Charles slowed the car as they entered the town's lower speed zone. Janet looked at the map on her tablet computer then squinted at the several sad, lone buildings that comprised Merksville. She said, "Huh. It looks bigger on the map."
Seeing the peeling paint, the weedy gardens, and missing boards and broken windows on a couple of the buildings, Charles said, "Kind of run-down. Why would they put a nuclear research facility way out here?"
"Probably safety concerns. It's billed as infallible, but I guess they'd still find it hard to site it somewhere that someone wouldn't object to nuclear power." She pointed to a narrow road coming up on the left, "Turn there. The motel should be a couple of kilometers out of town."
The sealed road surface ended in about a kilometer and they continued for a further kilometer on dusty, yellow, dirt road flanked on either side by drought-stricken, gray paddocks devoid of livestock. Even the weeds appeared to be dead.
The motel was the most hospitable thing they'd seen so far in Merksville, though looked like it'd had its best days way back in the 50s or 60s. It looked tired and worn, but welcoming. It was just outside the edge of the nuclear test laboratory grounds. The laboratory site was a complete anomaly. It could have been transplanted from a modern industrial park in any capital city. The grounds were well watered and green, and many colorful flowerbeds and flowering shrubs surrounded the mirror-glass single-storey buildings.
Janet and Charles gratefully got out their car and stretched, then walked together to the motel's main office. A fresh-faced girl in her teens greeted them. She introduced herself as Kara, booked them in and gave them their keys. Their room had been reserved and paid for by NEI, Nuclear-Electric Industries, Limited, Australia, the company that operated the nuclear test laboratories next door.
Janet asked Kara if any of the other conference guests had arrived yet.
Kara nodded, "They've been coming all day — almost everybody is here. Our motel's nearly completely full." She gave a big smile. "Normally we only have our regulars here — mostly laboratory staff. You won't need to order a meal tonight as the conference will be laying on the food and drink this evening. Anything you need though, just ask and we can usually help with it. There isn't a general store in town so through that door there," she pointed to a large room adjoining the booking office, "is our shop. It's like a small grocery store. If we don't have something that you want, we can order it and usually have it the next day. We have free wireless internet available throughout the motel. The local farm boys often park their cars outside to use it." She chuckled good-naturedly. "Our motel has become quite the social hub."
In their room Janet and Charles showered and relaxed for an hour before getting ready for the conference opening talks.
Janet sat on the bed, reading while Charles boiled some water to make a drink of tea. Suddenly Charles yelped and squatted, his shoe in hand, hammering erratically on the floor of the kitchenette. Frowning, he stood up and pulled his shoe on again. "Damn cockroaches. Too fast for me."
Janet laughed, "Don't worry about them, dear," she said. "We're the intruders, not them. And they're no problem so long as we wash our plates and utensils. I rather like cockroaches, actually. They're the world's great survivors — more than 300 million years experience at it. They've seen the age of amphibians, the age of the dinosaurs, the age of mammals, and they'll probably see us out. If there's ever a nuclear accident next door, those little roaches can survive up to ten times the radiation that would kill a human."
"Biological marvels they may be, but I'd prefer they be not here." He raised his eyebrows. "Maybe there's something we can get in the motel's store to eliminate them."
"Have your cuppa, my big strong hunter, we need to get to the conference soon."
The opening talks were mostly an introduction to the technology. They were clearly aimed at the journalists in the audience. During a break in the evening's talks Janet asked Charles what he thought.
He frowned, "Nothing unexpected so far: non-pressurised, so impossible to explode; can't go critical; melt-downs are impossible; consumes nuclear waste, making existing stockpiles safer; raw material can't be used to make bombs; blah, blah, blah. I wish they'd give us more details. All this was in the publicity info."
Janet patted him on the shoulder, "Hopefully, the engineering perspective will be covered tomorrow. Most of the journalists will probably leave tonight. They'll go back to write wonderfully optimistic pieces after hearing only a shallow promo."
As they chatted with other audience members they found Janet's appraisal was correct. Out of the twenty or so journalists present, all were very impressed by the talks so far, but only the one writing for New Scientist was intending to stay for tomorrow's session. The engineers tended to be less gullible, though some were already great fans of the technology. Most were reserving judgement until they'd heard more about the technical aspects.
The talks ended late. People trickled back to their motel rooms, or got in cars to return to the city. Charles and Janet strolled back through the crisp, cold, night air toward their room. The sky was startlingly clear and the edge-on disk of the milky way was stretched across it. They stopped to gaze upward. Charles wrapped an arm around his partner and whispered, "Wowww. Great view of the galaxy from here. Crystal-clear! Look at the depth! Makes you realise just where we are... and how many other worlds there are out there." His breath misted as he spoke.
After some minutes of drinking in the remarkable sight, Janet shivered. "It's colder here than I expected. Let's get inside."
That night Janet woke suddenly when Charles yelled and jumped out of bed. She turned on the light and he was standing by the bed frantically ruffling his hair then threw off the singlet he'd been sleeping in. He pulled the bed covers off, despite protests from Janet, and examined his pillow, shaking it. Then he stood there, wild-eyed and panting. "Something was on me. It crawled over my face."
"Maybe you were dreaming."
"No, it woke me, but I felt it with my hands when I brushed at it, then it scampered over my face into my hair. It felt like a cockroach."
"Honey, what would it be doing on your face?"
"It was here, near the corner of my mouth." He pointed.
Janet squinted. "Come here." There was something there. When he sat on the bed she saw little marks and small drops of blood at the indicated corner of his mouth. She got out of bed, went to their suitcases, and returned with a small bottle of hydrogen peroxide. Dabbing a handkerchief wetted with H2O2 on the small wounds, she said, "We'll deal with this in the morning. In the meantime try not to drool in your sleep anymore." She chuckled.
"I'm glad you find this amusing," he growled.
"My big sook," she kissed the affected corner of his mouth, drew him back into the bed and switched off the lights again.
Janet woke to morning light as the door to the motel room opened and closed again. She peered through sleepy eyes at Charles walking toward the kitchenette holding a packet that he was trying to read.
"What've you got there?" she blearily asked.
"It's supposed to kill the cockroaches. The nice girl in the office apologised and gave it to us, no charge. She said the cockroaches have only recently become a problem. It happened at the same time the laboratories started watering the grounds and pimping the gardens."
Janet sat up, scratched her head, yawned, then started running her fingers through her hair to bring some order to it. "Makes sense, I guess. Cockroaches prefer damp conditions." She got out of bed and padded over to her partner. "Can I see it while, being the extraordinarily generous man you are, you concoct my morning cup of caffeine?"
He smiled and handed the packet to her, "One cup of tea coming up."
She examined the box for a moment and laughed aloud. "Sorry. It's called a 'roach motel'. It seemed funny to my half-asleep brain, considering the circumstances." She waved her arm to indicate their surroundings, then held out the box to Charles again. "It lures cockroaches in using pheromones and they become stuck using something like flypaper. I can't help feeling sorry for them. It's a pretty horrible end for the poor cockroaches — lured by a wonderful scent, then stuck there for the rest of their short lives."
Charles handed her the cup of tea. "I'm just happy if I can stop the little bastards eating my face."
"We don't have to stay another night, you know. We can leave after the final talk tonight."
He was considering it and nodded, "Let's see how we feel."
As expected, the conference covered more technical topics this second day. Charles felt more in his element, but Janet started to become annoyed at the lack of attention to the potential for diversion or theft of radioactive material for bomb-making. Despite the publicity claims, the working materials were actually more dangerous, not less. Only the initial raw material was less radioactive. And there was ample opportunity to divert for weapons the fissile plutonium and uranium from inside the cycle. There was also a small, but significant risk of chemical explosion from some of the fission products. When she pointed these things out, the speakers patronisingly glossed over them. She prodded Charles in the ribs to get him to pursue these qualms, which he did, though with less enthusiasm than she wanted.
Between sessions she angrily berated him, "Charles, they're not being truthful. This nuclear cycle is far more dangerous than they are letting on, and when I raise these points they dismiss me as a woman. Why don't you stand up for the facts?"
"Honey, I do. It's just... they're obviously not going to listen anyway. What's the point?"
"The point is to make sure the other attendees hear that there are problems. They certainly won't hear it from the speakers."
He nodded, "You're right. Sorry."
For the rest of the day they continued to puncture the optimistic bubble being promoted at the conference. During one especially annoying talk Janet got up in disgust and left to visit the toilet. Then, unable to face returning for the last several minutes she decided instead to take a stroll outside in the sun. After walking down a corridor for a little way she realised she'd got turned around somehow. She paused to try and work out where she was and heard voices in a nearby room. Intending to ask the way to an outside door, she approached the voices, but then stopped at the ajar door when she realised what they were saying.
"...unfortunate, but they're too warlike to be allowed to spread."
"Still, I can't help feeling sorry for them. It's a pretty horrible end for the poor humans, lured by a nuclear ideal, then stuck here on a radioactive planet for the rest of their short lives."