Prologue (part)


Mary left the Talbert’s home in Canberra and headed for the Deep Space Station near Tidbinbilla in her rented Toyota Yaris. It was just before Christmas and the sun burnt down from a cloudless sky. The temperature was already 30°C and the air conditioning in her rental car was full on. It was nine o’clock but there were very few cars on the road, which was a delight compared with her home in London. She had paid a bit extra to have a satnav in the car and she could see she was getting very close to the WorldLink satellite control site. The signs said CSIRO which she knew meant Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation but she was looking for a separate sign for WorldLink since she was aware that they had their own facility close-by, but not co-located with the CSIRO satellite centre. Finally, just as she thought she would have to go into the old CSIRO Space Station, she saw the WorldLink sign; the road led away from the Space Station and after a bit she found her way blocked by two pairs of large closed gates. On either side there was a high barbed wire fence which she guessed went right round the facility but the ground was hilly and she couldn’t see the facility at all from the gates but only two satellite antennae.

Mary read and complied with the notice by the gates telling drivers to open their windows and to look in the camera on their right. The first gates opened and then as she drove through she was stopped at the second gates which had some red lights. She noticed another camera looking down, presumably at the car’s number plate; the lights went green and the gates opened. She followed the winding road which went downhill slightly and finally saw a car park sign; the actual park when she got there was completely hidden from the entry gates and she parked in the only visitor’s slot she could see, next to another Yaris and close to what appeared to be the entrance to a small single story flat-topped nondescript building with the two tall satellite dishes alongside. She could see a man’s face looking out of a building window right in front of her which she guessed was an office. She got out of the car into the paralysing summer heat and walked quickly to get under the cover of a portico giving shade to the front of the building; she found herself looking into another camera as she entered into a keypad the four figure number which she had been given by the guy in the office in Canberra; the door opened automatically and she went into a reception area. It took a moment or two to get adjusted to the light and the air conditioning but after a moment she saw a smart looking blonde of about twenty five sitting behind a desk with a screen on her left.

“Good morning, Ms French. So you found us okay?” Mary nodded but wondered what would have happened if things had gone a bit wrong, like the planned car had had to be changed. “I’ll tell Derek you’re here.”

Mary sat down in one of the two easy chairs while the receptionist was telephoning. It was cold in the building and she was glad she was wearing slacks and had put on a small jacket to go over her thin blouse. She looked around and there was nothing to show who owned the facility and that it was a key component of a brand new satellite world telephone system. It seemed completely anonymous and purposeless but she guessed that perhaps it was deliberate; nevertheless she did begin to wonder if she was wasting her time. Finally a man of about thirty five appeared, tall, brown hair wearing an open necked shirt, long grey trousers and sandals.

“Mary, good to meet you. I’m Derek Courtfield and I look after WorldLink’s interests in Australia. Shall we go into my office?”

He led the way and as they entered the room she realised it must have been Derek watching her as she had parked the car. There was a large map of the world on one wall but as far as she could see it was a standard Mercator’s Projection with no special markings. The only other wall decoration was a picture of a vast deserted golden sandy beach with a sparkling Ocean behind. There was a large filing cabinet next to Derek’s desk and the desk itself was clear except for a picture of Derek and a young lady with her arms draped lovingly round him who, Mary realised later, was the girl at the reception desk maximising her bosom with a well-fitting bra showing a large cleavage. She did a quick check and saw that Derek was not wearing any rings.

“Let me tell you what we do and show you round though there isn’t much to see.” The accent was definitely from south of the Equator but perhaps tempered by some southern United States influence. They went into a large room with several large screens apparently controlled by two operators. “As you know WorldLink has a complete world communication system consisting of many low earth satellites and this facility here receives transmissions from the satellites as they fly by and sends responses as required.”

Mary thought about this. “But surely you need to be connected to the internet.”

“Of course. That is what the satellite dishes are for outside the building. They are connected to a geosynchronous satellite which has full internet connectivity.“

“Couldn’t you use a feed from Canberra?”

“The bandwidth wouldn’t be wide enough. Canberra’s internet connection isn’t good enough to cope with what the City needs and what we need.”

Mary looked around. “Well happens in this room?”

“We have to ensure that our communication function is working correctly and of course to be certain that our internet connection is one hundred per cent. We are also looking for satellite anomalies and with so many of them we often have transmission and reception problems which need correction. We have a full time link to the WorldLink Control Centre in California.”

“I thought a firm in UK called Camfen controlled the system?”

“It is their design and software but the physical control centre is in the States, actually in California. Of course Camfen monitor the whole system long term and as you know they are now a WorldLink company.”

Derek introduced Mary to Cliff Watkins, WorldLink’s Technical Manager at the facility and he showed her the other rooms full of black boxes and the power supply room. “If the commercial electricity supply fails we have a battery driven back-up which comes on seamlessly and we have generators to keep the batteries charged. “

“Are there any other facilities like this one?”

Derek joined in. “Yes. One, in the States which is the Master and there is also a duplicate to this one but the location is very secret because we are frightened of terrorism. As you will have seen we don’t advertise what we do here. In fact we’ve just had instructions to remove our WorldLink signs. We’ll have to think of some other way of giving directions to this place.”

They left the office and Derek looked at his watch. “Are you in a hurry? We could have a bite at the Nature Reserve and finish our talk later. We’re not expecting any more visitors so I’ve asked Sophie to join us.”

Mary looked a bit surprised when she realised that Sophie was the receptionist but Derek quickly explained as he made the introductions that they were engaged to be married.

They went outside and got into Derek’s car which proved to be the Toyota Yaris next to Mary’s car. As she watched Derek searching for his keys but not finding them, she suggested they used her car but Derek shook his head and turned to Sophie. “I’ve left my keys in my office. Let’s go in your car, my love.”

They got out and walked over to Sophie’s car and ten minutes later they drove into the Nature Reserve and pulled up outside the restaurant. The room was fairly full and looking around Mary decided she would like to come back on another day and tour the Reserve. They sat down and ordered sandwiches each one of which, when they came, Mary judged would have been enough for two people. Suddenly they heard an explosion and everybody in the restaurant jumped. Mary felt an uneasy foreboding. “What on earth was that? It sounded very close.” ...........



Chapter 1 (part)


Mary said goodbye to Derek Jones, a fellow UK accident investigator, and filed out from the Royal Aeronautical Society’s lecture theatre in Hamilton Place. They had been listening to a well know aviation professor from Cranfield giving his analysis of the disappearance of the Malaysian Boeing 777 Airliner MH370 in March 2014 somewhere in the South Indian Ocean. The aircraft still hadn’t been found and the lecture had in reality added nothing new to the discussion. In fact she wondered why the Society’s Lecture Committee had agreed to the talk in the first place. Her own private view was that the aircraft was proving very difficult to find because the fuselage must have submerged intact with all the passengers and crew trapped inside; she based her view on the fact that so far no floating wreckage had been discovered though she was sure that eventually something would be found, probably wreckage or hopefully the aircraft itself.

She went down the steps on to the pavement and started heading towards the RAF Club in Piccadilly when, almost immediately, she felt a tap on her arm. It was Rupert Carstairs, one of the deputy directors of GCHQ, who she knew to be a high flier and very young for his position. She had formed a very close relationship with him when she was working there, even though she was very junior and at least ten year younger than he was.

“Mary, what a surprise. What are you doing here?” He paused. “You look as if you’re heading for the RAF Club?” He looked at his watch. “Have you got time for a drink?”

She looked at him, immaculately dressed as usual in a grey suit, pink tie and diamond tiepin; she could even detect the perfume he used which she wasn’t likely to forget. She had planned to meet her current itinerant roommate Andrew at the Club after the lecture but he had sent her a message saying he would be late and was going straight back to her apartment. However, as she had to return to the Club anyway to collect her coat she nodded her assent to Rupert’s suggestion. “It’ll have to be a quick one as I’ve got to get home.”

They walked across Old Park Lane, into the Club and then up to the Cowdray Room which was almost empty except for a couple near the bar. She chose two chairs at the far end of the room and Rupert arrived with gin and tonics.

“Mary, what were you doing in the Aeronautical Society?”

“Oh, there was a lecture I needed to go to on that Malaysian aircraft that disappeared. It didn’t help very much in solving the problem. Goodness knows what really happened. I’m not convinced it was a terrorist plot or that one of the pilots deliberately flew the whole plane, passengers and all into the next world.”

“Yes, we looked at that disappearance and came to the conclusion it was probably an aircraft malfunction like the oxygen storage compartment blowing up. We didn’t believe, for example, that the Captain would somehow kill the First Officer and then asphyxiate the crew and passengers. What did your lecturer say?”

“He was just explaining how Intelsat had recently reworked out yet again the path of the aircraft and revised where the fuselage of the aircraft must be resting but I believe there is now some doubt on the whole concept. Anyway enough of that, what were you doing in Hamilton Place?”

“I was making my way to the Underground.”

She smiled her disbelief. “Are the taxis on strike again or is the GCHQ budget really hurting?”

“It was theatre time and they were full.”

“Well what are you up to or can’t you tell me?”

“Of course I can tell you as you are effectively still on our payroll. Anyway, you can guess. Three things Middle East, Middle East and Middle East.”

“Must be very difficult to keep track of what is going on with all these new frequency hopping phones and commercial satellite systems.”

“They still use the internet.”

Even though she had left GCHQ she couldn’t help herself keeping very interested in the place and what they were doing. “Not for local work, surely? Instant messaging for controlling people, weapons and the like needs to be a stand-alone system?”

“Yes, you’re right there. For local work we must be able to read the terrorist traffic and read it quickly. It is very difficult. Luckily the earlier networks were all setup by European or American companies so we still get the info.”

“Won’t the local companies find any leaks that go back to you?”

“Maybe, but we’ve made back-up arrangements. We’ll be OK more or less for a year or so. It’s the new ones that are really troubling us.”

“Well you had better be careful there are no Wikileaks.”

“Yes, that’s always a worry but everybody knows these days that all Governments are listening to everything they think might be important including other government traffic friend or foe, anything in fact that they think might be useful. What we don’t want to lose is the key people who help us decode the communications.” He looked at her. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to come back to GCHQ? There would be no problem about getting you a job.”

Mary smiled slightly. “Well you had better not arrange it or it will confirm everyone’s suspicions.”

“Do I take that as a yes.

“Certainly not, I was just pointing out a little local difficulty.” She thought for a moment. “Thanks for the offer but I’m very happy with what I’m doing in my present job and learning a lot.”

“I bet the manufacturers are very careful talking to you if they are trying to hide something.”

She grinned. “I think they do know that I am very inquisitive.”

They talked for a few minutes about her job and then Mary looked at her watch. “I must go in a moment. My roommate will be back soon.”

“Hasn’t he got a key?”

Mary looked at him thoughtfully and kicked herself for not guessing straightaway. “So it wasn’t a coincidence our meeting was it?” She didn’t wait for his reply. “You were waiting in the Society until we started coming out. You wanted to talk about Andrew and what he does?”

Rupert didn’t bother to answer her questions. “Do you know what he does?”

“Of course I know what he does and so does everyone else. He works with WorldLink’s subsidiary Camfen. Why didn’t you send your minions out to quiz me? Better still why don’t you ask Andrew?” She got up to go and Rupert tried to persuade her to sit down again. “Rupert, I really must be off and, in case you hadn’t noticed it, I’m not keen on the way you tackled your problem. If you’ve got some special difficulty with what he is doing and the way he is doing it you’d better ask him? I know very well, as you kindly pointed out, that I’m still subject to the Official Secrets Act but that doesn’t mean that I have to answer all your questions.”

“We could deport him.”

“Now don’t be ridiculous and try to threaten me. Go ahead if you want to. I’ll join the NTSB if they’ll have me. All you are actually doing is to make me wonder what he is doing that he hasn’t told me. Anyway you know perfectly well you’ve got no reason to cancel his visa. Your real problem is that you don’t like United States firms purchasing high tech firms in the UK which have security issues. Look, I’m not unreasonable. I understand you are worried about where that leaves GHCQ with private communication satellite systems. I take it you can’t order Camfen to give you their coding information because it is now an American firm and so at the moment you can’t read the messages.”

Mary leant forward and gave him a kiss on the cheek which stopped him in his tracks and then she dashed off, picked up her winter coat, walked to Green Park underground station and caught the tube to South Kensington.

Andrew was already back, had put the heating on and had changed into a short sleeved shirt and slacks. They embraced and she decided to shower and change into some sexy panties, a brief pullover, short shorts and not bother with a bra. She went back into the apartment’s living room where Andrew had poured two gin and tonics. She picked one up and sat down next to him. “I’m definitely not sure I ought to have another one.”

She recounted her meeting with Rupert and Andrew listened carefully. “My love, what did you tell him?”

“Nothing, of course. Not that I really understand what’s so special about your system and I’m not sure I want to know. Surely it’s just another communication satellite system. However, the fact that Rupert took the trouble to contact me himself shows that the company you’re working with must have some very special technology and your system is upsetting GCHQ.”

“You know my position is very difficult here. My firm bought Camfen Satellites for a lot of money and they are technically responsible for the operation of our satellite system. Naturally we have asked them to make sure that the messages can’t be read by third parties and this has raised security issues with both our Governments.”

Mary sipped the drink he had got, which luckily was not too strong. She and Andrew had hit it off from the moment they met. He was a native of New York and at the time had been working for Google but a rapidly rising competitor, WorldLink Inc based in Seattle, had persuaded him to join them. He was shuttling backwards and forwards from Seattle to London to monitor Camfen Satellites near Cambridge but it wasn’t long after meeting Mary that they decided that he might as well stay in her apartment instead of staying in Cambridge when he was in UK; he travelled each day by train and took a taxi to Camfen. They both knew that their different nationalities might cause problems if they stayed together, particularly as she had been working in GCHQ with a high security rating. However they had decided to go for it and if they wanted to live together full time then they were sure they could work something out.

She mused over her meeting with Rupert. “I think GCHQ are finding it harder and harder to track terrorists and criminals as the technology keeps on introducing new systems, hardware and software. It’s obviously very important for both our countries to be able to track all the terrorists and criminals but firms like yours don’t help trying to have your own private networks and security.”

“I don’t know about the UK but we have to cooperate with the National Security Agency.”

“But that makes GCHQ even more uncomfortable to think that NSA will know what’s happening and they don’t.” She moved slightly away from Andrew. “If you think stroking my thighs like that is going to change the subject,” she paused “you’re probably right but sometime fairly soon we do need to decide where we’re going, apart from bed that is.”




Mary looked at her watch. Andrew had left very early to catch his train and she had a little time before she need leave to go to her office at the back of the airfield at Farnborough. She went to her desk and found the Aviation Week article she was looking for which discussed potential satellite communication providers; WorldLink was mentioned since it was already a global internet provider with its own satellite constellation. It was pointed out that the system WorldLink provided was different from Google’s potential one as its system was designed by an offshore subsidiary company based in the UK near Cambridge which was responsible for the technology.

She tucked Av Week in her bag, went down to the garage and set course in her car to Farnborough. As usual she had to decide the best way to get to the M3 by looking at the traffic on her navigator and decided that at the moment the best bet seemed to be via the M4 and M25. As she approached Heathrow her telephone came to life.

“Mary, are you on your way?

“Jerry, of course. You’re up early.”

“Good. I’ve been up all night. You won’t be going home to-night. How does Canberra appeal to you? See you shortly.”

She turned on Radio 5 and heard a discussion trying to second guess why an Independant Transport Aircraft Company 990 operated by Royal World Airways had disappeared in the middle of the night after three hours out of Singapore on its way to Adelaide. It was difficult to separate the facts from the conjectures so she switched it off; she knew she would hear all the details soon enough.

She swung the car in to the car park, found a space and went up to her office she shared with Tom Wiseman. “Mary, have you heard?”

“Only that I’m off to Canberra but not much else.” ....





[1] ACARS sends aircraft system and flight operational reports to Airline via satellite if necessary

[2] See Dire Strait by same author