“The circle of an empty day is brutal and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.” Elisa Gutierrez realized they only had a few seconds between the flash and the heat wave that would incinerate the both of them as they stood on the ridge overlooking what used to be greater Los Angeles. But she still turned toward Harvey Bowman, her boyfriend and co-conspirator, looking at his face, mostly hidden by the light suppressing lenses she also wore, amazed that he could wax poetic moments before they died.
“Are you nuts?” She grabbed his arm, feeling how perfectly still he was compared to her trembling. “We’re about to die and…”
Her voice, nasal Bronx accent and all, were cut off abruptly as the blast of heat, exceeding a hundred million degrees Celsius, reached them. They were both instantly rendered as dry, black ash. Seconds later, the shock wave hit them and they exploded, their remains scattered like autumn leaves in a hurricane. Amazingly, she could still see.
“It was the only way.” Harvey’s voice echoed in her head, though she didn’t feel as if she had one. A disembodied Elisa was rising with the mushroom cloud, over the decimated tens of millions. Most of the taller buildings had been leveled as had all of the smaller ones extending out of what used to be downtown. Everything was on fire, smoke rising as the vast column of superheated, radioactive gases continued to climb into the sky and slowly dissipate.
“Yes, but Harvey…how many had to pay the price, how many had to die?” She had no idea how she was still alive let alone talking. The young anarchist had a general idea of where she was in the atmosphere above Southern California, but it was like Harvey lived in her head.
“Not as many as you’d think. 70 million.”
“Not as many? Harvey?”
“Relax, angel. We’re among them.” Whenever he told her to relax, he sounded like a cheap, used car salesman trying to sell her the ultimate lemon at some joint in his native San Diego.
“Screw you, Harvey.”
“Too late, I’m afraid. Nothing of that left of me. Well, of you. Actually, there’s nothing left of either of us.”
“Then how are we…?”
“I looked into it, the future I mean. I think I know why.”
“What the hell, Harvey?”
She was above the clouds now, all of the clouds, continuing to ascend. There was no sensation of velocity, temperature, no feelings at all, but the sky was getting darker and the stars were coming out, even though it was only half past four on an afternoon in early summer.
“Madame Folse.” He said the words in solemness.
“Oh, not that fake gypsy again. I told you anyone who could really see the future wouldn’t be working for tips at a cheap carny touring county fairs.”
“She’s no fake. She told me hijacking the nuclear launch codes to the arsenals in the U.S, Russia, and China was the only way to stop the inevitable disaster of climate change.”
“Oh, yeah. Like this isn’t a disaster. I don’t know why I ever threw in with you.”
“Because you like the thrill of the forbidden, Elisa. You told me yourself you thought it would be fun to mash down on the Reset button and melt the system. Well consider it melted.”
“But I mean…” She was high enough to see the entire western United States now. The entire West Coast, Ventura all the way down to Tijuana, was gone. San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Sacramento, up through Portland and Seattle. Las Vegas, the entire Salt Lake City corridor. Denver, Albuquerque, El Paso, Boise, Bozeman…the landscape was pockmarked with burning craters. It wasn’t just the death toll that bothered her, but the unimaginable suffering of the survivors.
“So…so this is worth it?” She had no eyes, but she could still cry.
“Nuclear winter, baby. Now the global temperature is going downhill with a bullet, or it will with all this dust in the atmosphere blocking the sunlight. Sure, a lot of saps had to cash in to make it work, but those who are left won’t have to worry about a heat-induced extinction event being triggered in the next fifty years or so.”
“What about us?”
“Oh, yeah. I was mentioning that. You see Madame Folse predicted all of this. She showed me the way to find the secure access codes from the dark web. Heck, after those rogue security officers in each country, the Gang of Three, ripped them off and posted them in a secure section of the cloud, no one knew where to look. That’s why it took magic.”
“You’re certifiable, you know that?”
He chuckled at the absurdity of her statement. “Anyway, a curse went along with the deal.”
“Of course it did.” If she still had eyes, Elisa would have rolled them.
“We’re cursed to be wandering spirits, witnesses to the devastation, the destruction, the aftermath.”
“You say that like it’s a good thing.”
“I’m an anarchist, just like you. I thrive, bask in the glory of disorder and chaos. You don’t sound pleased.”
She knew Harvey was genuinely puzzled. “Pleased.” She felt her throat close even though she didn’t have one anymore. “They’re all dead,” she whispered. “I never imagined it would be like this.”
Harvey and Elisa were in low orbit around the Earth, drifting East. It was worse in the larger population centers, Omaha, Chicago, Kansas City, St Louis, Atlanta. The entire Eastern Seaboard was gone, just plain gone.
“How long, Harvey? How long do we have to be like this?”
“How long?” She imagined him furrowing his forehead in thought. “I don’t know. I didn’t think to ask.”
“Well it’s too late now, isn’t it. Madame Folse’s dead, just like everyone else.”
“Who cares? We get a ringside seat to the aftermath of global Armageddon. Worth every penny of the price of admission, don’t you think?”
Elisa’s throat continued to close, choking off her words, as if her neck were in a noose. Then she couldn’t breathe at all, and the stars above her began to fade until there was only the black.
# # #
Tuesday, July 30, 1974, 10:37 p.m. The Oval Office
“Major Gutierrez, I want those launch codes.” President Richard Nixon sat behind the most famous desk in the world, a half empty bottle of vodka sitting in front of him next to his glass. There was another bottle on its side, uncapped and empty, near the telephones.
“Sir, Mr. President, I don’t think…”
“You’re not paid to think, Major!” Nixon wasn’t shouting, but his tone carried a deadly threat, as if he meant to kill her if she disobeyed.
Elisa Gutierrez was thirty-two years old. She remembered the day her parents moved into a cheap tenement in the Bronx to escape poverty in Puerto Rico. She was only three. A record of Elisa’s life flashed across the movie screen of her memory. She had been an exceptionally bright child, earning a full scholarship to Boston University when she was sixteen. She was fiercely loyal to the United States, and the day she was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army was the proudest day of her life. But even more than that, Elisa had been enormously gratified to be trusted as one of the officers responsible for the so-called “nuclear football,” the black leather case containing the nation’s nuclear launch codes. But now, a year later, as Watergate closed in on President Nixon, she realized that he was not only drunk, but possibly insane.
“Sir, I just think that if you’d take a moment to reconsider…” She was standing on the opposite side of the desk from him as he sat slumped in his chair. He glared at her as he emptied his glass. Then he slowly rose to his feet and extended his arm toward her. “The codes, Major.”
Who could she call? The Vice President? Wait. Agnew resigned last year. Who else?
Nixon walked around the desk until he was only a few feet from Elisa. “I won’t ask again.”
“Sir, I think you’ve had a little too much to drink. We’re at DEFCON 3, which does not warrant that we…”
He grabbed at the case, but couldn’t pull it free because it was still handcuffed to her left wrist. Somehow they were on the floor rolling around. Then he was on top of her, hands encircling her throat. The President was choking her. She was going to die and he was going to launch an unprovoked attack on the USSR and Red China. 70 million people would be vaporized. Where he hell was the Secret Service?
Elisa managed to free her right hand. It was down by her side. The lights were getting dim, but she was able to grasp the butt of her sidearm. She pulled it out of the holster. The young officer wanted to warn Nixon, tell him she’d shoot, but she couldn’t catch her breath. Her finger was inside the trigger guard.
There was a loud retort and suddenly she could breathe. A door slammed open to her right and half a dozen pairs of running footfalls approached. Elisa passed out knowing she’d saved the world and not caring what was going to happen next.
# # #
77-year-old Elisa Gutierrez had been released from Federal prison ten years ago. She had no military pension, having been convicted of murdering the President of the United States, but as her parents’ only surviving heir, she drew a small income from their investments, so she had enough for a modest lifestyle, which suited her.
She had turned off the television an hour ago, weighted down by the continued debate of how President Trump was insane, and how the U.S. would be in a nuclear war with North Korea any second. She scoffed. None of these so-called political pundits and “resisters” had any idea what an insane President really looked like.
The old woman sat in a battered rocking chair on the porch of a small cottage in the Los Angeles Hills overlooking downtown. The sun was setting into the Pacific Ocean, but oddly enough, it looked like the rising mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. Watching the whites, and yellows, and oranges, felt like a distant memory, or maybe a child’s dream.
“The circle of an empty day is brutal and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.” Elisa was surprised to hear her say that out loud, and like the vision of the sunset, they seemed to be words that came from another time and place.
The sky was darkening and the first few stars were emerging above her. “Fine enough for everyone else to worry about the climate. Averting one worldwide disaster’s enough for this old lifetime.”
I wrote this for both Tale Weaver # 210 – Using a quote – 14th February. (their image is NSFW) hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie and Thursday photo prompt: New #writephoto found at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo.
For Tale Weaver, the idea is to use Elena Ferrante’s quote from “The Days of Abandonment” as the prompt for a poem or short story, and for #writephoto, the author is supposed to use Sue’s original photo (see above) as a prompt for something similar. I used both.
On Stack Exchange’s Worldbuilding forum, I recently asked How could a time traveler have prevented climate change. I had an idea for a short science fiction story based on that premise, but I naively believed that climate change as we understand it today, could be prevented by changing a few innovations in the past, and that it’s consequences were inevitably fatal, leading to a major extinction event.
I found out that neither was necessarily true, and my question was answered by some of the brightest, and most scientifically grounded minds available.
Not sure what I’ll do with all that information yet, but I certainly have enough data to write something interesting.
Oh, I previously published a blog post with the following, attributed to the late Richard M. Nixon:
But you’ve probably read about Richard Nixon acting erratically, drinking heavily as Watergate closed in on him. You may not have read about the time he told a dinner party at the White House, “I could leave this room, and in 25 minutes, 70 million people would be dead.”
Of course, all this happened after Nixon was re-elected to a second term, and his Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned due to tax evasion charges prior to Watergate. I guess we’ll see if Trump/Pence achieves that level of “interesting.”