Authors: Jeremy Bates
Copyright © 2016 by
The right of Jeremy Bates
to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in
accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Acts 1988.
All rights reserved. No
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This is a work of
fiction. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead,
is purely coincidental.
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The Taste of Fear
I sometimes wonder what the species
that will replace us on post-apocalyptic Earth will think when they look upon
our skeletons in their big and shiny natural history museums. One thought
likely to cross their minds might be: If Homo sapiens had been so intelligent,
why did they suffer the same fate as the pea-brained dinosaurs that preceded
No doubt about it, asteroids are the
best weapon in nature’s arsenal. They make tsunamis and hurricanes and
earthquakes seem like child’s play in comparison. There are different
classifications of asteroids, just as there are different classifications of
storms. You got your city-busters, your continent-busters, your Tunguska
objects, and your Chicxulub events for the extinction-level disasters. The
latter are preceded by smaller fragments of rocks usually composed of iron.
Think of a shotput ball. Now think of a million shotput balls busting through
the atmosphere and raining down on our cities at more than fifteen times the
speed of sound. Then the big daddy comes, fifty or sixty million tons of
runaway freight train, a real category killer. The image is almost cartoonish
in its terror because it appeals to our most primitive fears. An
Armageddon-like force beyond our control that has a blatant disregard for poor
old humanity and all of its self-important achievements.
It’s mind-boggling that we never
took the threat seriously, because it’s not like the possibility of a monster
rock striking Earth and wiping clean the majority of plant and animal life was
a novel idea. We’ve seen so-called “show off” comets with their fancy gas and
dust tails in the sky for millennia. The Chinese and Greeks interpreted them as
signs presaging inevitable disasters. Christians in the Middle Ages believed
them to be fireballs launched at a sinful Earth by a pissed-off God. Edmond
Halley, who discovered the comet that now bears his name, speculated that space
rocks were responsible for the depressions in the seas and great lakes the
world over. Even the poet Lord Byron paused in his womanizing long enough to
muse about a time when we would have to defend the planet against a bombardment
of celestial miscreants.
Nevertheless, although these show-off comets whizzing
through the inner solar system were, and are, impressively menacing, they’ve
never been the real threat. The real threat is the asteroids in the debris belt
between Mars and Jupiter. These are far more numerous than comets, and they’ve
been hammering Earth and our moon for millions of years. Hell, look at the last
century alone. A hundred or so years ago an asteroid exploded over Siberia,
flattening two-thousand square kilometers of trees and killing a thousand
unsuspecting reindeer. Some thirty years later an asteroid measuring a
kilometer in diameter missed Earth by a hundred thousand kilometers, a
microscopic distance in space terms. Then you had Shoemaker-Levy 9 smashing
into Jupiter in the Nineties. We watched it happen with our telescopes, and
what scientists called the resulting “zone of chaos” was estimated to be as
large as Earth itself.
So, sure, we knew we were in danger. We were a target on the
playfield of a cosmic pinball machine. It was never a matter of
get hit but
I shouldn’t say we didn’t take the
threat from a game-changing asteroid seriously. More like we didn’t take it
. We’d been searching the sky for killer rocks for the
last few decades, but in hindsight our efforts were too little too late.
According to the data we had before the world went dark, there were roughly
half a million undetected and potentially devastating ’roids that came within
forty-five million kilometers of Earth’s orbit (close enough for the
astrophysicists at NASA to classify them as near-Earth objects), but less than
a thousand had been discovered.
So, yeah, we had our work cut out for us, yet most
governments around the world did little more than blink and yawn. Really, the
Americans were the only ones making any effort. Yet even these were hampered by
politics and the disobliging thinking that the odds of a threatening object
striking Earth anytime soon were as little as you or I getting eaten by a
shark, or struck by lightning. NASA’s NEO budget, for example, was a mere forty
million dollars a year. Forty million! To put this in perspective, the US used
one hundred billion
a year on counter-terrorism. And let me
tell you this: terrorists never had a weapon with the explosive force
equivalent to five million hydrogen bombs.
My name’s Burt James. I’m forty-three
years old, divorced, and raising two boys, a teenager and a toddler. I’ve never
kept a diary before. I feel silly and effeminate writing in it right now.
What’s the next step, swapping my pencil for one with a strawberry-scented
eraser? But to be honest, I don’t have much else to do these days. I haven’t
left the house for the last thirteen months (except to murder my ex-wife’s
degenerate boyfriend), and with no electricity, no TV or radio or anything, I’m
bored out of my bloody mind. I’ve read and reread the few books I have lying
around. I’ve done the same jigsaw puzzle of a 1978 Playboy Playmate too many
times to count. I’ve even counted the number of tiles on the kitchen floor, not
once but twice. The first time out of tedium; the second time to make sure I’d
counted them right on the first go.
It would be nice to have someone to shoot the shit with, but
all my mates are likely dead. My older boy, Sullivan, has been traumatized by
the end of the world and all, and he doesn’t say much more than monosyllabic
grunts every now and then. The younger one, Walter, doesn’t have the capacity
for language yet. Still, I enjoy listening to his gurgles and giggles. They
fill the silence in the house, and in my head.
So, yeah, this diary is a bit sissy, but it’s a way to pass
the time. I found it in a box in the shed the other day. It must have belonged
to the ex. It’s got a padded red cover and maybe a hundred pages in it. Plenty
enough for me. Aside from the occasional essay I’d whipped up in high school
(which I dropped out of in year ten), I’ve never penned much more than a love
letter or two. In fact, I’m surprised at how many words I’ve gotten down today.
And on that note, I think I’ll stop here for the moment. I
should mention, I don’t think anyone’s ever going to read my ramblings. Like I
said, it’s a way to pass the time. But if by whatever chance you are reading
this, I guess I should say congratulations. It seems you survived longer than I
Another day doing jack all. I woke
on my roof at dawn to the dark and freezing cold. Actually, you can’t tell dawn
from dusk, or from midday for that matter. Clocks don’t work, and you can’t see
the sun. When Asteroid Shiva struck—that’s what humanity labeled the celestial
tombstone with all our names written on it—the giant rock set most of the
world’s forests on fire. The smoke and soot from those, combined with all sorts
of dust and flying wreckage, shrouded the sky in a permanent night and set off
an unending winter. So the dawn I’m talking about is an internal body thing.
When I go to sleep it’s night, when I wake it’s morning. You’ve got to think
like that, or you’ll end up sticking your head in an oven—well, if ovens still
worked, which they don’t. Nothing does. Without electricity, we’re living in the
Dark Ages. The well pump doesn’t run without power. Mobile phones and
televisions and computers are a distant memory. My fridge and microwave are
dusty with cobwebs (don’t know what the spiders are eating, but they seem to be
doing just fine). If you have a gas stovetop like me, you’re lucky—only if you
have a decent supply of matchsticks, because gas stoves have electric lighters.
But how many people have more than a book or two of matches in their house?
I do. I also have enough food and water to last a couple of
years. And I have guns and ammunition to stop those who might want to take any
of my stuff.
Speaking of which, that’s why I sleep on the roof, next to
my guns. The roof’s flat and has a parapet, like a castle, built to my
specifications years before. I got plenty of blankets and pillows, so it’s
comfortable. I got a bed downstairs in the master bedroom. But sleeping in a
room with a single westward-facing window is no way to protect your home. The
roof gives me a three hundred sixty-degree field of view to put a bullet in the
head of anyone who comes to within fifty meters of my property.
Beans for breakfast. Changed and fed
Walter. Haven’t seen Sully yet. He hasn’t come out of his room. I don’t know
what he’s doing in there. Probably sleeping. He does a lot of that nowadays.
It’s not healthy, but what the hell else is he going to do?
Tinned tunafish for lunch, along
with a spoonful of peanut butter. Changed and fed Walter again. I’m worried
about the kid. This is not a world in which you want to grow up. Then again, I
wonder who has it worse, Walter or Sullivan? Is it better to grow up never
knowing what the old world was like? Or is it better to have memories of it, a
place you can go when you close your eyes, a refuge? I’m starting to think not
knowing might be the better deal. You can grow up on two dollars a day in the
slums of the Philippines and still be a go-happy optimist if you’ve never had
better. But if you are a successful politician or business person or celebrity,
could you ever be content downgrading to a cinderblock shack lacking power and
running water and thinking dinner at 7-Eleven is a treat?
Sully is up and about now. I heard him crying in his room. I
knocked on the door. He stopped crying, but he didn’t reply. I let him be.
I don’t know what else to write about. Ho-de-ho-ho-hum. I’ve
just spent the last thirty minutes staring at the half empty page. Day Two and
I already have fucking writer’s block.
I’ve decided to write a little about
myself. Why the hell not? That’s one thing I can do without thinking too much.
As I’ve said, my name’s Burt James. My friends called me
Burtsy. I was born right here in Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia. My
family were some of the earliest immigrants to the area, arriving during the
1880s from the English county of Devon. I grew up in a miner’s cottage with
dead plants in the yard and a rusty corrugated iron roof over my head. Went to
Willyama High School, which is more prison than school. You’d know what I mean
if you ever see the fucking place. It’s made of cinderblocks and has little
slits for windows, so even when there was a sun and sky to look at you didn’t
see either for much of the day. I wasn’t a good student. I wasn’t a shithead to
the teachers or anything. I just wasn’t too smart. The joke in math class used
to be I always needed two or three calculators to get an arithmetic problem
Do I regret dropping out? I don’t know. It wasn’t like I was
going to go to university or anything. Almost no one in Broken Hill went to
uni. Not because they couldn’t. Some of the blokes I grew up with were sharp as
a tack. But the extreme isolation out here, combined with the severe climate
and tough working conditions, had forged a resilient kind of people that never
cared much for the outside world, or those who came from it. Most locals were
content to marry a high school sweetheart, raise a family, and die all within
the town borders. I was talking to some guy a while back, a carpenter from
Coffs Harbor over on the mid-north coast. He was trying to tell me he was a
local because he paid his taxes here, had a postal address here, and was
thinking about buying property here. We went back and forth for a bit, and I
eventually conceded if he got run over by a truck tomorrow, and was buried over
in the cemetery, then I guess I’d consider him a local.
So what was my reason to stay in school? The plan was always
to work in the mines, like the previous four generations of men in my family
had done. The mines were the reason Broken Hill existed in the first place. At
one point they produced one-third of the world’s silver, which was why the town
was affectionately known as The Silver City. But times change. The population
dwindled by a third over the last century, many businesses shuttered, and the
grand hotels and emporiums that line the main thoroughfare began appearing out
of place and nostalgic for the economic boom of times past.
Over seven hundred people have died in the mines, more than
the number of Aussie soldiers that lost their lives in the Vietnam War. And
most weren’t the peaceful deaths from carbon monoxide that canaries in a cage
enjoy. You can read what happened to the sad fucks on the memorial that looms
atop the huge mullock heap that splits the town in half: “Drowned in well” or
“Run over by wagon” or “Premature explosion” or “Fell off scaffolding.” In
recent decades, with the implementation of better technology and stricter
regulations, not so many men died, but they still did. My mate Bootsy died
right before my eyes. We were nine hundred meters underground, scavenging the
remnants of ore left between old tunnels, when a big chunk of loose rock fell
on top of him. Just fell right on top of him, squashing him like a jelly-filled
donut. I guess you could call that a foreshadowing of what would eventually
happen to all of us, couldn’t you? And on that note, maybe Bootsy was lucky.
His death was instant; he didn’t have three weeks warning to mull it over.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the
mirror the night before. I’ve never been a looker. My eyes are pleasant enough,
hazel and kind, I guess you’d say. And I still got most of my hair, though it’s
half gray now. But I got a forehead like a Neanderthal, and I’ve always
reckoned my ears to be a bit too big, like old man ears. You don’t notice them
unless you’re looking for something other than my forehead to criticize, but
there they are, nothing I can do about them aside from staple them to my bloody
skull. I never used to have a beard, but I got one now, sure do. It’s gray like
my hair and falls halfway down my chest. I shaved for the first month or so
after Shiva struck, but then I ran out of shaving cream. And do I miss shaving?
No siree, Bob! Can’t believe it took an asteroid striking Earth to make me