A steady murmur from the four hundred refugees drifted out the entrance to the gym. Inside, there were small children asleep on exercise mats, while others were wide awake, giggling and shrieking as they chased each other around the families that sat in tight groups on the floor. Older, school-age youth were wandering in small packs around the tops of the bleachers, while teenagers gathered below in the farthest corners. Some adults stood talking alongside the basketball court, where a coffee machine had been set up, while in the first row of the stands older men sat quietly, their wives grouped behind them, exchanging concerns. Other evacuees clustered in the bleachers around portable radios, listening to the latest news: the women fighting back tears, the men slumped over, staring down at nothing. Throughout the gym was the sound of whispers and loud voices as refugees spread and squelched rumors, cursed Hoosier Electric and Fairview Station, and worried aloud what would become of their homes and their lives.
“Mommy, there’s a noise.”
The woman lay tucked into one corner of the double-bed, saving space for her absent husband.
The woman came awake. She opened her eyes and saw the crib against the wall, then looked down the bed at the outline of her daughter.
“It’s too early.” The woman rolled over and closed her eyes, but before she faded back into sleep she heard it. The odd, distant howl. High pitched ..... a siren. It might be the one in Brixton whose sound occasionally drifted south. But it seemed louder this time. A tornado? It was that time of year. That’s got to be it. “All right,” the woman sighed as she climbed out of bed. She followed her daughter into the kitchen, turned on the radio, heard music, then peered through the curtains. Blue sky.
The music stopped.
“Again, the big story this morning -- there has been an accident at the Fairview Nuclear Plant, and Brixton is being evacuated. Police urge calm and ask motorists to drive safely. A Hoosier Electric spokesman says there is no immediate danger.”
Oh God. Fear rushed through the woman. It wasn’t a tornado. It was something far, far worse. Oh God, oh God. She had seen this in movies. It would be horrible. An atomic bomb! “Susie, get your shoes on right now, and put on a coat!” the woman yelled as she ran down the short hallway. She leaned into a room and flicked on the light. “Little Sammy! Wake up! Get up and put your shoes on! We have to go right now!”
Hurry! Oh, please God, let us get away! Back in her bedroom, the woman shoved her feet into slippers and scooped the baby out of the crib, then checked on her son. The boy had not yet stirred. “Sammy, get up this instant! You heard your mother!”
The boy opened his eyes. “Noooo! I don’t wanna!”
“Don’t make me smack you!” The woman yanked her son up by one arm. “We’re leaving. Now!”
Paul stood by the patrol car outside John Donner's house, watching the police deal with the neighbors clustering around the edges of the yard. He stared at the small home. Where was Donner now? What were the shots he had heard? Had anyone been hurt? Apparently so -- an ambulance pulled into the driveway, and the EMTs were directed to the back.
Liz appeared around the corner of the house and spoke with one of the policemen. The officer pointed, and Paul saw the agent coming toward him.
“Well, Paul,” she said in a flat voice, “I've got an unpleasant task for you.”
Paul wasn’t sure how to respond. “What happened? Have you got him?”
“Donner tried to run. He stabbed one of the other agents.” Paul was unnerved. This wasn't TV now, it was the real thing. “How bad?”
“He should be okay.”
“What about Donner?”
“So,” she said, “now I've got to ask you to do a tough job. Identify John Donner for us. That would help.”
Paul swallowed hard. “I can do that.”
Paul trailed Liz around the corner of the house. He saw the EMTs kneeling, and caught a glimpse of the older FBI agent between them. Then, nearer the fence, he spied a pair of legs stretched out on the ground. Two policemen blocked the rest of his view. Paul shuddered.
“FBI. Step back, please.”
The rest of the body came into view, the torso covered by an faded green blanket. Paul halted, but then edged nearer as Liz knelt at the corpse's shoulder. He kept an eye on his shoes, not wanting them to touch the body or the blanket.
Liz looked up. “Okay, Paul,” she said softly. “Remember, it's just a face.” She pulled back the covering.
Paul forced himself to keep looking. It took a moment to register the image, to come to terms with the vacant eyes, the tousled hair, the stubble covering the chin. Paul tried to make the connection to the human being he had known. When he had talked to John Donner, the operator's expression had always been rather impassive, but it had still shown the life within the man. The eyes had moved about; the jaw muscles had shifted as he spoke. The cold, gray visage before him now bore none of those traits. But it was the same face.
“Can you identify the body?” Liz asked.
“It's John Donner,” Paul said. “John Donner,” he repeated, nodding. “For sure.”
“Thanks,” Liz replaced the blanket. “I'm sorry you had to see that,” she said, standing back up.
“Yeah,” Paul murmured. He felt a numbness now. He wanted both to move away and to look again.
“I'll need you to sign some forms. Then you can get some rest.”
“Sure,” Paul said. He was certainly tired -- but it would be a long time before he would feel like sleeping.
The road was a thin strip of pavement leading the woman’s car east, away from the danger. Her baby lay on the seat beside her, and the other two children sat sleepily in the back, the little girl crying. Got to get away. The woman pressed her foot down harder. Got to get away!
Early morning sunshine was warming the cropland beyond Brixton as Carol held the probe out into the breeze. The plume had split when it went through town, and she and Marty had turned to the south, while the other truck stayed with the northern half. But the cloud’s radioactivity had also continued to fade away, and now both teams were reading only background. Carol’s thoughts turned again to her husband and the future. Running a boat in
The baby fidgeted, and the woman reached over to adjust its blanket, as trees flew by on either side.
“I guess we’ll be collecting samples, huh?” Marty said, as the fields gave way to a patch of woods.
“Yeah, that’d be next.” Carol sagged into the seat.
Marty slowed as they approached an intersection, letting the truck drift toward the stop sign.
The woman released the accelerator of the speeding car when it was well into the curve, and she struggled to bring the vehicle back from the shoulder of the road. A warning sign for an intersection flashed by.
Marty checked the crossroad arcing back into the woods, then let the truck creep into the intersection.
The car careened into view, still fighting the curve. There was no time for either driver to react, and the passenger side of the truck received the full force of the blow. The two vehicles, each now a mass of crumpled metal, briefly twisted and rolled together before following separate, flaming paths into the trees.
Time: 6:08 a.m.
Time from Start of Event: 197 Minutes
The initial shock of identifying the corpse had worn off as Paul waited in Donner’s front yard. Vickie just won’t believe this. He would call her as soon as he could. She was probably still asleep, but if she had somehow heard about
The future. Paul didn’t want to think about it at the end of a long and strange night, but there was no way to avoid it. His whole life had changed. Would it be worth staying at the plant? What would his job be like? Later, he sighed, trying to clear his thoughts. Later.
Liz was in the back yard looking over Donner's escape route when the chief of police appeared.
“Anything from the house?” he asked.
“Not much so far,” Liz said. Only she and Winn had been conducting the search. The police commander, she knew, had been informed of the real reason for the FBI's involvement, and as long as nothing too obvious was said, she was willing to discuss it. “We found a good short-wave radio,” she added. “You'd expect that, but it's not exactly incriminating.”
“Chief,” an approaching policeman said, “we've got Indy on the line now. The FBI special agent in charge. He'd like to talk to the agent on the scene.”
“Yes, he would,” Liz said. She and the chief headed around the house. “The S.A.C. would have come himself, if he'd known it would turn out like this.” They reached the front yard, and Liz saw Paul Hendricks standing off to one side as she moved towards the street.
“Hard to believe he actually caused all that,” the chief said.
“Yes,” Liz replied. Having spotted Paul, she was now uncomfortable talking about the case.
“Lot of people got moved out,” the chief sighed. “Bad news.”
Liz cringed. That's enough.....
Paul had been within earshot, and he ran over the remarks again as Liz and the chief moved away. He caused all that ... lot of people moved out... It took him only a moment to tie the pieces together.
When she reached the chief's car, Liz peered back at Paul. She saw his expression change.
“Yes, 8:30, that's correct,” Steve said into the phone. Out of habit he glanced at his wrist, but he had neglected to wear his watch. “Yes, our corporate headquarters in
Tarelli approached. “Done with the admiral?”
“He's one angry man,” Steve said. “But professional. I’ll give him credit for that. His biggest concern right now is how we're handling the public.”
“You mean at the press conference?”
“That, and how we're releasing information. And he wants his team on site before we go digging into equipment to figure out what happened. They’ll start arriving around ten.”
“I'll see they’re taken care of,” Tarelli said.
“Thanks. I might not be around. Depends on what happens in
“You going to the press conference like that?” Tarelli said, casting a critical eye on the plant manager’s polo shirt and blue jeans.
Steve shrugged. “I can’t go home. Brixton is still off-limits.” He thought a moment. “Chamber's people can find me a suit. Somebody must be about my size.”
Tarelli cracked a smile as he walked away, “Well, if nothing else, at least put your shirt on right side out.”
Steve looked down. He laughed at himself, but only for an instant.
“The next T.M.I.” That was the way the chairman had put it. Steve studied the county map, with its arrow leading from
Steve opened his eyes and peered again at his bare wrist, the gold watch still at home on the dresser. His father had arrived at work one morning to find his business in ruins, his partner on the run. And now, Steve reflected, it was his turn. He, too, had missed the signs of an impending disaster. He hadn’t done his job. Fairview Station had fallen apart.
Steve let his frustration burn for a time, then began to wrest his emotions back under control. Self-pity would not be his way out. He would accept the consequences, as he had the honors. He wouldn’t turn his back on his family. Marie and the kids must be provided for. And my staff… He looked out at the activity around him.. What about their jobs? He thought of the possibilities. There’ll be lots of cleanup work ... Most of them can stay on.
The plant manager sighed. Most.
The aide stood ill at ease before the massive desk, watching the piercing eyes fix on him in anger and disbelief.
“You have confirmed this?” Party Secretary Gorbachev asked.
“Yes,” the aide said, fighting the impulse to look away. He doesn't shoot messengers. “It has been confirmed by Comrade Chebrikov. He will be phoning with more details in a few minutes.” Leaving me to do the dirty work now.
“How did this happen?” Gorbachev pounded his fist on the table. “What the hell were they thinking?”
The aide retained his stiff posture. “It appears, sir, that the plan was advocated by a mid-level official in the First Directorate, a Colonel Bykov. His superior, Major General Sveshnikov, agreed. The criteria for plan activation stated that, in emergencies, the operation need only be approved by two Central Committee members. Sveshnikov apparently gained such approval.”
“This is not known. Comrade Chebrikov is attempting to find out.”
“It's some of those old bastards!” Gorbachev rose to his feet. “Those sons of bitches, they will never learn!” The leader of the
The aide did not move. The party boss' s bitter anger was like a physical force, trying to push him toward the door.
Gorbachev turned. “Who else knows?”
“Besides those I've mentioned, and the unknown Committee members -- maybe one or two others.”
“The trail must be stopped,” Gorbachev said icily.
“Yes,” the aide responded in a voice devoid of emotion, “Comrade Chebrikov echoed those sentiments.”
Gorbachev turned back to the window. “If the Americans ever find out...” he said quietly, his voice trailing off into silence.
End Post 37
TEASER FROM NEXT POST:
He was weak from the infections and his feet were tender.