The New Era – by STEPHEN COOPER

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The New Era

 

The people who survived the year 2049-2050, called it “The New Era,” but never, not even in private, did they use the word “heat.”

“Heat,” “hot” and all derivatives were the new Holocaust, sacrilegious after 2049; excised from the lexicon, their utterance was a blasphemy; you just didn’t do it. As qualifiers they shortchanged suffering and were insensitive – for how can adjectives adequately describe the prolonged death of millions, the destruction, and subsequent descent into chaos – once average daily temperatures across North America exceeded 140 degrees Fahrenheit?

But for Maurice Ward’s invention of “Starlite,” a material capable of withstanding temperatures over 10,000 degrees Celsius, after the dawn of The New Era, there would be no more mankind; the human race would have run its course – with no winner.

You’ve never hear of Maurice Ward? Maurice Ward was a hairdresser and amateur inventor from Yorkshire, England, who, in a remarkable experiment, in March 1990, broadcast live on the BBC, showed an egg coated in Starlite being blasted for five minutes with a blow torch. Instead of collapsing and spewing yoke under the searing heat, at the end of the experiment, the egg was merely “warm” and, probably, easy to peel. NASA, Lockheed, Boeing, even a few paramilitary and terrorist groups intent on world domination immediately offered Maurice hundreds of millions for Starlite’s formula; slightly less for a sample. But Maurice refused; he wanted billions with a big B and he wouldn’t budge. Maurice knew Starlite’s true value.

The writing wasn’t just written on the wall, it was spray painted in big block graffiti – but no one seemed to notice, or do anything about it. Alarming statistics showed that with the exponential rise of global warming – which no one took seriously enough – it was only a matter of time before stifling, singing, soot-soaked death would eventually overtake much of the planet.

Glaciers and great sheets of ice traditionally covering large swaths of the Earth’s surface were already melting at historic rates, and it wouldn’t be long before the rise in sea level would cause catastrophic flooding, evacuations, and mass food shortages. Normal plant and animal habitats would change. Birds would no longer fly South for the winter. Bears would be walking the streets, and insects, encouraged by the heat, would swarm. Pretty soon they would have to cancel the famous Cherry Tree Festival in Washington, DC, because the trees were blooming at unpredictable times, and eventually, not at all.

And what about the heat? Well, the heat was unbearable and getting worse all the time. It came in sweltering waves, so strong that in some parts of the world, it felt like a knife, slicing through skin.

This is why Starlite was such a game-changer, because, just like Maurice’s egg on the BBC, any man, woman, and child protected by a thin layer of Starlite could sojourn on the surface of the sun – and while they might sweat – still walk away with a smile. Using an old Singer, Maurice sewed the first Starlite suit himself in 2010. Testing it out in an incinerator, he emerged from its ashes, like a phoenix, stinking to high heaven, but joyous, because with the Starlite suit on, he’d survived.

*******************************************************

Sadly, a year later, Maurice, still not a billionaire, died of natural causes – though for years, there were rumors he’d been killed – rubbed out by some entity or foreign government who couldn’t abide “no,” as Maurice’s “final” answer.

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Eustace Ward, Maurice’s only son, was just five when Maurice died.

The day after his father’s funeral, Eustace was playing on the fire escape of his family’s middle-class flat when, suddenly, men wearing black masks and fatigues, burst into his family’s living room. They began waving big black guns and screaming in husky foreign accents. Undetected, crouching on the metal stairs, Eustace listened as they interrogated his mother and two older sisters. They demanded to know where Maurice kept the formula for Starlite, and, failing that, demanded to know its chemical composition.

But the Ward women could not produce the formula – because they didn’t have it; Maurice never shared it with them, or told them what he did with it.

After slapping, mock-executions, and other threatened abuses didn’t work, the thugs left, frustrated. All the while, and for almost ten minutes after they left, poor Eustace lay flat, clutching the cold metal rails, hiding and hyperventilating – stuffing his fist into his mouth – to minimize the sound of his huffing.

*******************************************************

Eustace was a very smart boy, and, despite this disturbing incident, he went on to become a very accomplished young man. Interested in chemistry, he was accepted on scholarship to Harvard University, and, it was there, at Harvard – more than thirteen years after Maurice Ward’s death – that Starlite suddenly, jarringly, reentered his consciousness.

Eustace was busy conducting an experiment in one of Harvard University’s labs when his father’s old friend and lawyer, Manfred, rang. In a hurried whisper, Manfred said: “I would have told you I was coming, but I’m being followed, and well, it’s just too dangerous. I’m here tonight and fly back to London on the morn’.  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. 7 pm. Ok, Champ?  It’s urgent.”

*******************************************************

At 7:06, Eustace and Manfred embraced, but, by 7:10, Manfred was dead – the victim of a massive heart attack caused by seventy years of poor nutrition, and the final catalyst, stress – stress knowing he was being followed by armed goons, and that, each day, he might die – until, writhing in Eustace’s arms, a stone’s throw from Harvard, he did.

Eustace never told anyone that Manfred, still clutching him, his heart exploding, stuck a letter in his pocket. Inside was the formula for Starlite and the schematics of the first Starlite suit Maurice sewed. Written in cursive, the letter began: “To my dearest son, Eustace, today, on your 18th birthday, I give you the world . . . .”

*******************************************************

Twenty-five years later, Eustace, who by then went only by his first name, didn’t own the world, but he and his people, which at last count, numbered just north of 500, did control 10 square miles of land in what used to be Madison, Wisconsin; that was back before 2049, when it still made sense to call a city by its name, bringing to mind borders. For after the New Era, borders bore no relation to the brittle, burning world. Those not killed by the extreme heat went where they could . . . to survive.

Communications were completely cut off: Phones, cells and landlines, were all dead, and the internet, dark; it turns out that nothing works in 140-degree-plus temperatures, nothing – not even the will to survive. Only with the protection of a hand-sewn Starlite suit could a human body resist its natural impulse to liquefy, and only Eustace, and his wife, Reba, possessed the formula and the know-how to make them.

Before sewing Starlite suits became one of her primary occupations, Reba Belmont was just another undergrad at Harvard. But, in a solemn ceremony shortly after the New Era began, she and Eustace, after many years of courtship, finally married, and Reba officially dropped her last name – just as Eustace had dropped his – for what did last names matter when you had a first name like Reba or Eustace, and less than 1000 people were still alive in North America – dangling on the edge of death?

Because Reba sewed each and every Starlite suit by hand, and only she, and Eustace, of course, knew how, it was only natural that they became leaders after the New Era; the group’s continued survival depended upon them and not just because of the extreme heat. The Starlite suits – and the ability to make them – would become the key to furnishing Eustace and Reba’s people with water: The essence of all life.

For just as humans cannot exist at plus 140 degrees Fahrenheit without a Starlite suit on to protect them, they absolutely must have water, or they’ll wilt just the same.

*******************************************************

Arthur Jennings, Director of Operations of the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant in Carlsbad, CA, understood the importance of water better than anyone.

Jennings ran the Carlsbad plant from the day it opened on December 14, 2015, until December 1, 2046, when he retired. Instead of an office party send-off, Arthur decided he wanted more. And so, exactly one year later, on December 1, 2047, he made his move; he and ten heavily armed men stormed the plant, taking it over from a group of outmanned and outgunned guards who had no business protecting such an important national asset.

The Carlsbad plant cost over one billion dollars to build and upon opening 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 the plant filtered water from the Pacific Ocean through gravel, sand, and other material to produce 50 million gallons of potable water a day.

As plant Director, Jennings knew the workings of the plant intimately. And, after the First World Water War began in 2025 – when the President of the United States made him a cabinet member – he, more than anyone, knew its importance to the continuation of life in North America: as drinking water, to irrigate crops, even for basic respiration.

Thus, in 2047, just as The New Era was set to dawn, when people were literally beginning to drop dead from the heat, when there was no more “United States” – just roving bands of people, looking to stay alive – Jennings and his men, all close relatives, made their move: They took the plant by force – but they didn’t just take it – they made it their home, moving their wives, extended families, close friends, and all their possessions into the vast desalination compound. And then they built a fence; an impenetrable perimeter of titanium, that they’d also stolen, which they constructed around the entire premises, and together with four armed guard posts, this provided 24-hour protection. Once the fence was constructed, and the plant secure, Arthur Jennings changed his name, baptizing himself Poseidon, the new modern day God of the Sea. Arthur’d always been “a little off.”

With the ability to produce potable water, and grow crops, the people of Poseidon prospered despite the chaotic times in which they lived, and their number grew; in 2049, between 180 and 200 people were living inside the Carlsbad desalination plant, but by 2065, that number exceeded 250 souls.

*******************************************************

2049 was an important year in the annals of history for two reasons.

First, average daily temperatures, which had been climbing steadily for years, reached a breaking point that was incompatible with human existence. People started dying from exposure alone – literally burned alive. Poseidon knew if his people were to survive, water and food was not enough; he and his people would have to have their own Starlite suits – sewn by Eustace, or by his wife, Reba, of course. For a number of months Poseidon had already engaged in a somewhat inconsistent and volatile trade with Arthur and Reba: Starlite suits for food and water, but now, with temperatures rising, Starlite suits for all of his people were a must.

The second critical development in 2049 was that Eustace and his people realized they had their own big problem, a water shortage; their water supply, kept in an underground steel-encased tank – which at one point, shortly after the First World Water War in 2035, held as much as 200 million gallons – was running low.

And so, in 2049, a historic deal was struck; Eustace and Poseidon agreed: Every November 1st there would be an exchange – a year’s supply of Starlite suits for a year’s supply of water; an exchange that, for both groups, would ensure their continued survival.

*******************************************************

November 1, 2065, at the “Fifteenth Annual Exchange of Water for Starlite Suits” convened inside of an old nuclear fallout shelter somewhere in the middle of the desert in what used to be Las Vegas…

Poseidon: “OK, we have three pregnant women, and so not knowing exactly

how many offspring there will be, we’ll need 10 infant Starlite suits, with the right to request more . . . should more than ten babies be born.”     

Eustace:      “Fine. That’s fine. In addition to the normal yearly adjustments and repairs – how many brand new adult female suits and how many new adult male suits do you need?”

Poseidon:    “Let’s see . . . . According to my list we have 27 children, and out of those, there are 5 that are nearing the age of 18 and currently have child-model suits that are beyond adjustment.” Eustace: “Ok. That’s fine. Right, Reba?

Reba:         “Sure. It’ll take me a few weeks, but, should be fine.”

Poseidon:    “Thanks. Look, Reba, Eustace, I don’t want to B.S. with you two any longer today. You’re not going back to Wisconsin . . . or whatever your calling it these days. Neither of you are.  Instead, you’re coming with us, back to the plant. No, no Arthur, don’t be a fool . . .  sit down! Your armed guard is already dead, at least 10 guns are pointed at you and Reba right now . . .  and your son, Michael, whom I can’t believe you were foolish enough to bring along, well, like you, he’s my prisoner right now . . . but, we can make him dead too, for all I care.”

Eustace:    “What is this Poseidon? Why would you do this after all these years? All these years we‘ve been–”

Poseidon: “Shut up. Do you know who I am? I’m your master, and you, you, you and your foolish wife, you’re my new slaves – and I don’t answer to slaves. Soon, all you’ll be doing, if you know what’s good for you

– and what’s good for your darling boy, Michael – is sewing.  Sew, sew, sew – a sewing Starlite suits for me, Poseidon, you’re soon to go.

That’s quite catchy, actually . . . . Ah, don’t look at me like that

Eustace, you always knew I was a crazy son-of-a gun.”

*******************************************************

Brazilian wandering spiders are the world’s most venomous spider; their bite is described as “excruciatingly painful” to human beings and potentially fatal.   Before 2049, their spindly-looking legs were known to span between five and six inches long. But, with the start of the New Era, and the spike in temperatures, they began to grow, and grow, and grow. As they grew, so did their brains, and by 2060, they even had a leader: His name was Grog.

*******************************************************

Staring intently at the door to the nuclear fall-out shelter with his eight eyes, two of which were gargantuan and appeared to be popping out of his face, Grog – up to 120 pounds after his last meal – shifted his weight. His muscular legs which spanned seven feet in length were strong and thick with coarse black hair.

The hot wind blew across the sandy desert floor in what used to be Las Vegas and the temperature rose a few degrees, when suddenly, the door to the bunker opened, and the humans, all adorned in Starlite suits, began to file out.

Watching patiently, Grog waited. He waited until the last person came out and the door was closed. Then, opening his big red fangs, Grog gave the signal, and he and his army of 50,000 angry Brazilian wandering spiders all stood on their back legs and charged.

The New Era was at an end.

***

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About the Author: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas including The Hill, JURIST, The Baltimore Sun, The Las Vegas Review-Journal, The Times of San Diego, The Press-Enterprise, The Huffington Post, The New Indian Express, The Trinidad Express, The Gleaner, The Jamaican Observer, A.M. Costa Rica, The Havana Times, The Belize Times, Caribbean News Now, CounterPunch, thegrio.com, reggae-vibes.com, al.com, The Montgomery Advertiser, The Selma Times-Journal, The Detroit News, USA Today, and many, many more. “Rifkin Rising,” his first work of fiction was published by The Flash Fiction Press on June 4, 2016, and his second short story, “The Submariner” was published by Sick Lit Magazine on July 5, 2016. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.

 

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Quotes Tadka says:

    Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular post!
    It is the little changes that will make the largest
    changes. Many thanks for sharing!

    Like

  2. Ray Busler says:

    I enjoyed the concept of “Starlite” I’m reminded of an H.G. Wells novel about a liquid anti gravity coating that acquired the anti gravity quality once the coating dried.

    Like

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