Part #3 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
“Is anyone there?”
“Hello? Yes. I’m here. ”
“Ah. Lukas. You weren’t saying anything. I thought for a second there … that you were someone else. ”
“No, it’s me. Just getting my headset adjusted. Been a busy morning. ”
“Yeah. Boring stuff. Committee meetings. We’re a bit thin up here at the moment. A lot of reassignments. ”
“But things have been settling down? No uprisings to report?”
“No, no. Things are getting back to normal. People get up and go to work in the morning. They collapse in their beds at night. We had a big lottery this week, which made a number of people happy. ”
“That’s good. Very good. How’s the work on server six coming?”
“Good, thanks. All of your passcodes work. So far it’s just more of the same data. Not sure why any of this is important, though. ”
“Keep looking. Everything’s important. If it’s in there, there has to be a reason. ”
“You said that about the entries in these books. But so many of them seem like nonsense to me. Makes me wonder if any of this is real. ”
“Why? What’re you reading?”
“I’m up to volume C. This morning it was about this … fungus. Wait a second. Let me find it. Here it is. Cordyceps. ”
“That’s a fungus? Never heard of it. ”
“Says here it does something to an ant’s brain, reprograms it like it’s a machine, makes it climb to the top of a plant before it dies—“
“An invisible machine that reprograms brains? I’m fairly certain that’s not a random entry. ”
“Yeah? So what does it mean, then?”
“It means … It means we aren’t free. None of us are. ”
“How uplifting. I can see why she makes me take these calls. ”
“Your mayor? Is that why—? She hasn’t answered in a while. ”
“No. She’s away. Working on something. ”
“Working on what?”
“I’d rather not say. I don’t think you’d be pleased. ”
“What makes you think that?”
“Because I’m not pleased. I’ve tried to talk her out of this. But she can be a bit … obstinate at times. ”
“If it’s going to cause trouble, I should know about it. I’m here to help. I can keep heads turned away—”
“That’s just it … she doesn’t trust you. She doesn’t even believe you’re the same person every time. ”
“It is. It’s me. The machines do something with my voice. ”
“I’m just telling you what she thinks. ”
“I wish she would come around. I really do want to help. ”
“I believe you. I think the best thing you can do right now is just keep your fingers crossed for us. ”
“Why is that?”
“Because I’ve got a feeling that nothing good will come of this. ”
Part I ~ The Dig
Dust rained in the halls of Mechanical; it shivered free from the violence of the digging. Wires overhead swung gently in their harnesses. Pipes rattled. And from the generator room, staccato bangs filled the air, bounced off the walls, and brought to mind a time when unbalanced machines spun dangerously.
At the locus of the horrible racket, Juliette Nichols stood with her coveralls zipped down to her waist, the loose arms knotted around her hips, dust and sweat staining her undershirt with mud. She leaned her weight against the excavator, her sinewy arms shaking as the digger’s heavy metal piston slammed into the concrete wall of Silo 18 over and over.
The vibrations could be felt in her teeth. Every bone and joint in her body shuddered, and old wounds ached with reminders. Off to the side, the miners who normally manned the excavator watched unhappily. Juliette turned her head from the powdered concrete and saw the way they stood with their arms crossed over their wide chests, their jaws set in rigid frowns, angry perhaps for her appropriating their machine. Or maybe over the taboo of digging where digging was forbidden.
Juliette swallowed the grit and chalk accumulating in her mouth and concentrated on the crumbling wall. There was another possibility, one she couldn’t help but consider. Good mechanics and miners had died because of her. Brutal fighting had broken out when she’d refused to clean. How many of these men and women watching her dig had lost a loved one, a best friend, a family member? How many of them blamed her? She couldn’t possibly be the only one.
The excavator bucked and there was the clang of metal on metal. Juliette steered the punching jaws to the side as more bones of rebar appeared in the white flesh of concrete. She had already gouged out a veritable crater in the outer silo wall. A first row of rebar hung jagged overhead, the ends smooth like melted candles where she’d taken a blowtorch to them. Two more feet of concrete and another row of the iron rods had followed, the silo walls thicker than she’d imagined. With numb limbs and frayed nerves she guided the machine forward on its tracks, the wedge-shaped piston chewing at the stone between the rods. If she hadn’t seen the schematic for herself – if she didn’t know there were other silos out there – she would’ve given up already. It felt as though she were chewing through the very earth itself. Her arms shook, her hands a blur. This was the wall of the silo she was attacking, ramming it with a mind to pierce through the damn thing, to bore clear through to the outside.
The miners shifted uncomfortably. Juliette looked from them to where she was aiming as the hammer bit rang against more steel. She concentrated on the crease of white stone between the bars. With her boot, she kicked the drive lever, leaned into the machine, and the excavator trudged forward on rusted tracks one more inch. She should’ve taken another break a while ago. The chalk in her mouth was choking her; she was dying for water; her arms needed a rest; rubble crowded the base of the excavator and littered her feet. She kicked a few of the larger chunks out of the way and kept digging.
Her fear was that if she stopped one more time, she wouldn’t be able to convince them to let her continue. Mayor or not – a shift head or not – men she had thought fearless had already left the generator room with furrowed brows. They seemed terrified that she might puncture a sacred seal and let in a foul and murderous air. Juliette saw the way they looked at her, knowing she’d been on the outside, as though she were some kind of ghost. Many kept their distance as if she bore some disease.
Setting her teeth, foul-tasting grit crunching between them, she kicked the forward plate once more with her boot. The tracks on the excavator spun forward another inch. One more inch. Juliette cursed the machine and the pain in her wrists. Goddamn the fighting and her friends dead. Goddamn the thought of Solo and the kids all alone, a forever of rock away. And goddamn this mayor nonsense, people looking at her as though she suddenly ran all the shifts on every level, as though she knew what the hell she was doing, as though they had to obey her even as they feared her—
The excavator lurched forward more than an inch, and the pounding hammer bit screamed with a piercing whine. Juliette lost her grip with one hand, and the machine revved up as if fit to explode. The miners startled like fleas, several of them running toward her, shadows converging. Juliette hit the red kill switch, which was nearly invisible beneath a dusting of white powder. The excavator kicked and bucked as it wound down from a dangerous, runaway state.
“You’re through! You’re through!”
Raph pulled her back, his pale arms, strong from years of mining, wrapping around her numb limbs. Others shouted at her that she was done. Finished. The excavator had made a noise as if a connecting rod had shattered; there had been that dangerous whine of a mighty engine running without fric
“You’re through – get back!”
A hand that reeked of grease and toil clamped down over her mouth, protecting her from the air beyond. Juliette couldn’t breathe. Ahead of her, a black patch of empty space appeared, the cloud of concrete dissipating.
And there, between two bars of iron, stood a dark void. A void between prison bars that ran two layers deep and all around them, from Mechanical straight to the Up Top.
She was through. Through. She now had a glimpse of some other, some different, outside.
“The torch,” Juliette mumbled, prying Raph’s calloused hand from her mouth and hazarding a gulp of air. “Get me the cutting torch. And a flashlight. ”
“Damn thing’s rusted to hell. ”
“Those look like hydraulic lines. ”
“Must be a thousand years old. ”
Fitz muttered the last, the oilman’s words whistling through gaps left by missing teeth. The miners and mechanics who had kept their distance during the digging now crowded against Juliette’s back as she aimed her flashlight through a lingering veil of powdered rock and into the gloom beyond. Raph, as pale as the drifting dust, stood beside her, the two of them crammed into the conical crater chewed out of the five or six feet of concrete. The albino’s eyes were wide, his translucent cheeks bulging, his lips pursed together and bloodless.
“You can breathe, Raph,” Juliette told him. “It’s just another room. ”
The pale miner let out his air with a relieved grunt and asked those behind to stop shoving. Juliette passed the flashlight to Fitz and turned from the hole she’d made. She wormed her way through the jostling crowd, her pulse racing from the glimpses of some machine on the other side of the wall. What she had seen was quickly confirmed by the murmuring of others: struts, bolts, hose, plate steel with chips of paint and streaks of rust – a wall of a mechanical beast that went up and to the sides as far as their feeble flashlight beams could penetrate.
A tin cup of water was pressed into her trembling hand. Juliette drank greedily. She was exhausted, but her mind raced. She couldn’t wait to get back to a radio and tell Solo. She couldn’t wait to tell Lukas. Here was a bit of buried hope.
“What now?” Dawson asked.
The new third-shift foreman, who had given her the water, studied her warily. Dawson was in his late thirties, but working nights had saddled him with extra years. He had the large knotted hands that came from busting knuckles and breaking fingers, some of it from working and some from fighting. Juliette returned the cup to him. Dawson glanced inside and stole the last swig.
“Now we make a bigger hole,” she told him. “We get in there and see if that thing’s salvageable. ”
Movement on top of the humming main generator caught Juliette’s eye. She glanced up in time to spy Shirly frowning down at her. Shirly turned away.
Juliette squeezed Dawson’s arm. “It’ll take forever to expand this one hole,” she said. “What we need are dozens of smaller holes that we can connect. We need to tear out entire sections at a time. Bring up the other excavator. And turn the men loose with their picks, but keep the dust to a minimum if you can help it. ”
The third-shift foreman nodded and rapped his fingers against the empty cup. “No blasting?” he asked.
“No blasting,” she said. “I don’t want to damage whatever’s over there. ”
He nodded, and she left him to manage the dig. She approached the generator. Shirly had her coveralls stripped down to her waist as well, sleeves cinched together, her undershirt wet with the dark inverted triangle of hard work. With a rag in each hand, she worked across the top of the generator, wiping away both old grease and the new film of powder kicked up by the day’s digging.
Juliette untied the sleeves of her coveralls and shrugged her arms inside, covering her scars. She climbed up the side of the generator, knowing where she could grab, which parts were hot and which were merely warm. “You need some help?” she asked, reaching the top, enjoying the heat and thrum of the machine in her sore muscles.
Shirly wiped her face with the hem of her undershirt. She shook her head. “I’m good,” she said.
“Sorry about the debris. ” Juliette raised her voice over the hum of the massive pistons firing up and down. There was a day not too long ago when her teeth would’ve been knocked loose to stand on top of the machine, back when it was unbalanced six ways to hell.
Shirly turned and tossed the muddy white rags down to her shadow, Kali, who dunked them into a bucket of grimy water. It was strange to see the new head of Mechanical toiling away at something so mundane as cleaning the genset. Juliette tried to picture Knox up there doing the same. And then it hit her for the hundredth time that she was mayor, and look how she spent her time, hammering through walls and cutting rebar. Kali tossed the rags back up, and Shirly caught them with wet slaps and sprays of suds. Her old friend’s silence as she bent back to her work said plenty.
Juliette turned and surveyed the digging party she’d assembled as they cleared debris and worked to expand the hole. Shirly hadn’t been happy about the loss of manpower, much less the taboo of breaking the silo’s seal. The call for workers had come at a time when their ranks were already thinned by the outbreak of violence. And whether or not Shirly blamed Juliette for her husband’s death was irrelevant. Juliette blamed herself, and so the tension stood between them like a cake of grease.
It wasn’t long before the hammering on the wall resumed. Juliette spotted Bobby at the excavator’s controls, his great muscled arms a blur as he guided the wheeled jackhammer. The sight of some strange machine – some artifact buried beyond the walls – had thrown sparks into reluctant bodies. Fear and doubt had morphed into determination. A porter arrived with food, and Juliette watched the young man with his bare arms and legs study the work intently. The porter left his load of fruit and hot lunches behind and took with him his gossip.
Dust by Hugh Howey / Science Fiction have rating 3.4 out of 5 / Based on17 votes