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.”
“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.”