The Witness

The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, places, or events may or may not be coincidental.

What he'd witnessed had shaken him. The burden he now carried weighed on his shoulders and tinged the undersides of his expressionless eyes.

"Halford, right?"

The man looked up at me and blinked. "Yes, he said." He was seated on the chair in front of my desk, right foot resting on his left knee. The foot wagged to a rhythm only he knew.

"Sorry about the delay," I said. "This place has been a madhouse with all the new people and the construction in the 300 area. Not to mention the added security paperwork. I haven't even had a chance to sit down and talk with the members of my own group. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"I'd like to talk with Director Reynolds," said Halford.

"Is it something I can help with? The director's a very busy man," I said.

"No, I need to talk with Director Reynolds," said Halford.

"Well, can you give me an idea about what's on your mind? It sounds important. I'll be sure to pass it along to him."

"It is very important, but I can't tell you. I need to speak with Director Reynolds." said Halford.

I pulled a pack of Lucky Strikes from my desk drawer and held it out.

"No thank you, I don't smoke," said Halford.

"Yeah, I've been thinking of quitting myself," I said. Every time I go down to biology one of the vivarium guys shows me another article from a high-powered university. Cancer. I really should quit." I returned the pack to the drawer and closed it.

"How are you and the family settling in?" I asked. "Your file mentions we recruited you from Salem."

Halford looked at me for a few seconds without answering, then said, "Richland is… different from Salem. But not in the way I expected. The dry climate reminds me of where I grew up. It's starting to grow on me. The wife and kids, too. She likes our new house and is already planning out the garden. Thanks for asking."

Halford stopped wagging his foot and uncrossed his legs.

"How about the job?" I asked.

"It's a lot to take in, but the team has been helpful. The new emulsion we're working on is ten times more sensitive than the old one. And it looks like it can be processed in half the time. The new badge prototypes are almost ready for final approval." Halford touched the clip of his own badge while staring at mine.

"I tell all the new people this and I may as well tell you, too," I said. "Without the work you and your team do, this place would not exist. What we do here is dangerous - hell it's guaranteed lethal when you think about it. But worker risk is manageable with good science. And that science starts with good measurement. Devices that take those measurements are the foundation."

"It's good to know you see it that way," said Halford.

I said, "Look, I can probably find you a slot with Director Reynolds next week, but I can't just show up empty-handed."

Halford looked down at his hands for a few seconds. Then he spoke.

"I want to talk with Director Reynolds because there can't be any… repercussions," said Halford. "I moved my family here. My youngest is about to start school. I just started work here. I'm excited about the job and I — I can't afford to make waves at this point."

I said, "I understand. Most of the guys are new here and they're all in the same boat. If you want, leave out the parts you think could cause trouble. But I need to give Reynolds something."

Halford ran his fingers through his short brown hair, then said, "I saw something. Yesterday. Well, not exactly. I — I heard something."

"Here at work?"


"Ok, continue," I said.

"I was in the 150 building. I stopped to tie my shoe. These are new and the laces keep coming undone. I need to tie them ten times a day. As I was tying, I heard a conversation through a door behind me. It must have been cracked open."

"Was anyone there with you?" I asked.

"No," said Halford. "And I didn't recognize any of the voices. But I did hear one man ask about holding tanks. Something about how the stuff needs to sit there for a while. The ramped-up production schedule didn't leave enough time — something like that. A second man said it wouldn't be a problem." Halford paused.

"What happened next?" I asked.

"The second man said it wouldn't be a problem because they dump the stuff straight into the river anyway. And not to worry about the tanks."

"What stuff?" I asked.

"I'm not sure. I didn't hear that part," said Halford.

I said, "I don't think there's anything to worry about. The B Reactor pulls cooling water from the river. It circulates through the reactor, then it's returned to the river after the heat has been exchanged. There are no tanks. But we continuously monitor the counts before the water comes in and before it goes back out to the river. It's safe."

Halford said, "Yes, I've been briefed on that. But I think these guys were talking about something else. The word 'metal' came up twice. I — I think they were talking about the plutonium nitrate waste stream."

The silence between us was broken by two voices just outside my office door. Halford sat straight up, as if preparing to stand. There was a short pause in the conversation outside my office followed by a forceful knock. "Come in," I said. The door opened and Director Reynolds stepped inside.

He said to me, "Martin, are we still on for bridge Saturday? Martha and I will be running a little late but we're both looking forward to it."

Halford sat motionless, his yes locked onto the face of the man in the doorway. Halford turned his head to me. Almost before he could get up, I stood and said, "Director Reynolds, I'd like to introduce you to Ken Halford. He's the newest member of radiation monitoring."

Halford stood to face the director, then slowly extended his hand. The two men shook as the director said, "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Halford. Welcome to the team."

"I … thank you," said Halford, eyes fixed on the director's face.

Withdrawing his hand, Halford looked through the open door. Then he turned back to me.

"What we were talking about earlier… You were right. My mistake," said Halford. Then he added, "Excuse me, I'm late for a meeting," and left my office.

"What was that about?" asked the director.

"I don't know," I said.