20 August, 2017 — Denver, Colorado
After coming off shift, Walt has long since passed the point of nervousness, and is now starting to think about emergency escape plans. If they’ve taken Mike, how can he get the other guys out? If he tells them it’s time to punch out, will they even listen to him like they would to Mike? By the time he gets to the hotel he’s starting to see ominous men lurking in every shadow. They’re never actually there when he turns his head.
He decides to go up to Mike’s room just to see if there might be any clue—and finds the door ajar as he approaches. Pushing it open silently, Walt walks into the big suite.
A man is sitting at one of the room’s meeting tables, facing out towards the evening sky. He pours himself a drink from a bottle on the table next to him.
The man is Mike.
“Hey, Walt,” he says. “Have a drink.”
“God damn it, man!” Walt stalks across the room to be able to glare at the man straight on. “This is where you’ve been all day? Do you know what I’ve worrying about? What the fuck are you thinking about?”
“Yeah,” Mike blinks up at him. “I’m sorry. Here, have a drink.” He has a whole tray of glasses in front of him. He pours vodka into a new one, and pushes it toward Walt.
Frowning, Walt sits across the table from him and takes the glass, without bothering to actually drink from it.
“What’s going on, man?” he asks. “I know we—saw some pretty crazy stuff last night. That would throw anybody.”
Except he never thought it would affect Mike like this.
Mike shakes his head.
“Yeah, right? That’s the crazy thing. We saw fucking flying saucers yesterday, right?” He widens his eyes comically. “Flying—fucking—saucers! So what am I thinking about?” He laughs, but there’s more pain than humor in him. He takes another drink and looks across the table at Walt. “I’m thinking about Linda.”
Walt looks down at his hands for a moment, then decides maybe he will try a little of the room-temperature vodka after all. Walt has known Mike and worked with him since before he met Linda, and he has watched their recent breakup—that’s what it clearly is even if Mike doesn’t want to call it that—with some sadness. He has wondered from time to time if there was any possible way he could help, but he’s never seen anything that could be done. It seems to him that Mike and Linda were never really on the same wavelength.
“I must be losing it, man.” Mike says. His eyes gleam in the fading light.
“Well,” Walt says slowly, “it is—a bit of a leap.”
“You know what I keep thinking of?” Mike says. He looks away out the big hotel windows at the great city that’s starting to illuminate itself with a myriad colored lights trying to avert the coming night.
“I feel like, my whole life, things have been falling apart. You know I tried a lot of things before I got into this business. It’s always felt like—” he shakes his head. “Like the whole country, the whole world—it’s like a big ship that sank a long time ago, and now there’s nothing but pieces of it left, and they’re sinking too. I’ve been hopping from one piece to another all my life. Every time I talk myself into believing that the new piece I found is a real new ship. Here we go! Now we’re taking off!” He laughs. “But it always turns out to be just another piece of sinking junk.”
For many years, Walt has always depended on this man to put things together, and to hold them that way long enough for others to make money, to make a living, from the work that he found. This is the guy who finds a way through the vicissitudes of life for everybody around him, for everybody who knows him.
When Walt needed the work, when he needed the money, this is he guy who found it for him. Now, this is the guy who’s lost and needing some help.
It’s still kind of hard to see the connection between his relationship with Linda and the fact that they saw flying saucers parked in a giant underground hangar last night.
“But what else could I do?” Mike continues with barely a pause. “She was always nervous about the damn money. Seem like no matter how much I made it was never enough. You know?”
Walt thinks about that one for a moment.
“Well, I guess that was okay, then,” he says. “Since you wanted to keep doing the business.”
Mike takes a quick gulp.
“Well, yeah,” he nods. “That was good! I mean it should have been. Yeah,” he smiles. “You know, once I got started in this racket—well, you know how much I liked it!”
“Yeah, I do,” Walt smiles back. “I’m not really sure I know why you like it, though.”
“Because if anything good is ever going to happen in this sorry world, it’s gotta be built!” Mike leans forward in his chair, speaking with surprising intensity. “You want to build things too, or you wouldn’t be here. You know, you could go get an EBT card and just suck on that for the rest of your life and talk about how disadvantaged you are. Except they push those fucking things like heroine. Why don’t you do that?”
“You’re here,” Mike continues, “because you know down deep that if people like us don’t build stuff, then everybody—everybody—is gonna be stuck hopping from one piece of wreckage to the next—the sinking remains of the USS Civilization—until there just aren’t any more pieces left floating. And then where do we jump to?”
He leans back again in his chair.
“I guess,” he frowns at the darkening sky and brightening city. “I guess I always want to help somehow, ever since I was a kid. And what better way to help is there than to build? Linda was always worried that things were falling apart. Well—” he raises his eyebrows, “and she was right! The War finally came—she was right! But now it’s time to build up again. Isn’t it?” He peers at Walt so searchingly that it’s unsettling. Like he looking for an answer right here, right now.
“So that was your compromise,” Walt answers slowly. “Linda was always worried that hings were coming apart. You wanted to build them back up. Perfect!”
“Except—” he sips from the warm vodka again. It’s like tasting nothing. “then why’d she leave?”
Mike takes a long breath.
“Because I didn’t do it for her,” he says. “I was so busy building everything in the damn world that I didn’t build anything for her. When the bust came—” he shakes his head and there is pain in his eyes, “we ended up with nothing. Nothing at all. I let her and Jimmy down.”
“I just couldn’t believe it, you know? That things collapsed again? I kind of still can’t believe it. Things should’ve come back after the War. People need houses, don’t they? It was going so good.”
Looking out at the sky his lip trembles for a second, and Walt looks away toward the big suite’s western windows where the remains of daylight are still draining from the sky. The first-quarter moon is slanting down toward the sunset and higher up a few stars are coming out. Looking at them, Walt realizes that he is seeing the Big Dipper, its stars just barely visible now, pointing straight down at the western horizon.
“And now you found this gig for us,” Walt says, turning back to Mike. “And this is what’s gonna put it all back together.”
“Yeah,” Mike says, but a flicker of a frown crosses his face. “And this time I’ll do it right. Set aside something for my family. Or what’s the point, right? That’s why she split.”
Well, that wraps everything up just fine, then, Walt thinks. So why don’t you look happy about it?
“Well,” Walt says aloud, “these guys certainly aren’t going to run out of money any time soon.”
“No,” Mike says, but his frown only deepens.
Walt had not known the intimate details of Mike and Linda’s breakup, but it’s not very surprising that it had a lot to do with money. When the housing boom ground to a sudden halt in the Midwest, resulting in the failure of Ross Associates, at least Walt and the others got their last paycheck. Mike didn’t, because he never saw any distinction between himself and the company. If it was bankrupt, it meant that he was too.
Like a man in an angry dream, Mike raises the glass to him lips slowly, still scowling, and finishes it.
What did I say, Walt wonders.
“I know,” Walt says haltingly, “that what we saw yesterday is pretty—well, it very goddamn weird. I’m certainly not going to forget it. But I’m willing to shut up about it. I’m willing to keep working. This job could be a meal ticket for as long as we need. You know,” he laughs, “these guys just print money if they need more.”
Mike looks at him sharply, then stands up and walks to the north window. Walt has to turn around to see watch him, looking down at the lit-up city. At least this town still has lights, Walt thinks. Most of Indianapolis is down to maybe half of the streetlights that ought to be there, and some neighborhoods don’t have any at all. People steal the copper wire.
Another piece of the great ship of civilization, sinking.
“That’s it,” Mike says, turning back toward Walt, his voice perfectly flat.
“What is it?” Walt asks him. “That’s what?”
“Money,” Mike says simply. “I was working for money.”
There is a point where you worry that your boss has possibly finally gone around the bend.
“Yeah,” Walt says carefully. “Me too.”
“But I thought I was helping things,” Mike Ross says to him. “I thought if I was making money, it meant I must be doing things that people needed.”
“Well, yeah. They paid you, right?”
“No!” Mike shakes his head. “You just said it. These guys—the ones we’re working for now—they can just print that shit. You said it.”
“But I thought I was doing what people needed. Don’t you see?” Mike takes a step towards him. “It only means what I thought if money means what I thought.”
“And what did you think it means?” Walt asks.
“It means life!” Mike says, his eyes fierce. “That’s your time on earth, man! You spend your time—some of it—doing what other people want, instead of what you want, and money’s what you get for that. Then you can give that to other people and get something from them. Maybe something that you can’t do. Like get a house built, or whatever. Money is how people trade their time. Their effort. Life.”
“Yeah,” Walt says. “Okay.”
Mike comes and sits down again, but on the edge of his chair, restless.
“Well that’s not what it means if these people can just pull it out of their ass, is it? If it doesn’t cost them anything—if it doesn’t cost any of their life but they get to just control as much of yours as they want? Then what the hell is that?”
“Well, you don’t have to take the money, I guess.”
“Oh yeah? You do have to take it. I mean, unless you decide to be a hermit and live in a cave. But if you want to do something in this world, if you want to make something while you’re alive,” Mike looks across the table at Walk with more fire in his eyes than Walt has ever seen in him since the day they met. “Then you have to take their money. Because they stick a gun in your face if you don’t.”
“People have to use something for money, right? They have to agree on something.”
“Okay! Then let them agree! When somebody sticks a gun in your face, that’s not what I call agreeing. That’s what I call robbery. They can make any amount of money they want, and force people to take it? That’s the same as stealing their lives. Fuck, it’s better than the goddamn pharaohs! You don’t need whips. You just get people used to the idea that there little pieces of paper or these little numbers are real money, and then you start just pulling it out of your ass. And if anybody says ‘Hey wait a minute,” you throw them in the fucking slammer.
“That’s just the same as being slaves,” Mike says. “Except there’s no place to run away to.”
Walt looks aside again, out the western windows where the sky has gotten darker. The Dipper is obvious now, and for the first time Walt realizes that it looks exactly like he has seen it at home at this time in the evening. It never occurred to him before, but now he realizes that Denver and Indianapolis are almost exactly at the same latitude.
It seems impossible. Denver has always seemed like a different world.
He takes out his cigarettes, lights one, and puts the pack in the middle of the table because he knows damn well that Mike will want one after he’s been drinking, and thinking about Life, Linda, and Everything.
“Well, you got a point,” he says to Mike. “But I think you’re missing something.”
“Yeah? Do tell.”
Mike picks up his pack to extract a smoke and lights it.
“What’s the other thing we’re in the middle of here, on this job? Aside from lots of money.” Walt blows smoke. “Secrecy.”
Mike narrows his eyes but doesn’t say anything.
“No, they go together. Look, so let’s say you can just make up any amount of money you want, right? Okay, fine, but so what? What are you gonna do? Fancy houses, hookers and blow?”
Mike raises his eyebrows. “Well, it’s a start.”
“No,” Walt shakes his head. “That’s kid stuff. If you’ve got all the money you want just by snapping your fingers and you can keep people quiet—well, now you can do anything. How long has it been since the government could shut people up by saying ‘national security’? Seriously. How long do you figure?”
Mike thinks. “You know, I would say that goes all the way back to World War Two.” He looks at Walt. “Seventy years. Seventy-five!”
“Yeah,” Walt nods. “Seventy years. And you know what kind of people they’re paying half the time with that money? Engineers, scientists, researchers. You know how long seventy-five years is?”
“Pretty fucking long time,” Mike says.
“Seventy-five years,” Walt says, “is nine years longer than it took to go from the Wright Brothers to the first man on the moon. And that was all public.”
He exhales smoke, going with the idea, convincing himself even as he hears himself say it.
“And you know, I just realized. That’s about the same time they made people start using only paper money. So they could just print as much as they wanted. So if it took less than seventy years to go from Kitty Hawk to Project Apollo—what the hell can you with all the money you want, and seventy-five years of secret research and engineering?”
Both men are silent for a time in the darkening room.
“So you’re talking about the, ah—” Mike doesn’t quite want to say the phrase.
“The flying saucers,” Walt supplies.
“Yeah.” Mike makes a sour face and smokes for a moment. “I guess I haven’t been thinking very hard about those.”
“Sure you have!” Walt reaches for the bottle and pours a little more for both of them. He’s starting to think that the stuff isn’t actually so bad at room temperature.
“Of course you’re thinking about them,” Walt repeats. “That’s what got you going on this—mood you’re in, isn’t it? You know I wasn’t thinking about this stuff either before I walked in here. You were thinking all of this. I’m just better at talking than you are,” he grins. “You know that’s true.”
“Yes that is true,” Mike laughs takes another drink. When he needs someone to smooth over a problem with a client, Walt is always his man. But it’s always Mike who actually saw the problem first.
“You knew,” Walt continues, “as soon as you saw those damn things, that they didn’t come from frikking Alpha Centauri so they could park in a nice garage.”
“Yeah,” Mike frowns. “Actually, it’s the shape.”
“The shape of what?” Walt asks. “The saucers?”
“Yeah. I mean, they look just like in the pictures or drawing or whatever. But I never paid much attention to that stuff, you know. But it hit me as soon as I saw them last night.”
“You saw something funny about the shape?”
“No,” Mike smiles. “That’s the thing. They’re not funny. Have you ever seen a fighter jet, like an old F-16? From straight on, they look damn near like those saucers. They’re streamlined the same way. The only difference is that the saucers are streamlined the same way in all directions. You know, because of how they can move. The damn things can turn a right angle without slowing down, right?”
“That’s what I’ve read,” Walt nods.
“Well, that’s what hit me. You know, we hear about flying saucers from outer space so much, I never thought about it. But those things aren’t made for space. They’re aircraft. Just a different kind of aircraft. The design says they care about air friction.”
“No shit,” Walt says, frowning. “Damn. That’s a good point.”
“I’ve built a lot of things and I’ve seen a lot of machines,” Mike says. “Those things were built by people just like you and me. They’ve never been closer to Alpha Centauri than I have, unless it’s from flying twenty miles high or something.”
“Damn,” Walt nods and breathes out smoke. “And I believe you just proved my point. That’s what you can do with enough money and enough secrecy, and seventy-five years.”
“Yeah,” Mike says. His mouth compresses to a hard line and he takes another swallow from his glass. Walt can see that he’s not thinking about flying saucers anymore. Which is kind of a shame. The only other topic for the evening could be quite a bit more painful.
“You know,” he continues after some time. “She was right.” He takes a last drink and sets the empty glass down. “Linda was right.”
Walt looks at the bar, not quite at Mike but not exactly away from him either. The bar’s small lights are the room’s only illumination now. Outside the veil of daylight has almost fully withdrawn, exposing the lonely vastness of the night.
“She felt like things were wrong. Things were ‘crazy’ she said. Well, damn.” he draws on his smoke, and the end glows red. “We sure some crazy last night.”
“I wanted to think my business meant something. I wanted to think, after the War, that things were getting better. I could make a business. Do good for myself and do some good for the world too, you know?”
“It was all bullshit,” he says, and looks at Walt. His eyes gleam in the reflected skyglow of the city. “These people—whoever we’re working for—if they make things like what we saw last night.” he laughs. “You know, you’re right. They been at this for—at least since World War Two. Who knows? Shit, they probably caused World War Two!”
“If they can do things like what we’ve already seen, then they can make anything happen that they want to. They can manipulate the whole economy how they want. Why not?
Mike’s face hardens. “They can make a housing bubble, just to juice up the construction industry. Not because people want it, or need it—just because they want it.” He looks at Walt again. “They can make a housing bubble just so it creates people like me, just so they can pop it and I’ll come scurrying to work for them. Just like I did.
“I wasn’t helping people with the stuff I could do. I was doing the exact opposite of what I thought. I was helping their enemies.”
“Enemies?” Walt says. “You yourself said the government does a lot of secret stuff.”
“Yeah, this is a little past what I think I had in mind. These people have been at this for—shit. Seventy years, a hundred years, who knows? They got whole—” he waves a hand at everything they’ve seen in the last months. “Whole new technologies down there that they haven’t shared with normal people. A frikking city down there that you can’t talk about or they’ll put you in the slammer. Or worse. And now they’re buzzing around down there, hiring anybody with a clearance or not, and spending their pretend-money like there’s no tomorrow?”
“No,” he chuckles again, looking at the tabletop. “I sure don’t think these guys are what you would call friends to the common man.”
Mike stands again, walks back to the bar, but then just leans his back against the cabinet by the side.
“I knew things weren’t right,” he says. “Deep down, I think everybody knows. But I wanted to believe that things were on the up-and-up. I wanted to believe that things were really getting better, after the War. I wanted to believe that things could go back how they used to be. We could have a world where people do honest work and get honest pay and do better things than nuke the shit out of each other. So when Linda got nervous, I just didn’t listen. If I had listened, you know, it might have been bad for my little fantasy world.”
He stares past Walt, out the suite’s tall north windows into the star filled sky.
“I let her and Nathan go, so I could come here and work—whoever these people are. Whatever they are.” He breathe out audibly. “I don’t think I chose very well, buddy.”
Walt doesn’t think so either, but he’s not about to say that. The years since the War have been hard in lots of ways, and not least on peoples’ relationships. If Mike Ross has not made the best choices possible, he’s still done quite a bit better than Walt Lanman has.
“Well,” Walt says after a long minute of silence. “We still need the money, right?”
“That’s how they always get us, isn’t it?” Mike smiles. “We keep using their money. If we could quit doing that”
“Well, let me ask you something,” he continues after a moment. “And it’s what you asked when we first got everybody together at the Star. What did we get into here? What are we helping to build here? If I tell myself I’m making the money so I can take care of my family—if I really mean that—then I think we have to think about that, don’t we? It seems like this project might have something to say about what kind of future we’re going to get.
“So, I’ll asks you now,” Mike concludes. “Why are they doing this? What’s the point?”
Before replying, Walt takes out another cigarette and lights it. It’s difficult to remember that their first evening at the Star Bar was only a few months ago. It seems like a lifetime now. It’s hard to remember or completely believe in a time when he did not know about The Project, as they’ve started calling it lately.
That evening, after seeing his first tunnel, it was easy to ask troubling questions. This evening, after having seen a hell of a lot more, Walt realizes for the first time that he has been avoiding the answers.
“Well, if they can just make up whatever money they need—” He realizes that he’s saying weasel-words even as he says them, but the statement has its own momentum. “Then, you know, they might just be doing it because—they started it. Maybe they started after the War. Or in the frikking Seventies, or whatever. Now they’re just doing it because—they can!”
“Yeah,” Mike laughs. “And that’s why they’re hurrying now? That’s why they almost don’t give a damn who they hire, as long as they can get the work done? I don’t think you believe that.”
“Yeah,” Walt replies slowly. “I guess I don’t.”
“What I think,” Mike says, “and what you think, is that what we’re seeing here is the biggest damn fallout shelter in the world. They’re not building it for fun, or because they don’t know how to stop. They’re building it because they think they’re going to need it. And right now they’re hurrying like, um—” he smiles. “Like there’s no tomorrow.”
Pushing off from his place at the bar, Mike walks back toward the table, but stops in back of the chair, leaning on it to look down at Walt.
“I’ll tell you what I want to do,” he says. “Whatever these assholes are preparing for here, either it’s going to happen or it isn’t. I hope it doesn’t happen like they think, or else you don’t necessarily need a mile-deep hole in the ground to get through whatever it is. But they’re hurrying, so we are, too. We are gonna get out of here, pronto, with money to take back to our families.”
Walt watches him for a moment. “Sounds like there’s a ‘but’ coming”, he says. Mike smiles thinly and nods.
“But—not before we learn whatever we can while we’re here.” Mike pauses to consider what he wants to say next. “I guess I wanted to see what you thought about this,” he says, “before I run it past the other guys.”
Walt nods. Mike has never said you’re my second-in-command, but that’s the way things have been going for the last year or so. After last night, more so—but after last night, he doesn’t care anymore.
“Absolutely,” Walt says. “If you can figure a way to get us some money just in case—the shit hits the fan. If we happen to skip town with a little extra in the bank, I don’t these guys are gonna be worried too much about that. In fact, I guess I’d say the sooner the better.”
“Well!” Mike grins, “I’m glad you feel that way. Did you ever see a science fiction flick called The Day the Earth Stood Still?”
Walt frowns. “Um, yeah. You mean the original one or the one with Keanu Reeves?”
Mike makes a face. “The real one,” he says. “Do you remember the name of the male lead?”
“Michael Renie,” Walt answers at once.
“Good,” Mike says, but then a look of doubt crosses his face. “You spell that R-e-n-n-y?”
“No, it’s R-e-n-i-e,” Walt smiles.
“Shit! I knew it! Well, you can remember my way, right?”
“Yeah. Rennie-with-a-y.” He frowns. “Why?”
“Because that’s the user name on the account I started for the team today at CryptAG. Michael R-e-n-n-y. And the passphrase is the name of the movie, all one word, no caps. You got it?”
CryptAG is a peer-to-peer hard-crypto precious metals store, exchange, and bank that operates like a cross between a franchise and a spy ring. The .gov appears to like it about as much as a submarine captain likes a screen door. It’s been on the mainstream newsfeeds in recent months where the usual establishment shills have been claiming that it (1) does not exist, and (2) is only used by terrorists, child pornographers, lunatics, and morons. You can put money into an account online, transfer it around securely, and, for a reasonable fee, extract anything you want up to your full balance in the form of old ninety-percent US silver coinage. Which is, in fact, the only way to extract your money. Once your money goes in, it’s immediately converted to its current street-price of “90%”, and that’s how it stays. Once in there, your money suffers no inflation and in fact probably gains real value pretty quickly. After a series of advertisements for it was recently hacked into .gov website front pages, the authorities pretty much stopped talking about it.
“Yeah! Absolutely,” Walt says. “Excellent.”
Mike’s grin broadens.
“Well,” Mike says, “I’m glad you feel that way.” He leans harder on the chair. “That’s what I was doing most of today. I talked to some dweeb in the Bursar’s Office and bitched about inflation and whined about how my guys have to pay withholding taxes until he gave me an advance to shut me up.”
Walt stares at him. Mike has always been a magician with money, with bureaucracy, with accounting and planning, with all the shit that needs to get done so that a team can do a job, but that the guys on the team always hate to do. He has also always been able to manage clients the way you need to, even to the extent of knowing who to tell them to talk to when they need to hear a particular voice that isn’t his own. He should be used to it by now. That’s why Mike is the boss, after all.
It’s actually kind of exciting, like being a one of the X-Men. Except on this team of mutants, one guy is a real good welder, one guy is the best instinctive structural engineer you will ever meet, one guy is a math and science geek, one guy is observant and rational, and one guy—Mike—is a born manager.
“Are you serious?” Walt asks, chuckling despite himself. “You got an advance out of these guys?”
“Three months, buddy!” Mike laughs. “One fiscal quarter! One quarter asked, one quarter given!”
It’s the first time he has actually looked like himself in quite a while. But it doesn’t last. Mike’s expression sobers pretty fast.
“But now that we’ve got that,” he says, “we are getting out of here as fast as we humanly can. I want us out of this damn place in no more than one week.” He looks past Walt and his eyes focus on nothing, or on something that’s far away from the confines of this hotel suite.
“I have the worst feeling about this job that I’ve ever had about anything,” he says quietly. “Even before what we saw last night.”
He looks back at Walt, though his eyes take a moment to fully focus.
“I want one of those red badges,” he says. I want to see what’s at the bottom of the elevators.”
Walt looks back at him, but can’t quite bring himself to summon up a grin. He has too much of a presentiment about what this might mean. He does manage to quirk an eyebrow, though.
“Well,” Walt says back to his boss. “I’m glad you feel that way.”
He reaches into the inner pocket of his jacket, extracts something, and puts his hand palm-down on the table. And, removing his hand, reveals two red badges.
Seeing Mike’s face, he does manage a smile after all.
“I think we have to use these tonight, though,” he says.