With permission from codic, upon whose work this is based.
The United Kingdom operates a ‘dead hand’ nuclear policy. It will never fire its nuclear weapons in cold blood. Instead, through the system of ‘letters of last resort’ it maintains the capability to retaliate in the event that it is completely obliterated by an enemy nation.
It is eleven at night and it has been a long day at work. There have been a lot of these recently and I have been in a seemingly perpetual bad mood. We are understaffed. The budget has been pulled from the project I have devoted months to. For the third day in a row I had skipped lunch and tonight dinner had been a stale packet of crisps I found in my desk drawer at 8pm after the Unified Contact Centre decided to fall over. I have been fighting to restore it, arguing with US-based engineers who do not really understand the set-up of our brokerage and keep questioning our long-standing but non-standard practices. Eventually, at long last, I give up and head for home.
The United Kingdom has four Vanguard Class submarines, each carrying a payload of Trident nuclear missiles. At any one time one of the four submarines is on active service. Its mission is simple, to patrol the world and evade detection.
On my way home, I glance at my mobile. Quarter past eleven. Eight missed calls, four voicemails and three texts. Christ, what a day. Who has been trying to call me? I decide it can wait until later. It is almost half past eleven when I walk up the driveway. I unlock the door, pick up the post and quickly shuffle through it before the automatic porch light switches off. Nothing interesting; I discard it until later. The lights are off in the house.
Periodically, the active submarine performs a set of checks in order to determine that all is well. It is not known what these checks are, but it is commonly believed that one is to discover whether BBC Radio 4 is still broadcasting.
I wander through the house to the kitchen, illuminated only by the orange light filtering through the window from the street outside, as I imagine a warship looks on emergency power. The darkness is cloying but stubbornly I refuse to turn on the lights, somehow fearing what I will see. Jane must be asleep, I think. Something is still not right though. Everything feels unusually quiet, I cannot quite place what is missing, but I begin to suspect the house to be empty. As I approach the bedroom door I realise what the strange sucking silence is. The clock radio, without which Jane cannot sleep, is silent. Twenty to midnight.
In the event that no United Kingdom activity is detected for a significant period of time, the Captain of the submarine follows a strict protocol. Secreted in his vessel is a safe to which only he holds a key. He is to retrieve it and unlock it. Inside is one of four identical hand written letters.
I push open the bedroom door and with my eyes adjusted to the dark, I can plainly see the bed is made and un-slept in. I feel a cold sensation in the pit of my stomach. My heart starts to race and sweat beads on my forehead. I reach into my pocket and pull out my phone. Still ignoring the text messages, hoping against hope that they are not the messages I dread, I hit speed dial 1. The connecting phone rings twice and abruptly goes to voicemail. “Hello, this is Jane, leave a message.” Eighteen minutes to midnight. I switch on the lights. On the bedside table is a piece of note paper. Folded. My name scrawled on it.
The letter contains the Prime Minister’s last orders to the submarine’s Captain. These are to be carried out only in the event that Britain has been completely destroyed in a nuclear attack. It is penned on the day of his or her appointment and if, as it is ever hoped, it is never opened, it is destroyed unread at the end of their premiership.
Suddenly I feel exhausted. I fall, rather than sit, on the bed. My hands shake, but I pick up the note and unfold it. A beep from my watch sounds. Quarter to midnight. I hold the letter close to my eyes. In Jane’s clear handwriting, handwriting I used to tease her about, with its round, childlike letters and looped dots, it reads as grimly as any missive from a dead Prime Minister.
No procedure can be foolproof, but in addition to the checks that can be carried out, it is generally assumed that a nuclear war will not come as a complete surprise. Relationships between the international powers would have had to have undergone a period of deterioration that should be apparent to those with their finger on the button. When the Captain opens the letter, he can reasonably assume that he will never see his family or anyone he loves again.
Andrew, I hoped I would never write this letter. Until recently, I never thought I would. But, you know as well as I do, that things have not been great between us for some time now. I can’t do it any more. I know your job is stressful, but you never talk to me about it. You never call if you are working late, or even answer your phone when I call. I feel we don’t even talk any more. Tonight, of all nights, I thought you would be home with me.
Tonight? I pull my phone out and stare at it. Thirteen minutes to midnight, June 10, 2012. Jane’s Birthday. Her 30th. I feel my stomach clench. I feel sick.
The letters are commonly supposed to present one of four options. The first, is to do nothing. Deterrence has failed and to launch the missiles would almost certainly be a war crime, a crime against humanity, causing the needless deaths of millions. The Captain is ordered to find safe harbour and for he and his crew to live the rest of their lives as best they can.
I feel tears beginning to well up. Angrily I cuff at them and keep reading.
Please do not try to contact me again. I don’t think I could take speaking to you. I am very angry right now, but not just with you. I should not have let this go on so long. I know this will be very hard for you, but I am sure you will understand in time.
I realise I have read the last sentence three times but have not understood it. I look away. The silent clock radio shows it is ten minutes to midnight. I stare at it as the numbers tick over to 23:51 then force my eyes back to the letter.
The second option is to place the submarine and its crew under the command of a friendly power. Generally this is expected to be the Australian or Canadian Navies, or possibly one of the other Commonwealth powers. Alternatively, the Captain may be ordered to seek orders from an existing nuclear commander such as the President of the United States or French Republic. Assuming they are not the belligerents.
I need to move on with my life, and you do as well. I need someone who will always be there for me, who I can rely on. You used to be like that, and I think you can be again, but it won’t be with me. I know you are still the wonderful, kind, caring and generous man I fell in love with and whoever else you find, she is a very lucky woman.
I close my eyes in despair. I cannot picture myself with someone else. It is impossible. When I think about my life, my future, it was always with Jane. We were supposed to marry, have kids, grow old. I always knew it was going to be her. Even before we met. I do not open my eyes for a long time.
The third option is for the Captain to make a retaliatory strike against the power suspected, or – it is hoped – known to have attacked the United Kingdom. The attack may be an all-out response designed to do maximum damage, or a tit-for-tat response. This is likely to depend on the information available to the Captain at the time, but it could also be specified by the Prime Minister.
It is midnight and I cannot bear to read any more. A snarl forms in my throat as I throw the letter down to the bed and try not to scream. I pound my fists into the pillows of the freshly made bed. Not even Jane’s scent remains. Half-blinded by tears I stumble across the room and hammer a fist against the wardrobe, her wardrobe, almost knocking it over. Of course, the wardrobe is empty. I throw a kick at its base, putting the toe of my shoe through the cheap IKEA chipboard. I collapse to the floor. Crying now, clutching at the duvet, pulling it down the from the bed to settle on me like the fallout of a nuclear winter.
The fourth option is for the Captain to use his own initiative. The Prime Minister may feel that they cannot take such a weighty decision and live with the consequences and so leave it up to the survivors to do what they feel is right. They may simply wish the submarine captain good luck in a world that has changed forever.
Time passes and I lie on the floor. Red hot fire seems to pour from the skies into my lungs, now hoarse from sobbing. My skin is burning hot, my face drenched with sweat and tears. Eventually, I curl into a ball and, even as I wonder if I will ever sleep again, angry dreams start to form as I feel the collapse of my world around me. When I wake, sunlight is pouring through the window, the clock shows seventeen minutes past nine. I ache all over and my throat is dry. Still, I stand and pick up the letter. My eyes are blurred by sleep but soon my vision clears and I can read its closing lines:
Please try not to be angry, and remember the good times we had. What you do now is up to you. – Jane x
I stare at the devastation. I pick up my mobile phone and dial speed dial 2. Chris, my best friend answers, and in hushed, sad tones, we discuss how we will rebuild the world.