This article originally appeared on FIVETHôT.
De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine
(From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord)
Funny how even in the egalitarian US, we assort ourselves by rank. Tony, the oldest of us and most senior with the company, was driving; the next most senior, Oppy — David Oppenheimer — was shotgun. The two youngest were in the back, me and David Garfield, inevitably called Garf by analogy.
The little car wended up the mountain road, and we came to a high metal gate. An armed guard came out of the shack and stuck his head in the window. “You have any cameras or recording equipment?” No, we chorused — this was long before cell-phones. “You have any fire-arms or narcotics?”
Another chorus of no. but I muttered “What do you need?” under my breath, amusing myself, being an asshole. The guard didn’t hear me and waved us through, but Tony had better ears.
“No fucking around,” he snapped. Tony might have once had a sense of humor, but it must have been burned out of him in the 20 years he spent in the reactor spaces of Navy submarines.
Once past the gate and a few more formalities, we went down a steep and tortuous driveway, a mile or so. Oppy pointed out his favorite sight: a wrecked Huey helicopter, abandoned among the pines by the side of the road.
We parked in a huge and empty lot cut out of the side of the mountain. There was a huge semi-circular tunnel leading back into the mountain. From the car, it looked like the mouth of a rain culvert, but 20 or 30 feet high. Tony told us, “He’ll be here soon.”
We lounged around the car in the cool West Virginia sun. After about 10 minutes, a zippy little electric cart tooled out of the tunnel. The driver was a chubby man about 40s, wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and a tie. As on every government employee I’d ever seen, his ID badge was hung around his neck on a chain and then tucked into his shirt pocket. The four of us crowded onto the little cart, and we headed into the tunnel.
The floor of the tunnel was flat, level, and paved; the walls, arching up to become the roof, were living rock, white-washed but otherwise exactly what you’d expect overhead when you’re this far under ground.
We rolled along down the tunnel for perhaps half a mile, and came to a set of massive doors, built to completely seal off the tunnel if necessary. They were easily six feet thick, built of steel and concrete and running on railroad-style wheels. There was a gap in the floor to accommodate the tracks the doors slid on, and we gingerly crossed the plywood board that had been laid down as a bridge. We passed a set of free-standing showers marked “Decontamination Center”. Thereafter, every few dozen feet, there would be a door set in the rock of the wall. These were ordinary metal doors, like the door to my apartment. Each was marked with a cryptic sign, a few letters and digits. We stopped at one.
Its sign read “ICC-003” or something like that. The four of us hopped off, and the driver took off without a word. Tony rang the bell, the door-lock buzzed, and we went in. A voice came over a scratchy intercom. “ID!”
We all held up our company ID to the small camera mounted above the door. “Wait!” said the voice.
I felt foolish, standing in that odd fluorescent-lit tunnel, waiting for an unseen person to come to an unknown decision. They were supposed to be expecting us, they invited us. If our identities didn’t pass whatever checks they were running, the cart was gone, so I guess we would have to make our own way to the surface like mine-accident survivors.
Ten more minutes and the door was opened from the inside. A balding, bored-looking man, also in a short-sleeved shirt and a tie, double-checked our ID and waved us in.
The office looked like a lot of computer rooms of the time, built on raised floors so cables could easily be run from place to place, oppressively low false ceiling of acoustical tile, Arctic air-conditioning. Unlike more computer rooms, it was crowded with people, fifty or sixty of them, more men in short sleeves and ties, women in pants suit, working at terminals or walking large displays and making notes on clipboard. And it was loud, not only with air-conditioning and fans, but ringing phones and discussion.
Garf and I had been brought to this office, far under the Appalachian forest, for a rather routine task. Our company had been contracted to write a series of very complex readiness evaluations for this government agency. If the worst should happen and those huge blast doors had to be rolled shut on their train-wheels, did the agency have enough men, enough trucks, enough computers to continue to fulfill its role in what they called “the trans-attack and post-attack periods”.
In the years it took to get the contract signed and the months it took to write the software they wanted, the agency’s employees at this office — Watchstanders they called themselves — had lost interest in the project. Maybe they figured they were ready enough, or maybe they figured anything bad enough to make them close the doors, nuclear war, asteroid impact, zombie apocalypse, would be bad enough that it wouldn’t matter how many trucks and computers they had.
They did ask us for a favor. They wanted to automate their logging, just a program where they could write down whatever they were doing and it would be recorded permanently, with the time and the name of the particular Watchstander. We called it Journal, basically the functionality of a pad of paper and a pen, and Garf threw it together over a weekend. It was Twitter in one office, only written in FORTRAN and running on a VAX and buried under an Appalachian mountain. The Watchstanders loved it.
A few weeks ago, they had some sort of problem with our program, and the four of us finally got the permission to visit and take care of it. Now we were here, and the machines were busy. They asked us to wait.
I was disturbed to be in that chilly, bustling room. As gallant as “watchstanding” might sound, the Watchstanders were an uninspiring bunch. A very slightly different career trajectory and they would have been working for the DMV or the school-board. They all had that unmistakeable Civil Service taint. Slightly slovenly, cynical without being humorous, bored for so long they now exuded boredom like an odor. You could tell by looking at any one of them that they wouldn’t work late under any circumstances and would leave early whenever they could get away with it.
The phones rang continuously. That was the job of this place: to monitor every situation that might turn into an emergency, every emergency that might become a disaster. Not to fix it, that wasn’t their job; they just stood watch. They answered the phone, made notes in the Journal, they weren’t there to help.
It occurred to me that if the world did end today, if the Russians attacked or a comet entered the atmosphere, I would be among the first thousand to know, purely by virtue of sitting there.
Several years earlier I had written a program for the Air Force to illustrate ballistic attack pathways against the US. A thousand times during its development, I watched my software animate the test data they’d given me, streaks of red and yellow sprouting like lilies from Novaya Zemlya and Arkhangelsk, growing across the Arctic towards Washington and Montana.
Sitting in that room, I startled the first few times an alarm went off. Every few minutes a bell or a beep or a horn would sound, and I’d almost jump to my feet. This time it was real: those red and yellow lilies were real Soviet SS-18 ICBMs. Our satellites were seeing the bloom of heat as they launched, and calling the short-sleeved Watchstanders to tell them. Game over.
Of course, it was never an attack or an asteroid or a zombie apocalypse. It was an overdue airliner landing in Miami or bad weather over Thule, and no one but me ever thought anything different. Watchstanders watched and took notes.
Garf and I sat in our folding chairs. The room was too loud for us to chat, and besides, we’d been together since leaving DC three hours earlier and had long since run out of shop-talk. An hour passed.
I was torpid from ennui, almost asleep, completely inured to the bells and beeps, when a klaxon sounded, short but louder than the ones before, and everyone in the room instantly went silent. Eyes went towards the drop ceiling. Garf and I looked at each other: maybe this really was it. One of the Watchstanders asked of the room, “What the hell was that?”
My apartment and my office were both within walking distance of the Pentagon. If Gorbachev had decided to push the button on any ordinary day, I would have been vaporized in a femtosecond without ever knowing what was happening. Today though, here, not only would I be informed, but I might very well survive. Those big doors, the million of tons of granite overhead, Oppy told me this place had radiation-shielded ventilation and enough food for five years.
The world was ending, and the truth was, there was no one I would miss very much. My parents, some friends from school. Five years, sealed in this GSA-furnished tomb, with these short-sleeve-and-tie-wearing timeservers for company. Not exactly Mad Max, but unpleasant enough.
The Watchstander who asked the question must have been new. “It’s 11 o’clock,” another told her. “The cafeteria’s open.”
Most of the staff put their stuff away and filed out to feed, but the few who were using the computer we needed were still at it. I got up and stretched my legs by strolling around the half-empty room. At the far end, I found another door and lacking anything better to do, opened it and went in.
It was just a big closet: overcoats, boots, umbrella, plus boxes of surplus office supplies and old equipment. At the back there was another door. Go through.
And I found myself in the most luxurious conference room I’d ever seen. A huge oval mahogany table, comfortably big enough for the 15 leather chairs around it, dark wood paneling, rich blue carpeting. In front of each chair was a small, gold-lettered sign, with the name of a Cabinet department, “Treasury”, “Defense”, “State”.
A large heavy video camera was mounted to the ceiling, pointing at the extra-large chair at the head of the table. This chair had no sign in front of it but was flanked by US flags, and mounted on the wall behind was the Great Seal, the American eagle rampant.
An authoritative voice came from behind me. “You aren’t supposed to be in here.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “I’m not.”