Part 1 of 4
You're listening to Radio Y2K, serving the Valley this millennial eve. We'll be taking you through all 25 hours of the Big Change.
Erwin Humboldt furrowed his brow, thinking. How could it be 25 hours? He was about to stop the engine on his ute but left the motor running and the radio on, waiting to hear the explanation.
That's right, folks, 25 hours. You see, some of us countries in the Southern Hemisphere are on daylight savings, which means the first time zone to hit midnight will be an hour early.
Humboldt laughed. He might have figured it out if they had given him a few minutes, but he doubted it.
Coming up, we'll go through the list of New Year's Eve celebrations in the district. We'll give you all the details of the Mayor's Ball in Wang, and lots of other public gatherings. Just remember that this is no ordinary New Year and to be back home with enough time to lock all your doors and do those last little security checks.
He switched off the ute and the radio went dead. Humboldt muttered a few oaths under his breath. Nobody with half a brain would be out at a public celebration this year. There were always the drunken louts from Melbourne - never as bad as the crowd at Lorne, but still a bunch of yahoos - but this year it would all turn nasty. It was a matter of getting out before the fireworks started.
He had not been able to convince the children. They insisted on going out for New Year's Eve, even though Hanna was only sixteen and Billy fourteen. Irene, being sentimental as usual, had taken their side.
"Nothing's gonna happen 'til midnight," Irene had said. "We'll be back before then."
What could he do? It wasn't like he could hold them at gunpoint. At least he had wrangled a promise out of them that they would go to the party at the town hall. There were always a couple of cops there, and one or two off-duty in the Shepherd's Crook up the road, and it was a dry party. The punch would be fruit juice and ginger ale.
Humboldt grumbled about his lack of authority and threw in a curse at the baking sun as he heaved the cattle feed off the back of the ute. He had considered running sheep. It would have been a nice touch being a shepherd, but somehow modern farming practices, especially herding sheep by motorbike, lacked that Biblical sentiment. And it was good cattle country.
22:00 hr Auckland
In the Valley it was almost always hot on New Year's Eve.
The doors and windows were thrown open at the Town Hall and the fans were spinning fast enough to launch a Cessna, but the heat still plastered shirts to the skin of everyone in the hall.
The young Humboldts slinked off to their teenage cliques as soon as they hit the doors. Irene scanned the crowd, but she only recognised a few of the faces. Detective Erikson was there. He waved. Erwin had helped him out last year when they had to organise a search for a missing kid. In another corner she spotted old Gordon, an electrical engineer who had moved up here to retire. Gordon was a bit of a local hero, having set up a demonstration telephone system for the school science fair and built the transmitter that Radio Y2K used. It was illegal, but since its broadcast range was only a few kilometres, nobody worried about it too much. Gordon was no survivalist; he just enjoyed building things.
Erwin would have shared a joke with either man but Irene preferred quieter company, none of which was apparent right then, so she headed for the drinks. A long wooden trestle had been covered with butcher's paper, and the table was littered with half-empty bottles of soft drink, a few neat piles of clean plastic cups, and a straggle of crushed cups. There were stains of every conceivable food colouring on the butcher's paper. Hidden beneath the bench were several plastic bins filled with ice and bottles, one bin full of non-alcoholic punch and another of Tang.
Irene played it safe and opened a bottle of lemonade.
"It's home-made," said a voice behind her.
Irene turned and saw a woman in a rag-hemmed velvet skirt, a tank top, a see-through shawl around her shoulders and working boots. Her navel was not only visible, it was pierced, presumably to match the self-mutilations she had inflicted on her nose and left eyebrow. She looked like she was in her late thirties, just a bit too old to be a convincing feral.
Irene sipped the lemonade and was surprised at how refreshing it was to taste that sour citric slap in the back of the throat.
"It's very nice," said Irene.
"All organic ingredients."
"Even the sugar?" asked Irene.
The woman laughed. "Well, not that. I had to make some concessions. If I'd made up my crushed ice with celery juice, I'd be run out of town."
Now that Irene looked around, she noticed that there were several of the organic brigade here. Like Erwin, many of the ferals were here in the Valley to escape the imminent collapse of Western civilisation.
Irene introduced herself. "We live out on the flats. We run cattle, mostly."
"I'm Polly. I've got a little place up on Baxter Hill."
Once they got talking, Irene really took to her. It was amazing, she thought, how many similarities they had. They had both learned to grow crops without fertiliser. Polly was morally opposed to non-organic food, and Erwin was afraid there wouldn't be any commercial fertiliser in a few weeks and was teaching himself to live without it. They had both come to the country a few years ago to escape the city and learn how to survive the end of capitalism. Polly said something about dialectical materialism, while Erwin liked to talk about Jewish bank cabals and the millennium bug, but they both meant the same thing to Irene. Then Polly really surprised her. Part of her reason for coming to the Valley was to bring up her son, who had Down's Syndrome, in a supportive environment. And that was the surprise: that this greenie-feminist put enough value in the essential quality of human life to refuse an abortion. Erwin would have approved.
"When my ex-husband saw the ultrasound result," Polly said, "he wanted me to get an abortion. I was beside myself. He's still alive, I said. He still has a soul. Like, how can you say he won't have quality of life? I refused point blank. Although we didn't realise it at the time, that was the end of the marriage. He couldn't stand living with us once Deepak was born, and we split up. He went back to his broking firm and I came here."
Irene smiled. She finally understood. There was no way the ferals could really survive by living off the land. It was hard enough for tenth-generation farmers to get by - and that was dragging every ounce of potential out of the soil. The ferals used time-consuming organic techniques and many of them gave over large tracts of their property to the Land For Wildlife people. Their lifestyle was economically non-viable. The survival factor was alimony. Or an inheritance. Or a golden handshake. Whatever it was, their bread money came from outside the farm itself.
"So how old is Deepak now?"
"Fourteen. Speak of the devil," she said as Deepak pushed through the crowd to reach his mother. He was just under average height for his age. He had jet-black hair that fringed his brows, accentuating the almond-shape of his eyes. He wore school-uniform trousers and a grotty T-shirt with HAPPYLAND embossed on the chest. Because of his name, Irene had expected him to be half-Indian, and she was surprised to see his skin was as white as flour.
"Hello, Mum," he said. "Can I go play with Billy?" He spoke with a breathy expression.
Irene laughed. "Small world," she said when she saw Billy emerge from the crowd. "Billy's my son."
She felt a little uncomfortable for the briefest of moments. Deepak didn't look or speak quite normally, but she had raised Billy to treat people equally, regardless of shape, size, and chromosome count.
"Sure, you can play," said Polly. Irene just nodded to her son and the two kids shot off into the heat and sweat of the night.
At half-past, Irene had to go looking for the kids. Hanna was talking about the lead singer from silverchair ("no capital letter, Mum"), her favourite topic of the moment, but she was easy to peel away from her friends. Billy was outside with Deepak.
"Come on, Billy. I promised we'd be back home by now. You know it's not safe to stay out any later."
They bundled themselves into the Land Rover and headed home.
"That went well, didn't you think?" Irene asked the kids, as they hit the town limits. "I'd never have thought all those farmers and ferals and townies would get on so well together. We have a lot more in common than I expected."
"Not as much as you think, Mum," said Billy. "I worked out the difference. For Christmas, I got a Winchester. Deepak got a mushroom farm and an ocarina. He reckons he was ripped off."
"He was ripped off. Those toys aren't suitable for a fourteen year old boy."
"It's all right," said Billy. "We worked it out. We swapped Christmas presents."
"What? You can't give away the Winchester. It cost your father a fortune."
"No, not that. I mean old Christmas presents. Stuff we didn't want anymore."
"Oh, right then." She had to admit sometimes she was proud of her son.
The headlights swept off the road and pointed to midnight.
Eidolon: SF Online
Copyright © 1999 Chris Lawson. All rights reserved.
Originally published online: 17 December 1999.
Artwork ©1999 Shaun Tan