peri·lune: the point in the path of a body orbiting the moon that is nearest to the center of the moon.
– Merriam-Webster Dictionary
. . .
Colorado Springs, CO
It had been an uncomfortably silent trip down Interstate 25 (small talk being difficult when apparently everything is classified) when the driver of their black government SUV pulled onto a side road that meandered into the hills around Cheyenne Mountain. They wound their way past nondescript suburbs until arriving at the mountainside entrance to NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense command. They drove past a parking lot which was notable for its complete lack of any cars. It had apparently been turned into a hasty landing pad which was now filled with heavy-lift helicopters and tiltrotors. A camouflaged military policeman kept one hand wrapped around the pistol grip of his M4 carbine as he checked ID’s and waved them through the open blast doors. The massive steel slabs were designed to shield the underground base from every conceivable threat, up to and including a nuclear strike.
Ryan had always harbored doubts about that, but then again the men who’d built it had presumably known what they were doing. So everyone had hoped. Walking through the corridors and anterooms as they descended deeper into the facility, he was struck by its collection of Cold War anachronisms – the place might have been updated over the years, but there was no escaping its origins. For decades, America had been prepared to wage World War III from this location while fully expecting to have been directly targeted by multiple Russian warheads. What a thought to know that somewhere in the world there was a nuclear bunker-buster with your name on it.
As they continued down into the mountain, he realized it would’ve had to be one really big bomb with plenty more coming after it. Supposedly the entire underground complex rested on gigantic shock absorbers – he could only imagine how that ride would feel as nukes plowed into the mountainside.
His thoughts turned to the neighborhoods they’d driven through on the way up: nearly all were base housing, filled with the families of the people who worked here. And the city not far away – all civilians, all living under the threat of unspeakable destruction that could have been visited upon them within thirty minutes of Ivan pushing the proverbial big red button.
His body coursed with involuntary shudders. He was continually amazed at how his perspectives had been turned inside-out by simply having a family. Every experience was now judged against its effects on Marcy and Marshall, and he found himself going through life with his head on a swivel. I’m turning into my dad, he found himself thinking more often than not. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but he dreaded the day when he’d inevitably blurt out “Because I said so!” in exasperation.
Ryan had barely paid attention during their quick courtesy tour. Once again he’d let his mind wander, another byproduct of being a rookie parent.
. . .
Penny was caught up in her own mental meanderings. As they went deeper into the complex, she couldn’t escape noticing that a tremendous number of collapsible shipping boxes had been stacked up along the corridors. She recalled that NORAD had supposedly been relocated to more civilized facilities in town years ago, while Cheyenne Mountain was supposed to have been maintained as a fallback site.
Somebody had decided it was time to fall back. Why?
They passed another hallway with a “crew briefing rooms” sign hanging above it. She sidled up to one of their escorts and gently grasped his elbow. “I’ll catch up in a second,” she whispered, flashing an embarrassed smile. It was all too easy for an attractive woman to throw a young man off guard, middle-aged or not. “I need to find the ladies’ room. Too much coffee on the way down.”
The sentry caught the attention of one of his partners and pointed down a side hallway. They soon found a restroom – latrine, she corrected herself – and she paused at the door. “You’re not following me in, are you?”
The young airman’s face flushed red. “No, ma’am. But I’ll have to wait out here for you.”
“Thanks. Sorry for the trouble,” Penny said, and shut the door behind her. She took a quick look around and was grateful to find another door across the room. As expected, things hadn’t changed all that much since her time in uniform – every facility seemed to be designed the same way. She pressed an ear against the metal door, listening for any noise on the other side. Hearing none, she inched it open into a crew locker room that was blessedly empty. She poked her head inside and quickly found what she was looking for: a good old-fashioned message board hung on the wall.
Penny ducked inside and rapidly scanned the postings for anything about unit deployments or other mass movements. As expected, there were lots of references to Cheyenne Mountain: schedules, pickup times, planning meetings…so they had been moved back recently. The mountain had been kept open under the assumption that they’d have time to ramp up operations after Cold War tensions had faded into a distant memory. It had always struck her as a foolishly optimistic move, but that was politics for you.
It looked like NORAD weren’t the only ones going to ground. She found references to other strategic sites being reactivated: old underground missile facilities in Montana and the Dakotas that had been mothballed for years. No information about warheads or missiles, which she wouldn’t expect to find on an open board anyway. But an awful lot of logistics and headquarters squadrons were on the move – big shots and their stuff.
Penny flipped another stack of papers over and found a penciled-in reference to coordinate something with Greenbrier. Greenbrier? Back in the bad old days it had been Washington’s fallback bunker, a duplication of Capitol Hill offices constructed underneath a mountain resort in West Virginia.
So the whole national command and warfighting structure was digging in?
Raucous voices erupted from the other end of the room; another door had opened as an outbound crew entered from an adjacent briefing room. Crap. She spun around and was relieved to see two solid rows of lockers between them and her. She stepped quietly back to the latrine door and slipped through with her back to them.
Safely on the other side, Penny leaned against the door and caught her breath. So what does this have to do with us? She quickly straightened her hair, then flushed the toilet and ran the sink for effect before stepping back out. She almost ran into her escort standing squarely in the doorway, about to knock.
“We have to hurry, ma’am; briefing starts in five. The President doesn’t take kindly to stragglers.”