Thursday, August 28, 2014

Chapter 32

Graham returned to the Brain Room to talk some of the soldiers and to check on a few details regarding operations at the platform.  He had done two tours out there, each for about sixteen months, and he remembered all-to-well the persistent feeling of isolation.  At headquarters, a few soldiers passed through each week as they were being deployed to different substations.  There were always a couple of fresh faces around.  But once you got out to the Platform, you could be stuck interacting with the same guys day in and day out for weeks at a time.
The Platform had been built directly adjacent to the Southeast Farallon Island, one of the biggest in the chain of rugged, rocky islands located about twenty-seven miles west of San Francisco.  A narrow footbridge connected the Platform to the island as an emergency escape route.  When Graham had been stationed there, he frequently took long walks on the island.  After he was finished in the Brain Room, he decided to step outside for a bit of fresh air.
Graham had read a lot about the history of the islands.  While some of the smaller islands in the chain had disappeared with the rising ocean, the Southeast Farallon, along with its nearby neighbor, Maintop Island, remained.  They had first been inhabited by Russian seal hunters who coveted the soft pelts of the seals that lived on the islands.  Graham had seen a picture of a street in Moscow in which hundreds of men walked shoulder to shoulder all wearing identical hats made of seal fur from the faraway islands.
Then, after the seals had been wiped out, the United Stated took control and built a few residences and a lighthouse high atop the Southeast Farallon Island.  A few years later, some entrepreneurial San Franciscans responded to a shortage of eggs in the City by boating over to the Farallons to collect millions of eggs from the hordes of seabirds nested along the craggy shorelines.  Competition between the egg collectors grew intense.  Graham read that there was even an “egg war” between rival companies, which left two men dead.  After the island chain was given protective status by the government, scientific researchers set up shop.  In their journals, the researchers explained that the islands were so covered in life that they could barely walk on its paths for fear of crushing eggs or new-born chicks and that the surround seas teemed with white sharks, elephant seals, and an astounding variety of fish. 
All that was long gone.
Graham walked the silent paths to the ruins of the government housing and the lighthouse.  He imagined the cacophony of millions of seabirds squawking and the scientists’ delight as they tagged birds and studied seal mating behaviors.  The afternoon was perfectly calm.  He could hear no waves breaking on the shoreline below.  He felt like his senses had shut down.  The thick fog obscured his vision, and the silence of the island, where once so much life had thrived, gripped him by the throat.  He could not believe that the final chapter of the islands’ incredible history would be so empty, so quiet, so meaningless – just a few lonely soldiers walking aimlessly through the fog.
            At five, Graham returned to his room to freshen up for dinner.  Throughout his career, he had stayed in countless small, bare rooms such as the one he occupied that afternoon.  The walls were empty and white, devoid of history or personal attachment.  They simply divided space.  The floor was hard, cold, and bare.  The Army did not even provide a small mat by the bedside to prevent the occupants’ feet from getting cold first thing in the morning.  A round window the size of a diner plate displayed the same grayness he had lived with for the past nineteen years of his life.  A large, institutional wardrobe stood imposingly in a corner.  A metal desk and chair rounded out the décor.
Graham had the urge to pin something up on the walls or scratch his initials into the desk, as a tiny reminder to his soul that he might have had something more – something that did not feel so much like a prison cell.  Then, he reconsidered this comparison.  The room was less like a cell and more like an oubliette, where jailers used to strip prisoners of all their clothing, lock them away in a tiny cage in the dungeon, and literally forget them until they had repented their misdeeds and committed themselves to a better life . . . or the prisoners died.  He wondered what he had done to deserve a lifetime of penance and isolation.
The sterile twin bed, shoved up against the wall, reminded him of his first days as a soldier.  He pictured himself sleeping there as a young man – curled up and all alone.  He remembered that some nights the loneliness seemed to carve deep pits into his heart.  All he could do was lie still and wait for the night to end.  For the past decade or so, he had almost convinced himself that he had outgrown that feeling.  They say one can get used to anything.  His noble role was to sacrifice so that others might live.  What did he expect?  Real sacrifice was not easy.  But now, standing in that small, dark room, he realized that he wanted more.  The image of his body curled up in endless solitary confinement – young, middle-aged, and eventually old – burned deep in his gut.  He lay down on the bed and stared at the gray ceiling. 
Why was Peggy Lee being so kind to him?  Charley thought he had a chance with her.  Charley thought it was worth a try.  Graham wondered for a second if Charley was just toying with him, pushing him into a situation that was bound to backfire.  But no, Charley would not do that to him.  So maybe there was a glimmer of hope.  And she kept encouraging him.
But it was so hard.  He had never felt so insecure.  He was in completely unchartered territory.  The intensity of his feelings scared the shit out of him, but this fear also made him feel alive – more alive than he had felt in years.  Maybe, just maybe, there was a sunnier future for him.  But it was all too much.  Joy and fear.  Euphoria and devastation.  Was this what it felt like to fall in love?  She was shaking his foundations.  Like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, Peggy Lee had changed the all rules.
Graham showed up to dinner a few minutes early.  He went into the kitchen to check on the menu to make sure that everything was vegetarian.  The soldier from lunch was preparing a large salad.  He apologized for the gaff with the squid. 
“That’s okay,” Graham responded.  “I know you were just trying to do something special.  And it would have been nice – very well appreciated, in fact – with most other guests.  I didn’t know that our invitees were so opposed to eating meat.  Don’t trouble yourself about it anymore.  I hope you all back here enjoyed them.”
“Thank you, sir, we did.  Might I add – um, well – have you ever seen such a horrified expression on a person’s face?  It was like we were serving them fried grandmother or something.” 
“I know, I know, she seemed a bit overly-shocked from my vantage point too.  But we all have our convictions, and Ms. Swenson is clearly against eating meat.”
“No, sir, I wasn’t talking about her.  I meant him, that big guy.  When I came back into the room with the soup, he was still pale, and his eyes were fixed on the plate of calamari.  It looked like he might blow chunks right there at the table.”
“I didn’t notice – I guess I was focused on Peggy Lee.”
“Well, let me just tell you, it was strange all right, real strange.”

Friday, August 22, 2014

Chapter 31

After lunch, Charley excused himself, and Graham took Peggy Lee and Ian on a tour of the Farallon Platform.  From the dining hall, they descended two flights of stairs to a large, secured door.  Graham inserted his key card into the slot at the side of the door.  The heavy door slid silently to the side revealing a large room.  On one side of the room, a bank of computer terminals was manned by five soldiers.  Above them, huge flat-screen monitors displayed hundreds of images from the solar fields.  Opposite the soldiers’ work stations, an imposing array of ten blade server racks lined the wall, locked securely in tall, black metal cabinets.  A technician had one of the cabinets open and looked to be replacing a component in one of the blade servers.  The lights on the remainder of the servers blinked regularly, and the room hummed with the reassuring sound of computer processing.
“Welcome to the ‘Brain Room,’” Graham said as they walked over to the monitor wall.  “From here, we have eyes on every solar panel in all three fields.  These computers keep track of the kilowatts coming out of the fields and then coordinate deliveries to the boiler units.  Much of the power is stored in batteries located here and on floating storage stations throughout the boiler unit fields.  These computers help monitor our stored energy and tell us when we are low on juice.  We need to keep all of the boilers at full capacity all the time – or as close to it as possible.  At times, it becomes a delicate balance between the sun, the panels, the batteries, and the boilers.  These computers keep the whole system running smoothly.”
“And where were we this morning?” Peggy Lee asked nodding towards the large screens. 
“We cruised through the eastern section of Solar Field A, so we would have passed by solar panels 134, 135, and around there,” Graham explained, pointing up to the appropriate screen.
“I see,” Peggy Lee responded. 
Ian started to get out one of his cameras from his shoulder bag. 
“I’m sorry, Ian, but filming in the Brain Room is out of the question.  I hope that that won’t be a problem for your story, Peggy Lee,” Graham said.  
“Of course, we can always work with the footage we’ve already shot.  I appreciate you showing us around.  And of course, as my editor and you already agreed, you have final approval over the content of my story.  I’ll try to avoid writing about anything that could compromise security.” 
“I’d appreciate that,” Graham responded.  “Well then, let’s continue.”
Graham led them back upstairs to a narrow hallway that led to another large door.  Graham swiped his card again, and the door opened onto the bottom floor of a wide cylindrical room five stories high.  The room was warm and loud with the intense whirring of massive fans high above them.  Each story had a circular, metal walkway and seven hatches located at regular intervals around the walkway.
“This is the Farallon Battery Station,” Graham said loudly.  “Each hatch leads to a battery bank.  The batteries produce a lot of heat, so we keep this place well-ventilated.  Each battery has the capacity to power approximately thirty boilers for twenty-four hours.  Every night, we use about a third of that capacity to keep the units running when there’s no direct power coming from the solar fields.  The rest of the capacity is built in to give us time for repairs.  It’s not a lot of time, but we have relied on the batteries a few times when working out kinks in the Brain Room, and once also, when a main power cable was damaged during an earthquake.  As you can imagine, it is important to have some juice in reserve for unanticipated interruptions in power supply.”
“Yes, of course,” Peggy Lee said over the din of the fans.  “It’s all quite impressive.”
After the tour, Graham led Peggy Lee and Ian to the guest quarters.  He always stayed with the soldiers, but this time he had assigned himself a room in the guest quarters.  He told Charley that he just wanted to make sure Peggy Lee and Ian were comfortable.  In reality, he wanted to be as close to Peggy Lee as possible for the remaining hours of her visit.
Graham took Ian to his room first.  Ian set his camera bag down on the bed, and looked around.  “This’ll do,” he said.   
“I believe you can find your way to the dining hall for dinner tonight,” Graham said.  “Let’s meet there at about six o’clock.  There’s an alarm clock on the bedside table if you want to take a nap.  You also have a hologramovision in that cabinet.”
“Okay,” Ian grunted.
“See you this evening then,” Graham said as he backed out the door. 
Peggy Lee hesitated in Ian’s room for a moment.  “Shall we discuss the footage?”
“No,” Ian responded.  “Come by around five and we’ll do it then, okay?”
She walked out the door and joined Graham in the hallway. 
After they had taken a few steps away from Ian’s room, she confided, “He really is a bit of an ox – big, difficult, and stubborn.”
“How long have you two been working together?” Graham asked.  He did not want to agree with her too quickly.  He still did not understand their relationship.
“Well, that’s just it.  We’ve been together since the beginning.  That’s why I don’t even consider changing cameramen.  I’m a loyal person, and he has helped me get this far.  So there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to change things now – except of course that I get tired of his moodiness.  But I’m pretty sure I can put up with it for a few more years.”
“I admire your loyalty,” Graham said as opened the door to her room.  “Until tonight.  And remember, we are meeting for dinner at six.  No squid this time, I promise.”

Friday, August 15, 2014

Chapter 30

The boat pulled up through the fog to the end of the Farallon Platform’s main pier.  Graham, Charley, Peggy Lee, and Ian disembarked and walked down the pier to an elevator door in a huge, cylindrical pylon.  Above the door, a rectangular red light shone – its color diffused by the swirling fog.  Almost all of the Farallon Platform, save this entrance, was shrouded – as always – in fog.  No other pylons could be seen.  From the pier, the entry pylon towered up and disappeared without giving any indication of the size of the structure.  Graham reached out through the grayness and pressed the elevator button.
“It’s a mystery elevator,” Peggy Lee said.  “What lies above, no one knows.”
“Yes, it’s strange alright,” Graham said, “and once you see how enormous the Platform is, you will be amazed that we do not have a more fitting – that is grander – entrance.”
Just then, as if on cue, the red light turned green, and the door slid open.
“Come on, everybody,” Charley said, “let’s go get some grub.”
As they ascended, Graham noticed Peggy Lee’s foot tapping away once again.  Let’s go; let’s get a move on.  She quietly wrung her hands a couple of times as well . . . as if she had something pressing to do.  She was like a clock wound too tight; too much energy in those springs, Graham thought to himself.  Or maybe she was just hungry.  It had been a long time since breakfast.
The doors slid open, and they stepped into an enormous, air-conditioned warehouse high above the Pacific Ocean. 
“Welcome to the main staging area on the Farallon Platform,” Graham said.  “Tons of equipment and supplies come through here all the time.  We have a couple of cranes outside – located just over our heads, in fact – that can lift massive loads up from the pier and into this warehouse.  But we can talk about all this after we eat.  I promise a full tour after lunch.  Come this way.”
As they crossed the giant room, their footfalls echoed around them.  They passed large stacks of wooden crates and a series of forklifts.  Graham led them through a small door directly opposite the elevator, and then they walked down a long hallway and into the dining hall. 
The room had high ceilings with banks of sunlamps shining down from above.  Clusters of palm trees grew in planters in each of the corners.  Tropical-themed murals covered the walls, depicting towering mountains in the distance and thick foliage in the foreground.  Large succulents surrounded the sunken dining area, and a thin, graceful waterfall spilled from a ledge two stories up into a pond covered by blue and white lilies and edged by thick stands of papyrus. 
“Oh my,” Peggy Lee gasped, “how perfectly lovely.  Like those scenes of rainforests from the old documentaries.”
“It’s not your typical military mess hall,” Graham conceded.  “But then, living out on this Platform is not a typical military assignment either.  The soldiers deserve a few perquisites for working out here.  But don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t the military that created this Shangri-La.  Years ago, before my time, a very salty soldier, named T.Y. Gibson, spent ten years out here.  He could have requested a transfer, but he said he liked the solitude.  Each year a new group of soldiers would come in to assist him.  They always complained about the dreariness of the Platform and the mess hall in particular.  Eventually old T.Y. retired and a few years later he died of cancer.  When his family opened his will, they were surprised to find that he had left all his money to the Army in a trust dedicated to the creation of this dining hall.  In his will, he included design notes and architectural drawings. 
“The military was reluctant at first, but once some of the high-ups got hold of the story, they approved the construction right away.  Come on over here,” Graham continued as he pointed to a plaque on the wall, “you can see the dedication he wrote.”
Peggy Lee read the plaque out loud:  “This room serves as a testament to the fallen soldiers who strove to keep the boilers boiling day and night so that the American citizens in the L.A. Climate Shelter Zone might survive the current emergency, overcome the challenges of this bleak moment in our nation’s proud history, and create a future society that prioritizes the preservation of our natural environment above all else.”
Peggy Lee slowly ran her finger down the list of soldiers who died in the line of duty at the facilities.  Graham had already made plans to add Private Mirosevich’s name to that list.
“He was no poet,” Graham said, “but his sentiment was heartfelt.”
Peggy Lee flushed and turned away.  Only Graham noticed.  Why the emotion?  Most of the men on the list had died years ago.  She cares, he thought.  She really cares.
“Well, I think it’s a beautiful dedication,” she responded, recovering quickly.  “It’s not Keats, I grant you that, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.  And what a wonderful, hidden surprise of a room.”
“I’m glad you like it,” Graham responded.  “It’s quite the posthumous achievement.  And our soldiers really like it.  Of course, they still ask for a reassignment first chance they get.  But I believe they’re a bit happier because of this peaceful place.  Anyway, on with the show.  Let’s eat.”
A soldier in an apron had been standing down in the sunken dining area, waiting for them.  Graham waved and the soldier saluted.  “We are ready for you and your guests whenever you are ready to eat, sir,” the soldier called out.
Graham and Peggy Lee stepped down in to the dining area, followed by Ian and Charley.  They crossed over to the table nearest the waterfall.  The soldier with the apron disappeared into the kitchen and then reappeared with a small plate of sautéed calamari.
“What is this?” Graham asked, looking a bit surprised. 
“Well, sir, we heard that we were having important visitors, so Private Adams and I decided to take it up a notch for the guests’ first luncheon on the Platform.  I don’t know if you are aware, sir, but we have been monitoring a very pale species of squid that has taken up quarters along the side of the northwest pylon.  I know that we are supposed to immediately report all rediscovered aquatic life to the Life Preservation Department.  And we were just preparing a report for you, when we heard you were coming.  There are thousands of them down there, so we figured that no one would miss just a few. 
“Private Adams and I dove down there just this morning.  Then, we researched old recipes.  This is approximately how they used to eat them in the old days.  I know that it is a bit off protocol, but with your penchant for history and all, we thought you might think it was pretty cool to eat a dish from the past.”
“Well private, normally I would have to punish you for violating the regulations, but my stomach counsels leniency,” Graham said as he stuck his fork into one of the calamari rings and dipped it into the accompanying bowl of aioli.  It was tender; it was delicious. 
“Ah, Graham,” Peggy Lee said as she grabbed his arm.  “I hate to be rude, but Ian and I are strict vegetarians.  We can’t eat this.  I must have communicated that to you before we came.”
“Oh right, of course, I remember,” Graham said, swallowing quickly.  “How inconsiderate of me.  Private, what else do we have for lunch today?  Our visitors never eat meat.”
“My apologies.  In the excitement of our discovery, sir, I overlooked that detail.  Everything else is vegetarian.  I will return immediately with your soup.  I’m so sorry.”  The soldier disappeared without removing the calamari.
Graham set his fork down.  Something about the way Peggy Lee had said “We can’t eat this” made the appetizer taboo.  Nearly everyone was a vegetarian out of necessity.  Meat of any kind was just too expensive.  But most people, even strict vegetarians, would, if given the opportunity, eat meat just to say that they had done so.  It was a sign of status.  Graham was extremely hungry and that first bite had been sublime, but now it seemed disrespectful to eat the calamari.  Charley followed his lead and did not touch the appetizer.
The waiter quickly reemerged with four bowls of soy milk and lemongrass soup.  Graham motioned for the soldier to remove the calamari. 
“Now this is very nice,” Peggy Lee said after the calamari had been taken away.  “Lemongrass soup is one of my favorites.”

Friday, August 8, 2014

Chapter 29

Someone tapped Graham on the shoulder, startling him out of his nightmare.  He jumped, gulped air, and looked around.  Sunlight reflected harshly off the ocean.  His uniform was drenched.  Peggy Lee stood over him.
“Peggy Lee.  Hello.  Sorry.  I was having quite a dream.”
“I was worried.  The sun’s so intense out here.”
“Yes, you’re right.  Thank you.  We’ll be back in the fog in just a few minutes.  I guess that’s where I belong, huh?”
“No, I think you’d do just fine in the real world.  You just have to be careful.  Come on, let’s sit in the shade.” 
They walked over to the bench beneath the bridge and sat down.  The fog curtain loomed on the horizon.  Graham tried to ignore the heat and enjoy the bright light while it lasted.  They sat without speaking for a few moments.  Graham could have sat there in silence with her for the rest of the day, but he was also curious about her.
“So where are you from originally?” he asked, hoping that it did not sound too much like a pick-up line.
“My father was a soldier, so we lived all over.  We spent time here in California, and then moved to the South before the drought and the wildfires.  Out of all the places we lived, I liked Georgia the best.  That’s where my family’s from.  We moved back there in 2071, when I was thirteen, and stayed for four years.  We lived in a big house in the county.  We had family barbeques and spent a lot of time outdoors, camping, swimming, fishing, and just hanging out.  Sometimes the air in the woods got perfectly still and the humidity climbed through the roof.  Even after the Collapse of ’67, areas of the south remained wet for quite a few years.  I remember breaking a sweat just by walking the few steps out to the pond.  We slept in a screened-in porch on muggy nights.  I would lie on my cot trying not to move, listening to the frogs and watching the fireflies.  Some afternoons, the sky would just open up and rain would pour down from the heavens like a waterfall.  Everybody was in a good mood then.  It was like the entire area had been granted a reprieve from the thick heat.  Did you ever live in a place like that?”
“No.”  It sounded like a dream to Graham.
“‘Course, Georgia has changed so much since then,” Peggy Lee continued.  “I read somewhere that it has not rained – you know, like a real rain – for over fifteen years.  Everywhere else in the South is dry as a bone too.  Everything that was lush and verdant and beautiful, well, it’s gone, just gone – dried up and disappeared.”
“Hard to believe,” Graham answered.  He thought about telling her about his childhood home, but kept quiet instead.  It was all too depressing.  According to a news story he had seen recently, scientists had figured out that the entire dried-out state of South Dakota had sunk approximately 250 feet because of subsidence and that the Missouri River would never flow again – not a drop.  The story focused on three abandoned towns along the river, tiny Chamberlain among them.  The streets were crumbled and twisted and filled with tumbleweeds and trash.  A picture of Main Street included a view of the old corner store where Graham used to buy candy.  The store fronts were smashed.  Sand drifts covered the display areas behind the broken glass.  The sign above the front door had become unhinged on one side and hung diagonally over the doorway.  It looked like a movie set of a ghost town, but Graham knew that it was all too real. 
For a few days after seeing that story, he could not stop thinking about his father’s death.  Why had he given up?  He had been happily married, and Graham had never questioned that his father had loved him as well.  But his father had not run away from his family or his responsibilities.  No, he died of heartache – a sizzling, rainless, and unbearable heartache.
The boat slipped back under the fog curtain.  And again they passed through Purgatory.  The intense sun was replaced by intermittent sunbeams cutting through the gaps in the fog banks and lighting up slivers of the ocean’s gray surface.  Ian was now standing toward the front of the boat.  He changed the lenses on the three main cameras and filmed the lightshow as they continued into the fog. 
Another ten minutes and the fog grew soupy once more.  Ian had all but disappeared at the bow.  The boat slowed to a cautious speed, and Graham went inside to retrieve a couple of raincoats.  He pivoted to return outside, but stopped for a moment at the door.  Peggy Lee had crossed the deck and stood at the railing again.  She was now a mere outline in the dim grayness.  He quickly stepped into the fog and headed over to her; he feared losing sight of her . . . lest she disappear forever.