Artwork by Shaun Tan. Copyright 1999 Shaun Tan. Matthew 24:36

Chris Lawson

Part 2 of 4

23:00 hr   Fiji, Marshall Islands, Kamchatka

The night air had not cooled off even though it was nearly midnight. The atmosphere was thick and humid and heavy with the sound of insects trilling and beating their wings against the viscous air. Dogs wore expressions of smiling exasperation as they hyperventilated on the coolest patches of earth they could find. Livestock clustered around dams and rivers.
Erwin Humboldt batted aside the moths and mosquitoes which had been drawn to his lamp. He was trudging the length of the fence along the dirt road out front. The other boundaries did not need inspection. He had checked them earlier in the day, and besides, the neighbours on two fences were survivalists too, so he knew they would be well-stocked and self-sufficient and no threat to his family. Humboldt's only fear was the road, which was accessible to any vehicle, even the tiny Korean aluminiumobiles. He wished now that he had bought that property down Snake Gully Road. Even the locals laughed about that road and told tall stories about lucky escapes from the muddy, reverse-cambered, ravine-sided track. At least here he had town water and electricity, for all the good it would do him after midnight.
He opened another shirt button to let the air in and the sweat out and checked the last stretch of the fence up to the Jenkins' property. When he was satisfied that the front fence was intact and all the warning signs were up, he went back to the homestead. He locked up the ute - including the fuel cap - and checked the water tank, then went inside where he locked all the doors, topped up the generator with diesel, turned on the external cameras, lowered the window shutters, opened the gun cupboard, and turned on the radio. There was a squirt of Radio National, which Humboldt recognised immediately and switched channels. It was a reflex. Why Irene kept listening to that neo-Marxist humbug was a mystery - all the more so since Radio National was paid for by taxes screwed out of their farm by Canberra bureaucrats. Irene used to say something about "liking their voices," as if their vocal refinement made up for the lies they spoke.
He tuned into Radio Y2K and settled back.
It's 11:37 now. Only 23 minutes to go. Our recipe for a Happy New Year is Radio Y2K on your stereo, a bottle of whiskey on your side-table, and a loaded gun in your lap. Coming up now is our musical interlude. By popular request, here is Richard Strauss's overture to Also Sprach Zarathustra, better known as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
There was a faint crackle and then the strings launched into Strauss's paean to Neitzsche. The drums chased the strings into the theme. Humboldt thought it was an appropriate choice: the music had an air of momentous occasion; it was associated with a film inspired by the third millennium; and it was an homage to a philosopher who believed in the emergence of individualism over populism, Superman over Mediocrity. How very millennial.
Humboldt used the remote control to turn on the TV and switched it to the channel for the security cameras. The screen glowed green, the colour of night-vision, and started flicking from view to view every two seconds. The monitor completed its security round every eight seconds. Humboldt did not want to be distracted by the flickering screens, so he set the security system to show all four camera views, a quarter of the screen each. The resolution was not as good, but he would still catch any movement.
Soon enough, the Land Rover pulled in at the front gate. Erwin saw it on the top right corner of the screen. He saw Billy get out, open the gate, and then close it again behind the Land Rover. Erwin checked the other cameras - all quiet - and unlocked the front door of the house.
He heard the motor pull up beside the house and shudder to a stop. Billy and Hanna came through the front door, with Irene just behind.
"Did you lock the petrol cap?" he asked.
Irene stopped in her tracks, then headed back out to lock the Land Rover properly. A minute later, she came back inside and double-bolted the door.
"So has it started yet?" asked Hanna. Erwin could sense the edge of sarcasm in her voice. She was spending too much time with her irresolute friends, but not for much longer, he thought.
"It's not midnight, stupid," said Billy.
Erwin gestured to him to shush. "It's midnight in Fiji. And Auckland went millennial nearly two hours ago."
"So did frogs fall from the sky?" asked Hanna. "Any reports of six-horned beasts strolling the streets of Auckland?"
"There's no need for that kind of talk," said Irene.
Erwin muttered under his breath. It was one thing to be treated with contempt, even by your own daughter, but it was terrible to be dismissed for opinions you never held.
"This is more than just prophecy. This time Judgement Day has been predicted by computer scientists and business consultants. If you go by historical record, the proper millennium is next year, 2001, and even that's wrong. Since Jesus was born in 3 or 4 BC, the real second millennium came and went in '97 or '98. This crash is all to do with the millennium bug and the cashless society and the way people stupidly put their lives in the hands of dumb machines. Scripture gives independent corroboration."
"Matthew 24:36," said Hanna. She had been saying this to irritate Erwin, frequently with success. She had heard all the same stories five years ago, when some two-bit thinker had "decoded" the Bible and discovered an imminent social meltdown. Her father had been beside himself with fear back then, but when the prophecy failed to materialise it did not dissuade him from believing in prophets, it only steeled his resolve to be prepared for any future collapse of civilisation. The timing had changed, but the fear was the same.
Billy rubbed his eyes with exhaustion, but before he headed off to his room he asked, "So what happened in Auckland?"
"Nothing yet," said Erwin, "but the bug won't necessarily cause breakdowns the instant the clock changes. And besides, I don't think they have computers in New Zealand."
Billy laughed. "Wake me when the world ends." Erwin cocked his head, then decided Billy was not being sarcastic. Billy was a nice, straightforward kid. He would never think to say something he didn't mean.
Hanna settled herself down on the sofa with her legs tucked underneath her.
"Anything decent on the radio? Silly question, really. Nobody would dream of playing Pearl Jam out here."
"Shush," said Erwin. "It's nearly time."
The voice on the stereo was loud and clear. No sign of anything from New Zealand or Fiji yet. But we don't really expect any problems there. The millennium bug won't have much effect on countries that are just joining the twentieth century.
Even Hanna laughed at that. There was nothing like a cheap joke at the expense of the Kiwis to unite a family.
But now we're coming up on our own Big Clock. Get yourselves ready to sing Auld Lang Syne, or maybe Auld Lang Cosyne for those of you who are a bit twisted. It's time for the countdown. There's only fifteen seconds to go. Everyone ready? Ten…nine…eight…
Whatever their differences, they were still family. "I love you," said Erwin. Irene took his hand. Hanna curled her lip, but nodded back.
Erwin closed his eyes and whispered a short prayer. He knew the millennium would be terrible, but he couldn't fear it. It would be a clean break. Everyone's sins would be brought out into the open, and perhaps the survivors would be able to build a kingdom closer to God's. Even Hanna would have to respect him when he was the only thing between her and a band of roving brigands.
Three…two…one…Happy New Millennium!

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Eidolon: SF Online
Copyright © 1999 Chris Lawson. All rights reserved.
Originally published online: 17 December 1999.
Artwork ©1999 Shaun Tan