IT DOES NOT SEEM OVERLY harsh to say the men and women who work on atomic weapons distance themselves from the moral implications of what they do. But me? I make sure they pass through clearance and are able to find parking spots. Not so much separates us when you think of the worst-case scenario. I like to think that when the reactor blows, we’ll all be the same kind of dead: absolutely.
It’s all shift work at the station, so in my ten hours I let in three fleets of cars. Everyone wears uniforms, but their colors tell you what they’re up to: securing the building, making sure rust hasn’t corroded some pipe or another, measuring pressure gauges. There’s the occasional scientist, or special guest. But all of them go inside, whereas I’m out here with my little metal fan, crossword puzzles, and pistachios, pressing green to let the cars through. It is important to me to purchase the shelled, unsalted kind. The hard shell gives me something to do, and truthfully it keeps me from eating too many. Some are so hard with unwilling hairline cracks. I prefer unsalted because my fingers swell up from bad circulation. The stiff chair I sit in all day, designed by a lunatic who combined a bar stool with a swivel chair, doesn’t help.
My bad circulation is something my doctors always want to talk to me about. So, I sit back and listen. No salt. Move around. Stretch more. Go home and put your legs up the wall, your head on the floor and breathe so deep it hurts. Sometimes it feels like there are ants crawling across my calves. This, I have been told, is a sign I’ve been crossing my legs for too long, so I’ve stopped mentioning it.
Every morning before work, I go to the mall to walk around. The mall is practically empty now. The courtyard, which use to have a fountain, is all overgrown with English ivy and the fountain is a deep stained blue—I think from all the chlorine. The only stores that are still open are the nail salon and the dollar theater. Neither are open at the time I take my walks, which is always at seven a.m.
I first loop around the kiosks, then the food court, around the courtyard, and if I’m feeling ambitious, I will run up the escalators. They no longer work. I try to stay safe. When I challenge myself, I have noticed that my bruises don’t get as plum-blotched as they used to. This, along with the fact that my bowel movements seem to be more regular (in consistency and frequency), seems to be the great health trade-off the doctors have been telling me about.
And then it is to work. With the little fan and the crossword puzzles and the hulled pistachio shells crunching under my rolling chair.
A car comes a little after my first rush. This is not unusual, but as I am still buzzing from having just scanned in hundreds of people, I’m a little on edge. The lady inside is not sure how to get in, but she tells me she has a special invitation. She is a Professor of Nuclear Engineering and something or other, a long title that takes up too much time. Importantly, I notice, she has a Slavic accent. I know that shouldn’t matter, but I cannot help that it sets off alarms. I say, I will take you in Miss Ladyspy, though you’ll have to check in with the man at the main security office. I think her name is actually Landowski.
I have only ever been inside once, and that was when I signed a whole bunch of papers on hire. I’ve had jobs where I only had to sign one or two documents, but here there were confidentiality papers, health risk papers, tax papers, and protocol papers. I was fingerprinted, photographed, stamped, and processed. The photo I took on my first day is on my ID card. In it I have more hair, less weight, and probably a better outlook on life.
“OK, Professor Ludashinski, come with me to the main office.”
We snake through the bland hallways and I am glad that my security box is all window. It is two corner offices in one, I joke to the small whirring fan every morning.
We turn the last corner and there it is. The big reactor. I think that’s what it’s called. It’s in the middle of a huge circular room sunk twenty stories into the ground. I look over at Professor Lubavitch and her eyes get real small, like they’re scanning for top secret material. A shift bell rings and then all of the doors flanking the hallways open and scientists in white coats rush out, switching this way and that, looking down at the floor, and I get turned around and taken up in their frenzy and lose sight of the spy.
The rush dies down and I’m able to get back on my feet and straighten my glasses and realize that I forgot to tell the professor that the office was just under the archway. But I am confident she will find it, as there are many signs pointing in that direction.
The next morning at the mall I am really ambitious. I do the regular route with the added escalator and boldly add a circuit around the third floor. I usually don’t like going up there because the building managers cut off power six months ago. However, it is a fantastic floor for speed walking. A whole unencumbered loop circuit. All of the stores are empty black boxes and because I’m not in a gym, I can stare at myself all I want. Hey, you’re looking real good today, Rick. And then I suck in my belly for a second before extending it like a pregnant lady.
Some of the woman at work are worried that they won’t get pregnant. Being so close to all of the radiation. Sometimes I think about what it would be like to have sex with one of the women who work so close to the reactor. All I can visualize is a bright green light emanating and the sound of whirring fans.
At work today it is calm. Less people are here because there is a bank holiday approaching. I take my time filling out monthly parking requests and then count out exactly twenty-five pistachios. That’s all. I have to cut down.
There’s a lull in the afternoon, so I decide to take a walk around and inspect everyone’s permits. I don’t like to snitch if someone is late in renewing, but also it is my job to make sure protocol is followed. Only two people are late. Not bad for this time of year.
Back in the security hut, adjusting the speed of my fan, I realized I never checked up on Professor Lebedev. She might be stealing all of the information. She might be cross contaminating the good stuff with the bad stuff. I can’t call up my supervisor and ask him if he’s seen a woman walking around the reactor, who may or may not be a professor, engaging in what may or may not be corporate, or worse, international espionage. He told me I have already used up my calls for the month and to only call in an emergency. I cannot decide if this is currently an emergency, or if it is will become an emergency. My neck and face get very hot. I am sure we are in a pre-emergency stage.
Thankfully, Larry came ten minutes early to his shift. Larry has been here twice as long as me, but only a third as long as Mike. I like to pretend I’m writing math problems about our shared lives, but the answer is always the same, and Larry and Mike don’t think it’s funny anymore.
I say hi Larry, glad you came early, I have to run off. And he mumbles something about us not being compensated for working over the holidays and that he feels less and less appreciated and more dispensable in old age and that retirement is a luxury and impossibility in this economy, and I laugh, because Larry is actually very good at delivering punch lines.
I’m obviously not going home. I strip off my bright red jumper, a proud work color. I put on my outside clothes: jeans, blue polo, white gym shoes.
I head straight towards the back entrance. It’s a flimsy door held in place with a piece of plywood. This is on my mental list of weak entry points that should be repaired. Near the door handle I notice three faint purple streaks, like polished nails accidently leaving behind evidence. I remember Professor Litivinski, her hand coming up to wipe a crumb from the corner of her mouth, her fingernail shimmering—the color likely purple.
Will I be a hero? This is the first question. The second is contingent on the first. Will I get a raise for being a hero? There are no counterfactuals because I’m already running up the stairs and thanking my previous self for having the insight to practice on the escalators AND take the extra lap around the third floor this morning.
I have to appear natural. So, I wipe the sweat off and deep breathe. I lower myself to a squatting position so that I can breathe easy, when the door swings open and a scientist in a white coat moves around me, eyes on the ground, and heads down the stairs.
A close call.
I keep running and run right up to the eighth floor. There are only a few people milling around, murmuring into clip boards. By now the professor has surely figured out a disguise. I try and think like her. Where would I go if I wanted to steal the information? Where are the important machines living?
I walk briskly, not quite as fast as my expert speed walk, but almost—contentious of not making it look like we are in a full-blown emergency, but respectful of the fact that this is certainly a “pre-emergency”.
I am on the way to the computers. I know there is a whole room of them because it is marked in orange on the security threat list. Twice as important as the storage room, but only a third as important as the reactor, I joke to no one.
The computers are not as exciting as I thought they would be. There are lots of them, so by volume, they’re impressive. But they’re just black boxes, stacked on black shelves that are in straight black rows, like burnt corn. The Professor does not seem to be hiding between them.
I turn and look at the reactor, the great shining hub that is like our collective child, dumb and in need of protection, prone to spills and leaks. I look down towards the control panel and there she is, slick black bob, sharp eyes scanning. She has not been here long enough to have her insides radiated like the other female scientists. If she were not a spy, I would have considered asking her out for drinks, or for a walk around the mall. But I cannot compromise my morals. She must be removed and reported.
On the way down the stairs I get over ambitious, skip too many, tear my knee. But the adrenaline is pumping, and I think that once I’m a hero, I will have better health insurance.
I’m on the right floor, and she’s still there. Like she doesn’t even know I’m onto her. Have been onto her this whole time. I won’t be able to tell the papers I knew the whole time, obviously, because then they would think I orchestrated the whole thing and then there would be press conferences about the need for tighter regulations and then maybe I would have to take some remedial class on security with a bunch of other flunkos. I remind myself that I cannot worry about the stress of fame now.
She starts heading off and I follow. I follow her around the reactor, once, twice, three times and I’m starting to worry that maybe she’s following me, but then she breaks away and heads to a storage locker just off the side of the reactor. I watch her put in her combination. An obvious one. How she got access to a locker, I don’t know, but its proof that she’s up to no good.
She’s moving things around in there that I can’t see, and she’s almost all the way in, ducking her head in the locker to get a better view of whatever it is she’s wiring together. Putting the finishing touches on whatever chemical reaction she’s concocting that will flash us all into dust. Calling up headquarters and telling the tzar how she’s tricked us all.
I pounce on her. Knock her into the locker so hard that I must have, by sheer force, knocked the wiring out of the bomb, tripped the chemicals so they turned an inert brown, saved the lives of all of these hard-working, non-spying scientists. I pull her arms behind her back and hear a cracking in the shoulders, so maybe they’ll be stuck like this, in arrest position, forever. And I’m about to turn around and face the crowd of scientists that sound like they are cheering, or maybe even weeping, because I’ve saved them all from destruction and saved the country from attack. I see their black shoes all around me, getting closer, accidentally nudging me, maybe they don’t see me, kicking me a little, then a lot, then a siren whirring round and round my head, a cold metal thwack, hands pressing me to the floor, keeping me safe from all my new fans waiting hungrily to sing my praises, ask me questions.
Analeah Loschiavo Rosen is a Brazilian-American currently living in Lisbon on a Fulbright grant to write a novel that engages with notions of displacement and self-translation. She received her MFA in Fiction from Washington University in St Louis in 2019. Her work can be found on FANZINE and in Notre Dame Review.