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.