“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
Hanover County, Virginia
Monday October 7, 2047
The road seemed to stretch on forever. The hills up ahead rolled ceaselessly up and down like the seemingly endless waves of the ocean. The sun was just beginning to rise over the hills to the East, but had not yet risen above the tops of the rows of trees that lined either side of the road like the walls of a deep green canyon.
James Prichardson felt himself beginning to nod off for what felt like the dozenth time, and for the dozenth time had to resist the impulse to reach down and turn on the car radio, casting a glance over at the seat beside him to remind himself that he was not alone.
Candice sat slumped against the car door, her head pillowed on his jacket wedged between the headrest and the sill of the half-open window. She had fallen asleep shortly after they had passed Norfolk two hours earlier. He had thought about waking her as they had passed through the state capitol of Richmond half an hour ago, but had thought better of it, deciding instead to let his girlfriend sleep.
He couldn’t honestly say that he could blame her. Neither of them had gotten very much sleep at their seaside bed and breakfast in Rodanthe, the conclusion of a romantic two-week tour up the Eastern seaboard, beginning at the historic Fort Sumter, in commemoration of the two-year anniversary of their first official date together as a couple. As much as he already missed the Outer Banks, he himself was looking forward to returning to his one bedroom apartment in Alexandria.
Glancing up as the highway 54 overpass swept past above their heads, James thought again of how much he missed the feel, the sensation of driving a car. Having grown up in the age of the internal combustion engine, he had never quite accustomed himself to the practice of letting the newer cars drive themselves.
The new cars did have one benefit, he considered, curling his legs at the knees to his chest to prevent them from falling asleep. The car’s steering wheel, he knew, was safely tucked away inside the dashboard in front of him, existing only for deployment in emergencies when the autopilot failed.
Candice had not wanted to leave the bed and breakfast in the early hours of the morning, but James knew it was a five-hour drive from Rodanthe to Alexandria, and he had to be to work by ten.
Looking at her now, he could not help but notice how the way that the air rushing through the half-open car window played with her hair mirrored the way that the ocean breeze had done on the second-floor balcony of their hotel in Carolina beach. As he had done then, he reached out and lightly swept the unruly ebony locks behind her ear, his fingertips brushing the side of her cheek reverently.
An hour and a half later, he had no choice but to wake her as they exited onto the Washington Beltway.
“Off to save the world, Jim?” she asked somewhat groggily as the car pulled up to her place.
“Just another day at the office, Candy.” He replied with a smile, assisting her with unfastening her seatbelt.
“My secret agent man.” She smiled affectionately as she kissed him before climbing out of the car. “Will I see you tonight?” The intent look in her auburn hazel eyes told him she was not one about to be lied to.
“I’ll give you a call once I get out of Washington.” He answered her, hoping fervently with every fiber of his being that he would be able to keep that promise.
His feelings of ambivalence eased and diminished as the car continued on to James’s own apartment on King Street. He and Candice had always maintained an understanding between the two of them ever since the night when he had confessed to her that he worked for one of the clandestine agencies. As a matter f national security he could not reveal to her, or any civilian, which of the intelligence agencies, of which there were at least twelve dozen or more, he worked for without putting her life in danger. In return, she did not ask too many question: Questions she should not know the answers to.
Knowing he would be back with little time to spare, he had laid out his clothes before leaving on vacation. Emerging from a quick scalding shower in a bursting cloud of steam, he dressed. He grabbed his weapon, sticking it securely into his concealed sidearm holster in one smooth fluid motion practiced a thousand times. Pulling on his suit jacket, he attached his Agency badge to the breast pocket, into which he slipped his ID and credentials.
He was out the door and back in the car within an hour of having arrived home. As the car crossed the border from Virginia into the District of Columbia, James thought back to Candice’s pet name for him. While it was true in that he was technically employed by the Agency, his Legal Department office was a cubicle in the basement of the headquarters building up at Langley, and with his law degree from Columbia, his job was hardly one to be classified as top-secret.
Exiting off of highway 123, his car stopped in front of a brightly colored forged steel gateway. A young man dressed in a dark suit and tinted glasses approached the car, and James recognized the wire of an earpiece bud looped at the man’s temple. He presented his ID and credentials to the armed guard while beams of infrared lasers scanned the bottom of the vehicle for potential explosive devices or substances. The lights on the gateway flashed blindingly brilliant green and it swung wide. The guard waved him forward and his car descended a step ramp into the headquarters building’s bunker-like subterranean parking garage.
James got out of his car and walked over to the lift recessed in one of the concrete cement support columns. He stepped into the lift and it rose toward ground level.
George Bush Center for Intelligence
James walked up to the security turnstiles and swiped his identification card. He inserted his credentials and the light on the post’s console flashed green, the ordinarily muted light bright in the muted sunlight of the foyer. He was compelled to empty his pockets in order to pass through the metal detector, and finally entered the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency.
He had not yet been sitting at his desk two hours when he felt a familiar pair of eyes watching his every move.
“You don’t work here anymore, Jason.” He said without looking up.
The tall muscular man with close cropped bleached blonde hair who stood leaning against the side of his cubicle looked taken aback, and held up his hands, feigning offense.
“Just shooting the scuttlebutt, Jimbo.” Jason Hunter said, earning a smile from the CIA lawyer. Hunter had been in James’s class of Agency recruit at Camp Peary, or as it was known at Langley: “The Farm”. Like Prichardson, upon completing his CIA training, Jason had opted out of becoming an agent. Unlike James, who had gone on to law school in New York, Hunter had instead joined the Marine Corps. “What kind of day has it been?” He asked, and James recognized the military shorthand for requesting a situation report.
“Thorne keeps trying to resurrect clauses of the Patriot Act.” Nathan Thorne was the Deputy Assistant Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a thin wiry man whose deeply red-orange tanned skin clung to his matchstick frame.
“From the Bush Era?” Jason stared at him in vain for any sign of jest, finding none. “The Supreme Court struck down that whole package more than a decade ago!”
James threw up his hands. “I just report ’em. I don’t make ’em up!”
“Well;” Jason said, turning to leave; “I just stopped by to let you know: It’s in the air supply that someone is looking for you.”
“Bolten?” James asked, referring to the Director of Central Intelligence.
“No.” Jason said, patting the palm of his hand on the corner of Prichardson’s cubicle as he backed away. “It’s some tall brunette chick from an agency no one’s ever heard of.” With that, Jason was gone.
An hour later, Prichardson returned from lunch at the Headquarter commissary, but slowed as he entered the legal department’s office bullpen. Leaning back on the corner of his cubicle was tall young woman with long jet-black hair.
She looked to be in her mid-thirties, though as she scanned her eyes across the bullpen looking for him, James got a look at her face and concluded that she could easily pass for someone in their early twenties. She was dressed entirely in black, in what appeared to be a one-piece latex catsuit that clung to her figure.
When she spotted him approaching his cubicle she pushed off the wall and stood straight, her face lighting up with a warm smile. “James Prichardson?” she called. He nodded as he neared her and she extended her hand. “My name is Special Agent Walker. I’m with the National Security Department Intelligence Agency.”
‘This must be the woman Jason had told him about.’ James thought as he shook her hand, having never heard of the NSDIA either. “Is there’s something I can do for you, Agent Walker?” He asked, sitting back down at his desk.
“You’ve never heard of me, have you?” She asked, still smiling.
James shook his head. “Should I have?”
“Perhaps not.” Walker leaned against the wall of her cubicle casually, suddenly becoming fascinated by her own fingernails. “But I trust you know the woman I work for.” She glanced over at him, her mother-of pearl eyes flashing. “Doctor Hera Day.”
James felt himself sit straighter in his chair, doing his best to disguise it. He had indeed heard of the mysterious Doctor. Nearly everyone in the Clandestine Services had. Hera Day was a legend within the intelligence community in the truest sense of the word. No one had ever met her or even seen her face, but she nevertheless wielded influence over everyone up to and including the President himself, and had in every administration for the better part of the past half-century. The Intelligence Community was a division of the Department of National Security and Defense that in and of itself made up what was for all practical intents and purposes a separate and autonomous fourth branch of the United States federal government, but Day was the Director of an agency that operated outside of even the Intelligence Community: So secretive that only those within the Clandestine Services even knew it existed, and even fewer knew its name. That name, apparently, he now knew, was the National Security Department Intelligence Agency.
He cleared his throat uncomfortably as Walker sashayed around the back of his chair, trailing her fingers casually along the top of the headrest. “What can I help you with, Agent Walker?” He repeated his earlier question more courteously, now knowing to whom he was speaking. Director Day, he knew, had one favourite Agent in particular. No one knew her name, owing in no small part to the fact that she had so many. In France, she was known as Helena Truffaut; in England, as Helena Wells. In Southern California, she was Sarah Carter. ‘Doctor Sarah Carter.’ He recalled, resisting the urge to look again at the young woman behind him.
“I’m here to ask you a few questions.” She hopped up to seat herself on the corner of her desk, crossing her legs and letting her booted feet swing under his chair. “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
“Wouldn’t you prefer to go somewhere more comfortable;” He finally looked up to make eye contact with her; “Like the commissary?” Her smile broadened, and he felt his face flush, immediately conscientious how much he had sounded as though he were asking her out on a date.
“Relax, Agent Prichardson.” She said, looking around the Legal Department as though wondering what he, or she for that matter, was doing down there. “It’s not like we’re going to be discussing any classified intelligence.” James was forced to smile at this, thinking that he even if she had wanted to discuss classified secrets, he didn’t know any. “Actually;” Walker said, planting her hands on his desk behind her and leaning back; “The only secrets I need from you are of a more…shall we say…personal nature.”
It was Prichardson’s turn to look around the bullpen nervously, knowing Deputy Thorne’s disapproval of personal matters in the workplace. He had heard the Deputy dressing down his colleagues and coworkers enough times for office romances and workplace fraternization…
“Will that be a problem for you, Agent Prichardson?” Walker’s voice drew him back to the now, and he looked up to see her eyes boring into him.
“I don’t see how it could be a problem for anyone.” He replied with the first thing that came to his mind before could censor himself, thinking that even if his neighbors knew all about his personal life, he knew of few if any who he thought would care or even give it a second thought. “What’s this for, might I ask?”
“You may ask, Agent Prichardson.” Walker replied with a knowing half-grin, but did not answer his question. Instead, she merely produced a pad, compelling James to wonder where on her skintight suit one might find to hide a pocket. “You grew up in Sacramento, California. Is that correct?” From the tone of her voice, he could tell she already knew the answer and that the question was a mere formality. He nodded. “And how old are you now?”
“I’m thirty-one.” He studied her, attempting in vain to ascertain what her answer to the same question might be.
“Meaning that you would have been born in 2016.” This time it was not even a question, but a statement of fact. He nodded again. “And how long have you been a practicing lawyer?”
“Are you romantically involved with anyone at the moment?”
The question blindsided James out of far right field, and he struggled not to ask her to repeat it. “Yes.”
“This would be Candice Peregrym of Odessa, Texas.” Prichardson’s head jerked up to stare at her, startled that she would know that information.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” She chuckled. “And might young Miss Peregrym be employed by any intelligence or law enforcement agency?”
James shook his head. “No. She’s a civilian.” He felt the need to clear himself from his reaction before. “She’s a graduate student at GW…That’s George Washington University.”
“Doing what?” James got the distinct impression this wasn’t on the official questionnaire.
“A Masters in International Environmental Law, specializing in Russia and Eastern Europe.” He tried his best not sound as though he was boasting, but found himself smiling proudly nevertheless. “She plans to work for the United Nations after she graduates.”
Walker nodded, her expression unreadable, before continuing with the questions. “And how long have you and Miss Peregrym been romantically involved?”
“Two years last month.” James answered with a smile, wondering whether the cryptic woman knew that he had just returned from their anniversary that morning.
“Where do you live, exactly?”
“King Street, Alexandria, Virginia.”
“Near the corner of King and Washington off of the Interstate 495 Beltway.” Walker nodded, grinning smugly at his stunned expression. “One final question;” she stared hard at him until he met her eyes with his; “and I want you to think long and hard about this one. It’s very important.” James felt himself nod slowly, feeling almost lightheaded as though somehow hypnotized by the depths of her pearlescent eyes as he stared into them. “Are you, or would you be, able and willing to relocate from your current residence?”
James cocked his head to one side, never having been asked that question by anyone before. ‘Not since the Farm, at least.’ He thought.
“Candy and I aren’t getting hitched anytime in the foreseeable future.” He felt himself thinking out loud. “So it’s not like I’m tied down with a family or anything.” He straightened in his chair and did his level best to meet her eyes and return her gaze with his own with equal intensity. “I serve at the pleasure of Director Bolten, the DNI, the National Security Council and the President of the United States.” He stated coolly.
“Good.” Walker smiled as she pushed off with her hands behind her to hop down off the desk. “That’s exactly what we were hoping you would say.” Before he could ask who she meant by “We, she was already rounding the outside wall of his cubicle. She paused on her way to turn and place her arms on the top of the cubicle wall directly in front of him, resting her chin lightly on the knuckles of her her folded hands. “We’ll be in touch, James.” She said with an inviting grin spreading her lips.
He blinked in surprise at her use of his first name, but when he opened his eyes again the mysterious woman in black was gone.
No sooner had he returned to his work then he felt the pager attached to his belt at his hip vibrating against his chair. He plucked it off his belt and quickly typed in his twelve-digit alphanumeric pass code on the touch keypad. In abbreviated script, the message read:
“DNI, Echelon, ASAP.”
The letters “DNI” referred to George Kagan, the Director of National Intelligence. “Echelon”, James knew, was the codename within the intelligence services for the headquarters building of the National Security Reconnaissance Agency Office, or NSRAO, at Fort Meade in Maryland. He made a quick phone call before packing up his briefcase and exiting the building.
Half an hour later, as his car exited the Washington Beltway back on to Interstate 95 toward Baltimore, James reviewed everything that was known about the National Security Department Intelligence Agency. It didn’t take long, as there wasn’t much.
It was widely known that President Abraham Lincoln had signed a piece of legislation into law in 1865 creating the United States Secret Service. What only the clandestine community knew was that redacted footnote to that act of Congress also created another Agency: The NSDIA.
However, what Prichardson found most intriguing was that, although the secretive Agency’s history dated back nearly two hundred years, he could find no record anywhere of there ever having been a Director preceding the present one: Doctor Hera Day. He also found of interest the location listed as the headquarters of the National Security Department Intelligence Agency, as it was nowhere near the nation’s capitol. The NSDIA was officially headquartered at a little-known United States Air Force base in the Yucca Mountain salt flats: On the shores of a place “Groom Lake”.
The car exited Interstate 95 at Annapolis Junction onto Highway 32 and began heading southeast toward Fort Meade. From the top of the hill, he could see the iconic megalithic green glass cubes rising above the treetops. The NSRAO was by far the largest and most powerful of the intelligence agencies, and it headquarters dwarfed even those of the CIA at Langley. ‘Echelon’, the former home of the National Security Agency. In the context of what he had learned about Doctor Day, Walker and the NSDIA, the now-defunct Agency’s slang meaning of “No Such Agency” seemed almost comical by comparison. The United States Federal Government had denied until the Watergate investigation of the early 1970’s that the NSA even existed at all. On the other hand, James doubted very much if anyone in the wider civilian populace would ever be aware of the existence of the NSDIA. ‘Any Agency;’ He thought to himself; ‘Which could exist since the American Civil War and still remain unknown to all but an exclusive few could very well, and in all probability would, remain safely anonymous indefinitely.’
National Security Reconnaissance Agency Office
Fort Meade, Maryland
Even as his car parked in front of one of the monolithic glass buildings, James could already see his Agency contact walking out from the building to meet him.
“Thanks for doing this, C.J.” He said, greeting her with a handshake that the other pulled in for a friendly hug. “It’s been too long.”
Chlaire Jameson Daniels managed the NSRAO’s electronic digital computer cryptographology department. A half dozen years older than Prichardson, she was dressed formally in a skirt suit with her shoulder-length honey blonde hair pulled tightly back and secured in a ponytail that feathered the back of her neck.
Once inside the building, C.J.’s heels clicked on the gleaming white tiles. He steady pace never wavering, Daniels held up what James had at first assumed to be a decorative bola around her neck, but was he now saw a badge on a lanyard. It took James a moment to spot the dark-suited guard standing in an alcove, as C.J stepped up to a monitor mounted on a wall next to a set of opaque doors.
She stood perfectly motionless as a beam of light shined back and forth across her eye, scanning her retina. Then she placed her hand on a pedestal that rose from the floor panel below the monitor. While the touch-sensitive surface scanned her fingerprints, a microscopic pinprick on her palm too a sample of her blood, verifying her identity.
The pedestal began to sink back down into the floor as the door pooped open with a hiss of released pressurized air: The Inside of Echelon was kept hermetically vacuum sealed in order to keep out foreign biochemical contaminants.
They stepped into a glass elevator lift, which took them to the twentieth floor of the imposing glass cube.
“The DNI is expecting you.” C.J. told him as they stepped into the office of the Director of National Intelligence. The Director stood as the glass door swished open and the duo entered.
A former Army General who had been deployed in the Pacific during the Second Cold War, George Kagan looked as though he would be much more comfortable commanding battalions of soldiers in combat than filing intelligence reports.
“Thank you, Miss Daniels.” Bolten said, nodding to the agent escorting James. “I think I can take it from here. That will be all. You are dismissed.” C.J nodded in acknowledgement, patting James on the shoulder with a look that sent the message: ‘Good luck‘ as she turned around, the door opening again with a hiss and closing behind her as she left the room.
“You must be Special Agent Prichardson.” The man across the table greeted, taking James’s hand in a vice-like grip as he shook it vigorously. “I can’t express what a pleasure it is to meet you.”
“The real pleasure will be entirely all mine, I’m certain.” James replied.
“Please, James… Is it alright if I call you by your first name?” Prichardson nodded. “Please do have a seat.” Kagan sat down at his desk, backdropped by its vertigo-inducing vista all the way to the skyline of Baltimore.
“I have heard quite a lot about you.” Prichardson knew that really meant the Director had perused his classified portfolio. Even so, there was earnestness in Kagan’s tone that made Prichardson actually believe that the Director meant what he said. Considering the present circumstances he decided that it would probably be a goo idea to go along with wherever the Director’s conversation was headed. He smiled in a manner he hoped was engagingly amicable and responded: “Oh? Yes? From whom?”
“A friend of ours.” Kagan answered without so much as a moment’s hesitation. It was a predictable and typically cryptic response from the lifelong spy. “Thank you for coming on such short notice.”
Prichardson opened his mouth to explain to the General that he hadn’t had much say in the decision, but instead he said: “You paged me for a meeting. I’m led to understand that the Directorate had an assignment for me.”
“A reassignment, actually.” The Director dropped a manila folder on the table, sliding it over across the smoothly polished Formica tabletop in front of him.
“So where am I being reassigned to?” James asked, knowing full well what “reassignment” meant in the context of the clandestine services.
The Director did not answer his inquiry directly. “You’ll be working for a woman whom I worked with…it must have been decades ago now…. at Cheyenne Mountain.”
Prichardson was familiar with the facility outside Colorado Springs. “She worked at NORAD?” He asked, referring to the North American Aerospace Defense Command headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base.
Kagan merely smiled. “Perhaps you might have heard of something called the Stargate Program?”
James could only nod: As a lawyer for the CIA, he was indeed well aware of the operation codenamed Project Stargate. The Program had gained notoriety during the Vietnam War as a CIA covert research project into “psy-ops”: Extra-Sensory Perception, clairvoyance and “remote viewing”. In reality, the Stargate Program was a top-secret classified joint American and Russian Air Force operation in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries based deep underneath Cheyenne Mountain. Even Central Intelligence knew little about what was dubbed “Stargate Command”, except that it existed somewhere between levels 27 and 28 of the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station.
“She set up shop out west many years back.”
“I’m being transferred?” Prichardson resigned himself to following along. “To where?”
“The Ninety-ninth United States Air Force Base Flight Wing Test and Training Center.” James tried and utterly failed to work out in his head what the possible acronym would be. “Ninety miles southeast of downtown Las Vegas.”
“You’re sending me to Nevada?”
“We have a private Agency plane waiting for you on the Tarmac at Tipton even now as we speak.” Kagan stood from his chair to shake his hand. “You leave in an hour. It has been very nice to have met and spoken with you, Special Agent Prichardson.”
“Thank you for your time, Director Kagan.” The director sat back down, the door to the DCI’s office opened and he was ushered out. He walked out the door, which closed behind him.
C.J. was waiting by the glass elevator. She saw James’s perplexed expression and asked: “How did it go?” On the way back down to the ground level, Prichardson explained as best he could manage without revealing any of what he knew would be classified details about his reassignment to Nevada. C.J. did not respond until they had reached the doors of the glass cube. Then she said: “Candice will be so disappointed.”
Tipton Air Force Base
Fort Meade Maryland
James’s car drove along a road through a forest of trees. The road emptied out onto an airfield ensconced by forests on all sides. The small parking lot just across another road was empty and his car pulled into the parking slot nearest to what appeared to be one among the only shelter structures in the field built for people.
James had barely stepped from the car onto the sidewalk when he spotted a young woman striding down the walk from the shelter building.
The figure was immediately recognizable as being that of Special Agent Walker, except with shoulder-length golden blonde hair and dressed smartly in a custom-tailored fitted navy blue military dress uniform pantsuit, the chest adorned with hanging medallions and ribbons.
She smiled as she approached, seeing him studying the shiny winged metal pin centered on her left breast. “Connor.” He read the name imprinted on the ID tag.
“Samantha Connor.” She extended to him her hand even as she reached him.
He was confused at first for a moment why she was introducing herself to him by another name. She pointed to the gold chevron shapes covering the padded shoulders of her jacket. “Colonel Samantha Connor, United States Air Force.” Even as he shook her outstretched hand, James reassessed his initial evaluation of the woman. He was amazed that anyone so young could have risen to the rank of colonel, which most officers did not achieve until at least their late forties or early fifties.
“Right this way, if you will please follow me, Agent Prichardson.” Connor said as she turned and headed across the parking lot. They climbed a hill on a patch of green grass and reaching the top of the rise, James spotted their destination: A grey enclosure set in between two artificial mounds that looked more like camouflaged bunkers than parts of an aircraft hangar.
Connor told James to take a seat in the main passenger cabin as they boarded the small private jet before disappearing into the front of the plane after seeing to it that he was comfortably seated.
James spent the majority of the three-hour flight from Maryland to Nevada perusing the accordion folder that Director Kagan had handed him at Echelon, carefully reading and rereading every page over and over again and again, attempting in vain to uncover the Directorate of National Intelligence’s reason or rationale for sending him to Nevada. James must have drifted off for a while because he awoke to find that the plane was circling over downtown Las Vegas.
Groom Lake Air Force Base, Nevada
The plane touched down on the southeastern end of the long runway. Taxiing due northwest, the plane did not slow to a stop until it turned into the last slot in a long hangar at the end of the road. It was not until Connor joined him as he got up from his seat in the cabin that it occurred to James why the woman had not during the flight: He realized then that the colonel had actually been the one who had been flying the plane all the while. He stared at the young blonde with new respect as together Prichardson and Connor descended the stairs into the darkened hangar. He noted that she had transitioned from a pantsuit to the jacket’s matching knee-length skirt upon their arrival in Nevada.
They stepped out of the cool hangar into the brilliant, scalding Nevada desert sun only momentarily, as there was black sedan waiting for them just outside the hangar. They rode west over a hill, at which time their destination came into view and James could not conceal a gasp of astonishment: Built into the hillside in front of them was what was no doubt the largest warehouse he had ever seen. Even the massive concrete bases of the steel scaffolding columns that supported the overhanging eaves of the sharply slanted roof dwarfed the sedan in which they rode as they pulled up to the towering façade of the megalithic structure. Stepping from the sedan, James had to crane his neck upwards into the blindingly brilliant desert sunlight in order to just barely make out the apex of the roof towering like the mountain behind it that it appeared to mimic.
Connor stepped up to a set of solid steel double doors that, in spite of being nearly twice again her own height, were so minutely miniscule compared to the warehouse itself that they had been nearly imperceptible and had gone heretofore unnoticed by Prichardson. Reaching up to what appeared to be a brass knocker, the Colonel’s fingers flipped the cover down and stepped up to the lens, standing still as a statue, unblinking as the laser beam scanned her retina and the pad took her handprint.
James startled as a second set of metal double doors, concealed within the larger gate, popped open with a hiss.
The interior of this building was apparently climate-controlled. The contrast between the broiling Nevada desert heat and the coolly air-conditioned environment as they stepped inside forced James to take a deep breath. If that hadn’t made him gasp already, the interior of the building into which they stepped most definitely would have. They stepped from the dusty wind-blown sands of the southeastern Nevada salt flats into a foyer that looked as though it belonged more in the Louvre than a warehouse in in the desert.
Colonel Connor’s heels clicked rhythmically, echoing in the high-ceilinged hall, on the parquet marble tiles, polished to a lustrous sheen as to reflect the shadows of the glistening metallic stone-grey marble columns cast by the glass bulb crystal chandeliers dangling from the high ceiling above. On either side, ornate wooden staircases led down to lower stories below them. They were not taking the stairs, however, and Connor led him to a large freight cargo elevator lift, which started to move almost before its metal doors had finished closing completely behind his back.
James could tell that they were moving downward: plummeting might have been the word that sprung to his mind. It was no free-fall-however, as the two of them barely felt the inertia of acceleration: The law of motion of inertia seemed almost not to apply, only Connor’s blonde hair feeling the near-zero gravity weightlessness effects. The only sign that Prichardson could had to discern the rapid and accelerating rate of their descent was the outside of the shaft flying by outside the rounded barred porthole opposite him, behind the tall woman. James had long since lost count of the meters that they must had dropped by the time that the lift began to slow to a gentle, nearly imperceptible halt.
The metal doors opened onto a parquet-tiled foyer, carven wooden read and gold-carpeted steps on either side up ahead of them led up to a second story. Ascending one of the twin staircases, they entered a brilliantly lit office.
Behind the engraved wood desk sat a tall, regal-looking woman with long arms and legs and long, flowing golden hair. “Good afternoon, James.” The older woman’s English-accented voice greeted him as she rose from her chair and extended a long arm and long-fingered hand. “My name is Hera Day.” James shook her hand.
“Will there be anything more I can do for you, Ma’am?” The colonel asked from the doorway behind.
“Not for just right now.” The taller older woman answered. “Thank you, Helena. That will be all. You are dismissed. Before James could register that the woman had called his escort by the name “Helena”, Connor bowed low and deeply at the waist in a courtly curtsy. “Thank you so much mo—madam.” She corrected herself quickly at a cautionary glance from the older woman. Then she was gone before James could even turn around. Once she had disappeared, Day came around her desk to approach him.
To his surprise, as she continued directly past him to the window, Day removed her pantsuit, revealing a high-collared long-sleeved beaded sequin floor-length evening gown underneath. He followed her beckoning finger, stepping up to stand beside her as she faced the window, through which brilliant sunlight shone, filtered only by the drawn crimson satin curtains. Reaching out with her long arms, she tugged the curtains to either side, drawing open the window. As James’s vision adjusted to the brightness, nothing in the first thirty years of his life could have ever possibly prepared him for the sight that greeted his eyes.
“Special Agent Prichardson;” Hera said to him. “Welcome to Area 51.”