Acrid smoke tickled Harland’s nose as he approached the still-smoking attack helicopter. Metal groaned as the aircraft’s burned-out husk teetered in the wind. The twisted rotor swivelled. The flames were out, the once powerful and expensive machine a blackened lump of useless metal, illuminated by only the light of the Milky Way and the sliver of the waxing crescent moon. He’d not seen a downed bird since Vietnam.
Most of the tents used by the scientists studying the dais were gone or little more than scorched tatters of fabric, but two had survived the assault. A third tent rose from the desert floor, erected by a group of men, a hundred feet away, using the headlights of the trucks they had arrived on as a makeshift light source. Others strung wiring and placed light stands, preparing more suitable illumination for those responsible for analyzing recent events.
Harland slipped off his blazer and draped it over an arm. Despite the late hour, warm air drew sweat from his brow, but it evaporated before it could accumulate and run down his face. He didn’t mind. Heat and aridity soothed the aches and pains that he had acquired in decades of serving his country. The former were in fact the perks that had compelled him to accept the Bodhi Institute posting many years ago. He’d take them over the winters of his childhood any day of the week.
His tenure with the CIA had made him an ideal candidate to head security at the Bodhi Group’s Nevada facility, and he was proud to be a part of it. To contribute to its cause. To protect his country and the principles of liberty and equality upon which it had been founded. To work with the Group’s other member nations who likewise sought to preserve their own way of life, by cooperating in scientific endeavours that would keep the West ahead of the bad guys.
As his counterpart, Bodhi Institute Executive Director Jeffrey Wallace, PhD, had often told him, you don’t get ahead of everyone else by thinking conventionally. Knowing that, the Group didn’t merely try to get to the next logical step in technological development first. The other guys would always be right behind; adjacent scientific advancements become inevitable once the foundation is there. If someone invents the wheel, attaching it to a box to make a wagon isn’t going to be far behind.
The Group’s founders knew that the best way to get so far ahead of the other guys that they’d have no hope of catching up was to go after the non-obvious. To be the only one in the race, because the other guys don’t even know the racetrack exists. Backed by prodigious funding from a host of nations, they favoured research and development projects that explored the strange and bizarre, investigating unlikely, unconventional and even ridiculous avenues of study, even those dismissed by the scientific community at large. All in the hope of finding something completely new and revolutionary.
And the boldness had paid off more than once, leading to discoveries that were shared or loaned to associated agencies, even his former employer, the CIA. The distribution of that knowledge, even to a friendly government agency, had to be handled with great care, however. Staying ahead, even in a cold war, meant keeping secrets. Even the existence of discoveries had to be protected against theft. Thieves prefer to burgle houses that they know have something worth stealing. Plus, secrecy made it easier to pursue the research without worrying about public perception or the ridicule of the larger scientific community.
So they needed more than just scientists and engineers. They needed people like Harland. Those who knew how to keep secrets and how to protect them. And, perhaps more importantly, those who would stand ready to protect the Group from some secrets that should have stayed buried.
A rhythmic thumping rose over the wind and cicadas. The security director watched as an airborne helicopter approached low over the desert before setting down on the landing zone a few hundred feet away. The doors opened, and several people spilled forth and began unloading cases and equipment onto the desert floor.
The new arrivals made for one of the field tents. After a few steps, one of their number broke away from the larger group. He strode toward a couple of Harland’s security agents, one of several pairs Harland had stationed around the area to provide overwatch against attack. The shorter of the two, Jesus Jimenez, an early-thirties field agent, held up a hand as the man approached.
As Jimenez’s flashlight lit the newcomer’s face, Harland recognized him from photos he’d seen. He was a recent transfer from one of the Bodhi Group’s northern facilities, a scientist with a PhD in chemistry, if he remembered correctly. As security director, he made a point of reviewing the personnel files of those transferring in, but he had yet to meet the man in person—it had been a busy week.
Jimenez tilted his head in Harland’s direction. His lips moved, but his words faded in the wind. Both agents smirked at the new arrival’s back for several heartbeats as he shambled over, then back to their desert surroundings.
“Uh, hi. I’m Gary,” the man said. “Gary Ashdon.” He brushed the sleeve of his white lab coat across his brow and extended a hand. “I’m new on Project Sky Fire. Are you Harley?”