Part 4 of 4
10:00 hr Berlin, Madrid, Oslo, Paris, Rome, Vienna
"What's that?" asked Hanna, pointing at the monitor.
Erwin turned to look. Someone was climbing the front fence. Obviously it was a city dweller who couldn't even figure out how to open a gate chain. It never ceased to amaze Erwin how such a simple piece of equipment - a chain, a hook, and a metal plate with a shaped hole - could stymie even intelligent people. The young man was wearing a ragged denim jacket and black jeans. Then Erwin saw the long barrel sticking over the young man's shoulder.
"Stay inside," he ordered the family. He took the illegal semi-automatic out of the gun cupboard, quickly checked the breech and the ammo clip and went out the front door.
It was fifty metres to the front gate. A small rise blocked the direct view, so Erwin had placed the camera up under the eaves of the house. Erwin set himself behind the big gum tree and rested the barrel of his rifle in the crook of a branch and waited. A red cap appeared over the lip of earth, followed by the slung rifle barrel, then the denim jacket.
As soon as the intruder's entire body was visible, Erwin knew that even if the young man threw himself to the ground, he would be in the line of fire.
"Stop right there!" he shouted. "I've got a bead on you."
The intruder stopped dead.
"Drop the gun," Erwin called.
The intruder swung the rifle off his shoulder. The bastard laughed out loud, a strange, almost ethereal laugh, and pointed the damn gun straight at him. The rest was pure reaction. The trigger pulled. The rifle kicked. The report stung Erwin's right ear. The stranger reeled backwards. A spray of blood spewed from his right shoulder. The man staggered and dropped the rifle. He started wailing and ran back the way he came, over the rise to the road.
Erwin kept the rifle at his shoulder and moved forward, one short step after another. By the time he reached the top of the lip, he could see that the stranger had cleared off. A few small blood spots trailed down the driveway.
"Consider yourself lucky," he said to the blood-spotted earth. "If I'd had the time to aim I would have had you through the heart."
He looked down at the discarded rifle.
"Oh God," he said as he reached down to pick it up. It wasn't a real weapon at all. It was an air rifle. Even if he'd been hit between the eyes at ten paces, it would have merely broken the skin. It could cause a nasty eye injury, but the chances of a direct hit were vanishingly small.
He picked it up. It was worse than he thought. He recognised the air rifle. It was Billy's. Erwin had given it to him as a Christmas present two years ago so he could practice shooting.
Erwin fell to his knees.
11:00 hr Greenwich, London, Casablanca, Lisbon, Reykjavik
He smashed the radio with the butt of his rifle. The family begged him for an explanation, but he was in too much turmoil to speak. When the radio was no more than a pile of splinters and smashed circuits, he dropped the gun.
Hanna was hiding behind the sofa, her hands over her ears. Billy knew that a sofa was no protection against a bullet, so he had scooted behind the fridge and was looking at his father with a shocked expression. Only Irene stood still in the middle of the room, arms out, waiting for him to turn to her.
12:00 hr Azores, Cape Verde Island
An hour later, an HSV pulled up at the front gate. DSC Terry Erikson stepped out of the car, unlocked the gate, and walked up the driveway. At the top of the rise, he stepped behind a tree for cover and called out.
"Erwin! We need to talk!"
There was silence in return.
"Listen mate, you can come out now or you can wait for the tactical response force to get here."
The front door opened and Erwin shuffled out, hands empty. Irene followed, her hand resting lightly on his shoulder. Billy and Hanna came out soon after.
"Jesus," said DSC Erikson when Erwin reached him, "I took you for one of the smart ones."
13:00 hr Mid-Atlantic
"But the radio, and the electricity, and the phones."
The interview room reeked of sweat and cigarette smoke.
"Listen to me, Erwin," said Erikson. "The electricity blackout was due to a power surge when everyone came home from their parties and turned on their televisions and air conditioners. It overloaded the local substation. Why do you think you could still watch television? If the blackjout had been universal, the transmitter would have been down. Some computer hackers in Sydney who thought it would be funny to disable the phone system on New Year's Day. They were young and arrogant and didn't cover their tracks. They're already in custody. And as for the radio, they were tapping into a newsfeed, selectively reporting whatever suited them and inventing things when the reports didn't suit them. A few gangs went wild, but it wasn't much worse than any other New Year's Eve, apart from that poor family in Bendigo. There was no critical breakdown. Just a few hiccups and an over-excited pirate radio station. We're currently trying to work out exactly what charges we can bring against Radio Y2K on top of its breaches of the Broadcasting Act. OK? Now can I turn the tape back on and continue the interview?"
14:00 hr Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Godthaab
15:00 hr Caracas, La Paz
16:00 hr New York, Washington, Bogota, Lima
17:00 hr Mexico City, Saskatchewan, Tegucigalpa
18:00 hr Phoenix
19:00 hr Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tijuana
20:00 hr Anchorage
21:00 hr Honolulu
A man in a crisp suit came into the cell.
"I'm Garrison Davis," he said. "I've already talked to DSC Erikson. He's almost as upset about this as you are. Says you're a decent bloke. Can't understand why a sensible fellow like you would get carried away by this millennial rubbish. It's good he's on side. He might help us convince the DPP to go for recklessly causing serious harm rather than intentionally causing. That means the local magistrate's court instead of county court, and a much lower sentence range."
He gave Humboldt a long, sweeping look, then took out his notebook.
"First of all, get your Sunday suit dry cleaned. Keep shaving, no matter how depressed you feel. When we get to court, I'll make sure the judge hears that you're a regular churchgoer and that you've even taught a few Bible school classes. We won't mention the name of the church."
Humboldt wasn't really listening. He had his head in his hands. Davis reached out and touched his shoulder.
"Kind of hoping it'll all go away, I bet. I understand. You probably can't accept that radio station was spinning a pack of lies and that the world outside had a few staggers but kept strolling on regardless. But you don't have the luxury of wandering about in a daze. You've gotta start working with me now. Not tomorrow. Not next week. I've got another five cases like yours to deal with and I don't have the time to mother you."
Humboldt lifted his head from his hands and stared at the lawyer with bloodshot eyes.
"Who the hell are you?" he asked. "Some legal aid hack?"
Davis laughed. "You wouldn't qualify for legal aid. Not while you still have your farm and five dollars to your name. I'm from the Sporting Shooters Alliance. I do all their work for them."
"So you're acting in their interests instead of mine."
Davis leaned back. "I won't lie to you, Mr Humboldt. Ethically, I have a duty to represent you no matter who is paying the bills, but I know you're a sensible sort of fellow. Not the sort of guy to trust someone just because they can quote ivory-tower law-school claptrap Yes, I represent the interests of the Sporting Shooters Alliance. Having said that, it should be abundantly clear to you as a fully paid up member who ought to be reading the monthly magazine, that your interests are the same as the SSA's. The last thing we want is another gun control hysteria."
Humboldt sat back and stretched in his seat. "Okay. I'm sorry. One decent cup of coffee and I'll be less frazzled."
"You're in custody, Mr Humboldt, not a coffee shop."
22:00 hr Midway, Samoa
The custody sergeant tapped on the cell bars. "Come on, fellas. It's getting late." What he meant was, the footy match on TV was about to go into the last quarter. He headed back to the television.
Garrison Davis opened his briefcase and started shovelling notes into its mouth.
"We'll go through all this again before the case comes up. Just remember to practise the things I told you."
Humboldt nodded, but was looking away and fingering the gold cross he kept on a chain around his neck. It was sloppy of the police to let him keep it, and no favour. He would almost certainly have it stolen or taken by force his first day in the Remand Centre.
"I thought it was all true," said Humboldt.
"You're not the only one. You're not even the first. The same sort of things happened back in the first millennium. People selling their worldly goods for a song, or running off on pilgrimages and hiding in churches. It's all happened before and it will happen all over again."
"I thought I'd read it in Scripture."
Davis clipped his briefcase shut and called for the guard. He turned for a moment and said, "I think Scripture has been misinterpreted. I don't think the world ever ends."
"What about Armageddon?" asked Humboldt.
The cell door opened and Davis stepped outside. The steel clanged into place behind him. The sound of the television was turned up in the next room. The umpire whistled to commence the last quarter and the crowd roared in response. Davis turned to speak.
"Armageddon," said Davis. "I think Armageddon happens to someone, somewhere every day."
Davis walked away while Humboldt twisted the gold chain in his fingers. Twenty-five twists he counted into the chain, one for each hour of the new millennium.
He tried to figure it out. Maybe, he thought, since there were twenty-two chapters of Revelation, it would take twenty-two hours. No, that had already passed. Maybe twenty-two days. That would make sense. Three weeks, roughly speaking, for all the Y2K bugs to accumulate. The industrial nations could patch a hole here and there, but after three weeks the number of holes would reach a critical level and collapse would follow. Or it could be twenty-two years. Or maybe it meant twenty-two centuries after Christ's birth, which would be around 2200 AD. Or maybe the number of chapters in Revelation was irrelevant. Maybe the answer was not in Revelation at all, but in Matthew 24:36. Erwin cradled his head in his hands. He was so tired - too tired to figure out the numerology of destruction in his head.
Once the siren sounded to end the footy match, the sergeant switched off the television. He came by the cell to flick out the lights.
"Don't worry, mate," he said. "At least the world is still here."
Erwin did not even lift his head from his hands when he nodded back. He said nothing because he knew the sergeant would not understand, but in the darkness his lips mouthed the words.
"I couldn't imagine anything worse."
With thanks to Natalie M. for the legal advice, to Matt Johnson for his song "Armageddon Days Are Here (again)," and to Jeremy for the shortest deadline in the history of fiction.
Eidolon: SF Online
Copyright © 1999 Chris Lawson. All rights reserved.
Originally published online: 17 December 1999.
Artwork ©1999 Shaun Tan