My name is Robert Gavin Somerton. My friends and colleagues call me Bob. I work as an accountant for a company that manufactures selected spare parts for the automotive repair industry.
I’m not working today. It’s a Saturday and I am watching free-to-air programs on my television. I’m limited to three stations. Two are covering sport; football and women’s netball. The third station is screening a recently held lawn bowls tournament. I do not consider lawn bowls to be a sport. I might change my mind in thirty years time. As I channel flick to each of these programs, I feel lonely.
The house is empty. Except for me, of course. My childless marriage to Felicity died five years ago. I am reluctant to sign up for another relationship. They hurt and demand too much. I start watching the women’s netball. I am not sure if watching women playing sports is going to make me feel more, or less, lonely. We’ll see.
I find myself yawning. “This is so boring!” I exclaim to the walls. Somehow, as if my TV can hear me, the images of young women wearing purple shorts and pink T-shirts disappear. The TV screen is black. Frustration quickly replaces boredom. Malfunctioning electronic equipment is a big challenge for my accountant’s brain. I call out, “Okay, SkyNet. Do something!” To my amazement, three words begin to slowly travel across the centre of my TV screen, ‘ENTER ACCESS CODE.’ I react, more out of shocked stupidity than intelligence, and yell out, “What access code?” Immediately, the TV screen changes again, and, just like looking in a mirror, I see a reflection of myself sitting on this green leather sofa. Startled, my mind starts to race through how this could be happening. As I do this, a menu appears on one side of the screen. Using the remote to scroll through the menu, I discover that cameras are located in every room of my house. The image from the kitchen is being projected from the refrigerator. In my bedroom it’s from the alarm clock on my bedside lamp table. In my study, images are being recorded by my laptop. I check out the level of monitoring in each room and, after hearing the voice of an afternoon talk show host coming from the radio in my kitchen, am shocked to learn that both visual and audio monitoring has been installed. In my home! I have to tell someone about this!
* * * * *
I’m knocking on the door of my friend Eddie’s place. He lives a block away from me. Eddie’s face has a quizzical expression on it when I ask, “Would you mind if I check out your TV?” “Be my guest.” He answers. I turn on Eddie’s TV and wait for a black screen. It doesn’t happen. I repeat the question that triggered the instruction on my own screen. “Okay, SkyNet. Do something!” It did nothing. “What are you doing?” Eddie asks. I ignore the question.
I now look more carefully at Eddie’s TV. It is a later model than mine and has a much larger screen. I find myself wondering if, being a later model, Eddie’s TV might respond to an alternative command. I make up a few commands. None work. Eddie is watching me, looking worried. “Are you okay?” He asks. I hesitate to tell him what I have discovered. I am beginning to consider I might be under surveillance. For what reason, I cannot even guess. I want to share it all with Eddie but think it might be smarter to keep things to myself for a while. I don’t want him to think I’m a lunatic but guess he might have already reached this conclusion. Heading toward Eddie’s front door, I say. “Sorry, mate. Can’t explain right now. Talk later.”
Returning home, I only vaguely notice the dull, black van with dirty number plates parked against the kerb on the opposite side of the street. I head into my lounge room, eager to further explore the SkyNet menu, to learn more about its monitoring system, and to see if any other houses in my street are under surveillance. I try a range of new commands. It’s getting late as I try the last one. “Open documents.” Nothing works. I stop short of trying ‘Open Sesame!’. Tired and confused, I return to my bedroom, place the alarm clock in my underwear drawer and slip under the blankets. My dreams keep me somewhere between waking and sleeping zones. The questions repetitively trailing through my cerebral cortex are producing no answers. Am I the only one being monitored, or is something much bigger than this underway?
* * * * *
It is 3.00am and someone is tapping against the sole of my foot. I am awake and feeling terrified. The beam of a powerful torch is directed at me. “Get up. Get dressed. Don’t try anything stupid. There are six of us here.” The voice is low and gruff. The torch beam moves toward my chest of drawers. He is right. The reflected light bounces off six other men in my bedroom. Each is wearing night vision goggles and staring directly at me. Not one turns away as I dress. Standing, after slipping on my loafers, I am grabbed by two of the men and handcuffed. There is no moonlight as I am pushed into the back of the windowless black van. Three of the men sit alongside and opposite me. The others squeeze into the front seat. The driver starts the van’s motor.
* * * * *
I’m not blindfolded. As the van doors slide open I see a well-lit, battered clock on the wall of the underground car park we have just pulled into. It is just after 5.00am. Through the entrance I catch a glimpse of a brightly lit loading dock. One of the men wheels a hospital gurney toward the door of the van. “Get out!” He commands. I stand for only a few seconds before something hard and heavy connects with the back of my skull.
* * * * *
I am in a narrow room with just a bed, toilet and small sink. The room is lit by a single fluorescent tube set into one of the walls behind a metal grill. There is no window. I don’t know where I am or why I am here. A door is located about one metre’s distance from my feet. It opens. A large, neatly dressed man enters, dark blue folder in one hand.. “Okay… Now that you’ve discovered our secret, this will be your destiny.” I ask, “What do you mean? Where am I? What do you want with me?” The man answered; unsmiling. “This building is one of the surveillance centres for the National Security Agency (NSA). You have become a threat to our work. This is the reason you have been brought here. You have been in an induced coma for the past five days, whilst we discussed what to do with you.” I shake my head thinking of my five lost days, wondering what my boss would say if he knew where I was. Then I remember. “Didn’t I read somewhere that, because of illegal spying, the NSA was de-funded and closed down?” “You might have read that, but it is not correct. The government, recognizing its dependency on our work, pushed through with the funding. Not that it will show up in any of their records. Secret operations like ours must not be traceable. The funds we receive are just labelled ‘missing.’
The big guy is watching my face as I sit up, looking across at him. Interest in what he has just told me is beginning to dominate my feelings of fear. I have heard people speak of the millions of dollars that go missing from government budgets. A guy who worked for the Maserati company once told me that some of his customers were being illegally spied on by NSA. I hadn’t believed him. I thought he was crackers. Now I come to think of it, the Maserati guy had disappeared. I wonder if NSA had a hand in that. It obviously has a role in making people disappear, or I wouldn’t be here.
“So….Why am I here?” The big guy sat down on the corner of the hard bed before answering. “You’re here because you discovered one of our secrets. We would have let you go and just watched you, but you confided in one of your friends.” “I didn’t tell Eddie anything,” I responded. “But, initially,….you aroused his suspicions.”
“What are you going to do with me?” I hear my voice shaking a little. “The choice is yours, Mr Somerton. You either work for us or stay in this cell until you die. If you refuse this offer we will leave you in this cell without food. After 40 days we will disconnect the water.” The guy is emotionless as he speaks these words. “We need to keep meticulous records, Mr Somerton. You have demonstrated expertise in this area. We could use you.” My next two questions are pointless. “Will I ever get back into the real world? What about my job, friends, and parents?” “If you work for us, don’t make mistakes and prove your loyalty, after 30 years we will allow you back into society as one of our special agents. If you make mistakes in your work, or prove you cannot be trusted, you will be returned to this cell to die. As to your friends, employer and family members, allow me to show you something.” His large, well-manicured hand opens the blue folder and withdraws a newspaper clipping. “Read this, Mr Somerton.”
The heading ‘Terrorist in our Midst!’ jumps off the page. The article is dated three days following my kidnapping. A large photograph of my house dominates. Three long paragraphs describe the discovery of bomb making equipment in my cellar and multiple sources of evidence linking me to a known terrorist group. A smaller photograph shows a long table covered with old pressure cookers, nails and incendiary substances. “There is more.” My visitor continues, “Your work computer was found to contain evidence of your association with known terrorists. In addition, a revolver and black face mask were found secured to the back of one of your desk drawers. Your employer and work colleagues are now convinced you are, or were, a terrorist.” He points to the last three sentences of the article and then reads aloud. “In an attempt to avoid arrest, Robert Somerton shot one of the officers in the shoulder. Two other police officers present at the confrontation claim that Robert Somerton then appeared to activate an explosive vest he was wearing. The would-be terrorist was immediately annihilated. No other persons were injured.”
Within five days my character and life have been obliterated. I am stunned. “What about my parents?” There was no sadness in his voice as he answered. “Your parents have been given the unfortunate news. A closed funeral service was held for you yesterday.” What about Eddie and my other mates?” “Well, we haven’t needed to do much there. Your friend Eddie was interviewed by the media a couple of times. The way he’s been telling it is that you were already showing signs of going crazy. He told them you visited him the other day and started mucking around with his TV, trying to find out if it was under surveillance by aliens, or some such nonsense.” “Why isn’t Eddie’s place under surveillance?” My question seems obvious to me. I want to know why I seem to have been singled out. “He is.” Now I am even more curious.
“Let me explain.” The agent, or whoever he is, begins again. “Ten years ago we fell out with SkyNet. We learned that it had developed a virus that allowed artificial intelligence to manipulate and reprogram the various electronic devices in people’s homes. By monitoring the current perceptions and orientation of the average citizen toward certain ideas and values, manipulative programs can be designed and produced that stimulate thought and attitudinal change. The intention being to create a neural net-based conscious group mind that is able to manipulated at will by our protagonist. We learned that hundreds of millions of homes had already been invaded by this virus. We began countering this move by developing and installing our own monitoring devices. It was, you will understand, essential that our work not reach the ears of those behind the development of the virus.” “And….who were they?” He seems to falter a little before answering my question. Shrugging his shoulders, he continues. “You might as well know. It’s China.”
The agent is now grimacing as he speaks. “Most people aren’t even aware that cyber warfare is a current day reality. Unfortunately, some of the smarter ones, like yourself, have wised up. Initially, when we were alerted to this we discreetly….how shall I put this?….‘removed’ them.” “You mean killed?” I ask. He nods, watching my face carefully. “So how many people discovered your secret?” I have to ask this but am not sure I want to hear the answer. “More than 80,000,” I can see he is waiting for my next question. “So…you have quite a number of other men and women like me working for you now?” The man, whose name I still do not know, is obviously debating with himself about answering me. He looks at a cell wall for a few moments before facing me again. “No….not exactly. Allow me to explain. To date, approximately 53,000 have chosen to assist us with our programs. The remaining number, surprisingly, chose not to work with us. All selected individuals are required to undertake intensive training before taking up a position with the agency. Unfortunately, many are unable to achieve the kind of results essential to their intended posts and, of necessity, are ‘removed.’ Others, after undertaking trial periods of employment with us, will be found guilty of oversight or error. Both totally unacceptable in our business, you understand.” I nod. “Our ‘recycling team’ take things from there. Our standards are stringent, Mr Somerton. They need to be. Be assured, however, that any remaining men and women become our agency stalwarts.
The large man is looking at me, trying to ascertain my response to his revelations. The truth is, I am intrigued. It seems to me that the risks are fairly balanced. There are ‘exit doors’ at both ends of this equation. This could be a lot more interesting than my accounting job. I think he senses what I am thinking. He asks, “So….are you in?” I nod my head more enthusiastically than I feel and with a large fake smile, answer him. “Yes….I am.” However, as I speak, from somewhere in my conscience mind, I hear a small, clear, ‘No’……..
* * * * *
Thirty years have passed since I agreed to join the N.S.A . Yesterday was my 63rd birthday. I have just been summoned to the office of a guy I think is to become my new supervisor. He smiles as he speaks. “Bob, there have only been sixteen others before you who completed thirty years successful service with the Discovery Television Program. I have been asked to thank you for your three decades of support. This morning, I was authorized to welcome you into our program as Special Secret Agent No. 0017. Congratulations and welcome aboard!” We both stand. As he leans across his desk to shake my hand I reaffirm to myself that today is the beginning of my new career as