Third book in the Rubberman series, in progress…
Of the thousands that lived here, deep underneath hiding from the remains of war, only some knew about the Engineering levels. Some called it the heart of the complex, down at the bottom – powering everything – but a heart is not hungry in the same way that Engineering is. The way an atomic generator is. Today, it asks to be fed.
With her apprentice Sasha by her side, Tara pulled a canister of Uranium out of the storage chute, and found it to be unexpectedly light. She held it in the tongs and jerked the canister up and down a little.
“What?” she said to herself, placing the canister on the ground.
“What, what?” Sasha inquired. She was younger than Tara, and was not an Engineer during the last refuelling. She was here and suited up to learn today, but the lesson was already diverging from expectations.
The next canister had already slipped into place at the base of the chute to be taken for a future refuelling, but Tara took it right away. She was even less pleased with it than the last one. She let it fall to the floor and pulled out a third one. And let it drop to the floor as well.
“What’s going on?” Sasha nervously asked. Tara didn’t reply, instead dropping to her knees to grab one of the canisters through her shielded suit’s gloves. She opened the canister, finding nothing inside, and stared into it for a moment before snapping to Sasha.
“Geiger reading!” Tara cried to Sasha. Sasha fumbled to her suit’s belt, and brought a geiger counter forward. The gloves made using the controls cumbersome, but she managed as quickly as she could.
The counter responded faintly; tick tick tick tick…
“Damn it,” Tara hissed, tossing the canister away, and opening another. She brought it closer to the counter for much the same result. “Damn it!” Only trace amounts of radiation. They had once carried uranium, but obviously, no longer.
“Tara, what does it-”
Tara ignored Sasha, and grabbed the next canister in the chute with her gloved hands. It was also too light. Also empty. She grabbed the next one. Empty. And the next one. Empty. And the next one.
While Sasha stood back and watched, Tara pulled can after can out of the storage chute. Dozens had piled around them, and Tara’s panicked breathing had fallen to sobs as the last empty canister left the chute spent and empty.
Sasha looked at the geiger counter. The room wasn’t clean, but it wasn’t a threat. She put the counter back on the belt, knelt beside Tara, and took off her headgear. With it off, her timid voice came clearer. “Tara… what does it mean?”
Tara turned to her, took off her own headgear. Tears on her face, she silently held Sasha close.