Story 8 - Shadow in the Night.
"Hurray, the fly boys got the cruise shut down!" shouted Ross, with the phone still in his hand. "They've got it! They've got it! They got it ten miles out of Arlington, Virginia."
I shuddered, realizing how close it had come. Another thirty miles, and Washington would have been a wasteland.
They told Ross on the phone, that thanks to our warning they were able to get three AWACs in the air. Of course, the Russians denied any knowledge of the incidence.
We watched the video tape three times that night, once with captain Simons, once with the chaps from the Navy, and once more after the CIA dropped by, before they took the tape away. After that, everyone left.
It was rather strange to have peace again. But the peace was superficial. Questions and arguments arose in my mind, none of which made much sense because we would never know what really had happened. The final secret went to the bottom of the sea with the men who had launched the missile. The commander of the spy ship might have been drunk, or trigger happy, or gone crazy under the pressure of the circumstances. Or the launch might have been caused by malfunctioning equipment, or by a plain honest mistake by one of the sailors who had worked too hard and too long under extreme stress in bad weather. Or something went wrong during the chaos while they were trying to outrun the approaching Coast Guard cutter. One thing I found odd, though, that the Russians didn't alert us that an accident had happened, and more than that, that none of our automatic sensing equipment had detected the cruise. It had slipped by our radar, our sound sensors, and our infrared detectors. Maybe the accident was good for us. Maybe we needed better equipment with more modern technology. Maybe we needed laser radar technology or something else based on new physical principles.
After everyone had left, none of us felt like going to bed. Who could sleep after that? Ross turned his telescope on and set the computer up to scan for more boats. We didn't get to bed until four in the morning. Around three, Ross got another bottle of wine from the cellar. But nobody felt like celebrating. We had come through the most decisive event, probably in all of human history, suggested Ross, and had narrowly averted a global disaster. Still, nobody felt like celebrating. No glasses were raised, no speeches made. We sipped at the wine and hardly talked. The episode was like a horrible dream. There was no feeling of victory, only the kind of emptiness one feels after a nightmare.
If it were not for the dirt on the floors and the filled ashtrays as testimonials, it may well have been a nightmare, so unreal did it all seem.
We decided to scrub the floors before going to bed. I never thought it could be an invigorating exercise, scrubbing floors, waxing and polishing them.
We tidied up until the early morning news came on. It was the most wonderful news cast imaginable. There was a brief mentioning of the sinking of an unidentified fishing vessel, during a storm off the coast of North Carolina. It was all packed into a single sentence that revealed nothing. Then came the sports report. Nothing was said about Russia's missile, about submarines, about the failure of our cruise missile detection system. The door was left open for diplomacy.