Ten Minutes to Nuclear War

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fan Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Two bomber-pilots are sent on an insane mission to nuke humanity.
All background facts on nuclear defenses truth.

Submitted: May 07, 2015

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Submitted: May 07, 2015

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Ten Minutes to Nuclear War

 

  Soon as the Co-pilot saw the first thermonuclear flash on his monitor, he knew he'd made a mistake. He smeared the blood off his fuel gauge and braced for the blast wave, trying to do the math in his head. Miles, speed, time. Not enough time. He instinctively looked at the Pilot for guidance--lolling in his seat-straps with a bullet in his head. The controls rumbled. A red alarm flashed. Twenty megatons rattled in the bomb bay like a box of chestnuts.

  This just isn't my day.

  Just twenty-seven hours earlier, they had sat in the special blue seats in the back of the theater, watching some unknown Hollywood starlet prance onscreen; unwatching, unblinking, unthinking, sharing the silent dread of every other airman within the flicking tomb. They observed the houses and cars and trees and pretty girls and picnic blankets onscreen as gods might observe men, as men might observe ants, scanning the skies for a promised storm, wondering how long it all could last, wondering if their shift would end or the world would end first.

  The couple argued onscreen. A beautiful couple. A beautiful world. Arguing over a potato. A potato. They tossed it back and forth. Every airman felt sick, knowing what must happen. That potato, sooner or later, would fall, and from it would grow the end of all trees, all pretty girls, all picnics.

  The man who would become the Pilot and the man who would become the Co-pilot jittered restlessly by the door. For the last month, the alarm had rang twice a week, and they had raced to the tarmac half-shaven, half-asleep, half-crazed, half-searching the blue Nebraska sky for the flash of a second sun. Things had moved along the corridor to West Berlin. Across the Twenty-Third Parallel in Korea. Under the Atlantic seaboard. Bad things. Columns of black on newspapers passed around so often they came off on men's sweaty fingers: Tragedy in the air above Turkey. Tanks pushing across the Persian Gulf. Threats and counter-threats. Everything on alert, on alert, the "doomsday clock" in the International Agency of Atomic Energy, the Pentagon counting DEFCONs down to zero.

  Zero. Zero was war. Zero was midnight and the end and the inevitable and zero.

  "I almost wish they would," whispered the Pilot with his uneaten popcorn in his lap, half to the ghosts onscreen, half to the skeletons in the theater seats waiting to erupt out their flesh soon as the light from the screen became too real. He crushed each greasy kernel one by one between his fingers. "Might as well do it all at once."

  "But if we could delay it by just forty or fifty years…" The Co-pilot stirred a soda long gone flat, ice cubes withered to little silvers of men drowning in Coke. "It'd be like it wouldn't happen at all…like we sneaked our whole lives like a sixteen-year-old's cigarette. Before the shoe dropped."

  "You don't have kids."

  "…If they could delay it just a little more…just long enough to pass the baton…"

  "That's no way to live. To build up cities and families and civilization and not know if it'd be here tomorrow. If we'd be here…like a dream…a shadow-puppet theater due to vanish in the sun. The night…"

  I want to have a family, shivered the Co-pilot. Even if they were the last generation on Earth. He wanted to have a pretty girl and thirty more years of trees. Twenty. Ten. One.

  Then the bells rang for the end of the world. The movie was ending. Men moved like automatons to fill automaton posts, to usher in the night, the night, the night.

  Zero. Zero. Zero

 

  They strapped into their seats, ready to hurl into the void. The night base glittered. Men waved orange cones. Two-hundred-million men, urging them forward. B-52s rumbled the tarmac with eight engines apiece and "training wheels" to prevent their massive wings from flapping, taking to the air with a minimum interval of twelve seconds between them. If one giant stumbled, half of America's strategic air force would disappear in a nuclear pile-up.

  They were strangers down there, those forlorn faces emptied now as a gun without bullets, watching their bombers leave and waiting for their annihilation to come. The pilots and planes were from California, but had been moved here weeks ago in the understanding that California by this point in a war would have ceased to exist under the barrage of Soviet submarines.

  They were ten minutes in.

  Everyone put on helmets as a joke, small as school kids hiding under desks, eyeing the silent sky. The tower-controllers and fuel-pumpers and dour quartermasters. Sick-with-worry desk-majors and baby-face AA gunners who still got packages of socks from their mothers. Jolly cooks who gave out lasagna-and-a-half and all the rest who had rolled out the warm Nebraska welcome for the angels of death now all had twenty whole minutes to play cards or try to call someone in the shrinking not-destroyed zones or contemplate the meaning of their lives or jam out one last mean-ass saxophone solo before a Russian ICBM descended from space to bop them out of existence like slow Whack-a-Moles.

  The Pilot and Co-pilot put on their eye patches. No longer two men, but two cogs in a great engine, two human bombs. They did not know this was the apocalypse, and not their ten-thousandth drill, until their familiar emphysemic radio told them to open their mission folders and go erase Siberia. They flew high enough to see the distant sky dancing white and gray and red like star nebulae birthing nuclear basketballs and the lightning-spiders of EMPs like so many Daddy-Long-Legs walking the stratosphere. Their compasses became possessed Ouija boards, and it did not help their sense of reality to be dressed as pirates.

  The Pilot peeled his eye patch off.

  "Don't," said the Co-pilot. "You'll lose both eyes."

  "That's what I have you for."

  A few minutes later, their radio mumbled "Jesus" and switched abruptly to a "Looking Glass" plane circling the Midwest with Strategic Air Command's B-team, meaning Offutt Air Base twenty minutes behind them had been drunk through a ten-million-degree straw.

  Thirty minutes in.

  Now the Looking Glass, one of three that had taken turns being constantly airborne since Kennedy, was unspooling a five-mile antennae wire. Inside, a general opened a safe that chattered like jokeshop teeth (to deter nuclear cat burglars) and pulled out a key to initiate one of over two hundred SIOPs. More combinations than a man playing solitaire. To fight war number thirty-seven or one-ninety-two, to pre-empt the other side's pre-emptive war.

  The Pilot and Co-pilot flew over thunderheads of dust so thick it growled in their engines. If the tan mist stayed up, it'd make nuclear winter; if it came down, it'd be fallout. Over cities gone dark in their centers like black-holed donuts, suburbs aflame like volcano rims. Over an alien world littered with strange gray mushrooms a mile high made of bits of skyscrapers and interstates and sand lightning-struck into glass all sneezed into artificial weather. They looked down like nuclear gods, at mountains with new valleys and valleys with new mountains and the ashtray that was Los Angeles and the pillar of steam that was San Francisco and an endless seashore solid with debris slapping and shuffling against the kicked card-table of Western civilization.  Thousand-year redwood forests laid open like a raw wound into Hell, all quivering with aftershocks under a deadened sky of neither night nor day. Then, mercifully, they found darkness over the ocean. And silence.

  Satellites watched the Earth, watching a sky so tic-tac-toed with missile-trails a supercomputer directed traffic. Everything that could fire fired, hurrying out their silos before they were blown up. "Use 'em or lose 'em" doctrine. "Theater" nukes opened like egg yolks over enemy troop concentrations, likely troop concentrations, possible future troop concentrations, bridges and mountain passes and railheads with possible futures of troop concentration. "Tactical" nuclear eight-inch artillery shells, land mines, bazookas, depth charges--everything short of a hand grenade (for "nuclear skirmishes")--all vanished in radioactive smoke under somebody else's first strike. Eyes in space watched artificial day surrender into a long artificial night.

  Or maybe they watched nothing at all. Years of rumors: laser beam weapons or space-mounted railguns or exploding killer satellites. Why not carry the war into the heavens? Their leaders were already packed deep in hell.

  Now that Washington D.C. glimmered as a bowl of fused sand, a second government with everything from electric cars and dry-cleaning to the Department of Agriculture assembled, Justice-League-style, in a top-secret hollow "city" inside Mount Weather, Virginia. As featured in every Tom Clancy movie. Unless the Kremlin, in its last minutes, had "dug" that out too with H-bomb after H-bomb like the gooey center of a Tootsie Pop. In which case a third government would gather, if they still cared to, at one of the world's deepest coal mines two miles under Kansas where the Federal Reserve rented thousands of square feet of doomsday office space. Because, you know, somebody had to calm the stock market after the Fortune 500 joined ancient Pompei as sponge-rock.

  And somewhere was a bed-frazzled President--perhaps the Secretary of Education sworn in ten minutes ago--747ing for Mexico, dodging burgeoning ozone holes like God's ant-frying magnifying glass above where cities used to be, taking calls bounced off meteors seriously from generals in secret bunkers disguised as moving vans. All trying to figure out what to do next.

  They cruised over obliterated Japan, obliterated South Korea, obliterated North Korea. Perversely intact East Russia. They did not cross over, but merely circled in their designated "holding zone" with hundreds of other B-52s like a flock nuclear seagulls. Waiting. Wouldn't have been surprised if Godzilla stumbled out the ocean, keeled over, and died.

  They had switched to gold goggles as the familiar sun rose over what was left of the sky, all shrouded in a rush-hour haze, yet comforting. They had at least not blown up the sun.

  The ocean was still there. They took off their goggles just to look at it one last time. So blue it hurt. A joke that Tahiti would be the world's leading nuclear power after "the war." Because no bombers would come back. Ha-ha. Something about the air currents would keep the fallout out.

  Just kidding.

  A fleet of K-114 air-to-air refuelers appeared. Not sure from where. Maybe they themselves had been airborne for twenty-four hours, refueling each other until their empty brethren suicided into the sea one by one. Not sure if this was a good thing, a few hours more lease on life, or the fat white messenger-pigeons of death.

  The mated at twenty-thousand feet. Pair by pair. Hoses inserted into waiting orifices and pumped their bellies full of liquid. Good thing the enemy couldn't see them, five-hundred planes dancing in a great nuclear donut. One good H-bomb would've done wonders. They felt full, their controls heavy, like pregnant bumblebees on their way to sting a quarter of Earth's landmass.

  The K-114s waved and waggled their wings and went off to die somewhere. See you in Tahiti.

  Then the Secretary of Education got on the horn from Mexico to send what was left of the US Air Force to bomb what was left of civilization. They switched back to eye patches and dove back into night, crossing into the enemy whiteness, bidding goodbye to the sea.

 

  A fifteen-megaton Minuteman III had conveniently vaporized a Soviet air base in their eighty-mile-wide corridor of attack. The Pilot was almost saddened. In World War I, the soldiers in the trenches called their air forces "knights jousting in air." But the poet had been killed by the machine.

  He unfolded their deliberately narrow map as all the other Pilots in all the other planes did the same. Eight planes to a corridor. If one group was shot down, nothing in their mangled rubbish would affect the other groups. If they somehow managed to survive, they had their pistols and their cyanide and some biscuits and a little Russian phrasebook. Then, they supposed, they would just walk across the polar ice caps to what was left of Alaska. The Co-pilot thought about how Americans climbing out of radioactive rubble might react to Russian pilots, and decided to prioritize the pistols and cyanide.

  The Pilot cursed at nothing in particular and popped a couple aspirin from their survival locker and tossed the map on the floor.

  "What is it?" asked the Co-pilot.

  "Nothing."

  Selective thermonuclear oranges cleared anti-air defenses ahead in a "rollback" strategy. Each target was merely a coordinate, with instructions to drop a certain bomb from a certain height. The Pilots were spared the burden of knowing.

  "Hard" targets were mostly gone. The ruins of Russian missile silos and command bunkers and submarine pens were already cold. Everything that would be launched had been launched. Every sleeping missile to be killed had been killed. The "time urgent" targets. Now all that remained were the oil refineries. The steel mills. The cities. On the other side, across vast radioactive Eurasia, American ICBMs were "liberating" Eastern Europe, liberating them from Soviet army bases, Soviet bureaucracy, Soviet life.

  Why? thought the Co-pilot. Nothing political was left. America was being run by a high school principal. Nothing left to bomb but civilization itself. For no purpose but to make good a threat, a suicide pact, made by dead men against dead men.

  To kill everything there was to kill.

  "Birds, flowers, fish, trees," chanted the Pilot, soaring over a forest fire thirty miles across, orange below and gray above, the whole world a cigarette smoking itself. A Hobbit fan. "Men, horses, mountains, bees."

  All men must die. The Co-pilot crossed himself. And this world must end in fire.

 

  Each plane had two pilot was not just so they could take turns napping. Strategic bombers flew to their targets on auto-pilot, much like missiles. Humans were merely the back-up; most of the flight's decisions were made by the plane itself. The Co-pilot awoke more than once to see the Pilot staring zombie-like into distant mushroom clouds, as if trying to make out rabbits or ships or omens in their storm-god faces.

  No, the worry was that droning smoothly over endless vistas of night and cloud mimicked a sensory-deprivation chamber. The Co-pilot checked his watch. The world had ended twenty-four-and-a-half hours ago. He asked the Pilot if he was okay. Ha-ha. No answer. The Co-pilot, too, stared at the clouds made of cities. Like Greek titans lording over the Earth. They both know the hallucinations would begin soon, familiar as an old movie. Colored spots. Voices. Like clockwork.

  The worry was that one of them would go insane.

 

  "We don't have enough fuel," chuckled Pilot.

  "What? But they calculate these things--"

  "On fantasy. The map says land in Korea. If Korea's not there, then Japan. If neither are there, then Iran."

  "Iran?..."

  "They forgot to update it. They got us landing in two scorched, rubble-strewn death traps and an 'allied' country that'll hang us from a bridge."

  "How…How close back to the states can we get?"

  "If we hit the target first? Halfway across the Pacific."

  "Hawaii?"

  "Gone. A Soviet sub emptied its whole crapper on our ships in port. Then erased Honolulu just for the hell of it, I guess. Popped the volcanic pimple."

  "And if we turn back now?..."

  "We'll make it just far enough to be shot for treason."

  "So…" The fuel gauge dropped and dropped as some desperate SAM gunner fireworked the sky ahead. "It doesn't matter who wins…We're already dead in the air."

 

  "We're going to crash."

  "No," The Pilot pointed. "We won't."

  They weren't alone.

  The Co-pilot watched hundreds of black zits from on the Siberian horizon. His blood froze. MiGs.

  Where had they come from? Every runway had been carefully nuked to rubble. Then he remembered the burning Russian air base. The MiGs had been up the whole time, refueling air-to-air. Waiting for them.

  At sixteen miles, they took definition. Like spiders almost too small to see, coming at triple the speed of sound. They would get one pass, and one only, the energy lost in U-turning leaving them forever behind. At twelve miles, the Co-pilot saw their wings twitch forward, morphing from a traveling "V" to a tactical "t." Kill-mode. At ten miles--

  "Incoming!" The Pilot wrenched the controls. The Earth filled the sky. They dove, blood rushing to their brains. Their targeting-radar-sensor screamed. The MiGs had locked on.

  Missiles spawned by the hundreds. Cathedral silence. Engine and oxygen and whistling wind. All things must end.

  A bomber was hit. Then another. Pilots grunted once on their radios as the inevitable overtook them, then no more. Ten-ton machines figure-skated from the burning sky.

  The Pilot looked grimly over his shoulder, at the single AA-7 Apex radar-nosed missile chasing him like a barracuda after a whale. The Earth reared up to trap him, a flyswatter made of mountains. There was only one thing he could do.

  He fired his confetti cannon. Strips of radar-eating aluminum "chaff" twinkled out the B-52's back end, as the Co-pilot beam a false radio signal at the missile, wagging it back and forth like a bone to a dog.

  The missile passed, failfire displacing the air in an angry bull-roar. The Pilot veered up, blood shooting to his feet, clenching his legs and buttocks as he was trained, trying not to black out with giant planeful of nukes. He wondered light-headedly how much humanity depended on the firmness of one man's ass.

  The MiGs were at five miles. Wings spread like phantom hands. But their missile-pods were clearly empty…

  They were going ram them.

  The Pilot smiled in cold admiration. A million lives to one. They had nowhere to land anyway. No home left. No children to hug. Everything they had ever loved burned in the atmosphere.

  Two miles. The Pilot could almost see their faces. Not really. But he could imagine them beyond the theater of smoke, inside the glint of their beetle cockpits. Staring back at him.

  Knights jousting in air.

  The he fired. An AIM-4 nuclear air-to-air missile blew MiGs like dandelion seeds. Chivalry was dead. The Pilot flew through the gap, leaving the survivors behind, and checked his fuel gauge as the plane leveled back to auto-pilot.

  Ticking closer to zero.

  The Pilot had a better idea. Nobody actually kept track of where anyone else's bombs landed. Every plane only had their own coordinates. Every satellite was watching a thousand nukes at once, and the people on the recieving end had probably either gone home to hug their kid one more time or surrendered to their fates as fried chicken. Everything actually important to bomb had already been bombed twice.

  "Let's just dump and go."

  The Co-pilot looked over at the Pilot toying with the .45 in his lap. "What?"

  "Long as we come back with empty bomb bays, who would ever know?"

  "What would we bomb?"

  "Anything. Trees. Villages. The ocean on the way back. Who cares?"

  "Someone'll notice eventually…our little coordinate square's still there." Probably some unpronounceable city with half a million Commies huddled in their basements. Ahead, nuclear anti-air defenses blanketed the sky above their own cities with mile-wide protective fireballs, nuking the air against enemy bombers diving to nuke them, mosquitos suiciding through great Jupiters of raw Creation. The logic of total war: Kill half your own people and take the enemy with you.

  "How long would anyone take to notice?" The Pilot touched the steering control, vibrating slightly from the hot wind blowing from wounds in reality a hundred miles away. If he moved it, the auto-pilot would disengage. "Months? Years? Until civilization's rebuilt--if it's rebuilt--and some file clerk realizes one particular grain-storage or coal-mine town happened to eek by doomsday? You really want to die for a country that doesn't exist anymore? The Stars-and-Stripes are nothing but a thousand scattered townships now, with a Constitution with all the originally slavery stuff in a vault under seven tons of concrete. The United States has been bombed into myth. The guys at Fort Knox are melting the gold into musket balls."

  He cocked the gun.

  The Co-pilot stared at the controls. The fuel gauge. The world.

  "Einstein once said World War Four would be fought with sticks and stones." The Pilot chortled. Controls vibrating. "Some general's touring the radioactive ruins back home, activating the Emergency Rocket Communications System--even mankind's last phone call will be broadcast by hundreds of rockets--calling all the burned, poisoned, mutant survivors to band together. And launch a second wave."

  The Co-pilot stared at the crumpled map on the floor. In his first drill ever, their Chief had ordered them: If you survive, come back and pick up more. He gestured at the storage bunker, where surplus nukes were stacked like soldiers' coffins. A hundred thousand Hiroshimas, waiting to birth a new world. It would take weeks to use them all. They mostly existed just to match the Soviets, built so they could be reduced later at SALT or SALT II or Revenge-of-the-SALT talks that would surely perserve peace forever.

  How many nuclear wars are we planning to fight?

  We will launch, glowered the Chief, until we are launching into silence.

  "But we--" The Pilot licked his lips. "--we don't have to go along with the insanity. We could live for years and years and years…"

  The Co-pilot stared at the map. Pretty girls. A place where trees still turned green. One more generation.

  "No." He closed his eyes. The world in his head vanished like a bubble. He picked up the map. "We follow orders."

  Click. The Pilot leveled the gun, hammer poised to fall. "Actually," he grinned insanely. "I wasn't asking."

 

  Five years ago around Christmas, the Pilot found a cheaper way to fight nuclear war.

  "1914!" The Pilot mounted the table drunkenly. Man astride the world. "Szilard reads a novel by H.G. Wells called, heh, The World Set Free…and patents the atomic bomb."

  Hands tried to pull him down, to reason with him, but his eyes glinted with prophetic fire: "1927! The idea for the hydrogen bomb is published…in a magazine article called 'Six Ways to Make a Billion Dollars.'" His laughter was terrible, like a fallen Lucifer, prince of the air, quoting Scripture back at Man: "1945! Enrico Fermi bets on bottle of brandy…that the Manhattan Project would ignite the sky over New Mexico and fuse the Earth into a star…days before he tests it." The table finally cracks and he topples. Screaming. Laughing: "1945! Weeks after MacArthur gives his 'We Have Had Our Last Chance' speech…America began building our first 466 atomic bombs…So don't tell me no one will go for my idea…"

  Other Pilots were laughing with him now, cheering him on. The Co-pilot had once seen a painting of men jeering at Death.

  "A cobalt bomb." The Pilot explained how the heat and pressure of a nuclear blast converted some materials into others. Trees to petrified stone. Sand to glass. Buildings to sand. People to bacon. People to shadows. People to X-Men.

  And cobalt, a metal available by the ton, into radioactive cobalt-60, with a half-life of five years, plenty of time to wind-scatter around the whole world, but still releasing all its goodies over a single human lifespan. The Goldilocks of efficient fallout. The Pilot tossed a fistful of coins on the crowded bar. "Guess which has cobalt?"

  "Shut up." The Co-pilot looked around for Commie spies from the State Department.

  "Don't worry. They made a movie about it. Everyone died."

  "So what's your big idea?"

  The Pilot smiled. The same smile he would light up five years later, ordering the Co-pilot to sit at gunpoint: "We only need one."

  "What if we missed? Or the Russians shot it down? Or they hit us first?"

  "It wouldn't matter." The Pilot picked up a nickel and spun it in the Yule firelight. "We would never need to fire it. It'll just sit there."

  "Sit…there?"

  "We could put it anywhere." The Pilot danced the nickel knuckle-to-knuckle to the tune of "Jingle Bells." "A submarine. A mountain. The North Pole. Anywhere. But the middle of our own country would be best. No way anyone could hit it without us detonating it first. Even if they did, their nuke'll set off the cobalt."

  "But then it'll kill us, too…Kill us first." The Co-pilot looked up from his eggnog into his partner's eyes.

  "Kill everyone!" The Pilot grinned pearly white like a vacuum salesman. A hurricane of pressure! "There's no limit to an H-bomb's size, you know. Only the size of the missile. You could fill a lake full of hydrogen and ignite it. Ultimate logic: one bomb, bigger than all the nukes in the world piled together at a fraction of the price--all we need is one to deter all war forever, to take care of all life on Earth. We'll have one and the Russians can have one, then we'll have nothing to worry about ever again."

 

  "You once joked about blowing a hole into the goo of the Earth and triggering a supervolcano." The Co-pilot sat. "Now you want to run."

  "I joked because I was scared. Horrified. I wanted everyone else to be horrified, too." The Pilot looked out at the Siberian snows already graying with fallout. When summer came, the poison would carve a canyon of death through stream and lake and sea and soil. A billion trees would turn russet and gold and amber to flame one last time in  artificial autumn, the beauty of a sacrificed virgin before entering a hundred-year winter. "They weren't."

  "This is what we were trained to do." The Co-pilot shifted subtly in his seat. "What we were destined to do. We are not merely ourselves, but a bullet fired by the final will of two-hundred-million ghosts. Our cities are burning, marshmallowing under their Bears and Bison and death rays and God-knows what. Why should they live?"

  "Because two Russian pilots are probably having the same argument over Cleveland. Because we're not bullets, we're men." The Pilot sighed. The windshield solid gray with smoke. "We can think for our--"

  Then he screamed.

  Screamed as the Co-pilot's helmet tackled his chin. The pistol flew. Two bodies locked in mortal contest. Hands scrabbling for the gun. A trunk full of weaponized stars and they were clawing and spitting over a gun. Madness.

  The Pilot won. Always. Bigger and stronger and higher pay-graded. He stood over the Co-pilot and aimed.

  The Co-pilot spat blood. "Gonna shoot me after that big U.N. speech? Kill me with your own hands?"

  "Yes."

  BOOM. Lightnining uncurtained the sky. Eight-million different colors. Yet so white, the Pilot saw the face of God. Their B-52 tumbled like a hat in a hurricane. One wing streaked Biblical fire. The Co-pilot dove for the control, dove through the screaming, burning white. Ants all over his body. Like he was inside the sun.

  "No!" An invisible rodeo bull hurled the Pilot into the ceiling. He shrieked defiance and fired blind. One. Two. Three.

  The light vanished. The air crackled and stank. A great bubble dispelled. Air howled back in, hot enough to kill a man with a single breath.

  The Co-pilot pulled the plane up with all his might. Up through the cathedral of clouds. Away from the nuclear mushroom caps blossoming five miles below.

  Then noticed the hole in his stomach.

  He did not feel pain, but a cool certainty. Blood oozed with his heartbeat, hot on his leg as he grew colder inside. His hands shook, just a little. He checked the instruments, strangely more worried about them.

  The compass bled magnetic fluid like gouged eye. The radio spat sparks and jabbered exorcisms. No matter. They were eight miles above the middle of nowhere with no world left to call.

  The steering still worked. The bomb-release--

  Click. "Hey," the Pilot growled from the floor. "We're not finished."

 

  At first, he thought the Pilot was crying. His face glistened. Eyes running down his shirt like egg-whites. He had looked too long into the sun. Nuclear explosions were funny like that. Two fence-painters at Hiroshima: One stepped into the shade and was startled by a bright light. The other, ten feet away, was incinerated.

  Bombs had even been tested with whistles or sirens or flashing lights just to trick victims into looking up. So if God suddenly appears in the sky as a dancing disco ball, you know the End cometh.

  "Give me the gun." The Co-pilot stood above him.

  "No…I can still aim at your voice."

  The Co-pilot crouched. "You know you can't save yourself anymore. Where would you go? The VA and Social Security's been bombed into myth, remember? It's too late to save anyone, even ourselves. All we can do is see it to the end."

  "I…don't want…to see…anymore." Then the Pilot raised the gun and fired.

  Something fell at the Co-pilot's feet. A bloody eye patch. You'll lose both eyes.

  That's what I have you for.

  He lifted the Pilot's corpse, still saluting itself, and strapped it into its seat. He wouldn't have it rolling on the floor as they made their final approach. A doomsday machine driven by a zombie. The Co-pilot leaned into his wound and searched the shattered Earth for survivors.

 

  Death Wears Bunny Slippers. The Co-pilot had seen the little cloth missile-man patch on the ICBMers climbing underground two by two with their night school law books. Huddling inside fire-control potato-bunkers for an orderly little world that might never be, waiting out the long night. Beside their sleeping cots, hundred-foot MX missiles slumbered, shuffled from silo to silo every few months in an apocalyptic shell game. While superpowers bickered, men waited under the soils of New Mexico and Siberia, playing poker with bottle caps under the shadow of fifty-megaton warheads programmed to spawn at ten cities at once.

  Men under desert and tundra. Pilots circling the sky like vultures. Submarines that could surface months later anywhere in the blue of the Earth to re-destroy a recovering enemy. Cold eyes watched from space, watched from U2 planes 60,000 feet high that could see the curve of the marbled Earth, watched from IBM machines buried in abandoned gold mines where tax records would be saved for efficient post-hydrogen-bomb audits and alien archeology.

  Watching the world burn.

 

  The oxygen was leaking out the cockpit. Meaning radiation was leaking in. The Co-pilot decreased altitude until he could breathe, greedily gulping the pine-forest air. Now exposed to anti-aircraft fire. He rode the terrain like a rodeo bull, flying "map of the Earth" to deliver nuclear bombs at treetop level, tightening his belt to keep more blood in upper half of his body, ignoring the tingling in his legs. Triage. Millions of cells die, one way or another. Strange to think he could get shot in the stomach and end up losing his legs.

  Darkness crept into his vision. He shook it off like a flea. Not yet.

  His radio murmured in and out. Other Pilots and Co-pilots who had nowhere to go. Some landed. Some didn't. But one by one, their voice fuzzed and faded like the whole universe was stretching away into darkness.

  The Co-pilot tried to hail them. He had nothing to say…except…I'm still here. He turned and turned the dial, a lonely mariner paddling an empty sea. And you're still here.

  Which means we're still here.

  What else was there to say?

  But only long quiet answered him. The static of the burning heavens.

 

  The Co-pilot saw a twinkling ahead, a twinkling that was not fire. He dove. Dove into the massive smoky twilight as if to smite the very Earth. Mountains flew by. Lakes. Craters. Most of the target zone already surpassed the moon. He didn't care. "Birds! Flowers! Fish! Trees!" he screamed as he flew at the electric heart of some nameless city like a dagger, on his mission to extinguish the last glimmer in the Northern Hemisphere, to glut the world with its appetite for death and create a new world lit only fire.

  Kevlar screens slid down over the windows. Like a shark rolling back its eyes just before it bites. Pitch black. A TV monitor bracketed the target in nightvision green.

  He opened his weapon-select panel: SRAM 1. SRAM 2.

  At twenty miles, he muttered a prayer. God, he gestured at the air. Receive me in your flock. And peeled his two Short-Range-Attack-Missiles.

  At 150 kilotons apiece, twenty Hiroshimas screamed at the target. It was but the appetizer, a mere 1% of the excess of annihilation he ferried aboard. Just to soften their air defense.

  The SRAMs blossomed in two silent white lilies. Even flying to meet it, the sound would take a minute-and-a-half to reach him--

  Then the sky exploded. Night became day as nuclear bowling balls hurtled at him, rippling the emerald-green fabric of reality. They had fired on him even as he fired on them. As if they had left their lights on as trap. His B-52 floundered like a life raft, surfing waves of lethal radiation, tumbling at the city faster now, the city's "defensive nuke" having exploded behind him as if urging him forward. Forward to meet the white maw of twinkling stars.

  Zero zero zero.

  The Co-pilot dove, dove against men and mountains and all Creation, dove into the movie screen.

  Suddenly, his TV went black. Shrieking blind through the sky. He rolled back the Kevlar screens to behold the inferno outside.

  Atomic flak shredded the heavens, boiling red and gray like hell's champagne. Lightning cracked nuke-to-nuke until the sky was a broken windowpane. The Co-pilot fell through galaxies of colors that ruined his eye to see, hues not meant for mortal retinas, as parts of the plane's fuselage flew away like birds, controls thrashing in his hands, every panel, every bolt, every doomed ribbon of steel screaming for pity. His eye sizzled out its socket, overflowing down his cheek, but the Co-pilot felt no pain. No remorse. Nothing.

  He smiled as his blind hand groped the bomb-release, and dove into the night, the night, the night.

  The beautiful long night.

 

  The Co-pilot smelled the sea. His bloody lips formed a prayer as he gripped the controls with unfeeling hands and fought to stay awake. The sea. Remember the sea. A joke about Tahiti.

  He wouldn't make it. The fuel gauge had a bullet through it. His guts. He retched, long since dry, and smiled at the bloated Pilot. Radiation. The whole world was full of it by now. They hadn't needed the nickels after all.

  Eight engines stuttered over Manchuria. The Gobi Desert. And here, here came the Sea of Japan.

  Tears leaked from the Co-pilot's one eye down his leather cheek. A reverse shadow of unburnt skin glowed where the eye patch had left a Hiroshima fence across his face.

  He saw the ocean one last time. The dawn rising over a sulphur anvil, its warmth breaking over him like a yolk.

  And heard the shush of waves on shore as his engines wheezed out. One. Another. Briefly, like Icarus of myth, he glided on nothing but sun and soundless air. Dreaming the dream of all mankind. He was not entering the shadow; the shadow was the world he had left behind. Tahiti, he prayed. Pretty girls.

  Then he dipped to salute the seagulls and embraced the smell of the sea.

  Launching into silence.


© Copyright 2019 Edward Ji. All rights reserved.

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