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.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Chapter 47

“It’s a long story,” Peggy Lee said.  “It’s my life story actually, but I’ll keep it short.  My father was Norman Englebrook, one of the soldiers on your list of fallen patriots in the mess hall.  He was transferred here in 2068.  My mother and brother and I lived in Fresno, in the family quarters – back when they had family quarters.  I was seven years old.  My father was a great man.  He always tried to do his best by Ian and me.  Then–”
            “Wait, Ian’s your brother?” Graham asked. 
            “Yes, that’s right.  He helped raise me when my mom got depressed.  He has always been there for me – helping me and watching over me.  I hate him, don’t get me wrong, but I love him too.”
            “Wow, I guess there’s a whole world of stuff I don’t know you.”
            “Sorry about that.  In any case, after a year here on the Platform and six months at Headquarters, my father caught the Silver Slayer.  It happened on a Thursday.  His Hazmat suit – the old kind – was compromised while he was doing some maintenance on a filtration unit.  We were expecting him the following Saturday for a weekend visit.  We had a barbeque planned.  He died quickly.  We never saw him again.”
            “I’m so sorry, Peggy Lee,” Graham responded.  “But that’s no reason to blow the whole place up, is it?  It was an accident, right?”
            “There were some theories about that, actually.  Some of the other wives in Fresno told us that they had heard that my father had discovered something about the operations that had to be kept a secret.  Ian still believes that he was murdered by the Army to keep him quiet.”
            “Quiet about what?”
            “First let me tell you that I’ve researched this issue more thoroughly than anyone else in the world, and I don’t think that the rumors are true.  But conspiracy theorists – and you don’t have to dig deep to find these people – say that the government created the mold and spread it throughout San Francisco.  They say that it was a scheme to wrestle control of the water production facilities away from XHS and to clear the Bay Area of all inhabitants.  That way the government could run the facilities full time.  They saw it as the sacrifice of a few for the betterment of many.  I don’t believe it, but I did for a long time.
            “Anyway, after the funeral, my mother packed us up and took us away from California.  We moved around a lot after my dad’s death, trying to find a place that made sense, but my mother got depressed and Ian got angry, and no place seemed like the right place for us.  Eventually, we ended up in Georgia living with some family.  Those were peaceful years for me.”
            “Yeah, you mentioned Georgia in the planetarium.”
            “If I could go back to any time in my life, those precious few years would be it.  But then, Georgia, like the rest of the southern states, began experiencing prolonged droughts.  The government pumped the aquifers dry, trying to keep the citizens alive.  After just a few years in Georgia, we knew that we were going to have to go.  So, my mom packed us up again, and we moved to Alaska.  I was thirteen.  We snuck across the border – back when that was still possible – and lived there illegally.  It was dangerous, but worth it.  Alaska, it seemed, had endless water resources.  By that point, my mother and Ian had begun to attend Movement meetings on a regular basis.”
            “You mean the MER, I assume.”
            “Yes.  After a few months in Alaska, we were welcomed into a MER militia camp.  There was a school there and a church and pretty much everything that a normal town would have.  The only real difference was that we were all being trained to rise up to defend the Earth, which in MER terminology translates into – to put it simplistically – eliminating all of humanity.
            “My mother and brother took great solace in the mission.  And I guess, as a teenager, I did too.  We were taught that our father would still be alive if it were not for the geo-engineers and climate manipulators.  We were told that the U.S. Army was a parasite striving to deplete every bit of life out of the natural system before finally reducing the Earth to a molten mass of nothingness.
            “My brother and I were part of a new class of MER soldiers.  We were encouraged to return to society and become invisible.  We were told that we would be called on when the time was right.  When we were old enough to go to college, we went, just like normal kids.  MER provided us with scholarships and new identities:  Ian Englebrook and his sister, Peggy Lee, became Mr. Ian Patten, Jr. and Ms. Peggy Lee Swenson.  They taught us how to fit in – what to say in political conversations, how to fly under the radar, what not to profess no matter what the company.  Ian left home before me.  And then, I joined him a couple of years later at the University of Alaska.  I studied journalism and graduated with honors.  I got a job.  Ian did not do so well and eventually dropped out. 
            “Right about that time, the Alaskan Secession Wars began.  I got my first assignment, which took me to the front lines.  Ian insisted on coming with me to protect me.  He saved my life a couple of times during our time out there.  That’s how he became my hologramographer.  We’ve been together ever since, working as a reporter and hologramographer, publishing our work, building an unimpeachable reputation, and all the while, waiting for a call from MER.”
            “So, then what happened?” Graham asked.  “That was a long time ago.”
            “I was just getting to that.  So a few months ago, I got this assignment from my editor – to come out here and do the interview with you.  We reported it, as usual, to MER through our handler.  About a week later, we received a message that we were being called on to carry out a mission.  We began to meet with a MER team who brought us all of the equipment, taught us about the bombs, and gave us the facilities’ blueprints and other information.  I was reluctant at first.  I told them that I had a great life going and that I didn’t want to throw it all away.  But then they started tapping into my memories of my father and my own repressed reservoir of hatred and suspicion.  They began making me watch images of the destruction that humans have caused throughout the world – dying animals, swaths of ancient forests decimated in a few short years, ocean shorelines piled high with rotting marine life.  They showed me pictures from the times before the Crisis – rainforests and rivers, fish spawning and birds soaring.  All of the glorious stuff that we all miss.  They told me that our mission was like coming across an injured animal in the forest.  You know ‘the kindest thing to do is to kill the animal and put it out of its misery.’  Only, we are, or I should say, humanity is the injured animal in MER’s philosophy.
“Ian was enthusiastic from the outset and worked me over for days until finally I agreed to do it.  As I look back on it all, I think I’d been susceptible to their brainwashing when I was young.  Then, when they started at it again, I was an easy target.  Part of me knew this mission was wrong, but that part got buried by anger, confusion, and love of Ian, my family . . . and the anguish I still feel over the death of my father.  Some things you can never quite get over in life.  So after a couple weeks of training, I was gung-ho.”
            “So you’re not going to take any of the blame?” Graham asked.  “You were a victim in all this?  Is that how you see it?”
            “No,” she said, shaking her head.  “I don’t know how I see it right now.  I guess – how can I say this – I guess I still think MER’s overall plan has some validity.  I still think that as soon as humans are gone, nature can start the process of returning to a state of balance – it can begin to heal itself.  We had our chance, and we blew it.  Maybe, we just need to get out of the way now.  Many notable scientists agree that the world would be more habitable, ironically enough, if human beings no longer lived here.  Once we are gone, the natural processes – those that originally created the rich diversity of life that used to roam the planet – will commence again.  New beings will evolve.  They won’t be like us, but then would we want them to be?
“Anyway, that’s what I believe.  That’s not the brainwashing talking.  That’s me.  I’ve spent my lifetime thinking about these issues, and I promise you that I’m not ill-informed.  But, tonight, when it got right down to it, I couldn’t, myself, be the direct instrument of so much human misery and suffering.  I mean, I know that it’s going to happen soon enough, so I would’ve just been hastening the inevitable.  But I just couldn’t live with it . . . or die with is on my conscious. 
“Don’t get me wrong,” she continued.  “It’s not like I had an epiphany that perhaps we can solve all of the world’s problems if we just stick it out a bit longer.  We won’t fix it because we can’t – the planet has gone way beyond its tipping point.  It’s all devastation and desolation from here on out.  Anybody who says anything different is just deceiving himself and anyone else who is stupid enough to listen.  But, standing there, arming that bomb in the Brain Room, I felt the weight of history pressing down on me.  I was about to become one of the single biggest mass murderers of all time.  I lost my nerve, and I knew that I couldn’t go through with it.” 
Graham hung his head.  “I hate everything,” he whispered.  “I hate it all.”

Friday, December 5, 2014

Chapter 46

After he finished addressing the soldiers in the dining hall, Graham went back to his quarters to clean up.  As he showered, he pulled small bits of dried blood from the hair around his ears.  His nostrils too were filled with clotted blood.  He blew his nose into his hands and salty, bright blood began to pour anew from his nose.  The water at his feet turned red, then eventually it became pink, and finally after about ten minutes, it ran clear again. The bathroom filled with thick steam, which Graham breathed in.  His shoulder was sore from the fall, and his rib still hurt from Ian’s boot to the solarplexis, but otherwise he was physically no worse for wear. 
After he got out of the shower, he realized that it was nearly midnight.  He did not know what to do.  Surprisingly, he did not feel tired.  He wanted to talk to someone about what had happened – only one person came to mind. 
He left his quarters and went down to the holding cells.  As he passed holding cell A, he took a look inside through the small window in the door.  Ian was lying on his side on a narrow bed, facing the wall.  He will go to prison for a very long time, Graham thought – probably for life, whatever that meant now.  There were many people like Ian – people who felt guilty about being human, ashamed of humanity’s central role in the pending destruction of life on earth.  In fact, almost everyone Graham had ever talked to about the future of the planet felt a deep-seated (sometimes deeply repressed, but still present) sadness of some form or another, but people like Ian turned that sadness into anger, self-loathing, and an overriding hatred of the human race. 
Graham could partially understand Ian’s feelings.  He felt angry every time he read a scientific article updating apocalyptic predictions of skyrocketing heat and rapidly disappearing species.  He, however, viewed present humans as caught in a trap – a trap laid years before by the selfish desires and lack of foresight of many generations of people.  The culprits are all long gone now, but they left a legacy that will last forever.  Every person alive now simply had the misfortune of being born during the last few decades of life on Earth.  Ian’s fury was understandable.  Graham, however, could not justify his desire to punish Earth’s current population for humanity’s past sins.  Graham thought:  aren’t we all suffering enough as it is? 
He then walked down the hall and looked into holding cell B.  Peggy Lee was sitting on a chair next to the bed, looking blankly at the door.  She immediately noticed Graham’s face in the window.  She waved and motioned for him to come in.  He opened the door with his recovered pass card and stuck his head into the cell. 
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Tired, confused . . . but relieved somehow – relieved that it’s all over, I guess.  I don’t know.”  She cast her eyes downward, and he could see that she was aching inside.  “Won’t you please come in here for a second?” she asked. 
“Mind if I sit down?” he asked as he entered the room.
“Please do.  I have a lot of things I want to tell you.”
He sat down on the edge of the bed, rested his elbows on his knees, and leaned forward.  His clasped hands were only inches away from her knee.  “Well?”
“First, I want you to know that I didn’t think that our operation was going to go down like that.  The plan did not involve killing anybody . . . well, at least not directly, I guess that would be more accurate.  But when we got to the Brain Room, Ian decided he wanted the two soldiers to be killed in the blast.  He said that he wanted to see their blood – their “guilt-ridden” blood, as he called it – splattered all over the room.  So he was going to tether them to the console where my bomb was placed.  He said they deserved it.
“Just before pulling the hoods over their heads, I looked into the soldiers’ faces.  They were so frightened, and their eyes screamed at me for mercy.  I put the hoods on so that I wouldn’t have to look at them anymore, but as I prepped the bomb, I couldn’t get their young faces out of my mind.
“Before we came here, I of course understood that taking out the water production facilities would result in casualties in Southern California.  But all that death was somehow theoretical, like I was reading about an event in the past.  Death was the ultimate goal of the operation, but it didn’t seem real to me.  When I looked into those soldiers’ eyes, however, I realized that I just couldn’t go through with it.  Something major shifted inside of me.  I guess the gravity of the situation finally hit me full force.  I read a story recently about poor children in Los Angeles who only get a small amount of water each day from the local water dispensation office because most of their ration had been sold into the black market.  Further, it told of families that desperately pool their water together and carefully distribute every drop so that some members of the family – the children usually – will survive, while others voluntarily risk becoming dehydrated, drying up, and dying.  As I attached wires on the bomb, I wondered how bad it would get if we succeeded in disabling the facilities.  How much suffering would there be? 
“And then, I thought ‘Who the hell am I to decide who should live and who should die?’  My beliefs are but a whisper in this tempest.  Soon we will all be gone.  And there is nothing to be done about it, so . . . .”
“So, you decided not to blow up the Brain Room,” Graham said. 
“Exactly.  I knew in an instant that I just couldn’t go through with it.  I didn’t want to go down as a mass murderer.  It was, is, and always will be the actions and decisions of men before us that caused this disaster – those ignorant, naive, greedy people who muddied our atmosphere, changed the ocean currents, and eliminated the rains.  They did it,” she said forcefully, her voice rising with emotion, “those idiotic fools smiling contentedly in their graves, not the poor souls who now inhabit this rapidly disintegrating planet – this hot death row of humanity.  They ignored the warning signs.  They continued their antiquated, destructive ways long after it was clear that they were upsetting the balance.  They did it for profit, for self-aggrandizement – they did it to add more cars, more helicopters, more castles, more of everything to their fiefdoms.  They knew what was happening at the end of the last century.  They just avoided reality and pushed forward, burning coal and oil, driving, driving, driving – littering the skies above with imperceptible poisons, all the while sealing our miserable fates, their own grandchildren and great grandchildren.  And what is our fate, you ask:  to watch in the mirror as humanity’s face grows gaunt, sallow, and lifeless, in other words, to stand witness to our own extermination.”
“So then what did you do?” Graham asked.   
“I walked over to Ian and told him that I was having second thoughts.  He looked at me with such a strange, distant look in his eyes.  I think he was weighing in his mind whether it would be easier to break my neck right then, or to intimidate me into continuing to help him set up the bombs.  I guess he chose the latter.  He told me that there was no room for second thoughts and to get back to work.  He’s got a lot of anger, and he scares me – always has – so I stopped talking.  As I armed the bomb, I was trying to think of a way to sabotage the plan and get Ian out of the way, but he was watching my every move.  Then you showed up, and I had hope.”
Graham nodded.
“So you saved me,” she whispered.  “You saved my soul.”  She grabbed his hands in hers, her fingers warm on his skin.  He felt a jolt of desire charge up his arms.  Despite everything he was still crazy about her.  He looked into her face.  She no longer exuded that energy that he had noticed throughout her visit.  She was exhausted and broken now, but he still could not help himself.  Even her betrayal could not extinguish his feelings for her.  His anger was gone.  He wanted to run away with her, but he knew that there was nowhere they could run.  There was no way off of the Platform without detection.  He still loved her, but having her was now more impossible than ever. 
“Why did you plan it in the first place?” he asked, replacing her hands in her own lap.  He still wanted answers.  “And why did Ian say ‘Do it for Dad’?”  Graham needed to know what she was holding inside.  There had to be something there – something important.