London 2058, and the sun beat down on the tinted windows of the Space Foundation Lounge in Terminal 8 of Heathrow Base. Outside, across the endless tarmac, superplanes glinted as they lined up for runway 27, and VTOL's taxied serenely out to the Column. Archer was lost in the silent manoeuvres going on beyond the windows when the sliding doors opened behind him. He snapped his head round to see who had entered the space, doubling its occupancy.
It was Geek, the brains of their team of freelance techno-graduates. The younger man was wearing his stock white Axiom Few t-shirt, a low slung pair of jeans and scratty black converse trainers with flapping, untied laces. A sizeable rucksack was slung over one shoulder, causing his thin body to tilt to compensate. He hurried to the chair opposite Archer and slumped into it, out of breath. 'Does anyone know why we're here?'
'Dad and I had to cut short our golfing trip,' said Archer. 'He's over in one of the Space Foundation offices sorting out some paperwork. He didn't say much on the flight down from St Andrews. Only that he wanted to talk to us all together.'
'Did your Mum fly down with you?'
Archer shook his head. 'She's still up there at the health spa, with a couple of her friends.'
The lounge doors slid open again and Archer's father strode quickly into the room, brandishing four boarding passes. 'Sorry about the wait.' He shook Geek's hand, 'Thanks for coming at such short notice. The Space Foundation are always grateful for your...'
'It's ok Goddard,' said Geek. 'I wasn't up to much today anyhow. Where are we going?'
Goddard looked to Archer. 'Any sign of Davey yet?'
'He called a few minutes ago to say he was just entering the Base. He had to drop Gemma home. They were spending the weekend in the Isle of Wight. It's their wedding anniversary.'
Goddard's eyes drifted momentarily to the floor, 'I'll have to make it up to them. And what about you son? Is there any sign you and Louise might tie the knot. She's good for you.'
Geek nodded in agreement. 'It's probably about time mate. She might not wait forever.'
Archer stared once more out of the window, as the spinning radar beyond the terminals plotted the positions of local air traffic, manoeuvring things into position. Although he felt slightly embarrassed by their interest in his love life, he tried not to let it show. 'I've been thinking about it. Maybe after this trip. Maybe I'll...'
He was rescued from saying any more by the buzzing of his mobile phone. It was a text message from Davey, saying that he'd parked up and was on his way. Archer showed the phone screen to his father.
'We'll meet him on the way out,' said Goddard. 'Get your things. Our VTOL is waiting.'
The VTOL accelerated heavily during its climb to a cruising altitude of fifty kilometres, crossing the threshold of land and sea somewhere over the southern coast of Cornwall. Archer stared out at the expanse of the sinking world as the four passengers of this luxury Space Foundation VTOL toured through brilliant white and striking blue, as vertical structures of cumulonimbus clouds loomed around them during their ascent. The clouds dropped well below them as they ate a light lunch over the Bay of Biscay, and soon after, over coffee and orange juice, the darkness of space at the edge of the Earth's atmosphere crowned the world as their conversation turned to the matter at hand.
'We're going to Ascension,' said Goddard. 'It's a small island just south of the equator in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between Africa and South America. It's home to the Wideawake Air Force base and, frankly, little else. The island is a British territory but the base is owned by the US, and used extensively by the British. It's a volcanic island, and it's under threat.'
'We're not geologists,' said Geek.
'Volcanologists,' corrected Davey.
Goddard raised his hand pleading silence. 'Six months ago, the Techipre Electronics Company was contracted by the US and UK governments to build a solar power plant on Ascension, to provide electricity to the base. They started a month ago and while they were digging the foundations for their cell farms, they came across an anomaly. An object buried a kilometre below ground.'
'What sort of object?'
Goddard took a sip of his coffee, 'A perfect sphere. Computer, please display Ascension Live Sat Image.'
'Voice print verified,' came the electronic reply, over speakers buried in the plane seats. 'Polarizing windows.'
Outside, the remaining light from the sky diminished to blackness and a screen rolled down at the front of the cabin.
Onto the screen came a satellite image of Ascension Island, an orange and green, almost triangular shaped blob, in the centre of a rich blue sea, with white surf cutting around the edges of the jagged land.
'Ascension Island. Size approximately ninety-one square kilometres. Used by the Space Foundation as a range-telemetry station for equatorial space launches from the US and Africa. Ascension is important to us. It enables British planes to refuel on the way to the Falklands, which keeps our presence on those islands assured. As you know there have been two wars with Argentina over the Falklands over the last century. The Falklands are our foothold in the Antarctic, so Ascension is critical for that to happen. The US use Ascension when they engage in European and African theatres of war, so the island has collaborative Allied strategic importance. Computer zoom to base.'
The sensation of descending to the island was nauseous but fleeting as the image zoomed to show a portion on the western side.
'We'll be staying at the Wideawake barracks here. The sphere itself is two kilometres northeast, at this dig site.'
'All I can see is rough ground,' said Davey.
'We're masking the dig in real-time. We don't want the actual image getting out to the web. I'm just showing you the location for now because, as you can see from where I'm pointing, it's nested between two ridges in the nearby valley. There's been some geological compression along this faultline here over the centuries. And more recently, some minor tremors over the last few....'
'Like I already said,’ Geek persisted. ‘We're not geo...'
Goddard raised a hand. 'All you need to know is that it's unstable, and that marks the end of your geology lesson for the day. Right now I suggest you get some sleep. We arrive in two hours, and then we'll be going straight to the Techipre site to meet with the team who found the sphere. It's going to be a long day.'
'Can you say what has this got to do with us, Dad?'
Goddard shook his head. 'I'm afraid I don't know. All I do know is that I've had orders from the Prime Minister that you three are to be brought to Ascension as soon as possible, and that the Space Foundation is to spare no expense in getting you there. Believe me, I want to know what this is about just as much as you do.'
The shadows were long in the reddening evening sky as the VTOL descended through layers of cirrus clouds to the Column at the Wideawake Base. Archer stared out at the view as the red volcanic ground reared up to meet them, to swallow their craft into its undulating folds. Gleaming white satellite dishes pointed vertically skyward, underlining their equatorial location by communicating with geosynchronous satellites hanging in space directly above their heads. The new moon rising in the east revealed its crescent at a new angle, a sad mouth that perhaps, on some celestial level, knew the amount of heartache that would later happen here.
Such symbolism was lost on an unwitting Archer as the four men deplaned and rode a van to a holding pen. They watched and waited while their passports were verified and papers were signed. The VTOL, despite its cost and requirement for constant use, was towed to a hangar to wait for the Axiom Few to return to the base for their homeward trip. And all the time Archer wondered why they had been summoned to this remote location at such an inevitably high price-tag.
The opportunity to shower and change clothes at the barracks was swift, and as the rich red sky darkened to night Archer, his father, Davey and Geek boarded an army minibus which drove them out to the site of the sphere. The road was winding and crested over soft, dark hills. They rode in tired silence. Twenty minutes later they descended into a man-made crater no more than a kilometre across, where hastily constructed scaffolding and portacabins encircled the huge smooth metallic sphere, half buried in the red earth. As the men exited the minibus, each of them uttered the superlatives that sprung to their minds but all were inadequate for describing the immensity and scope of the striking dome that they were looking at.
Striding over to them at a brisk pace was a thin man dressed in dockers, a blue shirt and Timberland boots caked with Ascension dust. The equatorial night was warm and so everyone seemed to want to roll up the sleeves on their arms. Goddard shook the man's hand, grabbing his forearm with the other hand in a way that told Archer these men had good history together. Goddard gestured to The Axiom Few, 'This is my son Archer, his colleagues Davey and Geek. Guys, this is Miles. He's heading up the Techipre solar project here on Ascension, and he's the man who alerted the Space Foundation to the existence of the sphere.'
'Pleased to meet you all after all this waiting. I’ve heard a lot about you guys. I must admit, I’m jealous of where you are. Operating on the edge, still able to invent without the corporations breathing down your neck. To still be able to do that, and call your own shots… Well you must be good. Would you like a drink?'
'We've come a long way Miles,' said Archer. 'We've put our lives on hold for this, and we still don't know why. Perhaps we can just get straight down to business.'
'Then allow me to explain, over a drink,' Miles persisted. 'Bring these travellers a beer.'
'As Goddard has already told you, we found this object while we were digging the foundations for our solar cells. Geologists tell me that it's been buried here in undisturbed strata for twenty to thirty thousand years. The sphere itself is solid but for two discrepancies, at least, two that we've found so far.'
'What sort of discrepancies?'
Miles pointed towards the dome. 'Over there is a man-sized door. Can you see it? The line around it is just visible.'
In the fading light Archer could just make out the rectangular edge Miles was referring to. Next to it stood two armed officers.
'Has it been opened?'
'We can't open it from this side.' Miles shook his head. 'It hasn't opened. We've had cameras trained on that door since we unearthed it, and guards beside it all the time.'
'And what's the other thing you mentioned? The other discrepancy?'
'A small light. A small flashing light, a little way further round the dome, just out of our line of sight from here. Now the light we've been able to make more of.'
Geek spoke. 'Flashing you say. Binary?'
Miles nodded. 'A binary light. Pulsing out messages in a basic numeric to alpha cryptogram. A equals one, B equals two, and so on. It's been looping a set of words and phrases constantly for the last 3 days, since we started to understand what we were dealing with.'
'And what has this got to do with us?'
Miles uttered a small laugh. 'Haven't you figured it out yet? You're the Axiom Few, and the sphere has been asking for you.'