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.”
“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.