There is a button. Bright red.
The button is on a phone.
There is a screen.
There are rules.
Everyone knows them.
You look at the screen again. It still shows one Minuteman-III intercontinental ballistic missile bearing down on your country. You remember that American Minutemen ICBMs carry three warheads of up to 500 kilotons each. You think of your family.
You’re a just a lieutenant colonel. You’re a software engineer. This was supposed to be a boring post. It’s 12:30 am and this is just another night shift. Two minutes ago your biggest decision was whether to shave tonight or tomorrow. THIS SHOULD NOT BE YOUR DECISION TO MAKE.
Time refuses to stop.
You think about the software. The satellites. Could it be a glitch?
Three weeks ago your government shot down a Korean civilian airliner and no one knows why. The United States is in an anti-Soviet fervor. Maybe Reagan really is that crazy. Maybe one missile got launched early by accident. Maybe you only have a short window before they realize their mistake. Every second you wait, the opportunity to strike back and stop the missiles before they destroy your home slips further away.
But…one? How could there be only one? The Americans aren’t that incompetent. A real attack would be hundreds, thousands of missiles. Even if they accidentally fired one early, they wouldn’t wait this long to fire the rest.
You breathe. Oko is about ten years old now – there was bound to be a glitch sooner or later. There will be no war. Everything is fine.
Four more missiles appear on the screen, all heading towards your homeland. Fifteen warheads. Seven megatons. Are they launching in waves?
You think about your career. You think about duty. You know exactly what you are supposed to do in this situation.
The button waits.
Even if it is a glitch, disobeying orders will ruin any chance of promotion. You might need to leave the army. You don’t know where else you could go. You wouldn’t know what to do when you got up in the morning.
Five missiles. Still doesn’t make sense. Could be a glitch. Americans still aren’t that dumb, to make the same mistake twice.
You’re not sure. But you have your orders. Your job is not to make decisions. Your job is to press the button and let someone else make the decision.
You know that your government’s stated policy is “launch on warning”.
You look at the glowing warning on the screen again.
Not your decision – except you know what the decision will be.
You think about how to deal with life after the army. You think about your home in ruins. You think about your cousins, screaming. Why are these thoughts even in the same mind at the same time? No sane world would allow that.
You do not live in a sane world.
Five lights, glowing in the night.
Five billion people.
All your comrades know what the right thing to do here is. Everyone knows. It’s simple.
There are procedures in place.
There are children in bed.
The world balances on a stupid, cheap, red plastic button.
Could be a glitch.
Five missiles wouldn’t destroy the entire Soviet Union. In strategic terms, it would be barely a blip.
You imagine thousands of mothers crying. A blip.
You imagine the world screaming in its final hours, a cacophony of hopeless wishes echoing until they’re silenced. “If only…!”
You will not play your assigned role in the end of the world. You will probably be scorned, laughed at, even if you’re right. If you’re wrong, you will be the hapless fool who let his countrymen burn out of cowardice.
You don’t press the button.
The world doesn’t end that night.
It turns out to have been a false alarm – sunlight glinting off clouds. The sunlight that almost ended the world.
The questioning and interrogations go on for weeks. Endless paperwork, and you’re reprimanded whenever you miss a single slip. You receive no reward. The failure of the early warning system is embarrassing, and to recognize that you were right to distrust it is to invite scrutiny and blame. You are quietly reassigned to a post of absolutely no importance where you can’t make any trouble. With no hope of advancing your career, you retire from the army.
Sometimes you still think about that night. You can’t talk about it with anyone. No one knows that you…did nothing.
You suffer a nervous breakdown for a while, but you get better.
You wonder if you’ll ever be able to save up to buy a vacuum cleaner.
The world keeps going.