Friday, January 16, 2015

Chapter 52

Minutes, hours, days, months, years – an eternity even – passed, yet somehow Graham persisted, sweat-soaked and motionless . . . his heart racing.  
Then the boat shifted course again, and all of a sudden, out of the heat and haze, his eyes caught something that he never thought he would see – the full span of the Golden Gate Bridge.  From that distance, he could not see the long tendrils of growth that hung from the deck like a grey-brown beard or the decayed and twisted suspension cables that barely held the bridge in place.  No, from his vantage point, the bridge rose from the ocean in a clean silhouette.  It looked new, strong, and amazing.  He almost thought that he spotted cars on the road, sunlight glinting off of windshields.  He imagined the traffic – each car filled with life and conversation –crossing that glorious bridge every day.  His heart skipped a beat.  Maybe it was all over.  Maybe they could go back to the way things were before the Collapse.
But as the boat sped closer, he began to see the dilapidation.  The bridge no longer held its signature orange color.  It was drab.  It was useless.  It was a mere relic of a time long past.  As he watched the bridge become uglier and older by the second, he wondered if it would have been better to be born with a chance to change the course of human history . . . and then to fail, and thus die with shame . . . or to be stuck, as he was, at the bleak and unforgiving terminus of mankind’s ruinous run for greatness.
Of course, it was a question that did not need answering; he could not go back to the time before the Collapse and the die-offs.  Humanity could not fix what it had broken.  Earth’s population had made a choice, collectively signing a pact of annihilation.  Humans had voted every time an eight-cylinder engine had roared to life or a television was left flickering through the night.  It had been death by a thousand cuts – a hundred trillion cuts – but individuals everywhere had each contributed their own infinitesimal, but nonetheless significant dose of carbon dioxide to the destruction. 
It might take a few years to come into complete fruition, but the end was inevitable now.  He had known it for a long time; his reports had been screaming it for years.  He had just been refusing to face reality.  Now, it was clear.  Now, it was undeniable – they were trapped, caged in, with no hope of escape, no chance of a midnight reprieve.
He stroked the scar on his face for comfort, but felt nothing.  His heart ached too much.  He slowly got up and walked to the very back of the boat.  The sun beat down on his scalp; he could almost feel the blisters forming, but he did not care.  He thought about going to talk to Peggy Lee or Charley, but what could either of them say that would change any of this?  What could anyone say that could help him now?
He opened up one of the nearby deck boxes and found an old anchor.  The chain had long ago been broken, and just a couple, heavy links clanked together as he heaved it out of the box.  He dragged the anchor over to the deck railing.  He tried to think about South Dakota, about his parents when they all were young and happy, about the rain . . . he tried to bring forth any happy memories, but his mind was fixated on one thing:  getting away from this heat and the broken planet that had completely defined his life.
He picked up the heavy anchor, hugged it to his chest, and leaned against the guardrail.  He looked for a sign – a bird, a fish, a glimmer of life – but there was none to be seen.  He balanced the anchor on the guardrail with one hand and took his broken pocket knife from his pocket with the other.  He dropped it into the ocean.  He felt nothing as he watched it quickly disappear. 
Then, with no further ceremony, Colonel Graham Snow closed his eyes on the blazing horizon, leaned forward, and dumped himself into the ocean.  He held the anchor tight to his chest as it pulled him down through the super-heated, upper layers of the water, down to the cool and dark depths where sunlight barely penetrated.  He turned for a moment and saw that the surface above him looked gray . . . like his fog.  Below him, a vast and empty darkness promised cold, welcome relief. 
He swallowed ocean water, struggled momentarily, and then as his lungs were about to burst, he took in a deep breath of saline.  He choked, coughed, spat, gagged, but held the anchor tight.  Soon his lungs filled with water.  The anchor slipped from his weakening grasp and quickly dropped away.  His body grew still . . . and then cold in the wet darkness.  And then eventually, a gentle current unknowingly carried it out to sea.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Chapter 51

            Graham instantly felt the heat from the ship’s deck rising up and filling the air around him.  It was just past nine o’clock, but the sun burned bright and hot already.  He walked over to a dark corner of shade created by the bridge overhead where no one could see him.  He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. 
            He heard the entrance portal being secured, and then the boat’s engines grumbled to life.  He opened his eyes and sat down on a nearby bench as the ship began to move.  The sunny bulk of the Platform slowly started to disappear.  There were no gulls here, no squawking, no fluttering about, no pecking.  No people waving good-by.  The still air surrounding the boat was empty – empty and hot.  He had been on this exact trip perhaps hundreds of times, but it was different today.  In the bright sunlight, the Platform, the islands, and the ocean all looked so depressingly desolate. 
He remembered a scene from an old time movie he had picked up a few years back.  A ferry filled with families – children, dogs, smiling adults, and friendly grandparents – departed for a lovely vacation island somewhere on the east coast.  Everyone wore the anticipation of summer-filled days on their faces as the boat turned away from the dock and headed out into the seas.  The birds, so wonderfully loud and excited, swooped and cried out, marking the boat’s departure like white fireworks and an out-of-tune brass band.  A little girl waved to the disappearing shoreline; her father stood next to her in his stylish sunglasses, breathing in the warm salted air, with a relaxed and contented smile on his handsome face.
Graham scanned the vast, flat horizon.  There was no sign of life anywhere, just the massive, metallic boilers floating listlessly here and there throughout the blue, dead canvas that lay before him.  He felt like he was the only living thing for hundreds of miles around. 
Had it been the fog that obscured this vast emptiness for so many years?  Graham tried to remember what he normally thought about when leaving the Platform – details mostly, boiler performance, rain accumulation, fog density, soldiers’ assignments, schedules, graphs, charts, all of the everyday minutiae that seemed at the time so critically important.  Now, the fog was gone, and the sun illuminated the world as it is, as it truly is without the manipulations of the water production facilities.  Was it the sun, he wondered, or Peggy Lee?  No matter, really, the effect was like a powerful drug.  Everything had changed.  A new crystalline reality – bleak, hard, and stiflingly hot – had replaced the fog of before. 
Where was he going to go now?  He realized that he could not stay at the water production facilities any longer.  He would resign.  He didn’t want to study drought reports, rain tallies, and fog production numbers any more.  He could not even stomach the thought of it.  Why had he spent so much of his life in this futile pursuit of water – this futile pursuit of life?  He knew now that no matter what he did, the planet would become completely uninhabitable, maybe just for eons . . . maybe forever.  He had no remaining energy for his task – his life’s mission. 
He had been fighting against a problem that had been created way before his time.  Decisions that were made decades, even centuries, ago – along with the slow responses of government and the reams of pseudo-scientific justifications and miscalculations created by big, profiteering corporations designed to maintain the status quo – had caused the winds to shift and the currents of the oceans to go haywire, the skies to grow cloudless and the ground to dry up.  Graham had been struggling against the inevitable downfall of man.  A long history had led up to this point, and now a simple, unyielding momentum would carry all of the inhabitants of the earth into a bleak, red-hot, and lifeless future.  Graham stood face-to-face with the fate of man, and he felt nothing but pure exhaustion.  Extinctions and suffering, catastrophic plagues and famines would continue, but he knew that he had done enough.  He could stomach no more.  He had participated in this disaster, he had tried to pitch in and make things better, but now all he wanted was out.
He would not wait around to hear about the failings of the space exploration program.  He did not want to watch the government scramble and fail to construct a large-scale space station.  For, at this point, it was too late; the sands were running low in the hourglass of humanity. 
And even if, by some miracle, one of the space escape programs turned out to be successful, the thought of evacuating earth, the only planet that had ever produced life, made Graham sick.  Humans would be leaving as the destroyers of the planet, the cause of our own demise – the lowly species responsible for the elimination of all of the other beautiful forms of life that once ran, flew, and swam across the globe.  Humanity would exit like a lowly dog with its tail between its legs. 
He wanted nothing to do with it.  And he couldn’t bear to watch it anymore.  He could not ignore the decline, while trying to live out his remaining years in Southern California – or wherever.  He could not pretend that nothing was wrong.  He wanted to go back, back to the farm, when it was still raining.  He wanted to see the thunderheads gather over the Missouri, to feel those rising and cooling winds that foretold the coming downpour . . . to taste those first few drops of natural rain.  He wanted to sit on the porch of his parents’ old farm house to watch the sheets approach and then fill the barnyard with muddy puddles of cool water.
He saw images from the past – the oil rich past – when everyone had a car, and people flew from city to city without ever thinking twice about the consequences to the earth’s atmosphere.  He wished he had been born back then, when humans still believed that they were not despoiling the planet – and that Mother Nature would prove invincible.  Maybe he would have been an oil executive, rich beyond his wildest imagination.  The titans of industry would have come to Graham for guidance – how can we make more money?  And in his blissful ignorance, Graham would have told them, go faster, drill deeper, burn more, that’s how you make more money.  Graham was surrounded by opulence and fortune, beautiful women and cars, boats and bodyguards. 
But then Graham saw how it really would have been.  He would have been a longhair, a hippy, a radical fighting to change the course of human history.  He would have argued, ranted and raved.  He would have painted signs and marched in demonstrations with his other “extremist” friends.  He would have written letters to his congressmen and organized voters for every election.  They would have celebrated victories, all the while knowing in their heart of hearts the pyrrhic nature of each tiny win.  He would have spent a lifetime fighting for a change that the rest of humanity was not ready to make.  He would have grown old, bitter, and unhappy.  He would have thrown rocks at the windows of the limousines, but he would have never had a chance of influencing anybody.  He would have been an outsider, a nobody . . . for he would always have been born on the wrong side of history.  In this vision, he cared so deeply for his failing mission that it eventually killed him. 
Sweat poured down his forehead as he sat staring out at the horizon.  The boat turned slightly, bringing the bench into full sun.  He was bone tired and decided that he should just wait there until he caught fire, immolated like the monks of long ago on the boat’s red hot deck.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Chapter 50

            The intercom blared:  “Five minutes until departure.  All personnel returning to headquarters, please report directly to the dock for embarkation.”
            Graham gathered his belongings and put them in his grip.  He waited a few minutes before leaving the room.  He still felt like he could not face anyone.  He hoped that everyone would already be on the ship and that he could just slip on board. 
            Stepping out of the elevator and onto the dock, he saw something he had never seen before.  The sun was beaming down on the Farallon Platform and the nearby island.  Where the fog had always been the thick and ever-present setting for life on the Platform, an excruciatingly hot and clear day had taken shape.  The attack had been partially successful – all of the boiler units in the region had been temporarily shut down.  The techies were busy restarting systems and recalibrating the region’s battery backup schedules.  Graham shielded his eyes from the sun’s reflection and walked slowly towards the boat.
            Charley met him at the boat’s entrance.  “There you are, we’re all here and accounted for.  I’ve got the prisoners locked away in two of the lower holds.  Now that you’re here, we can shove off.”
            “Okay,” Graham said quietly, his voice sounding foreign in his ears.  He averted his eyes from Charley’s cheerful gaze.
            “Is everything okay?”
            “Yes, fine.  Just feeling a bit sick, that’s all.  Didn’t sleep much.”
            “Let me know if you need anything,” Charley said, putting his hand lightly on Graham’s shoulder.
            “Thanks.  I’m just going to head on up to the deck.  Would you mind stowing my bag?”
            “Not at all, Chief.  Hey, but listen, the sun is hotter than hell up there.  We were all thinking about riding topside, but it only took a few minutes for that blazing sun to force us back down here.  The Captain’s got the air conditioning blasted for us, and there’s some nice strong coffee in the galley if you are interested.”
            “Thanks, but I think that I’ll go up there anyway – at least for a little while.”  Graham turned and slowly walked up the steep stairs to the deck, toward the solitude he craved. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Chapter 49

Graham returned to his room, undressed, brushed his teeth, and lay down on his cot.  He forgot to turn out the light in the bathroom, but could not muster the energy to get up and switch it off.  He lay there silently, staring at the ceiling, his arms rigid at his sides.  His thoughts ran in circles through his head.  He could not catch a hold of any one thought, however, before another tumbled forth, and then another and another:  Peggy Lee’s face, skeletal children dying of thirst, the blackened battery room, his own sorry existence at headquarters, the kiss, waterfalls, the future, the past, the end of life, and then back to Peggy Lee – and those perfect eyes that might possibly contain the entire universe.  His brain was like a carousel that was stuck in high gear – spinning too fast, the music too loud.  He couldn’t focus – even for a single second.  He desperately wanted to fall asleep; maybe in the morning, things would not look so bad.  But his heart was racing, and he was sweating all over.  He was dizzy and sick.  He thought about getting outside, to move and walk on the adjacent island, but he found that he was paralyzed in his cot. 
Eventually, somehow, he slept – a dreamless, lifeless sleep as if his soul had collapsed, as if a coma was the only appropriate state of being, the only safe place.  The following morning, he could not remember falling asleep.  He just recalled the light from the bathroom on the ceiling – a flat, angry rectangle cutting into the darkness.
He skipped breakfast, choosing instead to wait quietly in his room for their departure from the Platform.  He knew Charley would load the prisoners onto the boat and take care of the other logistics. 
He felt odd – like someone else had taken control of his body . . . and his mind.  He needed to be alone.  He needed to wake up a bit, shake off the events of the preceding night before he saw anyone else.  He showered, but forgot to wash his hair.  He walked out of the shower; he walked back into the shower.  He felt numb all over as he dried off. 
Sitting on the toilet, his feet fell asleep.  He realized that he had been staring blankly ahead and smelling his own shit for what seemed like hours.  If it had not been for the tingling in his feet, he did not know how long he would have remained there.  An empty feeling rolled slowly over him back and forth like a rolling pin, pressing and squeezing him.  He wiped his ass and mechanically moved his toes up and down until the blood returned.  He rose, pulled up his pants, took a couple of steps, and sat down on the minimalist office chair next to the bed. 
His thoughts now swirled around Peggy Lee.  He knew that he loved her; he would always love her, but now he could never have her.  He could never truly be with her.  He would have to testify against her.  The whole pathetic tale would come out; Ian would see to that.  Investigators would ask him about his relationship with Peggy Lee, the set-up, and then the attack.  He knew that even after all of that, he would still want to be with her.  And what would be her reaction?  Anger?  Pity?  It didn’t really matter.  He knew that, even if a relationship was somehow possible, she could not be with him.  They were both too broken now.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Chapter 48

Graham rose to leave the holding cell.
“Wait, there is one more thing,” Peggy Lee said.  “One more part of my decision not to go through with the bombing that I have to tell you about.  Please sit back down.”
“Okay.  What is it?”
“It’s you,” she said quietly.  “You remind me of my father.  I see pieces of him in you, in your actions, your humility . . . your kindness.  My father always did the right thing, the honorable thing.  He worked hard here and hoped that eventually someone would fix the climate.  He did it for us kids, for Ian and me. 
“When I met you, I remembered him, and I started to question our plan.  As you and I talked, I realized that I wanted to be on your side – my father’s side – the side that strives against the odds to try to make things right.  Not destroy.  Not kill.  But to nurture those of us who are left.  When you showed up in the Brain Room, I felt like my father had sent you there to help me.  You inspired me to change my mind – to stand up to Ian once and for all.  If it weren’t for you . . . .”
Graham put a hand on top of her hands and squeezed.  “I’m glad you changed your mind.  And I think I understand what you’re going through.  We all feel it somewhere in our hearts.  Most people try to ignore the despair.  But we’re all, in our own way, waiting to see how long humans will last here on earth.  And each year, as temperatures continue to rise, it becomes harder to have any hope whatsoever.  Sometimes I too think that it would be best if, somehow, we all just disappeared, just to relieve us of our self-inflicted misery and to end the anger and self-hatred that we are all experiencing.  When I start to think like that, though, it scares me.”
“But what are we supposed to do?  What’s the right answer?” 
“I don’t know,” Graham said.  “Until recently, I used to buckle down and focus on my work when I felt too discouraged.  I would renew my commitment to the facilities and redouble my efforts to make sure that everything was running smoothly.  Then if that did not change the way I was feeling, I would watch my old movies and try to forget everything.  I would push reality aside long enough so that I could sleep, eat, and live.  I just kind of pretended that I was there, one hundred years ago, living my life without the preoccupation of a sick planet and our pending mass extinction.  You know, Peggy Lee, I can barely talk about it even now.”
After a moment, he continued, “In the past few weeks, though, it has been very hard to maintain my commitment to this place and to ignore reality.  There is something you don’t know, Peggy Lee.  It is highly classified information, but I can’t keep it to myself any longer.” 
“What is it?”
“The water production facilities are failing.  They will stop production much sooner than anyone thinks.  Your bombing of these facilities would have caused great misery and death in Southern California, but that’s all going to happen very soon anyway.  Perhaps in the next five years.  I shudder at the numbers when I try to calculate how many inhabitants of the climate shelter zone will try to escape and run across the desert – and how many millions will just curl up and die right there once the taps run dry.”
“Futility,” Peggy Lee said, more to herself than to him. 
“Futility.  I never know what else to call it – self-pity, anger, pain, hopelessness, desperation – but then I always come back to the same answer.  It’s all of those, but I guess more than anything, it’s the feeling that there’s nothing that can be done to preserve any of the Earth’s treasures – human or natural.  You hear about well-intentioned, well-heeled scientists gathering seeds and freezing DNA, but I wonder, for what purpose?  When the end arrives, there will be no stage on which any of those frozen, little actors can perform.  Our theatre district under the sun is burning to the ground, and there are no feasible means of stopping the conflagration.  The news about the facilities does not surprise me.  Perhaps the end is nearer than most people think, but how are we to accept this reality?  It’s a death sentence for every person we have ever seen, known, touched . . . loved.  It’s the end.  We are the last drops from the human faucet – inconsequential and waiting to die.  Our lives are pointless.  Maybe they always were.”
“Maybe, but what about–”
“No,” Peggy Lee interrupted, her voice rising.  “I feel ashamed to be human.  Despite everything beautiful that we’ve created – art and philosophy, paper snowflakes, dance and music, hang gliding, literature, peanut butter and chocolate, love, language – we have proven ourselves without a shadow of a doubt to be a base, unworthy race of beings who could not overcome our insatiable desire to own, dominate, and destroy the world around us.  That to me is just shameful – awful, tragic . . . unforgivable.”
Tears rolled down her cheeks.  She pulled away from Graham and buried her face in her hands.  Graham swallowed hard.  He had heard what he needed to hear.  He understood, now, why she had done it, why she had betrayed him.  He also understood why she had changed course.  There was nothing to be done.  Blow the place to pieces; it would not matter.  Keep reporting and living life as before; it would not matter.  Earth’s current population was simply a disintegrating remnant, the useless, frayed end of what had once been a wondrous tapestry.      
He wanted to hold her, but he was scared of her as well.  He felt the despair emanating off of her and sinking deep into his bones.  He needed to get away from her.  He rose silently, and without looking back, walked out the door.