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The Great Project

by Lynn Mann

The intern and his supervisor worked feverishly, adjusting knobs and dials and checking times to the nano-second. Everything had to be perfect. This would be the culmination of two years of planning and research, and, if all went well, their project could be extended indefinitely.

Although they couldn’t be said to be friends, they had worked together long enough that minimal words were necessary. Each was entirely aware of the effect the next few minutes would have on his life and career. Both felt the pressure, the delicate balance between impending doom and utter exhilaration.

Finally there were no more adjustments possible, now all they could do was wait. The military had given their best projection of when the enemy’s probe would clear the horizon and be within viewing range of the city.

* * *

“And that we cannot allow,” the General stated with full authority. “Shooting down their probes has only encouraged them to try again. This time we’ll give them what they want.”

The junior officers and civilians in the room looked puzzled, but the intern was almost bouncing with excitement — he knew what was coming, he had been part of it almost from the start, and many of his innovations had been incorporated into the plan. It was heady stuff for a kid just starting out. Too bad he could never tell anyone what he’d done.

The General ceded the floor to the intern’s Department Head, who explained their plan. “The last time we shot their probe down we made sure not to destroy it. We studied it, and by extension its builders, so we could anticipate their next move.

“Obviously these people aren’t going to stop or leave us alone. There doesn’t appear to be any reason behind their aggression, they are simply a war-like, immature culture. We could destroy them, but have, at least for now, chosen a different path.”

A murmur ran around the room. The intern knew of the intense pressure applied by the war lobby, who were tired of these constant annoyances and willing to take “any and all necessary steps” to end them. Luckily, in his opinion, common sense had prevailed.

“From studying the last probe we learned a lot about their technology, which, admittedly, is not too bad, given their current level. Our plan is to seamlessly interrupt their return feed, allowing us to show them the images we want them to see.

“The tricky part will be capturing the probe at the exact instant it enters our atmosphere, without alerting them to what we’ve done, and then switch to our feed without them ever seeing what’s really here.”

Nods all around the room: the outlines of The Plan were beginning to emerge.

“Several years ago, after their last attempt, we began recruiting a cadre of young, talented artists into the Agency. They have spent the intervening years creating the feed our enemies will see, assuming all goes according to plan.”

A few nervous laughs from around the room. The techies were probably the only ones more on edge than the intern and his group.

“And now,” he announced, with a grand flourish of his arm, “here is what our created feed will show them!”

The room darkened and images slowly became visible on the screen. They appeared to be in an airborne craft, looking downward. The craft accelerated, caught by gravitational pull, until it crashed into the ground, cameras still running.

A few of the viewers actually gasped in shock at the impact. The Department Head’s voice continued. “We’ll fast forward here a bit, there’s several hours of this nothing, then we start the real stuff.” The screen split into two viewing areas, each view apparently coming from a low, slow-moving vehicle, whose camera swung in a constant arc, showing the probe receding into the background.

The laughter began, quietly at first, then growing into a great roar of mirth. The Department Head allowed the “footage” to run a few more minutes, then ended the viewing and turned the lights back on.

“Brilliant!” “Do you think they’ll buy it?” “What minds these people have, to come up with this stuff!” All around the room people congratulated the General, the Department Head and their teams on a job well done.

When they were all seated again the General cautioned against too much optimism. “The fliers will do their best to retrieve it unharmed, but in an operation as delicate as this, you can’t count on anything but surprises.”

That said, he looked slowly around the room, meeting the eyes of everyone in it, and suddenly broke into a huge grin. “But if this works — wahoo!” The room collapsed into laugher and the meeting was adjourned.

All the way back to his cubicle the intern couldn’t wipe the grin off his face. If only he could tell someone! They’d pulled off the greatest hoax ever and no one, beyond their small circle, would ever know. Damned confidentiality agreements!

* * *

“Pompous old fool,” the intern thought that first day with the insouciant wisdom of youth, watching his department head stride about the room, propounding on the Vital Importance of their Great Project . That was how he talked, in “quotation marks” and Capital Letters.

He still wasn’t sure about taking this job but his parents had been so excited when the recruiter had first approached him. Okay, to be honest he’d been rather flattered, too. They kept telling him how uniquely suited he was to this Special Project, with his blend of artistic talent and scientific knowledge. He’d already guessed it involved the space program, but how his little animated shorts could help was quite beyond his understanding.

“I’m not a real gear head, you know,” he’d explained, but no one seemed to listen. They just kept putting him in rooms with tests, and giving him forms to sign. It was always the same form, averring that he would never tell anyone anything.

The first time he’d been somewhat intimidated, but after the third or fourth form he just had to laugh. So he signed them. Occasionally he’d follow his father’s injunctions “never sign anything you haven’t read yourself, my boy!” but really... it was all the same.

Sometimes he wondered if the selection process wasn’t deliberately long and excruciatingly boring just to weed out the impatient ones. There’d been this one girl, kinda cute, really, who hadn’t told her parents what she was doing. She just knew they’d have a heart attack or a stroke or something. But the stress had gotten to her, and when the proctors had found out they’d immediately sent her packing.

He’d learned some valuable lessons that day: nothing anyone tells anyone is ever a secret (he wondered if the room was wired, or if another applicant had thought he/she was removing a rival) and that lying about and for the Agency was okay, but not lying to the Agency.

While technically he could still walk away from the entire process, find a real job in the real world, he knew he was hooked. If nothing else he had to see what this Great Project was. Maybe that was the reason behind all the confidentiality forms — to make sure he took the project seriously.

After all, the Agency, not to mention the government units that funded it, weren’t known for their brilliant job performance. What if he burst out laughing when he discovered the actual job they wanted him for? He’d heard tales of people who had washed out late in the process and were never heard from again, disappearing late at night in mysterious black vehicles... nonsense, he was sure, stories used to scare the new kids, but still...

Looking back up at the Department Head he tried to feign interest and excitement. He even began, like the other new interns around him, to tap his keys as if taking notes.

The first approach had been at his senior science fair. He’d created a completely computer animated sequence that looked so much like live footage that everyone thought it was video. Then he played the actual video of the sequence to demonstrate the subtle differences. It was fun, and he’d already begun applying to art and animation schools.

After the science fair was over and he was taking down his display, an overly smooth guy in an expensive suit approached and offered to help. “No thank you,” he declined politely, while making sure there were still other people around.

The man nodded. “Okay, then, we’ll just talk. Is that all right with you?”

“Sure,” he’d mumbled, not making eye contact with the stranger.

“Great!” the stranger over-enthused. “Here, take my card.” He did, glancing at it before tossing it in with all the other science fair junk. “We,” he continued, “were quite impressed by your exhibit here today, and would like to discuss your future, after graduation.”

Eventually the two sat, the recruiter said his piece and gave him a thick binder of papers to look at. “Take these home, look them over, fill them in, and call the number on the card I gave you when you’re ready to talk some more, or if you have any questions about anything, all right?” They shook hands and then he was gone.

When his parents picked him up, he told them about the recruiter’s visit. They were thrilled. The Agency was impressed with their only son’s work! And was trying to recruit him!

At home they looked through the binder, mostly standard forms along with aptitude and spacial relations test, etc. Then they got to the confidentiality agreements. Although they knew who the recruiter represented, they were still taken aback at the severe language and punitive clauses. His father read everything very carefully, twice.

“It looks okay,” he said slowly. “You are required not to discuss anything you learn during the interview and screening process about the Agency and any of its projects, for twenty years from the date of the first interview. And you will be required to sign further confidentiality statements over the course of your career, assuming you are offered a job and you accept.

“Think it over son. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but if you begin this process you must take it seriously. These people don’t fool around.” The young man nodded. “And also know that I, that we,” with a glance at his wife, “are very proud of you. This is truly a special thing, for them to approach you like this.”

And so the process began and even though they constantly reiterated that he could end it any time he wished, he knew he was hooked. He just had to know what this special project was, to which they believed he was so uniquely suited.

He was completely unaware of the discussions his future bosses had held, after seeing his test results.

His future supervisor and the Department Head were reviewing applicant results. A few were on the “yes” pile, some on the “no” and most in the middle, for second and third reviews.

“This boy here,” the supervisor said, “would be absolutely perfect, if the aptitude tests hadn’t revealed that latent perversion. It makes me a bit nervous, having one of those around.”

The Department Head nodded agreement. “I know exactly what you mean, but this is coming from On High.” He motioned with his head towards the Section Chief’s office. “They want that boy.”

“Have they seen the tests?”

“Yes, and they said that the tendencies are still latent and may never manifest. And aside from that, we’re supposed to be More Open And Modern now, and not dump a candidate just for that.”

“Even if he does turn that way?” the supervisor asked, shocked to his conservative core.

“Yes,” the Department Head nodded. “It’s no longer grounds for firing, you know that.”

The supervisor made a disgusted face, but bowed to the inevitable.

* * *

When the true nature of his project was finally revealed the intern did laugh. At first he thought it was a joke, another test. Only it was for real and after meeting his future co-workers he was both impressed with their skills and excited about everything he could learn from them.

On the one hand he would have almost complete artistic freedom and would be working with the best equipment money could buy, some of it not even available yet on the open market; on the other he could not, under any circumstances, discuss his work with anyone outside, ever. As his father had said, these people didn’t fool around. That he believed, without reservation.

He began working long days, well into the nights, sometimes sleeping at the office. He would go into a creative trance and literally not notice the passage of time, until someone forced him to eat or drink or rest for a few hours. He created scenarios, proposed them, defended them.

Frequently his bosses accepted his ideas, sometimes not. He could never anticipate what would please them, so he just pitched every random idea he had. It was a heady, exhilarating experience for one so young and he wished it would never end. He couldn’t help wondering what he would do next. Surely there couldn’t be another project like this?

One day his boss called a meeting and announced the news they’d been both anticipating and dreading: the long-expected probe had been launched and would arrive within the year. Now they had a deadline, one that was irrevocable and unmissable.

Somehow they all worked harder, spending even more time in the labs and conference rooms, sometimes not leaving for days at a time. He knew his parents worried, that he’d lost weight and looked unhealthy, but they never asked him questions he couldn’t answer and for that he was grateful.

* * *

The entire team sat in the video conference room, watching the probe’s approach. There was nothing more they could do, now it was all up to the fliers. They, too, had been practicing for months and it paid off — they snagged the probe on the first run. All eyes in the room were on the General, who had the signal honor of pressing the button that would start, or end, it all.

The intern realized he was holding his breath.

The General had a telephone in one hand as the other hovered over the button. Timing was everything. He had to wait for the techs to confirm they were in control of the feed and everything was synchronized.

His hand hit the button with a meaty slap that reverberated around the still room. No one made a sound. Every second passed with glacial slowness. Then the voice on the phone, loud in the silence, said “We’re go” and the room erupted. Applause, cheers, hugs and tears. They’d done it!

* * *

In Houston, at NASA headquarters, their cheers were echoed. Finally, after so many failed attempts, the twin Mars rovers had landed and were returning telemetry. The pictures were just what they’d expected, rocks and sand, but still... they’d done it!

Copyright © 2007 by Lynn Mann

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