J. D. Petersen – Home on the Range

I know how the world will end. Deep inside most people do. Despite lectures on strategic equilibrium and all the reassuring propaganda, we all know Eliot was wrong. The world will not end with a whimper; it will end with a bang – the likes of which man has never seen.

[private]I park just outside the support building. Pete is waiting by the door. We exchange a few words with the security guards. They know us well, but follow their procedures as if strangers. We wait under an oversized Strategic Air Command emblem. ‘Peace is our Profession’ it says. We are cleared and proceed.

‘Same old, same old’, says Pete, as we enter the lift.

A catchphrase uttered with unfailing certainty at the start of every shift for the last six months. I no longer care to reply. All I can muster is a wry smile and a slight nod. He is right though.

The active crew greets us militarily as we arrive. Their twelve hours are up. Like everything we do the changeover is short and precise. Ceremoniously, we are awarded the red keys. They brief us on the system status, weather forecasts and war plans. There is no time for banter. Finally, they hand over the daily crypto cards and take their leave with a smart salute.

The control room is the size and shape of a large caravan. Virtually every surface is a sickening pale green colour. Everything is spotlessly clean. The air is cool and dry with a slight scent of warm electronics. We take our places by the wall and begin work. The noise is almost overwhelming. Whining components and the hum of computer cooling fans – your ears adapt. I swivel my chair around catching a glimpse of Pete unloading binders from his briefcase – Armageddon literature. We work swiftly in silence. Setting up, jotting down and making ready. It’s a five minute deal.

‘Setup complete, all systems go,’ I say, as I finish the last of my checks.

‘Roger that John-boy, we are A-okay’.

We now have ten fully armed and primed Minuteman missiles at our command, and for the next twelve hours Pete and I will be keeping the world safe. The keys around our neck can instantly launch the entire battery. Each weapon capable of obliterating a major metropolitan area the size of let’s say, Moscow. We are the vanguard of democracy. We are the Minutemen – there are thousands like us.

I pick up a paperback and lean back on my chair. Pete is writing his shift report. I read casually with an eye on the console. It’s a detective. It’s worn, and I have read it before. Someone once smuggled it down here and it’s part of our cherished five-book library – they are all detectives. You are not supposed to read. Down here you monitor and remain ready. The books are hidden and read in secret like pornography in a schoolyard. Even newspapers are banned. There can be no distraction.

‘Have you seen it?’

‘Seen what?’ I have no idea what he is talking about.

‘The James Bond movie. Dr. No?’

‘No, not yet. Maybe on Saturday.’

These exchanges pass for conversations. Pete asks a random question, and I reply concisely. Mostly it’s trivial. Have I seen, heard, or read, this or that – it’s mind-numbing. He is a good man and a fine colleague, but he is no conversationalist. A fine colleague is better than conversation. I return to the detective, he has a lead now.

I think about it. When I catch a glimpse of the red bell next to the clock, I think about it. Most don’t. Perhaps I shouldn’t either. We are not paid to think; we are paid to act. Minutemen respond immediately and with unflinching resolve. When the command comes we must be ready to act in unison – and we will. The collegial revolver on our hip is ever ready to solve disputes. We must do this to keep the world safe.

‘What you got there, John?’

‘Tuna.’

‘Wanna swap for egg?’

‘Nah, I’m good.’

We finish our sandwiches without further conversation. The detective is confronting the murderer. The bell remains silent.

From here Armageddon is a one move game. There is no fail-safe or abort procedure once we fly. We are the last step before global thermonuclear war, and we are equipped with hardhats. They hang on a rack behind me, light blue with the SAC emblem and motto: Peace is our Profession. I smile and look at Pete. He is standing with his back to me, clearing some minor discrepancy over the phone. We have never worn hats.

Halfway through our shift we get the daily test call. Practice makes perfect. I turn the code wheels away from zero. They are always at zero; the launch setting. SAC never wanted launch codes and made the machines with a row of zeroes as default, bypassing the only fail-safe element in the procedure. Now we have to move them away from zero to test the machines. We never forget.

I hear the hydraulic latch-pins lock the blast door. We are sealed in the bunker now, the only survivors of the impending doom. Outside, our kids will die. Our entire families and everyone we know, or have ever known, incinerated in the ensuing nuclear exchange. We’ll be fine down here. That seems odd to me.

The keys around our necks open the box containing the launch keys proper. Taking one each we return to our positions and strap into our seats. I open my binder and begin punching in the numbers. Behind me Pete is doing the same. As each system light flares up green, I note them in my checklist. We both reach the last entry and insert our keys.

‘Ready!’

‘Launch Control Capsule Lima-2 ready for launch’.

‘Launch on your count.’

‘Rotate key on two, release on five.’

Pete calls the count. One. His voice is calm and clear. Two. We turn our keys simultaneously. Three. Even a drill makes you sweat. Four. Your mind must be blank. Five. We release our keys and the entire room lights up like a Christmas tree. My mind is not blank. I look over at Pete; he is strapped in his chair and seems relaxed. Maybe his mind is blank.

It is out of our hands now. The computer is making its calculations in silence. Pretending, like us, to destroy the world. It blows the 86-ton lids off the silos and ignites the engines, sending the missiles towards their secret targets – worldwide delivery in thirty minutes or less. By the turn of a key we can unleash enough power to destroy a nation. Peace is our Profession.

The launch exercise itself is over in less than thirty seconds. We quickly turn the keys back to safe, store them and roll the code wheels back to zero. Real war will be as easy. Don’t think. I return to my paperback, the detective has the murderer cornered.

‘Are you going to the game on Sunday?’

‘Nope, Janet’s parents are coming.’

‘A shame, going to be a classic.’

‘I know.’

We drink coffee and eat another batch of sandwiches. Pete gets tuna. We sit in silence while keeping the world safe. My sandwich is dry and the murderer slips away into the night – again.

The phone rings. We have two phones; this is the good one. The replacement team has left security and entered the no-lone area, where people are armed and never alone. You watch your partner for cracks. Lethal force is authorized at your discretion. It has never happened.

The steel door swings open and they enter. We know them well, but there is no room for camaraderie. The changeover unfolds with military precision, as always. We relay the key to world safety and snap to attention. They are good men – decent family men with solid values.

‘Enjoy your shift,’ says Pete. They nod.

We take the lift back up topside and are stunned by the brightness of day. We hand over our revolvers and fill out security forms. The guards are jovial and there is banter. Leaving is easy, they say. They have never been in the bunker they guard, they don’t have the clearance.

I look back over my shoulder. The squat one story support building is the only structure in sight, our nuclear homestead, quiet and serene. Pete is unlocking his 63 Plymouth. Behind him the Great Plains stretches unbroken westward to the Rockies. It’s a beautiful day.[/private]

J. D. Petersen is a Danish freelance journalist and writer living in Copenhagen. His short stories draw inspiration from the human condition and the absurdities of life. “Home on the Range” is his first published fiction.

2 comments

  1. Petur HK says:

    Excellent. Was really only going to read the first two-three paragraphs, and then save the rest for tomorrow. Plan was foiled and no here I am. Quite a riveting read.

    ‘We never forget.’ Such a great line. And the hardhats. They probably say it all.

    Thank you for this. Genuinely.

  2. Ray FitzPatrick says:

    Jan,
    I am really pleased for you. A really tight piece, and if I may say oozes class. Your style utterly changed, reflects an inner peace through a new profession. Hints of Orwell and Carver. Sublime and uplifting, how long before I get to read more?

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