Shift, p.14
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       Shift, p.14

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
 
Page 14

 

  ‘I think the bottom third of the design is solid. ’ She spun the tablet for him to see. ‘I’d like to sign off on it so they can start layering the next few floors in. ’

  ‘Well, a lot of these are yours,’ he said, thinking of all the mechanical spaces at the bottom. ‘I trust your judgement. ’

  He picked the tablet up, relieved that their conversation hadn’t veered away from work. He felt like a fool for thinking Anna had anything else in mind. They had been exchanging emails and updating each other’s plans for over two years and there had never been a hint of impropriety. He warned himself not to let the setting, the music, the white tablecloths, fool him.

  ‘There is one last-minute change you’re not going to like,’ she said. ‘The central shaft needs to be modified a little. But I think we can still work with the same general plan. It won’t affect the floors at all. ’

  He scrolled through the familiar files until he spotted the difference. The emergency stairwell had been moved from the side of the central shaft to the very middle. The shaft itself seemed smaller, or maybe it was because all the other gear they’d filled it with was gone. Now there was empty space, the discs turned to doughnuts. He looked up from the tablet and saw their waiter approaching.

  ‘What, no lift?’ He wanted to make sure he was seeing this right. He asked the waiter for a water and said he’d need more time with the menu.

  The waiter bowed and left. Anna placed her napkin on the table and slid over to the adjacent chair. ‘The board said they had their reasons. ’

  ‘The medical board?’ Donald exhaled. He had grown sick of their meddling and their suggestions, but he had given up fighting with them. He never won. ‘Shouldn’t they be more worried about people falling over these railings and breaking their necks?’

  Anna laughed. ‘You know they’re not into that kind of medicine. All they can think about is what these workers might go through, emotionally, if they’re ever trapped in there for a few weeks. They wanted the plan to be simpler. More . . . open. ’

  ‘More open. ’ Donald chuckled and reached for his glass of wine. ‘And what do they mean, trapped for a few weeks?’

  Anna shrugged. ‘You’re the elected official. I figure you should know more about this government silliness than I do. I’m just a consultant. I’m just getting paid to lay out the pipes. ’

  She finished her wine, and the waiter returned with Donald’s water and to take their orders. Anna raised her eyebrow, a familiar twitch that begged a question: Are you ready? It used to mean much more, Donald thought, as he glanced at the menu.

  ‘How about you pick for me?’ he finally said, giving up.

  Anna ordered and the waiter jotted down her selections.

  ‘So now they want a single stairwell, huh?’ Donald imagined the concrete needed for this, then thought of a spiral design made of metal. Stronger and cheaper. ‘We can keep the service lift, right? Why couldn’t we slide this over and put it in right here?’

  He showed her the tablet.

  ‘No. No lifts. Keep everything simple and open. That’s what they said. ’

  He didn’t like this. Even if the facility would never be used, it should be built as if it might. Why else bother? He’d seen a partial list of supplies they were going to stockpile inside. Lugging them by stair seemed impossible, unless they planned to stock the floors before the prebuilt sections were craned inside. That was more Mick’s department. It was one of many reasons he wished his friend were there.

  ‘You know, this is why I didn’t go into architecture. ’ He scrolled through their plans and saw all the places where his design had been altered. ‘I remember the first class we had where we had to go out and meet with mock clients, and they always wanted either the impossible or the downright stupid – or both. And that’s when I knew it wasn’t for me. ’

  ‘So you went into politics. ’ Anna laughed.

  ‘Yeah. Good point. ’ Donald smiled, saw the irony. ‘But hey, it worked for your father. ’

  ‘My dad went into politics because he didn’t know what else to do. He got out of the army, sank too much money into busted venture after busted venture, then figured he’d serve his country some other way. ’

  She studied him a long moment.

  ‘This is his legacy, you know. ’ She leaned forward and rested her elbows on the table, bent a graceful finger at the tablet. ‘This is one of those things they said would never get done, and he’s doing it. ’

  Donald put the tablet down and leaned back in his chair. ‘He keeps telling me the same thing,’ he said. ‘That this is our legacy, this project. I told him I feel too young to be working on my crowning achievement. ’

  Anna smiled. They both took sips of wine. A basket of bread was dropped off, but neither of them reached for it.

  ‘Speaking of legacies and leaving things behind,’ Anna asked, ‘is there a reason you and Helen decided not to have kids?’

  Donald placed his glass back on the table. Anna lifted the bottle, but he waved her off. ‘Well, it’s not that we don’t want them. We just both went directly from grad school to our careers, you know? We kept thinking—’

  ‘That you’ll have for ever, right? That you’ll always have time. There’s no hurry. ’

  ‘No. It’s not that . . . ’ He rubbed the tablecloth with the pads of his fingers and felt the slick and expensive fabric slide over the other tablecloth hidden below. When they were finished with their meals and out the door, he figured this top layer would be folded back and carried off with their crumbs, a new layer revealed beneath. Like skin. Or the generations. He took a sip of wine, the tannins numbing his lips.

  ‘I think that’s it exactly,’ Anna insisted. ‘Every generation is waiting longer and longer to pull the trigger. My mom was almost forty when she had me, and that’s getting more and more common. ’

  She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

  ‘Maybe we all think we might be the first generation that simply doesn’t die,’ she continued, ‘that lives for ever. ’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘Now we all expect to hit a hundred and thirty, maybe longer, like it’s our right. And so this is my theory—’ She leaned closer. Donald was already uncomfortable with where the conversation was going. ‘Children used to be our legacy, right? They were our chance to cheat death, to pass these little bits of ourselves along. But now we hope it can simply be us. ’

  ‘You mean like cloning? That’s why it’s illegal. ’

  ‘I don’t mean cloning – and besides, just because it’s illegal, you and I both know people do it. ’ She took a sip of her wine and nodded at a family in a distant booth. ‘Look. He has daddy’s everything. ’

  Donald followed her gaze and watched the kid for a moment, then realised she was just making a point.

  ‘Or how about my father?’ she asked. ‘Those nano baths, all the stem-cell vitamins he takes. He truly thinks he’s gonna live for ever. You know he bought a load of stock in one of those cryo firms years back?’

  Donald laughed. ‘I heard. And I heard it didn’t work out so well. Besides, they’ve been trying stuff like that for years—’

  ‘And they keep getting closer,’ she said. ‘All they ever needed was a way to stitch up the cells damaged from the freezing, and now that’s not so crazy a dream, right?’

  ‘Well, I hope the people who dream such things get whatever it is they’re looking for, but you’re wrong about us. Helen and I talk about having kids all the time. I know people having their first kid in their fifties. We’ve got time. ’

  ‘Mmm. ’ She finished what was in her glass and reached for the bottle. ‘You think that,’ she said. ‘Everyone thinks they’ve got all the time left in the world. ’ She levelled her cool grey eyes at him. ‘But they never stop to ask just how much time that is. ’

  After dinner, they waited under the awning for Anna’s car service. Donald declined to share a ride,
saying he needed to get back to the office and would just take a cab. The rain hitting the awning had changed, had grown sombre.

  Her ride pulled up, a shiny black Lincoln, just as Donald’s phone began vibrating. He fumbled in his jacket pocket while she leaned in for a hug and kissed his cheek. He felt a flush of heat despite the cool air, saw that it was Mick calling and picked up.

  ‘Hey, you just land or what?’ Donald asked.

  A pause.

  ‘Land?’ Mick sounded confused. There was noise in the background. The driver hurried around the Lincoln to get the door for Anna. ‘I took a red-eye,’ Mick said. ‘My flight got in early this morning. I’m just walking out of a movie and saw your texts. What’s up?’

  Anna turned and waved. Donald waved back.

  ‘You’re getting out of a movie? We just wrapped up our meeting at De’Angelo’s. You missed it. Anna said she emailed you like three times. ’

  He glanced up at the car as Anna drew her leg inside. Just a glimpse of her red heels, and then the driver pushed the door shut. The rain on the tinted glass stood out like jewels.

  ‘Huh. I must’ve missed them. Probably went to junk mail. Not a big deal. We’ll catch up. Anyway, I just got out of this trippy movie. If you and I were still in our getting-high days, I would totally force you to blast one with me right now and go to the midnight showing. My mind is totally bent—’

  Donald watched the driver hurry around the car to get out of the rain. Anna’s window lowered a crack. One last wave, and the car pulled out into light traffic.

  ‘Yeah, well, those days are long gone, my friend,’ Donald said distractedly. Thunder grumbled in the distance. An umbrella opened with a pop as a gentleman prepared to brave the storm. ‘Besides,’ Donald told Mick, ‘some things are better off back in the past. Where they belong. ’

  18

  2110

  • Silo 1 •

  THE EXERCISE ROOM on level twelve smelled of sweat, of having been used recently. A line of iron weights sat in a jumble in one corner, and a forgotten towel had been left draped over the bar of the bench press, over a hundred pounds of iron discs still in place.

  Troy eyed the mess as he worked the last bolt free from the side of the exercise bike. When the cover plate came off, washers and nuts rained down from recessed holes and bounced across the tile. Troy scrambled for them and pushed the hardware into a tidy pile. He peered inside the bike’s innards and saw a large cog, its jagged teeth conspicuously empty.

  The chain that did all the work hung slack around the cog’s axle. Troy was surprised to see it there, would have thought the thing ran on belts. This seemed too fragile. Not a good choice for the length of time it would be expected to serve. It was strange, in fact, to think that this machine was already fifty years old – and that it needed to last centuries more.

  He wiped his forehead. Sweat was still beading up from the handful of miles he’d gotten in before the machine broke. Fishing around in the toolbox Jones had loaned him, he found the flathead screwdriver and began levering the chain back onto the cog.

  Chains on cogs. Chains on cogs. He laughed to himself. Wasn’t that the way?

  ‘Excuse me, sir?’

  Troy turned to find Jones, his chief mechanic for another week, standing in the gym’s doorway.

  ‘Almost done,’ Troy said. ‘You need your tools back?’

  ‘Nossir. Dr Henson is looking for you. ’ He raised his hand, had one of those clunky radios in it.

  Troy grabbed an old rag out of the toolbox and wiped the grease from his fingers. It felt good to be working with his hands, getting dirty. It was a welcome distraction, something to do besides checking the blisters in his mouth with a mirror or hanging out in his office or apartment waiting to cry again for no reason.

  He left the bike and took the radio from Jones. Troy felt a wave of envy for the older man. He would love to wake up in the morning, put on those denim overalls with the patches on the knees, grab his trusty toolbox and work down a list of repairs. Anything other than sitting around while he waited for something much bigger to break.

  Squeezing the button on the side of the radio, he held it up to his mouth.

  ‘This is Troy,’ he said.

  The name sounded strange. In recent weeks, he hadn’t liked saying his own name, didn’t like hearing it. He wondered what Dr Henson and the shrinks would say about that.

  The radio crackled. ‘Sir? I hate to disturb you—’

  ‘No, that’s fine. What is it?’ Troy walked back to the exercise bike and grabbed his towel from the handlebars. He wiped his forehead and saw Jones hungrily eyeing the disassembled bike and scattering of tools. When he lifted his brows questioningly, Troy waved his consent.

  ‘We’ve got a gentleman in our office who’s not responding to treatment,’ Dr Henson said. ‘It looks like another deep freeze. I’ll need you to sign the waiver. ’

  Jones glanced up from the bike and frowned. Troy rubbed the back of his neck with the towel. He remembered Merriman saying to be careful handing these out. There were plenty of good men who would just as soon sleep through all this mess than serve out their shifts.

  ‘You’re sure?’ he asked.

  ‘We’ve tried everything. He’s been restrained. Security is taking him down the express right now. Can you meet us down here? You’ll have to sign off before he can be put away. ’

  ‘Sure, sure. ’ Troy rubbed his face with his towel, could smell the detergent in the clean cloth cut through the odour of sweat in the room and the tinge of grease from the open bike. Jones grabbed one of the pedals with his thick hands and gave it a turn. The chain was back on the cog, the machine operational again.
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