“Dammit,” he said aloud and speed dialed his wife. “Hi, honey, I just got a call from San Onofre. I have to go down there. I’m going to be late.”
“This time of day? Can’t you send somebody else?” his wife asked.
“I’m the only one authorized. You know how they are about jumping when they call.”
“I thought that place was closed.”
“I guess they still have to maintain it. Don’t bitch. This is what feeds your Nordstrom habit. Go ahead and eat.”
“No, call when you leave there, and I’ll start thinking about dinner.”
“Okay. Bye.” Before replacing the receiver, he punched the intercom button and told his office manager where he was going. He checked his aluminum Haliburton briefcase for the things he would need: sketchpad, tape measure, pencils, a good plastic eraser, and his site badge. He snapped the case shut, took his hardhat from the hook, and left by his private entrance.
He negotiated the Range Rover onto the freeway. In the middle of the afternoon, traffic was already thickening. The 5 Freeway repeatedly slowed to a stop. It was going to be a long day. After San Clemente, he exited at Basilone Road and followed Old Pacific Highway to the main entrance of the decommissioned nuclear generating station. At the guard shack, he held his site badge out the window and asked where to find his contact, Jerry Ortega.
The guard said, “Let me check, sir,” and put his phone to his ear. A minute later he said, “Center trailer in the contractors’ area on the left side of the employees’ lot.”
“Thanks,” Eric said and drove to the cluster of temporary offices. Christ, what it must cost to keep this place sitting here, doing nothing. He grabbed his case, slipped on his hardhat, and clipped the photo ID onto his shirt pocket. The air beside the sea was pleasantly cool. He climbed the steps and pulled the trailer’s door open. Inside, the air was icy. “I’m looking for Jerry Ortega.”
“You found him. Industrial Fabricators I take it.”
“Yep, Eric Day.”
They shook hands, and Eric sat in the visitor’s chair next to Ortega’s desk. “Welcome to San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, SONGS. Relax for a minute,” he said. “I have to get you an escort.”
“Make it a blond, will you?” Eric said grinning.
Ortega spoke briefly on the phone, then he said to Eric, “I did better than a blond.”
“What do mean?”
“Wait and see.”
To pass the minutes waiting for the security escort to arrive, they chatted about the Dodgers, and Eric promised Ortega a set of tickets. The door of the trailer opened and a woman in her twenties entered. Ortega saw the expression on Eric’s face and covered his mouth to hide a smirk. She could have been Sophia Loren’s daughter—a classic, sensual beauty in blue jeans, tee shirt, Day-Glo orange vest, and a hardhat. She said, “Hi, I’m Jamie,” and shook hands with Eric.
“It’s a pleasure. I’m Eric.”
“Where do you want me to take him?” she asked Ortega.
“Unit One coolant intake trash guard.”
“Cool, an afternoon at the beach. Eric, you ready? Follow me.”
I’d follow you anywhere, he thought, smiling, with his gaze locked on her perfect features. “Lead on.”
“We don’t have to go through the containment area, so you won’t need a film badge,” she said, taking him down a flight of tread plate steps.
“So, why are we worried about the coolant intake if the place is decommissioned?” he asked, while she unlocked a gate in the perimeter wall.
She looked slightly surprised. “All the fuel’s still here. We have to keep it cool.”
“Really? I thought it was buried in some hollow mountain in Nevada.”
“No, the last administration nixed that idea, and the shiny-headed governor won’t let it be transported on the highways, even in dry casks.”
“What are dry casks?” he asked.
“Semi-permanent storage vessels. Good for about thirty years.”
“So, it’s a smaller risk to let it sit here with several million people all around it?”
“You got it. Oh, good. I wasn’t sure the tide was out. There’s the trash grate.” It stood just beyond the low tide line. The thing was a cylindrical cage of galvanized rectangular tubes with a conical cap of rectangular bars.
“Crap. Somebody could have told me to bring a bathing suit.”
She laughed lightly. It sounded pretty. “It’s not very deep, but if you want to strip to your shorts, I won’t be offended.”
“Thanks, but I’ll just roll my pants up and take my chances.” He sat on the warm sand to untie his shoes. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
“You can ask. I might answer.”
“Why are you schlepping around doing gopher work at a decommissioned power plant instead of modeling or working in films?”
That drew a full throaty laugh. “Aren’t you sweet? It’s because I go to school at night to be a nuclear engineer.”
“Really? Isn’t the nuclear industry on its way out?”
“Maybe for generating electricity, but we still make bombs, and somebody has to take care of those fuel rods for the next hundred and eighty thousand years or so.”
“Huh? Well, good for you. Can you take notes for me? I don’t think I can handle a tape, a pad, and a pencil while keeping them dry.”
“I can help you.” She bent to unlace her work boots. “I’m not as big a prude as you,” she said, unzipping her jeans and pushing them down her silky thighs.
Eric’s eyes showed white all around the corneas when he saw the shape of those legs.
“It’ll give the watchmen something to talk about.”
It was his turn to laugh. “Whatever you say. Okay, then, do you mind holding the dumb end of the tape?”
“That sounds like a sexist remark. Where do I hold it?”
“Hook it on the edge of this tube.” He walked the tape around the structure while the little wavelets lapped at the rolled cuffs of his pants. When he reached where she held the ‘dumb end,’ his pant legs were wet to the crotch. “Shit,” he said, “I should have followed your example.”
“Two hundred and twenty-six and three-sixteenth inches.” She released the end of the tape and gave him the sketchpad. He noted the circumference, the height of the cylinder and the cone, the dimensions of the tubes and the bars and had to force himself not to gawk at her lower torso.
“Is that it?” she asked.
“One more thing.” He handed her the pad and reached into the water between two bars. “I’ve got to see what kind of flange this thing is mounted on.” Bending to feel for the flange, his eyes lowered to the level of her panties. He could not prevent them from stealing a long, furtive look. As he felt around the periphery of the grate, counting the nuts he encountered, he was able to manage a few more stealthy glances. “Okay, eight bolts, inch thick flange—back to terra firma.”
She had a shop towel in the hip pocket of her jeans, which she used to dry her legs. She handed it to him as she started to pull on her pants.
“You came better prepared than I did,” he said.
“Always prepared, that’s my motto.”
“Isn’t that the Boy Scouts’ motto?”
“Maybe. Hey what’s that?” She pointed down the beach.
His eyes followed where she pointed. “Probably a dead seal.”
“I hope you’re right. Let’s make sure.”
The shape being buffeted by the small waves appeared to be fifty yards from them. She started for it at a trot. Puzzled, he left his case and shoes and followed.
The body was clearly not a sea lion. It was over twenty feet long and serpent-like. “Holy shit,” he said, “that’s an oarfish.”
“I know,” she said, “this is bad.”
“Well, it’s bad for the oarfish, but we should be okay.”
“Maybe not. There was another one here yesterday.”
“Then it’s probably the same one.”
“No, we called the Long Beach Aquarium to come get it. I saw them take it away.”
“It must be pretty rare for these things to wash up on the beach.”
“It’s damned rare, and the same thing happened just before the Fukushima earthquake.”
“You don’t believe that, do you?”
“These are deep sea fish. Only one has ever been seen in its natural environment, and several of them washed ashore near the epicenter just before the quake. The Japanese believe this is a precursor to a quake.”
“Sounds like an old wives’ tale to me.”
“Whether it is or not, I have to report it.” She keyed the mic of the small walkie-talkie clipped to the lapel of her vest. “George, you copy?”
The tinny voice on the radio said, “Go ahead.”
“It’s Jamie. We’ve got another oarfish.”
“No, I’m standing right next to it.”
“Okay. Don’t let it float away. I’ll call the aquarium.”
“Roger.” She gave Eric an apologetic look. “I have to stay here until the aquarium people arrive, and I can’t let you go back through the plant without me.”
“What if we just drag it higher on the sand?”
“We can do that, but I still have to stay here. I should be able to find another escort for you. Let’s try to move it.”
The tail proved too slippery to grip, so they moved to the head and each grabbed a gill.
“Yuck,” Jamie said. “This is gross.”
“It’s a good thing it’s dead.”
“This thing weighs a ton.”
Eric put his back into it, and they were barely able to turn the huge eel-shaped carcass. That was the second the shockwave passed under their feet, and they both lost their grip and fell backwards on the wet sand.
Waves of energy pulsed across the ground, and Eric could see them rising up the twenty-five-foot wall of the power plant. He looked at Jamie. She started to rise but the rolling sand tripped her again.
“Dammit,” she shouted over the roaring, “it’s the big one.”
Eric made it to his hands and knees, but the shaking prevented him from rising any farther. “I hope the sand doesn’t liquefy,” he shouted as much to himself as to her.
“You could have gone all day without saying that.”
“Sorry. Take my hand.”
He was momentarily stuck for an answer. “What if it liquefies under just one of us? Besides, I’d like to hold your hand.”
Through his vertigo, he saw her smile and reach for his hand. “Oh, my God, how long can it last?”
He said, “Your fishy Fukushima quake lasted three minutes. I think the Alaska quake lasted four.” He tried to look at his watch but could not hold still enough to read it.
“It already seems like a lifetime.”
Over the rumbling coming from the fractured earth, he heard alarms wailing on the other side of the tall wall. Farther south, just beyond the limit of the plant, the bluffs were crumbling onto the beach. Looking the opposite way, the agitation on the surface of the sea resembled the roiling boil in a pot of water. The breaking waves lost all definition. They shook and foamed without rolling forward.
A crash riveted their attention in its direction. Part of the plant’s defensive wall collapsed.
Jamie said, “They designed this place to withstand seven-point-oh.”
“They should have shot for an even ten.”
“Nothing could survive ten. The planet would split in two.”
“I was joking. How secure are the fuel rods?”
“Seven-point-oh secure. If the pools crack or the pumps fail, it’s meltdown time.”
“That’s worse than being swallowed by liquefied sand.”
“Yeah, we have to evacuate the area.”
“We can’t even stand.”
“It has to stop sometime.”
“I love an optimist.”
“How long has it been? It’s getting to me,” she asked.
“I don’t know. How long would it take the fuel rods to melt down?”
“It wouldn’t be instantaneous. Out of water, maybe half an hour.”
“You know there’s going to be a tsunami.”
“I know, but that’s another thing you didn’t have to say.”
“Shit, think about how bad the aftershocks are going to be.”
She tugged on his hand. “Let’s hope this isn’t a foreshock.”
“Now, you’re the one stating the unthinkable.”
“I’m getting seasick.”
“Eric, I’m afraid. Can you hold me?”
He pulled her to him and held her sideways on his lap. “If you’re going to be sick—”
She lost it. Still heaving, she said, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t—”
“It’s okay. My pants were wet anyway.”
“Poor San Clemente,” she sobbed.
“Is that where you live?”
“It was. There can’t be anything left of it.” Her sobbing increased.
“We’re going to be fine, Jamie. Everybody will be in the same boat. We just have to get through it and carry on.”
“Look out for the—”
Water—an open palm slapped the side of his face. Water, salt, and sand poured into his nose, mouth, and ears.