Working in a nuclear reactor is difficult work, no matter what the task. Even the most menial job, including mine – janitorial services – required rigorous education on emergency procedures, and that we be subjected to frequent training drills, and most tediously, handed flurries of clearance codes and floor plans. The maintenance staff never bothered to memorize these, of course. We were under the impression all of this hassle was superfluous. Besides, everybody knew that, pragmatically, if something were to go wrong in the atom furnace, there was very little one could actually do to save themselves.
Besides the janitors and technicians, there were the white-coated, shortsighted scientists we would seldom see. Always tucked away in the control rooms, I was in awe of the delicacy of their work. It was hard to imagine that the slightest of their miscalculations could lead to that which I least desired: a nuclear explosion, or a leak. Both possibilities were rather terrifying. My colleagues seemed to be less concerned by the imminence of danger that came with our jobs than I. Somebody told me once, “At least we’d make it onto the news, if this thing were to blow.” Although it was in poor taste, it assured me that perhaps this job not as frightening as I thought, or maybe it was the relatively high pay that convinced me. Either way, I was not going anywhere.
Cleaning the sterile concrete corridors was a regular routine, but one day, my final hour on the shift was interrupted by a bleep on my walkie-talkie. I plopped down my mop and reached for my belt. This was perhaps the first time I had even heard the sound of my walkie-talkie, since my employment here, and wasn’t even sure who had access to my frequency.
“Hello- I mean, yes…” I said, unsure of the walkie-talkie answering procedure.
“High, this is John from control…” I was taken aback. The scientists had never contacted me. “Look, we have a shortage of staff today, and we need help in Control Room 1.”
It went back to static before I could reply. “Control Room 1?” I thought, as I pulled a small notebook from my fanny-pack. The notebook was filled with all of the clearance codes and maps I was given in my first week on the job. Luckily, there were only two control rooms, so I pinpointed the location of Control Room 1 with ease. It was a few minutes away from where I was standing. I pushed my wringer bucket and mop to the side and headed towards my destination. I knew that at this point the rest of my colleagues had left, including those more qualified than I was to be handling whatever the scientist wanted me to do. I was working overtime.
The corridors lit by the harsh neon lights narrowed as I approached the supposed location of the control room. The door was undoubtedly the one I was searching for. I popped the keypad open and input the appropriate clearance code. The clean black and yellow door slid up.
Nobody was there. Though in and of itself this was not frightening, I had always had the impression that this space was to be occupied at all times. Was the reactor even be allowed to run unsupervised? Clearly so, or else I would have known the answer already. My walkie beeped, snapping me out of my daze; I suppose the levers and flashing buttons distracted me.
“Are you there yet?” the person asked me.
“Literally just got here,” I responded. “Why is nobody here?”
“We are downstairs, by the reactor. We’re just fixing something. Listen, we just need you to lift the control rods up a few centimeters, so that we can increase the fission rate before this evening’s electrical surge.”
Utterly baffled by everything the voice had told me, I couldn’t help but feel that the very fact that I was trusted with the responsibility of raising the fission rate in the station, that there must have been something terribly wrong.
“Here, I’ll explain how,” the scientist continued. “See the green lever, at the very front of the room?”
“I see it. Should I push it or something?”
“God, no. Wait. You need to lift it up to level 4.”
I walked up to the lever, and noticed it was already on level 4.
“Its already on 4…” I began, before being interrupted.
“Then 5. Lift to 5.”
I could feel the urgency in his voice. I cringed as I placed my palm on the round knob of the lever and raised it to the fifth setting. A dull whirring and clanking sound radiated from the surrounding walls. I recoiled from the lever. That was it. I assumed it worked, because otherwise I would have known. I opened the walkie frequency again. Unnerving radio silence was all that could now be heard. I suspected that the increased fission rate must have been blocking the signal, or at least I hoped it was something like that, which would equate to some sort of scientific or rational explanation.
I stepped out of the room and closed the sliding door. I got my thoughts together. Leaving the building then seemed irresponsible. I needed some closure. Had I done my job properly? I checked my watch just as 10 PM rolled around, and saw the lights begin to shut off one by one. The wave of darkness drew closer to me until all of the neon lights in my corridor were off. The thick afterimage remained in my sight. The lights were off by 10 PM, every day. Perhaps I should be heading home, I thought. No, on second thought, I couldn’t leave the job half done. I needed to be certain that it had worked.
I pulled out a notepad I had in my chest pocket. In it, I had previously jotted down everything that was to be done in case of an emergency. I flipped through the pages until one section caught my attention: “Security Cameras: Control Quarters Two.” Maybe I could see if everything was okay through the security cameras. I jogged around the maze to where my roughly sketched map said the second control quarters should be.
I made my way to Control Room 2. As I made my approach, it dawned on me that the second control room had a different entry code! I was livid! I had not written it down. Strangely then, my eye caught a faint light coming from around the corner, from approximately where the second control room was. I poked my head around the corner and was stunned by the site of the control room doors standing wide open. I walked into the room, with the neon light shining overhead. I paused again at the sound of footsteps in the distance.
The security logs were open, and I turned to the screens. All of them, save one, displayed pitch black, and that one was dim. Fortunately, I remembered to up the contrast. As I did, my heart sank. Onscreen, I saw the vague outline of three or four men lying on the ground, piled up against the locked door near the fission rods. I didn’t need to be a genius to know they had been exposed to high levels of radiation. Oh, God, had I done this? No, I rationalized. That wasn’t possible. All I had done was change fission levels from Control Room 1, under instruction from skilled technicians. What happened?
I looked back at the screens, and that’s when it hit me: the barrier protecting the victims from the fission rods themselves was elevated. I whipped my head around. I knew the barrier could only be operated from the room I was in, and I certainly didn’t touch anything. But then, who did? I looked around to find the exact switch that lifted it.
The sight of a tear in the dashboard petrified me. One solid line, right through the metal, right through the label, which said: “raise barrier.” Whoever had done this, didn’t just push the switch, they stabbed it, with great force. No precision, no purpose, but as far as I could tell, the rest of the room was intact.
Fuck this, I’m leaving I thought. I grabbed the flashlight and dashed into the corridor. I couldn’t hear the footsteps anymore. I knew I wasn’t alone.
“Oi! Who’s there? Anybody!”
I could hear the footsteps again. They were fast. They were getting louder. I froze. As the footsteps approached, I could now hear just how strong they were hitting the ground, cracking at the corrugated metal on the floor. The clanking was approaching, and all I could do was dash the corner and turn the flashlight off. They were so unbelievably loud I couldn’t think. I pressed myself up against the wall. I didn’t want whatever was coming running into me. A gust of wind pushes me, as whatever has just passed me, continues running down the corridor. I conceal my urge to scream, but my eyes begin to tear up. The smell. The smell was mortifying. It resembled nothing I had ever encountered, and in my long and not-so-prosperous cleaning career, I had experienced some bad smells. There was something ill about this one; it actually burned at the nostrils.
I turned and ran in the opposite direction from which whatever just came past me. It was time I headed towards the exit. I ran until I couldn’t hear the footsteps, and gathered the courage to pull out the flashlight again to look at the map. I was around the first control room. I realized the building was cyclical. This meant that the ‘thing’ was near me! Or was it? I need to escape this maze. I knew where the exit was. I reached the locker room. I ran up to my locker, and grabbed my rucksack; I was leaving.
I ran up to the exit, and as I pushed up against it, I bounced off. The door was locked. I knew shuffled for my keys and put them in. The doors were unlocked already; the door was sealed from the outside. I could hear the footsteps again.
I pulled out the walkie and started shifting all of the frequencies.
One frequency picked up a signal.
“Oh, thank God! Please, unlock these doors!”
I heard mumbles on the other end. Frustrated, I yelled down at it again.
“Is there somebody still in there?” I heard on the other end.
“Yes, let me out!”
“I’m afraid we can’t do that. This area is under quarantine,” says the other voice calmly.
“Under quarantine? I’m clean! I’m not irradiated!”
“There is something in here with me.”
“What is it?”
The voice on the other end paused, and then said calmly, “We don’t know. It’s hard to tell. Was probably a person once, but radiation will do that to ya, y’know.”
“Do what?!” I shouted.
“Well, you’ve seen what it looks like, right?”
“No! Please let me out!”
“This area is under quarantine. The thing, it’s tall. Has tumors from the cellular mitosis, and its eyes aren’t in their sockets. Only a matter of time before it dies from every cancer known to man.”
The footsteps drew closer. The corridor was still pitch black, but the light of my walkie illuminated a silhouette. A vile screech was released. It was tall, broken, limping and horrid. I won’t really die, will I?
The thing limped to a halt and stumbled over. As it did, some of its tumors burst, splattering blood in all directions, which then began leaking into the locker room. Was it dead?
“It’s dead! IT’S DEAD!” I shouted into the walkie. “You can let me out now!”
“Oh, man,” someone on the other end replied derisively, “you aren’t catching on. This area is under quarantine. That thing there… it isn’t the only one.”
Again I heard a scream, coming not from the disfigured body on the floor, but from somewhere beyond, in the maze of corridors behind me. The scream was vaguely human, yet at the same time far too loud and ill-sounding. A moment later, I heard another one, coming from yet another location. Then another, and another, over and over, until the entire plant echoed with the din of unbearable screams. And, like the calamitous roar of a concert, they were coming for me.
The voice on the walkie repeated calmly, “This is looking bleak for you, but there’s nothing you can do. Just hang around the entrance. Perhaps that will buy you some time. In the long-term, of course, it’s useless.”
I was speechless.
“These things will be dead in a few days, but you will be too,” the voice continued. “Please accept our apologies. Government agents will be called in later to assist with the disposal of the creatures’ bodies, write off the event as a work-related accident, and close the station down for a while. The public won’t know a word of what happened here. As you’re a witness, I wouldn’t expect the authorities to treat you too kindly, so trust me when I say things are better this way.”
I gathered the energy to utter one final word. “Please?”
“Sorry, my friend, but that’s not possible. This is a quarantine. No exceptions.”
Credit: Jovan Jankovic
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