Excerpt for Johnny Plutonium and Other Survival Stories: Humanity as an Endangered Species by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


humanity as an endangered species

Harry Willson

with illustrations by Claiborne O'Connor

Originally published in print under the title Vermin and Other Survival Stories

Copyright 1996 Harry Willson

published by



ISBN: 978-0-938513-63-6

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

cover art and illustrations copyright 1996 Claiborne O'Connor


Dedicated, with profound thanks for titeless effort to:

Janet Greenwald

Garland Harris


It is our privilege to honor Harry Willson's wish that 10% of the

proceeds from sales of this book be donated to these organizations:

Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping (CARD), Albuquerque, NM

Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, Santa Fe, NM


humanity as an endangered species


Author's Note: On Satire

Johnny Plutonium

The Leukemia Question

Peck o' Dirt

Too Cheap to Meter

Another Lottery

Duke City Mushroom

Stop the Machine

Toys and Money

Night Light

Something in the Cellar

Fertility Problems

High Tech


The Chinese Plan

Watch on Big River

Undue Influence

Freewill, or Something

Report to Base

Job Two

If I Should Die

Would This Help?


About the Author


My Dear Muse,

This is to protest your laying on me the most difficult writing task there is -- satire. You fill me with a kind of moral indignation, about pretense and phoniness and lying in high places, and you combine that with an average or better awareness of what is going on in the world. You taught me to love to read. You gave me a working sense of humor. You let me walk in other people's moccasins, at least a little. You awakened in me an imagination and it survived the disastrous training of my childhood and youth. You force me to think that I can make up stories, to account for what I observe, although "critics" have tossed the stories aside, calling them "parables." I don't mind so much your insisting that I write parables -- it's an old and venerable tradition which includes Nathan, Aesop, Jesus, Boccaccio, Bunyan, Twain and Shaw.

The school of satirists features my most highly regarded model of all, Jonathan Swift. No one ever did it, or will ever do it again, better than he. And he feels so contemporary! More than two and a half centuries ago he dealt definitively with lawyers, doctors, government bureaucrats, doublespeak, militarism and science. Instead of trying to write more satire, I sometimes think I should find a way to require all my potential readers to go back and read and memorize Gulliver's Travels. But you won't let me off that easily.

And it is becoming more and more difficult, whether you know it or not. You are aware that Tom Lehrer gave up satire, which he was very courageous in wielding and had become very good at. He first made us aware of "Pollution," and the need for "lead B.V.D.'s," and the shame of religion for sale, and the folly of American militarism and nuclear proliferation. He says he quit on the day that Henry Kissinger, one of the greatest war criminals of this century, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. You can't make a satire out of that kind of reality. It's already satire.

My work becomes more difficult all the time. The reality seems to come at us pre-packaged in the form of satire already. For example:

[1] The Department of Energy promises to keep radioactive material "out of the environment" for 10,000 years. But consider:

[a] There is no place "out of the environment" -- outer space is still in the environment.

[b] Ten thousand years ago was before the invention of agriculture.

[c] Language changes, almost to incomprehensibility, every 500 years; 10,000 years is twenty times that.

[d] The material that we need to be protected from will still be lethal after 250,000 years.

[e] The government is making, and allowing power companies to continue to make, still more of this material.

[2] The ozone layer, which shields the earth's surface from harmful cosmic radiation, is deteriorating, thanks to human use of a series of chemicals that do not occur free in nature. But consider:

[a] The U.S. government refuses to join a world-wide ban on those chemicals.

[b] Members of Congress mock the scientists who are unanimous in their agreement about this menace.

[c] Chemical companies resist proposed laws which would ban the chemicals ten years from now.

[d] Millions for research for "cures," but not one cent for "prevention," is the current motto.

You make it very difficult. Attempts to make jokes about leukemia result in what is called "bad taste." It becomes nothing better than, "Well, Mrs. Lincoln, besides that, how was the play?"

"Environmentalists," and I guess I'm one, are labeled "a special interest group." And you want me to make that seem funny! Isn't it already patently ridiculous? Isn't everyone an environmentalist? Can it be that only a "special interest group" cares about the survival of the Biosphere, while the rest are busy profit-taking? So, I'm laughing. It only hurts when I laugh.

Your power over me, O Muse, is absolute, I realize. I cannot desist. Thanks to you I cannot and will not shut up. But I want you to know that your demands are verging on the unreasonable.

* * *


In our neighborhood there are so many stray dogs, my wife and I can't take our daily walk here. We have to get in the car, pollute the air driving across the river, and go to the park across from the zoo. There we can hike all the way around the football field and the baseball diamond, while keeping the car in sight in the parking lot. I resent not being able to walk in our own neighborhood, and believe I could clear up the matter by carrying, and using when necessary, a baseball bat, but my wife won't hear of it. So we walk near the zoo.

One day we stopped short in our tracks. In front of us, near the end-zone of the empty football field, was a small, well-lettered sign, stapled to a clean wooden stick, which read:

Plutonium Pu

In front of the sign was a little mound of pale brownish crystals. We walked around, but said nothing, to anybody.

The next day, the sign was gone.

The day after that, there was a YAF game about to get under way, when we arrived for our walk. Youngsters, too young for such violent blocking and tackling in my opinion, were ready to play supervised, refereed, cheer-led football. But the game was not getting under way.

Parents of the youngsters were screaming at two young men in black-and-white striped shirts. "Well, do something!" "Call the police!" "Get it outa here!" "I'm not letting my boy play in that stuff!"

We were able to get close enough to see that the plutonium sign was in place, behind another little pile of crystals.

"I don't think it is plutonium!" one young father yelled. "I read that plutonium is white! This stuff is brown. It looks just like sand."

"Yeah, but how do you know? How does anybody know?" a young mother asked.

"Call the police! Call the F.B.I.!" More and more parents took up that cry.

We resumed our walk, and the game still hadn't started when we finished our two laps around the entire park.

The crowd was near panic when we drove away. We found nothing in the newspaper or on the TV news about the incident.

On subsequent hikes we found more little plutonium signs at different locations in the park, and on one occasion noticed one on the picnic table beside the swings and rides set up for toddlers.

Then stories did hit the papers. YAF games were canceled, or rescheduled. Some parents pulled their boys out of the league. Teams from the affluent northeast heights refused to play teams from the valley, where the zoo is located.

The city council saw fit to issue a press release to the media. "There is no loose plutonium in Duke City," it said. "Someone with a sick mind is placing signs that say 'Plutonium' in city parks, for unknown reasons. It is a sort of terrorism. Plutonium is nothing to be afraid of. There is no plutonium in Duke City."

Plutonium signs have been found at the university soccer field, as well as other valley parks. A popular song has been written, and played on local radio, called, "Plutonium in the Grass."

For some weeks we saw no more signs on our walks at the zoo. Then one day two police cars, with lights flashing, were in the parking lot and two police officers stood near the picnic table. When we approached, it became clear that they were questioning an elderly gentleman, who sat on the bench smiling benignly at the policemen. "Surely it's not a crime to sit on a park bench, Gentlemen," he was saying. He looked each policeman in the eye, one after the other.

"Are these yours?" the older of the two officers asked, waving his hand at several baggies on the table. Each one contained some pale brown crystals.

"They're my gift to the sovereign people," the man answered cheerfully.

"So, they are yours," the policeman insisted.

"Well, not really," the man answered. "Not any more."

"Did you bring them here?"

"Yes, I did."

"What's that stuff in 'em?" the younger policeman asked gruffly. "Where'd you get 'em?"

"I got the material on the West Mesa. It's called 'blow sand,'" the old man replied. His white hair was ruffled, but he was not. I marvelled at how calm he was.

"Blow sand! Why are you labeling it 'Plutonium'?"

"In order to raise the consciousness of the sovereign citizens of Duke City."

"Do you know what plutonium even is?" the older policeman asked. He also sounded out of patience.

"I do," the old man replied, "although most of the sovereign citizens do not. It is a man-made substance, designed to cause extremely destructive explosions. It is radioactive and lethal, causing cancer in the lungs and on the skin of those who come into contact with it. It remains lethal for more than a quarter of a million years. One half-life of plutonium is twenty-five thousand years, which is more than twice the age of human civilization --"

"I don't need a lecture," the policeman interrupted.

"I'm very glad of that," the old man said. "Most of the sovereign citizens do."

We were amazed at his calm manner, and so were the police. They seemed to think he should be afraid of them, and he was not.

The younger officer said to the other, "I think we should run him in. He's been causing panic, disturbing the peace, to say the least. We might even make a terrorism charge stick."

"How can telling the truth be called terrorism?" the old man asked.

"Truth?" the older cop yelped. "It's blow sand and you call it plutonium, and you want us to call that truth?"

"But it is true that there is plutonium in the grass here." The old man waved his hand out over the outfield of the baseball diamond.

"Who says so?" the younger policeman barked. He turned to the older officer and said, "I still think we should run him in, Sir."

"Radioactive waste, including plutonium, is allowed into the sewer system, by vote of the City Council," the old man said patiently.

"Well, they have to do something with it," the older cop said. He was more interested in the old man's ideas than the younger one, who seemed to want tough action without thinking about it.

"They do, indeed," the man said to the older policeman. "No one yet knows what to do with it. Putting it in the sewer, where it is gone out into the world, or burying it in the ground, where it cannot be retrieved and will end up out in the world -- there are several things they ought not to do with it. They also ought not to sprinkle it on the strawberries, or put it in the green chile stew."

The man and the older cop smiled at each other. "So what about the sewer," the cop asked.

"The sludge from the sewage treatment plant has been spread on the grass of the public parks as fertilizer. It contains plutonium and other radioactive substances, which have been detected by the scientists at the Special Weapons Lab. The report was made public, but never publicized. So here am I, with my little attempt at consciousness-raising. I'm willing to publicize the truth that has been kept hidden."

"Sir," the younger officer said, "he's been spreading panic."

"Truth leads to panic sometimes," the old man said. "Depending on how it is taken. Truth will not remain hidden forever. Truth will out. When the young ball-players develop lung cancer, perhaps some years from now, truth will out." The old man stared from one policeman's face to another.

"Shall I cuff him, Sir?" the younger cop asked.

"For what?" the old man asked mildly. "Spreading truth? You'll cause more panic than I have yet caused."

"I'm going to call headquarters," the older policeman announced.

"Yes," the old man said, a little eagerly. "Call the mayor. Call the TV stations. Call the editors of the newspapers."

My wife had been pulling on my arm persistently for some time, wanting to get going, before anything violent erupted. I let her drag me away, and when I looked back, the three were still talking earnestly.


A group of us, concerned about the government's plans to seal the fate of our state by making it the Nuclear Sacrifice Zone, announced a public demonstration at the office of our local congressman in downtown Duke City. A new bill had been proposed in Congress, which would exempt the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, called WIPP, from nuclear waste safety requirements and independent oversight. WIPP is the proposed repository for the "transuranic waste" generated by the production of nuclear weapons.

Our media committee did its job, and for a brief period there were almost as many television reporters and camera-persons present as protestors. Some demonstrators carried signs that insisted that the Environmental Protection Agency and not the Department of Energy supervise the question of safety at the repository:





Other demonstrators carried more enigmatic signs:





The TV cameras were concentrating on the leaders of our group, near the entrance to the office building. We protestors marched with our signs in front of the door, and then on down the block to the corner of the next street. At that point we wheeled around, turned our signs to face the street and the cameras, and paced back to a point beyond the entrance, where we turned around again and marched back.

After several marches back and forth on the sidewalk, I noticed a newcomer to the scene. He was standing at the corner of the building, leaning on the wall, with a sign over his head. I motioned to him to get in our line ahead of me, but he shook his head, "No." A boy of about eight years of age stood close to him. His refusal to join us puzzled me, until I read his sign on the next walk-around. It said simply, "Support WIPP."

I stepped out of line and approached him. "You support WIPP?" I asked.

He appeared frightened; his eyes were open wide, and he looked away from me as soon as I established eye contact. He bobbed his head up and down, once, as if to say "Yes."

I studied the boy standing next to him. He also looked afraid. It was obvious that neither of them had ever before exercised their constitutional right to assemble and demand redress of grievances. They were part of that vast majority who aren't sure that the guarantee of that right is a good idea.

"Are you from here?" I asked. Those of us who do value that right use it in more than one area of concern, and thus come to know each other and recognize each other. I was sure that I had never seen him before.

He shook his head, "No."

A light came on in my mind. "Ah! You're from Carlsbad." That's the town near where the Department of Energy has spent one billion dollars preparing the proposed nuclear waste repository. He nodded, "Yes." More than ninety percent of the residents of that county say they favor WIPP, when polled.

"You never watched a kid die of leukemia, did you?" I asked. His eyes bugged open wider, but he did not speak. "I did," I told him. "It was very unpleasant, even for me, let alone for her."

The boy standing next to the counter-protestor touched the man's arm and said, "Dad --"

"It was a mess," I continued. "It took a long time, too. It started as a nosebleed that wouldn't stop. Then it made her skin very shiny and clear -- you thought you could see right through it. Then little blood clots appeared under the thin shiny surface of the skin. Then her cheeks swelled up, but they said that was from the medicine."

The boy said again, "Dad --"

I went on. "They took her to surgery and removed her spleen, without ever explaining why they thought that would help."

"You're bothering me," the man said. It was the first time he spoke.

"I'm trying to," I said. "She became very tender and loving, very fragile and precious. She wrote poems, telling how much she loved us all, and how she was going to a place where everything was perfect, and she was not very sad about that, just about leaving us all behind."

"You're bothering me," the man repeated.

"The whole experience cost me my faith," I said. "I was no longer able to believe that a good and all-powerful God was in charge of the world. But I still believe that we have to love each other, and our children, even if there isn't any God to guarantee anything. We have to protect them as best we can."

"They told me not to let anyone bother me, and you're bothering me," the man said.

"How much are they paying you to come here and hold that sign in the middle of our demonstration?" I asked.

He did not reply.

"I realize that you don't think that's any of my business, but you know, it really is, since I and all these people, and all the taxpayers are furnishing that money."

"Don't bother me," the man said.

"I've come to believe in love and truth, and that's why I'm here, and then I find you here, who believe only in money. Are they paying your boy?" I looked the boy in the face. He looked terrified.

"You don't want this boy of yours to get leukemia. Believe me, you don't. I suspect that you don't understand what 'half-life' even means. You may not believe that plutonium causes leukemia. Maybe you never even heard of leukemia before today. You believe the lies that the DOE teaches. You don't understand how much time two hundred and fifty thousand years even is, how much leukemia and how much suffering that means for future generations. People like you, who believe in money instead of truth and love, don't care about future generations much, I've noticed -- but you don't want your boy to get leukemia. Believe me, you don't."

Our group continued to march back and forth in front of the door of the local office of the congressman. Our leaders were inside, trying to talk to him. Each marcher looked at the three of us standing on the corner, as they made their about-face. I did not rejoin them, but stood like a sentinel beside the frightened man whose sign said that he supported WIPP. My sign said:


The boy pulled on his father's arm and said, "Let's go, Dad."

One more time the man said to me, "You're bothering me."

"Good," I said, and then held my tongue.

The man lowered his sign, and he and the boy turned the corner and walked rapidly away from all of us.

* * *


Erin and Shelby found Grandpa out front, with a plastic grocery bag half full. "Watcha got there, Grandpa?" Shelby asked. She was the younger granddaughter.

"Today's trash," Grandpa replied. His cheerful voice told the girls he was glad to see them, but the disgust he felt toward the litter he had gathered came through at the same time.

"The people walking and driving by drop it. I pick up a peck every couple of days," he added.

"A peck o' trash? What's a peck, Grandpa?" Shelby asked.

"It's --" Grandpa started to answer, but Erin interrupted.

"It's an old-fashioned word, meaning a certain amount. How much is it, Grandpa? This much?" Erin held out her hands, palms toward each other.

"Well, I didn't know the word was antiquated already," he answered. "A peck is one quarter of a bushel." He grinned. "But you don't know what a bushel is, either, do you? Bushel baskets aren't as common as they used to be."

"Is it that much?" Erin asked, pointing at the bag in Grandpa's hand, almost full of papers, plastic cups, large paper cups, bottles, cans, cigarette wrappers, plastic strips and other bits of discarded packaging material.

"Just about," he answered. "I'd call this about a peck. Good word -- 'peck.' We used to use it all the time, when I was a kid. F'rinstance, in the phrase, 'peck o' dirt.'"

"What does that mean?" Shelby asked.

By this time they had walked around to the back of the house. They sat on a bench and looked out over Grandpa's back yard.

"Whenever a kid pulled a carrot from the garden, he'd rub it on his pants a little and then bite off the end. Then he, or maybe one of the other kids around, would say, 'Peck o' dirt.' We all knew it referred to the old idea that everyone eats a peck o' dirt a year. So, this kid was getting a little of his peck with his carrot."

Shelby grinned, but Erin had a face which said she didn't like this story. Grandpa went on.

"Sometimes, not every time, but once in a while, the chewer of the unwashed carrot would spit out all the contents of his mouth, and say, 'Peck o' dirt! But I don't want to eat all of mine in one day!' And we'd all laugh. It was silly, I guess. A kind of game we had."

Shelby was grinning, but Erin turned on her and stated, very forcefully, "It's a stupid story! Don't you try anything like that! Don't you dare eat dirt. You wash what you eat first. And peel it!"

Grandpa said something about "clean dirt," but Erin would have none of it. She was really steamed up.

"There's no such thing! Not any more. I mean it, Shelby. There's poison in the ground. Don't you dare eat it!"

"Poison?" Shelby asked.

"Yes, poison," Erin insisted. "Gasoline, crankcase oil, brake fluid, battery acid! Who knows what all?"

Grandpa remembered at that point that the girls lived in a fancy tract house that had been built over a landfill that the city had taken almost ten years to fill. Who, indeed, knows what all might be in the soil of any garden they'd plant on that lot?

Erin was raving on. "Cow manure and horse manure might be what Grandpa would call 'clean dirt.' We have photography chemicals, pesticides, paint with lead in it, plutonium! A peck o' that stuff will do us all in, in no time. Don't you go around eating dirt!" She yelled at Shelby, "Maybe it was a safe thing to do fifty years ago, but it is not safe now! Tell her, Grandpa."

He was startled. "Tell her?"

"Tell her not to do what you did, Grandpa."

Grandpa looked at the sisters and felt sad. Clean dirt -- one more thing destroyed by "progress."

"Yeah, Shelby," he said finally. "Your sister Erin is right. Don't eat any dirt. I'm sorry I brought it up." He swung the plastic bag of trash back and forth between his legs as he sat on the bench, staring at his garden.


First I find myself astonished, and then depressed, by the newspaper review of a book, recently released by a big-name publisher, in which a Ph.D.-wielding employee of the Department of Energy tells how the nation is not going to be able to continue to delay building new nuclear reactors with which to generate electricity. The author dismisses all alternatives as "worse." He never mentions conservation of electricity and limitation of population growth and massive life-style change as possible alternatives. But what drove me to the word-processor was the assertion that "no one has ever been injured by what the media have called 'nuclear accidents,' such as Three Mile Island." The author seems content to ignore leukemia rates in key counties across the nation, including Los Alamos, NM, Hanford, WA, and Savannah River, SC.

I sent the following "guest editorial" to the local newspaper:

The Department of Energy does not know what to do with the nuclear waste created by the nuclear weapons industry and the nuclear power plant industry. So in order to pretend to be doing something with it, the DOE proposes burying it. The first test-site for this burial program is The Waste Isolation Pilot Project, abbreviated WIPP, near Carlsbad, New Mexico.

One of DOE's most urgent arguments for "opening WIPP, " i.e. beginning to truck transuranic waste from twenty-three states to New Mexico before safety standards are met, or even defined, is that they have already spent over one billion dollars digging the facility, and paying "scientists" to testify falsely at public safety hearings. We need to continue to ponder costs.

Plutonium causes lung cancer and leukemia. It needs to be guarded, even if safely buried, to keep people from coming into contact with it. What would the total cost be for one 24-hour-a-day "guardianship? " There are hundreds of thousands of tons of this stuff -- every operating nuclear power plant turns into "nuclear waste" at the end of thirty years -- all the pipes and gauges, and all the concrete. We will need several guardianships, several thousand, several dozen thousand. Let's calculate how much one will cost.

24 hours a day. 365.25 days per year equals 8766 hours per year. At minimum wage, say $5.00 an hour, that's $43,830 per year, with no provision for "benefits" for the workers.

DOE promises to keep the nuclear waste "safe" for 10,000 years. To pretend that any promise can be meaningful for that long is blatantly preposterous, but let's continue our arithmetic. These are the new "written problems" our fifth graders should be learning to solve. $43,830 per year for 10,000 years equals $438,300,000 for one guardianship.

Plutonium remains lethal for 250,000 years. The half-life is 25,000 years. If we're really going to keep it "safe, " that's how long we have to keep it. $43,830 per year for 250,000 years, assuming that our leaders really do have inflation under control, equals $10,957,500,000. That's more than ten times the amount already spent on the first hole in the ground, of which there will have to be dozens.

Has this arithmetic ever been done before? This stuff is not "too cheap to meter. " It's too expensive to comprehend. No wonder the power companies leave the problem of nuclear waste disposal out of all their cost analyses.

Does this arithmetic at least suggest that we do not need to make any more of this material, for weapons or for electricity?

I never received any response from the editor of the paper, and never saw in print my attempt to contribute to the discussion.

* * *


The recent earthquake in southeastern New Mexico and west Texas has demolished the downtown areas of several mid-sized towns, including Carlsbad, NM and Pecos, TX. The Department of the Interior has closed the Carlsbad Caverns National Park to the public, while a team of seismologists assess the damage to the caverns.

A very serious casualty of the earthquake is the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, a facility on which the Department of Energy has spent more than one billion dollars, preparing a depository for the nuclear waste which is generated by the process of manufacturing nuclear warheads. The waste was to be shipped to New Mexico from the "points of origin," in Washington, Idaho, Colorado, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and other places in New Mexico.

The salt beds which were to encapsulate the waste have collapsed completely, and a source of brine, which had previously been regarded as minor, has been exposed, making the site useless. "Our earth-moving machinery is completely useless. It's as if we had never started digging," one worker stated.

<> <> <>

The eruption of Quartzite Mountain in Nevada has interfered with very little civilized activity. No towns of any size and very few public roads have been affected. The exception is the obliteration of Yucca Mountain, a repository designed to hold the radioactive waste from the nation's electricity-generating nuclear power plants. Several billion dollars had already been invested in the site, which was to become the final resting place for every decommissioned nuclear power plant in the nation.

<> <> <>

What has become known as The Nuclear Sacrifice Zone Debate is now raging from the floors of Congress in Washington to the town halls and editorial pages of the entire nation:

We must make a selection openly and fairly. The previous plans were arbitrary and politically motivated, and could never be guaranteed safe. Now Mother Nature has scrapped them, and we must start over.

In previous debates and testimony, some persons, especially those from the area around Carlsbad, NM, indicated that they were more interested in some kind of economic lift from the project than in any possible increase in the leukemia rate. That point of view, now called "the jobs-at-any-price" angle, is not being offered in current discussion. "NIMBY" is now everyone's attitude -- "not in my back yard." "We don't want to become the nation's nuclear cess pool."

The long-time practice of the government, according to which the people of the United States were regarded as the real enemy to be lied to, poisoned by radioactive substances, and taxed in order to pay for the lies and the poison, has been abandoned. "Classified," meaning, "to be kept secret," was a method of keeping secrets from the "sovereign" American taxpayer, more than from any external enemy, but no longer:

The great flaw in all the reasoning and planning and spending up to this point can be seen in the following analogy. If a careless, thoughtless, mindless, unaware person leaves the faucet running, and the water runs unchecked for a very long period, flooding the floor, filling the basement, destroying the contents of the house and flooding the neighborhood, the first thing that must be done, before an effective clean-up can be undertaken, is to turn off the faucet!

We are creating a huge quantity of extremely dangerous material, material which will be lethal to our descendants for ten thousand generations. This verges on the unimaginable but is in no way an exaggeration.

When the people of the United States figure this out, it will then become necessary to shut down all nuclear facilities, to forswear the use of nuclear weapons altogether, and to make electricity some other way. All the nuclear facilities, military and electric, are unsafe, and create by-products which are lethal and will remain lethal for hundreds of thousands of years.

<> <> <>

The Nuclear Sacrifice Zone debate took a new turn recently when a nationwide forum of scientists recommended taking the question away from politicians:

Repositories can be, and have been, forced down the throats of states which cannot defend themselves. In the past, congressional delegations have been purchased wholesale, and cheap, by the Department of Energy and the nuclear industry. The only fair thing would be to conduct a lottery. Which state shall be sacrificed?

Place fifty counters in the Bingo machine. There would probably be less unpleasant complaining afterward if it took forty-nine draws to eliminate all but one, instead of letting the first draw decide.

Americans have used the lottery before to decide things, for example, when nothing more serious than individual 19-year-old male lives were at stake. Who shall be sent to Vietnam to be shot? There is also Biblical precedent. Many ancient cultures believed it was a way to let God, or the gods, decide difficult and unpleasant matters. We could do the same.

In honor of the sacrificed state, we could color one of the fifty stars on the flag black. We could leave empty seats and desks in the meeting halls of Congress to remind us of what our foolishness has cost.

Or, perhaps better, we could divide the land mass into fifty equal-sized, roughly rectangular units, except for irregular coastlines, and ignore state boundaries. Then conduct the lottery to see which chunk will have to be sacrificed. Geological considerations will hardly be necessary, really, when we begin to take into account the full time in which this material is lethal.

The government has promised to keep this material "safe" for ten thousand years. Ten thousand years ago agriculture had not yet been invented. But ten thousand years is not what we're dealing with here. The half-life of plutonium is 25,000 years, meaning any quantity of it will still be lethal after 250,000 years. Anything can happen anywhere geologically in 250,000 years.

So, the lottery decides where. Move everybody out. Excavate. Build lead walls and a lead floor around and under it. Move all the nuclear by-product material, all the bombs, all the barrels and boxes of contaminated material, all the dismantled nuclear facilities -- to that place. Dump it in there. Put a lead and concrete seal over it. Put up signs that say, "Do not enter. Do not touch. Do not drill. Do not dig. Do not mine. Do not explore. Do not be curious about what is in here -- 'in the day that you touch it you shall surely die..." -- and hope it holds, including the language the signs are written in, for two hundred and fifty thousand years.

It will be expensive. At the moment we are setting aside over $300 billion a year, just in one department, which will be available for this task as soon as we become clear as to who or what "the enemy" is. This poison problem is the biggest and the most implacably dangerous enemy we have. The longer we refuse to admit it, and refuse to shut off the flow in order to stop enlarging it, the less likely it becomes that we will ever be able to get rid of it.

The debate rages on, with no firm decision to report as yet.

* * *


Several local roto-rooter businesses have reported a strange phenomenon in the sewer lines of private homes, in various sections of the city. They indicate that their rotating blade normally cuts through elm tree roots, trumpet vine roots, and any other kind of obstruction short of hardened concrete. Now they and their equipment are completely stymied by a substance in the line, that allows itself to be cut up by the blades, but is not removed or affected in any perceptible way, by such action. The lines remain clogged. When the lines are dug up, and the sewer pipes completely replaced, the problem seems to be taken care of. The old pipes are full of a thick gelatinous brown mass, which does not let water, or anything else, pass through.

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After a recent article in The New Age Journal, describing what was cleverly called, "The Fungus Among Us," this reporter contacted the proprietor of a local bookstore for additional information. The man stated that he has heard of several thriving businesses in Southern California which sell "the mushroom." He himself went to Los Angeles to investigate, but decided that the whole idea was simply more evidence that Southern California, like Santa Fe, has gone mad. He called it "La-la Land." "New Age entrepreneurs multiply like toadstools in the night, offering one scam after another to the gullible," he reported. "Some businesses sell 'starter kits' for $50 each. I watched the proprietors talking to what looked like lined-up bowls of tea." The man rolled his eyes at me, and turned that little invisible crank beside his right ear.

<> <> <>

Our reporter has located some local aficionados of the Siberian mushroom, sometimes called the Manchurian mushroom, and filed this report.

The name of the mushroom is Kombucha. Actually it isn't a mushroom at all, but a symbiotic colony of yeast and bacteria. But everyone into this new craze calls it a mushroom. Half a cup of tea, in which this thing has been growing at room temperature for a week, taken on an empty stomach upon arising every morning, is supposed to provide longevity and extra energy. It is said to strengthen the immune system and offer relief from the symptoms of assorted ailments, ranging from diabetes to arthritis. One unsubstantiated claim states that it can cure AIDS, by its effect on the immune system.

"My energy level is notably higher."

"I keep last week's mushroom on my desk in a saucer, and rub my swollen arthritic knuckle on it from time to time. The swelling has gone down, and the pain has gone completely. The mushroom is like a companion at my desk."

"This is a little crude to talk about, on radio, maybe. But its effect on me is that once a day I feel that my lower digestive tract is clear, emptied out altogether, cleaned out. I'm not sitting on, or carrying around, several pounds of mildly poisonous fecal matter that my body is finished with already. That is gone out of there."

"Where'd we get it? From the University. Yes, I know that sounds unlikely. From the Arts and Sciences Department. Every counselor and secretary in the office there has tried this mushroom. We got it from someone we know who works there."

"We have given several away, but don't know of anyone who has taken the tea for as long as we have -- more than fifteen months. We are older and wiser, quite alert and in excellent health, with no interference from the professional medical establishment. Maybe we would have been anyway, but then again, maybe not."

"Sure, I'll tell you how to make the tea. You boil three cups of water with one cup of light brown sugar. We do that in a glass bowl in the microwave, since metal does bad things to the tea and to the mushroom and to the human drinkers of the tea. I remove the staple from a family-size tea-bag, and retie it, and steep that for half an hour. We put the three quarts of sugar/tea in a plastic container, with the mushroom, after the tea has cooled. We know someone who killed the mushroom by putting it into boiling water. The mushroom floats near the surface. We cover it, very loosely, with a lid. Over a period of a week, the mushroom 'digests' the tea and sugar, producing a film on the surface, thin at first, but thickening as the week wears on. When we redo the process, a week later, a new mushroom has formed on the surface, easily separated from the old one. We take the container of tea, strain it, and keep it in the refrigerator. We make a new batch of tea and place the new mushroom in it. The old one can be given to someone else who wants to do this, or it can be thrown away, not into the sewer, or the septic tank system. We put ours in the compost pile."

"No, I don't think persons should sell it, or buy it. It is a gift from Nature, and should be passed from person to person as a gift."

<> <> <>

We have asked the president of the local American Medical Association for an evaluation of the safety and medical effects of the Kombucha mushroom. It does seem to be a growing thing here in Duke City, doesn't it, Doctor?

"The medical community is alarmed, if this really is as widespread as your reports and others seem to indicate. The substances produced by such an uncontrolled process could be extremely dangerous. No, it's not similar to home-made beer; that's an entirely different thing. People are pretending that this has a medical function. They're taking this "tea," instead of seeking professional medical help for their health problems. The anecdotal stories of people benefiting from this are totally unconvincing and irrelevant. People have no business feeling healthy and energetic without our involvement. Think of the jobs that would be lost, if the general population discovered that they don't need our permission to be healthy and happy!

"It really is a dire situation. The spores of deadly bacteria could get into that culture medium and do great harm. I hope no one is giving it to babies, or weakened elderly people. I can only encourage sensible people to stop this foolishness at once. It should be regulated, and made illegal."

<> <> <>

City authorities, after avoiding our questions for several days, are now admitting that there is serious trouble at the sewage treatment plant on South Second Street. What seemed to be a local phenomenon, at several individual homesites, has now become very serious at the plant. A strange brown substance clogs the lines coming into the plant. Sewage has backed up into many homes near the plant. Main arteries from other sections of town have been diverted and now empty directly into the river, because the lines leading into the plant are clogged and can't be opened. The odor, which could already be detected in mild form on certain days, called bad-air days, now permeates at all times the entire south side of town. The river stinks all the way to Belen.

Authorities are not sure of the cause of this disaster. Some suspect something alive growing in the sewer. Some citizens have raised again the question of secrecy regarding certain chemical/biological experiments at various hospitals in town, conducted under the auspices of the Department of Defense. Others wonder about the radioactivity which is dumped into the sewer every hour of the day and night, with the permission of the City Council, by hospitals and the Special Weapons Laboratory at the Base located in the southeast heights.

<> <> <>

Reporters have visited the sewage treatment plants, equipped with gasmasks and cameras. They report a huge brown amorphous mass, oozing up and over and around the holding tanks. It seems to be growing in size. It glows at night, raising the question of radioactivity in the sewer. Police have cordoned off the area, labeling it a crime scene, although it attracts very few visitors because of the odor. Private citizens have reported that even at the barricades their amateur Geiger counters click madly and the needles are off the scale.

<> <> <>

Garbage workers returning from the landfill south of town report that another brown blob is growing there. It absorbs all organic matter, including plastic bags. It is growing at an alarming rate, they state.

University chemists and biologists visited the site and report that the blob is a colony of yeast and bacteria, mutated probably from the so-called Kombucha mushroom. It is now mildly radioactive, having picked up plutonium which enters the landfill in the groundwater leaching down from the Special Weapons Laboratory in the southeast heights.

<> <> <>

There are two growing masses in the South Valley east of the River. One began at the sewage treatment plant on South Second Street. The other began at the landfill, now closed, south of Rio Bravo. These masses are similar in their voracious appetite for organic matter. Sewage is mostly organic. Much of the material at the landfill is organic, in spite of pleas to citizens to learn composting. Both masses concentrate whatever radioactivity they encounter. The Sewage Plant Blob contains a great variety of isotopes. The Landfill Blob is predominantly plutonium, which has a half-life of 25,000 years.

The Sewage Plant Blob has reached the River. The additional moisture seems to accelerate its growth process, and it appears to be filtering into itself the radioactivity that is in the River, from Los Alamos and from the leaking sewage treatment plant itself.

<> <> <>

Local disciples of the Kombucha mushroom report their continued use of the tea, which supposedly enhances health and a sense of well-being, in spite of the growing opposition of the American Medical Association, locally and nationally.

"We were advised not to put the old mushrooms in the sewer, but evidently someone got careless," one anonymous user reports.

<> <> <>

The City Council has declared the mushroom, and its tea, to be illegal substances. It is now illegal to sell, give away, or own the mushroom, or drink the tea. No plans for enforcement have yet been announced.

<> <> <>

The Air Force has attacked the two blobs, fearing what could happen if the two masses meet. Radioactivity is being concentrated in both of them, and questions of critical mass have arisen. Some experts have thought an explosion could result. One said his calculations indicated the possibility of igniting the atmosphere itself.

An effective means of military attack has not yet been devised. There is no brain, and no nervous system, in the enemy. Rifles, machine guns, howitzers, bombs, nerve gas, B-2 bombers, anti-craft carriers, computerized simulated night-vision super-weapons -- all are evidently useless.

One anonymous user of the Kombucha mushroom called to suggest boiling water. "I killed one that way," she reported. The City Council, the state governor and the Air Force have all rejected the proposal, saying, "It would be too expensive." Meanwhile, real estate prices are down, and revenue from tourism has plummeted, in Duke City.

* * *


It was early summer and very hot. Thorne was in shorts and shirt-sleeves, and a jaunty straw hat. The dry heat is bearable, he thought to himself as he walked from his car to the downtown library, as long as you stay in the shade, or carry your shade with you. That's why they call a hat a sombrero -- it's a shade-maker.

Thorne found what he wanted in the reference section, sat at one of the long tables and went to work. His concentration was broken after some minutes, when he glanced at his own bare arm and saw the white hairs standing at full attention. He then noticed for the first time that his leg was jiggling up and down rapidly. He felt thoroughly chilled.

He got up and went to the librarian's desk. "How cold is it in here?" he asked the young woman, who had a heavy wool sweater draped across her shoulders.

"I don't know," she said, smiling sweetly. She poked one arm and then the other into the sleeves of her sweater, and shrugged it on properly. "But it seems cold to me."

"I'm freezing," Thorne said. "It's the month of June, and ninety-five degrees out there."

"I know."

"Where's the thermostat?" Thorne asked.

"Oh, I have no idea. That's taken care of downstairs."

"You're the chief librarian?"

"Yes, Sir." She smiled more sweetly than ever.

"You're in charge of all the books, and who checks out what, and all that, but you can't regulate the temperature?"

"Building maintenance does that," she explained. "I've called down already, but no one has answered yet."

"It seems to me the city is setting a very bad example," Thorne said. "You want us to conserve energy, and yet you waste it, making it uncomfortably cold in June."

"I agree. It isn't in my control, however."

"You can't just turn it off?" Thorne asked.

"No, Sir. I have no idea how to do that."

Thorne drove to the supermarket, planning to pick up several items. By the time he arrived at the check-out line, the hairs on his arms were standing on end again. The checkers were wearing heavy warm-up jackets, zipped up to the neck, with the hoods covering their ears. "Why doesn't the manager turn it down, or off?" Thorne asked the woman who was sacking his items.

"He doesn't know how. He's put in a call, but nobody has come yet."

Thorne went to visit his father at the nursing home. He noticed that all the residents were huddled in chairs wrapped in heavy blankets, or in bed. Aides were hustling down the hall with piles of blankets. "You wouldn't have to charge us three thousand a month, if you got your energy costs under control," Thorne stated at the business desk.

"We can't understand it. The building maintenance crew has turned the thermostat up as high as it will go, but they can't get the machine to shut off."

On the way home Thorne recalled a story he had read ages ago, futuristic sci-fi stuff, by E. M. Forster, of all people. All the inhabitants lived and worked in individual cubicles in a sort of underground hive. Food was provided, and the air and temperature were controlled by machine. Very few persons had ever visited the surface. They were all content to live and work inside. One could hear the machine, humming very gently all the time. There was no day, no night, no summer, no winter -- the machine took care of everything.

It was a horror story, Thorne remembered. "The Machine Stops." Yes. And when it stopped, our hero had to do something. Find a way out, rediscover the surface, adapt to reality.

That evening the local news media told their stories but did not pick up on the real news of the day. Most people, including reporters and producers of news shows, thought the cold was caused by local mechanical phenomena, confined to whatever buildings they were in. Tellers had trouble counting money in banks. Oil flowed annoyingly slowly at car repair shops. Holy water froze in the fonts of the large churches.

By the third day it was generally known that all air conditioners in the city were out of order. Public buildings were affected: court houses, police stations, jails, libraries, community centers. Private business was affected: retail stores, lawyers' offices, for-profit hospitals and nursing homes, taverns, gambling casinos. Early July had been converted to winter, indoors. Also, the air-conditioners in private homes could not be shut off. The humblest dwellings, which were normally stifling in the heat of summer, contained less suffering than the mansions of the city.

Parents took their infants to hospitals with severe cases of pneumonia, but the little ones did not recover in the cold there. The weakest and oldest in the nursing homes perished in the frigid night.

Mechanics were unable to stop the functioning of the air conditioners. The temperature in affected buildings continued to drop. Thorne moved his family out into the back yard patio, and they all sought shade during the brightest and hottest parts of the day. They did not go into the house, except to the bathroom.

The monopoly that provided electricity to the city tried to shut off power to the largest buildings, in spite of protests from persons concerned about computer information loss and the humanoid odors of stale air. The machines designed to create cold continued to function, even after the power had been cut off, and the interior temperatures continued to drop.

Families with fireplaces tried to offset the unstoppable cold by building fires in July. The price of firewood soared. Theft of family wood-piles became the focal point of several shooting incidents. The department stores tripled the price of small electric space heaters, and then they became unavailable.

The monopoly that provided electricity tripled the rate to users. The governor declared the price increase illegal, and most householders refused to pay. "If they can't shut it off, then that's their problem," Thorne announced to his family.

An increase in home loss due to fire was noted, caused by attempts to improvise, and burn whatever combustible material could be found. Several cases of asphyxiation, especially of children, were reported, victims of unwise and incorrectly vented contrivances, designed to offset the cold. The price of kitchen matches and book matches, formerly popular with smokers only, suddenly skyrocketed. And then there came a day when there were no matches available at all.

Thorne climbed onto the roof of his home and dismantled the air conditioner, to no avail. With the connecting cable dangling freely in mid-air, the machine continued to hum -- the compressor compressed and the fan moved the air. He removed the machine entirely from the roof, and placed it at the curb in front of his house, regarding it as junk to be hauled to the landfill. Machines along the street continued to pump cold air.

The air conditioners continued to chill the space in their vicinity. People no longer made jokes about the cold. More and more of the sick and weak died off. A general malaise settled over the population, a slowing-down, a freezing up, a sense of hopelessness. "Nothing you try works," thought Thorne.

The temperature at the landfill, where all the air conditioning machinery was taken, continued to drop. A snow squall was reported at that end of town, in mid-July. The junked machinery continued to function.

A huge hole was dug by the earth-moving devices employed by the landfill, down to the water table. All the air conditioners were shoved into it and covered over. Life resumed in the city, except that indoor temperatures fluctuated from almost unbearably hot at noon-day to downright chilly at night, that is, the same as outside.

Gardens did not thrive. The leaves on huge deciduous shade trees turned brown and fell. A drab sort of autumn came at the first of August.

Then individual wells and pumps failed. The city tried to keep it secret, but it was hopeless, as one deep well after another failed. "It's as though the ground water was frozen," one hydrologist admitted.

Fresh holes were drilled, and in every case workers encountered ice at the former water level. "It reminds me of permafrost in Alaska," another worker said.

The site of the burial of the air conditioners at the landfill was reopened. Thorne was part of the group of curious citizen by-standers. The machines were functioning at full throttle. The temperature of the air near them approached absolute zero. "They seem to be sucking energy from the magma," a geologist noted. "Those volcanos weren't plunked there by magic," he added, pointing to the lava plugs which were landmarks on the west side of town. When a by-stander suggested that magma was hot, not cold, the geologist retorted, "That's what makes this such an unusual phenomenon. Some kind of heat exchange is going on. Of course, that's what the air-conditioner was originally designed to do, right?"

Tourism has dropped in the area. The only strangers visiting are meteorologists and climatologists, wanting to be present at the inception of a new Ice Age.

* * *


Queen Veronica was in a royal pout. "What's the use of being queen, if I can't have what I want?" she asked her governess, interrupting the arithmetic lessons.

Queen Veronica was ten years old, and had been queen for only a short time, since her father, the king, and her mother, the former queen, had been struck and killed by a drunk chariot driver.

Lady Anita, the Governess, was supervising the young queen's education. "And what do you want?" Lady Anita asked.

"I want a huge army. I want the army to parade out there in the plaza every day. I want an army so big it takes them all day to march past my balcony. I want to be able to go out there at any time and see the soldiers marching."

"Who says you can't have it?" Lady Anita asked.

"My enemy, the Royal Treasurer!" the queen snarled. "I hate him!"

Lady Anita decided not to ask more, since she wasn't sure who really ran the queendom, with a queen so young and inexperienced.

The queen continued with her list of what she wanted. "I want that huge army to have many changes of uniforms, so they can parade in different colors every day. A yellow army one day, and a blue army the next. Then a red army! Then a green army! Orange, purple, brown, black, white -- how many is that?"

"How many colors?" Lady Anita asked.

"Yes. How many?"

"Three, six, seven, eight -- nine different colors."

"Add grey, and make it ten!" the queen ordered.

"I'm afraid I'm not the one to tend to that," the Governess said. "The Royal Treasurer -- "

"Send for him," the queen ordered.

"Yes, Your Royal Highness," Lady Anita said, and curtsied and went out.

The Royal Treasurer listened once again to the demands of Queen Veronica, that a huge army should march through the plaza every day, each day in uniforms of a different color, with ten different dress parade uniform colors rotating every ten days.

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