Third shift pact, p.1
Third Shift: Pact, p.1Part #3 of Shift series by Hugh Howey
For those who find themselves well and truly alone.
The Loud came before the quiet. That was a Rule of the World, for the bangs and shouts need somewhere to echo, just as bodies need space in which to fall.
Jimmy Parker was in class when the last of the great Louds began. It was the day before a cleaning. Tomorrow, they would be off from school. For the death of a man, Jimmy and his friends would receive a few extra hours of sleep. His father would work overtime down in IT. And tomorrow afternoon, his mother would insist they go up with his aunt and cousins to watch the bright clouds drift over the clear view of the hills until the sky turned dark as sleep.
Cleaning days were for staying in bed and for seeing family. They were for silencing unrest and quieting the Louds. That’s what Mrs. Pearson said anyway, as she wrote rules from the Pact up on the blackboard. Her chalk clacked and squeaked and left dusty trails of all the whys for which a man could be put to death. Civics lessons on a day before a banishment. Warnings on the eve of graver warnings. Jimmy and his friends fidgeted in their seats and learned rules. Rules that very soon would no longer apply.
Jimmy was sixteen. Many of his friends would move off and shadow soon, but he would need another year of study to follow in his father’s footsteps. Mrs. Pearson marked the chalkboard and moved on to the seriousness of choosing a life partner, of registering relationships according to the Pact. Sarah Jenkins turned in her seat and smiled back at Jimmy. Civics lessons and biology lessons intermingled, hormones spoken of alongside the laws that governed their excesses. Sarah Jenkins was cute. Jimmy hadn’t thought so at the beginning of the year, but now he was seeing it. Sarah Jenkins was cute and would be dead in just a few hours.
Mrs. Pearson asked for a volunteer to read from the Pact, and that’s when Jimmy’s mother came for him. She burst in unannounced. An embarrassment. The end of Jimmy’s world began with an embarrassment, with hot cheeks and a burning collar and everyone watching. His mom didn’t say anything to Mrs. Pearson, didn’t excuse herself. She just stormed through the door and hurried among the desks the way she walked when she was angry. She pulled Jimmy from his desk and led him out with his arm in her fist, causing him to wonder what he’d done this time.
Mrs. Pearson didn’t know what to say. Jimmy looked back at his best friend Paul, caught him smiling behind his palm, and wondered why Paul wasn’t in trouble, too. They rarely got in or out of a fix alone, he or Paul. The only person to utter a word was Sarah Jenkins. “Your backpack!” she cried out, just before the classroom door slammed shut. Her voice was swallowed by the quiet.
There were no other mothers pulling their children down the hallway. If they came, it would be much later. Jimmy’s father worked among the computers, and the computers were fast. Jimmy’s father knew things before anyone else. This time, it was only moments before. There were others scrambling on the stairwell already. The noise was frightening. The landing outside the school level thrummed with the vibrations of distant and heavy traffic. A bolt in one of the railing’s stanchions rattled as it worked its way loose. It felt like the silo would simply shake itself apart. Jimmy’s mom took him by the sleeve and pulled him toward the spiral staircase like he was still twelve. She started down, even though home was up.
Jimmy pulled against her for a moment, confused. In the past year, he had grown bigger than his mom, as big as his father, and it was strange to be reminded that he had this power, that he was nearly a man. He had left his backpack and his friends behind. Where were they going? The banging from below seemed to be getting louder.
His mother turned as he gave resistance. Her eyes, he saw, were not full of anger. There was no glare, no furrowed brow, her eyes like tiny slits that tried to see less of him when he was bad. They were wide and wet, shiny like the times Grandma and Grandpa had passed. The noise below was frightful, but it was the look in his mother’s eyes that put the start of a very long fear into Jimmy’s bones.
“What is it?” he whispered. He hated to see his mother upset. Something dark and empty—like that stray and tailless cat that nobody could catch in the upper apartments—clawed at his insides.
His mother didn’t say. She turned and pulled him down the stairs, toward the thundering approach of something awful, and Jimmy realized at once that he wasn’t in trouble at all.
They all were.
Jimmy had never felt the stairs tremble so. The entire spiral staircase seemed to sway. It turned to rubber the way a length of charcoal appeared to bend between jiggled fingers, a parlor trick he’d learned in class. Though his feet rarely touched the steps—racing as he did to keep up with his mother—they tingled and felt numb from vibrations transmitted straight from steel to bone. He could barely feel the rail with his hand as it shook him to his elbow, and Jimmy tasted fear in his mouth like a dry spoon on his tongue.
There were angry screams from below. Jimmy’s mother shouted her encouragement, told him to hurry, and down the staircase they spiraled. They raced toward whatever bad thing was marching upward. “Hurry,” she cried again, and Jimmy was more scared of the tremor in her voice than the shuddering of a hundred levels of steel. He hurried.
They passed twenty-nine. Thirty. People ran by in the opposite direction. A lot of people in coveralls the color of his father’s. On the landing of thirty-one, Jimmy saw his first dead body since his grandpa’s funeral. It looked like a tomato had been smashed on the back of the man’s head. Jimmy had to skip over the man’s arms, sticking out into the stairwell. He hurried after his mother while some of the red dripped through the landing and splattered and slicked the steps below.
At thirty-two, the shake of the stairs was so great that he could feel it in his teeth. His mother grew frantic as the two of them bumped past more and more people hurrying upward. Nobody seemed to see anyone else, even though all eyes were surely wide enough.
The stampede could be heard. There were loud voices among the ringing footfalls. Jimmy stopped and peered over the railing. Below, as the staircase augured into the depths, he could see the elbows and hands of a jostling crowd jutting out. He turned as someone thundered by. His mother called for him to hurry, for the crowd was already upon them, the traffic growing. Jimmy felt the fear and anger in the people racing past, and it made him want to flee upward with them. But there was his mom yelling for him to come along, and her voice cut through his fear and to the center of his being.
Jimmy shuffled down and took her hand. The embarrassment of earlier was gone. Now, he wanted her clutching him. The people who ran past shouted for them to go the other way. Several held pipes and lengths of steel. There were some who were bruised and cut; blood covered the mouth and chin of one man. A fight somewhere. Jimmy thought that only happened in the Deep. Others seemed to be simply caught up in it all. They were without weapons and looked over their shoulders as if a sinister thing were coming. It was a mob scared of a mob. Jimmy wondered what caused it. What was there to be afraid of?
Loud bangs rang out among the footfalls. A large man knocked into Jimmy’s mom and sent her roughly against the railing. Jimmy held her arm, and the two of them stuck to the inner post as they made their way down to thirty-three. “One more to go,” she told him, which meant it was his father they were after.
The growing throngs became a crush a few turns above thirty-two. People pressed four wide where there was comfortable room for two. Jimmy’s wrist banged against the inner rail. He wedged himself between the post and those forcing their way up. Moving a few inches at a time—those beside him shoving, jostling, and grunting with effort—he felt certain they would all become stuck like that. People crowded i
A large man, dripping with sweat, jaw slack with fear, was trying to force his way up the downbound side. “Move!” he yelled at Jimmy, as if there were anywhere to go. There was nowhere to go but up. He flattened himself against the center post as the man brushed past. There was a scream by the outer rail, a jolt through the crowd, a series of gasps, someone yelling “Hold on!” another yelling to let them go, and then a shriek that plummeted away and grew faint.
The wedge of bodies loosened a little. Jimmy felt sick to his stomach at the thought of someone falling so near to him. He wiggled free and climbed up onto the inner rail. Jimmy hugged the central post and balanced there, careful not to let his feet slip into the six inches of space between the rail and the post, that gap that kids liked to spit into.
Someone in the crowd immediately took his place on the steps. Shoulders and elbows knocked into his ankles. He remained crouched there, the undersides of the steps above him transmitting the scrapes of shuffling boots from those overhead. He slid his feet along the narrow bar of steel made slick by the rubbing of thousands of palms and worked his way down the railing after his mom. His foot slipped into the gap by the center post. It seemed eager to swallow his leg. Jimmy righted himself, fearful as well of falling onto the lurching crowd, imagining how he could be tossed across their frenzied arms and shot out into space.
He was half a circuit around the inner post before he found his mom. She had been forced toward the outside by the crowds. “Mom!” he yelled. Jimmy held the edge of the steps above his head and reached out over the crowd for her. A woman in the middle of the steps screamed and disappeared, her head sinking below those who took her place. As they trampled her, the woman’s screams disappeared. The crowd surged upward. They carried Jimmy’s mom a few steps with them.
“Get to your father!” she screamed, cupping her hands around her mouth. “Jimmy!”
Someone knocked into his shins, and he lost his grip on the stairs overhead. Jimmy waved his arms once, twice, in little circles, trying to keep his balance. He fell inward on the sea of heads and rolled. Someone punched him in the ribs as they protected themselves from his fall.
Another man threw Jimmy aside. He tumbled outward across an undulating platform of sharp elbows and hard skulls, and time slowed to a crawl. There was nothing but empty space beyond the crowd, now packed five wide. Jimmy tried to grab one of the hands pushing and shoving at him. His stomach lurched as the space grew nearer. The rail was below the screaming heads. The rail was invisible. He heard his mother’s voice, a screech recognizable above all the others, as she watched, helpless. Someone screamed to help that boy as he slid down the spiral of heads, rolling and grasping, and that boy they were screaming after was him.
Jimmy went into open space. He was thrown aside by those trying to protect themselves. He slid between two people—a shoulder catching him in the chin—and he saw the railing at last. He clutched for it, got one hand wrapped around the bar. As his feet tumbled over his head, he was twisted around, his shoulder wrenched painfully, but he kept his grip. He hung there, clutching the railing with one hand and one of the vertical stanchions with the other, his feet dangling in the open air.
Someone’s hip pinched his fingers against the rail, and Jimmy cried out. Hands scrambled at his arms to help, but these people and their concerns were pushed upward by the madness below.
Jimmy tried to pull himself up. He looked down past his kicking feet at the crowds jostling beyond the rail below him. Two turns below was the landing to thirty-four. Again he tried to hoist himself, but there was a fire in his wrenched shoulder. Someone scratched his forearm as they tried to help, and then they too were gone, surging upward.
Peering down his chest, between his feet, Jimmy saw that the landing to thirty-four was packed. The crowd spilled out of the crowded stairs and tried to shove their way back in again. Someone barged out of the doors to the IT level with a cleaning suit on, helmet and everything. They threw themselves into the crowd, silvery arms swimming amid the flesh, everyone trying to get up, more of the bangs and shouts from down below, a sudden pop like the balloons from the bazaar but much, much louder.
Jimmy lost his grip on the railing—his shoulder was too injured to bear the weight any longer. He clutched the stanchion with his other hand as he slid down, sweaty palm on steel adding one more squeal to the mob. He was left clutching the edge of the steps at the base of the stanchion. With his feet, he tried to feel for the railing one turn below, but all he felt were angry arms knocking his boots aside. His busted shoulder was alive with pain. He swung down on one hand, dangling for an instant.
Jimmy cried out in alarm. He cried out for his mother, remembering what she’d told him.
Get to your father.
There was no way he was getting back up on the stairwell. He didn’t have the strength. There was no room. Nobody was going to help him. A surging crowd, and yet he hung there all alone.
Jimmy took a deep breath. He dangled for a moment longer, glanced down at the packed landing below him, and let go.
Two turns of the spiral staircase flew by. Two turns of wide eyes among the packed and crushing crowd. Jimmy felt the swoosh of wind on his neck grow and grow. His stomach flew up into his throat, and there was a glimpse of a face turning in alarm to watch him plummet past.
Slamming into the crowd on the landing below, he hit with a sickening thud. Grunts escaped him and those he landed on. The man in the silver suit, faceless behind his small visor, was pinned beneath him.
People yelled at him. Others crawled out from underneath him. Jimmy rolled away, an electric shock in his ribs where he’d hit someone, a throbbing pain in one knee, his shoulder burning. Limping, he hurried toward the double doors as another person barged out, a bundle in their arms. They pulled to a halt at the sight of the crowd on the stairs. Someone yelled about the forbidden Outside, and nobody seemed to care. Tomorrow, there was to be a cleaning. Maybe it was too late. Jimmy thought of the extra hours his dad had been putting in. He wondered how many more people would be sent out for all this violence.
Third Shift: Pact by Hugh Howey / Science Fiction have rating 3.8 out of 5 / Based on19 votes