The Millennium Blues

The Millennium Blues

by James Gunn
     
 

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Wow, the millennium is off to a great start, the notorious Y2K bug was no problem, and the world didn’t end; time to take a break and relax.... Well, not exactly. The millennium didn't really get underway until January 1, 2001. You thought you were safe? Think again! Something much, MUCH, MUCH worse is ahead. The new millennium will bring nothing but… See more details below

Overview

Wow, the millennium is off to a great start, the notorious Y2K bug was no problem, and the world didn’t end; time to take a break and relax.... Well, not exactly. The millennium didn't really get underway until January 1, 2001. You thought you were safe? Think again! Something much, MUCH, MUCH worse is ahead. The new millennium will bring nothing but disaster and destruction. As six unique people rush feverishly to resolve catastrophes both personal and otherwise, they cannot ignore the loudly ticking clock that will bring...THE END OF THE WORLD. And this time its no psychic premonition; it’s more real than you’ve ever dreamed. 

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781497629387
Publisher:
Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Publication date:
04/01/2014
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
196
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt

POSTSCRIPT IN THE FORM OF A PREFACE
December 31, 2000

Midnight. This is the way the world ended....

Barbara Shepherd was testing her faith that Judgment Day had arrived.

Murray Smith-Ng was clinging to his belief that catastrophes were predictable.

Paul Gentry was facing the possibility that his profitable warnings of impending catastrophe might come true.

Elois Hays, having acted out her own fears, was trying to cope with the impersonal terrors of final cataclysm.

William Landis was trying to remain the cool recorder of a world caught up in a paroxysm of suicidal guilt but at last had something to lose.

Sally Krebs was transmitting to viewers everywhere the last moments of the second millennium and recording its glitter and decadence for posterity.

If any.

They all were there, at the End-of-the-World Ball, on top of the second-tallest building in the world, at the final second of the final year of the second millennium.

This is how they get there.

Chapter One
January 1, 2000
William S. Landis

The invitation was printed in red and framed in gold on his computer monitor:

THE TWENTY-FIRST CORPORATION
cordially invites William S. Landis
to attend a conference on the Twenty-First Century
December 28-3l, 2000
at the World Trade Center, New York City
concluding from 8 p.m. to midnight on New Millennia's Eve
with The-End-of-the-World Ball*

*A masquerade: Come dressed as your favorite catastrophe.

William S.Landis looked at the invitation with suspicion. The party was a ghoulish idea; even the conference had a taint of the macabre, coming as it did too late to help the world through this fateful year, perhaps too late even to speculate about the century ahead, the nature of whose early years, at least, had already been established by the beginning of the 1990s.

His first thought was to turn it down. That always was his first thought. In fact, above his computer he had put a sign he had found at a garage sale: Say No! But then he noticed that the computer message had a second page. The second page said that the Twenty-First Corporation would pay him an honorarium of $5,000 plus expenses to make a presentation at the conference, and to participate as a panelist in responses to two other presentations.

That was as much as he made off some of his books. Apparently, as he had heard, the Twenty-First Corporation was loaded with cash in preparation for the uncertainties of the century from which it had taken its name.

He could attend the conference and not stay for the ball. The invitation did not include a significant other, but then he had no significant other. If one measures life in terms of meaningful relationships, life had passed him by. He had been a mere spectator, observing the parade of existence, content to comment on the marvelous way the jugglers performed, the surprising shapes of the animals, and the curious passions of the marchers. Sometimes he wondered what he had missed, but most of the time, calculating the amount of misery compared to the quantity of bliss, he was satisfied with his choice. He had not experienced a great many things, but he knew a lot. He knew that it was Horace Walpole who had written, "The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel," and he would rather think than feel.

He had even declined several New Year's Eve invitations. This year's New Year's Eve had been celebrated by hundreds of millions, and dreaded by hundreds of millions more, who had the mistaken idea that 1999 was the end of the millennium. As a consequence, the rest of the world was suffering from a giant hangover. The nearly worldwide sigh of relief when midnight passed without catastrophe would soon change into a gasp of dismay when bleary-eyed revelers turned on television or picked up their newspapers and were informed that the second millennium really ended on December 31, 2000. The hangover was just beginning; they would have to relive for an entire additional year the agonies of their past year's concerns. But Landis felt as fresh and clear-of-mind as he ever did.

If he decided to attend the conference, he could postpone his decision about the Ball, maybe even until the last moment. It was certain to be a lavish affair jammed with important people--or at least with celebrities, people who had mastered the art of seeming important. And the end of the second millennium--the real end--deserved some kind of commemoration.

If the world managed to blunder its way through another year before it self-destructed.

But what would he say? He was writing a non-fiction book about the year 2000 and how people had survived it, staggering from crisis to crisis, until they toppled, almost in spite of themselves, into the third millennium.

Since the year 2000 was just beginning, the manuscript would be more of a journal in which he would enter material as the year progressed. In between he would work on other articles and books. But he could write an introduction now that would shape the rest of the entries.

If he were lucky, the book would be completed on New Year's Day, a year from today, and be ready to download into his publisher's computer. Copies could be made available almost instantly for the new computerbooks, a database of manuscripts to which people who were in a great hurry could subscribe. With more luck, the printed book might be available a couple of weeks later.

And, with still more luck, people might even be around to buy it.

Some of the people he had heard on talk radio last night would have said, "What's the use of working as if it matters when the world is going to end?" But that was no way to live. He had to continue as if the world were not going to end, and if it ended, what did it matter? He would have spent his last year feeling good about himself. And if it didn't end, he was a book ahead.

He thought he would call it The End of the World? Or What Rough Beast? Or maybe just Catastrophe! Maybe he would see if he could find some magazine to publish the journal entries month by month.

But what he needed for the conference and his book was a governing idea, something to organize his material, like a piece of junk around which a reef forms by accreting coral. He didn't push that image too far; the polyps had to die to make the reef grow. The only clue he had now was a feeling. That feeling was fear. He could smell it wherever he went. And when people realized that the end of the millennium was still ahead, it would surge back stronger than ever.

People were afraid. That's what talk radio was all about--fear and powerlessness and hatred and envy and paranoia. But it all boiled down to fear. He was afraid, too, and he didn't know what he was afraid of. Maybe it was fear of the end of the world. Everybody had their own end-of-the-world nightmare. Could the Twenty-First Corporation be onto something? Everybody had a favorite catastrophe, some particular way they were afraid the world would end, and to dress up in that fashion at the end of the millennium might be a way to face those fears, even to face them down.

But that was not his fear. The end of the world would find him watching curiously, not with terror like the UFO abductees. In the unlikely even that UFOs abducted him, he would ask them where they came from and what they were doing in this backwoods community of the universe, and why they never revealed themselves to astronomers or physiologists or other scientists, or political leaders who could organize exchanges of information that could be of mutual benefit, or even simply curious people like himself.

He could face the end of the world, like his own end, with regret but without dread. But he could use the smell of fear, the concept that everyone had a different version of catastrophe, a favorite fear they nursed in the dark, silent moments of the night, for his first chapter and the search for the focus of his own fear as an organizing principle. Maybe before the year was over he would discover what it was.

He wasn't sure, however, that he wanted to spend the last days of the millennium with strangers at a conference.

The new year had started like any other day. He had a solitary breakfast with his newspaper, studying the world parade. As he had expected, the front page was filled with reports of celebrations and accidents, and an ominous reminder that the millennial year was not over but was just beginning.

A story had announced a new dietary discovery that was more healthful than the last one. He ate healthfully now. Many people did, even those who thought Judgment Day was at hand and those who thought the world was bent on self-destruction before the year was out. But he had remembered when he was a child: His mother had cooked him a hearty breakfast, in the old kitchen with the linoleum that curled at the corners and the oak table with the placemats that looked like woven straw but were really plastic. Then he had eaten bacon and scrambled eggs and toast, and he had never felt the nasty cholesterols crawling through his veins.

When you were eight, your body was indestructible, your parents were immortal, and the world was a fairyland that went on forever, waiting to be explored. When you were fifty, your body gave you constant reminders of its fragility, your parents were old, and the world was gritty, cold, and circumscribed.

Last night as he listened to the radio, gathering material for his book, a man had called in to say, "I still lay awake thinking that a nuclear bomb might go off."

The host had replied, "How about the rest of you out there? On the final night of the twentieth century, do you worry about things you can't do anything about."

A woman had replied. "You can't just decide what to worry about...."

And the original worrier had called back to say. "I keep thinking 'the missiles may be launched already.' We would never know. At this very moment they may explode nearby, and everything will be over. Or the next moment, or the next."

And so it had gone throughout the night until midnight, when he had switched to the wild celebration on the television screen, something between a riot and a massacre, with fireworks in the sky that could have been missiles, explosions in the streets that could have been automatic weapons, and masses of people pressed together, caught up in end-of-the-world emotions, desperate couplings, and sky-searching terror. And then, at last, the celebration had ended, the celebration that seemed more like Sodom and Gomorrah just before God's wrath, and the world had survived for another year.

The world was divided, Landis had thought, between pessimists and optimists, those who believed that the universe's dice were loaded and those who thought that chance would just as soon throw sevens and elevens as twos or threes or twelves. The pessimists worried about a million things that never happened--airplane accidents, fatal illnesses, robbers, doors unlocked, stoves not turned off, water left running. Pessimists were the natural custodians of all the might bes and might have beens, all those alternate universes where potential events really happened or real events happened otherwise.

Maybe it balanced out: the misfortunes that happened weighed against the agonies wasted on those that didn't, as if nemesis anticipated lost its power to destroy if not to injure. He understood apprehension; against his will, his mind drew up scenarios in which some current enterprise or relationship turned out badly. Even his dreaming self never let his fantasies achieve fulfillment, as if even asleep the writer was at work creating artistic difficulties. But, on the most part, he belonged to the optimists; he felt that there would be time enough to suffer when catastrophe really struck. It was not a matter of who was right, whether the universe was malign or benign or, as he suspected, indifferent. It was all a matter of temperament. Some people were worriers and some people were not, and basic temperament never changed. People were born that way. Both kinds looked at the same world, the same set of facts, and came up with opposite conclusions about what was going to happen, about what it all meant.

The man who said on radio that he knew it was going to happen, the bombs were going to fall eventually, reminded him of the time he had tried to talk a girl--what was her name? April. How could he forget?--into bed with him. He had been eighteen and still a virgin, a fact that he had never revealed to April and lied about to his friends. "It's going to happen someday--maybe someday soon. Why not now? We both want to."

She had been unmoved. "It doesn't have to happen. Ever. I might die an old maid." And he had been unable to persuade her. Of course it hadn't been words she wanted. And of course she had done it within the year with an older fellow from college, and she had gotten pregnant and had to have an abortion. Or so he had heard.

He had wanted to call in to the radio show and say that it didn't have to happen. Nuclear war made no sense to anyone. As a matter of fact, the presence of the missiles that the man feared might have kept the world from blundering into World War III. And the break-up of the Soviet Union had reduced that menace almost to nothing.

But he had known the reply. "That simply left nuclear missiles in the hands of lots of smaller countries and terrorists. We'll use it. We've never yet had a weapon we haven't used."

That was one of his problems. He could see both sides of every issue. That made him an effective writer but a poor advocate. And, in any case, the program didn't welcome common sense; it thrived on passion and controversy, and it welcomed conspiracy theorists.

The conspiracy theorists had called in, as well, with their talk of black helicopters and suitcase nuclear bombs floating around the world and government agencies organizing campaigns of repression to legalize immorality and deprive people of their constitutional rights to defend themselves with cop-killing bullets and machine guns. Sure, you could make a case for conspiracy. As a writer he knew that you could make a convincing case for anything. But that didn't mean you believed your own fantasies.

At his computer by nine, Landis had delayed the pain of getting back to his new book by checking the mail. With any luck he would have an interesting letter or two that would demand an answer, and with even better fortune he could involve himself in responses that would extend until lunch and he would not have to suffer until one or so, and perhaps he could get himself interested in one of the bowl games and not have to work at all that day.

Of course it was New Year's Day, and he hadn't really had to work. Most men and women didn't work on January 1, but he was not, he had thought, like most men and women. Most men and women had little in their work to engage their attention, their selves, their souls, while he, William S. Landis, was a writer. He chose what he wanted to work on, and he worked only on what engaged him. If only, he had thought ruefully, it wasn't such bloody hard work and it wasn't so easy to put off.

Complaining always made him feel guilty. Even in the privacy of his own thoughts, it sounded like whining. After all, a person who could make his living at his computer, thinking his own thoughts, working at his own pace, earning as much or as little as he wished, should never complain. Anyway, as he often told aspiring writers, a writer worked sitting down, in old clothes, and at home. Working at home, of course, had its disadvantages; people always thought you were free for conversation, running errands, or recreation. By now, however, he had convinced most of the world that his hours at the computer were sacred.

Nevertheless, he preferred almost anything to the actual composition of text, particularly novels. Non-fiction was not so bad. At least non-fiction had a subject and material; one could do research; one could organize and reorganize and find the best way of describing or explaining something, and that was enjoyable. The hard work was creating something out of nothing, turning the inside of his head into interesting characters doing and saying significant things in meaningful combinations.

And to the cynic who told him he didn't have to do it, Landis would have said, "But when I'm not doing it, I don't feel as if I'm justifying my existence. I don't feel like me. I feel most like myself when I am writing, even though the process itself is painful. I've talked to other writers, and they all say the same thing: We don't enjoy writing, but we enjoy having written. And I can't feel like myself and enjoy having written unless I sit at this computer for six to eight hours a day."

Unless he made himself sit there he would do no work. He didn't always work when he sat there, but unless he sat there the possibility of work did not exist. He would put it off as long as he could, and then he would reluctantly turn to the task at hand. Once it began it wasn't so bad.

Other writers had other answers. Some got up early in the morning, when the world was quiet and there was nothing to do but write, and they would finish their day's work by mid-morning and have the rest of the day to themselves. But he was not good in the morning. He needed time to wake up and get his blood flowing again. He needed breakfast and coffee and the morning news. Or at least he thought he did, and it worked. A writer, even one as otherwise rational as he believed himself to be, performed a kind of magic and nursed a superstitious dread of the possibility that changing the circumstances of the magic might make it impossible to perform.

Other writers worked late at night, while the rest of the world was asleep, but he was spent and dull after five in the afternoon. Of course, he might not be spent and dull if he had not used himself up during the daylight hours, but he thought he would be. Some writers set themselves goals in terms of production: four pages or even two pages, and maybe that would work for him, but he couldn't bring himself to quit when the writing was going well and he didn't think the system would work, psychologically, if he didn't.

His was a poor method but it was all he had.

After his procrastination, the only mail in his computer mailbox had been an invitation from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to be a member of a committee to study the affects of religious fundamentalism on the space program. He would get no salary, but his expenses would be paid, and he would receive a per diem allowance of three hundred dollars while attending meetings in Washington or elsewhere.

Landis had looked up at the sign above his computer. He didn't like committees. They were frustrating, boring, and useless. They were set up to relieve pressures for action or to diffuse blame for unpopular decisions already reached. He had served on more than his share, and he knew that knowledgeable administrators determined the results of committees by the kinds of people they appointed to them.

On the other hand, the subject had interested him. It had fitted into the book he was writing. Besides, this had been the first indication that the Federal government thought of him as some kind of expert. That was heady stuff for a man who lived by his wits. He had recognized the flattery and his response to it at the same time that he couldn't resist the feelings.

Didn't Heinlein have a science-fiction story about that kind of thing? He had looked it up. No, Heinlein had a series of stories that dealt with the rise of religious fanaticism after the year 2000, but it was Asimov's story "Trends," published in 1940, that described religious opposition to spaceflight. He would have to read it, mention it in a committee meeting, maybe look up other stories that dealt with similar issues. They would make good conversation points during dull sessions, and useful interpolations into an otherwise deadly committee report, and perhaps even offer insights into the problem at hand.

Besides, maybe he could wangle a trip into space out of his NASA contacts. He had dashed off a quick acceptance before he could think better of it and called up his file labeled "Catastrophe," although his word-processing program recognized only the first eight letters. An hour later he began to write, slowly at first, and then, as his ideas began to flow, with increasing speed until his fingers jigged across the keyboard as if each one were a worker bent on contributing its share to the output of the other nine. The work went well, and by noon, when he quit for lunch, the computer told him he was on page nine.

From a bachelor uncle, he had learned the joys of preparing a big pot of beef stew that he let simmer on the stove for hours and then put away in the refrigerator to draw upon at times when he didn't want to go out. He had warmed up a bowl in the microwave and thought about what he had missed in the pursuit of his own intellectual pleasures: the intimacy, the sharing of one's life with another person, the joys of raising children with all their developing awarenesses and needs.

He had missed all that. There had been a few women in his life with whom he had been close, but never close enough to want to share a life with one of them--or they had convinced him, by their behavior, that they would not welcome intimacy. Perhaps they thought he was too much attached to his books or his work. He could imagine their mothers telling them, "Never get involved with a writer." Or maybe, like April, they simply wanted someone who acted instead of talked. Sometimes he felt a hollowness in the center of his life, wondering about what might have been; then he immersed himself in his work. He had traded a more complete life for the books he had written and, generally, he was satisfied to be doing what he was doing. He had been searching for something when he was growing up and now, he thought, he had found it. He would not give it up, not for thirty years more of living, and he wouldn't lose it for a woman.

That was love, he had thought: the loss of self, the obsession with someone else, the feeling that one was incomplete without the other, that life was only existing unless one was with the other. He understood the attractions of the condition and the pleasures of its strong emotions at the same time that he preferred his own state of cool self-knowledge.

He wondered whether what he had experienced wasn't life itself, the way it was supposed to be, whether the natural progression of human existence was not a struggle for identity, to find what one was and then express it through what one did, a struggle that was forgotten as the need of the genes to reproduce themselves turned young bodies into yearning glands. No, that was wrong: It was all a part of life--the growing up, the pairing off, the reproduction, and then, if people were lucky, the chance to discover and express their unique selves.

That hadn't been true for most of human history. After reproduction came death, as to the mate of the black widow spider. "Reproduce and die," said the genes. "Get out of the way so that evolution can proceed." But then the development of intelligence produced an alternative to nature's way: social evolution, intellectual evolution. People could survive their reproductive deaths and discover what else they were good for. He had just skipped the first part.

If the genes could think, imagine their surprise! These creatures that they created, that they commanded, were good for something besides reproducing genes. What they were good for, apparently by accident, was discovering answers, thinking, creating. What is life for? these creatures began to ask, and answered by giving it meaning through the creation of something other than bodies that carried and transmitted in their turn old and new genetic combinations.

Although most of the world did not believe it, there was life after sex. Not that there was anything wrong with sex--or love, which was the mythology that romantic poets created to pretty up the reproductive instinct. Like all significant inventions, the myth became reality and guided human affairs by influencing the way people thought about it. Laws, on the other hand, remained realistic. They were all concerned with who controlled the food supply and who could reproduce with whom.

Everything has meaning, he thought, if you looked for it, and every part of life has its place. Youth was no better than middle-age, and middle-age no better than old age. One lives through it, one survives if one is lucky, and does that kind of thing for which that stage of life and development is appropriate. There was no more use in looking back with regret than in looking ahead with apprehension.

The point of life was to find what you were good at and, if you were lucky, to be able to do it, and if you were very lucky to be rewarded for it. He was lucky, and he didn't want to change things.

When he had returned to his computer, the invitation from the Twenty-First Corporation glowed at him. "Say no," he thought, and then he noticed that there were more pages, and those pages contained a list of people invited. It read like a who's who of the financial, political, scientific, and intellectual community, including the name of environmentalist Paul Gentry, whom he had long wanted to meet. Indeed, though the knew most of the names, he had never met anyone on the list. Quickly, before he changed his mind, he typed out a short acceptance and dispatched it to the appropriate address.

With that decision behind him he got back to his book with renewed energy and by the time five o'clock had arrived, he had completed twelve good pages and hadn't watched a single bowl game. That was a first. He rewarded himself with a martini and settled down to watch the end of the Rose Bowl. Pretty soon he found himself caring who won, as if it really mattered and the world might not end before the next one rolled around.

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