[Creative Writing Contest] The Reset Button

by Joshua Ingle10 min read16th Sep 202116 comments

102

Creative Writing ContestEffective altruism art and fiction
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You never thought you’d use the reset button until the day you did.

The button, an old family heirloom gifted by your parents on your eighteenth birthday, sat at the bottom of a box in your closet for most of your twenties. While you were laser-focused on maxing out your college grades and interning at company after company until you finally landed a good job, then sating a bit of your lifelong wanderlust with well-deserved world travels, the reset button lingered, half forgotten.

Yes, you made youthful mistakes. From time to time, you considered digging the button out and using it. But whenever the temptation struck, your reasoning always came back to this: What could possibly be important enough to justify the button’s use? Your parents had stressed it could only be used once, and no bungled speech or embarrassing date or wasted funds ever seemed worth it. Their parents and even their grandparents had stewarded the button so they could pass it down the family line, so how astonishingly selfish would you be to use it on yourself? No, you’ll pass it down to your kids, and they to their kids, until it can be used for something truly important.

Or so you tell yourself.

Later in life, you’re comfortable enough that you haven’t thought about the reset button in years. You’re mid-career, in a secure position at a prestigious company, with a new house and only a little debt. Due to some guest posts you’ve written on a popular blog, your name is known and respected in your field. Once or twice each year, you and your partner hop over to a resort town for a week of romance and adventure. You donate a bit to some favorite charities as well. You have the usual worries, but overall, life is good.

At breakfast today, your partner reminds you to make a digital copy of the kids’ birth certificates so you can submit their passport applications, and when you open your small safe to grab the certificates, you notice the reset button in the far corner, encased in its simple steel container beneath some insurance documents. You’d forgotten you moved it there when you cleaned out your college boxes last winter.

How does that damn button work? You’ve wondered this before, but you never had the resources to figure it out. If Frieda and Colin in the R&D Department open it up and look inside, you bet they’ll be able to tell you, and maybe even get some inspiration for company products.

On a whim, you pocket the reset button and take it to work.

You spend an hour at the gym, then curse a traffic jam on the freeway that’ll make you twenty minutes late. Worries gnaw at you while you wait. Are your kids getting a good education? Will the deal you’re negotiating at work go through? Can you find enough time to rest and fend off exhaustion? You try to distract yourself with the radio, but half the channels have hosts chattering about world news. Some new crisis in international politics. Such intrigue used to interest you, but you’re not in the mood for it now, so you keep switching channels until you find calming music.

Your boss passes you in the hallway and asks if you’ve finished writing the big contract yet. You tell her you’ll get it to her by noon. You exchange pointers with Malik on your workout routines over coffee in the break room. He mentions he heard a rumor you’re being eyed for a position that just opened in upper-level management but says you didn’t hear it from him. Beaming, you walk to your office, open your desktop, and notice you only have five minutes until today’s operations meeting. So you stride past cubicles to Kendal’s desk and ask her to generate six of the relevant reports. You check the time as you wait for them to print, then offer her generous thanks as she hands them to—

Piercing white light engulfs the entire office space. Your colleagues shield their eyes. You squint and search for the source of the sudden, invasive light.

It’s the windows. As the light dims from overpowering to merely intense, a few people who’d been standing next to the windows are now fumbling along the walls, arms outstretched.

“I can’t see!” one of them yells in a panic.

Some of your coworkers rush to their aid, while others gather at the windows to see what happened outside. Your first instinct is to grab your phone and call your partner. But the screen won’t respond to your fingers. The phone isn’t even on, and it won’t turn on no matter how long you hold the power button.

The floor starts to shake. A thunderous boom roars. Everyone screams.

You look up just in time to see glass shards from a dozen shattered windows hurtling across the office. You turn and crouch a moment before the sharp wave patters harmlessly over your jacket.

Your eardrums depress painfully, and you clutch your ears. The air suddenly grows hot. Wind buffets the cubicles, sending a torrent of paper fluttering from workspace to workspace. Your coworkers dart around chaotically, but you’re too stunned and scared to move.

Glass and blood speckle the floor near the empty holes where the windows once were. You have to get out of here. You will your legs to push yourself up.

As you approach the patio where smokers take their breaks, you see that a strange twilight has descended outside. Fierce wind knocks over a few of the people running toward their cars and swirls the flames of a violent fire at the gas station across the street climbing several stories into the sky.

Is that what happened? An explosion at the gas station? No, it can’t be just that, because a high-rise condo in the distance is also on fire. And the trees all around the parking lot have snapped in two. And every breath you take feels like an oven opening into your lungs.

Finally, when you exit the building onto the patio, you see it.

A mushroom cloud.

The immense pillar blocks the sun behind it. Its shadow falls on you. You try to compare its height to that of the skyscrapers downtown, but when you look for the skyscrapers, they aren’t there. The mushroom cloud itself is covering them. Surely they’re still there, behind the smoke and fire?

All around you, dozens of people are running into partially collapsed buildings, presumably to rescue others. Is your partner safe at work? Are your kids safe at school? Why won’t your phone turn on, and why do you feel so sick and weak?

Another infinitely bright light casts shadows from a new direction. You don’t look at it. Your gaze is focused on two additional mushroom clouds you hadn’t noticed before, behind the first and westward.

It’s not just one, then. Not just a lone bomb. This was at least a regional attack. Possibly national. Or global.

Another boom, and another shockwave washes over you.

You find yourself on your knees, staring at the devastation. You know you should find shelter. But more than fear or sorrow, the unexpected emotion that permeates you is utter confusion.

Didn’t governments have ways of stopping something like this from happening? Weren’t nuclear weapons a relic of the 1960s that held no relevance today? How had such a holocaust erupted completely out of the blue, without you having the slightest clue things were about to get this bad?

You had so many other problems to worry about. The world had so many other problems to worry about. How could you have known that this was the problem you should have been worrying about all along?

More questions sear your mind, hot as the nearby fires leaping upward. Had world leaders ordered this, or had a rogue individual started a chain reaction that world leaders had no choice but to follow? Was the attack intentional or accidental? Did you inadvertently vote for this?

Your colleagues are fleeing their cars in the parking lot, apparently discovering they won’t turn on, just like your phone. On foot, there’s no chance you’ll make it to a single family member.

You collapse to the ground at the thought of your kids, of the future they’ll inherit. Of all the work you did to make a future for them… All the work humanity did to build a future for all its children…

You imagine your kids as adults, desperate to undo what their parents allowed to happen. If they could go back in time to yesterday, what would they do? What would they say? How much money would they be willing to spend to stop this from happening?

Will they ever recover? Will anyone? First responders who survived the blasts will be far beyond overwhelmed. Most of the hospitals were downtown, and are presumably gone now. Soon the fallout will arrive and breathing will become poisonous, if it isn’t already. Food and water will be contaminated. Farming will be nearly impossible in the coming nuclear winter. Cancers will plague most who survive the famine.

As you close your eyes, you think how this ending to your life seems so pointless. Preventable. Undeserved. You’re a good person who was generally kind, acted ethically, and chose wisely at each of life’s junctions. Why should your life end just because someone on the other side of the world was angry or foolish or irrational and pushed a big red button?

And then you remember. You have a button too!

The burnt skin on your hand stings as you thrust it into your pocket and grasp the small steel box. You tremble as you lift the lid. Without hesitation or even a glance at the mushroom clouds, you slam your fist exultantly down on the reset button.

Suddenly, you’re eighteen again. Your parents are standing before you, telling you for the first time about the reset button they’ve just placed in your hands—your painless, unburnt hands.

When they finish speaking to you, you peek inside the box. The button is gone, and gone forever. Now you’re like everyone else in the world: a person without a reset button.

But you know what’s coming. And you know that persuading anyone of what you’ve seen will be extremely difficult. Even your parents might not believe you.

You don’t know anything about nuclear weapons or international politics. But still, can you take any concrete actions to stop what you saw? In this time period, when you’re eighteen years old again, is anyone else working on nuclear security? If so, how can you get involved with them? And what are the most effective ways to contribute?

Moving forward, you’ll need to decide at juncture after juncture if you’ll live the same life you lived before, or if you’ll diverge from it.

What major will you choose in college?

What skills will you develop?

What new career paths might you explore?

How will you spend your time and money?

What companies will you invest in?

Will you marry the same person, live in the same location, cultivate the same friendships, pursue the same career path?

Will you vote more often, or differently? Will you get involved in any kind of political advocacy?

What about the world’s other problems? In your previous life, you donated money to help solve several of them. Are any of them less important now, in the mental shadow of the mushroom clouds? Might some problems now seem much more important?

And if the risk of nuclear war was as neglected as you know it to be, what other critical problems might not be getting solved because so few people are paying attention to them? If the nuclear war is prevented, what other potential catastrophes are waiting in the wings, ready to flare up in the months and years afterward—and this time with no reset button?

You walk to the kitchen, and over the course of a few minutes, you steer a conversation with your parents toward their opinions on a nuclear weapons catastrophe.

“There’s such a small chance it’ll ever happen,” they say. “Why should anyone worry about it?”

You’ve lived that small chance. You know why.

You drop the steel container that once housed the reset button into the trash, and you get to work.

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16 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:07 PM
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I really liked this!!!

Since you asked for feedback, here's a little suggestion, take it or leave it: I found a couple things at the end slightly out-of-place, in particular "If you choose to tackle the problem of nuclear security, what angle can you attack the problem from that will give you the most fulfillment?" and "Do any problems present even bigger risks than nuclear war?"

Immediately after such an experience, I think the narrator would not be thinking about option of not bothering to work on nuclear security because other causes are more important, nor thinking about their own fulfillment. If other causes came to mind, I imagine it would be along the lines of "if I somehow manage to stop the nuclear war, what other potential catastrophes are waiting in the wings, ready to strike anytime in the months and years after that—and this time with no reset button?"

Or if you want it to fit better as written now, then shortly after the narrator snaps back to age 18 the text could say something along the lines of "You know about chaos theory and the butterfly effect; this will be a new re-roll of history, and there might not be a nuclear war this time around. Maybe last time was a fluke?" Then that might remove some of the single-minded urgency that I would otherwise expect the narrator to feel, and thus it would become a bit more plausible that the narrator might work on pandemics or whatever.

(Maybe that "new re-roll of history" idea is what you had in mind? Whereas I was imagining the Groundhog Day / Edge of Tomorrow / Terminator trope where the narrator knows 100% for sure that there will be a nuclear war on this specific hour of this specific day, if the narrator doesn't heroically stop it.)

(I'm not a writer, don't trust my judgment.)

Fantastic comments, thank you! I included the bit about personal fulfillment because it's such an important component of being able to sustain an effective career long term, but in retrospect I was so focused on including as many EA ideas as I could that I didn't notice how out of place that sentiment is at that point in the story. I removed both that sentence and the one about more important causes, and I added a variant of your suggested replacement sentence.

I am a writer (though not a published one) and I second his judgement. I felt brief disquiet at the line he commented on, but didn't analyze it until I read his post because the story as a whole had still worked very well for me. I think the change makes a good story better, and I thank both Steve for suggesting it and Joshua for implementing it. 

I found this motivational. Thanks for posting!

I'm glad to hear it. And sure thing!

That was really, really good.

Thanks, I'm glad you liked it!

Wow, ... this was powerful, ... and moving!

That's outstandingly impactful. I just shared it with a bunch of non-EA friends. Great work!

Oh that's awesome. Thank you!

So insightful and thought-provoking!

Overall I really like the way you delivered the message in this story. I noticed a couple opportunities to make the story a bit more rational. I would expect the main character would spend some time gathering information to find out what caused the nuclear catastrophe so they can prevent it before they hit the reset. And as a smaller suggestion, I'd expect that they would also do some planning of who they'd need to coordinate with or how they'd get funds before they hit the reset. Not sure if there's a word limit but if you could find a way to work some of those things in I think it would be beneficial.

I actually read the protagonist as 'probably suffering from radiation poisoning, might be about to literally die from the next bomb or the building collapsing' as of the moment before they hit the reset, so I would see such planning as irrational rather than sensible - a little information might help, but not if it risks your life (which is what you're thinking about if you're selfish) or the fate of the world (which is what you're thinking about if you're selfless).

Interesting thoughts, thanks for your input! I'll think about how to incorporate the feedback.