The ultimate Grand Theft Auto: jihadists, drugs cartels, US Marines and ex-cons
February 11, 2015
Syria, or what's left of it, has become a kind of psychopath's playground under Islamic State. The latest figures US intelligence figures this week show that 20,000 young men have flocked there, either looking for some meaning to their lives, or the chance to play jihadist superhero or paradise-bound martyr. There, they can indulge in a kind of Grand Theft Auto style murder and rape spree, safe in the “knowledge” that if they die, they go to heaven and can simply carry on the eternal video game there. Islamic State caters to the murderous instincts of young men brainwashed by religious zealots, warped by the constraints on their sexuality, and filled with rage, either from the lack of opportunities at home in oppressive police states or, in the case of jihadists from Europe, from the racism they have probably encountered. Slavery, torture, mass rape, throwing suspected gay men off the rooftops of high buildings or burning prisoners alive in cages – it's a free-for-all for people who straddle the terrifying border between sanity and madness, a volcano of violent outpourings.
It reminded me a little of a passage I wrote for Cronix, which I cut from an early draft because the book was too long.
In the passage, Oriente has started working as a 'gargoyle,' one of the workers throwing people in party costumes off the top of the Empire State Building so they can reach a virtual reality paradise inside the Orbiter, a super-computer at anchor in Earth's upper atmosphere. One day, he is joined by a new Scottish co-worker Keir, who recounts his story:
He was as talkative as Oriente was taciturn, and the one-sidedness of the conversation seemed to suit both men. Keir explained he was from a small town just outside of Glasgow but had been living in the States for years, many of them spent in prison. That a heavily tattooed man should have done jail time was no surprise to Oriente. Keir said he would have been deported under the old system, but, as he noted with satisfaction, the old system was rapidly breaking down.
“So I was banged up for a while there in Oregon of all places,” he told Oriente as they tossed a hysterically laughing, overweight man over the edge. “Got fifteen years for trying to blow up a dam.”
“Why were you trying to blow up a dam?” Oriente stood on the yellow-painted ledge, watching the man’s tiny arms and legs flail as he hurtled towards oblivion.
“To allow the salmon to return to the river,” said Keir, between greeting a young couple dressed, inexplicably, as giant insects – cockroach appeared to be the look they were trying for, to guess by the drooping antennae, but the outfits were not well enough made to be sure. Keir shrugged, then grinned as he took the young man’s hand and guided him over. The male roach pulled his girlfriend over with a scream.
“I was what they call an eco-terrorist.” Keir grinned. “You see, the river was dammed to power an aluminum smelter, so that people could get their piss-poor American beer in convenient little cans, and fuck the environment,” said Keir in his Scots burr. “And for twenty years this dam prevented salmon from reaching their spawning ground. They swim up thanks to some ancestral instinct, then die in the sluice channels of the fuckin’ dam. All so we can drink Miller Lite. So we thought we’d liberate them with a couple of hundred pounds of C4. But we got picked up before we could spring the damn thing.”
While Keir was behind bars, the Exodus had started to take off. The sheer number of people going over to the new afterlife had powered a geometric boom in the power of the super-computers into which the saved souls were fed. These computers were now solving all sorts of thorny scientific problems, from nuclear fusion to simulating the elusive, evocative smells of childhood. Instead of lab-supervised uploads overseen by experts and doctors, simple chip implants could now be carried out by technicians. One day, a man from the private corporation that ran the prison where he was doing time offered him a choice – he could either stay in his cell for his full term, or he could slash his sentence and work on a new chip-powered venture that the company was developing.
And that was how Keir came to live for almost two years in Detroit. The decaying centre of the Motor City had been emptying of its inhabitants for years before the revolutionary new technology appeared: violence, poverty and the decline of the American car manufacturing industry had already put it way ahead of the new depopulation curve. But Detroit had one last hurrah in store before it was swallowed again by Mother Nature. A conglomerate had bought up large swathes of the crumbling downtown and, inspired by a number of rural paintball centres that had recently swapped their splatter guns for AK47s, created an urban theme park based on the classic computer game Grand Theft Auto. Except here, you really could spray passers-by with automatic rifle fire, run over pedestrians or snipe cops, indulge in all the gratuitous violence of the infamous, infinitely popular game. Frat boys and gun nuts were swarming to Detroit in their thousands, and the company needed extras to be shot dead in liquor stores or run over in high speed chases. For that, it looked to America’s prison system, where a million inmates languished unproductively.
“Life expectancy was four to six days,” said Keir, as he and Oriente sat in the staff canteen that lunchtime, Oriente quietly listening to the eco-terrorist’s tale. “It was like a fucking extermination camp, except that no one actually died, technically speaking. ‘Four to six plus eternity,’ they said, like it was a plea bargain.They had the whole city ring-fenced off, not so much to stop us cons getting out as to prevent punters sneaking in without paying. If you were really cheap, you’d go in with no weapon, but if you wanted to last a day or two and get some real sport in, you’d have to buy your own arsenal from the company gun shops. Once you were in, you robbed and killed and stole and raped. They gave me a hundred bucks, just so I could get fucking robbed of it. It was wild, man, you’ve never seen the likes. They chipped us and dropped us off at whatever porn store or fake Seven Eleven we were supposed to be running, told us to act like shopkeepers when there’s these fucking tooled-up frat boys running round blasting every last thing that moved. I was like, fuck that, I’m out of here. Ditched the video arcade I was supposed to be manager of and lit out, though I didn’t have a gun or nothing.
“I kept to the alleys and side streets, hopped over walls and all that, until I find this abandoned apartment with some furniture and tins of food in it and I could stop and think for a bit. Like, what the fuck am I gonna do here? There’s gunfire all over the fucking place and bodies in the street and burning cars and shit, it’s worse than Beirut or Sarajevo, and I’m wishing I was back in jail. Seriously, man.
“ Anyways, the place was rigged with CCTV cameras, cos’ it seemed the whole fucking shooting match was being streamed live on the Internet – it was like advertising the business, but they also had ads up for guns and ammo and porn sites, so they could squeeze an extra buck out of it. ‘See poor Keir get capped while you chomp down your cheesey-flavor Cheetos, ya fat American fuck.’ So the management sees me running like a fucking rabbit and phones me up. I mean, the phone in the apartment was still working, and so they just fucking called me, just like that. And they tell me to get the fuck back to the store or I’ll not get my reprieve. And I’m like, ye fuckers, ye just want to see me get whacked. And they said, 'Well, yeah, that's what you're in for.' But I figured I may as well go, ‘cause there’s only one way out and that’s in a bodybag. So I’m coming back and I find this big fat NRA fucker lying drowning in a pool of his own guts, right outside my shop, and some other dude who he’s just been shot in the head lying on the other side of the street, and both of them is armed to the feckin’ teeth. So I grab their irons and I head back to my crappy little shop. And the first kids who come in waving their guns, I fucking blast them away. Like, I’ve never shot anyone before, been in a few pub fights for sure and all, but I never actually killed anyone, and here I am wasting these fucking college kids in some dumb little arcade in Detroit. But I did it, and figured it was what it was there for. I put their bodies outside on the street. There was just two of them, but I had to move them after a while because it was summer and they started to reek something rotten. Whole place stank to high heaven, though there was service crews in armoured vans that would come around from time to time and pick up the bodies and restock the food stores and that.”
Keir and Oriente had finished their sandwiches while the Scot recounted his story. They started back for the gargoyle gallery. Keir kept talking over the screams of the departing, over the whoops of glee and through the wind that whipped around the Empire State.
“So I survive my first fuckin’ day. Next day, this guy comes in, and he’s got his pistol holstered and I ask him what the fuck he wants. And get this. He goes, “This is a games arcade, right?” And I stare at him and point to the fuckin’ games that are beeping and makin’ all sorts of ridiculous noises, and I nod aye, and he asks me for twenty bucks worth o’ coupons. So I look under the counter and blow me, there’s all these fuckin’ coupons and the guy starts playing this racing game, while there’s gunfire in the streets and cars shooting past at 150 miles an hour. And when he’s finished he tells me there’s this dive bar round the corner and did I fancy getting a cold one and I says fuck yeah, so off we go and there’s this bar with everyone done up like fuckin’ Rambo, and we get trashed ‘coz this guy’s got some dosh and I’ve got the ton they gave me to get robbed of and spice up the game for the punters. And it’s weird, ‘coz nobody wanted to shoot anyone else in the bar, coz’ that would mean it shut down and they couldn’t chill and get a fucking’ drink and swap hunting stories. And the bar’s run by these Latino gangbusters who wouldn’t take any shit anyways, and they’re making a stack charging twenty bucks for a bloody Coors. And you know what they say about American beer being like sex in a canoe? Ye hear that one? ‘Coz they’re both fucking close to water…'”
Oriente was starting to like his new partner. The story, the strange accent, were a welcome diversion as the day wore on and he discovered how Keir had hooked up with the gang who ran the bar. After a few days of frequenting the place, robbing and killing his arcade punters to pay his tab, the Guatemalans had offered him a job as a driver. They had collected some of the best cars in the city and started prowling for victims to rob. The game organizers loved what they termed the “organic evolution” of a genuine, killer gang of Latino (and one Scottish) convicts. Punters followed them on the Internet and formed their own teams to try and challenge their supremacy on the block. Other ex-cons joined them, and for six months they fought for their patch, drinking and whoring and killing. Keir got himself his tats to secure his place in his new tribe. It was much better than prison now. And when one of them died, as frequently happened, he gained access to one of the afterworlds, just like any paying clients.
Inevitably though, it had to end. The Murder City had become wildly popular and was drawing crowds of gun nuts, hunters and existential gamers from around the world. Private contractors started putting out feelers for ever more exotic foes for their clients to tangle with, buying off sections of the mercenary armies that were still slogging it out in half-forgotten wars across the world. Keir’s gang found themselves locked in turf battles with a group of religiously indoctrinated, but terrifyingly savage, children from the Lords Resistance Army fresh from the Ugandan bush, who tortured captives to death in unimaginably grisly ways. Several of them were taken out by a squad of US Marine snipers, who were also battling a cell of Afghan Mujahedin who had objected to the sale of alcohol and tried to take out the bar with a suicide bomber. The blast killed Enrique, the Guatemalan’s enigmatic leader, and suddenly the coherence of the group was gone. There was a struggle for succession between two Guatemalans from LA, which resulted in a bloody factional war. Keir refused to take sides and slunk off one night, once more alone against the world. He returned to his slot machine arcade to await his inevitable slaughter.
But the next day his phone rang. He guessed it was one of the gang’s lieutenants wanting to cajole him into joining his side. To his utter astonishment, however, he heard the voice of some middle management douche, offering him a new job. One of the armoured trucks had been ambushed while delivering beers to a company-licensed bar (“another way they screwed money out of the punters,” Keir explained) and they needed a new team. Since he knew the cityscape well by now, he was a perfect candidate. The work was safer, though obviously far from actually being safe. But Keir had kept his head down and his wits about him, and eighteen months later discovered he was only the third con to survive long enough to actually earn his reprieve Earthside. He was free.