Shelter in Place

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18 April AM10:00

       Let me tell you, this shit terrifies me man. But even then, my dumb burning curiosity wouldn't let me turn this chance down, and neither would they. See, two of my good friends had invited me on a then-upcoming tour of a military base; not one of those huge city-sized ones, but one of the much smaller, lesser-known ones. I think this one was called 'McNamara', or something. I was this close to declining, but...you know.

       We had to show up at a specific time, at an inner-city government office. It definitely wasn't a comfortable experience, because could feel all of the armed Riot Control dudes glaring at me from behind their solid metal visors. Really we just needed to get to the Identification Bureau guys for background checks and to have visitor ID cards made for the event. The others weren't too keen on it, but I myself didn't really mind having my history from birth to present day sifted through, if it meant proving to these jarheads the fact that I'm harmless.

       A week later and like before sunrise, it was time for a road trip to McNamara, except, we weren't the ones driving the whole way. My friends and I got so far as arriving at Castle Lemarchand's visitor center, before we were met with a team of military police in their bare blue battle dresses. We were escorted by them onto a long bus, and thank the stars it was already running and heated up, cuz damn was it cold there, colder than other parts of the city.

       Our driver was military as well, and he looked pretty pissy, like he was woken up way early just to transport a bunch of tourists. The tour guide though, he was more amicable and dressed well, but wasn't exactly energetic either. The tour guy sat at in the frontmost seat, on the other side from the driver.

       They hauled us off on the southwest main road, where it didn't take very long for us to leave the city in our dust. I always liked how the outskirts looked; so flat, empty, icy, and mostly untouched. The tour guide guy stood up in front, and went on and on about the history of the base we left, then the history of the base we were driving to. But I wasn't really listening; I was dreading it, and kept staring out the window to occupy myself the whole way. About half an hour later, the tour guy mentioned we were coming up to McNamara base, and I could see everyone peek out the windows and windshield at the small-ish complex in the dead of nowhere, one fenced-in by chain links and barbed wire.

       The driver had to stop briefly in front of the place to identify himself in front of fully geared up soldiers, but soon enough the tall gate was moved aside and we were allowed in. The place was creepily lifeless; there was barely anybody outside except for the guys at the entrance. I could have sworn I saw at least one officer in their fancy flowing overcoat staring at us in the distance.

       The first and only place we stopped at was a long walk away from what looked like a huge drain plug in the ground, easily my height and then some in diameter. The tour guide - I think his name was Remus, actually - had probably been explaining to us what was under it the whole way here. But I already knew what it was.

       Only the most destructive weapon civilization has ever created; with the help of other nations, even world ending. The capability to effortlessly vaporize entire cities and the people minding their own business in them; the potential to turn the clock back to the stoneage but with much worse odds of survival; all attached to the means to deliver it to any doorstep in world in less than half an hour. It's been hundreds of years since they invented this thing and...they still feel the need to wave it around like some kind of threatening failsafe.

       I hate to think about it. Really I do. But they kept pulling me deeper. We were guided down into a heavily fortified stairwell that led underground quite a ways. We stepped through some blast doors easily two feet thick if not wider, and had an abundance of chances to take a look at that perfected monstrosity of engineering. My stomach started rolling when I looked down to the absolute ground level, where the foot of the weapon was planted. Remus made it as clear as bulletproof glass that the thing was always ready to fire at a moment's notice; 24/7. It's better in the ground than in the air, in my opinion.

       Next stop for the tour was the launch control room. At this point I couldn't help but listen to the tour guy, especially since it was basically an airtight bunker box that we were being herded into. He went on about how all the technology in this room worked, and how the nine men at the very top of the government are to vote on whether or not to launch their arsenal, including this very complex. But, he also made a joke about how the President of Defense technically has sole authority to fire or not fire the weapons. As soon as I heard that, I felt like I walked face-first into a cloud of anxiety.

       It dawned on me; this is where they do it. This is where they ask innocent people like me to put an end to all the world's progress; to kill it with ionizing fire. I kind of started spacing out again and getting lost in the hellish thoughts, until someone grabbed my shoulders and verbally nudged me. It was my friend, who I completely forgot I came here with, since I was so detached the whole trip.

       They whispered in my ear, "Come on, you should volunteer..! It's only a game..!" All the while I snapped back to reality and noticed that Remus the tour guide was asking for assistants to help him explain how the control panels work. I was surprised to see that nobody really wanted to sit in the hot seats.

       "We'll go!!" My friend said. They inserted themselves along with me into the equation, despite me being silent the whole time. Remus was weirdly pleased to see a couple girls step up. He passively mentioned, "This job is usually staffed by women cuz they're less likely to launch." to the others behind us. I didn't really believe him but then again, I'm not in the military so what do I know I guess?

       Anyways, they sat me down in front of the bigger one of the two control panels. Remus designated me the 'Commander', and made my friend the 'Deputy'. Our other friend stood back and started recording on their phone. Remus went on explaining how the mechanical computer systems worked all throughout the room, and when he got to the launch procedure, started using us as examples of what the real crew is expected to do.

       First thing he did is give the two of us an old grease pencil each and one binder each, which were both labeled 'Emergency Action Message Book' in big bold letters. Then he warned us that we were going to get a loud warning noise followed by a coded message thirty-five letters letters and numbers long. I opened my binder while he was talking and saw it had a bunch of pre-existing lines for characters, like if you were playing hangman.

       When he said loud noise he definitely meant it, because it made me visibly jump when it eventually triggered, and everybody went silent. Remus got excited and said, "oh, Write that down!" Soon as that annoying telephone-sounding alarm went away, a man on the panel radio started giving out phonetic letters along with some numbers. I don't remember exactly what it was, because it just looked like a random keysmash to me by the time we were done.

       The radio guy made it a point that the message would repeat, and at the same time Remmy told us to switch binders and check each other's work while the message repeated. It was easy enough so far, which honestly made me feel a little better about being stuck here. "If they match, you know this ain't a fake." Tour guy said. We had to play another matching game again with some envelopes and red cards, supposedly to be extra sure it was real, and then wrote a time down on the clock which was about three minutes ahead from that point.

       Remmy used a little more than two of those minutes to drone on about what lights light up and what sounds make noise when the final choice is made. Then he gave us two little keys, one for me and one for my deputy. We slotted our keys into our respective control panels, several feet apart from each other, and suddenly my heart started thumping again. "Pay attention to the clock." He said, 'cause he expected me to give the command exactly on the time that I wrote.

       I could feel my hand start getting sweaty, so I held on tight. I kept my eyes on the second hand, and when it got close, I counted down "Three...two...one...go..." She turned it; I hesitated... I managed to suddenly turn the key at the last moment though. People were probably looking at me funny. We held it for five seconds, til my panel lit up a label that said 'Launch Enable', then let go. It was so oddly calm.

       Remus gave me this creepy smirk, as if he liked what I did. He said to the other tourists, "Up topside, that great big silo door is lifting out of the way." And like it was on cue, we heard a loud buzzer that made me freeze up. He shut the buzzer off, then said that's how you know it's opened all the way. I was getting more and more on edge still, like I had done something wrong.

       Then it happened...

       The ground started to shake, but, it was shaking way too fast to be an earthquake,you know? Then that freaking buzzer sounded off again, and the control panel started flashing red 'silo fire' warnings at me. It was so much to take in all at once; too much. Then I finally realized...I just launched a God-damned nuclear missile. And that, broke me into tears.

       I just started bawling my eyes out in front of everybody, embarrassing myself, and not knowing it. I was this close to howling out, 'Why did you make me do that?!' but I didn't get the chance to, because Remus gave me this half-fake "Awww" and put a hand on my back. "It's just a test! There's no warhead on the thing." He tried to calm me down.

       Things were just awkward as hell at this point, and for the rest of the tour too. I really just wanted to be driven home after the launch, but since we came in on a bus, no chance. I still don't know if I even believe what he said, to be honest. I hope they at least understand where I'm coming from; I really thought I just sent a nuclear warhead out to blow up some foreign city full of innocent people. But now it's obvious that the game was rigged from the start, and they were just waiting for somebody to waltz in and pull the trigger. It really makes you wonder, what else are they up to huh?