i. the departure
1942: My father was G.I. Taylor, the English physicist who worked on fluid dynamics. My grandfather was J. J. Thomson, who basically discovered the electron. And my great-grandfather was George Boole, who requires no introduction. Naturally, it was assumed from the start by everyone around me that I too would give my life over to the scientific vocation, that noble, ambitious calling.
In my youth I was vulnerable and impressionable. Whether things could have gone differently had I been otherwise is a question I have pondered since those days, but really only to amuse myself in times of loneliness and boredom.
I finished building my cloud chamber right around the time that physics students began disappearing from Camden, sometime in the early spring, with victory gardens just starting to bloom. The faculty were trying to keep the reason behind the disappearances a secret. As is the custom at small, isolated schools, though, rumors spread. It was passed around in closely guarded whispers that the best physics students were being recruited for a project organized by the government, something big out in the desert.
It was on the strength of my cloud chamber, I suppose, that I was recruited to this project. There is a great deal of confusion in the public about just what a cloud chamber is. The first step in using one is pumping lightweight methanol gas into a sealed container, where it falls to the bottom as it cools. An industrial refrigerator is used in conjunction with a 25°C hot-plate heater to create a supersaturated, temperature-controlled experimental environment, which is where the natural radiation of the lab and usual background cosmic rays come into play. Alpha and beta particles pass through the vapor and condense the methanol into mist, leaving streaks where they traveled.
Alpha particles leave short, thick tracks. Because of their size, they crash off other particles. Beta particles and electrons are longer, thinner, and straighter, less subject to deflection. I spent long nights in the lab tracing the movements of particles through those clouds, studying those fuzzy contrails until the janitors showed up to turn on the lights in the morning.
When it finally happened it was exactly like I had expected. Professor Mathieson walked into my 8 a.m. poetry survey and tapped me on the shoulder, led me past the other girls and their victory gardens to a cab. The cab took us to the airport, where I was led into the jet by a broad-shouldered, thick-jawed man clad in olive-green.
My roommate called after a day had gone by without her seeing me, had probably begged Mathieson to tell her how to contact me. “Girls are saying you left because you had a breakdown, or that you went hiking and froze to death out in the woods or something, what is going on Paula, what is going —”
They could think what they wanted, I decided, could spin whatever they wanted out of my disappearance. I’d been able to bear their company for the three years I spent at Camden but that was all.
As I walked down the air stair into the desert heat I looked across the horizon and could see for miles and miles around, a bright, hard, empty nowhere. Reckless, orange rock formations sticking out of the dust like bones picked dry. A place to throw it all out and start over again, a blank screen on which to project.
Preparations for the first test shot were already underway.
ii. the baby
1987: It was quite some time after that first shot that they first came to me. They came in a dream, evil aliens, with faces like demons. One of them came and sat on my chest. It picked me up out of bed, led me out of the house, and into a big black fog. They took my baby out of my womb. They took my baby, except it does come back and visit me sometimes—I’ll turn to look out the window and she’ll be there all pale and white, staring.
People who don’t believe in aliens just haven’t experienced them first-hand, but I have, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that they exist. But then again just knowing that they exist isn’t much; the question is, what do they want?
Like why my baby, I wondered at first. After talking to people at the last Mutual UFO Network convention and thinking through some of the possibilities it occurred to me that they’re probably planning something, some kind of take-over or colonization of our planet. A lot of people agreed with me. It’s why the aliens are trying to make sure we can’t keep breeding, so we can’t keep supplying the future resistance.
But there’s this one guy, Jackson, real cowboy type, always chewing on a toothpick and walking around like he owns the whole damn convention. He came over while I was talking about the Spanish colonizing the Americas, how the Indians had no idea what was going on then either, and how well that worked out.
“Y’all are a bunch of fools,” he said, “Straight fools.”
Jackson didn’t believe in aliens. Showed up to near every convention anyway.
“Y’all really think that the government could keep something as big as aliens a secret from the general population.”
Jackson pointed off across the desert into the distance, at a place that everybody in Rachel knew about, a place that cast its shadow over the convention every year, for obvious reasons.
“Area 51. That’s where they do it, that’s where they send these things into the sky to make you think there are UFOs flying around. It’s propaganda, straight-up mind-control to keep you from realizing what they’re actually up to.”
I looked over into the desert too. Area 51 was out there, which everyone knew even though the government officially denied it. Lots of the people around Rachel had their suspicions about Area 51, said they were experimenting on people up there, injecting them with things, using them as guinea pigs.
“And if you think it’s just bombs, then you’re mistaken. They’re building stuff over there that’s gonna wipe the whole slate clean.”
I look over into the desert from my window sometimes and I can see my baby off in the distance. Just a shell of the thing that I carried inside of me for eight months. But military men didn’t do that to me, the aliens did that to me.
“Y’all are completely sick,” he concluded, and it seemed, to me, that he looked straight into my eyes as he said this, “Y’all got poison in your brains.”
I’m not sick. Area 51’s over there because our world is a big, hard nowhere and our government needs a place out in this big, hard nowhere to figure out how they’re going to deal with it, how they’re going to deal with the thing that’s coming. And they need to, not just for me, but for my baby, and for all the other babies growing up in Rachel and everywhere else in the world. Which is why I came out here, to Rachel. So when it started, I would be safe.
iii. the laughing
1945: They fired off a two-minute-warning rocket, and then a one-minute-warning rocket. Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart. Thankful right now; thankful for this post on which to steady myself, thankful for Johnnie Walker Red, thankful for this sheet of welder’s glass, Lincoln’s Super-visibility, Shade #10. Five miles away, probably fine, yield couldn’t possibly be more than a kiloton, everything should be fine. “Lie down in the sand,” they said, “turn your face away from the blast and bury your head in your arms.” But who would ever do that. We were all in position now. Jensen, over by the Humvee, rubbing suntan lotion on his skin. Funny to see that, one of the best scientists in the world putting suntan lotion on his face and hands in the pitch-black night. I asked for some and did the same. Clark put on dark glasses and heavy, black gloves, pressed the welder’s glass tight to his face, squashed nose all pig-like. Lerner, skeptical of our yield predictions, was standing by the barricade with his clipboard and a handful of paper scraps. By dropping the scraps and measuring their displacement after the blast wave reached him he could estimate to a crude but effective degree the actual magnitude of the blast. I waved to him and he waved back. Like Mathieson waving goodbye from the tarmac, I thought.
Time 0529:45. X-unit discharge. Thirty-two simultaneous little explosions, detonation waves slowing, curving, turning inside out and hitting the uranium tamper, squeezing the nickel plating of the plutonium core now collapsing on itself, waves reaching the initiator and mixing beryllium with polonium, polonium alpha particles kicking neutrons free to drill into the surrounding plutonium, fission multiplying in the chain reaction through eighty generations in a millionth of a second: altogether, conditions not wholly unlike the state of the universe seconds after its creation.
A flash of light. An enormous flash of light. Thought it would last forever, just wanted it to stop. Huge swirls of fire, bursts from the luminescent mass rising into the air. Hard to not think, oh shit, we set fire to the atmosphere, the earth is finished. Not possible, of course. But the heat, Lord. Like opening a hot oven to find a rising sun. The shock wave went up into the clouds and when the red glow faded away it left it purple, beautiful and radioactive.
I looked over at Jensen who I thought would be jumping up and down, hands in the air, we had done it, after all. But the desert was almost silent. Jensen was sitting cross-legged on the sand, his head in his hands. Lerner couldn’t stop laughing to himself. “It worked,” I said to myself. About a hundred yards ahead the Colonel was clapping people on the back and shaking hands. The test shot had been a massive success.
The desert was cold again, like before, a terrible and frigid cold. Ahead, the Director and the Colonel strutted back to the Humvee. Someone was crying over by S-1000. And Lerner was still laughing to himself, so hard now that he could hardly breathe, it sounded like. Goddamnit, I thought to myself, I would be fine if only he would stop that. If only the son of a bitch would quit his laughing.
iv. the excess
2012: Scientists are building tunnels out in the desert. They found a big salt basin outside an old mining town and used drills to bore deep into the surface, thousands of feet below the earth. A total of fifty storage rooms about a hundred yards long each hidden two thousand feet underground for the next hundred thousand years.
“It’s gorgeous,” he said, “the precision of it all.” Our tour guide was a veteran of the weapons program, an utterly charming cowboy-type. He pointed off into the horizon at Sedan Crater, the second biggest crater in the United States. “Between 1962 and 1988 we only ever postponed one test shot,” he said, “and that was the day that John F. Kennedy was killed.” He led us into the waste storage facility next. “You’ll hear a lot of people say that this place isn’t safe for people but I’ve walked every damn inch of it and I’m fine. We’re adding new waste to this place everyday.”
“When will you be done?” I asked.
“Putting it in? At the rate we’re going it looks like we’ll be done in a couple of weeks, actually.”
“We move somewhere else,” he said, “build a new facility.”
“And what do you do with this one?”
“We close it off,” he said slowly, as to a child, “with concrete. So no one can get in… Let me show y’all, even though I probably shouldn’t.”
Our guide led us to the irradiated zone that opened up into the tunnels and waved his hand to indicate where a massive wall would be constructed to seal them. Then he showed us the message that would be printed on the wall, would be seen by curious future adventurers. “We need you to know that this place should not be disturbed,” it read, “You should stay away, then you will be safe.”
“…But it takes a long time,” I said, “for the waste to be inactive.”
“So what if in a hundred years, or a thousand years, or ten thousand, the people that live out here in the desert aren’t speaking English anymore.”
“What if we all,” and I pointed at the tour guide, then at myself, “are gone, because of whatever calamity, and then the people that replace us speak new, completely alien languages.”
“So?” “So they won’t get your message.”
“Even if they don’t,” the guide said, “what possible reason would they have for getting the equipment to dig thousands of feet into this dirt, and then digging their way through a wall of concrete and then —”
The tour guide kept talking but I had stopped listening, had suddenly remembered the young boy in Giza that conned me for a twenty and then gave me a tour of the Pyramids, told a story you’ve probably heard about the white explorers who discovered King Tut’s tomb. It’s said that his spirit, unwillingly released from its resting place upon their entry, still roams the desert, restless, vengeful.
v. the afterimage
1967: Someone once said that when the bomb explodes, there’s nothing for miles around that can avoid the fate of total, violent dissolution. But what if there was a different kind of bomb, I thought, one that affected not the spatial but the temporal? What if there was a bomb that could disperse time with equal violence, that threw the present back into the past, that shot the past into the immediate future, et cetera?
Cloud cover was heavy on the night of the Starfish Prime shot but the rooftop was crowded anyways. Someone told me that people had come from as far as Kauai, which I realize was probably because The Modern was the best hotel to see the shots from. Waitresses came around with cocktails before, during and after. And the seating was nice.
“Can we go home?” a boy was saying to his mother. But there’s nowhere you can go, I wanted to say, no way you can miss what’s about to happen. So you might as well enjoy it with company. After Starfish Prime finally went off there was the customary moment of panic. They say suborbital detonations are better for the environment, but they still wreak havoc on our infrastructure. So the mother tries to call the father to get a ride because the boy is crying now but the phones don’t work, so she runs down into the hotel, which is pitch-dark because of the blackout. But most people get over the panic, get up, carouse.
First is the white flash, like someone took a close-up photo of your eye. Then the entire sky goes green for a second. Then you look up and see the burning silhouettes of clouds, the moon sitting flush in the middle of a giant, blood red aurora.
Like an afterimage burned into the sky’s retina, the aurora hung there for hours, perfect backlighting for the scene on the rooftop.
Then I saw Lerner standing by the edge of the party and waved him over.
“Another successful launch,” he said.
“Went off without a hitch,” I said.
He took a sip before turning back to me. “Paula…” he said, “what did you think was going to happen when you first got to the desert all those years ago?”
I don’t know exactly why I wasn’t able to answer Lerner’s question. It was certainly a reasonable thing to ask.
Possibly it was because he had used that strange phrase: all those years ago. I had wanted to imagine the past as being made up of discrete scenes that, like sketches filed away in a notebook, could be brought back at will, dissected, and understood. I wanted to imagine a timeline, a timeline on which I could place my birth and my death and, somewhere in between, the desert. But it wasn’t happening.
I stared into the aurora and eventually said goodbye to Lerner, watched the rooftop thin out as the crowd tired of itself. The moon looked brilliant in the middle of it all. I slept out on the roof that night. The hotel staff didn’t mind because I had done it so many times before and anyways was already paying for a room.
I dreamed of the moon. I dreamed of lifting off and flying straight through it.