11.30 G.M.T.

Moscow: 2.30 p.m., Washington: 6.30 a.m.

IN WASHINGTON the first pale light of an early dawn was appearing in the Eastern sky. In Moscow, the streets were gloomy with the approach of a winter dusk. Between the two cities the invisible radio links hummed and crackled with the passage of new information between the Russian; and American staffs, and occasionally a short exchange between the President and the Marshal himself.

Most of the bombers of the 843rd were over Russian territory now. The intersections plotted on their tracks, which represented another five minutes flying towards their targets, were creeping steadily onwards and inwards, so that the map now resembled nothing more than a series of railway lines, all slowly moving into the Russian interior, as each five minutes a sleeper was laid across the track to indicate progress.

One of the tracks ended in a small red cross just south of Kxyl Orda in Turkestan. The Russians had reported the destruction of a B-52 at that point. They had been reticent about the method of destruction, merely that the bomber had exploded in the air. The bombs had not been detonated.

Intelligence had deduced from this that the 52 had had the misfortune to cross an experimental missile area. They knew already that the Russians used certain areas of the Kizil Kumm desert to test missiles, and had fired some of their early intermediate range missiles from the Kizil Kain as targets in the Aral Sea.

The news had been brought straight in to General Steele, just as he was about to sum up the overall situation. He glanced at the report, frowned, and began to speak. "Mr. President, Your Excellency, the air situation is this. The eight forty-third is steadily moving in on its targets, and although some of the airplanes have now been over Russian territory for a considerable period, we have received only two reports of them being engaged and hit. The first reported a hit on a bomber flying south towards Kolguev. We have now established that this bomber's primary target is the I.C.B. M. Base at Kotlass. We do not know whether the plane is still flying or not. We are counting it as probably destroyed.

"We feel on safe ground in counting it as probably destroyed since news has just come of anotherbomber which has been definitely destroyed. I am glad to say" he glanced briefly at Zorubin, that the bombs did not explode, and as far as we know no casualties were caused except to the crew of the plane. "

"Thank, you," Zorubin said quietly.

"This incident occurred in an area where we know there to be a Russian experimental missile centre. I refer to the Kizil Kum desert, Your Excellency."

Zorubin nodded his head. "You are correct."

"There is a parallel between the two incidents in that both have occurred in areas where the bombers were likely to encounter experimental missiles. On the other hand, none of the other bombers seem to have been hit. We are now becoming certain that the normal Russian missile and fighter defences are not going to be able to stop the 52.K's. We may lose two or three more. The majority will get through,

"As regards enemy air, there are no reports yet of the Soviet bomber force taking off. There is more activity than usual on the light bomber airfields facing NATO, but so far no positive indication that an attack is intended. Sixth Fleet reports it is being shadowed by two submarines. Admiral Maclellan feels this is apart of the normal procedure the Russians follow since they got access to Egyptian and Syrian bases. As far as Sixth Fleet is concerned, shadowing by Russian subs is S.O.P. They aren't worried about it. From all other sea areas reports are of normalcy, no hostile contacts whatsoever have been reported.

"From all this, Mr. President, we have reached two firm conclusions. Disregarding political probabilities, we feel sure the Russians cannot get their long range bombers off the ground fast enough before their fields are smeared. And secondly, that at least twenty-eight of the bombers will penetrate to their targets."

"I see." The President was thoughtful. "Assuming twenty-five only get through, would they deal a mortal blow?

"I wouldn't say mortal," Franklin answered quickly."It's a big country. Crippling would be a better expression. It would leave them completely at the mercy of any forces which followed up, because they wouldn't have the strength left to hit those forces where it counts, that is on the bases back in this country. Their offensive power would be so badly weakened I doubt whether they'd succeed in getting more than two or three bombs on to this country."

"And they'd realise that?"

"Well, yes, Mr. President, they would. Any competent air staff could work out the answer in ten minutes."

"I must know whether a further blow is being contemplated if you cannot succeed in recalling your bombers." Zorubin's voice was harsh. The President glanced at him in surprise. The Russian Ambassador's face had lost its usually ruddy colour. It was pale, and the expression in Zorubin's eyes was desperate.

"It is not," he said flatly. He thought that Zorubin must know of the existence of the world-killing devices buried in the Urals. He revised his estimate of Zorubin's importance. To have that information, the Russian would have to be very close to the central power.

General Keppler picked up his telephone in response to the winking light. He listened for a few moments, and then said, "O.K., get me to the commander's office fast. Don't waste a second. He replaced the phone."Commander at Sonora's ceased fire," he said briefly. "I've Instructed Mackenzie, the battalion commander, to get to Quinten's office the fastest he can.

"Yes," the President said. "Very good." The wall clock showed eleven thirty-six, The sands were running out fast now, too fast. "Steele," he asked, "supposing we get the correct code group, how long is it going to take to get the word out to the bombers?"

"Two or three minutes," Steele said, confidently. "At the maximum."

"So if we got the group by say, twelve hundred hours, we could still prevent the attack?"

"Well, not really," Franklin interposed "It's true the average bomb time for the wing is a few minutes after twelve. But there's a period allowed each side of the bomb time, four minutes actually. Some of the bombers would bomb exactly two hours after turning from their X points. Probably most of them would try to bomb at the earliest possible time. That's only natural, they wouldn't want to prolong the flight any longer than they had to. I would say the big majority of the crews, when they turned in at ten hundred, planned on two hours to bomb time."

"I see." The President showed no trace of discomposure, but he was beginning to feel an increasing certainty that they would not be able to recall the bombers now. Quinten's planning had been first class, he thought. The 843rd was going to catch the Russian bombers before they could get off. Or at least before they could get off fully armed and briefed. Everything was working out as Quinten had probably calculated it. He couldn't believe that the general would have slipped up by allowing officers who were present at the briefing to remain on the base. The last hope now was that when Quinten heard the President's information about the devices which threatened the whole world, he would grasp quickly that he must allow his bombers to be recalled.

The light on Keppler's phone glowed. Keppler snatched it up. "Mackenzie? Sure, Keppler here. He what? . . . Sure, I
get it . . . They aren't? . . . Well look for them, goddamit . . Yeah, we'll keep a line open to you." He slammed the phone back on its rest.

"Well, what did he say? Have they found the officers?"

Zorubin's voice was high pitched, frightened.

"Quinten has shot himself," Keppler said heavily. "No one knows where the two officers who attended the briefing are. Their wives say they left on a hunting trip last night, and there seems no reason to doubt that. They're looking for them, but Mackenzie doesn't sound hopeful they'll find them."

"Bogou moiau!" Zorubin's face was a deathly white. "Then it is finished. Everything is finished." He lit a cigarette with hands that shook badly as he applied a match to the tobacco.

The President thought for a moment. So the last hope had gone. At the back of his mind from the first had lurked the fear that Quinten might kill himself when he saw he would be taken. It was logical, and if Quinten had been sick enough to believe in his original action, then he would not have hesitated to do anything in order to ensure his action continued. Now it was necessary to communicate the news to Moscow. He turned, and spoke for a short while to the Secretary of State. Then he said to Zorubin, "I'm going to talk to the Marshal again."

The president spoke quickly and simply. He told the Marshal that it seemed all efforts to recall the bombers had failed. They would go on trying, but he did not think they would succeed.

"Sookin Sin!" The President winced as the coarse obscenity crashed from the speaker. He listened in silence to a torrent of Russian lasting half a minute or more.

"Murderers," Zorubin translated. His voice was filled with fear, causing him to stumble over words, and mispronounce others. There was no trace now of the cultured elegance which normally characterized his English. "Swinish aggressors. You have launched an unprovoked attack on a peaceful country. Up to now I have kept my bomber force on the ground. I have refrained from any action which might be thought to be warlike. But now you will pay. The Soviet people will take their just vengeance on the capitalist imperialist murderers."

The President said calmly, "We acknowledged our fault. "We have done all we can to stop it. We supplied enough warning for the cities to be evacuated and the people saved. Let the Marshal consider that if his Government had ever ceased their world-wide aggression, this would never have happened. For years they have forced a terrible economic strain upon us so that we might have weapons to defend ourselves against an attack which he knows he has planned. Not only our economy has been strained, but our minds and our nerves. Now, one of our commanders has reached breaking-point. Would the Marshal deny that his own acts of aggression have contributed to the commander's breakdown? But this is no time for an exchange of insults. We must consider what we can yet do. Your cities will be destroyed, or a few of them, but most of the targets are not near cities. You have no doubt evacuated your cities, so loss of life should not be high. For the damage we do, we will pay. We will pay, even though it reduces us to economic poverty. That is only right. We can promise there will be little radioactive fall-out from the bombs. Let the Marshal remember that all is not yet lost. And I repeat my solemn promise. For whatever damage is done, we will pay."

There was silence in the room while the President's speech was translated at the other end of the radio link, thousands of miles away. A minute went by. The President thought he had never known a longer one. Then the speaker crackled with two short, sharply spoken sentences, and was silent.

Zorubin's voice was empty of hope. "You couldn't afford it," he translated. "But you will certainly pay." He turned to face the President. "It is the end," he said resignedly. "I can tell it from his voice."

"You know him so well?" the President asked.

"He is my oldest friend," Zornbin said simply. "If those targets are destroyed he will be a man without power, a man who has been defeated. He will not endure that. He will take certain action. I do not know whether even now I should tell you . . ."

The President interrupted him. "We know," he said. "We know about the devices in the Urals."

"So? But perhaps you do not know for certain if they would be used?

"My guess," the President said slowly, "is they will."

Zorubin nodded. "You are right, they will. And you know what it means?"

"We do."

"So that is it." Zorubin shrugged. His face was slowly returning to its normal colour. There it was again, the President thought, the peculiarly Slav acceptance of fate.

"You know, Mr. President," Zorubin said almost lightly, "a little while ago General Franklin said that when the planes turned in from their X points there was two hours to bomb time. I can put it more accurately than that. Not just two hours to bomb time. But two hours to doom."

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