Stephenson checked his watch as he sat in his corner of the lounge of the Empire Club, wondering when MacDougal would get there. MacDougal wasn’t late, but every minute tested Stephenson’s patience all the same.
Stephenson had seen less of his old friend in the club as of late. The last time they’d had anything like an actual conversation was the conference at Land’s End in January. That exchange might have made him suspicious even without the latest revelation.
“Hello Archie,” MacDougal said brightly as he pondered this, seating himself in the armchair across from Stephenson’s own as he held a tumbler in his hand. “You said you needed to see me?”
Stephenson extracted a manila folder from his attaché case and held it out to MacDougal, who set down his tumbler to receive it. He flipped through the papers inside it for about a minute, then fixed Stephenson with a glare. “How did you come by these?” he demanded.
“Never mind that,” Stephenson answered him. “Are these letters genuine?”
MacDougal hesitated to reply, but not for long. “Yes,” he said firmly, still looking him in the eye.
“Why did I find out about it this way? Why wasn’t it even mentioned at the meeting?”
“I, we, had not resolved on this action until afterward. We opted not to share our intentions because time is of the essence, and because the question would divide the group at a moment in which unity is essential. An action by a few of us, acting independently, is the only way to do what is necessary while preserving the group’s integrity.”
There was so much incomprehensible – and perhaps, simply incoherent – about that claim that Stephenson had no hope of attacking his reasoning systematically. Instead he ended up blurting out the reply “Necessary? What am I not understanding?”
“The Americans think they won their confrontation with the Russians over Cuba,” MacDougal said, “but it turns out they’ve made things worse. We have hard-line Stalinists in there now, in place of the milder Khrushchev faction – the willingness of which to negotiate may have exposed them to a decisive political maneuver on our part.
“At least as important, the hard-liners intend to make strenuous efforts in the area of strategic arms, much more strenuous than what their predecessors had planned. The bomber and missile gaps the Americans talked about were a sham – a necessary sham, perhaps, but a sham nonetheless.
“That will not be the case for much longer. And it’s not just a matter of the arms race, either. The Reds have been producing scientists like you wouldn’t believe, practically cranking them off the assembly line, and we’ve already seen the results. Sputnik, Gagarin, rockets coming out of their factories like sausages. What next? Russian bases on the moon, red flags all over the solar system?
“They have the momentum, now. Meanwhile, how long will it be before we see the first British man fly into space on a British rocket? Or even on a European rocket? The kids may love their comics and television programs, but Dan Dare we haven’t been.
“Especially when you consider the comparative frailty of our political will, you realize that we have no choice but to take compensatory action.”
“By attacking Leningrad, in the expectation you’ll start a war the Soviets will lose,” Stephenson said.
“With Leningrad wiped off the map, Moscow will be put in an untenable position,” MacDougal said.
“Perhaps if you think they would view the attack as coming from the Western alliance,” Stephenson said. “But they might simply view it as coming from Britain alone, especially given that you plan on using a British bomber in an attack on their territory, and that it will also be clear to them that the kind of full-scale attack only the Americans are capable of launching is not in the offing.
"We may fall into the trap of thinking the Communist bloc is homogenous, but they are well aware that NATO’s individual members are sovereign states, as are the Americans. And they may treat us as a separate problem.”
What would it take to wipe their little country off the map, three or four H-bombs? That represented the smallest fraction of the Soviets’ strength, a handful of the intermediate-range missiles they had in quantity.
“The Americans would stand aside, and let it happen, because they will see a foolhardy British attack on the Soviet Union as just that, and not grounds for suffering a large-scale nuclear attack themselves,” Stephenson continued. “So would the French, the Germans. Perhaps the best that we could hope for is that we’d be hung out to dry as we are either blasted out of existence, or forced to accept terms that would mean the end of Britain as an independent country. It is impossible to picture the alliance continuing to have any meaning after that. You’d end up turning Europe over to the Communists in trying to save it from them.”
“On the contrary, if this does become a confrontation between Britain and Russia, then they would have to consider that they could lose a lot more than Leningrad,” MacDougal said. “Even if the bomber is on its way out, they would still have to consider that we possess more than a hundred of them, and that even if only a very few get through, they would pay a steep price indeed to make their threats stick. They might end up the ones blinking, which would be another path to the unraveling of their empire.
“We could discuss improbabilities forever, but we both know that in any significant enterprise there is an element of risk, one that we have judged acceptable in this case, especially when weighed against the potential rewards.
“If, when, the Bolsheviks lose, it will be the end of them. With it will come the end of the rationale behind American hegemony in Europe. It is likely that we would come out of this conflict in a stronger position than any we have known in the last twenty years.” The British Empire was a pale shadow of its former self, but the nations of Western Europe had rebuilt their economies and learned to work together. They could stand on their own two feet, now.
“Britain will return to its proper place in Europe, and Europe its proper place in the world, which will be easier after we’ve demonstrated our will to all those who’ve forgotten their proper places in the world.
“It’s not just the Soviets we have to worry about, after all. The Chinese have the Bomb too, now, because we did too little to stop it, to make clear that this will not stand, just as every tin-pot dictator and rabble-rousing demagogue in wog-land soon will if the process isn’t arrested, and what do you think will happen then?”
MacDougal’s barrage of arguments was unceasing, and Stephenson started to think the chain of causality didn’t matter anymore to MacDougal; that he was convinced that so long as he carried out this strike, one way or another, it would lead to some outcome he found desirable.
Stephenson knew that his friend had seen German cities burn from the windows of his bomber; that he had flown overhead while a hurricane of flame that he helped start tore apart the city of Dresden. For years now he had personally controlled weapons orders of magnitude more powerful than the air fleets of which he had been a part.
Perhaps he had lost his sanity in all that, got too accustomed to command over such firepower. Perhaps he had come to believe the claims that think tank intellectuals made for the purposes to which the weapons could be put. And the Indonesian incident, whether giving him that taste of combat he hadn’t seen for so long, or obsessing him with the pusillanimity of the national leadership, had shoved him right over the edge.
“You know that the Soviets have one final argument, which we cannot be certain of defeating no matter how great our edge in nuclear weaponry,” Stephenson reminded him, using the last arrow in his quiver.
“The ellipton,” MacDougal said. “Yes, there is that. As I see it, either the thing doesn’t exist; or the Soviets will not dare to use it, perhaps thinking they will be even worse off after the war if they do; or they will use it, and perhaps solve all our problems in the process.”
MacDougal calmly took his leave, and Stephenson found himself alone again. He thought about what MacDougal told him and decided that the man was at least half-right about the political implications of revealing the plan to the rest of the Guardians – that risk to the group. (He didn’t even think he could go to Lord Birkhead.) Unfortunately, they were the only people in the world he could turn to for counsel in a matter like this. It seemed even less plausible that he could neutralize MacDougal through ordinary government channels.
Stephenson knew that if he was to do anything he would need an outsider to help him do it, and much as it astonished him he found himself thinking of a very specific outsider, one Major Kirill Biriuzov of the Soviet GRU.
Stephenson arranged to meet him at a restaurant they both knew, a converted oyster warehouse in the Haymarket.
Biriuzov showed up early, in his appearance and demeanor ever more distant from the portly, uncouth stereotype of the Soviet functionary Hollywood presented to the world. (Stephenson liked to think he deserved some credit for that. During their acquaintanceship he’d done his best to tutor him in gentlemanly conduct, his theory being that one way of managing the Soviet threat would be to make the barbarians over into gentlemen.)
In keeping with their routine they conducted the meeting at a civilized pace. As they chatted and ate Stephenson noticed an E-Type Jaguar parking outside. A young couple got out, the girl mini-skirted with heavily kohled eyes. (Stephenson thought he might have seen her picture on a billboard on his way over.) The two of them could have come out of a poster for Swinging London.
Recalling himself to his purpose Stephenson explained to Biriuzov what brought him there, giving him a carefully edited version of his story, one in which he never mentioned the group of which MacDougal and himself were a part. To his credit the GRU operative kept down his clam chowder, showing no response but polite interest until he reached the end when he wiped his lips with his napkin and quipped that “This is quite a tale.”
“I assure you, it’s all quite true.”
“And not something you got from the movies, you mean?”
“No,” Stephenson said, though he supposed the Russian could be forgiven for thinking this was a trick.
“All right then, why not tell your own government?” Biriuzov asked reasonably. “Why not have these men arrested for the traitors they clearly are? It would be much simpler.”
“There are . . . complications I can’t explain.”
“And I’m afraid I can’t imagine what they might be. Nonetheless, I will pass it on. If there is a plot, it will not be permitted to succeed. You have my word on this.”
“That is all I can ask,” Stephenson said, mentally reviewing what he knew of MacDougal’s plans. The Vulcan bombers in his squadron were equipped with the Blue Steel stand-off missile. Its effective range wasn’t much more than two hundred kilometers. Getting close enough to Leningrad to launch it meant approaching the city by one of three routes: through Soviet airspace, through Finnish airspace, or coming in straight up the Gulf of Finland that separated the two, which was no more than a hundred and twenty kilometers at its widest point.
Leningrad was not so well protected as Moscow, deep in the Soviet interior and ringed by thick belts of surface-to-air missile launchers, including the new SA-4s and maybe even the SA-5s too. However, the Soviets had all the approaches to their second city well-covered by radars, fighter squadrons and anti-aircraft batteries. Especially after they were warned, putting them into a position to concentrate their forces along likely paths, it should have been a simple enough matter for them to shoot down one high-altitude bomber. Perhaps they would even find a way of sabotaging the plane before it got off the ground, tapping some agent with access to MacDougal’s base.
To think that he was actually counting on Soviet infiltration of Her Majesty’s armed forces! That he had aided and abetted such an action just now!
And yet, it was the only course of action he found thinkable. And it was done.
Now there was nothing for him to do but wait.