“So tell me, Colonel Snow,” Peggy Lee asked as the elevator began to descend, “how long have you been stationed here?”
Her inflection on the word “Colonel” made Graham think that she might be teasing him again. Hadn’t they agreed on first names? Shake it off, he told himself. He was the Colonel in charge of the facilities after all. She was just showing him some respect.
“Graham?” she said politely.
“Oh, yes, yes, right. Ah . . . I came in 2072. I have been here nearly two decades. That's kind of hard to believe.”
“Well, when I first arrived, I was like all the first-timers . . . basically in shock. The mold-covered streets, the perpetual grayness – it’s hard to imagine anyone living here for very long. After two days, I was ready to go back to the ‘real world,’ the safe zone, and see the sun again . . . breathe fresh air.
“The thing that struck me most was the isolation. Of course, we’ve got videophones, holophones, email, everything, but nothing can replace the feeling of walking down a street full of strangers or stopping by a restaurant for a momentary chat with a waiter and a beer. And we’re not just isolated from the rest of humanity, but also from the natural environment – what is left of it. Some soldiers say that being sealed inside for weeks at a time is like living in a coffin. But we have no option.”
“So just how big of a risk is it, living here?”
“When I first started, we lacked sophisticated air filtration and decontamination systems. It was a very risky place to be stationed. Soldiers died here – not all the time, but enough to make it scary.” Graham momentarily thought of Mirosevich in the infirmary, but pushed the thought out of his mind. “For months I worried that one of the seals on my office window was going to fail, and I would end up coughing up chunks of my lungs until I could not breathe, drowning to death in my own blood. Fatal pulmonary hemorrhaging – gruesome, I know. So I made some changes along the way. But the deadly mold is always there, just on the other side of the glass. It is still risky, but like I said, we have no choice in the matter.”
Peggy Lee glanced at Ian. Graham thought he noticed something flash across her face, a communication with her hologramographer. Instantaneously, however, it was gone, like the shadow of an airplane as it passes in front of the sun. Perhaps she was just nervous about becoming infected by the mold. Graham was about to reassure Peggy Lee, but just then the elevator stopped at the third floor and the door opened.
“This way,” Graham said, stepping out of the elevator and into a large, cold lobby with floor-to-ceiling windows darkened by the coming night and the ever-swirling, leaden fog just outside.
“So why did you stay?” Peggy Lee inquired as she, Graham, and Ian walked down a narrow hallway toward a distant, orange glow emanating from the mess hall. The smell of sautéed garlic permeated the air.
“After my second trip out to the boilers, I was called up to Director General’s office. At that time, the facilities were being run by a heavily-decorated colonel. He epitomized the grizzled war veteran. He wanted to know how I was doing. As we talked that day, he said something that stuck in my mind. It’s weird how just a few words can change your life.”
Peggy Lee smiled in agreement.
“Anyway, the old colonel looked me in the eye and said, ‘Private, if this Country, the great U.S. of A., were a human body, then the water production facilities would be its heart, pumping blood into the arteries of our society. We here are responsible for the lives of millions of Americans. We must keep this heart pumping until some scientist somewhere figures out a fix to this climate mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.’
“At that moment in my life, it sounded like a calling. His words resonated deeply within me. They still do. It’s a big responsibility, but also a privilege.”
Graham had given the same response to similar questions for years. He used to believe it wholeheartedly.
“I see,” Peggy Lee responded. Her eyes met Graham’s for a moment as they approached the mess hall. Her face reflected the orange light from the doorway and glowed for a second as if she were sitting by a fire. Graham felt nauseous and swallowed hard . . . he had never seen anybody look quite so beautiful.
“I want to learn more about you, Graham . . . much more,” she said as they entered the mess hall. “I’m hoping to introduce the piece with a sense of the man behind the facilities – and then shift to the remarkable technology of this place.”
On the walls of the mess hall, large video-windows simulated a stunning sunset, bathing the long wooden tables and empty chairs in warmth. The lighting was meant to give the fogged-in soldiers a circadian moment of closure to help regulate their sleep patterns. The image varied day-to-day, and it changed throughout the year to replicate seasons. That evening, it was early summer in the dining hall.
“Sure,” Graham said. “But first, food. We have spaghetti in a mushroom marinara tonight. The mushrooms are grown here on site. The basement here is perfect for growing all sorts of fungi. We eat so many mushrooms that I sometimes think I’m going to turn into one. The tomatoes just came in from the vertical farms down South. Everything is fresh tonight, in your honor.”
Graham ushered the two over to the line. “Grab a tray and help yourself. Nothing fancy here. We are the military after all. I will meet you at that table . . . my usual spot,” Graham said, gesturing over to a table in the corner of the cafeteria. “Beer for all?”
He could not wait for that first sip.
“Please,” said Peggy Lee.
“Yeah,” Ian said as he reached for a tray.