Some say it was one of the deadliest things to happen in hundreds of years… except, it wasn’t. Not really, anyway. Although the Viviant Nuclear Fusion Reactor was hailed as “the future of the nation”, “a marvel of engineering”, and “God’s final gift to mankind”, to Thomas, it was nothing but a paycheck.
Thomas showed up for work on Thursday morning after a night of drinking that should have made his bartender embarrassed. He had spent many a night at his local pub polishing off the edges of his sorrow, but this night was especially numb. Thomas had been speaking with some gentlemen across the bar who mentioned they were in town to audit the plant, and that the reactor was going to be sold to another company; all Thomas heard was “prepare to be laid off”. Realizing he would soon have no income was almost too much. Thomas barely had any income now.
He ordered drink after drink trying to cope with the idea of losing his job. As he did with most thoughts, he decided that it wasn’t worth the time to ponder it. What Thomas really wanted to spend his time thinking about was his ex-wife, Wendy. Thomas and his wife had split up 2 weeks ago. She left one night while he was at the bar and drove away in their old truck, pulling the trailer that they had bought together. Not only was Thomas now all alone, he was also homeless.
Wendy was a “selfish bitch who only had chores on her mind,” according to Thomas, but in reality, she had stayed with Thomas for far longer than most women would have. She put up with not having any children, the constant drinking – hell, she even put up with Thomas’ affair when he was belligerent one night; what she couldn’t stand was his anger. Thomas was a mean man even in his sober hours. Whether it was the football game or the kitchen sink, he somehow always found something to upset himself about. Eventually she had enough and decided to leave. Now, Thomas spends his nights after work at the pub getting drunk and trying to catfish his ex with all the subtly of a glass Trojan horse.
Thomas sighed as he realized that his newest Facebook account had been blocked by Wendy. There really wasn’t much to do. Thomas figured that a man his age with his income was never going to find another wife; in fact, he wasn’t even sure how he had gotten Wendy in the first place. They met in college during the second – and final – year of Thomas’ degree program. He had initially wanted to get a great job working at the plant as a nuclear engineer. He had an internship there already and was working under the head of the entire engineering team. Thomas thought the reactor was the most amazing machine he had ever seen. The Viviant reactor was a completely original vision, something no one had ever built before. Normal nuclear reactors harness the heat from nuclear decay, but this one managed to create power from combining matter instead of watching it waste away. Nuclear fusion: the way of the future.
Thomas’ wife admired the passion in his eyes when he talked about his internship. But, somewhere over the last thirty years, he had lost that spark. Thomas’ eyes now only shone in reflection of the neon light from the bar signs that hung over his head or from the soft pink glow of the core in the reactor. In those thirty years not much had changed, and Thomas was beginning to feel how heavy all of that time could be.
He leaned back in his chair and pushed away from the bar top with a grunt. The gentlemen he was talking to earlier were long gone, probably to get a good night’s rest and perform well at their jobs tomorrow. Thomas didn’t know who he was more pissed off at: those men with their business suits and pocket squares, or his bartender who had cut him off earlier than he saw fit. Thomas stumbled home to the small tent he had set up where their trailer used to be and crawled inside. “Fuck those people…” he thought to himself, and drifted off to a dreamless sleep.
Thomas walked to work the next morning. This was the tenth day in a row he had to walk, but he had almost begun to enjoy it; the exercise was just one more thing to complain about, and that made him happy. The reactor was only a mile away from where Thomas lived, and he could see the big tower of steam rising from the silo at every moment of his day. He always used to marvel at how the artificial clouds seemed to rise as a solid mass only to break up into a conflagration of vapor as it rose into the air in front of the sun, receiving its orange glow. It would have been beautiful if he wasn’t so hung over. His feet barely left the pavement.
Thomas walked into work and sat down in his small office waiting for his boss to arrive. His boss, Larry, was “a real prick with a huge inferiority complex,” according to Thomas. In reality, Larry was one of the best-liked men at the plant. He was one of the best players on the plant’s softball team, the vice president of the worker’s union, and he brought in doughnuts on Saturdays for anyone who came to work the weekend shift. Thomas took all this to mean that Larry was a showoff with a knack for brown-nosing.
It was fifteen minutes past 8:00 A.M. and Thomas had started to daydream that Larry had perhaps died on his morning commute, but that dream was soon crushed. He saw that Larry was already logged into his computer which meant he was probably down in the lounge getting his morning coffee.
Thomas had hated Larry since the two were in college together. After Thomas dropped out his second year, Larry was the head of the class. “A teacher needs a volunteer? Larry. Can someone mentor first year students? Larry”. If Thomas was being honest with himself, he resented the way that Larry applied himself. “How dare someone try to show everyone up like that?”
Thomas heard an uproar from the lounge down the hall and picked out the deep, resonant tone of Larry’s laughter.
Larry had one of the most important jobs at the plant. He was in charge of making sure that the reactor core was maintained as it expanded in size and energy production. The core had to be contained and monitored so that any of the dangerous salmon-colored radioactive glow would not leak out. Thomas had been his assistant in this endeavor for a long time and knew how to run the diagnostics just as well as Larry did. It was when Thomas was thinking about this that he finally snapped.
Thomas moved across the room and landed in Larry’s ergonomic office chair with a heavy thud. He normally wouldn’t have access to the main controls of the reactor on his own, but Larry’s computer was already logged on and monitoring the temperature and throughput of the core that day. Through the window looking out to the main fusion chamber he saw the two men in business suits walking around the cooling tanks escorted by the CEO of the plant. A sudden pestilent fury welled up inside of Thomas, and he cessed to think at all. No security check or triple-failsafe, password-encrypted obstacle could not stop him; he was dead set on destroying his god-forsaken workplace. His mind was blank. He was no longer thinking about those men or his wife or the CEO or his failures or Larry, he was only focused on the gauges of the monitors in front of him.
An alarm started to sound. He quickly got up and shut the office door, propping his chair against it to lock himself inside. The footsteps in the hallway were growing louder. He sat back down at the PC ignoring the rapid knocking of Larry outside the door. He started to sweat, not from the adrenaline in his system, but because he had switched off the main cooling pumps to the reactor. He sat back in the chair and closed his eyes waiting for the heat to overtake him. Thomas didn’t feel hungover anymore. He felt clear, focused; in fact, he was starting to feel astounding.
His back which always bothered him no longer was hurting, and the pain in his liver from last night started to fade.
“This must be what dying feels like,” he pondered to himself. He opened his eyes to find the reactor glowing so brightly that his eyes began to ache. Suddenly, the light grew so strong that even with his eyes shut as tight as he could muster he could still see the brilliant pink light breaking through.
He didn’t know if he was still alive or not when he finally gathered the courage to unclamp his eyelids. The alarm that had been droning in the background had ceased, and he cautiously opened up one of his eyes. The bright light was gone, but he still couldn’t see. His vision around the edges of his glasses seemed to have cleared while the center was a blurry mess. He took off his glasses and was shocked to find that he didn’t need them anymore. He turned and look out the door to see if Larry was still there pounding away, but to his surprise, he saw another man standing there instead.
He soon came to realize that it was not another man after all; it was still Larry. Thomas stood up and felt that his clothes seemed large on his frame. He looked down in astonishment at his hands which were now smooth and brightly colored where they used to be cracked and pale from lack of blood flow.
Larry finally pushed open the door and Thomas expected to berated.
“Tom… what – what’s going on?” Larry asked, struggling to finish his thought. “You look so young. I mean – you look like you did in college!”
“I, uh… I’m not sure.”
He and Larry looked through the window into the fusion chamber to find the three gentlemen had been vanished, their clothes laying in piles on the grated floor. There was no trace they had ever been worn before.
The investigation into the event that followed was thorough to say the least. The FBI, CIA, NSA, and DOD all swarmed the reactor within hours. There was a Presidential investigation launched, a Congressional hearing, and every talk show in the nation was reaching out to Thomas and representatives from the plant. Thomas was taken into custody by the police, but was released the next day; how could he be charged with murder if the victims in question simply ceased to exist?
In a hundred-mile radius around the site there was changes. Anyone inside ten miles from the plant and under a year of age simply vanished. It seemed to have affected older folks as well. The closer a person was to the core, the more dramatic the effect. It had seemed that Larry, Thomas, and most other workers in the plant had become twenty years younger or more. Thomas guessed he was around 22 now as the scar he got on his 23rd birthday had disappeared from his side. The Feds dropped off Thomas after he was released and sped away in their black Cadillac SUVs.
Thomas stood outside of his tent and tried to make sense of it all. All those mistakes, the years of drinking his life away – it was all erased. He looked at the silo in the distance and for the first time in that he could remember the vapor was absent. It was as if the ride had broken and jumped the rails. Thomas started to feel sick in the bottom of his stomach. He had forgotten what happiness felt like.
He looked down at his cell phone and saw that Wendy was calling him. They talked for longer than they had in years. She had seen his face on the news reports about the incident and wanted to hear what happened firsthand. Thomas spent all his energy making promises that things would change and explaining how he was a new man, but Wendy didn’t believe him.
“People don’t change…” she said without a hint of irony in her voice. He felt like he couldn’t breathe. His first glimpse of joy, quickly eclipsed by the same pain he had felt for the last few years.
Thomas woke up the next morning and took that same old walk to his job to find out that his new boss, one that had not been evaporated by Thomas, had fired him. Apparently, trying to cause a disasterous, holocaustic nuclear implosion was against company policy. Larry, looking even more handsome and rippling than normal, offered Thomas a Saturday doughnut as he left the building which Thomas knocked out of his hand as he headed out the door and on his way to the pub.