Josh Pinner watched the bombs fall on cities across China from the safety of the newsroom at The Rumpus in Washington, D.C.
Boom. Boom. One after another. What the hell was this about, he thought?
None of the other reporters in the newsroom knew either, but still, they were filing all sorts of stories on the attack. Some were closely monitoring the Defense Department for the latest scrap of information. Others were gathering reactions from the rest of the world, and more were waiting breathlessly for any word from the White House.
One young reporter was kept busy by counting how many bombs the U.S. had dropped, and was somewhere around 1,200. He kept screaming for people to shut up so he could count.
“I have 280 in Beijing,” he yelled. “Is that right? 280?”
But to Josh, all that running around and yelling and waiting was miserable, and way too much like work. A distraction from the real story. Or at least, a distraction from the better story he could get by picking over the bones, finding trends, focusing on what other reporters were missing.
Forget the dry facts, like how many bombs were dropped and how many had died. Anyone could sit around and wait for the government to hand over that stuff. He wanted to find some quirky, unique take on the event, one that made Dawson II look bad.
Somewhere in China, maybe one of the bombs didn’t detonate. Or the U.S. bombed a hospital, or some harmless village. Or maybe the U.S. broke some kind of U.N. rule, didn’t provide enough notice, or didn’t do enough to protect innocent civilians. He’d have to find time later to read on the rules later, or better yet, find a short video that explained it all.
The news didn’t even have to be that quirky, as long as it trashed Dawson II. That was the most important part of Josh’s mission. And really, that was his job at The Rumpus.
Josh hated Dawson II, just like everyone else at The Rumpus and all the other right-wing news sites. It was too much to bear, watching this clown become president. The first Dawson was bad enough, then a few years later, Dawson’s kid shows up and wins the White House. A dynasty of knuckleheads.
Even worse, Dawson II had the nerve to give his own son the same name again, Dawson the third, and Josh was sure the plan was to have him be president someday. As if this one family somehow had the right to live in the White House forever just by breeding.
It was sickening, watching this kid go to his special high school in Washington. What the hell was that like, he wondered? To be 17 years old, walking around high school with your dad as president, your grandfather as a former president, and everyone knowing you would probably grow up to be the president too? If a teacher gave him a B- on a test, would that teacher be interviewed by the Secret Service? Would Dawson III automatically be a starter on the baseball team if he wanted to play? There’s no way any coach would let that kid ride the bench.
I bet that kid could date anyone he wanted, Josh thought. The girls would just be throwing themselves at him, hoping to be kissed by the boy king.
He couldn’t even be bullied by bullies. There were too many guards around him for that. No bully would dare.
And oh, the yearbook, Josh thought. Dawson III had to have a lock on “most likely to succeed” even now, in his junior year. How could you give it to anyone else?
Watching Dawson III go through high school was like watching grass grow. It was a constant reminder to Josh and everyone else that they had to take down Dawson II so there could be no Dawson III.
All day, every day. Tear down the president. Scorched earth. Make it so bad for the president that Dawson III either couldn’t get the job, or wouldn’t want it anymore. Make him live a normal life, like everyone else. Sell coffee for $20 a cup like an honest businessman. Whatever, as long as taxpayers didn’t have to pay for the baby pharaoh’s lifestyle as a “public servant.”
This was the job of the press. Pick a side, then find as much evidence as you can to destroy the other side. It was in the Constitution.
Some people hated The Rumpus for its constant attacks. But whatever, Josh thought. They read the same kind of stuff from the left. Everyone was guilty. He had just seen a headline just minutes earlier on that dumb lefty site, The Pensive, that screamed out a defense of Dawson II’s bombing run before it could have possibly known anything about it.
“Dawson gets tough; puts China in check over national security,” it said.
What the hell did that even mean? “Puts China in check?” Dawson II was bombing the hell out of China. The passive garbage from the left was just unreal. Nowhere in that headline did it say anything about bombs, or deaths, or anything bad at all. It had blind trust in the president’s weak, unexplained excuse that it was somehow about “national security.”
And also, calling him “Dawson,” not “Dawson II.” Pretending he’s a legitimate guy instead of some ex-president’s kid who was trading on his dad’s name.
Josh scratched at the ragged, black beard he was struggling to grow to balance out the hair he was starting to lose at the top of his head, and tried to watch as much as he could of Dawson II’s speech. It was unbearable.
“My fellow Americans, my disagreements with the other party are well known, but those disagreements cannot stand in the way of our resolve to work together to protect America’s national security interests,” he said. Reporters in the room were mocking Dawson II as he spoke, and Josh could barely make out the president’s words over the noise.
“Today, we must stand together, and stand up for the principles we all still share, and once more ask our brave men, women and other-gendered service members to fight so hard for what we all believe…”
Empty words. As empty as the crap you write in a card to your friend when someone in his family dies. Don’t offend, don’t be specific, show sympathy. Big, flowery, empty nothings.
Josh’s mind, fueled by anger and resentment, started searching for cracks in the story, something to mock. Didn’t Dawson II have to declare war or something first? That might be in the Constitution, he forgot. Hopefully there would be a video on that topic that could explain it to him.
Didn’t Dawson II just want to cut the military recently? That could be something. Dawson II suddenly using the military that he had just wanted to cut off at the knees. Josh started taking notes on all the questions he had. Some of these were for longer-term stories. He needed something now, so he scrolled through the big international news screens to see what he could find.
Here was something. A little piece of a story filed out of Hong Kong, about how the bombing was going to create an immediate humanitarian crisis.
“Authorities were scrambling to develop an accurate picture of which areas of Shanghai were damaged or destroyed, information they hope to use to patch together a plan to help the wounded, and locate the dead,” the dispatch said. “Efforts were already underway to deal with thousands of children who poured out into the streets after the bombs fell. Immediate questions were how to feed them, treat them, and house them.”
Josh quickly dreamed up a few headlines. “Dawson II’s strike leaves thousands of children homeless” seemed to work best, so he filed a few lines and sent them up. That ought to rattle the Democrats a little bit. He’d write a full story about it a few hours from now. It didn’t matter much, people would only read the headlines anyway, if they were going to read anything.
He kept scanning and found another gem. Just as he suspected, here was a story on one of Dawson II’s defective bombs (he decided right away that all the bombs in the stories he would write belonged personally to Dawson II). The story said one bomb landed in downtown Beijing and didn’t blow up. It was just sitting there. Perfect.
“Dawson’s dud: Bomb fails to explode in strike against China’s capital.” Beauty. That was what The Rumpus was all about.
He sat back and looked at the time. Two hours had gone by like nothing. His two main stories were nice and high on The Rumpus’ main screen, summaries were already being turned into audio files that would be beamed right into people’s earlobe receptors, and 30-second videos for people who wanted an in-depth understanding of what was happening.
For war stories, the videos might even be longer, since this was a rare event. Maybe even 45 seconds.
Something gnawed at Josh as he looked at both stories, side by side on the screen. Something wasn’t quite right.
Ah, that was it. Some remote corner of his brain realized that the story about the homeless kids wasn’t quite consistent with the story making fun of the bomb that didn’t explode. The first seemed to sympathize with the Chinese victims of the U.S. bombing, the second focused on Dawson II’s incompetence for not doing enough damage.
For a few minutes, Josh was plagued by a feeling of journalistic uncertainty. Maybe we should stay consistent here, he thought. Either decide that Dawson II really messed up here and shouldn’t have turned thousands of Chinese kids into orphans, or ignore that angle and decide Dawson II is a klutz, and didn’t hit China hard enough because of his incompetent bombing run.
On the other hand, he thought, who cared if they weren’t consistent? Would anyone ever notice? Maybe the old reporters of the past had to worry about stuff like that, contributing to an integrated, unified, consistent storyline.
But today, any criticism was good criticism. Those who opposed the bombing would read about the poor kids. Those who wanted to criticize Dawson II for not being tougher on China would read about the dud bomb. Josh was a full-service reporter who could be read and enjoyed by anyone.
His editor Colton wandered over.
“Nice job on those two stories. Thousands of people reading them right now,” Colton said. “What’s your plan?”
“I got a couple other ideas,” Josh said. “Some on the right are saying Dawson never got permission from Congress to start bombing China. I’m not sure on the rules, but either way, they’re saying he never asked.”
“Yeah, good one,” Colton said. “No one ever knows those rules anymore, we can hit him on that. Get some expert on the Bill of Rights to fill you in. Or wherever that stuff is. The Articles of Confederation maybe? That would be good to have for later today.”
“Also I think Dawson II was talking about military cuts a few weeks ago,” Josh said. “I can do that, sort of a flashback to last month when he wanted to chop up the military and never use it.”
“These Democrats,” Colton laughed. “The military is evil until they need it. I wonder if they’ll have enough left to fight. You’re calling him ‘Dawson II’ in your stories, right?”
“Yeah, of course. Never let them forget he’s just his dad’s kid.”
“Sounds good,” Colton said as he walked away. “Keep digging around.”
Josh cruised through more headlines and video, and after a few minutes of that, he sat up sharply, annoyed. None of the stories explained why the hell the U.S. was doing this, other than just noting “national security.”
Josh had never been much of a substance guy, but he had a sudden urge to explain it, since he figured Dawson II might be hiding the real reason why.
But how could he find out? It wasn’t in any of the White House statements. No one seemed to know.
Goddammit, he thought. How the hell could anyone know what this was really about? He ran through his options. Call a government source? He hadn’t done that in years. Who would he call?
Usually it was pointless to call officials directly. Government officials would never tell him what he really wanted to know, like how much this would cost, or why we’re really doing it. So he didn’t know anyone, and most days, there was no need.
“Keep digging around,” Josh thought to himself. Maybe decades ago, that meant getting people on the phone and talking to sources who were cultivated after years of working a beat.
Well, good for my ancestors, Josh thought. Who even had the time today, to have a relationship with a real human, someone who you could spend 20 minutes with on the phone as he tells you all sorts of things?
Nobody had that kind of time. The news was everywhere, every minute of every day, and for every reporter he ever knew, his best source was the news itself. It was like a self-regulating rumor mill. If a piece of news came out and survived without serious challenge for 10 minutes, it was solid, and you could rely on it. Use it as a basis for your own story, incorporate it as a proven fact.
But if the government criticized the story, or maybe if a company named in the story had a problem with it and said it wasn’t true, the red flags went up, and reporters knew it was a problem, and you had to wait for someone out there to write a corrected version.
Having real sources was also dangerous under Dawson II. That nut in the White House monitored all the reporters, and all of his own staff. Even the press officials were spied on, even though they were in theory supposed to be in touch with the press. They could get in trouble for something as dumb as reading a prepared statement to a reporter, since doing that would show they were comfortable talking to the press.
For all those reasons, Josh figured the best way to figure out why the U.S. was bombing China would be not to call someone and ask, but look for hints in the press from the last few weeks. He didn’t remember anything offhand, but maybe some tensions were brewing. Maybe there were some clues that people missed along the way that he could dig up.
He scanned the screens, looking for any hint of why the U.S. suddenly hated China. He found a load of the usual stuff. Some light diplomatic tension was reported, but that couldn’t be it. Some reports on trade disputes in the past few weeks, but that also seemed an unlikely harbinger of war. No way the U.S. would start bombing over Chinese tariffs on chicken leg quarters.
There was some news about the U.S. and China scuffling over the South China Sea. That seemed more promising. A fight over land or territory made sense. Access to land or sea, or raw materials. Something China wanted from the U.S.
He called up another screen and stared at it.
Wait a minute, Josh thought. Maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe instead, China was looking to give something back to the U.S.