Friday, March 28, 2014

Chapter 10

            Graham got up from the table.  Their conversation had gotten much heavier than he had intended.  “There is one more place I would like to show you, if you are up for it,” he said. 
“I’m up for anything.”
“Would you be interested in watching the stars?”
            “Sure, but I thought that we were pretty much fogged in.  Is there a place where you can look up at the night sky?”
            “No, not the real sky,” Graham replied.  “But we get a feed from Hawaii.  Did you know that there is still an observatory there, high up on Mauna Kea?  It was once the best place in the world to see stars, probably still is, now that I think about it.  Government scientists remain out there to look through giant telescopes for other habitable planets.  The rest of the islands have been reduced to dry and uninhabited wastelands.  In the early 2070’s, the government put in a desalination plant and a system of pumps to move fresh water up the mountain.  The scientists live side-by-side with a small group of die-hard, native Hawaiians who refuse to leave.  Anyway, long story short, we display the feed in our little planetarium.  Would you like to see it?”
            They exited the cafeteria, stepped into a stairwell, and descended four flights to what used to be an underground parking garage.  Graham led, catching glimpses of Peggy Lee’s slender hand on the railing each time they rounded a corner.  Her nails were short, but neat with a French manicure.  Funny how they still called it a “French” manicure, Graham thought momentarily.  France was all but erased off the map during Russia’s consolidation of power campaign.  Graham had read quite a bit about the French.  French men had prided themselves on being great lovers.  He figured he didn’t have a drop of French blood in him.
Right then, he decided that he wouldn’t make a move on Peggy Lee.  It was not worth the risk.  He’d keep it professional.  He was a fool even to think about trying something.  Yet he was dying to touch her, to feel her hair between his fingers, to kiss the soft curve of her neck.
            They came to the bottom of the stairwell, and Graham swiped his access card to open the planetarium door.  The room was completely dark, but Graham made his way easily to the control console.  He turned on the floor lights so that Peggy Lee could walk over to the reclining chairs.  It was not a big planetarium, only twenty seats, but Graham liked it because he felt like he was in his own back yard.  None of the other soldiers came here except for the newbies, and they quickly got bored.  But for Graham, the pace of the planetarium was perfect.
            He turned a knob to “warm, summer breeze.”  Silently, a fan unit began to replicate mid-July air, complete with the moist smell of fresh cut grass.  He reached towards the switch labeled “crickets,” but then reconsidered.  Perhaps the chirping of crickets, once the anthem of peaceful country nights, wouldn’t be as charming or soothing as it had been a year ago.  Graham could not remember how many people had starved to death last summer in South Africa because of the locus infestation, but he knew that Peggy Lee had covered that story.  Instead, he turned on the sound of wind rustling leaves.  Finally, he turned off the floor lights and flipped on the night stars.  The rounded ceiling lit up.  Graham slowly and carefully walked over to sit next to Peggy Lee. 
He pulled out his trusty pocket knife and opened a couple more beers.  They sat facing the last, dim moments of daylight as it disappeared under the horizon.  There was not a cloud in the clear, Hawaiian sky.  Despite the overheating solar panels, the Minister’s confidential memo, Mirosevich’s potential exposure, and all the rest of the world’s problems, Graham closed his eyes for a moment and smiled.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Chapter 9

            Peggy Lee and Graham left the storage room and returned to the table.  The dirty dishes and empty beer bottles had been taken away, the table wiped clean.  Graham sat across from Peggy Lee and opened two beers.
            She licked the foam pouring down the side of her bottle and took a quick sip.  “I wonder if I might ask you a few questions about the Deep Six Cover-up.”
“Sure.”  Graham, in fact, hated talking about the facilities’ past.  It always sounded like he was trying to whitewash what happened – like he was the government’s apologist – no matter what he said.  “Of course, I was not even here then.”  He noted his defensive tone.  “But I have read a lot about it and looked through some of the old files.  I can tell you what I know.”
            “Okay.  So, according to official estimates, nearly two million people died here before the Evacuation of 2064.  Do you think that estimate accurately reflects the total number of casualties?”
            “The official estimate is 1.92 million.  But it is hard to know for sure if that number is accurate.  It could be higher, if that is what you are asking.”
            “How so?”
            “The FBI agents who orchestrated the Deep Six Cover-up were meticulous.  They had access to all sorts of computer files throughout the region.  We are missing thousands of hospital records, insurance claims, and epidemiology reports from 2061-64.  The agents hired private teams of hackers.  Records were not only destroyed; they were altered.  So while it is very likely that many tens of thousands of people died from the silver slayer prior to the big outbreak in the summer of 2064, it is also impossible to prove.  As I understand it, the official estimate does not include any of those early unconfirmed casualties.
            “Now, I do want to point out that the army was not running the facilities at the time,” Graham continued.  “We took over in July 2064, at the peak of crisis – during the ‘Summer of Death’ as the news outlets called it back then – and just before the President ordered the evacuation of the region.  Up until then, the facilities were being run by a private company called Xavier Hydroproduction Systems, or ‘XHS.’  XHS funneled money into the Deep Six operation.  Covering up the mold deaths was essential to maintaining a healthy bottom line.”
            “But what about the federal government’s extensive regulatory authority over the facilities?” Peggy Lee asked.  “The blame for the millions of dead cannot fall solely on the Deep Six operatives and XHS’s greedy executives, right?”
            “True.  But the political realities of the time made XHS nearly untouchable.  Many Western states were literally turning to dust.  The California Aqueduct ran completely dry three summers in a row.  Once the facilities were up and running, government regulators quickly learned that reporting potential problems with the facilities led to a quick demotion or dismissal . . . or sometimes worse.  I read about a stubborn EPA agent who was very concerned about the facilities’ effect on migrating whales.  He had a fatal car accident on the way to his office the morning he was due to give a major presentation on the matter.  All of his files were removed from EPA’s mainframe that same morning and never recovered.”
            Graham leaned back in his chair and took a breath.  The beer was going straight to his head.  He was loose as hell and talking a lot.  Maybe it was Peggy Lee.  She had the most beautiful grey-blue eyes.  She seemed to be hanging on his every word.  He could easily sit there and talk with her all night. 
Peggy Lee took a swig of beer.  “I see your point.  But a lot of people still say that the price was too high . . . and that somebody in the government should have done something to reign in XHS and the Deep Six operatives before it was too late.  According to one account, nearly four-hundred-thousand children perished during the Summer of Death – and such a terrible way to go.  What would you say to those people?”
            “Now hold on.  I am not making excuses for the people who created the water production facilities or for the cover-up.  What happened here was tragic – is tragic.  I remember watching coverage of the events in junior high.  We were all horrified by the piles of bodies and discovery of the Deep Six Cover-up.
“I am just saying that it can be dangerous to judge history.  I cannot pretend to understand the motivations of all the people who had a hand in creating this situation.  I am sure that many thought they were doing what was best for the greater good.  As they say, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’  So who am I to judge?”
Graham looked her in the eyes.  She did not look away.  He felt a twinge of nausea, but kept her gaze a moment longer before looking away.  He had not been the subject of so much female attention in years, if ever.  Her questions were respectfully probing, but not overtly combative.  She seemed genuinely interested in his opinion.  Was she flirting?  Fawning?  Maybe she had a thing for older guys.  No one had ever had a “thing for older guys” when it came to Graham, but why not now?  He was the Colonel after all.  He ran a large and essential facility.  He kept government secrets.  Even if she just sat there and listened to him drone on, falsely confident, he would go to bed ecstatic.
“Interesting,” Peggy Lee said.  “So do you think that the two million or so casualties were justified?  Or rather, could be justified by someone?”
“Maybe.  Well, no, not exactly.”  Graham closed his eyes as he searched for the right words.  “The truth is, for me, excuses, justifications, blame . . . they just don’t matter now.  We are here.  There is nothing that can be done to reverse the course of history.  The Deep Six operatives had their own reality.  It’s not the same as mine.  They had orders to suppress information about the mold victims so that the water production facilities could remain operational.  I could imagine thinking that millions of American lives outweighed some inconclusive information about a few unfortunate mold deaths.”
“But it wasn’t just a few, right?”
“At the beginning it was.”  Graham replied.  “Where’s the line?  And what were those agents supposed to do once they crossed it?  They were already in too far into the cover-up.”
“So you just let them all off the hook?  You have studied it; you know what happened here.”
“I’m not letting anyone off the hook.  But there is so much blame to go around that I resist the temptation to pin it all on a few people.  I just don’t see the point.”  Graham looked down and slowly rolled the bottom of his beer bottle around in a circle on the table.  “Sometimes I find myself thinking about a very old movie called Rashomon.  In it, four witnesses give accounts of a crime, but their stories don’t match up.”  He took a drink of his beer and looked at Peggy Lee.  “I think everybody has a different story about the climate problem, but I am not sure that any one of them holds any truth.”
Peggy Lee reached across the table and put her hand on Graham’s forearm.  “Maybe.  Or maybe we all see the same thing, and we just refuse to recognize it.”  

Friday, March 14, 2014

Chapter 8

            Peggy Lee took Graham’s arm.  “Shall we?” she said in a faux-formal falsetto.
            “Let’s,” Graham responded in his best baritone.  One of his knees buckled just slightly as she gently squeezed his forearm.  The two beers at dinner had taken a bit of the edge off his nerves, but he was still feeling very much out of his element.
He took a deep breath and led her across the cafeteria.  He was reminded of a scene from Carrie, an old movie about a homely, high school girl who gets invited to her prom by the most popular boy in her class.  She is ecstatic, but then it turns out to be an ugly, mean-spirited practical joke (with very dark repercussions).  Graham hated Carrie.  Was Peggy Lee toying with him?
They had spent dinner talking about different types of oceanic heating elements, the jet stream, onshore wind currents, and reservoir management.  He now wanted to talk about something personal, but didn’t know where to start.  Instead, they walked in silence until they reached the storage room door.  He hoped his silence communicated confidence – not the anxiety that was causing his palms to sweat.  “After you,” he said, holding the door open.
            “You are quite the gentleman.  Now, what were you just thinking about?”
            “That’s a funny question.”
            “It’s my favorite – it often elicits amazing responses.”
            “Well, if you must know . . . in a way, I was thinking about how I didn’t want you to know what I was thinking,” Graham said as they crossed the storage room.
            “Hmm . . . interesting . . . very interesting and very honest.  Of course, now you really have to tell me what you were thinking.”
            “I know,” Graham replied with a smile.  “I should have just lied and said something like the weather, tomorrow’s schedule, or something else – like ‘work stuff,’ that’s always a good one.”
            “I was just thinking about an old film I watched when I was a teenager.  It’s about human longings, attractions . . . betrayals.”  Graham could feel his cheeks glowing red.  “I don’t presume to know you at all, but I get the sense that you are in the crowd of people for whom life has always been easy . . . well, not easy, exactly, but not really difficult.”
            They stopped in front of the walk-in fridge.  Peggy Lee crossed her arms and looked down at the floor for a moment.  “In the last several years or so, that’s pretty much been the case.  I usually get what I want.  I’m Ms. Peggy Lee Swenson of Our Modern World after all.  But when I was growing up, things were different.  My childhood was no bowl of cherries.”
            “Really?  How so?  If you don’t mind me asking.”  Graham reached for the fridge door.  He had decided a few steps back that he would not prop the door open with the lettuce box.  He did not want to explain that to her right now?  Instead, he would just leave the door cracked open, and they would grab the beer and get out.  He felt pretty sure that he could do that.
            “Well, my father was a soldier like you.  He left us when I was fourteen.  We moved to Georgia to be near family.  The Collapse had hit everyone pretty hard of course, though for us in the South, the droughts were not as severe at that time.  My aunt managed to take us in, helping us the best she could.  My mother tried to take care of my brother and me, but she was heartbroken and did not fare very well without my dad around.  She would disappear for weeks at a time and then come back sick and exhausted.  Then she would sleep for days.”  Peggy Lee followed Graham into the fridge, reached back, and then firmly closed the heavy door.  The latch clicked definitively.  Graham felt sick.  She looked at him closely.  “You ok?” she asked. 
“Yeah, go on,” he said.  Just pretend that the lettuce box is in place, he told himself.  No need to panic. 
“So, as you could guess,” Peggy Lee continued, “I had to cook and clean and help around the house as much as I could.  My older brother was angry all the time, so he pretty much ignored us.  I worked as a waitress every day after school.  I told everyone at school that I was saving up for college, but really I was coming up with our share of the rent at the end of each month.  I didn’t blame my mother or my brother, still don’t, but those times were difficult for me. 
“At the same time, those years of hard work made me who I am.  I began copy editing on a local website when I went off to college.  Then, I got my degree and my first job.  I buckled down, took on extra assignments, and eventually worked my way to the top.  Nobody gave me anything along the way that I did not fully deserve.”
            They were standing in the back of the walk-in fridge.  Graham was starting to feel really closed-in.  He discretely rubbed the scar under his eye and prayed for calm.  Keep it together for just a few seconds, he told himself.  He grabbed a six-pack of beer from the shelf.  He felt her eyes on him.  Could she see how worked up he was?  His chest was tightening.  Blood was thumping in his temples.  He wanted to say something sympathetic about what she had just divulged.  He wanted to respond.  But he couldn’t even catch his breath.  His fingers began to shake as he took the clipboard and quickly signed out the second six-pack of beer.
            “Are you sure you’re okay?”  Peggy Lee asked, taking hold of his arm.  “Are you having a heart attack or something?”
            “No, no, let’s just get out of here.”  Graham clutched the beer to his chest and then hurried Peggy Lee back towards the door.  He could not breathe.  If the door didn’t open, he would collapse right there in front of her.  He hated this weakness of his – all his weaknesses, for that matter.  When they got to the door, he reached ahead of Peggy Lee to push the handle down.  It immediately clicked free and swung open.  Graham lunged forward past Peggy Lee, lost his balance, and fell headlong onto the storage room floor.  The six-pack skidded out from under him.  A lone beer escaped and rolled across the floor, coming to rest under a shelving unit stacked with jarred green beans.  Peggy Lee had easily stepped aside. 
            “Jesus, Graham,” she said as she knelt beside him.
            He rolled onto his back, closed his eyes, and rested the back of his head against the hard, cold floor. 
            “Just stay there a moment and catch your breath,” she said calmly.
He mumbled, “Yeah, right, no, yes, I am fine, no problem.  Just a moment.”   He did not want to open his eyes and face her.  He reached up and touched his scar again and started to calm down.  Would she tell Ian about this?  Was she going to highlight him in her story and tell the world that he was a claustrophobic freak?  What a disaster . . . and it had all been going so well. 
            “Okay, that’s enough,” Graham said quietly, opening his eyes.  “I am sorry about that.  Did I hurt you?”
            “Of course not.  You didn’t even touch me.  But are you okay?  What happened in there?”
            “I’m claustrophobic.  I really should have told you that before you closed the door.  I’m sorry.  I feel absolutely foolish.”  Graham shifted his weight up onto his elbows.  Peggy Lee was close.  He thought he could smell the faintest suggestion of lemons.  She wiped a fleck of dirt off of his cheek.
            “You’re not foolish.  You just haven’t had guests out here in a long while, that’s my guess.  You are used to doing things your own way.  I understand.  We are all creatures of habit.  I should be apologizing.  I am sorry for pulling the door closed.  It’s silly to risk getting locked in there, now that I think about it.  I should have left it open.  Now, let’s go have another beer or two and relax.  The night is still young.”
            She rose and offered Graham a helping hand.  Graham took it sheepishly.  She then crossed to the shelf against the wall and dropped to her knees.  She reached back and retrieved the loose beer bottle.  She stood and straightened her shirt and pants with her free hand.  Graham took the bottle and replaced it in the six-pack holder.  “Thank you,” he said.
            “No problemo.”  Her tone was warm, and – it seemed to him – positively intimate.  Graham momentarily smiled to himself as they turned toward the door; at least he was not covered in pig’s blood and setting the gym on fire.