Title: Nuclear Sunrise
Author: Jo Carthage
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: 12/19/2023
Heat Level: 3 – Some Sex
Genre: Historical, historical/1950s, science fiction, romance, interracial, bisexual, gay, military, blue slips, scientific installation, Idaho desert, family drama, physical and mental abuse, homophobia, racism, sexist language, othering, in the closet, Atomic Age, science romance.
It’s 1951, and US Air Force Captain Brian Flynn hails from Roswell, New Mexico. He’s twenty-six, queer, and back in the closet thanks to his homophobic father. And he’s deeply tired of alien jokes. But Brian has bigger worries than his hometown’s recent extraterrestrial reputation. Brian’s the new security director at a top-secret atomic energy research facility in the sage-dusted plains of Idaho. His job is simple: keep any plutonium from walking out the door, keep the scientists safe from themselves, or, failing that, keep them from killing anyone else.
Nuclear physicist Dr. Aaron Antares is a cowboy in every sense of the word: the boots, the attitude, the homoerotic overtones. But in addition to gleefully violating every security procedure Brian can come up with, he’s also keeping a secret.
Brian knows Aaron is dangerous long before he discovers his out-of-this-world secret. The man flirts too freely, laughs too loudly, and can’t play straight to save his life. But Aaron’s amber eyes and gen-tle offers of a ride home in the flurrying Idaho snows are wearing down Brian’s defenses.
Will these two men find love in the high desert, or will they be kept apart by the cruelties of the Atomic Age?
Jo Carthage © 2023
All Rights Reserved
September 11, 1951
Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 (19.9 miles outside of Arco, ID)
Captain Brian Flynn slung his duffel bag over his shoulder with a grimace as he stepped out of the air force Jeep, boots crunching in the black volcanic gravel. An older white man in a lab coat hustled out of the massive white cinder block building that nearly glowed in the Idaho twilight. Brian settled his feet a little more firmly in front of the building that would be his home for the next two years as his ride peeled away, heading back east toward the saw-toothed mountains.
Brian’s attention snapped to the approaching scientist, and he forced a smile; he had to make this posting work. He had to.
The man’s broad grin made him look a half century younger. Brian felt something lift in his chest. The man’s voice was a warm baritone when he said, “Welcome to our little science experiment.”
His hand-stitched name tag identified him as Dr. Zinn, the chief scientist of this project. He turned to face the installation, its anonymously industrial architecture stark against a sunset-gilded sea of scrubby sage and dark stone. “It sure is a shitty-looking building.”
Brian kept his face stony. “I couldn’t say, sir.”
Dr. Zinn’s gray eyes twinkled, but he kept a straight face. “They picked this site for the Experimental Breeder Reactor number 1—EBR-1 to those of us who know and love her—so if we all blow ourselves up tomorrow, it’ll be a thousand years of poisoned water for the local cows rather than a real metropolitan area. The fact that they built it to look like a high school gymnasium speaks more to the air force’s aesthetics than our mission here.”
Brian glanced back across the vast volcanic plain to the mountains, the last of the light shining off their man-eating snowdrifts. “Beautiful mountains though. I’ve never lived near the Rockies, and with all the sage, it smells like New Mexico.” He ground a heel in the gravel beneath his military-issue boots. “The soil here is all volcanic, right? So it’s too impermeable for any uranium spill to touch the aquifers of the Snake River Valley? Since they’re buried under a thousand square miles of pahoehoe and aa and the intrusive basaltic flows that underpin them?”
Dr. Zinn’s eyes widened. “I knew you had a physics background from your commander’s letter of introduction, but I didn’t know you had an interest in geology as well.”
Brian shook his head with a smile. “Only as it relates to atomic energy production. And I had a lot of downtime at my last base and free access to UCLA’s library.”
“Very good, Captain,” Dr. Zinn said. A gust of early fall wind blew around them, and Brian shivered in his thin uniform shirt. Zinn patted his arm, and Brian held back a flinch. “Let’s get you inside.”
He gestured for Brian to follow him across the parking lot toward the lab. A junior airman opened the door and saluted; Brian returned his salute and stepped inside. He yanked off his hat as the airman swept a Geiger counter over Dr. Zinn’s shoes, pants, chest, shoulders, and hands. Brian followed, holding his arms out for his wanding, eyes sweeping from the leaded-glass shielding around a sort of chamber on his left to a thick-walled vault on his right. Above him hung a tangle of tubes covered in a layer of asbestos that would carry liquid metal to the small reactor in the center of the building. Given the pipes’ design, Brian figured it would be a sodium-potassium alloy, rather than the light water or graphite the folks at Oak Ridge were experimenting with. Then Brian stepped through the metal detector, glancing up. A high catwalk swept around the three quarters of the building, presumably leading to a few control rooms and labs. And in the middle of everything stood a steel spiral staircase leading up to the nuclear reactor platform. No windows and only one way in or out; good for avoiding Russki spies, bad in case of a fire.
Dr. Zinn tapped him on the shoulder. “Captain, you can leave your bag with Junior Airman Freeman. He’s on the night shift again, and most of the scientists have headed home already, so he can keep an eye on it while we get acquainted.”
Brian nodded and laid the book-heavy duffel with what remained of his earthly possessions down behind the guard’s single folding chair. He straightened up, hiding a wince.
“I’ve got some paperwork for you in my office,” Dr. Zinn continued, “then I’ll give you the grand tour.”
Brian followed him along polished concrete floors to an office the size of a closet. Brian got the distinct impression Dr. Zinn would rather be out in the lab than in this tiny room, but leadership demanded a price from everybody.
“All right, son,” he started once he was seated behind his paper-engulfed desk. Brian perched on the edge of the chair and avoided leaning back. “We probably only need to have this conversation once. But this is an Argonne Labs project, and your authority as the incoming security director and as an officer in the air force extends exclusively to the uranium we are working with. The plutonium, too, when we figure out how to make it at scale here. It doesn’t mean you can tell my dozen-odd scientists what to do, even if they are pains in the butt. It doesn’t—”
Brian held up his hand. “Let me stop you there.” He tried to think of a diplomatic way to say it, then he just bulled through. “I don’t have a lot of ego tied up in this role. If by the end of two years, no uranium or plutonium has been lost or stolen, I’ll count that as a win. My commanding officer back at Vandenberg will as well.” Brian paused and then asked slowly, “Did he tell you why I requested this role?”
“No, son. He didn’t even tell me you requested it. I figured you’d been volun-told—”
“No, I requested it. Just like I requested Vandenberg right out of West Point.” He saw the doctor straighten at the name of his alma mater.
“Duty, Honor, Country?”
“Duty, Honor, Country,” Brian replied. He looked at the piles of textbooks heaped on the bookcase wedged between two overflowing filing cabinets; several of the spines sported Dr. Zinn’s name. “Cards on the table. I requested this posting because I want to be good enough to work here someday. I had the option of Los Alamos, Travis, or Oak Ridge, but I’m not going back home to New Mexico again if I can help it. Travis was straight security, no science. And Oak Ridge is working on weapons projects.” He leaned forward, eyes intent. “EBR-1 is the only project in the US focused on using atomic energy for peaceful means. That’s the work I want to be a part of.”
Dr. Zinn sat back, eyes beginning to brighten as he gestured for him to go on.
“I graduated with a degree in physics from West Point in ’48, but they didn’t want to send me to grad school right away. So I went to help run security at Vandenberg, to get to know the conventional weapons research side. With support of my commander, I applied and had been accepted to UCLA’s PhD program, was due to start this week, but”—he took a hard breath—“the air force had other plans. So this is me, doing my service so I can separate honorably in two more years and use my GI Bill to get a physics doctorate. And,” he said, lowering his voice with a tiny smile, “I find that when I’m stationed someplace with a lot of physicists, I get to have a lot higher quality coffee break conversations, no matter my actual title. I was hoping it would be the same here.”
“And a recommendation letter from a chief scientist for one of the national labs would go a long way to getting back into UCLA or an even better program when your two years is up?”
“I’m not gunning for that, Dr. Zinn. I’m here to do my job. I’m sure we’ll butt heads at some point, so I don’t want to have that between us. But what I want you to know is that I am here because I believe in your mission—good, reliable energy for millions. Turning a power that killed 210,000 people into a source of life. Helping with that seems worth spending two Idaho winters wanding scientists coming into and out of a cinder block building in the middle of the high desert.”
“You said two years. That’s how long your assignment is for?”
“You know we’re a time-bound mission,” Dr. Zinn said, folding his hands across his belly. “As soon as we achieve it—breed the plutonium from the uranium, that is—they’ll bulldoze this place, and no one will ever know that we did the work.”
Brian tilted his head. “But it’s not about credit, is it, sir?”
Dr. Zinn’s eyes caught his, widening a touch. “No, Captain. It never is.” Then he clapped his hands, leaning forward. “All right, it seems we’re on the same page. Here is the briefing packet Captain Jerush put together before he caught the bus out of Idaho Falls yesterday.” He handed over a black folder. “It has current threats, past incidents. Nothing too thrilling; I promise. You have a six person staff—”
Brian nodded. “That was in the briefing I got before leaving Vandenberg. I used the Greyhound ride from Roswell to plan out the new schedule until the reading lights went out. I’m going to put myself in the rotation with ten-hour shifts. So the rest of the team’s shifts will be seven hours of watch duty, which we can extend to eight for training, research, and paperwork if they end up needing it—”
Dr. Zinn gave him a knowing smile. “I do find that as the days get shorter, tempers do, too, so giving those young men a break will probably help everyone’s nerves. Can I ask which shift you’re planning on taking? Not because I have approval power of any kind, mind. I’m just curious if I’ll see you around for some of those ‘coffee break conversations.’”
“I’m that rare beast that enjoys nightshifts, so unless one of those under my command has a major preference, I’ll take those solo.”
Dr. Zinn nodded. “In a few months’ time, there’s going to be little enough sunlight during the day, so you won’t be missing much.” He took a breath. “There’s really only one of our scientists who uses the lab after eight o’clock.” He checked his watch. “We’ll probably see him when I show you the reactor. He’s a night owl. Honestly, I think it’s because he likes talking to the reactor when he’s working, and even he’s realized it scares the nurses. So he’s restricted himself to times no one will eyeball him over it.”
“I’ve worked with scientists before,” Brian said evenly. “Like I said, to me, that’s one of the perks.”
Dr. Zinn shook his head, neatening a stack of papers on the edge of his desk, which only threatened to unbalance the whole edifice. “We’ll see what you say after six months of dealing with his, shall we say, unorthodox approach to nuclear material management. It’s scared airmen off in the past.”
Brian frowned, leaning forward in his chair, barely feeling the fresh scabs on his back stretching under his uniform. “As long as the ‘unorthodox approach’ doesn’t lead to it going missing or irradiating anyone, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Meet the Author
Jo Carthage is a bi, cis woman living in Silicon Valley. In her career, Jo has worked with survivors of labor and sex trafficking in DC, helped get incredible women and queer folks elected to state and national office in three states, and thinks politics and science fiction go together beautifully. Jo’s grandfather worked as a nuclear physicist at Oak Ridge in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until a 2019 family road trip veered off course and she spent an afternoon at EBR-1 that she started to write Atomic Age fiction.
Jo was honored to have Nuclear Sunrise favorably reviewed by the Director of the Mescalero Apache Cultural Center and intends to donate a portion of proceeds to their important work. As a writer, Jo loves slow burn, hurt/comfort, queer history, enemies-to-lovers, and happy endings.
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