June 23, 2091
“It is not an easy trip out here, Mrs. Swenson,” Graham said into the phone. He leaned back in his chair and stared out at the thick, warm fog streaming by the window of his cavernous office on the 20th floor of the Transamerica Building. Far below him, that same ever-present, man-made fog flowed like a river through the silent streets of San Francisco – a poignant meteorological reminder of the drastic, irreversible changes of the past thirty years. Fog snaked through the vacant city day and night, past crumbling Coit Tower, rusted-out cable cars, and the dilapidated skyscrapers of the Financial District. It streamed through empty alleyways, down Mission Street, and past the Embarcadero on its way across the Bay. The sun did not shine on the streets of San Francisco; it was a city without shadows.
Under the dark fog, a thick, velvety carpet of poisonous mold, Stachybotrys chartarum III, or the “silver slayer” as it was commonly known, covered every inch of the city. It ate away at the guts of the once-glorious Victorians of Pacific Heights and layered the city’s streets with a hairy coat of mycotoxins. Mold hung from street lights and store signs. It clung in drooping sheets like foam insulation to the sides of tall buildings. Swaths of it blanketed large, empty parks. When the wind picked up, deadly spores swirled through the air – a fatal ambient condition that had claimed nearly two million lives prior to the city’s evacuation.
Graham continued, “We’ll pick you up at the Fresno checkpoint and bring you here in the hover transport vehicle. You and your crew will be fitted with hazmat suits. Listen, I want you to be fully aware that visiting us here at headquarters is dangerous. As I am sure you are aware, there is no cure for infection with the silver slayer. And our trip out to the water production facilities has its own risks. The seas can be unpredictable. We haven’t lost a ship yet, but the threat is real.”
“I understand the dangers and appreciate your concern. My editor wants this story, and I’m willing to do what it takes.”
Graham smiled. The voice on the other end of the phone was soft and sweet – just a pinch of Southern sugar – but businesslike as well. She was direct, clear, and articulate.
She continued, “And by the way, I should tell you that it’ll just be my hologramographer and me. No big team, just us. We don’t mind risks. We’ve covered the rebellions in Alaska, the Asian plague, and the evacuation of New York City. I’m no shrinking violet, Colonel Snow, I can assure you that much. I was a military kid so I know what life is like on Army bases.”
“Good,” Graham said.
“Oh, and one more thing, please don’t call me Mrs. Swenson. That was my mother’s name – may she rest in peace. Just call me Peggy Lee . . . or Ms. Peggy Lee if you insist on being formal.”
“Gladly, ma’am. And call me Graham. I am looking forward to meeting you. Our facilities are not luxurious, but we’ve made them as safe as possible. I just wanted to make sure that you knew what you were getting into. Please contact the logistics desk to set up a time for your transport. We’ll see you soon.”
“Thank you, Colonel Snow. I mean, thank you, Graham. See you in a few days.”