Amanda Jackson stared out the backseat window of a black Suburban and watched people walking along the streets of Washington DC, wondering what they would do if she stopped, got out and offered to trade places with any one of them. She had tried to call the President three times already, but his cell service had been disconnected. And nobody would tell her why.
Of course, she couldn’t stop the vehicle – she was riding in the backseat while a trained driver from the Secret Service careened through Du Pont Circle and along the spoked roadwork that had been designed to repel invaders. He had short hair – they all had that short fuzzy hair – and the plastic curl of an earpiece snaking down his neck. Amanda studied these little details because she didn’t want to watch the blur of traffic through the windshield as he revved the engine and turned hard enough to make the tires squeal. He wore sunglasses and scanned their surroundings. Amanda wondered how he didn’t wreck because he was too busy looking around to see where he was actually going.
It was the stoicism of the man, and the one sitting next to him in the front passenger seat, that bothered her most. They were veritable twins. Vigilant. Quiet. Uninformative. They had told her exactly one thing:
“You need to come with us, ma’am.”
After that, they hadn’t answered her questions, even when she stood defiantly and berated the man as he held the rear passenger door open for her.
“What the hell is going on here?” she had asked. The man’s face remained still as stone. “Listen, if somebody doesn’t tell he me exactly what has happened and why you’re stuffing me in the back of a car, I’m not going anywhere,” she had yelled, crossing her arms. The door remained open. She had glanced around, seeing all the ways she could walk away – or run, if she had to. But the man didn’t seem concerned with her escaping. They both knew he could run her down if he had to. He was a trained Secret Service agent in top shape. She was the U.S. Attorney General and ate too many donuts through sixteen hours of work every day except Sunday. Still, she wondered. Would he?
They were out of Washington now, heading down highway 4. Amanda knew that the only place down highway 4 that was meaningful was Andrews Air Force Base. Joint Base she corrected herself silently. But she took more comfort in thinking of it as an Air Force base for some reason.
It wasn’t until the four HMWWVs pulled up and boxed them in – front, back and both sides – that she felt her stomach quiver and a tremor scurry across her neck and shoulders. Up until that point, she had been frustrated, annoyed and a little confused.
Now, she was scared.
The entourage turned sharply towards a back gate of Joint Base Andrews without even pausing to show identification as the sentry waved them past. They made a few turns and raced onto a tarmac where Amanda could see the blue, white and glistening aluminum of Air Force One, its ladder extended with two Marines standing guard next to it.
The Suburban screeched to a halt and the driver hopped out to open her door. His movements were quick now, athletic and deliberate. He was in a hurry.
Amanda stepped out and surveyed her surroundings. She was wearing a canary-yellow skirt with a prim white blouse and yellow jacket to match the skirt. Being somewhat old-fashioned in taste, she wore black shoes with a mid-length heel. She wasn’t austere, but she wasn’t flashy, either. She looked like an important black woman who worked in the government, which she was, while still looking modest and approachable. Amanda wanted people to respect her position and still feel comfortable enough to actually talk to her in candor. She didn’t have time for obsequious people. But she wished, at that moment, that she was wearing something that gave her a more imposing presence.
An Air Force Colonel in his formal officer’s uniform with tie and jacket emerged from the door of Air Force One with a black leather satchel in his hand.
At the same time, the driver latched onto her elbow and practically pushed her towards the airplane. Amanda tried to jerk her arm away and nearly stumbled when the Special Agent tightened his grip. “Let go of me, dammit. I can walk on my own.”
“We have to hurry, ma’am. I’m sorry.” He whispered something inaudible into his free wrist as Amanda stumbled onto the flight stairs. The man let go and she trotted up the stairs, more to flee his grip than anything else.
Waiting at the top of the stairs, the Colonel smiled politely and gestured towards the open door. Amanda blinked at the dim interior, some cavern she wasn’t sure she would be able to escape once inside. She turned to the Colonel and opened her mouth to ask a question.
“Please, time is of the essence,” he said. Like the Special Agent, the Colonel grabbed her elbow, but more gently, and ushered her into the aircraft. Once she was inside, he quickly followed her in and two uniformed airmen quickly closed the door, latched it and stood in front of it.
She was trapped.
The Colonel extended his hand, gesturing towards the spacious interior of the executive entrance and the door leading to the senior staff meeting room. Looking at the airmen standing guard in front of the door, Amanda said, “I’m not taking another step until somebody explains to me what the hell is going on. Where is the President?” She turned towards the Colonel and glared at him.
“Please, let’s just sit down and I’ll explain everything. I promise. But we need to get buckled in so we can take off.”
Amanda’s breathing came in strained huffs now and she felt the nape of her neck bristle. Mostly in anger, but she couldn’t deny the faint sizzle of fear crawling along her skin now.
“Where are we going?”
The Colonel frowned and flicked his hand at the door. “Please.”
Amanda had the feeling it would be the last time anybody would ask. From that moment on, she sensed that requests would become orders and then demands. Looking around the cabin of Air Force One, she knew she couldn’t escape and would be powerless to refuse.
“Colonel, I am the Attorney General of the United States. Somebody had better tell me why I’m here and why everybody thinks they can manhandle the Attorney General.” She leaned in and narrowed her gaze. “Or some people might be looking for a new job tomorrow morning.” She tightened her mouth, hoping the man understood that she really did have the power to ruin his life if she so chose. “And somebody please tell me where the President is.”
The Colonel’s eyes darkened and he took a single step towards her. Staring straight into her eyes, he said, “We need to go. Now.”
Amanda blinked hard, but she didn’t want to test the notion that they might very well be willing to physically restrain her at that point. She took out her smart phone and dialed the President’s personal number. Again. Just as before, she heard the ominous click and then the urgent tri-tone telling her his phone was out of service. “Not until I hear from the President.” She crossed her arms and looked down her nose at the Colonel. If he really wanted her to move, he was going to have to physically do it himself. And Amanda Jackson knew she wasn’t a diminutive woman. She wasn’t weak, either. He would have a hard time of it – she would make sure.
“Madam Secretary, the President is dead.”
Amanda shivered and stumbled back against the bulkhead, groping for something to steady herself.
“Now, please,” he said, “we need to get going. We have a situation.”
Amanda nodded slowly, still overwhelmed by what he was telling her. They could have told her while she was in her office. Or even while they were whisking her down the road in the Suburban. But they had waited until now to tell her. And she didn’t dare wonder why.
* * *
Amanda stepped into the senior staff meeting room, where she saw the grand mahogany table and plush leather chairs neatly tucked up against the table – all empty. She plopped down in one of the plush leather seats along the bulkhead and buckled her seatbelt, still reeling from being told the President was gone.
She eyed the Colonel as he sat down next to her, buckled his seatbelt and laid the black leather satchel on his lap. Amanda’s breath caught when she saw the flash of steel around his wrist.
“How did it happen?” she asked. Her gaze settled on the black satchel. “Who’s in charge now?”
Amanda felt the jet lurch and looked out the window to see they were turning away from the passenger terminal.
“We haven’t been properly introduced,” the Colonel said.
Amanda turned away from the window and stared at the Colonel. “What?”
“I am Colonel LaFontaine.” He extended his hand. Amanda stared at it, wondering why he was suddenly so cordial. She quickly shook his hand and then whipped her hand away.
“What do you do?” she asked.
“I’m a military aide to the President.”
Amanda’s shoulders tensed and she felt another shiver of fear run along her arm. She pointed at the satchel and asked, “What is that?”
Colonel LaFontaine adjusted himself in his seat and leaned towards her. “What do you remember from your Strategic Forces Briefing?”
“What happened to the President?” she asked.
The Colonel nodded slowly. “I understand you have questions. And we’ll get to them. But first, I need you to tell me what you remember from your Strategic Forces Briefing. It’s important.”
His steady gaze chilled her to the bone. Staring at the satchel, she understood something greater than her need to know what had happened to her President had been set into motion. And it probably had something to do with why she was the only member of the cabinet now sitting in Air Force One, waiting to be flown to some destination she was almost certain she didn’t want to know about.
Still staring at the satchel, she said, “I read it.”
“Good, madam Secretary. That’s good.” She could feel him staring at her, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the satchel. “Can you tell me this, then – what is the difference between counter-force and counter-value?”
The plane lumbered onto the runway and Amanda could hear the engines spooling up outside. The jet started to rumble down the runway and she felt herself pushed to the side, towards the Colonel. He gently held his hand against her shoulder until she could straighten herself back up.
“A counter-force strike is designated to neutralize military assets, specifically strategic missile forces. Secondarily it provides interdiction against heavy industry, command, control and communication.” She frowned. “Why are you asking me this?”
The plane’s nose lifted off the ground and Amanda felt as if she were in an elevator. She wanted to look outside the window to see the ground spill away as they climbed into the air, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the satchel.
“That’s good, madam Secretary. And counter-value?”
“That’s where you mop up the cities with bombers. As if that would really matter.”
“Primary strategic strata?”
Amanda’s voice came out in a drone, as if somebody else were speaking. She barely heard her own words as the landing gear whirred and thumped into place beneath them. “ICBM for counter-force primary. SLBM for counter-force secondary. Orbital defense for redundancy interdiction. SAC for the rest.”
“That’s good, madam Secretary.” The Colonel studied her carefully and she wondered if he was impressed by her recollection of the arcane briefing the President had handed to her in her first week. Read this, he had said. You’ll need it some day. She remembered stumbling to the kitchen, sick to her stomach after reading through the pages of how to conduct a nuclear war.
Amanda forced herself to look at the Colonel. She saw a detached and somber calmness in the Colonel’s eyes – as if he were relieved that she actually had read – and understood – her Strategic Forces Briefing. Her voice came out plaintive this time and she knew she sounded like a scared little girl. “What happened to the President?”
He reached out slowly now and gently wrapped his hand around her wrist. A chime sounded softly in the background and the captain’s voice floated from a speaker. “We’re over ten thousand now. Y’all can take off your seatbelts. We’ll be about four hours or so enroute. Enjoy the ride.” He sounded like a tour guide and Amanda could almost hear him say, Thank you for flying Air Force One.
She listened to the silence, wishing she could hear the wind hushing over the wings outside, but that was kept out by the armored windows and reinforced bulkheads of Air Force One. She watched the clouds skim by, soundless and oblivious to the cocoon of despair she felt closing in around her.
His hand still wrapped around her wrist, the Colonel’s mouth widened into a thin line. He took a breath, bracing for what he had to tell her. “There’s more.”
“We lost the President pro tem, the Speaker, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of Defense, too.”
Amanda slumped back into her seat and splayed her fingers over her chest. She could barely choke out the words. “Oh my God.” Amanda’s head drooped and her mouth fell agape. “That’s not possible.”
“We didn’t thinks so, either.” The Colonel looked wistfully at a window on the other side of the cabin. “But here we are.”
“We’re just starting to get the details, but what we do know is that it was fast and very well-coordinated.”
Amanda imagined the President in his office, the Speaker striding down the halls of capitol hill, the secretaries in their various offices. It didn’t make any sense. Her mind turned away from the sorrow and shock of what she was hearing and instead struggled to understand how it could have possibly happened. “Who?” she asked.
“We don’t know, but it’s clear we were infiltrated. Which means state involvement.”
Amanda’s mind reeled as she saw empty chairs, the President’s cold white face just before a blanket was pulled up over his eyes. The senior cabinet members all lying next to him. She felt her eyes glisten when she thought of Sarah, the Secretary of the Treasury, who had always looked like a girl to Amanda – young and intense but overwhelmed at the same time. Somebody who was in over her head but refused to realize it. Amanda couldn’t imagine Sarah’s face stilled by death, her soft blue eyes closed as somebody closed the zipper of a body bag to hide her face away.
All of them, gone.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
As if to answer her question, the door opened and a man dressed in a black robe stepped into the senior staff meeting room.
“Madam Secretary, this is Judge Trumbeau from the DC Circuit Court.”
Amanda stood up and held out her hand. She knew the judge from her days as a trial lawyer and remembered admiring him for having the steady and objective mind of a jurist – not the kind of man who legislates from the bench. She felt herself almost smile, surprised at the comfort that something as simple as a familiar face could bring. The judge quickly shook her hand and then held out the Bible tucked under his arm. Colonel LaFontaine got up to stand next to her.
“I need you to repeat after me,” the judge said.
Amanda turned to look at the Colonel and gasped. “No.”
“Madam Secretary,” the Colonel said, “We need a leader. And you’re next on the list.”
Amanda felt her knees buckle and the room started to sway. She had been too busy thinking about what had happened to the most important people in her life, how they were gone, leaving behind a great void of despair that had no hope of ever being filled. She had forgotten that she was that hope. She was next in the line of succession. Taking several deep breaths, Amanda Jackson had never been so scared in her life and she felt suddenly alone. She also knew that there was no way she could possibly carry out the duties of the President of the United States. But there was nobody else. It was on her now. So, she smoothed down her canary-yellow skirt, clenched her jaw and placed her hand on the Bible.
She eyed the judge. Just as he was about to speak, she raised her right hand and recited the oath from memory.
“I, Amanda Jackson, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It wasn’t part of the oath, but she said it anyway because she wanted them to know she meant it. She needed to convince herself that she meant it because at that moment, she didn’t think she could even try. “So help me God.”
She let her hand down and took her hand off the Bible. Judge Trumbeau smiled and then quietly left the room. Amanda watched him leave, puzzled that he didn’t want to stay at least for a few minutes so they could talk shop. She wasn’t involved in any case he was presiding over and they had chatted often over lunch in the city. A momentary diversion to discuss anything but what was actually going on around her would have been more than a welcome relief. She needed everything to pause for a moment and if she could just talk about some mundane case on his docket or the latest assistant AG who wasn’t getting with the program, it would have purchased her a solitary moment of sanity that would delay for at least another moment the unraveling of her mind that she already knew was unavoidable. Why hadn’t he given her that respite? Why was he in such a hurry to leave?
Why had he left her standing there alone, with nothing more than an oath and a country she had no idea how to lead from catastrophe?
She turned to face the Colonel, who now held up the black satchel. “To answer your question, madam President, this is the President’s emergency satchel.”
“Good God,” she said. Of course, the football. And now it was in her hands. “Tell me we’re not going to need that.”
“I wish I could,” the Colonel said.
* * *
Exactly three hours and fifty-four minutes after lifting off from Andrews, Air Force One thumped down on runway three five right of the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport, collocated with Peterson Space Force Base. Now buckled into a seat in the President’s office perched in the top section of Air Force One, Amanda couldn’t help chuckling at the name, even though Colonel La Fontaine had explained to her that monitoring space for threats was a real Air Force mission that had been going on for a long time. Missiles fly in space. Satellites with nuclear weapons platforms – and yes, these really had existed – flew in space. Still, Amanda didn’t think she would ever be able to call somebody “spaceman” with a straight face. Thinking about it was a welcome moment of levity that took her mind off the unrelenting reality of being a Command in Chief who knew nothing about commanding anybody other than lawyers and FBI agents. But the Colonel, whose demeanor was still inscrutable – some stone wall of martial heritage she didn’t comprehend – was her subordinate now. If only she knew what to tell him to do.
As soon as the airmen opened the executive entrance door, Amanda trotted out and scampered down the stairs – she didn’t have to be prodded this time. Colonel La Fontaine followed close behind, the President’s emergency satchel cuffed securely to his wrist.
Amanda stopped at the bottom of the stairs and eyed the black Suburban waiting there. Pointing at the vehicle, she asked, “What do we need this for?” She turned to face the Colonel. “NORAD is right here.” She shook her head, not understanding.
The driver – another ubiquitous Secret Service Special Agent, stepped out and opened the left-rear passenger door for Amanda. The Colonel walked around to the other side and shouted back, “We’re going somewhere else.”
Shaking her head, Amanda stepped into the vehicle and let the Special Agent closed the door without comment. As soon as the Colonel had settled in next to her and his door was closed, the Suburban lurched and Amanda clutched at the armrest as the engine revved hard and they sped across the tarmac and barreled onto the road.
“CMOC,” Colonel La Fontaine said.
“Cheyenne?” Amanda asked. “But that’s just for surveillance now.” Looking over her shoulder and pointing, she said, “NORAD is right here.” She squinted at the Colonel and then noticed a bead of sweat trickling down the side of his face. He was nervous. And it wouldn’t have caught her attention except that until that moment, he had kept a meticulously stoic soldier’s bearing. He hadn’t been nervous when he told her the President was dead or quizzed her on nuclear strategy. But he was nervous now.
“We’ve activated the auxiliary command center at CMOC,” he said, trying to sound composed, as if he were searching for words in a script that was missing a scene. “General Rydell can explain it better than I. We’ll meet him there.”
Knitting her brow, Amanda stared at the Colonel a moment longer. But he just turned away and pretended to be looking through the windshield as the Suburban raced down highway 24.
Soon, they were barreling along a winding road that led to the gaping entrance to Cheyenne Mountain Complex. They slowed as they approached the hole in the mountain, the hush of the wheels echoing against granite as the driver deftly threaded the Suburban between alternating concrete barriers peppering the asphalt road that took them deeper into the mountain. Just ahead, she saw the famous blast door, wide-open and guarded by two well-armed Air Force guards.
Amanda knew what was beyond those blast doors. She also knew what used to be hidden in the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, but no longer was. The headquarters for NORAD and its Combat Operations Center. All of that was back at Peterson, which they had left behind in a hurry. What was in the Mountain was the nexus of all the sensor data for early detection that came in from around the world – radar, satellites and other assets Amanda was sure she wasn’t entitle to know about. Until now.
While she couldn’t deny how unsettling it was to be brought to the dreary confines of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, she was grateful for the modest relief she felt knowing they weren’t actually going to the place where she could authorize the launch of nuclear weapons. Whatever was going on was grim, but it wasn’t that.
Still, Cheyenne Mountain was a place designed to survive the end of the world, a fact she couldn’t escape as she surveyed the granite walls entombing them. She tried to imagine what it would be like for the people who would be trapped behind those blast-proof doors if they ever closed in earnest, all of them knowing that as they sat huddled in the world’s largest bomb shelter eating MREs and watching T.V. screens snow over with static, their friends and families were being vaporized by the nuclear plumes of Armageddon. All of it – history itself – gone. Would they ever re-emerge from behind those blast doors to peer out at the world lain waste by the Apocalypse? And where would they go if they did?
The car lurched to a halt and the driver leapt out to open her door. She stepped out as a trim blonde Air Force Major stepped out from the entrance. Dressed in regular camo uniform and black boots, he strode confidently towards her as Colonel La Fontaine fell in next to her.
“Madam President,” the Major said, saluting. Not knowing what else to do, Amanda put her hand over her heart and then let it back down. A civilian’s salute that she didn’t know was appropriate or not.
“Right this way,” the Major said, walking back towards the guards. “You’ll need to show your ID here,” he said.
Amanda stopped in front of the guards and felt a wave of panic wash through her. She absently patted her skirt and the pockets in her jacket, knowing it wouldn’t matter. It wasn’t her fault. They had practically abducted her off the street while she was taking a walk. As usual, she had left her purse in her office, knowing it would be safe. She didn’t like wearing it when she was on one of her famous thinking walks. She turned to Colonel LaFontaine.
“I don’t have anything,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
Just then, one of the guards produced what looked like a portable credit card reader and held it out. “Just put your thumb right here, ma’am,” the guard said smartly. He gave a quick nod, an informal assurance that she was in the right place and that they were ready to follow her lead. Amanda gingerly pressed her thumb against a square pad. The guard snapped the device away, stared at it for a moment and nodded sharply again when it gave a faint beep. Looking at the Major, he said, “Authenticated, sir. She’s NCA.”
“Very well,” the Major said, and then gestured for Amanda to follow him past the blast door. Amanda listened to the click of her heels against a polished concrete walkway that seemed to go on forever. To her left she saw an endless parade of jagged granite which the Army Corps of Engineers had blasted through over fifty years before. To her right, she saw walkways that led to tunnels and various steel buildings beyond. Each had its own color painted along the edges denoting its function. She was surprised to see such pedestrian outlets such as a dentist, a small convenience store, even a Subway. But there were serious buildings, too, and she gulped as they turned down one of the walkways and through a tunnel, at the end of which she saw the NORAD emblem hovering over the door. A globe with North America front and center floated in front of a shield. Wings curled around from behind the globe, the wing-tip feathers pointing at the United States in a way that made them look to Amanda like daggers ready to pierce the ground. In the center, a sword, which she wasn’t sure what to do with.
Beneath the emblem, a stern sign read NORTH AMERICAN AEROSPACE DEFENCE COMBAT OPERATIONS CENTER.
Amanda started to hyperventilate even as she looked at the sign, confused. “This isn’t right,” she said. She turned to the Colonel, slowly shaking her head. “They don’t do that here anymore. The COC is back at Peterson.” She furrowed her brow, anger welling up inside her chest. “They don’t do that here anymore!” Amanda stared at the Colonel, seething as she heard her own voice reverberate off the granite.
Again, she saw a bead of sweat trickle down the side of his face. He put a hand on her shoulder. “Like I said, General Rydell will explain everything.” Glancing at the sign, he said, “We have to go in now. Are you alright?”
Amanda bit her tongue and her stomach felt sour. She shook her head briskly. “Yeah, I’m OK,” she said, if only because she was supposed to say it. But she was anything but alright, and a little surprised that she hadn’t collapsed from the enormity of it all.
The Major passed a card across a scanner and pressed his thumb to a pad. The door clunked and swung open automatically. Just before he stepped through, he said, “We have to go in one at a time. There are two doors. You go through the first one, close it, then swipe through the second. The Colonel has your cards.”
Amanda didn’t really know what that all meant, but she nodded as the Major stepped through and the door closed behind him. A light over the door turned a crimson red and Amanda understood that meant the space between the two doors was occupied.
Colonel La Fontaine tapped her on the shoulder. When she turned around, Amanda saw him holding up two cards in his hand – one green, one red. “Red gets you in the first door,” he said. “There will be a turnstile inside. It only goes one way. Once you go through it, you can’t come back out. Then you use the green card for the second door and you’re in.” He nodded as he handed her the cards. “Understand?”
Amanda turned around to look at the emblem again, those wings still looking like daggers ready to shred the country now in her care to shreds. “Yeah, I got it,” she said. She looked over her shoulder and could feel the anguish tightening her face. “Thank you Colonel.”
“For being what I need to be. Calm. Collected. You set a good example.”
For the first time since she had met him, Amanda saw Colonel La Fontaine smile. “I’m at your service, madam President.” Then his face turned serious, as if he really meant what he was about to say, a sliver of earnestness cracking his martial bearing. As if he, the man, not the Colonel, really wanted her to understand it. Wanted her to believe it. “You’ll do fine, madam President. I have every confidence.”
Amanda nodded somberly. “Thank you, Colonel.”
She turned and swiped the red card over the scanner. The thumbpad glowed and she pressed her thumb against it until the door clunked and then swept open. She stepped inside and then the door closed behind her, trapping her in a steel box. She had nowhere to run now. She couldn’t go back. The only way was forward, through a tall revolving door with steel spokes that meshed with each other on one side and let a single person step through on the other. She pushed her way through and pushed back on the bars once she was on the other side. As promised, she couldn’t move them and they stood between her and the Colonel now. For a moment, she wondered if he would come with her or if she was on her own now. Of course, that wasn’t true. He had the football. Still, she wondered if she would have to face whatever lay on the other side of the second door without him.
She swiped the green card against the scanner and pressed her thumb against a second glowing terminal. The door clunked and just as it started to open, she could have sworn she heard laughter. Giggles and snickering that floated through air from the most deadly place on the planet. Just as quickly as she thought she had heard them, they were gone. “I must be losing my mind,” she muttered to herself. She shook her head and let out a quick breath, tying to keep herself connected to reality, no matter how grim it was becoming. No matter how much she wanted to run away from it.
As she stepped through the door, Amanda Jackson, President of the United States, heard a loud voice yell, “Ten hut!”
* * *
Amanda stepped onto a steel-grate landing just big enough to hold a few people. She was grateful for the smooth metal handrails that kept her from falling into the cavernous room below. Scanning the scene, she saw a small ocean of faces looking up at her as everyone in the room stood rigidly at attention, waiting for something.
Amanda slowly turned to take in the room. She saw rows and banks of consoles with monitors, microphones, keyboards and some fairly arcane-looking control panels. It all reminded her of NASA’s Mission Control Center from the sixties. Sprawled across the wall in front of it all were several large screens – some showing maps of different parts of the country, others showing readouts she didn’t understand.
The Major stood off to one side, leaning against the railing. Amanda turned to her left and found herself face-to-face with a tall man wearing a uniform bristling with ribbons and decorations. Balding with sagging jowls, he said, “Madam President. I’m General Rydell, Commander in Chief, NORAD.”
Amanda backed up a step, only to bump into the Major. “It’s crowded up here,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” General Rydell said. “We should go downstairs into the pit here.”
As she followed him down the steep steel stairs leading into the cavernous Combat Operations Center, she said, “I’m surprised to see the C in C himself down here, General. I thought this place would be run by a wing commander or something like that. Honestly, I don’t know how the Air Force runs things.”
The General glanced over his shoulder as he continued down the stairs. “Well, at times like this, right here is where I should be. Although I’m not in operational command of J36 here in the Mountain, Space Command, STRATCOM and all that. Look, uh, we don’t really have time to get into all that. I’m here. I’m your man.”
Amanda smirked at his dismissive attitude, wondering why he was so calm. She pressed him even further. “And I thought Cheyenne was just a training facility now. You guys are all over at Peterson now, aren’t you?”
“Oh that,” the General said casually. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and offered his hand to help her down the last few steps. She took it, not wanting to disrupt the comfortable ease he seemed to have in talking to her. “Alphabet soup.”
“What now?” she asked, stepping onto the concrete floor of the Combat Operations Center.
“We can’t have Wikipedia knowing what really goes on around here. Think about it for a minute. Why would we move all our stuff out of this here sturdy granite mountain just so it can be pegged by a re-entry vehicle in Colorado Springs? I mean, really.” He arched a brow.
Then, she felt a familiar presence suddenly appear next to her. She turned to see that Colonel LaFontaine had quietly sidled up next to her. Probably just to keep the football in arm’s reach, but she felt a faint glow of relief at his familiar presence.
Then she noticed that everyone was still standing at attention, ignoring their monitors and control panels.
“They’re waiting for you to tell them to carry on, Madam President,” the Colonel said quietly.
“Oh.” She cleared her throat and tried to present a loud, authoritative voice, but it came out more like a bark. “Carry on.” The room instantly came back to life as chairs scooted and rolled across the floor and a low burble of chatter filled the room.
While everyone seemed intently focused and busy, she didn’t detect a particular air of urgency in the room. One man ate what looked like a candy bar as he sat at his console, staring numbly at the screen. On the other side of the room, two young women were chatting with each other, neither of them looking at their monitors. She could have chalked it up to the hardened martial mind that each of them must have possessed to work in such a place, but it seemed to her if they were on the brink of nuclear war, they would be more agitated. At least she hoped they would be.
Which meant they weren’t on the brink. Although she was standing in the NORAD Combat Operations Center, that’s not why she was really there. Amanda closed her eyes and let out a long sigh, letting herself bathe in the comfort of that one hopeful thought.
“Alright, gentlemen, why am I here?” she asked.
“Follow me,” the General said. He led her up a flight of shallow stairs so a small bank of consoles and monitors that were situated at the rear of the room. Here, senior officers watched over their respective commands and coordinated the small army of Air Force staff manning the Combat Operations Center. General Rydell leaned over the shoulder of one of the officers. “Bring up the CIWS thing you showed me this morning.”
The officer tapped a few commands into this keyboard, clicked some arcane symbols on his monitor and then leaned back so Amanda could see. “This is an aggregate of ground surveillance over Russia and most of Asia.”
“What am I seeing?” Amanda asked.
The general tapped the screen. “They still use mobile launchers over there. They move around all the time. And then this morning, they all stopped and now they’re just sitting there.”
Amanda felt a spike of adrenalin in her chest. She had remembered from her Strategic Forces Briefing exactly what he was talking about. While they did still have silos, just as the U.S. did, Russia still liked its rail-based missile launchers so they could stay ahead of NORADs ability to keep up with new targeting data that had to be disseminated to the strategic missile forces spread around the country. Or at least try. She didn’t know if they actually could stay ahead or not.
“OK, so they stopped.” Amanda tried to think of any reason for what she was seeing that didn’t lead to missiles flying through the air. The one thought she clung to with every inch of her being was the simple fact that they were still on the ground. And had been for several hours at least. She wondered if maybe the General was being a little jumpy. “Maybe they ran out of funding for the moment, or it’s a routine pause. Have they done this before?”
General Rydell huffed through his nose absently. Tapping the screen, he said, “Yeah, show me that other thing, you know, the -“
“I know what you’re getting at sir. The launchers.” The officer tapped out more commands and a new array of pictures splattered across his monitor. Then he clicked on one to zoom in until the image of a single missile launcher covered his entire screen.
“Right there,” the General said, tapping the screen. “See how it’s pointed up there? That’s what we call pre-launch deployment.”
Amanda could feel herself starting to pant. She leaned in closer and brushed her fingers over the screen. The picture looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t say why. It was grainy and in black and white, but she figured that all satellite imagery was going to look the same somehow. After all, they were taking pictures from over a hundred miles away, or more.
But there was no mistaking what she saw: the launcher was angled up and she could see the missile ready to leap into the air and claw its way over the horizon, one of those feathers arcing in to plunge into the continental United States. Her shoulders started to ache and she felt her stomach turning sour again. What she couldn’t grasp, no even a little bit, was exactly what she was supposed to do about any of it. She had no control over what the Russians did with their mobile launchers. And that thought frightened her. She had the urge to reach out somehow, place her hand over the missile and say, Hold on a minute, just stop. Let’s talk this over. She wondered: what would the President have done?
“How to they fuel them?” she asked. “I wouldn’t imagine those rockets can store their own fuel for much longer than needed for a launch.”
General Rydell stood back and looked her over with a perplexed look on his face. “That’s right,” he said slowly. He shot a glance at Colonel La Fontaine and gave him a quick nod. He leaned back in towards the monitor, tapping the undercarriage of the launcher. “We think they store it down here in cryogenic tanks. Then transfer it on the spot.”
“Do we know if they’ve done that?” she asked. “Have they fueled them up?”
General Rydell shook his head. “We don’t know.”
“Well, can we find out?”
A look of boredom flashed across his face and then General Rydell said, “Yeah, sure. When they launch.”
Amanda eyed the man for a long moment and then said, “I’m sorry, General, am I bothering you with all my pesky questions?”
The General smiled and then let out a grunt. “No, madam President. Of course not.”
“Hmm.” She tapped her fingers along her shoulder – an old nervous habit from law school that she had forgotten about years before. “Has anybody talked to the Russians?” she asked.
“Can’t do that from here,” the General said. “That’s the sort of thing that the Situation Room in the White House is good for.” He arched a brow. “Or Air Force One.”
“Then what am I doing here?” she asked.
“Yeah, that’s a good question,” the General said, flopping down into an empty chair in front of one of the consoles.
Colonel La Fontaine cleared his throat. “You’re here, madam President, because it’s the safest place right now and we need NCA on scene in a situation like this. Remember why you’re here. These are not normal circumstances.”
As Amanda was reflecting on what he said, the Colonel looked past her with stern eyes. “Can we have a moment, General?” he asked.
General Rydell stood up. “Sure, why not?” Then he followed Colonel La Fontaine down the stairs and into the pit.
When they were far enough away that she couldn’t hear, Amanda watched as the Colonel actually poked the General in the chest. She couldn’t hear his voice, but she could tell by the expression on his face that he was nearly dressing the General down. Then the General said something back, clearly upset at the Colonel’s insubordination. Colonel La Fontaine clamped his jaw shut as the General poked him back in the chest – twice. Then he whirled around and stomped back up the stairs.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Everything’s fine madam President. Just your boy reminding me that you are, in fact, NCA now. I didn’t mean any disrespect.”
“None taken.” Amanda studied the man as he sat back down and drummed his fingers on the console. “General, let me explain something to you.”
“I’m well aware that there are some decisions here that only I can make. But they are really tough decisions, so I’m not interested in etiquette. I need the best information you have and expert advice.” She took a step towards him. “I’m an attorney, not a soldier. I don’t know about fighting wars. You do. So I don’t care if you like me or respect me personally. But I do expect you go give your Commander in Chief the very best and candid advice you have. And I’m not interested in fighting a war today. I’m interested in making sure we don’t get there. Deal?”
The General smiled and nodded. “Yes, madam President, that’s a deal.”
“Fine, then what do we do here?”
“Strategically, we should get our SLBMs on as many of those launchers as we can, to reduce their capability.”
Amanda narrowed her gaze and shook her head. It was as if he hadn’t heard a word she’d said. He seemed eager to start the very thing she wanted to stop. While she couldn’t help the fear coursing through her veins and quivering along her jaw, she was suddenly aware that he couldn’t do anything without her consent. And for that, she felt infinitely grateful.
“What if they’re not aimed at us?” she asked.
“Doesn’t matter who they’re aimed at – it’s bad news. Either way, there is no way to interpret a launch readiness stance other than as hostile.”
Amanda drummed her fingers against her shoulder again. “What if it’s a drill?”
“That’s a fair question. But we’d know if they were conducting a drill.”
“Yeah, they usually do that a section at a time. What we see here is a mass launch readiness maneuver by their entire strategic missile force.” He leaned back in the chair, casually placing his hands behind his head. “Besides, we talk to each other.”
Surprised, Amanda looked at him wide-eyed. “You what?”
“Yeah. We need to open some silo doors to make sure they still work, we tell ’em. They’re gonna’ do a launch readiness drill, they tell us. It’s how we brass hats keep World War Three from happening.”
Amanda leaned against one of the console desks with both hands, staring at the maps on the wall.
“Peace really is our profession,” the General said.
Without thinking about it too much as she stared at the maps, Amanda casually said, “That’s SAC, not NORAD.”
The General grunted.
Still looking at the maps, she asked, “So they haven’t told you anything?”
“No, ma’am. That’s why you’re here. If this was a drill or some other maneuver sans hostile intent, we should have heard from them by now.”
“Why?” She stood back up and turned towards the General. “Why would they do this? Everything is going along OK and then all of a sudden one day they decide to take out the sword? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“You’re right, it doesn’t.” He expression changed, as if he were holding something back. As if he knew something but couldn’t tell her.
“I told you General – be candid.”
He shrugged and said, “That’s all there is. You’re right, it doesn’t make sense. And we don’t have a Secretary of State to ask about it.”
“Decapitation followed by a strike. Why? This is bullshit.” Amanda turned towards Colonel La Fontaine. “Get me the deputy Sec -“
But before she could finish her sentence, a blaring alarm filled the room, a low ratchety steady tone. And then a red flashing light came to life just beneath the screens on the far wall.
* * *
Amanda swung around to look at the flashing light, her heart hammering in her chest. “What’s that?” she yelled.
General Rydell stood up and worked his jaw as he studied the wall for a moment. “Don’t know yet.” He picked up a phone from its cradle and stabbed a few keys on the numeric keypad next to it.
Another alarm blurted a short burst and Amanda jerked her head to the right when a yellow light flashed on another wall. She read the pulsing words shouting in silence: DEFCON 2.
Nobody had to tell her what that meant. They were one step away from World War 3. Suddenly, she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders as it thundered towards destruction. Her mind scampered through a myriad of options and then all she could see was herself running through a mine field with no hope of finding the other side. She knew she had to stop whatever was happening. It was no longer a choice or an exercise in what if? No longer did she have the luxury of being scared and wondering how she had been thrust into the horror of being the one person in the room who had to decide whether or not to unleash the megatons of destruction that she knew would bring the world to an end. That was all in the past now. She was in charge and she had one job. She had to make it stop. But first she had to understand it. She knew she was barely seeing the edges of a deeper mystery that made no sense. She knew the world was a crowded and competitive place driven at times by egos that were less than rational.
But the world wasn’t crazy. Not like this.
Then, a darker thought emerged in her mind, one that made her physically rear back from the console and clutch at her stomach. Nausea rippled through her belly, but she had to force herself to see what some newly awakened part of her mind was telling her now. It was some horrific beast that rippled and coiled up from the depths of hell to gnash its teeth and unleash a slithering hiss. But she knew she had to face it. She couldn’t turn away from it.
The beast glared at her and stilled, a single thought commuting itself into her consciousness: If she couldn’t stop it from happening, then she had to make it end as quickly as possible. She had to figure out a way to minimize the damage. To somehow make sure somebody would be left and would be able to start over.
Amanda shuddered and she heard herself whimper. “No.”
Scowling as she felt her eyes well up, Amanda yelled, “I need status on our SLBMs right now! And somebody tell me why we just went to DEFCON 2.”
She heard Colonel La Fontaine’s calm voice behind her. “It’s set according to our Strategic Detection Posture, madam President. STRATCOM and CISW correlate a lot of information from sensors all over the world – ground, air and space. When we get a certain correlation, we go to DEFCON 2.”
“Sensors? Correlation? Who makes the decision? Do we control this or what?” The Colonel took a deep breath, keeping his eyes on her. She could tell he was trying to will her to stay calm, which was exactly what she needed at that moment. But he didn’t respond. “Now what?” she asked.
“Now we verify. It might come back down. I don’t know. That’s the General’s wheelhouse.”
She whirled around to say something to General Rydell, but he was chattering on the phone and for the first time, she saw him look worried, so she thought it best not to interrupt him. He seemed like the kind of man who didn’t like DEFCON 2 any more than she did.
“Madam President,” the Colonel said.
She whirled around. “What?” Then she gasped when she saw him holding an aluminum briefcase open, the black leather satchel sitting rumpled on the ground at his feet. The beast incarnate, it had shed its skin and she could see its gaping maw ready to lash out and bite into her throat. She couldn’t stop It now. All she could do was grapple with it.
“We need to authenticate you, ma’am.”
Her lip started to tremble. “Why?” She pointed at the threat board. “We’re still at DEFCON 2. It’s not time yet.”
Colonel La Fontaine nodded reassuringly. “DEFCON 2 is when we do the authentication, ma’am. It takes some time to process.”
Amanda put her face in her hands, breathing deeply, trying to keep herself from throwing up. “Why is this happening?”
She took her hands down, swallowed hard and stepped towards the briefcase. “Fine. What do I do?”
Colonel La Fontaine frowned. “Do you have your key card?” He looked worried and she realized it was because they had, in fact, abducted her off the street and she didn’t even have her driver’s license. But the President had told her to keep her key card with her at all times. In the shower. In bed. Everywhere. No matter what. Tape it to yourself, he had said, discreetly patting his chest.
Which is exactly what she had done. Without a thought of modesty, Amanda Jackson reached into her bra and pulled out the key card that she affixed there with medical tape every morning. She remembered feeling some superstition about that particular habit. Her thought had been that if she did something as ludicrous as tape the damn thing to her own breast, she would never need to use it.
Colonel La Fontaine smiled and nodded approvingly. “That’s good, madam President. That’s very good.” He nodded at the briefcase. “Put it in that slot right there.
Peeling away the medical tape, Amanda carefully slid the card into what looked like an ordinary credit card slot and warily eyed the small control panel inside the briefcase. An old-fashioned red LED display flashed and then showed a series of dashes. Then she heard a beep and the screen read: FACTOR 1 VFD. A small metal covering popped up to reveal a red-tinted retinal scanner angled up to look at her. It looked to her like a satanic eye, beckoning her to the end of the world, as if to tell her: There is nothing you can do now. You can’t stop this.
“Step in close and look right into that red window there,” the Colonel said. “Try to be still. It takes a few seconds.” Amanda nodded and lowered her face to the little red window and stared into it, trying to keep steady despite the trembling coursing through her body. I’m not afraid of you. Go back to where you belong. After a few seconds, she heard another beep. The LED display read: FACTOR 2 VFD.
“See the little black pad next to the retina scanner?” the Colonel asked.
Amanda nodded reluctantly, her confidence bolstered by a simple procedure that made sense and that she was succeeding at. Something she could control, even though she couldn’t help feeling that she was opening a cage that should have been welded shut and thrown back into dark cave where it would never again find its way into the world. She pressed her thumb against the pad and heard a third beep. FACTOR 3 VFD.
“It’s going to do some calculations now.”
“What kind?” she asked.
“Well, if you really want to hear it -“
“Well, it takes a hash from the key card and combines that with the digital encoding from your biometric markers, then combines them with an NSC baseline twelve terabit hash that rotates daily. It then uses that to sign an NSC baseline thirteen terabit encryption key -“
His words faded away. Amanda could hear his voice droning on, but she couldn’t hear any of the words. Slowly, they morphed into a sickening hiss that she could physically hear – as real as the growing cacophony of voices in the pit and the tapping of keyboards by the officers sitting along the console in front of her. It was all a death rattle for the world.
Colonel La Fontaine stopped talking and Amanda watched the LED display go through a series of displays whose meaning she couldn’t decipher. STEP 12 MARK 5, it said. Then UTC FM VFD. She noticed the Colonel’s head was bent over the lid of the briefcase and he was watching the display intently. Obviously he knew what it all meant. More importantly, he would know if something went wrong. When the display read KEY CBAK RDY, he looked at her and said, “OK, put the card back in, chip towards me, so it can write the authentication package.
“Authentication package – what’s that?” she asked.
“Once the authenticator writes back to you card, you will be able to authenticate a launch from any NCA Authorization Terminal.” He nodded towards a black box embedded in the center console behind her. “Like that one.”
The beast slithered and hissed again. You cannot stop me. Come, your destiny awaits. Amanda stared at the screens on the far wall, feeling small and helpless. But she was the only one in the world who could wield that sword emblazoned on the NORAD emblem. It was hers alone. Again, she clung to the hope that she might be able to contain the damage. Millions were about to perish. But maybe she could spare millions more. Somehow.
If she was willing to pick up the sword.
Her hand visibly trembling now, Amanda inserted the card and waited until she heard a series of three beeps and saw the display read AUTH CMPLT. She took the card out and Colonel La Fontaine carefully closed the briefcase. “It’s right here if you need the scenario summary,” he said.
Amanda nodded somberly and slipped the card into her right jacket pocket, praying she would never have to reach in again. As she turned around to look at the maps, General Rydell hung up the phone and pressed a button. “Madam President, you’ll want to hear this.” She stepped over to stand next to him, not knowing exactly what she was supposed to do. He gestured at the ceiling. “Bob, you with us?”
Amanda heard a voice boom over speakers she hadn’t heard before, filling the cavernous room. “Yes, General.”
“Brief the President if you would.”
“Madam President,” the voice boomed. “This is General Robert Hadley with STRATCOM.” He paused to let that sink in.
“Go ahead General,” she said.
“We have a high correlation of detection strata indicating multiple launches from inside Russia.”
* * *
Amanda’s heart seemed to stop beating and a ringing filled her ears. The room started to sway and she realized she wasn’t breathing. She would have been happy to stay like that, consciousness slipping away so that she would be gone as the missiles clawed through the sky on crimson threads to shred the world with fire.
But she was the National Command Authority. Somebody had to preside over the end of the world now. And her name was Amanda Jackson.
She took a deep breath. “How many, General?”
“We don’t know yet, but initial estimates are in the hundreds.”
“Do we know where they’re headed?”
“Not yet. We need to wait for mid-course evaluation before we can build a projected impact analysis.”
Amanda felt her chest swell just then, suddenly angry at the sterile language that the military insisted on using when it was talking about killing people. “Give it to me in English, General.”
“I – I don’t know how else to say it, madam President.”
Colonel La Fontaine was at her elbow just then. He leaned in and whispered, “It’s how they keep their head, madam President. How they keep going when they have to face the impossible. He’s just doing his job. And it’s every bit as difficult as you might think it is.”
Amanda closed her eyes and nodded. “Right.” She looked back at the maps and tried to speak with a confidence she did not feel. She understood, then, that all eyes were on her and everyone was asking themselves the same question: would she have the courage to pick up the sword?
“Very well, General. How long before that projection and how long before impact? Your best estimate is fine.”
“Ten and twenty, madam President.”
The room fell silent as green dots started to appear on the center map. Albuquerque New Mexico first. Then Livermore California. A swath of dots across Nebraska, the Dakotas and Kansas.
Her heart stopped when she saw a green dot bloom over Washington DC. She hadn’t thought about it until that moment, but Clarise was at home right now, probably wondering where her mother was. Why she hadn’t come home. And Devin was probably going out of his mind. He had the numbers to call. But would they tell him that his wife had been whisked away to Cheyenne Mountain to preside over the end of the world? All she could see then was Clarise huddled in a corner, hugging her over-sized Teddy bear, tears streaming down her face, her jaw shuddering with sobs, her buck teeth baring themselves to the world as everything she had ever known was ripped from her in a storm of fire and wind.
Amanda had wondered in what seemed like just a moment ago what it would have been like for the people closed up in Cheyenne Mountain, watching the T.V. screens snow over with static as everyone they had ever known or loved was swept away by nuclear fire.
Now, she knew.
“What are these green markers, General? I thought you needed more time.”
There was a fat pause of silence before he answered. “Those are presumptive impact projections, madam President. Targets we presume the enemy will strike just because of what they are.”
“It looks like mostly our silos, General, is that correct?”
“That’s correct, madam President. And their missiles are still sitting in there.” She could tell he wanted to say something more.
“Let me have it, General. Speak your mind.”
“It’s OK, Bob,” General Rydell added. “She’s the real deal.”
“Well, madam President,” the voice boomed. “Our correlations are strong. They’re coming for us. We can use ’em or lose ’em. I say use ’em. There is the counter-value follow-up to consider.”
“The who what?”
“This is counter-force. If we leave the enemy in tact, they can come get what’s left with a counter-value strike. And there will be something left. If we have any hope of recovery, we need to knock them down, too.”
“A survivable nuclear war, General?”
“Maybe. We don’t know. But we know for sure if we leave them out of it, there won’t be anything left come morning.”
Turning to Rydell, she asked, “General?”
“I’m with Bob. Hit ’em back. What else are we supposed to do?”
She turned to La Fontaine. “Colonel?”
But the Colonel didn’t look at her. Instead, he looked at the General as spoke. “Not our call, madam President. You are the National Command Authority. You have to make the decision.”
Amanda turned back to the maps, staring at the green dot over Washington, DC. Clarise was still rocking in the corner, her wet brown eyes staring back at her, pleading for her mother to save her. But Amanda knew she couldn’t. Her daughter was already gone.
“Not into the night,” she whispered. “Get me SAC on the phone.”
Surprised, General Rydell grimaced and then picked up the phone, punching in more numbers. She glanced at Colonel La Fontaine and again saw a bead of sweat trickling down the side of his face. For only the second time, she saw him looking worried. What, she wondered, could possibly worry him when he had been so calm as World War 3 unfolded right before his eyes?
Just then, she saw a light flash out of the corner of her eye. There was no alarm this time as the threat board silently lit the final status: DEFCON 1. She cocked her head, wondering why there was no alarm. The light wasn’t red or orange or purple or some other color declaring urgency. It was a plain white, as if to say: We’re here. Nothing more to say.
Another voice filled the room. The voice sounded groggy. “Madam Sec – er, President, this is General Perris, SAC. What can I do for you?”
“Did I wake you, General. Am I disturbing you?” She clenched her teeth, not trying to hide the anger in her voice.
Suddenly sounding alert, he said, “No ma’am. Just, um, a little busy over here.”
“Uh huh. Well, look, what’s the status of our bombers?”
She heard nothing but silence for several seconds. When it had gone on for too long, General Rydell spoke up. “You sent up the alert crews once we hit DEFCON 2, didn’t you Kam? Right?”
The booming voice rallied. “Uh, right General. That’s right. Oh, here we go. I have it right here. OK, SAC wings went into launch status at DEFCON 2 – so ten minutes or so.”
“Are they in the air?” Amanda asked.
“We run a fifteen minute clock, madam President. They have to go through checks, spool everything up, get in line and get off the ground. We’re good at it, but it’s not instantaneous.”
“Well, by my count you got about fifteen minutes before it doesn’t matter any longer. Get on it.”
“Yes, madam President.”
Amanda shook her head. She glanced at General Rydell in disgust and waved her hand in front of her throat. Cut him off.
“We’ll get back to you Kam.” The General hung up the phone before the SAC General could respond. “Do you want to launch our ICBMs?” he asked.
“Negative. Wake up whoever’s in charge of our Boomers.”
Colonel La Fontaine stepped up next to her and spoke in the calm voice that for some reason was starting to annoy her. “I’m sure he was just distracted, madam President. Lot going on right now.”
Amanda stared at the Colonel, wondering what he was really thinking, knowing he would never tell her. “He sounded like he had been asleep. I know what a man sounds like when he wakes up. Hear it every morning.”
The Colonel didn’t respond.
“Why no ICBMs, madam President?” General Rydell asked.
Looking at him sternly, she said, “Because they are targeted for a bunch of empty silos, so what’s the point in wasting them? Plus, I assume not all of them are targeting Russia.”
“That is correct” the General replied.
“Start moving them over to counter-value targets. How quickly can you do that?”
“Those are counter-force weapons,” the General said.
She raised her voice now, feeling a growing frustration at being argued with instead of obeyed. “Well, that force they’re supposed to counter is on its way, so what’s the point? Swing ’em to counter-value. How long?” Without realizing what she was doing, Amanda smacked her hand on the console. Startled by her own outburst, she jerked, but held her gaze on General Rydell.
The General slowly shook his head and let out a slow breath as he tried to work it out. “Hard to say. They may get here before we can retarget and launch.”
Still looking at Rydell, Amanda raised her voice. “General Hadley, how many silos will we have left after this initial strike?”
Hadley’s voice boomed over the speakers, but she could hear in his voice that she had asked him a question he wasn’t prepared to answer. “Some,” he said. “Maybe as much as ten percent. Depends on accuracy, detonation ratio, things like that. Some.”
“We’ll take our chances. General Rydell, retarget for counter-value and let me know when you’re ready.”
“Yes ma’am.” Amanda blinked at the General because for the first time, she heard genuine respect in his voice. Which she thought was odd, because what was there to respect about killing millions of people?
One of the officers looked at the General and said, “I have Admiral Kinney, sir.”
Amanda didn’t wait for them to be introduced. “Admiral?”
“Right here, madam President.”
“Oh, good, the Navy is awake. Admiral, what do you have for me in the Pacific for surface forces?”
“Right. OK, once we hit DEFCON 3, the Lincoln battle group turned north to move at maximum speed towards the Bering Operations Zone.”
“SAC is getting in the air now. If I need to send them in, will you be able to help cover them as they get into the corridor? How many fighters does the Lincoln have?”
“Yes ma’am. I’ve got some Hornets with short legs, some thirty-fives that can go longer. We can help, but we’ll need Air Force TAC to join in.”
“Very good, Admiral. Next, SLBMS – I need whatever you got that can get inside Russia.”
“Boomers in the Med and Berents Sea madam President.”
“How many missiles?”
“I can give you an even hundred. Not enough for a strategic interdiction, but we can probably get a good part of their air bases or other military installations, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish here.”
“475 kilo give or take.”
“Close enough. Admiral, I want a counter-value package. Understood?”
Again, there were a few seconds of silence. “Sure about that, madam President?”
“Yes I am. Look, STRATCOM tells me we got a massive strike inbound. Presumptively counter-force, but I’m going to move right to the end game here. They’ve already shot their strategic land stratum. I’m pretty sure we can hold off their bombers. And I know you already know where their boomers are, if they still have any. So I’m thinking a hundred SLBMs on their population centers will bring it to a close. I don’t think they’ll want to fight it out after that. Can I count on you, Admiral?”
This time it was a full ten seconds before anybody said anything and Amanda noticed the room had gone quiet. Nobody was talking. Finally, the Admiral replied, “Aye aye, madam President.”
“Thank you Admiral, I’ll be in touch.”
Just as she hung up with Admiral Kinney, dots on the map started turning black and then red rings of various sizes popped up around them. She pointed at General Rydell. “SRATCOM.”
He showed her the phone already in his hand. “One step ahead of you, madam President.”
“General Hadley, what am I seeing on the screen here?”
“Mid-course projections, madam President.”
Amanda studied the map for a moment, watching the black circles pop into existence. Washington DC was confirmed now. As were Albuquerque and Livermore. Several Air Force bases and a swath of black across the Midwest, targeting her silos, as expected. But most of the cities were left unscathed.
She stepped over to General Rydell and spoke to him in a hushed voice. “Tell Perris he needs to have his bombers in the air five minutes ago. He’s out of time.” General Rydell nodded somberly and stepped over to another console to contact SAC on a separate line.
Turning back towards the room, Amanda asked STRATCOM, “Can you give me a better number on what we’ll have left for ICBMs?”
“Yes, madam President. We’re estimating somewhere between ten and fifteen percent now. But they’ll come after those.”
Another pause. “Well, that’s a good question. It’s doctrine for them to follow on with a second wave, but we’re not sure how many land-based ICBMs they actually have left.”
“Well find out.”
“I’ll try, madam President.”
“What are these red circles?”
“Probability markers. Based on mid-course projections, their re-entry vehicles will land somewhere inside the circle.”
Amanda watched the maps, waiting for tracking markers like she had seen in the movies to appear. “Why am I not seeing any inbound trails – whatever you call them?”
“Um, we don’t actually do that madam President. We can’t shoot them down. We can only tell you where they’re going to land.”
Amanda felt the seconds ticking away with her heartbeat. The black dots stared back at her, but she had no idea how long until they became real mushroom clouds consuming her country. How much longer Clarise had to hug her Teddy bear and clutch at Dee’s leg as they stared out the window wondering why Amanda wasn’t with them in those last few moments.
“How long do we have, General?”
“Seven minutes or so, madam President.”
Amanda looked at General Rydell, who was still on the phone with SAC. She turned to look at Colonel La Fontaine, who was staring impassively at the screens.
She turned back to look over the room to see the small army of Air Force personnel, some of them looking like kids just out of high school to her, as they somberly tended to their consoles.
“Very well, General. Thank you.”
Rydell hung up the phone and strode quickly towards her. “I have about half of our ICBMs retargeted. But we’re out of time. If you want to use them, we need to do it now.”
The Colonel was standing next to her now and held out a long card with several rows of letters and numbers. “It takes at least five minutes for an ICBM to launch. If the crew is good. If you want to launch, now is the time.”
“What’s this?” she asked, tapping the card.
Amanda closed her eyes and felt her chest ache as her breathing grew shallow. She was panting again. She lowered her hand and felt the card inside her pocket, but couldn’t bring herself to reach in.
All she needed was a minute to stop and think. Was there any other way? What had she missed? What could she do different that would minimize the damage even more? How many lives could she spare? If only the world would stop for just one minute so she could think it through.
But the sky was thorned with steel cylinders hurtling across space, so many fangs of a beast that would not wait.
She opened her eyes. And Amanda knew it was time for her to pick up the sword.
Fetching the authentication card from her pocket, she asked Colonel La Fontaine, “How does this work?”
The Colonel pointed at the black box. “Insert your authentication card there.”
Barely able to control her hands this time, Amanda had to use both to try and slip the card into its slot, but she couldn’t hold it steady. “Can you help me here?” she asked.
“No, madam President. I cannot.”
Amanda looked over her shoulder to see Colonel La Fontaine’s face drawn in a haggard frown. She wondered if he wasn’t allowed to help her or if he just didn’t want to have any part in helping her end the world.
“You have to do the rest on your own,” he said.
Amanda nodded somberly and then stared at her hand, willing it to settle down. Slowly, the shaking tempered until her hand only trembled slightly and she was able to slip her authentication card into the Primary National Command Authority Authentication Terminal.
Colonel La Fontaine pointed at a simple numeric keypad under a black metal hood and the red LED display next to it. Amanda wondered absently why the strategic nuclear forces of the United States were all controlled by technology that was forty years old. Then she realized: simple, survivable. Rugged. Military.
The terminal beeped and the readout displayed: NCA AUTH VFD.
Colonel La Fontaine handed her the launch codes. “You’ll want to use the codes from rows five and seven, general strike package for land and sea assets using an improvised targeting list and then row twelve for standard air-based strike packages for counter-value.”
“Improvised?” she asked.
“That’s right, madam President. According to your orders, our ICBMs and SLBMs have been configured for target lists that are not part of a standard scenario.”
Amanda felt her knees buckle and had to hold herself up with one hand on the console. The thought that they were doing it her way, not according to pre-configured scenarios created by people who knew a hell of a lot more about waging nuclear war than herself terrified her. But she was out of time.
“What next?” she asked.
“Put in your PIN.”
Amanda blinked and it finally rammed home that she really was the only person in the room who could unleash hell. After all the talk and cards and retina scans and blast-doors, it all came down to the one thing that she and she alone knew.
Officers sitting at the console next to her stood up. Colonel La Fontaine and General Rydell stepped back. “What are you doing?” she asked.
Colonel La Fontaine pointed at the steel grating. Looking down, she saw. It had been there the whole time, but she hadn’t noticed it until that moment – an arcing swath of yellow paint demarking part of a circle.
“Sterile Authentication Space,” the Colonel said. “So we can’t see you enter your PIN.”
Amanda stood alone now on some distant cold rock that jutted up through the clouds. The beast coiled and slithered up towards her, gnashing at her feet as it grew closer. The sword lay on the ground at her feet. It wouldn’t be enough. She might wound the beast, make it slither back to the inferno it came from, but it would leave a trail of fire and desolation in its path. But it was all she had. Amanda had to pick up the sword.
She slowly typed in her PIN, surprised at how clearly she remembered it. The LED displayed the numbers as she typed them in: 8 7 5 9 6 0 3. Then it beeped and read: LNCH AUTH RDY
The officers returned to their consoles. Both Colonel La Fontaine and General Rydell stepped up to flank her on either side.
Pointing at the fifth row of the card, Colonel La Fontaine said, “Type in each sequence and then press the commit button to send the launch codes. That will release everything for launch.”
Amanda’s head was pounding and she could feel her body start to sway. She felt as if she were going to die in the next few minutes and she had the strangest thought: she hoped she would. She knew what she had to do, but Amanda Jackson had no interest in living in a world where she had extinguished millions of lives. She couldn’t emerge from behind the blast door to sift through the rubble of civilization or peek out from behind granite walls to see a sky boiling with smoke and radiation. She wouldn’t know where to go. And neither would the staggering ragged ends of humanity a half a world away. Amanda put her hand to her chest and felt her heartbeat, willing it to stop.
But her heart refused to stop, even as it ached with each beat, counting down to a destiny against which the wrath of God Himself paled to insignificance. What was it the man had said so long ago? I am the destroyer of worlds.
Somberly, as if she were a different person now, Amanda typed in the sequence and watched it silently fill in the display:
X Y Y 4 R T N 5 R.
She flinched when the screen just to the right of the center map display flashed to life and showed the outline of Russia. Red dots started popping up and a list of cities scrolled down the right side. She didn’t even bother to read them. The dots were flashing and she understood that meant the computer was waiting for the fateful press of the COMMIT key. She slowly keyed in the next two sequences:
7 7 Y 3 C A P I 8
U H 3 P S S B E Z
Again, everyone had stepped outside the yellow circle and this time, airmen carrying rifles had stepped up to stand along its circumference. Everybody stepped back further this time because the guards were authorized to shoot anyone who stepped inside the circle before Amanda pressed the COMMIT key.
Amanda’s finger hovered over the COMMIT key, her mind devoid of everything but an overwhelming sense of failure.
She felt a hot stream of sweat cascade down her cheek as she watched more dots pop up across the map. Her chest felt tight and the room started to sway. She gulped in swaths of air, but still couldn’t breathe. She had sorted through the scenario, issued orders to men she had never met who even now were dispatching droves of airmen and sailors to carry out her orders.
But now, all she could see was her Clarise, perpetually rocking in the corner as tears streamed endlessly down her face and fire blooming hot just outside her bedroom window. Finally, her daughter looked straight into her eyes and cried out.
Then, she saw them. One after another, all looking at her and crying out at the same time. A million daughters rocking in terror, not knowing who had decided to extinguish their world with blazing heat and furious wind. All wondering what they had done to deserve to die that day, their only sin being alive.
“I – I -” The room started to sway. The voices murmuring in the pit grew louder. She looked at the white light declaring DEFCON 1 and it hurt her eyes. “What else am I supposed to do?” Amanda fell to her knees, the jagged metal grating of the landing biting into her skin. “I have to stop them. I’m sorry. I didn’t start this.” She felt sick to her stomach and her vision started to blur.
Then, Amanda Jackson fell face first against the grating. But just before she did, she groped for the COMMIT key, felt the long curving plastic beneath her finger tip.
She pressed the key and heard a solitary click as loud as thunder.
Lying on the grating, her breath came out in gurgling wisps. Somewhere in the distance, she heard an oddly soothing feminine voice quietly announce, “Launch authorized. Launch authorized…”
Amanda whimpered. “Make it stop.”
Just before she blacked out, Amanda heard General Rydell’s voice in the distance. “Medic! I need a medic up here. Haul you ass, airman, let’s go!”
* * *
Colonel La Fontaine and General Rydell watched intently as the medical team carefully lay Amanda down on the stretcher and jammed an IV into her arm. One of them rested the bell of a stethoscope at various points on her chest and then nodded. “She’s stable.”
Amanda’s eyes fluttered and she spoke incoherently. “Make it stop. Push them back. Hard. Go now, go. Run sweetie, run.” Then she sobbed.
“Give her a sedative. But don’t put her to sleep,” Colonel La Fontaine said.
One of the medics pulled a syringe out his pack and jammed it into the Y-valve of her IV. He plunged down slowly and her breathing steadied. “Oh, that’s nice,” she murmured. Looking at the Colonel, she asked, “What happened?”
“Mrs. Jackson.” The Colonel took her hand and squeezed.
She looked at his hand holding hers, a puzzled look on her face. “Are we OK? Did anybody make it?”
“Mrs. Jackson, listen to me carefully. Can you hear me?”
Her voice was barely a whisper now, the sedative putting her in a mild state of euphoria. Looking at the medic, he asked, “Can she hear me? Can she understand me?”
“Yeah, she can hear you. She might not remember much, though.”
“That’s OK, I just -” He took a breath, let out a sigh. “Mrs. Jackson, are you listening?”
“Yes, I’m listening. You’re the Colonel who sweats.” She giggled and looked at him with sleepy eyes and an impish smile. “I’m sorry. Go ahead.”
“Mrs. Jackson, it was just a drill. Do you understand?”
“That’s right. A simulation. A test.”
“You mean it wasn’t real?”
“That’s right. It was just a test.”
Amanda’s lip started to quiver and then she started to cry. “You promise?”
“Yes ma’am, I promise.”
“I didn’t do very good. They’re all dead. You’re just saying that to be nice.” She sobbed uncontrollably and then started to say her daughter’s name over and over again. “Clarise. Clarise.” She reached out with her hands, groping for him.
“No, I swear,” he said. “It was just a drill.”
General Rydell called out. “Bob, you still there?”
“Yes, General, right here.”
“Can you tell the good Secretary here that this was just a drill?”
“It was just a drill, madam Secretary. Clearing the board.”
“No, wait,” the General said. “Stand by.”
Looking at the medics, he asked, “Can you get her situated so she can see the board?”
“Yes, sir.” They each grabbed onto the stretcher. “One, two, three,” one of them said and then they turned the stretcher so her feet were pointed towards the stairs so she could see the screens on the far wall.
“Watch this,” General Rydell said. “Alright, Bob, clear the board.”
Amanda watched the map as the dots and circles disappeared one by one. The swath across Nebraska, the Dakotas and Kansas popped away, leaving behind the clean luminescent green beneath. One by one, the scant cities were revealed as their dots faded. Finally, The black dot covering Washington DC faded away to reveal the prim blue denoting the nation’s capitol still in tact.
Then the red dots on the map of Russia popped away, revealing a pristine black background outlined by red borders.
Amanda stared at the screens for a long moment and then tears started streaming down her face again.
“Get me a saline pack,” one of the medics whispered.
“It’s not true. They’re all dead. I didn’t do it right.” Then, Amanda Jackson, Attorney General of the United States wailed, her cries of agony echoing against the walls of the Combat Training Center for NORAD.
The personnel scattered throughout the room started to gather around the stairs. “No, really,” one of them said. “This is where we train. It’s just training.” Several of them nodded. “See,” one of the younger airmen said, pointing at the maps. “All clear.”
“Your lying. They’re all dead.”
“Get her daughter on the phone,” Colonel La Fontaine said.
“Right,” General Rydell said. “Somebody wire in the Secretary’s home number over here.” A moment later, the phone beeped out the sequence and they all heard the phone ring over the speakers. Then a click and a man’s anxious voice.
“Yeah, who’s this?” the man asked, his voice laced with frustration.
“This is General Rydell, Commander in Chief NORAD.” He let that sink in for a moment.
“Nah, really, who is this?”
“Is Clarise there?” the General asked.
“I’m hanging up now.”
But just before he could, Amanda’s voice croaked. “Dee, is that you?”
Everybody waited as they listened to the man breathing on the other end of the line.
She started laughing in between sobs. “Yeah, baby, it’s me. Can you hear me?”
“Are you alright? Where the hell are you?”
“Is Clarise there?” she asked.
“Yeah, hold on. Just – wait.” He put his hand over the receiver, but they could all hear his muffled call. “Clarise, come over here, baby. It’s your mother.”
A moment later, they all heard the girl’s voice, breathless and worried. “Mommy?”
Amanda’s chest heaved as she started sobbing and laughing at the same time. “It’s me, baby. Are you alright?”
“When are you coming home? We’ve been worried. They wouldn’t tell us anything.”
“Soon, baby. Mommy’s coming home real soon.”
“That’s enough,” one of the medics said. “She’s going into hypertensive crisis. I have to knock her back.”
“Mommy loves you. Be good.”
The medic plunged down more sedative and Amanda’s breathing shallowed until she was back in an incoherent stupor. He checked her with the stethoscope again and then nodded. “We can move her now.”
“Sweetie, can you put your dad back on,” General Rydell asked.
The girl sniffed and then said, “OK.” Distantly: “They want to talk to you again.”
“It’s General Rydell. Your wife is fine. We’re taking her back to the plane right now.”
“Plane? What plane?” The man sounded like he wanted to punch somebody. Hard.
“Mr. Jackson, this is Colonel La Fontaine, military aide to the President.”
“Military – dammit, what the hell is going on?”
“Mr. Jackson, the important thing right now is that your wife is fine and on her way back home. She’ll be there tomorrow. I’ll call you within the hour with an update. I won’t be able to tell you much over the phone, but I’ll keep you posted.”
“What the hell happened?”
Colonel La Fontaine watched as the medics carried Amanda to the back of the training center and the secure exit leading back into the tunnel.
“She tried to save her country. I’ll call back soon.” He nodded and General Rydell hung up the phone.
The General stepped up next to him and they both watched the medics carry her through the door, waiting until it closed behind her until they said anything.
“She tried,” the Colonel said.
“Better than the rest, that’s for damn sure.”
“I’m not sure why we do this,” the Colonel said. “I’m not sure it matters much in the end.”
“It matters, Colonel.”
“Because, Colonel, hers is the one scenario I’ve seen that was better than worst case.”
The Colonel looked at him, nodding in disbelief. “Better?” He jutted his hand towards the screens and shouted, “How?”
The General smiled and put his hand on the Colonel’s shoulder. “Because, dear sir, the rest always try to control the escalation. They try to avoid it somehow. She knew that wouldn’t work. So she tried to end it as quickly as possible. And in the calculus of nuclear war, that’s better than the worst case scenario.”
“Insanity,” the Colonel said.
“Indeed. Credible insanity.”
General Rydell took his hand away and stepped back up to his dais, leaned over the railing and shouted out to the room. “Alright, people, let’s pack it up. Briefing at zero six. We’ll be talking about this one for a while.”
* * *
Amanda sat outside the Cabinet Room, waiting to be called inside. She drummed her hand on her shoulder and her body still ached from the ordeal. The doctor at Bethesda had given her a bottle of Valium and told her to come back to start counseling for PTSD. She had scoffed a the notion. No, really, he had said. You’ve been traumatized. And it will affect your work, your personal life, everything. Get ahead of it. Doctor’s orders.
She was skeptical about counseling. She knew the Valium would help, for a while. But she knew of one thing that would help right away and she couldn’t wait to get to it. She still hadn’t been home and she knew Clarise was sick with worry, but she had told Dee she would be home soon. They just had to wait a little longer.
The door to the Cabinet Room opened and she was surprised when a Special Agent poked his head out. “You can come in now,” he said, then stepped aside and opened the door the rest of the way.
The Secret Service usually stood discreetly out of site, close enough to jump into action, but easily missed if you weren’t looking. As she walked into the Cabinet Room, Amanda saw another Special Agent conspicuously posted by the window, plain as day.
The President sat at the far end of the table. Normally, he sat at the center of the table, but Amanda knew it was a good idea for there to be as much distance as possible between him and her at that moment. To his right sat the Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury. To his left, the Secretary of Defense. They all looked at her as she entered.
The President could sit as far away as he liked. It wouldn’t matter. No matter how many Special Agents were in the room. They would have to kill her if they wanted to stop her and right then she didn’t much care if they did.
“Have a seat, madam Secretary,” the President said in his best chandelier voice. She wasn’t having any of that, either. She wasn’t a voter or a diplomat. She was a woman who had been duped into believing she had to end the world.
Instead of sitting down, she kept a steady stride as she passed behind the Secretary of State. Instinctively, the President stood up as she approached. Already, the Special Agent standing next to the window was bounding across the room. But he was too late.
Amanda Jackson stopped and glared at the President of the United States. Then she slapped him square in the face hard enough to leave a red outline of her hand on his face.
“You sonofabitch, how could you do that to me?” Hands gripped both of her arms like vices as the Special Agents pulled her away.
Rubbing his face, the President smiled and said, “It’s alright, let her be.”
“No it’s not,” Amanda shouted. “I’ll never forgive you for what you put me through. You sonofabitch you.” Despite the President’s assurances, the Special Agents held her fast, dragging her away. They stopped when they reached the chair next to the Secretary of Defense and pulled it out for her.
The President leaned against the table with both hands, looked her square in the eye with the darkest gaze she had ever seen and then barked a command. “Siddown!”
Amanda scrunched up her face and tried to yank her arms free. “Let go of me.” She tried to kick one of them with her heel, but he dodged her assault easily.
“I don’t know,” one of the Special Agents said, “I don’t think she’s ready to sit down sir.”
The President softened his expression and looked at her with soft eyes. “Amanda, I need you to be a good girl for five minutes.”
“Go to hell.”
“Or they can detain you for the night. And I know you haven’t been home to see your daughter yet.”
“You wouldn’t dare.” She tried again the yank her arms away, her body writhing in futility. “Let go of me, dammit.”
The President stared at her for a long moment. “Try me.” Then he pointed at the chair.
Amanda stopped struggling, resenting that he still had the power to control her, to keep her from her daughter for another day. For that, she would sit down and be good girl. But not for long.
Tentatively, the Special Agents let go of her arms. She yanked them away defiantly and sat down in the chair. She plopped her purse on the table, pulled out an envelope and slid it across the table towards the President. He stopped it with one finger, already knowing what it was, and sat back down.
“Are you going to behave?” he asked her.
Amanda clasped her hands and beamed her best smile – the disingenuous one she used at diplomatic receptions.
“Now, listen to me,” he said. “Everything you hear from this point on is beyond Top Secret. If I hear a whisper of it outside this room, I’m not kidding when I say you’ll die.” He held her with a steady gaze, his face as still as stone. “And it will be by my order. Do you understand?”
Amanda stared back at him as a numbing ache slowly washed over her body. “I understand.”
Still staring at her, he let a few seconds tick by and then said, “Mr. President.”
She wanted to look away, but Amanda forced herself to keep her gaze locked on the man who had taken something from her that she would never get back. Once she had picked up that sword, a part of her soul had died.
“I understand. Mr. President.”
“Good enough,” he said, his expression softening as he smiled and slapped the table.
They all sat quietly for a moment. The other members of the cabinet were still staring at the table in front of them. Finally, the Secretary of Defense said, “We all had to go through it.”
It wasn’t until that moment that she realized exactly who was there. State, Treasury, Defense. The three Secretaries ahead of her in the line of succession.
“I got into a blow-for-blow deal with the ICBMs,” SECDEF continued. “I kept stacking the launch codes, but never got to the commit stage. Didn’t even get to SAC or the Navy. And I’m the Secretary of Defense, for Christ’s sake.” He looked up at her. “It’s very different when you’re on the spot than when you’re analyzing policy briefings.”
The Secretary of State spoke next. “Hell, the poor Colonel had to give me a crash course in strategic operations. I hadn’t read my SFB. That plane ride was an eye-opener.”
The Secretary of the Treasury, a diminutive blonde in her thirties who was infinitely smarter than she looked was still staring at the table.
Amanda felt a connection to the woman for some reason because she looked so forlorn as the others talked. “Sarah?”
The Secretary of the Treasury didn’t look up. Still staring at the table, she said, “I pressed the commit button.” All eyes turned on her at that point. She had never talked about it, had refused to brief the President, who had to get the story from Colonel La Fontaine. “But it didn’t matter. By the time I did, everything was gone. There was nothing left to launch.”
Amanda sat back in her chair, surveying the others and realized that their own ordeal in the NORAD Combat Training Center had been just as traumatic for them as it had been for her. She remembered now that each of them had come in one day and something had been different about them. Each in turn had turned more somber, more serious, more pensive about everything. Sarah, especially.
She wasn’t alone.
The President pressed a button on the intercom. “Send him in please.”
All eyes turned as the door opened and General Rydell strode in, his gaze fixed on the far wall as he approached the President with a small stack of binders tucked neatly along his arm. He placed them on the table and stepped back. The President picked them up one at a time and slid them to each of the Secretaries.
“What’s this?” Amanda asked.
General Rydell held up his chin and looked down at her. “Op plan zulu one bravo,” he said. “Informally known as the Jackson Doctrine.”
Amanda blinked and her heart started to race. She brushed her hand over the black cover of the binder. “My plan?”
“That’s right,” the General said. “With some tuning and optimization from our strategic planning types. But basically your plan.”
“Which is now required reading for all members of the cabinet,” the President said. “In addition to the Strategic Forces Briefing.”
Everyone opened their binders and started reading. After a few pages, Amanda heard the Secretary of Defense mutter, “Jesus.”
“This is scary as hell,” said the Secretary of State.
Everyone waited for Sarah to say something, but she just kept thumbing through the pages, her face tense with concentration. About half way through, she said, “I wish I’d thought of this.”
“Thank you, General,” the President said.
General Rydell nodded smartly. “Sir.” Then he started to walk towards the door. He stopped next to Amanda’s chair. “Madam Secretary?”
Amanda stood up when she saw something in his eyes that he hadn’t shown the rest. The forlorn look of a warrior who knew there was no way to win. Who knew the world had to believe he would try anyway so it wouldn’t come to that. It was in that moment that Amanda saw the Jackson Doctrine for what it was.
She had tried. And she had meant it.
“It was an honor,” the General said, offering his hand.
Amanda slowly nodded and took his hand, knowing that they were the only two people in the room who truly knew what it meant to try, with all your heart, to wage a war that couldn’t be won.
“Thank you, General.” She watched him walk out of the room and then sat back down. She flinched when she saw the envelope next to her binder. The President had quietly slid it back to her when she wasn’t watching.
“I take it you want to keep that, madam Secretary?”
“I’m going to be mad for a while,” she said.
“I would expect nothing less from the only person in this room with the balls to actually wage nuclear war.”
* * *
Amanda opened the front door with deliberate silence and stepped into her living room to find Dee sleeping on the couch with the remote in his hand. She smiled at him, feeling guilty for the torment he had gone through. Like her, he was exhausted and still recovering from the ordeal. Like her, he was mad as hell. He knew she had intended to resign and she didn’t want to think about what it was going to be like when she told him she hadn’t done it. Not yet, anyway. She still had the letter in her purse.
She heard a faint commotion in the kitchen and tip-toed towards the light spilling out onto the carpet so she could peek around the corner. She nearly gasped when she saw her daughter sitting at the table eating ice cream straight from the carton. She smiled, amused at her daughter’s delinquency while her father slept. But she understood. Sometimes ice cream straight from the carton was the only comfort left that worked in a world gone mad.
She stepped the rest of the way around the corner so Clarise could see her. Amanda dropped to her knees as Clarise dropped her spoon, jumped from her chair and ran towards her mother.
Amanda clutched her daughter so tightly the girl couldn’t breathe. Clarise wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck and buried her face in her bosom.
Amanda closed her eyes, tears spilling down her cheeks.
“Mommy’s got you.” Unable to control herself, she started sobbing and clutched her daughter even tighter. “Mommy’s got you.”
©2021 Michael J Lawrence