The television behind the bar was set to regional news, the sound turned off. The six of us in the place were ignoring it as much as we were ignoring each other. Two of us at the bar, a couple and a pair of businessmen each seated at a table in the main area; all six drinking professionally. I was on my third Scotch. My neighbor at the bar was idly drawing condensation rings around the bottom of his glass which contained something that wasn't beer, either.
I looked down the bar. The tender was standing, arms crossed and one foot hitched on the cooler at the end, watching the TV, which had a cheap graphic next to a makeup-laden blonde local news anchor. I grimaced at the icon; the two-buildings-with-jetliner-and-orange-star-explosion was grating. In the last, what, eight months, you'd think they'd have been able to at least steal their affiliates' better CGI for the newsfeed. The tender caught my eye, nodded, moved towards me.
"Another Dewars' rocks, please."
"Sure." He raised an eyebrow to my neighbor four stools down who nodded back and held up his glass, then crunched ice, swallowed, and spoke.
"What was that about?"
"What was what about?" asked the tender absently, already expertly arcing liquor into my glass.
"Oh." He swooped the Dewars' bottle back into its spot in front of the mirror (my glass was now two millimeters below the rim, precisely, with two new cubes in it - I nodded approvingly) and reached for another bottle. Basil Hayden. "They revised the casualty estimate again."
The other drinker's face animated for the first time that night. We'd been there several hours; all flights out of Westchester County Airport had been on hold for a massive rain and windstorm, and the few professional travelers there as late as we had been (and unwilling to head for the refuge or alternate connections of New York City, a mere hour or so away by shuttle) had retreated naturally to the bar. "Up or down?"
"Down. Another two people found who ditched IDs and turned up in Florida, wherever."
"From the planes or from the towers?"
I turned to look at the guy. It seemed an odd question; they were alive, after all. Maybe they turned out to be slightly shady, but I wasn't about to pass judgement on them dropping out of sight without knowing their stories. Still, dead was dead, alive was alive, after all. He looked like it really mattered, though. The tender, finished filling his glass, replaced the bottle and shrugged.
"They didn't say."
As quickly as it had come, the tension flowed out of the man's shoulders, and he slumped his weight back down onto his elbows alongside his newly-filled bourbon. He smiled at the tender and nodded. The latter nodded back and moved back towards the TV, leaving my neighbor looking into the ice and liquor for answers as only an experienced scryer can.
Curious, I moved over a couple of seats. He turned to me, frowning at this breach of the social bar contract. I shrugged in apology and gestured vaguely at the bar, asking permission; after a moment, he shrugged back. Sure.
We sat there for perhaps half a tumbler.
I decided there wasn't a good way to ask, and that I was too curious not to. "Why does it matter if they were on the plane or in the towers?"
"What?" He turned to me, startled. I noted that one hand reflexively gripped his drink, the knuckles pale against his skin, which was light brown. The ice in his glass tinkled, stuttering, until he set it back carefully on the bar and turned in his seat to face me. "I'm sorry. What did you say?" His voice was much calmer, but also, I noticed, very controlled.
"I'm sorry myself. I didn't mean anything by it. I just wondered what difference it made, you know, when you asked...I mean, if the people who turned up had been thought to be on the plane or in the towers on nine-eleven. They're alive, either way, right?"
"Oh. Oh, yeah. Yeah, I suppose they are." He turned back to his drink, took a long pull at it. Setting it down, he laughed, but it didn't come out right. It started as a short, perfunctory laugh - the kind where you throw out half a breath in laughter, hard, and continue on with your point. But another small 'ha' escaped at the end, and almost as if he was trying to balance it, he said 'ha' again, softly, and then again - and suddenly, he was laughing rhythmically, softly, with a completely deadly lack of humor.
I was suddenly frightened. I had no idea what I'd reached in and touched, but the timbre of this man's laugh told me that it was deeply personal. Ashamed as well, I picked up my drink and started back down the bar to my original seat, but he lifted a hand, held it straight up. Wait. I slowly slid back into my chair and watched as he ran down, sitting hunched at the bar, laughs and sobs intermingling, until he finally gulped the remainder of his bourbon convulsively and waved at the bartender. The tender came over with the bottle and refilled his glass, but not (I noticed) before giving him a silent professional evaluation. When the tender had departed again, he turned to me. "I'm sorry. Didn't mean to lose it like that. Not your fault."
I didn't know what to say. "If you lost someone, I'm-"
"I did. But not like that."
I was completely at sea now. "Um, okay."
He gazed into my eyes for a time. His eyes were brown, fairly unremarkable save for the intent nature of his look. In fact, he was thoroughly unremarkable in appearance. His face was worn, now that I looked - grief, or trial. This should have warned me off, but only in retrospect was it clear. I waited.
He relented with a quick shrug. "If they were on the plane, they don't mean anything to me," he said. "I couldn't have done anything about it."
"Oh," I said. "Are you - were you a firefighter? Or policeman?"
"No." Flat. "Never that." More silence. "But...emergency rescue, in a way." He took another drink. "Did you lose anyone there?"
I turned back to my drink. "Yes." The Scotch burned weakly; the ice had melted. This time the tender came over for me, and didn't hesitate when I waved the glass, which told me I hadn't drunk enough to talk about it. I shook my head at his offer of ice in partial compensation. "My cousin was a cop. He was in Tower Two. One of my college friends was a firefighter in the lobby of Tower One. A couple of colleagues were above the fireline. A distant acquaintance on Flight 93."
"I'm...sorry." We both drank. The liquor was familiar and friendly, if impersonal; it didn't care, but it did what it could.
"Not your fault."
The other snorted. "I know that." He swigged again. "But still."
He looked at me, for a good half a minute. I looked back at him, ignoring the tears that were prickling in my eyes. New York Metro moved around us, temporarily in abeyance, held back beyond the beltway and the Merritt and I-95 and the windstorm, a wounded beast moving, picking at the scab that lay in lower Manhattan, bellowing angrily when anyone told it to stop that or it wouldn't heal. Here in the quiet concourse of Westchester County, the two of us sat in a small bubble of pain and understanding and drank distillates, warmth an illusion of capillary dilation. In the world beyond, armies moved and men marched, fought and died, their blood moving; revenge and justice an illusion. New York Metro lived and healed, slowly; the people, the infrastructure, and the thing itself. He and I had proven to each other that we were both part of it, now, and slowly we acknowledged the pain we both carried.
That was the problem. Mine was fairly typical. I understood it. Once I told people what it was, they understood it. New Yorkers - real New Yorkers - were adept at dealing with it; they would nod to me, once; or just hug me, once. That acknowledgement was worth everything. Then they would leave it, unless I asked them to talk about it. Living in New York, you become expert in managing the flow of emotional energy and information across the membranes of distance and time that surround the convex hull that is a psyche and a body. Each person, each ego; each takes up a certain space, and in New York, that space is under constant assault from the environment and other people's presence. New Yorkers learn to manage their interactions so as not to add their actions to that list - or they get their attitudes adjusted. Painfully.
So I looked at him. He looked at me.
"You got the right." He looked back at the drink again, then at me. "I need to tell you a story."
Those are the magic words.
Tell me a story. The pain that they can cause, or transmute, or lift, is unmeasurable.
We're all finding out, now.
"Okay." My voice was steady.
"I'm sitting in WTC. On 9/11. I work for...let's just say, I work for a Government agency." He smiles at me, tightly. I smile back, just as tightly. One thing about the World Trade Center falling down, you learn about just who has offices in it, after the fact. Some of them, anyway. I nod for him to continue, and wave over the barman. He pauses, looking at both of us, but I wave somewhat imperiously at him and throw him a credit card, motion him to run the tab. He shrugs and decides that the two of us talking aren't as likely to cause trouble as the two of us getting individually trashed and leaving his bar, so he fills us up and leaves. My acquaintance nods and continues.
"So we know right away when the first plane hits. I'm on duty. I see it happen. I wake everybody up, fire off a report...do you know what OPREP-3 is?" I shake my head no, fascinated. "Doesn't matter. So I send off a PINNACLE message- I'm downstairs in the bunker, because I'm on watch. Everybody else leaves. I have this chair, and all these monitors...anyway, I'm sitting in the bunker, and I have all the feeds coming in - video, audio, networks, feeds from DC and the complex security systems, everything. Maintenance systems. Everything. That's what the bunker's for. I make sure the city services are all scrambled."
He pauses, drinks again. I do, too.
"Sure enough, they're coming. Fire, cops, medics, the works. We have a checklist in there, right? After the bomb in, what, ninety-three, they got all organized. I make sure someone's called Leslie Robertson-"
"Oh, that's the engineering firm that built the Trade Center. I make sure somebody's getting them outta bed. Sure enough, the New York crew is already on the ball. So ends up I'm mostly just checking things off a checklist at this point, right, just being backup making sure stuff gets done. Then I make sure everybody from our office is out."
"Right, I'd hope so."
"Sure. I said 'rescue.'" He laughs again, but it's hard. "So everybody's out of our office, and then I'm sitting there. I've got all these training videos I've watched, and all this...information, really, on diagrams and tipcards. But mostly, my job is to sit there and monitor everything and report to DC."
"That makes sense."
"Yeah." More bourbon. I remember, and take a drink as well. "So about forty-five minutes goes by. At this point, everybody in the towers below the fireline has gotten out, right?"
"So everybody is out except the people above the fires. And I know that, because..." He gulps back a sob and I realize what he's going to say, and wince - "...because I can see 'em all, on the screens. I had security feeds from the tops of the towers still working. I don't think anyone else did. But I could see 'em up there. They were...they were..." he stops, drinks hard.
We sit there for a couple of minutes while he gets his voice back and I struggle to push the vision of my mere imagination, not memory, out of my brain. When he starts speaking again, his voice is dead, all emotion leached out in order to allow him to continue.
"So around this time, they start jumping. You probably saw that on the reports. Lower floors, just above the fire, start jumping to avoid it. Hitting the plaza. Rescue crews are jammed up maybe a couple floors below the fireline, it's too hot to get higher, and they're having trouble getting water pressure enough to get into contact with it. I've puked maybe three times at this point. I've sealed the bunker from the inside as per the checklist."
"Anyway, nothing's coming up from DC. They're all fucking confused. I guess the NCA still weren't back into secure comm by then...Bush is still reading My fucking Pet Goat or something, and Cheney's under the White House but he's not talking to me. He's not supposed to be, 'course. But nobody is, really, other than to call once in a while and ask if what they're getting on CNN is true. Like it wouldn't be. Fucking idiots."
"So you gotta understand." He turns to me, and I see he's crying, now. Jesus, I think, so am I, it's fucking natural, man. "This thing, they'd seen it. Ninety-three. I mean, they'd had a bomb go off there, right? I mean, that's why they had me down there, in case something happened, they wanted real-time information."
"And Wall Street, I mean, most important square klick of space to the western economy, right there. That's why we had an office there. That's why I'm sitting there watching."
Oh, man. I have no idea what to say, but I have to say something. "Look, you were ordered in there. You couldn't have helped. You were supposed to watch, that was your job."
There was silence for a minute or two, coupled with another refill. The bartender was getting the disapproving look of someone getting ready to cut us off.
"So it's fifty-six minutes in."
Oh, Christ. I needed to let him finish, though. This was important to him. "Yeah."
"I don't know what it was. I've always wondered. I've gone over it and over it. I have no idea what it was. Something happened, though. Something."
"The North tower collapsed."
He turned to look at me, and through his tears he was wearing a rictus grin. "No, man. Before it collapsed. Something happened. Something moved. Or something. I was sitting in that bunker, eyes glued to those fucking screens like they'd been for an hour, crying, watching people jump, watching shit burn, and I saw something not right, and I DID MY FUCKING JOB AND I TURNED MY FUCKING KEY!" The shout rang through the bar into the sudden silence.
He turned back to his drink and polished it off in one go, waving off the bartender, who'd started over to investigate. "Not here."
"WHAT?" That shout was mine. A musical sound made me look down; I'd put my glass down - too hard. Glass, Scotch and blood were on the bar. The tender had stopped, and was edging towards the phone now. I waved at him hurriedly. "No! No, wait. Sorry, sorry. nine-eleven shit, man, really, sorry." He stopped, looked wary. "Look, we had one too many. Can you run us through on my card and we'll find a hotel shuttle?" He nodded, relaxed slightly and moved away from the phone to the register. I turned.
"What the hell do you mean you-"
He whispered fiercely, looking suddenly stone sober, "Not. Here." In a normal voice, "Aw, fuck, man, your hand..." grabbing up a napkin, he wrapped it around my hand after making sure there wasn't any glass embedded in the cut and added a couple of ice cubes to the binding. The tender came back with the slip, which I signed with my right, and we grabbed up our travel cases and walked out onto the empty concourse towards the hotel shuttle stop. Outside the terminal, as we stood the cases up again, I turned to him.
"What the fuck."
He slumped onto a concrete cylinder intended to guard the sidewalk from drivers intent on Unloading In A No Unloading Zone. I could see, now, the pain and the ghosts he was carrying as he settled them around his shoulders. "That's why I was in the bunker. That's why they built the bunker after '93."
"I don't get it." I was shaking from fear and anger.
"I know. Look, think about it. Two of the tallest buildings in the world, right? Hit on the side by a jet plane. Both designed to handle airplane impacts. Both fall down."
"They said the jets were bigger-"
"Horseshit. Look, look at the damage pattern. They both fell almost straight down. So did WTC 7. Which was hit by falling debris on one side. You know how often controlled demolition - of much smaller buildings - goes wrong?" I shook my head, numb. "Enough that three perfect drops of buildings with unknown-in-advance damage, including two over one hundred stories, is fucking unbelievable. Trust me." He lit a cigarette.
We sat there for a minute. Headlights turned into the airport loop; the hotel shuttle arriving.
"Why are you telling me this? Who are you?"
"I just who I told you I am. I'm the guy who was on Dropwatch that morning. I'm the guy who turned the key. I'm telling you because you lost people, and you should know. They didn't die at the hands of terrorists. Well, not all of them, not directly. They might have died anyway; if your - cousin? was NYPD, he probably would've gone into the tower anyway, even if he knew it was wired. Firefighter, same deal. The people above the fireline were dead anyway, from suffocation, heat, or jumping. But you should know, because I keep hearing now that there's scientists saying that the buildings would've survived. They weren't going to fall."
"So?" The bus had stopped, and the driver got out to open the luggage compartment in the side.
"So nothing in my briefing materials said that. I thought they were coming down, and coming down hard and wrong." He handed the driver my bag, told the guy that we'd get it. The driver nodded and went back around to reboard. "Look, damn it. I turned that key to save Wall Street and the people in a ten-block radius, and I'd do it again, knowing what I did. But the information they gave me might have been wrong, and it might have been wrong in such a way that any basic engineering prof could've told them that. They were so obsessed with it being secret they never got it vetted properly. So those buildings went down, maybe, by mistake. I'm not saying that was wrong. But if they never tell anyone, then this might happen again. So every once in a while, I tell people."
"What if I tell somebody? What happens to you?"
He gave me a death's-head grin. "What, you haven't figured it out?" He hoisted his bag. "Save us a spot on the bus." I nodded, and got on. As I sat, the luggage door slammed. I sat there, thinking furiously, as the bus pulled away. I looked up, but the aisle was empty. I twisted, looking back, and caught one glimpse of a figure lighting another cigarette, before the bus turned and he was lost to the rain.