One of my interests at ScienceThrillers.com is the role fiction and creative nonfiction can play in advancing scientific literacy. In other words, can a good story be used to teach science?
“Radiation Day,” a short story by Mort Rumberg, is part of a series of ScienceThrillers exclusive original works that combine creative writing and science. Enjoy!
Radiation Day by Mort Rumberg
A ScienceThrillers.com exclusive original story
The Americans and Russians were at it again, arrogantly posturing, each daring the other to blink first. And so were the Chinese, the Europeans and the twenty-seven other new members of the nuclear club. Thirty-two more countries were on the verge of testing a nuclear device and joining the nuclear age. Who knew how many others were waiting in the wings?
What brought the world to this highly anxious and difficult state of affairs? Nuclear engineers from the United States had developed a simple design for an atomic device, and because possession of “the bomb” could now be easily achieved, everyone wanted one. Acquiring the components for such a device, all of which were readily available on the black market, became part of a country’s national pride.
There were three main ingredients needed: a weapons-grade fuel such as enriched uranium or plutonium, an initiator—a small amount of high-energy particles to start a chain reaction, and a triggering device to begin the explosive process. The United States suddenly understood the full implication of what it had done by developing the simple design, balked and refused to allow any more countries to develop a nuclear weapon using the new design—especially Third-World countries.
However, as it turned out, the design information soon appeared on the Internet, and very quickly every nuclear club hopeful had the information and acquired the makings. It was strongly suspected that terrorists had also obtained the plans. It became the cold war all over again—but instead of being just between the United States and Russia as in the past—now everyone stirred the nuclear pot.
And everyone lived in fear of nuclear annihilation.
The threat of global nuclear war had not only become a possibility, but with so many countries now armed with nuclear devices, Armageddon became the new reality. Brinksmanship became the order of the day. The president, like all the other leaders in the world, waved a fist and declared: “We will not be intimidated. If you come at us, we will bomb you back into the stone age.”
Military surgical strikes were considered but ruled out because of the imminent danger of too many countries launching retaliatory missiles. No country wanted to be the first to attack or to stand down—or become the first to explode in a fireball of nuclear destruction and radiation.
“Deterrence” was everyone’s watchword, but mutually assured destruction—MAD, as it was known in the old cold war days—was the unspoken truth.
And it was a mad world that I now lived in.
I was thirteen years old when the nuclear club gained so many members. Afraid of what might happen, air raid drills were initiated at school. Everyone had to practice diving under a desk or move quickly into the hallway when the warning sirens sounded. We lived in fear that a Third-World country dictator or some terrorist organization would run amok and launch a nuclear-tipped missile. Even though the thinking was the United States was large enough to absorb a first strike and retaliate, we knew that severe and unacceptable damage would result.
I remember laughing at our daily drills when we dove under our desks at school. As if a desk would save us from atomic destruction. An atomic bomb would destroy the school, so what was the point?
But there was another side to the drills, one I eagerly looked forward to. I looked forward to snuggling under a desk with Jessica Morrison, although usually I ended up with some dork with bad breath.
The desk diving continued for many months, and several times I actually managed to snuggle with Jessica, sometimes our faces only inches apart. Her eyes were a deep blue and she always smelled of fresh raspberries. Her giggling never stopped. Twice we sneaked kisses. I had fallen in love.
It’s only a matter of time before someone launches a missile and a massive round of retaliation begins. There can be no winners reasoned the op-ed in the newspaper.
It seemed that every week another country tested a bomb and the other nuclear club members coughed nervously.
Finally, the inevitable happened. A rebellious tribal leader in a Third-World country managed to overthrow the elected government and took control of the nuclear facility. One of his deputies, not fully understanding what he was doing, threatened to start a launch procedure against a rival faction. Instead of the threat of a launch, the sequence was inadvertently executed. Unable to stop the sequence, a missile was launched and within minutes several million of his countrymen were wiped off the map.
Not to be outdone and fearing it was next, a neighboring country’s leader thought it best to eliminate such an irresponsible and possibly imminent threat, so he authorized a launch of his weapons, to wipe his perceived threats off the map. As the toll rose, so did the fear of retaliation…a fear that was well founded. Missiles flew and millions of people were vaporized along with all the flora and fauna on earth, leaving a thick layer of atomic contamination behind, a cloud of radiation death you couldn’t see or feel.
I smiled a grim smile. Even though I knew that Flora was the Roman goddess of plants and fertility, and Fauna, the Roman goddess of earth and animals, it did little good. Goddesses or not, dead was dead, and those multitudes that weren’t mercifully killed outright, would die a lingering death from radiation sickness.
The United States was always a target and sure enough, some missiles got through our missile defense system. A nuclear bomb exploded a mile from my school. I was in the hallway at the time, and was spared the initial devastation of the explosion. I remember that Mr. Sandley, our math teacher, had demonstrated what would happen when an external force applied to the outside of a wall or a window was greater than the resisting force on the inside. It was pretty obvious. When the bomb exploded, the explosive force blew the walls and the windows in and the glass sliced everyone within reach, even those under their desk. Just before the blast, I had been acting like the class clown and was in detention in the hallway. I never saw Jessica again—or for that matter, any of my classmates. The school building had partially collapsed, but several teachers and I managed to make our way out. We were covered in debris and had multiple cuts and bruises.
An army truck picked us up and took us to a “safe station.” We were hosed down to wash off any residual radiation from the blast, checked by the medics and then taken to a temporary shelter.
An army colonel checked his map and told me my house hadn’t survived the blast and that my mother, and anyone else in it, was probably lost. My father was at work in the city, but the city, too, suffered massive destruction.
“Son,” said the colonel, “it looks like you’re the only survivor of your family. You’re very lucky.”
Lucky. I just lost my family and my home and he called it lucky.
Like me, a few others who had survived in radiation-free pockets around the country were rounded up and taken to shelters. There weren’t very many survivors—a lot less than predicted.
Military personnel took us in busses and trucks to the Catoctin Mountains in Maryland, away from the heavily radiation-saturated urban areas, into a huge cave they called a bunker. Men worked around the clock insulating the cave, protecting it, desperately trying to keep the pervasive radiation away. Although they worked feverishly, some workers still came down with radiation sickness and had to be isolated. The day radiation sickness was discovered in the bunker, we called it Radiation Day.
I was told there were about a dozen of these bunkers around the country, each designed to house thousands of people. Since I lived near Washington, DC, I was taken to the command bunker for the President and his cabinet, but most of the government had been annihilated so there were only a thousand people in ours.
The president continued broadcasting intimidating messages even as the missiles flew. I guess once a war starts, it’s difficult to know when to stop.
I found out through sporadic broadcasts, that Russia and China had launched thousands of missiles at western countries and thousands of retaliatory missiles were launched at them. Hundreds of millions of people were killed and most countries were annihilated. Nations tried to eliminate their lifelong enemies, which resulted in everyone eliminating each other. It happened in North and South America, Europe, Africa and the mid-East. Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia were largely spared, those nations having the good sense to stay out of the political squabbles and nuclear club that got everyone into trouble in the first place. But they were not spared the side effects, since the clouds of radiation that drifted over the earth soon poisoned them. There were no safe havens on planet earth—except perhaps, for those souls in the underground bunkers.
It was a miracle that I saw my mother in another part of the bunker. Somehow, she had survived the original blast, but she’d been exposed and had come down with radiation sickness. She recently developed purplish spots that grew larger as she weakened. Those of us without radiation sickness were prevented from entering the thick, glass-walled room where dozens of people with the sickness lay on hospital beds. I could only wave to her and hold up sheets of paper that said, “I love you,” and “I’m fine.” She would give me a weak smile and a weaker wave. Technicians, dressed in spacesuits to avoid contamination, cared for them, but they told me that no one in that room would survive.
After a week of daily waving to Mother, her bed was empty. I threw my “I love you” sign away.
For years the remaining survivors labored underground performing maintenance, even as our population was slowly decreasing. Sometimes we lived in darkness and other times a generator provided light for limited times for our school classes, a medical procedure, or an official briefing by the president. Fuel oil was severely rationed, as were most food supplies. Our stored food was supplemented by hydroponic and aquaponic gardens, so all we ate were vegetables, fruit and fish. The menu would stay the same for breakfast, lunch and dinner for months at a time. We dared not go outside—where radiation levels were off the chart.
The government operated by what was called a chain of command. The president was at the top of the chain and people with different ranks were below him. I suppose it worked well, but I thought the president had been part of the problem that got us into this predicament in the first place, so I wondered why he was still at the top of the chain. When I did something wrong, I was punished. Why not him? He should have been demoted, instead, he and other “important” people in our bunker continued carrying out the affairs of state—or what was left of the state.
All any of us at the bottom of the chain really wanted was for the radiation to die out so we could go outside, but the officials told us that the radiation half-life was at least twenty years. They had all these formulae to demonstrate that it would be at least a hundred years before the radiation level was low enough that anyone could go outside and breathe fresh air, if only for a minute or two. Forget about it.
Five years passed and I was now 18 years old. The number of people in our bunker had slowly decreased to less than a hundred. I was one of the few remaining able-bodied survivors, but then I found a small purplish spot on my body. I noticed it during a brief period when the lights were on and realized that it had finally happened…I’d come down with radiation sickness. Symptoms like nausea and hair loss were just beginning.
Before I go, I thought, I wanted to speak with our president—the top man in the chain of command. I had one question for him that had never been answered.
I pushed my way into his office. The army guard near him was too weak to stop me. The president was a small, bald man with unkempt whiskers and very pale skin. He looked at me through sickly, hooded eyes. I saw purplish marks on the back of his hands and more on his face. He too, was dying of radiation sickness.
“What do you want, son?” he asked. “I’m tired and need to rest.”
I nodded. “I’ll be brief, Sir. I’d like to ask a question. One that was never answered after the war.”
He smiled. “I’ll try to answer it. What’s the question?”
“Who won, Sir? Who won the war?”
His shoulders sagged. He looked at me, his mouth agape, then down at the ground.
I turned and walked out.
— End —