• The New Era

    Those who survived the holocaust never said “heat” when describing what happened in 2049. Instead, they called the aftermath of the apocalypse The New Era.

    When temperatures on the planet broke 140 F, millions died and civilization descended into chaos. “Hot” and“heat” became terms of blasphemy and were outlawed in what remained of the former United States. Only Starlite, a material capable of withstanding temperatures up to 10,000 F prevented human extinction.

    Its creator was Maurice Ward, a hairdresser and amateur inventor from Yorkshire. When a Starlite-coated egg survived blasting by a blowtorch on a 1990 BBC show, Ward was pursued by NASA, Lockheed—and darker forces bent on world domination—offering millions for the formula. But Ward wanted billions. The handwriting was already on the wall and he knew Starlite’s true value.

    Glaciers were already melting. Flooding, evacuations, and food shortages would follow. Habitats would change. Birds would no longer fly south; the cherry blossoms in Washington would bloom early, then not at all.  

    Maurice sewed the first Starlite suit on his ancient Singer. Self-testing it in an unsecured incinerator, he emerged stinking but joyous. He’d survived. When he died the following year there were rumors he’d been killed by the Americans—or was it the Russians?—who wouldn’t take his No for an answer.

     Eustace Ward, his son, was five when he stood, bravely, at his father’s funeral. Eustace was playing on the fire escape of the Wards’ flat when four men in black masks and battle fatigues burst into the family’s living room waving big guns and screaming at Eustace’s mother. Crouching quietly on the metal stairs, Eustace listened as they demanded that she tell them where Maurice kept the formula for Starlite. But she didn’t know. Maurice never told her.

    When slapping, mock execution, and rape threats failed, they finally left. For ten minutes Eustace lay flat, clutching the cold metal rail, hyperventilating and stuffing his fist into his mouth to keep from crying out. Eustace was a smart boy.

    Inheriting his father’s gift for chemistry, he became a star student and, age 17, he won a scholarship to Harvard. There, almost 13 years after his father’s death, Starlite reentered his consciousness with a vengeance.  

    Eustace was finishing an experiment in a Harvard chemistry lab when his cell phone rang. It was Manfred, his father’s old friend and lawyer back in England, and Manfred was in Boston. “I would have told you I was coming,” Manfred explained, “but I’m being followed. I’m here until tomorrow when I fly back to London. Can’t say more . . . not now. Meet me tonight at the entrance to the T station in Harvard Square. That big one that’s near the newspaper stand. Seven o’clock. Ok, Champ? It’s urgent.”

     At 7:06 Eustace and Manfred embraced, but by 7:10 Manfred was dead – from stress on a heart weakened by seventy years of poor nutrition. Manfred lived with the fear that the goons would come for him one day, and on a street a stone’s throw from Harvard, writhing in Eustace’s arms, that fear killed him. 

    But not before he managed to slip a letter into the pocket of Eustace’s crimson Harvard hoodie. Inside was the formula for Starlite and the schematics of the Starlite suit that had protected Maurice—like Daniel in the lion’s den—from certain death. Written in old-fashioned cursive, the letter began: “To my dearest son, Eustace. Today, on your eighteenth birthday, I give you the world . . . . ”

    Twenty-five years later, Eustace, who by then went by his first name only, didn’t own the world. But he and his people, 500 souls, did control 10 square miles of what used to be Madison, Wisconsin; that was before 2049, when place names still had meaning. In the New Era, borders no longer bore any relation to the brittle, burning world. Those not killed by the heat went where they could to survive.

    Communications were also gone: phones, internet, dark—nothing worked in 140-degree heat. Only a hand-sewn Starlite suit prevented the human body from liquefying. Only Eustace, and his wife Reba, had the formula and the know-how.   Reba Belmont was a Harvard undergraduate when she met Eustace. By the time they wed, fewer than 1,000 survivors clung to the edge of survival in North America and last names, single or married, meant nothing.

    And the water was almost gone.Arthur Jennings, director of operations of the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant near what was once San Diego, understood the importance of water better than anyone. Jennings ran the Carlsbad plant from the day it opened in 2015, until 2046, when he officially retired. A year later he made his move. With ten heavily armed accomplices, he stormed the plant, easily overcoming the five guards left behind when the government collapsed.

    When the billion-dollar plant was built it was promoted by the San Diego County Water Authority as “the nation’s largest, most technologically advanced and energy-efficient seawater desalination plant. ” Using reverse osmosis, it filtered seawater from the Pacific through gravel and sand to produce 50 million potable gallons a day. 

    When the First World Water War began in 2025, the President made Jennings a member of the cabinet. By 2047 there was no more United States – just roving bands, looking to stay alive – and Jennings and his men, all relatives, brought their families and closest friends into the vast desalination compound.

    To keep others out they erected a perimeter of purloined titanium. Jennings—who ordered them to call him Poseidon, God of the Sea—oversaw a kingdom that, supported by food raised with desalinated water—grew from 180 to 250 souls in 2065. Thirsty crops like almonds were a thing of the past. So were animals.

    When humans began to die from exposure – literally burned alive – Poseidon went into the Starlite suit business. Sewn by Eustace and Reba, they were traded for food. By 2049 water stored in the huge tanks was running low and a deal was struck with the handful of survivor cells outside the plant. On the first of November every year thereafter there would be an exchange: a year’s supply of water for a supply of Starlite suits for those outside. 

    That meant leaving the compound. The animals were gone. But not the insects. They were thriving. The bite of the Brazilian Wandering Spider was excruciating and often fatal. Before 2049 their spindly-looking legs were known to span between five and six inches long. When temperatures took another leap the spiders began to grow. By 2060 they had developed a primitive and savage intelligence. Like Poseidon’s people inside, the colony outside the plant had a leader. His name was Grog. And Grog was watching.

    Staring intently as the gate swung open for the November 1, 2065, exchange, Grog – weighing 120 pounds after his most recent meal – shifted his weight. His black legs spanned seven feet. He waited until the last of Poseidon’s contingent filed out, as those inside the compound looked on and the approaching contingent of survivors, the last living outside the plant, pushed wheelbarrows and wagons containing the last of their own water supply. 

    Extending his blood-red fangs, Grog gave the signal. Behind him, fifty thousand Brazilian Wandering Spiders reared back on hairy, hideous legs. The New Era was at an end.

    The Age of the Insects had begun.

    This story was edited by William Ray, Editorial Director at Steinbeck Now. A longer version was originally published in sicklitmagazinedotcom.

    Leave a Comment