11.55 G.M.T.

Moscow: 2.55 p.m., Washington: 6.55 a.m.

THERE WAS a saying, about flak in World War Two. Probably it originated with the R.A.F., because they were the first to experience really heavy flak, and was taken up by the Eighth Air Force later. 'Seeing flak doesn't matter,' it said. "When
you can hear it, it's getting close. And when you can smell it, you're in trouble. Alabama Angel had been smelling it for ten minutes now, and Alabama Angel was in bad trouble.

The first shell to hit had struck somewhere in back of the fuselage. It didn't seem to have done much harm, except the fore and aft controls had become stiffer. It was an effort for Brown to make the small corrections necessary to keep the airplane at a height of two hundred feet.

The second shell had done the real damage. It had exploded between Stan Andersen, standing in the astrodome, and Federov, as he stood next to Brown, killing them both. Andersen's body, which had absorbed most of the explosion, was a red, shredded thing on the floor of the cabin. Federov's body had protected Brown, and now slumped against the side panels of the cockpit, the head hanging loosely forward and swinging grotesquely with the movement of the aircraft.

Garcia and Bill Owens had been shocked by the explosion, but Andersen's body had screened them. Physically, they were untouched. Engelbach, forward and crouched over his radar and bombsight, had not felt or heard anything except a sudden, heavy shudder behind him.

Brown was reaching certain conclusions. He knew now that they would never make it out from the target. The numbness was creeping into his upper arms. Movement of the controls was becoming increasingly difficult. He knew that once he had brought the bomber to the target his strength would fail. The alien piece of metal inside him had destroyed his ability to generate fresh power. All that kept him going now was the knowledge he must not fail. Millions of lives depended on his hitting the target and taking it out. He felt as if he were drawing a little power from each one of the millions who depended on him, to keep his weary body working until he hit the primary. He had been planning on Federov taking over then to fly the bomber out.

It had been a slim chance. But now Federov was dead, and so was the navigator. The slim chance had become no chance at all.

There was something else. He knew he could not bomb from twenty thousand. It would have to be low level. It did not matter, he thought, because the chance of escape had gone anyway. But did the others know that? Stan Andersen would have known it, but Stan was dead. It was the first time he'd flown without Stan for three years. It didn't make sense somehow. that Andersen was there and yet not there, but then war never made sense.

For a few mile's ahead the sky was clear, but in the distance clawing up to six thousand feet or more, were more white lines and red explosions. Brown glanced at his watch. A minute before twelve hundred. Almost time to climb to bombing height. Except he hadn't the strength to climb, and he thought it very likely the plane hadn't either. The decision was already made. Now he had to give it to the others.

He said, "Guys, we have to alter the attack plan. We can't make it to twenty thousand. I'll have to attack from low level. I want you to understand what it means." His voice was very weak against the background crackle of the intercom.

Bill Owens tightened his lips. He knew exactly what Brown meant. As soon as the bomb dropped they had forty seconds to get clear. Forty seconds came out at about six miles. It wasn't far enough, not nearly, to be sure of escaping the blast and heat of the bomb. Dropping from twenty thousand, the plane could turn away immediately while the bomb was still falling towards its target, and be ten or twelve miles away when the explosion took place. At ground level that wasn't possible. He said, "Owens here. I'm in the picture, Clint." His voice was firm and definite, the voice of a man who has accepted what is to come and satisfied it cannot be any other way.

Englebach also realised immediately what the situation was. He gave it little attention. His job was to put the bomb precisely on the target. He would do it. What happened afterwards would happen. Maybe he'd get scared, once he'd let the bomb go. But not right now. Right now he was too busy looking ahead and pinpointing his approach, and computing the distance from the aiming point he'd have to start the mechanisms working. He said, "I understand, Clint." It was the first time he had used Brown's given name in the air. But somehow it seemed like the time to do it.

"O.K., Bill, Harry. Brown paused for a few moments."How about it, Jose?"

Garcia flushed. He wasn't used to captains calling him that. But he liked it, he liked it fine. He said, "Too deep for me, Captain."

Brown smiled. Aside from the bomb, Garcia's knowledge was mainly of the kind most useful in barrooms and dance halls. He said, "Cut out the Captain malarkey, José, you know my name, now use it."

"Yes, sir," Garcia said. "Clint."

Brown smiled again. Fleetingly. How did it go? All men are equal in the eyes of God? Something like that. A few minutes wasn't going to make any difference. They weren't officers and noncoms now. Just men with a job to do. "Well, this ís it, José," he went on. "If we drop from ground level, we just don't have the speed to get far enough away from the burst so the blast doesn't hit us. See what that means?"

Garcia swallowed. He thought of all the bars he'd never entered, the drinks he'd never tried, the girls he'd never made.

He looked down at the lifeless shape of Minter, who'd always lent him money when he was broke, and covered up for him when he was adrift. The bars, the drinks, the girls, were kid stuff. This was a man's job, and he was a man doing it. He said, "I get it. Well, if that's the way it has to be, that's the way it is." He paused. Shyness was a new and strange sensation to Garcia, but he was experiencing it now. "Clint" he ended hurriedly.

"Flak's getting pretty close, Clint," Engelbach said.

"O.K. Harry, Bill, you think you can get off the attack groups?"

"I think so. I looked them up here in Meadows' code sheet. Just the aircraft number with AGRB repeated twice to follow it. I can manage that."

Brown sat quietly for a moment. Was there anything he had forgotten? He thought not. Better check on the bomb with Garcia though. "Number one set for maximum delay ground burst, Jose?"

"Maximum delay ground burst, Clint."

"Fine." Brown checked his watch. Three minutes after twelve. The flak rushed nearer. Fifty miles from target. This had to be the last belt of flak. Five minutes more and he could relax, let his pain racked body sink into oblivion. But that was in five minutes more. Now was the flak.

He mustn't forget the attack message to base. Even now, anything could happen. He said, "Bill, I want that message to go out at exactly eight minutes after twelve. If we're still flying then, we'll be through the last flak and almost at the target. Get it off even if we haven't bombed yet. Once the bomb goes down there may not be time.

"Sure," Owens said quietly. "Check time?"

"Twelve zero three and a half."

"Twelve zero three and a half," Owens repeated.

Brown watched two intersecting lines of white tracer forming a bright X directly in his track. The point of intersection of the lines was a good four to five, hundred feet above the height he was flying Alabama Angel. He took the bomber easily through the lower triangle of the X. From ahead and to starboard another line of tracer came towards him, the shells seeming to move very slowly at first, then suddenly arcing and hissing past the tail of the bomber at dazzling speed.

Quite safe, he thought, they aren't deflecting right. Even radar and electronics didn't solve the aiming problem with their target this far down. It was just as well. He knew he could not have moved his arms sufficiently to take hard evasive action.

"We're on track," Engelbach called. "Fixed the position on that little river back there. Four minutes to run."

"Roger." Brown watched the flak again. He thought they were almost through it now. In front of him a cluster of rockets hissed into the air, to burst and shower burning phosphorus down from two thousand feet. He gauged the distance quickly. They wouldn't affect him. Too far out to port. The airplane topped a small rise, and the ground fell away sharply.

Brown didn't see it in time, and when he did see the danger he moved very slowly and painfully to correct it. For twenty seconds Alabama Angel was six hundred feet above ground level. The radar from three light guns locked on to the bomber, the predictors swinging the long barrels ahead of the bomber's nose. Three lines of shells floated lazily towards them.

Brown swore, pushed with all the puny strength he had left at the controls. For an age the bomber remained straight and level, then slowly, as the first shells whipped past her nose, slid down again to the protective nearness of the earth.

Most of the shells passed over the top of the descending bomber. Three did not. One exploded harmlessly in the rear fuselage. One hit a fuel pipe in the starboard wing, and started a fire. The third slammed into the underbelly of the plane, tearing away half of one of the bomb doors.

Alabama Angel rocked under the impacts. But she still flew. And suddenly they were through. Behind them the sky was an inferno of explosives. Ahead, the air was peaceful and empty, and the way to Kotlass was wide open.

Brown glanced at the starboard wing. Burning fuel was sending lashing flames back from the trailing edge of the wing. It didn't matter. They could spare the fuel, and the flames weren't heating anything but air. They were a sitting duck for flak now, with the bright flames a clear give-away of their position. But there wasn't any flak. Brown allowed himself a faint smile of triumph. They'd made it. In just over three minutes Kotlass would cease to exist. So would the bomber, but that didn't matter.

He said quietly, "All right, she's made it. We've got about three minutes left."

Engelbach cleared his throat. He found to his surprise he was not in the least afraid. He said, "Clint, there won't be much time later. Maybe you'd like to say.

The numbness was in Brown's lower arms now. The hand on the controls was insensitive, dead feeling. But he knew' it would last out until they were past the target. He said quietly, "Sure, Harry. José, maybe you'd like to stay on your own?"

Garcia remembered back to the tin building in the slums of the Californian town where he had grown up. He remembered the comfort that came when he needed it. He hadn't needed it for years now, or maybe he had and just didn't know it. Now be did. But with Clint Brown, and Harry Engelbach, and Bill Owens. They'd come a long way together in the last two hours. They'd stick together now. He said, "It doesn't seem to matter now, Clint. There's some things right, some wrong, hell I don't know the
difference. Say it for me too."

Some things right, some things wrong. Yes, Brown thought, that was it. It was wrong to kill. It was not wrong to defend what you knew was right and good. To attack without cause, to kill without provocation, was wrong. To hit back like they were doing had to be right. He felt a great peace coming on him. What they were doing was surely right, and they could answer for it without shame.

The bomber raced on across the few remaining miles, the long, fierce jet of flame from the starboard wing proclaiming her presence for all to see. Brown began to say a few, very simple words.

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