Grimes’ death was a shock to Harvey, but any implications beyond the immediate had to be put aside when the Minister’s office rang the following morning to advise him that, until Grimes could be formally replaced as manager, Harvey had been seconded to the role. Before the call ended, Harvey took the opportunity to ask whether any action had been taken regarding the lunar transmission.
The pleasant-sounding woman on the other end of the line asked him to hold. After a moment’s pause, a male voice came on the line. “Mister Jennings? Jonathon Crawley. How are things going out there?”
Harvey was taken aback. He’d been in the presence of the Minister of Communications on a couple of occasions, but had had no previous personal contact with him. “Um… fine, sir.”
Crawley hummed thoughtfully, then said: “This signal business. Had Grimes spoken to you about that?”
“Yes, sir. I’m the one who gave him the information. I only passed it on after I’d run every kind of check I could think of. I thought it was worth pursuing.”
“Indeed,” Crawley said. “You did the right thing. The advice I’m getting from the people in Defence is that it’s a new kind of spy satellite, fitted with some sort of anti-detection device, something we can’t pick up.”
Harvey had already considered this possibility and discounted it. “I don’t think it’s a satellite, sir. I’ve checked the lag in the transmission times between the two audio sources. It confirmed what I suggested to Grimes: that the signal came from the lunar surface.”
The silence this time was more prolonged, and there was an edge in the Minister’s voice when he finally replied. “I see. All right, Mister Jennings, thank you for your diligence. I’m sure you’ll appreciate there are obvious security implications – significant implications – in the hypothesis you’re putting forward, and I’d like to ensure it’s checked again by our people down here before we go shouting it from the rooftops. So I’d like your absolute assurance that you’ll discuss it with nobody, at least until we’ve got confirmation, and maybe not even then. Any matter of urgency or extreme importance related to the matter should be escalated directly to me. Are we agreed on that?” When Harvey concurred, Crawley went on briskly: “Good. Your cooperation on this won’t go unacknowledged. I assume you’ll be putting your hand up as Grimes replacement when the position comes up?”
“Yes, I suppose… I hadn’t really thought about it.”
“Well, you’d certainly have my support,” Crawley said candidly.
Harvey muttered his thanks. He decided not to pursue the matter of the signal any further.
There was a slightly awkward pause before Crawley said: “Look, it’s been a hell of a few days for you, Harvey, dealing with all this – Grimes’ death on top of everything else. Once things’ve got back on an even keel up there, why don’t you take a few days off? Albright can look after things at the scope, at least in the short term. Take your family down to the coast; enjoy a bit of this good weather we’ve been having.”
Harvey accepted the offer gratefully. It had been a long time since he’d had any kind of vacation, and he knew the strain of the extended shifts had been telling on both him and Angela; the posting to the Kaputar scope had been a promotion for him, but the upheaval of moving and re-settling the kids had been difficult for her. There wasn’t much Grimes had been doing that couldn’t be deferred for a while. He rang Angela with the news straight away, briefed Albright on the reporting protocols, then went home and started making the necessary arrangements. Being outside the normal holiday peaks, accommodation was easy to find: a comfortable bungalow right on the beach. Angela got the kids time out of school; there was mounting excitement in the household as the packing commenced. By six the next morning they were in the car and headed for the coast.
The holiday was everything Harvey hoped it would be: long, languid breakfasts on the veranda while the kids played about on the sand below; strolls along the beach, paddling and swimming in the still-tepid water; checking out the shops and cafes along the esplanade. It re-ignited the fire of their relationships, brought them all back into that circle of intimacy they’d almost forgotten they’d shared.
In the manner of all such holidays, it seemed endless at the beginning and too short at the end. Before they knew it, it was over. Still, it had worked wonders, and Harvey felt loose and comfortable when he climbed into the station wagon to begin the journey home. Then, halfway up the mountain to Dorrigo, a truck tried to run them off the road.
At first, Harvey thought it might have been accidental: the driver losing control on the narrow winding bend as they tried to overtake; maybe someone under the influence, the vehicle attempting to pass then slewing sharply in front of the family’s car, the rear of the truck’s tailgate colliding violently with the left-hand fender. The steering wheel jumped unexpectedly in Harvey’s grip, and only a miraculous combination of reflexes on his part prevented them from plunging over the edge of the precipice.
Any doubt that the collision had been intentional vanished when, from a couple of metres in front, the truck’s tail-lights suddenly came on and the vehicle braked abruptly, its tailgate again swinging savagely back towards the car. The second impact wedged the station wagon’s fender against the front tyre, the terrified occupants screaming as the car veered savagely to the left, bringing them to a crushing halt against the embankment.
Harvey checked Angela and the children, relieved to find them shaken but otherwise okay. He tumbled out of the car, light-headed with shock. The truck went a hundred metres further up the road and stopped. A head poked out the driver’s window, but withdrew quickly when a snaking line of traffic appeared around the bend below. The truck revved its motor and disappeared around the upper bends.
The station wagon protruded across one lane of the narrow road, and before long a queue of traffic had built up in both directions. Harvey found himself cast reluctantly in the role of traffic controller as the lines of curious travellers crawled past in the single remaining lane. He collected himself sufficiently to try calling triple-zero, but there was no reception. In the end, he asked one of the passers-by to report the incident when they reached the nearest town.
When the police arrived, Harvey was able to give them he gave them the few details he could recall of the truck. Curiously, he was able to recollect the registration plate; a skill, he guessed, that derived from his years of memorising the numerous digits needed to coordinate and analyse the scope’s information.
He persuaded the officers to send the registration details through to their base. Whatever action was subsequently taken, it was clearly insufficient to intercept the vehicle, for in the following hours and throughout the couple of days’ delay it took to get the car back on the road, he heard nothing further. When he got home, he rang the State Motor Registry about the truck’s ownership, but they advised him that the plates he was looking for belong to a vehicle that had been written off some years before, and that the plates had not been re-issued. In frustration, he contacted the Police Commissioner’s office, but they fobbed him off with an empty promise of a return call. After a couple of weeks of fruitless calls, he decided to try a short cut.
Askin Herbert had been a friend of Harvey’s for several years, since they’d met at a faculty party at university and hit it off. Harvey had since come to appreciate, through the pair’s joint attendance at numerous scientific award functions, that Askin was a leading light in the computer programming field. The two of them had long since got past the stage of curiosity about what they did on a day-to-day basis, but Harvey supposed that Askin, through his work in cyber-security with one of the big multinationals, might have the necessary expertise to delve further into the mystery of the truck’s registration number. When Harvey explained what he was seeking and why he wanted it, Askin hadn’t taken a lot of convincing to agree to do what he jokingly described as the ‘hack work.’
It hadn’t taken him long to get a result, either. Within minutes of beginning the quest, Askin was able to turn to his friend and say: “There’s nothing here, Harvey. See for yourself; according to the register, that number plate doesn’t exist.” He shrugged off his companion’s uncomprehending stare. “Maybe you made a mistake.”
Harvey sagged into a chair, staring fixedly ahead. Was it possible? No. Askin might know everything there was to know about programming, but Harvey knew about memorising digits. It was the major part of his job; almost all the data he worked with was digital, sheets of letters and numbers, and he’d become adept at retaining and recalling it. Trauma notwithstanding, he’d had plenty of time to imprint the sequence on the vehicle’s registration plate.
Harvey was baffled. The truck had been a relatively late-model vehicle; how could the plate not exist? When he voiced the question, his friend shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe it’s a straight-out fake.” Askin turned back to the keyboard. “Anyway, I’d better get out of here; this is strictly out-of-bounds stuff.” He waited until the screen went blank, then put his hands behind his head and swivelled to face Harvey. “So… what now?’
Harvey grimaced and shook his head. “No idea; I guess it’s a dead end.” He cradled his forehead in his hand, thinking. “I don’t get it. Why would anyone want to do that, run us off the road like that?”
“Someone with a grudge, maybe?” Askin grinned. “Although I have to say I don’t consider that likely: I can’t imagine you of all people putting anybody’s nose out of joint.” He frowned. “Could it be money? You owe anyone money?”
“Nothing under the carpet there; just the usual, bills and mortgages.”
“What about information?” Askin proffered after another pause. “Anything you might have on anybody, anything like that?”
“Nothing.” Harvey hesitated. “Except…” He looked at his friend, weighing up how much to divulge. He knew it was a dangerous bridge he’d be crossing if he said anything – a deliberate contravention of the Official Secrets Act – and he knew that could have serious consequences for him and anyone he told. But he trusted Askin, and finally he plunged ahead: “I picked up a signal the other day, a military transmission. Not sure how it got through; something must have happened to their filters, I guess. I passed it on to Grimes; he took it to Canberra with him, the same trip he was killed.”
The words, once spoken, gave impetus to a thought that had been hovering on the edge of Harvey’s consciousness since the incident on the mountain – something he hadn’t voiced, not even to Angela. What if the events were connected: the information he’d uncovered, the truck; even Grimes’ death, perhaps?
It was a possibility he’d tried to discount. Harvey wasn’t inclined to conspiracy theories, or any kind of social theorising for that matter. He considered himself fortunate to have the things he did: a satisfying job, a functional family life, a fulfilling future to look forward to. The limited social circle of the town and his job were enough for him, and the vagaries of the world beyond that didn’t concern him much; his occupation predisposed him to think in astral terms, and he’d long come to recognise that, in the broader scheme of things, human activity was of minor importance. Now, though, the tableau seemed different; suddenly his position had become central, and the possibility of sinister forces at work plausible.
Askin had clearly made the same connection. “So this message;” he asked quietly, looking down at the carpet between his feet, “exactly how sensitive was it?”
Harvey shrugged. “About as sensitive as it gets, I guess: instructions for targeting specific military operations.” He paused for a moment, then added: “I think it came from the moon, Ask: from the lunar surface.”
Askin’s gaze sharpened. He studied his friend intently. It was a long time before he spoke. “Grimes knew that?”
“Yes. And Crawley.”
There was another long silence. “It could a coincidence, I suppose,” Askin offered doubtfully.
Harvey’s nodded, but his face was pale. “What if it’s not?”
His friend took a deep breath, exhaled slowly. “Then I’d say you’ve got a problem,” he said.