The fourth sub-level of Pine Gap was a picture of chaos.
One minute, Oliver Benson had been analyzing printouts, the next minute, men and women in military uniforms were running about all over the main floor of Umbra, down corridors, up and down elevators—with the larger-than-life General Everett Whitmore barking out orders in the middle of the whole mess.
Lydia was deploying her troops to their strategic stations. She rushed past Benson carrying a couple of laptop computers and a piece of equipment resembling a miniature radar dish. She also had a rifle slung across her shoulder.
“Believe it or not Olly, this is all a highly organized and practiced maneuver in case of a situation like this,” she called out to Benson as she rushed past.
Benson stood up near his desk and looked out over the mayhem.
It looked more like a panicky fire emergency drill than a well thought out operation.
He quickly descended the small flight of steps to the floor and caught up with Lydia.
“What’s going on?” he asked, brushing past people in lab coats who were gathering up computers and other small electronic devices.
Lydia crossed the main floor and exited into and across a hallway leading to another room filled with surveillance equipment. Several people scurried past and flitted down the hallway.
“Whitty thinks they might attempt a strike on us,” she said.
“Who? The Chinese… here?” said Benson.
Lydia switched the laptop on. Images of Pine Gap’s surface level popped into view on monitors all over the walls.
More lab coats walked into the room and took up positions at various computer terminals.
Benson’s eyes flicked right and left.
Now, the operation seemed to be taking on a momentum of its own. Everybody knew their place… knew just where to sit, what buttons to push. It seemed very rehearsed indeed.
“Why would the Chinese risk an attack on Echelon? That’s just crazy,” he muttered, as he stepped around to the side of Lydia’s new workstation.
She stopped what she was doing for a second and looked up at the flustered agent.
“Think about it, Olly… they’ve carried out a major coup on Mars, they waltzed right into Egypt without a trace, and they’re already landing at the rock. They took us completely by surprise. SOCOM were caught with their pants down. The Chinese have got the edge, and more than enough forces right here and now to make a damn good go at an attack on a secondary target. If you ask me, it makes good sense…”
Benson thought deeply. “Yes… I suppose Echelon would make a good trophy.”
“Exactly,” said Lydia. She plugged a couple of wires into a small base station for a remote access laptop and switched on the power. She grabbed the thin, flat laptop and got up.
“Come on, I want you to stick with me at all times,” she said to Benson, as she walked back out into the hallway.
“Wouldn’t it be safer for me down here?”
“I didn’t get where I am for no reason, Olly. The safest place for you is right by my side.” She patted her rifle.
“Where are we going?”
“Up top,” said Lydia. “I want to get a closer look at exactly where they are.”
Lydia strode purposefully down the hallway to the rear of Umbra.
It was the same corridor the men in the meeting with General Whitmore had taken when they left.
Benson was starting to feel a little put out by the way Lydia was leading him from place to place all the time, as though he was her own personal lap dog. The truth was, she was doing her job—looking after him. When he analyzed it, it made perfect sense.
Lydia passed her laptop computer to him to hold as they approached the end of the corridor.
In front of them was a big steel door resembling a bank vault.
“Err… exactly what is this?” asked Benson.
“Fire escape.” Lydia said with a wink.
The door had a digital display and keypad embedded to one side, and a large turning wheel in the centre, like an escape hatch on a submarine.
Lydia keyed in a series of numbers, and the small screen lit up green.
“Fire escape?” Benson asked, still not completely convinced.
“It’s the emergency evac and underground tunnel system. Just in case something goes wrong in the main facility, or access to the radomes is cut off by unforeseen circumstances. We also use it to escort the bigwigs from the various spec ops departments to Whitty’s operations room.”
Lydia started to turn the big wheel. “Here, give me a hand with this,” she said to Benson.
“Why all the secrecy? Bringing them in the backdoor?” Benson enquired.
He was becoming accustomed to asking Lydia questions about anything and everything now, and as it turned out, she had all the answers.
“Let’s just say that some of these people don’t exist—officially. There’s a lot of black ops chiefs that would rather not be recognized, or even seen at all, by anyone as lowly as an Echelon employee,” Lydia said.
Benson twisted the door wheel, rotating it three times before it opened slightly with a soft clunk.
He and Lydia pulled hard on the door, and it slowly swiveled open enough for them to squeeze through.
On the other side was a dimly lit corridor made of steel mesh. It extended for a hundred yards straight ahead. Along its length, other mesh corridors extended out from both sides, every twenty yards.
As they walked, Benson asked, “Where do these go?”
“Each corridor leads to one of the radomes,” Lydia said. “The radomes are all built far enough away from the main installation to make them a good evac route.”
Benson noticed signs above each corridor, reading Radome One, Radome Two, etc. There were ten jutting off to the sides, plus the one they currently occupied, Radome Eleven.
“I need to patch into the monitoring equipment directly if I want to see what’s going on outside the perimeter,” Lydia said, feeling she owed Benson an explanation for all the running around.
“Surely you can patch into one of the main CCTV stations inside Echelon. I mean, it is the most advanced monitoring facility on the planet,” Benson said, dumbfounded.
Lydia stopped at the base of a long ladder at the end of the corridor.
“That’s fine if all you want to do is sit at a fixed workstation all day, Oliver. Echelon’s satellites and other long range viewing technology will let you zero in on a grain of sand anywhere on Earth. But, what I need to do is hook up my laptop to the primary surveillance system computer with this remote unit.”
Lydia held up a small black box with a couple of cables dangling from each end. “That way, I can stay mobile within the facility, and still see whatever’s going on both inside the compound and the area around the perimeter on the surface level. I need to be on top of this.”
Benson shook his head and smiled. “Is there anything you can’t do?”
Lydia started climbing the ladder. Benson tried not to stare at her shapely figure as she climbed, but found himself looking anyway.
She got about four steps up and said, “Yeah, there is something I can’t do. I can’t climb and hold this at the same time.” She dropped the remote unit down to Benson, who was still carrying the laptop awkwardly with one arm.
He juggled the small box for a second with his free hand, then rested it on the laptop and began climbing very carefully up the ladder after Lydia.
Lydia opened another coded vault door at the top of the ladder and stepped through into Radome Eleven.
The dome shaped building was as big as a house, and painted white throughout. It was packed full of monitoring equipment—radar systems, computers, displays, recording devices. It looked as if the machines were just sardine-packed in wherever they could be fit.
Lydia took her laptop and remote from Benson and walked directly to a computer server box. She unslung her rifle then patched the remote unit cables into their appropriate ports.
Benson watched as Lydia installed the remote surveillance software onto her computer.
After a couple of minutes she said, “There, done.”
She then tested the system by connecting to several remote camera points that had been covertly placed in various locations around Pine Gap.
Benson walked over to her.
Lydia was studying the screen intently, scrolling her fingertip along the touchpad.
“Here, check it out,” she said, offering the computer to Benson.
The agent took the computer in his left hand, and rested his right on the touchpad.
Lydia leaned against him and held the top of his right hand, guiding it on the small square of sensitive plastic.
“Just put your finger here, then drag it across the pad,” she said. “See the camera pan left and right as you move your finger?”
Benson was strangely amused.
He ran his fingertip across the touchpad and watched as camera External PG Northwest Four panned back and forth across the desert landscape.
Then, he saw something moving on the screen.
A personnel carrier was trundling along a track across the desert.
“What do you make of this?” Benson said to Lydia.
She looked at the screen. There was a camouflaged vehicle with four soldiers in it driving around the outskirts of the compound.
“It’s one of ours. An APC from Pine Gap. Looks like the maintenance patrol. They carry out regular checks of the cameras and other sensing devices planted along the perimeter. Who the hell gave them permission to go out there?,” Lydia said nervously as she suddenly realized the danger they were in. “Damn, they really shouldn’t be out there…”
Benson continued moving his finger across the pad.
He repeated this a couple of times, then decided to move his finger up and down to see what would happen.
The camera tilted upward in unison with his hand movement, then back down as he dragged his finger towards the bottom of the pad.
“Jesus! What was that?” Lydia blurted, looking over Benson’s shoulder. “Back up, move your—” she bumped the agent’s inexperienced touchpad finger out of the way and replaced it with her own.
Benson could feel her almost trying to push his body completely out of the way with her hips. He relinquished his position and passed the computer fully to Lydia.
She panned camera four upwards again.
Then they both saw it.
In the sky, a couple of miles outside the Pine Gap perimeter, was a full squadron of over two hundred fan-powered Chinese paratroopers heading their way.
“We have to warn that maintenance crew!” Lydia said, as she slammed shut the lid of her laptop, and headed for the radome’s external door.
“Whoa! Wait up, Lydia,” said Benson, giving chase. “What are you doing? You can’t go out there. Holy shit… Lydia, what are you doing? You’re planning on going after them aren’t you?”
Lydia opened the door, and a hot wave of desert air wafted inside, searing Benson’s pale cheeks.
“Oliver, that maintenance patrol is a sitting duck out there. Someone has to let them know about those paratroopers heading their way.”
“Granted, Lydia. But, that doesn’t mean risking your life by going out of the compound. Just radio them, send a warning,” Benson said, putting on his best reasoning voice.
“I can’t do that from this radome. There’s no time. Besides, it’s my job,” Lydia argued. “Stay here!”
But she was already out the door and running across the compound to the vehicle yard, without her rifle.
The vehicle yard was a semi-enclosed tin shed compound housing thirty or so motor vehicles of various types.
By the time Benson caught up with Lydia, she had already retrieved a set of keys from a cabinet on one of the tin walls and was walking towards a Humvee at the open end of the shed.
“I told you to wait at the radome.”
“Hey, if you’re crazy enough to do this, then I’m coming with you,” Benson said. “Seems I’m following you everywhere you lead me. The thing that bothers me is that I think I’m beginning to enjoy it.”
“Well, I hope you’re ready for this,” Lydia said, not having the time to dissuade the agent any longer. “Hop in!”
Benson stepped up into the passenger side of the multi purpose vehicle and strapped himself in. He looked across at Lydia with astonisment as she started the ignition, slammed the humvee into gear and drove straight towards the main gate.
The two guards at the gate didn’t notice the big vehicle heading out of the compound until the last minute. They came out of their guard booths and raised their hands in a stop signal.
Lydia leaned over the big steering wheel and looked straight ahead, gunning the accelerator.
“Out of the way guys,” she said to herself.
For a brief moment, the guards considered firing on the wayward Humvee, then opted for a hasty retreat as they realized who it was barreling down on them.
The soldiers dived out of the way as the large military vehicle crashed through the barrier, sending splinters of timber and pieces of steel in every direction.
“Holy shit!” Benson yelled. “Are you allowed to do that? Of course you are… what am I saying… I can’t believe you just did that…” Then the two of them let out a nervous laugh as the vehicle bounced out of the main entrance and onto the desert road.
Lydia reached up to the console and passed her laptop computer to Benson as she drove. “Olly, open the screen back up and find that APC with our guys in it.”
Benson flipped the top and began tracking his finger over the touchpad. There was nothing in sight.
“Try another camera,” Lydia urged him. “Tap the pad twice quickly, and it’ll move to the next camera location.”
The agent did as he was instructed.
“Got “em!” he said excitedly. “Camera Northwest Six.”
“Okay, that’s about a mile and a half down this road and off to the left,” Lydia remembered. Then she suddenly remembered her rifle back at the radome. “Shit! Do we have any weapons?”
Benson looked around the cabin.
“A flashlight, a knife, some maps, first aid kit, flares, pen and paper, a box of matches… let me look in the back.” He unhooked his seatbelt and crawled over the seat into the rear compartment of the large machine.
“Jesus, there’s a whole arsenal in here,” he announced. “Not much good to us though, unless you can put together a rocket launcher from all these parts.” He thought for a second about how Lydia had surprisingly managed to do just about everything she had needed to do since he met her, then added: “Don’t tell me, you can put a rocket launcher together.”
“Not while I’m driving,” Lydia said. “Looks like we’re stuck with flashlights and flares. Anyway, let’s hope we don’t get ourselves in a position where we have to worry about it.”
“I thought we already were in that position,” Benson sighed.
The Humvee turned left onto a dirt track.
The computer screen showed the Pine Gap patrol vehicle was stationary about a quarter of a mile along the track.
“Alright, they’re just up ahead,” Benson said to Lydia. “So, we let them know about the Chinese paratroopers, then get the hell back to the installation, right?”
“That’s the plan,” Lydia said nonchalantly.
A minute later, the small armored personnel carrier came into view through the dust.
It appeared to have been parked quickly to one side of the track. The front of the car was pushed into some bushes. There was no sign of anybody, except for some footprints in the sand leading off in the direction of a big outcrop of boulders down the track.
“This doesn’t look good,” Benson said as the hummer came to a stop behind the APC.
“Try to get a fix on them with the cameras,” Lydia said, leaning over to look at the screen.
Benson panned and flicked through the cameras in the immediate vicinity, with no results.
“I’m going to get a better view from those rocks,” Lydia said, opening her door.
“Wait,” Benson tried to stop her. “Are you sure—”
Benson’s eyes shot to the front of the hummer.
Standing on the hood was a fearsome looking figure clad in yellow fatigues with a large, round fan cage strapped to his back, and an automatic weapon pointed directly at the two agents through the windscreen.
“Move!” Lydia yelled, as she ducked sideways, falling out the door and landing with a crunch on the hard desert floor.
The Chinese trooper fired his rifle at Benson through the front window, causing shards of glass to hail in on the terrified agent. Benson managed to duck down in the nick of time, laying across the wide bench seat, and scampered out the driver’s side door as the bullets pinged all around him.
Lydia had already started hobbling around to the back of the Humvee when Benson hit the ground hard.
The paratrooper continued firing as Benson backed away on his hands and feet like a crab, dodging the bullets as they pinged off the sand and rock.
As Lydia reached the back of the Humvee, she picked up a thick branch that was resting on the ground. Quickly, she bolted along the passenger side of the vehicle, coming up behind the Chinese soldier, who was still intent on killing Benson.
Lydia drew the branch behind her head as she reached the hood of the Humvee, then swung as hard as she could with both hands.
The branch caught the unsuspecting trooper on the back of the knees. He buckled abruptly and crashed down onto the hood, back first, smacking his head on the reinforced edge of the vehicle.
By the time Benson got to his feet, Lydia was clutching the soldier’s weapon, shaking with adrenalin.
“Back in the car now!” she yelled at him. This time Benson found himself in the driver’s seat while Lydia got in the passenger side. He started the ignition and shoved the gear stick into reverse.
The unconscious soldier rolled off the hood as the Humvee backed up with a sudden jolt.
Benson looked over his shoulder out the rear window and started driving backwards down the track.
“Wait!” Lydia shouted. “We still have to get our guys.”
“Are you kidding?” Benson snapped back. “Do you think they’re still alive? I tell you what I think… I think there’s a bunch of those crazy flying soldiers behind that big rock back there, and we were barely lucky to escape because only one of them happened to be flying overhead when we arrived, that’s what I think.”
Lydia stared across at him.
Suddenly Benson braked hard.
He was sitting motionless, both hands on the wheel, lips tight and eyes glazed as he focused back towards the large rock outcrop a hundred yards ahead.
“We’re going to die,” he laughed weakly.
“We’ll be fine.”
Benson reached his hand down to the gear stick and pushed it into first gear.
Lydia gave him a wink. “I knew you were a tough guy under that soft exterior,” she smiled.
Benson took a deep breath.
“Alright, let the madness begin,” he said.
On the other side of the big mound of rocks, the four patrol soldiers from Pine Gap were sitting against two trees, tied up like hogs.
They were being guarded by a dozen of the fan-powered paratroopers, who were in various stages of rest around the temporary post. In the distance, a few of them were buzzing around a hundred or so feet in the air, but the majority of the group of two hundred Benson had spotted earlier were no longer in the area.
One of the Chinese soldiers was sitting on a boulder, taunting the four patrolmen by flicking small twigs at them, obviously bored by having been forced to carry out such a menial duty as guarding prisoners.
Just then, his annoying pastime was interrupted by the roar of an engine. He looked up just in time to see the Humvee careening through the air as Benson steered it over a natural ramp of earth to one side of the rocks.
The large vehicle plunged straight down, past the tied up men, and right into the guard. The bullbar hit the guard with the full weight of the Humvee behind it, crushing his chest instantly.
The Humvee hit the ground with a massive thud and continued bouncing, alternating between its front and rear wheels, through the encampment, scattering the paratroopers in all directions, and impacting with at least three of them.
Benson was fired up.
As he reached the bottom of the camp, he shoved the gears back into reverse and backed up through the shocked Chinamen, weaving left and right in an attempt to hit as many as he possibly could, and shouting like a crazed banshee in a fit of rage.
The Chinese soldiers still weren’t completely sure what was going on, and most of them just ducked behind rocks and trees, having dropped their weapons in the panic, and watching the bizarre spectacle in amazement.
Benson continued reversing the Humvee through the camp until he reached the trees where the patrolmen were tied up.
He pulled the handbrake on and jumped out of the car, brandishing the knife that had been in the glove compartment.
Benson raced towards the men at the tree and frantically started cutting through their bindings, spurred on by nothing but pure adrenalin.
Some of the Chinese now realized this was a rescue operation, and began moving out of their temporary shelters towards their weapons that lay scattered about.
It was Lydia’s turn to act.
She flung open the car door and leapt down onto the sand, holding tightly onto the machine gun she had taken from the paratrooper earlier. She aimed towards the soldiers and pulled the trigger.
The machine gun jerked upwards as Lydia held the trigger back. The force of its recoil was immense.
Once more, the yellow-suited soldiers dived for cover anywhere they could, as a hailstorm of bullets sprayed them.
Benson cut free the last of the four prisoners, and they climbed into the rear compartment of the Humvee.
“Okay Lydia, we’re done! Let’s go!” he yelled, as he raced back around to the driver’s door.
The machine gun spat out its last bullet and Lydia threw it to the ground and heaved herself up into the big vehicle.
Benson skidded the wheels in a big smoky arc across the sand and headed back to the track, leaving the Chinese troopers in a cloud of dust.
Lydia looked around at the soldiers who were bouncing around in the rear of the Humvee.
“Everybody okay?” she asked.
“Thanks to you we are ma’am,” one of the soldiers responded. “But those bastards are gonna come after us, so I hope he knows how to drive this thing.”
The others looked dazed, and had sustained what appeared to be facial injuries from being beaten.
“What’s going on, Major?” the more alert soldier asked.
Lydia was just about to tell the soldier how she and Benson had come across them, when Benson gasped.
He had spotted something in the rear view mirror. “Looks like we’ve got more trouble,” he said nervously.
Lydia craned her neck to look past the soldier and out the rear window.
The soldier spun around and looked back. “Oh shit,” he said.
Half a dozen of the flying paratroopers were following the Humvee, about thirty feet off the ground and a hundred yards behind. They were all carrying large weapons. Stingers.
Benson floored the accelerator as they spun off the desert track onto the main road leading back to Pine Gap.
“Go Oliver,” Lydia said, stating the obvious.
“I am going,” Benson said with a frown.
The paratroopers were gaining on them. Not having to follow the path of the road, they were able to cut across on a forty-five degree angle when they saw the Humvee turn. They were now fifty yards directly behind the speeding vehicle.
Benson could see the large white radomes in the distance.
Once they were near the compound, their pursuers would retreat, that much was certain. It would be suicide for six of them to continue—
There was a deafening explosion just feet from Benson’s door. The Humvee rocked violently to the left as a stinger missile from above blew a huge crater in the bitumen road.
“Jesus!” Benson yelled, steering the vehicle back on a straight path with some difficulty.
This time the rocket exploded just near the rear of the vehicle. The rear window shattered with the force of the shockwave, sending glass everywhere.
The four soldiers in the back sat staring out of a large hole in the Humvee.
Lydia turned her head.
“Can any of you guys put that thing together?” she yelled, pointing at the rocket launcher that lay tucked into the compartment’s side panel.
The uninjured soldier smiled broadly when he recognized the weapon. It was an M158 seven-tube rocket launcher.
“Oh yeah!” the soldier said, nodding his head and grinning.
They were still a couple of minutes from the installation.
Benson had his foot planted firmly on the accelerator. Full speed.
And the motorized paratroopers were remaining at a constant distance behind them.
The soldier in the back of the Humvee was busy clicking parts together.
Suddenly, another horrifying explosion hit them. This one was right on target. The entire back of the Humvee—the rear compartment from the tray up—disappeared in a grey cloud.
Benson fought with the vehicle as it bounced and shuddered along the road. He managed to turn his head for a quick look.
The four soldiers were gone.
Benson let out a short groan, and continued driving. The main gate was in sight. He could see large weapons being set up inside the perimeter. Anti-aircraft guns, anti-vehicle guns, squads with automatic weapons running about and taking up positions.
“Now let’s see who’s boss.” Lydia said.
The gate was two hundred yards ahead. Any second now, the paratroopers would realize their folly and turn back.
As the humvee reached the gate, Lydia realized something was wrong…
The paratroopers weren’t turning back she had expected.
“Either those guys are suicidal or—” Then she saw a terrifying sight off to her right.
High in the sky, were the rest of the PPC powered troopers she had seen earlier on the computer screen. Two hundred of them.
“Oh shit… that’s why they’re not retreating. They’ve got back up!”
The gate was directly in front of them.
“Hold tight!” Benson said to Lydia.
With a loud roar of its engine, the Humvee crashed through the entrance gate, just as Lydia had done earlier on the exit gate, making a mess of the boom arm and its control box.
The Chinese paratroopers converged at the entrance to Pine Gap as Benson and Lydia raced past the company of US soldiers who were still preparing their barricades and defense perimeter.
Then, the entire surface level of Pine Gap became a war zone.
Benson skidded the Humvee to a halt back at the main vehicle compound.
As he and Lydia jumped out of the vehicle, they saw the extent of the battle that was unfolding at the installation.
The air was full of buzzing fan-powered troopers in yellow uniforms, and the ground was like an ant’s nest of desert camouflaged infantrymen, scurrying about madly with weapons and equipment.
Rockets, explosions and gunfire rang out all around them, trapping them momentarily inside the vehicle yard.
Just then, a young marine ran towards the Humvee, having noticed the M158 rocket launcher still laying in the ripped apart back section of the large vehicle.
“Mind if I borrow this, ma’am’ he said to Lydia, reaching in and grabbing the weapon.
“Go right ahead,” she said.
They watched as he deftly slung the seven-barreled launcher up onto his shoulder.
“Stand back Olly,” Lydia said.
Benson and Lydia decided now was as good a time as any to make a break for radome eleven—the radome they had come through earlier.
As they hit the door running, Benson looked back just in time to see the soldier hit the trigger on the rocket launcher.
Seven small projectiles erupted from the front end, as seven trails of vapor exploded from the rear.
Benson’s eyes followed the mini-rockets into the air, and he gasped as the rockets flew directly into a pack of yellow uniforms.
He didn’t hang around to watch the resultant body parts and debris falling to the ground .
Lydia quickly ushered Benson into the radome and slammed the door behind them.
They were going back undergound.