Authors: Glenn Cooper
To this day, Spence remained the youngest recruit in CIA history and some of the old-timers still talked about this genius kid, prancing around Langley with his giant ego and enormous analytical powers. It was probably inevitable that in time, he would be approached by a nondescript man in a suit, pressing an unlikely business card into his hand bearing the insignia of the US Navy. Spence, of course, wanted to know what the navy wanted with him, and what he was told set his life on its current arc.
Will recalled the same puzzlement the day Mark Shackleton told him Area 51 was a naval operation. The military had its traditions, some of them stubbornly silly, and this was one of them.
As Will had learned, in 1947, President Truman tapped one of his most trusted aides, James Forrestal, to commission a new, ultrasecret military base at Groom Lake, Nevada, in a remote desert parcel bordering Yucca Flats. Carrying the cartographic designation, Nevada Test Site—51, the base came to be called Area 51 for short.
The Brits had found something extraordinarily troubling at an archaeological excavation on the Isle of Wight on the grounds of an ancient monastery, Vectis Abbey. They had opened their Pandora’s box a crack, then slammed it shut when they realized what they’d stepped into. Clement Atlee, the Prime Minister, recruited Winston Churchill to be the go-between with Truman to persuade the American President to take the trove of material off their hands, lest the postwar reconstruction of Britain be sidetracked by this monumental distraction.
Project Vectis was born.
Forrestal happened to be Secretary of the Navy when he got the assignment, and the project stuck to the Navy Department like paste, qualifying Area 51 as the driest, most land-locked naval base on the planet. The Project Vectis Working Group, personally chaired by Truman, hit upon an ingenious idea to shroud the Area 51 site in disinformation, a ruse that was still working after sixty years. They capitalized on the country’s mania about UFO sightings, orchestrated a staged little drama at Roswell, New Mexico, then spread the rumor that a brand-new base in Nevada might have something to do with alien spacecraft and the like. Area 51 got on with its real mission, the gullible public none the wiser.
The Secretary of the Navy in every administration was, by practice, the Pentagon’s point man on all matters related to the base and one of a small handful of officials who had the slightest idea what all the clandestine fuss was about. Recruiting Henry Spence from the rival CIA was considered enough of a coup that Spence was ushered into the Secretary’s office for a meet and greet shortly after he signed on. The jaw-dropping truth of his new assignment was so fresh that he stumbled through the meeting with little subsequent recollection of its substance.
Will listened intently as Spence described his first day in the Nevada desert, deep underground in the Truman Building, the main Area 51 complex. As a newbie, he was solemnly taken by his supervisor down to the Vault level and, flanked by humorless, armed guards, the watchers, led into the vast, quiet, chilled space, a high-tech cathedral of sorts, where he first laid eyes on seven hundred thousand ancient books.
The most singular and peculiar library on the planet.
“Mr. Spence, here is your data,” his supervisor had declared with a theatrical arm wave. “Few men are given the privilege. We’re expecting great things from you.”
And Spence began his new life.
Area 51 had found more than a talent—the organization had found a zealot. Every single day that he descended underground, for the better part of thirty years, Spence luxuriated in the privilege his old boss had described and the heady entitlement of being plugged into the most rarefied, secret institution in the world. His linguistic and analytical skills served him well, and in a few short years he was in charge of the China desk. Later, he would become the Director of Asian Affairs and would close out his career as the most decorated analyst in the history of the lab.
In the seventies, he pioneered a comprehensive approach to obtaining person-specific data utilizing available, albeit primitive, Chinese databases and rudimentary census reports, combined with a vast network of human intelligence he developed in cooperation with the CIA. Maoist purges and population dislocations often forced him to rely on statistical models, but his greatest coup early on was his prediction in 1974 of the July 28, 1976 natural disaster in northeast China, in the mining town of Tangshan, which killed 255,000 people. As soon as the earthquake struck, President Ford was in a position to offer premobilized disaster support to Premier Hua Guofeng, solidifying the post-Nixonian US-China thaw.
It was a heady time for Spence. He described, with morbid pride, the excitement he had felt when the first reports reached Nevada of the deadly earthquake, and when he saw the odd look on Will’s face, he added, “I mean, it wasn’t as if I’d
the damned thing. I just
In his youth, Spence was a cocky, good-looker who enjoyed life as a single man in boomtown Vegas. But ultimately, blue-blooded WASP that he was, a fish out of water in a new-money, grasping town, he gravitated to birds of a feather. At his country club, he met Martha, a wealthy developer’s daughter, and the two of them married and had children, all of them now accomplished adults. He was a grandfather, but sadly, Martha passed had away from breast cancer before the first grandchild was born. “I never looked up her date,” Spence insisted. “Probably could have gotten away with it, but I didn’t.”
He left the lab when he hit the mandatory retirement age, shortly after 9/11. He probably would have stayed longer if they’d let him; it was his life. He had a voracious interest in Area 51 business and liked to insert himself into hot topics, even if they were off the Asia beat. During the summer of 2001, with retirement looming, he made a point to have lunch every day with folks from the US department, trading theories and predictions on the events that would soon kill three thousand people at the World Trade Center.
When he retired, he was physiologically old but extremely wealthy thanks to his wife’s family fortune. Her death took a heavy toll on his constitution, and his lifelong two-pack-a-day habit gave him worsening asthmatic emphysema. Steroids and a weakness for rich food made him fat. In time, he’d be scooter- and oxygen-dependent. His dual retirement passions, he confessed, were his grandchildren and the 2027 Club. This bus, dubbed the grandpamobile, was his ticket to mobility and his far-flung family.
Spence finished, and, on cue, Alf Kenyon leapt into his own story without giving Will a chance to interrupt. Will felt like he was being played. These guys were opening their kimonos to soften him up for something. He didn’t like it, but he was curious enough to go along.
Kenyon was the son of Presbyterian ministers from Michigan. He grew up in Guatemala but was sent stateside for college. At Berkeley, he became fired up by the Vietnam War protest scene and mixed Latin-American studies with a growing sense of radicalism. Upon graduation, he ventured to Nicaragua to help peasants press land claims against the Somoza government.
By the early seventies, the Sandinista rebels were starting to get some traction in the countryside, mobilizing antigovernment opposition. Kenyon was a strong sympathizer. His work in the central highlands, however, attracted the unwelcome attention of progovernment militias, and, one day, he was surprised to be visited in his village by a cherubic young American named Tony who was about his age. Tony mysteriously knew an awfully lot about him and offered some unsolicited, friendly advice on keeping a low profile. Kenyon was on the naïve side but worldly enough to recognize Tony as an agency man.
The two young men were chalk and cheese, polar opposites politically and culturally, and Kenyon angrily sent him away. But when Tony returned a week later, Kenyon admitted to Will that he was happy to see him again, and brightly blurted out, “I don’t think either of us really knew we were gay!” Will assumed the Tony story had a broader purpose than a disclosure of the man’s sexual identity, so he let Kenyon ramble on in his slow, precise way.
Despite their political differences, the men became friends, two lonely Americans on their opposing missions in the hostile rain forest, one Catholic, one Protestant, both devout. Kenyon came to understand that a different CIA man would have probably thrown him to the wolves, but Tony showed genuine concern about his safety and even tipped him off to a militia sweep.
Then, with Christmas 1972 approaching, Kenyon made plans to spend a week in Managua. Tony came to visit, and begged, “Yes, begged me!” he said, not to go to the capital. Kenyon refused to listen until Tony told him something that would change his life.
“There will be a disaster in Managua on December 23,” he said. “Thousands will die. Please don’t go.”
“Do you know what happened on that day, Mr. Piper?”
Will shook his head.
“The great Nicaraguan earthquake. Over ten thousand killed, three-quarters of all buildings destroyed. He wouldn’t say how he knew, but he scared me silly, and I didn’t go. Afterward, when we became, shall I say, closer, he told me he had no idea how our government knew what was coming, but the prediction was in the system, and he understood it was as good as gold. Needless to say, I was intrigued.”
Tony was eventually transferred to another assignment, and Kenyon would leave Nicaragua when full-blown civil war broke out. He returned to the States to get a Ph.D. at Michigan. Apparently Tony had put Kenyon’s name into the system, and Area 51 recruiters got wind of it because they were on the lookout for a Latin-American specialist. One fine day he was visited at his Ann Arbor apartment by a navy man who startled him by asking if he’d like to know how the government knew about the Managua quake.
He most certainly did. The hook was set.
He joined Area 51 a few years after Spence and was put to work on the Latin-American desk. He and Spence, both cerebral types who loved to talk politics, gravitated to each other and quickly became commuting buddies on the daily shuttle flights between Las Vegas and Groom Lake. Over the years, the Spence clan, for all intents and purposes, adopted the single man and hosted him at holidays and family occasions. When Martha died, Kenyon was Spence’s rock.
They retired on the same day in 2001. At the EG&G shuttle lounge at McCarran Airport on their last return flight, the men hugged each other and got misty-eyed. Spence stayed at his country-club estate in Las Vegas, Kenyon moved to Phoenix to be near his only family, a sister. The men stayed close, bonded by their shared experiences and the 2027 Club.
Kenyon stopped talking. Will expected Spence to pick up the stream again but he too was silent.
Then, Kenyon asked, “Could I ask if you’re a religious man, Mr. Piper?”
“You can ask, but I don’t see it as your business.”
The man looked hurt. Will realized the two of them had been sharing their personal lives in hopes of getting him to open up to them. “No, I’m not very religious.”
Kenyon leaned forward. “Neither is Henry. I find it remarkable that anyone who knows about the library isn’t.”
“To each, his own,” Spence said. “We’ve had this discussion a thousand times. Alf is in the camp that the Library proves that God exists.”
“There’s no other explanation.”
“I don’t want to relitigate the matter just now,” Spence said wearily.
“The thing that always tickled me,” Kenyon said, “is that I was born into the perfect religion. As a Presbyterian I was hardwired to incorporate the Library into my spiritual life.”
“The man is still acting out the Protestant Reformation,” Spence joked.
Will knew where he was going. Over the last year, he’d thought about these things himself. “Predestination.”
“Precisely!” Kenyon exclaimed. “I was a Calvinist before I had a concrete justification for being one. Let’s just say the Library turned me into a High Calvinist. Very doctrinaire.”
“And very opinionated,” his friend added.
“I’ve spent my retirement becoming an ordained minister. I’m also writing a biography of John Calvin, trying to figure out how he had the genius to get his theology so right. Frankly, if it weren’t for Henry’s passing, I’d be happy as a clam. Everything makes sense to me, which is a nice place to be.”
“Tell me about the 2027 Club,” Will said.
Spence hesitated at the wheel as a light turned green. He had to decide whether to swing through the park again. “As I’m sure you know, the last book of the Library ends on the ninth of February, 2027. Everyone with no recorded date of death is BTH, beyond the horizon. Everyone who’s ever worked at the Library has endlessly speculated why the books ended and who was responsible for them in the first place. Was the work of these savants or monks or fortune-tellers or extraterrestrials—yes, Alf, my explanation is as good as yours—was it interrupted by external factors like war, disease, natural disaster? Or is there a more sinister explanation that maybe the people of earth ought to know about. As far as any of us are aware, there was never much of an official effort to understand the significance of the horizon, as it’s called. The Pentagon’s always too focused on mining the data and generating intelligence findings. There’s a lot of badness in the cards, megadisasters in the not-so-distant future that our folks are obsessing over. Something big is looming in Latin America, truth be told. Maybe as 2027 gets closer, it’s going to occur to these geniuses in Washington that we really ought to know what the hell is going to happen the day after. But let me tell you, Mr. Piper, one’s curiosity about the horizon doesn’t cease with retirement. The 2027 Club was formed in the 1950s by some ex–Area 51 types as part retirement social club, part amateur sleuthing group. It’s all very sub rosa, violates our retirement agreements and all that, but you can’t stamp out human nature. We’re curious as hell, and the only folks we can talk to are ex-employees. Plus it gives us a chance to get together and drink adult beverages.”
The long soliloquy winded him. Will watched his chest heave.