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May 27, 2024


By Ralph Benton (short, PG-13)

Cover image.
Image credit: Public Domain. More info.

There is no sure way to count on another day...


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a star teetered at the edge of destruction.

It was gravity that first brought forth the star from an enormous cloud of hydrogen atoms. Gravity formed eddies in the cloud that led to a spherical conglomeration, and gravity subsequently compelled the atoms at the center of that sphere to fuse together. Every act of fusion released only a tiny bit of energy, but there oh so many atoms. The star began to burn. Like everything that burns, it was consuming itself. And so it went.

Major General Johnson’s driver saw the general’s jaw tighten as she exited the restaurant. These lunches with her mother, he has learned, are always contentious. This must have been a bad one. He opens the rear door with a salute and she slides inside.

Once on the road he risks, “Ma’am, I hope your mother is doing well.” In the rearview mirror he sees a twitch in her jaw.

“Just get us to work, sergeant,” she says, still looking out the window.

“Yes, ma’am.” They drive through the gates of Space Force Base Peterson outside Colorado Springs. He parks in front of an innocuous two story building and hops out. He opens her door and says, “Ma’am, I hope you have a quiet shift,” as she gathers herself. He knows that she is a NORAD commander who supervises many specialists monitoring an array of sensors around and above the globe. If anyone can give America a chance to detect and respond to an enemy missile attack, it is General Johnson. She smiles a little apologetically. “I hope so, too. Thank you, sergeant.”

For millions of years the star burned, balanced between gravity and energy, the fire to expand fighting the pressure to contract. Maintaining this balance generated helium as a by-product, which accumulated in the star as the hydrogen was consumed. That was fine. The time of helium would come.

Seated at her desk General Johnson ponders the state of the world with a sigh. There is madness in the air. The Russian president has declared that the storms of war will purify Russia, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. America swings between soporific platitudes and megalomaniacal nationalism. North Korea is a caricature of a modern state, spewing apocalyptic invective worthy of a revival preacher at the mildest provocation. Yesterday the newly elected South Korean president admonished the North that “the era of brotherly guidance and forbearance is over.” In response the North Koreans shelled an island. She sighs again.

After a mere ten or eleven million years, a blink of the galactic eye, the star had consumed all of the available hydrogen. With no fusion energy to push back, gravity, with inexorable patience, squeezed the core, now composed of helium. The pressure and temperature increased, much higher than before, until the helium atoms began to fuse and exhale energy. Balance was restored, and again gravity had to wait.

Johnson walks out of her office. Her staff stands as she reads aloud the words written in two-foot high letters on the walls. “We have the watch!” Then each station gives their situation report. They summarize the status of Canadian distant early warning systems, the space-based launch detection system called SBIRS, Aegis radars on land and sea, and even a massive radar mounted on a repurposed oil drilling platform. At the conclusion of these reports she concludes, “The skies are quiet, people,” unconsciously echoing her driver’s wish. “Let’s hope they stay that way.” Back in her office she reviews the posture of missile defense units around the globe. Theater defenses and Patriot batteries in Europe, Korea, and Japan to defend against intermediate-range missiles. SM-3a interceptors on various ships in the Pacific and Black Sea. Lastly, Alaskan-based interceptors to destroy Korean ICBMs while they are still in space. Yet there is still no defense against the existential threat, a full-scale nuclear attack by Russian or Chinese rockets. While unpalatable, Mutually Assured Destruction has worked for four generations. Nuclear war is simply not rational.

As the helium burned it was carbon that collected in the star’s core. Hydrogen begat helium, helium begat carbon, carbon begat neon, neon begat silicon, and silicon begat oxygen. Each ignited in its turn by the inevitability of gravity. But the end is nigh. The star is a gymnast on the beam, beginning to lean.

Only an hour into her twelve-hour shift the North Korean Ministry of the People’s Defense issues a statement about their strategic missile forces: “As keen and voracious as hawks circling the imperialist chicken coop.” At least, she muses, their rhetoric is creative. Over the last ten years they have successfully tested rockets capable of reaching New York or Los Angeles, true intercontinental ballistic missiles. She is privy to intelligence estimates of at least a dozen launchers and fifty warheads. But tonight it is Central Europe that commands the world’s attention.

The final nuclear fires of the star flicker out. The oxygen has bred iron, which requires more energy to burn than it would release. Gravity, at long last triumphant, pulls the remaining mass of the star down onto itself at a significant percentage of the speed of light. In an instant the star smashes onto itself. The forces are inconceivable, and push the very boundaries of physics.

Three days earlier NATO had launched Constant Shadow, an air and naval exercise in the Black Sea. The Russians are apoplectic, demanding withdrawals, apologies, pledges of future good conduct. A Flash message demands her attention: the Russian president has moved his Strategic Rocket Forces to their highest alert level. Why? she wonders. What possible use does that serve? Ninety seconds later the White House chief of staff calls to find out if the US can do the same thing. She advises caution, but yes, of course. She is pondering the nature of the political mind when the escalation order arrives. She executes the order.

It is not possible to imagine an exploding star. The fury is so great that for a short time the star becomes the brightest object in the universe, brighter than the galactic core around which it is in orbit. The extraordinary energy remakes atoms into elements that cannot be made any other way, and aluminum, copper, and sodium are released. Vast quantities of particles and energy streak from the core, which itself has become something akin to an atomic nucleus, ten miles across.

Civilization teeters. Russia calls for all freedom-loving peoples to unite and fight the imperialist, reactionary United States. Within minutes Pyongyang signals their enthusiasm to burn out the war criminals by igniting the sky itself. Always quick on his phone, the American president answers that he has ten fingers for his ten buttons, while everyone else only has one. General Johnson wonders if there are any actual grownups in charge, anywhere.

Out of the mayhem of stellar destruction and elemental creation, an iron ion emerges. With twenty-six protons and thirty neutrons it carries some heft, and it hurtles through space at hundreds of millions of miles per hour. Whatever the ion strikes will be dealt some significant damage. But impact is not an inevitability. The universe is very big and getting bigger. Atoms themselves are mainly empty space. For the next billion years the ion neither appreciably slows nor accelerates.

Things, as the kids say, get real. “Ma’am, SBIRS reports a launch in western Russia. Initial analysis is an SS-27 Sickle-B.” Each of those, she knows, is armed with an 800-kiloton warhead that sires a fireball more than a mile wide when it detonates. Automated Flash alerts are sent to all European defense batteries. One-hundred-twelve seconds after detection the missile explodes at an altitude of fifty miles. Allied Liaison confirms that it was not shot down by anything under NATO control. Moscow issues no statement. She receives garbled reports that a software glitch shut down multiple Patriot batteries. Calls and messages fly around the globe. The only thing she knows, the general realizes, is that no one has any idea what is happening.

Earth’s very own sun deflects and bends the ion’s path, both gravitationally and magnetically. The ion enters the outer limits of Earth’s atmosphere. For the first time since the ion left the environs of its birth it finds itself among a significant number of other atoms. All around the ion other particles and photons from space are impacting and interacting with the particles in the atmosphere. These interactions have many effects.

It is now night over North America. The day’s madness seems to have cooled, though theories and questions continue unabated and skitter up and down the chain-of-command like mayflies. Unnoticed amongst the Flash and Urgent messages, a radar tech in Alaska who went outside to relieve himself reports an exceptional display of curtain aurora borealis.

The ion does not interact with any atmospheric particles as it passes from space to ground in about a ten-thousandth of a second. It arrives at the earth’s surface, where there are many more particles than in the atmosphere. It has passed through a thousand million light-years of intergalactic and interstellar space, miles of air, yards of earth and concrete, two inches of lead, and a sixteenth of an inch of steel. Finally, at last, in a NORAD computer, our ion strikes another atom. This is not destiny, it is statistics.

The night is not over. North Korea announces that a squadron of Hwasong-17 nuclear-tipped ICBMs are fueled, armed, and ready to join the fight against American hegemonic global imperialism. “Don’t these guys ever sleep?” she mutters. A follow-up from Air Force Intelligence confirms that multiple missiles and fuel trucks have indeed been sighted at three different launch points, but no confirmation of fueling status is available. In other words, she thinks, anything or everything could or could not happen now, never, or at any point in between. She wonders if this is what October of 1962 felt like.

The ion smashes into a logic gate on a semiconductor chip. A normal cosmic ray encounter will merely flip the polarity on the semiconductor, creating an anomalous bit. The many error-correction codes built into the chip’s logic will detect and correct any bad bits. However, the ion’s mass and velocity has resulted in actual physical rearrangement of the molecular structure of the chip. Not only have several bits been flipped, but the sequence of instructions that this portion of the chip will render has been altered. The ion, for its part, has lodged in the silicon stratum of the chip and is, finally, at rest.

The intelligence apparatus of the United States is mostly correct. There are nine operational Hwasong-17s scattered across North Korea. Five of the nine are armed with three 110-kiloton nuclear warheads each, while the other four are unarmed. None of the missiles are fueled, which is a lengthy process, fraught with peril. There are tanker trucks assigned to three of the five armed missiles. A tanker truck near the Kangwon Province launch site is suffering from a leak and has been moved some hundreds of yards away from the launch pad. At this moment Murphy intervenes. There is an illegal charcoal-making camp over the hill, and a stray ember, wafted on the breeze, ignites the volatile spilled fuel. The truck blows up, killing the driver, crew chief, two fuelers, and a North Korean hazmat team. The rocket and the other fuel trucks are not affected.

Twenty-two-thousand miles above this mayhem yet another SBIRS satellite spots the bright flash and heat of the explosion, which naturally has the same thermal signature as a rocket engine ignition. The SBIRS satellite immediately sends the data to a Relay Ground Station, which forwards the data to NORAD headquarters. In milliseconds the data is parsed, quantified, and stored in the “Korea_active_incidents” database. The NORAD algorithms determine the signal worthy of attention and create an alert to display on screens that humans actually watch.

Unfortunately for all involved (which is just about all living things on earth), the alert processing module has a big fat iron ion jammed into the middle of one of its few non-redundant chips. The displayed data is pulled not from the “Korea_incidents_active” database, but rather from the “Korea_incidents_simulations” database. From this moment forward everything presented to Johnson and anyone else patched into NORAD systems is actually a well-crafted facsimile of a full scale North Korean nuclear attack on the United States.

“Ma’am!” comes the shout from the floor. The general’s skin prickles, as the specialist’s voice is thick with primal fear. “Six launches detected from North Korea, initial indications are Hwasong-17s.” The general freezes, just for a second, for less than a second. This can’t be happening. Then years of training assert itself. “Telemetry, let’s get a trajectory on the birds.” A steep trajectory would indicate that the rocket is using its energy to go up into space, instead of across the ocean. In other words, a test. She really wants these rockets to go straight up.

The training database faithfully feeds the worst of all news to the screens. Currently it displays correlated hypothetical data from two Aegis radars on warships in the Pacific. “Ma’am,” calls Telemetry. He sounds like the news anchors watching the second tower collapse. “Aegis shows a minimum energy trajectory.” The words hang in the air. It appears that the rockets are using every drop of fuel to achieve distance, not elevation. The missiles will, in fact, cross the northern Pacific, follow the great circle route, traverse Alaska, bound for targets in the continental United States. The homeland. “Roger,” General Johnson acknowledges. Her voice is strong, but casual. Focused, but calm. She is pleased with herself.

Sailors on actual Aegis-equipped ships in the Pacific go about their duties, unaware of the imaginary weapons of mass destruction passing overhead.

“How long until first stage burnout?” Not that it matters that much, but it gives them all something to do for a moment. Another 45 seconds is the answer. She slips a tissue from her pocket to dry her palms and tucks it away again. “Deep breaths everyone, we’ve got a long way yet to go.” Depending on the targets, the warheads will be in flight for at least an hour.

She initiates a pre-configured group video call with the White House, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and many other concerned parties. Everyone on the call list has been through these drills before, and know they must join as soon as possible. But the middle of the night is still the worst time for an emergency. People prefer to give themselves a minute or two to prepare.

For the first time in her career she wants to call her mother and tell her to get out of the city. But of course, janitors and generals are both locked down while on shift in NORAD.

The real seconds and imaginary rockets continue to fly by. Johnson glances at the timer that glows red at the top of the big screen. Nine minutes, fifty-two seconds since launch. Please, she silently urges the call attendees. Don’t worry about your hair.

Screens light up as the various officers and civilians acknowledge their attendance, and General Johnson begins her SitRep. In less than a minute the president interrupts. “If a single one of those things hits my country I’ll have you all shot!”

Despite any radar contacts reported on site, the command is given to launch the interceptors. In an abundance of caution the US launches six interceptors at each of the imaginary Korean missiles. The US missiles are sited at an Army base in Alaska that was selected due to its position under the likely path of any Korean ICBMs bound for the US. While this makes sense geometrically, it creates a geographic dilemma. On the opposite tack, beyond North Korea, lies Russia.

Russian early warning radars have not aged well since the Wall came down, but they finally detect three dozen missiles heading their way. By that time they can’t distinguish Alaska from Nebraska as the point of origin. The Russian president, inflamed and nihilistic, calls his counterpart on that old cold-war contrivance, the hotline. In a righteous rage he demands an explanation for this diabolical sneak attack. The American president, old, technologically incompetent, and prone to narcissistic outbursts, tries to tell his counterpart that “my beautiful warbirds” are purely defensive and don’t even have warheads. The Russian insists that there were no Korean launches and calls upon Saint Ushakov, the patron saint of long-range, nuclear-armed bombers. Soon the two men are screaming at each other as missiles and warheads cross paths over the earth.

General Johnson’s heart breaks as she realizes that she will never again have lunch with her mother.

= = =

The ensuing nuclear exchanges actually took several weeks of strike and counter-strike, not the hours usually imagined. Other than that the whole sordid episode unfolded mostly in line with everyone’s worst fears. The Russians and then the Americans launched their missiles, soon followed by the Chinese, British, and French. The Indians and Pakistanis took advantage, as did the Israelis. Of course the North Koreans did not let the people’s sacrifices go to waste. The dust and soot from a thousand burning cities brought a winter that lasted more than five years, by the end of which 97% of all life on earth was dead.

Humans are a tenacious species, and over several thousand years another civilization arose. Incredibly, they fell to the same nuclear mistake. Many millennia after that mishap humans emerged yet again, albeit in a form notably dissimilar from that of General Johnson. This civilization reached many nearby stars, but progress was slow. They finally received the gift of faster than light travel only after being observed for a thousand generations after the last war on any colonized planet. Then these ultima-humans were admitted to galactic society, which lasted for an impressive two cosmic years.

Over the next several thousand million years many different lifeforms came to dominate the Goldilocks-zone planet. Yet in the end all good things must come to an end, and the sun’s atomic clock had no snooze button. Once she exhausted her fuel she didn’t have the diva-esque heft to muster a galactic-scale aria. She simply swelled and bloated until the Earth itself was encompassed in her hot red embrace.

The iron ion, ironically, wasn’t around to experience this penultimate earthbound episode. One of the initial nuclear strikes had vaporized the computers in which, however briefly, it had come to rest. The fury of that momentary miniature sun imparted enough fresh velocity to launch the ion straight up and out of the sun’s gravity well.

Where the iron ion traveled after that is not recorded.

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Article © Ralph Benton. All rights reserved.
Published on 2024-05-27