"So, if it comes to that, we should be prepared for any possibility," the President said.
"Very good, sir."
"Pray for the best but prepare for the worst, as they say." "Indeed, sir. Very wise."
"We have to be like those bugs in the fable. The ants and the grasshoppers, hey? Mr. Jessman!"
"Sir?" said the youngest aide, who was dating one of the President's daughters.
"Well, which is it?"
"Are you a grasshopper, Mr. Jessman? Or are you an ant?" Jessman's face lolled blankly. "A grasshopper, Jessman! Write it down."
"I believe it's the ant that the fable instructs us to emulate," an advisor said.
"Don't give me that manure. A grasshopper's twenty times as big as an ant! Things can jump thirty feet! Raise a racket with their little banjos! Don't tell me an ant can do that."
'The fable, sir, favors the long-term planning of the ant over the instant gratification—" .
"Flock of hoppers can strip a field bare in thirty seconds. Leave nothing but dirt. Seen it happen. Eat your hat. Chew the hair right off your head. Chirp you to deafness in the process."
"Beg to differ, sir."
The first step toward preparedness was to close the subway systems in every city all across the country and begin converting the tunnels into shelters. As a result, millions of people grumblingly took the bus to work, or crammed into station wagons with their daughters' car-pool groups, or wobbled on long-neglected in-line skates, or rang up the friends and neighbors they'd ignored for months, saying sheepishly, "I'm in a bit of a jam, mate, help a fellow out?" or took their children's scooters, or hired the horse-and carriages that provided a smelly scenic view of the city, or borrowed the skis-on-wheels eccentric Uncle Morris used when he wanted to practice during the summers, or commandeered the electric wheelchairs of elderly relatives, or hitched rides with truckers, or even walked.
"What about shelters for the people who don't live in major cities?" an advisor said.
"What about them?" The President snorted. "Self-sufficient country folk, they've got their root cellars and grain silos. They're the lucky ones. Give me a dry creek bed over a stinking concrete tunnel any day. Shoot."
Nevertheless, a concrete fortress was built fifty stories underground for the President and his advisors and security heads and military chiefs and culinary chefs and his wife and their daughters and all the daughters' boyfriends and the presidential dogs, one of which was about to give birth and wanted nothing more than to be left alone to crawl under the White House and do what was natural to her, rather than being dragged here and there to sniff lead doors and air vents and provide her input.
"No slacking off, Muffins," the President said. "We all have to do our share."
There were television monitors in all the tunnel shelters, so that the President could speak to the people and keep them calm and reassured. And there were cameras so he could keep an eye on them.
"That's the way!" the President said, when all the work was done. "Now let's hunker down and let 'em come!"
"Hold your horses, that's only half the battle," said one of the advisors.
There was a general gasp. The President glared. Only the President was allowed to season his speech with the odd folksy idiom.
"People need to know what to do, where to go," the advisor continued more stiffly. "Otherwise chaos will be our undoing."
A few weeks later a thick packet arrived in mailboxes nationwide. People saw the sunburst shapes and blaring text on the envelope (URGENT! READ IMMEDIATELY!) and ripped the packets open eagerly, expecting to learn that they'd won ten million dollars, or at least a chance to order subscriptions to several dozen colorful and interesting magazines.
Instead, what they found was a handbook informing them of what to do in a wartime emergency. There were instructions, suggestions, and dire warnings of what would happen if any of it was disregarded. It hinted at tortures more fearfully agonizing than they could ever have imagined on their own. Many of the descriptions were accompanied by illustrations. The stylized people in the drawings had bright orange skin, and no hair, faces, or hands; they were meant to look non-gender-specific and non-race-specific but instead looked as if they had suffered hideous disfiguring accidents.
These cartoon figures appeared on television in lengthy public service announcements, pantomiming safety maneuvers and dashing along maps to illustrate escape routes. In a box in one corner of the screen, a bland face narrated instructions, while in another quadrant, a woman echoed his words in frantic sign language. In a third corner the corporations who had expressed special interest in the project ran a continuous stream of helpful promotions.
The consequence of this overload of information was that most people could not make heads or tails of it and assumed several channels had somehow jammed together. They banged their fists on the box or meddled with the antenna, or they simply went to the bathroom or out for a snack or realized they hadn't called their mothers in ages, and their mothers, answering the phone with pleasure and surprise, asked if their televisions were acting up too.
"Now?" the President said eagerly, dandling one of Muffins's puppies on his knee.
"Now we need to test the system," the advisors said. "Dry run. Simulation."
"Like a fire drill?" the President said.
"Like a fire drill," the advisors said soothingly. The President thought of his bunker, fifty stories below the surface, and had a sudden delightful vision of sliding all the way down to it on a fireman's pole. They'd have to build one. "Jessman!"
A sobering thought struck him: The dogs would never make it down a pole. "Never mind," he said. They'd have to stick with the elevator.
The word went out: a nationwide test of the emergency response system. No one was exempted; provisions were made for the elderly, sick, and immobile. Everyone would head, in a calm and orderly fashion, to their assigned shelters. Registered volunteers would gather at rendezvous points and arm themselves. Communities were encouraged to choose group leaders to conduct sing-alongs and word games in the dark until the all-clear bells rang.
The power grid would be temporarily shut down: There would be fireworks and smoke bombs to make it all very realistic.
"It's foolproof," the President said proudly. "What could possibly go wrong?"
"We'll see," the advisors said testily.
"Can I give them a pep talk the day before?" the President pleaded. "Put a little fire in their bellies?"
"It might compromise the surprise element of the test," an advisor said.
The President glowered. He couldn't tell which advisor had spoken, so he glared at them all.
The next day, at the appointed moment, the alarms began to sound. A deep rhythmic siren, slightly shriller than a foghorn, more like the honking of geese, began to resound through every city and every town. It created a deep tangible hum people felt in their diaphragms. Children felt it buzzing in their braces. The sound was carefully calibrated to arouse and impel to action, but not cause disorientation or panic. They'd been given a taste of the sound on the public service announcements. They'd been told what it meant: the coming of the Calamity, the Big One, the End, the It, and the All.
The President felt a twinge of disorientation and panic as he gathered up his wife and family and headed down the appointed passageway, but it was a pleasurable twinge. He felt the excitement he'd felt as a boy playing cowboys and Apaches with his friends, the thrill of nearly convincing himself that the make-believe was real, the joy of hiding out in a homemade fort with his gun waiting for the vicious and cunning enemy to appear. He'd been the only one with an air rifle, while all his friends had water pistols. Not fair! they used to cry, rubbing their welts. The nancies. Was it his fault he came better prepared?
He thought again, longingly, of the fireman's pole as the elevator made its slow creeping descent. His daughters had already begun to whine. Perhaps the dogs could be trained to slide, he thought.
His men were already assembling in the command room, sweating and rumpled. Jessman had his head between his knees. "We think he's claustrophobic," the advisors said.
"Somebody get the boy some whiskey," the President said. No one paid any attention. Jessman had been his usual whiskey runner.
"Ready to see how they're doing?" an advisor said, and everyone moved to the banks of video monitors. The technicians set to work tapping into the cameras in the shelters of one city, then another, then another. As the technicians flipped from channel to channel, a silence fell and grew. Even the presidential daughters were quiet.
"What's wrong with the cameras?" the President said finally. "Where the hell is everybody?"
For every single shelter was empty.
"They're all dead," one of his daughters moaned and began to sob. "Mikey!"
"Who's Mikey?" said Jessman fiercely.
"Don't be ridiculous," the President said. "No one's dead. It's not real. It's just a stimulation."
"Simulation," an advisor said.
"What I said," he muttered.
"Maybe they got lost," the advisors said. "Maybe they forgot something and had to go back. Maybe they got the address wrong," they said, as if making excuses for friends who were late showing up for a barbecue.
"What in tarnation are they doing up there?"
"Maybe they know it's a 'drill so they're not bothering," an advisor suggested.
The truth was that up on the surface most people did believe the end had come, and were behaving accordingly.
At the first sound of sirens, people lifted their heads, friends and strangers alike, and read the dawning panic, realization, and acceptance on one another's faces.
On crowded city streets, people's first instincts were to touch each other: women embraced, strangers clasped hands, men slapped each other on the back and said, "Guess this is it, big guy." Strangers hugged other people's children, and the children uncharacteristically allowed themselves to be hugged.
Highway traffic eased to a stop. People got out of the cars. Everyone kept looking up at the sky.
It was the most beautiful day anyone could remember. The sky was cloudless, intensely blue, and there was just the slightest breeze, the sort that made people feel buoyed up by invisible hands. The softness in the air made even the most jaded garbage collectors and television weathermen pause and look up, spellbound.
On the tenth floor of an office building heads popped up out of cubicles like prairie dogs.
In another building in another city a man called in his secretary and said, "I've dreamed about you ever since you came to work in this office, and if I could just once put my hand up under your hair I think I could die a happy man."
Elsewhere a man was saying, "I think you are a twit and an intellectual goon and I can't believe I've worked here for half of my natural life, and I quit."
On a playground a teacher was trying to gather a flock of children together but they kept wandering away. They wanted one last swing. They wanted one last turn down the slide.
"Last time. . . the last time. . . last time. . . the last time," a girl chanted as she swung back and forth.
"I hate you," a girl named Audrey told her best friend.
"I only let you be my friend because your mother's dead, " her friend said.
They stared at each other, shocked and saddened by the truth they had uncovered: that friendship is deception. Without deception we are all alone. They both started to cry.
I could just go off and leave these kids, the teacher thought. No one would ever know. So she did.
Elsewhere a man was saying, "One more time."
And his ex-lover was saying, "Why not?"
A woman weaving her way through the knots of people on the street began to take off her clothes.
A man who had always known he could fly if he just made the proper swimming movements was poised on the railing of his balcony. If I don't try now, I'll never have another chance to find out, he thought, and jumped.
Two strangers looked at each other and began embracing and mashing their faces together.
A woman whose sole companion for twelve years had been her Pekingese kissed him on the mouth as she had always longed to do. The taste was terrible. The dog did not seem to mind.
"The time has come," a man said in a jokey-ominous voice. "Prepare to meet your maker." "How do I do that?" said his friend earnestly. They went together to a church and sat quietly in a pew, thinking.
It's now or never, a woman thought. She crept over to the baby carriage, lifted out the black-haired baby, tucked it under her arm, and ran.
A man dressed in rags jumped up and down, shaking his fists in the air. "I knew this would happen!" He laughed. "I knew it! I knew it!"
Several million people phoned their parents and said, I love you, Mom! Dad!
And tens of millions of parents said, We know.
I've always wanted to punch a stranger in the face, just to see what would happen, thought a man, and he did it.
A man took twelve hundred dollars out of his wallet and pressed the wad into the hand of a woman just because he liked the fearless way she wore orange with purple.
A policeman in riot gear, whose job was to herd any stragglers to their proper places, clutched his rifle, confused. He found himself thinking of a picture he'd been aroused by as a teenager—a photograph of long-haired bouncy-breasted braless girls sticking flowers into a soldier's gun. "Flowers," he cried out hopefully. "Does anyone have a flower?"
In the parks, on benches, on the grass, on bridges, floating on the ponds in stolen paddleboats, in phone booths, on sofas, on the hoods of cars, up against trees and walls, people were making love. Old and young, strangers, couples who'd been together sixty years, all colors and races and religions and kinds, they held each other and made love, some with the conventional pushing intensity and friction, some with butterfly kisses and half-remembered poems, some by playing checkers. Are you there? Yes, right here.
And people were singing, tunelessly, abrasively, wholeheartedly. It seemed that singing, more than anything else, was one thing that people secretly longed to do but were normally afraid to.
Few people thought of their instructions, of the concrete tunnels waiting for them underground.
The sirens had done their job. They had filled the people with urgency, impelled people to action. It just wasn't the action the government had intended.
Toward evening the all-clear bells began to sound, like the chiming of church bells. Voices boomed from loudspeakers: Go home. Resume your normal activities. The simulation is over.
People looked at one another and yawned and stretched as if awakening from a dream. The normal clatter and babble of the city began to hum to life. Slowly, with a mixture of relief, and reluctance, people returned to the lives and homes they thought they might never see again.
The following evening the President faced the nation in a televised address. He wore his most presidential of red ties. Propped on a table behind him were photographs of his wife, Kitty, and his five daughters: twenty-eight-year-old BettyAnn and his fourteen-year-old quadruplets, Shayna, Dana, Elana, and Rox. Muffins was under the desk. It was her job to lean soothingly against his legs if he needed reassurance, and to be available for kicking if he found he needed to kick something.
In his speech he scolded the nation for their unpreparedness, their disobedience. "What if it had been a real catastrophe? Who're you going to come crying to then?" He appealed to their sense of patriotism, responsibility, reasonableness, and self-preservation. He laid a guilt trip on them a mile wide. "I do all I can to take care of you, and what do I get in return? Nothing. Nothing but a bad attitude and a lot of ingratitude."
The speechwriters let out a collective sigh of relief that he'd made it past the speech's main oratory hurdle.
The President glared at the noise. His eyes began to glitter. "I've just about had it. You're grounded till further notice."
Behind the teleprompter the advisors were gesturing for him to calm down.
"We've got to do better next time. Or else. Now I want you to turn off the TV right now and go up to your rooms and think about what I've said."
Most people changed the channel but barely noticed what they were watching; they were savoring their memories of the day before, which already seemed like a pleasant but distant dream. Husbands and wives eyed each other warily. Where were you yesterday? they wanted to ask, but were afraid to. Daughters wanted to ask their fathers about those bruises on their knuckles, the caked dirt on their wingtips, but they did not.
"We'll have to have another test," said the advisors. "Keep at it until we get it right."
"Do we have to?" said the President, already tired of the game.
So there was another siren, and this time people at once rose from their desks and tools and left their places of work and began to move about in a calm and orderly fashion. But they were not heading for the tunnels; they were heading for the places they had drifted to before; they were searching for the faces of the people they had met the previous time. Some went hoping for rebuttal, revenge, but most went seeking another embrace, another few hours of groping with utter abandon on a park bench.
Those who could not find their previous partners found new pairings.
And again, at the final bell, they pulled apart from each other reluctantly and made their way home.
During his address the next night, the President was livid. Despite pale preemptive makeup, he turned a boiling scarlet. He spluttered so emphatically that some of his spittle struck the camera lens. A few of the advisors silently cheered and high-fived each other; there had been bets placed on the potential propulsiveness of the President's fricatives.
"How do you think we look to other nations?" he demanded. "Like a bunch of ninnies. A bunch of children. Now they're more likely to attack than ever. You're treating this as a game. It's not a game. The next one could be the real thing."
But the next time the sirens rang, it was much the same. When they parted in the evening, people told one another, "See you at the next drill" or "See you the next time the world ends."
They did not think of it as a game or joke. People enjoyed the sweetness, the intensity, of those hours on the brink, that feeling that every second might be their last. It made everything they did in those moments feel both pointless and terribly, monumentally important.
And the ending of each drill, each resumption of the old life, was becoming more and more difficult, more and more bitter. They dreaded the sound of the all-clear bells. They wished the sound might never come, that the drills would go on and on forever.
People began to ask themselves, If I take such pleasure in these last moments, does that mean I want the end to come? Of course I don't, they told themselves. And yet. . . they craved the sound of sirens more and more.
The more pragmatic among them thought, Well, you could say we live on the brink of death every day of our lives. We might die at any moment. It's just that the sirens make us more aware of it than usual. But they too felt the thrill, when the sirens began and they ran to meet their loved ones or take the drugs or indulge in the secret habits they denied themselves during their normal average-life-span lives.
"If you don't start worrying, I'll give you something to worry about," the President raged at the camera. "Is anybody listening?"
The advisors were ready to admit defeat. The President insisted on another drill. "Can't we just herd those people down there? How hard can it be? Hell, give me a couple good sheepdogs and an electric prod, or a steam shovel, and I'll do it myself."
When the sirens set up their wail, the President couldn't find two of his daughters, but he marched the other three and his wife down the passageway. "When they turn up, they're in for it," he said grimly, as he hustled. He found the advisors clustered at the entrance.
"Generator's down, sir," one said. "The elevator won't work."
"I say we abort," said another.
"Well, thank God and your granny for the fireman's pole," the President said. He'd finally convinced them to build one, though he'd never tested it out. "And you said we'd never need it. You'd better get out the Tabasco and prepare to eat those words, son."
The advisors were now backing away. "After you," the President said, gesturing to the pole. No one moved.
"If we go, we'll be stuck down there. How're we supposed to get back up?" one muttered, and was quickly hushed by the others.
"Anyone not down this pole by the count of three can kiss their careers good-bye," the President said.
"Sir, you can't do that."
"Darn tootin'," the President replied.
No one knew quite how to respond to that.
"One. . . ," the President said. "Two. . ."
Two advisors reluctantly stepped forward, wrapped themselves awkwardly around the pole, and slid out of sight. Then, after threatening looks from Dana, Jessman stepped up to the pole and was gone. Dana skipped forward and slipped after him.
Wait a minute, the President thought, wait one gosh-darn minute. Dana? I thought he was dating BettyAnn. Dana's, what, fourteen last time I checked?
But he had no time to ponder, because his remaining daughters and wife were vanishing below, and then it was his turn. He shot one final glare at the mutineers and then wrapped his arms and legs around the brass pole and slid into blackness.
He had to restrain a whoop. It was almost like flying. His momentum kept building, he had to keep tightening his grip to put on the brakes, and he found his wool-clad legs to be nearly useless; only his hands were sticky enough to create friction. He didn't know how far below his wife was; he could imagine crashing into her head, and her irritated yelp.
The blackness was so complete, the flying sensation so delicious that he should have been able to forget himself for the moment. Instead his fury focused itself, grew and grew. Ingrates, he thought. We'll give them something to worry about, he told himself; we'll show them a thing or two.
Down below, in the command room, was a console that for simplicity's sake had been designed to resemble the President's favorite video game. By moving the joystick and pushing a few buttons he could point-aim-shoot anywhere in the world, and the orders would be carried out by military underlings. For a long time now he'd had his targets chosen, his strategies ready. Next time he played, he'd make it onto the list of top scorers for sure. For far too long he'd been waiting, waiting to achieve a state of preparedness before starting a new game.
But now, as he slid through the darkness, his ears popping, he had a new idea. A different set of targets. Why not aim inward? he thought. Hit a couple of home targets, just a few, just to put a little fear into people. Wake them up to the gravity of the situation. A sacrifice of the few to strengthen the whole, that's all. He wouldn't even have to justify it to anyone—it would be easy enough to blame someone else.
Yes, that's what we'll do. They'll be scared straight. They'll come crawling back to the fold begging for help, begging for someone to take care of them. . . .
Yes. Now he was impatient to do it. His hands were itching for the joystick. He had to put the plan into action right away, before he forgot it. He had a tendency to do that, that's why he needed Jessman around, to write things down before they evaporated. "Jessman!" Where was the kid, anyway? Oh, yes. Down below. Making out with Dana, probably. Or was it Elana? His teeth began to grind. He'd fire the boy, next time he saw him.
The plan, remember the plan, he thought. It would be easy enough to do, as long as he didn't have a bunch of advisors breathing down his neck. He remembered suddenly that he'd left most of them up on the surface. Plus he'd fired them. So much the better, he thought. His jaw relaxed.
He slid and slid. His momentum kept building, his groin grew numb, his shirt buttons set off sparks when they scraped against the pole. He should be there by now. Not that he was in any hurry to see his wife's reproachful face or hear his daughters' whines, but he wanted to get the game fired. up. The darkness was growing denser and more suffocating with each second. Pressure crowded his lungs; he opened his mouth and—"Eeeeee!"—let out a little shriek to make sure he was still there.
Then he saw a pinprick of brightness far below, and just as he did the pole ended and he was no longer sliding but falling. And as he zoomed closer the brightness grew and grew until it swallowed him and he was surrounded by the light, clinging to the edge of a hole with his legs dangling in empty air and his eyes squeezed shut.
He smelled spices and bread and leather and the fur of exotic animals and heard voices bargaining shrilly in an alien tongue.
After a moment he cautiously opened one eye, then the other.
He found himself in a strange land, the likes of which he'd never seen before, full of foreign-looking people in odd flowing storybook clothes walking around upside down. He looked down past his wingtips and saw a dusting of stars and a sickle moon hanging in the sky.
I knew it! he thought, furiously, exultantly. I knew this could happen! For years they've been lying to me, but I never believed them, not for a second. I was right, I always knew this would happen if you dug deep enough.
He somehow righted himself, with a gymnastic maneuver that felt as natural as riding a bike. All around him a foreign bazaar was in full swing, fruit and meat and leather bags and paper money changing hands. No one gave him a second glance. He patted down his hair and tucked his pockets back into his pants and looked down into the round dark hole he'd just fallen from. Even as he looked, an old man scuttled past him to spread a cloth across the hole and then began laying out his wares upon it: copper bracelets, intricately carved scissors, silver rings for babies, braided beaded earrings for
"But—" the President said.
The old man raised his face and looked at him disinterestedly.
"But—" the President said weakly. What were the proper words? Where were those damn speechwriters when you needed them? "But—that's mine."
Without speaking, the old man made it clear the spot was his. The peddlers on either side of him corroborated with vigorous nods.
"But I have to go back," the President said. He thought of the game waiting to be played, the targets he'd chosen, all the people waiting to be taught a lesson, his name topping the list of winning scores. He tried to lift the cloth covering the hole with the tip of his shoe. The jewelry slid and jangled.
The old man responded with quick slaps to both of the President's cheeks, followed by a shove that sent him sprawling. Purely coincidentally, the President's eyes filled with tears. With great dignity, he picked himself up and dusted off his suit.
He slunk away, weaving among the stalls, wondering what had happened to his wife and Jessman and the others. He was thirsty and tired and needed a bathroom. He wished he'd brought a map, a guidebook, a phrase book in the local language. Some comfortable shoes, some sunblock, some matches, a compass, a bag lunch. He should have come prepared.
On the other side of the world, the emergency drill continued. The advisors, newly fired, went home and took naps. No one thought to sound the all-clear bells. The people remained suspended in the euphoria of the moment, like flies in amber. The cacophony of lovemaking and unself-conscious singing filled the air. Two strangers held hands tightly, tightly, and swore to never let go.