11.5o G.M.T.

Moscow: 2.45 p.m., Washington: 6.50 a.m.

THERE WAS little conversation in the room within the War Room. Since the unconcealed threat by the Marshal, nothing more had come over the air from Moscow. Twice, the President had tried to re-establish personal contact. But the speakers in the room had remained ominously silent.

Steele had reported that there were still no positive signs that the Soviet bomber force was taking the air. Franklin felt a passing regret that Quinten's plan, which had succeeded beyond all possible doubt, would mean only annihilation for everyone, not the brilliant victory it deserved. Somehow it did not make sense to forge a weapon of the finest metal, temper it to an infinite hardness, polish it to a dazzling perfection, only to find that it could not in any case be employed without destroying its wielder as surely as the enemy it shuck down. Well, he thought, that was the twentieth century. They had to live with it. Or rather, he amended, to die with it.

The intelligence colonel came in to report another bomber destroyed. Again the destruction had occurred in an area known to be allocated to the testing of experimental missiles. Three down, but twenty-nine still flying on, most of them only ten minutes away from their targets now.

Zorubin broke the gloomy silence."How long will we have?" he asked.

Six weeks, possibly. Perhaps a little less, perhaps a little more. We will of course provide transportation for you to return to Russia, if you wish it."

Zorubin shook his head. "No, Mr. President, I think not. I have no ties in Russia. Most of my life I have passed outside it. I think I will stay here in Washington. It has occurred to me now I no longer have to live a life of the utmost decorum, I can perhaps accept some of the invitations certain of your ladies have hinted they would be happy to extend to me. On the average, they are much more attractive than our Russian women," he continued reflectively. "Excessive concentration on political and economic theory may produce a well informed woman. It certainly produces a dull one, from the point of sexual attraction, don't you think?"

"No doubt," the President said stiffly. He could understand Zorubin's attitude, especially when one considered that Zorubin had already accepted and rationalised the fact he must inevitably die. But he could not sympathise with it.

"Eat, drink, and be merry," Zorubin said lightly. "I remember a wily old British diplomat in London who . . ." he broke off as the call light of General Steele's phone flickered.

Steele picked up his phone and listened. "Put him through," be said sharply. "Right away." He waited a few moments, then said,

"Major Howard? This is General Steele, Chief of' Staff. You can pass your message to me, son." He listened for the reply. Then he said, "Hold on son, I'll get him."

Steele laid down the phone. "Mr. President," he said quietly. "The exec at Sonora thinks he knows the recall group. He'll only pass it to you personally. Shall I get him switched through to your phone?"

The President was already standing. "No," he said quickly, "I'll come to yours." He moved swiftly round the table. Even with the best run switchboard calls sometimes got lost when they were switched from one extension to another. One small error by an operator now could mean the difference between life and extinction. He accepted the phone from Steele, and took a deep breath.

"This is the President, Major," he said. "General Steele tells me you might have the recall group for the eight forty-third wing. You may pass it to me."

At Sonora, Paul Howard felt no. trace of nervousness. "I don't know whether I'm right, sir," he said clearly, "but I think I am. You see, sir, General Quinten was talking a lot to me in the last couple of hours. And most of the time he was doodling on his notepad."

The President interrupted quietly. "Keep telling me about it, Major, but first, right or wrong, give me the code letters. Even seconds count now."

"Sir, I think they will be some combination of the letters O, P, and E.

"I'll repeat those," the President said. "Some combination of O, P, and E." He spoke clearly and slowly. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Franklin take off at a run for the door. The wall clock showed five minutes to twelve. He felt a wild excitement mounting in him. Maybe they'd save the world yet. "Now, carry on, Major."

"Well, sir, General Quinten explained to me just how he saw the attack he'd ordered. He saw it as the only possible way to stop an attack on this country he was sure was coming. He figured that all the factors needed for success were present, and the eight forty-third would be able to destroy Russian offensive strength. If things worked out the way he calculated them, he thought this country would not receive any damage. Obviously he must have miscalculated somewhere."

"No, the President said. "He didn't, miscalculate. His plan, as far as it went, has worked out with complete success.

He didn't miscalculate on the information he had, but his information wasn't complete."

"Then there was a good reason why this base was attacked?"

"A very good reason."

"Oh," Howard said. "I figured there had to be, Anyway, after telling me how it would work, Quinten explained why he had taken the action. His reasons sounded pretty convincing to me. They boiled down to the fact if we didn't destroy the Russians now, they would certainly destroy us in the next year or so. He said the only way we could ensure peace was to kill them now. He told me a story about some mongoose breaking a cobra's eggs to illustrate what he meant."

"Rikki-tikki-tavi," the President murmured.

"Yes, sir, that was the name. The general kept talking about peace, and he used the expression peace on earth at least twice. Once when he asked me what the sound of a SAC wing going off really meant, and once when he said the men he was allowing to die on the airfield were dying for that.

"After the medics had taken his body away, I glanced through the note-pad he'd been using to scrawl in. Most of the scrawls I could read seemed to have some connection with what he'd been telling me about, which I figured must have meant he was thinking about those things deep down. There was my own name, and the names of the targets. I remember one of them was the Kotlass I.C.B.M. base. Then I noticed on one page he'd written down the phrase Peace on earth. I looked back through the pages and I found it was written again and again. Not only that, but on one page he'd underlined the initial letters of each word, and written them down below in all their possible six combinations. Right then, something told me that was it. One of them was the code group."

"Hold it," "the President said: Franklin had come back into the room. The SAC commander was smiling.

"It worked," Franklin said. "OEP was the correct group., The acknowledgments are coming in now."

The President looked at Zorubin. He could not resist saying, "A pity you won't be able to take up those invitations after all."

The Secretary of State laughed out loud. No one had ever seen him do that before. The Russian Ambassador beamed. "Perhaps another time," he said mischievously.

"I hope not." The President suddenly realised he was still holding the phone. He covered the mouthpiece with his hand. "Does anyone know this Major Howard?"

"I do," Franklin said. "A good boy. Got brains as well as the ability to fly. There's plenty of room for people like him in the Air Force's T.O."

"He showed a lot of courage insisting on speaking to me personally,'' the President said slowly. "He worked things out on his own, and he came up with the right answer. I feel we owe him our thanks."

"He must be promoted," Zorubin said emphatically. "He must be made a full colonel at least,"

General Steele smiled. "Well no, Your Excellency," he said. "We don't work things quite that way. But when General Franklin reviews the next promotion list for his command, I've no doubt he'll take into consideration what Howard's done today."

"Most certainly," Franklin said.'

The President uncovered the mouthpiece of the phone.

"Major Howard?"

"Yes, sir?

""You'll be glad to know your assumption was correct. The group was OEP."

"OEP," Howard muttered. "I suppose that would stand for "on earth peace', sir?"

"'On earth peace, goodwill to all men,' " the President said quietly. "'Yes, it's a variant. Now then, Howard. Before I finish I wish to congratulate you. You've acted in a manner fully in accordance with the highest traditions of your service. The Joint Chiefs, and His Excellency the Russian Ambassador, wish to join their congratulations to mine. I feel sure you'll go a long way in the Air Force."

At Sonora, Howard slowly replaced the phone on its stand. The President's words could only mean he'd be almost certain of a promotion the next list. So maybe Quinten had known something when he'd scrawled that rank on the note-pad. It was two or three minutes before he remembered he'd forgotten to thank the President, or even acknowledge the message.

The President heard the click at the other end of the line, and replaced his phone with a smile. He walked back round the table to his own seat. Zorubin offered him a cigarette, and he accepted it gravely. He limited his smoking as much as possible, but he felt this was an occasion he could afford to relax his strict regimen.

A constant stream of Air Force aides was coming into the room bearing acknowledgment messages as they were received. General Franklin was ticking off the acknowledgments against the list of bomber numbers.

"How many so far, Franklin?" the President asked.

"Fifteen, sir."

"You consider they will all have received the orders?"

"I don't see why not. Yes, I think they will."

The President glanced at the clock. Two minutes to twelve.

He decided to wait one more minute before he informed the Marshal of their success.

"Let me know as soon as twenty have acknowledged," he instructed Franklin.

"It's seventeen now, sir." Franklin accepted another piece of paper from an aide and marked off two more numbers. "Nineteen now." Another aide came in. Two more ticks were entered on the list. "That makes it twenty-one, Mr. President."

"All right". Zorubin, I'm going to speak to the Marshal now. I may ask you to confirm we have succeeded in recalling the wing."

"I will be pleased," Zorubin said. Much of the familiar charm was back in his voice the President noted.

The President saw the hands of the clock indicated one minute before twelve. He signaled for the radio link to be opened. Something told him he was going to enjoy the next few minutes.

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