12.10 G.M.T.

Moscow: 3.10 p.m., Washington: 7.10 a.m.

ENGELBACH slowly relaxed his pressure on the bomb release button. Already the count-down clock was showing only thirty-five seconds before detonation. Engelbach recalled a book he had read somewhere about the way executions were carried out in various countries. The British, he remembered, still executed their murderers by hanging. They prided themselves on the efficiency of their system. Inside thirty seconds after the executioner entered the cell, he had read, the convicted man was dead. Apparently it never bothered the man who was to be hung. The time interval was too short. All right, Engelbach thought, it wouldn't bother him either. He watched the racing second hand sweep past thirty. Now he would discover for himself just how a man did feel. So far he was fine.

Bill Owens was looking up at the stars. There were so many of them, he thought, and they were so remote. As soon as he had sent out the attack message he had gone to stand in the astrodome, where Stan Andersen had been standing when the shell had killed him. Owens thought about Andersen. A hell of a nice guy, Stan. Always a little reserved, but dependable in a tight corner. A nice guy. Owens picked out the planet Mars. Maybe he was a little colour blind, but he'd never been able to detect the red tint other people said it had. He remembered when he was a boy he'd gone with his grandpa to the top of a hill where they lived, and grandpa had brought his telescope along. It was a beautiful telescope; all shining brass and polished lenses. They'd looked for the men who were supposed to live on Mars, and he'd been disappointed when they couldn't see any. He smiled in remembrance of his childish disappointment. In a way he was lucky. Pretty soon he'd know all about Mars, and the other stars and planets too. He's see Stan Andersen again. There couldn't be more than twenty seconds left now. Maybe he'd see Grandpa, as well. He turned in the astrodome, trying to locate the Square of Pegasus. He was content.

Garcia was thinking about a girl in Dallas. He was not thinking of her in any tender way, but with a sense of the infinite fitness of things. She thought she was going to blame him, just because she could produce a bell-hop ready to swear he'd seen them together in a room at the Laredo Hotel where he'd been stupid enoughor maybe drunk enoughto register his correct name and address. As if he didn't know she was on the make for any serviceman who came into town with a full billfold. Well, she'd have a long way to travel to get any money from him now. He laughed with pure delight. He felt very glad he was going to preserve his record right to the end.

Engelbach, Owens, and Garcia were all content. They were not frightened, because they already counted themselves dead, and had done so ever since Clint Brown said he would have to bomb at low level. They were content, and they had made their peace. The seconds could tick away as fast as they liked.

Clint Brown was actually dead. His last living act had been to depress the release switch which had enabled Engelbach to drop the bomb. When Engelbach pressed the button Brown was already dead, the ultimate reserves of vitality drained from him with the constant loss of blood from his shattered back.

He had trimmed the aircraft for level flight, and so Alabama Angel continued to fly. Very gradually, with a shifting of weight when Engelbach had pressed the button, she had eased round to a south-easterly heading. And she was flying slightly higher now as the ground fell away beneath her. The green light on the radio altimeter glowed, and then abruptly winked out. Seconds later the red light came on. The declination of the ground was past, and now it was sloping gently up to meet the bomber again.

Thirty-five seconds after bomb release point, and nearly six miles from the aiming point, Alabama Angel brushed against the sloping ground. She began to break up, but the impact bounced her up to six hundred feet, as she did. Pieces fell away from the stricken airplane, among them the nose section with Engelbach still in it. The main fuselage split open, and something heavy, and cylindrical, fell from the bomb bay, where it had been retained by the wreckage of one of the bomb doors.

The steel pegs were left in the bomber and the bomb, its stabilising fins torn off as it dropped from the plane, turned over twice in the air before hitting the ground and bouncing. Without the stabilising fins to steady it in its descent it fell end over end, and when it struck the ground the outer steel casing burst open. The bomb bounced to a hundred feet and fell back. As it hit for the second time the outer casing broke away, and the core of the bomb tore into a ragged line of conifers before it came to rest.

Alabama Angel hit the same line of conifers, the wings tearing off as the fuselage disintegrated under the impact. Owens and Garcia died in the instant explosion of the fuel tanks, Engelbach a second or two later as the nose section thumped into the ground. Flames leapt three hundred feet in the air as all that was left of Alabama Angel burned.

Thirty seconds after the original impact, the high explosive cartridges hurled together the two plutonium masses. Instantly an atomic explosion occurred, and the tritium core was ignited. But the deuterium filling, which constituted the main charge, had gone with the disintegration of the steel casing. An explosion certainly occurred, and one which was fifteen or twenty times more potent than the bomb which had wrecked Hiroshima. But the main charge was not detonated, because it was no longer there to be detonated.

The explosion was seen by another B-52 of the 843rd Wing, which was heading north-west after receiving a recall while on its way to hit a bomber base at Glasov on the Chepza river. The navigator fixed the position of the explosion exactly, and the radioman got off a message giving the details.

The wreckage of Alabama Angel was completely disintegrated by the explosion, and an area of one mile radius from the centre was turned into a white hot, seething inferno. Thirty seconds after the explosion, the familiar mushroom cloud had burst up to fifty thousand feet. At its base, the crew of Alabama Angel slept their last sleep. They had failed, yet in their failure they had achieved victory. They could sleep content.

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