight on the distant horizon gave way to a deep, clear navy blue sky that glistened with a thousand tiny explosions from light-years away.

At last, the music stopped. We knew it was coming. We knew it was almost time for the special event.

Our compere, a tall man with a thin moustache sat like a starving slug above his top lip, and a voice deeper than thunder, who wore a very old fashioned dinner jacket and bright yellow bow tie, walked up to a microphone in front of the string quartet.

‘Ladies and gentleman: it is time.’

The guests unleashed a devastating roar of cheers and clapping. I smashed my hands together in furious delight, buoyed by excitement and vodka. The compere breathed in deeply as though he sucked in the ball of trapped energy just released. He stood taller and spoke loudly.

‘In two minutes time, the bomber will fly overhead and towards the city in the distance where he will drop his most extraordinary cargo. Please, gather yourselves on the terrace outside the window. And don’t forget to take your glasses with you.’

Chairs screeched as we rushed to get to the long, narrow terrace. Outside was a row of telescopes capable of looking far into the distance. We clustered around each and jostled to look through.

I muscled a fat lady out of the way and gripped the sight. I saw dense groups of dusty buildings made of mud bricks, with hollowed out windows and washing lines hanging between them, wet torn rags slung over the string. Groups of dishevelled men were chatting in the twilight, tossing their arms up as they debated and told stories. Scrawny young children ran around the streets playing tag or some other game. A small girl fell and I saw the pained expression on her face as she held her tiny knee — these were powerful telescopes — and a boy helped her up to check if she was okay.

I stumbled as a larger man shoved me away, complaining that I was hogging the telescope, which I suppose I was.

‘The city has a population of one million combatants, making it a medium-to-small sized city in relative terms. From centre to outer edges, it stretches for ten miles. This means the entire city will fall inside what is called the fireball radius.’

A low rumble shook the thick pane of glass behind the crowd and a great hulk of cumbersome metal appeared, floating slowly above us in the sky. It growled away into the distance as we followed its path through the air.

‘And there we have it, the plane. Not long to go now. May I request that for the safety of all guests, please put on the glasses provided.’

The guide gave a calm commentary. The hydrogen bomb, he said, would yield an impressive energy payload equivalent to one hundred megatons of TNT. It would be an airburst explosion, detonating at around twelve kilometres above the ground. While the initial fireball would engulf around six kilometres in its radius, the air blast radius and the thermal radiation radius extended the fallout zone beyond one hundred kilometres. This was why, as a safety precaution, the guests were only allowed to watch the blast from here. This was the goldilocks zone. Everything was perfect. Maximum safety for the maximum experience.

Any closer, he joked, and this would be a one way trip. We laughed. We watched, never adjusting our stares at the horizon.

A flash burst like the elemental dawn of a new sun.

We all gasped and slapped our hands to our mouths. The young night was shocked back into day. Even with the sunglasses, my eyes burned in the white-hot glow.

A furious arm of smoke and ash punched up from the ground and through the light, its fist clenched. Moments later, it hit us. First the shockwave’s gut-punch. Then the wind rushed past us, fleeing the maniacal hellfire.

We heard it. We saw it. We felt it. The destruction, the death.

It was beautiful. I fell in love.

‘Such is the power of this manmade beast, we estimate there to be no survivors within a hundred kilometre radius. Any who did will succumb soon to their wounds. It truly is an awesome, marvellous thing to watch. This is history. We are the privileged witnesses of history.’

We agreed. I instinctively started clapping, thumping my hands together. Bravo, I shouted, consumed by the momentous sense that I was living in the moment of history, that I was a part of something greater than myself. Again. Bravo. Others joined the applause as we stood there on that balcony, taking in the vastness of what had happened. How simple it was to vanquish a million souls. How simple.

What can you do but accept its power? And more than just accept it. Admire it too. Worship it like a god; like a leviathan.

The distant ash cloud hung in the air.

‘Well ladies and gentlemen, our wonderful musicians look like they are ready to start again. The tables have been cleared and I have been informed that — surprise — cocktails are now being served at the bar which is, of course, complementary. Feel free to stay on the balcony if you wish, but I will be on the dancefloor searching for a partner.’

Snapped from our awe, we chuckled at our compere and left the balcony under the grim shadow of the hellcloud, drifting towards the bar.

A short story by Charlie Gunn. Please hit ‘recommend’ if you liked it.