Friday, July 25, 2014

Chapter 27

            The engines below grew louder, and the boat picked up a little more speed.  Graham turned and looked up at the bridge.  Captain Sherwood waved down to him and gave him the thumbs up.  Just then, the door below the bridge opened and out popped Charley, who sauntered over to Graham and Peggy Lee:  “Nice to be outside, eh?”
“Certainly is,” Graham answered.
“Where’s Ian?” Charley asked Peggy Lee.
“Oh, he’s coming along, I think.  That man runs on his own schedule, if you know what I mean.  So tell me, boys, are we just about to bust through that fabled fog curtain of yours?”
“Exactly,” Graham answered.  “The fog thins like this for a few miles, and then the sun starts to peek through intermittently.  I like to think of the fog curtain as one long, highly intricate piece of lace made of cloud.  Once we clear the curtain, we’ll be out on the sunny Pacific, with nothing but blue sky and the majestic ocean in front of us.”
And as if on cue, a ray of sun shined down on the deck.  The light raced quickly across the bow and disappeared.
“I see what you mean,” Peggy Lee said.  “If I didn’t know any better, I would guess that it was going to be a dark and dismal day for miles around.  But – oh, here comes another one.”  Sunlight flashed across them and then out into the ocean, disappearing a few hundred feet out.   
The captain increased the speed as the fog continued to disperse.  Thick, low fog banks rolled past the boat.  Up above, slow-churning clouds were interspersed with bright areas of sunlight.  The boat was moving out of the fog with visibility increasing rapidly.  Morning sunbeams broke through the clouds, shining diagonally onto the ocean’s surface before the cloud cover swallowed them back up.  Graham leaned against the rail between Charley and Peggy Lee, watching and waiting.  Each sunbeam foretold the moment of exhilaration, the highlight of this trip, when the boat would escape the fog bank entirely and roar into the open seascape of the Outer Territory.
Peggy Lee’s hand moved over next to Graham’s on the handrail.  A vivid rainbow appeared for a moment in front of the boat.  Charley was looking down toward the stern, but both Graham and Peggy Lee saw it.  She secretly hooked her little finger over his as they watched.  His stomach dropped as if he were on a roller coaster.  He felt as big as the world.  He was a shining light pulsating across the ocean.  He was the moon and the stars.  He was all that is and all that has ever been.  He was joy, pain, and love.  He felt that no matter how messed up the planet might be, no matter how ultimately doomed the water production facilities were, no matter how many people were in the process of dying – including poor, young Mirosevich back at HQ – there would always be some good, some happiness, in the world.  Unbelievably, he felt hopeful.  His heart swelled with a nearly forgotten feeling of raw excitement about life – about humans in general and about his life in particular.  Maybe everything will work out in the end.  Maybe this is just one, big test for humanity, and we will succeed, survive, and then thrive once more.  And he could live with Peggy Lee in a small house near the ocean and they would sip tea, watch sunsets, and curl up next to each other at night.  They would take care of each other and grow old together and die peacefully.
“There you are,” Ian said from behind them.  “I should probably shoot some of this scenery, right?”
“Yes, of course.”  Peggy Lee withdrew her hand.  “I got caught up in it all.  Why don’t you set up over there – quickly now – and get some shots without me.  My hair is a mess, and I would rather shoot the interviews once we get into consistent light.”
“Right,” Ian said, lugging his camera case over to the other side of the ship, where he began to set up three tripods and an array of small holographic cameras.
“Need any help?”  Charley asked.
“No,” Ian responded.
Charley crossed the deck over to a bench underneath the bridge and sat down.
“What do you call this place?  It has got to have a name, right?” Peggy Lee asked, turning back to Graham.
“Technically, it’s called the curtain.  Most of the soldiers, however, refer to this area as Purgatory.”
“Well, whatever you call it, it is truly beautiful.”
The boat was humming along now, cutting through small swells on the relatively flat ocean.  Bright sunbeams populated the view, flashing and then disappearing as the fog banks split and remarried over and over.  It was as if hundreds of extremely powerful spot lights had been hung high above the remaining cloud cover and were being turned on and off at random. 
Three more minutes and the clouds lightened up considerably, turning white and taking on a blinding glow.  When it seemed that the sky could not get any brighter, the cloud line appeared like the edge of a huge piece of cotton, and then, in a matter of seconds, it drifted off behind the little boat.  Full, glorious sunlight shined down on the deck.  The ocean lit up with glittering reflections, and the sky became instantly, unfathomably blue.  Graham closed his eyes and turned towards the sun.  He looked momentarily at the blood red light through the backs of his eyelids and felt the sun’s heat drying his face.
“It’s so nice to feel that again,” Graham said quietly.
“Especially for you, I’m guessing,” Peggy Lee said as she removed her rain gear.
Graham also took his coat off, took Peggy Lee’s from her, and returned them to the hooks in the hallway.
The sun was quickly heating up the deck.  Charley, who remained seated under the bridge, had already unbuttoned the top of his uniform.  Graham rolled up his shirt sleeves as he walked back over to Peggy Lee.  As he approached, she bent over at the waist and combed her long hair down around her head with her fingers.  She shook some of the water out of her curls, and then lifted her head up and flipped her hair into place.  Despite the hazmat suit, the accident, and the overheated decontamination chamber, her hair looked perfect.  She winked at him and said, “Making do.” 
She reminded him of a girl from an ancient Elvis movie . . . Blue Hawaii, or was it Viva Las Vegas?  He could not recall.
On the horizon, Graham could see the large pontoons of boiler unit 379, the outermost boiler unit in the region and their first stop on the tour.  As expected, it had been powered down for maintenance, and thus it stood clear of fog.  Back behind the boat, the wall of fog billowed up high and then dissipated into the vast blue sky above it.
The boat roared up to full speed.  Peggy Lee produced a pair of large, white-rimmed sunglasses and then she and Graham joined Charley on the bench under the bridge.  The three of them sat in silence, enjoying the sun and the warm breeze on their faces and the lulling rhythm of the boat.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Chapter 26

A few minutes later, the boat’s PA announced, “We have cleared the Spore Zone and will now commence exterior decontamination.” 
The SS Birmingham was equipped with hundreds of sprayers, which began to cover the entire outside of the boat with a potent, de-molding liquid.  Just like in Graham’s office back at HQ, a green liquid covered the bridge’s windows.  After a couple of minutes, the sprayers produced a rinsing agent, and the green hue disappeared.  “Decontamination complete,” the PA announced.  “Exterior doorways unlocked.  All hands may now exit the sealed area.”
“It’s nice to be clean,” Captain Sherwood said.
The fog was still very thick, but just then, Graham saw Peggy Lee walk out onto the deck.  He decided to join her.
At the bottom of the stairs, a short hallway led to the deck door.  Along the side of the hallway, yellow and red raingear hung from hooks.  Graham grabbed a yellow, full-length coat, opened the door, and stepped into the warm, thick outside air.
Through the fog, he spotted Peggy Lee.  She was leaning against the rail at the side of the boat, looking out into the gray emptiness as it flowed by the boat.  She had helped herself to a red raincoat, but had left the hood down.  Her hair was soaked and lay flat against her head.  Her head was tilted up – a challenge to the foggy breeze.  He could not see her full face, just her ear and the very edge of her cheek, such a fine line cutting down towards her perfect chin.  He stood stock still, frozen by her beauty.  He noticed one of her hands clasping the rail.  Her fingers were slender, but every part of her conveyed strength and grace.  
Then Graham saw that one of her feet was tapping ever-so-slightly on the wet metal of the deck floor.  She was waiting, waiting to get going, waiting to start the story, waiting to see the facilities . . . or perhaps she was waiting for him.  He desperately wanted her to turn around.  He wanted to see her face though the fog, to see her smile at him.
And then she did. 
She caught him watching her.  He was immediately embarrassed, but she didn’t seem to care.  She smiled and waved.  
As he approached, he noticed a rippling undercurrent of sadness in her eyes, but then it disappeared.  Would he ever know her well enough to ask her about those moments – or even to understand her thoughts without explanation? 
Her forehead and cheeks were covered in tiny beads of water.  As he reached the handrail, a rivulet of water ran between her eyebrows, down past the side of her nose and onto her lips.  She licked it with the tip of her tongue.  “Tastes sweet,” she said. 
“I’m glad that you are enjoying your free sample.  The next one will cost you.”
“It’s lovely water, Graham.  It truly is,” Peggy Lee responded.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Chapter 25

As the group exited the locker room, Captain Sherwood offered Peggy Lee and Ian the use of his office to prepare for the shoot.  “Just don’t try to go outside yet,” the Captain instructed.  “All of the exterior doors are locked and sealed until we clear the Spore Zone.  You will hear an announcement when it's safe to exit.”
Graham, Charley, Captain Sherwood, and the escort soldiers went up to the bridge, a large room at the rear of the boat with floor-to-ceiling windows, which, when not obscured by fog, overlooked the boat’s long deck two stories below.  Graham ordered a soldier to bring Peggy Lee and Ian a pot of coffee and some cookies.
When the boat cleared the pier, Charley pulled Graham aside.  “Sir, I didn’t mean to be argumentative down below.  I just thought your initial inclination to return to HQ made sense.”
“I understand, Charley, but Peggy Lee is under a deadline and well . . . .”
“Yeah, but deadlines can always be pushed back – especially for someone like Peggy Lee.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to delay for a day or two, make sure everyone’s healthy, get the bags, and then come back out here?”
“Perhaps I let Peggy Lee talk me into pressing on too quickly,” Graham said, smiling, “but she’s a pretty convincing woman.”
“Yeah, I see your point.”  After a moment, Charley asked, “So what do you think of your chances?”
“Chances of what?”
“Your chances of getting somewhere with her?  She clearly likes you.  But you gotta play your cards right with a woman like that.  You gotta have the right approach or you risk getting rejected right away.  Do you have a plan?”
“Yeah, I have a plan.  My plan is to do nothing,” Graham responded.  “She’s here in a professional capacity.  And I’m an Army representative – the Colonel in charge of these facilities in fact.  I can just imagine the headlines:  ‘Army Outpost Filled to the Very Top With Aggressive, Sex-deprived Perverts.’  I’m certainly not going to try to hit on Peggy Lee.  It would be completely inappropriate.  Not to mention the fact that she would slap me silly if I tried anything.  She is way out of my league.  You and I both know it.”
“Sir, with due respect, you’ve got it all wrong.  She’s totally into you.  I could see it within the first five minutes of being around you two this morning.  Ian can see it, too, I’m sure.  Shoot, the hover transport pilot could probably see it on the cabin cameras.  You just need to play your cards right.  Again, with all due respect, don’t be a coward.  She’s one of the most beautiful and talented women I have ever met.  You’d have to be crazy not to at least give it a try.  I’d be all over her if I was in your shoes.  She’s sending you positive signals left and right.”
“To tell you the truth, Charley, I’ve never been good at reading these kinds of situations.  We did have a really nice time last night, just the two of us in the planetarium.  And . . . well . . . I guess I can let you in on a little secret.”  Graham lowered his voice.  “I asked her if she wanted to go out beyond the fog curtain to see the stars tonight after dinner.  She was totally into the idea.  But I was not planning on making any advances.  I’m at least ten years older than she is.  So my plan was to take her out there for a little while tonight, show her the stars, and, well . . . who knows?”
“Now you’re talking, Chief.  You never know with women these days – she might make things a whole lot easier for you by making the first move.  If she doesn’t, though, my guess is that she will be waiting for you to do it.  So you’ve got to act decisively when the time is right, okay?”
“We’ll see,” laughed Graham. 
“There’s only one thing that I’d add to your plan,” Charley said.  “You need to find a way to bring some wine or booze or something out there with you.  I bet I can rustle you up something when we get to the Platform.  I know some soldiers had a batch of reconstituted burgundy going a couple of months ago.  It won’t win any awards, but it should do the trick.  Supplies are always limited, but if you want, I can hunt around this afternoon.  A couple of the guys on the Platform owe me a favor or two so I should be able to get my hands on something for you by tonight.”
“Sounds good.  I’m completely dry.  My flask is back in my bag on the wrecked transport vehicle.  I’m not sure she really would have appreciated my white lightning anyway.  But please don’t say anything to anybody.  I was planning on keeping the whole star-gazing expedition under the radar.  Just say that you want the wine for yourself.”
“Ten-four, good buddy” Charley said.  “In fact, I will start right now.  Those escort soldiers were out on the Platform just a few days ago, right?  I will ask them if they have any leads.”
“Thanks, Charley, but don’t make it too obvious.  I’m trusting you.”
“Not to worry.  I’ll hook you up with the finest vintage available.  I’m glad to be of service, sir.”

Friday, July 4, 2014

Chapter 24

Just when Graham thought he could not stand being confined for one more second, the vacuum fans roared to life and sucked all the irradiated mold spores – now harmless – out of the room.  The lights in the chamber brightened.  A voice announced, “Decontamination complete.  Scan shows 0% active mold spores.  All clear.” 
The door at the other end of the chamber opened and the group spilled out into a maritime locker room.  Graham immediately removed his helmet.  The air in the locker room was heavily filtered, but he could smell the ocean.
The others took their helmets off and began unzipping their hazmat suits.
Captain Sherwood entered the locker room.  He wore a light blue jumpsuit that had SS Birmingham stenciled across the chest.  Graham noticed the captain’s bright blue eyes shining out from his grizzled and sun-beaten face.  A black beard and thick, curly hair framed his features.  Captain Sherwood struck Graham as more of a pirate than an Army man, but somehow he had made his way up through the ranks.  He had been running the water production facility’s ocean transportation operation for about five years.  Graham always felt safe in his experienced hands.
The captain shoved past the escort soldiers and stuck out his hand.  “Morning, Colonel,” he said, shaking Graham’s hand vigorously.  He had been born and raised in Wales – back when it was inhabitable – and still spoke in a thick brogue.  “Ran into a bit of trouble on the way out, did ya?”
“Yeah, one of the blowers on the hover vehicle overheated.  We lost control and smashed into the side of a house.  The vehicle is completely messed up.  It seems we all escaped without getting exposed.  At least, that’s what the suits say.  We were very lucky this morning.”
“Very lucky, indeed,” Captain Sherwood said, scratching his beard. 
“Let me introduce you to Peggy Lee Swenson and Ian Patten, Jr., our guests,” Graham said.
“Pleasure’s all mine.  And I believe I’ve met this strapping lad once or twice,” he continued, turning towards Charley, “but I don’t recall your name.”
“Lieutenant Charley LeBrock, at your service,” Charley answered, shaking the captain’s hand.  “We have crossed paths a couple of times, but not in a while.”
“Now, let’s get to it, eh?” Captain Sherwood said.  “What’s the plan now, Colonel?  My crew and I are ready.  The Birmingham is all fueled up and in tip-top shape.  You say the word and we will be on our way.  But I understand if . . . well . . . .”
“I think we should abort the mission,” Graham said quickly.  “No need to press our luck.  I’d like to take our visitors back to headquarters for medical observation, just in case of a misreading on one of the suits.  We’ll recover everyone’s bags from the disabled vehicle, rest up, and then try again in a couple of days.  Get in touch with headquarters and tell th—”
“Graham,” Peggy Lee interrupted, “May I talk to you in private for a moment?”
“Sure.  Let’s step out into the hallway.”
When the door closed, Peggy Lee said, “There’s no need to go back now.  We’re all fine.  Like I told you when we first spoke on the phone, I’m not afraid of a little hardship.  Neither is Ian.  I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous on the walk.  But we made it.  No harm, no foul.  There’s really no reason to turn back now, is there?  I need to get this story to my editor soon.  It’s the feature in next week’s main edition.  Plus, I want to see those stars with you tonight.”
“But I’d feel a lot better if we were all near the HQ infirmary tonight.  The suits do not always function perfectly.  One of us might be infected.”
“And what if we were?” Peggy Lee asked.  “There’s no cure, right?  What purpose would it serve to return to headquarters now?”
“Well . . . yeah, but we don’t have your bags here either.  Ian has his cameras, but you two don’t have anything else that you brought with you.  Don’t you need that stuff?”
“Do you have an extra toothbrush?” 
“We have lots of toiletries on the Farallon Platform.”  Graham laughed.  “Is that all?”
“Sure.  I can make do with almost anything.”
Graham shook his head.  “You’re sure are full of surprises.”
“You don’t know the half of it.” 
When they stepped back into the locker room, Graham announced, “We’re not going back to HQ.  Captain, fire up the engines and let’s get out to sea.”
“But Graham,” Charley responded, “I think you were right the first time.  We should go back.”
“Our guests are ready and willing.  I see no real reason to ignore their desire.”
“I don’t know, sir, it seems—”
“Don’t worry about it, Lieutenant.  It is my call, and we’re pressing on.”