Oliver Benson sat at a desk on a small landing in a secluded area of Echelon’s main surveillance level, Umbra.
From where he was sitting, he had an unhindered view of the large plasma screens on the main floor. He watched as dozens of satellites left red and green trails over the huge display.
On Benson’s desk sat the latest Octium VII workstation, an internal comset, a large stack of paper printouts, a few pens and an empty coffee cup.
He watched as General Whitmore stood in the centre of the floor below conducting a one-sided conversation with several of his aides.
The entire evening had felt like a bizarre dream to Benson… the flight across the desert, the high-tech security check, alien signals from Mars… He wondered what was going to happen next.
Benson looked at his computer monitor.
It showed a scaled down version of the satellite screen on the main floor.
He clicked lazily on a couple of buttons with his mouse, and the screen changed several times, showing alternating views of the larger display screens around the room.
Finally, he found the one he was looking for.
An ECG-type reading of the signal’s beat. Basically, it was a simple visual representation of the thudding sound he had heard at the rock. Currently it was showing two thin, horizontal lines. A white one at the bottom of the screen, and a blue one in the centre.
Benson watched as the white line steadily pulsed, showing little peaks like a heartbeat. The blue line remained flat.
He stared blankly at the computer waiting for something to happen.
Suddenly, the blue line pulsed! Just once, then it went flat again. He tapped the side of his computer as though that would make the pulse happen again.
Benson reached out for the stack of papers piled high to the left of his desk. He was still staring at the screen as his roving hand touched something soft. Soft and yielding like… flesh.
It was an arm. A female arm.
Benson looked up.
Lydia White placed a foam coffee cup in front of Benson and sat on the corner of his desk. She eyed him curiously.
“I thought you could do with a pick-me-up after the flight.”
“God, do I look that bad?” Benson asked, rubbing his eyes.
Lydia was attractive in a cute sort of way. She was thirty-ish, shiny black hair tied up in a bun, and creamy, blemish-free skin. Benson noticed she filled out her tight white military uniform in all the right places.
“You must be the famous Oliver Benson,” Lydia said with a disarmingly warm smile.
Benson went beet-red, and nodded with his face half buried in the coffee cup she had brought him. His experience with women was negligible to say the least. He had gone steady with a girl in college for about two weeks, before her family suddenly packed her up and shipped her off to Utah. They didn’t want her mingling with “weirdos” like Benson.
After another episode with a more worldly girl from Silicon Valley, whose “free” lifestyle scared the absolute crap out of him, he decided his technical books and computer software were a safer choice. But he felt an instant attraction to the young woman perched on his desk right now. An attraction he couldn’t shake off.
“Uh… yeah… Just transferred from Long Ear in the west,” Benson said, clearing his throat nervously.
“Long Ear?” Lydia asked.
“Echelon’s sister base…err… Project 41—”
“Yeah, I know. I’m teasing you,” she said, giving that smile again.
“Oh, right.” Benson managed a smile. “Sorry miss…?”
“White, Major Lydia White. Call me Lydia.”
“Sorry, Lydia. I feel like I’ve been through the wringer tonight.”
“Ahh… they give you the once over on the flight, huh?” Lydia said, with the knowledge of someone who had heard the story a hundred times. “Actually, you got out of it pretty lightly. I usually keep people locked up for days while I check them out.”
“You’re kidding me!” Benson said.
“Yeah. I am,” Lydia grinned. “But, seriously, you did get through the mill fairly quickly. Apparently Whitty—General Whitmore—wanted you to start right away. Let’s just say he saved you several more hours of uncomfortable procedures.”
Benson curled his lip. “Nice. So, what’s your part in all this?”
“I’m in charge of base security. Nothing comes or goes without me knowing about it.”
“Oh.” Said Benson.
“It’s okay, they train us women to do the same job as the men these days,” Lydia said with a wry smile.
Benson’s face went red again. “No… I didn’t mean— “
“So how’d you end up here at Echelon?” Benson asked.
Lydia took a deep breath. “I was too clever for my own good. I was the sort of college student who minored in everything and majored in nothing—chemistry, I.T., physics. All I really wanted to do was make a good career for myself. Anyway, someone noticed my keen leadership and analytical skills and the next thing I knew, I was being told that my services would be better used as security chief here at Pine Gap.”
She took a long sip of her coffee. “Whitmore’s assigned me to babysit… I mean, ensure your safety personally while you’re here.”
Benson looked up at her. “I feel privileged.”
“You should. Anyway, what do you make of all this?” Lydia said, pointing to the pile of printouts on the desk.
“Well, so far I’ve managed to work out that it’s a constant signal. No fluctuations in tempo or volume.” Benson turned up the volume on the computer speakers.
There was the familiar thud thud beat.
Then, after a few seconds he heard the short, sharp ping.
Paul Goldstone approached the desk. He nodded a quick acknowledgment at Lydia, then directed his attention to Benson.
“Worked anything out yet, Agent Benson?”
Benson pawed at his chin. “A bunch of thuds, followed by a ping. It’s definitely artificial though. I ran it through a fractal sequencer, and there’s a slight offset built into the signal to allow for incongruities such as gravity, orbit, rotation, redshift, and other natural phenomena.”
“What about the gongs?” Goldstone asked innocently.
“Huh?” Benson quickly looked up at him.
“The gongs. They’re part of the signal too. Didn’t anyone tell you?”