Oliver Benson was poring over the long sheets of continuous paper that had recorded the signal.
He had marked several peaks with a red highlighter pen, shifting his gaze back and forth between the paper and the readout on his computer screen.
Goldstone sat alongside him, every now and then passing the long paper printouts across the desk and stacking them in neat piles.
A dozen foam coffee cups cluttered the desktop.
Benson’s train of thought was interrupted by loud voices coming from near the large satellite display on the main floor.
General Whitmore was having a frantic discussion with two men in black suits. Another man was yelling loudly into a cell phone, waving his arms about madly.
Lydia White was also with the small group, a distinctly concerned look on her face. She glanced across at Benson and Goldstone, then turned her attention back to the group.
The two men in black suits stepped away from the meeting for a brief one-on-one chat, then signaled to another man who had been waiting on the sidelines. He ran to the far side of the main floor and disappeared down a long, dark hallway.
The black suits rejoined the discussion.
After a few minutes the group dispersed, and Lydia walked over to Benson’s desk. She rolled a swivel chair alongside his and plonked herself down. She looked exhausted.
“What was that all about?” asked Benson.
“JSOC has just received a priority condition alert,” Lydia said bleakly.
“Jesus… what’s going on?”
“JSOC is the Joint Special Operations Command coordinating activities out of Florida under the umbrella of US Special Ops Command. SOCOM directs all movements of the special op forces for the Army, Navy and Airforce.”
Goldstone chipped in, “JSOC also controls the elite units of Army Delta Force, FBI Hostage Rescue Unit, The Global Antiterrorism Department, and Seal Team Six. All very hush hush.”
“That’s not all,” Lydia went on. “SOCOM has ordered deployment of army special ops, 75th Ranger Regiment.”
“The Rangers!” said Goldstone. “Christ, this must be big…”
Lydia leaned forward.
“Two hours ago, Satcom picked up large anomalous military signals coming from Egypt. Several transmissions were intercepted and decoded, and it would seem that the Chinese PLA has somehow managed to get a ship all the way down the Nile unseen, then offload a large amount of equipment into the Great Pyramid. Then the signal went blank and everything disappeared.”
“Jesus,” Benson said.
“There’s more… just now, another signal, a high altitude tropospheric reading has shown a large blip moving from northern Australia and down the centre of the continent,” Lydia said.
“And… what does that mean?” asked Benson.
“Satcom says it’s likely a grouping. Possibly up to fifty high altitude aircraft, making their way towards Ayers Rock.”
“You mean there’s an invasion force coming here?” Benson said worriedly.
“Hey, don’t panic yet,” Lydia said. “My team is on the job.”
“I wish I had your confidence,” the concerned agent responded.
“Trust me, Oliver. You do your job, and I’ll do mine. I’ve already ordered a two stage perimeter defense that can handle most situations. We only need to hold out until the Rangers get here.”
Benson just sat staring at his monitor, trusting that whatever needed to be done by the military would be done. He followed the blips on the screen, watching them rise and fall hypnotically.
“The gongs… something about the gongs,” he said to himself.
Goldstone was picking at a foam cup. “Huh?”
“The gongs. That’s it!” Benson said, becoming excited. He draped several feet of the signal paper across Goldstone’s lap. He jumped up. “Where’s the General? Somebody get the General over here!”
Whitmore, Goldstone and Lydia crowded around Benson as he directed their attention to the top of his desk.
“Now, as you can see, we have the one continuous thud thud signal extending all the way through the printout.” He slid the paper forward over the foam cups. There was a large red circle outlining a larger peak.
“Now, here we have the second signal—the ping sound. A thud and a ping. What I didn’t realize previously, of course, was that all this paper on the desk only referred to the last fifty eight minutes worth of recorded signal. Until you sprang the gongs on me…”
“I’m not following,” said Whitmore impatiently.
“You will…,” Benson leaned over the desk to his right side and heaved up four more stacks of paper printouts. He slammed them down with a flair of his arms on the desk, and smiled broadly—a rather silly smile, like a kid who just found the candy jar.
“The rest of the signal,” Benson said. He unfolded a few of the connected pages to the start of the recording.
“Here…right here!” he prodded his finger at another red circle. It showed a row of even larger peaks. “The gongs!” Benson said proudly. “Thirty of them, spaced a second apart.”
Benson shuffled through more pages. “And here, twenty nine. And further on, twenty eight gongs. After that, twenty seven gongs… and so on…all the way up to here. Two minutes before I came in—three gongs!”
The General was still confused.
Benson sat back into his chair, and swiveled the computer monitor around so the others could see it clearly. On the screen was a digital representation of the signal showing all the thuds, pings, and now the gongs.
“Don’t you see?” he said excitedly. His breath was short. He was well and truly fired up now. “It’s a timer. The signal is a goddam timer! Counting down from thirty hours.”
Lydia frowned. “What’s it counting down?” she asked.
“There seems to be a link between the signal emanating from Mars and the ones you picked up at Ayers Rock and Egypt.”
“What kind of link?” Goldstone asked.
“The signals are correlated at a quantum level. Perfectly attuned at several different locations, even accounting for the time it takes transmission to occur all the way from Mars. This accuracy of timing can only mean that there is a strong quantum physical connection between the signal sources. As far as I can tell, that connection is a type of conduit.”
“A conduit?” Lydia asked.
Benson scratched his chin. “I know it sounds weird, but there’s no reason to have such an accurately calibrated signal across vast distances like this unless you were planning to move something from one point to another. It would appear that it’s setup for something to go in one end and come out the other, and the signal readouts are letting us, or somebody, know how much time is left before the conduit is activated.”
“Oh, that’s just great!” Whitmore bellowed. “Are you telling me that we could have Martians beaming down to Earth using this conduit!”
Benson’s brow furrowed. “I’m not sure about Martians, General. But whatever it is, we’ve got less than three hours before we find out.”
General Whitmore made his way to the military operations room still thinking about what Benson had sprung on him earlier.
The room was small in size by comparison to the main floor, but it was large enough to house an eighteen foot long oak board table, several display screens, and an array of computer banks.
Sitting in large leather chairs, were Naval Commander Admiral Mark D’arcy, Spacecom Chief of Staff Harry Harman, and Satcom Commander Brigadier General William F Lincott.
“It’s your call, Harry,” Whitmore said, directing his attention to the immaculately dressed Spacecom chief.
“It’s not entirely his call, Whitmore,” D’arcy was quick to say. “Before we go giving away classified secrets to every fucking terrorist and commie nation in the world—”
“We don’t call “em commies any more, Mark,” Lincott added.
“And, we’re not giving away secrets, D’arcy,” Whitmore chimed in. “We still don’t know what the hell that signal means. We’re simply putting forward a case to provide backup for our people on Mars.”
“Exactly,” D’arcy protested. “You want to send one of our DDR Asterons from Phobos to Mars, fly it across the open expanse of space where every satellite dish from here to Finland will be able to track it. For Christ’s sake—the Asteron is a highly classified black project. It was hard enough to get two of them up there without anybody noticing as it was.”
“But we did, Mark. We did get them up there unnoticed,” Lincott remarked.
“Oh, fuck me, Bill. You know as well as I do that transporting them in pieces inside a shuttle is not the same as flagging their presence to the whole world by flying them around in open space,” D’arcy said angrily.
“Look, we’re losing track of the bigger picture here, Gentlemen,” Harman said, speaking for the first time since entering the meeting. “The Asterons are Spacecom’s birds, and I’m the last person who wants to see that kind of technology fall into enemy hands.”
“Finally, someone’s making some sense,” D’arcy chirped in.
“But…” Harman went on. “The fact is, we have people in trouble up there, and the Chinese are definitely up to some weird shit. And I’d rather get in there and sort this out now than wait ’til it’s too late.”
“Fine then… have it your way Harman. Like you said, they’re your birds.” D’arcy threw his arms up in the air, grudgingly agreeing with the obvious swell of opinion against him.
“So it’s settled,” Whitmore quickly made it unanimous. “We contact Phobos immediately. Tell ’em to send one of the Asterons to Cydonia with a full complement of combat-ready troops. They go in, remove all trace of the Chinese, rescue our people, escort them back to Lincoln, then get the hell outta there.”
The others nodded their heads in agreement. Then one by one they filed out of the operations room and disappeared down a long, dark corridor.