Friday, February 28, 2014

Chapter 6

“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.”
“Why’s that?”
“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.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Chapter 5

The group left Graham’s office and walked down the bare hallway.  Florescent lights flickered overhead.  He looked for something interesting to point out, but could find nothing.  As they entered the elevator lobby, Graham turned to the soldier who had shown Peggy Lee and Ian to his office and said, “I’ll take it from here.”
“Yes, sir.”  The young soldier promptly turned and disappeared down a side hallway, leaving Graham alone with his guests.
Graham pressed the “down” button and then stood facing the doors, waiting for them to open.  In the mirrored reflection, he could make out both Peggy Lee and Ian, flanking him.  On Graham’s right, Ian stared straight ahead.  He looked distracted, possibly daydreaming.  But no, it was not daydreaming.  Graham noticed the intensity of Ian’s gaze.  His brow was slightly furrowed.  There was something on his mind.  Was he calculating?  Worrying some numbers or a complicated problem?
Graham looked at Ian’s thick, hairy arms.  He fit the role of a hologramographer.  He was a very large guy, tall and broad.  He could easily handle heavy equipment.  And he seemed to be a man of few words.  Perhaps he was always sizing up camera angles and lighting, cogitating on the best shots.  A long, heavy ponytail ran down his back.  He had a tattoo of a spider on his neck and a bearded, taut face.  Graham guessed he was the giant in high school that all the coaches tried to talk into playing sports.  At around 6’6’’, he towered over Graham.
On Graham’s left was the lovely Peggy Lee.  She was tapping one of her feet ever-so-slightly to a rhythm only she could hear.  Her head bounced almost imperceptibly with the internal beat.  Graham could not hear her humming, but he could almost feel her energy pulsating against his shoulder.  She was like a jack-in-the-box, waiting to be released.  She filled the lobby with energy, even though they were simply standing in front of the elevator doors.  Her eyes were fixed on the unlit down arrow, waiting for the light and the ding and to get going.
And then, there was Graham, standing in the middle.  For the most part, he was an average-looking guy – always had been and always would be.  He was medium height with a medium build . . . fit, but not muscular.  He had unremarkable brown eyes, a kind, unassuming smile, and was balding.  A pink hue colored his cheeks and nose, a side effect from his nightly white lightning indulgence.  He had been called handsome a few times when he was younger, but mostly by his mother.  He figured that didn’t really count. 
Only one component of Graham’s appearance truly stood out from the ordinary.  He had a subtle, but nonetheless noticeable scar that ran from the corner of his eye, over his cheek bone, and down his cheek as though a single, thick, red tear drop had stained his face.  He rubbed it when he got nervous or felt boxed-in, a tic the child psychologists had said was normal – even healthy – considering its origin.
He looked hard at himself in the elevator doors for just a moment – something he generally avoided doing.  His uniform was pressed and his shoes polished.  He was not fastidious about his dress, but he was no slob.  He looked moderately presentable, but, as he had noticed recently, faint black circles hung under his eyes.  Also, he was slouching.  And somewhere along the line, his forehead had developed two pronounced, horizontal wrinkles.  Even though he had just turned forty, his reflection in the mirror made him feel much older.
He averted his eyes, straightened his posture, and joined Peggy Lee in staring at the unlit down arrow.  He felt scrunched in.  He had thought that the doors would open immediately.  Now, they had been standing in silence for about a minute, awkwardly waiting. 
Damn elevator.  Graham’s neck flushed.  His cheeks grew hot. 
Ding.  Finally.
Peggy Lee entered first, followed by Graham and Ian. 
Graham pressed floor three and momentarily stroked his red scar.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Chapter 4

Footsteps – one set distinctly high-heeled – echoed in the marble entryway as the group entered the hallway that led to Graham’s office.  He stood up and looked around.  It was a sad place – once opulent, now shabby and functional.  Despite its massive size, his office contained only four folding chairs, a line of beige file cabinets, Graham’s large, metal desk, and his cracked leather chair – all sitting on a worn oriental rug.  He had no decorations, no pictures, no knick-knacks.  One could see blank spaces on the walls where once a Hopper or an O’Keeffe hung.  A large safe sat against the far wall, half-open and empty.
With his desk cleaned off, the office looked abandoned – like no one had worked there for years.  Graham instantly regretted cleaning up.  Too late now, he concluded, as he heard the footfalls about to enter the room. 
“Well, finally we meet in person, Colonel Graham Snow,” Peggy Lee announced as she clicked her way past the escort soldier and across the large empty space.  She had just enough of a Southern accent to make every sentence seem flirtatious.
She wore a blue, men’s button-down shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to her mid-forearm.  The top two buttons were undone, exposing her bra strap and a freckled collarbone as she leaned across Graham’s desk to shake his hand.  Her shirt was tucked neatly into a slim pair of formal women’s trousers.  She looked Graham straight in the eye. 
Graham usually identified such self-assurance with a well-to-do childhood.  People who have been rich all their lives walk into rooms like Peggy Lee just had.  They act like they own the room, including all the fixtures, the furniture, and even the people.  Graham felt like he was imposing when he entered a room – like he should state his business and then exit, so that the occupants could get back to whatever important or amusing activity he had interrupted.  Peggy Lee did not think that she was interrupting.  She knew she was the main event.
But she also had a no-nonsense, down to earth quality.  She had rolled her sleeves up – not in neat, creased folds, but actually rolled and wrinkled like working people do in mid-shift.  Her hair was pulled back and tied with a thin red ribbon.  She wore no makeup or jewelry.  There was nothing outwardly pretentious about her, despite her relative fame.  Who knows, Graham thought to himself, she may have worked hard to get where she is.  He figured she was in her early thirties, really, in her prime. 
As they shook hands, Peggy Lee touched the inside of Graham’s wrist with her index finger, almost like she was trying to take his pulse.  Was that intentional? he wondered.  How very odd – aggressive, yet intimate.  How very wonderful indeed.
He hoped that she had not felt his heart racing.
“Welcome.  On behalf of the United States military, we are pleased to have you here.  I am at your service,” Graham said, officiously.  That sounded good, he thought to himself.  He had practiced multiple times in his head and a couple of times in the mirror.  Good start, Chief.
“Thank you.”  Peggy Lee smiled and stepped back from Graham’s desk.  “May I present the best hologramographer in the solar system, Ian Patten, Jr. – that is of course if you don’t count that gorgeous hunk of an astronaut on Mars who seems to have a knack for capturing the most amazing solar showers.  That said, my man here can make a dung beetle shine like a diamond.” 
“Okay, Peggy Lee, that’s enough,” Ian said dryly, extending a thick paw towards Graham.  “Hello, Colonel Snow.”
“Please, please, call me, Graham.  We’re going to be at close quarters during the next few days, so we might as well dispose of the formalities.”
“Close quarters, eh?  Am I included in that equation?” Peggy Lee interjected.
Graham blushed.  He’d been thinking of the decontamination rooms and communal showers.  “Ma’am, you will, of course, be provided with your own facilities,” he responded stiffly.
Peggy smiled.  “Of course.  I was just teasing you.  Ice breaker, you know.”
“Yes, right – I knew that,” Graham mumbled.  Recovering slightly, he asked, “May I offer either of you a drink?” 
He certainly needed one. 
“To be honest, Graham, I’m starving,” Peggy Lee responded.  “And I believe that goes for Ian here as well.  Do you think that we could skip the drinks and head straight to dinner?  Something smelled delicious down on the lower levels.”
“Yes, of course.  Good idea,” said Graham.  “Transport from Fresno always takes longer than one expects.  You must be hungry.  Let’s head down to the mess hall, get you two some food and perhaps a few beers.  Please, follow me.”

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Chapter 3

Two days later, the intercom on Graham’s desk buzzed.  “Graham, it’s Charley.  I’m down at receiving.  I just got word that your guests will be here in an hour.”
“Ten-four, Charley.  Over.”  He and Charley, now second in command, had been on a first name basis for six months now.
“Do you want me to run them through the regular decontamination routine and then send them up to your office?”
“Affirmative, good buddy.  Over and out.”  When talking on HQ’s intercom, Graham liked to use as much old CB radio lingo as possible.  Years ago, he had commandeered a copy of Smokey and the Bandit from Fort Irwin’s entertainment archive.  He watched it repeatedly, dreaming at night that he was flying across dirt roads with a thick Burt Reynolds mustache blowing in the wind.  He liked to think his handle would have been Rain King or maybe Solitary Eagle.  All the soldiers at HQ (except Charley) never quite understood the whole CB thing, but they eventually grew accustomed to the Colonel’s highway anachronisms. 
Graham’s fascination with old movies also confused his soldiers.  They laughed at the two-dimensional images and quickly grew tired of the slow pace.  They preferred the ultra-realism and sensory richness of halucivision – or at a minimum, the interactive, three-dimensional hologramovision.  Cinema was dead.
So Graham watched his old movies by himself.  Before his Smokey and the Bandit phase, he watched E.T. every night for eight weeks.  He couldn’t tear himself away from its suburban setting and the simplicity – the sheer ease – of life back then.  He ached for a bag of Reece’s Pieces and a Halloween evening spent visiting neighbors in that blissfully peaceful subdivision.  And before E.T., it had been Fried Green Tomatoes, with its many shots of the South’s verdant foliage.  He imagined sitting down at a table in the old café by the railroad and ordering a coffee as the afternoon air grew thick with the prospect of rain.
But his mainstays were movies set in San Francisco, like Vertigo, Milk, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Foul Play.  He had never seen the city in all its glory of course, but he often daydreamed about what it must have been like:  streets filled with crowds of young workers, traffic, and construction; music flowing from garages and underground clubs; and strip joints and hamburger stands welcoming partygoers until the wee hours of the morning.  He saw couples on park benches, birthday parties, art exhibits, symphonies, double decker buses packed with tourists cruising the Embarcadero, and the homeless playing chess near City Hall, screaming and drinking. 
Graham began to clean up his desk.  As he organized a series of reports, he got sidetracked by one of them.  Power generation continued to decrease at an alarming rate.  As he had explained to the Minister of the Department of Climate Security, the increased surface temperature of the solar panels was causing a linear decrease in voltage output.  In layman’s terms, the solar panels were beginning to overheat.  He had tried several possible fixes, including increased passive cooling from the ocean winds and testing different surface laminates, but none had significantly reduced panel temperatures.  So for the time being, he had increased power storage, tapping into backup batteries when voltage from the panels got too low to keep the boilers running at full steam.  The power problem had not affected water production yet, but it soon would.
This was a major concern given the ever-increasing severity of the population crisis in the L.A. Climate Shelter Zone.  Water demand continued to skyrocket as climate refugees flocked to the zone.  Tens of thousands of refugees camped out near the security check points, waiting for entry and a water ration card.  Most refugees, however, died soon after arrival of amebic dysentery, cholera, or dehydration.  Graham had seen pictures of the mountains of dehydrated corpses outside the refugee camps.  The bodies accumulated faster than the Army could load them onto the trains destined for Eastern San Diego County’s mass graves.
Inside the climate shelter zone, things were not much better.  Every day, hundreds of people were mugged or killed for their water ration cards.  The government tried to keep track of all of the people living (and dying) in the climate shelter zone, but it was impossible.  Over the past ten years, a vast, thriving black market for water had sprung to life, allowing a small number of people living in a highly secured crescent of neighborhoods, from Westwood to Orange County, to maintain a relatively water-rich lifestyle.  Corruption was rampant.  Many less fortunate families sold much of their water ration on the black market just to buy food.
The climate zone’s solar shades – vast arrays of tyvek supported by hundreds of remote-controlled air balloons – were meant to reduce heat-related disease and death, but were generally ineffective in counteracting the intense heat currents flowing in from the Pacific Ocean.  In June of 2080, the average temperature in the shelter zone had been 118 degrees.  In 2090, it had risen to nearly 127.  And now, in 2091, it was looking like it could approach 133 degrees.
If the water production facilities were to fail, the people of the L.A. Climate Shelter Zone would face a dire choice – flee or die.  And if they did leave, where would they go?  The East Coast and Great Lakes shelters were completely closed to migrants.  Some people would undoubtedly try to sneak into the National Republic of Alaska, where water was still relatively plentiful, but the border was heavily militarized.  No one got in or out of Alaska without proper authorization from the Chancellor of Alaska herself.
Graham knew that millions of people would die if water production ceased.  He had to give this interview, smiling and saying positive things about the facilities, but it was not going to be easy.
Graham grabbed an accordion file folder and quickly labeled it “July 2091 Reports.”  He then gathered up all the papers on his desk and straightened them into a semblance of a pile.  He slid the hodge-podge into the folder and stuffed the folder into the back section of the lowest drawer of a nearby file cabinet.  His system was not elegant, but it sufficed. 
With his office cleaned up, Graham sat back down at his desk and slid open his favorite drawer.  He wanted a shot or two of white lightning to calm his nerves, but then he thought better of it.  Instead he popped a mint into his mouth and waited for his visitors to arrive. 
Minutes later, Charley buzzed Graham’s office again.  “They’re all clear and on their way up to you.  That Peggy Lee Swenson, she’s something alright.  Do you need extra help on the trip out to the boiler units?  I sure wouldn’t mind putting in a few overtime hours with her around.”
Graham laughed.  “Okay, okay, I am sure Ms. Swenson is not the first pretty lady you’ve ever seen.  Cool your jets.  You can come along for the ride if there’s room on the boat.  Over.”
“I’ll check it out.  Oh and one more thing,” Charley said, “and I really hope it’s nothing.  I got a strange message from Private Mirosevich.  His hazmat suit may have malfunctioned when he was out servicing the filtration unit near the northwest ventilation shaft.  When he came back inside, his suit read ‘breach,’ but he hadn’t noticed anything unusual.  He didn’t immediately show any symptoms, but he was really freaking out.  I wasn’t sure what to make of it, so I sent him to the infirmary.  It’s gotta be a misread, right?”
“No.  Damn it.  You know the HEPA filters on those suits aren’t always perfect.  And Mirosevich’s just a kid.  I bet he’s scared shitless.  Double-check his suit, and keep an eye on him.  Then report back to me.  Over.”
“Will do.”
“Ten four, Charley.  Thanks for your help.  Over and out.”
Graham took his feet off his desk, stood up, and then sat back down.  He had lost eight soldiers during his time as the director of operations.  All had died from exposure to the silver slayer.  He hated to think that there would ever be a ninth.  He had done everything possible to make the facilities safe, but he faced a shrinking budget, and the deadly mold was everywhere.  He had even considered moving headquarters, but the silver slayer had spread 90 miles to the south and all the way to the old Oregon border to the North.  There simply wasn’t a safe location that would allow them to run supplies to the facilities and do the necessary maintenance on the boiler units and solar fields.  So he did his best with what he had.
He took a deep breath.  No need to jump the gun, he thought to himself.  It could be a misreading on the suit.  It had happened before.  Charley could handle the Mirosevich situation for now; Graham need to focus on his visitors. 
He thought about Peggy Lee Swenson.  He had never been smooth with women, not even the shy ones he’d dated in high school in South Dakota.  Then he joined the army.  They say that women love a man in uniform.  Graham had found that saying to be only partially true.  Drunken women love a man in uniform.  Desperate women love a man in uniform.  Sober, reasonable women expect more than just a uniform, and that’s where Graham always lost out.  Was he insufficiently macho?  Too introverted?  Too weird?  Or maybe he was just too boring – too average.  All of those things?  Even with the uniform, he could never get a girl to stick around long enough to tell him what exactly she didn’t like about him.  He longed, in a vague kind of way, for a real partner, but as he often told himself, the demands of his job would always get in the way.
But this was business, Graham reassured himself.  He took pride in his position as Colonel, and no matter how beautiful this reporter turned out to be in person, he would keep his cool, maintain his composure, and impress her – not with charm, as if that were at all likely, but with his knowledge of the West Coast Water Production Program.  He knew all the ins and outs of the facilities and would be a fount of information.  Peggy Lee Swenson would be impressed by his professionalism and his detailed descriptions of all aspects of the operations, and that was how it was going to go.
Ding.  Graham could hear the elevator doors opening down the hall.