I arrived at the secret RAF base somewhere in the heart of England, on a rainy evening in December. The guard looked at my NUJ press permit as my 911 purred at the checkpoint. I surveyed the tall barbed wire high-security electric fences both sides and the giant, hard metal gate ahead. No red and white poles across the gate here, I thought.
“You can’t come in,” said the guard from behind his riot helmet. “We’re on full security lockdown.”
“I know, pre-launch Red Alert lockdown,” I replied. “Air Chief Marshal Strickland will see me.” I was unable to see his face through the riot mask and the heavy armour gave no clue as to his body language.
“I’m sorry but you have to leave,” he said, his hand resting on the holster at his hip.
“Strickland is going to be very cross if you turn me away. We are personal friends.”
The guard was quiet for a moment. I could detect the slightest misgivings: no guard would want to upset Air Chief Marshal Strickland. “Wait there, sir,” he said and returned to the concrete guard box. For a moment I was unable to see him but he returned quickly. “Ok, sir, you are clear to enter.” There was a clanking of bolts and the great security gate started to open.
I drove through and parked the 911 by the low grey bunker. Usually, I would have been escorted but now there was not a soul to be seen. Rain lashed across the old airfield. The heavy clouds hid the moon and the lack of lighting made the dark bunker seem all the more foreboding.
I crossed quickly to the heavy door. There was no shelter here from the rain. I held my hand over my head, stupidly. I had expected someone to be waiting for me. There was no way to alert those inside. No doorbell on a high-security bunker.
I stood wondering what to do when I heard the tiniest noise from the great slab of the door. Then the bolts thumped back and the door started to hum open on electric motors. Gradually the space beyond was revealed. Fluorescent light spilt out. A figure stood inside.
The figure was not what I had been expecting during a high-security lockdown. He wore a white lab coat, held a clipboard and perched on his face were almost comical bottle top glasses. A perfect example of a scientist, I thought.
“Hello,” he said. “Strickland sent me along to get you. I’m Rupert Feynman, hum, Professor. I’m Chief Scientist for Project Icarus.” He held out his hand.
Feynman and I walked along the dim concrete corridors. I asked him about the project. He stopped and turned to look at me, gripping his clipboard. For a few moments he was unable to speak, clearly an inner struggle was happening. “I really shouldn’t say this,” he finally ground out, “but they are crazy. Strickland, the World President, Project Icarus, it’s complete madness.” Then he went quiet and a worried frown suggested he thought he’d said too much.
“Anything you say to me will be in strictest confidence.”
“Oh yeah, you and your readership.”
“I don’t care anymore,” he said recklessly. “I’ve been locked up alone with Strickland and it’s driving me mad.”
“What about the World President?”
“Yes, they are constantly talking over video conference.”
“The World President is still in America?”
“Yes, he’s in the White Towers, I-”
The Tannoy boomed, cutting him off. I recognised Strickland’s voice. “Will Professor Feynman and the visitor report to me immediately?”
Feynman turned his anguished eyes to me. “We’d better hurry.”
The lift dropped like a stone down into the bunker. There were no floor numbers on the control panel, just up and down. My heart was left far behind as we seemed to drop miles into the ground. Finally, it stopped and brought up so quickly that I felt faint. Feynman just stood there unconcerned, with his worried frown; the drop had meant nothing to him.
We hurried along more drab concrete corridors and then arrived at some gold plated doors. Feynman punched a code into a keypad by the side and the doors slid open to reveal a plush office. Strickland was standing behind a fine mahogany desk, staring at us.
“About time too,” she said. “You’re late.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Security wouldn’t let me in.”
“Don’t make excuses. I needed you here.”
“It won’t happen again.”
“No, it won’t.”
Little did I know then how prophetic this was.
Strickland wore an RAF uniform with a row of ribbons on her chest. The Air Chief Marshal uniform left one in no doubt as to how important she was. Her desk was amazingly clear; in fact, there was nothing on it at all. The right-hand wall contained a huge screen. The main picture was of another desk, which I recognised as the World President’s desk, empty. There were also three floating video feed windows. One showed the vast Project Icarus silo, the second the Project Icarus spacecraft command cockpit and the third was from the screen’s own webcam showing the office we stood in. On the cockpit feed there were several space pilots engaged in launch preparations. On our feed: we three looking at the screen. I looked again at the silo feed; vast space rockets ranged underground as far as the eye could see.
Strickland turned to me and saw my gaze resting on the screen. “Project Icarus: the greatest project known to humankind,” she said.
Feynman stirred and looked from me to the screen, to Strickland and back to me. His mouth opened and closed a few times as if he desperately wanted to say something but dare not. I said it for him.
“I have heard that Project Icarus could be our biggest folly ever.” I felt Feynman stiffen; the atmosphere in the room became brittle.
“Nonsense!” she spat. “You know the World President’s stance ‘There are no problems.’ This is what we live by.”
“I have heard,” I persisted, “that the launch of Project Icarus could be humankind’s ultimate blunder. Catastrophic environmental repercussions; everyone knows the World President’s views on the environment. The experimental and untested fuel, who knows what it could do?”
“Enough. I have brought you here to report on the launch, not to question it. Project Icarus is in line with policy. We are reaching for the stars, not pandering to these unfounded environmental concerns. There are no problems. Deep space exploration is the most important mission to humankind.”
At that moment a different voice entered the room. Strickland looked at the big screen. The World President was sitting in his chair. “There are no problems I hope, Strickland?”
“No sir, the launch is going ahead as planned. There are no problems.”
“Good, I would hate to think anyone was stupid enough to think Project Icarus wasn’t mankind’s ultimate undertaking.” He raised both of his thumbs, his favourite gesture.
“Of course not, Mr President,” said Strickland.
The President kept his eyes on Strickland, ignoring us completely. “How long until launch countdown?”
“Whenever you are ready, Mr President.”
“Good. Now is the moment.” There was a launch panel on his desk and the President turned to it.
“Mr President,” I said. Strickland and Feynman turned to me in horror but the President carried on as if he had heard nothing. “Please, Mr President, this is-”
Pain shot through my body and I went completely rigid. I was unable to talk. My muscles spasmed wildly. Vaguely I was aware of seeing the President pressing the launch button. Then the pain stopped and I dropped to the floor. Feynman tried to catch me.
“T minus five minutes,” boomed a robotic voice.
Feynman lowered me onto a soft couch. My body ached unbearably. He pulled the darts from under my chest connected to the wires from the TASER that Strickland had now put down on the desk. “It’s too late,” he said. “The launch countdown has started. Strickland TASERED you to shut you up.”
“Can’t you do something? You are the chief scientist.”
“There are no problems,” he said, a glazed look on his face.
“Come on man, that’s not what you said to me before.”
He looked down at me, his magnified eyes blinking like a confused owl. Strickland and the President were talking excitedly over the video link. Feynman looked at the screen and Strickland and to me.
“Isn’t there a way to override the launch?” I persisted.
“Yes, yes there is. I’ll be hard pushed to get there in time.”
“This isn’t about you and me, Feynman. Humankind, all life is at stake. It’s in your hands.”
He looked at me a moment longer, then quite suddenly seemed to arrive at a decision and left through the gold plated doors without a word. Strickland snatched a glance to the doors as they thumped closed, then turned back to the President.
“Don’t worry about him,” she said. “He can’t do anything.”
“There are no problems,” he returned.
“There are problems,” I said. They both ignored me.
Despite her dismissive attitude to Feynman, Strickland switched on another insert on her screen. This showed Feynman hurrying down a series of corridors over the security cameras. The feed tracked him.
“T minus four minutes.”
Gradually my senses were coming back. I kept an eye on Strickland, as I wanted to avoid another TASER shock.
“This is insane.”
Strickland turned to me. “You are here to report, not comment.”
“Report on what? The end of the world?”
“It’s not the end, it’s a new beginning. The stars are our destiny!”
I watched the screen. Feynman was running to the launch silo. The astronauts were busy with launch preparation and strapping in one by one. Smoke was building in the great launch silo. The President sat there holding his thumbs up as he watched his own video feeds.
“Strickland, we’re all going to die.”
“Nonsense, there are no problems.”
I sat up on the couch and looked closely at the screen.
“T minus three minutes.”
Feynman had reached the door to the rocket silo and was fiddling with the keypad. Strickland watched intently. The astronauts all sat immobile in their seats. The President continued to hold up his thumbs as if he could hold the pose all day. Flames started to lick from the bottom of the great rockets. I felt the floor start to shudder.
“Strickland,” I said, standing shakily.
“T minus two minutes.”
Feynman had opened the door and was clearly shocked by the heat coming from the silo. He ran to a control panel and started to press buttons. Strickland, the President and the astronauts were all immobile like dummies.
“Project Icarus will incinerate the Earth,” I said desperately, now the panic seized me.
“T minus one minute.”
Flames started to fill the silo and Feynman battled with the control panel; he looked very hot.
“T minus thirty seconds.”
Finally I knew then that this was the end and that I was going to die. I looked at the feed on the screen but the walls had started to shake and I had to sit down or fall down. The screen looked blurred. I could no longer tell what anyone was doing. Everything felt hot. My head was thundering. Everything was shaking and bending and melting. Everything looked blurred.
I hoped Feynman was still going to stop it. I hoped he hadn’t burnt to death already.
I hoped that nine seconds was enough to save the earth.
I really couldn’t tell what seconds were anymore.
This is from my book Project Icarus and Other Stories