The Girl at Panel 857


by Gilles Messier


Oak Ridge, Tennessee

January 5, 1945

MAJOR WINTERS marched briskly down the hall, his polished boots clicking a sharp cadence on the linoleum. Vera, shuffling in her pencil skirt, could barely keep pace. Her pumps slid precariously on the newly-buffed surface.

"Keep up," Winters growled. "Eyes forward."

With an obedient squeak, Vera reined in her wandering eyes. It couldn’t be helped: already through the endless procession of bulkhead-green doors she had glimpsed strange and wonderful sights: hulking machines bristling with wires and dials, gleaming laboratories bustling with white-coated scientists, chalkboards scrawled with arcane equations. The whole building hummed with activity, the nature of which she could only guess. Whatever it was, it must have been important; from every wall bold letters shouted: THE WALLS HAVE EARS.

Vera fixed her gaze on the back of Winters' head, where a swatch of cropped hair peeked from his canted forage cap. He was a fine-looking man, she thought: the young ambitious type, the kind who could get any girl he wanted. But to him Vera seemed little more than a stray dog or tagalong child; a necessary nuisance in the line of duty. Was he just playing up his military discipline, she wondered, or was he, like so many of them, truly married to the Service?

The hall grew darker as they passed deeper into the complex. There were no windows here. The walls were bare concrete, the doors slabs of solid metal. Above each portal glowed a matched pair of red and green bulbs, like oversized Christmas lights. The hall smelled of wet concrete and fresh paint, as if the whole structure had been raised overnight.

"Through here", said Winters, halting before one of the doors. The words were clipped, pointed; orders tapped in Morse code. Eyes downcast, Vera scurried through under his hard gaze.

“Oh!” Her hand flew to her lips as the sound slipped out. Through the door was a sight like nothing she had seen before: a long, cavernous hall, its walls lined floor to ceiling with rank upon rank of hulking control panels. The scale of the place was disorientating: the battleship-grey monoliths seemed to stretch on forever, like a funhouse mirror at the county fair. On wooden stools before each panel sat an army of young women, eyes locked forward as they diligently adjusted the rows of black knobs and glowing dials. Save for a low electric hum and the soft clicking of switches, the hall was silent.

A man approached from the far end of the hall, clipboard in hand and necktie tucked into his shirt pocket. He cast a skeptical eye over Vera.
"New one for me, Major?"
Winters nodded.
“They just keep ‘em coming, don’t they?” the man sighed. He turned to Vera. “I’m Dr. Riley, Beta 2 supervisor.”
“Vera Mason. How do you...” Vera started, politely extending her hand.
"You'll be at 857," Riley interrupted, gesturing to a vacant panel. “Sit down.”

Vera dropped obediently into her seat, demurely folding her hands in her lap. Not wasting a moment, Riley launched into fusillade of instructions, finger flying in quick jerks over the bewildering array of dials and gauges.
"Right, now you see these two gauges here? You'll need to maintain those between 44.95 and 45.05. Top gain is that knob here, bottom gain that one there. That selector switch there toggles between coarse and fine adjust. Now, when you adjust these, your voltage reading on that gauge there is going to wander, so you're gonna want to..."

"Um, I'm sorry, Mist - er- Doctor," said Vera. "But please...what does this machine do?”

Riley frowned.

"That's classified," said Major Winters. “Now you will do what Dr. Riley tells you to and refrain from asking any more questions. Is that understood?”
Vera nodded.

"Thank you Major," said Riley. "I can take it from here." With a curt nod, Winters departed.

Vera shook her head. What were you thinking, she thought. Of course she should have known to keep her mouth shut; hadn’t the recruiters said the work was Top Secret? That why she had signed up - to do her bit for Victory. What was it that the soldiers said? She’d heard it on a radio program once. Ours not to question why, but to do or die. Or something like that.

“Hello?” snapped Riley, tapping his clipboard on the panel. “Hey, wake up!”
“Yes,” said Vera brightly, turning to face the panel. “I’m listening.”

Nashville, Tennessee

April 11, 1961

From the powder room, Vera heard the click and hiss of the television switching on. She set down her hairdryer and listened to the broadcast.

"...began today in Jerusalem. Eichmann, director of transportation for Hitler's 'Final Solution' , stands accused of arranging the deportation and extermination of some six million Jews. Captured last year in Buenos Aires by Israeli Intelligence he now stands trial before the very people he once attempted to exterminate. Here Eichmann arrives in the courtroom, shielded behind bulletproof glass to prevent any administration of vigilante justice. The judges at this tribunal are..."


Vera gave herself a final preening glance in the mirror, then trotted down the stairs to the living room. “Honey,” she called. "You're going to be late for work."
"I got a few minutes," muttered Charlie, smoking on the sofa. "Chief Engineer’s usually a half hour late anyway."
"Well, then I'll be late," said Vera.
“Relax, will ya?” said Charlie dismissively, staring at the screen.

With a quiet sigh, Vera retrieved her coat and purse. She loitered in the entryway for a few minutes, then sat down at the kitchen table and lit a cigarette. She leafed restlessly through that morning’s paper as the broadcaster’s tinny voice carried on it the living room.

“Can you believe this guy?” Charlie snorted. "'Only following orders.’ Goddamn krauts."
“Well, weren’t you ever given orders you didn’t agree with?” said Vera absently.
“What?”

There was a pause, then a click as Charlie switched off the television. A moment later he appeared in the kitchen doorway, fuming.
“The hell are you getting at?” he hissed.
“Oh, nothing,” said Vera. “Just...well, he was a soldier, wasn’t he? Maybe he didn’t know what he was transporting.”
“Really?” Charlie scoffed. “I think if my orders were to murder six million innocent people, I’d know about it. And I sure as hell wouldn’t follow them.”
“I know, I just - ”
“What’s gotten into you?” Charlie snapped. “You weren’t there; you were in some stateside factory. What the fuck do you know about it?”

Vera sat, stunned, as the ash falling from her trembling cigarette burned holes in the formica. First the nightmares, now this. It was getting worse.

“Innocent guys don’t run to South America,” said Charlie. “Bastard’s guilty, far as I’m concerned.”

Then he was gone.

Waiting in the entryway, Vera idly ran her finger over the picture frames lining the hall. Vera beaming proudly in her gown, diploma in hand. Vera and Charlie at the altar. The lei-swathed honeymoon in Hawaii. She paused at the last frame, and lifted it from the wall. Charlie and his crew squatted by a long train of bombs, snaking into the silver fuselage of their B-29 bomber looming overhead. Each gleaming white cylinder bore a slogan - “Tojo’s Terror,” “Direct Hiro-hit-o,” “Tokyo Rose.” One corner, above the crew’s scrawled signatures, bore the caption: 504 BG, Tinian ’45. We gave ‘em hell.

She heard Charlie descending the stairs, and hastily put the photo back. She waited in silence as he donned his coat an hat.

“I’m sorry,” she finally said. “You’re right: an awful man. I hope he hangs.”
Charlie smirked and pecked her on the cheek.

“Come on,” he said. “Don’t want to be late.”

Oak Ridge

March 16, 1945

Vera chanced a glance at the clock. Her eyes flicked for just a moment, then immediately returned to the safety of the control panel. She counted to ten under her breath, but the pace of Riley’s patrolling footsteps remained unchanged. Good: she had already been reprimanded for watching the clock. That simple dial, however, had become the most interesting instrument in the room. Only a month before, reining in the restlessly drifting dials had been an exercise in desperate vigilance. Eight-hour shifts would fly past. Now Vera’s hands seemed to move of their own accord, guided by instinct, correcting the most errant twitch within seconds. She played her panel like a musical instrument, and it sang contentedly all day. But her mastery had been rewarded with tedium; once-frantic shifts had slowed to an endless crawl. There were times she wished she had chosen another posting - an aircraft factory, perhaps, like her sister. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference, she thought; after a while, every rivet and propeller probably started to look the same.

At long last, the clock read eight o'clock.

"SHIFT CHANGE!" said Dr. Riley.

As the night shift filed in, Vera made a few final adjustments to her panel. When she finally rose to leave, something odd struck her. Marcia, her friend who operated panel 855, was nowhere to be seen. In her place sat a young girl in slacks, staring in vexed bewilderment at the dials and gauges before her.
“Excuse me,” Vera whispered. “Where's Marcia?”
Who? said the girl with a helpless shrug.

“NO TALKING!” barked Dr. Riley from a cross the hall. Flustered, the new girl snapped her gaze forward.

Vera joined a stream of shift workers as it flowed the hill towards the mess hall. Everyone travelled in groups; it was easy to get lost at night. Vera could never understand why the compound was kept so dark; the cities on the coast blacked out against the U-boats, but they were 400 miles from the ocean. Of course, everything about Oak Ridge was strange. Nobody spoke of work. Not a word. At shift’s end, the day seemed to vanish. It had never happened. They spoke of the latest Bogart movie or Crosby song, or who was who’s thrill, but never of work. If they did, a Military Policeman was never more than a few paces away to tell you to shut your mouth.

Vera fetched her tray from the Army cooks and joined the other girls for dinner.

"So Rosie, how was your night with Bill?" Eleanor teased. Rosie shot a dirty look from across the table; despite her best efforts, her reputation had already spread across the compound. Rosie was a smart girl - she could tune a dial with the best of them - but her reasons for coming to Oak Ridge were less than patriotic. So secret was the work - whatever it was - that the men often found themselves denied leave for months on end - easy prey for Rosie’s considerable charms. On some far-flung battlefield, weary and homesick, GI might be able to resist the wiles of an Italian or French beauty; but on home soil, with an American girl, they had no chance. Bill was her fourth so far - “Rosie the Riveter” indeed.

"If you have to ask, he was dead boring," Rosie sighed. "He takes me to the movies, then drops me back home right after. Said he had 'important calculations' to do."
"Eggheads," said Betty, rolling her eyes. "Rather figure out equations than girls."
"Sorry, but have any of you seen Marcia?" Vera interjected. "She wasn't at her station tonight. There was a new girl..."

A pause. Betty and Eleanor exchanged nervous glances.

"Her...bunk was empty this morning," said Eleanor, voice quivering. "An MP came and took all her things."
"You know what?" said Rosie, with a sudden look of realization. "I saw her at the movies last night with some guy. Some MPs came in and took her away."
Betty rolled her eyes. "Probably kicked her out. Girl never could keep her mouth shut."

"Ladies," came a sharp male voice from behind. The girls jumped. An MP in white webbing loomed over them.

“E...evening, sir.”
“What were you talking about?” the MP grunted.
“Oh...nothing,” said Betty.
“Good,” said the MP, turning away. “Keep it that way.”
“Wait,” said Vera. The MP stopped. “Do you know anything about Marcia Strong? We can’t find her.”

The MP turned slowly around, stony-faced.

“Sorry to have to inform you,” he said gravely. “But miss Strong is dead.”

Knoxville

September 23, 1949

"...thus proving nothing can exceed the speed of light."

The Professor paused from his relentless back-and-forth pacing to erase a swath of dense calculations from the chalkboard. "Shortly after publishing his 1905 paper, Einstein revised it and introduced everyone's favourite formula."

With great flourish, the professor scrawled a simple equation:

E=MC2

"This states that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. That's it for Special Relativity. Now on to General Relativity, which Einstein developed to factor in gravity... "
"Excuse me, Professor?" said Vera, raising her hand. The professor squinted at her.
"Miss Mason," he said gruffly.
"I’m sorry, Professor, but I don’t think I understand. Can you give a practical example?"
"A practical example?" the professor scoffed. "I'm afraid you won't find many practical applications for Special Relativity down on the farm, Miss Mason."

The class roared with laughter. Vera blushed and made to leave, but to brave the gauntlet of gawking students would have been unbearable. She sat back down and dropped her eyes to her lap.

"Well Miss Mason, let me give you a practical example," said the professor as the laughter tapered off. "Can I assume you read newspapers?"
Meekly, Vera nodded. "Yes, Professor."
"So you know about the Atom Bomb?"
"Yes, a little bit..."
"Well," said the professor. "The first atomic bomb we dropped on Japan had the explosive energy of eighteen thousand tons of TNT. Do you know how much Uranium that bomb used?" The professor stared directly at Vera.
"Well, n...no..." she stammered.
"Thirty-four pounds. Einstein's equation tells us that mass is just a concentrated form of energy. The amount of energy in any object is equal to its mass times the speed of light squared. Now, Miss Mason, can you tell me how many people died in Hiroshima?"

Vera shook her head.

"130,000 people. Like that," said the professor, snapping his fingers. "Vaporized where they stood. Or killed by flying debris. Or burned in the firestorm. Or died of radiation poisoning."

The professor paused for effect. The room had fallen deathly silent.

"Now," he continued. "The speed of light is a big number: one hundred and eighty six thousand miles per second. This means that a small amount of mass contains a vast amount of energy. Interestingly, not all of the thirty-four pounds of Uranium in the Hiroshima bomb was converted to energy. Most was vaporized and scattered in the blast. Do you know how much was converted to energy?"

Vera shook her head again.

"Does anyone else know?" the professor asked the class.

Silence. The professor reached into his desk, and held something up between his fingers. It was small, and it sparkled in the lights of the lecture hall.

"Three hundredths of a gram," he announced. "Less than this paper clip. That much Uranium killed 130,000 people."

Silence. A shiver ran down Vera's spine.

"Well," said the Professor, breaking the tension. "All I can say is: be glad that God and Mr. Einstein are on our side!"

The class chuckled, and the professor returned to scrawling his equations on the blackboard.

"Not anymore", a voice whispered beside Vera. It was Charlie Cooper, the only man in class who would speak to her. A fellow farmer, he’d joined Air Force during the war and gotten into college on the GI Bill. He was a swell guy: down-to-earth, quick with a joke. But today his face was ashen.

"What is it?" said Vera.

Charlie did not speak. From his lap he slowly raised a copy of that day's paper. A single headline screamed across the page:

RUSS. HAVE A-BOMB

Oak Ridge

May 4, 1945

The footsteps and murmur of voices grew louder, eclipsing the soft patter of switches that filled the hall. Vera glanced to the door, and briefly caught the wandering gaze of Gladys at panel 855. Startled, the poor girl snapped her eyes away, retreating to the safety of her dials and gauges. Vera suddenly felt a pang of emptiness. It had been nearly two months, but Marcia’s death was still fresh in everyone’s minds. There had been no announcement, no body, no funeral. The Beta 2 girls had held a token memorial in the chapel, but that was all. She was just gone. The official cause of death - at least, that which they could glean from MPs - was a bad batch of smuggled moonshine. Shocking, thought Vera, but not entirely surprising: Marcia had been the adventurous type - a little too much for her own good. And there the matter should have lain, at least as far as the Army was concerned. Accept it, move on, and get back to work, they had said. Vera had tried, but still something lingered within her, refusing to leave. Then there were the rumors. Whispers at every meal. Whispers after lights out....

The door creaked open, and three figures entered the hall. The first, a stout barrel-chested man with a sparse mustache, wore stars on his cap - a general. He was followed by tall, wiry man with a gaunt face, and a younger man - almost a boy - clutching a camera.

"Here's the control room for Beta 2, General," said the young man. "Staffed 24 hours in 8-hour shifts. We keep her humming day and night."
"Julius!" called Dr. Riley, striding from across the hall. "What are you doing here? Desert too hot for you?"
"If it were, I wouldn't be here," said the thin man, wiping sweat from his brow. "So these are the famous girls Ed here keeps talking about?"
Riley frowned. "My hillbilly high-schoolers?" he sighed. "Yeah, that's them."
The thin man leafed through a sheaf of papers. "Well, Frank," he said with a chuckle. "Looks like these 'hillbillies' are outdoing your own boys. December’s total was... 5.643 ounces. This month alone..."
"2.215 pounds," said the young man.
"They're like soldiers," said the General, beaming proudly at the girls. "They do what they’re told. You engineers can't resist figuring out why a dial is off; the girls just fix it."

"Mr. Westcott, why don't you take a snapshot of these lovely ladies?" said the thin man. The young man nodded and, climbing a nearby stool, aimed his camera down the hall.

Vera leaned back, flashing a winning smile. Maybe they would put the photo on propaganda posters, she thought. Probably not, but a girl could dream.

"Smile, ladies," said the young man. The flashbulb popped, its magnesium glare burning an instant in time.

"Thank you, Mr. Westcott," said the General. "Dr. Riley, carry on."

Oak Ridge

July 4, 2005

A charred pocket watch, hands frozen at 8:15. Glass Sake bottles melted into tortured shapes. A woman's back, a checkered pattern seared into her skin. Vera squinted at these strange images, but could make no sense of them. The guide’s voice had become an incomprehensible murmur. As Vera raised her wrinkled hand to her ear, the guide flipped to a different photograph: a concrete slab, marred by a large oil-black stain.

“...steps... Sumotimo Bank...metres from... hypocentre,” said the guide as the offending hearing aid crackled back to life. “...stain here is what remains of a man, sitting on the steps when the blast hit. The heat vaporized him, leaving only this shadow."

Before Vera could raise her hand, the guide had tucked the image away under his arm.

"Right, let's move on," he said brightly, pointing down the path.

Bent in a permanent stoop, Vera hobbled along with the tour group. She could not believe her eyes. Everything was just as she remembered it: the guard houses and barbed-wire fences, the chapel and boarding house on the hill, the cafeteria at the end of the path. For a brief moment, it was 1945 again. She could almost see the bustling crowds of engineers and soldiers milling along the grassy, sunlit paths.

"Our next stop is the Beta 2 facility,” the guide announced.

Vera stopped in her tracks. Around the corner, tucked between two short hills, was her building. A flood of memories came crashing back as the guide unlocked the heavy steel door and beckoned them in. Vera was once again that nervous girl, struggling to keep pace behind Major Winters. Her shoes clicked on the same green linoleum - now faded and scuffed with age. Tattered propaganda posters still clung to the walls, and the dust of ages danced lazily in beams of sunlight that filtered through the grimy windows.

The guide stopped before one of the green metal doors. Squinting, Vera read the faded stencil: room 16. Her door. The coloured bulbs above the lintel were long gone, leaving empty sockets strung with cobwebs. Vera trembled in anticipation.
"The Calutrons are gone,” the guide grunted as he swung the heavy door “But the control panels are still here."

Vera clasped her hand to her mouth, as she had all those years ago. They were still there: the old grey monoliths, standing silent vigil down the endless hall. The electric hum and clicking of switches had long ago fallen silent. The casings were streaked with rust, the gauges yellow and dormant. But they were still standing, the panels she had come to know, love, and hate those eight months in 1945.

"Now the Calutron was the third Uranium enrichment technique they used during the War here at Oak Ridge,” the guide continued once the group had filed in. “It was basically a big...”

The guide gestured to a large black-and-white photograph taped to a nearby panel. Vera's jaw dropped. There, frozen in time, was the hall as it had been sixty years ago. In the background, the white-shirted shape of Dr. Riley patrolled the hall. All the old girls were there, perched on their little wooden stools. In the foreground, Gladys Owens stared hauntingly out of the photograph.

And two panels down, leaning casually back in her chair, was Vera.

"Heavens!" Vera exclaimed, shuffling towards the photograph. "That's me!"
"What?" said the guide. “It is?”
"Oh yes!" said Vera, tapping a trembling finger on the image. "Right there! Panel 857."
"Well, I'll be darned!" said the guide brightly. "I had no idea you were a Calutron Girl!"
Vera frowned. “What was that you said?” she said, tapping her hearing aid. “A calu-what?”
“Cal-u-tron,” said the guide, helpfully enunciating each syllable.
“And...just what did it do?” asked Vera. “You see, they didn’t tell us back then.”
“Well, ma’am, I was just getting to that,” said the guide. He turned to face the group. “I must say, this is an unexpected surprise. We don’t often get folks who were actually here - during the War, that is. Now, as I was saying, the Calutron was really just a big mass spectrometer. They vaporized raw Uranium and passed it by a big magnetic field. Now the Uranium 235 was lighter than the Uranium 238, so it would curve more and they could catch it in a separate container. Now at first they used technicians to adjust the beams and keep the Calutrons running smoothly, but when they ran out of technicians and had to start using high school girls...”

Vera’s mouth hung agape. She had begun to shake. The guide noticed, and stopped.

“Something the matter, ma’am?”
“What...” said Vera, her frail voice cracking. “...did you say these machines made?”
“Well, Uranium,” said the guide matter-of-factly. “For the Atom Bomb.”

Vera felt her legs give way, and a few quick tour members eased her onto a nearby stool. She sat in silence for many long moments, trembling. Tears flowed down the creases of her face.

“Was...was any of it used?” she sobbed.
“Yes, ma’am,” said the guide. “All of it, in fact. In Little Boy...”

He hesitated.

"...the bomb they dropped on Hiroshima."

Nashville

October 16, 1962

The glass dropped from Vera's hands as the siren blared, smashing into a thousand pieces on the kitchen tiles. Vera barely noticed: all she could hear was that awful, droning moan. Her heart raced. She scrambled madly through the house, in a daze. Julian wasn't in the living room, or in the lobby.

"Charlie, where's Julian!?" she cried. She heard the back door slam shut. Charlie appeared in the living room, Julian clutched in his arms.

"He was in the yard," he said Charlie. "Let's go." They rushed down the basement steps into the shelter, the small cube of cinder blocks in the corner of the foundation. Charlie set Julian on the army cot as Vera searched for candles among packed shelves of tinned food. Even through the concrete, they could hear the wailing up on the surface.

"Is this another drill?" said Vera, voice shrill.
"I sure as hell hope so," said Charlie. "But with those Red missiles so damn close..."
"Mommy, are they going to drop the Atom Bomb?" asked Julian, fidgeting on the cot.
"No, dear," Vera assured him. "It's just a drill. Like at school, remember? We'll go back up in a few minutes."
"Mommy, who makes the atom bombs?"
"Grown-ups, dear," said Vera.
"Do you make them?" asked Julian.

"No, dear,” said Vera. “Mommy would never do a thing like that."

This and many other stories can be found in my first collection, Our Own Devices