WHEN Tropical Storm Elsa aimed its sights at the Texas Gulf Coast, Derek Marshall shrugged and checked his generator to make sure he’d have backup power if they lost electricity for more than a few hours. When the storm was upgraded to Hurricane Elsa, he checked his readiness kit to make sure he had plenty of water just in case the local water system was compromised. When Category 1 became Category 2, he made sure he had plenty of canned goods. When Category 2 became Category 3, he checked the propane tank for his grill. When it became Category 4, he closed his storm shutters and hunkered down with a bottle of tequila to wait it out.
The bitch stalled ten miles offshore, pummeling the Gulf Coast for days, stretching from east of New Orleans almost to Brownsville, spawning storm surges that rolled inward ten miles in places, Derek discovered later. At the time, he was only aware of the pounding winds and the incessant rain. His house was at the highest point in his neighborhood, but when he peeked out between the slats of his storm shutters, he could see the waters rising. His weather radio reported flooding throughout Galveston, Houston, Bay City, and farther west. Government officials warned people to stay inside. The 135-mile-per-hour sustained winds made it dangerous to even think about going outside. If they hadn’t followed the advice to evacuate, they needed to stay where they were and hope for the best until the storm passed.
Derek turned off the radio and opened a second bottle of tequila. If he died, at least he’d go happy.
When the winds finally passed and the rain slowed to a drizzle, Derek opened the storm shutters and peered outside with bleary eyes. Only one in every three houses still had its roof, and the other two in three had lost walls as well when the roofs collapsed. Even drunk as he was, it occurred to him that he was damn lucky to be alive, so he waded through the flooded streets to the houses nearest his, checking to see if anyone else had stayed and, if so, if they’d made it through.
He didn’t find any people, but he did find a dog in the rubble of one of the houses, shivering in fear. It came out when Derek called, though, its tail wagging even as it continued to shake. Derek searched through the house as much as he could until he found a couple of cans of dog food. If the owners were in the house, he didn’t see any sign of them. “Who the hell leaves a dog alone at home with a storm like Elsa on the way?” he muttered. He sat down next to the dog, heedless of the rain and the rubble. The mutt put its muzzle on Derek’s thigh, the trembling finally starting to ease as Derek stroked its head. “It’s okay, Fido,” he said, keeping his voice soothing. “I’m not going to leave you alone. You’re going to come home with me, and I’m going to take care of you. Are you okay to walk? You came out here to me pretty well. If you are, let’s get out of the rain and inside where it’s drier.”
Derek kept a close eye on the dog as they braved the floodwaters between the rubble of the dog’s house and Derek’s house. The water came up to the dog’s belly, but it trotted along beside him trustingly. If Derek hadn’t had the dog food in his hands, he’d have picked the animal up, but he couldn’t carry both of them, and Fido seemed willing and able to walk. When they reached his house, he cast a critical eye over the roof. He could see shingles missing, but it didn’t look like the tar paper beneath was damaged, so he hoped there wouldn’t be any leaks. The house had to keep him and Fido safe and dry until the floodwaters went down and the power came back on.
“It’s okay, boy,” he repeated as they walked into the house. “We made it through the storm. Everything after this is easy.” The thought of looters occurred to him, although as dead as the neighborhood appeared, he wasn’t sure anyone else had stayed—or survived if they did—but he decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep his gun handy. Just in case.
He pried one of the cans of dog food open with a pocket knife because the dog looked too pathetic to wait, and then powered up the generator and unlocked his gun from the safe. The whiff of cool air when the air conditioner kicked in was a relief after three days of unrelenting humidity. Derek plugged his cell phone in and checked idly for reception. To his surprise, he had one very weak bar. And ten new messages on his voice mail.
The first one was a simple request from his mother to call him when the storm had passed. He dialed her number quickly and let her know he was fine, if a little cut off at the moment. When he got off the phone with her, he listened to the rest of the messages.
“Marshall, when you get this message, call me.”
“Marshall, where are you? I need you to call me.”
“Marshall, where the hell are you? Don’t tell me you’re still at home.”
“Derek Marshall, if you don’t call me the minute you get this message, you won’t have a job to come back to.”
Derek rolled his eyes at that one. His boss at NASA regularly threatened his job, but since Derek was the best robotics engineer in the country, he figured he’d have to do more than not return a call before he’d be out of work.
The remaining five messages, all from his boss, grew increasingly frantic, culminating with, “Derek Marshall, if I find out you stayed at home to wait out this fucking hurricane, I will fucking kill you myself. Call me.”
Deciding the string of profanity meant the situation, whatever it was, really did merit immediate attention, Derek dialed his boss’s number.
“Where the fuck are you?”
“Hello to you too, Kenneth,” Derek said with a roll of his eyes. His boss was short on social niceties at the best of times. Derek didn’t know what was going on, but this clearly didn’t qualify as the best of times.
“Don’t give me that, you bastard. Where are you, and more importantly, where’s that piece of junk you call Number Five?”
“If you talk that way about it, I won’t tell you,” Derek threatened. He’d started building robots after he first saw the movie Short Circuit. He’d fallen in love with the quirky robot who saw more than he should have. As a robotics engineer, Derek appreciated the difference between reality and fiction, but it hadn’t stopped him from naming his prototype Number Five when he’d started working on it three years ago. “I’m at home, and Number Five is right here with me. What do you need us for?”
“The number three reactor in Bay City is compromised,” Kenneth said. “I need your robot and your genius with other people’s robots to work with a team to get it under control. The President called NASA specifically asking for our best robotics people.”
“There’s two feet of water in the streets around my house,” Derek said. “Trees down, houses collapsed. There’s no way I’m going anywhere, with or without Number Five.”
“If I get you there, will you help?” Kenneth demanded.
“If you can get me there,” Derek agreed, “but give me an hour before you pick me up, and send coffee. Elsa and I celebrated her arrival with tequila.”
“You spent the whole storm drunk, didn’t you?”
“How else would you ride out a hurricane?”
“Somewhere safe?” Kenneth retorted. “Be ready in an hour, Marshall. And be prepared to stay awhile.”
“What about Fido?” Derek asked.
“You don’t have a dog.”
“I do now,” Derek said. “He rode out the storm in the house down the street. The damn thing fell down around him. He’s mine now.”
“Fine. Someone will take care of the damn dog.”
“Fido,” Derek said. “His name is Fido.”
“Someone will take care of Fido.”
After setting down his phone, Derek contemplated what to pack. He tossed a few changes of clothes in a bag. He could wash them if he needed to at some point. Up in his workshop, he packed Number Five carefully in the custom-designed case he’d ordered once he’d determined the size he intended the robot to be. Then he considered the rest of his equipment and what little he knew of the situation. A compromised nuclear reactor meant radiation, and that meant degrading circuits. He grabbed a duffel and started filling it with the tools and replacement parts he had on hand to keep Number Five running and possibly to upgrade any other robots at his disposal. If he had to, he’d build another one or two. The cost of a few robots would be far less than the cost of cleaning up from a core breach and meltdown so close to Houston. He looked around one more time, but everything left was a duplicate of what he’d already packed. He hefted the duffel over his shoulder and carried Number Five down to the foyer of his house. His mother called it self-indulgent to have as much space as he had just for himself, but then his mother thought that about a lot of things in his life. He didn’t even want to think about what she’d say about the collection of gay porn on his laptop or the gay skin magazines by his bed. Speaking of which, he’d gotten a new one recently. He should take that with him. He could put the pinups in his room wherever he was staying to make it a little more pleasant. There probably wouldn’t be anything else to do with his downtime but whack off.
His phone rang again while he was adding the magazine to his laptop case. “Are you ready?”
“As I’ll ever be,” Derek said. “Number Five is packed along with as much of my equipment as I can carry. I’m a little more sober now. What’s going on?”
“I’ve already told you all I can,” Kenneth replied. “You’ll be briefed when you get there. They’re trying to avoid widespread panic and so are keeping information classified as much as possible.”
That didn’t sound promising. “There are escape protocols in place if this goes south on us?”
“It’s already gone south,” Kenneth said. “We’re trying to keep it from going nuclear.”
“Well, shit,” Derek said. “That’s not encouraging.”
“That’s why we need Number Five,” Kenneth said. “He can go where people can’t, and you’ve got him so fine-tuned he can do anything you could do with your hands and more.”
If Kenneth was complimenting Derek’s robot, it was beyond bad. “Have they shut down the core at least?” Derek didn’t know much about nuclear power, but he knew that much.
“I’ve told you all I know. The helicopter is leaving now. It’ll be there in fifteen minutes to pick you up. Good luck, Derek.”
From the sound of it, he’d need it.
“Come on, Fido.” He urged the golden brown mutt out of the laundry room, where it had taken shelter. “We’re going on a trip.”
In closer to ten minutes than the fifteen Kenneth had predicted, the chop-chop of a helicopter’s rotors shook the windows in the house. Derek dashed out beneath the spinning blades. “Turn it all the way off,” he shouted to the pilot. “I’ve got a petrified dog in the house and no crate because he’s a rescue. We can strap him in, but I don’t think he’ll come with the noise.”
“Mr. Marshall, we don’t have time for this.”
“Then find someone else with my skills who’s stupid enough to agree to this,” Derek said, turning away. “Fido and I will stay here where it’s safe.”
“I’d hardly call this safe. What if looters come through?”
Derek pulled back the edge of the jacket he was wearing. “They’d be in for a nasty surprise. Now, are you turning this thing off, or am I going back inside?”
The pilot looked like he wanted to argue more, so Derek turned around and sloshed back toward the house, grateful once again that he’d bought the house on the hill, such as it was.
“Mr. Marshall, wait! It’ll take a minute for the rotors to stop.”
Derek waved to show he’d heard the man. “I’ll bring my equipment in the meantime.”
He went back inside and petted the dog reassuringly. “We’re just going to take a ride somewhere safe and warm, okay, Fido? Let me put my bags in the chopper and I’ll come back for you.”
Fido had other plans, following Derek out into the drizzle. When he put his bags in the helicopter, the dog whined pitifully. “We’re just going to lock the doors, and then we can go,” Derek promised. “I won’t leave you behind.”
The dog stayed right at Derek’s heels as he locked the door and hoped he’d have a house to come back to when he finished this project for Kenneth. “Come on, Fido.”
They slogged back to the helicopter. Derek helped Fido jump in and climbed in after him. He strapped the dog to one of the seats and then fastened his own seatbelt. Taking the headset the pilot offered him, he waited for the helicopter to take off before asking, “Where are we going?”
“South Texas station, unit three,” the pilot answered. “There’s a team waiting for you.”
“And the dog?”
“I guess you’ll have to take him with you.”
That wasn’t what Derek had had in mind when he’d told Kenneth he expected someone to take care of his dog, but it would have to do until he could get Kenneth on the phone again.
They spent the next hour in relative silence. Derek looked down at the devastation from the hurricane, the sight killing what remained of the tequila buzz. Where once there had been a thriving city and port, industry and commerce, now there were floodwaters and rubble, only the occasional building still standing. It made him realize how lucky he was to still be alive. He peered toward downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center, but the lingering clouds and rain blocked his view. He hoped that was the reason, that they still stood, hidden by the weather rather than flattened by the storm.
“How bad is it?” he asked eventually.
“It makes Katrina look like a cakewalk,” the pilot said. “Maybe one in five buildings is still standing, and even most of those are damaged. I’ve never seen anything like it. And if you can’t stop the problems at unit three, there won’t be any coming back because it won’t be safe.”
“Let’s not borrow trouble, okay?” Derek said. “We’ve got enough real trouble as it is.”
“You don’t think damage to a nuclear reactor is real trouble?”
“I didn’t say that, but it isn’t Chernobyl yet or they wouldn’t be sending us in to work on it. If we can get it back online, at least we’ll have power to begin rebuilding.”
The sound the pilot made was doubtful, but Derek let it go. He didn’t need to convince the pilot. If the rest of the team was as negative, that would be a different matter.
The power plant came into view, the three units easily visible. The first two stood silent and still without the usual white smoke from the water vapor. Shutting down those two plants had clearly gone according to plan, just as Kenneth had said. The third unit, though, belched dark gray smoke constantly. The pilot put the copter down near the troubled unit.
“Turn the engine off.”
“Turn the fucking engine off,” Derek shouted through the headset. “You want to get out of here, so turn it off, let me get my supplies unloaded, and then you can get the hell out of Dodge.”
Derek took the headset off rather than listen to the pilot’s vitriol. After a moment, the engine noise faded, leaving only the sound of the rain on the metal frame. Derek hopped out and unfastened Fido. Then he hoisted his gear. “Come on, Fido,” he said, walking toward the power plant as fast as he could under the weight of his equipment.
He was halfway to the only entrance he could see when the door opened and a man stepped outside. From what he could tell through the gray drizzle, the man was, like himself, in his mid-thirties, although the dress shirt buttoned all the way to the top was something Derek wouldn’t be caught dead wearing outside a business meeting with the NASA directors, and even then he usually lost the tie and opened the top button when they got down to serious business. “Here, take this.” Derek passed the bag with his clothes to the other man. “I’m soaked through, and some of this equipment is moisture sensitive.”
The man, Indian or Pakistani to judge by his coloring, scowled but took the bag. “The dog can’t come inside.”
“Then I’ll take my bag and head home. I already told my boss I wasn’t abandoning him after his previous owners left him alone in the storm.”
“Fine,” the man said with a huff, “but keep him out of my way.”
“Sambit,” the man interrupted. “My name is Sambit Patel.”
“Look, Sam,” Derek said, not even trying to pronounce the foreign name, “I’m here with my robot out of the goodness of my own heart, so get rid of whatever bug crawled up your ass and died and tell me what needs to be done. Fido and I would like to go home.”
“First, my name is Sambit, not Sam. Second, Mr. Marshall, I suggest you leave your attitude at the door. I’m here out of the same goodness of heart, as you call it, as you are. The employees of the plant who were on duty are either dead or in the hospital with injuries from the tornado that struck along with the hurricane and flooding. The off-shift workers were evacuated along with the rest of Bay City, and no one knows where they are at the moment.” Sambit must have gotten a more thorough briefing than Derek had if he knew Derek’s name. Derek wondered what else he knew that Derek didn’t.
“So if I’m the robot guy, then who are you?”
“The nuclear engineer,” Sambit replied. “I teach in the nuclear engineering department at Texas A&M.”
“So you don’t know any more about this plant than I do.”
“I know quite a lot about nuclear power plants.” Sambit crossed his arms over his chest, the posture so defensive Derek nearly laughed in desperation. They were so screwed.
“So what’s the status of the core?”
“It is compromised,” Sambit said. “Beyond that, I don’t know. The power went out ten minutes ago.”
“There has to be a backup. A system this critical would have a UPS backup system—uninterruptible power source,” he added for Sambit’s benefit. “Plus separate backup generators in case the UPS fails.”
“I know what a UPS backup system is,” Sambit snapped. “I may deal with theory more than practice these days, but my students have to be prepared to work in plants just like this one.”
Derek resisted the urge to roll his eyes, and set down his gear. “Come here, Fido.” He ignored Sambit while he petted the dog’s head a few times, settling it in yet another new location in a matter of hours. “Stay here, okay? Sam and I are going to find the light switch, and then we’ll come back for you.”
The dog circled twice and curled up in the corner of what was clearly the break room. “Do you at least have the passwords for the computers once we find the backup power?”
“You don’t seriously think a system like this one is going to operate without password protection to keep terrorists from hacking into the system and causing a meltdown, do you?” Derek rolled his eyes at the other man’s ignorance. “Once we get the power back on, we’ll call the plant managers and see if we can get the log-on information. You’re the nuclear engineer. How long do we have before it gets critical?”
“It depends on how badly the core has overheated,” Sambit replied. “Without the computers, I can’t tell for sure.”
“Well, fuck,” Derek muttered. “Is there anything you do know?”
“I know you have a bad attitude and a foul mouth.”
“Like that’s news. Is there anything you do know about the status of the plant?”
“Not much, but hopefully we will get the computer system online soon.”
Derek cursed again and dug in his bag for a flashlight. “Do we need to worry about radiation?”
Sambit handed Derek a dosimeter. “The levels are safe here. Whether they are safe elsewhere….” He shrugged as he trailed off.
Derek clipped the device to his belt. “If I were a backup generator, where would I be?”
“Why are you asking me?”
“I’m not,” Derek said. “I’m thinking out loud. Stop distracting me.”
He walked out of the staff room and searched for a stairwell. Once he found one, he headed down. “That explains the backup power being off,” he muttered when, after four steps, he hit water. “Who puts a basement in a building a few miles from the coast? If the generators are down there, we’re fucked. Where the hell are the schematics for this place? The backup generators should be in another building entirely, but I’d expect there to be controls around here somewhere.”
“I don’t have them,” Sambit said. “I already told you that.”
“It was a rhetorical question,” Derek snapped back. “Look, why don’t you go hang out in the staff room? When I get the power on, we can figure out the rest.”
“It’s not safe to be here by yourself,” Sambit insisted. “What if you get hurt? I won’t even know where you are.”
“Fine, but shut up so I can concentrate.”
They headed back into the corridor and worked their way through the rooms in the control section of the power plant. Not finding anything, Derek headed to the outlying buildings, searching each one until they found the backup generators. Derek studied them carefully, resisting the urge to look at his dosimeter every few seconds to see if the numbers had changed. Based on the systems at NASA, he would have expected them to turn on automatically when the battery system failed, but this wasn’t NASA so maybe the protocols were different. Or maybe the generator was faulty and they were totally screwed. There was only one way to find out.
He checked the dials and gauges, fiddling with the diesel intake until the first generator sputtered to life. “Maintenance protocols are there for a reason,” he muttered at no one in particular. “Okay, Sam. Let’s get the computers on so you can tell me where to send my robot and what to do when he gets there.”
They went back into the main monitoring room. Sambit turned on the central computer and waited for it to boot up. It powered up willingly enough, but the moment it came online, it demanded a password. “We could try calling the hospital,” Sambit suggested. “The plant manager was in serious condition, but he did survive the storm, according to my briefing. He might be in good enough shape to help us.”
“Call and see if you want.” Derek cracked his knuckles and started typing. He’d have liked to think the security software for the plant would require the users to have a strong password, but he’d seen that fail too often at NASA to be confident of it. He might get lucky.
Sambit came back a few minutes later. “The plant manager is in surgery.”
“Well, fuck,” Derek said, ignoring the way Sambit flinched at his cursing. The man could just get over himself. “Okay, look, if you could see what was going on inside the plant, could you shut it down?”
“In theory,” Sambit said, “but we don’t have the schematics.”
“I’m aware of that fact,” Derek snapped, “but we’re wasting time here, time we don’t have and time that’s letting the situation get worse. We need to find the shutdown or the safety valve, whatever that looks like, and we aren’t going to do it standing here.”
“We can’t go in there. The heat and radiation would kill us long before we found what we were looking for.”
“I wasn’t planning on going in there,” Derek said. “I’m planning on sending Number Five in there.”
“Shouldn’t we call the NRC or—”
Derek ignored the other man’s cautions, and walked back to the break room. He patted Fido’s head a couple of times and set out a bowl of water for the dog. Then he unpacked Number Five. “Time to go to work, baby. We’re going to show that ignorant asshole in the other room what we can do.”
He powered up the robot and turned on the controls. There where he could see what was in front of Number Five, he didn’t bother with his laptop. Later, he would connect the robot’s cameras up to the laptop remotely so he could see the robot’s surroundings and guide him.
“What is that?” Sambit asked when Derek guided the robot back into the room.
“This is Number Five,” Derek said proudly. “You tell me where to send him, and he can go anywhere we need him to go and do anything we could do with our hands.”
“That would be great if I knew where we needed him to go.”
“Look, Sam,” Derek said. “We could spend hours trying to find out the password for the computer. We could make phone calls and maybe get answers, or we can send Number Five exploring, make the maps as we go, and maybe find what we’re looking for faster.”
“Without the computers, we have no way of monitoring the system to make sure it cools down correctly. We could make matters worse.”
“If we do nothing, we could both be dead. Yes, it’s a risk, but it’s one I think we have to take.”
“You haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about.”
“Maybe not,” Derek said, “but it’s got to be better than sitting here waiting for the core to melt down and the heat and radiation to kill us both.” He opened up his laptop and activated the remote viewing and controls for Number Five. “I don’t know what he’s looking for so you’re going to have to come help me here.”
“This is a bad idea.”
“Dying is a worse one.”