Minna was dancing beside me, clapping her hands madly in hysterical glee. The guards, the few who were still conscious, had abandoned their guns entirely by now. They were merely trying to get out of the way of the wild Lettish gymnasts.
They didn’t have a chance.
Outside, the night once again began to erupt with bells and sirens. Inside the battle was quickly drawing to a close. The plant guards, though not outnumbered, were clearly outclassed; this wasn’t the type of situation they had been trained to handle, and the girls were too much for them. Within minutes it was over, and Minna and I emerged from our hiding place and stepped over the inert bodies of the guards. The final score stood at Christians 14, Lions 0. One of our girls – Lenja, I think – had turned an ankle in the course of the fray. She limped slightly. And that, incredibly, was the extent of our injuries.
The girls were beaming with pride. Milan, an odd smile on his round face, moved toward me. “I violated orders,” he said apologetically, “because I suspected a trap.”
“No trap. The harbor police picked up Anders, and then I blundered into this mess.”
“We have to get the hell out of here. The MVD is on the way. God alone knows what’s going on outside.”
“Shall we run for the bus, Evan?”
“And then what? The bus won’t get us out of Russia.”
“We could hide.”
“I don’t know.”
I tried to think straight and couldn’t get anywhere. We were in the building, and the building was locked, but sooner or later someone would come and find a way to get in. If we opened the door now, they would all stream in and…
And we would all stream out.
That seemed fair enough for openers. I went to the door, opened it. A small gang of troops stood at the ready in front of the door. Other than that, the place was surprisingly quiet. Only the wail of a siren in the distance broke the quiet of the night.
The MVD, I thought. On their merry way.
I glowered at the batch of troops. “About time you got here,” I snapped.
“But we have been here all along. The door-”
“Hurry,” I said. “Inside, quickly!”
They rushed inside. I scooped up Minna, and as the men rushed inside the rest of us hurried outside and closed the door.
On the outside wall of the building there was a glass-enclosed box with a little hammer beside it dangling from a chain. A fire alarm, I thought brightly. I wondered what the penalty might be for turning in a false alarm in Estonia. It did not seem likely to be the greatest of our worries and, if nothing else, it ought to engender a certain amount of immediate confusion. If there was one thing we needed, it was confusion. It could only help us.
I didn’t bother with the little hammer. Instead I smashed the glass front with the butt of my pistol and reached through the broken glass to yank the little red lever.
At which point all hell broke loose. Every light in the base went on, and men poured out of every building. They did not come for us, nor did they run to the source of the alarm. In fact they ignored us entirely. They ran in all different directions, some of them dressing as they ran. Mechanics wheeled out fuel tanks, crews righted missiles on their launching pads, and everyone bustled about doing various important tasks.
Milan asked me what the hell was going on.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “But-”
“It looks to me as though they’re… well… taking up battle stations. Finding their posts and waiting for further orders from up above.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t think that was a fire alarm box.”
“I think I’ve just put the whole base on Red Alert,” I said. “I don’t know if that was a good idea or not.”
The Russians probably call it something other than Red Alert. But whatever they called it, the entire place was quite definitely on it. Planes sat with their engines on, missiles were poised on launching pads, and all around us all manner of furious activity went on.
We, on the other hand, did nothing. We stood around stupidly, all fifteen of us, while the rest of the base very busily ignored us. It was a pleasant state of affairs, but one that seemed unlikely to last for very long. Every base has a commander, and every commander, however incompetent, must sooner or later become aware of two men, twelve women, and a child standing like sheep in the midst of meticulous preparations for World War III.
I wondered suddenly whether I had managed the neat trick of starting a war. I had started a local revolution once, in Macedonia, but that was not at all the same thing as sending Soviet missiles streaming toward Washington and New York. Of course it couldn’t happen; the Russians would have built-in safeguards to prevent such a thing. One couldn’t honestly launch a global conflict by turning in a false fire alarm. Still…
“What shall we do now, Evan?”
I turned to Milan. “I don’t know,” I said.
“We ought to do something.”
I gave him a suggestion concerning the bus that carried overtones of a warmer relationship between himself and the bus than in fact existed. He manfully ignored my suggestion and waited for me to think of something a bit more practical.
“Forget the bus,” I said this time. “We need something fast, something dramatic, something to slash through all this miasma and get us straight to where we’re going. A straight line. Shortest distance between two points. Except the shortest distance isn’t always a straight line, sometimes it’s a circle. Great circle routes and all that. Flat Earth Society doesn’t believe in them, of course, but fly right over the poles. One, two, three and hello, Alaska. Oh, for God’s sake!”
“Follow me,” I called out. And without knowing quite where I was going, I began dashing at top speed across the asphalt surface of the missile base.
They followed me.
So did a great many pairs of alien eyes. We could not have looked as though we belonged in those surroundings and we did draw stares. Everyone seemed to have something else to do, though, and no one made any attempt to find out who we were or where we thought we were going. There were no idle hands about, and the Devil’s work remained undone.
We ran. We dodged fuel trucks, circled around little gangs of mechanics and ground crew men. We ran, and I led, and everyone followed, and I wished to hell I knew just what it was I was looking for. A plane, of course. A plane that could take us out of Russia and back to America. A good, fast plane that would get us up and out before anyone could figure out what we were doing. But all the planes were manned with huge crews, and I couldn’t imagine how we could capture one or do anything with it once we did. It had been miracle enough that I had driven our bus from Riga to Tallinn; piloting a jet from Tallinn to Alaska was too much to expect.
And then, at the far end of the field, I saw something unlikely. A huge plane, its engines running, its wings swept back at acute angles, its body positioned almost vertically for takeoff.
This in itself was not so odd. But this plane, instead of being surrounded by a humming crew of fliers, and mechanics, was almost untended. One man, wearing boots and a heavy flying suit and holding a helmet by its strap, stood at its side smoking a cigarette. He was the only person within fifty yards of the aircraft.
I ran to him, and the rest of the company followed in turn. I had my pistol in my hand but wasn’t quite sure what on earth I could do with it. Shoot the man, I suppose, and then try to fly the plane. But that seemed somehow mindless.
He looked up at our approach, took a last bored drag on his cigarette, and flipped it away. I couldn’t think of an even vaguely intelligent opening line.
“You,” I snapped in Russian, “what are you doing?”
It should have been his question to me, since I was the one who was behaving oddly. But he did not appear to think of this.
“I’m following stupid orders,” he said.
He was very young, early twenties, with a mop of disarranged black hair, deep, dark eyes, and the pointed face and long nose of a Liverpool singer.
“Stupid orders,” he said again. “Why do they always have to hold these stupid drills in the middle of the night? If the Americans attack us, it will not be in the middle of the night. The Americans are not crazy. They will come at a sensible hour. So why have drills at this hour?”
Then I hadn’t started a war; they were used to drills of this nature. That was comforting.
“And why, if they must have these drills, must I be a part of them? My plane is experimental. There are no bombs on it, only space for bombs. I have no navigator, no copilot, no bombardier, no ground crew. Nothing. So should I not be back in my warm bed?”
“But no. Stupid orders! I must come here, I must start my engines, I must be in my flying suit, I must be ready to take off at once. Even if there is a war, I would not take off. I would have nothing to do. Stupid.”
“This is an experimental plane?”
He nodded at it. “A bomber. Long range.” He launched into a string of statistics that left me with the general impression that the plane would travel very far and very fast, which was just the fate I had in mind for it.
“And you can fly it? You, by yourself?”
“That is my job. I always fly it.”
“Without a crew?”
“Crews get in the way.”
I raised the pistol. Behind me Milan and Minna and the Lettish girls hovered expectantly. I pointed the pistol at the young pilot, and he seemed to take notice of it for the first time. He did not look frightened, or even intimidated. He looked at the gun, he looked at me.
He looked bored. “Who are you?”
“An American agent,” I said. Forcefully, I hope. “I am ordering you to fly us” – I motioned toward the others – “to America. Now.”
“You American?” He had switched, incredibly, to English. “You American agent, Joe? No shit?”
I looked quickly around. The world still seemed to be ignoring us. Minna was tugging at my sleeve. Milan was saying comforting things to the Lettish girls. And I was being spoken to in a strange variety of English by a highly unlikely test pilot.
“No shit,” he was saying. “You American?”
“I love America,” he said. “I, Igor Radek, I love America! Hey, Joe, Charlie Mingus! Thelonious Monk? No shit!”
“Always my dream is to go to America. Play the trombone, right? Hot jazz, real cool music. No shit, some of a bitch!”
“Could you take us there?”
“In this plane?”
“But the authorities-”
“Or would you rather spend the rest of your life following stupid orders?”
“Some of a bitch,” he said. “You right, Joe. We go to America, no sweat, we fly like a bird.” He looked past me at the crowd. “All these peoples going?”