A beep from the terminal indicated that the call routing system had accepted Peter's telephone request, and that the request was now cued, pending security clearance. This was a normal response, but still, time consuming nonsense, as far as he was concerned. Time was critical now!
He bit his nails. How would he explain this to them? How would he explain to them that this was an accident? He knew nothing more than they did. And damn! What if it wasn't an accident? What if it was a calculated, sinister plan to start a global offensive?
"You should also scan the alert lists," he said to Peter. "See if Lenin Base had anything special going at this time!"
Sergei himself was busy trying to gain access to the security system's log file, to see if it contained a clue as to where the launch had originated.
"Did it ever occur to you that the whole thing may be a test?" said Peter. "Maybe someone is testing us to see how fast we can respond?"
"If this is a test, I'll hang the one who thought of it. But it doesn't look like a test, Peter. Nobody would call a test with no information to respond to. No Peter, that's no test, something has gone awfully wrong, I just can't figure out what it is."
At this point the telephone began to ring. The National Security System had finally established the requested telephone link to NORAD center in Colorado that Ralph was assigned to.
"Its about time!" Sergei muttered. "The whole world could go up in smoke before one can get any response out of these damn machines."
The commanding officer was on the line, shouting angrily at Sergei before he had a chance to speak a word.
"I suspect you have registered our launch," Sergei replied calmly.
"What the hell is going on?" the American commander requested.
"I wish I knew," Sergei replied. "But let me speak to Ralph Weissenberg if he is on duty, he speaks Russian better than anyone else at your base. Actually, I only want to verify with you what our own radar has reported."
Weissenberg was less excited.
"OK, what can you tell me, Sergei," he asked in Russian. "Is this another one of your famous tests, eh?"
"I have a gut feeling that this may be a test of some sort," Sergei came back, "except I see no entry in the system about a test, or anything else, only a radar report that something has been launched from Freedom One, that's Lenin Base."
"You've launched one all right," Ralph replied, "Alaska confirms that it came from Lenin Base. Our generals here are wondering why it hasn't been terminated yet. Usually your tests are terminated very quickly...."
"Lenin Base should have issued the self-destruct before it left the base perimeter, unless it was a malfunction during the alert," Sergei responded. "The trouble is, Lenin Base didn't even acknowledge that anything went up, nor did they respond to my emergency call. You wouldn't have attacked them with your new stealth aircraft, would you?"
"Hey, you don't honestly believe that the Air Force would inform us so that we could pass information like that on to you? Not a chance my friend. We, too, only follow orders, and are told no more that we need to know. And I can assure you, the only thing I know for certain, is that your damn missile is still coming towards us, and that your people haven't made any effort to stop it."
"Don't worry Ralph, we have a good team in the north," Sergei replied. "If the base hasn't been blown up, by an accident or whatever, they'll get the thing terminated before it goes out of range. They always have in the past, haven't they?"
"...Yes, but it has never taken them that long!"
At this point Peter came to the phone, saying that he had gained access to the alert files. "Lenin Base had an alert in progress, for launcher 243."
"Get me the missile status file, Peter."
"Eh Sergei! Your missile is still coming," Ralph shouted in the phone. "It's six minutes down range, now. It should have been destroyed if you were serious at bringing it down."
"Maybe they had a computer failure at Lenin Base, or an electrical failure; that's all I can think of," replied Sergei.
"I don't care about your computer or your power failures, get that thing terminated, you hear! Stop trying to snow us!"
"Relax Ralph," Sergei repeated as calmly as he could. "Even if Lenin Base would fail to get the missile terminated, you are in no danger. We have a new system installed that sets up missile targeting after the launch. If a missile is erroneously launched, it will have no targeting parameters applied. When this happens there won't be any separation of the warheads. The warheads will remain clustered inside the missile and burn up with it on re-entry somewhere over the dessert in New Mexico. Most likely, there will be no nuclear explosion taking place at all."
"And you expect us to believe this!" Ralph shouted back.
"Don't worry, no one will get hurt," Sergei assured him. "Our strategic committee in Moscow is probably telling your President the same thing right now."
"The guys here don't believe your fairy tale," Ralph replied.
"Well Ralph, what more do you expect me to say. I invented the Post-Launch-Targeting system myself, and had it installed under my personal supervision, and I personally verified it. I tell you it works! It isn't a fairy tale!"
For six long years Sergei had struggled with his invention, to get it approved, to get it implemented. A fairy tale they called it! Little did they know how he had fought for their safety, gave his life to it, risked his position so that innocently targeted people wouldn't get killed if some technical mistake happened. And now, the very people he tried to protect scoffed at his efforts.
The idea had come to him six years before the project was finally installed. It came during an afternoon's ride with his friend Nicolayevitch, an ardent horseman. There were days when the two would go out riding for hours, sometimes just to talk, which seemed easier on horseback, and sometimes to ride quietly, to think. There had been great opposition to his project when he first announced it. It took thirteen months of political fighting to get it approved. And even after it was built, the project was still in danger of being canceled at a moment's notice whenever there were political uncertainties.
Ironically, the safety of human beings mattered nothing against the concerns of national security, as if the two weren't one and the same thing. It took countless hours of arguing to get the simple fact acknowledged that the security of people's life, everywhere on the globe, and the security of Russia, were in essence related. There was always a fight going on for the project's survival, throughout every stage of it. The ranch proved to be a valuable asset during those days. If it was good for nothing else. This one thing alone was worth the price of it.
Most of the opposition came from high ranking military officers over whom Sergei had no authority. He went to rather grotesque extremes to address this impasse. Once he staged a foxhunt to persuade a certain general to drop his opposition. It was no small task to convince the general just to accept his invitation, though this proved still easier in the end than organizing the hunt itself. Foxhunts had long been stopped. A fox had to be found. Hunting rules had to be researched....
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