I arrived at the secret RAF base deep in the heart of England, on a rainy evening in deep winter. The guard looked at my journalist 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 here,” said the guard from behind his riot helmet. “We are on full security lockdown Red Alert.”
“I know, pre-launch Red Alert lockdown,” I returned. “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 I’ll have to tell you to leave,” he said, with 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 heavy concrete guard box. I was unable to see him briefly but he returned quickly. “Ok, sir, you are clear to enter.” Straight away, 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. As I got out, 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 clanged back and it started to hum open on electric motors. Gradually I saw into the space beyond. Fluorescent light spilt out. A figure stood inside.
The figure was not what I had been expecting. He wore a white lab coat, held a clipboard and perched on his face were almost comical bottle top glasses. He looked exactly what I expected he was, a scientist.
“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 anguished eyes to me, gripping his clipboard. For a few moments he was unable to speak, clearly an inner struggle was happening behind those spectacles. “I really shouldn’t say this,” he finally ground out, “but they are crazy. Strickland, the World President, project Icarus is complete madness.” Then he went quiet, the fear on his face 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 the abandon. “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 out cutting him off, it was Strickland’s voice. “Will Professor Feynman and the visitor report to me immediately.”
Feynman turned his anguished spectacle eyes to me. “We’d better hurry.”
We rushed along the corridor to some lift doors. 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 down miles into the ground. Finally, the lift stopped falling and brought up so quickly that I felt faint. Feynman just stood there with a concerned look on his face; the drop had meant nothing to him. We hurried along more drab concrete corridors. Then we arrived at some gold plated doors. Feynman punched a code into a keypad by the side. They 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, security wouldn’t let me in.”
“Don’t make excuses. I needed you here.”
“It won’t happen again.”
“No, it won’t,” she said.
Little did I know then how prophetic this reply was to become.
Strickland wore a smart RAF uniform and 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 picture was of another desk, I recognised it as the World President’s desk. There were three floating insert pictures on the screen. One showed the Project Icarus silo, the other a spacecraft cockpit and the third was a feed from our own webcam. On the cockpit feed there were several space pilots engaged in launch preparations. On our feed was us three gawping at the screen.
Strickland saw my eyes resting on the screen. “Project Icarus, the greatest project known the human kind,” she said with pride.
Feynman stirred and looked from me to the screen, to Strickland and back. His mouth flapped open 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 resumed, “that the launch of Project Icarus could be humankind’s biggest blunder. A catastrophic environmental repercussion; everyone knows the World President’s views on the environment.”
“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 nannying to these unfounded environmental concerns. There are no problems.”
At that moment a different voice entered the room. Strickland looked to 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.”
“Good, I would hate to think anyone was stupid enough to think Project Icarus wasn’t the destiny of mankind.” He raised both of his thumbs, his favourite expression.
“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-” Strickland had walked around her desk and coshed me around the head with her revolver. My world went black.
I was out for only a short while. The first thing I became aware of was Feynman lowering me down onto a soft couch. My head ached unbearably.
“It’s too late,” he said. “The launch countdown has started.
“Can’t you do something? You are the chief scientist.”
“T minus five minutes,” boomed a robotic voice.
“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 on 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 on earth is at stake. It’s in your hands.”
He looked at me a moment longer, then quite suddenly he 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 attitude to Feynman, Strickland switched on another insert on her screen. This showed Feynman hurrying down a corridor over the security cameras. The feed tracked him on his journey.
“T minus four minutes.”
Gradually my senses were coming back. I kept an eye on Strickland, as I wanted to avoid another beating. “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 is a new beginning.”
I watched the screen. Feynman was now running to the launch silo. The astronauts were busy with launch preparation and one by one strapping in. 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.
“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.”
I knew then that this was the end and that I was finally 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. 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 nine seconds was anymore.