Fred found the small valley — a gully, really — east of the site. After a half mile it ended in a steep bank with a circular metal door behind a wall of barbed wire and razor ribbon. Twenty minutes of snipping all the wire created a hole large enough for him to wriggle through, pulling his backpack in behind him.
The metal door was rusted and set into a concrete frame. He tested it with the crowbar, then chipped away at the concrete on one side. Then he just tried to muscle the door open around the edges, and finding a weak spot near the bottom where the water drained out, he pried open a hole and slithered in.
He fumbled around in the dark, getting a light out of his pack. The concrete was wet, as was he, and the air was stale and cold. The light revealed he was in a circular tunnel about eight feet tall, with a flat floor notched to drain water to the door. Wires tacked to one wall accentuated the distance to where the darkness exceeded his light. He put on a dust mask, put his scintillometer on the strap over his shoulder, switched it on and listened to the muted clicking. “Just background,” he thought, and started down the tunnel, occasionally snapping photos of anything interesting. After a while, the clicking got on his nerves and he switched the scintillometer to the next higher scale, so the clicks would come slower.
Fred had first seen her in his physics class. Bright and pretty in an unconscious way, he liked her rare smile. Over a cup of coffee after class, he learned that she was deeply into the peace movement and stridently against nuclear weapons. “Well, who isn’t?” he offered, sparking in a thirty-minute tirade about the military-industrial complex and corrupt politicians.
He tagged along to a few of her meetings, where he learned that Colorado had hosted not, only a nuclear power plant and a nuclear bomb plant, but ‘hundreds’ of missile silos, ready to bring nuclear destruction down on the Earth. Although passionate about her, his lack of passion about anti-nuclear issues kept them apart. But he became intrigued with the idea of the nuclear missile silos and ultimately used his new connections with the peace group to investigate them.
It stayed dark beyond his light and the tunnel seemed to go on forever. Fred quickly lost sight of the daylight from the small opening he had made in the door, and worried a little about whether there would be enough oxygen or whether chemicals would be present. Maybe a chemical respirator would have been smarter.
“Too late now,” he mused and trudged on.
There were indeed nearly a hundred silos scattered across northeastern Colorado, and more in Wyoming, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Montana. They housed a wide array of missiles — Titans, Atlas and Minutemen, among others. But with nuclear arms reduction pacts, successive categories of missiles had been banned, and their silos decommissioned.
The missiles were removed along with the attendant fuels, chemicals and sensitive equipment. Sometimes the silos were reconditioned for other uses. However, most of the sites were reported to have significant chemical contamination, particularly in the groundwater that seeped through when all the power and pumps were turned off. The few still-active sites were heavily guarded and protected by physical barriers.
He passed a couple of small rooms that branched off the tunnel, but they were empty and mostly stripped of anything removable. There were more wires hanging from the wall and ceiling and empty light sockets every hundred feet or so.
Ahead he could see some structures across the end of the tunnel and he shook off his tiredness and picked up the pace. Another tunnel entered from the side and he followed it about a hundred feet into a large room with metal frames suitable for holding something very heavy. Some of the installations were supposed to have rooms separate from the missile silo where fuel or chemicals were stored and a power supply room protected from the missile’s engine exhaust. Other installations were less like silos than trenches, where the missile lay flat inside a concrete trench until it was raised to the vertical through a sliding roof to fire.
Fred could smell something reminiscent of kerosene or diesel fuel, so maybe the room had held fuel tanks. There were pipes snaking around and through the walls and wiring centered in the middle of the ceiling. The walls were covered with elaborate graffiti, mostly random shapes and a few blurred, meaningless words.
“I’m not the first one in here,” he thought looking at the undisturbed layer of dust on the floor, “but it’s been a while.” He snapped a few pictures of the more interesting drawings, then continued down the tunnel. Those structures turned out to be metal grating creating a doorway out into a very large, circular room. His light seemed feeble in the space, and it felt a little creepy. He stepped onto a grated metal catwalk around the wall and peered up at the ceiling at least thirty feet upwards and down to an indeterminate depth below.
Growing up on a farm in Nebraska, Fred had played among the farm buildings, fields and machinery, and had been particularly interested in an old, unused grain silo near the barn. It was probably thirty feet tall, brick and concrete, with a narrow opening along one side. The bottom was covered in moldering corncobs and the whole thing was rather unstable. To him, it offered a place of his own, someplace no one else would enter, a place where he was king. He jerry-rigged a platform about ten feet above the floor and built what was essentially a tree house covering about half of the inside of the silo.
From his aerie, he could spy down on the mice scampering among the rotting corn, and follow the corn snake that stalked them interminably. When he got his trusty pellet gun for his tenth birthday, he could stalk the mice himself, but he felt a comradeship with the snake and never shot at it.
The catwalk circle the inside of the silo, and was corroded-looking with the grating and handrails missing in spots. Pipes and wiring ran vertically down the wall and in some spots rested on the catwalk brackets under the grating. He took a photos of the doorway, trying to get the immensity of the room. He followed the walkway to the left and kept trying to get a photo down into the depth, but there wasn’t enough light.
He stepped over several places where the grating was gone and he had to walk on the support beams. It was eerily silent, except for the creaking and scraping of the metal catwalk as he passed over it, and the occasional click from the scintillometer.
Trying to get a photo, he felt the grating sag down beneath his weight. He quickly pulled the camera down and stepped back, but the scintillometer strap caught on an exposed edge of the railing. He inadvertently knocked the device switch back to the lowest setting and the clicking accelerated rapidly, startling him even more.
Fred’s mother had always warned him about falling from his perch inside the silo. His dad had checked over the anchors to the walls before Fred laid in the flooring, using some old wood left over from various construction projects and torn-down sheds. Although the floor was in pretty good shape, at least strong enough to hold a kid, the open side was pretty flimsy.
Although he wasn’t supposed to climb up there at night, he often crept in after his evening chores, and enjoyed the scurrying sounds the mice and snake made below him. One night he heard a weird sound below and craned over the rail to see what it was. An owl flashed past him in the dark and he flailed at the railing to regain his balance. The rail snapped off and he fell face first into the mess of corncobs, mouse detritus, and a skunk that had wandered into the silo. He was cut and bruised, but the bigger hurt was the strapping his dad gave him … and the stink that took a week to go away.
Off balance, Fred twisted frantically towards the wall, but there in front of him was a giant black creature with vivid green eyes. He jerked back toward the railing and it gave way, just as he realized that he had been facing a graffiti drawing of a space alien.
Tumbling down, his light showed first the wall, then the ceiling, then the floor and then the other wall. It seemed a long time before he hit the metal stand at the bottom and bounced into the standing water spread over the floor. He never had a chance to notice the mixture of contaminants in the water that would have been dangerous to a live person.
Up above, the scintillometer hung from the railing, steadily clicking off the background readings.