Ian Whates is a British writer and editor, with 5 novels and a number of anthologies to his credit.
He has served as Overseas Regional Director for SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America)
and is currently a Director of BSFA (British Science Fiction Association).

Ian Whates

“The storms were the worst thing. The power outages and food shortages, the ignominy of standing in queues for basics, even bread and water—we coped with all of that. This was war, after all. The constant fear of explosion and the almost incessant gunfire, the destruction of buildings and the roads—they were terrible, horrific, but it’s amazing what you can learn to live with when you have to. The weather turning against us, though, that was the final straw. None of us had ever seen rain like it: relentless, pummelling the city as if God Herself had forsaken us and joined in the bombardment; and as for the lightning …”

The woman’s narrative was abruptly punctuated by a loud peal of thunder and the pervading gloom shattered in a dazzle of electric discharge. Somebody, possibly Gretchen, exclaimed in surprise and even I started a little. This well-staged drama heralded the surround-sound arrival of steady rain and a rolling series of thunderous rumblings, though the latter were far more subdued than that first spectacular clap.

The woman continued speaking. The image of her narrow face still dominated the room, but now behind it and through it a distant cityscape began to emerge, illuminated by vivid lightning strikes and the ruddy stain of smoldering fires.

“This was the closest our collective spirit came to breaking,” the woman said. “Even the deaths seemed so much worse in the relentless storms. Disposing of bodies became a logistical nightmare as well as an emotional one. Somebody claimed that the freak weather was a sign of severe damage to the ionosphere, that in a struggle somewhere high above us doomsday weapons were being deployed, unleashing fearsome energies that had unbalanced the atmosphere of the entire planet. Such things meant nothing to us. What did we care about the planet or even the next district over? Our whole world had narrowed down to a handful of streets and the struggle to survive for just one more day.”

The woman’s face faded. Perspective tilted and we swooped down toward the besieged city and then into it, stopping only once we had reached street level. The sound of rainfall intensified and it was joined by the chatter of small-arms fire and the clatter of running footsteps. The 3D effect was far more immediate and more convincing now that we were this close. There was even a faint smell of smoke and of dampness, and a billow of heat from a fire at our backs. Only the absence of any actual rain hampered the suspension of disbelief. Long shadows moved across the walls of shattered buildings to our left: people running. A man screamed, and one of the shadows convulsed in mid-stride, threw up its arms and collapsed.

The woman’s face appeared once more, superimposed on the street scene to hover in the air before us. Her eyes held a great weariness that underlined her words. “Little Danilo, my younger brother, was killed in the first few days of the bombardment; my eldest, Toma, toward the end.” She spoke with a cold detachment that made her account all the more chilling. “Toma had joined the militia by then. No one lived long in the militia. The imminence of his death overshadowed the start of each new day like a pall and haunted our dreams at night, until it became reality. My mother fell ill not long after. By this stage there was no medicine—supplies had run out months before. We did our best, but all we had to offer her were prayers and love and comforting words. She didn’t leave her bed in the last two weeks and died the day before the cease-fire. My father never really recovered. Nor, in truth, did any of us.”

A caption appeared beneath the woman’s face: “Jasna Petrovic: Survivor,” it read.

“My name is Jasna Petrovic, and I was one of the lucky ones.”

With that, she was gone. The soundtrack had dwindled to nothing during her final declaration and now the scene faded too as the lights came back up, to leave us blinking at each other across a plain-walled room.

In a gauche display that the word ‘insensitive’ didn’t begin to cover, somebody beside me started clapping. I was mortified to realize that it was Alex.

“What?” he asked in the face of my glare. “It was a very good show.”

“For fuck sake, Alex …” I don’t swear as a rule, but he’d earned it.

I was eight months out of university and yet to decide what I wanted to do with my life. Alex was seven years older than me, worked in corporate finance for a company with offices on five worlds and had an apartment in the sort of complex my friends and I used to dream of seeing inside. He was big on team building and I would tease him that his favorite words were “bonding” and “incentive.”

As I looked around I noticed a middle-aged woman standing stock-still while everyone about her relaxed and chatted; an island of calm amidst the fidgeting. Tall, slender, she wore a burgundy suit—very smart and business-like—and was staring straight ahead, as if she could still see the harrowing scene long after the rest of us had lost it in the glare of brightened lights.

“Oh, come on, Ginny. She’s not real, you know,” Alex said, reclaiming my attention. “You do know that, don’t you? Just an actress hired to play the part, and her performance was outstanding, so I showed my appreciation.”

I wasn’t so sure. The narrator’s eyes and her voice—the whole presentation—seemed to resonate with sincerity to me. Of course, Alex would argue that it was meant to.

He turned away to talk to Gretchen and Hassan. I consulted my wrist perminal. A quick search of the local database revealed that there had been no fewer than seven Jasna Petrovics resident in Serna at the outbreak of the war. A flutter of fingertips brought a parade of images scrolling across the screen. I froze the sequence at one who might have been our narrator, though she was a lot younger when this was taken; and she was smiling, which was something she had never threatened to do during the presentation. I narrowed the search to images of this particular Jasna Petrovic and took great satisfaction in discovering that yes, the woman was genuine.

Her story and her suffering were real, whatever Alex might think.

He could have checked all this easily enough on his own perminal had he wanted to. He wouldn’t, of course; far too comfortable in his own false assumptions. Why risk undermining a declared cynicism with anything as inconvenient as the truth?

“If you’d like to follow me, ladies and gentlemen,” Malcolm, our slick, camp, white-suited guide said, “we have some wartime armament to show you next: a unique collection of genuine artillery pieces and weaponry that saw service during the siege and were recovered and restored at the end of hostilities.”

“Now we’re talking,” Alex said, flashing me a broad grin, taking it for granted that we two were collaborators in his enthusiasm.

He was soon chatting happily with Gretchen and Hassan—a couple we’d fallen in with since arriving here. None of them seemed to notice that I lagged a little behind.

Everyone knew the basic story of this place; that while the rest of the city was rebuilt and reshaped in the aftermath of the war, one large section of Serna had been kept as a ruin—though it hadn’t, of course; that was just the desired illusion. In fact this area too had been rebuilt, but in the image of its war-torn self. “Despite appearances, every element of the park is structurally sound” had been the message stressed repeatedly during the promo we’d watched prior to booking. This was a battleground sanctioned by health and safety.

Serna became the first, the biggest, the most famous Warzone Theme Park, and a previously obscure term entered common parlance: Wourism.

Our route from the projection room took us through a corridor lined with display cases housing various small items. I stopped before one: a child’s soft toy, a grimy orange-brown teddy bear, with the left eye missing and the left side of its face sooty and blackened.

Sensing my presence, an audio commentary started up, explaining that the bear had been pulled from the rubble of a flattened building during the cleanup. Nobody knew the name of its owner or if they’d survived, though several bodies were also recovered at the scene.

I became conscious of somebody standing beside me and looked round to see the woman in the burgundy suit. Close-up, she looked younger than I’d first thought, though her face had that lived-in quality which makes age such a difficult thing to judge.

We smiled at one another and she said, “I used to have a bear just like that, before the war.”

“Were you …?” I didn’t like to ask.

“I was in Serna during the siege, yes. I was eleven when it started.”

I had no idea what to say, rejecting several possibilities which struck me as little more than platitudes; the sort of thing that I would cringe about later.

Fortunately, Alex came back just then. “Come on, Ginny, keep up, it’s the big guns next.” So he had noticed my absence after all. I nodded to the woman and went with him.

The “big guns” proved to be imposing, grim, and soulless—chunky blocks of metal in grey or green, sheets of armor plating in pristine mottled camouflage paint, long barrels with gaping muzzles, compact but powerful flat-bodied drone tanks, swivelling turrets, field generators, heat-diffusion nets, projection boards, pulse guns, multiple missile launchers, a stack of lethally indiscriminate pepper mines, some “smart” bombs, a cluster of artillery shells standing on end and arranged aesthetically in order of size so that their tips created a graceful curve, even a pair of gleaming white snub-winged UAVs—which the hovering 3D sign haughtily designated “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.”

Alex got to sit in the control seat of one array, which gyrated in a series of rapid swivels and tilts under his inexpert control.

Gretchen tried to be sociable while Alex fooled around but I wasn’t in the mood. Despite having been genuinely moved by Jasna Petrovic’s account I was beginning to have serious misgivings about this trip. Alex and I had been together for six months now and this was our first time away as a “couple.” He’d been pressing me to move in with him in recent weeks. At that particular moment, I couldn’t have been more delighted that I’d demurred.

It wasn’t just Alex, though; it was Serna and all that the place represented.

The entire venture was a delicate balancing act. Initially, revenue from the park had helped to stimulate the local economy and contributed significantly to the city’s recovery. Recently, that economy had come to rely on the flow of income and jobs provided by the park. That was how I’d justified coming along in the first place: this wasn’t exploitation at all but something that actually benefited the local community. So, now that I was here, why did I feel vaguely … grubby? Why did this whole setup strike me as little more than morbid voyeurism?

“I might head back to the hotel for a long soak in the bath and a lie down …” I said to Alex as we left the big guns behind.

“What? Why?”

“Just feeling a bit tired.”

“Oh, come on, Ginny, you can’t desert me. You know I won’t enjoy myself if you’re not here.” Liar! “Besides, we’ve spent a lot of money to experience this park”—he meant that he had—“so let’s experience it! Plenty of time to lie down later … I’ll give you a back rub.” The accompanying leer offered a more honest indication of what he really hoped to give me.

I should have left at that point despite his objections but knew that he would be irritated and insufferable all evening if I did, so I stayed. To keep the peace; which held a certain irony given the setting.

It was warm outside but not oppressively so. Our party piled onto the minibus—a lozenge-shaped vehicle, its sides more glass than metal. I ended up sitting next to Hassan, with Alex beside Gretchen’s explosion of blonde curls in the seat directly in front of us.

There was no driver; the bus was electric and automatic, straddling a guide rail. Malcolm perched by the windshield and ran through his slick patter as we moved along damaged but eerily silent streets—empty apart from an identical bus a fixed distance ahead of us and another a similar distance behind. I listened with half an ear as Malcolm pointed out the school which famed songstress Andjela had attended as a child—now a ruin—and the church that had been struck by a shell in the midst of a packed service. The entire congregation survived without injury as the shell embedded itself in the pulpit and miraculously failed to detonate.

The bus became a sea of raised hands and perminals as people recorded the various sites for posterity, swaying in unison like wheat in the wind as Malcolm directed our attention from one side of the road to the other. Except for Alex, who had his head bowed and was doubtless using his own perminal to check the football scores.

Many of the buildings we passed were burned out or had their walls marred by strafing lines of bullet holes, recurring pockmarks forever chewed into their substance, while the roadway was frequently pitted by potholes and shell craters—it was often difficult to distinguish which was which—and I couldn’t help but wonder whether any restoration work had been carried out at all in some places. There was no attempt to let us out for a closer look.

Not for the first time I found myself wondering what the hell I was doing here. On this tour. In this relationship.

When the bus eventually stopped and we exited, I noticed that Gretchen was flirting with Alex. I also noticed that I didn’t care.

Thankfully, the authentic recreation of Serna Under Siege didn’t extend to lunch, which we were free to enjoy in a vast courtyard surrounded by an assortment of overpriced fast food outlets and souvenir shops. The place was packed. While we were on the bus the cloud cover had broken and it was now noticeably warmer. Alex went to find us something to drink and a marginally overweight man with red cheeks and sweaty forehead attempted to chat me up. I don’t think Alex even noticed. He came back with a couple of fruit-flavored waters—more ice than anything else—which we greedily sucked up through candy-striped plastic straws.

Gretchen and Hassan were lining up for something and Alex had disappeared in search of the men’s room when I spotted the woman in the burgundy suit again. On impulse I went across to her and said, in a classic example of transference, “Excuse me, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but why are you here?”

Her smile reassured me that she didn’t mind in the least. “To remember,” she said. “Time has a way of anaesthetizing things, of papering over wounds so that memories lose their edge, and I never want to forget what it was like during the siege, what we went through … the horrors that man is capable of inflicting on his fellows.”

Her answer stayed with me. On the surface you’d think she had the least reason of any of us to be here, but it turned out she was the only one with a reason that made real sense at all.

After lunch we regrouped and were ushered into an air-conditioned theater, far larger than the projection room where we’d encountered the shade of Jasna Petrovic. Ours was just one of several parties that were herded in here. I made a point of ensuring we sat next to the woman in the burgundy suit, telling myself that she was here on her own and would be glad of a familiar face. In fact, I suspect I took more strength from her presence than she did from mine.

For the best part of an hour we were treated to an illustrated talk by a Professor Something-or-Other, an eminent social historian retained by the theme park. He was animated, his descriptions vivid and the many images he employed graphic, but I could tell that Alex was getting restless. He didn’t want to hear about the grim realities of surviving the siege, of squalid conditions and dysentery and the bravery of hard-pressed civilians. He wouldn’t admit as much but the only reason he’d come here was for guns and explosions. To Alex, Serna was the ultimate wargame: he got to play where it really happened.

Not so long ago, his boyish enthusiasm matched with bullish self-confidence had seemed to me endearing, attractive. Now, I could only wonder why.

The following day was scheduled to be the centerpiece of the trip: the principal reason Alex had been so eager to come to Serna. We were to discover what it had been like to live here during the war, by taking part in a re-enactment. We would form our own unit of the local militia and fight a guerrilla action among the broken buildings and the rubble, defending the city against a heavily armed force of invading troops. I had already decided that Alex would enter the fray without me. That evening I intended to pack my bags and head for home.

The finale of the professor’s talk involved a frail and elderly man being helped onto the stage. He was introduced as a survivor of the Siege of Serna. We all clapped.

As the applause died away, Alex leaned over and murmured, “Yes, but it was all so long ago. What the hell does any of this really matter to anyone now?”

I glanced across at the woman in the burgundy suit. I’m sure that Alex had meant his words for my ears alone, but he’d spoken more loudly than necessary and the woman had clearly heard him.

Our eyes met. For an unguarded instant I saw the hurt there. She recovered quickly, even managing to smile, and at that moment it seemed that we two were the only real people in the room.

Original (First) Publication
Copyright © 2014 by Ian Whates


by Victoria Stauss

“Treated with unusual depth.”—Locus
“An intelligent, fascinating novel"—SF Site



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