8 November Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment Interdependence Day Gaudeamus Igitur. Every year a group of E.T.A. students around the ages of 12-15 get obsessed with a highly complex game called Eschaton. No one knows who brought it to the academy, though Pemulis was the one to “make it way more compelling.” In the game, unused tennis balls represent nuclear warheads, and the players are called Combatants. Pieces of clothing symbolize different territories, resources, and forms of infrastructure. The “warheads” must be launched with tennis rackets. The E.T.A. administration possibly permits students to play Eschaton because it is really another form of tennis practice.
It should come as little surprise that the ritual game E.T.A. students play is a highly complex representation of international relations and warfare. Equally unsurprising is that it is a game so close to tennis practice that the E.T.A. officials allow it to take place as part of training. Eschaton becomes another way in which E.T.A. students revel in their own precociousness.
Each year a different student is appointed as gamemaster and “statistician of record,” and this year it is Otis P. Lord. Adjudicating the game can be very difficult, as each game features an avalanche of detailed developments. The damage that warheads would do to the precise regions they hit is precisely calculated. It is Interdependence Day, “an E.T.A. day of mandatory total R&R,” and Hal, Pemulis, and Troeltsch sit together on the pavilion by the East tennis courts, where Eschaton is being played. Hal refuses a toke of the “psychochemical cigarette” the others are sharing; while he wants to get high, he hates doing it in front of other people.
Now that the U.S. is part of the mega-nation O.N.A.N., Independence Day has been replaced with Interdependence Day. This passage shows how difficult it is for Hal to unwind. His shame around getting high in front of other people overpowers his desire to get high in the first place. At the same time, it is perhaps little wonder that Hal has trouble relaxing, considering that he has spent his life in an institution where both work and “R&R” are scheduled in “mandatory” doses.
Shortly after, however, when Axford absent-mindedly passes the blunt to Hal, Hal accepts it and finds himself “smoking dope in public without even thinking about it.” All the older boys are now deeply absorbed in the Eschaton game unfolding in front of them. It begins to snow for the first time that fall. Pemulis, the reigning Eschaton champion and authority over the game, keeps track of the score with a pencil and clipboard. Desperately trying to add up the numbers, Lord has a moment of total confusion and appeals to Pemulis for help, but Pemulis refuses.
This passage explores the intense social hierarchies that develop within an enclosed community like a boarding school. Hal and his friends have a position of authority due to their seniority. In Pemulis’s case, this authority is increased by his victorious track record in Eschaton—so much so that he feels it would be improper for him to help Lord.
Lord bursts into tears, and Pemulis finally intervenes, yelling at a young student called J.J. Penn. An argument erupts over whether the snow should be counted as affecting the world of the game, with Pemulis insisting it shouldn’t. Hal, who knows he has been struck by “marijuana thinking,” finds the debate over whether the snow should be counted as real far more interesting than the actual game. Evan Ingersoll ends up aiming for a group of super-Combatant leaders in “West Africa” and hitting Ann Kittenplan on the head.
Hal ashamedly frames his reflections as “marijuana thinking,” but the argument over whether snow should count is in a way more fascinating and profound than the game itself. The debate touches on questions of how our sense of reality is created through communication, disagreement, and consensus.
Everyone is stunned; it is the first time that a Combatant has hit another Combatant directly. Both Pemulis and Kittenplan immediately begin angrily denouncing Ingersoll, while Lord dons the “Utter Global Crisis” beanie, which has only been worn once before in Eschaton history. Pemulis is furious. Lord notes that the rules do not prohibit individual players being targeted, but Pemulis disagrees, saying if this were true it would lead to carnage in which all players were hitting each other. Yelling that if players can be targets so be it, Kittenplan grabs a ball and fires it at Ingersoll’s head.
There is a hilarious mismatch between how seriously the Eschaton players are treating the game and how fundamentally silly it is—as best demonstrated by the “Utter Global Crisis” beanie. Yet one of the overall messages of the novel is arguably that life is so absurd that taking anything seriously is fundamentally ridiculous—even if it is also perhaps necessary to survive.
LaMont Chu begs everyone to continue the discussion calmly while Lord calls for order, but both are ignored. Ingersoll is severely injured while Pemulis backs away with his hands in the air. The game descends into total chaos while the upperclassmen stare, astounded. Soon the players stop using tennis balls altogether and simply attack each other, and Pemulis concludes that he “told them so.” Chu is throwing up; Lord trips over him and goes flying. Hal checks his own face to see if he is wincing. Lord crashes directly into a TP. Many other players are bleeding.
This Lord of the Flies-esque descent into violence and chaos could be read as disturbing, proof of the sinister cruelty lying within children. At the same time, E.T.A. students are so strictly controlled by their institutional environment that there is something encouraging about seeing them break free and behave badly. This scene emerges as something of a necessary relief.