by Michael E. Lloyd
Chapter 3: Much Ado
As the stunned Brighter Vale team sat watching Carla’s in-hotel projection of Lucia’s real-time video feed from the Mojave Desert on that sunny May Day morning, the Mater’s “Stealthed Ore Granuliser-Extractor” had rapidly removed a neat column of lutetium-bearing ores from the tiny mine nestling in the south-eastern foothills of Clark Mountain. It had then, under reverse magnelavity, returned unexposed to the star-craft with its precious load.
Despite its immaculate stealth shielding, the initial passage of the SOG-E down towards Earth had not, of course, gone unnoticed. The knock-on effects of its meteoric path through the atmosphere were watched by many sets of eyes, both human and electronic. But as soon as that transition was over, it once again became completely undetectable. And all that was later seen of its work at the mine — by several spies-in-the-sky and a very few souls on the ground — was that sudden, brief up-draught of dust, rich in Rare Earth Elements, which then seemed to disappear into thin air.
And the Captain had soon been pleased to hear that there had been no apparent compromise to the Mater’s own state of stealth.
* * *
It did not take long for the military to alert their political counterparts to the satellites’ surprising observations. And those nervous authorities then moved to establish a full and highly classified ground and air exclusion zone around the tiny site.
The local police chief received his orders from a very great height. He sent his officers to commandeer the mine at once, and swiftly called in the Fire Department as a sound precaution against any possible environmental hazard. An assortment of military units arrived over the next few hours. And for the rest of the day, and the following night, various interested parties from both coasts then streamed in through the tight security cordon.
But there was not much for any of them to see, even with the help of some hastily erected floodlights.
An oval-shaped row of faded wooden posts still marked the full surface extent of the known bastnaesite deposit, showing it to be no more than four hundred yards long, and barely a third of that in width. Within it, a much smaller and near-circular area close to the entrance gates had clearly been excavated in recent years to a depth of around forty feet. But at the far rim of that man-made pit was a brand new bore hole, ten feet wide and twenty deep, conspicuous in its geometric precision and as smooth as silk from top to bottom. And it was, they all rapidly concluded, quite empty.
* * *
It was ten o’clock the following morning, and Dave Evans, one-time champion West Coast surfer and now the laid-back manager of the REE mine, was still very unsure of what was going down.
All he could tell his many frustrated inquisitors was that he had received an anonymous call early the previous day, warning of a potential explosion, and had been strongly advised to quietly evacuate the entire site, under the pretext of a non-emergency test of procedures, and then to stay well away until further notice — all of which he had naturally done at once.
That order to evacuate had, of course, actually been given to him directly by the Mater’s Chief Surveyor, courtesy of Lucia, as they prepared the ground for the SOG-E to do its work. But Dave’s categorical recollection of a mysterious phone call was the perfect, immutable defence with which they had furnished him.
Later that Thursday, after the site had been secured, he had been dragged back in by the powers-that-be, and he was still there this morning, exhausted from a largely sleepless night and now utterly fed up with having to answer the same round of questions over and over again.
The Chief’s personal message to Dave had also included the instruction to reassure his small staff of mine and office workers that they would all continue to be paid, with bonuses, by their senior management for as long as operations were suspended. So apart from mild curiosity about the continuing enclosure operation, and later vague concerns about possible future health hazards, they were largely nonchalant about the whole business, and most of them had gone out to do their weekend shopping a day ahead.
Of the twenty-odd people who had seen the short-lived extraction incident from the ground, those who had called a newspaper or radio station to describe it had been dismissed as a set of co-ordinated cranks. And the two or three who had decided to telephone official agencies had been politely thanked for their information, with no promise of any further action.
The few inhabitants of tiny Lipton, several miles out to the east, were even less concerned. They had all heard the loud noise, of course, but things like this happened all the time in the Mojave Desert. No-one even thought about calling the emergency services. Maybe the mining operation was a front for a new missile testing facility which had suffered a little hiccup (that was what old Jake Linnerman thought, and he’d seen the spectacle with his own eyes, but he wasn’t going to go making a fool of himself by telling anybody). Or perhaps a test from a distant launch site had misfired, and an unarmed missile had landed at the mine and made a big hole. Or maybe that noise was a controlled explosion after someone had discovered a suspect device, or some unstable dynamite, or whatever.
But the favoured explanation in the small town’s Whistle Stop Oasis restaurant, much later that May Day evening and fully twelve hours after the event, was that it had been just one more UFO landing and associated cover-up.
All of which — those now deployed inside the cordon would undoubtedly have been pleased to note — was helping nicely to cloud the whole matter in utter confusion.
Any whatever it really was — most people had decided, before largely forgetting it and pressing on with their busy daily lives — there’d probably be something more factual about it later on the TV news, once the government had worked out its official story.
After completing her observation of the financiers’ unhappy action planning session in the Oakland bar, Carla had transferred to Clark Mountain to spend a couple of lunchtime hours monitoring initial reactions to the extraction event. And after then tripping into Napa Valley and back with Raymond to give Kristy her new commission, and joining in the team’s early evening demob meeting, she had returned to the mine and been on continuous watch ever since — with Quo often in close attendance.
So now, almost twenty-four hours after the SOG-E’s little excursion, they had between them gained a very interesting perspective on the authorities’ combined reaction.
The military were standing guard, the fire department was standing watch, and the police were standing around. The government scientists were standing to one side, and the FBI, the CIA and Homeland Security were standing divided.
Nobody was in command, because every senior officer on-site felt that his particular service owned the problem. So they had done a lot of talking. And now they had been told, in a coded early-morning phone call received by the CIA agent, to await the arrival of the Department of State.
The police officer in charge had, as his first action on-site, cordoned off the bore hole for his scene-of-crime investigators. But both of them had been re-assigned elsewhere soon after their arrival, with cases of suspected arson and attempted murder in towns several miles away. So the scientists and technical experts who had been whisked in under strict secrecy were still frustratedly scratching their and each other’s heads at an enforced distance. The best any of those boffins had been able to come up with, from their remote visual observations, was that it looked as if someone had been a bit careless with a giant laser-powered apple-corer. Quo, listening in on the side, was naturally impressed with the concomitant overstatement and accuracy of this little image.
One of the intelligence analysts had brought with him a hastily generated spy-satellite “movie” of the eight-second event, and while they waited impatiently to get their hands dirty in the hole itself, he shared it with the assembled scientists — but only after they had, of course, all signed yet another non-disclosure agreement. The overall clarity of the recording was good, with top quality views of all of the surrounding terrain. But there was a strange “vagueness” at the point of action, as the fuzzy image of a tight mass of material suddenly appeared above ground level and then quickly evanesced.
‘So what was it?’ a palaeontologist had innocently asked.
‘No idea,’ the image expert had confidently replied.
A mere geologist had suddenly had a flash of insight. ‘Hey, if we have stuff like this, what have the foreign satellites seen? Isn’t that the sort of thing they should be worrying about back east ...?’
‘No issue, I reckon. If this is the best we can manage, why should they see it any clearer? Our people will probably announce it was just a test of some new mining technique. Their people won’t buy that, but they’ll put it down to another U.S. weapons experiment. So what’s new? And I tell you — if I can’t work out what’s really going on, or find a way of correlating it to the passage of that vanishing meteor, I’m damned if anyone else can ...’
Not one of these newly-deployed worthies — military, civic or scientific — had any knowledge, of course, of the Domans’ peremptory trade proposals or Kristy Toresito’s associated diplomatic challenge. And none of the upholders of law amongst them had even begun to make any connections with the team of businessmen that had just restarted its Brighter Vale wind-down project ...
Quo had toyed, several times over the past few hours, with the idea of getting Carla very closely involved with two or three of the on-site chieftains, to observe their purest thoughts and then apply some further Truth Delta Analysis. But she had soon realised that there was plenty of brutal honesty already being displayed in their circular debates on seniority and power, and had decided, for now, to conserve the Mater’s energy on that particular front.
Even without pursuing such intrusive insights, Quo was of course in a very privileged information gathering position. The media at large were considerably less well informed. Those local newspapers and radio stations may not have given much credence to the reports of their early “crank callers”, but when word of the exclusion zone got out, there had been a natural and broader increase in the level of interest. The police chief had finally made a brief statement late the previous afternoon, but it had said nothing they did not already know.
However, if the disputing parties who now sat or paced around the coffee-stained table of the mine’s small canteen were agreed on one single thing, it was that for the time being at least, no more information should be released for public consumption.
In the men’s room, two of the more senior officers had already privately (or so they thought — Carla could go anywhere, and with no shame at all) shared their views that once State arrived on the scene, there were likely to be two or three very specific further developments. In addition to a brief and insubstantial cover story which would no doubt soon be created, some much stronger reporting “guidelines” would also be promptly and quietly conveyed to the grandees of the Press. And the entire site would then of course need to remain closed and secured indefinitely, in case of future indications of any ground contamination.
As she concluded her personal observations of this hive of inactivity, Quo was confident that the investigations would undoubtedly drag on for many days to come, and that the mysterious drill-hole in the ground would actually remain the only breakthrough to have been made since it all began.
But she had also been rather dismayed to learn that one of the investigators was a Homeland Security agent — though thankfully from Las Vegas, the closest city to the mining site. Surely none of his follow-up activity would in any way reveal that agency’s earlier coast-to-coast surveillance of Toni Murano and his very recent near-detention in San Francisco? After all, Quo’s own quiet word with Ted Ranovitz at Kennedy Airport had led that senior controller to order Toni’s unconditional release, and to make an irrevocable commitment to ensuring that all database and paper records relating to his unfounded suspicions about the boy would be immediately purged.
On Dome, such an undertaking would never be necessary anyway, but the technology to do it categorically and comprehensively was of course taken for granted. Quo had assumed that, after being given the correct motivation, Ted would be able to carry out the job with speed and ease. She was now seriously hoping she had not overestimated the efficacy and reliability of Earth’s information systems networks ...
It was eleven o’clock. Time for Carla to hurry straight back to the coast to begin her own diplomatic protection task.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2008 by Michael E. Lloyd