“It’s a long story,” Peggy Lee said. “It’s my life story actually, but I’ll keep it short. My father was Norman Englebrook, one of the soldiers on your list of fallen patriots in the mess hall. He was transferred here in 2068. My mother and brother and I lived in Fresno, in the family quarters – back when they had family quarters. I was seven years old. My father was a great man. He always tried to do his best by Ian and me. Then–”
“Wait, Ian’s your brother?” Graham asked.
“Yes, that’s right. He helped raise me when my mom got depressed. He has always been there for me – helping me and watching over me. I hate him, don’t get me wrong, but I love him too.”
“Wow, I guess there’s a whole world of stuff I don’t know you.”
“Sorry about that. In any case, after a year here on the Platform and six months at Headquarters, my father caught the Silver Slayer. It happened on a Thursday. His Hazmat suit – the old kind – was compromised while he was doing some maintenance on a filtration unit. We were expecting him the following Saturday for a weekend visit. We had a barbeque planned. He died quickly. We never saw him again.”
“I’m so sorry, Peggy Lee,” Graham responded. “But that’s no reason to blow the whole place up, is it? It was an accident, right?”
“There were some theories about that, actually. Some of the other wives in Fresno told us that they had heard that my father had discovered something about the operations that had to be kept a secret. Ian still believes that he was murdered by the Army to keep him quiet.”
“Quiet about what?”
“First let me tell you that I’ve researched this issue more thoroughly than anyone else in the world, and I don’t think that the rumors are true. But conspiracy theorists – and you don’t have to dig deep to find these people – say that the government created the mold and spread it throughout San Francisco. They say that it was a scheme to wrestle control of the water production facilities away from XHS and to clear the Bay Area of all inhabitants. That way the government could run the facilities full time. They saw it as the sacrifice of a few for the betterment of many. I don’t believe it, but I did for a long time.
“Anyway, after the funeral, my mother packed us up and took us away from California. We moved around a lot after my dad’s death, trying to find a place that made sense, but my mother got depressed and Ian got angry, and no place seemed like the right place for us. Eventually, we ended up in Georgia living with some family. Those were peaceful years for me.”
“Yeah, you mentioned Georgia in the planetarium.”
“If I could go back to any time in my life, those precious few years would be it. But then, Georgia, like the rest of the southern states, began experiencing prolonged droughts. The government pumped the aquifers dry, trying to keep the citizens alive. After just a few years in Georgia, we knew that we were going to have to go. So, my mom packed us up again, and we moved to Alaska. I was thirteen. We snuck across the border – back when that was still possible – and lived there illegally. It was dangerous, but worth it. Alaska, it seemed, had endless water resources. By that point, my mother and Ian had begun to attend Movement meetings on a regular basis.”
“You mean the MER, I assume.”
“Yes. After a few months in Alaska, we were welcomed into a MER militia camp. There was a school there and a church and pretty much everything that a normal town would have. The only real difference was that we were all being trained to rise up to defend the Earth, which in MER terminology translates into – to put it simplistically – eliminating all of humanity.
“My mother and brother took great solace in the mission. And I guess, as a teenager, I did too. We were taught that our father would still be alive if it were not for the geo-engineers and climate manipulators. We were told that the U.S. Army was a parasite striving to deplete every bit of life out of the natural system before finally reducing the Earth to a molten mass of nothingness.
“My brother and I were part of a new class of MER soldiers. We were encouraged to return to society and become invisible. We were told that we would be called on when the time was right. When we were old enough to go to college, we went, just like normal kids. MER provided us with scholarships and new identities: Ian Englebrook and his sister, Peggy Lee, became Mr. Ian Patten, Jr. and Ms. Peggy Lee Swenson. They taught us how to fit in – what to say in political conversations, how to fly under the radar, what not to profess no matter what the company. Ian left home before me. And then, I joined him a couple of years later at the University of Alaska. I studied journalism and graduated with honors. I got a job. Ian did not do so well and eventually dropped out.
“Right about that time, the Alaskan Secession Wars began. I got my first assignment, which took me to the front lines. Ian insisted on coming with me to protect me. He saved my life a couple of times during our time out there. That’s how he became my hologramographer. We’ve been together ever since, working as a reporter and hologramographer, publishing our work, building an unimpeachable reputation, and all the while, waiting for a call from MER.”
“So, then what happened?” Graham asked. “That was a long time ago.”
“I was just getting to that. So a few months ago, I got this assignment from my editor – to come out here and do the interview with you. We reported it, as usual, to MER through our handler. About a week later, we received a message that we were being called on to carry out a mission. We began to meet with a MER team who brought us all of the equipment, taught us about the bombs, and gave us the facilities’ blueprints and other information. I was reluctant at first. I told them that I had a great life going and that I didn’t want to throw it all away. But then they started tapping into my memories of my father and my own repressed reservoir of hatred and suspicion. They began making me watch images of the destruction that humans have caused throughout the world – dying animals, swaths of ancient forests decimated in a few short years, ocean shorelines piled high with rotting marine life. They showed me pictures from the times before the Crisis – rainforests and rivers, fish spawning and birds soaring. All of the glorious stuff that we all miss. They told me that our mission was like coming across an injured animal in the forest. You know ‘the kindest thing to do is to kill the animal and put it out of its misery.’ Only, we are, or I should say, humanity is the injured animal in MER’s philosophy.
“Ian was enthusiastic from the outset and worked me over for days until finally I agreed to do it. As I look back on it all, I think I’d been susceptible to their brainwashing when I was young. Then, when they started at it again, I was an easy target. Part of me knew this mission was wrong, but that part got buried by anger, confusion, and love of Ian, my family . . . and the anguish I still feel over the death of my father. Some things you can never quite get over in life. So after a couple weeks of training, I was gung-ho.”
“So you’re not going to take any of the blame?” Graham asked. “You were a victim in all this? Is that how you see it?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t know how I see it right now. I guess – how can I say this – I guess I still think MER’s overall plan has some validity. I still think that as soon as humans are gone, nature can start the process of returning to a state of balance – it can begin to heal itself. We had our chance, and we blew it. Maybe, we just need to get out of the way now. Many notable scientists agree that the world would be more habitable, ironically enough, if human beings no longer lived here. Once we are gone, the natural processes – those that originally created the rich diversity of life that used to roam the planet – will commence again. New beings will evolve. They won’t be like us, but then would we want them to be?
“Anyway, that’s what I believe. That’s not the brainwashing talking. That’s me. I’ve spent my lifetime thinking about these issues, and I promise you that I’m not ill-informed. But, tonight, when it got right down to it, I couldn’t, myself, be the direct instrument of so much human misery and suffering. I mean, I know that it’s going to happen soon enough, so I would’ve just been hastening the inevitable. But I just couldn’t live with it . . . or die with is on my conscious.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she continued. “It’s not like I had an epiphany that perhaps we can solve all of the world’s problems if we just stick it out a bit longer. We won’t fix it because we can’t – the planet has gone way beyond its tipping point. It’s all devastation and desolation from here on out. Anybody who says anything different is just deceiving himself and anyone else who is stupid enough to listen. But, standing there, arming that bomb in the Brain Room, I felt the weight of history pressing down on me. I was about to become one of the single biggest mass murderers of all time. I lost my nerve, and I knew that I couldn’t go through with it.”
Graham hung his head. “I hate everything,” he whispered. “I hate it all.”