“The Last War” – Fiction by Stu Watson

The Critic - Arthur Dove, 1925
The Critic – Arthur Dove, 1925

Pride and pettiness spiral into catastrophe in “The Last War,” Stu Watson‘s exquisitely  twisted short story from our Fall 2016 issue.

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LIKE MOST THINGS, THE LAST WAR BEGAN AS A DISPUTE BETWEEN A POET AND A CRITIC, one that, in its unfolding, ultimately tells us little about the nature of art but reveals volumes about the pettiness and stupidity of human beings.

You see, at a fashionable party in the most fashionable part of the city with all of the correct people in attendance, the preeminent literary critic of his generation, at least by his own estimation and by the stature of the publications for which he wrote, overheard, while discreetly positioned behind a large antique computer monitor, the following conversation.

“So, it seems ———— was not too keen on your latest book of odes…”

“No. But then, who cares for that self-infatuated gas bag’s opinions outside of the media itself? He’s like the ultimate ‘insider’s insider,’ so far inside as to be completely up his own ass! And what’s more, I have it on good report his children aren’t even his.”

It took all of his strength for the critic not to reveal himself on hearing this last remark, for it hit him immediately with the full force of truth. It explained so much, was in fact obvious, but somehow, in over twenty years of marriage, it had never occurred to him as even the remotest possibility. For a moment he felt freed, gifted with the grace of one newly converted, but almost immediately this faded, twisted, and he began to wonder: “How can this poet be so secure in his knowledge to say such a thing, and so casually? What special access to truth does this man have that I do not?” And so his mind began to turn about the possibilities, fixating as each minute passed more and more completely on the poet who had uttered this remark.

He left the party having given no inkling of his new knowledge to any of his literary associates. He almost marveled at himself, keeping quiet about such a juicy piece of gossip, until he recalled that, as he was the object of this particular bit of gossip, it was, in fact, quite likely that everyone else at that particular literary gathering was already all-too-aware of this information that was to him so marvelously new and surprising. That this only occurred to him as he was getting into the taxi outside of the building, having already wordlessly given the driver his address, struck him as fortunate.

On reaching his apartment he stood for a long time looking at the door, thinking, before turning around and walking several blocks to a hotel where he booked himself a room for the week. The next morning he sent a note over to his home via courier informing his wife that he was leaving her, that she likely knew why, and that he expected her to cooperate with his desire for a divorce. By the same courier she sent back a note saying that she was sorry, and that she understood. At the end of his week at the hotel, having brought a few pending affairs to a close, the critic went to the airport and booked a flight for Berlin that departed that evening. Thus it was that one of the most public careers in the world of literary arts journalism came to a sudden and abrupt conclusion, and though there were rumblings as to what might have caused his absconding from the scene so precipitously, the story of his wife’s infidelity was so old, so well-known, that few suspected it might have played any role at all in his vanishing.

But of course the critic did not vanish, was in fact very much present in beginning, in middle age, a radically new life. In Berlin he lived frugally, as was still possible in those days in some of the city’s redeveloping eastern regions. His reputation as a prominent man of letters made it so that he had had few difficulties in procuring status as a permanent resident in Germany, and so, safely established in his new home, he got to working his revenge.

It was neither the wife who had been unfaithful, nor the children he had raised who were not his, on whom his desire for revenge fixated; rather, singularly, all of his emotions regarding this outrageous and totally unexpected reversal in his life’s fortunes he attached, obsessively, to the person of the poet whose casual, offhand remark had opened his eyes to what should have been an obvious truth. This offense was too great for the critic’s judgmental nature precisely because it was, in its offing, unintended; nothing the poet could have ever done on purpose could have worked on the critic the insidious and totalizing transformation which this ill-timed jibe had manufactured.

For a year the critic learned everything he could about computers, about the protocols and security codes through which the internet was regulated, permissions granted, transactions made possible. His first teachers were teenagers he encountered in the internet cafes of Berlin, many of them little more than beginners themselves, but after a year he had developed a sufficient basic fluency, and as his skills improved, so too did his abilities to acquire and learn from more and more rarified teachers.

As he continued his immersion, his physical location became before long no barrier to the reach of his arcane coding abilities. Soon he was able to casually disrupt the flow of traffic in major cities around the world through carefully deployed viruses, unleashed on government servers by means of the pornography addictions of the various agencies’ employees. It was all too easy, once one acquired a few essential skills, how to probe for weakness, where to read about the newest network vulnerabilities unearthed by other members of his nefarious cohort of renegade coders, places where the servers of companies, of governments might be entered, entered and disrupted.

His long years of learning in isolation in Berlin had been aimed at acquiring the skills needed to create a computer virus with one purpose: to utterly erase every reference to the hated poet from the internet, and thus, once the poet was dead, from life. It would be his ultimate act of literary criticism, one so severe as to be totalizing to the point of invasion. That said, the poet had a rather unusual, three part name (for reasons of my own safety I have decided not to print either of the parties’ names here), of some obscure Scandinavian, perhaps Finnish, origin, and the critic reasoned that the number of instances in which that particular combination of three names might be used innocently would be few, few enough, indeed, to offer him no impediment to the working out of his insidious and invasive design.

His initial attempts were failures, viruses that never became sufficiently ubiquitous to begin to work their design across the entirety of the web. But eventually he saw successes. He was pleased, for instance, when a feature story on the poet, who was only gaining in eminence during the critic’s sojourn in Berlin, on one of the more prominent independent Brooklyn poetry websites, was rendered unreadable by his virus; but he was disappointed that the story on the more-prominent Chicago-based website covering the act of “internet vandalism” did not, itself, fall victim to his machinations. At least not immediately. Over the weeks and months that followed, he continued to improve his virus, deploying newer iterations on an almost daily basis, all with the same extremely specific design: destroy any web page that mentioned the hated poet.

At cocktail parties around New York the “internet vandalism” began to be an object of minor chit-chat, but of course no one associated it in any way with the disappearance of the formerly prominent literary critic, who by now everyone except a few graduate students interested in the phenomenon of white mediocrity in American magazine culture had completely forgotten. But the “vandalism” showed no signs of abating, and soon publications began to think twice about including the poet in their web-featurettes, sent back his poems with kind, sympathetic notes of rejection. Even print-only publications, dependent as they were on the web and certain online retailers for a large portion of their business, began to turn a blind eye to the poet’s submissions, reasoning no one was august enough to merit having to put up with a malicious, website-eating virus that might happen upon one’s publication and render it unreadable.

And so it was, just a few years after his casual remark and at a point when his career, by all opinion and by all merit, should have been soaring, the poet found himself completely unpublishable, and though he still maintained a teaching position at a prominent university, with the lack of publications his invitations to appear as a guest lecturer or speaker, invitations on which he depended to supplement his rather meager income as a teacher, also began to vanish, until he was at such a point of crisis that he was wandering back from his office, distractedly contemplating applying to the university’s dental program, half-seriously, half-on-a-lark, when he was struck by a car in the middle of a crosswalk and killed.

On learning of his rival’s sad fate, struck down still very much in the prime of middle age, the critic for a moment considered bringing his project to a conclusion, indeed he even looked into the prospects of shutting down his virus, but it was too late. The creation had changed, having been tinkered with and added to by other programmers intent upon their own nefarious designs, such that it was now beyond the control of its creator. And here the story would end, the poet dead and erased from the internet, the critic’s revenge seemingly complete, were it not for an unforeseen circumstance.

You see, the code that deleted the poet’s name was not good at discriminating; it would attack, with all of its wiles and diabolical numerical machinations, any page on which the name appeared that came to its attention as it was passed around the web, from computer to computer, leaping over national borders and through the air and under oceans, spreading mostly harmlessly but in a few places, servers, deploying, rendering garbled and unreadable any page containing the fatal name.

No one is exactly sure how the code found its way to the servers of the rogue North Pacific nation state. Was it in a pornographic video downloaded by one of the generals, by the country’s leader himself, or was it done harmlessly, a poor person trying to acquire a favorite song from childhood via proxy server? It remains a mystery, but whatever the method of infection was, the virus did find its way onto the servers of the rogue North Pacific nation state, and it did begin wreaking its disruptive havoc, deleting pages of internal code vital to the maintenance of that nation’s nuclear arsenal. Without knowing the precise, technical details of what occurred, we can only assume that in some crucial line of code, out of pure chance, for no reason at all, that is, completely innocently, the letters of the poet’s name appeared and that, once the virus had discovered this innocent coincidence, it, lacking all of its creator’s vaunted discernment, could not help but work its famed vandalism.

Whatever the means, the virus caused one of the country’s long range nuclear missiles to be launched at the capital city of a nearby nation, causing untold millions of deaths and casualties, and occasioning immediate and devastating response attacks, which in turn occasioned response attacks of their own, and before long the entire region had been reduced to a smoldering wasteland as land armies massed to do battle in radiation suits over what blasted resources remained.

And that is how a petty dispute between a poet and a literary critic caused the last war.

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Stu Watson by Greg Jundanian 3-15-16
photo by Greg Jundanian

STU WATSON is a writer, musician, and teacher living in Brooklyn. He is a founder and editor of Prelude, a Pushcart Prize winning journal of poetry and criticism. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Collapsar, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Flag + Void, Jacket 2, White Wall Review, The Opiate, and in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology. He is a PhD candidate in English Literature at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. For more information visit stuwatson.net

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