11.20 G.M.T.

Moscow: 2.20 p.m., Washington: 6.20 a.m.

CLINT BROWN asked calmly, "Any hope of the hornets coming unstuck, Herman?"

"I just don't know, Captain." Goldsmith spoke fast and nervously. "Guess I'd better go take a look in back."

"O.K. What range is the hostile now?"

"Thirty," Lieutenant Owens said. "Closing about a mile every two seconds."

Brown figured quickly. A minute to come level. Half a minute extra as the fighter turned away, another minute as it turned and caught up. Add a half minute for pilot reaction being slowed after turning hard at those speeds. About three minutes to attack. He had to go down soon. "O.K., Herman," he said, "go on back. I'll give you thirty seconds, then I'm starting down. Plug in back there and let me know."

"Roger." Goldsmith moved quickly to the armoured bulkhead separating the pressure cabin from the main fuselage. He took with him a mobile oxygen kit and a spare intercom set.

Brown heard Owens call; the fighter at twenty-five miles. He said, "Stand by for maximum rate descent. All set, Federov?"

"All set, Captain. I'll give you six thousand revs on the descent. You can pull them back another thousand if you need to."

"All right. Brown sat watching the seconds tick away on his watch. Maximum descent was fourteen thousand feet per minute. If Goldsmith couldn't untangle the hornets, it was the only answer. At thirty-five thousand Alabama Angel was a sitting duck. At ground level the fighter's radar would be confused by ground returns which' would blot out the aircraft blip. To fly really low was full of hazards. Bad visibility, uncertain navigation, high ground on the route. But it was the only chance.

As if reading his thoughts, Andersen piped up, "We'll cross in just after getting down on the deck. There's a thin layer of cloud at eighteen thousand, but there shouldn't be much under that. Visibility should be good this time of year. There won't be a lot of light, but there's no high ground to worry about for the first ten minutes."

"Thanks, Stan." Brown waited for Owens to call the ten miles. He decided five seconds after that he'd begin to go down. He'd have to watch his Mach number very carefully.

Normally, the 52 was well behaved right up to point nine six of the speed of sound. But the blast damage might have roughened up the airflow. He'd have to be alert for the first hint of vibration which would indicate compressibility troubles.

"Ten miles," Owens said. "Moving away to starboard."

"Roger." Brown's hand went to the trim control. He counted off the seconds. With two left he said, "Going down, and thumbed the trim control forward. "Remember we aren't pressurised. Keep swallowing. I can't go back up for anyone with ear trouble."

The descent indicator moved round until it showed a rate of fourteen thousand feet per minute. Brown trimmed the bomber into the right position to maintain that rate of descent. He watched the Mach meter carefully as it moved up from point nine. Almost immediately he felt the judder. The Machmeter was indicating only point nine three. He said, "Cut back on revs, Federov."


Lieutenant Goldsmith reported in from the rear fuselage. "Captain, the hornets are snarled but good. A piece of metal from that missile got the main feed servo. Nothing I can do about it, so I'm coming back up."

Brown acknowledged the message, and concentrated on his speed and rate of descent. He thought maybe the air brakes had been hit too. Something was definitely wrong. Working closely with Federov he cut back the revs to the danger point. They could not bring them down any lower without risking a flame-out. But the speed still built up too fast. Gradually, Brown trimmed back until at a descent rate of ten thousand per minute the plane was holding a steady point nine one. There was little vibration. It was a comparatively slow rate of descent, but it would have to do. Anything faster meant shaking the bomber to pieces.

"Hostile at twelve miles, four o'clock," Owens said. "Turning in."

Brown frowned, glanced at the altimeter. Still at twenty seven-thousand. He hoped the Russian pilot wouldn't turn too tight, and wasn't too expert at recovering and straightening out on the attack run.

"Thirteen miles; five o'clock," Owens said. "Straightening out." He paused for a few seconds, watching the scope with a concentration so intense he was oblivious to anything except the menacing brightness of the hostile echo. He saw it move ever more slowly over to six o'clock, with the range going out only slightly. "Six o'clock, now, fourteen miles. Captain, this boy's turning real fast."

"Yeah," Brown said. "He straight now?"

"Sure, coming in straight. I'll call him at ten and every mile after.

Brown noted the height. Twenty-three thousand. He quickly calculated the time needed to get the bomber down to ground level against the time the fighter needed to reach firing position. It was a simple problem. The fighter would be closing them at about ten miles a minute. Say he let fly at two miles range. That meant only a little more than seventy seconds before firing point. In seventy seconds the bomber would be down to an altitude of ten thousand feet. It was too high.

Suddenly, Brown was afraid. For the first time in his life be felt the physical impact of naked fear. For the first time he experienced the special refinement of agony which fear can produce in a normally brave man. He recognised it for what it was, rationalised it, and concentrated with all his determination on the job he had in hand. He did not conquer the fear, but he pushed it far enough in the background so he could continue to function efficiently.

"Ten miles," Owens called.

Ten miles. And Alabama Angel still at nineteen thousand. There wasn't a chance of getting low enough. Desperately he sought for something he had overlooked, something which would enable him to outguess the electronic devices in the fighter behind him. But he knew there was nothing. The anti-missiles brain could swamp the low powered signals from missiles, impose its own will upon them by sheer force. But the Russians had fightersa new supersonic series, one of which was probably boring in on them nowequipped with radar too powerful for the brain to deceive.

"Eight miles." Owens voice was brittle, positive but troubled.

Brown admitted to himself there was nothing he could do to counter the threat except to try and judge the moment when the fighter would loose its rockets. With the admission came an immediate release of tension, and a slackening of the tight embrace which fear had locked around him. He heard Owens count the fighter in to seven miles, five, three. He braced himself for quick action.

"Goldsmith," he said urgently. "Shout now at any sign of rocket release."


Brown trimmed the bomber neutral, maintained the downward path by pressure on the controls. There was just one chance. The Russian pilot's automatic predictor sight would have computed the downward progress of the airplane. It would aim his rockets at a point where the bomber should be if it continued downwards. "Give me full power when I start nosing up, Federov," he said.

"Now," Goldsmith screamed down the intercom.

Brown heaved back on the stick, felt the fast build up of centrifugal force press him heavily down in his seat. The plane flattened out of the descent, lifted its nose reluctantly towards the sky, and began to climb. He counted the seconds as the salvo of rockets accelerated towards them, found his brain was working so fast he had time to assess the chances of the rockets carrying nuclear warhead. He put them pretty low.

The main salvo of rockets passed harmlessly beneath the bomber, too far away for the proximity fuses to fire them. Three, flying higher than the rest, detonated as they passed underneath. They did not cause any damage. A fourth, possibly through some defect in its stabilisers, came in higher and slower than the others. It exploded ten yards off the starboard side of the rear end of the pressure cabin, the twenty kilo charge erupting its steel case into a hundred lethal pieces.

The blast gouged out whole sections of the fuselage and starboard wing. Between twenty and thirty jagged lumps of steel tore through the cabin. Mellows, Goldsmith, and Minter died at once, their bodies ripped open by the furious metal. Andersen was untouched, but Garcia was hit in the leg. Federov received only a slight flesh wound. Engelbach and Owens were not hit, but a fragment wrecked Owens' main radar.

Brown felt a slamming impact in his back, which knocked him forward to slump unconscious against the controls. And Alabama Angel, responsive to the forward movement of the stick, pushed her nose down again, and began the long, sickening slide into the hostile darkness beneath.

It was Federov who recovered first from the shock of the explosion. He stumbled forward to the pilot's seat, heaved Brown out, and lowered him gently to the floor. Freed of Brown's weight on the controls, the nose of the bomber began slowly to lift towards the horizontal, in obedience to the urge of the trimmers. Federov, panting with the effort of moving Brown, climbed into the seat. He was vaguely conscious of Andersen bending over the unconscious pilot.

Federov knew he had to act fast. The fighter might be circling for another strike. Or other fighters might be heading in on the target. Federov was no pilot, but like all SAC engineers he had been given a hundred or so hours dual. He could look after the plane in the air if he was not called on to land it, or to perform really tight combat flying, And he knew the safest place was near the ground. O. K., that's 'where he'd head for. He eased the stick forward, trimming the aircraft into a nose down position at the same time. Again Alabama Angel tilted down into the darkness.

Next, Federov assessed the damage. Amazingly, all six engines were still functioning normally. He felt the onset of compressibility vibration, and hastily cut back the revs of the engines. The juddering stopped. He made a quick and thorough inspection of the instruments. All the flying instruments were all right. Fuel feeds seemed to be normal.

Temperatures and pressures were about right. Federov sighed with relief. The plane was still flying and still flyable. He settled to the task of holding her steadily on course as she lost height. It did not occur to him even to consider turning back.

Andersen, bending over Brown, saw his eyes suddenly blink open. Brown moved his head slowly to one side, looking up past Andersen's face to where Federov sat in the pilot's seat. His lips moved soundlessly, the words lost without trace in the roaring noise of the cabin. Then he began to ease himself up. Andersen moved a hand in protest, urging him to stay down. Brown brushed it impatiently away, and motioned Andersen to help him. Andersen hauled him slowly upright, and Brown tapped Federov to indicate he wanted to resume the seat. It was only as he climbed into the seat that Andersen saw the dark, spreading stains on his torn clothing half way up the right side of his back.

Brown sank into his seat. He was not yet feeling any pain beyond a dull ache. But he knew he was hit hard. He felt as though someone had broken off a spear point in his back. It did not hurt, but he was conscious of a bulk which had intruded itself into his body, where it had no place to be. He fumbled for the intercom set which had torn away when Federov removed him a few moments before, and checked it was properly connected. Then he said, "Stan, where are we?"

"We've crossed in," Andersen said quickly. "Hold this course a while, unless...." he let the sentence tail off.

Brown made no reply. He glanced at the altimeter, then flicked on his radio altimeter. It was working. He remembered that the aerials were out on the port wing tip. Mercifully, they'd not been damaged by the explosion. It made all the difference. Now he could hold an accurate height above ground. Three thousand feet now, and he found he could see quite well. Andersen had been wrong about the cloud. There were a few patches up above, but the stars shone through with the clean, hard brightness of the northern latitudes. The snow on the ground helped too, though it was likely to be deceptive when judging distances.

He said, "Unless nothing, Stan. For the moment we go on. I don't have to tell you how important it is we get through. Right now, we might be the only people standing between Russia and the destruction of the States. We have to go on, and we have to take that base out. It's our duty, and by God we're going to do it."

"Sure," Anderson said. "Sure, Clint. Is there enough light to fly low. Real low, I mean?

There's enough," 'Brown said shortly. His face twisted in pain as a sudden hot shaft of agony stabbed into his 'back. Here we go, he thought grimly. It was not the first time he had been wounded. When be was only sixteen his brother had accidentally punched a twenty-two slug through his leg while they were out hunting. The first few minutes had been fine. Just a kind of numbness. He had even laughed and joked. The net six hours, before they finally got back to medical aid, had been unadulterated hell.

He said quickly, before the next shaft of pain should hit, "Let's round up on the damage and the casualties. See what's working. I'm going to run in to the target at deck level. Ten miles away, I'll climb up to bomb, let her go, then turn and come back out on the deck. Flight plan on that, will you Stan?"

"Right away. Andersen's hand reached out for his computer.

"All right then," Brown said. He paused, gasping as the pain hit him again, then wend on, "We'll make it, men. Believe me, we'll make it and take that base out. Back home right now, they're relying on us to get through, because we know just how important they consider that particular base. And they can rely on us. Because we will."

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