by A. K. Sykora
"Pharaohís coming after us!" wailed a woman with thick braids, and the baby on her back began to cry. A host of gold points glittered at the bottom of a cloud of dust advancing on the tribes camped by the sea.
"We should have stayed in Egypt!" cried a man. "Nobody listened to me." Lugging their tents and cooking pots, ragged people shouted and shoved as chariots thundered over the stony ground.
"Silence, ye of little faith!" boomed Moses, stretching his lean hand over the waters dark as wine. With a roar like a mighty waterfall, the deep divided into glassy cliffs, the seabed between them wide and straight. "Quickly my people--go!"
Already they heard the shouts of cavalry, made out the purple and gold of uniforms, the glittering bronze of hundreds of chariots charging within the storm of dust. Eagerly the children of Israel rushed down onto the road, the old and lame supported by the strong, mothers hanging on to their children, shepherds trying to keep their flocks together.
But the patriarchís sinewy arm began to shake, and Daddy chuckled, hunting and pecking among his stationís hundreds of keys. Hunched beside him, pale Sonny gasped.
"Hurry!" shouted Moses as arrows bristled around his feet.
"Over here--the guy who made all the trouble!" yelled a Nubian general in a golden helmet. Soldiers pushing forward with a net swept it over Moses, and swiftly the waters came swirling back.
Near the silver edge of the Reality Sphere a calf bleated and sank, so close to Daddyís fingers he could have patted its nose. Tapping in codes the newfangled way, Sonny complained:
"Looks like Iíve got nobody left but Moses."
"Looks like you lose this round," said Daddy, leaning back in his overstuffed chair.
"I thought my man could hold that sea."
"Heís not Jehovah, you know; you forgot about his lumbago. A typical boyís mistake."
"Iíll be 92 soon," Sonny complained, who was wearing an expensive new camoshirt, supposed to disguise your mood to distract your opponent. Navy blue a minute ago, the silly thing gleamed turquoise, as if he didnít care heíd bungled the round.
Kids just wanted a shortcut, Daddy thought, who still studied strategy and tactics every night, after the Assembly at Main Dome. Using his mini-set upstairs, he replayed every Game he had almost lost; and so he was still fat and happy--and no creeping worm.
"How time flees," he mused, scratching at a knee of his baggy pants. "Seems like only yesterday I was budding you under my armpit." The lanky blond boy rolled his eyes, blue today. "Guess thatís enough of the Game for today. Hope you learned something real."
"I like getting to watch what you do."
Daddy nodded, with a crooked smile. He favored the Open Style, sitting next to his son like pilots in an old-fashioned plane.
Silently they watched the wreckage of Exodus tossing on the dark waters. Tent poles, clothing, a pair of childrenís sandals floated past. Then Daddyís plump index fingers pecked, and the Reality Sphere shrank to a ball, and to a blue point that slid down a beam into the eye of the Gaming Table. When Daddy tipped back his worn red leather chair a clot of blond horsehair fell out. He loosened his string tie and unbuttoned the top of his checked shirt--his lucky shirt, which had been missing a button for 37 years. Sticking his fat moccasined feet up on the Table he drawled:
"That sure was fun."
"Can we play again?" Sonny leaned forward in his titanium frame like a fishing yachtís fighting chair.
"Youíre a bud off my old trunk." Daddy pulled his feet back down. "At your age I always wanted to play more than one round." He smiled, recalling his Old Man with his gap-toothed smile. "Whenís the Assembly?"
"Not till l8 hours tonight."
"OK, but pick a different era."
"Iíve got a super-fine plan out of the Digest of New Masters--"
"Donít go telling me your prime coordinates; you make it much too easy for me. Remember, someday--if you survive--you wonít be playing against your daddy."
"I want to play the attacker: Hitler on the Eastern Front."
Daddy shrugged, and fished in the pocket of his pants. The dark glamor hooks Ďem every time: those snappy files of steel-helmeted uniforms drawn up to face the flapping banners. What did they call that cross?
"Can I set up first?"
"Sure," Daddy agreed lazily. "Take your time. Iíve only practiced my side about 500 times." With the Sphere down, the light from the windows behind them shone on the Home Domeís pure white walls. Must be a cloudless day; not a bad day to go fishing. Too bad theyíd dawdled the morning away, then sat down to the GameÖ
While Sonny prepped, Daddy drew a tin from his pocket, unscrewed it and sniffed at the loose tobacco. Plucking a wad, he stuck it between his jaw and right cheek, where his teeth were stained.
"You shouldnít chew that stuff; itís bad for your health," Sonny scolded.
Daddy guffawed, shaking his jowls: "Iím 411, with 35 reproductive cycles. You telling me chaw is bad for my health?"
"It shortens your life."
The obese old man drew his spittoon from under the Table, a cast-iron tortoise bannered "1812." With his foot he opened the lid of the bronze-plated bowl in the tortoiseís back:
"Better worry Ďbout setting up your own men--or itís their lives will be shortened."
"Yessir. Here we go." Typing ten-fingered, the boy entered groups of codes--which Daddy keenly observed--and the Table bonged. Keying in the Standard Defense of Stalingrad didnít take the old man long; and when he hit Start, blue light sparked in the Tableís eye, rose up a fine beam of light and opened into the Sphere.
Spinning like a cloudy planet it resolved into the charred outskirts of a city up to its chin in snow. Pocked buildings, their corners blasted away, loomed with gaping windows, and shapes came flitting, prying bits of wood from doors and window frames. When a shell crashed nearby, a tilting ruin collapsed like an avalanche.
"Excellent," Daddy declared. "I can see itís late in 1942. Churchill called this battle the ĎHinge of Fate.í"
"Your men are boiling their boots to make gelatine. My Sixth Armyís eating its horses, but we still have plenty."
"Where are your tanks?"
"These are my last." Sonny tapped in codes, and the Sphere veered off to a windswept steppe where a few dozen tanks hunkered down in a circle. "Iím running out of fuel and food, but Goering promised to fly in more. I started with ten times the planes, and thatís all I had to change. When Stalingrad falls, the Eastern Front stabilizes; Britain negotiates a truce; the Yankees stay home and the Nazis master Europe."
"Is that so?" Daddy drawled. "Well letís give it a whirl." Sonny tapped in codes, and waves of his planes flew in through streams of flak, bumping down on a snowy airfield. Though he lost a few, he refuelled his tanks, and fed his famished soldiers canned sardines.
Then Daddy moved up more tanks, and a tremendous battle began on the steppe, which lasted half an hour in Accelo-time. Steadily Soviet reserves struggled into the beleaguered city, and soon the Sixth Army of Von Paulus got encircled. Daddy tittered.
"What am I doing wrong?" Sonny appealed.
"Again, despite good tactics youíre forgetting a basic element: the raw power of the Russian winter. Iíve got the sons of Genghis Khan, troops who call Siberia home, while most of your suckers still are wearing their summer uniforms. Hitler thought the Eastern Front a piece of Black Forest cakeÖ"
"Your move," groaned Sonny, and Daddy hunted and pecked while the boy--who should have paid attention--fussed with his calculations.
In the Sphere it started to snow in flurries, in sheets, in blinding waves, in billions of flakes unstoppable as unkillable, constant soldiers. It snowed on the bloody heights of Mamayev Hill, and on the hard-fought line of industrial plants and train stations running north and south. It snowed on the frozen Volga and on its fortified ferry landing: lifeline through which supplies and reinforcements struggled into the city.
Sonnyís planes, with plenty of fuel, could not fly in the storm to bomb this point, but the defenders continued to move in their troops and supplies. And still it snowed, a surging whiteness throughout the Sphere, a slow-motion waterfall like universal doom. Through it a gaunt German wrapped in tablecloths stumbled, a horseís foreleg pressed to his chest. Sonny groaned as his man collapsed; and in moments the snow mounded him. He ran more calculations while Daddy looked on, sucking his tobacco.
"Donít feel bad," the old man urged, swallowing a fat chuckle. "Napoleon, a truly brilliant strategist, made the same mistake."
"Your move," said Sonny coldly. Grinning Daddy chose a blue and golden day laced by a flurries of snow like confetti at a parade. Soviet troops in fur caps and greatcoats danced to an accordion, while tattered grey columns, stripped of weapons and insignia, were marched away. Stalinís victory tirade crackled from a loudspeaker in a blackened tree.
"Thatís enough," Sonny declared, and Daddy killed the action. Rotating slowly, the Sphere filled with blue fog.
Too late to go fishing, Daddy thought; and Sonny was looking grey and skinny, consumed by the Sphereís flickerless radiance brighter than any sunlight, its sights and sounds more stirring than real life.
"Letís get a snack," he suggested. "Peanut butter fudge from Factory Six. Then we have time for a walk before heading over to Main Dome."
"But I want to play again."
"After losing twice?" Daddyís tone was sharp. "You know the rules."
"This time we play for real."
The old man sighed. Noisily he champed his tobacco, which tasted stale. With his foot he maneuvered the spittoon, then spit out his whole plug--splat! Bullís eye: a lucky sign. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and Sonny frowned.
"Well youíre old enough to choose for yourself," Daddy began sadly. "And I canít stop you if you challenge me for real. As your father, though, I wish you wouldnít--not yet."
"Why not? Whatís more important than playing for real?"
Daddyís mouth twisted. "Youíre special to me, boy," he muttered, and wiped his eyelid with a fat finger. "In my life--a good long life, for a man who favors the Open Style--Iíve never had a son who reminded me more of me. How I talked and wouldnít listen; how I didnít pay attention to what my old man was up on his side."
His shirt a confident yellow, Sonny drummed his fingers on the Table and gazed up into the Sphere. Starlessly black, it lit with jags of color that seemed random.
"Look at you," Daddy pleaded. "Carried away by the blasted Game, when youíve got a life ahead, maybe thousands of rounds if you pace yourself."
"I want to play again."
"Stubborn little cuss," he grumbled fondly.
"And I want to play defense, at the U.S. Presidentís moment of truth."
"Well, suit yourself."
Preparing their final round took slow minutes of retracted thought. Daddy peeked; Sonny was squinting into the Home Domeís empty heights. A bird twittered and through the window breathed a piney breeze. How he wished they had gone fishing; the damn Game had taken all his sons.
Sonny took his time entering his prime coordinates, which the old man observed with a tight little smile; and the Table bonged. He entered his own, hunting and pecking, stopping and starting; oh he always kept a trick or three up his open sleeve. Sonnyís eyebrows arched when the Table bonged twice:
"A tech check with Main Dome?"
"My method of attack ainít never been tried."
Sonny sneered: "Main wonít accept it if it canít be done!" But the Table bonged.
"You can modify, if you like," Daddy offered, settling back into his worn red leather chair.
"Iíll pass." Sonny raised his chin. "Iím ready, sir, if you are."
Daddy sighed laboriously. "As ready as ever Iíll be." The boy hit Start, and the Sphere glowed blue, rotated and opened into the Tidal Basin, with its cherry trees like fastened clouds. Over at the White House school groups were waiting for the tour; the line snaked all the way past the crash barriers on Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Youíve got plenty at stake," said Daddy. "Letís cut to the War Room." Sonny nodded; and in the crowded bunker a frowning President Clinton sat at a long dark table flanked by aides and soldiers. Grimly a tall black general reported:
"Twenty minutes ago our Laurel station got goosed with gamma enough to kill a horse. The signatureís moving south on I-95. Weíve got Delta Force giving chase, state troopers blocking traffic."
"You blow that truck to Kingdom Come," the President commanded.
"Weíre not sure whatís in it though. Collateral damage-- "
"Weíve war-gamed this; we have no choice; so do it--do it now."
"Yes, Madame PresidentÖ"
"Try Condi next time if you get the chance," Daddy told Sonny jovially. "Sheís good on her feet; used to figure skate, you know."
"Shut up, youíre distracting me."
"I know," Daddy mouthed; but Sonny, caught up in the action, didnít notice:
"I want an aerial."
"OK." A beat-up van with "Peace" scrawled on a fender smashed through the roadblock at College Park; and troopers crouched behind the doors of their cars opened fire, blowing out a tire. Skidding the van rammed the back of an overloaded SUV.
"No, I cut to the white U-Haul farther out. I know how you play!"
"The hell you do," said Daddy.
Leaving the wrecked van. with its cargo of undocumented Ecuadoreans, Sonny zoomed in on the graffiti-smeared U-Haul driven by a Chinese grandma in an Orioles cap. Pursued by the troopers, sirens blaring, she whipped right around and drove against the traffic. Daddy loaded another chaw, packing it into his gum right where his teeth were getting wobbly.
"Iím gaining on you," boasted Sonny. "Had a NEST team waiting where I-95 forks into the Capital Beltway." Swarms of his helicopters took off like angry bees; but chewing and spitting, Daddy creaked around in his rotten chair, and more horsehair dribbled out onto the floor.
Cornered by a roadblock, the U-Haul slammed to a stop. They saw the pores on the nose of the red-faced Delta Force commander, and the mosquito bite on the wrist of the wide-eyed scientist wielding a wand. As passing drivers rubbernecked, commandos in balaclavas swarmed the van. The elderly driver raised her Uzi, but somebody drilled her in the forehead. Ripping the doors off the back of the van then, the commandos found a barrel-shaped containment propped in a nest of two-by-fours.
"Thatís no bomb!" one shouted, and the scientist scanned the lead barrel with her wand:
"This is a cesium bullet, for radiotherapy. Itís a decoy!"
"Then whereís the meat?" demanded a black commando.
"But the intelligence I got was accurate!" Sonny whined.
"For once the CIA did get it right," Daddy blandly assured him. "But my nasty package ainít coming by land."
Sonny took more readouts.
"Give you another clue: it ainít coming by air mail. Your red and green lasers sweeping the airspace ainít worth spit." Daddy pushed open the back of his turtle with his foot: splat! Another bullís-eye.
Drumming on the Table, Sonny looked smaller; he looked scared. Swarms of his black helicopters went buzzing aimlessly over the Mall.
"Tell you what: my bombís coming up the Potomac, right through the Naval Proving Grounds. Itís aboard a mini-sub al-Qaeda bought from renegade Russian scientists. Now your sensors donít work well in the water, and the Navyís not watching for anything small. This ainít no dirty bomb either; it may be home-made, but it works. Got the recipe off the internet."
"Iíll find your bomb!"
"You gonna be the president who lost D.C.. No way to work around it now. Iíll give you twenty extra minutes in Real Time."
"Iíll take them!" Frantically Sonny deployed his Navy and Coast Guard units to sweep the Potomac. Soldiers in rowboats were poking sticks into the riverís muddy shallows. Sweat dripped down Sonnyís pale face.
Gently Daddy suggested: "While your men are so busy we can stop Real Time. Iíve got the tape for Al Jazeera."
Daddy tapped in his codes, and the Sphere rotated to show a tawny young man in green fatigues with a Kalashnikov, posing beneath a poster of his father in Bedouin dress. As subtitles rolled he announced in perfect British English:
"Now dawns the day to punish Pharaoh, crusader and intruder into our sacred lands. We shall punish him in his holy place, where he worships his false god, Freedom. Farewell, my father; we shall meet again in ParadiseÖ"
A hundred suns exploded, and heat emanated from the Sphere, which roiled and shook as the fiery cloud convulsed, swelling upwards through a hazy bubble--the vaporized Potomac--to bloom into a characteristic mushroom cloud.
"But You stopped Real Time!" Sonny shrieked.
"I said we could stop it; I didnít do it. And if youíd paid attention, you could have called me on that, anytime."
"That wasnít fair!"
"You know allís fair when playing the Game for real. That was your choice, not mine, Sonny. I wish we had gone fishing."
The boy tapped in an objection. Babong! The Table turned it down.
"So once again youth and enthusiasm prove no match for age and treachery," mused Daddy. "Letís get this bit over with. I do hate long good-byes."
Sonny started unbuttoning his shirt, now a shining white.
"Believe me, Iíll miss you." Daddy lurched to his feet. "Thatís a fact."
"Iíll miss you too. Iíll miss playing the Game."
"Remember, weíre all one."
"Thatís what they keep telling us."
"Ainít no use fighting it," he said softly, bending over Sonny. "Iíll do it for you, if you like."
Firmly he pulled the gold plug out in the middle of Sonnyís chest, and abruptly the boy transfigured: from the collar of his limp shirt, heaped on the seat of his still-warm chair, a small red worm crept shyly forth.
Daddy caught him up, popped him into his mouth and bit down. A faint cry: he blinked and smiled, belched.
Victory is sweet, they say. Sonny was delicious.
© 2007 A. K. Sykora
Bio: A.K. Sykora was a tax attorney in New York City before moving to Germany with her husband, who kindly keeps a roof over her head while she indulges her writing habit. Her stories have appeared in print in BIGnews, The Armchair Aesthete, The Storyteller and Barbaric Yawp, and online in Poetry Forum Short Stories, AlienSkin Magazine, Ascent Aspirations and Midnight Times. She has also published 15 poems, most recently with The Iconoclast and The Storyteller, and online with Aphelion (The Escape, July 2007) and Green Rock.
E-mail: A. K. Sykora
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