Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Chapter 3 - Beta Waves

4 hours earlier...

The weekend had arrived! Daniel at the office had looked out for Art in return for covering Daniel's ass in that meeting with the County -- in fact, Daniel had scrounged up almost a full week of make-work for Art, so Art received close to a full paycheck. He'd stopped by the Employee Credit Union on his way out yesterday evening, and stocked up a fistful of cash. This morning he would need to sit in line at the gas station a little, to gas up his Honda. But after that, it was San Onofre or bust.

San Onofre on a Saturday would normally be a zoo, hundreds of surfers jockeying with each other to catch a handful of waves. But it was Art's favorite place to surf. If this nuclear bulletin frightened even half those surfers into staying home, instead of beating Art to the State Beach parking lot -- well, maybe the whole thing was a blessing in disguise, after all. The thought of those beautiful waves going un-ridden made him work faster.

Art finished strapping his longboard to his car and pulled away, expertly threading the mazelike overpasses near his house until he started down Highway 5. He had to admit it was pretty eerie to be going down the 5 midmorning on a Saturday and barely see a half-dozen cars. Los Angeles had long since solved its traffic jam problems by means of massive unemployment - as in Art's case, as they did in San Francisco, more people on limited budgets had learned to navigate the bus system and given up the numerous costs and fees associated with cars - but still, seeing the freeway this deserted was a bit disconcerting. A lot of people must have heard that bulletin.

Art was an Engineer, he'd been on numerous public works construction and maintenance jobs. He knew that not everything ever went according to plan. He knew that an army of professional environmental nuts was out there, chomping at the bit to go on TV and scare everyone about nuclear power. His brother was even one of them, at times. Unlike Art, none of them understood the dire need for electric power, and how safe nuclear fission was one of our last best options.

Besides, it was San Onofre or bust, today.

There were still a few other drivers going his way, so he didn't feel quite like he was driving into an evacuation zone. As he approached San Onofre, however, his few automotive companions dropped away, leaving him almost alone. Traffic going the other way, North, however, was certainly increasing - and now there was such a clot of it that State Troopers and the National Guard were directing its flow, and giving him strange looks as he passed in the other direction. Art began to wonder what he was getting himself into.

My Gawd, face a traffic jam like that on the way home? That's what would happen if he turned around. I haven't seen a traffic jam that bad in three years. If I'm stuck in a traffic jam for three hours, I'll get the same dose of radiation that I'd get surfing, he rationalized. Art pressed on. Soon he was able to see the surf break at the day-use beach, and his jaw just dropped. Perfect small waves, small enough for his skill level, large enough to be fun. And there were hardly a dozen people riding them! Just like he had imagined, just like his wildest dreams. That was all the encouragement he needed; he set his blinker and took the freeway exit marked “State Beach”.

Art reached the ranger booth for the day-use beach in San Onofre. Normally there would have been a ranger there to collect the parking fee, but the booth was deserted.

Art and the others managed to get in to shore. The last thing Art remembered was seeing one of those large troop transport trucks, with the canvas sides and roof, rolling down the road into the parking lot. It disgorged a whole lot of people in camouflage uniforms, but he couldn't see any of their faces. Gasmasks! They were all wearing gasmasks. Art, feeling sick and overwhelmed, fell to his knees.

3 days later...

The next thing he remembered was being propped up on his own bed, back at home in Silverlake. Mom had finished tucking him in, he knew, and now she was fiddling with the small TV, the one she usually kept in the kitchen. She turned around and saw that Art was blinking awake.

Oh, Artie, you gave me quite a scare there!” she sniffed. “The National Guard were tromping all over the place when they brought you back here. You were in the hospital for three days.”
Art noticed that Mom's eyes had misted up quite a bit. He was too tired and disoriented to bother playing the emotional games with her now, and it touched him unexpectedly.
The doctors said you were on painkillers most of that time, they were afraid you would have been uncomfortable. The National Guard said to tell you...” she reached into her blouse pocket and withdrew a phone message slip with her handwriting on it, “'The dose you took was mainly beta particles,' they said. Do you know what that means?”
Art did know. Beta particles were neither the most nor least dangerous radioactive byproduct. They could be stopped by water, so the wetsuits that the surfers were wearing probably protected them from receiving a worse dosage. Mom continued. “So the doctors said that your exposure looked worse than it actually was, and they expect you to make a full recovery after a few days of bed rest.”
What about... car” Art rasped.
Oh yes,” Mom continued, reaching again for her phone message. The National Guard said they had impounded... let's see here,” the paper crinkled, “One Personal Conveyance Japanese, and one Wave-Riding Vehicle, American make. One of those must be your car. That's what they said. I'm going to pick up the car tomorrow.”
Mom set down the TV remote just a little bit outside of Art's reach. “Well, dear, if anything good comes out of this... maybe now you'll pay more attention to the things they're saying on my National News channel!” Just for good measure, that was the channel she had left the TV playing. Mom was humming to herself again as she turned and walked down the hall.

Art sighed and slumped back into his bed. He didn't remember sleeping through three days at the hospital, but he sure had no urge to close his eyes right now. So, the National News marched into his eyeballs against his will. Half-aware as he was, he nevertheless noticed something strange.

Or rather, it was the absence of something on the news, which started to bother him. The pundits were still talking about the San Onofre steam leak, and debating energy policy. But Art didn't hear any mention of any evacuation or casualties. With a mighty effort he leaned forward in bed and managed to reach the remote. He flipped to some other channels without any success either. One news anchor was lambasting the hygiene of some anti-nuclear protesters downtown, while another weatherman had jokingly added a Radiation Index to his standard Smog and UV indexes on his 7-day forecast. Nothing more specific than that.

They're not going to talk about it, Art realized. Gawd only knows what would've happened to me if the National Guard hadn't pulled me out of there, and nobody is going to talk about it.

He had surfed next to that plant for decades... he'd felt safe there. But Joe had been right after all, and that San Onofre plant was being pushed beyond its limits as energy all over the country became more expensive. Hence the two steam leaks in as many years. And then Art recalled the sorry state of the City Water infrastructure, bursting at the seams from the assault of an unaccustomed frost. Nobody is going to announce that Global Warming has screwed with the weather, either, and now Los Angeles is having 110-degree Augusts followed by 40-degree Septembers. They're just not going to talk about it. It's too uncomfortable to talk about it.

Everything is falling apart! The world is already ending, the realization dawned on him, and he wasn't sure if it was the idea or the radiation sickness that made him break out in a cold sweat. They told us this stuff wouldn't happen for another fifty or a hundred years. Our world is ending. Maybe it's too uncomfortable to talk about, or maybe there's just nothing to be done. No one held a countdown, no one has to talk about it. It's not going to be zombies crawling out of the wood pile. The world is not going to end with a bang, but with a creak and a groan. It's us getting sick and weak, before we ever grow old.

A poem he'd read in college by some Polish poet, written at the beginning of World War II, leaped into his mind, unbidden and unwelcome:

And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps

Do not believe it is happening now.

As long as the sun and the moon are above,

As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,

As long as rosy infants are born

No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet

Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,

Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:

There will be no other end of the world,

There will be no other end of the world.

Part II

Bonus Art:

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