Shift, p.29
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       Shift, p.29

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 29


  ‘I know,’ Erskine said. This wiry man, probably in his early to mid-sixties, adjusted the glasses on his narrow nose and joined Donald in peering through the small window. ‘He was quite fond of you, you know. ’

  ‘I didn’t. I mean . . . he never said as much to me. ’

  ‘He was peculiar that way. ’ Erskine studied the deceased with a smile. ‘Brilliant perhaps for knowing the minds of others, just not so keen on communicating with them. ’

  ‘Did you know him from before?’ Donald asked. He wasn’t sure how else to broach the subject. The before seemed taboo with some, freely spoken of by others.

  Erskine nodded. ‘We worked together. Well, in the same hospital. We orbited each other for quite a few years until my discovery. ’ He reached out and touched the glass, a final farewell to an old friend, it seemed.

  ‘What discovery?’ He vaguely remembered Anna mentioning something.

  Erskine glanced up. Looking closer, Donald thought he may have been in his seventies. It was hard to tell. He had some of the agelessness of Thurman, like an antique that patinas and will grow no older.

  ‘I’m the one who discovered the great threat,’ he said. It sounded more an admission of guilt than a proud claim. His voice was tinged with sadness. At the base of the pod, Dr Sneed finished his adjustments, stood and excused himself. He steered the empty gurney towards the exit.

  ‘The nanos. ’ Donald remembered; Anna had said as much. He watched Thurman debate something with his daughter, his fist coming down over and over into his palm, and a question came to mind. He wanted to hear it from someone else. He wanted to see if the lies matched, if that meant they might contain some truth.

  ‘You were a medical doctor?’ he asked.

  Erskine considered the question. It seemed a simple enough one to answer.

  ‘Not precisely,’ he said, his accent thick. ‘I built medical doctors. Very small ones. ’ He pinched the air and squinted through his glasses at his own fingers. ‘We were working on ways to keep soldiers safe, to keep them patched up. And then I found someone else’s handiwork in a sample of blood. Little machines trying to do the opposite. Machines made to fight our machines. An invisible battle raging where no one could see. It wasn’t long before I was finding the little bastards everywhere. ’

  Anna and Thurman headed their way. Anna donned a cap, her hair in a bun that bulged noticeably through the top. It was little disguise for what she was, useful perhaps at a distance.

  ‘I’d like to ask you about that sometime,’ Donald said hurriedly. ‘It might help my . . . help me with this problem in silo eighteen. ’

  ‘Of course,’ Erskine said.

  ‘I need to get back,’ Anna told Donald. She set her lips in a thin grimace from the argument with her father, and Donald finally appreciated how trapped she truly was. He imagined a year spent in that warehouse of war, clues scattered across that planning table, sleeping on that small cot, not able even to ride up to the cafeteria to see the hills and the dark clouds or have a meal at the time of her own choosing, relying on others to bring her everything.

  ‘I’ll escort the young man up in a bit,’ Donald heard Erskine say, his hand resting on Donald’s shoulder. ‘I’d like to have a chat with our boy. ’

  Thurman narrowed his eyes but relented. Anna squeezed Donald’s hand a final time, glanced at the pod and headed towards the exit. Her father followed a few paces behind.

  ‘Come with me. ’ Erskine’s breath fogged the air. ‘I want to show you someone. ’


  • Silo 1 •

  ERSKINE PICKED HIS way through the grid of pods with purpose as though he’d walked the route dozens of times. Donald followed after, rubbing his arms for warmth. He had been too long in that crypt-like place. The cold was leaching back into his bones.

  ‘Thurman keeps saying we were already dead,’ he told Erskine, attacking the question head-on. ‘Is that true?’

  Erskine looked back over his shoulder. He waited for Donald to catch up, seemed to consider this question.

  ‘Well?’ Donald asked. ‘Were we?’

  ‘I never saw a design with a hundred per cent efficiency,’ Erskine said. ‘We weren’t there yet with our own work, and everything from Iran and Syria was much cruder. Now, North Korea had some elegant designs. I had my money on them. What they had already built could’ve taken out most of us. That part’s true enough. ’ He resumed his walk through the field of sleeping corpses. ‘Even the most severe epidemics burn themselves out,’ he said, ‘so it’s difficult to say. I argued for countermeasures. Victor argued for this. ’ He spread his arms over the quiet assembly.

  ‘And Victor won. ’

  ‘Indeed. ’

  ‘Do you think he . . . had second thoughts? Is that why . . . ?’

  Erskine stopped at one of the pods and placed both hands on its icy surface. ‘I’m sure we all have second thoughts,’ he said sadly. ‘But I don’t think Vic ever doubted the rightness of this mission. I don’t know why he did what he did in the end. It wasn’t like him. ’

  Donald peered inside the pod Erskine had led him to. There was a middle-aged woman inside, her eyelids covered in frost.

  ‘My daughter,’ Erskine said. ‘My only child. ’

  There was a moment of silence. It allowed the faint hum of a thousand pods to be heard.

  ‘When Thurman made the decision to wake Anna, all I could dream about was doing the same. But why? There was no reason, no need for her expertise. Caroline was an accountant. And besides, it wouldn’t be fair to drag her from her dreams. ’

  Donald wanted to ask if it would ever be fair. What world did Erskine expect his daughter to ever see again? When would she wake to a normal life? A happy life?

  ‘When I found nanos in her blood, I knew this was the right thing to do. ’ He turned to Donald. ‘I know you’re looking for answers, son. We all are. This is a cruel world. It’s always been a cruel world. I spent my whole life looking for ways to make it better, to patch things up, dreaming of an ideal. But for every sot like me, there’s ten more out there trying to tear things down. And it only takes one of them to get lucky. ’

  Donald flashed back to the day Thurman had given him the Order. That thick book was the start of his plummet into madness. He remembered their talk in that huge chamber, the feeling of being infected, the paranoia that something harmful and invisible was invading him. But if Erskine and Thurman were telling the truth, he’d been infected long before that.

  ‘You weren’t poisoning me that day. ’ He looked from the pod to Erskine, piecing something together. ‘The interview with Thurman, the weeks and weeks he spent in that chamber having all of those meetings. You weren’t infecting us. ’

  Erskine nodded ever so slightly. ‘We were healing you. ’

  Donald felt a sudden flash of anger. ‘Then why not heal everyone?’ he demanded.

  ‘We discussed that. I had the same thought. To me, it was an engineering problem. I wanted to build countermeasures, machines to kill machines before they got to us. Thurman had similar ideas. He saw it as an invisible war, one we desperately needed to take to the enemy. We all saw the battles we were accustomed to fighting, you see. I saw it in the bloodstream, Thurman in the war overseas. It was Victor who set the two of us straight. ’

  Erskine pulled a cloth from his breast pocket and removed his glasses. He rubbed them while he talked, his voice echoing in whispers from the walls. ‘Victor said there would be no end to it. He pointed to computer viruses to make his case, how one might run rampant through a network and cripple hundreds of millions of machines. Sooner or later, some nano attack would get through, get out of control, and there would be an epidemic built on bits of code rather than strands of DNA. ’

  ‘So what? We’ve dealt with plagues before. Why would this be different?’ Donald swept his arms at the pods. ‘Tell me how the solution isn’t worse than the prob

  As worked up as he felt, he also sensed how much angrier he would be if he heard this from Thurman. He wondered if he’d been set up to have a kindlier man, a stranger, take him aside and tell him what Thurman thought he needed to hear. It was hard not to be paranoid about being manipulated, not to feel the strings knotted to his joints.

  ‘Psychology,’ Erskine replied. He put his glasses back on. ‘This is where Victor set us straight, why our ideas would never work. I’ll never forget the conversation. We were sitting in the cafeteria at Walter Reed Hospital. Thurman was there to hand out ribbons, but really to meet with the two of us. ’ He shook his head. ‘It was crowded in there. If anyone knew the things we were discussing—’

  ‘Psychology,’ Donald reminded him. ‘Tell me how this is better. More people die this way. ’

  Erskine snapped back to the present. ‘That’s where we were wrong, just like you. Imagine the first discovery that one of these epidemics was man-made – the panic, the violence that would ensue. That’s where the end would come. A typhoon kills a few hundred people, does a few billion in damage, and what do we do?’ Erskine interlocked his fingers. ‘We come together. We put the pieces back. But a terrorist’s bomb. ’ He frowned. ‘A terrorist’s bomb does the same damage, and it throws the world into turmoil. ’

  He spread his hands open. ‘When there’s only God to blame, we forgive him. When it’s our fellow man, we destroy him. ’

  Donald shook his head. He didn’t know what to believe. But then he thought about the fear and rage he’d felt when he thought he’d been infected by something in that chamber. Meanwhile, he never worried about the billions of creatures swimming in his gut and doing so since the day he was born.

  ‘We can’t tweak the genes of the food we eat without suspicion,’ Erskine said. ‘We can pick and choose until a blade of grass is a great ear of corn, but we can’t do it with purpose. Vic had dozens of examples like these. Vaccines versus natural immunities, cloning versus twins, modified foods. Of course he was perfectly right. It was the man-made part that would’ve caused the chaos. It would be knowing that people were out to get us, that there was danger in the air we breathed. ’

  Erskine paused for a moment. Donald’s mind was racing.

  ‘You know, Vic once said that if these terrorists had an ounce of sense, they would’ve simply announced what they were working on and then sat back to watch things burn on their own. He said that’s all it would take, us knowing that it was happening, that the end of any of us could come silent, invisible and at any time. ’

  ‘And so the solution was to burn it all to the ground ourselves?’ Donald ran his hands through his hair, trying to make sense of it all. He thought of a firefighting technique that always seemed just as confusing to him, the burning of wide swathes of forest to prevent a fire from spreading. And he knew in Iran, when oil wells were set ablaze during the first war, that sometimes the only cure was to set off a bomb, to fight the inferno with something greater.

  ‘Believe me,’ Erskine said, ‘I came up with my own complaints. Endless complaints. But I knew the truth from the beginning, it just took me a while to accept it. Thurman was won over more easily. He saw at once that we needed to get off this ball of rock, to start over. But the cost of travel was too great—’

  ‘Why travel through space,’ Donald interrupted, ‘when you can travel through time?’ He remembered a conversation in Thurman’s office. The old man had told him what he was planning that very first day, but Donald hadn’t heard.

  Erskine’s eyes widened. ‘Yes. That was his argument. He’d seen enough war, I suppose. Me, I didn’t have Thurman’s experiences or the professional . . . distance Vic enjoyed. It was the analogy of the computer virus that wore me down, seeing these nanos like a new cyber war. I knew what they could do, how fast they could restructure themselves, evolve, if you will. Once it started, it would only stop when we were no longer around. And maybe not even then. Every defence would become a blueprint for the next attack. The air would choke with our invisible armies. There would be great clouds of them, mutating and fighting without need of a host. And once the public saw this and knew . . . ’ He left the sentence unfinished.

  ‘Hysteria,’ Donald muttered.

  Erskine nodded.

  ‘You said it might not ever end, even if we were gone. Does that mean they’re still out there? The nanos?’

  Erskine glanced up at the ceiling. ‘The world outside isn’t just being scrubbed of humans right now, if that’s what you’re asking. It’s being reset. All of our experiments are being removed. By the grace of God, it’ll be a very long time indeed before we think to perform them again. ’

  Donald remembered from orientation that the combined shifts would last five hundred years. Half a millennium of living underground. How much scrubbing was necessary? And what was to keep them from heading down that same path a second time? How would any of them unlearn the potential dangers? You don’t get the fire back in the box once you’ve unleashed it.

  ‘You asked me if Victor had regrets—’ Erskine coughed into his fist and nodded. ‘I do think he felt something close to that once. It was something he said to me as he was coming off his eighth or ninth shift, I don’t remember which. I think I was heading into my sixth. This was just after the two of you worked together, after that nasty business with silo twelve—’

  ‘My first shift,’ Donald said, since Erskine seemed to be counting. He wanted to add that it was his only shift.
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