Tamira Fontenot

The buzzing drone of the air conditioning reverberated off the trailer’s thin metallic walls, weaving an uneasy harmony with the distant hum of heavy machinery at work. Tamira Fontenot sat hunched over her laptop, an insulated pocket of solitude amidst the vast, rugged wilderness of the Ivanpah Valley. Her arrival on the site merely a week ago felt like a fever dream, the curious crossroads of an improbable journey that was equal parts whimsical and alarming.

She stared at the blinking cursor on the computer screen, a glowing sentinel that cut through the oppressive gloom. The weekly company newsletter had just been circulated, a digest of updates and introductions that was meant to knit together the sundry threads of a workforce drawn from all walks of life. The highlight of this digital bulletin was the “New Faces” column, an unusually intimate account of the fresh arrivals’ lives, a stark departure from the dry bios of academia she was used to.

Her own life narrative was presented with a raw honesty that made her feel like a mannequin under a harsh spotlight. The recollection of her past was detailed with a distressing candor. She read her own story, as presented in the newsletter. All of this had been shared in private with the hiring manager as part of a get acquainted conversation. She had no idea, nor was she asked, that her personal journey would be broadcast to everyone on site.

Tamira Fontenot’s life had been a whirlwind of tumultuous change ever since Hurricane Katrina had made a direct hit on her home and research station. As a proud Louisianian and marine biologist studying at Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), Tamira had been on the front lines, studying the impact of climate change on the Gulf’s delicate estuary systems. But the collision of Katrina with her life brought a level of devastation she could never have predicted or prepared for.

Born into a family of ambitious and successful professionals – her father, a respected doctor, and her mother, a thriving caterer – Tamira had always been driven. A graduate of the University of Miami, she had returned to her roots to pursue her passion for marine biology, guided by her beloved mentor, a pillar in his field and an anchor in her life. But Katrina swept all that away. The hurricane didn’t just damage the physical structures of her life; it tore through the very fabric of her existence, leaving her adrift in a sea of uncertainty.

Her mentor’s subsequent heart attack and early retirement felt like another blow from an unrelenting storm. His absence left a void that the damaged LUMCON facility could not fill. Without a home, an advisor, or a clear path forward, Tamira felt herself becoming a refugee in her own country. She was left grappling with the reality of her circumstances, the lost potential of her promising career, and the heartache of the home she had left behind.

A lifeline came from Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, which was offering placements to displaced grad students. A change of scenery, she thought, might be just what she needed. But Scripps, with its ivory tower intellectualism and its stark contrast to the hands-on, in-the-mud work she was used to at LUMCON, felt alienating. She became a departmentless nomad in a landscape of elite science, her unique specialization in coastal estuaries underappreciated and underutilized.

Six months of processing data in exile left Tamira feeling unfulfilled and disillusioned. The yearning for the field, the need to feel the mud between her toes, and the thrill of discovery was a siren call she could not ignore.

So, when a job came up at the site of a supercollider construction project, she jumped at the opportunity. As the Environmental Conservation Scientist responsible for monitoring our aquifer systems and the two species of threatened amphibians on property, Tamira found herself, once again, the outsider. A biologist in a world dominated by physics, she felt oddly at home in this environment – the sole defender of the natural world in a landscape of concrete and metal.

While the work was far from her original dream, it is good money and, more importantly, the opportunity to process her past trauma. The ‘collision’ – as she referred to the devastating convergence of Katrina and the subsequent derailment of her life – had left its mark. Yet, as she navigated her way through this new reality, she discovered a resilience she hadn’t known she possessed. Tamira may be an outsider, a refugee of a natural disaster, but she was also a survivor, finding her footing on unfamiliar ground, but standing nonetheless. The supercollider project may be dominated by the world of physics, but in her corner, biology – and life – found a way to persist.

Reeling from the startling transparency, she hesitated before clicking on the bios of the other two newcomers. Their stories too were told with an uncomfortable level of intimacy. Mark, a civil engineer who had traded his corporate career for the path of self-discovery; Paula, the casualty of corporate downsizing, now eager to start anew in the unlikely surroundings of a supercollider construction site. Each of them, like Tamira, had experienced a personal or professional ‘collision,’ the common thread running through their life stories.

The concept of ‘collision’ carried a cruel resonance for her, stirring up the grim memories of the havoc wrought by Katrina, a disaster that had shattered her world and dismantled her plans. The wounds were still raw, yet she found herself plucked from the storm’s aftermath and dropped into this surreal landscape where her primary task was to prevent tiny toads from becoming inadvertent victims of a project conceived to create a monumental ‘collision.’

She allowed herself a humorless chuckle. The irony of her situation was not lost on her – a displaced biologist tasked with safeguarding an ecosystem on a site where physicists were scheming to tear apart fundamental particles of the universe that had been at peace since the dawn of time.

Tamira looked out the trailer window at the massive construction pit in the distance, its scale daunting even from afar. Somewhere in its belly, a supercollider was taking shape, an engineering marvel that was the brainchild of a man known simply as “the Architect.” The grand ambition behind this venture was both awe-inspiring and disconcerting. Why did the rich, she wondered, feel an irresistible compulsion to play God? Why this unending obsession with unraveling the mysteries of the universe, of toying with things that lay far beyond their ken?

She was pulled back from her contemplation by the chatter of two passing workers. Their accents, like hers, hinted at their Southern roots. An instinctive relief washed over her. In this strange new world, a sense of familiarity, no matter how tenuous, was a comforting balm.

Making a mental note to seek them out later, she refocused on her screen. Amidst the intense isolation of this desert hideaway, connecting with those who shared a semblance of her own experiences felt like a beacon in the gloom. Her intuition told her it would be wise to reach out to the small group of black employees on the project, to gauge their perspectives, their experiences. Was this a place where she could feel safe, or was she stepping into an arena where she had to remain perpetually on guard?

The email on her screen blinked out, leaving her in a semi-darkness. She leaned back and closed her eyes, the air conditioner’s whirring a low hum in the background. In the silence, Tamira felt the enormity of her situation settle heavily on her shoulders. The enormity of the project, the remoteness of her location, the transparency, the isolation, all collided within her mind, sowing seeds of doubt and concern.

Unmoored and filled with a whirlpool of thoughts, she decided to step outside the trailer for a breath of fresh air. The dry desert wind tugged at her hair as she walked into the dusky light, the red hues of the setting sun painting the desert in shades of amber and gold. The idea of collisions was everywhere, in her past, in her present, in the future that was being shaped around her. It was inescapable, just like the desert that surrounded her, sprawling in all directions as far as her eyes could see. She shivered despite the heat. The sense of collision, she knew, would linger much longer, a chilling specter in this grand dance of particles and people.