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This is a short story and/or novel that I read in the mid-to-late 1980s, most probably in a science fiction magazine that was published in the period of late 1960s to early 1980s. Based on a half-remembered (and possible incorrect) sense of the style, it is probably nearer the end of that period than the beginning.

The story's world is a post-apocalyptic situation, where remnants of civilization survive under the rule of various regional governments, many of which are dictatorships run by "strong man" warlords. I'm pretty sure that a limited nuclear war is the cause of civilization's collapse, but it may have been due to other factors. It may have been mentioned that larger and more varied types of governments still persisted in some parts of the world.

The story's location is a regional enclave run by a warlord, which I'm fairly sure was in North America, and which perhaps is in the less-populated parts of Canada (edit: actually Alaska). I think this enclave had regular conflict with other regional groups.

A traveller, which I want to say is from one of the larger polities to the south, comes to the enclave, perhaps as part of a caravan as part of a blimp crew. He is relatively well-supplied with technology, some of which is offered for sale. Among these items is a functioning nuclear warhead (including, I think, a missile delivery system for it).

The warlord is very interested in purchasing this weapon, and the traveler's group agrees to sell it, but the catch is that it has an optical scanner that will require a particular code/pattern to launch. The warlord must surrender his son (or someone else close to him), who will have this code cauterized onto his heart tissue the wall of an artery near his heart. (It may have been tattooed, instead, but I think it was burnt into the tissue.) The implantation of the code can be done safely using the technology available to the traveller, but to use the weapon later, the warlord will need to cut out his son's heart and present the code to the scanner.

This happens relatively early on, and the plot of the story is about subsequent conflict with the neighboring enclave(s) that causes the warlord to consider using the device. I don't recall whether he chooses to proceed or not.

EDIT: Having done some additional research on this myself, I came across the story "Iphigenia" by Nancy Collins, from 1991. It is definitely not this story (published too late), though it makes use of the same premise from Roger Fisher's article.

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    Interesting. I believe this was actually proposed by one of the golden age science fiction writers as a potential cure for nuclear holocaust, that the person pressing the button had to do so by killing (with their bare hands) the person with the button. If they weren't willing to do the deed in person, they shouldn't have the wherewithal to push the button from afar. – Valorum May 23 at 19:53
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"The Verts Get a Nuke" by Michael Armstrong (from his novel, "After the Zap"). It can be read on archive.org.

Excerpt:

Myers wiped a big green bandana across his forehead. “So, in order to arm the nuke,” he said, “I’d have to cut out someone’s heart to get the football?”

“John Deere’s heart,” I said. “We’ll put the football inside John Deere.” John Deere was holding on to his father, biting his lip. “It won’t hurt him. Doc North’s a good cutter. The doc will make a little ceremonial scar, like Lucy.” Like me, I thought.

“Christ,” he said. “So let me get this straight: in order to use that nuke. I’d have to kill my own son?” I nodded. “But — I could never do that.”

I nodded again. “That’s the way we figure it. You still want the nuke?”

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    Yes, this is it. I think I may have read the novel, actually, since the cover image at ISFDB seems familiar. Still, definitely the same story. Thanks! – Otis May 29 at 13:26
  • Interesting that this -- the right answer -- has fewer upvotes than another "answer" that admits is not the correct one. Only in scifi.se! :P – Andres F. May 29 at 14:07
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    @AndresF: It's fairly common, really, to the point where there's a badge you get for it. – FuzzyBoots May 29 at 14:26
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This sounds remarkably similar to the article written by Harvard law professor Roger Fisher in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1981. The article is available here. The article includes:

Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. 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. The President says, "George, I'm sorry but tens of millions must die." He has to look at someone and realise what death is - what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It's reality brought home.

Obviously this isn't a science fiction short story, but I mention it in case it is related to the story you remember. The article itself makes no reference to any stories. Whether the article or the story came first I don't know.

  • This is very interesting, and it certainly seems likely that either the story was inspired by the article or they both sprang from an idea floating around the SF community. The timing is about right, and I have a vague feeling that an early 1980s publication date might be correct. I've adjusted the post accordingly. – Otis May 27 at 16:07

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