Approximately sixteen thousand feet above Ayers Rock, A C130 Hercules transport plane was heading toward Echelon headquarters at Pine Gap.
Inside the plane, sitting in the radically altered hold, was Oliver Benson.
Beside the flight crew up front in the sealed cabin, the only other passengers were two men wearing military uniforms. One was sitting at a console at the far end of the technologically modified hold, busy tapping away at keys. The other, more of a scientist than a soldier, sat directly opposite Benson, staring at the nervous man through a pair of oversized blue-lensed goggles. Little levers and buttons ran down one side of the bulky silver frames.
Oliver Benson was an agent with SIGINT, the Signals Intelligence Corp of the National Security Agency, better known as the NSA—a highly secretive surveillance organization.
He was on his way to Pine Gap from his previous posting in Western Australia.
Benson was thirty six years old, slightly overweight from years of sitting in front of computer terminals. His hair was a perfectly groomed black mass. He wore the traditional dark suit, white shirt and black tie befitting his designation of “special agent”.
Benson was the sort of guy who worked overtime without pay just to get a problem solved before home time. He was a true company man, which was fine by the NSA. He spent most of his spare time solving vexing intelligence problems other agents had long given up on.
Suddenly, the plane lurched as the pilot made a sharp left bank.
The soldier at the console looked over to his colleague.
“We’re in the zone,” he said flatly.
The soldier sitting opposite Benson reached for a small briefcase on the seat alongside him and leaned forward.
“Sir, please extend your right arm,” the soldier said in a clear, instructive voice.
“Wha— my arm? Huh?”
The soldier opened the case and sat it on his knees. He repeated his instruction.
Benson begrudgingly rolled up his sleeve and extended his arm. He tried to sneak a glance at the inside of the case. He saw only a faint blue glow.
The soldier pushed a couple of buttons inside the case then turned it so Benson could see.
It resembled a miniature laboratory. All laid out neatly in cutout sections of foam padding were; a couple of test tubes, a small vial, a thin green strip of plastic, a small round black microphone, and some other gadgetry Benson had never seen.
The upper lid of the case housed a computer monitor, taking up three quarters of the available space. The other quarter consisted of a rectangular block of gel resin, an inch thick, that seemed to be lit from within— the blue glow.
The soldier lifted the case.
“Sir, please insert your fingertips into the gel and hold until I say.”
Benson pushed his fingers into the blue jelly substance and waited until he was given the okay to remove them.
Instantly, the computer screen buzzed to life.
A database of fingerprints and DNA strings flashed across the monitor. It found a match in a few seconds, and Benson sighed a small breath of relief, wondering what his fate might have been if the computer had shown otherwise.
The soldier pushed another button and extended the small microphone towards Benson. It was attached by a flexible wire that ran to the monitor housing.
“Thank you sir. Now please state your name and special agent designation code into the mouthpiece.”
Benson leaned forward and cleared his throat. “Oliver James Benson. Sigint field agent. NSA echo-bravo-echo-three-four.”
There was a pause, then the display screen flashed green.
“Handy little box of tricks you have there, soldier,” Benson said, trying to lighten the atmosphere. The soldier didn’t reply.
“Just one final procedure, Agent Benson,” he said, removing the strange green plastic strip.
It reminded Benson of a car dipstick. He guessed close enough.
The soldier brought it up towards Benson’s mouth. “I need a tongue print Agent Benson.”
He noticed the bewildered look on Benson’s face and added, “Apparently, it’s now possible to falsify DNA tests with skin coatings or special mouthwashes. There’s even been reports the Germans are working on a way of altering someone’s basic cell structure using genetic cloning and splicing or some damn thing. So, as much as I hate to ask, sir, I really need to get this print.”
Benson still appeared confused.
“Sir, please lick the strip,” the soldier said.
“Oh.” Benson stuck out his tongue, and the soldier pressed the strip firmly against it. He placed the strip in a little slot near the monitor.
“One thing nobody can do yet, short of cutting off their tongue,” the soldier laughed, “is create taste buds. Each person’s tongue is unique. Even better than a retina scan.” He closed up the briefcase, and smiled warmly for the first time.
“Okay, everything is in order agent Benson. We’ll be landing at Pine Gap runway in approximately three minutes.”
The Hercules set down roughly on the unmarked runway. Benson was sure he could feel every rock and clump of grass that the wheels ran over.
Once the plane stopped taxiing, Benson alighted into the darkness of the desert night. The entire area was surrounded by a wire fence that seemed to go on forever.
The soldier with the goggles stepped onto the runway and looked out beyond the fence.
“Private Munce on the other side of the gate will take you by APC to the main entrance.”
The soldier pointed to a young uniformed man standing by an armored personnel carrier just beyond the wire fence. Benson couldn’t see a thing.
The soldier led the agent across the runway and opened the gate. He escorted Benson to the waiting vehicle, then turned back into the darkness.
The road seemed to lead nowhere.
The moon offered no brightness, and Benson wondered how the young soldier even knew where he was going.
He squinted his eyes, trying to force the night to open up to his vision.
The young soldier laughed. “This is how they like it mate. Dark as a coalminer’s arsehole.” He spoke with a strong Australian “Ocker” accent. A country boy.
“They?” asked Benson.
“Your mob. You know, NSA, CIA. Spooks and whatnot. So what is it this time? They capture some aliens or something?”
Benson smiled. Aliens. That would have been something worth flying across the desert for.
The vehicle rounded a bend on the small rise of a hill. It overlooked a vast expanse of cleared desert. A very dim glow enveloped the entire area, muted and hidden against the foothills of the Macdonnell Ranges.
Benson’s eyelids raised as the installation emerged into view.
“There she is, sir. Pine Gap.”
The view from the hill was astounding.
The first thing Benson noticed were the radomes. A dozen white spheres of various sizes resembling huge golf balls. Each one housed a radar device tuned to a different range of frequencies. Together, they listened in on every communication signal broadcast around the world.
“This is Echelon, sir—the world’s most advanced global surveillance system.” Said the young soldier, noticing Benson’s interest. “Home to CIA, NSA, NRO, SIGINT, ELINT, COMINT, The DOD, NAVSEC… hell, you’ll find every military acronym under the sun in there.”
Several flat buildings stood amongst the radomes.
“Right there, several levels under the ground, hundreds of military and civilian personnel work round the clock to track, monitor and record every signal transmission made on Earth. Kinda spooky if you ask me.”
The soldier drove the APC down a dark winding road, which suddenly flattened out into a straight stretch towards the complex.
“You’ll be going in through that small building there, sir,” said Private Munce, pointing out a grey box buried in the sand. “Where you go after that, I don’t know. And even if I wanted to know, they wouldn’t tell me.” He grinned a silly grin at Benson.
The special agent didn’t get the joke, if that’s what it was. But it did make him feel a little uneasy all the same.
The carrier skidded to a halt, and Benson stepped out in front of the grey box building. He grabbed his briefcase from the back seat and stood for a moment wondering what he was doing here.
The soldier restarted the engine. Benson nodded a quick thanks.
As he drove off, the soldier shouted, “They’ll bring up the rest of your belongings later, sir, and remember, I didn’t tell ya nothing.” Then laughed a raucous laugh in the distance.
The door beckoned, and Benson entered.
Waiting inside a well lit room, two burly uniformed men stood behind a reception desk. A uniformed woman with her hair tied up in a tight bun, and wearing spectacles sat at the desk talking into a headset.
She looked up and said, “Agent Benson?”
“Yes, I’m not sure what—”
“These men will escort you to the next checkpoint. General Whitmore wants to see you as soon as possible.”
Benson looked at the two large men and smiled weakly. One opened a door behind the counter and waved his arm as though he was directing traffic. Benson took this to mean he should go through.
A narrow, grey passage led to an elevator where another soldier was waiting inside a bullet proof transparent booth built into the wall. He was standing to attention, and holding a rifle across his chest.
On the wall near the booth was a briefcase sized box with a block of glowing blue gel embedded in it.
Benson looked at it and sighed.
He rolled up his sleeve and raised his arm to the gel.
“That won’t be necessary sir,” said the elevator soldier through a speaker grille. “You’re required below deck ASAP.”
“Below deck?” Benson said.
Nobody bothered to answer him.
The elevator door opened and the soldier nodded at Benson to enter. He did, along with the two soldiers who were escorting him.
Benson noticed that, oddly, there were no buttons on the panel.
They descended smoothly for thirty seconds, then the door slid open.
“Agent Benson!” blurted a young man wearing a long white lab coat. “I’m Paul Goldstone! I’ll be taking you to your work station!” he shook Benson’s hand vigorously and beamed a smile that seemed totally out of place, but welcome all the same.
Benson stepped out of the elevator just as the door closed with the two soldiers remaining inside. The young man who had greeted him was still shaking his hand, he realized.
“Welcome to Echelon! Or, Project P415 as the bean counters like to call it,” Goldstone said proudly, waving his arm down the length of a much larger corridor. “Actually, P415 is the correct name, but well, Echelon sounds better to all the conspiracy theory nuts out there, huh?” Benson was beginning to think all the nuts were actually on the inside rather than in civvy street.
Goldstone led Benson down the corridor. Twenty or so doors led to rooms along the length of the passage, which was glass from the waist up. Inside each room, dozens of operators sat at computer terminals and other equipment laid out in neat rows on desks and panels.
As they walked slowly along the passage, the young man gave a guided tour.
“This is sublevel Spoke,” said Goldstone. “All flagged communications are initially recorded here and stored for further analysis.”
“Flagged?” asked Benson.
“Yeah. You know, key words and phrases that terrorists and other targets might use over the phone, radio transmissions, emails, and other comms. We have a top one hundred list. Words like; glock, ceramic, C4, Osama, Jihad, NSA, plutonium, Echelon. Every one of these words is recorded and analyzed to see if they’ve been used in a context that might interest us. If so, then we follow up on them.”
At the end of the passageway was a door, which Goldstone opened and they both walked through.
As they entered, Goldstone said. “This leads to Echelon’s sublevels, Moray and Umbra.”
Benson raised his eyebrows, and Goldstone continued. “Moray is specifically assigned to NAVSECGRU, the Naval Security Group. They handle all military communications coming and going from most major countries in the world. If a soldier in Turkey calls home from base and asks his wife to cook a falafel, Moray knows about it.”
“Impressive” said the agent, noticing the lack of elevator buttons again.
The ride ended and the door opened onto a noisy circus of people moving, running, shouting, waving pieces of paper, punching computer keyboards, carrying cups of coffee. It was total mayhem.
“Umbra!” said Goldstone, leading the stunned Benson out of the elevator.
They were standing on a large landing overlooking a warehouse-sized room that was full, absolutely full to the brim, with technology.
“Jesus…” Benson muttered.
Umbra was the hub. This was where all the information, every signal, every transmission, every email, every phone call on Earth was processed.
There were over three hundred people on the floor.
Some in lab coats like the one Paul Goldstone was wearing, others in military uniforms, still others in civilian clothes. Two men in bizarre, orange EM suits carried a long black box across the floor and into a sealed room.
“This is the Area 51 of the southern hemisphere, agent Benson,” Goldstone said with a smile. “See those large screens on the far wall…They track every satellite orbiting the Earth. Those other screens to the left monitor the path of explorers like Pathfinder and Solar Scout as they race through the solar system. This was where we first picked up the signal.”
“General Whitmore will explain further… that’s him down there in the middle of that huddle.”
Benson squinted, and scolded himself for not having brought his glasses. Vanity isn’t practical, his mother had always said.
At the bottom of the short flight of stairs, Benson was accosted by a lanky man running across his path juggling a bundle of notes and two coffees. He apologized on the fly, as Benson wiped a few drops of coffee from his jacket.
“Must be something exciting going on…” he said to Goldstone, hoping for an answer. The young man simply pointed at the small huddle of people in the middle of the room and continued walking.
The wall mounted monitors seemed much larger from down here on the main floor. The largest was thirty feet across. Vistavision.
Benson could hear the general’s booming voice now. Deep and gravelly over the other whining voices around him.
“Goddam it! Can someone get me a secure line! This is Echelon for Chrissakes!” he was shouting.
Goldstone approached the general cautiously and said, “General Whitmore—“
“You! Have you got a secure landline for me!”
“Uh… no sir… but I do have your special agent… agent Benson, he just arrived.”
The general paused for a moment. “Benson…”
Goldstone interrupted the general’s thoughts. “Your signal man, sir.”
“Well, jeezus! Why didn’t you say so! Benson, welcome to the bowels of the Earth. General Everett Whitmore, supposedly in command of this shit factory, and yet I can’t even make a scrambled phone call to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Sugar Grove.” he said, directing his glare towards a terrified aide who took the hint and quickly ran off to see what he could do.
Benson extended his hand. Whitmore gave him the privilege of a quick handshake.
“Anyone tell you why you’re here, Benson?”
“Uh… no, not yet.”
“Follow me, son.” Said Whitmore, stepping towards a panel of monitors under the big screen. He signaled to an operator who pressed a few buttons.
Instantly, the massive screen changed image to show a map of the world in bright greens and reds.
“We picked up a signal two days ago. Various signals actually,” Whitmore explained, pointing to the glowing map above them. “We first noticed a strange sound coming from the Nile Delta, then shortly afterwards a stronger signal emanating from out there at Ayers Rock, just a few miles down the road.” He said, pointing to nowhere in particular.
“We’ve had one of our own communications people take a quick look at it,” said Whitmore, “but we’re so damned understaffed, and now we’ve got reports of unauthorized military activity all over the goddam place!
“Frankly Benson, we haven’t had the time to dedicate anyone to work on this. Word is, you’re the expert in these types of things, so it’s all yours.
“Goldstone here will set you up with everything you need.”
The young man nodded. “We’ve got a desk and computer set up for you in a quiet area just up the back there,” he said, motioning Benson towards a raised area that sat in a dimmer, more peaceful part of the main floor. “Anything else you need, just ask.”
The two men started towards Benson’s new workstation.
Then the General realized he had forgotten something important.
“Benson!” he shouted after the agent. “There’s something else,”
Benson took a few steps back towards Whitmore.
“There was another signal,” Whitmore said.
Benson raised his eyebrows quizzically.
The General went on. “Have you ever heard of Cydonia?” Benson hadn’t.
“It’s a region on Mars that was explored in some detail by the Viking missions in 1976. One of the landers sent back some pretty controversial images. Pyramids, cities, a big face carved out of rock. Looking straight up at the sky from the Martian surface, it was. Weird as hell.”
“Are you telling me there’s a signal coming from Mars?” Benson asked incredulously.
The General took a deep breath.
“From beneath the surface, Benson. Just like the signals here on Earth. We think they’re being sent by an alien intelligence.”