She smiled. "You really haven't got time for all that, but I love you for saying it." She went back into the kitchen.
He got up at her bidding. He paused briefly and looked at the photographs on the family shelf; a portrait of her; a black and white wedding photo; and pictures of the children. The shelf was by the window. There were other wedding pictures, and many small photographs, mostly of the children.
The family shelf had long become a sacred spot. Most of their treasured possessions were displayed there. The most notable was an intricately painted vase, a family heirloom. It had been passed down for generations within Tania's family. And between the vase and the wedding photos was another heirloom, a plaque that displayed a Medal of Honor that his father had earned during the Second World War. He loved his father, especially the fact that he had been a hero. Still, their wedding pictures portrayed a shift away from the old values. In contrast to family tradition, he had not worn his military uniform during his wedding.
"Do you remember when we went mushroom picking," he called out to Tania who had gone into the kitchen, "when I proposed to you? Did you know that I had tried to pose the question much earlier, but was always afraid you would say no; and when I finally did, you asked me why I waited so long? Do you know what courage that took? Do you realize that I'm still afraid of losing you?"
"Oh, you!" she called back. "You'd better hurry!"
During breakfast Boris reached across the table and put his hand in hers. "Things are not right at the base," he said. He looked straight into her eyes. "There are times when I fear I will never see you again."
"You shouldn't worry so much," she replied and turned back to the stove where the coffee water was boiling.
"No, you don't understand," he said, "I'm serious. You can't imagine what goes on at the base!"
He told her about the practice alerts. At times there are two a week. "You can't imagine what it is like. The siren goes off. You get up, half asleep. You tell yourself it isn't real, because it never is, but you don't know. Your stomach turns every time you sit at the console and turn the ignition key for the missile firing sequence to start."
Boris loved fried eggs, but eggs had been hard to get. Tania had found only two, one for a cake, and one for his breakfast. It hurt to see him in that frame of mind that had come over him, triggered by his worries. He gulped that one precious egg down without so much as a smile.
"A month ago we had the biggest scare ever," he said to her as the last bite disappeared. "Normally we end the exercise immediately after fuel transfer and pressurization. At this point the silo hatches are open. Coolant is flowing. That's seconds before the ignition begins. That's when the launch is usually called off. But it wasn't that day! I stood there. I could hear the engines firing. I had only one thought; to run to the control panel and to somehow shut the whole thing down, stop the launch, close the silo hatch, do anything!!!
But I didn't do it. I couldn't move. I looked at the commander; I yelled at him; 'Self-destruct!' But the commander just shook his head. The self-destruct command wasn't given. I would have cried if I had been able to. We launched a SX-29-C with sixteen high yield warheads that could have wiped out a dozen cities."
Tania came and stood behind him. She began to stroke his hair. This had always helped to calm him in the past.
He talked more softly now. "Who wasn't there can imagine what it means seeing this... this 'thing' burn itself into the sky...."
He said the words much more relaxed now, and turned around to hug her. He explained that it wasn't fear that he had felt, but pain, an overwhelming pain of knowing that what he had consistently tried to shut out of his thinking was now reality. He told her that he closed his eyes in order not to see it, but instead saw millions dying in its flame.
"What crime have these people committed that we should kill them?" he said to her. He suggested that there might have been countless Tanias, people like her, who had no hope of survival, and technicians like himself, at American bases, following orders like he did, possibly with the same efficiency, the same obedience, and the same pain. Suddenly the Cold War had taken on a human dimension. He told her that he could have intervened and stopped the missile. But even in his pain he couldn't act except to follow orders. The missile was five minutes down range when the self-destruct command was given. "Do you know how long five minutes can be?" he said.
He told her that the commander stood up the next day and told everyone that the launch had been intended to test their stamina, to allow each one to prove to himself that he was MAN enough to take the final step. He was lying. I found out later that the launching was needed for a radar penetration test, to test the boost phase detection at low altitudes.
"I had no idea," Tania replied and kissed him across the table. "Can't you resign?"
"Resign!" He began to laugh. "No one ever resigns from any top secret technical post. No one has ever done this. No one resigns from a missile base. If I were a common soldier I might have gotten a transfer to another outfit, but once you're stuck in secret technical services there is no way out. You don't even dare think of it out of fear that they'll find out somehow!"
Tania got up and stroked his hair again, then poured another cup of coffee.
"If I had only taken the trouble to find out what I was getting into!" he said.
"But you were so happy when you were offered the job," she reminded him.
"Oh I could never get that kind of pay any place else, and after five years, doors would open to high career positions in government, limousines, a bigger apartment; five years didn't seem like anything, then, Tania. How could I have known that a single year would be, well, an eternity."
While they cleared the dishes away he apologized to her for dragging her into all this, telling her that it could be dangerous if anyone found out.
She turned and kissed him; "I won't say anything, it's all right."
"No!" he replied, "I've spoiled our holiday now. But I couldn't help myself. I had to tell someone. There are things a person just can't keep inside forever. You know, our commissar - yes, they still call him the commissar - he told us we should be proud to have carried out our assignment unhampered by personal feelings! I shuddered as my comrades cheered him. The whole affair stinks. It's rotten to the core. And then the commissar had the gall to say: 'what makes you strong as a pillar in our new and free society, is your unquestioning willingness to serve the cause of Mother Russia! At Lenin Base - we are called Freedom Base One now - this means letting the end justify whatever it takes!' So it isn't all right Tania. What's happening scares me. There is more tension now in the air than there has ever been during the Soviet era."
Boris told her that one thing scared him most of all, namely his realization that the old commissar's arguments were the very same as those under which he had joined the army years ago; to let the end justify whatever it takes. "If only the old commissar could see to where this approach leads, and whom he gives his loyalty to! But an old man like the commissar would never see such a fine point. His blabbering of worn out slogans about serving faithfully and unquestioningly is rooted in the old patriotism that once built the Soviet Union. But all this is gone. Who knows who is giving the orders now? London has more control over our lives than Moscow has. When it comes to the crunch, who knows where the loyalties will lie? Well, I tell you, this devout servant of the military was fast asleep that day when the damn test-launch happened. He had not the faintest idea of what he was talking about. We live in an era of increasing insanity."
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