Shift, p.15
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       Shift, p.15

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
 
Page 15

 

  ‘I’ll be right down,’ Troy said before releasing the button and handing the radio back to the mechanic. Some things were a pleasure to fix. Others weren’t.

  The express had already passed when Troy reached the lifts; he could see the floor display racing down. He pressed the call button for the other one and tried to imagine the sad scene playing out below. Whoever it was had his sympathies.

  He shook violently, blamed it on the cool air in the hallway and his damp skin. A ping-pong ball clocked back and forth in the rec room around the corner, sneakers squeaking as players chased the next shot. From the same room, a television was playing a movie, the sound of a woman’s voice.

  Looking down, Troy was self-conscious about his shorts and T-shirt. The only authority he really felt was lent by his overalls, but there was no time to ride up and change.

  The lift beeped and opened, and the conversation inside fell quiet. Troy nodded a greeting, and two men in yellow said hello. The three of them rode in silence for a few levels until the men got off on forty-four, a general living level. Before the doors could close, Troy saw a bright ball skitter across the hallway, two men racing after it. There were shouts and laughter followed by guilty silence when they noticed Troy.

  The metal doors squeezed shut on the brief glimpse of lower and more normal lives.

  With a shudder, the lift sank deeper into the earth. Troy could feel the dirt and concrete squeezing in from all sides, piling up above. Sweat from nerves mixed with that from his exercise. He was coming out of the other side of the medication, he thought. Every morning, he could feel some semblance of his old self returning, and it lasted longer and longer into the day.

  The fifties went by. The lift never stopped on the fifties. Emergency supplies he hoped would never be needed filled the corridors beyond. He remembered parts of the orientation, back when everyone had been awake. He remembered the code names they came up with for everything, the way new labels obscured the past. There was something here nagging him, but he couldn’t place it.

  Next were the mechanical spaces and the general storerooms, followed by the two levels that housed the reactor. Finally, the most important storage of all: the Legacy, the men and women asleep in their shiny coffins, the survivors from the before.

  There was a jolt as the lift slowed and the doors chimed open. Troy immediately heard a commotion in the doctor’s office, Henson barking commands to his assistant. He hurried down the hallway in his gym attire, sweat cooling on his skin.

  When he entered the ready room, he saw an elderly man being restrained on a gurney by two men from Security. It was Hal – Troy recognised him from the cafeteria, remembered speaking with him the first day of his shift and several times since. The doctor and his assistant fumbled through cabinets and drawers, gathering supplies.

  ‘My name is Carlton!’ Hal roared, his thin arms flailing while unbuckled restraints dangled from the table and swayed from the commotion. Troy assumed they would’ve had him under control to get him down the lift, wondered if he had broken free when he had come to. Henson and his assistant found what they needed and gathered by the gurney. Hal’s eyes widened at the sight of the needle; the fluid inside was a blue the colour of open sky.

  Dr Henson looked up and saw Troy standing there in his exercise clothes, paralysed and watching the scene. Hal screamed once more that his name was Carlton and continued to kick at the air, his heavy boots slamming against the table. The two security men jerked with effort as they held him down.

  ‘A hand?’ Henson grunted, teeth clenched as he began to wrestle with one of Hal’s arms.

  Troy hurried to the gurney and grabbed one of Hal’s legs. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the security officers and wrestled with a boot while trying not to get kicked. Hal’s legs felt like a bird’s inside the baggy overalls, but they kicked like a mule’s. One of the officers managed to work a strap across his thighs. Troy leaned his weight on Hal’s shin while a second strap was pulled tight.

  ‘What’s wrong with him?’ he asked. His concerns about himself vanished in the presence of true madness. Or was this where he was heading?

  ‘Meds aren’t taking,’ Henson said.

  Or he’s not taking them, Troy thought.

  The medical assistant used his teeth to pull the cap off the sky-coloured syringe. Hal’s wrist was pinned. The needle disappeared into his trembling arm, the plunger moving the bright blue liquid into his pale and blotchy flesh.

  Troy cringed at the sight of the needle being stabbed into Hal’s jerking arm – but the power in the old man’s legs faded immediately. Everyone seemed to take deep breaths as he wilted into unconsciousness, his head drifting to the side, one last incomprehensible scream fading into a moan, and then a deep and breathy exhalation.

  ‘What the hell?’ Troy wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. He was dripping with sweat, partly from the exertion but mostly from the scene before him, from feeling a man go under like that, sensing the life and will drain from his kicking boots as he was forced asleep. His own body shook with a sudden and violent tremor, gone before he knew it was coming. The doctor glanced up and frowned.

  ‘I apologise for that,’ Henson said. He glared at the officers, directing his blame.

  ‘We had him no problem,’ one of them said, shrugging.

  Henson turned to Troy. His jowls sagged with disappointment. ‘I hate to ask you to sign off on this . . . ’

  Troy wiped his face with the front of his shirt and nodded. The losses had been accounted for – individual losses as well as silos, spares stocked accordingly – but they all stung.

  ‘Of course,’ he said. This was his job, right? Sign this. Say these words. Follow the script. It was a joke. They were all reading lines from a play none of them could remember. But he was beginning to. He could feel it.

  Henson shuffled through a drawer of forms while his assistant unbuckled Hal’s overalls. The men from Security asked if they were needed, checked the restraints a final time and were waved away. One of them laughed out loud over something the other said as the sound of their boots faded towards the lift.

  Troy, meanwhile, lost himself in Hal’s slack face, the slight rise and fall of his old and narrow chest. Here was the reward for remembering, he thought. This man had woken up from the routine of the asylum. He hadn’t gone crazy; he’d had a sudden bout of clarity. He’d cracked open his eyes and seen through the mist.

  A clipboard was procured from a peg on the wall, the right form shoved into its metal jaws. Troy was handed a pen. He scratched his name, passed the clipboard back and watched the two doctors work; he wondered if they felt any of what he felt. What if they were all playing the same part? What if each and every one of them was concealing the same doubts, none of them talking because they all felt so completely alone?

  ‘Could you get that one for me?’

  The medical assistant was down on his knees, twisting a knob on the base of the table. Troy saw that it was on wheels. The assistant nodded at Troy’s feet.

  ‘Of course. ’ Troy crouched down to free the wheel. He was a part in this. It was his signature on the form. It was him twisting the knob that would free the table and allow it to roll down the hall.

  With Hal under, the restraints were loosened, his overalls peeled off with care. Troy volunteered with the boots, unknotting the laces and setting them aside. There was no need for a paper gown – his modesty was no longer a concern. An IV needle was inserted and taped down; Troy knew it would plug into the cryopod. He knew what it felt like to have ice crawl through his veins.

  They pushed the gurney down the hall and to the reinforced steel doors of the deep freeze. Troy studied the doors. They seemed familiar. He seemed to remember speccing something similar for a project once, but that was for a room full of machines. No – computers.

  The keypad on the wall chirped as the doctor entered his code. There was
the heavy thunk of rods withdrawing into the thick jamb.

  ‘The empties are at the end,’ Henson said, nodding into the distance.

  Rows and rows of gleaming and sealed beds filled the freezing chamber. His eyes fell to the readout screens on the bases of each pod. There were green lights solid with life, no space needed for a pulse or heartbeat, first names only, no way to connect these strangers to their past lives.

  Cassie, Catherine, Gabriella, Gretchen.

  Made-up names.

  Gwynn. Halley. Heather.

  Everyone in order. No shifts for them. Nothing for the men to fight over. It would all be done in an instant. Step inside the lifeboat, dream a moment, step out onto dry land.

  Another Heather. Duplicates without last names. Troy wondered how that would work. He steered blindly between the rows, the doctor and his assistant chatting about the procedure, when a name caught his peripheral vision and a fierce tremor vibrated through his limbs.

  Helen. And another: Helen.

  Troy lost his grip on the gurney and nearly fell. The wheels squealed to a stop.

  ‘Sir?’

  Two Helens. But before him, on a crisp display showing the frozen temps of a deep, deep slumber, another:

  Helena.

  Troy staggered away from the gurney and Hal’s naked body. The echo of the old man’s feeble screams came back to him, insisting he was someone named Carlton. Troy ran his hands along the curved top of the cryopod.

  She was here.

  ‘Sir? We really need to keep moving—’

  Troy ignored the doctor. He rubbed the glass shield, the cold inside leaching into his hand.

  ‘Sir—’

  A spiderweb of frost covered the glass. He wiped the frozen film of condensation away so he could see inside.

  ‘We need to get this man installed—’

  Closed eyes lay inside that cold and dark place. Blades of ice clung to her lashes. It was a familiar face, but this was not his wife.

  ‘Sir!’

  Troy stumbled, hands slapping at the cold coffin for balance, bile rising in his throat with remembrance. He heard himself gag, felt his limbs twitch, his knees buckle. He hit the ground between two of the pods and shook violently, spit on his lips, strong memories wrestling with the last residue of the drugs still in his veins.

  The two men in white shouted at each other. Footsteps slapped frosted steel and faded towards the distant and heavy door. Inhuman gurgles hit Troy’s ears and sounded faintly as though they came from him.

  Who was he? What was he doing there? What were any of them doing?

  This was not Helen. His name was not Troy.

  Footsteps stomped towards him in a hurry. The name was on his tongue as the needle bit his flesh.

  Donny.

  But that wasn’t right, either.

  And then the darkness took him, tightening down around anything from his past that his mind deemed too awful to bear.

  19

  2052

  Fulton County, Georgia

  SOME MASH-UP of music festival, family reunion and state fair had descended on the southernmost corner of Fulton County. For the past two weeks, Donald had watched while colourful tents sprang up over a brand-new nuclear containment facility. Fifty state flags flew over fifty depressions in the earth. Stages had been erected, an endless parade of supplies flowing over the rolling hills, golf carts and four-wheelers forming convoys of food, Tupperware containers, baskets of vegetables – some even pulled small enclosed trailers loaded with livestock.

  Farmers’ markets had been staked out in winding corridors of tents and booths, chickens clucking and pigs snorting, children petting rabbits, dogs on leashes. Owners of the latter guided dozens of breeds through the crowds. Tails wagged happily, and wet noses sniffed the air.

  On Georgia’s main stage, a local rock band performed a sound check. When they fell quiet to adjust levels, Donald could hear the twangs of bluegrass spilling over from the general direction of North Carolina’s delegation. In the opposite direction, someone was giving a speech on Florida’s stage while the convoys moved supplies over the rise, and families spread blankets and picnicked on the banks of sweeping bowls. The hills, Donald saw, formed stadium seating, as if they’d been designed for the task.

  What he couldn’t figure out was where they were putting all those supplies. The tents seemed to keep gobbling them up with no end in sight. The four-wheelers with their little boxed trailers had been rumbling up and down the slopes the entire two weeks he’d been there helping prep for the National Convention.

  Mick rumbled to a stop beside him, sitting atop one of the ubiquitous all-terrain vehicles. He grinned at Donald and goosed the throttle while still holding the brakes. The Honda lurched, tyres growling against the dirt.

  ‘Wanna go for a ride to South Carolina?’ he yelled over the engine. He shifted forward on the seat to make room.

  ‘You got enough gas to make it there?’ Donald held his friend’s shoulder and stepped on the second set of pegs. He threw his leg over the seat.

  ‘It’s just over that hill, you idiot. ’

  Donald resisted the urge to assure Mick he’d been joking. He held on to the metal rack behind him as Mick shifted through the gears. His friend stuck to the dusty highway between the tents until they reached the grass, then angled towards the South Carolina delegation, the tops of the buildings of downtown Atlanta visible off to one side.

  Mick turned his head as the Honda climbed the hill. ‘When is Helen getting here?’ he yelled.

  Donald leaned forward. He loved the feel of the crisp October morning air. It reminded him of Savannah that time of year, the chill of a sunrise on the beach. He had just been thinking of Helen when Mick asked about her.

  ‘Tomorrow,’ he shouted. ‘She’s coming on a bus with the delegates from Savannah. ’

  They crested the hill, and Mick throttled back and steered along the ridgeline. They passed a loaded-down ATV heading in the opposite direction. The network of ridges formed an interlocked maze of highways high above each containment facility’s sunken bowl.
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