June, 2017 — Watkins, Colorado
Mike Ross finally finds Front Range Airport at the end of a dusty little road in the middle of Absolutely Fucking Nowhere, at ten minutes past eight, after spending the last half hour cussing out vague road signs and the totally useless navigation app on his phone. Since the destruction of the GPS satellites during the War, cellphone manufacturers have tried to replace the old GPS-based navigation apps by putting tiny solid-state accelerometers inside the phones, but the damn things just don’t work. For their part, the feds have been saying that they’re going to have GPS-II up and running Any Month Now for the last five years.
As Mike approaches the parking lot, his first thought is that he maybe shouldn’t have bothered. The place looks damn near deserted, its sole terminal building an old two-story brick lump that looks like it was designed by a student architect with an imagination deficit. The half dozen cars in the parking lot do not help at all to keep the place from looking deserted. Instead, the place makes the few vehicles look as though they have been abandoned.
At the entry to the parking lot, right next to the sign that says “Front Range Airport” is another sign, larger yet, that has a picture of a futuristic space shuttle zooming up, up, and away from lush green farmlands. The sign proudly proclaims front Range to be the “Future Home of Dream Chaser Spaceport!” The sign has long ago faded in the mile-high sunlight.
But turning into the little two-lane driveway that leads to the parking lot, Ross is surprised to see a big old Kenworth truck lumbering towards him, pulling two enormous belly-dumper trailers behind it. What the hell—are they flying in wheat here? And if so, why?
Half a minute later as he parks his car and hops out into the morning warmth to walk as quick as he can toward the terminal, he sees three other trucks just like the one that passed him. They’re parked over by a large, hangar building that’s off to the side of the rows and columns of smaller hangars, and doesn’t look nearly as sand-blasted as they do.
He frowns at the line of trucks. The thought about flying in wheat was a joke. But seriously—what the hell is a line of belly-dumper semis doing at Bumfuck International?
Inside the terminal it’s at least air-conditioned, after a fashion, but the place is so small that it actually stops him cold. There is a single reception desk—with nobody behind it—eight or ten tables scattered across the threadbare purple carpeting, and a coke machine. As he looks around, Ross’s gaze falls upon the room’s only other occupant: a man of about Mike’s own age who looks like he’s dressed for construction work. The man puts down his magazine and looks up.
“Mike Ross?” he calls out, rising from his seat. He walks over and offers his hand but no smile. At least he doesn’t say You’re Late, as Mike feared he might.
“Right this way.”
Without another word the man turns to walk past the reception desk, leaving Ross to hurry after him.
“Excuse me,” Mike calls to the man’s back, “is the work here at, uh, this airport?”
He doesn’t see how it could be.
The man unlocks a plain wooden door with a key attached to a bunch on his belt, then stands aside with a sardonic look on his face to let Mike pass through.
The room that they enter looks like it belongs in a science fiction movie. Stainless steel walls that look like they might stop an RPG, solid-state strip lights embedded in the ceiling, and in the facing wall a—what? Mike stops to look at it. Is it a freight elevator? The damn thing is big enough to park half a dozen cars in.
The man walks into the elevator and turns toward Ross.
“Not exactly,” he says. “But this is the entry your guys will be using.”
Ross steps into the oversized elevator. As they close, the doors sound like a bank vault locking.
The man doesn’t press any buttons. There aren’t any controls of any kind that Ross can see. Nevertheless, after a few seconds the elevator starts to descend.
There also aren’t any floor-indicators lighting up anywhere. Frowning, Mike starts to ask a question but his guide speaks first.
“Did they tell you this is DHS?” the man asks.
Ross nods, meeting the man’s eyes.
“Well, yeah they tell everybody that,” the man nods. “That’s bullshit, though.”
Ross looks from his guide to the elevator door, willing there to be some indicators that he missed at first glance. There still aren’t any.
“What—is it, then?” he asks, forcing himself not to look back at the large doors. They have to be at least five floors down, and the elevator is still descending.
“I don’t know,” the man says, “I don’t want to know, and you don’t either.”
Ross looks back at him unsure of what to say. If it’s not Homeland Security, who in the hell can afford to put something like this—whatever this is—underneath a minor little regional airport? And why?
The man shrugs. “They’re not as tight on security as they used to be, the man grins, “obviously, or you wouldn’t be here, right? The scuttlebutt is they’re getting more relaxed because it’s basically done. If it weren’t for the cracking problem on the upper levels here, they’d be buttoned up already.”
The man falls silent, thinking, watching the heavy steel doors. It’s all that Ross can do to hold his peace, waiting. The elevator is continuing to descend.
“They’ll still kill you if you talk about it, though,” the man says quietly. “Best make real sure your crew understands that.”
As the man looks at him to make sure he’s understood, the elevator begins to slow and comes to a halt at last. Ross estimates that they’re thirty stories deep if it’s a foot. He can’t imagine what the hell kind of a facility this is. Even missile silos don’t go that deep.
The door opens onto a room the size of an office building, carved out of solid stone.
Mike Ross walks out of the elevator slowly, craning his neck to look up at the brilliant electric lights high above.
“Jesus H. Christ,” he whispers.
“They didn’t tell you anything?” his guide asks.
Mike shakes his head.
To his right he notices a gleam of metal and turns toward it, still walking slowly. On the great wall to his right, which would be roughly east-facing, he realizes, a huge, perfectly circular tunnel has been carved into the rock for a distance of at least two hundred feet. Nearly the size of the great room’s wall, the tunnel has to be twenty-five yards in diameter. At the end of it is an enormous metal cap, exactly as big as the tunnel diameter, and festooned with—Ross frowns at the titanic object, trying to see.
It’s not a cap. Those are cutting heads.
“That—is that a tunnel-boring machine?” he asks quietly.
“Damn, they really didn’t tell you anything!” the man laughs. “Yes, it’s a tunnel-boring machine. It extrudes a plasticized cement wall as it goes, and they fucked up some of the materials and got some vertical cracks forming in the cement in the upper levels.”
Ross looks at the man.
“The upper levels?” he says.
“Yeah,” his guide nods. “This one, and the next three or four down.”
Ross stares at the man, then looks back at the gigantic machine. He had heard of tunneling machines, but he had no idea that they had been built on such a scale. And four more levels below this? And those are the upper levels?
He stares at the machine, waiting for his mind to catch up.
“How far are they going with it?” he says at last.
“Oh, no, it’s done,” his guide says. “They parked it there. The actual tunnel, this one, anyway, goes to Denver airport. Look.”
The man walks him out a few more yards so that the elevator column isn’t in his way, and points.
The tunnel is seventy-five feet high, and lit by brilliant strips every thirty yards or so. The bottom of it has been flattened, and a highway constructed. The highway has four lanes.
The tunnel apparently extends to infinity.
“Jesus Christ,” Mike Ross whispers.
“Yeah,” the man says. “I hope you got a big crew.”