Like the slow, steady pealing of a church bell announcing the death of a parishioner, the massive steel blast doors reverberated with each new explosion. Some of the more nervous officers and soldiers still at their stations jumped each time a new eruption shook the doors that separated them from the vicious combat on the other side. When the sound of one particularly violent detonation rippled through the launch-control center, even the steadiest of them dropped all pretenses of the calm demeanor that was a hallmark of the elite Russian Strategic Rocket Force. Comrades who had shared and endured so many hardships on the fringes of Siberia exchanged nervous glances. Now, with the rattle of small-arms fire growing closer and the acrid smell of cordite seeping into the room that controlled the ICBM fields of their regiment, one by one the mutinous soldiers turned to stare at the console where their commander should have been.
Unlike them, he was not at his assigned place of duty. His seat was vacant, as it had been since the first report that commandos, loyal to the government in Moscow, had managed to break into the subterranean complex where the control center was located. Nor was the deputy commander present. Knowing that he would never be able to idly stand by in the stilling confines of the control center and passively wait for the end. the deputy had abandoned his post to personally direct the defense of the complex. Nothing had been heard of him after the large blast door had been shut behind him. Only the growing sounds of fighting suggested that those mutineers tasked to defend the control center were losing ground.
It wasn't until the roar of battle was replaced by the sound of hushed voices just outside the blast door that the next-senior officer, a major, rose from his seat. Slowly, almost haltingly, the major made his way to the rear of the room, where the commander of the regiment sat alone in his office. Following protocol, the major knocked on the door before pushing it open and slipping into the darkened room. His colonel, who had led them into open revolt to protest the abysmal living conditions his men were forced to live under, was bent over his desk, holding his head in his hands. "Sir," the major announced, "it is time. I need the codes in order to—"
"To do what?" the colonel bellowed as his hands fell away and he glared up at the major. "Murder our fellow countrymen?"
Undaunted by this rebuke and spurred on by the ominous activities just outside the blast door, where he suspected the commandos were laying charges to blow it open, the major did not back down. Instead, he cleared his throat as he prepared to press for the codes the men waiting in the control room would need to launch their missiles.
The colonel, however, did not give him a chance. His blurry eyes, framed by a puffy, white unshaven face, was contorted by anger. "Or perhaps," the colonel sneered, "we should launch our missiles at the Americans and let them rain death and destruction down on our people for us."
"But our threats? Our plans?" the major stammered. "I fear the commandos are preparing to blast their way into here. If we don't act now—"
"Go away," the colonel moaned as he let his head drop back into the open, waiting hands as if his neck could no longer support it. "Close the door and let me be."
Determined not to leave until he had both the keys and the codes necessary to launch their missiles, the major snapped to attention and drew his pistol. "Colonel," he barked with as much conviction as his parched throat allowed, "we believed in you when you stated that you would force Moscow to honor its obligations to us and our families. We have endured three days and nights without sleep as we stood by and watched those bastards throw everything they had against us. Like myself, the others are prepared to carry out the just and righteous retribution that you yourself promised to deliver if our demands were not met. It is time to do so. I insist that you hand over the codes."
This time, when the drunken colonel lifted his head and looked into the eyes of the defiant major, he laughed. "Ha! The joke is on you, Major. I have no codes." As he leaned back in his seat, his right hand reached out and grabbed the bottle of vodka sitting on the desk before him. "Never had the bloody things. The deputy knew that. Why do you think he left to die out there?"
Stunned by this unexpected revelation, the major's jaw dropped open. Slowly, he lowered his pistol and looked around the room as if trying to collect his thoughts. When he finally turned back to face his commander, the colonel was taking a long, hard pull on the bottle. "This," the shaken major asked incredulously, "has all been a bluff?"
Finishing before he bothered to answer, the colonel pitched the bottle across the room, where it shattered against a world map that covered most of one wall. "That," he yelled, "is all we're able to hurl at those bastards in Moscow who have starved our families and left us here to rot. That's all we ever had. You should have known that! We have no launch codes here! You're a fucking major, for God's sake! How could you have been so damned stupid? You know how the system works." Leaning forward, the colonel's expression became a scowl. "Now go away, you fool, and join the other fools who were gullible enough to stay with the colors while the crooks in Moscow broke promise after promise to us, while building dachas for themselves and sending the money that belonged to us to Swiss bank accounts. Go, and leave me alone. Perhaps," the colonel added, "if you're lucky, the commandos will kill you rather than take you prisoner."
Still stunned by the fact that he had gone into open rebellion against his own country, following the leadership of a man who had never intended to back his threats with action, the major turned and walked out of the office, pistol in hand.
Alone again, the colonel opened a lower desk drawer that contained two unopened bottles of vodka, a pistol, a hand grenade, and some ledgers. Reaching into the drawer, he pulled out one of the two bottles. As he twisted off the cap, he looked into the drawer at the pistol and the grenade. A smile crept across his face and he put the newly opened bottle down and bent over. Taking the grenade, the colonel firmly grasped it so that the spoon could not fly off when he pulled the pin. When he was ready, he gave the pin a firm yank with his free hand. Tossing the pin over his shoulder, he leaned over again. Carefully he nestled the pinless grenade between the ledgers in the drawer with the last bottle of vodka. Keeping the spoon down, he slowly pushed the drawer in until he was sure he could release the grenade and the spoon would be held in place by the bottom of the drawer above. Then he slowly withdrew his hand.
Satisfied that all was set, the colonel eased the drawer in a bit farther until just the bottle of vodka, lying on its side, was visible. "There," he murmured with glee. "A gift for the victors."
With nothing more to do but wait, the colonel leaned back in his seat, retrieved the freshly opened bottle of vodka on his desk, and settled in to enjoy his last moment on earth. He had no desire to pray. His wife was the one infected by the wave of religious fanaticism that was currently gripping their staggering country. Nor did he intend to pen an excuse or an explanation of his actions for his former masters. They knew why he had done as he had. That was why they kept well-fed and well-paid men, like those preparing to force their way into the control room with orders to kill everyone in there, close at hand. Every commander in the Strategic Rocket Force knew that. Like his fellow regimental commanders, his only duty over the past few years had been to keep his people mollified as best as he could, no matter what happened, or suffer the consequences. There would be no compromise, no negotiations. He even suspected that the major who had been in his office had known what was coming. The only problem with the major was that he was still a bit too young. The system, or what passed as one nowadays in Russia, simply had not had enough time to squeeze the last vestige of hope from him.
While he waited, the colonel continued to do his best to drink himself senseless. He was well into his new bottle of vodka when a blast, just outside his door in the main room, announced that the commandos had penetrated the last barrier. As the sound of gunshots, exploding grenades, shrieked orders, and screams of pain filled the colonel's dark office, he suddenly had a funny thought. Looking down at the booby-trapped desk drawer, he smiled. "Well," he said, ignoring the sound of boots pounding their way up the concrete stairs that led to his office, "it seems I have created my own Dead Hand." Then, looking up at the partially opened door, he lifted his bottle in a mock toast. "I only wish those shits in Moscow could have been here to enjoy my last little joke."
Seconds later, it was all over — but for one last vengeful swipe by the dead.
Unable to ignore the leg cramps that were reducing his pace to a painful limp, the solitary Welsh guardsman came to a complete stop. Like a hunted animal in distress, his eyes fra ...