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Chapter 54

February 1992

London, U.K.

A week after Stephenson’s conversation with Biriuzov, Whitehall reported a Vulcan bomber lost over the North Sea. Very little of the wreckage and only one member of the crew was recovered from the crash – Squadron Leader Christopher MacDougal.

That MacDougal was the only survivor was not in itself unusual. Only the pilot and copilot had ejection seats, the other three crew instead bailing out through the crew entrance door in front of the nose wheel in the event of an emergency – a less survivable method of evacuation. And they all went down over the sea.

That he was alone in surviving the sortie was awfully convenient, however, leaving no one and nothing to dispute the official version of events: a run-of-the-mill training accident.

Even Stephenson could only speculate about the truth. Perhaps the Soviets shot it down, he thought, though he had a hard time picturing the logistics when the scene of the crash was so far removed from Soviet territory, even when some of the new Soviet warships carried surface-to-air missiles. (Surely a picket across the North Sea would have been conspicuous, and he hadn’t heard anything about that.)

Of course, it was possible the Vulcan had actually gone down much closer to Soviet territory than reported, and the fact just covered up, the flight path rationalized as the result of a navigational error that was best not discussed publicly.

It was possible, too, that the details given were accurate, but the result of Soviet sabotage that was likewise not mentioned, or which really was subtle enough to have escaped detection.

He knew better than to ask Biriuzov, who never volunteered anything about it, though.

Following his rescue MacDougal spent several months recovering, then returned to the Royal Air Force, his record unstained and his career – and their association – continuing just as it would have if the event had never happened.

Shortly afterward the rationale for MacDougal’s plan faded fast, the Soviets closing the gap with the West in strategic capability in the years that followed, the situation he had meant to avert now the reality. At the same time the Air Force’s jet bomber fleet, which had included almost a hundred and sixty planes at its peak, was allowed to wither away as Whitehall turned instead to submarine-launched missiles, rather less susceptible to hijacking, and totally outside MacDougal’s chain of command. The Blue Steel missiles with which the Vulcans were equipped were retired, replaced by tactical gravity bombs much more difficult to use in a scheme like the one he’d drawn up, especially as Soviet air defenses grew more formidable.

Within the Guardians a radical faction continued to advocate a nuclear assault on the Soviet Union, but they never managed to swing many others around to their way of thinking, and certainly never enough to confront the group with a crisis like the one they had faced in ’65.

As it happened, MacDougal was not one of them. He was a tireless and sometimes tiresome advocate of whatever scheme for putting the West into a position to fight and win a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was fashionable at the time. But he never again joined the calls for an immediate attack, perhaps recognizing that the conditions were unfavorable.

Now there was no longer a Soviet Union, or even much left of the movement it had claimed to champion.

Stephenson had wondered if MacDougal suspected his involvement in the frustration of his plans, but he had never breathed a word of such suspicions, and certainly never retaliated. If he had so much as thought about the issue, he had kept those thoughts entirely to himself, as Stephenson had.

But he could no longer do so, Stephenson thought, looking at the photos in that file. Of the three Britons the Russians took into custody, one was very familiar to him, and he quickly concluded that “Mr. Pickford” was just an obvious alias for MacDougal’s crony, Charles Pinkerton.

Stephenson told his secretary that he would be departing shortly and called for his car, which was waiting for him when he exited the building.

“Your orders, sir?”

“Highgate,” Stephenson replied, “the MacDougal residence.” That was MacDougal’s home away from his family’s castle in Scotland. Stephenson had spoken to his friend shortly after his return from the Med, and if memory served he would still be there.

The ride was something of a blur, Stephenson occupied with thoughts that made him feel like he had a nest of writhing snakes inside his skull. By the time his driver pulled up in front of MacDougal’s mansion, he felt a calm that came of numbness, which he received as a relief. It was in that state that he stepped out of the vehicle, walked to the door, and knocked himself in.

MacDougal’s butler Heathrow met Stephenson there. He was a familiar enough face at the residence that Heathrow conducted him inside at once, to his old friend’s study, where MacDougal was poring over his books.

When they had spoken earlier Stephenson had asked MacDougal how his expedition had fared. His friend was upbeat, but Stephenson had detected his disappointment all the same. Perhaps he was now trying to figure out where he had gone wrong.

“It’s good to see you in the flesh,” MacDougal said without much feeling as they sat across from one another. “What brings you by?”

“It has come to my attention that your man Pinkerton’s on a slab in Russia.”

“I had guessed at something of the sort,” MacDougal said. “Pity. He was a reliable servant.”

“Until now, at any rate. You see, I know why he was there,” Stephenson said. “You were once very dismissive of the thing, given to doubting the truth of the story. Yet you went chasing after it.”

“You know that such stories tend to have a truth at the bottom of them,” MacDougal countered.

“I didn’t know that this sort of story had such interest for you. Little green men, and all that.”

MacDougal smiled patronizingly. “Consider an alternative explanation, that the technology was not visited upon us by visitors from another world, but was created by the ancients in their wisdom.

“You know Plato’s story as well as I do.”

Many among the Guardians believed that Atlantis was not merely an allegory, but the true story of the greatest realization of Plato’s “good society,” if not a model for his Republic. Indeed, they’d even called for the group’s adoption of “Atlantean” iconography and ritual.

“Plato tells us the people of Atlantis lost their virtue,” MacDougal went on, “and that they were subsequently destroyed.

“The Atlanteans possessed advanced technology, but they were not a technological culture for most of their history. The development of their technics was guided by the Good. Francis Bacon was privy to that esoteric tradition when he imagined a ‘New Atlantis,’ where the wisdom of ‘Solomon House’ governed their culture’s technological development. But over time, they were corrupted.

“The very best of them must have seen their culture’s sickness, and found themselves unable to arrest that sickness through conventional means. If anything, it seemed to be spreading over the world. Remember their conquests in Europe and Africa toward the end. They had no choice but to destroy it all and begin anew. Their Guardians’ knowledge of the Good demanded nothing less.”

Stephenson had heard many of these theories before. “And you think this was the instrument?” he asked.

“It stands to reason that it does. Ever since I heard the story of what those Russian psychics said the ellipton showed them, I wondered, ‘What if they’re not seeing a hypothetical played out? What if it’s a record of what the ellipton actually did before?’ Whichever the case, I think we’re approaching a similar moment.

“I also noted the words of those psychics – that the device would leave us living in caves. I think, too, of the difficulty we have had finding the remnants of advanced technology from the era of the Atlanteans. It seems possible, even probable, that the device is designed to attack technology, rather than human beings.

“The ellipton may well have been Solomon House’s last creation, a device that would burn out the disease, destroy that corrupting technology. Granted, the loss of life in such disruption would have been enormous, but the species, especially the healthy element capable of a saner way of life, survived.

“Today we are fast approaching such a situation. The First Industrial Revolution was about replacing muscle power, and this Second Industrial Revolution is about replacing brain power. It is in a primitive phase, yes, giving us only faster and faster calculators. But it is only the beginning. Where will it all end? With a combination of idle, useless masses on the one hand, and the fabulous machinery of an advanced science on the other. The result will be communism of an even worse kind than the one we have just defeated, and with it the ruin of the whole human race.

“Perhaps this was what happened the last time, and perhaps our particular sequence of development has led us to this one out of all the possible paths they had to fear.”

“In short, you meant to use the device.”

“I meant to have command of it, in case it had to be used,” MacDougal said, the note of correction in his tone unmistakable.

It made Stephenson sigh. “You haven’t got past your old madness. Your need to have your own finger on ‘the button.’ Or your eagerness to push that button. Never mind that history validated those who counseled restraint.”

“Perhaps it did,” MacDougal’s replied. “And perhaps it was just a temporary reprieve we got, and even that through blind, stupid luck.

“But then you were always inclined to focus on the dangers, to hew to a defensive line. That has something to commend it, but it also means you miss opportunities. I saw one, and in our interest, all our interests, I acted on it.

“I regret that I did not succeed, but in any case, it’s over, for now at least.”

Indeed, it was. Not necessarily in the way Stephenson would have wished, of course. He’d have much preferred the ellipton sitting at the bottom of one of Her Majesty’s bunkers to its being in the custody of a footloose American corporation. But it was still a damn sight better than leaving it in Russian hands, Communist or non-Communist. And even leaving it there seemed preferable to MacDougal controlling it.

He didn’t volunteer this opinion. Nor did he give in to a sudden impulse to ask MacDougal how his Vulcan happened to crash when it did. That would have been a bit . . . melodramatic. Besides, Stephenson had got his way back in ’65. It didn’t do to rub his nose in the fact.

Stephenson took his leave and returned to his car for his drive back into the city. Sitting in the back of the vehicle he knew he could not let this go, and at the same time, that he could not attack his problem through the usual approaches.

Stephenson knew he could not have MacDougal arrested, or assassinated, at least not acting through any of the channels open to him as a senior official of the SIS. Nor could he put the matter to their comrades in the Guardians, given the old baggage involved. Fortunately, there was a third option, the same third option he had turned to in the hope of stopping MacDougal’s earlier plot.

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