Work Header

A particle, a wave

Work Text:


There was no word for the light, when it came, because it had not been seen before. You had to see something before you could give it a name; you, plural, that weird gap in the English language; youse, growing up on Long Island, Howard learned to say. Youse, plural, had to see it before you could later talk about it. Later, when you saw the same kind of light: "That light. It looked just like that light," you could say.

Looking directly at the light was not recommended. Dark glasses were distributed for this purpose.

Howard thought there was something familiar about this. He listened to the jangling of medals. The generals shifted, nervous with sweat— July in New Mexico— dust rattling on the dirt floors— and bent forwards, blinking. "Did it work? Did it work?" Like kids at a magic show. He flashed back to Rogers' body, produced from its machine like a coin from behind the ear.

There'd been some question as to whether the earth's atmosphere would be ignited. The physicists had considered this problem closely. The possibility was thought to be limited.

Howard was not a physicist, but he had a theoretical interest in the question.

Fermi took bets on it, tearing little paper tickets, the sun glinting off his half-bald head. Someone cuffed him on the shoulder, a junior physicist: "You fucker, they believe you, you're scaring them."

Howard was already designing containment devices. Prototypes for delivery. Portability was the main concern.

The sand at the site of the blast turned to pale green glass, very beautiful when polished, so beautiful you could wear it as a gem.

He was reminded of ice. You got that strange sea color sometimes, up in the Arctic. He had seen so much of it. Two months ago, he'd leant over a boat-side, staring at the aurora borealis. He'd tried to explain to the sailors how it worked— charged particles in the thermosphere, the solar wind blowing. But to them it was— he didn't know how they thought.

They thought that the Arctic was the end of the world. A place where God's laws got suspended. Lights in the sky and lights in the water, the light on the snow that caused snow-blindness.

And maybe that was how he'd think of this light later, how he'd try to explain what had happened: in the Arctic, you could never look at objects straight-on. It was the ultraviolet light, which the eye couldn't handle. You could never see quite see the ground ahead.

Best not to look too close.

It was also called arc eye, when engineers got it.

Best not to look too close at what you were doing.

It was the same sky as always, after the storm that morning. Weeks, he'd been there, and in that time he'd swear the sky had barely moved: the same clouds like chairs in an empty mansion, white-sheet-covered, the stillness in every room.

Farrell, the Brigadier General on site, would later say the scene was beyond words.

Pytheas of Massalia wrote of a land with no pure sunshine, far to the north, a land called Thule where the sun went to sleep. Sometimes it had no night. Its sea was solid. There was no land nor sea nor air anymore. It was something he had never seen, anywhere on the earth.

Howard couldn't look straight at the light, because of the glasses. The whole point was that there were wavelengths that he missed: the deadlier wavelengths, for his own protection.

So maybe it was all there, in that one instant. A map in the sky that he just didn't see. The future unfolding just like a cloud, flung out like dust in the burgeoning wind:

The house he had not yet built on Long Island. The woman he hadn't yet shared it with. The son who would grow, splitting cells from cells, every division a source of dread.

The photographs that the newspapers didn't publish, of kids with missing limbs, kids with melted flesh. Of soldiers with the bones sticking out of their bodies, bones broken in the way only bones could break, veins like strings tangled over them. It was always going to be someone's kids, wasn't it? Wasn't it? From the beginning, it had always been someone's kids.

He would think of Rogers, dropping into the dark from the plane, clutching that tin-can shield to his chest. Had Rogers known about Poland? Some of them had known about Poland. He'd think of Rogers dragging Barnes back with him, looking like the whole world was stuck between that boy's ribs.

He would ask Arnim Zola about it, once. About Poland. Once, and never again.

He would already have started the drinking, by that point.

Sometimes he would look at his child and see a chain reaction. He would have to look away again.

They were trying to win a war. They were trying to win a war.

Eventually he would stop going back to the Arctic. The money wouldn't run out; the money would never run out. The money would just keep on coming in. But when he slept on those search and rescue boats, he would hear things down in the ocean. Creaks that might have been shifting ice. Sea churning where a glacier had splintered. The displacement of mass where something vast moved. An uneasy breath. The scratch of a fingertip. He would have dreams that he didn't like. He would think to himself that something was alive; something was alive, that shouldn't have been alive.

This was a thought he would find confusing. What he was used to was ghosts, by then. What was the word for the reverse of a ghost?

He would not ever go back to the desert. Sometimes he would forget he'd been. It had only been a few weeks. And it got harder to remember.

Out near Alamogordo, the ground would grow back. Gradually some cattle would return. Tourists would come to visit the site. Clouds would keep moving over the mountain ridge. All of the glass would be carted away. The children of ranchers would sometimes find bits, still scattered out in the creosote bushes. Those same children would ride bikes where the fallout had settled. They would laugh and duck through the bones of cattle. They would mock-fist-fight in the old arroyos: bruising their knuckles, bloodying their lips.