by Allen Stroud
My name is Ravi Chaudhri.
I’m twenty-eight years old and I don’t want to die.
11th of May, 2023. The Pokhran-III nuclear programme signalled the start of renewed tension between India and Pakistan. We resumed underground testing as a response to threats from the new hard line regime across the Kashmiri border, but really, we could have made a different choice.
We should have made a different choice.
My grandfather was eighty-one back then, and was asked to attend the test. He’d been one of the scientists involved in Pokhran-II, a member of the Bhabha Research Centre team. The pre-event reception was a wonderful opportunity for him to meet up with old friends while in the background, a new generation of experts prepared another weapon of mass destruction.
I accompanied him to the event. I was twenty, about to start my engineering degree, and a patriot. I could see the scientific research opportunities behind our government’s interest in nuclear technology and I wanted a part of that.
Back then, I wanted to be like my grandfather.
Fate provides each of us with opportunities and setbacks. This is part of karma. I achieved good grades at the University of Rajasthan, but not good enough to be selected for the successor laboratories that were to take on the work of my grandfather and his peers. Instead, I became computer engineer, responsible for designing and maintaining the control system for our missile deterrent.
My grandfather passed away in 2029. The outcome of my life has meant I am more involved in India’s nuclear programme than he ever was.
Today is the 2nd of January 2032. It will be remembered as being cold and cloudy, here in Pokhran.
At eight in the morning I’m driving down the Jaisalmer-Jodhpur Road to the missile base where I work. I left before seven, my pregnant wife, Saanvi stayed in bed, asleep in our little house in Lathi.
I make this drive four times a week. The soldiers on the gate know my face, but go through the usual procedure of checking my pass and scanning the car number plate. We’re all being recorded on security cameras, so it’s important everyone is seen to do their jobs correctly.
I park the car and walk into the office, swiping my card as I go through the doors. Only Padi is there, staring at his computer monitor. He doesn’t notice me. I can hear tinny Bhangra pop coming from his headphones.
I reach my desk and sit down, flicking the touchscreen with my hand to wake up the computer. The Times of India website appears, just where I’d left it the night before. There’s a selection of articles, mostly about the mist incident and the disruption to maritime communications across the south pacific. We are very lucky it wasn’t closer. The Chinese aircraft carrier, Shangdong and its support fleet have been deployed to the border of the cloud. The Americans aren’t happy with that. They’ve issued a warning to Beijing and promised to defend civilian shipping. The fact that they have an armada the other side of the fog seems to be irrelevant.
There’s a whole set of other worrying articles. Refugees are flooding into West Bengal from Bangladesh, outbreaks of what the international press are calling ‘the Samudr Virus’ after where it’s supposed to have come from. It’s a typical western misappropriation of words, but some of the reports are suggesting there is a link between the epidemic and what started in Canada and Alaska four years ago.
The world is becoming a dangerous place. It’s hard to reconcile what’s happening with what I’m used to. I don’t want my children to grow up in fear.
I love my country. Being Indian is part of who I am. I love cricket, I support the Rajasthan Royals, but the chest thumping pride I share with people watching them or watching our national team is different to what I do here. For me, being a patriot is about working to better the lives of people all around me and protecting our way of life. That means more than a flag or a game. What we do here is dangerous, but we do it to ensure people respect our culture and society. Sometimes these are things you have to do. Not everyone out there is rational or right thinking. People who aren’t respond only to threats and intimidation.
The late A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, scientist and president, understood things best. We are a proud and intelligent people. He stated India’s nuclear deterrent would not be used first, but its existence would prevent anyone attacking us with the same weapons.
I’ve believed in that philosophy all my adult life, but now, with everything that’s going on, I’m not so—
The phone on my desk rings, making me jump. It’s a wired landline, a rarity these days, but the whole facility here is designed with redundancies.
I pick up the receiver. “Hello? This is Doctor Ravi Chaudhri.”
“Doctor, we need your expertise in the control room.”
The words are spoken in English. The voice is a woman’s. I don’t recognise her. These kind of requests aren’t common, but I know what I need to do. Quickly, I get up and empty my pockets onto the desk, leaving behind my wallet, my mobile phone and a collection of till receipts. I’m slipping through the door and Padi hasn’t even noticed. I head back down the stairs and across the concrete yard. There’s a lift at the end. I get in, swipe my card and press the button for the bottom floor.
In the three years I’ve worked on the base I’ve only been to the control room twice. The first time was during my induction and tour of the facility, the second time was to brief an operations team. I’m not sure why I’ve been called down now.
But then military people don’t give you reasons.
The lift opens, I make my way along a concrete corridor, lamps illuminating my way as I disturb them. Another swipe of my card and another door to go through.
My destination is dimly lit. The main screen on the wall to my left is inactive. There’s a row of desks in front of me. A figure is sat at the second computer terminal, a woman. I don’t recognise her.
“I’m Doctor Chaudhri,” I say. “Did somebody called me?”
The woman turns towards me. She’s dark skinned and dressed a black suit. “I need your help, Doctor,” she says. I recognise her voice from the phone call.
“You’re not the assigned duty operator,” I say.
“No, I’m not.” The woman moves away from the console and I see a man slumped in the chair behind her. There’s blood on his forehead.
I take half a step forward, but halt when I see the woman is holding a pistol in her right hand and aiming it at me.
“What have you done?” I demand. “Who sent you?”
“Neither question is helpful to answer,” the woman replies. She speaks English with an accent that I cannot place. Is she African? “I need your assistance in rendering the launch network inoperable.”
“What? Why would I—”
“Doctor Chaudhri, you’re wasting time. If you assist me, you will live, if you do not, you will die.”
“Are you threatening me? Are you going to kill me?”
“I won’t kill you Doctor,” the woman replies. “Your own country will cause your death in just over twenty-four minutes if you don’t help me.”
“Why would my—” I stop talking mid-sentence. Her meaning is clear, it’s the only explanation for her presence here. “The government has ordered a pre-emptive nuclear strike,” I realise out loud.
The woman nods. “Someone in your administration has come to believe you are under attack by your envious neighbours. They have received evidence that there are weaponised bacteria causing an epidemic in your towns and villages. Your intelligence officers have identified a laboratory complex over the border which they believe is being used by your enemies to attack you. They are mistaken. At this moment, your military are completing their plan to launch a missile to destroy that location, killing thousands of innocent civilians. The order will arrive here very soon.”
“How do you know this?” I ask.
The woman sighs. “We are wasting time. I need your expertise. I can disable this facility, but that will not stop the launch, only delay it. We must lock down your systems completely, so that your country cannot make use of these weapons.”
“You want to make us defenceless?”
“Nuclear weapons are not a defence.” The woman taps on the console. “You helped build this as a deterrent. In a few moments, it will no longer be a deterrent, it will be a catalyst.”
I’m breathing hard and sweating. I blink and rub my eyes with my hands. Perhaps this is a dream and everything will disappear? But when I look again nothing has changed. “What do you want me to do?” I mumble.
She raises her left hand. She’s holding out a flash drive to me. “You will log into the system with your maintenance permissions and transfer the contents of this to the root directory of the console. Once that’s done, you will activate the executable file.”
“You’re asking me to commit treason.”
“I’m asking you save lives, Doctor Chaudhri. It is moments like these that define who we are.”
I hesitate. Humanity’s past is littered with examples of patriotic self-sacrifice and moments of self-recrimination. Oppenheimer’s famous quote from the Gita speaks to me – I am become death the destroyer of worlds… In his moment, he opened the way to this power, his research and achievements made it possible for Americans to destroy our world.
What does that make me?
Now, in my moment, my thoughts lingers over matters of pride, survival and destruction. For Oppenheimer there was no possibility of retribution, but for me, I know unleashing such force will bring retaliation.
It is here, in the nadir that I suddenly understand the emptiness and impotence of power.
I cannot be party to the destruction of our world.
I step forward and take the drive from the woman’s hand. I plug it into the machine and log in. After a few moments, the program is running. I recognise what’s being done. The software is designed to encrypt our machines and all the systems connected to them. By the time it is finished, every device on the network will be talking in a different language to every other device. It will take six months or more to dismantle everything and rebuild all of it from first principles.
I think about my grandfather. What would he think of me? What would he think of this choice? Our family’s reputation was built on his work. I have betrayed him and betrayed my own work. I think about Saanvi and our plans for a family. She will understand, but will anyone else? I cannot burden her with this.
“My life here is over,” I say. “What should I do? Where can I go?”
The woman shrugs. “Anywhere you want. The room’s security cameras have been disabled. No-one in authority here will learn of your part in this, unless you tell them, but the project will know and the project will be grateful.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t talk about that.”
I sigh and run a hand through my hair, trying to think. “I can’t stay in India. I won’t be able to live with myself.”
“You shouldn’t be ashamed,” the woman says. “You’ve just saved millions of lives.”
“The world is falling apart,” I say. “There are so many nuclear weapons. You cannot stop them all.”
“Not alone, no,” The woman concedes. “But you’re forgetting something.”
“Human nature.” The woman smiles. It’s an honest expression without humour, but with conviction. “Do you think you’re the only person who’s had to make this kind of choice in a moment like this?”
“You mean other countries have been—”
“Some have. Others were forced to disarm by their people. We’re standing on a precipice of self-destruction. The sooner we can take our collective fingers off the red button, the sooner the real work can begin.”
As she speaks, the program finishes. I notice a set of new files have appeared in the drive’s root folder. The woman reaches for her device, but I get there first and close my hand over it. “Why should let you take this?” I ask. “There’s a set of encrypted files on here. That means whoever have this drive will be able to reverse the process and reactivate these weapons.”
The woman frowns. She steps forward, pressing the barrel of her pistol against my chest. “Circumstances may change,” she says. “One day we may need them.”
I shake my head. “No. The world will never need nuclear missiles. I know that now. You can kill me if you want to.”
We stare at one another. Time is pressing on us both. I sense her conflict, a struggle between orders and conscience. “What’s your name?” I ask.
She hesitates. “Abayomi,” she replies.
“There should have been six people in this control room,” I say. “You didn’t kill any of them, did you?”
Slowly, I pull the flash drive out of the machine. “Abayomi, you’ve asked me to make a hard choice. Now I ask you to do the same. Kill me and take what you came for or trust me and leave, knowing you’ve prevented a nuclear war.”
Abayomi holds up her left hand, palm outwards and steps back. “Very well, Doctor Chaudhri, as I said, no-one will learn of your involvement from me.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“It is I who should thank you, Doctor.” Abayomi is retreating, moving back into the shadows at the other side of the control room. “It was good to meet you. I wish it had been under different circumstances.”
“As I do,” I reply.
My words remain in the air unanswered. I am alone.
I stare at the unconscious man slumped over the console. I want to help him, but if I do, my presence here will be confirmed. I don’t know how Abayomi got in or how she will get out. I can only hope she wasn’t lying to me about the security cameras and being seen.
I make my way quickly back to the lift and select the top floor. The use of my swipe card will have been registered. As soon as the authorities discover something is wrong, they’ll look into the records, see I was here and start asking questions. I’ve two choices, either I claim it was stolen or I disappear.
I’m walking back across the yard to the office. I’m through the door. Padi is still staring at his screen. I glance at the clock on the wall. Its thirteen minutes past eight. So little time has passed, so much has changed.
I pick up my wallet, keys and phone. My hands are shaking and I nearly drop them before putting them back in the pockets of my trousers. Everything is quiet and calm. I keep expecting an alarm to go off, or someone to walk in and grab me.
A minute later and I’m outside, getting into my car. I drive to the gate and smile at the men who let me through only minutes ago. “Forgot my wallet,” I tell them. “Need to go home and pick it up.”
The soldier nods. “Okay Doctor Chaudhri,” he says and the barrier opens.
The drive takes an hour. One hour of isolation from the consequences of my actions. My mind races through a whole series of plans. I need to get out of the country as quickly as possible. We live eight hours drive from the nearest airport in Jaipur. There are others that are closer, over the border in Pakistan, but there are no roads and I cannot take Saanvi through such unforgiving country.
We will have to go by car, trusting that we can remain out of sight. If we get to Munabao, we may be able to cross the border and get a flight out of Pakistan.
I’ve no idea how to do any of this.
I get off the main road and make the final turns to our house. As I leave the car, my phone starts to buzz in my pocket. I ignore it and run up the stairs and into the house.
“Saanvi? Saanvi, where are you?”
I burst into the dining room, a confession on my lips. Saanvi is sat at the table. Across from her is an Asian man in a dark suit. He stands up and turns towards me as I enter, holding out his hand.
“Doctor Chaudhri? My name is Akemi. I believe you met my associate?”
I stare at the hand and then at its owner. “What more do you people want from me?” I ask, coldly.
Akemi withdraws his hand and glances at Saanvi. “My apologies if I’ve caused offence. I’ve explained what’s going on to your wife. I’m from the Phoenix Project. I’m here to get you out.”