The summer sun rolled around the North Pole in a lazy circle, just as it had done through the countless summers of countless past millennia. There was no reason to expect this, at least, to change at the end of this particular millennium. After all, Earthís axial tilt would not be affected by the impending Y2K bug.
On the northern tip of Norway, just inside the Arctic Circle, a single rocket stood amid the bustle of a busy launch pad. Through an agreement with NATO, the Fimbulvetr Astronomical Institute had obtained this obsolete Wormwood-132 long-range missile from the U.S. military. Although it was originally designed to carry an atomic warhead, in the hands of researchers it had been retrofitted with a sophisticated array of daytime auroral imaging instruments to be launched deep into the heart of the northern lights.
This mission was an admirable use of wartime technology repurposed to deepen Manís understanding of his universe, and the nations of the world universally commended the institute on its noble endeavor.
Or rather, they would have commended the institute, had they bothered to read its launch announcement. But the worldís leaders had much more important business to attend to than some insignificant Norwegian science experiment.
The president of the United States stuck his nose into his armpit and took an investigatory sniff. He recoiled with a pained wince and quickly re-buttoned his navy-blue suit jacket.
"Hoo-boy, Bubba," he thought, "you smell like the McDonaldís fryer at the end of a long day."
He shrugged. "Well, the coatís not coming off tonight anyway."
He leaned against an ancient white oak and let his gaze drift through the heavy tree cover and into the hazy yellow glow of a Maryland sunset. For a so-called "presidential retreat," Camp Bravo afforded him precious little privacy. It had taken him an hour to lose his Secret Service escort, but now he was finally alone.
As he had promised the American people, the president had spent the afternoon trying to reconcile with his wife and daughter, but that wasn?t really why he had come to Camp Bravo. The real reasons were these dense woods, this forgotten corner, and that collapsing perimeter fence.
The president smiled as his eyes scaled the twelve-foot fence that guarded the interior of the presidential retreat from the heathens of the outside world. This ever-vigilant sentry encircled the entire compound in an unbroken barrier of heavy-gauge chain link and razor wire. Unbroken, that is, except for one lapse of weathered steel that some force of nature or decay had broken through, slashing its mesh into a pair of rusty curtains.
The Secret Service didn?t know about this place.
The first lady didn?t know.
The Camp Bravo groundskeepers didn?t even know.
Only one other person did.
The president pulled a cigar from his breast pocket. He put it in his mouth but didn?t light it. He almost never smoked cigars, and when he did, he didn?t inhale. The sun had now completely slipped below the horizon, and the president looked at his watch eagerly. He worried that perhaps his signal had been too subtle. No, it was fine. Unmistakable. He twirled the cigar in his fingers and daydreamed about what he could do with it if he wasn?t going to smoke it.
Just then he heard a rustling, snapping advance through the bushes on the other side of the fence. The president flicked his tongue over his dry lips and waited a long, tense moment. He could hear hard-soled shoes pounding through the loose brush, step by weighty step. Finally, when his sense of anticipation had fully filled out his trousers, he saw a jet-black mound of hair emerge from the foliage, followed by a round, female face.
The presidentís relationship with this particular White House intern had become somewhat sticky in recent days, literally before figuratively.
The intern walked up to the fence and peered through its corroded mesh coquettishly.
"Good evening, Mr. President," she purred. "Are you alone?"
The president grinned back at her from his side of the fence.
"It depends on how you define ?alone,?" he said flirtatiously. "I see you caught my speech this afternoon."
The intern blushed.
"I know you were addressing the entire nation, but I felt like you were speaking only to me," she cooed. "I especially liked the part about breaching the walls at the darkest twilight to meet between the tall trees."
The presidentís impossibly wide grin grew wider.
"Well, if you like trees, come on in and I?ll show you the executive branch."
With an excited squeal the intern put her palms against the rusted scar in the fence and shoved her way through its ineffectual barrier. But while the ancient chain link of the perimeter fence slept on the job, its sharp young apprentice opened up one eager eye. Just as the internís heaving bosom pushed through the fence, it also pushed through the beam of an invisible laser grid, shattering the air of Camp Bravo with an earsplitting security klaxon!
The air was calm in the Peopleís National Strategic Control Centre just outside of Beijing, China. Chairman Qian leafed listlessly through the eveningís state-sponsored newspaper. It was full of the same old propaganda touting China as the most powerful nation on Earth. He sighed and took a sip of his oolong tea.
If only it were true.
He looked around the room at the thirty sharply uniformed young men and women sitting at their computer terminals and tapping quietly at their keyboards. Actually, just young men. The chairman couldn?t remember the last time he had actually seen a young woman. He sighed again.
One of the officers turned to him with an expression that completely failed to be surprise.
"Mr. Chairman," he said, "we?ve just received an urgent military communiqu? from one of our operatives in the field. Thereís been an international incident, sir."
The chairman stood up and smiled hungrily. It was about time. What good was being the leader of the largest standing army in the world if you never got to do anything with it? Finally, this old dragon was going to get a chance to roar! He put down his paper and teacup and issued a giddy order in his most restrained voice.
The young officerís short fingers clattered efficiently over his keyboard.
"Itís from one of our agents in the United States, sir."
The smile dropped from the chairmanís face, and he threw himself into his chair petulantly. Of course it was the Americans. It was always the Americans. He sulked. What good was being the leader of the largest standing army in the world if it was only the second most powerful? Contempt dripped from his voice as he issued a second terse command.
"The personal fortress of their president has gone to a state of heightened alert, followed by several other military installations in the area. We do not know the reason."
"Classify," the chairman grumbled.
"There seems to be no specific threat, sir, but it would be prudent to raise our own alert level accordingly."
The chairman nodded his head. Sure. Raise the alert level. Just like always. He sighed heavily. He could already see that he was in for another long, dull night of playing follow the leader.
Two technicians waited out another long, dull shift in the dreary control room of a radar tracking station somewhere in northern Russia. A smattering of faded maps clung to the desolate walls, each depicting the former Soviet Union pierced with dozens of red pushpins that no longer signified anything at all. The stationís gigantic radar dish still scanned the skies twenty-four hours a day, although exactly what it was looking for these days was something of a mystery.
Kurchatov leaned back in his chair and took a swig from a half-empty bottle of vodka. He was bored. Bored bored bored. He took another drink and glanced dully at his co-worker, Sakharov. In contrast to Kurchatovís own drooping countenance, Sakharovís face was tensed in concentration as he pounded the keyboard of the stationís main computer bank. A bead of sweat welled on his forehead as he chattered to himself anxiously.
"No more of the stupid Zs!" he snarled. "Come on, you piece of junk! Give me the long one! The long one!"
Kurchatov stood and glanced over his comradeís shoulder just in time to see him lose his ten-thousandth game of Tetris. Sakharov smashed his fists into the splintering desk in frustration.
"Govno na palochkee!" he cried. "I hate this stupid game!"
He rammed two fingers into the keyboard, closing the game window and revealing a monochrome screen of green text. In all the years that the station had been in operation, the dishís readout had never changed:
Radar Tracking Station 99
0000 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles detected.
0000 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles detected.
Kurchatov slouched back into his chair and scowled.
"If you hate that stupid game so much, why do you sit there and play it all day?"
Sakharov tapped his finger on the desk in an impatient fury for ten full seconds before reopening the Tetris window and starting another game.
"The high score is 200,000 points," he snarled. "I?m not quitting until I beat it!"
"Well, how close have you come?" Kurchatov asked.
"Well, why don?t you just round off, you dolbo?b?" Kurchatov snapped. "Thatís not even a real score! Itís just a computer error!"
"Nyet! Thereís nothing wrong with the computer!" Sakharov said bitterly, tapping the sticker on the front of the computerís case. "Intel inside. American technology. No mistakes."
The deafening wail of Camp Bravoís mistaken sirens smashed against the American presidentís skull like a sledgehammer. Between the trees he could see a distant commotion of confused soldiers rushing between the buildings, trying to identify and neutralize a threat that did not exist.
He pulled his cellular phone from his pocket, punched a speed dial button, and clasped it to his head. Even with his palms crushing down on his ears, he could barely hear the voice on the other end of the line.
"Camp Bravo Command Center."
"Listen, kid! This is the president!"
"Mr. President?" the officer gasped. "Thereís been a breach of the outer wall, sir! You may be in danger. What is your location?"
"Itís a false alarm!" the president screamed. "Turn off the klaxons!"
"Yes, sir! Er ? no, sir!" the officer stammered. "I?m sorry, sir, but a trigger of the perimeter alarm automatically puts every base on the East Coast on precautionary alert. I can?t just turn-"
"What do you mean you can?t? This is the president of the United States giving you a direct order, soldier! Pull whatever plug you have to pull to cut off these damn alarms!"
"B-but, there are procedures, sir," the officer stammered. "Thereís no way to just cut them off without completely resetting the emergency CommNet! It would be a huge breach of security, sir!"
"Lieutenant, I don?t care if you have to shut down the whole North American power grid!" the president screamed. "I want those alarms off now! Understood?"
"Y-yes, sir!" the officer stuttered.
Against his better judgment, but on the direct orders of the commander in chief, the young officer hammered the appropriate security codes into his computer, gaining access to the nationís emergency communications systems. Within a few minutes, he had manually reset every circuit that carried some small part of the security networkís data with a blatant and mandated disregard for any other traffic those nodes might have been carrying.
Somewhere deep beneath Cheyenne Mountain, every computer screen at NORAD went blank. The surprised officers tapped on their terminals with curiosity and, ultimately, confusion.
Admiral Jack Teller dropped his Big Mac and leapt to his feet.
"What in the corn hell just happened, boys?"
A husky slab of officer poked at his keyboard nervously.
"I don?t know, sir. Every base on the East Coast went on alert, and before I could make an inquiry all communications were completely cut off."
"What do you mean ?cut off??" the admiral yelled. "What in the name of Sam Hill is going on out there?"
The top-heavy switchboard operator tapped on her headset and looked at a panel of dark bulbs. She snapped her gum and twisted a bronze finger through her platinum hair.
"We?ve got like, nothing here, sir. No lines in or out," she reported. "Computers, phones, even the satellite links are all totally out."
"Impossible!" the admiral roared. "Thatís impossible! All this Captain Kirk crap down here is connected to the outside with redundancy out the ying-yang! The only way we?ve got nothing is if the whole damn comm network is down, and the only thing that could take down that network is a full-scale ?"
A troubled look rushed over the admiralís features.
"What was the last thing we got before we lost the world, boys?"
The husky officer reviewed his logs and answered numbly.
"Satellite intelligence shows that the Chinese military just went on heightened alert, sir."
The admiral glared into the screen for a long moment, angrily cracking his knuckles.
"Scramble my knights of the air," he said dramatically. "I want nukes in the bellies of all my bombers, and I want those beautiful bastards ready to fly on my order. You got that?"
"Um, yes sir," the officer coughed, "but if you?ll recall what Private Babs just said, we don?t have any outgoing communications."
The admiral wrung his massive hands into fists.
"Why, those filthy yellow bastards ?"
Kurchatov picked irritably at the filthy yellow upholstery foam crumbling from the worn arm of his desk chair. The clucking digital melody from Sakharovís never-ending game of Tetris cut through his sanity like a bandsaw. He wrapped his fingers around the neck of his vodka bottle and, just for a second, imagined smashing it over the edge of the desk and letting fate take its course.
His homicidal fantasy was interrupted by a crackling voice.
"Radar Tracking Station 99, come in! Come in, Station 99! This is Moscow!"
Kurchatovís heart thumped against his ribcage as he leapt to his feet.
"What the hell was that?!"
Sakharov didn?t look up from his frenzied game. "The radio. Pick it up."
Kurchatov looked at the buzzing two-way radio set and felt very stupid. Right. The radio. It had been a while. He picked up the dusty microphone and wiped it on his shirt.
"This is Station 99," he said. "Go ahead, Moscow."
"We?re receiving reports that the Americans and Chinese are rattling their sabers. Are you picking up anything unusual up there?"
Kurchatov glanced at his comrade, and Sakharov reluctantly minimized his game window to take a glance at the dish output. The screen flickered its usual, burned-in announcement.
Radar Tracking Station 99
0000 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles detected.
0000.899 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles detected.
Sakharov drew a sharp breath.
"What is it, Station 99? What are you reading?"
Kurchatov shook his head dismissively.
"Nothing," he said. "Itís just another computer error."
"Itís not a computer error!" Sakharov gasped, grabbing the microphone. "Itís a nuclear attack!"
The radio crackled tensely.
"An attack?! Are you sure?! How many missiles?!"
"Almost one!" Sakharov yelped.
Kurchatov snatched the microphone from his panicked associate.
"Disregard that, Moscow. Itís just an error with the-"
"Thank you, Station 99. We?ll take it from here."
With that, the radio went dead.
"But itís a false alarm!" Kurchatov repeated. "Moscow? Do you read me? Hello?"
He pounded the heavy microphone on the top of the computer bank in frustration. The threatening digits on the screen flickered and blinked before finally resolving themselves back into four harmless zeros. He crossed his arms and looked at Sakharov as his face burned red with unabashed contempt.
Chairman Qian lowered his teacup as the standing yellow alert level suddenly raised itself to red. His gaze snapped to his second-in-command as if to ask the question his mouth couldn?t be bothered to form.
"Russian high command has just armed their nuclear missiles, sir. There have been no launches, and no warplanes have taken flight."
The chairman rubbed his hands together hungrily. Russia. Now that was more like it! These days China could occupy Russia without even waking up the reserves. The junior officer continued.
"Sir, all available intelligence suggests a unified Russo-American attack."
The chairman cringed. The Americans. It was always the Americans.
"Put the nuclear deterrence on standby alert," he grumbled. "Remind them both that they?re not dealing with terra cotta warriors over here."
As the circuits of the American armed forces? communications network cleared their alerts and completed their reset sequences, computer screens and telephone consoles rapidly blinked back to life under Cheyenne Mountain. Admiral Teller broke from his frantic pacing and mental wargaming and rushed to a bank of reawakened monitors.
"Whatís happening?" he barked.
"Everything just came back up, sir," the husky officer said. "We?ve got phones, radar, satellite, everything! It must have been some kind of network glitch."
The admiral breathed a sigh of relief and gave the officer a hearty clap on the back.
"Whew!" he laughed. "That was brown-trouser time for a second there, huh boys? Ha ha ha! Somebody get my wife on the phone-tell her itís a real slow day at the office and I?m coming home early!"
The younger officer didn?t return his superiorís joviality.
"Um, sir. I think you should see this."
"Whatís that, Junior?" the admiral chuckled.
"While we were offline the Soviets and the Chinese both armed their warheads, sir."
The smile whipped from the admiralís face like a window shade, revealing a countenance of betrayed rage.
"Those Sun-Tzu-reading savages," he seethed. "They knocked out our communications long enough to catch us with our pants down, and now those commie bastards are double-teaming us!"
"Actually, sir," the officer noted, "the Russians aren?t commies anymore."
The admiral scowled.
"Dust off the missiles. Go to DEFCON 1," he growled. "Oh, and somebody get the president on the line."
The wailing alarms fell silent over Camp Bravo, and the president and the intern slowly peeled their sweaty palms from their ears. The only sound that still hung in the air was the quiet, tinny chirp of a patriotic ringtone coming from the presidentís pants. The intern clapped her hands to her face and started to cry.
"I?m sorry, Mr. President, I?m sorry!" she squealed. "I never should have come! You shouldn?t have either!"
She turned to dart for the fence, but the president grabbed the back of her blue dress.
"Wait! Don?t leave!" he shouted.
His cell phone screeched for attention from his front pocket, vibrating provocatively against his already agitated manhood. He yanked the device from his pants and pitched it into the woods before turning back to the intern.
"Itís alright, itís okay, hon," he continued. "Don?t you worry about anything. It was just a little alarm. Absolutely no harm done. You didn?t even blow our cover."
This reassurance downgraded the internís crying situation to a sniffle.
"Well, sir, to be honest," she said impishly, "our cover is not what I came here to blow."
The president closed his eyes and grinned smugly as the intern lowered herself to her carpet-burned knees in the wet grass.
"Hail to the chief, baby."
With a great, heaving surge of hot, explosive force, the long, white shaft of a single science rocket slipped from its pad at the Fimbulvetr Astronomical Institute and sailed harmlessly into the stratosphere.
"Radar Station 99! Confirm your report! Are we under attack or not?"
Kurchatov stared at the computer screen in a wide-eyed panic, his skepticism replaced with outright terror. The number of missiles detected was suddenly a solid 0001, and no amount of pounding on the computer would make it change its mind.
"Station 99! Come in! What do you read?"
"I ? I think itís a Chinese missile, sir! Itís headed straight for Moscow!"
"It appears to be an American missile, sir. Itís headed straight for Beijing."
"Itís definitely a Russian missile, sir. Itís headed straight for Walt Disney World."
"Dear, sweet Jesus."
Admiral Teller marched up to the command centerís enormous digital world map and watched the smooth arc of a missile slowly advancing into the sky. As the harsh light of the red alert sirens flashed across his stony features, he took off his hat and saluted the American flag with a broad grin.
"This is what we?ve waited for. This is it, boys. This is war!"
Shortly thereafter, the world came to an abrupt end.