Between Above and Below
By Claus Holm
To my brother Lars, who is always there for me.
Life is like a mountain railroad, with an engineer that's brave
We must make the run successful, from the cradle to the grave
Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels, never falter, never quail
Keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.
-Charles D. Tillman
There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why.
I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?
It is easy go down into hell, but to climb back again, to retrace one’s steps to the upper air, therein lies the
”But I don’t care about some stupid bunker!” Pete said. His voice was turning into the whine that Sarah
hated the most. It was also the tone that usually got him exactly what he wanted. She tried to tune him
out, and looked out the window as they drove into the parking lot.
‘The Sierra Vista Valley missile museum’ she read as they drove past the sign.
“I don’t care.” Tim was sliding the car into one of the parking booths in the lot. It was barely a quarter full,
and Sarah guessed at least a few of the cars had to belong to the employees or guides. “Your grandfather
worked in a bunker just like this one, I’ve heard it’s interesting, and we are going. You’ll have fun once you
get in there,” Tim said.
“What if I don’t?” Pete said.
“Then you’ll be scarred for life, or until you get an ice cream afterwards. Come on, I promise it will be fun.”
Sarah smiled. Points for dad. He and mom might be divorced, but he hadn’t lost his touch.
She opened the door and stepped outside, taking one last sip of her Pepsi. She might as well throw the last
of it away before they went inside. No reason to leave it in the car, it would be boiling by the time they
came back. The Arizona sun felt hot on her skin, and she knew the car would become an oven without the
air conditioning running.
Tim opened Pete’s door, and he crawled out. He was small for an eight year old, and his face had gotten
freckles from the sun in the last week. He still held on to his game. If he wasn’t careful, he’d fall down the
bunker stairs and get hurt. She promised herself to keep an eye on him.
“When did grandpa work in a missile silo?” Sarah asked.
“Most of the seventies. He transferred out in seventy-nine, and we moved to New Jersey after that.”
“Did he get tired of it?”
“He got tired of the work hours, I think, and the sleeping accommodations.” Tim took Pete’s shoulder in his
hand and turned him towards the entrance. “As you’ll see, it’s not exactly luxury.”
Sarah nodded. “I wish I could have seen it when it was operational, though.”
“You wouldn’t have been allowed in, Ripley,” Tim said. “Not even family could come in. It was top secret.”
“I’d have found a way in.” Sarah smiled, when her dad used the old nickname. After she as a girl had seen
Aliens on TV, Sarah had declared that she wanted to be just like the heroine, played by Sigourney Weaver.
That Sarah looked a little like the actress didn’t hurt her determination either – the facial structure and the
hair color was the same, and she had promptly asked to get her hair cut in the same way as her new idol.
She was sure her mom was pleased that she hadn’t made the same demands when she watched Alien 3,
where Ripley became bald.
As they went up the steps to the entrance, Sarah cast a glance at the plaque next to the door. The Titan
preservation Project, it read, followed by a long list of names. She assumed it was the people who had
helped restore and maintain the bunker after it had been decommissioned.
The inside of the visitor center seemed very dark and cool after the heat of the parking lot. A gift shop
offered several space keepsakes, and shirts, key chains and caps with the Titan logo on them. She even saw
some old cans of water and a Geiger counter, with a sign saying “Genuine cold war souvenirs! Straight from
the bunker’s storage room.”
She picked up one of the cans of water. It was a dull metal grey, and surprisingly heavy. She weighed it in
her hand, considering if she should buy it, but Tim waved at her.
“You can get souvenirs later. They’ll be here on the way out too. And you don’t want to haul it around
She looked at the other people in the lobby, waiting to join the tour, about twenty in all. She fixed on two
boys, a year or two older than her. They were busy looking at the protective suit that was in a display case
in a corner, one reading while the other looked. They were dressed in identical white shirts and tan shorts,
and when the reader straightened up she could see they had to be brothers. Twins, even. They looked
almost identical, and not in a bad way – in fact, they were very cute. She giggled to herself, knowing what
her mother would think if she had seen the look she had just had in her eyes. “You’re too young to think
about that, young lady!” she would say, and most likely give a deep sigh, as if Sarah was the whore of
Babylon. Sarah didn’t see what was wrong with being a little boy crazy.
An old couple were sitting on a bench right next to the door marked TOUR. The man looked like he was
roughly a hundred and fifty years old, and was wearing a cap with a logo she didn’t recognize. Looks
military, but it isn’t, she thought. She had long ago learned to tell the various branches of the army, navy
and air force veterans apart by the caps they wore, but this one was different. Merchant marine, perhaps.
Behind her, another man started gathering the metal cans of water up from the box they were in. She
turned round and looked at him. “Hey, could you leave one for me? I wanted to pick one up when we’re
done.” When she took a good look at him, she almost regretted speaking.
He was very tall, skinny and had long hair that fell over his face in greasy strands. Behind the hair, a pair of
blue eyes shone with a cool glow, like the pilot light on a gas stove. His face had beard stubble on it in the
same blond color as his hair, what looked like a week’s worth of it. His hoodie was dirty, and his pants
looked like army surplus.
“Should have gotten one before then!” he said, his voice was a deep rumble.
“Oh, come on, there are twenty of those things! Can’t I get just one?”
“You snooze, you lose. Isn’t that what you kids say these days?”
He pulled the box up into the crook of his arm, and hoisted it towards the register. Sarah cursed under her
The guy bought a ticket with his souvenirs, and proceeded to fill them into his backpack. She watched him
with a sour expression on her face. The ticket clerk, a Hispanic-looking girl in her twenties with long black
hair and a few freckles, looked over at her, and noticed her reaction.
“Did you want a water as well?”
“Yeah, I did, but apparently he’s decided to corner the market.”
“I have more out back. I’ll get one for you when we get back up.”
Sarah smiled at her. “That would be great! Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. You have to wait, though – we’re understaffed today, and there’s just me to run the
place. I’m even going to guide the tour, since Eddie’s sick.”
She walked out from behind the counter and clapped her hands together.
“All right, if everyone could all gather over here, please?”
The various groups of people came closer to her.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Titan Project. I’m Gabby, your tour guide for today.
Normally, we have people who used to work in the facility when it was open guide the tours, but due to the
holiday and some sick calls today, I’m afraid you’re stuck with me. Don’t worry, I am sure I can answer most
of your questions.”
There was a mumble around the room, but no one seemed to dissatisfied. Sarah saw her dad hold Pete
firmly around his shoulders. Pete was playing his electronic game, obviously not caring about the lecture.
“What you’re about to see, “Gabby continued, “Is the last Titan II missile. It was decommissioned in 1987,
and made into a museum. The missile hatch outside is permanently half open and half closed, so the missile
can’t fire. The Russians still keep a close watch on it, just to make sure we don’t decide to re-arm it.”
Gabby walked to the front door and turned the lock. She turned a sign that said “BACK IN AN HOUR”
around to face outwards.
Gabby waved the group through the back door and outside the building. The old couple came last, the
woman helping her husband by holding his arm. His shuffling walk made it take quite a while before Gabby
could close the door behind them.
Two women in summer dresses came up and asked the old woman something, probably offering to help
her out. She smiled gratefully, but shook her head. The woman shrugged and nodded at them, and then
joined the group again.
Sarah looked around at the equipment displayed on top of the missile silo. Bits of the missile’s engines, the
cranes and pulleys that would be used to arm the missile in time of crisis. They looked bigger than she had
ever imagined, and she whistled, impressed.
“Now we’re standing on top of the actual missile silo,” Gabby said, pointing to an opening covered with
Plexiglas. “Through there, you can see the top of the missile. It’s one hundred and three feet tall - that’s
thirty-one meters if there’s any metric system people her today – and weighs three hundred and forty-four
thousand pounds. It could be launched in just fifty-eight seconds, and could deliver a nine megaton
warhead anywhere within a six thousand, three hundred mile radius in thirty minutes. Now imagine that
there were eighteen of these missiles ready to go at a moment’s notice, twenty-four hours a day. That’s an
incredible amount of firepower, and it was of course just a fraction of the strategic capabilities of this
Sarah moved closer to the opening and looked down at the missile. It stuck up like a steel finger down
there, the sunlight making the top shine with a cold gleam. She imagined it suddenly shaking, beginning to
fire up and launch, the missile speeding up into the sky, and shivered. She had never lived through the cold
war like her father had, and to her it was an abstract threat, something you didn’t really worry about, but
nuclear war was in her mind still a very real possibility. Just before they had left the motel this morning, she
had watched the news and seen another video of the North Koreans preparing for war. The missiles they
were getting ready didn’t look as shiny as this one, but was probably just as deadly if they were ever
launched. Her father had shaken his head and said that he couldn’t believe how the North Koreans kept this
up. It was just pointless saber rattling. No one would be stupid enough to fire nukes at the United States
Gabby was now explaining about the safety procedures the crew of the bunker had to follow, and Sarah
walked back to the group. Apparently, there were several phones you had to call in on, to gain access to the
bunker. The security had also included multiple cameras, so the crew could monitor who came and went
from many different angles.
“Now, those phones were completely close circuit,” Gabby said. “When you were inside the bunker, there
was only one communications line out – the so-called ‘hot line’ to the department of defense. If that phone
ever rang, the crew had some very strict protocols to follow to launch the missile.”
“What if they just decided to run home instead?” one of the twins asked.
“They couldn’t. If the alarm went off, the bunker door would seal itself shut to protect the crew. If they
opened the door after that, they would potentially contaminate the entire bunker and the rest of the crew
with radioactivity. So even if they decided to run, they would be hurting their crewmates. Once you were
in, you stayed in.”
“But there was an emergency hatch or something, right?”
“Of course. But the risk of using it would be great. Would you want to go outside if the war was just
starting, and the bombs were dropping left and right?”
“So were they just supposed to sit there and wait until the defense department called them and said it was
okay to come out?”
“Well, the protocol for the crew stated to await further orders before doing anything. Of course, if the
world above had ended, those orders would not be coming, so the bunker was equipped to have provisions
for a while. Thirty days, in fact, for a crew of six. After that ran out, they would have to go out anyway, and
hope that the radiation level had dropped down to a level they could survive.”
Sarah saw some of the group nodding. She thought several of them probably imagined what it would be
like to stay huddled inside a hole in the ground for a month, without knowing if the rest of the world was
dead or alive.
“If you’ll all make sure to duck your heads, then we’re going to head down into the bunker itself” Gabby
said. “Hold on to the railing and walk slowly.” She looked at the old man. “Would you like to take the
The old man shook his head. “No…I can handle it. I can walk.”
“Nonsense.” The old lady took his arm. “We would like to use the elevator, thank you.”
Gabby pressed a button next to the entrance door and a metal grate in the ground opened, revealing a wire
cage elevator. She opened the door and gestured for the old couple to get in, and pressed the button inside
when they were.
“Just stay inside when you reach the bottom, and I’ll get you in a moment.”
The elevator began lowering, and Gabby waved the rest of the group on. They walked down a steep set of
concrete stairs, and through the first metal door. Sarah looked at it as they walked through. It was thick,
but nothing special. The second door, however, was twice the thickness of the first. It looked more like an
They headed down another set of stairs. The temperature began to cool rapidly, the Arizona heat on top
giving way to a moist, cool atmosphere. The footfall of the group echoed in the stairwell as they went
deeper. In front of her, she saw that Pete had finally seemed to grow interested, and looked around with
When they reached the bottom of the stairs, they gathered in a small room in front of the actual bunker
door. This was no mere door, however, it was gigantic.
“This is the main door to the bunker,” Gabby said, as she opened the door to the elevator and let the old
couple out. “It is over eight feet deep – a little over two and a half meters. It’s concrete, lead shielded and
enforced with steel cores, making it weigh over three tons. It would be almost impossible to break it down,
or for any radiation to get in. Even if a foreign agent had gotten into the stairwell, he would never be able
to open this door without it being opened from inside.”
Sarah let her hand slide gently over the door. It felt incredibly massive. She saw one of the twin boys, as
well as the weird water guy, do the same thing.
“Let’s go inside, and see the control room, where the crew worked and waited for the situation that they
hoped never came.” Gabby walked ahead, and stepped through the heavy door. “Watch your step when
you cross the threshold.”
The group followed, now walking more or less in a single file. The corridor inside was narrow, the ceiling
low. It felt like a catwalk and swayed slightly when they walked on it.
“Is this thing suspended?” one of the men asked. He had a mane of grey hair around his head like a halo,
but his face looked much younger than the rest of him.
“Yes, it is. In fact the entire bunker is protected against tremors from earthquakes and from the
shockwaves from a nuclear impact. It’s been said that the bunker could have a nuke hit as close as three
miles away, and still be able to ride it off.”
Gabby turned left and headed down the corridor, entering a lit room at the end. Sarah was only a few feet
behind her, but when the rest of the group kept pouring into the cramped control room, she had to move
further in. When they finally all had gathered around the control panels in the middle of the room, it felt
very cramped indeed.
Gabby stood in front of two chairs, both situated in front of command consoles with buttons and lights on
them. Both consoles faced a large boxy cabinet with even more lights on it.
“That’s a computer!” one of the twins grinned. “It must be one of the earliest ones!”
“Actually it isn’t. This model was put in the early eighties, just two years before the Titan project was shut
down. Back then, this was very advanced indeed. You should have seen the equipment they used in the
earlier years.” Gabby patted the first chair. “This was the mission commander’s seat. The person sitting
here was the most important person in the bunker at the time.” She looked at Pete. “Would you like to try
and sit in it?”
Pete nodded. Sarah noticed that he now finally had put his game away and seemed to be interested. His
face was lit up in a big smile as he sat in the high-backed chair, moving it in to fit with the command
“What’s your name?” Gabby asked.
“Pete!” Pete said.
“All right, so Pete is mission commander. The other chair was the Executive Officer’s chair. Both these two
officers would be called upon to use a key to launch the missile in a time of need. None of them could do it
by themselves.” She looked at Sarah, who aside from Pete was the youngest in the group. “Would you like
to be the Executive Officer?”
Sarah shook her head. “No, it’s okay.”
“Hell, I’ll do it!” a muscular man said. He was big and tall, and the chair creaked a little when he sat down.
His wife or girlfriend giggled at him as he turned to Pete with a serious face. “I’m ready and reporting for
Gabby had obviously not anticipated an adult to take the place, because it took her a second to get back on
her track. When she did, she pointed to the big man.
“And you are…?”
“Jonathan Spencer,” the man said. He turned the chair to line up with the console.
Gabby nodded, and Sarah thought she looked like she was trying to get back on script. “So, now we pretend
that you two are on watch, when suddenly, the alarm goes off. Now, sometimes the alarm could be set off
by other factors. Electrical disturbances, and earthquakes were the most common ones. But the moment
the alarm went off, the bunker would seal itself off. The doors would close and lock, and the seals inside
would inflate. If it was just a drill, or a mistake, the crew could simply open the door and walk out again, but
they had to wait for signal from topside, where the guards would report to them. If, however, the alarm
went off at the same time as the phone rang…” She pointed to the red phone hanging on the wall.
“That’s the phone to the Department of Defense?” a short, white-haired man asked.
“Indeed it is. The Hot Line, the only phone line out of the bunker. The topside people used closed circuit
cameras and intercoms. Both the mission commander and his Executive Officer knew this if that phone
rang, chances was that it was just a drill…but they never knew for sure. They always waited uneasily for
that day when it wasn’t a drill, and where they would have to launch the missile for real.”
Gabby walked to a filing cabinet by the wall. The front of it looked more like a old fashioned safe, with a
“Now, if we pretend that the alarm has just gone off, the mission commander would get up and answer the
phone. He would ask two questions and answer two himself, determining that both parties were indeed
who they claimed to be. Those questions were coded sentences that changed week to week. When they
had determined that the order was indeed given, the mission commander would be given the code for the
filing cabinet. He would unlock it…” she pointed to the big combination lock, “…and take out two keys and
From her pocket she procured two keys. “These are of course just replicas, but they looked a lot like them.
He would give one to the Executive Officer.” Gabby handed the keys to Pete and gestured for him to do so.
Pete passed Jonathan one of the two metal keys.
“Now, they had to program the missile, and they did that by opening the envelope. In there was a six digit
code, and by entering that code into the system, the missile would be aimed against its target and the
She pointed to a display of six empty fields. “Now, for instance, say they received the numbers “558322”.
That could possibly be Moscow, or Beijing, or a hundred other places. Mission commander, please enter
Pete bent over the keys on his control panel and pressed in the numbers. They appeared in the display.
Sarah thought the old style digital numbers looked strange and clumsy.
“Now, just one thing remained. Mission commander, you need to insert your key into your key slot right in
front of you. Executive Officer, you need to do the same. These key slots were far enough apart that it
would be impossible for one person to launch the missile by himself. You needed two people here.”
When the two keys were inserted, she nodded. “Now, mission commander, you need to give the signal,
count down from three, and say TURN! Then turn both your keys to your right!”
Pete counted “three…two…one…TURN!” and twisted his own hand. Jonathan did the same. A large click
sounded from the big computers and the numbers in the display vanished.
“There. Now, if this had been real, you would now be hearing the missile starting its engines and in about
thirty seconds it would lift off and fly to its target.”
Pete looked slightly disappointed that things were over. He started to get to his feet.
Sarah opened her mouth to ask a question, when a blaring loud siren sounded in the cramped room. It
blared once, faded down and started up again at once.
“What the hell is that?” Sarah’s dad asked. He had to shout to be heard. The group covered their ears,
several of them looked uncomfortable.
Gabby’s face became deadly pale. “It’s the alarm! But that can’t be, it’s supposed to be disconnected!”
The siren blared for the third time. Suddenly, the room shook slightly, as the stabilizers compensated for a
tremble in the earth outside. The shaking got worse, making them sway on their feet.
“Let’s get out of here!” A skinny man in glasses who occupied the spot furthest towards the door to the
corridor turned and ran. A few others followed him.
“Wait!” Gabby shouted in vain. “The door…!”
She didn’t have time to finish. A resounding SLAM sounded when the gigantic entrance door to the bunker
let go of the clamps holding it in place and slammed shut. The vibration could be felt through the entire
complex, and Sarah felt her ears pop a little as the pressure changed. It felt like being in an airplane.
A frustrated shout from the corridor told her that the man hadn’t made it through the door before it had
slammed. Sarah looked to Gabby to figure what they should do now, but wasn’t encouraged.
Gabby’s cheeks were almost grey and her eyes large and scared.
Martin grabbed his brother’s arm when the door closed. He could feel the pressure change, and figured this
was the bunker sealing itself and going to internal air supply. Robin’s eyes were wide, not scared exactly –
“What the hell…?” Martin asked. “What happened, do you think?”
“I’d say either an earthquake or a nuclear attack.” Robin’s voice was fairly calm, but Martin could feel his
excitement in the way his muscles trembled under his shirt.
“Are you serious? A nuclear attack? Really?”
“Korea has been saying they wanted to get at it for a while. What if they did it? What if they launched a
missile at us, or several missiles, even? The guide said that this place was disconnected, but maybe there’s
some kind of backup system that kicks in if missiles are detected.”
The guide ran out of the control room, pausing to look at all of them. “Don’t touch anything. Stand right
here and don’t move!” she said before running into the corridor. Martin had no intention of moving, but
heard the guide shouting in the corridor to leave the door alone.
“So what? We’re trapped here?” he said out loud.
“Maybe the people up in the visitor center will come and let us out.” It was the white haired man with
glasses that spoke.
“There were no others.” The girl with the short hair turned and looked at him. “Didn’t you hear Gabby say
that she was alone today?”
“So no one can let us out?” Another man asked. He was in his thirties, and his T-shirt had a Microsoft logo
“Well, someone’s bund to come and do it. But the question is when.”
Martin looked at the girl. She was cute, in a tough way. She put her hand around her little brother, who
didn’t really seem to have grasped what was going on yet. Their father also stepped up to them.
“Let’s go take a look at the door,” Robin said. “I have a few questions for the guide.” Martin nodded, and
followed his brother out into the corridor.
At the door, the guide was trying to calm the man, who had tried to run.
“I’m telling you, Sir, you have to leave the door alone. Even if we could open it, and I’m not saying we can
or can’t, we don’t KNOW what happened outside. “
Martin and Robin stopped a few meters away from the door. The man who had tried to run was skinny and
wearing glasses. He looked like he had been close to a heart attack, his face was flushed and sweat was
pouring from his forehead down his face, wetting the collar of his T-shirt. From the image of Les Miserables
on it, Martin imagined the man was a musical fan.