Originally featured on Mythraeum as the winner of a short story contest:
By Tristin Weber
Image: Juragua Nuclear Power Plant, Wikipedia
Just walk in there, deliver the report, and return to your desk, Alex attempted to reassure himself. His heart pounded, trying to punch a hole in his chest. Alex took a deep breath and pushed the door open.
A massive oak conference table dominated the office, a relic from an era when trees stood for centuries. Around it sat ten senior engineers, scientists, and advisors for Delos Industries; dignified faces all of them. Yet none so dignified as the face of the man at the head of the table.
The executive was an intimidating figure. Even seated he exuded power, youthful face framed by a clean cut of golden hair. Only his sharp gray eyes betrayed his age. They were old eyes, primeval and knowing. They flashed with a cold fury as he addressed his staff.
“All I hear is excuses. I want results. Construction starts in a month and you can’t even give me an estimate?” the executive demanded.
All eyes turned to Alex as he entered the room. He crept past them, making a beeline for the head of the table.
“Sir, we have a team prepared to inspect the site to assess the damage and evaluate-” began the chief financial advisor, Ms. Banks.
The executive silenced Ms. Banks with a raised finger. Alex handed him the report.
“Research head Turan asked me to deliver this to you, he said it was urgent,” Alex stammered.
The executive took the report and set in aside after barely a glance.
“Next time have Mr. Turan deliver the report in person if it’s so urgent,” the executive dismissed Alex.
Disheartened, Alex turned to leave. One of the engineers at the table waved him down with a gesture traditionally reserved for servers.
“Grab me a cup of coffee while you’re here, will ya? Extra cream, extra sugar,” he requested smugly.
Alex obediently changed course for the coffee maker, inwardly seething with shame. He listened intently as he prepared the machine.
“So what can you tell me?” the executive asked his staff.
“The two reactors were ninety and twenty percent complete respectively when construction on the Helios nuclear facility was abandoned. The turbine hall and cooling tower took the most damage during the disaster. Once we have a team on the ground they can determine how much the site has deteriorated since the project was suspended,” summarized one of the scientists.
Alex finished pouring the coffee, taking care not to spill a drop as he returned to the table.
“I suggest we prioritize the construction of surface intake and discharge channels for the cooling system, as well as breakwater levees to combat rising sea levels,” the smug engineer recommended.
The executive considered this, intertwining his fingers in thought.
Alex suddenly felt compelled to speak, unsure what had come over him.
“Sir, surface cooling systems require constant thermal recirculation to keep the water from overheating, and the levees will be the first thing to fail in the event of another disaster. A submerged seawater intake system would increase the power output of existing units, while also minimizing environmental concerns,” Alex blurted, words pouring from his mouth unbidden.
The smug engineer fumed indignantly, giving Alex a look that promised revenge. The executive’s eyes hardened, and Alex silently cursed himself for the outburst. He wanted desperately to flee from the room, but his legs refused to cooperate.
“What’s your name?” the executive asked after an excruciating silence.
The executive’s face shifted for an instant. Anger, or surprise? wondered Alex.
“You have a degree Alex?”
“Yes sir, Masters in Civil Engineering from the University of Texas,” Alex recited, pointedly ignoring the disparaging looks from his coworkers.
“Pack your things, a spot just opened up on the inspection team. I hear the Caribbean is lovely this time of year,” the executive said evenly.
“But sir-” the engineer who had requested coffee protested.
“You should pack your things too. You’re fired, I never want to see your face in my office again.” the executive’s voice cracked like a whip.
Alex strode from the room, feigning confidence. He gasped as soon the door closed behind him, finally releasing a breath he didn’t realize he had been holding.
What the hell were you thinking? Alex thought, allowing himself to feel a hint of exhilaration amidst his anxiety.
“What the hell were you thinking?” demanded Thomas Gaunt, the lead supervisor on the Helios reconstruction project.
They had only been on the island for a day, but news of Alex’s usurping had already spread through the company like wildfire.
“I don’t care if you’ve got the best idea since sliced bread, you keep that shit to yourself while I’m in charge. Understood?” Gaunt was a no-nonsense man, with a round gut that made him resemble a grotesque weeble-wobble.
Alex nodded, imagining tipping Gaunt over and watching him spring back upright.
“Good. Now go to the turbine hall and record any spots of rust that might threaten its structural integrity,” Gaunt delegated, handing Alex a thin tablet.
Alex dutifully took the tablet and trudged towards the turbine hall. Even from a distance Alex recognized the futility of the task he had been assigned. The entire framework of the building was covered with rust and large portions of the concrete walls had collapsed, presumably a result of the tsunami that had brought construction to a halt fifty years ago.
The colossal twenty-story containment structure that housed the nuclear reactors dominated the area, a monumental dome topping its thick, circular walls. Skeletal scaffolding still clung to the concrete rotunda, standing stoically like the remnants of some ancient roman temple.
Alex walked around the exterior of the turbine hall, half-heartedly taking notes and scanning rusted support beams. Nature had returned to the area with a vengeance, overgrown bushes and small trees pushing their way through the cracks in the building. Rampant vines crept up the walls like the tentacles of a monstrous kraken, slowly dragging the decaying structure into the depths of the earth.
Alex felt something crunch and stopped, a young tomato plant crushed beneath his boot.
A modest garden was laid out beside the turbine hall, neat lines of various fruits and vegetables extending before him. Alex circled the garden, finding an irrigation trench that led away from the power station towards the cooling tower.
Alex followed the ditch, a mix of excitement and dread driving his feet forward. Someone was diverting fresh water from the cooling tower to grow crops. If they were living here it would mean confrontation, and Delos Industries was not known for their considerate negotiation tactics.
Alex wanted to help people, but he had come too far to fail now. Showing sympathy was considered a sign of weakness in this business, and Alex already had a target on his back. He needed to project strength, even if it meant being cold.
Alex reached the dilapidated cooling tower. He ran his fingers over the surface of the walls, tracing the path of a moon carved into the cracked concrete. Alex spotted a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye and turned, just in time to glimpse a lithe figure dart into the tower.
Alex ran after the person, running blindly into the unlit corridor.
“I just want to talk!” he called into the darkness.
Alex paused, shuffling for his phone to light the way.
This was a mistake.
As soon as Alex turned on his flashlight, a horde of large grey bats swarmed past him, disturbed from their inverted slumber amidst the exposed beams. Their leathery wings buffeted Alex as they fled deeper into the bowels of the chamber.
Alex lowered the light and began his ascent up the unfinished staircase, picking his way through the rubble of bricks and dust. There was no sign of the island’s resident, the silence in the tower broken only by the crunch of collected debris beneath Alex’s feet.
The climb became increasingly perilous as Alex neared the top floor, the narrow stairs giving way to rickety gantries that creaked ominously.
Alex put away his phone, forced to rely on the pale strands of sunlight filtering through a crack in the ceiling. He picked his footing carefully, testing each piece of protruding rebar before proceeding out over the concrete chasm.
Alex’s hands shook as he pulled himself through the small hatch onto the roof. There, seated precariously on the edge of the ruined tower, was an athletic young woman.
She turned as Alex approached, lazily swinging her thin legs over the abyss.
“You shouldn’t be up here, it’s not safe,” Alex warned the girl.
“I like the view,” she replied.
“Please, take my hand. Let’s go back down and talk,” Alex begged, extending his hand.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Alex finally took a moment to survey the landscape from their heavenly perch, the coastline bathed in the soft warm glow of the setting sun. He couldn’t deny that there was beauty there.
“Yes,” Alex agreed.
Suddenly the girl rose, and before Alex could reach her, stepped lightly into the void. Alex desperately tried to recover his balance, but the loose concrete crumbled beneath his feet, sending him plummeting into the emptiness below.
Alex felt a weight on his chest as he slowly regained consciousness. He opened his eyes.
A spotted hunting dog sat on Alex’s chest, growling lowly. The young woman observed him calmly from behind her elegant white bow, a silver arrow already nocked. Alex had a feeling she could draw and fire well before he had a chance to scream for help.
“I… I’m not dead?” he asked incredulously.
The hound returned to the girl’s side, but remained in an aggressive stance, awaiting her command. Alex stood unsteadily, brushing himself off.
“I should be dead,” he insisted.
“I can remedy that, if you insist,” said the huntress, half-drawing her bow.
“No, no that’s okay. Just surprised is all.”
Alex raised his hands defensively, still trying to process his situation.
“So can you fly, or what?”
The huntress un-nocked the arrow and lowered her bow.
“That fall must’ve done more damage than I thought. My brother has never tolerated fools, even among those so young.”
The huntress stepped forward, tapping the Delos insignia emblazoned on the breast pocket of Alex’s uniform with the tip of her bow.
“My name is Artemis. This island belongs to me now,” explained Artemis confidently.
The possibility that he had come face-to-face with the goddess of the hunt did little to alleviate Alex’s growing headache, however something was beginning to make sense.
“You sent the tsunami to destroy Helios.”
Artemis smiled, exposing a row of pristine white teeth.
“So you’re not simple after all. My brother occasionally becomes so fixated in his pursuit of perfection that he allows the world around him to slip into corruption and degradation. I restored balance to this place.”
“But we’ve made so much progress since then. The new power plant will produce clean energy for millions of people!” Alex insisted, his frustration rising.
Artemis’ hunting dog snarled, baring sharp canines. Artemis placed a calming hand on the dog’s back.
“Not all progress benefits humanity, Alex. Logic without intuition will always end in suffering,” Artemis began, her voice weighted with sorrow.
“Society has driven the natural world to the brink of collapse in their efforts to master it. Your plan solves nothing. It was fortunate that the last earthquake occurred before construction was complete, otherwise the consequences would have been far more devastating.”
Artemis spoke calmly, but there was no mistaking the underlying threat. She had caused the earthquake that triggered the tsunami fifty years ago, and had no qualms about sending another wave of destruction.
Alex had lost control of the conversation, finding himself trapped in a sibling rivalry of divine proportions. He would fail no matter what action he took.
“What would you have me do? Even if I had a solution they’ll never listen to me, I’ve been there less than a year. A week ago I was delivering coffee,” Alex pleaded.
“Then I suggest you speak to my brother directly. No mortal will ever impress him with experience, for he knows the soul of man, yet he is not obstinate. Trust in your intellect and he might too.”
With that, Artemis turned and strode into the dense vegetation. Her hunting dog followed close behind, and Alex spotted several others moving swiftly through the undergrowth to meet her.
“Wait!” he called out, but she did not look back.
Alex spent the rest of his time on the island meticulously documenting the state of the existing compound, mentally outlining a new plan that he hoped might appease Artemis.
Thomas Gaunt had been furious with Alex for deviating from his assignment, jowls shaking with thinly-suppressed rage as he promised to fire him as soon as they returned to the mainland. Alex accepted this sentence without protest, as he was fairly certain he would be fired regardless when he pitched his idea to the executive.
Alex felt oddly calm as he stood before the imposing double doors of the executive’s private office.
Just walk in there and deliver your pitch. Trust in yourself, Alex thought, repeating Artemis’ advice to himself as he straightened his tie against his neatly-pressed white collar. Alex took a deep breath and pushed the door open.
Apollo stood with his back to Alex, gazing out the enormous window overlooking the city skyline, surveying his domain. The executive’s office was surprisingly unadorned, with stark white walls and a golden lyre resting atop the modern glass and metal desk. He did not turn from his position as Alex entered.
“Good to see you Alex. I take it you have something important to tell me?”
“Sir, I don’t believe we should move forward with construction of the nuclear power plant,” stated Alex as he slowly approached the desk.
Apollo turned to face Alex.
“And why not?”
Alex swallowed his fear and continued.
“Because another disaster will occur, natural or otherwise. It’s only a matter of time. And when it does, we will be blamed for the inevitable fallout. I don’t think we should cling to the ideology of our predecessors, but rather strive to forge something new, something better.”
Apollo considered this, turning back to the window.
“Come here,” Apollo said, motioning for Alex to join him. Alex circled the desk to stand by the executive’s side. “Tell me what you see,” he instructed Alex.
Alex looked down at the bustling city, countless buildings competing for skyward supremacy. None came close to the lofty heights of the Delos Industries tower, which presided over the smog like a hulking metal titan.
“A futile pursuit of financial gain. A rat-race,” Alex admitted after a brief pause.
Apollo shook his head.
“I see a civilization. Millions of otherwise insignificant individuals pursuing a common goal. You know what that goal is?”
It was Alex’s turn to shake his head.
“Perfection,” Apollo said. “Humans will never achieve perfection, but that shouldn’t deter us from trying,” he finished. “So, what do you suggest we do about the Helios project?
“Other nations have had success converting nuclear stations into solar power plants, and the Helios facility is in an ideal location for solar irradiance. The project could be completed in half the originally quoted time, and much of the existing structure from the turbine hall and generators could be salvaged,” Alex ventured, wondering if he had finally overstepped his bounds.
Apollo fell silent, leaving Alex hanging in a moment of agonizing uncertainty. Finally the executive turned from the window and returned to his desk.
“Better get started then, you will return to Helios in two months time… And please be sure to pass on my regards to my sister,” Apollo said with the faintest hint of a smile.