Part 4 - The Plan
The tables were turned against him the moment that Boris entered the commissar's office to report his arrival at the base. It was his duty to report in. In fact, it was his first priority the next morning, even before breakfast. . .
It was in the commander's office that morning that it became instantly clear to Boris that Alexei had been serious about everything he said. The nightmare of their talk at the airport was re-kindled. He had barely entered the office when he noticed a large drawing spread out on the table, - the construction plans. Those were the construction plans that Alexei had spoken to him about. Recreation; was all he could read at first glance. He was drawn to the plans like by a magnet.
The base commander was not in the office when arrived. The plans confirmed to Boris that this man, Zalygin, existed, if this was indeed his name. Boris' fears certainly existed. Was Alexei responding to his fears or was he exploiting him? He suddenly felt that he was drawn into something he didn't want to be part of, in spite of his fears for humanity, but was no longer able to back out of. Alexei had even hinted that this might happen. . .
He walked across the room to the commissar's desk, hoping to find nothing in these planes that linked his promised participation with the hopes of the party to do this great and secret thing for the world that would usher in a new era for mankind. He looked at the plans in passing. The word, recreation, stood out now like a bad dream. There, right in from of him on the table lay tangible evidence of a nightmare that now was promised to come but might yet be preventable. Everything that he and Alexei had talked about became instantly alive again in his thoughts. But what about backing out of it? He gave his promise only to Alexei. . .
He sat himself down in front of the commissar's desk, as he was requested when the man entered the room, and listened to the commissar's words. He heard every word, but his mind was at the other table, and the two were somehow intertwined, so it seemed. He recalled the few things he had been able to make out on the drawing, and was puzzled about them and about what he expected to see, or expected not to see. Barely aware of the commissar's routine questions, he answered a mechanical YES whenever it seemed appropriate. Finally the commissar stood up and shook his hand. He vaguely was aware that he had agreed to participate in the construction project as he had already promised Alexei that he would, who had apparently passed the promise on without his knowing. News like these travel fast at the base, he thought. . .
The commissar told him in a proud gesture of approval, as a father might be proud of a son who brought home an excellent report card from school, that he really appreciated his eagerness to help. He told him that his help was especially valuable during the excavation phase. "We've got no one else on the base with actual work experience in handling large bulldozers..." . .
After a lengthy handshake the two men went to the table where the commissar presented to him the plans. . .
Boris took them. He received them out of the commissar's own hands. He spread them out again, bent over them in a frantic search for a clue that would confirm or deny what Alexei had said to him about the Bureau's hopes for a false launch of one of their missiles. This project would be a link. It had to be. Everything did fit. But how? Indeed, how could the whole thing fit together if it wasn't by design and of a manner that he could recognize? He felt that if the Bureau had a secret scheme, it would have to become evident to him in this manner, and would have to be clearly recognizable in these drawings. He searched them carefully, looking for insignificant seeming details, all the while hoping against hope that he would find nothing. . .
Unfortunately, he did find what he was hoping not to find. Ironically, he almost missed it. It was so obvious. One of the drawings showed an underground power line crossing right under the excavation area. It was marked as a steel-wrapped high voltage cable that had been laid ten years earlier. It connected the control center with the power station. If someone were to break the cable at the right moment, someone as familiar with the procedures as he was.... It wouldn't be hard to cause an 'accidental' launch. . .
"Damn!" He hated the idea. He almost choked at the thought of it, but could he do it? Could he do it for Tania? He knew he would. They had died so many times in his dreams. They would die no more. Before him lay the key. . .
He shuddered momentarily as he stared at the thin line across the sheet of paper. He understood what it meant, what the entire construction plan was all about, the timing of the construction, his inevitable involvement, his inability to pull out. It all became totally clear. Before him lay an invitation by the state from the highest levels, to commit an act of sabotage for which he could be executed, but which would save humanity and save his own life, and with it, that of his family. It was an order for great actions. It was a command encoded in a manner that only he would understand. . .
So, the nightmare was true, he thought, it had begun in earnest. The state was making a demand that was taller than any other demand that was ever made on him on anyone at the base. He knew he would have to find a way of coming to terms with that new situation. . .
The plan was as convincingly authentic as any direct order would have been, signed and delivered by the chief himself. There was the location of the building. The location was logical only for its location above the power line. He could see no other imperative for it. And then there were all the other coincidences that fitted together into a web of total consistency. Those were all too well drawn together to be a mere coincidence. For instance, as he had told him already, there was no logic in Alexei taking a flight through Kiev, coming from Moscow, unless there had been a deeper reason behind it that was linked to the plan. Evidently, there was a vast organizational network in operation behind the scenes that had the power to alter airline schedules, allocate huge amounts of funding for frivolous projects while the nation was starving. On the other hand, he found it still hard to believe that anyone would actually devise such a plan, considering the consequences if something went wrong, unless... Perhaps this meant that nothing could go wrong. Perhaps it meant that the entire project was 100% safe. . .
Absorbed in his pondering over the clue that he found, he barely noticed the commissar standing beside him. "Let me give you your own copy. You may wish to study them." The commissar said these things proudly as he handed him a long cardboard container. He could sense that the commissar didn't know what this was all about, but had been given 'recommendations.' This meant that probably nobody else knew about this at the base, except Alexei. . .
Boris thanked the man and left. He took the drawings immediately to his room, hid them, and went back to his post at the control center. Thus began his first day back, which ended an all too short vacation. . .
Since there was never much work to be done at the launch control center, he had ample time to think about what Alexei had said. . .
In one respect the idea of creating an accidental launch seemed too insane to consider, but Alexei's arguments also seemed valid. The new targeting method did guarantee that no one would be hurt by a false launch. He had seen it in action. It was evidently so safe that the commissar didn't even bother to get out of bed to witness it. This strange assurance somehow reshaped this insane concept into a sensible goal. An incident of this magnitude would certainly focus world's attention onto the fragile nature of the so-called nuclear peace. . .
"But what if things were to go wrong?" he kept asking himself, over and over. "What if he missed one crucial point, one minute aspect that perhaps he had no knowledge off?" . .
He sat for hours by himself, looking aimlessly through the large safety glass window onto the missile fields. In the distance, at the bottom of a gentle slope, many dome-shaped objects dotted the landscape. They seemed innocent, while in reality a single one could trigger the end of the world. On the other hand, it also could, with his help, trigger the end of the world's coldest cold war. Except, had he or anyone the right to force this change, to force an issue that no one had been able to deal with for decades upon decades? Shouldn't he let the Bureau do its own dirty work? Or had these people already done as much of it as they could, and now needed his help for the final step. Damn! Why did he have to become a tool to serve their scheme? Was this the reason why he had been offered this lucrative job at the base? . .
If Alexei was correct in one aspect, the odds that a person might succeed in ending the arms race with this plan were greatly in his favor. "Without this, this...." He could not even think the word. All he knew for certain, was that Tania would never forgive him if a single person were killed in the process, regardless of the possibility that scores of millions might be spared the agony of going through a real war. . .
As time went on, many more arguments came to mind, both for and against staging the accident. If only he could ask someone for advise. But whom could he trust? He certainly couldn't talk to Alexei anymore. Once before he had tried to ask Alexei about a secret subject. Alexei simply quoted what his wife had once told him: "If you have a secret to keep, never let me know. Tell me nothing that can't be printed in the papers." . .
God, if only Alexei had regarded this advice back in Kiev. But he hadn't. Could it be that Alexei had actually acted under orders, then? . .
Boris felt increasingly that he had been set up for this job, framed by the government! There was no question that he could do what they required, and in a way that nobody would find out. It must have been easy for them to recruit him, knowing as they must have known that he was the only person at the base with practical experience in driving a bulldozer. Was this the chance that any patriot would be eagerly waiting for, a chance to come to the aid of his country, to provide a service for his people that only he can provide? And undoubtedly, this chance was as real as Alexei's involvement with the man from the Bureau and the plans he had in his room. . .
The hours at the control center had always seemed long, but never as painfully long as on this first day back. And even after an entire shift of thinking and puzzling, his struggles had yielded no answers. His confusion remained like the landscape he had stared at all day long, through the window of the control center. . .
In the evening he went to the small brook behind the meadow where the forest begins. Maybe he could think more clearly there, he reasoned. But after hours of looking into its fast flowing water, he found no answers. The problem was too great! Already he felt that he was no longer his own master. He felt pushed into something he hated to think about, but he felt pressured by the realization that as soon as the long-range transmitter stations become operational, the chance to do something big for humanity would no longer exist, and perhaps never come again. This was his chance to affect history, to alter the world for the better, to make his being alive meaningful. He finally decided that he would most certainly do it if he could be assured that his conclusions about the project were not just a product of his imagination. . .
Except, how could anyone be sure about a thing like that? He couldn't just ask if it was OK to launch an ICBM with sixteen large warheads against the United States of America. No one would as much as admit that a safety procedure exists. He began to hate that he had offered to serve at the construction project. . .
Angry and disappointed, he walked back to the center from the brook, through stands of tall grass. On the way, he suddenly stopped. It came to him most clearly that he didn't have to do anything, that he was still his own master. No one was demanding anything directly. No one was forcing him against his will. He was a free man! . .
On the day the equipment arrived, however, he felt differently. He felt that by simply going along with the project, he would keep his options open. He could render a final decision later. With these thoughts in mind, he began his job at the construction site the next day. . .
Of course, he worked mostly after dark. His official excuse was that it was cooler at night. The real reason was that he couldn't afford to have people around. The other reason was that practice alerts, so far, always came at night. . .
As it was, he managed his time well. He was always alone at night. He drove both the truck and the bulldozer. The commissar gave him a free hand in this. The second night he spent ten consecutive hours working at the pit, and all this besides his regular duties. The commissar praised him for his "outstanding initiative." . .
Only when the excavation had progressed to the point where the cable could be reached at any moment did he cut his efforts back and began to wait. The project had become a game. He was quite aware, that even at this reduced level of working he had at the very most four days of work left. Once all the bulldozing was complete, his chance would be forever gone. On the other hand, his involvement would also be over at this point. This meant that the practice alert would have to be called within this four-day time frame. . .
"Then, the tormenting will stop," he said to himself, searching for a comforting thought. Strangely, there was no longer any comfort in this prospect either, because then, his nightmares would never end. . .
At the point he was at, he knew exactly where the cable was located. He had uncovered it briefly, and then covered it up again. Oddly, the cable was not nearly as deeply buried as was indicated on the drawing. Was this a clerical oversight, or was it part of the plan that even included an alibi for him? This oversight meant that no one could hold him responsible if the cable were damaged. It wasn't his fault that the plan was drawn up incorrectly. But this argument, too, left a bitter taste. . .
So once again a feeling that he had been systematically set up overwhelmed him. Everything seemed to have been taken care of. The care and precision, with which the plan had been prepared for him, amazed him. Only, who was responsible for all that was happening? Who had drawn up those plans that included these vital combinations of mistakes? Who was that person that now masterminded his life? Or was it all, in spite of the complexity, nothing more than a series of unrelated errors and coincidences? . .
Fortunately the decision did not have to be rendered that day. His work was complete. Every step had been considered. Every move had been planned. Every stage of it had been timed and put before him, but by whom? He felt that he had become but a tool. . .
He realized that the final decision wouldn't have to be made until the moment when the siren signaled the next alert. Maybe there would not be another alert until the construction project was finished. Maybe that dreaded decision would never have to be made. . .
He slowed his activity some more, but didn't quite stop it. He just rested more and attended to trivial tasks. As the time drew on, the agonies of the waiting increased and his mind became once again burdened with weighing the risks of the plan against the merits of his hope. He had time now to contemplate in the quiet of the night. . .
In earlier days he would go to bed tired from his work, but now, he found it hard to sleep. One night, after doing virtually nothing at the pit, which became more and more difficult to conceal, he stayed up until morning. He walked through the forest surrounding the base. He walked until the dawn broke, all the while pondering. He slept briefly, had breakfast and then went back to his normal post where he promptly drifted off into a deep sleep. He slept half way through his period of duty. As it was, the infraction was graciously excused since he had spent all his spare time at the construction pit. . .
When the siren finally did sound the next night, a great relief came over him, though he was no more ready to make a decision than he was on the very first day. He was awake, rested, and alert. The timing was ideal. It was midnight. He was alone. All preparations were finished. . .
The idea was very strong now that the entire game had been set in motion in Moscow, but it wasn't imposed. It was a 'floating' request that he was invited to honor, or disregard if he could. It was an order without any direct authority backing it, something that was totally foreign to him. It had become a plan that has taken over his life. The game had become real, he could feel it, and he was powerless to stop it. It had become his game, his plan. Or more correctly, he had become a prisoner of the game and the plan. . .
The plan had become an entity of its own that had invaded him and had taken control of his mind and body as though he were a machine, an instrument, a tool for a purpose. He, himself, had been reduced to the role of a spectator. He consciously observed his own actions as though they were someone else's actions, actions that he loathed deep in his soul, but which he performed faithfully as he was demanded to do, by the plan. Not the tears of Tania or the cries of humanity, or his own feelings could override what drove his compliance with the plan. . .
+ + + . .
Five meters before the trough of loose dirt was reached he snaps out of his confused stupor and forces his fingers against the lever that lowers the blade. He closes his eyes. That's all he can do. He lets his fingers push the lever down. He feels the hydraulics kick in and thrust the plow blade with its worn down hook towards the earth. This simple task had been done a thousand times before to break up the brittle sand stone formation. Now the blade has been engaged for a different task. Oh, how easily it was done! The last step had been performed without hesitation. . .
He leans back now as he withdraws his hand from the lever, and shudders. For the first time in two weeks he feels a deep emptiness creep into his soul. . .
He is alone, totally alone. The task has been performed that was imposed on him, though no one had demanded it. He performed it by his own volition, but now, it can no longer be undone. What he does from this moment on is no longer a factor in the plan. He is riding the machine like a spectator viewing a sequence of a familiar movie. He is aware of everything that is happening, of every step and of every movement. He knows the outcome, but like viewing a movie he cannot alter it, -- not anymore. . .
A pain churns his stomach as the blade scrapes on rock, then breaks free. The machine dips forward into the loose earth. He can feel how the cable suddenly resists its great weight. A hundred tons of steel, pushed with the momentum of a flying wrecking ball, prying against the tensile strength of the wrapped trunk line that supplies all electricity to the base. An 'eternity' passes before him as the machine lurches forward irresistibly, and then rolls free again! . .
He puts on the breaks, stops the engine, covers his face with his hands, then climbs out of the cab and runs to the crest of a hill. The countdown cannot be stopped. Not now; not by him or by any power known to man. He hears the ignition of a missile. A pillar of smoke shoots from the meadow. For a third time in history the most fearsome weapon ever built by man has been unleashed. The game to save humanity has started! Can its flight fulfill the hopes he has placed on it? What if he has missed one tiny vital point? . .
The pillar of smoke shoots upwards now, pushed by fire, then broadens over the launch site while the dull howl of the power buildup in the engines becomes a roar that begins to vibrate the ground. Moments later the nose cone appears barely visible behind the smoke and fire. As if drawn by the hand of an invisible giant the huge missile rises out of the silo. Then it is clear. A great thunder, now, coming out of the mouths of its rocket engines, shakes the earth. The thunder displaces the stillness of midnight and the earth tremors as though a cavalry of a million horses was invading the base. Soon the noise abates. The missile recedes into the midnight sky. The silence returns. The smoke fades with the wind. . .
Boris stands petrified. He stands in awe of what he has done. He keeps watching the flight of his missile until it is but a faint spark in the sky. Soon, it can no longer be seen. He shudders again as he climbs back into the cab of his machine. "Tania, Tania," he wants to cry, but he can no longer utter her name. His thoughts reach out to her, for her comforting touch, for a forgiving gesture, but he can no longer find her in his thoughts. The world has become chilly, cold. . .
"Now the phones will be ringing," he says to himself, "both in the Kremlin and in Washington. Oh God, let them act prudently for once!" . .
He starts the engine again and begins to work as hard as he can, digging at a large rock near where the cable had been. He tries to dig the rock out; both to cover his tracks and to keep himself occupied so that he may not go mad over it all. Those had been frightful flames that he saw, flames that illumined the night, flames of hope to stop the greatest of all fires! He should be happy. Strangely, this concept seemed foreign now. . .