New Atlantis in the Pacific Ring of Fire by Bruce Costello

Bruce Costello's bleak vision of the aftermath of an Apocalyptic earthquake in Dunedin, New Zealand.

When the 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck Dunedin, New Zealand’s southernmost city, in October 2021, Clive Pengelly was asleep with his wife Julia in their hillside home, high above the central business area and the lower suburbs.

There was a noise like a crashing aircraft and the house bucked and reared, tossing both against the bedroom wall, before hurling them to the floor.

Julia ran screaming from the room. Clive felt about in vain for the emergency torch from the bedside cabinet, and then groped his way along the hall towards the front door, where he could hear Julia. Something collapsed in front of him with a roar of bricks and mortar. The air was like breathing in a vile kind of icing sugar and he coughed and wheezed until he started dry retching.

Retreating with his hand over nose and mouth, he stumbled through the kitchen towards the back door, but the floor was awash with a slippery mess and he fell, banging his head. Dazed, he realised he was lying in the chicken soup that Julia had made the night before and left on the bench to cool.

The floor heaved again. Clive slithered to the door and ran outside, calling for Julia, but the night was black and his voice was lost in a cacophony of sound. Tongues of fire shot up from the house. Something exploded, and smoke billowed, acrid in his nose and throat. He threw himself to the ground, ripped off a pyjama sleeve, wrapped it around his face and tried to stand, but was pitched forward as the earth shook anew.

Face down in a coppery smelling pool that he recognised as his own blood, Clive lay paralysed with fear. After a while he hauled himself up, ran his hands over his head and face and, feeling a warm stickiness on his fingers, realised his nose was bleeding.

The whole house was ablaze, the heat extreme from dancing yellow flames. Blinded by smoke, he staggered towards the front of the property, discovered he was going the wrong way and turned back, tripping over rubble.

Nothing was where it should have been. The path to the front door seemed to have vanished and in the back yard - or was it the front yard - the garden shed was sliding about the lawn and Julia's washing basket swung from a pole, spurting pegs.

He ran around the property, calling, until he tumbled over a pile of bricks with two legs protruding. He tore into the rubble with bare hands, shredding the skin on his soft fingers, and uncovered Julia's body.

On a pavement that looked more like a pathway of stepping stones, with fractured slabs of concrete strewn this way and that, Clive gaped at the city below him as the sun came up.

The harbour bed had risen to form a new area of land, stretched like a rumpled blanket between the hills on either side. It glistened in the glow of the sun shining red behind dust and smoke.

The central city area and the lower suburbs had vanished. Shops, offices, factories, the City Hall, police and fire stations and thousands of houses had been replaced by a glinting pink lake.

Clive closed his eyes and mouth. His chin slumped on to his chest and he let out a long wail that felt like it came from somewhere else.

People were gathering outside houses, shouting, crying, embracing, and gazing in horror at the scene far below.

An obese woman in ripped jeans limped towards Clive pushing a wheelbarrow, and collapsed. In the barrow sat an elderly woman with a bloody towel around her neck, rocking to and fro, muttering. Two tiny boys shivering in soiled pyjamas clung to the wheelbarrow, staring up at her with pale faces.

'Let me help,' said Clive. He began to push the barrow up the rise towards the nearby medical centre.

Outside the dairy an unruly crowd was yelling abuse at Mr Khan the shopkeeper who stood behind broken windows, waving a rifle.

'Stay back,' he screamed. 'Keep away or I'll fire.'

'Let's rush him,' somebody called out. 'He can't shoot us all.'

'No, no!' shrieked a woman. 'Wait! Wait! The government will help us!'

'Wellington's stuffed! There's no government left!' came a man's voice. A tumult of yelling erupted as the crowd charged forward.

A shot rang out. The pack reared up like a wounded beast, grabbed Mr Khan's rifle, knocked him senseless and trampled his body.

Somebody pushed Clive to the ground, seized the wheelbarrow, and pitched the old lady onto the pavement. She lay gabbling as youths threw boxes of beer, cartons of cigarettes and a cash register into the barrow and took off.

Clive knelt beside her.

'Why? Why?' she asked.

'I don't know, love,' Clive replied, watching the looters disappear down the street, back to their rat holes. He carried her to the medical centre, where she died in the queue.

Stumbling back home, Clive came across the badly damaged house of a colleague he'd often clashed with in court and chatted to over wine and cheese at Law Association meetings - a slender, immaculate young woman with striking blue eyes and a brusque manner.

He thrust aside her broken front door.

'Are you there, Shona? Are you all right? It's Clive Pengelly!'

'In here, Clive! I'm in here!'

She was slumped at the kitchen table, dark hair flung forward over her face. On the table was the body of a child.

'Kylie was six yesterday. She was all I had left,' Shona said in a dull, slow voice, lifting her head. 'You seem to have survived.'

'I lost Julia, my wife.'

'Oh, my God.'

The child's lower body had been crushed but her face was beautiful and her curly hair neatly brushed. Her blue eyes were wide and her eyebrows raised.

'I'm so sorry,' Clive said. 'Where's her father?'

'He left me last week to live with his lover in town.'

'Oh.' Clive paused. 'I'm sorry. You evidently don't know. The CBD and the suburbs are now a lake.'

'Oh, my God!'

Clive put his arm around her. They sat in silence.

'Why is this happening?' she asked, her voice flat and hollow.

'I don't know.'

Shona gripped his arm as another aftershock rattled the house, and leaned forward to shelter Kylie's body. Clive put his hands over Shona's head.

'We'll have to bury Kylie and Julia ourselves,' Clive said, his voice trembling. 'Everybody will need to bury their own. I've no idea how many of us have survived.'

'Where is Julia?'

'Under a blanket beside a pile of bricks outside our house.'

'I remember meeting Julia at the Christmas function. She was a lovely lady.'

'She was all the family I had left. We had a son, but he was in the Wellington quake.'

'Ohhhh,' said Shona. She stood, pulled Clive to his feet and they held each other for several minutes, before sitting down to plan what to do next.

'Mind your feet,' said Clive, leading Shona through the rubble around the garage. His house was still smouldering next to it, but apart from some charred weatherboards, the garage seemed little damaged.

Clive forced open the twisted door then locked it from the inside with a couple of large bolts through the overhead rails.

His silver Lexus was parked over a mechanic's pit.

'Thank God for Julia,' he said to Shona, lifting three heavy oil-stained planks from the pit behind the car.

After the earthquake six months earlier that destroyed Wellington and triggered a swarm of quakes which swept the country, Julia had turned the pit into a storage area, shelter and bedroom.

'There's enough food, water and other essentials to last two people for three months,' Clive said over his shoulder, as he climbed gingerly down the steps with a torch and yelled, hand over face, as a missile of fur and claws flew at his throat, tangled in his jersey, then dropped into the dark. He leapt back up the steps, and stared down into the pit.

The plastic milk bottles containing sugar and flour had been ripped apart, and boxes of chocolate bars, barley sugars, even foil packets of milk powder, torn open and their contents eaten.

In a corner, newborn rats were squealing in a nest of shredded plastic and kapok from the mattress. An adult rat on its haunches stared into the torch light, baring its teeth.

'We can't stay here,' whispered Shona, in a frightened voice.

'Plan B, then?' said Clive. 'You've got the better water supply with your outside tank.'

They gathered as much of the tinned food as they could and, hiding it under their jerseys, carried it to Shona's place. There was just time before dark to erect a small tent on her back lawn, far from the house and trees. Fetching a mattress and bedclothes, they prepared for the night. Aftershocks continued, weaker and further apart.

Next morning, people with bloodied faces and weary eyes huddled in front of a crumbled church, its spire sticking in the ground, like a fallen stalactite.

'God despaired of our godless island nation,' yelled a man, jumping onto a wooden box, balling his right hand into a fist and banging it into the other, 'where the national religion was rugby and we built stadiums instead of cathedrals... where there was an outcry when the Christchurch cathedral was demolished, though not one person in a thousand went there to worship! Our pagan land, where political correctness reigned and eternal truths were legislated away!'

Somebody pushed him off the box. He fell over and a hip flask slipped from his pocket to smash on the path. The mob pressed around him.

'Who's gonna help us now?' cried a woman.

'It was your God drowned my mother!' shouted a tall man, waving a stick. 'It's every bastard for himself!'

Clive stepped onto the box and stood with his arms raised, until the crowd fell silent.

'My name is Clive Pengelly,' Clive called out. 'I'm a lawyer, also a City Councillor, maybe the only one left. And this is my colleague, Shona Dawson.' He raised her hand. 'It's time to bury our dead, gather our resources, unite and move on...'

He spoke until the crowd grew restless again, then motioned to Shona and stepped down.

Shona took his place. 'Enough talk!' she cried out. 'We need action... people to shift rubble, search for survivors, care for the wounded and bury the dead. We need to combine and share our food and water, organise a roll of the dead and living. We need to know what doctors and nurses are left, and tradesmen, we need tradesmen! And we have to find a safe place, like a bank vault, where we can appoint a quartermaster to take charge and itemise our valuables, so we don't have to guard our own houses. Then we can get on with the real task of uniting as a community to strengthen and make dwellings habitable again for everyone... and don't think you can't do something, even if it's cooking, setting up a central kitchen for the workers, whatever!'

There were cheers and calls of 'Hear, hear!' from the crowd.

'But go home first!' Shona continued. 'Check your friends and neighbours, and tell them we're holding a midday meeting at the Community Hall. Bring pens and paper and we'll organise groups of like-minded people to get the ball rolling. Midday at the hall! Life goes on!'

Towards nightfall, after the marathon meeting had ended and the crowds had departed, Clive and Shona gathered up the paperwork and trudged back towards their tent.

'Thank God for that,' Shona muttered, hoarsely. 'Now there's hope.'

'Life goes on,' murmured Clive, as he took her hand.

'Yes,' replied Shona. 'Let's not talk now. I'm stuffed.'

It was a warm summer evening. They sat outside the tent in silence on camping chairs, the setting red sun casting an eerie glow over the house and garden. A night bird shrieked overhead and a hedgehog rustled in the nearby cabbage patch. The air grew chilly.

Clive and Shona were asleep in each other's arms when a second earthquake, this one measuring 9.7 magnitude, struck Dunedin shortly after daybreak the next morning.

In an Australian C130 circling the city, Squadron Leader John Sherwin and his co-pilot Flight Lieutenant Doug Wilson from Sydney felt bile rise in their throats as they saw the sound wave before they heard it.

With a deafening roar, the hills around Dunedin crumbled and the entire landmass beneath the aircraft slid under the ocean.


  1. Extraordinary writing; through a glass darkly ..... The ground covered in this short piece is extensive - at a number of levels. Very many thanks,

  2. Maybe first we kill the lawyers isn't as good advice as I thought. This resonates with someone on the Pacific Rim with a good chance of a devastating tsunami in his lifetime.

  3. captivating and convincing, superbly descriptive, all the stronger for being a short.
    Mike McC

  4. Disaster Preparedness 101 - don't forget the module on civil unrest and anarchy following the initial event. This is a thought-provoking story. Excellent! Thank you.

  5. I love post-apocalyptic stories like this. Within two sentences as I was into it. Powerful as a short. I wonder if it was originally a longer piece that the author decided to cut down? Excellent work.