Second shift order, p.1
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       Second Shift: Order, p.1

         Part #2 of Shift series by Hugh Howey
 
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Second Shift: Order
Page 1

  •1•

  Deathdays were birthdays. That’s what they said to ease their pain, those who were left behind. An old man dies and a lottery is won. Children weep while hopeful parents cry tears of joy. Deathdays were birthdays, and no one knew this better than Mission Jones.

  Tomorrow was his seventeenth. Tomorrow, he would grow a year older. It would also mark seventeen years since his mother died.

  The cycle of life was everywhere—it wrapped around all things like the great spiral staircase—but nowhere was it more evident, nowhere could it be seen so clearly that a life given was one taken away. And so Mission approached his birthday without joy, with a heavy load on his young back, thinking on death and celebrating nothing.

  Three steps below him and matching his pace, Mission could hear his friend Cam wheezing from his half of the load. When Dispatch assigned them a tandem, the two boys had flipped a coin, heads for heads, and Cam had lost. That left Mission with a clear view of the stairs. It also gave him rights to set the pace, and dark thoughts made for an angry one.

  Traffic was light on the stairwell that morning. The children were not yet up and heading to school, those of them who still went anymore. A few bleary-eyed shopkeepers staggered toward work. There were service workers with grease stains on their bellies and patches sewn into their knees coming off late shifts. One man descended bearing more than a non-porter should, but Mission was in no mood to set down his burden and weigh another’s. It was enough to glare at the gentleman, to let him know that he’d been seen.

  “Three more to go,” he huffed to Cam as they passed the twenty-fourth. His porter’s strap was digging into his shoulders, the load a great one. Heavier still was its destination. Mission hadn’t been back to the farms in near on four months, hadn’t seen his father in just as long. His brother, of course, he saw at the Nest now and then, but it’d still been a few weeks. To arrive so near to his birthday would be awkward, but there was no helping it. He trusted his father to do as he always had and ignore the occasion altogether, to ignore that he was getting any older.

  Past the twenty-fourth they entered another gap between the levels full of graffiti. The noxious odor of home-mixed paint hung in the air. Recent work dribbled in places, parts of it done the night before. Bold letters wrapped across the curving wall of concrete far beyond the stairway railing that read:

  This is our ’Lo.

  The slang for silo felt dated, even though the paint was not yet dry. Nobody said that anymore. Not for years. Farther up and much older:

  Clean this, Mother-

  The rest was obscured in a slap of censoring paint. As if anyone could read it and not fill in the blank on their own. It was the first half that was a killing offense, anyway. The second was just a word.

  Down with the Up Top!

  Mission laughed at this one. He pointed it out to Cam. Probably painted by some kid born above the mids and full of self-loathing, some kid who couldn’t abide their own good fortune. Mission knew the kind. They were his kind. He studied all this graffiti painted over last year’s graffiti and all the many years before. It was here between the levels, where the steel girders stretched out from the stairwell to the cement beyond, that such slogans went back generations. Atop the angry words were pockmarks, scars, and burns of old wars. Atop these wounds lay ever more angry scribbles, on and on.

  The End is Coming . . .

  Mission marched past this one, unable to argue. The end was coming. He could feel it in his bones. He could hear it in the wheezing rattle of the silo with its loose bolts and its rusty joints, could see it in the way people walked of late with their shoulders up around their ears, their belongings clutched to their chests. The end was coming for certain.

  His father would laugh and disagree, of course. Mission could hear his old man’s voice from all the levels away, could hear his father telling him how people had thought the same thing long before he and his brother were born, that it was the hubris of each generation to think this anew, to think that their time was special, that all things would come to an end with them. His father said it was hope that made people feel this, not dread. People talked of the end coming with barely concealed smiles. Their prayer was that when they went, they wouldn’t go alone. Their hope was that no one would have the good fortune to come after.

  Thoughts such as these made Mission’s neck itch. He held the hauling strap with one hand and adjusted the ‘chief around his neck with the other. It was a nervous habit, hiding his neck when he thought about the end of things. But that had been two birthdays ago.

  “You doing okay up there?” Cam asked.

  “I’m fine,” Mission called back, realizing he’d slowed. He gripped his strap with both hands and concentrated on his pace, on his job. There was a metronome in his head from his shadowing days, a tick-tock, tick-tock for tandem hauls. Two porters with good timing could fall into a rhythm and wind their way up a dozen flights, never feeling a heavy load. Mission and Cam weren’t there yet. Now and then one of them would have to shuffle his feet or adjust his pace to match the other. Otherwise, their load might sway dangerously.

  Their load.

  Mission’s grandfather came to mind, though Mission had never known the man. He had died in the uprising of ’78, had left behind a son to take over the farm and a daughter to become a chipper. Mission’s aunt had quit that job a few years back; she no longer banged out spots of rust and primed and painted raw steel like she used to. Nobody did. Nobody bothered. But his father was still farming that same plot of soil, that same plot generations of Jones boys had farmed, forever insisting that things would go on, that they would never change.

  “That word means something else, you know,” his father had told him once, when Mission had spoken of revolution. “It also means to go around and around. To revolve. One revolution, and you get right back to where you started. ”

  This was the sort of thing Mission’s father liked to say when the priests came to bury a man beneath his corn. His dad would pack the dirt with a shovel, say that’s how things go, and plant a seed in the neat depression his thumb made.

  A few weeks later, Mission had told his friends this other meaning of revolution. He had pretended to come up with it himself. It was just the sort of pseudo-intellectual nonsense they regaled each other with late at night on dark landings while they inhaled potato glue out of plastic bags.

  His best friend Rodny had been the only one unimpressed. “Nothing changes until we make it change,” he had said with a serious look in his eye.

  Mission wondered what his best friend was doing now. He hadn’t seen Rodny in months. Whatever he was shadowing for on thirty-four kept him from getting out much.

  He thought back to better days, growing up in the Nest with friends tight as a fist. He remembered thinking they would all stay together and grow old in the Up Top. They would live along the same hallways, watch their eventual kids play the way they had.

  But all had gone their separate ways. It was hard to remember who had done it first, who had shaken off the shadowing expected by their parents, but eventually most of them had. Like a group decision never discussed, like a dozen private revolutions. They had left home to choose a new fate. Sons of plumbers took up farming. Daughters of the cafe learned to sew. None of them bothered to ask how many of their parents had done the same. Everything felt new and unique, and so it had to be.

  Mission remembered being angry when he left home. He remembered a fight with his father, throwing down his shovel, promising he’d never dig a trench again. He’d learned in the Nest that he could be anything he wanted, that he was in charge of his own fate. And so when he grew miserable, he assumed it was the farms th
at made him feel that way; he assumed it was his family.

  He thought about his mother, about family he had never known, and a ring of fire burned around his neck, the remnants of a rope’s embrace.

  He and Cam had flipped a dime back in Dispatch, heads for heads, and now Mission could feel a man’s shoulders pressed against his own. When he lifted his gaze to survey the steps ahead, the back of his skull met the crown of the dead man’s through the plastic bag—birthdays and deathdays pressed tight, two halves of a single coin.

  Mission carried them both, that load meant for two. He took the stairs a pair at a time, a brutal pace, up toward the farm of his youth.

  •2•

  The coroner’s office was on the farm’s lower level, tucked away at the end of those dark and damp halls that wound their way beneath the roots. The ceiling was low in that half level. Pipes hung visible from above and rattled angrily as pumps kicked on and moved nutrients to distant and thirsty roots. Water dripped from dozens of small leaks into buckets and pots. A recently emptied pot banged metallic with each strike. Another overflowed. The floors were slick, the walls damp like sweaty skin.

  Inside her office, the boys lifted the body onto a slab of dented metal, and the coroner signed Mission’s work log. She tipped them for the speedy delivery, and when Cam saw the extra chits, his grumpiness over the pace dissolved. Back in the hallway, he bid Mission good day and splashed toward the exit to find some vice to pair with the bonus.

  Mission watched him go, feeling much more than a year older than his friend. Cam hadn’t been told of the evening’s plans, the midnight rendezvous of porters. This seemed to set them apart, his being privy to adult and dangerous things. It made him envy Cam for what the boy didn’t know.

  Not wanting to arrive at the farms deadheading and have his father lecture him on laziness, Mission stopped by the maintenance room to see if anything needed carrying up. Winters was on duty, a dark man with a white beard and a knack with pumps. He regarded Mission suspiciously and claimed he hadn’t the budget for portering. Mission explained he was going up anyway and that he was glad to take anything.

  “In that case,” Winters said. He hoisted a monstrous water pump onto his workbench.

  “Just the thing,” Mission told him, smiling.

  Winters narrowed his eyes as if Mission had worked a bolt loose.

  The pump wouldn’t fit inside his porter’s pack, but the haul straps on the outside of the pack looped nicely across the jutting pipes and sharp fittings. Winters helped him get his arms through the straps and the pump secured to his back. He thanked the old man, which drew another worried frown, and set off and up the half level. Back at the stairwell, the odor of mildew from the wet halls faded, replaced by the smell of loam and freshly tilled soil, scents of home that yanked Mission back in time.

  The landing on nineteen was crowded as a jam of people attempted to squeeze inside the farms for the day’s food. Standing apart from them was a mother in farmer green cradling a wailing child. She had the stains on her knees of a picker and the agitated look of one sent out of the grow plots to soothe her noisy brood. As Mission crowded past, he heard between the baby’s cries the words of a familiar nursery rhyme. The mother rocked the child frightfully close to the railing, the infant’s eyes wide with what looked to Mission like unadulterated fear.

  He worked his way through the crowd, and the cries from the infant receded amid the general din. It occurred to Mission how few kids he saw anymore. It wasn’t like when he was young. There had been an explosion of newborns after the violence the last generation had wrought, but now it was just the trickle of natural deaths and the handful of lottery winners. It meant fewer babies crying and fewer parents rejoicing.

  With much cajoling and claiming the passage of a porter, he eventually made it through the doors and into the main hall. Using his ‘chief, Mission wiped the sweat from his lips. He’d forgotten to top up his canteen a level below, and his mouth was dry. The reasons for pushing so swift a pace felt silly now. It was as if his looming birthday were some deadline to beat, and so the sooner he visited and got away the better. But now in the wash of sights and sounds from his childhood, his dark and angry thoughts melted. It was home, and Mission hated how good it felt to be there.

  There were a few hellos and waves as he worked his way toward the gates. Some porters he knew were loading sacks of fruits and vegetables to haul up to the cafeteria. He saw his aunt working one of the vending stalls outside the security gate. After giving up chipping, she now performed the questionably legal act of vending, something she’d never shadowed for. Mission did his best not to catch her eye; he didn’t want to get sucked into a lecture or have his hair mussed and his ’chief straightened.

  Beyond the stalls, a handful of younger kids clustered in the far corner where it was dark, probably dealing seeds, not looking nearly as inconspicuous as they likely thought. The entire scene in the entrance hall was one of a second bazaar, of farmers selling direct, of people crowding in from distant levels to get food they feared would never make it to their shops and stores. It was fear begetting fear, crowds becoming throngs, and it was easy to see how mobs were next.

  Working the main security gate was Frankie, a tall and skinny kid Mission had grown up with. Mission wiped his forehead with the front of his undershirt, which was already cool and damp with sweat. “Hey, Frankie,” he called out.

  “Mission. ” A nod and a smile. No hard feelings from another kid who’d jumped shadows long ago. Frankie’s father worked in security, down in IT. Frankie had wanted to become a farmer, which Mission never understood. Their teacher, Mrs. Crowe, had been delighted and had encouraged Frankie to follow his dreams. And now Mission found it ironic that Frankie had ended up working security for the farms. It was as if he couldn’t escape what he’d been born to do.

  Mission smiled and nodded at Frankie’s hair. “Did someone splash you with grow quick?”

  Frankie tugged on his locks, which were nearly down to his shoulders. “I know, right? My mother threatens to come up here and knife it in my sleep. ”

 
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