March 10th 2011
Matt was driving his blue 2009 Ford Focus at just under 85 miles per hour on the E470 expressway towards Boulder. The road was smooth as glass and traffic was light. The faint hum of the tires on the pavement and the gentle swaying of the car as he changed lanes to pass again was hypnotizing. The world around him seemed like a distant haze.
It was still cold outside but the sun was blazing in the west as it started to sink behind the mountains. The light reflected off of a thousand office windows in the distance to his left as the city slowly rotated like a gem on display. Matt watched as it spun, the angle of the light gradually shifting as he sped around the ring. He looked and thought about his wife and their son, not even three months old, back in the hospital waiting for answers.
Matt adjusted his sun visor as the last rays of daylight enveloped the windshield in a wall of glare. The traffic thickened as he neared his exit and made his turn northward. The city fell away behind him as the impossibly tall mountains loomed ever closer, the dark peaks still capped in glittering snow.
Twilight fell as he turned onto Lookout road and the 55 miles per hour felt like slow motion as the car crept up and down the foothills on the outskirts of Boulder. He turned on his headlights. The safety reflectors of the ever-present bicyclists and joggers glinted below him as he crested each rise.
It was dark as he finally rounded the corner by the familiar Burger King and parked next to the windowless dull brown building. He took his backpack and his ID lanyard and shuffled to the door. Scanning the ID and entering his PIN he made his way through the winding corridors to the inner security desk. He handed over his bag to the guard and walked to the massive cylindrical "airlock" door. Entering another code, he finally made his way into the ops center just as the overhead clock rolled over to 6:00.
Mike was sitting at the ground systems engineer station with his feet propped up on the desk. His eyes were closed and he didn't stir when the steel door closed with a thud and latch with a click that echoed in the vast otherwise silent room. When Matt sat down in the second chair at the station Mike spoke without moving.
"Nothing happened. I'll see you in the morning." he said wearily as he slid out of his chair. He took his jacket and left, his eyes still not fully open.
Matt took the check list out of the binder, glancing briefly at the bold red header:
"Ensure these steps are completed immediately upon shift change. Backup facility must be ready to assume control within 20 minutes of primary shutdown."
The room was laid out in two concentric half-circles centered on a raised command platform with two immense projector screens in the front like a bridge from Star Trek. He walked up to the command console and pressed a button. The screens came alive and displayed the western hemisphere with a flashing 'Backup' border around the image. He marked the checkbox on his sheet and proceeded to check each of the other 40 consoles neatly divided by functions.
Afterwards he walked back to his station and sank back into his chair, reclining as far as he could without falling over backwards. He turned on the overhead monitor and found Comedy Central. The droning sound of the commercials grew more distant as his eyes closed...
The mountain stood before him, the same as it always looked. He saw the vibrant green grass waving in the breeze. A dirt road stretched out before him curling up the gentle slope. His eyes tracked up the road until he came to the familiar wooden gate. It was open. The path continued upward as the incline of the mountain became ever steeper. He kept looking upward as the mountain continued rising, still green and lush, up and up into infinity...
He woke up to the sound of the ringing phone. A quick glance at the clock showed that it was nearly 10:00. He picked up the phone and knew immediately from the stuttering heavily caffeinated voice that it was Nick.
"H-hey, MATT! TheyneedyoutoswingoneofthedishesovertoG14. Theyneed b-backupfora c-commandthat'sgoingoutat ten-ten-tenfifteen"
Nick words came out in his typical frenetic cadence. Matt could picture him sitting on the edge of his seat, eyes bulging, about to break into a sweat, trusty bag of M&Ms nearby. Nick had worked night shifts exclusively for the last five years.
Matt yawned then spoke slowly. "No problem," he said as typed the commands on his console.
The ticking overhead alarms sounded like a giant clock, warning of the signal loss, accompanied by red lights on several of the other consoles spread throughout the room. Once the dish on the roof of the building had stopped spinning everything turned green and the room was silent once more.
"Should be good now, can you confirm?" Matt spoke into the phone.
"Yeahyeah, we'relookinREALgoodNOWbuddy! Y-you doingallrightupthere? I-was-just-tellin'-these-guys-you-gotta-keep-the-dishes-pointed-at-good-backups-or-your-gonna-get-signal-loss-during-one-of-these-commands-and-they're-gonna-lose-one-of-these-birds-like-they-did-back..."
"Yeah..." Matt interrupted. He looked at his backpack and thought about the lunch he'd brought. "Hey can you cover for me for a bit, I'm want to go get a burger before they close."
"S-SURE THING MAN! Just-don't-let-St-St-Steve-find-out. He's-been-getting-all-fired-up-about-that-lately. Like-I-was-saying-you-gotta-make-sure-the-backups-are-ready..."
Matt hung up the phone and walked back to the whiteboard to record the current dish configuration. Then he walked back through all the security and back to his car. The parking lot was mostly empty now. He drove to the Burger King; it was mostly dark inside but the sign outside informed him that the drive-thru was still open.
The voice on the intercom sounded as tired as he was. After ordering, then stopping in the parking lot to check that the order was correct. Matt drove back to his building and went through all the security checks once again. He passed a guard on patrol near the airlock who quipped about getting something for him next time.
Once he was back at his console he took his first bite just as the phone rang and multiple alarms sounded all at once.
He picked up the phone and was assaulted by Nick's shotgun blast of words. "COMMANDERwantsyouontwentymintuestandby! Y-you-don't-need-to-do-anything-yet-just-be-r-ready-to-cutover"
"What happened? Was there a launch? There're no tracks on any of my consoles. Just looks like we lost signal on everything temporarily"
"Don'tknowman-everything-just-went-crazy-here-too. Then-the-commander-got-a-call-and-he-told-us-to-go-on-standby-for-control-cutover. Igottago I'll-c-c-call-back-when-I-know!"
Matt verified that he had signal locks again, then he acknowledged the alarms from his console. The hush was eerie after the noise of the alarms and he sat dumbfounded for a moment in the silence. There was nothing to do but wait and he returned to the burger. As he ate, he thought again about his wife and son in the hospital.
He had just finished the burger when the phone rang again. Instead of Nick's rapid-fire he heard Steve's subtle New York city accent. "Hey. We're not going to need to cutover, but stay near the phone, ok. There was an earthquake off the coast of Japan. Looks like it was pretty bad. They've got us watching in case there's any major fallout from a tsunami or anything. It'll probably be on the news in a few minutes. I've gotta go, it's pretty busy here." John hung up without waiting for an answer.
Matt quickly changed the channel to CNN and saw a map on the giant screen with red concentric circles and a red dot just to the east of Japan. The news anchor sound rattled as he reported, "...major earthquake of magnitude of 7.9 hitting Japan. The meteorological agency issued a tsunami that could be as high as six meters on Japan's Pacific coast. People near the coast should evacuate immediately to higher ground."
As he continued to speak the view shifted to show the interior of the news station shaking violently as workers tried to brace various computer monitors and office equipment. The view then shifted again to show an roadway near a bay. Several cars attempted to u-turn as the water level quickly rose and a fishing boat was carried over an embankment and slammed into the overpass.
A little while later, Matt heard the steel door behind him open and close again. He looked back and saw the security guard. The guard's nametag said: Vince.
"Do you have the news on?" Vince asked?
"Yeah. Did you hear about all this?"
Vince stood mesmerized by the footage on the enormous screen in front of him. As they watched together in silent horror, the news feed showed what looked like a slow-moving brown sludge moving across the landscape. As the camera zoomed in, they could see that the sludge was made up of broken bits of boats, cars, and debris from buildings. They could see tiny cars on the roads below trying to escape from the torrent rushing towards them. The camera pulled back and they could see the many fires floating on the crest of the wave.
"... Yeah..." Vince finally said. "One of my buddies down at Buckley called and told me."
Vince eventually left to go back to his post. Matt continued to watch as thousands of people died. He wasn't able to do anything else.
The phone rang. Matt glanced up at the giant clock. It was 2:13 AM. John's voice greeted him as he picked up the phone. "Hey, Matt, they've tasked one of our regular birds to watch over some nuclear power plant in Northern Japan. I guess the wave hit it pretty hard and they're watching for temperature increases. We need you to swing the B dish back over to G10 to help with regular mission support."
"Hey John," Matt said. "After that I'm going to take a quick smoke break ok?"
"Sure just stay close and don't take too long."
As soon as he saw the signal link indicator turn green, Matt walked back through security, out the door, and to the designated smoking area. Matt didn't smoke. He'd never smoked in his life, but he'd felt the need to come here anyway. On the bench, alone in the dark, he saw her.
"Does it make you feel like God? Knowing what's going to happen before anyone else?" she asked. "There are a quarter of a million people living near that plant, and you'll watch from on high, and you'll know what their fate is before any of them suspect a thing."
"We have a better vantage point," he answered. "It doesn't make us gods."
The light from her cigarette brightened intensely as she inhaled. The amber light made her look like a demon. She then flicked the stub away and everything was swallowed up in darkness.
"He'll be ok." she whispered, as Matt walked back to the building.
Back at his console, Matt watched as the carnage continued to unfold. A new graphic display showed the entire Pacific rim with estimated impact times for when the wave should hit. The newscaster was talking to an expert who was predicting what Hawaii and Alaska could expect to see in just a few hours time.
The phone rang again. It was Nick. He was still speaking entirely too quickly, but he had apparently sobered a bit as the night had worn on. "Hey-Matt! Just heard-they-put-V-Vandenburg on alert, for a possible tsunami. I wasn't sure-if-you-still-knew-anyone out there."
"I've never actually been out there, you might be thinking of Jeff, I think he was stationed there a few years ago."
"THATS RIGHT!" Nick exclaimed, then he seemed to noticeably retrain himself, "They saw the temperature spike in that power plant. They think there's going to be a meltdown."
Matt didn't know what to say to that. He looked at the overhead clock. It was 5:00 AM. "I'm going to need to start my end of shift checks."
"OK Then! Takecarebuddy! I'lltalk-to-you-tomorrow!"
"I actually won't be in tomorrow, I'm taking a day to be with my kid in the hospital so my wife can get out of there for a bit." Matt replied.
"Oh rightrightright..." Nick trailed off into incoherent mumbling. "Takecare-then-Matt. I'll-talk-to-you-later."
The minutes ticked by slowly as Matt finished his checks, updated the configuration on the whiteboard and waited for Mike to arrive, as the waves inched closer and closer to Hawaii.
When the door finally opened at 5:55AM the news feed was showing a dark beach with rough waves crashing on the shore. The red 'Tsunami update' banner was scrolling on the bottom of the screen. Matt told Mike everything, and he left the room exhausted.
It was still dark when he drove away from the building. The mountains were black and ominous behind him. When he reached the expressway he once again saw the city spin slowly as he raced around the outer loop, the lights glistening in the distance. He looked at it and he cried at the sheer beauty of it.