Violet must have sensed the furious crowd gathered in front of the gate. In the rearview mirror, Shane saw her sit up straighter and cock her head to one side. Ruby, her black lab guide dog, responded to the sudden change in her body language and looked at her with concern. Roughly two dozen people had gathered in a grassy area alongside the entry road to the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant, some of them carrying neatly stenciled signs as they marched back and forth. On the other side of the road two police officers stood watching in front of their patrol car.
“Dad, what’s going on?” Violet said. “I can hear a crowd of people. It sounds like they’re chanting.”
He hadn’t intended to tell her about the protestors. He had been hoping to avoid having to explain to his daughter why people were protesting his place of work on Take Your Child to Work Day. She was fourteen, but she was also somewhat naïve. Shane had perhaps sheltered her too much as a child, waiting to protect her from danger, from bullies, from so many possible problems, particularly because of her disability. This had only recently become difficult, as she began to push back, growing into a questioning teen who would no longer accept easy answers.
“Just some people,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
As the car drew up alongside the protestors, the words of their chant became clear.
“Shut it down! Shut it down! Shut it down!”
Ruby had been sprawled across the back seat, but she rose now and placed her head on Violet’s lap. Some would have mistaken this for a gesture of affection. Shane recognized it as a protective move.
“Why are they saying that?” Violet asked, pushing her sunglasses up the bridge of her nose. “Is something wrong? They sound angry.”
Trying to ignore the hateful stares of the protestors, Shane slowed as he approached the guard station next to the front gate. He fumbled in his shirt pocket for his work ID, trying to think of the best way to explain the situation to his daughter. Violet tended to think the best of people, and he didn’t want her to lose that optimism.
“They’re just exercising their first amendment rights,” he said. “Freedom of speech is a beautiful thing, even if the things being said are questionable.”
“So they’re protesting the power plant?” she asked.
“Well…yes,” he replied, hoping she would leave it at that.
“That happens a lot here, huh?” she said. “A lot of people protest?”
“No, only occasionally. Generally, when we make the news for some reason or another.”
“Why are they so mad this time? Did your company do something wrong?”
“They’re upset because of the talk about adding a third reactor to the plant. Our service area is growing, and we could use another reactor, but as soon as it hit the news, people in the community started complaining. I imagine they organized some kind of protest gathering on social media, and here they are. It’s fine. People are entitled to voice their concerns.” He flashed his ID to the guard, who gave him an anxious smile and waved him through the open gate. The parking lot beyond was emptier than usual. At two minutes to four in the afternoon, they were smack-dab in the middle of a shift change. Had the protestors planned it that way, hoping to catch the bulk of the second shift workers as they pulled into the gate? It seemed likely. “If you ask me, they’re being rather alarmist. People like this, I don’t think they get it.”
“They don’t get what, Dad?” Violet asked.
He carefully considered his words before answering. Would his daughter think less of him if she understood the controversial nature of his chosen industry? “Well, Violet, sweetheart, nuclear energy is the cleanest and safest form of energy in the world—hands down, no question—but the word nuclear makes some people nervous. They assume radiation is seeping into the environment and creating three-eyed fish in the river.”
Violet laughed at that. “Is it?”
“No, of course not. The radiation is fully contained.”
Ahead, the vast gray cooling towers rose on either side of a domed containment building, billowing steam into a crisp late-April sky. Shane could see the curve of the Tennessee River where it slipped behind the plant in a broad arc. It was a sight that never failed to impress him, even after these many years, and he wished his daughter could enjoy it. As he pulled into the closest row of parking spaces, he considered ways he might convey the majesty of this place to her.
“Dad,” she said, “we talked about nuclear power in our science class at school. Our teacher said nuclear power plants are dangerous because if they overheat, they can go into a meltdown. She said meltdowns have happened before, and they hurt a lot of people, even poisoned whole cities. Is that true? Could it happen here?”
“It’s true. But did your teacher mention that more people die in coal mines every year than have ever died from nuclear meltdowns?” Shane said.
Violet persisted. “But a meltdown could happen here?”
Shane grunted unhappily. “That would require a very severe accident.”
“But they’ve happened before,” Violet said. “At Chernobyl in the Ukraine, and somewhere in Japan. One even happened in America, she said, at a place called Three Mile Island.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Something like that is not going to happen here. The Chernobyl accident was mostly caused by the poor design of RBMK nuclear power reactors. We don’t have that problem here. And Fukushima in Japan was caused by a tsunami, which probably isn’t going to happen in the mountains of Tennessee. We’re safe.”
“But how do you know for sure?” Violet asked.
“Because I’m a nuclear engineer,” he replied. “It’s my job to know. It’s my job to keep everyone safe, and I will. I will keep us safe.”
“Promise?” Violet said.
* * *
The hallways were emptier than usual because of the shift change, but they met Landon just outside the control room. He was coming from the direction of the break room, his sleek black wheelchair making its gentle whirring sound. It had wheels with fat spokes that were slanted inward, a heavily padded seat and backrest, and a sturdy frame. As Landon had explained in the past, it was technically an athletic wheelchair, but he’d gained an affinity for them during his years of playing wheelchair basketball. He was broad-shouldered and strong, a former athlete with a well-built upper body. His legs had atrophied from spina bifida, but this had rarely been an issue on the job.
“Hey there, buddy,” Landon said, when he spotted Shane rounding the corner. “I don’t usually beat you to the office. What’s the holdup?”
“I brought a guest with me this morning,” Shane said, “so watch your salty language today.”
“What are you talking about?” Landon replied. “I haven’t even said my first four letter word of the day.”
Shane shuffled slowly down the hall, holding his daughter’s hand and guiding her. She came somewhat reluctantly, her other hand sliding along the wall. Passing through security had made her nervous—the great hum and hiss of the metal detector, x-ray machine, and radiation monitor—and she kept fiddling with the small radiation monitoring device hanging around her neck. Like the workers, she had been given an orange hardhat, and it was slightly too big for her head, pushing against the rims of her sunglasses.
To make matters far worse, security had insisted she leave Ruby behind. They’d made a place for her beloved black lab in the security office, but Violet had balked at the idea. It was Shane’s fault. He’d pulled strings to get approval for Violet to come to work with him—no easy feat—but he’d forgotten to get clearance for Ruby.
That’ll put a damper on the day, he thought.
Fortunately, Violet knew Landon well—he was practically family—so when she heard his voice, she relaxed a bit.
“Hey there, Vivi,” Landon said. Only Landon could get away with calling her Vivi. “Where’s your furry sidekick? I’ve never seen the two of you apart.” He was particularly fond of the dog.
“They wouldn’t let me bring her into the building,” Violet said. “Even though she’s a trained guide dog, they said it’s not safe to bring an animal—any animal—into the plant, so she’s sitting back there by herself.”
“Not by herself,” Shane said gently. “The security team will take good care of her, and we can check on her from time to time. We’ll bring her something to eat during my lunch break.”
“I don’t know what they’re afraid of,” Violet said. “She never bites, and she doesn’t get into anything. She doesn’t even bark unless I’m in trouble. If we brought her inside, she would sit quietly and mind her own business all day long, except for pee breaks.”
“It’s just company protocol,” Shane said. “Sorry, I should have tried to clear it first. I didn’t realize it would be a problem.”
“Don’t you worry about it, Violet,” Landon said. “I won’t let this injustice stand. I’ll file a formal complaint. It’s not nice separating a kid from her loyal sidekick. If we have to take this all the way to the board of directors, so be it. Policy must be rewritten.”
Shane shook his head at Landon. “It’s fine. It’s only for a few hours. Ruby will be okay. We’ll check on her at lunchtime, get her something to eat, take her potty, and everything will be okay.”
“She doesn’t know that,” Violet said. “She doesn’t know we’re coming back at lunchtime.” Finally, Violet shrugged and rolled her head back on her shoulders. When she did, the orange hardhat almost fell off, and she had to grab it. “Oh well, nothing we can do about it, I guess. I’ll give her an extra treat after we get home tonight.”
“There you go,” Shane said. “Great idea.”
“I don’t know why you wanted to come here anyway, kid,” Landon said. “Should’ve gone to work with your mom at the CDC. You know your dad’s job is incredibly boring, right?”
“Dad says his job is to keep everyone safe,” Violet said.
“He’s not wrong.” Landon turned and wheeled toward the control room door, beckoning for them to follow. “But you’d be surprised how boring it is keeping everyone safe.”
“Now, now,” Shane said, laying a hand lightly on his daughter’s shoulder. “Don’t undersell the experience, Landon. She’s been looking forward to this.”
“All I’m saying is you should have gone with your mom,” Landon said. “She works with diseases. She’s battling deadly viruses on the daily, keeping world-devouring pandemics at bay with nothing but grit and determination.”
“That’s not exactly true,” Shane said. “She does have a lot of grit and determination, though, I’ll give you that.”
“Centers for Disease Control. That’s her place of employment, right? Disease control, man. They’re protecting us from mutating Ebola and bio-engineered smallpox. Those are the real dangers right there, not some silly old nuclear power plant. Nothing exciting happens here.”
“Dad said yes first,” Violet said.
“I did,” Shane said. “Plus, your mom is technically a statistician for the CDC. She’s not battling bio-engineered smallpox, but they do work to prevent diseases. He’s right about that.”
“It’s fine,” Violet said. “Except for poor Ruby, I don’t mind coming here. I can visit Mom’s place next time.”
The curve of a long green console took up most of the center of the control room, its surface covered in a complex array of gauges, screens, buttons, and knobs. A low hum filled the room. Violet reacted upon entering the room, perking up and turning her head first one way and then the other.
“The air is different in here,” she said. “Feels kind of weird. Sort of electric, if that makes sense.”
“Lots and lots of warm electronics,” Landon said, wheeling himself up to the console and leaning in close to one of the monitors. “That’s what you feel. It kind of smells plasticky, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Violet replied.
Landon’s elbow crutches were leaning against the end of the console. He kept them close, but he preferred using the wheelchair. When Shane took a seat, they started to slide so he caught them and set them on the floor. As Landon began cycling through system menus, Shane called his daughter over, took her right hand, and laid it on the console beside his keyboard.
“You feel that?” he asked. “That’s my computer. I spend a whole lot of time at this computer.”
“I can almost see it,” she said. “The screen is bright right now, isn’t it?”
“That’s right. The starting screen is a light blue color.”
Though Violet was visually impaired, Shane knew she could perceive light. She described bright lights as vague, distant blobs. She could also tell when she was in a completely dark room. Beyond that, she was incapable of perceiving shapes or colors.
“We monitor every system in the station from this room.” Shane turned to Landon. “In fact, we can pretty much determine everything that’s happening from right here, and we can call other departments if we need to talk to them.”
“On rare occasions, we even leave the room,” Landon said.
“That’s true,” Shane said. “In fact, I was thinking about giving her a tour of the facility when the rest of the staff get here. She could meet some of the department heads and hear what they do. What do you think?”
“Sorry, pal,” Landon replied. “After the software upgrade, we’ve got to run through the rest of those scenarios this morning. The tour will have to wait until after lunch.”
“Oh, man, I thought we finished those yesterday.”
“Not even close,” Landon said. “They’re being especially comprehensive this time.”
Shane guided his daughter’s hand to the next seat, and she sat down.
“Sorry, sweetheart, I’ll take you on a tour a little later,” Shane said. “Just hang out here for a bit while we get some work done. Do you need a drink or anything? I could run to the break room and get you something.”
“I’m fine, Dad,” Violet replied, feeling the edge of the console and resting her forearms against a spot that was clear of buttons, gauges, or knobs. “Don’t worry about me. Just do your work. I don’t want to be a bother.”
“You’re never a bother,” he said.
“Brace yourself, Vivi,” Landon said. “Running through end-of-the-world scenarios while pretending they can never happen gets dull after a few hours.”
Shane almost shushed his friend, but it was too late. The words were out. Violet pushed her sunglasses up the bridge of her nose and frowned.
“End of the world?” she said. “What do you mean by that?”
“Just scenarios,” Shane said. “Not real life. We’re testing a recent software upgrade by seeing how it responds to theoretical situations.”
“What kind of situations?” Violet asked.
But at that moment, a harsh squawk came out of one of the tiny speakers beside Shane’s computer console as a window popped up on his screen. A red message flashed brightly: CORONAL MASS EJECTION EVENT IMMINENT TWO MINUTES. It flashed a few times before he registered what he was reading.
“Coronal mass ejection,” he said. “Landon, did you start the simulation already?”
Landon leaned back in his chair to get a look at Shane’s screen. “I haven’t done anything,” he said. “I haven’t pressed a single button yet.” A two-way radio sat near the edge of the console, and he grabbed it. “Let me see if I can find out what’s going on. Maybe they’re running some kind of remote drill. Is that possible? I mean, it can’t be real.”
“If it was real they would have given us a lot more than two minutes warning,” Shane said, feeling a flutter of anxiety despite his words. “It has to be some kind of test.”
“Okay, let me see if I can get hold of someone,” Landon said. “If it’s an unplanned simulation from on high, I’m going to pitch a fit. We have enough scenarios to run through without the higher-ups messing around. Sometimes, they’re too clever for their own good.”
Violet managed one plaintive word before the power went out. Every light and screen went dark, and Shane heard cooling fans winding down.
“Well, that’s not good,” Landon said. “We just lost everything.”
Shane had been trained to handle this kind of scenario—he knew the steps—but having his daughter present changed everything. He could hear her panicked breathing, the squeak of her chair as she fidgeted. It was distracting. He wanted to comfort her, but he also knew they had to act fast.
“Dad, what’s happening? What’s a coronal…whatever?”
“Coronal mass ejection,” Landon said. “A massive burst of plasma from the sun. Causes an electromagnetic pulse which can knock out the power grid, fry electronics, and do all sorts of bad, bad stuff. I’m going to take a wild guess here and say it’s not a simulation.”
The control room was quiet, too quiet, but Shane heard shouting in the hallway—panic throughout the building just as the second shift was arriving. Terrible timing.
“Backup power’s not coming on,” he said. “Could the CME have taken out the generators?”
“Doubt it,” Landon said in the darkness. He sounded breathless. “If it’s a CME, the backup generators might be fine. They’re just old-fashioned diesel engines. No electronics in them to be fried. We’ll have to start them manually though.”
Shane was still half-convinced it was a test, but he didn’t like the nervous edge in Landon’s voice. The man was usually so calm and collected.
“I’ll take care of it,” Shane said. He started to rise from his chair, but Violet’s hand clamped down on his arm.
“No, Dad. Don’t leave. I’m scared.”
“It’s okay, honey. I just need—”
He heard the whir of Landon’s wheelchair. “I’ve got it. You two stay here. I know the way, and I can move faster than either of you. We need to act quickly.”
“No, I’ll come with you,” Shane said. “It might require two of us to get the generators working. Violet, you can come, too. I won’t leave you here by yourself.”
“Are we in trouble?” she said. “What happens if you don’t get them working?”
“If the main power is knocked out, the control rods drop into the core, and the reactor is flooded with water to drive the temperature down,” Shane said. “That can’t happen until we get the backup generators on, but we will. It’ll just take a minute.”
“You’re talking about a meltdown,” Violet said, her voice quavering, her hand squeezing his arm tighter. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
“No, no, we have…plenty of time to get things under control.” He had to force the words out. But it’s a test, right? It has to be? If it’s a real CME, they would have warned us a lot sooner.
Shane heard the hiss of the control room door as Landon heaved it open and wheeled into the hallway. Shane rose and grabbed Violet’s hand. Then he followed after Landon.
He wanted to believe they had plenty of time. He almost did believe it, but he’d never heard Landon sound so scared.