The engines below grew louder, and the boat picked up a little more speed. Graham turned and looked up at the bridge. Captain Sherwood waved down to him and gave him the thumbs up. Just then, the door below the bridge opened and out popped Charley, who sauntered over to Graham and Peggy Lee: “Nice to be outside, eh?”
“Certainly is,” Graham answered.
“Where’s Ian?” Charley asked Peggy Lee.
“Oh, he’s coming along, I think. That man runs on his own schedule, if you know what I mean. So tell me, boys, are we just about to bust through that fabled fog curtain of yours?”
“Exactly,” Graham answered. “The fog thins like this for a few miles, and then the sun starts to peek through intermittently. I like to think of the fog curtain as one long, highly intricate piece of lace made of cloud. Once we clear the curtain, we’ll be out on the sunny Pacific, with nothing but blue sky and the majestic ocean in front of us.”
And as if on cue, a ray of sun shined down on the deck. The light raced quickly across the bow and disappeared.
“I see what you mean,” Peggy Lee said. “If I didn’t know any better, I would guess that it was going to be a dark and dismal day for miles around. But – oh, here comes another one.” Sunlight flashed across them and then out into the ocean, disappearing a few hundred feet out.
The captain increased the speed as the fog continued to disperse. Thick, low fog banks rolled past the boat. Up above, slow-churning clouds were interspersed with bright areas of sunlight. The boat was moving out of the fog with visibility increasing rapidly. Morning sunbeams broke through the clouds, shining diagonally onto the ocean’s surface before the cloud cover swallowed them back up. Graham leaned against the rail between Charley and Peggy Lee, watching and waiting. Each sunbeam foretold the moment of exhilaration, the highlight of this trip, when the boat would escape the fog bank entirely and roar into the open seascape of the Outer Territory.
Peggy Lee’s hand moved over next to Graham’s on the handrail. A vivid rainbow appeared for a moment in front of the boat. Charley was looking down toward the stern, but both Graham and Peggy Lee saw it. She secretly hooked her little finger over his as they watched. His stomach dropped as if he were on a roller coaster. He felt as big as the world. He was a shining light pulsating across the ocean. He was the moon and the stars. He was all that is and all that has ever been. He was joy, pain, and love. He felt that no matter how messed up the planet might be, no matter how ultimately doomed the water production facilities were, no matter how many people were in the process of dying – including poor, young Mirosevich back at HQ – there would always be some good, some happiness, in the world. Unbelievably, he felt hopeful. His heart swelled with a nearly forgotten feeling of raw excitement about life – about humans in general and about his life in particular. Maybe everything will work out in the end. Maybe this is just one, big test for humanity, and we will succeed, survive, and then thrive once more. And he could live with Peggy Lee in a small house near the ocean and they would sip tea, watch sunsets, and curl up next to each other at night. They would take care of each other and grow old together and die peacefully.
“There you are,” Ian said from behind them. “I should probably shoot some of this scenery, right?”
“Yes, of course.” Peggy Lee withdrew her hand. “I got caught up in it all. Why don’t you set up over there – quickly now – and get some shots without me. My hair is a mess, and I would rather shoot the interviews once we get into consistent light.”
“Right,” Ian said, lugging his camera case over to the other side of the ship, where he began to set up three tripods and an array of small holographic cameras.
“Need any help?” Charley asked.
“No,” Ian responded.
Charley crossed the deck over to a bench underneath the bridge and sat down.
“What do you call this place? It has got to have a name, right?” Peggy Lee asked, turning back to Graham.
“Technically, it’s called the curtain. Most of the soldiers, however, refer to this area as Purgatory.”
“Well, whatever you call it, it is truly beautiful.”
The boat was humming along now, cutting through small swells on the relatively flat ocean. Bright sunbeams populated the view, flashing and then disappearing as the fog banks split and remarried over and over. It was as if hundreds of extremely powerful spot lights had been hung high above the remaining cloud cover and were being turned on and off at random.
Three more minutes and the clouds lightened up considerably, turning white and taking on a blinding glow. When it seemed that the sky could not get any brighter, the cloud line appeared like the edge of a huge piece of cotton, and then, in a matter of seconds, it drifted off behind the little boat. Full, glorious sunlight shined down on the deck. The ocean lit up with glittering reflections, and the sky became instantly, unfathomably blue. Graham closed his eyes and turned towards the sun. He looked momentarily at the blood red light through the backs of his eyelids and felt the sun’s heat drying his face.
“It’s so nice to feel that again,” Graham said quietly.
“Especially for you, I’m guessing,” Peggy Lee said as she removed her rain gear.
Graham also took his coat off, took Peggy Lee’s from her, and returned them to the hooks in the hallway.
The sun was quickly heating up the deck. Charley, who remained seated under the bridge, had already unbuttoned the top of his uniform. Graham rolled up his shirt sleeves as he walked back over to Peggy Lee. As he approached, she bent over at the waist and combed her long hair down around her head with her fingers. She shook some of the water out of her curls, and then lifted her head up and flipped her hair into place. Despite the hazmat suit, the accident, and the overheated decontamination chamber, her hair looked perfect. She winked at him and said, “Making do.”
She reminded him of a girl from an ancient Elvis movie . . . Blue Hawaii, or was it Viva Las Vegas? He could not recall.
On the horizon, Graham could see the large pontoons of boiler unit 379, the outermost boiler unit in the region and their first stop on the tour. As expected, it had been powered down for maintenance, and thus it stood clear of fog. Back behind the boat, the wall of fog billowed up high and then dissipated into the vast blue sky above it.
The boat roared up to full speed. Peggy Lee produced a pair of large, white-rimmed sunglasses and then she and Graham joined Charley on the bench under the bridge. The three of them sat in silence, enjoying the sun and the warm breeze on their faces and the lulling rhythm of the boat.