Friday, May 30, 2014

Chapter 19

“All soldiers scheduled for transport to the Farallon Platform, please report immediately to Portal One for departure,” a loud speaker announced as Graham, Charley, Peggy Lee, and Ian walked quickly down a narrow hallway.
Thirty seconds later, they stood on a high metal balcony overlooking an enormous warehouse filled with stacks of boxes and equipment.  Graham explained:  “The Hub, as this room is known around here, is the main supply depot for all of the facilities.”
Three large decontamination chambers labeled D.C. One, Two, and Three, were connected to the Hub.  Each chamber could eliminate all mold spores from incoming hover transport vehicles in less than a minute.  The large metal doors to D.C. Two and Three stood firmly closed that day.  The door to D.C. One, however, was open.  Soldiers carried stacks of supplies into the chamber and loaded them into a large hover transport vehicle parked inside.
“No time like the present,” Charley said, turning toward the two flights of open, metal stairs that led down to the Hub’s floor.  Ian adjusted his camera bag and followed right after him.
“Graham,” Peggy Lee said quietly, gently grabbing his arm.  “Can I have a word?”
“Of course.”
“Did you get a chance to check the weather reports for tonight?”  Her hand lingered on his forearm.  He reached over and placed his own hand softly on hers.  The hustling buzz of the Hub below seemed to disappear entirely.  Her skin was soft and warm, as he knew it would be.
“The seas are calm and the winds promise a relatively quiet night,” Graham said.  “It will only take about fifteen minutes to get out past the fog curtain from the Farallon Platform.  So we can spend as much time as we like out there.”
“Great.  I’m so looking forward to it.” 
“Me too,” Graham said, his heart about to burst.
When they got down to the bottom of the stairs, a soldier escorted Peggy Lee to a nearby changing room.  Graham, Charley, and Ian entered a separate room filled with old-style gym lockers and benches.  A cart piled high with hazmat suits sat at the end of the room.  The three men stepped into the padded, white suits, and pulled the tops up over their shoulders, keeping their street clothes on underneath.  Graham grabbed his gloves and stuck them into his helmet.  “You ready, Ian?”
“Yeah, sure,” Ian answered.
“Ready, sir.”
A soldier approached them when they reentered the Hub.  “The hover transport is fully loaded and ready to go.  The pilot and the two escort soldiers are aboard already, as is Ms. Swenson.”
The soldier held out a clipboard holding various forms, which Graham quickly signed.
After entering the transport vehicle through the rear hatch, Graham walked down the narrow center aisle to the front row, where Peggy Lee sat.  She had already put her helmet on and was looking straight ahead, out the cockpit window.  Graham touched her shoulder gently, startling her.  When she looked up at him through her helmet’s visor, he noticed beads of sweat on her forehead.  He disconnected her helmet and pulled it gently off her head before sitting across the aisle from her.
“There will be plenty of time for the helmets.  I usually wait until we’re completely ready for departure before I put mine on.  Obviously, my soldiers did not show you the climate control feature.  Here, see this keypad.”  Graham turned Peggy Lee’s forearm over.  “The blue arrows cool you off and the red ones heat you up.  There is never any need for heat, but the air con sure is nice.  Okay?”
“Thanks.  I was starting to wonder how I was going to make it through the next few hours.
Ian moved forward through the cabin, selected the seat behind Graham, and lurched into Graham’s seat-back as he pulled his camera bag off of his shoulder.  “Sorry about that,” he said, dropping into his seat.   
“No problem,” Graham answered reflexively.  It was the second time that morning that Ian had banged his bag into him.  Graham held his tongue, but silently wished that Ian would just leave him alone with Peggy Lee.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Chapter 18

Graham took the breakfast trays to the dish station.  As he scraped a few bites of pancake into the trash, he thought about Ian, who had been as irritating at breakfast as he’d been the night before.  In general, Ian was rude, sloppy, and boorish.  But then, Graham knew he could be awkward, boring, and introverted.  Perhaps they were just not meant to get along.  Graham decided to give the hologramographer the benefit of the doubt and try to ignore his rough edges, but it was not going to be easy.
And then there was Peggy Lee.  He desperately hoped she would come with him on the boat tonight.  He wanted to see her smile in the moonlight.  He knew she would appreciate his one special place in the world.  In fact, he would gladly put up with Ian all day, if in return he got to spend just a few minutes alone with Peggy Lee under the stars.
Charley intercepted Graham as he headed back toward the table.  Charley was tall, broad-shouldered, and kept his blond hair in a neat crew cut.  Graham had always thought that if the Army’s public relations team ever came to headquarters looking for candidates for a photo shoot, Charley would get the call.  He looked like the perfect soldier – fit, young, and strong.  He was always smiling and had a way of making people feel at ease.  Graham noticed that his uniform was well-ironed, crisp and clean today, as it was every day.
“Sir, we have a situation,” Charley said.  “It’s Mirosevich.  I checked his suit.  The HEPA filter looked like it hadn’t been changed in a while.  I just came from the infirmary.  He’s coughing up blood.”
“Shit.  Did you give him his options?”
“No sir, I wasn’t quite sure what to say.”
“Damn it, this is terrible timing.”  Graham closed his eyes and took a deep breath.  “I’ll go talk to him.  I’ve done it before.  It’s the least I can do.  You stay here and entertain our guests.  I should be back in about half an hour.  Tell Peggy Lee I have to check on a few details pertaining to our trip.  Don’t tell them about Mirosevich.  I hate to say it, but a dying soldier is bad PR.”
When Graham got to the infirmary, he immediately heard Mirosevich’s coughing and went straight into his room; he knew that people infected with the silver slayer were not contagious.  The young soldier was sitting on the edge of his hospital bed, holding a bedpan half full of blood and saliva.  He looked up as Graham entered.  The whites of his eyes were stained red, the result of extensive subconjunctival hemorrhaging – in other words, he had coughed so hard during the night that he’d burst multiple blood vessels in both eyes.
Mirosevich attempted a salute, but he was overcome by a fit of coughing before he could get his hand to his forehead.  When the coughing subsided, he spit a mouthful of blood into the bedpan.  Graham knew exactly what was going on in the dying soldier’s body.  The mold had already begun to take over his lungs, creating pulmonary aspergillomas, or dense balls of fungus, white blood cells, and blood clots.  The mold was likely also taking root in Mirosevich’s sinuses and ear canals.  It would soon enter his bloodstream, if it hadn’t already, and begin to infect other organs, including his kidneys, liver, and brain.  He would be dead by the following morning. 
“Private Mirosevich,” Graham started, “I’m here to help you.  Have you discussed your prognosis with the medical staff?”
“Yes.”  A tortured grimace passed over Mirosevich’s face, and he turned away. 
Graham remembered Mirosevich arriving at headquarters two weeks prior – on his twentieth birthday.  “So you know . . . .”
“Yes.”  The boy soldier began to sob. 
“I am truly sorry.”
Mirosevich set the bedpan aside and covered his face with his hands.  “Yeah, me too,” he said between tears.
After a moment, Graham continued, “You have some decisions to make.  We can get you on a hover transport vehicle headed for Fresno if that is what you want.  I am not sure how easy transportation from there would be, but we could try to arrange something for you.  Or we can make you comfortable here.  Where are your nearest family members?”
“East Coast shelter,” Mirosevich managed.
Graham hesitated.  “That’s . . . likely too far, I am afraid.”
“What about friends?”
“East Co—”
Graham was silent as the soldier cried. 
Mirosevich caught his breath, raised his head, and looked at Graham.  “I guess I’ll stay here then.”
“I think that’s best.”  After a moment, Graham continued, “I recommend morphine, but it’s your choice.”
“I want the drugs.  Anything.  Everything.  The sooner the better.  My lungs feel like they are about to explode.  But can I call my mom and dad first?”  His face again contorted into a heartbreaking mask of despair. 
“Of course.  I will arrange everything for you.  And we will have someone sitting by your side throughout the process.”  Graham’s throat tightened – “the process,” what a stupid thing to say.
“Thank you, sir.”
Graham saluted Mirosevich and replied, “On behalf of the United States of America, I thank you for your service and sacrifice, soldier.” 
Then, Graham spoke with the chief of medicine for a few minutes before leaving the infirmary. 
He walked straight to his quarters, grabbed a jar of white lightning, and poured a heavy shot into a coffee cup.  It was the only thing he could do at that moment.  He had only met Mirosevich once before, but it still hurt.  The med staff would take good care of the kid in his final hours, but that was just cold comfort for the dying soldier. 
Graham raised his mug and made a silent prayer for a painless death.  After taking the shot, he thought back on all the men he had seen die; it was no small number.  Then he thought about the coming years of widespread pain and death.  Mirosevich was just one of the many hundreds of thousands who were slated to die before their time – he just happened to have cut the line.  And maybe that was for the best in the end.  At least that’s what Graham needed to believe; he had to get Mirosevich’s desperate, weeping, blood-stained eyes out of his head before returning to Peggy Lee.
He took another shot and then brushed his teeth.  As he walked toward the mess hall to collect Peggy Lee, Ian, and Charley, the booze started to kick in.  A familiar warmth ran the length of his body; he could do this.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Chapter 17

“So what’s the plan for today?” Peggy Lee asked, taking a sip of coffee.
“First, we will stop at a boiler unit,” Graham replied.  “Fortunately, one of the western-most boilers is inactive today for maintenance.  Then we’ll swing by the solar panel fields, followed by a tour at the Farallon Platform, our regional command post.  We will be spending the night there.  We prefer to make the trips to and from the Farallons in the morning when the seas are calmest.  With visibility around three to four feet in spots, we take every precaution.”
Graham noticed that Ian had already wolfed down most of his bacon and pancakes.  What’s the big rush?  Graham cut a small triangle of pancake from his stack, sopped up some syrup, and raised it to his mouth.  He glanced at Peggy Lee.  He noticed a drop of syrup on her chin.  He wondered what it would feel like to lick syrup off her chin on a Sunday morning in the privacy of their own apartment.  Would she draw him close and kiss him, warm and wet, on his syrupy mouth?  Would they slide down on to the floor?
Peggy Lee looked up suddenly, catching Graham, who immediately blushed.  She laughed sweetly under her breath, and then felt the syrup on her chin.  Now she blushed, quickly dipped her napkin into her water glass, wiped her chin, and asked, “Couldn’t you just shut the boilers down for a few hours to increase visibility and make the trips out to the facilities less dangerous?”
“They used to do that,” Graham said, regaining his composure.  “To be effective though, they had to shut down a majority of units in the area.  It took too long to get the boilers back up and running.  The current regulation requires near-constant operation.  There are no more stoppages for navigation or any other purpose, just maintenance.  And that is usually limited to one or two boiler units at a time.”
“What if someone, without all the fancy navigation you guys have on your boats, happened to get off course and become stranded in the fog?”  Ian asked, shoving the last few bites of pancake into his mouth and pushing his empty tray into the center of the table.  “Would you turn off the boilers to save innocent people in trouble?”
“That would never happen,” Graham answered.  “We have what we call the ‘Coordinated West Coast Perimeter’ set up around the water production facilities.  Every foot of the perimeter is watched 24 hours-a-day by boat and satellite.  We have sensor buoys and aquatic trip lines.  We have never had an unwanted craft of any kind penetrate the West Coast Perimeter without our immediate knowledge.”
“Why does the Army need such high security?”  Peggy Lee asked.  “Are the water production facilities under that big of a threat?  When I was doing some preliminary research for this story, I saw some odd sites on the Internet, radical groups that want to get rid of the facilities, but aren’t there always some wackos who talk about blowing stuff up?  Do you take any of those threats seriously?”
“You can never tell.  There are still a lot of people – some verifiable ‘wackos’ as you say and some sophisticated organizations – who feel like what we do here is immoral.  Or maybe that’s not quite right.  Unholy, unnatural . . . .  They say that the silver slayer was a sign from some higher power – Jesus, Allah, Mother Nature, who knows – that we humans should stop manipulating the environment.  There are even some ‘scientists’ out there who theorize that if we cease operation of all of the water production and other geo-engineering facilities around the world, then the weather would eventually return to normal.  They claim that what we are doing here is hindering the earth’s return to a healthy climate.  Extreme times invite extreme reactions.  One of the most organized, anti-geo-engineering groups is called the ‘Movement for Earth’s Rebalance,’ or ‘MER’ for short.  Perhaps, you saw MER’s website on the Internet?”
Peggy Lee had finished her breakfast.  She poured herself a second cup of black coffee from the carafe on the table.  It steamed in front of her face as she blew gently onto the dark surface.  Ignoring Graham’s question, she asked, “So, do you receive regular threats against the facilities?  Has anyone ever really gotten close to damaging anything or disturbing operations?”
“We had a soldier once who tried to knock out the main operations unit on the Farallon Platform – what we call the Brain Room,” Graham said taking one final bite.  “He was a young guy, a bit on the quiet side, but nice enough.  He was a good worker, did what he was told and all that.  We assigned him to communications on the Farallon Platform.  About three weeks into his tour, one of my senior officers, who was conducting a routine inventory check, happened to walk in on him assembling an explosive device in a storage closet.  It was sheer luck that we discovered his plot.  Otherwise, he might have been able to take the facilities out of commission for quite some time.  The Brain Room, which you will see on our tour, is a critical coordination unit for all of the operations.  If he had succeeded, the water shortages would have been pretty drastic, possibly even cataclysmic.
“Anyway, after extensive interrogations, he admitted to being a member of MER.  The Movement’s leaders denied any responsibility, but the soldier was pretty convincing.  He knew a lot about MER’s organization.  He said that his orders came from the top.  After a thorough governmental inquiry, however, the Army concluded that there was not enough hard evidence linking MER to the attempted bombing.  The young soldier has been in the brig ever since.  You probably read something about all this.  It was a widely-reported incident – happened about five or six years ago.”
“Yes, yes, now I recall reading an article about that guy, Strom Miller, I think was his name.”  Peggy Lee sipped from her steamy cup of coffee.  “After he was caught, he started calling himself ‘Black Oak’ or something, right?”
“That’s right,” Graham said.  “All of the members of the Movement take on secret earth names, and his was Black Oak.  Wow, I am surprised you remembered his name – both his names.”
If you knew her well, you would not be surprised,” Ian interrupted.  “Her mind is like a steel trap.”
“Some things stick and some things don’t,” Peggy Lee responded.  “I just remember that boy’s innocent-looking face in the newspapers.  They gave him a very long sentence, right?  I thought at the time that it was a bit harsh.”
“Well,” Graham said, “he could have caused millions of people in Southern California to go without water for a very long time.  If he had managed to completely destroy the Brain Room, he probably would have been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.  I for one am glad that he is behind bars.” 
“Hmm . . . I just always thought of him as a misguided crackpot, not a serious threat,” Peggy Lee said.  “But enough about MER and Black Oak or whatever his name was, can we get going?  I’m very excited.”

Friday, May 9, 2014

Chapter 16

            Graham ushered Peggy Lee and Ian over to the food line.  The small cafeteria was full and loud – in a pleasant, lively way.  About thirty soldiers sat at the two long tables in the middle of the room.  Multiple, animated conversations bounced around the tables and filled the room with a congenial buzz.  The overhead sunlamps had been turned on high throughout the cafeteria to give the soldiers the sense of a clear and sunny morning.  Large and hearty potted plants added to the illusion that the room was connected to outside world.  
Graham looked at Peggy Lee out of the corner of his eye as they stood next to each other in line.  He could feel Ian’s eyes on him from behind.  He didn’t know what to say to her, and he wished that Ian would disappear again.  He wanted to go back to the planetarium with Peggy Lee and keep talking, or just sit there in the dark, heavenly silence, soaking up her scent.  This morning, she smelled like cinnamon – or maybe it was clove.  Their conversation had been so easy last night.  Now, his friendliness felt forced.  He felt like they were right back at the beginning, standing and waiting for the elevator in that terrible awkward silence.  Graham was worried that the rest of the day would be similarly strained.  His palms were sweating, and he swallowed hard against a rising tide of anxiety.  He felt on the verge of saying something stupid or foolish again. 
But then, Peggy Lee playfully prodded Graham with her elbow and asked, “Hey soldier, what are you thinking about?  You’re quiet compared to last night.”
“I guess I was unusually talkative last night.  Must have been the beers.  Or do you reporters have a way of extracting information from even the shiest of interviewees?”  Graham quickly wiped his brow with the back of his hand.  It was only slightly wet.  A bead of sweat dripped down his spine. 
“They say I can squeeze information from a turnip,” Peggy Lee answered.  “And I must say, I have extracted some pretty juicy tidbits from the toughest of Alaskan warlords.  But last night I was just being my normal, friendly self – no hidden tactics, just sincere interest.”
“Glad to hear it,” Graham said as he took three trays from the top of the pile.  He handed Peggy Lee one and stepped aside.  “After you,” he said gallantly. 
Graham held out a tray to Ian.  The big hologramographer thanked Graham brusquely and stepped forward, knocking up against Graham with his large camera bag.
Graham did not know what to make of Ian.  Everything Ian said had an undertone to it.  It was as if he had something more to say, but always stopped short.  Perhaps, it had just been so long since Graham had been in a position of vying, however innocently, for a young woman’s attention.  Perhaps, he had forgotten how men challenge each other for a chosen female – the archetypical two rams butting heads.  But it felt more complicated than that.  Graham could not quite put his finger on it.  He felt like he was trying to remember a dream – a dream about Ian – that had faded quickly in the morning light, leaving a vague, lingering undercurrent of unease.
They headed over to Graham’s table.  Almost all the soldiers in the room gawked at Peggy Lee as she crossed the room.  She did not seem to notice.  Or perhaps she was so used to such attention that she was not affected by it.  Graham felt goddamn lucky.  He was the guy talking to, walking with, and hanging out with the beautiful girl.  He knew that the feeling would not last, that it wasn’t even a reflection of his character or prowess, but simply a temporary benefit of his position.  But he relished the envious looks.  No one was ever jealous of Saint Snow.  Today, however, was a different kind of day. 
Most mornings, Graham ate at his table by himself, often continuing his review of the daily reports.  It was nice to have company for a change.  He sat directly across from Peggy Lee, and Ian sat next to her. 
“Let me open that for you,” Graham said, reaching across the table and taking a syrup package out of Peggy Lee’s hands.  “They can be tricky, and if you don’t do it right, syrup will get all over your fingers.”  Graham was surprised and pleased by his assertiveness.  She smiled at him.  He felt like they might be sliding back to that comfortable place.  Why he had been so worried? 
Ian tossed three syrup packages onto Graham’s tray and said, “Hey, Graham, since you are such a pro, will you open mine too?” 
Graham bristled.  “Sure thing, Ian.  We wouldn’t want you to get all of that expensive equipment covered in syrup before the big trip, right?”
“Exactly,” smiled Ian.