The alert in the silo went off.
The duty officers, Lieutenants Kestrel and Taggart, looked up at the light. Kestrel reached for his key. Taggart hesitated.
Kestrel put his key into his station and turned it. He looked over at Taggart, who was still looking at the light.
“Let’s go, Taggart. We’ve got the order.”
Taggart didn’t budge.
“Come on, Taggart, we got the go order.”
Taggart kept looking at the light. “Why?”
“Doesn’t matter. Light goes on, we turn the keys, press the buttons, launch the missile. We’ve done this before. We do it now.”
“But those were drills.”
“We didn’t know at the time. We launched and found out later. Time to do our duty again. You need to get your key, Taggart.”
“But…” Taggart looked back at Kestrel. “What if this one… is… real?”
“Makes no difference.”
“It could mean the whole world is destroyed.”
“No one lives forever, Taggart. Get your key.”
“This missile we’re supposed to launch. Where is it going to go? How many people will it kill?”
“Don’t know, doesn’t matter. We have orders.”
“I can’t be a murderer.”
Kestrel drew his sidearm. “Lieutenant Taggart, I am ordering you to comply. You know full well what can happen next if you do not.”
“Why didn’t you threaten me sooner? You don’t want to kill, either, do you?”
“Not you, I don’t. But I will, if I have to, in order to complete the mission.”
Taggart looked back at the alert. “Complete the mission… then what? What’s your endgame beyond that?”
“Probably die, if it’s real war and not a drill. And I will meet my maker and account for this launch without remorse.”
“And if it is a drill? And you shoot me?”
“Lieutenant Taggart, I am currently of the opinion that this is not a drill, as I have pointed my weapon at you. Drill protocol would be to suspend the exercise in the case of a reliability failure on the part of one or more participants. The alert is still on, and I do believe that this is the real thing. Produce your key – slowly – Taggart.”
“All right. I’ll get my key.” Taggart slowly reached into his shirt to produce his key.
“Now insert it.”
Taggart held his key above the lock in the console. Kestrel had a good argument. This could very well be the real thing. Missiles already on their way to the USA, complete destruction of… how many cities? Taggart remembered looking at a list of US cities by population. Texarkana was number 1000, population 37,225.
There were over 4400 Russian warheads. 4480, best estimate. What if each one was going to a city, in order of population? Number 4480 by population was a tie between Colby, Kansas and Connell, Washington, both population 5388. Highwood, Illinois had a population of 5387. One less person, and it’s not even in the running to get directly nuked. And how would a targeting officer choose between Colby and Connell? Would it make a difference after 62 and a half million people in the USA were already killed in the largest 100 cities?
So maybe Colby and Connell were off the hook, since missiles had to meet their marks on bases and European cities. Nobody would have to flip a coin to decide which one would take a direct hit and which one would deal with the aftermath. There was also the law of diminishing returns: the next 100 cities would net another 30 million casualties and the next 100 after that, maybe another 10 million, maybe 11. Where to stop? Number 300 is Flint, Michigan, population 99,002. 301 is San Angelo, Texas, population 98,975, a difference of 27 people. To Taggart, that seemed as arbitrary a difference as one.
About a third of the US population in just 300 cities, of population 99,000 or more… and there were quite probably missiles to spare after that.
And the US has its missiles, along with China, France, England, India, Pakistan, and Israel. Maybe even North Korea could lob off one or two, just to join in on the historical moment when humanity decided that there should be no more history. 4800 in the USA; between 200 and 300 each for China, France, and England; 110 in India; 120 in Pakistan, and; 80 in Israel. North Korea had less than 10. Just over 10,000 for the world, much reduced from the peak of 64,000 in 1986 – today’s number was the lowest since the 8200 in 1958.
1958… 7300 of those warheads were in the USA, and we were terrified of the 860 in Russia. Today, a few thousand less in the USA, a few thousand more in Russia, and everyone seemed to be used to the terror by now. And the top 1000 cities in the world by population reached all the way down to Rasht, Iran, population 519,418. Total population in those cities came out to 1.2 billion. Even if the next thousand were all population 500,000, that would only be another half a billion – those diminishing returns, again.
And yet, those 10,000 missiles all had a target, superfluous though it may be. Some targets had 2 or 3 missiles for them, just in case there was a misfire or other malfunction.
“Come on, Taggart. I need you to put that key in there.”
Taggart’s thoughts continued to rush through his mind: the facts, the figures… surprisingly few feelings. Taggart realized that lack of feelings and figured it must be shock. If it had been a minute since the alert came on, then the missiles heading toward the USA were already 6 minutes into their flight… unless this was a first strike, which meant those Russian missiles would be launching in 9. The sub-launched missiles needed only ten minutes to get to their targets. The ground-launched would need about half an hour. Bombers would reach their destinations in 7 to 9 hours, looking for targets that escaped destruction via missile.
Electromagnetic pulses would wipe out communications for most people outside the silo. That could wind up being their only warning that something was about to happen. Within 2 hours, about 5% of the land surface area of the involved nations would be on fire, predominantly in areas associated with cities over, what? 99,000 population? 50,000 population? Maybe three-fourths of the world’s manufacturing was about to be destroyed. Smoke from those fires would drop the global temperature like an outbreak of massive volcanoes.
Within 12 hours, there would be no effective government left in the combatant nations. Hospitals would be cruel jokes. Radiation from the fallout would be delivering lethal particles onto the exodus of survivors to the rural hinterlands. In about five days, the temperature would be down about 13 degrees Fahrenheit. In about two weeks, radiation sickness would be raging among surviving populations. Epidemics and crop failures would follow. World population would drop by about 20% after the first few months. Things would get worse as global agriculture collapses due to a lack of pesticides and other chemicals most farmers were dependent upon. Another 20% of the global population would die within a year.
Mankind would recover, more or less. Maybe the die-off would continue until the world population was down to pre-industrial revolution levels, maybe it would level off in the 50-60% range and then grow again.
This missile’s potential casualties would hardly make a difference in the total, one way or another. Another missile would likely do the job of this missile, if it failed to launch. His participation in this mission was completely meaningless, succeed or fail, from an overall military perspective. One warhead of 10,000 failing to launch would be merged with the other 10-15% that failed to launch, for whatever reason. What difference would it be if only 39.9999375% of the global population died instead of 40%?
And so, Taggart asked himself if he could face God and state that it was right to launch that missile and, in so doing, be accountable for the deaths of whoever it slew. Just because they were going to die was no reason to be their executioner instead of some other person.
Speaking of executioners, Taggart looked at the weapon in Kestrel’s hand. Then Taggart looked within himself and placed his key on the table in front of him. It was too big to swallow and there was no place to throw it, but there was no way he was going to put his key to use.
Maybe another thirty seconds had passed. Maybe 10. Judging by the hardening resolve in Kestrel’s eyes, Taggart knew that he likely didn’t have long to live.
But Taggart also knew that, when the time came, he could walk peacefully into the light.