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       Shift, p.30

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
 
Page 30

 

  ‘Yes, of course. ’ Erskine adjusted his glasses. ‘I’m sure you knew him well enough to know that he didn’t show his emotions often. ’

  ‘He was difficult to read,’ Donald agreed. He knew almost nothing of the man he had just helped to bury.

  ‘So you’ll appreciate this, I think. We were riding the lift together, and Vic turns to me and says how hard it is to sit there at that desk of his and see what we’re doing to the men across the hall. He meant you, of course. People in your position. ’

  Donald tried to imagine the man he knew saying such a thing. He wanted to believe it.

  ‘But that’s not what really struck me. I’ve never seen him sadder than when he said the following. He said . . . ’ Erskine rested a hand on the pod. ‘He said that sitting there, watching you people work at your desks, getting to know you – he often thought that the world would be a better place with people like you in charge. ’

  ‘People like me?’ Donald shook his head. ‘What does that even mean?’

  Erskine smiled. ‘I asked him precisely that. His response was that it was a burden doing what he knew to be correct, to be sound and logical. ’ Erskine ran one hand across the pod as if he could touch his daughter within. ‘And how much simpler things would be, how much better for us all, if we had people brave enough to do what was right, instead. ’

  39

  • Silo 1 •

  THAT NIGHT, ANNA came to him. After a day of numbness and dwelling on death, of eating meals brought down by Thurman and not tasting a bite, of watching her set up a computer for him and spread out folders of notes, she came to him in the darkness.

  Donald complained. He tried to push her away. She sat on the edge of the cot and held his wrists while he sobbed and grew feeble. He thought of Erskine’s story, on what it meant to do the right thing rather than the correct thing, what the difference was. He thought this as an old lover draped herself across him, her hand on the back of his neck, her cheek on his shoulder, lying there against him while he wept.

  A century of sleep had weakened him, he thought. A century of sleep and the knowledge that Mick and Helen had lived a life together. He felt suddenly angry at Helen for not holding out, for not living alone, for not getting his messages and meeting him over the hill.

  Anna kissed his cheek and whispered that everything would be okay. Fresh tears flowed down Donald’s face as he realised that he was everything Victor had assumed he wasn’t. He was a miserable human being for wishing his wife to be lonely so that he could sleep at night a hundred years later. He was a miserable human being for denying her that solace when Anna’s touch made him feel so much better.

  ‘I can’t,’ he whispered for the dozenth time.

  ‘Shhh,’ Anna said. She brushed his hair back in the darkness. And the two of them were alone in that room where wars were waged. They were trapped together with those crates of arms, with guns and ammo, and far more dangerous things.

  40

  • Silo 18 •

  MISSION WOUND HIS way towards Central Dispatch and agonised over what to do for Rodny. He felt afraid for his friend but powerless to help. The door they had him behind was unlike any he’d ever seen: thick and solid, gleaming and daunting. If the trouble his friend had caused could be measured by where they were keeping him—

  He shuddered to continue that line of thought. It’d only been a few months since the last cleaning. Mission had been there, had carried up part of the suit from IT, a more haunting experience than porting a body for burial. Dead bodies at least were placed in the black bags the coroners used. The cleaning suit was a different sort of bag, tailored to a living soul that would crawl inside and be forced to die within.

  Mission remembered where they had picked up the gear. It’d been a room right down the hall from where Rodny was being kept. Weren’t cleanings run by the same department? He shivered. One slip of a tongue could land a body out there, rotting on the hills, and his friend Rodny was known to wag his dangerously.

  First his mother, and now his best friend. Mission wondered what the Pact said about volunteering to clean in one’s stead, if it said anything at all. Amazing that he could live under the rules of a document he’d never read. He just assumed others had, all the people in charge, and that they were operating by its codes in good faith.

  On fifty-eight, a porter’s ’chief tied to the downbound railing caught his attention. It was the same blue pattern as the ’chief worn around his neck, but with a bright red merchant’s hem. Duty beckoned, dispelling thoughts that were spiralling nowhere. Mission unknotted the ’chief and searched the fabric for the merchant’s stamp. It was Drexel’s, the apothecarist down the hall. Light loads and lighter pay, normally. But at least it was downbound, unless Drexel had been careless again with which rail he tied it to.

  Mission was dying to get to Central where a shower and a change of clothes awaited, but if anyone spotted him with a flat pack marching past a signal ’chief, he’d hear it from Roker and the others. He hurried inside to Drexel’s, praying it wasn’t a round of meds going to several dozen individual apartments. His legs ached just at the thought of it.

  Drexel was at the counter as Mission pushed open the apothecarist’s squeaky door. A large man with a full beard and a balding head, Drexel was something of a fixture in the mids. Many came to him rather than to the doctors, though Mission wasn’t sure how sound a choice that was. Often, it was the man with the most promises who got the chits, not the one who made people better.

  A handful of the seemingly sick sat on Drexel’s waiting-room bench, sniffling and coughing. Mission felt the urge to cover his mouth with his ’chief. Instead, he innocuously held his breath and waited while Drexel filled a small square of paper with ground powder, folding it neatly before handing it to the woman waiting. The woman slid a few chits across the counter. When she walked away, Mission tossed the signal ’chief on top of the money.

  ‘Ah, Mish. Good to see you, boy. Looking fit as a fiddle. ’ Drexel smoothed his beard and smiled, yellow teeth peering out from cornrows of drooping whiskers.

  ‘Same,’ Mission said politely, braving a breath. ‘Got something for me?’

  ‘I do. One sec. ’

  Drexel disappeared behind a wall of shelves crammed full of tiny vials and jars. The apothecarist reappeared with a small sack. ‘Meds for down below,’ he said.

  ‘I can take them as far as Central and have Dispatch send them from there,’ Mission told him. ‘I’m just finishing up a shift. ’

  Drexel frowned and rubbed his beard. ‘I suppose that’ll do. And Dispatch’ll bill me?’

  Mission held out a palm. ‘If you tip,’ he said.

  ‘Aye, a tip. But only if you solve a riddle. ’ Drexel leaned on the counter, which seemed to sag beneath his bulk. The last thing Mission wanted to hear was another of the old man’s riddles and then not get paid. Always an excuse with Drexel to keep a chit on his side of the counter.

  ‘Okay,’ the apothecarist began, tugging on his whiskers. ‘Which one weighs more, a bag full of seventy-eight pounds of feathers, or a bag full of seventy-eight pounds of rocks?’

  Mission didn’t hesitate with his answer. ‘The bag of feathers,’ he declared. He’d heard this one before. It was a riddle made for a porter, and he had thought on it long enough between the levels to come up with his own answer, one different from the obvious.

  ‘Incorrect!’ Drexel roared, waving a finger. ‘It isn’t the rocks—’ His face dimmed. ‘Wait. Did you say the feathers?’ He shook his head. ‘No, boy, they weigh the same. ’

  ‘The contents weigh the same,’ Mission told him. ‘The bag of feathers would have to be bigger. You said they were both full, which means a bigger bag with more material, and so it weighs more. ’ He held out his palm. Drexel stood there, chewing his beard for a moment, thrown off his game. Begrudgingly, he took two coins from the lady’s pay and placed them in Mis
sion’s hand. Mission accepted them and stuffed the sack of meds into his pack before cinching it up tight.

  ‘The bigger bag—’ Drexel muttered, as Mission hurried off, past the benches, holding his breath again as he went, the pills rattling in his sack.

  The apothecarist’s annoyance was worth far more than the tip, but Mission appreciated both. The enjoyment faded, however, as he spiralled down through a tense silo. He saw deputies on one landing, hands on their guns, trying to calm down fighting neighbours. The glass on the windows peeking into a shop on sixty-two was broken and covered with a sheet of plastic. Mission was pretty sure that was recent. A woman on sixty-four sat by the rails and sobbed into her palms, and Mission watched as people passed her by without stopping. On down he went as well, the stairway trembling, the graffiti on the walls warning him of what was yet to come.

  He arrived at Central Dispatch to find it eerily quiet, made his way past the sorting rooms with their tall shelves of items needing delivery and went straight to the main counter. He would drop off his current package and pick out his next job before changing and showering. Katelyn was working the counter. There were no other porters queued up. Off licking their wounds, perhaps. Or maybe seeing to their families during this recent spate of violence.

  ‘Hey, Katelyn. ’

  ‘Mish. ’ She smiled. ‘You look intact. ’

  He laughed and touched his nose, which was still sore. ‘Thanks. ’

  ‘Cam just passed through asking where you were. ’

  ‘Yeah?’ Mission was surprised. He figured his friend would be taking a day off with the bonus from the coroner. ‘Did he pick something up?’

  ‘Yup. He requested anything heading towards Supply. Was in a better mood than usual, though he seemed miffed to have been left out of last night’s adventures. ’

  ‘He heard about that, huh?’ Mission sorted through the delivery list. He was looking for something upbound. Mrs Crowe would know what to do about Rodny. Maybe she could find out from the mayor what he was being punished for, perhaps put in a good word for him.

  ‘Wait,’ he said, glancing up at Katelyn. ‘What do you mean he was in a good mood? And he was heading for Supply?’ Mission thought of the job he’d been offered by Wyck. The head of IT had said Mission wouldn’t be the last to hear of the offer. Maybe he hadn’t been the first, either. ‘Where was Cam coming from?’

  Katelyn touched her fingers to her tongue and flipped through the old log. ‘I think his last delivery was a broken computer heading to—’

  ‘That little rat. ’ Mission slapped the counter. ‘You got anything else heading down? Maybe to Supply or Chemical?’

  She checked her computer, fingers clacking furiously, the rest of her perfectly serene. ‘We’re so slow right now,’ she said apologetically. ‘I’ve got something from Mechanical back up to Supply. Forty-five pounds. No rush. Standard freight. ’ She peered across the counter at Mission, seeing if he was interested.

  ‘I’ll take it,’ he said. But he didn’t plan on heading straight to Mechanical. If he raced, maybe he could beat Cam to Supply and do that other job for Wyck. That was the way in he was looking for. It wasn’t the money he wanted, it was having an excuse to go back to thirty-four to collect his pay, another chance to see Rodny, see what kind of help his friend needed, what sort of trouble he was truly in.

  41

  • Silo 18 •

  MISSION MADE RECORD time downbound. It helped that traffic was light, but it wasn’t a good sign that he didn’t pass Cam on the way. The kid must’ve had a good head start. Either that, or Mission had gotten lucky and had overtaken him while he was off the stairway for a bathroom break.

  Pausing for a moment on the landing outside of Supply, Mission caught his breath and dabbed the sweat from his neck. He still hadn’t had his shower. Maybe after he found Cam and took care of this job in Mechanical, he could get cleaned up and get some proper rest. Lower Dispatch would have a change of clothes for him, and then he could figure out what to do about Rodny. So much to think about. A blessing that it took his mind off his birthday.

  Inside Supply, he found a handful of people waiting at the counter. No sign of Cam. If the boy had come and gone already, he must’ve flown, and the delivery must have been heading further down. Mission tapped his foot and waited his turn. Once at the counter, he asked for Joyce, just like Wyck had said. The man pointed to a heavyset woman with long braids at the other end of the counter. Mission recognized her. She handled a lot of the flow of equipment marked special for IT. He waited until she was done with her customer, then asked for any deliveries under the name of Wyck.

  She narrowed her eyes at him. ‘You got a glitch at Dispatch?’ she asked. ‘Done handed that one off. ’ She waved for the next person in line.

  ‘Could you tell me where it was heading?’ Mission asked. ‘I was sent to relieve the other guy. His . . . his mother is sick. They’re not sure if she’s gonna make it. ’

  Mission winced at the lie. The lady behind the counter twisted her mouth in disbelief.

  ‘Please,’ he begged. ‘It really is important. ’

  She hesitated. ‘It was going six flights down to an apartment. I don’t have the exact number. It was on the delivery report. ’

  ‘Six down. ’ Mission knew the level. One-sixteen was residential except for the handful of less-than-legal businesses being run out of a few apartments. ‘Thanks,’ he said. He slapped the counter and hurried towards the exit. It was on his way to Mechanical, anyway. He might be too late for Wyck’s delivery, but he could ask Cam if he might pick up the pay for him, offer him a vacation chit in return. Or he could just flat out tell him an old friend was in trouble, and he needed to get through security. If not, he’d have to wait for an IT request to hit Dispatch and be the first to jump on it. And he’d have to hope that Rodny had that much time.
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