11.25 G.M.T.

Moscow: 2.25 p.m., Washington: 6.25 a.m.

WHEN THE President had taken the decision to send the Rangers into Sonora, General Keppler had said his men would brush the defence aside without too much trouble. General Franklin had insisted there would be heavy casualties. Both generals had been partly right.

The Rangers had moved fast across terrain unfamiliar to them. Wherever they could, they had bypassed troublesome machine-gun emplacements and flak towers. Where they could not, they had brushed them aside. They had taken casualties in the process.

The men of Dog Company, in particular, advancing southeast towards the administration building, had run into trouble when they were caught on the smooth, naked concrete of the 839th Wing's servicing area by the cross fire of two flak towers, each of which mounted two Skysweepers. There was no cover for them on the huge, flat expanse of concrete. They could not dig in, they could not even rely on the earth absorbing some of the hail of shells which ripped into them. The shells exploded instantly on contact with the concrete, and the air became a singing inferno of metal. Dog Company lost sixty per cent of its effective strength in the first minute, and the survivors hastily withdrew under cover of smoke.

The other companies had better luck, but they also took a constant trickle of casualties, which might at any moment become a flood if they were caught on open concrete as Dog Company had been. An airfield by its very nature is usually flat. Sonora was exceptionally flat, and a great part of the flat ground was coated with concrete in the form of runways, servicing areas, fueling areas, and readiness pens. There was very little cover, and the flak towers mounted as much firepower altogether as would normally be allocated to a division.

The battalion commander, an officer who had seen action in North Africa and Italy, and later in Korea, assessed the casualties reported to him over the walkie-talkie, and decided he must slow up. The only fast line of advance was across the concrete where Dog Company had perished. But advance on that line was impossible while the two flak towers dominated it. He considered how they could be neutralised.

It was a tough problem. The concrete towers had been designed to stand up to a ten kiloton blast at five hundred yards from zero, the kind of blast a tactical atomic weapon might be expected to deliver. They were vulnerable from above, but with the magnificent field of fire they possessed, no mortar crew could hope to live at a range where they could drop their mortar bombs accurately into the circular gun nest. The only answer was smoke. And enough smoke took time to put down. The battalion commander decided it would just have to take time. He gave the orders.

Howard was watching the battle from the window of' Quinten's office. It was perfectly safe to remain there, as Quinten had explained to him. When the main object of an attack is to secure the opposing commander alive, the headquarters of that commander is most certainly not a target. One or two stray bullets had smacked into the wall of the building, but that was all.
Like most infantry battles, the fight at Sonora was quite meaningless to the observer who was not himself an infantryman. By the light of constantly erupting flares, Howard had seen a group of men wither away under the fire of two of the flak towers. He had no real idea of the significance of their withdrawal, or of the strange inactivity which followed it.

He turned as Quinten's telephone rang, and heard Quinten receive information and give fresh orders. The general looked directly at him. "We're taking a lot of casualties, Paul," he, said. "They're within five hundred yards of this building now. The Security Officer thinks they're re-grouping." His voice was quiet, and with the suspicion of a tremor in it. It was the voice of a man who is infinitely weary, and infinitely sad.

Howard felt a sudden, strange compassion for Quinten.

It pushed into the background the cold anger which he had been nursing. "Call it off now," he said. "Call it off now, Quint." Without realising it, he used the general's nickname.

Quinten smiled at him momentarily. "You're a good boy, Paul," be said. "You'll go a long way. One day you'll have to make a decision, and it may be a decision you don't want to make. When that time comes, remember what's happening now. Make the decision, no matter what it costs you personally. And once you've made it then stick with it.

"A lot of those men out there, whether they're enlisted men or officers, are my friends. I know them, and their wives, and their families. I've helped them get married, been a godparent to their children, chewed them out when they've tied one on and missed duty. The fact they're dying hurts me personally. I couldn't live with what I've done to them. But I have to see things whole, and see them clearly. I've made my decision and I have to stick with it. Look, I'll go this far with you. There's a lull now, and no-one's getting hurt. It's coming up to eleven thirty-one. Average bomb time for the 843rd is five after twelve. I don't figure they'll be able to locate Bailey or Hudson inside thirty minutes, so I'll authorise a cease-fire at eleven thirty-five. Does that help?"

Howard turned to look out of the window again. There was a grey wall of smoke where he had seen the two flak towers catch a bunch of men on the concrete plain that was the 839th servicing area. Occasionally the crack of single carbine or M.1 shots was heard from different parts of the base. Airmen shooting at shadows most likely. "It helps," he said shortly. "Let's hope it stays quiet until then."

He lit a cigarette, and continued to watch the thick grey smoke as it gently stirred in the almost breezeless air. Three flares shone with a dazzling white incandescence, and slowly sank down towards the ground. When they were only fifty or sixty feet up a skirmish line of' soldiers suddenly broke out of the smoke, spaced well apart, all moving in different directions, yet purposefully, as if to a well coordinated plan.

Five more flares burst in the air, and two searchlights played on the wall of smoke. The Skysweepers opened up their rapid, staccato thumping interspersed with the lighter rattle of heavy machine-gun and B.A.R. fire. Howard realised he could no longer see the soldiers who had broken out from the smoke, and at the same moment the two searchlights died out with a crash of recoilless rifle shells, and the flares were shot out by a hail of small arms fire.

More flares went up and in the few brief moments before they were shot out Howard saw the concrete swarming with soldiers who had emerged from the protecting smoke. Before the Skysweepers had fired more than a few rounds darkness again screened them from the defenders. But in that short while Howard had seen a dozen or more men knocked down by the fire.

He swung round suddenly. "Stop it, goddam it," he shouted. He raved at Quinten, calling him every name he could lay his tongue to. Only the big, steady mouth of the point four five prevented him leaping over the table. He was shaking with rage.
Quinten looked at the clock. Eleven thirty-four. "Calm down, Paul," he said. "I'm stopping it. As of now."

Howard rested a hand on the desk. He felt emotionally exhausted, completely used up, as helpless and weak as a kitten. He was only vaguely conscious of the incessant firing of the Skysweepers and the steady yammer of light automatics.

Quinten flicked the tab of the address system. "This is the Commanding Officer," he said firmly. "This is General Quinten speaking. I order a general cease fire. I repeat, you are to cease fire. Remain in your positions, but do not fire any more. You will receive word of mouth orders to that effect from your officers and noncoms as soon as I can get them out. I repeat, this is the Commanding Officer. Cease fire. This is General Quinten. Cease fire.

The great steel voices of the address speakers boomed Quinten's orders across the base. Most personnel heard them, and remained a discreet distance from those positions which were still firing.

Howard and Quinten heard the fire gradually diminish. It did not stop altogether, but it abated. Quinten broadcast a second message, and after that firing became desultory and confined only to small arms. Each of the flak towers had an address speaker, so the gun crews had heard the message and had obeyed its orders.

"I've got a job for you, Paul, Quinten said. "Go down to the Security Officer and tell him I want my order passed to every officer and noncom in charge of a team. Some of them won't have heard the speakers. Also, I suppose you'd better welcome the commanding officer of the troops. I don't know what rank he'll be. Bring' him right up here."

Howard looked carefully at Quinten. The general seemed calm now, and at peace. He wondered for a moment whether he ought to leave Quinten alone. Then he realised it didn't matter much. Quinten had the gun. There was nothing he could do to stop Quinten taking any action he thought fit. From somewhere on the base a long burst of machine gun
fire shattered the quiet. Men were still dying out there, Howard told himself. They would continue to die until they received the orders to end the fight.

He nodded stiffly and turned away. At the door he paused. "General," he said awkwardly, "you're sure you'll be all right?"

Quinten smiled. It was a genuine, warm smile, the kind of smile Howard hadn't seen on Quinten's face for a long time. "I'll be fine, Paul. Just fine. Get those orders out fast."

"I'll get them out fast." Howard went out through the door. Quinten watched him go. He heard the noise of his steps in the corridor, and the slam of the door which cut off the two command offices from the rest of the building. He thought Howard was a good boy. In time he'd make a real good commander, too.

Quinten moved over to the door. It was two minutes after the deadline he had set himself. He carefully locked the door, and went back to his desk. A year, the specialist had said. Maybe as little as six months. Maybe as much as two years. How wrong could a man be?

From the second drawer of his left hand pedestal he took a slim wallet of photographs. He looked at them for a few moments, then replaced them in the wallet and put the wallet back in the drawer. On the desk in front of him the heavy, lethal bulk of the four five was like a magnet, drawing his attention to it as it lay across the closed cover of his note pad. He felt an urge to pick it up to feel in his hand again the heft of the familiar weapon. He fought the urge down. As he had told Howard, he believed he would have to account for what he had done. There were certain formalities. They did not detain him long.

Within minutes of leaving Quinten's office, Howard had ensured that the orders to cease fire were in course of transmission to all defence teams. He met the commander of the attacking troops, a short, lively light colonel, saluted him as courtesy demanded, and escorted him up to Quinten's office.

He tapped on Quinten's door. It was the first time he had done that since he acquired the exec's privilege of free entry. There was no reply. He tapped again, a third time. Still no reply.

The door was tough. It took them nearly a minute before they succeeded in kicking it open. Howard was first into the room. It didn't help at all that he expected what he saw. The wave of nausea lasted all of thirty seconds, and then it was gone and he was ready to start work again.

While the infantry colonel stood by him, he initiated action to trace Bailey and Hudson. Pretty soon he knew the answer. Wherever they were, they were not on Sonora Base.

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