21 August, 2017 — Front Range, Colorado
The event can best be understood as a causal sequence of subevents of rapidly increasing spatial and energetic scope.
The sequence begins with the firing of timer events in computers belonging to private corporations in Israel, Turkey, and Serbia. Those events awaken logics that transmit messages containing apparently random data to computers in the midwestern United States belonging to the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Agriculture. Those machines in turn broadcast large sequences of complex command strings into scores of regional coordination centers for the nation’s widespread network of cellphone towers.
While North America does not now enjoy the same level of cellphone coverage that it possessed before the War, its network nevertheless encompasses a vast territory of two and one-half million square miles: a region served by more than one hundred and fifty thousand transmitting towers commanding a total of more than six billion watts of power.
Within seconds of the network’s reception of the exotic command codes, control towers across the continent begin drawing power in an unusual way. Eyes capable of seeing radio wavelengths would see rippling patterns of activity, waves of brilliance sweeping in a few tenths of a seconds from Canada southward across the Great Lakes and High Plains, and continuing southward through the hot lands of Texas, the Southwest, and the Gulf states. Then, after a pause of several seconds, the wave of activity repeats in reverse, rushing from south to north at a speed of four thousand miles per second.
At this point there is a briefer pause—just over one half of a second—and the cycle repeats. North to south, south to north.
The positions of the towers are known to within fractions of a meter, and the controlling software coordinates their activity so that a single wavefront is formed.
High above the planet, the wavefront impacts the radiation belts that encircle the Earth. North to south, south to north, it travels at the resonant frequency of the protons that bounce between the Earth’s poles as they spiral, trapped, around the planet’s great magnetic field lines.
Hundreds of miles above the atmosphere, a surge of current builds that grows greater with each three-second trip from pole to pole. By the end of the minutes-long charging period, more than thirty percent of the total energy of the radiation belt currents have been gathered into this single spike: a total of just over one gigawatt-hour.
At a precisely calculated moment, a new signal is sent which affects the relationship between the great wave of current and the spiraling particles that constitute it. The result is a sudden precipitation of most of the charged particles in the current down into the upper atmosphere of the Earth. If it were nighttime on the planet below, the residents of this region would be treated to a spectacular and unexpected display of the “Northern Lights”. As it is, the morning light masks most of the display. Parts of it are intense enough to be seen even so, but only a few are lucky enough to notice.
If the Earth below were neutral and inert, the sequence would end here. The proton torrent would gradually diffuse across a thousand miles of the high thin air, its particles finding lower energy states.
But the lithosphere of the Earth is alive. Pockets of electrical charge are concealed in its depths, and vast currents flow unseen through veins and strata.
Now the balance of currents is affected by the unusual discharge miles above. Charge pockets that were stable begin to coalesce and flow, which in their turn affect deeper pockets and currents. Within minutes, energies are moving that dwarf the atmospheric current that set them in motion.
Miles deep in the Earth, stresses that have remained in balance for centuries will soon find a new equilibrium.
“Damn, man!” Russel says. “How the hell can it be this hot already? Aren’t we like a mile high or something? It oughta be cool!” As Walt stops the truck, Russel takes his faded baseball cap off and uses it like a rag to wipe his forehead.
“Ain’t we goin’ in?” Russel asks. The hangar door that they’ve learned to use in the last few months is standing open. All they have to do is drive in and the giant elevator that constitutes the building’s floor will sense the modest load of their truck, seal the big doors, and begin the descent into the East Cargo Area. Now that the heavy traffic has almost completely ended they practically have the hangar, indeed all of little Front Range airport to themselves.
Walt shuts down the truck.
“Yeah, in a minute,” he says, then pulls his pack of smokes out of his shirt pocket. “Let’s take a break for a second, okay?”
The equipment they have strapped down in the back is so fancy that they could very well have taken another whole day to find it. It’s a large echo-inspection unit for nondestructive testing of reinforced concrete, and the manufacturers sure aren’t making many of the things anymore. Or at least they’re not shipping them to the poor old US of A.
“Sure, man! Hey, can I have one of those things?”
Walt looks sideways at him and raises an eyebrow.
“You sure? You know, they’ll stunt your growth.” He gives the younger man a trace of a smile.
“Yeah, man, fuck, I wish!”
Russ takes one, and they go through the simple ritual of lighting up. Walt uses a a big, worn-looking Zippo lighter, and as Russel accepts a light from it he notices for the first time that it is inscribed with a stylized dragon’s head and the words Sky Dragons.
“What’s on your mind, man?” Russel asks rolling down his window to get some cross-ventilation. He doesn’t mind smoking if he’s sucking it through a filter, but he’s heard that that second-hand smoke is what will really kill you.
Walt exhales smoke slowly before speaking.
“Russ,” he says, “you know I’ve had my, uh, misgivings about this job since the start.”
“Sure, man, I know. Kinda hard to miss.” He grins and turns his head to blow smoke toward the sky. “But we’re makin’ money, right?”
“Yeah,” Walt exhales heavily. “Well I hope you know that, however I felt about it, I wouldn’t let that—cloud my judgment in any way. I’m not gonna—make something up, just to convince you of something. You know that right?”
Russel doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even turn back to look at Walt. Has he somehow guessed what’s coming, and decided to be non-committal? If so, it would be the first time in his life.
Then the younger man turns toward him with such a look of intensity on his face that the older man is taken aback. Before he can think of what to say, Russel simply opens his door, climbs out of the truck, and takes a couple steps away from it.
“Get out of the trunk, Walt.”
Russel looks back, his face angry. Or is it—afraid?
“Just get out of the fuckin’ truck!”
Slowly Walt opens the door and climbs down, then walks around to the front of the big cab so he Russel.
“Everything okay, man? What’s going on?”
Russel looks at him, and now Walt sees that the emotion in question face is definitely fear. In spite of the morning’s unseasonable heat, the realization sends a chill through him. He has never seen that emotion on the young giant’s features before.
“I don’t know, man,” Russel says. “You tell me.”
He hits the cigarette again, fiercely, and looks straight up as he blows out the smoke. Frowning, Walt follows his gaze.
In spite of the bright morning sunlight, in spite of the latitude of their location, high above their heads the blue vault of heaven is filled with moving curtains of crimson, emerald, and gold.
It is the most brilliant display of Northern Lights that Walt has ever seen.
Mike Ross watches the line of eight enormous trucks crawling down the tunnel, fifty yard separation between each and the next, their jointed cement injector booms reaching up to various points on the tunnel surface like giant steel insects. He should be thinking about how well the operators are doing, how fast they are able to steer the arms to inject the high-pressure polymerized concrete into cracks, how many hundred yards per day they can do with the eight trucks each taking a separate sector of the tunnel surface. How fast they can get done.
Instead, he’s thinking about vast hangars a mile beneath the earth, the mysteries contained inside them, and what it all means for his future and the future of the people whom he loves.
For much of the last ten years Linda was always worried that the whole world had gone “shaky” and “weird”, while Mike has always wanted to believe that things were fine, “going great guns”. Of course it wasn’t hard to see her point of view after 9/11 with three thousand Americans dead, many of them jumping to their deaths from the burning Twin Towers, and then the Boston Harbor Bomb exactly a month later that killed ten times as many.
He had met Linda just after that, when he was just getting the construction company started and she was just getting finished with going back to school to finish her PhD in English Language and Literature. Both of them felt like they had probably picked the worst time in the history of the universe to launch their respective new endeavors. But a year later Linda had gotten the teaching job up in Kokomo, Ross Associates was making good headway in the healthy Indianapolis housing market, and both of them felt very good about getting married.
One of the trucks’ operators is having a problem with the injector arm, getting it hung up on a bad part of crack instead of keeping the injector nozzle just flush with the surface. It’s truck three. Mike can’t remember the guy’s name, but he raises his cell phone, ready to talk give some advise about just pulling out and starting over—but then the guy gets past it without any words of wisdom from his boss.
Mike puts the phone back in his pocket, marveling again that it’s even possible to use the little gadget so deep underground. The people, whoever they are who built this place—one thing they know is communication tech. They have signal repeaters up on the tunnel apex all through this place. It’s one more thing the truck operators have had to watch out for.
Mike watches the line of them inching forward, and then looks down the length of the great tunnel, dwindling into the distance.
How many years can two people talk past one another? How long does it take to just talk, and understand?
When the War finally came, it seemed like all of Linda’s fears about how things were going had been justified. But as terrifying as it was—he is quite certain that for the space of those ten days nobody on the Earth was thinking about anything except the War—when the nuclear dust settled, America had lost another city, but the forces of her enemies had been crushed all around the world, in many cases with weapons that no one had even known existed. The defeat was so thorough that something like Foreign Command would have been necessary to just keep order. Of course, it’s done quite a bit more than that since then.
For the second time since they met, Mike assumed that his business was dead. Money froze up, there were credit problems everywhere. There were rumors that some giant companies all around the country were within days of not being able to make payroll. Then—as he has since learned—the Fed opened the great spigots of cash. Liquidity poured out of the giant dams of the Big Banks, rushing and sloshing and splashing and crashing. When the muddy tide comes in, no one can tell who was swimming naked. Naked and ugly as hell.
But it worked, or so a terrified nation wanted to believe at the time. Soon people were buying and selling again, and soon they were building. Soon, in fact, they were damn near knocking down the doors of places like Ross Associates, begging for their work, bidding up the prices. For Mike Ross it was a vindication. I was right, see? The economy’s growing, even after a nuclear war. And we have to grow with it!
But Linda only became more nervous than ever.
He lights a cigarette, blowing the first breath of smoke toward the curving tunnel surface seventy feet overhead.
He sees now that he was not the only one at fault. It takes two to tangle. Maybe if Linda had ever known her own mind well enough to clearly speak it, maybe he would have been able to hear her. Maybe things would have been different. Maybe she would have said something like Michael, I respect what you do and how much you love it, and I don’t want to take that away from you. But I feel that strange things are moving in the world, and I fear for our future, and our son’s future. I don’t need you to shut down your business. Maybe the time will come for that, but if it does you will know it. Right now I only need you to divert part of your attention, some of your money, some of your skills to insuring our future. That’s a compromise we can both not only live with, but be happy with.
Yes, maybe she could have said something like that, and it would have helped. But that’s like saying Maybe if I were married to an angel, I wouldn’t have to spend so much on airline tickets.
If we all had angels to help us, to prevent us from hurting ourselves, or others, to teach us to open our eyes instead of closing them in fear, what would be the point of living our own lives at all? The people who removed the teeter-totters from all the playgrounds because the poor little kiddies might hurt their little selves—those people were not friends of children. People who keep children in perpetually safe and comfortable confinement are not trying to raise healthy adults. They’re trying to raise veal.
Although Linda could have expressed herself better, Mike knows now that he was definitely responsible for his own half of the tangle. Maybe she didn’t express herself with perfect clarity, but he also didn’t listen as well as he could have. He could have ‘said’ to her You are worried about something that you’re not able to fully express. I don’t know what it is either, but I’m going to listen to you and talk, and ask questions. I trust you! I want you to be the first member of my team, and I want to be the first member of yours. That’s why I married you.
But instead, as soon as he got the first signals that not all was well, he only perceived what she was haltingly acting out to him through the distorting lens of his own fears. And his greatest fear was that he would not get to build the things in this life that he wanted to build. Not get to go to the places he wanted to go.
He forgot that what he wanted most was to build for her, and where he wanted to go was through life, with her.
Holding his cigarette at his side, Mike Ross does not see the tunnel his eyes are pointed down, nor the great bucket-trucks, crewed by his hired men, that are slowly rolling down its endless length.
What he sees is a different version of himself. A man who is what Mike Ross might have been, living the life he might have lived. If only he had been brave enough.
After a time, Mike’s cigarette burns his fingers. He flicks it away to the concrete floor and frowns at the trucks he’s been babysitting. Has one of the guys started blowing his horn? And if so, why? It’s sure not like there’s somebody in his way!
Once again Mike fishes the cellphone from his pocket and brings it to his mouth, but realizes he doesn’t know which truck to call!
And then another one starts, but it’s—
A different note?
Mike turns, looking back up the tunnel toward the endcap, tiny in the distance. The sound is coming from there, just as much as from in front of him. Frowning deeply, he looks back at the trucks, then, slowly, lifts his gaze to the arching top of the tunnel.
A third note joins the chorus, audible in spite of the racket the trucks are always causing. Mike brings the phone to his mouth and thumbs the number that will call all the trucks at once.
“Hey, guys, this is Mike,” he shouts into the cell, making sure to keep his voice calm. “I need you to all shut down engines. The mixers also. Please shut everything down right now.”
One by one, the truck operators do as requested, several of the drivers leaning out of their windows or stepping out of the cabs to look back towards him. But as the engines sounds that are louder for them are all shut down, they all start looking up and down the tunnel, or towards its arching zenith.
All around them, the tunnel echoes and groans with the notes of a chord played on a vast organ. If a mile-long whale made of sheet metal could sing at the bottom of the ocean of life and love and loss, thus would its song rebound across the chasms of the deep.
The phone beeps in Mike Ross’s hand and he jerks his gaze down to it as though it had stung him. The incoming call is from Walt, who, Mike realizes, is still topside.
“Walt!” he shouts into the little phone so that he can hear his own voice. “Are you hearing this?”
“What?” Walt’s voice come back through heavy static. Every time he has used the phone system before, Mike realizes, reception has been absolutely perfect.
“Mike, listen!” Walt’s barely audible voice shouts back. “I’m up here with Russ. Something’s going on up here. There’s northern lights all over the fuckin sky, man! The whole sky’s lit up! I don’t like it, man.”
For a few seconds Walt’s voice continues, but waves of static make it completely inaudible. Mike looks at the phone as he snaps it shut.
The waves of static were synchronized with changes in the great chords echoing through the tunnel.
“Something’s coming,” he remembers Linda saying. “I just know it is!”
Dialing the number for all trucks, Mike puts the phone back to his mouth. Now even this call has static on it, but not as bad as the call from Walt.
“Okay, this is Mike. Trucks four and five!” Quentin is the operator on Four so he’ll make sure the others get moving, and his truck and Five are closest to the center of the tunnel and best placed to turn. “You guys please start up again. I want all operators to get into those two trucks, and then you guys come back here and pick me up. We’re going back to the Front Range entrance, okay?” He gets a chorus of assent. They’re all at that stage where they deciding whether to just be weirded out or to be scared shitless. At that stage it’s good to hear that the boss sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.
And what do Don and Larry need? If he just calls them up and says I think something terrible is happening let’s get the hell out of here—both of those guys will argue. Don will say I’m sure it’s all under control. These people know what they’re doing, while Larry could have the ceiling falling down on him and he would just smile and trust in God’s Grace. Which is fine, except for the people whose job it is to put that grace into action.
The two trucks he requested are loaded with the men now and moving nice and snappy. Which is good. He knew that Quentin would see through the calm tone of voice. Overhead, the tunnel sounds grow louder, and stranger.
It sounds like the end of the damn world.
Don’s and Larry don’t seem much alike in disposition, but in their respect for Higher Authority they are actually identical. They just call it different things. Don isn’t religious, so he sees Authority in secular terms: as the Higher Ups, the Shareholders, the Government, or whatever. He doesn’t have any more objective reason to believe in the wisdom or the effectiveness or half the time even the existence of his Authorities than Larry does. It’s just as much a matter of faith.
And since neither one of them can prove the tenets of their faith, the last thing they can tolerate is to have the Wisdom of the Authorities or the Grace of God in any way questioned.
Mike Ross brings the phone back up and quickly punches in simultaneous connections to Don and Larry. They’re both one level deeper, in the tunnel directly below this one, both directing teams the teams doing prep work for the arrival of Quentin’s fleet of injector trucks. They both answer within a couple seconds.
“Hey Mike,” Don speaks up first, “what the hell is this noise?”
“Yeah, listen,” Mike shouts. “I just got a call from the repair manager. They say they want our people to down tools and get outside, on the surface, right now. To the Front Range entrance. I think it’s just a test, like a fire drill or something, but I want to show them that we can control our guys. I’m getting Quentin’s team up right now. Can you guys get all your people up there soonest?”
“You bet we can, Mike!” Larry answers for both of them. “See you there.”
“All right, guys, make me proud.” Mike snaps the phone shut, and looks at it. He can apologize later if he has to, but he doesn’t have time right now for a discussion about Trusting The Authorities.
The sounds are louder than the trucks now, even as the first one goes past him, and Quentin’s truck, in the rear, slows to pick him up. Quentin has figured that it’s best not to stop both trucks. Smart guy, Quentin.
Right now it sounds to Mike like this little world that the Authorities have made is about to blow a gasket.
It’s been a couple minutes since he realized he was talking to dead air, Russel is pacing and fidgeting like a skittish horse, and Walt is just thinking about trying to call Mike again when the first jolt hits.
At first he thinks there’s something wrong with the truck, because he’s leaning against the front fender with his ass and he feels it sort of trembling. He jumps away from the fender and looks at the truck before he remembers that he shut it off already.
“Walt?” Russel says.
Walt looks at him, and the first jolt hits.
It’s just like somebody jerked the rug that you’re standing on by a couple of inches, except there’s no rug. He and Russel both stagger a little but both keep their feet, but after a moment Walt realizes that the ground is still trembling. There’s a sound that comes from everywhere, like the rumble of an approaching freight train.
“It’s an earthquake!” he yells at Russel. Then the next jolt hits, and it’s a much stronger one. It sends everything flying, but the truck, heavily in contact with the ground, doesn’t fly nearly as well as Walt does. He has just enough time to get his arms halfway in front of him before he bounces his forehead off the truck’s rusted chrome bumper.
The Earth moves beneath you like everything you’ve always trusted failing like all your life moving past your eyes faster than you knew like finding out that you are not what you thought what you hoped what you had dreamed but you get up again but you keep going once you killed a man you laughed when they issued you the sidearm but there he was and you drew it and fired. And if you take back any one moment of your life. What are we, anyway, why do we do what we do?
Walt finds himself standing again while the world moves beneath his feet. He rides it like a surfboard. Charlie don’t surf! He turns his head toward the little big guy. Toward Russel.
Russel’s face is moving, suffused with emotion. He is speaking in slow motion while the Earth moves. Russel isn’t stupid, or Walt wouldn’t give him the time of day. He’s just young.
Everybody is young at some point in their lives. It’s not their fault.
Russel is shouting about They’re still down there We have to get them They’re gonna die down there!
And, like an idiot, he starts running toward the hangar.
The hangar has two elevators whose floors constitute the floors of the hangar. Either one of them can accommodate several semis at once. Russel’s idea is apparently that he will sprint to the hangar, ride one of the giant elevators down in spite of the convulsions of the Earth, and—rescue somebody. Or something.
Sometimes young men think that way. If they survive the madness of youth, then they end up knowing what can be done and what cannot.
Russel has taken no more than two steps when Walt takes off after him. He catches up with the big man in five steps, aided by another jolt of the ground beneath their feet. He face and shoulder strike the center of Russel’s back, he wraps his arms around the big man’s chest, and hooks one of his feet with his own leg. They both tumble to the ground in a heap, but Walt ends up on top. For the space of several seconds, he manages to stop Russel from rising. A hundred yards to the left, one of the smaller hangars collapses in upon itself, the sound of its destruction completely lost is the tumult of the earth.
The shaking is so severe now that their flatbed delivery truck, a vehicle probably twice as massive as a large pickup, looks like there is an invisible giant leaning on each corner of it and pushing down powerfully at random moments. And it’s moving. The truck is bouncing so hard that it’s moving slowly across the dry ground. Russel succeeds in rolling over and throwing Walt off of him.
We have to get them out! Walt can see by the strain in the young man’s face that he is yelling as loud as he can. They are both sitting in the dust now, four feet apart, but Walt can’t hear Russel’s voice well enough to understand him without watching his mouth move. We have to save somebody!
The hangar fifty yards in front of them, the building that houses the two giant elevators one of which they would be using right now if Walt had not stopped for a smoke-break and a serious talk, now emits a screeching so high-pitched that it penetrates even the earthquake noise. They both look at the building, Walt half-expecting some giant creature out of a nightmare to emerge from the wide rectangular opening.
Instead they see the floor of the elevator nearest them, a cement slab twenty yards wide, suddenly tilt to one side, emitting a puff of dust from the corner that has suddenly lowered. A moment later, with a sound of rending metal, the entire floor just collapses out of sight, a column of dusty air blowing up into the large hangar and billowing out silently into the air.
Russel looks back at Walt, his eyes wide.
I just did save somebody, Walt yells back at him, laughing.
The earth bucks like a horse, moving so violently that, to his amazement, Walt finds himself suddenly floating a foot above the ground. Until, in an eyeblink, the ground rises up to smash him in the ass.
He sits up slow and careful, wondering if anything in his pelvis just got broken or cracked—and then realizes that the shaking has stopped.
The little control tower of Front Range airport is a smoking ruins, and most of the hangars, in spite of the flexibility of their construction, have collapsed. But the hangar that concealed the freight elevators is still half-standing. And from it a battered-looking group of men is exiting, some limping, some helping others to walk. Among them Walt sees Don and Larry, then Quentin and finally Mike, with blood on his shoulder.
A big hand reaches down and Walt becomes aware that Russel has already hopped to his feet and is now offering him a hand. He appears to be either laughing or crying, but Walt figures it must be laughter since the big guy slaps him on the back several times after he hoists Walt to his feet.
In the distance to the west, great clouds of both dust and smoke have risen high into the sky. Some of the clouds are issuing from points nearby in the disrupted earth, but thousands more are rising beyond those, like a forest of the mile-high blue and brown streamers that extends to the distant horizon and far beyond. Beneath the rising fumes, great swaths of land have subsided into huge linear depressions and circular craters.
“You’re okay? You guys are okay?” Mike yells as he comes up to them. His eyes are wild, and he doesn’t know that he’s yelling. He can’t hear his own voice.
“Yeah”, Walt shouts back, with an exaggerated nod of his head. “We’re good.”
Somehow, Mike has managed to hang onto his cellphone. He limps to Walt and thrusts the device in his face.
“Is it ringing?” he shouts. “Is she there?”
Walt looks at the simple cellphone, then puts his hand on Mike’s to bring the device close to his ear.
“Hello?” Walt hears a tiny voice. “Mike are you there?” It’s the voice of Mike’s wife, Linda. He looks at Mike and nods, pushing the phone back to him.
“Hey baby!” Mike shouts at the little phone, his face lighting up. “Hey I’m sorry, I can’t hear you, I’m a little deaf right now. But listen, I got something to tell you. We’ve had a real bad earthquake here. Okay? You’re gonna hear about it on the news. But I don’t want you to worry. We’re all okay. All the guys are okay. Please call all the wives and let them know, all right?”
Mike’s face goes from elation to devastation in a heartbeat.
“I’m coming home to you baby, you hear me? We’re all coming home.”
“Did she hear?” Mike shouts at Walt and thrusts the phone at him again.
“Hey, Linda? You heard him, right?” It strikes Walt that it’s a little funny for Mike to say We’re all okay when he has blood all over his left shoulder, but in the grand scheme of things—yeah, that probably still counts s being okay.”
He hears a tearful confirmation from Linda and is just about to say another word when the phone goes silent.
“Yeah, she heard you,” Walt yells at Mike, nodding. “But we just lost signal.”
“Yeah, I’m surprised it held up this long,” Mike nods. He’s starting to talk at something like a more normal volume.
He turns to look at the miles of rising smoke and dust.
“Denver’s gone,” he says. “And so are the tunnels. None of them could’ve survived that.” He looks meaningfully at Walt. “I think God just stepped on this place, buddy.”
“Yeah,” Walt nods back, tight-lipped. “Good.”
“Come on guys,” Mike raises his voice. “Let’s dump this junk off our truck and get going. I think we want to get as far from Denver as we can as fast as we can.”
He wipes sweat from his forehead, looking back east.
“Indy’s a thousand miles thataway,” he says. “And we are by God gonna be there tomorrow.”