Mar 26 2013 2:45pm
Odds Against Tomorrow (Excerpt)
Check out Nathaniel Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow, out on April 2:
New York City, the near future: Mitchell Zukor, a gifted young mathematician, is hired by a mysterious new financial consulting firm, FutureWorld. The business operates out of a cavernous office in the Empire State Building; Mitchell is employee number two. He is asked to calculate worst-case scenarios in the most intricate detail, and his schemes are sold to corporations to indemnify them against any future disasters. This is the cutting edge of corporate irresponsibility, and business is booming.
As Mitchell immerses himself in the mathematics of catastrophe—ecological collapse, global war, natural disasters—he becomes obsessed by a culture’s fears. Yet he also loses touch with his last connection to reality: Elsa Bruner, a friend with her own apocalyptic secret, who has started a commune in Maine. Then, just as Mitchell’s predictions reach a nightmarish crescendo, an actual worst-case scenario overtakes Manhattan. Mitchell realizes he is uniquely prepared to profit. But at what cost?
Mitchel began to spend most of his time at the library. He requested books on the engineering of New York skyscrapers, bridges, and highways. He found information that he could draft directly into his fear reports. He learned, for instance, that three-quarters of all city water lines had exceeded their design life, many by a century. The suspender bars that held up the Brooklyn Bridge had been snapping with alarming regularity since 2010. If the four ventilation fans on either end of the Holland Tunnel were to break down, drivers would die of carbon monoxide poisoning before reaching New Jersey. More violent crimes were committed in the Thirty-fourth Street BDFM subway station than in any other in New York. On the RFK Bridge there had for many years stood a sign that read IN EVENT OF AIR ATTACK, DRIVE OFF BRIDGE.
He examined so many topographical and geological maps of the city that the librarian informed him, in a hushed voice, that he had been added to an FBI watch list. He printed out stacks of reports prepared by international aid groups and government agencies. He started to think of them exclusively as acronyms: FEMA , USCG , NOAA , NYSOEM, DHS, ARC , DOT, DIA . He devised an acronym to remember all the acronyms: FUNNY DADDI. Yes, just like Tibor and his rib-tickling tales of the Hungarian pogroms.
Mitchell became gluttonous for information. The disaster research he’d done in college now seemed amateur, pathetically incomplete. He’d never had access to such resources before—an endless supply of industry and government reports, internal corporate records, and the use of proprietary software that Alec Charnoble, his boss at FutureWorld, had imported from Brumley Sansome’s Risk department. But his greatest resource was time. For ten hours every day he was free to devour the raw data of disaster. The more he consumed, the more his appetite grew. The thousands of facts he ingested daily kept out Brugada, his parents, and the emptiness of his spooky, squalid orange-lit apartment. The facts were thrilling. Manhattan’s highest natural elevation was Bennett Park, an outcropping of schist in Washington Heights, 268 feet above sea level. Its lowest point was the Battery Park City Esplanade, seven feet above the Hudson River. A fault line ran across 125th Street and any day could trigger a magnitude 6 earthquake. Mitchell memorized the Richter scale and its equivalencies. An earthquake measuring 4.0 was equivalent to the detonation of a small atomic bomb; a 7.1 was as destructive as the largest thermonuclear weapon ever tested. A bout twenty 7.0s occurred annually, and one 8.0. The only thing in this world that could compare with the propulsive energy of an 8 or 9 earthquake was a previous 8 or 9 earthquake. In the great Panamanian quake of 1882, an 8.1, the force of the tremor broke some coastal homes in two. A young married couple, who slept on adjacent single mattresses, awoke to find themselves separated by a widening bay, their house split clean in half—she on the mainland, he on a tiny islet drifting away from her, into the sea.
Hurricanes were measured by the Saffir-Simpson scale, winds less than 118 mph by the Beaufort scale. Tornadoes were charted by the Fujita scale, named after Professor Tetsuya Fujita of Kitakyushu, Japan, a man known in press reports as “Mr. Tornado.” Through his work on tornado classification, Mr. Tornado discovered a peculiar meteorological phenomenon that he named a “microburst.” A microburst was a strong, localized air current that caused wind to change direction and speed rapidly. Mr. Tornado determined that this freakish phenomenon was responsible for most unsolved airline crashes. Mitchell had never heard of microbursts before and was terrified by the thought of them. The microburst, he decided, was Brugada’s meteorological equivalent: a small vector of chaos that could destroy life, unexpectedly, at any moment. For a long time he paused over the microbursts.
FEMA advised American citizens to keep in their homes, at all times, an emergency supply kit. This kit was to contain a wrench or pliers to disable utilities, a whistle, and a NOAA weather radio with tone alert. Books, games, and puzzles were also recommended. Disasters were like crime scenes: after the initial violence there was a lot of waiting around. If you kept yourself entertained, there was less opportunity for panic.
The new information crystallized in his brain. Wasn’t this the work he was born to do? His juvenile obsessions had prepared him well. He sometimes wondered whether he could remember details about emergencies more vividly than anecdotes from college or childhood. As he worked his mind opened up and he plowed himself into it. Brain ate heart. That’s not to say he was turning cold or emotionless—just the opposite. The bad news brought a rush of excitement; it fortified, too. It reached an intimate part of him. It didn’t merely feed his fears, it also fed his fascinations. The information had a way of seeping into his higher thoughts. After a while he began to feel that he was the information.
He went further afield, into doomsday prophecy and eschatology. It was tremendous fun. He read Nostradamus, Malthus, Alvin Toffler. He read Prophets and he read Revelation. Seven-headed dragons, locusts with man-faces wearing crowns of gold, a sea of glass mingled with fire—Mitchell loved Revelation. The Christians were excellent worst-case scenarists, even better than the Jews. They were terrified in Technicolor: green dragons, swirling orange fires of hell, scarlet demons.
During consultations his clients nervously swiveled in their ergonomic leather-padded office chairs as he guided them through scenes from Hell. It felt good to spread the darkness around. Misery liked company, but Misery loved a party festooned with rotting flowers, gaudy balloons inflated with cyanide gas, human piñatas.
Before long Mitchell had established a repertoire. With a new client he began by discussing Sino-American military conflict, and for the next several meetings he rounded out the war quartet with hour-long sessions on Iran/Israel, India/Pakistan, and the Koreas, war-gaming the rapid ascension to regional, then total nuclear war. Five thousand nukes were on active, hair-trigger alert all over the world, many aimed at financial centers. Even a “small,” regional nuclear war, such as Iran and Israel exchanging bombs, would kick up enough ash and particulate residue to dim the sun and cause global crop failure. A billion people would starve to death. Buried beneath the Ural Mountains, in the heart of Russia’s nuclear command and control system, there existed a doomsday device code-named PERIMETR. Though it was built during the Soviet era, it remained operational. Should Russian leadership be overthrown, a computer would automatically send launch orders throughout the country to nuclear missiles that would fire to all corners of the world. Half of mankind would be vaporized.
He then turned to public health scares:the mass production of tainted meats;the poisoning of the water supply;a gas explosion in the sewers;an airborne toxin that escapes from a chemical factory on a windless day and floats into a major city;an explosion at a nuclear power plant, such as Indian Point, just thirty-five miles from New York. Indian Point sat on the intersection of two active seismic zones—a fact that was not known when the plant was built in 1962. Then there was the possibility of a pandemic. It would originate in Asia, perhaps Thailand. A little girl who tends the chickens on her family farm wakes up with a fever and a headache. The next day she can barely move; by evening she has developed a painful cough, vomits blood. The desperate parents roll her in a wheelbarrow to the nearest hospital, where X-rays show a shadowy white mass, about the size of a penny, in one of her lungs. The girl dies, horribly, two days later, but not before she has sprayed billions of viral particles into the air around her. Hospital workers carry the disease home to their families and transmit it to fellow commuters on the public buses. A few days after that a woman boards an airplane at Suvarnabhumi Airport headed for San Francisco. She has a headache and a mild sore throat. Within two weeks, sixty million people are dead.
Mitchell segued gracefully into a special feature on terrorism: attack by post; bombing by shoe, suitcase, or truck; air attack; attack by radioactive agent; suicide bombings on Fifth Avenue and Wall Street. A cyberattack releases the account numbers, passwords, and holdings of the clients of a major international bank. A cyberattack reveals corruption in the Supreme Court. A cyberattack launches bombs (see War, above).
Then earthquakes, floods, wildfires, and tsunamis. He learned that scientists had detected fault lines in a five-mile-wide volcano situated on La Palma, one of the westward Canary Islands. When an eruption causes the crater, and its half-trillion tons of rock, to break apart and slide into the ocean—and this is a geological inevitability, only a matter of time—it will trigger the largest tsunami in recorded history. The great wave will travel across the ocean faster than an airplane. It will take eight hours to reach the Atlantic Seaboard, by which time the crest will be half a mile above sea level—more than twice the height of the Empire State Building. And then that wave will crash.
There were also the threats of a solar storm that would reset the planet’s magnetic field, a deep freeze, hailstorm, hurricane, tornado, asteroid, volcano.
“There is no volcano in New York City,” said Nybuster.
“That’s what you’d like to believe,” replied Mitchell. “You would like to believe that very much.”
A few sessions—a reprieve, really—on minimal, localized assaults:employee sabotages company’s finances; employee leaks industry secrets to competition; employee blows his brains out at his desk; employee goes on office-wide shooting rampage. A gun is fired in the United Nations. Sarin gas is released into the subway system. A n aqueduct that supplies drinking water to the city is poisoned. The complications he explored were extravagantly detailed, tendinous, delicious.
Finally, large-scale fiscal fiasco: the dollar collapses; a major foreign currency fluctuates violently; the real estate market slides eighty percent; the World Bank files for bankruptcy; commodities soar, leading to food riots and political instability. And peak oil millenarianism: electric grid crash; the collapse of industrial agriculture, travel, and international trade; a return to premodern agrarian life; mass starvation; the wilding of the suburbs.
The research came easily enough, but Mitchell struggled to prepare scripts for his presentations. Before each meeting, misshapen blocks of facts drifted through his mind with jagged edges that never properly aligned. He glanced at his notebook and found nothing but disarranged sentences and abandoned phrases, with no logical progression between them. It was only when he began to speak, his clients struggling to determine the veracity of what he was saying, that he could truly visualize the horrors he was paid to predict. His eyes would float faraway and water slightly, and a Cassandra prophecy would unfold in full paragraphs. Occasionally he thought of the street preachers on the busy midtown corners spouting revelation fantasy—and felt momentarily sick. But he forced himself to remember that with him it wasn’t phony spiritualism. It wasn’t an act. It was more like a feat of transference.
He was visiting the place he often went at night, after the cockroaches stopped scurrying up the walls of his stomach and he shuddered into a restless semiconsciousness. It was a nightmare city, a phobopolis. It came to him in a blur of flashing metal and glass. The chaotic anxiety of his bullet-train dreams would abate, like the players of an orchestra finishing their tuning exercises just before the theater lights dim, and he’d find himself in a silent, glass-windowed apartment. He was high off the ground, so high that he couldn’t see the bases of the other skyscrapers. The sky was a rich, bright blue and the enormous steel edifices soared both as high and as low as he could see. He suspected that the towers never stopped, but extended infinitely in either direction. They were slender, the towers, and they swayed lightly. In the windows of the other skyscrapers stood people, peering out, just like him.
He found it calming, during consultation meetings, to imagine that his clients were the skyscraper dwellers from his dreams, staring forlornly from their glass windows, emasculated by anxiety. Seeing them there, imprisoned in their identical white rooms and looking back at him with straining eyes, Mitchell regained his nerve and began to speak about what would happen when disaster struck.
It also helped when they sweated. Whenever Mitchell held client meetings in his office, Charnoble turned the thermostat five degrees higher—just warm enough for beads of perspiration to appear beneath collars and in armpits, but not enough to make it plainly uncomfortable. After all, it was always at least twenty degrees warmer outside. It had been a savage, unusually arid summer, and the heat was getting into the brain. It had begun to appear on the release forms filled out by prospective FutureWorld clients. When asked for the most immediate challenges to the health of their business, two different representatives—from a perfume company and a firm that manufactured artificial sweeteners—had cited “catastrophic drought.” It had been a slow summer for news, and the tabloids trumpeted stories that normally wouldn’t have received front-page headlines. The city had been spared blackouts, but during a particularly strong heat wave in July, when the temperature hit 106, cars broke down in the streets and city workers watered the George Washington Bridge with fire hoses to prevent it from locking when its plates expanded. The Delaware and Catskill reservoir systems were in danger of emptying, and boilwater advisories were issued on the worst days. Plant watering was discouraged; bottled water was hoarded. The streets became strangely quiet. The Department of Health and Public Hygiene issued statements advising New Yorkers to “Slow Down”and “Think Cool Thoughts.” At John Day High School a fifteen-year-old football player, after being denied a water break by his coach, sat down Indian-style on the fifty-yard line and expired. The coach was charged with manslaughter. (Mitchell suspected Brugada.) In Ridgewood, the corpses of Harold and Caroline Crowder, who had been married more than sixty years, were found in an elevator that had become stuck between the first and second floor of their home. The excessive heat in the steel box had melted their kidneys.
The coverage of the heat wave and the drought, however exaggerated, seemed to contribute to the anxiety that had settled like a poisonous cloud over the country after Seattle. This worked to FutureWorld’s advantage. Nothing better prepared the mind for future fears than present anxieties. And so the ads were being clicked more frequently, and clients like Nybuster were discussing FutureWorld confidentially at midtown lunches, in Ivy League clubhouses, in Southampton swimming pools. More New Yorkers were beginning to wonder what the future might cost them.
On August 16, FutureWorld signed its fiftieth client. Charnoble mentioned that Brumley would be happy to consider a new office.
Mitchell’s mother—decent, homespun Rikki in Overland Park—fretted about him. She began to call more frequently.
“I’m just not sure it’s so healthy.”
“The scenarios, they’re a type of logic game. A puzzle.”
“These things you’re reading so much about—are you afraid of them actually happening?”
Mitchell bit his lip.
Rikki snorted. She always could tell when he was full of it.
“You know your father still has nightmares about the revolution. I worry you’ve somehow inherited his fears.”
“Everyone has fears. It’s just a matter of controlling them. You must have fears yourself.”
“Of course I do. Senility. The Zukorminiums—what a job they’re doing on poor Tibor. And concern for my son’s well-being. That most of all.”
“So how do you overcome them?”
“I try to put them out of mind. A void a roving imagination and idle reveries.”
“I have a different strategy,”said Mitchell. He leaned back in his chair, his free hand gravitating to his head. The hair was getting thinner, it seemed. When he grabbed a fistful and pulled, several strands came away. Was this normal? The orphaned hairs collected on his desk. “I imagine a scenario in the greatest detail possible. That way I can figure out how unlikely it is to come true. Fearing the worst usually cures the worst.”
“You’re in New York now. You don’t have to deal with all the little indignities of small-town life. Or slumlord life. Everything is just so little here.”
“Sometimes I feel like a slumlord. Only the slums are inside me.”
“Um, just that I feel— ”
“Stop with the nonsense. Listen, you have a good job. You are your own man. You don’t have to be afraid of vast global tragedies that will not harm you. These scenarios are abstractions. Put yourself in the world. Be a person of action. Go outside. Take a walk in the park. I’m worried you’re burying yourself under books and charts.”
“A bomb on the crosstown bus would harm me,” said Mitchell passionately. “It would harm me a lot.”
He closed his eyes and saw bright sky, metallic dazzle. He was exhausted. An excess of fear did that to him. It exhausted his clients too. Ned Nybuster, of Nybuster, Nybuster, and Greene, lasted just over a month of meetings before losing his patience. By the end of August he had begun pacing around the room, nodding absently during Mitchell’s presentations.
“Be honest with me, Zukor. Nanobot invasions? Really?”
A look of concern flashed over Charnoble’s face, but by now he knew better than to interrupt.
“All right,” said Mitchell. “I will get into the heavy shit.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear,” said Nybuster. “Extreme terrorism? The bosses want to know more about that.”
Mitchell paused. He needed to try a new tactic with Nybuster. He remembered the street preacher on Lexington Avenue. There was something to that man’s act. The feverishness of it, the hotblooded fantasy, the grand emotions. If a man attired in a brown canvas tunic cinched with string could make a living at it, then why couldn’t Mitchell? What did he have to lose? He counted silently to ten, then inhaled deeply.
“The End of Days.”
“And that would be?”said Nybuster, smirking.
“One day your employees start complaining about insomnia. Many of them call in sick. Those who do show up wear gloves in the office and never remove them. Why? you ask. They don’t respond.”
“Show me your hands, you say. They refuse to show you. You physically force your secretary to remove her gloves. The gloves are filled with blood.”
Charnoble was getting a look that Mitchell hadn’t seen since their first meeting together—a white sheet of paper passing over his face.
“You run her hands under the faucet,” Mitchell continued. “When the blood drains away, you can see the identical cuts on both her palms. The cuts are in the shape of a cross. You see what I mean.”
“Actually? I don’t.”
“She has received the stigmata.” He watched Nybuster closely for his reaction. It seemed to be taking. He thought of his father walking door-to-door in east Kansas City, selling the poor bastards on the merits of life in the Zukorminiums. So this is what it was to sell. Tibor hocked Zukorminiums; Mitchell hocked fear.
Charnoble busily screwed his fingernails into the palm of his hand. It appeared that he was trying to give himself a stigmata.
“The stigmata. You see, your secretary is one of the chosen ones.”
“Chosen? For what?”
“You wake up the next morning to the sound of a trumpet call. The sun is turning black, like a rotten lemon. At the northern end of Broadway, seven horses appear in the middle of the avenue. They are as white as ivory. Astride the beasts are horsemen cloaked up to their eyes in dark canvas garments. The horses begin to march downtown.
“The East River has turned into blood. The Harlem into blood. The Hudson—also blood. Blood spurts out of the tap. There is a red ring around the shower drain. Blood comes out of there too.”
Nybuster was baffled. Baffled, but transfixed. Mitchell could tell what Nybuster was thinking: Where is this maniac going? What’s next? And that was the crucial question. As long as Nybuster wanted to know what happened next, the consultations would continue, and so would the referrals, the money, the information. The whole exhilarating cycle of doom.
“The blood is thick and dark, almost black,” said Mitchell. “It clots the pipes. Plants and crops start to wither. People raid supermarkets for bottled water. When that runs out, they start drinking the blood.”
Nybuster stared in wonder. Charnoble was pressing one hand over his mouth.
“The blood is nothing like normal human blood. It tastes awful.”
“Zukor? Are you all right? Alec, is he all right?”
“This taste,” said Mitchell, “this is the taste of the future.”
Excerpted from Odds Against Tomorrow: A Novel by Nathaniel Rich, to be published in April 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Nathaniel Rich. All rights reserved.