Able Archer: Distant Early Warning

Novel Excerpts by Lawrence Lichtenfeld

Able Archer: Distant Early Warning

Distant Early Warning (Chapter 10)


Major Powell had agreed to take photos of schematic diagrams of the SDI satellite systems. Dubrikov gave him a Minox B camera to shoot the plans. Powell had special plans created by the technical team at Langley that would photograph clearly on the tiny spy camera’s film. The images had to be clear enough for the Soviet technicians to be able to read, but not so clear that it looked like Powell had had time to set up a photo-shoot. Top-secret plans were never neatly copied during espionage. The photos were always taken in haste. The prints from the techies were fairly clear at the center with a gradual, Gaussian blur developing towards the edges. They would mimic the quality of photos taken quickly, in a semi-dark room. Powell took the photos in a storage room down the hall from his “lab” at the Depot, in case Dubrikov had an asset in place at Tobyhanna. The documents had to appear authentic—in case the Soviets did their homework—so did the little incidentals in the background. If the photos were taken in a room with a window, there would be streaks of daylight or the cross-reflection off the glass if a flash was used. There would be shadows, ever so slightly, if the room’s lights were used. If the lights were overhead, then the photographer, himself, would leave a shadow. The KGB had photo interpretation specialists, just like the CIA. People that measured every detail in minutia to authenticate the prints. They could ascertain the stature of the person taking the photo, based on the shadow he threw. Basically, was it taken by Powell, or was it a fake? The items around the documents mattered—was the tape dispenser holding a roll that had never been touched? Was the desk blotter worn on the edges? Was the calendar on the right day? Were there other papers or folders on the desk? Did the handwriting on file tabs match Powell’s?

Powell and his CIA team were taking every step possible to provide their Soviet counterparts with the most authentic misinformation. The British had really gotten good at misinformation. From the days of the SOE, during World War II, British intelligence officers realized that setting up the enemy with bad knowledge was every bit as important as protecting good information. MI6 had perfected the art of out-going misinformation, while MI5 protected state secrets within the United Kingdom. Back in the USA, Powell and CIA operatives utilized many of the Brits’ successful counterintelligence practices.

The very nature of his work made Powell a very suspicious person. He had moved quickly on Dubrikov’s openness, sensing that the man’s admission was real. But even though he had a hunch that Dubrikov was being sincere, Powell couldn’t shake the feeling that he was the one being played.

Meanwhile, back in his cabin, outside of Aberdeen, Pennsylvania, Dubrikov was reading a signal that had come directly from Moscow, through his Rezidentura. The language of the dispatch was serious and put all field agents on high alert. Leadership felt that war was inevitable; there were no plans to talk to the Americans, no desire to try and dial back the rhetoric coming from the Kremlin. The Americans were positioning themselves for an offensive in Europe, and all agents in the theatre should prepare to eliminate any extraneous communiques or notes. It was the burn order for Europe. Burn your paperwork. Destroy the evidence of spying. Do not let American or NATO know what we know.

The order was meant to serve as a warning for field agents in America. Take special care. Do not let yourself get caught. And get information. Everything you can, anything you can. And be ready for the coming war. It was no longer if, but when. And when was coming very quickly.


“Christine Andrushyshyn.” She stumbled through her new name. “Christine Andrushyshyn.” Now slowing to pronounce each syllable. “Christine And Roosh Is Shin.” She had long known how to spell it, but never had really bothered learning how to pronounce it before. But now, having gotten married the night before in a Niagara Falls wedding chapel, she found herself trying to adjust to the awkward, four syllables. Corley was much easier. And it seemed like half of Metropolitan Columbia had the same last name. Well, at least half of everyone west of the Congaree River. “And Roosh Is Shin.” She had been practicing for the last hour, as they drove through the beautiful streets of Montreal, heading north towards the Laurentian Mountains.

“Andrushyshyn. You’re putting the emphasis on wrong syllable. Andrushsyshyn. Hear how smoothly it comes out when you stress the ‘And’?”

“It actually sounds kind of pretty when you say it. I just don’t know how the kids are going to say it.”

“I don’t think that’s going to be an issue,” Dmitri mumbled to himself.

Dmitri had found the listing for the cabin in the New York Times classified section. He had phoned the real estate agency from Columbia to inquire about the property. He had initially balked at the $57,000; the amount seemed exorbitant for a one-bedroom cabin on a five-acre plot. But when the realtor on the phone told him about the stone and concrete basement, the well and septic systems, a back-up generator, and the secluded, but recently reconditioned chip and oil road, he was sold. Then the realtor reminded him that the $57,000 was Canadian. Probably more along the lines of $48,000 and change with the exchange rate. Of course, she wanted to schedule a tour of the property, but Dmitri politely refused. It wasn’t necessary, but the realtor didn’t know that. When the Russian-sounding man from the U.S. phoned a week ago, she thought he was just fishing for information. She certainly was not expecting him to call again from Niagara Falls, on his way up to purchase the property.

It wasn’t until Dmitri and Christine sat down in front of her at the Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts Real Estate office, each with a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee and some doughnuts, that she believed the man with the Russian-sounding accent was a real customer. She pulled out her listing book and attempted to show Dmitri a couple of other properties that had been in her listings a bit longer; he politely dismissed her offerings, and she finally pulled out the sheet on the property Dmitri was interested in.

“I would recommend we drive out there and take a look.”

“Is not necessary. The house is vacant, no?”

“Well, um.” The realtor scanned the sheet. “Yes. Yes, it is.”

“Good. We will want to move in immediately. Tell me about the windows.”

“Huh? Oh, the windows.” She returned to the sheet, scanned the front, then the back, then returned to the front. “Double-pane. That’s very important up in the mountains.”

“Are they vinyl or aluminum?”

“Aluminum, I think. Yes, aluminum.”

“Is good. Good. Okay, I’ll pay $43,000 U.S. The advertisement in the Times said it is furnished.”

“Well, yes. It is being sold fully furnished. But you realize I’ll have to contact the seller. And we’ll have to set up a closing, if they accept. But the home hasn’t been on the market terribly long. And the owners are down in Scarborough, Ontario—they’ll want to come up for the closing.” She spoke with a conceited, French-Canadian accent. She looked good for a woman in her mid-forties. She was either doing well in real estate or had married well. Her hair was teased-up in a three-inch high bouffant, she wore a silk blouse with broad shoulder pads, a tight skirt that was failing to add any shape to her slight hips and flat ass. And she wore plenty of gold jewelry. Bangles. Herringbone necklaces. Matching earrings. Her cosmopolitan look was the polar opposite of Christine’s preppy, Southern style.

“Call them. I want to complete the sale immediately.”

“And you’ve already secured funding? We have some very good rates at a number of local banks.”

“I have the funds. Make the call.”

She picked up the receiver and dialed a Scarborough number on the rotary desk phone. The line rang twice, and then a woman answered.

“Bonjour, Mrs. Murphy. This is Ms. Gagné, at MacPherson Realty, do you have a moment?” She smiled and nodded at the Andrushyshyns as she listened. “Mmm hmm. Yes.” She took a pen to a notepad emblazoned with the MacPherson logo, a beaver standing on its hind legs in front of Mount Royal with a maple leaf background and scribbled some gibberish down the side. “I see. Well, I do have some good news. We have an offer for the cabin.” She looked up from the notebook and smiled. “Yes, yes, I understand. Would you like me to conference Mr. Murphy in?” She held her pen over the red “hold” button, waiting for permission to add the seller’s husband to the call. “I see. But it would be just a moment, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind the imposition.” She now drew imaginary circles around the hold button waiting for the okay. “Alright, just hold a moment, Mrs. Murphy. I’ll dial up Mr. Murphy immediately.” She finally hit the hold button and set about dialing the number with her pen. The phone rang and was immediately picked up by a secretary. “Bonjour, this is Ms. Josee Gagné, from MacPherson Realty in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, is Mr. Murphy available? Yes, I’ll hold.”

Josee covered the mouthpiece and whispered to Dmitri, “She’s gone to get him. I’m on hold.”

“Yes. Of course.”

Then she clicked a button. “Mrs. Murphy, I’ve got your husband’s office on the line now. He’ll be with us momentarily. Yes, I’m sure. Why no, you don’t say? I had no idea. Yes, the weather up here is lovely. I think we’re in for a wonderful ski season.” The realtor pantomimed to Dmitri and Christine, letting them know she had a chatty wife on the line. “Oh, great. I’m well, and you, Mr. Murphy. Well yes, as I mentioned to your wife, we have a very good offer on the table. Alright, Gord,” she overemphasized the seller’s first name. “I have a lovely couple from the States very interested in your property. How much? Well, how does $43,000 U.S. sound?” She smiled and winked at Christine as she stated the offer. She then pulled the Texas Instruments desk calculator to her and started punching numbers. “Yes, well the rate was $1.22 in the morning paper. I get $52,460. Umm hmm.” The realtor’s face turned serious as she shook her head. Then she nodded. “Yes, yes. Bien sûr. I will speak to the buyers. Can I call you back, Mr. Murphy? Oui.” She hung up the phone and exclaimed, “Tabarnak.”

“Is there a problem, Madame Gagné?”

Mademoiselle, it’s Mademoiselle Gagné. And yes, as I said before, this property has come to us quite recently. I am afraid the owners do not share the same sense of urgency that you do, Mr. Andrushyshyn.”

“You pronounce it quite well, Mademoiselle Gagné.” Dmitri lied. “But please, I would like it very much if you called me Dmitri. So, what is the problem, the offer?”

“Yes, Mr. Murphy is certain he will be able to get the $57,000 they are asking.”

“Let me ask you, Mademoiselle Gagné, do you handle the closings?”

“Yes, I can represent you at the closing. I am a notary.”

“How much do you charge?

“I do not charge buyers that I represent.”

“Very good. Then you will handle the closing. But it must be immediately. And I do not need to attend it. I am going to be much too busy. You will handle it, but I need the keys now, and I will pay you cash. Today.”

Ms. Gagné nearly choked on her coffee. “Excuse me, did you say cash?”

“American. Da, cash. ‘On the barrelhead’ as the Americans say, or actually, traveler’s cheques.” Dmitri turned to dig into his coat pocket, hanging off the back of his chair. He turned back to Ms. Gagné with a flat, bank envelope filled with a stack of bank-issued traveler’s cheques. He pulled three cheques out of the stack of fifty and handed them to Christine. She fanned out the three cheques like a hand of five-card stud. She marveled at the $3000 in her hand. She had no idea Dmitri was carrying this kind of money. Or that he even had this kind of money. Staring at the three $1000 cheques, she immediately imagined Karl Malden, himself, handing Dmitri the cheques.

“...and once you’ve signed all those, I’ll need your signature on these forms.” Ms. Gagné pulled a “Power of Attorney” form from her desk, as well as an “Assignment of Purchase Representative” form and three other forms, making her responsible for the activities of the closing, as well as authorizing her commission and the commission of the listing agent, her coworker.

“Do you know the fuel supplier for the generator?” Dmitri asked without looking up. “And the oil for the heat?”

“I don’t know who the seller has used in the past, but I use Fleur Compagnie Pétrolière, in Saint- Faustin-Lac-Carré.” She pulled her Rolodex to her and scanned for the contact information, then pulled a placeholder from the roll. “Here’s their card.”

“Don’t you need this?”

“No, no. Please, take it. I have their number trained to memory.” “Thank you.”

Dmitri and Christine signed a number of forms, some that were nothing more than boilerplate, with the blanks yet to be filled in—but because Dmitri was insistent that he wanted to take occupancy that night, he signed them. Ms. Gagné assured him of her trustworthiness, a pointless assurance in Dmitri’s mind. He knew that all the paperwork, all the legal wrangling and consultation, the very financial transaction he had just made would be obliterated in a coming flash of light and wave of energy. Indeed, it would have been easier to just go up to the mountains and break into a cabin that suited his needs, but Dmitri was not a criminal. He was not an ass. He was an honorable man, a good man, and in his own mind, he knew he could not live with himself if he had come to have his new home by dishonorable means. And the thought crossed his mind that there could come a time when someone would check the legal filings and want to make sure that properties were properly accounted for. It was just easier to do things legally at this time.

“And here are your keys, Dmitri. Christine. Je voudrais être le premier à vous féliciter et vous accueillent au Canada.”

Merci beaucoup, nous sommes très heureux d’avoir notre première maison ensemble ici.” Christine stumbled through the remnants of her two years of college French.

“Oh, one other thing, Mademoiselle Gagné.” Dmitri stopped at the door and turned around to ask one last question. “Is there a big grocery store nearby?”


Lt. Col. Petrov took his usual seat behind the control panel of the Oko bunker. It would be another night of watching the video screens. The Soviet Union’s US-K satellites monitoring the United States flew high over the Atlantic Ocean, and monitored sixty-five percent of the U.S. mainland, from the Eastern Seaboard clear west to the Rocky Mountains. Nine satellites were up and running on an elliptical orbit, four had clear views of the North American landmass during Petrov’s shift on duty. There was a similar Oko bunker at the east end of the Soviet Union, set up with its own nine satellites to watch from the Pacific east towards the Appalachian Mountains. The whole system had come online about a year earlier.

Petrov had been on the team that set up the system. He knew its capabilities. He understood how it worked, intimately. The satellites watched the United States for exhaust plumes from American launch sites. The heat signatures, emanating from previously unidentified locations were a sure sign of a launch. The Soviets knew the American’s regular launch points for rockets—Cape Canaveral, Edwards Air Force Base, and a few other ancillary locations. Those were ignored, anything else was a problem. Anything else was an ICBM. The team on duty watched scopes and readouts. Projected in front of Petrov and the men in his command was an enormous image of the United States. Should there be a launch, it would be displayed on the map. They’d have a general idea of the location in America before the computer system pinpointed the source. They stood as the motherland’s first warning.

The night of September 26th was typical at the Serpukhov-15 Oko bunker. The night watch had just broken out of a meeting, the satellites had rotated into position and the system was online and clear. Petrov had taken a second cup of tea to his command post. The Autumn Equinox had been three days earlier, and the daylight was just beginning to get shorter than night. Winter would be coming to the Soviet Union soon, and Petrov pondered what an American winter was like. Across the American South and out to California, there never was winter, was there? He had read how regions of Florida and California grew fruit year-round. Citrus, oranges and lemons. How Americans would travel on holiday to the beaches of Los Angeles and Miami. And how, throughout their history, Anglo-Americans subjugated the American Blacks in the South. Slavery. Segregation. Prisons. They weren’t so different from the South Africans, were they?

CTAPT.” His distracted pondering was suddenly interrupted. “CTAPT... CTAPT... CTAPT.” The words flashing in giant, red letters on top of the projected map of the United States. A claxon rang out, and the team snapped into action. “Start, start, start.” The Cyrillic letters spelled out. The satellites had detected an American missile launch.

Petrov looked to his status display on the console immediately in front of him. The readout announced that there was one confirmed launch of a US Minuteman ICBM from a Midwestern launch point. The Soviet computer system that had read the launch determined that the authenticity of the reading was a “level one,” the highest probability of authenticity. Having worked the data through thirty levels of security verification before proclaiming the launch, the system was considered highly reliable. The launch was real. Petrov directed his men to remain calm, and proceed with their assigned tasks, exactly by-the-book. They had thirty-eight minutes before the Minuteman rocket released its warheads onto Soviet soil. The Minuteman III had three independent reentry vehicles. Three Mark 12A reentry pods. Each armed with a high-yield W78 thermonuclear warhead. Three targets. Each with the explosive power of four hundred kilotons of TNT. The uranium-gun atomic bomb named “Little Boy” had an explosive force of sixteen kilotons and leveled an entire city. Three separate explosions, each fifty times more powerful than the Hiroshima bombing, were little more than a half-hour away.

With the majority of the team analyzing the launch information—silo origin, trajectory, apogee— Petrov and the senior staff were verifying the operation of the system, working to rule out any kind of system errors or faults. Within minutes of the initial warning, the projection screen began read out “Rocket Attack Warning.” The system had been vetted and proper functioning confirmed. There was no glitch, no bugaboo, no gremlins at work. They were looking at the first strike in World War III. A minute or two later, a second launch. Then a third. Fourth. Fifth. Launch silos in the Great Plains were coming to life and rocketing their full-force north, over the polar cap and onward to strategic targets in the motherland. Fifteen targets would soon be an afterthought. Asterisks in the history of the world. Petrov was singularly responsible for collecting the information from his team and reporting it up the chain of command. He knew that regardless of what direction he took, the very existence of the Soviet Union... No, the world entire, rested on his next move.

“Has there been visual confirmation?” he barked at the corporal at the appropriate desk.

Nyet. No visual.”

“Are you sure? No confirmation on the first missile?”

Da, correct sir. I have no visual on the initial launch. South Dakota. No visual. And no visual on any subsequent launch. Repeat, no visuals.”

Twelve minutes had passed. Red lights flashed and the readout screens at every station and on the projection wall all screamed out, missile attack warning. Petrov had to inform the high command of the attack if the Soviet Union were to be able to make a counterattack. The high command would have to brief Secretary Andropov and receive the order to launch. Time. It was all precious time. And it was ticking away at a feverish pace. The cacophony of sirens and horns. The hurried, urgent conversations between stations. Subordinates yelling their station statuses to their commanders. Their commanders trying to catch Petrov’s ear. In the fog, one man was taking in everything and had decided that the launch warnings were false. That somehow the readings were in error. The system had failed.

“Colonel Petrov.” He didn’t answer. “Colonel. Colonel. We must relay the warning to the high command. We must call Marshal Ustanov. We must call Marshal Koldunov,” the sergeant to the left of Petrov demanded. He reached in front of Petrov to the receiver on the lieutenant colonel’s command post and brought it to his ear. The hotline connected to the desk of Marshal Ustanov’s aide-de-camp. The sergeant could hear the line engaging. Petrov grabbed the receiver and yanked it from the sergeant’s hand. He could hear the aide-de-camp answering the hotline, a sort of urgency in his voice as he introduced himself.

“This is Petrov, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, Commander Oko Bunker Serpukhov-15,” Petrov responded. “I must speak to Marshal Ustanov. Immediately.”

The man on the other end of the line understood completely. The hotline from Serpukhov-15 was a dedicated line, never to be used unless prescribed by a designed exercise or in time of imminent attack. It was a little after 10:00 P.M. and there were no exercises scheduled. “What is the nature of the communication?” he said, precisely as he was trained to, though there was really no need to ask. There could only be one reason for the call.

“We’ve got an inbound. Now get the Marshal,” Petrov yelled through the phone.

Da, immediately,” the aide-de-camp responded tersely, then put Petrov on hold. He dialed the emergency line to Ustanov’s dacha outside Moscow. The Marshal of the Soviet Union answered after three rings. “Marshal Ustanov, I have Lieutenant Colonel Petrov, Serpukhov-15.”

“Hummmf.” The Marshal answered with a gruff rumble. He knew Petrov. He was a bright, reliable comer. Climbing the ladder quite quickly. An unexpected call at this hour from Serpukhov-15 was a most unwanted conversation. The line clicked and buzzed as the aide-de-camp transferred the call. “Ustanov, here. Slava?”

Da, Marshal. We have an inbound.” Petrov wasted no time with colloquialisms or niceties. There was no place for such foolishness. “We received initial satellite confirmation twelve minutes ago. Single launch, mainland, Minuteman out of the north-central United States.”

“Single launch?”

Da. Followed by four more launches. All north-central U.S. Trajectory projects MIRV deployment for targets in eastern regions and the Caucuses.”

“Not coordinated multiple launches? Single you say? Please confirm.”

Da, that is affirmative. Not a coordinated multiple launch. They launched singularly. One at a time. But...”

“What is it, Slava?”

“Sir, there is no visual confirmation on any of the inbounds.”

“How long until they are visible on over-the-horizon radar?”

“We calculate nine minutes.”

“I understand. How confident are you?”

“Sir, I feel we are looking at a false reading. A ghost.”

“Did you clear the system and confirm operational consistency?”

“Sir, the system has been checked. We are in parameters for precision and accuracy. The system is working. We are at four satellites in theatre, all reading operational. There are absolutely no indications of an error of any kind.”

“But you feel this is a ghost reading, Slava? Why?”

“Sir, there is no visual confirmation. No plumes. And the launches are clustered at silos in the north-central region. And why launch only five missiles? If you want to provoke a land war, wouldn’t you do so conventionally? If this were a thermonuclear engagement, I would send a complete volley and incapacitate my enemy.”

“Very good, Slava. I agree. I will contact the Secretary General. Contact me if any more launches are confirmed, or if there is a change of status on the inbound readings. I will be calling in eight minutes to monitor the over-the-horizon readings, if there are no changes.”

The two men hung up. Ustanov felt secure in the knowledge that he had a good man, an intelligent man at the command desk. Petrov had been presented a horrible wealth of information and had logically worked through it to come to a reasonable conclusion. Just the same, Ustanov had an obligation to keep Yuri Vladimirovich apprised of this information.

About the Author

Lawrence Lichtenfeld

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I have been a professional writer for 26 years. I graduated from the University of South Carolina with a BA in English. I had a very close relationship with William Price Fox for many, many years after graduation. As my mentor, Bill introduced me to James Dickey and Kurt Vonnegut, with whom I had the opportunity to workshop and develop my craft. I would spend many years working as a technical writer and editor for key government agencies like DHS, VA and the US Army during two and a half decades, but in 2016, a couple of years after Bill Fox's death, I decided to go back to school and get the MFA he had wanted me to pursue so many years earlier. I have spent the last four years shifting gears and refocusing my energies on developing my fiction skills. I have worked closely with David Grand, Eliot Schrefer, Rebecca Chace and HL Hix on my craft, and have developed my clean, detailed style. When not writing fiction, I teach English composition at a couple of local colleges.