The Nuclear Family
By Tochi Onyebuchi

Drones swarmed around his head, snapping his photo, their microphones extended for any statement he might offer. There was nothing he could tell the news outlets that he hadn’t already told them the last three times. The last three times he’d descended at the light rail station and a maglev EV had spirited him to the National Mall. The last three times the travelator took him through those gardens, tended to by droids replenishing the fish in ponds and capturing the carbon dioxide from the air and feeding it to trees. The last three times he ascended the marble steps of the Capitol Building.

If anything, taking this seat before the Congressional Committee on the Dismantling of Nuclear Armaments only seemed to get easier with each go-around. Perhaps it helped that, with each iteration, there were fewer and fewer senators in attendance. Still, it would be a mistake to say Damon Wayne’s audience was dwindling. No. Instead, it had simply moved behind him. For as the congresspeople grew fewer in number, the workers and loved ones on whose behalf he was advocating only seemed to swell.

It was bizarre, cosmically callous math. By the time Damon was slated to give his statement, cancer would’ve snatched up another three or four of the people whose names had been carved into the backs of his eyelids, people whose families had baked bread for him, people whose children had to deal with the same question that he and Corrine had: why their dad or their mom chose to do work that could kill them. And yet word of what Damon was doing would spread and others would reach out and suddenly what had started out as repping a few folks in workers compensation claims grew into a class action suit grew into congressional testimony. And somewhere along the way, a name. The Nuclear Families.

Damon took his seat before the microphone, glanced up at the arranged congressfolk, then cleared his throat. “Thank you, members of the Committee in attendance today. As we begin, I’d like to give a brief introductory statement.”

It appeared as holographic text on the desk in front of him, the text teleprompter-size but seen only by him.

“There are 14 documented steps in the process of dismantling a nuclear weapon. This is the standard process as was elaborated in the documents declassified upon the global decommissioning of nuclear warheads. These steps include separating the Special Nuclear Material from the High Explosive component, storing the SNM and HE in a storage area on a designated military site, transport to long-term storage, transfer to a dismantlement facility, actual dismantlement, separation and long-term storage of both SNM and HE components, more temporary storage, more long-term storage, then eventual disposition.

“At nearly all of these steps, we have had to rely on the assurances of observers that everything was happening above board, and that worked. It worked for a long time. But—”

Dad is a bear stomping onto the wooden porch outside while me and Corrine pretend to be asleep upstairs, and we can tell it’s him by the way he stomps. We haven’t seen him for almost a month this time. But we hear his bootfalls, then we hear his grumbling and Mama’s murmurs in response, then his stomping away. And lucky for us, we share a room, so we both go to the window and see Dad activate the motion-sensor shower outside the shed, bathe, then enter the shed. It’ll be another three weeks before he’s able to come out and we can eat with him again.

“But then, the first workers started getting sick. A quirk of the dismantlement process was that there were still lacunae that could be tucked under the umbrella of national security secret. If someone got sick during the process, if something happened to them, if they suffered any workplace injury during the course of this heroic work, they couldn’t breathe a word of it. All those government benefits and no way to take advantage of them.” He was getting angry again. He could feel the rising action in his chest, a twinned flame burning bright in his stomach.

“By the time global agreement on disarmament was reached and this country began decommissioning its nuclear weapons, we had the capacity for a largely mechanized process. The work could mostly be done remotely. Except for the parts that couldn’t. To this day, we still do not know what those parts are or were. And the result of this withholding is that an entire generation of courageous men and women, brilliant men and women, men and women with families, has been organized around a question mark. A void and a question mark. Because the person who did that work—”

Me twisting my fingers together with my forearms resting on the kitchen countertop, me leaned forward on this barstool, thinking that if I just lower my head enough, Dad won’t see me through the bottle he’s going through and maybe Mom, with her arms crossed and with worried hurt glistening in her eyes, won’t see me from the hallway, having come to the conclusion that her boy is beyond the reach of her wisdom. Me wondering why she’s given me up to Dad, why she thinks this man who drinks like he’s trying to flush something out of himself has the thing I need. Me leaning forward on the barstool wishing Corrine were here for me to say to that blessed audience of one, “I wish he’d just stay in that shed.”

“The person who did that work…”

Dad glaring at me from over the spout of that bottle.

“Is dead.” When he said it this time, the words of a fallen worker’s wife came back to him. After a previous hearing, when Damon’d come back empty-handed and discouraged, she’d said that these sorts of things were like giving birth. You love your children, more than life itself, and the glow of them, the richness of their possibility, it makes you forget how much of a bitch it was when they first came out of your body. This, begging these United States senators for money, never got any easier. Not really.

“Fifty years ago, they started working, and 50 years ago, they started dying. Fifty years! We are not asking for the entire dismantlement process to be declassified and made public. We are asking only for acknowledgment that workers were contaminated during the dismantlement process and that, as a result of that contamination, they are entitled to recompense. We are asking that a family be made whole. This is something that you can do. I mean, we…we live in a world where there isn’t a single nuclear weapon left. Not one. They said this wasn’t supposed to be possible, and yet here we are. So why does this feel like the more difficult thing? Why does this—”

In the mirror, I’m still wearing funeral black; my tie isn’t even loose. If you looked behind me, you’d see the trail of dust I cut from leaving the chapel so fast, but I’m already trying, in my head, to justify myself to Corrine, already trying to figure out the best way to tell her that I couldn’t stay as long as she did and listen to all those people lie about Dad and say what a good and heroic and loving man he was when all we ever knew was a tyrant. And it’s only me pacing through the living room, surrounded by all these precious things—pictures in gilt-edged frames, glass-encased track and debate team trophies, tiny wooden camels from when Mom went with some friends from church to Dubai—precious things I don’t have it in me to break, that I’m able to still my heart. Picking through this place, raising things off shelves, putting them back, and imagining their temporary storage, their long-term storage and, for some of them, the eventual disposition of this home’s components.

“—feel like the hard part? Because you can’t tell me it’s not real. You can’t tell all of these people behind me, who have filled these seats year after year after year, who watch us on their holos, who show up not because they want to but because they have to, you can’t tell these people it’s not real. That you can’t catch cancer through glass. You can’t tell me that staring a nuke in the face doesn’t change a person. Because it does. It hits the soul. You’re looking straight at it, this thing that can bring an entire country to its knees, a thing so powerful that the mere threat of it organized a whole global order. You can’t tell me that spending so much time in close physical proximity with that thing doesn’t change you, can’t change you. Because it does. It corrodes. It kills. It is killing these heroes behind me, who, when called upon to do dangerous and secret work 50 years ago, did that work. Who heeded the call and—”

Dad standing over me while I try to pick myself up off the floor, minding the glass of the broken oven door, shattered to pieces when Dad sent me careening into it. There’s blood on my lip and my eye is already getting black, and I’m already putting together in my head the sentences that will explain away the shiner to my classmates and the rest of the dudes in the dorm. Because it’s the holidays and Dad’s been furloughed and it’s almost as though without the routine of his absences, he has only the drinking left to do. The drinking, the violence, and now the way he looks down on me like a sphinx. And a part of me wonders if he’s mad at me for being touched by him, or if he’s mad at himself for touching me. If the only physical contact he’s permitted with his offspring is the glancing, violent type. Never let the caress linger, that’s how the radiation travels. I come up to one knee and when a bit of blood streams a short pitter-patter onto the tiles, I remember we’d been arguing, Dad and I, and I can’t remember what it was about but he opens his mouth and says something about cleaning up “their” messes or protecting them from “theirselves” and I know I’ve heard this before except for the part where he says “it’s gotta be this way for me so it’s not this way for you.” And that’s what makes it all click for me, this idea of duty and work and punishment, then there’s me wondering why Dad feels he’s gotta be this way, what’s he paying for, what’s he trying to make right, what’s he trying to repair and I want to ask. To ask and be—

“Answered.” Damon lost his voice for a second, some large stone, out of nowhere, blocking his throat.

And it’s Corinne who wakes me in my chair at Dad’s bedside, coffee in hand.

“Who heeded the call and answered.”

I blink bleary-eyed thanks at her, and she whispers something at me about heading home but I think if I can stay just a little bit longer maybe he’ll wake up and solve the mystery of him for me. Maybe he’ll reveal himself, tell me why he was the way he was, why he did the job he did and why he treated us the way he did and why it always felt that the only way he knew how to tell us he loved us was to scream it at us. If I wait and I catch him at just the right moment, maybe I can hear him articulate the bonds that link us, the ones that persist despite how antagonistic he was to domestic tranquility. What was he trying to tell us? Not to have kids and love them? Not to wrap a family around oneself because entropy was imminent? Not to do the work he was called to do? And I realize I’ve been voicing these questions out loud to Corinne, because she’s palming the back of my head and smiling that teary-eyed smile of hers, that “you’re hurting so bad and this is all I can do to help but please have it” smile of hers.

“These people—these scientists and factory workers, these laborers—they responded without hesitation, without question, no matter what costs would come. Anticipated or unexpected. Because they…they loved this place. They loved this country. They loved this planet. And here was a chance to help save it and they took it, and why the hell is it so hard to tell them thank you for that? They smashed themselves against the enormity of human violence and they won—we won!—because they did that.”

Because some of them did the work they did knowing the people they were doing it for didn’t love them back, and when Corinne explains it to me like this, all past tense, I’m hit with the large sorrow of it all, and I wish now that Dad were conscious to feel me holding him, wrapping my arms around him, me not knowing how radiation spread works and not caring because I don’t know how else to tell him what he wants to hear.

“You can fix it tomorrow. You can fix it today. Make us whole the way they made this planet whole. Pass the Bill.” This time felt different for Damon. He didn’t know why, couldn’t quite find the reason, but he let the words come anyway, hoping the reason would find him eventually. “My dad died thinking he was doing the work he was doing for a thankless public. He didn’t care about recognition, he didn’t want his name on a plaque. But he really, really would have liked…to know that his country, his planet, gave a damn about what happened to him. Thank God for him. Thank God for the people behind me.”

The force of the truth hits me hard enough in the chest that I can barely say the words out loud, the thing Dad tried so hard to teach me. Past tense and present finally meeting. The words come out of me in a whisper barely audible even through the microphone:

“You call us the Nuclear Families. But the fact is that we didn’t earn that name because of what our fathers and mothers and uncles and aunts and grandparents took apart. It’s because of what they helped hold together.”

Thank you for your time.

The holographic teleprompter winked shut.

Copyright © 2024, Tochi Onyebuchi. This work is made available under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Artist Statement

Hope infuses the imagining of scientific breakthroughs aimed at the betterment of society. Cracking the genome, penicillin, naming the stars, so much of it geared not only toward ameliorating our tactile, felt lives on Earth but also reminding us that a not-insignificant part of the human experience entails nurturing our sense of wonder. It is the same with nuclear disarmament. Another part of human experience is the diverting of scientific breakthroughs for selfish and destructive ends. Scientific breakthrough alone cannot heal societal divisions and the faultlines of demographic oppression that plague us. That entails yet another important portion of the human experience: our capacity for compassion. So I wanted to write about those left behind, those who gave their bodies and their minds and their souls for the dismantling of nuclear weapons. It will be a truly joyous moment when we do reach that state in the Anthropocene, but it behooves us to remember, now and at that moment in the future, that compassion must always be a part of that endeavor.

About Tochi Onyebuchi

Tochi Onyebuchi (he/him) is the author of Goliath and Riot Baby, a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and NAACP Image Awards and winner of the New England Book Award for Fiction and the World Fantasy Award. His short fiction has appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and elsewhere. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times and NPR, among other places. He has earned degrees from Yale University, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Columbia Law School, and the Paris Institute of Political Studies.

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