Shift, p.10
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       Shift, p.10

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 10


  Heads swivelled his way. A crowd that thrived on protocol sat stunned. After a pause, the receiver was pressed into his palm. Troy didn’t hesitate. He squeezed the mic.


  ‘Hello? Sheriff?’

  The video operator cycled through the feeds, then waved his hand and pointed to one of the monitors. The floor number ‘72’ sat in the corner of the screen, and a man in silver overalls lay slumped over a desk. There was a gun in his hand, a pool of blood around a keyboard.

  ‘That’s the sheriff?’ Troy asked.

  The operator wiped his forehead and nodded.

  ‘Sheriff? What do I do?’

  Troy clicked the mic. ‘The sheriff is dead,’ he told the deputy, surprised by the steadiness of his own voice. He held the transmit button and pondered this stranger’s fate. It dawned on him that most of these silo dwellers thought they were alone. They had no idea about each other, about their true purpose. And now Troy had made contact, a disembodied voice from the clouds.

  One of the video feeds clicked over to the deputy, who was gripping a handset, the cord spiralling to a radio mounted on the wall. The floor number in the corner read ‘1’.

  ‘You need to lock yourself in the holding cell,’ Troy radioed, seeing that the least obvious solution was the best. It was a temporary solution, at least. ‘Make sure you have every set of keys. ’

  He watched the man on the video screen. The entire room, and those in the hallway, watched the man on the video screen.

  The door to the upper security office was just visible in the warped bubble of the camera’s view. The edges of the door seemed to bulge outward because of the lens. And then the centre of the door bulged inward because of the mob. They were beating the door down. The deputy didn’t respond. He dropped the microphone and hurried around the desk. His hands shook so violently as he reached for the keys that the grainy camera was able to capture it.

  The door cracked along the centre. Someone in the comm room drew in an audible breath. Troy wanted to launch into the statistics. He had studied and trained to be on the other end of this, to lead a small group of people in the event of a catastrophe, not to lead them all.

  Maybe that’s why he was so calm. He was watching a horror that he should have been in the middle of, that he should have lived and died through.

  The deputy finally secured the keys. He ran across the room and out of sight. Troy imagined him fumbling with the lock on the cell as the door burst in, an angry mob forcing their way through the splintered gap in the wood. It was a solid door, strong, but not strong enough. It was impossible to tell if the deputy had made it to safety. Not that it mattered. It was temporary. It was all temporary. If they opened the doors, if they made it out, the deputy would suffer a fate far worse than being trampled.

  ‘The inner airlock door is open, sir. They’re trying to get out. ’

  Troy nodded. The trouble had probably started in IT, had spread from there. Maybe the head – but more likely his shadow. Someone with override codes. Here was the curse: a person had to be in charge, had to guard the secrets. Some wouldn’t be able to. It was statistically predictable. He reminded himself that it was inevitable, the cards already shuffled, the game just waiting to play out.

  ‘Sir, we’ve got a breach. The outer door, sir. ’

  ‘Fire the canisters now,’ Troy said.

  Saul radioed the control room down the hall and relayed the message. The view of the airlock filled with a white fog.

  ‘Secure the server room,’ Troy added. ‘Lock it down. ’

  He had this portion of the Order memorised.

  ‘Make sure we have a recent backup just in case. And put them on our power. ’

  ‘Yessir. ’

  Those in the room who had something to do seemed less anxious than the others, who were left shifting about nervously while they watched and listened.

  ‘Where’s my outside view?’ Troy asked.

  The mist-filled scene of people pushing on one another’s backs through a white cloud was replaced by an expansive shot of the outside, of a claustrophobic crowd scampering across a dry land, of people collapsing to their knees, clawing at their faces and their throats, a billowing fog rising up from the teeming ramp.

  No one in the comm room moved or said a word. There was a soft cry from the hallway. Troy shouldn’t have allowed them to stay and watch.

  ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Shut it down. ’

  The view of the outside went black. There was no point in watching the crowd fight their way back in, no reason to witness the frightened men and women dying on the hills.

  ‘I want to know why it happened. ’ Troy turned and studied those in the room. ‘I want to know, and I want to know what we do to prevent this next time. ’ He handed the folder and the microphone back to the men at their stations. ‘Don’t tell the other silo heads just yet. Not until we have answers for the questions they’ll have. ’

  Saul raised his hand. ‘What about the people still inside twelve?’

  ‘The only difference between the people in silo twelve and the people in silo thirteen is that there won’t be future generations growing up in silo twelve. That’s it. Everyone in all the silos will eventually die. We all die, Saul. Even us. Today was just their day. ’ He nodded to the dark monitor and tried not to picture what was really going on over there. ‘We knew this would happen, and it won’t be the last. Let’s concentrate on the others. Learn from it. ’

  There were nods around the room.

  ‘Individual reports by the end of this shift,’ Troy said, feeling for the first time that he was actually in charge of something. ‘And if anyone from twelve’s IT staff can be raised, debrief them as much as you can. I want to know who, why and how. ’

  Several of the exhausted people in the room stiffened before trying to look busy. The gathering in the hallway shrank back as they realised the show was over and the boss was heading their way.

  The boss.

  Troy felt the fullness of his position for the first time, the heavy weight of responsibility. There were murmurs and sidelong glances as he headed back to his office. There were nods of sympathy and approval, men thankful that they occupied lower posts. Troy strode past them all.

  More will try to escape, Troy thought. For all their careful engineering, there was no way to make a thing infallible. The best they could do was plan ahead, stockpile spares, not mourn the dark and lifeless cylinder as it was discarded and others were turned to with hope.

  Back in his office, he closed the door and leaned back against it for a moment. His shoulders stuck to his overalls with the light sweat worked up from the swift walk. He took a few deep breaths before crossing to his desk and resting his hand on his copy of the Order. The fear persisted that they’d gotten it all wrong. How could a room full of doctors plan for everything? Would it really get easier as the generations went along, as people forgot and the whispers from the original survivors faded?

  Troy wasn’t so sure. He looked over at his wall of schematics, that large blueprint showing all the silos spread out amid the hills, fifty circles spaced out like stars on an old flag he had once served.

  A powerful tremor coursed through Troy’s body: his shoulders, elbows and hands twitched. He gripped the edge of his desk until it passed. Opening the top drawer, he picked up a red marker and crossed to the large schematic, the shivers still wracking his chest.

  Before he could consider the permanence of what he was about to do, before he could consider that this mark of his would be on display for every future shift, before he could consider that this may become a trend, an action taken by his replacements, he drew a bold ‘X’ through silo twelve.

  The marker squealed as it was dragged violently across the paper. It seemed to cry out. Troy blinked away the blurry vision of the red X and sagged to his knees. He bent forward until his forehead rested against th
e tall spread of papers, old plans rustling and crinkling as his chest shook with heavy sobs.

  With his hands in his lap, shoulders bent with the weight of another job he’d been pressured into, Troy cried. He bawled as silently as he could so those across the hall wouldn’t hear.



  RYT Hospital, Dwayne Medical Center

  DONALD HAD TOURED the Pentagon once, had been to the White House twice, went in and out of the Capitol building a dozen times a week, but nothing he’d seen in DC prepared him for the security around RYT’s Dwayne Medical Center. The lengthy checks hardly made the hour-long meeting with the Senator seem worthwhile.

  By the time he passed through the full body scanners leading into the nanobiotech wing, he’d been stripped, given a pair of green medical scrubs to wear, had a blood sample taken, and had allowed every sort of scanner and bright light to probe his eyes and record – so they said – the infrared capillary pattern of his face.

  Heavy doors and sturdy men blocked every corridor as they made their way deeper and deeper into the NBT wing. When Donald spotted the Secret Service agents – who had been allowed to keep their dark suits and shades – he knew he was getting close. A nurse scanned him through a final set of stainless steel doors. The nanobiotic chamber awaited him inside.

  Donald eyed the massive machine warily. He’d only ever seen them on TV dramas, and this one loomed even larger in person. It looked like a small submarine that had been marooned on the upper floors of the RYT. Hoses and wires led away from the curved and flawless white exterior in bundles. Studded along the length were several small glass windows that brought to mind the portholes of a ship.

  ‘And you’re sure it’s safe for me to go in?’ He turned to the nurse. ‘Because I can always wait and visit him later. ’

  The nurse smiled. She couldn’t be out of her twenties, had her brown hair wrapped in a knot on the back of her head, was pretty in an uncomplicated way. ‘It’s perfectly safe,’ she assured him. ‘His nanos won’t interact with your body. We often treat multiple patients in a single chamber. ’

  She led him to the end of the machine and spun open the locking wheel at the end. A hatch opened with a sticky, ripping sound from the rubber seals and let out a slight gasp of air from the difference in pressure.

  ‘If it’s so safe, then why are the walls so thick?’

  A soft laugh. ‘You’ll be fine. ’ She waved him towards the hatch. ‘There’ll be a slight delay and a little buzz after I seal this door, and then the inner hatch will unlock. Just spin the wheel and push to open. ’

  ‘I’m a little claustrophobic,’ Donald admitted.

  God, listen to himself. He was an adult. Why couldn’t he just say he didn’t want to go in and have that be enough? Why was he allowing himself to be pressured into this?

  ‘Just step inside please, Mr Keene. ’

  The nurse placed her hand on the small of Donald’s back. Somehow, the pressure of a young and pretty woman watching was stronger than his abject terror of the oversized capsule packed with its invisible machines. He wilted and found himself ducking through the small hatch, his throat constricting with fear.

  The door behind him thumped shut, leaving him in a curved space hardly big enough for two. The locks clanked into the jamb. There were tiny silver benches set into the arching walls on either side of him. He tried to stand up, but his head brushed the ceiling.

  An angry hum filled the chamber. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end, and the air felt charged with electricity. He looked for an intercom, some way to communicate with the Senator through the inner door so he didn’t have to go in any further. It felt as though he couldn’t breathe; he needed to get out. There was no wheel on the outer door. Everything had been taken out of his control—

  The inner locks clanked. Donald lunged for the door and tried the handle. Holding his breath, he opened the hatch and escaped the small airlock for the larger chamber in the centre of the capsule.

  ‘Donald!’ Senator Thurman looked up from a thick book. He was sprawled out on one of the benches running the length of the long cylinder. A notepad and pen sat on a small table; a plastic tray held the remnants of dinner.

  ‘Hello, sir,’ he said, barely parting his lips.

  ‘Don’t just stand there, get in. You’re letting the buggers out. ’

  Against his every impulse, Donald stepped through and pushed the door shut, and Senator Thurman laughed. ‘You might as well breathe, son. They could crawl right through your skin if they wanted to. ’

  Donald let out his held breath and shivered. It may have been his imagination, but he thought he felt little pinpricks all over his skin, bites like Savannah’s no-see-ums on summer days.

  ‘You can’t feel ’em,’ Senator Thurman said. ‘It’s all in your head. They know the difference between you and me. ’

  Donald glanced down and realised he was scratching his arm.

  ‘Have a seat. ’ Thurman gestured to the bench opposite his. He had the same colour scrubs on and a few days’ growth on his chin. Donald noticed the far end of the capsule opened onto a small bathroom, a showerhead with a flexible hose clipped to the wall. Thurman swung his bare feet off the bench and grabbed a half-empty bottle of water, took a sip. Donald obeyed and sat down, a nervous sweat tickling his scalp. A stack of folded blankets and a few pillows sat at the end of the bench. He saw how the frames folded open into cots but couldn’t imagine being able to sleep in this tight coffin.

  ‘You wanted to see me, sir?’ He tried to keep his voice from cracking. The air tasted metallic, a hint of the machines on his tongue.

  ‘Drink?’ The Senator opened a small fridge below the bench and pulled out a bottle of water.

  ‘Thanks. ’ Donald accepted the water but didn’t open it, just enjoyed the cool against his palm. ‘Mick said he filled you in. ’ He wanted to add that this meeting felt unnecessary.
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