Photo courtesy of the ever-excellent Bill Draheim
Russell Bryant stepped out of his apartment in the Hillside Downs housing project at a little after 6pm on a Wednesday in 1992. Intending to check for the mail, on return he found the door to his apartment would not open, even with his key, and was forced to solicit help from the building superintendent. After an interval of approximately half an hour, the super accompanied Russell to his apartment. By their combined efforts, the door was finally forced open. Drawn by a foul smell, the two men entered to find the interior abandoned as if for weeks and not hours. Bryant’s cat lay dead on the windowsill where it had unsuccessfully tried to claw the screen open.
Hillside Downs, like other government-subsidized housing, began construction shortly after WWII. The architect was a polish man, Andrzej Budny, who had studied in the secessionist school before emigrating. He drew up an innovative “cloverleaf” design for the grounds, including a small park and pond situated in the middle of the four buildings. Budny himself never lived to see the building finished. One night he told his secretary he was going for a walk of the construction site and never returned. He was presumed dead.
A police car dispatched to the Laurel building of Hillside Downs around 7pm. The super accused Bryant of neglect and demanded he turn over the keys to the apartment. Bryant protested that he had only been gone a matter of hours, and had an alibi to back his statement up.
Tiffani Marivich was a single mother who worked night shifts at a nearby hospice. Bryant claimed he often babysat her daughter Candace “Candy” Marivich. That very morning, Tiffani had come by to borrow toilet paper, giving ample time to examine the apartment.
Marivich’s door was also difficult to open. With the aid of the policemen, the door was forced open to reveal a scene not dissimilar to Bryant’s apartment. The sole occupant of the garbage-strewn flat was an elderly woman watching a television that displayed nothing but static. The woman showed signs of longterm neglect and had visible sores. She appeared aware of the officer’s presence, but afraid to leave her chair.
On entering the apartment, Bryant fell to his knees. When asked if he knew the occupant, he said yes. It was Candy.
The park that lay between the four buildings of Hillside Downs was eventually demolished in an attempt to reduce crime rates. The pond was cemented over twenty years before Bryant rented an apartment in the Laurels, the building showing the least decay. The four buildings were named in turn: the Laurels, the Cedars, the Pines, and the Hollies. Budny had named them after evergreens in keeping with his intended theme of renewal. He envisioned buildings that could change easily to accommodate the shifting demographics of future residents, immigrants like himself. Many of his changes remained unimplemented because of his untimely disappearance.
Russell pointed to a discoloration in the older woman’s right eye and a scar on her elbow. The scar was from a roller skating accident. The discoloration was a harmless birth defect. It was Candy, he was sure of it.
Attempts to reach Tiffani at her place of work proved fruitless. The elderly woman appeared senile and could not properly answer questions. When removed from the apartment, she became distressed. Only Bryant could calm her.
The super informed the policemen that the apartment did indeed belong to a Tiffani Marivich, he had been in only three days before on a plumbing call. There was no old woman, and the apartment had been clean. He could provide no answer as to what had happened in the interim.
The policemen inquired if there was another resident who could verify Russell’s story. Russell volunteered Samuel Beech, who lived on the top floor. One of the officers stayed with the superintendent and Bryant, who refused to leave the old woman. The other boarded the elevator.
After an interlude of three minutes, the officer in the elevator contacted his partner through the walky-talky. He asked what floor, exactly, did Beech live on? He was on the forty-third and rising.
The super replied that building only had thirty floors.
Hillside Downs decayed over the decades, though it never reached the infamous heights of the Cabrini-Green projects. Tenants would often disappear owing several month’s rent. The elevators would malfunction frequently, stopping in-between floors or skipping them entirely. The stairs were prone to blackouts. But however poor its condition, the housing project had never been subject to investigation of any kind. Its tenants were low-income families and recent emigres to the US, and the frequent disappearances were written off as rent evasion.
The officer on the ground instructed his partner to exit the elevator as soon as possible. He solicited the emergency shutdown key from the super, who left to collect it. The elderly woman had another fit and Bryant attempted to comfort her. Over the walky-talky, the officer in the elevator counted into the fifties. The super had not yet returned. When the number reached sixty, the officer on the ground left to find the super, taking Bryant and the old woman with him. The super’s basement apartment sat beside the incinerator. The door was closed. It took the combined efforts of Bryant and the officer to open it.
The super lay fully reclined in his easy chair. It appeared he had shot himself some months before, the body having had time to dessicate. The apartment was in disarray; there were deep scratch marks created by a crowbar in the windowsill and the inner doorknob had been smashed. On the walky-talky, the other officer exclaimed that he had finally exited the elevator.
The sixty-eighth floor of the building appeared to be under construction. Raw wood and tarps littered the area. Wind blew through the open walls. The floor seemed solid enough so he walked out, abandoning the elevator.
On the ground, the officer instructed his partner to remain within sight of the elevator. He then attempted to use the super’s phone to call for backup. The phone did not work.
The officer on the unfinished floor described steps echoing his own. Twice he went silent for a period of five minutes, claiming he had heard someone calling. His own calls garnered no response. Either disobeying or forgetting his partner’s request, the officer eventually found the edge of the building and a half-finished fire escape. It was at this point that the ground officer’s transmitter ceased to function: though he pleaded with his partner not to board the stairs, the other officer kept up a running commentary of his descent as if oblivious. After the top floor, the construction became sturdier. He descended three floors without incident until he came to a dead end. The platform he stood on had no stairs leading to the next platform. There was also no next platform.
Shawnda Barber, a waitress who lived in the Hollies, had propped a fire door so that she could smoke a cigarette without entering and exiting the building through the front gate. The bucket she used to prop the door fell away, and the door closed before she could catch it. She was forced to use the fire escape to descend down the side of the building. Antoine James was disposing of rubbish in the Pines’ incinerator chute when he saw someone clip the padlock on his bike and steal it. He gave chase, but gave up after three blocks. Harold Kim turned the keys to unlock his apartment in the Cedars building, but found himself stepping out the delivery entrance of the Laurels.
Besides Russell Bryant, the officer, and the old woman found in Tiffani Marivich’s apartment, these three people were the only known survivors of the Hillside Downs incident.
The officer on the ground had lost contact with his partner and was shepherding the two left in his care to the police cruiser. Observers described a strange blur, as if the building itself was vibrating, before Hillside Downs disappeared completely. In its place were four excavation holes and the puzzled survivors. After a brief investigation, the city labeled it a structural collapse despite the absence of any debris. The holes were backfilled with filler dirt and paved over. Besides a small concrete memorial, no further construction was attempted on the site. The displaced occupants were re-homed elsewhere.
The plant was built in the badlands of northern Montana. It was a water-cooled “breeder” reactor, not quite as old-fashioned as the graphite models of the Soviet Union but still decades behind the times. Its last safety inspection had been weeks before, and it passed with flying colors. The equipment was scrupulously maintained, the staff competent and well-trained.
And miles beneath it, deep in the strata of the earth, something hatched.
It had no name, because its kind left no fossils to classify. They had lived when the earth was still molten, a time of abundance for their kind. This one had lain dormant until it sensed the heat above it, the warm nourishment radiating like a miniature sun. It unfolded untold mass and journeyed upwards.
It had been five years since the plant’s last incident. Uranium salts had built up in a wastewater tank until it had gone critical. An oversight, and one the plant did not make again.
The plant had fallen into a post-inspection lull. The technician on duty was not looking at the pressure gauges or the thermometer. He was reading a collection of newspaper comics. He was alone in the control room. The supervisor was enjoying lunch off-site. The other technicians were in the break room.
The thing squirmed upward. It had no eyes, but saw. It saw violent waves that leaked through even the tightest defence measures, the short, angry crackle of fission. It moved torturously slow through the last few layers of earth, through the dull clay that formed the foundation of the plant. When it eased into the open air of the plant’s basement, any observer present would have pondered at what was generating heat-waves shortly before expiring. But there were no men, and so it continued upward. It left a greasy residue as it passed through concrete, a rorschach blot that would puzzle the workers in the weeks to come.
The technician scratched his ear. He was not an uncautious man, he simply had nothing to worry him. He laughed at the antics of a cartoon dog while the thermometer for the eastern array began to climb. The early-warning alarms had been disabled years ago because their oversensitivity had led them to go off at the slightest provocation. The technician rocked slightly in his chair. Behind him, the pressure for the primary coolant loop began to rise. The technician glanced up at the clock, then, as an afterthought, at the sensors.
The book dropped off his lap as he stood up. Years of training kicked in and he began running through a set series of motions. He noted down the various readings from sensors, pressure gauges, and thermocouples. Then he calmly walked to the on-site telephone and dialed a number.
“Sir,” he said in a voice that shook only a little, “you’d better get back here.”
Radium had a half life of a mere 1200 years. Most of the radium present in the earth’s formation was long since decayed. Plutonium was entirely unknown to the thing in the reactor, having not existed before 1940. The taste was not disagreeable. It disgorged its body into the reactor, raising the temperature significantly. It nuzzled its head into the fuel rods like a bee among flowers, drinking deep.
The supervisor donned plastic booties over his shoes and joined the group already present in the control room. They all had respirators at the ready. The core lay beneath them, separated by layers of steel and concrete. For all their failsafes, for all the prophylactic measures they took, the men knew that this was ultimately what it would come down to.
“How’s the loop pressure?” The supervisor asked.
The technician who had first noticed the aberration shook his head. “Bad. We tried operating a few valves by hand, but it makes no difference.”
“Well, that cinches it. Somehow, some way, the coolant loop boiled dry.”
This was a problem, because if the zirconium cladding the fuel heated up enough, it would cannibalize the oxygen from the steam, leaving explosive hydrogen.
The supervisor looked over the readings. The temperature climb was in a swelling diameter around one point. That point, he believed, was the origin of the temperature hike.
“Turn on the secondary pump,” he said.
The thing in the core was swelling as it fed. The zirconium separating it from the fuel was no barrier. Like it had traveled through the layers of earth, it pressed past the useless metal into the nourishment.
A pressurized stream of water shot from a pump, aiming for the fuel rods it fed from. It was boiling almost before it left the nozzle. It evaporated as it hit the thing’s body. And the thing kept growing.
All was silent in the control room.
It had only been a few hours since the anomaly was discovered, but it may as well have been days.
The temperature was still climbing. The east array was above 520 degrees. The emergency pump had done nothing to slow the gain.
The supervisor was watching the gauges. His hand formed into a fist. The site’s telephone lay behind him. The safety officer’s number was on speed-dial.
The previous containment breach had happened on his predecessor’s watch. He had sworn, when he took the post, that there would not be another.
The technician who had discovered the anomaly stood off to one side. He had assumed an air of some authority since that morning, taking initiative. He took it now.
The technician strode forward to the console. He turned and made eye contact with the plant supervisor.
His hand hovered over the red scram button. Waiting. Both men knew the cost of a false alarm. Precious kilowatt hours lost as they swept for problems. Inspections. Fines.
The scram system would drop control rods into the reactor, take it to subcritical. It might take weeks to get the core back online, or it might never come back at all. But all that was preferable to a meltdown.
Something curious happened to the creature as it fed. The nourishment stopped being converted into thermal energy. It gained density, and its metabolism slowed.
As it solidified, the water from the pump stopped steaming and became water again.
The supervisor nodded.
“Wait!” called a technician who had been watching the gauges. Like a miracle, they were falling. Water filled the coolant loop, bringing pressure back to normal.
The men in the room visibly relaxed. A few laughed. The man with his hand over the button drew it back.
To their eyes, the pump had done its work, cooling the core enough that went into retreat. It didn’t matter that the area that had blazed in temperature was dropping to unproductive lows. The removal of a few faulty fuel rods was nothing to the complete shutdown of the plant. Something to worry about in the coming weeks. For now there was the cautiously optimistic celebration of working men.
Deep in the belly of the reactor, something pupated.
- Rachel Gardner
Bill Draheim became familiar with Rachel Gardner after reading her comment on William Gosline’s Spectictulive Fiction piece, The Ship, which included his photography as an integral part of the story.
Rachel then challenged Bill to come up with six photos that best exemplified her story, The Machine’s God. Bill used the surreal photos he composed on his Samsung Convoy flip phone to create a haunting abutment of words to images.
I am old now, my hands have lost their surety, and I get lost in conversations I held decades ago. Like any proper machine, I am winding down for the day. A few of them, my machines, my children, pile at my feet, watching. Even if I knew how to talk to them, I would have nothing to say. They are all of them self-sufficient, and seem to take care of themselves. Yet they seem to look to me for…something. No matter. I am busy with my very last creation. It is not black, nor does it contain skeletal parts, but the function should be obvious to all who lay eyes on it. I start it up and hold my arms out for final judgment. One slice and I am machine undone.