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Progress Report   By:

Progress Report by Alex Apostolides

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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!

Progress Report

By Mark Clifton and Alex Apostolides

Illustrated by PAUL ORBAN

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.

[Illustration]

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... Continue reading book >>




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