19 August, 2017 — Denver Redoubt
“I just want you to take a look at the what some of the cracking looks like after prepping,” Mike says. “Don talked to me about it yesterday, and he wasn’t real thrilled about it. I’m not either.”
Walt walks alongside Mike across one of the parking areas that occur every mile down the tunnel’s length, but alternating from one side to the other. The lots are each sized to hold something like a hundred car-sized vehicles as well as ten semis. The painted yellow lines on the stone floor are unusually large in the cars’ area, however. They look to Walt as though they’ve been sized for humvees. Currently, there are a decent number of vehicles in the lot, left by workers who have entered from Front Range and then driven here to descend to the lower levels. But it’s nothing like the number that the lot can hold. Walt idly imagines convoys of military transport vehicles parking here while more of the same whiz by in the tunnel behind him, no doubt while nukes go off overhead. Good times.
“So the pressure-wash itself is causing problems?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Mike nods. “In spots. But that doesn’t make sense, unless there isn’t any reinforcement at all in places, and—damn.” Mike scowls at the painted lines of the lot as he walks over them. “I hope that’s not the case.” He glances at Walt and makes a little whatever gesture. “I just want you to take a look.”
It’s still a little strange to walk through a parking lot with a stone roof ten yards overhead, and Walt hopes that however long this gig lasts will not be long enough to get used to it.
The elevators to the lower levels are at the back of the lot, a bank of seven normal-sized ones, and several larger freight elevators. As they approach, Walt sees that the lights above the doors indicate that all the elevators but one of the smaller type are already at lower levels. Seeing that one is a relief: it can take several minutes to wait for one to rise.
“Well, that’s good luck for a change,” Walt says. It often happens that they are all at the lower levels, and then it can take several minutes to wait for one once the call-button is pushed.
As they walk in, he realizes that he spoke too soon.
“Oh, what the fuck now?” Walt says disgustedly. There is a three-foot-long gouge in the stainless steel inner face of the elevator. Someone tried to force a piece of structural steel or equipment in here that should have been riding in a much larger freight elevator. Saving time! But then they turned with it in the confined space and ripped the shit out of the elevator’s relatively soft stainless steel skin.
That wouldn’t be a problem, except that the gouge goes directly across the elevator’s control pad. Well, that would be why the elevator was not in use!
Mike exhales slowly. “Just go ahead and try it,” Mike says. “We’re late already.”
Probably the same thing the guys said who fucked up the elevator.
The reader appears to be undamaged, so Walt runs his card through it. Nothing happens, but that may not be surprising since the gouge is deepest just under the display. He tries hitting the touchpad floor indicator and the display does light up, but there’s garbage on it.
Not one to give up easily, he jabs at it several more times with increasing force. “Come on, goddamit!” Walt punches the control panel with the flat of his fist.
A line above the normal display lights up with the words Red Badge Required—but the door begins to close.
Walt laughs and looks at Mike. “Badges?” he says. “We don’t need no steenking badges!”
“Um,” Mike says slowly. “How do we know it’s got the right level?”
“I keyed in two.”
“Yeah. But then what’s this ‘red badge’ stuff?”
“It’s just fucked up,” Walt says. But he frowns uncertainly at the display panel.
Half a minute of descent later, it becomes clear that Mike’s concern is not misplaced. The indicator doesn’t display anything that looks like a number, but it clearly changes in a way that indicates that a new floor has been reached. But the elevator continues to descend.
“God damn it,” Walt says, stepping toward the controls.
“No, hold on.” Mike touches his shoulder. “Didn’t I con you into this gig by saying we should find out what’s going on?”
Walt gives him an uncomfortable look. “Yeah, I suppose you did.”
“Well, we can’t get busted for this. The elevator’s fucked up. Let’s just take a look. The cracks will still be there when we get back.”
Minutes go by and the elevator continues to descend, passing level after level.
“Mike, listen—” Walt begins. But at that moment they feel the elevator begin to slow.
“I think this is seven,” Mike says quietly. “Let’s just take a look.”
The elevator comes to a calm stop, and the doors glide open. With only a little hesitation, he follows Mike out.
Without really thinking about it, Walt was expecting more tunnels similar to the two levels that he has already seen. But this is a corridor, well appointed and lit, like you might expect to see in a modern office building or corporate headquarters if it were large enough. Perhaps in someplace like the Pentagon, or IBM headquarters in New York state.
It has always been pretty clear that the tunnels are transportation routes: essentially underground highways. Is it possible that the deeper levels are the living areas, working areas, office space?
Is a whole world being created underground?
“Okay,” Mike says, looking up the wide corridor. “Let’s keep moving.”
It’s certainly not as busy as Walt imagines a corridor in the Pentagon or in IBM Armonk would be, but there are people in the corridor, individuals and groups going about what looks like their idea of normal business. Fortunately there is no one very nearby, hopefully not quite near enough to wonder why two individuals are standing around gawking like tourists, and within a few seconds Mike gets him moving with the flow. A new corridor, less well lit and still less traveled, opens out to the left and Mike immediately turns them both into it.
As he walks, Walt realizes that he is feeling a kind of anger and some shame: an emotional cocktail that he remembers quite well. The cause is his own mental—or, perhaps more accurately, moral—weakness. He has been here, working in this incredible place, for three months, and he has not until this moment seriously thought about what it is and what it means.
Walt thinks of himself as the skeptic. As the guy who sees through bullshit.
It is often said that a man is what he does, but “what he does” always really means “what he has done”. If you want to see what a man is becoming rather than what he has been thus far, watch what he yearns for, or what he faults himself for most bitterly.
Since four days in a hot desert August of nearly thirty years ago, Walt has most faulted himself whenever he falls for the Standard Story: the story that they put in the papers—they still had those in 1990—the story that you have to believe because it’s obviously true, because everybody else believes it, because if you don’t believe it you’re irrational! Since, clearly, the meaning of rationality is to believe what you are told.
Walt has wanted to be the guy who sees through the bullshit since he participated—and led other men who participated—in what the Standard Story now simply describes as an important facet of the beginning of Desert Storm, in which the Thirty-Ninth of the First became the first field artillery regiment in history to go air-mobile in order to destroy major elements of the elite Republican Guard, thus enabling the fastest and largest air-and-armor assault in the history of warfare.
In the wake of that great assault, Walt’s unit advanced far enough the he was able to see what the results on the ground that his M-198s had produced. It was around that time, on some deep level of his being, that he decided to become the guy who sees through the bullshit. It was also not long around that time when he decided that he had not yet found a long-term career.
But if you want to see through the happy holograms of unicorns and rainbows that most people accept as reality, the very first requirement is that you be willing to look straight at things that are in front of your face, and see them for what they are. Which is exactly what he has not been doing for the last three months. He has worked in a secret project of a size and scope that he never dreamed could exist, and yet deliberately avoided asking himself what it meant, hiding instead behind the same comfortable assumptions that he criticized at the outset when he heard them from his colleagues. It’s a government project, it’s because of the war, maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all.
Faced with inhabited corridors deep beneath the levels he has seen, Walt knows that there is no longer any comfortable fictions that he can hide behind. Or, rather, that he is willing to hide behind.
Taking a breath, Walt Lanman resolves to learn the reality of this place rather than being awed into simply doing what he is told. He learned better than that thirty years ago, when he simply did what he was told, and then saw the results on a desert battlefield.
Walt tenses as two men in blue hospital-like smocks pass by going in the other direction, talking quietly to each other. They do not so much as spare a glance up at a couple of construction workers. Which is a good sign.
“Did you notice their badges?” Mike whispers after they are well past. “Red. I didn’t know there were different colors.”
“Different security levels,” Walt says quietly. “We might not be able to get in everyplace.”
“Most have the same color we do, or I’d have noticed it before,” Mike replies.
They travel a long distance in which there are no doors, no further side corridors, in fact no features of interest at all. The corridor recedes ahead of them apparently to infinity.
“We’ve got to get inside of a room at some point here,” Walt murmurs. Could there be microphones in the walls? No. The builders of this place may have plenty of money, but they’re not all-powerful. There aren’t any cameras scanning every face, or microphones listening to every breath.
“All right, at last,” Mike says. “Looks like it’s made to order. Let me just crack the door and see if anybody’s in.”
The door that has at last appeared ahead of them on the right hand side of the corridor is wide—perhaps four feet—but has a standard lever-type handle. Just before it there is a yellow and black sign on the wall that say Construction and Maintenance Personnel Only.
“See? It likes us.” Mike looks at Walk long enough to raise an eyebrow, then, taking a quick glance up and down the corridor, tries the handle. It rotates normally.
Walt looks up the corridor again as Mike opens the door to peer inside the room, then frowns at Mike’s back when he doesn’t move for a few seconds. The only people in the corridor are far back in the direction Mike and Walt came from, and getting farther, but nevertheless, there’s no sense loitering. They’ve got to either go inside the room or close the door!
Incredibly, Mike leans back and looks at Walt again rather than simply stepping inside. It’s too much.
“Nobody’s there?” Walt demands in an angry whisper. “Let’s go! We can’t just stand out here!”
Mike has an expression on his face that Walt can’t understand. But he nods, pushing the door further open, and steps through it as Walt crowds in behind him.
But it isn’t a room. It is, indeed, a new world.
Walt keeps walking forward a few steps even after some very small part of his mind knows that Mike has already stopped. A walking human being requires a slight effort of will to stop walking, and Walt’s body continues on autopilot for a few more steps because his mind has bigger fish to fry.
Walt has worked on many commercial projects in his life, including some of substantial scale. Once, as a child, his parents took him on a tour of the old Apollo launch pads in Florida, part of which involved a visit to the great Vehicle Assembly Building. As a ten year-old boy he craned his neck to look up at a roof so high that it needed a gigantic ventilation system to prevent weather from happening inside the building! He has remembered that experience to this day and sometimes wonders if it influenced his choice of profession. It was the first time in his life that Walt remembers being proud of what human beings are able to do.
The “room” that Walt has just entered has three and a half times the volume of that long-ago building. Its ceiling is not as high, although not far off, but it is perhaps a third again wider, and enormously long. Walt estimates at least a third of a mile. The great free span is supported by a line of titanic pillars, each ten yards in diameter, running down the center of the enormous space.
Yet only a corner of Walt’s mind is aware of the physical details of the vast room. He has eyes for nothing but its contents.
Marching down each side of the great enclosure is an array of identical silvery ships, disc-shaped, each more than thirty yards in diameter. Each has a wide thin “brim” at its equator, topped by a thicker dome-shaped structure. A similarly shaped, but smaller, structure is attached to the center of the underside. There are no windows or portholes in evidence. The ships are apparently completely opaque aluminum hulls.
They look precisely like flying saucers from a 1950s science fiction movie.
Walt’s legs at last, with no further conscious direction, wind down and stop. Mike takes a few more steps to come abreast of him, but neither man has any thought of speaking.
There are two long columns of the vessels. They are too closely aligned with the right column to count its ships, but the leftward column is easily visible and contains seven identical saucers.
Every one of the ships is hovering unsupported, in perfect silence, four or five yards above the polished stone floor.
Walt stares, mouth open, feeling like he is going to explode, or implode, or somehow do both at once.
The reason that the great VAB in Florida affected him so much, so long ago, was that it was a monument to what human beings could do. What can be built when people of good will and clear thought work together toward a common goal. The memory of that great building and the thought of the mighty Apollo rockets that were assembled in, the thought of those mighty rockets thundering into space—all of those thoughts were what made him want to a designer and a builder, all so he could become part of that world: the world of the people who dreamed so big and built so well that they left footprints on the moon in the year that Walt was born.
But this great hall belongs to a different world entirely. The sight of this vast space and impossible saucer-craft speaks very clearly. It tells Walt that the world he desired so much as a boy was either always a lie, or else at the very least has long since been secretly left far behind. It tells him, even more than the huge tunnels of the higher levels, that there is a vast realm of endeavor and achievement to which he, and all of the other hopeful young boys of the daylight world, are not invited.
Walt stares at the ranks of silently floating saucers. Here is a technology as far beyond the thundering Apollo rockets, as far beyond even the modern Ares rockets that have now returned Americans to the moon, as those rockets are beyond the spruce and muslin flyer of the Wright Brothers. Yet this miracle is hidden here, deep under the earth, rather than trumpeted to the world. What does it mean? Is this base the work of aliens from distant stars? Have these craft crossed the light years only to hide themselves here?
Walt frowns at the thought. The discs look as though they have never seen an hour’s use, let alone crossed the vastness of space.
The far end of the great hall contains large banks and reefs of machinery, the details mostly hidden by distance. Do they work on the craft here? The space and the machinery both seem inadequate to do the actual manufacturing. Walt can see, however, that there is enough space between the rank of floating disc craft and the enormous central pillars so that one could be pulled out of line—however the things might be moved—and carefully guided back toward the great room’s far end to be worked on in whatever manner with the machinery there.
To Walt’s surprise, a brilliant blue spark as bright as a welder’s torch but much larger flares momentarily between two parts of one of the large machines and is just as suddenly extinguished. A moment later several men walk out from behind the machinery that produced the spark. In spite of the distance, Walt believes that they are dressed identically, possibly in something like blue-gray mechanics’ coveralls.
To Walt’s horror, one of the men appears to notice him and Mike. A moment later the other two have also stopped moving, and all three men are looking at them.
Mike sees the men as well, and curses under his breath.
For an instant Mike considers walking towards the men and waving or something along those lines. The men at the far end of the vast hall are certainly thinking something like Who are those guys? Should they be there? Nothing would change their doubt into dangerous certainty faster than giving in to the demand of instinct: for him and Walt to turn on their heels and skedaddle back the way they came. Any choice is better than that. But it’s absurd to greet someone from a distance of what looks like more than a quarter mile.
Of course we should be here, Mike thinks. We are important managers, looking over something that does not concern you. I see you are looking at us, so I wave casually—to Walt’s amazement, he fits an action to the thought—and then I point out something to my associate.
“Don’t turn around yet,” Mike says. “We’re supposed to be here, and I’m pointing out something to you.” Walt stares at him, but Mike turns and points out some imaginary on the floor.
“Here’s where we’ll put the strips of unobtanium,” he says. “Goddamnit, look where I’m pointing.”
Eyes wide, Walt turns to look at the floor.
“Okay, now we look at the wall and start walking. Come on.” Mike starts sauntering, putting a hand on Walt’s shoulder to turn him a little and get him to start coming along. The men at the far end probably won’t be able to see that.
“Jesus Christ, Mike!” Walt says.
“Come on!” Mike insists in a needlessly low voice. “Make our clients back there think we look like we belong here.” He points broadly up at a spot more than halfway up the titanic wall.
“Okay,” Walt breathes, looking up at the wall. He even manages raise him arm to point at a random spot himself on the forty story-high wall. “That’s where we’ll put the Krell steel,” he murmurs.
“Good!” Mike grins. “Don’t look back. And now we just kind of swerve toward the door.”
To Walt’s relief Mike guides their course toward the door they entered through, still pointing at imaginary alterations, and twenty very long seconds later they close it behind them.
“Mike,” Walt looks at him, eyes wide, even as the steel door thumps shut. “Jesus Christ, Mike. Those things—”
“Come on,” Mike says. “Think about it later.”
And with that he strides off back toward the errant elevator as fast as he can walk so that Walt nearly has to jog to keep up, leaving the new world behind him.