Population Control

Ministry of Defence, London — 17:53:08

The man burst through the door without so much as a rap of his knuckles against the door. Under normal circumstances, this would have warranted a reprimand.

“Sir! Sir!” He was out of breath, his words airy and thin.

“What is it, Smith?” The Chief of the Defence Staff didn’t chastise the messenger. The look on the boy’s face relayed the urgency of the incident. “Speak.”

“I-it— it’s—” Smith, who shaved out of principle rather than out of necessity, stumbled over his words. His cheeks flushed red.

The CDS frowned. “Breathe, man!”

The younger man — no more than a boy — nodded. His chest thudded up and down, up and down, up and down. “It’s the Russians.” He swallowed. “And the Americans.” He took a deep breath. “And the Chinese.”

The Lovell Telescope, Jodrell Bank — 17:53:08

The cypher finished the first part. The decoded fragment flashed over the screen. The smile on Sarah’s face faded in an instant. She frowned at it. Her eyes flicked back and forth. The words didn’t register in her mind, at first. A snake of anxiety awoke in her chest. The first notion that something was wrong. It stretched and yawned.

All around her, her coworkers buzzed. The excitement of discovery filled the office, like helium into a balloon. People laughed. They chattered away. Conversations bubbled. Everyone had grins plastered onto their faces. Somewhere, a champagne bottle popped. The liquid fizzed out of the neck.

She read it once. Read it again. Read it a third time. Her lips followed the words. She spoke to her screen as her colleagues clinked glasses and offered each other cheers. The blood in her veins turned to ice. Every hair on her body stood on end. Time around her slowed and she inhaled. She tilted her head back and shouted. “Guys—” she swallowed her mouthful of spit, throat dry “—we might have a problem here.”

Ministry of Defence, London — 17:53:12

“Hm,” said the CDS. As if a waiter had told him the restaurant was out of sweet potatoes. He paced behind his desk, eyes to the ceiling. “What’s the damage? Who attacked whom?” He shook his head. His eyes pierced the boy. “No. Who started it?”

Smith stammered. His tongue darted to the corner of his mouth. “Well, er, that’s the thing, Sir. They…” He cleared his throat. “Nobody started it. That is to say, we don’t know who started firing first. But—”

“Stop speaking in riddles, boy! And tell me what happened.” The CDS threw his sheaf of papers onto the oak desk with a bang. Smith winced at the intrusive sound. “Time is of the essence. Do I have to beat it out of you?” A man of a bygone era, the chief often threatened his staff with physical violence. He never intended to follow through with it, of course.

“No! They—” Smith closed his eyes and inhaled. He fought with his words, his adam’s apple throbbed. He paused. “You don’t get it, Sir.” He opened his eyes, pale blues wet with tears. The whites were red and sore.

The CDS had had enough of this dance. “Then tell me, goddamnit!”

The cogs turned in Smith’s brain. One second ticked out between them. Two. Three.

“They fired upon themselves.”

The Lovell Telescope, Jodrell Bank — 17:53:12

A crowd had gathered around Sarah’s station in the space of seconds. Chairs, upturned in the rush, lay on their backs. Their wheels spun in the air. Two staff members had knocked coffee mugs off of desks. Someone overturned the camping table in the rec room.

“What?” Eddie, her superior, frowned at the message. His breaths were heavy, a sheen of sweet on his forehead. “I don’t—” He cleared his throat. “Maybe it’s a translation error? Or a decoding error?”

Sarah shook her head. Her ponytail swayed from side to side. “No error.” Full sentences evaded her.

“Maybe they got their words wrong?”

Henderson scoffed. “Capable of intergalactic travel but not of decoding the simplest language on the planet?”

“Maybe they tried to use another language, and that’s where the error came from? We’re trying to translate from their attempts at Russian or something?” Eddie scrambled for explanations, for answers. His voice reached a higher and higher pitch, and the words came out faster and faster. “Perhaps—”

His words stuck like a thorn in his throat as more activity clicked and clacked onto the screen. The cursor flickered. The next part came through. Followed by the next. And the next. And the next.

Eddie leaned closer to the screen. He reached over Sarah’s shoulder. The smell of his sweat stung her nostrils — acidic and pungent. He jabbed a finger into the monitor. The colour of the pixels warped around his touch. “What’re those?”

Henderson, who’d spent the first 20 years of his career in the armed forces, knew what it was. At first, he was too shocked to speak. He stumbled for the words, but all that came out was a pinched squeal. A low whine. His tongue lay on the floor of his mouth, paralysed.

When he did speak, it was in a whisper.

“Those look like nuclear launch codes.”

Ministry of Defence, London — 17:53:16

The words hung in the air for a microsecond.

And then the air raid siren began to wail.

“What is it, Sir?” Smith was no longer on the verge of tears. He sobbed, cheeks wet.

“I believe—” the CDS sighed “—that our own nukes have just been launched without our permission.”

“Against who?” asked the boy.

The CDS didn’t answer. He didn’t need to.

He also didn’t have the time to do so.

The Lovell Telescope, Jodrell Bank — 17:53:16

Eddie held the telephone between shoulder and cheek. His feet tapped and tapped and tapped. “Come on, come on, come on…” Little did he know, these would be the last words he’d ever speak.

On the screen above the codes identified by Henderson, the phrase burned into his eyes. It sat there on the screen. It mocked him, as the access codes trickled away beneath like rain.


27th December 2020

Written for Reedsy’s Weekly Writing Contest

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