11.10 G.M.T.

Moscow: 2.10 p.m., Washington: 6.10 a.m.

ALABAMA ANGEL reeled under the force of the explosion, her port wing flipping up almost to the vertical as the blast bucked it. The huge aircraft shuddered, shaking with a vibration heavier than any Clint Brown had ever experienced. The cabin was filling with acrid smoke as he brought the plane level, trimmed it for rapid descent, and shouted to Federov for air brakes and reduced revs.

The bomber tilted forward, shuddered again for a few seconds as the air brakes bit into the thin air and disrupted the airflow to slow the plane during rapid descent. Within seconds Brown saw that the inboard portside engine pod had received a lot of the blast. The counters for numbers three and four engines were showing rapidly falling revs, and the fire warning lights were glowing red In the little ports above each counter.

"Shutting down three and four," Federov said calmly. "Fire system operated on three and four."

"Kay." Brown watched the two counters as they wound down to zero. Five seconds later the two red lights winked' out. "Seems to be under control, Federov. Everyone on emergency oxygen. Check in as I call you." He listened while the crew members answered in turn. Then he went on, "All right, we're hit. But she's flying. I'm going down to thirty-five. I'll call for damage assessments as soon as we level out. Get working."

He adjusted the trim to give a constant rate of descent of eight thousand feet per minute. The smoke in the cabin did not seem any worse. But the fact it was there at all indicated a failure in the pressure system, probably punctured the walls of the pressurised section. A glance at the pressure, equivalence gauges confirmed the failure. Before the explosion they had indicated an equivalent of a comfortable ten thousand feet. Now they showed a fifteen thousand equivalent, and were climbing rapidly. Brown judged they would reach thirty-five about the same time the bomber got to to that level.

He felt momentarily grateful they had survived the first hazard. The breaks in the pressure walls hadn't been serious enough for explosive decompression to occur. A lucky break there. Explosive decompression at a height of twelve miles, with the cabin pressurised to maintain an apparent height of only two, would have ripped the plane apart. They would all have died instantly. The feeling of gratitude lasted perhaps a tenth of a second. Then it was pushed into the background by the imminent presence of other dangers.

The altimeter needles wound down past forty-five thousand. Whatever happened now, they could breathe. About another minute to go to thirty-five. He glanced quickly round his instruments. Except for the two still needles of the dead engines, they appeared normal. He began to feel a small degree of optimism. If the damage was just to the pressure walls and two engines, that wasn't too bad. They could fly a long way on six engines. To the target certainly. And back to the States afterwards? Well, maybe not at thirty thousand feet, but for the moment that wasn't important.

Lieutenant Owens on radar said, "Captain, I've tracked two more missiles. They broke away like the first four."

"Yeah," Brown said. "Keep watching, Bill." He saw the altimeter needle flick down past forty thousand, then grasped the significance of Owens' report. "So your radar's still working? And the brain?"

"Good as new, Captain."

Fine." Brown pushed another two factors into their slots in the framework plan he was constructing. He thought quickly of the missile which had hit them. The prime fact was the electronic brain had worked. He started from that. He coupled with it the way they had come under fire long before he'd thought they would, way out further to sea than the Intelligence boys had estimated. Also, that Owens was picking up the missiles at a range of only sixty miles, on radar which had an easy pick-up range of a hundred, while they were still about a hundred and fifty miles from the coast.

It added up to the missiles coming from a ship. Maybe the Russians had stationed a screen of picket ships to extend the range of their coastal defences? Brown didn't think so. The routine reconnaissance missions would have reported them the same way the Russian reconnaissance had no doubt fixed every Texas Tower and every picket ship in NORAD's organisation.

His mind worked fast on the various possibilities. Now the pay-off was being made for the hours of compulsory studies he had put in at SAC intelligence rooms, assimilating the carefully gleaned information about the enemy's weapons; actual, future, and potential. His mind selected, from the mass of information it had stored, a few items which helped to give shape to the problem, and assist in its solution.

Thus. Four cruisers of the Zherdlov class had been converted to anti-aircraft missile ships. The Russians were thought to have in hand a missile which combined infra-red with radar homing. But the date for that missile's operational debut was still a year away. Two of the cruisers converted were based on Archangel. One of them was actively operational, the other carried experimental missiles. Finally, the Russians had been known to use icebreakers to cut channel to a spot in the middle of a frozen sea, slip a big ship through the channel, and leave it as an artificial island until they decided to cut it out of the thick ice which would reform around it.

It took less than thirty seconds for Brown to decide about the missile which had hit them. Obviously, it had had only a small, high-explosive warhead. An operational missile would have used a nuclear head. Only one had been fired, against six radar-guided missiles. There could be little doubt it was an experimental infra-red missilethe way it had circled and homed in on the radiations from the engines helped establish thatand had been fired from a ship temporarily marooned in the ice-locked Barents Sea for trials.

The altimeter was showing thirty-six thousand as he said to Federov, "Brakes in. Get me the revs for maximum speed at this altitude." He watched the needle approach the thirty five thousand and trimmed the aircraft into level flight.

"Captain, you know the fuel consumption if we use maximum speed this height?" Federov's voice was anxious.

"I know it. But with the drop in height and two engines out we're going to need every mile not to miss out too badly on our bomb time. Any ideas about the wind at this level, Stan?"

Lieutenant Stan Andersen glanced briefly at the sector graphs of the vertical air mass structure. "Shouldn't hurt us," he said briefly. "May help. There wasn't much going our way at sixty."

"O.K., I'll take damage reports. Normal crew rotation." He listened to the reports from the crew, carefully weighing each report, asking questions to clear any point he wanted checked.

The defence system was in good shape. The brain was working, and so was the search radar. Goldsmith's two hornets were still ready to go, with all their circuits in order. The remaining eight weapons seemed to be all right.

Mellows reported the radio working satisfactorily. Lieutenant Engelbach was a little unhappy about his target radar. The bombsight mechanisms seemed unaffected, but the radarscope wasn't functioning well. He said he'd be able to tell better when they had crossed in over land.

Andersen was satisfied with his navigation equipment, and Federov confirmed the plane was flying fine except for the two dead engines. "They know how to build these things at Boeing," he said. "Take a lot more than that to kill a fifty-two."

"Yeah," Brown said. "Sure, a lot more." He thought for a long moment about his girl at Seattle. He remembered the way she would say, "Clint honey, I'll never be jealous of the airplane, or the eight forty-third, or any other old wing they assign you to. I grew up with airplanes here. I guess I can live with them when we're married."

When we're married. How did Seattle look now? High shattered buildings poking a few ferro-concrete fingers at a sky loaded with strontium dust? Tarmac of roads, stone and wood of houses, bone and sinew of human flesh, fused, into a smooth, dead amalgam? Glowing black hair and tall graceful body, brain and voice, and generous, loving heart, charred into black nothing? Brown said tightly, "Garcia?"

"They're O.K., Captain, Garcia said quietly.

"All right. Thanks, Garcia." Brown glanced round the instruments again, waiting for the important words from Andersen and Federov. A minute went by while he tried not to think, about Seattle. For all but five seconds of the minute he failed.

Andersen came in first. "We can't make it before ten after twelve. Even with the boost in speed the loss of height has cut us down. It would be more but the wind seems pretty good at this level."

"O.K., Stan." Brown fitted the last but one factor into his framework. Now he was only waiting on Federov. He waited another half' minute before he got the news he had been fearing, about as he expected it from his own rough calculations.

"Two thousand eight hundred from target," Federov said. "I've made allowance we drop speed once we leave the target. Add eight hundred from A point to target, still leaves us way over a thousand under minimum."

Over a thousand under minimum. That ruled out return to any base south of the fiftieth parallel. And the bases north of it would probably be out already. Well, if it came to the worst, they could always drop altitude and hit the silk once they got back over land. The airplane wouldn't matter then, it would have done its job. He looked at his count-down clock. Fifty-one to run. He found it difficult to work back from that, to translate the minutes to target into actual time. He could quite easily have glanced at his watch. But it simply did not occur to him. He said, "Stan, time check. And how many minutes before we cross in?"

Stan Andersen broke off his work, checked his wrist watch against the small chronometer located in the bottom right hand corner of the ground position indicator. "Coming up to 11.15. Ten seconds . . . Five . . Now. Set the countdown to fifty-five. And we cross in at 11.24. Couple of minutes later than I estimated. There'll be a small change of course shortly but not very much. Two or three degrees."

"Right, Stan. O. K., men, this is how it goes. We're still capable of hitting our primary target, maybe the secondary too, but certainly the primary. That's got to be hit. Here's how I see it.

"I'm pretty goddam sure we were hit by an experimental missile, and I don't figure on running up against any more like that. I'm confident we can divert their ordinary missiles, and we know Goldsmith's little stingers can blot out the fighters they'll send up. Everything else is working fine, so
we'll hit our primary.

"All right, that looks good, so what are the snags? First, we got hit and we got holed in the pressure cabin. We're twenty-five thousand under our best operating altitude, but that's the way it has to be. That won't stop us getting to the

"We'll get there, butan' I'm not going to mince words about thiswe may not make a useable base afterwards. You know what a drop in altitude does to the fuel consumption of a jet engine. If we can't make a base, I'm planning on dropping height and letting everyone bale out once we get over friendly land.

"That's the aeronautical side, now here's the tactical There's no reason they can hit us any better at this height than at sixty thousand. Only reason we flew up there was to stretch fuel. Tactically, we're as safe down here. Maybe safer, because they wont expect us in at this altitude." Brown paused, then went on slowly, "So I'm going right on in to the primary. We could turn back now, and with good reason, but I'm not going to. Our target is the I.C.B.M. site at Kotlass. We don't hit, it, we'll maybe help to kill an awful lot of our own people. So we re going on.

Lieutenant Bill Owens broke in on him ugently. "Captain, I have two blips, must be fighters. They're well apart, coming head on. Speed high, about Mach Two. Range fifty."

"Roger," Brown said. "Your hornets ready to go, Goldsmith?"

"Ready, Captain." Goldsmith checked over his instruments for the twentieth time. Everything functioning right. He flicked down the fire switches of one and six to the on position. It only needed a stab of the button now.

"They're in to twenty five,"Owens said. "Moving further apart. Guess they must be under close control, going to pass. and come in from port and starboard together."

"Right," Brown said.

"Call them at ten." Goldsmith's voice was lifting, eager.

"Twelve now, going, further out. You have them, Herman?"

"Sure," Goldsmith said happily. "I have them." He watched the two bright dots on his fire control scope. They were following the classic attack pattern of the supersonic missile-carrying fighter. Break off from ahead of target, start to turn hard in when you got abeam, come in with six hundred miles of overtake speed, launch your rockets, get out fast.

Goldsmith watched them almost lovingly as they turned in, one from port, one from starboard. That tactic wouldn't confuse the missiles. They had a preference system built into them which would incline them towards targets on their own side of the bomber. The fighters were at six miles now. Goldsmith put his two thumbs on the firing buttons. Five and a half miles. Five. He said, "Firing," and pressed the two buttons.

Electricity raced along the circuit wires which connected the missiles with the bomber. From the firing ports of each motor twelve white-flames licked hungrily back into the air stream. The slim rockets slid neatly out of their embracing tubes, and roared away on their destructive task.

Goldsmith peered closely at his scope. He saw the two small blobs of light march across the screen towards the bigger blobs, hesitate for a moment, then dart firmly in to mingle with them.

Behind Alabama Angel two red balls of fire expanded slowly in the cold wastes of the air. Two rockets went into the self immolation which was their destined end. With them they took two Soviet all-weather fighters. The pilots of the
fighters, Goldsmith thought, as he watched the sudden violent reaction on his scope, would never have known what hit them. He said, "Fighters destroyed. I'll lineup the next two.

Goldsmith selected two and seven on the row of switches half way down his panel. The red lights glowed steadily beneath each of them. He waited the twenty seconds necessary to prime and place the missiles in firing positions. The red lights continued to glow. He switched in to emergency circuits. No effect. He cancelled the selection of two and seven, tried three and eight. Four and nine. Five and ten. The red lights glowed.

He spent another minute playing with the switches, cutting in circuits and taking them out, trying all the four emergency procedures. Then he said, quietly but definitely, "Captain, there's, a-foul up with the hornets. I'd figure it as damage to the positioning arms. Whatever it is, they're out."

Goldsmith finished speaking. Brown was considering what that would imply, when Lieutenant Owens said, "Captain, another fighter coming in. Fast, like the other two. Forty miles ahead."

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