Tomorrow, the ultimatum would expire.
Days earlier the President issued a statement that was broadcast around the world. With glazed eyes and open mouths, the donut-faced public listened to the President’s decree. “I wish to warn you in the clearest possible terms that unless you abandon this perilous path, there will be hell to pay.”
Somewhere, high above the clouds and waves of telecommunication, aviary creatures once known as Sirens danced in circles. They were preparing. Practicing aerial maneuvers, charting the bottomless blue terrain, reading the weather. They were preparing for the Great Game.
With a white-gloved hand, Jackie Kennedy Onassis parted the heavy velvet curtain and looked out over Central Park from her Upper East Side apartment. Someone knocked. She knew who. “Come in,” she chimed. Secret Service informed her that a flight to Palm Beach had been arranged and would depart in two hours. The lead detail noticed several suitcases open on the bed. “Pack only the essentials, ma’am. We leave in 15 minutes.”
After the President’s doomsday decree, chaos reigned day and night. City streets flooded. Country fields cleared.
Some people ran around like chickens with their heads cut off. Others accepted their fate to join the ranks of dodo birds. Children sat on porches and watched for thunderbirds.
Others shrugged and saw no point. Among the pointless were several local government officials whose final public announcement was a shotgun to the head.
The Sirens wailed and wailed. Their constant note pitched high and low as they turned in the ever-widening gyre whose unknown dimensions pushed the center (that fabled stronghold, predicated on a subtle balance of powers) into an edge. An edge that was ever-sharpening.
They were clearing their throats. They were harmonizing.
It was only a matter of time before the edge was sharp enough to get to the point.
On the roof of Mount Sinai hospital, Jackie boarded a helicopter. The city’s skyline had become an airfield for the well-to-do. All around, helicopters leapfrogged up and down. The pilot barked into the radio, “Tango Six Two.” Jackie appeared remarkably calm behind her oversized sunglasses. Take off. So calm she could have said, “I’m going out for some air,” and shut the door behind her.
The survivalists celebrated and popped champagne and fired their guns into the night. They would ration in the coming weeks, but tonight they toasted to, “I Told You So.” Their families knew the drill. They moved quickly, efficiently, and climbed down into their steel-reinforced sanctuary and cranked the hatch shut.
The wind carried the sound of the Sirens to every corner of the Earth and into the sleeping ears of their brothers and sisters who had slumbered for twenty centuries of stone, five centuries of steel, and one century of wire. Haggard with hunger, they woke from their fitful dreams. Dreams of the Earth cracking like an egg and milky columns of smoke rising against a night sky, bruised and blue.
Jackie remembered one night in the White House when Jack had retired late from the office, as he often did. He kicked off his shoes and loosened his tie and unclasped his watch. She poured him a scotch and sat down on the sofa next to him and asked him how his day was. He waved his glass around, he had already been drinking. “Well,” he sighed, “we nearly started a war.” He drained his glass, poured himself another, and went off to bed. Turbulence.
In an undisclosed bunker, the President (codename the Fat Lady) deliberated what to do with a team of hotheads in decorated brass, eggheads in rimless glasses, and bobbleheads known as advisors. They were seated around a wide circular table with a map of the world spread underneath a glass-top. Different colored poker chips lay scattered across the table and represented various enemies and their nuclear arsenals. “This is what we know,” someone said. “But what about what we don’t know. What about the Unknown Unknowns?” He stood up and fished in his pocket. “The enemy,” he said and held up a red matchbook for all to see, “comes in all different shapes and sizes.” He placed the matches along the equator in an ocean of blue chips.
In a room adjacent to the Fat Lady’s undisclosed bunker, a team of scientists gathered around a single monitor and polished their opera glasses. With the world as their stage, tonight could be their big debut. Until now, their masterpiece was performed in secret, in the remote sands of Nevada, witnessed by a handful of unblinking reptiles.
The volcanic nests housed hundreds of long, narrow eggs in orderly rows. The eggs had a pointed dome that was bright red and the rest was white as bone. Near the bottom, three fins flared out and helped the eggs stand upright. Tomorrow, they would help steer the eggs as they torpedoed through the sky.
The lava gurgled and belched and cast sinister shadows. In this half-light, the eggs looked like teeth. Rows and rows of teeth, stained with blood.
Three SUVs met Jackie at the Palm Beach Airport and drove her to a loading dock. From the shadows, the engine of a black raft announced itself. They zipped through the calm waters and the raft tilted skyward as they gained more speed. For a moment, they were airborne, hurtling toward the moon on a magic runway, and then they smacked against the waves, like a resolute palm against a desk.
The Fat Lady hammered his fist onto the table and rattled all the chips and all his advisors. “That’s it!” he shouted. Everyone leaned forward. Uncertain whether the Fat Lady had arrived at a decision or wit’s end. The Fat Lady opened and closed his hammy fist. “I think I broke it.” A hair-thin crack appeared on the glass-top over a chain of volcanic islands.
For the first time in a millenium, the celestial spheres aligned and moonlight beamed down into the heart of the volcanoes where the nests dwelled. The Sirens howled. They began to shed their feathers which spiraled upward, passing in and out of the dazzling moonlight. An offering. Somewhere, Dante turned in his grave.
In a top-secret bunker, a group of men in sweat-soaked suits crowded around one man in a folding chair. Before him was a control board that consisted of a single, red button and, next to it, a red telephone. He had to pee, but he couldn’t leave his post. Only he was authorized to push the button. Everyone else was chain-smoking, because, at this point, smoking was easier than breathing.
The phone rang.
The water was warmer than expected, as Jackie leaped into the night ocean.
With the aid of headlamps, they walked the short distance, no more than 100 meters, from beach to solid ground. The entrance to the Kennedy’s bunker (codename Detachment Hotel) was partially hidden by ivy overgrowth. In the half-moonlight, the bunker entrance vaguely resembled a bug-eyed Sphinx, with sandbag paws, an ivy headdress, and a broken button nose.
They opened the door and a plume of dust escaped into the night sky. They walked into the belly of the new-aged beast, one by one. Before Jackie entered, she looked up through the thin gauze of clouds and spied a few dim stars. She said a kind of prayer, asking for a northern star to guide her through these dark times. Then she bowed her head and disappeared inside.
A whistling wind from nowhere kicked up a sandy duster that spun into being a star spangled, shadowless figure sporting a top hat, wispy chin, and tattered coattails. The mysterious figure winked at the moon and stole inside just as the hatch closed shut.