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St. Vincent's Hospital Santa Fe, New Mexico
Lying on his side, Fred Adrian became aware of the sensation of movement before knowing where he was. The starched white pillowcase was cool against his cheek. The smell of plastic registered in his brain.
The gentle roll of the bed along a smooth floor, the blink of the lights overhead, the words on the intercom that he couldn't exactly make sense of, they all made him want to go to sleep.
"You were a trouper during the procedure," the same woman's voice said cheerfully.
Then he began to remember. The hospital. He was in for the procedure. He was lying on a hospital gurney. Fred's mind was slow to catch up, but things were starting to make sense. He was in to have a routine colonoscopy.
"I'm nervous about it."
"No reason to be nervous. It's over."
"When do you start?" he asked.
She chuckled. "It's all over. You're done."
He wasn't hearing her right. He wanted to go to sleep. "What time is it?"
"It's ten past eleven," the same voice, pushing the gurney along the corridor, told him.
Eleven. Last time he'd looked at the clock it was a few minutes past eight. He couldn't remember anything after that. He lifted his wrist to check his watch. He wasn't wearing it. Fred held his hand up against the passing lights on the ceiling. They were so bright.
"Easy now. You're still hooked up."
He squinted at the IV hanging from a shiny chrome hook near his head. The tube snaking down from it disappeared and then reappeared before terminating under some tape on the back of his hand. His first time under anesthesia. He'd put off having the colonoscopy for a very long time.
"I made it. It's over," he saidto the voice, as if that should be news to her.
"You made it through with flying colors," the woman said in an entertained tone.
She slowed down to negotiate a turn.
"I'll be fifty-nine next week," Fred said to her.
The bed bumped its way through a door. Fred didn't mind. The residual mellowness from the anesthesia was taking the edge off of every sensation. His hand flopped onto the pillow and he slipped it under his head. He looked up at the ceiling. He couldn't quite focus yet.
"I'm the first one of us to reach the age of fifty-nine," he told her.
"The first one?" she asked.
They made it through the door, and the nurse parked him. He wanted to talk, to tell her how special this was. His mind was slow to keep up, though. He didn't know if she'd asked the question now or at eight o'clock this morning. He decided to say it, anyway. He had to share the news.
"I'm the first male in my family " He chuckled, remembering how nervous he'd been before today. He was sure this would be it. Today, he'd die. "I'm the first one to reach the age of fifty-nine. My father he was forty-two when he died. Brother fifty. Now maybe I'll live to be sixty. My daughter is getting married next year and I'll be sixty."
There were two other patients in the room. Fred looked over. Another bed was rolled in after him. Or maybe he was there before him. He was an old man, sound asleep. Fred was tired. Maybe he should sleep, too.
"You're just starting to wake up, but there's no hurry," she told him. "Do you have someone waiting for you in the reception area?"
For the first time he saw his nurse. She was moving the IV from a hook on the gurney to some stand next to it. She was young, not too pretty. She could be, he thought.
"I need a date for my daughter's wedding," he told her.
"Do you have someone in the waiting area, Mr. Adrian?" she asked again. She wasn't smiling now.
"Yeah she should be out there."
"She?" The nurse picked up a chart and read something on it before putting it back down. "Why don't you rest, and I'll go and get Mrs. Adrian? But don't try to get up or move until I come back to take out the IV, okay?"
"Rest " he whispered under his breath. His throat was dry. He wanted something to drink. He stared at the table with rolling wheels beside his bed. There was a cup sitting on top. He wondered if there was something in it to drink. The nurse had said not to move.
The guy next to him was snoring. Fred wondered if he'd been snoring while under anesthesia. He'd made it. Made it.
Five minutes later or three hours. He didn't know. Fred opened his eyes and saw her coming into the room.
"I made it," he said, yawning and closing his eyes.
"You did," the woman said in a low voice. "Your nurse said as soon as you're awake, they'll bring you some coffee and a piece of toast."
"I'm thirsty. Hand me that cup of water." His hand hung in the air.
He heard a soft plastic-sounding snap near his head. She was standing too close to the bed. Fred could smell her perfume. He opened his eyes and saw her take something out of the tube going into his arm.
"What was that?" he asked.
Her hand moved to his forehead and she covered his eyes. "Why don't you get some rest until it's time to take you home?"
The other patient was still snoring. He didn't want to sleep. Fred felt his limbs getting heavy.
"Take me home I can sleep there."
His heartbeat started drumming in his ears. Suddenly, he didn't feel right. There was something different. The right side of his face felt numb, like he'd been slapped.
"Is he ready for coffee?" Fred heard the familiar voice of the nurse coming back into the room.
Coffee yes. He wanted to wake up. He wanted to get out of here. He wanted to answer for himself. His tongue felt swollen in his mouth. His eyelids were too heavy to lift. He opened his mouth but he could push no sound out.
Something wasn't right. She'd put something in the tube in his arm.
Then, in a moment of clarity, he thought of Cynthia, and the box he'd shipped his daughter.
"I think he's fallen back to sleep. Should we give him some time?"
"That's fine. Come and get me when he's awake."
No. He wanted to wake up now. He wanted to live. He'd be fifty-nine next week. He needed to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. Fred lifted his hand off the bed to tell the nurse to stop, but cold fingers took hold of his and pressed them down into the sheet.
The kick of his foot at the table was a feeble effort, at best. Like a last gasp for air before drowning.
"Is he okay?" he heard the nurse's voice from far away.
"Yes, he's fine. I'm the klutz. I just leaned against the table."
Vaguely, he heard the sound of footsteps moving into the distance. Hope slipped away like a lifeline through his fingers and was gone.
New Mexico Nuclear Fusion Test Facility
More than halfway home.
Even at forty-eight days into the project, Marion Kagan didn't mind working seven days a week, sixteen hours a day. She didn't have time to think about sun and clouds and trees. Sometimes, lying in her bunk, she did have to shake from her mind how much she missed the sting of the wind on her face as she whipped along on her scooter back and forth from her apartment to the UC Davis campus. Down here, there was no sunrise, no sunset. But no commuter traffic, either.
Buried in the underground research facility with eight other scientists, Marion only considered the passage of day and night when she made her journal entry at the end of a shift. The group worked in shifts around the clock. Eating and sleeping happened between shifts, and everyone reported for duty when it was time.
She was fine with all of this. They were over the hump. Only forty-two days left. And anytime she got too restless, she simply reminded herself what a boost it was in her curriculum vitae to be the only graduate assistant chosen for this highly selective project. A project that was already producing groundbreaking results. In the scientific world, the eight academics in her group were already stars; this project would make them superstars. As for Marion, after this she didn't believe she'd have any difficulty finding a job once she had her Ph.D.
Everything was great except for one thing. She just couldn't get used to the ongoing surveillance. The cameras were everywhere, mounted in the hallways, the laboratories, the control room. Marion couldn't see them in the bunk room or the bathroom she shared with Eileen Arrington, the only other female researcher on the team, but that didn't mean that they weren't there.
Truth be told, the cameras made her self-conscious. They recorded everything. Of course, the only camera with a live feed to the world above was by the elevator. Connected to the security station on the ground floor, that hookup provided a quick way to communicate with the outside world in case of emergency.
The rest of the cameras were for documentation, she'd been told. It eliminated a lot of the paperwork that otherwise Marion would have to do. That thought helped to make the surveillance bearable, at least. It had taken only a couple of hours on the first day of the project for her to realize that, as the only member of the team lacking a doctoral degree, she was expected to be servant, gofer, slave, chief cook, dishwasher and, of course, lab assistant for the other eight making up the team.
Marion made a face at the camera in the hallway before punching in the security code on a pad to get into the control room. Hearing the click of the lock, she pulled open the door.
Five of the researchers were already in there, gathered around a rectangular conference table in the center of the room for the morning update. Dozens of computer screens and accompanying electronic apparatuses were scattered around the spacious room. This was the place where most of them spent the day. They worked in overlapping shifts, but each had their own workstation. At any given time, six researchers were on duty and three were off. Glancing around the room, she realized she never ceased to be amazed at the way the personal peculiarities of each individual were so clearly demonstrated by the condition of their personal work space.
Robert Eaton, the project manager, stopped what he was saying and looked up at Marion.
She nodded. "The nine containers are in the test fixtures and set to go," she told him, going around the table and taking her customary seat.
Marion was part of the team, but she wasn't one of them. The hierarchy was clear. The rest sat in their personal faux-leather rolling office chairs with the comfortable cushions. She sat on the single folding metal chair placed at the corner of the conference table. That was her chair and God forbid she should sit in anyone else's.
Eaton motioned to the man sitting to his right. "Arin, why don't you start the countdown?"
Arin Bose had an aversion to walking, due in part to his three-hundred-plus pounds. Holding his omnipresent Cal Tech coffee mug steady on his belly, he wheeled his chair backward to his station and began tapping on one of his keypads to start the sequencing.
Marion looked up at the three-dimensional fracture-mechanics analysis on the projector screen. They'd been looking at a rotating image of a pressurized nuclear-reactor container ring. Currently, the smallest commercially mass-produced reactors were between ten feet and fifteen feet in diameter and were used on smaller naval ships. In the team's experiments, however, size was a major factor. The difference with their ring was that its diameter was about the same as a one-gallon paint can.
"Here are the characteristics of the nine identical test samples," Eaton continued, reading the file, journal number, date and time for the sake of the cameras before motioning to Marvin Sheehan, the metallurgist at the other end of the table.
Sheehan's thin frame straightened in the chair, looking like a runner ready to sprint. The man adjusted his spectacles, his excitement shining through the thick lenses.
"The objective is to test to the point of failure," he told them. "For the record, the material used for the container is Alpha 300-series stainless steel with a threaded lid closure equipped with the specialized HEPA filter vent. The vent allows for the controlled release of explosive gases, including hydrogen."
Dr. Bose had already started his countdown for the sample, but no one seemed to be paying particular attention to the test start-up times, which were imminent. Marion knew the computers monitored and documented those events more closely than any of them could. Besides, this had all become part of their daily routine.
Daily routine or not, there was nothing humdrum about the successes they had already achieved. Their work was part of a series of experiments aimed at the construction of a fast transportable reactor.
Power plants already in existence currently burned only three percent of the fuel they created. The other ninety-seven percent was rejected as "spent" and fit only for disposal. In the ambitious project Marion was a part of, the ultimate goal was to create a process that would achieve an efficiency burn rate of ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the fuel. Once this level was achieved, only one tenth of one percent of the plutonium and the other "ium" products would need long-term storage. At that efficiency level, most of the waste was simply the residue of the fission process, and that nuclear waste had a half-life not of ten thousand years, but only three hundred years.
Already, the project had surpassed the fifty-percent efficiency rate—far better than anything currently available for military or commercial use.
In short, their work would change energy production forever.
In one offshoot of the overall project, the metallurgists in the group had identified a unique alloy of stainless steel suitable for plutonium storage. The revolutionary process required revolutionary housings to go along with it, so the find was a huge accomplishment. That success alone could lead to the development of containers for very small nuclear reactors. With this, progress in energy sources could be as rapid as anything that the electronics industry had been going through in the past two decades. In the same way that computers which had been the size of a room were now palm-size and smaller, nuclear energy production would become transportable. With reduction in nuclear waste and the corresponding decrease in the need for long-term storage, it was clear where energy technology would be heading.