The long count-down began at precisely twelve noon on January 18th, and from that instant strict radio silence was observed. MacClennon at the eastern peninsula of the island threw the master switch that started the giant Agnes reactor on its slow warm-up to critical temperature. In the technical control room Miss Kinley synchronized the slave clocks with the master chronometer. Beyond the lagoon, on a flat spur of gray volcanic rock buttressed by new concrete, the slender, gleaming nose of the rocket projected purposefully from the massive steel lattice of the service gantry. It was another of those hot, still days: the weather had held steady for more than a week, and the drab surface of the atoll throbbed in the incessant sunglare. The meteorological reports had been optimistic--the barometer was high and would stay high for at least three days. For the first time in more than ten weeks of waiting, conditions were right for the count-down.
After he had taken the scheduled cine shots of the starting of the reactor, Russell Farrant packed his photographic equipment into the jeep and drove to the summit of the hill to the south of the lagoon. The track was rough, but bulldozers had smoothed out most of the jaggedness. There were trees up here--a few palms and stunted dark-green shrubs with leathery foliage, and tangled undergrowth--but on the dry slopes of the hill even the tough, spindly grass failed to thrive; here and there it struggled stubbornly for survival in the dust-covered volcanic terrain. Come the rains, Farrant thought, and the stuff will spread overnight like a fungus--but right now the atoll was a baked monochrome wilderness. It could have been the floor of hell.
He picked up the 16-millimeter cine camera and swung the lens turret. Wide-angle for this job, then telephoto later. No need to use a light meter--the light hadn't
changed for weeks. From here he could see the entire domestic camp, with its dural and asbestos huts, and across the lagoon the rocket-launching pad, and around it, protruding from the ground and into the glowing sky, the gaunt trellis towers that supported the television cameras. The scene trembled in the heat, and that would register on the film--but it couldn't be helped. Color film, of course--all shooting on Kaluiki had to be in color. There was little enough color to register when it came to the point, if one discounted the intense blue of the lagoon and the luminous gun-metal hue of the sky, but the government regarded color as an additional channel of technical information, and every scrap of information on this project was vital. In seventy-two hours color might be very important.
He adjusted the focus and range on the lens mounting and took four longshots, then swung the telephoto lens into place and made a slow panning shot that took in the entire panorama. Kaluiki atoll at zero minus seventy-two, he recited mentally, anticipating the tape-recorded commentary that would eventually be dubbed on to the film. On the surface, silent inactivity, but in the small gray huts, mounting human tension. Under this burning sun and on this desiccated soil the clocks are methodically ticking off the seconds to operational zero. The machines are waiting, and men and women are waiting, and the world... But that wasn't true. The world was beyond an impenetrable security blanket, and as yet Kaluiki was a meaningless word, though in three days it might be destined to take its place in the vocabulary of mankind.
He completed the panning shot and placed the camera carefully in the back of the jeep. Stills were next on the program. For a few minutes he busied himself with a press camera and a color film pack. So much for the long-shots. Now to move in closer for what they called in movie jargon midshots. He trundled down the hill track in the jeep. Hell, he thought, this is the first serious work I've done since I came to the island. Thank God for the count-down. At last I'm earning my salary.
Step by step he closed in on the camp, but skirted it finally, and transferred his attention to the rocket-launching site. This was the impersonal stuff--scenery, huts, things. In due course would come the human-interest angle. The people of Kaluiki, the scientists, on and off duty. Footage didn't matter: there was more than enough film in the stores hut to shoot a couple of first-feature movies. Authority had been generous in framing his terms of reference. "Farrant," General Douglas had said in that small chrome and white office in Washington, "this is history in the making. The Kaluiki project may well be the most important event of the century--in the evolution of mankind. Your job is to record it, using every medium at your disposal. Visually, on the cine and still cameras. In terms of sound, on the tape recorder. And in the black and white printed word, on your typewriter. It has to be a complete record--too complete, if it comes to the point. We can cut and edit later. Just make sure you miss nothing."
Later the general had added, kindly: "We selected you for this assignment, Farrant, because we consider you to be the most competent journalist-cum-photographer in the Western Hemisphere today. We could have picked a team, sure... but on a mission of this kind, where top-level security is involved, we try to keep the personnel involved down to the irreducible minimum. So we have to be happy with one man--with you."
Farrant grinned wryly to himself. Somehow I'm not aware of any special feeling of responsibility, he thought. In the long run, whatever the assignment, a man does his job in the way he's accustomed to do it, within the framework of his training and experience. What does it mean, this role of observer, when you get down to fundamentals? The living eyewitness, extended beyond the limits of his own senses with the aid of mechanical and electronic devices such as cameras and tape recorders. The history of the Kaluiki project will be the Russ Farrant view of things, supplemented by color films and audio tapes--an objective appraisal of events in time and space. But it goes deeper than that, deep into the complexities of modern science, and the even greater complexities of the human mind. The tall, gleaming projectile standing silently within the steel mesh of the gantry is no more than the end product of mental teamwork, and when it comes to the point the team is more important than the product, just as the creator is more important than the creation. All of them here, on Kaluiki: Strang, Hoevler, Earl, MacClennon, Youd, and the two women, Kay Kin-ley and Hilde Bartok. They were the Kaluiki project. Without them there would be no Agnes reactor and no test projectile, and no official observer toting cameras in tropical heat, sweating from day to day on canned food and whisky.
Three more days, Farrant promised himself. After months of waiting it is almost as if the world has come abruptly to an end. Sure, it will be fine to get back to civilization, but somehow you get used to conditions, and you get to like people, and you get to have strange feelings about a beautiful woman--well, maybe not beautiful in the classical sense, but attractive and poised and personable. That was Kay Kinley, of course--the clever, impersonal Kay--so close, yet so remote.
He completed the scheduled midshots, moving beyond the launching pad to the dull metal planking of the airstrip where the Navy helicopter stood hot and motionless in the sun. Obviously Lieutenant Frieberg and Sergeant Gant were still around, probably in the canteen, drinking brandy after a routine lunch out of the ration crates. Suddenly he felt hungry and thirsty. He stowed the cameras in the jeep and returned to the domestic camp.
There were half a dozen people in the canteen, including Frieberg and Gant, sitting on steel and canvas chairs around the small folding tables. Strang was eating stew with a fork, abstractedly, like a robot, his dark hair drooping limply over his saturnine face. The others had reached the drinking phase--whiskies and brandies from the appearance of the glasses--and George Earl was blandly smoking a pipe. Farrant responded to perfunctory greetings, making his way towards the hot plate. As he reached it, Miss Kinley, looking outrageously cool in a white overall, materialized from the left.
"Hello, Russ," she said. "They've got you working at last?"
"You like M and V?"
"I'd prefer it iced."
"It's better hot. Makes you cooler quicker." She served him from the large tureen and followed him across to a corner table. He ate for a while in a desultory manner while she smoked.
"Anything new?" he enquired.
"Should there be? The count-down is two hours old."
"MacClennon is still over there. According to the figures everything is dead on prediction."
He toyed with the stew for a moment, then pushed the plate away from him.
"What's the trouble, Russ? Excitement getting you down?"
He shaped his lips into a sardonic smile. "What excitement? A one-hour count-down, yes. Even ten hours. But three days. That's stretching things somewhat."
She smiled. "There's a reason for everything. Certain operations have to be carried out at prearranged times. Warming up the reactor is a three-day process, and there are more than a hundred pre-zero tests to be carried out."
"Maybe after three months I'm getting impatient. Once I get the feel of the camera I hate to let up."
"Once the Navy boys have left the pace will increase."
"When will that be?"
"Zero minus sixty-nine."
He performed the inevitable computation. "Three o'clock. And then...?"
"And then it's all ours. No contact with the rest of the world until after zero."
"Maybe not even then..."
She shrugged, and extinguished her cigarette in the ashtray. "It's a calculated risk." Then, inconsequentially: "Ice cream?"
He shook his head. "It wouldn't blend with .M and V. Just coffee, I think, Kay."
She left the table and walked over to the mess range to pour coffee. He lit a cigarette, and in the same moment Lieutenant Frieberg appeared and flopped heavily into the vacated chair. Farrant found himself vaguely resenting the intrusion. Frieberg's pink, boyish face and blond wavy hair seemed insolently glamorous in the austere environment of the canteen, and his immaculate white uniform was slightly ostentatious. He might have stepped out of a Hollywood movie, straight from the wardrobe and make-up department. He was perspiring enough to glisten, and smoking a cigar with an irritating blase air.
"Hi, Farrant," Frieberg pronounced affably. "Just the man I wanted to see."
Not mutual, Farrant thought, but what the hell. Another hour and you'll be on your way.
"Figured you'd want to get the Navy into your technicolor epic, just to keep the record straight. Way I see it you can shoot the take-off in the helicopter, but naturally we could use some close-ups."
"Why not," Farrant agreed reluctantly.
Frieberg glanced at his gold wristwatch. "And there's time for a tape interview, too. I guess there are plenty of questions you could ask."
"What's the time?" Farrant asked.
"Fourteen-eight. Maybe you could work Sergeant Gant into the act, too?"
"Probably," said Farrant.
"We've had a great deal of liaison with you boys," Frieberg went on loquaciously. "And girls," he added, glancing at Miss Kinley, who was returning from the range with two coffees. "Inside the hour... well, I guess our part of the assignment is finished, but I'd like to feel we had a permanent place in the records."
"As soon as I've finished coffee I'll fix you up," Farrant said.
Frieberg eyed Miss Kinley with unveiled admiration as she put the coffee cups on the table, then stood up, relinquishing his seat to her. "The toughest part of this count-down is not seeing you for three days, Kay," he said.
"It's a hard life for the Navy," she murmured laconically.