Author’s note: I have now actually attempted to write some fiction that doesn’t involve absolute nonsense. This is somewhat of a first for me. This short story is the first of two I’ve been working on—the second is much happier (and much less finished, so it will be posted… eventually). I’d really appreciate any feedback you’re willing to give, comments or email—dialogue, characterization, narration, length, anything. Like I said, dropping this whole solipsistic non-fiction curtain I’ve worked behind is kinda new.
The story is based on what was perhaps the defining moment in the life of Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Forces. The event is real. The date is real. Everything else is, I promise, fiction.
* * *
Shortly after midnight on the night of September 26, 1983, the United States launched five intercontinental ballistic missiles across the Atlantic Ocean towards the Soviet Union.
In Serpukhov-15, a hidden bunker dug into the rock outside of Moscow’s city limits, klaxons wailed like banshees and red flashing light cascaded over the concrete walls. A man wearing the dark green of a Soviet military uniform strode across the small chamber to the crude green-on-black computer screens, peering over the shoulder of the private who had just called out to him in a wavering voice. The lieutenant colonel had heard that voice before—it was the voice of a nation which lived in constant fear of annihilation, of men who nervously checked the sky as they read the morning paper.
There they were, right there on the flickering screen. Five confirmed targets, five streams of numbers and warning messages, five warheads screaming through the night sky, each with the capacity to obliterate everything in a four mile radius and leave a melted crater of charred earth in its wake.
“Well I’ll be damned,” the lieutenant colonel said.
The room was silent. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was not a tall or imposing man—he stood five-foot-six in his Soviet-issued combat boots and at forty-four already had a shock of white hair hidden under his military cap—but he commanded attention amidst the growing tension that threatened to well up and split open the bunker, burst into the outside air and send rivers of panic into the heart of Moscow. The twelve pairs of eyes crammed into the small room drilled into his skull. Petrov walked back to his leather chair on a small dais overlooking the banks of computers and slumped down heavily.
“Sir.” Sergeant Molchenoff walked up to the dais, looked around, and whispered as if he was betraying the Motherland just by voicing his thoughts. “The arrogance of the United States would never permit them to send just five missiles. Something is wrong.”
“Message to the Kremlin is prepared, sir,” called a voice from the back of the bunker. “I need permission codes to request Stalin’s Hammer.”
Petrov looked past Molchenoff. “Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, Voyska PVO, serial 129056. Authorization: Tsentr. Tri. Zhuk. Igrek. Devyat. Chelovek.”
Molchenoff’s eyes widened. He was no longer whispering. “Sir! The U.S. has the capacity to reduce the entirety of western Russia to slag and ash. Why would they risk their own destruction on five missiles out of thousands in their arsenal?”
The private at the computer terminal keyed in the sequence. “Primed and awaiting final approval. Sir?”
Petrov rose and his gaze wandered around the bunker, looking at each of the men under his command. He tried to picture their families eating dinner, drinking vodka. His mind threw them into cramped bomb shelters, cowering in corners. He thought of his own wife, silhouetted against the sunset over the Black Sea where they had honeymooned, but the red-orange sky quickly morphed into a scorched wall, and his wife’s silhouette became an outline blasted into the grey concrete.
“You know the satellite surveillance can’t be trusted, sir.” Molchenoff was trying to recapture Petrov’s attentions. “It’s a new system. There are always bugs, flaws, problems. Sir, you can’t report this to the Kremlin.”
But Petrov had wandered into one of his earliest memories, from when he was only four or five years old. His father had just returned from Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny, the Great Patriotic War that the Soviet Union waged against invading Nazi forces. Private Yevgraf Petrov had fought in the Third Battle of Kharkov, vastly outnumbered and outgunned by German troops. He escaped with severe shrapnel wounds in his left leg and after months of recovery was sent home, but most of his platoon were not granted even that bit of luck. Now Yevgraf was drunk, raving about the war. The younger Petrov was terrified as he watched his father limp around their small kitchen, knocking into pots and bottles, cursing the Americans and the rest of the Allied forces for leaving Russia alone to stop the Germans’ eastern offensive.
“Awaiting final approval.” The private again. Stanislav Petrov swam back to reality, leaving Yevgraf behind. Images without words flashed through his mind. Bright blue skies, blood red mushroom clouds. The millions of Muscovites asleep in their beds, the millions of Americans taking their lunch breaks. Missiles and satellites, stockpiles and silos. Red, white, and blue. Red and gold.
“Sir?” The private raised an eyebrow at Petrov. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov sat down and nodded silently.