By 2 in the afternoon the scotch induced hangover had run its course and the dull pain that had settled just behind his right eye that morning was only barely noticeable. The PC cast a pale glow in his darkened office as Robert Castine stared at the blinking cursor. He was buried in the boring administrative work associated with the WIPP contract. It was swamping Castine and deepening his depression -- a depression that had crept up slowly over the last year and was not helped by his nightly trips to the bottle. There remained only a few weeks before the end of the research project that had been so much a part of these past six years. The research was done, contracts were rolling up, and he had to involve himself in something new pretty quickly or he and his staff were going to be let go. But that was always the way it was with his kind of work -- at least in the past. Miraculously some new project would turn up at the last minute so they could go on. With the drastic reduction in government research-funding Castine feared this time it would be different.
The experiments had followed a strict experimental plan and protocol that was designed to be tracked meticulously, without deviation -- a structure deemed necessary by the lawsuits that everyone knew would soon come. Castine did not like it -- yes even hated it he often thought to himself. Many of the other experimentalists and theoreticians on the project did too, but the process was mandated by the government. It was called quality assurance -- or QA and its overt goal was to minimize error. But its actual purpose was to provide a trail of paper for the lawyers who would defend the work in court. The law and science -- a poor combination. QA slowed the work and increased the cost. It stifled creativity and dampened the impulsive flash that demanded a new path to be followed or a new idea tried. Other ideas could be followed, of course, but not officially. These back room experiments for Castine were the fruit of ideas born in dreams, or flashes of inspiration during his morning run across the mesa and only he and a few others were aware of them. The unofficial experiments were developed and run quickly and the data never permanently appeared in the official notebooks. The generated data were placed on random sheets of loose paper, sometimes discarded, but occasionally kept if the results looked interesting. All of these would eventually have to be destroyed and not associated with the official record. A few of these data sheets were scattered amongst the pages of notebook 103 and Castine pulled each of them out reflecting on their meaning. Their final destination would be the shredder.
Articles were always appearing in the local newspapers about WIPP. It had been a hot item for years. Almost daily there would be some reference to the project, its cost, the delays, on its safety. Editorials and letters would stake out a position either pro or con on one or more aspects of the largest project of its kind in the country if not the world. So when Castine, after his morning jog, picked up the morning paper from out of the weeds in front of his mobile home he was not surprised to find the usual mixture of concerned but generally ill informed letters to the editor about WIPP. He sipped from his coffee cup as he read each in turn. The last letter was different. It described in detail the oil exploration that was a continuing threat to the long-term integrity of WIPP. This was not new to the researchers working on WIPP and certainly not to Castine who had been studying this specific problem for more than three years. The letter was a long one expressing a well-informed understanding of the oil drilling problem and how the fate of WIPP could hinge on this one issue. More disturbing was the latter part of the letter that implied that inaccurate data generated for this problem alone could influence the opening of WIPP. The last line of the letter stunned and angered Castine. He had to re-read the words.
'I'm sorry about yesterday morning,' she said, 'I shouldn't have done that. You probably hate me for it.' Her perfume was there again -- the familiar fragrance that was a part of her and had become a part of him. She continued, 'I wasn't thinking too clearly' -- and he turned and they were looking into one another's eyes as the sound of Eloy's rapidly approaching pickup dissolved the spell.
The pickup truck scattered leaves and dust as it moved along the road and stopped abruptly dwarfing Diane's car. Eloy walked up to the cabin carrying two bags and Diane and Castine stood in the entrance watching him approach. He came into the cabin and put one of the bags on the table and the other on the floor.
'The lab has been basically dismantled -- at least your setup has,' he said breathlessly. 'It would be a while before you could redo the experiments, I think, as I remember the device. Not all of the parts are there either.'
'What about the desks?' asked Castine.
'Mostly the usual stuff and only a few papers, they're in the bag.'
'The car that was watching at my place last night? -- nothing. I think he just wanted to see if I was alone. The car was gone in the morning. But check this out.'
Eloy took a metal box out the bag along with the few papers that he found. The box was the case of some sort of electronic device put together from assorted salvaged electronic components by another tinkerer. It had a handle and a gage on top with a few toggle switches, an RCA jack and came with a set of earphones.
'What this?' asked Castine.
'Just flip the red toggle switch and carry it over to the bag on the floor. You won't need the headphones.' Immediately after Castine turned the switch the device emitted a slow, random, but clearly audible series of clicks. As Castine got close to the bag the frequency of the clicks increased and the gage on the box moved visibly to the right away from zero.
'So what's in the bag Eloy?' Castine asked.
'My coveralls,' Eloy responded with pride.
Castine was at a loss, what coveralls? he thought.
'You mean your Mexican coveralls?'
'Exactly,' Eloy quipped. 'I had them on in the lab and happened to be walking by one of the grad students, you know Fred Pino, who was fiddling with this,' Eloy pointed to the box. 'It's a Geiger or scintillation counter or what ever you call it he had made and bingo, it lit up when I went near him.'
Diane didn't understand any of this and her face showed it.
'You mean they are radioactive?' she asked, standing as far away from the bag as she could, and quite alarmed.
'Yes, but at a very low level -- at least I hope. I went home, took them off, put them in the bag with my underwear and showered. The pickup truck doesn't seem to have been contaminated but there was a small reading from my duffel bag. I left it at the bar. The other interesting thing is that when I took the coveralls off I saw they were made in the US -- no surprise but that the breast pocket had the letters SRP sewn into the fabric.'
'Yes, I remember that too,' Castine added picturing Eloy on the panga in the coveralls.
'What do you think?' Eloy asked, with a look that revealed he already had the answer.
'Savannah River Project,' Castine said, still not sure of his answer and Eloy smiled as if he had just aced the final exam.
'Can you imagine the odds of this happening? It's like winning the lottery,' Eloy exclaimed. 'I thought the waste in that truck had a familiar look.'
Diane's mouth was partially agape trying to understand the cryptic conversation between these two old friends. Obviously something had been uncovered but she did not know what.
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About the Book
With most of the scientific studies on WIPP forced to completion, the work of university researcher Robert Castine is also coming to an end just as his marriage had 8 months before. The divorce left him with little except for a six-year-old car, a small mobile home north of Albuquerque, and a fondness for scotch whiskey. His work on the WIPP project over the past 6 years was at first thought to be trivial and uninteresting, but as chance would have it, it rose to the top in importance -- becoming critical in proving the ability of the underground salt caverns near Carlsbad to contain radioactive waste for thousands of years. The accusation that critical data generated by Castine to help certify the performance of WIPP was falsified first came in a letter to the editor, and was quickly featured in the daily newspapers. Just where and how the data was falsified was not clear, but the newspaper articles were sure to sway public opinion about the safety of WIPP and compromise the opening schedule. The delay could cost millions. The real reason to prevent the opening of WIPP is elusive and transcends the obvious eco-activist and government agency conspiracies. The true reason is found in northern Mexico where a seemingly unimportant incident briefly interrupts Castine's and his friend Eloy's road trip to Guaymas. They come upon an accident where a garbage truck has overturned and has scattered rubbish over the road. Eloy recovers an almost new pair of coveralls from the scattered trash that he keeps for himself. Only later do the two find that the coveralls contain traces of transuranic radioactive waste -- the same kind of waste destined to be placed into WIPP.
About the Author
The author's background is in the sciences and he has received degrees from Cooper Union, Columbia University, and Polytechnic University. For the last 30 years he has been engaged in research, teaching and consulting, and for the last 20 worked at the University of New Mexico. Over the years he has conducted research and written scores of technical reports and scientific papers on many different scientific projects. His last research was on the WIPP project, which creates the setting for the adventure/mystery novel Virga -- his first.