Chapter 2 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

On the last day of summer, a cool breeze stirred the broiling air, and a small cloud drifted silently across the face of the sun. All over the city, people looked up at the sky with a sense of relief. The unbearably hot day was giving way to a pleasantly cool evening. As the sun beat a path toward the horizon, children went inside from their play, and adults went inside from their work. Dinners were served. TV sets began to bathe living rooms in pale bluish light.

At five minutes before seven that evening, four men sat down at a scraped-up old wooden table in an apartment on the tenth floor of a high rise on the east side of town. There they began to play a game of strategy, a game that had come to replace chess and backgammon as the standard board game for intellectual competition. It was called Icehouse.

The game of Icehouse was played on a free form surface-no board was required, only a flat area, such as a table top or floor. It could be played by two or more players, with no real upper limit, though most considered four the optimum number. The game employed the use of small four sided pyramids, of varying sizes and opposing colors, and was played by placing the pyramids out on the playing field. Once placed, it was rarely legal to move them, though this was permitted under certain conditions of the game. The game continued until all of the pyramids had been played.

The most important feature of Icehouse was that it happened in real time, that is, there was no sense of "turns." Anytime a player felt like making a move he could do so, provided it was a legal move. This meant that some phases of the game were met with frenzied activity by all players, and at other times, minutes would pass with little change in the playing surface, each person pleased with his position and carefully considering his options.

In games of more than two players, an important aspect was diplomacy. Two players might want to team up to defeat their opponents collectively and thus share a joint victory. Since it was much better strategically to work together without the knowledge of the enemy, there were often many elaborate signaling systems employed in a game of Icehouse.

An Icehouse game could last anywhere from two or three minutes to as much as an hour. Depending on the players, it could also become an endurance test. In "Cutthroat Icehouse," a variation of the basic game played by experts, there were no truly safe defenses (other than offense) and play was never suspended, no matter how important the phone call or how urgent the need for restroom facilities. In such a game, anyone who got up from the table was doomed.

At five minutes before seven on the last evening of summer, four men sat down at a scraped-up old wooden table in an apartment on the tenth floor of a high rise on the east side of town. This group of men was known about town as The Four-a tightly knit group of friends who did everything together and who played Icehouse with intense savagery.

The Four were: Peter and Paul, the twins, who always wore matching clothes (a habit originally begun under duress, now a sort of fashion statement), Umberto, the fat man, usually called Bert, and Dave, who was, more or less, the leader of the group.

The game began with a controlled panic, each player dropping several of his pyramids into position rapidly. After ten seconds, each player slowly sat back, his pieces arranged in one of the usual opening positions.

Peter and Paul regarded each other from opposite sides of the table. Neither was sure how the game would end up. Much of the time, they teamed up to attack Bert and Dave, but this often became routine, and it was much more challenging for them to face off against each other. Since they thought the same way, it was very exciting when they tried to outguess each other. At this point, they were busy trying to decide which course to take.

Bert was especially pleased with his opening setup, and retrieved from under his chair a plastic tube containing ready-to-bake chocolate chip cookie dough. Raw cookie dough was one of Bert's favorite snacks. Using his thumb, he tore open the end of the plastic tube, and began scooping out big bites of the dough with a tarnished silver teaspoon.

Dave leaned back in his chair, and regarded the table and his opponents. He lit up a cigar and thought carefully about something more important than merely this game: the events of the coming night.

Peter and Paul looked at Bert and Dave. Bert was concentrating heavily on his roll of cookie dough, and Dave, though he was looking at the playing area, seemed to have his mind on something miles away. Almost simultaneously, the twins came to a decision: demolish the other two. They deserved it, since they weren't paying attention.

On a signal from Paul, they both leaned forward and began tossing pyramids onto the table. Bert growled through a mouthful of cookie dough, accidentally spitting out a chocolate chip. He tossed the roll of dough onto the floor, and grabbed at his stash of pyramids, getting them sticky in the process, quickly trying to make a few plays that would keep him from losing. But he was too late; the ambush had succeeded. Both Bert and Dave were already in the Icehouse. Bert stood up, cursing and shouting at the twins about how badly he would beat them in the next game. Then he retrieved his tube of dough, now nearly half empty, and went into the kitchen in search of some milk.

Dave, who had not moved at all during his swift and utter defeat, said calmly, "Oh well, I guess we owe you."

The Four kept a chart on the wall that detailed who had won and lost each of their games. Each game carried with it a wager-the loser(s) owed the winner(s) a drink at the Saturn Cafe. Paul stood up and marked the new totals on the chart. "Hey," he said, "that game only lasted two minutes and thirteen seconds. That might be a new record."

"Big deal," said Bert as he returned with his milk. "What are we going to do tonight, anyway, just sit on our butts and Ice it?"

Dave blew out a large cloud of smoke. "I've been giving that some thought," he announced in his most pompous and dramatic voice. "I think it's time we did something with that." He pointed at a gray steel box in the corner.

"What, the atomic bomb?"

"Yes."

"Well... what? What can you do with an atomic bomb? Besides setting it off, I mean, and I don't think that's such a good idea."

"I was thinking about giving it away. It'd be the perfect gift for the man who has everything."

"Christmas is months from now. Besides, who'd want it?"

"The Android Sisters might like it."

"Now wait a minute," said Peter, standing up. "Bill made that bomb for me, remember? I don't recall saying that it was up for grabs."

"Oh, you don't want that old thing, Pete! You never use it, it's just gathering dust! Besides, you know as well as I do that Old Bill could never build a real atomic bomb. That's just a metal case with a big red button on the front."

"Now don't sell Bill short. I'll admit he's kind of a nut-but he's smart, too. I wouldn't be surprised if that thing there is an actual, working nuclear weapon. It took him long enough to make it."

"Right. Where would he get the plutonium?"

"At the hardware store, maybe. How should I know? All I know is that he said it's an atomic bomb, and since it's never been tested, I'm not going to doubt it."

"All right, all right, all right. Do you still want it, or not?"

"Well, I guess I can live without it. But you never know when you might need an atomic bomb."

"Look, we'll give it to the Android Sisters, I know they'll like it, and if you ever feel you need it, I'm sure they'll loan it to you."

"Well... OK."

"Great! Paul, see if you can find some wrapping paper." Dave lifted the atomic bomb out of its dusty spot in the corner and placed it in the center of the table. It was a gray steel box about a foot tall, a foot wide, and a foot and a half long. The various seams were closed with an excessive number of bolts; where one bolt would have been sufficient, four had been used. The designer clearly did not want the box opened. The words "ATOMIC BOMB" were stenciled in black along the top of the front panel. Below that, on the left, was a large red button labeled "DETONATION SWITCH: DO NOT PRESS." On the right were a number of small lights and a big red digital counter, above which were the words "SECONDS UNTIL DETONATION." Dave brushed a thin layer of dust off of the top, revealing a hand-painted radiation symbol and the words "HANDLE WITH CARE."

Presently, Paul arrived with the wrapping paper. "This is the best I could find," he said. It was light blue, and featured ducks and chickens and birthday cakes with one candle and the words "HAPPY BIRTHDAY."

"It will have to do," said Dave.

As Dave was gift-wrapping the atomic bomb, the phone rang. Bert jumped up and went toward it, snarling at Paul, who started to answer it but then backed off.

Bert spoke into the mouth piece, "What!"

"Oh, hi Bert. This is Jim."

"It's Jim," Bert said to the others. Then, into the phone, "What's up?"

"Well, I figured I'd better let you know what just happened. Bill was just about to go to work when these three guys showed up and started asking him all these questions."

"What guys?"

"I don't know, they said they were from some atomic agency or something. They wanted to know why Bill had built an atomic bomb and what he'd done with it."

"And?"

"Bill said he'd given it to you guys."

"Great."

"I thought you should know. Be careful, dudes. They acted like they were the Gestapo or something."

Bert hung up and told the others what Jim had said.

Dave said, "I think we should still proceed with Plan A, but let's stop off and talk to Bill first."

They all got ready to leave. While Dave finished up the gift-wrapping, the twins went off to change clothes. They always tried to dress for the occasion, no matter what it might be. For example, when seeing a movie, they would dress according to the genre of the film. They wore gangster suits when seeing gangster movies, cowboy costumes when seeing westerns, and military uniforms when seeing war films. When eating out, they dressed according to the cuisine: kimonos for Japanese food, raincoats for seafood, and McDonalds uniforms when eating at McDonalds. However, they usually chose not to wear their birthday suits to birthday parties.

Tonight they decided to wear lab coats, and as part of the costume, they each carried a clipboard and kept a pencil stuck behind their ear.

While the twins were changing, Bert packed up the Icehouse set. They carried their set everywhere they went. This was one of the nicer sets-Icehouse sets ranged in quality from sets using cheap punch-out and fold-up cardboard pyramids (available in dime stores) to extremely expensive, one-of-a-kind, polished stone pyramids (sold in jewelry stores). The most commonly used Icehouse sets featured translucent, ice-like playing pieces, made out of plastic. The Four's set was a little more exclusive, being made out of wood and painted in the traditional four colors (red, yellow, blue, and green). The sixty wooden pyramids fit neatly into a black leather pouch that Bert carried on his belt.

At seventeen minutes after eight, The Four exited their apartment and walked down the hall towards the elevator. When it arrived, they were disappointed to see that Doug was inside.

Doug was short and dumpy, with thick glasses and stringy black hair. He wore a ripped-up army jacket, and he seemed to spend most of his time riding the elevator, up and down. You might encounter him in the elevator on your way to work in the morning, and he would still be there when you returned that afternoon. All he ever seemed to do was ride the elevator, as if it were his home.

The Four got on. Dave leaned past Doug and pressed the button marked "1." As the elevator started moving, Doug said, "I went to New York a few days ago."

Everyone else in the elevator stared at the floor, trying to avoid looking even the tiniest bit interested in what Doug was saying. Despite the apathy of his audience, Doug continued. "I took the train. When I got there, I walked around the corner, and, um, I bought a soft pretzel. Then I came home."

At last the elevator stopped moving, but there was that usual delay in waiting for the doors to open. Days seemed to pass. Doug said, "Oh yeah, before I came home, I had enough money left to make a phone call, so I called my parents and told them where I was."

The doors finally opened, and The Four quickly exited. Dave, the last to leave, looked at Doug on his way out and said, "Good."

The Four strolled out of the lobby and into the warm night air of the City.



Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.