19 August, 2017 — Denver Redoubt
Later that evening, after Walt and Mike have separated at last, Walt returns to work. Mike asked him so many times if he was okay that Walt finally accused Mike of himself being messed up by what they had seen. He admitted that that was probably true. Well, sure, who wouldn’t be, Walt told him. We just need some time. Let’s talk tomorrow. It took a little too long to get rid of him, and now Walt is hurrying: trying to hit the shift-change. On this project work goes on full bore, Saturday or not. Even tomorrow on Sunday there will half-shifts all day.
When he gets back to the first parking lot in the tunnel on Level One, he knows that he’s nearly missed it. The elevators are busy and there are people in the lot, getting into their vehicles or standing around in small groups smoking and talking. The elevator he wants is still there, unused, but it has a black and yellow Out of Order sign taped across the junction between the doors.
Approaching it, he simply pulls the sign off and steps inside, carrying the sign with him. In a place where people learn to not ask questions, you just have to act like you know what you’re doing. Of course the topside world has become pretty much the same way, lately.
After sufficient abuse, the elevator’s control panel responds exactly as it did earlier and, after another five minute ride, deposits him on the same Level. The one that the elevator says requires red badges, even though half the people he sees in the halls have blue ones just like his. Walt leaves the elevator carrying the out-of-order sign rolled up, trying to act the role of a guy who’s been told to go stick the sign up somewhere. It’s nice to have a prop.
The problem is that he has no idea where he’s going. He only has a theory.
What seems clear now, after having had a few hours to reflect, is that his immediate impression of this new level must be correct. As he walks through the broad corridors, not making eye-contact, doing his best to look bored but purposeful, Walt confirms his earlier impression. This is nothing like the upper levels that he has been working on. Those are basically transit tunnels, serving the same function as highways. The people like himself and Mike who have been hired to complete those enormous tunnels are temporary labor, admitted recently without security clearances because of some perceived shortage of time.
People like him and Mike, Don, Larry, Quentin, and big dumb Russel—they work construction in the tunnels, but they go back to the real world every day. They go topside.
The people that he is passing in these lower corridors live down here, and they look pretty damn serious about it. They think that this is the real world. They work here, but they have homes or dormitories or whatever in some part of the vast complex that he has not seen yet. As he has that thought, an electric vehicle goes past beeping warnings to pedestrians. It’s large, carrying a dozen or so passengers in addition to the driver, and Walt realizes that it’s not the first one that has passed him. So that’s how they commute.
He has no intention of finding wherever it is these morlocks go off-shift. What Walt wants to find is an example of a type of room that he believes must exist anyplace where humans wear smocks to go to work. Most of the smocks in this area are blue, and people mostly wear their badges clipped to waist-level pockets on the smocks, to have them at a level that’s convenient for the card readers that are on some of the doors.
But even down here, Walt has reasoned, people are still people. If they do work that requires smocks, it means there’s good reason to protect their street-clothes from the dust and grime or whatever it may be that their work sometimes engenders. Which they also probably would just as soon not track home with them. Which means that, somewhere in these endless corridors there really ought to be—
Locker rooms. He sees it immediately as he rounds a corner. Two nice big doors, and two men exiting the area not wearing smocks, talking more animatedly now that they’re off for the evening. And both have damp hair. Showers.
One of the men notices Walt’s glance, so he nods and smiles at them as he walks into the steamy locker room.
The two men weren’t wearing badges anymore. People leave them with their smocks.
He is indeed a little late for the shift-change, but it looks like that will work in his favor. There aren’t many people left among the many rows of steel lockers. There is a sound of a shower still running, but good odds that guy won’t see him if he chooses an out-of-the-way place.
Walt smiles again as he sees the simple little tumbler-locks that most people have on their lockers. What’s the point of having real security when you’re half a mile underground, right? He came prepared for more serious effort, but with locks like these he can use the two pieces of stiff wire in his pants pocket to open them almost as quickly as if he had a key. If anybody does surprise him, he’ll just close his locker, nod and smile again, and walk out the door.
Until then, Walt is shopping for badges in a pretty new color.
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