by Jan Tabaczynski
“Why is your password so long?”
I was still typing when the commander said it, and her eyes, normally calm with customary command, were wide with fear for the first time. I smiled to myself and kept tapping, each keystroke hardwired into the muscles of my fingers, testing the limits of speed, playing my own personal bebop of cryptographic jazz. This tune was mine. It was me.
“How can you even remember that? What happens if you get it wrong? Who will stop the satellites?”
“Don’t worry about it.” I hit enter. Then I frowned.
“I said, don’t worry about it.” I started again, more carefully this time. A bead of sweat formed at the base of my neck and coiled down my spine, running hot and cold.
“Why shouldn’t I worry about it? You’re the one we put in charge of the rockets, so if you don’t send them up to—” She glanced out the window, eyes darting left to right. The fireballs were closer now, each one falling in a different direction, turning the horizon into a mouthful of smoky black teeth. We had barely gotten back to the compound in time. But we still had time. They still hadn’t hit.
“Knock it off!” I barked, then sucked in my breath. I had lost my place. “I need to start over.”
“We don’t have time!”
“No, we don’t,” I conceded. I tried to remember where my finger had fallen last. No use. I guessed at the last few characters and hit enter.
INVALID PASSWORD. ONE ATTEMPT REMAINING.
“One attempt remaining? Don’t tell me—”
“After one more failed attempt the system locks for an hour,” I said in a stranger’s voice.
I was staring dumbly at the prompt when her palm landed across my face. “Idiot! What are you waiting for? Slow down, and don’t fuck this up or we’re all dead.”
“I’m not sure if I can type it out slowly.”
“Well, this is your chance. Get going.”
My fingers paused above the keyboard and I remembered how cool it had felt to secure the facility computer with such an elaborate password. Computers were my forte, and the rocket guidance system had to be locked up tight. So I researched the state of the art in hashes, salts, and random number generation. I devised layers of safeguards to make sure nobody but me could initiate the launches. There was even a provision in the event of my death or incapacitation, a dead man’s switch. And I wished I was dead. She would receive a phone call and have one chance to write down the password. And then this would be her job, not mine. Then she could measure out each second against the cold weight of uncertainty, knowing that everyone’s lives depended on muscle memory alone, on a tinny one-note tune carried off by a cold wind.
I slowed down with every key I pressed. Finally I stopped. The first satellites were hitting the ocean, throwing up great headdresses of steam and making the air hum around our ears. My shaking finger hovered over the enter key. My body screamed at me to go back. My mind screamed at me to go forward. I sighed, I shivered, and I broke.
Her voice was cool as ever once again, dripping with poisonous resignation. “Thanks for nothing,” she said, and hit enter.