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Just a Minute

To be or ...?

By Paul MerkleyPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 5 min read
Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. By Code36 at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Leoboudv using CommonsHelper., Public Domain,

In a crisis, time slows down, and the mind speeds up, thank God, he reflected. Colonel Willis (Cool-Hand) Luce, six feet five inches tall and a shade under 290 pounds, commanded the launch room at US Stratcom, Offutt Air Force Base, Sarpy County, Nebraska. He was fond of tennis, not much for running around the back court, but with his wingspan he was a high brick wall at the net. Besides himself and the requisite lawyer, the room had two junior lieutenants at identical stations with keys to initiate a launch, two arrays of signal displays and monitors, one for Luce and his adjutant, the other for four analysts, two techies standing by to troubleshoot equipment, a linguist, a secretary, and a comms assistant. There was also a medic, placed there, Luce was pretty sure, for him. A widower, survivor of three heart attacks, veteran of two tours of duty in forward positions and a retired professor from the War College, he had accepted this position at the insistence of his former student the president, who had taken his course in Deterrence. He had obeyed the Commander in Chief, and insisted on the night shift, relishing the luxury of sleeping in after all the years of a military schedule. Following regulations there was a military chaplain. After all, you never knew, Luce mused.

Most thought that the vast nuclear arsenals of the super powers, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, constituted deterrence, but Luce knew better. It all went back to the Pelopponesian War, Athens versus Sparta. Read Thucydides, he told his students year after year. They had destroyed Ancient Greek civilization because the enemies did not talk and they did not know each other's fear, honor, and interest. Luce had drilled that into the heads of his students, including the President of the United States. And today we're Athens, and they're Sparta, he reminded himself. We don't talk to one another enough, and we're not thinking hard enough about each other's fear, honor, or interest.


The crisis came upon them with an electronic shriek from the monitors. J2, Intel, had intercepted a launch order from Russia for a SCUD missile to target Fort Frances, Minnesota.


Immediately there was another alarm as a launch was detected. Heads snapped to attention in the room. The tension was palpable. The crew had trained for this, but they expected to do their tour without a nuclear strike. They had signed on to safeguard the peace, not to participate in a world-ending event. "Last chance to intercept before impact 17 minutes twenty three seconds," the adjutant announced.

"Countdown by half minutes," Luce ordered. He put his readers on to see the screen better, peering at a detail. "That grammar is bad," he said to his linguist, "and the format of the order is wrong. And why Fort Frances?" The linguist's eyes bored into the text. "Call NORAD, scramble the fighters," he ordered his adjutant. The linguist looked at him nervously.


The Crisis hit the room hard. There was a flurry of orders and communication. The clock seemed to slow. "NORAD confirms order, launch, vector, and time to intercept," the adjutant reported briskly.

"Yes," Luce nodded, "but the format is wrong."

"The president is on the hot line."

"Yes Mr. President, there is a confirmed report of a Russian order and launch to target Fort Frances. Last safe intercept in 17 minutes 15 seconds. Fighters are scrambled. I recommend you give all launch codes and order targets, but wait briefly before ordering the counter-attack because the format of the Russian order is wrong... Yes Sir, understood, we have to protect the Republic at all costs and in all ways." He put the receiver down and addressed the room. "The president has ordered DEFCON 1." Alarms sounded. Tension turned to panic. The chaplain fainted and the medic attended to him.


Years of war games had pre-selected the targets, and these were locked into the Stratcom systems immediately, waiting for the president's final order, and final it would be. J2 shrieked again. Luce and his officers bent over their screens. It was a report from the DEW line. "The DEW line is inoperative," the adjutant said.

"Not everyone has the clearance to know that it's still operational, " Luce answered. "Get that soldier on the phone."


The voice at the other end was perplexed and frightened. "Sir, it's one of ours. It flew over our sensors. It's not from Russia, sir."

"Send me the radar stat," Luce ordered. It arrived immediately. "Extrapolate telemetry, typology," Luce ordered.

The analysts worked fast. "One of our latest," one reported. "Target Minneapolis, we have to launch in 32 seconds to intercept."

"Falkland Islands, HMS Sheffield, plus a decoy," Luce muttered.

"Sir?" the adjutant asked.

"The Sheffield used Exocet missiles," he explained. "The Argentines fired an Exocet missile at it. The Sheffield's defences assumed it was a friendly weapon. The ship sank. We fight the alligator closest to the boat, soldier. That's not strategy, it's tactics. Mr. President," he spoke hurriedly into the phone. "The first bogey appears to be a decoy. There is probably no Russian attack. There is an advanced missile, one of our prototypes, heading for Minneapolis. We need to intercept it right away."

"Who launched it and how do they have our missile, Will?"

"I don't know sir, maybe they retrofitted it."

A mechanical voice intoned loudly, "THIRTY SECONDS!"

"10 seconds, Mr. President."

"You said probably? I don't know, Will--"

"It's on me, Sir," and Luce took four of his gigantic steps to the key stations.

"Commander, you can't--" the lawyer began, interposing himself between the commander and the keys.

The large man brushed him aside, positioned himself midway between the two stations, and himself turned the two keys simultaneously. "LAUNCH," the mechanical voice shouted.

There was a silence in Sarpy County and in the Situation Room of the White House. Luce held his breath. After a brief pause he said "Telemetry? Battle Damage Assessment?"

"Enemy missile destroyed sir, debris landed near Pigeon River, Northern Ontario. Linear regression says the missile came from an Iranian ship."

"Contact NORAD and the Canadians. We need the debris." He turned to the lawyer, "Forgive me for pushing you."

The younger man, admiring, said, "No Colonel, forgive me for questioning your decision. I won't be doing that again, if you'll still have me here."

The president's voice came over the speaker phone, "I won't be doing that again either, Professor Luce."

The medic revived the chaplain. "We're alive!" he exclaimed.

"Orders sir?" the adjutant asked.

"Just a minute," Luce beamed, and took his seat.

Short Story

About the Creator

Paul Merkley

Co-Founder of Seniors Junction, a social enterprise working to prevent seniors isolation. Emeritus professor, U. of Ottawa. Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Founder of Tower of Sound Waves. Author of Fiction.

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Comments (1)

  • Mark Gagnon2 months ago

    This reads like you may have had some experience in that room. Gripping story Paul!

PMWritten by Paul Merkley

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