Every house was dark when she passed through town at 3:30 a.m. This was the quietest time of the night, a little too late for partiers, a little too early for day shift workers and just right for Sarah Henderson. Cruising unimpeded through the empty streets was usually a quiet pleasure for her, but today she was too focused on the job ahead of her to notice. She had to be inside the plant, started on her assignment no later than four o’clock.
As soon as she passed out of the city limits she could see the cooling tower with its huge mushroom shaped cloud of steam. It was hard to believe she still had almost ten miles to drive before she reached the nuclear plant that glowed so brightly against the dark sky.
The state highway was narrow, hilly and full of unexpected twists and turns. She drove carefully and kept her speed a bit below 55, both for safety and because of the highway patrol officer she knew might be lurking somewhere along the way, waiting for speeders and ready for the inevitable daily accident. State Route O was designed for a tiny farm town with one grocery store, not for the hundreds who streamed back and forth to the plant every day.
The cooling tower grew larger with each mile, filling her view. When she pulled through the gate at the first chain link fence she could see the tremendous fall of water at bottom of the massive tower, but she ignored it because she was focused on her goal, one of the blank concrete buildings gathered near the base. Even though the guard knew her and her car, she had her badge out and ready for inspection. She could feel the minutes ticking away, but she kept her voice cheerful and calm.
“Good morning, Randy. How have things been tonight?”
“Just fine, Mrs. Henderson. No problems at all.”
Randy looked at her badge carefully, then back at her face. He swept the beam of his big mag light through her back seat and checked under the Chevy with his long handled mirror before finally pushing a button to open the gate to give her access to acres of mostly empty parking lots.
Sarah parked in her usual place and locked up her car. The walk across the wide expanse of concrete seemed to take forever, but fortunately guard at the inner gate waved her through with only a cursory glance at the badge hanging around her neck. She stepped through the turnstile, dropped her keys, shoulder purse and phone on the conveyor belt and walked slowly through the metal detector. The explosives detector booth was next. She stood as still as possible until the device breathed a quiet puff of air over her body and clicked open the door on the opposite side of the booth.
After gathering her things from the conveyer belt , she pushed her way through the final turnstile and turned to the final security check. The retinal scan was automatic and impersonal, but she still hated pressing tight against the bright lens and feeling it stare back and record the tiniest and most intimate details of her right eye. She pushed her badge into the card reader, held her eye wide open while the machine compared the two, found a match and clicked open the massive door to the main plant.
Once through the door she was outside again and had another expanse of concrete to cross and a blank building with a plain metal door that opened with the simple turn of the key in her hand. Low humming machinery greeted her and dim security lights reflected off polished steel. She flipped on a row of switches and bright lights flooded the sterile white room.
She pulled her white coat from a rack near the door, + buttoned it up carefully, drew a deep breath and plunged into the job she had set for herself. All the ingredients she needed were there waiting for her. She knew she could do it right if they only gave her enough time.
She measured and mixed precisely to instructions. She set the dial at exactly the right temperature and checked with a separate thermometer. She moved around quickly getting all the parts to her plan started in the right order. It would all come together perfectly just as the day crew began to flood the building at 5:30 a.m. No one was expecting it. They didn’t even suspect.
But they had asked for it and now they were going to get it. The process wasn’t as hard as she thought it would be and Sarah wondered why she had never dared before.
Homemade biscuits from scratch would make this morning special.