Back to IndexWritten July, 1995

Night of the Long Knives

The president surveyed the room thoughtfully and closely examined the faces of those near him. The room was dark and smelt vaguely of burning rubber. The only illumination came from a glowing console in one corner which cast their faces in a sickly light. There were lights above them, but they weren't switched on. They would use power, and power here would clearly be seen as an island of electricity within a dark shroud of a blackened city.
It was at times like this the president longed for the days of his youth. True - there had been the threat of nuclear destruction hanging over their heads, but at least they could see it, and they knew it existed - far better than this. Someone had once tried to explain the workings of the console to the president and he had come away with a severe headache, the only thing he understood was the meaning of the large button that dwarfed all the other dials and displays. It was the only part of the console that wasn't illuminated, but that could change. Any minute now, it would change. He was sure of that. To green...or to red, and it would decide the fate of a nation.
"It's time, sir" came a voice from an undetermined source.
"Time," murmured the president, "time indeed." He settled back uncomfortably and stared expectantly at the button. From the outside he portrayed an image of absolute authority, supremely confident. Inside however he felt a turmoil of emotions and a strong sense of significance. His action today would determine the fate of this nation, perhaps the world. And yet the exact decision he made would be dictated by someone half a planet away. The two of them were locked in silent combat, hoping that the other would back down - but knowing that they couldn't. Waiting, for the inevitable.
"Mr president." Someone said quietly. "It's eleven."
He concentrated his thoughts on the button and was silently praying as it slowly flickered into a deep red. He sighed and placed his full palm on the button. While the console verified his identity he was at the most risk. The increase in power needed to perform this action was tiny but it was rumoured that the satellites in orbit could detect fluctuations of as small as few milliamps. He was relieved when a green tinge took over from the red on the edge of the button, still leaving a dark red centre. He took a last look around. The people around him, urging him on, expecting so much - how could he let them down?
He pressed the button. Above a far away continent electric death rained down from the skies like long knives of energy, cutting through all resistance. Electromagnetic pulses struck military command posts, destroying their equipment and high powered laser beams hit barracks, storage depots and ground defences, often igniting fuel reserves before the beams had even disengaged.
The ground under the president's feet was jolted and shuddered as a barrage of similar destruction hit the city around him, all over the nation the military command was paralysed as command post after command post was destroyed. But all in vain, all they needed to destroy was a small black box. The console in this room.
This trembling continued for almost a minute before it was replaced a silent stillness that was unnerving. The light blinked green.
All around the room people were congratulating each other and shaking each others' hands. The president however stood apart from the celebration, dreading to think about the terrible reality of what had occurred during the 53 seconds of oblivion. Silently he slid open the door and stepped out into the night. The sight that greeted him was worse than he could ever have imagined, he had entered that room from a city, he was going back out to a burning inferno of broken buildings and destroyed skyscrapers. How could they even think about proclaiming a victory amidst this.
Once again the president thought back to his youth and he could remember the controversy over the fact that if an attack was launched less than half an hours warning could be expected. A far cry from this, he thought. Now you'd be lucky to get half a second.
Taking a route down one of the less damaged roads he left the celebrations behind and just walked along, humming a quiet tune.

The earliest short story I have included in this collection. I can remember writing it just after watching a documentary on television about how it was going to be necessary for computers to make all military decisions in the future, because things will just happen so fast. It's a future I'm not sure I want to see.
Students of history will realise that the title has virtually no relevance to a particular historical event of the same name.

Oliver Pell