12.07 G.M.T.

Moscow: 3.07 p.m., Washington: 7.07 a.m.

IN MOSCOW it was dark now, in Washington just light. The Pentagon and the Kremlin were separated by eight hours of time, and forty years of mutual mistrust. The link between them was as fragile and tenuous as the radio beam which carried their messages to and fro.

In the Pentagon, the President consulted with General Steele about the fate of Atlantic City. They decided there would be plenty of time to evacuate the population. The Russian bombers reported by the DEW line could not possibly get there in under three to four hours. Civil Defence had already started on the evacuation, while Keppler and Franklin were still on their way by helicopter to Marshal Field, where a jet bomber was waiting for them.

The President could not see he had had any alternative but to sacrifice a city. Zorubin should know just how the Marshal would act, and Zorubin had been positive the Marshal would feel he must have an American city if Kotlass was destroyed. The clock moved on to eight minutes after twelve. There was just the one faint hope, the President felt, that even now the Russians might manage to destroy the last bomber. No matter how faint, it was still a chance. He grasped at it eagerly.

"The Russians report it's still heading in," Steele said quietly, as though he were reading the President's mind. He
saw, a worried frown cross the President's face, and went on quickly, "Of course, there's a time lag in communications. Four or five minutes at least before the reports from their stations are filtered through the Kremlin and passed on to us."

"Would the same time lag apply to communications from our bombers also?"

"Yes it would, but not in so great degree. We were getting the acknowledgements on paper here within two minutes of transmission.

The President looked at the clock. Nine minutes after now. "And you're sure the bomber would send an attack message when it bombed?"

Steele shrugged. "It's difficult to say. The way I see it, this bomber has been hit. Maybe the radio's smashed. That would account for it not picking up the recall message. I'm afraid we can't rely on it transmitting, sir."

"No, of course. Then the first news is likely to come from them?"

"Probably. Incidentally, those Russian bombers are still holding their position." Steele looked carefully at the President. "The long range fighters from Thule could reach them quite easily," he said with an elaborate casualness. "It's one thing to mount a reprisal with forces already available, quite another if you have to get more planes off the ground and send them over the ice cap."

"I don't think we can do that," the President said slowly.

Steele thought he detected a slight hesitancy in the President's voice. "I only meant it would give time for second thoughts," he said. "Time for tempers to cool off."

"It might also give time for the position to revert to what it was an hour ago," the President said grimly. "No, Steele, it can't be done. I've given my word. Now I have to stand by it, if ever we're to salvage something of international relations from this mess." He turned away to talk to Zorubin.

Well, Steele thought, that was it. He had no doubt himself the bomber would reach its target. It was probably a little behind schedule, but that was natural if it had been hit. Ten after twelve now. Add four minutes for the time lag, plus maybe another minute for the inevitable reporting delay the shock of the explosion would cause, And bomb time for that aircraft was one minute after to nine minutes after. The next six minutes should bring something in.

He was interrupted by an aide. "General, the Russians report the bomber as through the last defence sector. They say it's on fire and down to a hundred meters, but it's heading straight for Kotlass."

"Thank you," Steele said. He wondered if he should pass the news on to the President. He decided not. The news of the explosion would come soon enough now. He closed his eyes for a moment and imagined what the crew of the bomber must be feeling. They were down to three hundred feet. Why? Probably because they'd been hit bad and couldn't fly any higher. But in that case they'd be caught by the blast of the explosion. Yet they were going in at the target regardless of the fact when they killed it they would inevitably kill themselves too. At that moment Steele felt an even greater than normal pride in his Air Force. And a bitter sorrow that kids had to die that way.

Zorubin was talking to the President. In the last ninety minutes he felt he had come very close to this stooped, scholarly man. He had been immensely impressed with the firm grasp the President had on the reins of government. He achieved absolute command without his leadership becoming obtrusive or unpleasant. Yet he was instantly obeyed.

The Russian Ambassador had noted, too, the stubborn determination the President had shown when he refused pointblank to allow the Marshal to choose an American city. The refusal had been couched in moderate language, but it was no less firm for all that. Zorubin made a mental note for future reference that the President could be pushed only so far. Once he reached the limit he had set he dug his heels in. To attempt to push him further might be dangerous. Extremely dangerous. Zorubin had learned a great deal in the past hour. He wondered if the implications of what had happened had yet struck the President. Zorubin, behind a mask of ignorance, concealed a high degree of general knowledge of missiles, and their guidance systems, and the production difficulties associated with them.

He saw an aide approach General Steele, and hand him a message sheet. Steele read it quickly, his face impassive. He walked over to where Zorabin and the President stood together. Just as he reached them the wall clock clicked on to eleven minutes after twelve.

"Mr. President, Your Excellency," Steele said formally, "I have here a message from the one bomber of the eight forty-third we have been unable to contact. It says merely that the bomber has attacked. The time of origin is nine minutes after twelve."

"Thank you," the President said quietly. His expression was sad. The last chance had gone.

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