37. Showdown at 5280 Feet (Part 1)
If you want to hear the real story, you're only gonna get it from the people who were there. And not the players, either - the movers and shakers who've got an angle on the story and a horse in the race. You've got to talk to the regular people. The man on the street, who was just minding his own business, going about his day, when - POW! BIFF! BAM! - the whole world changed before his very eyes.
And if it seems like it's taking longer than it should for him to get to the point, with all the tangents and personal anecdotes? Well suck it up, baby - that's just what history is.
There was no way I was just gonna stroll on through the front door. Not with all those hired guns on duty, every last one of them desperate to prove themselves worthy of "permanent placement". Not in this economy.
I was sucking down my ninth cup of coffee, listening to Spliff detail a plan that would've involved bribing a window washer and somehow breaking through the glass on one of the upper floors, when it finally came to me...
A couple of days before, there was a story on the news about the history of the Hyperconverter project; how the technology evolved from Tesla's original death ray, to the construction of the actual unit itself. Mostly just free publicity for Vaig Hyperspeed TV and Internet- but at one point, the attractive, Vaig-approved spokeswoman explained that they were so far ahead of schedule because a lot of the digging had already been done for them - over a century ago.
I knew a little bit about it, thanks to a sixth grade field trip to the Colorado History Museum. When were down on the lower level, our tour guide told us all about the intersecting network of tunnels that run beneath the city. Originally meant for transporting coal and wood when the snow was too deep on the roads, they were eventually utilized for more nefarious purposes: running booze during the prohibition, as a passageway for horny politicians who wanted to get from the Brown Palace to the brothel across the street. According to our guide, one of those tunnels was directly beneath our feet. Right there, under the museum.
The same Colorado History Museum that was leveled, just a few weeks earlier, so the city could build a brand new history museum not two blocks away. Because that's how we roll in Denver; always throwing a few more cranes up into the skyline, in order to make everything shiny and new again -- even our 'history'.
Maybe it's just the Freudian love affair for gaping, dark holes that's shared by all grown man-children, but I had been by that construction site a dozen times, to look through the fence at the giant crater where the building used to be. And there, along the sides of the sinkhole - burrowing into the earth, and even deeper, into the depths of my subconscious -was what remained of one of those old tunnels.
So I got to thinking: the construction site wasn't particularly secure... I could sneak into the tunnel first thing in the morning and make my way north. It was possible that they would've blocked off access to the converter itself, but I was working off the assumption that they may not have even bothered, considering most of the entrances were either already secured or forgotten a long time ago. And no matter what, it was better than sitting there, doing nothing at all to help Gwen. I would wear Spliff's spare uniform, and if I could at least get close enough - I'd call from my phone and have him help me find away in.
As he listened to my plan, Spliff's eyebrows started rolling across his forehead, like caterpillars on acid, the way they way they always do when he's deep in thought. "I don't know, man... those things are supposed to be a freakin' maze. Besides, you'd never be able to get a signal from down -" he stopped short, the caterpillar on the right making a sharp, inverted V, like it was yanked up by a fish hook. "Wait... you've got a company phone... right?"
Yeah, like I'm gonna pay for that shit when I can put it on the company dime.
My spelunking gear consisted of a cheap Walmart flashlight, a compass (acquired during my two month stint as the World's Worst Boy Scout as a kid), and my cell phone.
The flashlight wasn't much of a help (the dusty grey walls were pretty much a given) and I think the compass was busted. The display on my phone showed the endlessly rolling dot dot dot..."Searching for Service".
Barely three blocks from the old museum site to the Vaig offices - but it took over an hour of wading through the blackness before I finally hit something. My first thought was that it was a dead end... but actually, the tunnel had veered, intersecting with another in a narrow X - which meant I had to make a choice.
I held my phone in front of me at arms length and walked down each passageways in turn: a few feet down and back, then the same thing with the other. Back and forth, going a little further each time.
According to Spliff, Hypeport-enhanced phone would be able to get some sort of signal (something about the standard cell signal being transmitted via "hyperspatial channels") - especially as I got closer to the mother-of-all cell towers. Which meant that I could use the signal strength to figure out just how close I was getting. "like looking for Easter baskets when you were a kid. You know, 'warmer... colder... coooolder... warmer...hotter..."
The display on my phone jumped. One bar. Two. Then back to just one...
"Where---? --- hurry --- we don't have m---"
"What? Are you there? Can you hear me?"
(dot dot dot...)
Fighting the urge to run, I moved carefully down the tunnel that the signal was coming from, navigating my way through two more forks-in-the-road and three more intersections - until finally, I had four full bars on my display.
When I tasted the hint of extra oxygen in the air, I was able to keep my cool - but when I finally saw a pin-prick of light hovering in the distance, I broke into a sprint.
Next thing I knew, I was face down in a pile of dirt - the proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel" was in fact a small opening at the top of a pile of rubble blocking my way.
I clawed at the loose rock and dirt, each handful allowing more light to pour into the room, until the opening was just wide enough for me to squeeze through.
On the other side, the paved floor I had been walking along grew uneven, as the mouth of the tunnel widened. Cracked tiles led me to where the old corridor had been ripped away altogether....
I found myself standing at the far corner of a massive chamber, solid ground a good 50 feet below me. Just a cave, really, with steel beams to keep the earth from falling in on itself.
I haven't picked up a copy of Popular Mechanics lately, but I'm guessing that Tesla coil technology has evolved quite a bit in the last hundred years: four enormous steel columns, the circumference of oak trees, reached up from the ground to a point just ten feet below me.
Without warning, the pillars roared to life, spitting violent arcs of lightning between them, throwing a searing wave of heat against my face. At first, I could see the stuttering light through my eyelids - but after a minute, the crackling din mellowed to a hum.
When I opened my eyes, the blinding zigzags had synchronized with with one another - straightened, like ends of a string pulled taught. Inside the glowing, silver frame, I thought I saw an image start to form, sort of like clouds floating together to make a bunny - but my sense of it sort of inverted after a minute... like I was the cloud, slowly breaking apart, to form something else...
Releasing another wall of heat, the sides of the square ripped away into their component parts, then vanished completely.
It occurred to me that we had never actually discussed how it was that I would get past the people in the chamber; a fact which, in and of itself, gave me the willies. The truth is, I don't think either one of us thought I'd make it as far as I did.
The chamber was lit by halogen lamps hovering a few feet above the work floor - which would at least keep me hidden in the shadows. My only option was to scramble down the jagged walls, onto the network of scaffolding that the construction crew had left behind. While I wasn't exactly happy about it, I have had some experience on a rock wall before. Though, at the gym they've got ropes, and personal trainers, and all these little pulley things. And nobody's going to try and shoot you in the back when you're splayed up against the wall.
From the platform, I made out two people in lab coats standing at a sleek computer console. Other than that, there was only three security guards standing around. They seemed to be avoiding eye contact with each other, as if their assault rifles would fire at whatever they looked at for too long. They all looked nervous, "green" - one of them in particular just kept fidgeting with his cell phone.
It nearly flew out of this hand when I dialed him.
Tomorrow: Part Two!