09.55 G.M.T.

Moscow: 12.55 p.m., Washington: 4.55 a.m.

BRIGADIER GENERAL QUINTEN, Commanding Officer of Sonora Air Force Base, looked out through the armoured glass of his office window at the brilliantly fit, empty flight lines. His 839th Wing had gone off two hours before on a series of simulated raids designed to test the efficiency of the North American Air Defence system–NORAD as it was generally called. The 843rd, on rotation overseas from Sonora, were a few minutes from their X points on the other side of the world. Only a few lame ducks and light airplanes were left.

Quinten, a tall, spare, grey-haired man, slightly stooped and with the barely discernible beginnings of a small pot belly, turned away abruptly, and walked quickly to his desk. He sank into the padded chair which he seldom left when his crews were airborne, picked up a pencil, and made a few shapeless,meaningless marks on the note pad in front of him.

The office door opened and his exec walked in, as he was privileged to, without first knocking. Major Paul Howard, the exec, was tied to ground duty while waiting for a leg badly broken in an auto smash to heal. It was nearly well now, and Howard was counting the days until he could return to his crew. He did not enjoy staff work and administration, but he was a graduate of the National War College, a man marked for high rank in the future if he did not foul up on the way. He performed his exec’s duties efficiently and well, if without any great liking for them.

He placed a sealed envelope on Quinten’s desk. “My red line’s still out, General,” he said. “They haven’t located the fault yet.” “All right, Paul.” Quinten slit the envelope open neatly with an ivory paper knife, and unfolded the single sheet of paper it contained. “Let me know immediately they fix it, will you?”

“Yes, sir. Right away.” Howard turned and walked out of the office, closing the door softly behind him. He was thinking how old Quinten had got to look in the two years he had known him. Too much responsibility, Howard thought, too many long hours of sweating it out at a desk while crews carried out their training missions. Quinten had children and grandchildren. At least, one grandchild. Howard smiled as he remembered the party there had been at the club to celebrate that. But his crews were his children, too. As long as they were airborne, Quinten would be awake and at work, watching the plots of their progress round the globe. And if as happened very occasionally a crew was lost through accident, Quinten suffered all the grief of a deep and personal loss.

As soon as the door shut behind Howard, Quinten read the letter from SAC. It was a personal letter from the commander. It thanked him for his work over the past four years, assigned him to duties in the Pentagon, and informed him his relief would arrive the next day. Quinten had been expecting the letter for some time. He had already heard unofficially that he was to be relieved. He knew it was right, that every day he was pushing himself a little closer to the edge of complete breakdown. But to hear about it unofficially was one thing, to see it actually in writing another. He knew the move would mean a second star on his shoulder, but the knowledge was joyless. He knew, although the Air Force did not, that he was a very sick man. The specialist he had consulted privately in Boston during his last visit there had left him in no doubt of that.

He folded the paper. It was only when he tried to replace it in the envelope that he noticed how badly his hands were shaking. Without being really conscious of it, he watched the big second hand sweep once round the dial of the electric wall clock. 09.58 G.M.T. Quinten pressed twice on the button that would summon his exec.

Howard entered the office within twenty seconds of the bell. As he came in he saw that Quinten was holding the red line telephone in his right hand. His face was very pale, Howard thought, but his voice was quite firm as he said, “I understand,” and replaced on its rest the red instrument, the telephone which linked directly with SAC operations room.

Quinten took a deep breath. “Major, hold them at their X points,” he said. “Use the intercom in your office, mine might be busy. Right away.” His voice was calm and quiet, the impersonal voice of an officer trained to command, and experienced in the exercise of command.

Howard acknowledged the order, turned and hurried into his own office. His training forced him to pass the orders without letting his mind speculate on their implication. That could come later. For the present it was sufficient that within a minute of Quinten’s order the word had gone out to the 843rd. He returned to the commander’s office, and stood at the side of the desk ready for any further orders. So far he was not greatly disturbed by the order to hold. It had happened before, several times. Then it had been training, an exercise to test the efficiency of communications between base and the widely scattered bombers. Maybe this was the same.

The red line phone clamoured loudly and imperatively. Howard stiffened as Quinten reached for it. Maybe this was the call-off. But Howard thought not. He could not pin down any definite reason why he should be disturbed, yet somehow he was.

Quinten said quietly, “All right Paul, you’ve probably guessed. We’re in a shooting war. Get the word out to the boys. Plan R. Use your office, and wait for acknowledgments. I’ll bring the base to Warning Red conditions.” He watched Howard swing round and walk quickly into the adjoining office.

Quinten first called the PBX. His mind was working fast, forgetting nothing. A mind not at its best, but still capable of carrying out an operational plan whose every detail was engraved on it with the heavy clarity of innumerable repetitions. He lifted the phone to the PBX, and was put through to the supervisor. He said, “This is the Commanding Officer. You recognize my voice?”

Second Lieutenant Manelli, drowsy towards the end of his spell of duty in the air conditioned PBX sunk fifty feet below the administration building, forced himself to immediate alertness. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I recognise your voice, General.”

“All right, Manelli. I want Warning Red passed to all sections. Report back personally on any extension that doesn’t answer or acknowledge. Got that?”

“Sure, General. Warning Red, report back personally any extension we can’t raise. Anything more, sir?” Manelli was itching to ask the C.O. if this was really it. But he didn’t. Like the rest of SAC he had been trained to know that needless questions wasted precious seconds.

“Yes, there is. From here on in the base is sealed tight. That includes incoming calls, as well as outgoing. We may have to deal with saboteurs pretending to be anyone from the President down. No calls from inside go out. No calls from outside are even answered, let alone put through. No calls. You understand?”

“Yes, sir. No calls in or out without your personal say so.”

“No calls at all, with or without my personal say so,” Quinten said patiently. “My voice can be imitated too, Lieutenant.”

Manelli swallowed. He was very young, and very proud of the responsible position he held on the base. He said, “No calls at all, General. Rely on me, sir.”

“I will, Manelli.” Quinten replaced the phone, lit a cigarette. He knew he could depend on Manelli. He was a good kid, keen on his job, not afraid of responsibility. Now, after goofing off like that, he would make sure he didn’t goof again. The PBX was tight.

Quinten drew on his cigarette. He could not expect Howard back with him for three or four minutes yet. He ran briefly in his mind the main features of plan R. Then he flicked the lever of the intercom set, brought in the Communications Officer and the Tower. He said, “Close down your sections. Just as soon as all the eight forty-third have acknowledged. There’ll be nothing further for you to do, so you can get below ground.”

The Communications Officer, Captain Masters, said, “General, I have to ask for clarification of those orders. If I shut down, and the Tower, there’ll be no radio or teleprinter communication in or out of the base. Is that your intention, sir?”

“That is. Get moving on it.

And Masters.” “Sir?”

“You were quite right to ask. For your information, all that side will be handled from SAC. Now get started–Tower?”


“Have all the acknowledgments come in?”

“Working on the last six, General.”

“O.K. Get your personnel under ground as soon as you can. Quinten flicked off the intercom. He thought about Masters. The Communications Officer had been absolutely correct to make sure he had understood the orders. In the same way, he felt there had been a duty on his part to convey to Masters his approval of the query. An individual infantryman saw only his small part of the battle. The commander had to take account of the whole. Masters's transmitters and receivers were his part of the battle. In the big picture, which Quinten saw over all, they had no place. Then he dismissed Masters from his mind as Howard walked back into the office. “All on their way, Paul?”

“Everyone, General. All acknowledged. General, Tower told me we’re closing down on communications.”

“Sure.” There were a hundred and one things Quinten wanted to start on. But this was his exec. He would have to sit in on the battle. Quinten lit another cigarette. “Here’s the way it is, Paul. The eight thirty-ninth will be kept airborne. No point risking them being caught on the ground. They aren’t armed, but the Russians don’t know that. The eight forty-third are off our hands. We won’t see them back here. By the time they’ve hit their targets and fought their way out it should be over one way or the other. Meanwhile, we’re liable to be attacked. No point in sacrificing personnel. That answer you?”

“Sure thing, sir.”

“All right. Let’s get to work. The base is at Warning Red. That’s from SAC. In addition I want the following implemented. Double up on defence combat teams. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be an attack on this base by conventional forces. All privately owned radios impounded. Air Police will have the lists of owners. Got to face the possibility of instructions to saboteurs coming over them. For the same reason, all Air Force owned radios impounded too. Those first, and fast, while I see just what we’re going to hit.”

Howard swung into action, flipping switches on the intercom, sometimes with a phone in each hand while he gave out orders on one, received reports on the other. Among the reports was one from PBX that the General’s orders had been carried out. Every extension had been contacted and had acknowledged, the report added.

Quinten opened the safe built into the right pedestal of his steel desk. From it he took a bulky briefcase which was chained to a securing staple in the wall of the safe. He unlocked the case, fumbled inside it for a moment, then pulled out a sealed fifteen by ten envelope. He broke the seals of the envelope, and extracted a folder with a big red R stamped on it. He put the folder on his desk.

Howard replaced a phone on its rest, and made a final tick on his check list. “All cleared, General.”

“Fine. I’ll speak to personnel over the address system in a while. They’re too busy right now.” He opened the folder at the first page, scanned quickly down it. Needlessly. The words were etched indelibly on his brain. He was one of the five officers who had done the detailed planning on “R,” and on several other letters too. There was no aspect of the plan with which he was not minutely familiar. He looked up at Howard. “This is the big time,” he said softly. “The real big time. Moscow, Leningrad, Sverdlovsk, Stalingrad. Plus fourteen of the biggest bomber bases, the really important ones. Their one operational I.C.B.M. launching site, and the three they’ve almost completed. The biggest, Paul. That’s why it’s been assigned to the eight forty-third.”

“Sure,” Howard said. His own Wing was the 839th, but he recognised the rightness of Quinten’s assessment. The 843rd had the B-52.K’s. They were the first wing to have the K’s, the only wing which was fully trained on them. It was right those targets should be assigned to the 843rd, because they were the targets that mattered. Once they were destroyed there would be no further massive attacks on the States.

At the back of his mind he was still conscious of a vague disquiet. He sought for it desperately. There was something he had to ask Quinten, he knew. His eye fell on the intelligence summary he had placed on Quinten’s desk an hour earlier. He said, “Sir, that base isn’t operational. The I.C.B.M. one I mean. According to today’s summary, they’ve hit trouble. It’s out for anything up to a month. Something to do with faults showing up in the metal structure of the firing pits. You read it?”

“Why no,” Quinten said, “I didn’t read it yet. But I can’t say I’m surprised. The way they rushed the construction job through to frighten the N.A.T.O. politicians, they were bound to hit trouble some time.” He got up from his desk, paced to the window, stood looking out. “That only leaves the manned aircraft: the Bison Jets and the Bear turbo-props, which means we’re in with a real fighting chance. Better than evens, much better.”

“Seems kind of funny though, General.”

“What does?” Quinten swung round to face him. “Well, sir, you wouldn’t figure they’d pick a time their only operational missile battery that can hit the States is out. I don’t get it.”

“Maybe they intended us to think that way, Paul.” Quinten’s voice was quiet, reflective. “Maybe they thought we’d get the news and write off the threat for a week or so, lift our guard a little. It’s been known to happen before in the history of war.” “Sure. I suppose so. It’s peculiar, though.”

Quinten smiled briefly. There was no humour in the smile, just a passing half second’s bitter amusement. “They’re peculiar people,” he said. He was going to say something else, but again the red line phone shattered the quiet.

Quinten said sharply, “Leave it to me, Major. I want to speak to the Security Officer. Personally. Have him come up, will you?” He walked back to the desk, picked up the receiver, listened to the message as Howard went out of the office. Then he began to speak.

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