I resisted the urge to bang my head against the table a couple dozen times.
It was hard. It was actually, genuinely hard. The table was good strong oak, solid as a rock, and hitting my head against it would probably lose me a handful of IQ points. I figured since no one would let me drink at these stupid meetings, it was the next best thing.
But being president meant you had to keep your cool at all times, even when you wanted to bash your head against a wall. Or a table.
It was December 21st, a Friday, and I was stuck in a board room with a bunch of uptight idiots. But I could be calm.
“Senator Grain,” I said slowly. “Please summarize the problems.”
He nodded. “Basically, people are running scared. The deaths related to this project—pure coincidence, of course, but very poorly timed—have led to all sorts of unsavory rumors spreading. The private sector has practically pulled out completely, which limits our deployment options, since we can’t actually declare war. Not to mention with Christmas around the corner, half our troops are home for the holidays.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “We don’t need half. We don’t even need a tenth. Can we get five battalions and a small carrier group? That would be more than enough.”
The senator looked at someone else at the table. Hoshi.
“…we can,” she said slowly. “But it will take time. A few days.”
“The media is already making noise about our army being made up of atheists and heathens.”
I closed my eyes. “Please tell me they didn’t actually call our soldiers heathens?”
“Not in so many words, but the sentiment was there.”
I rubbed my forehead, took a deep breath, and counted to ten. Calm down. Ordering a nuclear strike on one of our craziest news conglomerates wouldn’t go over well. Unless…
No. No nuking journalists. That was the most important piece of advice my predecessor had given me. I had assumed he was joking.
“Okay, we’ll have everything prepared in a few days,” I said. “Grain. What’s the word on the space colonies?”
“We’ve managed to convince them not to help Domina—at least in the first couple weeks. That’s all I could guarantee.” He squared his shoulders, the way he always did when he was preparing to talk for a while. “The deals were complex, but I was able to earn their cooperation without actually promising them anything. Ceres, in particular, was very—”
“Thank you, Grain,” I said smoothly. He was the standard Democrat filibuster for a reason. He didn’t even do it on purpose. “Director Ward. What’s the status of our spy network in Domina City?”
He sighed. “On the day of your announcement, we had twenty spies in the city. Most of them had only been there since Sele came out. They were doing reasonably well. When the announcement came out, every single one went dark at the same time. I have to assume they’re all dead.”
I felt a shiver, but pushed it down. “Did they get any information out first?”
“Less than we got from Sele.”
Of course. “Fitzsimmons. How’s our tech advantage?”
“It’s…” He was clearly hesitant. “It’s, you know, there. We have an advantage. Probably.”
“No, we do!” he said quickly. “I promise, we do! It’s just, you know… we can’t use it.”
“Why not?” one of the women demanded. Not Hoshi. Crap, this was going to bother me if I couldn’t remember…
“What he means, admiral, is that we won’t use it.” She turned to me, frowning. “We have enough artillery to turn that entire city to rubble. But since we don’t want to do that, we may as well have bundles of sticks.”
“Actually, the artillery—”
“Thank you, Fitzsimmons. That will be all.” I turned off the projector. “Actually, I think this meeting is over. And we’ll skip tomorrow’s. Everyone, call if something changes in your jurisdiction. Especially you, admirals, generals. I want an exact timing on our attack as soon as possible.”
They all nodded, and rose up quietly to leave. Fitzsimmons looked like his execution had just been canceled. Considering that I had been considering sending him with the troops, maybe that was more accurate than I thought.
Once everyone was gone, I turned to my bodyguard. “Where’s Silk?”
“Outside, I think,” Jefferies said.
Since everybody else had left and she still hadn’t come in, that probably meant that she was snubbing me for ending the meeting early. I was going to get an earful about fulfilling my obligations again.
“Thank you, Howard.”
“I’m Steven, actually.”
I frowned, and looked him over. He was definitely the same Jefferies I had always known. “Really? Have I been getting it wrong all these years?”
He looked hesitant. “I—well—”
The door opened.
“Miss Silk,” I said, holding up a hand to forestall any lectures. “I know what you’re going to say.”
“Ceres called,” she said without preamble. “They’re implying if the war continues into the new year, they’ll start sending materiel to Domina.”
I groaned. “What about the Lunar colonies? They gonna start nuking us?”
“They don’t have nukes, Mister President.”
“You know what I mean. Those god-rods.”
She adjusted her glasses. “There has been no further word since Senator Grain spoke to them. I believe that is a good sign.”
“But you’re not sure.”
“But I’m not sure.”
I stood up, stretching. Had a damn knot in my back…
“There is another matter, Mister President.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Okay, let’s hear it.” She was being all… secretarial. Was that a word? I’d have Silk look it up later. …or not.
Oh dammit, I just remembered that I forgot that one admiral’s name. I had been doing a good job at ignoring it. Hewes, maybe?
Silk was oblivious to my internal struggle. “The colony on Triton went dark.”
I blinked. “They did? What’s that mean? Are they planning an attack?” I shook my head before she could answer. “No, of course not. They don’t have enough resources.” Even a god-rod would take years to reach Earth from here, if they could spare the metal. Of course, if they threw it hard enough, it could still cut the planet in half…
We needed to put more damn money in space defense.
“They went dark,” I muttered. “Hopefully, that means they’re staying out of this conflict. But it could mean they’re in trouble. What was their last message?”
“Hm…” I waved my hand. “I can’t deal with this right now. I need to spend some time with my family before they forget I exist.”
“I highly doubt that will happen, Mister President.”
“Yeah, that’s what they always say.”
“Miss Silk,” I said, turning back to boss mode. Silk seemed completely unaffected, but Jefferies stood up straighter just by sheer instinct. “Please arrange dinner for my family. Catered by that steak place my wife likes so much.” I hated it. I hated steak in general, really. Even this place’s famous steaks were like chewing leather. Still, this might be our last chance to eat together before the war.
Silk nodded, and held the door open. “This way, Mister President.”
I stepped out of the meeting room into the White House proper. “I think I know my way to my own office, Miss Silk.”
“But dinner is this way.”
I frowned. “What?”
“I anticipated your request,” she explained. “The caterers set up while you were in your meeting.”
“But—I cut the meeting short!”
“I anticipated that as well.” She smiled. “You’ve never liked meetings.”
Shaking my head, I had no choice but to follow her.
“Daddy!” someone tackled me in the legs as soon as I walked through the door into the dining room.
I smiled and patted my daughter’s head, but inwardly I groaned. She only upped the cuteness when she had done something wrong and needed to butter me up. “Hello there, sweetie. How was your day?”
“I saw a mouse!”
I frowned, then turned to my wife. “She what?”
Grace, my wife, just rolled her eyes. “It was on the computer. Somebody sent for a video of a mouse doing a tap-dance. Just kid stuff.”
“Ooh—” I smiled at my daughter, still clinging to my leg. “Can I see?”
Grace frowned. “Richard.”
“What? I’m taking an interest in her interests!”
She rolled her eyes, but smiled as she sat down at the table, already stocked with food.
“Miss Silk? Did you want to—” I looked around, frowning. “Where’d she go?”
Grace frowned as well. “She was just here a second ago.”
“She said she needed to check on her sister,” Karen said, finally letting go of my leg. “She said to start without us.”
“When did she say that?” I asked.
“Silk has a sister?” Grace added.
“She said it in my head.”
My wife and I both sighed. Karen had been doing this recently, pretending she could hear what people were thinking. Silk was the only one who played along, which might have been the wrong choice.
“I’m sure Miss Silk and her… sister will be fine.” A sister seemed pretty specific to just make up, but maybe Silk had mentioned it to Karen at some point. She’d never said anything to me about it, but I sure as hell wouldn’t talk about my siblings without it being dragged out of me. I had mostly given up on them after they skipped out on my wedding. When my brother dodged his own funeral, I officially gave up.
“Richard,” Grace said. “You’re distracted tonight. Care to sit down?”
I blinked, and nodded, pulling out a seat for myself. “Yes, sorry. It’s been a busy week.”
“Because you declared war,” Karen said, with all the confidence of a ten year-old.
I smiled and rubbed the top of her head briefly before piling food onto my plate. “It’s not a war. Domina City is still part of the United States. New York, specifically.” Not that anyone had bothered pretending for the past thirty years or so. “Do you know what it’s called when you send the military to your own country?”
“Neither do I. Let me know when you figure it out—it will play well with the press.”
I spread my hands. “What? I don’t know what I’m supposed to call it. Police action? Troop redeployment?”
“Does it matter?”
“It probably wouldn’t if I had been able to send the troops earlier,” I muttered. “I thought we had everything lined up and ready to go the day of the announcement. But everything went sideways so fast. With Sele dy—” I noticed my daughter looking at me. “—becoming indisposed, and a few logistics problems, now everything with the space colonies…” I sighed. “It’s coming together again, but still. This was supposed to be an easy win.”
“You need to relax,” Grace said firmly. “Pass me the mashed potatoes. Thank you. Anyway, you just need to give it a rest. Relax a bit, turn your brain off.”
“I learned that you can’t turn your brain off,” Karen said primly. “It’s always whirring away.”
We both ignored her. “I appreciate the thought, but this is important. I can’t just forget about it.”
Grace took a deep breath. “What is it you’re always saying to me?”
I closed my eyes. “I should have seen this coming.”
“Richard, what are you always saying?”
“All work is like a machine without oil,” I repeated dutifully. “It will explode.”
“Exactly. Now, the question is, are there any problems that will be improved with you worrying about them for tonight?”
“Then don’t.” She spread her hands, indicating the well-stocked table. “You have a beautiful dinner in front of you, and a wonderful family to eat it with. Just enjoy it. The problems will still be there to worry about later.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 273)
Richard’s family was originally going to be wildly different, but I had to dial it down a bit. Progressive timeline or no, having his brother be an actual circus clown was unreasonable. He simply would never have been elected.