The conversation was brief and evasive. Neal hung up the phone, residual impact resonating the ringing mechanism in tinny aftertones. They were coming here. What they wanted wasn’t exactly clear, but Neal had a bad feeling growing in the pit of his stomach. He had to prepare.
Sitting in front of the constellation of monitors, he began to formulate a plan.
Agent Harrison Reed had a problem. It wasn’t the kind of situation where you sent in fresh meat from the academy. This had to be handled by seasoned field agents with extreme discretion. Agency business was always a hush-hush affair, but this was something on an entirely different scale.
Agent Reed, or “Harry” to his closest friends, was being flown directly from the deck of an aircraft carrier group to the Australian outback town of Parkes, New South Wales. It was fortunate that the local government was so accommodating. Normally relocating fifteen thousand people would be more of a chore. Nothing could be left to chance.
Even now, as he was choppered over the sparse landscape, multiple teams were visiting other facilities where the signal could have been intercepted. Another break — the equipment needed had to be very sensitive, or the Agency would have had its hands full mitigating a “vectored containment” scenario.
He was to meet with the local astronomer Watkins, immediately after touchdown. Their conversation had been clipped and awkward, driven by the need to release as little information as possible, and to prevent Mr. Watkins from tampering with the logs and archive data in the facility.
If he even knew what they were looking for. There was a good chance that the hapless scientist didn’t even have a clue as to what was going on. If they were that lucky. In Agent Reed’s experience, that was so seldom as to be almost impossible.
“ETA 25 minutes”, the pilots voice crackled in his headset as Agent Reed scanned the barren countryside below.
What a shit-hole. Still, better than some of the other deployments he’d had. Barely healed scars ached on his shoulder and and back, the remnant of a rough drop into dense jungle. His chute had tangled and nearly cost him his life. Hanging from the straps in the tall trees, he managed to cut himself down without breaking his neck.
In a way, this was a similar mission. Locate the intel, scrub the site and contain any leaks. Reed sincerely hoped they didn’t have to call in a code black. That would not be an optimal outcome, to say the least.
His scowl deepened as the engine pitch changed. They were descending from cruising altitude to better blend into the landscape on approach, full tilt as their target grew closer on the tactical display.
The pilot activated stealth mode, cutting engine noise to nearly nothing. Running silent was standard protocol when the stakes were high. Agent Reed steeled himself. He wasn’t going to be caught off guard like last mission. Second chances were rare events in his line of work.
Mistakes meant severe consequences.
Neal climbed up the main access stairway to the dish above. He didn’t like it, not at all. The Agent on the phone, Harrod, Harrison, whatever – was coming and he didn’t trust him a single bit. Something in the tone of his voice. Like he had done all kinds of horrible things before breakfast and Neal was going to be the dessert.
Wrenching open the utility box, Neal gingerly placed his logbook behind the braided wires and sensor leads. There would be no reason for them to check here, and even if they tried searching every square centimeter, there were hundreds of these junction boxes all over the facility.
Security by obscurity may be pointless in the digital age, but in the real world it was often enough to get by. Neal shut the box and secured the cover in place, careful to not scratch the paint. No point in making the search easy by leaving tell-tale marks that it had been opened recently.
He had no concrete evidence that the signal and the phone call were correlated, but the coincidence was too strong to ignore. It was best to be prepared for the worst instead of being caught out in the rain. Neal scanned the sky, afternoon sun glaring overhead.
He doubted they’d show up in a convoy of trucks. There were not many routes out here, and the plume of dust would give them away. No, they’d have to be flying in. It was the only way to get here with any speed that didn’t involve dealing with the pockmarked highways.
Neal briefly thought about taking the log book and driving off, but shook his head. It wouldn’t do any good, besides if they wanted to talk to him that badly they wouldn’t just knock on the door and give up if no one was home. He had to stay put and see this through.
Descending the staircase, Neal walked slowly back to the observatory office, wheels turning in his mind.
(To be continued.)