Progress Report - Cover

Progress Report

by Mark Clifton

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Progress is relative; Senator O'Noonan's idea of it was not particularly scientific. Which would be too bad, if he had the last word!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

It seemed to Colonel Jennings that the air conditioning unit merely washed the hot air around him without lowering the temperature from that outside. He knew it was partly psychosomatic, compounded of the view of the silvery spire of the test ship through the heatwaves of the Nevada landscape and the knowledge that this was the day, the hour, and the minutes.

The final test was at hand. The instrument ship was to be sent out into space, controlled from this sunken concrete bunker, to find out if the flimsy bodies of men could endure there.

Jennings visualized other bunkers scattered through the area, observation posts, and farther away the field headquarters with open telephone lines to the Pentagon, and beyond that a world waiting for news of the test--and not everyone wishing it well.

The monotonous buzz of the field phone pulled him away from his fascinated gaze at the periscope slit. He glanced at his two assistants, Professor Stein and Major Eddy. They were seated in front of their control boards, staring at the blank eyes of their radar screens, patiently enduring the beads of sweat on their faces and necks and hands, the odor of it arising from their bodies. They too were feeling the moment. He picked up the phone.

“Jennings,” he said crisply.

“Zero minus one half hour, Colonel. We start alert count in fifteen minutes.”

“Right,” Colonel Jennings spoke softly, showing none of the excitement he felt. He replaced the field phone on its hook and spoke to the two men in front of him.

“This is it. Apparently this time we’ll go through with it.”

Major Eddy’s shoulders hunched a trifle, as if he were getting set to have a load placed upon them.

Professor Stein gave no indication that he had heard. His thin body was stooped over his instrument bank, intense, alert, as if he were a runner crouched at the starting mark, as if he were young again.

Colonel Jennings walked over to the periscope slit again and peered through the shimmer of heat to where the silvery ship lay arrowed in her cradle. The last few moments of waiting, with a brassy taste in his mouth, with the vision of the test ship before him; these were the worst.

Everything had been done, checked and rechecked hours and days ago. He found himself wishing there were some little thing, some desperate little error which must be corrected hurriedly, just something to break the tension of waiting.

“You’re all right, Sam, Prof?” he asked the major and professor unnecessarily.

“A little nervous,” Major Eddy answered without moving.

“Of course,” Professor Stein said. There was a too heavy stress on the sibilant sound, as if the last traces of accent had not yet been removed.

“I expect everyone is nervous, not just the hundreds involved in this, but everywhere,” Jennings commented. And then ruefully, “Except Professor Stein there. I thought surely I’d see some nerves at this point, Prof.” He was attempting to make light conversation, something to break the strain of mounting buck fever.

“If I let even one nerve tendril slack, Colonel, I would go to pieces entirely,” Stein said precisely, in the way a man speaks who has learned the language from text books. “So I do not think of our ship at all. I think of mankind. I wonder if mankind is as ready as our ship. I wonder if man will do any better on the planets than he has done here.”

“Well, of course,” Colonel Jennings answered with sympathy in his voice, “under Hitler and all the things you went through, I don’t blame you for being a little bitter. But not all mankind is like that, you know. As long as you’ve been in our country, Professor, you’ve never looked around you. You’ve been working on this, never lifting your head...”

He jerked in annoyance as a red light blinked over the emergency circuit, and a buzzing, sharp and repeated, broke into this moment when he felt he was actually reaching, touching Stein, as no one had before.

He dragged the phone toward him and began speaking angrily into its mouthpiece before he had brought it to his lips.

“What the hell’s the matter now? They’re not going to call it off again! Three times now, and...”

He broke off and frowned as the crackling voice came through the receiver, the vein on his temple pulsing in his stress.

“I beg your pardon, General,” he said, much more quietly.

The two men turned from their radar scopes and watched him questioningly. He shrugged his shoulders, an indication to them of his helplessness.

“You’re not going to like this, Jim,” the general was saying. “But it’s orders from Pentagon. Are you familiar with Senator O’Noonan?”

“Vaguely,” Jennings answered.

“You’ll be more familiar with him, Jim. He’s been newly appointed chairman of the appropriations committee covering our work. And he’s fought it bitterly from the beginning. He’s tried every way he could to scrap the entire project. When we’ve finished this test, Jim, we’ll have used up our appropriations to date. Whether we get any more depends on him.”

“Yes, sir?” Jennings spoke questioningly. Political maneuvering was not his problem, that was between Pentagon and Congress.

“We must have his support, Jim,” the general explained. “Pentagon hasn’t been able to win him over. He’s stubborn and violent in his reactions. The fact it keeps him in the headlines--well, of course that wouldn’t have any bearing. So Pentagon invited him to come to the field here to watch the test, hoping that would win him over.” The general hesitated, then continued.

“I’ve gone a step farther. I felt if he was actually at the center of control, your operation, he might be won over. If he could actually participate, press the activating key or something, if the headlines could show he was working with us, actually sent the test ship on its flight...”

“General, you can’t,” Jennings moaned. He forgot rank, everything.

“I’ve already done it, Jim,” the general chose to ignore the outburst. “He’s due there now. I’ll look to you to handle it. He’s got to be won over, Colonel. It’s your project.” Considering the years that he and the general had worked together, the warm accord and informality between them, the use of Jennings’ title made it an order.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“Over,” said the general formally.

“Out,” whispered Jennings.

The two men looked at him questioningly.

“It seems,” he answered their look, “we are to have an observer. Senator O’Noonan.”

“Even in Germany,” Professor Stein said quietly, “they knew enough to leave us alone at a critical moment.”

“He can’t do it, Jim,” Major Eddy looked at Jennings with pleading eyes.

“Oh, but he can,” Jennings answered bitterly. “Orders. And you know what orders are, don’t you, Major?”

“Yes, sir,” Major Eddy said stiffly.

Professor Stein smiled ruefully.

Both of them turned back to their instrument boards, their radar screens, to the protective obscurity of subordinates carrying out an assignment. They were no longer three men coming close together, almost understanding one another in this moment of waiting, when the world and all in it had been shut away, and nothing real existed except the silvery spire out there on the desert and the life of it in the controls at their fingertips.

“Beep, minus fifteen minutes!” the first time signal sounded.

“Colonel Jennings, sir!”

The senator appeared in the low doorway and extended a fleshy hand. His voice was hearty, but there was no warmth behind his tones. He paused on the threshold, bulky, impressive, as if he were about to deliver an address. But Jennings, while shaking hands, drew him into the bunker, pointedly, causing the senator to raise bushy eyebrows and stare at him speculatively.

“At this point everything runs on a split second basis, Senator,” he said crisply. “Ceremony comes after the test.” His implication was that when the work was done, the senator could have his turn in the limelight, take all the credit, turn it into political fodder to be thrown to the people. But because the man was chairman of the appropriations committee, he softened his abruptness. “If the timing is off even a small fraction, Senator, we would have to scrap the flight and start all over.”

“At additional expense, no doubt.” The senator could also be crisp. “Surprises me that the military should think of that, however.”

The closing of the heavy doors behind him punctuated his remark and caused him to step to the center of the bunker. Where there had seemed adequate room before, now the feeling was one of oppressive overcrowding.

Unconsciously, Major Eddy squared his elbows as if to clear the space around him for the manipulation of his controls. Professor Stein sat at his radar screen, quiet, immobile, a part of the mechanisms. He was accustomed to overbearing authority whatever political tag it might wear at the moment.

“Beep. Eleven minutes,” the signal sounded.

“Perhaps you’ll be good enough to brief me on just what you’re doing here?” the senator asked, and implied by the tone of his voice that it couldn’t be very much. “In layman’s language, Colonel. Don’t try to make it impressive with technical obscurities. I want my progress report on this project to be understandable to everyone.”

Jennings looked at him in dismay. Was the man kidding him? Explain the zenith of science, the culmination of the dreams of man in twenty simple words or less! And about ten minutes to win over a man which the Pentagon had failed to win.

“Perhaps you’d like to sit here, Senator,” he said courteously. “When we learned you were coming, we felt yours should be the honor. At zero time, you press this key--here. It will be your hand which sends the test ship out into space.”

Apparently they were safe. The senator knew so little, he did not realize the automatic switch would close with the zero time signal, that no hand could be trusted to press the key at precisely the right time, that the senator’s key was a dummy.

“Beep, ten,” the signal came through.

Jennings went back over to the periscope and peered through the slit. He felt strangely surprised to see the silver column of the ship still there. The calm, the scientific detachment, the warm thrill of co-ordinated effort, all were gone. He felt as if the test flight itself was secondary to what the senator thought about it, what he would say in his progress report.

He wondered if the senator’s progress report would compare in any particular with the one on the ship. That was a chart, representing as far as they could tell, the minimum and maximum tolerances of human life. If the multiple needles, tracing their continuous lines, went over the black boundaries of tolerances, human beings would die at that point. Such a progress report, showing the life-sustaining conditions at each point throughout the ship’s flight, would have some meaning. He wondered what meaning the senator’s progress report would have.

He felt himself being pushed aside from the periscope. There was no ungentleness in the push, simply the determined pressure of an arrogant man who was accustomed to being in the center of things, and thinking nothing of shoving to get there. The senator gave him the briefest of explanatory looks, and placed his own eye at the periscope slit.

“Beep, nine,” the signal sounded.

“So that’s what represents two billion dollars,” the senator said contemptuously. “That little sliver of metal.”

“The two billion dollar atomic bomb was even smaller,” Jennings said quietly.

The senator took his eye away from the periscope briefly and looked at Jennings speculatively.

“The story of where all that money went still hasn’t been told,” he said pointedly. “But the story of who got away with this two billion will be different.”

Colonel Jennings said nothing. The white hot rage mounting within him made it impossible for him to speak.

The senator straightened up and walked back over to his chair. He waved a hand in the direction of Major Eddy.

“What does that man do?” he asked, as if the major were not present, or was unable to comprehend.

“Major Eddy,” Jennings found control of his voice, “operates remote control.” He was trying to reduce the vast complexity of the operation to the simplest possible language.

“Beep, eight,” the signal interrupted him.

“He will guide the ship throughout its entire flight, just as if he were sitting in it.”

“Why isn’t he sitting in it?” the senator asked.

“That’s what the test is for, Senator.” Jennings felt his voice becoming icy. “We don’t know if space will permit human life. We don’t know what’s out there.”

“Best way to find out is for a man to go out there and see,” the senator commented shortly. “I want to find out something, I go look at it myself. I don’t depend on charts and graphs, and folderol.”

The major did not even hunch his broad shoulders, a characteristic gesture, to show that he had heard, to show that he wished the senator was out there in untested space.

“What about him? He’s not even in uniform!”

“Professor Stein maintains sight contact on the scope and transmits the IFF pulse.”

The senator’s eyes flashed again beneath heavy brows. His lips indicated what he thought of professors and projects who used them.

“What’s IFF?” he asked.

The colonel looked at him incredulously. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask where the man had been during the war. He decided he’d better not ask it. He might learn.

“It stands for Identification--Friend or Foe, Senator. It’s army jargon.”

“Beep, seven.”

Seven minutes, Jennings thought, _and here I am trying to explain the culmination of the entire science of all mankind to a lardbrain in simple kindergarten words_. Well, he’d wished there was something to break the tension of the last half hour, keep him occupied. He had it.

“You mean the army wouldn’t know, after the ship got up, whether it was ours or the enemy’s?” the senator asked incredulously.

“There are meteors in space, Senator,” Jennings said carefully. “Radar contact is all we’ll have out there. The IFF mechanism reconverts our beam to a predetermined pulse, and it bounces back to us in a different pattern. That’s the only way we’d know if we were still on the ship, or have by chance fastened on to a meteor.”

“What has that got to do with the enemy?” O’Noonan asked uncomprehendingly.

Jennings sighed, almost audibly.

“The mechanism was developed during the war, when we didn’t know which planes were ours and which the enemy’s. We’ve simply adapted it to this use--to save money, Senator.”

“Humph!” the senator expressed his disbelief. “Too complicated. The world has grown too complicated.”

“Beep, six.”

The senator glanced irritably at the time speaker. It had interrupted his speech. But he chose to ignore the interruption, that was the way to handle heckling.

“I am a simple man. I come from simple parentage. I represent the simple people, the common people, the people with their feet on the ground. And the whole world needs to get back to the simple truths and honesties...”

Jennings headed off the campaign speech which might appeal to the mountaineers of the senator’s home state, where a man’s accomplishments were judged by how far he could spit tobacco juice; it had little application in this bunker where the final test before the flight of man to the stars was being tried.

“To us, Senator,” he said gently, “this ship represents simple truths and honesties. We are, at this moment, testing the truths of all that mankind has ever thought of, theorized about, believed of the space which surrounds the Earth. A farmer may hear about new methods of growing crops, but the only way he knows whether they’re practical or not is to try them on his own land.”

The senator looked at him impassively. Jennings didn’t know whether he was going over or not. But he was trying.

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