Deaths I have outsmarted

SOMETIMES, MY SISTER seemed to be beckoning it, and I would steer well clear of her. Down the back, away from the house, she would lay out a bath towel and sunbake. When she turned, the sun would bounce off her baby oil, and I would glance up from my game.

The way she reclined so deliberately under that sky annoyed me. She knew it stalked us from above. On the drive to and from town, she would point out the possible hiding places. A cave. Another cave. The train tunnel under the road. After tea, she would rush for news updates. Together, we counted down the days and calculated impact probabilities. Sometimes it would get too much for us, we would freak ourselves out.

I resented it, this shit-stirring of fate. If it was headed straight for us, there was no point drawing attention to ourselves. The fear we had built was constant, and at these times – when she abandoned our terror to work on her tan – I watched the sky for both of us. At school, the others were only vaguely interested in Skylab and its fall from grace. While it threw me that none of them had lined up a cave or a rail tunnel, the zeal I developed with later apocalypses had not yet fermented, and it was okay for them to ignore my spaceship for their Star Wars toys.

I was harder on myself. This was a lead cup test.

Discovering that the ancient Romans had died slow, demented deaths after innocently drinking from lead pewter cups spun my ten-year-old world. I was unaware such trickiness was allowed to exist. That treachery could lurk in the everyday, and probably only be realised looking back from the future, startled me. While I was certain that if I were a Roman, I would not have been so stupid, outsmarting deaths like this would require vigilance and cunning. A nice deep cave, for instance.

My sister and I woke one morning to find that Skylab had spewed itself over Western Australia, and chunks were on their way to the stage of the 1979 Miss Universe contest in Perth. Perhaps, with guidance, this and the news the only casualty was a cow (a myth now writ Wikipedic) might have been enough to teach me the sky was not falling – even if it was. Before the space-dust had settled, though, my sister had moved on to bigger things, and my future as a paranoid bastard was cemented.

After a great misery for mankind an even greater approaches.

The great cycle of the centuries is renewed:

It will rain blood, milk, famine, war and disease.

In the sky will be seen a fire, dragging a tail of sparks

– Century 10, Quatrain 72

MY SISTER HITCHED the three hundred kilometre round-trip to Sydney to buy the Prophecies of Nostradamus the morning after a "Two Hour Television Special Event" of the same name left us gutted and terrified. Between ads for Ardath special filters and Valiant Regals, we learned how the sixteenth century French philosopher had predicted the wars and disasters of the last four hundred years. Not only that – if you were smart enough you could use his writing to divine future calamity.

The Corgi paperback edition was a book of ranting and prognostication unmatched this side of a hotel bedside drawer. Its psychedelic cover featured Michele de Nostradame in profile, with light beams shooting from his eyes. A hammer and sickle, swastika, crescent moon and skull floated behind him in a starlit sky – the whole podge seemingly emerged from a time portal arcing between two palm trees. The English translation sat beside the French text and, twenty years later in Paris, when I didn't possess the language skills to order a latte and a croissant, if you wanted a side of horreurs extremes et vindications, I was your man.

By the time he wrote Prophecies in 1555, Nostradamus himself was most likely unhinged. Given that his first wife and two young children had died of the plague, and that the church tried to charge him with heresy, this is not unreasonable. While his writing had always been cryptic, his late works contained additional obfuscation to avoid further persecution. Most of his quatrains can mean whatever you want them to, and if you were having a dinner party, you would sit Nostradamus next to Rorschach and keep the wine coming.

For my sister and me, this ambiguity was perfect. Our paranoia was top-shelf manifest, and we believed we possessed a special gift of insight. It seemed we alone understood that when he wrote "when the fish that travels over both land and sea is cast up on to the shore by a great wave, its shape foreign, smooth and frightful ..." Nostradamus was prophesying the launch of a Russian nuclear missile from a submarine.

In this way, the dead poet guided us, terrified and skitty, through the '80s – a sterling decade for the end of the world. Together, we cross-referenced each emerging apocalypse with the sacred text to see how worried we should be. It seemed, if you were cunning and vigilant enough, that every catastrophe was clearly foretold, and we set about outsmarting the Disintegrative Planetary Alignment of 1981, the Giant Comet of 1982, the Alien Invasion of 1983, the Polar Axis Flip of 1984, and the Nuclear War of 1982, 1984, and 1986.

Of course, if any one of these had come true we would have been fucked. My sister and I never actually enacted a real plan of any kind. We did not learn bushcraft or hand-to-hand combat or how to make water out of urine with a tarp. Our obsessive self-induced terror didn't prepare us any better against the Russian nuke secretly aimed at BHP Newcastle, or the meat-harvesting Jesus Aliens, than the ignorance of the plebs gargling blissfully from their goblets. We just worried a lot. As if all the energy we expended being terrified was some kind of talisman.

It would take a further decade's apprenticeship before I graduated to Master Nutbag and stepped up to direct action. In the meantime, Nostradamus's predictions came to fail, and increasingly we left his words to the silverfish. By now my sister had left home and started a family. Again, perhaps with guidance, I could have been led to abandon my paranoid fantasies.

BUT PARANOIA IS habit forming, and I was about to have a needle-full of the best junk ever.

The internet gave my sister and me a new way to keep in contact, and a new lease on death. We dialled in each emerging calamity with the ferocity and vigour only a 28k modem could deliver. My sister fixed on Comet Shoemaker Levy 9 and its fragmental slam into Jupiter. Our largest planet would be knocked out of alignment and possibly destroyed – rocking the solar system helter skelter. At best, we would suffer massive earthquakes and tsunamis. At worst, the moon would break away, our atmosphere would be sucked into space, and we would all die horrible vacuous head-exploding deaths.

She spent months hassling university physics departments and haranguing astronomers in an attempt to get at the truth. She rang me anytime, fraught. Did I know that a comet impacting a planet was unprecedented? Did I know that Jupiter affected the orbit of the earth? Did I know what would happen? Did I know what would happen? Together, we counted down the days and calculated impact probabilities. I sent her links to comet web forums and splendid CGI representations of Jupiter getting snuffed. I never really got into it, though.

I was distracted by something in my periphery. Small word had emerged of a new problem – different to the others. Subtle. Layered. Symmetrical. Its narrative structure was magnificent. In a world saturated with the one-act plays of comets, bombs and gods, this was an exquisite parable.

At the stroke of the new millennium, as the most debauched party man had ever thrown reached its zenith, as the drugs kicked in and the woofers woofed and the sparklers sparked, as the time code clicked over to double zero – the whole thing would quietly and simply shut itself off.

Y2K was the apocalypse I had to have. With guidance from the internet, I soon uncovered what was really going on. While most people focused on the problem posed by the double zero code to software, I had uncovered the real threat, the lead in the pewter: hardware. Trillions of embedded date-reliant chips lurking around the globe in nuclear power plant cooling systems and oil refinery flow control valves and remote control cars. Nobody knew where they all were. Nobody knew what they all did. Countries like Russia and Italy, who had not been savvy enough to invest billions of dollars in remediation like Australia, were done for.

Despite the altruism of our IT industry, I was still fearful. What about the embedded chips that controlled the water supply? What about the embedded chips in the power grid? How would we have bread if the embedded chips in the flourmill conveyor belt thought it was 1900? When the utilities inevitably collapsed at midnight, I did not want to be stuck in a city of three million hungry, thirsty, drugfucked people.

I urged anyone I cared about to either leave the city or stock up. My sister made sure all of the family in Western Australia had enough food, cash and water for at least a month. We agreed that if it became more than the ugly disruption we were expecting – if it went worst-case scenario – we would all head to Erabiddy, my other sister's sheep station in the Outback. The massive, remote property sat on an artesian lake. They had ten thousand sheep. They made their own bullets. We would be set.


FOR ME THERE was no option. I could not be in the city. While my partner Lea knew I was troubled by Y2K, and was complicit in my plans, I had hidden the depths of my fear. Mostly I surfed the web at work, value adding to my seventeen dollars an hour. Lea agreed it would be nicer to spend New Year's Eve camping than our alternative – an invite to a South Yarra party powered by colossal amounts of ecstasy, music and vanity. While there was a brief and embarrassing time when we went in for that kind of thing, it was over.

You can cache a lot of rice in a Nissan Pulsar, especially a hatchback. While Lea agreed it wouldn't hurt to be prepared, she never knew our camping trip was a bona fide crack at riding out a cataclysm.

My criteria for a spot to sit back and watch the narrative unfold were simple. It had to be as far away from every other bastard as possible while still within range of radio broadcasts. After a false start on the Murray River outside of Echuca, where every Bogan with a speedboat, bull terrier and Ritalin prescription arrived the moment we hammered in the last tent peg, we moved on to the Barmah State Forest. Here a forestry track ran a few hundred metres in from the river. Every now and then, a small sidetrack crumbled to the riverbank, and we spent the afternoon waltzing the Pulsar up and down these.

As the sky reddened, we looped back and settled on a spot we had earlier marked at the junction with a cockatoo feather. It was a good way off the track and well obscured by bush. Its grassy bank fell slowly to a small, grainy beach. A large River Red Gum had fallen into the water, giving us a private jetty. Under it, there would be fish. Here, we would be safe.

The day before the end of the world, we spent the morning exploring. Lea looked at feathers and flowers and lizards, while I kept an eye out for snakes, dead bodies, gold and undiscovered species. A long way upstream we found a huge slab of Red Gum. It had deliberately been fashioned into a rectangle about two metres wide and three metres long then, for some reason, abandoned. We wanted it.

Using long strong branches as levers, and rocks as fulcrums, we levied the slab on to its side. Then we pushed it over. This way, over and over, we lever-walked it, at two metres per slam, to the riverbank. I tied one end of the rope that had been our clothesline around its front, and coiled the remaining few metres over my shoulder. With one more flip, we sent the rough red wedge splashing into the Murray River. I went in behind it, kick paddling it out away from the shore.

Clear of snags, I pulled myself up on to it, lying there as if it were a surfboard. Lea made her way along the scrubby shore beside me as quickly as she could. She had to beat me back to our camp. We would only get one chance.

As I neared the small beach of our campsite, I rose up on the slab and lined up my shot. It struck me how, given my motivation for being here, mucking about with rope and a slab of timber in the weird currents of the Murray River qualified me for a Darwin Award. I was relieved that my aim was decent. Lea caught the rope and pulled me to a perfect beaching.

By mid-afternoon the heat drove us to the water again, and we goofed about on the submerged branches of the fallen tree. We tested how little of a hold we could keep with a pinky or big toe before the current slipped our grip and dragged us free. When this inevitably happened, we had to spin around quickly and do a couple of hard strokes, otherwise we were goners – forced to beaver ashore and walk back.

Later, we decided we should see the year out with a swim from Victoria to New South Wales. Slipping from the tree together, we dog paddled in tangent, letting the river do the work. The Murray carried us a while before depositing us on the opposite bank. We sat quietly and looked back at our camp, watching the smoke rise gently from embers, watching the towels flapping from a tree, wondering who lived there.

That night we ate our last supper on a massive red gum table. As I sat there, watching the fire, I realised that some time during the day the river had washed away my panic.


IT IS STRANGE to be clean of terror in a world filthy with it. When we were kids, my sister and I had to go looking for it. Now it is delivered to our door, addressed to the householder, wrapped in plastic. It is hard to reconcile relaxed and comfortable with alert but not alarmed, and often I struggle.

My sister, too, still worries. At the moment she is outsmarting bird flu, an end of the world of considerable charisma – and one I admit briefly held me in its claws. After watching a Lateline interview with a European pandemic expert, I made Lea promise that the day they announced a case of person-toperson transmission in Australia, we would lock the doors and not leave the house for a six weeks. I watched the race to procure a vaccine, desperately hoping the drug companies could manufacture enough in time. As the government pumped in millions, and the same bastards who made their money in IT shifted portfolios to biotech, the whole thing began to look more and more like Y2K with feathers. Fear is currency, cold and hard, and the longer I watch and learn, the more I want in.

In late 2005, NASA quietly released details of asteroid MN4. It had the highest ever recorded probability of an asteroid-earth impact: one in sixty. For days after learning of this, the inbound asteroid orbited my thoughts. It spun loops in my head and impacted my brain. Even if NASA could prove beyond doubt that MN4 would not hit Earth, there would be doubters. What about the way, the very next day, NASA downgraded the threat of impact to one in twenty-six thousand? What about the recent landing of the NEAR spacecraft on Asteroid Eros 433? That had to be a practice run for laying nuclear charges on MN4, didn't it? And what about the impact date? April 13, 2029 – a Friday.

I liked it. It was not as elegant as Y2K, or as impending as bird flu, but still a nice little end-of-the-world scenario. I got out of bed and went shopping. This would be my superannuation package. This time, I would own a piece of the action.

Sitting in my kitchen at 3am, unperturbed by the reflection in the black window glass of a man in novelty monkey pajamas selling his soul, I attempted to register the domain name for an apocalypse twenty-five years in the future. Maybe all that time I had invested in fear and paranoia was not wasted. Who would be better at writing the script for the next impact-based end of the world than me? was taken. I was bewildered. I typed the URL into the address bar like a sore loser. The page loaded. is a shopping centre in Alfafar, Spain. It has that unbeatable consumer combination of designer fashion stores, designer restaurants and a bowling alley. Using the "translate now" function in Google, I was able to ascertain that, "Each one of the facilities has a personal touch, which causes that they are different from others, creating cosy spaces to pass a good moment." and were available. I bought them both.

The next day, I rang my sister. Together we worked up a sublime conspiracy to make us both rich. My concern at having an Australian web address and not a was allayed when she told me that obviously we couldn't run it from the United States – we had tried, but the government had shut us down. I suggested the front page of the site should contain a single line of ten-point text reading: "This website contains independent information on the impact of Asteroid MN4 that some people may find disturbing." Under this there would be two buttons, "enter" and "I don't want to know".

The latter would redirect you to the NASA press release detailing how the asteroid will miss us by an astrological bee's dick – thirty-six thousand kilometers, one-tenth the distance to the moon. My sister suggested a clock spinning down the seconds to impact, with an animation of MN4 colliding with earth playing. I told her visitors should be able to type in the name of their town to see a projection of the impact odds, and the estimated casualties. My sister told me this would be easy to achieve using an algorithm running from a population database.

We were back in her room. Nostradamus shot light-beams out of his eyes.

The sky will burn at 45 degrees,

Fire approaches the great new city.

Immediately a huge, scattered flame leaps up,

when they want to have verification from the Normans.

– Century 6, Quatrain 97

My sister told me that forty-five degrees could be the angle at which MN4 would enter the atmosphere. I told her we could make the new city either New York or Sydney. She told me we could say that the huge scattered flames leaping up were a nuclear missile launched to destroy the asteroid just before it impacted. I told her I couldn't think of anything for verification from the Normans. She told me no, neither could she. We had plenty of time to think of something. and are up for renewal soon and I will let them slip by. There are enough arseholes using fear to get what they want without me joining in. I guess maybe it was the stories I was addicted to. Besides, the Mayan calendar ends in five years, and is available.


RECENTLY I ASKED my sister why we are the way we are. Why do we so easily become terrified and obsessed over these possible deaths? It is easy for me. I can just blame her, filling my sweet little head with crazy philosophers, asteroids and nuclear war. But what about her?

I asked her whether it was all the magic mushrooms she ate when she was a teenager. She and her hippie friends would come back from adventures in the hills with bags of the strange little things. They would cook them, eat them with toast, then go lay under the pomegranate tree and talk for hours about how three-dimensional it all was. She told me no, that wasn't it.

I asked her whether she though it was the lead. A filthy ancient lead smelter blew its load across our house – the irony of ducking a metaphorical pewter mug while living in its wet patch lost on me until I was twenty, when I realised what the "Sulphide Factory" actually was. People out our way had all sorts of weird-arse problems. She told me no, that wasn't it.

I asked her whether she thought it was the motorbike accident – the time at fifteen she was pillion on a Yami that swerved to miss a coal truck on a winding mountain road. How she went flying through the air over a cliff and nearly died, smashing herself to bits. How we thought for a while she would lose both legs, and how happy we all were when the steel pins finally took. She told me no, that wasn't it either.

I asked her if whether was because of Dad. How he left us six kids and Mum all alone just like that. Driving that purple taxi and himself into the ground at forty-three. How everyone kept saying he was too young. Hewas too young. She told me yeah, that probably had something to do with it.

But she told me that she really thought it was this. When she was twelve, she was lying on our grandmother's bed. All of a sudden she realised that one day she was going to die. She said a strange feeling spread over her as if she was collapsing into herself. She said it was warm and heavy. She said she really, really realised that one day she was going to die.

I told her yeah, that happened to me too.

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