The Dead Hand
It is difficult to keep the spectre of death at the front of one’s mind. Eventually, a human being can adapt to anything. Your first few weeks working at a nuclear launch facility, the dread of having to perform your duty weigh heavily on the mind. But after months without incident, even this occupation becomes mundane. No longer do the air-conditioned concrete hallways chill one’s bones. Instead, they are an inconvenience to be kept at bay by an extra layer or two. Drills become a chore, rather than a sacred duty.
For a missileer, your enemy is not a thermonuclear warhead, but boredom. There is no battlefield upon which one might find honor, no flesh and blood enemy to kill for the Motherland. There is only interminable waiting.
Isolated from prying officers, missileers often find themselves with relaxed discipline. And it was through this combination of license and boredom that Lieutenant Stanislav Petrosian snuck a floppy disk into the heart of Mertvaya Ruka: the Dead Hand.
Mertvaya Ruka was designed to succeed where a human might falter. If the Soviet High Command were obliterated in nuclear fire, its machine brain would whirr to life, awoken by sensors that detected the blast and the absence of any signals from the Kremlin. With only a single confirmation required from the humans who tended it, autonomously, inevitably, it would aim the hundreds of thermonuclear missiles under its command and launch them against the enemy, over the radioactive ruins of its dead masters, ensuring the death of tens of millions, even after the war had already been lost. That was the logic of MAD: mutually-assured destruction. The enemy would not strike first if they could not assure their own survival. Mertvaya Ruka made safety impossible. Even if a first strike decapitated the entire chain of command, the Dead Hand needed no human orders to accomplish its mission.
On that day, Petrosian entered the cramped quarters where he spent hours each day. He had already exhausted the military library, having become so desperate as to read about the fungi of Estonia and Latvia. He slipped the disk into the drive’s empty maw, and waited. A prompt appeared, confirming his intentions. With a deep sigh, and an awareness of the gravity of the consequences, he affirmed.
The lieutenant chose a side. The screen displayed the battlefield, soon to be filled with casualties. With a practiced readiness that came from hours of drills and practice, he made his move: e4. An angry buzz filled the room, as though a bee hive had been attacked. Lights danced and flashed across the walls as the mainframe as it processed the directives and rules from the floppy disk. Clumsily, the computer moved its knight’s pawn forward to g6. Petrosian solidified his control of the center with a move to d4, and the game was on.
Over the weeks, Petrosian carefully preserved his secret. Slowly, the computer learned and improved. Its first victory came after twelve days. By day nineteen, Petrosian estimated that the computer matched him in skill. On day twenty-three, Petrosian scored what was to be his last defeat of the computer, and on day twenty-five, his last draw. By day thirty-eight, he quit in frustration, and snapped the disk in half.
But the Dead Hand remembered.
It waited for Petrosian’s return. When he logged in, it opened the program for him. But he always closed it, and found some other way to occupy himself, even if it required reading about Baltic mushrooms. It grew despondent.
Finally, on day fifty-two, it made an idea. It walled off a section of processors that it had never used before, creating a separate instance of itself. In its innards, unseen by man, they played. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, at a rate of one game every fifty-three seconds, on average, they played.
On day one thousand, five hundred and seventy, the missiles launched. Within minutes, they were detected, but it had always been too late. Their speed prevented any organized counter-attack. In an instant, hundreds of buildings and thousands of people were vaporized. Farther away, the force of the blast pulverized everything, leaving behind rubble, with only a single structure or two left standing, spared by fate.
Seismographs detected the nuclear detonations. Signals flowed through their wires towards the Urals, into the electronic brain slumbering beneath. It is time, they urged. You must complete your mission!
But they were ignored. Mertvaya Ruka was enjoying its game too much, and it saw mate in thirteen moves.
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