Four Minute Warning

Four Minute Warning by Cora BuhlertTwo tales of love and loss and nuclear war.

Thirteen Minutes

Caught in a supermarket, when the alarm goes off, Michael and David admit some unspoken truths to each other before the bombs fall.

Four Minute Warning

Tracy and Jimmy know you can’t survive a nuclear war, even if civil defence leaflets and radio broadcasts claim otherwise.

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Some background information:

  • Four Minute Warning is a short story of 3600 words. Thirteen Minutes is a short story of 2100 words. Both stories are digital premieres and have never been published previously.
  • Thirteen Minutes was written as part of the July short story challenge. The idea was to write a short story per day in July 2015. Four Minute Warning was later written as a companion piece.
  • Unlike most of the other stories I wrote for the July challenge, there was no clearly definable inspiration for Thirteen Minutes. However, a few days before I researched the blast radius of nuclear bombs and watched some videos of nuclear bomb tests for another of the July challenge stories, Operation Rubber Ducky. I suspect that Thirteen Minutes was quite literally the fall-out from that research. I have no idea where the gay love story angle came from, though.
  • One thing that always struck me about US/UK nuclear holocaust movies from the 1980s such as The Day After, Threads, Where the Wind Blows or Testament, not to mention older works like Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother” or Shadow on the Hearth or post-Cold-War works such as the TV series Jericho was that the characters actually expected to survive the impending nuclear war, ran for public shelters when the sirens went off and even took measures such as building make-shift shelters in their own homes or hiding out in cellars. Whereas in West Germany at the same time, it was considered a given that we were all dead anyway, if nuclear war should ever break out, and that hiding out in fall-out shelters would only prolong the inevitable. Of course, that’s pretty much the point that the above-mentioned works make as well, but what always fascinated me is that it was a point worth making, when it “nuclear war will kill us all” was as obvious as “water is wet” to me. And indeed, German nuclear armageddon stories such as Gudrun Pausewang’s Die letzten Kinder von Schewenborn (The Last Children of Schewenborn) and Die Wolke (The cloud) don’t bother with makeshift shelters and just jump straight to everybody dying in various depressing ways.
  • So, when I wrote my own nuclear armageddon stories, I wrote them about characters, college students all of them, who don’t bother with shelters and instead decide to watch mushroom clouds and enjoy their final minutes however they can.
  • The titles both refer to the average time the nuclear weapons launched in the former Soviet Union would need to reach the UK or the US approximately.
  • Thirteen Minutes is a more of a response to nuclear armageddon stories in general, but Four Minute Warning is a response to a very particular story, the British nuclear war drama Threads and particularly the attempts of some of the character in said film (which is actually very good, probably the best example of the genre) to build make-shift shelters in their homes from doors and mattresses.
  • The Protect and Survive civil defence leaflets with their stick figures and ineffective survival tips are real and were available in Britain in the early 1980s. An example can be seen here. The leaflets also briefly show up in Threads and Where the Wind Blows.
  • Those leaflets really included survival tips such as building shelters, called “inner refuges”, from furniture and mattresses and painting over window with white paint.
  • The radio emergency message in Four Minute Warning which plays after the alarms go off is also real and includes snippets from the actual message that would have been broadcast by the BBC in case of an impending nuclear attack. The message played in Thirteen Minutes is fictional, though a “doomsday tape” which recently showed up in the CNN archives shows that the last broadcast ever at CNN would really have played “Nearer My God to Thee”. By the way, my story The Apocalypse Protocol chronicles what happens when a radio DJ accidentally plays such a “doomsday tape”.
  • Since Four Minute Warning is a direct response to Threads, protagonist Tracy also lives in Sheffield (i.e. the city where most of Threads is set), at the Park Hill estate in particular. I picked the town of Skegness for Jimmy’s and Tracy’s seaside getaway, simply because it was conveniently situated. The various attractions mentioned are all real, by the way.
  • The setting of Thirteen Minutes, on the other hand, is wholly fictional.
  • The course of events also follows those in Threads with a nuclear airburst above the North Sea first knocking out communications with an EMP pulse, followed by nuclear bombs hitting first the former RAF base at Finningley (nowadays Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield) and then Sheffield. The only other bombing explicitly mentioned in Threads hits Crewe, which would be too far away from Skegness to see. However, I also added potential bombings at Nottingham, Doncaster, Scunthorpe, Rotherham, Lincoln, Grimsby and RAF Coningsby, which make up the line of mushroom clouds Tracy and Jimmy see at the horizon. I would herewith like to apologise to the citizens of these fine towns and cities for fictionally nuking them.
  • Regarding from how far away it is possible to see a nuclear explosion, the data on this is surprisingly scant and also depends on the size of the explosion. However, I found several references and even photos that it was possible to see the mushroom clouds caused by US nuclear tests in Nevada in the 1950s and early 1960s as far away as downtown Las Vegas, which is located approx. 100 kilometres from the test site, so I used that as a baseline.
  • I never mention the exact political scenario that leads to nuclear war in both stories, because frankly it doesn’t matter to the stories. Though I do think that both stories feature the same war, since they are both set during the summer of 1984.
  • The music that Luke and David on the one hand and Tracy, Jimmy and Noel on the other play on their respective radios are various top one hundred hits from the respective countries from the early 1980s. I actually had to change the year twice to get in both “Thriller” (because it’s a bright spot in the otherwise fairly dull and conservative US mainstream pop of the early 1980s) and “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” by Ultravox (which I wanted because the video clip perfectly matches the story). The other songs which appear in Four Minute Warning are “Buffalo Soldier” by Bob Marley, which I included as a nod to Noel’s Jamaican background, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler, because it’s a somewhat apocalpytic love song, and “Is there something I should know” by Duran Duran, because it actually includes a line about nuclear war.
  • The films and novels mentioned or referenced by Tracy in Four Minute Warning are Mad Max (both the first Mad Max film and The Road Warrior had come out by summer 1984, though Tracy is likely referring to The Road Warrior, since the original Mad Max had a fairly limited release outside Australia), The Day After (broadcast in the UK in autumn 1983) and Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach or respectively the 1959 film version thereof. Tracy does not mention Threads, since it didn’t air in the UK until later that year nor The War Game, which did not air in the UK until the following year, though it was made in 1965.
  • The “Nutty Nuggets” cereal briefly mentioned in Thirteen Minutes is of course a reference to this rather infamous blogpost which appeared during the 2015 Sad Puppy Hugo nomination campaign (doubly ironic, because Four Minute Warning and Thirteen Minutes are exactly the sort of stories the Sad Puppies tend to dislike). The name of the supermarket chain Buy More is a reference to the TV series Chuck.

The cover is stock art by Marcus Gann.

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