Messages and Messengers
by Michael Haynes
I met the old man a week after his 100th birthday. His nurse let me into his apartment and left without speaking.
“You’re late,” were his first words to me.
“I’m sorry, sir. The checkpoints–“
“Of course the checkpoints.” His country had dismantled little of the security infrastructure put in place after the arrival last year of the aliens from Gliese 667 C, even once it was clear they came in peace. “And it’s not ‘sir,’ it’s Pyotr.”
“Thank you,” I replied, cutting myself off just before another “sir” came out of my mouth. I was compiling an oral history of the final decade of the Cold War for my doctoral dissertation. Getting an interview with Lieutenant Colonel Stasov had been on my list since the project’s beginnings. Even with his acquiescence, it felt strange to speak familiarly with a man who very well may have kept the world from falling into total nuclear war decades before I was born.
I sat in the old armchair which was the room’s only furnishing besides Stasov’s own chair and a small stand beside his chair.
I started my tablet’s recorder and gestured toward it. “I’ll be recording our conversation, with your permission?”
We spoke at length about that night when, as duty officer at a missile defense early warning facility, he’d chosen to interpret computer reports of an American first strike as a false alarm.
“You’ve said you were unsure at the time as to whether your decision was correct or not, that you were only certain when some time had passed and no actual strikes had occurred.”
Stasov nodded and reached for his pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He took his time lighting a cigarette and taking a drag from it.
“Yes,” he said, “I’ve said that.”
“Were you imagining the consequences of being incorrect, during that time?”
He smiled a bit. “Truthfully, if I had been incorrect, I doubt I would have had much opportunity to regret the error. One way or another.”
We continued on in this manner and discussed other events of those years, both geopolitical and his personal experiences.
“There was another famous incident, a decade or so later,” I said at one point.
“The Norwegian rocket launch.”
“Yes. Some reports say that Yeltsin had the Cheget”–the Soviet nuclear “football”–“activated then.”
Stasov shook his head. “No, I doubt it.”
I paused, not having expected this answer. “Do you have reason to know that those reports are incorrect?”
He pulled on his cigarette, the fourth he had smoked during our conversation. “Of course not. I was no longer in the military at that time.”
“But you said–“
He waved a hand, sending a small ember from his cigarette toward the floor. My eyes were on it, watching for signs of fire, as he continued. “I just said what my own personal suspicion is. I could easily be mistaken.”
Satisfied the apartment wasn’t about to burst into flames, I turned back to Stasov. “Can you imagine if the Gliessians had appeared in our skies in those days?” I asked. “We would have tried to blow them away–if we weren’t trying to blow each other up first. Sometimes I think it’s a miracle our species survived that era.”
He smiled tightly. “History is a strange thing.”
We spoke a bit more as the light coming through his western window began to dim.
Stasov’s nurse checked on him and said supper would be ready soon. She gave me a meaningful look as she said this.
He was silent for a long moment after she left.
“There’s something about that night I’ve never spoken about,” he said, just as I was about to stand. “You can’t write about it. You’ll have to turn your recorder off, but I’ll tell you, if you’d like.”
I turned my tablet off, tucked it away in its case.
He lit a new cigarette and looked away, off toward his window. “There was a moment when I was… Was on the brink of following my orders, passing the report up, hoping it was wrong and that someone else would be the one to make that call.”
This, in and of itself, wasn’t new information. I waited.
“I felt… Almost paralyzed, then. And I had, well, a vision is what I thought of it as at the time. A being, bathed in white light, telling me to trust my instincts, my judgment.” He shook his head. “It was only for a few moments and in that time it was as if everything else had just stopped. And even then… Even then! I still was unsure, thinking, have I seen an angel? A demon? But it stayed my hand. And when everything was over, I certainly was not able to give that explanation to my superiors. My own doubts had to suffice.”
“That’s quite amazing–“
He held up a hand, silencing me, then beckoned me to his side.
“I was reprimanded for not documenting the incident properly in my war diary. My personal diary, though… I wrote about it there. And more.”
Stasov reached for an old book on his stand. He flipped through its yellowed pages.
The date of his famous decision was written at the top of one page. A tight Cyrillic script filled most of the rest of the page. But it was the other thing I saw there which took my breath away.
“Believe me or not, but I drew that just hours after the incident.”
His gnarled finger pointed to a drawing of a creature with six limbs, standing upright. Stasov was not the most skilled artist, but there was no mistaking the drawing. However impossible it was for it to be in his decades-old journal, it clearly was the form of one of our new alien friends, the Gliessians.