The diesel engine coughed and rumbled as they took a sharp turn, kicking up dust in the headlights. Up ahead, two sentries stood watch at the entrance, portable fencing anchored with large cement blocks.
Reed flashed his ID, guard checking a printed list. They passed, waved on as the following trucks idled behind them. Neal looked in the rear view, as the gates closed. Soldiers were checking each vehicle, probing with flashlights. The sky was beautiful out here, stars wavering in the distance.
A short time later Neal and Reed were hustled into a squat trailer draped with camo-netting. They were afraid of being spotted from the air? Out here? Neal wondered what that was about. There was a tension growing in his mind, the kind of itch that he usually got when trying to solve a difficult problem.
Something didn’t add up here.
Reed gestured for Neal to sit as he opened up his laptop and began typing furiously. The interior was utilitarian and decidedly military. No frills, just textured floor panels and two ugly warts in the ceiling casting off a harsh blue-white light.
A deep thudding sound, then another. Outside, soldiers began running and shouting. Reed dashed to the door, shouting behind him “Stay right there!”. Neal could hear more sounds, like fireworks, small “pop” noises that seemed to be getting closer. Were they under attack? Neal’s mind raced, could he take cover under the table? Would it matter?
Reeds laptop vibrated with the concussions, chattering on the metal surface. Curious, Neal turned the laptop to read the display. The screen was blank save an agency logo in the background. In the lower right corner, an icon was glowing, demanding attention. He may not get another chance. Better risk it, better than cowering under a table.
Neal tapped on the keyboard, glowing icon expanding into a chat window.
R: Confirm cyber on parkes asset?
CC: Confirmed, move asset and perform scrub. Relocate to mobile HQ ASAP.
R: Chinese decode success? Asset in possession, not translated.
CC: Decode not confirmed. Expect further interference. Will advise.
Neal closed the window and turned the laptop back around. This wasn’t good. He assumed “cyber” was short hand for “cyber attack”, clunky government shorthand for external forces attempting to hack his network. They must have been successful, triggering the fire alarms and getting the servers to shut down.
That would put a major spanner into the “infection” narrative. Neal didn’t trust Reed to begin with, but this didn’t help any. If there wasn’t a space-borne organism attacking, then what else was it? Neal suspected a major smokescreen designed to keep him in the dark. Willing and compliant in the face of an unknown enemy.
Or a manufactured one.
Reed rushed back into the room, scooping up the laptop and gesturing to Neal. “Lets go, its getting too hot out here. Time for a change of locale.”
A large armored transport idled outside, back ramp extended. They both ran up the ramp, back hatch closing as the engine roared. Mobile once again. The cramped interior was lit in shades of red, tactical lighting casting a bloody pall across grim faces.
Several seats faced the wall, where various displays and equipment were mounted. Reed sat on the left side, Neal to the opposite on the right. Reed took a headset from the side rack and gestured for Neal to do the same. The whine of the diesel set Neal’s teeth on edge.
Donning the headset, noise-cancelling bliss filled the space between his ears.
“Our timetable has advanced. The infection is more aggressive than we gave it credit for.”, Reed’s voice sounded like they were under water, dampened and compressed.
“So where are we going?”
“Let me worry about that. What I need you to do is take a look at some data we retrieved from your servers before they shut down. The console in front of you has your setup mirrored – at least the tools and local data should work.”, Reed flashed a wry grin.
Neal turned, looking closer at the display. His desktop was here all right, right down to the arrangement of icons. They must have copied it while he was in the conference room back at the observatory. Might as well get started, Neal thought. Its either that or stare at the bulkhead.
Neal opened the file containing the signal. Invoking his analyzer, Neal peered deeply into the waves, oscillating traces filling the screen. There had to be a clue here, something that Neal couldn’t see on the surface. Scrubbing the cursor, Neal relaxed into the flow, letting the answers come.
(To be continued.)