Authors: Chris Ryan
Ben didn't understand what he meant. 'A lot of what?'
Don looked around to check he wasn't being overheard, then spoke in a softer voice. 'Nutters. Cranks. Spadeadam, you see. It attracts them. All the conspiracy theories - you wouldn't believe the stuff people make up about that place.' He rolled his eyes as if to indicate his disdain for such people.
'Right,' Ben replied, not wishing to let on that he was having his own doubts about the place.
'Anyway.' Don jumped up brightly. 'Part of my job is to look after any unaccompanied kids who stay here. Don't want you getting into any kind of trouble, do we? Let me know if he gives you any gyp.' With that he walked off.
Ben sat there in silence for a few minutes, deep in reflection and chewing on his fingernails. Conspiracy theories, he thought to himself. Don had laughed it off so easily, and under different circumstances no doubt Ben would have done too. But he couldn't get the image out of his head of the soldier shooting the two hen harriers earlier in the day. Whatever anybody said,
was a strange thing to happen, and the old man seemed quite sure he knew what was going on. He decided to try and find him, now, and ask him what he had been about to say when they had been interrupted. No doubt it would be nonsense, the ravings of a crazy mind; but at least Ben would be able to satisfy himself of that.
All the dormitories were on the first floor of the building, up a central flight of stone steps that clattered as he hurried up them. Turning right at the top of the steps led you to the dormitories that were in use - boys on the right, girls on the left - but Don had told Ben that the old man had been put somewhere else. Following little more than his instinct, Ben turned left.
In this direction, the corridor was less well lit - a single low-wattage bulb hanging from the ceiling was all the illumination it had. There were several doors on either side: tentatively, Ben tried them, but they were locked. Eventually, though, at the end of the corridor on the left, he found one that wasn't. He gently opened it. 'Hello,' he breathed into the darkness.
There was no reply, so he opened the door a little wider and stepped inside.
His hand fumbled for a moment for a light switch, but he couldn't find one. Instead he stood still and waited for his night vision to become accustomed to the darkness. It took a minute or two until he could see that he was indeed in a dormitory, but the beds were all empty. There was a general aroma of disuse about the place, and the large windows had no blinds or curtains: clearly this was not somewhere that was frequently used. Certainly there was no sign of the old man.
All of a sudden, Ben heard Don's overly cheery voice. For some reason he didn't want to be caught snooping around, so he closed the door behind him and stepped further into the room, crossing the wooden floorboards to the window. He looked out into the blackness.
Clouds were scudding past the almost-full moon, which was bright when it was in view. Mesmerized by their swift movement, Ben thought of the moonlit African nights he had seen in the Congo, and of the silent airborne majesty of the hen harriers earlier today. And then he thought of something Annie had said back in Macclesfield. 'We humans can do some pretty dumb things sometimes.'
Too right, Ben thought to himself. Like standing around in dark rooms looking for weird old men.
He was just about to turn and leave, however, when he heard a noise from outside. Looking through the window, he saw, in the half-light of the moon, a figure. He was unmistakable really, in his grey overcoat. Ben watched as the old man walked as hurriedly as his frail legs could manage away from the house and faded into the impenetrable gloom.
And as he disappeared into the night, Ben felt as if the room in which he stood had suddenly grown colder.
He shook his head and turned round. The old man had spooked him at the train station - that much was obvious. It all seemed too much of a coincidence, him turning up here the next night, full of warnings and veiled threats; but that's what it was. A coincidence. Nothing more.
But in a corner of his mind, a nagging feeling would not go away. No matter how much he tried to twist things, to rationalize them, to make sense of them, one fact seemed to Ben to be perfectly clear.
The old man might be crazy, but whatever anyone said, something strange was going on at Spadeadam.
Ben was tired, but could not sleep.
Everything seemed to be buzzing around in his head as he lay in the darkened dormitory, listening to the heavy breathing of the other hostel guests sleeping around him. The rain had started again, and he thought of the old man out there protected from the elements only by his dark grey overcoat. No doubt Don would dismiss his midnight wanderings as the crazy actions of someone who had lost his marbles, but suspicions still gnawed away at Ben, suspicions he couldn't quite put his finger on, but which troubled him nonetheless. He found himself repeating the conversation he had had with the old man time and again, trying to squeeze meaning out of it that he might have missed.
'Strange things happening at Spadeadam,' he had said in his odd accent. 'Always have been, ever since I can remember, ever since Blue Streak.'
What did he mean? What was Blue Streak? Ben felt like he was trying to put a jigsaw together without knowing where all the pieces were.
Suddenly he remembered his PDA. Quietly, so as not to disturb any of his room-mates, he crept out of bed and rummaged among his things until he found it. Then, covering himself with his sleeping bag so that the glow from the screen did not wake anyone up, he switched it on. In seconds he had an Internet connection. He googled 'Blue Streak' and waited for the results.
What he discovered kept him reading for some time.
Blue Streak, he learned, was a rainbow code - one of a series of code names used in the middle of the last century to disguise the true nature of various British military research operations: code names like Black Arrow, a vehicle used to launch satellites, or Green Satin, an airborne navigation unit - but Blue Streak was more destructive than either of those. It was the secret name given to the development of a medium-range ballistic missile. After the Second World War, Britain had needed a nuclear deterrent in order to remain a world power. Blue Streak was to be it.
Ben blinked when he read where the central location of the Blue Streak project was. Spadeadam, just a couple of miles from where he lay at that very moment.
The Spadeadam test site was absolutely enormous. Before Blue Streak it was practically uninhabited, but soon large numbers of workers were brought in and a huge amount of construction work started: control bunkers, reservoirs, miles and miles of piping, engineering workshops and, most importantly, huge, concrete static test-beds. These giant structures were intended to test the missile engines which, when they were started, could be heard for miles around. Millions of gallons of water from a nearby river were pumped into the test-beds in order to cool the engines: as a result, enormous clouds of steam caused micro-climates far and wide over Spadeadam.
Blue Streak was always controversial, however, and MPs finally refused to allow the underground missile silos to be constructed because they were too expensive. In 1959, the Americans unveiled Skybolt, an aircraft-based missile, which made Blue Streak effectively redundant. The programme was never completed.
The end of Blue Streak did not mean that people stopped being interested in it, however; and for years, rumours circulated that there was more going on at Spadeadam than the government admitted to, or perhaps even knew about. Ben scoffed slightly when he read reports of mysterious personnel dressed in what looked like white spacesuits in remote parts of the base. More believable was the rumour that had apparently gone round the local villages that Spadeadam housed an enormous underground hospital. Whatever the truth, it was clear to him that many people believed there were more secret, sinister things going on there.
Of course, he knew that already. He had just met one of them.
In 2004, the conspiracy theorists were given ammunition to back up their claims. An area of trees in the Spadeadam site needed to be cleared. It was a routine procedure, but what was discovered was very far from being routine: there were found to be extensive excavations for an underground missile silo, of exactly the type that was never supposed to have been built in Spadeadam. Investigations showed that no official plans of this silo existed, nor any other records whatsoever.
Clearly it had been a very official secret. Something the authorities did not want the man in the street to know about.
What was it the old man had said? 'Stay away from Spadeadam. It's not safe.'
Ben furrowed his forehead. Everything he was reading about had happened so long ago, during the Cold War - surely nobody believed in this day and age that suspicious things were still happening there. Did they? He decided to research Spadeadam a bit further.
In 1976, the RAF took over the Spadeadam site, and the following year they converted it into the world's first Electronic Warfare Tactics Range. Electronic warfare - Ben didn't really know what that meant, although he felt pretty sure Annie would be able to fill him in. But everywhere he looked, he found insinuations of cover-ups and secret operations going on within the boundaries of the Spadeadam site. Nothing concrete. Nothing official. Just rumours.
Ben wasn't sure if he thought it all made sense, or if he was even more confused than before. He switched off his PDA and lay there in the darkness, trying to piece together everything he had just read. There didn't seem to be much doubt about the fact that secret, classified government projects had been undertaken there in the past - the discovery of the hidden missile silo made that pretty clear. But all that was a long time ago. Cover-ups? Conspiracies? Surely that sort of thing didn't go on now. Did it?
With those thoughts spinning round in his brain, sleep gradually overcame Ben. It was a turbulent sleep, broken and full of ominous visions of missiles and concrete bunkers, of faceless gunmen and slaughtered birds, and above all the troubled, piercing green eyes of the old man whose words Ben could not seem to get out of his head.
'Strange things happening at Spadeadam . . .' His voice seemed to echo in the darkness. 'Strange things happening at Spadeadam . . .'
Strange things indeed.
Ben awoke with a start.
He felt no sleepiness, just a sudden clarity. His dreams had been a jumble, but now something made perfect sense to him. When he had told the old man about the hen harrier, it had not seemed to surprise him at all. 'Makes perfect sense,' he had told Ben.
And suddenly, it did.
It was still dark outside - a glance at his watch told him that it was just past four o'clock - and Ben's first thought was for the old man. Was he still out there in the unwelcoming night, or had he crept back to the hostel before it had closed for the night to try and take advantage of its warmth and shelter? Somehow, he felt he knew the answer. He crept out of bed, sneaked illicitly into Annie's dormitory, and woke her up.
For a minute she didn't seem to know where she was, but she soon regained her bearings. 'What time is it?' she whispered hoarsely to Ben.
'Four o'clock, but you have to get up. I need to talk to you about something.'
'At four o'clock in the morning?'
'Yeah. Get your stuff ready - I'll meet you downstairs.'
The reception area was empty as Ben waited for her; finally she came down the stone steps carrying her rucksack, her face a thundercloud. Ben spoke before she could say a thing. 'We've got to go to Spadeadam.'
She looked at him like he was mad. 'What are you talking about, Ben?'
So Ben told her about the old man and how he had seen him wandering off into the night. 'We met in the common room last night and he kept talking about Spadeadam and Blue Streak. It's a--'
'I know what Blue Streak is, Ben. Don't tell me you've started to buy all those stupid conspiracy theories.'
'Listen,' Ben urged. 'It all makes sense. If you're doing something you want to keep secret, the last thing you want is random people walking around where they can stumble upon it, right?'
'I suppose so,' Annie replied reluctantly.
'Why have we come to the area?' Ben pressed.
'For the bird-watching.'
'Do you think they get many bird-watchers here?'
'Yeah, quite a few, I suppose.'
'Exactly. So what's the best way to stop bird-watchers coming to Spadeadam?'
The two cousins looked at each other, their faces serious.
'Are you trying to tell me,' Annie asked slowly, 'that someone is shooting rare birds around here to stop bird-watchers trespassing into Spadeadam and discovering their . . . their . . .
? Ben, Spadeadam is a serious place, an important facility. They train our soldiers well so that they don't lose their lives . . .'
When she put it like that, Ben realized how farfetched it sounded; but the pieces of the jigsaw still fitted, and somehow he knew he was right. 'Can you think of another explanation?' he asked.
Annie was shaking her head. 'Nobody would do something as sick as that,' she told him.
Instantly, Ben thought back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 'Believe me,' he murmured, 'I've seen them do worse. Anyway' - he decided to try a different tack - 'what about the old man? He's not all there. I bet you any money you like he's gone to Spadeadam. I bet he's just wandering around there, getting freezing cold. We've got to try and find him, make sure he's all right.'
'Ben,' Annie told him patiently. 'You can't just go wandering into RAF Spadeadam. Do you have any idea what they do there?'
'Yeah.' Ben shrugged, trying to sound as if he knew what he was talking about. 'It's an electronic warfare tactics range.'
'And do you know what that means?'
'Er . . . no,' he admitted. 'Not really.'
Annie sighed. 'Electronic warfare,' she explained, her voice taking on an almost school-teacherly tone, 'or EW, is manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum to defeat or evade the enemy.'