11.40 G.M.T.

Moscow: 2.40 p.m., Washington: 6.40 a.m.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL Andrew Mackenzie, who had led the attack on Sonora, replaced the telephone. "They don't like it, he said. "'They don't like it one little bit. I told them there was still a chance the two officers were on the base somewhere, but if they aren't at their quarters and their wives say they went off hunting, it looks hopeless to me. I suppose there's a chance the whirlybirds might locate them.

Howard looked out at the brilliantly lit base. Every possible light had' been turned on to help the ambulances and the medics locate and care for the casualties. As he watched, an ambulance tore across the concrete, siren howling and red light flashing. It disappeared in the direction of the base hospital. Here and there, groups of walking wounded were being assembled to receive their shots while they waited for ambulances. In the distance, on the broad concrete of the 739th servicing area, men were bending over sprawling figures which would never stand again, and covering them with G. I. blankets.

Howard thought about Bailey and Hudson. They were fanatically keen hunters. They were probably dug in right now in an elaborate hide somewhere a hundred miles away from Sonora, possibly near the coast, waiting for the dawn rise of birds. They had their own favourite places, as all hunters did, and like most hunters they kept it a close secret between themselves. Three whirlybirds had already gone off. Howard watched the fourth rise out of sight, into the darkness above the airfield where the lights did not penetrate. "There's a chance," he said. "About one in a million. Bailey and Hudson might be anywhere in ten thousand square miles, and it won't be light for a long while yet."

Mackenzie joined Howard at the window. "It was pretty bad out there," he said quietly. "Those flak towers are hell to pass without artillery support.

"Yeah. You know what all this is about?

"Well," Mackenzie said cautiously. "The poop is the general here went haywire and mounted a full-scale attack on Russia. Our orders to penetrate here came right from the President. Incidentally, they're keeping a line open from this office to the Pentagon, in case we locate those guys."

"I don't get it," Howard muttered. Maybe Quinten's action was wrong, but it's done now. Seems to me the only sensible thing is to follow up on it. Why the hell would they want to sacrifice all those poor bastards out there?"

Mackenzie shrugged, "Don't ask me, I'm just a footslogger. It's you guys are all mixed up in the big bomb diplomacy. I heard some more poop from the Pentagon. The officer who passed me my orders used to be my divisional commander. The word is the Reds have a super bomb that can wreck the whole of the States."

"Nuts," Howard said angrily. "And even if they did, how could they deliver it? We've caught them off balance, Colonel Quinten may have been sick, but he still knew which end was up when it came to bomber operations. Understand, I'm not defending what he did. Fifteen minutes ago I was beginning to think he was right. Now, I'm not sure. But I do know he wouldn't miscalculate the effect of his attack.

"Well, I hope you're right." Mackenzie pursed his thin lips thoughtfully, "Seems to me someone up top must know something more, though. I don't know the exact figures yet, but I must have lost near on two hundred of my boys in that attack. What did you lose?"

"We don't know. Certainly over a hundred."

"That's three hundred men gone, at the minimum. They must figure the position to be pretty serious when they'll accept casualties like that." He turned away and walked to the door. "Well, I'm going out to see how my boys are doing. Have to take a muster to count just who's left." He closed the door quietly behind him.

Howard still stood at the window, lost in thought. Some time in the next few minutes two medics entered with a stretcher. Howard looked out at the base while they removed what was left of Quinten, and cleared up some of the mess. When a man puts a four five in his mouth and pulls the trigger, there is inevitably a mess.

He heard the medics leave, and he caught sight of Mackenzie's slim, energetic figure moving among the troops. Then he turned to the desk.

The medics had removed the gun from the desk, but Quintin's note pad still lay there. Howard sat down in Quinten's seat, and idly flicked the pages of the pad. Quinten had found peace now, he thought, Maybe not peace on earth, but peace wherever he had gone to.

It was funny, he thought, flipping the pages and glancing idly at the scrawls and doodles there, how much of a man's subconscious is revealed when he scrawls on a pad. His conscious mind may be busy with other things. But his subconscious often prompts him to scrawl thoughts which are hidden deep beneath the surface. Here was his own name, he saw. But Quinten had promoted him. He had gone up to light colonel. Howard smiled sourly. After this mess he'd be lucky if he stayed a major. Here was Kotlass, with the K heavily underlined. A double connection there. The I.C.B.M. site, with the K underlined from the bombers heading towards it to take it out. He turned over another page.

Suddenly he stiffened in his seat. He rifled hastily through the other pages. Yes, there it was again. And again. Howard felt his heart pounding heavily with excitement. He thought he knew. No, stronger than that, he was sure he knew.

He stretched out his hand to pick up the telephone with a line held to the Pentagon. Then instantly he saw and heard Quinten again, his face haggard and pale, but his voice calm, and confident and utterly reasonable. He hesitated. The mongoose kills the snake. He does it because that is the nature of things. It is not aggression, it is self defence. We will bury you, the Russians said. We will bury you. He pulled his hand back, stood, and walked slowly to the window.

In his mind reason pitted itself against morality, hard fact against probability. He was sure he had the power to recall the bombers. He was not sure he should exercise that power. He lit a cigarette and glanced at the wall clock. Eleven forty-six. Whatever his decision, it had to be fast.

Two hundred yards away from his window, he saw an ambulance pull up alongside a group of wounded. The medics bent over the stretchers, lifting them smoothly into the ambulance. He watched as a stretcher was brought to the ambulance, and two men bent over it. Even at that distance he saw quite clearly that one of the men shook his head. The stretcher was taken away, and put back on the concrete. Someone walked over and placed a blanket over the still load.

Howard knew then what he had to do. He didn't believe the story about the super bomb. That was just the politicians pressing the panic button again. Nor did he believe the attack on Sonora had been motivated by anything much more than an attempt to conciliate world opinion. But he had just seen a man die. Not a mongoose, or a cobra, but a man. That was where Quinten was wrong. It was all right for animals to kill by instinct. It was all wrong for men to kill except in direct self defence. Nothing could justify it. He crossed to the desk and picked up the telephone. For a few moments he had held the fate of the world in his hands. But he did not know that. He only knew that he could see what was right, and he had to act in accordance with what he saw.

The connection with the Pentagon was almost immediate. His call was answered by a colonel whose name was unfamiliar. "Pass your message, Major," the colonel said.

Howard took a deep breath. "I'll pass it to the President," he said firmly, "No one else."

He braced himself for a storm of angry words from the other end. But they did not come. Instead, there was a moment's silence, and then a new voice said, "Major Howard? This is General Steele, Chief of Staff. You can pass your message to me, son."

Howard hesitated. This was the big brass. If he bucked it his career was finished for sure. But he stuck to his guns. "General, I'm sorry, sir," he said. "I don't recognise your voice. I think I have the recall code group for the eight forty-third, but I insist on passing it to the President personally. I'll know his voice all right."

Again Howard was surprised by the response. General Steele said nothing more than, "Hold on son, I'll get him."
Howard felt an intense nervousness come over him as he waited. He'd stuck his neck right out now. He'd insisted on direct access to someone outside of the proper military channels. His military sense of fitness was outraged, yet his common sense insisted he was right.

He heard a few faint noises in the background, and then a voice he knew was speaking to him. The tones were quiet, precise, cultured. He identified them instantly. The voice said, "This is the President, Major. General Steel tells me you might have the recall group for the eight forty-third wing. You may pass it to me."

Howard found his nervousness had left him. There was something about the voice that had given him confidence and assurance. He began to speak.

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