10.15 G.M.T.

Moscow: 1.15 p.m., Washington: 5.15 a.m.

“… how the enemy will come or when. Maybe as a missile from a submarine lying off coast. Because of our geographical position I doubt that, but we can’t ignore the possibility. Maybe it will be a four-jet Bison or a turbo-prop Bear, with the same kind of weapons we carry in our fifty-two. Well, the NORAD boys are no slouches. I hate to say it as a SAC man, but I wouldn’t be too happy if we were assigned the task of breaking through the NORAD defence lines in time of war. They’re that good.

“Some of you men listening to me are probably saying about now–sure, that’s great, so we stop the bombers. How do we stop the inter-continental ballistic missiles? Well, I want to assure you all, and especially those of you who have homes maybe, or friends, in the big cities. You don’t have to worry about the I.C.B.M. It won’t be hitting us. I can’t reveal just how we know it, but you have my promise we do.

“There is another form of attack, though, which I think might be the most dangerous one for us here. I mean a conventional attack, whether by individual saboteurs or large armed parties. That’s the reason I’ve doubled up on the defence combat teams. Men, I want to impress on you the need for watchfulness. The enemy will try any tricks to fool you into letting him on the base. He may come individually, or he may come in strength. He may well come in the uniform of our own combat troops. But however he comes, we have to stop him.

“I’m going to give you three simple rules. The first is to trust no one, whatever his uniform, whatever his rank, who is not known to you personally. The second is anyone or anything that approaches within two hundred yards of the perimeter is fired on. And the third–if in doubt, fire anyway. I would sooner accept a few casualties through accident than lose a whole base and its personnel through over-caution.

“That’s about all I have to say except for two small points. Any variation on the rules I have given you must come from me. Personally. I want that clearly understood. There are no exceptions to it, whatever the circumstances. And last of all, I know you are all worried about your families both on the base here and all over our country. Well, let’s make sure we defend the families here on the base. Because you can depend on it that other Americans are defending your families elsewhere with the same unyielding spirit we’re going to show here at Sonora. Good luck to you all.”

Quinten flicked off the tab of the address system. He had stood up to speak, and now he sank wearily into the chair behind his desk. He lit a cigarette. Well, he thought, it was done now. The attack was launched. The base was tightly sealed. He felt that he could pillow his head on his hands and sleep right there at his desk for a week. But his tautly strung nerves would not let him relax. His weary brain, against his conscious will, began once more to review the plan and its implementation, seeking for any flaw in its conception or execution.

The plan was founded on two well-established concepts. The first was that a military force which is poised for attack, can often be knocked off balance by an opponent who himself attacks without warning.

The Russians’ main strength lay in the fact they could select at their leisure the time and place of the attack. They could launch the attack with their defenses fully prepared for the American counter-punch. Quinten reasoned that if the Americans, instead of counter-punching after a Russian attack, launched their own attack first, the Russian guard would be down. The American attack would catch them off balance, because their war plan called for instant readiness of defenses only after they themselves had struck the first, devastating blow.

The Russian war plan, indeed, visualized no great threat to their own defenses, for its essence was the destruction at a first blow, of almost the entire offensive power of the free world. To achieve this, the plan divided the targets to be hit into two distinct classes.

The first of these classes comprised all targets within fifteen hundred miles of Russia, or the satellite countries. That meant within intermediate missile and supersonic fighter-bomber range. The Russians had plenty of both types of weapon. The targets included all SAC bases in the Mediterranean, the Sixth Fleet, and the air forces of all European and Middle East NATO countries. The Russian missile and fighter-bomber strength was so great that their planners had decided a complete kill of such targets was as certain as anything in war ever can be. With the strictly military targets would go such cities as London, Paris, and Rome. The destruction of the cities was not regarded as essential, except in one case. They would be destroyed to assist in the general disruption of communications. The exception was London. The Russians were under no illusion about the fighting qualities of the British. A considerable proportion of their missile and fighter-bomber strength would be devoted to London, and to the offensive bases of all kinds in Britain.

For a long time it had been within the capability of Russia to destroy the first class of targets, all of them short to medium range. But their destruction was meaningless without the simultaneous destruction of the second class of targets.

These were primarily the SAC bases in the Continental United States, the SAC bases on distant islands like Okinawa, and Washington, New York, and Chicago. The weapons selected by the Russians for these targets included a fleet of submarines equipped to launch rocket missiles while still submerged, two specially trained air regiments of Bison four-jet bombers, and a minimum of thirty-six I.C.B.M.’s. At the time Quinten launched the 843rd against its targets, the Russians were only a matter of weeks from having the required total of I.C.B.M.’s operational and aimed. The American inter-continental missile, though coming along fast, was not yet operational.

The two Bison regiments of fast four-jet bombers would fly a strictly one-way mission. They would strike deep into the South Pacific to evade the NORAD Mid-ocean and Offshore lines, and by accepting the mission as one way, and the regiments as expended from the time they took off, obtain the range necessary to hook at the soft underbelly of the North American continent. They would come in across Mexico under cover of darkness, drop to low altitude, and attack at full power with after-burners blasting, completely regardless of fuel consumption. The Russian staff considered that only three or four SAC bases which had escaped the missiles from the submarines, would remain unharmed.

But three or four bases were too much. Those bases could launch a retaliatory blow big enough to obliterate Russia. As far as America was concerned, they represented the ultimate deterrent. So for the ultimate deterrent, the ultimate weapon would be used. The Russian I.C.B.M.–it had been designated the M-241–was accurate only to within ten miles at long range. So to each of the four surviving bases, the Russian staff had allocated five of the monstrous rockets. Four would go to Okinawa, together with a splinter group of twelve Bisons from the main force. One each to Washington, New York, and Chicago. And finally, one each to the nine SAC bases which were just outside the certain hit range of the submarines.

The attacks would be timed to allow the Bisons to operate in darkness. That alone would increase their chances of reaching their targets by thirty per cent. They would also be timed to ensure that the counter-punch from any SAC wings already airborne at the time of the attack would have to be made in daylight. The aggressor chooses the time of the attack. It is his prerogative. Obviously he chooses a time that will help him and hinder the enemy.

Throughout the whole plan the timing would be such that the missiles would hit their targets at the same moment the attacking aircraft first appeared on the defensive radar screens. The plan was ready, the staff work and logistic preparations complete.

Except for one weapon.

The Russian I.C.B.M., after a spectacular start, had hit snags. They were being overcome, but for a short while yet their I.C.B.M. strength would be under what the Marshals considered necessary for absolute certainty. Anything less than certainty was unacceptable.

The only counter-punch left after the attack would be any SAC wings which happened to be both airborne and armed. The probability was that not more than one wing would fulfil both those conditions. They would strike back, but with everything stacked against them. They would have no darkness to cover them. They would have to fight every inch of the way to the vital targets through defenses already alerted and concentrated round those targets. The Russians would concede them the non-vital ones. And finally, even if they fought through and delivered their weapons, they would have no bases to return to. They would have administered a certain amount of punishment. The Russians thought they were able to absorb that amount, especially since they knew it was the last they would be called upon to take.

Quinten had long ago reached the conclusion that the Russian plan was entirely feasible. He considered there was only way to defeat it, and that was to beat the Russians to the punch, and catch them with their guard down. It was his belief that the 843rd Wing on its own could destroy the Russian capacity to wage a global war. It was not a wild belief, but the carefully considered conclusion of a man with a lifetime’s experience of bomber operations.

Everything was on the American side. The Russian defenses would not be at immediate readiness. There was no reason for it. Their part in a global war had already been defined for them by the rulers of Russia as immediate readiness to deal with the counter-blow that would follow the Russian attack. They were no doubt highly competent in that role. But the whole theory of Russian military preparedness was predicated on the assumption that the West would not launch a thermonuclear war until after massive aggression by themselves. It gave them great advantages as long as the assumption was true. At that moment it no longer was. At one stroke their advantages had disappeared, and their defenses would have only the time their radar could give them to prepare to meet the attack. Quinten was confident that time would not be sufficient.

The second concept on which Quinten had based his plan was one which is at the very heart of military theory. The soldier obeys his commander. He obeys the commander un-questioningly, not through fear of punishment, but because he has confidence and trust in his commander’s judgment based on experience of, and respect for, the commander’s actions in the past.

It need not be a long past. Great leaders have been known to win the confidence and devotion of their men within a few hours of taking command. Conversely, a bad commander can as quickly wreck the morale and discipline of good fighting outfits. Quinten was not a bad commander: he was in fact an extremely good one. The men under him liked him personally, respected his judgment, and obeyed him implicitly. There was never any question but they would immediately carry out the orders which had not only launched the 843rd against their targets, but also sealed off Sonora completely from the outside world.

Fate had played its part in Quintens decision, too. On this particular morning everything was perfectly attuned to the successful execution of a plan he had long cherished.

Thus, the 843rd were not only airborne, but carrying the weapons. Quinten’s deputy, who might have been suspicious of some of his actions, was along with the wing. The time at which the bombers would reach their X points meant they could attack in the gathering gloom of a winter evening, while surviving Russian bombers would have to hit back in daylight if they were to hit back at all. The report on the one fully operational Russian I.C.B.M. site had removed his last doubt, which was whether his bombers could smear it before the missiles were fired off. And, most important of all, the letter from SAC had shown him that this was his last chance to put the plan into action.

The soldier obeys his commander. Yes, so long as he has faith in that commander. Even after he has lost faith, discipline and training will exact his obedience for a while. Superficially, he will remain as good a soldier as before. But only superficially. When the pressure is put on him he will crumple. And when he crumples he is liable to do anything.

Quinten’s position vis-a-vis the Pentagon and the statesmen who ruled America, was much the same as the ordinary airman’s at Sonora to himself. But Quinten had long lost faith in the higher echelons. He did not blame the generals above him so much as the statesmen above them. He knew that some of the generals were entirely of his way of thinking, that they would have considered his plan logical, inexpensive, and entirely necessary. He blamed them only because they let the statesmen force handicap after handicap upon them.

But they were in no position to act for themselves. Quinten was. He was the commander of one of the biggest bases in the Air Force. Once that base was sealed off, he was as great a power as the captain of a ship, with as great a freedom of action, and the whole weight of established authority vested in his judgment.

The situation was not unique. Captains of naval vessels had acted in the past as Quinten was acting now. So had military commanders in the field. Their actions had usually been costly, but the cost was capable of measurement in ordinary terms. They entailed the lives of a few thousand men, the destruction of a small town, the unnecessary sinking of a nine-thousand-ton cruiser. Disastrous actions, but actions which entailed losses in terms which could be comprehended.

Quinten, on the other hand, had committed himself to action at a fateful moment in history. If his bombers all hit their targets, they could not reasonably be expected to kill less than thirty to forty million people. In theory, his action was no different from any of the similar actions which had preceded it. In practice, the past actions of commanders acting independently paled to insignificance beside it.

He allowed his head to sink on to his hands for a moment. The pain which had been an ever present companion over the past two years was worse than ever today. He thought that maybe to talk to Howard a while would help. He raised his head slowly, painfully, and reached out to the button. He remembered the red line phone, and clicked the switch attached to the scrambler box into the off position. Then he pressed the button.

Howard, sitting at his desk alert for any summons from the General, rose abruptly to his feet when he heard the signal. The niggling question that had been in his mind thrust itself forward again, demanding his attention. He started for the door, turned abruptly as realisation struck him, and walked back to his desk. He slid open the second drawer of the right hand pedestal, revealing a portable radio. It was the battery operated, transistor kind. He switched it on, listened to the local disc jockey for a few moments, then tuned in other stations. A frown spread slowly over his face. The bell rang again. He slammed the drawer shut. Then he walked slowly across the room and pushed open the door into the general’s office. There were some questions he had to have answered. Urgently.

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