“Sir,” Senator Grain said. “We need your approval.”
The Football lay open on the desk in front of me.
It was a medium-sized brown briefcase, filled with buttons and dials and locks. It should have looked weird, maybe even silly. Instead it looked like a tiger, purring in its sleep, just waiting to spring into action.
It controlled the United States nuclear arsenal.
It was always near me, handcuffed to one bodyguard or another. Sometimes when I lay up at night, I could feel it in a nearby room, just waiting for me. Patiently. It was in no rush. It would most likely only be used once, after all. It didn’t need to hurry.
Hundreds of silos, nuclear-equipped submarines, and who knew what else. All available at a touch of a button. Oh, there were safeties and secondary safeties and tertiary safeties and so on. Even I couldn’t just randomly decide to nuke us back into the Stone Age. But for all the grandstanding about responsibility and oversight, in the end, it was all up to me. Once I decided to use it, it only took a few minutes to get all the proper authorization.
Now it was just a touch of a button away.
Domina City had an energy shield we couldn’t pierce. They had an aquatic defense we couldn’t match, ground troops we couldn’t overcome. As far as anyone could tell, dropping a small-scale tactical nuclear warhead on their heads was the only way we could defeat them. If we were lucky, it would just crack the shield. We could then shell the city with mainland artillery batteries. Those were even now were rolling into position.
This had not been a very lucky day for us.
“Mister President?” one of the generals said quietly.
“Give him a moment,” Miss Silk said.
The general swallowed, but nodded.
This shouldn’t trigger world war. We were attacking our own territory. We were using a missile that was tiny by nuclear standards. Of course the other countries would still know about it, spies and satellites and all that. But the point was no one would be able to complain that the blast got too close to their own lands.
I just had to push this button and kill everyone in Domina City.
Even ignoring our own soldiers—which I shouldn’t—the cost was almost too much to bear. Population estimates put the city at anywhere between two hundred and four hundred million people. They weren’t all soldiers, and they couldn’t all be criminals, even going by the fact that we had a broader definition of criminal than they did.
Four hundred million people, killed in an instant. If they were lucky. If the shield took the brunt of the blast, they might die of horrific and irreversible radiation sickness instead. I had seen more than a few pictures of people who got too close to a nuclear detonation. I wouldn’t wish that one my worst enemy.
I wasn’t sure anyone in Domina City should be my enemy.
“Mister President,” Senator Grain whispered.
I took a deep breath and reached forward—
My phone rang. Five simple beeps.
I switched tacks with indecent haste, grabbing my phone so fast I almost dropped it. I took another deep breath, steadier this time, and flipped the phone open in the middle of a second ring. I thought for a second, then switched it to speaker.
“Hello,” Artemis Butler said on the other side. “I would like to commend your soldiers, especially those on North Gate. They put up a better fight than we expected.”
I glanced up at the digital map on the wall. The North Gate had been almost covered in blue, representing our strong base camp and forays deeper into the city. Although it had been slow going, they had been making progress. Then we had lost contact with the camp, and the ship reported an explosion. That was the last we heard from them. Some reports from short-wave radios had gotten through, but nothing substantial.
“Thank you,” I said with an even tone. “These… abilities of yours were unanticipated. I’m curious, while the strength and the horns and so on are all obviously from the toy maker, what of the rest? The shields, the fire, the other, stranger abilities? Do those have the same source?”
“They have the same source,” he confirmed. “That source is not the toy maker.”
“More’s the pity.”
“These are things we can discuss in more detail at a trade negotiation. Perhaps set up some sort of knowledge exchange. I was quite impressed with those echos of yours, for example. I knew about them, of course, but seeing them in action was something else altogether.”
I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to say it, but I had to say it. There were just somethings the President of the United States had to do. Whatever idiot had called me the most powerful man in the free world should be tarred, feathered, and tied to a post in the middle of the desert.
He’d still have more freedom than me.
“Mister Butler, the war is not over. If you would like to discuss a cease-fire, then we can make arrangements right now, if you like.”
Butler sighed. “Mister President, do you know the difference between your nation and mine?”
I was tempted to make a quip. Something about how his wasn’t an actual nation, or how mine wasn’t full of criminals. Or maybe just some joke about the fact that his island was literally made out of trash.
But I didn’t. Didn’t see the point.
“No,” I said.
“The difference, Mister President, is that my nation is younger. More fragile. We have more to lose. It makes us significantly more desperate.”
I frowned. Where was he going with this?
“I am willing to do anything it takes to win. You are not. That is why you haven’t pushed that button.”
I felt my heart freeze in my chest, but dismissed it. It was just a lucky guess. The Football was far from secret.
“The more you talk, the less guilty I feel about nuking your city.”
“You’re a good man, Mister President.”
“You think that means I won’t do what’s necessary?”
“Maybe. But more to the point, it means you’re a terrible liar. You’re sweating like a pig.”
I fumbled for my handkerchief and wiped my forehead.
“Nice handkerchief. Gift from your wife, I take it? No wait… the stitching is poor quality. Ah, a gift from your daughter, then. That’s sweet.”
I closed my eyes and counted to ten.
When I opened them again, everyone was staring at me. Not like they were judging me, but like they were worried about me, and what this conversation would mean for this country. And especially where Butler was getting his information. A couple of them were subtly trying to look around the room, as if they’d find a spy hiding behind a newspaper.
But I had another solution.
“The United States cannot condone your actions, Mister Butler.” Because we would lose face, I added silently.
“I never expected you to.”
“We can, however, offer you a cease-fire of indefinite duration. We will stop attacking your city, and in exchange you will send ambassadors to the UN building in New York City. Does that seem fair?”
I kept my eyes on the generals and senators at the table as I spoke. Some of them wouldn’t like this. Some of them wanted me to push the button.
I took note of the ones who looked annoyed, and those who looked relieved. But no one said anything. No one wanted to be the one to suggest nuking an American city. Yes, this was a closed-door meeting with no records. But word would get out, one way or another. It always did.
“Ten ambassadors,” Butler said. “And their bodyguards, of course. Would that be fair?”
“Yes, quite so.”
“Good. Any ambassadors you send to Domina—”
“No?” I could almost see him raising his eyebrow on the other end of the line. “May I ask why not?”
“Because I have a feeling if I send anyone else to your city, they’ll have a series of fatal accidents. We’d be lucky to get their bodies back for burial.”
Several of the more diplomatic senators flinched, but Butler just laughed. “You do learn quickly, don’t you? Very well then, one way exchange. Of course, my ambassadors have nothing to fear from your city.” He sighed. “From each other, on the other hand…”
He seemed genuinely annoyed. It was a surprisingly honest moment.
“But that is my problem, not yours. As for time…” His tone turned thoughtful, with a hint of humor. “Perhaps ten in the morning, New Year’s Day? All nice and symbolic, definitely look good for the history books.”
“January 1st, 2002,” I said. “Next Tuesday. At ten AM, I expect your ambassadors to be knocking on the door of the UN building. None of that crap about being fashionably late or whatever.”
“Do I seem like the kind of man who appreciates tardiness, Mister President?”
“No, but maybe your people think they can get away with it. Ten AM sharp, Mister Butler. Please tell them to dress nice.”
I hung up.
I took a deep breath. I should have waited a bit more, talked with him a bit further and discussed how we were getting my men out of the city. But it was important to show that I still had some power.
I carefully closed the Football and put it aside. “Jefferies, would you take care of this for me? Thank you.” I turned to everyone at the table. “Please begin a full withdraw. All ships are to cease fire at once and focus on retrieving our men. They are not to open fire under any circumstances. Is that understood?”
One of the generals, or maybe the admirals, coughed awkwardly. “They, uh, actually stopped firing a few minutes ago. When you got the call, I figured it might be best to…” He trailed off.
I nodded. “Good man. Maybe we can finish this without getting anyone else killed.”
“This is ridiculous!” a senator shouted, red-faced. What was her name… “You cannot allow a terrorist rebel to dictate terms! He should be brought to heel!” She took a deep breath. “I understand why you do not want to use the nukes. Honestly, I was worried enough about the artillery. But an American city cannot simply declare itself its own country and ignore our laws!”
“We tried doing it the other way,” I said. “Nukes are all that’s left.”
“Send more men,” she said. “More echoes. Those were doing well, with only a few unexpected setbacks. Send in a full platoon of them, that will make everyone sit up and take notice.”
I sighed. “Miss Silk, what is the current estimated cost of this operation?”
“Two hundred and sixteen billion dollars, sir. Not counting payouts to families of the fallen soldiers.”
The senator shut her mouth.
“We’ve lost thousands of men,” I said. “About a dozen ships, who knows how many echoes, and all for what? A city that doesn’t want us?” I shook my head. “We completely misjudged the situation. No, I misjudged it. Sele played me like a harp the whole time. She didn’t want justice, she wanted revenge. Revenge on the city that cast her out, nothing more. This is officially not worth it.”
“This will make us look weak,” a general said. I couldn’t tell if it was an admonishment.
I rolled my eyes. “We are weak. If any of the space colonies had decided to help Domina—who, I should note, they like better than us—we would have been dead before this war even started. I don’t mean the country would be dead, I mean us, personally, would be dead. You ever head of a god rod? Toss a tungsten rod at us and let gravity do the rest?” I whistled like a bomb drop, then mimed an explosion.
“The space colonies will rebel,” Grain said, his tone neutral. “They’ve been waiting for an opportunity for this. Ceres and Lemuria, especially, will probably just cut ties entirely.”
“They’ll hold off until the meeting,” I said. “They’ll want to see what happens. Make sure we don’t turn on the Dominites, that we uphold our end of the bargain. Whatever that bargain turns out to be.” I smirked. “Politicians always wait to see which way the wind is blowing.”
“And what happens if Domina gets the upper hand in the negotiations?” that same female senator asked. Emily, right? No, but that felt like the right track. “Do we allow the other colonies to secede as well? We trade with them far more than Domina! What happens if we lose Mons Agnes, or Marius Alpha?”
I chuckled. “We’re not losing Marius Alpha. They’re all soldiers up there, living fat on pensions. Last time we tried to get them to be self-sufficient, they went on strike. Do you remember that?”
She faltered. “No.”
“Yeah. Says a lot about the important work they do, doesn’t it?”
She frowned and rallied. “Regardless! Vesta has been considering leaving for years, and at this rate we could even lose Bakerston or Cytherean Watch!”
I blinked. “Bakerston? Really?”
Senator Grain nodded. “They’ve been supplementing their budget with trade. At this point, they might decide to cut ties and go their own way.”
I sighed. “Miss Silk, start drafting a letter to Bakerston Station. Basic idea, they won’t have as much time for science if they have to get trade running.”
She nodded, tapping something into her phone.
“As for the rest,” I said, turning back to address everyone in the room. “I have some ideas. Some non-violent ideas.” I made a face. “I never liked getting rocks thrown at me as a kid. I think I’ll like rocks from the asteroid belt even less.”
The angry senator Vemil—that was her name, Vemil—frowned. “…why did they throw rocks at you as a kid?”
“Greasy hair and a smart mouth. Now.” I clapped my hands and smiled. “Our troops have just had a rather bad day. Why don’t we find something nice to greet them with, eh? Some hearty Christmas dinner should do the trick, right? Miss Silk, call the caterer. You know the one I like. Anyone have any other suggestions?”
Behind the Scenes (scene 290)
I’ve always been worried about this sequence. I knew from the very beginning that the war between Domina and America was inevitable, but I also knew that it would be hard to keep the war from getting too destructive. For all their newfound powers, Domina cannot stop a nuke.
We’re not quite done yet, of course. Very close, but not quite.