11.15 G.M.T.

Moscow: 2.15 p.m., Washington: 6.15 a.m.

THE RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR to the United States, M. Zorubin, had only been accredited in Washington a few months longer than the President had held office. So far he had created a good impression. He was a tall, florid, jovial seeming man, with an excellent command of English which he spoke with a slight British accentthe results of an eight year spell of duty in London.

He was a man of striking personality, and he contrived to put into the simplest statements a warmth and sincerity, which convinced the listener that here was a man who meant what he said. As a home-grown, small town politician, he would have been strong on kissing babies and firm man-to man handshakes. As a diplomat holding one of the most important appointments in the world, he confined his kissing to the fingers of senators' wives, who found his gallantry and his witty conversation full of charm.

The President liked Zorubin personally, but he did not altogether trust him. Wit and elegance have never distinguished the State Department, where the austere, puritanical tradition seems to continue through the years. The President and the Secretary of State preferred diplomats to be serious, sober men. Also, they were not sure just how much Zorubin counted for among the inner circles at the Kremlin. They suspected he was a person of no importance, who had been posted to Washington simply as a figurehead, to convince the American public that a man so pleasant and so cultured must surely represent a peace loving and reasonable government.

It so happened they were wrong. Zorubin stood close to the hub of power in the Kremlin. He had realised early in his political life that alliances were dangerous, and enmities even more so. He had carefully avoided contracting any alliances or even any close friendships except one. His gay insouciance, and his apparent lack of interest in internal politics had ensured he made no enemies.

Thus he was able to survive the murderous intrigues of Stalin's early years, the massive purges that three-times convulsed Russia while Stalin was at the height of his power, and even the bloody, internecine fighting which immediately followed Stalin's death. Finally, the Marshal had attained supreme power, gathering the reins of government into his pudgy but efficient hands. Zorubin had survived to triumph, for it was with the Marshal he had formed his only close friendship. And since he had never taken any part in internal politics, had in fact only spent about two years of the previous twenty in Russia, it was a friendship which would last. The Marshal had no cause whatever to fear him, and so he was safe. As a token of that friendship he had been given the Washington appointment, and his dispatches were highly valued.

The valuation placed on his reports was not entirely due to friendship. Beneath Zorubin's charm and elegance was hidden a first class brain, icy cold, detached, and when necessary, ruthless. Since his arrival in Washington his evaluations and predictions of United States Policy had proved uncannily accurate. The Marshal gave great weight to his judgments.

Now, in the fifteen minutes he had been in the War Room, Zorubin was as near frightened as he had been for years. The President had explained fully what had happened. He had convinced Zorubin of his good faith, that he was making every effort to recall the bombers. The difficulty was of course that the bombers apparently could not be recalled. And Zorubin was worried. There were certain things he knew, certain actions which might be taken. Later, if it became necessary to prod the President into some unpleasant action, he might find it necessary to inform him of them. For the moment, however, the President seemed to be doing all he could. Zorubin decided to wait a while.

The President, the Secretary of State, and the Russian Ambassador were closeted in a small cube-shaped room within the War Room itself. Army Signals had provided two microphones and two speakers. These were linked to a radio net flung across an ocean and a continent to the Kremlin. The Joint Chiefs, with General Franklin in attendance as commander of SAC, sat on the opposite side of the table.

Zorubin had arrived just as the President spoke to the Marshal for the first time. The exchanges had been polite, but formal. Zorubin, listening keenly, had been unable to detect any particular emotion in the Marshal's voice.

But he knew his friend too well to be deceived by that.

He had acted as interpreter for the President. At his suggestion the American Ambassador in Moscow had been summoned to the Kremlin to interpret for the Marshal. It had been generally agreed that the matters under discussion were too important for any but the highest placed to hear them.

The President had explained briefly what had happened. He outlined the measures he had taken, and was taking, to bring the bombers back. He stressed that the United States did not by any means seek a war with Soviet Russia, and to show his good faith he had invited the Soviet Ambassador to the Pentagon so that he could witness exactly what efforts were being made to stop the attack.

"You say only thirty-two of your bombers are involved. Where are the rest of them?" the Marshal asked.

"I have grounded them," the President replied quickly. He thought there was no possibility that any of the SAC wings which were airborne could be seen on Russia radar.

"My staff report at least another two hundred in the air," the Marshal snapped.

Zórubin smiled briefly. The Americans had no monopoly on early warning systems. Keppler grinned at Steele, whose expression remained imperturbable. "They are in the air, yes," the President said. "But they are on their way back.

They are not heading towards Russia."

"Well, we will see." The reply was grudging.

"Marshal, I have already conveyed my sincere regrets that this thing has happened. May I suggest we now consider only how we can best ensure that the bombers do not reach their targets. We will continue to do everything we can to recall them by radio. But I have also arranged for my staff to prepare a complete list of the bombers' targets and approach routes, heights, and speeds. They will pass these on to your staff, together with details of the defensive weapons carried by the planes." The President paused, and his voice faltered slightly. It is never a pleasant thing to be forced to sacrifice your own troops. "You will thus be able to make dispositions to intercept and destroy the bombers before they reach their targets. We feel we cannot ask you to wait until we know whether we can recall the bombers by radio, so we accept the need for you to destroy the bombers as quickly as is possible. The information we will give you should help you to do this,"

"We will see." Again the grudging reply. "How soon can you pass the information?"

"Immediately you are ready for it."

"We are ready now. My staff tells me they are in contact with yours. Is there anything more?"

"Yes," the President said slowly. "There is. We have admitted we were at fault. But I think we have shown we are prepared to do everything in our power to put right that fault. Now I must ask for proof of good faith on your part. I would consider that ordering your long range bombers to remain on the ground would be sufficient proof.

Zorubin looked momentarily startled. It seemed he was about to protest the President's request. But the tone in which the words had been spoken precluded any argument. Zorubin shrugged, and waited for the reply. When it came, he was surprised. There was none of the indignation he had expected. Instead, the Marshal said merely, "We will see. Your Ambassador has now arrived. I am having him brought in with me." And there, for the moment, the matter rested.

The President felt very tired. Already, in his few weeks at the White House, he had realised he would never again be able to live a life free from worry and responsibility of the heaviest, most killing kind. He knew now why previous Presidents had aged so quickly, and been so subject to failures of health. The grotesque thought passed through his mind of an advertising campaign of the before and after photograph type, to dissuade ambitious politicians who saw in the Presidency only a chance for self glorification. He offered Zorubin a cigarette, and lit it for him, as the small bulb in the pedestal of Keppler's phone winked on and off.

The burly general took the phone in a big fist. "Keppler here," he growled, and then listened in the message. Fifteen seconds went by before he said, "Wait," and covered the mouthpiece with the palm of his left hand;

"Mr. President, they've run into trouble at Sonora. They've taken a lot of casualties, and the battalion commander reports he's pinned down. He has to put down smoke to give him a chance of breaking through without getting his troops murdered. It's going to take time to do."

The President glanced at the wall clock, It showed eleven twenty-one. Again, he had to make an unpleasant decision. With less than forty minutes. left there was no time to spare. "How long will it take?"

Keppler shrugged. "It depends on the state of the wind. Five minutes, possibly ten. He's already started to put it down."

Order him to advance immediately," the President said. "He is to regard his troops as expendable. I want them in control as fast as possible."

Keppler nodded, spoke briefly into the phone. His eyes were sad. The ranger units were his personal charges. It is hard to assist at the execution of one of your children.

Zorubin was pleased. The President meant business, clearly enough. He began to feel a faint hope that triumph might yet be plucked from disaster. "In Russia also, we would not allow military operations to be influenced by sentiment," he said approvingly.

"In Russia you wouldn't know what the damn word means," Keppler snarled, his face purple.

"General! The President's voice cracked like a whip. "You will control yourself, if you please."

Keppler glowered at the table. He muttered something which might have passed' as an apology. Strangely enough it was General Franklin who came to his aid.

"The general's remark was understandable," Franklin said coldly. "He feels the same way about his troops as I do about my crews. And His Excellency forgets we are all well informed about Russia not allowing military operations to be influenced by sentiment. As in Hungary, no doubt."

"Now that will do," the President said flatly. "Franklin, however justified you may consider your remarks, they were uncalled for. We are here to resolve a crisis, not to continue . . . " The President halted abruptly. He realised he had been about to put in a reference to the futile bickering which had made nonsense of international conferences in the past decade. He smiled suddenly, as the absurdity of 'the situation gripped him. "Franklin, you'll apologise to His Excellency," he ended.

"That will not be necessary," Zorubin said quickly. "General Franklin, like General Keppler, is a soldier. He says what be means, from the heart. Not like we diplomats Mr. President. Please, I am the guest here, and I have the privileges of a guest. I insist, no apology is necessary." His voice was convincing and sincere.

Franklin smiled. "It is kind of His Excellency," he said formally. "But he'll find he has to apologise if he goes on calling me a soldier. I don't think General Keppler would agree at all with that description."

"Well," Keppler said, "I don't know. After all, you started in the Army." His tone was warm and friendly. He was pleased by the way Franklin had risked the anger of the President to stand by him.

An orderly was escorted into the room by a white helmeted M.P. Mugs of steaming coffee were served to the men round the table. The orderly and the M.P. withdrew. The hands of the wall clock moved on to eleven twenty-four.

Outside, in the War Room proper, the staffs were at work. The target routes of every individual bomber had been faithfully relayed to the Russians. The heights and speeds which the bombers would be flying had been passed on, together with the information about the 52K's defence system. Signals had done a first class job in providing channels of communication, and their counterparts in Moscow had surprised everyone by the speed and efficiency with which they had handled the hook-up at their end.

Soon questions began to come back, to supplement the information already supplied, and clarify points of difficulty. Most commonly these questions were easily dealt with after a mistake in translation had been rectified. Nine tenths of the queries raised were due to translation errors. The other tenth was not.

When a dozen or more staff officers are asking questions simultaneously without any central control of their questions, the intelligence officers can soon distinguish and isolate any recurrent pattern of thought, and interpret its significance. Now, as the questions came in, an Air Force colonel and his two assistants subjected them to scrutiny. They detected a pattern, isolated it, considered the constant stream of new-questions, in the light of that pattern. Very soon, they had arrived at a definite conclusion. The report, of the first contact between the Russian defences and an 843rd bomber confirmed that conclusion.

General Steele, the Air Force Chief of Staff, picked up his telephone in response to the insistent winking of the call light. "All right, he said, "bring it on in."

A- few moments later the Air Force colonel who had evaluated the Russian questions came into the room. He whispered to Steele, pointing out things on the clipboard he was carrying. "O.K., leave it with me," Steele said finally. The colonel left the room.

Steele stood up. "Mr. President, the intelligence boys have come to certain conclusions There is also a report of contact between the Russian defences and one of our bombers."

"Well, let's hear it." The President's voice was eager.

"First, a bomber flying south towards Kolguev Island has been hit. They don't say whether it was destroyed. Intelligence thinks it was certainly the result of a weapon fired from a guided missiles trial ship in the Barents Sea. No other contact with our attacking forces has been reported. Intelligence feels this weapon was one which embodied some form of guidance system other than purely electronic. From the questions the Russians have been asking they feel sure that most of the Russian missiles, if not all, will be susceptible to interference by the electronic brains carried in the bombers. We already know, of course, that there is little a fighter can do to evade the infra-red guidance' missiles carried by the bombers." Steele sat down.

"Then it appears likely they will be able to penetrate to their targets, even with the information we have supplied?"

"It appears so,"'Steele said.

"It is so." Zorubin spoke flatly and definitely:'

"You mean," the President asked, "that your defences do not include ground to air missiles of a type other than radar guided?"

"To the best of my knowledge, no." Zorubin looked round the table. "I am not a military expert, but naturally I know roughly where we stand. I have heard that missiles using other types of guidance were put in hand last year when we happened to hear about the brain you were building into your bombers. I would not think they were ready yet"

Happened to hear. Well, that was one way of putting it, the President thought. "So it looks like a lot depends on Sonora," he said aloud.

"Everything, Mr. President. Believe me, literally everything in the world."

The men round the table looked surprised, and then shocked. Because it was Zorubin who had spoken, or rather cried out those words. And all of them realised at once that Zorubin was mortally afraid.

Back to Main Menu