Authors: Greg Cox
“We’ll leave tomorrow,” Ford said.
Joe hesitated, just for a moment, but then he nodded. Emotionally exhausted, he could only murmur a quiet, “Yes.”
Ford signed in relief. Maybe this could be the start of a whole new beginning for them. He reached out and squeezed his dad’s shoulder.
“Let’s get some sleep,” he said.
* * *
At his own insistence, Ford crashed on the futon, letting his father keep his own bed. The flickering screen of a thrift-store TV set cast a phosphor glow over the room as Ford tried to zone out to an old monster movie playing on the late show; sometimes watching vintage movies with the sound down helped him unwind at the end of a long day. His eyelids began to droop as giant prehistoric creatures battled each other amidst balsa-wood sets. He surrendered to sheer exhaustion, and let his eyes close. The brawling monsters could work out their differences without him. He’d done enough for today.
, he thought.
Tomorrow we’ll head back home.
Sleep overcame him, but rest did not. Dreams of Elle and Sam mixed surreally with memories of Afghanistan and that terrible morning, over a decade ago, when the nuclear power plant collapsed before his eyes. If only he could disarm the reactor this time, the same way he could an improvised explosive device, maybe he could somehow save everyone: Mom, Dad, Elle, Sam… Drifting in and out of sleep, he thought he heard a voice whispering urgently in Japanese. The sound of radio distortion intruded on his slumber.
Ford blinked and opened his eyes. The apartment was still dark; the sun had yet to rise, but somebody had switched off the TV at some point. He rested upon the futon, getting his bearings. At first he thought he had just dreamed the voice, but then he heard his father speaking softly in his bedroom. Ford strained his ears to listen in.
“Yes, yes,” Joe whispered, switching into English. “The northeast section, that’s good. There’s never a patrol.”
Ford came fully awake. He rose quietly from the futon and crept toward the bedroom. The light of a single lamp spilled into the living room. Ford checked his wristwatch. It would be dawn soon. He peered into the bedroom to see what his father was doing.
The older man was already up and dressed, his dark clothes more suitable for a burglary than a trip to the airport. He whispered into his phone as he furtively packed a selection of files and electronic equipment into a duffle bag. Ford’s heart sank. Joe didn’t look like he was packing for a trip home.
“Ten minutes,” Joe whispered. “
He ended the call and put away the phone, only to see Ford staring at him from the doorway. Anger and disappointment warred upon the younger man’s features.
I should’ve known
, Ford thought bitterly. “What the hell are you doing?”
Caught red-handed, Joe didn’t bother trying to deny anything. “I’m heading out there, Ford—one hour, in and out.”
Ford shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“You want closure?” Joe challenged him, not backing down. “You want to go home? That’s where
going. Now you can come with me or not, your choice, but I don’t have much time left to work this out and I’ll be damned if I let it happen again!” He kept on packing, defiantly. “I came back here and I wasted six years staring through that barbed wire thinking it was a military mistake or some horrible design flaw they were trying to cover up. I kept looking at the hard science.
What I knew.
One day I’m tutoring a kid whose studying whale songs. I’m looking at his textbook—‘Soundscape Interpretation,’ ‘Echolocation.’ I’m looking at these graphs and diagrams and I realized that all the data I had been going crazy over before the plant blew wasn’t something structural, it wasn’t a leaking turbine or a submarine. It was
. It was talk. Hard science wasn’t the answer—this was biology.”
Ford had no idea what his dad was talking about. He watched in dismay as Joe fished a ratty old radiation suit from a pile of crap beside the bed. The suit resembled the ones the workers had used at the plant fifteen years ago, the type his mother had supposedly been wearing when she died. He wondered how the hell Joe had managed to get his hands on it.
“I met a guy runs a cargo boat off-shore,” Joe continued, trying to get it all out before Ford could interrupt him. “Every day he goes right past the reactor site. He dropped off a couple monitors on buoys for me.” He shook his head at the memory. “Nothing. A year of nothing.
than a year.” Years of frustration could be heard in Joe’s voice. “Two weeks ago—‘cause I check this thing like every other day just for the kick in the teeth—two weeks ago, I tune in and,
, there it is. Whatever it is that’s in there, whatever it is they’re guarding so carefully, it started talking again. And I mean
. I need to get back to the house. I need my old disks if they’re still there. The answer’s in that data. I need to know that what caused this wasn’t just me, Ford. That I’m not who you think I am. I am not crazy. That wasn’t just a reactor meltdown. Something’s going on there. I need to find the truth and end this. Whatever it takes.”
Ford tried to make sense of his father’s impassioned outpouring. Was it possible that Joe actually knew what he was talking about? Could you be crazy and still sound that coherent, that lucid, that sensible? Probably, Ford suspected, but one thing at least was clear: this was never going to be over for Joe Brody until he got the answers he was looking for.
Ford shook his head. He couldn’t believe he was actually considering what he was considering.
“You got another one of those suits?” he asked.
The trip took longer than Ford liked. It was late afternoon by the time they drew near an eerily deserted coastline. Miles of sagging perimeter fence extended into the choppy waters of a forgotten inlet. Posted signs, many of them showing obvious signs of age and weathering, warned repeatedly of fatal radiation levels. The official notices were in Japanese, but triangular metal signs also bore the international symbol for radiation: an ominous black trefoil against a yellow background. Ford recognized the view from some of the photos back at his father’s apartment. They had reached the perimeter of the quarantine zone. Somewhere beyond those fences were the contaminated remains of his childhood.
It didn’t feel like much of a homecoming.
A gruff smuggler, who had declined to volunteer his name, piloted a small skiff toward the fence. An outboard motor chugged quietly as it propelled the boat through the water. Ford contemplated the daunting warning signs even as Joe rescued their radiation suits from his duffel bag. Apparently he had purchased them on-line—” from a reputable dealer,” Joe had insisted.
Ford shook his head in disbelief. He was starting to wonder which of them was most crazy.
The skiff motored toward a stretch of fence that had sagged beneath the surface of the water, allowing the boat to pass over it unobstructed. The ruins of the abandoned city rose in the distance, visible in the early morning sunlight. No lights shone from the deserted skyline. Seagulls, braving the lingering radiation, perched along wooden pylons like avian sentinels. Ford wondered how secure the “Q-Zone” was if gulls could fly in and out—and a possibly deranged engineer and his idiot son could sneak ashore so easily.
The two men changed into the radiation suits. Ford would have preferred the armored bomb suit he wore on duty; the stiff green radiation suit struck him as worryingly flimsy by comparison. A dosimeter badge was affixed to his sleeve, but this did little to reassure him. Lord knows a suit like this had not saved his mom so many years ago.
The skiff pulled up to a rotting dock that was missing several timbers. Ford and Joe stepped cautiously onto the dock. The muffled tinkle of broken wind chimes, coming from a nearby shack, penetrated Ford’s bulky helmet. He guessed a breeze was blowing, although he couldn’t feel it through the suit’s heavy layers. The used helmet had a musty smell to it.
Joe leaned over to hand the smuggler a wad of yen. The man accepted the currency and, wasting no time, immediately turned the skiff around and put off for less perilous waters. Second thoughts assailed Ford as he watched the boat cruise away, leaving them behind. He resisted a sudden urge to call the boat back until it finally vanished from view. Ford and Joe traded looks through the transparent masks of their helmets.
They were committed now. In theory, the boat would not return until it received their call.
It was a long hike up from the coast, made slower by the heavy suits, which forced them to pause for breaks every half-mile or so. Ford was decades younger than his father, and accustomed to working in full body armor, but even he was exhausted and covered in sweat by the time they arrived at the outskirts of the city. The sun had begun to sink toward the horizon.
One hour, in and out, my ass
, Ford thought.
Janjira was nothing like he remembered. Evacuated fifteen years ago, and cut off from the outside world ever since, the once-bustling community had become a ghost town overnight. Abandoned cars and trucks rusted in the empty streets. Weeds sprouted from the pavement, while moss and vines shrouded entire buildings. Mannequins sporting fashions from the late 90s kept silent vigil from shop windows. Newsstands displayed headlines that were over a decade out of date; apparently there was some concern about Y2K. A theater marquee advertised
The Blair Witch Project
Ford spied no evidence of vandalism or looting. Everything had been left exactly how it had been the day the reactor melted down, so that only time and decay had overrun the city. Ford found himself hoping they wouldn’t have to pass by his old school. His memories of Miss Okada’s classroom were fraught enough. He didn’t need to see it in ruins.
He figured they had the deserted streets to themselves, until a pack of wild dogs startled the men by padding around a corner. The canines looked mangy and malnourished, their coats dirty and matted, but they seemed to be surviving the Zone’s deadly radiation levels. Ford’s brow furrowed in confusion as he pulled his dad into a nearby alley to avoid crossing paths with the pack. Minutes passed before Ford’s heart stopped racing.
They took a detour around the dogs, then paused to catch their breaths. Ford tried to orient himself, but the rusty street signs, all in Japanese, were of little help. He didn’t recognize this neighborhood at all. No surprise, he thought, given that he’d been only nine years old the last time he’d lived in this city. He hoped his father’s memories were more reliable.
“Okay, which way?” He glanced around for Joe, who seemed to have wandered off. “Dad?”
* * *
A freeway overpass crossed the road before them. Joe paused in the shadow of the concrete supports and extracted a Geiger counter from his pack. Activating the device, he checked the gauge.
Joe smirked behind his faceplate. He tapped the gauge just to make sure it wasn’t stuck, but needle still didn’t budge. Next he consulted the radiation badge on his forearm. Sure enough, it was still green. Just as he’d expected.
He reached for his helmet.
* * *
Ford watched in horror as his father whipped off his protective helmet. Before he could do anything to stop him, Joe tossed the headpiece aside and sucked in a deep breath of the supposedly contaminated air.
“Dad!” he cried out. “What are you doing?”
A horrible thought flashed through Ford’s mind. Had Joe come all this way just to kill himself near where Mom had died?
But Joe didn’t look particularly suicidal. Instead a look of vindication transfigured his gaunt, careworn face. He pointed triumphantly at the telltale green radiation badge on his arm.
“It’s clean, Ford! I
it!” Joe darted forward and showed Ford the readings on his Geiger counter. This was the most excited that Ford had seen his father in years. “The radiation in this place should be lethal… but there’s nothing. It’s gone.
Something’s absorbing it
Ford didn’t understand. Everything he’d read or heard about the Q-Zone was that it was supposed to be completely uninhabitable.
He inspected his own green radiation badge and remembered those dogs running through street. He had no idea what could “absorb” all that radiation, but he didn’t hear any ominous clacking coming from the Geiger counter. Surely, the counter
the radiation badges couldn’t be broken?
He warily unzipped his own helmet. He took off the protective mask and held his breath for a long moment before inhaling. He waited for airborne particles to sear his lungs.
Elle is going to kill me for this
, he thought ruefully,
if the radiation doesn’t get me first.
“Trust me,” Joe said. “It’s completely safe.”
He certainly sounded confident enough. Ford folded up his helmet and tucked it into his belt, just to be safe. He had to admit it felt good to get the helmet off. A welcome breeze cooled his face.
Joe inspected the street signs. He nodded in recognition.
“It’s just left on the next street,” he promised.
“The one before or after the rabid pack of dogs?”
* * *
Ford was surprised, but probably shouldn’t have been, to discover that his father had held onto the keys to their old house all these years. Rusty hinges squeaked in protest as they entered their former home for the first time in fifteen years. It was dark inside. Vines and bushes had grown over the windows, as though reclaiming the home for nature. Dust, hopefully of the non-radioactive variety, coated the tops of tables and shelves. Cobwebs hung across open doorways. Ford brushed them aside as they worked their way through the murky house. His eyes struggled to adjust to the gloom.
Flashlight beams provided glimpses of long-faded memories. Trophies, souvenirs, a ceramic “lucky cat” figurine, and other knickknacks rested on a shelf, next to a photo of a young Joe Brody in a Navy uniform. A moldy box of breakfast cereal rotted atop the kitchen table. Report cards and art projects were magnetized to the refrigerator, whose contents had long since passed their expiration dates. Dirty dishes had waited in the sink for far too long.