At a Russian base so deep in Siberia vacation meant Novaya Zemlya, a cosmic ray tripped a buffer on a CMOS chip and, in a few seconds of surging failures and jumping shorts, launched a ballistic missile on a Great Circle journey to the Minuteman silos of middle Montana.
Before the officers on duty realized that, vodka notwithstanding, the chairs really were rattling in the mess bunker, both the US and Russia knew what a colossal cock-up had taken place.
An apologetic president assured the Russian prime minister that they understood the accident, that it was an accident, but that if it were still in the sky in five minutes, they’d make the whole Eastern bloc look like chicken Chernobyl. The minister asked why and heard the shrug.
Everything was automated, the president said, as a fail-safe. If a missile, any missile, were targeted towards American soil, they had to be able to respond, even if the commander-in-chief was into thinking it was an accidental launch.
But it was an accident, the prime minister insisted. This isn’t a first strike, it’s a malfunction, a mistake. Don’t you believe me?
He said, of course I do, my friend. That’s the whole point of the system.
Thirty seconds before the missile gained US airspace, as the fuel hoses fell away from five thousand American ICBMs, a titanium-tungsten rod passed by on its way to Earth, taking with it a double fistful of guidance computer and fuel control and a heaping helping of payload.
And all was peaceful and a light rain fell. After all, the officers didn’t know what was in the missile and the scientists who did, they didn’t know that it had been fired. They were all in shallow graves hacked into the permafrost of an abandoned gulag, but even if they weren’t, they wouldn’t.
Dale Suprun drove a battered pickup along an access road through cornfields stretching to the horizon. He stopped and wandered off to take a piss. Yellow, the blue of the sky, the dark loamy brown of the irrigated earth – his personal red, white and blue.
The silver glint, two rows over, had no place here. He swore – one of the harvesters or sowers could hit it and chip. Dale hiked up his jeans and crouched, reaching to pull the gleam out of the loose soil.
Crimson spurted out of his torn lifeline, blood flowing through his clenched fingers into the thirsting dirt. Razors – goddamn kids – he thought, staggering back to the cab to bandage his hand.
Wiry roots shot deeper into the prairie.
Across the Chukchi Sea, where the last trickles of equatorial air gave way to the relentless katabatic winds, pack ice darkened. Slowly, very slowly – the ice was pure and clean, and there was little raw material in it – carbon dioxide left the atmosphere and thin tendrils of pitch-black melted into the icebergs.
In a year the ice would be gone, a trillion steel mangrove seeds dispersed by the currents flowing south.
The poles blackened, the coastlines choked, and people lost fingers and toes pulling weeds. The grass grew on every continent. The initial air burst had spread the nanoscopic seeds to every square mile on earth.
Some spots just sprouted faster than others.
It had a tensile strength greater than aramid and could cut like monofilament. The roots went down a yard or more, cracking through concrete or ice like loose mulch. It grew in the near-total shadow of triple-canopied jungles.
Farmland vanished as last-ditch attempts were made to clean the earth in the face of starving billions. Huge scoops dredged the earth and filtered it, shaking the grass loose from the dirt.
They missed the seeds.
Skyscrapers crumbled as the fronds sundered concrete pillars, jet black in the bright sunlight.
Floating islands plied the oceans, absorbing solutes from the waters. Thousand-year fallout shelters failed and fell in decades as the rising temperature propelled the grass deeper into the dirt. Black blades of grass whipped in the hurricane winds that enveloped the planet as the atmosphere warmed ten, then twenty degrees.
One hundred years later, the Earth was still. No predators, for they were long extinct, their prey animals cut to pieces or starved on razor-sharp indigestible leaves. Viruses and bacteria lost their hosts, and the few survivors joined lichens and algae in a lingering death as they lost the competition for energy and nutrients.
The weapon had won.
© Don Norum
Mr. Norum’s “Neap Tide” was a story South Million Writers Award Notable Story of 2009, and his “About 77 Degrees, West of Nassau”, received an Honorable Mention in Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 2.