What's up, Doc?      Sci-fi story

This story is taken from ‘6000 miliard. Sci-fi povídky’ by Jan Váchal, published by Nakladatelství Penrous in 2009. The translation is by Andrew Oakland.

What’s up, Doc?

Silence reigned in the Control Room of Block 16 of the Temelín nuclear power station.

        Then – it was eighteen minutes to ten in the morning – the shift supervisor pointed a shaking finger at the closed-circuit TV monitor and exclaimed, “How did that idiot get in there? Who the hell let him in?”

        Everyone within earshot ran over to the giant screen and gawped at it. All cameras were transmitting what was going on in the Reactor Hall, at whose centre Joe from Maintenance was on his knees waving a dust cloth inside the reactor pressure vessel as though there was nothing to it.

        “Quick! Raise the alarm and turn the bloody thing off!” yelled the supervisor.

        The reaction of his attendants was instantaneous. Sirens blared and boron control rods slid down into the reactor to halt the fission chain reaction. On the monitor Joe from Maintenance looked mildly surprised; otherwise he was following proceedings with undisguised interest.

        “I don’t get it,” the supervisor gasped. “How come he’s still on his feet?”

        The chief engineer just shrugged. “I’ve no idea. With the dose he must have caught, he should be lit up like a Christmas tree.”

They managed at last to get Joe from Maintenance out of the Reactor Hall. The only visible damage done was to the dosimeter he was issued with: it had melted. As he was being decontaminated and cleaned up, Joe asked, “That’s the end of the shift, then, is it?”

        Amazingly the readings showed that his radioactivity was at an acceptable level. As he posed no risk to those around him, a doctor was summoned to examine him straight away.

        While Joe was being examined, the head of Block 16 had a go at him.

What in heaven’s name were you doing in there, lad?”

The foreman told me to dust in there.”

But not in the reactor!” Rage made the head’s voice unsteady.

The doctor waved a hand to calm him: he couldn’t hear through his stethoscope. “Feel anything?”

        “Like what?”

        “I don’t know.” The doctor tried to be more specific. “You must be able to be able to feel something.”

        “I’m a bit peckish.”

       The doctor scratched behind his ear. “I meant any pain, or a burning sensation, or nausea. Something like that.”

        “No. I’m fine.”

        At this point the doctor left Joe and took the head to one side. “He appears to be in good shape,” he said. “We’ll find out more after they’ve done a complex examination using proper apparatus. There’s nothing more I can do.”

        The doctor left.

        In the meantime Joe had been spinning around quietly in his chair.

        “You’re wanted in Reception, boss.”

        After shaking his fist in the direction of the spinning Joe, the head was on his way out of the sick room. “Keep a proper eye on him!” he barked over his shoulder.

The head was greeted by his deputy. “There’s a doctor from Prague on his way to see us, Mirek. About the radioactive maintenance chap.”

        “A doctor? What does he want?”

        “I don’t know. But he’ll be right here.”

        There was a moment of silence. Neither of them felt much like talking.

        The guest arrived. “Good morning. I’m Doctor Marek. I attend to Joseph Jílek.”

        “We have our own doctor,” said the deputy.

        “And a psychiatrist?”

        “No, but we’ll soon be needing more than one of those,” the boss said crossly.

        “Might I know what Joey’s been up to this time?”

        “He was caught cleaning a nuclear reactor while it was fully operational. Is that enough for you?”

        The doctor was not disconcerted. “What you need to understand, gentlemen, is that Joe has the IQ of steam iron.”

        “You don’t get it, do you? There’s massive radiation in a reactor. He got a lethal dose several times over.”

        “Is there anything obviously wrong with him?”

        “That’s the odd thing. There isn’t.”

      The doctor nodded. “Of course there isn’t. He’s so stupid that not even radiation can get through to him.”

        All those who heard this goggled in amazement at it.

        “May I speak to him?”

        “Of course,” said the deputy. Then he turned to the door and called to his staff, “Bring him in!”

        “Let me tell you something, gentlemen,” the doctor went on. “When Joe was working at a chemical plant – somewhere in North Bohemia, I think it was – he dropped his keys in a tub of sulphuric acid. What do you think he did? He rolled up his sleeve and waved his arm about in the tub for fifteen minutes. He gave up only after the foreman told him what he was doing was pointless, that the keys had dissolved long before.”

        “That’s crazy!” said the boss and the deputy in unison.

        “You can’t imagine half of what I’ve encountered in the time I’ve been working in mental hospitals.”

        Everyone in the room was listening in; no one could believe his ears.

        Joe arrived from the sick room. “What’s up, Doc!”

        “Hiya, Joe! What have you done this time, for goodness’ sake?”

        “Just what they told me to do. The dusting.”

        “But not where they told you to do it. Because of you they had to shut down the whole block. Probably they’ll make an incident out of it, and that means the Austrian papers’ll be full of it again. Can’t you be a little more careful?”

        Joe just shrugged.

       “And anyway, what are you doing here? The last time we let you out of the hospital, you had a job waiting in Prague.”

        “They gave me the boot.”

        “What a surprise! Why?”

        “I was building up my resistance.”

        “What are you on about now, Joey?”

        “I really was, Doc. I started building up my resistance, and once, when I was on my own and I’d finished all my jobs, I decided to do a bit of training. I cut a hole in the ice, but there was no water underneath.”

        “I see. Well, I suppose it’s no surprise, then, that the people at the ice rink didn’t want you working there any more.”

        “I still don’t understand why they fired me, Doc.”

        “So then you came to work here?”

        “No. I got this gig at the station. Clearing snow.”

        “And that was OK?”

       “Yeah, but it was really cold. My hands kept freezing. Once, when I was clearing snow from some carriage roofs, I grabbed the lines overhead. To warm myself up a bit.”

       “Wait a sec, Joey. Wasn’t that at the end of January? When the trains didn’t run from Prague to Ostrava for three days?”

        “You noticed then, Doc.”

       “It was difficult to overlook. The TV was full of it. Fifteen kilometres of cable went up in flames.”

        “I know. Maybe that was why they didn’t want me working there any more.”

        “At least here you haven’t caused much damage.”

       “The alarm clock thing they gave me fell to pieces.” Joe indicated his breast pocket. “The deformator or whatever they call it.”

        “You mean the dosimeter?”

        “That’s it.”

        “I don’t think that’s much of a problem. What do you say, Joey, to coming back with me to the hospital? You could stay with us for a few weeks.”

        “Today? But they’ve got kidneys for lunch tomorrow.”

        “We’ve got buns with cream.”

        “All right, Doc. You’re on.”

        “But don’t count on getting back your old job in the laundry.” The doctor gave a firm shake of the head, before adding an explanation for the others. “Last time he wanted to know what was on the other side of the roller in the mangle. We had to wait three weeks for them to deliver a new roller from Germany.”

        “It was a con anyway, Doc. On the other side there was the laundry, just the same.”

        “Get your stuff, then, wise guy, and we’ll be on our way. There’s an ambulance down by the main gate. I’ll just have a few more words with these gentlemen here.”

        Joe nodded and then left.

      "Quite a card, isn’t he? Listen, gentlemen, I’ll take him to our place for observation. I’ll send a report to your doctor and deal with the rest of it through your directors. It was nice to meet you.”

        For some time after the doctor’s exit everyone stood in stunned amazement.

We’d been laughing since we left Earth. And that’s some way beyond Saturn.

        “That was quite a stunt, dusting in that reactor.”

        “Your sulphuric acid story was world-class, too. A real jaw-dropper.”

        “It was, wasn’t it? They’re probably still rooted to the spot now.”

        “I don’t know what you think, but this is the photo I like best.”

        I took another look at it. “It’s really good, but that other one’s not bad either.”

        “True, but this one’s the clear leader.”

        I had to admit that it was.

       He took a while to make up his mind for sure. In the meantime we passed Pluto. Having multiplied our speed, we were heading for home.

        “I’ll send this one,” he said finally.

       “The right choice, I’m sure. The Most Terrified Earthling. You’ve got a great chance of defending last year’s title with that. Who knows, the Universe Press Photo jury might even consider it for the main prize.”

© Jan Váchal