Two hundred years ago, the world was reset by nuclear war between its two superpowers: China and America. Lakes and rivers irradiated at a stroke; the trees burnt to sticks; the grass, rinsed of its lushness, left scorched and cut raw. The Earth had been scalped.
The cities turned to unnavigable piles of rubble, the metros given over to mutants and lawless gangs, good-faith rescinded in favour of survival. Every day was a battle. Humanity was down but despite this desolation, not necessarily out.
Right up to the moment the bombs fell, capitalism was still doing its work, inventing ways to monetise the terror of ordinary, hardworking American families. For a small fee, Vault-Tec Industries could guarantee a spot for you and your family in one of its patented Nuclear Holocaust-proof vaults. Here, buried deep in the mountains or far underground, you could wait out in comfort and style, the armageddon raging above. Against the ever-louder backdrop of bellicose rhetoric, business boomed.
200 years later, you, the “vault-dweller”, emerge from the refuge of your vault just outside of D.C and step into the “Capital Wasteland”: what the post-apocalyptic desert surrounding D.C has been dubbed by its surviving inhabitants. You are ready to help or hinder those survivors and shape yourself against that wasteland however you wish. The world that was destroyed was a world in which domestic technology and popular culture stopped developing beyond the wireless and jazz music, but where military technology had advanced unstoppably beyond laser rifles and nuclear hand grenades.
When I was a boy of 16, my obsession with video games reached critical mass. I hold my hands up and admit that most of the time that I should have spent thinking about quadratic equations or the molecular structure of hydrocarbons, I actually spent within my imagination. At least, in what had become of it.
You see, teenagers who play video games are almost certainly mentally damaged. Their minds become like solar-powered bulbs threatening to burst under the glare of the images that the games expose them to. Video games don’t respect the collaboration between imagination and environment that aids our minds in the production of organic creative thoughts. Instead, they burn fragmentary images from themselves into our sub-consciousness, like the ashen outlines of bodies caught in an atom blast. At the same time, they addict us to the feel of it, making us want to prise the wound’s edge further and further apart and let more of the images in.
It was on one of the nights I spent in my room basking in the cold glow of my television that I finally heard that voice. Discovery: this was the aspect of the game that I enjoyed most. There was the potential to discover evidence of lives once lived around every corner, whether it be the maintenance-log in an old computer terminal; something scribbled on a scrap between lovers; a message warning of danger to be carried onwards, found undelivered next to blackened bones. All these echoes reverberated back through time to the loner that I was in my bedroom, and drove me to find more hidden scraps, chasing the ghosts of human contact.
This voice was different, though. Deep underground, creeping around a newly discovered vault somewhere in the wilderness, I felt like I was breaking open a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. I penetrated down through the upper levels and found myself in an old dormitory. The bunks were rotten and rusted, the lights flickering, the ceiling low and dripping, and the occupants long since vanished.
Sitting on a table in the corner, though, there was a wireless with its frequency gauge a dim yellow bubble in the gloom. I drew nearer and I realised I could hear a voice – her voice – one bearing the tremulous sorrow of the clarinet. It rose out of the gentle swaying of its jazz backing like clay shaped upwards on the potter’s wheel. Its softness nourished the rust all around, and it crackled like a low flame in the dark.
It was eerie to stand there and listen to this song on repeat, probably the first to do so for years and years. “Without your love, I’m like a plane without wings, a violin with no strings”, it went. Those simple words had gone round and round unheard, as the world above rained hell upon itself. I stood there and listened to the wireless play its crackling song over and over again and it struck me that this was the first thing I had experienced in this world that genuinely moved me. It was like her lips were on my ear and I could feel the wetness of her breath. It sent shivers down my spine. The fuzz of the wireless sounded like the ocean in a shell.
Eventually, I found my way out of the vault and back into the real world, leaving behind me the chaos and the ruin of time misspent. But I took that voice and that song with me into the light of day. One day my gran was visiting my house and I was singing its opening line. It took me by surprise when she finished it off for me. “It’s a Billie Holiday song”, she told me, “called Without Your Love. She was a jazz singer in the 30s and 40s. Long dead now, of course.” I know it sounds stupid but it hadn’t dawned on me until that moment that the song I had heard was a real one. Perhaps overexposure to video games had numbed my inquisitiveness, but I just assumed that the soundtrack had been newly recorded for the game.
Almost as soon as I had brought her out of the cyber world and into the real one she seemed to die to me in both. But it doesn’t matter. Love can sometimes leave our hearts like wasteland, scorching their earth, but the sound of her voice, and the touch of her simple words wrap me up and help me to forget the armageddon raging above. That voice still moves me, and whether its just a fragment of a recording from the past in this world or any other, or if she herself was singing it into my ear, it makes no difference to that.