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Blue Mist

2014 Short Fiction Contest - Runner Up

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The year is 1949. One night, a young sergeant stationed at Hanford gets orders to investigate "suspicious activity" at the B Reactor, the world's first nuclear reactor and the source of the plutonium used years earlier in the bomb that exploded over Nagasaki, Japan. This is a story about consequences, or "chain reactions" as the author puts it, deeply informed by the history of World War II and Eastern Washington's unique role in it. — DEANNA PAN

Newcombe had given up only four hits when Tommy Henrich led off the ninth. Henrich, who'd homered against the Dodgers two years earlier in game two of the '47 series, took up where he left off, lining a 2-0 pitch into the right field bleachers to give the Yankees a 1-0 opening game win. It was the first time in World Series history...

"Barnes!"

"Sir?"

"Get in here"

Sergeant John Barnes tossed the sports page aside, stubbed out his smoke, swallowed a gulp of black sludge and stepped through the open door.

"Yessirr, Lieutenant."

"Got a report from B Reactor. Johnson needs backup. Suspicious activity. Operator thought he saw something off towards the river. Keslowski out there?"

"Yessirr."

"Take him with you, check it out. You know the drill. And stay in contact, I want to know, ASAFP."

"Will do."

Keslowski cranked the starter for fifteen seconds. Nothing. Moonlight spread across Keslowski's questioning face.

"Try it again, more choke. C'mon, we gotta move."

Barnes held his breath as the starter cranked. The engine coughed to life and settled into a rough idle.

Barnes smiled. "Atta baby, never a doubt."

"Sarge, you gotta get this thing into the garage. It's cold tonight, but it's gonna be colder in a couple of months."

"Come on, move out," Barnes growled.

It was a two mile drive through open scrub to B Reactor. The night was crystal clear, and the full moon suspended above the Rattlesnake Hills couldn't obscure the brilliance of the stars. The night sky was one of the only things Barnes liked about this part of Eastern Washington. When he'd first heard of his transfer to Hanford, he'd had visions of tumbling mountain streams and lush green forests. He'd arrived ten months ago to see a slow moving river carving its way through a desert wasteland.

Nearing the reactor, Johnson's flashlight waived them to a halt just as the jeep rumbled across the tracks used for transporting plutonium to the separation unit.

"Not sure what's going on. One of the operators was down at the river pump house when something happened. He was pretty shaken up, couldn't tell us much. We're checking the perimeter now. You guys head down to the pump house and take a look."

"Roger that."

Keslowski shifted into first and the jeep lurched off, turning on a rutted dirt road that led north 100 yards to the pump house on the Columbia shore. Barnes swept the jeep's searchlight across the barren landscape. Nothing out of the ordinary. Keslowski pulled the jeep to a halt in the parking area at the front of the pump house.

"O.K.," Barnes said, cradling his M1, "go around the pump house, get as close to the river as you can. We'll take a look and then head up the other side. Take it slow."

"I don't know, Sarge, it's pretty rough down there."

"Just... take it easy. C'mon, let's go," Barnes said gruffly, shaking his head. Where was O'Brien when you needed him? "I've got the light, you just be ready to get on the .30 if we see something," he said, motioning to the machine gun on the rear deck.

Keslowski eased the jeep off the gravel and into the broken ground, slowly picking his way through the brush while Barnes worked the light back and forth. Once they reached the back of the structure, the ground sloped sharply down to the riverbank twenty yards away. Keslowski started down the slope, then turned hard left to maneuver around the back of the pump house. The jeep tilted sharply and Barnes leaned into the slope, holding on for all he was worth, the M1 clanging against the side panel. The wheels lost purchase and the jeep began to slide sideways down toward the river.

Keslowski, panicking, gunned the accelerator. The jeep surged forward a few feet before the front end rose up and then crashed down with a great WHHUUUUMP. Keslowski's chest slammed into the steering wheel and Barnes' head banged hard against the juncture of the dash and windshield. The engine whined, then died as Keslowski's foot slipped off the clutch.

Half a minute passed while the men gathered themselves. As Barnes' head cleared, he saw Keslowski's pained grimace.

"You O.K.?'

"I think so. Man, that hurt," the younger soldier replied, rubbing his chest. "You?"

"I'm allright. Are we stuck?"

Keslowski started the jeep and tried to climb out of the gulley. No luck. Barnes got out to survey. The jeep was high-centered on the lip of a sharply cut gulley roughly three feet deep. He scrambled up the other side of the gulley and found a bushy shrub that might be strong enough to winch the jeep out. If not, they'd walk back and get a tow.

Keslowski worked the searchlight as Barnes moved to the winch. As he retracted the cable, a vaporous mist crept up the gulley from the river. A nauseating smell stung Barnes' nose; burnt, metallic, sulfurous. Death. The vapors turned blue, swirled rapidly around both men and then, just as suddenly lifted, leaving only the sparking clarity of the night.

"What the hell was that?"

"I don't know," he shrugged. "C'mon, let's get outta here."

But Barnes knew he'd experienced this before, sometime the past spring. He'd been patrolling, on the night shift again, by himself, near the chemical pump house just east of the reactor. He'd walked through the same mist, the same rotting, sulfurous smell. A blinding headache had come on the next day, making it almost impossible to sleep. He'd drifted off a few times but was plagued by terrible, violent dreams that stayed with him the next three days before finally tapering off.

Twenty minutes later, they had the jeep back on level ground. They finished their sweep, saw nothing unusual, and rendezvoused back at the reactor. Keslowski parked the jeep, climbed out and threw up right at Johnson's feet.

"Jesus, Keslowski, it wasn't that bad," Barnes laughed.

Johnson took it more seriously. "That operator, Brown, he threw up too. Doc thinks he got a dose. We gotta get you guys to the infirmary. Pronto."

Barnes sat on the edge of the examining table.

"How do you feel?"

"I'm fine, Doc."

You look O.K. No fever, no redness. You feel nauseous?"

"No."

"Sour taste in your mouth?"

"Maybe a little, back in the gulley. It's gone now."

"Brown and Keslowski are both showing signs of radiation exposure. It's not good. "He scribbled a few lines on a clipboard, then looked back at Barnes. "We need to keep you here a day or so. Maybe you got lucky."

"Sure, Doc. But I'm fine."

After Doc left, Barnes remembered a story he'd been told during a briefing on the dangers of radiation. A few years earlier, a scientist at Los Alamos had been giving a bomb assembly demonstration when he let two radioactive masses get too close together, setting off a small chain reaction and a burst of ionizing radiation that turned the air blue. The scientist, poor soul, was dead in ten days. Ten hard days.

Barnes thought about the blue mist that had surrounded him. Could it have been from a chain reaction? Not likely, he thought, too far from the reactor.

He had trouble getting to sleep. After an hour and a half, showing no signs of exposure, he persuaded Doc to sedate him. He was asleep in twenty minutes.

There was a distant roaring in his ears. The sound got steadily louder. He couldn't see much; he was in some sort of glass enclosure and there were clouds all around him. He became aware of men, just above his shoulder. He was in the nose of a bomber, the bombardier's seat in a B 29. He could hear the men above, pilots, talking.

"Kokura's too socked in. I'm not making another pass, we're too low on fuel. It's gonna have to be Nagasaki."

Barnes woke up, disoriented. Someone stood over him. Doc. He sat up, looked around, checked his watch. Just after 2:00 that afternoon.

"How's the patient?"

Barnes yawned. "I'm fine, Doc. Just like I told you last night." He stood up and stretched. "I could use some grub."

"Sure, we'll get you something in a bit. I need to look you over first." Doc proceeded with the exam. "Skin color and temp normal, no upset stomach, no nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. So far, so good. We'll keep you under observation awhile longer."

"How's Keslowski? And that other guy?"

"Not so good. Both are worse, especially Keslowski. All the signs we'd expect to see. Too early to tell whether they'll come out of it. There'll be some long-term damage for sure."

Barnes' spirits sank. He was glad he had no symptoms, but Keslowski was just a kid. And from what he knew about radiation exposure...

"Were you and Keslowski together the whole time last night?"

Barnes thought a moment. "Never more than ten yards away."

"Hmmm," Doc shook his head.

He woke again, even more disoriented. He thought he was still in the infirmary, but something was different. Then the pain hit him. He had a terrible headache, his skin was on fire and he felt sicker than ever before. He tried to sit up in bed but didn't have the strength. Lifting his head, he saw torment all around him, burned and grotesque bodies, some in bandages, others with open and red, peeling flesh. The sound was terrifying; agonizing screams and deep guttural moans filled the air. The smell was worse, a mixture of unimaginable foulness. A small Japanese woman in white came by and dribbled a few drops of water down his parched throat. Her glazed eyes told nothing and she quickly moved on.

"Well, you're looking pretty good, maybe a little tired. No obvious symptoms. How do you feel?"

Barnes felt like a wreck. Anxious, nervous, jittery. He'd lain awake most of the night, shaking uncontrollably at times, afraid of falling back to sleep, afraid of the dreams. Yet he couldn't tell Doc, couldn't admit to this weakness.

"I'm O.K.," he managed. "Keslowski?"

"Worse. If he does pull through, he'll never be the same." Doc stared distantly out the window. "We still can't figure out why he got it and you didn't."

"What about Brown?"

"He seems to be stabilizing, so that's good. You sure you're O.K.?"

"I guess I didn't sleep much last night."

"Well," Doc drawled, "that's not unexpected. I'll give you something to sleep. You'll be better tomorrow, good as new. Promise."

It was two minutes before 12:00 on a warm summer day. He'd been cleaning and slicing tuna in the fish shop for the last two hours. He took off his apron, rinsed his hands and took a small bowl of rice and a teapot to the table outside where he could enjoy his meal while looking out over Nagasaki Bay. He loved the beauty of the waterfront, nestled down below the surrounding hills. The morning had been overcast, but a small clearing of sky had opened directly above. His eyes were drawn to that circular glimpse of the heavens in the sea of gray and he thought he saw, for an instant, a glint of silver flash across the darker blue. A plane? He looked again, searching, wondering; but his ageing eyes were tired and whatever it was had vanished. And then the world turned white.

The old woman thanked the young man. As he turned to leave, she looked upward as sunlight, the first all day, broke through the clearing western sky. Bracing herself, her hands were steady as she opened the telegram.

Mrs. Alma Barnes

Brady, Texas

Please accept my deepest regret in informing you of the death of your son, First Sergeant John H. Barnes, in the service of his country at Hanford, Washington on 9 October 1949. Cause of death unknown. Letter to follow.

George C. Reynolds Brigadier General USA. ♦

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Shrader is a Professor of Finance at Gonzaga University. An active academic researcher, his latest paper is forthcoming this spring in The Oxford Journal of Finance and Risk Perspectives. For a creative outlet, he polishes his fiction writing skills as a member of the local writer's group Got Lit? and is working to complete his first novel, "Parallel Quests."