Petrov

Serpukhav-15 Bunker, Russia September 26th 1983.

Shortly after midnight the unthinkable happened. The button that must never light up flashed red. The alarm that must never be heard cried out loud and shrill as a screaming child.
Lieutenant Colonel Stanislov Petrov stared non-believing at the blinking light. The room burst into a cacophony of voices.
“They’ve launched! The Americans have launched” “Call Moscow!” “ We must counter attack” “American pigs!”” My family!”” My wife! My children!”
Petrov tried to focus among the crescendo of panic and anger. Surely they would not release a single missile. It made no sense. Why would they risk a retaliatory strike? Perhaps there was a glitch in the system.
“Sir, our orders are clear!” A phone was thrust towards him
Trust your instincts.
Despite the pandemonium around him, Petrov heard the voice clearly. A woman’s voice, little more than a cool whisper.
Trust your instincts.
“We will wait” he announced calmly.
The soldier next to him lowered the offered phone in shock.
“But sir!”
“What does the computer analysis say?” asked Petrov.
The piercing alarm was silenced at last.
“Not static sir. The evaluation is…” The last of the panicked voices dwindled away to hear the answer.
“Well? The evaluation is what?”
“That it’s a real launch.”
Stay calm Stanislov, she cooed. He glanced around the busy room.
Was his conscience female?
Stay calm.
“Sir, we must report this!”
“For the moment we shall wait, is that understood?”
No one answered. Petrov scratched the scalp through his short hair. On a double shift he didn’t want, he felt twice his forty four years. As commander of the facility, it was his call as to what action to take, though the other men were adamant that there was only one course of response. Report immediately. Launch the counter attack.
But just one missile?
Petrov dropped into his chair. The red glow of the button taunting him from the display panel. But only one.
No.
Not only one.

A second satellite report triggered another button to flash red.
Then another.
And another.
And another.

Five.

“Sir. Computer analysis predicts the launch of five minute man missiles.”
Only five, said the woman.
True, thought Petrov. They would not send five when they could send a hundred and five. A thousand and five.
It is a mistake. There are no missiles.
“Sir, the phone.”
“I didn’t ask for the phone.”
“It’s Moscow sir. They have been automatically notified of a multiple launch. The phone was extended towards him until he reluctantly accepted it.
“Petrov. Are you there?” The voice sounded metallic and distant.
“This is Petrov.”
“Do we have inbound warheads Lieutenant Colonel? Are we being launched upon?”
Be brave. Tell him what you think, said the cool whisper.
“I doubt it sir” answered Petrov. “I believe the system is compromised. It is a mistake.”
“You believe? What does the equipment tell you?” rattled the distant voice.
“The equipment is indicating five incoming missiles.”
“But you don’t think so?”
“No sir, I doubt it very much.”
“Lieutenant Colonel, you realise that we have very little time to launch a counter strike. Your judgement as a soldier, and a scientist, must be correct.”
“Yes sir.”
“Then your recommendation is what exactly?”
Nothing.
“My recommendation is that we do nothing.”
Silence filled the phone line. Then Petrov heard muffled voices. His name mentioned. The murmur of discussion. The metallic voice returned.
“Nothing?”
Trust your instincts.
Only five missiles?
“Nothing” Petrov heard himself say.

At that point the world had less than two minutes to find out whether his instincts were right. If he was wrong, five cities would soon be reduced to ashes.
There was no greater agony than watching the seconds tick by. One man placed a hand on his shoulder. The only silent support he received. One slumped to the floor. One went to the lavatory to cry. One went to vomit. Others stared transfixed at the display screen forecasting their impending destruction or on phones talking to loved ones.
A minute passed.
Petrov gripped the arms of the chair, tapping a finger for each second. Prickling beads of sweat gathered on his high forehead.
Two minutes.
At three minutes he allowed his grip to relax. He wiped his brow.
Four minutes.
They were safe.
He was right.
Wherever she was, whoever she was, he silently thanked the calm voiced woman.
Further analysis showed the satellite had picked up a group of reflections on the cloud tops. Petrov never heard her voice again.
But they had averted nuclear war.

They were right.

(from the novel “Last Goddess”)

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