“Oh, it’s nothing. I’ll tell you about it next time I see you and I hope not in those loud pajamas. Goodbye, Randy. You’re sure you have the message?”

“I’m sure,” he said, hung up and dropped into the swivel chair. Alas, Babylon was a private, a family signal. When they were boys, he and Mark used to sneak up to the back of the First Afro-Repose Baptist Church on Sunday nights to hear Preacher Henry calling down hell-fire and damnation on the sinners in the big cities. Preacher Henry always took his text out of the Revelation of St. John. It seemed that he ended every lurid verse with, “Alas, Babylon!” in a voice so resonant you could feel it, if you rested your fingertips gently on the warped pine boards of the church. Randy and Mark would crouch under the rear window, behind the pulpit, fascinated and wide-eyed, while Preacher Henry described the Babylonian revels, including fornication. Sometimes Preacher Henry made Babylon sound like Miami, and sometimes like Tampa, for he condemned not only fornication—he read the word right out of the Bible-but also horse racing and the dog tracks. Randy could hear him yet: “And I’m telling you right now, all wife-swappers, whisky-drinkers, and crap-shooters are going to get it! And all them who come out of those sin palaces on the beach, whether they be called hotels or motels, wearing minks and jewels and not much else, they is goin’ to get it! And them fast-steppers in Cadillacs and yaller roadsters, they is going to get it! Just like it says here in the Good Book, that Great City that was clothed in fine linen, and purple, and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, that Great City was burned off the face of the earth in an hour. Just one hour Alas, Babylon!”

Either Preacher Henry was too old, or the Afro-Repose congregation had tired of his scolding and awful prophecies, for he no longer preached except on those Sundays when Afro-Repose’s new minister, a light-skinned college graduate, was out of town. Randy and Mark never forgot Preacher Henry’s thundering, and from it they borrowed their private synonym for disaster, real or comic, past or future. If one fell off the dock, or lost all his cash at poker, or failed to make time with a promising Pistolville piece, or announced that hurricane or freeze was on the way, the other commiserated with, “Alas, Babylon!”

But in this telegram it had very special and exact meaning. Mark had secured leave at Christmas season last year, and flown down with Helen and the two children, Ben Franklin and Peyton, for a week. On their last evening at Fort Repose, after the others were in bed, Mark and Randy had sat here, in this office, peering into the bourbon decanter and the deep anxieties of their hearts, trying to divine the future. Christmas had been a time of troubles, a time of confusions at home and tensions abroad, but in his whole life, Randy could recall no other sort of time. There had always been depression, or war, or threat of war.

Mark, who was in SAC Intelligence, had rolled the old fashioned globe, three feet through, from its place in the window bay, so that the desk lamp shone on it. It was a globe purchased by their grandfather, the diplomat, before the First World War, so that the countries, some with unfamiliar names, seemed oddly scrambled. The continents and seas were the same, which was all that mattered. As Mark talked, his face became grave, almost gaunt, and his index finger traced great circle routes across the cracking surface-missile and bomber trajectories. He then drew a rough chart, with two lines that intersected. The line that con—timed upward after the intersection belonged to the Soviet Union, and the time of the intersection was right then.

“How did it happen?” Randy had asked. “Where did we slip?”

“It wasn’t lack of money,” Mark had replied. “It was state of mind. Chevrolet mentalities shying away from a space-ship world. Nations are like people. When they grow old and rich and fat they get conservative. They exhaust their energy trying to keep things the way they are-and that’s against nature. Oh, the services were to blame too. Maybe even SAC. We designed the most beautiful bombers in the world, and built them by the thousands. We improved and modified them each year, like new model cars. We couldn’t bear the thought that jet bombers themselves might be out of style. Right now we’re in the position of the Federal Navy, with its wooden steam frigates, up against the Confederate iron-clad. It is a state of mind that money alone won’t cure.” “What will?” Randy asked.

“Men. Men like John Ericsson to invent a Monitor to face the Merrimac. Bold men, audacious men, tenacious men. Impatient, odd-ball men like Rickover pounding desks for his atomic sub. Ruthless men who will fire the deadheads and ass-kissers. Rude men who will tell the unimaginative, business-as-usual, seven carbon sons of bitches to go take a jump at a galloping goose. Young men because we’ve got to be a young country again. If we get that kind of men we may hack it if the other side gives us time.”

“Will they?”

Mark had spun the globe and shrugged. “I don’t know. If I think the balloon is about to go up I’m going to send Helen and the kids down here. When a man dies, and his children die with him, then he is dead entirely, leaving nothing to show.”

“Do you think they’d be safer here than in Omaha? After all, we’ve got the Jax Naval Air complex to the north of us, and Homestead and Miami to the south, and Eglin to the northwest, and MacDill and Tampa to the southwest, and the Missile Test Center on Canaveral to the east, and McCoy and Orlando right at the front door, only forty miles off. What about fallout?”

“There isn’t any place that’ll be absolutely safe. With fallout and radiation, it’ll be luck-the size of configuration of the weapons, altitude of the fireball, direction of the wind. But I do know Helen and the children won’t have much chance in Omaha. SAC Headquarters has got to be the enemy’s number one target. I’ll bet they’ve programmed three five-megaton IC’s for Offutt, and since our house is eight miles from the base any kind of near-miss does it “—Mark snapped his fingers-”like that. Not that I think it’ll do the enemy any good-command automatically shifts to other combat control centers and anyway all our crews know their targets. But they’ll hit SAC Headquarters, hoping for temporary paralysis. A little delay is all they’d need. I’ll have to be there, at Offutt, in the Hole, but the least a man can do is give his children a chance to grow up, and I think they’d have a better chance in Fort Repose than Omaha. So if I see it’s coming, and there is time, I’ll send Helen and the kids down here. And I’ll try to give you a warning, so you can get set for it.”


Mark smiled. “I won’t call you up and say, `Hey, Randy, the Russians are about to attack us.’ Phones aren’t secure, and I don’t think my C-in-C, or the Air Staff, would approve. But if you hear `Alas, Babylon,’ you’ll know that’s it.”

Randy had forgotten none of this talk. A week or so later, thinking about Mark’s words, Randy had decided to go into politics. He would start in the state legislature, and in a few years be ready to run for Congress. He’d be the kind of leader Mark wanted.

It hadn’t worked out that way. He couldn’t even beat Porky Logan, a gross man whose vote could be bought for fifty bucks, who bragged that he had not got beyond the seventh grade but that he could get more new roads and state money for Timucuan County than any half-baked radical, undoubtedly backed by the burrheads and the N.A.A.C.P., who didn’t even know that the

Supreme Court was controlled by Moscow. So Randy’s fiasco had been inspired by that night, and now the night bore something worse.

He wondered what Mark was doing in Puerto Rico, and why his warning had come from there. It should have come from Washington or London or Omaha or Colorado Springs rather than San Juan. It was true that SAC had a big base, Ramey, in Puerto Rico, but– It was no use guessing. He’d know at noon. Of one thing he was certain, if Mark expected it to come, it would probably come. His brother was no alarmist. Randy sometimes allowed emotions to distort logic, Mark never did. Mark was capable of calculating odds, in war or poker, to the final decimal, which was why he was a Deputy Chief of Intelligence at SAC, and soon would have his star.

Randy knew there were a thousand things he should be doing, but he couldn’t think of any of them. He became aware of a rhumba rhythm in the living room, and presently Missouri skated into view, feet bundled with waxing cloths, shoulders moving and hips bouncing with elephantine elegance, intent on her polishing. He yelled, “Missouri!”

“Yessir?” Her forward motion stopped, but her hips continued to wobble and feet shuffle.

“Quit that struttin’ and make up the three bedrooms on the front. Colonel Bragg’s family will be here tomorrow.”

“Oh, ain’t that nice! Just like last year.”

“No, not like last year. The Colonel’s not coming with them. Just Mrs. Bragg and Ben Franklin and Peyton.”

Missouri peered through the door at him. “Mister Randy, you don’t look good. Them telegrams are yellow

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