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Royal Sky Line Security Office
Thursday, 1127 hours GMT
“MY GOD, MITCHELL!” CHARLIE Dean said, shaking his head. “You have got to be freaking kidding!”
“You know better than that, Mr. Dean,” Thomas Mitchell said. “MI5 never kids.”
Dean was sitting with the three security people at a console at the center of a large room, hanging one floor above the security checkpoint leading from the Royal Sky cruise ship terminal out to the dock. In front of them was a giant flat-screen TV monitor, on which the black-and-white image of a naked man could be seen walking through a broad, white tunnel. To one side, a much smaller security monitor showed the same man, this time from a high angle near the ceiling and in color, wearing dark trousers, a yellow shirt, and a white nylon jacket.
“Yeah,” Dean agreed cautiously. “When it comes to a sense of humor, you’re worse than the FBI and CIA put together. But since when did you guys turn into pornographic voyeurs?”
“Believe me, Mr. Dean,” the woman sitting next to him at the console said. Her name badge bore the name “Lockwood,” and she was, Dean knew, a technical specialist with X-Star Security, the company that manufactured the equipment. “There is nothing whatsoever pornographic about this!” She sounded prim and somewhat affronted.
“That’s right,” David Llewellyn added, grinning. “After the first couple of hundred naked bodies, you don’t even notice!”
Thomas Mitchell was an operative with MI5, Great Britain’s government bureau handling counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and internal security in general, while David Llewellyn was the head of the Security Department on board the cruise ship Atlantis Queen. Dean had met Mitchell in Washington a week earlier, and knew him to be a dour and somewhat unimaginative British civil servant; he’d met Llewellyn and Lockwood only that morning, when Mitchell had escorted him into the Royal Sky Line’s Southampton security section.
“That hardly matters, does it?” Dean said. “It’s their privacy at stake, not how many naked people you’ve seen in your career.”
Interesting, Mitchell thought. Llewellyn was seeing bodies. Dean was seeing people.
“I needn’t remind you, Mr. Dean,” Mitchell said, “that conventional metal detectors simply cannot pick up plastic bottles containing explosives or petrol, hard-nylon knives, or anything else made of plastic. Richard Reid walked through metal detectors several times before he boarded Flight Sixty-three.”
Richard Reid had been the infamous “shoe bomber” who’d been subdued by passengers on board an American Airlines Boeing 767 in December of 2001. He’d been trying to light a fuse in one of his shoes, which had been packed with PETN plastic explosives and a triacetone triperoxide detonator. Ever since, airline passengers in the United States had been required to remove their shoes at airport terminal security checkpoints.
Charlie Dean had considerable experience with anti-terrorist security technologies of all types. A senior field officer of the U.S. National Security Agency’s top-secret Desk Three, he’d circumvented quite a few of them while on covert missions overseas, and he’d gone through more than his fair share at secure installations back home. In fact, he’d read about this technology some years ago, though he’d never seen it in operation. It was called backscatter X-ray scanning, and it was the latest twist in high-tech security screening… as well as the most controversial.
“I seem to remember seeing this sort of thing in a movie, once,” Dean said. “Slapstick stuff.”
“Airport,” Lockwood said, rolling her eyes. “Yes, we’ve been told. Numerous times.”
The man on the screen was somewhat pixelated by the digital imaging process, but every detail stood out with startling clarity, from the frames of his glasses to the zipper of his open jacket—every detail except his clothing, which had been rendered invisible. His face seemed a little blank; Dean could see his eyeballs and eyelids easily enough, but the iris and pupil were almost impossible to distinguish.
But the rest! The guy was heavy, his belly bulging strangely over an invisible belt. His belt buckle appeared to ride tucked in beneath the bulge just below his navel, and he was wearing a small, bright crucifix on a chain around his neck. His pubic hair, the trail of hair up his belly to his navel, and the thicket on his chest and back all had a crisp, wiry, almost metallic look to it. Dean could just make out the zipper in the trousers at the man’s crotch, and it was clear, as an older generation of men’s tailors would have put it, that he “dressed to the left.”
“I thought,” Dean said, “that there was supposed to be a software algorithm that blurred faces and… other body parts.”
“Oh, sure, some places still do that,” Llewellyn replied. “But that rather defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? People have tried smuggling guns or drugs hidden at their crotch or between their butt cheeks, where they think a pat-down wouldn’t find them.” He made a face. “You Americans are so squeamish about this sort of thing.”
Lockwood typed a command into the keyboard in front of her, and on the big screen the man’s computer-processed image seemed to freeze, then revolved in space for a moment, showing his body from all possible angles. At the right of the screen, a column of data appeared as it was forwarded off a security card the man was carrying—his name, passport number, cell and home phone numbers, Social Security number.
“Show us level two,” Mitchell told her.
Lockwood typed in another command, triggering a small flood of data. James Gullabry, it seemed, was American, was visiting England on business, and was a sales rep for Del Rey Computers. He lived in Westchester, just outside of Boston; he had a wife, Anne, and two children… and was on medication for depression and for type 2 diabetes. Apparently, he was taking the long way home, by way of a Mediterranean cruise. That, Dean thought, was unusual.
“What… you don’t have his credit history?”
“We can call that up for you, if you want,” Mitchell said.
And Dean knew the man wasn’t joking.
It’s not that Americans are squeamish about nudity, Dean thought, watching the image on the screen, though that was of course a factor. The whole privacy issue had become a hot button on both sides of the Atlantic in the paranoid years since 9/11. MI5 itself had been called on the carpet back in 2006, he recalled, when a member of Parliament had disclosed that the security agency maintained extremely detailed and highly secret files on 272,000 British subjects—the equivalent of 1 in every 160 adults.
How far did you go to stop the threat of terrorism, and to protect your citizens?
Where did you draw the line between protecting your citizens… and spying on them?
The man on the screen walked off to the left. A moment later, he was replaced by an attractive young woman. She was wearing a bracelet, a watch, two rings, a single-strand necklace, and small, bright bits of jewelry in her navel and through both nipples. Quite obviously she was not carrying a gun… or anything else for that matter, not even a book of matches. Hurriedly Dean looked away, focusing instead on the security cam image that showed a pleasant-looking woman in her twenties, wearing a skirt and a bright green blouse and with an exuberant cascade of long blond hair hanging down past her waist.
Damn it, he was embarrassed.
And yet Mitchell had a point. Dean remembered a humorous but half-serious comment that had floated about in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror hijackings… something to the effect that the only way to ensure passenger safety on an airline flight would be to strip every passenger stark naked and handcuff them to their seats.
Technology had all but delivered the first of those two requirements.
Lockwood used her keyboard to call up the woman’s information.
“O-kay, then, Miss Johnson,” Llewellyn said, reading her name off the screen. “Here, Mr. Dean. Watch this.”
He turned a dial on his console, and on the big screen the young woman’s hair faded to a pale transparency, then vanished completely. A plastic hair clip continued to hang unsupported behind her now completely bald head, and Dean noticed that her tuft of pubic hair had vanished as well. Somehow, if possible, the complete lack of hair made her appear even more shockingly naked.
“We can adjust the strength of the X-ray beams,” Mitchell explained. “We’ve had people try to hide stuff in long hair, men and women both.” He glanced at Dean, and seemed to read his expression. “Look, I know it’s intrusive… but most people would rather have this than have security guards frisk them… or put them through a strip search!”
“Both of which slow down the queue,” Lockwood added, “and make for unfortunate delays at the security checkpoints.”
“Do they have a choice?” Dean asked.
“Oh, yes,” Llewellyn told him. “They can walk through the machine, or they can submit to a hand search. Of course they have a choice!”
Dean wondered if most people knew they even had that option. That had been a problem with trials in the United States, he remembered… that, and the fact that most people simply didn’t know how graphically revealing this sort of device actually could be. They heard “X-ray” and immediately thought of medical X-rays, black-and-white transparencies showing decidedly non-erotic shadows of bone and translucent tissue.
“So how much radiation are those people getting, anyway?” Dean asked. He knew the answer but wondered what the security people would say.
“About as much radiation as you would pick up walking outdoors in full sunshine,” Lockwood replied. “Not an issue.”
Dean looked back at the main screen as the computer froze the shockingly bald woman’s image momentarily, then rotated it in three dimensions before going back to a real-time image. Her hair, clearly not hiding anything dangerous, faded back into view, and she stepped off-screen.
“I see you leave no fig leaf unturned,” Dean said. “You could make a fortune putting these up on the Internet, you know.”
“The data are immediately discarded, Mr. Dean,” Mitchell told him.
This backscatter unit, Dean noted, was an upgraded model, much improved over the first such devices of a few years ago. The first one had gone into ser vice back in 2007, at the Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona. With that unit, airline passengers had stepped onto the painted outlines of footprints in front of a cabinet the size and shape of a refrigerator and stood there for ten seconds. Fast-improving technology had soon made this new model possible, with a computer imaging the body in real time, manipulating viewing angles, and even adjusting its sensitivity to peer down through successive layers of leather, cotton, nylon, and silk. Privacy concerns had delayed the widespread adoption of the technology; there’d been talk about having the computer blur sensitive parts of the body, or even redraw it as a kind of cartoon image that wasn’t so completely graphic.
As Mitchell had pointed out, though, there were problems with that approach. New types of high-velocity explosives in a plastic container the size of a pack of cigarettes were powerful enough to kill several people, or depressurize an airliner’s passenger cabin. That had been Reid’s intent, obviously, with his PETN-laden shoe.
And if you could look at each and every passenger boarding an aircraft or, in this case, a cruise ship and be able to see with absolute clarity and perfect certainty whether or not just one person out of some hundreds or thousands was smuggling a bomb or other weapon… didn’t simple common sense demand that security forces make use of that technology?
It is, Dean thought, an increasingly strange and difficult world.
“Uh-oh,” Mitchell said, sitting up straighter in his swivel chair. “We’ve got a live one.”
“Ah!” Llewellyn said. “I see it. Okay, Mr. Dean! There is why we don’t have the machine put a blur over ‘body parts,’ as you put it!”
Another man had just walked into the tunnel. He was skinny, his ribs showing clearly. He was bearded and, though his facial features were somewhat vague and blank-eyed on the X-ray image, his movements appeared jerky and seemed nervous or uncertain. Hanging above his genitals were what appeared to be three semitransparent bags, each the size of a man’s fist. His hips were oddly pinched by an invisible cloth belt cinched tightly against his skin. As the image rotated, two more bags came into view, one flattened over each buttock. On the security camera, the man was wearing loose-fitting trousers and a shirt with the long tail hanging down outside the pants halfway to his knees. To an unaided eye, there was no way to see the bags secreted underneath.
“‘Nayim Erbakan,’” Mitchell said, reading the data on the right as Lockwood called it up. “Turkish national, German visa.”
Llewellyn reached up and touched his communicator headset. “Fred? David. Hold this one! Looks like a mule.”
On-screen, the man looked up, stopped, then took a backward step, raising his hands as if to push someone away. Two security guards entered the screen, one from the left and one from the right. Closing on Erbakan, they took him by either arm—with holstered semiautomatic pistols at their hips, with extra ammo clips, plastic belt pouches, badges, ID cards, wallets, radios, handcuffs, flashlights, nightsticks, zippers, buttons, the bills and internal structure of their caps, and other paraphernalia all dangling unsupported from their otherwise nude bodies.
Dean stood and walked across to the slanted windows looking down onto the terminal concourse and security area. The two guards, fully dressed in blue and white uniforms, were escorting the man away from the white tunnel toward a door marked “Private” and “No Admittance.”
The security process had been efficiently streamlined, Dean saw. A line of civilians, most of them in appropriately garish vacation clothing, stood in line waiting to go through the backscatter scanner. Each person in turn would stop beside a conveyor belt and deposit wallets, handbags, cameras, cell phones, and other devices and carry-on items into baskets for conventional X-ray scans, then walk first through an old-fashioned metal detector and then through the smoothly sculpted white tunnel of the backscatter X-ray machine. Security guards stood at strategic points to control the traffic or to administer, as with Erbakan, more detailed and personal attention. Under the guards’ watchful eyes, they retrieved their personal items at the end of the conveyor, on the far side of the backscatter device. Once they were cleared through the checkpoint, they filed through glass doors leading to the dock outside and the immense white cliff of the newest addition to the Royal Sky Line’s fleet of luxury cruise ships, the Atlantis Queen.
Another young woman, looking harried and a bit impatient, stepped out of the tunnel below Dean’s window, holding an infant on one arm. She turned, and held out her free hand, fingers impatiently waggling. A moment later a dark-haired girl walked out and took her hand. The girl couldn’t have been more than ten.
Disgusted, Dean turned away and watched Lockwood, Llewellyn, and Mitchell at the console but did not walk back to where he could see the screen.
“Just how long have you been using this device?” he asked. He was trying not to think about the ten-year-old… or about a world gone so sick and paranoid that this kind of thing was thought necessary.
“Do you mean here in England?” Mitchell asked. “Or Royal Sky Line? We’ve had them operating at Heathrow International for a couple of years now.”
“That’s where I got my training,” Llewellyn told him. “We started using this unit here just yesterday. The upgrades are amazing.”
“We’ve already screened over a thousand of the Queen’s passengers,” Lockwood added.
“Really? How many opted for a hand frisk?”
As he spoke, his right hand peeled a three-inch strip of black, sticky plastic from the back of his tie, the movement blocked from the others by the screen itself.
Excerpted from Deep Black: Sea of Terror by .
Copyright © 2010 by Stephen P. Coonts and Deborah B. Coonts.
Published in February 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.