Shift, p.3
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       Shift, p.3
 

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 3

 

  Troy followed the bright beam and tried not to blink.

  ‘How long have you been doing this?’ he asked the doctor.

  ‘You’re my third coming out. I’ve put two under. ’ He lowered the light and smiled at Troy. ‘I’ve only been out myself for a few weeks. I can tell you that the strength will return. ’

  Troy nodded. The doctor’s assistant handed him another pill and a cup of water. Troy hesitated. He stared down at the little blue capsule nestled in his palm.

  ‘A double dose this morning,’ the doctor said, ‘and then you’ll be given one with breakfast and dinner. Please do not skip a treatment. ’

  Troy looked up. ‘What happens if I don’t take it?’

  The doctor shook his head and frowned, but didn’t say anything.

  Troy popped the pill in his mouth and chased it with the water. A bitterness slid down his throat.

  ‘One of my assistants will bring you some clothes and a fluid meal to kick-start your gut. If you have any dizziness or chills, you’re to call me at once. Otherwise, we’ll see you back here in six months. ’ The doctor made a note, then chuckled. ‘Well, someone else will see you. My shift will be over. ’

  ‘Okay. ’ Troy shivered.

  The doctor looked up from his clipboard. ‘You’re not cold, are you? I keep it a little extra warm in here. ’

  Troy hesitated before answering. ‘No, doctor. I’m not cold. Not any more. ’

  Troy entered the lift at the end of the hall, his legs still weak, and studied an array of numbered buttons. The orders they’d given him included directions to his office, but he vaguely remembered how to get there. Much of his orientation had survived the decades of sleep. He remembered studying that same book over and over, thousands of men assigned to various shifts, tours of the facility before being put under like the women. The orientation felt like yesterday; it was older memories that seemed to be slipping away.

  The doors to the lift closed automatically. His apartment was on thirty-seven; he remembered that. His office was on thirty-four. He reached for a button, intending to head straight to his desk, and instead found his hand sliding up to the very top. He still had a few minutes before he needed to be anywhere, and he felt some strange urge, some tug, to get as high as possible, to rise through the soil pressing in from all sides.

  The lift hummed into life and accelerated up the shaft. There was a whooshing sound as another car or maybe the counterweight zoomed by. The round buttons flashed as the floors passed. There was an enormous spread of them, seventy in all. The centres of many were dull from years of rubbing. This didn’t seem right. It seemed like just yesterday the buttons were shiny and new. Just yesterday, everything was.

  The lift slowed. Troy palmed the wall for balance, his legs still uncertain.

  The door dinged and slid open. Troy blinked at the bright lights in the hallway. He left the lift and followed a short walk towards a room that leaked chatter. His new boots were stiff on his feet, the generic grey overalls itchy. He tried to imagine waking up like this nine more times, feeling this weak and disoriented. Ten shifts of six months each. Ten shifts he hadn’t volunteered for. He wondered if it would get progressively easier or if it would only get worse.

  The bustle in the cafeteria quietened as he entered. A few heads turned his way. He saw at once that his grey overalls weren’t so generic. There was a scattering of colours seated at the tables: a large cluster of reds, quite a few yellows, a man in orange; no other greys.

  That first meal of sticky paste he’d been given rumbled once more in his stomach. He wasn’t allowed to eat anything else for six hours, which made the aroma from the canned foods overwhelming. He remembered the fare, had lived on it during orientation. Weeks and weeks of the same gruel. Now it would be months. It would be hundreds of years.

  ‘Sir. ’

  A young man nodded to Troy as he walked past, towards the lifts. Troy thought he recognised him but couldn’t be sure. The gentleman certainly seemed to have recognised him. Or was it the grey overalls that stood out?

  ‘First shift?’

  An older gentleman approached, thin, with white and wispy hair that circled his head. He held a tray in his hands, smiled at Troy. Pulling open a recycling bin, he slid the entire tray inside and dropped it with a clatter.

  ‘Come up for the view?’ the man asked.

  Troy nodded. It was all men throughout the cafeteria. All men. They had explained why this was safer. He tried to remember as the man with the splotches of age on his skin crossed his arms and stood beside him. There were no introductions. Troy wondered if names meant less amid these short six-month shifts. He gazed out over the bustling tables towards the massive screen that covered the far wall.

  Whirls of dust and low clouds hung over a field of scattered and mangled debris. A few metal poles bristled from the ground and sagged lifelessly, the tents and flags long vanished. Troy thought of something but couldn’t name it. His stomach tightened like a fist around the paste and the bitter pill.

  ‘This’ll be my second shift,’ the man said.

  Troy barely heard. His watering eyes drifted across the scorched hills, the grey slopes rising up towards the dark and menacing clouds. The debris scattered everywhere was rotting away. Next shift, or the one after, and it would all be gone.

  ‘You can see further from the lounge. ’ The man turned and gestured along the wall. Troy knew well enough what room he was referring to. This part of the building was familiar to him in ways this man could hardly guess at.

  ‘No, but thanks,’ Troy stammered. He waved the man off. ‘I think I’ve seen enough. ’

  Curious faces returned to their trays, and the chatter resumed. It was sprinkled with the clinking of spoons and forks on metal bowls and plates. Troy turned and left without saying another word. He put that hideous view behind him – turned his back on the unspoken eeriness of it. He hurried, shivering, towards the lift, knees weak from more than the long rest. He needed to be alone, didn’t want anyone around him this time, didn’t want sympathetic hands comforting him while he cried.

  3

  2049

  Washington, DC

  DONALD KEPT THE thick folder tucked inside his jacket and hurried through the rain. He had chosen to get soaked crossing the square rather than face his claustrophobia in the tunnels.

  Traffic hissed by on the wet asphalt. He waited for a gap, ignored the crossing signals and scooted across.

  In front of him, the marble steps of Rayburn, the office building for the House of Representatives, gleamed treacher-ously. He climbed them warily and thanked the doorman on his way in.

  Inside, a security officer stood by impassively while Donald’s badge was scanned, red unblinking eyes beeping at bar codes. He checked the folder Thurman had given him, made sure it was still dry, and wondered why such relics were still considered safer than an email or a digital copy.

  His office was one floor up. He headed for the stairs, preferring them to Rayburn’s ancient and slow lift. His shoes squeaked on the tile as he left the plush runner by the door.

  The hallway upstairs was its usual mess. Two high-schoolers from the intern programme hurried past, most likely fetching coffee. A TV crew stood outside Amanda Kelly’s office, camera lights bathing her and a young reporter in a daytime glow. Concerned voters and eager lobbyists were identifiable by the guest passes hanging around their necks. They were easy to distinguish from one another, these two groups. The voters wore frowns and invariably seemed lost. The lobbyists were the ones with the Cheshire Cat grins who navigated the halls more confidently than even the newly elected.

  Donald opened the folder and pretended to read as he made his way through the chaos, hoping to avoid conversation. He squeezed behind the cameraman and ducked into his office next door.

  Margaret, his secretary, stood up from her desk. ‘Sir, you have a visitor. ’

&
nbsp; Donald glanced around the waiting room. It was empty. He saw that the door to his office was partway open.

  ‘I’m sorry, I let her in. ’ Margaret mimed carrying a box, her hands at her waist and her back arched. ‘She had a delivery. Said it was from the Senator. ’

  Donald waved her concerns aside. Margaret was older than him, in her mid-forties, and had come highly recommended, but she did have a conspiratorial streak. Perhaps it came with the years of experience.

  ‘It’s fine,’ Donald assured her. He found it interesting that there were a hundred senators, two from his state, but only one was referred to as the Senator. ‘I’ll see what it’s about. In the meantime, I need you to free up a daily block in my schedule. An hour or two in the morning would be ideal. ’ He flashed her the folder. ‘I’ve got something that’s going to eat up quite a bit of time. ’

  Margaret nodded and sat down in front of her computer. Donald turned towards his office.

  ‘Oh, sir . . . ’

  He looked back. She pointed to her head. ‘Your hair,’ she hissed.

  He ran his fingers through his hair and drops of water leapt off him like startled fleas. Margaret frowned and lifted her shoulders in a helpless shrug. Donald gave up and pushed his office door open, expecting to find someone sitting across from his desk.

  Instead, he saw someone wiggling underneath it.

  ‘Hello?’

  The door had bumped into something on the floor. Donald peeked around and saw a large box with a picture of a computer monitor on it. He glanced at the desk, saw the display was already set up.

  ‘Oh, hey!’

  The greeting was muffled by the hollow beneath his desk. Slender hips in a herringbone skirt wiggled back towards him. Donald knew who it was before her head emerged. He felt a flush of guilt, of anger at her being there unannounced.

  ‘You know, you should have your cleaning lady dust under here once in a while. ’ Anna Thurman stood up and smiled. She slapped her palms together, brushing them off before extending one his way. Donald took her hand nervously. ‘Hey, stranger. ’

  ‘Yeah. Hey. ’ Rain dribbled down his cheek and neck, hiding any sudden flush of perspiration. ‘What’s going on?’ He walked around his desk to create some space between them. A new monitor stood innocently, a film of protective plastic blurring the screen.

  ‘Dad thought you might need an extra one. ’ Anna tucked a loose clump of auburn hair behind her ear. She still possessed the same alluring and elfin quality when her ears poked out like that. ‘I volunteered,’ she explained, shrugging.

  ‘Oh. ’ He placed the folder on his desk and thought about the drawing of the building he had briefly suspected was from her. And now, here she was. Checking his reflection in the new monitor, he saw the mess he had made of his hair. He reached up and tried to smooth it.

  ‘Another thing,’ Anna said. ‘Your computer would be better off on your desk. I know it’s unsightly, but the dust is gonna choke that thing to death. Dust is murder on these guys. ’

  ‘Yeah. Okay. ’

  He sat down and realised he could no longer see the chair across from his desk. He slid the new monitor to one side while Anna walked around and stood beside him, her arms crossed, completely relaxed. As if they’d seen each other yesterday.

  ‘So,’ he said. ‘You’re in town. ’

  ‘Since last week. I was gonna stop by and see you and Helen on Saturday, but I’ve been so busy getting settled into my apartment. Unboxing things, you know?’

  ‘Yeah. ’ He accidentally bumped the mouse, and the old monitor winked on. His computer was running. The terror of being in the same room with an ex subsided just enough for the timing of the day’s events to dawn on him.

  ‘Wait. ’ He turned to Anna. ‘You were over here installing this while your father was asking me if I was interested in his project? What if I’d declined?’

  She raised an eyebrow. Donald realised it wasn’t something one learned – it was a talent that ran in the family.

  ‘He practically gift-wrapped the election for you,’ she said flatly.

  Donald reached for the folder and riffled the pages like a deck of cards. ‘The illusion of free will would’ve been nice, that’s all. ’

  Anna laughed. She was about to tousle his hair, he could sense it. Dropping his hand from the folder and patting his jacket pocket, he felt for his phone. It was as though Helen were there with him. He had an urge to call her.

  ‘Was Dad at least gentle with you?’

  He looked up to see that she hadn’t moved. Her arms were still crossed, his hair untousled – nothing to panic about.

  ‘What? Oh, yeah. He was fine. Like old times. In fact, it’s like he hasn’t aged a day. ’

  ‘He doesn’t really age, you know. ’ She crossed the room and picked up large moulded pieces of foam, then slid them noisily into the empty box. Donald found his eyes drifting towards her skirt and forced himself to look away.

  ‘He takes his nano treatments almost religiously. Started because of his knees. The military covered it for a while. Now he swears by them. ’

  ‘I didn’t know that,’ Donald lied. He’d heard rumours, of course. It was ‘Botox for the whole body’, people said. Better than testosterone supplements. It cost a fortune, and you wouldn’t live forever, but you sure as hell could delay the pain of ageing.

  Anna narrowed her eyes. ‘You don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, do you?’

  ‘What? No. It’s fine, I guess. I just wouldn’t. Wait – why? Don’t tell me you’ve been . . . ’

  Anna rested her hands on her hips and cocked her head to the side. There was something oddly seductive about the defensive posture, something that whisked away the years since he’d last seen her.
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