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         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
 
Page 22

 

  Not this again. Mission watched as Riley tested the tip of the knife with the pad of his finger. He reached to take back the blade, but his brother twisted away from him.

  ‘The older porters get mail duty because they can get mail duty,’ his father explained.

  ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Mission said, the sadness gone, the anger back. ‘The old ports have bad knees is why we get the heavy loads. Besides, my bonus pay is judged by the pound and the time I make, so I don’t mind. ’

  ‘Oh, yes. ’ His father waved at Mission’s feet. ‘They pay you in bonuses and you pay them with your knees. ’

  Mission could feel his cheeks tighten, could sense the burn of the whelp around his neck.

  ‘All I’m saying, son, is that the older you get and the more seniority you have, you’ll earn your own choice of rows to hoe. That’s all. I want you to watch out for yourself. ’

  ‘I’m watching out for myself, Dad. ’

  Riley climbed up, sat on the top rail and flashed his teeth at his reflection in the knife. The kid already had a freckled band of spots across his nose, the start of a farmer’s tan. Damaged flesh from damaged flesh, father like son. And Mission could easily picture Riley years hence, on the other side of that rail, all grown up with a kid of his own. It made him thankful that he’d wormed his way out of the farms and into a job he didn’t take home every night beneath his fingernails.

  ‘Are you joining us for lunch?’ his father asked, sensing perhaps that he was pushing Mission away.

  ‘If you don’t mind,’ Mission said. He felt a twinge of guilt that his father expected to feed him, but he appreciated not having to ask. And it would hurt his stepmom’s feelings if he didn’t pay her a visit. ‘I’ll have to run afterward, though. I’ve got a . . . delivery tonight. ’

  His father frowned. ‘You’ll have time to see Allie though, right? She’s forever asking about you. The boys here are lined up to marry that girl if you keep her waiting. ’

  Mission wiped his face to hide his expression. Allie was a great friend – his first and briefest romance – but to marry her would be to marry the farms, to return home, to live among the buried dead. ‘Probably not this time,’ he said. He felt bad for admitting it.

  ‘Okay. Well, go drop that off. Don’t squander your bonus sitting here jawing with us. ’ The disappointment in the old man’s voice was hotter than the lights and not so easy to shade. ‘We’ll see you in the feeding hall in half an hour?’ He reached out, took his son’s hand one more time and gave it a squeeze. ‘It’s good to see you, son. ’

  ‘Same. ’ Mission shook his father’s hand, then clapped his palms together over the grow pit to knock loose any dirt. Riley reluctantly gave the knife back and Mission slipped it into its sheath. He fastened the clasp around the handle, thinking on how he might need to use it that night. He pondered for a moment if he should warn his father, thought of telling him and Riley both to stay inside until morning, not to dare go out.

  But he held his tongue, patted his brother on the shoulder and made his way to the pump room down the hall. As he walked through rows of planters and pickers, he thought about farmers selling their own vegetables in makeshift stalls and grinding their own flour. He thought about the cafeteria growing its own sprouts and corn. And he thought of the recently discovered plans to move something heavy from one landing to another without involving the porters.

  Everyone was trying to look after themselves in case the violence returned. Mission could feel it brewing, the suspicion and the distrust, the walls being built. Everyone was trying to get a little less reliant on the others, preparing for the inevitable, hunkering down.

  He loosened the straps on his pack as he approached the pump room, and a dangerous thought occurred to him, a revelation: if everyone was trying to get to where they didn’t need one another, how exactly was that supposed to help them all get along?

  28

  • Silo 18 •

  THE LIGHTS OF the great spiral staircase were dimmed at night so man and silo might sleep. It was in those wee hours when children were long hushed with sing-song lullabies and only those with trouble in mind crept about. Mission held very still in that darkness and waited. Somewhere above him, there came the sound of rope wound tight and sliding across metal, the squeaking of fibres as they gripped steel and strained under some great weight.

  A gang of porters huddled with him on the stairway. Mission pressed his cheek against the inner post, the steel cooling his skin. He controlled his breathing and listened for the rope. He well knew the sounds they made, could feel the burn on his neck, that raised weal healed over by the years, a mark glanced at by others but rarely mentioned aloud. And again in that thick grey of the dim-time there came a recognisable squeak as the load from above was steadily lowered.

  He waited for the signal. He thought on rope, on his own life – and other forbidden things. There was a book in Dispatch down on seventy-four that kept accounts. In the main way station for all the porters, a massive ledger fashioned out of a fortune in paper was kept under lock and key. It contained a careful tally of certain types of deliveries, handwritten so the information couldn’t slip off into wires.

  Mission had heard the senior porters kept track of certain kinds of pipe in this ledger, but he didn’t know why. Brass too, and various types of fluids and powders coming out of Chemical. Order these – or too much rope – and you were put on the watching list. Porters were the lords of rumour. They knew where everything went. And their whisperings gathered like condensation in Dispatch Main where they were written down.

  Mission listened to the rope creak and sing in the darkness. He knew what it felt like to have a length of it cinched tightly around his neck. It seemed strange to him that if you ordered enough to hang yourself, nobody cared. Enough to span a few levels, and eyebrows were raised.

  He adjusted his ’chief and thought on this in the dim-time. A man may take his own life, he supposed, as long as he didn’t take another’s job.

  ‘Ready yourself,’ came the whisper from above.

  Mission tightened the grip on his knife and concentrated on the task at hand. His eyes strained to see in the wan light. He could hear the steady breathing of his fellow porters around him. No doubt they would be squeezing their own knives in anticipation.

  The knives came with the job. A porter’s knife for slicing open delivered goods, for cutting fruit to eat on the climb, and for keeping peace as its owner strayed across all the silo’s heights and depths, taking its dangers two at a time. Now, Mission tensed his in his hand, waiting for the order.

  Up the stairwell two full turns, on a dim landing, a group of farmers argued in soft voices as they handled the other end of that rope, performing a porter’s job in the dark of night to save a hundred chits or two. Beyond the rail, the rope was invisible in the darkness. He would have to lean out and grope blindly for it. He felt a ring of heat by his collar, and the hilt of his blade was unsure in his sweaty palm.

  ‘Not yet,’ Morgan whispered, and Mission felt his old caster’s hand on his shoulder, holding him back. Mission cleared his mind. Another soft squeak, the sound of line taking the strain of a heavy generator, and a dense patch of grey drifted through the black. The men above shouted in whispers as they handled the load, as they did in green the work of men in blue.

  While the patch of grey inched past, Mission thought of the night’s danger and marvelled at the fear in his heart. He possessed a sudden care for a life he had once laboured to end, a life that never should have been. He thought of his mother and wondered what she had been like, beyond the disobedience that had cost her life. That was all he knew of his mom. He knew the implant in her hip had failed, as one in ten thousand might. And instead of reporting the malfunction – and the pregnancy – she had hidden him in loose clothes until it was past the time the Pact allowed a child to be treated as a cyst.
r />   ‘Ready yourself,’ Morgan hissed.

  The grey mass of the generator crept down and out of sight. Mission clutched his knife and thought of how he should’ve been cut out of her and discarded. But past a certain date, and one life was traded for another. Such was the Pact. Born behind bars, Mission had been allowed free while his mother had been sent outside to clean.

  ‘Now,’ Morgan commanded, and Mission started. Soft and well-worn boots squeaked on the stairs above, the sounds of men lurching into action. Mission concentrated on his part. He pressed himself against the curved rail and reached out into the space beyond. His palm found rope as stiff as steel. He pressed his blade to the taut line.

  There was a pop like sinew snapping, the first of the braids parting with just a touch of his sharp blade.

  Mission had but a moment to think of those on the landing below, the farmers’ accomplices waiting two levels down. Men were storming up the staircase. Mission longed to join them. With the barest of sawing motions, the rope parted the rest of the way, and Mission thought he heard the heavy generator whistle as it picked up speed. There was a ferocious crash a moment later, men screaming in alarm down below. Above, the fighting had broken out.

  With one hand on the rail and another gripping his knife, Mission took the stairs three at a time. He rushed to join the melee above, this midnight lesson on breaking the Pact, on doing another’s job. Grunts and groans and slapping thuds spilled from the landing, and Mission threw himself into the scuffle, thinking not of consequences, but only of this one fight.

  29

  2212

  • Silo 1 •

  THE WHEELCHAIR SQUEAKED as its wheels circled around. With each revolution there was a sharp peal of complaint followed by a circuit of deathly silence. Donald lost himself in this rhythmic sound as he was pushed along. His breath puffed out into the air, the room harbouring the same deep chill as his bones.

  There were rows and rows of pods stretched out to either side. Names glowed orange on tiny screens, made-up names designed to sever the past from the present. Donald watched them slide by as they pushed him to the exit. His head felt heavy, the weight of remembrance replacing the dreams that coiled away and vanished like wisps of smoke.

  The men in the pale blue overalls guided him through the door and into the hallway. He was steered into a familiar room with a familiar table. The wheelchair shimmied as they removed his bare feet from the footrests. He asked how long it’d been, how long he’d been asleep.

  ‘A hundred years,’ someone said. Which would make a hundred and sixty since orientation. No wonder the wheelchair felt unsteady – it was older than he was. Its screws had worked loose over the long decades that Donald had been asleep.

  They helped him stand. His feet were still numb from his hibernation, the cold fading to painful tingles. A curtain was drawn. They asked him to urinate in a cup, which came as glorious relief. The sample was the colour of charcoal, dead machines flushed from his system. The paper gown wasn’t enough to warm him, even though he knew the cold was in his flesh, not in the room. They gave him more of the bitter drink.

  ‘How long before his head is clear?’ someone asked.

  ‘A day,’ the doctor said. ‘Tomorrow at the earliest. ’

  They had him sit while they took his blood. An old man in white overalls with hair just as stark stood in the doorway, frowning. ‘Save your strength,’ the man in white said. He nodded to the doctor to continue his work and disappeared before Donald could place him in his faltering memory. He felt dizzy as he watched his blood, blue from the cold, being taken from him.

  They rode a familiar lift. The men around him talked, but their voices seemed distant. Donald felt as though he had been drugged, but he remembered that he had stopped taking their pills. He reached for his bottom lip, finger and mouth both tingling, and felt for an ulcer, that little pocket where he kept his pills unswallowed.

  But the ulcer wasn’t there. It would’ve healed in his sleep decades ago. The elevator doors parted, and Donald felt more of that dreamtime fade.

  They pushed him down another hall, scuff marks on the walls the height of the wheels, black arcs where rubber had once met the paint. His eyes roamed the walls, the ceiling, the tiles, all bearing centuries of wear. It seemed like yesterday that they had been almost new. Now they were heaped with abuse, a sudden crumbling into ruin. Donald remembered designing halls just like these. He remembered thinking they were making something to last for ages. The truth was there all along. The truth was in the design, staring back at him, too insane to be taken seriously.

  The wheelchair slowed.

  ‘The next one,’ a gruff voice behind him said, a familiar voice. Donald was pushed past one closed door to another. One of the orderlies bustled around the wheelchair, a ring of keys jangling from his hip. A key was selected and slotted into the lock with a series of neat clicks. Hinges cried out as the door was pushed inward. The lights inside were turned on.

  It was a room like a cell, musky with the scent of disuse. The light overhead flickered before it came on. There was a narrow double bunk in the corner, a side table, a dresser, a bathroom.

  ‘Why am I here?’ Donald asked, his voice cracking.

  ‘This will be your room,’ the orderly said, putting away his keys. His young eyes darted up to the man steering the wheelchair as if seeking assurances for his answer. Another young man in pale blue hurried around and removed Donald’s feet from the stirrups and placed them on carpet worn flat by the years.

  Donald’s last memory was of being chased by snarling dogs with leathery wings, chased up a mountain of bones. But that was a dream. What was his last real memory? He remembered a needle. He remembered dying. That felt real.

  ‘I mean—’ Donald swallowed painfully. ‘Why am I . . . awake?’
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