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         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 2

 

  Donald nodded. It was easy to forget that he knew Thurman better than the Senator knew him. One of them grabbed far more newspaper headlines than the other.

  ‘That’s right. For my undergrad. I went into planning for my master’s. I figured I could do more good governing people than I could drawing boxes to put them in. ’

  He winced to hear himself deliver the line. It was a pat phrase from grad school, something he should have left behind with crushing beer cans on his forehead and ogling asses in skirts. He wondered for the dozenth time why he and the other congressional newcomers had been summoned. When he first got the invite, he thought it was a social visit. Then Mick had bragged about his own appointment, and Donald figured it was some kind of formality or tradition. But now he wondered if this was a power play, a chance to butter up the representatives from Georgia for those times when Thurman would need a particular vote in the lower and lesser house.

  ‘Tell me, Donny, how good are you at keeping secrets?’

  Donald’s blood ran cold. He forced himself to laugh off the sudden flush of nerves.

  ‘I got elected, didn’t I?’

  Senator Thurman smiled. ‘And so you probably learned the best lesson there is about secrets. ’ He picked up and raised his water bottle in salute. ‘Denial. ’

  Donald nodded and took a sip of his own water. He wasn’t sure where this was going, but he already felt uneasy. He sensed some of the back-room dealings coming on that he’d promised his constituents he’d root out if elected.

  The Senator leaned back in his chair.

  ‘Denial is the secret sauce in this town,’ he said. ‘It’s the flavour that holds all the other ingredients together. Here’s what I tell the newly elected: the truth is going to get out – it always does – but it’s going to blend in with all the lies. ’ The Senator twirled a hand in the air. ‘You have to deny each lie and every truth with the same vinegar. Let those websites and blowhards who bitch about cover-ups confuse the public for you. ’

  ‘Uh, yessir. ’ Donald didn’t know what else to say so he drank another mouthful of water instead.

  The Senator lifted an eyebrow again. He remained frozen for a pause, and then asked, out of nowhere: ‘Do you believe in aliens, Donny?’

  Donald nearly lost the water out of his nose. He covered his mouth with his hand, coughed, had to wipe his chin. The Senator didn’t budge.

  ‘Aliens?’ Donald shook his head and wiped his wet palm on his thigh. ‘No, sir. I mean, not the abducting kind. Why?’

  He wondered if this was some kind of debriefing. Why had the Senator asked him if he could keep a secret? Was this a security initiation? The Senator remained silent.

  ‘They’re not real,’ Donald finally said. He watched for any twitch or hint. ‘Are they?’

  The old man cracked a smile. ‘That’s the thing,’ he said. ‘If they are or they aren’t, the chatter out there would be the same. Would you be surprised if I told you they’re very much real?’

  ‘Hell, yeah, I’d be surprised. ’

  ‘Good. ’ The Senator slid a folder across the desk.

  Donald eyed it and held up a hand. ‘Wait. Are they real or aren’t they? What’re you trying to tell me?’

  Senator Thurman laughed. ‘Of course they’re not real. ’ He took his hand off the folder and propped his elbows on the desk. ‘Have you seen how much NASA wants from us so they can fly to Mars and back? We’re not getting to another star. Ever. And nobody’s coming here. Hell, why would they?’

  Donald didn’t know what to think, which was a far cry from how he’d felt less than a minute ago. He saw what the Senator meant, how truth and lies seemed black and white, but mixed together they made everything grey and confusing. He glanced down at the folder. It looked similar to the one Mick had been carrying. It reminded him of the government’s fondness for all things outdated.

  ‘This is denial, right?’ He studied the Senator. ‘That’s what you’re doing right now. You’re trying to throw me off. ’

  ‘No. This is me telling you to stop watching so many science fiction flicks. In fact, why do you think those eggheads are always dreaming of colonising some other planet? You have any idea what would be involved? It’s ludicrous. Not cost-effective. ’

  Donald shrugged. He didn’t think it was ludicrous. He twisted the cap back onto his water. ‘It’s in our nature to dream of open space,’ he said. ‘To find room to spread out in. Isn’t that how we ended up here?’

  ‘Here? In America?’ The Senator laughed. ‘We didn’t come here and find open space. We got a bunch of people sick, killed them and made space. ’ Thurman pointed at the folder. ‘Which brings me to this. I’ve got something I’d like you to work on. ’

  Donald placed his bottle on the leather inlay of the formidable desk and took the folder.

  ‘Is this something coming through committee?’

  He tried to temper his hopes. It was alluring to think of co-authoring a bill in his first year in office. He opened the folder and tilted it towards the window. Outside, storms were gathering.

  ‘No, nothing like that. This is about CAD-FAC. ’

  Donald nodded. Of course. The preamble about secrets and conspiracies suddenly made perfect sense, as did the gathering of Georgia congressmen outside. This was about the Containment and Disposal Facility, nicknamed CAD-FAC, at the heart of the Senator’s new energy bill, the complex that would one day house most of the world’s spent nuclear fuel. Or, according to the websites Thurman had alluded to, it was going to be the next Area 51, or the site where a new-and-improved superbomb was being built, or a secure holding facility for libertarians who had purchased one too many guns. Take your pick. There was enough noise out there to hide any truth.

  ‘Yeah,’ Donald said, deflated. ‘I’ve been getting some entertaining calls from my district. ’ He didn’t dare mention the one about the lizard people. ‘I want you to know, sir, that privately I’m behind the facility one hundred per cent. ’ He looked up at the Senator. ‘I’m glad I didn’t have to vote on it publicly, of course, but it was about time someone offered up their backyard, right?’

  ‘Precisely. For the common good. ’ Senator Thurman took a long pull from his water, leaned back in his chair and cleared his throat. ‘You’re a sharp young man, Donny. Not everyone sees what a boon to our state this’ll be. A real lifesaver. ’ He smiled. ‘I’m sorry, you are still going by Donny, right? Or is it Donald now?’

  ‘Either’s fine,’ Donald lied. He no longer enjoyed being called Donny, but changing names in the middle of one’s life was practically impossible. He returned to the folder and flipped the cover letter over. There was a drawing underneath that struck him as being out of place. It was . . . too familiar. Familiar, and yet it didn’t belong there – it was from another life.

  ‘Have you seen the economic reports?’ Thurman asked. ‘Do you know how many jobs this bill created overnight?’ He snapped his fingers. ‘Forty thousand, just like that. And that’s only from Georgia. A lot will be from your district, a lot of shipping, a lot of stevedores. Of course, now that it’s passed, our less nimble colleagues are grumbling that they should’ve had a chance to bid—’

  ‘I drew this,’ Donald interrupted, pulling out the sheet of paper. He showed it to Thurman as if the Senator would be surprised to see that it had snuck into the folder. Donald wondered if this was the Senator’s daughter’s doing, some kind of a joke or a hello and a wink from Anna.

  Thurman nodded. ‘Yes, well, it needs more detail, wouldn’t you say?’

  Donald studied the architectural illustration and wondered what sort of test this was. He remembered the drawing. It was a last-minute project for his biotecture class in his senior year. There was nothing unusual or amazing about it, just a large cylindrical building a hundred or so storeys tall ringed with glass and concrete, balconies burgeoning with gardens, one side cut away to reveal interspersed leve
ls for housing, working and shopping. The structure was spare where he remembered other classmates being bold, utilitarian where he could’ve taken risks. Green tufts jutted up from the flat roof – a horrible cliché, a nod to carbon neutrality.

  In sum, it was drab and boring. Donald couldn’t imagine a design so bare rising from the deserts of Dubai alongside the great new breed of self-sustaining skyscrapers. He certainly couldn’t see what the Senator wanted with it.

  ‘More detail,’ he murmured, repeating the Senator’s words. He flipped through the rest of the folder, looking for hints, for context.

  ‘Wait. ’ Donald studied a list of requirements written up as if by a prospective client. ‘This looks like a design proposal. ’ Words he had forgotten he’d ever learned caught his eye: interior traffic flow, block plan, HVAC, hydroponics—

  ‘You’ll have to lose the sunlight. ’ Senator Thurman’s chair squeaked as he leaned over his desk.

  ‘I’m sorry?’ Donald held the folder up. ‘What exactly are you wanting me to do?’

  ‘I would suggest those lights like my wife uses. ’ He cupped his hand into a tiny circle and pointed at the centre. ‘She gets these tiny seeds to sprout in the winter, uses bulbs that cost me a goddamned fortune. ’

  ‘You mean grow lights. ’

  Thurman snapped his fingers again. ‘And don’t worry about the cost. Whatever you need. I’m also going to get you some help with the mechanical stuff. An engineer. An entire team. ’

  Donald flipped through more of the folder. ‘What is this for? And why me?’

  ‘This is what we call a just-in-case building. Probably’ll never get used, but they won’t let us store the fuel rods out there unless we put this bugger nearby. It’s like this window in my basement I had to lower before our house could pass inspection. It was for . . . what do you call it . . . ?’

  ‘Egress,’ Donald said, the word flowing back unaided.

  ‘Yes. Egress. ’ He pointed to the folder. ‘This building is like that window, something we’ve gotta build so the rest will pass inspection. This will be where – in the unlikely event of an attack or a leak – facility employees can go. A shelter. And it needs to be perfect or this project will be shut down faster than a tick’s wink. Just because our bill passed and got signed doesn’t mean we’re home free, Donny. There was that project out west that got okayed decades ago, scored funding. Eventually, it fell through. ’

  Donald knew the one he was talking about. A containment facility buried under a mountain. The buzz on the Hill was that the Georgia project had the same chances of success. The folder suddenly tripled in weight as he considered this. He was being asked to be a part of this future failure. He would be staking his newly won office on it.

  ‘I’ve got Mick Webb working on something related. Logistics and planning. You two will need to collaborate on a few things. And Anna is taking leave from her post at MIT to lend a hand. ’

  ‘Anna?’ Donald fumbled for his water, his hand shaking.

  ‘Of course. She’ll be your lead engineer on this project. There are details in there on what she’ll need, space-wise. ’

  Donald took a gulp of water and forced himself to swallow.

  ‘There’s a lot of other people I could call in, sure, but this project can’t fail, you understand? It needs to be like family. That’s why I want to use people I know, people I can trust. ’ Senator Thurman interlocked his fingers. ‘If this is the only thing you were elected to do, I want you to do it right. It’s why I stumped for you in the first place. ’

  ‘Of course. ’ Donald bobbed his head to hide his confusion. He had worried during the election that the Senator’s endorsement stemmed from old family ties. This was somehow worse. Donald hadn’t been using the Senator at all; it was the other way around. Studying the drawing in his lap, the newly elected congressman felt one job he was inadequately trained for melt away – only to be replaced by a different job that seemed equally daunting.

  ‘Wait,’ he said. ‘I still don’t get it. ’ He studied the old drawing. ‘Why the grow lights?’

  ‘Because this building I want you to design for me – it’s going to go underground. ’

  2

  2110

  • Silo 1 •

  TROY HELD HIS breath and tried to remain calm while the doctor pumped the rubber bulb. The inflatable band swelled around his bicep until it pinched his skin. He wasn’t sure if slowing his breathing and steadying his pulse affected his blood pressure, but he had a strong urge to impress the man in the white overalls. He wanted his numbers to come back normal.

  His arm throbbed a few beats while the needle bounced and the air hissed out.

  ‘Eighty over fifty. ’ The band made a ripping sound as it was torn loose. Troy rubbed the spot where his skin had been pinched.

  ‘Is that okay?’

  The doctor made a note on his clipboard. ‘It’s low, but not outside the norm. ’ Behind him, his assistant labelled a cup of dark grey urine before placing it inside a small fridge. Troy caught sight of a half-eaten sandwich among the samples, not even wrapped.

  He looked down at his bare knees sticking out of the blue paper gown. His legs were pale and seemed smaller than he remembered. Bony.

  ‘I still can’t make a fist,’ he told the doctor, working his hand open and shut.

  ‘That’s perfectly normal. Your strength will return. Look into the light, please. ’
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