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.”