Harvey Jennings went to the window and peered across at the dish, its huge crescent of steel glowing beneath a chunky, shadowed moon. He again paid tribute, as he habitually did, to the planners and engineers who’d built the apparatus, acknowledging the brilliance of its engineering. It was a thing of beauty, the scope. The structure was precise, a lacework of fine steel held in place by huge hydraulic arms, the dish’s polished skin glistening in the moonlight, the tri-pedal nose of the central antenna pointing squarely at the spectacular half-orb overhead.
When he looked up at the moon, he marvelled at its clarity; on that score too, he thought, the planners had got it right. The site was excellent: the atmosphere almost always clear, a prism through which light and sound passed with minimal distortion.
That was what bothered him: if there was nothing out of order at the scope site – if the conditions were good and the coordinates were correct – where else could the signal have come from?
He walked briskly back around the circular mezzanine to the scope’s control room. Mark Albright, the only other technician on duty, was busy at the console on the ground floor. Harvey closed the door to the control room and went over the desk, rolling into the desk chair as he studied the figures displayed on the monitor. The sequence of digits confirmed what he’d expected; the dish was precisely where it ought to be, on the southern extremity of the Sea of Tranquillity, on the Moon’s surface. To Harvey the apparent conclusion didn’t make sense: there’d been no lunar expeditions in that area for over ten years, certainly no crewed landings.
After staring blankly for a moment at the screen, Harvey leaned forward and pecked the screen. The second of two large spools of magnetic tape on the wall behind – the first was already in slow circulation – went through a deft series of rotations then slowly began turning in synch with its partner. There was a sharp hiss through the speakers above Harvey’s head. After several seconds, the static was cut off abruptly by a male voice, its accent unmistakably American:
“Ah, this is Genesis One. 24243 locked on.”
A second voice, again American, responded. “24243 confirmed, Genesis One. Vertice is 2221.”
There was a short pause. “2221 confirmed and locked on. We have the target.”
“Ahh… the target is mobile, travelling on foot.”
“RPG’s, looks like six; couple of pack animals – probably supplies and munitions.”
“Copy. Set target, copy and lock.”
A brief pause. A third voice intervened. “Target set, copied and locked.”
Another brief hiss of static. “Enacted at… 0219.02.”
“Genesis One, this is Genesis Base confirmed.”
“Copy that. Regards to terra firma.”
There was an abrupt wall of white noise. Harvey arrested the audio, got out of his chair and straightened slowly, arching his back. His tall, lean frame threw fractured shadows across the walls as he moved about, thinking things through. He had little doubt about the authenticity of the signal; the scope’s antennae were too finely tuned to pick up ambient signals from terrestrial or airborne transmitters. Authenticity was one thing; what troubled him more were the implications: the apparent source of the signal, and the question of why the scope had picked up the message at all.
The transmission was clearly military and probably, Harvey reasoned, highly sensitive; such communications were always heavily encrypted, and although the scope might occasionally register the short bursts of ultra-low frequency static that signalled the passage of information from orbiting military satellites or high-altitude aircraft, deciphering the scrambled contents was well beyond the capability of the scope’s decoders. Something had gone wrong with the process, but that affect the conclusion to which Harvey was drawn: that the source of the signal was something – a military facility of some kind – on the lunar surface.
He wished he hadn’t been the one to pick up the signal; to Harvey, the intercepted message was more of a inconvenience than anything else: having received it, he’d now have to do something about it. If there was a fault in the Americans’ encryption process, then Neil Grimes, the facility’s director, would certainly need to be told.
Harvey didn’t relish the prospect. The director had accountabilities that went well beyond the activities of a single scope; he headed the national network of installations, all fourteen of the major scopes including an interface with Pine Gap. It was Grimes who’d coordinated all inter-facility activity during the lunar landings. Grimes would want an extensive briefing, and the man’s intolerance of those who failed to provide adequate reports or overlooked obvious possibilities, was legendary.
Harvey had no intention of inviting such professional humiliation. He leaned forward and tapped the console again. A time-lapse exposure of a section of the night’s sky slowly layered itself onto the screen. Any moving objects such as meteorites, satellites, high-flying aircraft that entered the scope’s catchment that night would, Harvey knew, appear on the image as white streaks. But there were no tell-tale tracers; nothing, apparently, had crossed the precincts of the Scope’s main antenna.
With another couple of taps on the screen, Harvey brought another image – a section of the lunar surface – into view. He manipulated the image until the massive crater of Plinius sat like a watermark in the centre of the screen. A small red dot on the crater’s rim identified the current focus of the scope. He zoomed in on the spot, studying it, then on impulse copied the coordinates onto his jotter pad.
He was still bent over the console when the door of the control room opened. Albright entered, carrying a mug of coffee. With another quick, seemingly nonchalant tap, Harvey changed the image on the screen to a scrolling series of digits. Albright wandered over and stood a few paces behind Harvey, gingerly sipping at the edge of the cup as he gazed at the console.
“Checking frequencies?” he asked conversationally.
“Uh-huh,” Harvey replied, without looking up.
Albright grunted. Like Harvey, he understood the relentless intensity of having to meticulously check every aspect of their work. It went with the almost limitless patience that astronomical research required: always checking and re-checking, rather than miss something that could turn out to be significant. It was an unwritten protocol of the observatory not to distract anyone doing a check, and Albright eventually drifted away, slurping his cooling brew.
Harvey eased himself back in the chair, holding his open hand to his forehead and massaging the skin between thumb and forefinger. It was a habit he’d formed in his youth, longer ago than he could remember. Angela called it his ‘Thinker’ pose.
He stayed like that for several minutes, then abruptly picked up the phone. It was time to make it Grimes’ problem.
He winced at the irritable edge in the director’s voice when he eventually picked up the phone. “It’s Harvey, sir, from the Scope. I’m sorry to call so late, but you said to let you know if anything … well, problematic, came up, and I think it just might have.” Harvey paused briefly to collect his thoughts. “I’ve picked up a signal, a sensitive one, I think, an American military communication. It seems there’s a fault with their encryptors. I thought you should know.” He hesitated. “I guess if we can pick it up, others can.”
Grimes digested the information. “Are you at the Scope?”
“Let me hear it.”
Harvey patched the message into the conversation. When Grimes came back on the line, his voice had a business-like quality. “Okay. What’s the trajectory on that?”
Harvey hesitated. “Ah… well, that’s the thing, sir; there doesn’t appear to be one. There’s no sign of movement on the grid; the source seemed to be stable.”
Grimes grunted. “Something in fixed orbit, something in the antenna’s line of fire?”
“Well, that’s what I thought, sir, but when I ran a trace on the source position, nothing showed up.”
“No other communications in the zone?”
“Nothing.” Harvey hastily proffered his conclusion. “Sir, I think the signal came from the lunar surface.”
There was another pause, longer this time. “Okay,” Grimes said at last, a little cautiously. The line was silent for several seconds. “Look, I’ll need to take this up with Canberra; I’m sure the Minister’ll want to let the Americans know sooner rather than later if they’re spreading their military communications half-way around the world. Crawley can take it up with the Yanks – let them sort it out.” He cleared his throat. “In the meantime, just keep this to yourself, Harvey, you understand? We’re bound by the Official Secrets Act on this.”
“Got it,” Harvey said.
“Get me a copy of the track – a CD’ll do – and drop it straight around, will you? I’d like to have it on hand when I make the call.” The director paused again. “You’d better keep the spools under wraps, too. Lock them in the safe till we get this sorted out.”
Harvey did as he’d been asked. As soon as he got off the phone, he punched a CD into the console and transferred the communication across. As an afterthought, he slipped another CD into the machine and dubbed a second copy, which he secured in the safe with the spools.
On the drive to Grimes’ place, Harvey had time to study the shadowed orb of the moon through the windscreen. He located the grey ring of Plinius; it would make sense, he thought, to locate a base on the crater rim, above the dust. With the doors of conjecture opened, Harvey found himself considering other possibilities: if there was one base, might there not be others, a network of installations. He thought of Angela and the kids, and a shiver of apprehension ran through him: what impact might such an apparatus have on their lives? On everyone’s lives, come to that?
Grimes was waiting in the driveway, his thick frame silhouetted against the porch light. He took the CD Harvey handed him. “I’ll take it from here,” he said, glancing at his watch. “You’re due off at six. It’s not far off that now. You might as well head home.”
Harvey accepted the release thankfully, and drove quickly across town to his home. He killed the lights as he pulled into the bush-lined drive. The moon had ebbed below the horizon, its afterglow fading before the creeping dawn. He slunk past the rooms of his son and infant daughter, and quietly undressed. He was about to slip into bed beside his wife when his mobile phone began to burr quietly.
The caller was Neil Grimes. He sounded agitated.
“Thought I’d try to catch you before you turned in,” he said. “Look, this transmission business… there’s more to it than meets the eye, apparently. They want me to go to Canberra ASAP – tonight, in fact. I’m leaving now; they’ve organised a charter flight. Sorry to leave you with this at such short notice, Harvey, but you’ll have to supervise at the scope while I’m away. It’ll mean a double shift, but you can take time in lieu when I get back. Anything urgent comes up, call me.” Grimes’ breathing slowed. “Thanks for your prompt action on this; you’ve handled it well.”
For two days Harvey heard nothing further about the matter. Then word came that Grimes had been killed, in a plane crash on the way back from Canberra.
Read Part 2 here soon.
When will you put the next chapter up? Thanks
working on it now… Aiming for End of January…
How, that’s amazing, what a story writer, you have a talent, I was transfixed xx
Thanks heaps for your feedback, Debbie. The next chapter of The Hourglass should be up in a couple of weeks, now the Christmas madness is over. Rob
Excellent Rob. Looking forward to the next instalment. cheers Rita
Thanks Rita, glad you enjoyed it – Next chapter should be up in a couple of weeksShould be up in the next couple of weeks.