Shift, p.27
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       Shift, p.27

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
 
Page 27

 

  The security guard pointed to the groups of boys. ‘We’re hiring. New techs. ’

  All Mission saw were young men, and the guy talking to them was with Security, not IT. The security guard handed the note back to Mission and pointed towards the main gate. The woman from earlier was already beeping her way through, a large and familiar bald head swivelling to watch her ass as she headed down the hall.

  ‘Sir?’ Mission called out as he approached the gate.

  Jeffery turned his head, the deep wrinkles and folds of flesh disappearing from his neck.

  ‘Hmm? Oh—’ he snapped his fingers, trying to place the name.

  ‘Mission. ’

  He wagged his finger. ‘That’s right. You need to leave something with me, porter?’ He held out a palm but seemed disinterested.

  Mission handed him the note. ‘Actually, I have orders from Mrs Crowe to deliver something in person. ’ He pulled the sealed envelope with the crossed-out names from his courier pouch. ‘Just a letter, sir. ’

  The old guard glanced at the envelope, then continued reading the note addressed to him. ‘Rodny isn’t available. ’ He shook his head. ‘I can’t give you a timeframe, either. Could be weeks. You wanna leave it with me?’

  Again, an outstretched palm, but this time with more interest. Mission pulled the envelope back warily. ‘I can’t. There’s no way I can just hand it to him? This is the Crow, man. If it were the mayor asking me, I’d say no problem. ’

  Jeffery smiled. ‘You were one of her boys too?’

  Mission nodded. The head of Security looked past him at a man approaching the gate with his ID out. Mission stepped aside as the gentleman scanned his way through, nodding good morning to Jeffery.

  ‘Tell you what. I’m taking Rodny his lunch in a little bit. When I do, you can come with me, hand him the letter with me standing there, and I won’t have to worry about the Crow nipping my hide later. How’s that sound?’

  Mission smiled. ‘Sounds good, man. I appreciate it. ’

  The officer pointed across the noisy entrance hall. ‘Why don’t you go grab yourself some water and hang in the conference room. There’s some boys in there filling out paperwork. ’ Jeffery looked Mission up and down. ‘In fact, why don’t you fill out an application? We could use you. ’

  ‘I . . . uh, don’t know much about computers,’ Mission said.

  Jeffery shrugged as if that were irrelevant. ‘Suit yourself. One of the lads will be relieving me in a little bit. I’ll come get you. ’

  Mission thanked him again. He crossed the large entrance hall where neat columns and rows of young men listened to barked instructions. Another guard waved him inside the conference room while holding out a sheet of paper and a shard of charcoal. Mission saw that the back of the paper was blank and took it with no plan for filling it out. Half a chit right there in usable paper.

  There were a few empty chairs around the wide table. He chose one. A number of boys scribbled with their charcoals on the pages, faces scrunched up in concentration. Mission sat with his back to the only window and placed his sack on the table, kept the letter in his hands. He slid the application inside his pack for future use and studied the Crow’s letter for the first time.

  The envelope was old but addressed only a handful of times. One edge was worn tissue thin, a small tear revealing a folded piece of paper inside. Peering more closely, Mission saw that it was pulp paper, probably made in the Crow’s Nest by one of her kids – water and handfuls of torn paper blended up, pressed down on screens and left overnight to dry.

  ‘Mission,’ someone at the table hissed.

  He looked up to see Bradley sitting across from him. The fellow porter had his blue ’chief tied around his biceps. Mission had thought he was running a regular route in the down deep.

  ‘You applying?’ Bradley hissed.

  One of the other boys coughed into his fist as if he were asking for quiet. It looked as though Bradley was already done with his application.

  Mission shook his head. There was a knock on the window behind him and he nearly dropped the letter as he whirled around. Jeffery stuck his head in the door. ‘Two minutes,’ the security guard said to Mission. He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. ‘I’m just waiting on his tray. ’

  Mission bobbed his head as the door was pulled shut. The other boys looked at him curiously.

  ‘Delivery,’ Mission explained to Bradley loud enough for the others to hear. He pulled his pack closer and hid the envelope behind it. The boys went back to their scribbling. Bradley frowned and watched the others.

  Mission studied the envelope again. Two minutes. How long would he have with Rodny? He tickled the corner of the sealed flap. The milk paste the Crow had used didn’t stick very well to the months-old – maybe years-old – dried glue from before. He worked one corner loose without glancing down at the envelope. Instead, he watched Bradley as he disobeyed the third cardinal rule of porting, telling himself this was different, that this was two old friends talking and he was just in the room with them, overhearing.

  Even so, his hands trembled as he pulled the letter out. He glanced down, keeping the note hidden. Purple and red string lay strewn in with the dark grey of cheap paper. The writing was in chalk. It meant the words had to be big. White powder gathered in the folds as it shivered loose from the words like dust falling from old pipes:

  Soon, soon, the momma bird sings.

  Take flight, take flight!

  Part of an old nursery rhyme. Beat your wings, Mission whispered silently, remembering the rest, a story about a young crow learning to be free.

  Beat your wings and fly away to brighter things.

  Fly, fly with all your might!

  He started to check the back for a real note, something beyond this fragment of a rhyme, when someone banged on the window again. Several of the other boys dropped their charcoals, visibly startled. One boy cursed under his breath. Mission whirled around to see Jeffery on the other side of the glass, a covered meal tray balanced on one palm, his bald head jerking impatiently.

  Mission folded the letter up and stuffed it back in the envelope. He raised his hand over his head to let Jeffery know he’d be right there, licked one finger and ran it across the sticky paste, resealing the envelope as best he could. ‘Good luck,’ he told Bradley, even though he had no clue what the kid thought he was doing. He dragged his pack off the table, was careful to wipe away the chalk dust that had spilled, and hurried out of the conference room.

  ‘Let’s go,’ Jeffery said, clearly annoyed.

  Mission hurried after him. He glanced back once at the window, then over at the noisy crowd jostling against the temporary barriers by the door. An IT tech approached the crowd with a computer, wires coiled neatly on top, and a woman reached out desperately from behind the barrier like a mother yearning for her baby.

  ‘Since when did people start bringing their own computers up?’ he asked, his profession having made him curious about how things got from there to here and back again. It felt as though this was yet another loop the porters were being cut out of. Roker would have a fit.

  ‘Yesterday. Wyck decided he wouldn’t be sending his techs out to fix them any more. Says it’s safer this way. People are being robbed out there and there’s not enough security to go around. ’

  They were waved through the gates and wound in silence through the hallways, every office full of clacking sounds or people arguing. Mission saw electrical parts and paper strewn everywhere. He wondered which office Rodny was in and why nobody else was having their food delivered. Maybe his friend was in trouble. That was it. That would make sense of everything. Maybe he had pulled one of his stunts. Did they have a holding cell on thirty-four? He didn’t think so. He was about to ask Jeffery if Rodny was in the pen when the old security guard stopped at an imposing steel door.

  ‘Here. ’ He held the tray out to Mission, who s
tuck the letter between his lips and accepted it. Jeffery glanced back, blocked Mission’s view of the door’s keypad with his body and tapped in a code. A series of clunks sounded in the jamb of the heavy door. Fucking right, Rodny was in trouble. What kind of pen was this?

  The door swung inward. Jeffery grabbed the tray and told Mission to wait there. Mission still had the taste of milk paste on his lips as he watched the Security chief step inside a room that seemed to go back quite a way. The lights in-side pulsed as if something was wrong, red warning lights like a fire alarm. Jeffery called out for Rodny while Mission tried to peek around the guard for a better look.

  Rodny arrived a moment later, almost as if he were expecting them. His eyes widened when he saw Mission standing there. Mission fought to close his own mouth, which he could feel hanging open at the sight of his friend.

  ‘Hey. ’ Rodny pulled open the heavy door a little further and glanced down the hallway. ‘What’re you doing here?’

  ‘Good to see you too,’ Mission said. He held out the letter. ‘The Crow sent this. ’

  ‘Ah, official business. ’ Rodny smiled. ‘You’re here as a porter, eh? Not a friend?’

  Rodny smiled, but Mission could see that his friend was beat. He looked as if he hadn’t slept for days. His cheeks were sunk in, dark rings under his eyes, and there was the shadow of a beard on his chin. Hair that Rodny had once taken pains to keep in style had been chopped short. Mission glanced into the room, wondering what they had him doing in there. Tall black metal cabinets were all he could see. They stretched out of sight, neatly spaced.

  ‘You learning to fix refrigerators?’ Mission asked.

  Rodny glanced over his shoulder. He laughed. ‘Those are computers. ’ He still had that condescending tone. Mission nearly reminded his friend that today was his birthday, that they were the same age. Rodny was the only one he ever felt like reminding. Jeffery cleared his throat impatiently, seemed annoyed by the chatter.

  Rodny turned to the Security chief. ‘You mind if we have a few seconds?’ he asked.

  Jeffery shifted his weight, the stiff leather of his boots squeaking. ‘You know I can’t,’ he said. ‘I’ll probably get chewed out for allowing even this. ’

  ‘You’re right. ’ Rodny shook his head as if he shouldn’t have asked. Mission studied the exchange. Even though it had been months since he’d last seen him, he sensed that Rodny was the same as always. He was in trouble for something, probably being forced to do the most reviled task in all of IT for a brash thing he’d said or done. He smiled at the thought.

  Rodny tensed suddenly, as though he’d heard something deep inside the room. He held up a finger to the others and asked them to wait there. ‘Just a second,’ he said, rushing off, bare feet slapping on the steel floors.

  Jeffery crossed his arms and looked Mission up and down unhappily. ‘You two grow up down the hall from each other?’

  ‘Went to school together,’ Mission said. ‘So what did Rod do? You know, Mrs Crowe used to make us sweep the entire Nest and clean the blackboards if we cut up in class. We did our fair share of sweeping, the two of us. ’

  Jeffery appraised him for a moment. And then his expressionless face shattered into tooth and grin. ‘You think your friend is in trouble?’ he said. He seemed on the verge of laughing. ‘Son, you have no idea. ’

  Before Mission could question him, Rodny returned, smiling and breathless.

  ‘Sorry,’ he said to Jeffery. ‘I had to get that. ’ He turned to Mission. ‘Thanks for coming by, man. Good to see you. ’

  That was it?

  ‘Good to see you too,’ Mission sputtered, surprised that their visit would be so brief. ‘Hey, don’t be a stranger. ’ He went to give his old friend a hug, but Rodny stuck out a hand instead. Mission looked at it for a pause, confused, wondering if they’d grown apart so far, so fast.

  ‘Give my best to everyone,’ Rodny said, as if he expected never to see any of them again.

  Jeffery cleared his throat, clearly annoyed and ready to go.

  ‘I will,’ Mission said, fighting to keep the sadness out of his voice. He accepted his friend’s hand. They shook like strangers, the smile on Rodny’s face quivering, the folds of the note hidden in his palm digging sharply into Mission’s hand.

  35

  • Silo 18 •

  IT WAS A miracle Mission didn’t drop the note as it was passed to him, a miracle that he knew something was amiss, to keep his mouth closed, to not stand there like a fool in front of Jeffery and say, ‘Hey, what’s this?’ Instead, he kept the wad of paper balled in his fist as he was escorted back to the security station. They were nearly there when someone called ‘Porter!’ from one of the offices.

  Jeffery placed a hand on Mission’s chest, forcing him to a stop. They turned, and a familiar man strode down the hallway to meet them. It was Mr Wyck, the head of IT, familiar to most porters. The endless shuffle of broken and repaired computers kept the Upper Dispatch on ten as busy as Supply kept the Lower Dispatch on one-twenty. Mission gathered that may have changed since yesterday.

  ‘You on duty, son?’ Mr Wyck studied the porter’s ’chief knotted around Mission’s neck. He was a tall man with a tidy beard and bright eyes. Mission had to crane his neck to meet Wyck’s gaze.

  ‘Yessir,’ he said, hiding the note from Rodny behind his back. He pressed it into his pocket with his thumb, like a seed going into soil. ‘You need something moved, sir?’

  ‘I do. ’ Mr Wyck studied him for a moment, stroked his beard. ‘You’re the Jones boy, right? The zero. ’

  Mission felt a flash of heat around his neck at the use of the term, a reference to the fact that no lottery number had been pulled for him. ‘Yessir. It’s Mission. ’ He offered his hand. Mr Wyck accepted it.
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