Oct/Nov 2018  •   Fiction

Benton City and the End of the World

by Mark Crimmins

Image salvaged from public domain

Down there in the desert of South Central Washington, the Hanford nuclear facility—at one point a pillar of the Manhattan Project—continued, 35 years after Nagasaki, to be a vital center of American weapons-grade uranium and plutonium production, and consequently the West Richland congregation of the Redeemer King Assembly of God could be divided according to profession into three parts, each beginning with an F: fusion, fission, farming. To save on the building budget, the new meetinghouse had been built far from the Tri-Cities construction boom, in the small township of Benton City. At church on Sundays, orchardists and fruit farmers were joined by the Worldwide Redeemer King Assembly's greatest cluster of MIT doctorates in nuclear physics. If a Soviet missile had hit a church meeting, it would have set American plutonium production development back by years. Even the church's farmers could explain the differences between nuclear fission and fusion. There was no other congregation like it.

Harold Moberly, the lay pastor in charge of running the Sunday services, was an exception to the MIT group. A protégé of Enrico Fermi, he had studied particle acceleration at Chicago and discharged his religious duties with a certain dryness. He was less excited by Habakkuk than he was by Heisenberg. In accordance with a church directive to conserve energy during the Oil Crisis, previously separate church services ran consecutively for a three-hour chunk of time between 8:30 and 11:30 in the morning. The main service ran until 9:30, then the congregation broke up for classes, and all reassembled at 10:30 for what was officially—a cause of learned guffaws—the "evening service," which concluded well before noon.

It was a beautiful day in May. Scientists and farmers alike enjoyed the bright sunshine and the brilliant blue of the desert sky as they drove along Highway 12 and turned to cross the Yakima River Bridge into Benton City. At 8:00 it was 77 degrees. The weather was so nice, it was almost a shame to go to church. The parking lot filled quickly, and the families filed into the chapel and took their seats in the pews. By 8:30, the chapel was full.

Punctuality was a virtue in this particular church, and Moberly liked to get things going precisely at 8:30 on the dot. If he was a minute early and ready to begin, he would wait for the second hand of the clock on the back wall to run its course to the top before speaking, to ensure the first syllable of his welcome coincided with the vertical arrow. When he approached the podium, everyone was present and all were settled in their seats. The farmers in particular were struck by it—Pastor Moberly ran a tight shop.

Moberly announced the morning's program: prayer, hymn, sermon, hymn, prayer. He liked the structure of his services to have chiasmatic symmetry and tended to prefer—as some congregants had been quick to point out—hymn numbers that were prime. Brother Parkinson gave the opening prayer, asking for rain among other things. The farmers had been enduring a drought. Then Sister Huntley shuffled up to the organ, and Sister Jones rose with her baton to conduct the congregation in singing Hymn Number 199, A Glimpse of Eternity. But as the scientists and farmers began singing, the natural light streaming into the chapel started to fade dramatically. It was almost as though, outside the chapel windows, someone was turning out the lights of the world.

Minutes earlier, when the stragglers from Horse Heaven Hills had been pulling off 10th Street into the parking lot, there had been no cloud in the sky. Now, in the gathering gloom, some farmers figured a flash storm must have rushed up from Walla Walla or blown down from Rattlesnake Mountain. As he sang, Pastor Moberly's gaze swung towards the long slender window to his left. He packed enough brainpower that he could keep singing the song without looking at the words and still calculate the convection convergences necessary to produce a thermal pattern capable of darkening the sun to this degree in the time it had taken him to sing 9/17ths of the hymn's first verse. But even in this area known for unpredictable weather, today's meteorological configuration constituted a clear anomaly. Still singing, Moberly smiled faintly and looked over at Brother Lockheed, a game theorist who was scrutinizing the windows with suspicion.

Though they admitted light, the windows were rendered opaque by frosted glass. The designers didn't want worshippers being distracted by what was going on outside. It was true to say the religious scientists sometimes had trouble keeping their minds occupied with spiritual matters. For their part, the farmers saw the darkening as a welcome portent of rain. By the middle of the hymn's second verse, however, the darkness enveloping the church was even more pronounced. A huge cloudburst was clearly imminent. Moberly looked again towards the windows. He continued to have difficulty assessing the meteorological possibilities. He could detect no ionization of the atmosphere. No indications of pressure modulation. He realized that in the 175 times he had sat on the podium, no other storm had managed so completely to eclipse the exterior light. Things subatomic tended to be his thing, but he was no stranger to the furnace of the sun.

The chapel continued to get darker, and the darkness was beginning to affect the congregation's concentration. The choral voice vacillated as an increasing number of worshippers became distracted by the fading light. Some held their gaze steadfastly forward, discerning a possible divine lesson about focusing on spiritual matters in the face of worldly stimuli. But across the congregation there were cracks in the unified field of voice. Finally, the chorus started to fall apart. People sang at slightly different speeds. Some stopped. Then started. Then stopped again. A strange mood settled over the chapel, fueled by the dissolving commitment of the singers.

There was no precedent for the unraveling song assailing Moberly's ears. Briefly, he saw a mental picture of a graph, time the vertical axis, the sequence of verses the horizontal axis, the disintegrating hymn represented by a jagged line. Still, incredibly, the darkness continued to thicken. No thunder boomed. No lightning flashed. No rain splattered. Moberly quickly computed there was no eclipse in the calendrical vicinity. He caught Bill Lockheed's eye over there at the back. Lockheed had stopped singing and was staring right at the pastor. Moberly gulped. What the hell was going on? Seven minutes after a resplendent morning sun had thrown brilliant shafts of particulate light through the chapel windows, the congregation was sitting in twilight.

Nobody thought of turning on the lights. The massacred hymn was crashing down like a record playing on a record player itself falling to the ground. Moberly saw the seismograph of the wildly fluctuating choral order. Of what, exactly, was it a measure? His mind quickly delivered an answer: distraction. But he also remembered the second law of thermodynamics. The collapsing song was a measure of disorder in a system, a disorder suggesting a conclusion of its own—heat death. Entropy is irreversible! This explains the asymmetry between past and future!

Brothers Coney, Pedersen, and Thomas—a fission team whose members always sat together and played their cards close, even with other church members who had top security clearances—were looking hyperalert. Almost robotically, they placed their hymnbooks in the slots attached to the pew in front of them. Pedersen, the leader of the group, looked straight at Moberly, pursed his lips, raised his eyebrows, and kept them raised. Moberly registered the oblique instruction. The hymn was fizzling out, mostly pushed along by the farmers. It was becoming clear the final verses would not be reached. Some congregants, their features becoming indistinct in the gloom, looked around, mouths open in astonishment. A blasphemous exclamatory prayer intruded into Moberly's usually admirably focused mind: Holy Christ! The organ stopped. Moberly looked over at Sister Huntley, only to see her holding up her hands helplessly and shrugging as she looked at him for guidance. Moberly sagely nodded his head. Sister Jones, who had been casting glances at Moberly over her left shoulder to see if she should continue conducting the mess the singing had become, lowered her baton, and the hymn finally sputtered to a halt, replaced by a stunned silence.

Moberly caught the eye of Brian Ainsworthy, head of the Super Group Propulsion Lab, flashed him an urgent look, and shot his eyes twice sideways towards the chapel exit. Reading the signal, Ainsworthy zoomed over to the doors. He returned, alarmed, seconds later. Standing at the back, he waved his arms at Moberly, his teeth clenched in a wide grimace, then made frantic throat-cutting gestures with a straightened hand. A confused murmur was rising from the congregants. More scientists were heading for the doors, some carrying their children. Moberly approached the podium and spoke nervously into the microphone.

"I think I'm going to have to, um, suspend the morning program. I think we should take a few minutes to, um, see what's going on outside. This service is now over!" The congregants burst into a confusion of tongues. Moberly spoke again. "Brothers and Sisters! We all need to remain calm! I'm sure. I'm quite sure there's no cause for—alarm! This service is suspended until further notice." The murmuring continued. "Please!" All talking stopped. "Please! Do not panic! Keep your children with you. Please—do not under any circumstances go outside! Remain indoors until we have assessed this, this situation."

Children were already starting to cry. At the organ, Sister Huntley had a hand over her mouth. Her shoulders began to shake. The remaining scientists were exiting the chapel quickly. The oldest member, Sister Smith, fell to her 89-year-old knees and started praying out loud. Lord Jesus I call upon thee. Sister Jennings, the Adult Bible Study teacher, who had been guiding her students through the Book of Revelation for several months, leaned against a wall and repeated the same word in a rising diapason of distress: "Omigad. Omigad! Omigad!"

Moberly strode down the aisle and swerved towards the lobby. A large group gathered before the glass of the now locked exterior doors. Brother Aldridge, leader of Hanford's 3-D Graphics Project, shot past Moberly on his way back to the chapel. Moberly overheard Aldridge talking to himself with calm resilience: "This is it. This is it. I've seen the fallout configurations in the mainframe simulations." Aldridge started to lose his cool as he fought the crowd rushing out of the chapel.

"Where are my children? Where are my children? Rachel? Rebecca?"

Just ahead of Moberly, three members approached the exterior doors, looked up at the heavens, and promptly fell to their knees. Around them, people looked upwards in various postures of horror. Farther back in the lobby, adults were busily lying to their children to keep them calm. By the drinking fountain, Sister Grenoble was supine on the floor, laughing hysterically and chanting: "I am ready, Lord. I am ready. Take me Lord!" White foam was pooling at the edges of her mouth. "I've lived a good life!" she yelled between shrieks of laughter. "I have no regrets! I have nothing on my conscience!" Over by the hallway to the classrooms, a group of Gospel Youth burst into an impromptu rendition of "Nearer, My God, To Thee." No one spoke of a storm. Someone was saying they had heard a boom. Ten minutes ago. A low boom. It had sounded like an explosion perhaps.

Moberly retained his skepticism, but his mind could not process all the sensory data bombarding it. He noted a strange distension of time as he wove across the lobby. Finally, shoving a few people unceremoniously aside, he reached the glass doors and peered up at the sky. Taking in what his eyes saw, Moberly let out an exclamation none had ever heard escape his lips: "Sonofabitch!" The cloudless skies beneath which he had driven the family's Pontiac Bonneville Safari from West Richland to Benton City had changed utterly. From horizon to horizon, as far as the eye could see, ominous black clouds thousands of feet high boiled towards him at speed. Clearly these were not rain clouds. Computing the visual information relayed by his optical nerves, Moberly's cortical circuits leapt into association. The Trinity detonation. Oppenheimer. Los Alamos. Flaws in the Dewey Early Warning System. Human error. Goddamn drunken Alaskans! Failed insurance policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. Adding to his confusion, voices not his own, unbidden, started speaking intermittently in his head. Anger be now your song.

He stretched a fist towards the black clouds surging towards him and rushing overhead. "Goddamn you!" he shouted. "Goddamn you, whoever did this!" The young son of a watermelon farmer looked up at him in wide-eyed amazement. To hear such profanity in church! From Pastor Moberly himself! For the longest minutes of his entire life, Moberly glared at the heavens. So this was what the apocalypse looked like! All that was missing were the horsemen. He had never seen anything like what he was seeing now. Nothing even remotely on this scale. His mouth dropped open. Never before had he known such awe at what his senses relayed. The Nevada tests he had observed suddenly seemed minor. He recalled some visual features of the Castle Bravo explosion at Bikini Atoll. There was a strange and striking quality, also, in what he saw and how his mind reacted to it. The fascination of his eyes made it difficult to tear his gaze away, even as the scene around him in the lobby degenerated into Pandemonium.

Someone was shouting at the singers to shut up, for God's sake. Couldn't they see they were freaking out the kids? Many children were now crying, their little faces twisted. Mothers sobbed and clutched their babies. The customarily serene visages of believers had metamorphosed into a demonology of facial distortions. A cluster of ashen-faced scientists stood in a corner, grimly shaking their heads. A zucchini farmer responded to the mayhem with an eschatological joke in bad taste. "At times like this I wish we believed in the rapture!" Nobody laughed. Nobody remonstrated. The jester fell silent. "We're in the right place," a solemn voice intoned. "If we're gonna go, this is the place right here—the Lord's house! I wouldn't wanna be noplace else!" Suddenly a loud voice sounded like a trumpet: "A radio! There's a radio in the custodian's office! Who has the keys? Somebody must have the keys! We could listen for news!"

But Moberly looked back hopelessly at the seething heavens. In spite of all he knew and had seen, he was astonished by the juggernaut of clouds. Fall beneath my wheels, ye mortals, and be crushed! His whirring mind continued to compute. Analyze the phenomena. Strange absence of vapor accumulation. Clouds of solid matter. Billions of cubic meters of debris. Millions of tons. Dust. Solid rock. Earth itself atomized and ionized. Recombinant elements. The energy driving the clouds amazed him. Both the force itself and its global distribution. Moberly knew of no single thermonuclear device capable of releasing energy on this scale. It had to be an entire arsenal. One thing was for sure—nothing could have survived in the coastal areas. Portland, Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle, Vancouver—they had all become Breughel landscapes of appalling destruction. Moberly stared at the boiling skies above him. As his gaze drifted downwards, he saw denizens of Benton City stupidly rushing out of their homes and looking up with terrified faces. A couple hugged each other and wept as they watched the falling sky from the middle of Fay Avenue. A dark object fell from a great height and slammed onto the church lawn with a thump. A pigeon. A second fell onto the pathway. Dead before they hit the ground. Assassinated by the sky.

A fine silver rain was descending. Fallout. Good God! The speed at which it was happening! Scientists were pulling their children back into the chapel and tearing strips off their jackets to wrap around the children's mouths. Moberly pressed his face against the glass of the mercifully well-sealed doors. A layer of fine dust was accumulating. The windshields of parked cars were already covered in it. The air itself was a great plague of toxic particles. The world is charged. Over on Division the automatic streetlights had come on and glowed eerily in the haze.

Though he had contemplated Armageddon as much as the next man, Moberly was astounded to find himself standing at the lobby doors watching Benton City turn into Gog and Magog right before his eyes. Another thump. Another dead bird. One more look at that sky was all he needed. The brain-skiff scanning the cloud-scud read there the terrible text without words. The fallout from the heavy clouds drifted down in a slow downpour of pulverized matter. The heavens shall be rolled together like a scroll. The very fineness of the particles belied the mysterium tremendum of strong force that had created them. Far down the corridor behind him, a voice cried out in the wilderness of Moberly's realizations, but he couldn't distinguish what it said. For him, chaos always generated calculation. The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. One last time, his head tilted upwards, and he looked at the sky. The cloud fields represented the fallout from historically huge explosions. A hundred, a thousand, perhaps even a hundred thousand Hiroshimas. Looking at his watch, Moberly understood the futility of all temporal reference. And time shall be no more. Yet numbers had always been a great comfort to him in the tumult of this world. Man is the measure of all things. And so, as he had so often in his life, Moberly sought refuge on the axial lines of numerical determination. Involuntarily, almost mechanically, he translated the turmoil of events into a fundamental expression, a string of binomial coordinates, a sequence of data: