by JASON PECK
“My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule next to the heart of a volunteer … if ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being.”
- Roger Fisher, Preventing Nuclear War
The Russian President said, “So what?”
Thirty minutes into the conference, and even I – merely the American President’s living, human nuclear football – could tell things were going downhill because of something the Russian delegation was doing. I just wasn’t sure what. As if things weren’t at the bottom already. These Ivans had everyone spooked. It reminded me of the times the President of the United States – my boss – would sit with some small fry, some opponent of his, someone he enjoyed disrespecting just because he likes watching people squirm. Like the congressmen who dismissed his campaign or the talking heads who came too late for his favors, the local politicians who say they’ll stand up to Washington but can’t, and the international leaders who try acting nice when they visit. It doesn’t really matter who – allies or not, friend or foe, they’re all elites and being tough on these people is what he enjoys.Except this “So?” instead came from the Russian. We were talking armies staring each other down on the 38thparallel, and four nuclear powers had skin in the game. “So?” as in so what if one of those armies pushed into the 39thparallel, the 40th? “So?” as in who cares if things escalated, if the worst- case scenarios came true and the missiles went flying before anything could secure them? “So?” What of millions who’d die in the next few hours and the days after that?
So?” The word echoed.
We were at one of those villas in Geneva, and all around me I could see the special care they’d taken to relieve tensions. We had a window seat through which we could see Mont Blanc covered in snow like powdered sugar. And coffee. Coffee and pastries are how the Swiss calm people down. A bit of the cold outside leaked through the window and my boss the President of the United States folded his arms together. I know he didn’t mean to betray any feelings, but the Russian president still sat there motionless, immune to temperature, to stress, to the sword somehow hanging over every head but his. My President is new money. He’s from America, obviously, a young country that still has baby teeth and optimism. The Russian came from a country that suffered under Mongols, Napoleon and the Nazis. There was something primal here, something colder and harder.
“The nuclear option isn’t on the table,” the French President said.
“Well, it would be if we cut some people open,” the Russian president said. He shrugged. And then I understood the reason for my unease.
We have a formal dress code in the office, we Americans. It changed when the new law came into effect and I got hired for this job out of the intern pool. Only I can wear the black suit. Black means serious. Everyone else gets suits of grey or dark blue. Everyone must button up to the neck and wear a tie, except for me. Instead, I keep the top two buttons of my dress shirt undone with no undershirt, reveal a bit of my bare chest underneath. That sends a message, the president says. At any time, if the unthinkable happens, I’m ready for the plunge of the knife.
Every nuclear power has someone like me. So it’s what I didn’t see that scared me. I saw the French President’s man next to him, I saw the nuclear aide for the Chinese. I saw the North Korean aide, the UK aide. But no sign of the Russians’ guy. Just a roomful of people focused on the Russian President or, more specifically, on the capsule-shaped object he was rolling back and forth with his index finger on the armrest of his chair.
When we first arrived in Geneva, a reporter had asked the President if he’d be willing to consider the nukes. “We’ll see,” the President said. He pointed to me. “But I’d have to kill George over here, so we’ll see.”
“I’d have to kill a man?” the Russian’s eyes seem to say. And then those eyes said: “That’s all?”
The French President smiled and made a joke. I doubt anyone heard it, but everyone knew they should laugh. He made some comment about how we needed a break and it was getting dark out, and tempers flare in such tight quarters as the conference room we were all trapped in. Three days of meetings had produced nothing. Not that I did anything but stand around on the off chance I’d die, but even I felt exhausted.
I love seeing the cities. I love the brief moments where I can tour the places I visit, even as heavily guarded as I am. I love living riding on Air Force One and always having as many gourmet meals as I want waiting for me. I love the fame and the benefits and the bragging rights – three things you earn from having launch codes near your heart. Being near the President, near all these powerful people, I find myself adopting their clipped speech, catch their language coming out of my mouth, their euphemisms that soften everything we do around here.
I never imagined this when I first applied; the Pentagon took head shots of the White House interns and just picked from the pile. Young women were out, the PR people said – that reeked a little of virgin sacrifice. Young men were vulnerable, but not too vulnerable; a shame indeed, but a tolerable one. I had a look that scored high enough; something telegenic, square-jawed and serious.
They called me the nuclear football at first, but people on the news have been calling me a volleyball with the weight I’ve gained. My skin once had a healthy shine from the time I’d spend outdoors, but I need to stick with the President now, and he rarely gets any sun. I admit I enjoy the perks too much; I’ll order food when I’m not hungry; I’ll have a glass of rare wine just to crack the bottle. But it’s hard – the mind wanders when your only job is standing at the President’s side with nothing but a butcher knife, an open shirt and a steady gaze.
Of course it was steady. I never actually thought I would die!
Everyone stopped laughing at the French President’s joke and began leaving. First the Indians and then the Pakistanis; neither had a dog in the fight, but they wanted a presence. The UK Prime Minister gently nudged my President to follow her to the side room and we walked there with the rest of the entourage – the German Chancellor, the Japanese Prime Minister, and the French President.
The side room is where the Allied Powers – most of them anyway – gathered during the Second World War. I watched the German Chancellor motion to the guards with a nod of her head, and they both went out into the hall and closed the doors behind them. The French President took a seat against the wall, motioned my President toward the chair opposite, and waited a few seconds after he’d sat down to begin speaking.
“Mr. President,” the French President said. He kept his voice soft, a deferential smile on his face. My President looked up.
“You notice that Alexei is gone,” the French President said.
Alexei isn’t really the name of the Russian nuclear aide. The Russian aide doesn’t have a name because even our intelligence agencies aren’t sure, and this aide is actually their second one since the new policy. No one knows exactly what happened to the first. The nickname refers to the last Russian prince – a sickly little kid with hemophilia, doomed to die early before the Bolsheviks shot him even earlier. It’s a mean name for the Russian aide, who seems like a well-meaning college kid in over in their head and unfortunate enough to be aware of it. Coming from someone as formal as the French President, it genuinely unnerved me. “We need leverage,” the Prime Minister of the UK said.
“He must know we’re serious too,” the Chancellor chimed in.
“Not that we’d do it,” the Frenchman said, and he gave a quick nervous glance to me with a fake smile on his face, and I knew It means Launching The Weapons. “But they need to know we would.”
My President nodded his head as if he were listening. I know the most important thing for him is acting tough, giving the impression that he’s deep in thought over something he’s probably given no thought to. But it seemed obvious. Everyone knew the Russians were testing the waters, pushing boundaries. By making his aides disappear, he wanted the rest of the world to feel uncertainty; make them think he was cold like Stalin, like Ivan the Terrible, and totally capable of counting out millions of lives without concern. Or he could be peaceful – we didn’t know. Maybe he got his rocks off reminding the rest of the world that he had the biggest stones of all. Maybe the whole time he actually enjoyed those reactions from people reporting “he doesn’t seem attached to reality.”
“We need a bargaining chip,” the Frenchman said.
“He thinks he can push us around,” the President said, as though he hadn’t heard the Frenchman say it first. “We need a bargaining chip.”
“I’m not the kind of guy he can fuck with,” the President said with unexpected anger. “All of them – they think can fuck with me.” His voice rose almost to a shout. He pointed to his right, thrusting that finger over and over again to a blank space on the wall, and it took me a minute to realize he was pointing back to where we had left the Russians.
No one said anything. I never speak anyway, so it wasn’t really a decision for me. But he seemed to inflate again. After leaving that room, being away from that Russian, his confidence slowly returned.
The President’s not a big man, and not particularly imposing. But he’s got this thing about him, you know? He just comes into a room and sucks up the air or whatever; he makes jokes about how when the time comes he’ll take a bullet for the Secret Service guarding us, and I almost believe he means what he says. Even if I know he’s nothing special when I take a step back, he makes me want to stay put and watch from the most flattering angles.
“Not just him,” the President said. He looked around at the faces in the room. “You know I don’t like any of you. Well, that’s fine. That’s why I’m here. The people don’t like you either, and I was elected to not like you. And to be frank, none of you have a whole lot to like, OK?” The Chancellor tried to interject, and the President spoke loud over her and kept talking. “Because you know how to do this job, and that’s why you’re terrible at it. You’re so wrapped up in how things need to be done that you don’t do shit. They see a guy like me, I do things. I make all the moves you’re too scared to make because I come from a world that’s a lot tougher than your goddamned government jobs.” The whole time he had been moving his right hand up and down in a chopping motion for emphasis. The hands continued long after he stopped speaking. He seemed at a loss for words and then he began again.
“So I know what you’re saying about me. You think that Russian in there is tougher than me. You think he’s got balls that I don’t, and the whole time you’re saying this, you’re too scared to do what you think I won’t do.” He took a deep breath. “You think I’m too scared to carve the codes out of George over here.” He pointed to me repeatedly with that same stabbing motion. “Tell them we’ll meet again tomorrow morning so George can have time to settle things. Tonight I’m going to cut him open and get those fucking codes. Tell him I’m not scared of blood.”
I can’t even remember what happened right after the President pointed at me and said he’d gut me in the next few hours. I know the meeting must have emptied, and I know that I must have walked back to my room alone, without my security detail for the first time ever. I’ve had a good life since I came to the White House. Sometimes I still can’t believe how fast everything happened. One day was an intern at the Capitol organizing tours of the building, then I got a call from my dad that his firm was being raided, and money for graduate school had, of course, vanished. And I was looking at going from the very corridors of power to nothing at all, from inheriting a nice trust fund to inheriting my father’s collapsing business, when the Chief of Staff spotted me and said “have you heard of something called the Fisher Doctrine?” Then an interview process, and a surgery. The doctor had me on the operating table and asked if I wanted to be put under, or if I’d rather go for local anesthetic.
“That’s going to my heart,” I said. “That doesn’t sound like outpatient.”
The surgeon held up a device that looked like a squirt gun with a long handle. “Just a little incision to get past the skin,” he said. “It won’t hurt going in. Latest technology.” He paused for a moment. “Now, getting it out…”
I’m fed only organics from top chefs. I sometimes get seconds because I’m worried I’ll miss out; the food’s thatgood. I have assistants who carry my luggage. Everywhere I go, I have an aide who handles my suits and personally presses the one I’ll wear every morning. Not even the President’s clothes get tailored with such precision. I’ve got another aide who stays in charge of my drinks. Everywhere I go, he wheels a portable liquor cabinet that’s shaped like a mini-fridge, filled with wines and whiskeys and cheeses I like to eat.
I could have company if I wanted. Even interns know that prostitution rings are alive and well in Washington. I just didn’t think they’d be so coy about it.
“Do I look like the kind of guy who pays for sex?” The President said to me when I first asked him for a hook-up.
Also the President – “Pick a girl out of the photos and call the number at the bottom.” But I wasn’t in the mood for anything when I went back to my room. Outside, it was beginning to turn dark. I opened the liquor cabinet and poured myself a 12-year scotch up to the brim. I sat down on the hotel room bed and sipped without tasting. It occurred to me, almost like an afterthought, that I actually should put my affairs in order. I thought about calling my dad – he’s the only family I have left, but he and I hadn’t spoken since his sentencing to minimum-security two years prior. I wanted to make peace with him, let him know he did the best he could, even if he actually didn’t. But anything I’d say to him could be a national security breach, and that’s without the added wrinkle of calling the prison where he was serving a five-year sentence. So it would be just me alone there by myself until the President came.
I heard the door opening. I turned my head and drained the whiskey in a single gulp without thinking about it. I wouldn’t look the President in the eye because that would lessen his resolve. At least, that’s the excuse I would have given.
But then I felt a weight on either side of the bed, looked around and saw that all the other nuclear aides had come in to say their goodbyes. I never assumed any kind of fellowship; in the years since the treaty, we’d never said more than a few words, waved to the other as our leaders were exchanging pleasantries. But here they were now; the aide from the UK was opening my liquor cabinet and passing glasses around to the French aide and the Indian aide and the Israeli aide. Then we all had our glasses full and the British guy raised a toast.
“To an unlikely fraternity,” the UK aide said. I still haven’t learned his name, just his code name from the intelligence reports. He’s known as “Titus,” after a British explorer who sacrificed himself in the Arctic.
“Any words?” the French aide asked me. I could barely understand him through his accent. His code name is still “Roland,” after a mythic figure who sacrificed himself in battle. It’s also obvious the asshole named himself.
My code name is “Isaac,” from the kid in the Bible whose father almost sacrificed him until the last minute. The evangelical base loves it – I’ve even heard sermons about how my death would bring about the end times they wanted. But as I sat there, thinking of something to say, nothing sounded noble or epic. My alias was shallow, nothing but a gesture to win re-election for my boss. My death wouldn’t bring back God or Jesus or whatever; it would bring about a lot of fire to lot of people who never earned any suffering.
Maybe it was better I die here, I suddenly thought.
“I can’t think of anything,” I said to the other aides. And then we toasted and drank.
A nuclear aide should be tough. I’m supposed to have that stiff-lipped shit the English have, that romantic Vive La France act that the French do. I’m American, I thought. I’m supposed to have swagger. I’m supposed to walk around all casual and confident like a big swinging dick, and when the time comes, I should turn to the leader of the Free World and say something like, “I haven’t got all day!” while I tear the front of my shirt open and point the knife right at the button scar on my chest. Something dramatic like that, something that’s full of daring and seals my legacy as a total badass.
There’s a protocol in case the President fails to kill me. Should he hesitate, I’m supposed to grab the knife myself and plunge it in. Emergency Protocol. As part of my initiation, the Joint Chiefs assigned specialists who coached me in breathing exercises and visualization techniques that would make suicide easier. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to be important, I wanted food and alcohol and money and sex. That’s why I applied, and it must have been obvious to those specialists when they gave up and probably wrote a report the President never read.
The other aides had left. I poured another Scotch and downed it. I could feel the slight imbalance in my head, thecreeping queasiness in my stomach. I knew this feeling; if I didn’t do something soon, eat a big meal, drink some water, then I’d wake up hungover the next day. But I wouldn’t have a next day.
The alcohol was making me sweat. I could feel my shirt clinging to my chest. I took my suit jacket off, laid it on the bed and removed the knife with its sheathe from the jacket lining. Then I slowly slipped the knife out, listened to the soft whisper of metal on leather, and held the instrument in front of me.
For years, I’d carried this thing close to the skin, and I’d never thought to test how sharp it actually was. Every month it was taken and sharpened by a technician; I had always figured the act would be over before I’d know it. I’d thought about cutting steak with this knife, I’d thought about shaving with it. But every joke I rehearsed died the second I got this far.
A real aide wouldn’t hesitate here. I had to understand pain, not fear it. Emergency Protocol. I was drunk. This made sense to me.
I ran my thumb over the blade. I expected a thin string of red, anticipated a cut so easy that the pain would struggle to catch up. Nothing. I pressed harder, and found I couldn’t will myself to do it. I gritted my teeth and prepared again – I swear I would have actually done it! – and then I heard a knock at the door.
“It’s unlocked!” I called out.
“I need you to let me in!” The President’s voice said from the other side. “I said it’s unlocked.”
“I can’t open it!”
I walked over to the door and opened it. The President stood there with his fists balled into his hips. Behind him I saw the half-dozen Secret Service agents with their grey suits and earpieces. They nodded at me in unison.
“You tried locking the door,” the President said, as though speaking to someone else. “Your courage almost failed you.” He snorted and pushed past me into my hotel room, and I shut the door behind him.
“I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again,” I said. Scotch made my tongue heavy. I hadn’t meant to say something that could only be taken as a flippant remark. But I did, and my stomach churned when I saw the President’s face snap back and glare at me.
“Always laughing at me,” he said. “All of them.” He sneered. “You see the way they looked at me back there? None of them think I have the balls for this job. They see that fucking Russian smirking at me, and they think that’s the alpha male. My own fucking country thinks that too. Don’t think I don’t know.”
He reached down to where I’d dropped the knife on the bed. I saw his knuckles go white holding the handle so tightly.
“They’re going to find out I’m Number One,” the President said. “I was the right man for the job. I ran for this fucking office because I felt like it, and I beat everyone in my way. The people know what a real man looks like. They can see me up there next to all those candy-asses and they know that’s a killer up there. Me. That’s how you become President.”
He moved closer. I tried unbuttoning my shirt, but my hands shook too badly. I tried staring him in the eyes. I felt the tip of the knife through my shirt.
“I’ve thought about how I’m going to do this,” the President said. “I’ve been ready for this, believe me. I’ll cut the throat first and put you out quickly.”
“I appreciate that,” I said.
But I felt the tip of the knife quaking. It was apologetic, it didn’t want to nick me. It didn’t want to go all the way. It just wanted to scare me into backing down like the rest of his opponents had, to not notice the fear behind it.
“Believe me,” the President said, and he took a deep breath and I closed my eyes and waited for the knife to cut me in half. I heard the President breathing harder, like he had just taken a jog. The knife point no longer touched me.
“I haven’t got all…” I started to say but it ended with a croak.
“I’m the most powerful man in the w…”
Fuck it. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no thoughts. Somehow, in the back of my mind, I knew I was taking in a deep breath of my own and grabbing the President’s wrist and pulling it toward me. And then the pain hit me instantly, and I felt the pinch in my pectoral, and I screamed.
The President called out. I don’t want to describe the sound as a scream. But I saw his face go white, and I knew he’d dropped the knife because I could feel something landing at my feet. I felt the ground rushing to meet me. I remember the back of my head catching on the mattress, the lack of sensation in my body.
Then the sound of retching. I had always suspected the rumor about the President and the sight of blood.
I pulled my shirt from my chest to inspect the wound and saw a cut about a half inch long that hurt when I moved. One of the pillows had fallen with me, and I pressed it into my chest to staunch the bleeding.
“You’re all right?” The President asked. He wiped something off the corner of his mouth. “I think so,” I said. “It didn’t go too deep.”
“Oh God,” The President said, and he sat down on the bed facing away from me. His body shivered, and he no longer looked like the man who rallied before millions making promises no one else dared to. He seemed tired and scared, like the kind of people he’d always claimed he himself had driven from office.
“I wish I were a stronger man,” said the President. I wondered if he were reading my mind. “I’m sure you are a strong man,” I said. I wanted to be encouraging. I also didn’t want to be encouraging.
“How am I going to explain this?” he asked. “I really need to kill you.”
“If you killed me, it could look like you overreacted,” I said. “Then you wouldn’t look as strong.” “That’s true,” the President said. “That could be true.”
“You could pretend,” I said. The President looked at me. “You’d just take something that looks like the capsules holding the codes, and then you just move it around in your hands like the Russian did. I’d just stay in my room, and he’d imagine the worst.”
“That’s a shitty plan,” the President said. “The shittiest ever.” For a while we said nothing.
“You could kill me tomorrow,” I suggested, still prone on the floor. The President finally turned his head to me. “When everyone is there in the conference room tomorrow,” I continued. “The Russian will say that we can’t come to an agreement. And then you’ll call me over and kill me there in front of everyone.” His face was expressionless. “You’ll go through with it if everyone’s there. The pressure will be too much with everyone watching.”
“Why did you grab the knife?” The President asked. “You don’t want to die.”
“You don’t want to kill me.”
I removed my hand from my wound – a scratch, really – and wiped the blood on my pants. I stood up. And then I did the thing that I knew would make this man look like he really was. I took a step back.
I’ll never know which one of us backed out first, whether it was him whose knife retreated, or me who pushed it away. But we were the same. He was elected and I was appointed, he was boss and I was his employee. It didn’t matter. Both us chased after a job for the glory and both of us ignored the realities, both of us talked about patriotism and heroics and never thought about backing it up until this moment.
Both of us had our hands wavering on the knife, both of us scared of the sight of blood.
The President finally looked up at me and I signaled him with one finger to wait a second and walked slowly to my liquor cabinet. I kept my eyes on his as much as possible so I knew that he was watching while I grabbed the only two glasses the aides and I hadn’t used. I swirled the last of the whiskey in the bottle, poured two last shots and handed him one.
“To an unlikely fraternity,” I raised my glass in a toast. And then we drank.
Jason Peck’s fiction has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Bartleby Snopes, decomP, and Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales From The 100 Word Story. He lives in Pittsburgh.