Shift, p.16
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       Shift, p.16

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
 
Page 16

 

  Peering into the distance, Donald watched the ballet of scooting ATVs weave across the landscape. One day, he imagined, the flat roads on top of the hills would rumble with much larger trucks bearing hazardous waste and radiation warnings.

  And yet, seeing the flags waving over the Florida delegation to one side and the Georgia stage to the other, and noting the way the slopes would carry record crowds and afford everyone a perfect view of each stage, Donald couldn’t help but think that all the happy accidents had some larger purpose. It was as if the facility had been planned from the beginning to serve the 2052 National Convention, as if it had been built with more than its original goal in mind.

  A large blue flag with a white tree and crescent moon swayed lazily over the South Carolina stage. Mick parked the four-wheeler in a sea of other ATVs ringing the large hospitality tent.

  Following Mick through the parked vehicles, Donald saw that they were heading towards a smaller tent, which was swallowing a ton of traffic.

  ‘What kind of errand are we on?’ he asked.

  Not that it mattered. In recent days they’d done a little of everything around the facility: running bags of ice to various state headquarters, meeting with congressmen and senators to see if they needed anything, making sure all the volunteers and delegates were settling into their trailers okay – whatever the Senator needed.

  ‘Oh, we’re just taking a little tour,’ Mick said cryptically. He waved Donald into the small tent where workers were filing through in one direction with their arms loaded and coming out the other side empty-handed.

  The inside of the small tent was lit up with floodlights, the ground packed hard from the traffic, the grass matted flat. A concrete ramp led deep into the earth, workers with volunteer badges trudging up one side. Mick jumped into the line heading down.

  Donald knew where they were going. He recognised the ramp. He hurried up beside Mick.

  ‘This is one of the rod storage facilities. ’ He couldn’t hide the excitement in his voice, didn’t even try. He’d been dying to see the other design, either on paper or in person. All he was privy to was his bunker project; the rest of the facility remained shrouded in mystery. ‘Can we just go in?’

  As if to answer, Mick started down the ramp, blending with the others.

  ‘I begged for a tour the other day,’ Donald hissed, ‘but Thurman spouted all this national security crap—’

  Mick laughed. Halfway down the slope, the roof of the tent seemed to recede into the darkness above, and the concrete walls on either side funnelled the workers towards gaping steel doors.

  ‘You’re not going to see inside one of those other facilities,’ Mick told him. He put his hand on Donald’s back and ushered him through the industrial-looking and familiar entrance chamber. The foot traffic ground to a halt as people took turns entering or leaving through the small hatch ahead. Donald felt turned around.

  ‘Wait. ’ Donald caught glimpses through the hatch. ‘What the hell? This is my design. ’

  They shuffled forward. Mick made room for the people coming out. He had a hand on Donald’s shoulder, guiding him along.

  ‘What’re we doing here?’ Donald asked. He could’ve sworn his own bunker design was in the bowl set aside for Tennessee. Then again, they’d been making so many last-minute changes the past weeks, maybe he’d been mixed up.

  ‘Anna told me you wimped out and skipped the tour of this place. ’

  ‘That’s bullshit. ’ Donald stopped at the oval hatch. He recognised every rivet. ‘Why would she say that? I was right here. I cut the damn ribbon. ’

  Mick pushed at his back. ‘Go. You’re holding up the line. ’

  ‘I don’t want to go. ’ He waved the people out. The workers behind Mick shifted in place, heavy Tupperware containers in their hands. ‘I saw the top floor last time,’ he said. ‘That was enough. ’

  His friend clasped his neck with one hand and gripped his wrist with the other. As his head was bent forward, Donald had to move along to avoid falling on his face. He tried to reach for the jamb of the interior door, but Mick had his wrist.

  ‘I want you to see what you built,’ his friend said.

  Donald stumbled through to the security office. He and Mick stepped aside to let the congestion they’d caused ease past.

  ‘I’ve been looking at this damn thing every day for three years,’ Donald said. He patted his pocket for his pills, wondered if it was too soon to take another. What he didn’t tell Mick was that he’d forced himself to envision his design being above ground the entire time he’d worked on it, more a skyscraper than a buried straw. No way could he share that with his best friend, tell him how terrified he felt right then with no more than ten metres of dirt and concrete over his head. He seriously doubted Anna had used the phrase ‘wimped out’, but that’s exactly what he had done after cutting the ribbon. While the Senator led dignitaries through the complex, Donald had hurried up to find a patch of grass with nothing but bright blue sky above.

  ‘This is really fucking important,’ Mick said. He snapped his fingers in front of Donald. Two lines of workers filed past. Beyond them, a man sat in a small cubicle, a brush in one hand and a can of paint in the other. He was applying a coat of flat grey to a set of steel bars. A technician behind him worked to wire some kind of massive screen into the wall. Not everything looked as if it was being finished precisely the way Donald had drawn it.

  ‘Donny, listen to me. I’m serious. Today is the last day we can have this talk, okay? I need you to see what you built. ’ Mick’s permanent and mischievous grin was gone, his eyebrows tilted. He looked, if anything, sad. ‘Will you please come inside?’

  Taking a full breath and fighting the urge to rush out to the hills and fresh air, away from the stifling crowds, Donald found himself agreeing. It was the look on Mick’s face, the feeling that he needed to tell Donald about a loved one who had just passed away, something deathly serious.

  Mick patted his shoulder in gratitude as Donald nodded.

  ‘This way. ’

  Mick led him towards the central shaft. They passed through the cafeteria, which was being used. It made sense. Workers sat at tables and ate off plastic trays, taking a break. The smell of food drifted from the kitchens beyond. Donald laughed. He never thought they’d be used at all. Again, it felt as though the convention had given this place a purpose. It made him happy. He thought of the entire complex devoid of life one day, all the workers milling about outside storing away nuclear rods, while this massive building that would have touched the clouds had it been above ground, would sit perfectly empty.

  Down a short hallway, the tile gave way to metal grating, and a broad cylinder dived straight through the heart of the facility. Anna had been right. It really was worth seeing.

  They reached the railing of the central shaft, and Donald paused to peer over. The vast height made him forget for a moment that he was underground. On the other side of the landing, a conveyor lift rattled on its gears while a never-ending series of flat loading trays spun empty over the top. It reminded Donald of the buckets on a waterwheel. The trays flopped over before descending back down through the building.

  The men and women from outside deposited each of their containers onto one of the empty trays before turning and heading back out. Donald looked for Mick and saw him disappearing down the staircase.

  He hurried after, his fear of being buried alive chasing him.

  ‘Hey!’

  His shoes slapped the freshly painted stairs, the diamond plating keeping him from skidding off in his haste. He caught up with Mick as they made a full circuit of the thick inner post. Tupperware containers full of emergency supplies – supplies Donald figured would rot, unused – drifted eerily downward beyond the rail.

  ‘I don’t want to go any deeper than this,’ he insisted.

  ‘Two levels down,’ Mick called back up. ‘C’mon, ma
n, I want you to see. ’

  Donald numbly obeyed. It would’ve been worse to make his way out alone.

  At the first landing they came to, a worker stood by the conveyor with some type of gun. As the next container passed by, he shot its side with a flash of red, the scanner buzzing. The worker leaned on the railing, waiting for the next one while the container continued its ratcheting plummet.

  ‘Did I miss something?’ Donald asked. ‘Are we still fighting deadlines? What’s with all the supplies?’

  Mick shook his head. ‘Deadlines, lifelines,’ he said.

  At least, that’s what Donald thought his friend said. Mick seemed lost in thought.

  They spiralled down another level to the next landing, ten more metres of reinforced concrete between, thirty-three feet of wasted depth. Donald knew the floor. And not just from the plans he’d drawn. He and Mick had toured a floor like this in the factory where it had been built.

  ‘I’ve been here before,’ he told Mick.

  Mick nodded. He waved Donald down the hallway until it made a turn. Mick picked one of the doors, seemingly at random, and opened it for Donald. Most of the floors had been prefabbed and furnished before being craned into place. If that wasn’t the exact floor the two of them had toured, it had been one of the many just like it.

  Once Donald was inside, Mick flicked on the apartment’s overhead lights and closed the door. Donald was surprised to see that the bed was made. Stacks of linen were piled up in a chair. Mick grabbed the linens and moved them to the floor. He sat down and nodded to the foot of the bed.

  Donald ignored him and poked his head into the small bathroom. ‘This is actually pretty cool to see,’ he told his friend. He reached out and turned the knob on the sink, expecting nothing. When clear water gurgled out, he found himself laughing.

  ‘I knew you’d dig it once you saw it,’ Mick said quietly.

  Donald caught sight of himself in the mirror, the joy still on his face. He tended to forget how the corners of his eyes wrinkled up when he smiled. He touched his hair, sprinkles of grey even though he had another five years before he was over that proverbial hill. His job was ageing him prematurely. He had feared it might.

  ‘Amazing that we built this, huh?’ Mick asked. Donald turned and joined his friend in the tight quarters. He wondered if it was the work they’d been elected to perform that had aged them both or if it had been this one project, this all-consuming build.

  ‘I appreciate you forcing me down here. ’ He almost added that he would love to see the rest, but he figured that would be pushing it. Besides, the crews back in the Georgia tents were probably looking for them already.

  ‘Look,’ Mick said, ‘there’s something I want to tell you. ’

  Donald looked at his friend, who seemed to be searching for the words. He glanced at the door. Mick was silent. Donald finally relented and sat at the foot of the bed.

  ‘What’s up?’ he asked.

  But he thought he knew. The Senator had included Mick in his other project, the one that had driven Donald to seek help from the doctor. Donald thought of the thick book he had largely memorised. Mick had done the same. And he’d brought him there not just to let him see what they’d accomplished, but to find a spot of perfect privacy, a place where secrets could be divulged. He patted his pocket where he kept his pills, the ones that kept his thoughts from running off to dangerous places.

  ‘Hey,’ Donald said, ‘I don’t want you saying anything you’re not supposed to—’

  Mick looked up, eyes wide with surprise.

  ‘You don’t need to say anything, Mick. Assume I know what you know. ’

  Mick shook his head sadly. ‘You don’t,’ he said.

  ‘Well, assume it anyway. I don’t want to know anything. ’

  ‘I need you to know. ’

  ‘I’d rather not—’

  ‘It’s not a secret, man. It’s just . . . I want you to know that I love you like a brother. I always have. ’

  The two of them sat in silence. Donald glanced at the door. The moment was uncomfortable, but it somehow filled his heart to hear Mick say it.

  ‘Look—’ Donald started.

  ‘I know I’m always hard on you,’ Mick said. ‘And hell, I’m sorry. I really do look up to you. And Helen. ’ Mick turned to the side and scratched at his cheek. ‘I’m happy for the two of you. ’

  Donald reached across the narrow space and squeezed his friend’s arm.

  ‘You’re a good friend, Mick. I’m glad we’ve had this time together, the last few years, running for office, building this—’

  Mick nodded. ‘Yeah. Me too. But listen, I didn’t bring you down here to get all sappy like this. ’ He reached for his cheek again, and Donald saw that he was wiping at his eyes. ‘I had a talk with Thurman last night. He – a few months ago, he offered me a spot on a team, a top team, and I told him last night that I’d rather you take it. ’

  ‘What? A committee?’ Donald couldn’t imagine his friend giving up an appointment, any kind of appointment. ‘Which one?’

  Mick shook his head. ‘No, something else. ’

  ‘What?’ Donald asked.

  ‘Look,’ Mick said, ‘when you find out about it, and you understand what’s going on, I want you to think of me right here. ’ Mick glanced around the room. There were a few breaths of complete silence punctuated by drips of water from the bathroom sink. ‘If I could choose to be anywhere, anywhere in the coming years, it would be right down here with the first group. ’

  ‘Okay. Yeah, I’m not sure what you mean—’

  ‘You will. Just remember this, all right? That I love you like a brother and that everything happens for a reason. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. For you or for Helen. ’
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